Note: Although all my stories continue in an on-going sequence, this is fairly self-contained. References to previous characters and events are explained in the narrative, so even if you've never read anything I've written, you shouldn't have any problem following the plot line. [ed. note: See the author's list for the chronological order of Kate's stories.]
My usual disclaimer: The
following is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe on any
copyrights held by Bonanza Ventures, David Dortort, NBC Television, or
any other holder of Bonanza copyrights.
The sun inched higher in the sky, creeping along the muddy rim of the horizon, as it struggled from a mock death below the earth. Joe Cartwright watched the first tentative streaks of red ripple through the grape-purple bowl of the heavens--the vast expanse creased by blossoming slivers of gold and wispy threads of magenta. He didn't often see the sun rise, preferring to sleep as late as his father and brothers would allow, but the night had proved reckless and he'd ended up spending most of those frivolous hours with Daphne Stone--his girlfriend of the last two weeks.
The hint of a smile touched Joe's mouth, as he tipped a steaming mug of coffee to lips. Two weeks of steady commitment was nothing short of ground-breaking for him--especially when that commitment came six months on the heels of his break-up with Lorna David. Odd, how thoughts of the dark-haired woman no longer induced a tight knot of pain in the pit of his stomach. He could think of her now without remorse; without guilt. Daphne was partially responsible for that. Daphne, and the irritating more-often-than-not friend who'd first brought them together.
"Damn, is it morning, already? Feels like I just fell asleep."
Joe half turned from the window as the-friend-in-question shuffled into the room. Shey Cutter was bleary-eyed and bedraggled, his sandy-blonde hair hanging askew over his forehead. With a theatrical yawn, Shey stretched both arms above his head, then lodged his hands in the small of his back. "What time did we get in, Cartwright?"
Joe's slight smile slid into an indulgent grin. "I don't know about you Shey, but I left Daphne's place shortly after ten. As I recall, you'd already taken Callie home and were headed for the Silver Dollar."
"Hmm . . . and you let me go? That explains why my pockets are three times lighter. Why didn't you just go back to the Ponderosa, instead of coming here?"
Joe's grin grew suddenly lopsided. "What--tired of my company already?" He really wasn't sure himself why he'd chosen the Circle C to spend the night. Maybe it was simply he wanted time to reflect on his increasing affection towards Daphne, without his brothers teasing him about the late hour. Besides--bunking with Shey had its own rewards. At twenty-two, Shey was the second largest landholder in Nevada after the Cartwrights, but he still maintained the cavalier recklessness of the boy Joe had grown up with--minus the arrogance. Well--Joe corrected silently, observing his friend's pointed gaze--most of the time anyway.
Shey folded into a chair, plopping his booted feet on the nearest table--an ornately carved pedestal of cherry wood, painstakingly enscrolled on all four sides. Inwardly, Joe cringed. Had Shey's father, Lincoln Cutter, still been living, his friend would have been minus both feet, he was certain. Joe sat more slowly, easing into a high-backed chair of crimson brocade.
"Don't you have to be at the Cattleman's Association this afternoon?" he ventured evenly. "I thought today was the final vote on how to help Henry Baker's widow."
"Yeah." The question brought a shred of somberness to Shey's chiseled features. For a moment, the staged levity slithered from his whiskey-colored eyes, replaced by a hollowness that rendered his face oddly spectral. "Vote nuthin,'" he spat with sudden bitterness. "Clifford Dunn out-and-out shot Henry over some tawdry drivel about a prime steer. Henry never sold a bad bit of stock in his life. Your father and Saul Traven saw Dunn put a bullet in him plain as day. Only thing we should be debatin' is how to move up the date for the hangin.'"
Setting his coffee aside, Joe bit his lip. It wasn't normally his role to play pacifist, but when Shey grew unreasonable, his became the sole voice of sanity. "The man hasn't even been convicted yet, Shey."
Cutter snorted. "You think he's innocent?"
"I didn't say that."
"Then what did you say?" Shey demanded, his voice rising on the query. Joe met his gaze--the hostile glance countered by direct challenge. Within moments, Shey colored and glanced aside. He seemed to fold in on himself. "I'm sorry, Joe," he muttered. "It's just every time I think of Betty struggling on her own with those two little ones to raise . . .the gallows is too good for Dunn. A man with money who thinks he owns the town, deserves to have his neck stretched on a lynch tree--not before the populace where he can parade his cause with expensive lawyers and plotted hype."
Joe wet his lips. He couldn't agree more. On the other hand, Shey was clearly out of sorts--caught somewhere between righteous anger and the mind-fogging effects of a severe hangover. With a half-hearted sigh, Joe rose to his feet. "Don't get so worked up about it, Shey. There were two eye witnesses--Dunn will get what he deserves."
"Yeah." The ascertain was forced.
Still disturbed by his friend's uncharacteristic moodiness, Joe gave Shey a pat on the shoulder and moved towards the door to collect his hat and coat. "I've got to go, pal. Pa'll skin me alive, if I don't show up for my share of the work load. I'll see you later, okay?"
"Sure, Cartwright." The exchange was bleak, and Joe silently cursed himself for bringing up the damn Cattleman's Association vote in the first place. Outside the air was undeniably frigid, slipping beneath the collar of his heavy gray coat with intrusive fingers. The bite of morning wind was typical for early December, promising snow before the day grew much older. Once inside the barn, Joe saddled Cochise, taking the time to run his cold-stiffened fingers over her coarse mane in quick greeting. A velvety snort sounded in reply to his efforts.
"I know, I know," Joe said wryly. "It's too damn early."
Tugging the mare from the
barn, he swung up onto her back, using one gloved hand to draw the collar
closer at his throat. Tucking his chin to his chest in an effort
to shield himself from the wind as much as possible, Joe started the trek
back to the Ponderosa.
"Well . . ." Ben Cartwright made sure his glance encompassed all his sons, before settling on the youngest. The family was gathered at the breakfast table, early morning sunlight infusing the room with colorful streamers of strawberry and gold. "We don't often see you this early, Joseph. Since your bed wasn't slept in, maybe you'd care to explain where you spent the night?"
Joe swallowed another mouthful of warming coffee, then set the cup close at hand. His fingers were still stiff and chapped from the frigid air, despite the intervening bulk of the gloves he'd worn. Outside, he could hear the keening wail of the wind, as it funneled through rock and trees, increasing with volume, eagerly licking against the stout walls of the house. "I stayed at the Circle C," Joe replied truthfully. Though there might have been a time when providing an explanation to his father after remaining out all night, left him uneasy, that time was long past. He routinely stayed at Shey's, when the trek back from Virginia City came too late in the evening.
Ben cast him an arch look. "Isn't that becoming somewhat of a habit, young man?"
Joe had returned his attention to his plate, and the mound of breakfast foods he'd piled on the fine china. The ride from Shey's had peaked his hunger, prompting him to take more than he'd normally eat. Using the blunt edge of his fork, Joe sliced through a soft stack of flapjacks, watching the thick syrup swiftly coalesce and puddle in the ravine he'd created. "I'm sorry, Pa. It was late, and--"
"Hmm. Must have been that Daphne Stone that kept him away so long," Hoss mused around a mouthful of bacon. Blue eyes dimpled with mischevious delight as he glanced askance at his older brother. "What'dya think, Adam? I bet a sweet young thing like that could distract a man nigh past midnight."
"Hoss, behave yourself," Ben instructed, catching Joe's dark glower across the table. The bigger man chuckled, glancing again at Adam, before dipping his head and feigning studied interest in his food. For his part, the oldest Cartwright brother appeared mildly amused. Tilting his head, he cast a lazy glance at his youngest sibling.
"You aren't going to tell us you spent the entire evening with Shey Cutter, are you, Joe?" The words were voiced with such marked sarcasm, Hoss guffawed despite his father's reproachful stare.
"And you wonder why I stay away," Joe said quietly, bestowing an I-told-you-so glance on his father. Yet the edge in his voice was slight, allowing room for the faintest sliver of amusement. Taking a moment to slather a generous portion of butter on a freshly baked biscuit, Joe broached the subject which had left him uneasy most of the morning. "Shey will be at the Cattleman's Association for the vote today, Pa. I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to help Mrs. Baker . . ."
Ben made a soft sound of non-committal. It was too easy determining right from wrong when the perspective was gauged from one angle only.
"Yeah, Pa," Hoss spoke up now, his broad face scrunching into a look of bewilderment. "There's been all kind of upsettin' talk, down at the Silver Dollar. The Bakers needed the money from the steer they sold Dunn to keep their ranch going. Now that Clifford's got himself in jail and the whole argument blew up in his face, I don't see why he still shouldn't have to pay for it. Someone's gotta help Mrs. Baker out."
"So you'd have it be the man that killed her husband?" Adam asked incredulously.
Hoss shrugged, his features taking on a pinched look. "I don't know who it should be--I just can't see that poor 'ol wider lady and her kids facin' foreclosure from the bank. If Dunn ain't made to pay, then the Cattleman's Association should step in."
Adam leaned back in his chair, and laced his hands together. "Why?"
"Why!" Hoss sputtered the word as if he hadn't heard correctly. "Adam, how can you sit there and--"
"--it wasn't the Cattleman's Association that let Henry's ranch deteriorate to the point of foreclosure, and it wasn't the Association that made bad investment choice after bad investment."
"Yeah, but--" Hoss's fleshy lips pressed together in a severe frown. His brow beetled over his eyes, forcing a brutish contortion to his pliable face. "Folks have got to look out for each other," he said sternly, his whole persona suddenly affected. It was that wounded aura, which pulled Ben into the conversation.
"Boys," he said softly, drawing their attention with the ease of long authority. "The issue isn't as cut and dry as it seems. Certainly everyone on the Association would like to help Mrs. Baker, but not everyone is in the position to be so generous. And Hoss, Adam is right--a lot of the members think Henry made poor choices while he lived, and feel this foreclosure is mostly his fault. Some of the other ranchers are struggling just to get by. It's twice as hard to convince them they should foot the bill for the mistakes made by a another member--even if that member did die under tragic circumstances, and leave a wife and family behind."
Disturbed, Joe wet his lips, his food forgotten. "Are you saying no one's going to help?"
"What I'm saying," Ben clarified, "is that the burden will likely fall on the larger ranches like the Ponderosa, the Circle C and one or two others. The Association would never turn it's back completely, but it's not above dispensing it's own philosophy when it comes to shepherding its members."
"They should just make Dunn pay the money he owes the Bakers," Hoss inserted, still sulky. "If he'd paid for that steer like he'd promised, none of this would have happened. Henry would still be alive and the Bakers would have the money to fend off foreclosure."
