Summary: Ben Cartwright was an intelligent man. If a situation arose, he was generally able to pinpoint the source of the problem and come up with a sensible resolution. He’d built the Ponderosa on guts and determination alone. He’d raised three fine sons, and he wanted the best for each of them but under trying circumstances, would he choose to ignore the wishes of others and act alone? Could a concerned father’s decisions alienate one of his own?
Word Count: 49,800
It wasn’t what Pa wanted for his youngest son. And, as in most cases, big brother sided with our father. Bein’ so smart and all, Adam weren’t never one to shy away from voicin’ his opinions. I’d learned early on to let his comments slide, but not my little brother, not Little Joe, and not when it came to matters of the heart. Rather than makin’ a sharp remark of my own, I stayed out of it completely though I couldn’t help but remember the day it all began.
A routine trip to town doesn’t sound like much, but life is full of surprises, and that’s where this story begins—a simple trip to town. Yep. But things changed that day, and over the next several months, I witnessed more than the rest of my family so it only makes sense that I do the tellin’.
It ain’t a short story, and it’s mainly a Little Joe story, but it don’t mean that certain complications didn’t affect us all. Me, Pa and Adam had difficult roles we was forced to play. Some, we ain’t too proud of, but some was downright necessary, and that’s what makes a story worth tellin’, don’t it? Life ain’t simple, and in this case, life ain’t all roses and sunshine, but it was a time in our lives we won’t soon forget.
As families go, some would say we was close-knit, and in most cases, we pulled for each other, we had each other’s back, but I’m ashamed to say we never saw the whole picture this time. We missed certain signs along the way, but I’m gettin’ ahead of myself. All I can really say is a man can think he’s doin’ the right thing but in the end regrets can weigh heavy, and he can carry that burden for a long time.
The day was like any other, cloudless and sunny-bright, and Joe and I had taken the buckboard into Virginia City to collect supplies for Hop Sing and pick up any mail addressed to Pa. That’s until a swirl of dust kicked up and clouded C Street, signaling the noonday stage was pullin’ into town.
“Hold up a minute,” Joe said when the coach stopped in front of the depot.
“We got work to do, Little Joe. We ain’t got time for no funny business.”
But Joe was faster’n a jackrabbit, and before I could say, “Dadburn your ornery hide, little brother,” he’d run across C Street and was helpin’ a young woman down from the stage. Even from my side of the street, I could see that wide, toothy grin of his, and I knew I was on my own for the next hour. I let him be. I collected the mail and loaded the supplies myself and by the time all the work was done, guess who showed up?
“Thanks, little brother. You was a big help.”
“Did you see her, Hoss? Did you see her face?”
“How could I see anything when I was workin’ my tail off ‘cause you was out gallivantin’ all over town?”
“I asked if she’d have supper with me tomorrow night, and guess what she said.”
I was in no mood for Joe’s shenanigans. “We ain’t got time for guessin’ games, little brother. We’re late as it is, and we best get home before Pa rounds up a posse.”
“She said yes, Hoss. She said yes!”
Joe weren’t one to hide his feelings, and the boy was explodin’ with excitement. He couldn’t stop grinnin’ and when I finally got him seated in the buckboard, I handed him the reins. “You drive, and don’t run us off the road.” But that weren’t the end of it. He chattered like a jaybird all the way home.
“She has eyes as blue as a summer’s day. You know what I mean? It’s like you can see right through to her very soul. And her skin. It’s like cream, Hoss, not a mark or a flaw. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Watch the road,” I cautioned.
“Since we’re having supper tomorrow night, where do you think I should take a woman that’s as lovely as a spring flower?”
I rolled my eyes. Spring flower. How many times had I heard his god-awful attempts at poetry?
“I’ll ask Adam,” he said. “He’ll know.”
“He’ll know what?”
“Where I should take Miss Melody Birmingham to supper.”
“That’s an odd name, ain’t it?”
“Melody,” he sighed. “Like a birdsong”
“Thanks for clearin’ that up, Mr. Shakespeare.”
Joe was in love, and instead of helpin’ me unload after parkin’ the buckboard next to Hop Sing’s kitchen door; he raced inside the house to question Adam. I was about ready to pound him good, but Pa must’ve turned Joe’s thinkin’ back to finishin’ the job at hand. When he made his way back outside with that dreamy look on his face, I heaved a twenty-pound sack of flour at his chest.
“You’re gettin’ on my last nerve, little brother.”
“Oh, sorry, Hoss.”
“Yeah, I bet you are.”
That was day one and by the end of the week, we’d heard all we wanted to hear about Miss Melody Birmingham. In fact, it took nearly a month before Joe simmered down, but during Sunday supper, just as I reached for a second piece of chicken, Joe surprised us all with an earthshatterin’ announcement.
“I’m gonna marry that girl,” he said.
Granted, we was all shocked, and our mouths gapped open like baby birds waitin’ for mama to deliver the goods. None of us had even met the girl. I’d only caught a glimpse from across the street, and I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but that weren’t the worst part. Joe had just turned twenty years old. He was still a kid and he was talkin’ marriage.
“You’re what?” Pa scowled.
Hop Sing, who sensed a heated discussion, backed slowly into the kitchen. Adam dipped his head, and I nearly dropped my chicken leg.
“You heard me. I’m going to ask Mel to be my wife.”
“Joseph,” Pa said in a softer voice. “You barely know the girl.”
“I know her well enough, and you’ll love her too, Pa. She’s so beautiful and smart. She’s—”
“Joseph, please. We’ve heard all that before.”
Melody this and Melody that. Melody tells good stories. Melody laughs at his jokes. Melody plays the piano. Melody, Melody, Melody. I weren’t the only one who’d grown tired of hearing about the love of his life, or so he proclaimed. This certainly wasn’t the first little gal Joe had fallen for and in my estimation, she wouldn’t be the last.
“Why don’t you bring your young lady here for supper Friday night?” Pa said. “I’d, at least, like to meet this girl before we talk any more about wedding plans.”
“Thanks, Pa. I can’t wait for you to meet her. She’s everything I ever dreamed of and more. She’s—”
“Joseph, please . . . .”
I have to admit that Joe’s little gal was everything he said she was. She was smart and witty—an intelligent sort that even Adam found a pleasant change from Joe’s former lady-friends. And, on top of that, she was beautiful. The only holdback concerning Pa was Joe’s age, but one thing was certain in my book. They sure made a handsome couple.
In some ways, they was more alike than different. Melody was blonde and fair-skinned but like Joe, she had the same delicate features his ma passed down to him. She had clear, blue eyes—smilin’ eyes is what I’d call ‘em—and when Joe wasn’t watchin’, she was either lookin’ in his direction or reachin’ for his hand. They complimented each other. I ain’t sure if that makes any sense, but there was an underlyin’ connection between ‘em that even Adam or Pa couldn’t deny.
Though they wasn’t much more’n kids, there was an adultness that showed through. They didn’t hold nothin’ back from each other; in fact, they acted like any other growed-up couple, kind of beyond their years. Even Joe, who we’d thought irresponsible, even reckless at times, had a more settled way about him. Maybe calm was the proper word.
“I think you picked a winner this time,” Adam said late Friday night after Joe had returned from driving Melody back to the widow’s boarding house. I can’t say Adam agreed with marriage at such a young age, but that simple statement comin’ from older brother meant the world to Little Joe.
In days to come, Pa asked about her background. “Where’s she from? Where’s her family? Why is she traveling alone?” But Joe didn’t shy away from any question Pa put to him, and he answered with more gusto than was needed. He took control of the situation.
“She’s from Ohio,” he said. “Her parents are dead but she has two older sisters. She was traveling to San Francisco and planned to stay with her uncle and two cousins until she found a job and could afford a place of her own. But,” he said smiling, “she met me, and I convinced her to stay and—well, you know the rest, Pa.”
Pa let it go at that. It seemed she had nothin’ to hide, but I could tell there was still somethin’ nigglin’ his mind. He never said nothin’, but it was there, and it weren’t just me who noticed. Joe might be the youngest member of the family, but that don’t make him any less smart than the rest of us.
Late one night, not more’n a week later, I’d intended to slip downstairs for a little snack when I heard Joe and Pa talkin’ in soft voices. It weren’t none of my business but from where I stood on the upstairs landing, I could hear some of Pa’s concerns. If I had to guess, I’d say Adam and Pa had been discussin’ the whole marriage situation privately, and the late-night talk with Joe was the end result, but I was proud of Little Joe. He kept from blowin’ up and losin’ his temper even through the tougher questions.
“How well do you really know this girl? Maybe you should slow things down,” Pa said softly, but there was an insistence to his tone. “Take your time. Get to know each other better.”
“How well did you know my mother, Pa? You’ve told me a hundred times it was love at first sight. Were you lying to me?”
“Of course not, son.”
“Then what is it? Why are you so against Mel and me getting married?”
Pa hesitated before he spoke. “Joseph, you’re twenty years old. It has nothing to do with Melody; she’s a lovely young lady but let’s just say I have certain reservations.”
“I’m too young. Is that it? You don’t think I can take care of a wife?”
“I don’t know. Only you can decide.”
“Pa, I love her. I love everything about her. Sure, maybe I’ll make mistakes but doesn’t everyone? Nobody’s perfect. Not me, not Adam, not Hoss. Not even you. We all make errors in judgment, but I know one thing for sure. Mel and I want to be together. We want to be husband and wife. Please understand how I feel.”
I had to give Pa credit too. Whether that late-night talk with Joe or whether something else changed his mind, he turned his thinkin’ around and helped Joe and Melody plan the finest wedding possible. Although she’d sent invitations to her two sisters and to her San Francisco relatives, no one in her family was able to attend the ceremony. I felt kinda sorry for her when all our friends and neighbors poured through the front door to witness the youngest Cartwright take a wife.
Seeing Joe happy made me happy. That boy smiled and laughed all night long, as did his new bride. Chairs were folded and taken to the barn after the official ceremony, leaving enough room for minglin’ and dancin’ and also gave easy access to Hop Sing’s fancy party food. As soon as the three-piece band set up in the far corner of the room, music filled the air and the celebration began. Joe and Melody took center stage for the first dance of the night, and the surrounding crowd cheered and clapped their hands in honor of the young newlyweds. Pa stood by hisself next to the fireplace, and I made my way across the room.
“They’s a handsome couple, ain’t they, Pa?”
“Yes. Yes, they are, son.”
Pa’s voice was sincere. If he’d had reservations, nothin’ showed in front of the bride and groom. He played his part well. He smiled on cue, socialized with the guests and, with a gracious toast to the happy couple; he welcomed Melody into the Cartwright family.
Just seein’ their faces, radiant in the offset glow of candlelight, should’ve been enough convincin’ for anybody who doubted their union. Not a moment went by that Joe and Mel wasn’t lookin’ into each other’s eyes and smilin’ through whispered voices. There was something dreamlike in the way Joe pressed Mel’s hand against his heart. I’d even watched him cup his bride’s face as if noticin’ something new for the very first time.
Maybe I was a little jealous. Not because Joe was younger’n me, but because he had a way with ladies that I never would. Women enjoyed his company and he enjoyed the company of women. Girls had noticed him as far back as I could remember. They was always hopin’ he’d ask them to a Saturday night dance or a Sunday social. Guess he broke a lotta hearts when he said, “I do.” Still, I was proud of my little brother. No matter what Pa had said, he’d fought hard for the woman he loved.
Adam and me had spit-shined and decorated our best buggy with layers of ribbons and a “Just Married” sign we hung on the rear of the carriage. The newlyweds planned to spend their first night at the International House before they left the following morning on a westbound stage for the honeymoon Pa had provided, a week in Sacramento in the bridal suite of some fancy outfit called the Ebner Hotel.
We was all a bit teary-eyed when Hop Sing handed each of us handfuls of rice, but we all wished the bride and groom well as they drove off to begin their new life together.
She penned the letter on hotel stationery.
My Dearest Mary Anne and Margaret,
I’m a married woman now, a very happy married woman, and I can’t wait for you to meet my darling husband and his exceptional family. You and Joe’s eldest brother, Adam, have so much in common, Mary Anne. I can picture the two of you sitting by the fire, discussing—well, anything of importance for hours and hours. He’s definitely your kind of man. And Hoss. What a delightful human being. To be honest, Hoss—his given name is Eric—the middle brother and Joe act like an old married couple the way they squabble and carry on. They’re quite an amusing pair.
Mr. Cartwright is a proud man, a good man, and even though I believe he had reservations about the two of us in the beginning, he’s been most gracious and kind and in time, I hope he’ll think of me as the daughter he never had.
I’ve never been happier. I never knew love could be so pure, so grand, or so perfect. Be happy for me. I’ve found the best man in the world, a dream come true.
Love to you both,
Mrs. Joseph Cartwright
We worked hard that summer. We all took part in building a new house for Joe and Melody. It weren’t a big house, about twice the size of a Ponderosa line shack. Little Joe was happy with most of Adam’s suggestions, a front and back door, plenty of windows, and a closet in the bedroom.
“A what?” Joe asked.
“Rather than using a wardrobe for your clothes, I can build you a closet.”
“What are you saying, Adam?”
“Instead of a freestanding piece of furniture, a closet is permanently attached to a wall. Doors open just like a wardrobe, and you’ll have floor to ceiling shelves for your clothes and boots and, of course, hat boxes and whatever for your wife.”
“I like that idea,” Melody said, overhearing their conversation. “That will work just fine for my things, but what about Joe?”
“Could I please have one shelf?” Joe kidded his new bride.
After sliding her arm around his waist, she winked before kissing her husband’s cheek. “I’ll see if that can be arranged.”
“You’re the architect, Adam, and since my wife’s allowing me a shelf of my own, I say build us a closet.”
After the honeymoon, the newlyweds had no choice but to live in Joe’s bedroom until their house was finished. Melody had moved from the International House and into Clementine’s boarding house when Joe had convinced her to stay in Virginia City. Then, just days before the wedding, he insisted she move out of Miss Clemmy’s and into a guest room on the Ponderosa.
Granted, she hadn’t brought much with her on her journey west. A change of clothes and all them women’s underthings was all she owned, at least until Joe forced her into the Widow McCullough’s dress shop to be measured for a closet full of new garments that were more suitable for western living.
“Can’t have my best girl doing without,” he said.
‘Course this was well after she’d accepted Joe’s proposal of marriage, and I could tell she felt unsure, like she was taking advantage, but as I’ve always said, Joseph is the persuasive type. He was a generous sort too, and even though Melody wavered, Joe forced paper notes in her hand, and she finally put the widow to work.
I’d never seen two happier people on move-in day. Their house was finished, complete with curtains in the windows and a blue and brown braided rug on the living room floor. While Adam had fought with logistics—one of his ten-dollar words—Joe and I had dug a well and a narrow ditch so Adam could lay pipe for a pump at the kitchen sink. Like the closet in their bedroom, an indoor pump was just another modern convenience for the young couple to enjoy.
It weren’t just Joe and Melody who was glad to leave the main house. Pa and Adam and me had used pillows most nights to cover our heads. Though they tried to—well, to keep that part of their marriage behind closed doors, they weren’t always successful. I shouldn’t say it was embarrassin’ but truth be told, my face burned like fire on several occasions.
“Are you happy?”
How many times had he asked since their wedding night? Fifteen? Twenty? But she never grew tired of reinforcing the bond they shared with each other. He was her prince, the man who stole her heart, the man who loved and accepted everything about her. Without realizing, Joe Cartwright had brought a sense peace to her life.
As though rising from the grave, a secret, so painful and so hurtful, had surfaced just months ago, but she vowed not to let her discovery ruin the rest of her life. Lying in bed with her husband’s arm draped around her waist, his lean torso pressed against her naked flesh, she answered his tireless question.
“Of course, I’m happy.”
No longer were they under the watchful eyes and ears of his family. No longer was their lovemaking reserved or hidden behind a locked door. She felt a new and exciting freedom, a reckless passion, and a tireless desire for the man who shared her bed. She rested her hand over his heart.
There was something dreamlike about his touch, the way he’d gazed into her eyes and welcomed her to his world. She’d spent many lonely nights dreaming of love and she pressed herself closer to him, needing to feel the warmth of his body, needing to be reminded that on this night, she wasn’t alone.
She inhaled his scent. His lips grazed her cheek, warm against her skin, and she drew her head back to look at him. Softly, he said her name and took her lips in a kiss that was tender and filled with longing. It was easy to love a man like her husband.
A perfect stranger. Those were her first thoughts when he’d introduced himself in front of the stage depot. A lady’s man, so sure of himself, so full of confidence, and so incredibly handsome that she’d become distracted by his flirtatious smile and easy manner. She’d lowered her guard and accepted his invitation to dinner without even considering who might chaperone such an event.
A sense of foreboding. She traveled alone. She was unknown to anyone in the community, and she’d agreed to have dinner with a total stranger. Had she completely lost her mind? He could be a gunslinger or a bank robber for all she knew. He could easily take advantage, even leave her for dead in some dark alley, and no one would be the wiser. How could she have been taken in so easily? She knew nothing about the cocky, young rich boy, yes, rich boy. She wasn’t blind. She’d noticed his finely tooled gunbelt and his fitted shirt and trousers. No ordinary cowboy could afford such luxuries and yet he seemed so down to earth, so sweet and kindhearted. He had a pleasant way about him, which is why she’d agreed to his dinner invitation.
A change of heart. She’d dealt with enough gentleman callers over the years not to have learned something about charm and arrogance. And though Joe Cartwright was indeed a charmer, there was an underlying sincerity about him. He wasn’t a braggart like most men. Halfway through dinner, she realized he’d never said a word about himself. He’d only inquired about her travels, her home, and her family and, above all, he’d seemed genuinely interested. Who was this man and what made him so different? He’d made her smile. He’d made her laugh and Lord knows she hadn’t found much to laugh about in a long time. Joe Cartwright seemed candid yet sincere but most of all, he was adamant that she not take the next westbound stage. And so, she’d agreed to a second date, and a third, and in three months’ time, she’d become Mrs. Joseph Cartwright.
