Doubt That The Stars Are Fire (by McFair)

PART TWO

FIVE

 

Bella had never been so glad to set her foot down on solid ground as she was when she stepped out of the coach and onto the boardwalk at the stage depot in Virginia City.  The minister and his wife, Mister and Mrs. Watson, agreed.  In the end the pair turned out to be just about as nice as nice could be.  Samuel explained that they were  returning to the town after a short absence to resume the post he had held for some six months.  They knew the Cartwrights well since theirs was the church the family attended.  When she mentioned Joe by name, Emma Watson shook her head and grew sad.  The older woman told her that she and her husband had come to Virginia City just after the tragedy and had witnessed the heartbreaking aftermath of Alice Cartwright’s death.  The whole town had been stunned.  She hadn’t known Alice personally, she said, but everyone had told her that the young woman had been sweet and beautiful and completely devoted to Joe.  God had given her an upright and honest young man to marry, Samuel remarked.  Unfortunately, Alice had been less blessed in her relatives.  Her brother had been a shiftless ne’er-do-well and it had been his excess and weakness of character that had brought about Mrs. Cartwright’s untimely end.

Benjamin was standing beside her gawking.  Her little brother had hopped out of the coach as soon as it rolled to a stop, his deep brown eyes wide with wonder.  While they’d passed through a number of Wild West towns, none of them had come close to being as impressive as Virginia City.  Bella watched with amusement as Ben took in the numerous shops and saloons before his eyes settled on the sheriff’s office.  He stared at it as if – at any minute – he expected some desperado to come flying out of the door, guns blazing to make good his escape.

Instead, the brown-haired man she had known as Roy Coffee’s deputy opened the door and came out stretching as if he had just awakened from a nap.   Clem scratched the back of his neck and then ambled over toward the coach.  In one of his earlier letters Ben Cartwright had mentioned that Roy might retire.  From the sheriff’s badge on Clem’s vest, it looked like he had.

Clem tipped his hat.  “Mister and Mrs. Warson,” he said, looking past her to the minister and his wife.  After nodding to them, he turned his attention to her and her brother.  “Ma’am, welcome to Virginia City.”

Bella couldn’t help it.  She giggled.  “Hello Clem.  It’s nice to see you again.”

The blue-eyed man frowned as he looked from her to Benjamin and back.  “I apologize, ma’am, if we’ve met.  I don’t seem to….”

She held her hand out.  “Bella.  Bella Carnaby Ashton.”

Clem looked like someone had struck him.  “Bella?  Little Bella?”

They hadn’t had a lot to do with each other, but they’d met once or twice in the months she’d spent with the Cartwrights.  “So you’re sheriff now?” she asked.

He nodded.  His eyes went to Benjamin again.  There was puzzlement in them.   “And you’re…Mister Ashton?”

This time she laughed out loud.  “This is my brother, Benjamin Joseph.”  As Ben nodded in greeting, she sobered.   “My husband’s name was Michael Ashton.  He died recently.”

Clem removed his hat.  “I’m sorry to hear that, Ma’am.”

“Oh, for gosh sakes! Call me Bella,” she said.  The blonde woman glanced at the mercantile and then her gaze traveled over to the saloon.  She tried to sound only casually interested as she asked, “So have you seen Little Joe lately?”

The sheriff snorted.  “Little Joe?  I bet you’re the only one can get by calling him that now.”  Clem had been smiling, but he sobered too.  “Joe was in town last week.  It’s been, maybe, four or five days.”

Relief flooded through her.  Joe had been in town and he’d been all right!  Still, from the sound of Clem’s voice, it seemed the encounter had not been a pleasant one.  Bella waited for Clem to elaborate.  When he didn’t, she decided to drop it.

She’d know soon enough.

“Benjamin and I need to get to the Ponderosa.  Where would you recommend we hire a rig?”

Clem returned his hat to his head.  “Well, seeing how it’s Sunday, I don’t know that you’re going to find anything.  You’ll need to wait until the livery opens tomorrow morning.  You could stay at the International House tonight.”

She didn’t want to stay in town.  She wanted to get to the Ponderosa as soon as possible.  Benjamin, on the other hand, seemed to perk up.

“Is that a saloon?” he asked innocently.

Clem shot her a look.  A pitying look.  “No, son, it’s a hotel.  It does have a dining room and bar, but from the look and size of you – unless you want to visit my jail in an official capacity – I think maybe you should give the bar a wide berth.”

Benjamin flushed red up to his ears.

She took her brother’s hand.  “I’ll see that Ben stays in out of mischief, Sheriff Foster.”

“Clem’s fine, Bella.”  He eyed her brother warily, as if he wasn’t sure she could do what she promised.  “For both of you.”

The driver was tossing their luggage to the ground.  As her brother went to retrieve it, Bella offered the sheriff her hand.  “Thank you, Clem,” she said as he shook it.  “It was nice to be greeted by a familiar face.”  As the brown-haired man nodded and moved to talk to the Reverend Watson, she turned to her brother and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“As a grizzly!” Ben replied.

Bella shook her head.  Ben was always hungry as a grizzly.  Even though Benjamin was slender as Joe had been at eighteen, he had Hoss’ appetite.

Thinking of the big man, Bella grew sad.  Benjamin would never get to meet Hoss and she would so miss his gentle, loving presence.  She couldn’t imagine how devastated everyone in the Cartwright household had been by his sudden passing.

Especially Joe.

“Bella.”

She turned to find Clem approaching her.

“Yes?”

He nodded toward a horse and rider racing into town.  She didn’t know who the man was.  He sat tall in the saddle and looked like he might have been over six feet in height.  He had wavy light-brown hair cut short and wore a black hat, vest, and pants, and a deep wine-red shirt.  There was a black kerchief around his neck as well.  He reined his horse in, vaulted out of the saddle, and began to run.

Turning back to Clem, she asked, “Who is that?”

“That’s Candy Canaday,” he said.  “Foreman at the Ponderosa.”

A chill snaked along her spine.  “What do you think he’s doing?” she asked.  “Why is he in such a rush?”

Clem said nothing.  He merely nodded again.

She looked.  Candy Canaday had reached his destination.  The door banged shut behind him as he went inside, setting the shingle hanging above it swinging.

The shingle with Doctor J. P. Martin’s name on it.

 

Ben Cartwright sank wearily into his red chair in the great room.  He was completely and totally exhausted.  Nearly a day had passed since Joe’s horse had come into the yard unsaddled and alone.  He’d fed and watered the animal and then, along with Candy and a handful of the ranch hands, begun to backtrack along the path Cochise had taken to reach the house.  There were no surprises so far as that was concerned.  Joe’s pinto knew his way home and he’d made a beeline for it.  The fact that he was unsaddled gave the older man some small hope in spite of the dried blood he’d found on the animal’s hide.  Joe was all right, he told himself.  After all, his son would have to have been on his feet to remove all the heavy gear and send Cochise running.

He didn’t want to consider the other option, that Joe and Jamie had been waylaid by outlaws and robbed, and Cochise had somehow managed to escape.

They’d started out as early afternoon turned to late, with only a few hours of light left to search by.  It hadn’t taken him long to figure out where Joe had going.  His defiant son had obviously bought some of that new-fangled barbed wire he was so all-fired up about and headed out to one of the boundary fences to put it in place.  Still, in spite of the fact that Ben was sure he knew where his son was, he and the other men were forced to make camp as night fell and they found they could no longer see.

Every sleepless hour was agony.

Ben knew that under normal circumstances Joe could take care of himself and his younger brother.  But circumstances now with Joseph were about as far from normal as could be.  On the ride out, the older man had managed to drill Candy and what his foreman told him was chilling.  Even though it had come from Paul’s new assistant, he couldn’t manage to dismiss it entirely.  It wasn’t that he didn’t like Julian Corwin.  He was a fine young man, it was just that he lacked experience.  His head was full of all the latest unproven medical theories and techniques from abroad.  Having Julian make a diagnosis as opposed to Paul Martin would have been tantamount to trusting a man who had only read about the procedure to castrate one of his prize steers.  Paul knew his son.  The older man knew all Joe had overcome.  Julian, on the other hand, had known Joe less than seven months.  Candy hadn’t come out and said it point-blank, but Doctor Corwin thought Joseph was a danger to both them and himself and needed to be….  Ben drew in a sharp breath.

Joseph needed to be locked up.

Of course, he would never do that.  Not even if what Corwin believed was true.  He had lived over sixty years on this earth and firmly believed there was nothing that love and compassion couldn’t overcome.

Throughout the morning, Candy had ridden at his side lending his silent support.  His foreman was a good man and a loyal friend to Joe.  He couldn’t have asked for a better man to ride at his son’s side now that his brothers no longer could.  Candy was struggling with the doctor’s prognosis.  His main concern wasn’t that Joseph was losing his mind, but that his friend might hurt himself deliberately.  Paul Martin had expressed the same concern the night Alice died.  The physician had brought him the bottle of laudanum he’d used to ease the pain of Joe’s burns for fear his son might take all of it at once.

Ben let out a long, low sigh and shifted in his chair.  Much as he wanted to, he simply couldn’t ignore the possibility that both men were right.  Joseph Francis Cartwright had a will to live that was unlike any other man he had known.  It had brought the youngest of his three sons through illness and injury that would have laid most men in the grave.  Joe’s  mother had been driven by the same zest for life.  It had carried her through until the accident where her body was broken so badly sheer will alone had not been enough.

Unlike his mother, Joseph’s body was not broken.

It was his soul.

Ben shifted again, restless.  A moment later, as if on cue, Hop Sing came out of the kitchen and to his side.  He looked up at the man from China and favored him with a half-smile, which was about all he could muster at the moment.

“Is there something I can do for you, Hop Sing?” the older man asked.

“Mistah Cartwright ready for food now?”

No, he wasn’t.  But eating was Paul’s prerequisite for being allowed back in the room where his sons lay.

Ben’s nod was less than enthusiastic.

“I bring it right away,” his cook said.  Before he left, Hop Sing placed a hand on his shoulder, lending his silent support.  The gesture took no more than two or three seconds, but it was what he needed.

“Thank you,” he said, holding back the tears.  “Thank you, old friend, for everything.”

Hop Sing had gone with them in search of Joe and Jamie.  At the last minute, as he and Candy prepared to set out, the man from China had appeared, medical salves and bandages in hand.  Without speaking a word he’d taken a seat in the wagon and looked at them, waiting for their cue.  Hop Sing’s sometimes almost supernatural perception where Joseph was concerned was something he didn’t question.  His old friend had known Joseph nearly as long as he had and, in some ways, was probably closer to the boy as they had spent so much time together after Marie died.

He felt no jealousy because of it, just gratitude.

Ben turned toward the fire.  As he stared into it, he scowled.  He wished now that he hadn’t argued with Joseph about using that different type of barbed wire along the boundaries of the ranch.  It had seemed to him that it would injure as many animals as it would save.  They’d used barbed wire before, but this was the new improved 5.5 gauge patented only that year.  No one on the range had much experience with it and to him it looked deadly.  Joe had vehemently disagreed and had apparently gone to town without his permission to get  the wire and set out to prove him wrong.   Somewhere along the line he’d picked up Jamie, who had most likely been eager to go with the big brother he adored.  Jamie was having a hard time understanding what Joe was going through.  Most likely the boy had thought he could talk to him.

It had been noon by the time they neared the stretch of land that led to the farthest boundary of Ponderosa land.  The autumn sun was riding high in the sky.  He and Candy had pulled ahead of the others who were beginning to tire of the search and lagged behind.  He’d turned back to hasten them onwards when Candy’s shout spun him in the saddle.

