Summary: Ben’s worried and sends new hand Candy Canaday on a mission.
Word Count: 1779
“Find Joe,” Ben Cartwright barked at me before he pivoted and strode purposefully toward the house.
I was new to the ranch and hadn’t yet figured out the family dynamics. As an ex-Army man myself, I understood the former Major Cartwright. He was a tough-but-fair, by-the-book, decisive leader who brooked no nonsense. Hoss was solid and dependable, a regular guy you could trust to have your back in any situation. I hadn’t worked with Joe much. He was likeable, certainly. Good looking but not conceited. He followed orders to the extent he agreed with them, but would often do things his own way. I sensed an underlying volatility, like a keg of gunpowder–stable under the right conditions, but just waiting to explode.
And now I had marching orders to find him. Not why or what message to relay. Just find him.
I looked at Hoss who toed the dirt, trying to look smaller than his bulk allowed, especially in new boots which added another two inches to his impressive 6’4” frame, not to mention the 5” crown on his sugarloaf hat. I felt puny next to him and I had two inches on Joe. No wonder they called him “little.”
Hoss shrugged. “Ain’t got a clue. When Pa gets nervous, it’s usually me he sends. Can’t say I mind you going this time.”
This time? “He get nervous often?”
“When it comes to Joe, Pa gets these—feelin’s I guess you’d call ‘em. Ain’t nothin’ that’ll calm him down except knowin’ his youngest chick has come home to roost.”
“Any ideas on where to look?”
“Virginia City’s your best bet. Unless he went to Gold Hill. Or Dayton. Or maybe Genoa. Look for Cochise, unless he stabled him. If so, you’ll have to work your way through town, north to south. Or east down to D street if he was lookin’ fer . . . you know.”
“And then there’s Chinatown. Joe’s well known in that quarter and there ain’t much those celestials miss ‘bout what’s happening on the Comstock. Ask for Wang Chou at the laundry if you need help. Oh, and check in with the Sheriff to see if there’s been any bar brawls . . . .”
Hoss was still droning on when I rode out of the yard.
Great, just great.
I had hoped to find Cochise hitched to a rail, but a ride up and down A, B and C Streets, and all the side streets in between, proved futile, so I searched out the liveries and found the pinto in the third one. The Sheriff had broken up several fights that night, but none involving Joe. He rattled off a number of saloons that the Cartwrights frequented so I started canvassing them. I had just exited the Bucket of Blood when I caught sight of a green jacket in the front window of the restaurant across the street from the Palace. I strolled past the window to confirm it was him and then leaned against the boardwalk railing just out of his line of sight.
Although there was a bottle of champagne and an ice bucket on the table along with two flutes, he wasn’t talking to anyone. I wondered whether he had been stood up. Yeah. That would be me, not him. It was more likely his date hadn’t arrived yet or had gone to the ladies toilet. He looked pensively out the window, occasionally swiping the back of his hand across his cheek.
Forty minutes later Joe still sat alone, fingering the stem of his glass. I almost walked away, uncomfortable with his discomfort, but curiosity won out. I entered the restaurant.
“Mind if I sit down?” I said, dropping into the chair opposite him.
“Yes, I do.”
I regained my feet rather inelegantly. “Sorry. Saw you alone and thought you might like some company.”
In the candlelit room, his eyes appeared almost black, his facial expression stony. Waves of anger rolled off him.
I raised open hands into the air, backed away from the table, and exited Chez Nous to resume watching from outside, hoping the darkness and foot traffic on the boardwalk masked my presence.
No one ever joined him, so in that regard Joe was correct. He was alone, but I had the sense that the table was occupied nonetheless. His eyes remained fixed on the Palace across the street. Waiting for what?
A half hour later, a light in an upstairs window of the Palace went out deepening the shadows on the street. Joe reached for the other glass, drained the champagne in one swallow, and placed the flute upside down on the table.
My eyes swept building hoping to see whatever Joe had seen. When I looked back inside the restaurant, he had vanished.
On the way back to the ranch, I pondered what to say to Mr. Cartwright. In the end, I decided I hadn’t failed. After all, he ordered me to find Joe, not to bring him home. However, I did not think that reasoning would pass muster with the Major.
I stood on the porch debating whether to lift the iron knocker or rap softly with my knuckles. Before I could act, the door swung open.
“Did you find him?”
Mr. Cartwright looked over my shoulder into the yard. “He’s not with you.”
