Summary: Joe is caught off guard when he steps up to help a longtime friend in a serious situation, but his good intentions don’t go as smoothly as he anticipated. Though he thinks he’s doing the right thing, he soon realizes not everyone agrees. Misplaced anger and desperation soon lead to tragedy.
Word Count: 16,600
When a man reaches a certain age, he should be allowed to make his own decisions. He should be allowed to make choices that affect his life and those around him. He should be able to call the shots even if a situation alters his life in a way he’d never planned or considered before. Family has to be considered, especially my family, and therein lies the problem, but that’s not where the story begins.
It’s a sad story really, one that depicts human nature in a bad light but as they say, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and I believe that’s true. Sometimes we become stronger individuals if we take that trip through the darkness and search for light on the other side. Sometimes there’s a landslide blocking our way and we’re forced to dig through an endless pile of rock and debris. Some rocks are heavier than others, and we question whether the effort to break through is worthwhile. This is my story. It’s a rocky ride through a long, dark tunnel, searching for light at the end.
Her name was Lucy Miller, and she was a pretty girl, even as far back as our school days. When I first met her, she wore pigtails and freckles covered most of her face. She was a skinny kid like me; in fact, most kids were except Devin Albertson and kids made fun, especially when he pulled his lunch pail out at noon break, but not Lucy.
Lucy was the first one to laugh at my awful jokes. She knew how to make others laugh and feel special too, even young boys like Devin. Everyone loved her. Though money was scarce, she came from a good home and a good family and as she grew into womanhood, her two older brothers were set on keeping interested boys away from their baby sister.
Lucy and I had been friends for more years than I could count. At nineteen, we’d both gone our separate ways. She was sweet on Evan Carter and I was sweet on Betsy Carmichael, and the four of us often went to dances together. In fact, we planned to attend the Saturday night dance at Ben Jessop’s barn on the outskirts of Virginia City.
Though I’d never officially courted Lucy, we’d remained friends throughout the years. She told me her problems and I told her mine. We were close, and not much slipped by that we didn’t share with each other. She knew my deepest, darkest secrets, and my innermost fears. Pa and my brothers didn’t know half of what I’d told Lucy over the years. We were each other’s secret confidants. She knew me and I knew her, inside and out.
But time has a way of interfering and old traditions are lost forever. Lucy was with Evan now and she’d become more secretive, more reserved about conveying each special moment to her “best friend.” I didn’t mind. Actually, I never gave it much thought, but I should’ve realized how much our lives had changed, that we weren’t children any longer, that we solved our problems without having to run to each other every time we faced a new dilemma or had a difficult day.
Lucy’s life had become private. Now, her secrets stayed with her until the day she confronted me with a life-altering situation, the day she reached out for help and I was the person she chose, the person she picked to lean on, to help see her through the dark days ahead, but I need to backtrack just a bit.
The four of us walked into the dance together. We’d had supper at the International House and then headed straight to Ben Jessop’s barn. I knew something was off. Evan and Lucy weren’t holding hands or mooning over each other like they’d done in the past.
Betsy was oblivious. She and I had only been seeing each other a few weeks, and I was growing tired of her endless jabbering about this and that. It was all about Betsy, and I knew our relationship was winding down rather than speeding up. The barn dance would probably be our last night together. At nineteen, I didn’t have time to waste on a girl I didn’t much care for.
Rarely would a couple dance every set with each other. We traded off, and I was ready to hand chatterbox-Betsy off to anyone who’d take her. I had someone else in mind, and I cut in on Evan and Lucy near the end of the first set.
“She’s all yours, Cartwright.”
I winked at Lucy and took her hand in mine. I placed my right hand on the small of her back. When Ol’ Roy, the night’s fiddler, tapped his foot three times and began playing a fast-paced tune, we all lined up for the Virginia reel.
“Ready?” I said.
“Joe,” she said weakly. “Would you mind if we went outside instead. I could really use some fresh air.”
“Sure. Come on.”
I thought nothing of it at the time. Two friends, one honoring the other’s request seemed innocent enough to me, but I was wrong. I was real, real wrong.
Her voice startled me and I turned to face the one and only Betsy, red-faced and madder’n hell.
“I swear. You spend more time with that woman than you do with me. I’m done with you, Little Joe. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
My mouth hung open like a kid caught stealing sweetnin’ from the candy jar. Even over Ol’ Roy’s fiddlin’, I bet half the people at the dance heard Betsy Carmichael’s irritating voice dress me down and stomp away.
“Joe, I’m sorry,” Lucy said. “If I’d known—“
“Don’t give it another thought.”
“But, Joe. I feel awful. I never meant to—“
“That’s enough. Forget her,” I said before pulling Lucy through the open barn doors. “She means nothing to me. It was all but over anyway.”
Lucy shook her head. “You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m not. Have I ever lied to you? Seriously, Betsy and I are over.”
In only a moment’s time, Lucy’s mood changed. She said nothing more, and I was caught off guard when she used my right side to prop herself up.
“Is something wrong? Don’t you feel well?”
“It’s nothing, Joe. Seriously,” she said, as if mocking my earlier statement, “I’m just tired is all.”
That’s how Lucy and I communicated. Another man might have mistaken her repeating my word as a slam, but I knew better because we were friends, longtime friends, and I’d have it no other way.
We walked hand in hand toward a grove of trees. We weren’t in a hurry to get there, and we weren’t in a hurry to get back to the dance. Time didn’t matter. Words weren’t necessary. We breathed in the night air and were content doing nothing but strolling at a leisurely pace. Something was bothering Lucy and when she was ready, she’d tell me. I wouldn’t push, but I’d be with her when she felt the time was right.
But the time never came.
When we entered the barn, Evan was quick to ask where’d we’d been and why we’d been gone so long. He seemed worried, and I felt I’d betrayed two people that night—Betsy and Evan. Though it was far from the truth, I couldn’t kid myself. Time spent with Lucy was much more enjoyable than time spent with the chatterbox.
When I asked Betsy for the next dance, she turned her back; she asked that I leave her alone. She said she would find someone more suitable to escort her home and, in a not-so-quiet voice, she said I was a terrible person and I didn’t need to come around her place anymore. Although I was grateful she’d ended the relationship, she hated me and thought I didn’t care. Actually, I did care, just not enough.
My brothers sat at home on Saturday night, said they were too tired to ride into town. I hoped I never got so old I wouldn’t care about dances and such. Neither of my brothers had steady girls, and maybe that had something to do with them preferring to sit home by a warm fire. That, or they’d become plum lazy in their old age.
I drove back to the ranch alone in the buggy I’d cleaned to a sparkling shine earlier in the day. Even though Betsy and I weren’t meant for each other like I’d first thought, I’d made an effort to escort her to the dance in style. My mind raced back to Lucy and her banker boyfriend, Evan. I hoped she was happy. All indications said she was. She enjoyed his company and I often wondered if they’d marry.
Evan came from money. His father, Jack J. Carter, owned and was president of the Virginia City Bank, and Evan was next in line when his father passed. Lucy grew up with nothing but the bare minimum. Her father was a miner and often out of work. Her ma died when she was just a kid, and Mr. Miller provided the best he could, but a miner’s pay only went so far. Mines paid well, better than any rancher could afford to pay even its top hands, but feeding and clothing his three children with a job that was off and on had been a hardship.
I remember sharing lunches back in school. Hop Sing always over-packed my pail and I always shared with Lucy. She never said anything at the time, but she knew I was compensating for her lack-of. Her lunches were nothing to brag about, and I’d hand her my apple or, if we were lucky that day, I’d hand her a piece of last night’s apple pie.
I’m not sure why we never courted; I guess we were too good of friends to let love or the threat of heartbreak get in our way. Things were fine as they were. She was with Evan, and next week I’d have a new girl to squire about town, simple as that.
A month passed and I received a message from Lucy, hand-delivered by a boy from town. “For Mr. Joe Cartwright,” he said. I paid him a shiny new dime and he was on his way. I unfolded the note.
“Meet me at the old oak by Sander’s Pond. Nine o’clock tonight.”
Even though the message wasn’t signed, I recognized Lucy’s handwriting from notes she’d written me in school.
“Who was that at the door, Joseph?”
“Um . . . just a boy, Pa.”
My father stood from his desk and came toward me before I could tuck the note in my shirt pocket.
“Just a boy?” Pa questioned.
Pa had a way of repeating things until the answer was clear in his mind. I wasn’t sure whether to tell him the truth or not, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around a decent white lie.
“It’s a note for me, Pa. Nothing special.”
“Oh? A boy rides this far for nothing special?”
“It’s just a note from Lucy Miller.”
Pa crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a look I didn’t much like, but I’d seen many times before. “Hasn’t she been going around town with the banker’s son, Jack Carter’s boy?”
“Then why is she sending notes to you?”
“We’re friends, Pa. That’s all. Maybe she’s upset about something or maybe she just needs to talk. I don’t know.”
“What did she say in the note?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Pa wasn’t letting this go. “She wants me to meet her.”
“Tonight . . . at nine o’clock.”