Something was laying at the bottom of the ravine to the right of the road.

Ben had scrambled off his horse and made it down the steep bank quicker than the younger man.  It took only a moment to recognize the sled they sometimes used to haul bale wire and the dead horse beside it.

Candy followed him.  When it became obvious that neither Joe or Jamie were trapped beneath the broken vehicle and animal, his foreman had walked a few hundred feet in both directions to make sure they hadn’t wandered off.   Ben felt a weight lift off his shoulders with Candy’s return.  Still, his relief lasted only seconds.

He still had to find his sons.

The fire in the great room cracked, drawing Ben Cartwright back to the present.  He closed his eyes and shuddered.

He would never forget the moment when he did.

He’d been the one to spot Jamie’s horse standing at the side of the road munching on some grass.  Dismounting, he’d approached the animal and it was then that he saw his son Joseph lying on the ground beside it.  Ben had barely had time to get over the shock of the blood that coated his son’s arms and face when he saw the travois and Jamie laying on it.

The boy was barely recognizable.

Candy set off without a word to get Paul Martin.  Hop Sing had done what he could to treat and bandage the boys’ wounds and then they had set off for home, carrying both Joseph and Jamie in the wagon.  Both were unconscious.  Fear had gripped his innards as they traveled.  It looked bad.  But God chose to be merciful. As they got to the road that connected to several of the outlying spreads, they heard the jingle of a harness and suddenly a buggy appeared.   Coming down a different trail than the one Candy had taken was Paul Martin. The physician was returning to town after delivering a baby.

Glancing at the stairs, Ben let the tears fall.

It had been an answer to prayer.

“Mistah Ben eat now,” Hop Sing said softly as he placed a tray on the table.  “I bring soup and bread.  Not too much for worried father.”

He looked up.  “Thank you, old friend.”

“You want Hop Sing sit with you while you eat?”

Ben considered it as his eyes returned to the stair.  “If you would. Hop sing, go up and see if you can get Paul to tell you anything.”

Both his boys were in Joe’s room.  Paul said it would be too much for him to run back and forth and, as they both needed the same care, it was just as well they keep them together until he had them stabilized.  His old friend rarely cursed, but he had done so when he saw what the barbed wire had done to them both.

Ben closed his eyes, sickened.

He had cursed as well when he had seen it.

“Hop Sing go now,” the man from China said and disappeared up the stairs.

Ben didn’t know how he did it, but somehow he choked the soup and bread down.  Just as he finished he heard footsteps on the stairs.  He expected Hop Sing and was surprised to find that it was Paul Martin who approached.  The doctor looked exhausted.

He said nothing as Paul moved to the settee and dropped onto it.  The physician’s eyes looked haunted.

“That was worse than anything I could have encountered on a battlefield,” his old friend said softly.

Ben’s jaw tightened.  “How are they?”

Paul ran a hand over his face.  “Jamie’s cuts are showing less infection than Joe’s.  I’m afraid when Joe fell, dirt and debris must have been driven into them.  They both have fevers.”  The doctor’s gaze sought his and held it. “If I was you, Ben, I’d send some of the hands out for ice just in case.”

“You think their fevers will go that high?”

“Joe’s will.  Maybe Jamie’s.  Some of those cuts are deep, Ben.  Very deep.  The ones you saw on Jamie’s face and chest are nothing compared to his back.  Its looks like he landed hard on the stuff.”

“And Joe?”

Paul Martin hesitated.  “It’s his shoulder that’s the worst.  The infection’s a concern, but…there’s more.”  His old friend paused as if considering his words. When Paul spoke at last, sympathy shone from his eyes.  “There’s hope.  This kind of accident rarely proves fatal.”

Ben blinked.  “Fatal?  I thought you said earlier – ”

“I know what I said.”  Paul Martin sank back against the padded sofa.  “Ben, the problem is, Joe has given up.”  He held a hand up to silence his protests.  “You know I have seen that young man through just about everything – gun shot wounds, perilous fevers, broken bones, and just about every kind of emotional trauma there is.  Every time there was something there – a spark of life that refused to dim.”  The doctor pinned him with a sympathetic stare.  “It’s gone out.”

Ben shifted forward, ready for a fight.  “No.  I refuse to believe that!”

“Ben.”  His old friend continued to hold his gaze.  “I think Joe’s been through more than he can bear.  We all have a limit.  He’s reached his.”

He felt betrayed.

“So you’re giving up?  You’re just going to let me son die?”

“Now Ben, you know I don’t mean that.  I will do everything I can to save him, but Joe has to help me!  He has to want to live and right now, I don’t think he does.”

Ben fell silent as his mind grappled with what the doctor had said.  If it was true, there could be only one explanation.

Joe must feel responsible for what happened to Jamie.

“Can you tell what happened – how the boys were wounded – from their injuries?” he asked at last.

Paul leaned forward.  His eyes took on a faraway look, as if he were analyzing it again.  “Not really.  It seems Jamie became entwined somehow in the wire.  Joe’s injuries suggest he was not in it, but trying to pull Jamie out of it.  The deep cuts are mostly on the one shoulder and Joe’s arms, though there are superficial ones on his legs and lower torso as well.”  The doctor shook his head.  “That wire, while it may be a miracle for protecting land, is a misery when it comes to a man tangling with it.”

“And the infection comes from the mud and other debris being driven into the wounds?”

“As well as the fact that a man is not meant to have metal in him.”  Paul scowled.  He looked up the stairs and his anger eased.  “Thank God for Hop Sing and his Chinese remedies.  I’ve seen before how they help wounds close quickly.  By tonight, hopefully all the bleeding will have stopped.”

Ben paused.  “Is Joe awake?”

The physician scowled.  “I suppose you want to talk to him?”

He could tell Paul did not approve.

“If I could.”

Paul Martin regarded him with a clinical eye.  “I don’t think it’s wise while Jamie and Joe share the same room.  Once Hop Sing is done putting on the salve and binding the worst of the cuts, we’ll see about moving Joe into another room.  Then, if he’s willing, you can talk to him.”  His old friend looked directly at him.  “You need to understand this Ben.  I won’t have Joe upset any more than he already is.  He needs support, not a father’s scolding.”  The older man hesitated and then added in a quiet voice, “Really, I think what Joe needs most of all is absolution.”

Ben frowned.  “Absolution?  For what?”

The doctor sighed.  “For not being fast enough or strong enough or brave enough, or any of the other things he thinks he wasn’t that allowed Alice to be murdered and William Tanner to do what he did to him.  For not taking it on the chin and bouncing back.  For not being the kind of man he thinks he needs to be.”

Ben sensed something unspoken.   “What are you trying to tell me, Paul?”

The doctor rose and came to his side.  He placed a hand on his shoulder.  “You cast a mighty big shadow, Ben.  Joe compares himself to you – to the man who buried three wives and a son and remained unbroken – and finds himself lacking.”

He shook his head.  “Paul, no.”

“Yes.  Just remember, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with Joe.”

He felt as if he had been struck.

“Do you think I can help him?” he asked, his voice shaking.

“It may not be you, Ben.  If it’s not, the good Lord willing, He will send someone who can get through to him.  Someone who can bring the old Joe back.”  Paul looked up the stairs and added sadly, “All we can do is pray He sends them soon.”

Paul left him then to return to the sick room from which Ben found himself banished.  Everything that was in him wanted to be in that room with his older and younger sons, but he knew, at the moment, he would only be in the way.  If there was anyone he would have trusted to do all they could to care for them, it was the two men who were with Jamie and Joe.  Paul’s love for the youngest of his three, for Joe – whom it seemed had spent more time in Paul’s office than he had in school – was deep.  And as he had come to know his quiet, reticent adopted son, the doctor had grown to love Jamie as well.  Paul knew the joy the boy continued to bring into their lives after Hoss’ unexpected death.

As to Hop Sing, well, there were no words.

Ben rose to his feet.  Bending down, he picked up the tray that lay on the table with what remained of the bread and his empty soup bowl.  He had just headed for the kitchen when the door burst open and Candy rushed in.

“Mister Cartwright!  Mister Cartwright!”

He pivoted back, concerned.  “Candy, what’s wrong?”

His foreman was out of breath.  “I came as soon as I could.  Doc Martin wasn’t in his office.  I rode out to the Manners’ place where he was supposed to be, but they said he’d left.  I – ”

“Candy.  Candy, it’s all right,” Ben said as he approached the other man.  “We ran into Doc Martin on the way back.  He’s upstairs with Jamie and Joe right now.  So is Hop Sing.”

Candy’s relief was palpable.  “The Doc’s here?”

“Yes.”

The brown-haired man turned his attention to the stairs.  “How’s Joe?  And Jamie?”

Ben suspected Joe’s friend knew his answer was only a portion of the truth.  “Both are holding their own.  Joe has fewer wounds than Jamie, though some of them are deep and infected.  Paul expects their fevers to rise.”

As he spoke the older man heard the sound of a rig rolling into the yard.  The door stood open and a glance over Candy’s shoulder showed him it was the kind you could rent in town.

His eyes went to Candy.  The foreman didn’t seem surprised.

“You’ve got visitors, Mister Cartwright,” he said.

Ben pushed past the man and stepped out into the yard.  A young man had hopped out of the buggy and was rounding it, headed for the other side.  The sight of him took the older man back.  The boy was about Joe’s height and reminded him of his youngest when he’d been in his teens.  Whoever it was, was slender and had a thick head of curly hair, only its color was a deep auburn instead of brown.  The boy glanced at him before offering his hand to someone in the buggy.  As she stepped down, Ben saw it was a woman – a young blonde woman wearing a pretty teal blue dress.  A second later, she turned toward the house and lifted her head.  Her blue eyes went to Joe’s bedroom window.

Ben drew a sharp breath as he recognized her.  God did indeed answer prayers.

It was Bella.

 

SIX

 

Joe.

Joe.  Are you awake?

He stirred and then smiled as a slender arm wrapped around his waist and he felt the touch of a soft chin on his shoulder. 

Nuh-uh.

Laughter, clear as a bell and joyful as a lark’s, sounded near his ear.  A second later he felt a gentle nip.

You told me to get you up, remember?  You have to go to town for supplies.  That nursery isn’t going to build itself.

He rolled onto his back and looked at his beautiful wife.  Alice’s chemise had fallen off one shoulder and the exposed skin glistened like white alabaster in the sun.  Joe lifted his head to kiss it and then snorted as she playfully batted him away.

One baby at a time, she teased.

Joe caught her wrist.  She was too close to her time to be intimate, but not too close to kiss with passion. 

Come here.

Alice pulled away.  Her hand was so tiny, it slipped right through his larger tanned and calloused fingers.  

I can’t, she said, her mood shifting.  There are things to do.

Joe watched her walk across their bedroom.  The light spilling in the curtains struck her slender form, showing her legs through the thin fabric of her chemise, as well as enhancing the bump at her waistline that was their child.

Like what? he asked as he rolled to one side so he could watch her.

She walked to the window and looked out.  One hand was on her belly and the other held back the curtain. 

Cook. Clean.  Come.  Go. 

She looked right at him.

Die.

The house was on fire.  He was outside, banging on the door, screaming.  Alice was in that same window, her hair on fire, her clothes ablaze; the child in her arms turning to ash. 

He couldn’t stand it.  The sight was too much to bear, so he turned away.  He turned away only to be confronted by William Tanner.  The madman smiled at him and raised his gun. 

I told you that you’d want to kill me, Joe.  Didn’t I?  But you know what?  I was wrong.  It ain’t me you killed.  It’s him.

Joe closed his eyes. He wouldn’t look because he knew what he would see.  Still, he didn’t have to see.  He knew that voice.

