Choices Trilogy Part 2 — Shadows (by Cheaux)

Summary:  The Cartwright family struggles with the consequences of Joe’s ordeal.   This story follows “Choices.”  It is not necessary to have read the previous story, but helpful to place events in context.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   8500


 

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Søren Kierkegaard

 

Excerpts from the Cartwright Family journals

Ben

 

Looking back it’s easy to see where we went wrong.  I say “we” but that’s incorrect; I really mean “I.”  I went wrong.  Adam tried to tell me there was more to Joe’s story than we knew or suspected.  He alone wanted to delve deeper into the history of the mad man who had taken Joe and held him captive for nearly five months.

Five months.  I could sail half way around the world in five months with fair winds.  Five months must have seemed like an eternity to Joseph; never knowing when it would be over. . . IF it would ever be over and how.  I shouldn’t blame him for wanting to end the misery his life had become.  But I’ve always taught my sons that to have life is to have hope.  And Joseph, of all my sons, had more hope, more optimism, more enthusiasm for life than anyone I’ve ever known next to his mother.  How desperate he must have been to lose hope in that prison of a house, no light, no sound except the dripping of water he couldn’t drink.  Hungry for food he couldn’t touch, watching nourishment just out of his reach rot and decay, denied the sustenance his body craved until it began to feed on itself.  When we found him he was physically wasted, mentally exhausted, and spiritually bankrupt.

Joe eventually told Adam some of what happened in that house of horror.  How he had been kept in the dark, starved, bound to a chair, denied water and left alone for days on end.  What we learned was that Silas Wellencamp, Joe’s tormentor, had made him play a bizarre game in which he forced Joe to choose a death card for people he knew.  The ultimate torment came when there were three cards left—fire, knife, and poison—one for each of us.

In his mental state, Joe took the only action he could to save his family.  He drank poison, stabbed and doused himself with kerosene.  Only Adam’s tackle prevented the match from being lit.

*****

Hop Sing

I worry much over Little Joe since his return to Ponderosa.  He but shadow when father and brothers bring home.  Not strong like before.  Not sleep.  Not laugh; have hollow eyes.  Very sad.  He make father and brothers sad.  Make Hop Sing sad, too.

To father, son is grown man.  Mr. Cartwright expect Little Joe to be like man he was before.  To Hop Sing, youngest son has become small boy once again, very afraid of many things.  I make Little Joe do small tasks he not need think about, just follow instructions just like when he small boy.

Mr. Cartwright say all household take part in helping Little Joe get better.  I cook extra special meals, but he not eat.  Not like before.  Hop Sing very worried.  Then I remember as little boy Little Joe happiest in kitchen where it warm and smell good.  Remind him of Mama. So after Mama die, I make the little boy come with me to kitchen.  He chop vegetables, peel potatoes, grind herbs, fetch water.   Small tasks for small boy.

Now I do same. Little Joe spend time with Hop Sing in kitchen doing small chores.  Make him feel useful.  Hop Sing not care if he no talk.  Hop Sing talk to him in Chinese.  Tell him what happen in Chinatown.  Little Joe laugh.  Soon he talk more but still pick at food.  Not fool Hop Sing push around plate.

“Little Joe, you eat.  Get big and strong like brother Hoss.”

“Hop Sing, I’m not five year’s old anymore,” he said, pouting.

“You act like little boy; I treat you same.  Now, come.  Bring plate to kitchen.  No more foolishment.”

Now Little Joe eat but still afraid.  Too many choices.  I make for him ‘til he get stronger, can make self.

Chinese believe during dreams soul leaves body to enter dream world.  If body awakens suddenly, soul may not return.  Little Joe’s soul is lost.  He must eat to get strong so he can sleep without nightmares.  Dream pleasant dreams, sleep peacefully so soul can return to body.  Little Joe be man again, not fearful little boy.  When that is so, father, brothers happy; then Hop Sing happy, too.

 *****

Ben

I am no stranger to putting pen to paper to capture the events of a day; it is something I have been doing since my first ocean voyage as a cabin boy.  Whether I was writing in the ship’s log or in my own journal, the habit of looking back to make sense of experiences became a lifelong one.  In the early years, the entries were perfunctory—weather, latitude and longitude, ports visited, ship’s stores, illnesses and injuries—a short, factual and unemotional record of life aboard ship.  Later pages revealed the hopes, desires (and, yes, lusts), dreams and disappointments of a maturing man coming into his own.

After I was married I continued to write every evening before retiring.  Elizabeth understood my need; she was, after all, a sea captain’s daughter.  Many an evening I would look up from my writing desk to catch her watching me.  Quietly, I would put down my pen, cap the inkwell and join her on the settee where I would trace her Mona Lisa smile with ink-stained fingers.  She would lean into my cupped hand and part her lips inviting an ardent kiss before rising and leading me silently up the stairs to our bedroom.

