Camilla (by pjb)

Summary:   SJS for Devonshire (belated).  A local girl disappears on the same day Joe is assaulted.  Coincidence?  Maybe . . . or maybe not.  

Rated: K+  WC  28,000

 

                                                       Camilla

 

“Pa, I’ll be fine.”It was the last thing Joe had said to him, his voice edged with irritation as he’d hurriedly fastened his gun belt and plucked his hat from the sideboard. He’d been eager to leave—even more so than usual thanks to the hovering attention of a concerned father.Yet Ben couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in his gut he’d felt from the moment he had awakened that morning. A feeling that something was off, or wrong, or something was going to happen, and that it would surely involve his youngest.
 

The morning passed without incident, and soon logic reared its head and effectively stifled the nervousness to a mere hum, easily ignored as Ben busied himself with his daily tasks. There was nothing to worry about, after all. Joe was just going into town for the mail; something he’d done a hundred times before. Nothing to worry about.Yet a father’s instinct is a stubborn thing, and Ben found himself surrendering to the feeling of unease as the day progressed. Adam later came upon him pacing the floor and glancing anxiously at the clock. He didn’t need to be told why his father was so agitated.“How late is he?” Adam asked quietly.“Late,” Ben replied. “He should have been back two, three hours ago.”

“Pa, he’ll be fine,” Adam admonished. “Joe’s not a little kid anymore. You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”

Ben forced a smile. “I know. Old habits die hard, don’t they?”

Adam sighed. “I think I’ll head out and see if Hoss needs any help in the barn,” he said, clearly in a hurry to rid himself of the company of an over-anxious parent.

Ben picked up the newspaper and tried to concentrate on the words in front of him. Adam was right, of course he was right. It was perfectly fine for a parent to worry, but not so fine to be consumed by it. Ben knew he could go on and on listing the numerous perils that could befall his son—both real and imagined—and he couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurd direction of his thoughts. He’d have to tell Joe later how silly he’d been.

His amusement, however, was abruptly extinguished at the sound of the slamming door, and Adam’s urgent voice on its heels.

“Pa! PA! Come quick!”

The paper fluttered to the floor as Ben lurched from his chair. He yanked open the front door and ran, his boots pounding against the wooden porch until the moment they stopped dead.

Dead. 

As dead as the green-jacketed figure tied facedown across the back of the pinto.

For an endless moment, he couldn’t move. His chest hitched, and the pain, the sheer stabbing agony, froze his voice when he opened his mouth to—to what? To ask if. To beg that it not be true. To plead for one more chance, one more hour. To howl in rage against the impossible wrongness of a vibrant, passionate life ended so much too soon.

“Pa! Give us a hand!”

Hoss’s voice was unexpectedly sharp, but it told Ben the one thing he needed to know above everything else: the man on that horse was still alive.

Dear God, thank You. Thank You.

His legs were still unsteady, but cool, damp air filled his lungs again. He stumbled to the horse while Hoss said, “Easy, Joe, I got you,” just like the limp form draped over the saddle could actually hear him. “Just cut it, Adam,” Hoss added as his elder brother fumbled with the knots that bound Joe’s wrists to the cinch.

“Can’t,” said Adam. “It’s too tight—I’m liable to cut Joe. See if you can slide him over this way a little—it might loosen the ropes.”

“Is he all right?” Ben managed, just as though there was any way his sons could know that.

“He’s alive,” said Hoss, his voice grim with the recognition that things might not stay that way. “How’s that, Adam?” he asked as he lifted Joe’s legs and hips and slid him just a bit toward the horse’s left where Adam was working.

“Let me get his head,” Ben said. He reached past Adam to lift his youngest son’s head, and he gasped at the sight. Blood and bruises he was used to, but the dark purple swelling on the left side of his son’s face, from his hairline halfway down his cheek, hadn’t come from just any fight. As tenderly as any mother, he cradled the unbruised parts of Joe’s face, murmuring reassurance as Adam struggled with the knots.

“Hoss, a little more. That’s better. Pa, can you—yeah, that’s good.” Adam nodded as Ben moved slightly to one side, not letting go of his son.

“You’re going to be all right, boy,” Ben murmured. “We’re going to find the men who did this, and you’re going to be just fine.”

“I got it!” Adam announced. “Hoss, take him off your side.” With Ben still supporting Joe’s head, Hoss slid the inert form back. A piece of paper fluttered to the ground, unnoticed. Adam came around the horse’s head, and the two brothers lifted their third. It pained Ben to let go, but as soon as Joe was in his brothers’ arms, Ben ran ahead to open the door so that there would be no more time lost.

With skill born of too much practice, Hoss and Adam carried their brother up the stairs and down the hall to his room. The hallway wasn’t wide enough for three men, especially when one was Hoss, but they’d done it enough times to know how to maneuver the corners and doorways without discussion. They laid Little Joe on the bed as gently as if he was made of fine crystal, and then they knew to step back as their father took over.

“Adam, ride for the doctor. Hoss, help me get him undressed and then heat some water and bring up the bandages and alcohol.” The instructions were unnecessary except insofar as they designated who would do what. The Cartwrights had tended to enough injured men, their own and others, to know what needed to be done.

Ben tried not to focus on the horrible purple swelling that dominated his son’s handsome face. He unbuttoned Joe’s jacket and shirt, and as carefully as possible, they tried to slide the garments from Joe’s shoulders and off his arms. The right sleeves came off fine, but when they started to remove the left, Ben said, “Wait.” He nodded to Joe’s left hand, which was nearly as swollen as his face. Hoss slit the sleeve of the jacket and unbuttoned the shirt cuff, but the wrist was too swollen, and he had to cut the shirt as well.

“Joe’s gonna have a fit about that,” his big brother muttered. “He just got that shirt. Wonder what he was all duded up for, anyway.”

The blood on the upper right pant leg was spreading slowly. It didn’t take a doctor to recognize that the boy had been shot and it had happened at least a couple hours ago, long enough for the blood to start to clot. Ben breathed a prayer of thanks that the bullet clearly hadn’t hit anything vital; if it had, Joe would likely have bled to death before he ever got home.

Ben unfastened Joe’s belt and dropped it to the floor. For just a moment, he considered trying to remove his son’s boots, but then, he looked up to see Hoss shaking his head, and he nodded his agreement. They still didn’t know the extent of Joe’s injuries, and tugging on his boots could hurt him worse. Hoss cut the boots off, and Ben frowned, puzzled. They weren’t Joe’s regular work boots; this was the new pair he’d gotten just a few weeks ago. He peered at his son’s discolored face as though it might offer a clue about what had happened and why Joe was so dressed up just to fetch the mail, but all he saw were dark, sooty eyelashes resting against dirty, bloody flesh that was too pale except where it was so puffed up that it threatened to burst.

He swallowed hard and rested his hand on Joe’s hair, well clear of the swollen area. “We’re going to find the men who did this,” he whispered, his voice husky.

Hoss was cutting off Joe’s pants and drawers by the time Ben could make himself turn from his son’s face. Moments later, the last pieces of clothing lay on the floor, and for the first time, they could assess the boy’s injuries. With practiced hands, they felt one leg, then the other, and then his arms and torso. Carefully, so carefully, they turned Joe over to check the back of him.

“Bullet didn’t pass through,” Hoss commented when there was no blood on the back of Joe’s thigh.

With the inventory of injuries complete—wounded right leg, broken left wrist, miscellaneous cuts and bruises on his torso, scraped knuckles evidencing his attempts to fight back—they turned Joe onto his back and drew the sheet over him. “I’ll be right back,” said Hoss. He patted his brother’s shoulder, his lips pressed together to keep from saying what his father knew he likely wanted to say. As a rule, Hoss didn’t swear, but at this moment, Ben wouldn’t have faulted him for anything that might have come out of his mouth.

Ben poured water into the washbowl and carried it to the bedside table. “Let’s see if we can’t you cleaned up a little bit,” he said as he dipped a cloth into the water. It was an old habit, this tendency to talk to his sons even when they couldn’t hear him. He did it when they were unconscious and injured, but he was just as likely to talk to them when they were asleep or not in the room at all. Sometimes, he felt as though he didn’t quite know himself apart from them, and this running conversation kept him connected to who he truly was.

When he was growing up, he’d never thought much about being a father except that he figured in a vague way that he’d marry and have children someday. His thoughts had involved sailing, exploring, and ultimately heading west to start a ranch and build it into an empire. They were typical of a young man’s thoughts and dreams, but from the first moment he’d held infant Adam, Ben Cartwright knew that being a father was truly what he’d been meant to do. The rest of it—the Ponderosa, all his material blessings, the other people he loved and cared for—all would have meant nothing without his boys.

The tiniest groan from his youngest, almost muffled by the splash of water into the bowl, set Ben’s heart pounding. He dropped the cloth back into the bowl and touched the unbruised side of Joe’s face as lightly as he could manage. “Can you hear me, son?” he asked, his face so close to Joe’s that his breath stirred the boy’s curls. “It’s Pa, Joe. I’m right here with you. You’re going to be fine. Adam’s gone to fetch the doctor, and you’re going to be just fine.” He stroked Joe’s hair, and another faint groan escaped his son’s barely-parted lips. “It’s all right, son. Don’t you worry about a thing. Hoss will be right back, and he and I will get you cleaned up and make you comfortable while we wait for Doc.” Joe’s right eye opened ever so slightly; the left was swollen shut. Ben forced a reassuring smile as he’d done a thousand times before; it was the best way he knew of keeping his sons from seeing how close to panic he was. “I’m going to wash your face a little, okay? Get some of that blood off you. Looks like it was quite a fight. You’re going to have to tell us all about it later.” He kept up the soft, meaningless patter as he pressed the wet cloth against the dried blood just firmly enough to soften it so that he could wipe it away.

By the time Hoss returned with a tray bearing a bowl of hot water, a stack of cloths, and various medical supplies, Ben had succeeded in cleaning the dried blood and dirt from Joe’s face and was considering the bullet wound. “You think we ought to wait for Doc?” he asked without preamble as Hoss set down his load.

“Lemme look.” Ben stepped aside to allow his middle son to examine the wound. After a minute, Hoss straightened. “I’ll get my bag.”

Even under the circumstances, Ben couldn’t help smiling at how much like a doctor Hoss sounded when he said that. The bag in question was a medical bag which had belonged to a young nun Hoss had met on a stagecoach. She and the older nun with whom she’d been traveling were nurses who were traveling to Denver to establish a hospital. The young postulant had died after being kicked by a horse, and the other nun had given Hoss her medical bag. No one else—not even Hop Sing—was permitted to touch the bag, a prohibition so out of character for his genial son that Ben remained convinced that Hoss had had feelings for the girl—feelings he had undoubtedly suppressed from respect for her vocation, but feelings which no doubt lived on in the big man’s heart.

Now, as Hoss spread out the bag’s contents on his brother’s bed, Ben gave silent thanks for the older nun’s generosity. A ranch house would never have contained such items as the long, pointed tweezers and razor-sharp scalpel. Ben held Joe’s right hand and murmured reassurance to the boy as Hoss probed the bloody bullet hole with the tweezers.

“I think I can get it,” Hoss said finally. More loudly, he said, “Little Brother, I’m gonna take that bullet out. You just hang onto Pa, and it’ll be over in a jiffy. Ready?” Without waiting for an answer, he spread a cloth on the side of the bed, tucking it under Joe’s thigh. Nodding to his father, Hoss took up his instruments and, with infinite care, began to probe the hole in his brother’s leg for the lead projectile lodged there.

Not until Hoss laid the bloody piece of lead on the cloth did Ben realize that he’d been holding his breath. He clutched Little Joe’s hand and stroked the boy’s hair as Hoss considered the wound. Then, his middle son picked up the bullet for Ben to see, and it was all Ben could do not to let loose with an expletive of his own. The bullet’s point was flattened, which meant that it had been fired at close enough range to strike the bone with a fair bit of force, undoubtedly breaking it. “Hang onto him,” Hoss said, and Ben did so as his son manipulated the leg until the bone was in place. Then, Hoss wiped the excess blood from the leg and bandaged the wound, his clenched jaw the only sign of his anger.

“Well, that’s done, anyway,” Hoss said finally. “I’ll get some wood to splint it. Don’t reckon he’ll be up any time soon, but just in case.” He patted Joe’s hair as he said, “Good work, Little Brother. Now all you gotta do is rest up, an’ that leg’ll be good as new in no time.” The lid of Joe’s right eye fluttered slightly; it was hard to tell whether he could hear his brother’s words, but it likely didn’t matter. Just the sound of Hoss’s voice, so deep and reassuring, would have been enough for Joe.

“What about the wrist?” Not releasing his youngest son’s right hand, Ben nodded toward the left one.

“I reckon we better let Doc set that,” said Hoss. “If it was just his arm, I’d say let’s do it, but the wrist is tricky. I’d be a sight more comfortable if Doc did that one himself.” As he spoke, he collected his instruments, the cloth, and the bullet so that Ben could draw the covers up over Joe. Then, Hoss rested his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “When I get my hands on the bastards who did this to you. . . .” he whispered. The words were clearly not meant to be overheard by his father, and so Ben gave no sign that he’d heard. Under all the circumstances, he still felt Hoss’s choice of epithet to be far milder than Joe’s assailants deserved.

After that, there was nothing to do except wait. The sky grew darker, and rain began to pelt the windows. At the proper time, Hoss headed out to tend the stock, but Ben never left the boy’s side. Other than the occasional soft groan, Joe had shown no more signs that he was aware of anything—his surroundings, his family’s voices, the violence inflicted on his body.

“I forgot to tell Adam to fetch the sheriff,” Ben said when Hoss came back, his normally-wispy hair plastered to his head and his wet shirt stuck to his broad back.

“He knows,” said Hoss. “Did Joe wake up?”

Ben shook his head. He couldn’t bring himself to meet his son’s eyes. If his own fears were mirrored there, confirmed by the son who was always the most hopeful—well, he just couldn’t think that way right now. “Go put on some dry clothes,” he said instead. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”

“I’ll rustle up some supper,” Hoss said. With Hop Sing out of town, cooking duties fell to whoever was willing—or hungriest. The big man left before Ben could tell him not to bother. Right now, he could no sooner have choked down food than flown to the moon.

“Where could Adam and the doctor be?” Ben muttered as Hoss returned to the room with a tray bearing coffee, plates of scrambled eggs and toast, and a cup of broth.

“Adam probably had to go out looking for him,” said Hoss reasonably. “Don’t you worry, Pa, they’re fine.”

“That’s what your brother said about Joe,” Ben said darkly.

In a low voice, Hoss said, “Pa, you need to stop that now. If Joe can hear you, he don’t need to know there’s any cause to be worrying.”

Ben had to bite back a sharp retort. He knew his son was absolutely right, but he also knew that the only thing worse that one son in this kind of shape would be two. If the people who had done this to Joe had gotten their hands on Adam—

“Pa! We’re back!”

His eldest son’s voice had never been more welcome. Hoss gave him the slightest “told you so” nod as he called, “We’re up here!” just like there was any chance they’d have been anywhere else.

Adam and the doctor were both dripping when they came through the door. “Sorry I took so long,” Adam said to his father. “I had to follow Doc to three different ranches before I caught up with him.”

“You fellers are just in time for some supper,” said Hoss with a meaningful look at his father. When Ben worried about his boys, he had a tendency to forget about little things like what a long day the doctor had already had even before riding through the cold rain to get to the Ponderosa.

“Of course, of course,” said Ben, but Paul Martin hadn’t been the family doctor for more than twenty years for nothing. The doctor removed his hat and coat as he said, “Let me take a look at Joe first, and then we can talk about supper.” He rolled up his damp sleeves and turned up the lamp beside Joe’s bed.

To say that the Cartwrights hovered as Doc examined his patient would be putting it mildly, but the doctor was well accustomed to such behavior on the Ponderosa. He inspected the bullet wound, nodding at Hoss’s handiwork. He set and plastered the left wrist and hand, commenting that it looked as though a horse might have stepped on them.

But the doctor was conspicuously silent as he examined the head injury. He lifted the lid of Joe’s right eye, but the boy did not respond. Only the tiny whimpers of pain during the bone-setting had given reason to believe that Joe had any awareness of what was happening.

Finally, Doc stepped back. “How much did you move him?”

The Cartwrights exchanged sharp glances. “He came in tied facedown over his horse,” said Adam. “We had to get him off, and we carried him up here.”

“Once he was in bed, we kept him pretty still,” said Ben. “We turned him over when we were checking for injuries, but other than that, he hasn’t moved. Why?”

The doctor regarded each of them. “There’s a very good chance that that hard Cartwright skull has finally been cracked,” he said, gesturing to the swollen area. “From here on out, I want him to be as still as possible. You’ll need to turn him to avoid bedsores, of course, but be as smooth and gentle as you can. At best, he’s got a bad concussion. Either way, keep him as quiet as you can.” He regarded the boy who lay so uncharacteristically still. “Ironically, his other injuries will likely be helpful,” he commented. “With the thighbone broken, he won’t be able to walk for several weeks, and with the those broken bones in his wrist and hand, he won’t be able to manage crutches, so he’s going to be laid up anyway.”

