Vivian (by pjb)

Summary: Joe grapples with a moral dilemma when he falls in love with another man’s wife.  Fist in a series.  Rated: T  WC 11,500

Vivian Series:

Vivian
Another Auld Lang Syne

 

                                                         Vivian 

 

I think I fell in love with Vivian the first time I saw her.  She was just so beautiful.  If I could write poetry like Adam does, I’d write about her copper curls, piled high on her head and secured with a bright green ribbon that matched her eyes.  I’d describe the delicate lace on her bodice, and how her dress hugged the curves of her bosom and waist before flaring discreetly . I’d tell about her thick, sooty lashes and the intelligence and laughter in her eyes.  I’d mention the dimple in her right cheek, and how her laugh sounded like the music of a brook splashing over rocks out near Hoss’ favorite fishing spot.

 

And then I’d write about how my heart felt like a stone dropping from the top of a cliff when I saw the wedding ring on her hand.

Pa raised me right.  Maybe I’d strayed from the straight and narrow a time or two–okay, more than a time or two–but there was never any question about married women being off limits.  Truth be told, I barely noticed them.  There was no point.  With all the pretty girls in Virginia City, the last thing I needed to worry about was somebody’s wife.  I had my hands full most times as it was, what with the good girls at the church and the other girls at the saloon.  Once or twice, I’d gotten hints that some of the married ladies in town might have wanted me to do more than tip my hat and say hello, but I was no fool.  There were rules about that sort of thing.  I knew where the line was, and I didn’t cross it.

Until I saw Vivian, it was just an ordinary day.  Since then, I’ve noticed how often people say that about days that turn out to be special:  it was just an ordinary day, right up until it wasn’t.  It was a regular day, and then something happened, and the world changed forever.

On this ordinary, regular day, the sun was shining, and Hoss and I were outside the feed store, loading our order.  Then, I looked up, and it stopped being an ordinary, regular day.

As I said, I’ve had more than my fair share of the ladies.  Even so, I always notice a new pretty face in town, and I’m always interested.  Usually, I work my way over for an introduction in the course of a few minutes at most.  Adam and Hoss think it’s funny.  Once, Adam timed me; I came in under four minutes that day, and I didn’t even know I was on the clock.  But, like everybody says about their true love, this one was different.  I saw her, and I couldn’t do anything but stare.

“Joe!”  Hoss was standing there with a sack of grain.

“What?”  I tore my gaze away from her.

“Move!”

I hadn’t realized that I was blocking the buckboard.  I moved quickly and turned, hoping to catch a glimpse of her again.  Luck was with me, to a point:  she was closer, and the view was better.  Then, she lifted her left hand to brush a curl back from her face.  The smile on my face froze.  My stomach twisted.  For the tiniest moment, the world shifted beneath my feet.  I felt like something precious had been ripped from my hands before I’d even known that I was holding it.

“Joe?”

Hoss was looking at me with that quizzical expression he gets when he knows something’s wrong.  Everybody underestimates my big brother.  He’s never been much for book learning, but he’s head and shoulders above even Brother Adam in natural smarts.  I’ve always been able to talk him into pretty much any harebrained scheme that struck my fancy, but I’ve never been able to fool Hoss about anything important.  Especially when it comes to stuff like how I feel, my big brother is right on the money.  He’s told me how he promised my ma that he’d take care of me.  There’s nobody like Hoss for keeping a promise.  The straight and narrow comes natural to him.  When I’m ninety and he’s ninety-six and we’re sitting on the porch without a total of three teeth between the two of us, I expect he’ll still be peering at me with that same expression and demanding to know what’s wrong.

“What?” I demanded.  I knew I sounded irritable, but right then, that’s how I felt.

Hoss glanced over my shoulder at Vivian, and then pinned me with those blue eyes.  It’s like being held in place by the weight of the sky.  “Who’s that?”

I shrugged as if I didn’t care.  “Dunno.  Never seen her before.”  That, at least, was the truth.

“You know she’s wearing a wedding ring, right?”  Hoss wasn’t buying my blasé pose.

“Is she?  Oh, well.”  I picked up another sack of grain.  I felt Hoss’ eyes on me, but I focused on flinging the sack into the buckboard.  If I used just a little too much force, Hoss didn’t comment.  After a minute, he picked up another sack to load.  She walked on, we finished loading the buckboard, and the moment was past.

That should have been it.  There are so many new people in Virginia City that I shouldn’t have had to see her again.  Unfortunately, my eldest brother is just a little too sociable.  Just a few days later, Adam came home to announce that his new friend, Jeremiah Moore–and Jeremiah’s wife–would be coming to dinner.  I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in this news.  Truth be told, as much as I love my brother, he can bore a man to sleep faster than anybody I’ve ever met, with his talk of poetry and philosophy and other stuff nobody else cares about.  If this was someone Adam liked, everybody would be lucky to stay awake until dessert.

Hoss was gone for the night.  (I already said he was smart.)  I was out in the barn, saddling Cochise for a trip into town so I could avoid the whole dreary evening, when Jeremiah Moore pulled up in his buggy.  Sitting next to him was Vivian.

The smartest thing I could have done at that moment was to ride out as I’d planned.  Problem was, I saw her and I couldn’t breathe.  It was like I’d forgotten how.  Lucky for me, nobody could see me from out in the yard.  I ducked behind Cochise and watched as Moore took her hand to help her from the rig.  Pa and Adam came out from the house, and she smiled at both of them.  For an insane moment, I wanted to pummel them for being the people she smiled at instead of me.  Right then, I decided that I was staying home.  Since I’d undoubtedly never see her again after tonight, I’d just stay here and make the most of it.  With the best of my Joe Cartwright charm all shined up, I strode into the house.

“Good evening, everyone!”  I strode into the house, the expansive host.

Pa looked perplexed.  Ever subtle, Adam said, “I thought you were going into Virginia City.”

“Now, now, Older Brother,” I chided.  “We have company.  My pa raised me better than that.”  This was clearly news to Pa, who’d long despaired of my running out on dull houseguests, but he was tactful enough not to comment.

“Well, we wouldn’t want to keep you,” said Adam.  His dark eyes glinted as if he had some inkling why I’d chosen to stay.

I deflected his gaze like it was a poorly-thrust epée.  My mother’s people fenced; my Yankee brother may have been taught the sport, but it’s in my blood.  He never stood a chance.  “Not at all,” I said gallantly.  “I’m delighted to meet Adam’s friends.”  I turned to the husband and extended my hand.  “I’m Joe Cartwright.”

“Jeremiah Moore,” Moore said, apparently seeing nothing amiss.  “This is my wife, Vivian.”

“A pleasure,” I said, shaking his hand.  Then, I turned to her.  “Mrs. Moore,” I said.  Ever the gentleman, I nodded, barely resisting the urge to kiss her hand.