Even after her death, the nightly ritual of writing was so ingrained that on the quest to find my dream, I continued writing each evening in a small book, recording bits and pieces of our journey—Adam’s and mine, and eventually Inger’s, too.

I now sit surrounded by stacks of dusty journals pulled from an old trunk in the barn. Some of them I’ve read often, especially the ones written during my courtship and marriage to Inger; others, not in a long, long time.  As I peruse them now, I am thoroughly entranced by the power the leather bound testimonies have to recall places, people and moments that have otherwise slipped from my consciousness.  I have only to read a phrase or see a picture crudely drawn in pencil to have total recall of those events and all that surrounded them.  Sometimes here and there in my writings, the facts of the day gave way to thoughts of the future, dreams of what would eventually become the Ponderosa, prayers of thanksgiving for people met and kindnesses bestowed, the hope of love, the anguish of loss, and the fear of the unknown.

The unknown. 

Joseph is afraid right now; of what exactly we are uncertain.  That it has something to do with his captivity last summer is a given.  But no matter how we assure him that he is safe, he is loved, he is protected, we can’t seem to abate the unknown fear that strangles him.

It’s hard to fathom, but Joe’s continued immersion in this dark and desolate place to which he has descended is affecting Adam more than anyone.  They are polar opposites on so many levels, yet remain connected by something as nebulous and unseen as the longitudinal markers that connect the north and south poles.

Similar to the volume in which I now write, Adam has given his brother a journal, encouraging him to put down not only the facts of his existence during the last twelve months, but his thoughts and feelings about what happened in the hopes that by first dispassionately recording the events from his perspective, he will then be able to reflect and discern the truth of his experience and see that he has not been broken, but made stronger.  His hope is that by looking backward, Joe will begin to understand the impact his captivity has had on all of us.

Impact.  What an appropriate word to be associated with Joseph.  From the moment he was born, he wrought a change in all of our lives as no one else before or since.  He demanded our attention, our focus, our strength, our patience, our indulgence, our gratitude.  Not by asking for those things but just by being.  His exuberance for life, as his mother would say his joie de vivre, was breathtaking to behold.  Everything was a joy; family, friends, conversation, horses, eating, women. He embraced life with a ferocity that sometimes frightened me.  He never did anything half way, seldom learned the meaning of the word “no,” failed to accept “it can’t be done,” or “it’s not possible.”  He found joy in all seasons and all kinds of weather.  His smile was the desert sun that illuminated even the darkest corner of night.  And if he wiggled his eyebrows . . . well Hoss could never resist the plots his younger brother orchestrated.  I think right about now, even Adam would willingly and enthusiastically involve himself in one of those hare-brained schemes if only Joe would concoct one.

*****

Hoss

We all had a role to play in restorin’ Joe to health after the nightmare he lived last year when he was kidnapped.  Pa took care of lovin’ Joe—not that we all didn’t love him—just that Pa and Joe were more inclined to understand each other’s feelings and more likely to act on ‘em, if ya know what I mean.  Adam was charged with helping Joe understand all that happened to him.  Me, well, I was supposed to build Joe up physically.

Now normally my younger brother is a force to be reckoned with.  He might be puny lookin’ compared to me, but he was built like a brick sh******* well, wall.  Rock hard muscles and a left hook that could take down the toughest hombre around.  He was a scrappy fighter, too, maybe because he was low to the ground to begin with.  He would almost crouch in a fight . . . kept his boots planted wide apart for balance and he stayed on the balls of his feet like we taught him, prepared to go in any direction to fill a hole in an opponent’s defense.  Joe was quick to take advantage of situations like that.  He didn’t always see what was coming, especially from his left—that left eye had a tendency to bleed a mite—but he was pretty good at readin’ people unless that hot temper of his got in the way, which happened more often than not, especially when he was younger.

So it troubled me that Joe’s strength had not returned even when he started gaining weight.  Now, I’ve always called Joe “short shanks” cause as a little kid he was so much shorter than me.  He’s still shorter than me a course.  Heck, even Pa and Adam are shorter than me.  But it just seemed that Joe was even smaller than he had been.   I asked Doc Martin about that.  He said Joe’s tendons and . . . and . . . what was the word?  Con somethin’.  Anyway, he said that Joe’s connections were shrunk up and needed to be stretched.  So stretchin’ Joe was what I aimed to do first.

He didn’t complain, but I knew it hurt him when I dug into his muscles and pulled on his legs and arms.  I knew what I was doin’—been takin’ care of critters my whole life.  Don’t suppose there’s much I don’t know, ‘cept maybe fancy cuttin’ and surgery and stuff.  But give me an animal that’s gone lame or been chewed up an’ I can fix it well enough.  So that’s what I did . . . I set about to fixin’ Joe.

I reckoned the best way was to get him movin’.  I thought we’d start by takin’ hikes down to the lower corral, figurin’ he’d appreciate bein’ round the horses.  It surprised the heck outta me when he wanted nothing to do with ’em.  I ain’t quite figured that one out yet even now, but I decided not to push it and so I took him fishin’ instead.

