To Be or Not To Be
by
Susan Grote



Joe Cartwright heard the shouting and swearing before he ever saw the garishly painted wagon. Riding toward the top of a hill on the short-cut to north pasture, Joe could hear the voices. One was shouting instructions while another seemed to be swearing in frustration at trying to follow the orders. Joe pulled his pinto to a halt at the top of the hill and looked down to see what all the commotion was about.

A box wagon Ė the kind used by traveling shows Ė was sitting in the middle of the road to Virginia City. The wagon was painted bright red, with yellow curlicues sprinkled across the crimson. Bright blue letters proclaimed the wagon to belong to "Harris and Company". The wheels of the wagon were painted bright yellow also. Three of the wheels were in place, but the fourth wheel was missing from the wagon, causing it to tilt severely to one side. Three men stood near the wagon, pointing at the wagon as well as each other. Joe figured the missing wheel was reason for all the commotion.

Chucking his horse forward, Joe started down the hill. He could see the men gesturing and could hear their increasing loud voices. Two of the men seemed to be arguing over how to get the wheel back on the wagon, while the third stood a little ways off, holding the offending wheel. The three men were one of the oddest groups Joe could ever remember seeing. One looked to be about 40, wearing loud tan and brown checked pants and a small bowler hat which was pushed back on his head. A pair of bright red suspenders looped over the manís white shirt, holding up the pants that were almost as garish as the wagon. The second man was tall, well over six feet, but as thin as the proverbial bean pole. Joe doubted if the man weighed over a hundred pounds. The man holding the wheel was as short as the other man was tall. His head barely cleared the top of the wheel. As Joe rode toward the wagon, he wondered about the strange group.

"Hello," shouted Joe as he neared the wagon. "Can you fellows use some help?"

The man in the checked pants turned in surprise. He had been so busy shouting orders that he hadnít noticed Joeís approach. Now, as he saw the well-built cowboy perched on the pinto, his face broke into a smile. "Ah, a knight, come to rescue us from our peril," said the man theatrically. "Indeed you can be of help, young man. As you can see, we are temporarily stranded by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

Amused by the manís words, Joe smiled. "Iím not sure about slings and arrows," Joe replied as he dismounted, "but it looks like you lost a wheel."

"Yes, we have," acknowledged the man, agreeing with Joeís practical assessment of the situation. "Unfortunately, we have found that no combination of the two of us are strong enough to lift the wagon while the third slips the wheel back on. Perhaps you would be good enough to lend us some of your muscles to rectify the situation."

Smiling at the manís flowery prose, Joe walked closer to the wagon. He wasnít surprised that the men were having difficulty. The one in the checked pants looked to have more flab than muscle on his body, and the tall man seemed to have barely enough flesh to cover his bones. The small man was evenly proportioned for his size but his build would have been considered average on even a normal sized individual.

Kneeling by the wagon, Joe inspected the axle. "Doesnít look like there are any cracks or breaks in the axle," he commented as he looked under the wagon. "The wheel must have come loose."

"Yes, yes, it did," agreed the man in the checked pants. He looked pointedly toward the tall man. "It was supposed to have been tightened before we left Cedar Flats, but somebody forgot to take care of it." The tall man looked toward the sky, suddenly finding a fascination with the clouds over his head.

"If we can lift the axle and get the wheel back on, you should be in good shape," Joe advised, standing and brushing the dirt off the knees of his pants. "I donít suppose you have a wheel jack?"

"Ah, no," answered the man in the checked pants regretfully.

"Didnít think so," Joe replied with a nod. He pulled on the axle a bit, testing the weight of the wagon. He could tell the wagon was heavy, very heavy. "I donít know if we can lift the wagon even with the three of us," he said doubtfully. "We might have to unload it."

"Could we give it a try?" suggested the man in the checked paints. "Unloading the wagon and then loading it back up again will take us all day. I want to try to get to Virginia City by dark."

"Sure, we can try," Joe agreed with a shrug. He turned to the small man holding the wheel. "We may not be able to hold up the axle for very long, so as soon as we get it off the ground, you slip the wheel on." The small man nodded.

"All right," said Joe turning back to the other two men. "Letís give it a try." The three men grabbed the axle, Joe on the left side and the other two on the right. Joe took a firm grip on the middle of the axle as the other two wrapped their hands around the shaft on either side of his. Joe took a deep breath and tightened his grip. "Now, lift!" he ordered.

Three backs strained with efforts as three sets of arms pulled the axle from the ground. The wagon groaned as the axle rose slowly from the dust. Joe turned his head to shout at the small man, but saw the man was already moving the wheel toward the wagon. The axle wasnít quite high enough off the ground for the man to slip on the wheel. Joe took another deep breath and pulled harder on the wooden shaft in his hands. The axle rose another few inches. Joe could see the wheel coming closer, but the hole in the center was still an inch or two higher the axle. Joe closed his eyes and pulled once more, his face grimacing with the effort. He heard, rather than saw, the wheel snap into place.

Blowing out a puff of air, Joe dropped his hands from the axle, letting his arms dangle for a minute at his side. He bent over a bit and took several deep breaths, bringing his breathing back to normal after the exertion of lifting the wagon. Then he straightened and looked across the wheel.

The tall man was breathing heavily also, his face red and sweaty. The man in the checked pants, however, looked as fresh as when Joe rode up. Joe suspected that he hadnít done much lifting.

"Looks like youíre all set," announced Joe with a nod toward the wheel. "Just put the wheel nut on and make sure itís tight. You should get to Virginia City without any more problems."

"Thank you, thank you, young man," said the man in the checked pants. His eyes suddenly darted about nervously. "I, ah, I donít have anything with which to pay your for your servicesÖ."

Joe waved off the payment. "No payment needed. Iím just glad I could help."

The man seemed relieved. "We appreciate your help, MrÖMrÖ

"Cartwright," supplied Joe. "Joe Cartwright."

The manís eyebrows rose in surprise. "Cartwright? Any relation to Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa?"

"My father," acknowledged Joe with a brief nod.

A thoughtful look crossed the manís face. "We must do something to repay you," he said forcefully. "A kind gesture shouldnít go unrewarded."

"Not necessary," repeated Joe.

"You must come to our show when we get set up in Virginia City," urged the man. "Perhaps our small entertainment will amuse you."

Glancing at the letters on the wagon, Joe asked, "Harris and Company? Are you Harris?"

"Yes, indeed," replied the man with a bit of a bow. "Bert Harris, at your service."

"What kind of show do you do?" Joe asked curiously.

"We try to entertain the whole family," answered Harris. He pointed to the small man. "Bob here does a puppet show which the children and even some adults enjoy." Cocking his head toward the tall man, Harris continued, "Frank does the comedy Ė funny dances and silly walks. I do the singing and the patter."

"The patter?" asked Joe with a bit of a frown. "Whatís that?"

"I tell the folks about Harrisí Fine Tonic," Harris explained. "Guaranteed to cure what ails you. Gives your energy if youíre tied and helps you sleep if you need it. Calms the nerves and brightens the outlook. And all for just fifty cents a bottle."

Oh," said Joe, his face clearing as understanding dawned. "A medicine show. Well, thanks anyhow, but I donít thinkÖ."

"You havenít met the star of our show," interrupted Harris. He turned and walked around end of the wagon. "Beth! Beth," called Harris around the back of the wagon. "Come here, girl. Weíve got the wagon fixed."

Taking a step toward the end of the wagon, Joe looked in the direction at which Harris was shouting. He saw a girl sitting under a tree a short distance away, reading and apparently totally uninterested in the activities on the road.

"Beth!" Harris shouted again. "Weíre ready to go!"

This time the girl looked up. She closed the book, marking her place with a finger and slowly got to her feet. Joe watched her rise gracefully, and he wondered what kind of a person would show such a lack of concern for her fellow travelers and their plight. But as the girl walked slowly toward the wagon, Joeís criticism faded from his mind.

The girl was tall, with thick black hair that hung loosely to her shoulders. She was wearing a long-sleeved white blouse with the collar turned up. The blouse hugged her ample breasts, and was tucked into the waistband of a dark blue skirt which framed her slim waist and hips. The girl moved with grace and ease, almost gliding rather than walking toward the wagon.

As she drew closer, Joe could see her face -- a perfect oval with a small nose and thick lips. But it was her eyes that fascinated Joe. Joe had never seen such blue eyes. They were bluer than the water in Lake Tahoe and looked just as deep. Framed by dark lashes, her eyes drew Joeís gaze like a magnet.

As the girl walked up to the wagon, she gave Joe a look that was full of both curiosity and caution.

"Beth, my dear," said Harris. "This is Joe Cartwright. He was kind of enough to help us repair the wagon."

The girl looked boldly at Joe, making a frank assessment of the young cowboy who stood in front of her. Apparently pleased with what she saw, the girl smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Cartwright," Beth said in a gracious voice.

"Please, call me, Joe," Joe replied, his eyes never leaving the girls face. Beth bowed her head a bit in acknowledgment.

"Beth is a pretty name," added Joe. He immediately kicked himself mentally for such an inane comment. Joe was proud of his ability to charm the ladies, but with this girl, he suddenly found himself babbling like an idiot.

"I like it," noted Beth with an amused smile.

"What do you do in the show?" asked Joe, desperately trying to get his suddenly mushy brain to come up with an intelligent question.

"I dance a bit," answered Beth vaguely.

"Beth is a fine dancer," Bert explained. "The star of our show. Dances like an angel, moving with the grace of a deer. She does the dance of Salome, draped in veils and guaranteed to grab your undivided attention."

"She already has my undivided attention," Joe admitted, giving Beth his most winning smile.

"Bert exaggerates," said Beth, smiling back at Joe. "Iím not really that good of a dancer."

"I guess Iíll just have to come and see for myself," Joe countered, his smile widening.

"Joeís father is Ben Cartwright," said Bert in a sly voice. "Owner of the Ponderosa, the biggest ranch in Nevada."

"How nice for Joe," replied Beth, her eyes twinkling as her smile seemed to brighten.

"I suggested we pay him for his help by inviting him to our show," continued Bert.

"Yes, that would be nice," Beth agreed with a nod. "I hope you will come. I think I might dance exceptionally well if I knew you were in the audience."

"When do you open?" asked Joe in an eager voice, his eyes still riveted on Bethís blue eyes.

"Tomorrow night," Bert told the young cowboy. "Weíve rented a building on the edge of town. An old freight terminal, I believe. Our show starts at seven."

"Iíll be there," promised Joe. He stared at the attractive girl, seemingly unable to pull himself away from her presence. "Could I take you to dinner after the show?" Joe asked Beth in a hopeful voice.

A strange look crossed Bethís face and she suddenly lowered her eyes. "I donít know," she answered in a voice that sounded almost frightened. "Iím not sure thatís a wise idea."

"Iím sure youíll be perfectly safe with young Mr. Cartwright," urged Bert.

"Absolutely," agreed Joe in a solemn voice. "You can ask anyone in Virginia City. Iím known as a perfect gentleman."

Looking up at the handsome young man, Bethís smile returned. "Iím sure I could get an opinion from a number of young ladies in Virginia City," she teased.

"Well, maybe a few," Joe admitted with a wry grin. "How about it? Dinner tomorrow night?"

"Perhaps," said Beth in a reluctant voice. "Come by the wagon after the show. Iíll let you know."

"Tomorrow night after the show," acknowledged Joe with a nod. He stared at the girl for a moment longer. "Well, um, I better be getting back to work," he added.

"Thank you again for your help, young man, " said Harris, sticking out his hand. Joe took the offered hand and shook it briefly. He turned to take one last look at Beth. Joe put his hand to his hat brim and tugged on it. The girl smiled and cocked her head a bit in reply.

After walking over to his horse, Joe vaulted into the saddle. "See you tomorrow night," he called as he turned his horse. His words were said to the group, but his eyes were on Beth as he spoke. Joe kicked his horse lightly and started riding toward the north pasture. He didnít realize he was whistling as he rode.

**********

His stomach was grumbling for food as Joe descended the stairs toward the breakfast table the next morning. He had missed dinner last night, coming home when the sky was practically black. Joe knew it was his own fault that he was late. He had checked the water holes in the north pasture as he was suppose to, but he had done it with a distracted air. Twice he found himself staring into the water with no idea how long he had been sitting on his horse by the small pond. His mind was filled with the image of silky black hair and blue eyes, not the muddy water in front of him.

When he finally reached home, his father and brothers had already finished their evening meal. Joe walked into the house to see Ben Cartwright in his chair by the fire and Adam and Hoss playing chess. His half-hearted apology had been greeted by a brief lecture from his father about being on time. Hop Sing also had scolded him in a spate of Chinese as the cook put a plate of warmed up stew in front of Joe. Joe had barely heard the stern words from both men, and had barely tasted the few bites of stew he had eaten. His thoughts were still on a blue-eyed beauty named Beth.

Making an excuse of being tired, Joe had left his almost untouched dinner and headed straight to bed. Joe had eagerly sought the privacy of his room and his bed so he could go over for what seemed the hundredth time his meeting with Beth. He was sure he slept with a smile on his face as his dreams were filled with her image.

But while images of black hair and blue eyes pleasured Joeís soul, those images did little for his stomach. Now, as the sun began to rise, thoughts of Beth were nudged to the back of his mind. Joeís thoughts were on food and easing the hungry growling of his stomach.

"Morning," said Joe with a nod as he slipped into his chair.

Adam and Hoss nodded their greeting to him. Both were sipping coffee as they waited for Hop Sing to bring breakfast.

"Good morning," replied Ben briefly as he also began to sip his coffee.

Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen with a platter of scrambled eggs and bacon. He stopped next to Joeís chair and shoved the platter in front of Joe.

"You eat," demanded the cook. "You no eat dinner. Not good for you to not eat."

"Donít worry, Hop Sing," said Joe in a soothing voice as he began to scrap some of the eggs onto his plate. "Iím hungry enough to out-eat Hoss this morning."

"Thatíll be the day," commented Adam wryly.

Standing silent by the table, Hop Sing watched Joe fill his plate with eggs and bacon. He snorted with satisfaction as Joe forked a large piece of the eggs into his mouth.

"Hop Sing, you going to stand there all day holding those eggs or are you going to feed the rest of us?" complained Hoss.

Hop Sing set the platter on the table. "Mr. Hoss like Hop Singís cooking," he said. "Mr. Hoss always eat." Hop Sing looked pointedly at Joe. "Mr. Hoss never miss dinner."

"Um, Hop Sing, I wonít be here for dinner tonight," Joe told the cook almost tentatively.

Immediately, Hop Singís nose went into the air. "Little Joe not like Hop Singís cooking," he declared in an insulted voice. "Hop Sing not wanted. I leave."

"Now calm down, Hop Sing," said Ben in a reasonable voice. "Iím sure Joe loves your cooking." Ben looked at his youngest son. "Donít you?"

"Oh, I love your cooking Hop Sing," agreed Joe, trying to hide a smile. "I think itís the best cooking on the Comstock. I wouldnít miss dinner if it wasnít something real important, I promise you."

Looking mollified, Hop Sing nodded. "You eat big breakfast," he ordered Joe. "Eat good so you not get thin and sick." With that remark, Hop Sing turned and walked into the kitchen, mumbling in Chinese as left the dinning room.

"Pa, I bet you never figured you were hiring a mother hen as well as a cook when you took on Hop Sing," said Joe with a chuckled.

Ben didnít answer. He was watching as Hoss emptied half the platter of eggs onto his plate. "Hoss, would you mind leaving something for the rest of us to eat?" he asked in an aggravated tone of voice.

"What?" replied Hoss. "Oh, yeah, sorry, Pa." He quickly handed the platter to Ben.

After filling his plate, Ben handed the platter down the table toward Adam. "Now, whatís this about missing dinner tonight?" asked Ben as he began to eat.

"I want to go into Virginia City," replied Joe as he continued to eat. "Iíll have dinner there." Joe glanced at his father. "If thatís all right with you."

"Of course, itís all right with me," Ben agreed in an indulgent voice. "If youíve finished checking the north pasture," he added in a sterner tone.

"Yep, all done," Joe answered. "The only water hole thatís low is the small one near Granite Point. We probably should dig that one deeper,"

"Whatís so important about going into Virginia City?" asked Adam curiously. "On a Wednesday night, I wouldnít imagine much is happening."

"Oh, I just want to see something," Joe explained vaguely.

"See what, little brother?" asked Hoss.

Joe sighed. He had hoped that he wouldnít have to explain to his brothers about the medicine show, but he knew they would question and probe until they found out why he was going to town. "Thereís a traveling show opening tonight. I thought Iíd go in and see it."

"A show," said Adam with a frown. "I didnít see anything about a show opening at the Opera House."

"Well, itís not exactly at the Opera House," Joe admitted.

"What kind of show isnít presented at the Opera House?" pressed Adam.

"Um, well, itís kind of a medicine show," said Joe in a low a voice.

"A medicine show?" exclaimed Hoss. "Why do you want to see a medicine show, Joe?"

Looking down at his plate, Joe didnít answer. He simply forked another bit of egg into his mouth.

"Oh," said Adam as realization came to him. "Thereís a girl in the show. A pretty one, Iíll bet." He looked at Joe with a puzzled expression. "But howíd you find out about it? You havenít been in town for a week?"

Shrugging his shoulders, Joe tried to look unconcerned. "Their wagon broke down on the Virginia City road. I happened across them on the way to the north pasture. I helped them fix the wagon and they invited me to the show."

"And met a pretty little gal in the process," added Hoss with a grin. "Joe, how did you manage to find a pretty girl in the middle of nowhere?"

"Just a talent, I guess, " replied Joe with a grin.

"Iíd watch yourself around those people," Adam warned his brother. "Those medicine shows are filled with con men and hucksters. You better make sure this girl doesnít pick you pocket before you leave town."

"Sheís not like that!" said Joe defensively.

"Oh?" Adam replied. "And just how do you know that?"

"Sheís a nice girl," Joe stated. But even to his ears, his reply sounded a bit lame. "She dances in the show, thatís all."

"Dances in the show," repeated Adam. "And what else?"

"Adam, youíre accusing this girl of something when you donít even know her," said Joe heatedly.

"And youíre trusting this girl when you donít even know her," replied Adam. "A pretty face and a sweet smile doesnít mean sheís not a con artist."

"All right, all right," interrupted Ben, hoping to forestall an argument. He turned toward his oldest son. "Adam, you know better than to label someone you havenít even met." Adam looked down at his plate, chastised by his fatherís words. Ben turned back to Joe. "As for you, Joe, I would suggest you get to know this girl before you start her side against your brother."

"Thatís just what I plan to do," agreed Joe with an impish smile.

"How late do you think youíll be tonight?" Ben tried to make the question sound as casual as possible.

"I donít know," admitted Joe. "Iím going to see the show and I hope Beth will let me take her to supper."

"Beth?" asked Ben with a cocked eyebrow.

"Thatís the girl," said Joe. His eyes took on a faraway look as Joe remembered the meeting with Beth yesterday. "Sheís got the bluest eyes Iíve ever seen," added Joe softly.

"Try not to make it too late," advised Ben, trying to hide a smile at what he considered to be Joeís latest infatuation. "We have a full day of work tomorrow." Ben looked around the table and saw the plates in front of his sons were empty. "In fact, we have a full day of work today, also. I suggest we all get busy."
 
 

***************

It didnít take Joe long to find the building on the edge of town where Harris was staging his show. The milling crowd and the squeals of delighted children led him right to the old warehouse. Joe had stabled his horse, betting that he would be in town for quite awhile. Now he walked up the street of Virginia City toward the building where Harris and Company were performing.

As he walked, Joe did a mental check on his appearance. Clean white shirt, polished boots, new tan pants, and brushed green jacket were all ticked off in his mind. He had endured the gentle kidding from Hoss on his "duded up" look before he left the house, as well as the reminder from his father not to stay out too late. Adam hadnít said a word. His oldest brother had just looked at Joe and shook his head. Joe had felt irritated with all of them. He hated it when his family treated him as if he were 12 instead of 22. But his irritation had been quickly forgotten as he rode to town. A pretty girl with black hair and blue eyes were all that was on Joeís mind right now.

As he approached the building, Joe could see a small stand surrounded by children. Puppets were performing on the top of the stand, obviously manipulated by the diminutive Bob from behind. Several adults stood on the edge of the circle of children, laughing indulgently as the puppets amused the younger members of the audience. Harris was standing a few feet from the puppets, near a table covered with bottles. As Joe walked up, Harris was just beginning his spiel. Joe heard him begin to extol the wonders of the "medicine" within the bottles.

Standing a few feet away, Joe watched and listened for a minute. Harris was a smooth talker, and he could see several of the adults looking interested. Occasionally, Bob would interrupt Harris, making a comment or a joke in a high squeaky voice that seemed to come from one of the puppets. Both the children and their parents laughed at the jibes. Joe could tell it was a well rehearsed act, designed to keep the audience from getting restless.

Skirting the crowd, Joe walked toward the door of the building. Harris spotted him as he walked by. The pitchman acknowledged Joe with a short nod and a smile, but continued his smooth talk. Joe smiled briefly at Harris and continued toward the building.

A large poster with the drawing of a dancing girl was tacked to the wall near the door of the building. The girl was dressed in an exotic outfit Ė full red pants, a gold top and a bare midriff in between. A veil covered the girlís face, showing only a pair of eyes. Her body was twisted in a seductive pose, with hands twined over her head. "The Dance of Salome" was written in bold letters across the top of the poster. The poster was old, worn and crinkled from much used. Nevertheless, Joe stopped and stared at the picture.

He couldnít see any resemblance to Beth in the girl on the poster. It was either a drawing of someone else or just a representation of a girl dancing. But Joeís eyes got a gleam in them as he looked at the poster. The dancing girl looked seductive and welcoming. A warm feeling ran through Joe as he pictured Beth in the same pose.

Someone brushed Joeís arm as they passed him, waking him from his daydream. Joe hurried toward the door of the building.

The tall man, Frank, was standing near the door selling tickets to the show. Frankís face lighted up with a smile as he saw Joe approaching.

"Well, well, hello there, Mr. Joe," said Frank in genuine pleasure. His voice had a trace of a cockney accent. "Glad you could make it to our show. Iíll be sure to tell Beth you are here."

"Hello, Frank," Joe greeted the man in return. Joe stared to dig into his jacket for some coins. "How much?"