With the newlyweds settled in their new house, our lives returned to normal, as normal as ranch life could be. Joe still worked with me and Adam. He only lived a couple miles away and he’d ride over in the mornings, and we’d all head out together, almost like nothin’ had changed. But life had changed. I’d gotten used to hearing Melody’s voice all chipper and sweet in the mornings when she’d come down and join us for breakfast. Or in the evenings when she’d catch my little brother cheatin’ me at checkers.
“Stop that,” she’d say and playfully slap his hand.
“I’m just moving my piece,” he’d reply, using his most innocent voice.
Generally, I’d keep quiet, lettin’ them both think I wasn’t aware of any funny business on Joe’s part.
“Your pieces?” Mel would say. “How many did you move this time?”
“Now, sweetheart. How could you think I’d—”
“I know exactly—” and so on until they ended up staring into each other’s eyes, the game forgotten, and they’d move hand-in-hand up the stairs.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Pa said late one night.
I’d been caught daydreamin’ again. It was just me and Pa that night. Adam had business in town, and though he didn’t say exactly what his business was, Pa and I had a good idea. A new seamstress in town, a Miss Edna Jenkins, had recently caught his eye, and he wasted no time showing the young lady about town.
“I was thinkin’ about—well, nothin’ in-particular, Pa,” I said. “Somethin’ on your mind?”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Pa reached inside his vest and pulled out a white envelope. He tapped it against his knee several times before he looked up. “It’s from one of Melody’s sisters. The eldest, Mary Anne.”
“Yeah?” I gleamed. “They comin’ for a visit?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Pa seemed kinda distant. He didn’t say nothin’ more, and I wasn’t sure whether to push him or not. “I’m a good listener,” I said after too much silence.
“Well, she, Mary Anne, that is, references their mother in this letter. Seems she—well, there are—there was,” he corrected, “an incident when Melody was young and—”
“Go on, Pa. It can’t be that bad, can it?”
Pa shook his head. “You tell me, son.”
As Pa unfolded the letter, I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Okay.”
Dear Mr. Cartwright,
Melody is my baby sister. She’s a fine young woman and from the letters I’ve received over these past few weeks, my sister has never been happier. She loves Joseph very much, so what I have to say won’t be easy to read or easy to understand, but I thought someone in the family should know the unpleasantness that—let me start at the beginning.
Our mother died giving birth or so we were told and so we believed, but that wasn’t the case. The baby boy was stillborn and our father—let’s just say he did the unthinkable when his boy-child was pronounced dead. He blamed our mother and he took necessary steps to remove her from our family.
My father wanted sons, many sons, to help on the family farm and he’d been saddled with three girls. Making matters worse, he’d fallen in love with another woman, a younger woman who might give him the sons he needed, and he was determined to have both.
The three of us were young—eight, six, and Melody had just turned five. Believing Mama had died, we all mourned her passing, even Papa played the role of grieving father when, in actuality, he’d had our mother committed to a place called Wellington Estates: An asylum for the mentally insane, where she lived out the remainder of her life.
I doubt my sister has mentioned our family’s disgrace, and I regret not sending this letter sooner. With the announcement of Melody’s marriage to your son, I should have written, but this is a difficult matter to discuss outside the immediate family.
We never doubted our Pa and in time, we accepted our new mother and the two young sons she bore before she also died. Fifteen years later, our father died, and Melody found papers in his desk drawer that literally turned our lives upside down. Mama wasn’t dead. She’d been locked away for nearly fifteen years.
I was the first to visit. I cautioned my siblings not to do the same, but Melody was off to the asylum. Our mother died that day. She died in Melody’s arms, and I regret to say that Mel has never been the same. Something inside her changed. I thought the trip out west would do her good, and then she met your son, and I’m pleased to say she’s found a great deal of happiness with Joseph.
Seeing our mother’s condition after spending so many years in an overcrowded facility had an unsettling effect on my sister, and I doubt she’ll ever forget what she saw in that horrible place. I know I never will. The memories seem to shadow Mel’s existence. She was only five years old when Mama allegedly “died.” She was Mama’s little helper; she loved our mother very much, and she’s never been able to get past the horrors she witnessed inside that asylum.
If Mel should show any signs of melancholy, you’ll understand why. But when I see such a sense of joy in her letters, I’m led to believe Joseph may have been the answer to her prayers, and she can finally put the past to rest. I can only hope she and your son remain in a pure state of happiness throughout their entire lives.
At some point, my sister, Margaret, and I hope to make the journey west and meet our new brother-in-law and his family.
Sincerely yours, Mary Anne Birmingham.
His reply was gruff. “What?”
“She shoulda told us, I guess, but it’s all in the past. It don’t mean nothin’ now does it?”
“Let’s hope not, son. It’s merely background information, and I don’t see how it has any bearing on Joe and Mel’s life now.”
“Did you read the letter to Adam?”
“But you’re gonna tell Joe.”
“No, and you won’t say anything either.”
“Don’t you think he oughta know?”
“No, I don’t.”
“All right. I won’t say nothin’ but—“
“No buts, Hoss. Unless there’s some sort of problem, we’ll keep this business strictly between you and me. No one else needs to know.”
“Not even Adam?”
“Not even Adam.”
Mary Anne’s letter really got to me. It still gets to me if I let it, but Pa seemed definite in his thinkin’. Even though months had passed, them acts of deception and asylums still hung heavy in my mind. Pa was constantly on the lookout for signs of melancholy, but I’d never seen such a happy little gal as Joe’s wife. I’d see Pa starin’ at her whenever she and Joe stopped by the house. Not that stoppin’ by was normal, but Sunday dinners were a given, and Melody would often bring some new dish she’d read or heard about and add it to Hop Sing’s midday feast.
I s’pose I watched her too. I even felt ashamed for lookin’ for problems that didn’t exist. The honeymoon had never ended. She and Joe laughed and teased and carried on like lovers should. There weren’t no sadness, no melancholy I could see. Only a happy couple who were meant to be together.
“Now?” I heard Joe whisper.
“Why not? ” Mel replied softly.
Joe took her hand in his and when the announcement was made, all I could do was grin from ear to ear, but I saw somethin’ different in Pa’s face. Was he still concerned about their age? All he’d ever talked about over the last few years was havin’ grandchildren to bounce on his knee. Well, this was it. Mel was givin’ him his first grandchild, and he should’ve been jumpin’ for joy. Instead, I saw that brief hint of worry.
“Isn’t anyone gonna say anything?” Joe remarked.
Adam raised his wineglass. “Congratulations to you both.”
“Yeah,” I jumped in quickly. “Congratulations, you two.”
“Pa?” Joe said.
Pa cleared his throat. “Wonderful, just wonderful.” Pa rose from his chair and moved toward Melody. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
“You know, Mr. Cartwright. Your son had a part in this too.”
Pa rarely blushed but right then his face had a slightly pink glow and he hesitated before he spoke. “Thank you, Joseph.”
“Oh, no problem, Pa. It was my pleasure.”
A swat to the back of Joe’s head made me chuckle. Even Pa couldn’t help but see the good side of things, and he smiled. His first grandchild, a child to carry on the Cartwright name—ain’t nothin’ better’n that. That’s when I knew Pa was right to keep the letter from Joe. It happened a long time ago, and it was an unnecessary burden to carry. I stood from my chair and proposed another toast.
“To you, Miss Melody, to my brother, Joseph, and to Pa spoilin’ his first grandchild.”
My Dearest Mary Anne and Margaret,
Are you sitting down? I can’t explain my surprise when the local doctor confirmed my suspicions. Have you guessed already? Yes? Then you are correct in your assumptions. I’m going to have a baby, Joe’s baby, and he’ll be the most beautiful boy in the territory. My husband couldn’t be happier. He’s so anxious to be a father; I think he might burst into pieces. He says I’ve made him the happiest man alive. The way he treats me, you’d think I was made of cut glass. I wish you were both here to share in the joy of your first nephew or, to be fair, your first niece.
Love to you both. Melody.
Cattle drives were a bi-yearly part of life on a cattle ranch. Roundup was finished, and we’d start the drive to Sacramento tomorrow at sunup. Drovers had been hired, and Hop Sing filled the chuckwagon with supplies while I made a final check on the mounts we’d take with us. Thanks to Joe, we had a good string of cuttin’ horses this year. He’d worked hard over the past few months to gentle the eight new geldings we’d take with us.
“Hey, little brother,” I called out when Joe rode into the yard. “Didn’t ‘spect to see you up and about this early.” Joe slid off Cochise and tied him to the rail. “Somethin’ wrong?”
“Mel was up half the night. I guess throwing up everything you eat is all part of the deal.”
I scrunched my face. “Eww, that ain’t good.”
“I shouldn’t even be here, Hoss. I should be home with my wife instead of running off to Sacramento on a stupid cattle drive.”
“Maybe you should talk to Pa.”
“You know I can’t. It’s too late for that. I should’ve told him a week ago so he could hire someone to replace me.”
“Then I’ll tell him.”
“No,” Joe said, shaking his head. “I’d never hear the end of it.”
“What does Mel say?”
“I don’t know.” Joe kicked at a clod of dirt. “She tells me to go, but I can see in her eyes that she’s afraid to stay home alone, especially—you know, since she ain’t been feeling that well. There—there’s other things too.”
“What d’ya mean?”
“I probably shouldn’t even be talking about such things but—well, Mel remembers her ma losing a baby when she was just a little kid. She said it was a real hard time for her family.”
“That’s all she said?”
I swallowed hard, but I kept my thoughts to myself. “Ah, Joe. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to this baby. Mel’s as healthy as an ox.”
“Better not say that in front of my wife, big brother.”
“Healthy as a horse?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, that’s better.”
The way them two was, always so playful and happy with each other, I wondered how Mel would deal with Joe’s absence. I was more’n tempted to tell Pa what she’d said about her ma losin’ the baby, but Joe told me about Mel in confidence. I didn’t think he wanted her story retold, but Joe was right about the drive. He should’ve spoke up earlier. It was too late to back out now. The drive was only a day away.
“Move ‘em out, boys!” Pa shouted over his shoulder.
Eight hundred head of beeves trailed behind. Hop Sing drove the chuckwagon out an hour earlier so he’d have lunch ready by the time we arrived with the herd. There were the four of us and the four drovers we’d hired, and we’d all be mighty hungry fellers by noontime.
Joe should’ve stayed home with Mel. I could kick myself for not tellin’ Pa. Not that I knew much about a woman in that condition, but maybe Pa would’ve insisted Joe not come on the drive. We could’ve got along without him. Men died runnin’ cattle. If a man didn’t give a hundred percent, he endangered everyone else, and I knew Little Joe’s mind was miles away.
Slate gray clouds swirled above us. We was four days into the drive when the rain began. Lightning spooked the herd and a brutal clap of thunder forced a stampede. Adam rode ahead to meet Pa. Joe and Lester rode drag, and between the billowing cloud of dust and the sheets of blowin’ rain, I couldn’t see much of nothin’. Soon, we’d be trompin’ through fields of slick, muddy slime.
“We’re turning the herd south.” Adam pressed his hat tighter to his forehead and tried to yell through a frantic devil-wind. Even though he’d ridden up close, I could barely make out the words. “There’s a box canyon. We’ll hole up there.”
“Right,” I yelled back. “I’ll tell Chuck and Rick.”
Adam tipped water from his brim then rode on ahead to tell Joe and Les. I moved forward to do my part, and by the time we had the cattle boxed in and settled for the night, I was beat, everyone was. And the rain kept comin’ down, soakin’ us clear to the bone.
Normally, Little Joe would’ve been the first to complain, but he hadn’t said a word. He hadn’t said much of anything durin’ the entire trip. A soggy dinner and soaked bedrolls usually got him so riled that Pa would pull him aside and tell him he wasn’t the only one who was miserable. In other words, grow up and shut up, but that didn’t happen.
“Want some more coffee?” I said.
“No, I’m fine.”
“What’s got into you, little brother? You ain’t been yourself this whole trip?”
“No? How should I be?”
It weren’t the answer I was expectin’ but just then, Hop Sing came by with his oversized coffee pot. I held out my cup, as did Joe. “Thought you didn’t want no more coffee.”
“I changed my mind, okay?”
I waited for Hop Sing to move on down the line before I started in on Joe. “Somethin’ botherin’ you, boy?”
Joe and I shared a campfire with two of the drovers, Chuck and Rick, but they both passed on Hop Sing’s coffee, said goodnight, and pulled their sodden blankets over their heads. I scooted closer to Joe.
“Missin’ your wife, ain’t ya?”
“Yeah? Anything wrong with that?”
“’Course not. I didn’t mean nothin’, Little Joe,” I said, feeling the need to apologize. “You’ve been kind of down in the mouth, that’s all.”
“I never should’ve come on the drive. I never should’ve argued with Mel. I should’ve stayed home with my wife.”
“Argued? I didn’t think you two ever disagreed on nothin’.”
“We did this time.”
“Things like that is bound to happen, right?”
Joe’s voice was just above a whisper. Somehow, I’d made things worse. “Hey,” I said. “All married couples have silly arguments. Take Pa and Mama for example. Whew! They had some doozies. I was just a little shaver when you was born, but I can still remember Adam draggin’ me to my room so I wouldn’t hear nothin’ I shouldn’t.”
“Did he really?”
“Sure, he did.”
Joe loved hearin’ tales about his mama, and though I’d tried to sound optimistic, I weren’t sure if I got my point across or not. People argue. It weren’t the end of the world, but maybe it was their first, and that’s why Joe was in such a mood.
The rain had stopped more’n a half-hour ago, but we was still damp and cold and miserable. Joe pulled his blanket over his shoulders and moved a bit closer to the fire. “We better get some sleep,” he said.
“Don’t you worry none about Melody,” I said then realized it was a stupid thing to say. ‘Coarse he was worried, ‘specially if he left the house without settin’ things straight. “Bet she can’t wait till you get home.”
“She’s not the only one.”
There was a sadness to Joe’s voice, a sorrowful tone that, I s’pose, comes from bein’ separated from the one you love. It’s as though he’d failed to—I don’t know. Failed his wife in some way? No, I knew he’d never say or do nothin’ hurtful to Mel. He loved her too much. She was his golden girl, his princess.
Her body pitched forward as though she’d been kicked by a mule. An unexpected pain, grating, causing the three-legged stool to wobble, and she gripped at the teat tighter than normal. When Jezebel turned and bawled hot breath in her face, she cursed the angry cow and kicked the stool away.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m done. Are you satisfied?”
Wind whipped at her skirt tail. Rain had soaked the ground overnight and had yet to let up. Setting her bucket aside, Mel pushed blowing strands of hair from her face before she latched the double barn doors. Having slept little during the all-night storm, she was in no mood for milk cows or hungry chickens; she wished she could go back to bed. As she picked up the half-full pail, a grinding pain hit hard, and her legs folded beneath her. Milk splashed from the bucket and disappeared into the sodden earth. She cradled her stomach with both hands; she prayed it wasn’t so, but as muscles contracted and wetness seeped between her legs, she gathered her billowing skirt and leaned into the contractions.
Just a few steps away, the house seemed to vanish in and out behind a sheet of fog that had dipped low to the ground. She stood and stumbled forward, grabbed the wooden handrail, and climbed the two steps. She slipped through the back door, slammed it closed, and collapsed next to the warm cast-iron stove.
“Keep the doors locked, sweetheart. I can’t have anything happen to my best girl.”
His final words meant nothing now. She closed her eyes; she recalled the night before he’d left on the drive. They made love, uninhibited, almost animalistic in their response to one another. He’d been so wanting, so engaging, so passionate, that tears burned her eyes. But the joy of their lovemaking was overridden by another brutal pain. She cried out his name. She’d been such a fool. She’d let him ride away when she needed him most.
They’d fought over his leaving. He’d wanted to stay and she’d told him to go. She’d been adamant, and she saw the hurt in his eyes. Their first real argument. Silly really. All lies. She hadn’t wanted him to leave and yet she’d forced him to walk out the door. She couldn’t lay blame. It was no more his fault than hers, but what would he think now? What would he say? Were all men alike? Would he blame her for losing his firstborn son?
Life had been so good. A moonlit night by the lake, the time of conception—or so she believed—seemed wasted, a spoiled and distant memory. It doesn’t matter if you spend time with the one you love or not. In the end you’re alone.
The baby died. Mama died, but you didn’t die, did you, Mama?
Lost in memories, a shadowy vision of the skeletal human being who died in her arms made her shiver and wrap her own self tightly. Was her wellbeing at stake? No! Joe loved her, loved everything about her. He’d never send her away. He wasn’t like Papa. He was kind and—and no, not her husband. Not Joe. A wave of heat swept over her, terrifying, constricting every movement.
Wet clothes, wet hair, her body ached. She dragged herself to a seated position and leaned back against the kitchen wall. Layers of mud mixed with blood saturated the front of her shirt. Her mother’s blood, no—no her own, a blend so intense that the dark stain frightened her even more. She closed her eyes, covered her face with both hands, and a form appeared. A distant, shadowy form of the man she despised more than any other.
“No, Papa,” she cried. “Don’t send my mama away.”
Despite several days of foul weather, the herd was delivered on time. Only a couple of loses crossin’ the Truckee, but that was expected. Not that we didn’t try to save every last steer, but I ‘spect it was God’s will. Still, my mind focused on Joe and Mel, and though Joe never said another word about his troubles, I knew deep down he longed to be home with his wife.
After a celebratory dinner in Sacramento, Pa paid the drovers and all four men headed for the nearest saloon. Pa booked a suite in the Ebner Hotel for the four of us. Joe was familiar with the bridal suite, and I asked if our rooms were just as nice.
“Pretty much,” he said. “Only Mel and I shared a big canopy bed with a pink, flowery quilt, and pink, flowery wallpaper, and pink, flowery chairs and . . . you get the gist, right?”
“Lots of pink,” I said.
“You got it, brother.” Joe turned his head. “She loved it, Pa.”
“I’m glad, son. A woman deserves the best honeymoon money can by.”
