Summary: After a cattle drive Joe receives a heartbreaking telegram from the Ponderosa.
Word Count: 6717
“Anyone here named Joe Cartwright?” asks a freckle-faced kid not old enough to be in the saloon where I’m washing near-on a month’s worth of trail dust out of my throat.
I haven’t decided whether to answer him or not. All I want is a drink, a bath, and a bed — and not necessarily in that order — but someone must have pointed me out because the next thing I know he thrusts a piece of paper in my hand. “Telegram for you,” he says and walks away. I sigh and roll my shoulders. Damn, I’m sore. I open the telegram and read the words once, then twice, then three times.
“Your father is dying,” it says. “Come home quick.”
I laugh because home — our ranch known as The Ponderosa — is more than three days’ hard ride away at best, and having just completed the most hellish cattle drive of my life, I am exhausted and without reserves.
“We’ll get there faster by stage,” I hear someone say from far away — like they’re under water — and then I slowly realize that I’m the one under water and it’s Candy, our foreman and my best friend, who is apparently above the surface and talking. What?
We are weary, both of us, and I marvel at his ability to comprehend what is going on when I have not a clue. Even so, Candy propels me by the elbow from the saloon where the messenger had found us to the stage office down the street and plops me on a bench. “Stay here,” he says and then disappears.
I look at the wire still clutched in my hands. It’s from Paul Martin, our family physician back in Virginia City and my father’s friend of nearly 35 years. “Your father is dying.” That’s all. Nothing about how or why; only implying only that death is imminent. Rhymes with liniment. Before I can fathom what Pa needs with liniment, Candy returns with a man who fusses at me until only Candy’s intervention keeps me from slugging him.
“He’s in shock,” I hear him say. “Keep him warm and see that he gets some food and rest.”
From out of thin air, Candy produces a steaming mug and shoves it into my hands. I stare at it, not knowing what to do. “Drink,” he says. At first I wonder what he is talking about, but as he guides my hand to my face, I smell the aroma of the strong brew. Trust him to know what I need; the coffee is laced with brandy and burns as it goes down. After a few gulps, I lean back against the wall and stare into the mug. Without warning, the hot liquid starts to ripple and then begins to undulate wildly. I find myself drawn further and further into the blackness until I am drowning in a black whirlpool.
I awake suddenly as the stage careens around a bend, jerking wildly. I have no recollection of how I got here. I only know I have never in my life felt this tired, this depleted. And cold. I shiver involuntarily.
Sitting opposite, Candy reaches over, tucking a heavy blanket in tight around me and then hands me a sandwich. “Eat,” he orders. I am not hungry, but I have no energy to resist, so I eat. It’s cheese. Hoss would hate this.
We hit another bump and a box of some sort shifts poking Candy in the ribs, prompting a mild expletive. I look around and see there are no other passengers, just cargo on this stage. Candy reads my mind and grins. “Mail run. No stops until we get to Reno.”
“Reno?” I am groggy and it takes a while to reconcile this information with what I remember of the last 24 hours. Oh, God! The telegram.
“When?” I ask.
He rolls up the leather flap covering the window and studies the Nevada landscape in the pre-dawn light. “Four. Maybe five hours. I’m guessing.”
I look as well, recognizing the terrain even in the grey dawn because — unlike Candy — I’ve lived here my whole life.
“Yes,” I confirm. “How did you swing this?”
“I paid them by the pound,” and he points to the luggage tags pinned to our shirts. “It’s the rules,” and he grins again.
As I finish the last of the sandwich, he asks ““You awake enough now to listen to me?”
I rub my hands over my face and sit up straight. He hands me a canteen and I pull a long drink, then settle into the corner of the coach out of the wind, shifting my weight and legs to get a more comfortable purchase against the jerking motion of the stage. I look anywhere but at his face, as if avoiding eye contact will allow me to go on believing this is just a nightmare from which I will eventually awake, shaken but safe in my father’s arms, comforted by the sound of my father’s beating heart as I have been so many, many times.
“Joe?” I ask again. No response. The stupor he’s been in since last night has not waned with the setting moon, despite the doc’s assurance that all he needed was some grub and shuteye. ‘Course, all I managed to get down him was a couple slugs of whiskey before he passed out and the cheese sandwich didn’t seem to be doing the trick.
“I’m awake,” he says finally, heaving a sigh.
