The Vacation (by TracyT)

Summary:  An old friend’s daughter visits the Ponderosa in an effort to get over her father’s death. She falls in love … but will she stay?

Rated: MA  WC  58345

 

 The Vacation
Story Notes:

This story introduces a non-canon character.

Chapters 1-25 

 

Chapter One

The Arrival

“Eight months. Can it really have been that long?”

Virginia City was bustling that afternoon. Well, bustling for Virginia City. Ladies strolled into the General Store, hoping to see that perfect fabric for a new dress or some crisp, clean curtains. Ranch hands and miners paid early afternoon visits to the saloon. Several laughing children playing a game of tag ran back and forth across the street from storefront to storefront. A warm September breeze made its way between buildings, threatening to launch a young lady’s bonnet into the air. These were the things he noticed, while trying to lessen his anticipation of the stage’s arrival.

Ben Cartwright, clean-shaven, boots shined, and dressed in a fine black suit paced in front of the stage depot. He hadn’t seen her for years. She was a grown lady by now. He pictured her mother in his mind, and wondered if she would resemble her, or if she continued to favor her father?  Jacob. Her father, and Ben’s friend. After Jacob’s touching letter letting Ben know of his wife’s passing, Ben had thought of him often. And his daughter. Raising a son without a mother was difficult. Ben knew all about that. But a father raising a daughter without her mother? Ben had imagined that was harder still. Eight months ago, Ben had received another letter, this time from the young woman. Jacob… her father… Ben’s good friend, had also passed away. Her letter overflowed with grief. Grief not just for herself, but for Ben as well, for she knew that he and her father had been very important to each other. And Ben had grieved. Heavily. For days, his melancholy mood had prevailed. When he finally decided he’d be able to sit down and write a letter to her, his sorrow over losing his friend had waned and turned instead into concern for her.

Now, eight months later, she would be on the afternoon stage. Ben, thrilled that she had accepted his invitation to visit, had spent days preparing for her arrival. He and everyone else at the Ponderosa! Adam had planted flowers near the front porch – bluebonnets, black-eyed Susan’s, and red roses (her mother’s favorite). At Ben’s request, Hoss had rearranged the furniture in the guest room, so that ‘the morning sun would warm her face as she awakened’. Joe’s task was to wash the windows so she could see the beautiful landscapes. Hop Sing had been baking and cleaning, shining and fluffing. Once the house was in order, Ben and his sons moved on to the barn. Hoss was confused as to why the barn needed to be cleaned for a visiting young woman, and as they worked to organize things, Ben mentioned that she loved horses, just as her mother did, and that during her visit, he wanted her to spend time with the horses and ride as often as she wanted. Adam, Hoss and Joe looked to each other for answers as to why their father was making such a production for her visit. They came up with no answers, but agreed that they hadn’t seen Ben this excited, energized, and well, downright happy in a long time.

In front of the stage depot, Ben’s pacing came to a halt when he heard the sounds of the stage off in the distance. He watched the street as it made its way around the bend, coming to a halt in front of him. As he reached to open the stagecoach door, he felt butterflies in his chest. Taking a deep breath, he unlatched the door and swung it open. A soft, dainty hand with long, slender fingers took his, and she stepped down out of the coach. He smiled as he took in her beauty. Not all cosmetic, though she was a site to see, but an internal beauty that seemed to radiate from her. She smiled back at the handsome man in front of her, and leaned in to kiss Ben’s cheek.

“Mr. Cartwright, it’s wonderful to see you again! Thank you so much for inviting me to visit!”

“Please, Sarah, call me ‘Ben’, and it’s a pleasure to see you. My, you’ve grown into a lovely young woman. How long has it been?”

“It’s been too long, Mr. Cartw… Ben. Four years next month. Oh, Mr. Cartw… Ben, you are even more handsome than I remember!”

Grinning, Ben directed the driver to put Sarah’s trunks onto his surrey and said, “Let’s get you to the Ponderosa. The boys are anxious to meet you, and Hop Sing is making a special ‘welcome’ dinner. “

He helped her into the buggy, and, still beaming, coaxed the horse to start their trip to the Ponderosa. As they rode out of town, Ben realized that now that she was older, she did favor her mother more. But he could still see some of Jacob in her – especially around her bright blue eyes.

“Sarah, I’m so sorry about your father. Jake was a good, kind man, a wonderful husband and a devoted father.” 

Sarah didn’t respond, so Ben continued,

“And he was a friend that you could trust and depend upon, no matter what the circumstances.”

 “I miss him terribly, you know. It’s very lonely without him. Being here with you and your sons … well … Mr. Cartwright, thank you, again, for suggesting this visit.”

Ben nodded to Sarah. Even after eight months, words didn’t come easily when speaking of his old friend. Ben was about to break the silence by pointing out that she’d slipped and called him ‘Mr. Cartwright’ again, but he said nothing. He knew she had been speaking from the heart, and correcting her would serve no purpose. Sarah sat, taking in the beauty of the land. Green, fertile, alive with wildlife. Birds chirping happily, wildflowers scattered here and there along the road. A young doe scampering off into the trees on the side of a rocky hill. She watched as a rabbit fed on the clover near a tall tree. Sarah knew that coming here would help her get over her grief. Her gaze was distracted when Ben announced, “We’re almost there, Sarah.”

She smoothed her dress and tucked a few loose strands of her blonde hair into her bonnet. It was only then that she realized she was anxious about meeting Adam, Joseph and…what was the name that father said he went by? House? Horse? Try as she might, Sarah couldn’t remember the nickname. Eric. That’s what she’d call him. Eric. That’s what her mother had called him when she’d told Sarah stories of the Cartwrights. Adam, Joseph and Eric. And Mr. Cartw… no, Ben.

When the house came into view, Sarah was immediately taken by its size and structure, but mostly by the overwhelming feeling of security she felt in its presence. As the surrey came to a halt, Ben looked at Sarah, and was pleased by the look on her face. Just then, the door flew open and Ben’s sons rushed out to greet their guest. Joe’s eyes widened as Ben lifted Sarah down from the buggy. He stopped, barely through the front door, and looked as if he might fall over. Adam stopped dead in his tracks as Sarah, light as a feather, touched down onto Ponderosa soil. Hoss continued to move closer to the buggy, extended his right hand, and said … nothing. He couldn’t speak. Hoss felt the blood rushing to his face, but still, nothing. Sarah took note of his big, muscular body. But what she noticed most were his eyes. So full of expression and genuine warmth. She took his big, strong hand and said,

“You must be Eric.”

Just as Ben was about to correct her, Hoss replied, “Yes ‘m. I’m Eric. Welcome to the Ponderosa!”

Eric?? Adam, Joe and Ben stared at Hoss, wondering why he hadn’t corrected Sarah. Adam was the first to shake off his bemused stare and step closer to their guest. Sarah extended her arm, now free of Hoss’s gentle grip. Adam took her hand and raised it to his lips.

“Let me guess. You must be Adam.”

It was all Sarah could do to stifle a giggle over Adam’s greeting. He was so handsome. Beautiful eyes. Long eyelashes, and dimples when he smiled.

“And you are the lovely Sarah. Pa told us of your beauty, but my eyes have never seen the like.”

As Adam raised his head from his chivalrous greeting, her blush was apparent. Ben was amused by his sons’ reactions. Hoss was now using his given name, and was blushing as well as grinning from ear to ear. Adam had turned on the charm, and was also obviously taken with Sarah. Joe, still frozen in place, close to the house’s door, had lost all color in his face. Ben could see, from some distance that Joe’s breathing seemed labored. Thinking him ill, Ben was about to approach his son when Joe broke loose of his statue-like stance, and walked, slowly and deliberately, toward Sarah.  She removed her bonnet, letting her long, golden hair fall below her shoulders.

“You must be Joseph.”

Never taking his eyes away from her gaze, Joe slowly leaned in to kiss Sarah’s cheek. From the start of his movement to the actual kiss felt like a lifetime to Sarah. She felt her pulse racing and her knees weakening. Without uttering one single word, Joe had become the most intriguing man she’d ever met. Every breath she took added to her light-headed feeling. Joe was captivating. Handsome. Strong. His eyes were so full of life. And then, he kissed her cheek …

The Vacation

Chapter Two:

Getting To Know You

Adam glanced at Hoss and rolled his eyes. Hoss simply shook his head, and their expressions said it all: Little Brother “Romeo” was at it again.  As Joe stepped back after the kiss, Ben, already feeling paternal toward Sarah, and knowing his youngest son’s innocent, yet infamous reputation with the ladies, surveyed Sarah and Joe closely.  The two never broke eye contact.  Ben felt a sudden warm breeze brush by his left shoulder. It sent a slight shudder through him, along with a content feeling that Ben hadn’t felt in years. “Must be the heat”, Ben thought to himself.

“Let’s get you inside and settled before supper, Sarah. Hos … er … Eric, bring Sarah’s trunks inside. Adam, you tend to the horse. Joe, you … come on inside with us.”

Ben took Sarah’s arm and they walked toward the house, with Joe following close behind. Sarah smiled as she noticed her mother’s favorite – the roses planted along the porch. When they entered the house, Sarah was astounded by the size of the place. Standing there, taking it all in, she came to the conclusion that this was, without a doubt, a home filled with men. Everything was grand, and while she found the décor attractive and inviting, it had a masculine feel. Her lips formed the tiniest bit of a smile when she remembered the roses and other flowers outside – she was fully aware now that those had been planted for her visit. And it made her feel even more welcome.

“You have a wonderful home, Ben.”

Calling him ‘Ben’ still didn’t come easily to Sarah.

“Thank you, Sarah. We like it too.”

Hop Sing hurried in from the kitchen.

“Miss Sarah. Welcome to the Ponderosa. You stay here with many men. Hop Sing make sure they no bother you.”

“Hop Sing, I’ve heard so much about you. I’m sure this ranch would fall to pieces without you! Sarah leaned toward Hop Sing, whispering, ” And don’t you worry about these Cartwright men. I can handle them!”

Ben had heard what Sarah whispered, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a grin.

“Now, let me show you to your room so you can settle in. Supper will be a few hours from now.”

“I’d like to rest a bit, if that’s alright. It’s been a long journey.”

“Of course, my dear, just follow me. And … Eric, … please bring Sarah’s trunks to her room.”

As the three walked upstairs, Joe remained in the entry of the living room, where he’d stood from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. He watched as she glided up the stairs, like water cascading down over the rocks of a waterfall. Only this water was flowing upward! He realized, with a sudden start, that he’d been holding his breath. For how long, he wasn’t sure. And as he exhaled, a grin formed on Joe Cartwright’s face.

The door opened, letting the scent of roses into the Cartwright living room. Adam had tended to the horse and buggy, and came back inside. He stepped right behind Joe – who didn’t even notice his big brother’s presence. Adam turned his head in the same direction as Joe’s, trying to figure out what it was that held Joe’s attention so demandingly. Joe was looking at the stairs. And smiling. Perplexed, Adam shook his head, walked around in front of Joe and said,

“What’cha lookin’ at little brother?”

“Huh … what … umm … oh … huh?”

“I said, what’cha lookin’ at?”

“Umm … the stairs, I guess … Why? Who wants t’know?”

Joe’s defensive tone was a total surprise. Adam’s eyes opened wide as he looked Joe square in the eye. He was about to defend his question, when Joe zombie-walked over to the settee, plopped himself down, and sighed. Adam followed, lowered himself onto the sofa. Baffled by his behavior, Adam finally asked,

“Where is everybody?”

“Upstairs … getting Sarah settled before … supper … she wanted to rest … a bit.”

Before Adam could respond, Hoss and Ben came downstairs. Ben went straight to the kitchen to check on Hop Sing’s progress on their supper, and Hoss took a seat on the fireplace hearth. He glanced at Adam, who was looking at their little brother as if he had two heads! Then he watched Joe, and asked,

“Hey Adam, what’s a matter with him?”

“Ya got me Hoss!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After a long, quiet spell in the Cartwright house, the men washed up for supper. One by one, they came downstairs, followed shortly thereafter by a well-rested houseguest. The men all stood, as gentlemen do, when Sarah reached the living room floor. Ben was the first to speak, and asked if she’d had a good rest.

“Yes, I did, and I hope I wasn’t gone too long.”

“No, of course not. I’m glad you’re feeling rested. Supper will be ready soon. Is there anything you’d like to do until its ready? “

“Actually, I would like to step outside and get a little fresh air. The sky is so blue, and the sun is shining.”

Adam and Hoss immediately stood to offer to go outside with her. Hoss won. So Adam sat back down. After Hoss and Sarah were gone, Adam looked over at Joe – who had not made a move to beat either of his brothers to the invitation. Adam found this peculiar, and when Ben left the room to check on supper, Adam saw his opportunity.

“So, little brother. You’re awfully quiet for someone who has a beautiful young woman visiting him” … nothing …”Staying in his house” … not a word …“About to eat supper across the table” … he wasn’t even blinking …

Amused by Joe’s behavior, Adam launched into working on ways that he and Hoss could tease him. He was sure that Hoss would come up with a few schemes of his own as well. Just as the first plan began to form in his head, Ben walked in, opened the front door, and announced that supper was ready. Immediately, Adam put his ruse on hold, as he walked to the table to join his family and their guest. Joe followed. “So”, thought Adam, “he hasn’t gone deaf!”  Ben sat at the head of the table, with Adam opposite him. Hoss and Sarah were on one side, and Joe on the other. Hop Sing entered the dining room and proudly placed two large plates onto the table. He quickly left and returned with the rest of their supper, then nodded to indicate that they should begin.

As they enjoyed the meal, the conversation moved from Sarah’s trip to the Ponderosa, to Ben’s friendship with Sarah’s parents, to Hop Sing’s lack of talent at making coffee (of course, Hop Sing was not in the room for that discussion!). After a tasty dessert of apple pie – Sarah’s favorite – and apparently, Hoss’s too – they moved to the living room to relax and continue their visit. Sarah took a seat on the settee, next to Adam. Hoss and Ben took the side chairs, and Joe sat on the fireplace hearth. He’d been uncharacteristically quiet during supper, contributing to the discussion only twice.

It started with Adam teasing by bringing up that Hoss had eaten three helpings of apple pie at supper. The sparkle in Adam’s eyes made it clear to Sarah that he cared deeply for Hoss, and that the teasing was meant to be just that. Then Hoss mentioned that the previous week, Adam had taken a tumble into a shallow, muddy pond. Even though Hoss struggled to finish the story – his roaring laughter nearly preventing him from speaking – it was obvious to Sarah that Adam’s love for Hoss was equally returned. Joe participated very little in the evening’s festivities, joining the fun only when the tales were about him. More than once, Sarah caught Joe with the slightest grin on his face and twinkle in his beautiful eyes. She knew then how he felt about his two older brothers, and their glances at Joe hinted at the same. All along, Ben Cartwright, with a look of shear contentment, listened and watched his sons. Everyone was teasing and laughing, and by the end of the evening, Sarah, being an astute judge of people, was able to ascertain quite a bit of information about the characters of each of the handsome Cartwright men. However, Joe remained a bit of a mystery. He wasn’t at all the way Ben had described him when he’d visited Sarah’s family back east.

When there was a short lull in the conversation, Sarah stood (and so did all four well-mannered men) and politely thanked everyone for a lovely evening. They each said their ‘good-nights’ to their guest, and she gracefully went up the stairs to her room. She’d unpacked some of her things earlier, and finished doing so now. While she did, she reflected on each of the Cartwright men.

‘Mr. Cartwr … Ben’ .

She remembered liking him when he’d visited her family. She’d remembered him to be well spoken, gentle, confident and loving. Spending this one evening with Ben was enough to show her that she remembered correctly. He was the kind of man that Sarah admired most – one who loves his family above all else and isn’t embarrassed to show that affection. Just like her father had been. She now understood why he and her father had been such good friends.

Adam’.‘What an attractive man. With a smile that reveals dimples and puts a sparkle in his eyes. Devoted to his father and brothers, yet determined to make his own successes in life. A kind spirit. And intelligent for sure.’

She could tell that he was a kind and gentle man, and that he would never attempt to make his own successes at a cost to someone else.

‘And Adam is … energetic? No, that’s not the word. Adam is … interesting? No, still not right. Adam is … fun.’

That was it. Fun. She knew she would enjoy Adam’s company anytime because he was fun.

‘Eric’.

‘Father had told me that Eric was a big man, with a big heart, and a big sense of fairness. Of right and wrong.’

Sarah had never quite understood what her father meant, until now.

‘Eric is a big man. With a smile that lights up a room. In his eyes, I see kindness, strength and vulnerability.’

Sarah was sure that a person could depend on Eric for just about anything. ‘Eric is … a protector.’

‘Joseph.’

          As Sarah started thinking about Joe, she couldn’t put two words together! Nothing sounded quite right to her. It was as if describing Joe was impossible to do. She even had to stop unpacking her things so she could better concentrate. She sat on the edge of her bed.

‘Let me try that again. Joseph is a very handsome man. Polite, soft spoken, maybe even shy?’

          But her father had said that, from Ben’s letters, Joe was a handful. Not a bad son. A curious one. He’d added that those are the ones to watch out for.

‘But the Joseph I’ve seen so far is so quiet. I can tell that he loves his brothers and father unconditionally. He’s devoted to Ben. I saw it in his eyes. His wonderfully expressive eyes. Joseph is … for now … a mystery.’

          Sarah stood and finished her task, then dressed for bed.  She was exhausted from her trip and the evening with the Cartwrights. As she snuggled under the blue blanket on her bed, she couldn’t help wondering what tomorrow would bring. What her two month visit would bring. She felt privileged to be here with this family. She’d only spent a few hours with them thus far, and already she felt safe and content. And as she began to doze off, she thought of Joseph. And wondered why she was having so much trouble describing him.

 

Chapter Three:

Where Do I Fit In?

(two weeks after Sarah’s arrival)

Adam

During the second week of Sarah’s visit, Adam invited her to ride along when he went to visit the widow Martin. The Cartwrights had been checking in on her once a month ever since her son moved away. As they rode to her small farm, Adam talked of his interests, his schooling, and the Ponderosa. Sarah was intrigued by the vast amount of knowledge Adam retained. Technical knowledge. Facts and numbers. From this conversation, she would label him a book-worm. But as she chatted with Adam, that ‘fun’ part shined again. She wasn’t sure what words would describe him, but she knew it was more than ‘book-worm’. After all, Adam was almost always present when Sarah was having fun.

“I’ve been rude. I’ve been talking up a storm. So, Sarah, what are you enjoying most about being on the Ponderosa?”

“Hmm … I’m enjoying getting to know you. And your father and brothers. So I really don’t mind if you do most of the talking. And I’m loving the open feeling. Being from the city, I really appreciate the trees, the rivers, the mountains, and of course, the lake! And I enjoy helping with the horses, and even the chores.”

“Well, I can’t say I’d ever admit to enjoying chores! Mrs. Martin’s place is just beyond those rocks. She’s a nice lady, I think you’ll like her.”

“Oh, I’m sure I will.”

The widow Martin was glad to see Adam and to meet Sarah. They spent the late morning and all afternoon fixing things, chopping wood and, well, anything the widow needed. Sarah was impressed by Adam’s patience with the widow. He’d listen to what she said, even if she’d said it once already! He seemed genuinely eager to help her with anything she needed. Sarah was taking laundry off the line. As she was folding some crisp bed sheets, she thought

“Adam has a way with people. He’s generous with his time. Doesn’t hesitate to work really hard. Kind and gentle, strong and capable. And so very handsome.”

Once the laundry was folded, and Mrs. Martin had no more tasks for Adam and Sarah, they said their goodbyes and started for the Ponderosa. Half way into the return trip, Adam took a detour to show Sarah one of his favorite spots on the Ponderosa. It was a large, secluded area with some of the biggest trees Sarah had ever seen. They dismounted and Adam took her by the hand. He guided her to a clearing and when she looked up, Sarah gasped. Through the clearing, and down the mountain, was the most beautiful view of Lake Tahoe. Adam told her that one day, he’d have his own house here, with big windows overlooking the lake. After a few moments of staring at the incredible site, Sarah found her voice and whispered,

“Oh, Adam it’s the most beautiful place for a home!”

“I know… Come here, let’s sit down on those rocks over there. We have plenty of time to get back for supper.”

Adam took her by the arm and led her to the spot. Sitting on the rocks, they stared out at the sparkling blue water.

It’s as if the water is smiling and all of those sparkly spots are its teeth!” 

Adam laughed a little and watched Sarah as she took it all in. A goose flew overhead and though they were pretty far from the lake, they watched it land gracefully on the water. Halfway down the hill, Sarah noticed a fawn helping himself to some sweet grass.

“This is … wonderful. Thank you for showing me this place, Adam!”

“You’re welcome. I only show it to special people. And you, Sarah, are a special person.”

“Oh Adam, how you go on!”

“I mean it. You make me laugh, and when you ask all of your questions, you make me think about things I just might take for granted. So many questions! Joe used to ask a lot of questions too. Most of the time, I knew the answer, or could find the answer. But Joe thought I knew it all. Guess that’s because I’m the oldest brother. I always felt like I should be there to guide him, look after him, see that he was safe.”  You’re a lot like Joe. A young woman who needs to know about things in a deeper way.”

“You think you need to watch out for me, like you do Joseph?”

“Yeah … I feel like you’re sort of my little sister. I want you to be happy and safe. It feels … comfortable to be with you. I like spending time with you, hearing your opinions and ideas, and teasing you like I do Hoss and Joe. Like a sister. Is that alright with you?”

“Of course it is, Adam. That makes you the brother I never had! … I like that way that sounds. And the way it makes me feel.”

Sarah smiled a warm smile, and Adam kissed her cheek. The entire ride the rest of the way was filled with Sarah asking questions. Adam answered and enjoyed every one of them.

 

(four weeks after Sarah’s arrival)

Eric

Sarah and Hoss had been riding for hours that day. He liked spending time with her. Over the past three weeks, they’d been to see his favorite tree, his favorite meadow, and his favorite spot along Lake Tahoe. As they rode up to another of Hoss’s favorite places, Sarah asked,

          “Why didn’t you tell me, that first day, that no one else calls you Eric ?”

          They dismounted, tied their horses to some bushes and sat on some rocks along the bank of the Truckee River. Sarah noticed that Eric was blushing a little, and seemed reluctant to answer her question.

“Miss Sarah, I’m really not sure why I didn’t say anythin’. It’s just that when ya called me ‘Eric’, well, I reckon I kinda … liked it. See, everyone else calls me Hoss. They always have, ‘n when you called me ‘Eric’, it gave me this feelin’ … that we would be … well, more than jist friends.

          Not sure of what Hoss actually meant, Sarah looked at him with a troubled expression. She could see that he was still uncomfortable with the topic of their discussion. Embarrassed, really. Hoss couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with Sarah.  

“I was right, ya know. Miss Sarah, I like you. You ride better ‘an any girl I know. You love animals, jist like I do. You make all of us laugh!  ‘An yer jist special to be around. I always feel sorta at ease with you.   Spendin’ time with you … well … I feel like I got a little sister ta look after.”

          “A little sister? Aren’t boys supposed to just put up with their sisters?”

          Hoss finally looked up at her, still obviously unsure of himself, and answered her question.

“Well, it’s like this, Miss Sarah. We have fun together. You like horses an’ so do I. We ride together an’ you never seem t’ get tired of the places I wanna show ya. Ya tease me … a lot. Jist like Adam and Lil’ Joe do. An’ I don’t even mind. When I git home from someplace, an’ ya ask me t’ tell ya all about it, well … I kin tell ya really wanna know, and ya care.

“Of course I do, Eric.”

“There’s more. I git this feelin’ like I should protect you, ya know, look out fer ya, even worry ‘bout ya. Miss Sarah, ain’t that how a brother’s sposed ta feel ‘bout his sister?”

“Eric, I don’t know what to say … I do feel safe when I’m with you, like I can try anything and you’ll be there for me, just in case. You make me laugh. You make me look at things. Ordinary things. And I see them differently through your eyes.”

There was an awkward silence. It was so quiet, Sarah could hear Hoss breathing.

“Miss Sarah, ain’t that how a sister’s sposed to feel ‘bout a brother?”

Silence. Again.

“Not if a brother keeps callin’ his sister ‘Miss Sarah’!”

There was no period of silence this time. This time, Hoss spoke up.

“And only if a sister keeps callin’ her brother ‘Eric’!”

They both laughed, then Sarah reached for Hoss and gave him a big hug. Hoss squeezed her, gently, and whispered in her ear,

“Thanks, Lil sister.”

“Thanks to you too, Eric.”

(later that week)

BEN

          It was a sunny, crisp morning and Ben was ready to start his day.

“Morning, Sarah. Did you sleep well?”

          “Good morning, Ben. I slept like a baby! Shall I set the table for breakfast?”

“That would be lovely. I’m sure Hop Sing won’t mind someone else in his kitchen while he’s away. He sure does look forward to visiting his family. Only two places though. The boys rode out very early on their way to mend some fences. Looks like it’s just you and me today.”

          After a nice conversation and a wonderful breakfast, Sarah cleaned up the table and kitchen. When she came into the living room, Ben was busy at work at his desk. Sarah found herself admiring the fine wood and details of the furniture. She asked if there was anything she could do to help.

“I’m almost finished here, but thank you for offering. When I’m done, I thought we could ride over to the stream, you know, the one near the rock that looks like a bear. It’s a lovely day for a ride and we can chat without interruption from the boys!”

“I’d love that. I’ll be ready whenever you are.”

Sarah ran up the stairs, excited at the idea of spending the morning with Ben. He finished his calculations, closed the ledger, and leaned back in his old body-fitted leather chair. He was really looking forward to spending the morning with the effervescent daughter of his old friend. As soon as she was changed, Sarah and Ben mounted their horses and headed for the stream. The sky was robin’s egg blue, with no clouds in sight. Birds were performing their morning songs, rabbits and raccoons were finishing their morning meals. A perfect beginning to their day. When they rode up to the stream, several deer, helping themselves to a cool drink on the opposite bank, scampered into the trees. Ben laid out a large blanket near the bear rock. Sarah sat on the blanket, not taking her eyes away from the breathtaking scenery. Ben, sitting on the rock, smiled when he saw her glowing face.

“Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it certainly does. Adam and Eric have shown me their favorite spots near the lake. It was like seeing perfection. And here it is again! Every place on the Ponderosa is … perfect!”

“I felt that way on the first day I set foot on this land, and I still feel the same. But I’m sure there are beautiful places back east. Did you have a favorite place there?”

“My father and I used to take short trips to the mountains in New York. He was so busy, he couldn’t get away for long vacations. He took me once to a waterfall. The sound it made as the water rushed down the rocks was calming. That was a wonderful trip.”

Sarah stood and walked closer to the stream. Ben walked up behind her, gently placing his hands on her shoulders.

“It’s alright to be sad. You must miss him terribly.”

“I do. I’ll always miss him. But that’s not it. When I got your letter inviting me to visit, I wanted to see you again, meet your sons, and visit the Ponderosa. But I did have an ulterior motive. I wanted a distraction. I thought it would help me get over losing Father. And, I guess, just now, I realized that it has helped. I’m enjoying myself immensely.”

Sarah walked closer to the stream, away from Ben. After a few moments, Ben walked to her side.

“I’m glad that we were able to help you. You shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying yourself. Jake wouldn’t have wanted that. I think he’s looking down on you, happy that you’re moving forward.”

“I hope so.”

“Sarah, having you here has been wonderful for me too. Sometimes, a house full of cowboys needs a woman’s touch! And I know my sons love having you here. They’ve said so.”

“I like them a lot too. Oh, and you, of course, Ben! I feel at home here. Like I belong to something greater than anything I’ve ever belonged to before. Does that make sense?”

“I think so. It’s a hard life here in the West. But, by golly, young lady, you seem to have been born to be a part of it. You fit so well into our family. The boys treat you like one of them! And I’ve grown to look forward to seeing your smiling face come down those stairs every morning. If I’d had a daughter, I think she’d have been just like you.  

“Oh, Ben, I can see how much you love your sons, and to hear that you think of me like a daughter, well, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

Sarah turned to Ben, and kissed his cheek. Ben took her hands in his, looked into her eyes, and asked her a very important question.

“Sarah, why don’t you stay here, on the Ponderosa? We’d love to have you. And you wouldn’t be alone back east in the city – in fact, as well as you and the boys get along, you’d most likely never be alone again!”

“Oh, Ben. I’ll need to think about your gracious invitation, if you don’t mind. It would be a big change for me. I will think about it, long and hard. I’ll have an answer for you in one week.”

The ride back to the house seemed shorter.  Sarah had a million things running through her mind. This was a huge decision, and she needed to weigh all the possibilities and consequences before making that decision. Although she was lost in thought, Sarah smiled the whole way home.

Joseph

          Joe was still a bit of a mystery to Sarah. One minute, he was quiet and downright shy, and the next, he was flirting and teasing her. They never seemed to have conversations that could be labeled ‘serious’. Sarah enjoyed his company. Immensely. They spent more time together than she and Adam, or she and Hoss, but she felt like she knew both of his brothers more intimately – not in an attraction sort of way, but in a sisterly sort of way. But Joe’s mood changes made it increasingly difficult to read him. In any given conversation, Sarah was confronted with questions. Joe would flirt: “Does that mean he likes me asmore than a friend?”  Joe would tease: “Does that mean he likes me the way Hoss and Adam do? Like a sister?”  Joe would suddenly become quiet and shy:“Does that mean that he took his flirting a little too far and realized that I might be getting the wrong idea, that he DID only like me as a sister??”  Sarah was so confused by this handsome, exciting, tough-but-wears-his-heart-on-his-sleeve man. She missed him when he wasn’t around. And she often found herself wondering where he was and what he was doing. And hoping that he wasn’t teasing or flirting with any other woman.  

(five weeks after Sarah’s arrival)

Joseph

          It was a long ride into town. Joe needed to pick up some supplies at the General Store, and Sarah needed flour – with Hop Sing’s permission, she was baking apple pies that afternoon – so she went along. Over the past four weeks, Joe continued to be nervous, yet charming around Sarah. At times, something about her made him unable to form a sentence. Other times, he felt so comfortable with her that would tease her until they both laughed so hard they couldn’t stop! He was comfortable with her and uncomfortable with her at the same time. She made him laugh and infuriated him at the same time. Everyone noticed. Even Mr. Johnson, owner of the General Store. Joe was loading the heavy supplies onto the buckboard, and Sarah was looking at the newest samplings of fabrics. Joe came out of the back room, and walked past Sarah.

Aren’t you done yet? How long does it take a woman to buy flour?”

          Before she could answer, Joe was out the front door, dropping the load with the other things. As he walked back through the store for the next bundle, it was Sarah’s turn.

“Joseph, how many trips are you going to make? Maybe if you were stronger, you could carry more at a time!”

          Mr. Johnson looked away and grinned. He was enjoying their banter. It had happened the last time they were in the store too. Joe ignored Sarah, and continued his mission. He’d lifted the last bundle and headed through the store, ready to fire another ‘insult’ Sarah’s way. But she was gone. Mr. Johnson saw him looking around for her, and tilted his head, indicating to Joe that she’d gone to the wagon. Joe tossed the last of the supplies onto the pile, jumped into the seat next to Sarah, let a tiny grin form on his face, and started the trip back to the Ponderosa.

About halfway there, at the fork near the stream, Joe took a left, instead of the right that Sarah knew would take them home. She was about to ask what he was doing, but Joe spoke first.

I hope you don’t mind a little detour. I wanna show you something. It won’t take long, and I think you’ll like it.”

          “Alright. What is it?”

          “It’s a secret until we’re there.”

          A few minutes later, they pulled up to a small clearing. Sarah looked around, and saw nothing. Well, there were trees, and rocks, a little grass here and there. No gurgling streams. No amazing lake views. Joe helped her down from the seat, and when he put his hands onto her waist, her body tingled. Joe took her hand and they walked over to some bushes. Normally, Sarah would have been arguing about what they were doing here? Why was he wasting her time to show her rocks? But she trusted Joe, completely, so she kept quiet and waited for the secret to be revealed. Joe let go of her hand, reached into the bushes, and pulled them apart, making a narrow path for Sarah to walk through. She looked at Joe, and he said,

“Go on. I’ll hold them back. Just walk through … Unless you’re scared!”

          That was all it took. Sarah plowed through the opening, with a grinning Joe following after. He took her hand again, and after a few steps forward, she saw it. The mouth of a small cave. It had been completely hidden by the rocks and bushes. She looked at Joe, who was still grinning, and returned the smile. Joe guided her closer, then told her to sit on some rocks while he made sure the cave was empty. She did as she was told (for a change), and Joe entered slowly. Luckily, the sun was shining toward the cave opening, so the first few feet of the cave were well lit. But as he continued into the darkness, Sarah lost sight of him, and she felt fear coming over her. She was about to call out to him, when he strolled out of the cave, looked at her and said,

“Were you worried about me?”

          “Not at all, Joseph Cartwright, not at all.”

          “Ouch, Sarah, that’s hurts my feelings!”

          “I’ll hurt something…”

          Giggling, Sarah chased after Joe, trying to corral him. All the while, Joe was laughing too. Finally, he let her catch him, and pretended she was hurting him. Sarah let go, and Joe reached after her to pull her back to him. When she was right in front of him, Joe released his grip, but kept his hands on her waist. Sarah could feel Joe’s warm breath on her face. They looked into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. Sarah felt the tingle fade away and turn into something more. She didn’t want Joe to let go. Ever. Joe wanted to kiss her. But he couldn’t move a muscle.

“Are we going into that cave or not, Joseph?”

          Joe had to take a beat or two before he could answer. For some reason, his heart was beating faster than it should be. Grateful for her question, Joe spoke.

          “Of course we are … umm … come on, let’s go. There’s no one inside. I want to show you some Indian drawings on the cave walls. I’m not sure what they mean. In fact, no one who has seen them is sure.”

          They entered the cave. Joe saw Sarah shiver, and put his arm around her waist to reassure her. Sarah thought, “Oh great, I was cold already. Now he’s touching me again, and I’m shivering more!” About nine feet into the cave, Joe stopped and pointed to the cave wall. There it was. An old Indian cave drawing. Immediately, Sarah’s mind took her back to the past, as she tried to imagine someone standing in her place, writing this message. Joe was not thinking about the drawing.

“I’ve seen this many times. I have an idea of what it might mean. But what do you think it means?”

          Sarah studied the faded pictures. Fascinated by who might have drawn them, she reached out and touched each image, each figure, as if touching them could make them speak to her. Joe watched her delicate fingers as they traced the symbols. He noticed her face. Intent on scanning every line. With a look of wonderment. Joe felt the urge to kiss her yet again. He had to shake these feelings!

“Well, any guesses at what they mean?”

          “I do have a guess. I think this one is a young Indian princess. And if you look closely, there … she seems to be crying.”

          “Oh … I never noticed that before. What else do ya see?”

“Over here … this one … I think he a brave warrior. Strong and fearless. And he loves the princess. He’s about to go to war … see this … looks like fire and sticks, bows and arrows … and she doesn’t want him to leave her. Look at his face. He is proud, but you can see love in his eyes.”

