Wet Bottom, Warm Heart (by McFair)

Summary: Deep inside 17 year old Little Joe Cartwright there’s an angry beast waiting to get out. It makes him say and do things he always regrets, like talking back to his Pa.  After one such incident, his shame drives him away from the Ponderosa, straight into the arms of trouble – and the waiting rifle sight of a little golden-haired girl named Elizabeth Carnaby.

Rating: PG    Word Count:  13,300

All known and public characters belong to those who created them.  All new characters belong to the author.  There is no intent to infringe on copyright and no money is being made – just friends and warm hearts hopefully!

Wet Bottom, Warm Heart Series:

Wet Bottom, Warm Heart
Sunshine With a Little Hurricane
In the Light as in the Darkness
Doubt that the Stars are Fire

Wet Bottom, Warm Heart

 

WAKING UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED

 

I

“Looks like little brother’s got hisself a night of courtin’ planned.”

He winced.  Where’d that big galoot come from?

The young man –wearing an immaculate gray suit, black hat and dress boots, his skin dashed with just the right hint of Bay rum, and his thick mass of coiling brown curls tamed but not controlled by a healthy dose of macassar oil – halted where he was and sighed.

“How long have you been there?” Joe asked, praying that there was only one.

“Just arrived, little brother,” Adam answered, proving that if there was a god in Heaven, He hated him.

His remote and reserved, but too infrequently reticent older brother stepped out of the shadows and looked him up and down.  “Who’s the lucky lady?” he asked, his lips bowing up.

He’d like to have set an arrow to that bow and shot that smug look right out of Adam’s eyes.

“I bet it’s that pretty little gal what was eyeing baby brother in the mercantile yesterday.  The one with that passel of big ugly brothers said they’d break him in half if he came around.”

Adam advanced. “No…I think not.  Coral wasn’t wearing blue and, as you know, little brother has a penchant for girls in blue.”

Joe wasn’t sure what a ‘penchant’ was, but he was sure as shooting positive he didn’t have one.

“Why don’t you two go pound sand up where the sun don’t shine,” he snarled as he headed for the buggy he’d already hitched Cochise to.

“My, oh, my!”  Hoss shook his head.   “He’s sure got a fiery temper, don’t he, big brother?”

“You’d think all of that Bay rum would have put it out, middle brother,” Adam snarked as he crossed his arms and leaned back on the hitching rail.

“Maybe all that grease in his hair’s feedin’ it,” Hoss snickered.

Hoss snickered.

His brothers didn’t know it, but ever since his mama had died there was this beast in him just waiting to be riled.  It lived in that dark spot in his heart – the one that never stopped hurting.  Most of the time it rattled it chains, snarling and shrieking and striking out but stopping just sort of breaking free.

Most of the time.

Joe spun on his heel.  Fists clenched, jaw tight, steam blowing from his nose, he growled, “You take that back.”

That was stupid.  He did sound like a kid.

Maybe the beast was showing.  Hoss and Adam were looking at each other and they looked something like Miss Jones had that day she’d told him to stay after school and tried to tie an apron on him so he could clean the boards while the other boys were snickering.

He didn’t like snickering.

“Now, baby brother,” Hoss was saying, “you know Adam and me is just teasin’.”

Yes, I know you’re teasing and, yes, I know I’m your baby brother because neither of you ever let me forget it, and yes, if you don’t take back what you said – both of you – I’m gonna knock your lights out!”

Hoss was scratching his head.  “Well, Joe, I’d take it back right fast since it’s got you so all-fired up, but you know, for the life of me, I cain’t remember what I said.”  Hoss pursed his lips as his eyebrows reached for his thinning hair.  “Maybe you can tell me?  No?”  Middle brother glanced at Adam who was still leaning on the fence rail looking pleased as a stallion in a stable full of fillies.  “How about you, Adam?”

“Little brother took offense at your comment on his hair…grease.”

That…did…it!

So much for the suit.

 

Head wagging.   Joe wondered idly if there was a competition for it.

Pa would certainly win.

He was doing it now while he paced up and down in front of the hearth, wearing a deeper rut into the floorboards.  Adam and Hoss had told him that that place on the floor had grown thinner by inches since he’d been old enough to walk.  They kept talking about Pa’s hair too, claiming it was him and his hi-jinks that was taking all the color out of it, but he didn’t believe it.  He had the same brown hair pa had had when he was young and, truth to tell, there was already gray creeping into it.

“Joseph.  Joseph.  Joseph.”

He couldn’t help but think it.  Went to show how grown up he was.

That’s my name, don’t wear it out.

Pa stopped and looked him square in the eye.  “What in Heaven’s name am I going to do with you?”

He ‘d tried giving Pa that look – the one where he furrowed his brows and pursed his lips and looked down and up at the same time – the one that meant he was sorry but just couldn’t say it.  It didn’t work.  The set-in-stone look of disappointment and anger on his pa’s face just hardened, it didn’t crack.   Must have only worked with someone under seventeen.

He used to be under seventeen.  Now he was over.

Barely.

And then it started.  The lecture.   Pa walking and talking and shaking his head and sighing and scowling and raising his hands to the sky, and all the while older brother Adam and middle brother Hoss were sitting there – looking just as much responsible as him with their busted lips and torn clothes – smiling smugly while he took a dressing down like to tie him to the bed post, lock the door, and get the key thrown away – for a whole month!

And on top of all this Coral Violetta Gertner was waiting on her front porch, looking pretty as a picture, wondering where he was.

A sigh escaped him.

“Am I boring you, Joseph?”

There was ice there that wouldn’t thaw ‘til spring.

“No, sir.”

“Well, that’s good!”  That white head was shaking again.  “That’s good!  Because it seems I have to say a thing a hundred times before any of them get through that thick skull of yours!”

He licked his lip.  The blood drying on it was itching.

Didn’t taste too good either.

“Yes, sir.”

“And you two!” his Pa roared, turning toward his self-righteous brothers at last.  “I see I can’t trust you two to keep this young scamp out of trouble!”

Joe touched his rear, remembering.

Pa did love that word.

“Pa, you have to understand….” Adam began.

“Pa, you gotta see….” Hoss tried.

“I do not have to see or understand anything when the evidence of it is here right before my eyes!”

Joe stifled a snicker of his own.  They were a sight.  Adam’s left eye was black and beefy as a steer’s hindquarters and his lip thick as a center cut steak.  Hoss, on the other hand, had nothing to show for their fight other than a cut over his right eye.  Course, the kick he’d given middle brother to his middle section with both boots was gonna show up the minute the big lummox took his shirt off.

Served him right for teaching him how to fight dirty.

Joe felt a smile tickle his lips.  It must have been contagious because his brothers were fighting it too.

Their father looked from Hoss to Adam and then back to him.  That was when Pa pulled out the big gun and everything went to Hell.

“Your mother would be ashamed of you.”

Joe felt the beast stirring, tightening the skin around his lips and jutting out his jaw.  He’d strike the first man down who said his pa lied, but about this, he just…well…he wasn’t telling the truth.  He’d heard plenty of stories about his ma from Hop Sing and his brothers, about how she ‘vexed’ his pa and how he was unable to control her, about her spitting nails when they disagreed, and flying off the handle.

Joe tried to tame the beast but he failed.

“That ain’t true!” he shouted.  “She was just like me!  You’re a liar!”

A feather dropping to the floor would have sounded loud enough to wake the dead.

After that, it all came in slow motion, like one of those magic lantern shows winding down.  There was no sound, just a rushing in his ears and his father’s face – stunned, shocked, disbelieving – and enraged.  There was a flash of Adam rising.  Of Hoss, shouting something.

And then his father struck him across the face with his open palm so hard it jarred the teeth in his head.

His ears were ringing.  Tears stung his eyes.  He looked at his brothers who were staring open-mouthed and then he looked at his pa whose mouth was drawn into a tight line and then he did something he never would have done if the beast hadn’t been needling him on.

Joe pivoted on the heel of his dress boots and stormed out the door.

A second later, the sound of that buggy roaring out of the yard wasn’t the only thing to be heard.