“But his head . . . when will we know if—I mean, what’s going to happen?” Ben had to swallow hard to get the words out.

The doctor met his gaze squarely. “First, we wait for him to wake up,” he said. “Until then, there’s no way to know what’s happening in his brain.” The silence that met those words was heavy with dark, bitter fear.

Adam raised his chin slightly. “Is there a chance that he won’t wake up?”

“Adam!” Hoss hissed.

But the doctor said, “It’s a fair question, but at this point, it’s premature. We know he’s got some level of awareness, because he responded to the pain when I set his wrist. That’s a good sign right there. He didn’t move his other hand when I asked him to, which could mean either that he didn’t hear or he didn’t understand. What time did he leave this morning?”

“About eight,” said Ben.

“And what time did he come back?”

“It was nearly two o’clock.”

“And it’s just past nine now, which means that his injuries could have occurred no more than thirteen hours ago. That’s not all that long in these situations. What it means is that we’ve got some waiting to do. The next twenty-four hours should tell us a fair bit.” He waited as the family digested this information. Then, he turned to Hoss. “Could I trouble you for some of that coffee now?”

“What? Oh, sure, Doc.” Hoss poured a cup and handed it to the doctor.

“You two should get out of your wet clothes,” Ben said to Adam and Doc. Something about having the doctor present soothed his frazzled heart a bit, even if they didn’t really know much more than they had before he came. “Hoss, can you put some supper together for them? I’m going to stay here with Joe.” He ignored the looks the others exchanged as he pulled the bedside chair closer to the bed and rested his hand on Joe’s arm above the cast, rubbing it gently in a gesture the others had seen a thousand times, though none of them had ever quite worked out whether its purpose was to comfort Joe or his pa.

“Ben, you need to eat something, too,” said the doctor. His words were firm, but not unkind. When Ben said nothing and simply continued to rub Joe’s arm, Doc reached over and took a plate off the tray as he continued, “This isn’t going to be a short one this time. Joe’s recovery is going to take quite a while, and you’ve got to keep up your strength. You’re not going to be of any use to him if you let yourself get run down.” Holding out the plate, he added, “I know you’re not hungry, but right now, taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do for your son. Now, eat this or I’ll have Hoss hold you in your chair while I feed you myself.” He smiled, but his friend didn’t appear to hear him. When Ben finally looked up, his eyes glistening, the doctor handed him the plate and a fork, and he took them. As the others watched, he forced himself to eat a bite of egg. As soon as they left the room, though, he set the plate on the floor and pulled his chair closer to his son’s bed.

“You’re going to be all right,” he murmured, his hand light on Joe’s arm. “Just hold on, boy. You’re going to be all right.” The rain rattled against the windows, and faint voices drifted up the stairs, but the only thing Ben could hear was the occasional tiny sound that let him know his boy was in pain, and every time he heard it, he felt his own heart tear, just a little.

* * *

Adam, Hoss and the doctor were just finishing their meal when there was a knock on the front door. Adam rose immediately, dropping his napkin on the table. “That could be the sheriff. He wasn’t around when I stopped by to let him know what had happened. I had to leave a note.”

The others rose as Adam opened the door to admit a drenched Clem. “Evening, Adam, Hoss, Doc,” said the deputy. He stood carefully on the rug just inside the door as rain rolled off his oilcloth slicker.

“Come on in,” said Hoss. “Don’t worry about your slicker,” he added as the deputy hesitated. “Hop Sing ain’t here to yell at you.”

“Thanks.” Clem shed his slicker and hat, hanging them on the peg next to the door. To Adam, he said, “I came as soon as I got your note. Roy’s still out with the posse.”

“Posse? You already got men together to find out who done this?” Hoss was frankly impressed.

Clem shook his head as he seated himself on the settee and accepted a cup of coffee. “Posse’s been out since about midday. You fellows know a Sarah Jane Perkins?”

Hoss shook his head, but Adam frowned. “Name sounds familiar,” he said after a minute. “I couldn’t tell you who she is, though.”

“Ned Perkins’ daughter,” said Clem. “ He’s the fellow that just bought the sawmill in town last fall.”

“I remember,” Hoss said. “I seen her in there, helpin’ out with the books and such. Quiet sort. What’s goin’ on with her?”

“She’s gone missing,” said Clem. “Her pa said she was supposed to be going over to the mercantile this morning, but she never got there. There’s some talk that she was seeing some fellow, sort of quiet-like, but nobody seems to know who it was.”

“Any chance her pa found out about this fellow and didn’t like him?” Hoss suggested.

Clem shrugged. “I can come up with about a dozen different guesses about what went on, but so far, nobody knows anything. Roy’s probably going to end up bringing the posse back anyway. With all this rain, nobody’s going to be able to track anything.” He drank his coffee. “Now, tell me what happened to Little Joe. Damnedest day I ever did see, I’ll tell you that much.”

Hoss and Adam recounted what had gone on in the yard. Then, Hoss and the doctor described Joe’s injuries. “I’m very concerned about the head injury,” the doctor admitted. “It looks as though somebody slammed him on the head with a rock or a gun.”

“No chance it was an accident?” asked the deputy.

“None,” said the doctor firmly. “As best I can tell, it’s the kind of a blow that’s meant to kill a man. The fact that Little Joe is still alive is just another testament to how hard-headed these Cartwrights are.” He glanced from brother to brother, but neither smiled at the well-worn joke.

“And there weren’t any kind of marks on the horse or the saddle that didn’t belong?” Clem asked.

“Except for Joe’s blood, no,” said Hoss.

Suddenly, Adam got to his feet. “Wait a minute,” he said. He sprinted up the stairs, returning a minute later with a piece of paper. “I found this in the yard when I was putting Joe’s horse away before I went for the doctor,” he said. “I don’t know whether it has anything to do with Joe, but it didn’t look like it had been on the ground very long—it wasn’t too dirty or trampled or anything.” He handed the paper to Clem, who studied it carefully.

“‘Leave that girl alone,’” he read aloud. “What girl?”

“I don’t know, but—” Hoss stopped as if unsure whether to continue.

“But what?” Adam prodded when his brother said no more.

“I don’t know if this means anything, but when Pa and me were undressing Joe, I noticed that he was wearing his good shirt and his new boots. Seemed to me to be pretty fancy get-up for just fetching the mail. I wonder if he was meeting a girl and mebbe that’s why he was all dressed up and in such a hurry to get going.”

“Could be,” said Clem. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance he knew Sarah Jane Perkins, is there? I mean, she’s got a couple years on him, but she don’t look it. He might think she’s his age.”

“I never heard him mention her,” said Adam.

“Me, neither,” said Hoss.

“It was worth a try,” said Clem. “If she was meeting Little Joe and somebody beat him up, that might explain at least some of where she was, and if we can find her, she might know something about what happened to Joe.”

“You don’t reckon the same people who beat up Little Joe mighta kidnapped Sarah Jane, do you?” Hoss frowned at the notion.

“That’s just guesswork,” said Adam. “We don’t even know if Joe knows Sarah Jane. Could be that she just ran off with her fellow and her father’s going to get a telegram announcing that they eloped or something.”

“What if it was somebody who wanted Joe out of the way?” Hoss suggested. “If’n Joe and Sarah Jane were together, and some fellow who wanted her decided that Joe was sparking his gal, I could see the fellow fighting with Joe and taking Sarah Jane out of there.”

“But that doesn’t explain why he’d have put Joe on his horse and sent him home,” said Adam. “Besides, whoever it was didn’t just fight with Joe—he shot him, too. If that note really did have something to do with Sarah Jane, it’s clear that somebody was trying to send a message, but they weren’t necessarily trying to kill Joe.”

“I don’t know about that,” the doctor said. “That blow on the head was more than just a message. Hit like that, and draped head down? He’s extremely lucky he wasn’t dead when he got here.”

“You reckon there’s any chance Sarah Jane got scared and ran off when Joe and the other fellow started fighting?” Hoss suggested.

“You’re still assuming they were together,” Clem said.

“That note and Joe’s fancy clothes certainly suggest that he was with some girl,” Adam said. “This Sarah Jane is as likely a possibility as anybody.”

“This is Little Joe we’re talking about,” Clem said. “Ain’t he usually sparking three or four girls at a time?” He chuckled at his own wit, but the chuckle died at the others’ stony gazes. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Last girl I remember Joe talking about was Camilla Morgan,” said Adam. “That didn’t last too long, though.”

“What happened?” the deputy asked.

“Dunno exactly,” Hoss said. “Joe don’t talk that much about his girls unless it’s serious, and he warn’t serious about Camilla.”

“I saw them in town a few times,” the doctor said. “Granted, I barely know the young lady, but she did seem to be the type to cling. It wouldn’t surprise me if Joe found that a little tiresome.”

“That’s definitely not Joe’s kind of girl,” Adam agreed.

“She gave me notes for him a bunch of times,” Hoss recalled. “One of them was just last week. I don’t know what that was about.”

“Is it possible Joe was meeting her today?” Clem asked.

Hoss frowned, considering. “Not likely,” he said. “I don’t think he’d have gotten all dressed up to meet a gal he ain’t sparking any more. ’Sides, he never seemed all that happy when I gave him one of her notes. He’d just kinda make a face like Pa just told him to dig a hole for a new outhouse.”

“Well, it’s not possible that a little thing like Camilla Morgan did all that damage to Joe, even if he wasn’t excited about hearing from her,” said the doctor. “Besides, she’s always seemed like a perfect lady. In fact, I’m certain that if she was sending notes to Joe, they were about some legitimate question or problem that she needed his help with.”

“I wonder if somebody wanted Joe to stay away from Camilla,” said Adam. “The note doesn’t say who ‘that girl’ is. Maybe Joe was meeting up with Camilla to help her with her problem and somebody didn’t like that.”

Clem got to his feet. “All this guessing is interesting, but it doesn’t get me any closer to finding out who beat up Little Joe or why,” he said. He handed the note back to Adam, who tucked it into his shirt pocket. “I reckon I should get going,” he said. “If Little Joe wakes up and tells you anything else, you be sure to let me know.”

“Of course,” said Adam. “Let us know if Sarah Jane Perkins turns up and knows anything about what happened.”

“Sure,” said Clem. He put on his slicker and hat and bid the Cartwrights and the doctor a good night.

Hoss closed the door behind the deputy and turned to the others. “I don’t know,” he said. “A gal missing, Little Joe all beat up, and somebody wants him to stay away from some other gal. I don’t know about you fellows, but I think it’s all tied up together.”

Adam shrugged. “I have no idea,” he admitted. “With what we know, I could make just as good an argument that Sarah Jane is somewhere else, Joe got bushwhacked by somebody who got scared and put him on his horse, and the note was dropped earlier by one of the hands who’s gotten himself into some trouble. What do you think, Doc?”

The doctor’s lips were pursed as though he was tasting something sour. Getting to his feet, he said, “I think I’m going to check on my patient. Sheriffing isn’t my great talent. I’m going to try to get your father to take a break for a little while.”

“Good luck with that,” said Adam. “You’ll likely have better luck trying to track down Sarah Jane Perkins in the rain.” The doctor waved him off and headed upstairs, and the brothers regarded each other.

“What do you figure we ought to do?” Hoss asked finally.

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose as he thought. “You’re not going to like it.”

“What?”

“I think we’ve got to find out if there’s some connection between Joe and Sarah Jane.”

“Why wouldn’t I like that?”

“Because with Joe out cold, I only know of one way to do that right now. We’ve got to go through his things and see if we can find anything that ties the two of them together.”

Hoss bit his lip. “That don’t seem right. ’Sides, you always complained when he snooped through your room.”

“He never had as good a reason,” Adam retorted.

“You reckon Pa’s gonna mind? Don’t forget, he’s sittin’ right there next to Joe’s bed. It ain’t like we’re gonna get him out of the room.”

“At this point, I imagine that anything that helps us find Joe’s attackers will be all right with him,” said Adam with more confidence than he felt. Pa could be a stickler for things like privacy. Still, under the circumstances, it wasn’t likely he’d object to his sons going through Joe’s desk and bureau drawers. Even Joe would have to admit that they’d only done what they had to do.

“I just hope we find something useful,” he muttered as they climbed the stairs. Clem was right: it had been the damnedest day he ever did see. And even if they found out the name of Joe’s attacker, Adam had a sudden feeling that this was only one piece of a strange, convoluted puzzle.

* * *

Pain. Pounding pain in his head. The left side throbbed hot and fierce, like somebody was ramming a branding iron against his temple again and again. All through his body, he could feel the flames of pain licking at him. He tried to move away from them, but at the slightest motion, the pain in his head exploded white-hot, and his stomach roiled.

He fought to open his eyes. Only his right eye responded, revealing gray cloudiness. He opened his mouth to speak, but then he realized that he didn’t know what he wanted to say. The urge was there, but nothing in his mind made any sense. He knew that he wanted to make noise, to communicate something, but he had no idea what. So confusing. So much pain. What happened?

He tried to speak, but succeeded only in making a small sound. It was enough, though, to cause movement in the grayness. He blinked hard, and the clouds cleared slightly. His father’s blurry face hovered over him. Pa looked terrible. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in days, and his eyes were rimmed with red.

“Joseph?” Pa breathed his name, gently resting his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe tried to reach up with his left hand to touch his father’s face, but a weight held the arm in place. Nothing held down his right hand, though, and he lifted it to his father’s stubbled cheek and made a questioning noise.

Through the clouds, he could see movement as though Pa had smiled. He felt Pa close his own hand over Joe’s and hold both to his face. “I’m here,” Pa whispered. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Joe heard the door open. A familiar voice said, “Any change?”

“He’s awake.” Pa’s voice sounded almost breathless, like he couldn’t quite believe he was saying it.

“That’s good,” said the voice. Doc. It was Doc Martin. Joe tried to see him through the clouds, but he was too far away.

The effort of keeping his eye open was great. Even lying flat, Joe felt dizzy. A wave of nausea overtook him. He tried to speak, to warn his father, but all he could do was to turn his head, knife-like pain slicing through his consciousness as he vomited on his own shoulder and on the bed, moaning and nearly crying from the stabbing pain in his head as he retched. Embarrassed, he closed his eye. If his father said anything, it was inaudible over the roaring in his ears.

The cool hardness of the glass pressed against his mouth. He tried to peer through the clouds as he parted his lips slightly, and the tepid liquid moistened his tongue and throat. After a couple sips, he closed his eye, and the glass disappeared. A cool, wet cloth dabbed at his face and shoulder, and then a dry one rested gently against the wet places.

“Joe, look at me,” said the doctor. Joe forced himself open his eye again even though he was already worn out. The doctor continued, “How many fingers am I holding up?” Joe squinted, but any fingers were lost in the clouds. “How many fingers, Joe?” the doctor insisted.

Frustrated, Joe reached up, groping for the doctor’s hand. When he found it, he pulled it so close to his face that it almost touched his nose. But—what was the question again? Just as he was about to let go, the doctor asked again, “Do you know how many fingers I’m holding up?”

Thank God, an easy one. Or it should have been easy. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what the doctor was asking. The problem was that the answer kept changing as he saw more fingers and then fewer. Finally, he took a guess. “Barn,” he managed. He was absurdly pleased with himself for saying a word until he realized that it wasn’t the one he’d intended.

“What was that, Joe?”

Silly thing to have said. He knew the answer. Two fingers. “Fly,” he murmured.

“Five?”

“Eat.” Wait—eat? That wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all.

“Are you hungry, Joe? Do you want something to eat?” The doctor sounded just a little bit confused.

All right, they were on a different question. Was he hungry? “Boot,” he said, his frustration mounting. “Ride. Holster.” The words were running together so much that it was a wonder anybody else could understand them, but Joe knew.

“Paul, what’s going on?” Pa asked, concern evident in his voice. Pa knew, too. Pa was worried. Joe’s frustration began to slide downward into a knot of fear in his gut.

“Just calm down,” said the doctor. “Joe, listen to me. I’m going to say a word, and I want to you repeat exactly what I say. Mouse.”

“Clock.” Ridiculous tears were threatening. What was happening? Was this a dream?

“Try again. Mouse.”

“Help.” It wasn’t what he’d intended, but at least it made sense. Help me. Help me.

Oblivious, the doctor said again, “Mouse.”

“Desk.” It sounded less like a word than a whimper, and Joe closed his eye, mortified.

“Okay, that’s enough.” Doc’s voice had that familiar soothing sound that meant he wanted Joe to calm down. “Joe, you just rest for now. Drink some more water and try to relax.” Joe felt the glass against his mouth again, and even though he didn’t want it, the glass was being tipped enough that he had to choose between drinking and letting water run all over his face. It seemed hours before the glass was taken away.