“Really? Where? The picture’s all worn and faded. How can you see love in his eyes?”

“You have to use your imagination silly! See how his arms are extended – he’s reaching for her. To say goodbye. And those figures over there – those are the rest of the warriors waiting for him.”

“Sarah, you do have a vivid imagination, I’ll say that fer sure!”

When Sarah looked at Joe, it was obvious that she didn’t appreciate his opinions. The sunlight streaming into the cave was beginning to shift to the west, so it was getting darker inside the cave. Joe took Sarah by the hand and led her out into the sunlight. They both had to squint for a while until their eyes adjusted to the brightness. Still walking toward the path through the bushes, Sarah stumbled and nearly fell. Joe caught her by the waist, and when they both straightened, they were face to face, yet again. Their bodies closer together than they’d ever been before. Joe kept his hold at her waist, and Sarah allowed him to do so. They seemed mesmerized by each other. Each breath coming quicker than the previous. “Sarah … I … “ Joe took Sarah’s chin in his hand. His touch on her skin made her shudder. Then Joe kissed Sarah’s lips. At first, he thought she might pull away. But she didn’t. When the kiss was over, she looked into his eyes, and placed her hands on his chest, not sure if she wanted to push him away, or draw him nearer. The touch of her hands on his chest made Joe shiver. He leaned in to kiss her again. But she moved her hands from his chest to his shoulders and held him at bay. Disappointed, Joe took one small step backward. To his delighted surprise, Sarah’s right hand traveled from his shoulder to his neck, then she traced his jaw with her slender fingers.“Joseph … I … “ Though he tried, Joe couldn’t stop himself, and he kissed her again. A long , passionate kiss this time. And Sarah responded by kissing him back. Their lips parted, leaving them both breathless. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you since the day we met!” “Joseph, I’ve spent hours thinking about you … I’ve wondered if you felt the same way about me … I’ve imagined what your touch would feel like … Dreamed of kissing you.” Hearing that Sarah felt this way, Joe could no longer contain his emotions. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. He thought of all the times in the past four weeks that he’d thought of doing just what he was doing. She held on to Joe, her head on his chest, and listened to his heart beating. She was so happy. As she tightened her hug slightly, she noted that their breathing was synchronized. Joe wanted to kiss her again, but realized that could wait. Their embrace was all he needed to prove to himself how he felt about this wonderful woman. The couple stayed together, hugging, for a long time. They were interrupted by a clap of thunder.  Neither had noticed the dark clouds rolling in. “We really should get going. Looks like a bad storm.” “You’re right. Let’s go!” Reluctantly, they released their hold and hurried to the buckboard. Joe reached for her to help her into the seat. When he touched her, Sarah heard herself gasp. Joe had heard it too. He smiled at her, and kissed her on the cheek as he lifted her up. The couple held hands on their way back to the Ponderosa. They barely made it to the barn as the rain began to fall in sheets. With the supplies on the buckboard safely inside, Joe took Sarah by the hand and they ran for the house. No one else was home. The rain pounded down on the roof and windows. After changing into dry clothes, Sarah came downstairs, to find Joe sitting by the fire to warm himself. She joined him on the hearth. The opposite side of the hearth. They looked at each other, but no one spoke. A fierce clap of thunder made Sarah jump. Joe moved to her, in case another thunder boom frightened her. He put his arm around her shoulders and she slid closer to him. When she rested her head on his shoulder, Joe could wait no longer. He turned her toward him and kissed her nose. Sarah giggled, and a lock of her hair fell into her eyes. Joe tenderly brushed the hair back in place. The silkiness of it caught Joe’s attention. He softly stroked her hair. “Joe … I …” He didn’t let her finish. When he spoke, his voice was husky. He was surprised that he found it difficult to control. “You called me ‘Joe’. You’ve never done that before.” Sarah hadn’t even realized. She smiled up at him. “I guess I did. But I don’t … “ Joe didn’t let her finish. Placing his finger on her lips, he traced their shape, then let his hand slowly fall down her cheek, to her neck, then to her chin.  He held her as he kissed her.  “Sarah … I love you.” “Oh, Joe … I love you too.” The couple embraced. As they held each other, Joe nuzzled Sarah’s silky hair. Its smell was intoxicating. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed that before. Their moment was interrupted when they heard horses approaching the house. Feeling “caught in the act”, they separated and Joe flew over to the settee, and picked up a book, leaving Sarah, grinning and blushing, on the hearth. Adam, Hoss and Ben entered the house, talking loudly about something that had happened in town. Ben went to the kitchen for coffee. Adam joined Joe on the settee, and, perceptive as always, immediately picked up on the atmosphere between the couple. Hoss took a side chair, and he too, quickly noticed his little brother’s discomfort. Hoss looked to Adam, who winked, then looked from Joe to Sarah. Now Hoss understood! Neither of them were surprised at this revelation. Joe had been acting so un-Joe-like for the past few weeks. Now, they knew for sure why. When Ben returned with a tray of coffee, cups, brandy and glasses, he saw Hoss and Adam’s sheepish grins, and Sarah and Joe acting like they didn’t know the other even existed. “Would anyone like some coffee? Or a brandy?” Both Sarah and Joe answered loudly and quickly. Too quickly. “Coffee”, they said in unison.   Adam crossed his legs and shifted his gaze to try and hide his snicker. Hoss rubbed his face with his hand to try and mask his amusement. Joe looked at Hoss with a look that Hoss had seen so many times. It meant, simply, “Help! I don’t want Pa to ask questions!” Taking pity on his little brother … and the woman who felt like his little sister … Hoss began a conversation to distract Ben. Adam, being ‘helpful’ as always, joined in. “Pa, did I tell you that me and Adam saw Eddie Miller in town the other day?” “Yes, we did, Pa. And he told us that he’d been back from school for two weeks and was missing her girl terribly.” “Said they’d most lik’ly be gittin’ married one of these days.” “Well, that’s nice to hear. I’ve always liked Eddie. If you or Adam see him again before he goes back to school, tell him to ride on out here and visit.” “Will do, Pa. Ain’t it great when someone from Virginia City falls in love?” “Yes, brother, it is. Especially someone like Eddie. You know, it wasn’t long ago that he was the Casanova of our little town. That is ‘til Joe here got old enough to go courting.” Joe raised his coffee cup to his mouth and looked just over the top of it – giving Adam and Hoss ‘the look’. That meant he knew they were teasing him, and it was time for them to stop! Not only was Joe not ready to open a discussion about his and Sarah’s newly discovered feelings for each other, but he didn’t want Sarah to be embarrassed by their teasing. However, Sarah was already on to their game. “Hoss, Adam, would you like some coffee?”“I sure would like a cup of coffee, how ‘bout you, Adam?” “Why, yes, I would love a cup of coffee, brother Hoss.” Ben had taken a seat and was reading from a book. Oblivious to the game taking place in the room. Joe looked at Sarah, and she managed a wink of her own – without either Adam or Hoss noticing. Sarah poured two shallow cups of coffee. When she nodded to Joe, he feigned a coughing spell. While the Cartwrights were all looking at pour, coughing Joe, Sarah poured brandy into both cups of coffee. Joe managed a glance at Sarah, who winked again. His ‘coughing spell’ over, Joe sat back and sipped his coffee. Sarah handed the cups to Adam and Hoss. “It’s already cooled off a bit, so if you like it nice and hot, better drink up!” Hoss and Adam both took a large gulp of the ‘coffee’. Hoss choked a little, then swallowed so hard he sounded like a bullfrog! Adam leaned forward, almost doubled over, and spit the ‘coffee’ back into his cup. Joe and Sarah erupted with laughter, leaving poor Ben completely in the dark. Before Hoss or Adam could say anything, Sarah jumped up and announced that she’d be in the kitchen making supper. Joe, with his pinky extended and a deadpan face, continued to sip his coffee.

(one week later)

Chapter Four:

And The Answer is …

The next day seemed to go on endlessly. No one, except Ben, knew why he’d planned a fancy dinner for that evening. It was barely dawn, and Hop Sing was already busy in the kitchen. As the family and their guest arrived downstairs, breakfast appeared on the table.

“Whoa … I kin smell apple pie! Gee Pa, do ya think maybe Hop Sing is servin’ pie for breakfast!”

“No Hoss, those are for after tonight’s dinner. Now sit down and eat your breakfast. I need you three boys to ride out and check on the progress for the lumber contract. Then on the way back, head into town. Adam, I need you to pick up a bank draft and check with Andy Stevens to see if the legal loose ends have all been tied.  Hoss and Joe, I need you to go to the church and do what you can to help the builders with the addition. I want all three of you back here in plenty of time to clean up before dinner.”

Ben’s sons all nodded, and sat down for breakfast. Sarah was pouring coffee for them all. Ben, Hoss, Joe. Last was Adam. As she leaned in front of him to reach his cup, she leaned on Adam’s shoulder with her hip. He looked up at her and saw her devilish grin, so he gently pushed back. The pushing became stronger and stronger, and when Hoss noticed what was going on, he tried to hide his amusement by staring at his plate, but lifted his eyes to watch the fun. Joe was watching too. His amusement, however, was written all over his face. By the time Ben noticed the pushing battle, Joe and Hoss were laughing out loud.

“Alright you two. That’s enough! If you need to have a shoving match, take it outside! ”

Realizing that he’s just given his eldest son permission to have an outdoor shoving match with a young lady, Ben became red faced. Having raised three sons, “take it outside” had become as natural a thing for him to say as “good morning”! Now everyone was laughing, including Ben. Sarah took her seat, and as the giggling began to die down, Joe said,

“Hey big brother, she almost took you that time!”

“That’s only because I didn’t want to break any dishes!”

“Just a minute, Adam. Joseph’s right. I almost won that one!”

“Well, sister, any time you wanna take it outside, just let me know!”

Everyone laughed again. But Sarah only smiled and stared at Adam. He’d called her ‘sister’ – out loud! And no one else seemed to notice … or take exception to it. Now Sarah felt closer to this family than ever before. When breakfast was finished, the boys left for their chores, Ben sat working at his desk, and Sarah decided to spend time with the horses in the barn. Before she knew it, Ben had come out to tell her lunch was ready. At first, he didn’t see her, but he heard her. As he walked into the barn further, he spotted her sitting across from Dakota’s stall, humming a lovely tune. She had no idea that she’d been in the barn all morning. Ben was surprised too.

“I thought you’d fallen asleep out here! Hop Sing has lunch all ready for us.”

          “I’m sorry! I completely lost track of time. I’ll be in right away to wash up.”

          “If you don’t mind me asking, what have you been doing out here? Is something troubling you?”

“Oh no, nothing troubling. I started talking to Dakota. He’s so beautiful. I’ve ridden him a few times, and I think he likes me. I brushed him and fed him some sweet grass. Then I sat down to watch him. They are such amazing creatures. Did you know that he shakes his head up and down twice before he eats? Every time? I think he’s saying ‘thank you’!”

“That’s quite possible! And you’ve been watching him all morning?”

“Well … yes. And thinking, I guess.”

Ben just shook his head, extended his hand to help Sarah up, and walked arm in arm with her into the house. Hop Sing was placing some food on the table, and when he saw them, he grinned from ear to ear. After washing up, the two sat down for lunch. Sarah wasn’t all that hungry. Actually, she had butterflies in her stomach that wouldn’t seem to calm down. What she hadn’t told Ben was what she’d been thinking about all morning. Thinking about Joe … and kissing Joe … and Joe’s arms around her … and the slight, musky scent of his cologne … and touching his lips … and the safe, content, wonderful feeling she had whenever she was with him. And she was hoping that Ben would approve. That Ben, Adam and Hoss would still think of her in the same way now that she and Joe had admitted their feelings. That was of utmost importance to her. She cared for Ben Cartwright. No. That was a lie. She loved him. More than she’d realized until that moment. And Hoss and Adam too. And their opinions meant a lot to her, and to Joe. What if they didn’t feel the same about her? What if Joe didn’t eventually ask her to marry him? What if they didn’t think she and Joe should marry?

“Sarah, dear, are you alright?”

Sarah was pulled from her thoughts and wondered how long she’d been inside her own brain this time?

“Oh, I’m fine Ben. Just thinking a little.”

Ben looked at Sarah with a worried face, she reached out and placed her hand on top of Ben’s. He smiled at her, switched their hands, and squeezed hers – very gently.

Later that day, Hoss, Adam and Joe rode up to the house. Sarah was reading on the porch. Hoss tended the horses and Adam walked up, kissed her on the forehead, bumped her shoulder, on purpose, then went inside. Joe kissed her too. But not on the forehead. Sarah instantly had a lightheaded feeling. As Joe pulled away, he winked at her, and she nearly melted in the rocker. Just as Joe went inside to give Ben the mail, Hoss, walking from the barn, did a double take. He noticed that Sarah’s face was flushed. About to ask if she was feeling poorly, he looked to the door that Joe had just entered, looked back at Sarah. And Hoss winked at her too!

****************

Upstairs in his room, Joe could smell dinner cooking. Pa had given strict orders that everyone should dress for dinner this evening. That was fine by Joe. Nothing could bother him today. He finished tying his tie – for the third time – and when he walked into the hall, he nearly ran right into Hoss.

“Yer tie is crooked, lil’ brother.”

“Is not! … Is it?”

Just as Hoss finished fixing Joe’s tie, Adam came out of his room. He looked both of his brothers up and down and shook his head. Hoss and Joe both reached up to check their ties just

as Adam said,

“Damn, I look better than both of you put together!”

Laughing, the three went down to dinner. Sarah and Ben were already on the settee.

“Well, I must say, I’ve never seen four people clean up as nicely as you! I’m surrounded by such handsome men!”

“And you, my dear, look ravishing. Don’t you agree, Hoss?”

Joe pushed by Adam before he could finish the last word. He took Sarah’s arm and walked her to the dinner table. Ben and Hoss followed, brushing past Adam, who was still standing and feigning hurt feelings. When he could continue the ruse no longer, Adam laughed and took his seat next to Hoss. Hop Sing had outdone himself that evening. Smoked ham, steaming potatoes, beans and warm, flaky biscuits. His coffee was even slightly more palatable than usual (Sarah had made a point of making coffee in front of him several times in the past few days. He was obviously taking note!). The conversation and wonderful food made everyone content. As they switched to the living room, Ben went for his pipe, Adam stoked the fire, and Hoss poured some after dinner drinks. Joe and Sarah found themselves suddenly very nervous. Ben, lighting his pipe, sat in his favorite chair. Hoss and Adam both sat on the hearth, across from Joe and Sarah. As she looked at the three men who she hoped would become her family, she realized that she already felt that they were her family. This realization calmed her nerves. Sarah took Joe’s hand in hers, and looked deep into his eyes. So deep, she thought she would be lost in them forever. Just then, Ben stood, cleared his throat, and indicated that he was about to make the announcement that prompted this special evening.

“Hop Sing, would you please come in here?”

“Of course, Missa Cartlight”

“As you all know, I wanted this evening to be a special one. The dinner was excellent. Thank you, Hop Sing, for your hard work.”

He and Ben bowed, slightly, to each other. Everyone was more than curious to hear what Ben was about to say. Adam was beginning to get worried. Including Hop Sing in this big announcement meant it was mighty important. He looked at Hoss, and Hoss had the same worried look on his face. With that, they both finished their brandy in one huge gulp, just as Ben spoke again, this time, to Sarah.

 “We’ve had the pleasure of your company for a little over a month now, give or take a few days. I know I speak for my sons, and Hop Sing, when I say we’ve thoroughly enjoyed having you here.”

Everyone nodded, smiled, and looked back to Ben.

“Sarah, a while back, we had a conversation about your visit. I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and decided that the boys need to be in this decision.”

Ben cleared his throat, stood just a little straighter and taller, and continued.

“Sarah, if you so desire, I would like to formally extend an invitation to you to live, permanently, here on the Ponderosa. Not as one of our guests, but as a member of our family … I believe I speak for all of us when I say we love having you here. I know I do. My sons, well, they treat you just like brothers treat sisters …and Hop Sing …”

As Adam and Hoss grinned and nodded in agreement, and it was Adam who interrupted his father.

“We haven’t ALL grown to love her like a sister, Pa.”

“What do you mean by that, Adam?”

“Well, Pa, it’s not exactly my place to say.”

“What Adam means is … we don’t all care about Sarah, or love her like a sister … Oh, dadburnit, Joe. Say somethin’!”  

Sarah looked lovingly at Joe and squeezed his hand.

“Pa … Adam … Hoss … Hop Sing … Sarah and I … well … we’ve fallen in love.”

 “You’ve fallen in … Am I the last one to know about this?”

“It looks that way, Pa.!” replied Adam.

Everyone laughed, including Ben.

“Sarah, you haven’t answered my invitation yet.”

“I would love to stay here. To be part of this amazing family. Thank you, Ben!”

Sarah went to Ben and kissed him on the cheek. He hugged her and smiled a relieved smile. He hadn’t until that moment realized how much he would have missed her if she’d gone back east! Hoss jumped to his feet and gave Sarah a bear hug, lifting her off her feet and swinging her around. Adam was next. He wrapped her in his arms, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered in her ear.

“I’m so glad you’re staying, little sister.”

Hop Sing bowed politely and told everyone that he was happy to have a lady in the house. Then Joe took Sarah’s hands in his and led her out onto the porch, leaving the others grinning at the couple.

 

Chapter Five:

What People Think

As the weeks flew by, Sarah and Joe were inseparable. Everyone was waiting on an announcement, but, so far, none had come. So far. Every time Joe and Sarah were ‘caught’ in an intimate embrace or a loving kiss, the teasing began all over again. Rumors were spreading all over Virginia City. Most people were happy for Joe, and everyone seemed to like Sarah. They’d been seen together in almost every establishment in town. But there were a few who scorned Sarah and the Cartwrights for having ‘an unwed young woman living with all those men’ and ‘even being courted by one of them’! Adam had heard comments. His solution was to give them a disgusted look and walk away. Hoss had been approached about the ‘immorality’ of their living situation, and had told them to mind their own business. Even Ben had dealt with a few narrow minded citizens. His words to them were always controlled, but harsh. A few of the busybodies had worked up the courage to say things in front of Sarah and Joe. Sarah tried to steer Joe away from any altercations. Joe gave in to her better judgment, until the day the Parker boys, who’d ridden in from Turtle Ridge and had been drinking in the saloon for hours, staggered right up to Sarah and propositioned her. Sarah was appalled. And frightened. She tried to get by them, but again and again, they blocked her way.

“You should go home and sleep it off. Just let me by and get on home!”

          “Only if you come home with us! You sure are a pretty little thing. No wonder Little Joe keeps you all t’ himself out on the Ponderosa.”

          “Oh, come on now, Harry! Do ya really think a nice boy like Little Joe doesn’t share with his Pa and his brothers?  Why, I’ll bet ole Ben gits her first, bein’ the daddy an all.”

“You’re disgusting. Both of you! Get out of my way!”

          “Ya know, Martin, I believe you could be right. First Ben, then Adam, then big ole Hoss. Poor Little Joe gets what’s left over!”

          Sarah was crying now. And still trying, to no avail, to get by the drunken brothers. Martin reached out and grabbed Sarah by her waist. He shoved her against the wall of the building, put his filthy hand around her neck and kissed her. Sarah’s lip was bleeding, which seemed to please her attacker. It was at that moment that Adam and Hoss walked out of the bank across the street. And at that same moment, Joe came out of the livery stable. All three heard the commotion, look toward the noise, and saw Sarah. Trapped by the Parker boys. All three sped toward Sarah. Joe was the first to reach her. His heart pounding with rage, he pulled Martin out onto the street and the fight began. Harry joined in, two against one. Shaking, all Sarah could do was watch. Adam and Hoss headed straight for the Parkers.

“No!! They’re MINE!!” shouted Joe.

Adam and Hoss went immediately to Sarah, all the while keeping an eye on the fight, in case Joe needed their help. Sarah flew into Hoss’s strong arms. Adam took her face in his hand and made her look at him.

“Did they touch you? Are you hurt?”

          Sarah’s eyes were filled with tears. Adam kissed her forehead. The two Cartwrights each kept an arm around her, and turned to watch the fight. Sarah didn’t want to look, but she did. And when she saw Joe’s bloody face, she nearly fainted. Harry was already out cold and lying face down in the dirt. Martin, the stronger of the two, was still swinging at Joe. Finally, with one last punch to the ribs, Martin was felled.  Joe staggered and fell to one knee, wiped blood from his lip, then looked at Sarah. Immediately, he got up and Sarah ran into his arms. Joe nearly fell again, so Adam rushed out and helped Sarah walk him to the shade. Hoss was about to grab the Parkers and head for the sheriff, when Roy and his deputy came running down the street. Without even asking what happened, Roy grabbed Harry and Martin and escorted them to the jail.

Worried about Joe’s condition, Sarah began to check him over. She and Adam agreed that he might have broken ribs, so they all headed for Doc’s office. Once inside, Joe insisted that Doc check Sarah first, to be sure she hadn’t been hurt by the thugs. As the doc was checking her, Joe, Adam and Hoss waited in the outer room. Joe reached into his green jacket pocket, felt something, and smiled. Now it was Joe’s turn. He had bruised ribs, and quite a few bumps and cuts, all of which were tended to. All the while he was being treated, Joe asked that either Adam or Hoss stay close to Sarah.

“Joe, let the doc do his job. We won’t let her out of our sight. I promise.”

          “Yea, I know you won’t. Thanks.”

          The ride back to the Ponderosa was painful for Joe. Adam drove the surrey, with Joe sitting beside him. Though Adam did his best to make the ride smooth, there were too many bumps for Joe to remain comfortable. As they all rode in to the front yard, Hoss shouted for their father. Ben hurried outside. His face turned ashen when he saw that Joe was hurt. As he and Adam got Joe down from the surrey, Adam assured Ben that Doc had treated Joe and said he would be fine. Hoss helped Sarah down from Adam’s horse and felt her still shaking. He put his arm around her waist and together, they walked in behind Ben, Adam and Joe. Once Joe was settled comfortably on the settee, Hoss moved his hand from Sarah’s waist and led her over to sit beside Joe.

“Now, will someone tell me what happened?”

          Adam was about to speak up and relate what they’d seen when they came out of the bank in Virginia City. But Sarah, still shaking a bit, spoke first.

“I was minding my own business, Ben. Heading from the General Store to the livery stables. That’s where I was to meet Joseph. I swear, I didn’t say anything to those men. I just tried to get by them. I didn’t say anything…”

Sarah started to shake, and with obvious pain, Joe reached out to her. Ben sat on the table, right in front of Joe and Sarah. He held Sarah’s hand.

“I’m sure you didn’t do anything wrong dear. And no one can hurt you. You’re safe now. Those men …?”

 “It was those lousy Parker boys, Pa. Harry and Martin. Them two are always causin’ trouble when they ride inta town!”

“They were drunk. And they said some things. I just wanted to walk by and get to Joseph. But they blocked me in and said some more lies and one of them grabbed me and that’s when I saw Joe running toward them. Hoss and Adam too.”

“We’d just come out of the bank and heard a ruckus and then saw Sarah being pushed around. Joe came from the livery and saw the same thing. He beat us to Harry and Martin, and well … Joe won.”

Ben looked at the bruises, cuts and bumps all over Joe.

“If he won, I sure would hate to see the other guys!

Joe tried to laugh along with Ben, Adam and Hoss, but the pain in his ribs didn’t allow him to. He grimaced, and Sarah began to cry. Ben reached out to her and she quickly fell into his protective embrace. He held her tightly.

“Aww, honey, please don’t cry. The Parkers won’t come around here. The sheriff will send them outta town, I can promise you that.”

All of the Cartwrights were curious as to what the Parkers had said to Sarah. But they all had the presence to wait until and if Sarah wanted them to know. She did not want to repeat the vile things they’d said about her and the Cartwrights. But knowing that she might have to tell the sheriff at least some of what they’d said, she wanted it to come from her rather than through gossip. Ben’s arms around her gave her needed strength. She kept her head on Ben’s chest as she spoke.

“Those men … they said that if I’m living here with all of you … that … “

“It’s alright. Just say what they said.”

“They said … that Joseph must be … must be sharing me … with all of you.”

Appalled by what that implied, Ben held her tighter. As he looked at each of his sons, he saw fire in their eyes.

“Now listen here!”

All three looked at their father. That tone of voice meant that whatever Ben was about to say was gospel. No questions asked.

“No one leaves this house tonight. Roy will take care of this. I’m sure he’ll be out here shortly, looking for statements.”

With that, Sarah looked at Ben with desperate eyes.

“Don’t worry sweetheart, Roy will take our word for what happened. You needn’t even be down here when he comes. In fact, why don’t you let Hoss take you to your room so you can rest a bit. He can stay with you, if you want.”

“Alright. Thank you, Ben.”

Sarah went to Joe, still seated on the couch, holding his injured ribs. She carefully sat next to him, and gently touched his bruised jaw.

“I love you, Joe. What you did today … thank you. I don’t know what would have happened if you and Adam and Hoss …”

“I’ll never stand by and let someone hurt you, even if it’s just with words. Go get some rest. Hoss, stay with her, please. I love you Sarah.”

Hoss followed Sarah up to her room, waited in the hall until she said he could come in, and sat in the chair by her bed as she tried to sleep. Downstairs, Adam and Ben sat with Joe, still burning inside over what happened to Sarah. Ben knew it would be difficult for Joe to let this go. “Hell, it’s going to be downright impossible for all of us!” he thought.  A knock on the door meant that Roy Coffee was there. Ben let him in, and Roy went straight to Joe. He looked him over, and shook his head.

“Are you alright, Little Joe?”

“Yea, I’ll be just fine and dandy, once you tell me that Harry and Martin Parker will be servin’ time for what they did!”

Ben put a calming hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“Well, now, Little Joe, I need to hear from you what happened. The Parkers have already given their statements, and so have several people who were on the street when all this happened. The Parkers’ story just don’t ring true. No big surprise there. But if your version matches what the people nearby said, then they’ll be headin’ off to Turtle Ridge jail in the morning.”

Joe told Roy everything he knew, including that Martin had put his filthy hands on Sarah, and what the Parkers had said to Sarah. Ben watched his long time friend’s face turn bright red with anger. Roy confirmed that Joe’s story matched the others, and he promised that the Parkers would be in jail for quite some time. Then he asked how Sarah was.

“Hoss is up there with her, you say? Good. With him up there and you three down here, she should feel completely safe. Ben, tell her I asked about her, and I hope she’s feeling better real soon. You too, Little Joe.”

Ben showed Roy to the door. Adam sat rubbing his temples, trying, without success, to erase the image of Martin Parker with his hands on Sarah. Joe tried to get up, but was stopped by pain.

“I know you want to be the one sitting with her tonight, Joseph, but you must get rest yourself. You’ll be no good to Sarah if you wear yourself out.”

“Hoss and I will trade off through the night, Joe. We won’t leave her alone, I promise. You and Pa should get some sleep. Here, let me help you get up to bed.”

Adam and Ben practically lifted Joe off the settee. Adam got him settled in bed, stopped in Sarah’s room to tell Hoss that he’d be in to sit with Sarah in two hours. He was relieved to see that Sarah was already asleep. Adam went back to Joe’s room and told him that she was fine. When Adam came out of Joe’s room, Ben was going into his. Though it took quite a while, Ben and Joe managed to sleep that night. Adam and Hoss looked after Sarah as she slept.

In the morning, Sarah found Adam asleep in the chair next to her bed. After putting on her robe, she touched Adam lightly on the shoulder as she said his name.

“Adam. Adam. Mornin’ sleepyhead. I want to check on Joseph, and I didn’t want you to wake up and find me gone!”

Adam stretched, smiled up at Sarah, then walked with her to Joe’s room. He was up, and trying to get his shirt on. Not easy with bruised ribs. Sarah had never seen Joe without a shirt, and she found herself admiring his bare chest. Even wrapped to protect his ribs, Joe was a gorgeous man. But then Sarah saw the bruises. So many bruises.

“Here, Joe, let me help.”

Adam helped Joe put on, then button his shirt. He couldn’t tuck it in with the bandages, so he let it hang. Adam made an excuse to leave the room, adding that when ready, Joe should call for someone to help him get down the stairs.

“How are you this morning, Sarah? Were you able to sleep?”

“I’m okay, and yes I did sleep. Hoss and Adam took good care of me … How are you?”

“Okay. The ribs are the only thing that really hurts … Sarah, I … “

Sarah stopped Joe by kissing him, so very lightly, so as not to hurt his split lip. “As if it wasn’t already hard enough to breath with these ribs!”  thought Joe.

“Joseph. What happened yesterday … Thank you for stopping those men. I was very frightened. Until I saw you running toward me. Then I knew I’d be okay. I was afraid for you! Until I saw Adam and Hoss running too. Then I knew you’d be okay. They would make sure of it. I’m still troubled by what happened. But it’s over now. And if there are others in town who feel the same way about me living here, well, the bastards can go to hell!”

Glad that she was overcoming the incident, proud of her for moving forward, and totally stunned (and a little impressed) by her language, Joe smiled. Sarah looked both embarrassed and happy at the same time. Joe called for Hoss, Sarah went to her room and dressed, and the three went downstairs for breakfast. Ben and Adam were already seated, and both stood when Sarah approached the table. “I love men with manners!” Sarah mused.

No one mentioned yesterday’s trouble during breakfast. They chatted about some cattle that needed to be rounded up, a horse that Ben wanted to buy, and other mundane, daily chores. Of course, Joe couldn’t help for a few days, and that meant spending more time with the woman he loved! After breakfast, Ben, Hoss and Adam left to round up some cattle. Hop Sing would be gone for the day in Virginia City. Joe and Sarah spent the morning relaxing, reading and napping. Sarah made lunch, and the afternoon was spent much the same as the morning. Nothing special. Just being together. Supper was cooking on the stove when the cowboys returned home.

****************

Adam was the first to come down after cleaning up, and he decided to help Sarah in the kitchen. He was instructed to set the table. As Adam was putting out the silverware, he noticed Joe and Hoss watching him from the living room.

“What?!?”

“Gee, big brother. I didn’t know you was so good at settin’ a table. Did you Lil Joe?”

“Oh, yea I knew. See, I remember one time, Adam was in the kitchen and when I walked in, he was wearin’ an apron. I knew then that he was real good at stuff like that!”

“Juveniles.”

Hoss and Joe laughed, and grabbed his ribs!

“Who’s laughing now, little brother? … Oh, hi Pa. Dinner will be ready soon. It seems that out of three sons, I am the only gentleman who offered to help Sarah.”

“That’s fine son. You’ve always been good at stuff like that.”

The look on Adam’s face was priceless. Ben, Hoss and Joe howled with laughter. Before long, Adam was laughing too – not at Ben’s comment, but because Joe kept alternating from laughing to grabbing his ribs and back again! When Sarah came in with a big pot of stew, she saw Joe’s brothers and father laughing at his pain. From the kitchen, she’d heard most of what was going on.

“Adam, the table looks perfect! I’m so glad you’ve always been good at stuff like that!”

This time, even Sarah laughed. Joe couldn’t take much more.

“You’re killin’ me … ouch! … Sarah, how could you do this to me? … Ouch!”

Sarah hurried to Joe and kissed him. Right in front of the family. Their first kiss in front of Ben, Hoss and Adam. Joe blushed. Sarah skipped back to the table and announced that dinner was ready! All through dinner, Ben smiled at Sarah.

 

Chapter Six:

Serendipity

          With Joe’s injuries healed, he was able to start helping on the ranch again. Ben made sure that he didn’t overdo, but was glad to have all of his sons helping. The Parker boys were in jail in Turtle Ridge, and Sarah seemed to have gotten over the incident in town. Ben did notice, however, that his sons were a bit overly protective of Sarah now. Oh, they still teased and laughed and on occasion, argued. But Ben knew, if anyone dared scare her again, he might not be able to prevent retaliation.

Joe was back early from his latest task, and decided that he and Sarah should go on a picnic. Hop Sing was happy to pack a basket, and carried it out to the surrey. Joe lifted Sarah into the buggy, waved goodbye to Ben and Hop Sing, and off they went. They passed Adam and Hoss, who pretended to be jealous of their picnic and asked to go along. Sarah thought it would be a fun afternoon to picnic with three handsome men. But behind Sarah, Joe was shaking his head and waving his arms. “Oh, this should be fun.” Adam thought. He winked at Hoss and the game was on.

“Why thank you, Sarah for that lovely invitation. Hoss and I would love to join your picnic. Wouldn’t we Hoss?”

          “We sure would, Adam. We kin sit ‘n’ talk, ‘n’ tell stories. Hey, we could even go for a swim down at the pond. It’s pert near hot enough to fry an egg on a saddle! We could make an  entire day of it!”

          “Joe, doesn’t that sound like fun? The Cartwright boys and me. What more could a lady ask for?”

          Seemingly defeated, Joe sighed, glared straight at his brothers and wobbled his head.

“Sure, what more could ya ask for?”

Taking pity on their little brother, Hoss and Adam pretended to have forgotten something they had to do for their father, and suggested that they all picnic together some other time. Joe hardly waited to say goodbye and off they went. The two troublemakers laughed the rest of the way home.

The couple found a lovely spot near the lake. Joe lifted Sarah down, then walked around to get the basket and blanket. Sarah shook off that tingling feeling yet again. “Why does Joe helping me down from a buggy do that to me?” she asked herself.  Joe spread the blanket, set the basket down, then took Sarah by the hand and walked closer to the lake. The warm breeze tousled her hair, making it shine in the sunlight. Joe moved behind her and put his arms around her waist. Sarah leaned back against him, and he smelled her hair. Sarah could feel his breath on her neck. She was about to turn toward him when family of ducks wandered by.

“Oh, Joe, look at them! The babies are so small! They have to take twice as many steps as their mother just to keep up with her!”

Joe loved watching Sarah when she was excited. Her eyes sparkled and her smile was … perfect. When the duck parade was finally out of sight, they decided to have lunch. Sarah unpacked the basket, and Joe laid on his side on the blanket, watching her every move. The food was delicious, and Sarah made a mental note to remember to compliment Hop Sing. When they were finished with their feast, Sarah repacked the basket, while Joe lay on his back describing the cloud shapes in the sky.

“Look there, that one. It looks like a big old bear! Do you see it?”

Sarah lay down next to Joe. It took her a minute, but she saw the bear.

“I see it. It’s sitting on its hind legs! … Bet I can find the next one before you!

“We’ll see about that.”

And the search was on. Sarah thought she saw the shape of an eagle, but the wind must have pushed the cloud, because before she could point it out, the shape had changed. Suddenly, Joe spotted an owl shape. He propped himself up on one arm, reached overtop of Sarah and pointed into the sky.

“There. An owl. I won that bet!”

It was then that Joe finally realized that he was leaning over top of Sarah. He looked down at her beautiful blue eyes and he melted.

“I don’t see … oh! There it is. I see it now!”

It was then that Sarah finally realized that Joe was leaning over top of her. She looked up into his amazing green eyes and she melted. Joe brushed her hair away from her face. She waited for his kiss, but it didn’t come. Instead, he sat up pulled Sarah upright too. He had a strange look on his face. One Sarah had never seen.