It was Jamie.

Why’d you do it, Joe? What’d you wanta go and kill me for?

Why didn’t you just kill yourself?

With a gasp, Joe struggled to sit up.  He was panting hard.  The vision wouldn’t go away.  Like a pair of malignant hands, the images of his dead wife, of Tanner, of…Jamie tore into his gut, twisting and wrenching, bringing such pain that he was driven back to the bed with a sob.

God!  Take it away!

God!  Take me away!  Let me go back to oblivion!

God, please….

 

Bella Carnaby Ashton watched in horror as the man she loved thrashed from side to side, twisting the wet sheets that covered him and thrusting them aside as if he meant to rise.  She glanced at the door. At the moment she was alone with Joe in what had been his brother Adam’s room.  His father had been there, but the poor man had been falling asleep on his feet and about an hour before she had ordered – Bella smiled in spite of her fear – she had ordered Mister Ben to bed.  Hop Sing had made an appearance a moment later to let her know how pleased he was that she had come.  The Chinese man promised her he would make sure her brother Benjamin got something to eat and was shown to his room.

The blonde woman frowned as she recalled the welcome they had received.  Ben Cartwright had met them in the yard.  She’d been so pleased to see him, but had noticed immediately that something was wrong.

Dreadfully wrong.

His embrace was fierce and, when the older man pulled back, there were tears in her eyes.  The sight of them terrified her.

Where was Joe?  Was he all right?

Her questions were answered a moment later by a long, low howl.  It was the sound of a wounded animal.

Or a broken man.

Her eyes had returned to Joe’s window and then to the older man.  A tear trailed down his cheek.  Ben Cartwright said nothing.  No, that wasn’t right.  He shook his head.

That said it all.

With a quick glance at her brother, she had flown into the house and up the stairs, passed by Doctor Martin who was just stepping into the hall, and gone to the room she knew so well.  Flashes of the visit she had made when she was eighteen came to her – the night Fleet Rowse kidnapped her, Joe coming to her rescue and being hurt, her fear that he had died and her unbelief when she was told that he hadn’t.  She’d been so afraid that everyone was lying to her that she had stolen into his room and laid beside him and placed her head on his chest just so she could hear his heartbeat.

So she knew he was alive.

Paul Martin caught her by the shoulders before she could enter.  He tried to warn her.

Nothing could have warned her.

Paul had preceded her into the room.  He’d gone to Joe’s bed and sat beside him and, using brute force, pinned him down.  ‘Joseph!’ he shouted.  ‘It’s Paul. You’re home.  Jamie is home.  He’s alive.  Joe, hear me.  Joe!’

She’d watched those green eyes open.

She hadn’t known the tortured spirit that looked out of them.

This morning Joe had been moved to another room, the one that had been Adam’s.  Ben had spent the night with him but now it was her turn.  Bella reached out a hand and placed it on the forehead of the man she loved, hoping that contact would calm him but doubtful that it would.  Joe was no longer trying to rise – it seemed the previous effort had worn him out – but he twisted and turned, murmuring words so low she couldn’t understand them.  She’d been astonished when she first saw him.  In her memory, it was a boy she loved.  This was a man.  Joe’s skin gleamed with sweat, defining the well-developed muscles in his arms and chest.  His face was fuller, and his hair!  It was all she could do not to laugh as she reached out to touch one of the shining curls.  There was brown in it still, but where before there had been streaks of silver, now the silver reigned overall.  Looking at him she was struck suddenly by the eight years that separated them.  They had both aged.  Both changed.

Both been wounded deeply.

Was it possible they might still have anything together?

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Bella leaned forward and took Joe’s face in her hands, careful to avoid any of the cuts the wire had inflicted.  He was pale and his hair was soaked through with sweat.  So far they had only used wet blankets to try to cool his fever.  It was higher now, she could tell.  She should probably call the doctor.

Bella gasped.

Joe had reached up and caught her hand in his.  It was swathed in thick bandages.  He fumbled and almost lost his grip, but then recovered.  Staring at her but not seeing her, he pulled her fingers to his lips.

“…here….” he murmured.

She cupped his cheek with her free hand.  “Yes, Joe.  I’m here.”

He frowned, focusing .   “…thought you…were…gone….”

“I was,” she replied.  “I came back.”

He tried to lift his hand.  He couldn’t, so she took it and held it to her face.

Joe smiled.

“Alice….”

Bella choked back tears as Joe’s hand went limp.  When she released it, his arm fell to the bed.

She was surprised when another hand fell on her shoulder.   Turning, she looked up into Ben Cartwright’s face.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said as he moved past her to touch his son’s forehead.

“He’s very hot,” she sniffed.  “I think his fever is higher.”

The older man looked troubled.  He nodded.  “I’ll stay with him,” he said.  “If you would go get Paul….”

Bella nodded as she rose.  She made it to the door before he spoke again.

“I’m sorry,” the older man said.

She was still sniffing.  It kind of helped to keep the tears from falling.  “For what?”

“I know how hard this has to be for you.”

She’d shared a lot in her letters.  She hadn’t put it into words, but she knew Joe’s father was aware of the fact that she had never stopped loving his son.  What she didn’t know, was whether Joe had stopped loving her.  He’d married Alice.  She knew him well enough to know that meant Joe loved her deeply – more deeply than she had loved Michael.  There had been no parents to save, no house to find, nothing that had made him marry her.

Only love.

“I’m fine,” she lied.

The older man smiled wanly as he dipped the cloth he held in the water basin beside the bed and placed it on Joe’s forehead.  She noticed how Joe had quieted at his pa’s touch and not at hers.

“Fine?” he repeated.

She knew she hadn’t fooled him.

“After you send Paul in, why don’t you go check on your brother?” Ben suggested.  “The last time I saw him he was wandering around the great room looking like a lost soul.”

Benjamin!  Poor lamb!  She’d forgotten completely about him.

As Joe’s father lifted the cloth and ran it through the cold water again, Bella hurried into the hall.  She checked Joe’s old room to see if the doctor was there and found Hop Sing sitting with Jamie.  There wasn’t much showing of him.  Only a head of near carrot-red hair sticking out above the covers and one arm that wasn’t bandaged, but showed the cut of the wire.  Hop Sing smiled at her and rose to his feet and came to the door.

“Can Hop Sing help Missy Bella?”

She almost melted.  Bella remembered the Chinese man’s kindness and longed to fall into it.

But she had things to do.

Her eyes went to the bed.   “How is Jamie doing?” she asked.

“Boy’s fever is down.  Doctor Martin believes cuts are clean and he heal fast.”  Hop Sing turned and looked at the bed.  “Boy is young and strong.”

Young.  She’d been young once.

She felt very old now.

Hop Sing must have seen the look on her face.  He touched her arm.  “Mistah Joe need Missy Bella bad,” he said.

She shook her head.  “He doesn’t need me.  He has his father.  Joe has – ”

His fingers tightened on her flesh.  “No.  Mistah Joe need you.”

The muscles in her face tightened.  She drew a breath in and snorted it out.  Hop Sing watched her, his black eyes never leaving her face.

“Mistah Joe love Missy Alice,” he said as he touched his chest above his heart, “but love Missy Bella too.  Here.  He keep her here, waiting for her to come back.”

That did it.  She started sobbing.

As Hop Sing put his arm around her, she said, “I have to go.  I have to find the doctor.”

“I’m here,” a kindly voice said.  She looked up to see Paul Martin stepping into the room.  “I heard you were here, Bella.  Thank goodness!  Joe needs someone to hang onto.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, so she said, “Mister Ben is with him.  He said to tell you to come.  Joe’s fever is higher.”

She didn’t like the look on his face.  The doctor nodded and then was gone.

Bella allowed Hop Sing to lead her over to a chair by one of the upstairs windows.  He sat her in it and then went and got her a cool cloth so she could wipe off her face.  As she did, he sat on another chair beside her.

“May Hop Sing tell you a story, Missy Bella?”

She shrugged.

“Good.”  The Chinese man took her hand and pressed it between his own.   “Boy once find marble,” he said as he nodded to the sky outside the window, “big, blue and white marble that look like world outside.  He pay all he has for this marble, he love marble so much.”  Hop Sing frowned.  “Then, one day, marble is lost.  Boy cry much.  He search much, but cannot find.  In time, he find other marble just as beautiful and he happy again.  He play with it and love it much too.”  The Chinese man looked right at her.  “But boy never forget first marble.  Never forget first love that was his world.”

The room was so still she could hear the tall case clock ticking in the hall below.

“Mistah Joe love Missy Bella.  She his first love.”

Her tears flowed freely now.  Hop Sing released her hand, rose, and walked into Joe’s bedroom.  He returned a moment later with a fresh handkerchief and held it out to her.  She took it.  It smelled of bay rum.

Bella sniffed again and began to bawl.

 

“How is he?” Candy asked quietly.  He’d come to Joe’s room and had not been encouraged to find his friend wrapped in ice-covered sheets.  The day was over now and he’d come back to check on his friend before heading to the bunkhouse.  At least the ice was gone.

Ben Cartwright turned eyes bleary with worry and a lack of sleep on him.

“The fever broke at last, about an hour before dusk.”  The older man leaned over and placed a hand on his son’s head.  “He’s much cooler now.”

“So how’s the Doc think he is?” he asked anxiously.  Joe was pale.  Really pale.

The older man rose to his feet.  “Physically?  Paul says he’s out of danger.  As to everything else….time will tell.”  His boss came to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Will you stay with him for a few minutes in case he wakes?”  As he nodded his assent, the older man added, “I’ve been forced to neglect Jamie.  Now that the crisis has passed with Joseph, I need to be with him.”

“If you don’t mind my sayin’ so, you need some sleep, sir,” Candy replied.

His boss ran a hand across his stubbled chin.  “And a shave!” he said.  “But both will wait until I know the boy is through the worst of it.  Thank God his fever didn’t rise like Joe’s.  I don’t know what I would have done if they’d both needed me at the same time.”

He’d checked in on Jamie.  Paul Martin was there.  The Doc had the boy heavily sedated, but seemed to think he would be just fine given time.

Candy’s eyes flicked to Joe.  He hoped the same could be said for his friend.

“Sure, I’ll stay.  Be happy to.”

“Come and get me if Joe comes around.”

The brown-haired man watched as his boss made his way out of the room and then went to sit beside the bed.  He remained still for a few minutes and then shifted.  He hated to admit it but he was a bit uncomfortable.  Not with Joe, but with his own feelings.

Normally he didn’t like to admit he had any.

He’d been sitting there maybe ten minutes when he looked over at Joe and found he was awake and watching him.  He’d started to rise, to go get Mister Cartwright, when his friend said, ‘Don’t.’

Just, ‘don’t’.

“You’re gonna get me in trouble with the boss,” Candy said as he sat back down.

“That’s okay,” Joe rasped.  “I got…pull.”

Candy frowned as Joe licked his lips.  A second later he went for the water pitcher and cup on the bedside table.  “Just pretend I’m your pa,” he said as he reached around Joe, placing his arm around his bare chest and lifting him a bit so he could take a drink.  “Otherwise this is going to be embarrassing.”

“…Ma….” Joe replied with a shadow of a smile as he laid his head back.

Candy snorted.  “Now that is embarrassing!”  After placing the cup on the stand, Candy sat back down.  For a moment, he considered his friend.  Joe looked like Hell.  Of course, he had every right to after taking on a bale of 5.5 bale wire single-handed.

“Hey, Joe.  What happened out there?  Did something go wrong with the bale?”

Joe was silent for some time.  Finally, in a voice he could hardly hear, his friend said, “I…went wrong.”

