Une Petite Mort (A Little Death) (by Sue)

Summary: A ‘what happened in between and next’ for one of my favourite episodes, Julia Bulette. I always felt the fever was glossed over in the show due to time constraints. A lot of people died and Joe and Julia nursed sick people for days, maybe weeks. I have gone into what might have happened in this story. Also where had Joe been when he rode home to see his father the night they argued so fiercely. What were both their feelings before and after that fight. What happened after Joe proposed and rode home and also after Julia’s funeral. How was he with his father and his brothers? This is my take on the wonderful melodrama that was the Julia Bulette episode.

Rated:  T  WC  55,200

 

 

Une Petite Mort (A Little Death)

Even in his dressing gown he looked stately, fearsome even, to the unwelcome visitor or the guilty son. Tonight though there was nothing fearsome about Ben Cartwright, he was just a worried father and one of his brood was hurting… his youngest.

Carefully securing the red velvet cord on his gown he purposely slowed his progress down the great wooden staircase. He didn’t want to disturb the young man he expected to find downstairs. From bitter experience Ben knew there were times when you were best left alone with your grief.

He was saddened at the sight of Joe sitting alone and despondent in his own favourite armchair. Ben took some comfort from that at least, he’d chosen his chair, maybe they weren’t so far about as he’d feared. Joe was holding a small piece of cloth in his hand, a ladies handkerchief? He was so deep in thought he hadn’t even realised that he had company. This boy, no young man, Ben corrected himself, would normally bound down the stairs two at a time like some playful puppy, tonight he’d slipped quietly down in the still of the night unannounced and alone. Ben had been alerted by the slight creak of a door followed by soft footsteps down the corridor.

Ben remained where he was, uncertain whether his son would welcome the father who had interfered and treated him like the boy he desperately didn’t want to be.

Only four days ago he and Joe had been called into Virginia City. The woman Joe was in love with, Julia Bulette, had been stabbed by a Frenchman named John Millain.

After she’d died Ben had consoled Joe with a comforting hand, but they’d ridden home in silence and Joe had gone straight up to his room. The next morning he hadn’t wanted to talk and over the following days he’d gradually withdrawn from his father.

At the start of Joe and Julia’s relationship Ben regretted that he hadn’t taken his son’s feelings all that seriously, maybe if he had Joe would be more likely to let him in now.

The fact was Joe simply hadn’t come to him since her death and the longer it went on the more Ben felt the rejection. He believed Joe blamed him.
In hindsight he would have handled it better. Hadn’t he trusted the boy to travel to San Francisco to carry out important business for the ranch just before he’d met Julia? So why couldn’t he have trusted him to choose whom he courted? Had he just allowed Joe his freedom with one hand only to try and reel him in with the other?
And shouldn’t the most important thing in all of this have been that she had made him happy? To see Joe now, so utterly broken hearted, tore at Ben’s heart. Feeling that he was to blame crushed it.

So in trying to respect Joe’s needs Ben had kept his distance, the last thing he wanted was another angry scene between them when Joe’s real anger would still be at his loss.

He fondly studied the familiar bowed head and that unruly mop of chestnut hair. When Joe drew a weary hand through those errant curls letting out a sigh so bleak and so hopeless, his heart ached for him. Melancholy really didn’t fit this vibrant son of his.

***

As Joe stared into the last glowing embers in the hearth his thoughts were a mess, a jumbled mass of questions. Why did she die? If his brothers hadn’t mentioned her name that day and aroused his curiosity would it have happened the same?

As hard as he fought the futile thoughts they continued to plague him. Maybe if Hoss and Adam hadn’t intervened in that first confrontation with a jealous Millain, if they’d used guns then, maybe Julia would have lived. If he’d just stayed in town that night could he have saved her?

.
It wasn’t blame he wanted and no matter how many times he played it over in his mind it couldn’t change the outcome, but he wasn’t ready to accept that she was dead. He still loved her so much.
Joe had tried hard to bury himself in work. He couldn’t face town or see her beautiful name written on a cold gravestone and make the truth that he was trying so hard to deny, into a cold hard fact.

When he’d tried to sleep all he’d done was torment himself with memories. The more he’d tried the more restless he became, tossing and turning, unable to shut them out. What made it harder was through it all he’d been at odds with his rock, his father.

They rarely had a problem talking, they were as close as any father and son could be but for once Joe had found it difficult being around the person he needed now most in the world. Emotionally vulnerable as he was, each time he’d exchanged glances with his father he saw something in his face that he took for disappointment.

Disappointment that he’d made a total fool of himself, just as pa had predicted? Disappointment that he’d moved out of his home to be with Julia? Disappointment that he’d deserted the Ponderosa to help the town gripped by fever without explaining to his father first? Disappointment that he’d asked Julia to be his wife and been turned down in front of the whole town, or disappointment that he had acted like a cheap gunslinger in the Bucket of Blood Saloon. Joe didn’t know if it was one reason or all of them, he just knew he could see it whenever his father looked at him. Right now on top of everything else he couldn’t take that, but he couldn’t tell him because hearing his father say it would take away any last hope that he might be wrong.

Joe had been so angry with his father for interfering over Julia but it hardly mattered now. The last torrid weeks helping Doc Martin nurse fever victims had given Joe greater maturity and he could at least understand now why his father had felt he had to. What he knew for certain was that his father had stood up for him outside the opera house, had supported his cry for the town to recognise Julia and it had been his father’s touch when he’d watched the lights go down in Julia’s room that had comforted him in that moment of absolute heartbreak.
It was his father’s chair he chose to sit in now, when he felt lost and in great need of his support. They might have differed in their opinions over Julia but Joe never doubted his father’s love for him and he never wavered in his love in return. But that was hard to say when you felt like such a complete and utter failure.

As low as he felt all he could see was everything he’d done wrong.

Joe was feeling more pain than he knew how to deal with, too many memories, too many faces swimming in and out of his mind…his father’s angry face the awful night they’d fought…Julia…so vivacious and beautiful…her blood stained carpet… Millain, sneering even from his prison cell…fevered, frightened faces distorted and still calling to him… lifeless, unmourned ones he’d covered in earth, but could still see clearly…. patients he’d befriended…a delirious miner screaming and spitting in his face…a drunken idiot with tobacco stained spittle sliding down his chin, goading him in the Bucket of Blood until he pushed him too far… and then there was Frankie…Joe’s heart broke when he thought about Frankie. The little boy had asked Joe if he would be his father, some father! He’d spent so long pushing his own away that now he didn’t even know how to tell him how much he needed him.
He rubbed his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.

Exhausted and close to breaking point, he let out a sigh from so deep within that it screamed out to anybody listening,

‘Please…please help me…’

Unable any more to control such crushing sadness but desperately fighting his tears, Joe could only rub hard at his eyes in an effort to stem them. He failed and in his frustration raked his hands roughly through his untidy hair, pulling angrily at the tangled curls as if physical pain could ease his real hurt. He’d already unknowingly sent out the signal that would bring his father straight to his side.

***

Life for Little Joe Cartwright had looked so different just a few weeks before. He’d been brimful of optimism as he’d ridden the stage back from San Francisco, looking forward to a little crowing and a refreshing beer with his brothers. It had been his first big business trip alone and it had gone well, better than he could have hoped.

The last leg of the journey had been by Overland Express from Sacramento, it had been a long, hot and bumpy ride but home was in sight. He could already taste the hops as that long cool drink beckoned to him from the Bucket of Blood. However good Joe’s trip had been, getting home would always be the best part and he was eager to catch up with all the news.
Being the youngest Joe always wanted to prove that he was as good as his older brothers and he really felt he’d justified his father’s faith in asking him to make this trip. He couldn’t wait to share the details and some of his adventures in San Francisco.

Not all of them, naturally, his father might never send him again if he knew every little detail. After all a guy had to have a little fun, but he’d never for one moment forgotten why he was there. He smiled at some particular memories, a beautiful girl and a romantic liaison, some not so successful card games and a narrow escape from a shanghaiing.

After one last turn into the main street the stage finally slowed and drew to a stop. Even before the first speck of stage dust had settled Hoss was swinging his little brother around in his arms, he was so pleased to have him home again. The Cartwright reunion was a warm and happy one, Hoss teased Joe and prodded his brother’s very lean stomach,

“Hey what did they feed you up there in San Francisco anyhow Little Joe, two months and you’re as skinny as ever…”

“A little uglier maybe huh? ” Adam joined in.

But Little Joe was equal to their joking and as soon as he got his breath back he wasted no time in prodding his oldest brother and bragging to him,

“I’m a little bit smarter, I got five dollars a head more than you did last year.”

It was sure good to be back he’d missed this.

It was a carefree moment and they might just as easily have gone over and celebrated Joe’s return with that drink over at The Bucket of Blood if Adam hadn’t chanced to say,

“Hey you know I think it’s time Little Joe took a look inside Julia’s Palace huh ?…”

As if on cue a gunshot interrupted them and they hurried over the street to the very place Adam had mentioned. A bullying Frenchman named John Millain had picked a gunfight with yet another hapless victim who now tumbled outside clutching a shoulder wound.

Someone with Joe’s adventurous spirit was going to discover Julia’s Palace sooner rather than later, but timing is everything.

While Adam and Hoss carried the injured man off to the doctor’s, Joe remained, he paused to read the sign advertising ‘Julia’s Palace’ and then made the easy decision to go inside, he was intrigued to see for himself just what Adam had been talking about. A jaunty tune from the piano encouraged him further. In just a few weeks time he’d walk out of there to a much more sombre tune, but Little Joe Cartwright was young, inquisitive and carefree and he never worried too much about consequences.

Any other day he might have admired the beautiful Julia, but then most likely passed his time with another of the lovely girls that decorated the inside of her Palace. Or he might have just ordered a beer and soaked up the ambience.
On this particular day, at that particular time, Joe walked in on the aftermath of the gunfight and he felt compelled to defend Julia Bulette when Millain slapped her across the face and called her ‘trash.’ Even before he’d properly met her, Joe was fighting to defend her, the wheels were in motion, the way they met changing everything.
.

The green, gold and cream rococo grandeur of the Palace interior was just a blur to Joe as he launched himself at Julia’s assailant. The fight was a short one and when Millain threw Joe over a gaming table and then cowardly went for his gun, Julia had anticipated it and was ready with her mallet. Millain was despatched with a hard thump on his head. Joe had already won an ally in Tom who was not only Julia’s barman but a trusted friend who had been ready to pass the mallet to Julia as soon as she’d reached for it. Tom hated Millain and so he’d immediately warmed to Julia’s young protector.

Julia had been both touched and amused by the antics of the reckless and very handsome young man who had literally flown across the room to her rescue.

She was even more impressed when he apologised for making a mess of her place. In truth he didn’t look too sorry, she mused, his broad grin gave him away, he certainly did know how to get a girl’s attention though.

She couldn’t keep the playfulness from her voice as she introduced herself,

“Welcome to Julia’s Palace Mister ?”

Straightening himself up, Joe had to make himself speak, when she smiled she was even more beautiful,

“Cartwright…Joe Cartwright.”

Julia’s interest grew. Of course she knew of the Cartwright’s but this very cute, green eyed one was new to her. All the Cartwright’s she’d met were upright and steady, not in the least like the impetuous youth who’d just been prone at her feet, she liked him very much already. As she’d reached out her hand and helped him up, she’d noticed blood coming from a small cut at the corner of his mouth and she offered him her handkerchief.

Her initial intention was to repay him with a drink but when she touched her handkerchief to his mouth and he placed his hand over hers and deliberately held eye contact, she felt a frisson of excitement that she tried hard to hide. The twinkle in his eyes told her she’d failed and Julia repaid him with a mischievous twinkle of her own. They both liked a little danger and each recognised a kindred spirit when they met one. She didn’t miss his mischievous grin either when she told him,

“I’d like to repay you.”

Perhaps he wasn’t the youth she’d first thought.

She extended her invitation from just a drink, but emphasised it was only for dinner at her place. She was interested to know the youngest son of Ben Cartwright a little better and not just because of his name, but she wouldn’t give him false expectations of anything more.

Joe had never seen anyone quite as beautiful as Julia Bulette. She had dark hair and a rich creamy complexion, large dark eyes and a wide sensuous mouth. Her eyes danced with good humour when she spoke. He gladly accepted her invitation as Tom handed him back his jacket and he left holding his trophy, her scented handkerchief. He couldn’t believe his luck and he hastily hid the handkerchief when he spotted his brothers striding over towards him. Maybe they’d better have that beer in the Bucket of Blood after all.

While Joe happily rejoined Hoss and Adam an angry Frenchman was already plotting his downfall.

Millain had come to just as Joe was leaving. When he made to go after him Julia held him back.

“Leave him alone John.”

He’d caught the last part of their conversation; most particularly the invitation and it had amused him. He’d known Julia a long time and he arrogantly assumed it had been for his benefit, to make him jealous. He really didn’t care how the young Cartwright paid for assaulting him, as long as he did. As Julia tended his injury he asked her,

“We are of the same kind you and I Julie, where men are concerned we are the messengers of destruction. You do it through the heart, I do it with the gun, does it matter to you which way it happens to this young man?”

“I warned you, leave him alone John.”

Julia walked away disgusted with him while Tom watched on with undisguised hatred.

***

The next day as he prepared for their first ‘date’ Joe chattered enthusiastically to his father. While his youngest had been away Ben had missed him tremendously and he’d been as eager to hear all his news as Joe had been to share it. He’d been just as pleased as Joe had hoped he’d be too, Joe really felt he’d proved himself in quite a tough test and his father obviously agreed. Although Ben trusted Joe it was often tinged with a touch of worry. He was still young and impetuous so Ben had felt immense satisfaction and a good deal of pride listening to him fill him in on all the details of his negotiations.

But no sooner had one worry been put behind him then another seemed to be looming. Much as Ben didn’t believe in borrowing trouble, as he watched Joe spruce himself up, he was already asking himself,

‘Why Julia Bulette of all people?’

Joe’s optimistic nature merely brushed aside his father’s obvious lack of enthusiasm and he continued to rave about her. He’d soon bring his Pa round; he just had to get to know her was all.

For Ben’s part he could see that Joe was blinded by ‘the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen’ and would not hear a word spoken against her. For now he was content to give the lad time, maybe an evening in her company at her Palace would open his eyes and Joe would see that she couldn’t hold a candle to the most beautiful woman they’d both ever seen, his mother Marie.

After a leisurely and enjoyable ride into town Ben tried one last attempt at gently persuading Joe that there were alternatives to dining with Julia Bulette. Not surprisingly he didn’t make even the smallest dent in Joe’s resolve. As Ben watched his son head off down the street he shook his head at his choice of dinner with Julia Bulette over a meeting with the town’s leading citizens. Well at his age he’d have done the same thing wouldn’t he?

So naturally Ben was surprised to see Julia about to step out of her carriage right outside the town meeting house as if to go inside. As he courteously helped her down and accompanied her inside he sincerely hoped she’d forgotten her date with Joe. A little disappointment for the boy now was preferable to a lot of hurt further down the line. He was the one to be disappointed though. Once inside they sat together and Julia listened politely to the pleas for help in raising a permanent city fund to finance projects and help create law and order in Virginia City. So that was why she’d been invited. She had the ears of the people with money in this town. Julia had the assembled meeting squirming in their seats when she addressed them,

“So Gentlemen, I’ll take care of raising the money and the moralizing I’ll leave to you. I know you’d love me to stay but I have a saloon to run….”

And then as an extra little aside especially for Ben,

“…as well as an appointment to keep.”

It was absolutely her intention to unsettle Ben. She’d taken his surprise at seeing her there as surprise that Julia Bulette would be invited to a meeting of the town’s ‘leading citizen’s’. She also assumed that the extra formality in his greeting was because of her date with his son. The truth was she expected his disapproval and would have seen it in the most innocent of comments. Julia saw fit to prick what she saw as his pomposity and she saw no reason at all not to have a little fun at Ben’s expense.

Over at the Palace Joe was still eagerly awaiting his date. Julia had left word with Tom that she was at the town meeting and that she’d be along as soon as it was finished, so Joe had settled at the bar and chatted easily with Tom. He should have gone with his father after all!

After his initial disappointment over Julia not being there, Joe, ever the optimist, saw that this could be a good thing for surely if his pa bumped into Julia he couldn’t help but be won over by her.

When she finally made her entrance, Julia looked flushed and even more beautiful than Joe remembered.
After some necessary fundraising for the City Fund, where Joe had rashly bid $500 that he didn’t have for a raffled bottle of whisky, Millain, who’d been calmly watching proceedings, made his move and tried to resume his fight with Cartwright. Joe would have been quite happy to oblige him too, even when Millain favoured guns, but Julia hurriedly stepped in. She didn’t want Joe becoming another one of Millain’s victims and her allure proved far greater than the Frenchman’s. Millain looked on bitterly as Joe accepted her invitation upstairs over gunplay with him.

As he jealously watched them make their way together he knew he would enjoy getting even with this young upstart. He would let Julia toy with him for now, destroy his heart if she must, but he’d be downstairs waiting. Cartwright would learn that Millain was a man to be feared and he would pay for his insolence. He had as much as told the Frenchman that he only stayed alive because even the soil would spit him out if he were laid in it. Joe had made a very dangerous enemy.

As he walked into Julia’s rooms for the first time Joe looked around and admired the elaborate yet very comfortable furnishings. A large glass atomiser, specially shipped from France, sat on the table by a beautiful vase of flowers. The scent was a heady mixture of wild rose, jasmine and musk and Julia loved it, it suited her perfectly. Her perfume seemed to permeate everything in there, it was intoxicating, she was intoxicating.

The room had a French feel that Joe liked very much. As Julia watched him remove his jacket she thought how very handsome he looked in his dark grey shirt. She watched his reactions with interest and was surprised how at ease he seemed as he immediately made himself at home. It was something she was to notice about Joe, that he could be just at ease with the miners downstairs as he was in the more elegant surroundings of her own rooms. For someone so young he had an inner confidence that she was already finding very attractive. But she was worried that he’d shown no fear when Millain had confronted him. Millain was a vengeful man and worse, he had no scruples, even she feared him.

Having not particularly expected interesting conversation tonight, as the evening progressed, Julia found herself agreeably surprised when the more they talked the more she found to like about Joe Cartwright. When he dismissed some of the citizens of Virginia City with the words;

“They snub you on Sunday and come to your place on Monday, the world’s better off without that kind of hypocrite.” she was won over.

With someone else she’d have been tempted to dismiss the words as designed to impress her, but there was something about Joe that told her he meant them.

They were interrupted by a knock at the door and their meal arrived, delivered on a trolley and laid out beautifully on the table by the ever-reliable Tom. Earlier in the day Julia had ordered what she hoped would whet the appetite and hopefully satisfy a hungry young cowboy. She’d appreciated his act of gallantry on her behalf and wanted to reward him…with dinner, plus getting to know him a little better was never going to be a hardship.
Thanking Tom she waived him away and they exchanged a curious look, one which they both understood, Tom was wondering what was going on here and Julia wasn’t going to tell him.

As Tom left the room Joe politely pulled out a chair for her at the small table. Julia loved his manners and as they brushed against each other she found she liked his closeness too. He really was a most appealing young man, what a pity that it would be silly to get involved with someone so young, not to mention Ben Cartwright’s son to boot. No matter she thought, an evening with him would have to be pleasure enough, there was no point taking it further.

The meal was delicious and they both laughed at Joe’s reaction to Julia’s choice for starters, orange sherbets served in their skins, they were a favourite of hers but Joe had never encountered them before. At first he looked a little nonplussed and then almost like he was stalking something while he decided how best to eat them without showing himself up completely. Julia was captivated as she watched the comical expressions flit across his face but then she eased his discomfort by eating one herself and showing him how it could be done without sharing too much of it with your dining companion.
Once he’d mastered the art he discovered he loved them as much as she did and they laughed and flirted wordlessly as the delicious fruits disappeared quickly. The main course was beefsteak and oyster pie with potatoes and peas, it was another success and Julia smiled at Joe’s enthusiasm. She was finding his exuberance and vitality fun to be around. He was like a breath of fresh air in her often cynical lifestyle.

For his part Joe was finding it hard to contain his eagerness. His natural curiosity about the fascinating Julia Bulette ensured he was full of questions but it wouldn’t do to talk with his mouth full and he wanted to do justice to the wonderful dinner she’d arranged. He was aware she might think him too young for her and he wanted to impress her with his maturity.

While he topped up their wineglasses and took a sip, Julia took every opportunity to study him. He obviously appreciated the fine French wine. As he wiped at the corner of his mouth with his napkin and then replaced it onto the table her focus remained on his mouth. His lips were slightly parted and the sweet wine had moistened them deliciously, emphasising their fullness. She swallowed involuntarily as she imagined what it would be like to kiss them. As her eyes followed a natural path downwards to the open neck of his shirt she pictured how he would look without it. The subject of her admiration chose this moment to look across and he caught her watching him. Instead of looking away he kept her gaze locked and while Julia looked uncomfortable at being caught, Joe just smiled disarmingly. She just couldn’t look away, he had the most beautiful dancing green eyes and when he smiled his charmingly lop-sided smile, his eyes smiled too. A woman less sure of herself would be putty in his hands she warned herself. Their appetites suddenly gone, they picked at the sweet dessert before Tom arrived to clear the trolley away and once they were alone again they moved across to the sofa. Joe politely asked her,

“May I?” before taking his place next to her.

‘Such good manners,’ Julia thought once more, approvingly.

As they chatted Joe wanted to ask her something that had been on his mind,

“You could have had your pick of any man in Virginia City, why did you ask me here?”

While Julia might have questioned the accuracy of that statement, she was flattered, actually she could think of quite a few men who would run a country mile rather than be associated with her, except this afternoon of course, when they’d needed her money. She answered him more simply though,

“John Millain might have killed you,”

Joe had all but forgotten Millain and dismissed the thought, “Millain? How’d you make friends with a man like that?”

“It was a long time ago…there’s companionship between us.”

Joe couldn’t see it, “He’s not fit to wipe your shoes.”

“Don’t be too sure.”

Despite what she was telling him Joe hoped there was more between them and he had to know, even if he was nervous about her answer. A date with Julia had been a very exciting prospect for him, but he’d really enjoyed her company tonight. When he’d caught her looking at him the way she had over dinner he’d hoped she was feeling the same way.

“Julia just to break up a fight… was that the only reason you asked me up here?”

For the first time since they’d met he looked unsure of himself and his eyes betrayed his uncertainty, all his bravado from moments before had deserted him. Joe was afraid she’d dismiss him as too young or immature, as he waited for her answer he almost wished he could take the question back.

Julia couldn’t resist the appeal in his eyes and she found that she couldn’t lie to him either, despite her intentions to keep her distance she answered him honestly,

“It was then…”

The kiss that followed was one of many things about their ‘non-relationship’ that took Julia by surprise.

She knew Joe had charm, but Julia had met charming too many times and ultimately always been disappointed. That surface gloss often hid a shallow character but their first kiss literally took her breath away. What might have been a polite peck on the cheek or a disappointing smooch had been warm and sensuous, much more than she had expected from such a young man. As their lips had touched she’d felt his hand move to her shoulder and she’d enjoyed the warm strength of that feeling. He hadn’t needed to hold her to keep her there, his eyes had drawn her in and she was held captive, hypnotised by the depths that she found there. His lips were inviting her back and she was drawn to oblige him but she pulled back just a little. She was used to calling the shots and wasn’t at all ready to have the rug swept from under her by a seventeen year old.

Joe wanted more and she almost gave in to the lure of his unspoken request, but the feelings he was stirring in had her more than a little flustered, she hadn’t expected this. She made to pull away and his hand naturally moved down to her waist, as she stood he accidentally brushed the side of her breast and Julia hardly recognised her giddy reaction, she took a few moments to compose herself. Her whole being wanted to return to his arms and take it further. The kiss really had unsettled her, as a younger woman she’d made many mistakes, then she might have given in to her impulses and risked being hurt, but not now. These days she kept it simple, kept her distance and stayed safe, but she’d let her guard down tonight.

Seeing her reaction Joe was worried he’d upset her and had moved too fast, would she think he didn’t respect her because of who she was? Like her he’d been swept along in the moment. He was quick to ask her,

“Is anything wrong?”

Her reply of;

“No, Quite the contrary,” reassured him and boosted his confidence but in an honest attempt to show her that he didn’t see her as maybe others did, he said something that would make him cringe whenever he remembered it;.

“You know you remind me of how I always pictured my mother would look. She was part French, like you…she came from New Orleans…and she was a very beautiful woman…”

Emboldened now Joe moved in for another kiss but a very amused Julia stopped him by placing her fingers on his lips. He was disappointed but took it well, grinning when he told her,

“Alright…tell me about New Orleans.”

Joe’s innocent remark had brought Julia down to earth with a bump, he’d meant it sincerely, his mother had died young and had been a great beauty, but it completely changed the moment and had allowed Julia to collect her thoughts about the young man before her. It also made her realise that her ancestry was at least a part of his interest in her and she found that disappointing.
Joe’s own sweetness and regard for her feelings had pulled her back from the brink and she was relieved. She was back in control of her emotions and on safe ground. The talk had turned to New Orleans and before long it was time for Joe to leave. Julia tactfully dismissed him but was nevertheless pleased when his parting words to her were,

“I’m coming back.”

She hoped he would be but next time she’d know what to expect. She shut the door and walked through to her bedroom reflecting on what had just happened. She decided to stay in her room for a while and relax before going back downstairs as she’d originally intended.

As Joe headed for the stairs he didn’t think anything could spoil his good mood but he’d forgotten all about Millain.

As soon as Joe came into view at the top of the stairs Millain was waiting, he wasted no time in calling him out and again Joe would have been happy to oblige him, but his brothers had anticipated the confrontation and they were ready to step in.

They quickly relieved Millain of his gun and quietly insisted that a fistfight go ahead instead. Tom watched from his position behind the bar, his mallet at the ready, he was sincerely hoping he’d get another chance to use it. Adam and Hoss had other ideas though and allowed the ‘fair’ fight to go ahead. To Tom it seemed anything but fair since Millain had both a height and weight advantage over young Cartwright and he was also a renowned dirty fighter, but this time Tom stayed out of it. Perhaps the older Cartwright brothers saw this as a way of letting Millain get it out of his system without too much bloodshed.

True to his reputation Millain did play dirty right from the start when he swiped his hat across Joe’s face as he feigned to remove it. Joe got in a few good punches but the fight ended with him being carried unconscious out of the Palace, unceremoniously draped across Adam’s shoulders.

Upstairs in her bedroom Julia had been oblivious to any trouble, she’d rested for a while, reliving the events of the day. The town meeting had angered her but also amused her with those ‘leading citizen’s’ openly disapproving of her. Except now of course when they needed her help to encourage the miners to empty their pockets for the City Fund. That was partly why her date with Joe had been so refreshing; there were no sides to him. After feeling dirty from the town meeting she had thoroughly enjoyed being with such a pleasurable and honest young man. She shut her eyes and slept for a little. An hour or so later and feeling refreshed she got up and crossed to the mirror to freshen up before making an appearance downstairs. She smiled at the thought of their kiss and Joe’s sweet reaction when he tried to reassure her that he’d meant no offence.
As she stood in front of the mirror she found herself regarding herself more critically than usual. She leaned closer, peering at any imperfections.

‘He’s so young’ she sighed, ‘in ten years time he’ll only be 27 and I’ll be…. Oh shame on you Julia! In ten years time? Don’t be a fool!’

She shook off the pleasant fantasy. Being with a younger man had made her more aware of the fine lines that seemed more prominent around her mouth and eyes. As she adjusted her hair she recognised that she was still a desirable woman, but she wasn’t above feeling flattered to have attracted the attentions of such a handsome young man. She clucked at herself, ‘Be cautious Julia’ as she made a final adjustment to her dress. She wasn’t too concerned though, Julia was a lady in control of herself and that’s what gave her the edge over most of the men she met. She smiled, but a little fun along the way? What harm was there in that? She regretfully shook off any thoughts of a long-term future with Joe, held her head high and made a grand entrance down the staircase into her palace.

From his position behind the bar, Tom put down the glass he was polishing and watched her descend the elegant staircase, he thought she looked radiant. To her, just like to Joe she was flawless. He smiled, he liked to see her happy, young Cartwright made her happy and Tom could easily see that. He wouldn’t mention the fight, he’d rather spare the young man’s embarrassment about being out fought by Millain and carried out unconscious by his two brothers.

It didn’t matter, inevitably Millain wasted no time in boasting of his victory to her. As Tom listened he thought of him as nothing more than a leach who tried to drag Julia down to his level. He hoped like Hoss Cartwright did, that one day young Joe would indeed get the better of the brute. But he also knew that there’d be more trouble from that snake Millain before this was over.

Julia was dismayed to hear that Joe had been hurt and guessed that his pride might be hurting too by now, she saw him as an innocent who shouldn’t be involved in Millain’s, sordid world. Shaking her head sadly she recognised that it was her world too. Was she playing with fire? Maybe she should discourage Joe after all.

But the sudden thought of dismissing him from her life caused her real regret; her feelings had already grown for this lively young man with the rare and most welcome ability to surprise her. Yes, she thought, she would see him again, Millain couldn’t bully her and decide who she could be friendly with, but she didn’t want to see Joe hurt because of it. If Millain caused more trouble she’d find a way to send him out of town.

***

A few miles out of town, Adam and Hoss were busy reviving a very groggy Little Joe. His brothers had purposely waited until they were well out of town before stopping. They knew their little brother well enough to know that given half a chance he’d want to go back and square things with Millain and he was in no shape to do that. Adam wanted to give Joe a few tips on fighting a dirty character like Millain too before he tried it again.

They were right, as soon as Joe started to come round he was itching to head back and face down Millain. Since he could just about stand and his brothers had absolutely no intentions of letting him go anyway, it was an ill tempered Little Joe who reluctantly rode the rest of the way with them. When they got nearer to home he stopped to freshen up by a stream. It would be bad enough facing his father with the news about the $500 without looking like he’d taken on the bar room brawler and lost, which he had, his painful cheek being a constant reminder.