“Joe, what is it? Is something wrong? Did I say or do something wrong?”

“No, Sarah … It’s just … I love you, Sarah.”

“I know that, silly. But a girl does like to hear it. Often!”

Sarah expected Joe’s expression to soften, but it grew more intense. She was about to speak, when he touched her lips with his fingers.

“I love you, Sarah. I love you more every day …. Every minute … “

Joe’s voice cracked, he blinked, and a single tear ran down his face.

“Joe … “, Sarah whisperedBut again, he touched her lips to silence her.

“Sarah, I want you to be in my life for as long as I live. I want to take care of you, and have you take care of me. I want … Sarah, will you marry me?”

Joe lifted his fist, and opened his fingers. In his palm was a stunning engagement ring. A perfect, simple engagement ring. The ring that had been in Joe’s green jacket pocket since the fight in town. Sarah couldn’t take her eyes off of Joe’s hand. She was holding her breath, and when her lungs forced her to breathe, she sighed. She looked up at Joe and saw his beautiful green eyes welled with tears. Joe couldn’t blink. He sat, nearly frozen, waiting for Sarah’s answer. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Oh Joseph. I love you so much. Yes … yes, I’ll marry you!”

Joe slowly closed his eyes and said a silent ‘thank you’.  When he opened them, the tears rushed all over his face. Sarah’s face was tear-covered too. Joe took her left hand, kissed it, slipped the ring onto her finger, and kissed it again. Sarah leaned to Joe, as he did the same toward her. They were both crying now, something Sarah would never forget. In her eyes, Joe had never looked stronger. He kissed her, slowly, deliberately. When he released the kiss, Sarah couldn’t breathe. He wrapped her in his arms, and slowly, guided her down onto the blanket, all the while kissing her tenderly. Lying beside her, they kissed over and over, until Joe was nearly gasping. He knew he had to stop before the urge became too strong. Sarah was feeling the same way, and it was she who spoke first.

“Joe … we can’t. I want to, but … I want our wedding night to be our first time. I hope you understand.”

“I want the same thing. I do understand. Waiting won’t be easy! But if that’s what we both want, then, we’ll have to make it happen.”

Joe sat up. Sitting at that moment was not an easy or comfortable thing for him to do. So he looked into Sarah’s eyes, put his hands on her waist, and pulled her up so they were both standing. Sarah hugged Joe tightly, and found the reason that they were now standing. The embrace went on, until Joe kissed Sarah one more time. The most passionate kiss they’d shared so far.

“We’d better get back before Pa sends a posse to find us!”

“Oh, he wouldn’t do that. He’s just send Adam and Hoss!”

Laughing, they gathered up the blanket and basket and loaded them into the buggy. When Joe came around to help Sarah onto the seat, he found her smiling down at her left hand.

“There are a few more people who might like to check out that ring, you know.”

“I love you, Joseph Cartwright! Let’s go!”

 

The ride back seemed to take forever. Sarah marveled at how important telling the rest of the family was to her. She loved them all so much, and she wanted them to be happy for her and Joe. This vacation to Nevada was turning out to be the most important trip Sarah would ever make. She’d found a beautiful place to live, a wonderful new family, and the most incredible thing of all – Joseph.

 

The ride back seemed to take forever. Joe thought about how lucky he was. He had a family that loved each other unconditionally. A father and brothers who had guided him and taught him to be the man he was today. He lived on a growing, thriving land that he had helped to nurture. And the most incredible thing of all – he had Sarah.

Chapter Seven

Celebration

The ride back seemed to take forever. Sarah marveled at how important telling the rest of the family was to her. She loved them all so much, and she wanted them to be happy for her and Joe. This vacation to Nevada was turning out to be the most important trip Sarah had ever made. She’d found a beautiful place to live, a wonderful new family, and the most incredible thing of all – Joseph.

The ride back seemed to take forever. Joe thought about how lucky he was. He had a family that loved each other unconditionally. A father and brothers who had guided him and taught him to be the man he was today. He lived on a growing, thriving land that he had helped to nurture. And the most incredible thing of all – he had Sarah.

 

Joe and Sarah quickly took care of the horse and surrey. They walked arm in arm to the porch, where Joe placed the picnic basket. The couple smiled at each other and had one more kiss before heading into the house. And what a kiss it was!

“Ready?”

“Yes, Joseph, I AM READY!”

Joe opened the door, allowing Sarah to walk in first. She was truly happy and excited, but also, very nervous. Joe followed, looking proud as could be. And also, very nervous. Adam and Hoss were entranced in a game of chess. Ben was nowhere to be seen. Joe looked at Sarah with a disappointed face. They’d agreed to wait to tell their news until the whole family was together. But Ben’s horse was in the barn. “He must be here somewhere,” thought Joe.

“Hey, Hoss? Where’s Pa?”

“Shhh!! Jist a minute. One more move and I’m about to kick Adam’s …”

“Hoss! Not in front of the lady of the house! And you are not going to kick anything!”

Sarah and Joe waited patiently for the big move. Hoss just stared at the board. Sarah and Joe had already figured out the only move Hoss could make.

“Hoss, if you move this one over here …”

“Uh uh uh! No cheating! … … … Hoss are ya gonna make a move or what?”

“Hold yer horses older brother. I aim to figure this one out myself.”

Again, Hoss just stared at the board. Joe couldn’t stand it another minute.

“WHERE IS PA ?!?”

Just then, Hoss made his move as Ben came down the stairs.

“I’m right here, Joseph. There’s no need to shout!”

“CHECKMATE!” shouted Adam.

“DAMN!” shouted Hoss.

That goes for both of you too! Hoss, you watch your language. And why is there so much shouting in this house? …  Now, Joseph, what is it that’s so important?”

As a dejected Hoss took a seat on the hearth, a victorious Adam plopped into a chair. Hop Sing had come into the room, so everyone was in place.

“Okay, li’l brother, what’s the big mystery?”

Joe, palms sweating, still holding Sarah’s hand, shuffled his feet back and forth.

“Pa … Adam … Hoss … “

“Oh, for pity’s sake, just spit it out, son!”

“Pa … Adam … Hoss … Sarah and me … we … we’re engaged!”

The room was silent for a few seconds – which seemed like hours to Joe and Sarah.

So many thoughts went through Joe’s mind in those seconds. “Do they think it’s a bad idea? Do they think we’re too young? Do they think it won’t last? “Cause it will. I know it!”

So many thoughts went through Sarah’s mind in those seconds. “Do they think I’m not good for Joseph? Do they think we should wait longer? Do they think it won’t last? “Cause it will. I know it!”

As quickly as the hush had fallen over the room like a ton of bricks, the cheers rose up and filled the house with noise! Hop Sing shouted something about making a special dinner and disappeared into the kitchen. Adam grabbed Sarah and swung her around.

“Congratulations, little sister. I couldn’t be happier! … And if this one gives you any trouble, just call on me and I’ll set him straight! … Congratulations, Joe. You’re one lucky man!”

“Congratulations, Sarah. You shur will make one beautiful bride! … Lil Joe, this is a real good thing. Yessir, a real good thing!”

With each brother, hugs and kisses and hand shaking took place. Sarah noticed that Adam’s nose was a little red as he successfully held back tears. Hoss wasn’t so successful.

“Sarah darling, congratulations! You look happier than I’ve ever seen you!”

As Ben embraced Sarah, thoughts of Marie flooded his mind. He was sure that she would be so proud of their son. And as for Joe’s choice for his bride? Ben smiled a far away smile as he imagined Marie hugging Sarah to welcome her to their family. As he blinked, a tear ran down his cheek. He extended his hand to Joe.

“Joseph. Congratulations, son!”

Shaking hands wasn’t enough. Ben embraced his youngest son, and whispered in his ear.

“I’m so proud of you! … I love you Joe.”

Ben released their hug, put his hands on Joe’s shoulders, and looked his son square in the eyes. Ben’s booming voice filled the room.

“I have one more thing to say… IT’S ABOUT TIME! “

Everyone laughed, and Joe replied,

“No shouting in the house, remember, Pa?”

The laughter and tears, the hugs and kisses. The celebration continued all afternoon. Sarah felt as though she were floating on a cloud. In a rare quiet moment, she thought of her parents, and how happy they’d be that she was in love with such a wonderful man. Joe couldn’t take his eyes off Sarah. He didn’t even hear half of what his Pa and brothers were saying to him. His mind was on his amazing fiancé. As the noise level settled to a dull roar, Hoss put his arm around Joe’s shoulders.

“Are ya gonna do it? Are ya gonna build a house on that land up near the stream? You always said you was gonna.”

“If Sarah thinks it’s a good spot, I’m gonna get started right away. If … Pa can spare me from some of the chores?”

Feeling a little devilish in the moment, Sarah couldn’t hold it in. She had to speak up.

“Joseph, we haven’t yet talked about where to live. I have good friends and my own house back east …”

Joe’s face turned white. He didn’t remove his arm from around Sarah’s shoulders, but she felt his grip go limp. Ben didn’t look much better. Adam and Hoss kept the smiles plastered on their faces, but their eyes suddenly went dark.

“Oh my! I was just kidding! Of course we’ll be living here …. I’m so sorry, I thought you’d all know I was joking!!”

Everyone looked terribly relieved and the laughter began again. Joe grabbed Sarah by the waist and pulled her toward him. She wrapped her arms around his neck, kissed him, then the two young lovers held each other in a warm embrace. Ben walked toward the brandy cabinet, trying to inconspicuously wipe the tears from his face. He was delighted by Sarah and Joe’s announcement, but also saddened. He knew that life must go forward. But he also knew that things on The Ponderosa were about to change.

Chapter Eight

The Other Man

With the wedding date set, the Cartwrights were busy building a house for Joe and Sarah. It seemed that there would be plenty of time, since Sarah wanted to be sure that her best friend from back east could be there for their wedding. David Taylor and Sarah had been friends since their mud pie making days. The two had complete trust in each other. Oh, they had their share of heated arguments, but their relationship was maintained by their respect for each others’ opinions. When David went to medical school, Sarah spent many days and nights quizzing him, logging facts into his notebooks as he read them aloud, and making up games to help him memorize information. Knowing David would become a great doctor made those sessions worthwhile. And he did become a doctor, and a fine one at that. And Sarah learned too. David often joked that Sarah’d had enough medical training to be his assistant. And the jokes continued once he found out that Sarah had trouble looking at blood. Any amount of blood.

When Joe brought the wire saying David would be able to attend the wedding, Sarah was ecstatic! She had a new family now, but David needed to be a part of it. He knew all of Sarah’s habits, her quirks, her fears, likes and dislikes, and her deep dark secrets. Having him attend the happiest occasion in her life was the icing on the cake.

“Oh Joseph, I can’t wait for you to meet David. I just know you’ll like him. He’s a wonderful friend. Smart. Handsome. Funny…”

“Hey, wait a minute there! Should I be jealous?”

“Of course not! David and I have never thought of each other that way! … Besides, I like my man to be all those things AND a rugged cowboy to boot!”

Sarah had gently stroked Joe’s chest as she spoke, sending a chill through him that was almost unbearable. And judging from her temptress smile, that shiver was exactly the reaction she wanted. Realizing he’d entered the room at just the wrong moment, Ben silently back-stepped into the kitchen. The couple was so busy staring into each others’ eyes that they didn’t even notice Ben’s arrival – or departure! After a few minutes, he made some noise as he returned to the big room, hoping to alert Joe and Sarah. Gently pushing Sarah to a decent distance, Joe turned a blushing face toward his father.

“Oh … hey Pa … umm … Sarah just got some great news! … Tell ‘em Sarah.”

Sarah couldn’t help herself. She found Joe’s embarrassment quite entertaining. Grinning, she turned to Ben and told him about David’s wire. He’d be staying at the Ponderosa, per Ben’s insistence. So Sarah felt she should tell the family a little more about this important-in-her-life man. With Adam and Hoss now in the room, she could begin. She told them about growing up with David as a playmate, and at times, an antagonist. Everyone laughed at her stories about the trouble the two had managed to get in to over the years. Adam devilishly pointed out the Sarah and David could have given Joe and Hoss a run for their money in the mischief area! She recalled how important David’s decision to become a doctor had been; how the two had spent countless hours weighing the pros and cons of attending medical school; and how the following years were wonderful as she spent as much time as she could helping David with his studies. In addition to being his friend, she had become his coach, his advisor and his jailer – at least that’s how he’d referred to her on several occasions when she’d forced him to let her quiz him on facts and diagrams long into the night.

As Joe listened to her tales, and watched Sarah’s animated face and her obvious excitement, a feeling came over him. At first, he wasn’t sure what it was. But after a particularly personal story about the kind of girl Sarah thought David should be with, Joe realized he was jealous. He’d been teasing earlier, but now, he wasn’t sure if he was glad that David was coming for their wedding or not. Joe was pulled away from his thoughts when Ben announced that they were on their own for lunch, as Hop Sing was in town visiting family.

Sarah immediately went to the kitchen to prepare lunch, refusing help offered by all four of the Cartwright men. She’d just gone into the kitchen when Adam spoke.

“Joe. Something wrong?”

“Huh … oh … ah … no, nothin’s wrong. I guess I’m just hungry, that’s all.”

After a delicious lunch, Sarah went to her room to read, and the men of the ranch dispersed in every possible direction to continue their chores. That evening, just before bed, Joe and Sarah found themselves on the front porch. Alone. Knowing Joe as well as she did, Sarah knew something was troubling him. She walked up behind him, put her arms around his waist, and laid her head on his strong, muscled back.

“The stars are beautiful tonight, aren’t they Joseph?”

“Yea, I guess they are.”

“They’re twinkling and shining. It’s like they’re having a contest to see which of them can be the brightest.”

          Joe chuckled and turned to face his lovely fiancé. Just then, Adam came out onto the porch, and knowing for certain that he’d interrupted something, made an excuse to go to the barn and check the horses. The distance from the porch to the barn had never seemed so great!

“What is it, Joseph? What’s bothering you?”

          Joe was touched that she knew him well enough to sense his struggle, but a disappointed with himself, because he’d been trying to hide his insecurities from her. ‘I’ll have to try harder,’ he thought to himself. Not wanting to tell her he was jealous of her life-long friend whom he hadn’t even met yet, he figured that a distraction was called for. The best distraction he knew: he slowly leaned in and kissed her. A long, deep, passionate kiss. When the kiss was over, his lips barely left her’s, and they stood face to face, both breathing quickly and heavily. Joe took her face in his hands and started another kiss.

“Wait, Joseph Cartwright. You aren’t going to get off that easily. Tell me what’s wrong, or you won’t get another kiss from me for … for … two days!”

          “TWO DAYS?? That’s torture you’re talkin’ about! You, walkin’ around the Ponderosa with those perfect lips … and me … not bein’ able to keep ‘em warm…”

          After attempting to put his arms around her again, Sarah pushed Joe, hard this time. Not having time to steel himself from her shove, he stepped backwards, tripped over a bucket and landed right on his butt.  Rushing to see if he was hurt, but laughing at the same time, Sarah slid on the water that had been in the bucket, tried to catch herself on the railing, and instead, plopped right on top of Joe’s lap! Regaining your dignity after a fall like that is no easy task. Sarah pushed herself up, with Joe trying his best to help her without looking like he was. She was obviously angry now – Joe could tell by the tone of her voice. And the sailor’s words she was using!

“Damn it Joseph! It’s just like you to try and weasel …”

          “WEASEL? Did you just call me a weasel Missy? …”

“There you go again!!! Ahhhh! I just wanted you to share what was bothering you. Maybe I could help. Maybe I could talk you through your problem. MAYBE we could have had an adult conversation without you trying to turn it into sexual liaison on the porch. ON THE …” “A what? Did I hear you just now? Did you say…” “Yes, I did. ON THE PORCH Joseph, where anyone could walk out of the … Damn, I tore my dress … out of the house and see us. Just what kinda girl do you want them to think I am? I already know what kinda man you are. One that won’t share your damned feelings!” Inside, Ben and Hoss were trying their hardest to look interested in ANYthing else but the muffled, but completely understandable conversation on out on the porch. Finally, Hoss announced that he was turning in for the night and ran up the stairs. Ben was left pretending to read a book, but after hearing about the torn dress, he closed it with a thud, tossed it on the table and walked, unlike Hoss before him, with dignity to the stairs. Just then, the volume outside was louder than ever, and Ben ran up the stairs even faster than Hoss had! “YOU’RE RIGHT!” “What? What did you say?” “You’re right. I was trying to avoid talking about … this little … tiny thing that’s bothering me. Oh, and I’m sorry about your damn dress.” Sarah lightly hit Joe on the chest. “Hey! You frustrated me, and when I’m frustrated, I get passionate about whatever it is that’s frustrating me, and right now, that would be you!” “If I’m frustrating you, then you just said you’re passionate about me. Now I’m really confused!” “Joseph!” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Come ‘ere. Let’s sit down and I’ll share anything you want. To talk about. And that’s all.” Now Sarah was laughing. She allowed Joe to walk her to the chairs, and they each sat down. Joe set the stage by recalling Sarah’s reading of David’s wire, and her conversation about growing up together. Then, Joe squirmed in the chair, wrung his hands, and looked at the ground. “…and it made me … jealous. You and David have so many memories in common. And I’m worried … just a little worried, mind you … that when he gets here, and the two of you start reminiscing about good times and being back east, well, maybe you’ll miss it so much that you’ll change your mind about marrying me.” Sarah stood, walked to Joe’s chair, and crouched down in front of him. She took his hands in hers and looked deep into his eyes. “Joseph Francis Cartwright, you’re the man I’m in love with. That will never change. It can’t. Because you are permanently etched into my heart … Joe, I love you.” As Joe stood, guiding Sarah to do the same, he lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them. “You called me ‘Joe’. You’ve never done that before.” “I did, didn’t I?” “Yep. Ya did. Sweetheart, I don’t care what you call me, as long as you love me.” Joe kissed Sarah and held her, the two hugging under the stars, with a damn torn dress, water spilled all over and a bucket turned on end. “Umm … excuse me … but is it safe to come out of the barn now?” Joe began to giggle, a sound that Sarah absolutely loved, and squeezed the love of his life just a little tighter. “Sure, big brother. It’s safe!” 

