Summary: WHI — Adam tries to set Joe straight on Frederick Kyle’s intentions by bringing up events that happened twelve years earlier when Ben was away from the ranch after Marie’s death.
Word Count: 8720
“Don’t you remember anything about that time?”
“Apparently not,” Joe replied.
“Then maybe I should enlighten you, Little Joe.”
“You’re the smart one around here, or so I’ve been told my entire life, so why don’t you fill me in on what’s got you so all fired up?”
As I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest, Joe leaned forward, forcing his elbows hard onto the dining room table and waited for a reasonable explanation as to why I had brought the matter up in the first place.
“Well? You’ve got the floor, big brother.”
It had been two days since we’d entertained Frederick Kyle in our home, at our family dinner table. There’d been a good amount of kidding and laughter over Joe’s poker playing and how rarely he came home a winner. There’d also been questions and answers concerning Kyle’s business of exporting gold and silver bullion and his eagerness to meet important businessmen in Virginia City. Joe was happy to oblige the outsider and offered to go with Mr. Kyle and introduce him to the more prominent men in the Comstock.
After Joe’s kind offer, Hoss quickly jumped into the conversation and tried to explain the difference between Joe and me and how money affects each of us so differently. Suddenly, we were discussing the dividing line between North and South—a matter Pa had tried to keep out of this house for fear of stirring up trouble between his oldest and youngest sons or anyone else—friend or foe—who was dead set on winning an unwinnable battle.
Later that night, I stepped out onto the porch where Kyle and my father were still discussing this imaginary “dividing line,” and the next thing I heard coming from our guest was talk of civil war. “You really think it will come to that?” I questioned, but Kyle was quick with answers as if he’d already jumped on the bandwagon—joined the Cause—and was somehow promoting a war between the states.
I watched his eyes light up when he stated he was from Kansas, a centralized state, which sat right in the middle of things. Pa quickly spoke of Nevada, praying the conflict wouldn’t affect those of us living out here in the west. Of course, I agreed with my father, but I kept my thoughts to myself although I knew right then that Frederick Kyle was trouble and my little brother would be caught in the middle of the war-hungry outsider’s exploits.
Joe and Kyle left early the following morning. Joe was eager to help his new friend in every way. But it wasn’t until the following day, I found myself in Virginia City asking questions of my own and discovering Joe was the first person Kyle had asked for when he climbed off the stage. My curiosity blossomed. Meeting Joe had been no accident and I was quick to tell my father the news. It wasn’t until later in the day when Joe showed us a gift Kyle had given him—a small portrait of his mother. A man who’d actually known his mother prior to Pa’s third marriage had torn at the kid’s heartstrings and placed him forever in Kyle’s debt.
I looked at my brother, the innocence of youth at only seventeen but what Joe may not remember was a time, long ago, when a terrifying event took place right here on the Ponderosa. It was a time when our world had come crashing down, not only from the death of Joe’s mama but within days I found myself the head of the household, in charge of my two younger brothers when Pa rode out, not saying when or if he’d ever return home.
I don’t remember ever being as young as Joe looks right now but at seventeen, I was Ma, Pa, big brother, cook and bottle-washer, and everything else we’d lost when Marie died and Pa left the Ponderosa. Hop Sing wasn’t with us back then, and I didn’t know much about household duties since Marie had taken over when she and Pa returned from New Orleans. I was twelve years old at the time, and I’d finally enjoyed the freedom to attend school, dragging Hoss along with me to a makeshift schoolhouse Miss Fanny O’Malley ran for the country kids who needed a proper education.
My schooling ended the day Pa left the ranch. I worked from sunup to sundown and then some. There was Hoss and five-year-old Little Joe to care for and the ranch didn’t run itself. So when a man named John, with a wife named Tillie and two sons—Hiram, 14, and Moses 7—walked into our front yard and asked for work, I looked into the man’s eyes and said yes. I couldn’t do it alone.
“I’m not sure where I’ll put you up,” I said.
“Da barn be just fine, Mr. Adam.”
“I’m sure we have some extra bedding, but the straw is fresh and will make good beds for your boys.”
“My boys is good workers and my wife’s a good cook, if’n you could use her in yer kitchen.”
“I sure could, Mr. . . .”
“Just John, Mr. Adam. Ain’t got no other name but John.”
“All right, John. Why don’t you and your family find a good spot in the loft, and I’ll go check for bedding.”
I’d just hired a black man and his entire family to help me run the ranch with no way to pay wages and whether I could feed my family and this new family too was yet to be seen. Plus, I’d insulted the man when I asked him his last name. If he’d been a slave, he would have taken the last name of his master but if he were a free man, would he have chosen a name randomly? Honestly, I didn’t know.
Just as I opened the front door, the whirlwind we called Little Joe came racing down the stairs and didn’t stop until he nearly bowled me over, not only with speed but also with questions that required immediate answers.
“Hurry, Adam, hurry,” he shouted. “I seen four people goin’ into our barn. Think they’re horse thieves? What if they take Sally? We won’t have no milk for our supper.”
