Summary: As Joe’s eighteenth birthday approaches, Ben comes face to face—so to speak—with the fact that his youngest son is no longer a child. WARNING: contains sexual themes.
Rated: T WC 6900
Fathers, Sons, And Growing Up
Later, Adam Cartwright would chastise himself for not having seen the signs. Granted, they were all tired, but it was so obvious if you were just paying attention. The light burning in Joe’s bedroom window, but no lights downstairs. Two brandy glasses on the big pine table in front of the settee. The faint scent of perfume.
And yet, somehow, nobody put two and two together. Pa and Hoss followed Adam into the house, all three of them yawning something fierce as they dumped their gunbelts on the credenza and hung up their hats and jackets. Even when Hoss muttered that Joe must already be in bed, nobody figured it out.
They were stumbling down the hall toward their bedrooms when they heard the moan. It was unmistakably Joe, but it was like nothing they’d ever heard from him. Without the slightest thought, they barreled toward his room and flung open the door.
The two lovers were clearly oblivious to their audience. The audience was not so fortunate.
Ben whirled away from the scene, nearly knocking down his older sons in his haste to get out of the room. He slammed the door behind him with such ferocity that it was a wonder it didn’t come right through the door jamb and into the hall.
“JOSEPH!” he bellowed.
The noise from the bedroom ceased as though cut off with a meat cleaver. The three Cartwrights stood in the hall, waiting. Adam lowered his eyes, his hand over his mouth to hide his smirk. Hoss looked away, scratching his head as if confronted with a most intriguing puzzle. And Ben Cartwright’s eyes smoldered with righteous indignation that made his two elder sons very, very glad they weren’t in that bed, regardless of how glorious the girl’s charms might have been.
The door opened just enough to reveal Little Joe with a sheet wrapped around his waist. “Hey, Pa,” he said in a breathless voice that nearly squeaked. “I, uh–I didn’t expect you home until tomorrow.”
“Obviously.” The word dripped with blood-red fury.
“Um . . . um . . .” Not unexpectedly, Joe was a bit short on conversational skills. He was also still out of breath.
“Who.” Pa was short on breath himself.
“Who.” His hand was trembling as he pointed to the door.
As much as Adam wanted to stay out of this discussion, it was clear he needed to step in. Pa sounded like a hoot owl, and Joe sounded like an imbecile. “I think Pa wants to know who your friend is,” he suggested.
“Oh!” Joe ran his hand through his hair, just as his lady friend had undoubtedly done. Not opening the door any farther to reveal his guest, he nonetheless began to stumble through the introductions. “Uh, Pa, I’d like you to meet–I mean, this is–well, actually–”
“You know, on second thought, I don’t think it really matters,” Adam interjected smoothly. At the relief on Joe’s face, he glared. You idiot! Don’t you even remember her name? In the next moment, Adam smoothed out his features to face Pa. “How about we all just turn in, and we can talk about this in the morning?”
The ire in his father’s face was not something he would forget any time soon. Pa took a deep, deep breath. “Adam, you and Hoss will escort the–lady home,” he said in a menacing voice that sounded as though Joe was no more than three steps from the grave. “Your brother and I need to have a talk.” He turned to Joe, whose face had gone pale. “Tell your–guest–that it is time for her to leave.” He drew a shaky breath. “I will be in my room.” With that, Pa turned and headed unsteadily down the hall.
“Are you the stupidest person in the world?” Adam hissed as soon as Pa’s door closed.
“I didn’t think you’d be home tonight!” Joe hissed back.
“Well, we are.” Hoss spoke for the first time since witnessing his brother’s activities. “And you better get that little gal ready to go fast before Pa gets any madder.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible,” said Adam, and Joe cringed as he closed the door.
Three hours later, Adam drove the buggy into the yard with Hoss snoring beside him. Miss Glory Watson had been properly escorted to her residence above one of the brothels on D Street. She looked rather young to be working there–Adam wouldn’t have placed her at more than seventeen–but he had not inquired into either her age or her profession. His primary concern, which he had not expressed to his passenger, had been whether she would have family members who would require Little Joe to marry her to protect her honor. When she told him to stop in front of the Gilded Rose, he was careful to mask his relief. The proprietor, Lucia McDonald, was someone he had known for several years, and he felt certain that something could be worked out if necessary.