Vaguely, he could hear his pa and the doctor talking. “Paul, what’s happening?” Pa asked. Joe wanted to thank him for asking, but even the thought of moving made his head pound.

“It looks like something called aphasia,” said the doctor, sounding weary. “It’s from the head injury. A French doctor has been doing some studies about the brain and how different parts of the brain govern different abilities. From what I’ve read, if this Dr. Broca is right, the part of Joe’s brain that controls speech has been bruised and is swollen. If that’s the case, the problem may resolve on its own when the swelling goes down.”

“What do we do?” Pa asked, sounding even more worried.

“For now, we let Joe go back to sleep,” said the doctor firmly. “The most important thing for him is to stay as quiet as possible. In a few days, we’ll try again.”

A few days? A few days? He was just supposed to lie here and talk nonsense for a few days? He made a sound to let them know he was still awake, but they didn’t seem to notice.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” asked Pa.

“I’m afraid not,” said the doctor. “The only thing anyone’s found that seems to help are time and rest. The swelling has to go down, and there’s no way to hurry that along, so you just keep the patient as quiet as you can so he doesn’t fall or hit his head and make matters worse. Then, once the swelling’s down, we can get an idea about what’s going to happen.”

“I don’t understand,” said Pa, except that he didn’t sound like he didn’t understand. He sounded like he did, but he didn’t like it, and he was asking the doctor to tell him he was wrong.

“These studies haven’t been going on that long,” said the doctor. His voice was so deliberately calm that Joe knew he’d heard the same thing in Pa’s voice. “So far, it seems as though some people recover completely, and others—well, it’s like any other injury. Everybody’s different. But there aren’t any medicines that will help with this. There’s nothing we can do except wait, so you just need to take it easy and keep Joe as quiet as possible.”

“But what if this doesn’t—” Pa began.

“One step at a time, Ben,” said the doctor. “Give the swelling time to go down, and let’s see how he’s doing then. Now, I think it’s time for you to take a break. I’ll sit with him for a while.”

Joe didn’t hear Pa’s answer, because the doctor’s words were swirling around in his head like dry leaves in a windstorm. Brain. Injury. Swelling. Time. Cold fear seized him, and all he wanted was to speak up, to say something that would stop Pa from leaving. He made a sound, but if anybody heard, they didn’t let on. He heard the click of boots on the wooden floor as they moved away from his bed, and he made the sound again, just in case they might turn back, but they didn’t.

* * *

The two men who came into the kitchen not only had the same dark coloring and unremarkable features, but they wore the same clothes. This was deliberate: if anybody claimed to have seen one, the other could easily refute the charge by explaining how he’d been somewhere else entirely.

The plump, dark-haired woman who stood by the stove, stirring a large pot of stew, regarded them. “Well?” she said when neither spoke.

“Nothing,” said one man.

“So, he’s still alive,” she said.

The men shrugged. “I reckon so,” the other said. “Otherwise, folks’d be talking.”

“You reckon so,” she said scornfully. “You’d better hope he stays that way. If he dies, I will personally see to it that both of you hang.”

“Aw, shucks, Camilla, you can’t do that,” said one of the men. “Imagine what Ma would have said.”

“’Sides, you’re the one who told us to do it,” the other chimed in.

Camilla glared at the men. “I did not tell you to nearly kill anyone,” she said, biting off each word. “I told you simply to make sure that he left that girl alone. I didn’t think I had to tell you to be careful not to hurt him. I expected that that would be obvious.”

The two men squirmed under her relentless gaze. “It was Cal’s idea,” one said finally.

“Jake’s the one who hit him!” Cal retorted.

“I don’t care who did what,” Camilla said. “You’re both responsible for harming him, and if he dies, you’ll be responsible for his death.” The slightest smile turned up the corners of her mouth as she said, “Even if you tried to blame me, no one would believe you. They know that he and I are in love.” She rose, her fingers reaching into her pocket for the paper that she carried with her at all times. For a minute, the room was silent as her fingertips caressed the well-worn note that bore his handwriting.

A knock on the front door startled the three of them. “Both of you, upstairs,” she whispered. She waited until they had disappeared up the stairs before she walked unhurriedly to the front door, opening it as calmly as though she was expecting the ladies for a sewing circle.

“Mornin’, Miss Morgan,” said the sheriff, touching the brim of his hat.

“Good morning, Sheriff Coffee,” she said. “Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you, miss.” She stepped back to allow him to enter her front room, but she did not invite him to sit. The line between innocent and stupid was finer than it might appear.

“What can I do for you, Sheriff?” she asked.

“Just wondering if you’ve seen any sign of Sarah Jane Perkins,” said the sheriff.

Camilla suppressed a sigh of impatience. “As I’ve told you several times now, I didn’t see her that day. I spent the entire day here, reading. Why do you keep asking me? Do you think I’m lying?”

“I’m asking everybody, miss,” said the sheriff. “After almost a week, I figger it’s possible that somebody’s seen something somewhere in their travels, even if they didn’t see her the day she disappeared.”

“I apologize for misunderstanding,” she said. What an idiot she was. Far too defensive. It was the kind of thing that could make a sheriff start poking around. “But no, Sheriff, I’m sorry to tell you that I haven’t seen her at all in the past week. If I do see her, though, I’ll certainly let you know.”

“I appreciate that, Miss Morgan,” said the sheriff. “What about your brothers? Are they around?”

“They went up to Genoa on an errand,” she replied. “I don’t expect them back until late.” She didn’t offer to have them stop by the sheriff’s office. The longer she could keep them from talking to anybody, the less chance there would be of them blurting out something they shouldn’t.

“All right then, miss. Thank you for your time,” he said, touching the brim of his hat again. She closed the door behind him, listening as his boots descended her porch stairs, and then she let herself lean against the door.

“All right, he’s gone,” she called.

Her brothers came down the stairs. “Hey, Camilla, is this yours?” Cal asked, holding a small silver ring.

Camilla’s mouth grew tight. “I’ve been looking for that all week. Where did you find it?”

“In the hall,” said Cal. “Is it yours?”

“Yes.” She snatched it from him and tried to slide it onto her ring finger, but it was too small. She jammed it onto her pinky as she added, “Go wash up. Dinner is almost ready.”

Cal and Jake exchanged worried glances. “What’s for dinner?” Jake asked.

“Stew,” said Camilla. “And don’t worry, there’s plenty. I already ate.”

Their eyes grew wide. “Camilla—you ain’t—I mean, you didn’t—that stew—”

“What? What are you talking about?” Her fists rested on her rounded hips, daring them to say it.

“Where’d you get the meat?” Cal asked after a long minute.

Camilla leveled her gaze at him. “What do you really want to know?” She waited, and when neither of them spoke, she allowed her countenance to soften slightly. “I got the meat from Nate Pierce. He just butchered one of his sheep, and his wife doesn’t like mutton. I put the rest in the root cellar. It was a big ewe.”

For a few minutes, the only sound was the bubbling of the stew. At last, Jake said, “I don’t think I ever had mutton before.”

“Of course, you did,” Camilla said. “Remember how Aunt Florence used to make mutton stew, with beans and carrots and onion? I used her recipe. I bet it’ll taste just the same. Now, go and wash up.” As she knew they would, her brothers headed out the back door to the pump. She took down two bowls and filled them, musing as she did about her darling’s condition. Perhaps she should go and visit him. She could take him some jam or a pie.

Then again, since he was so fond of mutton—at least, mutton dressed as lamb—she could always take him some stew.

* * *

“Pa? Pa?”

Ben woke abruptly. The hand on his arm was gentle, but insistent. For a moment, he was flustered, as if he’d been caught in an unseemly act. Then, he relaxed, a rueful smile playing on his lips.

“Sorry, boys,” he said, taking up his fork. He focused on his plate as if falling asleep at the dinner table were a commonplace occurrence.

After a minute, he stopped eating and met the concerned eyes of his two older sons. “Yes?” he said with exaggerated patience.

Adam and Hoss exchanged a reluctant glance before Adam spoke. “Pa, Hoss and I have been talking,” he said.

“And?” Ben prodded.

“And we think you need to consider what Doc Martin said,” Adam finished.

Ben slammed down his fork. “We have been over this already,” he said, holding his temper only by great effort. “I am quite capable of taking care of my own son!”

“Pa, you’re exhausted,” said Adam. “When was the last time you slept through the night? Even when Hoss and I stay with him, you’re still in and out of the room six or seven times before dawn.”

“We almost lost him,” Ben snapped. “And we still don’t know what’s going to happen, not really. Are you saying I’m wrong to be concerned about my own son?”

“Of course not, Pa, but—dadburnit, you’re worn out.” Hoss was trying to make his point without infuriating Pa further, but it was a delicate balance. “I mean—well, look at you. You ain’t even been past the front door in almost two weeks.”

“I don’t need to be out of the house, I need to be with Joseph,” snapped Ben. “And he needs me. If it’s too much trouble for the two of you, though—”

“Pa, we’re not saying that,” cut in Adam. “You know we’re not. We’d do anything for Joe. But you’ve been running yourself ragged, and you can’t keep up this way. It’s going to be weeks before Hop Sing gets back, and with Joe laid up, Hoss and I are both going to have to go on that drive to Sacramento. You can’t keep this up. You won’t be able to run the house and take care of Joe all by yourself. You’ve got to get some help in here.

Fuming, Ben snatched up his fork and stabbed a piece of beef. He hated to admit it, but his sons were right.

If only Hop Sing were here. The little man had left for his great-uncle’s eightieth birthday celebration in San Francisco only three days before Joe was hurt. The doctor had suggested that they might want to wire Hop Sing and ask him to come back early, but the Cartwrights had rejected the notion. Elders were revered in the Chinese culture, and Hop Sing had been looking forward to this trip for months.

Once Joe had started to come around, the question had come up of contacting Hop Sing not to ask him to return, but to let him know what had happened to his Li’l Joe. “We’ll let him know Joe had an accident, of course, but we’ll just wait a few days,” Ben had said. He knew—they all knew—that Hop Sing would somehow divine just how bad it was without being told anyway. It was impossible to keep anything from Hop Sing. And as soon as he figured out how seriously Little Joe was hurt, he’d be on the next boat from San Francisco to Sacramento, and he’d get himself back from Sacramento to the Ponderosa if he had to walk all the way. At least if they waited to tell him, he’d get to spend some time with his great-uncle before he came barreling home.

“He’s gonna have a fit that we didn’t tell him right off, though,” Hoss had pointed out. They all winced at the fury that they knew would blow through the door when the little man returned. Hop Sing was fiercely protective of “his” family, and most of all the boy he had tended and scolded and doted on since the first day Marie had laid the baby in his arms. They would pay in scalded eardrums for not having wired Hop Sing the moment they learned of Joe’s injuries, but it would be worth it to know that Hop Sing had had at least a few days to celebrate his great-uncle’s milestone. None of them said aloud what a relief it would be when he returned to take charge of the house, Joe’s recuperation, and everything else within range.

But they hadn’t reckoned on Hop Sing, who always took care of everyone else, slipping on a wet stair on his very first day in San Francisco and breaking his leg. Of course, the telegram that reported Hop Sing’s accident was mild compared to the one that came in response to their telling him about Joe. It was a marvel the paper wasn’t actually hot. The Cartwrights could only imagine what Hop Sing’s relatives had had to listen to—and were probably still listening to.

All of which meant that there would be no one to lend a hand while Hoss and Adam were on the cattle drive. Ben was about to tell them again that he could manage when the jingle of a bell sounded from upstairs.

“Just stay there, I’ll get him,” said Hoss, pushing back his chair and heading up the stairs before his father could speak.

Adam waited until Hoss was out of sight before he said quietly, “We’re not saying that you’re not capable of taking of Joe. Just get somebody in to cook and clean so you can spend more time with him. It’ll only be for a few weeks. Besides, when Joe starts feeling better, you’re going to have your hands full just keeping him quiet—you won’t have time for housework.” He smiled conspiratorially, but Ben shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said finally. Adam was careful not to reveal his enormous sense of victory that he’d even gotten that far with the idea. His father continued, “I don’t like the idea of bringing in a stranger. Not right now. Joe’s got enough to cope with.”

“It wouldn’t have to be a stranger,” said Adam. “I’ll see if Mrs. Guthrie’s available. She’s been here enough times—you wouldn’t have to spend any time at all showing her where things are or what has to be done. Besides, she won’t go in Joe’s room if you tell her not to. Joe doesn’t even have to know she’s here.”

Ben sighed. “I’m being an old fool, aren’t I?”

“Maybe just a little,” Adam said gently. “But it’s understandable. This was a bad one.” And it’s not over yet, he almost added. In the two weeks since that terrible day, Joe’s periods of consciousness had gradually increased in frequency and duration and the bruising on his face had started to fade, but there were no other indications that his head injury was healing. Even the slightest movement of his head brought a quick gasp of pain. He still couldn’t produce a word on command, and the words he did say were still so slurred that he sounded as though he’d been drinking heavily. “To be honest, if there were a way to put off this drive for a few weeks, I’d do it,” Adam admitted. “It’s hard to leave him like this.”

Ben was instantly alert. “Do you think—”

“Oh, no, it’s not that I think anything’s going to happen,” Adam broke in hastily. “It’s just—I know it’s got to be rough for him—not being able to say what he’s thinking, just lying there, hurting, and not even being able to tell anybody. It’s hard to walk away from that.”

Hoss appeared at the top of the stairs. “Hey, Pa, is that beef broth still on the stove? I think Joe’s hungry.”

Instantly, Ben was on his feet. “I’ll bring it right up,” he said. He hurried into the kitchen, returning moments later with a cup of steaming broth. “You go finish your supper, I’ll take it to him,” he said to Hoss, who had come down the stairs and was reaching for the cup.

“It’s okay, Pa, I got him,” said Hoss, but to no avail. His father moved past him as though the big man wasn’t even there, hustling up the stairs. As his footsteps receded, Adam and Hoss exchanged a long, sad look.

“When Doc comes tomorrow, I’m going to ask him to check around for somebody to help out while we’re gone,” said Adam.

Hoss licked his lips thoughtfully. “Adam, you reckon you could handle this drive without me?”

Adam raised his eyebrows. “You figuring on being the house help?”

Hoss shook his head. “I think we still gotta get somebody out here to cook and clean,” he said. “I’m just thinkin’ that if Pa doesn’t have to worry about tending to the stock and such, it might help. ’Sides, if we get a lady to help, she ain’t gonna be able to do for Joe when he needs—well, personal stuff. And the less Pa has to lift him, the better.”

Adam considered his brother’s words, mentally kicking himself for not having thought of the idea first. Still, it probably made more sense for Hoss to stay, since of all of them, he was the one who could most easily lift Joe when that was needed. “I’ll head into town tomorrow and see if I can hire a couple extra men,” he said. “But don’t tell Pa—at least, not until we’ve got Mrs. Guthrie lined up. Otherwise, he’ll say he doesn’t need both of you.”

Hoss chuckled as he took his seat at the table. “How do you reckon such a consarn stubborn old coot like our pa ended up with such sweet, easy-going sons like us?”

Adam snorted. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you go on up and ask him?”

Hoss reached for the platter of cooling beef. “Not me,” he said. “I always leave the dangerous stuff to my older brother.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “Don’t I know it.”

* * *

“Hey, Camilla!” called Jake as he slammed the back door.

“You don’t need to yell.” Camilla laid the pen on the blotter, blowing gently on the page to dry her latest words.

“Believe me, you’re gonna want to hear this.” Jake was rubbing his hands as though he expected a prize. She raised an eyebrow, and he said, “Guess who’s lookin’ for house help?” When his sister said nothing, he announced, “The Cartwrights!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. They have that little Chinese man to do for them.” She turned back to her letter and took up the pen.

“Not right now, they don’t! I dunno where he is, but I heard Adam Cartwright talkin’ this morning. He’s in town to hire men for a drive, and he was sayin’ that they’re lookin’ for somebody to help out at the house for a while.”

“I suppose they’re going to hire Ruth Guthrie,” Camilla said slowly. “I’ve heard that’s what they usually do when their man is away.”

Jake shook his head with a gleeful grin. “Mrs. Guthrie’s already takin’ care of the Morrisons. Frank Morrison’s wife just had another, an’ he got Mrs. Guthrie in there to help.”

“Another? How many children is that now? Eight? Nine?”

Jake shrugged, clearly not knowing nor caring. “So, the Cartwrights is gonna need somebody to help out around the house, an’ I thought—well, you bein’ such a close friend of the family and all, maybe you might want to step up.” He winked as though there was the slightest chance that she might not know what he meant.

Camilla laid down the pen and sat back. Normally, she’d have lambasted her brother for the notion that she might be willing to hire out as a housekeeper, but in this particular case. . . .

