Summary: Joe rescues a mysterious girl from the river.
Dark Star for Dodo Challenge. Happy Birthday!
Disclaimer: I don’t own the Cartwrights or Bonanza. No copyright infringement is intended against Anthony Lawrence’s script. Original plot is property of the author. This story is for entertainment and no money was made from it.
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Fish Out of Water
Joe muttered to himself as he kept an eye out for livestock stranded on the riverbank. He’d lost the solemn ceremony of the matchstick this time. Adam was supposed to get the short one. I’m gonna wallop Hoss when I get home.
Ever since Adam fell in the river two years ago while rescuing a calf, he managed to invent ever more creative excuses for why this particular chore should fall to someone else. A few of Adam’s excuses flitted through Joe’s head: I get the sniffles thinking about that cold, wet ride down the river; I saw Laura in town and my bad back flared up; Jigger Thurman asked me to write a new song for his bull.
From the corner of his eye, Joe caught a glimpse of bright orange in the river. He pulled Cochise up and placed his hand over the brim of his hat. Whatever it was had disappeared. Standing in the stirrups, Joe craned his neck and scanned the swift-flowing water. Bright orange bobbed to the surface and again went under.
“Giddup, Cooch! Someone’s in trouble!”
Obeying his rider’s urgency, Cochise loped down the well-worn bluff trail.
Stopping at the river’s edge, Joe plucked the rope from his saddle horn and encouraged Cochise to trot along the bank. Joe watched the frothy water, anxious for the orange-clad person to appear again.
The river boiled with white-caps and gained speed where it funneled through boulders.
Orange shot to the surface for a brief moment before smashing into a rock.
Joe gasped and prayed for the strength to rescue the person before the river dashed them to pieces. He nudged Cochise forward and hoped to make it to a point downriver first. On his way, he caught several more glimpses of orange fabric from the corner of his eye.
He jumped off his horse and looped the end of the rope around the saddle horn. “Stay,” he ordered the paint.
A buzzing filled the air as Joe swung the lasso, ready to let it fly when the person next appeared.
Like a cork, the river’s victim popped to the surface. Joe let the rope fly, confident in his ability to snare his target after years of practicing on calves, dogs, cats, and girls. There’d been one or two times he’d lassoed a bird flying low to the ground.
The end of the rope looped over the person’s wrist and Joe was pulled to the edge of the river by the river’s momentum. He held tight with his hands and swung his legs over the taut line.
“Pull!” he yelled at his horse.
Cochise flicked his tail in response.
“Pull or Hoss will ride you for a week!”
The paint snorted but obediently backed away up the hillside.
When solid ground was beneath Joe, he dropped his legs from their perch but kept one hand on the rope, anxiously waiting for the person to reach the river’s edge.
Long brown hair, floating like strings of seaweed, reached the sandy shore first. Connected to the hair was a young woman. Her eyes were closed and her face was serene.
Joe put his hat over his heart and whispered a prayer for the repose of the woman’s soul.
He knelt down to retrieve his rope but fell back on his butt in fright. The woman had opened her eyes.
Clutching her hand, Joe pulled her out of the water. Gasping and sputtering, she sent droplets of water flying in a fine mist, creating little rainbows. Her clothes were plastered to her body, enhancing her curvaceous figure.
In a sudden fit of modesty, Joe wriggled out of his jacket and draped it around the young woman’s shoulders.
She took in her surroundings, breathing through her open mouth.
As he removed the loop from her wrist, he said, “I’m Joe Cartwright of the Ponderosa, rescuer of fair maidens.” He placed a finger under her chin and gently turned her face to his. “What happened?”
Fixing him with her limpid gaze, she said, “I swim as a fish, with the current, to where the river takes me.”
Joe cocked an eyebrow. “What’s your name?”
“What are you called?”
She smiled, revealing a shallow dimple. “I am called Tirza.”
“Is there someplace I should take you?”
Tirza turned to face the river and said, “I seek the shallow pools, where the water is calm. There it is safe.”