"According to Dunn he did pay," Ben reminded gently. "And according to Dunn, he was given a different steer then the one agreed upon. He also says he shot in self-defense."
"How can he say that when there were witnesses!" Hoss protested hotly. One rolled fist rapped against the table. "Does the man think his money is gonna buy the jury? I just don't get it, Pa."
"Nor do I. In any event, I think we've had enough heated discussion for the breakfast table." Ben's eyes touched on each son in turn, silently instructing an end to the conversation.
Almost wearily Joe went back to his food. Somewhere in the last ten minutes his appetite had dwindled from ravenous to barely discernible. "Pa, if it's all right with you, I'd like to head to town when I finish my chores. Mrs. Morley is letting Daphne close the dress shop early today, and I planned to have dinner with her."
Ben contemplated his youngest son as though the decision required deep thought. Secretly he was pleased to see Joe's interest turned to another woman. After the debacle with Lorna David, Ben wasn't certain Joe would allow himself to become romantically involved again. Though there had been brief dalliances in the six months since Lorna departed back east, Joe hadn't shown any true sign of entanglement until now. The auburn-haired woman who'd arrived in town three weeks ago, had stolen his son's heart with little fanfare. Still, he couldn't allow things to progress so easily . . .
"Joseph, this woman is becoming quite the fixation." Ben was aware of Hoss and Adam exchanging a quick glance, both men grinning like guppies. Joe, on the other hand, appeared acutely uncomfortable, squirming on his seat like a school boy suddenly handed a lecture.
"Pa, I just wanna have dinner."
Ben chuckled. "Well, son, I suppose that's acceptable." His own stern expression eased with a smile, clearly conveying the teasing glint in his muddy brown eyes. Reaching across the table, he slid his hand over Joe's wrist. "There's a storm brewing. If it gets too bad, you stay in town or bunk with Shey," he instructed seriously. "I don't want you chancing riding home if the weather turns foul."
Joe relaxed, his own dazzling grin lifting the corners of his lips with familiar ease. "Yes, Sir," he returned, a trifle too enthusiastically.
Ben reached for his coffee. Storm or not, he had a sudden notion, Joe would deem the weather unfit for travel. Tipping the cup to his lips, Ben grinned behind the china.
It was a long time indeed,
since he'd been that young.
Joe leaned back in his chair, enjoying the slow infusion of wine as it warmed his insides. The half-eaten remains of a steak littered his plate, easily forgotten in the presence of the woman across the table. Daphne Stone used her fork to delicately push at the slivers of carrots and mushrooms strewn over the bone china before her. Her head was slightly lowered, drawing attention to the lush line of licorice-black lashes cresting her cheeks like gossamer thread. Ivory combs entwined with silver filagree, held auburn hair back from an elfin face--the lines of that ethereal countenance flushed by the nearby glow of firelight.
"What are you staring at?" Daphne asked quietly, when Joe's glance lingered longer than proper.
He shifted slightly in the chair. Earlier, he'd taken pains to see their table was private, tucked in the corner of the hotel's dining room, near the large stone hearth. "Something too beautiful for words," he returned smoothly, and immediately felt like he'd just delivered a line.
Daphne failed to notice the instinctive wince that trailed on the heels of his statement. A flush of color tinged her cheeks, and she raised her eyes to meet his. "Your conversation is much too bold for the dinner table, Mr. Cartwright."
He chuckled smoothly, hearing the affectionate reprimand she tagged on his name. "And yours far too formal. For a lady who traveled alone from St. Louis to meet her uncle, you've suddenly developed the high-handed air of parlor-room subtleties."
"And this from a gentleman," she countered, the corners of her bow-shaped mouth lifting in a sly smile. Setting her fork aside, she reached for a cut-crystal goblet. Joe watched the play of firelight dance across the ruby-red wine within, as she raised the glass to her lips. Something about the action was oddly erotic, and he found he had to look away, lest he truly deserve reprimand. "Besides," Daphne continued, her fingers lingering on the long stem of the glass as she set it back on the table, "It was that trek halfway across country that educated me about smooth-talking cowboys like you. Too beautiful for words, indeed!"
Joe laughed now that the line had been pegged for what it was. "All right, I deserved that. But you know how I feel about you, Daphne." He expected her to lower her eyes, and demurely glance away--a proper lady would. Instead she held his gaze, her expression steady as she considered the words. Something fleeting touched her face--a tangle of emotion much too quick for Joe to discern. Once again she smiled, lips parting to reveal the sparkling line of her teeth.
"We've known each other such a short time, Joe."
"I know that." He leaned forward now, all intensity and seriousness. His fingers closed over hers--guiding them from the glass, securing them in the warm, possessive cup of his palm. "And I know when your uncle finally does arrive--when his business is finished in Tucson--you have plans to continue with him to San Francisco. But sometimes circumstances change."
"You want me to remain in Virginia City?" Daphne asked evenly.
Joe wet his lips. An affirmative reply would go a long way to revealing the level of his commitment. Still something held him back--some inner voice that insisted he couldn't love her so passionately in such a short time. For one terrifying moment, he was besieged by a rush of intense longing for Lorna David. And then the instance was past and he could breathe easier. "Would it be so bad?" he countered, unable to answer the query with solid affirmation.
Daphne tilted her head, reading him again with the dissecting stare that always left him so uncomfortable. He didn't understand how a woman of twenty-three could harbor such world-weary cynicism in her eyes. Yet as before, the brief flash of emotion was much too ephemeral to pinpoint with any accuracy. "There are worse places to live, I'm sure," Daphne consented, and this time her lips stretched in a dazzling grin.
Joe grinned back.
Almost reluctantly, she released his hand. "It's getting late, Joe. I should go home."
He exhaled--adopting an it-was-fun-while-it-lasted expression--and cast a mildly defeated glance at the window. Beyond the ebon-draped pane, snowflakes swirled in a lazy spiral--the powdery offerings haloed by the reflected glow of hearth and candle light. Joe motioned for the check, then took a final swallow of his wine.
"Are you staying in town?" Daphne asked.
Another man might have hoped for an invitation. "Here, or at the Circle C. Shey was a little concerned about the Cattleman's Association vote today. I wanted to see how it went."
"I'm surprised we haven't heard anything," Daphne countered. She straightened the napkin on her lap, running a slim finger over the embroidered edge. "It's so tragic about Henry Baker. I didn't know him, of course, but I can imagine how his wife feels." Her glance returned, the probe of her eyes, unusually dissecting. "To take another man's life is unforgivable. Don't you think?"
"Of course." Joe felt oddly flustered by the question. It wasn't something a lady discussed over dinner. To mask his unease, he hailed the waiter a second time. "Can I see you tomorrow?" he queried almost as afterthought.
"Of course," she returned syllable for syllable. Daphne touched his hand lightly and he jerked, as though apprehended in an awkward moment. His eyes met hers and she smiled. "It's bitter cold outside. You will take care, walking me home, won't you?"
Joe nodded, disturbed without understanding why. Sometimes the new lady in his life seemed a beguiling chamaeleon--effortlessly changing personas at the drop of a pin. Why were his romantic relationships always so complex?
Before he could ponder
the matter further, the waiter arrived with the check, and Joe diverted
his attention to his billfold.
"You will spoil me for certain," Daphne said, when they had reached Miss Carmichael's boarding house. Since her stay in Virginia City was designed to be brief, she'd taken no further trouble regarding accommodations then renting a room from the town's local spinster. Over time, Joe hoped to convince her those arrangements should be altered in favor of a more permanent residence. "Dinner was lovely," she said smiling up at him, "and the escort wasn't so pathetic either." The smile grew into a teasing grin.
It was far too cold to remain on the porch for long, but Joe wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her into the shadows. Cool black velvet surrounded them as he pressed his mouth to hers, secretly delighting in the sweet taste of wine, still clinging to her lips.
Daphne raised her hand, a gloved thumb trailing over his mouth as their kiss ended. "You're reprehensible, Mr. Cartwright. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to seduce me."
He smiled down at her, feeling the length of her body still pressed to his. "You're much too grown-up for a gal of twenty-three," he chided lightly. "Guess I'm gonna have to find a way to keep your uncle busy when he comes to town." Bending his head, he brushed his lips lightly across her own--the kiss as fleeting, and ghostly as the veil of clouds crossing the moon. The sheer nearness of her made his head spin--her scent a potent toxin, infusing his veins with deliciously unquenchable fire. "Hmm . . . what was it he does again?"
Daphne's fingers slid into
his hair, urging him closer. "He's a banker," she murmured against
his lips. And then her mouth parted, opening beneath his, and Joe
forgot all about her uncle's impending arrival.
"Well, little brother, you're lookin' awful dapper for a night at the Silver Dollar."
Joe turned from the bar, surprised to find Hoss behind him. Opting to spend the night at the hotel, rather than making the cold-numbing ride to the Circle C, Joe had decided to top off the evening with a few beers. Still dressed in the navy suit he'd worn to dinner, he'd headed to the saloon immediately after securing a room at the International House. Sam had no sooner deposited a frothy mug of ale on the bar, then Hoss appeared behind him.
"What are you doing here?" Joe asked, amicably. He quirked a brow at his brother. "Isn't it past your bedtime?"
Hoss gave a passing smirk and elbowed into the space beside him. "Decided to hang around after the Cattleman's Association vote earlier today. Lot of folks talkin' about the results."
"Which is?" Joe was intent now, all frivolity set aside.
"They're gonna help Betty out, pretty much like Pa said--the Association's sayin' it's footin' the bill, but it's really the Ponderosa and a few others."
"Hmm . . ." Joe took a sip of his beer. "I imagine the Circle C is one of 'the others.' Shey Cutter should be glad."
"You been here a little earlier, you might have asked him," Hoss countered. "Course you would've had to cut through that arrogant temper of his."
Joe leaned sideways against the bar, placing a boot on the footrail. Behind him the saloon bustled with activity, the large capacity in direct contradiction to the weather outside. Apparently the Association's vote was the highlight of more then just one discussion. "What does that mean?" Joe asked, disturbed by Hoss's uncharacteristic berating of Shey.
The bigger man scowled. "Ah, you know how he is," he groused, pressing his forearms against the scarred lip of the wooden bar. "He gets as hot under the collar as you do, little brother, and he's arrogant as a bright penny to boot."
Joe wasn't going to deny his friend's often haughty disregard of others, but he knew Shey's temper, while volatile, didn't kindle nearly as fast as his own. Someone must have prodded a little too relentlessly. "What had him so upset?" he persisted, remembering Shey's moodiness earlier that morning.
