Summary: Joe returns home from San Francisco a changed man; a mysterious woman and a piece of jewelry give rise to difficult times between father and son, bringing both heartache and understanding. The story references events in “The Storm” (Season 4) and “Forever” (Season 14).
Word Count: 5260
It was the laugh he heard first . . . that unmistakable vocalization registering somewhere between a snigger and a chortle before breaking into a guffaw. The sound no other man on earth made except his third son Joe . . . and a sound he had feared never to hear again.
Ben Cartwright’s eyes swept the hotel’s dining room to no avail. Quickly wiping his mouth with a napkin, he murmured an excuse to his companions and almost ran into the lobby searching wildly for a glimpse of green jacket.
“Excuse me,” he interrupted the desk clerk who was completing a registration for a guest. “The man just here. Where did he go?”
“I’ll be with you in due course, sir,” the spectacled clerk with an imperious attitude said rather curtly. Irritated, Ben turned quickly and grabbed the arm of a young bellman positioned near the hotel’s grand staircase.
“Did you see a man in a green jacket? About this tall, brown hair, graying slightly?”
“There was a couple. I believe they retired for the night, sir.”
“A couple?” Ben asked bewildered.
“Yes, sir. Mrs. Black and the gentlemen you described.”
The bellman was hesitant to approach the gentleman sleeping awkwardly in a lobby chair, his head resting on a fist pressed tight against his silver white hair. But when he realized from the man’s attire that he had been there all night, he took pity and cautiously shook the free arm. “Sir?” he said again.
“Mmmmph,” Ben’s eyes opened, but he was not quite awake.
“The couple you were asking after last evening—”
“Whaa … oh, yes. The man—”
“I haven’t seen the gentleman this morning, sir. But the woman just left. She’s wearing a black dress and she asked where the nearest dry goods store was.”
“You didn’t see the man?”
“That would be the Olcovich Brothers store at the corner of Fourth and Carson.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, pressing a silver dollar into the young man’s hand before hurrying out into the street.
“Thank you, sir!”
Ben didn’t know what to make of this woman who was so unlike anyone his son had ever been interested in. She was as tall as Joe and plain, almost austere looking, with high cheekbones and a long, aquiline nose. Her dark auburn hair was swept into a chignon. The dress, Ben could see now, was actually dark green, with a high collar trimmed in black lace. She wore small onyx earrings and smelled faintly of jasmine. As she swept a stray lock of hair aside, he admired her graceful hands and long, tapered fingers until, that is, he saw the ring on her finger and his heart skipped a beat. No. It can’t be!
He had been prepared to see a wedding band for she had been pointed out to him as “Mrs. Black,” but this . . . this was more shocking than finding out Joseph was keeping company with a married woman. Even from this distance, Ben could see with perfect clarity the cabochon emerald surrounded by diamonds and he knew without a doubt it was the same ring he had given Joe’s mother on their third anniversary.
After Marie’s death the ring had been carefully stored for the time when Joseph would pass it on to his wife or daughter. To Ben’s dismay, Joe hadn’t given it to Alice when they were married, but Ben had assuaged his disappointment by convincing himself that Joe—who was more of a sentimentalist than his other sons—must have intended to wait until his third wedding anniversary as well. Alas, Alice had died—along with their unborn child—not even six months into the marriage. And now . . . and now this ring and all it represented adorned the hand of a stranger. How could that be?
Ben was so caught up in his own recollections that he almost didn’t notice when the woman left the mercantile. The jangling of the shop’s bell brought him back to the present and he quickly deposited the merchandise he was perfunctorily holding on the counter, mumbled to the clerk about forgetting something, and exited the store quickly.
Shading his eyes against the bright sun, he searched up and down the street but she seemed to have vanished into thin air. Defeated, Ben leaned against a post and stared into the dusty street allowing the memories of the past year to wash over him.
Ben didn’t presume to believe his son had been celibate since his wife’s death. If truth be told, he knew deep down that it had been a long, long, time since Joe was naïve and inexperienced, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to think of such things. Joe’s education in that area had been handled expertly—and discreetly—by the boy’s older brothers. The boy.