Hoss and Adam opened the door to see Pa sitting in his red leather armchair, elbows on his knees. Adam was pretty sure Joe wasn’t sitting anywhere, but he didn’t ask. Pa didn’t look up at them. Instead, he glared at the table, and specifically at the two brandy glasses.
“I can’t believe it,” he muttered. “I simply cannot believe it.”
Adam decided to try to be reasonable. “Pa, he’s almost eighteen,” he said. “It’s not like he’s a kid.”
It was clearly the wrong thing to say. Ben Cartwright’s eyes shot fire at his eldest son. “In my house,” he said. “He’s just a boy, and he brought that girl into my house, and he–he–”
“You know, Pa, it’s late,” said Adam. “I think we should all just go to bed–to sleep--” he amended hastily. “In the morning, we can talk about this.”
“I have already talked to your young brother,” said Ben in a voice that made Adam cringe inwardly on Little Joe’s behalf. “Tomorrow, we will have to address the question of what happens now.”
“I think it’s possible that nothing more will need to happen,” Adam suggested. At his father’s challenging glare, he said, “She lives above the Gilded Rose on D Street.” He watched as comprehension dawned on his father’s face. “So, I think it can probably all end right now,” he finished.
Pa glared heavily. “I’m not so sure about that,” he said. “Your brother needs to learn right from wrong.”
“I expect you already explained to him,” said Hoss as he came in from the kitchen. Adam hadn’t noticed that his brother had disappeared for a minute, but he saw the jar nearly hidden in Hoss’s massive hand and smiled. The Cartwright brothers were all well-acquainted with the salve that had cooled many a burning backside. “I’m gonna head upstairs,” the big man added, almost challenging anybody to stop him.
“I think I’ll go on up, too,” said Adam. It was clearly pointless to try to reason with Pa tonight. “Good night, Pa,” he said as he followed Hoss up to Joe’s room.
The door was closed. Hoss tapped on it. “Joe? It’s us.”
The silence stretched out long enough that the brothers thought he might be asleep. Then, a despondent voice came from inside. “Come on in.”
Joe lay on his belly, a sheet drawn up to his waist, his head pillowed in his arms. Even in the dim light, Adam could see the boy’s reddened eyes. “You okay?” he asked quietly.
Joe nodded without lifting his head. “Yeah,” he said unconvincingly.
Hoss closed the door behind them and turned up the lamp. “I brought you some of Hop Sing’s salve,” he offered. “You want it?”
“Yeah,” muttered Joe. “Thanks.” He lay as still as possible as his brother sat on the side of the bed and tended to him. To think that, only a few hours earlier, it had been the lovely Glory here with him–
“Hey!” Joe snapped as Adam smacked the back of his head. “What was that for?”
“For being so damned dumb,” said Adam as he pulled Joe’s desk chair over beside the bed. “Don’t you have the sense God gave a fencepost? Why couldn’t the two of you just stay on D Street?”
“It wasn’t like that,” said Joe. “I wasn’t even thinking about–I was out riding, and I was planning to head into town when I came up on her. She’d been out for a drive, and the buggy she’d rented–well, she’d gotten it from Jake Eagan, and a wheel had come loose.” The others nodded. Eagan was known for charging the most money for the worst buggies and carriages. “So, I brought her back here, figuring that I’d get our buggy and drive her home. I didn’t know who she was, but we got to talking, and–I liked her. She’s pretty, and she’s sweet, and she laughed at my jokes, and–well, we just got along real well. And I could tell she liked me, too.”
“Did she tell you what she does for work?” asked Adam gently.
Joe nodded. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem offended by the question. “She told me,” he said. “But it didn’t matter. We were just having a nice time, and I wasn’t even thinking about anything like that. Really, I wasn’t.” He twisted to look at Adam and Hoss as if to be certain they believed him. Then, he continued, “We went for a drive, and she told me about Minnesota, where she’s from. And when it started to get dark, we were closer to the house than to the Virginia City road, so we came back here and talked some more, and I made us some sandwiches. Then, we had some brandy, and, well–”
“One thing led to another?” suggested Hoss.
Joe nodded. “I know it sounds crazy, but . . . it was the first time since Julia died that I even really thought about a woman that way.” His voice trailed off, and he turned his face away from his brothers.
Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing looks. The notorious Julia Bulette had been their little brother’s initiation into manhood. Joe being Joe, it hadn’t been enough simply to enjoy her charms; he’d fallen in love with her and had asked her to marry him. But within hours of Joe’s proposal, the lover she’d jilted for their brother had returned to rob and knife her. Adam would never forget the look in the boy’s eyes as he came down the stairs from her room that last time. All at once, his baby brother had grown up, leaving the sunny, bouncy pleasures of childhood for the dark, barely restrained griefs that went with becoming a man.
Julia had died in the fall, more than eight months ago. As they’d watched him cope through the winter, it hadn’t occurred to Adam to wonder when their little brother might choose to partake again of the pleasures of a woman. Still, he found himself surprised that Joe had waited this long.
“So, what about this Glory?” Hoss asked gently. “Is this serious?”
Joe shook his head. “We just–we just wanted to be together,” he said. “It wasn’t business for her, either. It was just–well, two people who liked each other.” He chuckled without humor. “Imagine if I told Pa that. I’d probably never sit down again.”
“I wouldn’t mention it to him,” Adam agreed. Pa’s views on intimacy outside of marriage were well-known among his sons. All the more reason you shouldn’t have brought her back here, he thought.
Hoss rose. “I reckon we all better get some shut-eye,” he said. “Pa probably ain’t gonna be in a great mood in the morning.”
“He’s not in a great mood now,” said Adam, standing. “You and Pa have got some talking to do,” he added to Joe.
“I think Pa’s already said everything he plans to,” said Joe, wincing.
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Have you?”
“Right now, I don’t know that there’s much I could say that he’d listen to,” said Joe. He bit his lip. “I still can’t believe you all walked in on us.”
“Believe me, it wasn’t the high point of our day, either,” said Adam. “Now, get some sleep. We’ll deal with everything in the morning.”
“Older Brother’s right,” said Hoss. “There’s nothin’ more you can do tonight. Sleep well, Little Brother.”
“‘Night, Joe.” Adam blew out the lamp on the bureau. Then, he turned and delivered a sound smack to his brother’s backside.
“Hey!” Joe grabbed for his arm in the moonlight. “What was that for?”
“For being stupid,” said Adam. “I swear, if you ever do this again, I’m going to be the one taking a belt to you. There are plenty of places other than the house that you can go. Use your head next time, will you?”
“I didn’t think you’d be home until tomorrow,” Joe reminded him.
“Lesson number one,” said Adam. “People come home early. Plan accordingly.”
“I will,” muttered Joe. “Believe me, I will.”
* * *
The next morning, Adam rapped on Joe’s door once, then opened it. “Good, you’re up,” he said.
Joe nodded as he buttoned his shirt. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that being late wasn’t going to make Pa any happier. “Let’s go,” he said, running his hand through his hair.
Pa and Hoss were already at the table as Adam and Little Joe came down the stairs. Adam glanced at his little brother, but Joe’s gaze was fixed on Pa. “Morning, Pa,” the boy said a bit more loudly than necessary as he eased himself onto his chair.
“Good morning,” said Pa, not looking up from his plate. His tone made them all wince: whenever Pa was like this, formal and precise, it meant that he was still angry.
“Morning, Pa,” said Adam, almost as a challenge.
This time, Pa looked up briefly. “Good morning, Adam.”
Breakfast was normally a time when the family discussed the tasks to be done. This morning, though, no one seemed to be able to think of anything to say. Coffee cups clinked against saucers, knives scraped against plates, and the sounds of chewing and swallowing seemed impossibly loud in the small dining room.
Joe set down his fork. “Pa.” He waited until Pa looked up before he continued. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “I know how you feel about that kind of thing, and it was disrespectful of me to bring her here. I shouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry.”
All three brothers watched as Pa sliced off a piece of ham and chewed it with fierce determination. Finally, he swallowed. Only then did he look up at Joe. “You’re sorry because you brought her here,” he said. “That’s what you’re sorry about.”
“Yes, sir.” Joe looked nervous, but he was holding his own.
“So, you think that the only problem was geography?”
“Sir?” Joe looked honestly confused.
