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