Joe was no longer a boy, but Ben still couldn’t shake loose the image of a curly, tow-headed youngster careening wildly through the house and into the yard lunging head first into disaster—he was sure—under the hooves of a horse or into a shed filled with sharp instruments. It took the whole family’s constant vigilance to ensure Joe survived childhood, let alone adolescence. The boy trusted everyone; knew no fear; jumped headlong into every battle without thought of the consequences to himself. He had lived life with passion and gusto, assuring his father he would be “fine” no matter what.
“Fine” evaporated into thin air the day Hoss died. The high-pitched laughter had diminished substantially with the death of his brother and had vanished altogether when Alice passed.
Once again Joe had careened through the house—not with wild abandon and the resiliency of youth—but without direction like a ship without a rudder, adrift in the doldrums, lost without a compass or star to guide him.
Ben had tried to help; so had Jamie. Nothing brought solace to his son, not even the horses he dearly loved. When Cochise took ill last spring, Ben feared more for Joe than for the faithful paint which had been such a part of their lives. In desperation, Ben suggested that Joe take Cochise to the Presidio in San Francisco where the best Army veterinarians could have a look. So Joe and Candy loaded Cochise into a box car and boarded the train west.
The surgeons were skilled and the pinto was saved, but at a cost. Although the horse would live, Joe would never again be able to work Cochise has he had before. Ben had been alerted to the news by Candy’s wire, but he was nevertheless astounded at the change in his son when they returned. Rather than sullen and morose as his father expected, Joe was philosophical. He selected another horse for day-to-day ranch work and rode Cochise for pleasure. If not altogether upbeat, his mood was generally lighter than it had been in a long time. But the one thing that confounded his father was that Joe had become closemouthed and secretive about his comings and goings from the ranch.
Ben talked to the doctor and the sheriff, even the bartender in the Silver Dollar Saloon, but no one would fess up to seeing Joe in Virginia City nor did they report hearing any rumors. When Ben questioned Candy about what had transpired in San Francisco, the foreman was sanguine but tightlipped. Never had Ben missed his older sons more . . . Adam for his wise counsel and Hoss for his simple directness. They alone, it seemed to Ben, would have had the ability to ferret out what was going on with Joe and advise a course of action.
As it played out, it was Joe who took action.
“How could you?” Joe asked tersely, standing in front of Ben’s desk one Saturday morning.
“How could I what?” Ben answered, somewhat distracted by a column of figures that wouldn’t add up.
“Do what? What are you talking about, Joe?” When he finally raised his eyes, he was taken aback by the unwavering, steely gaze that reached him.
“Treat me like I’m 15 years old. Go behind my back and talk about me to everyone like I’m some kind of delinquent ne’er-do-well.”
Ben opened his mouth but couldn’t speak.
“Don’t I run the ranch to your satisfaction?”
“Of course, you—”
“What have I done that’s wrong?”
“Then why do you disrespect me that way?”
“You never treated Adam or Hoss that way. Hell, you never even treat Jamie like that. Just me.”
Ben was at a loss for words. Before he could respond, Joe pivoted and exited the house, not in his usual pissed-off fashion, slamming doors and yelling, but quietly. His tan boots might as well have been moccasins for all the noise he made moving towards the door.
Fingers on the handle, Joe turned and took one last look around the great room. From this father’s red chair, to Adam’s blue one, to the settee and table where he played endless games of checkers with Hoss, to the ubiquitous Indian blanket on the banister . . . he drank it all in, swallowed painfully, and was out the door before Ben could marshal a single thought.
Outside, Joe stood lock-kneed with his fists on his hips, head titled back gazing at the sky. He half expected his father to come charging after him. When the door didn’t open, he let out a long, slow breath, blinked the moisture from his eyes and headed into the barn to saddle Cochise.
“Where ya goin’?”
“Take care of Pa, okay? Make sure he sees Doc Martin on Thursday. Candy will know where I am if you need me.”
“Take care of yourself, Jamie,” Joe said as he led Cochise out of the barn. “I’ll send someone for my things.”
“What things? Joe? Are you leaving the ranch?” Jamie asked incredulously.
“No. The Ponderosa will always be my home . . . but not this house. Not anymore.”
“I don’t understand. Did you and Pa have an argument?”
Joe stopped to check his cinch one more time, but didn’t answer.