That beast was laughing.

 

 

II

There it was.  That sound.  The one she knew all too well.  That soft huff like a train was coming far down the line.

It wasn’t a good sound.

Not…at…all.

“Elizabeth Annabelle Carnaby, whatever do you think you’re doing?”

The little girl tried to brush the golden ringlets out of her eyes, but they fought back.  Blowing out a breath in hopes that it would dislodge at least one or two of the bothersome things, she said, “Looking at the water, Ma.”

Adults could be so thick sometimes.  Like nut butter.

“And what would it be that is so important to look at that you had to come all the way down here and perch on a rock and dangle dangerously over a rain-swollen  creek?  It’s near a half mile to the house.”

She drew in a breath and let it out real slow.  “Can’t say.”

She could’a said the next three words afore her mother did.  “Can’t or won’t?”

Elizabeth, or Bella as her Pa liked to call her, knew she’d be in trouble if she didn’t say something.  But she couldn’t tell her ma what she was really doing.

It was too embarrassing.

Elizabeth glanced at the water rushing in the creek out front of the Clayborn’s old cabin, and then up at the sky.  The new moon was a fingernail and that’s what Josie had told her it had to be for it to work.

But she had to be alone.

“Well, I’m waiting,” the older woman prompted.

No, she wasn’t.  Ma was tapping her toe and her hands were on her hips and she had about two seconds to come up with something that kind of made sense that the older woman might just believe.

“Jack wanted a fish.”

“Whatever for?” her mother huffed.

Oh, dear.   Something more.

“Well, he wanted to sleep with it.”

Her ma’s brown eyebrows danced.  “A fish.  To sleep with?”

“Well, you know, I was reading him ‘Stories about the Whale’ and he really wanted a whale, but I told him whales only grow in oceans and all we had was a creek so I’d have to get him a little bitty whale and well, ain’t a fish a little bitty whale?”

“Isn’t.”

She pursed her lips and frowned.  Pa said ‘ain’t’.  Ma didn’t think it was proper.

Did that mean Pa wasn’t proper?

Isn’t a fish an itty bitty whale?”

There was that sound again.  Like air snorting out of a mule’s nose.  “And how do you propose to keep this itty bitty whale alive once it’s out of the water and tucked safely in your little brother’s bed?”

Elizabeth drew in a big bunch of air and held it ‘cause it helped her think better.  Well, really, letting it out slow-like helped ‘cause all the best ideas seemed to come out with it.  “How ‘bout I put it in a bowl and put the bowl in Jack’s bed?”

It sounded good.

“Well, you could try that.  But what happens when Jack turns over in the middle of the night and knocks the bowl on the floor and no one is awake to know the little thing is lying there gasping for breath?  Is that what you want?”

It wasn’t a pretty picture.

“No, ma’am.”

“So why don’t we leave the…whale where it belongs and your brother where he belongs?”

Elizabeth nodded slowly.   “Yes, ma’am.”

Her mother turned then and started up the rise beside the creek.  At the top she turned back. “Are you coming?”

The little golden-haired girl looked at the new moon and then at the creek one last time.  Maybe she could try again tomorrow.  Wasn’t a moon that was only a sliver thicker still a new one?  Was it only new one night or did that go on until it was old?  When did it become old?  Did it have to be twelve or thirteen like she did?  As she watched her reflection roll one way and the other, Elizabeth frowned.  Josie had told her if she perched over the creek and held real still when the moon was high and new and pushed a yellow flower under her chin, she’d be able to see the face of her true love.   She was ten.

Life was passing her by.

It was time she knew.

“Elizabeth!”

She hoped he’d still be there the next night.

 

 

HEADING OUT THE DOOR

 

I

Joe Cartwright looked up at the sliver of a new moon and sighed.  For a man who’d just burned every bridge he had behind him he felt awful cold.  Being so all-fired and het-up, he’d plumb forgot that he was in his city slicker suit.  He’d also managed to forget that it was October and the nights were growing cold as a witch’s….

That’s it, Joe.  Add a foul mouth to your pa’s list of crimes.

After what he’d done back at the house, Pa probably had Roy Coffee out looking for him.  He’d probably told the crotchety old sheriff that he was ‘no son of mine anymore’ and that he could just take the young scamp and throw him in jail and toss the key in after him!

No, that didn’t work.  Toss it away.

Far away.

Joe drew in a big snort of air and let it out slowly.  He’d never seen his pa look so mad.  Well, maybe he’d come close that time he’d asked the preacher what a ‘whore’ was in the middle of the Sunday social.  Or maybe that time when Pa’d caught him trying to be one of those African savages Adam used to read to him about.

Somehow painting himself brown with pa’s desk ink and swinging practically bare-naked through the trees to Sara’s house to ask her if he looked ‘authentic’ had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Still, this was different.  That look in Pa’s eyes, well, it wasn’t the anger so much as the disappointment that told him he’d better run and better stay far away.

Joe looked at Cochise.  He was his horse, but in a way, Cooch still belonged to Pa.  He’d better leave him behind with the wagon since he didn’t want to add stealing to that long list.  But then again, everything he had belonged to Pa even the clothes – such as they were – that he was wearing.   He could strip down, but then he’d be in trouble just like he’d been in trouble for trying to be a man from Africa.  And he’d be buck naked.

Now that he was older, that was bound to draw attention.

The image of Coral Violetta Gertner flashed before his eyes, wondering what she’d think if she saw him buck-naked.

What her father would think….

What his father would think….

Dismissing that idea with a roll of his green eyes, Joe finished unhitching Cooch from the wagon.  He wasn’t gonna compound his sins by taking that too.

As he rode along, considering the road and where it would take him, Joe couldn’t help but think about that beast he had inside.  It sure did get him into trouble.  He tried to remember if it had been there before his momma died.  He didn’t think so.  Seemed to him it reared its ugly head the day the preacher had him toss a clump of dirt on that wooden box they shut her in.  He’d just been a little tyke.  His pa had held him while he leaned in and let it drop.  He’d watched it fall into the dark hole they’d lowered his mama into and heard it hit.  Then he heard something move.  Something shifted and came roaring up outa that hole and into him.  His pa had held onto him kicking and screaming, speaking soft words and stroking his hair.  Adam told him later that he’d fought like a puma, working his way out of Pa’s arms, running back, jumping down….

Joe closed his eyes.  He shook himself.

It seemed sometimes like he’d never climbed back out of that hole.

Straightening his back, he planted his eyes on the road.  He was seventeen now and by the standards of most – his Pa not included – he was a man.  It was time to be on his own.  He didn’t need those three mother hens – well, four if you counted Hop Sing – watching over him every minute, clucking about him taking it slow, telling him to watch his temper and look before he leaped –

A strangled cry cut through the night.  It sounded all nervous-like, like one of their baby beeves caught in a bush.   Joe reined in Cooch and sat for a minute listening, wondering if he’d really heard it or not.  It was night and the night had a way of making a man hear and see things, things that were real sometimes but more often not.

Anyhow, he supposed he’d have to find out which one it was.

Putting spurs to horse flesh Joe leaped.

But he forgot to look.

 

II

Her ma was sighing again, like it seemed she did most every day.  Her pa, though, he was smiling.  Pa was always like that, laughing and smiling and poking her ma and patting her on the rump while her ma looked sour and said in a sour tone –

“Fitzhugh Reese Carnaby!  What will the children think?”

Her ma liked to use all three names whenever she could, just to show she knew them.

Pa understood that and he never corrected her.  He knew what the children thought.  At least he knew what she thought.  She thought it was right funny when ma pulled that face ‘cause she’d pull a bigger one a minute later when Pa rushed her, picked her up, and kissed her with a big ‘smack!’ right on the mouth.

Yuck.

“Put me down!  Fitz!  If you want supper on the table, I have work to do!”

Work.

Yuck two.

That’s all it seemed they ever did.  Fetch the water from the creek.  Check on Jack.  Milk the cow.  Go find Jack where he was hiding.  Brush down the horses.  Tell Jack he’d better listen or else.  Gather eggs.  Go find Jack where he was hiding again.  Fetch more water from the creek.  Pull Jack out of the henhouse and take him inside.  Sit through schooling.  Work on sums.  Put Jack to bed.  Fetch more water from the creek.