“Speaking of honeymoons,” Adam said. We all turned our attention to elder brother. “You haven’t said much this trip. Is the honeymoon finally over?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe fired back.
“Then why’d you say it?”
“I’m sorry. I certainly didn’t mean anything—“
“Then keep your mouth shut.”
‘That’s enough, boys. We’re all tired and what we need now is a good night’s sleep.”
“Come on, Joe,” I said. I wrapped my arm around my little brother’s shoulder and guided him into one of the bedrooms adjoining the sitting area. I weren’t in the mood for a full-scale war between my two brothers. “You sleep with me. Promise I won’t snore . . . too loud.”
She hadn’t asked him to come. She hadn’t expected visitors, and she’d been a fool to answer the door, but she had, and one look at her red-rimmed eyes told him everything he needed to know. The doctor was a kind man, a gentle man, and he appraised the situation. She couldn’t deny his suspicions.
“When?” Paul asked.
“Yesterday,” she answered.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cartwright.”
They talked briefly before he gave her a full exam. He asked how she was feeling. He asked when Joe would be home from the drive. He asked if he could send someone out to stay with her for the next few days, but she assured him that she’d be fine, that Joe would be home soon and there wasn’t reason for worry. But worry she did.
With their bedroom blanketed in darkness, she lay under heavy quilts and allowed distant memories to sweep over her. Dark days. Days of silent mourning. A lonely little girl who cried out for a dead mother. Dead, forever gone from this earth but would find peace in heaven.
“Why, Papa?” In the dark of night, she found herself talking to a dead man. “Fifteen years of hell—not heaven. Do you have any idea what you put Mama through? Did you even care?”
We said our goodbyes at the fork in the road. It had been a long three weeks. I rode home with Pa and Adam, and Joe headed home to his wife. Nothin’ more was said about honeymoons and such, but Joe still weren’t actin’ hisself. Over supper one night, when Pa asked a simple question about how Mel was feelin’, Joe’s answer was curt, almost snippy, and that weren’t normal for Little Joe. Usually, we couldn’t shut him up when it came to talkin’ about Mel and the baby. Not this trip, though. Things seemed different somehow.
Every Monday morning, one of us would drive the buckboard into town for supplies. Seeing how Pa allowed us an extra bonus—a drink or two at the saloon—the three of us would take turns. With Little Joe gone, it was just me and Adam, but I wanted to talk to Joe, and I thought he might loosen up some over a couple of nice cold beers.
“Adam,” I said during breakfast. I didn’t ask much of my brothers so a small favor shouldn’t upset the applecart too much. “Mind if I go for supplies?” A look of disappointment came over him, but I continued anyway. “I wanna take Joe with me. That’s if you don’t mind, Pa,” I finished, glancin’ his way.
“No, I don’t mind, son. Work it out with Adam. I’d like one of you to ride over to Walt Aragon’s. He has a stallion he wants to sell.”
“I’ll go,” Adam said. “I’d rather check out the horse without Joe’s input anyway.”
“Good. Thanks, big brother.”
Pa didn’t question Adam’s remark, and he didn’t question my request, but the way he held his coffee cup with both hands and didn’t bother to sip, I knew he was wonderin’ what was so-fired important that it took two of us to pick up a week’s supplies when there was countless other chores needed doin’.
Joe was late showin’ up for work.
“Think I’ll go pick him up. Nice mornin’ for a drive.”
“Don’t take all day,” Pa said.
Early dawn light filtered through her east-facing window, and she woke to her husband’s touch, gentle yet hesitant. Sitting on the bed beside her, his hand grazed lightly across her back and shoulders though his caress was unnatural, uncertain. He’d taken refuge outside their bedroom the night before, but mornings always brought a new day.
When he’d tried to touch her, to love her, she’d raised her voice and distanced herself from her husband. She couldn’t welcome him home the way a wife should. She couldn’t lie next to him, and she couldn’t tell him the reason why. The truth would end their marriage, or worse. He wanted a son. He talked of nothing else. Joe wasn’t much more than a child himself. Always laughing. Always joking. He would have made a wonderful father if only he’d been given the chance.
Three weeks had seemed like a lifetime. Long enough to treasure the happy moments only to have those precious memories destroyed by God’s hand, a cruel and angry god. Not the god of love and mercy, but what had she done to deserve such a curse?
She’d closed the bedroom door, and she’d cried for the way things had once been. Though he wasn’t at fault, she couldn’t help herself; she couldn’t control her anger. Papa’s face loomed before her and with unexpected rage; she’d backhanded the haunting face.
He’d touched his fingers to the warm mark on his cheek, but he didn’t step forward. He didn’t strike back. He only stared in disbelief.
He’d ridden up late that afternoon; she’d watched him from the front window. She adjusted her waistband and unconsciously ran her hand down the front of her skirt, sensing the hollow void where their child had been. Instead of stabling his horse, he dropped his reins to the ground and raced toward the house. A smile crossed his face when he burst through the open front door.
“God, I missed you,” he’d said. She hardly had time to react before he swept her off her feet and twirled her in a full circle. He’d kissed her deep. His touch was wanting, eager, hungry for more than she was able to give. “I’ll never stay away that long again.”
“You’re back early.”
“Two days,” he replied. “Lots of rain, but we managed just fine.” He took a step back, an arm’s length, but he kept her hands locked in his. “Looks like you managed fine without me. Any troubles? Problems?”
She shook her head. He kissed her fingers then let her hands drop to her sides. He unbuckled his gunbelt, coiled it, and laid his hat and gun on the kitchen table. Nuzzling her neck from behind, he pressed his hand to her stomach.
“Papa’s home, little one. I won’t ever leave you two again.”
She couldn’t control her feelings. She grew rigid under his touch. Her breathing became heavy, labored. She couldn’t let him sense her despair, and she wriggled herself from his hold. She turned to face him. She forced a smile.
“Don’t you want to wash up?”
“Do I smell that bad?” He chuckled. “Okay, I can take a hint. I’ll clean up first.”
First. Oh, God. She knew what he wanted. He’d been gone nearly three weeks, and his desire demanded she volunteer herself to him, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t let him touch her, not there, not anywhere that would remind her how she’d failed him, failed herself, failed to be a mother. Like her own mother. Her desperate, dying mother.
She’d never let anger get the better of her. She never dreamed she could strike out or cause physical pain, but she had, and after realizing what she’d done, she’d crouched to the floor. She’d covered her face and held back her tears. He stumbled across the room. She’d heard a keening moan. Had she struck him again?
He expected a response, but she ignored him. She was aware of his presence on the edge of the bed, but he hadn’t moved any closer. His gentle touch was soothing, calming, though she still couldn’t turn and face him. The angry red mark on his cheek would only serve as a reminder of what she’d become—a raving lunatic? A candidate for the nearest asylum? Dreams seemed real. Visions of the past begged to be heard.
“Talk to me, Mel. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She sensed fear in his voice yet she was frozen to a pillow dampened by last night’s tears. The vision had been so real. Her anger had been real.
“Forget last night,” he said, still moving his hand in gentle circles across her back. “I’ve already forgotten about it.”
Lies, all lies. There was no forgetting. There was no taking it back and starting over. This wasn’t a classroom spelling bee where Miss Collier would let her take it back. No, this was the final test. The final round. No taking it back.
A clatter of movement sounded outside. Her husband stood and walked toward the window. He moved the curtain aside and looked out. “It’s my brother,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
I pulled the buckboard up close to Joe’s front porch and jumped down from the seat. Joe and Mel were proud of their new place. It was a homey setting, mainly because we’d left as many trees standin’ as possible, clearin’ only enough ground to raise the little house and outbuildings. With bright red flower boxes under the two front windows, the clapboards painted a smoky-gray, their home had a real fine welcomin’ appearance.
When I glanced toward one of the windows, I saw the curtain moved aside and moments later; Joe stepped out to the porch. With his hands on his hips, he glared at me.
“What’re you doing here?” His tone was sharp.
“Came to pick you up,” I said. “Hoped you ride into town with me for supplies.” His hands remained planted like he wasn’t sure what to do. “Don’t you wanna go? I traded Adam so we could go together.”
“Hang on. I—I’ll just be a minute.”
Minutes passed. Normally, Mel would ask me in for a cup of coffee, sometimes a second breakfast. “Don’t just sit there,” she’d call from the doorway. I’ve got hot apple fritters or way too many flapjacks for just Joe and me.” When that didn’t happen, I started to feel uneasy; like I was trespassin’ or interruptin’ somethin’ I shouldn’t.
Carryin’ his holster over his shoulder, Joe shut the door behind him then took a minute to buckle his gunbelt and tie the leather thong around his leg. He adjusted his hat lower on his forehead than usual before climbin’ up next to me.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
Somethin was up. Joe winced when he sat down on the wooden seat. “You hurt yourself, little buddy?”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Caught the tip of my boot on the rug and cracked myself against the kitchen table.”
“Ouch,” I said. “Bet that smarted some.”
“Just drive, Hoss.”
We rode in silence. Joe had nothing more to say and as close as we’d been all our lives, I couldn’t find words of my own. After stopping in front of the mercantile, I handed Jake the list of supplies. He said it would take about an hour, which was all the time I needed to loosen Joe’s tongue at the nearby saloon.
“Joe and I’ll be back to load up,” I said and gave a quick wave.
“How ‘bout a beer, little brother?”
We walked to the Silver Dollar. “This okay?”
Joe’s deadpan voice made my insides fidget some, but what made me even more uneasy was when I noted the red mark on his cheek and bruise under his left eye. Sittin’ beside him in the buckboard, I hadn’t seen nothin’ but inside the saloon, his face was in plain sight.
“You must have tumbled head first when you caught your toe, Joseph.”
He touched his cheek with his hand. “It shows?”
“Sure does. You really clobbered yourself.”
“Yeah, guess I did at that.”
“Two beers, Sam,” I called out to the only bartender this early in the mornin’.
I laid two bits on the bar, we picked up our drinks, and though the saloon wasn’t crowded this early in the day, we took an empty table a good distance from an ongoing poker game. Joe sat down first, his hat still drawn low, covering a good deal of his face.
“How’s Mel feelin’ these days,” I asked, trying to drum up some chatter.
“What?” I chuckled. “That don’t sound like her.”
“Things change, Hoss. People change.”
“I didn’t mean to pry, little brother.”
Joe’s reply bothered me. “People change?” Is that what he’d said? ‘Course, I’m sure all married couples change somewhat once they settled into a routine, but I wanted to keep Joe talkin’ even if it weren’t about his wife.
“Adam rode over to look at Walt Aragon’s stallion,” I said.
“Pa says he’s only green-broke. You up for the job?”
“Okay, Joseph. Somethin’s botherin’ you, boy. Talk to me.”
“What do you want me to say?”
I held two fingers up to Sam, signaling for two more beers.
“Let me know if Adam buys the horse. I’ll break him.”
“That ain’t what I’m talkin’ about and you know it.”
“Then you tell me,” Joe said. His eyes narrowed. “What exactly are we talking about?”
“Well, for starters, why are you so upset? You ain’t actin’ yourself at all.”
“I don’t know what you want from me, Hoss.”
After droppin’ Joe at home—without an invitation to step inside—I said goodbye and drove the buckboard back to the house. I pulled up close to the kitchen door and began unloadin’ supplies. Pa stood just inside the doorway. He was anxious for an explanation and unexpectedly; he helped me unload so we’d finish that much sooner.
“Well?” Pa said when we were alone and had moved into the alcove where he sat down behind his desk.
“Well, what?” I said, knowing exactly what he wanted but unwilling to tell tales that weren’t no one else’s business.
“I assume you and Joseph talked.”
“Well? Did he say anything out of the ordinary?”
“He didn’t say hardly two words to me, Pa. I tried everything I knew how, but he clammed up tighter’n I don’t know what.”
“That’s not like Joseph. I could tell he was upset during the drive. What’s he hiding, Hoss? What’s he holding back?”
“Maybe he ain’t hidin’ nothin’, Pa,” I said freely. Exasperated by Pa’s assumptions, I held back more’n I should have, but it weren’t my place to tell. “Maybe he missed his wife is all.”
“No, son, there’s more. I know there’s something more.”
That damn letter always rode at the back of our minds. It was silly really. Joe had always been the moody sort. Up one day and down the next, you never knew what side of the bed he’d get up on and besides, Pa should be used to Joe’s mood swings by now. Maybe we was worryin’ over the wrong person. Maybe it weren’t Melody but Joe who had bouts of melancholy.
Pa had worried over us boys since we was newborn’s, but this whole Joe and Mel thing really ruffled his feathers, and there weren’t nothin’ I could say or do to bring him comfort. The drive was over and Joe was back home with his wife. If her feathers had been ruffled too, I’m sure Joe had ‘em smoothed back in place by now. He was good at that sort of thing. They didn’t call him a lady’s man for nothin’.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Time was running out. Her husband had returned home, but how long until he realized the truth? His words of comfort were of no value. His pleading words were all lies. It had to end; it had to stop before his compassionate ways broke through her resistance. The more he begged forgiveness, the harder she fought to push him away, but the little voice remained.
“Get outta my head, Papa. “
And though her husband’s voice was gentle, she’d become confused. Two very distinct voices competed for attention. Soft-spoken words contradicted everything she knew to be true and without warning, her fury gave way, and she reached for his favorite rifle.
The vision of evil had to be silenced. Grabbing the barrel with both hands, she lifted the heavy weapon up over her head and readied herself for the first blow. His eyes rounded like saucers—wide, unbelieving—but she couldn’t give in. She couldn’t show weakness or fear, and the weapon came down hard against his right shoulder. He fell to his knees. He covered his face and slumped to the floor, turning his back to each hysterical blow.
He hadn’t reached out. He hadn’t tried to stop her. His words became thick like molasses, long and slurred, begging her to stop, but her rage was constant, heightened, as she lifted the rifle for another damning blow.
She wasn’t like Mama. She’d taken control of her life. Mama didn’t know how cruel life could be until it was too late. Tears streaked her face, but she couldn’t hold back. Even after he’d fallen to the floor, the voice she heard wasn’t his; he’d made no sound at all. The evil monster had been silenced.
She fell back against the far wall. Everything about the room was shadowy, misty, as if a dream. The sofa and chair looked watery, indistinct. Her husband hadn’t moved; his body was rigid and tightly coiled, but like a snake in tall summer grass, he could always unwind.
She palmed her hands over her ears. She closed her eyes and buried her head against pulled-up knees. Sweat trickled the sides of her face. Her hair had come loose. Falling forward, it layered her in walls of darkness much like the stone walls that had confined her sweet mother.
“You won’t confine me too, Joe Cartwright. I’ll die first.”
I dressed and came down the stairs, but I was surprised to note that Adam wasn’t sitting at the breakfast table. “Where’s big brother?” I asked Pa.
“He rode out already.”
“The stallion? What’d you two decide?”
Pa poured me a cup of coffee and freshened his own. “Adam says he’s a magnificent animal but thought Walt was a bit too high on the price.”
“What’d you think?”
“Well, I haven’t seen him, of course, but your brother will work on Walt, see if he can knock a couple hundred off the asking price.”
I smiled to myself. Both of my brothers had certain knacks and Adam was the shrewd one. Investing money was like a game to him, and paying full price when he could bargain a man down was all part of the game. Poor Walt wouldn’t know what had hit him.
“I thought Joseph would be here by now,” Pa said.
I glanced up from my ham and eggs at the grandfather clock. “He’ll be here shortly,” I said. Joe weren’t known for risin’ with the sun. No tellin’ how many times over the years Pa had sent me back upstairs to wake that boy. “Could be they both overslept this mornin’, Pa. Things happen, you know. Things even little brother can’t control.”
Pa’s heavy sigh was my only answer.
“You want us to work on them fences up by Oak draw?”
“I suppose you better.”
“I’ll go load the wagon. Joe should be ridin’ in before I’m finished.”
But Joe didn’t ride in. I’d loaded the wagon with posts and wire and all the tools we’d need, and still no sign of little brother. If this became common practice, Pa’d raise a fit every morning, and I’d never hear the end of it. “Come on, Joseph,” I mumbled. “Where the heck are you, boy?”
I’d stalled as long as I could inside the barn, and I was headin’ back toward the house when Pa opened the front door. “Not here yet?”
“No, sir.” Pa was fuming, and I spoke real calm like, as though nothin’ was amiss. “Think I’ll ride on over and—“
“You do that, son, and you make sure you tell that brother of yours that this is a working ranch, and this is the last time he pulls a stunt like—“
“I will, Pa. I’ll tell him.”
I saddled Chubby. Joe’s house was the opposite direction from Oak draw, and there weren’t no since draggin’ a heavy load there and back. Besides, in all likelihood, I’d run into Little Joe on the way, give him Pa’s warning, and be done with it. I hated playin’ “man in the middle” so that warnin’ weren’t comin’ just from Pa. That brother of mine was gettin’ an earful from me too.
I didn’t meet Joe on the road and when I rapped on his front door, there weren’t no answer. I tried again. Still nothin’, so I made my way around the house to the barn where I was surprised to see Cochise saddled and munchin’ on a clump of grass outside the open double doors.
“Joseph?” I called. I pushed one of the doors wide open, but it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the shadowy darkness. “Little Joe?” I heard him before I saw him. “Joe? Whatcha doin’, boy?” He was down on all fours. The putrid smell of vomit filled the air. Slowly, he stood to his feet, but he struggled to keep his balance, and he was forced to lean against an upright post. “You hurt?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“No, you ain’t?”
I stared at the outline of my brother’s thin frame. With his arm wrapped around his middle, keeping his feet planted firmly seemed to be more difficult than it should’ve been. He’d thrown up on the barn floor. I couldn’t count how many times he’d been sick after too many beers on a Saturday night, but that weren’t the case this time. At least, I didn’t think he’d be drunk at this hour.
“What’d you do to yourself this time?”
“Just an accident, Hoss,” he said. “It’s nothing.”
“Nothin’? You can’t even stand up straight. Was you in a fight?”
“No. Just forget it. I told you it was nothing.”
“If you say so, little brother.”