Pa’s stance widened, he pushed his hands deep into his pants pockets and again, a look that said I should explain. Problem was, I didn’t know any more than my father. I had no idea what was going on or why the late hour.
“That’s all I know, Pa.” I handed my father the note.
“Hum . . . seems odd, doesn’t it?”
“Sort of, I guess.” I shifted my weight and reached for the paper that had been addressed to me and had suddenly become a major issue. “I’ll meet her and see what’s up. Then I’ll ride back home. No big deal, Pa.”
But it was a big deal. Lucy had never done anything like this before and I was curious, same as Pa, although I didn’t let on. I brushed it off before he had a chance to say more. I didn’t want to surmise, and that’s all we’d be doing if I hung around and let my father push for answers when I didn’t have a clue.
The hours passed slowly and at eight-thirty, I went out to saddle my horse. A few minutes later, Pa walked into the barn.
“You’re sure you know nothing about this meeting?”
“You saw the note same as me, Pa.”
“I just thought maybe you—“
“Well, I don’t, and I won’t know till I talk to Lucy.” I tightened Cooch’s cinch and backed my horse out of his stall. “We’ll talk later, Pa.”
“Be careful, son.”
My father was worried, but Pa always worried. Me, being the baby of the family, seemed to give him the right. I never saw the same treatment with Hoss or Adam. They were grown men and I’d always be the youngest no matter what. Even if I got old and fat and my hair turned gray, I’d still be Pa’s baby and he’d still worry.
I rode toward Sander’s Pond. It wasn’t a long ride, about halfway between Virginia City and the ranch house, but riding at night was trickier than daytime travel. Prairie dog holes could trip a horse up, and horse and rider could easily take a tumble. Luckily, the moon shone bright, but I kept my pace slow and steady until I saw Lucy’s buggy parked next to the lake. I dismounted and dropped Cooch’s reins to the ground.
“Hi,” I said.
I helped Lucy down from her buggy.
“Let’s walk down by the lake,” she said.
I took her hand and we walked together. Mystery is a funny thing. My stomach was filled with butterflies. I wondered if hers was too. We’d never kept secrets but tonight seemed different. I held hands with my best friend, but I felt nervous, unsettled.
Lucy’s initial announcement caught me off guard, but the second part of her story was even more disconcerting. Evan had a solution for everything. Easy money can be a godsend, especially for a man in high standing within the community. No dirty little secrets need to see the light of day, not when a man can buy his way out and eliminate any problem that might arise.
Lucy was with child. That alone had turned her world upside down. Her emotions ran high. The tears on my shirtfront were all the proof needed for me to know she was upset, that she was lost and confused and needed her best friend to help set things straight.
Evan’s response that she terminate the pregnancy had prompted the note and our subsequent meeting. He said he couldn’t marry her, that his father would never approve and having his baby out of wedlock would only ruin his chances to become one of Virginia City’s leading citizens. The relationship was over. He’d find a willing doctor in one of the neighboring towns, and he’d arrange and pay for everything. She needn’t worry.
I thought about the dances Evan and Lucy had attended. Surely, his pa knew he was squiring her about town, so why would he say his father would never approve? I didn’t understand that part. Maybe he’d found someone new, someone whose social status would promote him to a higher rank within the community.
“I don’t want a doctor to kill my baby, Joe.”
I held Lucy close to me. I let her get it all out before I said anything at all. My mind worked overtime and thoughts I’d never had before began to surface. I mulled them over. Decisions had to be made and quickly, and I wondered if I was man enough to say what was on my mind.
“What am I going to do, Joe? I can’t tell Papa or my brothers.”
“You’re gonna marry me,” I said firmly.
Lucy sniffed back her tears and pushed away from my chest. “I love you, Joe. I always will, but I can’t marry you. Not this way.”
“Yes, you can and yes, you will. As soon as we find a preacher, we’ll be married. Tomorrow even.”
She shook her head. “I won’t saddle you with someone else’s child. You know me better than that, at least you should.”
“I know you better than anyone else in this world, Lucy Miller, and if a man asks you to marry him, you should at least consider his offer.”
“All right. Consider it considered, but I’m not marrying you. What would your father and brothers say? I can hear them all now and so can you.”
I turned Lucy to face me straight on. “Listen up,” I said. “This is between you and me. It’s no one else’s concern. You, me, and the baby. That’s all that matters now. Our families will wonder why we didn’t get married a long time ago.”
“You’re a dreamer, Joe. You’re a romantic dreamer.”
“So . . . say yes and make my dreams come true.” She dropped her eyes, but I lifted her chin with my finger. “Please. Say you’ll be my wife.”
Lucy and I were married the following day in Carson City by a preacher we’d never met before and would never see again. We had lunch at one of the city’s nicer restaurants and were back in Virginia City by mid-afternoon. I dropped my wife off at her father’s house, and I returned to the branding pit where my own father thought I’d been working all day. I’d asked Hoss and Adam to cover for me, that I had something important to do and I’d explain later. Though Adam was harder to convince, he told me to go on, get lost, do what I had to do but I owed him.
“Thanks, brothers,” I’d said. “I owe you both.”
After packing my saddlebags with a clean, white shirt and black, string tie, I’d picked Lucy up from her seamstress job in town. She worked for the widow Baker and she, too, had asked for time off. I rented a buggy from the livery and told Manuel I’d have it back late that afternoon.
Lucy was nervous. I was shaking in my boots but it was the right thing to do. We had a plan. We would get married first, and then I would squire her around town so everyone knew we were a couple. The telling would come later but, for the baby’s sake, the marriage certificate would already be in hand.
I’d always prided myself on coming up with good plans and the plan I’d chosen seemed perfect at the time. We’d both live at home until we thought the time was right to tell our families what we’d done and how we intended to make things work so there’d be no nasty rumors concerning the Millers or Cartwrights.
Although Lucy was hesitant, I had a unique way of persuading people to my way of thinking. I’d been lucky with Hoss many times. Not so much with Adam or Pa, but I truly thought I was doing the right thing. Marrying Lucy was best for all parties concerned.
The morning after I’d met Lucy at Sander’s Pond, which was the same day I became a married man, Pa asked what the meeting had been all about. Even though I had wedding bells on my mind, I didn’t mention the life-changing event at all. That wasn’t part of the plan.
“Evan, the banker’s son, called it quits,” I said to Pa. “Lucy was pretty down, but I cheered her up; in fact, I asked her to go with me to next Saturday’s dance.”
“Did you now.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Don’t get too involved, Joe. She’s hurting now, but she’ll move on. She’ll soon discover brighter days ahead.”
“Yeah, and I’ll make sure she does.”
Pa’s eyes narrowed as though I’d said something wrong. “I’m not sure what you mean, son.”
“It’s nothing, Pa. You know how much I like Lucy. I always have. We’ve been friends for a long time.”
“I know, but I don’t want either of you to get hurt or—“
“Or what? Is there something wrong with me taking Lucy to a dance?”
“Of course not,” Pa said. “I just want you to be careful.”
“Fine. I’ll be careful.”
The conversation made no sense. I’d taken Lucy to dances before. There were times neither of us had a significant other and because we enjoyed each other’s company, we’d go to dances with each other. End of story, or was it?
I remembered something Pa had said a long time ago. “You have to like the girl you marry. Marriage isn’t only about love. Love comes later.”
I nearly blurted out the plans Lucy and I had made. That I planned to marry her in a few short hours and live happily ever after with a girl I liked. A girl I would grow to love, a girl who would grow to love me too, but I held my tongue and walked away from my father. After all, it was my wedding day and no one was going to damper our plans.
Weeks passed. Lucy and I’d been seen together often. There’d been dances, drinking lemonade at Daisy’s Café, dinners at the International House, buggy rides on Sunday afternoons, and people began to take notice. Gracious comments, offering up good wishes, saying what a handsome couple we made, had become a daily occurrence. My plan was working, and I wondered how much longer we should wait before springing the news on our families.
“There’s an old line shack on the Ponderosa we could fix up real nice and cozy and move into as soon as we’re ready,” I said to Lucy one Sunday afternoon when I’d stopped the buggy next to the lake.
“That’s a long way from town, Joe.”
“What’s Virginia City got to do with anything?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly. “That’s where I live, where I grew up. I don’t know anything about country life.”
“What’s there to know? You already know how to cook. You’ve been cooking meals for your pa and brothers since your ma died. You won’t have much to clean. There’s only the one room, but I figured I could add a second, even a third after the baby comes.”
“You don’t sound too convinced,” I chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’ll milk the cow and feed the chickens. You know, all that country stuff.”
“Don’t make fun of me, Joe.”
“I’d never . . . I was only teasing.”
“Joe, I’m scared.”
“Why?” I scooted closer to my wife and draped my arm over her shoulder. I pulled her next to me. “What’s there to be scared of?”
“My father. My brothers. Your father and your brothers. What are they going to say? I’m starting to show, Joe.”
“Then we should make the announcement this weekend. I’ll have Pa ask your family to supper and we’ll tell them—” I paused for a quick breath “—we’ll tell them we were married, but we won’t say anything about the baby just yet.”