I grabbed the bait bucket and handed him the poles and we ambled down to the creek that runs a mile or so behind the main house.  Not much fish in it this time a year—especially as dry as it’s been—but as anyone knows who’s a fisherman, catching fish is not always the point, especially if you happen to be fishin’ with Joe ever since he done gone run that errand for Pa’s friend Jedediah Milbank after Mr. Milbank’s foot got sprained a few years ago.  To hear Joe tell it, the squatter he was supposed to run off Milbank’s land done caught him in a snare and held him upside down until he learned to relax a bit.   So now, whenever Joe goes fishin’ he relaxes more than he fishes.  But doggone, don’t ya just know that he still catches a fair amount of fish.  Don’t know how he does it, ‘cepting those must be female fish in that water just waitin’ to jump into his arms.

By the time we got there, Joe was plumb tuckered, I could see that.  So after we got the lines in the water, he stretched out on the bank and fell asleep.  We stayed longer than we shoulda I suppose, but I didn’t have the heart to wake him ‘cause he hadn’t been sleepin’ too good.

Good thing I thought to bring some apples ’cause I was getting hungry.  Guess it was the crunch when I bit into one that woke him.

“Mighta known you’d bring food,” he drawled.

“Yep.  Gotta have nourishment.  Dinner’s not for an hour.”

“Got any more?”

“Sure, punkin’.”  I pulled one outta my vest pocket and shined it on my shirt before handin’ it to him.

“Thanks,” he said.  Took his time before bitin’ into it and chewed it real slow like while he studied it some.

“You haven’t called me that in a long time.  Feelin’ extra brotherly, is that it?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

“Last time I had an apple was the night I ran away.”

I had the good sense to keep my trap shut.  I know it was Adam was supposed to get Joe to open up, but if he chose that moment to share somethin’, I wasn’t going to stop him any.

“I used it to catch that mare.  She’s real fond of apples.”

“She took to a bridle right off then?”

“No.  I rode her bareback, no tack.”

I musta whistled, ’cause Joe looked at me and smiled.  “She liked me.”

“That’s what Charlie said.”

“Charlie?”

“He said that skewbald was smitten with you . . . followed you everywhere even after the round up.  Wasn’t afraid of you at all . . . now with the other wranglers she had a real temper, but not you.”

I pulled up my pole to check the line and saw that my bait was gone.  “Danburnit!”  That got a chuckle out of Joe, which I was glad to hear.  But then he went back to chewin’ all thoughtful like.  Guess he were chewin’ on more than just apple.  I put another big ol’ fat worm on my hook and dropped the line again.

“Fast.”

“What?”

“She was fast.  Pained me to turn her loose.”

“Joe, can I ask ya somethin’?  You don’t hafta answer if you don’t want to.”  Joe and I have an understanding, ya see.  We can ask each other anything, but we don’t pry.  That’s what makes our relationship so easy.  Now he and older brother Adam on the other hand . . . they push and pull at each other like they were makin’ taffy.  Sometimes they stretch their relationship so thin I think it’s gonna break apart and never get back together, but then somehow they fold it over and smooth things out.  I just hope it’s always so cause one of ‘em ain’t no good without the other.  Like peas and carrots.  Or taters and gravy.

He looked at me real serious like but nodded so I went ahead.

“Where’d you hide out?”

He looked at me kinda funny like he wasn’t sure he wanted to give up his hidin’ place in case he needed it again real soon.  That had me worried more than just a little.  But then he shrugged.

“Elks Point.”

“That’s Paiute land.”

“Not since the last treaty.”

“Dadburnit.”  I hadn’t even considered lookin’ there.  Could I have found him before he got captured?  Damn.  I felt sick inside.

“What?”

“Nothin’.  Say, we’d better head back.  Hop Sing’ll be ringing the dinner bell soon.”

I pulled my pole up and the bait was gone again.  I pulled Joe’s pole up and sure enough there was a big old catfish, just a danglin’ there sweet as could be.

“Dadburnit!”

“Here,” Joe said, handing me the other half of his apple.  “You’re gettin’ grumpy.  Better eat something so you don’t wither away.”

Joe held his hands out so I could pull him up.  He was never ashamed to look weak in front of me; Pa and Adam, of course, but not me.  I gave him a tug and held fast until he steadied himself on his feet.

“Ya okay?”

“Yeah.  Let’s go.”

We started out slow, but as Joe’s steps evened out, I lengthened my stride a bit and was pleased to see he kept up.  We had walked a short distance when he dropped a bombshell.

“They said I was a Jonah.”

“Who?”

“Some men who came near to where I was hiding.”

“Up at Elk’s Point?”

“Yeah.  There are caves there.”

“You were hid out in a cave?”

“Some of the time.  Wavoka told me about them some time ago.  They were used for vision quests.”

“That’s bear country.”

“I know.  It was summer, I figured to be safe until it got cold.”