There wasn’t very much he could do to disguise the bumps and bruises though. As soon as they walked in Ben could see Joe had been in a fight and he signalled for Hoss and Adam to leave them which they happily did. They had no desire to get in the middle of this one. All the while as Ben applied a cold wet cloth to Joe’s cheek, he was thinking,

‘ He wants so badly to be thought of as a man but at times like these, to me, he seems such a boy.’

Once Ben had seen to Joe’s injuries to his satisfaction he gruffly passed him the cloth, having noted his son’s impatience with his fussing, he was tempted to prolong it for that very reason. It was a contrite Little Joe though that nursed his swollen face while patiently hearing out his father’s lecture. It wasn’t too long before he was defending himself though, after all, the fight hadn’t been his fault and the five hundred dollars was for a good cause, he fully intended to make it good.

Since Joe wasn’t hurt too badly Ben now felt free to vent his anger. He slammed the first thing that came to hand, which happily happened to be just a newspaper, at least that wasn’t breakable,

“Five hundred dollars!”

He paced the room, trying to control his irritation.

One date with Julia and Joe was already in trouble, in debt and covered in bruises, he was obviously in over his head and Ben wanted to make him see it.

Joe replied testily,

“I told you I’d work it out!”

He’d just lost a fight, ridden all the way home, ached everywhere he could think of and was five hundred dollars in debt, he was in no mood for a lecture even if it was at least partly deserved.

Ben could see all this so he didn’t get too angry at Joe’s tone, but the boy was on thin ice.

“It’s not the money Little Joe, I was planning to give the fund more than that anyway, it’s just that …I think you’re beginning to make a fool of yourself!”

Something else Joe didn’t need to be told, he felt stupid just thinking about his exit from Julia’s Palace draped over Adam’s shoulder, but he knew that wasn’t what his father was getting at,

“Why? What’s wrong with her?”

He pushed, raising his voice as loud as he dared, he was riding his luck shouting at his father and he knew it, but he was determined to make his father say what he was trying desperately not to.

Ben felt like he was fighting a losing battle, so he tried to calm the situation,

“Nothing…nothing she’s a fine woman.”

But Joe was dogged in his need to get an answer, he almost shouted at his father,

“Alright what is it then!?”

He wanted to see Julia again and he wanted his father to be happy about it, he had to make him give her a chance. She had a past but that was exactly what it was to Joe, her past. He hoped his father would see it that way too.

This was the tricky part for Ben, he felt compelled to answer Joe and he wanted to point out what an ‘experienced’ lady Julia actually was without actually insulting her to his son and so he blurted out rather clumsily,

“It’s just she’s seen a lot more of the world than you have boy!”

Straight away he could see that it had been the wrong thing to say.

Joe understood his father’s underlying meaning, he wasn’t going to get anywhere with him now and besides, his head was starting to throb where he’d hit the door during the fight,

“I see… that’s makes her bad.”

The truth was Ben thought it did, bad for his son anyway and that was what mattered to him, but the discussion ended there and the pair of them decided to let it rest for a while, they weren’t going to get anywhere tonight. As Joe stalked off Ben was left scratching his head, that hadn’t gone well at all.

But the next morning saw both their good spirits restored, neither one wanted to fight over it and Joe’s spirits rose even further after a trip to town that evening. Julia had been very relieved to see that Little Joe hadn’t suffered too much from Millain’s fists but she’d insisted he let her nurse his injuries a little. Funnily enough Joe didn’t object this time.

Tom too had been pleased to see the youngest Cartwright come back to the Palace and he’d taken the first opportunity he got to pull Joe to one side

“Don’t mind what people say, stick with her son you are good for her and you’ll find out she’s a wonderful person. People don’t realise half of what she’s done for this town.”

Joe had grinned, genuinely surprised that one person at least approved of them and could see Julia the same way he did, he was pleased to have an ally and a friend already in Tom.

Over the next week Joe and Julia saw a lot more of each other. Tom smiled at Julia one day after he’d watched her saying goodbye to Joe one evening. This time she was more forthcoming.

“Happy Julia?” he didn’t need to ask.

She nodded in that enigmatic way she had about her, “He makes me young again Tom.”

Julia never expected much from the men she knew, for the most part they bored her. The only reason she’d allowed Millain to stay around was the hint of danger that followed him and the fact they had a common history.
Spending time with Joe was beginning to show her relationship with Millain in its true light. She tolerated Millain, it had never been love but he was possessive and wouldn’t give her up easily, especially to a young upstart like Cartwright. She’d found a way of getting him out of town for now but it was on a false errand and he’d be back.

Julia knew that Joe was a complication she shouldn’t have in her life, but he was such a lovely complication she reasoned.

***

It was Friday morning and Joe was feeling good. He’d got the job of collecting the mail, the sun was shining and he was seeing Julia tonight. All seemed to be going well at home too, although if he’d allowed himself to think about it he’d have realised that that was mainly because the subject of Julia never arose.

He strode over towards ‘Pedro Vasquez Tinware and Stoves,’ where he’d left Cochise tied, it had been his first port of call on an errand for Hop Sing. He had an extra spring in his step, anticipating an enjoyable ride home but he slowed his pace as he approached his horse. He’d spotted a young boy of about eight he guessed, standing and staring open mouthed at his handsome horse. Joe recognised the look; he’d looked pretty much the same when his Pa had presented him with Cochise for his fifteenth birthday. He’d thought then that Cochise was the best horse in the world and of course he’d turned out to be the smartest too.

Little Frankie Hardcastle was lost in rapture as he looked up at the paint horse in front of him; he truly was the most handsome animal he’d ever seen in his whole life. Frankie had always been a sickly child and wasn’t allowed to ride but oh how he wanted to just pet this horse. He broke his gaze with a start when he saw the young cowboy in the blue jacket he’d seen riding the horse into town was approaching him with a broad smile on his face.

“I didn’t touch him honest mister.” Young Frankie ordinarily wouldn’t have dared speak up, he was too shy of strangers but Joe had knelt down to his level by now and so he didn’t have any more time to be nervous.

“You like my horse sonny?” Joe asked him, already knowing the answer. He was just trying to put the boy at his ease, he looked like he thought he was in trouble and Joe knew that feeling a little too well.

Frankie nodded enthusiastically. “Could I pet him mister?”

“My name’s Joe and sure you can…you want to sit on him too?”

Joe nearly fell back and had to grab his hat at the excited response from the youngster.

“Oh boy would I!” Ftankie bounced up and down all shyness forgotten.

Joe laughed and stood up, taking the boy by the hand as Frankie told him his name.

“Now Cochise, that’s my horse’s name… he don’t know you so it’s a good idea to say hi first…here you go.” and Joe easily lifted Frankie so that he could pet Cochise and Cochise could also give his new admirer the once over.

Cooch whinnied and Frankie giggled. “See he likes you,” Joe told him and saw the little boy go wide eyed.

“You ready to sit on him?”

Once more Joe had to hold tight to the excited little boy.

“Whoa there Frankie, try not to make any sudden movements, it can upset a horse if he’s not expecting it. You’ve not been around horses much have you?”

Frankie shook his head a little embarrassed.

Joe took pity on him, he hadn’t meant to tell him off.

“That’s ok, everybody has to learn. Where are your folks?” Joe guessed they were new in town and presumed whoever was with the boy was in the store.

“My ma’s in the store.” he confirmed.

Seeing he was a little calmer now Joe asked him again, “Ok, you ready now?”

Frankie nodded and tried to hold his excitement inside this time.

Hoisting him up in one easy movement, Joe all the while chatted to Cochise and held him steady so neither the boy nor the horse got spooked.

Frankie was delighted.

“Oh mister!… erm.. Joe… he’s the best,” and he carefully reached around and petted Cooch while Joe made sure Frankie didn’t tumble.

“Why thank you, I’m kinda fond of him too and he’ll stand all of that fussin’.” Joe joined the boy in petting Cochise.

Suddenly they were interrupted by a shrill cry and Joe had to hold onto Cochise to keep him steady.

“What are you doing Frankie!? Young man get my son down off that horse right now, he’s not allowed to ride.”

Joe immediately obeyed the irate woman and gently swept the boy up and popped him down safely onto the sidewalk. He tipped his hat politely in apology.

“I’m, sorry ma’am, I was just showing Frankie here my horse, he wasn’t riding, just sitting on him, but I’m very sorry if it upset you.” The woman looked quite flushed and Joe was eager to calm her down.

The young cowboy looked so contrite and Frankie so tearful that Mrs Hardcastle immediately regretted her loud outburst. She had already relented when she saw how carefully the young man had lifted her son down. The truth was she wasn’t feeling herself and she had panicked unnecessarily.

“That’s alright Mr er…”

Joe jumped in, “Joe Cartwright ma’am.”

“That’s alright Mr Cartwright. I’m sorry I guess I over reacted, it’s just… well Frankie…he’s never been a strong boy you see, we don’t allow him to ride…” she saw the stricken look that was still on her son’s face and now she softened completely.

“Well maybe if you don’t mind, perhaps just sitting in the saddle wouldn’t hurt anything…that is if you can forgive my rudeness Mr Cartwright.”

“No apology necessary ma’am.” And Frankie beamed as Joe set him back up in the saddle.

“Ain’t he the best ma?” the little boy leaned forward hugging the horse tightly.

Frankie’s mother looked tearful herself at how happy he looked.

“Yes he is Frankie, he’s quite the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen.”

Joe grinned “And he’s gonna get awful big headed with all these compliments.”

Frankie looked wide-eyed, “You mean he understands us?”

Joe and Frankie’s mother exchanged an amused look,

“Well I like to think he can, “Joe told him, “He is one smart horse, only don’t tell him I said so.”

Frankie looked serious, “Alright Joe I won’t.”

Joe lifted Frankie down again and led him back over to his mother. The boy looked so excited as his mother fussed over him. “That’s quite enough excitement for one day Frankie, now thank Mr Cartwright and we’d better be going on our way.”

As he’d passed her son back to her Joe noticed Mrs Hardcastle still looked a little flustered and she had a fine sheen of perspiration on her face.

“Would you like me to fetch you a glass of water ma’am? Pedro has a chair inside, I’d be glad to fetch it for you.”

She had been feeling a little dizzy but it passed quickly so she reassured Joe.

“No, thank you young man, it’s just a little hot for me today, maybe Frankie and I could get a refreshing drink somewhere. Could you recommend somewhere Mr Cartwright?”

She looked a little better now and Joe knew just the place.

“Sure I can ma’am, Daisy’s just down the street there, she’ll be sure to have some cold milk and cookies for Frankie here and she makes the best lemonade around.”

“That sounds very refreshing, thank you for the recommendation Mr Cartwright…are you ready for milk and cookies Frankie?”

The little boy nodded excitedly, “Yes please ma!”

Joe and Mrs Hardcastle exchanged pleasantries and Frankie thanked him profusely again before they went on their way. Joe had a new fan and Frankie was full of talk of how he was going to be a cowboy just like Joe Cartwright when he was bigger as he skipped along beside his mother.

Still grinning to himself while he was untying Cochise’s reins Joe felt a familiar presence sidling up beside him.

Julia had caught the part of the scene when the little boy’s mother had emerged from the store shouting loudly, she’d spied Joe through the window and couldn’t resist a little teasing. Plus she was finding him more and more in her thoughts and it had brightened up a difficult day of missed deliveries and sulky hostesses to see him in town unexpectedly.

“Have you been getting in trouble with the ladies again Joe Cartwright?” she asked teasingly as she came up beside him.

She’d noticed plenty of looks coming her way as she’d walked over to him; they certainly were the talk of the town these days.
Her suitor didn’t seem to care and he cheerfully kissed her on the cheek,

“Well if there’s one thing I don’t mind it’s a little trouble with the ladies ma’am,” and he grinned so impishly that she had no choice but to grin right back at him.

“What brings you to town so early Joe?” she was hoping maybe he could stay awhile.

“Pa’s waiting on this letter, he needs the go ahead before he can start on a new lumber operation. I’d better get back he’s pretty anxious to get this. And after that I’m gonna be bustin’ broncs all day and you can be sure my brothers will save me some of the ‘orneriest!”

Joe was disappointed he couldn’t stay too but his father was counting on him.

Julia watched as Joe easily swung onto Cochise’s back. As he carefully put the letter into his inside jacket pocket she admired the beautiful lines that the short cut of his jacket revealed as he settled into the smooth leather of his saddle. As he turned to take his leave she approached him and he impulsively removed his hat and leaned down with a flourish and placed another kiss on her left cheek. He’d caught some of the disapproving glances aimed at her too. She rebuked him but with a wicked grin and she whispered,

“I think the good people of Virginia City might disapprove of us Joe.”

“Let them.” he answered cheerfully and he kissed her again before he replaced his hat low over his eyes and galloped away. Julia watched him go, knowing he would be back later tonight. As she enjoyed that thought, two ladies passed her by and the one nearest to her raised her voice to be extra sure she was heard,

“Well I’ll certainly never let my daughter go around with Little Joe Cartwright if he associates with the likes of that woman.”

It pricked at Julia but she’d never let them see it. Besides the lady’s daughter was almost as obnoxious as her mother, she’d probably sell her own grandmother for a date with Joe so the comment amused her. She turned around with an extra big smile especially for them and any other blue nose busy bodies who happened to still be watching. As she made her way along the sidewalk she said a cheery and pointed hello to a pensive Doctor Martin as she passed him by, giving her skirts an extra swish in his direction.

Joe was still very much on her mind when she went back inside the Palace, she was looking forward to tonight. There was no denying, time with Joe made her day. He was someone she shouldn’t get involved with she knew that, but she enjoyed being with him and even though her head was telling her to draw back, every other part of her was telling her the exact opposite. As she entered the sanctuary of her room she lay on her bed and shut her eyes, laughing softly to herself. She was remembering that cheeky grin he’d flashed at her as he’d left. She imagined him riding home; she loved watching him ride he had an easy grace about him. Busting broncs was something that didn’t interest her in the least bit, but she’d like to watch Joe as he tamed a wild horse. The thought aroused her and just as much as he enjoyed her tales of her life in New Orleans, in return she loved to hear him talk about his life to her. It was so far removed from her own and his youthful optimism renewed her own.

Halfway between daydreaming and asleep she gradually shut her eyes and the world out completely as she succumbed to a very deep sleep.

She was soon in a familiar dream. In the dream it was always night-time and she was standing high up on a rock by the side of a beautiful moonlit lake, gazing down at her own reflection and daring herself to leap.

Would she jump or stay watching serenely and safely by the lakeside?

In her dream it was easy, she unselfconsciously cast aside her nightdress and leapt, soaring downwards and immediately thrilling at the heady excitement as she hit the water. The shock of the cold water took her breath away but the freedom excited her and she embraced it willingly, swirling around and around in the otherwise tranquil lake. The motion sent ripples far across the inky blackness and even the moon seemed to join her by dancing across the lake’s calm surface. In her dreams, but only there, could she truly let herself be swept away by her feelings.

A second splash nearby drew her eyes and then two sets of ripples collided and then combined into new patterns as her young lover swam towards her, young, unafraid, naked like her and heartbreakingly beautiful. They swam together, chasing and slowing… just enough to be caught, twisting and turning, exhilarating in the freedom, kissing and falling apart only to begin the dance all over again. No prying eyes, no etiquette, no guilt and no fear of being caught, none of it mattered. Was it so wrong to want someone half her age if it could be like this… for them both?

The sudden noise of a firecracker in the street woke Julia abruptly from her sleep and she lay there a little shaken. Her heart was beating fast and she breathed deeply to try to slow it down. She hated sudden awakenings like that; they always left her feeling disturbed. She’d prefer to go back into the dream but the melodious notes from the piano downstairs reminded her there was a real world and she had work to do.

Abruptly, she pulled herself together, ‘Oh Julia you fool what are you thinking?’

Was it some physical need in her to prove she could still attract a handsome young man, her swan song? No, it was much more than that. She went to sleep thinking about Joe, she often dreamt about him and she always woke up hoping to see him that day. No one had affected her this way in a long time. She found she quickly missed not just his beautiful smile and his unabashed zest for life, he combined a gentleness rare in cowboys, with an earthy masculinity. A confidence that never quite became a swagger and he showed a deep respect for her, that with a great sense of fun that she shared and a sense of duty and fair play that she didn’t, Julia was finding him, quite simply an irresistible combination.

But Julia was a complicated woman and deep down a part of her mistrusted happiness. Whenever she was at her most content there was deep sadness too, because she wouldn’t let herself believe in it. She was reaching for something she yearned for but she was afraid that by taking it into her hands, that very act of trying to hold onto something so very beautiful, might ultimately destroy it.

Her mood had changed completely and she remembered the disapproving looks in the street earlier and the cutting comments the women had made. She could care less what they thought but how long before Joe started looking sideways at past acquaintances who said hello to her in the street? Doubtless some would be wearing a knowing grin bound to rile the hot- tempered Joe Cartwright. What would that do to him? Could he always dismiss it so easily as her past? She didn’t think so. Would that sweet face be turned ugly through mistrust and jealousy?

And always those thoughts of Millain still lurked, she knew he wouldn’t give up his hold on her easily, was she also risking Joe’s life? Maybe, after all it was a mistake. She’d never intended to let it get this far; the fact that she was beginning to care so deeply worried her too. People saw Julia as unafraid and it was true, people’s scorn didn’t intimidate her, she could quieten a bar room brawl or reduce powerful men to quivering wrecks with a look or a word, but she was scared now. Afraid of being loved. The happy ending was never really meant for people like her, that ideal had been stolen from her many years before.

And that was Julia’s weakness. Being with Joe, just him, in that perfect idyll was a beautiful daydream but one that brought unbearable sadness too, because ultimately she didn’t believe that it could ever really be that way.

In an abrupt and complete change of heart she made up her mind, she would talk to Tom and ask him to tell Joe she could no longer see him. She wasn’t sure if she tried to tell him herself that she’d be able to convince him..

Her past had often been a useful tool for keeping over arduous suitors at bay, but right now she’d give up all her jewels and fine dresses to erase it all and start over again.

***

When Joe rode home and cheerfully delivered the letter to his father, Ben cuffed him affectionately, this time he wouldn’t mention that he’d ridden in far too fast. They enjoyed a coffee together before Joe rode off again to join his brothers at the corral.

Neither of them mentioned Julia, they hadn’t since their words over the $500. Ben had decided it was best to let it all blow over, he felt sure it would in time. One of the hardest parts of parenting it seemed to Ben, was to know when to stand back and let your children make their own mistakes.

On the other hand Joe was hoping that time would help his father realise that he really was serious about Julia and eventually he would come to accept their relationship. He loved his father very much and hated to be at odds with him so giving him time to accept Julia seemed like the best way.
After the proud father had waved his son off he was still smiling to himself at the boy’s apparently boundless energy. He walked slowly back inside to study in detail the documents that Joe had collected for him.

He hadn’t been sitting there long at all when there was a rap at the door. He couldn’t have been more surprised to open the door to Paul Martin. It made a rare and welcome change to have Paul visit on purely a social level, but it wasn’t long before Ben caught on to the real reason behind his visit.

Firstly Paul had mentioned a few scattered cases of the fever at Gold Hill. Soon though his conversation had turned to the future of Virginia City and the people the town looked upon as its leaders. Paul felt that Ben was one of these people. He was concerned that any hint of scandal in the houses of the leading citizens would ultimately reflect badly on the town and they wouldn’t attract the calibre of person they needed to help it grow. This was why the relationship between Joe and Julia concerned Paul, both for it’s effect on the Cartwright’s good reputation but also for the future reputation of one of Virginia City’s leading citizens.

Ben wasted no time in telling him that it was no-one else’s business and if Paul hadn’t been such a true and trusted friend who had cared for Ben’s family since before Joe was born, he would have shown him the door then and there. But this was his friend Paul Martin speaking to him and the least he could do was hear him out. It wasn’t his own reputation that bothered him though.

In the end he promised Paul he’d talk with Julia.

***

After Paul’s visit Ben was seriously worried for his son’s reputation. Had it been Adam or Hoss he’d have thought the town could mind it’s own business. But Joe was only seventeen. He guessed that a large part of Julia’s allure for Joe, apart from her French ancestry, was actually the fact that the whole town did disapprove. For Paul to have ridden out almost expressly to discuss the matter meant the gossip must be getting serious. He’d hate to see his still impressionable young son shunned by some of the more judgmental citizens of Virginia City just on account of a fleeting infatuation, Ben felt he was still immature enough in matters of the heart to perhaps need a little guidance. Having hoped to stay out of it he’d decided for his son’s sake he had to act.

***

In the meantime Julia might very well have saved Ben the trouble, she’d stuck to her decision and asked Tom to keep Joe away. Tom was interested to know how exactly he’d accomplish that since Joe was a pretty determined young man. Still he didn’t take her too seriously, he’d delay spreading the word and tell Joe to be patient with her.

When Ben suddenly appeared at the Palace asking for her, Julia was intrigued. Since telling Tom of her decision she was ready for a fight with anyone that got in her way, but she’d let Ben have his say first.

She invited him upstairs and waited patiently for him to get to the point of why she was so honoured with his visit, maybe it was a thank you, but how had he heard so quickly?

The tone Ben took with her annoyed her from the start, particularly when he intimated that her relationship with his son was just a passing thing for her, how did he know? But then he mentioned Joe’s mother and asked if his son had talked about her. That was when she saw the concerned father in front of her, instead of the pompous patriarch he’d started out as. For a moment she might have reassured him that he had no need to worry, but then he said;

‘You’re the only other woman of French ancestry he’s known. That and the fact that you also come from New Orleans…well it makes you something special in his eyes.”

She caught his meaning, “But not in yours?”

It was obvious that she wasn’t or he wouldn’t be there, but he told her anyway, “No, I guess not.”

Having instantly made up her mind that she would after all be seeing Joe again she asked mischievously, “Have you told Little Joe to stay away from me?” she wondered what Joe would have said to that.

That had been something Ben preferred to avoid, he mistakenly believed he had Julia’s co-operation, after all she must see it could never work with the difference in their ages, their lifestyles, not to mention of course what seeing her could do to his son’s reputation,

“No, I’d prefer him to hear it from you.”

Julia was incensed, Ben Cartwright was dismissing her feelings as merely a passing infatuation and his own son’s as based on no more than a geographical coincidence, how dare he? She didn’t think he knew his son at all.

Julia hadn’t let the town or John Millain dictate who she stepped out with and she certainly wasn’t about to let Ben Cartwright do it either. She could ensnare his son and there wasn’t a darn thing he, or the bluenoses in town could do to stop it.

As she assured Ben that she would think about it, the only thing she was actually thinking about was what she should wear if Joe came over to the Palace tonight, she hoped he hadn’t already got the message not to call.

Ben left delighted, he thought they’d reached a happy conclusion and that it really was the best thing for everybody. He’d hardly left the building before Julia was shouting to Tom

“Tom, I’ve changed my mind.”

Tom feigned surprise; smiling to himself that it was lucky he’d held off getting the message to Joe.

But Julia cared about Joe and she cared enough about him not to be callous with his heart, despite Ben and his lofty opinions she wouldn’t hurt his son, but she wouldn’t pretend she had a long-term future with him either. She’d never been so indecisive about anything or anyone, her head was telling her one thing and her heart quite another. However inadvisable she thought a relationship with Joe was, when they were together she was happy and felt more carefree than she could remember.

In fairness to Ben he had always treated Julia like a lady. It was only when his youngest son had become involved with her that his attitude had altered.

Julia Bulette would show Ben Cartwright that even if he didn’t think so, his son certainly thought she was good enough for a Cartwright. But she couldn’t deny the older Cartwright’s intervention had completely reversed her resolve and that she was very glad it had.

***

At home Ben was expecting a subdued Little Joe to appear but as the days passed with no sign of his high spirits diminishing he realised that Julia had never intended to speak to him at all.
Obviously Julia had played him for a fool, just as he believed she was doing with his son, it left him no choice now but to approach Joe with his concerns.

That evening Ben enjoyed a meal in town with a couple of business associates, but it was soured a little with some overheard comments about his son’s lovelife. His mood deteriorated even further when he came home to find that Joe was still not back. As the evening wore on Adam and Hoss could see his annoyance growing and it was becoming unbearably tense. Ben’s anger at ‘that woman’ as he called her was increasing by the minute. They tried to lighten his mood and after an exchange of glances Adam encouraged Hoss to approach their father first.

“Pa, it’ll blow over, you see if it don’t, Little Joe’s just bein’ Little Joe. He ain’t tryin’ to defy you or nothin’, he’s just spreading his wings a little is all, and likely as not he’s going’ to get them a bit ruffled but he’ll work it out, just give him some time….”

Hoss’ voice tailed off when Ben’s expression didn’t change. Adam tried next,

“Maybe it’ll be good for him, steady him down a bit to think so seriously about someone.”

Hoss could see a glimmer of hope when his father looked up, at least he appeared to be listening now.

“Ol’ Shortshanks is always in getting’ into one scrape or another, least he can’t get in too much trouble courtin’ a lady with the whole of Virginia City watchin’ out for em'”

Adam shot Hoss a quizzical look wondering if that last sentence helped or hindered their efforts but their father’s expression was actually softening so Adam encouraged him some more.

“I can’t even count how many times we’ve sat here and worried about Little Joe, either his grades, fights in school, sneaking off to practise some fast shooting or doing dangerous stunts on that horse of his…” and he paused before adding, “…and not so long ago you were worrying about a certain trip to San Francisco pa…”

That brought a smile to Hoss’ face,

“That’s true pa, an’ what about all them times Little Joe’s been standing in front of your desk gettin’ a lecture…hey Adam, d’you remember when we was boys, Little Joe knew he was in trouble for goin’ fishin’ when he wasn’t allowed on account of him just getting’ over the influenza? It makes me laugh out loud just rememberin’ it.”

He turned to his father to include him in the reminiscing.

“You asked him where he’d been Pa. He stunk of fish and his pants wus all wet from the lake. You asked him straight out if he’d been fishin’ and he looked at his feet and shook his head. Well, it was written all over his face that he was lyin’. You sent him upstairs to think about it and a short time later he came back down and owned up that he’d been fishin’ all along, exceptin’ by now he had on them trousers he hadn’t grown into yet that were about two sizes too big fer him. He’d suddenly got turnups six inches high and his scrawny little backside had grown three times its normal size.”

That broke the mood and Ben chuckled heartily.

.
” I remember Hoss, I’d walloped him the day before over his schoolwork and he was scared stiff he’d get another walloping. Not scared enough to do as he was told mark you. He stood in front of me and looked me in the eyes and said,

“Pa I cain’t lie to ya, I done been fishin’ when I oughtn’t ta have. I’m ready to take my punishment like a man.” Pa could do a pretty good Joe impression when he put his mind to it!

” And you two boys didn’t help me at all by pointing to the back of his trousers behind his back and laughing fit to bust.”

The ‘two boys’ were gratified that their father seemed to be lightening up and they continued the story as if it had happened only yesterday, which of course to Ben it seemed like it had.

“Poor Joseph, he never saw you two boys and it was so hard for me to keep a straight face with the two of you behind him looking like you were in physical pain from trying to hold in your laughter. He was so serious too, but how he thought I wouldn’t notice he’d reinforced his trousers with a couple of Hop Sing’s clean bath towels I’ll never know.”

Tears were coming from the sides of Hoss’ eyes, he was laughing so hard now,

“Pa it was so funny, I still think of it now when he’s stood in front of you gettin’ a talkin’ to. Bet he’d be madder than a bees backside if I told him that now!”

Ben chuckled, “Well it’s been a long time since I’ve had to resort to those kinds of punishments although with Joe you never know! I didn’t have the heart to wallop the little scallywag but I did get him to wash all of Hop Sing’s towels as a punishment.”

Adam rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “Well actually Hop Sing helped him with that, he was sloshing so much water about he figured he had to before the boy drowned himself.”

“That boy just can’t seem to get near water without wanting to share it with anyone in his vicinity, I’ve certainly learned to stay well clear when he’s near the water trough.” Ben told them smiling.

Hoss chortled to himself causing both Adam and Ben to look across at him.

“What Hoss? Care to share the joke with us.”

He was enjoying the reminiscing and was happy to carry it on, although he’d have enjoyed it more if Joe were there too. Hoss loved teasing his little brother, although Joe was perfectly capable of rewarding them with a few memories of his own, some their father still didn’t know about so maybe it was safer this way. The truth was a very young little Joe adored both his older brothers and had wanted to be just like them. And to truly emulate them took research, lots of it. Unfortunately much of that research uncovered encounters of the female kind or forbidden card games that the two older boys would in the grand scheme of things, prefer their pa hadn’t heard about.

“We’re waiting…” Adam’s prompt reminded Hoss of his story and he relished the telling of it.

“Well Adam, ‘member there was that time when Joe had been sneakin’ into pa’s wardrobe to look for his Christmas present.”

As soon as he started Adam caught on and joined in,

“Ah yes I remember, the little rascal had had to fetch a chair to reach the top shelf and all the blankets must have fallen right on top of him when he pulled at the bottom one. We heard the ruckus but didn’t go straight up and then five minutes later he came down all innocent as you please asking what was for supper.”

It was Hoss’ turn again…

“Your face Pa when you went up to your room and found the chair still by the cupboard and the doors wide open and the blankets hanging all higgledy piggledy where he’d tried to shove them back in! He weren’t too good at covering his tracks back then and that’s for sure.”

Adam grinned, “Yes he’s got much smarter now. But the best thing I remember about that little incident was the punishment, you certainly made it fit the crime that time pa.”

A smiling Ben continued, “Yes, that’s right, well it was Marie’s idea to make him bring all the blankets downstairs and lay them out flat and then refold them and carry them back upstairs…only we meant one at a time!”

Hoss was laughing hard again, “And his arms just weren’t long enough; we left him to it and went outside while he stood scratching his head looking at that big ol’ pile of blankets.”

“…And we all came back and peaked through the window to see how he got on with it.” Ben rejoined.

“That we did pa, ” Hoss confirmed, “but he was a determined little fella and he walked backwards and forwards picking a corner up at a time and carrying it over, then the next corner till blow me down if he didn’t have them all folded neat as you please.