“Please, call me Vivian,” she said.  Her voice was lower-pitched than I’d expected.  She sounded like warm honey with lavender blossoms.  I caught something unnameable in her eyes as she extended her hand.  To hell with being a gentleman.  Quickly, before anyone could protest, I drew her hand to my lips.

“An honor, ma’am,” I said, laying on the southern drawl just a bit so that everyone would know I was simply demonstrating the chivalry of my New Orleans ancestors.  Pa and Adam looked amused, as if this were simply me being me and there was nothing to worry about with the married lady.  Moore looked slightly taken aback, but when no one else said anything, he adjusted his tie and pretended that nothing had happened.  I deliberately avoided Adam’s eyes as our guests took seats on the settee and I positioned myself across the room, in the blue chair by the stairs.  This was not the pure gesture it might have seemed:  it afforded me a better view of Vivian than if I’d been sitting closer.

Pa distributed sherry, and Adam and Moore launched into a wearisome discussion of some book they’d both read.  I pretended to focus on them as if they were interesting, but I watched Vivian out of the corner of my eye.  At one point, as I sipped my sherry, I looked up to see her looking squarely at me.  The expression in her eyes made me choke on my drink, interrupting Adam and Moore.

“Are you all right?” Vivian asked.

I nodded, still unable to catch my breath.  “I’m fine,” I gasped finally.

“Perhaps you could use a bit of air,” she suggested.  “Would you be kind enough to show me around?”

The room was silent.  It was one of the rare moments when I truly didn’t know what to say.  It was like being in the wagon and having the horses start to run–they’re going in the direction you want to go, but you’re getting there a whole lot faster than you’re ready for.  Plus, you’re not in control the way you think you should be, and there’s a very real chance that the whole thing is going to turn into a wreck any second.

I smiled gallantly and looked to Moore for permission.  After a moment, he nodded.  “Of course, my dear.  We must be boring you with all our book discussions,” he said.

“Not at all, my darling,” she said so smoothly that I wondered if she, too, fenced.  “I simply thought that a breath of air before dinner might be nice.”

I rose.  “It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Moore,” I said, offering her my arm.  No matter that I’d been told to call her Vivian.  At that moment, I instinctively knew that the more formal name was the better course.  “We’ll be right outside,” I assured Moore as I escorted the woman of my dreams out to the yard.

There isn’t much to see in the yard.  I knew that the lady had no interest in the horse trough or the corral.  With her arm in mine, we strolled over to the spot where you can look between the house and the barn, out into the pasture where the sun sets.  I tried to figure out something to tell her about the pasture, but the feel of her hand on my arm turned my brain into custard.  We stood in silence, watching the sky turn from blue to pale pink to deeper rose to orange to purple.  I wanted nothing more in the world than to stand there with her, watching the sun set, every night of my life.  As the sun approached the horizon, I looked down at her.

She was looking up at me, wide-eyed.  Her eyes looked like my heart felt.  A shiver ran through my body.  There were no words.  We both knew.  She told me later that she didn’t believe in love at first sight until that night.

If Pa hadn’t appeared at that moment, I don’t know what would have happened.  I’m sure I would have kissed her; I just don’t know what else would have happened.  I might have swept her up in my arms, carried her to their buggy, and driven off with her, away from everything.  I might have taken her by the hand, marched into the living room, and told Moore that she was leaving him for me.  I might have held her so tightly that the two of us truly became one.

But Pa came around the corner, calling my name.  It was enough warning for us to break our gaze and begin moving back toward the house, silhouetted against the fading light.  In the yard, it was fresh dark.  If we walked slowly enough, the flush in our cheeks could fade before we had to go inside.

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, you have the most spectacular sunsets,” said Vivian to Pa.

“We do our best,” said Pa modestly.  Not all my gallantry came from my mother’s side.

Vivian and I were seated across from each other at dinner.  Each of us made studied efforts not to meet the other’s eyes.  I was afraid that if I looked at her, I would just fall apart then and there.  Adam and Moore were as tedious at dinner as they had been before, but Vivian and I worked to join the conversation anyway.  I could tell that Pa was pleased that I was making such an effort.  He would have been a lot less pleased if he had known why.

Finally–far too soon–the Moores took their leave.  We walked them out to the yard.  I tried to be inconspicuous as I assisted Vivian into the buggy.  No one seemed to think it odd that I was so helpful.  Under cover of darkness, her hand brushed mine as I helped her up.  Her touch, unmistakable in intent, caused a jolt, like lightning, to course through my body.  It was all I could do not to yelp.

* * * * * * * * * *

To say I was distracted the next day would be an understatement.  It was lucky that I was just working in the barn.  If I’d been branding calves or herding cattle, my distraction could have been dangerous.  I’m not much on carrying a tune, but I hummed as I did my chores.  I felt all lit up inside.  Pa commented that I seemed to be in a good mood, but nobody else seemed to notice.

With everything I did, I imagined Vivian standing beside me, watching, admiring.  I imagined telling her about my day.  I imagined hearing about hers.  And then, my imagination started to slide into places it shouldn’t, and I had to haul it back.  If my mind started going there, I wasn’t going to get anything done.

At that point, all my imaginings seemed harmless.  I figured that I probably wasn’t going to see her again any time soon, and the tiny part of my brain that still seemed to have some sense told me that this was the way it should be.  Besides, with the way Moore had been looking at me when we went outside, I didn’t think he’d be too keen on bringing her back out to the Ponderosa.  So, I let my mind run free, picturing Vivian and me together, with her husband conveniently gone.  What harm could dreaming do?

* * * * * * * * * *

On Sunday morning, we filed into our usual pew.  Pa likes to get to church early, and I’m not much on getting anywhere early, so we usually slide in just before the service starts.  I was the last one into the pew, partly because I kept looking around to see if Vivian came to church.  Finally, I looked up at the choir, and there she was.  My own personal angel, ready to sing to me.

I don’t remember much about that service.  She darted a couple of quick glances at me, but other than that, she looked like she was keeping her attention fixed on her music, the choir director, or the preacher.  That was okay.  From where I sat, she was right in line behind the preacher, so I could pretend to look at him when I was really looking at her.  A whole hour of looking at Vivian.  This was what heaven was really like.

On the way out, as we shook the preacher’s hand, he said, “Joe, would you be interested in serving on our building committee?”  The church was raising money to put an addition on, because so many new people were coming to town.

Pa and my brothers looked as startled as I felt.  “Me?” I said.

Reverend Abbott nodded.  “I was told that you might be interested,” he said.

I was about to tell him that he must have misheard when I caught sight of Vivian across the church.  She was looking at me intently and nodding slightly.  She couldn’t possibly have heard what Reverend Abbott said, but in a heartbeat, I knew that she was the one who had said I might be interested.  “Sure, Reverend, I’d be happy to,” I said.  If Vivian wanted me on the building committee, there was probably a reason.

And there was.  When the committee met on Tuesday night, I walked in to find five big, tough men and Vivian, sitting around a table.  I tipped my hat to her, took a seat across from her, and did my best to focus on business.  Afterward, it was only natural and proper that I offer to escort her home.  She took my arm, and we strolled up the street, in no hurry.