I followed Joe outside. He walked toward his horse. I hesitated briefly, wondering if he planned to close the barn doors. Something weren’t right. He weren’t thinkin’ straight neither. He never would’ve walked away and left the doors wide open. There was no swing mount either, and he grimaced somethin’ fierce when his backside hit the saddle.
“You ain’t gonna tell me what happened, is that right? You’re just gonna sit there and be miserable all by yourself?”
“Let’s ride,” he said.
After leading Chubb and Cochise to their respective stalls at the main house, we headed out in the loaded wagon. Joe still weren’t talkin’, but he kept his arm wrapped around his middle while I drove. He kept his head down too, but I’d already seen fresh bruises that hadn’t been there before.
“Is Pa mad?”
“What’d you think?”
“Tell him I overslept. It won’t happen again.”
“Why don’t you tell him?” My last words shut him up, and that weren’t my intention. I wanted him to talk and I’d shut him down completely with my smart remark. “Pa ain’t the bad guy here, Joseph. Any reasonable explanation goes a long way with him.” I glanced at Joe when he didn’t answer, and I was taken aback by what I saw. Tears streaked his face. I pulled up on the reins. “Talk to me, boy.”
I weren’t going no farther. I could sit here all day if I had to. Joe wiped the back of his hand across his eyes then again across his face. I turned slightly in the seat.
“It wasn’t an accident,” he said.”
“No? What was it then?” His jaw muscles worked like he wanted to talk, but the words wouldn’t come. “Joe?”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“I’m gonna pound whoever did this to you.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You just watch me, boy. Who done this to you?”
Joe chuckled softly. “It’s not what you think, Hoss.”
“Then tell me what I should think.”
“I can’t, and don’t say anything to Pa.”
“Dadburn your hide.” I was smokin’ mad now. “Who done this, Joe?”
After a long, drawn-out silence, Joe finally looked up, but he didn’t look my way. His watery eyes was set straight forward like he was lookin’ into another world, one that didn’t include me.
“It was my wife.”
Joe was in no shape to dig postholes, and I was still tryin’ to grasp what he’d said. I offered to drive him into town. “I’ll unload the wagon,” I said, “and we’ll make a quick trip to see the doc.” But he refused, and maybe I would’ve too under the circumstances. No man wants to tell the story Joe told me. No man wants to be made a fool of in front of friends or family, especially a proud, young man like Joe.
In some respects, my brother was barely a man or maybe that’s just how I saw him. Joe was twenty years old, but he’d always been my baby brother. In fact, we all thought of him as the baby of the family. Married or not, he’d always been our Little Joe, the boy Adam and Pa and me vowed to protect, but we were talkin’ about somethin’ real different now.
“She’s changed, Hoss.” His voice was soft, and I strained to hear every word. “She’s not the same.” Changed. Was that the key to Joe’s troubles? Could past events have somethin’ to do with that change?
“What’d you mean, Joseph?”
“Promise you won’t tell Pa?”
“Joe—” I grimaced like a schoolboy who was sworn to secrecy and knew by the end of the day, the teacher would find out anyway. “I can’t promise nothin’ like that. You gotta tell Pa.”
But his watery eyes said different and they took me back to a time years ago when we was both schoolboys, when a skinny little kid needed to fight his own battles. Challenged to schoolyard brawls, I’d have done anything to set them bullyboys straight, but Joe always pushed me away. “It ain’t your fight, brother. It’s mine.”
”All right fine,” I said. “I promise not to tell Pa.” And then I waited, but Joe was in no hurry to talk. We’d taken a break from fencin’; at least I had since Joe was unable to work. I sat down next to him on the tailgate and he finally began to explain. He was hurtin’ somethin’ fierce. He looked so desperate and sad, and when I slid my hand across his shoulders, he flinched at my touch. I lowered my hand to my lap.
“So tell me what happened,” I said. “Wife or not, that don’t give her the right to pound on you.”
“I know, but what if word got out. What if Pa found out? All I’d hear is I told you so, but that’s not the worst of it. The worst part is knowing how much she hates me. She really hates me, brother.”
“Aw, Joseph. I don’t believe that. Your wife don’t hate you.”
I nearly laughed. Joe sounded like a five-year-old with his, “Wanna bet” answer. But this was serious stuff, and I weren’t about to make light of the situation.
“When’d all this start—I’m mean, why all the sudden?” I remembered right after the drive when Joe said he’d caught his toe on the rug. I knew now that there’d never been no toe-catchin’. It had been a bold-faced lie, yet I understood why he’d kept silent about the sudden changes in Mel. “Cantankerous?” he’d said. I’d call it somethin’ else altogether.
“After the drive,” he mumbled softly.
“Was she mad at you for leavin’?”
“I don’t know. It’s like—it’s like she isn’t herself anymore. Like something’s come over her, but it makes no sense. I can’t figure it out. I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know what to do.”
“And you ain’t told nobody else?”
Joe’s head popped up; his eyes wide as saucers. “You’re joking, right?”
“Guess I was, but now that it’s all been said, what’re you gonna do?”
“What am I supposed to do? She’s my wife, Hoss. She’s carrying our child. I can’t hit back. God knows I’d never hit a woman.”
“No, no, no, that ain’t the answer.” Joe was beggin’ for help, and I didn’t know what to tell him, but I knew who would. “You gotta tell Pa.” It was time Joe knew about the letter. It might mean somethin’. I didn’t know for sure, but it was worth a shot.
Joe eased off the tailgate. He wobbled some before he took hold of the long side of the wagon. “You promised, Hoss.”
“But this is different, Joe. Pa can help you.”
“No! I mean it. You can’t tell Pa.”
When we returned to the house, Joe managed to saddle Cochise and ride out without Pa seein’ him. The kid was lightnin’-fast when he wanted to be, and I was still unharnessing the team when Pa popped his head inside the barn.
“He already left,” I said. “He was anxious to get home.”
“That boy,” Pa growled.
“Aw, Pa. Don’t be too hard on him.”
“Hard on him?” Ben growled. “He doesn’t have five minutes to say hello to his own father?”
“Maybe he had other things on his mind,” I said as calmly as possible. “He’s a married man, you know. This is just his day job.”
“I’m well aware, son. I thought he’d, at least, stick around to see the new stallion.”
“Adam brought him home?”
“Sure did. He’s a real beauty. Everything Walt promised and more.”
I made it through the barn conversation without betrayin’ my brother’s confidence and through supper without givin’ anything away. I talked about the new stallion rather than Joe’s situation and managed to keep his secret safe. We’d talk again tomorrow while I finished the fencin’ and the day after if need be. I had to make him understand we was all there to help, ‘specially our pa.
Visions of Wellington haunted her. An asylum for the insane. The road to perdition was paved by the sins of her father. An everlasting hell. No one was cured. No one was ever thought about again.
I’d slipped down a dimly lit hallway. I’d entered through a back door in search of the truth, knowing I’d carry that truth for the rest of my life, and what I found was filth and disease, and wild-eyed women caged like animals. Thrusting bare arms through narrow iron bars, I kept a few feet away.
Forcing myself forward, I tried not to look but how could I not? My own mother had spent a lifetime staring at gray, dingy walls and asking why. As careful as I’d been, my presence hadn’t gone unnoticed. Footsteps sounded behind me, but backing into the shadows couldn’t save me from a giant of a man towering over me.
“You there!” I lifted my skirts; I tried to run, but he grabbed my arm and twisted me toward him. Tall and wide-shouldered, I never stood a chance. “Who the hell are you?”
“My mother,” I cried. “I’ve come to find my mother.”
“This way.” He dragged me to a much different part of the building and stood me in front of a gentleman dressed in a suit and tie. “I found her roaming the hallways, Doctor.”
The man looked down at me. “What’s this all about, young lady?”
“My mother. Mary Birmingham. I’ve come to see her.”
The suited man turned his back and moved slowly to a nearby window. The guard held tight to my arm. The doctor stared outside, and when he turned back around, his face was shadowed in the dim light. He gave a quick nod, and my arm was released.
“I’ll take it from here, Oren.” Without a word, the orderly backed out of the room. “You may see your mother.”
“Thank you. Oh, thank you, sir.”
“This way.” I followed him down a corridor and into a brightly lit room. A woman stood up from behind a desk when we appeared in the doorway. “How’s Mrs. Birmingham this morning?”
“Everything’s been taken care of, Doctor.”
“This young woman is Mary’s daughter. She’s come to visit.”
The woman seemed troubled by the doctor’s request, but she followed his orders, led me to an adjoining ward, and pointed to one of the beds. There were eight beds total; all but one was filled, and in the closest bed to the door laid my mother.
I knelt down on both knees. I stared at the face of a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly fifteen years, but it was Mama. I knew it. I believed it, and I wanted to wrap my arms around her thin body and have her remember the daughter she once loved so very, very much.
With a sheet drawn over her shoulders, her eyes were closed and she lay as still as if she were—I didn’t want to think such awful thoughts, but it couldn’t be helped. Was she, in fact, dead? Her hair had been clipped short, and her skin was pale. I leaned forward again and whispered, “Mama?”
Her eyes slowly opened, and she turned her head only slightly on the thin, tattered pillow. She stared until my face became clear. A smile outshined her watery eyes.
“Melly. Is—is that you, baby?”
“It’s me, Mama. It’s Melly. I’ve come to fetch you home.”
Although I blinked repeatedly, tears tracked my cheeks. Another time, another place, would we have walked hand-in-hand down a city street? Would we have giggled at all the newfangled treasures as we passed each plate-glass window?
Though her voice sounded breathy and forced, she kept repeating my name, “Sweet Melly. My sweet, sweet, Melly.”
I reached for her hand. She squeezed as tight as she could, but her long, slender fingers were feeble, worn and twisted before their time.
“How—how’d you . . .”
“I came as soon as I found out. I didn’t know until yesterday.”
“Mmm . . .”
“I’ve missed you, Mama. I’ve missed you so much.”
An abrupt intrusion—a man cleared his throat—and it startled me. I clutched Mama’s hand and threw my free arm over her body. I glanced over my shoulder and found the suited man standing behind me.
“I informed your sister yesterday that visiting only upset the patients. She indicated to me she’d keep any other family members away.”
“My sister was wrong, Doctor, at least I assumed that who the man was. This woman is my mother. Had I known before yesterday—” I was so upset, so irritated with everyone and everything, that I ran my mouth before thinking.
“Had I known you were coming—”
“What’s that mean?” I said.
“My nurse gave your mother a mild sedative just a few minutes ago,” he replied.
“You’re sure that’s all she was given?”
“What are you implying, Miss Birmingham?”
“I asked a simple question, Doctor. Is that all you gave my mother?”
“You’re mother’s a very sick woman. I’ve done everything I can to make her final hours more comfortable.”
“Mary Anne said nothing about final hours so why are you telling me this now? What are you hiding, Doctor? Why wasn’t anyone told she was sick?”
Papa. Even after his death, he couldn’t risk having the truth come be known. The doctor had no other choice but to carry out my father’s wishes.
“Your mother is dying, Miss Birmingham. I’m terribly sorry, but I doubt she’ll last the day. You have no need for worry, though. Arrangements will be made immediately following her passing. Your father agreed to her care and internment many years ago. Everything will be taken care of in proper fashion.”
Pa asked me to ride to town. It weren’t an all-day job, just payin’ our yearly tax bill at the land office and, because Joe had showed up late for work over the last few days, I think Pa wanted to talk to him without no interference from Adam or me. I was fine with that. I hadn’t given up Joe’s secret, and I hadn’t betrayed my promise to Pa, but was I doin’ the right thing or was I was makin’ the biggest mistake of my life?
“Hoss! Hoss Cartwright.”
I glanced over my shoulder. The taxes was paid, and I was just about to head home when Paul Martin waved his hand over his head. Was he wantin’ me? I pointed to my chest. The doctor nodded and I turned and walked toward him.
“Hey, Doc,” I said. “You lookin’ for me?”
“Not particularly, but now that I’ve caught up with you, I wanted to ask how Joe was getting on.”
The doctor’s eyes narrowed as though confused by the look I gave him. “How’s he holding up? It was such a terrible blow and I—“
“Did somethin’ happen?” For Joe’s sake, I kept my thoughts to myself, but I had to ask. “He ain’t hurt, is he?”
“Oh, no, son. Nothing like that.”
I tried to figger what Doc was sayin’. If Joe weren’t hurt, what else could it be? “What is it then?”
Paul retreated just a hair. “It’s really not my place, Hoss.”
“Hey, you can tell me. Joe ain’t one to keep secrets,” I lied. “But I’ll admit you kinda lost me on this one.”
“It concerns Melody.”
“Mel?” I said hesitantly. Oh, Joe . . . My thoughts was all tangled up. I didn’t want to think the worst but . . . What’d you do, boy?
Paul shook his head. “Forget I said anything, son.”
“Come on, Doc. You’re makin’ my skin all crawly so you best just spit it out.”
Paul sighed overloud. “While you were driving that herd to Sacramento, Joe’s wife suffered a miscarriage. I was out on rounds and thought I’d check on her but by then, there was nothing I could do.”
“A miscarriage? You mean she lost the baby?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I assumed after she told Joe, he would’ve told you and Ben, and Adam.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Are you sure, Doc? There’s no mistakin’? There ain’t gonna be no baby?”
“Not this time, son. It’s unfortunate, but Mother Nature seems to know best about these things.”
I raised my hand. “It ain’t what you said, Doc, it’s that Joe ain’t said nothin’ to any of us. They was really lookin’ forward to . . . ‘specially Joe. I’m sure Mel was too but Joe—well, you know how he gets when he’s excited. He can’t hardly contain hisself. That baby meant everything to him.”
“I know it did, son, and again, I’m sorry I spoke out of turn. It wasn’t my intention.”
“Ain’t your fault, Doc. Joe would’ve told us in time. Guess he weren’t ready quite yet.” I turned to leave, but Paul called me back.
“Hoss? Hold up.”
“One more thought you might want to consider.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Perhaps Joe hasn’t been told.”
A fierce gust of wind sent pine boughs scraping the roofline just above her bedroom window. Not so distant memories led her back to the day she’d battled another storm. The storm of life and death where death won out, where her marriage had taken a turn and would leave her husband with no other choice than to sentence her to a life of hell, a life of filth and fear, of doctor-approved drugs, of endless torment and lonely abandon. The life her mother had endured—a cruel and lifelong sentence—was now hers if she didn’t fight back if she didn’t find an end.
She lit a single candle and moved out of the bedroom. She stood over his still form. A half-empty bottle of whiskey had helped him forget that she’d turned him away from their bed. Asleep on the too-short sofa, his legs entwined like wind-bent branches, but he slept soundly. He was a beautiful man, an appealing and engaging man, who had captured her heart and soul and seeded their child.
She’d seen it in his eyes. Not only a look of wanting but of loss, a man just like Papa, and her rage grew, and she’d cursed him, threatened him, and scorned him mercilessly. She’d she’d never let him touch her again.
“I won’t let you do it. I won’t let you send me away,” she said into the shadowy night. “Not like Papa.”
And when her husband began to stir, she backed into the kitchen, out of his line of sight. She knew what had to be done but where and when? And how? And a vision of peace, of immortal tranquility, warmed deep in her soul. Now. Tonight. End it tonight.
“Your mother is dying,” he’d said. Had the doctor caused her premature death? Buried the same day. There’d be no trace of the doctor’s sinister ways of hiding the truth, the wicked truth he wasn’t willing to share with the outside world. Cruelty and murder. Unproven. Silenced forever in a pine box buried six-feet under.
Her husband’s blanket slipped to the floor and he slowly emerged from the sofa. Pushing himself to a seated position, he cradled his head in both hands, the aftermath of a long, whiskey-filled night. The candle shed too much light and she blew out the flame. Only then did she realize the morning sun had broken through the night sky, leaving the room an eerie gray. Gray had been her mother’s life, a world of gray tattered clothing, of gray walls, and drug-induced thoughts.
He moved slowly, effects of last night’s drink, but there was no place she could hide. She’d dallied too long. Should she escape out the back door? With her hands hidden behind her back, she held tight to her weapon of choice. She’d come this far. She’d made her decision, but he was standing up now. Barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a faded pair of long johns; he turned toward her and locked his sad eyes on hers.
“Morning,” he said.
His voice was soft, hesitant, and she eased back until her hands hit the kitchen counter. He stepped forward, slowly at first then palmed his hands on the chopping block before dipping his head and filling his lungs with air.
“I’ll make coffee,” he said, and he started around the small island.
“No! Don’t move.”
“Huh?” She needed to escape, but there he stood, watching every move she made. “What’s going on? Why are you—”
“Go away, Joe.”
“What? I’m not going anywhere.”
“Please . . .”
“Talk to me, Mel. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“No. Go away.” He moved slowly, rounding the little island and she screamed, “I won’t let you send me away!”
“Away? Away where?”
But he wouldn’t listen. He moved even closer, and she gripped her weapon tighter. She wouldn’t hurt him again. She’d hurt him enough already, but he was slow to understand.
She’d found her end, but she hadn’t expected him to wake, hadn’t expected an audience, and she couldn’t let him ruin everything after deciding what was best for everyone. And when low-lying clouds scudded across the morning sky, the room darkened and she took that as a sign. It had to be now.
She gazed at his bloodshot eyes, glossy and bright, and begging for answers. Two men converged as one, her husband and Papa, so different yet so much the same. The child was dead. Gone forever.
“I won’t let you,” she said.
“Let me what? Please, Mel . . .”
“I know what you’re thinking! I know what you plan to do, and I won’t let you!”
“Go where? Sweetheart, please . . .”
“Don’t play dumb with me! Don’t lie to me, Papa!”
“Papa? Mel, it’s me. It’s Joe.”
“No!” She screamed out when he reached for her, and she gripped the wooden handle with both hands. “You can’t make me go!”
Using the island as a buffer, she separated herself from her husband though she couldn’t stop him from knowing that death was her only option. Had he seen the look in her eyes? Had he realized the truth?
It wasn’t him she wanted to kill.