“Slow down, Buddy, slow down.” I picked the child up and he wrapped his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck nearly cutting off my circulation. “Joe, please,” I said. “Those people aren’t horse thieves or any other kind of thieves. They’re going to work for us while Pa’s away.”
“All of ‘em?”
“All of ‘em,” I said, “and I want you to use your best manners when you’re around our guests.”
“Thought you said they was gonna work.”
“I did. They are . . . but mind your manners anyway.” I turned when someone rapped on the front door. “Get down, Joe, and give me some room. Miss Tillie,” I said. She stood stock still with her hands on her youngest son’s shoulders.
“John says you might need someone to help in the kitchen.”
“We sure do, ma’am,” Joe said before I could answer. “Adam ain’t no good at cookin’.”
“Isn’t any,” I said then realized it wasn’t the time or place to be correcting a five-year-old boy in front of Miss Tillie and her youngest son, Moses. “Joe’s right, ma’am. I’m not any good in the kitchen.”
“I be glad to help out some,” she said.
“Only if you can cook enough for everyone. There’s three of us and four of you, and our hired hand, Isaiah McCullough. That’d be eight people in all, ma’am.”
John’s wife cooked that night and for the next two weeks, we ate high on the hog. Joe and Moses had become fast friends while John and Hiram helped Hoss and me with all the daily chores Joe and Moses weren’t old enough to do. While Tillie minded the younger boys during the day, the four of us could concentrate on what needed to be done before winter set in. Hoss was in favor of working rather than attending school anyway, and I didn’t have the heart to send him on his own when there was so much work to be done. Leaves were turning from green to gold and it wouldn’t be long before we’d have to hunker down for the next few months. And if this winter were anything like last year, no one would be attending Miss O’Malley’s makeshift school until spring.
It was on or around the end of the month when our neighbor to the north, Mr. Avery Proctor, stopped by to tell Pa he’d heard rumor of slave catchers in the area. I quickly explained our pa wasn’t home, but I’d be sure to pass on the message as soon as he returned.
I didn’t want outsiders knowing our business so I kept my reply short and simple. If neighbors came around too often looking for Pa, they’d realize he’d left the ranch, leaving the three of us alone to fend for ourselves. I feared what might happen to my brothers if anyone was foolish enough to try to separate them from me by disrupting our family and taking my young brothers away. Although there weren’t neighbors for miles around, it only took one nosey busybody to stick his nose in where it didn’t belong.
“Ain’t no slaves ‘round here,” Hoss said to Mr. Proctor after hearing what our neighbor had said. I tried to push my brother behind me until I finished the conversation with the well-meaning man, but Hoss was nearly my size and pushing him anywhere was a foolish waste of time.
There was a bounty on runaway slaves, and most were returned to their owners for payment but on some occasions, black men were hung by the neck until dead. It never occurred to me to ask John or Miss Tillie how they’d happened to settle in Nevada, and I hoped I hadn’t brought trouble into this house or to my brothers.
My five-year-old brother was twelve years older now, a man, yet not a man, and when I glanced back up at Joe, who was waiting patiently while I reminisced through events that happened so long ago, what could I say? Was it fair for me to bring up the past when it seemed he’d buried it down deep inside and had possibly forgotten the whole ordeal? My God—he was so young at the time. I was stalling, hoping for answers where there were none.
“Why don’t we wait and talk tomorrow,” I said.
“I’ll never understand you, big brother. First, you’re hotter’n a firecracker, and then you sit back in your chair like nothing’s wrong, and now you want to wait and talk tomorrow.” Joe pushed his chair back from the table and shook his head in disbelief. “Tomorrow is fine with me.”
Joe started across the room when I stopped him. “Hey, Joe? Wait a minute.”
“Don’t tell me you changed your mind.”
“No . . . not really. Just one question. Do you remember a boy named Moses?”
Joe’s brow furrowed as though his mind was working overtime trying to place the name. “Never mind,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”
I banked the fire and headed on up to bed. Pa and Hoss had turned in early since they were riding out to the north pasture the next morning. I supposed Joe would be meeting Kyle again, and I’d be left alone to finish paperwork on the new timber contract. It shocked me some when Pa asked if I would handle this contract while he and Hoss were away, but I jumped at the chance to have a day to myself. It didn’t happen often with four grown men living under one roof, and I was pleased my father had enough confidence in my skills to hand me the job. My higher education was going to waste most days but handling the paperwork alone would be the equivalent of managing an important project. If we seceded in securing this deal, it would greatly benefit the Ponderosa and for once, I’d be using my brain for something besides pushing cattle and digging postholes.
The sheets felt crisp and cold as I slipped my bare feet between the linen fabric on my bed then tucked my hands behind my head, not quite ready to call it a night. I decided to leave the subject of Moses, and what Joe and that little black boy had seen on that cold December day, rest—no sense bringing up memories of the past if it would cause Joe unwarranted pain. Joe’s sympathies lay with the South because of his mother’s heritage, and I had no right to complicate the matter any further. Kyle would leave town if he couldn’t find investors and our lives might return to normal without complying with his deep-seated Southern influence and hatred over the North.