“So, now I’m on the building committee,” I said.

“Do you mind?” she asked hesitantly.

I looked at her and smiled.  “No,” I said.  We walked in silence for half a block before I said, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“No,” she said.  She knew I didn’t mean the committee.  “But I didn’t know what else to do.”  She bowed her head.  “I’ve never done anything like this before,” she whispered.

“You haven’t done anything now,” I chided gently.  I resisted the urge to lift her chin so that she would meet my eyes; there were still a lot of people out.

She shook her head.  “Of course I have,” she said.  “We both have.”

“What do you mean?”  I was having that runaway-horse feeling again.

“I saw you on Sunday,” she said.  “You never took your eyes off me the entire service.”  Oh.  That.  “And I knew it, and I liked it.”  Pow.  Right in the heart.  “That’s why I suggested you to Reverend Abbott.”

“I thought that was you,” I said.

“It was,” she admitted.  “I didn’t know of any other way to see you again.”

I was used to women trying to snare me, but I’d never known one to be so upfront about it.  “You didn’t think I’d come in the store?” I asked.  I knew that Moore had bought the mercantile from Willie Gillette when Willie decided to go back east to be near his daughter, but I didn’t know if Vivian worked there.  Somehow, she seemed too fine to be working behind a counter.

“Jeremiah would have been there,” she said.

I hated the sound of his name.  Jeremiah, her husband.  Jeremiah, the man she was going home to.  Jeremiah, who could hold her hand, and kiss her, and make love to her, while I went back to the Ponderosa by myself to sleep alone.  Just as I was working up a solid hatred for Moore, she stopped and drew her handkerchief out of her reticule.

“What’s the matter?”  I was alarmed.

She dabbed at her eyes.  “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered.

“I don’t understand,” I said.  I drew her into the shadows so that her upset wouldn’t be so obvious to passers-by.

“I’m having all these feelings, and they’re all wrong, and I don’t even know how you feel,” Vivian said.  Even in her distress, she kept her voice so low that I could hardly hear her.  No one walking past could have overheard.

In the protection of the shadows, I took her arm and lifted her chin.  Tears glistened in her eyes.  “I think you do know how I feel,” I said.  Please, let her already know.  Please don’t make me say it out loud.

“Tell me,” she whispered.

“I think I’m falling in love with you,” I confessed.  Saying the words made me dizzy.  My heart pounded.  There was no going back.  “God forgive me, but I love you.”

“Then God forgive us both,” Vivian said.

For an insane moment, I wanted nothing more than to draw her into my arms, to hold her close and kiss her.  I saw someone walking toward us.  I blinked back the tears that had welled up in my eyes.  Casually, I placed her hand on my arm, covering her hand with mine.  We continued up the street as if we were just members of the church building committee, instead of two people who had just confessed to illicit love.

As we stood in the shadows by her front gate, she turned to me.  “What do we do now?”

I touched her cheek.  I had never felt anything as soft and perfect.  Everything in me swelled and hummed.  I wanted to kiss her more than I’d ever wanted to do anything.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “Shall we tell your husband?”

“No!”  The word burst forth.  I felt as if I’d been shot in the heart.  She tried to recover.  “I don’t–I mean–we need to talk more.  When can I see you?”

“You tell me,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if she was offering me a consolation prize or asking me for a date.  I decided that I didn’t care.  I wanted to see her, regardless of her motive.  “Is there any chance you can get away tomorrow?”

“I can try.  Where?”  Try.  Fine.  Good enough.  I’d show up for that.

“About five miles out of town, there’s a big old oak tree that got struck by lightning a long time ago, and now it’s dead,” I said.  “Meet me there tomorrow at ten o’clock.”  And if you don’t come at ten, I’ll sit there until you arrive, no matter how long it takes.

“I’ll be there,” she said in a breathless whisper.  She squeezed my arm and adjusted her hat.  “How do I look?”

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” I whispered.  She smiled weakly and darted into the house.  For a long time, I stood by the gate, content just to be near her.

* * * * * * * * * *

As I rode home, the thrill of Vivian’s love was gradually overshadowed by the reality of her marriage.  My conscience began to nudge at me like Cochise when he wants an apple.  No matter that we were in love.  She was a married woman.  I had a date tomorrow–with another man’s wife.  My mind’s ear could hear Pa yelling, demanding to know what on earth was wrong with me, whether I had any sense at all, didn’t I understand that marriage vows were sacred, where I got the audacity even to consider becoming involved with Mrs. Moore, and whether he’d taught me anything at all since I apparently hadn’t mastered the basic difference between right and wrong.  I could see the anger in his eyes, and more than that:  I saw his disappointment, as if I’d let him down in some fundamental way, as if I’d failed to be the son he’d hoped I would become.  In my imagination, my brothers stood behind him, somber, nodding agreement with Pa, and I stood alone on the other side of Pa’s desk, empty-handed and guilty as sin.

By the time I walked into the house, my conscience had pretty well tamped down my excitement about the evening’s events.  Pa was asleep in his red leather chair, book in his lap.  Even now, with all of us as old as we are, he can’t seem to make himself go to bed until we’re all home.  I patted his shoulder, and he instantly awoke.

“Everybody’s home,” I grinned.  For a moment, life seemed normal again.

Pa rose and stretched.  “Did you have a nice evening?”  He smiled at me.  If he’d only known.

A nice evening?  Let’s see.  Jeremiah Moore’s wife told me she loved me.  I told Mrs. Moore that I loved her, too.  It wouldn’t exactly count as “nice” in my father’s world.  “Appalling” might be closer to the truth.

“It was fine,” I said.  I hated lying to Pa.  “Fine” as about as close as I could come to summing up my feelings.  It was a nice, bland word that could mean anything or nothing at all.

Pa was sleepy enough not to inquire further.  “Well, good night, son,” he yawned.

In my room, I closed the door and looked in the glass over the dresser.  The man who looked back at me had familiar features, but there was a look in his eyes that I’d never seen.  He didn’t look like anybody I knew or respected.  He was in love with another man’s wife.  He would steal that man’s wife if he were given half a chance.  He would throw over everything he had ever been taught about right and wrong and risk hurting innocent people, just for the chance to kiss a married woman.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked him.

The man in the mirror had no answer.

* * * * * * * * * *

It took some fancy maneuvering, including some outright lies to my brothers, but I made it to the oak tree just before ten o’clock.  I waited.  And waited.  The later it got, the more I was sure she’d told Moore everything last night, and he’d done something awful to keep her from coming.  When I finally saw her coming down the Virginia City road, I almost cried from sheer relief.

As she pulled up to the tree, I said, “Come on.”  I rode ahead of her, off the road and into a little secluded spot where no one would see the rig or Cochise.  Then, I swung her down from the buggy, my hands nearly spanning her waist, and set her down.  My arms went around her, and hers around me, and we held each other close in the shade of the trees.  Then, we drew back ever so slightly, and I kissed her.