Chapter Nine

A Question           Work on the house was nearly completed, and the wedding was three weeks away. As Ben watched his sons ride off, he thought of all they’d done since the night the engagement was announced. He and his boys had done it together. And he glowed with pride. Sitting down to finish his morning coffee, he looked across the table at Sarah. Joe’s fiancé. Soon to be his daughter-in-law. No. His daughter. He couldn’t have asked for anyone better for his youngest boy. He thought of Marie, and how beautiful she would have looked at the wedding. Sarah noticed Ben’s far off look, and wondered what he was thinking. When he shook himself out of his daydream, Sarah decided that now was the time.           “Ben, I need to ask a favor. Traditionally, the bride’s father gives her away.”          “Yes, he does. I’m so sorry that Jake won’t be here. He would be so proud to see his beautiful daughter married. He’ll be here in spirit and will bless you and Joe on your special day.”                “I know he’ll be watching, and smiling. But I still need someone to give me away. Someone very important to me.”           “I’m sure your friend David will be honored.”           “I’m sure he would be, but I’m not asking him. I want you to give me away, Ben.           “Me? Are you sure?”           “Never been so sure of anything – except saying ‘yes’ to Joseph! And I should warn you. You may need to do more than walk with me. You may need to hold me up!”           “Sarah, I am honored that you would ask me. Of course I will give you away. And you’ll be fine, I’m sure.”           Sarah kissed Ben on the cheek, thanked him, and excused herself to clean up the breakfast dishes. She didn’t notice Ben’s expression as she tidied the table. It was an expression of melancholy. Ben was imagining the house – his house – the Cartwright men’s house – minus one of his sons. Seeing his boys happily married, with families of their own was one of Ben’s most heartfelt desires. He was so happy for Joe, but the thought of him living elsewhere – even though he would still be on the Ponderosa – saddened Ben.           “More coffee, Ben?”           Ben shook his head ‘no’ and Sarah disappeared into the kitchen. As he watched her go, he smiled a content smile. Being a father was, at times, an emotional ride!           That evening, just before supper, Sarah told Joe that Ben had agreed to give her away. Joe had known that Ben would say ‘yes’. He and Sarah sat together on the settee, listening to the fire crackle and watching the flames performing their dance. Adam and Hoss joined them by the fire, and they talked about how much work was left on the house, when David would arrive, and Hoss’s falling in a giant mud puddle earlier that day! Ben came downstairs just as the laughter was dying down. He stopped short of the final step, looked at the four young people seated in his great room, and silently thanked Elizabeth, Inger, Marie, and Jake and Lily for giving him the most wonderful family any man could hope for.   Chapter Ten The Rock           The whole Cartwright clan, including Hop Sing and Sarah, were busy working at the new house. Hoss and Adam were in the back. Joe and Ben were unloading more wood planks for the floors. Hop Sing was unpacking the lunch he’d brought over for the hungry workers. And Sarah was sanding the dining table that Adam and Joe had finished building yesterday. It was an unusually warm day, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Sarah stopped sanding long enough to look around at the spectacular view she would have from their front yard. The house was grand, though not as big as Ben’s. Three bedrooms, a kitchen, a great room and a study for Joe. The great room was similar to Ben’s, with a vaulted ceiling. Sarah had commented once that the ceiling at the Ponderosa made it seem like they were bringing the glorious outdoors inside. Joe had been sure to tell Adam to work that into the plans for the house. There would be a large porch, so Sarah and Joe could sit and enjoy their surroundings. The barn was already finished. Earlier that week, Sarah and Joe had purchased a Buckskin horse for her. He was already in his stall, waiting to be named.           Lunch under one of the largest old trees was a welcome break. Hop Sing outdid himself with fried chicken, potato salad and cherry pie. The family chatted about what they planned to accomplish that afternoon, and soon everyone got back to work. Hoss and Adam added the last window to the house – a large window on the second floor – in what was to be the married couple’s bedroom. Gathering their tools and ladders, they joined the rest of the family inside the house. Joe had completed the kitchen floor, and had joined Ben in mortaring the stones on the fireplace. Sarah was almost done with the dining table, adding the last coat of stain to the legs. With every project that was finished, the structure looked more like a home. Some subtle touches on the stair railing. Tightening a hinge on a kitchen cabinet door. Sweeping the tracked in fall-colored leaves out the door. Nailing the front door knocker in place.           Tomorrow, they would move in some furniture. There were two pieces that were surprise early wedding gifts. Sarah and Joe had been kept in the dark about them. A remarkable, large pine kitchen hutch that Adam made. The attention to detail and perfect angles and lines were amazing. Adam had worked on it for weeks, making sure it was just the way he’d drawn it. The second piece, from Hoss, was a pine desk and matching chair for Joe. With three lockable side drawers, the desk would be just right. Hoss envisioned Joe sitting there working on a land deal or planning a cattle drive, just as Ben had done so many times, at his big desk. The brothers were quite proud of their surprises, and every time the conversation led to tomorrow’s furniture moving, Adam and Hoss sneaked proud glances at one another.           The exhausted group was about to call it a day when a few of the ranch hands showed up to see if they could help.  When they saw the wagon being loaded, they pitched in and promised they’d make it back from their chores earlier tomorrow so they could help out. Inside, Ben noticed a spot way up high on the fireplace that was missing mortar. He thought about touching it up tomorrow, but decided to work on it now, while there was still some wet mortar in the pail. He asked Hoss to bring the tall ladder back into the living room. Once it was in place, Hoss offered to fix the spot, but Ben insisted that this was his project and told Hoss to go outside with Adam and Joe and help load the wagon. Outside, the sky was darkening with a coming storm. Although the main house wasn’t far away, they’d need to hurry to beat the rain. Sarah remained inside to point the spot out to Ben as he climbed higher and higher.           “Be careful Ben, that’s awfully high!”           “I will. If I hadn’t missed a spot when I was up here in the first place … almost there … I see it!”           Suddenly, there was a deafening roar of thunder. Sarah jumped, and her heart began race. The sound also startled Ben, the ladder wobbled, straightened, then wobbled again. Sarah watched helplessly as Ben fell to the floor.           “Ben! Ben! HELP! JOE! JOE!”           Sarah rushed to Ben’s side. Pushing the ladder aside, she carefully turned Ben over. Joe, Adam and Hoss bounded into the room. They saw their father lying on the floor, with Sarah at his side. What they did not see – yet – was the blood.           “PA! PA! … Is he alright?”           Sarah looked up at Adam, and it was then that he saw her blood covered hands, and her blood drained face.           “Oh God! … Is he alive?”           “Yes, he’s breathing, but it’s shallow.”           As a frightened Joe and Hoss looked on, Adam and Sarah assessed Ben’s wounds. He’d fallen from the top of the ladder, and landed on an extra fireplace rock that had been sitting near the hearth. The sharp, pointed edge had pierced Ben’s abdomen, then broken off. It was protruding from the heavily bleeding wound. Hoss ran outside and told Fred to ride into town for Doc Martin. He and the hands emptied the just filled wagon. They laid some blankets on the boards to soften Ben’s ride back to the main house. Inside, Joe had removed his shirt, wadded it up, and handed it to Adam to be used as a compress.           “I’m gonna pull the rock out before we take him.”           “NO! It’s acting like a plug, Adam. If you remove it, he’ll bleed faster than he is now … This is what we’re gonna do. Get the other hands in here. We need to lift him and keep him as horizontal as we can. Make sure you carry him flat. Keep his heart even with or below the plane of the wound.”           Sarah stood as she spoke, making room for Joe and the hands to help lift Ben. She was shaky and had to steady herself to keep from fainting. So much blood. But she had to hold it together for Ben. She looked at Joe and Adam, their faces white with fear, and realized that she had to hold it together for them as well. The four men carried Ben, slowly and deliberately, to the wagon.           “Careful …easy … that’s it. Keep him flat.” Ben groaned slightly as Sarah covered him with a blanket. She’d noticed the lump on his forehead – he’d obviously hit his head in the fall. She knew that if he regained full consciousness, his pain would be unbearable. But if he remained unconscious, it could mean a concussion in addition to his severe abdominal injury. Sarah climbed in back with him, and Adam joined her on the other side. Joe took the reins, and with Hoss and Chub leading the way and the hands bringing up the rear, they headed for home. No one spoke for a long time … When Ben moaned again, Adam placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder and tried to comfort his father. “It’s alright, Pa. Doc’s on his way.” Still trying to slow the bleeding, Sarah looked up at Adam, and he saw the worry in her face. She blinked, and a stream of tears cascaded down her cheeks. Adam felt the need to comfort her, to tell her Ben would be fine. But he realized that he also needed comforting. And to hear that Ben would be fine. But the look on Sarah’s face was grim. Another moan from Ben, louder this time, brought the two out of their stare. They were almost home when Joe turned to them and saw Sarah’s tears. “Where should we take him? The settee? His bed?” Assessing what might need to be done, Sarah made the decision to place Ben on the dining room table. That way, they wouldn’t be risking more bleeding by trying to get him upstairs, and Doc Martin could easily do any treating of Ben’s wounds at the table. Joe jumped off the wagon and ran into the house to clear the table and add a few blankets for comfort. He found that he was moving so fast that he was making mistakes and having to do everything over again. Taking a slow, deliberate breath, Joe tried to calm himself. It didn’t work. Frustrated, he closed his eyes and tried again. When he opened them, his gaze came to light on Ben’s chair. Joe felt that blood drain from his face as his mind began to race through all of the possible outcomes. He was pulled from his thoughts when Ben was carried inside and toward the makeshift bed. “Joseph, I need towels, lots of towels. Eric, I need several knives from the kitchen, different sizes. Adam, light a fire. We need to keep him warm and I’ll need it to sterilize the knives.” “Doc Martin’ll be comin’ soon, Sarah. Won’t he have the tools he’ll need ta help Pa?” “Yes, Eric. He will. I’m just getting things in order. In case.” “In case of what?” Sarah looked to each of the three men. She saw fear, desperation, and love on all their faces. Even though the blood Ben was losing had begun to take a toll on Sarah, she knew she had to continue despite her fears. She also knew that Mrs. Miller was about to give birth to her twins, and that it was quite possible that Doc Martin would not be available for the Cartwrights. “In case I need to help Doc Martin. I learned a lot helping David study … I’ll do whatever I can until the doc gets here.” As the men went to their tasks, Sarah took a closer look at Ben’s wound. She had no idea how large the rock might be. It could be just barely under the skin, or it could be embedded in muscle. She prayed that it hadn’t damaged any organs. But it obviously damaged many veins, because the heavy bleeding continued. They heard someone riding up to the house, and Sarah breathed a silent relief. But as she listened more closely, she realized that she didn’t hear the Doc’s buggy. Just a horse. “I’m sorry Little Joe. The doc is out at the Miller’s. Mrs. Miller is havin’ her twins and the first one is breech. An’ you know she’s already lost two … I sent Sam to tell him to git here as soon as he can. I’m sorry.” Panic set in the faces of Ben Cartwright’s sons. Joe felt like he was going to throw up. Hoss reached for the wall to steady himself. And Adam lowered his head and looked at the floor. A loud, painful moan from Ben sent Sarah into action.“Eric, let me see those knives. Joseph, a few more towels, please… Ahh … here Adam, hold these three in the flame for a few seconds.” Ben was losing so much blood. Sarah used one of the larger knives to cut Ben’s shirt open and carefully sliced the fabric around the protruding rock. As she moved the shirt to expose the wound, Ben gasped and stiffened his body. “I’m sorry, Ben. I have to do this! … It’s getting dark in here … Eric, gather a few more lamps and make this room as bright as you can.” Sarah motioned for Adam, Joe and Hoss to gather around her. “What are you planning to do here? And a better question might be, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” “Adam, we have no idea how long it’ll be ‘til Doc Martin can get here. Ben’s lost a whole lotta blood. Someone has to remove that rock, clean out the wound and stitch him up before he bleeds to death.” The brothers looked at each other. Adam had removed a bullet from Joe’s shoulder once, but this was entirely different. Hoss had cared for so many injured animals that they’d lost count. But this was completely different. “I can do this. I’ll need someone to assist me … the other two can pray … hard … pray that there are no damaged organs. If there are, we’ll have to wait for the doctor to handle that … It’s your decision. We wait for the doctor. Or I do what I can.” Ben’s sons exchanged glances. Hoss was the first to nod affirmatively. Adam and Joe just looked at each other. “Are you sure, Sarah?” “Yes.” Joe nodded to Adam. Adam looked unsure. He placed his face in his hands and breathed deeply. Ben gasped and moaned loudly. Then he looked right at Sarah. “Alright. What do you need me to do?” “Whatever I ask for, you hand it to me. Whatever I tell you to do, you do … Eric, get your Pa a drink … A big one. He’s gonna need it. And when I’m done … I’ll be needin’ one too.” Adam gently raised Ben’s head while Hoss poured whiskey onto Ben’s lips. As reflex kicked in, Ben opened his mouth and Hoss was able to get him to take several sips. Beads of sweat on Ben’s forehead told Sarah that a fever had started. Already … Hoss tried again, and Ben swallowed, then moaned in pain. Sarah explained to Adam that she would slowly remove the rock, and that Adam should be prepared to immediately apply pressure to the wound. Joe had folded several towels together and handed them to his brother. “Then I’ll make the call. If the bleeding is minimal, I’ll clean and bandage the wound. If it’s heavy, Adam, you keep applying pressure …You need to know that all of this will be painful for Ben … Eric, I need you to hold him down … come up here, put a hand on each shoulder and keep him there. No matter what. Joseph, you go there and hold his legs. It’s very important that you keep him as still as possible.” With everyone in place, Sarah took several deep breaths. She knew that the rock could be acting as a sort of tourniquet, and silently prayed that releasing that pressure wouldn’t cause Ben to hemorrhage.  Sarah lovingly touched Ben’s forehead. “Ben? Ben, can you hear me? I’m going to fix you up now. Soon, you’ll be good as new.” Ben looked at the ceiling through the slits in his eyes and his nod was almost imperceptible. Sarah smiled at him – ‘best to let your patient believe that you are in control, know what you are doing, and that you believe they will make a full recovery’. That’s what the medical books had said. One last time, Sarah looked to each of Ben’s sons. It was obvious that they weren’t convinced of Sarah’s control of this situation. But they had no choice. Grasping the rock with both hands, Sarah began to ease it out of Ben’s abdomen. Through clenched teeth, Sarah whispered, “I … hate … blood!”Slowly, the rock gave in to her, Hoss grimaced at the sight and the sounds that pulling on the rock were making. Ben moaned in agony, and the bleeding began. Adam was ready with the towels, and suddenly, the piece of rock was freed. Ben had been moaning all along, and screamed in pain as the rock let go. Sarah tossed it to the floor, and Adam placed the towels on the open wound. “Adam! You have to push down. As hard as you can. PUSH!” Ben’s pain was unbearable. It was physical pain … Adam was nearly overcome by emotional pain. He was causing Ben to cry out … Sarah tried to comfort Ben but to no avail. After what seemed like hours, but in reality was only several minutes, it appeared that the bleeding was slowing. Sarah instructed Adam to lift the blood soaked towels so she could examine the wound for any small pieces that may have broken off the rock, and to ready the next towel to go onto the wound. As Adam stopped the pressure and lifted the towels, Ben again cried out. Hoss talked to Ben to try and comfort him. Sarah smiled up at Hoss, and he knew he should keep talking to him. Sarah searched the wound for pieces. Every time she touched him, Ben would cry out in pain. She found several small fragments of rock and removed them. The bleeding had started again, but nowhere near as heavily as before. Ben’s breathing was becoming a concern to her. She needed to be done with this and soon. “Joseph, bring a lamp closer, I think I feel another piece, but I can’t see it.” Sarah explored the wound, causing Ben struggle, and catching Joe and Hoss off guard. “HOLD HIM! … … Damn it, there is another piece, but I just can’t ….” Sarah probed just a little further. She could see it! Just a little further. Ben’s thrashing made Hoss and Joe work harder to keep him as still as they could. Adam, with tears rolling down his face, watched helplessly, holding the towel at the ready as instructed. Sarah grabbed one of the knives, and opened the wound just a bit to give access to the fragment. Ben cried out. “Hang on Ben! … Almost there.” Joe made a noise, but Sarah couldn’t afford to look away from her patient. Besides, she recognized the sound of someone fighting fiercely to hold sobbing in check. “Got it! … Pressure again, Adam.” A few minutes later, Sarah had stitched Ben’s wound. She and Adam were carefully dressing the area. All the while, Sarah comforted Ben with her steady, soft voice. He was still in a lot of pain. Sarah was about to say something to Hoss when he rushed to the front door, opened it and went outside. Within seconds, Adam, Sarah and Joe heard him retching. “I should go after him.” Adam looked at Joe, and shook his head ‘no’. Joe’s eyes were red. His face was wet. And he was shaking. “Leave him …  Are you alright? Maybe you should sit down.” Joe looked at Adam, and instead of taking his brother’s advice, he walked around to be closer to Ben’s head. As Ben drifted off, he wiped his father’s brow with a cool, damp cloth. Sarah reached for a blanket to cover Ben, but Adam waved her off and pulled the blanket up over his father’s chest himself. Sarah leaned against the wall and rubbed the sides of her neck. She hadn’t realized how tense she’d been until now. Her neck ached. Hoss came back inside and took a seat next to the make shift bed. No one spoke. Their rapid breathing slowed. And they waited.   Seven minutes after Adam and Sarah had finished bandaging Ben’s wound, Doc Martin rode up in his buggy. He rushed into the house, and saw Ben under a blanket, lying on the dining room table; Sarah leaning against the wall and looking like she was about to collapse; Adam holding his father’s hand, and a seated Hoss holding the other. And Joe, pacing back and forth in front of the fire. As the doc checked Ben over, Adam filled him in on Ben’s fall. Joe’s pacing was getting the best of him, so he left the warmth of the fire to hold Sarah in his arms. He could feel her shaking, and he squeezed tighter. Finished with the examination, Doc Martin approached the anxious family. He looked at them, with concern and confusion in his eyes. “Who did that?” “We did … I did.” Doc shook his head and rubbed his chin. “Well, I’ll be damned. From what you’ve told me, and what I can see here, you saved his life … He would have bled to death before I got here … Well, I’ll be damned!” “Are ya sayin’ that Pa’s gonna be alright?” “Yes, Hoss, that’s what I’m sayin’.” Joe picked Sarah up by her waist and hugged her. Hoss was right there when Joe put her down. He hugged Sarah with his big, strong arms. He was as gentle as a lamb. Adam had walked away, had both hands on Ben’s desk, and was leaning forward. Sarah looked at pleadingly at Joe. He walked to Adam and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. A few moments went by, and Adam straightened, smiled at Joe, then walked to Sarah. He spoke to her, but his voice was shaking. “Thank you.” Adam embraced Sarah, and Joe and Hoss joined in for a group hug. When they pulled away, Sarah was crying. It was a release of tension cry. Doc said Ben would probably sleep through the night considering what he’d been through. He said they should wait until tomorrow to move Ben upstairs to his bedroom. Since Doc planned to stay the night, Adam, Hoss, Joe and Sarah, too wired from their experience to go to bed, decided to sit a while on the front porch. The moon was bright, and the stars were glowing. Because of the rain that day, everything smelled fresh. Sarah and Joe sat on the porch floor, Joe leaning against the house and Sarah on his lap. Hoss and Adam were in the chairs, and everyone was quiet. Finally, Hoss broke the silence. “Sarah darlin’, you should be a real doctor. You got a gift, ya know. You did all that fer Pa? … just from helpin’ a feller study!” “He’s right. You saw how impressed Doc Martin was. You’ve got one hell of a woman there, and I aim to make sure you never forget it, little brother!” “Oh, I know what I’ve got. An’ I don’t need either of you to tell me so. I’m just glad she’s all mine!” Joe tickled Sarah, then hugged her tight. “The only person I want to tend to from now on is this one here! …  And the rest of this family, anytime they need me.” “So now yer NOT afraid of blood?” “Hey, yea, what about that, darlin’?” “Oh no. I still hate blood.” The men looked at her in confusion, but it was Adam who voiced the question. “Then how did you manage to do what you did in there?” “I had to. Because it was Ben. Because someone I love needed my help. And I’d do it again if need be. I couldn’t just stand by, waiting for Doc Martin. Pa could have died!” The men looked at each other and smiled. “You just called him ‘Pa’. And I think he’d like that.”   Chapter Eleven Recovery Breakfast was served in the kitchen. Doc Martin wanted to let Ben sleep for as long as he needed. Adam was on his third cup of coffee when he heard Ben’s soft moans. The family gathered around the makeshift bed. Sarah held Ben’s hand, and on the other side of the table, Adam leaned over and spoke to his father. “Pa? It’s Adam, Pa. You’re at home, on the Ponderosa. You’ve been hurt, but you’re going to be fine.” “A … Adam? What happened?” Ben was obviously uncomfortable, in some pain. He tried to lift his hand to Adam’s chest and winced. Adam took his hand, and looked to Doc Martin. The doc shook his head, letting Adam know that it was alright to fill Ben in on his accident.“Yesterday, at Joe and Sarah’s house. You were fixing some mortar on the fireplace. And you fell.” “I … I remember being on the … ladder. And then I remember pain.” With that memory, Ben moved just enough to send a sharp, stabbing jolt through his abdomen. He held his breath and squeezed both hands until the pain ceased. Then he let his breath out. When he opened his eyes, a tear escaped and ran down his cheek. “Try not to move, Ben. You were hurt pretty bad. You’ve got quite a few stitches. I gonna give you something for the pain.” “I’ll take you up on that, Paul, but not j..just yet. I need to know what happened.” Joe told Ben about his fall and his ride back home. Ben remembered nothing. Nothing but the pain. Joe told him that he was on the dining room table, and that the rock had been removed. “Well, Doc, I guess you did a g..good job of fixing … me up.”   “Someone did a mighty fine job. But it wasn’t me, Ben.” “What? Wh…who was it then? Ben’s face was showing that he was feeling more discomfort than before, and Doc Martin readied something to help him sleep. “Pa, it was Sarah. She was amazing. She didn’t even hesitate, just took charge … told us what to do.” “Yes sir, I reckon the three of us wouldn’t have known what t’do, that’s fer sure.” Ben looked into Sarah’s eyes and squeezed her hand. He moaned and winced, but the sharp pain passed and left a dull ache that was slightly more tolerable. “Thank you, Sarah, thank you … … How did you know what to do?” “Remember I told you stories about my friend David and helping him study while he was in medical school?… I guess I learned a little more than I thought.” “A Little? Pa, she was so brave. She took one look at that rock stickin’ out of your belly and never hesitated.” “Ben, I was deliverin’ twins while this little lady was savin’ your life!” “We worked together. All of us. I couldn’t have done any of it without them. They were strong for you Ben. You can be proud, for sure.” A single tear ran down Ben’s face.  His posture revealed that he was in pain again, so Doc Martin said he needed to get some rest and ordered the boys to get him up to his room, very carefully. Hoss grabbed hold of the large wooden backboard that Fred had carried in earlier that morning. “Ain’t this gonna hurt him?” “Hoss, I won’t lie to ya. It’ll hurt him some. But he’ll rest and recover better in his own bed. Just take it real slow boys.” As carefully as possible, they slid the board underneath Ben. As they turned him to lay him back on the board, Ben groaned with pain. The doc checked to make sure that the movement hadn’t opened any of the stitches. Once the bandage was back in place, Ben’s sons and ranch hand Fred carried Ben up to his room. Once he was settled in bed, and the stitches were checked one last time, Sarah covered him with a warm blanket. The past hour had been strenuous for Ben and he looked exhausted. Doc Martin gave him a potion to help him sleep and dull some of his pain. As Sarah fussed with the blanket, making it just so, Ben took her hand. “Thank you, daughter.” With tears streaming down her face, Sarah kissed Ben on the forehead, then headed for the door. Each of his sons, in turn, took his hand and wished him to feel better. Downstairs, Doc Martin gave Sarah some instructions and said he’d be back the next day to check on Ben. Hoss saw him to the door. Just as the door closed, Adam saw Sarah sway, then grab onto a chair. “Joe! Get Sarah!” Joe grabbed her by the waist and was about to pick her up and carry her to her room when Sarah began sobbing. Joe wrapped his strong and loving arms around her and held her tightly, as her body shook with each sob. It was obvious that all of the excitement, fear, and emotion of the past two days had finally caught up with her. Joe stood, holding his fiancé in a protective embrace for a very long time. Adam put a hand on Joe’s shoulder as he walked by. Hoss nodded to his little brother, then helped Adam clean up the dining room ‘bed’. That night, Hoss and Adam took turns sitting at Ben’s bedside, just in case he needed anything. Ben slept for seven hours straight. Joe sat on a chair in Sarah’s room. He wanted to be there if she needed anything. For a long time, he watched her breath. In and out. In and out. He memorized her sleeping face. Every detail. Her lips. Her eyes. “God, she’s beautiful”. Sarah stirred and rolled onto her side.  Joe reached over to cover her arm. Then he lay down on top of the blankets, arm around her waist, their bodies touching, but separated. Joe and Sarah also slept for seven hours that night, in an innocent embrace. **************** At first, Ben’s recovery was slow. Everyone was worried by his pallor. He lost a little weight, and it showed in his face. He was in good spirits, but had varying amounts of pain for the next few days. Insisting on getting out of bed before anyone thought he was ready didn’t help. Ben could be a stubborn man, and being taken care of frustrated him. When he threatened to Hoss that he would “get out of this damned bed by myself”, Hoss made the only decision he could and helped Ben out of bed. “Dadburnit, Pa, now everyone’s gonna be mad at me. You ain’t  s’posed to be outta bed yet … But I reckon you’d do more damage tryin’ to git out by yourself.” “I’m glad you see it my way, son. Now get me over to that chair by the window. I’m gonna sit there in the sunshine and read for a bit.” “Alright. Here we go … … easy now, let me hold yer weight while ya sit down. That’s it. Are ya okay? … Here, lemme git ya a blanket in case ya git a chill … There, how’s that?” “Hoss, will you stop fussing over me! I’m not an invalid. Just hand me my book and let me relax some.” “Pa, you sure do git cantankerous when yer sick! Here’s yer book. Now promise you’ll call fer me when you need somethin’? And don’t try to git back in bed without help from me,ya hear?” Ben mumbled something that sounded vaguely like an agreement, then picked up his book and began to read. Hoss just shook his head and left the room, leaving the door open – on purpose. He knew Adam was doing some paper work at the big desk downstairs, and leaving the door ajar meant that Adam could hear Ben should he call. As Hoss passed through the great room, he told Adam about Pa’s latest adventure. Adam was not pleased, since the doc had told Ben to take care not to pull his stitches. Hoss grabbed his hat and gun belt and headed to town on an errand. Adam toyed with going up and demanding that Ben get back into bed, but knowing how stubborn his father could be, decided to put it off until his paper work was complete. With one more column of figures to check, Adam dropped the pencil on the desk and stretched his back. He’d been sitting there for an hour now, and was grateful that he was nearly done. He rubbed his tired eyes, then reached for the pencil. A loud crash upstairs sent Adam running, in a panic, to Ben’s room. He found his father down on one knee, holding onto a fallen bedside table, and obviously in pain. Son carefully lifted father by the arm and helped him into bed. After the dressings on the wound were checked and Adam was satisfied that no damage had been done, his look of deep concern quickly altered to one of reprimand.“What the HELL were you doing out of bed?” “DON’T YOU SWEAR AT ME, BOY! AND DON’T USE THAT TONE OF VOICE!” No matter how old he got, Adam couldn’t disobey his father, especially when Ben used his tone of voice! Running his hands through his hair and taking a moment to calm himself was all he could do. “I’m sorry, Pa. But you scared me! It may only take a few steps to get up here, but those steps seem to take forever when you don’t have any idea what you’re gonna find when you get here!  Pa, you could’ve opened that wound and started bleeding again! And I can tell you now … Sarah would not appreciate having to sew up your gut again! She’d tan us both, and Hoss too!” Ben glared at Adam with one of his “fatherly” faces. After a few moments, his face softened. “You’re right. She would … Alright, son. I’ll remain here in this bed for as long as I’m supposed to.” “Look, Pa. We know you’re feeling better. We know you’re a man who likes to stay busy. But you’re not completely healed yet! And after the scare we all had the other night … well … just stay in that bed … Please! … … … You’ve got a beautiful young lady to give away to your youngest son in a few weeks!” Adam started for the door, stopped, thought a moment, then turned to face Ben. But before he could speak his peace, Ben spoke up. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you were all so frightened. And I’m sorry for getting out of bed and scaring you again.” “I know you are … How ‘bout I bring you a different book for the afternoon and when Sarah gets back from their house, I’ll send her up to keep you company for a bit.” “Thank you, Adam … and son?  I love you too.” *************** When Sarah arrived, Adam told her about the afternoon’s events. Her first thought was to check Ben’s bandages immediately, but Adam assured her he was okay. Then Adam explained Ben’s boredom. Sarah excused herself, grabbed her journal from the table and ran upstairs. Even though the bedroom door was open, Sarah respected Ben’s privacy, so she knocked before entering. Ben closed his book and smiled up at Sarah, reminding her of a child who’d been waiting in his room for his father to get home and dispense punishment. “Hello Ben. I hear you’ve had an eventful day!” “Am I in trouble?” “Why, yes you are, sir. Now, let me check those perfect stitches that you seem determined to pull apart!” Relieved that the wound was still stitched, showed no signs of infection, and, actually, appeared to be healing quite well, Sarah pulled the blanket up on Ben’s chest. She seated herself next to the bed, and began chatting about the wedding plans, the impending arrival of her friend, David, and the progress that had been made on her new house. “Joseph is working so hard, Ben. He wants everything to be perfect. And of course, this place is his comparison, so I know it will be everything we could ever want!” “Did he fix the mortar on the fireplace?” Before Sarah could answer, Ben began to laugh. A good, hard laugh. Which, in turn, caused him some pain. “Ben, you’ll hurt yourself!” “I know, I know … but it’s good to laugh, even at my own expense!” **************** Adam, Hoss and Joe were thankful for the time Sarah spent with Ben over the next week. She made him … cheerful. The new house was completed, thanks to the hard work of the whole Cartwright clan and a few friends. Sarah hoped that one day soon, she could help them build a house for Hoss or Adam. She wanted every Cartwright to be as happy as she was going to be. The morning of David’s arrival in Virginia City, Joe was as nervous as could be. “What if he doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like him? What if he tries to talk Sarah out of a hard life out west?”  As they ate breakfast, Ben could sense his son’s apprehension. Sarah was busy with a few more stories of the antics of her and David. Hoss and Adam listened intently, and genuinely seemed to be looking forward to meeting David. Joe, on the other hand, had a look of dread on his face. When they finished with breakfast, Ben stood, cautiously, and began to gather up the dishes. “Excuse me! WHAT do you think you’re doing?” Ben froze in place and glared at Sarah. Hoss’s head lowered, but his eyes looked up at his father. Adam looked away as if he hadn’t heard. Joe was jolted from his thoughts by Sarah’s tone. “I’ll thank you not to talk to me in that tone, young lady.” Ben’s voice was angrier than the boys expected it to be, but his face was another story. Sarah stood, assuming a defiant posture. As she spoke, her tone was one the boys knew would not be appreciated!  “You are still healing, Ben Cartwright. Doc Martin has told you. Your sons have told you. Hop Sing has told you. Not to mention me! You’re doing too much too soon. Now, I know I’m being selfish. Maybe even spoiled. I was an only child, you know, well, ‘til I came here!  But I want you … no, I need you to give me away at my wedding. So you had better take it slow and listen to what you’re told you can and can’t do …” With those words, Adam squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, Joe looked into the next room, and Hoss’s eyes went down to his plate. ” … and cleaning up the breakfast dishes this soon after your ordeal is a ‘CAN’T DO !”  Ben didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t blink. Adam changed position yet again and exhaled deliberately with a sound. Joe looked at Sarah with pity all over his face. Hoss continued to look at his plate and shook his head ever so slightly. “Do the three of you agree with her? That I need to be told what I CAN and CAN”T do?” By instinct, the three men looked at each other, not sure of the consequences of agreeing with Sarah; or the consequences of agreeing with Ben! Hoss, the brave one, was first to speak. “Yes, sir.” “Yes, sir, what?” “Yes, sir, I reckon … in this instance … well … ya need to be told …” Joe, trying to help the situation, interrupted. “Advised. Ad … ad … vised.” Hoss continued, using Joe’s much appreciated verbiage. “… ya need to be advised on what’cha should be doin’ … I guess … sir.” “Adam, what about you?” “Well … sir … Sarah is only looking out for your best interests. She …  w … we … want you to heal … properly … and … and quickly …” “That’s right, quickly.”  Joe echoed, nodding his head. A moment of silence. “Well, then … I guess I can’t fault all of you for wanting me to get better … Joseph, help Sarah with these dishes.” “Yes, Pa!” Joe flew out of his chair, relieved that the discussion of telling Ben Cartwright what to do had ended with no casualties! As Joe stacked dishes and headed for the kitchen, Adam, eager to leave the room before Sarah said anything else to Ben, jumped up. “I’ve got some chores to do in the barn.” Hoss had planned on using that excuse to leave, and Adam beat him to it. He thought and thought, but couldn’t come up with a good reason to leave the table with food still on his plate. Finally, he stood. “I reckon … I just need ta leave.” He grabbed the last slice of bacon and took off outside, leaving Ben, still standing at his place, and Sarah, still standing at hers. There was still tension in the room. Sarah walked over to Ben and they stood face to face. “I’m sorry for my tone earlier, sir, and for attempting to tell you what to do. Please try and take it easy just a little longer … … I love you.” Sarah kissed Ben’s cheek and hugged him, very gently, then started for the kitchen to help Joe. Ben cleared his throat, swallowed hard, and took a deep breath. “Sarah. Thank you for making a stubborn, cantankerous old fool realize that he needs to take care of himself.” “Oh, Ben! … You’re not old!” Sarah stepped back to kiss his cheek again, and Ben whispered in her ear, “I love you too.”   Chapter Twelve Jealous, Or Not? That afternoon, Joe and Sarah went in to Virginia City to meet the stage. They arrived early enough to have a nice, relaxing lunch together. Leaving the buggy in front of the General Store, they walked hand in hand toward the Hotel. When they came to an opening between two buildings, Joe grabbed Sarah and pulled her into the shadows. Pushing her against the wall of the store, he kissed her, passionately. When the kiss was released, he looked into her eyes, then kissed her neck. Sarah inhaled sharply, as Joe leaned against her. She was helplessly pinned between Joe and the wall, but she didn’t try to make him stop. He took her hand in his, lifted her arm against the wall, and brushed his lips softly on the inside of her forearm. Sarah moaned, her chest heaving as she struggled to breath with Joe’s weight against her. Joe moved his hands to her waist, gently kissed her lips, and stepped back, releasing her from his hold. “We’d better get to lunch. We don’t want to be late meeting the stage.” DumbfoundedSarah attempted to recover from Joe’s welcomed advances. He took her by the hand and headed for the restaurant, smiling all the way. Shaken, Sarah worked to slow her breathing as they walked. After a moment, a smile appeared on her face as well. Neither of them said a word to each other until they were seated at a quiet table in the restaurant. After placing their orders, Joe reached across the table and took Sarah’s hand. She studied his handsome face, and though he tried to look innocent, she could see mischief in those gorgeous green eyes. Whispering, so that no one else could hear, she asked, “Joseph Cartwright, what got in to you back there?”“Whatever do you mean, Sarah?” “You know what I’m talking about.” “Yes, but I want you to say it.” “Joseph! … Alright. You pulled me into the shadows and … well … in the middle of town, you kissed me … and touched me and … Joseph, I could hardly breathe!” Now Joe had the most devilish look in his eyes and a smirk on his face. Finally, he spoke in a hushed voice. “And? …”  This game he was playing had the exact effect on Sarah that he’d hoped it would. She was reliving what had happened between the buildings, and her face was flushed and her breathing was becoming rapid. ” And … I liked it! But I swear, Joseph Cartwright, if you ever do that in the middle of town again, I’ll …” “You’ll what?” Now it was Sarah that was full of mischief. “I’ll like it again. In fact, I’ll like it so much that I just might do it to you the next time!” Joe smiled an almost evil smile. “Oh, I LIKE that idea!” Just then, their waitress approached the table with their food. Sarah hoped that she didn’t notice her red cheeks, or the flirtatious way Joe was looking at her. Lunch was excellent, and neither of them spoke of the incident again. As Joe and Sarah waited for the stage, Sarah became more and more excited. And Joe became more and more apprehensive. He still felt insecure about meeting David. This man was a doctor. And he and Sarah shared a long past together. A long past. Joe was sure that his jealousy was what was behind their ‘middle of town encounter’. He’d wanted his fiancé to have a most recent memory of their attraction to each other when David stepped off the stage. “Well, if it isn’t Virginia City’s favorite couple!  Haven’t seen you two for a bit. Guess you’ve been busy takin’ care of Ben and getting’ that house ready.” “Hi Sheriff Coffee, it’s nice to see you.” “What brings you two into town today?” “Sarah’s friend from back east is coming in on the stage. He’ll be here for the wedding.” “Oh, that’s nice. He stayin’ at the Ponderosa?” “Yes, he is. I’m so excited to see him again.” Joe could hear the stage approaching. Sarcastically, he said, “Yea, excited …”  The stage rolled to a stop at the depot. The door opened and two older men got out. Then she saw him. “DAVID! It’s so good to see you! I’ve missed you so much!” Sarah flew into David’s arms and he lifted her and laughed. “It’s good to see you too, Kitten.” Joe was getting tired of holding his fake smile in place. “Kitten? Oh great! He has a nickname for her!” he thought to himself. “Okay, put her down now … Now! … He is good lookin’, if you like the brainy, formal type!        Not as good lookin’ as me though. That’s it, just keep smilin’. Looks like he hasn’t spent any time in the sun – ever! Almost as tall as Hoss … My face is startin’   to hurt.” Finally, David lowered Sarah to the ground and kissed her on the cheek. She looked so happy. They both did. “David … THIS is Joseph!” The two shook hands, and Joe noticed that David’s hands were smooth and soft. As if he’d never done a hard day’s work in his life. “Nice to meet you.” “So, you’re the one that stole my girl! I aim to get her back, you know!” “Oh, David, stop foolin’ around. Come on, let’s get the surrey and get you to The Ponderosa.”  “The Ponderosa … you know, Joseph, back east, we have what’s called an address so people can find us. We find that’s more efficient than simply naming    our homes.” “That’s interesting. Call me Joe.” With that, David offered his elbow to Sarah, which she accepted, and off they went to the surrey, leaving Joe to carry David’s bags. Sarah and David sat together in the back. “Great! I just went from husband-to-be to driver!” Joe thoughtSarah spent the ride home telling David all about the Cartwright’s spread. “Oh, and over there, about a hundred yards down the bank is the loveliest stream. Hoss, that’s one of Joseph’s older brothers, has taken me there several   times to watch the wildlife. And over there, look at that rock formation … “ “Kitten, I’d almost forgotten how beautiful you are when you’re all worked up! I’ve really missed that sweet smile.” In the front seat, Joe silently mimicked what David had said, rocking his head back and forth. “I’ve missed you too David!” Two miles later, they arrived at the main house. “It’s … big.” Sarah knew that David had never seen any other type of house except those in the cities in the east. Lawns well manicured, fancy porch chairs. “I love this house, David. Wait ‘til you see the inside!” David jumped down and put his hands around Sarah’s waist just as Joe hurried over to do the same. David let her down slowly, and Joe wondered just how much David had enjoyed doing that! “Maybe Sarah doesn’t have feelings for David, but no one said he doesn’t have feelings for her.”  Hoss, Adam and Ben came out to greet their new guest. Sarah took note that Ben was allowing Adam to stay very close by. She made a mental note to be sure Ben didn’t overdo it today. “David, I’d like you to meet Mr. Cartwright … his son Adam … and his son Eric.” “You kin call me Hoss.” Joe, Ben and Adam shared sideways glances. “And I’m Ben.” “And I’m still Adam.” With the introductions over, Sarah led David to the house. “Hop Sing is the Cartwright’s cook. He’s just like a member of their family. He’s away for a few days, so you’ll have to wait to meet him.” “Hoss, Adam, get the bags. Joe, you put the buggy in the barn.” “Not now, Pa. I’m goin’ in.” As he spoke, Joe cracked his neck, stood taller, and marched right past Ben and into the house. Adam and Hoss couldn’t believe that Joe had ignored his father. Neither could their father! “Pa, I’ll get the buggy. Hoss can get both bags. You just take your time walking to the house.” Adam had never been so efficient at putting up the buggy. He didn’t want to miss anything that might be going on in the house. He knew that look on Joe’s face, and it usually meant trouble. Well, trouble for Joe. And a good laugh for Adam! When Adam hurried through the door, he was nearly wheezing! Ben was seated. Check. Hoss was in a chair. Check. Joe was sitting on the hearth. Check. And Sarah and David were close together on the settee. Uh oh. “Adam, come sit down, here by me. We were just talking about David’s adventure on the stage.” Adam took a seat, all the while looking at Joe. “He seems to be holding his own, so far.” Adam thought. “I’m sorry the ride was uncomfortable. You’re right, trains are a much more desirable way to travel. Speaking of ways to travel, I want to take you riding tomorrow, David. We’ll go over and see the house. Joseph and his family have built a beautiful home. And we have extra rooms so that you can come visit again after the wedding!” Both Adam and Hoss saw Joe roll his eyes. Luckily, Sarah was looking at David and missed the ‘facial commentary’. “Kitten, you know it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a horse. Do you really think I can make it to Joe’s house on my first attempt?” “Aw, I’m sure an educated man like yourself can learn to ride real quick … We’ll find you an old mare for your first time … And it’s OUR house.” Adam nearly choked, Hoss laughed aloud but quickly tried to turn it into a cough, and Ben snickered very quietly. Sarah, however, was not appreciative of Joe’s comments. She glared at Joe with a look that rivaled some of Ben’s stares. “What Joseph means, David, is that we can put you on a horse that won’t be too challenging for you.” That comment put Adam over the top. Not only was it still a bit of an insult to David, but it unintentionally came from Sarah! He got up from the settee and hurried into the kitchen. “If you’ll all excuse me, I think I’ll help Adam with the … umm … coffee! Yea, coffee. Who wants coffee?” A few seconds later, Ben could have sworn he heard giggling coming from the kitchen. Sarah and David continued to chat while Ben and Joe listened. Ben had begun to form an opinion of David: “He’s very intelligent, seems to have a good sense of humor … obviously adores Sarah … I’ve never seen Joe so jealous. Maybe … no … maybe Sarah has given Joe a reason to be jealous? No, that can’t be.” Adam and Hoss returned with a tray of cups and a pot of coffee. Except for Joe, everyone joined in the conversation as they tried to get to know more about one another. When Sarah saw the time on the big grandfather clock, she excused herself to make supper. Joe asked if she’d like help, but she told him to stay and get to know David. “Adam kin help ya Sarah. We all remember how good he looks when he’s wearin’ an apron!” Everyone, except David, laughed. When Hoss told the whole story, David smiled. He was coming to understand that these people shared the same sense of practical joking and humor that he and Sarah shared. No wonder she seemed to fit in so well here. Her cheeks were full of color. She nearly skipped everywhere she went. And when she looked at Joe, her eyes twinkled like he’d never seen them twinkle before. Sarah was happy. So David was happy. But he wasn’t completely ready to let Joe off the ‘scrutiny hook’ just yet. At supper, David sat beside Hoss, leaving Joe and Sarah together on the opposite side. There was talk of the ranch and Ben’s struggles to make it to Nevada Territory. They discussed how Virginia City had tripled in size since Ben first arrived. David was impressed with Ben’s fortitude. He could see Adam and Hoss in Ben. But not Joe. At least, not yet. Retiring to the great room after supper, they talked about medical school. Ben found himself quite impressed with this young man. Adam and Hoss liked him too. Sarah had finished cleaning up, and had walked into the great room. When the subject of Ben’s recent accident came up, David sat speechless as the Cartwrights described what had transpired. Speechless, that is, until the mention of blood. “And there was blood? Lots of blood? And Sarah … she actually … “ “She was the first one to get to Pa and immediately tried to stop the bleeding.” Dumbfounded, David looked up at Sarah. “Then, you brought him here with the rock still in place, I hope. That was the best thing you could have done. That way, you wouldn’t have to move him again once the rock was removed.” Adam nodded. ” Okay, what happened next?” Adam continued the story, adding as many details as he could recall. “Okay. Now it was time for the rock to be removed. Without knowing the size of the rock, or the penetration depth, removing it was risky. But you had no choice. Who removed the rock? Wait, let me guess …” David searched the faces of each of the Cartwrights, trying to give reason to his guess. David thought in silence: “Joe seems slightly bothered by this conversation. Bringing back frightening memories of almost losing his father. No, wasn’t Joe … Hoss was staring at the floor as Adam gave the details of what the wound looked like, so it probably wasn’t Hoss. Adam was telling the story, but there was something about the way he was telling it. Almost as if he didn’t stick to the small details, he’d have to remember how he felt seeing his father dying.”  David had to choose. “Well, we know it wasn’t you Ben! … Not Joe. Had to be either Hoss or Adam … I’ll say it was Adam.” “Sorry, David. It was Sarah!” David just stared at Adam. Then at Sarah. Then at Ben. Then at Hoss. Then at Joe. “Okay, jokes on me. Although I’m sure she’s quite capable, Sarah wouldn’t even remove a splinter from my hand when we were younger. She can’t stand the sight of blood! And from the location of that injury, there must have been a lot of it. So, who really did it?” “Sarah saved my life, David.” Ben told the rest of the story, with a few details from Adam, Hoss and Joe thrown in. David was left speechless to think that his best friend, without physical training – book learning only – had done the things Sarah did. And successfully! After high praise from David, and gratitude once again from the Cartwrights, Sarah kissed Ben on the cheek. “What was that for?”    “Just because I wanted to! … Now, enough medical talk. David, come outside with me. You’ve never seen stars like you’ll see them here on The Ponderosa! Anyone else coming?” Ben, Joe, Adam and Hoss joined Sarah and David on the porch. It was a clear night, and thousands of twinkling lights decorated the sky. David had never been anywhere so void of certain sounds. No people or buggies on busy streets. Just the sounds of nature. A wolf howled far off in the distance. Crickets chirped and there were even a few frogs having a conversation of their own. “I can see why you love it here, Ben. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the ranch in the daylight.” “It’s a wonderful place to live. But anyone who comes out here must be prepared to work hard, accept setbacks, deal with the weather, and together with their neighbors, they must be ready to try and build a community. Some folks just aren’t cut out for it. Just like I wasn’t happy living in a city. It’s a hard life.  We’ve come a long way in this territory, and we have a long way to go.” David heard Ben’s statements over and over in his head. ‘Some folks just aren’t cut out for it’ … ‘It’s a hard life.’  He glanced over at Sarah and Joe. Sarah smiling, gazing up at the universe’s light show. And Joe, his arms locked around Sarah’s waist, pointing to this star and that. She looked happy. Very happy. And the rest of the Cartwrights seemed to care about her. Actually, they seemed to love her. Both Sarah and David were ‘the only child’ of their families. Sometimes, that made it difficult to fit into larger family groups. At least, it was hard for David. But not Sarah. She seemed as though she’d always been a part of this family. ‘Some folks just aren’t cut out for it’ … ‘It’s a hard life.’  David worried that his friend … his BEST friend … might find that she was cut out for city life, not life in this wilderness. Just then, David saw Joe kiss Sarah’s neck, making her giggle and try to squirm out of his arms. Everyone smiled at the young couple. Even David. But another emotion rose within him, along with that smile. ‘Am I worried that Sarah’s love for Joe won’t be enough to help her make this permanent change? Or am I … jealous? Not in a romantic way, but jealous that she could love someone so completely, could trust someone so completely that she would give up her life back east for that person. Give up her friends back east for that person. Give up … me.’  David looked at the couple again. Sarah ‘seemed’ happy. Why did that word keep popping into his head?   Chapter Thirteen Let’s Talk           Several days later, as the family arose and began to gather downstairs for breakfast, David found that he was still unable to shake the feeling he’d had that first night at the the Ponderosa. Coming down the stairs, he saw the whole family, minus Sarah, gathered in the great room.           “Good morning, David. Did you sleep well?”           “Yes, Ben, I did. It must be all the clean, fresh air on The Ponderosa!” “Fresh air, and a beautiful day for a tour of the ranch. I understand that you and Sarah will be exploring this morning. I’m sure she’ll take you to all of her favorite spots. And the new house, of course … I’m sorry that my sons and I won’t be able to join you. I’ll be going to Virginia City for a bit, and the boys have to ride out and check the herd and that can take an entire day!” “That’s alright, Ben. I’ll enjoy having ‘Kitten’ all to myself.” At the use of her special nickname, Joe rolled his eyes and wished that he would be exploring with David and Sarah. He didn’t like the idea of being away from Sarah all day anyway, but to know that she would be alone with David …‘Stop it. David is Sarah’s friend. She loves both of us, just in different ways. So stop being jealous!’ Joe thought. “Where IS Sarah this morning?” “That young lady gets up before the crack of dawn every morning, just so she can spend time with the horses in the barn! They sure are gonna miss those early morning visits after the wedding! Who knows, we may have a stampede on our hands when she doesn’t show up! … Joe, why don’t you call Sarah in for breakfast.” “Sure thing, Pa.” As they enjoyed a breakfast of flapjacks and sausage, Sarah dropped her napkin on the floor. As she leaned from her chair to retrieve it, she peeked underneath the tablecloth to assess her target. With her napkin securely back on her lap, she carried on a conversation with Joe – as an alibi – and nudged Adam’s ankle with her foot. Adam looked over at Sarah, engrossed in a discussion with Joe about how long it takes to check a herd. Ignoring the ankle nudge, Adam reached for the maple syrup, only to be nudged again. Harder this time. He smirked and spoke up, joining the discussion. “So you see, Sarah, at times, we find a calf or two that are trapped by the landscape. It’s then that we have to PUSH and SHOVE them out of their predicament so they can join the rest of the herd.” As he spoke, Adam carefully nudged Sarah’s right ankle, and she gave not one hint of recognition to his taunting. “But Adam, what happens if no matter how much you PROD and JOSTLE the calf, it still doesn’t move?”Sarah returned the nudges, a little more forcefully this time. “Well, Sarah, if that happens, we can always try to IMPEL the calf in a different direction.”This time, Adam nudged Sarah’s left ankle. It was all she could do not to smile. Noticing her struggle, Hoss looked to Adam, and immediately knew that the two were up to something. He lowered his head and lifted his eyes to look at Ben, who hadn’t yet caught on. “That’s very interesting, Adam. I never even spent a second or two thinking about those calves needing a THRUST to get back on solid ground.” Hoss nearly decorated the table with his mouthful of flapjacks. Joe, who’d known all along what they were up to, snickered quietly. David, oblivious to what was happening, yet slightly disturbed by the unusual conversation, caught a glimpse of Joe’s smile and Hoss’s discomfort. Then he looked at Sarah. He’d recognize her ‘innocent’ expression any day. Many’s the time he and Sarah had teased and plotted against each other – usually in a public place!   “Yes, it is Sarah. There are even occasions where we’ve had to JOGGLE the calf, successfully, of course.” This time, Adam’s nudge was a bit harder than he’d meant it to be, and Sarah flinched, slightly, but it was just enough. “All right, you two. That’s ENOUGH! We have a guest in this house!” “She started it!” “Did not!” “Did too!” By now, everyone at the table was laughing. “David, you see what I have to put up with? It’s like having a house full of five year olds!” David and Sarah proceeded to recall a few of their more infamous practical jokes. One involved quite a bit of cold water and a male teacher who wore a toupee. Another story had a cow, a child’s wagon and a deck of cards! That one made Hoss laugh so hard that tears ran down his face. “Well, now, I guess a little ankle kicking under the breakfast table isn’t so bad after all! … Although these things are happening more frequently now that there’s a certain young lady living here!” After breakfast, the cowboys of the family were about to begin a very long day of business in town and tending to the herd. One by one, as they put on their gun belts and hats, they wished Sarah and David a pleasant day. When it was Joe’s turn, his goodbye was a little more … personal. Joe always kissed Sarah before leaving her for any length of time. But knowing that David was watching, Joe planted a most passionate kiss on his fiancé’s lips, leaving her breathing heavily when he pulled away and said,“Have a nice day, you two!’ *************************** Sarah and David saddled their horses and started off to explore The Ponderosa. They’d been riding for a few minutes when David slowed his horse next to Sarah’s. “Does Joe always kiss you like that?” “What if he does?” “Well, I kinda got the feeling that he wasn’t really wishing the two of us a ‘nice day’! “What are you getting at, David?” “Kitten, I think your fiancé is jealous!” “Jealous of what?” “Oh, kitten, come on, you know what I’m talking about. Joe’s been courteous and polite to me, but he’s barely said more than a sentence or two since I got here! Does he have a problem with me or what?” “See that rock up ahead … the one that looks like a bear? … RACE YA!” Sarah took off at a full gallop, with David lagging behind. When they got to the rock, Sarah quickly dismounted and walked to a small clearing, with David close behind. And there it was. Lake Tahoe. “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” David walked up next to Sarah and put his arm around her waist. “Wow. I mean, really, wow! I can see why this is one of your favorite spots. The water is … well, it’s bluer than the color blue! The sun reflecting off the ripples! Damn. Just beautiful. And the contrast, with all the tall pines, the green against the blue!  Wow! And you didn’t answer my question!” “You’re right, I didn’t.” “Kitten! I’m gonna be here for a while. Living under the Cartwrights’ roof! I need to know if Joe has a problem with me or not!” Sarah walked over to a boulder and sat down. She patted the rock with her hand, inviting David to sit beside her. “Joseph doesn’t have a problem with you. He has a problem with ‘us’. You and me … Put yourself in his place. The woman you love has a friend – a MALE friend – that shares a twenty two year past with her. And you’re afraid that this friend of hers is gonna try and convince her to go back east with him. Joseph is worried that spending time with you might make me homesick for life in the city. Trouble is … he’s right.” “WHAT? “ “All those stories we’ve been tellin’, all the fun and memories … they do make me homesick. And they should. They were wonderful, amazing, glorious experiences that I shared with you … David, this is my home now. I’ve already made a few memories here. And I’m looking forward to making a life time of memories. Here. With Joseph and his family. And in the future, when you visit, or I visit, I can share those new memories with you.” “I understand what you’re saying, Kitten. But it’s like Ben said. This is a hard life, and some people find they aren’t cut out for it. Kitten, you’ve only been here a few months. It’s still a new and exciting experience for you. What if, after months or even years of marriage, you still want Joe, but you come to realize that you don’t want this kind of life. What then? I know you Kitten. Maybe better than you know yourself … You ALWAYS put others before yourself. You sacrifice what you want so that others will get what they want. And you love Joe. I don’t doubt that for a minute. You’ll never even mention your unhappiness to Joe. You’ll do whatever it takes to make him happy. Always. That’s one of the reasons I love you, you know. You are the most unselfish person I’ve ever known. And the thought of you being unhappy in any way makes me hurt inside … Maybe you should extend the engagement. Spend more time here in this wilderness. Be sure that Joe is enough to make you happy, even if you aren’t happy where you live.”  Sarah sat silently. She’d obviously been listening as David spoke, but there was no reply for several minutes. “It’s no small wonder that the two men I love most in this world share the same fear. With you here, and the two of us reminiscing, Joseph is afraid that I might want to go back east. But David, I am happy here. Not just with Joseph. I’m happy HERE. Happier than I’ve been in a long time. Sure, I may miss a few things about living back east, but I can never live without Joseph … and I’ve found so much joy and contentment in this amazing wilderness. I am happy. HERE!” David put his arms around Sarah and hugged as tightly as he dared. He spoke softly to her. “Damn it, Kitten. You went and grew up without me! … All I ever want is for you to be happy … So … let’s get going so you can show me some more of this wilderness you love so much!” Meanwhile, the Hoss, Joe and Adam were taking a well deserved break in the day’s labor. They’d already had to rescue two calves from a mucky pond. As they sat under a mammoth shade tree, Hoss and Adam made eye contact. Adam nodded, giving Hoss the ‘all clear’ to start the conversation. “Sure is a hot one … Say, li’l brother, you’ve been awful quiet this mornin’. Ya ain’t said two words since we left the house.” “Well, maybe that’s ‘cause you haven’t stopped yakkin’ since we left!” Surprised by Joe’s tone of voice, Adam looked at Hoss and shrugged his shoulders. The two had agreed to try and get Joe to talk about what was bothering him. They thought that with Sarah and David nowhere around, he might be willing to open up. “Aw, come on, li’l Joe. What’s eatin’ atcha? Maybe Adam and I kin help!” “Yeah, Joe. You shouldn’t keep things bottled up inside.” Joe had been tossing a small stone back and forth in his hands. As Adam spoke, he pitched the stone, as hard as he could, across the clearing. Then he simply stared at the ground in front of him. “If you don’t want to talk, just say so and we’ll get back to work.” Joe hesitated, then stood up and took three steps toward Cochise. Thinking that was his way of saying ‘let’s get back to work’, Hoss and Adam began to stand. Before either of them were all the way up, Joe stopped, turned and cleared his throat, about to speak. “I guess I do need to talk to someone.” Hoss and Adam, in one fluid motion, sat right back down. The brothers steeled themselves for what they THOUGHT Joe was about to say. They were sure that Joe was having second thoughts about getting married. Not about loving Sarah. Just about getting married. “Well … it’s like this. What if spending time with David … talking all about the fun they’ve had and things they’ve seen and done … well … what if it makes Sarah want to go back with him?” Jealousy was not what Adam and Hoss had in mind for what was troubling Joe. They looked to each other, trying to decide where to go from here. “Aw, li’l buddy. Ain’t no way Sarah would leave you for David. She loves you more ‘an anything!” “I know that Hoss. I’m afraid she’ll leave me for the city. Either that or ask me to go back east with her! … This is a hard place for a woman. She might not be thinking about things that way. What if David points that out to her? What if she decides that city life, with its opera houses, and colleges, and fancy houses and all is too much to give up just to be with me?” “Well, Joe. Not that I think that’s gonna happen, but you could always go back east with Sarah. You could be the one to give up the things you have here for the woman you love.” Joe sat in silence, taking in what Adam had said. Hoss stared at the ground before him, his face showing great despair and his heart nearly breaking at just the suggestion of Joe leaving the Ponderosa. Adam sat looking off to the side, knowing that eye contact with either Joe or Hoss would be difficult at best. “You’re right, Adam. And I DO love her enough to leave this behind … It wouldn’t be easy, but I’d have my Sarah … Let’s get back to work. The sooner we get done, the sooner we can get on home, and the sooner I’ll know if spending the day with David has had an effect on Sarah’s decisions.” The rest of the day seemed endless to Joe. The three brothers were very quiet as they finished their day’s work. The ride home was even quieter. Meanwhile, Sarah and David had toured a vast area of the Ponderosa. They had spent so much time at each spot, it was time to head home for supper and David hadn’t yet seen the new house. Sarah promised to make that their first stop the next day, and they started for home. The two best friends chatted the whole way back. David told Sarah that he was impressed with the scenery and the beauty of The Ponderosa. And he promised to make a better effort at getting to know Joe. That promise made Sarah’s heart smile. Back at the house, the supper table was set and ready. Sarah and David got back first, and Sarah immediately checked on Ben’s wound to make sure things were still healing. It wasn’t long before the boys returned, all dirty and dusty from the trail. After washing up and changing clothes, they all sat down for supper. Unlike at any other meal, this time, Adam and Hoss made sure that David and Joe sat next to each other, hoping that something as simple as passing the platters of food to each other might start up a conversation between the two. When Sarah realized they were next to each other, she hoped that a fight wouldn’t start up! “Let’s get business out of the way first. Boys, how did your day go?” “Pa, we was able to get the whole herd back together. Couple a stray calves, but we got ‘em.” “Good. Glad to hear there was no trouble … And how was your tour of The Ponderosa?” “It was … eye opening. You know, when Sarah wrote and told me that she was thinking of staying on here, before Joe proposed, I thought she was … well … crazy! A city girl like Sarah in the wilderness? Never! … Joe looked down at his plate as his face fell. Hoss and Adam both shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Sarah glared at David from across the table. ” … but after today, seeing the amazing landscapes and the pines, God they’re beautiful, and the lake … and seeing how much Kitten loves Joe and how much Joe and well … all of you love her … well, I can see why she’d want to stay.” Joe hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until the last part of David’s sentence, when he quietly exhaled. Hoss and Adam visibly relaxed in their chairs, and Sarah smiled at David. Though Ben hadn’t really noticed the earlier tension, he did notice the new, more relaxed atmosphere in the room. Before he could ask what was going on, Joe spoke up. “I know how important your opinions are to Sarah. I really glad you can see how much she means to me … to us … David, you don’t ever have to worry about Sarah. I promise we’ll take real good care of her.”Hoss, Adam and Ben voiced agreement, and Sarah looked as if the weight of the world had fallen off her shoulders. That evening, Joe showed David the Cartwrights’ rifle collection. They talked for a full hour together, David asking question after question. Sarah and Adam spent the night playing chess, with Sarah, much to Hoss’s delight, beating Adam three games to two. Ben did a little reading, but was almost constantly interrupted by Hoss cheering Sarah on, and Sarah and Adam taunting each other. It was nearly midnight when Ben turned in for the night. Hoss, and David went next. Adam, Sarah and Joe sat on the porch for a while. Until Joe decided he should kiss Sarah. “Uh … big brother is on the porch ya know!” “Well, maybe it’s time for big brother to go to bed!” “Damn, Joe, you hurt my feelings, trying to get rid of me! I’m sure Sarah would like to continue to partake in my delightful companionship!” Sarah kept her eyes on Joe, but gave Adam his answer. “Beat it, Adam!” “I can take a hint … Are ya sure ya don’t want …” “GOOD NIGHT, BIG BROTHER!”