She lifted the blade high over her head, but he leaped forward and caught her hands in his. She fought and she screamed, and with rage came momentum, but he was gaining control. The knife pitched and twisted. It moved in a downward spiral.
A gut-wrenching scream. A bright pool of blood.
I’d tried to put my mind at ease. I remembered the good times, the happy times. Mainly, Joe’s wedding day and how Pa had made peace with Joe wantin’ to marry. How Joe and Mel held each other as they swayed to the music across the dance floor. How they seemed to be in a world of their own, and how they looked into each other’s eyes and saw nothin’ but their future together. Them two was so happy that day, so in love that I found it hard to accept all them bad things that was happenin’ now.
When I rode into the yard, Adam signaled me to join him. He stood outside the corral watching the new stallion prance, paw the air, and prance again. He was a stunning sight. I left Chubby just outside the barn doors and walked toward my brother.
“Mighty fine lookin’ horse,” I said.
“Yeah, I think so too.”
“Inside, but tread lightly.”
“Huh? What’s that mean?”
Adam leaned heavily on the top rail. “Your little brother didn’t show up for work this morning.”
I let Adam’s words slide. Your little brother. Whenever Joe did somethin’ wrong, he became my little brother. “Bet Pa’s fit to be tied.”
“You could say that.”
“Wonder why Joe didn’t show. You find that strange?”
“Yeah, you should, big brother.” My voice had an edge. “Joe might not be the early bird you are, but that don’t mean he shies away from a hard day’s work.”
“Well, that wasn’t the case today,” Adam said, but his salty reply annoyed me. “And,” he continued, “defending your young brother’s character doesn’t sit well with me and it won’t sit well with Pa either.”
“Maybe I should ride over—you know, see what happened to him.”
Adam reached for my shoulder, which was his way of changing the subject or, at least, persuading me to his way of thinkin’, but I knew more’n he did, and I had a rotten feelin’ inside.
“Joe’s a grown man, Hoss. He’s also a married man, and it’s time we quit treating him like a child. He does what he wants, he always has, and it’s time you and Pa cut the apron strings.”
“Not this time, Adam.”
“Fine. Do what you want just leave me out of it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I want you to ride over there with me.”
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”
“I heard every word, big brother, and I appreciate what you said, but I’ve got my reasons. Trust me on this, Adam.”
Everywhere she looked, there was blood. She’d washed splatters from her face and neck; she’d scrubbed up to her elbows at the kitchen sink. Bright. Red. It soaked the front of her nightgown, just like when the baby had died, but she’d burned that skirt. She’d burned every bloody piece of clothing and buried the ashes behind the barn.
Things had gone terribly wrong. Nothing hadn’t gone as planned. He was fast on his feet. When the room had darkened, she’d glanced toward the window. She’d hesitated, waited too long, and he’d lunged forward. He’d reached for the knife and . . .
She had to escape . . .
I had no choice; I broke my promise to Joe. As Adam saddled his mount, I explained what I’d been told. Maybe I was overreacting, and I expect elder brother thought so too until I exposed the truth about Joe’s sore ribs and battered face. He listened without comment or complaint when I told him about the beatings.
“Adam?” I said when he didn’t respond at all.
“I heard you.”
He kicked the sides of his horse. Adam was as frightened for Joe as I was, and he left me in a cloud of dust so thick I had to swipe my hand across my eyes. I rode like the devil to catch up.
I hoped for signs of life. I hoped we’d see Joe workin’ one of them green-broke mounts Captain Morrison had requisitioned for his troops. The army was always in need of remounts, and the captain had asked that Joe continue working for him after the wedding, after Joe had made a break from the family. By switching the name on the contract from Ben Cartwright to Joseph Cartwright, Joe had come into his own that day. He was so proud. All he talked about was havin’ his own brand—similar to the Ponderosa brand, of course—on every new army mount this side of the Mississippi.
Little Joe became a man that day. He had a wife, he owned a home, and he had a thriving business he could be proud of. Pa was proud too. Even though Joe still drew income workin’ with me and Adam, he was buildin’ a business of his own and would soon be free to make a clean break, and the name Joseph Cartwright would have new meaning. Pa wanted the best for his sons; he wanted us to be self-sufficient in our own right, and Joe was well on his way.
“It’s awful quiet,” Adam cautioned.
“Sure is. You check the house; I’ll check the barn.”
We tied our mounts to the hitch rail. Adam moved toward the front door while I walked around the side of the house and past horses milling inside the corral. Six green-broke mounts that still needed weeks of work before they were army-ready.
I nearly called out Joe’s name, but a little voice inside my head told me to take precaution, to slip inside the barn easy like. Big as I was, I normally didn’t get butterflies—that’s what mama called ‘em—but adult fears was real too, and my stomach turned flip-flops as I peered into the dim light of the barn.
The afternoon sun had lost strength behind the taller peaks. The wind had picked up and brilliant streaks of lightning dashed across a darkening sky. A night storm brewed to the west, causin’ them little butterflies to tag along with me. The barn doors had been left open. Odd, I nearly said aloud, as they banged frantically with each sweeping gust of wind.
I adjusted my hat lower on my head before moving forward. Though it was nearing suppertime, it was obvious by the rotten stench coming from inside the barn that mornin’ chores had never been done. I guessed the horses hadn’t been fed or watered either.
It weren’t like Joe to leave stabled mounts standing in their own filth. I patted Cooch’s rump as I passed. His muscled body quivered at my touch, but my eyes fell to scrape marks on the barn floor, drag marks maybe, though I wasn’t sure what to think. Mel’s red bay stood in the adjoining stall, also restless, and trying to free herself from the halter attached to a metal ring.
“Easy now,” I said softly. “Ol’ Hoss ain’t gonna hurt you none.”
Two agitated horses was never a good sign. Before a man could sense danger, his horse was well aware. Sometimes a mountain lion and sometimes the lion’s kill—the fresh scent of blood—caused a normally calm animal to react, and that’s when I called out for my brother.
“Where are you, boy?”
My nerves was fighting against my common sense, but I remembered the drag marks, skimmin’ across the barn floor. They was there for a reason, and maybe they’d show me the way. I struck a match and reached for a lantern hanging on an upright post. The buttery glow led me straight to the prone figure of a man lying face down in an empty stall.
Barefoot and shirtless, a pair of long johns was all he wore. I knelt down on one knee and reached for my brother’s shoulder. His skin was like ice, cold to the touch. I slid my free hand under his head and gently rolled him to his back. His eyes was closed; his lips slightly parted, and thank God, the boy was still breathin’, but there was blood, lots of rust-colored blood.
I blinked back tears as I scooped my brother up in my arms. He must’ve crawled to the barn, maybe tried to ride for help. Them was Joe’s marks I’d seen on the floor. I was guessing; I knew that, but all signs pointed to a night of senseless violence. Adam stood just inside the barn doors, and with Joe cradled in my arms, I stood to my feet and faced my older brother.
“He’s hurt bad,” I said, but Adam only stared. “A knife—he’s been stabbed with a knife.”
“But he’s alive?” As though my words weren’t enough, Adam laid his hand on Joe’s chest; he needed his own proof of life.
“We ain’t got much time,” I said as if I knew somethin’ he didn’t. “You ride for Doc. I’m takin’ Joe home to Pa.” But Adam hesitated. “Go now!” I shouted. “He ain’t gonna last much longer.”
When Adam finally came back to hisself, he trotted across the yard and pulled the bedroll from the back of his horse. “Here,” he said. “Wrap him in this or he’ll freeze to death before you get home.”
Fighting both rain and cold, which had settled in by the time I mounted with Joe, we started for home. Adam took off toward Virginia City, wild and frenzied, unlike the brother who always kept his head, but the burden was real. Time was Little Joe’s enemy. Strong gusts of wind made it difficult to keep Joe in the saddle but as soon as I rode past our barn and into the main yard, I hollered for Pa.
My father burst through the open front door, much in the same manner Adam had when he’d lit out for town. No explanation was needed. Questions would be answered later. I handed down Pa’s youngest son, praying that, after hours alone, lying in a rancid barn, Joe’s chance of survival was even possible. The four-inch wound began seeping during the ride home, and the bright red stain on my shirt gave Pa a prelim of what would have to be told. Joe’s state of dress added to the confused look on Pa’s face, but the particulars would have to wait.
Though I tried to turn my thinkin’ in a different direction, I knew better’n to drum up a story that held no truth. I knew who had stabbed my brother and so far, there’d been no mention of Mel. Adam hadn’t said a word so I assumed she—she’d what? She weren’t inside the house so where had she gone? Where was she now? Had she watched me carry her husband away?
I caught Hop Sing’s eye. He stood just inside the front door. He’d seen the blood and Joe’s limp form and because he never had to be told what to do, his instincts kicked in. Pa handed Joe back to me and together we moved quickly through the house and up to my brother’s room.
“Adam ride to town?” Pa asked as I lay Joe down on his bed.
“Yeah, he’s gone for Doc,” I said. “They’ll be here right soon.”
“You knew Joe was in trouble, didn’t you.”
“Yes, sir. A gut feelin’, I s’pose. When Adam said Joe didn’t show up for work, I don’t know. Somethin’ told me—“
“Thank God,” Pa sighed.
Them butterflies was back only this time it was more like bats trapped in a chimney with no way out, fierce and demandin’. This was a different kind of fear. Fear, cause I’d promised Joe, and what I hadn’t told Pa, but I was full up with promises I’d been forced to keep.
Hop Sing scurried in with a large pail of hot water and towels draped over his arm. He filled the china bowl next to Joe’s bed. “How bad Little Joe?”
“He ain’t good, Hop Sing.”
I stepped back from the bed and let my father take over Joe’s tendin’. I’d done what I could. I’d brought Joe home to Pa. He reached for a clean cloth, soaked it, wrung it, and pressed it tight against the wound. Joe, who’d been out cold since I’d found him, moved slightly when wet, hot heat made contact with frigid skin. Though the pressure of Pa’s hand pained my little brother, I smiled at his reaction. If nothing else, Little Joe was a fighter, and not even a wound so severe could cause the untimely death of Joe Cartwright.
“Hop Sing go boil more water. Wait downstairs for doctor.”
I clapped our little friend’s shoulder. “Thanks, Hop Sing.” I moved to the other side of the bed and when Joe began to shiver, I piled several blankets to his waist. “He’s comin’ around, Pa.”
Pa threw the blood-soaked cloth to the floor and replaced it with a fresh one. Hop Sing had brought plenty. “There’s so much dirt inside this wound,” Pa said, “I just don’t know.”
“There was scuff marks, Pa. Seems Joe might’ve dragged hisself across the barn floor.”
“My best guess is that he was goin’ for help but didn’t have the strength to saddle his horse. Them horses hadn’t been tended either. Makes me think this happened either last night or real early this mornin’.”
“Who’d do such a thing? What were they after? Money? Horses? Joe doesn’t have any enemies.”
“I don’t know, Pa,” I lied. ‘Course, I knew, but Pa had enough to worry about tendin’ Joe’s wound.
“Oh, God, son,” Pa cried, interruptin’ my thoughts. He looked straight up at me. “Where’s Melody?”
Chantilly lace covered the small round table. A squat vase of yellow and purple wildflowers added color but wouldn’t interfere with her guests’ conversation. Four young women chatted and giggled and told outrageous stories—mere gossip—and laughed like gay little children at their own embellished tales.
But her friends must never know her troubles, her darkest secrets. Unable to hide her fear, she’d distanced herself from Belle and Cynthia and Lolly. Home gave her solace. She became invisible. She’d left the outside world behind.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Aware of her beating heart, sleep wouldn’t come. The ground was hard and she shifted her weight and leaned her back against a wall of jagged stone. Pulling her knees to her chest, she buried her face and rocked back and forth, slowly, deliberately. How had her plan gone so wrong?
The knife missed its mark.
That initial sense of pain, wide-eyed, unbelieving, all-consuming. Her husband had clutched his side, fallen to his knees, and forced himself to breathe in and out. He’d gritted his teeth. His body convulsed, withered, and he became fetal-like in his attempt to override the shock. He’d begged her for help, but she’d stepped away. She’d covered her eyes, but the angry wound stared back. A spider web of blood streaked down his forearm as he reached up for her and called out her name . . .
“He’s young and he’s strong, Ben.” Though Doc’s smile was forced, I felt a sense of relief. “He’ll recover in time,” he added when Pa’s pained look suggested he come straight to the point.
Me and Adam stood just inside Joe’s bedroom door. We tried not to hover too close while Paul doctored our little brother but, like Pa, we needed to hear them words before we got back to business—the business of finding Joe’s wife.
I hadn’t told Pa nothin’ about my suspicions, another secret that would likely blow the roof off when my understandin’ of the situation was revealed. Joe might hate me for tellin’ Adam about Mel though he’d only asked that I not tell Pa. Maybe I was safe after all. Let Joe do the rest of the tellin’ when the time was right.
Mel’s horse was still stabled when we found my brother. She couldn’t have gone far on foot. Was she injured too or could she be lyin’ dead in another dark corner of the barn? How foolish I’d been not to look.
Joe had woken only briefly while Paul cleaned and stitched his wound. Though he mumbled a few words, nothin’ was clear, nothin’ made sense. Doc said that was okay. His patient had woken from an unconscious state and that restful sleep was what he needed now more’n anything else.
Pa never let go of my brother’s hand while Paul’s expertise as a fine country doctor stitched him back together. The bruises on Joe’s face from prior attacks had begun to fade, though Pa wouldn’t see it that way. The knife had entered his side just below his ribs. The more I tried to picture him fending off his wife, the more disturbing the scene became. If Mel had some kind of breakdown then she weren’t thinkin’ right, but that didn’t help Joe. He knew nothin’ about the damn letter and he knew nothin’ about the baby.
“We better go find her,” I said to Adam.
I crossed the room and placed my hand on Pa’s shoulder. “We’re leaving now,” I said.
“Thank you, son.”
“We’ll find her, Pa.”
I’d done right by not tellin’ my father. Joe’s injury was all he could handle. The hows and whys would come later. Me and Adam saddled our mounts and headed back to Joe’s place for another look around. A woman just didn’t disappear into thin air. We each carried a lantern. It was dark, nearly nine o’clock. Though the quick-moving storm had passed, the ground was soft and muddy and the sky was still tumbling with clouds.
“No moon to help us tonight,” I said.
“Let’s check the house and barn one more time before we go traipsing all over the landscape.”
“Findin’ Joe’s wife is like findin’ a needle in a haystack, Adam. We don’t know which direction she took or nothin’.”
“That’s right, but she might be wounded too, bleeding out somewhere and that’s why we’re here. Right or wrong, good or bad, she has to be found.”
“I know that. I just can’t help thinkin’ she’s the one who drove a knife into our little brother.”
Adam stopped his horse. “There’s something I didn’t mention earlier,” he said. “I found the weapon when you were out in the barn; a bloody butcher knife was lying on the kitchen floor.”
“Then it was Mel.”
Adam didn’t comment, but we was both thinkin’ the same thing. Joe’s wife had come at him with a knife. She’d hit her mark and run off. She’d left him alone to die.
“You check the house,” I said after a moment’s time. “I’ll take the barn. Horses gotta be fed and watered if nothin’ else. Maybe we should take ‘em home with us.”
“Probably so, but first things first.”
The barn and the house were empty. I fed the stabled horses and forked a large pile of hay into the corral for Joe’s green-broke mounts. Adam filled the water trough then helped me quick-muck the barn.
“That’s enough for now,” he said. “Let’s do what we came here to do.”
We searched the surrounding area on foot before mounting up and ridin’ in wider circles. I’d just started down a narrow ravine when I heard three gunshots. Adam had found Melody or, at least, something worthwhile before firing the distress signal. I rode in the direction of the shots.
I tied Chubby next to Sport and walked up a small incline to a cave entrance where Adam and Joe’s wife stood together. Her face was moonlight pale; her eyes seemed glazed and confused. Her hair fell across her shoulders, ratty and uncombed. Wearing a white cotton nightgown with little cornflowers stitched around the top, Mel had emerged from her hidin’ place muddy and wet. She shivered from the cold.
“Melody?” I said softly, but her blank stare kinda unnerved me. “You all right? You hurt?”
Standing barefoot, she seemed to melt into my brother’s embrace. Even though he’d wrapped his coat around her shoulders, she trembled in the cool night air. Mel was small in stature with a face as delicate as a summer song, and because of the dazed look in her eyes, it was hard to keep recent accounts at hand. The rage she must have felt in order to attack her husband, a man she knew would never fight back, made me even more curious. She didn’t have a mark on her. It gave testament to Joe’s earlier account and damn if it didn’t ring true. He’d never hit a woman.
“Is she hurt?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Think she can ride?”
Adam nodded. “Let’s get her home.”
Adam carried Mel into the spare room just off the dining room. She hadn’t said a word; she’d barely moved a muscle. We couldn’t have her anywhere near Joe, but we couldn’t leave her alone in her own house either. I didn’t see how we had any other choice but to bring her home with us. Pa and Paul Martin stood from their seats in front of the fire when we walked inside, but nothin’ was said until I shut the door behind Adam.
“She’s doesn’t seem hurt,” I said, “but I ain’t no doctor.”
“I’ll take a look,” Paul reassured me.
Pa pushed a straggle of uncombed hair off his forehead as he came around the settee. “You’re sure she’s not hurt?”
“Pretty sure, Pa.”
“I just don’t understand. Who could do such a thing?”
“I, um—I have some explainin’ to do, Pa.”
Paul reached for his doctor bag. “Why don’t I check on Joe’s wife while you two talk?”
Paul had just lifted his hand to knock when Adam opened the guestroom door. “Is she awake?”
“Barely.” Adam pulled the door closed behind him. “It seems she’s been hiding in a cave since—well, since the incident. Her nightgown was filthy and wet when Hoss and I found her, but there was an old nightshirt of Joe’s in a bottom drawer. I laid it on the bed so she could change.”
“I’ll give her a minute. Your father has questions. I hope you boys—“
Adam clapped the doc’s shoulder. “We’ll tell him all he needs to know.”