Frank held up his hand. "Normally, itís two bits, but for you, no charge. Bert said you were to get in free anytime you came."

"Thanks," replied Joe, with a nod.

"Go right on in," continued Frank, sweeping his arm toward the door. "Take a seat in the third row center. Thatís where you can see best."

"Thanks again," said Joe, and he walked into the building.

A small stage had been assembled at the front of the building. Benches were scattered around the stage, six or seven rows deep. About twenty men were seated on the benches in various places. Joe saw only a few women. The poster on the building made it clear what to expect in the show, so very few women had bought tickets. The few that did had their hands firmly around their escortsí arms.

Joe nodded hello to a few people he recognized as he made his way to the front of the benches. He took Frankís advice and found a seat on the middle bench in the third row.

As he waited for the show to begin, Joe looked around. The stage was nothing more than a platform, raised a few feet off the ground. A curtain was draped to the side, tied to a rope that hung from the ceiling, and slanting down to a far wall. Joe assumed that the curtain was used to create a "backstage area". The cloth looked frayed and worn. At one time, it must have been a deep red, but now the color was faded to a dull rust. Small patches were clearly visible throughout the cloth.

Lamps scattered around the platform lit the stage. The lamps were widely spaced, and two or three didnít seem to be working. The platform was covered with a mottling of light and dark areas from the uneven lighting.

The audience hummed with low talk and a few loud laughs. Joe wondered how long he would to wait for the show to start. He had a feeling that the people around him would get restless very soon. Joe was already getting anxious for the show to start, but his reason wasnít boredom.

Harris had the timing of a veteran performer. Just as the crowd seemed to have reached the limits of their patience, Harris bounded onto the stage from behind the curtain, greeting the audience with a loud, "Welcome friends!" Every head in the audience immediately turned toward the stage.

Beginning the show, Harris sang a song filled with bawdy lyrics that brought laughter from the crowd. Even Joe felt himself smiling. Harris moved around the platform as he sang, his voice loud and slightly off key. He finished with a flourish, and bowed to the applause.

As Harris exited, Frank came on stage. He had a banjo in his hands, and immediately began playing. He stopped to tell a few jokes, only some of which drew laughter. He played the banjo a bit more, then began to dance. His long legs bent and moved into seemingly impossible steps, causing the crowd to whistle and clap in appreciation. Frank kicked his legs high into the air as he began strumming the banjo again. The crowd cheered as he moved around the stage. He finished with a series of quick, high kicks. Frank strummed the banjo quickly as he bowed to the applause.

Next Harris returned to the stage, this time holding a bottle in his hand. He once again began to talk about his wonderful medicine, and reminding the audience they could purchase a bottle on their way out of the building. Harris was brief; he knew he could only hold the crowdís attention for a few minutes. He walked to the edge of the stage and handed the bottle to someone behind the curtain. Then showman moved to the middle of the platform.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show," announced Harris. "The lovely Fatima will dance the dance of Salome. This dance is thousands of years old, and is known by only a few artists in the world. It is said to have so inflamed the passions of King Herod that he promised Salome anything she wanted in the world. You are indeed among the privileged few who will see this dance performed once more. I give you the lovely Fatima!" Harris spread his arms toward the curtain and slowly backed off the stage.

A low, wailing sound came from the side of the stage. Joe, as well as the rest of the audience, hadnít noticed Frank slipping from behind the curtain and standing to the side of the platform. Now Frank began to play a long, black clarinet. The music was exotic, almost eerie.

Frank had played for only a few seconds when a figure emerged from the curtain, stepping lightly toward the middle of the stage. She was dressed in the red harem pants depicted on the poster. The pants hugged her waist and hips tightly, then flared out around her legs. The bottom of the pants were tied around her ankles. Gold slippers covered the girlís feet.

As in the poster, the girlís midriff was bare. But instead of a gold top, the dancer wore a red vest-like covering. The red top had a silky look, and hugged the girlís breasts tightly. The vest was cut low, meeting in a v just above the breasts. Sleeves of gauzy white material covered the dancerís arms, billowing as she moved.

The girlís black hair was braided and coiled around her head. Gold ornaments were stuck in the braids, surrounding the dancerís head and giving the impression that she was wearing a crown. Thin stands of gold chain hung across her forehead, the ends of the chain evidently attached to the braids. A veil covered the dancerís face. Only her eyes were visible.

At first, Joe couldnít believe the girl on stage was the same girl he met on the road. The girl he remembered seemed sweet and pleasant. The dancer seemed exotic and seductive. But then he saw her eyes, her deep blue eyes, peeking over the veil and there was no doubt in Joeís mind that the dancer was Beth.

As the clarinet wailed, the girl began to move in the middle of the stage. Her arms waved slowly, and her hips began to sway. The movements were in perfect time to the music.

The beat of the music changed, and the wailing turned into a slow melody. The dancer moved across the stage, and began to dance.

Joe watched in fascination as Beth moved across the stage. Her dance was a combination of ballet steps and slow waltz movements. Occasionally, she would stop and move her hips seductively before moving on to the next series of steps. Joe

held his breath as he watched her move with grace and ease.

The music began to pick up a faster beat, and Beth moved in quicker steps. Her feet seemed to cross and uncross. Her left foot came up to her right knee as her body turned and her hands bent at the wrists, pointing to something to her side. She kicked out her leg and twirled. As she landed, her left leg bent slightly while her right leg was stretched out behind her. Bethís arms raised slowly until they were above her head, and she twisted her hands slowly around.

The audience watched in silence as Beth dropped her arms and brought her legs together. She turned slowly to face the audience, dropping her head a bit and coming to the front of the stage in swaying movements. She brought her hands together as if in prayer and bowed, then took several steps back.

Beth stood on the point of her toe in the center of the stage, and began to spin. The movement caused her pants and sleeves to billow out even more. Three quick turns finished the move. She then swayed her hips seductively again as she reached out her arms, as if pleading for something. The music got louder as her pleas seemed to become almost desperate. With a sudden movement, she pulled her arms to her back, an action which thrust her breasts forward. She held the pose for only an instant. Beth twisted her right leg over her left, and with a spinning movement, collapsed to the stage in a heap. Her hands dropped to her side and her chin fell to her chest. Beth stayed in her huddled pose as the music came to an end.

The men in the crowd began to shout and whistle in appreciation as they realized the dance was over. Several jumped to their feet as they clapped and whistled. Joe found himself clapping so hard that his hands and arms hurt.

Uncoiling herself from the middle of the stage, Beth walked slowly forward. She brought her hands together in the prayer pose as she bowed to acknowledge the applause. Her eyes seemed to be searching the crowd as she bowed. Bethís eyes stopped moving as she saw the handsome face she sought. She bowed again, this time in Joeís direction. The veil hid the girlís face so Joe wasnít sure if she was smiling at him. But the crinkles around her eyes led him to believe she was.

Beth backed slowly from the front of the stage to the center, then turned to glide behind the curtain. The whistles, shouts and applause continued until she had disappeared.

Immediately Harris bounded back onto the stage. The audience greeted him with a chorus of good natured booís. Harris smiled, expecting the audienceís unhappiness that he and not the dancer was now center stage. He began to sing again, and this time, his song was a lively tune that praised the benefits of his "medicine".

Joe watched Harris perform but his attention wasnít on the stage. He was counting the minutes to himself, trying to figure how long it might take Beth to change out of her costume. About five minutes had passed when Joe decided he couldnít wait any longer. Harris was still singing as Joe slipped out the row of benches and headed for the door of the building.

Once outside the door, Joe hesitated. He realized he wasnít sure where Beth might be. He didnít know if there was a room behind the curtain or if she left the building to return to the wagon. And he didnít know where the wagon was.

"Sheís in the wagon, Ďround the side of the building," a voice a Joeís elbow said.

Turning, Joe saw Bob setting up some bottles on a table near the door. Bob cocked his head, indicating the direction that Joe should go. Joe nodded briefly and headed around the building.

The gaudy red wagon was parked toward the back of the building, the traces facing away from the structure. Joe figured the building must have some type of back door so Beth could slip out of it and go directly to the wagon.

As he neared the wagon, Jow saw he wasnít the only man interested in the garish vehicle. Someone was knocking on the door of the wagon and calling for "Miss Fatima". Walking closer, Joe recognized the man as Jack Slater, one of the new hands from the Flying M ranch. Slater was about Joeís age, and from what Joe had heard, the hand was building himself quite a reputation as a "ladies man."

"Miss Fatima! Miss Fatima!" cried Slater as he pounded harder on the wagon door. "Please open up. I sure would like to meet you."

"Go away," came a muffled response from within the wagon.

"But Miss Fatima, you havenít even seen me," said Slater with a confidence air. "Iím sure you would like me if you saw me."

"Go away!" the muffled voice repeated.

Strolling up to the wagon, Joe stopped a few feet behind Slater. "Jack, why donít you go what the lady asks and leave," he suggested.

Slater turned in surprise. "Cartwright! I should have figured youíd be here. Well, youíre too late. I got here first. Iím taking the lady out."

"Seems like the lady doesnít want to go out with you," stated Joe in a even voice.

"A gal who dances like that?" Slater declared almost incredulously. "Shoot, sheíll go out with the first fellow who comes calling, and thatís me."

Joe clenched his fists in anger. "I think youíd better leave, Jack," said Joe in a menacing tone. "The lady already has plans for the evening, and they donít include you."

Surprise followed by anger crossed Slaterís face. "Oh, so thatís how it is," he sneered. "Sheís going to get a piece of the rich boy first. Well, fine. When sheís finished with you, sheíll come looking for a real man. Iíll be around when that time comes."

Grabbing Slater of the front his shirt, Joe pulled the man away from the wagon. "I asked you to leave," said Joe in an angry voice.

"Joe, let him go!"

Both Slater and Joe turned toward the voice. Beth was standing in the door of the wagon. She was wearing a simple print dress with a scoop neckline and her hair was hanging loose around her shoulders. There was no evidence of "Fatima" who had danced so seductively only minutes before.

"Joe, please, I donít want any trouble," pleaded Beth. "Let him go."

Releasing his hold on Slaterís shirt, Joe gave the man a shove. "Get out of here, Slater," growled Joe.

Slater looked to Beth and then to Joe. "I see how things are," he said in a sullen voice. The cowboy pulled his hat down lower on his forehead. "Iím leaving. But this ainít over. This ainít over by no means." Slater whirled and stalked away from the way.

Joe watched Slater walk away. He took a deep breath, to both cool his anger as well as clear his head. He didnít want to repeat his performance on the road when he had managed to say such stupid things. Joe turned and flashed a smile at Beth. "Hello, Beth," he said gently. "How about that dinner."

"Oh, Joe, Iím so sorry," replied Beth in dismay as she swung herself down from the wagon. "Iíve caused trouble for you. Now that man is angry with you."

"Slater? Donít worry about him," answered Joe with a careless shrug. "Heís all talk." Joe moved closer to Beth. "Heís not a man of action, like I am."

At first, Beth looked almost frightened by Joeís words. But then she saw the twinkle in his eye and she burst into laughter.

"So, how about it?" asked Joe, when Bethís laughter subsided. "Dinner?"

"I donít know, Joe," replied Beth hesitantly. She looked around, almost as if she expected to see someone.

"Are you expecting someone else?" asked Joe, the disappointment evident in his voice.

"Oh, no," Beth assured him quickly. "Itís just that, well, Iím not sure ifÖIím just not sure."

"Iím perfectly harmless," Joe told the girl solemnly. Then a smile crossed his face. "Look, Iím hungry and Iím sure youíre hungry. We both have to eat. Seems silly for us both to eat alone."

A wry smile crossed Bethís lips. "I could use a bite," she admitted. She cocked her head and looked at Joe, her smile widening. "You do look rather harmless. I suppose I could survive having dinner with you."

"Not exactly the ringing endorsement I had hoped for," replied Joe with a grin. He held out his arm. "Miss Fatima."

Beth took his arm. "I really dislike that name," she said with a shake of her head. "Bert thought it up. He thinks it sounds romantic or something. I think it sounds kind of silly."

"What is your name?" asked Joe as he walked with Beth toward the front of the building.

"Beth."

"Yes, but Beth what?" pressed Joe.

"Beth will do for now," she replied in airy tone.

Sighing, Joe led Beth through the crowd of people who were exiting the building. The show was over, and people were spilling out onto the street. A few stopped to buy a bottle of Harris' elixir, but not many. No one paid any attention to the girl clinging to Joeís arm.

"No one recognizes you," commented Joe as they passed through the crowd.

"Thatís just the way I like it," replied Beth. "Thatís why I wear the veil and that outlandish costume. No one would ever know itís me up on that stage."

"I knew it was you," said Joe softly.

Beth looked at Joe in surprise.

"Ah, how about dinner at the hotel?" suggested Joe quickly. "The food is pretty good."

"The hotel is a bitÖpublic," said Beth in a hesitant voice. "Couldnít we go someplace whereís there no so many people around?"

"Sure," replied Joe in surprise. He thought for a minute. "Polly Morgan has a little café over on A street. Itís small and this time of night, I doubt if there will be more than one or two people in there. Pollyís meals are simple but they taste great."

"Perfect," said Beth enthusiastically. She tightened her hand on Joeís arm and moved a bit closer to him.

The two walked in a comfortable silence toward Pollyís café a block or two away. Beth looked around, as if she was seeing Virginia City for the first time. Joe couldnít take his eyeís off Beth.

All too soon Ė at least in Joeís mind Ė the couple came to a building with a small sign proclaiming simply "Pollyís Café". A bell tinkled as Joe pushed the door open for Beth.

The restaurant was small, no more than a half a dozen tables covered with checked tablecloths. All six of the tables were empty.

"Joe Cartwright!" exclaimed a large woman wearing an apron as she came into the dining room from a rear door. The woman was in her forties, and her face was glowing with pleasure. "How nice to see you!"

"Hello, Polly," replied Joe with a smile. He looked around the empty café. "You still open?"

"I am for you and your lady friend," Polly declared. Her smile was both indulgent and maternal. "Iím always open for you." She turned to Beth. "Hello, dear. Please sit down and make yourself at home."

Beth and Joe seated themselves at a table in the middle of the café as Polly brought over napkins and silverware. As she set the table, Polly smiled. She could see the look of fascination on Joeís face as he stared at the girl across the table from him. "That girlís got him hooked already," she said to herself. She wondered who the girl was. Polly thought she knew just about everyone in Virginia City, but the girl with Joe was a stranger.

"Now, I have some nice ham and green beans I can bring you, " announced Polly in a brisk voice. "And Iíve just made some biscuits. How does that sound?"

"Fine," agreed Joe in a distracted voice. He was still looking into Bethís eyes. He would have agreed to cut glass and sand if Polly had suggested it. Joe had no idea what he was going to be served for dinner.

"That sounds lovely," replied Beth in a gracious voice. "I hope weíre not putting you out."

"Not at all, dear," Polly answered. "You two just make yourselves comfortable while I dish up your dinner. Iíll put on a pot of fresh coffee for you, too."

"You have the bluest eyes Iíve ever seen," said Joe as Polly left the room.

Beth blushed a bit. "Thank you," she replied. She grinned impishly. "You have nice eyes, too."

With a twinkle in his eyes, Joe continued. "Your hair is so thick and pretty when itís down like that."

Beth quickly fell into a teasing mood. "Now that you have your hat off, I can see you have lovely hair also."

"Your face lights up when you smile," said Joe grinning.

"You have a wonderful smile," replied Beth with a grin.

"And you dance so wonderfully," added Joe, his grin widening.

"YouÖ" Beth suddenly stopped in confusion. "You ride your horse nicely," she finished lamely.

Both Beth and Joe burst into laughter at the comment and their silly little game. Polly came back into the room carrying two plates, and looked at the two young people who were giggling at the table. "Whatís so funny?" she asked as she set the plates in front of them.

"Polly, I canít begin to explain," said Joe, still laughing.

Polly shook her head as she headed back to the kitchen. She returned in only a minute with a plate of biscuits, a pot of coffee and two cups. She set everything on the table, then took a step back. "Iíve got some dishes to wash, so if you need anything else, just yell."

Beth nodded and began to eat. Joe simply looked at the girl across the table and grinned. Polly shook her head and left the table.

"Arenít you going to eat?" asked Beth as she began to cut the ham slice on her plate into small pieces.

"What?" answered Joe in a startled voice. "Oh, yeah, Iím going to eat." He also started cutting his ham. "Where did you ever learn to dance like that?"

"If I told you, you wouldnít believe me," said Beth, mysteriously. "Tell me about your ranch. Bert says your family has the biggest ranch in Nevada."

For the next hour, Joe talked about the Ponderosa, his family, his life on the ranch, and even his pinto Cochise. Beth asked questions and seemed interested in his answers. But every time, Joe asked Beth a question, she neatly sidestepped it, and brought the conversation back to Joe.

Joe didnít even realize he had eaten when Polly came back through the door to collect the plates. "Can I get you two some pie," suggested Polly as she picked up the dishes.

"Not for me," said Beth with a smile. "But the dinner was excellent. Thank you."

Studying the girl, Polly asked, "Are you new in town, dear? I donít think Iíve seen you around here before."

"Iím just passing through," replied Beth vaguely.

"Will you be here long?" asked Polly, her curiosity piqued.

"Weíll be leaving on Monday," Beth answered.

"Oh, youíre here with your family?" suggested Polly.

Beth gave a small sigh. "No, Iím with the traveling show thatís performing here this week."

"Oh, I see," said Polly. Suddenly the image of the poster she had seen flashed into Pollyís mind. "Oh," she repeated with a frown. "Youíre thatÖdancer."

"Yes," admitted Beth in a small voice.

"And she dances wonderfully," added Joe with a smile.

"Hmm, yes," said Polly in a tight voice. "Iíll just clear these away." Polly quickly left the room.

"Iím afraid she doesnít approve of my dancing," said Beth in a sad voice.

"She hasnít seen you dance," countered Joe. "I have. And I certainly approve."

Polly bustled back into the room and put a slip of paper on the table. "Thatíll be four dollars," she stated in a tight voice.

Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out a five dollar piece. "Here, Polly," he said, putting the coin on the table. "Keep the change."

Both Beth and Joe pushed back their chairs and stood to leave. As Beth walked toward the door, Polly grabbed Joeís arm. "Joe, do you what kind of girl she is?" hissed Polly in a low voice.

Joe patted Pollyís hand. "I do, Polly," he said in a soft voice. "Sheís a very nice girl." Joe gently removed Pollyís hand and walked to the door where Beth was waiting. As the couple walked out the door, Polly shook her head and frowned.

"Polly doesnít approve of me," said Beth as she stood outside of the door of the café.

Taking Bethís hand in his, Joe smiled. "Polly doesnít know you. I do. And I definitely approve of you." Joe bent his head forward to kiss Beth, but she took a step back, avoiding the kiss.

"Itís getting late," she said softly.

"All right," Joe acknowledged with a sigh. "Iíll walk you back to the hotel."

"Iím not staying at the hotel," said Beth. "I found a rooming house just down from the hotel."

"Mrs. OíBrienís?" said Joe in surprise.

"Yes, thatís the one," replied Beth.

"Thatís not the best place to stay in Virginia City," Joe advised in a cautious voice.

"Bert finds the living quarters for us, and he canít afford to get fancy hotel rooms for us. Besides, itís clean and itís private. Thatís all that matters to me," Beth answered with a shrug.

"For someone who dances in public, you sure like your privacy," said Joe with a puzzled expression.

"What I do on stage has nothing to do with my life off stage," explained Beth. "I donít like being around a lot of people."

"I donít get it," admitted Joe. "You donít seem to mind all the people at the show."

"The people at the show canít see my face, and they think they are looking at the lovely Fatima," Beth explained. She shivered a bit. "Itís getting cool."

Joe took the hint and started down the street, his hand still holding Bethís. As they walked down the almost deserted street, Beth seemed to be watching and looking for something. Joe noticed her distracted air, but didnít comment.

The couple stopped in front a large house with a sign in the window announcing "Rooms to Let". Beth nodded toward the door. "This is where Iím staying.

"Iíll see you to your room," suggested Joe.

"That wonít be necessary," said Beth quickly. She smiled. "Thank you for dinner. It was lovely."

"Can I take you to dinner tomorrow?" asked Joe.

"I donít think Polly will want to stay open for me tomorrow," Beth replied with a wry grin.

"Thereís other places to eat in Virginia City," said Joe. His face grew serious. "Please. Let me take you to dinner again tomorrow."

Beth hesitated, then smiled. "All right."

Joe bent forward for a kiss. This time, Beth didnít pull back but she turned her head slightly so that Joeís lips met her cheek. Joe looked at her with a questioning gaze.

Beth looked back at Joe, her face sad and her eyes bright with tears. "Youíre sweet, Joe," was all she said. She reached up and stroked his cheek gently. Then Beth turned and walked quickly into the house.

For several minutes, Joe just stared at the closed door. He was confused by Beth. She seemed to like him, and enjoy his company. But at the same time, she seemed afraid to let him get too close to her. He realized he didnít even know her last name.

Taking a deep breath, Joe headed toward the stables. He promised himself that he would find out more about Beth tomorrow. As he thought about seeing Beth again tomorrow, Joe smiled.
 
 

**************

"How was the show?" asked Ben as his youngest son slid into his chair at the table for breakfast the next morning.

"It was good, Pa," Joe answered, reaching for the coffee pot. "A lot better than most of the other medicine shows Iíve seen. A lot of singing and dancing, and they even had some puppets for the kids."

"And your young lady?" Ben deliberately made the question ambiguous.

"Beth and I had a dinner at Pollyís after the show," replied Joe slowly, not quite sure how to answer his fatherís question. He poured himself a cup of coffee. "We had a good time."

"What does Beth do in the show?" pressed Ben
 
 

"She dances," said Joe. He sipped his coffee and didnít elaborate.

"Charlie and a couple of the boys from the bunkhouse saw the show last night," commented Adam. "They told me that there was a girl who did quite a dance in the show. According to them, it was a pretty risqué performance."

Joe looked at Adam in surprise. "Charlie was at the show?" He didnít remember seeing the veteran ranch hand at the old warehouse, but then Joe couldnít have named anyone who had been in the audience with him. He had had eyes only for Beth last night. "Beth did a real nice dance," Joe added, feigning indifference.