Chapter Fourteen

Doubts

The early morning sun beaming through the window created the most curious shadows throughout her room. Sarah spotted one that resembled the profile of a bear standing on its hind legs and another that reminded her of a leaf-less tree. As the floral curtain danced in the wind, the opposite wall came alive with movement. The breeze coming from the open window carried the smell of roses. And breakfast from the kitchen downstairs. Sarah bounded out of bed, full of energy and ready to embark on a brand new day. As she dressed in her blue shirt and jeans, she thought back to last night, and the connection that finally emerged between the two men she loved most. She’d always believed that the two would become, at least, casual friends. They seemed to have accomplished that the night before.

Dashing down the stairs, Sarah found everyone, save for Ben, gathering for breakfast. As Joe crossed the room, all set to greet his lovely fiancé, Ben came down the stairs. Joe’s morning greeting for Sarah was a most gentle kiss, which was cut short when Ben ended up directly behind Sarah.

“Oh, hey Pa! I was just sayin’ good mornin’ to my girl!”

          “Anyone with eyes can see that, Joseph. Now break it up, you two, and get to the table for breakfast!”

          “Yes sir.”

          Ben grinned at the couple as they walked, hand in hand, to the dining room. The meal was full of dialogue about everyone’s plans for the day. Ben and Hoss were heading into town for a bit and Joe and Adam were riding to the new house to finish a few things.

“I was planning to show David the house today!”

          “Kitten, why don’t we just ride over together and help Adam and Joe with whatever they have planned?”

          “Sounds like a good idea!”

          Sarah and David manned the buckboard, with Sarah at the reins, and Joe and Adam saddled Cochise and Sport. The ride to the house allowed Sarah to point out a few more strikingly beautiful sites along the way. David marveled at Sarah’s passion for this land. Her intense enthusiasm was contagious. He’d experienced Sarah’s exhilaration before, in the cities back east, but this was a true surprise. “Maybe she really DOES belong out here instead of back east in the confines of the city,” David thought. As they approached the house, Sarah suddenly grew quiet. When the structure came into view, she halted the horses.

“Our new home. Isn’t it incredible, David?”

          “Wow … The five of you built that?… It’s … impressive! … And you say Adam drew up the plans?”

          Sarah beamed as she drove the buckboard closer. Adam, Joe and David unloaded the supplies and tools. Then Sarah took David on a tour of the house. From the pine floors to the stucco walls to the detailed craftsmanship of the staircase, David was truly impressed.

“So, this must be the infamous fireplace!”

          Sarah walked over, not sure of what she would see. Joe had, of course, seen to it that the spot where Ben had fallen had been scrubbed. And the missing mortar had been filled in.

“He landed right there. Oh, David, it was dreadful! He struck the floor and didn’t move. He …”

          “…was badly hurt and you and his sons saved his life! End of story! … Don’t dwell on it, Kitten.”

          David held Sarah in a warm embrace. Abruptly, he let go and walked toward the dining room.

          “This is … stunning! Where did you find this table?”

“Joseph, Adam and Eric made it. From trees growing right here on The Ponderosa! They made the chairs too. All of the furniture that’s here so far was made by one Cartwright or another.”

“Damn… I hate to admit this, but those men have some talent! I wouldn’t know where to begin to build anything like this!”

“That’s why you’re a surgeon… in the city. The Cartwrights are good with their hands too. Just in a different way.”

David nodded, and with the slightest smirk, said,

“So, Joe’s good with his hands, huh Kitten?”

Sarah thumped him on the chest, and he feigned pain much greater than her touch could possibly have caused.

“THAT, my friend, is none of your business!”

“Ooo … that’s a ‘yes’ if I’ve ever heard one!”

Laughing, Sarah led David into her kitchen. It was smaller than the one in Ben’s home, but still larger than the one in Sarah’s house back east. Once again, David was awed by the quality and care put into every detail. At that moment, Adam stuck his head through the kitchen door and whispered for them to come out into the yard. Grazing among some nearby trees were a doe and her fawns. The peaceful look on Sarah’s face was priceless as she watched the animals that would soon be her neighbors. When their visitors finally strolled off into the trees, Adam and Joe got to work on finishing the water pump just outside the kitchen door. Sarah had some curtains she’d made ready to hang in the bedrooms, leaving David to help with the pump. To Adam and Joe’s surprise, David was quite capable. The three talked about this and that as the work progressed. David told a few stories about Jake, Sarah’s late father.

Sarah entered the front bedroom, ready to hang the last of the curtains. With the windows opened, she was able to hear the men talking as they worked. Adam was recalling some of Joe’s antics as a child, his escapades as a young teenager, and Joe’s more recent years as ‘Virginia City’s Romeo’. Sarah began to listen more closely. She’d heard a few rumors in town and some tales from his brothers saying that before she arrived, Joe’s favorite pass time was flirting. From what she overheard through the open window, the stories were no exaggeration.

“Joe has always had an eye for the lovely ladies.”

“Oh, really? Do tell, Adam. Do tell.”

“Let’s see … where to begin? … His first was a schoolboy crush on Mandy Johnston. He must have been … oh, about ten years old. We caught him wearing Pa’s cologne to school one morning. ‘Course he used about half a bottle that one time! You could smell him comin’ for miles! … We had one hell of a time getting the horse to calm down and pull the buggy to town!”

Sarah was pleased to hear all three of the men laughing at Adam’s story. She wished she could picture Joseph as a ten year old boy. “He must have been adorable!” she thought.

“So, Joe. You started pretty young! Let’s hear some more, Adam.”

“Must we?”

“Now Joe, mind you manners! David is our guest, and he’s asked for more stories. You wouldn’t want Pa to find you’d been rude to a guest, now would you? … Hmm …let me think … oh, yeah, there was the big dance to celebrate the completion of the Stevens’ brand new barn. The whole town turned out. Joe’s date for the dance was Linda Morgan. Ah, Linda … now she was a handful, wasn’t she, Joe?”

“Oh yeah, she was a handful and more! We were both … twelve.”

“Now, David, I don’t know ‘bout those city gals, but here in Nevada Territory, some twelve year old gals have already … shall we say … curved this way and that! And Linda … phew! Linda looked like she’d gotten into the curve-line at least twice! And Joe here, he sure did take notice! Now mind you, he had no notion as to the purpose of those curves. He only knew that when he looked at Linda, well, his fondness for her ‘grew’.”

Even Sarah had to giggle at that. She tried to picture Joe at twelve … and Linda … curves and all … and Joe … and the next thing she knew, her cheeks were warm and blushing.

“Hey now, wait a minute big brother. I have quite a few stories I could pass on about you!”

“But Joe, the topic of discussion today is YOUR sordid past!”

“Ya know, I liked you this morning, David. Might not be true by this afternoon!”

“Let me continue … When Joe was sixteen, well … that was an industrious year! I seem to recall that you, little brother, had a new girlfriend every week or so! Starting with Eva Sue Crowley … Eva Sue was … how can I put this delicately? … She was … experienced. I believe that was Joe’s first with that type of gal. Pa was none too happy when Joe invited Eva Sue to the summer picnic.”

“Do I wanna know what happened?”

“Oh yeah. Joe and Eva Sue disappeared from the gathering and were nowhere to be found for about two hours. Pa had everyone looking for them.”

“Yeah, and I’m just glad it was Adam that found us instead of Pa!”

“Oh, no! What were you and Eva Sue doing when Adam found you?”

“Let’s just say that Joe was … exploring some of Eva Sue’s curves!”

Sarah tried unnecessarily to mask her laughter. The roar of the men’s laughter outside drowned out her giggle.

“The gals in town suffered most. Joe wasn’t allowed anywhere near a woman for a month! … As soon as his punishment was over, Joe more than made up for his time away from the ladies! Later that year, he hooked up with … what was her name … “

“Jenny. Jenny was her name. What a mess that was!

“Ah, yes, Jenny. She was a pretty little thing. Skinny by any means, … she looked like the wind from a butterfly’s wings could push her over! Thing was, her slender physique was a far contrast to her personality. As I recall, Pa said she ‘had the temperament of a she-wolf hunting for a missing cub’!”

“She did keep me on my toes! It was like she was obsessed with me. Possessive like you wouldn’t believe! Not only couldn’t I even look at another girl, I couldn’t talk to one, be away too long doing chores, spend time with my brothers … I remember thinking that if this was what it’s like to be married, I’ll never say ‘I do’!”

“Seems you’ve changed your thinking on that one, little brother.”

Joe nodded and smiled.

“You bet I have!”

All the while they’d talked, work on the pump had continued. Now that it was finished, the men sat in the shade of the house and kept on with their discussion. Sarah was still able to hear through the open window, and what she heard David say next was something that made her feel uneasy.

“I have to tell you, Joe, that when I read in her letter that Kitten had said ‘yes’ to someone, I was … stunned. I’ve known her forever, and, truth be told, you Joseph Cartwright are the first man she has seen romantically more than twice!”

Joe’s looked at Adam, then both looked at David. Bewilderment showed on both of their faces.

“You aren’t serious! Sarah has too dated men more than twice… Right?”

“Nope. I swear. Let me think … there was a fellow student of mine. They went to a town picnic and a week later, a restaurant. Never saw him again. And there was a doctor friend of mine who took her to the opera and later that same week, to a play. Two dates with the same man in one week! I thought maybe he was a keeper! There was one more, but he only got one date. Unless Kitten had a secret life, those are the only men she considered before you Joe.”

While everything David said was accurate, hearing it spoken aloud bothered Sarah. Compared to Joe’s experiences, and Sarah had only heard a few of those, what David said made her seem … inexperienced … persnickety … maybe even a bit of a bitch. She knew that because she’d heard all of those comments tossed her way by supposed female friends back east. “Who does she think she is? … She thinks no one is good enough for her … I pity the man who marries her, she has no knowledge of what it takes to be in a relationship” were just a few of the things that had been said behind her back. Sarah had been hurt by the comments. But she understood them. She had an unambiguous ideal in her mind of what would happen when she knew ‘he was the right one’. There would be certain feelings, certain comforts. A real connection. And while that had never happened before, Joe fit that ideal to the letter! No one else had even come close.

That very first day, when Joe had stood frozen on the porch, gazing at her for the first time, Sarah had thought she sensed it. When he kissed her hand that day, Sarah was aware of it. The first time Joe sat near her, she knew it was there. And his first kiss, when their lips barely touched, then longed to touch again, she felt it. The air in her lungs seemed to need to fight its way out with every breath. Her sight became clearer than it had ever been. Her vision was dizzied. A sensation of fluttering butterflies filled her stomach, and pure surrender conquered her brain. It was wonderful and frightening at the same time. From one brief, tender kiss. That’s when Sarah understood. Joe was the one.

 “Sarah! A secret life? I don’t think so, David. I think it’s kinda sweet that Joe here is the only one to merit a third date. And a fourth. And a fifth.”

“Okay, okay, Adam. We get your point. I guess that just goes to prove that we’re supposed to be together. I have no desire whatsoever to even look at another girl. And Sarah feels the same way about other men. Don’t doubt that for a second!”

Unfortunately, Sarah had come downstairs during the last of the men’s conversation. She hadn’t heard Joe’s affectionate conviction.

“I’m hearing a lot of chatter and very little work out there! We have a house to finish, you know!”

“Yes Ma’am … I don’t know, Adam. I think Joe’d better watch out. She’s already cracking the whip!”

Sarah rushed over to where the men were seated and pushed David over.

“You’d best watch out David! I know where you sleep! And I’m sure I could easily acquire the help of two certain brothers … “

Laughing, the work crew got back to the last few items on the checklist. The sun was high in the clear blue sky, so they finished quickly, mounted up, and rode on back to the main house for lunch. On the ride home, Joe was seemed somber, lost in deep thought. When Sarah rode up beside him and tried to ask a question, Joe didn’t even realize she was there.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ben was pleasantly surprised to hear that the work on the house was very close to being finished. He was quite proud of his family for all of the labor and talents used in building the house for Sarah and Joe.

“Well, what say we ALL go over tomorrow and finish up? Then we’ll celebrate with an extra special supper.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me, Pa.”

“Anything that ends with food sounds like a good idea to you, Hoss!”

Joe was especially quiet throughout lunch. He looked weary and worn. Putting in ten hour days working on the house, completing his ranch chores, and staying up late to spend a little time alone with Sarah was taking its toll.  At least, that’s what Sarah thought. After lunch, Joe excused himself from the table under the pretext of checking on Cochise. He often went to the barn to reflect on a problem. And the discussion earlier that day was weighing heavily on his mind. He knew Sarah loved him. And he loved her right back. But hearing that she’d never dated a man more than twice brought out insecurities in Joe that he didn’t want to admit existed. If theirs was the only serious relationship Sarah had allowed, did she truly know, without a doubt, that she was ready to commit to Joe for the rest of their lives? Joe even wondered if it was fair not to discuss this with Sarah. He loved her, and her happiness was all that mattered.

Curious as to what was bothering his brother, Adam headed to the barn.

“Hey, Joe. Just came out to see … if I left some … papers in my saddle bag … Whatcha doin’?”

“Tryin’ to be alone for a few minutes!”

“Whoa … sorry little brother. Just making conversation.”

“Well … talk to Sport if ya need conversation. Or better yet. Go back in the house and leave me alone.”

Adam shrugged and opened his saddle bag, ‘looking’ for the nonexistent papers. Joe was brushing Cochise, his rhythm quickening with each stroke. Clearly, his attention to his beloved paint pony was just a diversion for what was really bothering him. As Joe’s actions became more and more frantic, Cochise demonstrated signs of impatience. He twisted his neck and glared at his impervious owner.

“Hey, Joe, take it easy. Cochise doesn’t look all that thrilled with your technique this evening.”

“Why don’t you mind your own business Adam. He’s my horse and I’ll groom him how and when I want.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? You were fine at the house this morning. You hardly said a word at lunch. Now you’re out here taking whatever it is out on Cochise. And me!”

“If you don’t like the company, you can leave.”

“I’ll leave when I’m ready to leave! Now what’s eatin’ away at you?”

“Nothin’, okay, nothin’. Just go on back to the house and leave me alone.”

“Now Joe, I’m not gonna do that. Please. Talk to me. Maybe I can help … Boy, you should be blissfully happy these days. You’ve got a beautiful fiancé that loves you more than anything. As of tomorrow, your house will be finished…. I don’t get it. What’s the problem?”

**********

In the great room, Sarah sat on the hearth, knees pulled up to her chin, staring at the dancing flames. Ben and Hop Sing were busy taking a supply inventory in the kitchen. David, not used to the physical work of a ranch, had gone upstairs for a nap. Hoss sat across from  Sarah and handed her a cup of coffee.

“Thanks.”

“Ya look a million miles away, li’l sis. Somethin’ botherin’ ya?”

“I’m afraid so, Eric, although I’m rather embarrassed to say.”

“That’s alright. If ya don’t wanna talk about it, that’s alright. Jist remember ‘ole Eric’s here if ya need to talk.”

Sarah leaned over and kissed his cheek. Hoss immediately blushed, as Sarah had seen him do so many times. She really needed to talk things out with someone. And she knew she could trust Hoss with anything she might say.

“Eric … do you think Joseph and I are rushing things?”

“What do ya mean, ‘rushin’ things?”

“This afternoon, over at the house. Adam, David and Joseph were working on the well, and I, … I was upstairs hanging the new curtains I made, and, well, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, really I didn’t, but the window up there was open and … I heard what they were saying.”

“Alright. Now, who was it said you and Joe are rushin’ things?”

“Well, no one really said that. Ya see, Adam was telling David about Joseph’s umm … former girlfriends. Really, he was teasing Joseph more than he was educating David! Anyway, that led to David divulging a few details of MY dating experiences, and … well … Hoss, I’ve never dated the same man more than twice. And I’ve only dated three men before Joseph.”

“Only three?… Really”

“See! Everyone’s taken aback when they hear that! … It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me!”

“Of course it don’t … really … only three?”

“Eric!!!”

“I’m sorry sis.  I didn’t mean anythin’ by that. Its jist that … you’re so pretty and funny and nice and ya have a great big ‘ole heart. Most men would give their horse and saddle to date a girl like you… Surely you was asked by more than three. Ya jist only ever found three ya wanted to date, right?” 

“Truthfully Eric, there were only three men who asked me out before Joseph.”

 “Well, darlin’, I’m plum delighted you didn’t bother with them other fellas. We love havin’ ya here, you wanna be here, and I swear, Joe loves ya a whole lot!”

Sarah looked up at Hoss’s toothy grin and couldn’t suppress a smile of her own.

 “Eric, what if, after Joseph and I are married … what if I don’t know how to BE married?… This is my first try at a real relationship. Maybe it’s not fair to Joseph. What if I hurt him? …  I don’t ever want to hurt Joseph. NEVER! I love him so much… Maybe too much. Oh, I’m so confused, I don’t even know what I’m saying!”

“Li’l sis, you need ta be talkin’ this out with Li’l Joe. I reckon if two people are gonna live together, and pledge their love to each other, well, then they should be able to talk through jist about anything … Sarah … talk to Joe.”

“Maybe tomorrow, Eric. I need some time to think on it.”

Reading some business papers and walking into the great room at the same time, Ben heard the end of their conversation.

“Time to think about what?”

Sarah’s bemused eyes looked at Hoss, pleading for help.

“Oh, its nothin’, Pa. Jist an idea I had and Sarah wants ta think on it a bit.”

“Well, good. I’m glad you’re helping each other with … whatever it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do.”

As soon as Ben walked by on his way to his desk, Sarah placed a kiss on Hoss’s cheek, thanking him for keeping her fears between them. Hoss blushed, as always, then headed out to the barn to saddle Chub. Sarah made herself busy with some gardening at the back of the house. Meanwhile, Adam was still attempting to get his little brother to open up to him.

“Adam, I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS!”

“Okay, okay. Just remember that I’m ready and willing to listen. It sounds like a problem that you need some advice on, then you need to work out for yourselfThen, of course, I can tell you EXACTLY what you should ACTUALLY do, seeing as how I’m older and much, MUCH wiser!”

Although Joe didn’t know how, Adam had once again been able to turn a tense situation into something they could both laugh about. As Hoss approached the barn, he could hear laughter from his brothers.

“What’s so galldurn funny?”

“Just the usual. Adam acting all superior.”

Hoss finished saddling Chub and headed off to check on some cattle. Joe and Adam walked, together, into the house. Just then, Sarah came from the kitchen with a handful of herbs she’d picked from their garden.

“Will you look at these! Nevada sure has some healthy soil! I’ve never seen these grow like this! I can’t wait for supper!”

Sarah returned to the kitchen to prepare the ingredients for the day’s supper, a beef stew that her mother used to make. Once everything was in the pot, Sarah joined Adam in the great room. He was reading a Shakespeare play that was very familiar to Sarah. She asked if he would mind reading aloud, and he agreed. For Sarah, his deep baritone voice brought the words from the paper to invisible three dimensional characters that were right there in the room. Adam was pleased to have someone around who got pleasure from classic literature. Sarah relaxed into the settee and smiled as Adam read further. She closed her eyes and vividly saw the characters. At an exceptionally intense part of the tale, Adam’s thunderous voice brought a shiver to her, and when he rose from the chair with intense emotion, Sarah opened her eyes to watch Adam. Just then, Joe came downstairs. He stopped halfway and watched the two with a most dubious face.

“Sarah! Please tell me he’s hogtied you to the settee to make you listen to that … that … THAT!”

Adam stopped abruptly, mid sentence, and glared at Joe. Sarah rose from the settee.

“Joseph, I am listening to Adam. That was very rude of you! Maybe if you’d give it a chance, you might just enjoy it too!”

Joe sauntered up to Sarah, looked directly into her big blue eyes and said,

“I don’t think so, honey… I’m gonna take a walk out to the pasture to check on a calf. A LONG walk. Out to the PASTURE. You know, far from the house! Why don’t you come with me?”

“Have you no shame, Joe? Really, do you think I don’t know what you’re asking her? … Sarah, Joe would like it if you were to walk with him to the pasture so the two of you can have some time alone.”

Sarah laughed and told Joe she’d love to take a walk with him, but only if Adam promised to read to her later on. Adam agreed, and as he watched the pair head for the door, Sarah turned back and winked at him. Adam just shook his head as he watched them leave together. He hoped that Joe was planning to talk with her about whatever it was that was bothering him. Adam knew Joe very well, and it was never a good idea to let Joe dwell on a problem. He recalled all the times when Joe got into trouble, and wondered how many of those incidents could have been avoided if only Joe had talked it out with someone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hoss returned, walked into the house and announced that he was, once again, hungry! Adam didn’t react at all to Hoss’s statement, and Hoss knew that meant he was lost in thought. Hoss cleared his throat, rather loudly, then once again, announced that he was hungry.

“Huh? Oh, sorry Hoss. What did you say?”

“I said I’m hungry! Geez, Adam, you were a million miles away. Somethin’ botherin’ you?”

“I’m a little worried about Joe. Something’s weighing on his mind and he won’t talk about it.”

“Really? I got the same thing from Sarah earlier t’day … Ya don’t think somethin’s wrong between them two?”

“I hope not. Seems to me Sarah’s the best thing that ever happened to Joe, and he’s the best for her too.”

 

Chapter Fifteen

Listen To Your Heart

Joe and Sarah walked hand in hand toward the pasture. The sun warmed her face as Joe’s touch warmed the rest of her. As the breeze made its way between them, Sarah smelled the scent of sweet lavender. Joe glanced over at her and saw her eyes were nearly closed as she inhaled the lavender perfume. It wasn’t until that moment that Joe himself smelled the bouquet. He took a deep breath and smiled when she looked at him. Then Sarah heard the young calf, and she pulled Joe to a slow run toward the sound. Beyond the trees, the land opened up into a vast pasture and there was the calf.

“Oh Joseph, he’s so small!”

“Yeah, he is pretty little. That’s why Hoss and I have been takin’ turns checkin’ up on him. He’s really healthy, just small. Looks like he’s grown a bit in the last week.”

Joe scaled the fence and calmly called out to the calf as he approached. Sarah loved this gentle side of Joe. He carefully checked the calf to be sure he was in good health, then as he jumped back over the fence in one smooth leap, Sarah found herself watching Joe’s strong, muscular arms. Her heart gave a flutter, and she longed to feel the strength that was Joseph Cartwright. “Joseph HAS to be the right one for me. No one else has ever made me feel this way. But am I the right one for Joseph?” Sarah thought.

Joe took Sarah by the hand and pulled her close. With his arms around her waist, he looked into her eyes and his gaze found its way to her soul. He saw his fiancé as he’d never seen her before. Feelings stirred inside Joe. “My God, she’s beautiful. No one else has ever made me feel this way. But am I the right one for Sarah?” Joe thought.

When Sarah’s eyes met Joe’s she was staggered by the intensity of his gaze. It was as if he could see inside her to a place she didn’t even know existed. As they stood, so close they could feel each other’s warm breath, Sarah felt Joe’s spirit. She wanted nothing more than to find a way to show Joe how much she loved him.

“Sarah, I need to talk to you about something. I just don’t know where to begin …”

“Just take your time. I’m not going anywhere, my love.”

Joe took Sarah by the hand and led her to a spot under a mature, majestic tree. Joe told her he wanted to go back to the house to get a blanket for her to sit on, but Sarah plopped onto the ground before he could finish his statement. Smiling, he sat beside her, took a deep breath, and immediately got cold feet. Steeling himself for what he feared might be the beginning of the end of their relationship, Joe finally mustered the courage to begin.

“Remember this morning, when we were at the house?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well, David and Adam and I were talking about some things, and … well … I guess I need to ask you a few questions. If that’s alright.”

Now it was Sarah’s turn to take a deep breath. Joe had no idea she’d heard most of what had been said.

“Shoot!”

Sarah had never seen Joe looking so uncomfortable before, and it worried her.

“David told us that you’ve … that you … that there were three men that you dated before me, and … well … I need to know why.”

“Why I dated?”

“No, why there have been… only three.”

She was being asked to face up to the one thing that had been bothering her too. Was Joe ready to settle down with one woman, and was she ready to commit to the same? … Sarah lowered her head as she tried, unsuccessfully, to form the correct words. Joe reached for her, lifting her chin, seeing his future in her eyes. His gentle touch gave her the strength she needed to speak.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve had this image of what the perfect man for me would be like … Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some wonderful men. Kind, generous, strong, faithful. But no one ever made me feel … Oh I don’t know how to describe it!”

“Please, Sarah. Please try.”

Sarah knew it was now or never. She had to find a way to prove to herself that Joe would be happy married to her for the rest of their lives. His happiness was all that mattered to her.

“The first time a date offered his arm as we walked, … it should have made me feel … special. The first time someone touched my face, … his touch ought to have excited me. The first time he kissed me. Our lips joining should have spoken to me… It never happened that way with the men I dated. Until … you, Joseph.”

Joe watched his fiancé as she spoke, and with each word, he fell even more in love with her.

“Sarah, I …”

“Please, Joseph. Let me finish. I know you’ve dated, even been engaged before. What I want more than anything is for you to be happy. And if my inexperience with… men… with… relationships were to cause you any heart ache … I just couldn’t stand it!”