“Durn foolish if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you.”

We walked a piece before I made the connection.  “Is that why you won’t go down to the corrals with the men?  ‘Cause you think they’re calling you a Jonah behind your back?”

Joe shrugged but said nothing.

“You’re not, you know . . . a Jonah.”

That’s when I got me an idea.  “She came back.”

“She?”

“The skewbald mare.”

I’d taken several more steps when I realized Joe was no longer beside me.  I turned and looked back.  He was standing stock still just looking at me, the strangest expression on his face.

“Don’t know what she sees in an ornery cuss like you, but Charlie says she’s been pinin’ away for you.  Mebbe after dinner you ought to take her an apple.”

With that I turned and walked on up to the house, my fingers crossed in front of my chest.

It didn’t take long for Joe to start in training the mare, though he pretty much did it out of the sight of the men, which disappointed me a tad.  Charlie was about the only one outside the family that Joe would associate with, which just wasn’t like the brother I knew.

He had moved the horse up to our barn.  If Cochise was jealous, she didn’t show it; mebbe cause she wasn’t partial to apples.  Long as she got her coffee and carrots, she was happy and would let the skewbald share in Joe’s affection.  He was real good at giving them both enough of it, that’s for sure.  Pa thought maybe Joe was spending too much time in the barn, but when I pointed out how much muscle power it took to curry those horses, and muck out their stalls, and tote the feed and water, he backed down.  Joe’s stamina was increasing and that’s all that mattered to me right then.

Right then . . . before the storm hit.

*****

Adam

I’ve spent most of last six months helping my youngest brother come to terms with the horrific ordeal he endured at the hands of a madman.  A man with no discernible connection to Joe had singled him out of a crowd and led him to believe that every choice he made held deathly consequences for anyone even remotely connected to him, including his family.  The simplest choices—turn right or left? Brown socks or black?—pushed him over the edge and fractured his psyche into a thousand chards.

Pa hadn’t seen it coming; neither had Hoss, I suspect, but there was something . . . something in those hazel green orbs that made my heart skip a beat every time we made eye contact.

Joe’s eyes are indeed the mirror to his soul.  From the moment he opened them on that October morn, barely an hour old and fighting for his life, I saw into him.  He grabbed my pinkie with a ferocity that belied his premature birth, breach no less.  Those little fingernails cut into my flesh and left a scar so deep I see it yet today if I look closely.  He put his mark on me from the beginning as if I were his only connection to life.

From the first breath he related differently to me than to the rest of the family.  He cuddled and cooed in Pa’s arms; he laughed and gurgled with Hoss; he smiled sweetly at Marie and made sucking noises.  With me, he was ferocious, bellowing with righteous indignation whenever I held him, or changed him, or smacked him for misbehaving.

But I was the one who could get him to calm down, the one he came to in the dark of night when he suffered nightmares after his mother’s untimely death; the one he challenged about everything.  Pa said it was my voice.  Whenever I read or sang to him, he quieted immediately and his eyes followed me, always searching for wherever I was in the room.  Hoss said it was because he measured himself against me.

*****

Ben

Adam had been watching Joe, convinced that he was not as well as we all thought.  Physically, yes, he was much improved with all that Hop Sing and Hoss had done for him.  Aside from the fact that he still wouldn’t travel into town, visit with friends, or interact with ranch hands, he performed any task I asked of him, but he was hiding behind a facade of normalcy that even I did not discern.

I was blinded by fear and chose not to see the signs.  It is ironic that in the aftermath of Joe’s imprisonment and rescue I insisted on treating him as a man and not—as events proved out—a little boy lost.  Or as Hop Sing would say, a lost soul searching for his Qi.  How I wish that I had allowed Joe the man to participate in decisions allowing the boy at heart to remain safe.

My task now is to rebuild the man from the boy upward.  But how do I erase the damage Silas Wellencamp wrought?  How do I recreate a lifetime of lectures and words of wisdom, stories learnt at my knee?  Hoss says I just hold him.  Hold him tight like any wounded creature.

My middle boy is a wise man.  Hoss approaches life by simply seeing the root of the matter without being confused by the details.  To his way of thinking, Joe just needs time to learn to trust again; trust in us, trust in himself, before he can go out into the world and trust others.

Hop Sing says “heal the soul first and the mind and body will follow.”

How do I heal my son’s soul?  I somehow know the answer will not be found in church or in listening to scripture or sermons.  Though surely the lessons, apocryphal or not, will resonate with Joe.  He was always partial to stories with morals . . . Aesop’s fables, the Psalms, stories of action and redemption.  They spoke to his heart.  Can his soul be far removed from his heart?

Hoss believed from the start that Joe needed someone else to care for other than himself and said that the skewbald was as good a place as any to start.  The horse has good confirmation.  Her coloring is cinnamon and white and I suspect she has a bit of appaloosa in her as her rump has a dusting.  She is bad tempered with others but not with Joe and he was able to ride her bareback from the moment he captured her.  Charlie says that she allowed herself to be captured because she had chosen Joe.  Who am I to disagree?