I was nearly asleep when a light shone under my door combined with quick, shadowy movements in the hall. I crawled out of bed to see what all the commotion was about when I found Pa opening Joe’s bedroom door.
“What’s up?” I asked in whispered tones.
“I heard your brother,” Pa said. “Must have been a bad dream. He was calling out for . . . actually, it sounded as though he was calling for you.”
The light from Pa’s lamp preceded us into Joe’s room, leaving eerie shadows highlighting my brother’s tightened face. But as Joe’s hands slid down his cheeks, he eyed the two of us suspiciously, cautiously, as if the interruption was welcome, but not.
“Sorry, Pa,” he said. “Must . . . must’ve been dreaming.”
“You were calling out for Adam, son,” Pa said as he eased himself down on the bed.
My brother’s eyes met mine, and I had my suspicions—Moses—but I kept my thoughts to myself. I’d planted a dangerous seed, it was all my doing, causing my brother to wake in the night, frightened and calling out my name like he’d done for days after the event all those years ago.
“Go back to bed, Pa,” I said reaching for the lamp. “I’ll sit here with Joe. You’ve got an early start in the morning.”
“I don’t need a keeper, Adam,” Joe said.
“I know you don’t, and I’ll only stay a minute.”
“Sure you’re okay?” Pa said, addressing my brother.
“I’m fine, Pa. Sorry I woke you.”
Pa leaned in and squeezed Joe’s shoulder then gave him a quick smile before handing me the lamp and thanking me for taking over his fatherly role just this once. I turned down the wick, placed the lamp on Joe’s table and pulled a chair up next to his bed.
“Bad dream?” I asked hesitantly.
Joe’s voice softened. “Not really, but it was enough to wake me up.”
I waited for him to start talking, to bring up Moses and his family, but that wasn’t really his way. Someone had to initiate the conversation and this time it had to be me. “You remember anything about the dream?” Even though I’d planned to drop the subject, I had to ask one more time. Joe’s eyes proved a sure sign, a gentle giveaway he’d remembered. His eyes widened and his face paled at my question.
“Was the dream about—“
Joe was struggling with memories I’d brought to the surface. He threw his blankets aside and stood from the bed. He began pacing the room. I remained seated, waiting for him to collect his thoughts and if he wanted to talk, I was ready for any questions he might have.
“Why?” Joe asked.
“Why did you have to bring Moses up after all these years?”
“I don’t know.” I slumped back in the chair. Why did I? “It was all this business with Kyle and I was afraid you’d get . . . I’m sorry. Just let it go.”
“What about Mr. Kyle, Adam?”
“Why don’t we drop it? I made a mistake, Joe, and I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, you don’t. You brought all those old memories back to life and they’re as clear as if it happened yesterday, and now you want to drop it? Why, Adam?”
“I said I made a mistake. I never should’ve—“
“You’re damn right you shouldn’t have.” Joe turned his back and rubbed his face with his hands before turning back around and glaring in my direction. “I don’t understand what you’ve got against Mr. Kyle or why you think all that business about Moses and his pa has anything to do with why Mr. Kyle is here in Virginia City.”
“Because it does, Joe. Kyle is bound to the South and—“
“Did you ever tell Pa what happened? Did you ever tell him what Moses and I saw that day in the woods?”
“No,” I replied softly and dipped my head just like my young brother would do when he didn’t want to admit the truth.
Joe turned his back again, and I couldn’t blame him. I couldn’t blame him for anything he thought over the way I’d handled things nearly twelve years ago. To say I was handling things properly now wasn’t right either.
Two months had passed since the incident with Joe and Moses before Pa returned to the ranch, and I didn’t see the need to bring violence back into our home. We were all so happy Pa had decided his sons were more important than his grief over Marie’s death that I’d kept silent—silent for twelve long years.
“I remember,” Joe said softly. “I remember everything about that day, Adam.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“No. I’d rather go back to bed and forget everything.”
“All right. Maybe tomorrow.”
“No. Not tomorrow, not ever.” Joe’s eyes were on fire. His nostrils flared in that way he gets when he’s right and everyone else is wrong. “Go back to bed, Adam.”
“I’ll have to tell Pa,” I said.
“Why? Why now? You didn’t think it was necessary twelve years ago.”
“I was wrong, Joe. Pa needs to know what happened that day in the woods.”
“Just forget it. Pretend it never happened.” Joe’s voice was braced with anger. “It’s over and done with, and telling Pa is a waste of breath, besides, it doesn’t make any sense to bring up the past now.”
“Why don’t you let me decide what’s a waste of breath.”
“Because it didn’t happen to you, Adam. It happened to me, and I don’t want to relive the past just ‘cause you’re not fond of Mr. Kyle.”