I don’t quite believe him but I plunge ahead anyway. “I sent a wire to Griff, asking him to send a wrangler with horses to the stage depot in Reno.”
“Griff can’t leave The Ponderosa.”
“He won’t.” Griff is a young man who had saved Mr. Cartwright’s life during a riot at the prison he was inspecting as a member of the Nevada State Penal Commission. In gratitude, Mr. Cartwright saw to it that Griff was paroled into his custody, but the conditions were that Griff could not leave The Ponderosa. Of course, at 1,000 square miles, that didn’t exactly fence him in, although being “confined” rankled Griff nonetheless. “I asked him to set up a relay. They’ll be wranglers with a fresh mount to meet you every 8-9 miles . . . like the Pony Express used to do, you know?”
Joe nods and stifles a yawn. “Any word from Jamie or Doc Martin?”
“No, just Griff confirming the relay.” Jamie is Joe’s younger brother, adopted by Mr. Cartwright a couple years ago. “You ought to get some more sleep. Gonna be a hard ride, even with fresh horses.”
“I know the drill,” he replies as an almost imperceptible smile plays at the corner of his mouth. “I used to be a Pony Rider.”
“No kidding?” I ask, genuinely surprised. Joe shifts and actually looks straight at me for the first time since the saloon. I can see that he is truly awake now.
“Back in ‘60.1 I was 18; got caught up in the adventure and excitement of it all after my father made a speech about the Pony Express being the biggest thing to happen in the West.” Joe stares out the window at nothing but memories. “Pa was pissed as hell, but he could hardly refuse when he was not only an investor in the company but served on the board of directors as well.” Then he snickers, “Hoss told me later that Pa said if he had been 25 years younger, he would have signed up, too.”
“I’ll bet.” I never cease to be amazed at the things Joe has done. Maybe that’s why we’re best friends. Ain’t much I haven’t tried in my life but I would never have had the gumption to ride for the Express, even if I could have passed the physical. Although Joe and I are the same age, at 6 feet, 170 lbs, I have at least an inch and a good 20-30 pounds on him.
As if Joe had read my mind, he says, “I was really too tall, but next to my Pa and brothers I looked short, and I made the 125 lb. weight restriction easily enough. That, and the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“I was willing to play by the rules.”
“Bring the mail in on time or die trying. And the one thing I could do better than anyone else in the territory was ride like the wind.” Joe looked again out at the passing scenery. “Right along this route. We rode 100 miles in 10 hour shifts. Sometimes we were so shorthanded we had to ride two shifts back to back.”
I let out a slow whistle. “No wonder your Pa was pissed . . . 20 hours in the saddle at a full gallop!”
Joe huffed softly. “Pa didn’t know the half of it. Hoss knew, but I kept it from Pa. I kept a lot of things from Pa in those days.”
“At least you had Adam and Hoss to share things with.”
“Yeah,” Joe said pensively, “used to.”
“And now you have Jamie.”
“No,” sighed Joe. “Pa has Jamie . . . and now . . . Griff.”
“You’re kidding,” I say, not believing what I am hearing. But I can see he is serious, and as the sun rises, it dawns on me that this may be a reason Joe has been spending so much time away from the ranch of late. Could it be Joe is jealous of Jamie?
The window flap is still rolled up which makes it colder inside but helps me stay awake and allows us to enjoy the spectacular red orange sunrise. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning. I stick my head out the window and look in the direction we are headed. Sure enough, there are clouds over the mountains.
“What?” Candy asks.
“Storm comin’,” I say, “Probably by noon.” The driver must have noticed too, because we suddenly pick up pace and are fairly flying over the hard, flat surface of the road.
I switch position so my feet are braced against the side of the coach and my back is pressed against a trunk that takes up the remainder of the seat. I roll my shoulders and crack my neck. What I wouldn’t give for hot coffee and a soft bed.
“Who taught you about weather?” Candy wants to know.
“Pa some — from his sailing days — and my brothers certainly on our camping trips. But mostly it was Hop Sing.”
Candy raises an eyebrow at that so I explain, “Truly. The Chinese have been predicting weather since 300 B.C. See the way the top of the cloud is shaped like an anvil?”
Candy twists in his seat so he can see what I am talking about. “Yeah. What of it?”
“Caused by high winds. Anvil usually points in the direction of the storm. The height of the cloud is a fair indicator of when it will hit.”