Like a flimsy rag doll, Lucy’s body sagged against mine. She was worried, and I was too, but the truth had to be told, at least part of the truth. I was tired of living a lie. Sure, our families would be shocked, but they’d soon realize there was nothing they could do but congratulate us and wish us well. Besides, we were old enough to make our own decisions and if I was lucky, Pa would allow me to continue working with my brothers and pay me top hand wages at the end of every month. With that amount of money, we could get by.
“I’ll talk to my father tonight,” I said.
“Aren’t you scared, Joe?”
“Damn right I’m scared. I’ll probably have to tell him everything.”
I was in a loopy haze the rest of the afternoon. After taking Lucy home, I returned the rented buggy to the livery and rode back to the Ponderosa on Cochise. I went over the speech I’d give Pa a hundred times in my mind, but it never came out right. I’m married, Pa . . . Pa, Lucy and I got married on the 25th . . . You’re not going to believe what I have to say, but . . . Nothing sounded right. The truth was hard to explain.
I stabled Cooch and walked slowly toward the house. I felt like a child. Pa wouldn’t take this well, and neither would my brothers. It had nothing to do with Lucy or the kind of girl she was. We all make mistakes and we all pay the price for those mistakes, but our marriage wasn’t a mistake. That’s what Pa needed to understand.
“Well,” Pa said when I walked through the front door. “You finally made it home.”
“We rode down by the lake. I guess we were gone longer than I thought.”
I unbuckled my gunbelt and threw my hat on top of the credenza. Pa had rounded the corner from his desk and pulled me toward my brothers, who were playing a game of chess in front of a blazing fire.
“I didn’t want to mention this until you got home, Joseph, but we’re all going to San Francisco for a little vacation.”
“Going where?” Hoss asked. He turned his attention toward Pa and me. Pa’s grin nearly split his face in half. He was excited and it showed.
“Harry Jenkins has offered us a timber contract that . . . I’ll tell you, boys, this is the best deal we’ve ever had. Harry will pay top dollar if we can get timber cut and shipped, per his specifications, to San Francisco by the end of June. He wants me to come out and look at the plans for his new hotel and I thought we’d all go out there together. See the sights, and have a little vacation before the work begins.”
“Must be a pretty big project,” Hoss said.
“It is, son. A seven-story hotel.”
“Seven,” Adam said. “How many rooms?”
“I don’t know but with your background, you can help me decipher the plans Harry wants to show me.”
“I can’t go,” I said.
“What?” Pa chuckled. “May I ask why not?”
I clasped my hands behind my back and looked up at Pa. “Can we talk privately?”
“Joseph, I don’t understand.”
“You will, Pa.”
“And this is something you can’t say in front of your brothers?”
“I’d rather not.”
Pa looked down at Hoss and Adam. Their game of chess would have to wait. “Will you excuse us, boys?”
“Sure, Pa. Come on, Hoss. We’ve got work in the barn.”
“Yeah, come on.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I nodded to my brothers as they walked past me and headed out the front door.
“Let’s sit down, Joseph.”
I followed my father. He sat in his overstuffed chair and I sat down on the settee next to him.
“Okay. Why don’t you want to go to San Francisco?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to, Pa. I can’t.”
“And why is that, Joseph?”
“Because . . . because I’m . . . because I have a wife and I should stay here with—“
“A wife!” Pa half snorted half chuckled. “What’s all this crazy nonsense about a wife?”
“It’s not nonsense, Pa. Lucy and I were married three weeks ago.”
“A preacher in Carson City.”
“A preacher in Carson City,” Pa repeated.
Pa was counting the days. His eyes moved back and forth, as he did the math in his head rather than using a pencil and paper.
“Right after you met Lucy that night, am I right?”
“You’re saying you and Lucy Miller are married now.”
“Lucy Cartwright,” I corrected.
“Why? Why would you do something so foolish without speaking to me first?” Pa’s eyes narrowed. He glared at me. “Does her father know about this marriage?”
“No, sir. I wanted to talk to you tonight. I didn’t know about your plans for San Francisco. I wanted both families together so we could break the news to everyone at once.”
“First, tell me why? Why have you married this girl?”
“Because I love her, Pa.”
“Because you love her.”
Pa stood from his chair. He poured himself a shot of brandy, walked back, and stood in front of the fireplace. Recklessly, he poked at the burning logs.
“This’ll never work, Joseph.”
My hands hung between my knees. I rubbed my palms together. Pa would have to know the rest of the story.
“There’s more,” I said. Pa took his seat. He waited for me to continue. “Lucy’s gonna have a baby.”
“Oh, Joseph. Haven’t I taught you boys—“
“The baby isn’t mine, Pa. It . . . it’s another man’s baby.”
Trying to smooth the deep-set lines in his forehead, my father pushed hard with all four fingers. He didn’t look up; he wouldn’t meet my eyes but I continued anyway.
“It’s for the best, Pa. Lucy and I love each other,” I lied. We liked each other and Pa always said, like came before love. “We’ll make the marriage work. We want to move into that old line shack up by Rocking Chair Butte. I can fix it up, Pa. It’ll make a good home for Lucy and me and the baby.”
Silence hung in the air. I started to stand up.
“Sit down, Joseph.”
I sat back down. Pa leaned back in his chair and studied the fire; anything was better than looking at me after what I’d said. Everyone would be in an uproar until they all realized this was for the best, that Lucy’s problems would be solved and that we weren’t heading into this marriage with blinders on. That I was determined to make it work.
“What’s done is done and we need to move forward,” Pa said. “ When do you want to move into your new home?”
Although Pa’s statement shocked me, I continued talking as though this was a normal conversation. “I thought maybe Lucy’s family could come for supper this weekend so we would tell everyone all at once. Then we’d move into our new place after I fixed it up some.”
Pa’s tone was sharp rather than understanding. I’d said everything wrong. I’d made a mess of things, and this was no way to start a new marriage. I hadn’t even brought Lucy to the house. My brothers barely knew her and I had no one to back me up. Pa was angry. That was a given. I didn’t know what more I could say that would make everything turn out right.
For the past nineteen years, my father had done nothing but fret over every move I’d ever made. Now, we were barely speaking. The home I’d shared with my family all these years no longer felt like home. I felt unwelcome. I felt like an outsider who stopped by to visit and would be moving along soon.
I began hauling my belongings to the cabin. Pa said I could rummage through the attic and take any furniture I wanted. There was an old rocking chair, a couple of oil lamps, two upright chairs, a braided rug that used to be in my bedroom, extra bed linens and pillows, and two patchwork quilts.
Hoss and I filled the wagon and he drove with me to the cabin. I’d come earlier in the week to clean the place up and get it move-in ready. I couldn’t have Lucy doing that kind of work, not in her condition.
The little place wasn’t bad. The creek was close by so we’d always have plenty of water. I’d tried out the fireplace and smoke drew up and out as slick as glass, letting me know that no little critters had built their home in the chimney. I’d washed the window and swept webs from the corners of the walls. I didn’t have time to do much else. It was moving day and any new construction would have to wait. For now, we’d have to sleep and eat in the same room, but not for long I hoped. Come summer, I could start building the new room, the private bedroom.
“Been a tough week, ain’t it, Little Joe.”
“Why’d you say that, Hoss?”
Hoss was driving. He took it slow so the furniture wouldn’t shift too much in the wagon. Over the past week, I’d learned to keep my mouth shut for fear of saying something I shouldn’t but now, Hoss was ready to talk.
“Lucy’s a right pretty gal, Joe. You’ve always been kinda sweet on her, ain’t ya?”
“We’ve been friends a long time, even back when you were still in school, Lucy and I shared lunches and stuff.”
“When’d ya know you was in love with her? I mean, did it just hit you one day or was you always in love?”
Hoss didn’t know how hard his question was to answer. Neither of us was actually in love, but I wasn’t going to let on. Like Pa said, love would come later.
“I’m not sure, Hoss. Guess it just snuck up on both us. I can’t really say.”
“That’s kinda what I figgered. Think you’ll have a whole passel of kids someday?”
After I’d announced to the families we were married, neither of us had the heart or the guts to tell Lucy’s family she was pregnant. We’d been living apart for three weeks; it was time to end the charade and put our lives on the right track. No one even asked why all the secrecy. Pa already knew why the rush to marry, but my brothers didn’t know, and they seemed to follow Pa’s lead and not ask a bunch of questions.
Mr. Miller’s mouth hung open as he listened to my short explanation. His eyebrows kinda furrowed together like he was concentrating on every word I said, but he didn’t say much either. Maybe he was in shock. Perhaps he needed more time for everything to sink in and make sense.
Lucy’s older brothers, Luke and Larry Joe, kept staring at me like I had the plague or some other vile disease. Both brothers were closer to Hoss’ age. They were big boys, tough boys, boys I’d never want to go up against in a barroom brawl. They’d been in and out of Roy Coffee’s jail for years, ever since they joined up with their Pa to work the Silver Creek mine.
“You ain’t answered my question, Little Joe.”
“Oh, sorry, Hoss,” I said. “Kids? Sure, someday.”