“But then he piled them all up on top of each other until the pile was taller than he was. Typical of Joe he wanted to take that durn pile up those stairs all in one go, by now even Hop Sing was watching from the kitchen willing him to make it up those stairs without dropping the whole lot and tumbling down on top of ‘em. It was all we could do to stop ourselves running in and helping him but the stubborn little tyke somehow made it up those durn stairs without dropping nary a one of ‘em.”

Ben nodded his head fondly at the memory, “Yes he made it but not without a few heart stopping wobbles and a few more grey hairs on my head. Somehow I always came out worst of any punishments I meted out to that boy. You know I’ve been asking myself where that young boy disappeared to, but actually he’s still there, just as stubborn as when he was then. And we’re all still hovering behind him, worrying that he’s bitten off more than he can chew and watching that he doesn’t drop those blankets and take a fall. And he’ll always tell us he was alright all along and to quit fussing. “And he laughed at last. ” I’m grateful for what you’ve been trying to do tonight…thank you boys and I hope Joe appreciates just how often you two have saved his hide…you go on up to bed, I’ll wait up for Joe. I think maybe we need to talk.”

“Ok pa, as you please.” But Adam stopped as Hoss carried on up the stairs.

He returned to stand in front of his father and he coughed to get his attention. Ben had a fond look on his face and was obviously still reminiscing.

Adam hated to interrupt but he felt that he had to say something before there was a real rift in the family; he was still concerned about how the talk with Joe might go, especially knowing how hot-tempered Little Joe could be.

“Pa,” he started, ” I really think that maybe you should lay off Joe a little bit on this. The more you put Julia down you know, the more your young Sir Galahad will build her up into something she’s a long way from being. Let him work it out for himself; trust me it will work out. I’m afraid that you’re going to push him further and further into her arms if you don’t back off pa.”

Ben looked unsure, he had been backing off and look where it had got them, Joe was the talk of the town and likely to made a social pariah.

Adam continued more confidently, “C’mon Pa, how would you have felt if your father had forbidden you to see a woman he disapproved of? I’d have been the same…you have to step back here Pa, let him make a fool of himself if he has to, but don’t push him into making it into something more serious than it is.”

Ben shook his head, “But…”

He didn’t need to finish and Adam smiled his understanding, “I know Pa, none of us wants to see Little Joe hurt.”

Ben felt immense pride in all his sons and particularly in moments like these, they might argue and josh each other but they would always be there for each other, fighting their siblings’ corner if they needed it. It gave him great satisfaction and comfort. He placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder and assured him,

“I know that Adam and thank you, you go on up to bed…and don’t worry I’ll go easy on him… I really don’t want to push Joe into giving me Julia Bulette as a daughter-in law!”

Adam shook his head laughing, ” I imagine the first things she’d change are the furnishings, green and gold flock drapes to the floor….your desk would have to go of course…and that comfortable old armchair…”

Ben looked horrified, “Get! Now!…that’s just not funny.” They’d both enjoyed the joke.

Smiling to himself Ben watched Adam climb the stairs, Adam and Joe in particular could often seem at odds but their bonds were just as true, yes he had a great deal to be proud of.

Ben Cartwright sat for a very long time after Adam had gone upstairs, just staring at his books as if they would somehow provide the answer for him if he just stared at them long and hard enough.
How could he really blame Joe for his independent spirit or for championing the cause of someone he thought was being unfairly treated? Wasn’t that exactly the kind of man he’d hoped all his sons would turn out to be? Wasn’t it partly too because Joe was somehow trying to right some wrongs that he’d felt had been done to his mother.

But why oh why did it have to be with this woman?

They’d been seen out together all over town and it still angered Ben that she was just using Joe, but how would he make Joe see that without, as Adam had said, pushing him further into her arms? The son of one of the local dignitaries escorting Julia Bulette around town, used as a weapon to cock a snoop at the town that treated her company as unacceptable when it suited them.

Particularly with Joe, Ben had found it hard to let go, maybe because he was the youngest. In fact they could all be guilty of being extra protective of Joe and naturally he hated it, it was no wonder he rebelled some. As well as being the youngest he was the Cartwright most prone to trouble and in the past there had been unscrupulous bullies with a grudge against one of the Cartwright’s who had seen Joe as the easy target. They might dislike Ben for his money and position, but they’d think twice about taking him on. Others might resent Adam for his education, good looks and position but he was fast with a gun and a good fighter too. Not too many would take on Hoss, so there had been times the youngest Cartwright had been a target. But Joe was proving himself well able to take care of himself so he often resented what he saw as his families unnecessary interference.

But in truth it probably all started the day Marie died.

The clock announced another hour gone by with still no sign of Joe.

Ben thought of a time last year when Joe had disobeyed him by riding a horse he’d been forbidden to try. Joe had mastered the animal to great cheers from the men around the corral. He’d looked so proud and Ben had realised, even as he’d punished him for his disobedience, that if it had been someone else he’d never have stopped them from trying. Joe had been perfectly capable of taming the horse. It was just that his mother…Ben’s heart felt like it had stopped as he relived that dreadful moment… but he couldn’t steal his son’s triumphs every time he feared he’d come to some harm.

He’d be home soon. Ben looked crossly across at the clock as if the late hour was somehow the clock’s fault.

He knew that Joe’s natural bravado could make him seem the toughest and the feistiest Cartwright, but his youth, and happy go lucky, nature left him open to hurt. The very things that made him so attractive to a woman like Julia made him vulnerable too, Ben was angry with the woman because she didn’t deserve his son. There he’d admitted it; no she wasn’t good enough dammit!

Having calmed himself down earlier in the evening he was winding himself up all over again.

Ben stood stiffly and walked over to the window peering outside into the gloom. How much longer? As he returned to his desk the only noise in the room was the clock ticking. Soon it was joined by the drumming of fingers against solid oak.
.
Where was he? He tried not to think of them together. She was so sophisticated, so worldly, the very fact that her French ancestry was such an attraction for the boy underlined his immaturity to Ben. Oh it wasn’t hard to see that Julia would be flattered by the attentions of his son, he was good-looking, smart, outgoing and likeable. There was no doubting either that she was a beautiful, intelligent fascinating woman; such a woman taking an interest in them could sway any young man, but she was so experienced compared to Joseph.
His mind wandered to where they might be, it was getting too late to be riding back, surely he wouldn’t …no…he’d be home soon but the thought of them together made Ben’s blood boil.

He thought of himself at Joe’s age. At Sea…new experiences, new places, tastes, smells, …his first stopover in a distant port…but this, this was different…

He would not prejudge but he knew he’d have to play his next conversation with his son very carefully indeed.

***

While his father was sitting up waiting for him, Joe was riding home blissfully unaware of any trouble. The lingering scent of Julia’s perfume was the only thing guiding his thoughts. The one slight cloud on his horizon had been a talk with Doc Martin just as he’d been leaving town. There had been some more cases of the fever around Virginia City, he didn’t expect his father would still be up at this late hour but he’d be sure and tell him in the morning.

Actually, there was one other small thing dampening Joe’s enthusiasm but he’d resolved to try and ignore it. So what if the townspeople were making it obvious they disapproved of his relationship with Julia? That was their problem. He had been surprised to detect a little iciness from Doc Martin when he’d asked after Julia though and that had disappointed Joe.
Still he shrugged his shoulders and in that easy motion shook off that and the town’s disapproval too.

No help for it, the night was too beautiful and Joe was enjoying his ride too much to let anyone spoil his mood tonight, he slowed Cochise and pulled him to a stop. When Cooch was settled Joe shut his eyes and breathed in deeply, savouring the cool night air. He loved the fresh smell of the pines and the way tonight it was intermingled with Julia’s perfume, musk and pine. In this mood even the gentle breeze felt like it was caressing him like a lover’s embrace.

Adam would have been proud and probably amused by the poet in his brother’s soul tonight.

“Cooch buddy, it doesn’t get any better than this. A beautiful woman in my arms, a fast ride with you my friend and a cool refreshing wind blowing through the pines and taking me home.”

He was in no particular hurry and he loved nights like these. He positioned himself more comfortably, resting his leg casually across his saddle while he contemplated his good fortune. A heart-stopping grin lit up his face but sadly only a disinterested owl was witness to it.

The owl hooted and it drew Joe’s attention upwards. His gaze remained on the beautiful night sky; it was a clear night, the stars shone brilliantly providing a fitting backdrop to the majestic pines which were swaying gently at their pinnacles.

He watched them as the tips of the great trees swayed gracefully first this way and then that, they appeared to Joe to be nodding to each other in agreement, like old gossips. They reminded him of the Virginia City townsfolk leaning into each other and whispering, then leaning back and shaking their heads disapprovingly.

He patted Cochise affectionately on the neck,

“Hey Cooch do you suppose even those ol’ pines disapprove of me seein’ Julia?”

Joe shook his head and smiled, he was asking his horse if a bunch of trees approved of his choice of girlfriend. He laughed good-naturedly to himself; if anyone could hear him they’d swear he’d been chewing on some locoweed. ‘Well at least,’ he thought happily, ‘that ol’ hooty owl won’t tell on me.’

“What’s to become of me eh Cooch?”

He was in way too good a mood to really care and his memories of Julia would keep him warm tonight. Earlier in the evening she’d invited him to stay.
Unsure of her exact meaning and unwilling to presume too much, he’d reluctantly declined but it hadn’t spoiled a wonderful evening. As he’d held her and kissed her goodnight it had been very hard to keep true to his resolve.

So long as he had his family on his side he really didn’t mind what other people thought. Aside from his Pa telling him that, ‘she’s seen a whole lot more of the world than you have,’ he hadn’t mentioned their relationship again. Joe took that as a sign of his growing approval, he was still certain that once his father really got to know Julia he’d like her. How could he not? She was wonderful, the most beautiful woman, apart from his mother, to ever grace the streets of Virginia City. Joe saw a warmer Julia than most people, with him she was less austere and more relaxed and there was always a spark of fun in her eyes, the more he knew her the more beautiful she became.

Certainly Adam seemed to approve, Joe mused and Hoss seemed to like her too; at least Joe hoped so.

He slipped his leg back down over his saddle patting the broad neck of his trusted companion as he did so.

“C’mon Cooch, nearly home now, then I’ll give you a good rub down and we can talk some more about Julia. Oh and I’ll give you some extra oats for bein’ such a good listener, how’s that sound fella?”

Cochise nodded approval at the sound of his young master’s voice and the pair rode on towards home. They trotted the short distance that remained, the occasional bouts of silence punctuated by happy chatter as Joe just couldn’t resist once more extolling the virtues of his ‘lady love’ to his devoted audience.

“Oh Cooch you should see the way her eyes dance when she laughs… she’s witty, she’s smart, she’s sooo beautiful Cochise and she likes me! Can you believe out of all the men in Virginia city she likes me Cooch? I must be the luckiest man alive…”

As Joe neared home he saw that a light was still on downstairs and he felt a pang of remorse for no doubt being the reason for his father’s late night. Instead of going straight to the barn as he’d planned, he dismounted and quickly tied Cochise to the hitching rail.

He was eager to see his father and tell him Doc Martin’s news and hey, maybe if his pa was amenable he might even get a chance to bend his ear about the wonderful Julia, all part of Joe’s optimistic quest for approval from the man from whom it mattered most.

 

***

 

Ben was at his desk waiting, still determined to stick to his decision not to chastise his son too much about spending yet another evening out late with Julia.

But for a whiff of wild rose, jasmine and musk he might have kept to that resolve.

As Joe strolled into the house Ben managed to keep his voice even as he greeted him,

“Little Joe, where have you been?”

Joe turned, surprised to see his father still at his desk and not in his more comfortable armchair. He got an uneasy feeling but nevertheless cheerfully strode over to him, unbuttoning his jacket and chatting easily as he did.

“Virginia City, ran into Doc Martin, there’s several more cases of the fever, he’s gettin’ real worried.”

As he turned away from the desk, Ben called him back.

“Oh Joe…I’ve been…er…waiting here to talk to you.”

Joe’s heart sank, this didn’t feel good. His father’s words had somehow sucked the joy out of his evening; he knew he wasn’t going to like what was coming and his tone changed immediately. He leaned on the desk and asked his father,

“Oh? What about?”

When he leaned closer Ben smelled her perfume. Joe reeked of her. He must have spent the night in her arms and Ben felt his stomach churn into knots as his mind also asked,

‘…and in her bed?’

How could Joseph be so foolish as to let himself be seduced by her?

Ben felt angrier than he could believe but he tried to control it.

“You’ve been with that woman again haven’t you!?”

It came out as an accusation not a question and the hard look on his face showed exactly what he thought about ‘that woman.’

Joe was confused, there’d been no build up to this. His father hadn’t asked him not to see Julia and because he wanted to believe it, he’d taken that for approval. He’d obviously been fooling himself.

“Her name is Miss Bulette.” Joe replied curtly.

Ben didn’t want an argument so he tried reason,

“Now Joe you’re a grown man and I know you’ll understand what I’m going to say to you.”

He didn’t get the chance, Joe jumped in, “I know already, pa she’s not the kind of woman that people say she is…not anymore anyway.”

Ben knew Joe’s words were heartfelt, his anger was more at Julia than at his son so he softened his tone with him.

“Look I know she wears fine clothes and she talks good and she lives well, but you know a scar doesn’t disappear just because you wash it.”

That did it for Joe, his father had just called him a grown man and yet he was treating him as anything but, giving no regard for the seriousness of his feelings. How could his father condemn his relationship with Julia after what he’d gone though with his mother? Marie had been frowned upon because of where she’d come from and had been the subject of malicious gossip too.

Joe then lit the touch paper that would really ignite his father’s anger by asking him,

“I guess that’s how it was with my mother?”

The nearness of his son to him with her perfume all over him, the mention of his darling Marie’s name in the same breath as Julia Bulette and by Joseph of all people, the boy who still resembled her so achingly, all of it leant Ben’s voice a blistering anger that he unleashed full force at his son.

He leapt up from his chair enraged, shouting in his face, ” You keep your mother out of this!”

Joe recoiled slightly in shock but he stood his ground, he’d never seen his father this angry,

“I’ve heard you and Adam talk, how there were places you couldn’t go, things you couldn’t do because….”

Ben cut him off angrily, ” Because she was Creole, it was her language…the ways of her people that some folks didn’t understand…nuthin’ more!!”

Somehow Joe remained calm, his distress didn’t show in the stern set of his face, but his voice betrayed him, it cracked when he spoke,

” I know that, but still there were people that hated her…you know Pa sometimes to see a scar you’ve gotta be lookin’ for it.”

That calmed Ben down immediately, he didn’t want to fight with Joe, it had got out of hand so quickly. He hated the look that he now saw on Joe’s face, he saw hurt, anger disappointment and was that fear too? Ben immediately wanted to make amends, when Joe turned away from him he called him back,

“Little Joe I…”

But the look Joe gave him dried up any more words and he let him go. He started when he heard the door close but before he could move he heard Joe ride away.

Even as he’d unleashed his fury at Joe, he’d known it was unfair; the boy was only standing up for someone he cared about. In trying to sway his son he had pushed him towards her and in angering Julia he’d given her a weapon, his own son.

No it hadn’t been Joe he was angry with, it was Julia Bulette, the townspeople and himself for letting them influence his better judgement.

But his son had left feeling the full force of his father’s rage. It was an upset and deeply agitated Little Joe who raced back out to Cochise and grabbed the reins from the hitching post. His father had looked so fierce, angrier than he’d ever seen him, he’d stood his ground but in truth his stomach had felt like it was being turned inside out when his father had yelled those hurtful words at him…

‘You keep your mother out of this!’

If he’d physically struck him it couldn’t have stung more.

They shouldn’t be arguing about her! They were on the same side! Joe adored his mother and would never disrespect her memory, how could his father even think that? But then he knew nothing of Doc Martin’s intervention and how it had muddied Ben’s thoughts, how worried his father was for his reputation or that the smell of French perfume on his jacket had rekindled his father’s anger at the woman who he truly believed was using his son.

Joe had angrily leapt on Cochise and galloped away but he’d soon slowed his pace, it wasn’t Cochise’s fault after all.

“I’m sorry Cooch, we’ll take it slow, ” He rode at a more leisurely pace to town feeling now like the whole world really was against their relationship. The slow ride gave him plenty of time to brood. His father had never asked him to stop seeing Julia so why the anger? Couldn’t he see how much Joe cared about her? While they’d been arguing his father had told him he was a man, but he clearly didn’t believe that.

Why couldn’t he at least try and see her like he did?

Julia was beautiful but she was so much more than that, she was warm and intelligent, after her initial amusement she treated Joe as an equal, not a gauche young man slightly out of his depth and Joe responded to that. He loved the playfulness that danced in her eyes. He knew that a lot of people, including his father, would think that this beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent woman was probably more than he could handle. He didn’t care; he wanted to be with her, it was a simple as that to Joe.

Joe understood she had a past, but that’s just what it was to Joe, her past.
She was different from anyone he’d known before. He knew she’d been born in England of French parents and moved when she was still small to New Orleans, the city that would always fascinate Joe because of its connections to his mother. He loved listening to her talk about her life there, her vivid descriptions always brought the place alive for him. In turn his interest had renewed her love for the place and erased some of her less savoury memories. Would anyone believe that when she and Joe were alone in her room they often talked and laughed about her recollections of a place that had previously only been alive for Joe in his imagination?

Julia was a woman more used to the attentions of bankers, wealthy silver miners, mayors, and big time cattlemen, none of whom ever really asked her anything about herself, they were usually far too wrapped up in their own importance. Julia had found herself losing her heart to a young man whose zest for life renewed her own. She was naturally more cautious than Joe but there was no doubting she was beginning to care very deeply for Ben Cartwright’s youngest son.

She’d told Joe once, that he’d change, become like all the others but she realised now she’d been wrong to think that. He had become very special to her, despite her determination not to form a close attachment. And she’d been disappointed when he hadn’t stayed tonight, next time she’d be much more persuasive.

While Joe was returning to Virginia City his father was at home pacing the floor and mentally berating himself for his bad handling of the whole situation. .
He flinched as he remembered their confrontation and the look on Joe’s face, much worse was the inflection in Joe’s voice when he’d told him that, ‘to see a scar you had to be looking for one.’ It revealed to him how much his son had been trying to control his emotions but how deeply upset he’d been just before he’d ridden away.
But Ben couldn’t stand to have Julia spoken of in the same breath as Marie, especially by their son, why couldn’t Joe see that?
Ben just sat wearily back at his desk, he still hoped he’d come back and they could try again.

 

***

 

An hour of tending to his horse hadn’t calmed Joe down a bit, when he finally left Cochise at the stable he strode through Virginia City intending to book himself a room for the night. He had purposely decided on the Commercial House. It was cheaper than the International House, the Cartwright’s normal choice for a night in town, plus he was less likely to run into any of his father’s friends there. There was no way Joe would charge this to his father’s account but he’d left home without much money, he hadn’t even thought about that or even where he was going. After the long ride he was hungry but far too wound up to eat, just as well he thought as he stopped on the steps and leafed through his wallet, he just about had enough for a room.

The Commercial House was just across the street from Julia’s Palace, so it was a very pleasant surprise for Julia to be idly looking through her curtains before she retired to bed and see the very man she was thinking of. A rancher’s idea of a late night was very different from her own and Joe had been on her mind ever since they’d parted earlier in the evening. Had he changed his mind about staying over? But then why go to the hotel? Joe’s head was down and he looked preoccupied. It wasn’t a hard decision for her to go down and catch up with him and she was relieved to see he had hesitated at the entrance.

Julia watched Joe for a moment before she made her approach to him. She’d never seen him look so serious and she could tell by his whole demeanour that something was wrong.

“Still in town Joe?’ she said as she came up beside him.

She’d taken him completely by surprise, “Um…hi Julia, I didn’t see you, but er no…not exactly.”

He didn’t want to discuss what had happened at home.

“Want to talk about it?”

“Not really if you don’t mind….”

Julia respected his needs, that was part of the reason he enjoyed her company so much. She accepted him, she didn’t pry and didn’t give unwanted advice, and he was as he always was, instantly at ease with her. Tonight she was just the person a troubled young man needed.

She looped her arm into his, “Want to talk about something else instead?”

She turned him around before he could refuse and without too much persuasion led him up to her room. They talked about anything but what they both knew was on Joe’s mind. But gradually Julia and a little brandy helped Joe to relax and in time he put the argument to the back of his mind. She felt the change. When he told her he ought to be leaving, she didn’t want him to go. She knew she would have to make the running. Ever since her reaction to their first kiss, when Joe had feared he had offended her, he had been reluctant to push her.

Joe thought it was time he went back to the hotel, his thoughts were taking him to places he knew he shouldn’t be going, but then Julia was encouraging him every step of the way.

“I’d better be going now Julia, will I see you tomorrow?” He reached across for his jacket, which was draped over the back of the sofa.

Julia watched him rise.

“Joe?”

As he looked back at her Joe hoped his face didn’t betray how much he wanted her to ask him to stay.

“Yes?”

“You don’t have to go you know.”

She was bewitchingly beautiful.

He looked into her eyes wanting to be completely sure of her meaning.

“I think I do…”

She placed a hand on his arm to stop him, ” “I’d really like you to stay.”

He made one last attempt, “I’d like nothing more but…” the rest of the sentence was lost as Julia placed a finger on his lips halting his last feeble attempt to object.

“No buts this time Joe…”

Her closeness to him now was overpowering and any last vestiges of control he had were about to desert him. His willpower held on as if by the finest gossamer thread, one little pull and it would break. She placed her hand on his thigh.

Her invitation was more than he could resist; he might have still summoned the will to leave but why? Julia was a woman, not a young girl who he would never allow himself to take advantage of. She wanted him as much as he wanted her. She led him to her bedroom.
Their kisses were slow and sensual before they gave way to the hunger they’d both felt since they’d first met. If Julia had expected immature fumbling and awkwardness she would have been disappointed and Julia was far from disappointed. Once encouraged Joe made love to her with a confidence that delighted her. His touch was assured and his response to hers made Julia shiver with delicious anticipation for more.
That night she rediscovered how lovemaking could be in the arms of a passionate giving man. Having long before become cynical and bored with the act, she’d forgotten the pure pleasure it could bring. ‘Fat old money bags,’ as Joe would call them, or Comstock Kings as others might, often made lousy lovers. To get where she was now Julia had had too many nights where the act was something to be endured while a sweaty heap next to her pleasured himself in the idea that he was making love to her. Now that her girls fulfilled that role Julia did so rarely, but before tonight, if you asked her when she’d last been made love to, her answer would have been a lifetime ago. The conceited Millain made love as if it was a favour; he was selfish and spiteful. That night Joe reawakened the young lover in her she thought had died.

When they fell apart, exhausted and satiated, the world weary Julia Bulette disappeared a little more when, instead of turning away she felt the strong arms of her young lover pull her towards him and cloak her in his protective embrace, caressing her tenderly and letting her relax there. She rested her face against the warm smoothness of his chest feeling cocooned and safe. As blissful as she felt, even in this moment of absolute contentment she held back tears of regret at how different her life could have been. In a different time.

It was too late she had lost her heart to someone young enough to be her son but she didn’t care and she couldn’t help herself.

They lay there for a long time in each other’s arms not even talking. Presently Julia thought Joe must be sleeping, her head still rested comfortably on his chest and he hardly stirred when she moved her hand down from his shoulder. She marvelled at the toned, muscular contours of his youthful body. He’d told her that she could have any man in Virginia City, but how many eligible females and many that weren’t would love to be her right now. She didn’t want the night to end, she knew he must be tired, but she wasn’t about to let him sleep yet.

Carefully and slowly she began teasing loose the white sheet that had become entangled tightly around his hips and he stirred just a little. Julia took her time; this was not something she wanted to hurry. Once the sheet had been successfully discarded her hand gently caressed him and she pressed feather like kisses across his body. She could feel his heartbeat quicken and her kisses became firmer and more demanding, she smiled as she felt him shudder when she brushed each inviting nipple with her lips. She was quickly rewarded when her young lover let out a long, low groan of pure animal pleasure and his whispered plea of,

“Mercy…” convinced neither of them.

Julia revelled in Joe’s reaction to her and she was taking no prisoners, “No mercy for you my boy…”

“Ah, so you still think I’m a boy Miss Bulette? ” he teased as he lifted her up easily towards him holding her a hairs breadth away, poised for a kiss.

Julia appraised her young suitor with hungry eyes,

“On the contrary….”

 

***

 

The next morning Julia asked her maid not to clean her room; she’d prefer to see to it herself. As she fluffed up her pillows she pulled one to her and pressed her face against the smooth silk. It smelled of him, his scent, his freshness, his masculinity and she wanted to recapture him.

She closed her eyes and thought back to her night in Joe’s arms. Even just thinking of him aroused all her senses, she could still feel the softness of his hair, taste the newness of his enticing kisses. She could hear the rich warmth of his glorious laughter and see the light dancing in those mischievous green eyes. As she smiled at the memories the pillow so gloriously brought back for her she couldn’t help but reflect again on something that had surprised her. It had been a bittersweet realisation for Julia last night and she had no right to expect that she would be, but she had wanted to be his first lover.

She was losing her cool façade and she laughed at herself daydreaming like a lovesick girl. Joe seemed to picture a future for them and when she allowed herself the luxury of imagining it, it wasn’t too hard, she found herself thinking about him most of the time. She wanted him to do the same, to think about her when he went to sleep and to miss her the minute he woke up. To ache with longing for her and to feel incomplete without her. Had he felt like that with her, that other woman, his first time, and who had she been? Did Julia know her?

She didn’t like to picture Joe with another woman but her interest was piqued just the same. When she’d first met him he’d just returned from a trip to San Francisco, had it been there? Or had it been Amy his first love, Julia had heard about Joe and Amy Bishop and had gleaned little bits of gossip from the girls in the palace. Julia shuddered at the thought that it might have been one of them. Some of her girls had come to her from other establishments in Virginia City and San Francisco so that was a possibility. Gladys, a very pretty redhead was always making eyes at Joe when she thought Julia wouldn’t notice. Jealousy was an uncomfortable and foreign emotion to Julia, she preferred not to care about anyone enough to feel it.

She replaced the pillow, it didn’t matter, he was in her bed now. But for how long she reflected? How long before he tires of you or you tire of him. That’s how it goes; it’s how it always goes isn’t it? Always when she was at her happiest she let the doubts creep in and spoil the picture.

 

***

 

Eventually Ben had retired to bed that night when he’d finally given up on Joe returning. The next morning he checked Joe’s room and saw that his bed hadn’t been slept in. He looked down into the yard still anxiously hopeful that his son would ride in. As Hop Sing approached with clean linen he saw the look on Mr Cartwright’s face and the pristine bedclothes and he moved on.

Ben picked up the image of Joe’s mother from the chest of drawers beside him.

“Oh my love, what would you have said to him? You are so alike you two, help me my darling.” He carefully replaced the picture and made his way downstairs. He’d give Joe some time and maybe he’d come home.

But days passed and he didn’t. All over town Julia Bulette and Little Joe Cartwright were big news for the gossips. Even though Ben regretted his handling of the situation he was no happier about Joe seeing Julia. The atmosphere at the Ponderosa was tense, even Hoss lost his appetite causing Hop Sing to exclaim that it was no fun without Little Joe back at home. That didn’t help Ben’s frame of mind at all. It was the final straw came when Adam came back reporting,

“I just talked to Charlie, he’s been in town. Seems the kid’s having himself quite a time with Miss Bulette. They’ve been seen just about everywhere.”

Adam seemed pretty unperturbed by it all, the fact was when he’d been attending college in Boston he’d often preferred the company of ladies slightly older than himself. He actually saw it as a sign of Joe maturing, his father on the other hand grew angrier the more he heard. Three days had passed, Joe had had more than enough time to come to his senses and return home. Patience hadn’t gotten Ben anywhere, neither had shouting, finally he determined to bring his son back home, by force if he had to. He threw his napkin down with all pretence of eating dinner forgotten as he exclaimed angrily,

“I will not be beaten over the head with my own son!”

It was a sombre ride into town and once they got there the Cartwright’s set about finding Little Joe and their first port of call was on the corner of D and Union Street, Julia’s Palace. He wasn’t there so they set about a more organised search. Ben had been surprised that Tom hadn’t known Joe and Julia’s whereabouts and he had a sneaking suspicion he’d just been lied to.
While they were still outside the Palace deciding where to look next, they heard an almighty crash from just across the street. Expecting it to have come from the saloon they were amazed to see a group of men fighting and tumbling out of Piper’s Opera House on the opposite corner from where they were now. They were even more surprised to see that Joe was in the middle of it and was on the receiving end of the mob’s anger. He was just about holding his own but against impossible odds and he was completely outnumbered. Forgetting any familial differences when outsiders were involved, Ben stormed across the street and piled in. Adam and Hoss were right behind him. Hoss began pulling bodies off Joe while Adam dragged his brother up from the floor. Ben was right there in the thick of it.

George Romley of The Piper’s Opera House was indignant and he rounded on Ben,

“You should be ashamed of yourself!!”

Ben matched his anger,

“What for? For protecting my boy when the whole mob is tearing him apart!?”

Still catching his breath, Joe watched his father; he was a sight to see. When his wrath was on your side it was an empowering thing to behold.

Romley wasn’t finished yet, ” What that mob was doing to your boy is nothing compared to what he did to the inside of my opera house! He wrecked it! It’ll take a whole week to put it back together again! It was nothing but uncalled for violence!”

It was Joe’s turn to speak up, “Uncalled for?! What do you call what you did to Miss Bulette?”

Once the fight was broken up and Ben could see that Joe wasn’t hurt he wanted the facts. Seeing that Joe wasn’t backing down, not even an inch at their accusations, he knew his son must have had good reason. He was a fair man but he believed in his sons, Joe was no vandal and would not have behaved this badly unless he’d felt provoked and as the story unfolded it appeared he had been.

Apparently in an effort not to upset the delicate sensibilities of the town’s fine and upstanding citizen’s, Julia’s box, which they had happily let her pay for, had been draped to separate her from the other patrons. She had accepted the indignity but her escort hadn’t. One day they asked for her money and the next they shunned her, just the kind of hypocrite Joe had decried before and he’d proved he meant his words by objecting so strongly to the point where they decided to throw him out.