“What about you and Cal?” she said. Not that she was particularly worried about how they would manage meals without her, but leaving them unsupervised was liable to be a bad idea.

“We could come out to the Ponderosa with you,” Jake suggested, but she shook her head.

“The last thing we need is you two loafing around all day,” she said. “No, I think I know how you can be useful. You said that Adam Cartwright is hiring for a cattle drive?”

Jake groaned. “Aw, Camilla, we don’t know nothin’ about driving cattle!”

“Nonsense,” she said briskly, rising. “It’s the ideal solution. With you two gone, it would make perfect sense for me to go and help out at the Ponderosa.” She laid a blank sheet of paper over her letter to keep it from prying eyes. “You get down there and sign on before Adam Cartwright gets all the men he needs. I’ll go with you, and I can talk to Adam about coming out to help. It’ll be perfect.” A dreamy smile crossed her face. “Just perfect.”

* * *

Hoss shook his head in wonder as he forked hay into the stalls. Camilla Morgan. If that didn’t beat all. Joe hadn’t said much about her after he’d stopped sparking her, but Hoss had had a feeling that something was still going on there. Nothing he could put his finger on, but he’d seen Joe and Camilla talking one time in town. They’d almost looked like Joe was arguing with her and she was sweet-talking him back. Her hand had been resting on his arm the whole time. It was the strangest thing. He wondered how his little brother was going to feel to find out that she was the one fixing his meals and washing his sheets. Something told him Joe wasn’t going to be too pleased.

“She was the last one I’d have expected, but she offered,” Adam shrugged when Hoss pulled him aside to ask about this most curious choice. “Her brothers are coming on the drive, so she was going to be all alone, and she said she’d be happy to help out.”

“I reckon I just never thought of her as the house help type,” Hoss said. Somehow, he’d have figured her for one who would have a housekeeper, rather than being one. It occurred to him that if something had been happening between Joe and Camilla, that must mean that Joe hadn’t been sparking Sarah Jane Perkins after all.

Hoss considered this as he pitched hay into the stalls. Nobody had seen hide nor hair of Sarah Jane Perkins since that day she went missing. Her pa was still frantic, but more and more, folks seemed to hold with the notion that Sarah Jane had run off with the fellow who’d been courting her.

And whoever that fellow was, it wasn’t Joe. Besides the obvious fact that Joe hadn’t gone anywhere in the past two weeks, Adam and Hoss had gone through Joe’s desk, his bureau drawers, and even his jacket, but they hadn’t found anything with Sarah Jane’s name on it. The only paper that even seemed remotely relevant was a note that had apparently been shoved into Joe’s pocket. It said, “Meet me at the old oak tree at ten o’clock.” There was no signature, but somebody had drawn a heart below the message. They compared it to the other note to see whether the handwriting matched, but one was in script and the other was printed, so they couldn’t tell.

“Maybe the other fellow didn’t like the thought of Joe sparking Sarah Jane, and he tricked Joe into meeting him,” Adam had mused as they compared the notes. They even offered that theory to Roy Coffee, but without some evidence of who wrote either, the sheriff could do nothing more than shrug and tell them to send for him as soon as Joe was able to talk about anything.

Well, there was nothing to be done. Sarah Jane was apparently gone, and Camilla was here on the Ponderosa. Unless they wanted to drag Hop Sing and his broken leg back from San Francisco, there weren’t any other choices. Hoss was just about run ragged, taking care of the house and the ranch while Pa tended to Joe. He never realized just how big a job the house was until Hop Sing was away, and even then, there was usually at least a couple of them to spread the work around. He was glad to give as much to Camilla Morgan as she was willing to do. He hoped that she could cook. As gifted as Pa might be at other things, he was, hands down, one of the worst cooks Hoss had ever met. There was always plenty when Pa cooked, partly because nobody—not even Hoss—ever wanted seconds. Hoss couldn’t figure out what it was that his pa did to food to make it so tough and tasteless. Privately, the three brothers had long ago agreed that it was lucky that sales of Ponderosa beef weren’t made to people who had tasted their father’s preparation of it. “If it were, we’d have the biggest alfalfa farm in the west,” Adam once said ruefully.

Remembering that conversation, Hoss chuckled. He set the pitchfork in the corner and headed for the house. As he crossed the threshold, he lifted his head, sniffing. The girl hadn’t been here an hour, but she already had something on the stove, and it smelled mighty fine. Hoss sighed with pure pleasure. Camilla Morgan was a godsend.

* * *

“Come on, Joe. You need to eat a little more.” Pa held another spoonful of oatmeal to his lips, but Joe turned away, wincing at the stabbing pain that any movement still caused. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he fought the nausea that so often seemed to accompany the pain.

“All right, son. We’ll try more in a little while.” Pa probably meant to be encouraging, but Joe couldn’t help feeling that the words sounded almost ominous, like the storm cloud hovering on the horizon. It wasn’t here yet, but it would be, and there was no place he could go to escape.

Leave me alone, he wanted to say, but there was no point in trying. Like everything else, it would come out as gibberish.

There were times when all he wanted was to fling a boot through the window from sheer frustration. He didn’t know what he hated most about this whole thing. Sometimes, it was not being able to make himself understood; other times, it was his inability to lift his head from the pillow without the room spinning as though he’d had way too much whiskey; still other times, it was the unending drumbeat pounding inside his skull that turned in an instant into a machete slashing into his brain as soon as he tried to move his head. Sure, his leg ached, and having his wrist and hand encased in plaster was mildly inconvenient, but those troubles paled compared to such infuriating indignities as having to be fed like a child because his attempts to feed himself while lying flat and using his right hand had meant that he spilled much more than he swallowed.

Maybe he was lucky that he couldn’t talk. Pa would have tolerated all this self-pity for about ten seconds before he started lecturing Joe in that booming voice about how fortunate he was and how close they’d come to losing him and how he should be grateful for how well he was doing, and on and on until Joe really would have flung a boot through the window, just to get the thundering to stop.

“Mr. Cartwright, the doctor’s here.”

Joe’s eyes opened at the sound of a female voice. What the—what was going on? That voice sounded familiar. Who was she? What was she doing here? Nobody had told him they had visitors. What a strange time to decide to have houseguests—or had they had plans before he was hurt and he just didn’t recall?

It was too much to think about. He waited, careful not to move his head again, as the doctor came in and he and Pa greeted each other. Doc was here pretty much every day, and Hoss had told him that when he first got hurt, the doctor had been here around the clock for days. Not that Joe remembered anything about those first few days, of course. He wasn’t even certain how long ago it had all happened. It could have been a couple days, or it could have been a month ago. He tried sometimes to remember, but he never seemed to stay awake long enough to focus on anything more than what was right in front of him.

Everybody kept telling him that the word problem would get better on its own. Doc had told him more than once that it was going to take time, but that little by little, Joe would be able to find his words. It was because he’d been hit so hard, the doctor said. Some long explanation had followed that included words Joe was sure he’d never known before, and he didn’t bother trying to figure them out. He didn’t care what the doctor called his condition; he just wanted to know when it would be over and he’d be back to normal. Until somebody could tell him that, they didn’t have much to talk about.

The examination went pretty much the same every day. First, the doctor would take Joe’s uncasted hand and feel his wrist, counting. Then, he’d hold a candle close to Joe’s eyes and look at them. After that, he’d do some poking and prodding, and then he’d finish by asking Joe his name. Joe hated that part. Of course he knew his name; he might be hurt, but he wasn’t stupid. But somehow, he could come up with every answer under the sun except the right one. Yesterday, he’d said his name was rug, bramble and swim. It was humiliating.

“Tell me your name,” the doctor said. “What’s your name?”

Joe glared at him. The doctor knew perfectly well that he couldn’t say it on command. Ironically, he’d said his name yesterday, but it was in response to Pa asking if he was hungry.

“Son, tell the doctor your name,” Pa said, just like there was any reason to believe he could.

Fine. If they wanted to know his name, he’d tell them. Still glaring, he held up his right hand and made the sign language letters for J-O-E. Happy now? he wanted to ask.

“What’s that?” Hoss asked. Joe hadn’t even realized Hoss was in the room.

“It looks like sign language,” said the doctor. “Does Joe know how to do that?”

“He sure does,” said Pa. “For a while, he was teaching it to Ann Croft.”

“Sam Croft’s girl? The deaf one?” The doctor sounded impressed. “How on earth did Joe learn sign language?”

“He got a book. This was last year, when Sam had that little place upon the mountain. Joe went up there every day for months to teach Ann.” The pride in Pa’s voice soothed Joe’s spirit.

“Ol’ Sam took Ann and moved to Placerville after that ruckus with that Albie fellow,” Hoss recalled. “But they stayed here for a while after Sam got hurt. I remember Joe teaching Sam sign language so’s he could talk to Ann.”

“Do either of you know any sign language?” the doctor asked.

“I wish we did,” said Pa. “Joe did all the interpreting while Sam and Ann were here. I think Adam might have picked up a little bit, but Hoss and I just relied on Joe.”

“I’m just wondering whether Joe can communicate if he uses sign language instead of speech,” the doctor said. “It’s too bad he can’t write, but if he can sign, it might give us an indication of just how far the problem goes—whether it’s just his speech or whether it’s a problem with all communication or even with his ability to understand. Do you still have that sign language book?”

“I think Joe gave it to Sam,” said Pa, sounding regretful. “I don’t suppose you’ve got one in your office?”

“Unfortunately not,” said the doctor. “I wonder if the Millers might have such a thing at the mercantile. I’ll check when I go back into town. If Joe can talk to us in sign language, he might even be able to tell us who did this to him.”

“If the Millers don’t have a sign language book, see if they can order one,” said Pa. “I’ll pay for it.”

“I’ll check on it,” said the doctor. “Now, young man, I’m going to ask you again, and this time, I want to tell me the answer with your voice. What is your name?”

Joe pressed his lips together. He couldn’t do it, and they all knew it. There was no reason to keep putting him through this humiliation.

“Come on, son, you can do it,” said Pa. A lot he knew.

“Tell me your name,” said the doctor.

“You can do it, Little Brother.” Hoss sounded like he did when he was trying to encourage one of the critters to do something. “Just take it easy an’ don’t even think about—”

“Table!”

Joe could feel his face turning red. He hadn’t meant to shout. He was horrified to feel tears starting, and he closed his eyes so that nobody would know. Even Mitch and Kathleen Devlin’s little boy, who was barely a year old, could say his name when somebody asked. Now everybody would know that Joe Cartwright couldn’t even talk as well as a baby.

“All right,” said Doc, patting his arm. “Don’t worry, Joe. One of these days, when you least expect it, you’ll be able to do it. For now, you’ve just got to rest and let your brain heal. Take it easy, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Joe kept his eyes closed as footsteps and voices headed out the door and down the hall. Just as he was about to open his eyes, he heard that female voice again.

“Hoss, I was—oh, I’m sorry. Is he sleeping?”

“He’s pretty tuckered out,” said Hoss when Joe didn’t move.

“If you’d like to go out and tend to your chores, I can sit with him for a while,” the female offered.

“That’s mighty nice of you, Miss Camilla, but I’m going to stay here for a little bit.”

Camilla? Camilla? What the hell? Camilla Morgan? What was she doing here? Joe’s eyes snapped open, and he braced himself for the knife-like pain as he turned his head so that he could see the doorway, but she was gone. He turned a slight bit more to see Hoss smiling.

“Thought you might be playin’ possum,” his big brother said. Joe pointed toward the doorway, and Hoss nodded. “Yep,” he said. “That was Camilla Morgan. She’s helping out until Hop Sing gets back. He’s still in San Francisco. Turns out you ain’t the only one who broke your leg.” Joe scrunched up his face to show that he was confused, but Hoss just chuckled. “Don’t you worry, Little Brother,” he said. “Ol’ Hop Sing’s gonna be just fine, and he’ll be back here before you know it. Now, how’s about you get some sleep, and maybe later we can read a little more in that detective book?” He pulled the quilt up over Joe’s shoulders just like Joe had answered him and agreed with everything he’d said, and then he turned to leave.

“Fiddle corn!” Joe called. “Stirrup two!” Come back. Don’t leave.

“Just go to sleep, Joe.” Hoss pulled the curtains closed and tiptoed out of the room as quietly as a person in size sixteen boots could, closing the door after him and leaving Joe to stare in confused disbelief.

* * *

The moonlight spilled into the room, casting a delicate glow across the bed. It touched his face as softly as a lover. As gently as her fingertips brushed his cheek.

Perhaps somebody should shave him tomorrow, she mused, caressing the roughness of his whiskers. Probably no one had even thought of such a thing; after all, his beard was light. Undoubtedly, it always had been. Likely they hadn’t noticed the scruffiness. In daylight, it was barely visible, evident only to a lover’s touch.

It was a good thing she was here. A shave and a wash would undoubtedly make him feel better. She wondered idly if it would be overstepping to offer to take care of it herself. But she’d only been here for one day. Maybe she should wait. Such an offer might be seen as too intimate at this point. Once the Cartwrights had had time to see how things were between Camilla and Joe, they would likely be much more comfortable with leaving his care in her hands.

His eyelashes fluttered, and she smiled, stroking his cheek a bit more firmly. As she’d hoped, his eyes opened.

“Yes, dear, it’s me,” she whispered. His brow furrowed as though he didn’t understand. “I’ve come to take care of you,” she said. “I’ll be by your side every minute until you’re well again.” He squinted in the dim light, and she continued, “You know this was an accident, don’t you? Accidents happen. Sometimes, people are trying to do one thing, and they end up doing another. You can’t hold them responsible for something they didn’t mean to do.”

“Elbow?” he murmured.

She allowed herself a quiet, silvery laugh. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” she said. “I’m right here with you, and I’m never going to leave you. There won’t be any other girls bothering you any more. I’ll see to that.” She stroked his hair, the slightest frown wrinkling her brow as he moved his head a bit, almost as though he was trying to dodge her hand.

“What are you doing?”

Camilla whirled, knocking over the water glass on the bedside table and barely catching it before it rolled off. Water splashed on the table, the floor, the edge of the bed, and her dressing gown as she set the glass back on the table.

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright! You startled me!” She brushed past him to the washstand for a towel and hurried back across the room to wipe up the water.

“What are you doing in here?” Ben Cartwright asked again. He sounded concerned, but Camilla detected a tinge of something else. It would be overstating to call it suspicion, but it was far more than mere curiosity.

“I was going downstairs to the—” She let her voice trail off to suggest something a lady would not mention to a gentleman. Then, she continued, “As I was passing, I heard Joe calling, so I came in to see if I could do anything. I thought perhaps he’d like a drink of water.”

“Of course.” Mr. Cartwright sounded completely reassured by her explanation. “Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “I’m happy to help out taking care of Joe any way I can.”

“That’s very nice, but you really don’t need to worry about that,” he said. “Hoss and I will tend to Joe. You don’t need to worry about anything other than the house.”

So, you think I’m just a housekeeper? How little you know. The urge to correct him was so strong that she had to bite her lower lip for a moment. He clearly didn’t understand about his son and Camilla. Hadn’t seen the ring on her finger. Not that it was his fault. Obviously, Joe had kept their relationship private. Such a gentleman, her sweet Joe. So considerate, so discreet. It was one of the many things she loved about him.

Not that she would have minded if he’d let people know how he felt about her. It would have made things so much easier. It would certainly have saved everyone a lot of trouble, anyway.

She smiled at Joe, who was still watching her. He looked . . . perplexed, she decided. He was merely perplexed. It wasn’t worry that she saw in his eyes, and it certainly wasn’t fear. He simply hadn’t expected to see her by his bed in the middle of the night. She’d caught him off-guard, that was all.

“Good night,” she said, patting his hand. She considered kissing his cheek, but with his father standing right there, it seemed too forward. Especially if Joe was so intent upon keeping their love a secret until he was ready to announce it. She wasn’t going to spoil that for him. She allowed her hand to linger on his for just a moment longer, and then she turned away.

“Good night, Mr. Cartwright,” she said as pleasantly as she could manage. Oblivious he might be, but one day, he would be her father-in-law, and it would be best for everyone if they remained on good terms. She stepped out into the hall, and when he didn’t follow her, she paused. She heard his low voice, but she couldn’t make out the words. Then, she heard the water, and she relaxed. He must have figured out that Joe hadn’t gotten anything to drink. She smiled to herself as she went back to her room. Taking off her dressing gown, a thought struck her, and she couldn’t help giggling.

I wonder if he was even thirsty.

* * *

Hey, Jake, gimme that!” Cal lunged toward where his brother sat with his back against the rock, eyes half-open. “You’re gonna spill it, you dumb galoot!” He snatched the bottle from Jake’s hand and sat back as he took a swig. “Doggone it, this stuff tastes like sheep dip! Couldn’t you have gotten anything better?”

Jake let loose with a long, deep belch. Smacking his lips, he said, “Tastes fine to me.” The brothers chortled, and Jake held out his hand for the bottle.

“What are you two doing?”