"What do you think? The whole thing with Henry Baker and the Cattleman's vote." Hoss thumbed his hat back on his head and motioned Sam for another beer. "Mitch Campbell was in here spoutin' off his mouth about how it was in Betty's place to dig herself out of the hole Henry made for them."
"Mitch Campbell?" Stunned, Joe felt his mouth drop. He stood a moment speechless, unable to digest the absurdity of the situation. A wash of anger suffused his features. "Mitch Campbell's a two-bit cowhand on the smallest spread in the territory," he sputtered, "Not to mention, he should have had the decency to leave town months ago."
"Now you sound like Shey. Believe me, little brother, your name surfaced a time or two in that exchange. Shey rubbed Mitch's nose in the fact he betrayed you."
Joe gave a grunt of disgust and folded back against the bar. Sometimes he forgot Mitch Campbell was still in town. It was easy to overlook the friend who had conspired with Shey's uncle, Amos Cutter, in an attempt to swindle Ben Cartwright out of land he legally possessed. What's more, it was Mitch who had helped orchestrate Joe's capture, and then stood by while Amos inflicted a brand of retribution, that had nothing to do with land deals. With a twinge of unease, Joe recalled the overwhelming pain of that captivity. If it hadn't been for Shey--more enemy, than friend at the time--he might not have made it out of that line shack alive. It was only Mitch Campbell's last minute pang of conscience that had saved him from a lengthy jail sentence. When Amos had moved to kill Joe, it was Mitch who had pulled the trigger, planting a slug in the big man's chest, ending his life. Afterwards, Joe had declined pressing charges against his former friend.
"When did Shey leave?" Joe queried Hoss.
His brother pursed his lips, considering. "About an hour ago. He and Mitch almost came to blows, then a couple other fellas chimed in, saying they felt pretty much the same way as Mitch."
"And no doubt as removed from the decision making process of that vote, as Mitch is from the Cattleman's Association," Joe snapped bitterly. "How'd Shey manage to hold his own?"
Hoss rolled his shoulders, his expression sliding into something almost smug. "Now, Joseph--did you really think I was gonna stand by and let your friend--your very best friend--take a poundin' he didn't deserve? As snide, and cocksure, and arrogant as that rooster is, he's still your friend. Not to mention, I happened to agree with him."
Joe chuckled, his anger dissipating. He slid a hand onto Hoss's shoulder, leaned close and clacked his beer mug against his brother's glass. "Thanks for looking out for him. I know you've had a lot of practice, keeping me in line."
Hoss snorted. The sound was comment enough, directed to what was obviously viewed a gross understatement.
"This whole thing's gonna settle down once Clifford Dunn is tried," Joe continued, ignoring his brother's descriptive, wordless reply. "It shouldn't be too much longer before the Circuit Judge gets here--"
"Boys--" Joe's words were cut off by a new voice hailing them both. As one, they turned in the direction of the door, finding Sheriff Coffee just inside the entrance. Not bothering to remove his heavy winter coat, he stepped to the bar, giving a nod to each. "Hoss. Joe. Didn't expect to see you boys in town. With that storm swirling out there, I'd have thought you'd headed back to the Ponderosa hours ago."
"We're spendin' the night at the hotel," Hoss informed him. He shifted slightly making room for Roy to step nearer the bar. "What's the matter, Roy? You look a little upset."
Joe too, noticed the worried crease around the sheriff's eyes. Roy tugged off his gloves and brushed clinging bits of snow from his sleeves. Already the small flakes had begun to melt, leaving dark impressions on his deerskin coat. A small puddle emerged around his boots, as webs of snow liquified, trickling to water on the plank floor.
"I just got some news that would leave any lawman uneasy."
"Something to do with Clifford Dunn?" Joe guessed.
Roy tilted his head. "Maybe. Maybe not. Wire service says Dale Coleman is headed this way."
Hoss and Joe exchanged a glance.
"Coleman . . ." Hoss worked the name around his lips. "Ain't he some kind of gun-for-hire?"
"Yup." Roy's head bobbed up and down. "You might say he's a paid assassin."
"What do you think he wants in Virginia City?" Joe picked up the thread of thought foremost on all their minds.
"That's what's got me worried," Roy confirmed. "It might be nothing at all. Wire service might even be wrong. Then again, it could be a man with money, wanting to dispose of some witnesses."
"Pa?" Joe cried, as the pieces fell into place.
Reluctantly, Roy shrugged. "If you're heading back to the ranch tomorrow, you might want to advise him. It doesn't hurt to be a little cautious until Dunn's trial is over. I'm expecting that Circuit Judge by the middle of next week."
"Thanks for the tip-off, Roy," Hoss responded for both brothers. Once again he exchanged a glance with Joe, both silently conveying their fears.
"What about Saul Traven?" Joe asked at last, thinking of the other witness to the shooting.
"Don't worry, I'll alert him," Roy supplied. "Wish I had more to go on. This Coleman fellow is said to be responsible for at least a dozen killings, maybe more, but there's not so much as a description on him."
"That sure don't make matters
easy," Hoss said grimly.
The following morning Joe shared breakfast with Hoss and Daphne, then joined his big brother in the return trip to the ranch. The storm had departed with the night, depositing enough snow on the ground to turn the trek a shade shy of grueling. Despite the toil of travel, Joe found the powdery landscape beguiling and beautiful. The wind had lessened, leaving the air frigid and crisp, but bearable all the same. Trees, stripped bare by the winter wind, were now clothed in celestial cloaks of white--their gnarled limbs raised in mute praise of the season. Sunlight sparkled on the alabaster landscape, dusting the ground with a champagne-pale haze, destined to deepen as the hour progressed. Overhead, a cloud-streaked sky bled steel at the edges, while the horizon anchored deeper hues of raspberry and plum.
Once they'd returned to the ranch and stabled their horses, it was simply a matter of locating Ben and Adam, and relaying Roy's warning. Father and brother were found in Ben's study, quietly going over quarterly expenditure reports. After a brief hesitation, Hoss was the one who conveyed the news. Though Adam and Ben exchanged a glance, neither seemed particularly alarmed by the announcement.
"Boys, you might be taking this all a bit too seriously," Ben attempted to pacify the others. Shifting in his desk chair, he pushed aside the open ledger which moments before had commanded his complete attention. "I find it hard to believe Clifford Dunn could orchestrate something even remotely similar to an . . . assassination," he opted for want of a better word, " . . . from prison. Rumors of gunslingers and guns-for-hire are always passing over the wire service."
"Roy seemed pretty upset," Joe informed his father crisply. He was irritated to find the warning given so little weight. Perhaps it was merely the fact, it was Ben Cartwright who was the intended victim. Surely, his father would have given more credence to the information if one of his sons were threatened. Angered by the realization, Joe pressed his lips together. "You're dismissing this too quickly," he said with marked hostility. Ben's eyes flashed to his face, and he instinctively dropped his gaze. He rarely addressed his father so sharply, and immediately knew, he'd overstepped his boundaries.
Ben braced his elbows on the arms of his chair, studying his youngest son directly. "Joseph, I believe I'm old enough to take care of myself. Certainly I'll take the warning in stride. I just don't want you boys deciding I need to hibernate at the ranch."
"Given the weather, a little hibernation isn't such a bad idea," Adam inserted smoothly, hoping to break the tension.
Joe eased up slightly when his father smiled. Ben clapped a hand on Adam's back and pushed from his chair. "Enough of this ominous doom-saying. The weather isn't going to stop the running of this ranch, and it seems to me we've all got chores to do."
The declaration was met by a predictable chorus of groans. As Ben moved from his study, and Hoss headed for the stairs, Joe lingered by the desk with Adam. "He shouldn't take it so lightly," he insisted softly, and Adam heard hurt more than anger. Rising from the barrel-back chair he'd drawn to the desk, Adam slid a companionable hand onto his younger brother's shoulder.
"Even if he does, Joe, he's got three sons who will be watching out for him."
Joe nodded somewhat despondently, clearly not convinced. He was leaning forward, knuckles braced against the flat surface of his father's desk, elbows locked and rigid. His head was lowered, allowing a glimpse of his profile. The sheen of perspiration, conjured from his ride, still glimmered on the finely defined bone of one cheek. A wayward lock of chestnut-dark hair curled against his forehead, accentuating the meticulous arch of his brows. "I wish they'd just have the trial and get the whole thing over with," he muttered. "It's got a lot of people in this town out of sorts."
The corner of Adam's mouth quirked upward in a tight grin. "Not to mention this family," he chided lightly.
Had his tone borne even
the slightest sting, Joe would have taken offense. As it was, he
merely exhaled in resignation, and pushed away from the desk. As
he walked from the study, Adam slung an arm over his shoulder and kept
pace at his side.
Shey Cutter wandered restlessly, striding back and forth through the Cartwright barn. His breath plumed in the icy air, further defining the cold-reddened flush on his cheeks and nose. Hands stuffed in his pockets, he cast a baleful glare at the man patiently grooming the black-and-white mare in her stall. "Cartwright, you've haven't listened to a word I've said," he complained. "I ain't never seen a man so enamored of his horse before."
Joe chuckled softly and continued to glide the brush through Cochise's satiny mane. "I heard you, Shey. I just didn't think you wanted me to tell you how amusing I think the whole thing is."
"Amusing?" Shey spun on his heel as if he'd been assaulted. A look of sheer incredulity crossed his face. With purposeful strides, he stalked to Joe's side. "Listen, Cartwright, I'm all for dalliance here and there, but when it comes to serious relationships, I like to do the chasing."
Joe bit down on his lip to stifle a smile. "Callie is a little, um . . . exuberant . . . isn't she?"
Shey blew air through his nose. "I ain't known the woman for more than six weeks. At this rate, she'll have me wearin' her brand 'fore the first thaws come."
Joe cleared his throat and tried to look serious. Secretly, he was thankful Shey had gotten over his moodiness concerning the Cattleman's Association vote on Mrs. Baker, and had moved into mundane territory. Well, maybe not so mundane to Shey, Joe thought with a glance for his friend's stricken countenance. There was nothing worse to a man who valued his freedom, then a woman set on marriage. It was all he could do to keep from laughing.
"Maybe you just need to set her straight," he offered. He liked Callie Garrett, though he imagined some of that partiality was derived from the aide she'd provided him and Shey, when they were prisoners of William Arlen in Oxbow.
Shoulders slumping in defeat, Shey slouched against the wall. "I've tried setting her straight. Besides . . ." he gave a half-hearted shrug. "It's not like I ain't fond of her. I just--I'm not ready for marriage."