She’d asked her ma once why they didn’t have a big old cistern that they could fill with a couple of days’ worth of water so’s she wouldn’t have to go the creek three times each and every one of them.

Her mother said it gave her something to do.

But she had other things to do – important things – like what she was doing now; perching on that rock and leaning over that creek, mooshing a yellow flower under her chin and asking the water to show her what her true love would look like.

Elizabeth frowned at the  wobbly water.  He looked kind of like an octopus at the moment.

“Elizabeth!”

She rose to her feet.  “Yes, Ma’am?”

“You get away from that water.  One of these days God’s going to let you fall in and you’ll float down that creek and out to sea and find yourself in some foreign land where they eat little girls with too much imagination!  Is that what you want?”

“Yes, Ma’am.  I mean, no, Ma’am.”

Elizabeth didn’t need an imagination to know what was going to happen next.

Dropping the flower in the water she picked up her bucket and ran toward the house leaving her true love behind.

 

 

GOING FOR THE BUCKET

 

I

Joe’d been riding for ten or so minutes now, looking right and left and listening.  Just about the time he thought he’d been hearing things, the sound came again.  There was a hollow not too far away.  He’d gone there fishing with Hoss when he was little.  Seemed to him that the sound might be coming from that hollow, though what one of their beeves would be doing there he had no idea.  Wandered off from its mama probably.

Or maybe lost its mama like him.

Joe shook his head as he pressed his heels into Cooch’s black and white hide.  What was wrong with him anyway?  Hoss and Adam had lost their mamas and they didn’t sit around all day thinking about what it would have been like if they hadn’t.  Maybe it was ‘cause he had his mama for a longer time.  He could still feel her, smell her – sometimes  he even saw her standing at the end of his bed at night, looking down at him.

Usually shaking her head just like Pa.

Pa.

He wondered, would Pa take him back?

It seemed really stupid now, listening to that beast roar.  When he came to think of it, it almost always got him in trouble.  Pa’d told him once that there wasn’t a thing wrong with anger.  ‘Be angry and do not sin’, the Good Book said.  He should be ‘quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.’

Joe’s lips curled in a tight grin.  Well, he’d sort of kind of thought the Good Book got that backward.  It  should have read be ‘slow to hear, quick to speak and quicker to anger.’

Sad to say there was another Bible verse he recalled from the Revelation of John that said something about anyone adding or taking away from the Word would lose their share in the tree of life.

Chastised, Joe urged Cochise on.

There was a little waterfall at the back of the hollow.  He could hear the rushing water now splashing and crashing on the rocks below.  Maybe that was why he hadn’t heard anything more from whatever poor little feller had lost his way.

He’d lost his way today too.  He’d let that beast rear up and come out fighting mad.  It’d been silly really.  Any other day he’d a taken a dose of what Hoss and Adam were spooning him and fed it right back to them.  They’d ‘a laughed and he’d ‘a laughed and they’d all probably ended up in the horse trough.  He didn’t know why today was different.  Why he got so goldarned mad.  It wasn’t ‘cause of his hair, not really.  It was only natural for a fellow who was losing what someone else had to pick on him for it – and Adam and Hoss both sure had reason to be jealous of his hair.  And he didn’t really think it had to do with them making him feel like a baby – this time, at least.  No, there was something seated right down deep in the middle of him that made him think he had to take on the world because, well, because he had to.

Oh, right, Joe.  That helps.

The finger-thin moon was hanging on the horizon.  It cast a pale light on the hollow as he pulled into it and dismounted.  He could hear the baby cow bellowing and snorting.  In fact, it sounded like there was more than one bellowing and snorting.  They were raising quite a ruckus.   Puzzled, he looped Cochise’s reins over a tree limb and moved forward, heading toward the sound.  It grew louder as he walked.  There was a brace of trees at the bend before the falls that blocked his view.

He sure wished they hadn’t when he rounded them.

‘Cause that was when he found himself staring straight into the face of one of Coral Violetta Gertner’s butt-ugly brothers.  He was holding a running brand in his fat hand and sneering like a wolf that just spied its supper.

“Hey, John,” Joe said with a twitch of his busted lip.

“You laughing at me, kid?” John snarled as he advanced.

Joe’s  eyebrows leapt for his well-greased hair and he shifted back and raised his hands.

“Who?  Me?  No, sir.”

He didn’t like the look of that iron.  It was red hot.

“What’s that snot-nosed kid doin’ here this time of night?” a gruff voice asked out of the shadows.  “You s’pose Coral told him what we’re up to, Jim?”

“Probably sweet-talked it out of sis when he had his lips on hers and those smooth hands of his working their way into her dress.”

His hands weren’t smooth.  Really.  In fact, they were pretty callused. ‘Course that was just water over the dam now.

There were three of them and one of him.

Dang!  He was in trouble.

A moment later Coral Violetta Gertner’s brothers were ringing ‘round him and not looking at all rosy.

Besides the brand John held, Jim had his pistol drawn and Will had a rope dangling from his not-so-smooth hands.

“He’s seen us,” Will declared.  “We can’t let him go.”

Will was the oldest and the biggest.  It wasn’t that he was big like Hoss – weren’t many who were – but he’d been a dockworker before he’d become a drover – which was obviously before he’d decided to become a rustler – and his muscles had muscles.

“Well, we cain’t kill him, you half-wit.  He’s got family – important family,” Jim, who was two-thirds the size of Will, which was plenty big, reminded him.

Good for Jim.

Then John had to go and spoil it.

“Not outright, at least.”

He figured he had about ten seconds.  John was at least three yards away.   That eliminated the brand as a weapon.  Jim had that gun, but shooting it would be more than stupid as the cattle the brothers were rustling would take fright and what part of them didn’t run off would make a riot of noise like to raise the dead.

Joe swallowed over a lump the size of the territory in his throat.  Bad choice of words.

That left Will and that rope.

“Go ahead, Cartwright,” Will smirked as he lifted the rope and twirled it above his balding head.  “Try it.”

They’d tightened the ring ‘til it felt like a noose around his neck.  There wasn’t anywhere to run and, you know, just when he counted the most on that beast to rise up and try something reckless, daring even, it just hunkered down and sat there laughing at him, and refused to rise.

Plain and simple, he was scared.

Still, there was nothing for it but to try.  Sizing up the brand and the gun and thinking what damage they could do, Joe dropped to the ground and rolled, knocking John flat on his arse and then rolled into Jim whose gun flew wide.

He was on his feet in five seconds.

Unfortunately, Will was a second faster with that rope and in another thirty he had him hogtied and laying face down in the grass.  Will cussed and spit when he’d finished and then tried to pull him up off the forest floor by taking hold of a hank of his curly hair.

It was so well-greased it slipped out of his fingers.

Joe heard Jim snort and John guffaw.

Just before his lights went out.

 

 

II

“Elizabeth!”

Gosh.  What’d she done wrong now?

The supper dishes were all red-upped, the floor’d been sweeped…er…swept, she’d cleaned out the piss-pot and read Jack his whale story again and then tucked him in bed in the room they shared.  She had a big rope bed near six feet long on one side and Jack’s cradle sat on the other.  Why, she’d even tied the ropes over the top of the cradle so he couldn’t crawl out.

What in all of Tarnation was left?

Elizabeth rolled that word around on her tongue.  Tar-naaa-tionnn.  She liked the feel of it almost as much as the sound.

“Bella!”

Pa this time.  That meant business.

“Coming!”

Putting her picture book of the Bible down carefully so as to be sure the pages wouldn’t get bent, Elizabeth stood up, straightened her nightdress and, after taking a quick peek in the mirror to make sure it didn’t show that she still had her day clothes on underneath, headed out to the common room of their house where her parents were sitting.

She had plans for later.

Big plans.