Immediately, we both knew that was a mistake.  We broke apart and stood looking at each other.  She looked like she was going to cry, and I felt like it myself.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered.  “I didn’t mean–I’m so sorry.”  I didn’t dare touch her, for fear I’d kiss her again.

Vivian walked toward the stream.  I started to follow, but she held up her hand.  “Please,” she said.  I stayed by the horses, and she sat on a rock by the stream.  I couldn’t tell if she was crying.

Finally, I approached her.  I made sure to be noisy so that she could tell me to stop if she wanted to, but she didn’t.  I squatted a couple feet away from her.  “Are you okay?”

“I just kissed a man who isn’t my husband,” she said dully.  “How okay could I be?”

“I’m sorry,” I said again.  “I wasn’t thinking.  I just–I’m sorry.”  I was.  Not because I kissed her, but because she was unhappy.

She turned to me.  Her eyes glistened with tears.  People always talk about me having green eyes, but let me tell you, mine are nothing compared to Vivian’s.  Mine are more like brownish-green; Ella Mae Fuller, who was my girlfriend for three whole weeks when I was fourteen, told me they were hazel.  Vivian’s eyes were really green.  There was nothing brown about them.  They were like looking at the best, most lush pastureland after a spring rain.  And with the tears standing in them, her eyes were luminous.  It was all I could do not to kiss her again.

“The problem is, I wanted to kiss you,” she said.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  “I love you, and I wanted to kiss you, but I’m married.”  That certainly summed up the problem.  It wasn’t much for a solution, though.  I sat down on the ground, a respectful distance from her.  We said nothing for what seemed like a long time.  Finally, Vivian said, “I should be getting back.”

I got to my feet and extended a hand to help her up.  I pulled a little too hard, though, and she landed smack against me, her arms around my neck.  Laughing, we started to extricate ourselves.  Then, our eyes met, and we were kissing again.  The world swirled and dipped, and nothing mattered except the feel of Vivian.  She pressed herself against me, and I held her as tightly as I could.

“I love you,” I murmured into her hair.

“I love you,” she whispered.  She looked up at me, teary and exquisitely beautiful.  She was so delicate, so lovely.  I wiped away her tears with my fingertips, careful of her fragility.

“I don’t want you to be unhappy,” I said.  “If I’m making you unhappy, I’ll go right now, and you’ll never see me again.”  My heart contracted with the fear that she would accept my offer.

“The idea of never seeing you again would make me much more unhappy,” said Vivian.  Relief flooded through me like sunshine.  I held her gently.

“Then what do we do?”  I asked.  It wasn’t a leading question.  I had no idea what came next.

Neither did Vivian.  “Maybe we should try to stay apart,” she said.  “At least then, we’d be more likely to stop kissing.”

The notion of not kissing her sounded dreadful, painful.  I could feel my heart starving at the thought.  But if it was what she wanted, it was what we’d do.  For Vivian, I could endure anything.  “Okay,” I said.  “But if we’re going to be apart, I need one last kiss for the road.”  I drew her into my arms, and we stood beneath the trees, kissing, until we were both lightheaded.  Then, I lifted her into the rig.

“Drive carefully, my love,” I said.  She flashed me a brilliant smile and drove away, leaving Cochise and me alone by the stream.

Over the next several weeks, the pattern became a familiar one.  We would agree not to meet.  Eventually, we would meet.  We’d find a secluded spot, and we’d kiss and hold each other.  Only the tattered remnants of my sense of honor kept me from asking for the more I desperately wanted.  We’d talk at length about why our being together was so wrong, but then we’d talk about how much we loved each other, as if that made the other part all right.

The problem for me was that how I felt changed with where I was.  When I was with Vivian, nothing else mattered.  I could put my feelings of guilt aside just by touching her cheek.  When we were in our private world, the only thing that mattered was us.  No one else knew, so no one else mattered.  When I looked into her eyes, the meaning of right and wrong changed:  right meant being with her, and wrong meant being without her.  It wasn’t possible that our being together, our being in love, was a sin.  Nothing this beautiful could be wrong.

After she went home, though, the sunshine would fade, and the call of my conscience would begin.  She was married.  She had a husband.  I didn’t know if our being together was technically considered adultery, but if it wasn’t, it was awfully close.  Even though I’d never paid that much attention in Sunday school, I found myself remembering the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said that if you look at a woman with lust, you’ve already committed adultery with her in your heart.  No two ways about it, I’d looked at Vivian with lust.  I’d thought of her with lust.  I’d listened to her, touched her, smelled her, tasted her, all with lust.  Guilty as charged.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.

It was even harder for Vivian.  After all, she was the one who had to go home and see Moore after lying beside the stream in my arms, kissing me and telling me how much she loved me.  Sometimes, she’d get all quiet.  When she did, I knew she was feeling guilty.  I hated that our being together made her feel so bad.  I told her that I’d rather be without her than make her so unhappy.

“It would be worse if I didn’t have you,” she said.  A single tear trickled down her cheek.  She looked so forlorn that I had to kiss her, again and again.

In the meantime, we hid in plain sight.  No pretending not to know each other, but no untoward contact, either.  I’d come into the mercantile, and she would greet me like any other customer.  I’d walk her home after building committee meetings.  We’d stop and chat if we encountered each other on the street, just like we were regular people with no secrets between them.  As time went on and we became more comfortable with our secret, we became bolder.  Finally, at one of the Saturday night socials, I asked Moore if I could dance with her.  He looked slightly taken aback, and Vivian laughed.

“Oh, you just want to talk about how many windows to put in the church addition!” she teased.  To her husband, she said, “I think there should be lots of windows so that there’s lots of light, but the men want fewer–they say it’s too much work to make all those windows.”  To me, she said, “If I dance with you, can we have six windows on each side?”

“How about three?” I joked.  Moore relaxed slightly and nodded his consent.  Then, in front of God and Virginia City, I escorted my love out onto the dance floor.  We waltzed around the floor in absolutely proper form.  I was careful not to hold her too close or to grasp her too tightly.  We wore our public smiles, but the sparkle in her eyes was anything but public.  I’m pretty sure mine looked the same.

I thought we’d been discreet, but the next afternoon, when I was cleaning out the barn, Hoss came in.  “We need to talk,” he said without preamble.

“Sure.”  I didn’t know if it was my guilty conscience, but suddenly, I had a bad feeling about this talk.  I rested the pitchfork against the wall.  “What can I do for you?”

“There’s been some talk,” Hoss said.  I waited.  “About you and Mrs. Moore,” he finished finally.

My heart was in my throat.  Of all the people in the world whom I didn’t want to know about our affair, Hoss was at the top of the list.  Oddly, I’d rather Adam have known, or even Pa.  Both of them would have chewed my head off, shouting and raging about how wrong this was, and both of them would have told me, in no uncertain terms, how mightily disappointed they were in me and how they expected me to put the situation to rights immediately.  I knew, though, that I could survive their haranguing.  It would be loud, angry, and out in the open.