I took a deep breath. This weren’t gonna be easy, and it weren’t how this family generally operated. We never kept secrets but this time we’d kept far too many. I cleared my throat.
“Let’s all sit down,” I said.
“I’ll get the brandy.” Adam knew this was a brandy kind of night; possibly the entire decanter once I sorted out Joe’s story to Pa. I nodded at my brother’s suggestion.
“Come on, Pa. Although he seemed hesitant, I turned him toward his oversized chair. “Let’s get comfortable.”
Adam poured us all a drink, offering one to Paul, but the doc held up his hand. “Later, but thanks.”
I hated unpleasantness of any kind, but I had to start at the beginning. “Adam needs to see the letter. No more secrets, Pa.” I was blunt, but it couldn’t be helped. Maybe I started out on the wrong foot, but we had to set up the background.
“What letter?” The deep-set lines marking his forehead showed Adam’s irritation over being left in the dark over something I considered important. For reasons that never made sense to me, Pa had wanted it that way.
Pa gripped the arms of his chair till his knuckles lost all their color. He took a deep breath before releasing a heavy sigh. “What’s the letter got to do with anything?”
“I’ll explain that later.”
After givin’ me a harsh look, he stood and moved toward his desk. He opened the top drawer and reached inside for the envelope. “I don’t see what this has to do with—”
“It does,” I said. “I wouldn’t break no promise if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”
Adam was obviously annoyed, and I couldn’t blame him. I’d’ve felt the same way. Pa never explained why he’d only shown me the letter, but I’d kept the information to myself—until tonight.
Pa handed Adam the envelope. My brother checked the postmark and looked up at Pa. “That long ago,” he mumbled. Irritation came quickly for a man like Adam and this time, he didn’t hide his feelings.
“I’m sorry, son, but don’t blame your brother.”
“The one sitting in front of you,” Pa huffed. “Joe knows nothing about this either.”
“This is from Melody’s older sister, am I correct?”
“And you never showed Joe the contents of the letter?”
“Should you have?” Adam’s question was a direct hit at Pa.
“I don’t know. Should I have, Hoss?”
“Let Adam read first. Then I’ll explain the rest.”
I watched closely as Adam scanned the contents. Every time his brow furrowed, I realized the news was as shocking to him as it had been for me and Pa. He finally looked up.
“Interesting,” he said.
“Interesting?” I returned hotly. “It’s more’n just interestin’, ain’t it?”
“It’s time to fess up, Hoss.”
I sighed overloud and turned my attention to Pa.
“I ain’t sure how to say this, and maybe I should’ve told you sooner but I promised Joe, and I hate more’n anything to break a promise.”
“Promised him what?” Pa weren’t hidin’ his anger.
“Mel’s been—what I mean is Joe says things has changed. Mel’s changed.”
“Hoss, please” Pa groaned. “Spit it out.”
“Me and Adam think—well, we think Mel’s the one who—”
“Who what, Hoss?”
With Pa starin’ at me like I didn’t know my own mind, I wished things was different but they weren’t, and it took great pains to force out the words. “Well, we think Mel’s the one who done this to Little Joe.”
“Melody? I don’t—”
“I know, Pa. It don’t make a lick of sense but—”
“You’re saying Melody stabbed your brother?”
Pa stood from his chair. His features was hard and accusin’. “I won’t listen to nonsense. You two get up to bed. I don’t want to hear another word about this.”
Mornin’ came early. Paul Martin had spent the night and joined the three of us for breakfast. Nothin’ more was said about Mel. In fact, Doc was the only one who’d seen or talked to her since we’d brought her home, and he didn’t seem eager to volunteer any information one way or the other. I excused myself from the table. Morning chores was finished, but I couldn’t sit any longer, lookin’ at Pa and knowin’ he didn’t believe a word I’d said. Even though he’d sat up all night with Joe, he looked better’n I felt.
“Hoss?” Pa said.
I didn’t turn around although, out of respect, I answered. “Sir?”
“Joe mentioned something last night, son.”
“He said you broke a promise. He seemed to think I knew all about it.”
I faced Pa just as Paul Martin rose from his seat.
“I should be on my way,” he said.
“That’s ain’t necessary, Doc,” I replied.
“I think it’s best, son. Let me know if I’m needed, Ben.”
Pa walked Doc to the door. He thanked him for comin’ out, and that’s when it hit me. If we was lookin’ at a trial somewhere down the road, Paul might be called to testify, and he didn’t want to be party to our conversation.
“Well, what’s it all about, Hoss?” Pa said after returning to the table.
“Joe’s tellin’ the truth,” I said. “Sort of,” I added. Though I’d only told Adam, Joe must have assumed I’d told Pa too.
“Truth about what, son?”
“This ain’t the first time Joe and Mel’s had problems,” I said.
Pa was curious, but it didn’t surprise me none. Secrets had piled one on top of the other until the dam finally broke and spilled out truths that never should have been kept hidden in the first place.
“Why wasn’t I told?”
“Same reason I didn’t tell Adam about the letter. I made a promise, Pa.”
“Will you tell me now?”
“I s’pose it can’t hurt.”
“We’ve both made mistakes, son. We’ve both used bad judgment.”
“Yeah, and I’ll tell you this right now. I don’t hardly know right from wrong no more.”
I filled Pa in on Joe’s “trippin’ over the rug” story and how I believed him at first, but how his trippin’ story had obviously been a lie after I found him a day later, spilling his guts on the barn floor.
“You should’ve told me, son.”
“Like I should’ve told Adam or even Joe about the letter?”
“That was different, Hoss.”
“Was it, Pa? Maybe if Joe had known he could’ve—I don’t know. Maybe things would be different now.”
Pa stood from his chair. He came around the table toward me, but I was tired of it all. I didn’t want to talk no more. What was done was done and we couldn’t turn back time. We couldn’t begin to heal until every promise and every little secret was brought out in the open.
“And that’s why you’re accusing Melody of this terrible thing?”
“Do you have any proof?”
“Then let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Come finish your breakfast, son.”
“Think I’ll sit with Joe for a while instead.”
“Hey,” I said when I found Joe sitting up in bed. “Mind if I sit a spell?” A simple nod was all he gave, and I took it as a “yes.” “You’re still kinda pale. Think you should be sittin’ up?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders then grimaced and reached for his bandaged side. He’d been stitched up less than twelve hours ago, and he acted as if it were nothin’, as if he could sit up in bed and feel no pain at all. I pretended not to notice. Pa would be here soon enough, askin’ question after question about Joe’s current state of health so I let that side of things alone.
I wanted to tell Joe what I’d done, what I’d been forced to tell Pa but—speak of the devil—Pa walked into the bedroom before I’d had a chance to get the words out. I could tell Joe had somethin’ on his mind. His eyes moved between Pa and me and he kept repositionin’ his hands in a nervous fashion on his lap.
“What is it, son? Do you feel sick?”
“No,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“Well, something’s bothering you.”
Joe took a deep breath. “Where’s my wife?”
Pa glanced up at me then back to Joe. “She’s downstairs, Joseph. Didn’t anyone tell you?”
“No.” Joe’s voice was weak. I could barely make out his words. “Is she all right?”
“Yes. Paul checked her over and she seems to be fine.”
Joe looked down at his lap. His hands was still movin’, still anxious. Pa always said Joe was the impatient one of the family, but my brother got that little characteristic straight from our father. Pa was not a patient man. Anyone could tell Joe wasn’t ready to talk, but that didn’t keep Pa from hittin’ him head-on.
“We have to talk, son. I need to know who did this to you. How, exactly, were you injured?”
“It doesn’t matter, Pa.”
“Of course, it matters, Joseph. You were nearly killed.”
“Doc says I’ll be fine.”
“Do you want me to guess?” Pa’s words made me nervous inside.
“I’m tired, Pa. I need to lay down.”
“No. I want the truth, Joseph.”
“Why?” Joe’s impatient side quickly surfaced. “I said I’d be fine.”
Pa looked up at me. He was upset, and I knew what he wanted from Joe. He wanted to hear the truth from the only eyewitness.
“You might as well tell him, little brother.”
“What?” Joe’s eyes rounded like saucers.
“Tell Pa who hurt you,” I said.
Joe glared at me. He breathed in deep, too deep, and an unexpected cough had him reachin’ for his wound. His eyes moved toward the bedroom door. Like a slitherin’ cat, Adam had slipped into Joe’s room without me or Pa hearin’ him come in.
“Okay,” Joe said. “As if it makes any difference now. There was a knock, and I answered the door. It was dark, sometime after supper.” Joe’s voice was soft, and we strained to hear his explanation. “I’d never seen him before, but he was a big man, strong, kind of a dark complexion—you know, dark hair, dark eyes. He—he wanted money. I said I didn’t have enough to make it worth his while. I thought he’d leave us alone but he, um, that’s when he grabbed the kitchen knife and—”
“You mean a robber didn’t carry a gun?” Adam’s sarcastic remark didn’t bode well with me, but after a dark look at elder brother, Joe continued his story.
“I don’t—well, he might have been. I really couldn’t see much, but then he came at me. We fought hard. I tried to get the knife away but he was big—”
“—and strong,” I added.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “And strong. I don’t remember much after that but somehow, I don’t know exactly how, but I ended up here.”
“Me and Adam found you. You’d crawled out to the barn.”
“That’s right,” I continued. “We didn’t see signs of an intruder, but Adam found a bloody knife on the kitchen floor.”
“Guess I should say thanks, brothers.”
“Why don’t we try this again?” Adam suggested. “The truth this time.”
“Adam—” Pa scolded.
I leaned over the foot of the bed. “There weren’t no intruder, Little Joe. All of us know who done this.”
“Hoss,” Pa said. “That’s enough.” He turned his attention back to Joe. “Son?”
“What? What do you want from me, Pa?”
“I know you’re scared. I know this is hard, but we need to know the truth. Are you sure there was an intruder?”
Joe’s eyes welled with tears, and all I wanted to do was grab him up in my arms and wish all his misery away. Instead, I stood with my hands dug deep in my pockets and let Pa comfort him like only Pa could. Adam did the same as me, but Joe’s look of despair made me wish I was miles away.
“You’ve got it all wrong, Pa. She didn’t mean to hurt me. She tried to—”
“Shh, son. It’s all right now. It’s all right.”
Pa pulled Joe closer to his chest and held him tight. Tears streaked my little brother’s cheeks. His anguish was so raw; I couldn’t watch no more. I motioned to Adam, and the two of us headed downstairs. Pa and Joe needed time alone.
“I don’t know about you, big brother, but I could use a drink.”
“There’s whiskey in the sideboard.”
“You want your own bottle?”
Adam cracked a smile. “Not if I have to ride to town.”
“What? Why’s that?”
“Someone has to tell the sheriff.”
I poured two healthy glasses and handed one to Adam. “You know what that’s gonna do to Joe.”
“It can’t be helped, Hoss. She tried to kill him.”
“I know. Dadburnit, I know, but ain’t there some other way?”
Adam sipped his whiskey. He set his glass on Pa’s desk. “Paul left some powders. Mel’s sleeping now, but we can’t keep her drugged forever.”
Mel stabbed Joe. She’d left him for dead, fled the scene and, according to territorial law; she’d have to pay for her actions, and Joe’s private affairs wouldn’t be private no more. Had it been an intruder, Joe would have been the first to tell Roy Coffee his story, but this? We hadn’t even discussed this side of things, and I’m not sure my young brother realized what had to be done.
Adam was right. We couldn’t keep Mel asleep forever, and if she realized Joe was still alive, what then? Would she go after him again? It weren’t what me or Adam wanted, but what other choice did we have? Attempted murder was a punishable offense.
What had set her off? Just cause her ma was sent to that asylum didn’t mean she was insane. According to Mary Anne’s letter, there was nothin’ wrong with her. More like her pa was the crazy one, not her ma, but why had Mel attacked Joe? Nothin’ made sense.
“You gonna wait for Pa?”
“I suppose I should.”
“You think he’s gonna read Joe that letter?”
“You’re asking questions I can’t answer, Hoss.”
Adam and me both turned toward the stairs when Pa started down.
“He’s asleep,” he said.
Pa’s voice sounded hollow, cold, almost fragile. I respected my father above anyone else. I knew how bad he was hurtin’, and even though I had a passel of questions, I held my tongue.
“I’ll ride in and talk to Roy,” Adam said, but Pa didn’t seem to hear my brother’s voice. “Pa?”
“What’s that, son?”
“Roy Coffee needs to know what happened.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, he does. Mel?”
“Adam,” he said. “For Joe’s sake, don’t make her out to be—“ Pa shook his head. “I don’t know what to think anymore. How did it come to this? Why wasn’t I aware—just go, son. Do what has to be done.”
After a second night of sittin’ up with Joe, Pa was exhausted and even after his mornin’ coffee, he’d fallen asleep in his fireside chair. I could’ve been doing chores, there was always work to be done; instead, I went upstairs to sit with my brother. I’d never understand the hurt he was feelin’, and I couldn’t imagine what thoughts ran through his head after he was pushed to tell the truth, but I didn’t want him to be alone.
The crisp, mornin’ sun brightened Joe’s room, making it oven-warm, a normal day in all respects. We should’ve been diggin’ post holes or stringin’ line or bustin’ broncs, anything but cartin’ Joe’s wife off to jail.
“You need anything? Glass of water?” Joe shook his head. He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes. “There’s something you should know,” I said. I was done keepin’ secrets of any kind.
I hoped for a spark of life. His eyes was rimmed red, and them thick lashes looked even darker against his pale skin. Loss of blood is what Doc had said, and his color hadn’t returned. Leastwise, Little Joe was alive and I was grateful. He’d been through hell, I knew that more’n anyone else, but we was brothers and we’d always been able to talk things out. When there was no response, I let it go. I didn’t say nothin’ about Mel or jail. He’d find out soon enough. Let someone else break the news. I stood from my chair and walked toward the bedroom door.
“What else should I know?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
I breathed in deep. Sleepy eyes stared up at me. He tried to lift hisself higher in the bed, but the stitches must’ve pulled and his face went tight, scrunched up like a knot. He reached for the wound.
“You hurtin’ much?”
I sat back down. I dropped my hands between my knees and laced my fingers together. I spit the words out quickly. “The sheriff’s been told,” I said. Joe’s eyes didn’t meet mine no more. His chest rose and fell with deep, ragged breaths; his eyes narrowed into slits. I could sense his anger.
“Why? This doesn’t concern the sheriff.”
“’Course it does, Joe. You was nearly killed.”
“It was an accident.”
“Come on, Joe. I know better.”
“No, you don’t. You weren’t there.”
“Why’re you protectin’ her?”
“You don’t understand. You don’t know the half of it, Hoss.”
“Then tell me.”
“Then you understand why Adam had no choice.”
“He rode in last night to tell Roy.”
Joe shook his head. “I should’ve known. He couldn’t wait, could he?”
“It ain’t like that, Joe. It was either me or him. One of us had to go.”
Joe’s eyes met the ceiling. Tears of frustration threatened. “I never hurt her, Hoss. I gave her everything she wanted, but she didn’t trust me. She—”
“I know you did. I don’t doubt that for a second. What I don’t understand is why she came at you with a knife?”
“It wasn’t like that. She . . .”
“What, Joe? Talk to me.”
He shook his head. “She’s confused about things. That’s all.”
“It’s a little more’n that, Joe. Confusion don’t kill people.”
“I know that, but we can work it out. We just need time alone.”
“Time’s over, little buddy. No woman in their right mind comes at her husband with a knife.”
“She didn’t, Hoss. It was an accident. That’s all it was.”
I sensed Joe’s anxiety and the pain that stirred inside him, and I could see how helpless he felt. We’d taken charge of the situation without his consent, and he’d worked hisself up until I had to stop pleadin’ for answers. He pushed back the covers and tried to ease his legs over the side of his bed.
“Hey, what’re you doin’. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“Where’s my wife? Where’s Mel?”
“Joseph,” I said. “It’s over.” His angry stare pierced right through me, but I had to get the words out. “Mel’s sick, Little Joe. She ain’t right in the head. We can’t keep her here in the house knowin’ she might come at you again.”
“She’s my wife, Hoss,” he cried back. “You don’t know her like I do. I never should’ve told you anything. This business the other night doesn’t concern anyone but Melody and me, and it sure as hell doesn’t concern Roy Coffee.”
“This business, as you call it, concerns us all, little brother.”
“Why? It’s my life, Hoss, and Mel’s my wife. Why can’t you leave things alone?”
Joe weren’t thinkin’ straight. I knew that, and I tried a different route. “Okay, what if you’d been attacked by an intruder, that big, strong man you described? You never would’ve hesitated to tell Roy the story. This ain’t no different, Joe, and you know that.”
“It’s a whole lot different, Hoss. You’re talking about sending my wife to prison. Prison! You know what that means? Do you have any idea what goes on in those places?”
Even after all she’d done, I couldn’t help but feel regret, a sorrowful regret. I knew how bad those places could be. I’d heard stories of pain and sufferin’ and so had Joe, and he couldn’t bear the thought of his wife condemned to such a place.
“I had to break my promise, Joe. I had to tell Adam and Pa that this weren’t the first time Mel attacked you. I didn’t have no other choice.”
“Why, Hoss? You promised.”
“I know I did, but you gotta think, Joe. You’d’ve done the same thing if you was me if you knew who hurt me. You ain’t safe around Mel no more.”
“Get out!” Joe screamed. “Get out of my room!”
Just then, the bedroom door burst open. “What’s this all about?” Pa bellowed as he rushed toward Joe’s bed. “What’s going on up here?”
“Get him out!” Joe cried. “Get him outta here.”
I needed to ride, a long enough ride to clear my head. Had I said too much? Had my timing been off? Joe was far from recovered, and maybe it was too soon to drag the truth to his sickbed. He was tired and his body ached; his emotions ran higher than normal, and I’d done nothin’ more than hit him where it hurt. I’d broken a promise between brothers by offerin’ up a pattern of behavior that scared me. Scared Adam too. And Pa. I’d had no choice.