In Sarah’s face, Joe saw trepidation, apprehension, desperation … and so much love.

“I’ve been fretting that I’m not the man for you! Sarah, you deserve the absolute best … I’ve dated girls … a lot of girls … but none of them made me feel the way you do… All you have to do is look at me and I can’t think straight! … When we kiss, my mind shuts off and I feel your lips on mine and … well … you know what happens next! You’re the last picture in my mind before I sleep, and the first picture in my mind when I open my eyes. When we’re apart, … I … I …”

“Can’t breathe!”  Joe and Sarah said in unison. A brief laugh relaxed the conversation and brought the two lovers closer. Joe caressed Sarah’s hair, tenderly slipped his fingers through the silken tresses, firmly yet gently pulled her closer, their lips not quite touching, and said,

“You’re all I could ever imagine dreaming of. I love you.”

“Oh, Joe, I love you!”

“You called me … “

Before Joe could finish, Sarah pressed her lips to his. Joe inhaled deeply, enfolded her and held her tightly. Leaning against the tree, they held each other in a sweet embrace. Sarah felt dizzy, as though she had no will of her own. All that mattered was Joe. What Joe wanted. What Joe needed. Joe closed his eyes tightly, then opened them again, just to make sure that Sarah was real. He felt so powerful. Like he would and could do anything for this woman. And his desire to protect her, to make her happy, was overwhelming.

The couple, oblivious to their surroundings, didn’t see or hear Adam and Hoss approaching.

“How’s the calf? You’ve been out here so long, Hoss and I figured you might need some help.”

“This here calf looks fine Adam … Dadburnit, I think our li’l brother’s been busy with something else!”

“Would seem so, Hoss … Supper’s almost ready, so if the two of you can pry yourselves apart, you’re welcome to join the rest of us!”

As Adam sauntered past, he patted Joe on the shoulder and smiled. When Hoss moseyed by, he winked at Sarah. Halfway to the house, Adam said,

“Hoss, I think those two will be just fine.”

“Big brother, so do I.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

She Loves Him

Early the next morning David and Sarah found themselves alone on the front porch. They had always been early risers, and truth be told, they both enjoyed the quiet of daybreak. Birds chirping, the fresh scent of dew on the grass, horses greeting another day with their neighing. Sarah had prepared coffee, and the two friends sat sipping the brew, talking about old times, Sarah’s father, and about David’s career as a surgeon.

“Advances in medicine that doctors from my father’s generation could never have predicted are being made. Some of them sound impossible to me, but then I travel to a different hospital or a medical college and see them for myself. Kitten, so many lives are being saved. Lives that would have been lost just a few years ago.”

“Did I ever tell you how proud you’ve made me? I mean, we were two little kids, doing things that all little kids do. Then we were teenagers, getting into mischief as often as we could. And look at you now. One of the best surgeons in the east. Amazing!”

“Thanks, Kitten. I couldn’t have done it without you, ya know. You were the consummate taskmaster – cracking the whip day and night!”

“David! I wasn’t THAT bad … Was I?”

“Yes! … I mean … no?”

Sarah reached over the small wooden table and smacked David’s chest. Laughing, he grabbed her hand, walked toward her and tried to tickle his best friend. Sarah leapt out of her chair and bolted for the hitching post. David pursued, caught up to her, and tickled her. Yelling for him to stop, Sarah found she couldn’t break away from his grip. The front door opened to reveal Adam and Ben, anxious to see what all the commotion was about.

“So this is what you ‘easterners’ do before breakfast!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright … I hope Kitten here didn’t wake you with all of her giggling!”

The tickling never stopped, even as David looked at Ben and Adam with phony concern. Adam was amused, and although Ben smiled, a look of trepidation crossed his face. Both Sarah and Joe had been moody lately, as if something was weighing on each of their minds. And seeing David and Sarah laughing and embracing made Ben uneasy. For the first time since David arrived, Ben wondered if their relationship had ever gone to another level. Or if it ever could.

David finally stopped his relentless teasing when Hop Sing announced that breakfast was getting cold. Joe walked downstairs just in time to see the group coming inside.

“What have the four of you been up to?”

“Oh, just a little outdoor show. And Pa and I had front row seats!”

Sarah rushed to Joe and melted into his arms.

“Now that you’re here, Joseph, you can defend my honor! This ruthless bully called me a taskmaster, then came after me with those ridiculous surgeon’s fingers of his!”

“Oh, you cut me to the core with your harsh tongue, my lady!”

“Hop Sing no wait much longer. Food get cold. You no have fun! You come to table! You eat NOW!”

Obediently, everyone took a seat at the table. The silence was deafening. That is until Ben let out a slight giggle, causing everyone to laugh freely. Hop Sing just shook his head and went back to the kitchen, muttering all the way.

Joe, Adam and Hoss had a full day of work ahead of them. A sick mare had destroyed some fencing in the south pasture. The adjoining posts were already in need of replacement. As soon as breakfast was over, Adam and Hoss mounted, and Joe took the reins of the buckboard loaded with supplies. Sarah waved them off, then found Hop Sing in the kitchen. After apologizing to Hop Sing for delaying breakfast, she told him that she intended to ride out to the work site with a picnic lunch for the men. David and Ben were going into Virginia City. David wanted to visit with Doc Martin and Ben had some bank business.

Sarah spent the morning stitching her wedding dress. When her mother had insisted that she learn to sew, she never dreamed that someday she would be making her own dress. Sarah was proficient at everything she’d ever tried and her dress was no exception. She’d designed it herself, and was eager for Joe to see her in it on their wedding day. When Hop Sing called to Sarah, she realized she’d lost all track of time. She had been busy with her sewing all morning long. Carefully, she placed her dress in the chifferobe, brushed her long golden hair, and hurried to the kitchen to pick up the picnic basket. One of the hands had readied the surrey, and Sarah was on her way. The ride to the south pasture was uneventful. Sarah passed the time by imagining Joe coming into their new home after a lengthy day’s work. She would have supper ready, and the two would share not only the meal, but conversation. Meaningful conversation, trivial conversation.  Then they’d spend the evening together doing nothing but enjoying each other’s company. It was a daydream Sarah’d had numerous times since the day Joe proposed. She was right in the middle of the vision when she realized with a start that the Cartwright men were in sight. As she approached, they stopped their work and greeted her with smiles. All three were covered in sweat. In the heat, Joe had removed his shirt and Sarah suddenly realized she was staring at his muscular chest.

“Well now, are ya here t’see your favorite brother-in-law-ta-be? … What ja bring fer lunch?”

“Pardon me, peasant. I believe the young lady is seeking the company of her refined, handsome brother-in-law-to-be … Fair Lady, pray tell, what have you for this stalwart bard?”

“Step aside gentlemen. She’s with me!”

Joe seized Sarah by her waist, drew her close, grinned at his brothers, then kissed her, passionately.

“Little Joe, give the poor girl a break. You’re all dirty and sweaty.”

Sarah smirked, pulled Joe closer, and said, “That’s alright, peasants. I don’t mind at all. In fact … I like it!”

Adam and Hoss feigned embarrassment as Sarah returned Joe’s enthusiastic kiss. As her lips reluctantly left his, Sarah looked into Joe’s eyes, and he said,

“Whew darlin’! … That was … real nice … Now what did ya bring us for lunch?”

Sarah pushed Joe. Hard. Hard enough to make him lose his balance and tumble to the ground. Adam and Hoss roared. As Joe slowly regained his dignity, he set his eyes on Sarah, then looked at his brothers and winked. Sarah laid out a large blanket and opened the basket. Adam, Hoss and Sarah emptied the feast onto the blanket. Joe went to the buckboard to retrieve his shirt. Buttoning as he walked, Joe watched his brothers interacting with Sarah. He was amazed that the Cartwrights had known her for such a short time, and they were all taken by her charms.

“Leave it to ole Hop Sing to pack the best fried chicken this side of the Mississippi!”

“I didn’t realize how hungry I was … Sarah, this picnic lunch was a wonderful idea.”

“Yea, thanks darlin’. We get a break, good food, and I get to kiss the prettiest lady in the Comstock!”

 

Chapter Seventeen

Desperate Times

Ben and David met along the street, right in front of the sheriff’s office. Roy opened the door, saw his old friend, and joined Ben and David in the street. Since Ben had recently purchased a new rifle, he invited Roy to dinner so he could have a look.

“I’d like that Ben, but I’m havin’ dinner with Paul tonight.”

“Well then, let’s go invite him too!”

“You sure we won’t be imposin’?”

 “No, Roy. Not at all. You know how much Hop Sing loves havin’ company!”

After extending the invitation to Paul, the four men mounted and rode out of town toward the Ponderosa. They decided to check on the fencing project by detouring through the south pasture. Along the way, Ben talked, mostly to David, about his love of ranching and how they’d branched out to cutting timber. David watched Ben’s eyes sparkle as he spoke of his home, his life, his sons, and Sarah. The realization that Sarah would be loved, cared for and protected here on the Ponderosa eased any doubts David still had.

“We should be at the broken fence in a few minutes. Unless those hard working boys of mine have finished already!”

 

With their bellies full and break time over, Adam, Hoss and Joe went back to work. Sarah cleaned up, packed the basket, folded the blanket and retreated to a nearby shade tree to read. However, after quite a while, Sarah realized she hadn’t read a word. She found herself watching the young Cartwright men. So strong. So motivated to continue making this ranch a success. So respectful of each other, and of their father.

Suddenly, from behind a coppice of pines, three riders, guns drawn, appeared. Adam, Hoss and Joe immediately took protective positions between the gunmen and Sarah. Their gun belts were in the buckboard, and any attempt to make a run for them would surely result in getting shot. Joe instinctively took two steps backward toward Sarah.

“STAY WHERE YOU ARE PRETTY BOY OR I’LL SHOOT!”

With desperation on his face, Joe looked at his brothers.

“Do what he says, Joe!” Adam exclaimed.

“What do you fellers want?”

The gunman nearest to Hoss looked at his cohorts.

“Hey partner, fat boy here wants to know what we want! I’ll tell ya what we want. We’ve got a posse on our trail and we ain’t plannin’ on gittin’ caught. We want us a hostage. And that pretty filly there’ll do jist fine … You … Pretty boy … Git over there by them other two. SLOW like. And none a ya better get any funny ideas, seein’ as how we’re the ones with the guns!”

Hoss and Adam stayed in front of Sarah as Joe side stepped closer to his brothers. Adam knew that if they’d had their guns, the skills of he and his brothers could easily have put an end to this. But their guns were in the buckboard. Hoss effected a sideways glance at Adam and Joe. He could tell by their stances that they were ready to spring into action at the first opportunity. He knew that if one or more of the riders dismounted, they’d have a better chance at changing a bad situation. Unfortunately, they never got that chance.

“Alright boys. Watch them three. If any of ‘em moves … kill ‘em … Alright now, little lady. If you don’t wanna see any of these here men get hurt, you’ll do exactly what I say … Walk on over here … slow like.”

Sarah looked at the two riders who had their guns trained on three of the five men she cared about most in the world. She looked at the faces of Adam and Hoss, hoping to see a glimmer of what she should do. Then she looked at Joe. The desperation in his eyes touched her heart and made it skip a beat.

“We ain’t got all day missy. Git on over here NOW!”

Sarah walked up beside the gunman’s horse. Joe struggled to remain still. One look from Adam told him that Sarah’s best chance was to do whatever they asked.

“Git on my horse, right here in front of me. We’re gonna go for a little ride.”

“NO! LEAVE HER ALONE! TAKE ME INSTEAD! I’m Adam Cartwright. Me and my Pa own this land. The Ponderosa. Take me hostage. My Pa will pay anything you want to get me back.”

With that, Adam had put himself at risk to save Joe, Hoss and Sarah. He hoped the gunmen would deem them useless as far as a ransom, and take him instead. Hope did not spring eternal.

“Well, lookie here. We got ourselves a genu-ine hero. Whatdaya think boys? Should we take the rich son or the perty philly?”

Joe, unable to control the panic setting in, took one step toward the gunmen. As Sarah turned toward Joe, a shot rang out. Joe’s body collapsed, blood pooling beneath him.

“JOSEPH!!!!!” shrieked Sarah.

Her piercing screams continued as one of the gunmen pulled her up onto his saddle. Adam dropped to the ground and rolled toward one of the gang. Hoss ran full bore at the other. Despite her screams, Sarah heard the terrifying sound of three more shots. As she righted herself in the saddle, she saw a horrific scene spread out on what had just been their picnic spot. Adam. Lying on the ground writhing in pain. Hoss. Face down a few yards from Adam. And Joe. Bleeding profusely, completely still.

“YOU’VE KILLED THEM, YOU SON OF A BITCH!”

Fighting with all the strength she could muster, Sarah managed to slide down off the gunman’s horse. Immediately, she slapped the horse. The effect was just what she wanted. The horse took off at a gallop, leaving the rider struggling for control. He was tossed from his horse like a rag doll, and then trampled by the frightened animal. Sarah ran toward Joe. Adam managed to raise himself on his elbows and took in the devastating scene. He saw Sarah running. She was but a few yards from Joe’s lifeless body when there was another shot. This time, Sarah fell to the ground.

“SARAH!” yelled Adam.

The strain of seeing Sarah gunned down was more than Adam could take. His head was spinning, he was in pain, and he didn’t know for sure the condition of his brothers and his ‘sister’. Darkness gradually closed his vision, and Adam passed out. Sarah, barely conscious, tried lifting her head. She managed to get it a few inches off the ground when, in the distance, she thought she saw four riders approaching. Hoss awoke and slowly pushed himself up. At the sound of more gunshots, Hoss dropped back down. More shots. One of the gunmen tumbled from his mount. More shots. Sarah and Hoss heard someone holler in agony. And then it was quiet. Except for the sound of hoof beats racing toward them.

Memories flooded Sarah’s brain. Joe. Shirtless. Muscled chest glistening with sweat. Then lying motionless on the blood stained ground. Adam. Lifting impossibly large fence posts with ease. Then sprawled out, thrashing in pain. Hoss. Indestructible Hoss. Face down, unmoving. Sarah gasped at the sights inundating her mind. It was only then, mere seconds from the onslaught of the attack, that she felt the stabbing pain in her chest. She didn’t know for sure if the pain was from a bullet, or her heart breaking from the bloody events of the past few seconds.

Hoss fought to remain conscious. Carefully, he pushed himself up onto his knees, then surveyed the scene. Li’l Joe, unmoving since the first shot. Sarah, just yards from Joe, not moving, her dress bloodied. Adam, regaining consciousness, alive with movement, but the movement was born out of pain. Slowly standing, he reached up to uncover the source of his own pain, Hoss touched his forehead. It felt wet and sticky. And it hurt. Bad. He stared at his blood covered hand as he staggered toward Joe and Sarah.

Adam opened his eyes and immediately regretted that he was conscious at all. Pain in two places. His shoulder. His thigh. He knew he’d been shot, but was unaware he’d been hit twice. Although the spinning increased, Adam raised his head and saw Hoss stumbling toward Joe. “Help him, Hoss. Oh God, please help him.” Adam thought. Then he remembered watching Sarah fall. Even the slight turn of his head caused the pain to increase tenfold. He watched Sarah’s inert form for a couple of seconds before passing out again.

The four riders finally reached the site of the attack. It was Ben who spoke first.

“MY GOD! MY GOD!”

Ben, David and Paul, dismounted and hurried to the injured. Roy confirmed that all three of the gunmen were dead, then ran to help Hoss. He was able to move Hoss to the buckboard.

“Roy, I’m alright … I think the bullet grazed my head… Ah … Go on, go help ‘em.”

“Hoss … you stay put, ya hear.”

Ben felt conflicted. Which of his beloved sons needed his help more than the others? He saw Roy guiding Hoss to the buckboard. Hoss was definitely hurt, but he was walking with Roy’s help, so Ben turned toward Joe. And then he saw Sarah. “She shouldn’t be here … why … why was she HERE?” Ben cried to himself … Paul was crouched over Adam, his medical bag at his side. Roy hurried to them, ready to assist. David was rushing toward Sarah and Joe, and that’s where Ben set his sights. Everyone was shouting out the conditions of their charges.

“Hoss seems to be in the best shape of all of ‘em. How ‘s Adam, Paul?”

“He’s hurt bad, Roy. A bullet in his shoulder and one in his thigh … Get your belt off. Fasten it tight … as tight as ya can … here on his thigh … DAVID! BEN! How are they?”

Forcing himself to concentrate only on this wounded son, Ben attempted, unsuccessfully, to apply a makeshift bandage to Joe’s wound. The bullet, lodged in his chest, appeared dangerously close to his heart. Joe was breathing. His rapidly heaving chest and raspy breathing was of little comfort to his frightened father.

“Joe’s got a bullet in his chest! He’s losing a lot of blood, Paul! And his shoulder… it doesn’t look right!”

“Keep pressure on it, Ben! Tell me if his breathing changes in any way! … Hoss! You stay in that buckboard … David?

David had reached Sarah just as Ben got to Joe. She’d taken a bullet to her stomach. While ripping her dress open, David looked around at the others. He knew he should be concentration on his patient only. But he was dreading seeing what lie under her dress. Finally, he had to look.

“Oh God, Kitten … Sarah’s been shot in the abdomen. There’s no way to tell if the bullet hit any organs unless I operate. She’s semi-conscious …”

David knew that was a good thing. And a bad thing. She hadn’t yet lost enough blood to remain unconscious. But she would feel pain if she was awake.

“Roy! Bring the buckboard over here, closer to Adam … and lay out anything that can be used as a blanket … David! Ben! … we’re gonna load them up on the buckboard and get ‘em back to the house! Its gonna be a tight squeeze, but none of ‘em can be left behind for any length of time!”

Roy pulled the buckboard in near Paul and Adam. The two were just about to lift Adam when they heard a single horse approaching. Ben, Hoss and David heard it too. Guns drawn, they were forced to temporarily ignore the wounded. Until Ben recognized the rider. Cal was one of the Cartwrights’ best hands. He’d been out looking for strays for the past three days, and was on his way back across the Ponderosa. He rode directly up to Ben and dropped out of his saddle.

“Good Lord! What in hell happened here?”

“Cal, we need you to help us load ‘em into the buckboard. Then ride to my office and tell the Deputy I need him at the main house.”

“And stop at my office. I need bandages, laudanum … lots of it … and the big black bag on my desk. You got all that?”

“Sure Doc. I got it.”

Hoss carefully moved to the seat as Paul, Roy and Cal lifted Adam to load him into the wagon. Adam cried out as they lifted him, and again as they laid him down. The sound drove itself into Ben’s heart as sure as if it were a knife. Trying desperately to speak, Adam mumbled a few words to Hoss.

“Joe … Joe? … Sar … “

“It’s alright Adam … we’re gonna get all of us home. Jist take it easy brother.”

Paul stayed close to Adam, Roy and Cal went for Sarah. David’s shirt had been used as a bandage. A now blood-soaked bandage. Ben watched as they readied her to be moved. He saw the shirt. He quickly closed his eyes at the sight. When he opened them, he could see Sarah’s ashen face.  Dazed, in pain, and no doubt going into shock, Sarah’s frail voice could be heard repeatedly calling Joe’s name.

“Kitten … its David. And Doc Martin too. We’ll take good care of you. We all will …”

She didn’t hear him. She just kept calling Joe’s name. As she was lifted onto the spot next to Adam, Sarah screamed in agony. David attempted to calm her, but she moaned and then passed out.

Ben stroked his youngest son’s forehead in a feeble attempt to provide some comfort. It was all he could do. Joe exhaled with a sound, wrinkled his brow and grimaced in pain.

“Joe … Can hear me son … Joseph? “

“P… Pa … Sarah … A … Adam … Hoss?”

“We’ve got them, Joe. We’re gonna take you all back to the house…”

Doc Martin put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and tilted his head. He and Ben took a few steps away from Joe, so he couldn’t hear.

“Ben, we’re gonna have to do somethin’ about that dislocated shoulder of his before we move him. Now, why don’t you git on up there in that wagon and keep an eye on Adam, Hoss and Sarah while David and I take care of Joe.”

Reluctantly, Ben did as he was asked. Sitting nearest Adam, he saw his injuries for the first time. Seeing the panic in his father’s face, Adam’s cold, clammy hand reached for Ben’s and attempted a smile of reassurance. Ben smiled back, as best he could, then removed his jacket to cover his eldest son. Hoss reached down from the buckboard’s seat, placing a hand on Ben’s shoulder.

“David, you do the pullin’ and Roy and I’ll hold him steady. Watch the bullet wound. Its liable to bleed even more once we set his shoulder.”

“Over there … I tore some of Sarah’s petticoat and dress to use as bandages.”

“Good thinkin’ David.”

“Alright. Get ready… On three … One … two … three!”

David mustered the strength needed to push Joe’s shoulder back in place. Joe screamed. A totally uninhibited scream that sent chills through everyone there. It was all Roy and Paul could do to hold the boy down as his shoulder popped into its proper position. Ben dropped his head and shut his eyes as Adam squeezed his hand as hard as he could.  Hoss did the same to Ben’s shoulder. David grabbed some of the torn fabric to try and slow Joe’s bleeding. Roy and Paul carried Joe, unresponsive, and gently laid him next to Sarah.

Ben, seated next to Hoss, took the reins and started the journey back to the house. Cal raced toward town, reminding himself of the supplies Doc Martin needed. David and Paul crouched uncomfortably in the crowded buckboard, staying close to the injured family and doing what little they could from the back of the wagon.

Hoss: struggling to remain conscious, with a bloody gash where a bullet had grazed his head.

Adam: in and out of shock, a bullet in his thigh and another in his shoulder.

Sarah: unconscious, a heavily bleeding bullet wound in her abdomen.

And Joe: breathing shallowly, a bullet in his chest.

Roy gathered the horses, mounted, and following Ben’s lead, they started towards home.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Two doctors. Four patients. Four bullets. 

 

“HOP SING! HOP SING! … GET OUT HERE NOW!”

          Roy tied the horses to the post, then headed for the front door of the house. As he reached for the knob, the door flew open.

“Why you always yelling? Hop Sing come as quick as Hop Sing can! You no yell anymo …”

          Hop Sing took one look at Roy’s face and knew something terrible had happened. He saw the buckboard carrying bodies. He saw David and Doc Martin stepping carefully off of the wagon. He ran to Ben, then looked at the injured in the buckboard. Steeling himself against the side of the wagon, he stared at the people he had come to love.

“Hop Sing…Hop Sing! We need bandages, hot water and blankets. Hurry!”

          Reciting a Chinese prayer, Hop Sing took off into the house. Cautiously, Roy, David and Ben began the task of moving their wounded loved ones into the house. Joe was first. With a strength he shouldn’t have possessed, Ben lifted his youngest son. Joe moaned as he was carried upstairs to his bedroom. Hop Sing was already there, turning down the blankets. Speaking softly yet firmly, Ben reassured Joe as he laid him onto his bed.

“His right shoulder was dislocated. Take care not to move it. We’re bringing Adam next.”

As he covered Joe with a warm blanket, Hop Sing nodded to Ben, then hurried to Adam’s room.

David stopped in the guest room and grabbed his medical bag. Ben reluctantly left his son in David’s capable hands to join the others outside.

“I can walk. Just let me lean on someone!”

          Adam’s usual pride was stricken down as soon as Ben heard his request.

“ADAM! You will NOT walk to your room. You’re got a bullet in your leg and another in your shoulder! Let us help you son.”

          Grudgingly, Adam allowed Ben and Roy to ‘help’ him to his room. Truth be told, the very second Adam was upright, a fuzzy darkness clouded his vision and he would have dropped to the ground if it weren’t for the support of his father and his friend. As they took to the stairs, slowly, one at a time, Adam’s weight increased. He was quickly losing consciousness. Fortunately, he managed to sat alert long enough to make it to his bed. Hop Sing was there. Waiting. David had given him instructions, and Hop Sing was ready to begin.

“I help Mista Adam until doctor get here. You go Mista Cartwright. Doctor David with Little Joe, Hop Sing with Mista Adam. Mista Hoss already fix up. You go. Bring Miss Sarah.”

Reluctantly, Ben returned to the buckboard to help with Sarah just as Cal returned from town with Doc Martin’s supplies. Cal quickly told Roy that the deputy had rounded up some good men and rode off to the south pasture. Torn between duty and his longtime friends, no, family, Roy was glad to hear that his capable deputy would take care of things.

Exhaustion was creeping in on Ben Cartwright. Physically, he was stronger than most men much younger than him, but the events of that afternoon coupled with what lie ahead were suddenly taking a mental toll on the Cartwright patriarch. Seeing the weariness in Ben’s eyes, Roy handed him the supplies and directed Cal to help with Sarah. Paul nodded his approval to Roy. He also knew Ben well enough to tell he was on the brink of collapse. Worried that Sarah’s wound was still bleeding heavily, Paul instructed Roy and Cal on how to carry her and do the least amount of further damage. It was a tight fit up the staircase for the two men and their burden. Paul and Ben followed close behind.

Two doctors. Four patients. Four bullets. Ben and Roy stood in the hallway and looked at four open bedroom doors. Roy touched Ben’s shoulder, and when Ben didn’t react, he squeezed it in sympathy.

“Ben, I understand Hoss’s all bandaged ‘n’ asleep. David’s with Little Joe … Paul’s with Sarah … Hop Sing’s in there with Adam. Maybe you should come downstairs with me … sit down fer a spell … have a drink?”

“No Roy. I have to stay up here ‘n’ help in some way. I can’t just do nothing!”

Roy nodded, realizing he’d already known what Ben’s answer would be. He would stay as close as he could to his family when they were healthy and thriving. Roy could only imagine what his friend was feeling at a time like this. Ben seemed unable to come to a decision as to what to do next. Roy decided to try and help Ben with his dilemma.

“Alright, if ya won’t sit down before ya fall down, I guess ya might as well make yerself useful.”

Just then, David came out of Joe’s room.

“David?”

“I think he’s going to be alright, Ben. Dislocating his shoulder guarantees several weeks until it’s fully healed. I’m about to remove the bullet. It’s in pretty deep, but doesn’t appear to involve any major organs. I need someone to assist … just in case Joe regains consciousness while I’m operating.”

“I’ll assist. Roy, could you check on everyone else. Come tell me how they’re doing?”

Roy nodded, patted Ben’s arm, and walked toward Hoss’s room. He didn’t think Ben should be with any of them while the docs were doing what had to be done, but he also knew it was futile to argue with Ben Cartwright when one of his own was hurting … Roy looked in on Hoss, who was sleeping soundly. His bandages showed no sign of additional bleeding. Knowing Hoss as he did, Roy would have laid down a substantial bet that Doc Martin or David had given him something to make him sleep.

“Good thing too,” thought Roy. “Hoss would’ve insisted on helpin’, even though he was in no shape to help anyone!”

Knowing that removing bullets was usually not the quietest procedure, Roy pulled Hoss’s door closed. He was the least injured of them all, but Roy didn’t want the boy to be awakened. Especially by the sounds of his brothers or Sarah’s pain. Next Roy checked on Adam. Hop Sing had cleaned both of Adam’s wounds. His shoulder had stopped bleeding, but his thigh was causing concern. Hop Sing took Roy aside so Adam couldn’t hear.

“Mista Coffee, you tell doctors Mista Adam need more help than Hop Sing can give. He need that help very soon.”

“I’ll tell ‘em, Hop Sing … Adam … you hang on son, ya hear?”

“H…how are they?”

“Hoss is just fine, he’s sleeping … David’s lookin’ after Joe … I heard him tell your Pa that Joe’s gonna be alright.”

An expression of relief washed over Adam’s face, but reappeared again quickly.

“S… Sar …Sarah?”

“I’m goin’ ta check on her next. I’m sure Doc Martin’s takin’ real good care of her … Now you listen to whatever Hop Sing tells ya. I’m gonna check on Sarah.”

Roy made eye contact with Hop Sing as he walked toward the door. “Tell them hurry.” Hop Sing whispered. 

Roy took two steps into Sarah’s room and stopped dead in his tracks. Bloody towels were piled up on the floor, Paul was working frantically on Sarah’s gunshot wound, and Sarah was moaning softly. Not wanting to distract Paul, Roy backed out of the room, closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. When he opened his eyes, Roy realized that he’d prayed a lot since he and his two friends heard gunshots while riding to the Ponderosa for supper! … Not sure what to tell Ben about Sarah’s condition, Roy stopped just outside of Joe’s room. Ben saw him immediately, so Roy went in.

“Well … how are they?”

“Hoss’s still asleep. His bandages don’t show any blood.”

“Good. It’s best that he sleeps instead of worrying.”

“Adam’s awake and naturally, he’s in some pain. His shoulder doesn’t seem to be too bad … I’m gonna be honest with ya Ben, his leg is still bleedin’, but Hop Sing’s doin’ all he can to stop it.”

“I’ll go to him as soon as I can! … What about Sarah?”

“Well, Paul’s workin’ as fast as he can … David, I’m sure he’d welcome yer help whenever you can give it.”

David looked at Roy with understanding in his eyes. Sarah wasn’t doing well and Doc Martin needed help. Luckily, Ben was so focused on comforting Joe, even though he was out cold, that he completely missed Roy’s creative phrasing and David’s reaction. Ben made the mistake of looking a little closer at Joe’s wound and winced at the sight. Seeing your son with a bullet hole in his chest wasn’t the kind of thing a father should ever have to do.

“Got it !! … I’ll get him stitched up and bandaged … Then I’ll go to Adam and Sarah. Ben, lend me a hand with these? Then why don’t you stay here with Joe … in case he wakes up.”

“I need to see Hoss, Adam and Sarah with my own eyes. Maybe Roy could stay with Joe while I check on them?”

“Of course I can, Ben.”

David finished Joe’s stitches and with help from Ben and Roy, managed to lift Joe enough to get his chest well bandaged. He instructed Roy and Ben to keep Joe warm and to let him know right away if there were signs of a fever. With Roy watching over his youngest son, Ben left with David.

“Ben. You check on Sarah, Hoss and Adam and then stay with  Adam. I’ll need to examine Sarah and she’d be uncomfortable if she knew you were there. Tell Adam that Paul or I will be there soon. Real soon … Oh, and Ben … while you’re with Adam, please sit down. Paul and I have enough patients as it is! We don’t need you collapsing!”

Ben acknowledged David’s suggestion and as he headed off for Hoss’s room, David went to see Sarah. Paul looked up when David entered. The look on Paul’s face told David he’d made the right choice to come here first.

“I’ve had hold of this damned bullet three times now. I just can’t seem ta jar it loose … I could make an incision to come at it from another angle, but she keeps floating in and out of consciousness … If she were to come to, the pain would be considerable to say the least.”

“And knocking her out isn’t an option in her condition.”

“Right … She might never wake up.”

David weighed the risks, checked Sarah’s pulse and heartbeat, and noted Sarah’s ashen pallor.

“We have to remove it … she’s already lost a lot of blood and she’s still bleeding … I say we come at it from another angle and hope she doesn’t wake up during the procedure.”

“I agree … I’ve been at this for nearly an hour now. I think you should be the one to do it.”

With a decision made and a sense of purpose, David mentally prepared to operate on his best friend. “I can do this” kept running through his mind. With his instruments readied, David inhaled deeply … exhaled slowly … and put all of his talents as a surgeon to the test. Doc Martin watched with admiration the skill that David possessed. When David asked for his assistance, he was ready to lend a hand. Fifteen minutes, one bullet, four blood soaked towels and twelve stitches later, the two doctors were bandaging Sarah’s wound. Without knowing, they both said a silent ‘thank you’ that Sarah had remained unconscious. David leaned over, kissed her forehead, and before going to Adam, whispered,

“Your gonna be fine, Kitten. Just fine. We’re all gonna be fine.”

Hop Sing turned Adam’s care over to David, then went to sit with Sarah. Doc Martin arrived in time to see Ben, finally, taking a seat in the corner of Adam’s room. However, relaxing wasn’t something Ben could fathom doing right now, and he sat on the edge of the chair, ready to spring into action should the need arise.

In the ninety minutes since they returned to the main house, the bullet wound in Adam’s shoulder had stopped bleeding. A good thing, as far as losing less blood. A bad thing, since the wound would have to be reopened to extract the bullet. Adam’s leg was still bleeding and that worried David. The doctors consulted briefly, and agreed that the leg should be tended to first. Paul knew that David didn’t need him looking over his shoulder, and David knew that if he needed Paul, he could count on him to be there.

“Ben … you may not want to stay here for this. Why don’t you and Paul check on the others. If I need another pair of hands, I’ll call out.”

“No. I’m staying here with Adam. Paul, check on Hoss, Joe and Sarah, will you.”

“Sure Ben … Are ya positive ya wanna stay here?”

“Positive.”

Ben walked to Adam, took his hand, and tried his best to reinforce the strength he knew Adam already possessed. A brief smile, interrupted by the continuing surges of pain, crossed Adam’s lips. The smile quickly became a grimace. Ben squeezed Adam’s hand and stroked his son’s damp forehead.

“Hang on, son … hang on.”

Hearing his father’s deep, reassuring, powerful voice calmed Adam. After all, the poor man had been waiting all this time to be tended to. Triage was never a pleasant decision for any physician. David instructed Ben to keep talking to Adam. He assessed Adam’s thigh wound, then began. As David probed, Adam’s leg muscles constricted. Knowing that having Ben talk to Adam would help them both, David called out to Paul and had him hold Adam’s leg as still as possible. When the procedure began again, Adam moaned in pain. Still clutching his hand, Ben moved close to Adam’s face.

“Look at me Adam … let me tell you how the others are doing … Hoss is asleep. A bullet grazed his head and knocked him out for a bit. But he’s okay … Joe … Joe was hit in the chest. Apparently it was close range. Knocked him right off his feet and he came down, hard, on his shoulder. Dislocated it!”

Just then, Adam began writhing in pain.

“Look at me Adam! … Joe’s gonna be fine. He’s sleeping too.”

“S…S…Sarah?”

“David took real good care of her. Just like he’s doing for you now. She lost a lot of blood… She’s a strong girl, Adam. She’ll make it, I know she will.”

With the bullet in Adam’s thigh in sight, David began the task of trying to remove it without causing more damage. He got hold of the slug and began to gently ease it upward. Adam screamed this time and it was all Paul could do to keep his leg still. Dropping the bullet into a basin, David breathed a sigh of relief. “One down, one to go,” he thought. He and Paul cleaned the wound, causing more moans from Adam. Once his thigh was bandaged and David was confident that there would be minimal bleeding, they moved on to his shoulder. Ben’s face had been out of David’s sight for some time, and when he moved to Adam’s shoulder, he saw tears on Ben’s cheeks, and an expression of unimaginable anguish in his eyes.

The most difficult part of removing the bullet from Adam’s shoulder was reopening the already clotted wound. David was astounded that Adam was able to remain conscious despite the level of pain. The rapid rise and fall of Adam’s chest attested to the severity of his discomfort. Beads of sweat poured from his forehead, making David worry about the possibility of a fever. Fever in a gunshot victim almost always meant infection. As the wound was being bandaged, Ben continued to talk to his eldest son. Soon Adam’s eyes became heavy and he gradually drifted off to sleep.

