(A What Happened Next Story for the episode The Storm)
By Nancy T.
The chilling numbness had receded, leaving only a dark void. Nothing could give the young man comfort. Everyday was the same as the last, and for Joe Cartwright, they began to run together without joy; full of painful memories from which there was no escape. In the waking hours he would remember -- her laughter; the color of her eyes and how her hair always smelled of vanilla. At night his dreams would haunt him. Cruel dreams taunting Joe with glimpses of her sweetness and beauty. They were so real that he could feel the warmth of her breath against his cheek, her soft, smooth body pressed against his, the taste of her full lips exploring; surrendering. He awoke with a shudder tonight as he did most, sitting up in bed sweat-soaked with longing. Unable to calm his nerves, Joe turned up the oil lamp next to his bed and searched underneath it, hoping Hop Sing hadn’t touched the bottle he’d hidden there. Cradling it in his arms, Joe took a seat in the chair in front of his bedroom window, welcoming the cool breeze. Removing the cork, Joe gulped down the sour liquid, wincing as it burned his throat. Whiskey wasn’t Joe’s drink of choice but it was the only thing that could relax him, dull the pain. Joe forced down another swallow and remembered something else that helped, prompting him to look toward the surface of his desk. His hand reached and grasped hold of the small item. The one thing that he could touch that was hers. The only piece of Laura White he had left: her diary.
“Morning Pa,” Adam greeted as he searched for hot coffee. Hoss was already seated at his place enjoying a full plate of hotcakes and bacon.
“Did you call Joe?” Ben asked worriedly. He was preoccupied this morning, something that Adam and Hoss had become accustomed to over the last several weeks.
“I thought he was down here with you,” Adam admitted with apprehension.
“Aw, he’s probably just got an early start this morning,” reasoned Hoss, trying to remain optimistic.
“He was up again last night,” Ben shared in a solemn voice. “That’s every night this week.”
“Pa, it’s only been a few months,” advised Adam, attempting to ease his Pa’s concerns. He looked toward the older man, noticing for the first time how tired he appeared. “Pa, you can’t keep on like this. You’ll just end up sick and be of no help to Joe.”
“He’s right, Pa,” Hoss agreed, joining the conversation. “Give Joe a little more time. He’ll come round.”
“Will he?” Ben’s deep voice questioned, “I’m not so sure.” Food untouched, Ben stood and left Adam and Hoss sitting alone as he headed out the door to begin his day.
The two brothers caught up with Joe later in the south pasture and they all worked along side one another in companionable silence. Mending fence was one of Joe’s least favorite jobs, but today he labored harder than both Adam and Hoss, not taking a break and not complaining. How both Adam and Hoss wished that Joe would show some of that playful procrastination, that stubbornness that was so like him -- anything that was a reminder of his old self.
As the trio packed up the wagon, Adam remarked to his brothers, “So, you two ready for the dance tonight?”
Resting his arm on Joe’s shoulder affectionately, Hoss answered, “Sure am. I’m itchin’ to get out and have me some fun with them pretty gals. Seems as if we’ve been workin’ way too hard, don’t it, Joe?”
Instead of speaking, Joe shrugged and pulled away from Hoss, climbing silently into the seat of the buckboard.
“How about it, Joe…Susie Wells has been asking about you and Mrs. Evans is supposed to be making a whole bunch of her cherry pies,” Adam persisted, his own mouth watering at the thought of her delicious baking.
“I don’t know, Adam. It’s been a long day and I’m kind of tired,” Joe replied, his tone void of emotion.
“Maybe you’ll feel different once we get back to the ranch. Besides, if you don’t go, who will help me hold Hoss back from all Mrs. Evan’s goodies?” Adam teased, winking at Joe as he came to sit along side him.
Adam thought he caught the corner of Joe’s mouth in a slight smile. He sighed, resting back against the seat as Joe grasped the reins and steered the team toward home.
A soft rap at his bedroom door was ignored by Joe, who sat staring out the bedroom window. He was half dressed, slouching down, his back toward the door.
Not hearing a response, Ben slowly pushed the door open and came upon the scene that of late was all too familiar. His youngest son -- so vibrant, animated and full of life -- was now still like a statue.
Unsure of how to proceed, Ben asked cautiously, “Joseph, are you ready?”
Silence permeated the air as Ben watched for any sign from his son, but there was nothing. Ever patient, Ben made a decision. He would wait for as long as it took Joe to answer him.