“Are you angry with him?”
Joe sighed and turned to face his brother. He put both hands on Jamie’s shoulders and looked directly into his questioning eyes. “No. I’m not angry. Pa’s done nothing wrong, so don’t blame him.”
“You’re not going to understand.”
Joe smiled inwardly, recalling a similar conversation so many years ago when he asked Adam the same thing—why are you leaving?—and got the same response—you’re not going to understand. And he hadn’t; not then.
“All right.” Joe found himself staring at Jamie’s freckles as though they held the answer if he could only connect them. But he couldn’t, so he took a deep breath and gave the only response he could. “This is the house Pa built; the home of my birth and childhood. When I married, I built a home of my own—the home of my adulthood. That’s where I belong.”
“But . . . the fire . . . it’s gone; you can’t go there anymore.”
And with that, Joe mounted Cochise. From the open porch window, Ben watched as Joe rode slowly out of the yard.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, Ben straightened his back and started for the livery. He couldn’t figure out why people were staring until he realized he was still wearing last night’s formal attire. Instead, he decided to check in to the hotel and get a bath, a shave, and a few hours of shut eye before heading home. With any luck, maybe Joe was still at the hotel. He wasn’t.
More time passed without Ben catching sight of Joe. It wasn’t as if Joe had never been absent from the Ponderosa before; he had frequently over the last decade been on month-long trail drives, buying trips or vacations. Neither was it the first time that father and son had been estranged; they had often had a volatile relationship, perhaps because they were more alike than either wanted to admit. But in the past, Adam and Hoss were there to pour oil on turbulent waters. Try as Jamie might, he didn’t have the knowledge or the skill to fill that role.
Nevertheless, ranch life went on and Joe continued to handle the Ponderosa’s affairs. Ranch business was conducted through Candy; drafts signed; papers left with the bank or attorney; status reports on timber, horses, and cattle relayed by ranch hands or Jamie.
Despite business as usual, for all intents and purposes the toll it was taking on Ben and Joe—individually—was evident. While Ben found some excuse to go into town nearly every day, peering through the batwing doors of every saloon, checking in with Sheriff Foster or Doc Martin, watching the stage depot during arrivals and departures, Joe avoided Virginia City at all costs. But Joe saw no contradiction in pestering Hop Sing, Jamie, and Candy with questions about his father’s well-being—was he taking his medicine, getting enough sleep, eating properly; did he get enough exercise and fresh air? If it weren’t so pathetic, the role reversal would be laughable.
One day Candy stood before Ben’s desk, hat in hand.
“You didn’t get it from me,” Candy said as he handed Ben a scrap of paper and turned away.
Ben watched Candy leave and then unfolded the paper. It was an address.
Ben looked at the address on the paper in disbelief. Carson City. Not surprising now that he thought about it; after all, he had first spied the ring there. It just never occurred to him that Joe would be living in the state capitol. And why didn’t it occur to him? Because you’re an old fool, Ben Cartwright, that’s why.
The music he heard as he approached the one-story, brick house made sense when he saw a simple sign in the window:
He rang the bell twice. There was no answer and the music continued uninterrupted. He was about to step away when the door opened partially.
It was her; and there, on the hand that held the door ajar, was the ring.
Ben’s heart pounded as he realized with sudden clarity that he had been desperately holding on to the belief that he could have been mistaken . . . that this was all an old man’s imagining. That Joseph would not, could not, have given his mother’s ring to . . . to . . . .
“I’m in the middle of a lesson. Is there something I can do for you?” she asked, politely but businesslike. Cognizant of the man’s fixed gaze on her hand, she withdrew it.
“N-,” he started to say, then “Yes. Yes, I’m Ben Cartwright. I’m looking for my son, Joseph.”
The woman exhaled slowly and said simply, “Come back at 5 p.m. Use the back entrance so as not to disturb my student.” And with that, she closed the door.
Lora Black slid one side of the paneled pocket door open and instructed her student to continue with the minor key arpeggios. Closing the door, she proceeded down the hallway to the kitchen where Joe was pouring coffee.
“Want some?” he asked.
“Who was at the door?”
Joe froze momentarily and then resumed pouring. He put the coffee pot on the trivet and sat down, his eyes finally meeting Lora’s.