Hoss was different.  First, Hoss would never yell at me–not about something like this.  It wasn’t as if he hadn’t talked sternly to me in my time.  He’d even threatened to thrash me every now and again.  From the time I was four, I knew it was just talk, but I recognized that it meant that he was really upset with me.  I’d corrected my behavior so he wouldn’t be upset with me, not from fear of a thrashing.  Pa and Adam might have to tan me to get me to change my ways, but all Hoss had to do was to look at me a particular way, and I felt like dirt.  It was something no one else understood:  as much as I loved and respected Pa and Adam, absolutely nothing meant more to me than Hoss’ good opinion.

“What kind of talk?” I asked.  I tried to be casual.  Hoss did not look convinced, but it was clear that he was unsure why he had a question.  He just knew that something wasn’t quite right.

“Talk that mebbe you and Mrs. Moore are doin’ something you shouldn’t,” Hoss said finally.  I could see that it cost him to say even that much out loud.  In that moment, I hated myself.

My big brother was the most pure, innocent soul I knew.  He was incapable of seeing evil or dishonor in anyone he loved, least of all his baby brother.  As I stood in that barn, there was no doubt in my mind that Hoss simply could not conceive of my doing what I had done.  He hated having to tell me that this was the talk around town, but he didn’t believe it could really be true.  In his mind, I would never do such a thing.  It wasn’t even a question.  He would have to see with his own eyes Vivian and me making love in order to believe it true.  Short of that, he would defend me with everything he had.

I hated the fact that he was so loyal, so faithful and so wrong.  I felt like I was making a fool of him.  I wanted him to know the truth, if only so that he would stop defending me.  I wanted to be able to talk to him, to tell him everything, even at the same moment that I wanted to protect him from the knowledge of what his little brother truly was.  Maybe it was just plain selfish, but I missed confiding in Hoss.  One of the problems with having a secret love is that you can’t tell anybody about it.  Time was when Hoss would have been sick to death of hearing me prattle on about the girl of the week.  Now, the only person I could talk to about my feelings for Vivian was Vivian.  In a strange way, this strengthened the bond between us.  Since each of us was the only one the other could tell about this huge, important thing in our lives, it drew us closer than we might have been if it had been a normal courtship.  This, in turn, made us want to be together even more.

And now Hoss was knocking at the door to our secret world, even if he didn’t know it.  The selfish part of me wanted to let him in.  When Vivian wasn’t around, I was lonely.  I’ve never been one to keep things to myself.  Adam used to tell me that it was okay to have an unexpressed thought once in a while, but the truth is, I usually don’t.  Until Vivian, if I thought or felt something, I’d blurt it out to pretty much whoever was standing in front of me.  Even if I tried to keep something to myself, it wouldn’t last long.  That’s just the way I’ve always been, ever since I was a kid.  So, all this secrecy was new to me.  Even though hiding was the price of being with the woman I loved, I didn’t like it.  I felt isolated, not being able to tell my family about the most important thing in my world.  It was like living with a window between me and the rest of them.

“What are you talkin’ about?”  My stomach twisted, but I kept my voice light.  I needed to know how much he knew.

“Don’t you be playin’ games with me,” Hoss said.  I was taken aback by his directness.  I’d expected that he would move heaven and earth to avoid this discussion.  His blue eyes were troubled as he continued, “Ever’body seen you two dancin’ last night.  An’ now you’re out here, cleanin’ out the barn on a Sunday when you could be doin’ most anythin’ else.”  He moved closer to me, and I backed up a step.  “You don’t wanna talk to nobody.”  It wasn’t a question.

Well, he had me there.  As things with Vivian had progressed, I’d withdrawn from my family.  It was self-defense–otherwise, I was liable to slip up and say something that would give it all away.  I didn’t think it had been obvious, but maybe it had.  It had been weeks since I’d talked to anyone except Vivian about anything but the most trivial topics.  With Pa and my brothers, I talked about work.  With my friends, it was poker and horses.  I was mostly just avoiding Hop Sing, because you couldn’t get anything past him–he was worse than the fortune teller at the fair for knowing stuff you were trying to keep secret.

“I have work to do,” I said defensively.  “I got behind in my chores this week, and I’m catching up.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Hoss looked unconvinced.  I leaned on the pitchfork and met his gaze.  I might have managed the moment, but when I saw his eyes, loving and troubled and scared of what I might say, I couldn’t meet them.  I dropped my eyes, and I knew he knew the truth.

“Joe, what’s goin’ on with you and Mrs. Moore?”  He sounded slightly panicked as he tried to backtrack.  I could almost hear him frantically trying to avoid adding two and two together.

I tried to pretend to be offended.  Instead, my voice skidded out of control, up into its highest range, and I sounded like a scared kid.  “Hoss!  What are you asking?  She’s married!”

“I know,” he said.  He sounded almost desperate, begging me to deny everything.  “The question is, do you?”

“Do I what?” I demanded.

“Know she’s married,” said Hoss miserably.

“Of course I do,” I retorted.  As if I could possibly have forgotten for a single moment.  The hand that caressed my cheek wore another man’s wedding band.  The low, sweet voice that expressed her love to me had said the same words to her lawfully wedded husband.  The lips that sought mine so passionately in secret could be kissed by Moore in daylight.  When we parted, she went home to his bed.  Did I know she was married?  It wasn’t likely to slip my mind.

“That ain’t what I mean,” said Hoss.  He might be dreading what was to come, but he was not going to be steered off course so easily.  This was far too serious for that.  He drew closer, and his voice softened.  “I seen the way you look at her,” he said.  “And I seen how she looks at you.”  I tried to move away, but he held my arm.  “You tell me the truth now,” he said.

It would have been so easy to lie, but I couldn’t.  Not to Hoss.  “It’s not what you think,” I said finally.

“How so?”  He was willing to accept almost any halfway believable answer.

“We’re not–well–it’s not–we don’t–”  I didn’t know how to tell him what wasn’t going on between Vivian and me.  Luckily, he seemed to get it, and he relaxed slightly.

“What is goin’ on?” he asked, not releasing my arm.

I looked him in the eye defiantly and swallowed hard.  “We’re in love,” I said.

A look of pure horror crossed Hoss’ face.  He dropped my arm and stepped back.  “No,” he breathed.  “You ain’t.  You couldn’t.”

I nodded.  “We didn’t want this, but it’s true,” I said.

Hoss sat down heavily on the feed box.  It was like his legs couldn’t hold him up.  When he looked up, the look in his eyes almost drove me to my knees:  disappointment, disgust, outrage, sorrow, and something else, like he was looking at somebody he thought he knew who turned out to be a stranger.  I recognized the look.  It was the one I saw every morning in the glass over my bureau.