That time was sooner than later as Joe struggled to reply, “Pa…”
The quiver in his voice told Ben that Joe had been crying. Not again, Ben prayed, but the pattern had been established. Ben already knew the response he was about to get.
“Pa…I can’t. I thought I was ready but….I just…I…” Joe had lowered his head, so full of sorrow that he couldn’t continue. Ben saw that his son was clutching something in his hands which he had raised to press against his chest. He knew it must be Laura’s diary.
Desperation set in; Ben couldn’t allow his son to get out of this that easily. A worry had been growing deep inside him about Joe for several weeks. On his last trip to town, Ben had been approached by Sam at the Bucket of Blood, asking for payment for the case of whiskey he’d had delivered to the ranch more than three weeks ago. When Ben questioned Hop Sing about the purchase, the cook had shrugged it off, saying they’d run low and he was stocking up for the winter months to come. About to take the investigation one step further, Ben was going to question all of his sons when late that night he’d heard a noise coming from Joe’s room. Upon opening the door, he’d seen the half-empty whiskey bottle in Joe’s hands. Intuition told Ben to confront him then and there. Yet, as a father full of compassion and fear for what Joe was experiencing, he found he couldn’t go through with it and held back. Now, how he wished he’d been stronger, for Joe’s sake. Now Ben was afraid it was too late.
“Son,” Ben began, choosing his words carefully, “I know how hard this is for you. I buried three wives myself. But you can’t hide away in the darkness. You can’t close your heart to the world. If you do you’ll…”
His words were ended by Joe standing abruptly, the force of his action knocking over the chair that he’d been sitting in. Ben had left the door ajar and was unaware that Adam had come upon them, having heard the end of their conversation. The sound of the upturned chair prompted Adam to ask, “Is everything alright Pa?”
Intently focused on his youngest son, Ben never wavered as Joe turned and pushed past him and Adam, abandoning the two in the bedroom.
Sounds from the hallway drew Hoss’ attention and he left his own room quickly; he practically collided with Joe in his pursuit to find out what was going on.
Head lowered toward the floor, a retreating Joe mumbled a request of his middle brother, “Hoss, tell Pa that I’m sorry.” And then he was gone.
Still in Joe’s room, Ben moved to the window and pulled the curtain aside, following Joe with his eyes as his youngest son hopped on Cochise and galloped away.
A firm, steady hand gripped Ben’s shoulder, but he ignored it, holding his gaze on the open yard below. The stoic front he’d shown until now crumbled as a lone tear traveled down his cheek. More afraid than he’d ever been, Ben revealed to Adam, “I don’t know what to do for him anymore.”
In the darkness, Ben was reassured by a gentle squeeze of that hand, Adam’s hand urging Ben to go on.
“I’m afraid for him, Adam.” Ben admitted as he dropped his head, forsaken.
“Me too, Pa,” Adam confessed, the fear his father felt transferring to him. “Me too.”
The view was breathtaking, Joe acknowledged as he stood looking out over Widows Ridge. Widows Ridge, Joe repeated to himself, laughing at the irony of the name. He heard Cochise pawing the ground behind him, disturbed at being tied to the only tree on the rocky outcrop.
Inhaling deeply, Joe opened his eyes while luxuriating in the warmth of the setting sun He surveyed his surroundings. The skyline was a mix of gray blues with oranges and reds. Wisps of clouds danced intricate patterns over the mountains as a cool wind blew from the North fanning Joe’s shirt, causing goose bumps on his exposed chest. It was so good to feel; to feel something that wasn’t about sorrow, grief or pain. Just to hang onto this moment forever. But cruel reality bared its ugliness and soon Joe was transported back, this time to a memory of a walk home on a warm spring day. A bitter sweet smile played on Joe’s face as he thought of just what else had transpired on that walk. In the early morning, in one another’s arms, they’d talked of the life they’d share together, how many children they’d planned to have, where they wanted to build their home. Then the vision was gone, snatched away and replaced by one of Laura’s lifeless body in his arms.
“No!” Joe cried out letting the tears come as he slammed his fists against his eyes.
Unsteady, Joe dropped to his knees in torment, asking out loud, “Why God? Why did you have to take her from me? Why did you have to leave me here alone?”
His voice echoed off the canyon below as he lowered his head sobbing. After a time, fueled by his anger, Joe shouted as he looked up into the darkening sky, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I get past this, like Pa says! I don’t know what to do anymore! Please, please tell me what to do….” Grief stricken, Joe bent over and wept, his hands covering his face.