“So the kid irritated you, huh?” he asked, trying to lighten things a bit.

Joe’s gaze was intense.  “Jamie?” he asked.

“Doc says he’ll be fine.  And in case you care, so will you.”

His friend snorted as he pressed his head back into the pillows.  Joe tried to shift his body, but winced with pain and remained as he was.

“I…don’t care.”

Candy had heard about Joe Cartwright’s infamous bouts of self-pity.  He hadn’t believed it.  The Joe he knew was a force of nature equivalent to a hurricane and twister rolled into one.  Joe couldn’t abide a man feeling sorry for himself.

It was like he was watching him die right in front of his eyes.

“Joe, you  gotta snap out of this.  You need to – ”

“What do I…need to…do?”  Joe rose up on one elbow.  His chest was pumping hard and sweat broke out on his brow as he spoke.  “I nearly…killed…my little brother!  What the Hell…do…I need…to do other than die…and put everyone who…loves me out of…their misery!”

He was practically shouting by the time he was done.

It was a very quiet voice that answered.

“You need to live.”

Candy turned.  He’d been waiting for Mister Cartwright to come and tan his hide.  He hadn’t expected to find what he did.

Five-foot three inches of blond-haired blue-eyed female power.

 

Bella nodded to Candy as he walked out the door.  She knew he was on his way to get Mister Ben.  She’d been on her way downstairs to check on her brother when she heard Joe’s desperate plea.  She had a few minutes at most, depending on how involved the older man was with Jamie’s care.  She’d heard Joe’s father talking in low tones to the boy as she passed the door and glanced in to see him sitting on the edge of the bed.

She’d come to do the same with the house’s other invalid.

Joe was laying partly on his right side, staring off toward the wall.  She wasn’t sure if he’d recognized her when she stepped in, though she’d changed less than he had in the intervening years.  Still, he had just come out of a high fever and most likely was confused.  In fact, it looked like he might slip back into sleep any moment.

Bella gritted her teeth and winced at the mess that was his left shoulder.  It looked like an angry cat had caught the flesh in its teeth and tried to chew right through.  Doctor Martin told her that he thought Joe had protected Jamie from the wire as he cut him free and had taken the brunt of its attack between the shoulder-blade and his neck.  Looking down, she saw his right arm was nearly free of cuts, so she touched him there.

“Joe.  Joe?  Can you hear me?”

“Go away,” he breathed.  There was no anger in the tone, just defeat.

“I just got here,” she replied, keeping her tone light.  “You don’t really want me to leave, do you?”

His eyes had closed, but they fluttered back open.  With a moan, Joe rolled over to look at her.  He frowned and then she saw recognition dawn.

“You’re…here?” he asked, breathless.  “I…thought you were….a dream.”

Did he still think she was Alice?

“Joe, do you know who I am?”

He shifted his arm so her hand fell away, and then caught her fingers in his hand.

“Is it…you?  Bella?”

She squeezed his fingers back and nodded as tears rolled down her face.

“How?”  A second later something flashed in his eyes.  “Why?”

Caution kept her away from the real reason for her visit.  “Remember?  After Michael died, you invited me to come?  About a year ago?”

“Michael.”  Joe licked his lips.  “Your…husband.”

She forced a smile.  “Yes.”

“Dead.”

“Yes,” she repeated and then changed the subject.  “You remember my little brother Benjamin Joseph?  He came with me.  He’s looking forward to meeting you.”

Pain flash through Joe’s eyes at the words ‘little brother’.

“Jamie?” he asked.

“The doctor says he’ll be all right.  Like you, it will take some time to mend.”  Bella removed her fingers from Joe’s grasp and reached out to brush a stray lock of that glistening sliver hair out of his eyes.  It was a simple gesture, at once so common and so familiar she thought nothing of making it.

Joe practically jumped out of his skin.

“Don’t do that,” he said in a voice somewhere between pleading and warning.

Bella froze where she was.  She couldn’t understand.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked.

Joe’s green eyes were narrowed.  His jaw was tight.  “Can’t,” was all he said and then turned his face away.

She was at a loss as to what to do.  Fortunately, she was rescued a second later.

“I’ve been hearing an awful lot of chatter coming from this room,” Doc Martin said as he stepped in.   He kept his tone cheerful.  “A man’s physician is always the last to know.”

Bella withdrew her hand as the older man came to her side.  He smiled at her.  When she rolled her eyes over to Joe, he gave her a quick shake of his head.

“There’s a young man downstairs who needs rescuing, Bella.”

“Benjamin?” she asked.

Paul Martin smiled. “No.  Candy.  Your brother has Ben’s foreman pinned in a corner and is demanding he be told about every highwayman and hostile Indian Candy has ever encountered.”

“Oh dear,” she laughed.  “I guess I should go.”  Bella rose slowly to her feet.  She looked at Joe again.  He was either asleep or pretending to be.  “Call me if you need me.”

He nodded.  “I will.”

Softly, she said, “I’ll see you later, Joe.”

When she got no reply, Bella left the room and headed down the stairs.

 

She’d wondered why Ben Cartwright hadn’t come into Joe’s room when he heard his son talking.  Now Bella saw why.  The older man was seated in the great room talking to a stranger who must have arrived while she was upstairs.  She looked around for Benjamin, but didn’t see him and wondered briefly if her brother had kidnapped Mister Ben’s poor foreman.  Then she saw Candy and Ben coming out of the kitchen.

Her brother was beaming from ear to ear.

When she met him at the door, Benjamin came up to her and pecked her on the cheek. Then he threw a glance at Candy.  The foreman nodded and left the house.

“What are you two up to?” she asked softly, so as not to disturb the discussion going on by the hearth.

“Candy invited me to ride out with him and see the herd.  They’re getting ready to move it to pasture for the winter.  He said he’d teach me how to rope steers!”

His enthusiasm was catching.  She smiled for the first time since she had seen Joe.

“Are you leaving soon?”

He nodded.  “Candy’s going shortly.  He said we’ll  reach the place where the herd is by sundown.  We’re gonna camp out over night.  We’ll check it out tomorrow and be back by sundown.”

She hid her smile.  ‘We’.  Apparently her brother was a cowpoke already.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked.

Benjamin rolled his eyes.  “Women!  Always worrying.”

Cocking her head she replied, “It’s what God made – ”

“What God made women for.  She’s my ma too, you know,” he added with a smile.

A hand on her back startled her.  Ben Cartwright had come up quietly behind her.  “Candy will take good care of Benjamin, Bella.”

The object of that sentence had stepped back into the house.  The brown-haired man had a sturdy corduroy coat in his arms.  As he handed it to her brother, Candy smiled at the older man. “Two Benjamins at the Ponderosa at one time is one too many the way I see it.”  His eyes flicked to the younger man and then returned to his boss.  “I figure by the time we get back, the kid’ll have a nickname and it will all be sorted out.”

Bella raised up on tiptoe to kiss her brother on the cheek.  He was just young enough to put up with it and old enough to keep from blushing.

“You take care.”

Candy tipped his black hat and then opened the door.  “Don’t you worry.  I’ll return him with at least three of his limbs intact,” he quipped.  The foreman sobered as he turned to his boss.  “I’ll come check on Joe when we get back tomorrow, Mister Cartwright, if that’s all right.”

“You are always welcome here, Candy.  You know that. You two take care.”

As the door closed behind the two men, Bella turned toward the hearth.  The man who had been speaking to Mister Ben was watching them.  He was tall and thin and dressed in a black wool top coat with a garnet colored jacquard vest worn over a pair of gray brushed cotton trousers. A pair of gold-rimmed glasses perched on his pale yellow hair and a matching gold chain hung from his watch pocket.  He had a thin yellow mustache too, that curled at the ends as he smiled.

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” the man said as he rose and joined them.  He had a thick southern accent and his tone was charming.

Mister Ben turned toward him.  “Doctor Brandon, this is Bella Carnaby Ashton, a dear friend of mine and my son’s.”

The doctor’s interest in her sharpened.  “Joseph?”

She nodded as he took her hand and bent over it.  “Yes.”

“May I be so bold as to ask if you are just a friend or if there is something more?”

Startled, she turned to Joe’s father.  Ben met her gaze, his own concerned.

“Doctor Brandon is from Carson City,” he said.  “It seems, unbeknownst to any of us, he has been treating Joe.”

 

SEVEN

 

Ben Cartwright didn’t know whether to be furious or relieved.

He leaned back in his chair as he waited for Hop Sing to bring in the tea and let Bella lead the conversation.  She was a charming hostess and quite good at it.  Bella was twenty-six now.  She had grown from the perky and precocious little girl he remembered into a full-grown woman.  It was partially due to the passage of the years, of course.  Unfortunately, there was another, more regretful reason for her newfound maturity.

Bella had been put through the fire.

As Bella asked Doctor Brandon about his time in South Carolina, Ben let his mind drift, recalling the letters she had sent him after the wedding.  Though there was always a longing in them for the life she might have had with Joseph, she’d seemed content with the man she had married.  Michael Clark Ashton was well known in the Portland area.  His father, Maynard, had been one of the nascent city’s shipping magnates and made a fortune.  He’d done business with Maynard’s company a time or two and been well satisfied.  When the patriarch of the family died unexpectedly in a shipwreck, the shipping company – along with all of Maynard’s other diversified interests – had gone to his children with his eldest son, Michael, taking over the role as president.  Michael’s younger brother, Raphael, and his sister, Mary, shared the vice-presidency.  He’d met Michael when he was a young man, probably no more than twenty years of age.  By the time Bella married him, he had to have been well over forty.  It had surprised him at first that the young, vibrant creature he’d hosted at the Ponderosa had decided to marry such a staid older man.

Then he had found out about Bella’s father.

Several years after the family made the move to Oregon, Levi Carnaby suffered a fit of apoplexy and was left paralyzed.  When news of the terrible event reached them he ‘d offered to help, but Levi and Mary refused any charity.  Ben shook his head.  He didn’t know how Bella had pulled it off, but apparently neither of them were aware of the fact that she was marrying to provide them with just that.  Her letters indicated she loved Michael Ashton, but it was with the love of a woman far beyond her years – a woman who was willing to sacrifice personal happiness in order to provide for the ones she loved.

Much as he disagreed with her choice, he had to honor her for it.

Ben shifted and turned as Hop Sing entered the room.  He smiled at his old friend and watched as the man from China brought the tea to the table.  He’d prepared three cups.  Doctor Brandon insisted he add a fourth.  It seemed the physician knew Doctor Kam Lee and, as Hop Sing was eager to hear about the Chinese doctor, he sat down and entered the conversation.

Ben took a sip as he continued to ruminate.  Bella’s letters had begun to intimate that something was wrong with her husband about a year after she and Michael married.  Where Ashton had always been the picture of health, suddenly he was constant in pain.  They believed it to be occasioned by a back injury he had incurred when serving on one of his father’s ships.  Sadly, they were soon to learn it was nothing of the kind.

It was cancer.

Bella and Michael went to Europe to seek a cure, but the specialists there held out no more hope for his recovery than did the ones in Portland or San Francisco.  Bella wrote once or twice while they were abroad.  Upon their return, she began to report faithfully on their life again.  Michael’s pain was no better and he had begun to have dark moods.  Bella was not only frightened for him but, at times, of him.  Eventually they discovered that the medication one of the European physicians had prescribed had brought about his anger and actually aggravated his depression.  Once they discovered the cause and he stopped taking it, Ashton had again become the man Bella knew and loved.  The last six months of their married life had been bittersweet.

He remembered the tear stains on the letter that announced her husband’s death.