But in all my life, Hoss had never looked at me like that, no matter what I’d done.  My big brother is the least judgmental man I’ve ever met.  From Adam, I’d have expected that reaction.  I could have handled it from him.  From Hoss, it was devastating.  It was even worse than disappointing Pa.  Hoss had always been my champion, my best friend, the one who believed in me when I couldn’t.  When I was so wrong that even I knew it, Hoss was still on my side.  I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.  I tried to blink them away, but more came in their place.  I knew in that moment that if I’d thought at the beginning about how Hoss would react, I might not have gone through with that first meeting with Vivian.

“Hoss, please try to understand,” I pleaded.  “Neither one of us wanted this to happen.  It just did.  We tried to fight it.  We know it’s wrong.  But–we love each other.”

“But, Joe!”  His eyes were fixed on my boots, as if he’d find a different answer there.

“Hoss?  Hoss?”  He didn’t look up.  I took a step toward him, reaching for him.

He drew back.  Away from me.

I stood still.  My big brother couldn’t bear even to look at me, much less to be near me.  The man I loved and respected so much–in some ways, even more than Pa–was so disgusted by me that he couldn’t look me in the eye.  Couldn’t stomach having me stand beside him.  Couldn’t abide my touch on his arm.

I never felt so alone in my life.  It was like Hoss had died and left me forever.  I was twenty-three years old, and as I stood in that barn, my tears flowed down my cheeks like I was a little kid again.  For a moment, I knew again the sick pain that I’d felt when my mother died.  The unthinkable had happened again.  This time, it was Hoss who had abandoned me.

I tried to make him listen.  “Hoss, please.  Please don’t hate me.  I didn’t ask to fall in love with her.  It just happened.  Just–please don’t hate me.”  I’d never begged anyone for anything in my life before that moment, but I’d gratefully have gotten down on my knees if it would bring my brother back.

He didn’t look up.  He didn’t speak.  He didn’t move.  It was like I hadn’t said a word.

I stumbled into Cochise’s stall, desperate for someone to hold onto.  I fought not to cry as I clung to my old friend, knee-deep in the wreckage of my old life.  For the very first time, it occurred to me to wonder if Vivian was worth what she was costing me.

I don’t know how long I stood there before I felt Hoss’ hand on my shoulder.  When I looked up, he had tears in his eyes, too.  “Come here, you,” he said, his voice thick with sorrow and love.  I flung myself against his broad chest like I did when I was five years old, and he wrapped his arms around me.  “I don’t hate ya,” he murmured, stroking my hair.  “I couldn’t do that.”  He held me close, the way he did when I was little, and I cried for everything that had happened, for everything I’d compromised, everything I’d become.

After a long time, I lifted my head.  I swiped my eyes and nose with my sleeve, and Hoss chuckled.  “You know better than that,” he said.

“You could say that about a lot of things these days,” I said quietly.  Hoss’ smile faded.  “I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Yeah, you do,” said Hoss.

“I love her,” I said simply.

“She’s married,” said Hoss, just as simply.  For a moment, I wanted to live in Hoss’ world, where everything was so easy, so black and white.  Only a few short months ago, I’d lived in that world.  Then, I met Vivian, and we’d led each other out of the world of absolutes into a place where everything was about shades of gray and what you could explain or excuse, and the only thing you could be sure of was love.

“I know,” I said.  “I didn’t mean to love her.  I didn’t want to love her.  But I do.”

“It’s wrong,” said Hoss.  His eyes were as red and teary as mine.  I patted my pockets and found no handkerchief to offer him.  I shrugged, and we smiled watery smiles.

“I know,” I said.  We stood in Cochise’s stall for a long time, saying nothing.  Finally, Hoss patted my shoulder.

“You’ll figger it out,” he said.  He turned to go.

“Hoss?”  Irrational panic streaked through me at the idea of his leaving.

He turned back, smiling.  “Don’t you worry,” he said.  “Ol’ Hoss is here for you.”  He tousled my hair like I was a kid.  “You’ll do the right thing,” he said.  In that moment, he sounded as much like a fortune teller as Hop Sing.

That evening at dinner, I was so quiet that Pa asked if everything was okay.  “Oh, sure,” I said.  “I’m just tired.”  The last part was true.  The scene with Hoss had left me exhausted.  After he left the barn, all I could think about was how Pa and Adam would react if they knew.  I don’t know how I’d managed to avoid thinking about them up to now, but when Hoss looked at me like he did, I couldn’t fool myself any more.  One way or another, Vivian and I were going to have to make a decision.

The next morning, I rode into town early.  Pa had some banking to be done, and I said I’d take care of it.  He and Adam and Hoss were coming in later for a meeting.  At breakfast, when I’d offered to do the banking, Hoss shot me a quick look, chastising and loving and stern all at the same time.  It occurred to me that, even though everybody thinks Adam is just like Pa, Hoss is the one who has Pa’s patience and wisdom.

C Street was quiet that morning.  I strode into the bank and stopped dead.  There was one other customer in the bank, and it was Moore.  Quick, before anybody noticed my reaction, I said, “Morning, Moore!”

Moore turned around.  He always looked at me with some faint suspicion, just as if he thought I was doing exactly what I was doing, but he didn’t think he could prove it.  “Morning, Cartwright,” he said.  To the teller, he said, “That’s everything, thank you.”

The teller, Billy Waltham, had only been working there for a few months.  He opened his mouth to say something to Moore, and I saw his jaw drop and his eyes get big.  I turned to see what he was looking at.  Three men with kerchiefs over their faces and revolvers drawn had just come in the door, so quiet Moore and I hadn’t even heard them.  They locked the door and drew the blinds.  The one in the middle, the biggest of the three, said, “You two.  Behind the counter, on the floor.”  I’d been in enough robbery situations to know that the thing to do was to listen to them.  Moore looked like he wanted to fight.

“Come on,” I hissed.

“Hands in the air, drop the gun belt,” said the big robber.  I resisted the urge to ask how I was supposed to undo my gun belt with my hands in the air.  Smart talk can get a man killed real fast.  I dropped my gun belt and went behind the counter.

Billy was already on the floor.  He was trying not to cry, but he wasn’t doing very well.  “It’s okay,” I whispered.  “Just do what they say, and you’ll be okay.”  Not that I could guarantee anything, but Billy seemed just a little bit less terrified, so I must have sounded better than I felt.  I looked around.  I knew the bank president, Mr. Chambers, kept a pistol behind the counter, but I didn’t see it.

“Move!” shouted the big guy.  He shoved Moore back behind the counter so hard that he fell to his knees.  “You two!  Down!”  I nodded to Billy, and we both lay down flat.  The big guy smacked Moore in the head, and Moore lay down as well.

“I’m gonna make a run for it,” whispered Moore.  He was turning red, and sweat was beading up on his forehead.  I started to get worried.  It wasn’t hot in there.

“Are you crazy?  They’ll kill you before you get to the door,” I hissed.