Although I’d kept quiet during breakfast the following morning, I knew by the end of the day the story had to be told. Pa and Hoss rode out before Joe woke and, of course, Pa asked questions about Joe and his nightmarish dream, but I lied for the time being. I said Joe was fine. Nothing to worry about. I didn’t know Joe’s plans for the day, but I hoped we’d have time to sit down and discuss the matter before Pa and Hoss returned home from the north pasture. I had a timber contract to run through, and I would get that done eventually, but Joe was more important than any contract or anything else work-related. I thought my father would agree.
At half-past eight, I was sitting at my father’s desk, reading down the first page of the contract and marking changes we’d need to make as far as the number of men needed for the job. After Joe made his way down the stairs, he took a seat at the dining room table without saying a word to me, or even looking my way. He was still upset over my bringing up the past, but we had to talk. We had to set things straight.
“Why you so late,” Hop Sing raged at Joe. “Breakfast all cold.”
“I’m sorry, Hop Sing. How ‘bout just a cup of hot coffee.”
“Coffee cold too. Have to make fresh pot for little boy who sleep late and make more work for Hop Sing.”
“Thanks, Hop Sing. This little boy appreciates everything you do and I’m sorry I overslept. I guarantee it won’t happen again.”
“That better. Apology accepted. Hop Sing make fresh coffee.”
I listened from across the room, and the gifted sweet-talker had done it again. He’d smoothed Hop Sing’s feathers and got exactly what he wanted in the process. Although Hoss was Hop Sing’s favorite when it came to mealtime, Joe ran a close second. His gift for diplomacy made me smile and in the process, he left a clean slate for the next time he lost favor with our high-strung cook.
I took a deep breath, picked up my own cup and saucer, and strolled casually toward the dining room. A fresh pot of coffee was as good an invitation as I was going to get, and I wanted to resolve the problem with Joe so I could concentrate on the contract for rest of the day.
“Morning,” I said.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Mind if we talk?”
“I know you aren’t hard of hearing and if you remember, big brother, I already told you I’m not talkin’ about Moses or anyone else.”
Hop Sing entered the room carrying the coffee pot and a plate of sugared doughnuts for Joe. I’m not sure how he’d hidden them from Hoss but somehow he had, and Joe was enjoying the spoils because of his earlier comments to our cook.
“You eat. You still growing boy and growing boy need Hop Sing food so he make it through the long day.”
“You’re too good to me, Hop Sing,” Joe said. “I’ll make sure I eat every last donut on this plate.”
“Should’ve brought him a bowl of lumpy oatmeal,” I grumbled and, in a louder voice, I turned to Joe. “You beat all. You know that? You really beat all.”
“I know,” Joe said smiling. “Hop Sing loves me best.”
“You think so?”
“Ain’t it obvious?”
“Seriously Joe,” I said, changing my tone completely. “We need to talk.”
Joe popped a donut in his mouth then exaggerated his chewing, thinking I wouldn’t interrupt his breakfast, but he was wrong. I was determined to end this once and for all.
“Sorry, brother. Can’t talk with my mouth full,” he said, showering me with powdered sugar, but I was going to win this battle, sprayed sugar or not. Without Joe’s permission or his new way of stalling, I started reminiscing about that day.
“It was a Monday morning,” I said, “and Tillie was stripping beds when Hoss and I rode out. I remember her telling you and Moses to find something constructive to do and let her wash the sheets without the two of you underfoot. I’d sent John and his boy, Hiram, out to check the herd while Hoss and I rode into town for supplies.”
I’d set the scene, and I glanced across the table at Joe. He hadn’t moved. He hadn’t taken another doughnut or sipped his coffee. I didn’t much care if he ate or not. This was more important. This was something Joe had to remember and had to talk out since he was so dead set on taking up with Frederick Kyle.
John and Hiram were a true vision of the South, not the stories Joe’s mama told of honor and pride or of The Code and how men battled for what they thought was right. She told of steamboats on the Mississippi with columns of black smoke and whistles that sounded miles down the river. She told all of us boys about her own heritage, of the Creole people, who spoke a truly romantic language, and she was obviously pleased when we’d use some of her everyday Creole words.
She talked of hundred-year-old plantations with stately mansions and ancient oaks lining the entrance of the estates, and of sugarcane growing tall in the fields. There was the French Quarter, where flagstones were scrubbed every morning in the courtyards, and oil-burning streetlamps lit the city throughout so it never grew completely dark. She told of aboveground cemeteries and how mourners would decorate the tombs of the recently deceased. She talked of the good life, not the real life she’d endured before meeting our father. She romanticized the life she’d dreamed of living, and even I was taken in by her soft voice and her in-depth explanations of Southern living.
But what she neglected to mention to any of us was the fact that slave labor kept the South alive—the men and women who worked the plantations, who got down on their hands and knees and scrubbed the walkways or lit the street lamps or sculpted the “cities of the dead.” Never once did I hear Marie speak of the Negro population or their condemned way of life.
I readdressed Joe and continued with the story of that day, at least my memories.
“So instead of sticking close to home, you and Moses sneaked out the back door with your fishing poles and headed down toward Willowcrest Pond. Am I right?”
“What happened next, Joe? What made you leave the pond?”
“I don’t know. We just did.”
“Where did you go?”
