Love at First Sight in Virginia City (by ViveAdam)

Summary: Joe falls in love with Christine, a horsewoman in a gipsy company.  

Rated: K+  WC  15,000

 

Love at First Sight in Virginia City 

Joe threw up his hat, caught it back, threw it up again while humming : « Christine, her name is Christine ».

“Dadburnit, Joe, are you making up your mind ?”

Joe turned his head towards the voice that was hailing him. Without any reason, he felt like bursting in laughter at seeing his brother Hoss, obviously incensed, clinging to a long wood saw.

“Joe, in case you ignore it, we have a cord of wood to chop and this saw has to be handled by two people, so hurry up !”

« Christine, her name is Christine » was the only answer Hoss got. However, at last, Joe approached and took one end of the saw. « Christine, Christine » he went on singing on a chimes tune.

“What are you singing? What is it, Christine ?”

Joe stopped the saw’s to-and-fro and snapped : “Take back immediately what you said !”

“What did I say”, Hoss asked, taken aback.

“You said : What is it, Christine ?”

“So what ?” “You should say : Who is Christine ? She is a person, not a thing.”

“Ouch ! I apologize ! Well, WHO is Christine ?”

“The prettiest creature that was ever born on earth, a delightful brunette, with kiss curls around her rosy cheeks, doe eyes, wasp-waist, a high planted bosom and a rump…”

“Joe, do stop it ! First, come back to work and then let you explain who’s this gal and how you’re in a position to speak about her… huh… rump”

“Don’t imagine things”, Joe replied, “I saw her rump because she’s a rider and since she rides like a man, she wears pants. That’s all.”

He was interrupted by the noise of a canter. A few seconds later, his father stopped before them and noticed aloud that they weren’t well on with their work.

“That’s a pity”, he said, “because I need one of you to go to town.”

Joe jumped at the opportunity : “I’ll go, if you like, Pa. Hoss, just ask Frank to replace me.”

And without listening to the giant’s protestations, he rushed to untie Cochise and mounted. Without questioning his youngest son’s real motivation, Ben gave his instructions and Joe headed at great speed to Virginia City.

“Well”, Ben commented, “shopping in town seems to be more interesting to him than chopping wood…”

“I don’t know what’s the matter with him, Pa. All the morning, he’s been raving about one Christine…”

“A passing fancy again ? I should have suspected it. Bet that my errands will be quickly done and after, he’ll take plenty of time to join his belle. Christine, you said ? I don’t see who she can be.”

“He said she was a rider. Maybe one of the girls who came with the gipsy company for the horseshow they organize in the town’s fifth anniversary’s honour…”

“Do you think so ? In that case, her name must be Cristina, not Christine. Christine is an American name… or French. Whatever, he’s going to keep harping on about her for three weeks and after, he’ll flare up for another one. We’re used to that, your brother is an expert in short-lived love.”

“Yep ! Meanwhile, autumn is coming and if he wants to warm his belle in front of a chimney fire, he’ll need chopped wood. If he thinks I’ll do the job instead of him…”

“Hold on, Hoss”, Ponderosa’s patriarch interrupted, “you’re not working only for Joe but for all of us. Everybody will need heat, so, do as he said, ask Frank for a hand.”

Hoss staid astounded. How did young brother manage to always do just what he wanted to do – and with Pa’s blessing – leaving his chores to others ? Himself was always taken in and he failed to understand how and why. “Me too”, he grumbled after his father’s departure, “I’m able to do that. Going around in circles with these gipsy gals isn’t Joe’s exclusivity. If I find one for my liking, I’ll do like him and we’ll see what happens !

” *******************************************************************************************************Meanwhile,

Joe was riding, his heart swelling with love, to Virginia City. The gipsy company had set up its camp on a pasture owned by the Dixon family, situated on the road leading to Ponderosa. The Dixon had a boy, Terry, the same age as Joe. It could be an opportunity or a threat, Joe thought : opportunity because it would give him a pretext to visit the camp with the pasture’s owner’s son, threat because Terry could discover Christine and decide to court her. After weighing the pros and the cons, Joe decided he’d better go alone. After all, it wasn’t a crime to pay a welcome visit. Forgetting about his father’s errands, he rode to the pasture. Feeling its master’s good mood, Cochise trotted happily, its head and tail wagging up. The travelling entertainers had built a makeshift corral and some were training while others were watching and talking. Close to the wagons, women were preparing dinner. Joe ran his eyes over the scene and, ascertain that the lady of his thoughts wasn’t among the cooks, he went close to the corral. Christine was there, inside the corral, and she was making circles standing up on her horse. She jumped down, straddled up, stood up again, jumped down again with fantastic facility. Joe found a pleasure that he didn’t mind showing openly, in admiring this gracious person, when an unpleasant voice startled him : “What is he doing here, this guy ?”

The sentence was delivered in a foreign language but Joe picked the general picture. No doubt, the middle-aged man who had just shouted him out was wondering about the presence of an intruder in the place that was, temporarily, their property. Hearing him, Christine stopped her horse and her heart leapt for joy while recognizing the young man she had met this very morning. As every day, she had gone for a early riding, her little she-dog, Jessie, on her heels. Suddenly, she saw Jessie charging, probably chasing a rabbit. She went full tilt not to lose sight of the dog. All of a sudden, she heard a neigh. Emerging from a clearing, she saw a black and white appaloosa rearing up in front of the little dog that was, itself, desperately jamming on the brakes with its hindquarters. Mounted by a young and handsome rider, the appaloosa approached and the boy tipped his black hat. Watching the gesture, Christine noticed in her mind that he was left-handed, just as herself.

“Is this yours, this dog, Miss?” the young man asked. “it rushed crazily under Cochise’s legs.”

“She.” “I beg your pardon ”

“She. She’s a female.”

He giggled: “I’m sorry but from so far, this detail had escaped me.”

She blushed, embarrassed at having caused such a replica. Why on earth had she needed to underline that the dog was a female ? It didn’t matter to this boy as soon met, as soon gone away. But in fact, he didn’t go away. He engaged in conversation and, while he was talking, she was captivated by his fleshy mouth and his green eyes. What was he saying, incidentally ?

“Let me introduce myself : my name is Joe Cartwright and you just enter my father’s land without knowing it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s unwillingly that…”

“Oh, no, don’t be sorry, on the contrary. I’m very pleased that, thanks to… how do you call HER, Jenny ?”

“Jessie”

“Jessie. So, thanks to Jessie, we have the pleasure to meet. Where were you going like that ?”

“Nowhere particularly.”

“In that case, let’s go there together, Miss, Miss… »

He burst in laughter : “How funny, I know your dog’s name and I ignore yours.”

She blushed again and could kicked herself to do so.

“My name is Christine”, she stammered.

They had ridden easily, conversing about this and that. He had told her that he was the son of the richest and mightiest ranchero in Nevada. He had spoken about current life in this still half wild part of the West. He claimed that he had seen Virginia City’s birth and remembered the time when it was just a gold diggers’ encampment : a few shacks hastily raised, wagons that were used as vehicles and housing as well.

“At this time”, he had declared, “pretty girls like you weren’t legion. I can even say that there weren’t any and I was reduced, if I wanted to dance with a girl of my age, to invite surreptitiously, some young Indian gal. Are you shocked”, he had asked, “to learn that I go around with Indian girls ?”

She had laughed : “You’re asking that to me, a woman who’s living with a gipsy company !”

“Precisely”, he had retorted without seeming ashamed of his indiscretion, “your hair are more brown than black, your eyes aren’t like coals, your skin is tanned but one can see that you’re white… Are you a gipsy ? I have doubts…”

At first a little disconcerted, she had taken herself in hand and had answered boldly : “You won ! I’m no more a gipsy than you are. I’m French. One day, in order to help a friend of mine who wanted to escape from a forced marriage, I pretended to be her and I fled away my so-called family by joining this gipsy company who was on tour in my region. They accepted me because they noticed I was a very good rider and, since one of their horsewoman had sprained her ankle, things sorted themselves if I could replace her momentarily. Then, in the middle of the show, we were arrested by gendarmes and charged with a rob we hadn’t committed. We were sentenced to banishment. Whatever I could say, shout, scream to be heard and explain who I actually was, the judge didn’t want to believe me : “You and people of the same breed”, he said, “you’re all arrant liars. You’ll go to the colony, as the others !”, he ordered. We were forced to embark to Guyana. When we reached there, we had the luck to come across a Governor who was fond of horses. Matteo, our leader, succeeded in persuading him to let us show our ability. We’ve been staying there for several months, breaking horses and organizing horseshows. One day, Matteo took up a challenge: there was a gorgeous bronco but nobody could overcome it. He negotiated with the Governor: “if we succeed in taming it, you’ll let us go with a horse for each of us”. “It’s a deal”, the governor said. That’s how we could leave Guyana and go to North America. We make a living by performing from town to town. A normal life for travelling entertainers, in fact !”

She had added, looking downcast : “except that, me, I’m not a travelling entertainer, I wasn’t brought up for that and I would like at least to be able to send news to my family and receive some from them too.”