“What did he want?” he asked, innocently.
Lora removed the ring and placed it on the table in front of Joe. “This.”
Joe stared at the emerald, his mind racing, trying to discern how long his Pa could have known and how he found out.
“Did he say that?”
“He didn’t have to,” Lora replied wearily, and sat down rubbing her temples with her fingertips. “Joe, I don’t need the ring to know how you feel. Give it back to him.”
“Don’t you want it?” he asked, suddenly confused.
”Don’t put me between you and your father, Joseph.”
“You will be unless you talk to him about this.”
“I gave you this ring because of what it means to me . . . to both of us.”
“Evidently, it wasn’t yours to give.”
Joe searched Lora’s face, pondering the truth of what she said.
“I’ll talk to him soon.”
“Yes, you will. He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”
Joe was driving the last nails into fresh-cut planking on the back porch when Ben dismounted and tied Buck to the hitching post.
“Hi, Pa,” said Joe, lightly. “Lora said you came by earlier. Sorry I didn’t hear the doorbell what with the piano and all the hammering.”
Joe put the jar of nails and the hammer into the tool box and stood up. “Come on in,” he said cheerfully and opened the door into the kitchen. “Have a seat. Want some coffee?
“All right.” As Ben placed his hat on the table, he saw the ring next to the sugar bowl. So she knew. Smart woman.
“How have you been, Pa?”
“What are you doing here, Joe?”
Well, let’s just come to the point, shall we? “I don’t live here, Pa. I’m just building a porch. That’s all.”
“And where do you call home these days?”
“The cabin by the creek.”
Laura’s cabin? How could I have missed that? I am getting old.
“The irony’s not lost on me, Pa.” When the blank look on his father’s face registered with Joe, he continued, “Laura White; Lora Black. Don’t tell me you didn’t think about it.”
“Having never been introduced to Mrs. Black, I can’t say that I did think about it.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have introduced you. I planned on it after she got settled, but . . . things happened.”
Ben nodded gravely, “Yes, things happened.”
“Wait a minute,” Joe said, suddenly. “Mrs. Black?”
“That’s the way she was referred to by the bellman at the hotel.”
“She’s not married.” Joe saw the raised eyebrow. “She wears a wedding ring when she’s on tour. It wards off the riff raff,” but apparently not nosy hotel staff.
Father and son were both suddenly aware of the deafening sound of silence that enveloped them.
“Lesson’s over,” Joe said by way of explanation. “Lora must have gone to the market to pick up something for dinner.”
“Then this is as good a time as any.”
As Joe put away tools and started setting the table, it occurred to Ben his son knew exactly where everything was. For someone who doesn’t live here, you certainly know this house well enough.
Joe poured two cups of fresh coffee and pushed one towards his father before sitting down at the table.
“Is it true that Mama left the ring to me?”
“She wanted you to have it, yes.”
“Then it’s mine to keep or give.”
“Not when you give it away indiscriminately, it isn’t,” Ben said harshly, barely containing his anger.
“What makes you think that’s what I’ve done?”
“Are you married?”
“Have you discussed marriage?”
“You’ve known this woman for five minutes, you’re not engaged, you’re not married, you’re not even thinking about getting married!” Ben had risen from the table and began pacing during this tirade. Now, he was fairly shaking with anger. “And you don’t call that indiscriminate?” he finished, shoving his chair into the table.
“Don’t! Don’t say it Joseph.”
“Don’t say what?”
“Don’t tell me to ‘calm down.’”
“Ok. But would you sit down, please?” Joe smiled as he pushed the chair away from the table with his foot. “Please?”
Ben remained standing.
Joe picked up the ring and held it with his left hand, tracing the dome and surrounding diamonds with his right forefinger. “You had this ring made for Mama, didn’t you?”
“Not as an engagement ring.”
“Not as a wedding ring.”
“Why did you have the ring made?”
Ben sank heavily into the proffered chair and said, “It was an anniversary present.”
“That was unusual wasn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean gifts aren’t usually given on the third anniversary, are they?”