Joe rubbed at his forehead with both hands. He was fighting the images I’d stirred up, but I thought he might talk, and I knew better than to interrupt.
“We . . . we heard horses—riding fast—and we followed the sound. We ran after the men because I figured you’d be mad if you knew there were strangers on the Ponderosa without permission.”
I smiled. Only five- and seven-year-old boys would rationalize a reason to trail men on horseback when they knew better than to follow any strangers crossing our land.
“You didn’t have to go far, did you?”
“What happened then, Joe?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“Yes, you do. What did you see? What did you hear that day in the woods?”
“Why are you making me do this, Adam? Why does it matter now?”
“Trust me, Joe. It matters,” I said firmly. “You saw John and Hiram, right?”
“Then tell me what you saw.”
“I can’t, Adam. I don’t want to remember nothin’ about—“
The group of men surrounded Moses’ Pa and Hiram, all on horseback, each with a rifle lying across his lap. Mr. John and his boy’s hands were tied behind their backs, and they were struggling in their saddles, trying to get the ropes loose from around their wrists but they’d been tied too tight.
One man held their horses’ reins, leading them both toward the old oak tree, past the stream where Adam and Hoss shot a grizzly last fall and past Willowcrest Pond where Moses and I had been fishin’ only a few minutes ago. Another man pulled Hiram’s horse up close to a rope he’d swung up and over a low-lyin’ branch then widened the loop so it fit over the black boy’s head. He pulled the stiff circle tight around Hiram’s neck.
Joe pressed his face into his hands. “Don’t make me do this, Adam.”
I wasn’t about to stop him now. He had to recreate the story in his mind, even if he was unable to say the words aloud. He had to relive the horror of an unnecessary lynching or Kyle would win the kid’s trust, and Joe might be lost to us forever. My brother’s eyes were closed as he traveled through long-forgotten memories of the two able-bodied men who died that day. Two men who could have been taken back to their owners if, in fact, they were runaways at all, but that wasn’t the case. Those six men were out for blood, and black blood was easy pickings.
Mr. John screamed and begged the group of men to let his boy go. “Hang me instead,” he shouted as he struggled in the saddle. “Please don’t hurt my boy.” But his words were in vain. The men laughed, they all laughed until one of the men pulled a riding crop from his saddle and began lashing at Mr. John’s shoulder and back.
“Keep your filthy mouth closed if you know what’s good for you. You sit and watch that boy hang, and you’ll soon find we don’t want no darkies mixin’ with decent folk in this part of the country.”
As Mr. John continued to struggle and fight the binding rope, tying his wrists, I held Moses down when he started to rise from the large, granite boulder we’d hidden behind. “Stay here,” I said, “and keep quiet.” Moses was older’n me but about my same size, and I was able to keep him hidden behind the rock and restrain his outbursts or cries.
Mr. John was crying too. The crop came down hard on his back. His shirt was soon shredded and he was bent forward over the saddle’s horn. At the time, I thought his pain made him wail and curse God, but maybe it was seeing Hiram, swinging from the rope after one of the men hit the rump of his boy’s mount. The frightened horse skidded out from under him and his body jerked this way and that until he was still and dead.
Joe shivered and breathed with hesitancy, forcing me to speak. I had to interrupt his thoughts. “You okay, Buddy?”
“They killed Hiram first,” he said.
Tears tracked my brother’s cheeks as he thought through the events of that day. He seemed to remember every sequence without saying the words out loud. I wouldn’t ask questions, I wouldn’t interrupt him again as long as he realized the horror that had made its way to Nevada from his mother’s romanticized South.
“John continued to beg those men to cut his boy down, Adam, to let Hiram live and take him in his son’s place, but Moses and I watched the man with the crop slide closer to John and grab the back of his head by his hair so he could see Hiram was already dead.”
I reached for Joe’s shoulder but he shied away from my touch. He swallowed hard and scrubbed the tears from his face before he traveled once more back in time.
The man with the crop reared back in the saddle. He lifted his leg and booted Mr. John off his horse. I pressed Moses to the ground and covered his mouth so he wouldn’t cry out for his pa. “Stay quiet,” I whispered. Two men dismounted and pulled Mr. John to his feet before attaching a different a rope to his bound hands. The rope was thrown over the limb next to Hiram’s dead body, and they lifted Mr. John in the air by his wrists, still tied behind his back. He was nearly bent in half; his head hung past his knees, his shoulders had snapped out of place.
Mr. John cried out as he struggled to free himself from the taut rope. Again, I pushed Moses to the ground so he couldn’t see his pa hanging from the tree and in much worse shape than his brother had been. But I kept my eyes glued to the six white men and their captive as they twirled the big man in circles and laughed when vomit spewed from his mouth to the ground.
“Oh, God—why, Adam? How can so-called decent men torture another human being and laugh at his pain?
“I think that’s enough, Joe.” Although his story had been silently told, I could feel the pain he felt that day having to witness the cruelty certain men were capable of casting upon another.
My brother shook his head then tilted his face upwards to stay the tears. “Two men died that day, Adam. For no reason other than they were black men rather than white.”