When Hoss pulled up in front of the cabin, I realized the little place was starting to feel like home. After cleaning all week, I felt a sense of pride in my efforts, and I hoped Lucy would be pleased. I hadn’t told her that Pa was buying us a new bed and wardrobe as wedding presents. This was a kind gesture on his part, and I knew she’d be grateful we wouldn’t have to share the tiny cot that came courtesy of any Ponderosa line shack. There were only a few usable pieces in the attic, and Pa knew my meager bank account wouldn’t support buying a lot of new furniture.
Though my father was taking our marriage in stride—after he got over the initial shock—I also knew he was disappointed and would have chosen a different route for his youngest son. He would have preferred a much different way of starting a marriage, and we’d had a long discussion about responsibility and about raising another man’s child.
“What about my ma?” I’d said halfway through our conversation. “She never complained about raising Hoss or Adam, did she?”
“No, Joe, but raising your brothers was different.”
“Why? What makes it different?”
“Because I’d been married to Adam and Hoss’ mothers.”
“I don’t see it the way you do, Pa. This child will be ours to raise as we see fit. Evan Carter gave up his rights when he wanted Lucy to kill the baby. It won’t be any different for me than it was for my ma. The baby doesn’t need to have my blood. I won’t love him any less.”
“Joe—” Pa reached for my shoulder and slid his arm across. “I’m proud of you for stepping up and helping Lucy out, but I’m afraid you’re taking on too much too soon. A wife and a new baby is a huge responsibility.”
“I know that, Pa.”
“Let me finish, son.”
“You’re going to need help. Lucy will too.”
“You weren’t much older than me when Adam was born so why are you so worried about me handling things. Is it because I’m the baby of the family? Don’t you think I can take care of my own wife and child without the entire family trying to help? You wouldn’t say those things to Hoss or Adam, would you?”
“Joseph, you’re not listening.”
“Yes, I am, Pa. Lucy and the baby are my family. I know what I’m doing and I don’t need you or anyone else jumpin’ all over me.”
“I’m not jumping all over you. I’m merely telling you we’re all here if you need us.”
“That’s fine to say, Pa, but I won’t need any help. Lucy’s my wife. She’s having a child and the child will be ours. You have to accept that, Pa, and let me live my own life.”
I’d turned my back and left my father standing there alone, but it couldn’t be helped. He didn’t see things the way I did, and I was afraid to say anything more.
Hoss and I jumped down from the wagon. I opened the front door and threw down a log to keep the door from slamming closed while we unloaded the furniture into the house.
“You get the big stuff,” I said.
“You ain’t never gonna change, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” I chuckled.
It felt good to laugh, but Hoss and I always laughed and I’d probably miss him most of all. We’ve had some good times together and I hated to see those times end, but I would see him most days. Adam and Hoss and I would still be working together during the week and if I played my cards right, Pa would invite Lucy and me to Sunday dinner for some of Hop Sing’s good cooking.
“Help me with this rug, Joe.”
“Too big for you, brother?”
“Just get your butt over here and take hold of one end.”
“You don’t have to get all out of sorts. I’m coming.”
“Good thing for you or I’d kick your sorry ass from here to kingdom come.”
“Better watch your mouth, big brother.”
“Why? You gonna kick my ass instead?”
I started giggling and nearly let the rolled-up rug slide off my shoulder. This was exactly what I’d miss, but things were different now. Hoss and I would have to watch our language around Lucy. Not that she hadn’t let a few remarks slip that weren’t exactly ladylike, but soon we’d have a child and I’d be a pa, and the sooner I learned to act like one the better.
I’d swiped a bottle of Pa’s whiskey before we left the house and as soon as Hoss and I were finished unloading, I reached into the crate of bed linens and pulled it out.
“Here you go, brother.”
Lowering his eyebrows, Hoss questioned my offering. “Pa’s?”
“Yep. I figured he wouldn’t mind if two hard-workin’ fellas took time for a shot or two.”
“That’s you, little brother. Always figgerin’.”
I handed Hoss the bottle and picked up the two straight-backed chairs we’d unloaded from the wagon. I carried them out to the front porch.
“This is a better place for these, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. You two can sit outside at night and get eaten alive by chiggers and mosquitos.”
“Hadn’t thought of that, but they’d do for sippin’ whiskey on a lazy afternoon, right?”
“That’s right. You figgered right, Little Joe.”
Saturday was move-in day. Hoss and I picked up the bed and wardrobe from Hadley’s Mercantile the day before, and everything was ready for my new wife to see what I’d done to make our lives comfortable. The line shack wasn’t much smaller than the little clapboard house where she and her brothers were raised, and as soon as I added on the two extra rooms, we’d be set for the rest of our lives.
I filled a blue, ceramic vase with wildflowers and set it on the new kitchen table I’d bought with my own money when Hoss and I were at Hadley’s. Mr. Hadley gave me a discounted price because of a nick on one of the legs, but I didn’t have enough cash to buy two more chairs, and I was forced to bring the porch chairs back inside.
It was five o’clock, and I stood outside the widow Baker’s shop waiting for Lucy’s shift to end. When she walked out the front door, she smiled. She carried a large-sized satchel.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Are you?”
We both started laughing. We’d been married for nearly a month, and we were finally moving into our own place. Not only was I nervous, I could tell by Lucy’s unsteady voice and burst of giddy laughter that this wasn’t a cakewalk for her either. Hop Sing had sent a pot of stew and fresh-baked bread for our first supper together. He’d also baked an extra apple pie and sent one with me before I came to pick up my wife.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Your carriage awaits.”
Before I helped Lucy up, I reached for her satchel and threw it in the back of the buggy, and we were off to our new home together. She hadn’t seen the place but once, back when it was still full of webs and every other piece of trash some passing drifter had left for me to clean up.
I tied Pa’s buggy to the hitch rail in front of the cabin and helped Lucy down. After grabbing her satchel, I remembered the old tradition of carrying the bride over the threshold.
“What’s the matter, Joe?”
Lucy was about to open the front door when I raced forward. I swept her up in my arms and she was just about to protest when she realized what was happening. She laughed and wrapped her arm around my neck. I pushed the door open and carried my bride inside and, to let in more light, I left the door open behind us.
“Well?” I said. “What do you think?”
“I can’t believe it’s the same place, Joe.”
“Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?”
“It looks . . . you did all this yourself?”
“You can put me down now.”
Her smile was genuine. She was pleased with my efforts. Lucy took my hand and we walked around the small room together. She touched everything with her fingertips as we passed by each new piece of furniture; at least it was new to my bride.
“This is the bed your Pa bought us?”
“Sure is, and look inside the wardrobe. It will hold all your dresses and whatnots, won’t it?”
“Of course, it will. I never had anything so nice at home. This is beautiful, Joe.” Lucy glanced across the room toward the small table I’d bought at Mr. Hadley’s. “Flowers too?”
“That’s right, and they’re almost as beautiful as my bride.”
She turned and faced me. Lucy was my wife, and I’d never even kissed her. The time had never been right until now. I cupped her face with both hands and leaned forward; I touched my lips to hers. I’m not sure what I expected but when Lucy didn’t kiss me back, I felt funny inside. Had I expected too much, too soon?
“I don’t know, Joe. Everything you’ve done, all the work you’ve put into this place is—well, it’s wonderful, but something doesn’t feel right. I know we’re married and I know what’s expected but—“
“But what? Be honest with me, Lucy. You always have. Please don’t stop now.”
“Don’t misunderstand what I going to say, Joe, but it needs to be said.”
“You know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done—this house, our marriage, telling our folks—but I . . . I can’t be with you in a wife sort of way, not yet. I’m carrying another man’s child, Joe, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel, but I know I can’t lie beside you and . . . and you know.”
“I know, but someday . . .”
“I never meant to hurt you.”
The question I’d never asked seemed a lot more important now. It was something I’d never really thought about before. I only wanted to help my best friend out of a tough situation and I had, but I hadn’t considered all the consequences that might arise. Pa tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen. I was too busy planning the next chapter of my life, but the time had come for truths, and I had to ask; I had to know how Lucy felt about the baby’s father.
“You were in love with Evan. Are you still?”
“Joe, please don’t.”
“I have to know, Lucy.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do and you’ve always been straight with me. No lies, no secrets.”
“Maybe I’m still in love.” She rested her hand on her stomach. “This is Evan’s child, Joe.”
“This is our child,” I said. “I’ll be the baby’s father. Have you already forgotten Evan Carter wanted him dead?”
With piercing eyes, Lucy glared at me. “How can you be so mean, Joe Cartwright?”
“Mean? You’re calling me mean?”
“Just stop. I don’t want to hear any more lies.”
“Lucy, I don’t understand? I’m only repeating what you told me.”
“Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “Maybe I misunderstood.”
I wanted to walk off my anger but the room was so small; there was no way to pace back and forth without knocking into a piece of furniture.
“You were wrong? You misunderstood?” I nearly bit her head off. “My, God, Lucy. Either he said it or he didn’t. Which is it?”
“Just leave me alone, Joe,” she shouted back. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, maybe I do. Maybe I need to know the kind of woman I married. Maybe I don’t know you at all.”
“Maybe you don’t. Maybe this was all a mistake.”