Joe allowed his smile to creep through. "Well considering half the women in Virginia City want you for a husband, and the other half want you for a son-in-law, I'd say you're gonna have to fend of more than just Callie. It's not every twenty-two year old, who finds himself sole owner of a spread like the Circle C. You're considered the prime catch for marriage--" the grin grew cocky, "--after me, of course."
Shey shook his head. "You're a pain in my backside, Cartwright, you know that?"
With a wink, Joe went back to brushing Cochise. Outside, the sun was sinking against the ragged line of the horizon, braiding the stiff, loden-green needles of stately pines with crimson and gold. The deepening blue shade of late afternoon settled over a landscape cold and white, melding smoke and shadow among dense wooded thickets.
"You heading to town tonight?" Shey asked.
Joe nodded. "Yeah. I thought I'd see Daphne again." Even as he said the words, he cast Shey a warning glance, heading off any sarcastic comments.
Shey held up both hands and schooled his face to innocence. "No comment from this corner, pal. Some folks like havin' a big 'ol hook in their mouth."
Joe's glance grew pointed. "Cutter--"
Chuckling, Shey pushed away from the wall. "Just kiddin', Joseph. You, uh . . . aren't gonna let this one scamper away back east are you?"
Though the question was voiced with the clear intent to devil, it gave Joe pause. Was he that attached to Daphne Stone? Why then did the relationship often seem enigmatic, as though there was some part of her he could never touch? Women routinely wrapped themselves in the guise of proper decorum, yet sometimes with Daphne, he felt as if her whole life were a guise.
If Shey noticed any hesitation on his part, it was quickly overlooked. "How 'bout bringing her to dinner at my ranch?" the blonde-haired man asked. "Callie will be there and--"
"Oh, I get it." The invitation allowed Joe to refocus his thoughts on something concrete. Glad to be distracted from his uneasiness concerning Daphne, he wasn't above a little devilment of his own. "The high and mighty owner of the Circle C, is afraid to be alone with Miss Garrett--given her recent penchant for marriage."
Shey scowled. Severely. "I'll have my cook set dinner for four."
Joe's grin was a trifle too pleased. "Sure that's enough, Shey? I can always bring Hoss and Adam. You know--to distract Callie, while you hide."
Cursing softly, Shey took
a playful swing at his head.
"Another night with Miss Stone?" Ben braided the inquiry with enough of a teasing lilt, so as not to offend his son. He stood just inside Joe's bedroom, one shoulder propped against the door frame, as he watched his son adjust the knot of his impeccable string tie. The thin black ribbon created a marked contrast against Joe's white shirt, accentuating the crisp, button-down material to dramatic effect. "This girl must really be something to send you on a long ride to town, on such a cold night."
Unflustered by the observation, Joe kept his gaze glued to the mirror, while he adjusted the dangling ends of the tie. "Where' having dinner at the Circle C with Shey and Callie."
Ben nodded slightly, realizing his son had side-stepped the observation entirely. While he was glad to see Joe finally put Lorna David behind him, it disturbed him to see this new relationship developing so quickly. Still hoping to maintain an air of casual inquiry, Ben pushed away from the door. "Joe, I thought you told me Daphne was only going to remain in Virginia City until her uncle arrived."
"Well then, don't you think you're becoming a little too . . .fond . . . of this girl?"
Moving to the dresser, Joe reached for his bottle of bay rum. Though his back was turned, Ben could see a sliver of tension move across his shoulders. "Pa, I thought you wanted me to forget Lorna. To move on."
"Yes, son, I do, but--" Disturbed, Ben stepped to the dresser, hesitating at Joe's side. A crease of concentration drew his dark brows into a bewildered furrow. "Joseph . . . " Lifting one hand, he placed it on his son's shoulder. "I just don't want to see you get hurt."
Joe's glance was barbed. "Again, you mean?"
Ben blanched. Somehow the conversation had spiraled beyond his control. He could feel the knot of tension in Joe's arm--the quiver of taut muscle beneath his fingertips, warning that his son's notoriously short temper grew increasingly volatile. How could such an innocent observation deteriorate so rapidly, he wondered?
Inwardly, Ben sighed. Joe's emotions were often too complex for casual examination. This time was no different. Too pry further would only increase his son's hostilities. With a wan smile, Ben let his hand drop to his side. "Be sure you say hello to Shey, for me."
Only when his father had left, did Joe's tension slither free. With a soft curse, he raked agitated fingers through his hair. Already he regretted his belligerence. Upon deeper scrutiny, he wondered if it wasn't a defense to hold his own doubts about his relationship with Daphne at bay.
He loved her. He thought he did.
Shoving the entire discourse
from his mind, Joe grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.
"It was nice of Shey to invite us for dinner," Daphne said, wiggling closer to Joe on the seat of the surrey. A thick blanket swaddled her legs, pinned at the edges to prevent escaping warmth. Heated bricks from Miss Carmichael's hearth weighted the heavy fabric to the footboard and acted as a deterrent against the evening's chill. "Oh, Joe, as cold as it is--it's beautiful, don't you think?"
Enraptured by the winter landscape, Daphne sat slightly forward, eyes rounded with wonder as she beheld her surroundings. Intrigued himself, Joe took a moment to consider the twilight canvas. The sun had quietly set in the beckoning cradle of the earth, shrouding both trees and mountains in a web of smoky shadow. Deep blue melded with pewter and the murky green silhouettes of wind-rippled pines. Snow-dusted hills boasted streaks of purple, infused by the dusky gold blood of the sun's dying rays. There was something oddly bewitching about the terrain--felt in the encompassing silence, and the fawning sliver of breeze that scuttled through the coach.
Joe opted for neutrality. "It's a matter of perspective, I suppose."
Surprised, Daphne drew back. One hand rose and tucked a stray curl into the fur-lined hood of her heavy cloak. "That's a rather impartial observation. I was led to believe you had an opinion on everything."
"From Shey Cutter, no doubt." Joe gave a breezy chuckle. "Or one of my well-meaning brothers. You've got to stop listening to such bad influences, Daphne."
"And who should I listen to?" She leaned close again, one hand dropping to rest snugly against his arm. Gloved fingers tightened over his sleeve, applying firm pressure. "You?" Joe could feel the warm whisper of her breath against his cheek; the inviting curve of her hip, nestled beside his own. "Ah--but would you have anything worth saying, Mr. Cartwright?"
Now it was her turn to chuckle, the sound disturbingly silken. Releasing his arm, she sat back in the seat, her eyes once again on the shadow-streaked terrain. "I received a telegram from my uncle, today. He should be arriving within the next week."
"So soon?" Joe gave a start.
"I originally expected him much sooner."
"I know, but--" Joe's voice caught in his throat. Once again he found himself coming up shy of committing to her. There was no question he wanted her to remain in Virginia City, but he couldn't quite string the words together to vocalize that need. Instead he shifted on the seat, listening to the steady clop-clop of the gelding's hooves as it plodded over the snow-dappled ground. Secretly he wondered if he was reacting like Shey had to Callie. He hadn't feared commitment with Lorna. What was it about Daphne that kept him hedging on the edge of a very thin line?
"You've grown quiet," she observed. Though her glance was crisp, her tone remained neutral. It was her stare, however, that left him suddenly uncomfortable--the reproachful probe of her eyes, almost tangible in scrutiny.
Joe wet his lips, struggling for words that continued to elude him. "I just thought . . ." he cleared his throat. "I thought you'd be here longer."
"Will you be sorry to see me leave?" she queried, graciously this time. The edge was gone from her eyes, replaced by a candied sweetness nearly as disturbing as her previous frost. Both expressions seemed garments she donned at will, like dancers exchanging masks at a costume ball. Joe felt his uneasiness grow.
He hedged. "Maybe your uncle will find Virginia City to his liking," he said, carefully skirting the issue. Glancing away, he flicked the reins restlessly, urging the horse to increase its pace. Suddenly he wanted nothing more, than the company of Shey and Callie to distract him from the enigmatic woman at his side. The Circle C was just over the next rise--not nearly soon enough given his present predicament. "What exactly does your uncle do again?"
An emerging frown touched Daphne's mouth. "He's a stock-broker," she replied, somewhat tersely.
Joe gave a start, rounding on her in surprise. He'd asked the question mainly as a means to divert the conversation to safer ground. "I thought he was a banker?"
A soft sound escaped Daphne's throat--gasp? shock? chagrin? Recovering quickly, her eyes slid sideways, her expression suddenly calculating. "Banker . . . stock-broker . . . women don't pay attention to that sort of thing, Joe Cartwright."
He might have believed her if her tone had carried some sort of frivolity, but the words were clipped, her eyes narrowed in acute study. No longer able to dismiss the prickling of unease gnawing at his nerves, Joe wrenched the surrey to a halt. "Daphne, something isn't right here."
She drew her purse onto her lap, carefully tugging the edges of her gloves into place as though distracting herself with the movement. "What isn't right?"
Joe turned sideways, placing distance between them, as he leaned back into the corner of the seat. "You. You're . . . different."
She chuckled softly, all silk and velvet and Joe felt his sense of discontentment grow. "I don't know what you mean," she replied innocently. Her laughter had been pure seduction; her words, crafted with school-girl charm. For a moment, Joe felt as if he shared the wagon with two individuals. Carefully untying the string of her purse, Daphne slipped her hand inside and withdrew a lace-embroidered handkerchief. Gently, she dabbed the foam-colored linen against her reddening nose. "It's dreadfully cold out, Joe. Perhaps we should continue to Shey's ranch?"
Still he hesitated, uncertain why the clamor of alarm continued to ping through his head. "Daphne, I want the truth--"
The handkerchief went back into the draw-string pouch, fingers lingering within. Angling a glance over her shoulder, she cast him a dismissive look. "This is silly, Joe. I don't know what you mean." She withdrew her hand, but he was too intent on the discussion to notice the object she pulled free.
"You know perfectly well what I mean." Shifting, he started to reach for her. "Daphne--"
His forward momentum was halted abruptly by the cold press of a muzzle against his side. Stunned, he glanced down, catching the glimmer of fading sunlight on the barrel of a small revolver. Appalled, Joe stared at the woman he once thought he'd loved. "I don't understand."
"You wouldn't" she said bluntly. "As pathetically free of entanglements as you strive to be, you wouldn't understand a daughter's commitment to her father."
The gun prodded deeper and he withdrew slightly. Though unarmed himself, he didn't doubt he could easily overpower her. She seemed to read the thought in his eyes, for she tilted her head slightly, her expression clearly amused. "If you think you can take this gun from me, Joe Cartwright, you're sadly mistaken. This paltry little wisp of St. Louis charm was simply a guise to make you fall in love with me. I was born in the dust bowls of the Arizona Territory, and I've handled a pistol since I was four. I've killed more men then you have years. Before you could make a move, I'd put a bullet through your side and another through your heart."