Piper’s Opera House was a growing concern, gaining in prestige and hoping to attract the bigger names who traditionally appeared in larger cities like San Francisco. Thanks to the silver bonanza, Virginia City herself was becoming more prosperous by the day with a burgeoning population that made it an attractive proposition to outside promoters. The Opera House didn’t want to risk its newly acquired good reputation by being associated too openly with previously loyal patrons the likes of Miss Bulette. No matter that this very night they were staging the controversial ‘Mazeppa’ where an actress appears to be completely ‘naked’ on stage. The play had received a rave review in the Gold Hill News and was a sell out. It was rebooked for later in the year with the acclaimed actress Adah Menken and they planned huge posters for that occasion displaying her obvious charms. That was one thing, having Julia Bulette as a patron appeared to be something else, particularly with the District Judge and new Marshall due in town very soon.

The withering look Ben gave the proprietors’ explanation shut them up completely, he offered them damages but then he wasted no more time with them, preferring instead to go after his son.

When he caught up with him he grabbed his arm tightly roughly tugging him back.

“Now, you’re coming home with us!”

At first when Joe felt his arm being pulled he thought it was more trouble from the mob and he was ready with his fists. Instead he turned to find himself almost nose-to-nose with his father who looked almost as angry as he had moments before when he’d been quietening the mob. His father was trying to publicly drag him home and Joe wasn’t about to let him. He was still fired up from the fight.

His expression matched his father’s for anger and defiance,

“You can make me go home but you can’t make me stay there!”

His pride was hurt and it gave extra bite to his words. He didn’t want to be angry any more with the father who had just made him prouder than ever to be a Cartwright. But he couldn’t let him treat him like a little kid dragged home by the seat of his pants. He immediately softened his harsh words and pleaded for understanding,

“All I want is a chance to decide a few things for myself.”

Ben didn’t want to give him that chance but something about the look Joe gave him made him back down. His son had inherited his own stubbornness and Ben had a real sense that he might lose him if he didn’t at least loosen his grip. Maybe he had to let him fall this time rather than risk driving him away for good. Once free of his father’s tight hold on his arm, Joe went off to fetch Julia’s carriage and Ben took this opportunity to talk to her.

Striding over to her he asked,

“Why do you have to fight me and the town using a boy as a weapon?”

This amused Julia greatly, firstly Joe was no boy and secondly Ben was so easy to bait.

She had a glint in her eye as she told him, “It’s the only weapon I can use against you and win.”

Ben wished Joe had been there to hear those words, but then she’d never have said them would she?

He shook his head, fuming with the woman, all his suspicions about her confirmed.

“It’s quite a victory isn’t it? Ben Cartwright’s son defending the honour of Julia Bulette.”

She just couldn’t resist goading him further; his disapproval of her relationship with Joe just egged her on.

“It’s even more of a victory, I have the help of his father.”

They had no chance to continue, everything else was put to one side when Doctor Martin ran over to them exclaiming,

“Ben! Fever!”

The doctor pleaded for volunteers to help organise somewhere for all the patients but people just melted away scared off by the word ‘fever,’ It left just a few, the Cartwright’s he knew he could rely on, but there were precious few others.

Julia immediately volunteered her Palace, not just her place of work but her home too.

She and rushed off with Joe to begin setting the beds up but she stopped him just before they went inside. Julia smiled at Joe, once more he’d jumped in to defend her honor and she hadn’t thanked him.

“Thank you for what you did back there Joe, I’m just sorry you didn’t get to see the play, I think you might have enjoyed it.” She’d heard all about this particular production and had been looking forward to Joe’s reaction to it.

That was the last thing on Joe’s mind,

” I hate to see you treated that way Julia, when this is all over we’ll go again, but only if they apologise to you and take those drapes down.”

Joe looked a little sheepish, he’d actually pulled them down in the melee. Julia laughed,
“They’d have to replace them first!”

She wasn’t used to people jumping in to defend her honour and now Joe had done it twice. She wasn’t sure she’d earned it but she loved him for it. Given all that he knew about her he would still do that. She was beginning to regret her harsh words to his father too. He hadn’t really deserved them, she knew that it had been wrong of her to lump him in with the other blue noses. Julia turned and kissed Joe on the cheek and was rewarded with his brilliant smile just as they entered the Palace to begin preparations for the first of the incoming fever patients.

While Ben had gone in one direction and was busy overseeing the operations to urgently bring in fresh water Joe had hurried off in the other and Ben didn’t even see him go, now he wished he’d had a chance to talk to him. He’d just heard that Doc Martin had decided to quarantine the sick and their helpers until they knew the cause of the outbreak. Despite Doctor Martin’s assurances that it was only precautionary and the fever was almost certainly caused by some tainted water, Ben was seriously worried about Joe’s involvement. Paul hoped that if people had access to clean water they should be able to contain the fever and the new cases should start falling, but he reassured Ben that he would keep an eye on Joe for him.

To be fair Joe had been right in there and helping before Paul Martin had even realised it. He’d thrown off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and got busy with Tom moving tables, while the girls who were staying organised the bedding, they were certainly the most glamorously dressed nurses Joe had ever seen. Once that was in place Joe went off to collect supplies, ice, buckets and the first of the clean water that had been left for them. They had no choice but to accept that the sick and their carers would remain isolated until Doctor Martin said otherwise.

As the only young man helping a lot of the more physical tasks were falling to Joe. He had Tom and Harry’s help and one of the miners that had brought people in had stayed too, but they were all of them well into their fifties.

The townsfolk had been generous in leaving supplies for the makeshift hospital but far enough away that they themselves wouldn’t get contaminated. Having seen that the ‘beds,’ many of which were converted gaming tables, were nearly all in place Joe had been outside fetching bedding and food and stacking it outside and in one of the backrooms. Then he’d gone to see about the water supply.
As he unloaded a water barrel onto a cart he reflected on how he’d seen none of the ‘leading citizens’ with their sleeves rolled up. He smiled with pride as he pictured his father who he knew would be mucking in. He headed back inside wishing they hadn’t parted on such bad terms.

Nothing could have prepared him for the transformation he found when he walked back into Julia’s Palace.
Little Joe Cartwright rarely felt out of his depth in everyday situations but as he walked back inside to rows of sick and dying people, some that he recognised, he froze. The stench and pure scale of the human misery was hard to take in, when he’d left to fetch supplies they had just started trickling in. Now it looked like a war zone and Joe suddenly felt like a frightened little kid, out of his depth and wanting to escape. He steeled himself to walk through the makeshift hospital but the feelings just intensified and he had to swallow back his own bile as the overpowering odour of sweat, excrement and vomit assaulted his senses and threatened to overwhelm him. He tried to take even breaths to control the waves of nausea washing over him, on a scale like this he didn’t even know where to start. All around him there were people heaving, groaning, calling for help or pleading for water, some were crying out names. As Joe passed by the first bed he felt the panic rising again and he stood there transfixed. Where were all the other helpers, where was Doc Martin? Who should he go to first? Out of the chaos he felt someone close by him tugging at his sleeve and he turned towards them. It was no one he recognised, the man’s eyes looked hollow and sunken and he was gasping for each breath as fresh waves of pain overtook him.
As Joe turned towards him the man grabbed harder at his wrist digging his nails in and pulling him down towards him and begging him,

“Water mister…water.”

His insistent begging tore at Joe and galvanised his thoughts and his instincts kicked back in.

“Water…water please…” before he knew it Joe was fetching water, moving more tables, setting up more beds, cooling hot skin with wet cloths, helping patients to sip clean water and changing bedding. If he’d had the time he would have found it offensive but there was no time for such sensibilities. Inevitably it wasn’t long before he was helping to bury the dead. Doc Martin insisted it was done quickly to prevent the possible spread of the disease, the numbers of patients still coming in alarmed him and he saw no reason to lift the quarantine. Panic was already rife in town, people were unhappy about so many fever victims being so close to their families.
A barricade had been erected and it was patrolled by armed men, to protect the water, to keep the sick in and any angry mobs of frightened citizens out.

Inside the Palace, once Joe had got started there was always something to do. Occasionally he passed Julia and they’d exchange a glance or a touch. Thankfully two more people who had accompanied patients in had stayed to help too and that helped, but there still weren’t enough.
There was a constant round of fetching and carrying, bathing down patients and trying to make the ones where there was little hope as comfortable as possible. Julia’s rooms upstairs had been converted to sick rooms too now.

It was almost dawn before Joe even thought about taking a break and then only because Doc Martin insisted. The doc had had little time himself but had marshalled everyone the best that he could. Just as he’d promised Ben, he’d watched out for Joe when he got a chance and he’d had been very impressed with how he’d rolled up his sleeves and got on with whatever was required. He thought how very like his father he was and that gave Paul Martin a pang of guilt. He knew Ben would be worried sick. He hadn’t asked Joe to help but he was very grateful he had. He also knew the boy well enough to know that he wouldn’t rest unless he was told to so he’d gone over and insisted.

“If you don’t take a break young man you’ll be needing one of these beds, everyone else has had a break it’s your turn now… now off you go.”

“Okay doc but I’ll just fetch some water in first…”

Doc Martin interrupted him, with things as bad as they were he knew very well that there would always be ‘just one other job to do.’

“I’ll see to that Joe and I don’t want to see you back at work for a couple of hours, I need you back but I need you healthy”

Joe was about to argue but he could see the sense in Paul’s argument so he meekly waved a hand, with the polite ‘yes sir,’ that he usually reserved for his father and headed for the rest room.

Days passed and Ben regretted more and more that he’d missed Joe going off. It had really hit Ben just what his son was in the middle of and how badly they had parted. The first chance he got he rode into town in the hopes of seeing Joe. When he caught sight of Paul across the street passing instructions for supplies, Ben hurried across to speak to him. Paul saw him coming and was already feeling guilty.

All of Ben’s anxiety about the situation hit him and he turned on Paul, Paul who had talked him into having words with the boy against his better judgement. As they talked over the barricade, Ben didn’t waste words,

“How could you let him Paul?”

Paul looked very weary, but he needed no further explanation.

“Ben I just couldn’t stop him, he was involved before I knew it and after he’d been exposed I agreed he could stay.”

“Then let me exchange places with him.”

“He’d never let you Ben and he’d never forgive me,”

Doc Martin looked away, it was part of the job for a doctor but Ben was a concerned father and he was right to be, if the fever turned out to be contagious it could be a death sentence.

Someone had to help though, Ben would offer himself in a moment but his 17 year old son? Any of his sons? But he hadn’t brought them up to ignore a cry for help so he couldn’t be surprised. Just deeply worried. And guilt ridden because it was now…when there was a rift between them. Their last words spoken had been such angry ones.

Paul could read the anguish on his friend’s face and he tried again,

“We’re managing Ben, no sense in exposing anyone else yet and Joe’s strong Ben. He’s been invaluable helping get things set up, beds moved, patients off stretchers and into beds, Harry and Tom were a big help as well but they’re getting on in years, they tire quickly, like me,” he joked but it fell flat.

“You should be very proud of him Ben, even in the midst of all the sickness Joe still has a smile and a cheerful quip for the healthier ones, he’s a tonic for us all, he’s taking a rest break now, if you want me to I’ll…”

Ben shook his head, he didn’t want Joe missing out on any sleep he was able to grab.

Paul could see he was making things worse, knowing the details of his son’s involvement just underlined the exposure he had received to the fever.

“I’m sorry Ben, like I told you, he was in there and helping before I knew it and I’ve been really glad to have him, that boy of yours has energy to burn. But believe me I wouldn’t have encouraged him, I would have stopped him if I could.”

It had been a stressful few days for Paul and it was true, Joe’s youth and energy really had kept them all from flagging at times, Julia’s too. He wouldn’t have asked either to stay had they not volunteered but he was glad they had. He could say no more so he nodded at his friend and made to leave.

“I’m sorry Paul, ” Ben managed.

“I understand old friend, ” Paul answered truthfully.

Hoss was waiting for Ben when he got back home and he could see his father was distracted.

“He’ll be fine, you’ll see pa.”

Ben really needed his big-hearted middle son’s presence right then.

“I am worried about him though Hoss, how is he feeling right now, is he scared? Has he got in over his head with this? I want to help him and I can’t. I don’t even know if he’d want me to after the way things were left between us.”

It was hard for Hoss to see his father like this, he shook his head to put him straight,

“Pa you know Little Joe, he gets angry and he says so but he never holds a grievance, he settles down quick as he gets fired up… allus has. And one thing I do know, whenever we’ve thought Joe’s been in over his head he’s come up fighting. He’ll cope pa and when it’s all over he’ll need you, just like he’s allus done. You two are a law unto yourselves but one thing no one could even doubt is how that boy loves ya pa. And no Julia Bulette or dang fever is ever gonna change that.”

Ben was heartened by that, Hoss was right too, as a family they’d come through worse, and they would come through this too. They had to.
He drew his largest son towards him for a hug and true to form Hoss was embarrassed but he accepted the hug and returned it warmly. To Joe and Ben such a show of affection came naturally, it was just something they had, but Adam and Hoss were different that way, they felt the same, just didn’t show it that way. Some men would see such shows of affection as a weakness but Hoss knew it was a strength and a legacy from Marie. None of the Cartwright’s doubted each other’s love or deep respect for each other; they just showed it differently.
Hoss was choked up as he hugged his father,

“It’ll be alright pa, you’ll see.”

 

***

 

 

 

As Doc Martin moved skilfully from patient to patient making sure his ‘nurses’ were well schooled whenever he was able, he reflected sadly on how many new patients were still coming in. Each day and night the number grew, but so many were coming in too late to be helped.

After getting one more patient settled, Joe stopped for a much-needed breather. He scanned the room and his attention was drawn to a girl who had come in with her sick father. She was helping the patient in the bed next to her father. He was a large man and he was retching violently into a bowl which the girl was trying valiantly to keep in place. She looked white as a sheet and about ready to faint. As he got closer he could see that the front of her dress was splattered with vomit. Joe’s heart went out to both her and her patient as she struggled to help him.

Joe reached them quickly and took over,

“Hey, I’ll help here, you go and clean up.”

The girl looked up at him tearfully but thankful from the bottom of her heart. Joe smiled at her kindly and she rushed off to clean up and get back to her father’s side.

It wasn’t just the girl who’d been grateful for Joe’s intervention. Although very ill the miner was all too aware that he’d just been sick all over a pretty young lady and he hated himself for his weakness. Even in his wretchedness he had been relieved when he heard the young man swapping places with her.

His new ‘nurse’ supported him as he still heaved into the bowl, even when it seemed his stomach should be empty he couldn’t stop his stomach rejecting its contents. Finally done, the miner fell back exhausted. He was instantly grateful when he felt a cool flannel being wiped over his face and he opened his eyes when he felt a cup gently pressed to his lips. The young man coaxed him to take a sip. His mouth felt awful and the water soothed him and eased the foul taste away.

“Thankyou,” he gasped and looked up at a face he instantly recognised.

“Cartwright?”

The miner like most of the town knew the Cartwright’s and he’d played poker with this one only last week, he’d taken money off the kid too.

Joe nodded and smiled in recognition. “One of ‘em anyways.” He acknowledged.

“What you doin’ here sonny?” Pete Morrison lay back as he waited for his answer.

Joe just shrugged, “I was just in the right place at the right time I guess, ” As he spoke Joe rinsed out the flannel and once more wiped the man’s neck and brow, Pete felt hot and feverish and the cool cloth was a blessed relief.

“Thanks, that feels better son, I’m just so damn hot. I sure hope it don’t turn out to be the wrong place and the wrong time for you boy.” He’d seen a lot of people fall ill around the mining camps and some had already died.

Joe loosened his clothing for him and helped him settle back against the pillow as best he could. Pete was a big guy but he was as weak as a kitten right now, Joe didn’t fuss over him and he appreciated it.

“I’ll get you into a clean night-shirt soon as I can get one.” he preferred to stay with Pete until Doc Martin made it across.

“How many days you been sick Pete?” The violent vomiting wasn’t a common symptom and Joe wondered if maybe something else was wrong.

“Had the fever about three days, only been sick today. Thought I’d better feed myself yesterday while I had me some strength and I ate some left over stew. Reckon it might have been that. Weren’t even hungry just thought I oughta ya know?”

Joe nodded, “It sounds like you make stew about as well as I do. Doc Martin will be over soon, is there anything else I can get you?”

Pete shook his head, “No… but thanks son, and thanks…for takin’ over from the girl,”

Seeing the concerned look on Joe’s face he couldn’t help adding with a grin,

“I’d much rather be throwin’ up over a Cartwright.”

Joe took his lead from the miner, grinning ruefully as he shook his shirt loose from his pants and surveyed the mess. “Thanks a lot! so it ain’t enough you won all my wages in the Bucket of Blood last week?”

The miner rested his head back and laughed a full throaty laugh, “So you remember kid?”

There wasn’t much to laugh about here but the two of them enjoyed this joke at Joe’s expense.

Joe scratched his collar, “I ain’t likely to forget, I had 3 queens, I was sure I had you beat.”

Pete smiled, tired, sick, but none the less glad of the conversation and the memory of when he’d felt a whole lot better.

“I knew you had a good hand sonny, you ain’t developed what I’d call a poker face yet…but it just weren’t good enough…this time.”

That was a challenge and Joe knew it and he eagerly took it up. “You’re on… soon as we get out of here, ” he was fervently hoping that Pete would get well enough for the rematch.

Pete chuckled but he couldn’t contain the coughing fit that accompanied it. As the coughing gradually eased, he once more gratefully accepted the cool drink Joe offered him.

Joe had seen that Doc Martin was approaching, ” Here comes the doc, I’ll get you that night-shirt, you sure there’s nothin’ else I can do for you Pete?”

“No thanks Joe, I’ll just rest now.”

Doc Martin came over in time to catch the end of the conversation and Joe filled him in on Pete’s condition.

“Doc this is Pete Morrison, he’s been working at the diggings, been feverish about four days and vomiting just today but he ate some old stew yesterday. He has a bad cough too. Did I forget anything Pete?” While he was speaking Joe tipped the soiled bowl so Doc Martin could see there was no blood in there. That was a good sign, but Joe hadn’t wanted to draw attention to that particular worry, just because there was no blood now there might be later, no sense scaring Pete if it happened..

Paul smiled at Joe’s bedside manner, he’d learned a lot in a short time, he appreciated his quick appraisal of the important but mostly familiar facts.

Pete shook his head; “Aside from I hurt all over that about covers it Joe.”

Doc Martin began his examination, “Well let’s see what we can do to help you then Pete.”

Joe took his leave promising he’d be back soon with that nightshirt and some fresh water, “I’ll bring back an ice pack too Doc.”

Paul nodded, “And when you’ve got a moment Joe could you break up some more ice, we don’t want to run short.”

“I’m on it Doc, ” Joe assured him as he moved back through the room.

“Nice kid, ” Pete murmured as he shut his eyes for a moment while the doctor checked his pulse.

Only when he’d finished counting Paul agreed. “Yes he is.” Right now he wondered what on earth he’d do without him.

Joe had quickly grabbed a change of shirt and looked around for Rosalynn to check she was okay now. He found her sitting with her head in her hands and shaking all over. Poor kid, Joe’s heart went out to her and he went over.

“Hey, hey now…”

He knelt down in front of her and took her hands in his to try and stop them shaking. She looked up at him and felt herself calm down a little as his warm hands enclosed hers, he had such a warm friendly smile that she tried to smile back.

“I’m sorry…”

Joe rubbed her hands gently between his, “Don’t be, you’ve been doing a great job and we really appreciate you helping out, especially with your father sick…”

Her father was one of the lucky ones, he seemed to be getting better and Rosalynn had offered to help around where she could, but she had found it hard. Nursing her father was one thing, but all these strangers! She couldn’t stop a tear from falling and Joe instinctively leant forward and hugged her closer. He rubbed her back gently and the warmth and closeness of him combined to release all her pent up fears and she began sobbing uncontrollably. Her tears soaked Joe’s newly changed shirt at the shoulder.
Gradually her crying slowed and Joe pulled back to look at her. He reached over for a cloth so she could dry her eyes and tried to make her laugh to take her mind off things,

“Hey I’m gonna run out of shirts at this rate, only Julia don’t keep anything here that fits me, or that I’d like to borrow come to think of it.”

It worked she couldn’t help giggling at his joke, he really was very sweet.

“Why don’t you stay here and rest a while, get cleaned up. I’ll call you if your pa needs you. I promise.”

“Thanks Joe, I think I will, I don’t want my father to see me upset.”

He winked at her as he left the room, “That’s better, you’re doing just fine you know.”

When he’d gone she wished she could have got him to stay with her a little longer.

The next days still saw no let up and Doc Martin prayed it would happen soon. They were losing more patients than they were saving and the fear was growing that bad water might not be to blame, the fever could still turn out to be contagious. It was hard on them all to watch so many people die, even harder when they knew them, but there were some victories and that’s what kept them going.

Everyone was exhausted but they supported each other as much as they could.
Julia missed being alone with Joe; they never got a chance to take breaks together. She worked as hard as anyone and like Joe she always had a kind word and a sympathetic ear for a patient in need of one. Their shared experience was bringing greater depth to their relationship even though they were hardly spending any time together. Without even knowing it was happening their feelings for each other deepened every day and night that passed.

Whenever Julia got a moment she looked for Joe. It was hard for her to imagine her Palace at it had been, drinks flowing, loud laughter, jaunty piano music, but seeing him, particularly if he caught her eye and smiled back at her, well then she knew it would be alright again. Tonight as she drew a cool cloth across her face and slowly down her neck, she watched him working from across the room. His sleeves were rolled up like always, he looked busy, determined, caring, but he was still managing to share a joke with his patient. She smiled at the sight of the stray curl that always fell over his forehead and she remembered when she’d first had the urge to pop it back in place for him, just after his first fight with Millaine. She rinsed the cloth out in the cold water once more and gratefully dabbed at her face, God it was so hot.

On this particular evening Julia was sitting with Anna, one of her girls who’d taken sick. Doc Martin didn’t think it was the fever, more likely just exhaustion and he’d insisted that she rest. She’d been pretty frightened though so Julia stayed with her and held her hand while she gradually drifted off to sleep. Julia once more scanned the room again for Joe. He’d moved and this time she found him breaking off some ice and filling an icepack for the young girl who had come in with her father.

She’d noticed before how the girl hovered around Joe and nervously patted her hair back whenever he looked at her or he was close to her. It was obvious that Rosalynn was attracted to him. She fluttered whenever Joe was near and she giggled nervously whenever he spoke to her. Just now when Joe passed her the icebag she’d flushed furiously. He was always very sweet with her and Julia could see he was just being kind, yet she still felt threatened. The girl was so touchingly young …like Joe…and they looked sweet together; in fact to Julia they looked right together and as tired as she was it made her feel old…too old for him.

Anna had finally fallen asleep and Julia wiped her hands down her apron, preparing to get back to work. As she made to rise she heard the girl giggle coquettishly at something Joe had said. Julia swept her hair off her face and pretended that it didn’t bother her. She headed to fetch some sheets from the drying room and as she reached up for them she felt familiar hands on her waist and warm inviting lips nuzzling gently on her neck. His warm breath on her skin sent a sensual charge coursing through every part of her body. Even in the midst of this horror he could do that to her.

“You look beautiful….” He told her softly between kisses.

Without missing a beat Julia replied, “If that’s you Doctor Martin I should tell you I’m already taken, by a handsome young cowboy and he won’t take kindly to your attentions.”

Joe turned her around and there was that dazzling smile. In amongst all this he could still make her head spin and her spirits fly.

“I love you Julia Bulette…” he breathed between kisses.

She whispered back, “No you don’t…”

He pulled back affecting a hurt and serious look before kissing her once more, “Let me be the judge of that…”

A few moments later they reluctantly drew apart, there had been precious few opportunities for them to be alone like this.

“Too much more of that and it’s gonna be me needin’ one of those ice packs…” Joe said with a cheeky grin.

“Mmm, I’ll hold that thought, where exactly would you like me to put it?” Julia matched his mischievous twinkle.

Poor Joe now looked disarmingly bashful, “Um…” Was all he managed to say.

Oh what she’d like to do with him right now but what Julia whispered in Joe’s ear would remain forever between them. It made the young cowboy blush even more and then smile irresistibly at the sparkle of mischief that he so loved in Julia’s eyes. If it were possible, his sweet reaction made her fall in love with him just a little bit more.

It was Joe’s turn to feel a warm glow but this time it was all in his face. He’d never known a woman like Julia; he adored that spark of humour and naughtiness from a woman so outwardly elegant. He adored her and if she needed reassurance she could see it now. She placed a hand gently on his cheek and wanted to tell him with all her heart that she loved him back, to throw caution to the wind right there and then in the laundry room, but something stopped her, so instead she kissed him softly and told him,

“Now let me get these sheets… you’re a bad influence.”

Joe gave her one last peck before telling her “I hope so…”

His faced turned serious, “How’s Anna?”

Julia smiled, “I think she’s alright, just completely exhausted. I think after a good nights rest she’ll be fine again.”

Joe nodded, “Good, I hope so.” And he opened the door for Julia as she carried the sheets out.

Julia had gone into the room feeling tired and emotional but she came out feeling restored and happier, determined that when this was over, if Joe still felt the same she’d give their relationship a proper chance.

As night-time approached Joe heard Julia singing a familiar French lullaby. It was one his mother used to sing to him, he still cringed at the memory of telling Julia that she was how he remembered his mother to be. Why had he told her that? And yet it was true a large part of Joe’s attraction to Julia at the start had been her French ancestry, but now he knew it was more than that. He desired her, he admired her and the more he was with her the more he resented the town that had tried to ostracise her. Only he and Tom knew that she had sold furs and jewels to raise funds to help the people of Virginia City in their hour of need.

The next morning, Joe was dismayed to spot a familiar new face in amongst the human misery; a little boy had just been brought in. Early in the crisis Joe had remembered the little boy’s mother had seemed unwell the day they’d met and he’d asked that the family be checked up on days ago. The boy looked across when he heard his name spoken and his face lit up when he saw it was Joe. His parents had both taken sick but they’d wanted to stay at home. This was the little boy who had petted Cochise that day in town.

Doc Martin pulled Joe to one side and discreetly explained that the boy’s family had died. Frankie wasn’t expected to survive, he had been born with a weak heart and the fever well, it really was just a matter of time.

The majority of the sick had been miners but Frankie’s family were some of the unlucky settlers who had also come down with the fever. With just one doctor in the area and with his temporary nurses spread so thin, Doctor Martin had no choice but to bring Frankie here, he had to keep his patients together. The fact that people from outlying areas were still coming in added to Doc Martins increasing concerns that his initial diagnosis might have been wrong.

Paul had hated seeing little Frankie looking so lost in amongst the adult sick, at least having a face he knew would be a comfort to the boy.

He’d seen the little boy’s reaction to seeing Joe and Joe immediately made it his business to spend every spare minute he could with Frankie. Doc Martin had half feared and half hoped that he would. He had to weigh the heartache he knew it would cause the young man with the comfort it would give to the little boy to have a friend there. In the end the decision was never his.
.

On the first night Frankie was there Joe had passed his bed thinking he was asleep, but he was alerted by soft sniffing noises coming from under the sheets. It was little wonder Joe thought, given all he’d gone through. He pulled the covers gently back and it broke his heart to see Frankie all huddled up and sobbing quietly.

“Hey Frankie, is it ok if I sit here for a while?”

The sniffing stopped and the little boy turned over, pleased to see his friend.

“Can’t you sleep Frankie?”

Frankie shook his head.

“It’s hard to sleep Joe, the noises…I get scared.”

Joe wanted to make him feel better,

“I know what you mean Frankie, my brother Hoss snores so loud I swear he darn near shakes the whole house, I have to hold onto my bed some nights so I don’t fall out…”

That brought an immediate smile.

“It ain’t the snorin’ though Joe, I don’t mind that, my pa snored real loud, like yer brother, it kinda reminds me of him. It’s them other noises, the coughin’ the cryin’ out it scares me Joe.”

Poor kid, Joe felt so helpless knowing that all he could do was make the boy as comfortable as he could and try and ease his fears and loneliness. Joe sat on the bed beside him and Frankie immediately snuggled up to him. They whispered to each other and told each other funny stories. An hour later Joe thought Frankie was asleep but when he tried to move, the little boy was alert to it. Joe knew he would have to leave him for a little while at least.

“Tell ya what Frankie, I’ve got a few chores I have to do but then I’ll come and tell you a long story, how’s that?”

Frankie nodded enthusiastically and Joe rediscovered the little boy he’d first seen on the street that day.

“To tell you the truth Frankie, I get kinda lonesome at night too and I like someone to talk to, so you gotta promise if you ever wake up and I’m not around you be sure and ask one of the nurses to come and fetch me. It doesn’t matter what time; you just tell ‘em to come fetch me ok? You promise?”

Joe just couldn’t bear the thought of Frankie lying in bed at night scared out of his wits.
When Joe’s mother had died he’d had plenty of nights like that but then he had had two big brothers and a loving father who he could run into.

The little boy smiled his gratitude and Joe climbed off the bed and pulled up his blankets. He saw the little boy shiver and impulsively he pulled him back into a hug.

It tore him apart to leave him but Tom had signalled to Joe that he needed help with a burial. He’d be sure to keep his promise and come back and tell him that story. As he made to leave Frankie grabbed him,

“Joe, did they fetch anything from my house yet, I asked the doctor but he didn’t know, only I have a toy dog, I guess it’s silly but it helps me sleep some.”

Joe knew Frankie’s home had been burnt to the ground, people were so paranoid about the fever spreading. He struggled with what to say to him but Frankie gave him the answer. All the time they were talking Frankie had kept a tight hold of Joe’s jacket sleeve fingering the soft grey corduroy. Normally Joe wouldn’t have been wearing it but he’d been outside fetching ice just before he’d passed by his bed. He slipped it off and wrapped it around the child telling him,

” I haven’t seen your dog Frankie and I don’t think it’s silly at all to have something to help you sleep; I did.”

He watched amused as Frankie immediately wriggled into the warm jacket, it totally engulfed him. Joe asked him seriously,

“I don’t suppose you could look after that for me?”