My body trembled. I was so mad; I turned and walked out the front door. I was tempted to grab Pa’s bottle and take it with me, but there wasn’t enough whiskey left to drown out the conversation Lucy and I’d just had. I couldn’t run home to Papa and I couldn’t leave her alone and ride to the nearest saloon. I had to stay and work this out, but I needed time to breathe before I went back inside the cabin. We both need time to think this through.
I pulled the reins from the hitch rail. At least I could stable the horse and put away the buggy, which would give me time to cool down before I went back inside. Blood rushed in my ears and I’d gritted my teeth so hard they hurt. I told myself to calm down, that we’d work it out and find some kind of middle ground that made sense.
What I didn’t understand was how Lucy could still have feelings for a man who’d told her to get rid of the baby. Lucy wasn’t that type of girl; at least I never thought she was. No, I knew for sure she wasn’t. She’d never willingly kill her own child.
I curried the horse longer than necessary simply because I needed time to think, time to rephrase my words to Lucy. I had to come up with a peace offering that would clear the air and see us through to another day. This was no way to start our lives together; it was time to set things straight, time I apologized for upsetting her so. When I walked back inside the cabin, Lucy still wore her bonnet and lightweight shawl. Her satchel sat on the floor just inches from her feet.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The quarrel was my fault. I never should’ve pressured you for answers.”
Her eyes were red-rimmed. In my absence, she’d been crying but for both our sakes, she kept her emotions in check, as did I. This was new to both of us. Here we were living together, and there would always be issues to discuss and there would always be times we disagreed, but we could do this. Given time, and given all we knew about each other, I knew we could make our marriage work. I took a step forward. Lucy’s whole body tensed. I wasn’t ready for her reaction, but I stood my ground though I hesitated to move any closer.
“I can’t live here, Joe. I can’t pretend to be your wife.”
I sat on the settee inside the ranch house, propped my feet on the table, and drank from another bottle of Pa’s whiskey. I didn’t know which house to call home. There was no food at the cabin, only a couple inches of whiskey left in the bottle Hoss and I had shared and, on an empty stomach, I knew better than to take even one shot.
I hadn’t eaten in two days and I was hungry. I wasn’t much of a cook and, after I returned home, I ate a jar of Hop Sing’s peaches. I hopped up on the countertop and ate until my belly was full. After tending Cochise, I was content to rest my bones on the settee and watch the fire do its nighttime dance. Though I should have felt relaxed and comfortable, I’d never felt so alone.
Pa and my brothers were having the time of their life in San Francisco. Ten days of vacation, ten days of seeing the sights. Pa had invited Hop Sing to tag along so he could visit his relatives, leaving the house totally empty. No crackling fire when I walked through the front door, no sounds of family, but it also gave me time to sort things out and decide how to accept the mess my life had become.
Two days ago, the same day I brought her to the cabin, I’d driven Lucy back to her father’s clapboard house on the edge of town. I’d walked her to the front door and handed her the satchel she’d brought with her to the cabin. With tears in her eyes, she kissed my cheek and said goodbye. Though I hadn’t seen her since, I’d kept myself busy, crossing items off the list Pa left behind. I still lived and worked on the Ponderosa and with my family gone; there was plenty of work to be done.
It was easier just to camp out at the ranch house rather than stay at the cabin anyway. I needed to check the herd in the south pasture, and Hoss had left a stack of shingles Pa wanted replaced on the north side of the bunkhouse. Without Lucy, there was no reason to keep riding back and forth.
I’d checked nine out of ten items off Pa’s list. I’d left the bunkhouse for last. Climbing ladders and standing on roofs with a ninety-degree pitch didn’t always sit well with me, but the job had to be completed, and I only had one day left to finish before the vacationers returned home. I hauled out the supplies and had just begun removing the old shingles when I heard riders circling the barn into the yard. Had I miscalculated the days or had Pa and my brothers returned home a day early?
Even from a distance, I recognized the two men right off. Lucy’s older brothers, Luke and Larry Joe Miller, and though we’d never been friends; in fact, we barely acknowledged each other in passing, I climbed down the ladder, wondering why they’d ridden all the way out to the house. Had something happened to Lucy or the baby or had she reconsidered our marriage vows? Was she ready to try again? The brothers tied their mounts to the hitch rail and met me halfway across the yard.
“Hey, fellas,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Maybe we should take this inside, Cartwright,” Larry, the oldest, said.
He had a gravelly voice and his tone sounded more like a father correcting a child than a fella who wanted to talk man to man, but I led the way, and the two larger men followed me inside. When I turned back to face the brothers after closing the front door, Larry Joe’s iron-like fist plowed into my stomach so hard, I fell to my knees on the wood floor.
What the hell just happened?
Slowly, I pushed myself to my feet. My hand still clutched my midsection when Luke’s right fist crashed into my face, tumbling me sideways against the credenza. Before I could regain my balance, Larry Joe had my arms pulled behind my back and younger brother, Luke, let loose with both fists. He punched at my face and my ribs until his brother let go and I fell back to the floor.
Larry Joe hauled me to my feet and dragged me across the room before dropping me into my father’s chair. The brothers stood in front of me, each sported a wide stance and had their fingers laced in front of them as if they were gearing up for round two.
“What—” I was still trying to catch my breath, but I managed a few simple words. “What’s this all about?” Though I didn’t think my question was cause for laughter, the brothers chuckled anyway. “You find this funny?”
“You ain’t gonna find any of this funny when we’s done with you, boy.”
I looked up at Luke. My head was spliting in half, but I wouldn’t let on to those two. Something had happened, something more than Lucy moving back home. That was two days ago and nothing was said then, so why the beating now?
“We knows why you married our sister, and we knows why you brought her back home. She ain’t good enough for a Cartwright, is she, Larry Joe? Just so happens that we don’t take kindly to boys like you.”
“Like me? What’s this all about?”
“He ain’t too bright, is he, Luke? Thought all them Cartwrights was educated folk. Maybe this one didn’t do so good in school. Maybe he’s the dumb sheep of the family.”
Larry’s statement got a laugh out of Luke, and Luke grabbed the front of my shirt. He pulled me toward him and spit in my face.
“That’s what I think of no-good boys like you.”
“Tie his hands, Luke.”
The younger of the two pulled a piece of rope from his back pocket and bent me forward in Pa’s chair to tie my hands. He made sure the knot was good and tight before he hauled me to my feet.
“What now, brother?”
“No-goods gotta learn lessons the hard way, and this one’s got a lot to learn about doin’ right by women he puts in a family way. How many, Cartwright? Just Lucy or is there more you gone and dishonored?”
“What are you talking about? I never dishonored your sister.”
“String him up here or in the barn, Larry Joe?”
I heard singing, but the ringing in my ears drowned out the words of the hymn-like tune. Like a chant, the voice droned softly, forming words I couldn’t quite understand. A cool breeze, as pure as snow—no, a cool rain, cool water. Was I swimming? No. The fire burned hot, and I tried to recoil from each clawing flame. My arms were thick and heavy. I couldn’t move away from the intensity of the blaze. My eyes welled with tears but they wouldn’t open, and I searched my mind for the source of the fire. I tried to sink deeper into the cool water.
A new voice, a deeper voice interrupted the sweet song filled with unusual words, and the fire worsened. I fought the flames. But the pool was gone, and I pushed myself from the burning ground in an effort to get away.
The voice was my father’s, but his hand pressed me down onto the flames. I tried to cry out. I needed to warn him. The fire was near and we had to run fast to the water.
“Try not to move, Joe. Hop Sing’s gone for fresh water.”
“Water . . .”
“You thirsty? Lay still, boy. It’ll only be a minute.”
“Water . . . run . . .”
“He must be dreamin’, Pa.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Hoss. He’s burning up.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Like what, Adam?”
Visions flashed like bursts of cannon fire, and my mind held me prisoner to past events. I tried to move away; I tried to run. The hand on my shoulder pushed me back down. I cried for help, but my voice was silent.
“Paul’s here, Joseph. He needs to work on your back and shoulders. You’ve got to settle down and let the doctor do his job.”
Like an artist setting paint to canvas, the walls of the barn take shape. A rope, hanging from the tallest rafter, takes center stage and the helpless young man is strung up by his wrists. His heels are lifted from the ground and he spins like a child’s toy on the toes of his boots.
Using thin strokes of dark ebony, the artist brings to life the cat o’ nine tails. Holding the handle in his right hand, a large man rolls up his sleeve and the whip becomes an extension of his long, muscular arm. The young man becomes captivated as his attacker flicks his wrist and the leather strands slice like sharpened blades through the afternoon air.
Layers of yellow and gold shine through the barn doors. Near-white dust mites dance in an uncertain fashion, and the young man’s eyes focus on the swirling activity the artist has provided and, for a brief moment, he’s taken to another place, another time. He hears, but he doesn’t see the sharp, staccato rhythm as leather tails crack the silence of the late-day air.
His chin is held in place with strong, firm fingers, and he’s forced to meet his attacker’s steely eyes. The buttons are ripped from his shirtfront and the cat o’ nine tails glides up his bare stomach and chest. Fear begins to show. Sweat dots his forehead and his eyes narrow to stay the tears. His attacker is pleased with the results.