Joe cleared his throat. “I’m going to take you to the Ponderosa. After you get a hot bath, you can tell my family where you’re from and who your people are.”
She quickly turned on her toes and placed her hands on Joe’s face. “I will go with you, Joe Cartwright. Where there’s water, there is home.”
He placed his hands around her small waist and easily lifted her up onto Cochise. After she was settled, he swung up behind her. Cochise snorted at the extra weight but soon found his stride.
Tirza, sitting sideways, held tight to Joe’s waist and pressed her cheek against his shoulder.
Arriving at the Ponderosa, Joe reined Cochise in at the hitching rail and slid off his horse. He helped Tirza down and tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear.
“Wait here. I’m going to get my father.”
Tirza nodded as Joe trotted to the door. She patted Cochise’s neck and toyed with his mane. Looking around the yard, a sparkle caught her eye and she smiled in delight.
“Wait ‘til you see her, Pa,” Joe said as he excitedly led his father through the door. Hoss and Adam were close on their heels.
All four men came to a stop and looked in different directions.
“Well, Joseph,” asked Ben, “where is this mystery woman?”
“She was right here,” insisted Joe as he pointed towards his horse.
“The sun get to you?” Adam asked as he playfully punched Hoss in the bicep.
“I’m not making this up! She’s real!”
Joe sprinted for the barn as Ben frowned in impatience. Adam jammed his hands into his pockets and shrugged.
Hoss craned his neck and surveyed the yard. “Over here!” he hollered as he trotted to the water trough.
Three Cartwrights looked down into the glassy water of the trough to see a submerged young woman smiling up at them. Hoss’ mouth formed a surprised “o” but Adam smiled.
Joe ran from the barn as Hoss pulled the woman out of the trough. Water cascaded from her hair and fingertips as Hoss set her down on solid ground.
“I told you she was real,” said Joe with a glower for Adam. Joe cleared his throat and said, “This is Tirza, the girl I told you about.”
“Why were you in the trough?” Ben asked.
“The water called my name.”
Adam snickered. Joe glared at his oldest brother.
Ben gestured at the door and said, “Come inside and Hop Sing will get you some towels to dry off. I’m sure we can find something for you to wear.”
“That blue dress Sheila Reardon borrowed is hanging in the closet in the guest room,” offered Adam. He sized Tirza up and added, “It should fit her.”
Entering the house, Ben yelled, “Hop Sing! We have a guest!”
Drops of water plopped onto the dusty floor as Tirza stood rooted near the door. Her eyes, wide in wonder, took in the vast great room from the furniture to the gun rack to the trophy buck mounted on the wall.
The cook’s name echoed as Ben bellowed again.
Complaints in Chinese preceded Hop Sing into the room. He scowled at Tirza and her puddles of water.
“Yell, yell. Alla time yell.” The cook crossed his arms over his chest and said, “Hop Sing go back China where appreciated.”
“Now, Hop Sing, be reasonable,” pleaded Ben. He gently placed a hand against Tirza’s back to propel her forward. “Our guest needs towels. Would you be so kind as to help her?”
Pacified, Hop Sing bowed to Tirza before taking her elbow and leading her to the guest room.
“Missy get cleaned up. Food on table soon.” He trotted off to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the meal.
The Cartwrights took seats around the coffee table but Joe stood in front of the hearth, arms crossed over his chest. Hoss plucked an apple from the fruit bowl despite the approaching dinner hour. Adam scratched behind an ear and waited for Joe’s story to begin.
“You said you rescued her from the river?” asked Ben. “Did she tell you what happened?”
“No,” said Joe as he shook his head. “I think someone pushed her.”
“That’s quite an assumption,” said Adam. “You don’t know how she fell in. Maybe she was fetching water or washing clothes.”
“Maybe she just wanted to go for a swim,” offered Hoss around a mouthful of mashed apple.
Ben cleared his throat and glared at Adam and Hoss. “She’s dressed in the manner of a gypsy. They’re strange people with odd customs. We should see her back to the others of her kind.”
“I love her,” announced Joe, nostrils flaring. “I’m not going to throw her into danger because you don’t want her under your roof.”