The deep voice from above startled the brothers almost as much as if God Himself had been calling them to account. Cal dropped the bottle as Adam Cartwright, mounted and stern, looked down at them.

“I told you there was no drinking on this job.” They squinted up at the man in black, silhouetted by the sun.

“We were just thirsty,” said Jake.

“And real tired,” said Cal. “We got every last head through the draw, just like you said to.”

“That’s what you were getting paid to do.” Cartwright seemed unimpressed by their accomplishment.

Jake and Cal exchanged tipsy looks. If they got fired, they’d have to go home, and then Camilla would have to leave the Ponderosa. Trouble here or trouble at home. That was the choice.

They didn’t have to think twice. They got to their feet unsteadily, and Jake pitched the bottle away. “Sorry, boss,” he said. “We won’t do it again. We promise.”

“Promise,” Cal echoed. They stood, swaying only slightly, as Cartwright sat on his horse, looking at them. Finally, he nodded.

“See that you don’t,” Cartwright said. “Now, get up there and relieve Mack and Rusty.” Without waiting for a response, he rode off toward the herd.

Cal and Jake stood, watching. “That was close,” Cal said finally.

“Camilla would have killed us,” Jake agreed. “Even though it wouldn’t have been our fault.”

“She didn’t buy that last time,” Cal pointed out. He fell silent as the brothers reflected on their sister’s response the last time they’d messed up.

It was a wonder she hadn’t beaten them over the heads with the same gun they’d used on the kid. Not that they’d meant to. It was an accident. Once they’d shot Little Joe in the leg—well, at that point, any sane person would have just fallen down and that would have been that. Only that Cartwright kid would have kept coming at them even when he could barely walk.

With all that, they still hadn’t meant to hit him so hard. They were just trying to stop him. After all, they had instructions: keep him from going after the Perkins girl. That really was all they meant to do. Camilla had told them that if the girl wasn’t at the oak tree, he’d probably go into town to find her, and their job was to make sure he didn’t do that. They’d tried to point out to her that they did exactly what she wanted them to, but she still wasn’t pleased.

Fact was, Camilla probably would have spit nails when they got home and told her what happened if it hadn’t been for the fact that she already had her hands full with that fool girl who apparently couldn’t even manage a flight of stairs. She’d sent Cal over to the Silver Dollar, the Bucket of Blood and a couple other saloons and told him just to have a beer and maybe play some cards—pretty much anything to establish that he’d spent the day around town. Since nobody could tell the difference between him and Jake anyway, that would likely serve as a decent enough excuse for both brothers. In the meantime, Jake helped Camilla deal with the girl.

It did seem strange that such a nice, law-abiding family as theirs had gotten into so much trouble in one short day. Luckily, that was all behind them now, or so Camilla said.

In any event, they didn’t need to get into any more trouble, and if they got fired from this job, that was exactly what would happen.

“Come on,” said Cal. He mounted up and looked back for Jake. “What’s the matter?”

“Can’t find my hat,” said Jake. “I had it before, but it’s gone.”

Cal looked around. He didn’t see a hat, but he saw Cartwright looking their direction. “Here,” he said. “Take this one.” He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a crumpled cream-colored hat.

Jake took it, frowning. “You had this in there all the time?”

“Forgot to throw it away,” said Cal. “Anyway, it’s just a hat. He’ll never know the difference.” Jake looked skeptical, but when Cartwright started in their direction, Jake crammed the hat onto his head and mounted up. They kicked their horses’ sides, waving to Cartwright like nothing could possibly be wrong as they rode off to relieve Mack and Rusty.

And with any luck, they’d be able to stay far enough away from Adam Cartwright that he wouldn’t recognize his little brother’s hat.

* * *

Joe knew that something was different even before his door opened. Something serious was in the air. He listened to the low voices outside, straining to identify them. Then, the door opened, and his stomach dropped, because nobody—not even Pa—was looking at him at first.

“Mornin’, Little Joe,” said the sheriff. He stood at the foot of the bed, his hands behind him. Pa stood on the left of the bed, as close to Joe’s head as he could get, and the doctor stood on the right. When they’d all taken their places, Sheriff Coffee cleared his throat and announced, “Doc here says you might be up to answering some questions today.”

“Just a few, Joe,” said the doctor. “If you get tired, you just let us know.” To the sheriff, he said, “He holds up one finger for ‘yes’ and two for ‘no.’”

“Joe, I need to know everything you remember about the day you got bushwhacked,” said Sheriff Coffee. Moving his eyes only, Joe looked at Pa, who nodded.

“Do the best you can, son,” Pa said. “Do you want to try sitting up a little?” Joe held up one finger and clenched his jaw against the inevitable stabbing pain in his head as Pa and the doctor helped him to sit up a bit, easing him back against the pillows. He still couldn’t sit completely upright without getting so dizzy it made him sick to his stomach, but at least he didn’t have to stay flat any more, and that was something. Doc had said that as he healed, the headaches and dizziness would eventually go away completely. As far as Joe was concerned, that day couldn’t come soon enough.

“Where were you attacked?” asked the sheriff.

“Roy, you’ve got to stick with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions,” the doctor reminded him.

But Joe was biting his lip, thinking. Snippets of memory had returned over the course of several days, and while he wasn’t completely sure, he had an idea. If only he could write with his right hand. They’d tried that before, but his handwriting was hard for others to read even when he used his left hand; when he wrote with his right, nobody could make it out. He held up his hand in a “wait” gesture, and the sheriff perked up.

“Do you remember where it was?” he asked.

Joe made the “wait” gesture again. He could almost picture the area. A clearing . . . an enormous tree. Something about the tree . . . he narrowed his eyes, almost as though he could see it if he focused just right.

But whatever it was about the tree—if it was the tree at all—stayed just out of reach. He closed his eyes, fighting back the frustration that was so much a part of his life now. Somebody was asking something else, and he held up his hand in the “wait” gesture again.

After a minute, he opened his eyes and blew out his breath. He pointed to the bedside table, and Pa poured him a glass of water. At least the glass was easier to manage without spilling when he was sitting up. Lying flat, he had to have somebody help or he was liable to pour it all over himself, which had already happened so many times that it was a wonder he hadn’t mildewed. He drained the glass and handed it back, looking to the sheriff to signal that he was ready for the next question.

“Who attacked you?” asked the sheriff.

“Roy,” the doctor began.

“Sorry. Um—do you know who attacked you?”

Joe considered the question. The faces in his mind were familiar, but he couldn’t put names to them. He didn’t know whether it was because he didn’t know the names or just couldn’t remember them. Not that it mattered much, he supposed. He held up two fingers. No.

“Do you know how many of them there were?”

“You think there was more than one?” Pa asked.

“Considering what you said about how Little Joe was hurt and tied on his horse—yeah, I figure there could have been. That’s a lot for one man to do. Do you know how many it was, Joe?”

Joe held up two fingers.

“He doesn’t know.” The doctor sounded disappointed.

No! Joe thought for a moment. Then, he held up one finger.

“He knows?” One finger again. “How many?” Two fingers.

“I can’t tell what’s he’s saying,” said the sheriff. “Does he know or doesn’t he?”

Joe slammed his hand on the bed. When they were all looking, he slammed it down twice in succession. Then, he looked up, daring them not to understand.

“You’re saying there were two of them?” Pa sounded unsure, but Joe grinned and held up a single finger. If he could have nodded without excruciating pain, he would have.

“Now, we’re getting somewhere!” Relief was obvious in the doctor’s voice.

“Where?” asked Sheriff Coffee. “He knows it was two men, but he doesn’t know who or where, and there ain’t much else I can ask. Unless. . . .” His voice trailed off as though he was thinking. Then, he leaned forward, his mouth pursed in the way that usually meant he had an idea. Still, the words that came out of his mouth were completely unexpected: “Hey, Joe, you don’t by chance know a girl named Sarah Jane Perkins, do you?”

One finger, accompanied by a furrowed brow.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

A slow smile spread across Joe’s face. This, he remembered. Not so much the when, but being together—he remembered it well. Riding together in the buggy as the moonlight dappled the horses and the road. Listening to her soft, musical voice as she spoke of everyday things that somehow seemed special because it was she who said them. The diamond sparkle of light on the water when they stopped by the lake. The light, sweet scent of her hair as he pulled her close. The gentle brush of her lips against his. Sliding the silver ring on her delicate finger. The promise of the future. . . .

“Joe? Do you remember the last time you saw her?”

One finger.

The sheriff’s voice grew more serious. “Joe, were you courting Sarah Jane Perkins?”

Wariness stopped him from answering right away. He couldn’t remember now why they’d kept their love a secret. Somehow, in some far corner of his mind, it seemed like there was somebody they were concerned about, but who? Why? Was it her family who had objected? His? Somebody else? He started to raise one finger, and then something else in the sheriff’s question caught his attention: were you courting Sarah Jane Perkins?

Were you courting Sarah Jane Perkins?

Not “are you.” Were.

He looked from one to another. They all looked serious now. Something was wrong. What’s wrong? he asked in sign language. What’s the matter?

“Joe, we don’t understand what you’re saying,” said Pa. “That sign language book hasn’t come yet.” He reached for Joe’s right hand, but Joe shook him off.

Is something wrong with Sarah Jane? he demanded. The cast on his left hand wasn’t slowing him down now. Is that why I haven’t heard from her?Because he knew in his heart that if she’d known he was injured, she’d have come to see him. He didn’t know how long it had been since he was hurt, but suddenly, her silence loomed large. What’s the matter with Sarah Jane? he insisted.

“Slow down, boy,” said the sheriff. “One question at a time. Were you courting Sarah Jane Perkins?”

One finger, trembling slightly. They weren’t asking because they wanted to know about his social life. His gut clenched. Something was wrong, and it involved Sarah Jane.

Mindless of the pain of movement, he turned to face Pa. His eyes implored Pa to explain, and he saw sorrowful understanding in Pa’s face. Then, Pa sat on the edge of the bed, his back to the sheriff and the doctor, and a cold rush of fear coursed through Joe.

“Son, Sarah Jane Perkins is missing,” Pa said. “She vanished the same day you were hurt. Nobody’s seen her for almost three weeks.” Joe clutched Pa’s arm. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t talk sense, because he couldn’t have gotten a word out if he’d tried. Pa continued, “There was talk that she’d eloped with some fellow who was courting her.” His voice was gentle. “Joseph, were you courting her?”

One finger.

“Was there anybody else who was courting her?”

Two fingers, thrust into the air for emphasis. No. Nobody else. He’d stake his life on it.

His life. But what about Sarah Jane’s life? Three weeks. She’d been missing for three weeks. While he’d been lying here, worrying about mundane things like talking and sitting up, she’d been God alone knew where. She could be frightened, injured, even— But he wouldn’t let his mind go there. Instead, he glared at the sheriff, signing without giving a damn who understood. What have you done to find her? Have you talked to her father? Where did you go? Is there a posse looking for her?

Oblivious, the sheriff harrumphed. “Looks like these two might be connected after all. Listen, Joe—”

“We’re done for today,” Pa interrupted, not looking away from Joe’s face. He placed his hands on Joe’s, stilling the questions that had no answers. “You can come back tomorrow, Roy.”

Pa understood. He understood it all. He stayed right there as the sheriff and the doctor left, and he held onto Joe’s uncasted hand as if somehow, that might make something—anything—all right.

* * *

“Hey, Pa!” called Adam as he strode into the main room.

“Adam!” His father’s face lit up. Adam extended his hand, but Pa took it in both of his and pumped it as a wide smile threatened to split his face in two. “It’s good to see you, son. How did everything go?”

“Just fine,” said Adam. “Ten dollars a head, and Mackley was pleased to pay it.”

“He knows good beef when he sees it,” Pa said. “Any problems?”

“Nope.” Adam never bothered Pa with silly little details like the Morgan boys drinking on the job. As far as he was concerned, he’d handled the matter, and there was no need to talk about it any further. Besides, with as many men as he’d been overseeing, having only one such incident counted as a success. Granted, he’d barely seen the Morgans after that day; they’d ridden on the far side of the herd whenever possible, almost as though they were afraid of what might happen if they got too close to him. Of course, they’d only had a couple more days after that, but Adam took a certain quiet satisfaction in knowing that he’d intimidated them into shaping up.

“How’s everything here?” he asked as he took off his gunbelt and coiled it on the credenza.

“We’re doing fine,” said Pa, but his smile faded a bit, and he sounded as though he was trying to persuade someone—maybe Adam, maybe himself.

“How’s Joe? Everything all right?”

“He’s coming along,” said Pa. “Looks like the headaches and the dizziness are lightening up a little, and he’s starting to be able to say what he means. Not much, but a few words here and there.”

Adam frowned. He knew he didn’t need to point out that it had been more than five weeks since Joe’s injury. Adam was no doctor, but this seemed to be quite a long time for so little healing. He hesitated before he asked the next question. “Does Doc have any idea how much longer it’s going to be?”

Pa shook his head. “Weeks, months . . . there’s no way to know.”

“But Doc feels sure that Joe will recover?”

Pa’s face was stoic now. “Doc’s taking it day by day, just like the rest of us.”

“Including Joe?”

Pa shrugged slightly. “He has his days,” he said. “You know your brother. Gets pretty frustrated sometimes. Other times. . . .” At Adam’s questioning look, he continued, “Turns out he was courting that girl who went missing—Sarah Jane Perkins. Roy asked him about her last week. Joe’s having a hard time with the idea that she seems to have vanished into thin air.”

“Nobody’s heard from her?”

Pa shook his head. “Roy’s pretty much convinced that, whatever happened, she didn’t leave here on her own.”

“He thinks somebody kidnapped her?”

“I think he hopes so. If they did, there’s a chance she’s still alive. Otherwise, it could be anything—she could have gone out riding on her own, and. . . .” He shook his head at the myriad of fates that could befall a woman alone in this part of the world.

“Did Joe see her that day?”

“It’s tough sometimes to know what he remembers about the whole thing. There’s only so much information we can get out of ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

“That reminds me—Doc said to give you this.” Adam reached into his coat pocket and drew out a small book. “Said it just arrived today.” He handed it to Pa, whose smile widened.

“Thank you, son,” he said. He flipped through the pages. Line drawings of hands and faces in dozens and dozens of gestures, plus a page with twenty-six drawings of fingers representing the letters of the alphabet. “This should help a lot. Hoss and I couldn’t remember any of that sign language Joe taught the Crofts.”

“Can Joe actually converse in sign language?”

“Hard to say. He’s certainly been trying, but none of us could understand him, so we don’t know. It could be as much nonsense as his spoken words.”

“Well, there’s no time like the present for finding out.” Adam took the book and gestured toward the stairs. “Shall we?”

When Adam opened the door to Joe’s room, he couldn’t help feeling as though something odd was going on. Camilla Morgan was sitting by Joe’s bed, looking for all the world as though she was on her front porch swing with a boy she fancied, while Joe’s jaw was clenched, his nostrils were flared, and he was glaring at the far corner of the room.

“Good morning, Miss Morgan,” said Adam.

The girl jumped to her feet. “Oh, Adam, I didn’t know you were back!” She smoothed her skirt and patted her hair. “Joe and I were just visiting a bit. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get lunch started.” She slipped past Adam and Ben and out the door before anyone could respond.

“Hey, Little Brother,” said Adam. Joe raised a hand in greeting. “Sorry about that,” Adam added. “Didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” Joe rolled his eyes, and Adam nodded even though he didn’t really understand. “How’re you feeling?” Joe shrugged.

“That sign language book arrived, Joe,” Pa said. “Feel like testing it out?”

“Let me see what I remember,” said Adam. Slowly, he began to sign. How are you?

Joe rolled his eyes again. You don’t have to sign, you dumb jasper. I can hear you.

“What did he say?” asked Pa.

“I’m not sure what he called me, but I think he said I don’t have to sign because he can hear me. It’s hard to tell with that cast. Sort of like if he had a lisp.” He winked at Joe.

“Adam,” Pa chided, but Joe waved off the reprimand.

You got it right, he told Adam. And I called you a dumb jasper. The last two words were slowly spelled.

“A little respect for your elders wouldn’t kill you,” Adam commented.

“What are you two talking about?” Pa asked, frantically flipping through the pages.

“Nothing much,” said Adam. “But Joe’s making sense—at least, as much sense as he ever does. You’d better watch yourself,” he added as Joe spelled a response using words he would most definitely not have wanted Pa to understand.

“So it’s just his spoken words that are jumbled up,” said Pa. “The rest of his mind is fine.” His deep brown eyes glistened, and for a moment, he seemed to be nearly overwhelmed with relief and gratitude.

Joe and Adam exchanged tiny grins as Pa turned away to compose himself. You knew that would happen, Adam signed. As tough as Ben Cartwright was about most things, it sometimes seemed that you could move him to tears with practically any news, good or bad, about his sons.