After one last inspection of everyone’s bandages, Roy, Paul, David and Ben assembled in the great room for a much needed respite and some of Ben’s finest brandy. As they all sat, the silence was deafening. All four men stared at absolutely nothing. The adrenaline was abating and exhaustion was settling in. Finally, Roy broke the silence.

“What in hell just happened here?”

“You were with us, Roy. You know as much … or as little as we do.”

“We could sit here and dream up scenarios till the cows come home. Whatever it was, it was horrible, it hurt a lot of people, the four of us plus Hop Sing and Cal did everything we could and thank God, everyone’s gonna be alright.”

“I couldn’t have said it better, David … How ‘bout if Roy an’ I go to the kitchen an’ see what we can rustle up for supper?”

“Huh… what? … you an’ me? Now Paul you know darn well I can’t cook nothin’ but too strong coffee!”

“Aw, quit your whinin’ and help me … in the kitchen!”

Paul finally made Roy understand that he was trying to leave Ben and David alone for a spell. He knew David would squelch any fears that Ben had about his sons and Sarah. And from the look on Ben’s face, he needed some reassurance.

“Ben … I really do believe they’ll all be okay … Adam may need a cane to walk, for a while… Joe’s shoulder will be damn sore, for a while… Hoss’s headache will most likely be gone tomorrow … and Sarah, she’ll be down for a week or two and she’ll have time to read all those Shakespeare books Adam has in his room! I’m not going anywhere … at least not until after the wedding … so you’ll have someone to keep a close eye on their recovery … Now I know how much you rely on your sons to help you run this ranch… and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of hands willing to help out till they’re back to work.”

“David, I believe what you’re saying. Really, I do … And I’m not concerned about the ranch. It’s always come second to my family … I guess its … I just … I keep remembering that I could have lost my entire family in that pasture! All of them … Suddenly gone … and I can honestly tell you I would not have made it through something so catastrophic … … There’s nothing … NOTHING on this earth that I cherish as much as those three boys and that lovely girl.”

“Ben, you didn’t lose any of them … Don’t you see Ben? The reason they all remained courageous for each other in that pasture then fought SO hard to survive … it’s because you’ve taught them to cherish each other … I’ve never seen the like … all of them, more concerned about each other’s conditions than their own. I watched Adam grow stronger at the sound of your voice. I saw Joe’s breathing slow and become more regular just because you talked to him and stroked his forehead. Roy told me what you said to Hoss as you covered him with an extra blanket. And I’d bet my medical license you had loving, encouraging words for Sarah too.”

Ben stared into the fire for a long time, thinking about what David said.

“You’re right. I didn’t lose anyone today. I’m proud of all of them for making it through today …”

Before Ben could continue, there was the sound of an argument in the kitchen.

“David, we’d best see if we can help those two, or we may not eat until tomorrow!”

 

Chapter Nineteen

Sigh of Relief

          As the sun awoke and stretched its warming rays across the vast land that was the Ponderosa, Hop Sing was busily preparing breakfast for seven. Doc Martin had managed a few hours of sleep in the downstairs guest room. Ben, determined to remain awake so he could hear anyone who needed him, had drifted in and out while lying on the settee. The smell of sausage and bacon roused both men. Paul’s first patient of the day was Ben. Concerned about his physical and mental condition after what he’d been through the day before, he spent a few minutes chatting with his friend, all the while assessing Ben’s state. Heading upstairs to check on his other patients, Paul peered into Joe’s room, and saw David already checking on the boy’s wounds. Obviously, from Joe’s vital signs, David expected him to awaken soon. He was fashioning a sling for Joe’s arm to protect his swollen shoulder. Speaking softly, Paul inquired,

“How’s the patient this morning?”

“Morning, Paul. I checked on him several times last night. He slept pretty well. I haven’t examined the bullet wound yet. Since the bandages are dry, I didn’t want to wake him … Did you and Ben get any sleep?”

“I managed a few interrupted hours, and so did Ben. He looks very weary this morning. I’m hopin’ that a good breakfast along with some good news from you an’ me will help.”

“Well then. Let’s check on everyone and hope that we’ll be able to tell Ben what he needs to hear.”

Sarah’s room was darkened by heavy draperies on the windows. Paul opened them a bit to let some light into the room. David uncovered Sarah. Her bandages showed signs of a possible problem. The two doctors carefully lifted the dressing and found that her wound had been bleeding overnight. Not enough to cause too much worry, but redressing the wound was necessary. They were able to do so without waking her, although she stirred several times. David pulled the blankets up over Sarah, and Paul saw the anxiety on his face.

“If you’d like to stay with her, I’ll check on Adam and Hoss myself.”

David wanted to see the others for himself. He kissed Sarah on her forehead, and followed Paul to Adam’s room. Awake and staring at the ceiling, Adam appeared ready to jump out of his own skin. David and Paul were both pleasantly surprised.

“Good morning. Well, I can honestly say I’m very surprised to see you so alert …”

Before Paul could say another word, Adam demanded an update on the others. As Paul filled him in, David saw Adam physically relaxing. He wondered how long Adam had been lying there, probably thinking the worst. That question was answered when Adam admitted that he had seriously considered getting out of bed to check on Joe, Hoss and Sarah for himself!  Paul checked Adam’s shoulder wound, and other than a lot of swelling, it was already healing. Adam’s leg, however, was a different story.

“Adam, it’s a good thing you DIDN’t get up to check on everyone. This leg wouldn’t have held you up for more than a minute. Now, it’s gonna be fine, but it’s           gonna take a while. You stay in bed, ya hear?”

“Hop Sing bring Mista Adam warm broth. You eat now. Hop Sing bring more later. You eat, get strong. Doctor Paul and Doctor David, you come eat two minutes. Hop Sing make much food.”

As quickly as he’d come in, Hop Sing was gone. Paul and David left Adam to his broth and went to check on Hoss. Quickly, of course. Couldn’t keep Hop Sing waiting! Hoss was already awake, dressed and ready to head toward the smells of the morning! As Paul checked his head wound, Hoss insisted on an update of his brothers and Sarah. Relieved to hear that everyone was on the way to recovery, Hoss described how his head was feeling.

“I cain’t lie to ya Paul. It sorta feels like there’s a big ole steer in my head and he’s tryin’ to bust through my skull.”

“That’s to be expected, Hoss. After breakfast, I can give ya something to help calm that ole steer down!”

“I’ll surely take it! … But after breakfast, I plan on seein’ with my own two eyes how everyone’s doin’. Then I’ll tend to this dadburn steer!”

Ben was stunned to see Hoss walking down the stairs with Paul and David. Truth be told, although Ben was chomping at the bit to see how his family was faring. He’d been avoiding going upstairs, afraid of what he might see. He’d spent the entire night falling in and out of slumber, and having nightmares about the south pasture and what had happened there. In all of the nightmares, at least one of his sons had not survived the attack. The worst was a dream that left Ben dazed, sweating, and gasping for air. In that nightmare, Ben rushed from Hoss to Adam to Joe, only to discover that all three of his beloved sons had perished. Once he’d gained the strength to stand, he hurried to Sarah, to find her also lifeless. Devastated, Ben stood, surveyed the pasture once again, drew his pistol, placed it to his right temple and pulled the trigger. He hadn’t been able to sleep after that dream.

Now, in the light of day, Hoss was walking toward him. Ben’s heart skipped a beat, as he suddenly felt Inger’s presence and heard her sweet voice. “Our boy is alright Ben. You needn’t worry. Hoss is alright.”

“Mornin’ Pa.”

Try as he might, Ben was unable to form words. He grasped Hoss’s shoulder, only to be pulled into a full bear hug.

“You eat NOW! Hop Sing no like when Cartwrights eat cold food.”

Ben, Paul, David and Hoss sat at the table. First, Paul let Ben and Hoss know that Adam was doing well and was following doctor’s orders to drink the broth that Hop Sing had prepared. Adam’s shoulder would heal quickly. His thigh would also heal, but it would take a while before his leg would be good as new. Just then, a chill caressed Ben’s neck. “Adam is strong Ben. Our son will be fine”. Ben shivered at the sound of Elizabeth’s soft, pleasant voice … Paul continued his report on Joe.

“Joe’s still asleep. And that’s a good thing. If he hadn’t dislocated that shoulder, he’d mend a lot faster. He’ll need to take it easy for a week or two, then he’ll need to build up his arm strength before going back to ranch chores.”

A brief, strong wind blew in through the window behind Ben. As David moved to close it, Ben heard yet another treasured voice. Mon amour, Joseph is a fighter, just like his père”Ben smiled, delighted at hearing his darling Marie.

“Pa, what’s so funny?”

“Nothing’s funny son. I’m just glad to see you sitting there, and to hear that Adam and Joe are on the mend.”

David talked about Sarah next. He assured Hoss and Ben that although she’d lost a lot of blood, she was sleeping, allowing her body to gain the strength needed to recover. Ben silently recalled his devastation at the loss of each of his wives. He breathed a sigh of relief that Joe wouldn’t have to face that level of tragic devastation when he awoke this day.

As they carried on with breakfast, Hop Sing carried more broth upstairs to Adam.

“Hoss … what can you tell us about the attack yesterday?”

Hoss recalled how Sarah had surprised them with a picnic lunch.

“That explains it. We’ve all been wondering why Sarah was even there.”

Hoss continued through the whole thing, ending at the moment he’d been grazed and lost consciousness.

“I don’t know what happened after that, Pa. Not till I woke up when it was all over and you were all there.”

“When Roy gets here, maybe he’ll have some information about those men … I’m tryin’ to wrap my head around this …You say they wanted Sarah for a      hostage??”

“Yep. Said they was runnin’ from a posse and wanted a hostage in case the posse caught up to ‘em.”

Hoss looked toward a noise at the top of the stairs.

“Ev’rybody come now! Lil Joe wake up!”

Even though Ben was seated the furthest away, he managed to beat everyone to the staircase and raced up the steps and into Joe’s room. Ben’s first thought was that for someone who’d been shot the day before, Joe looked pretty darn good. He had color in his face. Ben hadn’t expected that. Joe smiled when his father stroked his hair.

“Good morning, son … and welcome back! … Doc Martin says you’re gonna be fine, just fine … Do you remember what happened?”

“I remember finishing lunch … getting back to work on the fence … and … there were riders coming … and … Sarah! Is Sarah alright? And Hoss. And Adam? Where are they Pa? Where are they?”

Joe’s attempt to sit up was halted by both his father and Doc Martin, but not soon enough to prevent Joe from gasping in pain.

“Easy boy, easy … Lie back. You’ve got a bullet wound in your chest and your shoulder is swollen. You’ve got to lie still.”

“Wh … where are th… they? … Wha … what happened to them?”

“I’m right here, little brother. I got grazed an’ knocked out. I’m alright. Takes more an’ getting’ grazed by a bullet to hurt this hard head!  And ole Adam, he’s in his room. He ain’t allowed ta git up yet neither … They shot him twice, Joe. The docs here say he’ll be up and around in a few days. Don’t you worry none about him.”

“What about Sarah? Where’s Sarah?”

“Sarah’s sleeping in her room, son … She’s alright … She’s gonna be good as new, so don’t you worry.”

“Pa, what  aren’t  you saying?”

“Those men … they shot her too, but she’s okay, Joe. She’s okay.”

Joe tried again to get up. This time, despite the pain, he struggled as Ben and Paul held him down.

“Pa, I gotta see her. I gotta see for myself! … Let me go, Pa! … David, Hoss, are you sure she’s alright?”

“Joe, I seen her myself, this mornin’. She’s sleepin’ like a baby in her own bed. I swear, Joe. I swear!”

No one was sure if Joe stopped trying to get up because he finally believed that Sarah was going to be alright, or because he’d exhausted himself trying and just plain gave up … Being that Joe was the first one in the pasture to be hit, Hoss told the story again. Up to where he blacked out.

“I don’t know what happened after that. You was unconscious, an’ Adam, well, he was hurtin’ real bad, an’ he was in an’ out. Sarah wasn’t movin’ an’ that’s all I kin remember.”

“I can pick the story up here son. David, Paul, Roy and I were heading to the house. We decided to cut through to the south pasture, just to see how things were progressing … Thank God we did … We heard gunshots and when we got close enough, we saw those men on their horses … and all of you … … Those men are dead, Joe … We did what we could for all of you … Managed to get you, Sarah and Adam into the buckboard and brought you here.”

“Any idea …  wh…who they were?”

“No idea, son. Roy should be here soon, and he may have some information for us. For now, it doesn’t matter who they were. All that matters is that the four of you are alright, that you’re home … safe.”

Joe was so weary, he looked like he’d fall asleep in a wink.

“We need to let Joe get some rest … Here, take this. It’ll help you sleep.”

“Just promise me something, David … Tell Adam I’m glad he’s alright … And tell Sarah … tell her I love her.”

“I promise Joe. I’ll do it the second she wakes up.”

 

Chapter Twenty

Healing

          Paul was leaving just as Roy arrived, bringing details about the men who’d caused so much grief for the Cartwright family.

“They were wanted both separately and as a gang. And in several states. Seems they’d been goin’ from state to state robbin’ people right in their own homes. They’d shot seven people in the past three months … killed two of ‘em  … Ben, I just wish I’d had an idea they were comin’ this way. Maybe I could’ve prevented all this!”

“Now, Roy, no one’s to blame but those men themselves. We’re just gonna concentrate on healing and move on. We’ve got a wedding comin’ soon!”

“Yeah, and I’m lookin’ forward to that … Well, I best be getting’ back to town. I gotta whole lotta paper work to finish up regardin’ them men. Ben, you tell them sons of yours and Miss Sarah I said I’m real glad they’re feelin’ better.”

“I sure will, Roy. I sure will.”

As Roy rode away, Ben closed the front door, turned, and looked at the staircase. Yesterday, about that same time, he hadn’t known if the next day would bring sorrow or joy. Or both. He shook his head in disbelief, and went upstairs to see his family. Adam was sitting in his burgundy leather chair, with his leg propped up on the ottoman. Hoss was there too, seated on the edge of Adam’s bed. Ben sat alongside.

“Adam, please tell me you didn’t get out of that bed yourself !!”

“No, Pa, he didn’t. You know how hard it is fer Adam to stay put! … I practically lifted him outta bed an’ held him while he turned ‘round, then I lowered him into the chair. I promise Pa, he didn’t have ta do any work at all.

“I’ll be careful, Pa. I just needed to be out of that bed for a bit … Just a little longer and I’ll need a nap, that’s for sure.”

“Well, see to it that you let Hoss do all the work when you get back into bed!”

“Was that Roy I heard downstairs?”

“Yes it was … Those men were wanted in several states for robbery, attempted murder and murder.”

Hoss let out a whistle. The three Cartwrights sat in silence as they each came to terms with just how lucky they were that no one had been killed the day before. Adam broke the silence with an uncontrolled yawn. He knew there was no use in trying to stay in the chair. Ben and Hoss helped him into bed, and Adam was almost asleep before they left his room. Ben stopped in the doorway and watched his eldest son breathe in and out. In and out.

“Rest well, son.”

Hoss and Ben went next to Joe’s room.

“How are you, son?”

“Stronger, Pa … Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ready to do much of anything just yet, but I am feelin’ stronger … I’d feel even better if Sarah would wake up. David keeps tellin’ me that she’s okay and sleeping’s her body’s way of healin’ … But … I … I’d feel a whole lot better if I could hear her voice.”

“I know, son. I know.”

“Joe, Roy was by. He told me and Pa those men were wanted. Robbery, attempted murder and murder. I guess we didn’t need ta hear that ta know they was a bad bunch.”

“Well, boys, I’m just thankful that attempted murder was all this family could add to those charges! … Hoss why don’t you keep your brother company for a bit while I go check on Sarah? And before you ask, Joseph, I will come back and tell you exactly how she’s doing.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

Ben walked across the hall to Sarah’s room. David was asleep in the blue chair next to the window. Sarah looked just as she had the night before. Pale … Vulnerable … Ben wanted so badly to be able to give Joe some good news. As he walked closer to her bed, David stirred.

“Sorry I woke you… Has there been any change?”

“No, no change … She hasn’t gotten any worse, but she hasn’t gotten any better either … She lost so much blood yesterday. If she’d only wake up, we could get some food into her … Hoss and I have both tried talking to her. Adam might be able to get through to her, but I don’t want him out of bed just yet.”

Ben decided not to tell David that Adam had already been out of bed!

“Joe’s voice is the best chance for waking her, but he’s not ready to be moved either … Ben, would you try talking to her?”

“Of course I will … Why don’t you stretch your legs, maybe get some coffee? Or take a rest? I’ll stay with her.”

“Thanks, Ben. If you need me, just holler.”

Ben pulled the blue chair closer to the bed. Before sitting down, he adjusted the blankets covering Sarah. Her ashen face worried him. He knew David was right. She needed to wake up and eat and drink … and soon. He pushed open the curtains, allowing more sunshine into the room.

“Sarah, its Ben … You’re missing a beautiful day. The birds are singing, even though there’s a chill in the air. Can you hear them? … Sarah, I don’t know what you remember about yesterday and …  what happened … Hoss and Adam are okay. They can’t wait to hear that you’re awake! … Now, I know from what Hoss told me … that you saw … you saw Joe get shot. Sarah, he’s alright too. I promise you, he’s alright. But he’d be even better if you’d open your eyes. He’s worried about you … We all are. Sarah, can you please open your eyes?”

Just as Ben was about to give up for now, a slight moan from Sarah sent his heart racing. She stirred … her eyes fluttered open.

“Sarah? It’s Ben. You’re home, safe in your own bed … Sarah?”

“Joseph?”  was the first thing Sarah said.

“I’m right here!” Joe exclaimed. Supported by Hoss, Joe walked to the bed.

“I couldn’t stop him Pa. He’d’ve crawled over here own his own!”

Ben smiled and shook his head.

“Mind if I join the party?” Using a cane for support, Adam hobbled into the room, then yelled out to the hallway, “Hey David! You might as well join up with the rest of us!”

Joe took a seat next to Sarah’s bed. Holding her cold hand in his, he said,

“It’s about time you decided to wake up! You had us all worried … It … it sure is good to see those blue eyes lookin’ up at me!”

David entered the room and immediately frowned.

“Adam! What are you doing out of … Joe? You too! … What … Kitten?… Kitten, you’re awake!”

          Ben and Hoss chronicled the details of the past two days for Sarah. She really didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying. She simply looked from Joe to Hoss to Adam … over and over again, calmed by the realization that those she’d seen gunned down were truly alright. Hop Sing appeared in the room, carrying a tray for Sarah. He smiled larger than anyone had ever seen him smile.

“Missy Sarah need drink broth. Everyone get out. Missa Adam, you go back to room, Hop Sing hide cane! You no walk around yet! … I bring food in a minute. Missa Hoss, you help him. Then you come down. Eat … You too Missa Cartwright and Missa David. Everyone, out! … Not you, Li’l Joe. You stay. You and Missy Sarah need be together … You call for help when ready to go back to room … You go! … Now!”

          Smiling, everyone followed Hop Sing’s orders, after telling Sarah how happy they were that she was on the mend. Still holding her hand in his, Joe lifted it to his lips, kissed it gently, then held it to his cheek.

“Oh Joseph, I thought I’d lost …”

“Shh … I know … I did too.”

 

Chapter Twenty One

Monsters Under The Bed

          Five days later, Hoss and Joe were getting around unaided, though Joe’s shoulder was still protected by a sling. Though he’d tried, unsuccessfully, to walk without it several times, Adam was finally convinced that he needed to use the cane a little longer. Ben and David made sure Sarah was accompanied any time she left her bed. Doc Martin had been to the ranch daily, and was pleasantly surprised by their progress. David, while also pleased with their healing, was disturbed by their nightmares. He knew that each of them were struggling at night. He’d heard Hoss downstairs in the middle of the night, each and every night since the incident. He’s seen the light from Adam’s lamp shining underneath his bedroom door. Twice he found Joe out of bed, sitting in Sarah’s room, watching her sleep. And every night so far, they’d all been startled or awakened by Sarah screaming Joe’s name, or crying out for Adam, or pleading for Hoss to open his eyes. David had even heard Ben pacing in his room. They were all victims, whether they’d been injured that day or not.

In the daylight, they talked of anything and everything except the event that weighed so heavily on their minds. And that worried David. So, at their first meal, all together, at the dining room table, David decided to try to get the mental healing process underway. The door was opened for him when Ben spoke.

“If you would all join hands … Heavenly Father, Thank You for allowing all of us to be here this evening. Together. And on the mend … Thank You for bringing     David to us, and for giving him so many talents as a doctor. And for our dear friends, Roy and Paul, for their parts after the events of that awful, awful day.     Thank You … with all my heart … Amen.”

          “Ben, if you don’t mind, I’d like to say something.”

          “Of course, David.”

          “Working in a hospital in a big city back east, I’ve seen far too many potentially devastating situations. Some resolve happily. Unfortunately, most don’t. Medicine is improving every day. But not always soon enough to save all of my patients … I’d like to take credit for you all being here today. But I can’t.      Looking back on the conditions you were in lying in that pasture …  I didn’t think all of you would survived. But you did … And Paul and I had but a very small          part in that … None of you let go, for even a moment, of your will to live … to live for each other. For the people you love … Those … so called men … had       no regard for life … What they did can’t be taken back, but the compassion, respect and love in this room can heal just as much pain as Paul and I did.”

          The room remained silent as the group looked around the table at each other.

“Thank you, David … He’s right … I’m proud of all of you for fighting so hard … “

          The emotion-filled silence continued. Finally Hoss broke the mood.

“Well, ain’t none of us gonna keep healin’ if we don’t eat!”

Plates and bowls were passed. Sarah leaned over and kissed David’s cheek … Ben was thankful to see them eating. Everyone’s color had returned. They even managed to chat about everyday things, including the running of the ranch. His sons were actually eager to start working again. Although that was not the norm, Ben knew things were getting back to normal.

“HOP SING QUIT! Stove no work, Hop Sing no work. Stove need good kick. Maybe work then?”

          “I’d better see what the problem is… excuse me.”

          Ben rushed to the kitchen. Hop Sing’s yelling continued. Ben could hardly get a word in … Back at the table, amid the snickers over the cook’s latest tirade, Sarah did something that convinced David that she was making an effort to squelch the trauma. She nudged the foot on Adam’s good leg under the table. His fork was halfway to his mouth. His hand froze right there, he looked sheepishly at Sarah, then ate the potatoes off the fork. Next, she managed to bump Hoss’s foot as he took a drink of his coffee. Looking at her overtop of the cup, Hoss started to plan his move. Astute as ever, David knew he was about to be in the middle of something. Then Sarah did something to Joe that no one else noticed. Under the table, well hidden by the tablecloth, she gently rubbed Joe’s thigh. Gradually, she moved her hand up his leg, going higher than Joe thought she would with his brothers and David sitting right in the room. Joe fidgeted in his chair. His face turned red. And when she applied a little pressure with her hand, Joe gasped, then tried to cover it with a fake cough. David looked closely at Joe.

“Are you alright, Joe? … Maybe we should get you upstairs and check that wound.”

          This time it was Sarah who coughed and covered her mouth with her napkin so no one would see her laughing.

          “I’m fine, David … no need to worry. Some food just went down the wrong way. And the PRESSURE brought on the cough.”

          Satisfied that Joe was indeed alright, David continued eating. He looked at Hoss, about to ask him a question, when a pea arced as it flew past David’s face. The projectile landed right on Sarah’s plate. She offered no reaction whatsoever. That’s when David knew for certain that things were about to get … interesting.

The next edible object to take flight was a biscuit. It traveled from Sarah’s hand to Hoss’s plate with accuracy. Again, no one blinked an eye. Sarah’s hand returned to the inside of Joe’s thigh. Startled, Joe’s body jerked. This time, he was unable to bluff his way out of his reaction. Adam and Hoss grinned as Joe’s face blushed once again. In the next few minutes, six peas and four biscuits took flight over the Cartwright’s dinner table. The melee came to an abrupt halt when Ben returned from the kitchen emergency.

“Everything alright, Pa?”

          “Yes, yes. Hop Sing is very good at many things, but handyman is not one of them! There was a problem with the stove. I was able to fix      it … So, what did I miss?”

          “Oh … nothing much, Pa … What were you just saying, Hoss?”

          Hoss shot Adam an irritated look.

          “Uhh … I think it was Joe that was talkin’ last Adam … What were ya sayin’ Joe?”

          Ben looked at his youngest son.

“Joe … your face is flushed, son. Do you have a fever?”

          “No, Pa … I’m fine, just fine!”

          “If you’re sure … So, what were you talking about Joe?”

          “I believe we were ALL talking about how LIGHT and AIRY the biscuits are tonight!”

          Adam nearly choked. He managed to cover with one of Joe’s ‘coughs’. Hoss kept his eyes on his glass and bit his tongue. David grabbed his cup and pretended to sip his coffee. Sarah simply continued to eat. With growing displeasure in his voice, Ben said,

“Oh, really, Joe?… That’s funny, ‘cause I was just thinking how much lighter the PEAS are tonight …”

          No one could hold their laughter this time.

“When I walked back into the room, I caught the end of it all as a biscuit and a pea crossed airborne paths in the middle of my dining room table! … Really! … You behave worse than children! You ARE CHILDREN!”

          “Sarah started it …” Adam said quietly.

          Though they’d been berated, the food tossing participants felt better than they had in what seemed like forever. Gradually, the laughter died down. Ben tried to finish her supper though his displeasure still showed. Each one their own was just about to apologize to Ben, but he spoke before any of them could.

“CHILDREN! … Children! … Children …”

          Suddenly, Ben tossed the biscuit in his hand toward Sarah. It landed perfectly, with a splash, in her coffee. Five very startled, worried people stared at Ben, wondering what was next. With a straight face, Ben said,

“Pretty good aim … don’t you agree?”

          Adam looked at Hoss. Hoss looked at Joe. Joe looked at David. And they all looked at Sarah. The laughter started as a giggle from Joe, followed by Hoss and Adam nearly in hysterics. David and Ben joined in. Only Sarah tried to stifle her laugh.

“Ouch … it hurts when I laugh! … Stop it! Ouch!”

****

          Ben was the last one to go to bed that night. Wearing his nightshirt, burgundy robe and slippers, he’d spent an hour or so reading by the fireplace. When he reached the top of the staircase, he noticed Adam’s lamp was on. “He must be reading too,” thought Ben. He walked past Joe’s room, then Hoss’s, then into his own bedroom. After removing his robe and slippers, Ben slipped into bed. He smiled to himself as he remembered the fun at supper. That’s the last thing he remembered before he fell fast asleep.

Adam had been reading in his room. But now, he was sitting, looking out into the starlit night. Sleep had been eluding him for several nights and it was angering him. He was Adam Cartwright. And Adam Cartwright was always in control. Almost. Adam Cartwright was always rational. Almost. He decided that night to mentally walk through his fears and face them once again. He closed his eyes and pictured the pasture. He saw Joe and Hoss working on the fence and Sarah sitting under a tree. Then he saw Joe. Bloody and falling to the ground. He remembered dropping to the ground himself, trying to make himself less of a target, rolling a few feet and then pain. As the pain registered in his head, there were more loud sounds and another intense pain. Although he was seated, Adam reached out and grabbed the window sill, causing a dull ache in his shoulder. He looked down at his still bandaged leg. The next thing he remembered was another shot, and Sarah falling. Still seated, holding onto the window sill, he was gasping for air. Adam closed his eyes and took slow, controlled breaths to calm himself. He reminded himself that those men were dead. They could never hurt him or the people he loved again. He remembered everyone together at the table that night. Everyone. Alive. Healing. Smiling, he thought of his father, the well-mannered Benjamin Cartwright, tossing a biscuit into Sarah’s coffee. In the middle of his giggle, he yawned. Taking the cue from his body, Adam sat on his bed, lifted his injured leg onto the mattress, settled in and closed his eyes. For the first time since Adam regained consciousness days ago, he slept soundly and nightmare free.

 

Hoss was already asleep when Ben turned in. David had talked with Hoss that evening after supper. Hoss’s dreams were less frequent and less severe that Adam’s, Joe’s and Sarah’s. David thought it was because Hoss’s injury was the least severe, and that Hoss had remained conscious for more of the ordeal than the others. His memories had fewer gaps than theirs. David was sure that was why Hoss had been able to overcome his trauma more quickly.

 

Joe was lying awake in the dark. He had been putting on a good front for his family and fiancé, but he was exhausted. Whenever he closed his eyes, trying to sleep, even in the light of day, he saw Adam, bloodied, unable to walk, dragging himself across the pasture to get to Hoss. In his vision, Hoss was lying face down, bleeding. He tried to call out to Adam, but no words came out. Joe saw Sarah. The woman he loved, screaming, running towards him as he lay on the ground, unable to protect her from the inevitable. Then the sound.  A sound he’d heard thousands of times. A sound he would never hear in the same way again. And in his nightmare, Sarah was dead.

So Joe lay awake, night after night, dozing for a few minutes here and there. He would leave his room to sit with Sarah, holding her warm hand, watching her breathe. He’d never been in her room when Sarah’s nightmares came. But, he’d heard her screams each time. Tonight, he decided he would stay with her all night. Wearing his robe and slippers, Joe went to her room. Making himself as comfortable as possible in the big chair, Joe took her hand and kissed it. Unable to protect his love the day of the shootings, he was determined to be there for her when the nightmares came.

Fast asleep, Sarah was not aware that Joe had come into her room or that he’d kissed her hand. By the end of each day, she was so exhausted that she fell asleep quickly and deeply. Until dreaming reared its ugly head.

The house was quiet. Except for Hoss’s snoring. Stiff from sitting for so long, Joe stood, stretched his legs, and adjusted his sling. He heard an owl hoot outside, and went to the window to see if he could spot the bird in the moonlight.

Sarah’s nightmare was returning. She sat under a tree in the pasture, watching Adam, Hoss and Joe working. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her face. There were horses, and riders with guns. She heard a shot, turned to her left, and Joe fell to the ground. Another shot, Sarah turned to her right, and Adam dropped to his knees … Bang! … Adam collapsed to the ground. Another shot rang out, Sarah spun around and saw Hoss tumble. Sarah felt something warm on her face. Blood. She looked down at her body, and saw four bullet holes. Her dress was saturated with blood. Dazed, she closed her eyes. When they opened, she saw Joe, Adam and Hoss standing far off in the distance. She tried to go to them, but her legs would not move… Bang! … This time, Sarah felt the bullet enter her belly. Doubled over in unthinkable pain, her hands covered in blood, she turned and looked to where Joe, Adam and Hoss were standing. But now, all three were lying on the ground.

“JOSEPH!!!!!”

          Sarah screamed. By the time Joe got from the window to her bed, she was sitting straight up, clutching her belly with one hand and staring at the other. Sarah saw blood. All over her. Joe called out her name. He sat on her bed and took her hands in his. She was shaking. Beads of sweat covered her face, she was holding her breath and was still staring at her hands.

“Sarah! … Sarah! … Sarah look at me! You’re alright … Honey, LOOK AT ME! … I’m right here. I’m fine. So are Adam and Hoss. And        you’re alright!”

          “Joseph! … There’s so much blood … on my dress … on my hands! … It’s your blood! … And Adam’s. And Hoss’s. “

          David and Hoss got to Sarah’s room at the same time. Adam and Ben weren’t far behind.

“Please, Joseph … PLEASE GET IT OFF!”

          With tears in his eyes, Joe tried to speak. The lump in his throat fought to prevent it. He rubbed her hands with his.

“Alright … I’m washing the blood off … See … its almost gone. Almost gone… There. What do you see now? … It’s okay. You can look.”

          Sarah was afraid to look at her own hands. Joe’s persuasion finally calmed her enough that she looked.

“See. It’s gone … No more blood … honey, look at me. That’s it. Now look there. Its Adam and Hoss. Everyone’s alright …”

          Seeing Adam and Hoss standing with Ben and David seemed to bring her to the realization that she really was in her own room. Much to David’s relief, her breathing was slowing. Joe let go of her hands and held her face. With tears running down his cheeks, Joe embraced her, gently at first. As she relaxed more, his arms tightened. All the while, he kept telling her that everyone was alright.

“Sarah … Joe’s right. Hoss and I are fine. Remember? We had supper together? All of us. Down at the table.”

          Sarah let go of Joe’s embrace and looked around the room. Embarrassed. Relieved. Satisfied. Thankful.

          “That’s right. L’il sis, all that scary stuff’s over. We’ll all be together for breakfast tomorrow too!”

          “Ben?”

          “What is it dear?”

          “At breakfast tomorrow, could we throw biscuits again?”

 

Chapter 22

Another Day Closer To Normal

“Adam! You’re not using your cane! That’s wonderful!”

          “It’s a great feeling to be walking without that thing after all this time. I’m not quite ready for dancing, but I will be in time for the wedding! I have to dance with the bride, don’t I?”

          “Yes you do! And I promise to save more than one dance for my older brother-in-law.”

          Adam took a seat on the porch, picked up his guitar and started playing. Sarah watched as his fingers moved with ease and she couldn’t help noticing that as he played, he looked more and more relaxed. Carrying a tray with three glasses of lemonade, Ben made his way onto the porch. When Adam started the next song, Sarah shook her head and smiled. The song was a favorite of her father’s. Sarah sang along, and when it was over, Adam simply glared at her and Ben’s mouth was agape.

“I didn’t know that my son’s fiancé had the voice of an angel! You’ve been hiding that talent, young lady!”

          “Does Joe know you can do that?”

          Blushing, Sarah told them she’d never had occasion to sing in front of Joe. Just then, Hoss came from the house.

Li’l sis, was that you I heard singin’ like a bird?”

          “Yes it was, Eric. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”

          “No M’am! Weren’t nothin’ disturbin’ about what I jist heard!”

Hearing the sound of Cochise approaching, Sarah’s focus suddenly changed. She watched Joe as he dismounted. Watched for any signs that he was overdoing too soon after being injured. Ben, Adam and Hoss were doing the same thing. The entire Cartwright household had become, with good reason, overly protective of one another.

“Hey, darlin’! Did you miss me?”

          Joe grasped Sarah by the waist and kissed her lovingly. Seeing his youngest son in love with a wonderful woman warmed Ben’s heart. Adam and Hoss felt the same, but would never admit it.

“Alright Little Joe, alright. We get it. You love her. She loves you. And Hoss and I free to dance with any woman we want at your wedding!”

          “That’s right, Adam. Any woman, and as many women as we want.”

          “That’s right boys. And I get to dance with this woman every day and every night for the rest of my life. I think I win!”

          Joe kissed Sarah again. A kiss that lingered.

“That’s enough you two. Have you no shame? Kissing that way, right in front of your brothers! And your father! … The least you could do is go behind that tree over there!”

          Everyone had a good laugh courtesy of Ben. When David rode up, he wondered what had taken place to cause all the laughter.

On his way into the house, he passed Ben and discretely nodded. Ben winked at David. Hop Sing announced supper, and everyone went inside. David slipped a small package to Ben, which he promptly placed in his top desk drawer before heading to the table. Everyone took a seat as Hop Sing brought in the meal.