Suddenly, she had uttered : “Oh my God, what time is it ?”

Looking at the horizon, he had answered : “Before my very eyes, not far from nine.”

“Oh my God”, she had moaned, “I’ll be late, they need me for the rehearsal.”

He wanted to go with her but he knew he, too, had to hurry, his brothers and his chores were waiting for him. Sighing, he had tipped his hat and had gone away. From this moment, she had been thinking of him all along. Was it the evoking of the legend of the West that made her dream ? Or wasn’t it rather this smile opening on impeccably regular and white teeth, the carnivorous smile of a man ready to devour young and shy does ? Or maybe these sparkling eyes, full of joie de vivre, this impertinent nose, this agile body being joined with his horse ? Everything in him revealed great dynamism, happy-go-lucky attitude, cheerfulness, and also courage, shrewdness and kindness… Lost in her dreams, she went on working mechanically. Riding had become for her a second nature and she could carry out an act almost without concentrating on it. Nevertheless, Matteo had noticed her lack of attention and had asked questions. She had answered by another question.

« Cartwright, does it tell you something ? »

He had stared at her, wide-eyed : “What’s that, Cartwright ?”

“Forget it”, she had replied, resolving to do a little private investigation.”

But it hadn’t been necessary. He had come back and she said to herself that Matteo had the answer to his question at seeing her dismounting and running to the young man, giving free rein to her joy. She stopped at two inches from him, stared at him and, suddenly, didn’t know what to say. He too, staid silent, reading in the maid’s eyes a fervour he dared not to expect. All of a sudden, he regained his self-control : “Sorry to disturb you during your rehearsal, but I had the opportunity to come.”

“Well done”, she replied eagerly, having inexplicably lost care of her reputation.

« Christine ! », Matteo called, unpleasantly, « we’re waiting for you. As for you, gringo, if you want to watch the show, you just have to come to-night, as everybody.”

He had made himself clear. Joe seized Christine’s tiny hand, laid on it a delicate kiss punctuated by a winning smile and, turning on his heels, he walked away.

Back to Ponderosa, he remembered all of a sudden that he had left to buy several supplies for his father and had forgotten about it. He bit his lips. It was no time to fall out with Pa if he wanted to be allowed to go at the horseshow. Ben came to him, followed by his two other sons : “Well, Joe, do you have the rope ?”

Joe’s brain was rolling at full speed. What could he invent to explain that he had no rope ? “Huh, that is to say, Pa…” he mumbled, “I couldn’t buy it because… because Walter Madison closed his shop.”

“What ?” Ben croaked. « Walt ? But I saw him yesterday. He didn’t tell me anything of the kind. »

“Yes, but… it’s his mother. He received a telegram. She’s deadly ill. So, he closed his shop and said that customers would have to do without him for a while.”

“Well really”, Ben said, “fancy hearing that…”

Then, turning back to Adam : “How will we manage ? We need this rope.”

“We can borrow one to Rick Rattle”, the latter replied, “and I’ll bring forward my trip to Sacramento. There, it will be easy to find what we need.”

“All right » Ben concluded, « now, boys, go and prepare yourself. »

“What for ?” Joe asked, genuinely surprised.

“To go to the horseshow, of course !”, his father replied, a mocking smile on his lips. “You should be glad for a double reason. First, you’re very fond of horses, second, I heard that you had a crush for one of the gypsy girls”.

Joe blushed : “How do you know that ?”

“If you didn’t tell your brother twenty times, you didn’t tell once. I even know that her name is Cristina.”

“Not Cristina, Christine.”

“Strange name for a gipsy” Adam noticed.

Joe turned to his elder brother and, feeling the need to give free rein to his nervousness, snapped to his face : “Precisely, blissfully ignorant, she’s not a gipsy, she’s French.”

“You’re quite learned ! How do you know that ?” Adam retorted without losing his calm.

Joe felt he was on slippery. If ever he answered, even by eluding, he knew that, among the three, at least one would find out about his running away. Therefore, the beginning of his love affair, it was his secret, his precious secret, and he didn’t want to reveal it so lightly.

He had a perfect command of the art of cleverly side-stepping. He grinned, friendly slapped Adam’s arm and asked : “How do you think I should dress, for a horseshow, big brother ? With a suit or in casual clothes ?”

Adam wasn’t taken in but he had an intuition that it wasn’t time for driving Joe in a corner. His brother, obviously, was hiding something from his father and brothers and it had something to do with young Christine,  but Adam was himself such a private, indeed even mysterious man, that he perfectly understood his brother’s desire to keep his sentiments for himself. Playing the game, he replied :  “In casual clothes. You don’t want to look like a stranger in the town. You wear clothes of the kind guys are wearing here but clean and smelling eau de Cologne.”

“It’s a deal”, Joe shouted while capering under Ben, Hoss and Adam’s indulgent eyes and he took a run up the stairs. He looked great when he came down : for this important occasion, he had slipped on a blue jacket that he rarely wore. Under, he had a pink shirt that he took out far more rarely. He had chosen a clear coloured hat as a perfect finishing touch.

« Fffuittt ! » Adam whistled.

Hoss approached his young brother and eyed him derisively up and down : “Dadburnit, Joe, Pa, Adam and I, we’ll never be enough to cut a path through the crowd of madly girls that will rush on you. You’re taking one heck of a risk.”

“Well, kid brother, if you want to protect me, hurry up and dress like me. With a pink shirt over your wide chest, you’ll eclipse everybody.”

Used to this kind of exchanges, Ben decided it was time to interrupt it before Adam joins the conversation.

“Let’s go, boys, the show is not waiting for us.” And they ran in a gallop, occupying the whole road.

When they reached Virginia City’s main street, they had to slow down because of the crowd. All the town’s inhabitants, bourgeois, miners, traders, including the members of the Chinese community, were heading to the central meadow where the show was to be performed.

“I think we’d better leave our horses in the Bucket Blood’s barn and walk”, Adam suggested.

“You’re right”, his father answered and they quickly confided their mounts to old Harry Cucker’s cares. The old man watched them enviously while they headed away. In the hubbub, Adam was the only one to notice Walter Madison who was closing his shop’s shutters. Elbowing their way, the Cartwright succeeded easily in worming to first rank.

There was no place left on the terraces, nevertheless Hoss, with his… persuasion means, managed to obtain a squeezing up to make room for his father and himself. Joe and Adam sat on the ground, cross-legged, at their feet.

Joe watched the show with intense excitement. As soon as Christine appeared, as soon as she bowed at the end of a number, he would stand up, clapping frantically, in spite of the boos of people sitting behind him. Ben watched these excesses with a disenchanted look, Hoss a tender one and Adam an intrigued one. At the end of the show, Joe stammered an excuse and rushed to the place that served as wings to congratulate in person the fabulous and skilful Christine.

“If you ask for my opinion, Pa”, Adam declared nonchalantly, “we’d better not wait for Joe and let him come back when he wants.”

“Alone, at night !”, Ben couldn’t help to exclaim, and immediately, he felt ridiculous.

“Pa, he’s twenty and you often send him in much more dangerous missions than coming back in full night from Virginia City. We’re no longer at the time of Troy and Lotta Crabtree”, Adam said and chuckled at remembering his good fortune with the singer. “Besides, it’s full moon, the night is clear.”

“You’re right, Adam. I let it out and retorted instinctively. Well boys, if you have no damsels to visit, let’s go back, we’ve got work to-morrow.”

It would had been impossible for Christine not to see Joe in the audience, he had done all what he could to be noticed. She was longing for his coming and wasn’t disappointed. Superbly ignoring Matteo’s furious glares, he joined the young lady who was rubbing her horse : “Bravo !” he exclaimed, “You were just splendid, wonderful, amazing… I fail to find the right words. Do you know what I’m craving to do ? Kiss you, what do you say ?”

“I’ve nothing against it”, Christine replied, low voice and hoping that Matteo, who wasn’t very fluent in English, would not understand what she was saying, “but certainly not now and not here.”

“Well, then, when and where ?”

“When the horses’ caring is over, if you like, we can have a drink at the saloon.”

“Yippee ! In that case, let me help you, we’ll leave sooner ! »

And without waiting for an answer, he dropped down his jacket, took a brush and started working. Christine staid a moment staring at him with a tender look, then, she came back to her task with a new energy. She was eager to be free, leave the livery, slide along a seat and rely on the young man’s warm and supple body.

Joe came back home very late. Christine and himself had ordered a beer and started one of these long conversations that favour a love’s birth, this talking of the kind people tell their intimate story, ask questions about one another, start again the world from scratch, hint at their feelings without daring declare them. Christine had the indistinct impression that she was going too far, her conscience was telling her that, to preserve her reputation, she ought to stand up, after half an hour of talking and ask Joe to take her back to the camp but she couldn’t reconcile to doing so. She let Joe’s voice cast a spell on her. She found all what he was saying fascinating, she got going again and further on each of his assertions. Any sentence she phrased was beginning by “Me too…”. As fast as time was passing, she was loosing her realism.