Soon, the man holding the whip is out of sight, and a deep voice taunts the young man from behind. He tries to move farther away, but a hand presses down on his shoulder. His shirt is ripped from his back; it hangs lifelessly from his waist, and he shivers. And as his belt buckle is loosened, he closes his eyes. His trousers and drawers drop and cover his boots, but he can’t look down. The dust moots still their fairy-like dance when the cat o’ nine tails strikes a blow against his unprotected back . . .
“No,” I cried weakly. “No more.”
“I’m doing the best I can, Ben, but some of these cuts are deep and they have to be cleaned and stitched so infection won’t set in.”
“Take it easy, Little Joe. Me and Adam and Pa is here with you now. You’re safe, but you gotta lie still and let Doc fix you up.”
“I’m right here, boy. Ain’t no one gonna hurt you no more.”
I tried to relax. Pa brought water to my lips and I drank until he took the glass away. I had a firm grip on the pillow, but my hands soon fell away. I guessed he’d mixed a powder in the water. The air around me felt heavy and the voices tumbled against each other until they went still.
When I woke, I was on fire from my shoulders down to my toes. I struggled to sit up but movement caused pain, and my head fell back to the pillow. The sun had set and had cast the room in dark shadows. Whispered voices grew louder, and I drank more doctored water from a glass. Then there was silence.
“Good morning, son.”
The voice was my father’s. I didn’t have to move; I only had to open my eyes to find him sitting in a chair in front of me. When a gentle breeze blew through my window, I shivered. Pa stood and pulled the linen sheet up over my shoulders, and when I tried to move my arm, he spoke again.
“Lay still, Joseph.”
“Okay.” But my answer was silence. Words wouldn’t form, but I did as I was told.
“Paul will be by later today. He’s put a lot of stitches in you, and he’ll get after the both of us if you pull any of them out.”
I was tired and I didn’t have enough strength to talk. Even with my eyes closed, I could still see Pa’s face. He looked tired and sad, but the picture of my father slowly distorted; it became the artist’s brush once again.
Stroking the canvas with bright new colors, I watched the young man with his arms stretched high over his head. The layers of yellow light give way to fear and the young man holds his body taut when his attacker’s voices suddenly come to life.
“String ‘im up, Luke. We’ll show him. We’ll make him pay.”
“Couldn’t keep your pants buttoned, could you, boy? Went and spoilt our baby sister, didn’t you?”
“I married your sister. I did the right thing. Why are you doing this to me?”
“Boys like him earns themselves a good whippin’, don’t they, Larry Joe?”
“Nasty boys belong on “D” Street. Nasty boys shouldn’t oughta mess with decent girls. Tie his ankles, Luke. I wanna watch him spin.”
“This is for all the misery you caused my sister and her dead baby, Little Joe Cartwright.”
“I’m right here, son. Easy now. Don’t try to talk. Shh . . .”
Pa propped at least three pillows behind my back, and he and Hoss helped me sit up in bed. I tried to count the days, but I’d lost track somewhere along the way. I was determined to keep my breathing steady. I didn’t want Pa to know how much I hurt. He’d worried enough for ten men already.
“How’s that feel, Joe?”
“Think you can eat something?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
He turned his attention to Hoss. “Will you tell Hop Sing?”
“Sure will, Pa. Good to have you back with us, Little Joe.”
I chuckled softly. “It’s good to be back. Now, go find me something to eat. I’m starved.”
Hoss winked at Pa and my father smiled down at me. “You had us worried for a while, son.”
“I know; I’m sorry.”
Pa shook his head and smiled. Had I said something funny? “Paul still wants you in bed for a few more days.”
“That’s fine by me.”
I could barely sit up. I didn’t think I’d be breakin’ broncs anytime soon, but I needed to see Lucy as soon as possible. And, I wanted her brothers arrested and thrown in Roy’s jail.
“You ready to talk some?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You could start by telling me who did this to you.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize—I mean, who found me? Did you find me or . . .”
“Yes, your brothers and I found you. When we rode in Thursday evening, you were just inside the barn doors. It appeared you’d try to crawl to the house before you . . . I assumed you passed out.”
“They cut me down.”
When I saw my father’s face, when he tried to hide the tears, I knew I had to choose my words wisely. Certain elements of the story were better left unsaid. They were memories I’d carry to my grave, but they needn’t be Pa’s memories too.
“When did this happen, Joe?”
“Um . . . late Wednesday afternoon.”
“Hoss found shingles by the side of the bunkhouse.”
“That’s ‘cause I left the roofing job for last. I’d just started hauling them to the roof when . . . when they rode into the yard.”
“They? Who’s they, son?”
“Um . . . Luke and Larry Joe Miller.”
“Luke and Larry Joe?” Pa repeated. “Why in the world?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I have plenty of time.”
I pushed myself up a little taller in the bed, and Pa jumped up from his chair to straighten the pillows behind me. I thanked him, but part of adjusting myself had been stalling for time. Even though Pa knew why Lucy and I’d been married so quickly, her brothers and her father weren’t privy to our little secret. We should have told the whole story when they’d come to supper, but it’s easy to second-guess noble intentions after the fact.
“Pa?” Hoss called from downstairs. “Sheriff’s here to see Little Joe.”
Pa looked at me. “You up to talking to Roy?”
“You bet I am.”
Roy’s eyes widened like marbles when he walked in and saw the bandages covering ninety percent of my body. Strips of white cloth were wrapped around my chest and shoulders and down my arms and legs. The only real skin showing was my hands, feet, and bruised face. Roy quickly settled back into sheriff mode, and he made no comment. He took out a notebook and pencil and I started my story.
Without giving every detail, I told Pa and Sheriff Coffee what I wanted them to know. Who, when, where, and why. I asked Roy to be discreet about the why, and he promised he would. I wanted the brothers locked up, but I wanted no harm to come to Lucy. The telling was over. I’d made it through the story in one shot, and then Roy took the wind from my sails.
“This ain’t what you wanna hear, Joe,” Roy said hesitantly, “but it’s your word against Luke and Larry Joe’s.”
“But I’m telling the truth.”
“I never said you weren’t, son. I’m just sayin’ that with no eyewitness, I got my work cut out for me.”
“You’ll at least talk to them, right?”
“I’ll head over there right now but you know as well as I, they’ll deny everything they done.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled to myself. I glared at the sheriff. “If the law can’t handle the Miller boys, I will.”
“Joe,” Pa cautioned.
“You leave the law to me, Little Joe Cartwright. Make sure he stays here, Ben. I don’t want more problems, you hear?”
“Joe’s not going anywhere, Roy.”
Not for a couple of days but what then, Pa? What then, Roy? I’m supposed to forget about all this? I’m supposed to let it go? This ain’t over; not by a long shot. I glanced at the sheriff, and I wondered if he could read my thoughts? Could he tell what I was thinking just by the set of my jaw? Had my steady gaze at nothing in particular given me away?
The sheriff turned to leave, but I caught the look he gave my father. It was a solid warning. Keep the boy here or else. I’d seen the look before. I’d seen it many times from my own father, and this time the sheriff wasn’t taking any chances. He knew Pa wouldn’t let him down.
I’d had enough. I’d told the story and I was tired. The pain was nothing more than a constant reminder of my time strung up in the barn like a side of beef. The laudanum Doc left with Pa only dulled my senses and gave me cottonmouth. Nothing alleviated the throbbing and endless burning sensation from my neck down past my knees.
“I’d like to be alone, Pa.”
“You sure? I can stay right here until you fall asleep.”
“No, I’m sure.”
Pa pulled the bedroom door closed behind him, and I was alone for the first time in days. I moved slowly off the bed. I needed to know if I could still walk. I needed to know how much strength I had. I looked a sight. A pair of cutoff long johns gave me a trace of dignity. I ran my hands along the outer edge of the mattress until I could stand up straight. The remaining stitches pulled tight, but I figured they were due to come out soon anyway.
I crossed the room to my window and looked down at the barn. How long before the memories would fade? Days? Months? Never? But that wasn’t all I had to deal with. Lucy’s baby was dead. Our marriage had no meaning, no chance of survival. Though Pa hadn’t said a word about the baby or Lucy, Roy hadn’t either when I’d led them through the story. Not that I expected anything from the sheriff, but I was surprised Pa hadn’t questioned me further. Lucy and I hadn’t married for love and Pa was well aware, but he’d made no comment so far.
The sky held heavy, dark clouds; a storm was on its way. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. Not that I was going anywhere soon, yet I was dwelling on the changing weather rather than contemplating my future with Lucy. I held the window frame to steady myself. Tears threatened but I blinked them away. The child was dead, no one’s fault, no way to prevent these things from happening, but still. I felt a loss.
No baby, no marriage. Simple. I’d move my things back to the ranch house and be done with the whole pretense. Simple. I’d erase the entire month from my memory and move on with my life just like Lucy would move on with hers. Both our lives would become simple once again.
“What—” My answer was short and sharp.
“Am I botherin’ you?”