“Pa didn’t say anything like that,” said Adam.
“She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” Joe said softly as he wistfully watched the guest room door.
Tirza cracked open the door and peeked into the room before emerging into the open. She smoothed the front of the deep blue dress. With all eyes on her, she twirled for their approval.
“You’re beautiful,” said Joe as he rushed to her side. He lifted her hand to his lips and gently placed a kiss upon it.
Ben stood and said, “You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like.”
Tirza nodded her thanks and turned her attention to Adam and Hoss. Adam had a half grin upon his lips and one eyebrow raised as if he wished to ask questions. Hoss took another bite of the apple and nodded in greeting.
“Suppah ready,” announced Hop Sing as he placed a platter of steaks and bowls of peas and mashed potatoes upon the table.
Joe escorted Tirza to Hoss’ chair and helped her take her seat.
Hoss dropped the apple core upon the coffee table, wiped his hand on his trousers, and took the chair opposite Joe and Tirza.
Ben led his sons in prayer. “Thank you, Lord, for sparing Tirza. Thank you for putting Joseph in the right place to pull her from harm’s way.” He cracked open on eye and noted Hop Sing scowling nearby. “And thank you for this delicious meal we are about to eat.”
A chorus of, “Amen,” was soon followed by the clack of spoons against bowls and cutlery against plates.
Joe plopped a mound of mashed potatoes on Tirza’s plate and then a few spoonfuls of peas. He selected one of the larger steaks for her.
Tirza picked up individual peas between her fingers and pressed them into the potatoes, creating a colorful hillside.
Hoss cut off a large chunk of steak and savored the juicy, tender meat. He watched Tirza, curious about her actions.
Adam speared peas with his fork and then held them up for inspection. “Shame you didn’t catch some trout when you were fishing,” he observed, slyly peeking at Joe from the corner of his eye.
Hoss snorted and a pea shot out of one nostril. Joe kicked Adam’s shin.
“Turtles and frogs also make their home in the water. They are not hunted as are the fish.”
Ben cleared his throat in an attempt to restore order at his table. “Are you a gypsy?”
Tirza then stabbed her fork into the mound of potatoes until the implement stood upright. She set her hands in her lap and nodded, eyes downcast.
“Where are your people?”
“There are many fish in a river, all swimming for a place they do not yet know.”
“How did you get separated from them?”
“An eagle swoops down from the sky, grabs the fish in its talons. The fish struggles but cannot get away.”
Hoss and Adam exchanged a glance. Adam shrugged one shoulder.
“Are you saying your people are dead?” Ben asked.
“Rocks conceal animals that kill fish. The bear wades into the river, patiently waits for a meal. Raccoons snatch babies from the quiet waters of ponds and lakes.”
Ben was about to ask another question but Joe said, “She’s had a rough day, Pa. Let her rest up.”
Tirza smiled at Joe and her thanks shone from her eyes.
Dinner was finished in silence. Afterwards, Hoss excused himself to check on a horse, Adam retreated to the fireplace to read, and Ben worked on the ledgers.
Joe and Tirza stood by the hitching rail, gazing up at the stars peeking through the deep blue of twilight. The moon hung as a large orb, its light not yet fully shining down on the land. A light breeze stirred the ruffles along the neckline of Tirza’s dress.
“I thought you were drowning,” Joe said softly.
She smiled at him and said, “A fish cannot die when it is embraced by water.”
“You’re not a fish,” said Joe. “You breathe air.”
“You do not understand,” she said, “for you are a tree.”
“You are rooted to the land, taking nourishment from the ground.”
Joe didn’t care if she thought she was a fish. She was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. “I love you,” he murmured as his leaned forward.
She returned his kiss, draping her arms around his neck.
His lips caressed her cheek then kissed a trail along her neck.
Tirza ran a hand through Joe’s hair and held his mouth over the spot where her pulse was pounding.
Hoss, exiting the barn, tried to quietly make his way to the house. He stepped on a branch and halted in his tracks, shoulders hunched up as if he could make himself smaller.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” he said as the young couple stared at him. He left them to their own devices as he hurried into the house.