“You think I’m just gonna lie here and let them rob the bank?  That’s my money in that vault,” Moore hissed back.

Damn fool.  “It’s just money,” I said.  “It’s not worth your life.”  Not like you were protecting a person–like maybe your wife. . . .

“Maybe it ain’t worth nothing to you,” said Moore.  “But everything I own is tied up in that store and this bank.  I’m not a rich kid who takes whatever he wants.  I’ve had to earn everything I have.”

A rich kid who takes whatever he wants.  Dear God.  He knew.  Even lying flat, I felt dizzy.  Insanely, I prayed that if Moore survived and I didn’t, he’d at least keep his big mouth shut so that Pa would never have to know about Vivian.

The robbers were stuffing the contents of the vault into bags.  I assumed they were planning to go out the back.  They may have come in the front, but there was no way they were going to get anywhere walking out the same way.  Slowly, silently, I slid my hand under the counter.  The pistol was right where I’d last seen it, back when Amelia Fuller was working here and she showed me all around.  The pistol wasn’t the only thing she showed me when we were back here.  I pushed the memory away.  Slowly, quietly, I reached for the gun and slid it under my body.

“What was that?” whispered Moore.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” I said.  “Just stay where you are.  They’ll be gone in a minute.”

“How do you know so much about bank robberies?”  Moore asked suspiciously.

“Been through this before,” I said.  I tried to sound casual, even though my heart was thudding in my chest.  It occurred to me to wonder if this was God’s way of punishing me for loving Vivian.

It’s funny what the mind fixates on at these moments.  As we lay there on that dusty wooden floor, not knowing at ten o’clock if we’d live until five after, all I could think of was that I’d forgotten to tell Pa about the hole in the fence at the far side of the east pasture.  It was so far out at the edge that you’d never see it unless you were deliberately riding the fence, but it was big enough to cause real problems.  I caught myself wondering if it would be possible to leave a note in case I didn’t survive.  At least I knew I wasn’t alone in my irrationality.  Adam once told me how, when he and Hoss had been held hostage in a line shack, all he could think of was how much he wanted a nice, juicy pork chop, and he doesn’t even like pork all that much.  Hoss, of all people, said he’d regretted not having had a bath and a shave when they were in town that afternoon.

The robbers came out of the vault, lugging bags of cash and gold bars.  “What do you want to do with them?” one of the robbers asked the big guy.  “Kill ’em?”

“That wouldn’t be very smart,” I offered, as if I were in a position to give advice.  I tried to sound off-handed, like my mouth weren’t wretchedly dry.  I might have been through this before, but it never got easier.  “Right now, you leave, it’s just bank robbery.  If you kill us and they catch you, you hang.”

“You’re pretty sharp,” said the big guy.  “But how do we know you ain’t comin’ after us as soon as we ride out?”

“Because that’ll be the deal,” I said as if this were a simple business discussion.  There was no bullet in my brain.  I found that promising.  If I’d angered them with my suggestion, we would all have been dead by now.  “You don’t kill us, we’ll stay here for ten minutes before we say anything.  If we don’t do what we say, you’ll come back and kill us anyway.”

The big guy laughed.  “Got this all thought out, do you?”

“I had a few minutes,” I said.  “What do you say?  Deal?”

Moore snarled.  “I’m not making any deals with the likes of them!”  He sprang up from the floor and lunged toward the robbers.

“I’ve got a gun!”  I shouted, rolling over and firing at the robbers, hoping to draw their fire before they could shoot him down.  Then, the world exploded, and everything went black.

* * * * * * * * * *

My right shoulder was on fire.  My side burned, but not as bad.  I fought to open my eyes.  Doc Martin’s wife, Rose, was sitting next to me.  “Well, look who’s back,” she said, wiping my face with a cool cloth.  Nausea overtook me, and she held the basin to my mouth.  After I’d vomited, Rose wiped my mouth and lifted a glass of water to my lips.

“Is he awake?”  Doc bustled over to me.

“How’s-”  I couldn’t remember their names.

“Billy Waltham’s fine,” said Doc.  “Stayed down, just like you told him.  Jeremiah Moore was hit in the leg.  Nothing serious.  You took down one of the robbers.  The other two escaped.”  Two wounded, one dead.  He sounded so matter-of-fact.  I guess that’s a doctor’s life in a place like Virginia City.  I closed my eyes.

The bell jangled as the door opened.  “Where is he?  Is he all right?  Is he alive?”  Vivian sounded frantic.  I forced my eyes open and tried to speak to catch her attention.

“He’s fine,” said Doc, obliterating the tiny sound I’d made.  “He’s over there,” he added, gesturing to the other side of the room.

“Vivian,” said Moore weakly.

I saw her hesitate.  Then, Vivian crossed the room to her husband, and Moore flung his arms around her.  Another wave of nausea rolled over me, and I closed my eyes.  But in the moment before Pa and my brothers burst through the door, loud and worried and demanding to know everything, I heard Rose Martin murmur to her husband, “That’s not the ‘he’ she was talking about.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, I woke to find Hoss dozing in the chair beside my bed.  I had vague memories of the trip back to the Ponderosa, but the laudanum Doc Martin had given me for the pain had knocked me out.

“Where’s Pa?”  My voice was raspy and weak, but Hoss woke instantly.

“I sent him to bed a few hours ago,” Hoss said.  “He’d been sittin’ here ever since we got you home.”  Typical Pa.  Typical Hoss, too.  And if I knew my brother, Adam, he was out organizing all the hands so that everybody’s work would be taken care of until I was back on my feet.

Hop Sing tapped on the door, then opened it without waiting for an answer.  “You drink this,” he said, handing a cup to Hoss.  His tone left no room for arguing, even if I’d felt like it.  He peered at me in that way he has that makes me feel like he can see clear through me.  Then, unexpectedly, he broke into a big smile.  “Little Joe be just fine,” he announced.  Pigtail bouncing, he turned and left.

Hoss rolled his eyes, grinning.  He helped me sit up and tried to give me the cup, but my hand wasn’t steady enough, so he held it with me.  It was one of Hop Sing’s nasty-tasting brews.  If it wasn’t for the fact that they seem to work as well as anything Doc Martin gives us, none of us would touch them-they’re that bad.  Nobody but Hop Sing knows what’s in them, but there’s no fighting the fact that they really do help us recover faster than any of Doc’s other patients.  When I’d finished drinking, Hoss helped me lie back down.

“Did somebody tell Vivian I was okay?” I asked.

Hoss’ eyes were solemn.  He nodded.  “I made sure she knew.”

“Thanks, Brother.”  My throat was too tight to say more.  I knew what it had cost him to pass on that message.  More important, I knew why he’d done it.