When Hoss says Joe is ready to ride, I will take him on the Grand Swing.  It is time for him to carve his name once again on the witness tree.  Perhaps the lessons, revisited, will reignite the passion for life that once defined Joe.

*****

Hoss

Some folks can feel when a storm is coming. They say the air feels heavy, laden with moisture.  Oppressive.  That’s what the house felt like after Adam found Joe in the road, more so than it ever had before.  Maybe the only thing that equaled it was the night we all sat up waiting for Joe to return from a mission to find the man we thought had killed Pa.  But it was more than that.  It was more like after Mama died and we just knew nothing would ever be the same again; as if a thousand woolen blankets were weighing us down, smothering us so we couldn’t breathe.  And none of us saw it coming.  But I shoulda.  I shoulda known somethin’ wasn’t right.

*****

Adam

Joe’s mother Marie was a fiery creole of French extraction who captured our father’s heart the moment he met her.  More than 20 years his junior, she had given up her life in New Orleans and journeyed into the wild west sight unseen on the promise of a new start where the air was clean and the trees stood straight and tall.  She embraced her two stepsons with a joy of life that was breathtaking.  Hoss loved her straight away; I took a little longer to come around.  Life was still hard, but better than it had been, each year bringing new challenges and new rewards.  The house was evolving; we had expanded the first floor footprint and made plans to add a second story.  I think that’s when I first became interested in architecture.  I would draw sketches of what I thought our home should look like and was surprised and pleased when Pa and Marie agreed with many of my suggestions.  I was eleven.

Pa let me help with the timber selection and, although he put limits on my involvement because he was afraid I’d get hurt, I got to watch the felling of the trees.  I followed one particular tree from the time it was brought down to being delimbed and bucked.  Pa and Sven Lindstrom, the Bull of the Woods, said I could hew the beam myself and Mr. Lindstrom not only loaned me an adze and drawknife but showed me how to use them correctly.  A carpenter by the name Micah taught me the use of hand planes and asps to shape and form the wood into what would become the mantel of our fireplace in the great room of the ranch house.

About the time we finished the hearth, Pa and Marie shared the news that there would be a new Cartwright gracing our lives by year end.  I had been slow to accept Marie’s role but the prospect of a new life drew us all together and Joe’s birth made us a complete family.  He was the glue and the tie that bound us to one another.  The first child born on Ponderosa soil, the product of the love Marie had for Pa and her gift to us all.

And how we loved him; indulged him; worried about him, and protected him.  All of us did our part after Marie died.  We did it for him; we did it to honor her, but most of all we did it for Pa, because without Joe, both Hoss and I knew Pa would not survive another loss.

That kind of devotion can’t be turned off easily.  Years of separation while I was away at school took its toll, true, but on my return to Virginia City I had only to ignore the gangly young man he had become and look into those eyes to reconnect.  Unfortunately, he broke the connection almost as soon it was made.

The smart, spunky, freckle-faced kid I left behind when I journeyed to Boston had turned into a smart-alecky, walking, talking, puberty-driven hormone when I returned.  Looking back, I suppose that neither of us had expected the other to change in the intervening years apart.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  We were both different people than we had been and it took time to sort it all out.  We were like two wrestlers in a ring, circling, attacking and countering.  What Joe lacked in size and stamina, he made up for in guts and unpredictability, often out maneuvering me—much to my surprise and chagrin—although my weight (both in pounds and authority) was the deciding factor. Both Hoss and Pa bore the brunt of our aggression, but eventually Joe and I worked it out and our relationship settled into a new normalcy.  We still wrangle from time to time and that probably will never change.  I think I might be disappointed if it did.

Joe was a quick study and an eager learner if the subject was to his liking, but he could drive you crazy with questions and, like a dog with a bone, would not give up the quest easily.  And still the searching.  I caught him watching me all the time.  He was always listening, hiding in shadows at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping behind doors or in the hay loft.  He would often protest it was the only way he could learn about life since we all conspired to keep him “innocent” and to some extent, I suppose he was right.  None of us was anxious for him to grow up.

Hoss and I bore witness to many “firsts” in his life.  The first time he broke a horse, the first time he wore his gun into town, the first time he kissed a girl behind O’Malley’s livery on a Saturday night.  We taught him to shoot, hunt, fish, and track.  We were mostly successful in teaching him how to fight (despite repetitive coaching and instruction, the kid has trouble keeping his elbows in), we bought him his first drink and took him to his first brothel—or so we thought.

Pa taught him right from wrong, imparted a strong moral compass and lectured him continually on keeping his feet off the furniture, sitting up straight at the table, chewing with his mouth closed, and not slamming the front door.