"Nice isnít exactly the right word for what I heard she did on stage," said Adam, arching an eyebrow.

"How can you say that, Adam?" demanded Joe heatedly. "You werenít even there."

"No, I wasnít. But I heard Charlie describe it," replied Adam.

"Charlie would think a dancer was shocking if she showed her ankles," said Joe with a disgust. "You canít judge anything by what he says."

"What are you getting all hot and bothered about, little brother?" asked Hoss in a puzzled tone. "You saw her dance and you had dinner with her. A couple of days, sheíll be gone. I donít see what difference it makes what Charlie said."

Looking down at his plate, Joe didnít reply. He couldnít explain why it was important to him what people thought of Beth. He only knew that it was. "Iím taking Beth to dinner again tonight," said Joe in a low voice.

Ben looked at Joe in surprise. He had thought that Joe would spend an evening with the girl and that would be the end of it. But now he had the uneasy feeling that there was something more brewing between his youngest son and the girl from the medicine show. He wasnít sure he liked the idea of this budding romance. "Youíre having dinner with her again tonight?" he asked, trying not to sound critical.

Joe looked up at Ben. "Yes, I am," he answered in a voice that almost dared his father to object. "Is there any reason why I shouldnít?"

Sipping his coffee, Ben chose his words carefully. "No, thereís no reason why you shouldnít. Itís just that we have a lot of work to do getting that north pasture ready for the herd. I need a full dayís work out of you."

"Youíll get it," declared Joe, his voice rising in anger. "I do my share around here, you know."

"Donít use that voice with me, young man," said Ben sharply. He felt his temper starting to rise and took a deep breath to calm himself. "I just meant that I donít want you spreading yourself too thin," he continued in a more reasonable voice. "Working all day and going to Virginia City in the evening -- thatís burning the candle at both ends. Something is going to suffer. I just donít want it to be the Ponderosa."

Pursing his lips, Joe looked down at this plate again. Right now, a raven haired girl with blue eyes was much more important to him than the north pasture. But Joe knew better than to say that to his father.

Joe took a bite of toast and chewed it slowly. "Donít worry, Pa," he said in what he hoped was a normal voice. "Iíll get my work done." He looked up again at Ben, and this time his expression was almost pleading. "But I promised Beth Iíd take her to dinner tonight. I have to go to town. I canít just not show up."

Looking at the earnest expression on Joeís face, Ben felt himself relenting. "If you told her you would be there, I suppose you have to go. But," Benís voice grew stern. "I think it would be wise if you didnít make any plans for tomorrow night."

Sipping his coffee, Joe didnít answer. He had every intention of seeing Beth tomorrow night. However, he didnít think it was wise to tell his father that just yet.

Adam and Hoss glanced at each other, both trying to figure out what to say. Finally, Hossí face showed a wry smile.

"Joe, if youíre going to have dinner in town, will you do me one favor?" asked Hoss.

Looking up in surprise, Joe said, "Sure. What?"

"Will you wait until the rest of us are out of the house before you tell Hop Sing you wonít be here again for dinner?" said Hoss with a grin.
 
 

*************************

It was well past seven when Joe rode into Virginia City. He had been kept busy working in the north pasture all day, and by the time he cleaned up, he knew he would miss the beginning of the show. Not that Joe really cared. There was only one act in the medicine show that Joe was interested in seeing again.

As he turned over the reins of his horse to the stableman, Joe flexed the muscles in his shoulders. He was stiff from cutting weeds and thistles in the pasture all day. Joe suspected that his father had given him the worse job in cleaning up the pasture, hoping that Joe would be too tired at the end of the day to go to Virginia City. What his father didnít understand was that Joe would have gone to Virginia City if he had to crawl on his hands and knees.

Bob, the small puppeteer, was standing by the door to the old warehouse as Joe walked up. He was setting up the table for the medicine bottles and selling tickets to any late arrivals. He smiled and gave a small wave as Joe approached him. "Go on in, Joe," said Bob pointing toward the door. "No charge, of course."

Standing in the back of the building, Joe saw that Frank was just finishing his act. He waited impatiently for Beth to arrive on stage. Joe wondered a bit what he would think of Bethís dance when he saw it again. Adamís comments from breakfast nagged at him .

When Beth finally arrived on stage, Joe tried to watch her dance with a critical eye. He didnít see anything particularly scandalous about the way the girl moved on stage. Joe decided that anyone who thought her moves were suggestive was looking for something to criticize. He didnít admit to himself, though, that his judgment might be colored by his feelings for the dancer.

As soon as Beth finished her dance and bowed, Joe slipped out of the building and headed toward the wagon. After finding Slater at the wagon last night, Joe wanted to be sure he discouraged any other would-be suitors. He didnít want to take the chance that Beth might find someone else a more attractive dinner partner.

As he turned the corner of the building, Joe had a brief glimpse of a red costume climbing into the wagon before the door shut. He took his time walking to the wagon, figuring Beth would need a little time to change. He was surprised when he knocked on the door to announce his arrival that Beth called out, "Be there in a minute, Joe. Iím almost ready." He was even more surprised when the door opened only a few minutes later, and Beth stepped out, dressed in a white blouse and dark skirt.

"You know, youíre amazing," said Joe with a smile as Beth climbed out of the wagon.

"Thank you," she replied with a smile. "Any particular aspect of me you find particularly amazing?"

"I find all of you amazing," Joe declared, his face softening. Then he grinned. "But the fact that you can change clothes in under five minutes is truly astounding. You must be the only woman on earth who can do that."

"A trick I learned at school," explained Beth with a wide smile. "I love to sleep late, and getting dressed in record time was the only thing that kept me from being late for class."

"At school?" said Joe in surprise. "Where did you go to school?"

A frightened look crossed Bethís face. "Itís not important," she replied quickly. "Forget I mentioned it." She grabbed Joeís arm and gave him a smile that seemed falsely bright. "Now, where are you going to take me to dinner tonight."

Once more, Joe was struck by the fact that Beth seemed not to want to talk about herself. He wondered why briefly, but his curiosity quickly faded as he looked in to the blue eyes that were gazing up at him. "Have you ever eaten Chinese food?" he asked. "Hop Sing, our cook, has a cousin that runs a small restaurant over on E Street. Itís nice and private, just like you prefer, and the food is pretty good."

"Chinese food?" said Beth a bit doubtfully. Then she smiled. "Well, Iím willing to try anything once."

In Joeís mind, the dinner was a rousing success. The restaurant was empty, just like Pollyís café, at that late hour. Hop Singís cousin made a special effort to ensure Joe and Beth enjoyed their dinner. He refused to show them a menu, and promised to bring them a dinner they would enjoy. Beth and Joe agreed that man was as good as his word as they savored the chicken with special sauce, rice and egg rolls.

Joe couldnít remember when he enjoyed a meal more. He and Beth both laughed heartily at her attempts to eat with chop sticks before giving in to using a fork. They told each other silly stories. Beth talked of all the funny things that had happened to "Harris and Company" in their travels, and of the practical jokes she had played on Frank and Bob. Joe told of some the rather ridiculous situations he and his brothers had found themselves, many of which Joe had instigated. Both laughed at each otherís stories and declared the other to be the most outrageous person they knew.

Looking at Beth across the table, Joe couldnít help but wonder about her. He couldnít take his eyes off Beth, and Joe knew his feelings were growing stronger for a girl about whom he knew absolutely nothing.

"Beth," said Joe with a shake of his head, "how did a girl like you end up in a medicine show?"

"You mean how did a nice girl like me end up in a place like this?" replied Beth in a teasing tone. "Joe, thatís the oldest line in the book!"

Joeís expression grew serious. "No, I really mean it. How did you hook up with Harris? And why a medicine show? I would think you would be a teacher or a dressmaker or something like that."

Looking away, Beth bit her lip and didnít answer. She seemed to be thinking about what to say. "Itís a long story, Joe. I wonít bore you with it."

"I wonít be bored, I promise," said Joe.

Beth sat silently, then shook her head. "No, not tonight," she finally replied. "I donít want to spoil a wonderful evening."

"All right," agreed Joe with a sigh. He smiled suddenly. "You know, I donít even know your last name. Will you at least tell me that?"

"ItísÖJohnson," said Beth in a hesitant voice. Then she grinned. "But you can call me Fatima if youíd like."

Joe knew Johnson wasnít Bethís last name and that she was trying to distract him from talking about her. Once again, he wondered what secrets she was keeping. "BethÖ"

"Joe, itís getting late," Beth interrupted. "We best be going." She started to push back her chair.

Grabbing her hand, Joe stopped Beth. "Beth, you can trust me. If thereís something wrong, tell me about it. Maybe I can help."

"No one can help," said Beth with a catch in her voice. She looked at Joe almost sadly. "I donít mean to sound melodramatic, but itís best if you donít get involved." Beth pulled her hand away from Joe, and pushed back her chair. "I should be getting back to the rooming house." She stood and walked quickly to the door.

Throwing some bills on the table, Joe hurried after Beth. He caught up with her as she stood outside the restaurant. She seemed to be scanning the street, her head turning as she checked the area around her.

"BethÖ" Joe tried again.

"Joe, let it go. Please. Just walk me home," said Beth in an insistent voice.

The two walked down the nearly deserted main street of Virginia City without speaking. Their silence was awkward, an invisible wall that separated them as they walked. The street was dark, lit only in small patches where lights shone through a window. Few people were on the street, and the only sound that could be heard was the distant tinkle of a piano from the saloon.

"Iím sorry I ruined your evening," Beth said, making the first dent in the wall after several long minutes of silence.

"You couldnít ruin my evening," replied Joe. He reached over and took her hand, his grasp tentative. He was afraid she would pull away from him again. But Bethís hand tightened around his. "You might make me a little crazy sometimes," he added with a smile, trying to lighten the mood, "but how could I not enjoy an evening with the beautiful Fatima."

"I bet you say that to all the girls who dance in medicine shows," teased Beth, her mood beginning to match Joeís.

"Only those who are brave enough to eat Chinese food with me," professed Joe solemnly.

Beth laughed, and the frosty air that had surround the couple melted.

Putting his hand lightly around Bethís waist, Joe pulled her closer. Beth didnít object.

"What do you do all day?" asked Joe curiously as the walked slowly toward the rooming house.

"Do?" said Beth in a puzzled voice.

"I mean, what do you do when youíre not dancing?" clarified Joe. "Do you spend time with Bert or Frank? Or what?"

"Bert and the others are justÖthe people I travel with," said Beth slowly. "When weíre in a town, I usually donít see them except when itís time for the show." Beth was silent for a moment. "I really donít do much during the day. I usually stay in my room and read most of the time."

"That doesnít sound like much fun," commented Joe.

Beth shrugged. "I love books, Joe, especially the classics. Shakespeare, Chaucer, HawthorneÖtheyíre wonderful."

"Remind me to keep you away from my older brother Adam," said Joe, not entirely joking. "You two would get started on comparing books and Iíd never see you again."

"Donít worry," Beth replied with a smile. "I think I prefer having dinner with the youngest Cartwright to talking about books."

Grinning a bit smugly, Joe tightened his grip around Bethís waist. He felt a warm glow as her hand came up and rested on his back.

The faint clop of an approaching horse broke the stillness of the night. Joe glanced up, barely noticing the rider coming toward the couple at a slow walk. If someone had asked him, all Joe could have described was a dark figure on a dark horse. To him, it was just another cowboy heading for home.

But the rider evidently meant something to Beth. Joe could feel her body stiffen and hear the sharp intake of her breath. She practically dragged him a foot or so into the shadows of a narrow alley. Joe started to protest, but Beth silenced him by throwing her arms around his neck and placing her lips firmly against him.

Circling Bethís body with his arms, Joe began to kiss her back. But instead of soft, yielding lips, Joe felt a taut mouth pressed against his. Joe expected her soft body to melt into his, but Beth remained stiff and rigid in his arms. He pulled her closer and pressed his lips harder against hers. Beth remained tense and unyielding.

Pulling his head back, Joe looked at the girl with a frown. "Not that I minded the kiss," he said in a puzzled voice, "but what was that all about/"

Beth looked over Joeís shoulder, her eyes wide with fright, before answering. "Iím sorry," she answred softly. "IÖI thought the rider was someone I knew."

"Who?" asked Joe, his frown deepening.

"I donít know his name," admitted Beth, her eyes still searching the street behind Joe. "I just know heís looking for me."

Grabbing Beth around the shoulders, Joe forced her to look at him. "Who is he?" repeated Joe. "Why is he looking for you? Beth, whatís going on?"

"Did it look like he was coming from the rooming house?" asked Beth, ignoring Joeís questions.

"I donít know," admitted Joe. He gave me a small smile. "I had my mind on other things."

But Beth wasnít about to be distracted by his gentle jibes this time. "He must have been coming from the rooming house," she said in a voice full of panic. "Iíve got to move out of there right away. Iíve got to find someplace else to stay." Her eyes started to fill with tears. "I donít know where to go. I donít know where I can go so he canít find me."

Bursting into tears, Beth buried her head in Joeís shoulder. "Why?" she sobbed. "Why did he have to show up now? Iíve been so happy the last few days. Why did he have to come?"

Stroking Bethís soft hair, Joe felt a number of emotions running through him. His heart soared with joy as Beth spoke of her happiness, but he was also moved by her tears and concerned at her obvious fright. "Itíll be all right," crooned Joe softly, as he stroked her head. "Weíll figure something out. Everything will be fine."

Taking a deep breath, Beth pulled back from Joe. She rubbed a finger under each eye, trying to dry her tears. "Iím sorry, Joe," she said with a sniff. "I didnít mean to go to pieces like that." Beth swallowed hard and squared her shoulders. "Iíve got to get to the rooming house. Iíve got to find someplace else to stay." She bit her lip. "Joe, tell me where I can go. I donít know where to go."

"Why donít you just come out and stay at the ranch?" suggested Joe. "Weíve got plenty of room."

"No," said Beth quickly. "I canít do that, Joe. I canít put you and your family at risk. I wonít do that to you."

"At risk?" repeated Joe. "Beth, just what is going on?"

Shaking her head, Beth said, "Joe, I canít explain now. Please, just trust me. Help me find someplace in town to stay. Please help me."

"All right, all right," agreed Joe in a soothing voice. He thought for a moment. "Why donít you just move into the hotel?"

Beth shook her head again. "Thatís no good. Heíd find me as soon as he took a look at the registration book. Besides, I canít afford it."

"He wouldnít find you if I signed the registration and paid for the room," said Joe.

"I canít ask you to do that," Beth replied, lowering her eyes.

"Youíre not asking me," Joe stated firmly. "Iím offering. Itís the best place for you. Besides, thereís not another decent place for you to stay in Virginia City."

"IÖI donít know," said Beth hesitantly.

Joe placed his finger under her chin and lightly lifted her head. "Well, I do know," he declared with a small smile. "Letís go down to the rooming house and get your things. Iím moving you into the hotel."

It took only a few minutes for Joe and Beth to walk rapidly to the rooming house. Joe waited by the door as Beth explained to an astonished Mrs. OíBrien that she was moving out immediately. Her explanation of why was deliberately vague.

As Beth rushed up the stairs to back her things, Mrs. OíBrien turned to look at Joe standing by the door. She frowned and her eyes narrowed.

Crushing his hat in his hands, Joe shifted her weight back and forth as he stood. He felt awkward and uncomfortable under Mrs. OíBrienís icy glare. "Um, nice weather weíre having," said Joe trying to make small talk.

Mrs. OíBrien didnít answer. She continued to stare him with a look of suspicion on her face.

"Itís really warm for this time of year," continued Joe nervously. He played with the hat in his hands, and his feet shuffled a bit.

Mrs. OíBrien simply crossed her arms and scowled at Joe.

Joe fidgeted by the door for what seemed a lifetime before Beth hurried down the stairs. She had a small valise in her left hand, and her right arm was holding several books.

"Thank you for everything, Mrs. OíBrien," Beth said in a rush as she hurried toward the door. "I know Bert paid for the room through Monday. Please, just keep the money. Itís the least I can offer you for your trouble."

"You wonít be needing the money to pay for another room?" asked Mrs. OíBrien, her scowl deepening.

"No, no, I wonít," Beth answered in a distracted voice as she handed her valise to Joe. "Come on, Joe. Letís go."

As Beth pulled open the door and walked out, Joe suddenly realized what Mrs. OíBrien must be thinking. He opened his mouth to explain, but couldnít think of anything to say without revealing where Beth was going and why. And anything he said to Mrs. OíBrien might be repeated and endanger Beth. Finally, Joe just shrugged and mumbled, "Good night" as he hurried out the door after Beth.

Beth was already half-way up the street as Joe came out of the rooming house. He ran to catch up with her. "Beth," he said as reached her, "about Mrs. OíBrienÖ"

"What about her?" replied Beth in a breathless voice as she turned to Joe. Even in the dim light of the street, Joe could see the fright in her eyes.

"Nothing," said Joe, putting his arm around Beth. "Letís get to the hotel."

As they neared the hotel, Beth suddenly stopped. "I donít know if this is a good idea, Joe," she said in a doubtful tone. "Walking through a crowded lobby everyday isnít exactly the way to stay out of sight."

"Donít worry," Joe assured her. "Thereís a back staircase. Iíll get you a room near that. And Iíll make sure the hotel sends breakfast up to your room every morning." Joe smiled. "Iíll see that you get dinner every night."

The tension seemed to drain from Beth as she let out a sigh and her shoulders sagged a bit. "Thank you, Joe," she said softly. "Thank you for everything."

Joe pulled Beth toward him and hugged her tight. He kissed her lightly on the forehead as he released her. "Come on. Letís get you settled."

The hotel lobby was deserted as Beth and Joe entered. Even the desk clerk was gone. "Wait here by the door," said Joe, dropping Bethís valise by her feet. Joe walked over to the desk and slapped a bell with his palm. The bell tinkled, making a seemingly loud noise in the quiet of the lobby.

A door opened on the other side of the lobby and a man hurried out. He quickly crossed the lobby and walked behind the desk. "Hello, Joe," said the man. "How can I help you?"

"Vince, I need a room," replied Joe.

"Sure," replied Vince, his eyebrows rising in surprise. "Just for the night?"

"No, I need it until Monday," explained Joe. "Is that suite near the back stairs available?"

Vince suddenly noticed Beth standing by the door. He looked at her and then back to Joe. "Um, yes," answered Vince in a hesitant voice as he continued to glance at the girl a few feet away.

"Good," said Joe. He picked up the pen and the signed the registration book, then reached into his jacket. Joe slapped a $5 piece on the desk. It was all the money he had with him. "I also want you to take breakfast up to the room every morning, too. This

should cover the first day. Iíll pay for the rest tomorrow."

"Joe, breakfast shouldnít be too early," suggested Beth from the door.

"Yeah, thatís right," agreed Joe, remembering that Beth would be returning to the hotel late each evening. He turned to Vince. "Can you have breakfast sent up late Ė maybe

9:30 or 10:00?"

"Um, eh, sure," agreed Vince. He glanced at the girl. "Breakfast forÖ.how many?"

"Just one," said Joe. He gave the desk clerk a hard stare. Vince looked down at the register and nodded his understanding.

"And Vince, donít say anything to anyone about this," added Joe.

"No, no, of course, not," agreed Vince. He bit his lip nervously. "Joe, are you sure you want to do this?"

"Iím sure," Joe answered in a firm voice. "Just hand me the key."

Vince nodded, and turned to a shelf filled with pigeon holes behind him. He pulled a key out of one, and handed it to Joe. "Number 11," he said. "Top of the stairs and all the way to the end of the hall."

"I know where it is," Joe replied. He walked across the lobby to Beth, and picked up the valise. "Come on," he said to her.

As Joe escorted Beth up the stairs, Vince called after them. "Joe, what should I tell your Pa if he asks about this?"

"Donít say anything to anyone," repeated Joe. "Especially my Pa and brothers."

Vince frowned at Joeís reply.

***************

Sprawled comfortably in the sofa in the sitting room of the suite, Joe waited for Beth to finish unpacking her things. Joe had told her that he wanted to wait until she was settled, to make sure everything was all right, before he left. That was only partially true. Joe was determined to get an explanation from Beth. He wasnít going to leave without one.

A door opened to Joeís left. He looked over and smiled as Beth walked out of the bedroom. She smiled back at him, and walked over to the sofa. Beth lowered her self onto the sofa and settled her head comfortably on Joeís shoulder.

"This is the nicest room Iíve had sinceÖwell, since Iíve been traveling with Bert," said Beth in a contented voice. She looked up at Joe. "Thank you," she said softly. "Thank you so much." She kissed Joe lightly on the cheek.

"I like the way you say thank you," murmured Joe. He bent down and kissed Beth on the lips. This time, her mouth was soft and yielding. Joeís kiss was long and passionate.

"Youíd better go, Joe," Beth suggested when the two finally parted. "Itís getting late."

"No," said Joe shaking his head. "Iím not leaving until you tell me whatís going on. Beth, I want to help you. But I canít help you unless I know what youíre afraid of."

"Nobody can help me," replied Beth with a sigh.

"Try me," urged Joe.

Beth got up and walked a few steps from the sofa. She stood with her back to Joe. He waited patiently while she decided what to say.

"I suppose you deserve an explanation," acknowledged Beth without turning around. "Itís the least I can do to repay you."

"I donít want you to tell me because you feel you owe me something," said Joe earnestly as he sat forward on the sofa. "I think we have something special between us. I hope youíll tell me because, well, because you feel the same way."

Turning, Beth studied Joe for a minute. Then she gave him a tentative smile. "Joe, Iím not sure what my feelings are. I havenít allowed myself to feel anything for a long time.

But I know being with you makes me feel safe and warm." A sad expression crossed Bethís face. "Iím sorry I canít offer you anything more than that, at least right now."

It wasnít exactly the answer Joe had hoped for, but he was willing to accept it. He smiled

encouragingly at the girl across the room.

Beth took a deep breath. "Itís hard to know where to begin." She walked back to the sofa and sat down, this time on the end of the sofa where she could look at Joe. "A year ago at this time, I was attending school at a Ladiesí Academy back East. Besides the usual academic subjects, they also taught ballet, ballroom dancing, and what they called Ďfree danceí."

"So thatís where you learned to dance," commented Joe.

Beth nodded. A wry smile crossed her face. "My teachers at the Academy would be shocked if they saw how Iím using all the steps and moves they taught me."