“After my Mama died, Hop Sing took care of me when Pa and Adam were working and Hoss was in school. He had a way of drawing a mental picture or weaving a story around any lesson so I could remember it. I thought it was just ’cause I was five and couldn’t read, but he continued doing it even after I learned my letters. It was his way . . . talking in metaphors and proverbs . . . you know, ‘Confucius say.’ He tried to teach me to make those Chinese characters, but I never could get the hang of it.”
Candy thinks that is funny. “Deciphering your left-handed scribble in English is challenge enough!”
“I was a quick study on the language though, and that pleased him. I don’t think the family ever caught on that I generally knew what he was shouting about. It was all gibberish to them, but I understood. Funny thing. He wasn’t angry, he was just talking.”
“Oh, everyday things . . . supplies to be ordered, chores that needed doing, telling me to take a bath or do my homework . . . ordinary stuff. He just made it seem like he was mad and ready to quit.” I smile remembering and shake my head. “That could sure get Hoss going.”
Candy laughs, “It sure could. Was Hoss always that gullible?”
“Oh, yeah. Adam and I used to threaten him with Hop Sing’s departure all the time. Ironic that it was Adam who left in the long run . . . . Never figured I’d end up missing him as much as Mama,” I say wistfully.
“But you still had Hoss and your Pa.”
“I guess.” And you, until you left.
Candy watches the sky for awhile, then settles back into his corner facing me. I can see he’s got something on his mind, so rather than close my eyes as my body is begging I do, I wait for it.
“Why did you come?”
It is not the question I expect.
“Why did you come on the drive?” he asks again.
“I had every right to be there,” I say defensively.
“I’m not questioning your right to be there. I just want to know why.”
“Why, what? Why I don’t trust you to get the job done? Is that what you think?” I hear my voice rising. Candy’s on the other hand, becomes deeper, like Adam’s used to.
“No,” he says patiently.
“Maybe ‘what?’ is a better question.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Come on, Joe. For the past year, you’ve taken every opportunity to be anywhere but home. Buying trips, cattle drives, contract negotiations, sick friends, real estate ventures . . . whatever comes up, even if it could be handled by letter or wire or by somebody else entirely, you use it as an excuse to leave. And not just leave, but stay away longer than necessary. Like this cattle drive. I’d like to know why. What are you trying to avoid? What’s going on in that head of yours?”
My head feels like it is exploding. Red sky in morning; sailor’s warning.
The best defense is a good offense, so I launch it, “So you’re blaming me? That it’s all my fault that Pa’s dead? That I could have prevented it by being there?”
“First of all, we don’t know that he’s dead,” Candy says patiently. “He could be healing by now. Second of all, we don’t know what happened, Joe. It could have been his heart, or a stroke, or an accident. Whatever it is, chances are your being there couldn’t have prevented it, but your being there afterwards could make a difference in his recovery.”
“And it’s my fault we’re on this stage right now?”
“No. I put us on this stage because it is faster than horseback. After we finished the drive, it was your decision to ride home instead of taking the train to Reno which would have gotten us back to the ranch a week ago.”
Low blow, Candy. I glare at him until my eyes begin to cross, but he doesn’t blink and I am the first to turn away.
“He doesn’t need me there. He’s got Jamie,” I say under my breath.
“That’s the second time you’ve said it,” Candy retorts.
“You said earlier that your Pa had Jamie and Griff.”
“And you, don’t forget you, Mr. Foreman!” I lash out irrationally.
“I’ll ignore that because you’re exhausted and you don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Don’t do me any favors. I know what I see.”
“And what is that, exactly?” Candy fires back. “What do you think you see? How much Jamie worships you? How your father bursts with pride every time he looks at you? How much the men like working for you?
“You can’t keep this up, Joe. You thought this was a hard cattle drive, but it really wasn’t. You just weren’t up to it. You might fool the men, but you can’t fool me. I’ve been riding with you for the better part of the last month, day in and day out. I’ve seen you struggle with the simplest tasks. And don’t forget, I paid the freight on your skinny ass…138 lbs, Joe! What the hell is going on with you?!”
Candy’s right. I’m not the man I used to be. No longer a younger brother, no longer a mother’s son, no longer a husband, no longer a father.
“What are you running from?” he asks, and in that query I hear genuine concern.
“What are you afraid of, Joe?
I turn away, hot tears coursing down my cheek pressed against the rocking stage. I close my eyes and allow the red sky to swallow me.