Pa was sitting in front of the fire.  It was March, but it had come in like a lion and the nights were cold enough to freeze…well, something off of brass monkeys.  At least that’s what her Pa said when Ma wasn’t around.  Pa used to be a sailor and Ma said his language was ‘salty’ and not for a young lady’s ears.  Her ears liked it fine.

Though she never could go and figure how a word could be salty.  She’d tried sprinkling some table salt on her dictionary once and licked a couple and it just didn’t work.

She wasn’t too sure about those brass moneys either.  Sometimes she saw them in her dreams, swinging from tree to tree, ringing like the big brass bell in the church back East.

Her ma was rocking and darning, darning and rocking.  Ma said she’d never seen a child with such big first toes as she had.  Said she had so much darning to do ‘cause of it there wasn’t time to do anything else.  Elizabeth’s eyes went to her Pa’s feet.  You couldn’t tell in those great boots he had, but his big toe was bigger than hers – bigger than anyone’s.

She was right proud of that big toe – even if it made her Ma extra work.

Standing straight in front of the two of them she linked her hands and looked her Pa straight in the eyes and asked, “Yes, Ma’am?”

Pa giggled.  He did that – giggled.  Just like a girl.

Her Pa put down his book and reached out and took her by both hands.  He looked her up and down and then up and then down again.

“Mm-hmm!  You sure are a pretty one!” he exclaimed.

The sun didn’t have anything on her face beaming.

“Fitz….”

Her Pa drew in a deep breath, just like she did, to think better.   “Let’s see, how old are you now?” he asked.

Apparently it didn’t work.

“You know how old I am, Pa,” she giggled back.  “I’m ten.”

“Ten whole years.  Land o’ Goshen!  You’ll be a woman soon.”

Her nose wrinkled.  “Do I have to?”

While he Pa roared, her Ma stopped rocking the chair and started rocking her head.  “What am I going to do with you, child?”

It was one of her Ma’s favorite things to say.   Maybe if she said it enough she’d find an answer one day.

“How come you want to know how old I am, Pa?” she asked, wary.  When grown-ups asked funny questions they already knew the answer to, it was usually not something anyone wanted anything to do with.

“We’re thinking of sending you back East to live with my sister for a year or two so you can get a proper education,” her mother blurted out before her father could answer.

Now that just wasn’t something you sprang on a girl in her nightclothes with her day clothes underneath who was planning on finding the face of her true love tonight by looking in the creek after she snuck out of the window and who was gonna marry him and settle down in the Clayborn’s old cabin.  Millie Collins had only been twelve when she got engaged.

And she was practically twelve.

Sort of.

Both of her parents were looking at her.

“Well, do you have anything to say?” her Ma asked

“Do I hafta go?” she asked, her voice small as a mouse.

Pa beat Ma to it.  “We think you should.”

She looked from the one to the other.  When it came to things concerning her, ‘we’ meant Ma thought so since Ma was a girl and Pa wasn’t.  Ma was all about her growing up to be a lady.

Since she had to go away to do it that must mean Ma wasn’t one, so she wasn’t sure why it was so all-fired important.

“I won’t go.”

There.   Whatever end of the strop she landed on, she’d said it.

Ma got that look.  The one she’d only worn a time or two before that she could remember.  A look of ‘mor-ti-fi-ca-tion’.  That’s what someone said her Ma had worn when she’d jumped up in the middle of the service and started walking across the empty pews one day.   Next came the even scarier part.

The con-nip-tion fit.

The darning went down to the seat of the chair and Ma came up off of it, throwing her hands in the air like some Indian had a bead on her.

Whatever am I going to do with this child? Elizabeth mouthed as her pa snorted.

“Whatever am I going to do with this child?  She’s growing up like Topsy!  Bare feet.  Nettles in her hair!   I can’t keep a clean pinafore on her.  And her manners.  She’s got the manners of a…a….”

Elizabeth exchanged a glance with her pa.  It all depended on the next word.

“Bumpkin!”

Whew!  That was way better than a bull in a china shop.

“Now, Maggie, calm down,” her Pa said exchanging her hand for her ma’s as she swung past.  Rising, he caught her Ma’s other hand and looked into her eyes.

Men did that when they were working their magic.  Josie told her so.  Never look a man in the eyes if you want to get your way.

“We can talk about this another day.  Anyhow, Bella wouldn’t go ‘til she’s at least eleven, so there’s plenty of time to talk about it.”

Eleven.

A whole year.

A whole year to find her true love and make plans for him to take her away to his big old spread with its big old ranch house with a dozen rooms and a cook and a maid where she could be the lady of the house without all of that stupid schooling to turn her into a lady.

After all, if she had a house she didn’t need the schooling.

Her Pa was holding her Ma now and patting her back like Ma did for Jack when he needed to burp.  Ma didn’t burp, but her back shook and she was making little whimpering noises like a pack of puppies.

Pa caught her eye over her ma’s shoulder.  “Why don’t you check on Jack, Bella, and then say your prayers and put out the light.  It’s past your bedtime.”

She nodded and then threw in a little curtsy just for good measure.  “Sure thing, Pa.”  Elizabeth hesitated.  “Night, Ma.”

Her ma wagged her hand and kept on whimpering.

Her Pa wagged his too, but his meant ‘get moving before Ma changes her mind.’

After Elizabeth checked on her brother she went to her bed and knelt beside it and said her prayers.  She asked God to heal the preacher’s toe which was hurting him since he had the gout and to heal Mrs. McCorkle’s back so she didn’t bend over no more and scare all the children who thought she was a witch.  She asked that He look after her little brother ‘cause Jack could get into a heap of trouble without trying.  And last of all – ‘cause Ma taught her to always ask for yourself last – she asked God to make her ma forget about sending her to school back East.

Well, that was almost last.  At the end she snuck in something about that yellow flower and her true love and seeing his face so’s she’d know him when he came to take her to his big old ranch house.

Then she blew out her lamp and laid back in the darkness and waited.

There was a creek with her name on it and she was gonna go looking for a man yet tonight.

 

 

HEADING FOR THE CREEK

 

I

It must have snowed ‘cause everything was white.  Well, not exactly white, but bright maybe.

Maybe blank.

Yeah, that was it.  Blank like a slate with no letters or numbers.   He needed to find a slate pencil and make some marks, fill it in somehow.  Put something down.

Something….

The man with the curly brown hair, whose generous dose of expensive macassar oil was now the gathering place of all manner of leaves, bracken, and not a few small oily and slightly drunk living creatures, tried to open his eyes.  It seemed they were coated with something too ‘cause they didn’t want to open.  He scrunched his nose and wiggled his lids and was rewarded not by them opening, but by a sledgehammer taking aim at his head.

“There.  I told you he ain’t dead,” someone said a long ways off.  “He’s pissin’ and moanin’.”

Joe sniffed.  He’d admit to the pissing.

Things didn’t smell too good.

In fact, it smelled kind of like that night behind the barn when he and Seth took that old half-drunk whiskey bottle and finished it off and then Seth puked and he puked and they both crapped themselves and then he fell and smashed his nose on the side of the water trough when he was trying to dunk his head under.  Someone came and got him that night and cleaned him up and put him in his bed without anyone ever knowing what a fool idiot he’d been.

Someone.

He wondered who.  And he wondered how he could remember Seth and the whiskey bottle but not remember whoever it was that had rescued him.  That slate must have had something written on it, but  it must of been part way erased.

Maybe by whoever was talking.

“You hit him awful hard,” another man said.  “Between that crack on his head and his nose bleedin’ it’s gonna leave a trail.  I hear that one brother of his is about the best tracker in Nevada.”

So he was in Nevada.  And he had a brother.

Maybe that was who rescued him.

He sure wished he could remember, but trying to remember was making his head hurt and his head already hurt so much he wanted to take it off and throw it away.

Now, wouldn’t that have been a sight?

“Is he laughin’?  What’s he got to laugh for?” a surly voice asked.  “Hey, kid!  What you laughin’ at?”

‘Kid’ was punctuated by fingers twisting in his hair and yanking hard.

Sadly, they didn’t slip this time.

Joe came fully awake with a jolt to find Coral Violetta Gertner’s three  coyote-ugly brothers circling him.