"How did you end up in the medicine show?í asked Joe.

Bethís face grew grim. "My father was a very wealthy and powerful man," she said slowly. "He started out with a small shop many years ago. But he also grubstaked a number of miners. A couple of those mines hit paydirt. He used those profits to expand his business and acquire several companies. By the time I left for school, he was the head of a large corporation. But he also was one of the kindest and most loving men in the world."

"Was?" asked Joe.

Nodding, Beth continued. "While I was at school, I got a telegram from my mother. My father was killed in an accident. I was devastated. I think I cried for two days. I knew I couldnít get home in time for the funeral, so I decided to take a little time to recover. I also knew once I left school, I wouldnít be coming back. So I wired my mother, and followed up with a long letter. I waited almost two months to go home." Beth shook her head. "It was the biggest mistake I ever made," she added bitterly.

"Why?"

"Because by the time I got home, I found my mother had married my uncle, my fatherís brother," explained Beth grimly. "And because he married my mother, my uncle took over running my fatherís businesses."

"Your father left everything to your mother?" asked Joe.

"Half of his shares went to my mother," amended Beth. "The other half went in trust to me, to be given to me on my 21st birthday. Iím sure my father thought we would sell our shares and use that as our inheritance." Her voice turned bitter again. "I know he never thought my mother would marry his brother and that his brother would take over the business."

"Why not?" asked Joe. "I mean, I know it happened fast, but if heís your uncleÖ"

"My uncle is just the opposite of my father," insisted Beth. "Heís hard, and power-hungry. Iím sure he married my mother just to get control of my fatherís businesses. My father never trusted his brother, and he never let him get too close to either his family or his business."

Joe shook his head. As much as he argued with his brothers, he never distrusted them. He knew it happened, but he always found it difficult to understand how brothers ended up hating each other. "I still donít understand," said Joe. "How does this all relate to your ending up in a medicine show?"

"When I first returned home, I was too grief-stricken and upset to pay much attention to what was going on," explained Beth. "But then I started to hear comments. Things like maybe my fatherís death wasnít an accident, and that my uncle was hiding profits from the company. I started asking questions, and the more I found out, the more suspicious I became of my uncle. I couldnít find any hard evidence to prove my fatherís death wasnít an accident, or that my uncle was cheating me. So I decided to try another tactic. I confronted my uncle and told him what I suspected. I also told him that since that as soon as I turned 21, I was going to exercise my rights as a shareholder to get involved in running the company."

"That probably wasnít a wise decision," said Joe slowly.

"Youíre right," agreed Beth, nodding. "But I was naïve. I thought if he knew I was on to him, he would be frightened. But instead, he just laughed at me. At least, at first he laughed. Then he got angry."

"Angry? Why?"

"Because I started telling people what I suspected," answered Beth. "I started telling people I suspected that my uncle had arranged for my fatherís death, and had married my mother so that he could take control of the company and cheat me."

"I can see why he might be unhappy about that," said Joe with a wry smile.

"My uncle was furious with me," continued Beth. "He swore he would get me Ďout of the wayí.

"So he sent someone to kill you," suggested Joe.

"No, Joe," Beth replied with a shake of her head. "He did something worse. He found a judge he could buy, and he had that judge declare me insane."

"Insane?" said Joe in surprise. "Why would he do that?"

"I suppose he thought another death would look really suspicious," said Beth with a shrug. "Even my uncle would find it difficult to buy his way out of murder charge. But if I was declared insane, he could have me put away. My shares of the company would revert to my mother and ultimately to him, because I wouldnít be judged competent to own those shares."

"What about your mother?" asked Joe. "Didnít she object to all this?"

"My mother is a sweet and wonderful person," answered Beth. "But she simply doesnít know how to deal with something like this. My father adored her, took care of her.

He protected her from anything difficult or ugly, and I suppose I did the same thing. Iím sure she married my uncle because she simply didnít know what else to do when my father died. She kept telling me not to cause trouble, to try to get along with my uncle. When I told her what I suspected my uncle had done, she just stood there, wringing her hands and telling me I was wrong."

"But that still doesnít explain how you ended up in Virginia City, " said Joe.

"One of my fatherís friends told me about the insanity decree and what my uncle planned to do," replied Beth. She closed her eyes and shuddered. "Joe, I just couldnít face the thought of being forced into one of those awful asylums. I wouldnít be able to stand it. I really would go crazy. So I decided to run away."

"And you ran away to a medicine show," Joe said with a nod.

"Bert was doing his show in town when I decided to run away," Beth replied. "I hid in his wagon. I was sure my uncle and his men would never look for me there, and I was right. Bert didnít discover me in the wagon until he was a day away from the town. I convinced Bert to help me. He had an old poster from a dancer who used to be in his show, and part of a costume. We worked out an act, and I became the mysterious Fatima. It was the perfect way to hide. No one would dream that I would be dancing in a medicine show. When Iím on stage, the veil hides my face. When Iím not performing, I stay out of sight. I didnít think my uncleís men would ever find me."

"But they have," said Joe.

Beth nodded. "Iím sure the man I saw in the street is one of my uncleís men. Iíve seen him before, both at home and once in another town. The show left town the day he showed up, so I thought I had escaped him. But I was wrong."

"But why is your uncle after you?" asked Joe in a puzzled voice. "If youíre gone, you canít cause him trouble."

"Before I left, I met with my fatherís lawyer, the man who is holding my shares in trust," explained Beth. "We agreed on how he should vote my shares. Heís a good man, and an honest one. Iím sure he is making my uncleís life miserable, questioning every decision and asking for audits. My uncle needs to find me so he can have me formally declared insane and put away. Until he finds me, the judgeís order canít be put into effect."

"But, Beth, you canít hide from him forever," said Joe.

"I donít have to," Beth replied. "I only have to stay hidden for a few more months. Then Iíll turn 21 and have control of the shares."

"What good does that do?" asked Joe. "He can still have you declared insane, canít he?"

"He can, but once Iím 21, I can decide what to do with my shares," explained Beth. "The day I get those shares, Iím going to sell them to my fatherís friends, people I trust. My uncle will never be able to control these men. Theyíll find out what heís been doing, and force him out of the company, maybe even have him jailed." Beth turned to Joe with an earnest expression. "You can see why Iím so afraid, Joe. My uncle must be getting desperate. Time is running out for him. I turn 21 in four months. If he doesnít find me before then, heíll be ruined."

Joe whistled softly. "You sure have yourself a heap of trouble," said Joe sympathetically. "Does Bert know all this?"

Beth stood and walked a few feet from the sofa, seeming unsure how to answer Joeís question. "He knows most of the story, but not all," she answere slowly. "He knows someone is after me, and that I need to stay hidden. But he doesnít know who or why. Frankly, Bert doesnít want to know. But heís been a good friend. He arranges messages for me to my lawyer from various places. He knows how to get the messages sent so they donít get traced back to me."

"Messages?"

"Just a brief phrase I send every month to reassure my lawyer that Iím alive and all right," explained Beth. "That way my uncle canít declare me dead."

"Beth, whatís your uncleís name?" asked Joe.

"Why do you want to know that?í asked Beth, almost in fright.

"My Pa has lots of influential friends," replied Joe. "He knows people. He knows how to get things done. Maybe he can do something to help."

Walking back to the sofa, Beth sat down and took Joeís hand. "Thank you, Joe," she said softly. Her eyes filled with tears. "But thereís nothing he can do to help. No one can help me." Beth put her face in her hands and began to cry.

Putting his arm around her, Joe pulled Beth closer to him. He kissed her forehead softly. Beth lowered her hands and turned her face to Joe. Joe lowered his head and kissed her lips.

Her lips eagerly sought his. Their kiss was deep and passionate. Her hands stroked his neck and moved to stroke his head. Joeís lips moved to her soft, white neck.

Beth pulled herself away slowly. "Itís getting late, Joe," she said softly. "You should go."

"I donít want to go," murmured Joe, his eye shining.

Beth pulled herself from Joeís grasp and stood. "Go home, Joe," she said firmly, take a few steps away from Joe.

Sighing, Joe stood. "Iíll go," he agreed reluctantly. He walked next to Beth. "Will you be all right?"

Beth nodded. "Yes, Iíll be fine. Iíll stay in the room until I need to be at the show, and Iíll use the back stairs."

"Iíll come and walk you to the show," offered Joe.

"No, you donít have to do that," said Beth quickly. "Youíve done so much for me already. Youíve got your ranch to take care of. I canít keep taking you away from that. Iím used to making myself invisible. Iíll manage."

"Iíll be at the wagon after the show," promised Joe. "Iíll walk you back here and we can have dinner in the suite."

"Iíd like that," agreed Beth with a warm smile.

Joe bent down and kissed her lightly again. Beth returned the kiss, then pushed him gently away. "Go home, Joe," she said softly.

Nodding, Joe walked to the door and pulled it open. He turned to kiss her again, but Beth pushed him out the door with a laugh. "Go!"

With a grin, Joe stepped out into the hall. "Lock the door," he ordered. Beth nodded and closed the door. Joe waited in the hall until he heard the lock click. He stood staring at the door for a minute, reluctant to leave Beth alone Ė for a number of reasons. He wanted to be with her, to protect her, to hold her. He wanted to hear her laugh and comfort her when she cried.

A seed of doubt nagged at Joe, though. He knew how he felt about Beth, but he didnít know for sure how she felt about him. She had seemed eager to send him home.

Sighing, Joe turned and walked slowly toward the stairs.
 
 

***************

After the third time Hoss pounded on his bedroom door and yelled for Joe to get up, Joe reluctantly crawled from his bed. He felt tired, and leaving the soft mattress was a difficult task. His body was tired from the hard work in the pasture yesterday and from lack of sleep. He had gotten home very late, and once he had climbed into bed, he had laid awake for a long time, thinking about Beth.

Joe felt drained in many ways. His emotions had been on a roller coaster ride as he had reviewed his evening with Beth. He was elated as he thought about their dinner, their tender kisses, and their holding each other in their arms. But he also felt discouraged as he remembered how quickly Beth seemed to push him away. He had thought about the story Beth told him, and felt frustrated at her unwillingness to let him help her more. Joeís thoughts were still in turmoil when he finally drifted off to sleep.

As he dressed, Joe felt dull and listless. The last thing he wanted to do was join his family for breakfast. But he knew that Hoss would be back again if he didnít show up at the table soon.

Ben, Adam and Hoss had already finished their breakfast when Joe finally arrived downstairs. Three pairs of eyes watched Joe when he finally slid slowly into his chair at the table.

"Nice of you to join us this morning," remarked Adam dryly. Joe ignored him and poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Little brother, you look like something the cat dragged in," added Hoss.

"Iím just tired," answered Joe as he began to drink his coffee.

"You got home pretty late last night," commented Ben.

Joe nodded dully and sipped his coffee.

"Joe, I donít mind you seeing this girl," continued Ben. "But remember what I said about burning the candle at both ends?"

To tired to argue, Joe simply looked at his father. "I remember," he said.

"I think it would be best if you stayed home tonight," suggested Ben.

"I canít do that, Pa," replied Joe with a shake of his head. "I have to be there to walk Beth home after her show."

Frowning, Ben said, "Joe, I donít thinkÖ.

"Pa, you donít understand," interrupted Joe. "I have to be there. Beth is in danger. I have to be there to protect her."

"In danger? How?" asked Ben in surprise.

Biting his lip, Joe wondered what to say. Beth hadnít told him not to repeat her story, but he knew she assumed he would keep it to himself. As Joe looked at the three men around the table who were watching him with expectant looks, he wondered if he should tell him what Beth said.

Could he trust his father and brothers? Joe didnít even have to think about the answer.

"Beth is hiding from her uncle," Joe began. He told them the whole story: what Beth had told him, what he had done to help her, and why he needed to go to town that night He told them everything except how he felt about Beth. He wasnít sure he could have put those feelings into words.

"Poor little gal," said Hoss in sympathy as Joe finished talking. "She sure has a load of troubles."

"I can see why you feel you need to go to town, Joe," agreed Ben in a cautious tone.

"Well, at least sheís a well-read little con woman," Adam added, shaking his head.

"What do you mean by that, Adam?" snapped Joe angrily.

"That story she told, Joe, didnít you recognize it?" Adam asked. "She put a bit of a spin on it, but basically, she told you the story of ĎHamletí."

"Hamlet?" said Joe with a frown.

"She comes home from school to find her father dead, her mother re-married to her uncle, and her uncle basically usurping the throne," continued Adam. "Thatís the plot of Hamlet. She even threw in the insanity angle and the strolling players for good measure. Iím surprised she did tell you the ghost of her father talked to her."

Looking down into his coffee cup, Joeís frown deepened. Now that Adam had pointed it out, he could see the parallels to Shakespeareís story. "Just because it sounds a bit like Hamlet doesnít mean it isnít true," said Joe slowly.

"Oh, come on, Joe, wake up," Adamís voice held a trace of disgust. "Did she tell you anything you use to verify her story? The name of her uncle? The town? Even her real name? Did she tell described this so-called henchman of her uncle thatís chasing her?"

"She said she didnít want me to get involved," answered Joe a bit too defensively.

"She didnít want you to get involved because thereís nothing for you to be involved in," stated Adam. "Sheís running a con, Joe. Sheís already got you to pay for a suite at the hotel for her. Itís only a question of time before she asks you for more money to send to her lawyer or maybe to help her escape from this mythical man who is chasing her. Or maybe sheís going to ask you to buy some of those non-existent stocks of hers."

"Thatís not true, Adam," Joe replied heatedly. "Bethís not like that. You donít know what youíre talking about."

"Joe, she dances in a medicine show," said Adam in a patient tone of voice. "Sheís not an heiress or hiding from her uncle. Sheís a con artist."

"Youíre wrong, Adam, youíre dead wrong about her," declared Joe angrily. "Beth is sweet, and funny, and wonderful. Sheís only dancing in that medicine show because sheís afraid of her uncle. As soon as turns 21, sheíll leave that show."

"Joe, youíre getting all hot and bothered about a girl youíve only known a couple of days," commented Hoss. "Maybe you ought to slow down and take a hard look at things."

"I donít need your advice," snapped Joe as he glared at Hoss.

"Calm down, all of you," boomed Ben. He could see that Joe wasnít about to be persuaded that the girl might be anything other than what he thought -- or wanted Ė her to me. Continuing the discussion now would serve no purpose except to make Joe dig his heels in deeper.

"Whether the girlís story is true or not is of no concern to us," said Ben in a firm voice. He looked at his youngest son. "Joe offered her help and she refused. Thatís the end of it. Thereís no need for any of us to get involved further. We have a ranch to run. As soon as Joe has finished eating, Hoss, I want you and he to finish getting that north pasture ready. Adam, you get the men started on rounding up the herd. I want to move those cattle next week."

Draining his coffee cup, Joe stood. "Iím not hungry," he said in an abrupt tone. "Iíll go saddle my horse." Joe took a few steps from the table, then stopped and turned back to Ben. "Itís not over, Pa," he said in a determined voice. Joe stared at his father for a moment, then added, "Tell Hop Sing Iíll be having dinner in town tonight." Joe turned and walked away.

Three men sat in stunned silence for a moment as they heard the front door slam.

"Iíll go after him, Pa," offered Hoss, pushing himself away from the table. Ben nodded distractedly as Hoss left the room.

Adam and Ben sat in silence for several minutes, both lost in their thoughts. Finally, Adam said, "Pa, you know that story she told Joe is just a bunch of baloney. Sheís going to keep him on the string until she gets what she wants from him. And then sheíll disappear faster than a jack rabbit."

"We donít know that for sure," replied Ben, but his voice was full of doubt. "If her story is true, Joe could find himself in the middle something that he canít handle. Her uncle sounds like a man who could be dangerous."

"I wouldnít worry too much about that," said Adam. "I think the only danger Joe is facing is losing all his money." Adam looked speculatively at his father. "What are we going to do about the girl?"

Ben sat in silence for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. "I donít think thereís anything we can do, Adam. We canít lock Joe in his room and refuse to let him go to town. Heís not a schoolboy any longer. Heís a young man, old enough to make his own decisions."

"And his own mistakes," added Adam. "Pa, Joe may not be a schoolboy any longer, but I have a feeling that girl is going to give him quite an education."
 
 

***********************

The streets of Virginia City were crowded as Ben guided his horse into town late that morning. He had told himself that the mail really did need to be picked up and that the

feed order had to get in today. But Ben knew he was lying to himself. Any of his sons,

or even one of the hands, could have easily handled these small chores. Ben knew he was in Virginia City to find out more about the girl.

He stopped his horse outside the warehouse that was being used for the show. The place was deserted at this time of day. Nothing except signs announcing the show each evening at 7:00, and the poster of the dancing girl gave any indication that the building was in used. Ben studied the poster for a minute. It told him nothing about the girl, and very little about the show.

After taking care of his business at the feed store and picking up the mail, Ben stood near his horse in the street, unsure exactly what to do next. He knew he couldnít barge into the girlís room at the hotel and demand to know her intentions toward his son. He wondered where he could find out more about the girl. When Sheriff Roy Coffee walked up the street and greeted him, Ben felt as if heaven were sending an answer to a prayer.

"Roy," said Ben, his voice tinged with relief. "Iím glad to see you. I wanted to talk with you for a few minutes."

"Whatís up, Ben?" asked Roy cautiously. "Trouble on the Ponderosa?"

"No, nothing like that," Ben assured his old friend. "I just wanted to get some information."

Nodding his head, Roy suggested, "Iím heading over to Pollyís for a cup of coffee. Want to join me?"

Two of the tables in Pollyís Café were occupied when Ben and Roy entered. When Polly saw the two men come in and sit down, she hurried over to the table.

"Ben, Iím sure happy to see you," said Polly. "I suppose you know what Joe is doing?"

Frowning, Ben shook his head. "No, Polly. What is Joe doing?"

"Heís keeping company with that dancer from the medicine show," declared Polly, her voice filled with righteous indignation. "Heís been seen all over town with her. And Mrs. OíBrien told me he moved her out of his rooming house."

"I know heís had dinner with the girl," said Ben cautiously. "And he did help her move her things."

"And you donít object?" asked Polly incredulously . "Ben, you and I both know what kind of girls dance in those shows. Joe shouldnít be seeing a girl like that."

"Joe says sheís a very nice girl," Ben replied patiently. "He tells me sheís only dancing in the show because ofÖcircumstances beyond her control."

"Iím sure thatís HER story," said Polly with a sniff. "Ben, if I were you, Iíd put a stop to it right now. Sheíll lead that boy astray, mark my words."

"Polly, why donít you bring Roy and me some coffee," suggested Ben pointedly.

"Ben, Pollyís just saying what Iíve been hearing all over town, " said Roy as Polly walked away. "The gossips are having a field day speculating about whatís going on between Joe and that girl."

"People should learn to mind their own business," snapped Ben. He immediately gave Roy an apologetic look. "Iím sorry, Roy. I didnít mean to take it out on you."

"No need to apologize," answered Roy. His eyes twinkled as he added, "Not that I blame Joe. Iíve seen that dance she does. If I was a younger man, Iíd be standing outside her wagon right along side Joe."

Ben smiled briefly at his friend, then asked, "Roy, what do you know about the people in this medicine show?"

Roy didnít answer immediately. He waited while Polly put the coffee cups on the table, and spooned some sugar into his cup before speaking. "Ben, Iíll be honest," said Roy. "I donít know anything about them."

"Nothing?" pressed Ben. "Nothing at all?"

"No a thing," repeated Roy with a shake of his head. "I had Doc Martin check out that medicine theyíre selling, and he told me that itís just herbs and such. Probably wonít help anyone but it sure wonít hurt them. I checked to see if there were any wanted posters on them, but thereís not. Other than that, I donít know anything about them."

"Have you talked with them?" asked Ben, looking for any tidbit of information.

"I met that Harris fellow when he came into town," admitted Roy. "Warned him that I wouldnít stand for anything shady. He assured me that all they were doing was putting on a show. And I believe him. I havenít heard about them doing anything except entertaining folks and selling that patent medicine of theirs."

Sitting back in his chair, Ben let out a sigh of frustration. He had hoped Roy could tell him something that would give him an idea of what the girl might be up to. "What have they been up to since theyíve been in town?" asked Ben. "I mean what do they do when theyíre not performing?"

"I donít know," replied Roy with a shrug. "Iíve seen that Harris fellow playing poker over at the Silver Dollar a couple of times. As far as I can tell, he plays an honest game. The tall one spends most of his time over at the pool hall."

"What about the girl?" asked Ben.

"I havenít seen her at all, except on the stage," answered Roy with a shake of his head.

"A couple people told me that saw Joe with her after the show, but thatís it."

Rubbing his finger across his chin, Ben wondered what to tell Roy. "The girl told Joe that sheís in some kind of trouble," said Ben slowly. "Thatís she hiding from someone. Have

you heard anyone asking about her?"

Frowning, Roy shook his head. "No, I havenít. What kind of trouble is she in? Trouble with the law?"

"No, nothing like that as far as I can tell," admitted Ben. "She claims sheís run away from her family, and is hiding so they donít take her back."

"If thatís the case, itís not a matter for the law," said Roy with a shrug.

"What if she doesnít want to go back?" asked Ben. "Canít you prevent it?"

"Itís not kidnapping if her family forces her to go home, if thatís what youíre asking," explained Roy. "Unless she files some kind of legal complaint, thereís nothing I could do."

Stirring his coffee, Ben asked in a cautious voice, "What if the girl isnít what she claims she is?"

"A pretty girl lying to a man isnít against the law," said Roy dryly. "If it was, my jail would be full. Now if she lies to get some money out of Joe, thatís a different story. You have any proof sheís done that?"

"No, she hasnít done anything like that," admitted Ben. "In fact, sheís refused help from Joe. Itís just that I canít quite believe the story she told him, or that sheís what she claims to be."

"You sure youíre not just being a father?" asked Roy with arched eyes. "Sheís not exactly the kind of girl I suspect youíd want Joe to be courting."

"Roy, I donít know what I think," acknowledged Ben, shaking his head. "All I know is that I have a feeling that I need to protect Joe. I just donít know what Iím trying to protect him from."

*******************

Hoss and Joe had ridden out to the north pasture in silence. Joe was lost in thought, trying to sort out his feelings for Beth, her feelings for him and the suspicions that Adam had planted his mind. Hoss, for his part, was waiting patiently for Joe to use him as a sounding board. Hoss knew that Joe would talk with him when Joe was ready.