If we were anywhere else, Joe would have pounded me to a pulp with that wicked left hook of his. But instead, given his exhaustion and the close confines of the coach, all he did was roll toward the seat back pulling the blanket over his head, signaling an end to our discussion. His silence was more unnerving than if he had hit me.
Seems you’re still keeping things inside, Joe. And, looking out the window once more, it was my turn to seek memories in the early morning haze.
I didn’t get a chance to know Adam, but I saw up close and personal how close half-brothers Hoss and Joe were — closer than any full-blood brothers I’d ever met. That was one thing that had intrigued me when I first met the Cartwrights . . . a familial relationship unlike anything I had ever known personally or witnessed elsewhere. Yes, I was intrigued and eventually even envious, I suppose. Joe and Hoss treated me like a brother and I worked hard to earn Mr. Cartwright’s respect, but through no fault of theirs, I still felt like an outsider.
At one point I got to feeling so low that I had to break away, so I left for a time, resuming my nomadic life, much as a tumbleweed drifting here and there as the wind blew me. It surprised the hell out of me when I realized I was actually homesick. . . homesick for The Ponderosa! Who’d have ever thought an Army brat like me would long for roots. But about two years after I left and shortly after Hoss had died, I ran into Joe in Sacramento and I knew it was time to go back. Everyone missed me, Joe said. He never said it straight out, but I understood that they needed me as well. So I returned and it felt good to be back. I had no idea right then just how the family — and Joe in particular — would need me in the months that followed.
Within a few short weeks of my return, Joe announced out of the blue that he was getting married. I wasn’t too sure about the timing, thinking maybe Joe was just trying to fill the void created by Hoss’ death, but Mr. Cartwright and Jamie were ecstatic and believed Joe was really smitten with Alice Harper, so I put my reservations aside and was happy for them all.
And for awhile they all were. Mr. Cartwright invited me to move into the main house with him and Jamie, and ranch life resumed its normal hectic pace as spring moved into summer. Married life seemed to agree with Joe. He and Alice had built a little yellow house with white trim not too far away and we were either over there or they were at the main house so often that we wore a path through the field separating the houses. When Alice and Joe announced they would be parents in the new year, we didn’t think life could get much better. But it could get a whole lot worse and in short order, it did.
While Joe was at the main house picking up lumber for the nursery, the little house caught fire. Recent rains had turned the new path into a rutted mess and Joe, Jamie, and I were joking and laughing as we bounced merrily along on the way to supper. Joe was the first one to see the flames licking through the trees. “My God!” was all I heard him say before he turned the wagon and, whipping the horses furiously, forged a more direct route to the house.
As long as I live, I will never forget the look of horror on Jamie’s face nor the sound of Joe screaming “Alice!” over and over again as with bare hands he tore burning boards away from the red hot frame in an effort to get inside the inferno. But the house was already gone, and with it Alice, their unborn child, and everything Joe lived for.
In the days that followed, a numbness settled over the household. As foreman, I continued to oversee ranch operations. Jamie buried himself in chores. Hop Sing banged pots and pans in the kitchen, but was otherwise atypically silent. Joe was back in his old room, bandaged and sedated with Mr. Cartwright hovering nearby but keeping what seemed to me to be an uncharacteristic distance from his son, as if physically comforting him might somehow cause Joe to shatter. Then abruptly Joe left without saying goodbye . . . at least to me; I don’t know about his father or Jamie.
It was after Joe was gone that I learned Sheriff Clem Foster had told Mr. Cartwright a second body was found in the debris. A man’s body. We had no idea who it was.
A little over a month later, Joe galloped into the front yard and stormed into the house. He was a wreck physically—gaunt, unshaven, and more angry than I have ever seen him. He had a music box with him, his mother’s music box that he had given to Alice as a wedding present. Joe didn’t say a word, but I recognized what it meant before Jamie did. . . the fire was set to cover a robbery and that meant Alice had been murdered!
As Mr. Cartwright was in Carson City, there was no question that I would be the one to ride with Joe to track the thieves. We crisscrossed the roads hitting every town from Virginia City to San Francisco, picking up more clues along the way. I watched Joe disintegrate piece by piece as each part of the puzzle was revealed and we learned what had happened to Alice in her final hours. Aside from the night of the fire, it was the most heart wrenching thing I’ve ever witnessed and it took everything I had to hold that man together.
I turn from the window to look at Joe now and realize I am still holding him together. And it occurs to me that if his father dies, there is not enough glue in the world to prevent Joe’s total disintegration.