“Where’s your brother?” asked Ben as Hoss closed the door.
“Making that girl feel right at home,” replied Hoss.
Adam snorted and marked his place in the book with his forefinger. “He can’t seriously be in love with her.”
“Your brother is still a boy,” said Ben. “The young fall in love as easily as leaves drop from a tree. I remember you declaring you were in love many a time with young ladies newly arrived in Virginia City when you were Joe’s age.”
“That was different,” said Adam. “Those girls didn’t believe they were fish.”
“Whatever she is, she sure don’t seem right in the head,” offered Hoss.
“I want you boys to take a look around in the morning. See if you can find her people.”
Before either Adam or Hoss could voice a complaint, Ben said, “No arguments.”
“Yes, sir,” they both said.
Adam set the book down on the table and headed upstairs. Hoss picked up another apple.
“What was that?” asked Ben.
Hoss swallowed a chunk of apple and asked, “What if we find her people? What if they don’t want her back?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we reach it,” said Ben.
Hoss nodded and trudged upstairs.
Joe closed the front door and escorted Tirza to the guest room. “Good night,” he said.
“Sleep well, Little Joe,” she replied.
Joe crossed over to his father’s desk and sat on the corner. He pensively looked towards the guest room and hugged his arms over his chest.
“She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” answered Ben concentrating on a column of numbers.
“She’s prettier than any other woman I’ve ever known. Was my mother as pretty as she is?”
“Your mother was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. That girl is pretty but there’s no fair comparison when it comes to your mother.”
“Her name is Tirza, not ‘that girl.’” Joe’s eyes blazed in righteous indignation. “She means more to me than anything in the world. I’m going to marry her.”
Ben set the pencil down. “You don’t know her, son. You can’t base a marriage around her appearance.”
“I know she’s kind and good.” After a brief moment of silence, Joe asked, “How long did you know my mother before you married her?”
“More than one day.” Ben picked up the pencil and again studied the ledger. “It’s past time for bed. Go on up. If you still love her in the morning, you can discuss marriage with her.”
Joe’s face brightened and he bounded up the stairs two at a time. His heart beat, “Tirza” with each step.
As the sun peeked over the horizon to wake nature from its sleep, Adam and Hoss wolfed down breakfast in order to get an early start. They discussed which sections of the Ponderosa to search. Hop Sing packed sacks of sandwiches for them.
Ben descended the stairs as his sons were strapping on the gun belts. He approached them and said, “You boys be cautious. We don’t know if her people banished her or if she was merely lost.”
Hoss gently slapped his father’s belly with the back of a beefy hand and said, “Don’t you worry, Pa. We’ll be careful.”
Joe bounded the stairs shortly after, surprised to see breakfast remnants on his brothers’ plates. “Where’d they go?”
“They’re going to look for Tirza’s people.” Noting the worry in his son’s eyes, he added, “They’re not taking her back unless it’s safe.”
Joe let out a relieved breath and took his seat. As he was scooping eggs onto his plate, Tirza emerged from her room.
“Did you sleep well?” Ben asked.
“A fish must stop swimming in order to sleep.”
“I think that means yes,” said Joe as he placed strips of bacon on her plate.
She tore pieces of toast and used them to pick up clumps of scrambled eggs. Ben studied her over the rim of his coffee cup.
“Why don’t you take her to town?” Ben asked.
Joe smiled and shoved a wad of half-chewed food against one cheek. “That’s a great idea.” He pointed at Tirza with his fork and said, “You’ll like Virginia City.”
She cocked her head and asked, “Why?”
Taken aback, Joe’s eyebrows drew together for a brief second. “Tell you what. We’ll go to the dress shop to get you something that fits better. How does that sound?”
“A dress of my choosing?”
“Sure,” answered Joe through a smile.
“I would like that.”
Joe wolfed down the remainder of his breakfast then sprung out of his chair. He strapped on his gun belt and trotted to the barn to hitch up the buggy.
“Where are the others?” asked Tirza.
“They’re looking for your people.”