After supper, Ben and Adam started a game of chess, Joe and Sarah sat side by side on the settee, and Hoss and David sat across from them on the hearth. The topic of conversation varied from the events of the day to their latest lumber contract to a trip to the upcoming cattle auction. Earlier that year, it had been decided that Joe would in charge of driving the cattle bought at the auction back to the Ponderosa. The trip was to take about 2 weeks in all.

“Pa, maybe I should go instead of Li’l Joe. Two weeks is a real long time ta be away from yer new wife!”

          “Yes, I guess it is … Joe, Hoss will go.”

          “Ben, as much as I appreciate what you and Hoss are trying to do, Joseph has been looking forward to that drive. It’s a month after the wedding. I’ll be fine.”

          “There’s no need for you to be alone. Joe would worry about you the whole time, isn’t that right Joe?”

          “Umm … yea, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of leaving Sarah alone.”

          “But Joseph, you’ve been talking about this drive since the day we met! … I have an idea. What if I stay here while you’re gone? I’m sure that would be alright. I can take care of our place during the day and Eric and Adam can help with anything I need. Really Joseph, I want you to go.”

          “Joe, if you agree, then its settled. And Sarah, you are welcome to stay in this house anytime you want.”

          “Thank you, Ben.”

          Never missing an opportunity, Adam said, “Just make sure you two take your ‘welcome home Joseph’ party to your own house!”

          Sarah flung a pillow at Adam, hitting him square on the head with enough force to know him backwards off his chair. Amid the chuckles in the room, Adam scooped up the pillow, righted his chair and prepared to heave it back at Sarah.

Adam! Not in the house! And not at a lady!”

          “She started it, Pa!” Adam teased.

“I know she did, son. I was just about to take care of it.”

          Ben stood, walked purposefully to the settee and sat on the table, directly in front of Sarah. Adam and Hoss gave each other concerned looks. David sat up a just a little straighter. Joe shifted uncomfortably on the settee. Sarah looked up at Ben.

“Young lady, I will not tolerate that type of behavior in my home. Is that understood?”

          “Ben? … Yes sir. I’m sorry. And Adam … I’m sorry.”

          Thinking that she’d said all the right things, Joe relaxed and Hoss let out a sigh of relief, and David picked up his coffee cup. Ben didn’t move away. He stood tall in front of Sarah.

“There’s one more thing young lady.”

          No one in the room had any idea what Ben was about to say. As far as they were concerned, what had happened was a trivial thing that should have been laughed off.

“Seeing as how you obviously feel comfortable enough in my home to tease my sons at your every whim, and seeing as how you will become my daughter-in-law in just one week,” Ben said grimly, then changed his demeanor, and with watery eyes, smiled and said, “I think it’s about time you started calling me “Pa.”

A few seconds later, Sarah blinked and started a tear trickling down her cheek. She jumped up and threw her arms around Ben. Squeezing Ben tightly, she felt him hug her just a bit closer. Whispering in his ear, she said,

“Thank you … This means the world to me … I love you, Pa.”

 

Chapter 23

Alone Time

          It was the evening before their wedding day. Joe and Sarah sat together on the porch, as they had so many nights since Sarah arrived on the Ponderosa for her vacation. Leaning against the house and holding hands, Sarah laid her head on Joe’s shoulder as they rested on the floor boards. All of the details for the wedding had been completed or assigned to someone for the next day.

“Pa seemed awfully quiet at supper tonight … Hope he isn’t coming down with anything.”

          “I don’t think that’s why he was quiet Joseph.”

          “What do you think?”

          “Joseph, today was a day full of ‘lasts’ for Pa. Your last day living in his home. Your final supper with him and your brothers.”

          “Well, yea, I thought about those things today too. But Pa always says that the most important thing to him is for his sons to be happy. And Pa knows how happy I am to be marrying you! And besides, we’re gonna be living less than an hour’s ride away! We’ll see each other all the time.”

          “You’re right on both counts … Think of it this way. Pa lost Marie when you were very young. But he still had you. I am sure that he’s always seeing and hearing Marie in little things you say and do. After tomorrow, not only will Marie be gone, but Pa won’t get to see you or Marie through you every day. Except for Adam going away for college, he’s had three sons living with him for 22 years now … His life is changing tomorrow … Life is changing for all of us tomorrow. Adam and Eric too.”

          “Do you think he’ll be sad for a long time? And Adam and Hoss too?”

          Sarah cuddled closer to Joe and held his hand a little tighter.

“I don’t think ‘sad’ is the right word … They’ll miss having you here all the time. And knowing where you’re at when you’re not here … Just like us, their lives will be different tomorrow than they are today … It’s up to us to do what we can to make the differences easier on each other. Especially Pa.”

          Joe cradled Sarah’s chin in his hand, looked into her bright blue eyes, and gently kissed her.

“Not that I’m complaining … but what was that for?”

          “For caring so much about my father and my brothers.”

          “It’s easy … I love you all.”

          Joe wrapped his arms around Sarah and held her tight. He kissed the top of her head, inhaling the sweet smell of her silken hair. Thoughts of his mother and father found their way into his head, and he hoped they had loved each other as much as he loved Sarah.

“Joseph?”

          “Hmm?”

          “I’m … I’m … nervous … about … our wedding night.”

          Joe’s silence encouraged Sarah to continue.

“We’ve waited … and … I’ve never … I don’t want to disappoint you.”

          “Sweetheart, being with you could never disappoint me … I’m glad we waited … It’s what we both wanted … Our wedding night will be the first time for both of us … And I’m nervous too!”

          Sarah and Joe held onto each other for a long time. On the porch. Leaning against the house where Joe spent his entire life. The night before their wedding.

Chapter 24

Before We Say “I Do”

          The very first thing Joe did after opening his eyes was to think of Sarah, and he smiled. Loving her was the easiest thing he had ever done. He felt incomplete when they were apart; cherished beyond belief when they were together; and both helpless and powerful when he had thoughts of giving himself to her. And today, he would experience it all.

They had agreed not to see each other before the wedding. Hop Sing would bring each of them breakfast in their rooms. Sarah had been awake for some time now, and out of bed for about an hour. She had washed and fixed her hair before Hop Sing arrived at her bedroom door.

“Hop Sing bring breakfast. You eat now. Need strength for wedding day … Hop Sing go now. Give Little Joe breakfast.”

          “Thank you, Hop Sing … Would you do a favor for me?”

          “Hop Sing do whatever Missy Sarah need on wedding day.”

          “Tell Joseph … tell him I’m very happy.”

          “Hop Sing tell Little Joe.”

          Sarah looked at all of her favorite breakfast foods on the tray. Then it began. Her stomach took an unsettling dip, her knees went weak and her heart began to pound. Backing up, she sat on the edge of her bed, her head nearly touching her knees. The pounding in her chest just about blocked the sound of someone knocking on her door.

“C… come in.”

          “Hey, Kitten! … Are you okay? What’s wrong? You’re as white as a ghost!”

          David rushed to Sarah’s side. Taking her pulse, he noticed her breathing seemed labored. He laid her back on the bed and sat down next to her.

“What happened?”

          “I don’t know! I looked at the food Hop Sing brought up and the next thing I knew, I was dizzy … and queasy.”

          David took her pulse again, checked for a fever, and ran two distinct possibilities through his head.

“Kitten? … Sweetheart … could you be … pregnant?”

          “David! NO! We’ve NEVER … NO! That’s not even a possibility!”

          “Sorry … I had to ask! … Then I’m sure its wedding jitters. Happens all the time. Usually it’s the groom … I’ll bet Joe’s feeling the same way down the hall. Just close your eyes, clear your mind, and breathe in and out slowly for a while and see if that helps.”

          There was another knock on the door. Hop Sing stepped inside to deliver a message from Joe.

“Hop Sing give Little Joe message from Missy Sarah. Little Joe say, ‘Tell Sarah I’m very happy too’. Then Little Joe face turn white and he sit down on chair before he fall over! Wedding make everybody nervous!”

          David looked at Sarah, winked and said, “I’ll go check on him, just to be sure. Try to eat something, Kitten. And keep breathing.”

          David found Joe in a chair, holding his head in his hands. He didn’t even look up when David entered his room.

“Joe … you okay?”

          “Huh? … Hmm … oh … yea, I’m okay. Just feelin’ a little unsettled.”

          David smiled. He knew that in this case, there were NOT two possibilities.

“You pulse is a little fast. No fever. Have you eaten anything today?”

          Joe shook his head and made a face that told David that eating wouldn’t set well with his stomach right now. He instructed Joe to follow ‘Doc David’s orders’. Breathe slowly, and as soon as he could, eat a little something. When David left Joe, he ran into Ben in the hallway.

“Morning David. I see you were in with Joe. How’s he holding up?”

          “He’ll be fine, Ben. Just a little case of nerves … Sarah too … I’m heading down for breakfast … how ‘bout you?”

          “I’ve already eaten. I’ll check on Joe and Sarah and see what I can do.”

          Ben knocked on Sarah’s door. He found her standing at the window, holding one of her father’s journals. When she turned to look at Ben, he saw tear streaks on her face. Holding his arms outstretched, Sarah hurried into his embrace.

“Now, now. You stay right here for as long as you need to. I know this must be a very emotional day for you, dear. Your mother and father would be so happy to see you marrying the man you love. In fact, I’m sure they’re both watching down on you, today especially!”

          “I know they are. I can feel them with me … I was talking to them before you came in. Telling them what a wonderful man Joseph is. And how much I love him … And all of you! These tears started out as tears of joy, but then I got sad. I miss them both so much … And there are things that a girl can only talk to her mother about … I don’t mean to be childish, but that’s how I feel right now.”

          “I understand, Sarah. I’m not your mother … or your father, but I want you to feel free to talk to me about anything that’s on your mind. I love you like you’re my own daughter! … Now, as far as fatherly advice is concerned, have you eaten anything yet? You really must, you know. We can’t have the beautiful bride falling over at her wedding!”

          “You’re right … I promise I’ll have something.”

          “Good … now, I’m going to go see how that son of mine is getting along. Will you be alright?”

          “Yes. I’ll be fine, Pa. I’ll be fine.”

          Sarah raised herself on her toes and kissed Ben on the cheek. Before Ben could get to Joe’s room, Sarah had eaten half of a piece of toast. She started to feel better immediately.

Joe’s bedroom door was ajar. Ben knocked, and went inside. Joe had eaten a little of his breakfast, and his coffee cup was empty. His suit was hanging on the back of the door and his boots were shined. Ben knew his son well enough to know that Joe had too much time on his hands right now. An idle mind could only lead to a bad case of nerves! As he was about to speak, Adam and Hoss walked in, took one look at their little brother, looked at each other and smiled. Joe was a mess!

“You’ve finished your coffee, son. Let’s all go down and have another cup together.”

          “Hmm? … Oh, alright, Pa … WAIT!  What if Sarah’s downstairs? I promised I wouldn’t see her before the wedding. I can’t break a promise to her, especially not on her wedding day! Did I say ‘her wedding day’? I meant OUR wedding day. Of course, it’s OUR wedding day. Not just hers. That would be silly if she was getting’ married by herself! Wouldn’t it Pa? Oh, Adam. Hoss. When did you come in? Pa says he needs more coffee and we should go with him to get some. You. And me. And Pa. But only if Sarah’s not downstairs! I can’t see her ‘cause that would be breakin’ a promise and I can’t do that. We could go have coffee. See. My boots are ready. And my suit is ready. There. It’s over there. So I have time for coffee, don’t I?”

          Joe continued to ramble, joining one sentence with the next. Adam and Hoss just kept shaking their heads in agreement with their brother, all the while trying to no avail to hide their snickers. Ben became worried that Joe might hyperventilate and pass out. He took his chattering son by the hand, walked him a few feet to his bed, and eased him sitting onto the mattress.

“…everything ready downstairs? If it’s not, I can help, ‘cause my boots are ready, and so is my suit…”

          “Uh … Pa? … (chuckle) … I think maybe coffee (snicker) is the LAST thing Little Joe needs right now! Don’t you agree Hoss?”

          “I reckon coffee would … (giggle) make Joe a little edgy, (cough) now wouldn’t it?”

          “What did ya say Hoss? Sorry I didn’t hear ya … What’s so funny? Hey, what’d I miss?”

          Ben, Adam and Hoss laughed until tears came! Ben grabbed a shirt for Joe and told him to put it on. He sent Hoss to Sarah’s room to make sure she didn’t venture downstairs for a bit. Ben turned around when he heard Adam roar with laughter. Joe had mis-buttoned his shirt from top to bottom!

“Little brother, any woman who can do THIS to you is really something!”

          Laughter coming down the stairs caught David’s attention, and Hop Sing’s too. The Cartwright men were bringing Joe down for a sort of intervention.

          “What’s going on here? I seem to have missed all the fun!”

          “Joe here has (chuckle) too much free time right now, and he’s worked himself up a bit. It’s our job to calm him down (giggle) before he implodes!”

          “Little Joe need relax. Eat more food. Have more coffee.”

          “NO!” screamed the Cartwrights.

          When the hilarity died down, Joe was no longer in the dining room. Four heads turned to find him standing frozen in the living room. Shirt buttoned correctly (courtesy of Adam) but untucked, hair mussed, nothing on his feet, pale faced and frozen.

“Joe, are you alright son?”

          “Huh … oh, yea, Pa … I just noticed all these chairs set up real nice. And the flowers and ribbons … they look real pretty. I think I need to sit down. On one of these real nice chairs here. Okay, Pa?”

          “Of course, Joe. You do whatever you need to do.”

          “I’m going to go up and check on Sarah. Joe, keep breathing. Doctor’s orders.”

          Adam and Hoss sat backwards in two chairs, facing Joe. Adam rested his chin on the back of the chair.

“So, Joe … you okay?” Adam quipped.

Joe inhaled deeply and exhaled with force. He looked directly at Adam.

“You’re enjoying my distress, aren’t you?”

          “A little bit … I’m sorry, Joe. Do you want to talk about what’s making you … odd? “

          “Adam!”

          “It’s alright, Pa. I guess I have been actin’ … odd. I don’t know exactly how to explain it.”

          “I do, Son. Today’s your wedding day. That’s all that needs to be said.”

          “I know it’s my wedding day, Pa. What I don’t know is why I feel so happy one minute and like my heart’s gonna fling itself outta my mouth the next! My palms are sweatin’ and the back of my neck’s cold! I’m breathin’ fast but I feel like I got no air!”

          “Joe, all of that’s normal on your wedding day … It’s a life changing decision you made weeks ago. It didn’t seem real till today …”

          “Yea, Joe. After t’day, you’ll be a married man. No more late nights in town … No more poker games …”

          “That’s right. No more freedom to do whatever you desire whenever you desire it … No more pretty ladies to be won over …’

          “Yessir, and no more makin’ decisions fer yerself …”

          “Alright you two, that’s enough! Joseph, don’t pay any attention to them … You’re just reacting to the realization that parts of your life are changing.”

          “That’s what Sarah said last night.”

          “She’s a smart young woman, Son … The bottom line is, do you love her?”

          “More than anything, Pa.”

          “Then concentrate on that, Joe, and you’ll be just fine.”

8888

          David was seated in a chair next to Sarah’s bed.

          “In … out … in … out. Better?”

          “A little. I don’t understand, David. Marrying Joseph is what I want more than anything. Why am I so … frazzled?”

          “Kitten, I’d be worried if you weren’t frazzled! After today, this ‘vacation’ of yours becomes permanent … You won’t be going back east. To your house. To your friends. You’ll be staying in Nevada Territory. Living on the Ponderosa. A married woman …”

          “Geez, David! Are ya tryin’ to help or make things worse?”

          “You didn’t let me finish, Kitten! You have a brand new house. And it will be a HOME as soon as you and Joe live there … You have new friends here, and your old friends will stay in touch. Not sure why, but you LOVE this ranch. You won’t miss the big city at all. And lastly, I can’t believe I’m saying this, you’re marrying a good man, Kitten. Anyone can see Joe adores you. He’s already demonstrated that he’d risk his life for you. And sweetheart, the way you feel about him practically oozes out of you every time you lay eyes on him! All the lovey-dovey stuff is really rather sickening, you know!”

          “David!”

          “I’m kidding. Sarah, what you’re doing today is just plain the right thing to do. No doubts!”

          “I love you, David.”

          “I know … me too!”

          Sarah held David tightly. She knew he was right. She’d just needed to hear it. Their tender moment was interrupted when Hoss knocked on the door. When he and Adam went in, they reminded Sarah that the guests would be arriving in about an hour. Adam let her know that Joe was back in his room, Pa was dressing in his bedroom and that Hop Sing had everything else under control. Astute as ever, Adam noticed Sarah’s anxiety, and decided to withhold details of Joe’s odd behavior. Standing in the corner of the room, Hoss suddenly whistled. He was staring at Sarah’s wedding dress.

“Hoss… Hoss! I think we need to get dressed so we can greet the guests. Let’s go!”

          Hoss and Adam retired to their rooms to prepare for their young brother’s special day. David excused himself to get ready, leaving Sarah alone to don her beautiful dress.

8888

From their rooms, Sarah and Joe could hear the sounds of guests arriving. As Sarah fumbled with her left shoe, she was able to pick out Sheriff Coffee’s voice as well as Doc Martin’s. She fussed with her hair one last time, smoothed her dress and took some of David’s earlier advice. He was right. Slowing her breathing did help! There was a knock on her door. With her back to the doorway, Sarah acknowledged the knock. Hoss and Adam, dressed in their best suits and looking incredibly handsome, entered Sarah’s room. When Sarah turned around, both men were completely taken by her radiance. Her dress was beautiful; simple. The fit was perfection. The style complemented every curve and detail. But it was Sarah’s glow that took their breath away and left them speechless. Finally, Hoss raised his arms and Sarah gladly fell into his embrace. With a kiss to the top of her head, Hoss was finally able to speak.

Li’l sister, you’re the most beautiful thing I ever did see!”

          “Thank you, Eric. You look marvelously handsome.”

          Sarah kissed Hoss’s cheek, whispered of her love into his ear, then turned toward Adam.

A flash went through Adam’s mind. A flash of Sarah running toward an injured Joe, then falling to the ground, bleeding. Adam blinked, hard, trying to shove the memory out of sight. When he opened his eyes, he saw Sarah, dressed for her wedding and smiling at the big brother she’d come to love.

I’m having trouble finding words … My God, you’re beautiful!”

          “Oh, Adam!”

          Sarah kissed him, told him she loved him, and brushed the lapels of his suit jacket.

“You are strikingly handsome, sir!”

          “Why, thank you … Sarah, there’s nothing we want more than your happiness.”

          “That’s right. An’ we know you an’ Joe are gonna be nothin’ but happy!”

          “Hoss, we’d better get to Joe’s room. It’ll soon be time to start … Sarah, we’ll see you downstairs!”

          Adam and Hoss found Joe dressed and pacing the floor in his bedroom. After all that had transpired that morning, when Adam and Hoss went into the room, Joe expected more of the same. Merciless teasing! Instead, Adam straightened his tie while Hoss checked him over.

“Li’l brother, we jist came from Sarah’s room, and dadburnit, you are one lucky fella.”

          “He’s right, Joe. You are one fortunate young man! But then … Sarah’s blessed to have found you! … Joe, I wish you happiness always!”

          Adam extended his hand to Joe. As the brothers shook hands, Adam pulled Joe into a brother’s embrace, and his words found their way deep into Joe’s heart.

“Joe, I may not have always shown it, but I’ve always been very proud to call you brother … and friend… I love you.”

          “That goes for me too, Joe. I couldn’t ask for a better younger brother.”

          The lump in Joe’s throat was overwhelming. Two of the three men Joe loved and admired most had just expressed their pride in him and their love for him. With his lips quivering, all he could muster was a nod of his head. Another knock on the door forced Joe to reign in his emotions. When his father walked in, Adam and Hoss bowed out of the room. Looking at his youngest boy dressed in his finest for a wedding to the woman he loved with all his heart instantly filled Ben’s eyes with tears.

Reaching out to shake Joe’s hand, Ben saw that his own arm was shaking. He was gaining an amazing daughter-in-law, but losing what had become so familiar, so comfortable, so natural to him over the years.

“Pa? … You alright?”

          “Yes, son. I’m fine … Its almost time … Are you ready?”

          “Yes, sir. I am … Pa … I wish Ma was here … I know she’d love Sarah, just like you do.”

          “She would, Joe. She would. And she’d be proud of her little boy. Just as I am.”

          “Pa … Is it alright if, after I’m married, I still come to you when I need advice? Or … just to talk things over?’

          “Of course, Joe. I’m here for you, and Adam and Hoss. And Sarah. Anytime you need me. And even when you don’t.”

          Joe held his father close. Ben tried to memorize the feeling, knowing that soon, these moments with Joe would become more and more rare. Ben told Joe he needed a chance to talk with Sarah and asked Joe to wait for five minutes before heading downstairs. As he watched his father leave his bedroom, Joe spoke.

Pa? … I love you.”

          “I love you too, son.”

8888

Sarah heard another knock on her door. This time, it was Ben. When he went in, the young girl he’d seen earlier that morning had transformed into a magnificent young woman.

“Daughter, you are … stunning!”

          Sarah smiled at Ben with so much love in her eyes, he could physically feel it across the room.

” And I promise you, your father would agree. And he would be so proud.”

          Ben took Sarah in his arms, transferring his strength to her. Knowing that if she tried to speak at that moment, she would lose all control, she remained silent and held onto Ben.

“Please, sit with me a moment.”

          Ben led Sarah to the edge of her bed, and the two sat side by side. He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a small blue box. Looking at the box reverently, Ben took a deep breath before raising his eyes to meet Sarah’s, and cleared his throat of emotion before speaking.

“Joseph’s mother loved him above all else. When she died, there were a few special things that were kept. This is one of them, and it’s for you … I know she’d be pleased for you to have it, because you love our son with all your heart.”

          Ben opened the blue box, lifted a blue topaz necklace from the box, and held it for Sarah to see.

“Oh Pa! It’s beautiful!”

          “Just like Marie. And just like you! … May I?”

          Sarah lifted her flowing blonde hair, allowing Ben to drape the necklace around her neck. He fastened it, with a bit of trouble, as his hands were shaking, and his eyesight blurred by tears. Once it was securely in place, Sarah turned so Ben could see.

“I bought that necklace for Marie on our second wedding anniversary. When I saw it in the shop in San Francisco, I just knew it was meant for a beautiful, loving, strong woman. And now you’re the second woman of that stature to wear it.”

          “Thank you, Pa. I’ll treasure it always, as I will Joseph … and his family … I love you, Pa!”

          “I love you! … Now, I’m sure it’s time to get things moving. Are you ready?”

          Sarah inhaled. Then exhaled. She reached to Ben’s cheek and softly wiped away a lone tear. Ben offered her his arm, and they walked out of the room and toward the stairs. Before starting down, Ben kissed Sarah’s cheek. Taking one big breath concurrently, then smiling at one another, the father of the groom walked the bride-to-be down the staircase of their home on the Ponderosa.

 

Chapter 25

Becoming One

          With Adam and Hoss by his side, Joseph Cartwright waited in anticipation as the signal was given for his father to escort Sarah down the staircase and across the living room. The instant Joe caught sight of his fiancé on the arm of his father, his heart fluttered blissfully. Adam and Hoss watched the face of their little brother as he took in his beautiful bride. David drew in a rapid breath when he saw his best friend looking more radiant than he’d ever seen her. As they descended the stairs, Ben felt wobbly on his legs, until he saw his son’s expression, and was able to draw strength from Joe’s contentment. Sarah simply floated down the stairs with ease, a definite contrast to the death grip she used as she held Ben’s arm. Among the guests, Roy had already pulled out a handkerchief and discreetly wiped his eyes. Paul noticed Roy’s attempt to conceal his condition, shook his head and rolled his eyes at his friend’s sentimentality, then turned away and quietly sniffed. Hop Sing had taken a special place behind Adam and Hoss. His grin never wavered during the proceedings.

Ben slowed his pace as they walked by Sarah’s oldest and dearest friend. David took a step toward the bride and kissed her cheek. Sarah had always been a strong girl, and now, with Joe’s love and devotion, David had seen her blossom into a dazzling young woman.

As Ben and Sarah passed Hoss, he wrinkled his nose and nodded to the bride. Hoss had never seen Joe so sure of himself, and he gave Sarah a lot of the credit for Joe’s confidence. Sarah smiled at the gentle, caring soul, so easy to love. She knew that Hoss was responsible for many of Joe’s endearing qualities.

Adam, proud of his youngest brother’s newfound maturity, winked at the young woman who had stolen Joe’s heart. Sarah reached out and brushed her hand against that of the man who’d inspired Joe almost as much as his father had over the years.

The final few steps filled Ben with memories and emotions. Wistful thoughts of Marie and of his old friend, Sarah’s father, Jake. Proud memories of Adam and Hoss, taking Joe under their wings, being incredible influences on his youngest son. Visions of the day Sarah arrived, and the moment he realized he wanted her to be a permanent part of his family. Images of Joe’s first declaration of his love for Sarah. His nearly deadly fall from the ladder. That horrifying day in the pasture. The overwhelming relief when his daughter and sons were on the road to recovery. And finally, Ben was overcome with the undeniable knowledge that his youngest son, Joseph Francis Cartwright, had been a source of tremendous pride since the day he was born.

When Ben and Sarah joined Joe, Ben turned to face the bride. Looking into her eyes for the first time since their walk began at the top of the stairs triggered an abundance of tears welling up in Ben Cartwright’s eyes. Placing his hands gently on her arms, Ben noticed Marie’s blue topaz necklace, and blinking, released a single tear. He kissed Sarah’s cheek, it too dampened from tears. Ben extended his right arm, shook Joe’s hand, then lovingly placed the bride’s hand into the groom’s hand, and gently squeezed the hands together. Reluctantly, Ben Cartwright compelled himself to step aside and allow his beloved son to take yet another step into his journey as a man.

Only then did Sarah gaze into Joe’s amazing eyes, sparkling with tears of happiness. She looked at his lips and longed for them to form the words she wanted to hear for the rest of her life, ‘I love you’. His chin, strong, just like his father’s. When Joe rubbed his thumb softly across hers, she glanced down at his powerful hands, so tenderly holding hers.

When Joe saw Sarah’s radiant, deep blue eyes, he was once again drawn in to their sincerity. Her cheeks were glowing the hue of a delicate pink rose. Her lips, parted slightly, silently spoke of the innocent love she felt for him. Seeing his mother’s necklace shining against Sarah’s neck, Joe glanced up at his father, touched by his thoughtfulness. Against Joe’s cheek, he experienced a momentary puff of air, like the kiss of an angel.

As the preacher opened the ceremony, Ben’s left hand unexpectedly felt warmer. He separated his fingers and sensed a delicate touch against his palm. A brief glimpse to his left proved that no one had stepped up and taken his hand, yet the feeling of a dainty hand, fingers laced together with his, persisted. The phantom feeling remained throughout the ceremony, but strangely, it comforted Ben, rather than causing him upset.

The couple’s vows were recited perfectly, although both of their voices revealed a quiver here and there. At one point, both Sarah and Joe caught the sound of Hoss sniffling, causing them both to smile. Once, Ben reached up to satisfy an itch on his cheek, but the gesture fooled no one. When the ceremony was concluded, and on the preacher’s cue, Joseph Cartwright sealed his union with Sarah by means of the most tender of kisses.

Greeting their family and guests immediately afterward brought about smiles, tears, hugs and handshakes.

“Congratulations, son! … And Sarah, welcome, again, officially this time, to our family!”

          “Li’l brother, you are one lucky man! … And li’l sis, you sure are one beautiful bride. I git ta kiss ya, don’t I?

“Congratulations, Joe. You sure do look like a happy man! … Sarah, you are … a vision! And if Hoss got to kiss you, then so do I!”

          “Kitten … I’ve never seen you this contented, and honey, it suits you! Magnificent! … Joe … congratulations! I’m counting on you to take real good care of my best girl!”

          “Little Joe and Missy Sarah very happy today. Hop Sing happy too.”

          “Joe, Sarah. When I saw the condition the two of you were in a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t a thought today was a possibility! Congratulations!”

          “First time I saw you Joe, Adam was holdin’ ya and sittin’ right over there next to your Ma. And now, you’re a married man. And a real lucky one at that! Sarah, you sure do have your hands full, but from what I’ve seen, you’re the one that can handle Little Joe!”

          The food Hop Sing made was outstanding, the wedding cake delicious. A small group of stringed instrument musicians provided music for the dancers as well as listeners in the group. Champagne and wine flowed freely as the celebration went on.

“If I may have your attention, please … Dear friends and family, I thank you for being here to share in the wedding of my son, Joseph, and his lovely bride, Sarah. If you would please raise your glasses … Does everyone have something? … Good … To Sarah. The wonderful daughter of my old friend Jake. Sarah, darling, you came to the Ponderosa looking for a way to adjust to the loss of your father, and you captured our hearts in the process. One heart in particular! … You are a piece of our puzzle that we hadn’t realized was missing … Since you arrived, you brought laughter and love into our home … Even a few practical jokes! … You saved my life … and along with my sons, nearly lost your own … I feel your love, as do Hoss, Adam and Hop Sing … But no one feels it more than Joe. To my daughter-in-law, and more appropriately, to my daughter in my heart, Sarah.”

          “Now, if you would please raise your glasses once again … To Joe … My sometimes impetuous, sometimes obstinate, sometimes quick tempered son (laughter) … who is always generous, fair minded, loyal, full of life, and overflowing with love … Joe, you found your way into our hearts the day you were born, and into Sarah’s … well, I’m pretty sure it was on the day she first arrived in Virginia City! Son, I have been and always will be so very proud of you, especially today, your wedding day. To my son, Joe.”

          “And one more, please … I promise, just one! … To Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cartwright!”

          After several hours of eating, dancing, laughing and reminiscing, the guests began to leave. The five Cartwrights, always courteous hosts, said proper thank you’s and goodbyes. Roy and Paul were the last to depart, just before dusk.

“Ben, that was a wonderful wedding and a great celebration! Joe, Sarah … congratulations again!”

          “Thank you, Paul. We’re glad you could be here today.”

          “Well, I for one am glad to see this rascal settle down. Sarah, this young man’s given me cause to fret many, many times over the years … I wish you both nothin’ but happiness!”

          “Thank you, Roy. I’ll do my best to keep Joseph out of trouble from now on!”

          As Roy and Paul rode away, Hoss and Adam went to the barn to ready Joe and Sarah’s buggy. The rest of the Cartwrights sauntered back into the house. Even though Ben had told Hop Sing that he was family and therefore, a guest that day, Hop Sing and several of his cousins were already clearing dishes and glasses. In spite of the hustle and bustle of the clean up, the next few minutes were awkward for Ben, Joe, David and Sarah. Realizing the significance of Joe leaving his home, David decided the right thing to do would be to excuse himself and leave the Cartwrights alone together.

“Kitten … Joe … All I can say is congratulations! … I’ll see you in a few days.”

          David embraced Sarah, shook Joe’s hand, then went upstairs to the guest room.

When Adam and Hoss came inside, the unease continued. No one wanted this remarkable day to come to an end. Even stronger was the desire to avoid saying goodbye. True, the newlyweds would reside on Ponderosa land. True, the family would be together again in a few days to celebrate Ben’s birthday. True, they would see each other almost daily. But Joe would not be living with the loving, protective brothers who’d helped raise him. The brothers he emulated. The brothers he trusted with his life, and now, with the life of his wife. Nor would he be living with the father who cherished his youngest son, just as the son cherished his father. The father who believed in him, no matter the odds. The father who watched over his misgivings and was there to steer him back to the correct path. And they would be losing Sarah as well. The woman who had burst into their lives with laughter and fun. The woman who’s conviction to save Ben’s life had indeed done so. The woman they went to as a sounding board. The woman they’d come to love as a daughter and a sister.

“It sure was a nice weddin’, and everybody enjoyed the party.”

          “The music was wonderful, Pa.”

          “I’m glad you enjoyed it, Adam.”

          No one wanted to broach the subject. In honesty, Sarah dreaded goodbyes nearly as much as she hated the sight of blood, and, thinking ahead to her wedding night, she was already suffering from a slight panic attack and therefore, was in no hurry to leave. It was Joe who mustered the courage to initiate the topic, although he too was apprehensive about the remainder of the evening. His courage won out over his apprehension when he looked into his father’s face. He had rarely seen the Cartwright patriarch struggling to maintain composure. Joe’s heart ached for his father. And a quiver in Joe’s voice betrayed his own true feelings.

“Well, Mrs. Cartwright … we … best be getting out of here … before we’re assigned some of these cleaning chores!”

          As her eyes filled to the brim, Sarah reacted to Joe’s emotion by reaching for his hand and holding it tightly. Joe stepped forward toward his father, bringing Sarah forward with him. Her heart was wrenched by Ben’s façade, and she gathered the strength to speak.

“Pa … thank you for today. I couldn’t have dreamed for anything more perfect … I love you, Pa!”

          Sarah nearly collapsed into Ben’s arms, holding him tightly. Her tears danced down her face. Ben held onto his daughter, then looked into her eyes.

“You’re welcome, my dear … I love you too, Sarah!”

          Hoss was next to Ben, and Sarah stood on her toes to hug him.

“I love you Eric.”

          “I know. An’ I love you li’l sis!”

          “Adam …”

          “Come here darlin’. You know I love ya!”

          “Yea … me too!”

          Adam lifted Sarah off her feet with a bear hug. The three stood together, arms around each others’ waists, as Joe began his goodbyes.

“Thank you for … well … for everything, Pa. Everything from the day I was born till today!”

          Ben shook his son’s hand, then pulled him into an embrace.

“Since the day you were born … it has been my pleasure! … I love you, son!”

          “I love you, Pa!”

          As Joe turned to his brothers, Ben felt that same strange warmth in his hand, giving him the means with which to hold his emotions for a little longer.

“Li’l Joe, we’ll be seein’ ya in a few days, don’t forget. Weddin’ cake and birthday cake in the same week! … You know how I feel about ya, Joe … You … you take care now!”

          “Love you too, Hoss … Try ‘n’ stay outta trouble for the next few days, will ya?”

          “Joe … I’m proud of you, ya know … And I love you, little brother!”

          “Thanks, Adam … Love you too!”

          Hand in hand, the newlyweds walked to their buggy, followed by Adam, Hoss and Ben. Joe helped Sarah into the seat then climbed in himself. Holding the reins, Joe looked back at his father, his brothers, his home. Sarah placed a comforting hand on Joe’s knee. It took all of Ben’s resolve to choke back a sob. Adam’s face was stiff with a forced smile. Hoss tried to go the distance without blinking his tears onto his face. For both Joe and Sarah, tears flowed freely. Joe nodded to his family, flicked the reins, and started on his way to his new home with Sarah.

 

 

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Author: TracyT

1 thought on “The Vacation (by TracyT)

  1. Enjoyable story. I really liked Sarah and David. I always expect to have at least one Cartwright hurt but you hit the entire family! Many tears were shed.

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