What are you afraid of?
The question echoes in my dream. Rocked by the movement of the stagecoach, I’m engulfed in a sea of red that pulsates like a beating heart. I see the faces of those I’ve loved and lost in my life floating in the twilight of my subconscious — those who broke my heart like Emily and those who were taken from me like Mama, Hoss, and Alice — sweet Alice — and our baby, and so many others — Julia, Amy, Laura, Sally. And there’s Adam who drifts in and out as he leaves, returns, and leaves again. Even Candy– who never promised to stay forever — flickers in and out like a candle in the wind.
In the wick, I see the briefest hint of green which quickly fades, for it is true . . . I am not jealous of Jamie or Griff, and because of that, the green turns to black and into the blackness I see myself falling, falling into nothingness. I don’t know who I am anymore — neither husband nor father, youngest brother nor youngest son — I have no place to call home. I am unneeded and unloved. A yellow house swirls above me as if caught in an eddy. I hear a baby crying and music playing; then the house bursts into flame which turns into a red river of blood, and the music becomes a tom-tom.
In the red river I see a rider on a black stallion trying desperately to hold its head above the current. As the rider approaches, the tom-tom becomes a beating heart and I see that the rider is Pa.
I awake as soon as I hear Joe call for his Pa. He is still sleeping, but breathing heavily as if fighting someone or something. I had hoped he would rest easy, for the last leg of our journey to The Ponderosa will be harder in the rain which is just now beginning to fall.
I wasn’t kidding when I said he is too thin. I was shocked when they weighed us at the freight office and I saw he was down at least 20 lbs. The loss of Hoss and Alice has taken more of a physical toll than I had realized. I wonder if his Pa knows, but somehow I doubt it, and perhaps that, too, is a reason Joe has stayed away . . . .
“Joe,” I poke him with my foot.
He groans and turns away.
“Come on, old buddy. Time to rise and shine.” I pull out the canteen and nudge him with it. “We’re here. Have a swig.”
The stationmaster is startled to see passengers climb out of the coach and starts to yell at the drivers, but then sees the luggage tags pinned to our chests and laughs heartily. He points to the loading dock and tells us to go and get checked in.
I make Joe go first and then send him to the washroom to get cleaned up while I go order us some grub in the café next door. He doesn’t argue with me, which is surprising given our last conversation, but I figure he is still groggy as he has never been known to wake up easy.
The hot coffee is ready when Joe emerges looking — if not totally alert — at least more refreshed. He presses his fists against his lower back, thrusts out his chest and stretches from side to side then drops into the chair next to me with a groan.
Picking up the mug with both hands, he inhales the aroma before swallowing. Then he chokes, eyes wide open and fully awake.
“Puts hair on your chest,” I say grinning.
“You could have warned me,” he gasps. Joe is still sputtering when plates of eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits arrive. I dig right in, but he pushes the food around without much interest.
I start to say something, but decide to leave it alone. I’ve said enough already. Perhaps this time I’ve irrevocably crossed the line between employee and friend. Well . . . I’ll get him home and then move on, if that’s what he wants.
I glance at the clock and Joe catches my movement. “The horses?” he questions.
“They’ll be here. We got in ahead of schedule.”
Joe nods, then takes a deep breath and blows it out through puffed cheeks. Look…” he begins.
Uh-oh, it’s never a good sign when a sentence begins with “look”. I keep eating, choosing not to make eye contact, which doesn’t seem to matter anyway because out of the corner of my eye I can see he is intently focused on his plate.
“I’ve been thinking,” he continues.
Here it comes . . . my walking papers.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have come on the drive . . . and I have been away too much, but not for the reasons you think.”
I can see he’s struggling to find the right words, his face a mass of conflicting emotions.
“Go on,” I encourage, reaching for another biscuit.
“I’m happy Jamie is a Cartwright. We all — Pa, Hoss, and me –agreed about the adoption. And I’m grateful to Griff for saving Pa’s life. He’s a little too cocky for his own good . . . but so was I at that age. He’ll do fine, and I know Pa’s pleased with his efforts since he’s been on the ranch. It’s good Pa has them to fuss over; you know what a mother hen he can be. He needs them.”
I put down my fork and knife with a sigh. “He needs you, Joe. Sure, he loves Jamie and he is genuinely fond of Griff, and maybe even me a little. But his heart beats for you.”
Joe finally looks at me, green eyes wet with unshed tears, searching . . . for what?