Wetting his lips, Joe slowly raised his hands. "Daphne--"
"My name isn't Daphne. It's Dayle Coleman."
Despite his efforts to tether a sudden surge of betraying emotion, Joe's eyes widened in surprise. Daphne's laughter was pure silk, sliding over his skin with a touch both sensuous and soiled. He felt oddly defiled, as if that giddy chuckle were plaited with disease. Though he'd suspected there was something hidden about the her, he'd never expected anything so dreadful. Who would have foreseen a woman in the role of a notorious gun-for-hire? His mouth tightened in an unflinching line. "Did Clifford Dunn hire you?"
"Who?" Daphne's voice rose in volume, as though the suggestion were offensive. "You mean that idiot, money-bags in jail? Scum like that couldn't afford my services, no matter how rich the shirt. No, Mr. Cartwright--this job is purely gratis."
Joe was confused. "You're not here for my father?"
"You're about as brainless as you are handsome, Cartwright. I'm here for kinship--plain and simple. The blood of my family is on your hands, and I've come to collect." Once more Joe's eyes dropped to the gun. If she were truly who she said she was, he probably be dead, the moment he so much as flinched in the direction of the trigger guard.
"You've spoiled my plans," Daphne continued, clearly unconcerned by the direction of his gaze. "It wasn't enough to simply kill you--to put a bullet in you, and end your life. I wanted to hurt you first. To make you feel what I felt, when you took my family away from me. I thought if I made you fall in love with me, the wound would cut that much deeper. It hurts to have those you loved ripped away by cruel gunfire; by the hangman's noose."
Joe's head came up sharply. Though her words had been so much babble up until this point, a buried memory surfaced in the back of his mind, conjuring an image he'd thought long dead. "The hangman's noose . . ." The words stuck to his tongue--as much from a sense of uncertainty, as from the increasing cold invading his bones; numbing his senses. "I--" he hesitated, swallowing guardedly, as he recalled the coarse hemp of a noose around his neck; the gradual, cruel depletion of his air supply; the diamond-cold eyes of a vindictive man who had wanted to murder him for the untimely demise of two sons.
"It's coming back to you, isn't it?" Daphne asked coldly. "Coleman was my husband's name--back when I let the fool live--but Brecker is my real name. You remember that name, don't you, Joe?" There was steel in her eyes now, braided with the seething edge of hatred. "You killed my father, Chet Brecker, and my brother Colb. Roy hung because of your testimony." With smooth skill, Daphne cocked the pistol, sending the echo bouncing loudly into the night. "My whole family wiped out by the whim of one man. Now you see why I have to kill you. I just can't let all that blood go unavenged."
Joe bit his lip, emotions snagged somewhere between anger and desperation. He remembered her father and brothers only too well--men responsible for killing his good friend, Tom Fower, and his wife, Elsie. He remembered putting a bullet in Colb; pumping two in Chet Brecker. He'd tried to hold off Brecker with a broken wrist, while the man had slipped a noose around his neck, intent on strangling him to death. With effort, Joe fought to distance himself from the memories. The pressure of the gun against his side banished all other thoughts. Belatedly, he tried to rationalize with his would-be assailant. "Don't be foolish, Daphne. Shey and Callie know we're on our way to the Circle C--"
"It'll be morning before anyone finds you out here in this cold and snow, even if they do come looking. By that time, I'll be long gone." She smiled thinly--a bitingly sardonic curve of her generous lips. "It does hurt, doesn't it, Joe? You felt something for me, even if you couldn't say it aloud. I wanted to wait--wait until I knew I had you hooked for sure, but then I heard about that damn wire the sheriff got. So . . ." she canted her head to the side, eyes dancing with plump satisfaction. " . . . I guess this is good-bye."
Desperate, Joe lurched forward, gloved fingers closing on her wrist. He heard the sharp report of the gun as it discharged--felt the first niggling stitch of pain in his side, followed almost instantaneously by a shredding release of pure fire. Startled by the crack of gunfire, the horse lurched into motion, dislodging them both. Reeling from the influx of liquid agony, Joe was unable to halt his fall. His hand slid free of Daphne's wrist as he tumbled backwards, shoulder yielding beneath him as he struck the ground. For a moment, the staggering bite of cold snow against the wound, brought time screeching to a halt.
From somewhere far away he heard Daphne curse. There followed an almost irritated jangling of the harness, and Joe struggled to his knees, blinking to find that deadly source of sound. The return of the surrey, meant a return of the mad woman with the gun--and most assuredly, his death. With one hand cupped to his side, Joe tried to stem the flow of blood gushing between his fingers. He could feel the life-giving liquid puddling against his belt; see it dropping like beads of water to the snow-covered ground--garnet red on pristine white. A distracted part of his mind found the contrast startling. He pushed away from the macabre sight, scrambling back on his haunches. The movement sent fire pulsing through the wound; a spout of blood gushing from his back, where the bullet had blundered free. For a moment his vision swam in a sickly haze--multi-ribboned sky and white-tipped trees coalescing into a riotous swirl of opposing color.
Joe closed his eyes, panting against the pain and the disorientation. He was partially concealed by the dark bulk of trees; the tattered perimeter of leaf-bare shrubs. Still, it would only be a matter of time before Daphne brought the horse under control and returned with the surrey. The scant protection afforded by winter-whitened foliage wouldn't save him from a second bullet. Dismayed, he stared at the betraying blotches of blood soiling the lustrous blanket of snow. If he had any hope of eluding her, the wound had ruined that.
Bowing his head, Joe fought against a sudden wave of dizziness, vainly striving to maintain consciousness. He heard the jangle of the harness again--restrained this time--and squinted into the gathering gloom. The surrey was only a few yards away, coming steadily in his direction. Scrunching back into the bushes Joe bit silent a cry as pain shot through him, gouging brutal talons across his blood-soaked stomach. The breath waffled from his lungs even as he heard the clop-clop of a horse approaching from the opposite direction.
With a muffled groan, Joe folded onto the ground. He could see a horseman on the rise--man and steed silhouetted against the last ruddy rays of the sun. The jangle of the harness stopped, indicating Daphne had also spotted the man. Raising one hand, Joe reached for that unknown rider--stretching forth his fingers as if he could touch the charcoal cut-out erected against the sky. Pain ricocheted across his middle, plundering a lightning-slick path from stomach to back.
Joe's eyes rolled into
his head. Mind-numbing pain consumed the last trickling thread of
his consciousness. Yet even as he succumbed to the darkness, he heard
the agitated jangle of the harness--informing him the surrey and it's driver,
bolted into the protective cloak of the night.
With an agitated frown, Shey snapped his pocket watch closed and folded into the plump cushions of the sofa. Across the room the grandfather's clock struck the hour, sending a melodious chorus cascading throughout the room. A string of tantalizing aromas drifted down the hallway, slithering over the threshold--blatantly reminding him the dining room with its formal tableware and slowly-cooling food was just a few short paces away. In certain mockery, his stomach rumbled. Hooking a booted ankle over his knee, he idly inspected a tattered piece of thread, peeking from beneath the frayed hem of his pants.
"Leave it to Cartwright to be late," he groused.
His dinner companion, a petite girl, barely out of her teens cast him a disparaging look. Seated across from him in an oval-backed chair, she laced her hands on her lap, and waited for his eye to catch hers.
"Quit thinking with your stomach, Shey," Callie Garrett chastised. Though she'd known him only a short time, she often addressed him with a blunt-edged familiarity he would have found appalling in most women. "It's not like Joe to be so late. Maybe something's happened."
"Yeah," he replied just as bluntly. "It's called a detour, and it involves moonlight and body heat."
"Shey!" Callie flamed scarlet.
The blonde-haired man released a slow chuckle. Reclining against the sofa, he stretched both arms across the ornately carved backrest. "For crying out loud Callie, you worked in a brothel--"
"Yes, but not as a--a--" She sputtered, words failing her. Only then did she realize Shey enjoyed her tongue-tied awkwardness . . . that he was grinning ear-to-ear, like some mischievous hobgoblin intent on devilry. Her glance grew pointed. "You are a cad, Shey Cutter."
"Hmm . . ." he smiled archly, " . . . granted, but a charming one."
Any retort she might have made was cut short by a knock at the front door. Breathing a calming sigh, Callie watched Shey rise to his feet. "Thank goodness nothing happened," she commented, her relief evident. With a vague grunt, Shey pushed past her and wandered into the connecting hallway. Callie waited a moment until she heard voices--Shey's rat-a-tat delivery, coupled with a deeper drone--the timber far too throaty for Joe. Puzzled, Callie stepped into the foyer.
" . . . said all I had to at the Silver Dollar." Callie caught the tail-end of Shey's clipped comment, as she rounded the corner. Though she didn't personally know the ginger-haired man framed in the doorway, she knew his identity from reputation. Hesitating at the corner of the living room, she watched Shey's face darken with surprising alacrity. "You're not welcome on the Circle C, Campbell," her sometimes boyfriend spat.
Mitch Campbell rolled his knobby shoulders into a disinterested shrug. "This ain't got nuthin' to do with the Cattleman's vote, and I ain't here for no bloody social. 'Horse has got a loose shoe and I need to tighten it up."
Shey's expression was grim. A curt nod of his head indicated the barn. "Over there, then be on your way."
"Plan to." Half turning, Mitch hesitated. "Thought you might wanna know--I saw Cartwright's surrey yonder, headed to town. Rider seemed in an awful hurry, and unless I missed my guess, it was a gal drivin'. Didn't see your rich playmate anywhere."
With effort, Shey bit short a stinging retort. "Why are you telling me--thought you couldn't stand Joe?"
"I saved his life when your uncle was gonna shoot him, didn't I?" Pressing his lips into an agitated line, Mitch drew open the door. Beyond the small square of yellow light streaming from the foyer, a black maw hung over the porch. Stepping into the frigid darkness, Mitch cast a perturbed glance over his shoulder. "It's like this, Cutter--Cartwright could've had me thrown in jail after that mess with Amos. I figure I owe him. If somethin' is wrong, then tonight makes us even."
Not waiting for a reply, the loose-legged cowboy stepped from the porch. With an irritated scowl, Shey watched as he collected the reins of his horse and tugged the animal in the direction of the barn. Lacing long fingers through his wheat-pale hair, Shey pushed the door closed.
Callie watched him expectantly. "Do you think he was telling the truth?"