Frankie was busy slipping his small arms into the oversized sleeves.

“Sure I will Joe, sure I’ll look after it for you.”

“Thanks Frankie, I’ll be back as soon as I can be.”

Satisfied Frankie would be okay for a while at least, Joe went and replenished the bedding supplies from outside and fetched some fresh water. Next there was the dreaded burial, it had been delayed until Paul had confirmed the death but as soon as they could Tom and Joe performed the depressing task. As soon as he could, Joe checked back on Frankie and found him sound asleep and tucked up snugly inside his jacket. It brought the first tear to Joe’s eyes that he’d allowed himself since this had all begun. He thought back to when he’d been sick and woken to the sight of his beloved father watching over him. Nothing and no-one had ever made him feel safer.
He heard footsteps and looked across to see Tom approaching and by the look on his face they’d soon be outside digging another grave. Two or three a night was becoming the norm. He had no choice so Joe pulled himself together and went over to Tom. Frankie was still sleeping when they came back in again so Joe would save his story for another time.

Over the next days new patients still came in day and night often too late to be really helped. Julia and Joe hardly slept, they catnapped whenever they had an opportunity but increasingly Joe used his rest periods to spend time with Frankie.

One of the things Frankie loved most was hearing Joe tell what it felt like to ride Cochise; he often fell asleep with Joe’s words fuelling his imagination. With such vivid descriptions fresh in his mind he could shut his eyes and feel the freedom of riding a fast horse with the wind whipping his face. Joe took him on wild rides splashing through mountain streams, galloping over lush green meadows, riding into Indian Country and over mountains. In his imagination there were no limits.

One afternoon they’d just escaped from a dastardly bunch of desperados, only getting them to turn tail and flea by blowing a particularly vicious raspberry at them.
They wouldn’t soon forget Jovial Joe the smiling cowboy and his sidekick Fearsome Frankie.

Joe was trying to get Frankie to eat a little broth when he was suddenly shocked speechless when the little boy asked him straight out,

“Will you be my pa now Joe?”

Joe’s heart constricted and the words he’d been about to say dried up in his throat. He saw only complete trust in the little boy’s eyes and Joe felt the full force of the responsibility he was about to promise. As far as he knew anyway, he was the only person the boy had left in the world, for however short a time that would be. It was a role he’d never filled and he felt totally inadequate. He pictured his own father, so sure and so solid.

Frankie thought Joe had been silent long enough and he squeezed his arm,

“Don’t you want to be my pa Joe?”

That brought Joe immediately back and he was quick to reassure him.

“Oh Frankie it isn’t that, it’s not that at all. I’d love to be your Pa, except I don’t know how good I’d be at it, could I be your big brother instead?” and he grinned, “That way we could get in trouble together and I wouldn’t have to tan your britches.”

Frankie giggled and it was music to Joe’s ears.

“That’d be the best Joe…I ain’t ever had a brother and you’d be the best one anyone ever had.”

Joe smiled, “Well I’ll sure try to be Frankie. The only thing is that way you also get to have Hoss and Adam too, ” and he pulled the most woebegone face imaginable.

Frankie’s grin grew wider; Joe had told him all about them, ” That’s ok, they sound pretty nice too Joe.”

Joe nodded, “They are Frankie, I was only funnin’ and they’ll love having you as a little brother.”

Suddenly Frankie had a good appetite and it pulled at Joe to think that he’d been worrying about who would be looking after him. When Frankie had finished up, Joe made sure he was comfortable before he went about his duties. While he was busy making up a fresh bed near to Frankie’s, Julia unexpectedly came up and helped him finish. She’d been watching him with Frankie and had an irresistible urge to be with him. As she came up beside him she impulsively kissed him on the cheek, right there. There was giggling from the next bed and they both turned around.

“Do you love her Joe?” Frankie asked in the purely innocent and forthright way that only a child could get away with.

Joe grinned his lop-sided grin and winked at Julia, “Yes I guess I do Frankie, only don’t you tell her I said so okay.”

Julia smiled back and they both got back to work, but such pleasant interludes were rare.

 

***

 

Life back at the Ponderosa was as normal as possible, they were short-handed and that kept them busy which helped. It was when they sat round at mealtimes that it was the most obvious that one of them was missing. It was always like that when there was an empty space but depending on the reason it didn’t necessarily affect the mood. They all knew there’d been no sign of the fever abating and they were all growing more concerned by the day. By now they all knew someone who had died of it too, it made for some sombre evenings. Since Joe hardly sat still when he was at home his absence was always keenly felt. Adam, Ben or Hoss could sit quietly and read but Joe hardly ever did that, you generally knew he was around unless of course he was sleeping and even then he could be quite animated, as Hoss always said he was definitely at least part jackrabbit. They all prayed that soon there’d be a downward turn in the number of new patients and in the meantime they worked all hours at the ranch, while always keeping the water supplies refreshed. One day soon that empty seat would be filled and Hoss and Joe could start squabbling over the last piece of bacon or apple pie like they should be doing.

 

***

 

Nothing had changed much in town but there some hopeful signs, more patients were showing signs of improvement. It was still mostly miners coming down with it but the latest ones were all from outlying areas, where they’d been slower to get the fresh water and Doc Martin took that as a hopeful sign.

It must have been well after midnight, at the end of a long tiring day when Joe went over to help Tom and Jake with a new patient. It was an old man and he seemed to be sleeping as they transferred him carefully across from the stretcher to the bed. Tom and Jake went off with the stretcher while Joe pulled a sheet and blankets around the old timer. Trying not to disturb the old guy too much, he loosened his clothes and tucked a blanket around him before he realised that the man was now wide awake and staring at him intently. It was such an intense stare that Joe felt momentarily uncomfortable under the scrutiny, but he returned the man’s gaze and smiled to reassure the poor guy who’d woken up to find himself suddenly adrift in a room full of sick strangers.

The warm smile from the young man seemed to reassure the much older one who had indeed been studying his carer’s face intently. The two men who had brought him in had done the best they could but they’d talked over him, like he wasn’t there. This one seemed no more than a boy to him but he’d noted the clear green eyes with the dark shadows beneath and the small scar by the side of his mouth that made his smile slightly lop-sided. He had a kind face and the old man had been heartened as he watched the boy’s changing expressions while moments of his own youth returned to him in sharp clarity.
The friendly smile had been all that he had needed. For the last few days until he’d been discovered, he’d accepted he was dying but he’d been very afraid of dying alone. For a man who had loved the solitude of his life he had felt a strong desire for a connection before he died. If he was going to die he didn’t want it to be alone and unnoticed.

Instinctively Joe had picked up on his need for company; there was something in the man’s eyes that pleaded with him to stay. He picked up the bag of belongings that Tom had placed under the bed and he put it on the small table.
They might not amount to much but he guessed they’d be important to the man.

“My name’s Joe, is there anything I can get for you? The doctor will be along soon but you should drink, we have plenty of fresh water here, I’m sorry I don’t know your name…” and Joe reached for a glass.

After Bill had drunk a little he eyed the bag.

“It’s Bill, my name’s Bill…could you reach into my bag there for me sonny, I got some chewin’ tobacco, I could sure use some. I reckon I could drink the whole of that there jug and my throat would still feel as dry as old bones, the baccy helps some, kind of lubricates a little…”

For the first time in days Bill felt some degree of comfort and he managed a grin, both at his own choice of words and the puzzled look on the boy’s face as he’d said them.

“I’d like some more water too son…” he reassured him

Feeling like he already knew this old timer Joe first gave him the water and then drew up a chair as he reached for the cloth sack and rummaged carefully inside. He found the package he was looking for and unfolded its precious contents.

“Here you go… the water will do you more good you know.” And he grinned as he passed the tobacco over.

Bill took the tobacco gratefully; he’d seen an honesty and openness in Joe’s face that he had taken to instantly.

“I know I’m dyin’ Joe,” and he deliberately took in his surroundings, ” and I always hoped it would be in a house of ill repute, this ain’t quite how I pictured it though.”

Sadly from his experience so far, Joe knew what Bill said was probably true, the man was very frail and he’d been sick a long time, but still the unexpected words hit him. Joe had already watched too many people die here, he was already emotionally as well as physically drained and for days he’d effectively been putting his emotions to one side. Looking into this man’s eyes as he’d said those words left Joe close to tears, even though he battled hard to stop it showing. He wouldn’t give him meaningless words, he could see the man didn’t need or want them. He simply needed company and someone to listen to him. He was right, as he approached his death Bill just needed someone to know that he had lived.

The old man had seen his reaction and he was warmed by a young stranger’s concern. As sick as he was he’d made the joke about the palace to make the boy feel better. So who was helping who?

Bill reached for Joe’s hand relishing the warm human contact.

“Just stay awhile boy and let an old man ramble, I got so used to bein’ alone I forgot how good it is to have someone to jaw with.”

Joe was due a sleep break but he wanted to remain with the old timer as long as he could, he stayed where he was, ready to let Bill talk whenever he was able.

They talked amiably whenever Bill was ready. He was weak and he rested often but he had a life story to tell and someone who genuinely wanted to hear him. To care.

Between lull’s, Bill told Joe about all manner of things, going off on tangents whenever a new thought distracted him. When his voice faltered Joe was ready to offer him water if he needed some. When Bill felt himself falling asleep he spat the chewing tobacco into his hand and stuck it to the side of the bed out of habit. Once more he laughed at Joe’s expression and explained, “Leave it there sonny, I might be glad of it later.”

Doc Martin interrupted them for a moment while he checked on the newest patient with Little Joe. When he’d gone Bill asked Joe about the nickname that he’d heard the Doc use.

“Little Joe?”

Joe was so used to being called that he didn’t realise at first that it was a question. When he did he explained,

“I guess it’s because I’m the youngest, plus my pa and my brothers are pretty big.”

Bill laughed in recognition of a shared problem; “I was Billy Boy, always Billy Boy to my folks no matter how old I got.”

He smiled at another long forgotten memory. Joe replied softly, careful not to intrude into his thoughts,

“I sure know all about that, I’m seventeen and still they call me Little Joe!”

Bill laughed, “The ripe old age of seventeen eh? Still it’s not so good when you want to impress the ladies eh?”

Joe grimaced, “Not at all…does it ever stop?”

Bill grinned, “To some people I expect you’ll always be Little Joe, just like I was Billy Boy. Do you really mind?”

Joe thought before he answered and his whole face took on a quizzical expression that amused Bill, before he answered, “I guess it depends on who says it and how. Oh yeah and what mood I’m in too I s’pose…”

They both laughed at the truth of that.

Between many rests they talked sporadically but easily. Bill told Joe about things he hadn’t thought about in years, he had no family left or friends to speak of but memories of them now were as clear as day to him. If he seemed to be struggling Joe reached for his hand and the contact always comforted the old man. The rests became longer but Joe remained by his side.

Bill seemed to rally again but this time his eyes remained closed as he recounted tales of past loves, it was Joe’s turn to really study the old man’s face and the hard earned lines that told their own story. Joe imagined he’d been a bit of a rogue in his younger days. He was grinning because he was imagining just that when Bill paused a while and opened his eyes,

“You ever been in love boy? I’d guess a few times if I’m any judge.”

Joe hadn’t expected the conversation to turn to himself and he looked a little self-conscious before answering,

“Mmm, well…yes a few times I guess.”

“Anyone in particular now?” and Joe looked up instinctively searching for Julia.

She happened to look over at him at the same moment and they both smiled. It was funny how often Joe would think about Julia, scan the room and she’d be looking back at him. Bill followed Joe’s gaze, it was written all over his face exactly how he felt about her.

“Oh I see how it is…” he knew a little about Julia by reputation and had picked up on who she was.

“Take an old man’s advice, be careful sonny…”

Joe returned his attention quickly to Bill and Bill was reminded of some of his own inappropriate dalliances that he’d never truly regretted, so he chuckled and corrected his comment,

” Don’t suppose you want to hear that though, or that you’d listen…”

Joe chuckled too before asking him,

“But you never married?” It was one of the few questions that Joe had asked, he hadn’t wanted to pry too deeply but rather let Bill’s trail of thought lead the conversation.

As Bill shook his head slightly he told Joe, “No boy, nearly, once or twice but no I never took that step.”

“Any regrets?”

“No son, no point in those, I’ve been lucky, had a good life and I chose to be alone when I realised that was how I liked it best. Don’t suit everyone but it suited me just fine. Nature don’t let you down like people do and I was always happiest just sitting by a stream fishin’. No son I got no regrets.”

Joe could see that Bill had enjoyed his solitary life but it made him miss his family very much. Although he enjoyed some time alone he didn’t think he’d like it for very long. Just thinking about it made him feel quite sad and for a brief moment he forgot where he was as he pictured his own home, the warm fire and his family sitting around it.

Once more Bill had shut his eyes lost in a memory, maybe sitting by a river, the sun on his back and a string of trout ready for his supper. Joe figured he must be because the next time Bill spoke it was about the best ways to catch a fish and his little tricks for catching the biggest fattest fish you could find and how to fry them and enjoy them at their succulent best. He passed his experience on like a secret recipe. Joe told Bill that he could almost taste those fish. He’d always remember Bill’s advice that day and each time he’d pass it on he’d remember him.

It was clear to Joe that Bill was tiring quickly, his musings were getting less coherent, his thoughts more random but he was suddenly very lucid again when he reached for Joe’s hand and clasped it. “Thank you boy, thank you for staying, for listening to an old man.”

Keeping Bill’s gaze Joe’s reply was an honest one; “It’s been a pleasure getting to know you sir.”

Joe held onto his hand until he felt it relax, the old man was sleeping now. He looked restful and Joe made sure he was covered; he smiled at the lump of chewing tobacco still on the bedpost and the slight brown stain decorating Bill’s unshaven chin.

Paul Martin walked over and touched Joe on the shoulder and the pair of them set about getting two more beds ready. Paul had hovered close by a couple of times. He had assessed there was very little he could do for the old man and he couldn’t really spare Joe He could see that he was already doing all that could be done for the man by simply being with him when it mattered. Not for the first time he marvelled at Joe’s maturity. He put most of the important citizens of Virginia City who had sought to condemn his relationship with Julia, to shame and Paul Martin would make sure they knew it when this was all over.

By now Joe was suddenly very tired but he’d hated to leave the old man in case he woke up, but he also knew Doc Martin needed him. He didn’t have Paul’s years of experience and couldn’t detach himself so easily but he knew he had to try.

When Joe next stopped he was exhausted, he’d checked on Frankie a few times and found him sleeping each time he went over, always tucked up in his jacket. Before he went for a break he went back once more to check on their newest patient and even though he had expected it, he was shocked to find that Bill had died in the night. Paul confirmed what Joe already knew. Bill hadn’t moved since Joe had left him and he still looked like he was sleeping but there was no pulse when Joe felt for it. He knew Bill wouldn’t have known but still he wished he’d been there at the moment he’d died.

Joe was beginning to dread the inevitable burials, but it had to be done quickly. He knew it was just as hard for everyone else. He went across and whispered to Tom so they could make arrangements and Tom took pity on the exhausted boy before him and offered to take over and wake Harry instead. Joe insisted, he wanted to say a few words for Bill. Tom could see there was no argument to be had and the two of them set about laying Bill in the ground.

As soon as it was over and they went back into the makeshift hospital Tom ordered Joe to sleep for a while. This time, when he saw an argument forming he halted it by telling Joe he’d be no use to anyone collapsed in a heap on the floor. Joe knew it, this time he took Tom’s advice, and within seconds of his head touching the sack that made his pillow he was deeply asleep. Joe slept for five hours before he was called again, the longest he’d slept in a week.

In the morning Paul was optimistic when he told Joe the cases coming in had dropped dramatically, any new patients were coming from much further afield now. At last they had some real hope, but Paul wouldn’t risk lifting the quarantine until they’d had a couple of clear days at least.

It had become obvious to Joe that Frankie was getting weaker. He’d kept his promise of being with him whenever he woke in the night and the pair of them had shared many stories. Second only to stories about Cochise, Frankie loved to hear Joe tell him about his family and most especially he loved to hear about Joe’s pranks. This morning as Joe fed him a little porridge for his breakfast Frankie begged him for one more story.

“Tell me the story about the apples cores Joe? That was funny.”

“That one again huh, just so you can laugh at the part where I get my britches tanned?” and Joe playfully frowned at the memory, he’d been about five.

Frankie giggled, ” You get your britches tanned in them all Joe!”

Joe laughed out loud drawing a smile from across the room from Julia,

” That I do Frankie, that I do…alright then, here we go…Well you see there I was standing by the big round table, remember I told you it sits in front of the fireplace?”

Joe stopped while Frankie nodded enthusiastically, Joe had told him all about how he jumped on the furniture when he practised with his epee, he urged Joe to tell him the next part,

“Well, in the middle of that table is the biggest fruit bowl you ever saw piled up high with apples and oranges, I picked out the biggest, rosiest, red apple you ever saw in all your life. I polished that apple on my shirt, I polished it and I polished it until I could see my face in it. And do you know what Frankie?”

And he paused here for added dramatic effect. Frankie shook his head even though they both knew he did.

“All the while that I was doin’ it, I had cottoned onto the fact that my big brother Adam was watching me. Just standin’ there watchin’ me… but I never let on I knew. I might have only been five but I was smart see? I’d cottoned on real quick that ol’ big brother Adam was standing neat as you please by the door, his arms were folded and he was watching me. And then I had an idea! Now I knew, even though I was only five like I told you already, but I knew that if it was my day, there would be a great coming together and everything would be just perfect…” he shut his eyes and relished the memory, “…just perfect.”

“Now…and this was the hard part see, you gotta be a good actor too, even though I knew he was watching me, I still never let on…that was the clever part not lettin’ on…but I knew from experience…you gotta be smart with older brother’s Frankie…” Joe suddenly stopped and looked worried, “Hey maybe I shouldn’t be tellin’ you this…”

And he winked and tickled Frankie who responded with a precious giggle. Joe carried on with the story even though Frankie knew it by heart, except Joe managed to make it longer and longer each time he told it, which Frankie wholeheartedly approved of.

“So finally I was ready to eat my big, rosy, red and very shiny apple and all the time don’t forget he was still watchin’ me and I knew he was still watchin’ like I told ya but still I never let on. I was hoping he’d stay watchin’ till I finished that apple and my whole plan depended on him stayin’ right where he was. Don’t know why, but big brother musta thought there was something mighty interestin’ about the way I was eatin’ that apple, I mean, Pa says I’m a noisy eater and sometimes I talk with my mouth full but it really wasn’t that interestin’ but to big brother Adam it was mighty interestin’.”

Frankie giggled again as Joe mimicked himself eating the big crunchy apple…Joe grinned back at him between bites. If there was one thing Joe was good at, as his family well knew, it was stringing out a story. He had a very receptive audience who was hanging onto every word and so he went on.

“Well see, I reckoned big brother was waitin’ to see what I did with that ol’ apple core, waitin’ for me to throw it back in the bowl or somethin’ instead of in the fire like I was s’posed to. So he stood just by the kitchen door. I knew he’d do it; all I had to do was get my timing just right.
So I continued to eat my apple real slow… but I kept looking across, not so’s he’d see me though and just when he was about to turn away I opened my mouth real wide and tipped my head right back and held that ol’ apple core inches away from my mouth. See that foxed him, I saw him stop and then I heard what I’d been waitin’ for… Hoss’ footsteps coming back in from the kitchen.
Ol’ Adam he folded his arms like this…I was this close…oh please let it happen I thought…please let it be my day…. I put the apple core in my mouth and chewed as hard as I could…and then praise be it happened…just like I hoped it would…Adam leaned…. Only he leaned against the kitchen door just as brother Hoss pulled it wide open! I tell you Frankie I laughed so hard I was curled up on the floor crying…Adam looked so funny trying to right himself like it was nuthin’ funny! Like he’d meant it all along, while Hoss stood there scratching his head wondering what all the commotion was about…oh Frankie it was so funny…”

Frankie was giggling his head off at Joe’s theatrical description of one brother falling though the open doorway and the other scratching his head in puzzlement.

“Oh Joe it really was your day that day!”

His laughing made him cough a little and Joe gave him a reassuring hug and a sip of water.

When he was sure Frankie was settled he looked into the expectant face of the little boy who desperately wanted Joe to go on with the story.

“Well kind of it was my day Frankie… I dang near choked on that apple core I was laughing so hard. Adam had to pick me up and slap me hard, although I swear he was hitting me on my britches and I know for a fact that ain’t how you’re supposed to do it, still I guess he stopped me chokin’ alright”

They were both giggling softly now and drew Paul’s attention who looked across and smiled. He was worried Joe was getting too close to little Frankie, but he felt helpless to intervene.

As Joe watched Frankie fall asleep, still hanging onto his jacket like a comfort blanket, he knew that if by some miracle he made it through this and survived, he would do everything in his power to protect this little boy. He instantly understood his father’s need to protect him. In a moment of absolute clarity Joe understood how his father felt about them all. He thought he’d known before but he’d never lived it before.

When he allowed himself to admit it, he’d always known that his father had only ever been trying to protect him, but he’d been so angry with him. He still thought he was wrong about Julia, but at least now he understood him better. He desperately wanted to tell him that but Joe had to shut out thoughts of home, he missed everyone so much. Paul was feeling optimistic for the first time in days, it may not be long now.

Joe scanned the room for Julia and he saw her busily changing bedding. As he watched her he thought she looked wonderful and he wished his father could see her now. He wished all the people that thought badly of her could see her now. She’d worked as hard as anyone, given up more than anyone in allowing her home to be used this way. Joe wanted the people of Virginia City to recognise all that she’d done when this was over. And he was beginning to believe it would be soon.

He shook himself out of his thoughts, this was no time to sit daydreaming he told himself as he set to work once again, fetching water, breaking up some ice, burning bedding and replenishing it and like Julia tending to patients. Although many of the sick miners were happy for Julia or her girls to bathe their faces or feed them they preferred their more personal needs to be attended to by Joe, Harry or Tom and that, with the burials meant they rarely had a spare moment.

After not having a break for about eight hours, Joe took the chance to shut his eyes. He lay down in the makeshift laundry, planning to be only a half hour or so, in seconds though he was deeply asleep. He was dreaming of home, Hoss was working on some horseshoes and he could hear the clanging of the hammer against the anvil. Adam had just come back from the corral and he was stretching the kinks out of his back as he walked towards Hoss. Hop Sing was scattering corn for the chickens and the chickens were squawking excitedly. His father completed the picture as he sat at the porch going over some paperwork. In his dream Joe was wondering where he was, it was strange watching everything but not being part of the picture. Suddenly he was being shaken awake.

It seemed like no time at all since he’d shut his eyes and now someone was shaking him urgently. As he came round he felt completely disorientated, he expected to see his father but instead he saw Harry and he could hear a great commotion going on, it sounded like a bar room brawl coming from the sickroom. Things were crashing everywhere and people were shouting in panic.
Joe quickly took in where he was and rushed out. Doc Martin wasn’t around, he’d gone over to his office for some medical supplies. In his absence one of the patients, a particularly large and stockily built miner had become more and more delirious and now he was striking out violently at anyone around him. He was trying desperately to get outside. There was broken china everywhere and with no Doc Martin to sedate him things had rapidly got out of control.

Tom was trying frantically to hold him back but he and the girls were no match for this raging giant of a man, he was out of his head, his eyes blazing with fever. If they couldn’t get him restrained quickly people were going to get hurt.
As Joe came rushing out of the laundry room they all looked to him even though he was no match for the miner in size. That had never deterred Joe before and just as the man made another lunge at one of the girls Joe did the only thing he could do. With a sick feeling in his heart he pulled his fist back and put all of his bodyweight into the punch. His fist connected with the poor man’s jaw and Joe felt the shudder go right through both his shoulders jarring them painfully. The man sagged and fell back dazed. While he was felled they all manhandled him over to his bed and held him down, Joe took his shoulders and leaned on him hard, even dazed as he was he was a very powerful man. They had to secure him quickly before he came to fully and Harry and Tom were furiously cutting lengths of sheeting to loop around his wrists and ankles and then around the bedposts. As he realised what was happening to him he struggled and blasphemed even more viciously. Joe used all his strength to force him back down to give Tom and the others a chance to hurriedly secure the last pieces of sheeting. The fevered man had no idea what he was doing or saying but it was Joe that held him down and all of his rage was directed at him. It was Joe’s face that was close to his and as he thrashed about trying to headbutt him, he just missed as Joe ducked away and in his frenzy and frustration he swore and spat at him instead.

“I’ll kill ya fer this…let me go…I’ll tear ya apart!”

Once he was sure he was secure Joe just walked away. It had shaken him to the core to have to punch a sick and possibly dying patient and then have to hold him while they tied him down, all the while having a stream of vitriol spat straight in his face.

He walked over to the door for some air, leaning heavily against the frame, tears pricked at his eyes. He saw the armed guard, alert in the alleyway. God it felt like a siege! The sick man was still screaming obscenities at him from across the room, when Joe felt a hand on his shoulder, it was Tom. He wanted it to be his father. Tom gave Joe a wet cloth to wipe the phlegm from his face, Joe had hardly been aware of it he was so numb.

The kindly barman spoke for them all when he told him,

“Thanks Joe, the doc will be here soon and he’ll sedate him. He’d a hurt someone, us or himself. Doesn’t even know what he’s doin’ or sayin’. If I’d had a chance to use my mallet on him I might have cracked his skull. It wasn’t an easy thing you did son, and I thank you. I bet that hand hurts like the devil too.”

Joe acknowledged his words with a nod and a quick rub of his knuckles, but nothing could take away the awful knot in his stomach. He could hardly look at the stricken miner secured to the bed with strips of sheeting and still cursing him wildly. The only good thing was that Frankie had slept through it all. But that was scant consolation, Joe had seen how tired Frankie was most of the time now.

He looked skyward for help. Oh God this was so hard.

He thought once more of his father and wondered what he was doing right now. He pictured him in his armchair, he missed him so much.

Moments later Doc Martin hurried back and before long he had the man sedated but he brought with him some bad news. A new cluster of victims had been found and they were all extremely sick. They’d allowed themselves to get optimistic and now they saw that hope disappear. The only way Joe could operate effectively just then and actually help anyone was to try and switch off to the misery around him. But he’d allowed himself the luxury of thinking about home and now his spirits crashed These new people and their existing patients didn’t need him falling apart. In this situation the role of the nurse was as important as the doctor, giving much needed comfort when there was no real hope. But the constant lack of real rest and now hope, was taking its toll.

With the continued heat and worry of passing on the disease they’d always had to bury the dead quickly and at night that still fell mostly to Joe, Harry and Tom. Joe always found it particularly hard when they didn’t even have a name for a victim, there was a particularly young miner that had died early on and Joe still couldn’t forget him. He’d been brought in unconscious and never recovered, if he’d had any identification it hadn’t been brought in with him. Joe had wished they’d at least been able to say his name as they’d buried him; they were probably the same age. This whole experience had been by far the toughest thing that he had ever gone through and he’d never felt so tired.

He had noticed that the water supply inside was getting low so once more he shook off his tiredness, grabbed a cart and went outside to replenish it. The fresh air hit him and stung his eyes, the stench inside could be overwhelming but somehow you got used to it. That was until you went outside and had to return. Joe steeled himself because he knew he had to. What he could see of Virginia City from the alley by the side of Julia’s Palace was unrecognisable to him. To the Little Joe Cartwright of a few weeks ago it was a place to have some fun, meet friends, catch the stage, chase a girl or spend a little money. All he’d seen of it lately was this alley and the armed barricade at the end of it. He stretched his sore shoulders and then set about the task in hand.
As he approached the barricade at the end of the alley, he saw a familiar figure unloading barrels at the other side of it.

Joe felt any remaining strength sap right out of him and he had to resist a powerful urge to simply walk through the barricade, he ached to just embrace his brother… to be embraced by his brother, but he couldn’t do that. Doctor Martin hadn’t given them clearance to come in close contact with other people yet and Joe had to keep his distance, he’d been feeling a bit rough the last couple of days too, probably just tiredness. He approached the water wagon slowly.

As Adam heard someone coming he looked up and was shocked not just to see his young brother no more than a few yards away but also to see how very weary Joe looked, but he tried to hide his concern with a cheery welcome.

“Hey Joe, It’s good to see you.”

Adam, not given to outward shows of emotion felt the same urge Joe had to leap the barricade and take his brother in his arms. The last time he’d seen him he was brash and angry about the town’s treatment of Julia but these few weeks had taken their toll, and however he tried, Joe couldn’t hide the strain he was feeling from his brother.

Adam asked him, “Is everything okay Joe, are you and Julia okay?”

Despite feeling bone tired Joe raised his arm in reply and smiled, “Hey Adam…it’s good to see you brother, yeah we’re fine, everything’s as fine as it can be I guess…I’m just a little tired is all.”

Adam caught the earnestness in Joe’s voice but he didn’t miss the slight rasp in it either.

“Tough huh?”

Joe nodded, glad to share a little anyhow, “Mmm yes, I didn’t know…. it’s pretty tough. Is everyone at home still okay?”

Adam kept his gaze on Joe to gauge as much as he could about how his brother really was while he answered him, “Everyone’s fine Joe, missing you…let me relieve you here Joe… please?” And he made to approach his brother.

Straight away Joe held his arm out to stop him and the guard cocked his rifle. ” No Adam, don’t want anyone else exposed, Doc still don’t know for certain yet how it’s spreadin’…it’s just a precaution…nothin’ else.”

The only thing that stopped Adam was the fear in his brother’s eyes, for him. Adam, Ben and Hoss had all tried to volunteer to help but Doc Martin had been firm about keeping his helpers to a minimum, no sense risking anyone else. Joe had got angry at the idea, but it was anger borne out of fear. Nursing friends and strangers and seeing so many die was bad enough, he couldn’t bare his family getting ill, he had been exposed early and so he’d stayed.

Joe tried to lift himself a little straighter.

Adam nodded, he’d seen his brother’s eyes as they flashed into life and he stepped back.