As for Joe, he didn’t seem to remember that he had a father and two brothers waiting for him as well as work to start early in the morning. Far after midnight, they left the Bucket Blood, only because the barman, looking forward to his bed, was urging them to go outside. The fresh air of the night brought Christine out of her torpor. She remembered about Matteo’s existence, her horsewoman job and the company’s imminent departure on the morning. Without thinking more, she opened her heart to Joe and spontaneously, he took her in his arms and hugged her very gently, whispering at her ears : “Don’t worry, little girl. Now I’ve found you, I will not let you go so easily. Didn’t you understand it, I love you. Don’t go back to your camp, come with me to the Ponderosa.”

As a result, Christine rebelled : “Not likely ! It would be neither proper nor honest towards the company. Maybe Matteo isn’t very welcoming, not very nice to you but he didn’t abandon me when he saw I got myself mixed up in their misadventure. I must stay correct with them. Moreover, there’s Jessie.”

Joe smiled : “That’s true, Jessie, I was forgetting it. It’s bad from me because if we met, it’s thank to it – sorry, to her”, he rectified, remembering how much Christine was eager to have him notice Jessie was a female. “Well, since you don’t want to come to me, I will follow you. I go back home, inform Pa, take the necessary supplies and join you.”

“But Matteo will never accept you joining us.”

Joe took the girl’s chin between his thumb and index : “When you know me better, young lady, you’ll learn that I always achieve my aim. I can think at least of three stories I could tell Master Matteo to convince him that it’s a good thing for you to be accompanied by me.”

Christine couldn’t resist asking the question :  “What, for example ?”

“For example, Black Skelett”

“What’s that, Black Skelett ?”

“A fearsome outlaw I just happened to make up from start to finish. He’s tall, as thin as a rake, his head looks like a deaths-head. He’s prodigiously clever at shooting and he’s chasing you because another bastard, a rich and narrow-minded bourgeois hates gipsies and swore he would have them disappear from the Nevada territory. I’m in a good position to protect you from him because I know him and I shoot at least as fast as him.”

Christine staid flabbergast before such a high imagination. Joe went to collect Cochise and Brandy, Christine’s horse and they came back to the camp. As they drew nearer the Dixon field, they dismounted and Christine said to Joe : “I think we’d better part, now, my dear Joe. I’ll try to edge my way into the camp as discreetly as possible. Good night”

She made pretence of going away but Joe held her back by her sleeves. “Is that a way to say good night, Christine ? I was expecting better from you. I thought you had a tender feeling for me ?”

Christine was delighted that the night was black so he couldn’t see her blushing deep red.  “I love you, Joe, and it’s much more than a tender feeling.”

“Then, show me.”

And without waiting for an answer, he pulled her to him and kissed her passionately. Christine hung on his neck and returned the kiss. She had never felt such an happiness. To be in his arms, it was paradise. She felt melting, she swayed to and fro on her legs and she would have fallen if Joe hadn’t held her tight. He stepped backward, stared at her intensely, made a show as if he would kiss her again but thought it was more prudent not to do it. Putting his hands on the girl’s shoulders, he said : “I think I’d better go, now”, he mumbled, “do as you planned, worm into the camp.”

Then he jumped over Cochise and rode away, not without turning his head towards her and whispering : “See you to-morrow.”

On his way back, he was wondering how he would play his game. Would he play fair and tell Pa, frankly, that he was leaving to accompany the gipsy company or, on the contrary, sneak out. He hated the idea of playing a rotten trick to his father but, obviously, it was the surest way to succeed. If he confessed the truth, there was one chance in two that Ben would oppose to this plan. During the time he would pass in arguing and pleading his cause, Christine would be far away and he didn’t want to take the risk of losing her. So, it was settled, he would say nothing to Ben but would he speak to his brothers ? He dismissed immediately the idea to talk to Adam, he was worse than Pa : with him, he had not one chance in two to meet with a refusal, it was two chances in two. The only possibility he could view was to inform Hoss. But Joe knew Hoss’ weakness, as soon as he would have to face Pa, he would prove unable to keep the secrecy. In the last analysis, he decided to leave a letter on his bed so, when his father and brothers would come back home by night and find out what’s been going on, they wouldn’t worry.

He thought he would be unable to sleep but he fell asleep as soon as he hit the pillow and was the last awaken on the morning. Indulgent, Ben had let him recover after his youthful nocturnal indiscretions. It was of great help for his plans: he dressed hastily, slipped in Hoss’ bedroom and put the letter in sight on the bed. Then, he went downstairs, with a cheerful expression, just as Adam was getting up from the table and Ben and Hoss were finishing their meal.

“Ah, at last Mr Lovey-Dovey is coming !” Ben said. “Well, young man, you have just enough time to eat a pancake and drink a cup of coffee before leaving. You, Hoss and I, we’re going to the timber yard. Adam, you’ll go directly to the sawmill. Oh, no sorry, first you have to make a detour by Rick Rattle’s ranch to borrow him a rope.”

“Speaking of rope…” Adam started.

He was ready to let fly a remark to Joe about Walter Madison who seemed perfectly present for someone who had supposedly left the town but he changed his mind. It was better to talk to Joe alone together if he wanted to lead his young brother at the point of burning his boats. Then, he made up for it by turning towards Ben and asking him : “Speaking of rope, how thick do you want it ?”

Joe didn’t notice anything, he was gobbling up his breakfast at full speed. Meanwhile, he was mentally forming plans, seeking how he would be able to slip away discreetly with the necessary supplies for a journey. His resourceful mind wasn’t long to find the inspiration.

He got up hurriedly shouting : “Let’s go, forward, we’ve lost enough time !”, and he rushed outside. The three others were so disconcerted that they followed him without noticing he had not put on his belt and, consequently, had left behind him his holster and the gun that was supposed to be in.

Ben, Hoss and Joe had been riding for a quarter of an hour when, suddenly, the latter exclaimed : “Dash it ! I forgot my gun.”

His father and brother stopped. “Go on”, proposed the young boy, “I’ll go back home quickly, pick up my holster and join you back, don’t worry.” And without waiting his father’s consent, he turned back and galloped away.

Down by the corral, Joe slowed down. He didn’t want to draw Hop-Sing’s attention. The latter would not be surprised at seeing him taking his guns and even his blanket. He was used not to interfere in the work organization but he’d certainly find it strange to see the boy rummaging through the kitchen, seeking supplies. Joe decided he’d better not stock up at Hop-Sing’s. He would buy what’s needed in town and take advantage of it to drop by the bank. Luck favoured him as the Chinese cook was in the poultry when he wormed in the storage room where the Cartwright used to keep their trek equipments.

He leaved the ranch, a smile on his lips, thinking only of the joy of meeting his girl again. How was it possible ? He had been knowing her for only one day and yet, she was filling all his thoughts. He couldn’t conceive that a day would be passing without him seeing her. He remembered having felt something of the kind with Amy Bishop and Laura White but he seemed to him that it had never been so strong.

The camp was rustling as a hive when he reached it. Everybody was busy at taking down the corral, gathering the implements, saddling the horses, controlling the wagon’s condition. Joe wondered where Christine was when he spotted Jessie running after a butterfly. He whistled for it as he used to do with Ponderosa’s dogs. The small dog turned back and came to him, wagging its tail in welcome. Joe squatted down to stroke it and it fell flat on its back to enjoy it.  “Where’s your mistress ?” Joe asked, “take me to her, will ya ?”

As if it had understood, Jessie raised up and jogged along to the field’s back where, effectively, Christine stood, harnessing a horse.

“Hello !” Joe shouted.

She jumped with surprise and turned back as if she had been stung by a tarantula.

“Oh, it’s you !” And, all of a sudden, inexplicably, she burst in tears.

« Christine, Christine, my darling, what’s the matter ? », Joe asked, taking her in his arms. “What’s wrong ? Aren’t you happy to see me ?”

Christine smiled through her tears. “Oh, yes, I am, Joe. It’s only… too much joy… I dared not believe in it.”

 “You thought I would not come ? Oh Christine…”, Joe said reproachfully.

She raised her hand over the well-shaved young man’s cheek and touched it lightly : “Joe, please, forgive me. You can’t imagine how much important you are to me. Since I left so involuntarily my family and my country, you’re the first people who showed a liking for me. My fellow workers, Matteo, Silvio, Pedro, Luisa, Carmen and the others, they’re correct with me but our relationship is exclusively professional and deep down themselves, they don’t like me. I never became integrated. By night, when they gather around the fire to play guitar and sing, they never call for me. I cook and eat my meal alone and when they talk to me, it’s only for the job. If I hadn’t Jessie, I would be quite lonely.”

“Darling ! But, in that case, we must change our minds. I was right, yesterday, when I wanted to drag you away from those ill spoken people. Let us come back to the Ponderosa and I’ll ask Pa to organize the wedding as soon as possible”.

Hearing the word “wedding”, Christine made a convulsive movement.

“What are you saying, Joe ? Do you actually want to marry me ? But… but…”

He burst in laughter : “Well, sweetheart, no point in stammering. Of course, I want to marry you. Not you ?”