“Do you actually think that the only reason I’m angry is that you did what you did here, in my house?” Before Joe could answer, Pa stood up, shaking his finger. “I thought I could trust you. I thought I could leave you alone here and that you’d behave appropriately and not take up with the first floozy you found. I thought you knew right from wrong. Apparently, I was wrong. All right, then. You and your brothers will be riding fence today. You are not to go off on your own. Since you can’t be trusted, one of your brothers will supervise you at all times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go into town.” He stormed over to the credenza and snatched up his gunbelt.
“But, Pa!” Joe looked as stunned as Adam felt. Hoss’s mouth hung open as though Pa had just struck Joe.
“No buts,” snapped Pa. He jammed his hat on his head and took up his jacket. “Finish your breakfast and get going. You’ve got a lot of ground to cover.” In another instant, the door slammed behind him.
The brothers stared at one another. Joe looked as though he’d been punched in the gut. “What was that?” he asked finally.
“Don’t worry, Little Brother,” said Hoss. “He’ll get over it. Jest let him do what he’s gotta do.”
“But–” Joe broke off, staring helplessly from Hoss to Adam.
“Hoss is right,” said Adam. “Let him get it out of his system. I’m sure he’ll be fine by tonight. Now, finish your breakfast. Sounds like we’ve got a lot to do today.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Joe, pushing away from the table. “I’ll saddle the horses.” He gathered his jacket, hat and gunbelt and slipped out the front door.
Hoss regarded Adam. “What do you think about all that?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve never heard Pa say anything like that.”
“What does he mean, Joe can’t be trusted? I mean, I know he messed up, but still. . . .” Hoss looked toward the closed door as though he could see through it to the barn and his little brother.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Adam reflectively. He regarded Pa’s abandoned meal, then Joe’s, and he shook his head. “Well, come on,” he said after a minute. “Finish your breakfast. The sooner we get this day started, the sooner it can end.”
“Amen,” muttered Hoss as he tucked into his ham and eggs.
The morning passed quietly and without incident. The brothers rode miles of fence, and if Little Joe was experiencing any discomfort from the previous night’s punishment, he kept it to himself. In fact, Adam reflected, the boy was keeping everything to himself this morning. The only sign that their father’s words had penetrated was Joe’s very uncharacteristic silence.
The sun was high overhead when Adam held up his hand. His brothers rode up beside him, and he said, “Let’s head down to the stream for lunch.” A wide grin creased Hoss’s face, and he urged his mount down the slope to the shaded area by the water. Adam allowed himself a glance at his youngest brother, but Joe’s eyes were hidden by his hat. “Come on,” he said. Without waiting to see whether Joe would follow, he headed down the slope after Hoss.
A short time later, the three brothers had tended to their horses and were seated in the shade of a large cottonwood tree. Adam handed Hoss a large parcel and Joe a smaller one, but Joe shook his head and handed it back.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“You didn’t eat any breakfast,” Adam reminded him.
“I know,” said Joe. “But I’m not hungry.”
“Maybe not, but with that sun, if you don’t eat, you’re gonna have a whopper of a headache by the time we get home tonight,” Hoss offered through a mouthful of roast beef sandwich.
Joe shrugged. “It’s my head.”
Adam regarded his brother for a long minute. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Joe that he simply had to eat, but Joe was old enough to know that. So, he just said, “Well, your lunch is here if you want it.” Joe nodded, and Adam held back a smile a few minutes later when his youngest brother reached for the parcel.
Hoss crumpled the paper that had held his sandwiches. “I reckon we got time for a snooze ‘fore we get back to work, don’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, he lay back and positioned his hat over his face. Within moments, his snores resonated in a jovial counterpoint to the gentle splashing of the stream.
Adam watched as Joe wrapped up the uneaten half of his sandwich. “Pa didn’t mean what he said,” he said quietly.
Joe looked up. Hurt flared in his eyes. “Then why’d he say it?”
“He was upset,” said Adam. “You know how he is about that kind of thing.”
“I do now,” said Joe. He lay back, rolling over on his stomach, his arms pillowing his head. “I don’t know. I’ve heard him mad, but I’ve never heard him say anything like that. Not to anybody.” The pain in Joe’s voice was poorly disguised.