I kept my eyes on the changing sky.
“Ain’t you s’posed to be in bed?”
I turned to face my brother. “What do you want?”
Hoss crossed the room. Like always, he dug his hands into his pockets when he was nervous and had to search for the right words to say.
“Just came up to check on you.”
“Pa send you?”
“No. I’s worried about you, Joe.”
“Me? Oh, I’m fine, brother. Just fine.”
My tone was harsh, and Hoss didn’t deserve my misplaced anger, but I didn’t want to talk anymore. I was talked out.
“You’re hurtin’ real bad, ain’t ya?”
“Why’d you come up here, Hoss?”
I refrained from shrugging my shoulders. “I do? I’m a mind reader now?”
“Cut it out, Joe. You know what I mean. It ain’t just about the whippin’. What about Lucy.”
“Baby’s gone, Hoss.”
“I know and I’m sorry, Joe, but what happens to Lucy now?”
“What about her?” I couldn’t hide my anger. “She left me. She wanted no part of a pretend marriage. She as much as told me the first day I took her to the cabin that she wanted out.”
“So that’s why you wasn’t with her when she lost the baby.”
I turned back to the window. I couldn’t look at Hoss. I didn’t need to be reminded of what might have been. Could I have saved the child if we’d been together? Could I have gotten Doc Martin to the cabin in time?
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out.”
“Water under the bridge, brother.”
“No, it ain’t. I know how much you cared for that little gal. I know you’re hurtin’ and I just wanted to know if there’s anythin’ I could do to help.”
“Nothing anyone can do now. It’s over and done with.”
“Pa ain’t slept for days,” Hoss confessed. “He’s awful worried ‘bout you, Joe.”
“He shouldn’t be. He should be happy.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because!” I nearly shouted. “The baby’s dead. The marriage is over. The Miller boys beat me half to death because they think I’m the father. Let them think what they want. Let everyone think what they want. I don’t care anymore. I tried to make things right and look at me now.”
I started across the room. I walked stiff-legged; the deeper cuts were still swollen and tender and hurt when I moved. Standing at the window had taken all the energy I had for one day, and when I tried to reach for the bedpost, Hoss leaped forward and caught me before I fell flat on my face. He literally picked me up and set me in the center of the bed, propping my back against the stack of pillows behind me.
“I’ll leave you be, Joe, but you call if you need me, ya hear?”
“Thanks, Hoss. Sorry I snapped. It’s just—“
“I know. It’s okay.”
Pa filled both our cups and moved the cream and sugar within my reach. Today was my first day out of bed and I was given the “okay” to join the living. Doc had been out earlier in the day. He’d removed some of the bandages, and I was able to dress in normal clothes for the first time in a week.
“You look better this morning, Joe.”
“I feel better,” I said. I turned toward the front door when I heard a knock. “You expecting company?”
Letting Pa get up and answer the door, I remained at the dining room table, doctoring my coffee. Our unexpected visitor was Lucy and after a friendly greeting, Pa asked her to come inside. My stomach fluttered—the butterflies were in fighting mode—and I swallowed back my unease. What did I have to be afraid of? This was silly, wasn’t it?”
“Lucy,” I said cautiously. I knew it was wrong of me, but I didn’t stand from my chair. I didn’t want her to see me in pain. “Won’t you have a seat?”
I could tell she was nervous. It must have been difficult for her to drive out to the ranch after all that happened, and she opted to remain standing. She steadied her hands on the back of a dining room chair.
“I didn’t know, Joe. I just found out what my brothers did to you. The sheriff . . . Joe, I had no idea they thought the baby was—that they’d do something like that. I know, saying I’m sorry won’t help, but what else can I say?”
“Little late for apologies, isn’t it?”
Lucy glanced at my father. Pa cleared his throat. “I have some business upstairs. If you two will excuse me?”
She waited for Pa to leave before she took the seat across from me. She carried a small black bag and she fingered the pull strings as she thought of what to say next.
“I didn’t know until this morning what my brothers had done. Can you ever forgive them? Can you forgive me or my family?“
“Why didn’t you tell them the truth, Lucy?”
“I couldn’t, Joe. I couldn’t tell anyone but you. You know that. I was scared. I never should’ve left you . . . Oh, Joe, I don’t know anything anymore.”
Lucy started to come around the table but she stopped at the next available chair. I hadn’t said another word. What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to lie and tell her I forgave her brothers for nearly killing me? Should I tell her it was no big deal that I laid on the barn floor all night and all day without a shirt to keep me warm and with my pants knotted around my ankles? Should I tell her how I’d pulled myself along the barn floor and ripped the deeper cuts even more? What did she want from me?
“They thought we’d had a fight and that you’d brought me back home to live. When I couldn’t tell anyone the real reason, everyone assumed the worst. They figured I wasn’t good enough for a Cartwright and that you’d changed your mind about the marriage. How could I say anything different, Joe?”
“You should’ve told them, Lucy.”
She reached for my hand; tears slid down her cheeks until I pulled her toward me and immediately, her arms went around my neck. I flinched at her touch. Though the marks and the remaining bandages didn’t show, I wasn’t completely healed and when my breathing hitched in my chest, it was too late. The damage was done and Lucy pulled away.
“It’s nothing,” I said, but I’m not sure she understood.
“If you want me to leave just say so.”
“It’s not that, Lucy.”
“Then what? I only came to apologize and you act like . . . like you don’t want me here at all.”
“I’m just a little sore,” I said.
“I thought you’d be better by now.”
“I am. I said it was nothing.”
“The sheriff arrested my brothers.”
The word blurted out before I could stop myself. I never meant to hurt Lucy, but I was pleased the sheriff was doing his job. Maybe justice would be served after all.
“I can’t believe you said that.”
“You don’t think Luke and Larry should pay for what they’ve done? Is that it?” Tempers ran high, but I couldn’t lie to Lucy. I’d never lied to her before and I couldn’t change the way we operated now. “Do you realize your brothers nearly killed me?
“That’s not true, Joe.”
I was so damn mad I did the unthinkable. I unbuttoned my shirt and stood from my chair. I slipped my shirt from my shoulders and turned slowly so she could see my chest and back.
“Oh, my God.”
Her hands flew to her mouth. She turned away and I pulled my shirt back on and fastened the buttons. “You’re brothers can rot in jail for all I care. The sheriff is only doing what’s right.”
“No . . . “
“Listen, Lucy.” I used my calm voice—my indoor voice—as Pa used to call it when I was a boy. “The baby’s gone. The marriage is over. We’ll see a judge and make it final as soon as I’m able to ride.”
The front door slammed shut. Lucy was gone, and I looked up when I heard Pa coming down the stairs. I sat back down on my chair and waited for the questions to begin.
“I’m sorry, Joe.”
“What?” That wasn’t what I expected him to say.
“Let it go, son. There’s nothing to be gained by—“
“You overheard?” I said.
“Some, not all.”
“The world’s a funny place, Pa. I don’t think I’ll ever understand anything anymore.”
Pa reached for my shoulder then pulled his hand back. It was a common gesture on his part until the image of my back and shoulders reminded him not to touch.
“This too shall pass,” he said softly.
“Three beers, Cosmo.”
“You buying, Hoss?”
“I got the first round and you got the next, little brother. Ain’t that right, Adam?”
“Sounds fine to me.”
It felt good to be out of the house. This was my first trip to town since the day I’d picked Lucy up from work and assumed we were moving into our new home to live happily ever after. It’s funny how life can take a sudden turn and spin so far out of control. The past was the past and it was time to move on. Lucy and I would see a judge on Monday and end our marriage.
“Hey, Little Joe.”
I turned toward the voice. “Hey, Seth. What’s up?”
My longtime friend laughed. “There are some crazy rumors goin’ ‘round town, Little Joe.”
“People’s sayin’ you got yourself hitched to Lucy Miller.”
“That’s crazy. Who’s saying that?”
“I don’t know. People.”
“Well, just forget it. Rumors get started all the time. That don’t mean they’re true.”
“Guess you’re right. Besides, no Cartwright would get married without pullin’ off some fancy shindig and invite the whole county, right?
“That’s right.” I looped my arm over Seth’s shoulder. “Come on. I’ll buy you a beer.”
I hadn’t told a soul and I wondered who’d opened their big, fat mouth. The brothers? Lucy? Mr. Miller? Hoss and Adam were shaking their heads. They’d overheard me talking to Seth, but they’d never betray me and set him straight. I was hoping to have the marriage annulled and no one would be the wiser. At least, that was the plan until Sheriff Coffee walked into the saloon and stepped up behind Seth and me and my brothers.
“Need to talk to you, Little Joe. Somethin’s happened and I think you should be one of the first to know.”
“Let’s go down to my office, son.”
I slid my half-empty mug toward Seth. “Here,” I said. “Guess you’ll have to finish this for me.”
I glanced at Hoss and Adam. They tilted their mugs and finished their drinks. Without question, I knew they’d follow Roy and me to the jail.
“Have a seat, fellas.”
I sat down in front of Roy’s desk, but my brothers remained standing.
“What’s this all about, Sheriff?”