I thought about those few minutes in the bank.  All I’d had to do was just lie there on the floor, and all my problems would have been solved.  Moore would have been dead, and Vivian would have been mine.  Billy didn’t even know about the pistol.  Nobody would have known, and even if they did, nobody would have faulted me for trying to stay alive.  A decent interval after the funeral, and Vivian and I could have been together forever.  But instead, without thinking twice, I’d deliberately drawn the robbers’ attention away from Moore, even though it meant I could have been killed.  I looked up at Hoss, and I knew without asking that he was thinking the same thing.  Then, my big brother chuckled and pulled the covers up around my shoulders.

“I knew you’d figger it out,” he said.

* * * * * * * * * *

A week later, Vivian came calling.  It was the first time she’d been to the Ponderosa since the night Adam had invited the Moores to dinner.  Fortunately, as it happened, it was also the first day I was allowed to go downstairs.  So, when Vivian arrived, I was decently dressed and on the settee, my right arm in a sling and a quilt tucked around me as I dozed over my book.

“Mrs. Moore!  Won’t you come in?”  Pa ushered her into the living room.  She looked as beautiful as ever, but I could see that she was uncomfortable.

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, favoring him with one of her incredible smiles.  “Hello, Joe,” she said, turning her favor on me.  It was odd to hear my name on her lips.  Usually, she called me “darling” or “my dear” or “my love.”

“Hello, Vivian,” I said.  It was as strange to use her name as to hear mine, and for the same reason.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”  Pa offered.

“You’re very kind, but I can’t stay long,” said Vivian.  “I just wanted to come and thank Joe for what he did.”

“No thanks necessary,” I said casually.

Pa moved the coffee table out of the way and pulled a chair up next to the settee so that Vivian could sit beside me.  “If you two will excuse me, I have some things to take care of in the barn,” he said.  A transparent excuse if there ever was one.  Clearly, he thought that Vivian would be emotional about her husband’s rescue, and he wanted to spare her an audience.

As soon as the door closed behind him, I reached for her hand.  “How are you?” I asked.

“How am I?  How are you?” she countered.

“I’m getting there,” I said.  “Another week or so, and I should be up and about.  I’ll have the sling another month, though.  How’s your–how’s Jeremiah?”

“He’s doing well,” Vivian said.  “It was just a flesh wound.  Still, it was the first time he’s ever been shot, so he’s quite impressed with himself.”

“For getting shot?”  I rolled my eyes.  “Frankly, I’m more impressed when people avoid getting shot.”

“He’s a good man,” she said softly.  “He’s kind and hardworking and honest.  Until I met you, I thought I loved him.”

“And now?”  My heart froze.

“We’re going to be leaving Virginia City,” she said.  Her eyes glistened.

“When?”  I could hardly breathe.

“Two weeks,” she said.  She met my gaze levelly.  “If he and I are to have a life together, it can’t happen here.”

I could almost feel my insides shriveling up.  “When did you decide this?”

“Last night,” she said.  “Jeremiah had mentioned the idea before, but it wasn’t definite until then.”

“But you never told me–”

“I didn’t know,” she said simply.  “I knew he wanted to leave.  I knew he suspected something.  But I didn’t know what was going to happen with you and me.”

“What changed?”  I was almost afraid to hear her answer.

“The bank,” she said.  “Jeremiah finally told me just what had happened.  All he’d said at first was that they shot him.  I didn’t know that you’d kept them from killing him.  Once he told me that, it all fell into place.”

“I couldn’t just stand by and let them kill him–not even if it meant that you’d be free.”  It was the first time I’d said it out loud.

Vivian nodded.  “If you could have, you wouldn’t have been the man I love,” she said.  “But because you’re who you are, my husband is alive.  I can’t keep on betraying him.  And I can’t stay here and not be with you.  So, I’ve agreed to go to back east with him.  He wants to go to St. Louis.”  She sighed.  “Maybe a fresh start will help,” she said wistfully.

I looked into her beautiful, sad eyes.  For a brief, insane moment, I wanted to yell, “No!  Pick me!  Leave him, and we’ll be together!”  But I knew I wouldn’t say it.  I’d already made my choice, back there in the bank.  Even with the agony of losing my beloved Vivian, the rightness of that decision resonated in my soul.  For a time, it had seemed that there was nothing there but dust and confusion, an arid, lifeless space.  But not everything had died out.  From somewhere, deep in a dark corner, a tiny shoot of green had germinated.  Just maybe, if I tended it, it could turn from a single seedling into something bigger, something strong and vital, something that could support the hard choices.  It wasn’t much yet, but it had promise.

I lifted Vivian’s hand to my lips for the last time.  I returned her hand to her lap and released it.  “Goodbye,” I whispered.  She rose and kissed my forehead with infinite gentleness.  Then, she was gone.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was an ordinary, regular day for the rest of Virginia City.  I stood in the shadow by the corner of the dressmaker’s shop.  The stage office was across the street, partway down the block.  I watched Moore close the door to the mercantile.  The new owner would be here next week.  Moore turned to Vivian, and she placed her hand on his arm.  They walked to the stagecoach.  Just before she boarded, I saw her look around.  I stood still, watching.

She saw me.  For a long moment, neither of us moved.  She brushed her fingers over her lips and subtly blew me a kiss.  As she turned away, Moore looked across the street and saw me.  I met his eyes.  He nodded, ever so slightly.  Then, he helped his wife into the stagecoach, and I watched as they drove away in a cloud of dust.

The street blurred and swam for a minute.  I blinked hard, and the scene cleared.  I could see people riding past, walking down the sidewalk, calling to one another.  Normal life.  The street started to blur again.

A hand rested on my left shoulder, strong and comforting.  Without turning, I placed my hand on my brother’s.  My right arm was still in a sling, so I couldn’t ride a horse yet.  Hoss had driven me into town this morning.  I didn’t ask him to.  I didn’t have to.

Pa raised him right.

Next Story in the Vivian Series:

Another Auld Lang Syne

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12 thoughts on “Vivian (by pjb)”

  1. Oh I love the brothers and you did a great job with them! Glad Joe wasn’t totally off the track. Very glad you chose Hoss to deal with Joe. A very good fit.

    1. Hoss is always the best to deal with sensitive situations, especially when they involve his little brother. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed it, Neano!

  2. I could just see Hoss’ reaction. I felt so bad for Joe and Vivian, but I don’t think it would ever work out, not with the truth of that bank robbery hanging over Joe’s head. Pa raised them right. Great job, PJB!

    1. Just because a love is doomed doesn’t mean it’s not real. Joe had a lot to figure out, but fortunately, he could count on his big brother even when Hoss didn’t agree with his choices. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it, Juanita!

  3. Love Joe and Hoss in this. Pa did indeed raise his sons right. I decided during the bank robbery that there was nothing likeable about Jeremiah Moore.

    1. Jeremiah had his issues, that’s for certain. On the other hand, he didn’t have the easiest time in this story. Nobody did, for that matter. So glad you enjoyed Joe and Hoss – and yes, Pa did raise his sons right. Thanks, Ruth!

  4. “It’s like being held in place by the weight of the sky.” You know how to turn a phrase. Really good story, love Joe and Hoss here.

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