“So why did you? Have this made, I mean. Pretty extravagant for a ‘non-event,’ wouldn’t you say?” Joe smiled kindly as he looked away from the ring and into his father’s eyes. Neither man said anything for a long time; Joe searching to understand; Ben weighing how much to tell his son about the mother he loved unconditionally, but barely knew or remembered. Finally, he said simply:
“We had had some . . . difficulties. It was complicated. Some things were within our control, some not. We lost faith in each other for a time. But we found our way back. The ring was a promise. A promise of faith and understanding and . . . hope . . . for a better life . . . for a new beginning.”
Joe nodded his head slowly. “I see.”
And he did. He just wished his father saw that the ring held the same meaning for him as well.
Instead, he dropped the ring into his father’s palm and said only, “Lora was right; it’s not mine to give.”
Father and son did not speak about the ring again, but they did speak—usually about ranch business and other safe topics, meeting regularly for lunch or dinner in Virginia City. Doc Martin and Sheriff Foster breathed a collective sigh of relief when they saw them together and kept their fingers crossed that Joe would soon be back at the ranch house.
One Sunday over dinner at a small cafe, Ben took the bull by the horns and asked Joe flat out to move home.
Joe put down his fork and pushed his plate to the middle of the table. “I can’t do that, Pa.” His son was firm, but not hostile. Ben decided to push it.
“Why?” he asked.
Joe wiped his mouth with the napkin and tossed it onto his plate, then sat back. “I told Jamie it was because the ranch house was the home of my childhood. I don’t suppose he understood what I meant.”
“No, he didn’t,” Ben said, signaling the waiter to remove the dishes and bring coffee. “And I’m not sure I do either.”
Joe smiled. “You heard, then.”
“I was grasping . . . searching for a response; something I could tell Jamie that he would understand. I didn’t want to be like Adam.”
“I had asked him the same thing. ‘Why are you leaving?’ He told me I wouldn’t understand. He treated me like a child even though I was in my twenties by then. And suddenly, it occurred to me that I would always be a child in the house where I was born. That’s when I knew what to say to Jamie . . . that I needed my own house.”
Ben still looked puzzled, so Joe leaned forward putting his elbows on the table and continued. “Pa, do you remember the day we buried Alice? . . . you came looking for me that night and found me in the ruins. You said, ‘come home,’ and I told you—”
“—‘I am home; this is my home; this is our home—Alice’s and mine, and our baby.’” Ben whispered, his voice choked with renewed grief.
“I went back to the ranch with you that night, but I felt . . . lost . . . unsure of who I was anymore or where I belonged.”
“You were born there; more than anyone else, you belong there,” Ben said, emphatically.
“At first I thought so. But the longer I stayed, the more lost I became. You look at me, Pa, but you don’t see me. Not the way I am now; only the way I was.”
Joe reached across the table and placed his hand on his father’s arm. “You can’t help it, Pa. Even though I’m a grown man, I’ll always be your child; I know that. It’s not you, Pa, it’s me. When I’m at the ranch, surrounded by all the things I grew up with, I revert to being the youngest son, the Little Joe who was always struggling to prove himself a man. When you started treating me like a boy again—”
“I never treated—,” Ben protested, but Joe silenced him with a look.
“—going behind my back, checking up on me, instead of trusting me, that’s when I knew I had to leave.”
Joe had expected his father to object further and was surprised when Ben put his hand on top of Joe’s and nodded slowly in agreement, apparently lost in memories.
Father and son remained this way for some time; Ben staring at the salt shaker, Joe tracing the cracks and crevices of his father’s face with his eyes. At last, Ben spoke.
“Adam came back from college a grown man. Four years gone. I felt short-changed that I never got to witness the transformation from boy to man, but if truth be told, he had shouldered the burdens of manhood long before he became one legally.
“Hoss, well, Hoss was the size of a man before he was twelve and he was treated like one just because of it even though he was still a boy inside. Jamie came to me nearly full grown, like a rough-cut gem that just needed polishing. You on the other hand—”
Joe smiled and put his other hand on top of his father’s.
“—you’re right; I will always see the boy in you—even when you look like a gray-haired, riverboat gambler.”
Joe laughed that special laugh that made his father’s heart melt.
“Are you happy, son?”
The question took Joe by surprise. “I’m working on it, Pa. Life . . . has been complicated; for Lora as well as me. We’re—both of us—sorting things out bit by bit. Since the fire, I’ve been at sixes and sevens. What was it you said . . . that you and Mama lost faith for a time but found your way back?”