I’d just saddled Chubby and was headin’ out of the barn when Sheriff Coffee rode up in the yard. Although he’d been informed yesterday, Adam had asked that he let Mel spend the night in the house. “She needs a decent night’s rest,” he’d said. Secrets had been kept. Lies had been told and for what? I backed Chubby up. I didn’t want no part of haulin’ Joe’s wife off to jail. I’d hurt my young brother enough already.
Once Roy was inside the house, I took off around the barn and headed toward the main road. I needed time to think, time to sort my thoughts without no one else around. This was between me and Little Joe and my conscience.
The old oak near Devil’s gorge had always been a good thinkin’ spot for me. I ground-tied Chubb and leaned my back against the ancient tree. There weren’t a cloud in the sky, and the sound of birdsong, which usually lifted my spirits, made me want to pull out a shotgun and—well, I’d never really do such a thing but today, their high-pitched summer songs were more annoying than ever.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander back to the day Mel’s coach had pulled into town. It was a day like today, cloudless and sunny-bright when Joe took off runnin’ across C Street to check out the new arrivals. He fell in love that day. He fell in love with Miss Melody Birmingham who, in turn, was destined to become his bride.
There was other secrets too, just between me and Joe, of course. Little things I shouldn’t have been told, but Joe kinda has a big mouth at times. He’d embarrass me with things like Mel layin’ her hand on his thigh when it was time for bed, not sleepin’, mind you, but married stuff. Or, how she’d kiss his neck just below his ear and how much it aroused him. “I don’t want to hear them things,” I’d say. “They’s private.” But when my face turned red as a beet, Joe would giggle. Embarrassin’ the heck outta me always brought a smile to my young brother’s face.
They was a good pair. Joe taught Mel how to fish, and she taught him how to sit through a Shakespearean play by explainin’ all them fancy words the actors said. Men tipped their hats when they’d pass by the handsome couple strollin’ down the boardwalk hand-in-hand. Women were eager to know more about the first Cartwright bride. They’d often invite Mel for afternoon teas and whatever else them women like to do while their menfolk was workin’. She was becoming well-loved among Virginia City’s elite, but that didn’t mean she’d turned snobby or unkind like some of them snooty-faced women. Mel could hold her own and she was loved by all, family and friends alike. And now, when I thought of what might happen in the days to come, I wondered how them new friends would react.
The main road to Virginia City ran just down the hill from the old oak, and a movin’ cloud of dust caught my eye—our horse and buggy, my brother holdin’ the reins with Mel at his side. Roy Coffee led the way.
Attempted murder was a serious charge, and none of us could be prepared for the events that took place over the next several days. I tightened Chubby’s cinch and started for home. Only cowards ran away.
Pa stood at the bottom of the staircase. He looked up when I walked through the door “I’ve asked Adam to bring Paul back with him.”
“Is it Joe?” Them butterflies was back. “Is he okay?”
“He’s pretty upset and a sedative might help. Maybe you can talk to him.”
I threw my hat on the sideboard. “I don’t know, Pa. He ain’t too happy with me right now.”
Pa pulled something from his vest pocket. He held it up for me to see. “I read him the letter.”
“That’s good. He needed to know them things.”
Pa shook his head. “I don’t know that it did any good, son. Joe listened as I read. I waited for a reaction but there wasn’t one. Maybe I made things worse. I just don’t know.”
“What do you mean worse? Did he say anything? I mean did he—”
“That’s just it, Hoss. I tried to explain that Mel had to be punished, that she had to be sent away, but he won’t listen, he didn’t say a word. It’s like he understood, but he—he just kind of folded into himself and pulled the covers up to his chin as if—I don’t know, son. I can’t get through to him at all. If he won’t talk to me and he won’t talk to you either, I’m at a loss.”
“You can leave Adam out of it too. He ain’t gonna talk to any of us, Pa. He thinks we betrayed him, that we only see one side of things, and you can’t hardly blame him. He still loves his wife.”
“After what she’s done?”
“After what she’s done,” I repeated. “Think about my ma. What if she’d—I mean what if she’d gone crazy like Mel. Would you hate her? Would you throw her to the wolves like we done with Mel? We nearly sentenced her ourselves, Pa. As soon as Roy was told, we opened up the floodgates to Joe’s private life. Everything he wants to keep hidden will become public knowledge.”
Pa eased down into the chair behind his desk. He slipped the letter into the top drawer and leaned back. He laced his fingers and looked up. He forced a smile.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to say, son, and you’re right. I’d never intentionally hurt one of my wives. I’d do whatever I could to protect her and keep her from harm, but you’re forgetting an important aspect of fatherhood.”
“You don’t have to say no more, Pa.
“I don’t have to, but I will, son. Isn’t it my duty to protect my children at all costs?”
“What if them costs is too high? Joe sees us as the enemy. We’ve taken away the most precious thing in his life, and he’s fightin’ back the only way he knows how. I know you’re right, but my heart says different, and I can’t blame Joe for hatin’ us all.”
I pictured Mel sitting inside Roy’s jail, and it didn’t seem right. And what were the charges? Attempted murder? That meant a trial, and there weren’t no way my young brother would ever testify against his own wife so what was the point of this whole mess anyhow?
The Territorial Enterprise sensationalized the proceedings, called it the trial of the decade. A wife accused of attempted murder. A husband reluctant to testify. The name “CARTWRIGHT” written in bold print.
When the trial began, Virginia City took on a circus-like atmosphere, and every nosey blueblood and anxious observer converged on the four of us as we rode into town. Vendors, selling anything from heavy rain umbrellas to quick sugar fixes—stick candy, jellybeans, and assorted chocolates—were a noted presence at the onset of the trial.
Pa led the way while Adam and I flanked our willful little brother down C Street from the livery where we’d boarded our horses. Knowing Joe would rather bolt than testify, we each held an arm and guided him up the front steps of the newly built courthouse.
Joe never should’ve told me nothin’ about him and Mel, and I never should’ve told Pa or Adam simply because my brothers and I had been raised to tell the truth, and there weren’t a more honest man in all of Nevada than Ben Cartwright. None of us would ever lie under oath. The prosecutor was well aware, and I feared he’d use that knowledge to force our testimonies to his advantage.
“It’s for Joe’s own good,” Pa said before we left the house, but them words weren’t helpin’ me now. Sweat dotted my forehead, a nervous sweat, I s’pose. Seein’ how I’d have to take center stage, singled out to sit in front of people I hardly knew and say bad things about Mel, I was as nervous as a skittish little calf on brandin’ day.
I tried to convince myself that this was all for the best, that Mel would be sent away, and Joe would move on, that my brother could somehow get his mind around what she’d done, and what she was capable of doin’ in the future if we didn’t stop her now.
Like vultures, the citizens of Virginia City swarmed into the courthouse until it was standin’ room only. We led Joe to a table where the prosecutor, Mr. Timothy Green, stood to greet us. He reached out to shake Joe’s hand, but Joe’s reaction was less than welcomin’.
“This is a mistake,” he said to Green. “We shouldn’t even be here.”
“Why don’t you take a seat, son,” the prosecutor replied. Although it was a request rather than a question, Joe looked over his shoulder at Pa, his eyes burned with hate. I had to look away. If I could’ve smacked some sense into my stubborn little brother, I would have. None of us was happy to be sittin’ in a room full of busybodies but to blame us, especially Pa, for bringin’ Mel to trial, it just weren’t right.
“Sit down, Joseph,” Pa said.
We’d no more gotten settled—we sat directly behind Joe and Mr. Green—when the crowd inside the courtroom gasped. Roy led Melody down the center aisle to her seat at a table on the left side of Joe and the prosecutor. A pair of handcuffs held her arms behind her back. Her hair was uncombed. Her clothes had been slept in. Dark circles rimmed her eyes. She was a far cry from the beautiful little gal Joe married. She looked a mess; she looked guilty as charged.
Why hadn’t her lawyer taken time to clean her up some, brought her a fresh garment to wear or insisted she comb her hair? In fact, why hadn’t we helped her some? Hop Sing had filled the washtub with buckets of hot water on Doc Martin’s request. “She’s cold and she’s filthy,” he’d said. “Let’s warm her up.” Adam had ridden back to Joe’s house early the following mornin’ and brought back a fresh set of undergarments, a clean dress, and a pair of boots, but that was days ago.
Joe tracked her movements down the center aisle. He followed her with his eyes until she was seated and the cuffs were removed. She never looked up. Her head angled down toward the wooden table, and she folded her hands in her lap, her wedding ring still in place.
Wearing a clean white shirt and black string tie, his hair neatly trimmed above his collar, Joe’s appearance was a striking contrast to the accused. I had difficulty breathing; I felt overdressed and painfully uncomfortable sitting that close to Mel and her attorney. I ran a finger under my too-tight collar, flicked open the button, and pocketed my tie. Pa looked on.
“That’s better,” I whispered.
Judge Peterson banged his gavel, and the room of spectators quieted to near silence. When the prosecutor stood to make his openin’ speech, I turned my eyes to Joe and tried to block out Mr. Green’s hateful words. Seemed to me Joe had done the same, finding his lap more interesting than hearin’ the truth about the night in question.
Worse than anything, Joe’s private life was being made public. Although the judge and twelve-man jury would decide Mel’s fate, the tone of the crowd inside the courtroom could easily influence their way of thinkin’ with their moans and groans and unnecessary snickers behind gloved hands.
Only because I sat next to Pa and Adam and didn’t want to embarrass my family any more than need be, I held my temper, but I was ready to pound the next person who made a sound, male or female. In front of a room of strangers, my brother was being disgraced and embarrassed, and my insides burned with anger. There weren’t nothin’ I could do but sit and stare at the back of Joe’s head and keep my balled fists in my lap. That’s until I heard my name called.
“I call Hoss Cartwright to the stand.”
As I stood from my chair, my mind went numb. Mr. Green had a job to do, I was well aware, but it didn’t make our lives any easier. I hoped Joseph knew I didn’t want nothin’ to do with the trial. I balked initially, but the prosecutor said I had no choice but to tell the truth. The newspaper noted that Joe was a hostile witness, but I was also reluctant to testify about matters I considered private.
“Please inform the jury about the night in question; the night the defendant stabbed your brother with a kitchen knife.”
“Allegedly, your honor,” voiced Mel’s attorney, Mr. Addison Williams.
Mr. Williams had jumped in and taken Mel’s case without being asked. Being a newcomer to Virginia City, he was anxious to make a name for hisself by defendin’ a woman he believed had been wrongly accused. Though he didn’t admit it outright, I think Pa was pleased. Otherwise, Joe would have hired the best lawyer available, a more prominent attorney who was well respected within the community, but Mel had consented to Mr. Williams before Joe was able to crawl out of bed.
“My mistake,” Mr. Green smirked then bowed slightly to the attorney. “Allegedly stabbed your brother.”
The crowd mumbled amongst themselves until the judge had to bang his gavel. “Quiet, or I’ll clear the courtroom,” he hollered, but in a more subdued voice, he spoke to me. “Please begin, Mr. Cartwright.”
I let go a long, heavy breath. I looked at Joe, but he weren’t lookin’ at me. “I found my brother in the barn. He’d been stabbed with a knife.”
“Go on, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I brought him home to our pa.”
“Let’s walk through this particular night a little slower. May we?”
“It’s your courtroom,” I said. “But I done told you all I know already.” I wasn’t about to say more’n I had to.
By the time Mr. Green was finished with me, the judge, the jury, and everyone else was aware of Joe’s state of dress, the location of the wound, and that the doctor had been summoned. Mel’s attorney only asked one question.
“Did you actually see the defendant stab your brother with a kitchen knife.”
“No, sir. I did not.”
“Thank you. That’ll be all, Mr. Cartwright.”
I stepped down from my chair next to the judge. What I really needed was a tall glass of whiskey; instead, I took my seat next to Pa, who was called to the stand next. Then, it was Adam’s turn, and he did nothin’ more than verify what Mr. Green had forced me to say. A seed had been planted in the jury’s mind. Three accounts of that night were told before Joe—the only eyewitness—was ever called to the stand.
I’ll say one thing for certain. Mr. Green was good. While Mel’s attorney fumbled his way through, objecting when he could and begging the jury to keep an open mind during the proceedings, the prosecutor sat back and smiled.
Mr. Green called Joe to the stand. Though he was dressed appropriately, my brother looked a bit green around the edges. Adam and me had seen that look a hundred times before. After a night in the saloon, when Joe was still a kid and thought he could hold his liquor as well as any other growed man, we’d often have to haul him to a side alley so he could empty his stomach before ridin’ home. I couldn’t imagine his embarrassment if that same thing happened now.
Joe took the seat next to the judge; he gave his wife a wistful look. I turned my attention to Mel, too, though I couldn’t see her face, not even her profile. Was she smiling, like the wife she’d once been or was she darin’ her husband to speak unkindly of her? I leaned a bit forward, but when Pa nudged me with his elbow, I corrected myself per his wishes. Mr. Green hit Joe with the same questions he’d used on the rest of us.
“Tell the court about the night in question, Mr. Cartwright.”
Joe focused on his lap. He refused to look at the prosecutor or anyone else in the courtroom. He didn’t say one word, which didn’t surprise me in the least. He’d made it very clear to us and to Mr. Green before the trial began that he’d never testify against his wife and by damn, that ornery little cuss was keepin’ to his word. I hid my smile.
“Mr. Cartwright,” the judge said. “Will you answer Mr. Green’s question?” A moment passed. “Mr. Cartwright,” he repeated. “Are you feeling ill? Do we need to take a break?”
Nothing from Joe. Not even a blink.
The judge slammed his gavel. “I’m calling a recess. Mr. Green, I suggest you deal directly with your eyewitness. We’ll finish up after lunch, promptly at one o’clock.”
Joe slid from the witness chair and walked back to the table. He started to sit when Mr. Green took hold of his right arm. “We need to talk, son. You come with me.” When me, Pa, and Adam followed close behind, Mr. Green stopped short. “You three go have lunch. I’ll feed Joseph, and we’ll see you back here at one o’clock.”
When Pa started to protest, I held up my hand. “Let ‘em go,” I said. “This ain’t about us.”
The hour passed quickly, and we were seated in the courtroom waitin’ for the judge and jury to return. Adam had said words during lunch that I’d been afraid to say, but that was Adam. He weren’t never one to hold back when somethin’ pressed his mind.
“You can’t protect him forever, Pa. He’s a grown man with grown-up feelings and a grown-up mind of his own, and it’s his decision whether he testifies or not. Nothing you can say is going to change that.”
Pa didn’t finish his lunch. Instead, he threw a few dollars on the table and marched out of the café. “I have a quick errand to run,” he said. “I’ll see you back in the courtroom at one.” An errand? What was that all about? Here I thought Adam had gotten through to Pa, but now it didn’t seem that way at all.
Pa’s refusal to let any of his sons grow up had always been a matter of contention, but he’d always doted on Joe more’n me or Adam. Joe was the baby, the last Cartwright son, and even after Joe married and moved away, Pa still couldn’t let go of them apron strings. Joe had every right to say his piece or refuse to say anything at all. That was his choice, and I applauded my big brother for speakin’ up on Joe’s behalf.
Joe took the stand.
“Will you tell us about the night in question, Mr. Cartwright?” Mr. Green asked my brother.
“My wife was upset.”
“All right. What was she upset about?”
“It seems that “personal” nearly got you killed, young man.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed with hate. “Don’t twist my words. It wasn’t that way at all.”
“Then why don’t you tell the court how it was?”
“We had a disagreement. That’s all. I told you she was upset.”
“Did you provoke your wife?”
“No, I did not. I tried to calm her down.”
“Does your wife get upset often?”
“Was the night in question the only time your wife tried to hurt you?”
Joe breathin’ changed. The prosecutor’s question made him uneasy, and he glanced toward me. He adjusted hisself in the chair. I knew he was gonna lie.
“No,” he mumbled softly.
“Will you admit you’re wife held a kitchen knife in her hand.”
Joe took his time answerin’, and even though he was cryin’ on the inside, he’d been taught the same as me and Adam. He’d been taught all his life not to lie, but I wasn’t sure he could do the right thing.
“So your only choice was to defend yourself from the oncoming attack.”
“No!” Joe shouted. “I told you before. It was an accident. Why won’t you believe me?”
“Because you’re lying. Because your wife stabbed you with a knife. I’m sure you tried to stop her, but the attack was not an accident, was it, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Objection, your Honor. Leading the witness.”
“Overruled,” Judge Peterson said. “Will you answer the question, Mr. Cartwright?”
Joe’s eyes dropped again to his lap. He spoke softly. “She wasn’t trying to kill me, Mr. Green. She was trying to—“
“To what, Mr. Cartwright?”
“She was afraid.”
“What was she afraid of?”
Joe hesitated before mumbling his answer. “I don’t know.”
“I think you do.”
“Then I don’t remember.”
“It’s time you start remembering, young man.”
“Think what you want, Mr. Green, but my wife is innocent. I’m finished here.”
Mr. Green looked up at the judge and glanced briefly at the jury. “The prosecution rests, your Honor.”
Melody never took the stand. Mr. Williams ran through his list of witnesses who briefly discussed her character, but that was all he had. None of Joe’s acquaintances or close friends had a bad word to say on her behalf. They sang her praises in open court. No one had ever encountered her dark side.
After the second or third witness had testified, Pa began fidgeting in his seat. He’d cross one leg over the other and moments later he was crossin’ the opposite leg. Somethin’ was up, but I couldn’t make sense of his agitated state. He was actin’ more like Little Joe than hisself.
On Sunday mornings, when Joe was just a little shaver, he’d flibbertigibbet—as Pa used to call it—during the preacher’s sermon. Pa would lay a calming hand on Joe’s thigh and my young brother’s legs would stop bouncin’ like a pair of crazed jackrabbits against the wooden seat. I s’pose Little Joe couldn’t help hisself. He was that kind of kid, always movin’, always in a hurry. Always thinkin’ ahead of hisself to the next event, and that’s what I saw in Pa. A flibbertigibbet.
Pa’s eyes was set on Mr. Williams as if he was anxious for the attorney to move on and quit with the witnesses he’d called to the stand.