With three mother hens hovering over him, it is a wonder that Joseph Francis Cartwright ever grew up, but grow up he did into a fine, strong (and strong-willed) man with a heart of gold, an easy smile, a wicked left hook, and a laugh that rivaled a hyena.  In his early twenties he had taken on more than his fair share of responsibility in running the Ponderosa; he was in charge of the horses and was becoming increasingly knowledgeable about all other aspects of ranch business, including timber and cattle, offering a unique perspective and often suggesting we try something we had never thought of before.  The kid liked to take risks, that’s for sure.  But he also had an innate sense of what would work and what wouldn’t, and his hunches weren’t often wrong.

So when I saw him in the middle of the road that day, paralyzed with fear not knowing where to turn, I did what came naturally . . . I protected him the only way I knew how.  I held on to him as hard as he had held on to my finger the day he was born.

*****

Ben

Adam found him in the middle of the road unable to decide which direction to go.  To see indecision in a man heretofore defined by action, determination and desire was disconcerting to be sure, but to bear witness to the ultimate disintegration of Joe’s psyche over a fork in the road was . . . I can’t even think of a word to describe how I felt, how any of us felt when we got there.

I confess to a degree of hurt that it is Adam to whom Joe has turned in his desolation.  Since we found him in that god-forsaken house near Coloma, it had been me Joe had clung to.  Indeed, since his mother died, I have been the one most attuned to Joseph’s moods and temperaments, the one he sought out most often for advice.  But in his mental agony it is now only Adam who seems to be able to console him; only Adam who is his lifeline.

Paul was summoned, of course, and sedated Joe while we discussed what to do.  It was then I learned the shocking truth that the three shots we heard were fired not as the family’s universal distress signal, but instead when Adam struggled to prevent Joe from turning the gun on himself.

It was evident Adam believed he had prevented Joe’s suicide twice.  Paul was inclined to believe the same.  Hoss wouldn’t—couldn’t—go along with it.  Neither could I.  Not my Joseph . . . not my boy with such joie de vivre.

*****

Adam

The days and weeks that followed were torture for Pa and Hoss.  Although Joe had clung physically to Pa last fall after his rescue, this time he shut himself off from everyone and would only talk to me.  Well, talk is not the word for it.  In many ways he had regressed back to an unsure, moody, and fractious adolescent.  But he did listen when I read to him and his eyes followed me wherever I went . . . watching, waiting.  So we were back to that.

I had given him a leather-bound journal and asked him to put down what he was thinking and feeling.  If he couldn’t talk about it, perhaps he could record on paper what he couldn’t articulate out loud.  The first entries were rudimentary protests about what I was asking him to do, but eventually lengthened and became more detailed.  He would leave the journal under my pillow.  I would read, make notes in the margins, and place it under his pillow in return.

I posed questions, asked him to think deeper or to explain a statement.  Periodically, I would take him fishing and we would talk.  He preferred that we sit on the bank side by side as he seemed more comfortable staring at the water or up at the heavens than looking at me.

Our Pa had been a sailor and taught each of us the constellations when we were very young.  Joe loved watching the night sky as a young boy and hearing the stories about Orion, the most handsome of the earth borne gods, who became a great hunter, lover of the goddess Diana, and whose constellation is used to reckon the beginning and end of the year.  When I showed him an engraving of Orion from the 17th century, the first thing he noticed was that Orion was left-handed.  I think that must have cinched it for Joe.  His love of astronomy has never changed and now at 24, he is just as curious about the myths and legends revolving around the stars as he ever was.  Our evenings camping out would usually begin identifying the heavenly bodies as they appeared one by one and then he would ask a whopper of a question that would keep the two of us up all night.  When did life begin in the universe?  Why do stars twinkle?  What is the meaning of redemption?

But the one question I couldn’t answer was why.  Why did Silas Wellencamp select Joe?  What caused Wellencamp’s insanity and his desire to bend Joe’s will to his?  Pa and I argued endlessly about this.  I felt compelled to explore the genesis of this problem, Pa cared only that his youngest had been returned safely.

And safe he might have been in the bosom of his family, but the Joe we knew had vanished and in his stead was a man of no substance, no will of his own, but a mere shadow of his former self.

I admit, we all—myself included—pretended initially that all Joe needed was his family around him, good food, plenty of rest, and lots of sunshine.

Victor Hugo said “to think of shadows is a serious thing” and I am inclined to agree.  I needed Joe to look at the shadows that threatened him so that he could contemplate their significance and dispel their power.  But to do that, I needed to understand this devil.  From what the sheriff of Placerville had related to my father, Wellencamp was once a well-respect businessman who had become more isolated and extreme in his views as the years went by, especially after the death of his wife and daughter and later his son.

Against Pa’s wishes, I made it my mission to find out all I could about Silas Wellencamp.