“That’s right,” I said, “but lynching slaves is part of the South’s heritage, and that’s why I needed you to remember. I loved your mother, Joe, and I know she wanted all of us to love her way of life, but the South isn’t all sugar and spice.”
“I was so scared, Adam. Dammit,” he shouted as he stood from his chair. He hurled his full cup of coffee at the dining room wall. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“Maybe I don’t, and maybe I never will, but I’m sorry you had to witness such a terrible act, especially at such a young age.”
“What does age have to do with anything, Adam? How many lynchings have you seen? Any at all?”
“No, and I hope I never do.”
“Moses’ pa didn’t die quickly like Hiram, you know. It seemed like hours before his body gave out and the men were satisfied he was dead.”
I crossed the room and reached for the decanter of brandy. Although it was still early morning, I was sure Joe needed a drink as much as I did. “Here,” I said. “Take this.”
Rather than drinking the shot, my brother sat the crystal glass on the dining room table and rotated it back and forth between the palms of his hands. Was the motion symbolic? Was the picture of John, spinning back and forth from the rope binding his wrists still as clear as day in Joe’s mind?
“Let’s get out of here for a while,” I said. Paperwork be damned. Joe needed clean, fresh air—maybe a ride would help. “I’ll saddle the horses.”
He gave no response, but I wasn’t surprised. It had been a rough morning, and if a ride would clear Joe’s head, the timber contracts could wait until later. I’d brought this on, and I had to find a way to set things right.
We rode steadily after leaving the yard. I followed Joe’s lead, but it didn’t take long before I knew right where he was headed—the old oak tree where the events of twelve long years ago had taken place. Although it was never my intention to travel this route, I should have known that was where we’d end up.
Joe stopped high on a ridge overlooking the hanging tree below. I sidled up beside my brother and tried to play out in my mind what he’d seen and how it had affected a five-year-old boy and his young friend to watch two men—Moses’ father and brother—hang.
Even though I tried my best at the time, I wasn’t Pa, and I wasn’t what Joe or Moses needed. Miss Tillie did what she could to calm both boys when they returned to the house, crying and screaming about tales of bad men, and the uncalled-for deaths of John and Hiram, of Tillie’s husband and eldest son.
My heart went out to her as silent tears streaked her face, and I offered as much comfort as possible to the broken family. But in a way, I’d neglected my young brother as I concentrated my efforts to help Tillie and Moses cope with their loss. Within days, mother and son were gone from the Ponderosa. In the middle of the night, they had left. No note, no goodbye— they’d vanished from our lives.
I realized now, I’d let the events of that day pass without sitting down with Little Joe and making sure he was all right. Our “hired help” was gone and so was the memory of the lynching, or so I thought. I’d been naïve to think just because Tillie and Moses had left the ranch, Joe could move on the next day without memories of what he’d seen. I was too young to know how a day of terror might affect a young boy, plus, there was twice the work for Hoss and me to accomplish alone.
“I thought I’d laid it to rest, Adam.”
Joe’s voice fractured my distant musings and brought me back to the present. Should I let it go or push Joe further? My mind raced with unanswered questions.
“What—” Joe said, looking straight at me, and I struggled with my response.
“All right . . . do you realize why I wanted you to remember?”
“You said something earlier about Mr. Kyle,” he said. “Is that what this is all about?”
There was only one word I could say in my defense. “Yes.”
“He’s up to no good, Joe.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Oh, but I do.”
“So that’s what this is all about?”
I sat deeper in my saddle and stared down at the tree, which had lost most of its golden leaves and had taken on a haunting look of death. I pictured two innocent people lost forever. “Yes, Joe. That’s what this is all about.”
Joe looked away from the old oak, scanning the countryside, maybe mulling over what I’d said, but he said nothing in return. As he chewed his bottom lip, like he’d done his entire life when he was troubled, I decided to continue.
“Kyle’s devoted to the South, to the Cause as it’s referred to now. He’ll use anyone who might benefit his efforts to stockpile money, and he’ll fight anyone who gets in his way. He’s using you, Joe. Frederick Kyle is not your friend.”
“You don’t know that, Adam. You think you know everything. You’re right and I’m wrong. Well, maybe this time you’re wrong.”
“Think, Joe,” I said louder than necessary. I wasn’t wrong and I had to make Joe see the darker side of the South. “Remember what you saw here twelve years ago then tell me you’ll stand alongside Frederick Kyle and men like him. The lynching you saw that day is commonplace for runaway slaves all over this country.”
Dear, God, what had I put the kid through just to prove a point? I’d shouted at Joe so he’d understand my feelings toward the Confederate way of life. After all these years and with all this talk of war, the crisis Joe faced as a child needed to be brought out in the open so he could finally understand what Kyle was trying to preserve in the South.
I’d said my piece and it was time to call it quits—time to let Joe decide for himself right from wrong. I’d known from the start Kyle was trouble, but I had to let it go. Joe was nearly a man, and he had to decide which road to take without me deciding for him.