« But we hardly know each other. »

 “Who cares ? Listen to me : this morning, when you awoke, what did you think of at first ?”

“Of you”, she faltered out, her cheeks getting pink.

“Did you miss me ?”

“Yes”, she confessed, this time deeply reddening.

 “And me, whom do you think I’ve been thinking of ?”

 “Of, of me ?…”

“Exactly. Only one thing was running in my mind : how would I manage to join you without anybody preventing me of doing it. I didn’t say a word to my father, just because I couldn’t bear the idea of being separated from you one hour more. Don’t you think our mutual feelings are strong enough to get married ? “

« You’re right, Joe”, she said while, against her will, her eyes were filling again with tears, “but I definitely can’t brutally abandon these poor gipsies, even if they aren’t hearty. Don’t you want to talk to Matteo about this… this… how did you call him yesterday, Black Something ?”

 « Black Skelett »

« That’s it !”

“Well, Christine, have you finished ?”, a hollow voice asked, behind them, and added immediately : “What is he doing here again, this guy ?”

Joe turned back with a welcoming look and, tipping his hat, said : « Joe Cartwright, at your service, Sir. I just came to offer you my services.”

Matteo sniggered : “You’d better say you came for courting Christine. I perfectly saw through your little game, yesterday evening.”

Joe decided to burn his boats : “All right, I confess it, I came for Christine because I’m in love with her and want to get engaged. But since she’s loyalty incarnate, she doesn’t want to leave you bluntly. That’s why I decided to come with you. Where’s your next stopping place ?”

“Slatterville. We’ll reach it in easy stages. »

« Slatterville. Perfect, I’m going with you and I’ll keep a close watch on your caravan, because let me tell you…”

He stopped to ask “I think your name is Matteo, isn’t it?”

The man nodded, so he went on: “Let me tell you, Matteo that this country is dangerous. You can meet highwaymen that plunder everything in caravans.”

“No risk, we’ve nothing to be robbed.”

“You’re wrong, you have horses. Something highly coveted, here.”

Matteo grumbled so that Joe could guess he had a point. Suddenly, the gipsy grinned, showing a mouth with some teeth missing : “All right, come on young dandy. As far as I can see, you’re not a bad rider.”

“I also know how to break and train horses and look after them.”

Matteo raised a hand to make him shut up : “All right, all right, don’t lay it on thick ! Let’s go, we’re ready.”

 

While the caravan led by Matteo and watched by Joe was starting, Ben, at the Ponderosa was beginning to get rather angry. With Hoss, he had joined five hands and they had started cutting down trees for a contract with the Railway Company. Ben was used to assign four men for one tree and, because of Joe’s absence, one team had to function with three axes only. Weary of interrupting work for glancing at the horizon, he sent eventually Hoss home. Without confessing it, he was becoming worried. Joe had been promising to join them more than two hours ago…

Hoss started his investigations by the kitchen : first, he thought, maybe Hop-Sing could inform him, second, he would take advantage of it to prepare and eat a snack. It smelt good puff pastry when he came next to the cook. Catching sight of him, the latter took out a spit and brandished it in front of him : “ Mistah Hoss not come robbing small pork pies. Mistah Hoss wait for this evening, as everybody. »

“Put down your spit, Hop-Sing. I’m not coming for robbing your meat pies” Hoss answered with a smile of constraint that was denying his words, “I’m looking for little Joe, did you see him ?”

“Mistah Joe left with Mistah  Ca’twight.”

“No, he didn’t. He made an about-turn while we were on our way because he had forgotten his gun. Are you sure you didn’t see him ?”

“Hop-Sing know what he says. Hop-Sing don’t see Joe.”

Suddenly anxious, Hoss frowned. He scratched his skull and then made an about-turn and headed to the barn. “If Joe’s there”, he thought, “Cochise will be there too.” But he had to yield to facts, Cochise was out of its stall. Now in a hurry, he mounted and stirred up Chubb’s side.

At the camp, Adam had joined the workers and he was climbing up a pine quite far advanced to tie the rope he had gone to fetch, not at Rick Rattle’s but at Walter Madison’s shop. Hearing the noise of a horse galloping, he turned his head, recognized Hoss and knew immediately, just seeing his brother’s air that there was something fishy, so he went down the tree as fast as possible.

Ben had already gone forward to meet his second son : “So, where is he ?”

“Dunno, Pa. Hop-Sing didn’t see him. He’s not in his room since Cochise is missing too. »

Coal eyed, Ben glanced alternately at his sons and then, falling on his eldest who was staring at the ground and drawing circles with his boots : “Any idea, Adam ?”

The latter raised his head : I’m not sure but… could be this girl.”

“What girl ? The horsewoman ?”

“Yes. Since Joe met her, he acts strangely. Did you notice he lied to you yesterday ?”

“About what ?”

« About the rope. Walter Madison never left to his bedside’s mother. I saw him, yesterday, closing his shop and to-day, I purchased the rope from him.”

With furious glare and frothing mouth, Ben approached as if he had Joe instead of Adam in front of him : “Well, well, well. And, according to you, what’s the link between this lie and the girl ?”

“I think he forgot the rope, yesterday, because he went to the girl and he invented this story to explain his forgetting.”

Ben nodded : « You may be right. But it doesn’t tell us where he is this morning.”

“In my opinion, with her.”

“In that case, I shan’t stand for that. Come on boys, we’re going to fetch him and bring him back by his neck’s skin. As for you”, he added for the workers, “go on cutting down the marked trees.” And he rode away, followed by his sons.

They needed almost one hour to reach the Dixon’s field and realize that it was desert.

“They’re gone”, Hoss mumbled.

“Go to the Dixons, Adam”, Ben ordered, “and ask them where the gipsies were to go.”

Adam headed to the house. Mrs Dixon had her hands plunged in lye soap. She nodded to welcome Adam but proved unable to say in what direction the gipsies were supposed to go : “They hired the field for one week.”, she explained “ They had planned to leave to-day and they just did that.”

“Didn’t you see my youngest brother with them ?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t see anything, Adam. I was busy with my laundry. I’m sorry”

When he came back, Hoss had found a trail. “They went this way”

“Good”, Ben said, “let’s follow the tracks.

Hoss pulled a wry face, thinking of Hop-Sing’s  pork pies : “Without eating ?”

Adam pointed out to his father that it would be more prudent to take some supplies : “You never know how long a chase can last.”

“All right !” Ben said, “let’s go home.”

Back home, each one went to his room to get prepared. Once ready, Adam was curious enough to go to Joe’s room, just to see if he had taken his blanket. On the bed, in a prominent position, there was a letter. The words “For Pa” were neatly written on the envelope. He rushed downstairs and held it out to his father who opened it hastily. Ben ran his eye over it and then decided to read it aloud :

“ Dear Pa, I hope you will not resent me but I think I’m deep in love with Christine. So much in love that I can’t stay far from her even for one minute. That’s why I decided to join her caravan. I shall keep you informed of what follows. 

Your affectionate son, Joe”

Just as he was reading the signature, the door was banged twice as hard. Charlie, the foreman was shouting : “Mr Cartwright, Mr Cartwright !”

“What’s the matter, Charlie ?”Ben asked, immediately alarmed.

“A tree fell down on Chuck and Eddy. Men are freeing them. You’d better come or send one of your sons to tell us what to do.”

“Just while we were leaving to look after Joe !” Ben sighed. Then, turning to Hoss and Adam : “Which one volunteers ?”

Adam ventured : “I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for you to stay, Pa. You’re the best choice for the hands and as for having little Joe coming back in the present circumstances, I believe that Hoss and I have more chances to succeed. With you, he will rebel as a young cock.”

Ben hesitated for a while. He remembered his stormy relationship with his son, at the time of Joe’s crush for Julia Bulette. It came back to him that he had been pleased to find Hoss and Adam to take over from him and speak to Joe.

“I think you’re right, Adam. Go and let me know what’s going on. On my way, Charlie.” And, with regret, he followed his foreman.

Hoss and Adam rode to the place where Hoss had found a trail. They knew that the gipsies had only a few hours ahead and were not in a hurry to catch them up. Certainly, the company was heading to another town to perform the show. It would be the time, then, to join Joe.

“The most difficult”, Adam said to himself, “will be to find the convincing arguments to have him returning to the fold. Everything, at the end, was depending upon the girl”.

They camped, the first night, at the edge of the Ponderosa. While Adam was thoughtfully grilling sausages – his only culinary speciality – Hoss asked him : “Adam, do you realize where we are going to ?”

Adam raised his head : “Of course, I do. This is the way to Slatterville”.

“Do you remember last time we took this direction together ?”

Adam nodded : “I couldn’t have forgotten. We were chasing Sam Bord.”

Hoss kept silent for a while and then, dared ask a new question : “Do you think that the gipsies plan to perform at Slatterville ?”

“Very likely.”

« Then, we could meet Miss Regina. »

“I gave a thought to that… although I don’t imagine her attending a horseshow.”

“Will you try to see her again?”