His jaw worked as he scanned my face. I remained passive under the intense scrutiny.
“Inside.” It was an order, not a request. He moved to the fireplace and turned to face me, arms folded across his chest. I entered, but remained standing behind the settee, as I had not been invited to sit.
Without preamble in military fashion, I rendered a complete report of my efforts to locate Joe, our brief exchange in the restaurant, his actions, and my observations on his demeanor. As soon as I mentioned the Palace, Mr. Cartwright dropped into his red chair and his attitude changed—no longer angry, but definitely concerned.
“Sir, one other thing. Several items on the table appeared to be of significance to Joe.”
“A ring box, a small leather-bound book, and a chess piece.”
“Thank you, Candy. You may go.”
“Candy? This stays between us, you understand?”
I closed the front door and threw the bolt. Pa was sitting in his favorite chair “reading,” a ploy to justify waiting up whenever Hoss or I were out late. The ruse brought a smile to my face, for soft snores and a nodding head betrayed him. I had no sooner hung up my hat and coat than the clock struck 2 a.m.
He coughed. “Home so soon?”
“Good book?” I asked.
After removing my gun belt and holster, I crossed the great room to the side table by the stairs and held up the brandy decanter. Pa nodded. While I poured us both a generous amount, he stirred up the fire. I handed him a snifter before I settled into the corner of the settee.
“Pretty sneaky sending Candy into town instead of Hoss,” I said.
“Well . . . Hoss’s feet hurt.”
“Those new boots he ordered from the mercantile. Oh, there’s a beef roast in the icebox if you’re hungry.”
I shook my head and sipped my drink, savoring its warmth, taking my time. I knew Pa wouldn’t push for answers. Still, I owed him something for staying up late. “I had my fill dining on memories tonight.”
“Pleasant ones I hope.”
“Some. Some not.”
“The bitter with the sweet?”
We drank our brandy and watched the fire die down, listening to the nocturnal sounds of the house—the wind in the eaves, an occasional hoot owl, the rumble from upstairs punctuated by a snort and the creaking of the floorboards as Hoss rolled over. After hours of regrets, recriminations, and speculation on what might have been, the ache in my heart eased.
“You know how you say Inger was like having spring in the house all year round? I always think of spring when I picture Amy—barefoot, wading in a stream. So fresh and innocent. . . . Sally is summer. Her smile radiated like the sun and my heart melted every time she laughed. How she loved to laugh! . . . Laura reminds me of an aspen quaking in the wind, so fragile yet she brought color to my life at the end of hers. Why couldn’t she have been an evergreen and stayed with me always?”
Julia. “Winter to my spring. I stayed. She had to go. Cela aurait dû se produire il y a plusieurs années. It should have happened long ago, she said.” I slid down, resting my head on the back of the sofa, and stared at the ceiling. “I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since she died.”
“Joe, I’m sorry. I forgot the anniversary. “You’d been out of sorts and I was—”
“—you were worried.”
“—concerned, not worried. It’s a father’s prerogative.”
“You should have sent Hoss. He would have known not to interfere. Candy intruded.”
“Don’t blame him. I’m the one who sent him after you.”
“You like him.”
“Yes. You don’t?”
“Don’t know him that well. Good worker. Secretive. Have you ever known anyone to walk as softly as he does? Scares the bejabbers out of me every time he sneaks up.”
“Well, I’m going to send him with you and Hoss on the cattle drive to Sand Dust next month. It will give you a chance to get to know each other better.”
“You’re the boss. I’m going to bed. Are you going to ‘read’ a while longer?”
“No, son. I’ll bank the fire and be up in a minute.”
I picked up our snifters and took them to the kitchen. On the way upstairs, I paused on the landing to ask a question.
“Amy said a Bishop and Cartwright could never be. Laura’s father said she and I could never be. Horace said Sally and I would never be. We—you, me, Adam, Hoss—we’ve all lost at love more than once. Do you think we’re meant to be alone? Are we cursed?”
Pa smiled, his hand caressing the mantle under the pictures of his three wives.
“Son, we have loved and we’ve been loved. No matter how long love lasts, in any season, that’s a blessing, not a curse.”
Author’s Notes: This story was inspired by the lyrics:
We had joy, we had fun
We had seasons in the sun
But the wine and the song
Like the seasons have all gone
–Jacques Brel/Rod McKuen