“What are you afraid of, Joe?”
“I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “Adam said Pa went off the deep end when Mama died, and when he surfaced, he buried himself in ranch work. Maybe . . . maybe that’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Why can’t you? Seems to me your Pa is the kind of person who will listen.”
“I’m too much of a reminder of all he’s lost. He doesn’t need that kind of pain again.”
“And that’s why you stay away?”
Joe hangs his head and nods yes, then shakes his head no, then yes again. “I don’t know,” he says again. “I only know I keep failing him.”
“I don’t see how. You’re a reminder of all the good in his life; his love for your ma, the joy of raising sons who grew into fine men.”
“You weren’t there, Candy. You didn’t see him age 10 years in the instant I told him Hoss was never coming home again. You didn’t see the recrimination in his eyes.”
“No, but I was there when Alice died. I witnessed what he went through; what you both went through. He wanted to help you, but you ran . . .”
“I came back,” he interrupts.
“. . . away and you’ve been running ever since,” I finish.
I settle back in my seat and look at him, elbows on the table, face in his hands. I don’t have a clue what he is searching for. “What do you want, Joe?”
“I don’t want to see red anymore,” he chokes.
“Joe, you’re tired. You’re not talking straight. Let’s get you home to your Pa and when he’s better, you’ll work this out together. Okay? Come on, old buddy, what is it you need? More coffee?
“I need to go home,” he sighs.
“Then eat up while I get our gear.”
I know I should eat, but the food is now cold and congealed and I gag just looking at it. After signaling for more coffee, I slap bacon on a biscuit and shove the plate away. The second cup doesn’t seem as strong, or maybe I’m just getting used to it; either way, I drink it and eat the biscuit.
What am I afraid of? Candy’s question rattles around in my mind.
I lied. I do know what I’m afraid of.
How about being the last one left standing? No parents; no brothers; no wife or child; no friends — oh, lots of acquaintances and folks I’m friendly with — but no bosom buddy that will be there always. Oh, I know. Candy’s that friend, but it’s the “always” part that’s the rub. He comes and goes as he pleases and I’m afraid. Afraid he’ll leave, too. Afraid of becoming a bitter and self-centered old man. Afraid of never feeling safe again. Afraid of winding up alone and unloved.
The rain has let up but a dreary mist has settled over us, the same color as the grey horse Joe chooses from the remuda just delivered by a Ponderosa wrangler. The horses appear fresh and I figure they must have come from North Ranch2, which is closer by half than the distance from here to the main house.
“Well done, Billy,” I say, gesturing at the horses. He has learned a lot under Joe’s tutelage and is on his way to becoming a first-rate horseman. Billy smiles in acknowledgment, but otherwise remains silent. “Any news?” I ask quietly.
“Not good. It’s his heart,” Billy whispers back to me while glancing furtively at Joe who is retrieving our saddles from where I left them outside the door. His blue eyes widen as he takes in Joe’s appearance. “Is he alright?” he asks.
Taking the reins of a sorrel for myself, I start to move away, “He will be when he gets home,” I reply, though I don’t know how convincing I sound.
“Candy,” he says and the way he says it catches at me. I stop short, turn, and lock eyes with him. I am struck by the fact that Billy’s blue eyes have suddenly turned as seriously grey as the world closing in on us. “He needs to hurry.”
My gut tightens at the urgency in Billy’s voice. I nod in response and motion him away with a jerk of my head.
I had been surprised when Joe picked the grey, but now I see that her size is right for him at this weight and I recall his comments about the mare’s agility and responsiveness when he was first working her. He finishes checking the cinch for the umpteenth time, grabs the reins and rests his left hand on the pommel but doesn’t mount.
I move in behind him and place my hand on his shoulder. “Ready, old buddy?”
He closes his eyes and I can feel his muscles tremble. No swing mount today. Instead he puts his foot in the stirrup and slowly, almost painfully, hauls himself into the saddle and then just sits there.
The rain has started again and as I look up at him, I want to tell him that everything will be all right. Instead I say, “Time to ride.”
Gazing upwards at the dark grey sky, he takes a deep breath, blows it out slowly, and looks down at me — face wet with rain or tears — I can’t tell.
“Like the wind,” he whispers and is off.