Ben took another sip.  He nodded his appreciation to Hop Sing’s for the choice of Pu-erh tea as his cook rose to leave.  It carried quite a wallop and he was going to need the energy to sit up with Jamie tonight.  The boy had awakened briefly. Once he realized he was home, the redhead had relaxed.

That was, until Doctor Martin mentioned Joe.

“Mister Cartwright,” Beverly Brandon asked, breaking into his reverie.  “Would it be all right for me to see your son before I go?”

Ben sat his cup down.  “If it is all right with Paul.”

Professional courtesy was a constant in the medical trade and Doctor Brandon understood.  “Is Doctor Martin with your son now?”

“He’s in Jamie’s room,” Bella said.  “Unless he’s left.”

“Paul is heading out tonight for some much needed rest,” Ben explained.  “He said both Jamie and Joe are well enough for him to do so.  He needs to attend to other patients and then he will come back the day after tomorrow.”

Doctor Brandon rose to his feet.  “I have a room in town.  I will return tomorrow then.”

Ben shook his head.  “You can stay here with us. We have more than enough room.  That way you can see Joseph in the morning.”

The blond man pursed his lips and nodded. “If it is no trouble.”

He indicated he should sit down.  Ben waited a moment and then asked, “Will you tell me what you have been treating my son for?”

Brandon sighed.  “I’m afraid I can’t, Mister Cartwright.  Not without your son’s permission.”  The city doctor hesitated.  A slight smile lifted his lips and curled the tips of his thin mustache.  “I imagine he will be none too pleased to see me.”

Ben imagined he was right.  If there was one thing that was a constant with Joseph, it was refusing to admit that he needed any kind of help.  “What brought you here, then, if you don’t mind me asking?  I mean, if Joe didn’t want me to know something was wrong.”

The doctor’s eyes went to Bella.

She had moved to sit at his side.  Ben took her hand.  “You can talk in front of Bella.”

“Very well.”  Brandon thought a moment as if choosing his words carefully.  “I have been seeing your son for several months.  In the beginning, it seemed he was improving, but lately….”  He hesitated.  “Lately I have seen signs that have disturbed me.  I told Joseph if he failed to appear at his next appointment, I would be compelled to come to you.”  The doctor opened his hands wide.  “And here I am.”

Ben didn’t have to ask what those signs were.  Melancholia.  Dejection.

An unbridled temper.

Ben started to reply, but stopped as Paul Martin appeared at the top of the steps, black bag in hand.  He descended to the floor and walked over to them.

They all rose.

“Paul,” Ben said, “this is Doctor Brandon from Carson City.  Doctor Brandon, Paul Martin, our physician of long-standing in Virginia City.”

Both men inclined their heads and then shook hands.

“Doctor Brandon has been seeing Joseph,” Ben said, broaching what he knew would be a touchy subject.

For a moment Paul said nothing. Then he asked, a hint of disapproval in his tone, “Doctor Beverly Brandon?  Of South Carolina?”

Brandon inclined his head.  “The same.”

Ben was confused. “Do you know each other?”

Paul shook his head. “My knowledge of Doctor Brandon is professional,” his said, his tone guarded.  “He has had some success with treating melancholia in veterans of the war between the states.”

“Both Union and Confederate,” the city doctor supplied.

“Julian, my assistant, is quite a devotee of yours,” his old friend said.  “I admit, I have read some of your papers and I am not entirely convinced of the efficacy of your treatments.”

Ben swallowed over his fear.  Treatments that Joe might be taking.

“The success rate far outweighs the failures,” Brandon countered coolly.

“But there have been failures.  I believe one or two of the veterans committed suicide.”

“There were other factors,” the city doctor replied.  “Some cases are more complicated than others.”

“Is this what you are treating my son for?” Ben demanded.

Both doctors turned toward him.

“Ben,” Paul cautioned, “Joe is a grown man, responsible for his own choices. Doctor Brandon is, regrettably, not at liberty to tell either you or me the answer to that question without your son’s permission.”

Regrettably.

His son might be in danger but, regrettably, there was not a damn thing he could do about it.

“I assure you, Mister Cartwright, the treatment Joe is under is harmless.”  Brandon’s gaze was steady.  He seemed a man who meant what he said.  “It is one that I have used with dozens of men and all have prospered by it.  In fact, President Lincoln before his untimely death was under the same care.”

Ben felt Bella stiffen.  Her gaze went to the city doctor and then flew to the stairs with concern.  He watched her rise.

“I’m going to go sit with Joe, if that’s all right,” she said.

Paul Martin considered it.  “He won’t be awake.  I gave him a sleeping draft.”  His old friend looked at him.  “The boy was too restless for his own good.”

Doctor Brandon was nodding as if he agreed.   “Rest is the best remedy.”

“I won’t wake him,” she replied.  “I’ll check in on Jamie too, if that’s all right.”

Ben felt suddenly weary.  He’d had to cope with two sons injured at once before.  But before, he had had a third son to help and he had been much younger.

“How is Jamie?” he asked.

“His fever is slight and the cuts seem to be healing well thanks to Hop Sing’s remedies,” Paul said.  “He should be sleeping as well.  I sedated Jamie too so he wouldn’t move around.  It’s wise to let those wounds heal properly before he begins to stir.  Give it another day or two and he should be able to be up for a few hours at a time.”

Ben turned to the young woman who waited near the bottom of the stairs.  In some ways Bella put him in mind of Marie.  Bella was tiny and petite and simply a stunning creature.  But it was more than that.  In spite of the setbacks life had handed her, he sensed Bella Carnaby Ashton was a woman with a purpose, and that purpose was to see that his older son got well.

The older man rose and crossed to her.  Kissing her on the cheek, he sent her on her way.  As he watched Bella mount the stairs, Ben wondered what was behind her sudden impulse to see Joseph.  Still, he didn’t wonder very long.

Whatever it was, it was for his beloved son’s good.

 

“Well, if that don’t beat all!”  Candy shoved his hat back on his head and let out a low whistle.  “There’s dumb, and then there’s plain dumb.”

He and Benjamin had parted ways for the moment.  The boy had gone off with one of the older drovers to see what sights there were to be seen when you were looking at a river of beef.  He’d taken off to look for strays and had found one sitting in the middle of the road.

On top of a city slicker.

Candy moved his horse forward a few steps.  “You need a hand, mister?”

“Get this…leviathan off of me!” came the sharp reply.

The foreman grinned.  “Well now, he looks mighty content.  I figure that old beeve was looking for a good cushion to take a rest on after his flight for freedom and you’re it.”

The man was reaching out with his hand, clawing at the dirt.  “If…I could reach my…firearm…I’d shoot it!”

“Mister, I think you need to think about that.  Right now he’s just sitting on you ‘cause he’s tired.  You shoot him and one of two things are gonna happen – you’re gonna make him mad and he’s gonna rise up and stomp on you, or you’re gonna kill him and a half ton of dead cow is gonna crash down on you.”

“Then…then…what am I supposed to do!” the man spluttered.

Candy shrugged.  “Ask him politely to move?”

The city slicker’s skin was pale and covered with a sheen of sweat.  His eyes went wide as he stared at the unbothered steer.

“My good man!” he exclaimed.  “I have money.  I’ll give you anything you want….”

The Ponderosa’s foreman shook his head.  “No deal.  Mister Cartwright  pays me well.  There just ain’t nothin’ I need.”

“Cartwright?  Benjamin Cartwright?”

Candy wrinkled his nose.  It hadn’t occurred to him that this fashion plate might be a friend of the Cartwrights.  With a sigh he threw his leg over his saddle and dismounted.

“You know the Cartwrights?” he asked as he approached.

“I am practically a relative!” the man snapped.  “I’ve come to see Bella Ashton!”

Damn.

Candy exchanged a look with the steer.

There was a lot of sympathy in those black eyes.

Taking the animal by the horns, the brown-haired man began to tug.  With a grunt, he said, “They don’t call them bull-headed for nothin’.”

“I demand you free me!”

“I’m doin’ my best.”  Candy stepped back and sized up the beeve.  It seemed pretty content.  Truth to tell, he’d of been happy to leave the dandy trapped under him until the steer decided it was time to move on – if he hadn’t been afraid Mister Cartwright would disagree.

“I got an idea,” Candy said and started to walk away.

“Don’t you dare leave me!”

“I ain’t leavin’.  Keep those fancy britches of yours on,” he shot back.

The Ponderosa foreman stopped at the edge of the road.  He cleared his throat and then began to sing.

“What kind of an idiot are you?  This is not a music hall!”

“Shut up!” Candy yelled back.  Then he started again.  He wasn’t the best singer, but ‘get along little dogey’ worked its magic.  The steer bellowed, shifted back – forcing a grunt from its fancy cushion – and then rose to its feet and started down the road.

The city slicker climbed shakily to his feet and began to dust himself off.  “What anyone sees in this untamed wilderness is beyond me!” he snarled.  Firing him an angry look, he demanded, “What are you going to do about that animal?”

Candy glanced at the steer.  He was munchin’ grass and mindin’ his own business.  “Ain’t much I see needs doing,” he replied.

“Why, that horror almost killed me!  I demand you call the sheriff!”

His eyebrows popped.  “Why?  You planning on having him arrested?”

“You idiot!  I plan on having it shot!”

The steer snorted.

He agreed.  Seemed to him it was someone other than that beeve needed shootin’.

As Candy opened his mouth to reply, the sound of hooves driving hard into the ground caught his attention. He looked and saw Benjamin Carnaby riding hard toward him.  The boy drew his mount in and was off its back before it stopped moving.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Someone shot off a gun near the herd,” Ben said, breathless.  “Half of them spooked.  George sent me to get you.”

“Good lord!” the slicker gasped.  “There are more of the ghastly beasts?  Will they come through here?  Am I in danger?”

Before Candy could think of a suitable reply, he saw Benjamin’s eyes go wide with surprise.   “Rafe!”the boy exclaimed.  “What are you doing here?”

Rafe?

He tried not to snigger.

“I am here because your sister has no sense. She needs looking after,” the dandy said as he straightened his fine wool coat that was not so fine anymore.

“Bella’s got me,” Benjamin protested.

You are a child.”

The kid’s smile was triumphant.  “And you are covered with shit!”

Candy wrinkled his nose.

It was true.

The foreman inclined his head toward Rafe and looked at Benjamin.  “Friend of yours?”

The kid scowled. “Hardly.  He’s my brother-in-law.”

Oh.

 

Bella stood in the hall outside of the room where Jamie slept – the one that was Joe’s – her heart pounding hard in her chest.  It couldn’t be.

Could it?

Not again.

Tiptoeing to the door she opened it and went in.  She stood just inside of it for a moment, listening to the boy’s breathing.  It was even and she thought Jamie was asleep.  The draught the doctor had given him should keep him under, but she knew from experience that might not be the case.  As she stood there, considering what she should do, her mind returned to the horrific period just after she and her husband had returned from Europe.  A very experienced and well-respected doctor had given Michael a medication to help him rest and buoy his spirits.  At first it had seemed to work.  Her husband had been happier.  But then, on the voyage back, he grew short-tempered and slipped into a dark melancholia.  Michael struggled to contain his temper even with her.  One day, after they had returned home, it had boiled over into a rage that left several irreplaceable family heirlooms shattered on the parlor floor.   In the midst of the fit, he had almost struck her.

Her husband was old enough and wise enough to realize that something was wrong.  The only thing he could pin it down to was the medication the highly acclaimed and lauded doctor had given him.  He went to another physician who assured him the pills had nothing to do with his unexpected outbursts.  That man said those were the result of his having to face a fatal condition.  They had almost given up hope when a friend of the family suggested seeing an old-fashioned general practitioner who had been with Michael’s family since he’d been a child.  Doctor Morley took one look at the ingredients listed on the label on the amber bottle and paled.  Licorice, rose honey, hollyhock.