As the two worked to fix a fence designed to keep cattle from straying into a gully, Joe

continued to be deep in thought. He knew when he was with Beth, everything seemed so right. She made him feel happy, protective and strong. But at the same time, he knew Beth kept him at armís length, never letting him get close enough to penetrate the protective shell she seemed to have built around herself. What Joe didnít know was whether she had built that shell because she was afraid, or because she was hiding something from him.

As Joe lifted fence posts and pounded nails, he reviewed every conversation he had had with Beth, searching for something that would prove to him without a shadow of a doubt that Adamís allegations were wrong. The problem was he couldnít find anything. Looked at in the cold light of day, everything Beth had told him could be true Ė or could be interpreted as a fantastic story. Joe had no way of know which was right.

Joe finally broke his silence as he and Hoss sat under a tree to each lunch. After a whole morning of virtual silence, Hoss was trying to figure out how to bring up the subject that he knew was on Joeís mind. He was relieved when Joe made the first overture.

"Hoss, how do you tell whether someone is being honest with you?" asked Joe somewhat abruptly as the two relaxed in the shade.

Hoss scrunched up his face in thought before answering. "I donít know that thereís any way to tell that for sure," he admitted. "With some people, you can see it in their eyes when theyíre telling you a story. They kind of shift around, you know, not really looking at you. But other people, well, they can look at you straight in the eye and lie their heads off, and youíd never know it."

"Youíre a big help," said Joe with a sigh.

"Youíre still thinking about that gal, ainít you," suggested Hoss in a sympathetic voice.

"Hoss, I canít stop thinking about her," admitted Joe. "Sheís so pretty Ė her eyes are the bluest Iíve ever seen. When weíre together, we talk and laugh like weíve known each other all our lives. I just want to be with her all the time."

"Thatís how it should be," agreed Hoss cautiously. "If youíve got some feelings for this girl, you should want to be with her. If she feels the same way about you, I reckon sheíll let you know it."

"Thatís just it, Hoss," said Joe, shaking his head. "I donít know what she feels. She keeps everything, including her feelings, to herself. When weíre together, she seems to want to be with me. But at the same time, she doesnít seem to want me around too much. She keeps saying that she doesnít want me to get involved in her troubles. I keep hoping that sheíll say or do something that let will let know inside that wall sheís built around her. But I donít know if she will."

"You know what I think, little brother?" offered Hoss. "I think youíre over-thinking this. You getting to be just like Adam, trying to figure out whatís coming around the next bend. Why donít you just wait and see what happens. Maybe she just needs some time. She ainít known you but a couple of days. I always figure these things work themselves out.

If itís meant to be, itíll feel right to both of you."

"Maybe youíre right," said Joe, rubbing his forehead. He blew out a breath of air. "Maybe I am over-thinking this." Joe gave his brother a tired smile. "I just wish things werenít so complicated."

"You look beat," commented Hoss, noting the lines of fatigue around Joeís eyes.

Stifling a yawn, Joe nodded. "Yeah, I am. I didnít get much sleep last night." Joe rubbed his eyes and added, "Iím not sure what tires me out more - doing all the work País given us or trying to figure out whatís going with Beth."

"Why donít you take a nap?" suggest Hoss.

Grinning, Joe said, "You know, big brother, thatís the smartest thing youíve said yet." Joe leaned back against the tree and pulled his hat down over his face. "Wake me in an hour."

Joe drifted off almost immediately, but his sleep was a troubled one. He dreamt of a dark-haired girl with blue eyes who kept rushing toward him only to turn and run away as he reached out for her. Dark, sinister figures seemed to be standing near him, watching as he tried to reach the girl. They seemed to be preventing him from getting to the girl, but Joe wasnít exactly sure how they were doing it. Finally, the figures approached him and started to shake him.

"Joe! Joe, wake up!"

Sitting up with a start, Joe realized Hoss was shaking him. He shook his head, trying to clear away both the sleep and his troubled dream. "Has it been a hour already?" he asked sleepily.

"More like a couple hours," answered Hoss.

"What?" exclaimed Joe. He scrambled to his feet and looked toward the fence. The rails were all nailed to the posts, and the fence stood ready. "You finished the fence, " said Joe in surprise.

Shrugging, Hoss answered, "There wasnít that much left to do, and you were all tuckered out. I figured it was better to let you sleep."

"Thanks," said Joe gratefully.

"Donít worry, little brother," Hoss replied with a grin. "Iíll think of a way for you to make it up to me." His face turned serious. "Joe, do me a favor, will you? Donít do anything without talking to Pa or Adam first."

"What do you mean?" asked Joe with a frown.

"I donít know if Adam is right about this girl or not," explained Hoss. "But I do know you can go off half-cocked sometimes. Promise me youíll talk to Pa or Adam before you do something you might regret. They can be right useful in helping a fellow sort out things."

"Iím not going to do anything foolish," said Joe firmly.

"Thatís what you say now," Hoss replied. "But Iíve seen the look you get on your face every time you talk about that gal. I got a feeling you might not be thinking too clearly when youíre with her."

"Youíve got a point there," agreed Joe with a grin. His face sobered when he saw the serious expression Hossí face. "I promise," he added solemnly. "I wonít do anything without talking to Pa first."

Hoss studied Joe for a minute, then nodded. "Good," he said, his voice tinged with relief.

"Iím going to hold you to that promise, little brother."

"I told you I would," Joe declared a bit heatedly. He immediately regretted his tone. Joe knew Hoss was just trying to help. He took a deep breath, then smiled. "Donít worry, Hoss. I wonít forget. Itís least I can offer in exchange for you finishing that fence." Joe looked up at the sun. "Come on, itís getting late. I want to get back to the house and get cleaned up. Iíve got to get to town."

"You know, I had a feeling youíd say something like that," said Hoss with a sigh.
 
 

******************



The clock above the bank showed the time as a little after six as Joe rode into Virginia City. He hadnít taken much time back at the house -- just enough time to wash, put on a clean shirt and fill his wallet with money from the pouch he kept with his socks. The pouch held money he kept aside for something really important. Joe considered Beth to be that something.

Joe had left the house quickly because he wanted to get to town in time to walk Beth over to the warehouse. But that wasnít his only reason. He also wanted to avoid his father and his brother Adam. He wasnít in the mood for their disapproving looks and dire warnings.

After stabling his horse, Joe hurried to the hotel. The lobby again was empty. Joe wasnít surprised. At this time of day, most people were eating dinner. Joe walked up to the desk where Vince stood watching him. Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. He counted out some bills and put them on the desk.

"Vince, this is to cover the room and meals I arranged last night," said Joe. Even though the lobby was empty, Joe was cautious with his words.

"You donít have to do this, you know," Vince told the youngest Cartwright. "Your father has an account here. I can just bill everything to that."

"I donít want this on my fatherís account," replied Joe.

"Oh, I see," said Vince with a frown. He picked up the bills. "This should be more than adequate," he added, his voice formal and somewhat distant. "Do you wish to have a receipt?"

"No, thatís not necessary," said Joe with a wave. "But I do want to arrange for dinner for two in the room tonight. About 8:30 should be the right time."

"For two?" replied Vince, the disapproval evident in his voice. "Very well. Iíll arrange it. Will chicken be all right?"

"Thatís fine. Whatever you choose will be fine, Iím sure," agreed Joe with a nod. "And Vince, make sure it includes a nice bottle of wine."

Vinceís frown deepened. "Of course," he said briefly.

Joe started toward the stairs, aware of Vinceís disapproval but not really caring. His mind was filled with the happy thought of seeing Beth.

"The young lady is not in her room," Vince called to Joe.

Stopping, Joe turned to Vince. "Where is she?" he asked with a frown.

"She left a little while ago," replied Vince. "I saw her come down the stairs."

"She came through the lobby?" said Joe in alarm. "Alone?"

"No, she wasnít alone," said Vince, with a hint of a gleeful smile on his face. "A fellow was with her."

"What did the guy look like?" asked Joe, his alarm growing.

"Tall, very tall, and thin as a rail," answered Vince.

"Oh," said Joe with obvious relief. "Itís all right then. Did they say where they were going?"

"I donít poke my nose into my guestís business," stated Vince, his back stiffening a bit.

"All I do is rent the rooms. What people do when theyíre not in their rooms is none of my business." He looked pointedly at Joe. "What they do in their rooms is none of my business either."

Joe ignored Vinceís remark, his mind too busy to catch the implication. He was thinking of Beth. Frank obviously had come by to get her. He probably was walking her over to the warehouse. Joe was disappointed that he hadnít been able to escort Beth, but he was glad that someone from the show had made sure she got there safely. He thought briefly about walking over to the warehouse, but knew Beth and the others would be busy getting ready for their performance. Heíd rather see Beth when she wasnít distracted by the preparations Ė and when he could have her all to himself.

A rumble from Joeís stomach reminded him that he hadnít eaten much today -- no breakfast and a sandwich for lunch. And he knew he wouldnít have dinner with Beth for several hours. Maybe some men could live on love alone, Joe told himself, but he need

a bit more to tide him over until dinner. He headed for the hotel bar to get a sandwich and a beer.

Leaning against the wood bar, Joe was popping the last bit of sandwich into his mouth when Jack Slater walked into the bar. Joe ignored the cowboy as he washed down the sandwich with a drink from the beer mug in his hand. Slater, however, had stopped and stared at Joe when he entered the bar. The expression on Slaterís face wasnít pleasant as he walked up to Joe.

"Hello, Cartwright," said Slater. "Iím surprised to find you here."

"Hello, Slater," Joe replied in a neutral tone.

"I thought youíd be holed up someplace with that Fatima girl," continued Slater. "Itís all over town how youíve got her hidden away in some love nest. Whatís the matter? She get tired of you?"

Joe tried to keep his rising anger in check. His father was unhappy enough with him without adding a barroom brawl to the situation. "Youíd better watch what you say," snarled Joe, his voice dangerously low. "Somebody might actually think you know what youíre talking about." Joe turned his back on Slater.

"I knew you wouldnít be man enough for her," sneered Slater. "You tell your little Ďsoiled doveí to come see me if she wants a real man."

Whirling to face Slater, Joeís eyes blazed in anger. "You shut your filthy mouth," snapped Joe. "Or Iíll shut it for you."

"What are you getting so hot about?" said Slater with a nasty laugh. "We all know what kind of girls dance in those shows. Iíll bet sheís had a man in every town between here

and Denver. Youíre just the latest scalp on her belt."

In a rage, Joe swung and punched Slater in the jaw. The cowboy staggered back a step.

Joe swung again, hitting Slater in the mouth and knocking him to the floor. Joe stood over the cowboy, fists balled and breathing hard. "You keep your mouth shut about Beth," demanded Joe angrily. "She just dances in the show, nothing more. I hear you saying anything different, Iím going to make you regret it." Joe turned and stalked out of the bar.

"Regret it, uh?" said Slater to Joeí retreating back. He rubbed his face with his hand. "Youíre the one whoís going to regret this, Cartwright. You and that girl both."
 
 

****************

The medicine show was over by the time Joe knocked on the door of the wagon. Most of the crowd had left. Joe hoped Beth had waited for him.

After the heated confrontation with Slater, Joe had spent a long time just walking. He walked to cool his anger but he also walked to help him think. He knew Beth wasnít the kind of girl that Slater had claimed. She wouldnít have kept him at armís length like she did if she was just looking for a man. But Slaterís comments added another doubt in his mind. Joe knew he liked Beth a lot, maybe even was falling in love with her. But she was a mystery to him. All he knew about her was the story she had told him. And even then, she hadnít been specific. He wanted to defend her, to tell people she wasnít what they thought. But what could he tell them about Beth? That she was sweet, and funny, and beautiful? And what if her story was just that Ė a story?

By the time Joe had made his way to the warehouse, he had resolved in his mind that he was going to find out the truth about Beth. And he was going to do it tonight.

Joe knocked again on the wagon door, and this time it opened. Beth was wearing a plain white blouse and dark skirt, similar to the outfit she had worn when Joe first saw her. She looked like any other girl in Virginia City. She certainly didnít look like someone who danced in a medicine show.

"Hello, Joe," she welcomed him with a warm smile. "I was wondering where you were."

"Sorry, Iím late," replied Joe, his smile matching hers in warmth. Just looking at Beth made Joe feel good. "Ready to go?"

"Not quite," she replied, stepping down from the wagon. "I need to see Bert."

As if she had called him, Harris came walking around the side of the wagon. "Here you are, my dear," he said handing her an envelope. "Your portion of the profits from our stay so far in Virginia City."

Opening the envelope, Beth pulled out three bills. "Fifteen dollars?" she said in dismay. "Is that all?"

"Iím afraid so," answered Harris, shaking his head.

"Seems like youíve been getting pretty good crowds," commented Joe, looking at Harris through narrowed eyes.

"Average, my boy, just average," replied Harris. "Donít forget we have expenses. I have to pay the rent on the warehouse as well as lodging for me, Bob and Frank as well asÖwell, I paid Mrs. OíBrien for the week. And I have to divide whatís left four ways. Fifteen dollars is all there is."

"I was hoping for at least twenty-five," said Beth sadly.

"Well, thereís still tomorrow," suggested Harris cocking his head. "Saturday night crowds are usually our largest. I might be able to come up with another five if we do a good business tomorrow."

"All right," agreed Beth, her voice filled with resignation. She turned to hand the envelope to Joe. "Iíll pay you the rest as soon as I can."

"Whatís this for?" said Joe in surprise, looking at the envelope in Bethís outstretched hand.

"For the hotel room and meals," answered Beth.

"You donít have to pay me for that," said Joe, shaking his head. "I want to do that for you."

"No, Joe," Beth declared firmly. "Iím not the kind of girl who takes money from men. I know what people say about someone who dances in a medicine show. Thereís nothing I can do about that, and frankly, I donít care what most people think of me. But I do care what you think, Joe. And I wonít have you thinking that Iím that kind of girl. Now take the money."

"I donít want your money," insisted Joe.

"You have to take it," replied Beth equally as insistent. "If you donít, I donít think we can keep seeing each other. I wonít have you thinking you bought my affection."

"I donít think that," protested Joe. "It never even crossed my mind."

"Take the money, Joe," Beth said again, her voice even more insistent. "Take it or leave."

"Youíd better take, my boy," Harris advised with a hint of a smile. "Sheís as stubborn as mule when sheís made up her mind."

"All right," said Joe with a sigh. He took the envelope and stuck it inside his jacket. "But Iím only taking it because you threatened me with a fate worse than death." He saw Bethís quizzical look. "Not seeing you again is just about the worse thing that could happen to me," he explained with a smile.

Smiling back, Beth hooked her arm around Joeís. "Iím glad you took the money," she said softly. "I would hate not seeing you again, too."

Whatever doubts Joe may have had about Beth quickly melted away. He saw her eyes smiling up at him, open and trusting. He felt the envelope of money inside his jacket. How could he have thought that she was other than what she said she was, Joe wondered.

"Did you dance good tonight?" asked Joe as he and Beth walked toward the hotel.

"I suppose," she replied indifferently. She smiled up at Joe. "I dance better when youíre there."

"How did you know I wasnít there?" teased Joe.

"Because I looked, silly," answered Beth. She snuggled closer to Joe. "I always look for you."

The warm glow inside Joe burned with new intensity.

"Iíd thought weíd eat in the suite tonight," said Joe. "I ordered dinner to be brought up."

"Oh, all right," agreed Beth. She sounded disappointed.

"Donít you want to eat there?" asked Joe solicitously.

"No, no, itís fine," said Beth quickly.

"I thought it might be safer," added Joe.

Stiffening, Beth quickly looked around the streets. "For a little while there," she said slowly. "I forgot all about my uncleís thug." She sighed. "It was nice to be happy if only for a little while."

"Iím sorry, Beth," apologized Joe, his voice filled with regret. "I didnít mean toÖ"

"No, Joe, Iím the one whoís sorry," Beth interrupted him. "Iím sorry we canít act like normal people." She gave Joe a shaky smile. "Although, I guess Iíve never been accused of being normal."

Joe took a step back and studied Beth with mock seriousness. "I think I like you just the way you are," he observed with a smile. He put his arm around Bethís shoulder and hugged her close. She rested her head on his shoulder.

Joeís arm was still around Beth when the two walked into the lobby of the hotel. They walked past the disapproving looks of Vince as well as several other people sitting in the lobby who knew Joe. The disapproving looks turned to frowns and whispers as Joe led up the stairs to the suite.

As soon as they were in the suite, Joe kissed Beth. His kiss with deep and full of feeling. Beth eagerly returned Joeís kiss. The two were still locked in a passionate embrace when there was a loud knock on the door. Beth pulled back, her face suddenly filled with fright. "Whoís that?" she asked in a wavering voice.

"Just dinner," Joe reassured her. He bent his head and gave her a quick kiss. "Their timing is pretty lousy."

Despite Joeís assurances, Beth crossed the suite and stood near the bedroom as Joe opened the door. She stayed near the bedroom as the waiter rolled in a cart with covered dishes and plates. The waiter rolled the cart near the sofa and began to set up the dinner. Beth seemed nervous as the waiter uncovered the dishes and opened the wine. Joe noted her edgy movements. He quickly tipped the waiter and dismissed him. Beth waited until the man had left the room to come back across the suite.

"I hope you like chicken," said Joe, deciding not to comment on Bethís nervousness. He peeled off his jacket, and unbuckled his gunbelt. Both went onto a table next to the sofa with his hat. Joe sat on the sofa and took an exaggerated sniff. "Smells good."

Giving Joe a grateful smile, Beth walked across the room and sat down on the sofa next to Joe. "I like chicken," she acknowledged.

If someone had asked Joe later what was discussed over dinner, he couldnít have told them. All he knew is that he talked and laughed with Beth, and that he enjoyed himself thoroughly. Beth ate everything on her plate, while Joe simply picked at his food.

"Oh dear," said Beth with a laugh as she suddenly noticed the differences between the plates. "My teachers at the academy would be appalled. They always taught us that ladies were suppose to eat lightly and leave something on their plate. And here I am, cleaning my plate."

"I like a girl with a good appetite," Joe told the young woman.

"You didnít eat much," chided Beth.

"Iím not very hungryÖfor food," replied Joe, his eyes shining. He moved closer to Beth on the sofa, and put his arm around her shoulders. She seemed to melt into his body. Joe kissed her, tenderly at first, and then with more meaning. Beth put her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. A loud knock once again interrupted them. "Now what?" said Joe with a frustrated sigh as the knock came again.

"Are you expecting someone?" ask Beth. Her voice reflected her fear.

"No," Joe replied. He reached over and pulled his gun from his holster. "Who is it?" he called in a loud voice.

"Itís me, Bert," came the somewhat muffled reply through the door.

"Were you expecting Bert?" Joe asked Beth. She shook her head.

Joe walked over to the door, his gun still in his hand, and opened the door cautiously. He relaxed when he saw Harris on the other side.

"Sorry to interrupt," said Harris as he edged his way into the suite. "I just need to see Beth for a minute."

"What is Bert?" asked Beth from the sofa, her displeasure evident in her voice.

"I forgot to tell you that Iím riding over to Gold Hill tomorrow," Harris explained. "Going to put up some posters for next weekís show. I just wondered if you want me toÖto send a message."

"From Gold Hill?" said Beth. "That wouldnít be wise."

"No, of course not from Gold Hill," answered Harris. "Iíll arrange to have it sent from someplace else. I always do."

"Iím sorry, Bert," apologized Beth. "I know you do. Yes, please send the message."

"Same wording as always?" asked Harris. Beth nodded.

"Well then, Iíll go," said Harris. He nodded to Joe. "Sorry to have interrupted your evening." Harris put his hand on the door to open it, then stopped. He turned back to Beth. "You know, I still think it would be better for you if you went back East where you could be safe."

"Donít, Bert," said Beth in a warning tone.

Ignoring the warning, Harris turned to Joe. "You know if she had the money, sheíd be able to leave this heathen land. Sheís got a place to go where nobody could ever find her. Except she canít afford to get there."

"Bert, Iím warning you," Beth said, her voice full of anger.

"How much would it take to get her there," asked Joe warily.

"Three hundred, maybe four hundred dollars," replied Harris. He shook his head. "Thereís no way for us to raise that kind of money with our little show. Youíve seen how we live hand to mouth."

"Thatís enough, Bert!" yelled Beth, jumping to her feet. She rushed across the room and opened the door. "Goodnight, Bert," she said in a voice cold as ice.

"I was only trying to help," said Harris with a shrug.

"Goodnight, Bert," repeated Beth, her eyes blazing with anger.

Harris studied Bethís face for a moment, then casually walked out the door. As he stepped over the threshold, he turned back to Beth. "Do you still want me to send the message?"

The life seemed suddenly to drain from Beth. Her shoulders sagged, and her face seemed to pale. "Yes," said Beth in a discouraged voice. "Yes, Bert, send the message." She closed the door in Harrisí face.

Leaning her back against the closed door, Beth closed her eyes. To Joe, she seemed to have suddenly turned to stone.

"Is it true what Harris said?" asked Joe in a quiet voice. "Is there someplace you could be safe if you could get there."

"I donít know, Joe," replied Beth, her eyes still closed. "I donít know if thereís anyplace where I could be really safe."

"But this place Harris mentioned," pressed Joe. "You think you may be safe there?"

Beth opened her eyes and looked at Joe. "Letís not talk about it." She walked across the room and sat on the sofa.

"No, Beth," said Joe. "Not this time." He walked over and sat next to her on the sofa. "Youíre not going to put me off this time. I want to know whatís going on. Iím not leaving until you tell me."

"I told you," Beth answered, her voice sounding tired.

"You told me," agreed Joe. "But you didnít tell me everything. Why wonít you give me your uncleís name? Or even your real name? Donít you trust me?"

Bethís eyes widened. "Oh, Joe, I do trust you," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I trust you more than anyone I know. But if I tell you everything, then youíll want to get involved. And that means nothing but trouble for you. I donít want you involved in my troubles."

Frustrated, Joe pounded his fist into his knee. "Beth, I want to help you, donít you understand that?"

"I understand that, and I love you for it," replied Beth. "But thereís nothing you can do to help."

Springing to his feet, Joe walked around the room. He could feel his frustration building.