“Yeah I understand Joe, hopefully…. it soon…I mean it’s looking more and more like bad water…”

“Yeah I think so…we had some new cases but they probably didn’t get access to the clean water…” Joe was trying to put an optimistic front on but it was far from how he felt. “Thanks Adam, but it’s more important to have you out there keeping people calm, ” and he nodded towards the guard, ” and keep getting the fresh water through and checking the miners and homesteaders. That’s just as important if we’re gonna beat this. Doc thinks the number will drop now so we might see it turn.”

Joe was trying to shake himself from the weariness that was overtaking him. He’d seen Adam’s initial reaction to him and he realised that he must look awful.

“I’m having a break soon, get a shave maybe, I’ll look like a new man you’ll see.”

Adam held back a retort about how a shave was hardly necessary for Joe, with his colouring and youth even after a week of not shaving it hardly noticed on Joe. However dishevelled he may look he couldn’t quite lose that little boy look to his family anyway, and that went double when he was vulnerable, like now.
But looks were deceiving and Adam understood the mettle that kept his brother going, they all had it, inherited from their father. That and a deep love and respect bound them all together.

Joe suddenly remembered something; “Tell Hop Sing thanks for the cookies he sent, made a nice change from Julia’s soup, not that that isn’t nice,” he grinned

Adam laughed,

“Julia makes soup? Hey brother she’s spoiling you. There’ll be no cookies at home for a while for us either buddy, Hop Sing has gone over to Chinatown to help out for a while. They don’t have many cases and no new ones since the first few but they aren’t allowed…” Adam finished there.

They both knew the rest of the sentence and the look they exchanged reflected the anger they both felt about why.

As Adam watched Joe trying to disguise his tiredness and set himself for the work he had to do, he felt so immensely proud of him. His brother could be something of a peacock when the mood took him but there was nothing glamorous about what he was doing now. Joe couldn’t of known what he was letting himself in for that night he volunteered to help Doc Martin but Adam knew Joe wouldn’t shirk his duties now.

He may not be able to give his brother a physical hug, he wouldn’t let him right now anyhow but Adam could give him a verbal one.

“Joe I want you to know, I’m proud of you, I’m really proud of how you’re handling yourself and what you’re doing in there.”

Joe was taken by surprise but he mumbled, “Um thanks Adam but it’s not just me you know.” and he grinned.

“I know,” Adam agreed, “But you’re the one who’s my little brother and I want you to know how very proud I am of you…we all are. Look after yourself Joe, you need rest and don’t forget to eat; we can’t have Hoss complaining you’re getting too puny again. ”

Adam’s words had lifted Joe’s spirits tremendously. In the sick rooms you had to stay calm and cheerful if you could. But when Joe had ventured outside and the mask had dropped, his feelings could have taken over. He’d been missing his family a lot and it didn’t help that the last few times he’d spoken to his father they had exchanged such harsh words.

Joe was feeling so much but the words to express it all had deserted him.

“Thanks Adam…I will…tell Pa…”

Adam tried to help him…

“Tell him what Joe?”

“Tell him I’ll be along…when this is all over I’ll be along to see him, I just wish I could make him see how it is with me and Julia, but tell him thanks for sticking up for me outside the theatre, it meant a lot.”

Adam smiled, “I’ll tell him Joe.”

As the brothers made to part a thought suddenly struck Joe and he turned back….

The love Adam and Joe shared was the unspoken kind but it was as deep as any other.
Adam had remained where he was, watching his brother still gauging his welfare when Joe stopped and asked him.

“Say Adam, you remember that time when I was a little kid, you fell through the door and I nearly choked on my apple laughin’?”

Adam grinned, yes he remembered, what on earth had made the kid bring that up? Suddenly instead of the tired young man in front of him he saw the exuberant five-year-old again. He remembered young Joe, eyes bright with anticipation, a clear signal to Adam that something was definitely afoot. And then he remembered the uncontrollable giggling and the sudden fear in his heart when the giggling had stopped abruptly and he ‘d looked over to see his brother looking panic stricken for that few seconds before Adam had got to him.
He’d felt instant relief flow through him when the piece of apple had fallen loose. He’d known very well what Joe had been up to that day, he’d heard Hoss coming a long time before, he hadn’t been exactly quiet about it! But he’d guessed what Little Joe had hoped for and he’d been happy to oblige him, enjoying the sport almost as much as Joe had. No one giggled quite like Joe did so it was worth looking foolish for, he’d been enjoying the fun as much as anyone right up until Joe nearly choked on his apple. He’d seen the piece fall out as soon as he’d rushed over and turned him over so there was no harm done. While he still held him he’d playfully swatted his backside as much to relieve a very scared older brother than to amuse a giggling again youngest one. Adam suddenly laughed out loud at the memory of his brother’s shrieks of protest intermingled with helpless laughter.

Eventually he answered Joe who was watching him carefully, “Yes, I remember…like it was yesterday as a matter of fact…why do you ask Joe?”

Just then someone called Joe from inside so he smiled and just said, “Nothin’ really, it came up, I was tellin’ someone about it…”

Adam laughed, “I hope you didn’t leave out that I swatted your backside for you!”

In different circumstances Joe might have baulked at that from Adam but it was said in such good humour and Joe took it that way.

“No big brother I didn’t leave that part out, “and he grinned and added, ” I can still feel the pain…”

“Yeah sure you can,” Adam countered.

Joe turned to go in, “Gotta go. You take care okay Adam?”

Adam watched him, “You too little buddy, you too. ”

If he’d ever seriously been tempted to tell Little Joe that he’d known of his subterfuge that day Adam decided then and there that no matter how tempted he might be, he’d never tell Joe that he’d heard Hoss coming that day.
He wondered who Joe had been recounting childhood stories to, Julia maybe? He was very glad he’d caught Joe on this trip. Pa and Hoss would want to hear every little detail about how the youngest Cartwright was and they’d be relieved to hear that he was essentially okay. Exhausted but okay. Reluctantly Adam turned and made his way home, it was hard for him to leave Joe behind.

Joe returned to the sick rooms with renewed optimism. Speaking with Adam had raised his spirits tremendously, but he ached to go home even more now.
He went over and sat with Frankie for a while, he’d been asking for him and when Joe was sure he was resting peacefully again he rose stiffly from his position by his bed. Frankie was sleeping more and more lately.

It had been a hard day, but Joe couldn’t stop. Each time he got a moment he checked on Frankie, but he never woke. Joe got Paul to check him and then he stayed with him as much as he could, some time later while Joe was by his bedside the little boy died. Joe couldn’t find a pulse and he shouted for Doc Martin. Paul had known it was coming; the few children who had got sick had generally improved quicker than the adults. But Frankie had never shown any signs of recovery; he’d just got weaker. Paul called to Joe that he would be right over but as he did he nodded at Julia. They’d all known this was coming and Paul was worried it might be too much for Joe.

Joe’s youth and energy had kept them all from flagging at one time or another and Paul would do whatever he could do help him through this. One thing he could do was protect Joe from the task of laying the boy in the ground; he knew how that could break you. He would spare Joe that last stark image so that one day it would be easier to remember chatting and whispering late into the night with the little lad.

‘Damn this fever!’ Paul cried inside, for Frankie, for all the sick and their families and for all of his helpers. But he’d be strong, they would come through this.

As Paul approached the bedside he gently moved Joe aside so that he could check on the little boy. He shook his head sadly,

“Joe, I’ll take him…”

He could see Joe wasn’t ready to let him,

“But he needs me Doc.”

Joe wanted to grab the little boy and run outside with him…everything inside him screamed at the injustice but nothing came out. He felt numb as he watched Doc Martin gather the little boy and wrap him in his blanket. Paul caught Julia’s attention again across the room, she’d been watching anxiously.

“No Doc, I’ll take him, let me take him…he needs me.” Joe begged him again.

Shaking his head determinedly and not changing his course Doc Martin told him, “No Joe, he needed you and you were there for him. Pete needs you now, go help him please Joe.”

Joe was angry and he wanted to tell Paul to get out of his way, let him go and see Pete but he respected him far too much for that.

On cue Julia grabbed Joe’s arm,

“Joe…please… I need you, Pete needs the bedpan urgently he won’t let me near him, please, I need you to help me with him …Joe please….”

Joe was in a daze, he wanted to take care of Frankie but Julia’s voice was insistent. He wasn’t even sure what she was saying but she was pulling his arm.

Paul added his sternest voice to hers, “Go on Joe, I won’t argue with you over this, Julia needs you, go and help her. There’s nothing more you can do for Frankie now…you did all you could…more Joe…let us do our jobs now.”

The voices were getting through to Joe, he wanted to shout, scream, but his voice still deserted him, he felt Julia steering him away but he turned back in time to see Doctor Martin leaving through the side door, Before he could make a move to follow him, Pete was calling him.

“Thanks Joe thanks…I can’t have no woman taking care of me, you know that. ”

Joe shook his head and wiped at his eyes as Julia nodded her thanks at Pete, “S-sorry Pete, here let me help you there.” Joe was only barely aware of what he was doing, his mind was in chaos but somehow his body still functioned..

At times they would have been too sick to care or even been aware of it but as they recovered many of the miners found it easier to accept a bed bath from Joe or Tom than they would have from the ladies present. And when you felt as bad as they did it was amazing how much better that could make you feel. Just to feel clean again lifted their spirits.

Pete was one of the lucky ones, he seemed to have come through the fever, but he was still far from well and he was extremely weak. Joe stayed with him, his mind was still elsewhere and he was acting automatically but he reassured Pete and left him comfortable and straight away was called to another patient.

Hardly any sleep and not enough food for days suddenly took its toll on Joe and he felt the room spin as he tried to stand up. When Paul had come back inside he’d kept an eye on him and was quick to help him and order him over to a back room to lie down. Joe hadn’t been eating properly; he’d meant too but he was often so tired he just wanted to rest when he had a break. In these circumstances food just wasn’t too appetising and he’d nibbled at best.
The guard looking in through the window only saw Joe about to collapse and that was what he reported later on in The Bucket of Blood saloon. When word got back to Ben it had grown out of all proportion, by the time it reached him Joe was about to succumb to the fever.

All Ben knew could think about was that the last time he’d spoken to Joe they’d had cross words and now his son had collapsed. As he rode to town he prayed to God he wouldn’t be too late. Damn Doc Martin and his assurances, Joe was sick now.

In fact Joe had been okay after a short rest and a light meal, he was soon on duty again. He didn’t speak about Frankie; there was nothing he or anyone could say to make it any better.

As Ben reached the alleyway that led to the back of Julia’s Palace an armed man stopped him. He had strict orders to keep the sick people away from the well bodied and he meant business. He recognised Ben Cartwright.

“You can’t go down there mister, don’t matter who y’are.”

Ben was about to turn and try the front entrance when he saw two men come back round the far corner carrying an empty stretcher from yet another burial. Ben had seen this sight too many times when he’d made the trips into town with the water barrels. Something this time caught his eye. Ben’s view was obscured by the men and the white sheet one was holding but his heart almost stopped when he saw a familiar jacket in the hands of one of the men. His legs almost gave way, he wanted to run down the passageway but he couldn’t move. He tried to cry out but his voice had deserted him. Time stood still for him when suddenly a familiar figure emerged to join the stretcher bearers.

Harry and Tom looked at Joe sympathetically and handed him his jacket. They’d found it on the pile of laundry in the alleyway. Doc Martin had kept it for Joe but hadn’t had the heart to give it to him, He’d placed it with the laundry outside for now. At first Joe just stared at it, he had wanted Frankie to keep it with him but they’d meant no harm so he just accepted it back. None of them spoke. They’d all performed the same task on too many occasions.

As the men went inside they both placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder as they passed by.

Joe could only nod back, he looked close to exhaustion and his heart was breaking. He felt a hand supporting him but he couldn’t respond, he just watched the stretcher as it went out of sight.

Ben stood at the far end of the passage only just getting his senses back, it had all happened so fast. Now he stood, a spectator, sad for whoever the poor soul was that had succumbed to the fever but guiltily relieved that it had not been his son.
.
Joe held the jacket close and leaned his back heavily against the brick wall, slowly sliding down until he was sitting on his haunches, he buried his face in the soft corduroy, his shoulders rising and falling as he took in deep breaths to try and control his anguish.
Paul crouched down in front of him and placed his hands on the distraught young man’s shoulders, there were no adequate words to say but he had to come up with some.

“Joe…Joe…there was nothing more we could do.”

Doc Martin knew this was the breakdown he’d been expecting, for Frankie, for the old man, for the young miner, all that Joe had stoically held onto, he watched helplessly as Joe opened his heart and just wept.

He wasn’t yet eighteen was it any wonder?

After a while, with a great effort Joe pulled himself together and through bloodshot eyes looked at the man still patiently crouched beside him, he was grateful for the hand still resting supportively on his shoulder, it had anchored him when he’d felt adrift.

Joe had always looked up to Doc Martin but he looked at his father’s friend with renewed respect. The anguish he was feeling now over this little boy was beyond compare and he couldn’t do a thing about it. He couldn’t go out and beat up the bad guy when there wasn’t one.

“How can you do it Doc? I don’t think I could ever be as strong as you are.”

Paul looked him straight in the eyes as he told him,

“You are Joe …you’re here aren’t you? And you’ll go back in there.”

He hated to send Joe back inside so soon, he’d have loved to have ordered the young man to take the proper rest he was due, but he knew it was the best thing for him now, dwelling on what had happened wouldn’t help anyone, least of all Joe.

At first Joe looked away but they both knew the answer to the doc’s question.

As Paul watched Joe collect his thoughts, he realised he’d been a large part of this young man’s life since he’d delivered him over seventeen years ago. He’d treated him many times over the years for childhood illnesses, accidents, bruised ribs and split lips from schoolyard scraps. Now he’d seen a new maturity in him over the last horrendous weeks that he previously hadn’t noticed. When Paul had gone to see Ben, to talk to him about the town’s reaction to Joe and Julia, he’d believed he was doing the right thing, for everyone. Just like everyone else he’d thought the relationship almost absurd, a whim on their parts. He’d seen only an infatuation on Joe’s part that he’d ultimately regret, the young man being no match for the worldly-wise Julia. He’d also truly thought that it would be bad for the town and it’s developing reputation. Now he shook his head angrily at his own foolishness in prejudging them.

Paul Martin was being hard on himself, after all he’d only been protecting friends and the town he cared so much about. If he’d bowled into Julia’s Palace as Joe had done and somehow found himself sprawled at her feet in the same way, he might have seen the other side of Julia, the side that Joe had fallen for the moment he met her.

Over the last weeks Paul had watched Joe and Julia together and he’d witnessed the real affection between them.
He’d seen the touches between them as they happened to pass, he’d seen as Joe had taken Julia a glass of water and waited anxiously as she drank it before insisting she rest. She hadn’t taken any notice of him when he’d insisted but she did for Joe. And he’d seen Julia go in to see that Joe was resting when he took a break, seen her gently stroke his cheek and pull a blanket over him before going back in to work. There was no doubt he regretted his talk to his old friend that day and Doc Martin made a promise to himself that when this was all over he’d talk to Ben for Joe, he no longer cared what the town thought about them

Knowing his friend Ben Cartwright as he did though he doubted it would be necessary, the concerned father would be so glad to have his youngest son safely back within the fold, he wouldn’t give his relationship with Julia a second thought.

Paul kept a guiding hand on Joe’s shoulder as he wiped his face and slowly straightened up before turning back towards the side entrance to Julia’s Palace. Paul kept talking as they went,

“Joe I believe we have the source of the outbreak now, there could have been more deaths and you have to hold onto that.”

Joe nodded as he headed over to the nearest patient. Doc Martin watched him and wished he could have said more but the truth was he was breaking inside too. He saw Julia go across to Joe and say something and he’d nodded a response. She kissed him softly on the cheek and went back about her duties.

Outside and unnoticed Ben had silently watched it all, he’d been relieved beyond measure but also shocked by his son’s distress. He’d wanted to go over and console him but had been prepared to sacrifice the role he desperately wanted to fill because he could see it was Paul that Joe needed now. Whatever had happened he hadn’t been a part of and it was Paul that could help Joe through it, but it had been an act of immense sacrifice for Ben.

Ben made a solitary figure as he walked away once Joe and Paul had disappeared back inside. At that moment if Joe had wanted to marry Julia right then and there in Julia’s Place with a whole troop of dancing girls as bridesmaids Ben wouldn’t have denied him. Doc Martin had been right about that. Ben Cartwright wanted his son home, whatever it took.

 

***

 

 

 

Two more days had seen the steady stream of patients finally slow to a trickle, but there were still the odd new ones coming in and for that reason Paul wouldn’t lift the quarantine. The Palace was still brimful of sick people. The town had been very scared and he wasn’t taking any chances.

One young man had come in and was not responding to any treatment, instead his fever seemed to be getting worse. Joe happened to notice as he passed his bed that he was scratching hard at his leg. Keeping a continuous stream of reassuring chatter he pulled the bedclothes back and tried to check the leg but the man pulled away. Joe persevered and in the end he had to cut his pants leg and was shocked to discover a large jagged wooden splinter sticking out of an ugly wound in the man’s calf. The poor chap had dressed it himself by the looks of it but had not removed it or maybe only partially removed it. It was obviously badly infected. Joe presumed the man had got the fever and been so weak he’d injured himself and just not been able to tend it properly. Joe reassured him before calling Doctor Martin over. The doc was dismayed at the wound but relieved he could treat it. With Joe’s help he soon had the splinter removed and the infected tissue cut away. Once he was sure it was thoroughly cleaned he redressed it. By now his patient was sedated and sleeping. By the next morning his fever was down a little and Dr Martin was much more confident that he’d recover. He was also sure this patient would have died if the wound had been left much longer. He looked at Joe and remembered the inconsolable young man of a few days ago. He walked across and let him know that Jake would be all right. He put a hand on Joe’s arm and told him,

“You saved his life Joe.”

Joe looked into the doctor’s eyes and smiled, “No Doc you saved him.”

Doctor Martin laughed,

“Alright young man, ‘we’ saved a life, but do you remember when you asked me how I do it? Well that’s how and in a few years time and you see Jake with a new young wife and maybe a family on the way you’ll know, really know how I can do it. All of you helping here are every bit as important as I am, you are my eyes and ears when I can’t be everywhere and that young man would have died had you not intervened.”

Paul Martin watched as the realisation hit young Joe and he hoped it went a small way to healing some of the hurt of the past few days.

Paul allowed Joe the chance to let what he’d told him sink in before taking his leave, but Joe called him back.

“Doc…?”

Paul smiled, “You can call me Paul you know.”

“Thanks …I know…it’s just…well I… anyhow I promise in the future…if I ever need any doctorin’…which o’ course I hope I don’t…well I promise I’ll be a model patient.”

Paul laughed, “Please don’t Joe…then I’d really think something serious was wrong
with you.”

 

***

 

Finally the epidemic turned a corner, there’d been no new cases for two clear days and at last they were winning more battles than they were losing, Paul felt it was safe to lift the quarantine. He was satisfied that the cause of the illness had been bad water and they had now identified its source. Sadly though the lifting of the restrictions hadn’t brought as many new volunteers as Paul had hoped, people were still pretty frightened. The remaining Cartwright’s were some of the first to offer help but with so many sick and recovering people the town would need all the able bodied people it could to help it get back on it’s feet.

For the first time, after everything they’d been through, Doctor Martin showed his disillusionment with the town. It was hard for Joe to see him so downcast and he wanted to help him. He decided the best thing he could do for him was to round up more volunteers and the most likely way to do that was to pay a little visit to the miner’s still working at Gold Hill and around about.

It was the first time Joe had ridden in what felt like forever to him. It was also the first time that he’d put on his jacket since Frankie had died. He’d thought he wouldn’t want to but actually it made him feel closer to him. As soon as he was on the outskirts of town he said a little prayer and then whispered to himself,

‘This one’s for you Frankie.’

Cochise rode like the wind, he’d missed this as much as Joe had, they didn’t slow down until they were nearly at Gold Hill. It felt so good, Frankie had loved to hear Joe describe how it felt to gallop Cochise and for the first time since he’d died Joe let himself think about the little boy and his enthusiasm and laughter each time they’d shared their imaginary adventures.

“Thanks Cooch, I needed that, I reckon you did too boy, huh?” Joe chatted to Cooch like an old friend while he found a shady spot to tether him. Then he made his way over towards the first group of men he saw.

Even before he’d thought of exactly what he was going to say to them a large man was hurrying across to greet him. He obviously knew Joe but Joe didn’t have a clue who this absolute giant of a man looming down on him was. He looked friendly enough though and as soon as he was in reach the man clasped Joe’s hand and shook it till Joe thought his toenails would drop off.

“Well if it isn’t Little Joe Cartwright!! God love you son. I heard what you did for my pal Sean, I hear tell if it hadn’t a’ been for you knockin’ him out, why he’d a’ run amok and hurt himself or worse one of them lovely nurses. He’d a hated himself for doin’ that right enough. Why he’s normally as meek as a lamb so he is. That is unless he’s had a few jars right enough. I hear he’s on the mend too and all thanks to you m’lad.”

Recognition at last, Sean was the miner that Joe had felled. Both Sean and his pal Rory were two of the largest men Joe had ever come across. They were built like brick outhouses with muscles to match, hard earned from many years of working the railroads before they’d chanced their luck at mining.

Once he realised what he was being thanked for and he could actually talk again Joe managed to explain to his new best friend Rory that Sean was doing really well and had just been moved over to the Town Meeting House. That had been another of the happier stories from the epidemic. Most of the patients who had become delirious hadn’t survived but Sean must have the constitution of an ox because he’d surprised everyone, even Paul, by pulling through. He had no recollection of his wild rampage although he’d wondered about his sore chin and loose tooth as he recovered.

Once he heard this latest news Rory suddenly and very alarmingly for Joe, drew him into a bear hug that put Hoss’ hugs in the shade. When he finally set him down again he took Joe’s hand again and shook it again vigorously, exclaiming,

“Who’d a thought a puny thing like you could a’ done that to ol’ Sean though, when he was out of his head and twice as dangerous too!”

Now naturally, Joe thought he was anything but puny but he decided to forego that point, if the guy did this to him when he liked him he didn’t like to think what the heck he might do if he ever got to feeling argumentative.

Since Joe hadn’t recovered all his faculties yet Rory talked for him, he’d only been funnin’ the lad when he’d called him puny, the kid had his respect and that was a fact.

“Wait till I tell ol’ Sean, he’ll wanna shake your hand and no mistake. Seriously m’boy, the way he was so I hear, he might easily have been shot by one of them trigger happy guards right enough.”

Joe could only gulp at the thought of Sean shaking him by the hand too. He was very attached to his left hand and it hadn’t recovered from Rory’s pummelling yet, but he did manage a weak grin as he rubbed feeling back into his arms and meekly suggested,

“We don’t have to tell him though do we?…”

Rory roared with laughter but he was impressed, “And he’s modest with it. What a fine upstanding young fellow you are to be sure, come and join me for a drink will ya boy?”

Watching this with much amusement and laughing out loud at their last exchange was Pete, the miner Joe had played at cards and another of the happier stories from the sickness. He was still a little weak but he was much better now and he’d been one of the first to leave the hospital, which was even now being converted back to Julia’s Palace. It was Pete who had pointed out who Joe was to Rory and then had sat back and enjoyed the fun. Once Pete could actually stop laughing he called Joe over to join him and Rory followed and they enjoyed a drink together.

It had been clear to Joe, as he’d made his way over to Gold Hill that people were leaving in droves. He was happy to see Pete again, after all they had a game of cards to play, but he also wanted to find out why, when they badly needed healthy people they were all leaving town.

He tried to make sense of it, “But why now, when we’ve beaten the fever? I don’t understand, Doc Martin needs more help and I find everyone leaving! He’s worked so hard…and now this…”

Both Pete and Rory looked shame faced, they’d thought about moving on too. And yet as miners they endured hardships every day of their lives. The best Rory could come up with was,

“I guess fear gets into some folks m’lad, but it isn’t right for them to leave now sure enough, you’re right about that young Joe, especially now folks aren’t getting sick no more. He deserves more and that’s a fact.”

Within a short time the three of them were galvanising support and they set about trying to persuade at least some of the men to turn around.

Ben had taken the first chance he got to come to town, his motives were twofold, he wanted to help but he badly wanted to see his son. He was in high spirits, they were finally beating the fever and Joe would be coming home.

He’d been very disappointed not to find Joe at Julia’s but now all he could do was stare around him at the devastation he found inside. There were still patients everywhere, even some upstairs and it gave him some idea of what it must have been like during the height of the epidemic. He immediately set about helping where he could. Hoss was helping over at the meeting house where all the rest of the patients were being moved. Adam was taking care of things at home and would be joining them as soon as he could.

Even with the quarantine lifted Joe, Julia, Tom, Harry and the girls elected to stay and help. Julia had little choice, it was her home after all but they all felt they wanted to stay and help Paul finish what they’d started and to help restore Julia’s Palace to it’s former glory. They’d all got to know patients and seeing more of them on the road to recovery now made up for some of the misery of the past weeks.

As Ben watched Julia across the room giving a patient some medicine he warmed to her. It was never that he didn’t like her; she just wasn’t right for his son.
He frowned as he turned and saw Paul drawing a blanket up over of an old man. He went across to his friend.

There was a trace of uncharacteristic bitterness in Pauls’s voice as he told Ben, “Well, we’re saving two for every one we’re losing, in an epidemic like this that’s a victory.”

Sadly Ben told him what Joe had discovered up at Gold Hill, “Those that are healthy are leaving this town in droves.”

Paul was still very despondent, “Just a dirty little town on a mountain, I guess that’s all we were meant to be…but if to change it means crucifying people like her,” and he looked over at Julia, “Then I say it’s not worth it.”

Ben placed a consoling arm on his friend’s shoulder, sad to see him like this.

With perfect timimg Joe came back in with Pete and some extra volunteers. Rory had gone straight over to the meetinghouse to help out there and to check on his friend Sean.

“Hey doc I got you three more volunteers…”

It was a happy surprise for Paul and just the lift he needed, ” Pete! I thought you and your crew were pulling out!”

Pete shook his head, “It’s like Little Joe says, it’s our mountain, we dug right into her insides with little more than our bare hands, well it ain’t decent to let a stinking thing like the fever chase us off.”

It was the first time Ben had seen Joe since he’d seen him in the alleyway. His spirits soared to see him looking so well. He was concerned that he looked so tired, he’d lost weight and to a father’s eye he looked a little older but a different boy to the one he’d seen hunched in the alley. Ben felt extremely proud of his son but he didn’t get a chance to tell him as a rejuvenated Doc Martin asked him to set about organising the men Joe had brought back. They’d share a private moment later.

At the same time Paul pulled Joe to one side and walked him over to where Julia was tending to a patient.

“Joe I’ve got something for you to do too…take a break.”

Joe didn’t agree, “No doc, there’s still a lot of work to be done.” He had been so pleased to see his father and relished the chance of working alongside him.

Taking the bowl from Julia and taking no notice of Joe’s objections Paul told them,

“That goes for you too Julia, I need help not new patients. You’ll do as you’re told.”

He got no argument after that, they were both dog-tired and it showed but even as they made their way outside they passed another victim being carried downstairs on a stretcher.

It was the first time in a long while that Joe and Julia had been alone together. They made themselves comfortable on the bags of clean bedding in the alley. Not quite as glamorous as Julia’s bedroom but it was all they needed. Within moments they were asleep beside each other.

It was Julia who stirred first and for a while she lay next to Joe just watching him sleep. How handsome he looked. Julia felt the same bittersweet pull at her heart that thinking about Joe always gave her. She’d watched him a lot in the past weeks, seen him interact with other people. Doc Martin, Little Frankie, the patients and of course Rosalynn. She’d gone home with her father now and in his dealings with her Joe had only ever been kind, he’d never encouraged her and Julia had no cause, yet whenever the young and very pretty Rosalynn had been near him, Julia had felt her claws sharpen. She knew it was a feeling that would only worsen over time. Her hands had taken a beating over the last weeks and looking at them now she yearned for her youth again. .

Joe moved in his sleep but didn’t quite stir, she watched his changing expressions and wondered who he was dreaming about, he looked so impossibly young to her.

If only…but she dismissed the possibilities…they’d never make it, not in Virginia City or on the Ponderosa. They could move away but he’d hate it, she’d seen that his heart was here, even if he didn’t fully realise it himself yet.

But it had been seeing him with little Frankie that had caused her to rethink a serious relationship with Joe. He’d make a wonderful father one day and children weren’t something she wanted in her life. She’d given up a child once, could she really deny Joe that future and then watch the regret slowly grow in his eyes?

She carefully sat up without disturbing him, but then she couldn’t resist gently teasing his soft curls with her fingertips. It would be so hard to tell him, especially when she hadn’t completely convinced herself.

As she stroked his hair he opened his eyes. There it was. That smile that always melted her resolve.

“You’ve been asleep a long time….”

He stretched like some contented cat in his favourite sunny spot, a far cry from the dark alley they were in,

“I dreamt I was in New Orleans…it was a beautiful place.”

Joe had his dream of New Orleans, Julia knew the reality, “Virginia City is a long way from New Orleans.”

He wasn’t about to have his dream spoiled though, “I’m going to go there someday…maybe to live.”

She knew what he was telling her and she had to slow him down. “This is where you’ll stay…”

Joe pulled himself up on the bags to state his case, “No, a man goes where he wants to be.”

She’d have been disappointed if he’d said anything else but she wouldn’t let him believe they had a future in New Orleans or anywhere else. She felt the tears prick in her eyes because he didn’t deserve this, she knew he wouldn’t understand as she told him,

“I’ve watched the way you handle people here. A man stays where he’s needed. ”

Joe could see the emotion in her eyes, he understood what she was trying to tell him and she’d been right, he wasn’t ready to accept it,

“And you?” he asked hardly daring to hear her answer.

“When a town starts to grow I look for a new frontier.”

This wasn’t what Joe wanted to hear, it made no sense when they could finally be together again, “Julia it doesn’t have to be this way I could…”

She placed her fingers over his lips before he could say more, she struggled to find the right words but could only run her hand softly down his cheek when she saw hurt so raw in his eyes.

“Your mother was French, do you understand the language?”

“Some of it.”

“Cela aurait due arriver quelques anness.”

Joe understood her well enough.