Again.

“Don’t look so purty now, does he?”

“And look at that curly hair Coral keeps goin’ on about.  Looks fit for rats.”

“I kinda like his hair.”

That was the littlest one.  ‘Bout his age.

He got his hair yanked too.

“Shut up!  You two, get purty boy in the wagon and throw a tarp over him.  Can’t take this kind of goods over Ponderosa land, even this time of night, without makin’ it secure.”

As he was lifted up and carried, Joe’s tired brain turned over that word.  Ponderosa.  It was a big word that had all kinds of sounds and sights and smells attached to it.  There was a deep voice booming and a lot of laughing, tall pines reaching toward the sky and a room with a picture of a sailing ship above a bed.  He could smell eggs and bacon and cherry pie and, funny as it was, hear someone shouting in Chinese.  There was a face, a weary, wise face, that was looking at him, its black eyes narrowed with pain.

He’ done that.  He’d put that pain there.

“Once we get him to the Clayborn’s old place we’ll douse it.  After the fire’s done, won’t be enough left of Mister high-and-mighty Joe Cartwright to scrape off the floor and bury.  Or to identify,” he added with a snort.

Joe closed his eyes tight, concentrating on that face, trying to remember the last time he’d seen it and why it was so important.  The slate pencil scraped across that empty board, filling in some blanks.  His pa’d been mad at him and his brothers too.  Yeah.  Right.  He had a pa and brothers.  Pa’d said something about his mama and it made him mad and that old beast had come bubbling up fists at the ready.

Where was it now?

Come on, beast, he coaxed, come on!  I know you’re there.  Come on, wake up!

Joe, damn it!  Start moving or you’re gonna die!

He’d never heard such a string of cusswords in all his born days as the ones he heard when he rolled out of the Gertner’s hands and started kicking and shouting and fighting.

He would have made Hoss and Adam proud.

“Grab his skinny little arse!” one yelled.

“He’s slippery as a eel, Will!”

The next one was a mumble since his heel had connected with Jim’s jaw.   “EmmmmgnnnaaKILLthltsknnnnyyyylllllbasstttddddddd!!!!!

Running seemed like a right smart idea.  It would have worked too if something hadn’t come outa nowhere and hit him in the back of the head with enough force to drive him straight into a tree.

“Got blood on your gun butt, Will,” a voice said.  “You’ll have to clean that off.”

Clean.

The slate was clean.

Everything was white.

Must have snowed.

 

 

II

She must have got something wrong.

Elizabeth was perched on her rock again, leaning out over the water, squishing a new yellow posy under her chin.  The moon was high in the sky.  She could see it wobbling in the water.  It kinda looked like a white ribbon.  It was right pretty but it wasn’t the face of her true love.

She must be doing something wrong.

Standing up, she turned round and plunked down on the rock facing the opposite direction and anchored her chin on her fists.  Her ma and pa thought she was sleeping.  She’d sneaked out once she heard pa snoring.  Ma never snored, but she kind of whimpered like a newborn lamb all content-like when she snuggled up in pa’s left arm.  She’d looked at them for a full minute before leaving, wondering if Ma had ever gone out to the creek and leaned over it and pushed a posy up against her chin and waited for Pa’s face to appear.  She finally decided probably not.  Ma was a pragmatist, Pa said.

When she’d asked him whatever did that mean, he said it was a fancy word for ‘stubborn as a mule’.

She was gonna be in trouble if they woke up and found her out of her bed.  She’d thought about asking to come out, but she knew that was pointless.  Pa’d say it was too dangerous and Ma, well, Ma would just give her that look – the one she gave Jack when she caught him pulling the cat’s tail or chasing the chickens and scaring ‘em so they wouldn’t lay.

Trouble, that’s what that look was, plain and simple pure trouble.

So instead she’d sneaked out.  It was mighty important or she wouldn’t have dared.  With Ma thinking she needed to be a lady and her needing to stay where she was, well, she needed to find a man who would take her off Ma’s hands and give her a house to take care of so she could be a woman and she could make her own decisions.  Ma made her own decisions. The only difference between them was that Ma was a little older and taller.

And scarier.

Did she have to be scary to be a lady, she wondered?

She thought ladies were scary.  Like that old schoolmarm, Abigail Jones, who had come out to their place one time wanting her to go to school.  She’d been scarier than two coyotes and a rattlesnake all rolled into one.

Elizabeth glanced at the water and then looked up at the moon.  She raised a hand to measure it and decided it was just about the size of her thumbnail.  She’d heard stories about a man living on it.  He must have been awful tiny to fit.

With a big sigh she turned back to the water and looked at it again.  The moonlight was winking in and out of the clouds and for just a second she thought she saw a face.  It was a pretty face with lots and lots of curls.  Or so she thought.  It might have been ripples, but it looked like curls.  They were sort of dark and there were two kind of greenish points of light in the middle of them.  As she leaned over, trying to look closer, she lost her balance and fell into the water with a splash.

She went under, but it was only two or three feet deep so she righted herself right quickly and came up sputtering.

It was then she saw the light.

There were rumors about the old Clayborn place.  Ma and Pa told her there weren’t no such things as ghosts, but she wasn’t so sure.  The Clayborns had been gone about a two years.  Leastwise, that’s what she thought.  Jack was four now and he’d been about two when they went away.  Josie Miller had told her that Mister Clayborn had been a drinker and one night when he was on a bender he’d taken an axe and murdered his wife and children in their beds.  Ma said that was nonsense and slander and threatened to wash her mouth out with soap if she repeated it.  She said Mister Clayborn had been a nice man who’d suffered when his wife and children died of the fever and had gone back home to New York to live with family.

Secretly, she suspected Josie was right.  She’d heard strange things at the Clayborn place.  And seen them too.  Like what she was seeing now.

There was a fire burning in the old cabin just like it had when the Clayborns lived there.  And as she watched from her position in the creek, she saw black shadows moving away from it.  They was running to beat the band like they was scared.

She was scared.

But she had to know.

Her Pa had read her some of Mister Shakespeare’s works.  She liked the scary one they called the Scottish play.  She’d practiced being Lady Macbeth, walking and moaning, ‘Out damned spot’, over and over again ‘til she got it right.

Since it was literature, it was okay to cuss.

There was another line from the Scottish play her Pa liked to quote.  ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place, Bella,’ he’d say, ‘and you’ll not fail.’

She didn’t really know what a ‘sticking place’ was, but she figured it meant ‘don’t be afraid’, so she tried not to be.  Like now .  Like when she wanted to be ‘cause those shadows were scary and the light in the cabin was too.

But she had to know.

Hunkering down behind the rock Elizabeth watched as the shadows mounted shadow horses and rode away, and then she climbed out of the creek and dripping wet went to look in the windows of the old Clayborn place.

What she found laying on the middle of the floor in the front room of that cabin sent her running and shouting for her ma and pa in spite of the fact that she was gonna get a tanning for being out.

 

 

WET BOTTOM

 

I

Joe Cartwright was sitting hip deep in water, with his hands and feet bound and a bandage around his head, and absolutely no self-respect.  He sighed as he looked up at the little blonde girl with the big eyes and even bigger gun and wondered how in the world this had happened.

Then he tried to remember who had talked him into this – coming out here, wherever he was…to do whatever it was he was here to do.

Whatever he had been here to do.

He was…certainly not doing it now.

Of course, with a bandage around his head that was dripping with blood, remembering was a little hard.  He closed one eye and tried to concentrate on the girl’s face as if clearly seen it might spark his reluctant memory.  It was hard with the sun sinking behind her.  It was right in his eyes so that meant he was facing west, which might mean he’d come from the east.  All of which could mean something if he’d known what direction he came from in the first place.

Joe sniffed and shivered.    Then he sneezed.

“You just keep quiet,” the mighty tot with the rifle aimed squarely between his eyes warned in a tiny tot’s little voice.   She drew a big breath and drew herself up as the big gun dipped dangerously down.  “Otherwise I might have to shoot you.”

Joe blinked.  All of a sudden there had been three of her.  He hadn’t liked the odds when there was only one.