Hesitantly, Shey shrugged. Inwardly he struggled with indecision--his gut reaction against trusting Mitch, warring with the knowledge that Joe was long over due. Eventually concern for his friend took priority, pushing all other thought aside. Reaching behind him, Shey snagged a coat from the brass garment tree nestled in the corner of the foyer. "I'm gonna go for a ride, Callie. Keep an eye on things til I get back."
"Shey--" She started to
tell him to be careful, but the words snagged in her throat. It was
clear from the expression on his face as he headed out the door, his
safety was the last thing on his mind.
Joe couldn't stop shaking.
The snow had saturated his clothing, soaking through the heavy lining of his coat; the underlying layers of jacket and shirt. Worse was the single layer of his pants, providing scant protection against the glacial bite of snow-covered ground. Once the buggy had departed, he'd managed a few fitful steps in the direction of the Circle C, but that appallingly brief trek had ended at the base of a wind-pitted fir. Cold-reddened cheek pressed to gnarled bark, Joe cupped a hand across his middle and tried to halt the puddling flow of his blood. He could smell it on his clothing--tart and coppery, tinged with the musty odor of wet denim. Even that trickling warmth--oozing over arm, waist and back, couldn't stop the convulsive shudders riddling his body. With a muffled groan, he tried to struggle back to his feet.
The movement sent cadaverous fingers groping through the hole in his side--mercilessly twisting the lacerated flesh within. Fresh blood gushed across his middle, hot and sticky, thickening with the invading secretions of essential organs. For a moment he tasted blood in his mouth, and his senses reeled in a chaotic web of blistering pain and light. Reflected moonlight spiked against his eyes and he found himself lying on his back, staring up at a star-strewn sky. A black cauldron, broken by the red-rimmed flesh of a bloated moon and the tattered lace of clouds, the vast expanse was somehow comforting for its massive scope. It put his pain in perspective--helped him focus on something other than the punishing agony in his side.
His concentration shattered when he heard the approaching strike of hooves--not a wagon, he thought quickly; worriedly--just hooves. He tried to scrunch back against the tree--tried to make himself as small and invisible as possible, until he determined whether the rider was friend or foe. A blood-soaked, gloved hand splayed over the bark as he dragged himself against the coarse trunk--into the embrace of pungent, snow-laden branches.
Joe's knees buckled. Elbows locked; hands buried wrist-deep in cold, crystalized snow, he hung his head and drew a ragged breath. The hoofbeats had stopped--nearer than he would have liked. Was it possible Daphne had kept a horse secreted nearby, and now returned to finish the job? From the corner of his eye he could see a dark shape flowing like liquid through the shadows. Tensing, he prepared to spring . . .
. . . and then heard a familiar voice; felt Shey's hesitant touch on his shoulder as his friend dropped to his knees beside him. The welcoming warmth of his Shey's body, made Joe sag against him. Swallowing thickly, he raised his head--long lashes tipped with the clinging mist of snowflakes.
"What . . . took you . . . so damn long . . ?"
"You look like hell, Cartwright."
" . . . feel it too . . ." Joe shuddered, a single, brutal convulsion wracking his body. With a choked moan, he lowered his head to Shey's shoulder, turning his face into that beckoning pocket of warmth. Panting for breath, he gripped his friend's wrist. "Get me outta here, huh?"
Gently disentangling himself, Shey slipped an arm around Joe's back. He could feel the increasing tremors in his friend's body--an affliction induced by pain, as much as cold. With a worried glance for the thickening shadows, Shey pulled the other man to his feet.
Joe uttered one agonized oath and started to sag back to the ground.
"Come on, Joe, don't do this to me." Shey could feel the blood pumping from his back now--the sudden disgorging of precious fluid engulfing his hand with ballooning heat. Half-dragging him, the blonde-haired man pulled Joe in the direction of his horse. Trying to keep the other functioning and coherent, Shey spoke sharply into his ear. "What happened here? Where's Daphne?" With a distracted glance, he noticed the tracks of the surrey, leading back to town.
Joe roused briefly, muttering something unintelligible, before dropping his chin to his chest. Emotions running the gamut of frustration to fear; anger to concern, Shey gripped his friend's chin and tilted his head up. "I'm gonna get you out of this, pal, you hear? The Circle C's just over that rise . . ." His voice trailed away as a spectral wind scuttled across the hillside, conjuring fleeting snow swirls like chalky phantoms, from the ground. He could feel Joe shivering against him; see the alarming blue tinge to his lips. As they drew abreast of Shey's horse, the young rancher directed Joe's arm over the saddle horn, allowing him lean into the blissful warmth of the steed. Shrugging out of his coat, Shey exchanged garments with his half-coherent friend, then managed to maneuver him into the saddle. Mounting behind him, Shey collected the reins. "Lean back against me," he instructed.
With little need for coercion, Joe folded into the warmth behind him. Shey controlled the reins with one hand, wedging the other tightly over his friend's waist. He could feel Joe's fingers resting lightly on his sleeve. He hoped much of the bleeding would cease, now that Joe's movement was restricted. The cold, while abysmal, would go a long way to aiding the contraction of blood vessels, pinching off the unwanted flow.
"Daphne?" Shey tried again.
Joe roused slightly. " . . . shot me . . . "
Shey thought he'd heard wrong. "Daphne--"
" . . . not her . . ." Joe choked, " . . . Dayle--" The word was bitten off in a deep-throated groan. Clutching his stomach, Joe started to lean forward in the saddle.
Knowing the restriction hurt, Shey kept him pinned in place, nevertheless. "Come on, Cartwright. You gotta sit still. We're almost there--"
"Hate you," Joe said weakly, a glint of his humor returning. Once again, he sagged against Shey.
The other chuckled. "Yeah, pal, I know--it's mutual." A house appeared on the rise--the distinctive Colonial glaringly out of place on a working cattle ranch. Light glowed in the windows, carving beckoning yellow squares into the darkness. Shey thought he'd never been so glad to see the stately manor in his life. A nervous sliver of laughter tumbled from his lips. "Look there, Joseph--almost home. I'll send one of my hands to fetch Doc Martin." Even as he neared the softly glowing abode, a skittering nerve of warning pinged down his spine. An unfamiliar horse was tethered to the hitching post, just off the front porch.
Shey swore softly.
Joe roused from half-slumber. "What is it?"
"Nothing, Sleeping Beauty." Shey's voice was a warm mist near his ear. Freeing his arm from around his friend's waist, Shey eased his gun from his holster. The front door opened, silhouetting a tall, broad-shouldered man in a blazing halo of buttered light.
Joe leaned back against Shey's shoulder. "Pa," he said simply. A tired half-smile flitted over his lips. " . . . riding Rickshaw instead of Buck."
Startled, Shey gave a grunt of surprise. Though the horse was unfamiliar, the man hurriedly clambering down the steps, was clearly identifiable.
Without hesitation, Ben Cartwright strode to Shey's side. "What happened to him?" he asked crisply.
"Gunshot wound," Shey returned without preamble. He eased his friend into the older man's arms, then swung down from the steed. "Near as I can tell, the bullet went clean through--he's bleeding from the front and back."
"Let's get him inside," Ben said. Together, he and Shey, half-carried; half-supported Joe into the house. Once inside, Callie directed them to the living room, where they deposited their semi-conscious burden on the sofa. Almost immediately, she moved towards the kitchen, promising to return with hot water and warm towels.
"I don't know who shot him, Mr. Cartwright," Shey ventured with a wary glance for the older man. "I--"
"--I do," Ben interrupted curtly. With a frustrated sigh, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Shey, I don't mean to snap at you." Dropping to a one-legged kneel, Ben smoothed his hand over Joe's forehead, pushing back snow-dampened locks. "You look near frozen to death yourself. Get out of that wet coat."
Only now that Ben had mentioned it, did Shey realize, he too was shivering. Shrugging off the snow-soaked garment, he rolled his sleeves and braced his arms on the backrest of the sofa, gazing down at his friend. "Take care of him, Mr. Cartwright. I'll send one of my hands for the Doc."
As Shey started to pull away, Ben snagged his wrist and held fast. The two men made eye contact over the sofa. "Thank you, Shey," Ben said evenly--his gratitude clearly having nothing to do with the offer to secure a doctor. A hesitant smile touched Shey's lips. With a slight, awkward nod, he turned and departed.
Alone with his son, Ben unbuttoned Joe's shirt, pushing aside the blood and snow-fouled fabric to examine the wound. At his touch, Joe came fully awake, gulping down a quivering breath. Instinctively, he tried to recoil.
Ben caught his wrist. "Be still, Little Joe."
"Hush." As gently as possible, Ben prodded the wound. Beneath his fingertips, his son stiffened, firm muscle constricting in rigid bands. Ben heard the breath whistle through Joe's clenched teeth.
"I'm cold, Pa."
"As soon as Shey returns, we'll get you upstairs and out of these wet clothes." Ending his brief examination of the wound, Ben gripped Joe's wrist. Leaning close, he slipped his free hand into the tangled, damp curls of his son's hair. A warm thumb lingered against Joe's temple, then traced over his cheekbone in a familiar caress. "Joe, I'm sorry about Daphne."
Closing his eyes, Joe tried to block the words. His father didn't know. Couldn't know! With a groan of despair, Joe wanted to sink through the floorboards. The snarled web of shame and confusion he experienced was as sickening as the needle-sharp pain goring his side. Despite the fierce cascade of heat from the nearby hearth, his body was riddled with tremors. "How . . . how could you know?" he stammered.
Ben wet his lips. He didn't want to distress his son, but he couldn't evade the question. Sliding his fingers from Joe's wrist, he allowed his touch to skim beneath the edge of a snow-damp sleeve. Warm flesh pressed against cold skin, imparting strength without words. "I was in town, Joe. Sheriff Coffee called me in. It seems Clifford Dunn has had a change of heart and has admitted to Henry Baker's murder. Whether it's a crisis of conscience or a ploy to appeal to the mercy of the court--"
"Dunn h-had nothing t-to do . . . with-with Daphne." Joe bit off the words between chattering teeth.
Distressed to see his son suffer so, Ben braced an arm behind his back. "Let's at least get this wet shirt off you," he said softly. Guiding Joe forward, he eased Shey's coat from his shoulders, then followed with the blood-fouled shirt. As he did so, he continued to talk. "I know that Daphne is really Dale Coleman. Sheriff Coffee received a second wire . . ."
Though the effort of movement clearly cost Joe, he remained tight-lipped and silent, gripping the back of the sofa with white-knuckled fingers. Prying one arm free, Ben helped him ease into the warm coat, then guided him back on the cushions. "Shortly before arriving here, she pulled a job in Salt Lake. She killed the target, but left a witness behind." Seeing his son's remorseful gaze, Ben cupped a hand against his cheek. "I came here to warn you. I'm so sorry, Joe--I don't know why she'd go after you. I was the one who saw Dunn kill Henry."