Adam searched for words, but none came. Finally, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to catch a few winks before we head back to work.” He stretched out and closed his eyes. Just as he was easing into sleep, Joe’s voice stopped him at the brink.
“What did you say to Glory last night?”
“Not much,” Adam admitted, opening his eyes. “There really wasn’t anything to say.” He waited for Joe to ask something more, but the boy was silent.
So, Adam positioned his hat so that it covered his face but still allowed him a glimpse of his little brother. Thus hidden, he watched until Joe closed his eyes. Only then did he allow himself to do likewise.
* * *
“Oh, Ben! That’s a good one!”
The grizzled sheriff chortled, slapping his knee. As Ben Cartwright opened his mouth to lodge an indignant protest, Roy Coffee doubled over, snorting. “That’s the funniest thing I heard all day!”
“It’s not funny!” snapped Ben.
“Sure, it is!” The sheriff was practically wheezing. “I reckon Little Joe’s gonna be a lot more careful next time!”
“Doggone it, Roy, this is serious!” Ben paced back and forth as the sheriff’s throaty laugh filled the small office. He’d only come here because he needed to talk to somebody, and he’d figured that his old friend, who knew Little Joe so well, would be sympathetic. Well, that’d teach him. . . .
“Oh, come off it, Ben,” said Roy. “It ain’t so bad. Only thing I can’t figure out is why he brought the girl home. I take it Hop Sing wasn’t around.”
“He’s in San Francisco,” said Ben. “And I’m never letting him off the Ponderosa again. Not for a minute.”
Roy shook his head, chuckling. “Ain’t Adam or Hoss told Little Joe any place to go with a girl?”
“Roy!” Ben exploded. “He’s just a boy!”
The sheriff peered at Ben from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. “Is that what this is about? Little Joe bein’ a young ‘un?” When Ben didn’t deny it, Roy said, “Ben, he ain’t a boy no more. He’s what–eighteen?”
“Not for another three weeks,” Ben pointed out.
“An’ it’s been almost a year since he met up with Julia Bulette,” Roy reminded him. “What did you figger was goin’ on all that time? You think mebbe they was up in her room playin’ checkers and readin’ The Territorial Enterprise?”
“That was different,” said Ben between clenched teeth.
“How? How was that different?” Roy prodded. “‘Cause you didn’t have to know about it?”
“Because–because–it just was!” Frustrated, Ben moved a chair to give himself more room to pace.
The sheriff chuckled. “Ben, it’s high time you faced up to something,” he said. “Little Joe may not be full-grown, but he ain’t no kid, neither.” He got up and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the corner stove. “You want some?”
“No, thanks.” Ben sat on the corner of the desk. “I’m glad you can be so calm about it,” he added.
“Ben, I can’t believe this is that big a surprise,” Roy said. “That boy’s been charmin’ the ladies since he was in diapers.”
“Well, he sure wasn’t wearing diapers last night,” said Ben darkly.
“You mean–you saw him an’–but how–?” The sheriff guffawed, spilling his coffee as he doubled over again.
“We heard something and opened the door,” Ben confessed. “It just never occurred to us that he might be . . . with somebody in there.”
“Poor Little Joe!” the sheriff wheezed. “And that poor girl! What’d she say?”
“I don’t know,” said Ben. “All I saw was–well, I didn’t see her face.” The sheriff exploded into laughter again. “Adam and Hoss drove her home while I saw to Little Joe.”
“I’ll bet you did,” said Roy. “Can the boy sit down yet?”
Ben shrugged, shaking his head helplessly. “Roy, what do I do now?”
“What’re you talkin’ about? What’s there for you to do? It’s done, ain’t it? Little Joe’s grown up, and his private matters ain’t none of your business. You jest live with it, like you do for Adam and Hoss.”
Ben poured himself a cup of coffee, more to buy time than because he wanted it. “It’s not the same,” he said. “He’s just a boy.”
“Come on, now, Ben,” said Roy. “How old were you the first time? And don’t tell me you waited ’til you got married, ’cause I ain’t gonna buy that. You sailed for how many years before you and Adam’s ma got hitched? There ain’t no way you sailed in and out of all them ports without ever samplin’ the local goods, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” said Ben heavily. “And I’m not saying I never . . . but this is different.”
“Why?” The sheriff’s voice was kinder now. “Because he’s your baby?”