"All right," he said, turning to Beth. "What about this safe place? Where is it?"

Beth looked away, then turned back to Joe. "Itís a convent, Joe," she replied softly. "A convent in Boston. The mother superior is a friend of my motherís. Sheís offered to help me, to hide me there. But I canít afford the fare to Boston."

"What if I paid your fare for you?" said Joe.

"No!" answered Beth angrily. She stood and walked over to Joe. "You think Iíd take the money from you?" she demanded. "Four hundred dollars? Never. I wouldnít take four dollars from you, Joe Cartwright." Beth turned her back on Joe.

Confused, Joe stood staring at Bethís back. The small doubts that had melted away earlier came back. It seemed too coincidental that Harris had mentioned Beth needing a large sum of money just as "Harris and Company" were getting ready to leave town. Beth had seemed genuinely angry and upset about his offer. But that could be part of the act. She would reject taking the money and he would keep insisting. And finally she would take it. And a convent? That was straight out of Hamlet again. The line "Get thee to a nunnery" was one of the few from the play that he remembered.

The sound of Beth weeping softly changed Joeís mind once more. His heart was probably ruling his head, he knew, but he didnít care. If she was lying to him, Joe didnít want to know. Joe put his hands on Bethís shoulders. "Beth, I donít want us to fight," he said softly.

Turning, Beth looked up at Joe. Her eyes were red and her cheeks were streaked with tears. "I donít want us to fight, either."

Joe kissed the tears from her cheeks. "The offer for the money is on the table, and it will stay there," he continued. He could feel Bethís body stiffening. "Itís up to you if you want to take advantage of it," Joe added quickly. "I just donít want you to feel trapped. I want you to feel like you have a choice."

"Thank you, Joe," replied Beth, her eyes filling with tears again. "But I wonít be accepting the offer." She turned and walked away from Joe. "Iím sorry, Joe. I shouldnít have gotten angry at you. I know you were only trying to help. I donít know whatís wrong with me." Beth looked to the ceiling and sighed. "Maybe all this running and hiding is starting to get to me."

"You know whatís wrong with you?" suggested Joe walking over to her. "Youíre just stuck in this room too much. You need to get out and get some fresh air. What you need is a buggy ride with a handsome cowboy."

"And just where would I find this handsome cowboy?" teased Beth with a smile.

"Oh, I think if you looked around hard enough you might find one around," offered Joe dryly.

Laughing, Beth said, "You know what I would really like, Joe? I want to go riding. Not in a buggy. On horseback. I used to do it all the time with my father. I miss it."

"All right," agreed Joe. "On horseback. Iíll be here at noon to pick you up. Iíll show you some of the prettiest country youíve ever seen."

"I have to be back by six to get ready for the show," warned Beth. "Can we see it in six hours?"

"We donít have that much pretty country," replied Joe with a smile.

Beth laughed and threw her arms around Joe. "I do like having you around, Joe Cartwright."

"I like being around," replied Joe as he kissed her.
 
 

**********************

Two hours later, Joe was walking past the Silver Dollar Saloon on the way to the stable. He had wanted to stay longer with Beth. If truth be known, he had wanted to stay all night. But Beth had sweetly but firmly showed him to the door when the clocked chimed eleven, claiming she needed her beauty sleep. When Joe had protested she didnít need any more beauty, Beth had laughed and swore she turned into a pumpkin at midnight. Joe was still trying to think of an argument to counter that comment when Beth had handed him his hat and shown him out the door.

Now Joe walked down the street whistling softly, his mind filled with images of Beth. He was surprised when the saloon doors opened in front of him and Harris lurched out onto the sidewalk.

"Hello there, Bert," said Joe, catching Harris as he staggered a bit. It was obvious Harris had had more than his share of drinks.

Harris peered at Joe through bloodshot eyes, as if trying to remember who he was. "Ah, yes, our young knight," acknowledged Harris finally recognizing Joe. "Come to rescue me as you have our damsel in distress, have you?"

"I wasnít looking for you," said Joe with an amused smile. "But you do look like you could use some rescuing. Come on, Iíll help you home."

"Thank you, lad, thank you," replied Harris, patting Joe on the arm. Harris looked around the street. "I wonder where home is?"

"Where are you staying?" Joe asked, doing his best to keep Harris steady.

"Donít know, lad," Harris said almost cheerfully. "All these towns look the same to me. Canít tell one from another." Harris frowned in concentration, then shook his head. "I havenít any idea of the name of the place Iím staying."

"How about I take you back to the wagon?" suggested Joe. "You can sleep it off there."

"Good idea, good idea," Harris agreed. He looked around the street once more, then turned to Joe. "You wouldnít have any idea where the wagon might be, would you?" he asked.

"Iíll take you there," said Joe with a smile.

Leading the tottering Harris by the arm, Joe turned and began walking toward the warehouse.

"Youíre a good lad," said Harris with an approving nod as the two walked down the street. "Beth thinks highly of you, and sheís got a good eye. She donít let any riffraff near her."

"Has Beth seen many men," Joe asked tentatively as he helped Harris down the street.

"A few," admitted Harris. "She donít let many get close to her. And nothing like you. A few late suppers here and there, thatís all. And mostly just once. She donít seem to want them fellows hanging around her. Not like you. She canít stop talking about you."

Smiling to himself, Joe felt a sense of relief. He had been afraid Harris would paint a different picture of Beth with his tongue loosened by drink.

Harris pulled himself to a stop suddenly. "Got to do something," he said with a frown. "Iím suppose to do something but I canít remember what."

"Go to Gold Hill in the morning," suggested Joe.

"Ah," said Harris in a relieved voice. He started walking again. "Thatís right. Iíve got to go to Gold Hill. Put up posters and arrange for the message." Harris shook his head. "Strange message she sends."

"What does it say?" asked Joe curiously.

"Just two words," replied Harris. " ĎOphelia livesí. Thatís all there is to it."

"Ophelia?" said Joe, suddenly disturbed. "Like in Hamlet?"

"An educated lad!" exclaimed Harris. "What a rare find. Yes, like in Hamlet. Itís some sort of code. Letís that lawyer fellow know sheís alive and well."

"Does she ever get an answer?" asked Joe.

"None that Iíve ever known about," admitted Harris. Harris looked up and spotted the wagon parked near the warehouse. "Ah, home sweet home." He turned to Joe. "I can make it from here, lad. Thank you for your help."

"Are you sure?" asked Joe doubtfully.

"Iím sure," said Harris. "You go home and have yourself sweet dreams of our fair Ophelia. Or Fatima. Or Beth. Or whatever." Harris seemed to be confused as to what name to use. He shrugged. "You go home and have yourself some sweet dreams."

Joe stood and watched as Harris tottered toward the wagon. He waited until the man had opened the door and stumbled inside. Then he turned to walk back to the stable, more confused and disturbed than ever. He wondered why everything Beth said seemed to come straight from Shakespeareís play. Was it a bizarre coincidence? Or was Beth playing some kind of game with him? Was she genuinely frightened of some mysterious man or was that simply a ploy to eventually get money from him? When Joe was with Beth, he had no doubts. She seemed so genuine and honest to him. Harris had confirmed that he sent the messages she had told him about. But why did the doubts keep creeping back as soon as he was away from Beth?

Joe shook his head. He had a feeling he wasnít going to get much sleep tonight, and if he did, his dreams were going to be anything but sweet.

******************

Beth riding across the meadow was about the prettiest picture Joe had ever seen. He sat on his horse and watched as she kicked her horse into a gallop. Her hair streamed back from her head as her body moved in easy motion with the horse. Her white blouse

waved in the air as she rode, and black trousers she wore seemed almost to blend into the dark of the saddle. But it was the expression on Bethís face that made Joe smile. On her face was a look of pure joy.

"Come on!" Beth shouted over her shoulder to Joe. He nodded and kicked his pinto into a gallop. His horse easily caught up with hers and soon the two were racing across the field, the wind blowing into their faces. They rode their horses for several hundred yards, both enjoying the speed of their ride. As the horses neared the river, Beth pulled her mount to a trot and then a walk. Joe did the same.

"Joe, that was wonderful," enthused Beth. "I canít remember when Iíve had such a feeling of freedom." She patted her horse on the neck. "Heís a terrific horse." She smiled at Joe. "Thank you."

"Youíre welcome, maíam," replied Joe with exaggerated politeness. He smiled at Bethís happiness. "Iím glad youíre having a good time."

"This is the best day Iíve had in years," said Beth, her voice filled with excitement. "The scenery is lovely. I canít believe how blue the lake is, or how green the trees are. And itís so wonderful to be riding again. Iíve missed it. Thereís not a single thing about this day I would change."

"Even the company?" prompted Joe.

"Especially the company," Beth said with a smile.

The warm feeling inside Joe had nothing to do with the heat of the day. He looked at Beth, glowing with happiness, and his heart skipped a beat. Joe wanted to keep that look of happiness on her face forever.

Looking around, Joe spotted a clump of trees growing on the river bank. "Weíd better give the horses a rest," he said. "Why donít we head toward those trees? We can let the horses rest in the shade and stretch our legs a bit."

As the two walked their horses toward the trees, the questions that Joe had been wrestling with last night came back to him. Now that he was with Beth, the questions seemed a bit ridiculous. Joe wondered if he should ask Beth about some of the things which, at least right now, seemed to be odd coincidences.

Stopping their horses under the trees, both riders dismounted. Three tall, thin birches grew close together, forming a rough half circle. Joe took the reins of both horses. "Iíll tie them up and loosen the cinches a bit," he offered.

"Thanks," said Beth, stretching a bit. She looked around. "Iím going to walk over by the river."

"Be careful," warned Joe. "That bank is slippery, and the current is pretty swift. If you fell in, the river would probably carry you all the way to Reno."

"Iíll be careful," promised Beth.

It took Joe only a few minutes to tie each rein around a tree low enough so the horses could crop the lush grass, and to loosen the cinches on both saddles. When he finished with the horses, Joe looked for Beth. He saw her sitting on a large rock by the river, staring into the water. Joe watched her for a few minutes, struck once more by the fact

that just looking at Beth made him feel good. Then he walked slowly toward her.

As Joe waked up to Beth, he could see the expression on her face was pensive, almost sad. "What are you thinking about?" asked Joe as he lowered himself to join her on the rock.

"How happy I am," answered Beth without looking at him. "How Iím going to miss this place." She turned to look at Joe. "And you."

Sliding his arm around Bethís shoulder, Joe said, "Beth, I donít want you to leave."

"I have to leave, Joe," she replied. "You know that."

"Beth, donít go," pleaded Joe. "Stay in Virginia City."

"And do what?" said Beth, arching her eyebrows. "Work in a dress shop? Or maybe wait tables at Pollyís? Joe, Iím a girl who dances in a medicine show. No one in Virginia City would give me a job, except maybe in the saloon. And despite what people think, I wouldnít work in a place like that."

"You could stay at the ranch," suggested Joe.

"Oh, really?" said Beth. She shook her head. "Iíve seen the looks and heard the whispers, Joe. Half the people in Virginia City already think weíre lovers. If I moved out to the ranch, theyíd be sure of it."

"Well, if half the people in Virginia City already think weíre loversÖ.," said Joe with a suggestive grin, pulling her closer.

Beth slapped Joeís hand lightly. "Behave yourself," she ordered with a smile. Then her face sobered. "Even if I wanted to stay, I couldnít. If I stayed in Virginia City, my uncleís men would find me within a week. I donít want you around me if they do. I canít bear the thought that something might happen to you because of me." Beth pulled herself from Joeís grasp and stood. She turned to stare into the river.

"Why donít you give it up?" said Joe quietly.

Turning back to Joe, she looked at him with surprise. "Give up what?"

"Give up thisÖthis quest of yours to get control of your fatherís company, and to punish your uncle," answered Joe. "Itís not worth what youíre doing to yourself."

Turning back to look at the river, Beth didnít answer. She stared at the rushing water for several minutes. "Iíve thought about it," she admitted without looking at Joe. "There have been a lot of times when Iíve been tempted to just send a message to my lawyer, telling him to make a deal with my uncle so he can have my shares. But I canít do that, Joe. My father spent his life building up that company. He would hate what my uncle is doing. My father would want me to fight it. Sometimes, late at night, it almost seems as if my fatherís ghost is almost talking to me, telling me I have to do this."

"There you go again!" said Joe in an exasperated voice. "My brother Adam said it would be a matter of time until you brought up your fatherís ghost."

Beth turned to Joe with a puzzled expression. "What are you talking about?"

"Beth, have you ever listened to yourself? Listened to that story you tell?" said Joe, his aggravation evident. "Your father dies, and your uncle marries your mother in order to take over. Thereís threats of insanity, a traveling show and your fatherís ghost. Itís the story of Hamlet, isnít it. Thereís no uncle, is there? No company to be saved, no mysterious stranger. For some reason, youíre trying to string me along by telling me the story of Hamlet!"

Beth stared at Joe, her mouth agape.

"Beth, you donít have to make up a story to keep my attention," continued Joe. "I donít care that you dance in a medicine show. I donít care what youíve done before you came to Virginia City. All I care about is you."

Beth continued to stare a Joe, the surprise evident on her face. "I never saw it," she said slowly. "I never saw the parallel."

Seeing the look on Bethís face, Joe felt bad about his outburst. "Beth, Iím sorry," he apologized, his voice full of regret. "I didnít mean to implyÖ"

"No," interrupted Beth, her face still full of wonder. "Itís all right, Joe. Really, it is. Now that I think about it, I can see why you must have thought I was making up a story. Itís almost eerie, isnít it. My life has turned into a Shakespearean tragedy. My life has become Hamlet."

"I would prefer Romeo and Juliet," said Joe with a tentative smile, trying to make amends.

"I donít think I care for the part about the lovers dying at the end," replied Beth with a distracted look. She shook her head. "I canít get over it, Joe. What you said is so true.

Iím just amazed I didnít see it."

"What about the message you send?" asked Joe. " ĎOphelia livesí. Thatís pure Hamlet."

"Yes, yes, it is, isnít it," said Beth, her voice full of amazement. She shook her head. "I thought I was picking that phrase simply because it would be unique. But maybe deep down somewhere, I realized the similarities." Beth looked at Joe. "Thereís no way I can prove to you what Iíve said is true. It is, Joe, it really is. But I understand if you donít believe me."

"Beth, I believe you," said Joe earnestly. "But I think itís time you stopped keeping things from me."

"Iíve told you everything, Joe," declared Beth. She hesitated. "Well, almost everything."

"Why wonít you tell me your real name, where youíre from, your uncleís name?" asked Joe. "What difference does it make?"

"It doesnít make any difference," said Beth sadly. "Thatís the problem."

"What do you mean?" asked Joe, puzzled.

"What I mean is, knowing who I am wonít make any difference," replied Beth. "I still have to go. I have go on being Fatima, the girl who dances in the medicine show."

Walking up to Beth, Joe took her in his arms. "Donít go," he begged her. "Please donít go. I want you to stay. I think Iím in love with you."

Looking up at Joe, Beth shook her head. "Donít be in love with me, Joe," she said sadly.

"Why not?" he asked

"Because I canít love you back," she answered. "Not the way you deserved to be loved."

"And howís that?" Joe said with a frown.

"You deserved to be loved by someone who can come to you with open arms, with no conditions," Beth replied. "I canít do that. What did you call it, a quest? I canít love you the way you deserve while Iím on this quest."

"Then give it up," said Joe.

"I canít do that," answered Beth with a shake of her head. "If I did, Iíd feel like Iím betraying my father. And that would always be between us. Every time I looked at you, I would think about how I chose you over my father. Making that choice would chip away at my soul; I know it would. We couldnít be happy, not really happy, with that hanging over our heads."

Sighing, Joe hugged Beth to him. "What happens now?" he asked almost in despair.

Laying her head on Joeís chest, Beth said softly, "I donít know whatís going to happen. I have to go, Joe. Itís the hardest thing Iíve ever done, but I have to do it. All I want is that you remember me. Donít forget me, Joe. I need to know that you wonít forget me."

"Iíll never forget you," he promised. Joe kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"Maybe some day Iíll feel like I can come back to you," said Beth. But her voice reflected the doubt she felt about that happening. "Who knows? Maybe some day, youíll look up and there Iíll be. Until then, just remember the girl who danced in the medicine show."

"Youíre more to me than just the girl who danced in the medicine show," replied Joe sadly. "Iíll always remember Beth, the girl with the bluest eyes Iíve ever seen. The girl who made me laugh and who made me fall in love with her." Joe bent his head and kissed Beth on the lips, a passionate kiss which she returned wholeheartedly. Both of them knew it was a goodbye kiss.

When they finally parted, Joe looked at Beth and saw his tears mirrored in her eyes. He swallowed hard and released her. "Iíll go get the horses," he said, his voice choked with emotion.

As Joe walked back toward the trees, his mind was on the girl standing on the riverbank. He didnít see the dark figure behind the tree, or see it move as he approached. Joe did hear Beth scream is name in terror and warning. He heard her scream just before he felt the jagged bolt of pain in the back of his head. Then everything around Joe turned black.
 
 

*************

Awareness came back to Joe bit by bit, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle being fitted together. The first thing Joe knew was that he had a throbbing pain in the back of his head, an ache so fierce that it made his stomach queasy. Joe laid still, with his eyes closed, as he tried to think through the pain. His brain felt sluggish, as if it were working at one-quarter speed.

Feeling the grit of the sandy soil against the side of his face, Joe became aware of the face that he was laying on his side on the ground, but not on the soft grass of the meadow. The sand gave Joe the key clue. He figured he must be laying on the ground near the bank of the river. He wasnít sure how he got to the riverbank, and he wasnít sure he really cared.

Moving his arms a bit, Joe found them pulled unnaturally behind him and restricted. The chafe of the rope against his wrists told Joe that someone had tied his hands together behind his back. The next piece of the puzzle fell easily into place as he tried to move his legs. His ankles were also tied tightly together.

Joeís aching brain finally figured out the sounds he heard were voices. He couldnít quite understand the words, only that he was hearing a shrill voice being answered by a low, deep-throated one. He listened carefully, trying to force his brain to form the sound into words. After a few minutes of concentrated effort, his aching head finally began to make sense of the sounds.

"Iím telling you for the tenth time that you have me mixed up with someone else," insisted the shrill voice.

"Donít try that on me, honey," replied the deep voice. "I know who you are."

"Youíre wrong, mister," said the shrill voice. "I donít know who you think I am, but youíve got the wrong person."

"Save your breath," answered the deep voice, dismissing the comment.

Opening his eyes slowly, Joe tried to lift his head to see who was talking. He immediately regretted that move. A stab of pain streaked through his head like a bolt of lightning. Joe grunted and eased his head back down to the ground.

"Looks like Sleeping Beauty is starting to wake up," a new, third voice commented.

"Joe! Joe, are you all right?" asked the shrill voice in concern.

It took Joeís foggy brain a minute to identify the shrill voice as belonging to Beth. The thought of Beth filled Joe with a sense of urgency to find the last pieces of the puzzle.

Despite the pain that it caused, Joe lifted his head to look around.

The vague image of two people sitting a few feet away was the first thing Joe saw. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to clear both his vision and his thinking. The images came into focus.

One was a man about 40 dressed in a black shirt, black pants and black hat. Joe had no idea who the man was, but he knew the man wasnít a friend. The man in black was sitting on a log with a gun in his hand, and the gun was pointed in his direction.

The second man was easily identified. Jack Slater sat with his knees up and his back against the log. He also had a gun in his hand, although his was held loosely and seemed pointed in no particular direction.

Looking for Beth, Joe turned on to his back. He swiveled his head until he saw her sitting a few feet away. Beth was looking a Joe, her face showing a mixture of fright and concern. He could see her hands also were tied behind her back, and her legs also were bound.

"Whatís going on?" asked Joe in a thick voice.

"Joe, are you all right?" asked Beth in a frightened voice.

"I donít know," admitted Joe, blinking his eyes again. "My head hurts."

"Youíll live," sneered Slater with a laugh. "I didnít hit you that hard. Besides, you Cartwrights all have heads like rocks."

Shaking his head a bit, Joe asked again. "Whatís going on?"

"These men seem to think Iím someone important," replied Beth. She glanced in their direction almost disdainfully. "They want to kidnap me for some reason."

"Weíre not kidnapping you," explained the man in black patiently. "Weíre simply escorting you back to your family."

"I donít have a family," said Beth in a defiant voice. "You have the wrong girl."

"Donít start that again," stated the man, shaking his head. "Your uncle wants you back and Iím going to see that you get there."

"Do you think Iíd be dancing in a medicine show if I was this...this heiress youíre after," said Beth.

"I have to admit that I didnít figure out thatís what you were doing," acknowledged the man in black ruefully. "I kept finding people who had spotted you in different towns, but I thought you were just keeping on the move. I wouldnít have put it together about the medicine show unless Slater here had told me."

"He doesnít know what heís talking about," said Beth with a frown.

"Well, now, Miss Fatima or Miss Beth or whatever your name is, I wouldnít have figured it out either," sneered Slater. "Except Cartwright here called you Beth in the saloon the other day. Then I heard Anderson here asking about a girl named Elizabeth or Beth who kept moving from town to town. Things just kind of clicked into place when he described your blue eyes. You do have the bluest eyes Iíve ever seen."

Listening to Slater, Joe cursed himself. He had lost his temper in the saloon and given away Bethís identify to the one man who was willing to use that information against her.

"That reminds me, Anderson," continued Slater. "When do I get paid?"

"I told you," replied Anderson in an irritated voice. "Soon as we get to Reno and I get the girl on the stage, Iíll pay you. I want to make sure you stick around until then."

"Donít you think people will think itís a little strange that youíre taking a girl tied hand and foot on the stage?" asked Beth. "Theyíll liable to ask questions."

"You wonít be tied up on the stage," promised Anderson. "Once I show the sheriff and the doc the judgeís paper saying youíre crazy, theyíll be more than happy to agree to pumping you full of something to keep you quiet. Donít want to upset the other passengers, you know. Youíll have a nice trip home, although you wonít be able to enjoy the scenery much seeing how youíll be all doped up."

Bethís shoulders sagged in despair.

The pain in Joeís head had eased to a dull throb. He was no longer dazed and confused, just mad. "Tell me, Slater," asked Joe angrily. "Whatís the going rate for selling an innocent girl to a lowlife like this."