I know, Joe responded, but he was watching Pa. Adam considered mentioning that he could see just the tiniest bit of moisture in Joe’s eyes at their father’s reaction and how the apple clearly hadn’t fallen far from the tree, but he decided that just this once, he’d go easy on his brother.

“So, when are you going to be out of bed?” Adam asked him aloud as Pa turned back to rejoin the conversation.

Already am a little, said Joe. Couple times a day.

“Is the leg still that bad?” Adam knew that the bullet had broken Joe’s thighbone, but it seemed a little odd that his brother was still completely bedridden.

Not the leg, said Joe. I get dizzy when I sit up. And the headaches are bad. Especially when I move my head.

“How bad?”

Bad.

Adam considered this. Joe wasn’t one to complain. If he was saying that the headaches were bad—bad enough that he was willing to stay in bed—they were probably severe enough that most men would be taking large and frequent slugs of painkiller to knock themselves out. Joe didn’t seem particularly woozy, though. “You taking anything?”

Can’t. Doc says laudanum could make things worse.

“So, you’re just waiting them out?”

Nothing else to do.

“Does anything help?”

Cold compresses sometimes. Not moving. Dark. Quiet.

Adam resisted the urge to ask whether the headaches and dizziness were expected to last as long as the aphasia. If they were, it sounded as though his brother could be incapacitated for months. Instead, he asked, “Feel like getting up for a little while now? I can give you a hand.”

No, said Joe. Tired.

“Then we’ll let you get some sleep,” said Adam. He knew from experience how pain could wear a man out. He poured cool water from the pitcher into the washbowl, soaked a cloth, and wrung it almost dry. Then, he laid it across Joe’s eyes, easing it into place. “See you later, buddy,” he said.

Thanks, brother. Joe reached up, and Adam gave his uncasted hand a quick squeeze.

Out in the hall, Pa still seemed overwhelmed by what had happened. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said as he drew Joe’s door closed. “Even with that book, I couldn’t keep up with what Joe was saying.”

“It takes time,” said Adam as they headed for the stairs. He didn’t add that, from what he could tell, there would be plenty of time for the entire family to learn sign language before Joe recovered fully. Pa was so thrilled that his son could communicate at all; there was no point in throwing cold water on his joy.

As they reached the foot of the stairs, Camilla was coming into the room, carrying a tray. “I’ve got some broth for Joe,” she explained.

“He’s sleeping,” said Pa.

Adam watched as consternation flashed across her face. Then, she smiled in a way that seemed oddly determined to look happy. “Then I’ll keep it for later.” She turned and went back to the kitchen.

“Curious one, isn’t she?” Adam murmured.

“I think she might still have feelings for Joe,” said Pa.

“What about Joe? How does he feel?”

“I don’t have the sense that he returns her feelings,” Pa said. “On the other hand, between his own situation and Miss Perkins’ disappearance, I doubt he’s even thinking about Camilla Morgan right now.”

Adam considered this as the conversation shifted to the cattle drive. Of course, it wasn’t the first time a girl had had feelings for Joe that he hadn’t reciprocated. Still, there was something peculiar about the whole thing.

Well, it didn’t matter. Hop Sing would be home soon, Camilla would go back to taking care of her brothers, and life would return to normal. Adam forced his attention back to what his father was saying, pushing away that strange sense of foreboding that he’d had when he opened the door to Joe’s room.

* * *

When Joe opened his eyes, everything was dark. For a moment, he started to panic. Then, he remembered the compress. Relieved, he moved the damp cloth from his eyes.

“I’ll take that,” said Camilla. She practically snatched the cloth from his fingers and bustled over to the washstand, where she hung it to dry.

Joe bit his lip to keep from groaning. Camilla Morgan again. It seemed as though whenever he woke up, she was there. He couldn’t figure out why they felt somebody had to sit with him all the time now. It had been one thing in the early days of his recovery, but now, he certainly didn’t need a keeper. He could ring the bell if he needed something.

And if he had needed someone, it wouldn’t be Camilla Morgan.

He started to ask her in sign language what she was doing there, but he stopped when he remembered that she didn’t understand. He tried to figure out whether there was some way that he could ask her to get Adam. At least Adam understood him. He couldn’t believe how good it felt to know that he could actually talk to somebody and they’d understand more than “yes” or “no.” He’d have to remember to tell Adam later that he didn’t need to have someone sitting with him all the time.

“Would you like some water?” she asked. He held up two fingers to signify “no,” but she poured a glass of water anyway. “Here you go, darling,” she said, lifting his head with one hand as she held the glass to his lips. He tried to turn away, but she was holding his head more firmly than he’d thought. In fact, her fingertips were almost digging into the back of his skull. He tried to move his head away, but he moved too quickly. The stabbing pain made him gasp, and he choked on the water that sloshed into his mouth. For a few minutes, he coughed, his eyes closed and tearing against the sensation of knives slicing into his head over and over. Vaguely, he could hear Camilla speaking, but he couldn’t understand her over the thunderous ringing inside his head. She was trying to reach for him, but he shoved her hands away, rolling away from her as he tried to hold his body stiff to minimize the movement of his head.

A hand rested on his shoulder. Impatiently, he shoved it off. He couldn’t form words even in his head, but if he’d been able to, he’d have told her to go away.

Finally, the spasm eased. His chest still heaved, but he was able to keep his head from moving. Slowly, coherent thought returned, and he began to hear the voices in the room.

“Easy, Joe,” came Pa’s voice, deep and soothing. “You all right?” Joe held up one finger, and Pa patted his shoulder. “Just stay still for a minute, son.”

“I don’t know what happened, Mr. Cartwright,” came Camilla’s plaintive voice. “He was just having a drink of water and he started to choke. I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Camilla,” said Pa. Yes, it was, Joe’s fingers tried to say, but it was hard to sign when he was lying on his side, facing away from everybody. Oblivious, Pa stroked Joe’s hair. “You just get some rest, Joseph,” he said.

“I can stay with him, Mr. Cartwright,” Camilla offered.

Joe rolled onto his back, biting his lip against the pain of movement. She doesn’t need to, he said. I don’t need anybody watching me sleep.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Pa as though he understood. “He’ll be fine.”

Thanks, Pa. Joe reached for the blanket that had slid down when he moved, but Camilla was already pulling it back up. For just a moment, something—he couldn’t have said what—reminded him of Sarah Jane. He squinted to get a better look as she adjusted his covers, but whatever there was about her face or hands that reminded him of his beloved Sarah Jane was gone now.

Has anybody heard anything more about Sarah Jane? he asked.

“What? I’m sorry, Joe, I don’t understand,” said Pa.

“Why are you doing that?” Camilla asked. She sounded almost angry, like she’d caught Joe doing something wrong.

Why not? Even if she didn’t understand his words, his defiance could not have been difficult to comprehend.

“We’ve found that Joe can communicate using sign language,” said Pa. “We even have a book about it.”

“Oh, really? I’d love to see that.” But she sounded anything other than pleased by the news. Somehow, Joe had the sudden sense that she would have been happier if he couldn’t speak or make himself understood.

Why don’t you just get out of my room? In fact, why don’t you just go home? In a childish way, he felt better for having said it even though he knew she didn’t understand.

He was glaring at her when a glint of silver caught his eye. Startled, he tried to see where it was, but Camilla and Pa were talking and nobody was paying any attention to him. “Elephant?” he ventured.

“What is it, son?” Pa immediately turned from Camilla.

Joe looked Pa up and down. Nothing on him resembling silver. Where had he seen it?

“Are you hungry, Joe? Would you like me to bring you something?” Camilla moved closer to the bed and—there it was. On the little finger of her left hand. A delicate silver ring. He hadn’t noticed it before, and he wasn’t quite certain why it was catching his attention now. Her jewelry was her own business. It had nothing to do with him.

Still, he found himself watching her hands as she spoke. He wondered who the fellow was who had given her this ring. He didn’t remember ever seeing it when he was sparking her, so she must have gotten it later. He wondered whether her beau had gotten that ring at the same place he got Sarah Jane’s. Not that the rings would look alike, of course—Sam Carson, the jeweler, had assured him that Sarah Jane’s ring was unique. “See this?” he’d asked, pointing to the delicate roses and leaves engraved on the band. “I only did this once. Took me a real long time. Too long to make it worth doing again. Your girl’s ring will be one of a kind.”

“Just like her,” Joe nodded. A uniquely beautiful ring for a uniquely beautiful girl. Later that night, as he slipped it onto her finger, he whispered, “This is only the first ring I’m putting on your hand.” And then, they kissed. . . .

“Joe? Do you want something to eat?” Camilla’s voice cut rudely into the memory.

Joe clenched his teeth to keep from spouting nonsense that would nonetheless make it clear that he was sick to death of Camilla Morgan and her incessant hovering. Glaring for all he was worth, he held up two fingers. Not that he wasn’t hungry, but he was damned if he’d take anything from her. He’d ask Adam for something later.

“All right,” she said, sounding disappointed. “If you change your mind, you just ring your bell. I’ve got to go and cook supper for the rest of the family.” She was gone before he could protest that they weren’t her family.

That night, as his father and brothers gathered in his room as they used to sit in the living room. They brought him news of the outside world, but tonight, Joe found his mind wandering back to Sarah Jane’s ring. He tried to tell himself that she’d taken it with her to wherever she’d gone, but that didn’t make sense. If she’d left with another man, she wouldn’t have taken Joe’s ring. They would have found it in her room. He’d have to remember to ask.

And even though it would break his heart a thousand times over to believe that she’d walked out on him, he’d still prefer that to the alternative. But try as he might, though, the leaden lump in his stomach wouldn’t let him believe that she’d left voluntarily. She’d promised herself to him, just as he’d promised himself to her. He was going to ask her pa for her hand in marriage. He’d put on his new shirt and his new boots, and he’d tucked his tie into his pocket so that nobody would notice. Then, after Mr. Perkins had given permission, Joe would come home and announce to everybody that he and Sarah Jane were going to get married.

But then, that note had come, saying . . . saying . . .

“Orange,” he said, not aware that he was interrupting. Listen.

“What is it, Joe?” Pa leaned forward, immediately concerned.

There was a note, Joe signed.

“When?” asked Adam. “He says there was a note,” he translated for Pa and Hoss.

Before I left that morning. Somebody gave me a note.

“Do you remember what it said?” Adam asked.

It said . . . it said to meet her someplace. We weren’t supposed to meet, but she sent me a note saying to meet her.

“Hoss, hand me the book,” said Adam. “Joe, you’re going to have to slow down. I’m not following you. Tell me again. What’s this?” He imitated one of the signs.

Supposed to, Joe spelled. We weren’t supposed to meet.

“They weren’t supposed to meet,” said Adam. “Why not? Who weren’t you supposed to meet? Camilla?”

No, Joe said impatiently. Sarah Jane. I was supposed to go to her house in town, but somebody brought me a note. Again, he waited as Adam translated.

“Did he say what the note said?” asked Pa.

“I’m telling you everything he says.” Adam sounded slightly impatient. “Joe, what did the note say?”

It said to meet her . . . Joe squinted, trying to remember.

“Wait a minute.” Hoss yanked open Joe’s desk drawer and held up a piece of paper. “Is this the note?” He handed it to Joe.

It was like getting punched in the gut to see it. Joe could feel the color draining out of his face. Yes, he managed. He closed his eyes as the memories came rushing back. . . .

“Hey, Joe, glad I caught you,” said Cody. They’d just hired him a couple days earlier, but he seemed to be a hard worker. Now, he swung off his mount and fished in his jacket pocket. “Lady asked me to give this to you,” he said with a wink.

“When was this?” Joe asked even though he was already unfolding the note.

“In town this morning,” Cody said. “When me and Adam went to try to get men for that ditching job. She saw me with Adam and asked was I from the Ponderosa, and when I said ‘yeah,’ she asked was I coming back soon, and when I said ‘yeah,’ she asked would I give you this.”

“Thanks, Cody.” He read the note, trying not to grin stupidly at the heart she’d signed it with instead of her name. He didn’t know why she wanted to meet him at the old oak tree instead of in town, but the truth was that he’d have met Sarah Jane Perkins any place, any time. All she had to do was say so, and he’d be there. Just like any fool in love, he guessed.

“Good note?” Cody asked.

“Thanks,” said Joe. The kid probably just wanted to be friendly, but Joe wasn’t anxious to have his private life be the talk of the ranch. That happened enough as it was.

He was at the old oak tree with time to spare, and it gave him a chance to wonder what was going on. Had she changed her mind? Didn’t she want him to talk to her father? Had something happened?

Engrossed in his thoughts, he hadn’t even heard the riders stop. Only when one belched did he look up. They were nearly identical, and they were both scowling at him.

“What do you want?” he demanded. Whatever their purpose, he wanted them out of here before Sarah Jane arrived. He wouldn’t take a chance on her getting hurt because of a couple of drifters.

Except that these fellows weren’t drifters. They looked familiar, like he’d seen them around town or something. “Who are you?” he demanded.

Who are you . . . who are you . . .

“Joe? Joe, are you all right?”

Pa’s voice broke into the memory. Joe opened his eyes to see his father and brothers watching him anxiously. “Something wrong, boy?” Pa asked. He looked like he was ready to send for the doctor, and Joe had to shake his head slightly in spite of the pain.

She sent me a note, he signed. Adam nodded to show that he understood. This one. I was supposed to meet her in town, but she said in the note to meet her at the old oak tree instead. Except when I got there, she wasn’t there yet. While I was waiting, two fellows came along, and . . . He squinted, trying to remember more as Adam translated.

“Take your time, son,” said Pa.

I asked them who they were, and they said . . . they said they had a message for me. They held out a piece of paper, and I told them that if they wanted me to read it, they’d have to bring it to me.

“Ornery, ain’t you?” Hoss commented as Adam continued translating. “What did they do?”

Joe thought. We fought, he said after a minute. There was a gunshot, and I went down, but then, they said something about Sarah Jane—I don’t remember what, but I remember trying to get back on my feet and swinging at them. And that’s all I remember until I woke up here.

The others exchanged long looks as Adam finished speaking. “Did you recognize either of the men?” Adam asked.

Not by name, Joe said. They looked familiar.

“Would you know them if you saw them again?” Adam pressed.

Don’t know.

“Can you describe them?” Pa asked.

Joe bit his lip as he thought. Nothing special about them, he said finally. Only that they looked alike.

“You mean like twins?” Adam asked.

Don’t know about that, Joe allowed. But maybe brothers.

“And you’re sure there were just two of them?” Hoss asked.

That’s all I remember, said Joe. He looked from one to another. His stomach twisted, but he had to ask. Did anybody ever find Sarah Jane?

“No,” Pa said gently. He rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder as Joe dropped his gaze to the blanket. “The sheriff had posses out for almost two weeks. No sign of any tracks or anything.”

“What about tracks out near the old oak tree?” Adam asked suddenly. At the others’ startled looks, he said, “If she was going to meet Joe, she’d have been heading out of town to the old oak tree at the time Joe was getting beaten up by those two men. If there weren’t any tracks, then she wasn’t meeting him there.”

“What are you gettin’ at?” Hoss asked.

“This note,” Adam said. “Somebody wanted Joe to go to the old oak tree instead of into town the way he was planning. Most likely, the same somebody who had those two men beat Joe. They could have ridden off with the girl.”

“Joseph, who knew about you and Sarah Jane?” Pa asked.

Nobody, Joe said. We were keeping it a secret.

“But why?” Hoss’s round face was creased in puzzlement.

I don’t remember, Joe admitted. There was a reason, he knew that much. He had the vaguest recollection of Sarah Jane being nervous, but he couldn’t remember if he’d know about what or why.

“Well, you’ve done enough remembering for one night, young man,” said Pa in that tone that would brook no interference. “It’s time for you to get some rest. In the morning, your brothers will go into town and let the sheriff know what you’ve recollected so far.”

No, Joe protested. They need to go out and look for Sarah Jane. The others exchanged sad looks, and Joe slammed his hand on the blanket. You have to look for her, he insisted. You have to.

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” said Pa. “For now, you need to get some rest.”

“Ring,” Joe said. It wasn’t what he’d meant to say, but somehow, it made sense. He’d repeat that. “Sugar,” he said. Damn. “Sage elk running,” he said, his agitation building. “Stagecoach tooth sneeze. Gunbelt branding dust.” Go find her. Go find her. Go find her.

“Settle down, Joe.” Pa sat on the edge of the bed, stroking Joe’s hair. “You need to take it easy. There’s nothing anybody can do tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll let the sheriff know what’s going on, and maybe he’ll have some other ideas about where to look for Miss Perkins.”

But. . . . Anything could happen between now and then. She could be anywhere, cold and alone and frightened. Worse, she could be with the men who had beaten him, men who might think nothing of doing even worse to a woman. Tomorrow might be too late.