Adam leant his head to one side, a customary attitude of his. Hoss was the only person who might ask him such private questions with complete impunity. Will he try to see Regina again ? He didn’t know and confessed it to his brother.

***

Meanwhile, the gipsy company was also camping. Joe and Christine had started a fire apart. All of a sudden, Christine was pleased to be kept in the background by her colleagues. Thus, she had the opportunity of having a tête-à-tête with the man she was in love with. Of course, Jessie was there, interfering from time to time, begging for pieces of meat or seeking after strokes but the dog’s intrusions didn’t bother the lovers who were behaving with it as parents would do with a child. Christine was glad to think that Jessie was one more bond with Joe.

The evening flied with jokes and lively conversations and the gipsies had been sleeping for long when they decided it was time to go to bed. Both, they slept under the stars, Christine sheltered under a piece of cloth held by two posts, Joe sheltered only by his hat, his head resting on his saddle.

For a while, Joe was tempted by the idea of coiling up against Christine but resisted it. On the morning, he woke up at dawn because of Matteo’s foot hitting his ribs.

“Get up, Gringo, or we’ll leave without you.”

Joe stood up immediately and rushed forward to saddle his horse. Christine who had got up a little earlier, accustomed to her companions’ schedules, brought him a cup of black and hot coffee that he accepted with gratitude.

“Definitely, your Matteo dislikes me”, he noticed between two sips, “Is he in love with you ?”

“I don’t think so, he’s more or less having a married life with Juanita. Merely, he doesn’t like strangers, no matter who they are.”

Joe giggled : « Hold on, if there is a stranger here, it’s him, not me. I’m in my country”.

“He doesn’t see things this way », Christine answered while jumping on her horse, “every gipsy thinks the world is his own and all other people are strangers. That’s why they are badly affected by the contempt and mistrust they’re the subject of and they react by being more contemptuous and mistrustful than anyone else.”

“So, you too, they despise and distrust you.”

“True”

« And how long are you bearing that ? »

She pulled her reins and he did the same. Staring at him, she said: “As soon as we’ll reach Slatterville, I’ll tell him it’s the last show I’m doing. Too bad for him, he just had to be more welcoming with you. Afterward, Joe, if you still want me, I’ll marry you and we’ll go where you want. »

He took her hand and raised it to his lips. Staring intensely at her, he said : “I still want you, Christine, we’ll marry and go to the Ponderosa. My father always says that, when we’re ready for marriage, he will give us our share of his land. We’ll ask my brother Adam, who’s an architect, to build our house and we’ll breed horses. Is that all right ?”

“Oh yes, it’s all right, Joe. I’m sure we’ll be very happy and for a long time. Now we’d better gallop to catch them.” They joined again the caravan.

“Strange way to protect us !” Matteo grumbled when Joe passed by him.

Joe, who had keen hearing, inwardly blamed himself : “There’s more to it than just talking about accompanying the caravan in order to protect it. I must play my part plausibly.” So, at night falling, when Matteo gave the signal for stopping, he came to him and had him notice that the spot he had chosen made them an easy target for bandits. According to him, anybody could wait in ambush behind the rocky bumps surrounding the place and it would be better to settle the camp right up against the mountain, so it would be easy to barricade behind the wagons. Matteo listened to him with a sullen look and, suddenly, a naughty smile curled his lips : “Okay, Gringo, we’ll do as you say but you’ll be on watch for the night. And no serenade in the moonlight !”

Joe bit his lips but didn’t protest. Obviously, Matteo wanted to prevent him from transforming the journey in a string of pleasant stages that would allow him, by the evenings, to spin out love’s sweet dream with Christine. Joe couldn’t manage to have his own idea about the man’s character. He was, for sure, hostile to him, but why ? Christine was quite convinced it wasn’t jealously, so, what else ? It didn’t occur to him that Matteo, simply didn’t want to loose a skilled horsewoman : for Joe, material worries had always been secondary.

The trek went on with a slight change in the program. At every stage, Joe would oversee the settlement so that it wouldn’t give rise to attacks, and would take officially the watch. When the camp was asleep, Christine would slip close to him, feed his and talk for a while with him. Afterward, she would choose a place for sleeping, not far from him and tie Jessie to his wrist : “Thus”, she assured, “you can sleep quietly. Jessie wakes up at dawn and will pull on the leash. You’ll be up before everyone.

***

For their part, Adam and Hoss were advancing and catching up everyday a few miles on the gipsies, so that they reached Slatterville hardly one hour after them. They asked discreetly for information about the camping place that had been allocated to the company. Luck favoured them since the troop was occupying a field at the edge of a wood.

Adam, who wanted to take cover in the wood, came up against an unexpected obstacle. Hoss refused his proposal because it was impossible to make a fire and he didn’t want a cold meal. In desperation, Adam found a compromise solution : they would have dinner in town and would come back afterward to sleep close to the camp. They left Chubb and Sport in the village’s livery in order to avoid giving the alert to the gipsies’ horses, had a good dinner and came back stealthily, their blankets over their shoulder, to take up position under the trees’ shelter.

Fate willed that they found themselves next to the gipsies’ bivouac, opposed to Joe and Christine’s one. While Hoss was spreading his blanket, making the crushed leaves sound, Adam heard the noise of a conversation and made a sign to his brother for him to be silent. He could only catch scraps of conversation.

“Desconfio el gringo… No quiero que lleva Cristina…”

 “Deja la…  No me gusta esta chica…”

“What are they talking about ?” Hoss asked, “I don’t understand.”

“Sh, that’s Spanish. Let me listen”

 « … y mañana, sera muerto… »

 Adam turned to Hoss, horrified : « Hoss, I think they’re plotting to kill Joe.”

“Why do you say so ?”

“They’re talking about a gringo, that’s to say a white man and they’re saying that to-morrow, he will be dead.”

“We’ll not let them do that. What’s your plan ?”

Adam stared at his brother for a short moment, with the admiration that a tormented man, such as he was, can’t help vowing to a human being inhabited by serenity. For the giant man, there was no doubt that his eldest brother’s  restless mind had already imagined a strategy.  In spite of the seriousness of the situation, he smiled.

“Just leave me a few minutes to figure something. In any case, we must warn Joe. If we want to thwart these bastards’ plans, the job will need at least the three of us, maybe the four…”

“Four ? How do you count four people ?”

“The girl, Hoss, maybe she could be of some help.”

Hoss set out, trying to find his hearings as well as he could. Night was very dark and he didn’t know the scene. However, being an expert in tracking, he managed to approach Christine’s wagon with stealthy tread until sounds of  barks were suddenly heard.

“Shut up, Jessie !” said a woman’s voice but the dog went on barking.

At the other end of the field, the gipsies cocked up their hears.

“Alert, there’s somebody in the camp”, one of them shouted. And without saying more, they spread out to pinch the intruder.

Adam immediately understood that his brother was about to be caught and got ready to lend him a hand by appearing suddenly behind the enemies.

Hoss had just left the shelter of the trees, hoping he would be able to reach the dog and silence it, when he caught sight of half a dozen of men converging to him.

“Help me, Joe”, he shouted.

Joe, who had joined Christine after hearing Jessie barking, gave a start at this call.

“But, it’s Hoss, it’s my brother”.

“What is he doing here ?”, Christine asked

“Dunno but he’s in danger. Coming, Hoss, coming.”

“No Joe, no”, Christine exclaimed in vain. “Please, you’ll be killed.”

But Joe didn’t listen to her, he rushed, revolver in hand and plunged into the fray his brother was the centre of. He quickly understood that his gun would be of no use since he might shoot at Hoss. Putting it back in his holster, he walked straight into one Jose for the only reason this one was the closest to him.

Adam, as for him, had taken out his knife : after having heard Matteo’s words, he wasn’t under any illusion about the gipsies’ sanguinary intentions and thought rightly that fists wouldn’t be sufficient. He didn’t want to kill but put their opponents out of the fight. Without scruples, he grasped one of them and stuck his knife into his thigh. The wounded man screamed with pain and hopped away holding his leg with his two hands. Hoss, who was busy knocking two heads one against the other, called out to Joe who was punching not far from him : “Looks as though Adam joined the dance.”

“Ah, oumpff, he’s, ouch there too…” Joe panted.

Hoss didn’t answer because a third opponent was approaching.

Meanwhile, Christine, bewildered, was looking for help. The closest houses were a dozen of rudimentary cottages, all built in the same shape, accommodating a strange colony.

“Help, help, open the door”, Christine cried drumming against the door.

“Coming, coming”, a voice answered inside, “wait a minute.”

After a few instants who seemed hours to her, the young girl heard the noise of somebody releasing a latch and a bearded man appeared, looking stern, dressed in a wide white shirt with black trousers.

“What’s the matter ?” he asked.

“Come on, quick, they’re killing one another, nearby. The gipsies… they… they attacked my friends. You must help them otherwise they’ll be overwhelmed. Quick, take a weapon, call your neighbours, they’re in danger of their life.”

“But, Miss, I can’t, I’m a Quaker which means I can’t use violence.”

“Even to save lives ?”, Christine asked, taken apart.