The sun had arced in the sky as we rode out in order to face death head on, and now it was mid-afternoon, time to return to the house and see if we could be civil to each other for the rest of the day. The contracts sat untouched on Pa’s desk, and he and Hoss would be riding in soon.
“Let’s go home, Joe.”
“You go ahead. I need some time to think.”
“Yeah—I’m sure. I’ll be along.”
I turned Sport toward home and left my brother sitting on the ridge staring down at the hanging tree. Was this a wise decision? I didn’t know. If I said more, I’d only be repeating myself. It was up to Joe to decide his own fate.
As I rode into the yard, Pa and Hoss were just coming out of the barn from stabling their own mounts after a long day’s ride. Pa wasted no time questioning me about my whereabouts—and Joe’s.
“I thought I left you to go over the contracts,” he said.
I wasn’t even off my horse before the questions started.
“And where’s your brother? I see his horse is gone too.”
“I can explain,” I said after dismounting and holding Sport’s reins behind my back like a child who was hiding evidence of misdeeds.
“I’d like to hear it,” Pa said.
I glanced at Hoss, saw him roll his eyes and told Pa I’d be in as soon as I tended my horse.
“I’ll be waiting,” he said.
I felt like a ten-year-old boy when Pa used that tone of voice. I was a man, a grown man, an equal to my father and still, I felt like a child. This wouldn’t be an easy explanation, and I dreaded having to tell my father what should have been told years ago. I was in charge of my brothers, but I was the age Joe was now. I thought I was grown and could handle the job but in hindsight, I made plenty of mistakes along the way. Today would settle one of those mistakes but not all. So, with Sport cooled down, watered and fed, I made the short trip across the yard to the house. I wondered if Pa was watching from his window; I didn’t look up to find out.
As I walked inside, Hoss was rounding the corner of the dining room carrying a sandwich he’d conned out of Hop Sing. Pa was at his desk, holding the unfinished contracts with both hands, and I knew the look. It wasn’t a pleasant look, and since I’d barely even started on the task I was assigned to do, I told myself I wasn’t a child who needed a good, long talking to, but that’s exactly how I felt.
“Well?” Pa said.
I took a seat across from my father, who’d remained seated at his desk. Hoss leaned against the wall next to the stove. He, too, was anxious to hear my explanation. I tucked my hands between my thighs and I began the long, difficult story.
“Guess I’ll start at the beginning,” I said.
Pa laid the papers on his desk, folded his hands together and waited for me to begin. I cleared my throat.
“What I’m about to tell you happened twelve years ago . . . during the time you were away from the ranch. Hoss will remember since he was almost twelve at the time, but it seems Joe had buried the events of that day until I brought it up last night, hence, the nightmare that frightened him. He’s pretty upset right now and it’s my fault. Maybe I should start with an apology, which I’ve said to Joe many times over, but I should also apologize to you too for not informing you of everything that happened during those months after Marie’s death.
“Adam,” Pa said, a curious look marked his face. “What’s this all about?”
I didn’t hesitate. I jumped right in and told the story to my father. “There was a lynching on the Ponderosa while you were gone,” I said. Pa’s deep, dark eyes rounded like saucers, and he glanced up at Hoss, who had just taken his last bite of sandwich. “I’ll explain.”
And so, I did—beginning to end. I even told Pa where I’d left Joe this afternoon, and I assumed he’d be home shortly, but I couldn’t promise. “He needed a little time to himself,” were my last words on the subject.
Hoss had taken a seat halfway through the story. I wondered if he had buried the incident too until I brought it to light. Twelve long years—buried—and now the cruel, vindictive hangings were brought back into our world as though they happened only yesterday.
“Why now, son?” Pa said. “Why wasn’t I told twelve years ago?”
Although I had my answer ready—because the three of us were so happy when you returned, I didn’t want to spoil your homecoming with a lynching story—but the front door opened and Joe walked into the house. I turned in my chair and watched as my brother calmly unbuckled his gunbelt, laying his holster and hat on the credenza as if today was like any other.
“Joseph?” Pa called out.
Joe was silent. He started across the room, pretending he didn’t hear his name being called.
“Joseph? Did you hear me, son?”
“Not now, Pa.”
Not a glance at me or anyone else. Joe’s eyes were set dead ahead as he crossed the room and headed toward the stairs. When Pa started to rise from his chair, I stood also. “Let him be,” I said, laying my hand on Pa’s arm. “He has a lot on his mind and I don’t think he’s in the mood for more talk. Maybe later tonight.”
My father moved in front of me. “You’re not Little Joe’s father, Adam. I am, and if I want to talk to my son, I will do it with or without your permission.”
“Sorry, Pa.” I fell back into my chair and glanced at Hoss as Pa climbed the stairs to Joe’s room.
“What’d ya think he’s gonna say to Little Joe?”
“I don’t know, Hoss. What would you say?”
“Me? Don’t think I’d have brought any of this up in the first place, big brother.”
“Thanks,” I said with a touch of sarcasm. “That’s just what I needed to hear.”