The voice behind Joe was strong and deep, yet gentle and familiar.
“Adam?” Joe questioned.
“Live Joe, take each day one day at a time, but don’t give up.” Adam encouraged. It was taking every ounce of patience he had to keep his tone even and steady.
Realization finally hit Joe as he jerked around to face his oldest brother. He saw that Adam was dressed in his dark blue suit and had ridden out to meet Joe without his gun. He also couldn’t deny the worry lines he saw in his oldest brother’s features. Regardless, Joe didn’t want to have a baby sitter. He wanted to be left alone.
“Go home, Adam. You can tell Pa you’ve found me and I’m fine…”
“What? So now I’m supposed to give in and give you exactly what you want? I’m not Pa, Joe.” Adam clipped back at Joe sarcastically.
Next thing Adam knew, he was laid out on the ground. Joe had hit him square on the chin, knocking him backwards against the rocks.
The sight of Adam sprawled out on the dirt because of his hand caused Joe to quickly close the distance between them. His voice soaked with regret, he offered Adam his hand in an apology. “I’m sorry Adam, I…”
Grasping hold, Adam was once again back on his feet as he replied, “Guess I deserved that. Either way, it was worth it to see a bit of the old you.”
The smile Adam gave him reached Joe somehow and he couldn’t help but smile back in turn.
“We were worried about you, Joe.” Adam advised before Joe could retreat from him again.
“Is that why Pa
sent you?” Joe shot back coolly, “to check up on me?”
“Nope, I came out here on my own. Besides, Pa wouldn’t know where to look. Don’t you remember the pact you, Hoss, and me made about this place when we were kids?”
Joe thought back to a time when he was six, Hoss was twelve and Adam was eighteen. It was shortly after Joe’s mother had died and the boys decided to go on a camping trip and had found this special spot they had deemed all their own. Since then, they had returned to this place when troubled or to be silly or just to talk and be brothers. There’d been a lot of happy times at Widow’s Ridge and some sad ones too, but it had always been a place where things were shared -- together.
Comprehension dawned as Joe remembered the terrible aloneness he had felt and how that feeling had led him to this place, demanding for all that had happened to make some sense. What Widow’s Ridge meant to all the Cartwright brothers was a safe place where you could face your problems or joys head on, but never alone. Unaware, God had led Joe unknowingly right to it.
“So, what now,” Joe challenged.
“We talk,” Adam returned simply. “But first, before we both catch our death, we build a fire.”
A half hour later, the fire was ablaze, with plenty of wood gathered along side to make it last all night. The horses had been bedded down and Joe and Adam were both leaning against their saddles, using them as makeshift chairs.
Adam had offered Joe some beef jerky he’d found in his saddle bag, but Joe had refused. Then he pulled something else out. A small bottle of whiskey and placed it in front of his youngest brother. He nodded to Joe in understanding, and without judging, watched as Joe took a generous drink from the bottle.
“I thought we needed something a little stronger than water,” Adam commented, as he accepted the bottle from Joe’s hands. He was about to take a drink when they both heard the sound of a rider approach.
Cochise whinnied a greeting and soon the familiar figure of their kind-hearted middle brother emerged from the darkness. He carried his saddle over one shoulder and several blankets under the other arm.
Hoss surprised them both by quickly tossing one blanket each to Adam and Joe before saying, “It’s gonna be a cold one tonight; these might come in handy. Best if I build up this fire some too.”
As he took the blanket gratefully, Joe wrapped it around his shoulders, feeling more comfortable already. He watched the big man stoke the fire and thought, Wasn’t this just like Hoss, always taking care of and protecting them. Hoss always knew what to do, what to say, without being pushy. There had always been an ease to his and Joe’s relationship, and how Joe welcomed that now.
The fire roared from Hoss’ care as he finally sat down to join his brothers in the circle. It was his turn for a drink and Hoss accepted the bottle that Adam passed to him gratefully. Taking a swig, he complained, “This is terrible.” Making a sour face and shaking his head, he quickly passed the whiskey off to Joe.
“I never said it was good, but it will keep you from freezing to death.” Adam chuckled as the warmth from the whiskey invaded his senses.
“So little brother,” Hoss began -- Joe had yet to make eye contact with him. “I’m glad to see you’re alright.”
Joe glared at Hoss. “What, did Pa send you out after me too?”