Ben smiled for the first time all day. “He’d take a swing at you if he heard you say that.”
“Let him try,” said Roy with a wink.
“I thought I taught him better,” said Ben. “I told him that that kind of thing was for marriage only.”
“Ben, nice as that sounds, you’re talkin’ about an eighteen-year-old boy,” Roy reminded him.
“Seventeen,” the sheriff conceded, rolling his eyes. “And if that notion of waitin’ for the wedding hadn’t been tossed out before he met Miss Julia, it sure went south then.” He refilled his coffee cup as he continued, “Now, you listen to me, Ben Cartwright. You raised Little Joe right. Regardless of what kind of dealings he has with a girl, that boy will always treat her with respect, whether she’s from a fancy mining family or she works over on D Street. You ain’t got nothin’ to worry about with him.” He watched his friend carefully. “Tell me something. How old was Adam first time you found out about him and a lady?”
Ben shrugged. “When I found out? I don’t know. Twenty-one, twenty-two, maybe. It was after he came back from college. I overheard him talking to Hoss about it. No, not like that,” he hastened to add at the sheriff’s startled look. “Hoss was asking questions. He was about fifteen or sixteen. Obviously, I’d told him–well, the basics, but I guess he had more questions and didn’t want to ask me.”
“An’ it didn’t bother you that Hoss was askin’ about this stuff an’ Adam was tellin’ him?”
Ben thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No, it didn’t bother me,” he said. “In fact, I was glad Hoss had a big brother to ask. I don’t think he’d so much as talked to a girl at that point, but–well, I guess there are just some things you can’t discuss with your pa,” he added with a smile.
“But Little Joe’s different.” It wasn’t a question. “Because he’s your baby.” When Ben opened his mouth to protest, Roy held up his hand. “Look, Ben, I ain’t got sons of my own, but I’ve known you and yours for a long enough time that I think I can take a guess here.”
“Go ahead,” said Ben slowly.
“That boy’s all you got of Marie,” Roy said. “The older he gets, the farther away she is.”
“That’s true of all of them,” Ben pointed out.
“Mebbe,” said the sheriff. “But I’d wager it’s different with Little Joe. You an’ Marie got to be ma and pa to that boy together. So, mebbe when he grows up, and he ain’t the little boy she knew, mebbe that’s harder for you because it reminds you that she ain’t here to share this part of his life.”
“Or mebbe it’s just that when your youngest gets older, it means you’re gettin’ older, too,” Roy suggested. “How old were you when that boy was born? More’n thirty, wasn’t you?”
“Thirty-three,” Ben conceded.
“All right, then,” said Roy. “So, as long as he’s jest a boy, you ain’t such an old man. Ain’t that possible?”
“I’m not an old man!” Ben protested, but the sheriff just smiled.
“Ben, we’re both gettin’ up there,” he said. “An’ when the young ‘uns grow up, it jest reminds us that we’re gettin’ older, too.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Ben as he sipped his coffee. Unexpectedly, he chuckled. “Marie would have had my head for tanning the boy last night.”
“Oh, that she would!” chortled the sheriff. “You’d be lucky if she didn’t try to use that belt on you!”
Ben’s smile faded. “It’s just–you try to raise a child with certain values, certain beliefs, and it’s hard when it seems like he’s rejecting them. I guess I just want to make sure he knows what’s right.”
“He knows, Ben,” said Roy gently. “Mebbe he has a few different ideas from you, but he knows right from wrong. You ain’t never gotta worry about that, not with Little Joe. He might get hot-headed and foolish at times, but he’ll never go too far wrong.”
Ben stared into his coffee cup. “I told him I didn’t trust him,” he admitted after a long minute.
“You told him what? Why’d you say a fool thing like that?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “I guess because I felt like he was turning his back on what I’d tried to teach him. I overreacted, that’s for sure.”
“I’d say so,” said Roy with a touch of heat. “You know as well as I do that you can trust that boy absolutely.”
“I know,” said Ben. “I need to talk to him.”
“You sure do,” said Roy emphatically. “I’d wager that what you said hurt him more than anything you did with that belt.”
Ben couldn’t help smiling. Joe would always have a champion in Roy Coffee. He drained his coffee cup. “I always tell Joe that he should keep his mouth shut when he’s angry. Looks like that’s something I still need to work on, too.”