She looked like she might be a small ten, or maybe a big seven year old.   Her arms weren’t any bigger in girth than the rifle barrel and her fingers, well, they were curled under near the firing mechanism like five little piggies.

Were there five?

Joe looked at his bound hands and watched as another drop of blood dripped down them to join with the rushing water, twisting this way and that like a pink ribbon in brown hair.  His eyes stayed on it for a long time, noting how the ribbon grew paler the farther away it got.  Wondering where it was going…..

“Hey!”

The shout brought his head up.

“You cain’t go to sleep.”

The sun was almost down now.  She was a skinny silhouette against the burning orb.  “How come?” he asked, feeling stupid for doing so.

“You might die, silly.”

He’d batted his lashes as much as a girl looking over her fan.  This last time, one eye wanted to remain shut.  Maybe it thought it could shut out the pain.

He hated to tell it, it wasn’t working.

Drawing a breath, Joe forced both eyes open.   “I kind of thought that was what you wanted.”

If a silhouette could be indignant, this one was.  “Why would I want you dead, silly?” she paused.  When she spoke again, her tone had a giggle hidden in it  “I think you’re just about the cutest thing that ever came down the  Gold Hill Road.”

Gold Hill.  That was south of Virginia City, wasn’t it?  Maybe he’d been in the city.  Or on his way to the city.  Or coming home.

Pa.  Adam.

Hoss.

Joe eyed his hands and feet and then the water,  and then the mighty tot who had a crush on him and a gun pointed at him.

He was never gonna live this one down.

“Can I ask you a question?”

She nodded.

“How come you got a gun on me?”

“Ma told me to.”

“Your ma.  Where is she?”

“Back at the cabin, putting out the fire.”

Now that she mentioned it, there was a scent of smoke on the air.  “What fire?”

“The one we pulled you out of, silly.”

You pulled me out of?”

Her shoulders rose with pride and then fell with the truth.  “Pa wouldn’t let me.”

“Pa’s here too?”

“Where else would he be?” she asked as if his question had been the dumbest thing in the world.

“Okay.  Let me get this straight.  Your pa and ma,” he looked to her for confirmation and got it, “pulled me out of a burning cabin, bandaged my head, and then tied my hands and feet and shoved me in the creek after hitting me over the head?”

She sighed.  “You sure are pretty, but you’re awful dumb.  What would you think they’d do that for?”

“Entertainment?”

The girl’s head shook.   “Ma always told me you can’t judge a book by its cover.  You was already tied up and hurt when they pulled you out. ”  She straightened up proudly.  “I put the bandage on your head.”  She wrinkled her pert nose.  “It was yucky.”

“So why am I sitting in a creek?”

“Cause – ”

“Ma told you to.”

The gun lifted and fell with her shoulders.   “Well, not exactly….”

“Elizabeth Carnaby what are you doing?” a female voice demanded.   “Land’s sake alive!  He’ll catch his death!”

A brown-haired woman appeared.   She held her hand out.  “Give me that gun!  Wherever did you get it?”

“You told me to get it, Ma.  Don’t you remember?”

“When did I tell you that?”

“When we got to the cabin and it was on fire.  You and Pa rushed in and found the stranger and pulled him out. You looked at me and said, “Elizabeth, you take care of him like you would your little brother.  And that’s what I did.”  The girl stood tall.  “Last year when we had that fire you had me take Jack to the creek and put him in it so he wouldn’t burn, and then you had me watch over him with the gun.”

The woman was stunned into silence.  Then she laughed.  “So I did.  But, child….  Just help me get him out.”

Joe felt gentle hands lift him and then half-carry him up the bank.  Then, all of a sudden they disappeared and he found himself floating like that ribbon.

Sometime later Joe opened his eyes.  The girl was there.   She had her hands anchored on the side of the bed and was staring at him.

“Hey, big sister,” he said.

“Hey, little brother,” she beamed.

 

 

II

Little brothers.  You just had to keep watch over them all the time and it weren’t easy now that she had two.

It had all started off okay when the one in laying her bed – the one Ma found out from a paper in his pocket was named  ‘Joseph’ – woke up and opened those great big green eyes.  Ma’d tried to clean him up a little bit the night before, washing the mud and blood from his face, but she said she was afraid to do too much ‘til he’d had some rest.  Even dirty and messy and smelly, he was still about the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.  He looked kind of like the little china man Ma kept in her corner cupboard that she said was made in England.  Ma told her Joseph probably had other injuries that didn’t show ‘neath his clothes and that the Doc would have to come and take a look at him before they could let him move.  Ma was gonna stay with him but she begged and begged for Ma to let her look out for him.  Ma had agreed on one condition –

“You make sure you keep him in that bed, young lady,” Ma said in that firm ‘I mean what I say’ voice she used when things were really important.  “He’s too sick to get up.”

Since then she’d stayed close to the bed  and spent the time studying  Joseph.  She’d counted three cuts on his face and twice as many bruises, as well as somewhere around a dozen brown curls dangling down on his forehead.   She noted how he had a little dip near the end of his nose and one of those neat little creases in his chin.

She really wanted to put a finger in it but figured that would wake him up and she shouldn’t.

While she was studying him hard, she had a ‘piffany’, as her Pa liked to call making a discovery without even trying.  She realized that her new little brother looked an awful lot like the face she’d seen in the creek – the one that was supposed to be her true love.  Now that was kind of confusing to a girl – your new little brother ending up as your true love.  In the end she decided she’d have to question Josie about it.  Maybe she’d been holding the posy upside-down or it had been that two-day-old new moon.  Joseph was a sight older than her too and, while she thought he was about as handsome as handsome could be, he probably wouldn’t want to wait five or six years for a skinny little tomboy girl to catch up.  And even if he did want to wait, then he’d be five or six years older and then she’d just have to catch up all over again.  But then Ma’d told her once that the difference between ten and sixteen was twice as much as the difference between sixteen and twenty-two.

That had puzzled her mightily.

She’d done the sums and took them to Pa to show him they were just the same and he’d just laughed and laughed.

Anyhow, since Joseph wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, she decided to set aside the planning of the rest of her life until he got better.  Maybe by then she’d of talked to Josie and would know if the posy and the old-new moon had been what they needed to be or just plain wrong.

Elizabeth reached out and touched one of those brown curls.  When Joseph moved and turned his face away, she sat up guilty and held really still.  It was okay, though.  He didn’t wake up.  Looking at him sleeping made her feel kind of drowsy and she yawned mightily.  Ma’d let her skip her chores that morning since she was so wore out.   She’d also taken Jack’s cradle and moved it into her and Pa’s room and then laid an old tick on the floor in its place and covered it with blankets so she had a place to lay down when she wanted to.  Elizabeth looked at Joseph and decided he was down and out for the count.  That was another one of Pa’s expressions.  Pa’s brother, Rob, was a pugilist so she knew what it meant.  It was probably safe, since he was sleeping so soundly, to take a nap.  All tuckered out, the girl with the golden curls headed for her makeshift bed.

It sure felt good when she hit it.

Trouble was, that last sheep she was counting had barely pushed off the rail fence and started to fly when she heard an awful sound.  Uncle Rob and her Pa had been horsing around one day when Rob gave Pa a good old punch in the stomach that knocked him back and into the barn door.  Boy, did Pa let out  shout when he hit.

It sounded kind of like that.

Blinking sleep out of her eyes, Elizabeth looked and dang it if her new little brother wasn’t out of bed and on his feet!

Well, sort of.

Joseph was wobbling worse than Jack had when he took his first steps.

Throwing off her covers Elizabeth crossed the small room, glancing out the door and into the common room as she went, wondering if there was anybody to help.  Of course there weren’t no one there since it was mid-afternoon.  Ma and Pa, with Jack, were out doing chores.  Turning back she sized up the man with the curly brown hair wobbling by her bed.  Ma always said she weren’t no bigger than a minute.  Compared to Pa, this feller might have been about five.

Still, Joseph was way taller than she was and, by the look of him leaning forward and fixing his eyes on the door to the outside, he was bound and determined that he was leaving.