*****

Ben

The story of how Joe disappeared has been told.  The why is another matter and that is where I went wrong.  I was afraid that Joe was acting foolishly, a braggart going off half- cocked looking to avenge the death of his friends.  Hoss and Adam tried to tell me, each in his own way, that Joe was not the hot blooded, irrational youth he was five years ago.  Yet when the murders began, I persisted in treating him as such, confining him to his room or the yard, not letting him share in the decisions to be made regarding his safety, not trusting him to think things through.  I should have known that by running away he was only trying to protect his family from what he reasoned was surely happening.

In the end of course, Joe made the only choice he thought he had available to him at the time.  As Adam pointed out, it wasn’t suicide he was committing when he stabbed himself and tried to set fire to his kerosene-soaked clothes, any more than it is suicide when a father puts himself between a runaway freight wagon and his children, or a soldier when he falls on a shell to save his comrades.  It took courage and faith to put himself in harm’s way and I told him so.

“Our lives are shaped by the choices we make, son, but despite our best laid plans, things in life that are beyond our control do happen.  When we are faced with those obstacles, we can choose to give up or we can choose to keep going.  By making the ultimate choice to save your family rather than save yourself, you changed everything for all of us.  Don’t let this past summer define your life. Turn this negative experience into a positive one.  Continue to take risks; believe in yourself and your ability to make good choices.”

As for what happened that day on the road, I continue to believe in Joseph’s ability to make good choices; believe that the action he took was the calculated risk of a desperate man asking for help anyway he could.

*****

Joe

My Pa said “don’t let your life be defined by what transpired this past summer.”

As is true of most of the wisdom a father imparts to his sons, it is easier said than done.  On some level I was fine I suppose.  Any physical injury I had suffered had been self-inflicted after all, and I had been too weak to do much damage when I stabbed myself in the gut with the small dagger.  It must have been made for a woman, for it had a small jewel-encrusted handle.  Rubies, I think; maybe garnets.  I remember thinking they were the color of blood and matched the dried blood on the blade.  Had someone other than me been driven to the same extreme?  I didn’t think about that then; only now that the dreams have come again do small details filter into my waking hours.  I don’t know what they mean, only that they sit on the edge of my vision and vanish when I turn to look at them head on.  That’s when I am convinced I have been defined irrevocably and forever.

I am insane.

It was my mind that had been messed with but the word doesn’t even comes close to adequately describing what really had happened to me.

A man I call “the Shadow” took me captive and forced me to choose . . . what exactly?  I don’t know.  There is so much I don’t know and no one can tell me.  Hoss says to forget it and get on with living.  But living this way is out of the question and there are so many ways to die, I can’t choose which one.  Which one would cause less pain to my family?  Should I just disappear and leave them with the uncertainty of not knowing?  Should I leave them a body to bury, would that help somehow?  Should I leave a note; try to explain?   Explain what exactly; that all their care, all their love was not enough; that I am not worthy to be a Cartwright or to walk in their footsteps?

I played along with their attempts to cheer and entertain me.  I smiled.  I ate whatever was put in front of me, cleaning my plate so Pa would be happy.  I worked hard so Hoss could believe I was as good as new and wouldn’t worry.

Only Adam suspected all was not right.  I caught him looking at me in that way he has; as if he could see right through me into my very soul and found it lacking.  In the old days I would have shaken my rattles and bared fangs dripping with venom.  Instead, I rolled over and played dead.  That’s when he knew.

I was already dead.

From the moment I regained consciousness in the yard of that burning house securely swaddled in my father’s arms, I had clung to Pa like a baby chimp to its mother.  Nothing could tear me from his side.  I didn’t cry or weep.  In fact, I don’t recall talking at all, but I couldn’t let go.  It was only after Hop Sing thought to sprinkle Bay Rum on my pillows that my hands would clutch something other than Pa’s shirt and he could get a moment’s rest.  Otherwise, he never left my side.

When I first asked for water, my words sounded raspy and it scared me because it sounded like the Shadow’s voice, so I stopped talking.

I knew Pa was concerned.  Once when he thought I was sleeping, I heard him discussing my silence with the doctor.  By then I was back home and Pa was stretched out on my bed with his back against the headboard, me ostensibly asleep with my head in his lap.  I remember his hand stroking my hair, playing with the curls at the nape of my neck.  He kept his voice low, but the deep baritone resonated through his chest and woke me in time to hear the doctor.

“There’s nothing physically wrong with his throat.  The poison wasn’t caustic, thank God, more likely a sleeping powder or sedative.  Since he vomited most of it shortly after ingestion, it had little effect.  No, I believe it’s shock.  Just give him time, Ben.  He’ll come around.”

A few days later I got up the courage to ask for water again and my voice sounded normal so I started speaking only when needed—mostly please and thank you.  I still didn’t want to talk about what happened because I was afraid of questions that had no answers.

I couldn’t believe my body was so uncooperative.  It wasn’t like I had been beaten or abused or anything.  I do remember being naked—which at first really bothered me.  But it was so damn hot wherever I was that I was glad for it eventually.  I was cared for; fed, cleaned up, my needs attended to, but I was kept bound and immobilized in that chair.  Again, it was the doctor who brought some clarity to why my body was not responding.