“I’d say you do.” Roy wasn’t letting his friend off the hook yet.
“I’ll take care of it,” Ben promised, rising. “And now, I guess I should let you get back to work.”
Roy walked him to the door. “Don’t you worry none about Little Joe,” he said, patting Ben on the shoulder. He winked as he added, “He’s a good man.”
Ben smiled. “I know,” he said quietly. “Thanks, Roy.”
* * *
The sun was setting as Joe appeared at the doorway to the Gilded Rose. He swallowed hard. He started to unbutton the top button of his jacket, but then he stopped and took off his hat. Julia’s Palace had been a saloon, even though some of the girls “entertained.” The notion of entering a brothel was a new one, and one he wasn’t particularly comfortable with.
He took a deep breath and pushed open the door. The room was as fancy as any he’d ever seen, with chandeliers and fringe and pillows on the settees, but what took his breath away was the girls. Every where he looked, there were girls, one prettier than the next, and they were all flirting with men. For a second, it seemed like a place he might have dreamed, but in the next instant, he knew that wasn’t what he wanted. He didn’t want just an hour in bed, nice as that might be. He wanted more. After all, that was why he’d come.
“Evening,” said a large woman with rich, dark hair pinned up into a loose knot. Her breasts strained against the bodice of her shiny red dress, and the neckline was cut so low that for a second, Joe thought that it might be possible they could fall right out. But her smile was wide and warm, just like he’d come to call at her home, and it gave him confidence.
“Good evening, ma’am,” he said. His fingers worked the brim of his hat, but he met her eyes and held them. “I, uh–I wonder if I might see Glory for a minute.”
The woman looked him up and down as though she was trying to figure something out. “What’s your name?”
“Joe, ma’am. Joe Cartwright.”
Something changed in her face then. For a second, she looked both wistful and relieved. Then, she just called over her shoulder, “Maribelle! Get Glory for me.” She turned back to Joe. “If you want to have a seat, she’ll be right down.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” He looked around, but there was no chair or settee that wasn’t occupied by a girl, with or without a man. So, he stood nervously, shifting from one foot to the other, until Glory came down the stairs.
The emerald satin dress she wore now was a far cry from the simple dark skirt and white blouse she’d been wearing the day before. She wore dangling, glittery earrings, and she’d pinned dark feathers in her honey-colored hair. Her cheeks and lips were an unnatural red, and her skin an odd powdery white. Her little gold slippers glinted in the lamplight, so unlike the brown leather shoes he’d unbuttoned as she sat on the edge of his bed.
But her light brown eyes were as lovely as they had been the night before, when they’d sat by the fire and he’d leaned in to kiss her for the first time.
“Little Joe,” she said now, holding out her hand. “I didn’t expect you here.”
He took her hand and held it. Odd that the gesture felt so intimate, especially considering all they’d done last night. He could feel surreptitious eyes on him, and he stood a fraction straighter. “Can I talk to you?”
A tiny crease appeared between her brows. “You want the half hour or the whole?”
“No, that’s not why I came,” he said. “I just-I wanted to talk to you for a minute if I could.”
She looked him up and down, just as the other woman had. “All right,” she said. Still holding his hand, she led him to one of the settees where a red-haired girl in a blue dress was stretched out. “Give us a minute, Opal,” she said, and the redhead shrugged and moved to another seat. “So,” she said. “What did you want to talk about?”
Little Joe set his hat on the floor and took a deep breath. “First, I want to apologize,” he said. “I didn’t expect my family home until today, and I sure didn’t expect that my pa would act the way he did. I’m real sorry everything turned out the way it did.”
She smiled. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said.
“Still,” said Joe. “I wanted you to know that I’m sorry. My brothers–everything was okay when they brought you home?”
“They were fine,” she said. “Real gentlemen, both of them.” She looked as though she was going to say something else, but she stopped.