"A hundred dollars," replied Slater with a nasty grin. "And she ainít so innocent. I think we both know that."

"Slater, youíre scum, you know that," said Joe in a disgusted voice.

Ignoring Joe, Slater turned to Anderson. "That reminds me. What are we going to do with him?"

"Once I get the girl on the stage, I donít care what you do with him," replied Anderson with a shrug. "I want to him keep around until we get to Reno. If his father is an important as you say, he could be real useful as a hostage if we run into somebody who objects to our little trip. Once we get to Reno, you can do whatever you want with him."

"Good," said Slater. He turned to Joe. Pulling a hunting knife out of a sheath tied to the side of his belt, Slater showed the knife to Joe. "Iím going to have some fun with you, Cartwright. By the time I get done with you, your face ainít going to be so pretty. That family of yours may not even recognize you."

Swallowing the lump of fear that was forming in his throat, Joe gave Slater a defiant look. "I should have beaten the daylights out of you when I had the chance."

"Well, you missed your chance," sneered Anderson. "Now itís my turn."

"Please, donít hurt him," begged Beth in a frightened voice. She looked at Anderson. "If I promise to go with you quietly, will you let him go?"

"And have him running to the law?" laughed Anderson. "Not on your life. Weíll all going to stay here, one little happy group until morning. Then weíre going to ride into Reno. And if you give me any trouble, missy, Iím going to let Slater have his fun early. I donít think youíll like what heíll do to your boyfriend here."

"Why do we have to stay here?" complained Slater. "Why donít we just ride into Reno now?"

"Because," said Anderson in a patient voice, "I donít want to spend any more time in Reno than I have to. Somebody might ask some questions. We leave in the morning, weíll get there just before the stage leaves. I donít want to spend more than an hour in that town. Thatíll give me just enough time to see the sheriff and the doc, before I have to put the poor little crazy girl on the stage."

"I donít like the idea of staying here until morning," grumbled Slater.

"I donít care what you like," said Anderson in a heated voice. "Now gather some wood and get a fire started. Iím getting hungry."
 
 

************************

The clock by the front door of the ranch house was chiming eleven oíclock. Ben looked up from the book he was pretending to read and glanced anxiously toward the door. He hadnít seen Joe since breakfast, and he wanted to talk to his son when he returned from Virginia City. Ben was hoping he could convince Joe to at least consider carefully about his relationship with the girl in the medicine show. He had spent the whole day thinking about what to say to Joe and how to say it. Ben wasnít sure he could convince Joe that the girl wasnít right for him. But he knew he had to try. He couldnít just stand by and let Joe be hurt. And Ben was sure that Joeís relationship with the dancer was going to end painfully for his son, one way or the other.

"Pa, Joe hasnít been home before midnight for the last few days," said Adam, looking up from the chessboard. He and Hoss had been moving pieces around on the board for the last hour, neither one of them paying much attention to the actual game.

"Thatís right, Pa," agreed Hoss. "You canít be expecting him yet. Itís liable to be awhile before he gets home."

"I know," said Ben with a sigh. "I was just hopingÖ." He looked at Adam and Hoss. "Itís getting late. Arenít you fellows ready to turn in?"

"Uh, soon as we finish this game," replied Adam, looking down quickly at the chessboard. Neither Adam or Hoss were willing to let their father sit and worry about Joe all by himself. They werenít sure what to do to help him, but both knew by just being with him, they eased Benís concern a bit.

The sound of footsteps on the porch pulled all three menís attention toward the door. They watched the door expectantly, anticipating that Joe would throw it open and walk in. All three were surprised when there was a knock on the door.

"Who could that be at this hour?" asked Ben with a frown.

"I donít know, Pa," said Adam, rising from the blue chair he had pulled close to the table.

Adam walked over to the door and pulled it open.

"Mr. Ben Cartwright?" asked a heavy-set man in a checked suit from the porch.

"No, Iím Adam Cartwright," replied Adam. "Can I help you?"

"My name is Bert Harris," explained Harris. "Iím looking for Joe Cartwright. Or rather, Iím looking for a young girl who left town with Joe early this afternoon."

"Maybe youíd better come in," said Adam, pulling the door wide.

"Thank you," replied Harris, stepping into the house. He looked around briefly, admiring the furnishings, then turned to the two men on the other side of the room who were watching him anxiously. Harris guessed immediately that the older, gray-haired man was Joeís father.

"Mr. Cartwright," said Harris walking to where Ben was sitting. "My name is Bert Harris. I run the show thatís in Virginia City. Beth, or rather Fatima as sheís known in the show, left town with Joe earlier today. She didnít show up for the show tonight. I wanted to talk to Joe, to see if he knew where she was."

"My son hasnít come home yet," replied Ben, his anxiety growing. "I havenít seen him since this morning."

Harris frowned. "You donít know where he is?"

"No," answered Ben with a shake of his head. "He said he was going riding with the girl, and left a little before noon."

"Does she do this often?" asked Adam. "I mean, does she not show up when sheís spending time with a man?"

Harrisí frown deepened. "Bethís a good girl," he said indignantly. "She usually doesnít spend time with the fellows. In the six months or so sheís been traveling with us, this is the first time Iíve known her to have more than one dinner with someone. And she never misses a show."

"Do you think somethingís wrong?" asked Ben in a worried voice.

"I donít know what to think," admitted Harris with a sigh. "Beth never misses a show, but I also havenít ever seen her so taken with a fellow. She talks about Joe all the time. If I didnít know better, Iíd think she was in love with him."

"Is there some reason why she couldnít be in love with him?" asked Adam, raising an eyebrow.

"Beth has someÖdifficulties in her life," said Harris carefully. "She doesnít let anyone get close to her. Beth is afraid that her difficulties might put others at risk. If she cares about Joe, she wouldnít want to risk him getting caught up her troubles."

"Mr. Harris, Joe told us the story about those fellows looking for the girl. Is that true?" Hoss asked.

"Oh, itís true all right," answered Harris. "Weíve dodged a fellow looking for her a couple of times. I donít know all the reasons, but I do know sheís hiding from someone."

"So you think that maybe this someone caught up with Beth and Joe?" asked Ben in alarm.

"Maybe," Harris replied, cocking his head. "Or maybe Beth finally broke down and let someone into her life. Could be the two of them have run off together."

"Joe wouldnít do that," stated Hoss in a positive voice.

"You donít know that," said Harris. "Beth is a pretty girl, and if Joe has some strong feelings about herÖ"

"Joe does have feelings for her," agreed Hoss. "But he also promised he wouldnít do anything about them without talking to us first."

"Hoss, Joe may have forgotten what he promised," said Adam. "If he got caught up in some emotional situation, he may not have thought about talking it over with us." Adam

cocked his head a bit. "We havenít exactly been supportive," he acknowledged.

"No, it wouldnít happen that way," said Hoss firmly, shaking his head. "Joe made a promise to me and he wouldnít break it." Hoss turned to Ben. "Somethingís wrong, Pa. I know it is. Joeís in trouble and he needs our help. Weíve got to go find him."

Staring into the fire, Ben didnít answer for several minutes. He thought about how fiercely Joe had defend the girl to him and to Adam and Hoss. Ben momentarily conceded to himself that it was possible than Joe and the girl had gone off somewhere together. Given Joeís feelings for the girl and the obvious disapproval of his family over his spending time with her, it wasnít impossible that Joe had decided to turn an afternoonís ride into a longer, more amorous event. It may have even been the girlís idea. Didnít Polly say something about her leading Joe astray?

But almost as soon has these thoughts came to Ben, he dismissed them. Ben believed he knew his son. Despite Joeís reputation with the ladies, Ben felt sure Joe would never simply run off with the girl. For one thing, Joe had made a promise to Hoss, and he would honor that promise. And even if he had forgotten his promise, Joe wouldnít do something that would dishonor the girl or his family, no matter how much she encouraged him to do so.

With a sudden start, Ben realized he had never even met the girl. He had been as bad as the gossips in Virginia City, assuming that the only danger Joe faced was having his heart bruised. Because she danced in a medicine show, Ben had given little credence to her story. With a sinking feeling, Ben realized that he made have terribly misjudged the whole situation.

Ben turned to the three men who were watching him expectantly. "As soon as itís light," he said, "weíll go looking for Joe and the girl." He swallowed hard. "I just hope weíre not too late."

******************

A few feet from the dying fire, Beth snuggled as close to Joe as possible. Anderson and Slater had given little thought to the comfort of their prisoners. Anderson had untied Beth long enough to allow her eat a plate of burned beans and drink a cup of bitter coffee. Before untying Beth, he had yanked her boots from her feet, a precaution against her running away. While Beth choked down the food, Anderson had stood over a Joe with a gun, threatening to shoot if Beth made any attempt to escape. When Beth had discovered with dismay there was nothing left in the bean pot for Joe, Anderson had shrugged indifferently. He had grudging allowed her to hold a cup of coffee to Joeís mouth so he could drink some of the bitter brew. Then he had roughly tied her up again, not giving her a chance to put her boots on again.

Too far from the fire to feel its warmth and without a blanket to ward off the night chill,

Joe shivered a bit. He assumed Beth was trying to get close to him for warmth as well as comfort, although he had little of both to offer. He was surprised when she suddenly whispered in his ear.

"Joe, can you swim?" Beth asked in as soft a voice as possible.

"What!" exclaimed Joe. He looked quickly toward the fire. Anderson was asleep near the flames. Slater was suppose to be keeping watch but the cowboy was dozing, unconcerned that the pair who were bound hand and foot would cause any trouble. Joeís shocked comment hadnít disturbed either one.

"Can you swim?" Beth repeated in a whisper.

"Yes," replied Joe softly. "But why do you want to know that?"

"Because I think Iíve figured out a way to get us loose," Beth answered in a voice that Joe could barely hear. "But once weíre loose, weíve got to get away. Weíd never make it to the horses, and theyíd catch us if we tried to run. The river is our only chance."

Shaking his head, Joe whispered, "Weíd never make it across the river. The current is too swift. Weíd be carried downstream as soon as we hit the water."

"Thatís what Iím counting on," replied Beth. Seeing Joeís surprised look, she continued.

"The river will carry us away from here. They could never keep us on foot and by the time they got their horses, weíd be a mile away."

"And probably drowned," said Joe. "No, itís no good, Beth."

"Do you have a better idea?" she hissed almost angrily. Her whisper turned into a pleading one. "Joe, weíve got to try. Itís a chance, our only chance. And Iíd rather be dead than carried off to an asylum." She shuddered a bit and Joe knew the shudder wasnít caused by the cold.

Thinking hard, Joe had to admit to himself he didnít have a better plan. Beth was right about the horses or trying to escape on foot. Joe doubted if he could take two armed men down by himself without a weapon. But diving into the river seemed sheer madness.

"Bert knows you missed the show," whispered Joe. "My family knows I didnít come home last night. Theyíll come looking for us. Maybe the best thing is to wait for some help."

"What if they donít?" Beth asked in a soft voice. "They might not think we need help. And even if they do come looking, they might not find us in time. Joe, the river is our only hope."

Looking away, Joe didnít want to agree with Beth. But he knew she was right. He had an idea what people would think when they discovered he and Beth were both missing. He hoped his father would have enough confidence in his integrity not to think he and Beth had simply run off together. But even if he did, how would his father ever find them?

"Letís just get loose," Joe finally whispered to Beth. "Then weíll figure out what to do."

Nodding, Beth whispered, "Keep an eye on them."

Looking back toward the fire, Joe saw that Anderson and Slater were both still asleep.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Beth begin to twist her body. He turned to watch her.

Arching her back, Beth pushed her hands to the ground. Joe watched as she moved her hands under her body. Months of dancing had made Bethís muscles both limber and strong. Glancing occasionally toward the two men near the fire, Joe watched in fascination as she moved her tied hands under body, and then under her legs. She lifted her feet as she continued to slide her hands forward. In less time than Joe would have guessed, her hands slid over her feet.

Her tied hands now in front of her, Beth reached into her left pants pocket and pulled out the smallest pocket knife Joe had ever seen. It looked no longer than her finger. The knife was attached to a small brass ring. Joe guess it was a key ring, although nothing was attached to it except the knife. Putting the pocket knife to her mouth, Beth pulled it open with her teeth.

"This was my fatherís," explained Beth when she saw Joeís questioning look. "Kind of good luck piece. Itís not very sharp, but it does have an edge. Lean forward so I can work on your hands."

Joe scooted forward a bit, both to give Beth a better angle with which to work on the rope around his wrists as well as to try to block what she was doing from view. The two men sleeping by the fire seemed not to be concerned about their prisoners, but Joe didnít want to take any chances.

"This is going to take awhile," Beth whispered in Joeís ear.

Beth sawed on the rope that bound Joeís hands for what seemed to Joe a very long time. He kept an anxious eye on the sleeping men a few yards away as Beth worked.

Joeís anxiety increased as he saw the sky begin to lighten with the dawn. "Hurry, Beth," he urged. "They wonít sleep much longer."

Not bothering to answer, Beth sawed and pressed harder on the rope. Joe pulled his hands apart, trying to weaken the rope even more. A minute later, Joe heard a satisfying snap and his hands were free.

Flexing his fingers to restore the circulation, Joe bent forward and untied the rope around his ankles. He quickly turned and untied Beth. Both stood, making as little noise as possible. "The river! Letís go!," said Beth urgently.

Bethís voice woke Slater. He saw the prisoners Ė and his hundred dollars Ė getting ready to disappear. "Hey!" yelled Slater, still half asleep. Theyíre getting away!" He pulled his gun up and prepared to shoot.

Joe ran forward and dove into Slater, knocking his gun from his hand. The two began to wrestle on the ground, both throwing punches which seemed to have little impact on the other man. Joe finally landed a fist on Slaterís jaw, which stunned the cowboy for a moment. Seeing a small advantage, Joe followed up with two quick jabs to Slaterís mouth. He pulled back his fist and landed a knock out punch on Slaterís chin.

Breathing hard, Joe rolled off Slater. He was still trying to catch his breath when he heard Bethís screams.

In the dim light of the dawn, Joe could see Beth struggling against Anderson on the riverbank. Anderson had his hands on Bethís arms and was trying to pull her back toward the camp. Beth, for her part, was kicking and clawing at the man as she screamed for help. The more Anderson pulled at Beth, the more frantic her kicks and screams became.

Searching the ground, Joe saw the gun that Slater had dropped. He crawled a foot or two across the ground and picked up the gun. He aimed the pistol at the struggling pair. "Let her go, Anderson," shouted Joe. "Let her go or Iíll shoot!"

Turning to the camp, Anderson froze when he saw the gun in Joeís hand. He seemed unsure what to do.

"Let her go!" shouted Joe again. He knew he wouldnít shoot. Beth was too close to Anderson and he couldnít take the chance that he might hit her. He prayed Anderson wouldnít realize that.

But Beth didnít seem to realize the fact that Joe wouldnít shoot, either. "No!" she screamed. "Donít, Joe!" She yanked her hands from Andersonís grasp in a panic.

In the dim light, it was hard for Joe to see exactly what happened next. In her frantic attempt to escape, he wasnít sure if Beth fell or jumped into the river. All he knew for sure was one minute she was running along the river bank, and the next minute she was gone.

"Beth!" yelled Joe. He started to scramble to his feet, but stopped as he saw Anderson reach for the holster on his hip. Joe turned the gun toward the man in black. "Donít," he warned. Anderson ignored the warning and drew his gun quickly. Both men fired their weapons. Andersonís bullet went wide, missing Joe by several yards. Joeís bullet hit Anderson in the middle of the chest. Anderson crumpled to the ground.

Stunned by Bethís sudden disappearance, Joe got to his feet slowly. He began walking toward the river. Joe had taken only a few steps when he heard his name called out in a roar of anger. Joe whirled just as Slater jumped him with the knife in his hand.

Slater plunged the knife into Joeís left shoulder as he knocked Joe to the ground. The agonizing pain numbed Joeís arm, and the gun fell his hand. The pain seemed to double as Slater pulled the knife from Joeís shoulder.

Through the haze of pain, Joe saw Slater kneeling over him. The knife, already dripping with Joeís blood, was in Slaterís hand. Slater raised his hand high, as if preparing to plunge the knife into Joeís chest.

Joe kicked out his leg, hitting Slater hard in the hip. Slater lost his balance and fell to the side but the knife continued itís downward journey, albeit with much less force than had been originally intended. The knife sliced across Joeís chest and ribs as Slater fell away from him.

Rolling on his side, Joe frantically searched for the gun with his right hand. He felt the hard metal in the grass and grabbed the pistol. He rolled again, landing on his back.

Slater was almost on top of Joe when Joe fired the gun. The barrel was only inches from

Slaterís midsection when Joe pulled the trigger. Slater clutched at stomach, then fell forward, the knife still firmly grasped in his hand. Joe saw the knife coming toward him and managed to raise his left hand to try to ward it off. As he died, Jack Slater inflicted one last injury, slicing Joeís hand to the bone.

Laying on his back with the weight of Slaterís body across his, Joe felt the burning pain of the knife wounds. His shoulder and hand throbbed with agonizing waves of pain, and the cut across his chest and ribs burned. He could feel the blood running down his arm and body. Each beat of his heart seemed to send more pain and more blood through the wounds.

Using almost the last of his strength, Joe pushed Slaterís body off of him. He turned his head and saw four horses tied to the trees a few yards away, waiting patiently for a rider.

Joe knew he had to get help, for his sake and for Bethís.

Rolling once more, Joe pushed himself onto his stomach. He groaned at the new pain this move caused. Joe laid on his stomach for a moment, trying to gather enough strength to get to the horses. Pushing himself to his knees with his right hand, Joe began to crawl toward the horses.

Joe managed to crawl four or five feet before the dizziness hit him. The ground seemed to be spinning around him, and the trees and horses appeared to be moving in some kind of drunken dance. Joeís arm buckled and he fell forward. He tried to push himself up again, but this time his arm had no strength. Joe lay in the grass, too weak and sick with pain to move. He could feel his lifeís blood ebbing out of his body. Beth had said no one would find them in time, thought Joe, and she was right. It was too late for both of them. The thought of Beth caused another pain to course through Joe, this one worse than anything caused by his physical hurts. As the curtain of darkness descended on Joe, he whispered, "Iím sorry, Beth." Then Joe allowed himself to be pulled into the dark land where he could feel no more pain.
 
 

***************

Senses alert for any sign, Ben guided his buckskin through the tall grass of Truckee Meadow. He tried to ride slow so he wouldnít miss even the smallest indication that Joe had come this way. But riding slow was difficult when he felt such a sense of urgency.

The Cartwrights had spent the night working out a search pattern, or rather Adam had.

In his typical methodical way, Adam had taken a map and marked out 14 grids, one of each of the Cartwrights and the 11 hands in the bunkhouse who would join in the search. Each man was to spend two hours searching his grid, and then meet up with the others at the lake. If someone found some sign of Joe in their area, they were to stay where they were. When the men came together, if someone was missing, the others would head for the missing manís area.

Ben wasnít sure why he had asked for the meadow. Maybe it was because he felt thatís where Joe would take a pretty girl for a ride. Or maybe because he wanted to search an area which he could cover quickly and then return to the lake. Ben only knew that he had felt pulled to the meadow.

Harris had returned to town, to see if Beth showed up at the wagon and to notify Sheriff Coffee of the missing couple. Ben knew there was little Coffee could do to help except organize more men to search. That would take time, and Ben wasnít willing to wait.

The original plan had been to start out at first light, but after spending hours pacing the floor in front of the fireplace, Ben had decided not to wait. Two hours before dawn, he had wakened Adam and Hoss, telling Adam to rouse the men in the bunkhouse and telling Hoss to saddle the horses. An hour later, with torches and lanterns lighting the night, the search party had left the ranch.

Stopping at the edge of the meadow, Ben blew out his lantern and looked around. In the light of early morning, the meadow looked idyllic. The grass was wet with dew, and the wildflowers sprinkled through the grass made a colorful pattern. A few birds chirped a welcome. Ben cupped his hand to his mouth and yelled as loud as possible. "Joe! Joe!

Joe!" The only answer was the chirping of the birds.

Ben kicked his horse forward slowly. The meadow was large, covering several acres, and Ben was on the edge of it. He knew it had been foolish to expect to find Joe right away, or even to find him here at all. But he had hoped.

Riding slowly, Ben searched with his eyes, with his ears, and with his heart. He was looking for some sign, some feeling that his son was near. More foolishness, Ben told himself. But that didnít keep him from searching his heart as he searched the meadow.

Stopping, Ben once more cupped his mouth and yelled his sonís name. At first, only silence answered his call. Then Ben heard the faint whinny of a horse.

"Joe!" shouted Ben again. Once more, the whinny of a horse answered him. Ben thought the sound came from the far end of the meadow. Joe had been riding Cochise, and the pinto knew Benís voice. It could be any horse answering his call, but in Benís heart, he knew it wasnít.

Kicking his horse forward at gallop, Ben rode toward the end of the meadow. As he neared the river, he saw the trees with horses tied to them. Four horses, thought Ben with a frown as he neared the trees. He slowed his horse and pulled his gun from the holster on his hip.

Walking his horse toward the trees, Ben couldnít see anything wrong. There was no sign of anyone moving around. As he got closer, he could see the remains of a camp near the bank of the river. Benís eyes grew wide with fear as he saw a crumpled body on the riverbank.

Pulling his horse to a stop, Ben dismounted and walked slowly toward the camp, gun at the ready. He walked first toward the body on the riverbank, his heart in his throat. He let out a sigh of relief as he neared the body and could tell it wasnít Joe. Ben flipped the body onto itís back. He didnít recognize the man, but he recognized the manner of his death. A gunshot wound in the chest had ended the manís life.

Ben turned back to the camp, and his heart leaped into his throat again. From the riverbank, he could see what he hadnít been able to see from the trees. Two bodies were sprawled in the grass. One was wearing a familiar green jacket.

"Joe!" cried Ben in alarm as he ran from the riverbank. He barely glanced at the other body; the hole in the manís midsection told Ben in a instant that the man was dead.

As Ben neared Joe, his fear increased. He could see the ground around his son was soaked with blood.

"Joe!" said Ben again as he knelt next to his son. Joe laid face down in the grass, unmoving. Ben could see the left sleeve of his sonís jacket was soaked with blood. Ben

felt Joeís neck, and gave a brief prayer of thanks as he felt the faint pulse in his sonís neck. He turned Joe over as gently as possible.