Billy and Griff did a good job picking the mounts. Each one was compact, swift and sure-footed, which in the driving rain was a blessing beyond measure as I made the transfer from one horse to another at the relay points. But they were newly broke and needed constant guidance over — to them — unfamiliar territory. As I approach the last relay stop, I am painfully aware that I still have 10 miles to go and I don’t think I have it in me to go on.
And then I see him.
Griff — standing in the wind and rain for God knows how long — beside a make-shift lean-to sheltering Cochise.
I literally fall out of the saddle into Griff’s arms and he half carries, half drags me to Cochise and pushes me into the saddle. Now, thankfully, all I have to do is hold on as my faithful paint races forward on one simple voice command . . . home.
Except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the great room, the house is quiet. Coming from the frigid air, the heat from the raging fire in the mammoth fireplace that dominates the room assaults me even from the doorway. As I remove my slicker and hang it on the coat rack by the door, dizziness and nausea engulf me and I bend over with my gloved hands splayed upon my knees. I lean against the credenza, trying to slow my breathing, and I watch rain drip in slow motion from my hat onto the polished hardwood floor. Hop Sing will not be pleased. I remove my gloves and swipe at the floor in a cursory attempt to mop up the evidence.
And then I hear it . . . a keening wail of unmistakable sorrow that curdles my blood and refocuses my attention. Pa.
I run across the room stripping hat and jacket off as I go, taking the stairs two at a time, lungs still paralyzed with cold making it hard to breathe. By the time I reach the top of the stairs, my legs feel like I’m walking through quicksand and I trip, catching myself on the antique trunk. The wailing is coming from the room at the end of the hall. Pa’s room.
As I stumble down the hallway, I see Paul Martin to the right of the bed, pulling his stethoscope away from his ears, shoulders sagging, tears running unabated down his haggard and stubbled face.
He looks up as I crash into the door frame gasping for air, but turns away, unable to look me in the eye and say the words I dread. But I only have to look to the left and see Jamie in the chair by the bed, head in hands sobbing uncontrollably to know what has happened.
In spite of everything . . . all everyone did to get me here . . . I am too late.
I force myself to look at the bed which dominates the room. Pa’s bed. Someone has crossed Pa’s arms across his chest in unnatural repose and closed his eyes.
NO! I think. This isn’t right. This can’t be happening. The terror that I’ve managed to keep at bay for the last two days bursts forth uncontrolled.
“NO! “ I scream out loud in fear and launch myself across the room, ripping Jamie from the chair and kicking it aside so I can kneel on the bed. I grab each of Pa’s hands in mine and hold them to either side of my face, but his fingers are already cold. I move my hands down to his wrists and place them around my neck, but his arms fall limply to his side. I pick them up and try again and again, but there is no embrace; no loving arms to enfold me and make this nightmare end.
“NO!” I scream again in anger. Don’t you dare leave me! Not you, too. Why does everyone I love leave me? I clench my fist and pound the center of him. Mama. Again. Hoss. And again. Alice.
“No.” I sob as I place my hands palm down and lean into him, stroking his broad chest, willing it to rise and fall again. Please.
“I’m here, Pa. I won’t stay away anymore. Please . . . please look at me. Please talk to me.” I run my hands around to his back and try to lift him to my own heaving chest. Please don’t leave me. I still need you. I need you to love me.
But in my exhausted state, he is too heavy to lift and so I lay him down gently. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord . . . I pray . . . .3
“Pa,” I sob.
There is only silence. There is no one left to love me. I am alone.
Closing my eyes, I lay my head upon his chest and am awash anew in memories of the times my father’s heartbeat has sustained me, providing strength for me to continue when others said I couldn’t possibly survive.
I smile as I remember all the times his hand has stroked my head, telling me I was safe.
My father’s heartbeat will some day be stilled forever, but mercifully that day has not yet come. I hear a whisper.
I raise my head to see warm brown eyes looking at me. Burying my face in his neck, I feel his hand upon my head and know I am safe once more.
“Joe,” he whispers again, and I know with every beat of his heart that I am not alone . . . that I am still loved.
- The Pony Express operated from April 1860 to October 1861. The two-part episode (“Ride With The Wind”) aired in 1965, in theory placing the episode in 1865 and Joe at 23. But since the episode itself references the “coming” secession (which happened in January of 1861) , I chose to use 1860 in order to place Joe within the age and weight limits (18 years, 125 lbs.)
- North Ranch is mentioned in Season 13, Episode 406.
- This classic prayer from the 18th Century, published in The New England Primer in 1725, is still recited today:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
Should I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.