One-third mercury.

Michael’s brain was slowly being poisoned.

It seemed the medicine had once been the toast of both continents and considered a wonder drug.  Then, reports of effects on the side began to surface – tremendous mood swings, insomnia and headache, tremors, weakness, and abnormal sensations that made the patient think he was going mad. Rumor had it that President Lincoln had been prescribed the same thing, but had stopped taking it after he lifted one of his cabinet members from the floor by the neck and nearly choked the man to death. Lincoln, it seemed, had the strength of will to choose to discontinue its use.  There were others though who clung to the drug in spite of the warnings, as though it was a miracle cure they could not live without.  And still others whom it seemed could not live without it.  There had been suicides.  One man’s heart had stopped abruptly.

It was called Blue Mass.

“Joe….” she whispered.

Determined, Bella moved into Joe’s room.  She cast a quick look at the sleeping boy in the bed and then began to search, looking everywhere a man might hide something he didn’t want others to find.  She pulled out drawers and felt under them.  She rummaged through Joe’s shirts and pants.  While she was sure Joe thought there was nothing wrong with taking the medication, she knew him well enough to know that he would hide it.  Her anger flared as she considered the smug doctor from Carson City, so sure he knew better than Paul Martin how to take care of the man she loved.  If Joe was taking the pills then that could explain the signs Ben and the others had seen – his impulsive anger and violent rages, the cruel words he had spoken to those he loved and, most of all, his hatred of himself.

Five minutes later, Bella stood in the center of the room with her hands on her hips.  She’d found nothing, but that didn’t mean she was going to give up.  The pills were there, she knew it!  Just as she thought to begin again, her eyes fell on the nightstand by the bed.  She hadn’t searched it.  That was where someone who had nothing to hide would put a bottle of pills.

Bella froze.  Then she laughed.

Joe wasn’t a boy anymore like the one occupying his bed.  He was a man.  His father wouldn’t go through the things in his room.  There would be no need to hide the pills.

Walking to the nightstand, she quietly opened the drawer.  It was there.  The amber snake.

A bottle of Blue Mass with a dozen or more pills inside.

Bella hesitated and then palmed the medication.  She closed the drawer and went to the bedroom door. With a last look at Jamie to make sure he was still sleeping, she stepped into the hall.  Her eyes went to the room Joe occupied and then to the stairs which led down to the great room where both the doctors and Mister Ben were.

Which should she choose?

 

Joe stirred and opened his eyes.  For a moment he had no idea where he was, then he remembered awakening earlier and realizing he was in Adam’s room.  He looked at it now with renewed pain.  It had been over a decade since his older brother had left to see the world and Pa kept his room like a shrine.  Sure, he missed his brother – he always would – but you had to move on.

The second the thought crossed his mind, Joe was shamed.

Wasn’t that what Pa had told him about Alice and Tanner?

Carefully, mindful of the fact that just about everything he had hurt like hell, Joe pulled himself up and rested his injured back against the pillows.  Being in Adam’s room was like a punch in the gut.  He could almost see his older brother standing by the bed with his arms folded, one shoulder braced on the wall and one eyebrow cocked high as he softly scolded him.

If you want to be treated like a man, little brother, you’d better start acting like one.

He’s been acting like a child.

And he didn’t know why.

Joe had been surprised to awaken alone.  From what little he remembered, there’d been someone at his side day and night – Pa, old Doc Martin, Candy even.  And someone else.  A woman.  In his fevered state he’d thought it was Alice.  For the life of him, he couldn’t remember who she was, though he was sure she had told him her name.  Joe looked at the door, which was mostly closed.  He knew from the comings and goings outside it that Jamie had to be in his bedroom across the hall.  The Doc must have kept them together when they first got to the house, since it would have been easier to tend both of them that way, and then Pa had moved him here.

He had to see Jamie.  He had to see that his little brother was all right.  He had to –

Apologize.

God, how was he going to apologize to someone he almost killed?

Determined, Joe pushed himself away from the pillows.  Gritting his teeth, he moved his lower body to the side and worked his way to the edge of the bed.  Once there he stopped, breathing hard.  The motion sickened his stomach and put stars before his eyes, but he didn’t care.  He was going to get up.  He was going to make it across that hall and go into that room and throw himself on the kid’s mercy.  He had to make Jamie understand that he loved him, that he would die before he would hurt him on purpose.

Joe sucked in a sob.

Death was all around him and none of them were his.

It wasn’t that he wanted to die.  Not really.  If he was honest with himself, he damn well didn’t want to.  But he wanted to stop hurting the people he loved and since he couldn’t seem to do that, being out of their life was about the only way he could see to make it happen.  He’d made up his mind.  He’d go see Jamie and then he’d leave.  He’d do it late at night when no one was watching him – when they thought Doc Martin’s medicine had knocked him flat.

Medicine.

Joe scowled.  What day was it?  And when was he supposed to have gone to Carson City?  He’d skipped on visit with Doctor Brandon already.

If it had been two….

As he stood there, the sound of men’s voices raised in disagreement floated up the stairs.  Joe could barely hear them, but he knew one was his pa.  Another might have been Paul Martin’s.  He thought so but wasn’t sure.  The third he didn’t know.

At least, he hoped he didn’t know it.

Joe drew a deep breath and, with his badly cut  arms, pushed himself up and off the bed.  Pain shot through his injured shoulder as he did, taking his breath away.  Fortunately, his legs had made it through the battle with the barbed wire in fairly good shape and they carried him to the door where he leaned his head against the jamb and listened.

“…quackery!” one man exclaimed.

“…telling me, Paul…son in danger?”

“…listen to….country bumpkin!”

Yeah, that third one was Doctor Brandon.

“Oops,” Joe whispered and winced.

Taking hold of the latch, he pulled the door inward.  The problem was, he was leaning his weight on it, so when the door opened he swung in with it.  A second later he lost his footing and ended up in a painful pile on the floor.

“Ouch,” he conceded.   “Damn.”

“Your pa will wash your mouth out with soap if he hears you cussing,” a soft voice remarked.

At last.  He was gonna find out who the mystery woman was!

Joe heard the swish of skirts as the woman sank to the floor behind him.  It reminded him of his ma.  He couldn’t remember much about his mother other than she smelled like lilac and her dress had made that same sound whenever she came into his room and reached over to tuck him into bed.  A pair of arms circled his chest and a head rested on his back.  Tears wet the cuts the wire had left.

He tried to turn to look at her, but she held him fast.

“What are you doing out of bed, you silly boy?” the woman asked softly.

Her voice was familiar, but not recognizable.  It was like he had heard it before, but from a distance.  Maybe a long distance.

“Who…?”

There was a small laugh.  “We can’t keep meeting like this, you know?”

“Like what?” he asked.  “On the floor?”

Fingers explored his hair.  He thought about shifting away from them, but there was something familiar – something…calming about the touch.

“In a creek.  In the snow.  In the presence of a madman.  And now, on the floor.”  The woman paused.  Tears made her voice shake.  “Joe Cartwright, don’t you think I’ve rescued you often enough?”

Her grip on him lessened – slightly.  Enough for him to turn and look.  The face that greeted him was one he knew but, like his own, it had changed.  That youthful beauty he had admired as a twenty-two year old boy had ripened into a woman’s full splendor.

Joe lifted his hand to capture her chin in his fingers.

“Bella,” he breathed.

She smiled through her tears.  “You said to check back in four or five years.”

For the first time in a long time, he smiled.  “I sure did.”

“Well, here I am,” she said with a shrug.

Joe frowned.   “Bella, I….”

Her finger went to his lips.  She shook her head.  Then she leaned forward and kissed him.  A second later, pulling back, Bella favored him with an impish grin.

“I think your Pa is coming up.  Shall we give him a surprise?”

“You’re crazy,” he said.

Bella rose.  She held a hand out and then, with effort helped him to stand.  Moving on his own, but leaning heavily on her, Joe walked back to the bed and literally fell into it.  Bella pushed the door to and then came to the bed and climbed in on the other side.  She scooted over until she was next to him and once again circled his waist with her arms.

“Do you think you can sleep?” she asked, concern coloring her tone.

“Mm-hmm,” he said, already halfway there.

Joe felt her hand on his forehead, caressing it.  “Go to sleep, little brother.  I’m here now.  I’ll take care you.  Everything is going to be all right.”

 

Ben had shown Doctor Beverly Brandon to the door.  Once Paul had pulled from the other man the treatment he had prescribed for Joe, the battle had been joined.  Modern medicine warred with good old-fashioned common sense.  It had been up to him to choose.

In the end, his trust in Paul Martin won out.

Slowly, the older man climbed the stairs.  He went to Joe’s room to check Jamie first and then headed across the hall to the room that had been his eldest son’s.  Ben listened for a moment and then pushed the door open.  The sight that greeted him brought tears to his eyes.  Just like they had so many years before, Joe and Bella lay on the bed together breaking the house rules.

And what a joy it was that they were!

 

EIGHT

 It was early morning.  Outside the dining room window of the Ponderosa ranch house birds were wheeling through the sky, singing out the joy of a new day.  Inside the house was quiet.  It was that hour just before Hop Sing rose to begin his food preparations for the day, the hour before Ben Cartwright stirred in his bed, placed his feet on the floor and headed for the clothing he had laid out the night before; an hour before the hands stirred in the bunkhouse and the business of the day began.

Joe Cartwright savored it.  It was one of the only times when he could be alone.

He’d gone to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee.  The wonderful aroma came with him into the great room as he carried the enamel pot in and filled one of the delicate china teacups on the table – the teacups his pa insisted they use so they remained ‘civilized’.  Sitting on his ‘civilized’ mother’s French settee, Joe broke the rules by placing his socked feet on the sofa table, easing the strain on his wounded back.

Taking a sip, he savored the brew.

It was the first time he had been downstairs since…since he’d lost his temper and made a tangle of everything.  He’d awakened to the birdsong – and to Bella Carnaby laying beside him.  For a moment he had felt a jolt.  He’d moved his hand and encountered a woman’s thigh.  For just a moment, laying there with his eyes closed, he wondered if it had all been a dream – Alice’s brother’s poor choices, the men who had come to make John Harper pay, his house on fire with his wife and child inside.  He had nightmares.  Always had.

Maybe this was just one more….

He’d rolled over carefully, sucking in the agony the motion brought, to find not his shy, pretty wife with her bashful smile and straight honey-blonde hair, but a beauty with spiraling blonde curls, a pert upturned nose, and full lips that beamed even while in sleep.

In a second it had all come back.  The nightmare was real.  Alice and his child had died.  This wasn’t Alice.  It was Bella.

His big sister had come home.

Joe’s lips curled at the thought of Bella being his ‘big’ sister.  The idea had been absurd when he was seventeen and she was eleven, but the term had stuck after she rescued him out of that creek.  It had seemed even more absurd when she came back at eighteen.  Then, his thoughts of the vivacious beauty had been anything other than brotherly.  And now, here she was again.  Older.  Wiser.  Perhaps a bit world-weary like him.  But she still looked so young.  Staring at her, lying there beside him, he had not seen a child but a young woman who had all of her life before her.

She didn’t deserve to be saddled with a broken old cowpoke like him.

Joe shifted his feet off the table and leaned over to pour more coffee.  He felt ancient.  The life he’d believed would happen had gone up literally in smoke, and along with it had burned away all of his youthful desires.  He’d made Bella a promise that first time he met her – that one day he’d marry her.  It was a shame.  He didn’t know if she was still in love with him, but if she was, he was going to have to break her heart.  He’d never marry again.  Never be a father.