“This should have happened many years ago?”

She nodded.

How could he convince her that she was wrong about them? For Joe this was at odds to how he knew they felt about each other.

She could see it all in his eyes, he’d been so strong, coped with so much and she couldn’t bear to inflict this pain on him but neither could she promise him something they didn’t have … a future together. She couldn’t stay next to him any longer and risk him changing her mind.
She was right and someday he would realise it to, like his father already had. She tried to sweeten the pill,

“Someday you will know what I mean, and you’ll understand why you must stay and I must go.”

They almost kissed but she couldn’t let that happen, she’d weaken. She made herself pull away and stood up rushing for the door before he saw her tears,

“We’ll be needed inside.”

She was gone and Joe sat alone. He’d been too stunned to stop her. He’d been sure they could make a go of it and now after the epidemic was over what was stopping them? Why should it have happened long ago? It was happening to them now! He would prove to her that he meant what he’d said to her. So she was older, he’d show her that it made no difference to him. Joe made up his mind to still court her but he wouldn’t push her. Hopefully then in time she would realise like he did, that age or her past didn’t have to matter to them. It meant he would have to move into town and he was regretted that because it meant he would have to avoid his father, he’d never approve. As soon as Doc Martin could manage without him he’d go home and fetch his things.

The next day, early in the morning he took some time off and did just that, even he’d been aching to go home that had to wait now.

He took a room at The Commercial House and Julia came over to see him. She’d been genuinely happy he was staying in town, especially after they’d talked and he seemed to have accepted the way she saw their relationship. She hadn’t wanted to give him up, it was just a long term commitment she wouldn’t visualise.

His small room felt like a little sanctuary for them far away from the chaos at her place.
They hadn’t planned it but they’d been starved of each other physically for so long, they made love with hungry passion afterwards more gently, like two people who might never be together this way again. The town’s approval hadn’t mattered to them before and after all they’d witnessed it mattered less now. They needed each other and they revelled in the closeness they’d missed so much. But for different reasons they each feared this might be the last time.

After, they held each other and just relaxed there for a while simply shutting the world out. They settled easily back into just enjoying each other’s company. Julia even sewed Joe’s jacket where she noticed the seam had ripped a little during Rory’s over enthusiastic welcome. She knew what the jacket meant to him now. She’d grinned at Joe’s face when she sat there with her needle and thread and she was quietly pleased that she could take him by surprise too.
It was Joe that suggested that they’d better go back. ‘Darn that sense of duty,’Julia thought as she bit through the thread after her last stitch, just when she was having other ideas. But he was right, they’d been longer than they planned. A lot longer.

Much later in the day, Ben was helping downstairs at Julia’s. He was wondering where Joe was when Adam came in with the good news that they’d checked all the mines and there were no new patients to report, all the ones that were still left could now be moved over with the rest of the patients to the meetinghouse. Julia’s Palace could be restored.

Ben was relieved, “Well, it was a fight Adam, but it was the kind of fight that it’s good to win.”

But Adam had some bad news too,

“Well, we lost one too pa, when Little Joe came back to the ranch this morning he took his things.”

They both looked across the room at Julia. Joe hadn’t mentioned he was doing that, in fact he and Ben had hardly had a meaningful conversation and perhaps this was why. Joe would have rightly expected his father to try and forbid it.

But Paul had spoken up for him and Ben had promised himself for Joe’s sake that he would no longer dismiss this as nothing serious. If ostracizing Julia meant risking losing his son then it was a price he couldn’t pay. Ben walked over to where Julia was busy folding towels, determined to clear the air with her and smooth the path for reconciliation with his son.

This was a difficult conversation and it went against the grain for him.

“Julia, now that all this is over, this thing with Little Joe…”

‘This thing with Little Joe?’ Julia smirked inwardly, he can’t say it can he? She waited to hear what else Ben was going to say before she answered him.

“….I should never have interfered.”

That got Julia’s full attention and it took her completely by surprise. She was shaking as she answered him and she didn’t know why.

“Oh? I’m disappointed in you Ben.” She wandered to the far end of the bar to collect her thoughts but Ben followed her,

“Disappointed?”

Julia made it clearer, “A man of strength should never let sentiment interfere with his convictions. I’m the same woman I was before the fever.”

Ben wouldn’t stand in Joe’s way with Julia but he owed it to his son to make sure she wasn’t playing with his affections,

“Well I haven’t changed either Julia and nothing has changed between us, but I… I won’t gamble with something I can’t replace. If it’s Little Joe’s wish, you’re welcome to become part of the Ponderosa.” He said it with conviction because whatever he thought of Julia he would not lose his son over her.

Julia slowly turned towards him, she hadn’t expected this but anyhow it was an empty offer for her, it wasn’t one she could take up. She cared too much about Joe to consider his father’s invitation. Ben had been refreshingly honest about his motives though.

“That’s quite an offer Ben, especially as you don’t think I’m good enough for him.”

Ben couldn’t deny that, it was as if she was reading his thoughts. His parting words to her were well thought out and they cut her to the quick.

“Whether or not you’re good enough for Little Joe is something only you can decide.”

When Joe had told her he’d moved into town Julia had known that she should have discouraged him, but with the epidemic almost over she had wanted to spend some time with him. It was never that she didn’t love being with him, just that they would never be man and wife. Even though she hadn’t promised him a future with her, deep down she knew he still hoped they had one.

Although Ben had angered Julia, he had also pricked her conscience, just as he’d intended.
But to end it completely with Joe and make him believe it, she could see now that she would have to hurt him very badly to kill his love for her. She would have to be cruel and for that she needed a drink… a lot of drinks. Joe would see another side to Julia Bulette tonight.

“Tom!!…Tom!! I want some champagne…Harry let me have a tune…a lively one!…”

She was agitated, giving orders to have the place cleaned and spruced up as soon as the last patient was gone and she ordered the gambling tables put back straight away, telling everyone,

“I’m going to put on a night Virginia City will never forget!”

Tom didn’t like to see her like this, something was obviously wrong and she was upset but he played along for now as he poured her first drink.

“Well, after the fever that should be a great celebration. ” he suggested more in hope than anything else.

Julia put him straight as she raised her glass,

“Celebration? Who said anything about a celebration? It’s going to be an execution…Julia Bulette destroying the sweet innocence of youth.”

An why not? It had happened to her many years before.

She made herself swallow the rest of her champagne, it was normally her favourite drink but it tasted bitter to her now. She could never look anything but beautiful to Tom but he hated the ugliness he saw in her now. He’d seen her like this before… on a path to self- destruction, even if he talked to her she wouldn’t hear him.

Joe had been helping out at the town meeting house most of the afternoon but he went back to his room looking forward to seeing Julia on a social level tonight. They’d earned a night off. Over the last weeks he and Julia had both experienced things they would find difficult to forget. Seeing Julia as he had, had only deepened Joe’s love for her. So she worried about their age difference, he was on a mission to prove to her that it didn’t matter. He’d take time and he’d show Julia just how serious he was, maybe prove it to his father too who he’d been avoiding all day.
.
Tonight Joe pictured a romantic evening in her room, just like that first time.

Meanwhile the almost forgotten John Millain was making his entrance back into Virginia City and it was in marked contrast to Joe’s a few weeks earlier. Whereas Joe had ridden the stage back from Sacramento and been noisily welcomed, Millain rode in unnoticed. He’d been sent away he now realised on a fool’s errand by Julia and he believed he knew the reason why. The only similarity with Joe’s return all those weeks ago was that very soon Millain would be drawing his gun on someone but this time his target would be Joe Cartwright.

 

***

 

When he entered the newly restored Julia’s Palace, Little Joe Cartwright was dressed to impress. He had on the dark gray shirt that Julia had told him he looked so handsome in on their first date, he hoped she would think so again tonight. He turned heads as he walked through the doors but he was completely bewildered when the only person he really wanted to impress appeared to blank him. Maybe she felt she had to put on a show for her customers who had missed the Palace for so long.

As the evening progressed though she acted like she preferred the company of anyone else but him in there tonight. Julia was wearing far too much makeup, the rouge was plastered onto her cheeks and her lipstick was garish. She was the centre of attention and appeared to be revelling in it. She was flirting outrageously with everyone around but one person she couldn’t look at was Joe, not if she was going to pull this off.

From the bar Joe watched her for as long as he could stand it. Tom watched too from behind him but felt helpless to intervene. It was too much for Joe when Julia leaned close and whispered in the ear of one of her punters, he went straight over and pulled the man away, deliberately smashing Julia’s glass out of her hand onto the floor.

“Julia! What’s the matter with you?”

She played her part to the hilt, “What do you mean what’s the matter with me? I’m having fun!”

“What do you mean you’re having fun you’re acting like…” but Joe couldn’t say it.

This was what she wanted, for him to see, to admit out loud who she really was and destroy the idealised Julia that he believed in. She pushed him to finish the sentence.

“Go ahead Little Joe say it…like a…?”

The question hung in the air, the only movement at all came from the odd curl of cigar smoke. Every eye in the room was focussed on them as Julia and Joe faced each other. Only a hair’s breadth separated them as they locked into an intense exchange that excluded everything and everyone, both of them were dreading what might come next.

It never happened, instead a discordant chord hammered hard on the piano keys drew everyone’s attention. It was Millain.

The room parted leaving Joe and Julia alone in the centre looking towards the Frenchman.

Millain immediately made his intentions clear by revealing the gun strapped to his hip.

” Mr Cartwright I think I’ve told you to stay away from Julia Bulette. It’s been a short life for you my friend, let us hope it has been a pleasant one”

Even though Joe and Julia had been arguing they were holding onto each other. Now Joe pulled away from her, mirroring Millain’s stance, his gun at the ready.

Julia panicked, afraid for Joe, she knew better than anyone that Millain had never lost a gunfight. She put herself between them and moved closer to Millain, her act forgotten now that Joe was in danger.

She pleaded with Millian to listen to her but he was too angry, he’d been made to look a fool and all so that she could be with Cartwright. Now he would make him pay. He brutally pushed her away and drew his gun in the same motion. Joe was ready and he was faster. He caught Millain in the arm and the Frenchman dropped his gun. Millain would never have been so generous with his shot.

Julia couldn’t hide her relief but when Joe rushed over to see if she was alright she masked it quickly, if anything this only confirmed that she was no good for Joe, she had to finish this.

She brushed his concern for her aside and instead went over to Millain, making a great show of tending his injury. Once more she’d rejected him and Joe along with everyone else watched the scene dumbfounded.

Millain made his way towards the staircase but nobody else moved until Joe went across to Julia.

She felt Joe take her arm and she steeled herself for what she must do.

He spoke her name almost softly, “Julia?”

She wanted to hold him…he could have just been killed! Instead she told him harshly,

“Leave me alone…” She didn’t want to see his face and the hurt she was inflicting and so she turned away, but he took hold of her and made her look at him.

“Julia, I did this for you..”

She could barely look him in the eye but she realised she had to to make this work. It was by far the hardest part. She rushed her words desperate to have this over, the way he was looking at her tore at her resolve but her next words to him would be like a knife in his young heart.

“You want to do something for me? This bracelet, the necklace, they arrived today, a present from an old friend. They’re diamonds Little Joe, that’s all any man can do for me.”

He knew it wasn’t true, why was she lying to him?

“No..,you don’t mean that.”

He was right but she wouldn’t let him see it, she had to make him go now.

“Why shouldn’t I? That door you came through, it works both ways, I think you’d better use it.”

Without another word Joe turned around, he couldn’t do this with everyone watching, he needed to be alone with her, then he’d know the truth. He walked out without looking back..

Julia’s mask collapsed as soon as he’d gone. She was dismayed to see that Millain had hung around at the bottom of the stairs and had heard it all, no doubt enjoying the show. How she hated him, everything he stood for was repulsive to her now. The ugliness in Millain was in stark contrast to her feelings for Joe. To see that look of love in his eyes turn first to bewilderment and then to pain and being the cause of it was hard to bare. She’d taken his love and crushed it like it hadn’t mattered to her. Only she knew what it had really cost her.

Millain stood up as she approached the stairs,

“Yes Julie…you destroy with the heart.”

She knew it already and couldn’t argue with the loathsome Frenchman, but at least she could finally be rid of him,

“I used to wonder why I would send you away and then be so happy when you came back.”

Millain thought he knew, “Perhaps it is because we are cut from the same piece of cloth.”

“Perhaps it’s because in order to hate you I had to hate myself. Like you say we are very much alike. ”

“One cannot change this Julie.”

“One can try…I don’t want to see you anymore John.”

Millain merely laughed at her, “You have said this before.”

She stared at him with cold eyes, “I never meant it before.”

Millain believed her now, she went upstairs, all pretence of tending to his injury forgotten, his last words to her were a threat.

“I have little that belongs to me Julia but what I have, no-one will take away from me…do you hear? No-one!”

 

***

 

When Joe had walked out he’d headed straight for the saloon. Julia’s display had shocked him deeply, just as she had planned.

He needed a drink and to be alone. Why had she acted like that?

As he walked through the swingdoors of the saloon he headed straight to the bar and ordered a bottle of whisky. Having collected his preferred company for the next few hours he made his way to a table.

Unfortunately for both of them a smart mouth in the bar chose that moment to heckle who he regarded as ‘the Cartwright kid’ about his relationship with Miss Bulette. Joe was angry with her but he wouldn’t take any bad mouthing about her from some drunk, especially after what she had just done for the town. He spun back round to face the man. The drunk backed off a little bit when he saw how angry Joe was and he chewed nervously on his tobacco. A trickle of slime escaped down his chin. The site offended Joe, it reminded him of a decent man, Bill.
The drunken man didn’t want to lose face so he jeered some more.

“She throw you out kid? Not man enough for her?”

Joe couldn’t believe his bad luck, he didn’t need this man in his face. He looked repulsive and his words matched his face perfectly. The brown slime that started at the corner of his mouth slid further down his chin and it took on grotesque proportions in Joe’s mind as he tried to shut out the idiot’s mindless ranting. Even so the words were hitting their target.

All Joe had craved was anonymity, a corner table and a bottle of whisky so he could lick his wounds in private, but the guy wouldn’t let him alone. As the drunken idiot leaned further into him the smell of stale booze on his breath was repellent. Joe was sorely tempted to just punch the fool but he didn’t want the trouble a fight might bring; he just wanted that corner table and to be left alone.

He judged that the man was all mouth but he just didn’t have the patience to deal with him. He fleetingly considered ignoring him but this guy was persistent. Then he went too far. As Joe half turned away from him the drunk poked him hard on his shoulder. Once more Joe turned back and his gaze hardened, this time he needed every ounce of his self-control not to flatten him. He could smell the offensive booze and tobacco, he could feel the man’s spittle on his face. The man’s mouth was still moving but Joe wasn’t listening to him any more. But he could still feel that jabbing finger.

He took hold of it roughly and shoved it off him. Right then the man would have gone, run anywhere if he could, but Joe kept a hold of his hand. As he let go of him Joe took one step back and told the man curtly.

“Take out the tobacco.”

The man looked around for some support; it wasn’t forthcoming in fact all he saw were hostile faces, so he turned back to Cartwright.

“What d’ya say sonny?”

“Take out that tobacco. ” Joe repeated icily calm.

Something about the way Joe said it made the man squirm. Joe looked deadly serious and the man knew he’d better do as he said. Every eye was on them.

The man spat the large glob of tobacco into his hand, revolted himself now by the sticky brown mess in his palm.

“Throw it up there… throw it.” Joe pointed towards the ceiling but his eyes never left the drunk.

The man again looked around for help, nervously laughing to garner support, but he didn’t get any. This was turning out to be some show.

He went for broke and threw the nasty sticky tobacco as hard as he could up towards the ceiling.
Quicker than he could blink he saw the kid draw his gun and shoot at the spinning mass of sticky goo sending it into oblivion leaving just a brown stain on the ceiling marking the place where Joe’s bullet hit. The drunk turned to see Joe calmly replace his gun in his holster. He’d hardly even glanced upward, though several of the patrons in the saloon checked their drinks for floating debris, flicking it off if they found any, Nobody complained, it had been worth a spoiled beer.

“Anything else you’d like to say to me about Miss Bullette?” Joe asked him, breaking the silence.

The drunk hardly dared answer, all he could do was stutter, “N…no sir.”

Joe just turned around and carried his bottle to the corner table. No one would bother him now.

The man grovelled an apology and exited the saloon as fast as he could. At first all eyes were still on Joe but then the chatter started again and they left him alone.

Joe hated what he had just had to do but he was so weary, confused and plain tired whatever worked best suited him.

‘Pa ‘d sure be proud of you,’ he thought as he sat nursing his bottle, pouring his first glass. Remembering Bill had set the events and faces of the past weeks flitting through his mind, all the burials, Billy, little Frankie.

He poured a second then a third.

Looking around the now slightly blurred room he hoped he wouldn’t always just see spaces where the people who had died ought to be.

He forced himself to think about something else. Something that he could handle.

Julia.

What was she doing? After all they’d been through, they should have been closer, but she’d turned on him!

He knew she was driving him away on purpose. Even as she’d said the cruel words he could see the strain on her face and hear it in her voice. He knew she was lying, what he didn’t know was why. If their age difference didn’t worry Joe why should it worry Julia? He wasn’t pushing her for a long-term commitment and she’d seemed happy that he’d moved into town. Was she still trying to protect him from Millain? Even the line about the jewels was fake; Joe knew she’d sold many of her jewels to help fund medication and supplies during the epidemic. If she didn’t love him that was one thing, but Joe didn’t believe that for a minute, her mouth might have said the words but her eyes couldn’t lie. He knew he wasn’t that wrong about her.

He poured more whisky…his thoughts were slurring together.

He remembered how she’d flung herself in front of Millain to protect him, had he imagined that? No, he’d seen the look of relief that had flooded her face when he’d beaten him in the gunfight, but then she’d gone over to him!

As his despondency overwhelmed him he downed more whisky. He didn’t even much care for the stuff, the first one had made him gag, but he liked the warmth at the back of his throat. Now he couldn’t even taste it, strangely though he wasn’t getting as drunk as he wanted to be. He knew he should go home, but not like this. He looked at his own distorted reflection in the bottle and didn’t like what he saw. ‘You thought you looked pretty good before huh? All dressed up…look at you now…just another drunken fool.’
He wouldn’t go back to Julia’s, not yet anyhow and he didn’t fancy an empty room back at the hotel. As he glowered at the dwindling contents of the bottle Joe blamed the town. Julia loved him, when it was just the two of them everything was fine. The Julia he’d just seen, the one now pushing him away, underneath it she loved him and all he could blame were the hypocrites of Virginia City who accepted her help and her money but shunned her company.

Those same good citizens were even now congregating in a room at the Community Hall and Ben was on his way to join them. As he crossed the street he was surprised when a miner he hardly knew tried to block his path.

“Don’t be too hard on the lad Mr Cartwright, your boy well…he really raised my spirits when I thought I was a goner. I know a lot of people thought it was wrong him goin’ about with Miss Julia an’ all but I reckon if it hadn’t been for them and Doc Martin a lot more people would have succumbed to the fever and I reckon I would have been one of ‘em. I won’t ever forget that and neither should the town. If the boy needs a few drinks well I reckon he’s earned ‘em sir. ”

Ben was confused but also touched by the man’s concern for his son, he was beginning to get the picture and he had no intentions of being hard on the lad. It seemed the man had seen him looking serious and guessed, wrongly, that he was off to admonish his drunken son who must be in the saloon. He’d intervened in the hopes of sparing young Joe a tongue-lashing. Ben looked across the street ready to go after Joe, he guessed it must be about Julia and if it was he was partially responsible. Just as he started to cross over he saw Adam and Hoss already heading inside. He decided to leave well alone and continue to the Community Hall, but not before he’d put the man straight.

“I er, appreciate your concern Mr er…”

“You can call me Hank, Mr Cartwright.”

“Hank rest assured after what Doc Martin tells me that boys been through lately, I can assure you I have no intentions of giving him a telling off but I do thank you for your kind words about him.”

Hank was feeling a little embarrassed now but he’d said his piece so he took his leave.

Ben shook his head in amusement but he wished he didn’t have to go to the meeting, he’d have preferred to take his son home and talk with him. It wasn’t Joe to be drinking so hard, but he knew that his brothers would soon have it in hand and perhaps it was better that way.

While their little brother sat contemplating yet another drink for lack of anything better to do, his brothers were heading in his direction. They’d heard what had happened at Julia’s with mixed feelings; one thing they were sure of was he shouldn’t be alone. They fully expected he’d push away their help but they could be as stubborn as he could.

Hoss was angry with Julia for treating Little Joe that way but a guilty part of him couldn’t help but be relieved if their relationship was over. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Julia, but like his father he had deep reservations about whether she was right for his brother. His kind heart and his love for his brother ensured that he would accept anyone that made him happy, but that was the problem, Hoss didn’t think that in the long run Julia could. He knew Little Joe as well as anyone and he knew he could be impulsive, he could see him committing himself to something he’d later regret. Maybe this incident with Julia would make him stop and think.

Older brother Adam was more prosaic, before the fever he’d expected a sudden end to the relationship. In the meantime he had still believed it had been good for the kid. He knew that Joe could flirt outrageously but when he fell for someone he fell heavily. His youngest brother had none of his own caution when it came to matters of the heart and Adam had thought that time spent with Julia, particularly since he felt so protective of her, might help give Joe a more mature outlook. When he’d seen Joe was getting serious he had considered advising a cooling off period but doubted that Joe would listen. Maybe this was that cooling off period for Joe so that he could look at the relationship again.

They entered the saloon to the sad sight of their young brother drinking alone in the corner and staring down a half empty bottle of whisky. As they approached his table Adam’s main concern was that Joe had taken on Millain alone but he couldn’t argue when Joe countered with,

“Well I beat him didn’t I?”

Joe’s eyes were glassy and his speech was slurred but worse was the look on his face, so bitter. It didn’t suit him to be drinking alone and so angry at the world, he’d hardly even reacted to their coming over.

Hoss tried to encourage him out of the saloon.

“Hey Joe they’re havin’ the fanciest meeting you ever saw over at the Community Hall, everyone’s patting themselves on the back for stoppin’ that fever. Pa’s right along with ‘em.”

That got Joe’s attention , so all the important people of the town were slapping themselves on the back for stopping the fever? What had they done? His pa had a right to be there but none of the others did. Where had they been when Doc Martin needed their help?
Had they opened their homes to take in the sick and dying?.

When Joe got up a little unsteadily from his chair proclaiming,

“I wouldn’t wanna miss that meeting,” they wondered if they’d done the right thing.

When the fresh air hit him as he went outside they were pretty sure they hadn’t, but there was no stopping him now.

Ben was just starting his speech when his youngest son burst through the doors and took over the stage politely shoving his father away from the podium. Ben whispered “Joe!” in an attempt to head him off and Doc Martin looked apprehensive but he smiled when Joe made a special point of thanking him for his help.

Ben’s glower would stop most people in their tracks as he stood behind his drunken son, but Joe didn’t see him. In fact Joe felt very sober when he spoke loudly and confidently from the platform to the assembled meeting, who were shaken out of their back slapping complacency and stunned into silence when he bitterly and emptily thanked, “All the ‘honourable’ citizens and asked them loudly,

“And how about giving a little thanks to the person who did the most to save this stinking town…how about some thanks for Julia Bulette?!”

The assembled citizens were embarrassed into murmuring amongst themselves so Joe addressed them even louder.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you have the guts to admit when you were wrong!?”

A man in a tan vest stood up, it was Pete, Joe’s miner friend and a voluntary member of the Virginia City Fire Brigade. He cut through the silence to support his friend,

“Well Virginia City’s new fire company’s bin needin’ an honoury member, how about it boys?”

Pete like all the other members was a volunteer and the Fire Company had already been instrumental in saving many lives and livelihoods so it was considered a great honour to be asked to be an honorary member.

Many of the men in the hall were in agreement. Up until then Ben had been sternly watching out for Joe but now he came up to support him,

” Well the ladies not gonna know anything about it unless you tell her…”

Joe couldn’t believe what he was hearing, Ben turned to his son and the look they exchanged acknowledged the pride they felt in each other. It was the first meaningful look they’d exchanged since the night outside the Opera House.

 

***

 

Inside her palace Julia was subdued, she had dismissed two men from her life tonight. Millain she was happy about but Joe…that was different.

She leaned on the top of the piano while Harry played a hauntingly sad tune, it suited her mood tonight. She’d done the right thing for once and she felt lousy about it. And she already missed Joe. As she hummed the tune that Harry played she looked across the room and remembered when Joe had first come flying across it to protect her. He’d been so gallant, so full of spirit and fun, she and Millain had done a wonderful job of destroying that. She wondered where he was now, where he’d gone when she sent him away so ruthlessly. He hadn’t deserved that.

Just as she was thinking about him, unbelievably, there he was, charging through the door with a whole troop of townspeople who wouldn’t normally be seen dead at her place.

Her heart leapt when she saw him and she was suddenly swept over to be made centre stage in front of the bar. The very man who had tried to have her ostracized at Piper’s Opera House now lifted her up so that she was seated on the bar. And Joe was in the middle of them. She could smell the whisky on him and knew that she was the cause.

Pete had come in wearing the red helmet of Virginia’s City’s Fire Brigade dept but he removed the hat and passed it to Joe.

“Well Little Joe, it was you who got us here so you oughta be the one to say it.”

As he was handed the helmet Joe looked at Julia perched on the bar. Tom watched from behind her and there was a hush in the room as Joe spoke,.

“Well… this isn’t just for what you did for Virginia City during the epidemic, it’s for all the things you’ve done for everyone in this town.”

As Julia listened to Joe, Tom watched her reactions carefully, it was only the three of them that knew all that she’d done. Only he and Joe truly loved Julia, they knew her for who she was. Tom felt a deep affection for Joe, he’d been sad to see him leave before and he had been as surprised and as happy as Julia to see him march right back in. He thought he was a remarkable young man and the only one that Julia had ever dated that truly deserved her.

There were murmurings of approval behind Joe, Ben stood behind him.

Joe managed a grin when he looked at the helmet and told Julia,

“Well it’s not a diamond necklace or a bottle of champagne…”

She knew then that he’d seen through her earlier façade,

“… but it’s the best we’ve got.”

He handed her the red helmet and Hoss lead a loud cheer,

“What d’ya say boys? Three cheers for the first honorary member of Virginia City’s Fire Brigade No. 1 !!”

Adam and Ben joined him and there was a rousing cheer all around the room. Joe placed his hands on Julia’s waist and she trembled at the remembered strength and warmth of his touch as he lifted her gently down in front of him. She hadn’t expected to be this close to him again and she felt just like she had after their first kiss. You could have heard a pin drop when he told her softly,

“There’s no diamond necklace that goes with this either but I’d be especially proud if you’d consent to be my wife.”

Hoss smiled his pleasure for Joe, Ben’s face turned serious as he waited for her reply and Adam looked apprehensive. None of them had expected this, not even Joe.

And neither had Julia.

She was stunned. His hands still rested on her waist and she felt all the feelings she would always have for him. Even after she had taunted him with her jewels, he had made them all come over and acknowledge her, all those blue noses that had previously shunned her. He’d done that for her and she was deeply moved. Not by them but by him. They were merely being swept along by the goodwill in the town for having survived the fever. But Joe was steadfast. How could he still believe in her? No-one had ever loved her so unselfishly and so completely and it took her breath away, she was actually trembling. She cherished the sheer fearlessness of his proposal in front of all these people. How could she possibly reject him again? There was a clear intensity in his eyes that would always draw the truth right out of her.

But as she looked into that handsome, trusting face she knew he deserved better than a future of malicious whispering, sideways glances and viscous gossip. Joe made love seem uncomplicated, so pure. Just as before time stood still for the two of them as they gazed searchingly into each other’s eyes, shutting the room out.

If it were just about the two of them she would have said ‘yes.’

But behind Joe were the townsfolk and standing at his shoulder was his father still pricking at her conscience. If she didn’t hurt him again now she was just putting it off for another day. But she couldn’t do it to him, not again, she couldn’t watch as she broke his heart completely and so she ran from the room.

Everyone felt Joe’s humiliation but he was too numb to notice, he just stood there rooted to the spot, he couldn’t even go after her.

Adam and Hoss had stood by helplessly, all their concern was for their little brother after such a harsh rejection.

Tom tried his best to draw attention away from the Joe to give the lad some time so he shouted loudly,

“What Miss Bulette was trying to say is, champagne on the house!”

Pete wanted to help too so he joined in calling people to the bar. That got people moving.

Hoss was by Joe’s side with a reassuring hand for his brother, Adam too stood with Joe.

Seeing they were with him now Ben went straight after Julia. He knew what her little show had cost her because he’d seen her face as she’d brushed past him. He’d been uncomfortable watching Joe propose but had kept that to himself for his son’s sake, just as he’d promised Julia he would. But he had been praying that she’d refuse him.

As he caught up with her by the staircase she turned around and she was crying. For the first time he realised how very deeply she cared for his son, she would never have been this distraught over a mere fling. He couldn’t deny he’d thrown her a challenge when he’d told her that only she could decide if she was ‘good enough’ for Little Joe and as far as he was concerned she had just met that challenge. He thought more of her now than he ever had. Enough to even wonder if he’d done the right thing. Had his interfering just destroyed his son’s chance of happiness with the woman he loved? Who he now saw loved him too?

Julia made no effort to hide her tears from Ben but she tried to explain them.

“Having faith in no-one carries a special kind of security. You and your son have destroyed that. I’ll never forgive you for that Ben”

As he watched her make her escape up to her room he had to believe he’d been right, that marriage to Julia Bulette would never have brought happiness for Joe. If Joe ever knew the full extent of his interference he prayed that his son would understand and forgive him.

No one spoke to Joe as they rode home. They knew how he was feeling, they were just glad that this time he’d been prepared to come home with them. They’d been afraid his pride would stop him. When Ben had asked him he’d looked like he would refuse, but then he’d just nodded and gone to fetch his things. Joe had badly missed home and right now it was the only place he wanted to be. The fights, the fever, the emotional highs and lows had all taken their toll on him.