Behind the man, a woman’s voice sounded : “You must go there, Matthew, not to fight but to interfere and urge them to stop.”

The man turned back and replied : “You’re right, Regina, I’m calling our brothers, we’ll go and spread a word of peace. If you don’t mind clearing my way, Miss…”. And moving Christine apart, he went to the next door and knocked.

A few minutes later, five men, all dressed like him, all bearded like him, all looking stern were heading to the battle field, followed by Christine.

When they reached it, Christine noticed that confusion was at its peaks. In the dark, she looked for Joe but could only distinguish a giant rushing towards… how could she describe it, a pile of bodies intertwined from which arms and legs were emerging here and there. A little further, three men were having a set at one another and she could see, at the faint moonlight, a  blade’s silver reflection shine. Jessie was adding to the overexcitement by running from a group to another and generously barking.

“My friends, my brothers”, Matthew shouted loud voice, “please, please, listen to me.”

Surprised, Matteo, who was preparing to stab Adam nastily, stopped and turned his head towards the voice.

Encouraged, Matthew headed forward and spoke again : « We all are brothers under God’s eye, please stop this fratricide war…”

Getting over his surprise, Matteo raised his arm and, aiming at the heart, threw his knife to the disturber. By a reflex that was to leave him stunned for a long time afterwards, Adam, pulled out his gun and aiming at the knife over his assailant’s shoulder, deviated it in such a way that it reached the arm the Quaker was holding up in order to deliver his lecture.

Matteo, enraged, turned back to Adam who aimed at the gypsy’s right wrist, without shilly-shallying : “This should calm you down” he said to himself after hearing the man screaming with pain and seeing him kneeling down.

This scream tetanized the other gypsies. Hoss took advantage of it to knock down his two opponents and the rest of the troop gathered around its leader, hiding him from the others’ sight.

“What have you done, Mister ?”, Christine, who didn’t know Adam, questioned, “Did you kill him ?”

“Didn’t kill him, just shattered his wrist.”

“But why ?”

« Didn’t you see ? He wanted to kill us, or, to be exact, to kill Joe.”

“What a tale !”

“It’s not a tale. I heard him plotting with his pals. I happen to understand Spanish. He wanted to get rid of him because he didn’t want to let you go.”

Horrified, Christine put her hand in front of her mouth. She was preparing to ask this stranger who he was when they heard a woman strident shout : “Matthew, Matthew, where are you ? »

“Here I am, Regina, I’m hurt”.

At this name, Adam shivered and Hoss raised his head, peering into the dark.

“I heard the sound of a shot. Did they fired at you ?”

“No, dear, they stabbed me.”

Seeing that this dialog was diverting their opponents’ attention, the gipsies tried to make a move but Jessie’s groaning warned Adam who turned back to them : “Hoss, Joe, help me to tie up these folks, so as to be quiet while taking care of the injured men.”

Hearing this voice, Regina, who was leaning over her husband, raised her head.

“Adam ! », she whispered.

The latter resisted the urge to turn to her until he was sure that no danger could come from the gipsy company. Noticing two women fixing him with a threatening stare, he advised them, in Spanish, to approach and tend Matteo. Since he was using this idiom, they obeyed by habit.

Meanwhile, Christine had, at last, understood that the two fighters were Joe’s brothers. This one, for his part, had mentally reconstructed the scene that had probably taken place at Ponderosa, when they had discovered his running away, and understood that their unexpected arrival was the logic Cartwrights’ reaction every time one of them was absent from roll call. He was divided between anger for having once again his brothers meddling in his own business and gratitude for their intervention that had obviously saved his life.

Progressively, dawn was enlightening the sky. This first light of the day allowed Hoss to look hard at Adam who was himself staring at the group formed by the Quakers. While the men were busy picking up Matthew, Regina broke away and fixed Adam, as if she was hypnotized by him. The latter took his breath away at seeing the woman he once had loved. In what state had she got, eighteen months after their short encounter ! She never had been fat but she was now emaciated, except for her belly that formed a bulge revealing a pregnancy. Her complexion, previously nacreous, was now greenish. But the more heart-rending were her eyes, dull, filled with regret, as if all joy in life had abandoned her.

He went forward towards her while she was staying frozen, as if she was taking root.

“Regina”, he said in a gentle voice as if speaking to a sleepwalker.

Joe had come close to Christine and laid his arm around the French girl’s quaking shoulders. Even Jessie had calmed down, feeling the impalpable tenseness floating in the air. Leaning on two of the members of his team, Matthew also, but shouting, called Regina. She jumped and turning, and bustled about her husband.

“What happened, Matthew ?”

“ I was exhorting them to calm when somebody shot me.”

“ Nobody shot you », Hoss rectified, “it’s a knife that pierced your arm. This gipsy threw it”, he specified indicating Matteo “and if my brother Adam had not shot and veered off course the knife, presently, you would be dead.”

As previously, Hoss’ voice reassured Regina. She regained her self-control: “Come in, come in my home, everybody. I will take care of Matthew and also this man”, she said walking towards Matteo.

A torrent of abuse sprang out of Juanita’s mouth. Adam intervened : “She says she will take care of her man herself” he translated.

He was close to Regina, he met her eyes and could read an immense distress. “Go back home, Regina, go and look after your husband, we’ll join you later.”

Then, with this habit of his of taking the leadership every time people would give him the opportunity of doing so, he turned to Christine and asked : “Would you mind making coffee, Miss ?”

Christine was only too pleased to be useful : “But of course !”, she agreed, “I’m making a bucket and in the French way”

“Which means strong enough to wake up a bull”, Joe explained, laughing.

Joe lighted a fire and Christine bustled about doing coffee, while Hoss and Adam were submitted to a running fire of questions from their younger brother Joe, about the reasons of their presence in Slatterville. Hoss felt like beating about the bush but Adam decided it was better to root out the devil.

“You didn’t imagine that Pa would let you go this way, without giving even your direction, and would not try to take you back home ?”

“So, Pa is sending you ?”

“Who could it be, not the sheriff” Adam retorted, shrugging his shoulders.

Immediately, Joe got on his high horse : “If he thinks he will prevent me from marrying Christine, he can whistle for it ! I’m old enough to direct my life and…”

Adam didn’t let him go further : “Shut up, Joe, or you’ll say things you’ll regret later. Don’t you think that Pa, knowing all the sacrifices he did for us, deserves at least to be told the truth ?”

Joe felt sheepish. He knew he was in the wrong but, at the same time, he had the conviction that, had he asked for his father’s agreement, this one would have hummed and hawed, argued and Christine would have disappeared before he could join her. Taking the plunge, he explained his point to his brothers.

Adam was a fair man and Hoss a golden heart : both, each one in his own way, recognized the validity of his position.. But beyond that, they came to realize the extent and deepness of the love Joe was feeling for Christine. Maybe that love had come suddenly but time had nothing to do with that. Love at first sight existed, Regina’s presence, a few yards further, was there to remind them of it. What else had Adam been doing, two years earlier, other than almost exactly what Joe had just done ?

Another person was realising the same thing and her heart was swelling with happiness: this person was Christine. Certainly, Joe hadn’t made a mystery of his love but it was another thing to hear him proclaiming it aloud to his brothers.

Adam had just declared : “I think I’ll go to town as soon as possible and send Pa a telegram” when Matthew’s door opened  and Regina appeared on the doorstep, looking, at the same time, shy and unhappy. Tightening convulsively her shawl around her chest, her head embedded in her perpetual headdress, she went forward to the group.

Adam stood up and stared at her as she was coming to him, his heart wrenching at seeing this woman who had become the ghost of the one he had been in love with. Her look previously burning with fervour and faith had lost its fire and expressed only disenchantment. More serious, the goodness that, in the past, showed through all her attitude, had been replaced by… Adam wondered if the right word  was bitterness or frankly sharpness. Quick to undertake all the responsibilities, the young man resented himself for this degeneration : what had he done to her ? He opened his mouth to welcome her but she spoke at first :

“So, you came back, Adam. You said that you wouldn’t but you did. And once more, you’re bringing violence with you!”

 Adam didn’t expect such an introduction. He stammered : “Well, Regina…” but she interrupted him again and went on with her diatribe.

 “For two years, we have been living in peace, here. Nothing disturbed our tranquillity. You have nothing to do but come here and my husband finds mixed up in a brawl and comes back home, wounded.”

Hoss went to rescue his brother who didn’t know what to answer.

“Miss Regina, Adam didn’t harm your husband. On the contrary, he saved him.”

Regina turned to Hoss : “Here you are, you ! Always willing to assist your brother whatever he undertakes. And may I know how Adam saved my husband ?”

Joe intervened : « Matteo, the man who threw his knife to your husband, is exceptionally good at throwing knives, Madam. In his horseshow, he gallops around the corral and shoots on a target while riding. They put the target further and further and he never missed the target. He had thrown the knife to your husband and would have reached his heart if Adam hadn’t drawn his gun incredibly speedy and have the knife change its way.”