“His muscles have atrophied, Ben.  That’s why he’s drawn up into a fetal position.  We need to start exercising his extremities.  Massage would help, too.”

So Hoss and Hop Sing started working on me.  Hop Sing would wrap my legs and arms in moist, hot towels.  God, it felt so good.  Then Hoss would start massaging my muscles with those massive hands of his.  It was nirvana until he began digging his broad thumbs deep into the tissue.  The Shadow never hurt me, why was my brother?  I muffled my cries in the pillow and Hoss never knew.

Eventually, arms and legs started working and I could get out of bed.  The family couldn’t understand why I refused to sit in a chair and I wouldn’t tell them.  I ate in bed or standing up in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t sit at the table.  I knew Pa wasn’t happy, and he was tolerant—up to a point—but one night when he had company I guess I crossed the line for what he considered proper behavior because he cornered me in the kitchen, leaned into me until we were face to face and whispered that I had no choice but to sit at the table and eat with the rest of the family.  I was so terrified, I peed all over our cook’s clean floor.  Hop Sing cleaned me up and handed me pants fresh from the laundry.  Pa never knew.

I still couldn’t ride, but I was starting to feel strong enough to walk more and the doctor said it would be a good way to stretch my legs and regain stamina.  Hoss would go with me at first but soon I began to stroll after meals on my own.

One afternoon Adam found me in the middle of the road—frozen; the path to the lake on my right, to the corrals on my left.  He’d been watching me, he said, for nearly an hour waiting for me to choose.

I couldn’t.  I was paralyzed with fear at making the wrong choice; to the left or to the right.  Which way should I go?  What were the consequences?  Would someone die if I made the wrong choice?  Or the right one?  Which choice brought death?  I didn’t know.

A man stood over me, the sun to his back, his face enveloped by the dark grey shadow that fell across the road.  Something in me snapped and I pulled the gun from his holster.  In the course of our struggle, three shots were fired before he managed to wrest the gun from my hand and throw it out of my reach.

I collapsed into the dirt screaming, begging the Shadow to take my life; to kill me and end the torment.  I was no hero.  I was a coward who died a thousand deaths every time I had to make a choice.   I groveled at his feet and wrapped my arms around his legs, pleading with him to end it once and for all.

Instead the Shadow vanished and it was Adam who gathered me into his arm, clinging to me as I had clung to our Pa so many weeks ago only this time, I cried and couldn’t stop.  I told him what had happened.  I told him everything; how I had evaded the search party; why I had gone to Placerville; how I had gone for a haircut and woke up in hell; the choices I’d made; the deaths that ensued; the chair; the Hunger; the ice; the final decision.

Three shots.   The Cartwright signal for trouble.

It didn’t take long for Pa and Hoss to come running but when they arrived on the scene Adam must have waved them out of my line of sight.  Some part of me knew they were there, of course, listening to all I was saying.  I knew it was hard for them to hear, but I couldn’t stop myself.  It was like I had eaten something foul and was spewing forth the contents of my stomach in an effort to rid myself of the poisonous substance.

I should have been relieved that the tale was out in the open, but of course it wasn’t.  Not really.  As Adam would say, I had recited the lines, but without feeling.  For someone as logical and fact-driven as he is, he can be maddeningly poetic.

The family each took a part in seeing that I was made whole.  Pa took steps to bolster my confidence and made sure I knew I was loved; Hop Sing took charge of my diet; Hoss tended to my physical rehabilitation; and Adam—well, as I said earlier, Adam knew I felt dead inside and tried to resurrect me.

One day, he gave me this journal and told me to write it all down—not just the facts of what happened, but how I felt and what I was terrified of.  He said it is the shadows that keep me in fear; that make me believe I am losing my mind and sinking into the same abyss that devoured my captor.  He says if I bring it all out into the light of day, the sun will eliminate the shadows and my fears will dissipate once and for all.  I have a hard time viewing Adam as an optimist, but what the hell . . . I said I’d give it try.

So, here I sit, writing in this blasted book.  I don’t know if it’s helping or not.  There’s so much I still don’t understand.  From time to time I share what I’ve written with Adam and we talk about it.  I know now Hattie’s death was an accident that had nothing to do with me, but the Hunger is a beast that still haunts my nights and threatens to invade my waking hours.

Other things have been made clearer.  I understand more about what Pa was trying to tell me about obstacles in life being out of our control and it’s about whether we give up or face them and go on.  I guess I did make the choice to go on; to fight for my family.  Was that the right choice?  They say it was for them.  For me, I honestly don’t know.  Maybe it’s a little better now and I only die a hundred deaths with each choice I make.  Maybe that’s as good as I can hope for.

The trouble with bringing things out into the light of day is that eventually the sun sets and the grey twilight returns.  And even in the dark of night a full moon casts shadows.

**End of Part 2**

February 2013

Next in the Choices Series:

Hunger

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