Never take…that chance.

As he shifted back, Joe heard a sound.  He looked up to find his father descending the stairs.  A quick glance at the tall case clock showed him it was only four-thirty.

Before the older man noticed him, Joe said, “You’re up early, Pa.  Goin’ somewhere special today?”

Ben Cartwright started and then smiled. “It’s good to see you up, son, but are you sure you’re strong enough?  Doctor Martin wanted you in bed through the rest of this week.”

He shrugged.  “You know Paul.  He knows if he tells me Friday, I’ll be up on Wednesday.  So he always adds at least two days to his orders.”

His father laughed.  “I suppose he does.”  The older man paused.  “Fresh coffee?” Pa asked as he inclined his head toward the pot.

“Just made it.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Your company is one of the things I value, Pa.  I’d be pleased to share the morning with you.”

The white-haired man crossed to him, touched his shoulder briefly, and then went to get a cup and saucer from the cupboard.  He returned with it, filled it from the pot, and then sat down by him on the settee.

Before the older man could ask, Joe said, “I’m okay, Pa.”

“Just okay?”  Those white eyebrows rose high.  “Not ‘fine’?”

Joe’s eyes went to the table before him.  He’d placed the amber bottle that had been clasped in Bella’s fingers on the center of the table by the fruit bowl.  He’d made his mind up to tell his Pa about it.  He assumed Bella had found it in his nightstand drawer, though what she was rummaging around in there for he had no idea.

He saw his father pale as he followed his gaze.  There was a pause and then he said, “Joe, why?  Why would you do such a thing without consulting me?”

He could have said he was his own man and old enough to make his own decisions.  He knew, though, that even though that was a part of it, it was not the main part.  He could have asked Doc Martin for help.  No, he’d been ashamed.  Ashamed that he needed help.  Ashamed that he was not strong enough to overcome this on his own.

Just…ashamed.

“Joseph,” his father began.  “I….”  He drew a deep breath and expelled it very slowly.  “I’m sorry if I have been too demanding as a father.”

It was his turn to be surprised.  “What?  Pa, that’s not – ”

The white-haired man held his hand out.  “Hear me out.  When Paul and I talked, after you and Jamie had been brought here, he said something that got me thinking.  Paul said I cast a ‘long shadow’.  That being Ben Cartwright’s son was not easy.  That I made you, and your brothers, feel that you had to be as good and as great as you thought I was.”

Joe wasn’t sure what to say.  Finally, he admitted, “Well, living up to the example you set hasn’t always been easy.  But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  You’re a good man, Pa.  The best.  What more could there be to strive toward other than bein’ like you?”

His father swallowed. There were tears in his eyes.  His voice cracked as he said, “Thank you, Joseph.  There’s nothing a father could want more than to hear those words.”  He paused and his lips pursed for a moment.  “I think your brother Adam ran to escape that shadow.  I don’t want you to…drown in it.  I know you are making comparisons, son, and it saddens me.”

Joe rolled his eyes.  “Well, Pa, what can I say?  You did lose three wives and I only lost one, and I’m here to tell you I don’t know how after Adam’s ma died you ever had the courage to try again.”

His father studied him.  “Are you telling my you believe you won’t ever marry again?”

He shifted and sat up.  His father didn’t fail to notice how gingerly he moved.  The grin he favored his pa with was sheepish.

“I woke up with Bella in my bed this morning,” he said.

The older man nodded.

“You knew?”

“I left her there,” Pa laughed.  “I remember the last time you were hurt and that young woman was in the house.  I fought a losing battle to keep you two away from each other.”

He snorted. “I guess we were pretty persistent.”

“She is a determined young woman.  Just about as determined as you.”

Joe’s eyes flicked to the other man’s face.  There was a hint of disapproval in his tone when he asked, “Pa, did you invite her here?”

His father finished his coffee and placed the cup on the table.  “No.  I received a letter that told me she was coming about a week ago.  She asked me not to tell you.”

Joe scowled.  “Why?”

“She believed you would forbid her to come.”

He was going to rebuke that, but then he thought better of it.  Given his mood, that was exactly what he would have done.

“I guess I haven’t been the easiest thing to live with this last few months,” he admitted.

His father’s eyes went wide.  He snorted and shook his head.  “No, you haven’t.  You’ve been so angry.”  The older man’s gaze went to the table and the amber bottle again.  “Is that why you sought help from a doctor in another town and began to take medication?”

Joe leaned forward and picked up the bottle with the harmless looking little blue pills inside.  He’d spoken briefly to Bella and she’d explained that her husband had been put on them too and it had remarkably changed his personality.

“No.  The anger came later, after I started to take these.”  His eyes went to his father’s face.  “I couldn’t sleep, Pa.  Couldn’t get those…images out of my head.  Couldn’t forget the sound of Bill Tanner walking behind me, whistling that devil’s tune.  Doctor Brandon said these pills would help me to relax so I could sleep.  They’d keep me from getting so low.”

“Did they?”

Joe shrugged as he put the bottle done.  “Pardon me, Pa, but Hell if I know.  I guess I wasn’t sad anymore, I was just mad – so mad I could have torn the world apart.”  The curly-headed man sighed as his eyes went to the stairs.  “How’s Jamie doing?”

“He’s sleeping naturally now.  Like you, he’s hurting pretty badly.”

He closed his eyes to try to shut out yet another image of loss and pain.  “I wish I could remember just what happened.  I was standing by Cooch, getting a drink of water.  I’d just gone back to the wire when Jamie said something.  Can’t even remember what it was.  It made me so angry that I….”

“That you what?” his father’s voice was even, there was no condemnation in it.

“I shoved him.  Hard.  I didn’t realize he was that close to the unbaled wire.  He fell…into…it….”  Joe shuddered.  “I tried to catch him, but it already had hold.  It started cutting him right away.  He….”  His eyes flew open and locked on his father’s.  They mirrored each other in tears.  “Jamie pulled away from me, Pa.  He was terrified.  Not of the wire.  Not of being hurt.  Of me.  Terrified of me!”

He felt his father’s hand grip his arm.  “Jamie loves you.”

Tears spilled down his cheeks.  “Are you sure, Pa?  How can you be sure he does anymore?”

“Because I know Jamie, like I know you.  One bad day cannot outweigh the power of over a thousand good ones.”

“One bad day,” Joe snorted. “That was one hell of a bad day!”

“So was the one when your brother Adam shot you.”  His father lifted his hand.  “You almost died, Joe.  Did you stop loving your brother?”

“Of course not.  It was an accident.”  He stopped, thought and then said, “My hurting Jamie wasn’t.”

“You meant to hurt him then?”

“No.  But I shoved him on purpose.”

Into the wire?”

Joe paused.  Then he sighed.  “You should have been a lawyer, Pa.”

“I have been a lawyer, and a doctor, and a rich man and poor man, if not an Indian chief,” he smiled.  “A man has to be all those things when he raises four boys in the hopes of making them into men he can admire.”  His father’s hand cupped his cheek.  “And I do admire you, Joseph.”

He sniffed back tears and then nodded toward the stair.  “I suppose I should go see if Jamie is awake.”

As he stood up, he reached for the bottle.  His father’s hand prevented it.

“You’re not planning on taking these again, are you?”

Bella had told him a little about the fight between Doctor Martin and Doctor Brandon.  He wasn’t sure what to think.

“If I do, Pa, I won’t hide it.”

“Paul thinks they caused your unreasonable anger.”

“And Doctor Brandon thinks they keep me from sinking down so far into sorrow I can’t climb out.”  He eyed the bottle.  “I like Doctor Brandon and I trust him, but I don’t think I’ll need them anymore, Pa.”

“But….”

He shrugged.  “I’ll just put them in the drawer.”

His father sighed.  “Will you talk to Paul about it?  Please?”

Joe nodded.

Before you take them again?”

“Sure, Pa.  Like I said, I think I’m on the mend.”  Joe smiled wanly.  “Besides, now that Bella’s here, she’s not gonna let me sit around and stew.”

“You’ve got that right,” a light voice proclaimed.

Joe turned to find Bella standing at the top of the stair.

 

Bella kept a hand on the rail, steadying herself as she descended.  It was as if, in a rush, eight years had simply fallen away.  There was a pang of guilt and maybe a shade of regret when she thought of Michael, but this man, sitting on the old striped settee she remembered so well, was the one she loved.

The one she had always loved.

But did he still love her?

Ben Cartwright was rising to his feet.  “You’re up early, Bella,” he said.

She merely nodded.  She’d awakened to find Joe no longer in the bed and the bottle of Blue Mass gone and she’d grown frightened.  She was still dressed from the night before, so she’d hastened into the hall and, after checking the room Jamie was in and finding Joe was not there, headed for the stairs.

She’d slowed down when she heard Joe and his father talking.

A slight smile lifted her lips.  He was a stubborn one, Joe Cartwright.  Obstinate and determined, with a need to do things for himself and not let anyone else show him or pave the way.  If they told him not to take those pills, he would probably take them just to prove he knew better.  She prayed that there would be no need.  She had asked God to allow her to help him heal.  God seemed okay with the idea.

Now she had to see if Joe was as well.

Ever the gentleman, Joe rose shakily to his feet.  “Seems I missed you letter telling me you were coming,” he said with just a bit of that ornery smile she remembered.

“Must have gotten lost in the post,” she replied as she took a seat in the blue chair near the fire, knowing that if she sat down, the two men would as well.  Bella smiled sweetly.  “I’m sure I sent one.”

Joe’s father sat down but, surprisingly, Joe remained standing.  “Next time I’m in town I’ll have to give the postmaster a piece of my mind.”

He stood there, like he was planning on going somewhere.  The morning light fell in wide beams through the eastern window of the ranch house, settling in his hair and turning the silver curls to gold.  Looking at Joe Cartwright, Bella saw the man before her but also the skinny, brown-haired boy she had fallen in love with when she was barely old enough to know what love was.  Knowing he would balk at any show of affection before his father – maybe any show of affection at all – she drew in a deep breath and held it against the sight.

“Joseph, aren’t you going to sit down?” Mister Ben asked softly.

Joe favored his father with one of those half-smiles he had, the ones that lifted his lips but failed to reach his eyes.

“I need to go talk to Jamie, Pa.”

“He’s asleep,” Bella said, hoping it wasn’t too quick.  Praying Joe didn’t know she wanted him to stand there just a little while longer.

“I’ll sit with him, then,” he said.  “He’ll be waking up soon.  I….”  Joe swallowed.  “I need to talk to him, Pa.  It’s for me as much as for him.”

Ben Cartwright nodded.  “We’ll call you when breakfast is on the table.”

Joe returned the nod.  “Thanks, Pa.”  As he moved past her, Joe stopped to place a hand on her shoulder.  “I’m glad you’re here, Bella,” he said.  “I’ve missed you.”

She covered his hand with hers.  “I’ve missed you too, Joe.”

And with that, he continued on until he reached the stairs.

Bella turned to watch him ascend.  She knew Mister Ben had too.  They had a shared concern and it was that Joe heal; that he become the man they had known or maybe, just maybe, even a better one for all he had been through.

Pivoting in her seat, she looked at Joe’s father.

He nodded and then said, “He’s very wounded, Bella.  You know Joseph.  He feels things deeply.  Alice’s death hit him hard.  But I think,” the older man paused, “the loss of his child hit him even harder.”

Joe loved his pa.  Loved him in a way that almost passed understanding.  She could imagine how the thought – the hope – of being a father to his own child had given him a joy that also went past expressing.  And then, to have not only his wife but that baby murdered….