 With a big smile, Hoss thought useful to add : “You’ve got to admit that if Matteo is a champion at throwing knives, Adam is really good at firing with a gun. Even in full night, he did it, I can assure you it’s an exploit.”

With a bitter tone, Regina replied : “I’ve no doubt he’s very proud of his skills. I don’t know if he feels at ease or excited but he seems to be happy only when  using his gun.”

This was too much for Adam who exploded : “But, at last, Regina, what did you want me to do? Let this gangster kill your husband ?”

Within the space of an instant, it occurred to him that this was exactly the woman’s wish but he dismissed immediately this thought.

Regina didn’t lower the flag ; “What did I want ? I wanted you not to bring violence in the surroundings. It’s already sad enough to think that you are sowing it wherever you go but, at last, I would like you to preserve my island of calm.”

“But, at last, she’s getting on my nerves, this one !”.

This sentence was called out vehemently by a feminine voice. Christine, exasperated, had got up and, her fists on her hips, planted herself in front of Regina :

“Now, listen to me, old harpy, I’m no more fond of violence than you but my conviction don’t go as far as to consider that you’d better let people be murdered without lifting a finger to help them. The gipsies had planned to kill Joe and his brothers came to rescue him, that’s all. If not, why would they have come to this lost place ? For you ? You’d better go back to bed”, she finished, mellowing after having glanced at the woman’s paunch, “and let us have little rest. Dawn is rising and we didn’t sleep at all this night.”

Regina straightened up and eyed her up and down : “Who are you, Miss and what are you doing here ? This is no place and no hour for a lady”.

The tone was gentle but reproving. “A nun’s lecture”, Christine, whose boarding school’s memories were still fresh,  said to herself.

“I’m a member of the horseshow company, so there are a lot of good reasons for me to be there”, she answered, calmly.

“And how do you know the Cartwright family ?”

“It’s none of your business”

“Everything having something to do with Adam is my business.”, Regina couldn’t help retorting.

“Really ? On what grounds ?”

Regina lost her composure. Misinterpreting, she thought she was facing a rival. She turned to Adam and, eyes brimming with tears, she asked :

“So, that’s all you were able to find to replace me, a travelling performer ?”

Adam oscillated between anger and compassion. The woman who was pitifully struggling before him, he had loved her and, obviously, she was still in love with him, her attitudes, her unfair reproaches, her questioning, even her appearance proved it. But, from another part, he couldn’t let Regina insult his future sister-in-law. It was a question of loyalty. Going faster than Joe, furious, who was coming closer for defending his fiancée, he stepped across the two yards between him and Regina, laid his hand on her shoulders and said :

“Regina, you’re exhausted and you’re losing your control. It’s not like you to speak scornfully about somebody who did nothing to you. This young lady is my brother’s fiancée. He came to ask her to be his wife, that’s why we’re here.”

This caressing voice, that protective gesture got the better of the woman’s anger. She let her head go on Adam’s shoulder and began sobbing, repeating endlessly : “Oh, Adam, Adam, I’m so miserable…”

“Go back home”, he said, gently pushing her towards her door, “go and try to sleep a few hours. We’ll see you later on.”

After closing the door, he turned back to Christine and his brothers, with a stony face. “I think you’d better do the same”, he said, “you all need some rest.”

“You too”, Joe replied.

 « I’d like to but I can’t, I first have to go to the sheriff. We have a wounded man and prisoners on our hands, remember.”

 “You’re right. I’ll come with you.”

“No, stay with Christine. Hoss will accompany me.”

Christine and Joe settled comfortably, one against the other, Jessie between them to keep them warm. They felt, at the same time, exhausted and sleepless.

“Joe”, Christine asked, “tell me : who is this bitter woman ? I understood there was once something between your brother and her. Tell me the story.”

« I don’t know much. You’d better ask Hoss. All I know is that he met her with her Quakers’ tribe and since they didn’t know where to camp for night, he invited them on the Ponderosa. We had a nice moment having supper with them. The day after, at breakfast, that’s Adam saying, straight out, he is escorting them to Slatterville. Hoss decided he would go with him. Right from the first stop, outlaws attacked them. One of them was a guy, Adam had saved his life an offered a job.”

“I can’t believe it ! What a rotter !”

 « You’re right. Shortly, one of the bandits killed Regina’s father, grabbed the money they had saved to settle on the land they would find and flied away with those Adam and Hoss hadn’t laid out. Adam – you don’t know him but he’s a guy, when he has something in mind, he does it whatever happens. He decided that it was his duty to catch the rascals and bring back the money to Regina. Both, Hoss and him, they chased them. One after the other, the guy I told you about, Sam Bord, they called him, got rid of his associates. Adam found him in Slatterville, just at the moment Regina and her group were reaching the town. There was a duel between Adam and Sam Bord. I think Bord hurt one of the Quakers who wanted to interfere, as they did just now. I wonder if it wasn’t again Matthew, Regina’s husband who was shot. Adam took a bullet in his shoulder but settled his hash with Sam Bord. He gave back the money to Regina but she made him understand that she was disgusted by his violence and his acting out of revenge and they parted. Adam was long before he could recover. He was very sad, grumpy for several months and suddenly, he decided he would start again socializing, dancing and drinking on Saturday’s evenings  and began to court other girls. I was surprised to see, just now, that he looked like being still in love with her although she is married and pregnant. She seems to have completely forgotten him.”

Christine shook her head : “My poor Joe, you’re awfully wrong. Don’t you think so, Jessie, he’s awfully wrong”, she said holding the dog’s head between her two hands. “Don’t you see that, on the contrary, Adam is no longer in love with Regina but she still is.”

“How can you detect that ?”

“First the way she attacked him. If she took no interest in him, she wouldn’t have considered as responsible for this mess without asking for information. She probably would have blamed his violence but on another tone. As for him, he wouldn’t have stood up for me as he did if he wanted to reconquer her. He would have left me plead his cause. I can assure you, she’s still in love with him and he isn’t, it’s staring you in the face.”

She stopped talking, seeing Joe’s brothers coming back.

“Well ?” Joe asked

“It’s done”, Adam replied, “the sheriff is informed. He doesn’t seem pretty smart but he understood in the end what we were telling him and he won’t be long coming here. I also called for the doctor for him to look after Matthew and Matteo. I paid for” he clarified, preventing Christine’s objection. “Whatever she can think”, he commented, chuckling with melancholy, “I’m not that blood thirsty monster she pretends I am.”

Christine smiled back : “Nobody thinks so, and certainly not me. Anybody can see at first glance that you’re uprightness itself.”

She was on the point of adding something when the sheriff and the doctor appeared. Hoss led the doctor to Matteo’s tent, considering that this one, left to Juanita and her fellows’ cares needed a medical attention more than Matthew,  healed by Regina.

The sheriff started his inquiry by Christine and then, questioned Joe.

Meanwhile, the young lady went next her brother-in-law to be who seemed lost in a dark reverie. “What’s the matter, Adam ? Why are you so sad ? Don’t tell me that’s a renewed interest for this woman. »

Surprised by such a direct question, Adam lifted his head, saying to himself that he loved that. “At least”, he thought, “my new sister isn’t that kind of women who can’t speak their mind and, nonetheless, resent men for not having guessed what they wanted. Good !”

He took a while before answering, not because he hesitated to open his heart – it was strange but this so withdrawn man felt inclined to take her as a confidant – but because he wanted to be sure of his deep feelings.

“It’s not a renewed love for her”, he eventually articulated, “it’s more… well… guilt…” He looked, at the same time, downcast and exhausted, however, he turned to her and tried a smile : “Forgive for bothering you with my frame of mind. I’m spoiling your joy while, certainly, you’d better talk about Little Joe and your romance with him.”

Christine shook her head : “You don’t know me very well, Adam, I would even say that you don’t know me at all. If not, you should know that I’m not the kind of woman that withdraws into herself. Besides”, she added with a bitter chuckle, “if I was this kind of person, I would not be there, I would be home, with my family. It’s because I wanted to help a friend that I was taken in this roundup of suspects and led to the American continent.”

At these words, Adam’s grin widened, digging dimples into his cheeks : “Do you regret it ?”, he asked, half tender, half ironic.

Christine’s face enlightened : “A friend of mine, in France, used to say that life is a succession of rainbows emerging in our hearts. I cry for being far from mines, I used to cherish, and I laugh for having met Little Joe”

“And soon”, Adam, enchanted by Christine’s image, replied, « a big sun will definitely make your rainbow disappear because you will marry Joe and go to France for your honeymoon. Then, you’ll introduce Joe to your family.”

“But, Adam, this is a long and expensive travel”

“I’ll pay for it, it will me my present for the wedding. I can afford it, I have pretty good savings after having worked with Pa for years and I also inherited something from my mother’s family.”

Unable to keep her control, Christine flied into his arms and kissed him on both cheeks, shouting : “Adam, you’re a darling.”

At this very moment, Hoss, Joe and the sheriff  came back to them.