She rested her elbows on the table and clasped her hands together under her chin. “Fish that cannot swim are carried by the river to a place they did not choose.”
“We won’t let them take you if they mean you harm,” assured Ben.
Tirza looked at him with skepticism in her eyes.
Joe flung open the door and asked, “Are you ready?”
She smiled and pushed back from the table. Ben stood as she made her way to Joe.
“Be careful,” Ben yelled at their backs. He sat down heavily and poured another cup of coffee. I hope that girl won’t bring Joe trouble.
On a far corner of the Ponderosa, Adam and Hoss smelled death. They dismounted and cautiously approached a clearing. Smoke rose from the remains of wagons positioned in a circle. Vultures feasted on bodies riddled with arrows.
Hoss swallowed hard and said, “No wonder that gal thinks she’s a fish.”
“She must be the sole survivor,” Adam said softly. “The river must have been the safest place to hide. Or she jumped in to get away.”
Hoss pulled his bandana from his pocket and held it up to his nose before entering the grim circle. He studied the shaft of an arrow. “These are Washoe.”
Adam nervously looked around and walked to the far side of the camp. Symbols were carved into the rock face. “Let’s go, Hoss. Now.”
“But, Adam, we should bury these folks.”
“No. This is sacred ground. The Washoe won’t appreciate the contamination. We’ll have to leave the bodies for the vultures.” He holstered his pistol and said, “Let’s get home.”
Hoss gulped and obeyed his brother.
Arriving in town, Joe helped Tirza out of the buggy. He proudly noted the envious glances of other young men.
“You wait right here. I’m going in the Bucket of Blood for a minute.”
As she waited, she noted the shops across the street. Gaudy cloth in one window caught her eye. She stepped into the street, drawn as a moth to a flame.
The stagecoach barreled into town and the driver tugged on the reins to slow the horses.
Joe stepped into the bright sunlight as Tirza was run down.
“No!” he screamed as the driver yelled, “Whoa!”
Tirza’s broken body was trapped under one wheel. Joe, on his knees, gently stroked her hand.
The stage driver jumped down and said, “I tried to miss her. Really, I did. I sure am sorry, Little Joe.” He opened the door to assist his passengers out.
Joe remained on his knees, hoping by some miracle Tirza was alive.
From the corner of his eye, Joe saw the breeze flutter a deep purple skirt. He looked first at the hem then his eyes traveled up to the most beautiful pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen.
The young lady looked down as she opened her parasol. “Where can a lady find accommodation in this town?”
Joe continued to stare.
The lady cleared her throat and repeated her question.
Forgetting Tirza, Joe was bewitched by the young lady’s British accent. He removed his hat and found his voice. What’s your name?”
He said her name and smiled. “My Pa would tan my hide if he knew a lady as pretty as you arrived in Virginia City without a place to stay. It’d be my pleasure to escort you to my family’s ranch, the Ponderosa.”
“Ranch?” she asked.
“We have a huge spread.” He took her valise from the driver and then steered her to the buggy. “We have plenty of room for guests, so don’t you worry about imposing.”
“I really shouldn’t,” she said, looking back over her shoulder, searching for a hotel or boarding house.
“My Pa won’t take no for an answer.”
She stopped and placed a palm firmly against his chest. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Cartwright, Joe Cartwright,” he said as he tipped his hat. “Welcome to Virginia City.”
Doreen returned his smile. Joe assisted her into the buggy and bumped into Roy Coffee as he made his way to the other side.
“What about that girl?” Roy asked, hitching a thumb at the corpse trapped under the stagecoach.
“See she gets a decent burial,” said Joe in a low voice and close to the sheriff’s ear. “Send the bill to Pa.”
Roy watched in astonishment as Joe sprang into the buggy and set off down the road.
“Wait ‘til you see our place,” said Joe to his new companion. “All the fresh air you can breathe, great food, and soft beds. You’ll love it.”
“I’m sure I will,” she replied as she settled in for the ride.
Joe hummed a merry tune, his heart beating “Doreen” in time with the buggy’s wheels.
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