She shook her head.  “I can’t imagine.”

“Joe has…had a hard time letting go.  He feels responsible.”  Ben hesitated.  “There was nothing he could have done, of course.”

Bella was silent a minute.  “What can I do to help him?”

The older man considered it.  Finally, he said, “Be his friend.”

She nodded, understanding.  Not his lover.  His friend.

“I can do that.”

The older man rose and came over to her.  He sat on the low table in front of her and leaned forward to place his hand over hers.  “I know you love my son.  I know you always have.”  He paused.  “Forgive me for thinking you were too young to know what you were doing when you were here before.”

She smiled.  “I was too young.  That’s why I ran away.  I was a child with a child’s perception of life.  Somehow,” she drew a breath and held it a moment, “somehow I thought that, if I lived in a city, bad things would not happen.”  Bella’s laugh was wistful.  “Apoplexy and cancer are not limited to the west.”

He nodded.  “No, they’re not.”  The older man straightened up. “How are you, Bella?  I’ve been so consumed with Joseph and Jamie since you came that I haven’t asked.  You lost your husband….”

“Michael was an amazing man.”  She hesitated, unsure of how much to say.  “He…knew I loved your son, but he was all right with that.  He took me in, took care of me and my family.  He loved me although he knew he had only half of my heart.”  She winced.  “Maybe less.”

“I knew him as a young man.  I’m sorry I did not get to know the man he grew into.”

“Before he died, he said he was content.  He knew I would be taken care of.  Michael left fifty-one percent of the family’s concerns to me, with the other part going to his brother and sister.”  She paused.  “Rafe was all right with that.  Mary was quite bitter.”

“Rafe?  He was the younger boy?  I vaguely recall him as a little scamp always on his brother’s heels.”

Bella nodded.  She hesitated and then said, “He was determined to accompany me to the Ponderosa.  That’s why Benjamin came, to keep him from doing so.”

“Oh?  Is there trouble between you?”

She made a face worthy of the eleven-year-old she had been.  “Rafe thinks he’s in love with me.”

The older man smiled. “Thinks?”

She rolled her eyes.  “Well, maybe he is.  But I’d rather marry a rattler!”

This time Mister Ben laughed.  “I see, like my son, that you aren’t short on opinions.”

Bella laughed too.  “I suppose Rafe is all right, but he is so irritating.  He won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  I’m surprised he didn’t hop on a coach and follow me out here like some lovesick pup!”

As she finished speaking, the door to the ranch house opened.  Along with a strong, bitter wind, Candy Canaday, Mister Ben’s foreman, blew in.  He was covered with dirt and dust and looked exhausted.  Candy glanced over his shoulder as he settled on the rug near the door and then turned back.

“There’s been a stampede, Mister Cartwright,” he announced.

Bella was on her feet instantly.  “Benjamin?”

“I’m all right, big sister,” Ben announced as he too entered the house.  Ben looked like he’d been through a whirlwind, but he was grinning from ear to ear.  “I haven’t ever seen anything so exciting!”

Candy threw her brother a look.  “Kids.  ‘Exciting’ ain’t exactly the word I would have used.”

“Are the cattle settled?” Joe’s father asked.

“Yes, sir.”  Candy hesitated.  “We caught ‘em all.”

The older man nodded.  “And you are both all right?”

Bella saw the foreman and her brother exchange a look.  Neither responded.

“Well?” the older man demanded.

“Well, we’re fine, sir.  Trouble is, there was a man got caught up in all the trouble.  He’s….”

Benjamin snorted.  “He ain’t too happy.”

From outside there came a voice, pitched high, nearly hysterical and definitely piqued.

“Of all of the impossible, brainless, backwoods idiots that I have been forced to endure on this journey, Mister Canady, I swear you are the worst!  It wasn’t bad enough that I had to be subjected to the indignity of a bovine making a seat of me, but to be forced to ride on the rear of a ferocious animal….”

Candy sniggered.  “Mister Canaday,” he repeated, lifting one eyebrow and putting on airs.

There was something about that voice.  Something familiar that sent shivers up Bella’s back.

Candy was scratching his head.  “Sorry, Mister Cartwright.  I tried to be accommodating.  Seems that city slicker just didn’t like ridin’ on the tale end of that pack horse.”

“City slicker?” Bella blinked.

A tall, lean figure with sandy red hair and brown eyes and brows stepped into the house.  His elegant suit was covered with noxious brown stains and there were bits and pieces of branches and leaves in his hair.

Ben Cartwright stepped past her.  “Candy, who is this?”

Bella sighed.  She gritted her teeth and told him.

“This is Raphael Ashton, Michael’s brother.”  The blonde woman’s lips pulled into a thin line.  “Rafe,” she demanded, “what are you doing here?”

 

Joe sat beside Jamie.  It was a funny feeling because it was his room and this was the chair Pa usually occupied while he was waiting for him to wake up after something bad had happened.  His little brother was scrunched down under the covers.  His breathing was even like he was asleep, but Joe wasn’t fooled.  He’d pulled that one too many times.  Jamie was awake.

He just didn’t want to talk to him.

Joe closed his eyes.  All of his life he’d been, well, what he would have called self-indulgent.  It was a hard word and he knew his father would disagree, though Hoss and Adam might have seen it differently.  They would have at least smiled and winked at him, knowing they understood what he meant even if that wasn’t the word they would have used.

Probably the word they wouldn’t have used.

He knew some of it had to do with being the baby in the family.  He’d been protected and, probably more than he should have been, allowed to have his way.  Adam had told him once that, though their pa had loved Elizabeth and Inger, he had doted on his own ma, Marie.  Adam’s ma had been his pa’s first love and Inger, the companion of his journey out west.  His ma, the fiery woman from New Orleans, was their pa’s prize.  The older man had loved her with a love that was as fierce as she’d been and grieved just as deeply when she died.

Joe knew he was all that was left of Marie.  He knew his pa saw her when he looked at him.  He always had and nothing was going to change that.

So when, as a little boy, he had pulled the same kind of fits his ma had, pushing a little harder than he should, defying his pa’s rules, disobeying orders and such, Pa hadn’t tanned his hide but smiled.  It wasn’t that he was a bad man or spoiled or anything like that, but he had kind of come out of it thinking that the world owed him something.  And when it didn’t deliver, well….

He just hadn’t known what to do about it.

Maybe he should have expected it.  The West was a hard mistress.  His pa had lost three wives.  But somehow, he had thought it would be different.  When he married Alice, he had expected to lead a happy life, to have a loving wife and a passel of kids that would call him ‘Pa’.  He wanted to be ‘Pa’.  He wanted to be to his children what his father was to him.  He’d wanted it so bad that when it didn’t happen, he’d dropped the reins and let the team run away.

He still wasn’t sure if he had the strength to chase them down.

Joe sighed.  He glanced at the figure on the bed and said softly, “Jamie, I know you’re awake.  I don’t blame you for not wanting to look at me, but there’s nothing you can do to keep from hearing me.  I….”  He hesitated.  “Sorry ain’t enough to say.  I wish I knew what was.”

There was no motion from the figure on the bed.

He scoffed.  “You’re not foolin’ me.  I perfected the ‘pretend-you’re-asleep-and-they’ll-all-go-away’ technique, you know?”

Jamie shifted then.   He had been laying on his back.  Now he was on his left side, facing him.

“You know,” Joe said, “it seems this medicine I’d been taking, the one the city Doc gave me, might have made me lose my temper, but you know,” his smile was chagrined, “I’ve been losing my temper for years and those pills had nothing to do with it.”  Joe shifted.  He was still in pain, but he didn’t care.  He leaned forward and touched the boy, like his pa had always touched him.  “There’s no excuse for those things I said to you.  There’s no excuse for treating you like I did.”  He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.

This was it.

“Can you forgive me?”

Jamie was staring at him.  His blue eyes were open but not quite focused.  Joe recognized the effects of one of Doc Martin’s ‘powders’.

“I ain’t sore at you, Joe,” he said softly.

“Oh?” Joe pursed his lips.  “You oughta be.”

The boy frowned.  “I know you didn’t mean for me to get hurt.  It’s just….”

“Just what?”

Jamie drew a breath.  “You scared me, Joe.”

He leaned back in the chair, wincing as his injured shoulder contacted the wood.  “You want in on a secret?”  As Jamie nodded, he continued, “I scared myself too.”

The redhead pulled himself up a little higher on the pillows.  Joe noted all the cuts he had on him, most of which were healing pretty well due to Hop Sing’s ministrations.  Jamie just stared at him for a minute and then said, with words way beyond any wisdom he should have had.

“I forgive you, Joe.  But can you forgive yourself?”

He was honest.  “I don’t know.”

Jamie scowled.  “How come you’re so hard on yourself?”

It was a question he’d asked before.  Joe shrugged.  “I don’t know that either.”

The boy was silent a moment and then he said, “You know what Hoss told me?”

Joe’s eyes teared.  He shook his head.

“He told me that when your mama died, you thought it was your fault.”

He stiffened.  He had never heard this before.   “Go on.”

“Hoss said after your pa took you in to say goodbye to your ma, you came to sleep with him in his room.  You were just a little kid.  He told me he wrapped you in his arms and held you, hoping you’d go to sleep. When you didn’t, when you kept crying, he asked you what was wrong.”  Jamie was looking right at him – through him, maybe.  “You said if only you had told your mama not to ride that big black horse, she wouldn’t have died.  Hoss said you were sure it was your fault.  All the bad things aren’t your fault, Joe.  They just happen.”  Jamie paused.  “Hoss told me something else.  Do you want to hear it?”

Joe nodded.  Slowly.

“It was just before he died.  Hoss and I were sitting in the barn working some leather.  Braiding it, you know?  I was upset because that filly had died.  The pretty one with the dappled nose.”  Jamie’s voice was weakening.  He could tell the boy was tired.  “I said I didn’t understand why she had to die and Hoss told me he didn’t know why either, but there was a reason.  He was sure of that.  ‘Jamie,’ he said, ‘there’s a reason and a purpose to everythin’.  You hear me, just everythin’!  We may never know it this side of Heaven, but I’m sure as shootin’ sure there is.  You just gotta trust.’ ”  The redhead stopped.  He waited until he met his stare.  “Joe, you gotta believe that too.  You just gotta trust.”

Out of the mouths of babes, he thought.

Joe blinked back tears.  He nodded.

This time it was Jamie who reached out to touch him.

He really didn’t need to.  Jamie had touched him already.   Deeply.

In his soul.

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4 thoughts on “Doubt That The Stars Are Fire (by McFair)”

  1. Thanks thanks thanks a million to make Joe & Bella & Ben & Hopsing happy in the end!!!!Nine children!!!!!!!now Joe will more than understand when his Pa had gone through all those years of his reckless adventures!!!!I loved the romance you described!!I was thinking again a tragedy would take place in poor Joe’s life!!!!But all well that ends well !thanks for mentioning Hoss in the story!!I always loved the character & his bondage with Joe !!!I read all parts & now can’t decide which was the best but loved the whole journey with lot of SJS & ESJ !!!!loved all your stories!!!

  2. I loved this story! It was ended so beautifully and I cried and cried. You put Joe and Bella through so much. Your descriptions are amazing.

    1. Thank you for taking time to let me know how much you enjoyed the tale. I appreciate it. Thanks also for your kind comments on my writing – sorry I made you cry, but glad you were moved!

  3. This tale just went from strength to strength and we really needed this last installment to round it all out. As always, I enjoyed the way your story went off on an unexpected path. Another wonderful story!

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