That was, if he didn’t fall flat on his face first.

“Hey!” she shouted, putting herself between him and the open door.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

He was about a foot away when he stopped and looked down at her.

Elizabeth looked up into those green eyes and that face that was all sweaty and shining and sighed.

Joseph sure was purty.

“I…” he stammered.  “I….”

“You what, young man?” she asked placing her hands on her hips and tapping her toe like her Ma did when Jack was being naughty.

“I…gotta…go…home.”  He was breathing hard, which made his chest rise up and down

It was sweaty too.

“You can’t go home now!” she said in her best imitation of her Ma’s ‘you-are-not-to-argue-with-me’ voice.  “You get back to bed!  You’re gonna hurt yourself worse!”

He shook his head.  “Gotta go.  Gotta…tell Pa…sorry….”

He was still moving toward the door.  She stepped right up to him and put her hands on his chest low down by his belt.  It startled her for a moment.  Joseph was as hot to the touch as one of Ma’s pies just come out of the oven.

“You ain’t going nowhere ‘til the Doc gets here,” she insisted, shaking her head.  “You gotta lay back down.”

Joseph was still looking at that door, like it was the gateway to Heaven or something.  Then all of a sudden he shuddered, and then shivered, and then pert near fell down on top of her.

Now this was what her Grandma Shaffner would have called a ‘pickle’.

When Ma’d told her to put Joseph in the creek, well, he’d been laying outside the Clayborn’s burning cabin on the ground then so all’s she had to do was grab his feet that were tied together and drag him.  This time he was laying on the floor and the bed was about a foot off it.  Kneeling beside him she drew a deep breath, caught her lips between her teeth, wrapped her arms around his middle and tried to pull him up onto the bed.

He was way heavier than Jack!

After about a minute all she’d managed to do was get Joseph propped against the bed frame.  He was sitting there with his eyes closed, panting like her pup on a hot summer day, with the sweat running down, mixing with the mud and blood left on his face.

When Ma finally came she didn’t yell.  She just held out her arms and wrapped them around her and held her close.

Her face was wet too.  Only it wasn’t sweat.

It was tears.

 

 

WARM HEART

 

I

“…thank you….did…Joseph.”

There was something keeping his eyes from opening.  Joe wasn’t sure what it was, but he thought it might be about a ton of sand.  He fought it for a few seconds before he became aware of the fact that the sound of voices had woke him up.  They were so low he could barely hear them.

Then again, maybe they weren’t low and some of that sand was in his ears too.

“…horrible…what we could…sorry….”

Sorry.  He was sorry.  Wasn’t he?  But why?

Maybe he was sorry that he couldn’t open his eyes.  No.  That wasn’t it.  It was a bigger sorry than that.  It was a sorry so big it had taken that beast that was in him and put it in chains and left it alone in a dark room with nothing but water until it grew so weak it couldn’t lift its head any more to roar.

He kinda needed it to roar.

“…brothers and I…worried…God…safe….”

He was safe, wasn’t he?  But if he was safe now, that meant he hadn’t been before.  What had happened before?  Before when the beast had been raging, when he’d slapped his….

And it all came back in one fell, devastating whoosh of memory.  Getting so mad at his brothers over nothing.  Fighting with – hitting his Pa.  Feeling so ashamed he ran for the door and took off like a house on fire not knowing where he was going or how he was gonna get there.

Like a house on fire….

The flames were everywhere, licking at the dry wood walls and the dusty abandoned furniture, crawling up the blue and white check curtains, running along the floor boards toward him.  He woke up to those leaping darting flames and to two facts: his hands and feet were bound  and there was a gag between his teeth keeping him from shoutin out, and he was gonna  die.

He was gonna die.

The Gertner boys had hit him so hard that for a while he couldn’t remember who he was.  That was the worst thing of all.  As he lay there in that burning cabin knowing he was gonna die, he knew it would be alone.  Whoever was gonna miss him would never know what happened, and he would never know that they missed him.

The tears had turned to steam on his face.

Then he’d heard shouting.  It sounded like a man and woman.  A minute later the door had burst in and a man with his head all wrapped in wet cloth had come straight for him, taking hold of him and lifting him up and carrying him out of the house just as the ceiling caved in behind them.  He remembered being laid on the blessedly cool ground and the touch of a woman’s hand on his face.   And a voice, must have been the woman’s, saying softly, “Everything will be all right.  You’re okay now.  Everything’s gonna be fine, little brother.”

Joe blinked.  Some of the sand must have slipped away because this time he was able to open his eyes.  Someone was bending over him.  A woman, talking soft and low and pressing a cool cloth to his forehead.

“Everything’s gonna be fine, little brother,” she repeated again.  “You’ll see.  You’ll be all better soon.”

With the beast tamed there wasn’t much fueling him, but he managed a smile.  “Hey, little sister.”

Elizabeth Carnaby’s smile was brighter than the late afternoon sun shining in the window.   She reached out and timidly touched his cheek.

“You ain’t so hot now.  That medicine the Doc gave you must be working.”

He had a vague memory of the doctor.  Older.  Gray-haired.  Wearing a black suit and looking grim as an undertaker.

Somewhere there had to be mold.

“I’d…”  He swallowed.  Apparently the fire wasn’t gone ‘cause there was smoke in his throat.  “Can I…have…some water?”

She turned to a stand by the bed, so the glass must have already been there.  Then, cradling his head like she might a rag doll, she lifted him up and gave him some water.

“Where’d you…learn to…do that?” he asked.

“I took care of Ma when she was awful sick one time,” the little girl answered, looking serious.  “But she weren’t as sick as you. The Doc said you coulda died.”

“Elizabeth!”

He watched the girl wince and then her head craned back.  “Sorry, Ma.”

This time it was a woman’s hand that landed on his forehead.  “Ah,” she sighed, obviously relieved.  “You are better.”  She was a pretty lady, clean and smelling of soap, with her brown hair pulled up into a tight knot at the back of her neck.  “There’s someone here who will be right happy to hear that.”  She turned then and moved toward the door.  Leaning on the jamb, she called out, “Ben, you can come in.  You and your boys.  Joe’s awake.”

 

 

II

Someone had told her once that grown men didn’t cry.

Well, she knew enough now to call them liars ‘cause there was a whole lot of tears in that room when little brother saw his other brothers and his pa.

Seems like she and Joseph was more alike than she knew.  There were times when this old beast reared up in her too and made her say and sometimes do things she felt sorry for later.  It was kind of like things got so hot under her seat that she just couldn’t sit still.  Most of the time it got her in trouble, but then there were the times when she didn’t really think it was a beast after all.  It was more like a determined little pup that wouldn’t stop barking until she did what it wanted – like walking up to that cabin and looking in and finding Joe.

He liked to be called ‘Joe’, Adam told her.  Only their pa called him Joseph.  “But,” Adam said, leaning in close to her ear and whispering so it tickled, “You can call him Little Joe.”

It was nice having two older brothers.  She got awful tired of being the oldest one all of the time.

And Mister Ben, he reminded her of the grandpa they’d left all the way back east.  He’d looked right scared the first time she saw him.  She’d been sitting at the table eating a piece of bread with violet jam when someone had knocked at the door.  When her ma opened it she’d almost yelped.  There was a real big man standing just outside with his hat in his hands and he was covered from the very top of him to his toes in soot.  Behind him there was another man – he was dressed in black – and his hands and face were black too.  And then, behind them, there was a man with white hair.  He was sitting on his horse and looking back toward the Clayborn cabin, his shoulders all slumped like he was all tuckered out and needed to go to bed.

Ma’d stepped outside and closed the door partway behind her.  Heading that little yappy dog, she’d gotten up and gone over to the crack to listen.

“We’re looking for my little brother, Ma’am.  We was hopin’ maybe you’d seen somethin’ of him?”  The big man paused and lowered his voice.  “Our pa wanted us to ask, Ma’am, even though it ain’t likely.”  He made a sound then, like tears caught in his throat.  “You see, well, my brother Adam and me….  It looks like Joe might have been in that there cabin ‘bout a half-mile away from here.  The one that burned….”