“Joe, ain’t nobody sent me here.” It was cold enough to see Hoss’ breath in the night air. “I got to worryin’ about you and Adam and I tracked you both up here.” Hoss paused and looked up to the clear, crisp night sky. The stars were everywhere and he smiled as he continued, “Can’t say that I’m sorry, though... I’d forgotten how pretty it is up here, day or night...”
His voice trailed off as Joe and Adam looked up to the heavens too in appreciation. After a time, their attention shifted back to the warmth of the fire.
“Oh, I almost forgot, brought this too,” Hoss offered and reached around, finding his saddle bag and pulled out a sack of food which he handed to Adam.
“Biscuits, fried chicken, cookies, apples -- this is enough food for three days, Hoss.” Adam shared.
“Maybe fer skinny fellars like yourselves but for ol’ Hoss that there is just a snack before dinner,” Hoss revealed and looked toward Joe, giving him a wink.
As Adam helped himself to a chicken leg, he passed the sack to Joe but his youngest brother nodded a ‘no thanks’, his eyes transfixed by the flames.
Concerned, Hoss declared, “Dadburnit Joe, you’s got to eat!”
“I think Joe’s too busy feelin’ sorry for himself to eat,” Adam criticized, noticing that Joe had finally looked over at him. Hoss was surprised at Adam’s sharp words but didn’t interfere.
“No one asked you…either of you… to come here,” Joe clipped harshly.
“You’re right, Joe, but we’s here. Might as well make the best of it,” Hoss rationalized.
“I seem to remember we used to do a lot of a talking up here,” Adam reminisced.
“That was a long time ago, Adam. We were little kids then,” Joe expressed, softly.
“Still, this was our place. A place we could talk to each other about anything. Isn’t that why you came up here, Joe? Why we all came up here?” Adam confessed.
Sounds of the night filled the silence as the three brothers sat in consideration of Adam’s words. Maybe it was the fire or cool breeze, the warmth the blanket provided or the presence of his two brothers. Whatever it was, Joe gathered his courage and began to speak.
“I’ve never loved anyone like I did Laura.”
Surprised at Joe’s bluntness, Adam and Hoss listened intently to their little brother. The rule was once someone started talking, they were allowed to say their peace without judgment.
“I remember Pa tellin’ me the day after Laura died not to brood, to keep a warm spot for her in my heart but not to carry her with me the rest of my life.”
Forcing a breath,
Joe pushed on, his tone bittersweet, “But Pa didn’t understand…he couldn’t…”
Adam’s eyes met Joe’s, registering his torment, silently giving Joe the strength to continue.
“I never told Pa…but that night, the night Laura and I were caught in the storm and had to stay at the farm we…” Joe stopped unsure of how to share something so intimate yet so important with his brothers.
Comprehension dawned and the pieces finally fell together as Adam soothed, “It’s alright, Joe,” but was cut off by Joe’s sharp words.
“No…no it’s not Adam! Pa’s always taught us that what happens between a man and a woman is special… that it should be saved for marriage but again I didn’t listen. It’s just that I loved her so much, Adam, and that night it was… I…” Joe paused, inhaling again before he shared softly, “I never thought it could be that way between a man and a woman. I…” Unable to continue, Joe dropped his head in sorrow and remorse.
Tears threatening, Hoss looked over toward Adam for some reassurance but his oldest brother hadn’t moved. Adam just sat there, silently giving his energy and attention to Joe.
Almost whispering, Joe told them, “That’s what makes it so hard, you know? We had given ourselves to one another and thought we’d be together forever. I still feel ashamed at how I lost control, let it go that far. But now, now that Laura is gone… may God forgive me, but I don’t feel shame. All I just feel is alone…alone and cheated.” The tone of Joe’s voice had shifted from sadness to chilling anger.
“Joe, you wouldn’t be the first to have loved a woman, been intimate with her and to have her leave you,” Adam advised. He recalled several encounters with women to whom he had surrendered his heart who had either left him because of circumstances beyond either of their control or because of betrayal.
“I knew you’d be like this, Adam,” Joe rang back with indignation.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Adam replied calmly. “What I meant was you and Laura loved each other deeply. Of course the right thing to do would be to wait until you were married but that’s not always how things work out. The two of you listened to your hearts, Joe. What you shared wasn’t wrong; if anything, without either of you knowing it at the time, it was very, very right.”