It was over an hour before Pa and Joe came down the stairs. Hop Sing was beside himself with dinner ready and no one present at the table. I tried to reassure him it wouldn’t be long, but not much calmed the frantic little cook when he was ready to serve a hot meal. Hoss and I both stood and made our way to the table without a second glance from Pa or my youngest brother.
As we took our seats at the table, I could see by the puffiness around Joe’s eyes, he’d been crying. Maybe that was best. Maybe he could bury the images of John and Hiram once again, just like he had when he was a young boy. Even Hoss had become quiet and sullen after reliving the story I’d revealed to Pa. It was doubtful I’d heard the end of this; Pa would have plenty to say about my mistake in judgment when my brothers weren’t around to overhear the conversation.
Hop Sing rounded the table with platters of meat and potatoes, vegetables, and bread. Even though none of us had anything to say, our cook was cheerful and acted as though nothing was amiss. When I glanced up from my plate, I caught Pa nodding to Joe. I wondered what he had said to bring Joe out of his room and to the table when I thought we wouldn’t see hide nor hair of him for the rest of the day.
Joe took a deep breath. He laid his fork on his plate and looked straight at me. “You were right, Adam.”
I’d just scooped a bite of potatoes, but my fork hung mid-air after Joe’s statement. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You were right and I was wrong.”
Even though Pa had encouraged Joe to speak, I was grateful he was able to admit I had a brain in my head when it came to certain, difficult matters.
“Kyle was never my friend and I know I was nothing but a pawn in his little game of drumming up funds for the South. You taught me a lot today, brother. You showed me the whole picture, not just what I wanted to see.”
Joe shook his head. “My mother was from New Orleans and there’s a part of me that will always feel close to her Southern way of life. I can’t deny my own heritage, Adam, just because bad things happen. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes . . . I do.”
“I don’t know why you did what you did. I’m sure you thought to bring up all those old memories was the only way to keep me from tagging along with Kyle, but I don’t see it that way at all. There should have been another way for you to get your point across. I don’t know how, but it hurts, Adam. It hurts to remember.”
Again, tears were forming in Joe’s eyes, and I knew I’d gone overboard trying to protect my young brother from a man like Kyle. “I’m sorry, Joe. I know I’ve said it before, but I really am sorry. You’re right. I should have thought of another way.”
When I was seventeen, I was thrust into the role of father to two young boys, and I couldn’t help but wonder how either of them would have acted in my place. I was young and naïve, and I made mistakes along the way. I was twelve years older now, but I was still making awkward mistakes.
I dropped my napkin on my unfinished plate of food and scooted my chair back from the table. “Excuse me,” I said. Like my brother earlier in the day, I needed a few minutes to myself. And as I leaned my elbows on top of the corral fence, I studied the sky and the stars that may, someday, lead me to unknown places and unknown people far from the Ponderosa. But my time was cut short when I heard the front door click behind be. Though I didn’t turn around, I knew from the sound of his footsteps who was crossing the yard.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I returned but kept my eyes focused on the clear, night sky.
“I was kinda hard on you in there, Adam.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“I was, and I want to apologize.”
“Seems we’re both apologizing a lot today, Joe.”
“Yeah, seems we are.”
I turned my head toward the kid whose wide, white smile shone brightly in the dark of night. “I guess we both made mistakes.”
“I never should’ve jumped all over you for making me see the truth.”
“I could have taken a different route.”
Joe shook his head. His smile was gone. “Nothing else would have had the same impact and you knew that, didn’t you?”
“I guess I did, but—“
“It’s over, Adam. The past is the past and even though the lynching happened twelve years ago, they’re still happening today . . . in the South, I mean.”
They happened here, too, because runaway slaves were making their way west more than they were in John and Hiram’s day, but I wasn’t going to make matters worse by opening my big mouth again. “You’re right,” I said instead.
“All’s forgiven,” I said, hoping the storm was over, and we could get back to what we did best—return to a peaceful existence where we were one as family and not divided emotionally by North and South.
I clapped Joe’s shoulder, but he turned and wrapped his arms around me like he did when he was a five-year-old boy and I‘d stepped in as his substitute father. I wasn’t ready for such an intimate connection with my young brother but somehow, it seemed natural—as though we were those younger boys, and back to the days when, in Little Joe’s eyes, I could do no wrong. I wrapped my arms around my brother.
In life, we all make mistakes but in this family, we can always count on each other for forgiveness. Sometimes it takes longer than others. I’d wanted Joe to come around to my way of thinking, and he had—mistakes or not.
In less than twenty-four hours, my young brother had made decisions only a man could make. He thought through everything he’d seen and been through that day so long ago, and he’d come to his own conclusions. Maybe Pa and I had something to do with leaning him in a certain direction but ultimately; it was his choice and his decision to make.
Our lives aren’t always measured by birthdays but by events that come between those special days. Joe and I would always remember this time of turmoil, and we would grow wiser from our mistakes.
And if we were lucky, Frederick Kyle would have already left Virginia City and would camp on some other unsuspecting young man’s doorstep, leaving us to run the Ponderosa and leave talk of war behind.