All at once, the idea of just lying here, doing nothing to find her, was too much. Abruptly, he sat right up. Before he could make a move to get out of bed, though, he was overtaken by such blinding pain that he was only vaguely aware that he was doubled over and retching, each spasm sending a fresh lighting bolt through his head. From somewhere, he heard someone yelling like he was in agony, but it wasn’t until he was lying back down, with Pa sponging his face with a wet cloth, that he realized that someone must have been him.

“Just lie still, boy,” said Pa, his normally calm voice shaky. Like Joe could have done anything else. He lay as still as he could while Hoss removed the blanket now covered with his supper and Adam brought over a fresh compress to lie across his eyes, the moist coolness almost as soothing as the dark. Slowly, his heart’s pounding quieted and his breathing returned to normal, but even with his eyes closed, he could see her beautiful, terrified face.

Help her, he managed at last. He didn’t even know if anyone was watching his hands, but it was the only thing he had left. Somebody, help her.

“I know, son,” said Pa, his hand resting on Joe’s. “I know you’re worried, but there’s nothing we can do now. First thing in the morning, your brothers will go into town and fetch the sheriff. For now, you need to get some sleep, okay? Just try to settle down now. Take it easy, Joe.” Joe could hear in Pa’s voice that he wanted to promise that everything would be all right the way he usually did, but they both knew it would be a lie. The chances of finding Sarah Jane after all this time were slim—as slim as the lovely finger on which he’d placed the engraved silver ring.

At that thought, he had to squeeze his eyes shut and bite his lip to hold back the tears. Pa stroked his arm, and Hoss and Adam sat quietly with him, all of them recognizing the hard, unspoken truth.

* * *

Camilla kept glancing at the kitchen doorway as she tried again to pull the ring off her finger. If only Joe had gotten the right size for a real woman instead of making it small enough to fit the bony fingers of that stringy old maid. Bad enough that it only fit on Camilla’s little finger; now, it seemed to be stuck there.

Not that she’d have worried, but when she was upstairs earlier, she thought she saw Joe looking at it like he recognized it. She did her best to keep her hands moving so that he couldn’t get a good look, and it was nice to have him watching her so intently, but it still probably wasn’t a good idea for to wear it around him yet.

If it hadn’t been for that stupid sign language book, she wouldn’t have thought a thing about it. After all, as long as he couldn’t tell anybody what he saw, it almost didn’t matter, did it? Besides, it was important to give him time to remember that he really had meant to give the ring to her rather than that Perkins girl, and from what she’d overheard just now, it didn’t sound like he was even close to reaching that conclusion.

She sighed as she dipped her hand into a bowl of cold water to try to make the ring slide more easily. It wouldn’t be fair to say she’d been eavesdropping—after all, she was entitled to go to her own room, wasn’t she? And if it just so happened that she overheard the family talking as she was moving quietly past Joe’s room to get to her own—well, that was hardly her fault, was it? If they didn’t want her to hear them, they shouldn’t have been talking so loudly.

Not that they’d said anything about the ring. It was clear, though, that they were talking about Joe and Sarah Jane Perkins. Sarah Jane. What a ridiculous name, plain and somehow silly. Her own mother had named her for a beautiful, exotic flower—at least, that’s what she’d tried to do. Camilla was twelve before she found out that her name was actually a misspelling of “camellia.” Well, no matter. Even misspelled, it was a far better name than Sarah Jane, which was as dull as a plank. Just like the girl, she reflected with grim satisfaction.

“Ow!” she muttered as she tugged at the ring. The more she tried to force it off, the more swollen her finger got. Maybe she should just leave it. After all, hers was the hand it belonged on anyway.

But what if Joe recognized it? No question about it, she’d been foolhardy to wear it in front of him. He wasn’t ready for that yet. He would have to wait a decent interval before he could admit his feelings for Camilla, even to himself.

But she just loved it so much—the ring itself and what it represented. Sure, most people would have said that the flowers on it were roses, but they were so small that would be an honest mistake. She knew in her heart that the ring had been engraved with tiny camellias. It was just another sign that he’d really meant that ring for her, even if he’d given it to the Perkins girl.

It was her own fault, of course. She hadn’t been clear enough about how she felt, and he must have thought she didn’t love him. That was why he’d taken up with Sarah Jane Perkins—to make Camilla jealous. Well, it worked, she admitted to herself as she twisted the ring. Seeing the two of them together had been like a knife in her heart. Oh, they were subtle, but Camilla knew. Probably nobody else would have noticed, but Camilla saw how they looked at each other, how Joe was suddenly spending so much time at Ned Perkins’ sawmill and how Sarah Jane would just happen to be there, doing the books, on Thursday mornings when Joe came to town. She’d seen Joe standing beside Sarah Jane’s desk like they were just talking about business, and then his hand would brush hers as he pointed to something on the paper in front of her, and Sarah Jane would look down with that ridiculous demure little smile of hers, blushing like she actually believed Joe had done it on purpose. Why, if Camilla hadn’t known better, she’d have thought that Joe was deliberately planning his trips to the sawmill to coincide with the times when Sarah Jane was there. She certainly didn’t recall his trips to town being on any kind of a regular schedule when he was sparking her, but all of a sudden, he was in town every Thursday, just like clockwork.

Not that she’d been actually watching the sawmill, but a person could see it pretty well from the upstairs front bedroom. It wasn’t but four blocks away—just down the hill, and not even completely blocked by the newspaper office. She didn’t even really need her opera glasses; anybody could see who was coming and going just fine without them. Besides, all she had to do was decide to go out for a buggy ride, and she’d walk right by it on the way to the livery stable—that is, if she went to Jensen’s out on the edge of town instead of heading half a block the other way to Sam Bell’s place. And why wouldn’t she? Jensen’s horses were so much nicer, and his buggies were much cleaner. And so what she liked to go out on fine warm days when the windows to the sawmill office just happened to be open? If people walking past could hear what was being said inside, it wasn’t eavesdropping.

She didn’t want to admit it, but this business about the sign language was making her the tiniest bit nervous. What if he told someone that this was the ring he’d given Sarah Jane? Would they believe her if she said that it was just similar? She could say it had been left to her by her mother. Or what if she just said that she found it? That was the truth, or at least sort of—after all, her brother had found it. That he’d found it in their house—well, that was a detail nobody needed to talk about. Besides, if that silly, stubborn girl had just taken it off when she was told to, none of the rest of it would have happened. She should have just handed it over, and then Camilla wouldn’t have had to try to get it from her, and Sarah Jane wouldn’t have tripped, and. . . .

“You all right, miss?”

Camilla whirled to see Hoss standing in the doorway. He had such a sweet face—round and concerned and utterly innocent—that she held out her hand. “My ring is stuck,” she said, pouting prettily. “I can’t get it off.”

Hoss took her hand, examining it. “You tried soap on it?”

“No,” she admitted. She’d been too busy thinking about Joe and that girl. She let Hoss soap her finger, and within moments, he was sliding the ring off.

“Here you go, Miss Camilla,” he said. “That’s a mighty pretty ring. I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen a prettier one.”

Camilla dimpled. “Thank you. It’s very special to me.” She dried the ring on her apron and slid it into her pocket.

Hoss nodded as if he understood. “A fellow who gives a girl a ring like that must be mighty fond of her.”

Camilla kept the smile on her face by a massive effort. “We’re not really saying anything to anybody yet, so. . . .” She let the thought trail off, and Hoss’s gap-toothed grin widened.

“I understand,” he said. “Don’t you worry, Miss Camilla. Your secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” she said. “Was there something you wanted?” Best to change the subject before he decided that he wanted to hear more about her fellow.

“Now that you mention it, I was just wonderin’—is there any of that cake left from supper?”

“Why, of course. Let me get you a piece.” She busied herself slicing the cake, and when he wasn’t looking, she patted her pocket to be sure the ring was safe. She handed him a plate bearing a large piece and smiled brightly as she said, “You just enjoy that. I think I’m going to turn in. Good night, Hoss.” Before he could respond, she was out of the kitchen and up to her room, where she would be able to hear when Joe’s father and Adam left his room and went to bed.

It won’t be long now, she promised the miniscule circle of silver as she set it carefully on her bureau. Soon, she would be able to wear it all the time. Just as soon as Joe gave up on the notion of finding Sarah Jane Perkins and admitted to himself and the world that, in truth, it was Camilla he loved.

* * *

The ride into town the next morning was practically silent. Every time Hoss spoke, Adam answered with a grunt. Finally, Hoss said, “Dadburnit, what’s goin’ on?”

“Huh?” Adam sounded like Hoss had just wakened him up.

“You ain’t said two words the whole way. What in tarnation is bothering you?”

Adam gave him one of those looks that always said clear as day that Hoss wasn’t nearly as bright as Adam had been giving him credit for. “Let’s see,” he said. “Our little brother was lured into a trap and beaten nearly to death by two men, and it sounds as though that little escapade was related to the disappearance of a girl who, as it turns out, Little Joe was planning to marry. Gee, I don’t know. Why on earth would anything be bothering me?”

“Now, don’t you be a smart aleck,” said Hoss. “You know and I know that it’s more than that, so whyn’t you just say what you’re thinking?”

Adam raised his eyebrows, but Hoss’s gaze was steadfast. “There’s something I’m trying to remember,” Adam said finally.

“What is it?”

Adam rolled his eyes. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be trying to remember it. I’d be remembering it.”

If Hoss had been twenty years younger, he’d have stuck out his tongue at that kind of comment. As it was, he had to content himself with an eyeroll of his own. “Well, is it something somebody said?”

“I don’t think so,” said Adam. “More like something I feel like I should have noticed and I didn’t.”

Hoss nodded. It sounded peculiar, but he knew just what Adam meant. He tried to think of anything that might help to jog Adam’s memory, but he couldn’t come up with anything, and so they rode the rest of the way to town in silence.

When they got to the sheriff’s office, there was no one around except Danny Carver, snoring in a cell with the stale odor of alcohol surrounding him like a cloud. “Hey, Danny!” bellowed Hoss.

“Wha—what? What the—dadburnit, Hoss Cartwright, what do you want, wakin’ a man from a peaceful night’s sleep?” Danny started to sit up, but almost at once, he lay back down, reaching below the cot for the slop bucket as he did.

“Where’s Roy?” Hoss asked.

“How in blazes would I know? I was asleep!” Danny was still slurring his words a bit, and the Cartwright brothers exchanged knowing glances. Danny hadn’t even sobered up yet. Must have been quite a night, and it probably hadn’t ended too long ago.

“You ain’t been in there but a couple hours,” Hoss said. Danny looked startled at the pronouncement, but he nodded. “Now, where’s Roy?”

“I dunno,” said Danny. “He brought me in here an’ told me to go to sleep, an’ that’s just what I done. I didn’t hear him go nowhere. In fact, I—” But the rest of the sentence was lost as the little man retched into the slop bucket.

The Cartwrights stepped out into the main office, closing the door to the cell area behind them. “Want to go lookin’, or you want to wait here?” Hoss asked.

“Might as well walk around a little,” said Adam. He scribbled a note and set it in the middle of the desk. “Just in case he comes back,” he said. Hoss nodded, and the two set out into the nearly empty streets of Virginia City.

As they crossed C Street, Adam stopped so short that Hoss nearly ran into him. “Look,” Adam said.

Hoss followed his brother’s gaze. “Who’re they?”

“Camilla Morgan’s brothers,” said Adam. “They came on the drive.”

The Cartwrights watched as the Morgan boys pushed unsteadily past the bartender who was dumping a pail of wash water on the sidewalk. The younger men stumbled into the Bucket of Blood, and Hoss and Adam regarded each other.

“Not twins, but they look an awful lot alike,” said Adam.

“Same thing can be said of lots of fellows in this town,” Hoss pointed out. “What about Fred and Charlie Chase? And the Davenport boys—heck, there’s five or six of them, an’ can’t nobody tell ’em apart.”

“Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a chat with our former employees,” said Adam. “Who knows? Maybe we can use them out at the ranch.”

“An’ if it just so happens Joe can get a look at them and says they’re the fellows who beat him—”

“My thoughts exactly, Younger Brother,” said Adam. He and Hoss headed across the street and into the saloon, nodding to the bartender as they leaned against the bar.

Then, at the same moment, they saw it. A bit crumpled, to be sure, but recognizable as the same cream-colored hat with the braided leather band that Little Joe had purchased only three months earlier.

Under his breath, Hoss said, “When Joe came home that day, do you recall seeing his hat?”

“No,” said Adam. “Because he wasn’t wearing it. He was face down over the back of his horse. His hat would never have stayed on.”

“I’m gonna tear them limb from limb—” Hoss’s breath was starting to come hard and fast.

“Hang on.” Adam grabbed his brother’s arm. “Let me talk to them.”

“You better talk fast,” said Hoss.

They approached the table where the Morgan brothers sat with a bottle and two glasses. “Howdy, boys,” said Adam. “Mind if we ask you a couple questions?”

Jake hiccupped. “Hey, Cal, the boss wants to ask us a couple questions. Whaddya think? Can he?” He upended his glass, swallowed, and hiccupped again.

Cal belched. “We don’t work for him no more,” he giggled. “So, I don’t think we gotta answer any questions.” He tipped the cream-colored hat down over his eyes and started to put his feet up on the table, but Hoss yanked him to his feet, holding him by his shoulder so that his feet barely touched the floor.

“You boys need to learn some manners,” Hoss growled. “Now, my brother said we got some questions for you. First off, where’d you get that hat?”

The boy’s round eyes got even rounder so that the whites were visible all the way around. “I found it,” he stammered.

“You found it,” said Hoss. “Wouldn’t by chance have been by that old oak tree just outside of town, would it?”

“Um. . . .” Hoss shook him hard, and Cal managed, “Yeah, that’s where I found it.”

“When did you find it there?” asked Adam evenly, just as though he didn’t have one hand clamped on Jake’s shoulder to hold him in his chair.

“Few weeks. Mister, come on, put me down.” Cal was whimpering now.

“Was that before or after you beat up the fellow it belonged to?” Adam demanded.

“It wasn’t our fault!” Jake blurted out.

Hoss glared at the boy in the chair. He slammed Cal into the other chair and put his face up real close to Cal’s. “You got about two seconds to tell me everything, or you’re gonna regret the day you was born.”

Ten minutes later, Adam and Hoss marched the Morgan boys into the sheriff’s office just as Roy Coffee came in from the cell area. “What’s going on here?” the sheriff demanded.

Adam’s face was grim. “Roy, these are the fellows who beat up Little Joe.”

“And that ain’t all,” said Hoss. “They got a few things to tell you about that Perkins gal, too.”

* * *

Camilla’s mind wasn’t on the pot of oatmeal she was supposed to be stirring. All this business about sign language was unnerving. Not that there was really anything Joe could tell anyone, but still. And now Hoss and Adam had been gone before she was even up this morning. When she asked, Mr. Cartwright just said they’d had to go into town, but Camilla was no fool. There were only two reasons you’d go into town before dawn: to get the doctor or the sheriff. Since Joe was doing better, there was no reason to be getting the doctor.

So it had to be the sheriff.

She wrapped the pot handle in a towel and lifted the pot off the stove. The coffee wasn’t ready yet. She’d already set the table for Mr. Cartwright, and she’d done up the tray for Joe, so all she had to do was to wait for the coffee. It didn’t pay to have so little to do. It gave a person too much time to think, to worry.

Not that there was anything to worry about. As she’d told Joe, accidents happened. It was a fact of life. The only way anybody could have connected her with this particular accident was if Jake or Cal said something, and they knew better.

She twisted the ring on her little finger to reassure herself. There was no question it had been meant for her. Just because it was a little bit small didn’t mean that that skinny old maid was supposed to have had it. All right, maybe she hadn’t been an old maid quite yet, but she was close. She was almost twenty-two years old, for heaven’s sake. Any self-respecting woman would have been long married by then. Camilla, on the other hand, was nineteen, same as Joe. They were the perfect age to marry and start a family. Their children would be strong and sturdy—no frail little waifs like certain people would likely have produced. It was just better all the way around that things had turned out the way they had.

But the sheriff was coming.

She tried to remember some of the things she’d said to Joe as she’d sat by his bed. Not that he’d seemed terribly interested, but she knew that he had to act that way until everyone gave up hope of finding the Perkins girl. Otherwise, people would think he was fickle, and they’d tell her to find someone more constant in his affections. If only they knew how constant her Joe really was. Even as the Perkins girl had hounded him and tried to charm him, he’d never stopped being in love with Camilla. She just knew it. Sure, he’d been a little impatient with her sometimes, and he kept saying things like how everything between them was over, but she knew he didn’t really mean it. It was just the way men were sometimes. Lucky for him that she understood him. If she were the kind of girl who took a man at his word, she might have thought he didn’t really love her.

The coffee was ready. She poured some into a small pot for the tray, and she set the big pot on a pad on the table. “Mr. Cartwright!” she called. “Breakfast is ready!”