Joe wet his lips. His eyes were luminous--a combination of smoked glass and jeweled firelight. The fringe of his lashes dipped once--lush and elegant, thicker than a woman might hope for. The crest of that velvety line against pale, translucent skin, brought a knot of emotion to Ben's constricting throat.
"She's Chet Brecker's daughter," Joe said with brittle effort. Turning his head to the side, he looked up at his father. "I-I messed up again, didn't I?" he asked softly.
The remainder of Ben's heart crumbled into pieces. "No, Son." Leaning forward, Ben pressed a kiss to his forehead. Beneath his lips, he felt the alarming touch of cold flesh. His hand glided from Joe's cheek, curving onto his neck then descending to lodge on his shoulder. The fingers splayed onto his back, gently massaging the ball of corded muscle embedded there. "No one could have known."
"Pa--" Joe gave a choked sound and turned his face into the protective corner of the couch. "I'm such an idiot," he mumbled, the words coming through the strain of quivering breath and leashed emotion. He was shivering again, huddling down into elusive warmth.
"You couldn't have known," Ben insisted once more. Placing a hand on Joe's leg just above the knee, he gave a gentle squeeze. Firm flesh and wet denim scrapped against the callouses on his work-roughened palm. "Shey's sending someone for the doctor--"
"Already did," Shey Cutter interrupted, striding purposefully into the room. Without hesitation he approached the sofa, his face schooled to a composed mask. The corners of his mouth twitched in a sharp smile as he stood gazing down at his friend. "You ain't bleedin' on my davenport are you, Cartwright?"
Joe uttered a short snort of laughter, and immediately clutched both hands over his middle. "Nah," he returned, with a tight grin. "Just your coat."
Ignoring his son's strained attempts at humor, Ben rose to his feet. "Come on, Shey--help me get him upstairs and out of these wet clothes--"
"--something I was never able to do," a new voice inserted smoothly. Startled, both men turned towards the doorway. The sight which greeted them, had both men reaching for their pistols in a matter of seconds. "I wouldn't, gentlemen," Dayle Coleman said with cool authority. She stood just inside the threshold of the living room, behind, and slightly to the right of Callie Garrett. One hand held a Colt pistol with familiar ease; the other rested in a restrictive grip on the back of Callie's neck. For her part, the younger girl looked more perturbed then frightened.
Hearing the new voice, Joe pulled himself to a sitting position, bracing himself in the corner of the sofa. He dropped one leg to the floor; kept the other tucked loosely on the cushions. Ben moved behind him, placing both hands on his shoulders, gaze flinty and dark, as he stared across the room at the auburn-haired woman. Nonchalantly, Shey strolled to the foot of the davenport, and leaned into the frame. The positioning left little doubt of their intent--a guard on either end, with Joe protectively cocooned in the center.
Dayle sneered. "How insipidly noble . . . and incredibly stupid. I've got six bullets in this gun--more than enough for all of you."
"The others have nothing to do with this," Joe said quickly, his words laced with strength he clearly didn't feel. In the diffused glow of hearth and lantern light, his skin appeared waxen, plaited with bruising edges of shadow. Unseen, he curled his fingers into his palms, trying to still the ceaseless tremors afflicting his body. "Let them go."
"Joseph, be quiet," Ben said curtly.
A mocking ripple of laughter escaped Dayle's lips. "More inane sentiment. Perhaps you do know a thing or two about kinship after all, Joe Cartwright. That should make my bullet all the easier to digest. As for the others--well . . ." she shrugged with apparent dismissal, " . . . one can't leave witnesses behind."
"Like you did in Salt Lake?" Ben prodded.
Caught off guard by the comment, Dayle's gaze grew withering. Her fingers tightened on Callie's neck, causing the younger woman to flinch. "What are you babbling about?" she snapped at Ben. The pistol rose slightly, hovering shy of Callie's temple, conveying the hair-trigger turn of the mercenary's mood.
Ben remained stoic. "You were careless in Salt Lake, and left a witness behind after you gunned down that shopkeeper. That's why I'm here--I came to warn Joe." Unobtrusively, Ben's fingers tightened on his son's shoulders in an attempt to impart strength. Though Joe's trembling wasn't visible, Ben could feel the quiver of knotted muscle beneath his fingertips. He knew his son was dangerously close to the point of exhaustion, and wouldn't be able to maintain the charade of stamina much longer. With effort, Ben refocused his attention on the woman in the doorway. "Sheriff Coffee knows all about you, Miss Coleman. He was rounding up deputies and following behind me."
"You're lying," Dayle snapped.
"No," Ben said, tonelessly. "I simply came ahead in hopes of preventing a bloodbath. We were under the impression Clifford Dunn had hired you--"
Even as the last word left his mouth, he felt Joe's body convulse beneath his hands. Joe gave a soft moan--one single, fragile breath of air--then folded against the stiff backrest of the sofa. Alarmed, Ben glanced down to see a steady ribbon of blood trickling from davenport to floor. Joe's arm fell limply to the side, the hand he'd held over the wound, now wet and fouled with blood.
"Get away from him," Dayle Coleman ordered, voice rising in strident command. Roughly, she nudged Callie a step further into the room. "He isn't going to die like that--not like that. Now get away from him or I'll blow a hole through this paltry wisp of a girl."
"Paltry!" Callie Garrett fumed. Twisting sharply, she jabbed her elbow into the woman behind her, breaking free of the restrictive grip on her neck.
Though the movement was thoroughly unexpected, Ben Cartwright used the disruption to his advantage. His gun cleared the holster even as he saw Dayle lining to fire. Her bullet discharged at the same moment Callie knocked her arm aside. Ben and Shey fired simultaneously, the roar of gunfire like a small explosion in the confining box of the room. Even as his finger jerked on the trigger, Ben lurched forward, shielding his unconscious son with his own body. He heard Dayle's shot ping wide; knew his own had struck her shoulder with the intent to wound. Shey Cutter, however, had no such scruples, and buried a .44 slug in the center of her throat.
There followed a sickening gurgle; a thin mist of spurting blood. With a strangled gasp, Dayle Coleman crumbled to the floor, gun tumbling limply from her fingers. The grisly mask of her face--lily-white and contorted in death--was a harrowing contrast to the feminine lace of her melon-hued gown. Blood trickled from the hole in her throat, entwining her neck like some macabre locket. With a hand pressed to her mouth, Callie Garrett backed away from the gruesome apparition. "Good Heavens, Shey!"
Ignoring the unconcealed accusation in the words, Shey holstered his pistol, and swung around to face Ben. "Let's get Joe upstairs," he said tersely.
Wordlessly, Ben nodded.
Together the two men lifted their unconscious burden and carried him up
the steps. Alone, with the dead woman, Callie Garrett sank into the
nearest chair--uncertain if what she'd just witnessed was salvation or
Ben Cartwright walked Paul Martin to the front door, one hand resting companionably on the shorter man's shoulder. "Thanks again, for coming so quickly, Paul. Guess we've given you a lot of practice over the years where Little Joe is concerned."
Paul Martin offered a wry smile as he shrugged into his coat. "If it's all the same to you, Ben, it's a practice I'd just as soon stop. That's one lucky young man upstairs--if that bullet had been off a fraction of an inch either way, you'd be summoning an undertaken, not a doctor."
Ben gave a heart-felt sigh. "I know. Makes me think maybe someone was watching over him."
Paul hesitated, hand on the door knob. "A little philosophical tonight, aren't you, Ben?"
The other shrugged. "Sometimes we have to be."
"Well . . ." the doctor's mouth stretched in a lazy smile. "You just give him the medication I left; keep the wound clean and dry, and see that he gets plenty of rest and stays off his feet. He'll be back to breaking horses in no time." Tugging open the door, Paul hesitated on the threshold, his gaze wandering in the direction of the living room. "Better keep Joe here, at the Circle C for awhile. It'll be a few days at least, before he can be moved." The smile stretched into a rakish grin. "I wouldn't worry too much, Ben. There might not be any celestial guardians in residence, but I think this ranch has at least one watchdog with your son's best interest at heart."
Ben's eyes skirted in the direction of the living room, following Paul's animated stare. "Thanks," he said, clapping the doctor on the back.
After he'd gone, Ben stood hesitating. His glance shifted between the staircase, profuse with shadows near the top, and the corner edge of the living room. He could see a dark blotch by the doorway--the aging stain of Dayle Coleman's spilled blood, against the lighter cream of an embroidered rug. Though Sheriff Coffee had arrived with his deputies and removed the body, betraying tokens remained attesting to the earlier ugliness. One of those, was Shey Cutter's uncharacteristic somberness.
With a final glance to the stairway, Ben walked into the living room.
"Doc gone?" Shey asked hollowly. He was seated in a chair near the hearth, staring morosely into the flames, hands resting loosely on the padded arms of the chair. He spared barely a glance at Ben's entrance.
Sinking into a seat across from him, Ben gave a brief nod. "Callie's upstairs with Joe. He's going to be fine, Shey." The hint of a smile touched his face, easing the tired lines. "I have you to thank for that."
"You mean because I killed Coleman?" Shey snapped acidly.
Ben failed to react. " I mean because you took a chance Mitch Campbell was telling the truth, and went looking for him. A little longer on that hillside, and Joe would have likely died."
Irritated, Shey pushed briskly to his feet. One hand skimmed through his straight hair, much in the same manner of Joe's characteristic gesture. His eyes were acerbic when he glanced at Ben. "Why don't you just say it?" he retorted in a scathing voice, arm dropping to his side with clipped agitation. "You and Callie both--you don't think I should have killed Daphne--Dayle--whatever the hell her name was."
Sitting forward, Ben laced his hands between his knees. "It's not in my place or anyone else's to sit in judgement, Shey."
The blonde-haired man snorted contemptuously. With bristling short strides, he began to pace before the fireplace. "Look, Mr. Cartwright, I wasn't raised like Joe, okay? Yeah, my father was a good man, but I was a little too wild to restrain. I've always been a bit edgy, never sure what side of the line I'm on. Joe was a hellion when we were kids, but no one ever doubted what kind of man he'd be."
Ben spread his hands wide, unable to comprehend the problem. "Your point is--"
"My point," Shey snapped, all acid and belligerence, "is suddenly I'm a respectable man--owner of the Circle C, best friends with Joe Cartwright. In reality it's nothing more than a facade. I'm still the same arrogant bastard I always was. That woman shot my friend; came into my home and threatened my, er . . . um . . . Callie . . . and you expect me to be lenient?"