He felt like an idiot but he wouldn’t let his stupid pride stop him being with his family. He needed them. He’d been a fool to march into Julia’s Palace the way he had but the drink, the emotion of the moment, his pride in her as the town actually recognised her contributions, his delight that his father might even approve of them after all…all of it had got to him. He should never have proposed in such a highly charged atmosphere, he should have waited, it hadn’t been fair to Julia. Perhaps his father was right; maybe he still had a lot to learn. He was just a young fool out of his depth after all.

When the Cartwright’s finally arrived home no one said anything as they dismounted, Hoss went over to Joe to take his reins telling him,

” I’ll do that for you little brother.”

Joe looked up as if he’d only just realised that Hoss was beside him. He held tight to Cochise’s reins,

“No…I ..I can do it, thanks, I’d rather…”

Brushing Cochise had always been cathartic for Little Joe and they all knew it. Ben nodded at Hoss and the gentle man nodded his silent agreement back. Ben took the cue,

“Hoss would you and Joe mind putting up the horses, Adam and I will go inside and pour us all a drink.”

None of them wanted Joe to be on his own but they didn’t want to crowd him either. Hoss took the reins to Buck and Adam passed Sport’s to Joe. Joe acknowledged his brother; he appreciated what they were doing he just wasn’t ready to talk about any of it just now.

When Hoss and Joe were alone in the barn they both busily unsaddled the horses and put away the blankets and saddles, they checked the water and oats and set about brushing the horses down. Neither man spoke. Joe rubbed Cochise on the nose so he knew he wasn’t forgotten before he headed over to do Sport first. He was rewarded when Cochise nuzzled in and chewed on his jacket and Joe couldn’t help but smile at his antics. He spent longer than usual brushing Sport and then went back to finish Cochise. Hoss could have finished all of them by now but he bided his time before finally he had to speak up. He knew when his little brother was eating himself up inside.

“Bet ya felt kinda dumb huh? In front of all those people an’ all?”

If he’d been less direct it might not have worked and he must have got the timing just right too because Joe just stopped brushing and looked at his brother,

“Yeah I guess I did Hoss, I didn’t even know I was gonna do it right then ‘till I saw her sitting there with that fireman’s hat on her head, she looked so beautiful. I don’t know why I did it there…the drink I s’pose and then seein’ her after she took that helmet, I mean I wanted to, just don’t know if I’d have found the courage to ask her any other way.”

“S’funny you sayin’ that yer felt like that Joe, it’s usually me that gets all tongue-tied an’ awkward. Not that I’ve had too much practise a big ol’ galoot like me. Guess when we’re in love we all feel the same way huh?”

Joe was warmed by the self-depreciating way Hoss talked about himself. Any woman ought to be proud to have Hoss as their man and Joe didn’t like to hear his brother talk himself down that way. But he knew why he was doing it. To make his lame brained little brother feel better about making a darned fool of himself in front of the whole dang town. Considering all the things he’d witnessed over the last weeks, being turned down by the woman he loved in front of the whole town…well there were worse things. He was touched by his brother’s concern and however rotten he felt he’d at least make an effort not to mope about and spoil everyone else’s mood. He owed it to his family, and he owed it to Hoss.

“Hoss, I know I didn’t exactly show it but I was real glad to see you and Adam when you hauled me outta the saloon. ”

“We knew you were boy, I jest wish we’d a’ got there a little sooner, from what I hear I would have flattened that fool…”

Joe shook his head, “He was just drunk…like I wanted to be, he just picked the wrong time to bug me. Then seein’ that tobacco sliding down his chin…well it reminded me of someone else…” Joe smiled as he thought about Bill, “He had a habit of sticking his tobacco to his bedpost…”

Hoss laughed with Joe but he could see the sadness behind his story and noted how Joe quickly returned to talking about the drunk, like he didn’t really want to talk about what had happened during the epidemic.

“Anyway that drunk couldn’t have been more different and I knew I had to make him go away somehow or I’d hurt him. S’funny as bad as I felt it was runnin’ through my mind that if I missed that shot I’d look even a bigger fool. I felt like one anyway though. I guess Sam wants me to clean it off, don’t know how though.” And he grunted a laugh.

He couldn’t have been more wrong and Hoss put him straight, “Nosiree Joe, that stain has pride of place on his ceiling.”

Poor Joe looked mortified, ” Oh that’s all I need Pa is going to kill me acting like some gunslinger.”

“Hey so long as you don’t make a habit of it Joe, folks no you ain’t no gunslinger.”

“I hope so Hoss. I’m not particularly proud of it.”

“They do know ya Joe and since most of the guys in there was miners they were mighty grateful for all that you dun fer ‘em durin’ the epidemic. Sam told me there wasn’t a man in that saloon that wasn’t on your side and would have sorted that guy out fer ya if you hadn’t a’ done such a good job of shutting him up yerself. The way I heard it he wouldn’t stop goadin’ ya and he was a lucky fella ‘cos if Adam or me had a’ heard him we’d have flattened him for ya for sure. You ain’t got nuthin’ to be ashamed of Joe, nuthin’ at all.”

It was what Joe needed to hear, he was dog tired and on the edge of his emotions but he was in safe hands and he knew it…

“Thanks Hoss.”

Talking about Julia and thinking about Bill had affected Joe’s mood though but he was trying hard to be upbeat, he’d had a lot of practise lately at putting his feelings to one side. The trouble was all that did was store them up.

“Hoss when we go inside, do you mind if we, well I just don’t want to talk about it all now, I’d just like to enjoy being home for a while,”

Hoss clapped his brother on the back, “Sure thing Joe, ” and they walked slowly towards the house.

They were all bushed and following Hoss’ lead they had a warming brandy before turning in for the night. They wouldn’t push Joe; he’d open up to them when he was ready.

The only moments of awkwardness seemed to be between Ben and Joe, mainly because Joe wasn’t ready to talk, especially since his father had been right, he obviously had been in over his head with Julia Bulette. Ben wasn’t thinking that at all but he understood Joe needed time to sort out his feelings.

As tired as he was, after he’d gone to bed, Joe couldn’t sleep and he found himself sitting by his bedroom window nursing his badly bruised heart. While he still loved Julia with all his heart, he wouldn’t force his affections on her, he’d see her again, try once more to persuade her but that was all. He rested his head against the cold glass as he remembered the better times he’d had with Julia. It hurt, badly as he faced never holding her again, never sharing her bed or her life. Now that everyone was asleep he didn’t have to try and disguise how he really felt.

Unseen and outside Ben looked up at his son’s window, there was only a dim light in Joe’s room but it was enough for him to make out the despondent figure of his youngest son.
It was so difficult for Ben not to go to him but he knew Joe wouldn’t welcome it now. What made it harder for Ben was knowing that he was at least partly responsible for his son’s broken heart.

“I’m so sorry Joseph,” he quietly whispered up towards the window, before going sadly back inside.

In Virginia City an altogether different scene was taking place in Julia’s bedroom.

Hidden in the shadows, John Millain had slunk back once more into Virginia City with only one thought on his mind, to destroy something he could never understand. Joe had been correct in his description of the dark Frenchman, he wasn’t fit to wipe Julia’s shoes, but there was a German expression that described him best, ‘schadenfreude,’ he revelled in other people’s pain.
He’d had a long time to brood over his humiliation at being outdrawn by a much younger suitor and then being so callously dismissed from Julia’s life. He wanted blood but before that he wanted revenge. He almost hoped he’d find Joe and Julia back together because that suited his evil plans. He would take a malicious delight in dragging him from her bed and making him beg for mercy, mercy that would never come. He would show Julia the boy she thought she loved and then when he’d inflicted enough pain to satisfy his needs, he would kill him in front of her. Whether Julia lived or died would depend on whether she took him back.

Millain slipped into a small back street saloon and sat in a dark corner drinking brandy. His ears pricked up when he heard people whispering about the goings on at Julia’s Palace. So the young fool had come back? And proposed!? And she’d turned him away; maybe there was hope for Julia after all, but not for him. This changed things though and Millain was actually a little disappointed. He’d played his wicked scene over in his mind many times and it had given him a certain sadistic pleasure. No matter, there was time enough for Cartwright. First he would pay her a little visit. Emboldened by drink he knew she could not refuse him, she always allowed him back into her life eventually.

Julia had retired early and had shunned any attempts at conversation preferring the solitude of her room. Tomorrow she would face everyone.

As she slept a dark figure crept silently into her room, he paused at her bedside to watch her sleeping.

“Mon Cherie,” he whispered pulling back the covers. Julia woke to the smell of alcohol and the sight of the man she hated most in the world. He reminded her of all the bad things about herself. People like him were why she had deemed herself not good enough to marry Joe. And she despised him, even more than she despised herself right now, but she remained calm.

“Get out of here John or I’ll call Tom.”

Millain watched her look of hatred grow as she reached for a gown and it angered him, but he covered his anger with a sickly smile.

“I hear you broke his heart my sweet, the poor fool asked you to marry him. That must have amused you my dear Julia. Of course you turned him down…”

Julia looked away, she couldn’t bear to look at him, “Actually I didn’t turn him down….”

That only amused Millain, “Well that’s not what I heard, you humiliated him in front of the whole town, you surely didn’t take him seriously?”

Julia looked back angrily, “And why shouldn’t I?”

He laughed again, “Julia you surely aren’t considering…”

She looked him straight in the eye showing she didn’t fear him, “I didn’t answer him…yet.”

Suddenly Millain looked edgy, she was serious, “But you will say no…of course you will say no…”

Julia shook her head as she tied her nightgown around herself,

“I’m really not sure, I haven’t decided and it has nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll call someone. You wouldn’t understand John because for once I’m putting someone else’s feelings above my own. You could never understand that.”

“So the keeper of all men’s hearts has been foolish enough to lose her own. I will kill him…this time I will kill him and he won’t even see me.”

He made to go, checking his gun as he went. Julia rushed after him pleading with him, “No…no… John…no I can’t let you do it…I’ll say no..I was going to say no…you just made me so angry…please John…”

Millain grabbed her face and turned it up to his as if he was going to kiss her. Julia couldn’t hide her disgust, she tried but she couldn’t disguise her revulsion as he leaned towards her.

At the last moment he pushed her away.

“You can’t hide it, he has your heart, you’re lying to protect him, you would be with me but in your mind you will be with him…he won’t have you …I will kill him and you will be mine again. I told you, we belong together you and I Julie…you will see…”

Recklessly Julia struggled to stop him leaving, she felt the knife in his belt and instinctively pulled it out, but he was much stronger and he grabbed her wrist hard.

He grinned as he twisted the knife from her, “So you would die for him?”

As she fought to grab the knife back from him he plunged the blade into her side. Julia cried out and fell to the floor.

Shocked and not quite believing what he’d just done Millain leaned over her. Almost in the same moment he smiled, he couldn’t have her so no one would. Julia was gasping for breath but he coolly went about her room robbing her of her jewels, the same jewels she’d taunted Joe with. Finally he kneeled at her side whispering,

“So it was you dear Julia who was destroyed by the heart and now I will deal with your young lover, but first I will let him know that it was me who held you last.”

He added cruelly, “And he will never know you might have changed your mind.”

He stroked her hair and kissed her once on the forehead before wrapping her jewellery in one of her scarves and slinking back into the alley way, the same way he had entered.

Julia had all but given up her struggle for life but she couldn’t now, she tried to grab something that she could make a noise with, anything that Tom might hear. With her last remaining strength she pulled at the tablecloth bringing the large glass atomiser crashing to the floor…’Got to warn Joe…must warn Joe…”

Millain heard the crash as he went for his horse, he saw lights going on as he mounted and rode off. He wouldn’t go for Cartwright now; he’d get him when he was on his own and defenceless. It disappointed him that he would not be the one to tell him that Julia was dead, he would have liked to have seen his face.

Tom rushed into find Julia and he gasped at the sight of the rapidly spreading bloodstain on her nightgown and carpet. He ran for one of the girls to fetch a doctor and went straight back to try and stem the flow of blood with the tablecloth.

There was a sickly smell of blood and perfume.

“It’s alright Julia, the doctors coming.” Tom rushed to the door to see if the doctor was here yet, he was frantic.

“Tom… Tom she breathed, got to tell Joe… Millain…” But Tom couldn’t hear her, her voice was so weak and she lost her battle to stay conscious.

The next morning the newly appointed sheriff delivered the news to the Cartwright’s.
From the description given by a witness who saw him running away, it could only be John Millain and Hoss and Adam volunteered to help bring him in while Ben and Joe rode to town as fast as they could.
Ben went in to see Julia first, she was very weak but she managed a joke,

“Win a battle and lose the war…”

Seeing her looking so fragile affected Ben more than he expected, “I’m sorry, everyone is.”

Julia managed a weak laugh, “Everyone??”

But then she asked him what she really wanted to know, “Little Joe?”

Ben nodded, “He’s here.”

“I want to see him Ben.”

Julia was afraid she was running out of time. In fact Joe was at the bottom of the stairs but Doc Martin had only allowed one visitor at a time so for her sake he’d remained there.

When Julia had gathered her strength a little she wanted to tell Ben something,

“Ben? Last night you and the rest of Virginia City gave me a present. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to give you back your son.”

If she could have got up and crossed the room she would have piled on her makeup again to aid the performance she’d planned. To make Joe wonder who he had fallen in love with, to play the money grabbing slut that many people still believed her to be.

When his father came out of her room Joe ran up the steps as if his life depended on it. But he slowed down when he reached the door.

Doctor Martin had given Julia a sedative and she could feel the first effects of it. She was desperate to see Joe before she lost consciousness. When he came into her room her heart leapt, the doctor gave her no hope, she knew that, but Joe gave her hope. As soon as she saw his face again she was regretting her promise to Ben, regretting it but not forgetting it.

“Get me some brandy Joe…”

The brandy decanter was next to a huge vase of flowers on her table. As Joe poured her some he told her, ” I shouldn’t give this to you…”

” Oh? This is the way I live kid.”

She never called him kid and he wondered why she did now, it was the Julia from the night he’d outdrawn Millain. He wanted her to conserve her strength, to get well and he reassured her she would.

But she was a consummate actress, ” I don’t care, couldn’t have happened at a better time if I’d have lived to be a thousand…we beat ‘em Joe. We beat the apple knockers.”

She didn’t make any sense and he couldn’t keep the bewilderment from his face,

“What?”

Weak as she was. this was hard for Julia , she’d played out what she’d say in her mind but then she hadn’t had Joe beside her. She didn’t want her last words to him to be lies. And she didn’t want her last kiss to be from Millain. But she’d promised his father.

“The high and mighty blue noses, we took ‘em for the ride of their lives. That play of yours..bringing them in to lick my shoes just when they were ripe.”

Joe couldn’t let her talk like this, it wasn’t her he knew it, and the men that came over had honoured her for what she’d done for the town, some of them had really appreciated the sacrifices she’d made and he wanted her to know that..

” They meant every word of that.”

This was getting too hard for Julia, “Sure they meant it, that’s what makes it so rich…the biggest laugh of all…your old man, that night you were up here I told you it was just for laughs? Remember? I never intended to see you again…” she started to cough and Joe held her and her deception crumbled.

She’d tried to fool him, tried to shake his belief in her once more but one touch, one look into his eyes and she failed. If she had to die then Joe would know she loved him and she gave herself away with the way she said his name as he held her close.

She’d hurt him enough, now she wanted him to know her love had been real, maybe salvage some of his sweet innocence. She’d spare him the bitterness that had driven her life. In allowing Joe to retain his faith in love she really was giving Ben back the son he loved so deeply. Joe as she had loved him, open, trusting and passionate, not a man afraid to give his heart and love completely.

Joe was talking but his voice was fading, he held her that was all she knew. When he told her, ‘ I’m coming back’ she remembered the first time he’d said it, it was in her room that first time she’d invited him upstairs. He’d been true to his word. She felt a soft breeze and it reminded her of the lake. As she shut her eyes and rested her head back on the pillow, Joe was beside her again. She smelt his scent and felt his strong arms around her. His warm breath caressed her skin and at last, with him beside her, she was that woman leaping unafraid into the water. Joe’s was the last face she saw, his gentle voice the last sound she heard and her last coherent thought was of an illicit leap into a moonlit lake, Joe had come back to her.

Moments later Doctor Martin walked over to check that Julia was comfortable, she looked more peaceful than he’d ever seen her, as he crossed the room the drawn look that had marred her beautiful features had gone and he could swear she was smiling. He was happy the sedative had freed her from pain. As he checked her pulse he grew alarmed.

Doctor Martin thought he held Julia’s hand at the moment she died, but he was wrong…she died in Joe’s arms.

 

***

 

Millain had been caught. Julia’s funeral had been yesterday. In death Julia was honoured in a way she never had been in life. A mixture of guilt, real sorrow and relief. Black wreaths were hung from the saloons, there were flowers and a fancy casket. It was mainly men who followed the procession but her girls were resplendent in black lace dresses. Fire Company No .1 draped their wagon in black streamers and all the good women of the town pulled down their shades until the procession passed. When the band began to play Joe silently took his leave.

Tom and he had shared a few private moments alone and Joe was vaguely aware of back slapping and condolences, some of it from the same people who had forcibly ejected him from Piper’s Opera House. He had escaped the empty gesturing at the first opportunity and ridden home alone. He didn’t know how many hours he’d ridden around aimlessly but it was getting dark when he finally made it back home. There was some supper kept warm for him and he tried to eat it, more for his father’s sake who watched him anxiously. The food felt like lead in his stomach. He made his excuses and went up to bed, only to lie there desperately trying to sleep and failing. Finally he’d given up and slipped quietly downstairs.

 

***

.

As Ben had stood watching from his place on the staircase it had never been a case of if but when he would go to his son. He’d hated to disturb him but he ached to console him. When he heard Joe softly exclaim,

“Oh God… why?”

…and then saw him lower his head and run his hands so despondently through his hair pulling it hard, it was too much for him. In a reversal of fortune Ben shifted his weight and trod on the loose step that had so often given his son away, it creaked and Joe looked across.

His expressive green eyes were red rimmed and he looked exhausted, Ben’s heart was in his mouth as Joe rose from the chair, he looked shocked and unsteady and Ben feared the worst, that he’d be angry and push him away again. It would make no difference, Joe needed him and if he did push him away, this time he wouldn’t go.

He rushed over to his son and hugged him tightly. There was no resistance. Joe accepted the embrace he desperately needed. There were no tears and no words between them, just silence and total, unconditional love.

When Ben felt his son was ready he let him step away and his heart soared when he saw Joe attempt a smile. It wasn’t the heartbreaker of a smile his son usually wore but this one was equal to it. Joe wanted to speak but he was too choked and too spent to say anything.

“Let me fix you a drink son,” the raising of his eyebrows an invitation for Joe to accept or decline. This time Ben felt sure he’d accept.
Little Joe wasn’t even sure he wanted a drink, all he knew was that he wanted his father’s company and so he nodded.

While he waited for the water to boil, Ben stood at the kitchen door. Joe was leaning with one arm resting on the wall over by the fireplace, he looked so weary and was once more staring blankly into the ashes, his thoughts seemingly miles away.

His father feared that his innocent devil may care young Joseph had been permanently damaged. That made him sad and yet deep in his heart he believed that the spontaneous fun loving spirit that had always characterised his youngest son could never truly be lost. Whatever experiences Joe had endured so very recently he knew the essence of his young son could not so easily be diluted.
As he watched him Ben reflected on his son’s ingenuous, trusting and optimistic side and he hoped that would always be a part of his nature. He hoped Joe could always keep that without getting hurt by it.

He guessed he was thinking about Julia and he hated to see him so weighed down with sadness. However old Joe got he would always be his youngest and it was hard to see your children hurt by harsh experiences, it was inevitable but painful for a loving parent to watch. Ben had often had to play the stern father with this youngest pup, even if his antics had often secretly amused him. He might have seemed strict to Joe whenever he’d had the unenviable task of waking him in the morning. The truth was Ben had always loved the sight of that tousled head appearing dazed and indignant from the depths of his bedclothes. Of course by the time Joe woke enough to see him the loving look would have been replaced by the stern, ‘I think it’s time you got up son,’ look that his father had perfected over the years. Ben always just about disguised how much he cherished these moments, after all it wouldn’t do to encourage his tardy son in his bad habits.

Ben heard the water bubbling behind him and he tore himself back.

Once he had the coffee ready he came back into the room and placed the tray quietly down, Joe hadn’t moved and Ben walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder massaging the knot he felt there with circular motions of his thumb. It was a familiar gesture for them both that spoke volumes and it never failed to do the trick for either of them. Joe didn’t turn to his father immediately and his father knew why and he gave him the time he needed. When he did turn, the red eyes and glistening lashes told Ben all he needed to know.

“You looked so deep in thought Joe, I almost didn’t disturb you, were you thinking about her?”

Joe seemed willing to talk at last.

” Yes I was thinking about Julia, I miss her Pa. And I can’t help thinking that if I hadn’t listened to her; if I’d stayed around maybe…maybe I could have stopped him.”

Ben interrupted before he could go on,

“Joe, you couldn’t have known, in fact you might have been killed too. Millain came back to kill you both, it was a cowardly attack, he didn’t give her a chance, he’d have done the same thing to you given half a chance.”

The anguish clearly showed on Joe’s handsome features, “She sent me away …but she was lying…she did love me, she loved me as much as I loved her.”

Ben looked his son straight in the eye, he knew what he was about to say would be very important to him.

“I know she did Joe.”

It had mattered so much to Joe to hear his father say that.

Ben knew he’d played some part in Julia’s decision to let his son go and to refuse his proposal. Would she have done the same without his intervention? He’d never know.

But he didn’t doubt for one second that the cowardly Millain would have been waiting in the shadows to get his revenge on the upstart who had not only stolen Julia but also outdrawn him and made him look a fool. The one thing Ben knew for certain was that he was glad his son had been back at the Ponderosa the night it happened and he wouldn’t ever regret that.

The acknowledgement that he’d believed in their love renewed Joe’s trust in his father’s faith in him. He should never have doubted it…but he had. It released an avalanche of feelings and he interrupted his father’s stream of thoughts,

“…But I was thinking about other people too, about a little boy called Frankie, he was a great kid, you would have liked him. And so many others…it was so…so many people died pa…”

Joe didn’t continue, he couldn’t dwell there, his thoughts had been so jumbled up, but his father’s presence had worked it’s magic. When he’d accepted his father’s love through a simple action, some of the turmoil had fallen away, his wild emotions had at least slowed to a pace where he could handle them.

Ben nodded at his son, feeling overwhelmed at what his son was coping with, but before he could speak Joe continued,

‘But mostly …right now…I was thinking about you, about how many times you’ve sat right where I am, worrying about Adam, Hoss or…um…me. I was thinking how tough it must be being a father sometimes…particularly my father Pa, I’m sorry I haven’t made it easy for you have I? I shouldn’t have got angry with you of all people and I know now…well I know that you were only looking out for me…”

“You were thinking that Joe?”

“Pa I don’t know how you put up with me sometimes, I must give you more sleepless nights than Hoss and Adam have put together…I’m sorry …I just want you to know… a fella couldn’t ask for a better father, I’ve wanted you to know that… ”

Ben looked at him for the longest time, so many thoughts and memories going through his mind, none of which he’d swap for all the silver in the Comstock. Yes there were times it was difficult and Ben was reminded of the small boy with the enormous pile of blankets trying to make it safely up the stairs. Ben and his brothers hovering outside, desperate to go and help him but letting him try on his own and then out of sheer stubbornness finally seeing him succeed in making it. How hard it was then to hold back and how hard it was still.

Joe looked quizzically at his father wondering what thoughts were going through his mind that had brought that familiar warm smile to his face. Ben saw his son’s expression and explained.

“Do you remember the time when you were a little boy Joe and you’d been punished and had to sort out a big pile of blankets?”

That brought a laugh, “Yes I remember, they were piled so high I couldn’t see over the top of them. I was counting the steps, it was the only way I knew I was anywhere near the top, I was concentrating so hard I could hardly keep a track of how many steps I’d gone up…and I wanted to sneeze so bad…”

Ben smiled, he hadn’t known about the added difficulty of trying to hold a sneeze in! “We were all watching you Joe and we all wanted to help you, you were so determined. But we didn’t and you didn’t need us. But my heart was in my mouth watching you in case you fell and do you know what? Nothing’s changed.”

The rueful grin on Joe’s face showed he knew his father was right, some things would never really change. As he watched his son’s altering expressions Ben made a gesture that he hadn’t since Joe was a child. He cupped the side of his chin and turned it gently towards him so that Joe couldn’t get embarrassed and look away. Then he told him what was in his heart.

“First of all Joe, I wouldn’t change you, not for anything in the world, the pride I feel in you…yes, you young man, fills me with such joy that most nights. I go to bed knowing I’m the luckiest man in the world.” As he embraced his son he added in silence because he was too choked to speak…’and the odd sleepless night is a small price to pay for the love I feel right now and for that which is written so plainly in your eyes son.’

Whatever rift had existed was mended completely.

It was Ben who spoke first as he reassured his son, “And just so you know Joe, this pa gets it wrong occasionally too young man.”

He immediately saw Joe’s expression change to one of mock surprise and a welcome and familiar merry glint appeared in his eyes. Ben knew he had to try a little damage limitation and added quickly.

“Not that often mark you!”

And they both laughed at Joe’s meek “Ok pa.” Although Ben knew that he would regret his admission whenever it most suited his mischievous son.

Neither Ben nor Joe wanted to end their talk. Ben had been worried for days that Joe was keeping too much inside, he was prone to do that. But added to that, he’d missed his son these last weeks and he was enjoying this time together. Joe felt the same way. Ben took the opportunity to probe a little deeper,

“Do you want to talk about any of it Joe…we had the fever when I was on board ship…I know a little bit of what it must have been like son, I think it might help you to talk about it…”

Joe had spent a long time steering his thoughts away from his worst memories of the fever and the tragedies he’d witnessed. He wasn’t sure he wanted to repeat them now but almost for his father’s sake he began. After a short pause he answered,

“Er… yes pa, I guess I would…that is if you’re not too tired…’ and Ben shook his head and smiled encouragement as his son continued, ” I don’t really know where to
start …”

But he did start, hesitating a lot at first but once he’d begun he found he was telling his father everything. He told him about Bill, Jake, his talks with Frankie and the little boy’s love for Cochise, he paused here, still finding it difficult to talk about Frankie,

“He was just a little boy ..” Ben again took Joe’s hand and squeezed it, there were sometimes when it was hard to put a positive light on things but Ben tried,

“Paul told me about Frankie Joe, I’m so glad he had a friend there, I’m sorry it was so hard for you but he couldn’t have had a better friend that much I do know, because of you he wasn’t alone….”

Ben knew it was small comfort to Joe; but he hoped that in time it would help him. They sat quietly for a long time each lost in their own thoughts again until Ben felt Joe was ready. He refreshed their coffee and Joe talked through his feelings the night they’d argued. They both deeply regretted that night. Joe also apologised for the stain on the ceiling at the Bucket of Blood.

By the time morning came father and son had shared many private thoughts and many memories both happy and sad. Ben had learnt for the first time that a very long time ago his youngest son might have choked on an apple core but for the intervention of his oldest. He’d heard about Hoss’ kind hearted words and how much they’d meant to Joe when he’d felt humiliated after having his marriage proposal so publicly rejected. His father managed to take the guilt away from Joe for having to do what had to be done when he’d restrain the maniacally delirious miner who might have hurt himself and others if Joe hadn’t intervened like he had. In fact Ben had heard Joe’s new best friends Sean and Rory had been working like beavers in town and had even repaired the damage Joe had done to the Opera House for him. Joe smiled at that.

Gradually his father had gently helped him to see some of the positive things that Joe had been overlooking. He was heartened to hear that since he’d spoken up for Julia at the meeting, more people had recognised the good she had done for the town during the epidemic. He reassured his son that nobody thought he’d been a fool; on the contrary all Ben was hearing was gratitude for Joe’s part in helping the sick. And he told Joe that one tobacco stain on a bar room ceiling didn’t make him a gunslinger.

When Ben told Joe that he’d been afraid he blamed him, because he hadn’t approved of Julia, Joe just shook his head.

“No Pa, you would have, in time you would have liked her I always knew that.”

That was hard for him to say, they’d never have that time now but he didn’t want his father to feel guilty,

“Any way pa, I haven’t always gotten along with some of the ladies you’ve dated since ma. I mean most of ‘em are pretty nice but that one that tried to dress me in those fancy suits when I was about ten, I can’t say I took to her too much. She always told everyone I looked like a cute little cherub with my curly hair,” Joe winced at the memory and the teasing he got over it.

Ben smiled again at his son’s exaggeration; he hadn’t dated that many ladies since Marie!

“As I recall young man, you pulled faces behind her back that looked anything but cherubic…”

“Oh…you saw that…?”
“Mmmm I saw that, but I can’t say I blamed you, she didn’t approve of the way I dressed either son.” And they both laughed at a lucky escape for Ben.

Some memories Joe shared from the fever were gentler like how he’d met a wonderful man he’d never forget named Bill near to the end of his life. He shared some of the stories Bill had told him and they laughed together over many of them. Ben suggested to Joe that he talk about all these people at the planned memorial service for those that had died in the epidemic. Two hours ago Joe wouldn’t have thought he could but now he wanted to, people would know about Frankie, Bill, Julia…all of them

His father had managed to make him see at least some of the positive things that had come out of it all.

The countless cups of coffee ensured that they would be talking till dawn; in fact they were still sitting talking when Adam and Hoss made an appearance the next morning.

Amazingly Joe put in a full days work too, he found it healing to have the sun on his back and hard work to be done.

Although there was always at least one brother or his father hovering close by to make sure he was okay they were very discreet about it.

And Joe actually slept that night and well into the next morning.

He woke to find his father standing there with a mug of coffee in his hand and a weak attempt at a stern expression on his face. It was a shame because if he’d just managed to focus his eyes a few seconds earlier he’d have seen the warm smile on his father’s face as he’d watched his tousle haired son emerge sleepily from under his covers.

Millain and Julia had been wrong. The sweet innocence of youth had not been destroyed here, it was wounded and battle scarred but it hadn’t been destroyed, it’s much stronger than it looks.

Fin

(The end)

 

 

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