She was putting Joe’s breakfast on the tray when Mr. Cartwright came into the kitchen. “Just give me a moment, and I’ll dish up for you,” she said. “Your coffee is already on the table.”

“That’s quite all right,” said Mr. Cartwright. “I’m going to eat with Joe this morning, so if you don’t mind, you can just put everything on the tray.”

She kept the smile nailed firmly to her face. So, Mr. Cartwright would be eating with Joe. She probably could have joined them. As his intended, there should have been no reason not to. Still, since Joe hadn’t yet told his father about his feelings for her, it might be awkward. Besides, she could always go up and sit with Joe later, when his father was working.

“Here you go, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, handing him the loaded tray. She watched as he left the kitchen. You can have him for now, she thought.Later, he’ll be all mine.

She was scrubbing the pot when the knock came at the front door. Drying her hands on her apron, she hustled to answer it.

Camilla wasn’t certain who was more startled when she opened the door—she or Amanda Shepherd. “Camilla,” said Amanda, not even bothering to hide her surprise. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“I’m helping out,” Camilla said frostily. “What are you doing here?” As casually as she could, she slipped her left hand into her apron pocket. Amanda had been a good friend of Sarah Jane’s. It was possible that she might recognize the ring.

“Oh—I heard that Joe had an accident, and I thought I’d stop by and see how he’s doing. Maybe he’d like a visitor?” Amanda looked uncertain now.

“He’s not up for visitors yet,” said Camilla. “But it was sweet of you to call. When he wakes up, I’ll let him know you were here.” She closed the door before Amanda could ask anything more, listening as the buggy drove away.

The little tramp. Who did she think she was, anyway? Coming to visit, she said. Visit, my eye, Camilla thought. Amanda was there because, with Sarah Jane gone, she wanted Joe. Apparently, everyone thought that it was open season on the youngest Cartwright. They didn’t seem to understand that he was spoken for.

Well, they’d know soon enough. If there was anybody in town who was a bigger gossip than Amanda Shepherd, Camilla had yet to meet her. By nightfall, everyone would know that Camilla was the one who was living out at the Ponderosa and taking care of Joe. Only a very, very close friend of the family would be welcomed at such a difficult time. So, now everyone would know how close Camilla was to the Cartwrights. From there, it was a short step to actually becoming a member of the family.

Camilla headed for the kitchen. Amanda’s visit might turn out to be the best thing that could have happened after all.

* * *

After breakfast, Joe usually napped while Pa worked downstairs at his desk. Lately, though, it seemed like every time he woke up, Camilla was sitting beside his bed. He’d tried to tell Adam that he didn’t like having her there, but Adam just seemed to think it was funny. It wasn’t funny, he wanted to say. It was downright unsettling, in fact. The idea that she was sitting there, holding his hand and watching him sleep, made his flesh crawl.

So, he’d try to stay awake, but he never seemed to manage for long, and today was no exception. The only difference was that when he woke up, he saw her taking the sign language book off the bureau and slipping it into her apron pocket.

“What?” he said. For a moment, he was so pleased at actually having said what he intended that he didn’t think about how she would respond.

In fact, she whirled around like she’d been caught doing something terrible. Her eyes were wide, her mouth an almost perfect O. Then, she seemed to force herself to relax. “I didn’t know you were awake,” she said. She patted her pocket. “I thought it would be good to study sign language since nobody seems to know how long it’ll be before you’re talking normally again.”

The words made sense, but Joe didn’t believe her. She was too nervous. Besides, there was no reason for her to take the book away to study when she was always in here anyway.

Just then, Pa came in. At Joe’s questioning look, he said, “Your brothers aren’t back yet. I don’t know what’s keeping them. Hopefully, they won’t be too much longer.”

Maybe they found something out, Joe signed.

“Sorry, Joe, I didn’t get that,” said Pa. He looked over at the bureau and then at Camilla. “Where did the sign language book go?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Cartwright,” she said.

Liar! “Saloon!” Joe snapped. He pointed at her pocket.

“What is it, son?” Pa asked.

She’s got it in her pocket, Joe signed.

“Maybe Adam or Hoss borrowed it,” offered Camilla. “Would you like for me to check in their rooms?”

“No need,” said Pa. “They’ll be back from town soon enough.” Joe slapped the blanket in frustration, and Pa said, “Settle down, son. I’m sure they’ll be back soon. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.” With that, he left the room.

“You see? You don’t need this at all,” said Camilla, patting her pocket. “In fact, I’ll bet that if it never turned up at all, you’d get along just fine.”

“Hop Sing!” Joe shouted.

“You’re being silly,” she said. “Here, let me get you some water.” She poured a glass and handed it to him.

And then, he saw it, and he grabbed her hand, spilling the water and not even noticing.

The silver ring glinted on her little finger. Delicate roses and leaves were etched into the silver. It was too small for Camilla’s sturdy hand, but it would have been perfect on a slender finger like Sarah Jane’s.

His mouth went dry. He looked up at her, and she stared back, nervous and defiant. He smacked her hand and then pointed to the ring.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She tried to pull her hand away, but he wouldn’t release her. “Let go of me. You’re hurting my hand.” In response, he yanked on her hand, hard, and she yelped. “Let go of me!” she demanded.

He tried to sandwich her hand in between his cast and his other palm while twisting the ring off, but she curled her finger. “You can’t have it,” she snapped. “It’s mine. It was always meant to be mine.”

He needed help. Where was Pa? “Ring!” he shouted. “Apple! Sheriff! Pa!”

“Hush!” Camilla hissed. “It’s time to just admit it, Joe. We belong together, you and I. It’s a shame about Sarah Jane, but that’s all behind us now.”

“Kitty tree smoke desk?” What about Sarah Jane?

Camilla didn’t seem to have heard him. “I’ve been very patient with you, and now you need to be honest with your family about us. It’s clear from the way they act that they have no idea we’re in love. I’ll bet you’ve never even told them how you feel about me.”

“Cochise!” Joe shouted. What was keeping Pa?

“Joseph?” came Pa’s voice from downstairs.

“It’s nothing, Mr. Cartwright,” Camilla called. She slipped across the room and closed the door. Then, she turned to face Joe. “Just be honest, darling. That’s all you have to do. Let’s practice. I’ll be your pa.” In the voice clearly intended to mimic his father’s deep tones, she said, “‘Joseph, tell me the truth. Who’s your girl? Who’s the one you love?’”

“Sarah Jane!” For a moment, she looked as dumbfounded as he felt. At last, at last, he’d said something right. He glared at her with all the defiance he could muster.

Camilla took a deep breath. “I know, I know. You can’t control what you say. Let’s try it again any way. ‘Joseph, tell me the name of the girl you love.’”

“Sarah Jane Perkins!” he shouted triumphantly. Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane, he spelled. He would say her name every way that he could.

“No!” Camilla grabbed his uncasted hand. “Say ‘Camilla. Camilla Morgan.’ Say, ‘I love Camilla Morgan.’” She started to manipulate his fingers, and he clenched them into a tight fist.

“I love Sarah Jane!” He felt positively giddy.

“No, you don’t! You can’t! You love me! Say you love me!”

“No!” He was getting lightheaded. Fury was blazing in her eyes, fury and something more, something beyond rage. If he didn’t know better. . . . “Tadpole silver sleep!” he called out. Pa, come here! Vaguely, he could hear horses in the yard, but he didn’t dare take his attention from her face now.

“Say my name,” she demanded. “Say, ‘I love Camilla.’ Say it!”

“Walk blue hoof spelling,” he snapped. I love Sarah Jane.

“You’re going to say it,” she said. “If you can say her name, you can say mine. Now, say it!”

“Manure!” he spat.

Her hand cracked across his face. “I hate you!” she shrieked. “You—you big—you—”

Bizarre as it was, he couldn’t help laughing at her. Let her fumble for words for a change. His head was throbbing, but he couldn’t stop laughing. “Sarah Jane!” he crowed.

“She’s dead, you fool! Say that, why don’t you? Sarah Jane Perkins is dead!

And then, everything was dark. It took a moment for him to realize that it was his own pillow covering his face, smothering him. In the next instant, he realized that she was pressing on it, hard. He gasped for enough breath to yell, but as he did, she pressed even harder, climbing on top of him, straddling his chest as she yelled things he couldn’t hear over the roar of pain in his head.

Using his uncasted hand, he grabbed for her hand, trying to pull it away, but the pillow pressed harder, as though she was putting her other arm across it and leaning. He tried to buck beneath her like a bronc trying to unseat a rider. He let go of her arm and groped for her neck, and when he found it with his right hand, he held on tight and slammed the cast on his left hand against her head with all his strength. Nausea threatened to overwhelm him as bright white stars danced. The pressure on the pillow lessened, but he felt smothered by dead weight, and he could still feel her pulling at him. There was too much noise. It was as if she were grabbing at him from everywhere. He fought the hands that tried to hold him still.

Then, the pillow was gone. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think, as he drank in great draughts of fresh, cool air. Through the roaring in his ears, he heard a voice that was neither hers nor his. His own name, spoken gentle and warm, in deep tones he could feel more than hear. Trembling, braced against nausea and pain, he reached out, his hand shaking, and he felt his father clasping his hand.

“Ssssh,” Pa was saying. “It’s all right, Joseph, I’ve got you. Don’t try to move, son.”

“Sarah Jane,” Joe whispered.

“I know.” Pa’s voice was so sad that Joe knew it was true, and he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to escape from chaos and anguish and knowledge.

By the time he opened his eyes again, everything was strangely quiet. Pa was stroking his hair. His breath was rough, as though he’d been running a long way. His stomach felt queasy, like he’d eaten a piece of bad meat. He reached for Pa, and his hand was trembling.

“Take it easy, boy,” said Pa in that deep, gentle voice that he used when both of them needed to calm down. “It’s all over.” He caught Joe’s hand, holding it against his chest.

“How is he?” came Adam’s voice from the doorway. He and Hoss came in, looking every bit as shaky as Joe felt.

Pa didn’t answer. He just kept stroking Joe’s hair like it would make any difference at all.

“Puddle milk king?” Joe murmured. Where is she?

“The sheriff’s got Camilla,” said Hoss, just like he’d understood what Joe meant. “She ain’t gonna bother you no more.”

Joe pulled his hand away from Pa’s. That ring, he signed. It’s the one I gave to Sarah Jane.

Adam nodded. “I know,” he said. “Camilla told us everything.” He fished in his pocket and drew out the ring, pressing it into Joe’s hand.

“You can talk about all that later,” said Pa. “Joe’s got to rest now. You sent for the doctor?”

“Yep,” said Hoss. “You gave us a pretty good scare that time, Little Brother, but it’s all over, so you just rest like Pa says.”

Joe looked from one to another. Carefully, he laid the ring on top of the blanket, right over his heart. What happened to her?

“Camilla?” Adam looked confused. “Well, you hit her pretty good with that cast. Didn’t quite knock her out, but close enough. Lucky thing Hoss and I had gotten back with the sheriff by then. It took all three of us to haul her off you.”

Not her. Sarah Jane.

Adam looked at that moment like he’d have given anything not to understand. Pa started to say again that Joe needed to rest, but Adam sat down on the other side of the bed. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said. “Camilla says it was an accident. Says she just wanted to talk to Sarah Jane, so she sent her brothers to keep you from going to see Mr. Perkins while she got Sarah Jane over to her house. It’s not clear why they were upstairs, but when Sarah Jane tried to leave, Camilla tried to stop her and Sarah Jane fell down the stairs and—well, Camilla says she must have broken her neck.” He patted Joe’s arm. “Camilla claims she was afraid that if she told anybody, they’d say she did it on purpose because Sarah Jane tried to come between the two of you, so she—well, the details don’t matter now.”

What are you saying? Are you trying to tell me—no. Sarah Jane’s not dead. No. Joe’s hands were shaking as he signed the words.

“I’m afraid she is, Joe. I’m sorry.” Adam sounded sadder than Joe could ever remember.

It still didn’t make sense. And Camilla—you’re saying she killed Sarah Jane?

“She says it was an accident,” Adam reminded him. “There’ll be a coroner’s inquest, and if she ends up standing trial, a jury will decide whether it really was.”

“I’m so sorry, Little Brother,” said Hoss from the foot of the bed. He rested his hand on Joe’s leg. “You do what Pa says now. Get some rest. Doc’ll be here soon. He’s gonna want to check your head and make sure Camilla didn’t hurt anything.”

For a long minute, Joe lay still as the harsh, unavoidable truth sank into every corner of his being. Dead. She was dead. Sarah Jane Perkins . . . was dead. Dead.

Deep, gutteral moans escaped him. Vaguely, he heard Pa asking if he was all right, but he couldn’t answer, couldn’t make any coherent words. Mindless of the searing pain in his head that was so much less than this new pain in his heart, he turned on his side, curling into himself as wrenching sobs overtook him. Eventually, he would quiet enough to know that Pa was rubbing his shoulder and Adam was holding his arm and Hoss was resting his hand on Joe’s leg, but that would come later. Then, he would hear Pa murmuring that he should just let it all out, that they were here with him. He would lay still, allowing Pa to sponge his face with a moist cloth and help him roll onto his back so that he could lie flat and still as Hoss retrieved the ring from his blankets, setting it with infinite care on his bureau. Damp and fragile as a newborn chick, Joe would allow them to do whatever they chose—arrange his pillows, feed him broth, wash away his tears as if in so doing, they could hope to wash away his grief. As days and weeks passed, as more of his words returned and he was able to sit up in an armchair for longer periods, he would stare out the window and wonder how they had all missed what was, in the end, so obvious. As summer turned to fall, and fall to winter, he would even be able to smile sometimes when he remembered his Sarah Jane—her beauty, her sweetness, her love.

But all of that was yet to come. For now, he knew only that his beloved had died at the hands of a lunatic. She had been right to be afraid of Camilla. She’d insisted that Camilla was watching her, following her. He’d thought her fear was silly, told her she was imagining it, but she’d been right, and now she was dead.

He would never see Sarah Jane again, never hear her sweet voice, her musical laugh. Never inhale that light, sweet scent right behind her ear. Never know her touch, at once ladylike and so sensual.

Her soft, gingery curls, always trying to escape from the knot she’d tried to pin them into. The slight blush on her pale cheek when he told her how beautiful she was. The surprisingly dark blue eyes that he sometimes felt he could dive into like deep, clear lake water. The graceful way she moved, more like dancing than mere walking. The sound of his name on her lips.

She would never be Sarah Jane Cartwright. There would be no home for the two of them. No evenings by the fire as the snow fell. No marvelous, passionate lovemaking. No cradle for their babies. No slender, elegant daughters with their mother’s exquisite features. No strong sons to carry on their name, their legacy. No grandchildren tumbling across the threshold and into their waiting arms.

Nothing except memories and a silver ring decorated with roses.

And so, he wept.

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16 thoughts on “Camilla (by pjb)”

  1. Undoubtedly very very gripping & interesting story !!very pitiful condition Joe was in !so helpless !!So vulnerable!!I hate Camilla & her stupid brothers to put him in such horrible condition!!I can’t imagine how difficult it might have been to be unable to express himself for weeks!!At last she got her punishment but but very sad Joe lost his true love due to such pshycho, crazy, Lunatic idiot!!All in all great SJS& might be one of the best JAM with that sign language and all !!certainly ask for a reread!I just love your stories!!PJB!!I want to read them all!!

  2. What a beautiful story. I love all the feelings you describe. The helplessness of every single family member and Joe’s captivity in his situation. Your story is unputdownable.

  3. Oh this was sooooo good !
    Yep i am one of those sicko sjs lovers and boy did this deliver ! Lol
    My poor baby !!
    Just wanted to hug him

  4. Wow. This was a page turner, or a screen dragger, or whatever you call them nowadays–the kind of story that keeps you reading and doesn’t let up. I could imagine Little Joe’s frustration at having the perfect word in his head and something else entirely coming out of his mouth. And Camilla is a memorable character; that perfect sense of “it’s all about me.”

  5. An absolute classic among Bonanza fanfiction. I just read this again, and suddenly it’s even more powerful than ever. My neighbor has experienced a traumatic brain injury, and although he’s not talking yet, I can certainly see parallels in the debilitating effects and the long road to recovery. Fortunately he won’t have to face other aspects of the suffering you put Joe through! Really well done!

    1. Thanks so much, Freyakendra. I’m sorry to hear about your neighbor, but I do appreciate the fact that you see parallels between that real-life situation and my story. I’m very glad to hear that your neighbor doesn’t have nearly the road ahead of him that Joe did, and I hope he continues to improve. Best of luck!

  6. The great thing about the new Library is finding previously read stories to read again! A wonderfully crafted thriller. As JFCL indicated, SJS to the MAX!

  7. If this isn’t SJS to the max. That poor boy was overloaded with so many problems, I’m glad to know he finally survived that torturous woman. She was something else again. Nicely written, Jo. I’m sure Devy enjoyed every bit of her birthday month with stories like these!

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