“I’m glad,” said Joe, and he was. Not that he’d doubted them, but still. . . . He took a deep breath. “There’s something else I wanted to ask you.” She nodded, and he said, “I don’t–I don’t know–I mean, I don’t know when you get a night off, but some time when you’re free, I’d like to take you out for supper.” He squeezed her hand the tiniest bit and covered their joined hands with his other one. There was a look in her eyes that he didn’t recognize, and he hastened to add, “I understand completely if you’d rather not. The way things went last night–I understand if you’d rather just forget you ever met me. But the truth is that–well, I like you. And it’s not just because we–I mean, even if we’d just sat in front of the fire and talked last night, I’d still like you, and I’d still be here asking. But if you’d rather not–”
And he got no further, because she placed her fingers against his lips. When she seemed satisfied that he would remain silent, she said, “Are you sure?”
He kissed her fingers gently. “I’m sure.” He kissed her fingers again and held her hand. “Just tell me a night you’re free.”
She glanced over at the dark-haired woman, who nodded, and Glory broke into a smile. “It turns out that I’m free tonight, if you haven’t eaten,” she said almost tentatively.
Joe’s grin was as wide as the Comstock. “I haven’t eaten.”
Glory stood. “Just let me change my clothes, then, and I’ll be right back.”
Joe stood and rested his fingers against her cheek. “I think you look beautiful just the way you are.”
Her smile held a touch of sadness that he didn’t understand. “I’d rather change my clothes,” she said.
“Then I’ll wait,” he said. As Glory turned to run up the stairs, he saw the dark-haired woman looking at him in a way that suggested she wasn’t really seeing him at all, but somebody else from a long time ago. He nodded respectfully to her and sat back down, trying to ignore the rest of what was going on as he waited.
A few minutes later, he held the door for Glory to walk out into the soft orange sunset. She’d washed off the rouge and powder, and she looked as innocent as a schoolgirl in her white blouse with its ruffled collar. He tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow, covering it with his own. It occurred to him to wonder what Pa would think, but he pushed the thought out of his mind. There would be plenty of time to deal with that when he got home.
But as they reached the door of the International House, it opened from the inside, and Ben Cartwright stepped into the doorway.
Father and son locked their gaze for a long minute. Joe felt Glory looking at him, and he tightened his hand over hers. He caught the slightest question in Pa’s eyes, and he gave the barest nod in return.
And then, a miracle happened. Not a big one by most standards, but in Joe’s mind, it was a miracle, just the same.
Pa stepped back into the lobby and held the door for Joe and Glory to enter. Joe released Glory’s hand to allow her to enter first, and he reclaimed it as soon as they stood before his father.
For a moment, no one spoke, Then, Pa removed his hat and said to Joe, “Joseph, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting this young lady.”
Joe recovered his voice. “Pa, I’d like you to meet Miss Glory Watson,” he said. “Glory, this is my pa, Ben Cartwright.”
“How do you do, Miss Watson,” said Pa, every bit as respectful as if Joe was introducing him to royalty.
The girl’s eyes were as round as pennies, but she withdrew her hand from Joe’s and allowed Joe’s pa to take it. “How do you do, sir,” she managed.
Joe rested his hand against Glory’s back. “Miss Watson and I are going to have supper,” he said. The words felt almost like a dare, but when Pa’s expression didn’t change, he pressed on. “Would–would you like to join us?”
To Joe’s amazement, Pa smiled. It wasn’t a big smile, but it was real. “I appreciate the invitation, but I’ve already eaten,” Pa said. “You two enjoy your supper, though.” He put his hat back on and added, “Joseph, I trust that you won’t be too late.”
Joe grinned. Clearly, it would take more time before Pa got past the events of last night, but Lord love him, he was trying. “No, sir, I won’t,” he said, and relief made his voice tremble just the tiniest bit. “Good night, Pa.”
Pa nodded. “Good night, son. Good night, Miss Watson,” he said. He touched the brim of his hat to Glory and headed out into the twilight.
Glory peered at Joe as if to ask whether this kindly gentleman could possibly be the same ogre who had thundered in the hall the night before as she scrambled into her clothes. Joe just smiled and patted her hand. There would be time enough to discuss everything–Pa, his brothers, her family, last night, the Ponderosa, Minnesota, his work, her job, her favorite color, how lovely her eyes were, and anything else that might come up.
But first, there was another matter that required their attention.
“Two for supper, please,” he said to the maitre d’, who nodded respectfully for them to follow.
And with his head held high, Joe Cartwright escorted his lady through the dining room to their table.