“I got bad news, Little Joe. I got two dead people on my hands and I hoped maybe you could help me understand what went on.”
“You think I can help? I don’t understand.”
“You will, son.”
My brothers moved in closer. I could sense both of them at my back.
“Far as I can tell, there’s been a murder and a suicide.”
I glanced over my shoulder and back to Roy. “Who?”
“I believe you know Evan Carter.”
“And I believe you’re a special friend of Lucy Miller’s.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Adam’s.
“Go on,” I said after swallowing the lump in my throat.
“Evan Carter was shot point blank in the chest. Doc said he died instantly.”
“And Lucy?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Little Joe. Lucy’s dead too.”
“Where are they now?”
Roy shook his head. “Let’s leave the dead to rest. No need for you to see either of them in the condition they’s in.”
“Where are they, Roy?” I said louder this time.
Roy glanced up at my brothers. “Doc Martin’s.”
I stood from my chair, but Hoss blocked me from leaving the sheriff’s office. “You heard Roy, Little Joe.”
“Lucy’s my wife. Doesn’t that give me the right?”
Hoss looked to Adam. Adam nodded his head and the three of us started down the boardwalk to Paul Martin’s office.
“I don’t need no handholding,” I said.
There wasn’t an answer from either brother, but that didn’t stop them from staying close to my heels. I opened Paul’s front door and turned to Hoss and Adam. “I can handle this alone.”
Adam held Hoss’ arm. “We’re here if you need us,” he said.
Paul met me just inside the door. He pulled me into his office and set me down in a chair before moving to sit behind his desk. He reached for a bottle of whiskey and poured two glasses; he pushed one toward me.
“I guess you heard, and I’m sorry, son. There was nothing I could do for either of them.”
I downed the shot and covered the glass with the palm of my hand. “May I see Lucy?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Why? She was a good friend.”
“I know she was, Joe, and that’s why I’m saying no. Remember her as the pretty young girl you’ve known most of your life.”
“I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
“It’s for the best, Joe.”
“You know about us, don’t you?”
“I can’t answer that, but I’ve sent word to her Pa. He’ll be here soon.”
“And you’ll let him see her, right?”
“Not if I can help it. Lucy held the gun in her mouth, Joe. There’s not much left and what remains, I’d rather you didn’t see.”
I swallowed hard. Tears blurred my eyes and I looked away from Paul. I tried not to picture Lucy, but her face was gone and in its place, the images became dark and unforgiving, a cluttered mess of blood and flesh and bone.
“Let me know when the service will be.”
I pushed up from my chair. The doc did too and he walked me to the front door. He looked down at Hoss and Adam who stood patiently on the boardwalk.
“Take him home, boys.”
It stormed the morning of the service. My prediction of rain a few days ago never came true. The clouds didn’t burst open until today, but funerals were like that. Dreary and cold. Enough rain to wash away tears so no one knew how deeply any particular mourner felt when they laid the dead to rest.
I had no tears that day. My eyes remained dry even through the circuit preacher’s memorized words hit hard and ran deep through my soul. Lucy and Evan were dead. Their baby was dead too, and I wondered if that’s how it was supposed to be. The three of them together for eternity. Maybe that was God’s plan after all.
Pa and I had come to the cemetery in the buggy; Hoss and Adam rode alongside and left when the service was over. I stayed by Lucy’s grave to pay my own personal respects, to say a silent goodbye but I wasn’t alone. Luke and Larry Joe were soon at my side. Roy had let them out of jail to attend their sister’s service.
“Awful sorry, Little Joe,” Luke, the younger one, said. The one who’d stood at his brother’s side as Larry tore flesh from my body.
“We didn’t know the whole story till it was too late. If there’s anything my brother and I can do to make it up to you, you just name it, Little Joe.”
“It’s over and done with. Nothing matters anymore so just forget it. I’ll drop all charges.”
I turned from the grave and walked toward Pa where he stood beside the buggy. His hands were clasped in front of him. His coat was buttoned. Even though it was nearing June, the morning air had a chill that went straight through a man’s bones.
“Ready to go?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m done here.”
Pa and I rode in silence. He took the reins and when he veered off the main road, I barely paid attention. My mind was elsewhere. I didn’t want to talk, and Pa knew that. He’d kept his thoughts to himself until he stopped the buggy and I realized where we were. I looked at him questioningly.
“Thought you might need someone else to talk to.”
“You know me well, Pa.”
“I should. You’re my flesh and blood.”
I nodded and jumped down from the buggy. Pa remained seated. This was my time with Mama. I could say anything I wanted without a care in the world. I walked down the path leading to her grave. I knelt down on one knee, brushed away a few wet leaves and removed my hat. The rain had stopped. A rainbow had formed on the horizon and I talked in a whispered voice to my mother.
“Pa knows me well,” I said. “He brought me here, but you probably already knew that. I lost a dear friend today. She took her own life and I can’t help but feel I was partly to blame. I said some unkind things to her, things I should’ve kept to myself but I mouthed off when I should have kept silent. I’ll never know, but I’ll always feel partly to blame for Lucy’s death.
“But that’s not the whole truth, Mama. Lucy was my wife. I’m a widower now. My wife is dead. We weren’t married long; in fact, we’d never . . . I was never even with her. It’s a long story and I won’t bother you with the details, but it always helps to talk.
“I still miss you. We all do, especially at times like these, but I know you’ll always be here to listen to a son who needs to talk. I’ll be going now. Pa’s waiting. We’ll talk again soon. I love you.”
I climbed back in the buggy, and Pa gave me one of his knowing looks. Would I have acted the same as my pa if “our” son had lived? In my mind, I’d painted a picture of a happy family. Ma and Pa and our children living happily ever after, but the canvas would remain blank. The picture would never be painted.
“Better,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
A letter arrived in the post. It was addressed to me by Lucy’s father.
To Joseph Cartwright,
I couldn’t tell you this face-to-face so the letter will have to do.
Something I find hard to talk about happened to my daughter’s mind over last few weeks. Doc called it melancholy and quoted the medical journals saying it was a disturbance of the soul due to moral conflict. I’m not sure what all that means, but I know my Lucy changed and it weren’t for the good. I don’t know much about doctor talk, but Doc Martin said Lucy had all the signs and symptoms.
I know what you done and why, Little Joe, and I’d have been proud to call you my son-in-law. I was just getting used to the idea of you two being married when Lucy come back home. She stayed in her room. Didn’t never come out. Then, one night, she cried out. Said she lost the baby.
That’s when my sons took the law into their own hands and did you wrong. I can’t make up for what my boys done, but whilst they was hurtin you, Lucy confessed she’d been with the Carter boy and got herself in the family way, and that’s when you offered to make an honest woman of her. That was right kind of you, Joe, and I’ll always be thankful you cared enough about my daughter to help her out like you done.
Don’t know whether I should tell you or not, but I feel you should know everything that happened. My daughter kilt her own baby. I guess it was the melancholy what made her do such a terrible thing. She got worse after that. I didn’t know nothin’ about her wanting to end her own life or kill young Carter. I swear that on my own mama’s grave.
That’s about all I gots to say. I know you thought good about my daughter, maybe you even loved her. You can’t put none of this sorrow onto yourself. It weren’t your doing what made her mind go in that direction. God sees to them what can’t do for themselves. I guess that’s why God took my Lucy and her baby away.
Pa stood close by while I read Mr. Miller’s letter. I started to fold it up, but I handed it to my father instead. His eyes questioned my intent and I nodded my head.
“You might as well read it too.”
I crossed the room and sat down on the settee. I had a touch of melancholy myself only I knew my symptoms were only temporary, not like the sickness that had come over Lucy. When Pa finished reading, he sat down beside me, and his arm came around my shoulders. I almost caved into my emotions.
“I’m sorry, son.”
“Me too. Sometimes, I think it might have worked. You know, the whole family thing.”
Without seeing his face, I knew my father was smiling.
“Never give up hope, Little Joe. You’ve been to hell and back, but you’re a survivor. Love will come your way again and next time, things will be different.”
“I didn’t love her, Pa.”
“I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“Joseph, you’re young and your life’s only beginning. Don’t let a tragedy like this ruin the rest of your days.”
“I know what you’re saying, Pa, but how do you let go of the past? How did you move forward? How did you bury three wives and still—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Pa’s grip tightened on my shoulder.
“Somehow, we’re made stronger, son. You’ll see.” Pa’s voice suddenly lightened. “Which reminds me.”
“We have all that timber to cut for Harry Jenkins’ new hotel out in San Francisco, but at the end of the summer, we have guests coming to visit. Someone you might remember from a long time ago.”
“Oh, yeah? Who’s that?”
“Captain White and his daughter Laura. Do you remember them?”
“Sure I do. Laura and I used to make mud pies. She was a cute kid.”
“Which means she might be a cute young lady now.”
“You trying to get my mind off that letter?”
“What do you think?”
I chuckled. It felt good to see the light, to know I’d come through the long, dark tunnel, that the rocks and boulders were behind me, and I’d reached a clearing on the other side.
“You’re welcome, son. Now—“ Pa said, clapping me on the back. “Let’s go join your brothers and cut down some timber.”