Joeís face was white as a sheet, as if all the blood had drained from his face. Considering the amount of blood that covered the rest of his body, Ben could almost

believed it had. The front of Joeís shirt was smeared with blood, and Ben could see the jagged cut across Joeís chest and ribs through the rip in the cloth. Blood also was seeping slowly from the cut on Joeís hand. But it was the wound in Joeís shoulder that scared Ben the most. Blood was flowing from that wound freely.

"Hold on, Joe," urged Ben as if his unconscious son could hear him. Ben holstered his gun and almost ripped the kerchief from around his neck. He balled the cloth and pressed it hard against Joeís shoulder. As he pressed down on his sonís wound, Ben looked around, searching with his eyes for anything that he could use as bandages. He saw a blanket laying near the remains of the fire. Pressing hard on the wound, Ben released the cloth in his hand and hurried toward the blanket.

As he rushed across the grass, Benís foot kicked a knife on the ground. Ben bent to pick it up. He shuddered as he saw it was covered with blood. A look of revulsion crossed Benís face as he stared at the loathsome object. He steeled himself not think about whose blood had stained the knife. He told himself the knife was simply an object, and one that he could use. He tried not to think of the injuries the knife had caused.

Ben took the knife over to the fire and picked up the blanket. He quickly began slicing the blanket into strips. The blade was sharp, and it took little time for Ben to finish his task. As soon as he was done, however, Ben flung the knife away from him, as if it were a deadly snake.

Carrying the strips of cloth, Ben hurried back to Joe. As he knelt by his son, he saw the cloth on Joeís shoulder was already becoming soaked with blood. Ben pressed the cloth into Joeís shoulder and quickly tied one of the strips around the cloth to hold it in place. He tied the strip as tightly as possible.

Another strip of blanket was wrapped tightly around Joeís hand and tied as tightly as possible by Ben. He pulled Joeís shirt open, looking for more wounds. He was both relieved and a bit puzzled when the only one he found was the cut across Joeís chest. He wondered briefly where the other blood, smeared lower on Joeís shirt, had come from. The question was quickly forgotten as Ben began to wrap the strips of blanket around Joeís well-muscled chest and ribs.

As soon as he had Joeís wounds tightly bandaged, Ben hurried to his horse to get his canteen. He knew Joe was still bleeding. His efforts had only slowed the process a bit.

Ben knew it was important to get Joe to drink, to replace some of the lost fluids. Ben prayed he could rouse his son enough to swallow from the canteen.

Snatching the canteen from his saddle, Ben started back to Joe, then stopped. He tried to think how close someone else from the search party might be, but he couldnít remember. Nevertheless, Ben pulled his gun and fired two shots into the air. Then he hurried back to Joe.

Raising Joeís head gently, Ben poured a trickle of water over his sonís face. At first, Joe had no reaction to the water. But as Ben continued to pour the water, Joe began to stir. His head moved slowly, and a soft grunt of pain escaped from his lips. Ben quickly put the canteen to Joeís lips and forced some water into Joeís mouth. He watched carefully to make sure Joe swallowed the liquid.

Joeís eyes fluttered open as Ben pulled the canteen back from Joeís mouth. The hazel eyes that Ben knew so well stared at him dully, as if they werenít registering the image in front of them. Joe blinked twice, then said in an almost inaudible voice, "Pa?"

"Easy, Joe," crooned Ben in a soothing voice. "Donít try to talk. Drink some more." Ben put the canteen to Joeís lips and forced more water into Joeís mouth.

As Ben pulled the canteen away again, Joe struggled to talk. "Pa," he said weakly. "HelpÖhelpÖBeth."

Frowning, Ben looked around. He had forgotten about the girl. He saw no sign of her in the meadow. Turning back to Joe, he asked, "Where is she, Joe?"

It took Joe a minute to answer. Ben wasnít sure if he was trying to remember or gathering his strength. Maybe both, he thought.

"InÖriver," replied Joe, his voice so soft that Ben could barely hear the words.

Looking toward the river, Ben shook his head. He could hear the water splashing and knew how swift the current was. If the girl had fallen in the river, there was nothing Ben could do for her.

"HelpÖBeth," insisted Joe again, his voice stronger and filled with urgency. Joe reached up with his right hand and grabbed Benís shirt. "HelpÖ.her," he pleaded.

"All right, all right," said Ben in a soothing voice. "Iíll go look. Drink some more water, and then Iíll look."

Seeming relieved by Benís promise, Joe eagerly drank from the canteen Ben put to his lips. As Ben once again pulled away the canteen, Joe looked up at his father. His expression was both expectant and pleading.

"All right, Iíll look," sighed Ben. He lowered Joeís head to the ground, and put the canteen down. Ben rose and hurried to the riverbank.

As he expected, Ben could see nothing in the river except water, rocks, and a few logs floating by. If the girl had gone into the water, the current had carried her away.

Turning, Ben hurried back to Joe. "Joe," he started, then stopped. Joeís eyes were closed, and his barely moving chest rose and fell evenly. Joe was unconscious again.

Thoughts of the girl fled from Benís mind as he saw the streaks of red soaking through the heavy woolen cloth of the make-shift bandages. Ben had slowed the bleeding, but he hadnít stopped it.

Ben knew if he waited, the rest of the search party would eventually find him. But Ben also knew by the time the others showed up, it would be too late for Joe. His son was literally bleeding to death in front of him.

If there was a decision to be made, Ben wasnít aware of it. He reached down and scooped Joe into his arms. Carrying his son as he had done when Joe was a baby, Ben walked grimly toward his horse.

*****************

Hoss paced in front of the fireplace, just as Ben had done hours earlier. He kept glancing toward the stairs, wanting the doctor to come down and tell him that his little brother was going to be fine. Hoss knew it was too soon for the doctor to come down. He had been upstairs barely twenty minutes, and the extent of Joeís injuries were such that it would take some time for Doctor Martin to patch up Joe.

A new fear struck Hoss. What if the doctor did come down the stairs now? He knew that an appearance by the doctor now would mean the worst possible news. Hoss suddenly found himself praying that the doctor would stay upstairs.

Turning to stare into the fire, Hoss replayed the events of the past few hours in his mind.

When Adam, Hoss and the rest of the search party had seen Ben riding toward them holding Joe in the saddle in front of him, most of the men thought Ben was carrying a dead man. Joeís arms and legs hung limply at his side, and his head was bent forward, bobbing slightly at every step his fatherís horse took. He was covered with blood, and the parts of his body that could be seen had no color. Hoss had felt tears welling up in his eyes.

But the tears disappeared as Ben began shouting at Adam to get the doctor and Hoss to get a wagon. Ben Cartwright had shouted that his son was still alive, and the tone of his voice told everyone that he meant to keep him that way.

In his mind, Hoss could see Adam turning his horse and kicking it into a gallop as he headed for town. He remember how he had raced back to the ranch house, two of the hands following him, and how he had harnessed two horses to a wagon in record time.

while the hands threw blankets and mattresses into the back, along with the medical kit and bandages. Hoss had sped from the yard in front of the house and back to his father. As he thought about it now, Hoss shook his head. It was a small miracle that he hadnít crashed the wagon, as fast he had been driving it.

The one picture Hoss couldnít shake was the sight of his Pa, hands and shirt splattered with Joeís blood, carrying his little brother to the wagon. The image was burned into Hossí brain, and it was a picture he hated.

"Any news?" said a voice behind Hoss.

"Itís too soon, Adam," replied Hoss without looking around. He glanced up at the stairs again. "Itís way too soon for the doc to come down."

"I talked with Roy Coffee after I sent the doctor from town," said Adam. "Royís going up to the meadow later to pick up the bodies. Heíll to try to piece together what happened."

"Joe will tell us what happened," declared Hoss in a stubborn voice. "All we have to do is wait a while, and heíll tell us."

"I hope so," said Adam softly.

"I know so," stated Hoss with a conviction he didnít feel.

The two brothers sat for another hour staring into the fire, both of them silent the whole time. There were no words to express what they were feeling. They both sprang to their feet at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

"Iím just coming down for a cup of coffee," said Doctor Martin, forestalling questions as he descended the stairs. "We donít know anything for sure yet."

"What are his chances?" asked Adam.

The doctor took a deep breath before answering. "I donít know, Adam," he admitted. "Joeís lost a lot of blood. Heís very weak. And thereís already signs of infection. Right now things could go either way."

"Doc, youíve got to pulling him through," said Hoss in an insistent voice. "Youíve got to."

"You know Iíll do everything possible, Hoss," advised Doctor Martin gently. He started toward the kitchen, then stopped. "By the way, whoís Beth?"

"Why do you want to know?" asked Adam cautiously.

"No real reason," answered the doctor. "Joe keeps calling for her. I just wondered who she was."

"Beth is the name of the girl Joe was with," explained Adam. His expression grew grim. "She dances in a medicine show."

"In a medicine show?" said Doctor Martin with raised eyebrows. His expression suddenly changed. "Oh, yes. I heard some talk about Joe and that dancer in Virginia City." He looked at Adam curiously. "What happened to her?"

"I donít know, doc," replied Adam, his voice growing bitter. "And right now, I donít care."

"Adam, donít say that," said Hoss with a frown.

"Why not?" asked Adam. "That girlís been nothing but trouble for Joe ever since he met her. And now this. I donít care if sheís ever found."

"You know what I think, Adam," said Hoss slowly. "I donít think that girl caused Joe any grief. We were the ones who did that. You, me, Pa, those people in Virginia City, weíre the ones who told Joe that she was lying to him. Weíre the ones who kept telling Joe that she was something other than she said she was. Well, turns out we were wrong." Hoss turned and looked toward the stairs. "Maybe if we had spent less time making judgments and more time trying to help, this wouldnít have happened."

"Youíre not saying this is our fault?" asked Adam in astonishment.

"No," replied Hoss shaking his head. "Of course not. What Iím say is donít blame the girl, Adam. This ainít her fault either."

"She shouldnít have dragged Joe into her troubles," insisted Adam.

"From what I can tell, she tried her best not to," said Hoss. "Joe made the decision to get involved. Because he cared about her. Thatís the whole point, Adam. Nobody else cared about the girl. Not one of us gave two thoughts to how she felt or what might happen to her. Nobody cares about her except Joe. And that ainít right."

Adam stood quietly for a minute, thinking about what Hoss had said. "Iíll send Charlie over to the meadow," Adam replied at last. "Maybe he and some of hands can find some sign of what happened to the girl."

"Good idea," said Hoss, nodding his approval. Hoss turned toward Doctor Martin. "Come on, doc, Iíll get you that coffee."
 
 

*********************

For three days, Ben sat by Joeís bed, watching the battle that his son was fighting within himself.

Ben helped changed the bandages on Joeís arm, hand, and chest, and he wiped the sweat of fever away from Joeís face and neck. Ben dosed his son with medicine, and

helped him to drink the broth that Hop Sing brought to the room. But for the most part,

all Ben could do was watch and wait.

Sometimes, it appeared as if Joe were winning. Joe would open his eyes and look at his father. The eyes were bright with fever, but Joe seemed to recognize Ben. Thatís when Ben said the soothing words of encouragement, and felt his heart soar with hope.

Other times, it seemed the infection was winning. Joe would become delirious, thrashing about the bed and calling out for Beth, for his Pa, for help. Thatís when Ben had to restrain his son, holding Joe tightly so he wouldnít break open the stitches. Those were the times Ben thought his heart would break.

Ben had grabbed snatches of sleep, and he remembered having a bite to eat here and there. But those times when he wasnít with Joe seemed unreal. For three days, Benís world, his reality, was centered around his sonís battle to live.

"Pa?"

The sound woke Ben with a start on the fourth morning. He hadnít even realized he had dozed off.

"Pa?"

Ben looked down into the bed. Joeís eyes were open and he was watching Ben. It took a minute for Ben to realize there was something different about Joeís eyes. He suddenly realized that his sonís eyes no longer looked unnaturally bright. Ben reached over and put his hand on Joeís forehead. He closed his eyes and his shoulders sagged in relief as he felt the cool skin. Joeís fever had broken.

"Joe, you gave us quite a scare," said Ben, stroking his sonís head gently. "But youíre going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right now."

"I feel kind of shaky," admitted Joe.

"Iím not surprised," said Ben with a smile. "Youíve been a pretty sick boy."

Joe looked away for a minute, then turned back to Ben. "Pa, did you find Beth?" asked Joe. Something in Joeís voice told Ben that his son wasnít sure he wanted to know.

Ben sat back in his chair, thinking about his answer. Joeís fever had just broken, and his son was weak and vulnerable. He had no desire to hinder Joeís recovery by telling him upsetting news. At the same time, Ben wouldnít lie to Joe.

"No we didnít," replied Ben slowly. "We donít know what happened to her."

Joe didnít look surprised at Benís answer. He merely turned his head to stare at the ceiling. "It was true, you know," said Joe. "Bethís story, the one Adam thought was a lie?

It was all true."

"I know," acknowledged Ben, his voice filled with understanding.

"I tried to help her, Pa," continued Joe, his voice choked with emotion. "Why wouldnít she let me help her?"

"I donít know, Joe," answered Ben. He could tell Joe was tiring. This wasnít the time for a weighty discussion. "You rest, Joe. Weíll talk about it later."

"Why wouldnít she let me help her?" said Joe again as his eyes began to close.
 
 

*******************

It took two weeks for Joe to convince his father and the doctor to let him out of bed. He had wanted to leave his bed the first day, to go back to the meadow to look for Beth. Only a promise from Hoss and Adam to search the riverbanks once more had prevent Joe from dragging himself out from under the covers. Joe had waited with increasing agitation for his brothers to return. Doctor Martin was threatening Joe with a sedative by the time Adam and Hoss got back. When they told Joe that they found no sign of Beth, Joe wasnít sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

When Sheriff Coffee came out to the ranch to take Joeís formal statement about what happen in the meadow, he told Joe that "Harris and Company" had left Virginia City the day after Joe had been injured. Joe wasnít surprised. There was no reason for Bert and the others to stay. But Joe regretted their leaving. They were his last link to Beth.

Joe had been out of bed only three days when he disappeared from the house.

"Hop Sing!" roared Ben when he discovered Joe was gone.

The cook came padding out of the kitchen. "What you want?" he demanded.

"Whereís Joe?" asked Ben, his voice reflecting his anger and his concern. "Where did he go?"

"Little Joe very sad," replied Hop Sing in a sympathetic voice.

"I know heís sad," said Ben. "But heís also far from well. Where did he go?"

"Little Joe go to say goodbye," answered Hop Sing, his face impassive.

Ben frowned at the cookís answer. His face cleared as suddenly understood where Joe was. Ben headed for the front door. "Tell Adam and Hoss Iíll be back in a little while."

Riding to the meadow, Ben half expected to find Joe fallen to the ground along the way.

Joe was barely well enough to be out of bed, much less making a long ride on horseback. What was that boy thinking? Ben asked himself in exasperation as he kicked his horse onward. Ben knew the answer, but knowing didnít cool his anger or his worry.

Ben found Joe where he knew his son would be Ė sitting on the rock by the riverbank. His anger evaporated as soon as he saw Joe. His son looked so forlorn as he sat on the rock, just staring into the water. Joeís left arm was resting in a sling, his heavily bandaged hand peeking out the edge of the cloth. Ben saw a bunch of wildflowers in Joeís right hand.

Dismounting, Ben tied the reins of his buckskin horse next to his sonís pinto in the trio of trees. He walked slowly to the riverbank, deliberately ignoring the patch of grass that still looked rusty from dried blood. As Ben approached the rock on which his son was sitting, he saw Joe throw the flowers into the river. Ben didnít say a word. He simply sat on the rock next to Joe and put his arm around Joeís shoulders. The two sat in silence, watching the river flow.

"I loved her, Pa," said Joe abruptly.

"I know, Joe," replied Ben in an understanding voice. "I only wished she would have loved you back."

Joe looked at Ben in surprise. "How do you know she didnít?"

"She couldnít have loved you, Joe," said Ben. "She kept too many things from you, kept too many secrets. If she had truly cared for you, she would have told you everything."

"She was just trying to protect me," insisted Joe. "She didnít want me to get involved in her troubles."

"Thatís an aspect of love," Ben agreed slowly. "Wanting to protect someone. But there has to be more than that. Love means trusting the other person and helping each other through the bad times. Love means wanting to stay together, no matter what happens. Beth wouldnít let you help her. She wouldnít even tell you her real name. In the end, she chose to leave you. Beth may have been very fond of you, Joe, but she didnít love you."

Staring into the water, Joe sat silent for several minutes. Then he turned to Ben. "She said she couldnít love me. I donít think I believed her. Not really. I thought I could love her enough for both of us."

Turning back to the river, Joe watched as branches and leaves floated by. "I wonder if sheís still alive," mused Joe suddenly.

"JoeÖ" said Ben, shaking his head.

"She could be, Pa," interrupted Joe quickly. "Itís not impossible. She could have found a way out of the river. Maybe grabbed a log or something. Thereís lots of ranches and farms nearby. She could have gotten help."

"Then why hasnít she let us know sheís alive?" asked Ben. "Why stay hidden?"

"Beth doesnít know Anderson is dead," replied Joe. "And even if she does know, her uncle could send someone else after her. She knows sheís safer if everyone thinks sheís dead."

"But you said if she was declared dead, her uncle would get her shares of the company," said Ben. "That defeats her whole purpose."

"Maybe she only wants us to think sheís dead," suggested Joe stubbornly. "She knows Harrisí route. She could find him and have him send a message to her lawyer. She could even go back to being Fatima again. With Anderson and Slater dead, thereís no reason why she couldnít be Fatima again."

"Joe, youíre grasping at straws," said Ben softly.

Sighing, Joe agreed. "I know. I just donít want her to be dead."

The two sat in silence on the rock as the river flowed by. Joe was wrapped up in his thoughts of Beth. Ben was struggling with finding the right words to comfort his son.

"Joe, what if she wasnít dead?" asked Ben. "What if you found out she were still alive? What would you do?"

"I donít know," Joe answered slowly. He thought about it for a minute. "Nothing, I guess. Beth made it pretty clear that she wanted to go on without me. She told me that the only thing she wanted me to do was remember her."

"Then thatís what you should do," said Ben. "Remember her. Donít spend the rest of your life looking for her. She didnít want that."

"I suppose," acknowledged Joe. He shook his head. "I just want her to be happy, Pa. All I ever wanted was for her to be happy. Even if I wasnít around to share it with her."

"Thatís a good thought, son," said Ben. "Maybe she is. Wherever she is, maybe she is happy."

"I hope so," wished Joe. He shook his head. "If I could only know for sure, then Iíd be satisfied."

"Joe, thereís no way you can know that," said Ben.

"I know," Joe agreed sadly. "But I can wish, canít I." He turned to stare into the water once more.

A cool breeze blew across the river. Joe shivered as he felt the cool air across his skin. Ben jumped to his feet, immediately concerned about his son. "Joe, Iím taking you home," he said in a firm voice. "Iím taking you home and youíre going to straight to bed. No argument." Ben helped Joe to his feet and started to lead him toward the horses.

Joe didnít fight his fatherís decision. The truth was he felt tired, drained. Joe stopped and turned, taking one last look at the river. Then he allowed his father to help him toward his horse.
 
 

*****************



"Hey, Joe, how you feeling?" asked Hoss as he came into the house with a handful of envelopes. Two weeks had passed since Ben and Joe had talked by the river. With each passing day, Joe had grown stronger and more like himself. His family had watched with relief as Joe had seemed to find a way to deal with what had happened.

Looking up from the book he was reading, Joe grinned. "Iím feeling fine. Another few days, and Iíll be back to work."

"Joseph!" Ben called in a warning voice from his desk in the den. "You have at least another week before you go back to work."

"All right, a week," agreed Joe. He winked at Hoss. "That is, unless I drive Pa crazy first. Another few days of me hanging around the house, and he might just boot me out the door."

"Good," said Hoss, grinning. "Because me and Adam are sure getting tired of doing your work."

"Someone mentioned my name?" asked Adam as he walked from the kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand.

"Only in terms of doing my work, older brother," said Joe with a smile.

"If thatís the case, I think I may just have to leave again," replied Adam as he sipped his coffee. He looked toward Ben in the den. "Pa, did you find out who owns that land we want to buy near the south fence line? I want to get an idea of how much theyíre going to want for that property."

"I donít know for sure yet," answered Ben with a shake of his head. "Iím waiting for confirmation from the land office. Iím pretty sure itís Ralph Wilson weíre going to have to deal with, though."

"Wilson?" said Adam in dismay. "That man will try to con us like a medicine show barker." Adam suddenly stopped as he realized what he had. He turned to Joe with a guilty look. "Sorry, Joe," he apologized. "I didnít meanÖ"

"Itís all right, Adam," said Joe. "Most of the medicine shows are filled with con artists. We both know that."

"Most, but not all," conceded Adam.

"No," agreed Joe, "not all of them." He looked down, suddenly finding the page of his book to be fascinating reading.

Clearing his throat, Hoss said, "Hereís the mail, Pa." He walked over and handed the envelopes to Ben.

Sorting through the envelopes, Ben suddenly frowned. He pulled a small envelope from the rest and turned it over in his hand. "Joe," Ben called across the room. "Thereís something here for you."

"For me?" said Joe in surprise, getting up from his chair.

"Thatís what it says," answered Ben. " ĎJoe Cartwright, Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia Cityí. Only thereís no stamp or postmark on it."

"Oh, yeah," said Hoss. "Stan at the stage depot gave that to me. He said some fellow got off the stage, handed the envelope to Stan, and then got back on the stage. Just dropping it off as a favor is what Stan figured."

Walking over to the desk, Joe took the envelope from Ben. He slit the envelope open with his finger, then pulled a folded piece of paper out of it. Joeís eyes widen in surprise as he read the paper.

"What is it, Joe?" asked Ben as he saw the look on Joeís face. "Whatís wrong?"

Joe stared at the paper in his hand for a long time before answering. "Nothing is wrong, Pa, " he said slowly. Joeís face split into a grin. "Nothing is wrong at all." Joe looked down at the paper and read the brief message again.

The paper contained only two words: Ophelia lives.

-------End---------


 
 
 

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