“What’s that ?” Joe exclaimed with anger in his voice, “what are you doing ? Adam », he said coming next to him and threatening his brother with his forefinger, “if you’re starting the same game as you did with Melinda…”

But Christine didn’t let him go on. Rushing to her fiancé, she called out : “Joe, Joe, it’s wonderful : Adam is offering us our honeymoon in France. He just said it, he promised.”

 Joe looked at her, flabbergasted and then, turned to Adam and, suddenly, burst in laughter : “Well, thank you for having asked my opinion. Be careful with big brother, Christine, he’s got a bad habit, he wants to run everybody’s life.” Then, changing his tone, he put his arm around the girl’s shoulders and said : “You see, so are we, the Cartwrights : I sneaked away from them without saying a bit and I’m sure that, when they started, they intended to bring me back by the scruff of the neck, but you won their heart and now, there’s not much they shouldn’t do for you.”

Eyes becoming wet, Christine wanted to answer when the sheriff interrupted them abruptly : “Sorry, ladies and gents, but you will deal with your family problems later. Right now, I need you to come to town and sign your declarations. I still have the Quaker to question and I’ll meet you at my office. After, you’ll be free to go.”

“That’s exactly what we’ll do as soon as possible, believe me”, Joe said.

Christine saw a shadow pass on Adam’s face and guessed he was annoyed to leave without seeing Regina again : “You’ll let me the time to look after the horses, will you, Joe ?”

Adam understood Christine’s intention and thanked her with a simple glance. Christine headed to the horses and called out : “Joe, Hoss, will you give me a hand ?”

As for Adam, he planted himself for a while, hand on his hips, took a deep breath and knocked at Matthew and Regina’s door.

Steps were not long to be heard, the door opened lightly and Regina’s white headdress appeared. Again, Adam jumped at seeing so close the woman’s face, prematurely grown old. Respectfully, he removed his hat and said : “I came back, Regina, since, as the Holy Bible says, I will not see the sun set over our anger.”

Regina had a contrite smile : “you’re so kind, Adam, to share my fault, since, really, I’m the only one who got angry, not you. Come in, Matthew’s sleeping. If you like, I can make you a coffee.”

 « Sounds fine », he replied nicely. She introduced him into a pleasant kitchen and put the coffee pot on the fire. He sat down and this gesture made him aware of his degree of exhaustion. He waited a moment for her to break silence but since she seemed decided not to do it, he plunged.

“I’m sorry, Regina, for having given you again the spectacle of violence but, once again, I didn’t have any choice. I had the certainty that these gipsies wanted to murder my brother Joe.”

Suddenly, she sank on a chair and started crying, her head hidden in the hollow of her arm :

“Oh, Adam, please forgive me. How could I say such awful things ? I was so upset to see you again, and also upset because you were finding me in the state I am, pregnant for the second time. Why did I do that, Adam, why did I give up so easily our happiness ? I just had to let them to their chimeras, their way of life so cramped, so sad, yes, desperately sad. I remember, when we were walking side by side, you were telling me the history of this far-West you so much love, you were forming plenty of ideas for this country, you explained me that soon, the railway would reach this part of the territory and would bring with me industrials, men believing in progress and also lawyers, doctors who would changed our lives. You were daydreaming and, with you, my mind was venturing. With Matthew, you never dream, you dig, you clean up, you cook and you read Bible. Progress, you have to fly away from it, it’s Satan, visions, they’re inspired by the devil. You must never do anything that wasn’t done two thousand years ago. And women, particularly, must beware of thinking by themselves, they must refer for every matter to their husband. Even for bringing up my son, Adam, I’ve not my word. Do you realize what my life is ?”

Upset by such a despair, Adam couldn’t help laying a pitiful hand on the poor woman’s shoulder. At this touch that was electrifying her, she straightened up and showed him a face covered with tears.

“Oh, Adam, what can I do. It’s too late, now, I can’t go backward. I realize, now  that I wasn’t only in love with you but with the life you were offering me. You should have insisted, Adam, taken me with you… »

« You would have resented me », he said with a very gentle voice, « you wouldn’t have forgiven me. »

She stared at him, highly conscious of the truth of his words. “You’re right ! I would have been stupid enough not to accept gratefully the wonderful gift heaven was presenting to me and I would have tried to attract you to my own world.”

She seized a corner of her apron and used it to wipe her tears : “Go away, now, Adam, disappear so I will be able to forget you. Seeing you again woke up all my bitterness and erased my resignation. Go away, go away…”

He stood up, not knowing what to say. He was full of compassion and, at the same time, lightly hurt to see that she hadn’t even asked him how he had overcome the sorrow of their parting. Too much suffering had transformed her into a selfish person. He resented the so-called Matthew who was brandishing the Bible all the time but didn’t know how to love his wife. He wanted to send a Parthian shot but he saw her so unhappy that he chose to keep his thoughts for himself. Instead, he just said :

 « Farewell, Regina, I hope you’ll be able to forgive me one day. Don’t worry, I’ll manage not to cross your road again.”

Then, he turned on his heel and walked away without looking back while, forgetting about her husband and the neighbourhood, she was crying on the doorstep : “Come back, Adam, my love, my darling, come back, I love you, I love you…”

Adam controlled himself not to turn back and headed to his brothers and Christine.

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

“I think”, Adam said, that nothing more is keeping us here. Let’s go home.”

“Let’s go home”, Joe replied, throwing up his hat.

“But with which horse ?”, Christine asked, “do you think I can pick up one to the company ?”

“That’s the least they owe you”, Hoss answered

“Even so”, Christine retorted, “I have scruples, they are trained for the show. If they replace me, the horsewoman will need a mount.”

“Then”, Joe said, “get on behind me, Cochise is strong enough to carry both of us.”

Christine wasn’t to refuse such a proposition with the double advantage of satisfying her sense of honesty and keeping her in a tight contact with Joe’s body for three days.

The return was peaceful and merry. Hoss had taken Jessie, finding the travel too long for its little legs.

The last day, Joe became taciturn. As they got closer of the Ponderosa, he remembered that he had sneaked away from his father in a rather cavalier way. How would Ben react ? How would he welcome Christine ? He had tried to sound out his brothers but they didn’t know more than him. To reassure him, Adam informed him that he had sent to Ben a telegram that was saying : “Christine and Joe deeply in love, wedding inescapable, Adam.”

When they entered the courtyard, Joe let his brothers go forward. The sound of hooves had led Ben outside : he was watching his sons coming back, his hands on his hips, displaying a satisfied smile.

Adam was the first to dismount and shake warmly his father’s hands. Hoss put Jessie on the ground and, instead of saluting his parent, turned back to Cochise and, catching Christine’s waist, he helped her down the saddle. Joe stayed, stuck on his horse, paralyzed :

“Hello, young man”, called out Ben with a warm tone, “will you not introduce your fiancée to me ? What are you waiting for ?”

Electrified, Joe jumped down and rushed with outstretched arms, to his father, shouting : “Pa, you’re the best Pa on earth !”

Then, he seized Christine’s arm and started : “This is the woman for whom…”

“You’re ready to do any extravagance”, his father ended. “Is that so ?”

“Yes, it is. The extravagance of marrying, having plenty of children, going a big deal of trouble to make her happy.”

“Well, children”, Ben said, “I don’t give you my agreement since you obviously don’t need it, but I give you my blessing”

And he opened his arms wide. Hoss pushed Christine to him. Not knowing what to do, she nestled silently her head on the shoulder of her father-in-law to be. The latter melted at the frail girl’s touch and whispered in her ear :

“Now, you’re home, child.”

Balancing between laugh and tears, Christine stammered :

“Thank you, Pa… If it’s okay for you that I call you Pa.”

“Nothing could be better”, Ben thundered. “and now, let’s go home, Hop-Sing prepared a feast.”

“Do you hear that, Jessie”, Hoss said, “come on, we’ll have a slap-up.”

CONCLUSION

On this morning, Christine woke up, her heart full of emotion : this was the day for her to become Mrs Joseph Cartwright.

A few days before, Joe had taken her to town and she had sent a telegram to her family. This telegram wouldn’t go across the ocean but it would, at least, go across the continent in one day. Then a ship would carry it to le Havre and it would reach her family quicker than a simple letter.

Since her father wasn’t there to lead her to the altar, Ben would replace him. She had asked Adam as her witness, so Joe had felt free to choose Hoss.

She had stunned the dressmaker when she had declared she wanted to wear a white woman’s riding habit for the wedding :

“As a horsewoman, he caught sight of me and loved me, as a horsewoman, I will swear him love and loyalty.”

While she was walking at the sound of Mendelssohn wedding march, Joe, dressed in pearl grey, was awaiting her, radiant. He was watching her with this look of his that seemed to be a promise to turn her life into a perpetual amusement.

At the end of the ceremony, she felt as she was walking on clouds. He mounted Cochise, she mounted Jewel, her mare, Ben’s gift, and he took her left hand with his right hand.

“Forward ?”, Joe asked, smiling.

“Forward”, she answered, smiling back to him.

And they took a canter, without releasing their hands, as in a meticulously prepared equestrian ballet, taking their start on a synchronous rhythm that was to last all along their life.

 

The End

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