"Shey I don't expect you to be anything. Neither does Callie. The only person sitting in judgement here is yourself." Ben stood and slid a hand onto his shoulder. His fingers tightened with clear affection. "Whatever you are, it's enough for my son to think highly of you, and that's enough for me and his brothers."
For a moment there was no reaction, then slowly the words penetrated as though seeping through a fog. Shey drew a breath and hung his head. "Damn your disgustingly-moral-headstrong-snit-of-a-son for wearing off on me," he muttered, but there was clearly humor in his voice now. Raising his eyes, he cast a speculative glance at the older man. "What do I do about Callie? I do care for her, Mr. Cartwright. If she thought I was . . . well, you know . . . heartless . . . I don't think I could stand it."
"She's upstairs," Ben said, with an encouraging smile. "You might try talking to her--tell her how you feel--explain why you did, what you did. I think you'll find her understanding."
Reluctantly, Shey nodded. "You mean face the music?"
Ben gave a reassuring squeeze to his shoulder, then headed towards the doorway. "I'll check on Joe and send her down. If I were you Shey, I'd talk to her in any room but this one." He cast a meaningful glance to the discolored stain on the foam-colored rug. "Or at the very least, get rid of that."
With a guilty flush, Shey nodded. "Thanks, Mr. Cartwright."
As Ben walked up the stairs
he could hear the younger man hastily moving about in the living room,
removing all trace of anything offensive having occurred there. A
twinge of apprehension touched Ben's heart. He wondered if he'd be
able to do the same for his son.
Joe came awake with a low moan--senses blurred by a laudanum haze, not quite sufficient to mute the niggling pain in his lower side and back. Twisting fitfully, he grasped the bedcovers, shoving them down to his waist. Almost immediately firm hands snared his wrists, pinning his hands and restricting his movements.
"Joseph, lie still," a familiar voice said. Something about the tone made his restless movements cease. For a moment the pain was forgotten and he focused on the voice. With concentrated effort, he forced his eyes open.
Weak, gray light streamed through an open window, defining the dark papered walls of a square room. He recognized the furnishings--rich walnut accentuated by hues of navy, sand and wine. It was a room he frequently used when spending the night at the Circle C. Even now the intrusion of apparitional half-light puddled at the foot of the bed--a familiar herald of the breaking dawn. Something touched his cheek and he turned his head to the side, seeking the blissful warmth of contact.
Joe blinked. "Pa . . ." he managed weakly.
Ben Cartwright moved from a bedside chair to the edge of the mattress. The boxsprings creaked at receiving his weight. Adjusting the blankets over his son's chest, he slid Joe's arms beneath the enveloping warmth. "It's almost dawn," he announced softly. "You slept through the night."
Joe ran his tongue over the cracked skin of his lips. "I . . . don't remember," he said carefully.
Retrieving a pitcher of water from the nightstand, Ben partially filled a glass. Wordlessly, he cupped a hand behind Joe's neck, supporting his head while he drank. Though managing only a few swallows, it was enough to strengthen Joe's voice. "Daphne?" he asked.
Ben set the glass aside. "I'm sorry, Son."
Joe closed his eyes. A shuddering breath made him sink lower beneath the blankets. In the spectral radiance of the room, his features appeared drawn and gaunt. "I remember now," he said tonelessly. "Shey killed her."
"He saved your life."
"He saved my life when he found me on that hillside." Shifting, Joe grimaced. Pain spiked from his side to his back, making him grind his teeth together. A soft moan slipped from his lips and he instinctively reached for Ben's arm.
"It's all right, Son, I'm right here." Leaning forward, Ben cupped his palm against Joe's cheek. He heard the shivering intake of the younger man's breath and felt the pinch of constricting fingers over his wrist. "I know you're hurting, Little Joe. You've got to lie still."
Joe gave a short, strangled laugh. "I'm a damn sorry judge of character, aren't I?"
Ben ignored the bitter sting of the words. His fingers slipped into the ragged tangle of curls on his son's forehead, gently threading them back from skin grown waxen and cool. "She had us all fooled, Joseph."
"But I was the only one who loved her," he returned bitterly, and this time there was nothing Ben could say to alleviate the pain. Joe turned his face away. "I'm tired, Pa. I need to sleep."
Ben hesitated, reluctant
to concede the conversation on such a despondent note, but it was obvious
Joe needed rest. Moving once again to the bedside chair, he prepared
to maintain a vigil as long as necessary.
"Well, Sleeping Beauty awakens." Shey Cutter grinned brashly, closing the door to Joe's room behind him. Three days after Joe's initial injury, dawn dragged into late morning, bringing with it the promise of a snowstorm funneling from the northwest. Outside the sky had darkened, fusing pallid blue with gunmetal gray, and the charcoal plumes of swag-bellied clouds. Impinging shadow kept the light sallow and weak within the room, while the beyond the window pane, virgin snow plaited delicate lace against the glass.
Joe leaned back against the cushioning embrace of multiple pillows, his usually vibrant green eyes muted with tell-tale streaks of pain. "Hi, Shey," he said softly. "Guess I haven't been much company these last couple days, huh?"
"That would depend on your definition of company, Cartwright." Though his tone remained light, a certain stiffness wormed its way into Shey's whiskey-colored eyes. He slid to a seat at the foot of the bed, drawing one leg, bent at the knee, onto the mattress. "You've been fussed over, prodded and poked. I'd think you'd damn well be sick of everyone."
"You've been pretty scarce lately," Joe pointed out.
"Yeah, well . . ." Shey's glance slid sideways, the downward tilt of his head indicting he'd grown uncomfortable. Rolling his shoulders into a shrug, he tried to reclaim his earlier levity. "You know how it is--the Circle C can't run without me. I've been busy lately--rancher stuff."
Joe snorted. "Rancher stuff? Who taught you how to lie, Cutter? You were a heck of a sight better at it, when we were kids."
Shey blew air through his nose. Locking both hands over his knee, he rocked backed against the bedpost, lips twisting in a disgruntled frown. "Ain't you supposed to be a guest here, Joseph? Your family's damn near taken over my house. Your Pa's all but moved in, and those two brothers of yours come and go like they own the place--"
"--hardships for sure--"
Chuckling softly, Shey shook his head. "House hasn't been so full since . . ." But the words trailed away, leaving a glaring emptiness behind. Instinctively, Joe knew the other man was remembering father, mother, and a brother who may as well have been dead, for all his contact over the last six years.
Uncomfortable with the silence, Joe shifted, wincing slightly when pain waffled through his back. Gnawing on his bottom lip, he tensed at the suddenly barbed expression in Shey's eyes. The issue of kinship Dayle Coleman had unwittingly resurrected for both men, transcended Breckers and Cartwrights. For the first time since recovering, Joe realized how lucky he'd been over the last few days.
"Just so you know," he ventured, seeking anything that might lessen the sting. " . . . about Daphne--I did love her, but not like most people thought. You did what you had to do, and I'm grateful for that." He hesitated, then smiled. This time the light reached his eyes. "Hell, Shey--ain't you just a shade tired of saving my life?"
As intended, the question brought an wolfish curl to Shey's lips. "Better question is, ain't I gettin' just a shade tired of this friendship? Like I said before, Cartwright--you're a pain in my backside. Now I know what those brothers of yours had to put with all these years."
"Hey! Someone mention brothers?"
Both men turned in the direction of the door, to find Adam and Hoss on the threshold. The latter grinned with casual warmth, dusting his ten-gallon hat against his legs. Snowflakes clung to the fleece collar of his heavy coat, melting with swift demise. Adam pushed past him, tossing his own hat on the nearest chair. "Snow's picking up. We thought you could use some company."
"You mean you thought you could use a break from work," Joe corrected with a crooked grin.
"Hmm . . ." Adam cast Hoss an arch look. "Sounds to me like our little brother is getting better already."
"Yeah," the big man returned. "Disrespectful as ever."
"We'll have none of that now," a new voice inserted, clearly amused. Ben Cartwright followed his sons into the room, his own grin reflecting affection and warmth.
With all the members of his family present, Joe felt the blissful assurance of kinship wash over him. For a moment Daphne and the ugliness of the past few days were forgotten. Here, among family and friends, was comfort that transcended any love he might have felt for the auburn-haired woman. Perhaps the thin, tenuous strand which had kept him from pledging himself to her, had more to do with his own inner peace, rather than his doubts.
From the corner of his eye he saw Shey Cutter silently withdrawing to the door. "Where you goin', pal?"
Though his voice was quiet, it reached Shey over the continuing banter of the other Cartwrights. Hesitating on the threshold, the blonde-haired man shrugged, eyes darting almost guiltily to the three conversing at the foot of the bed. Together, with Joe, the four men were clearly a family. "Rancher stuff," Shey returned lightly, but he plainly felt the odd man out.
"Hang around for awhile," Joe invited, keeping the request casual.
Still Shey hesitated.
"Hey, Shey--" Hoss called, breaking away from the others. "Me 'n Adam got a bet goin.' I say Joe'll last two more days 'fore he's cursin' 'n cussin', wantin' to get outta that bed. Adam says three. What'dya think?"
The temptation was enough to draw Shey back into the room. Lodging his hands on his hips, he considered his friend, rekindled humor snidely tugging the corners of his lips. "You mean Sleeping Beauty, here?"
Joe's answering smile was determinedly wicked. "I've got a better bet--odds on how long a brand-skittish rancher can continue to sidestep marriage."
Hoss chortled with laughter, sparkling blue eyes rounding with playful delight. "I like the sound of that one, little brother. Ain't nuthin' better for a cocksure rooster than a reckonin' with a determined hen."
"Now wait a minute--" Shey protested, hotly, and the room erupted with laughter.
Joe flicked an index finger against his tongue. Raising his hand, he sketched a quick, imaginary "1" in the air. Someone had once said laughter was the best medicine.
He was more inclined to believe it was family.
For those who are interested, and can't keep track of my "guest stars" or don't know which stories they appear in . . . here's a "Guest Star" directory:
Lorna David (referenced in Restitution; A Penny for your
Problems. Appears in Defending Miss David; Betrayal. References in
all succeeding stories)
Shey Cutter (Betrayal; Chaos; Encounter at Oxbow; Kinship)
Amos Cutter (Betrayal)
Callie Garrett (Encounter at Oxbow; Kinship)
Chet Brecker and sons (Restitution; referenced in Kinship)
Mitch Campbell (Betrayal; Kinship; minor appearance in Defending Miss David)
William Arlen (Ringgold; Encounter at Oxbow)
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