Joe!

Her ma got all excited and went out to talk to the man on the horse.  Elizabeth watched him stiffen in his saddle and then his slumping shoulders straightened up, and then he was off that buckskin horse and running for the house fast as one of those pony express riders her pa had read to her about.  She’d followed behind them and watched from the doorway as Little Joe’s Pa sat down beside him and took Joe’s face in his hands and cried.

Her Pa came to the door to watch with her.  He had Jack in his arms.  He knelt beside her and pulled her in close.

And then he cried too.

Her mother shooed her out of the house early the next morning.  The Doc had come again and he was taking care of Little Joe.  Joe’s pa was with him but his big brothers were out in the field helping her Pa.  Since he and Ma’d been taking care of Little Joe there was an awful lot of things that hadn’t got done and Adam and Hoss told her pa they wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when they offered to help him catch everything up.

She liked Adam and Hoss.

Ma had Jack with her, tied by the apron strings.  She’d told her she’d been such a good girl and taken such good care of Joe that she could have the day to do whatever she wanted.  At first that had seemed like a right good thing.  Ma’d packed a picnic basket for her and let her walk the mile and a half to Josie’s house to visit, telling her to be back by sundown.  While she was at Josie’s she had dinner with them and at the table her pa said he’d been to town and heard that the three men who’d kidnapped the son of the man who owned the Ponderosa had been caught by the sheriff of Virginia City name of Roy Coffee and were in jail awaiting trial.  Any kind of legal action, he said, had to wait until the star witness could give testimony.

The ‘star’ witness.  That was Little Joe.

Elizabeth lifted her head and looked up.  There were stars twinkling in the sky.  She’d come home before dark but had begged her mother to let her sit outside for a while.  She’d been surprised when she agreed, but then again there were seven people in the house – eight if you counted the Doc, and you might as well since he’d been coming a couple times a day – and it was mighty crowded.  Joe’s brothers were sleeping on the floor by the hearth.  His Pa had taken her mat on the floor.

Scooting her behind around on the rock, she turned so she could look into the water.  The moon was about quarter full now and her posy wouldn’t do any good anymore.  Josie’d told her she didn’t think one day would have made any difference.

Resting her elbows on her knees and anchoring her chin on her hands, Elizabeth sighed.  It ended up Little Joe wasn’t gonna be her true love and take her to his big ranch to get away from becoming a lady, or even her little brother anymore.

Tomorrow, he was going home.

A soft sound beside her made her turn and look up.  Puzzled, she frowned.

It was Little Joe’s pa.

“May I?” he asked, indicating the part of the rock she wasn’t sitting on.

She shrugged.

As he took a seat, he looked up too.  Indicating the sky and the stars, he said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Sure is,” she agreed.

“You like to sit out here, don’t you?  All by yourself.”

Elizabeth screwed her face up.  “Ma says I’m con…con-tum-pla-ive.”

The man with the white hair laughed.  “My older boy, Adam, is like that.  He looks and he thinks, but he doesn’t say much.”

She liked Adam.  She liked that funny little smile he had.  It made her laugh.

“Is…is Little Joe….”

“Contemplative?”  Little Joe’s pa let out a sigh.  “Sometimes.  Though with Joe, it’s more that something gets hold of him and he thinks he has to work it out himself.”

“Like there’s a little snarly dog inside him that takes hold and just won’t let go?” she asked, her voice hushed.

He looked startled.  Then Joe’s pa laughed.   “Yes,” he said as he held her gaze.  “Do you have a little snarly dog inside you too, Elizabeth?”

Her Ma’d taught her not to lie.  “Sometimes,” she admitted.

“Can you keep a secret?” the white-haired man asked, lowering his voice and leaning in.

She nodded.

“You just keep feeding that little dog,” he said, patting her knee.  “That little dog kept my son alive.”  He paused and then said, all solemn-like.  “That’s why I came out here.  To thank you for saving Joseph’s life.”

It was a good thing it was dark ‘cause she blushed all the way up to the top of her ears.  “Ma and Pa saved him.”

“They told me they pulled Joe out of the burning cabin, but they also told me that you were the one who found him and sat with him day and night and gave him water and cooled his face with a cloth and….”  His voice cracked, just like Josie’s older brother’s had when he turned fifteen.  “…and talked to him, telling him everything would be all right.”

She’d been afraid to ask, what with the Doc coming out so much.  “He’s gonna be, isn’t he?  All right, I mean?”

Joe’s pa sniffed in some of those tears.  “Yes.  It will take time for him to heal, but he’ll be fine.”  He patted her leg.  “Thanks to you.”

“You’re…you’re gonna take him away tomorrow.”  It was her turn to sniff.  “Ain’t you?”

He touched her hair.  “I’m going to take Joseph home.”  Joe’s pa paused.  “If you were sick, wouldn’t you want to be home in your own bed with your family around you?”

She looked down at her hands.  “I s’pose so.”

“I talked to your mother, Elizabeth, and she said it was all right.  When the harvest is over, would you like to come to the Ponderosa for a visit?”

Her eyes went wide as a full moon.  “To your ranch?”

He nodded.  “Joe’s seen where you grew up.  That way you can see where he did.”

“I ain’t growed up yet,” she protested.

Ben Cartwright bent down and kissed her on the forehead.

“Oh, I think you are.”

 

The next morning the Doc came again and he took care of getting Little Joe out of the house and into the wagon that was gonna take him home.  Little Joe’s big big brother went right into the room and picked him up just like she did Jack, and just like Jack, Hoss’ little brother squirmed and fought and told him the whole time that he should put him down and that he could walk on his own.  Little Joe’s older big brother stared him down just like Ma did with Jack and Joe got real quiet and stopped fussing.  Her ma and pa were standing to the side talking to Little Joe’s pa.  He’d offered to send men to help them with the harvest, ‘to repay you for your kindness to my son,’ he said.  Ma was so got she was crying.

There’d been enough tears shed in the last few days in their house to float a boat.

And she was adding more to the river.

Joe’s older big brother came to her side and knelt by her.  Adam reached out with his thumbs and dried her tears.  “It’s not goodbye, Elizabeth, just fare well for now.  We’ll see you in a month or so and Joe will be strong enough by then that he can take you out riding and show you the Ponderosa.  You’ll like that.”  He stood then and smiled down at her.  “I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the future.”

Adam climbed up then into the wagon seat and took hold of the reins.  Hoss was on his own horse and their pa was sitting in the wagon bed by Little Joe.  They’d found Joe’s horse while they were looking for him and the pretty black and white pony was tied to the back of the wagon.  Her new little brother was so worn out from everything that he was sleeping again.  The Doc said that was good.  It would be good if he slept all the way home.

She’d said goodbye earlier in the house before Hoss came in and picked Joe up.  Cause of what happened she knew Adam was right.  She was gonna see them a lot.  She’d finally told Little Joe about the creek and the rock and the fingernail moon and the yellow posy under her chin.

He’d nodded his head and grinned.

And promised to wait.

 

Next Story in the Wet Bottom, Warm Heart Series:

Sunshine With a Little Hurricane
In the Light as in the Darkness
Doubt that the Stars are Fire

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13 thoughts on “Wet Bottom, Warm Heart (by McFair)”

  1. This was amazing start of the whole series with cute little Bella & her thoughts!!!I read it again as I started the series from the third story than read them one by one again & read this one second time!

  2. Read this before and loved it but thought I would read again before reading the newest one. So glad I did. Really a fun story.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read again and for commenting. I am glad you enjoyed it. There will be four stories in the completed saga of Joe and Bella. I am working on part four right now.

  3. Good story! I liked the spunkiness of your original character and the stream of consciousness thoughts both she and Joe indulged in. Maybe because that’s the way I talk, too! A tangent here, a tangent there, everywhere a tangent.

    1. Sorry about the delay in thanking you for your comment. Thank you for letting my know you enjoyed the story and meeting Elizabeth as well as the constant chatter of my two slightly off-the-wall head-thinkers! I think Elizabeth or Bella is just a little female Joe! BTW, I love your stories too!

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