Having shied away from the conversation up until now, Hoss added, “Big brother’s right, Joe. I ain’t been with but a few women myself, but those I have I can’t never say I’ve loved, or they’ve loved me back least ways, the way you and Laura did. I remember the day you came back into the yard from bein’ gone all night. I thought Pa would right skin yah alive or the Captain would, for that matter. But when I saw yah both, you looked the happiest I’ve ever seen yah. Nope, I ain’t no expert on love but I figure you and Laura got a chance to share somethin’ special, somethin’ most never git to share in their whole lives.”
Joe listened intently to both brothers’ opinions. He hadn’t been surprised at Adam’s revelations; Joe knew Adam had romanced several women in Virginia City. Yet Hoss was different. Why had it never occurred to Joe that his kind middle brother could be that ‘close’ to a woman or love her with the same intensity that Joe had loved Laura?
The young man took a moment to consider what each of his brothers had said. His eyes fell on Adam, sitting cross-legged and patient before him, pretending to stay focused on the fire. Then Joe’s face turned to capture Hoss, whose expression reflected love and brotherly compassion. As was accustomed of their special place, the three Cartwright’s sat in quiet reflection, content with the peaceful stillness the night provided.
After a time, Joe stood, the blanket dropping from his shoulders. He raked both hands through his hair and shifted away from them, turning to look out into the darkness.
“I know what you’re both trying to do…what you’re saying…but it doesn’t change anything. Laura is gone.” The finality in Joe’s voice was haunting and Adam had had enough.
Slowly rising, willing the circulation back into his legs, his body shivered as he walked purposely over toward Joe. Gently gripping his brother’s right shoulder, and turning Joe toward him, Adam stated firmly, “I know, Joe, and if any of us could bring her back, we would. But sometimes God does things that none of us can understand or judge as fair.”
Memories flashed for Adam -- one of a kind and loving Swedish woman and another of a dark haired, flamboyant Creole beauty.
Determined to get through to Joe, Adam pressed on. “I can’t bring her back,” he repeated, “but I can promise you that Pa, Hoss and I will be here to stand by you and help you through this for as long as it takes, any way we can.”
It was rare that Adam let his guard down, showed emotion to anyone in the family, but tonight his deep voice resonated power, truth, trust, and most importantly, love. And for the first time since Laura White’s death, little Joe heard him and believed in something other than death and despair. He began to believe in life. A steady stream of tears rolled down Joe’s face as his eyes held Adam’s and he stepped forward, willing his brother’s embrace, accepting his strength and comfort as he pleaded, “Help me, Adam…”
Pulling Joe tightly into his chest, Adam whispered softly, “That’s right, kid, let it out.” As he stroked Joe’s curly hair and felt Joe sobbing against his him, Adam remembered a scene similar to this one some fifteen years ago -- when Joe was a young boy and Adam, not yet a man, was trying to comfort Joe after their mother Marie’s death.
How long Adam and Joe stood like that, neither was sure. At some point they felt a presence touch both of their shoulders and they knew Hoss was there, lending his support. In the darkness of Widows Ridge, in ‘their place’, the youngest Cartwright found his way home.
Ben Cartwright sat on Buck and watched the playful banter between his sons as they worked in the corral breaking the string of wild horses for the latest Army contract. He smiled widely as Little Joe was tossed to the dirt only to bound back to his feet to straddle the fence and dare either Adam or Hoss to best him. It was hard to believe that three weeks had passed since the boys’ night at Widows Ridge. The scene of that morning was still fresh in Ben’s mind. He had sat up all night and waited in his chair by the fire, finally having fallen asleep close to dawn. Started awake by the sounds of horses approaching, Ben stood, wiping the sleep from his eyes, anxious to see if those horses belonged to his sons. As Ben made his way to the front door, it opened and his prayers were answered. Adam, Hoss and Joe entered, all looking tired but safe. When Ben’s eyes searched Adam’s and observed his relaxed expression, Ben felt a mix of relief and jealousy at what the brothers must have shared. Yet all of that disappeared when Joe approached him and wrapped his arms around Ben’s waist and held him tight. Ben didn’t feel left out, but only love; love and gratitude toward his two older sons. Now, since that night, to say Joe had changed was an understatement. Truth was, Joe appeared to be almost back to his old self. He hadn’t taken a drink since his return, and though Joe still shied away from town, he’d gone to church for the first time yesterday.
Ben sighed, welcoming the echoes of laughter coming from his youngest son and knowing in his heart things would be alright now. Little Joe had truly come home.
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