Ben met Joe’s eyes and nodded once more. “We made a promise to each other to begin again, with a new understanding.”
“I’m finding my way back. Living alone has helped—I know that’s hard for you to hear, but you have to admit the last few weeks have gone well for us . . . you and me; being able to talk like this, like we used to. How about you, Pa? Are you happy?”
“I’m working on it, son. I promise you, I’m working on it.” Ben turned his palm over and hand wrestled Joe for a moment. “I’d be happier, though, if you’d come to the Ponderosa for Sunday dinner; this food has given me indigestion!”
Joe continued to live in the cabin by the creek but started visiting the main house more frequently, especially for Sunday dinner. In return, Candy and Jamie often dined with Lora and Joe in Carson City, although Ben continued to decline any invitation. Joe wasn’t certain why; was it that he didn’t like Lora or didn’t approve of their relationship? The ring was never mentioned again, but neither had it been returned to his mother’s music box on the mantle.
At last unconstrained; Candy revealed to Ben that Lora was a concert pianist on tour when Joe met her in San Francisco. Knowing Joe’s aversion to classical music, Ben was dubious. He could not argue, however, that the piano had brought about a change in his son. Lora felt it was because Chopin spoke to Joe’s soul. Joe said that watching Lora’s fingers fly over the keyboard when she played Fantaisie Impromptu made him feel as if he were galloping Cochise across windswept meadows. Ben didn’t know about that either, but he did know that the laugh had returned with gusto and with it, his son’s equilibrium. Joe was on a steady course at last, guided—if Lora was to be believed—not by a star but by music.
One evening, Ben finally relented and joined everyone for dinner at Lora’s home and stayed after for a recital of Joe’s favorite pieces. Listening to the evening’s repertoire, Ben was unprepared for how the images of his sons at various ages and stages of their lives came unbidden: normally fastidious seven-year-old Adam twirling in the rain with Inger, laughing and covered with mud; usually effervescent ten-year-old Hoss, weeping over the broken wing of a bird; Little Joe’s head on his mother’s shoulder, thumb in mouth, a peppermint stick stuck to his curls as they drove home from the circus.
When the first note of Fantaisie Impromptu sounded, Ben jumped, but no one seemed to notice that he had been lost in memories. Jamie and Candy were playing checkers at the card table and Joe was sitting next to Lora at the piano watching her fingering, a beatific smile gracing his face. As Ben listened to the trills and cadenzas, he had to admit he could indeed envision Joe and Cochise in perfect harmony riding like the wind.
When it was over, Joe stood and moved behind Lora, placing his hands on her shoulders.
“Please?” he asked.
Lora sat quietly for a moment, then patted his hand in agreement.
Ballade No. 4, Op. 52 in F Minor began so sweetly, Ben didn’t understand why Joe was standing behind her, but he soon saw that Lora played with such power the bench would have slid out from under her on the polished hardwood floor if Joe had not been bracing it.
The piece moved from major to minor key and was both hauntingly ethereal and powerfully intense. As he watched his son sway with the music, the emotions of a lifetime playing across his face, Ben was moved to tears at what he witnessed.
Joe was lit from within.
A few days later, Lora received an envelope by messenger. The plain card inside lettered in a strong, bold script read simply,
Chopin may speak to my son’s soul,
but you are the instrument of its restoration.
Attached to the card with a small silk ribbon was the emerald ring.
When Joe saw the ring adorning Lora’s hand, he understood that the man who gave it and the woman who wore it had reached an understanding. Once again the ring symbolized the promise of a new beginning and the hope for a better life . . . for everyone.
Author Notes: The musical form known as the Ballade was invented by Chopin. Ballade No. 4 is the most technically difficult of the four he composed and is generally considered the epitome of romantic music. It has been compared to the Mona Lisa in painting. According to John Ogdon (English pianist and composer), “[Ballade No. 4 is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions… It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”
It has been reported that Chopin composed Ballade No. 4 after reading a poem by Mickiewicz entitled “Budri” about a father with three sons who sends them out into the world to seek their fortune. All are thought lost, but eventually each returns with a treasure beyond compare—a bride.