“Pa?” I whispered.
“Not now, Hoss.”
Joe, a lopsided grin showin’ on his face, listened carefully as witness after witness gave kind and sympathetic testimony about his wife, which is why he never noticed Mr. Williams pull an envelope from his suit pocket and address the judge.
“May I approach the bench?” Williams asked politely.
My father sat tall and proud, and he blocked me from seein’ Adam who flanked Pa’s other side. The fidgeting was gone; his legs weren’t movin’ no more, and he seemed completely satisfied though I didn’t know why.
Mr. Green jumped up from his seat, quickly buttoned his suit coat, and approached the bench alongside Williams. Though I strained to hear, their voices was hushed. A mule-headed argument followed, and the judge nodded his head to Mel’s attorney. Mr. Green didn’t look happy at all.
“Since there are no more witnesses, I believe we can wrap these proceedings up today. Mr. Green?” said Judge Peterson. “Will you present your closing argument?”
The prosecutor didn’t say anything we hadn’t already heard—mainly he repeated his words, not ours—and he pushed for a guilty verdict.
“Attempted murder,” he explained to the jury, “is a punishable offense. We know from prior testimony that the defendant in this case, Mrs. Joseph Cartwright, attacked her husband, Joe Cartwright, with a large kitchen knife.” He held up the bloody knife as though the jury hadn’t seen it before. “Stabbing him just below the ribs, he fought desperately to save his life, but it’s obvious that the defendant’s intent was to do bodily harm; in other words, she wanted her husband dead.”
Green paused for effect. “Members of the jury,” he continued. “The act of attacking another human being in such a violent manner is an outrage, and I ask that you consider all the facts and conclude that Melody Cartwright is guilty of attempted murder.”
Attempted Murder. A-t-t-e-m-p-t-e-d m-u-r-d-e-r. Attempted murder.
At twelve years old, she’d won her school spelling bee, even beaten her older sister, Mary Anne. Her mother would’ve been so proud, especially knowing she’d qualified for the citywide spelldown. Wearing her best Sunday dress, she stood behind the podium and looked toward the spell master, but he wasn’t Miss Collier, the schoolmarm who’d let you take it back. Sweet Miss Collier.
Affliction. A-f . . . a f-l-i-c-t-i-o-n.
With both hands clasped behind her back, she just stood alone, hurt, unbelieving, sure there must be some mistake but there had been none. She’d failed the test, and she could feel each chamber of her heart beat louder than it should. A watery vision of a big, brass clock—Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock—loomed before her eyes.
She’d failed miserably. She hadn’t been good enough then, and she wasn’t good enough now. She held her hands in front of her. They shook like leaves in autumn, and she lowered them to her lap.
Is that how you felt, Mama? A life sentence for what? Why? Why had Papa done such a thing? Did you fail the test too? You’d given him three children already. No! You didn’t fail, did you? Why, Papa? Why did you do it?
Tick. Tock. Tick.
I glanced at Joe. He’d closed his eyes to the world around him.
“You’ve sworn an oath to uphold the law,” Green continued to tell the jury. “A minimum three-year sentence in the territorial prison is what the law requires and this court will accept nothing less.”
Mr. Green returned to his seat, and it was Williams’ turn to address the jury. I thought he’d walk straight to the jury box and plead for leniency, but he stepped up to the judge’s bench instead. Peterson handed him the sheet of paper he’d handed to the judge earlier.
“Members of the jury,” he said. “I have something here that I believe will make you think twice about sending this poor young woman to prison. Although it contains third-party-hearsay, Judge Peterson is allowing me to read this most informative letter.”
Time stood still. I suddenly realized Pa’s lunchtime errand. Joe’s head shot up, and he gripped the edge of the prosecutor’s table. Mr. Green held Joe’s arm steady as he looked like he might bolt from the courtroom.
Pa stared straight ahead, but he leaned toward me and whispered, “For Joseph’s sake, I’m doing what I can to keep his wife out of prison. It’s all I have left, son. I pray this will ease your brother’s pain.”
“What about Mel, Pa. What’s this gonna do to her?”
“I’m doing this for both their sakes.”
Mr. Williams began reading—in what I would’ve called his actor’s voice—and before we could stop him, Joe threw off the prosecutor’s hold and bolted from his chair. He flew across the courtroom and grabbed the letter from the lawyer’s hands. “No!” He shouted and turned his head toward the judge. “Please don’t do this. You don’t understand.”
With his right hand perched against his holster, heavy footfalls sounded as Roy Coffee charged up the center aisle and angled toward the jury box and Joe. When the gallery rose from their seats, like they was watchin’ a carnival sideshow, I wanted to do the same until Pa cautioned me with a hand to my arm and a look that said let the sheriff do his job. Joe’s continuous cries had Judge Peterson rising from his own chair behind the bench, all the while pounding his gavel and calling for order in the court.
Joe’s panicked dash across the courtroom had been a mystery to me, to Pa and Adam too, and we’d all leaned forward in our chairs. Like the rest of my family, I’m sure, I asked why. I tried to put the pieces together, but I was at a loss. No one said a word; we only stared at Roy trying to handcuff my little brother.
As the sheriff forced Joe’s arms behind his back, my brother fell to his knees, the crumpled letter held tight in his hand. I couldn’t make out Roy’s exact words, but he did what was necessary to contain Little Joe. But Williams wanted that letter back, and his determination showed in the frantic way he clawed at Joe’s fists.
“Back off, Mr. Williams,” Roy growled then swatted his free hand at the lawyer. “You’ll get your damn paper.”
Even above Joe’s endless pleas to the judge, Roy’s anger at Williams gave the court plenty to talk about over their evenin’ supper. He’d suddenly become Joe’s protector and, as distraught as Joe was, Roy handled the situation with the expertise of a seasoned lawman.
I looked toward Mel. She’d stood from her chair and had cupped her hands over her mouth. Tears streaked her cheeks and with no one there to stop her, she rounded the defense table, crouched down on the floor beside her husband, and cradled his tear-streaked face with both hands.
The judge, the jury, and the gallery looked on. Whether they were amused or just plain dumbfounded, it was hard to tell but, for sure, the abnormal courtroom scene was something them people wouldn’t soon forget. The defendant felt sympathy for the prosecution’s main witness, and even Pa and me and Adam was more than a little curious over Mel’s display of affection.
“Hoss Cartwright,” Roy cried out. Caught off guard, I gulped before dashing past Pa and Adam and kneeling down on one knee next to Joe and Mel. “Take Joe back to his seat, will ya?”
“Sure, Roy.” I helped Joe to his feet. “I’m sorry, Miss Melody,” I said. “Come on, little brother. You done all you could here.” His hands was cuffed so I gently took hold of his arm and walked him back to the table. Though his eyes was still on his wife, he came willingly.
Mel still cried out for Joe. Roy helped her to stand and guided her back to her own table. Mr. Green and Mr. Williams both stood in front of the judge’s bench. They wasn’t no help at all.
Judge Peterson called a fifteen-minute recess, but that weren’t all he done. He’d ordered Roy to leave Joe in irons for the remainder of the trial.
The trial of the decade was over, and we rode home. There weren’t no conversation, no casual remarks, nothin’ worth mentionin’. Joe’s unexpected behavior in the courtroom had given us more to think about and much more to worry about. After his startlin’ breakdown, I wanted to haul him straight out of that damn place before the judge gave instructions to the jury that would determine Mel’s fate, but I was forced to sit and watch my brother suffer through the worst day of his life.
The jury’s decision was final. Melody Cartwright was found guilty of attempted murder, but rather than sending her to prison—a minimum three-year sentence—the letter Pa handed Mr. Williams had made all the difference. Crazy or not, Mel would follow in her mother’s footsteps. Judge Peterson had her committed to a women’s asylum—The Morris-Dexter Home for the mentally insane—just this side of Carson City.
In our younger years, whenever Joe and me rode by the stone house that resembled a small castle, we often made jokes about the women locked inside. With two copper-topped turrets and iron bars on the windows, the asylum had an eerie look—a dark and frightening look—but we never should’ve gone on about them women that was kept there. Even though we were young and we’d laugh ourselves silly, our comments were uncalled-for. I felt ashamed and worst of all; Joe would remember every unkind word we’d ever said.
Hop Sing greeted us with Little Joe’s favorite supper, hot, and ready to serve, but as the rest of us unbuckled our gunbelts and commented on the good smells comin’ from the kitchen, Joe crossed the room and started up the stairs.
“I’ll go talk to him, Pa.”
“No, not right now, son.”
“Pa’s right, Hoss. Give him time. He’ll come around.”
“No, he won’t, Adam. We’s separated from him now. We can’t go back to the way things was.”
“Son,” Pa argued. “We kept Mel from going to prison, and this way, she’ll get the help she needs. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“I don’t know, Pa. Joe seemed awful upset about that letter bein’ read in court. Maybe we don’t know all the facts. Maybe there’s somethin’ he ain’t told us about.”
As if I was a little child, Pa’s hand came to rest on my shoulder. I didn’t need no simple explanation. I didn’t need no comfort. Only Joe could set us straight about his and Mel’s private life. Maybe he would and maybe he wouldn’t. I couldn’t predict the future, but there’d been a reason he broke down in court and at this point, none of us knew what was inside the boy’s head.
“Let it go, Hoss,” Pa said. “You’re reading much more into the problem than need be. Adam said it best, son. Joe needs time. He needs to think things through on his own.”
I moved away from Pa’s touch. “Don’t you see, Pa? Ever since the day Joe was born, we’ve protected him; we’ve stood by him. It’s always been a team effort, but this time we turned on him. We cast the stones. We betrayed Little Joe.”
“You can’t believe that, son.”
“Why? Where’s the compassion, Pa? We’re talking about Joe’s wife; the woman he loves. The woman he fought real hard to bring into this family.”
Though I’d raised my voice, Pa remained calm. His voice was slow and soft. “She’s sick, Hoss. She came at your brother with a knife. She’s no longer capable of living with rational people. Her mind is—well, she’s disturbed in a way that we’ll never understand.”
“I know she’s sick, but we’ve never talked about that side of things with Joe.”
“I’m not sure I follow, son.”
“What about your grandchild, Pa? What about the baby?”
“I’ve already talked to Judge Peterson. I explained the situation, and we’ll be notified of the baby’s birth. We’ll bring the child here to live with us.”
“Did you tell that to my brother?”
“No, but I intend to do so when the time is right.”
“And you don’t think Joe has any say in the matter?”
“Hoss,” Pa sighed heavily. “I’m tired and I’m hungry. Can we discuss this later?”
“No. No, we can’t, Pa, ‘cause there ain’t gonna be no baby.”
“Hoss, please. The nurses at Morris-Decker will be informed, and they’ll take care to see that everything—”
“Pa. There ain’t gonna be no baby. Melody lost the baby while we was on the drive to Sacramento.”
Pa’s face paled, and Adam moved real quick-like to steady him in case he should fall. “Why didn’t Joe tell us?”
“There’s only one reason for that, Pa, and if you’d thought about anything besides putting Mel away, you’d have already figured it out.”
“Hoss, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Joe don’t know, Pa, and that’s why that stupid letter meant nothin’ to him till the trial. He only saw it as another hurtful blow against the woman he loves. Joe don’t know nothin’ about the miscarriage. Mel never told him their baby was dead.”
I doubt that any of us slept worth beans after my announcement. I know I didn’t. I tossed and turned and thought about Little Joe all night. How alone he must feel, sleepin’ in a bed he hadn’t slept in for nearly a year and without Mel at his side. In fact, I was surprised he hadn’t gone home. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he couldn’t face what happened inside his own house.
When I finally rolled out of bed, I wasn’t surprised to see Pa and Adam already sitting at the table sippin’ coffee. Joe was still sleepin’, and that didn’t surprise me neither. The kid was plum wore out, and I pictured him sleepin’ for days on end and why not? What did he have to live for? What was his purpose in life now that Melody had been sent away?
“Mornin’,” I said.
“Good morning, son.”
Pa passed me the coffee pot, and I poured myself a cup. “No sign of Joe yet?”
“No. He’s still asleep.”
After a healthy sip, I set my cup on its saucer. It would take a whole pot to get me goin’ this morning, but barn chores was callin’ my name. “I best get movin’,” I said. My voice was hoarse, and I cleared my throat. My body was tired, and my mind wouldn’t stop thinkin’.
“I’ll give you a hand,” Adam offered.
“I could use an extra hand this mornin’.”
Adam smiled, but it was a sad smile all the same. He hadn’t added much to the conversation last night between me and Pa, but I knew what was on his mind. I knew what was on Pa’s mind too, and I knew we had a long day ahead. I threw open the barn doors and walked inside. Even in the dim light, I saw what was missing. I turned to my brother.
“He’s gone, isn’t he?” Adam said.
“I was awake all night. I never heard him movin’ around.”
“I think we all were, Hoss, but this is Little Joe we’re talking about, and the kid’s had plenty of practice sneaking out of the house.”
“Where do you suppose he went?”
Adam leaned against an upright post. “If you were Joe, where would you go?”
I thought a minute before I answered. “To see my wife?” The look on Adam’s face told me we was thinkin’ the same thing. “We best ride out before he does somethin’ he’ll regret.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“What do we tell Pa?”
“Well—” Adam breathed heavily. “Nothing . . . yet.”
“You sure about that?”
“Until we know for certain—yes, I’m sure.”
You ain’t never seen two men muck a barn or feed and water horses faster’n Adam and me that mornin’. That’s unless you considered my little brother when he had a list of chores to finish before Pa would let him—well, when he was just a youngster, it was fishin’, and after he matured some, it was a Saturday night dance with a pretty little gal hangin’ on his arm. I even smiled at the thought as Adam and me started down the road to Carson City. It weren’t too long a ride, but I was real nervous over what we might find.
The Morris-Dexter house was just this side of Carson, not far off Ponderosa land, which was just another reason me and Joe made crude remarks about them poor souls inside. We thought we was better than them ladies—smarter, wiser—but no one was laughin’ now.
I pictured Melody standin’ behind one of them barred windows or housed inside a copper-topped turret. A sad life for anyone, a sadder life for someone we loved and cared about. My eyes began to water, and I blinked repeatedly so Adam wouldn’t see. I weren’t in no mood for explainin’.
“It’s just around the next turn,” Adam said as though I’d never seen the place before.
“Yeah, I know. I’ve ridden by a hundred times.”
“We all have, Hoss, but we’ve never had an occasion to stop.”
“Just don’t talk about it, Adam. I can’t hardly imagine how Little Joe feels right now. He must be hurtin’ somethin’ fierce.”
“Don’t go soft on me, brother. We came here to do a job.”
“I ain’t goin’ soft, but what happens when we get there—I mean if we find Joe?”
“I have no idea.”
“You’re the smart one. Ain’t you got no ideas at all?”
“Not this time.”
We tied our mounts in front of the asylum. “I don’t see Cochise.”
“Don’t give up hope just yet.”
“Okay, big brother.” I breathed in heavily. “But maybe we guessed wrong after all.”
A stone walkway led to a wooden front porch, which, in most respects, looked invitin’, but my heart pounded like blasts of thunder at just the thought of steppin’ inside. I let Adam lead the way. He rapped on the front door and within seconds a woman answered. Dressed mostly in black, she wore a full white apron that gathered at her waist. Her pale, pinched face and slicked-back hair made her look rather goulash.
“Ma’am—” With hat in hand, Adam spoke as gentlemanly as I’d ever heard him before.
“Miss,” she corrected. “Miss Millicent Havens.”
“My apologies, Miss Havens”
She opened a thin, black book she carried with her. “What time is your appointment, sir?”
“My brother and I don’t have an appointment, Miss Havens. We’re looking for a young man who might have come here last night or early this morning.”
“I’m sorry, but without an appointment—what did you say your names were?”
Adam cleared his throat. “I didn’t, but our name’s Cartwright. Adam and Hoss Cartwright.”
Miss Havens looked straight at me. “You must be Horse.”
“Um, no ma’am. The name’s Hoss. H-o-s-s.”
“Yes’um,” I said.
“Any relation to Joseph Cartwright?”
“Yes’um. He’s our little brother.”
“Step inside,” she said. “I’ll have you speak with our chief physician.” She directed me and Adam into a small parlor just off the main hallway. “Have a seat, gentlemen, while I locate the doctor.”
The walls was dark and the window shades was pulled half-closed. For such a bright, sunny day, I couldn’t understand wasting coal oil when sunshine could do all the work. The furniture was small and terribly uncomfortable for men my size, even Adam was put out, but he left the eye rollin’ up to me. My guess is that they didn’t want visitors hangin’ ‘round any longer than necessary.
“This place gives me the willies,” I whispered.
Adam smiled. “We won’t be here long. Just simmer down.”
“I’ll simmer if you’ll do all the talkin’.”
Adam and me both stood to our feet when a man about Pa’s age appeared in the doorway. Dressed in a gray suit and silver vest, he wore a maroon cravat that was nearly hidden by his neatly trimmed beard. He introduced hisself as Dr. Avery Asbury.
“Pleased to meet you, Doctor,” Adam said, extending his hand.
“Likewise,” I said.
“You’ve come asking about your brother, I believe. Joseph Cartwright?”
“That’s correct,” Adam said. “My brother and I thought he might have stopped by here to check on his wife, Melody Cartwright.”
“That’s an understatement, sir.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Adam returned.
“You’re brother caused quite a disturbance at quite an ungodly hour this morning.”
“So, he was here.”
“Oh, yes. He was most definitely here. Might we sit down, gentlemen?
While the doctor appeared comfortable in an overstuffed chair, me and Adam sat on the edge of a sofa with our knees nearly touching our chins.
“I’m afraid your brother was looking for a patient who hasn’t checked in as yet. I’ve been notified that Judge Peterson recommended your young brother’s wife be contained here for the next three years or longer if Mrs. Cartwright should require ongoing care, but she has yet to arrive. The wire I received stated that Sheriff Coffee would be escorting the young woman to our facility sometime this afternoon.”
“What about my brother?” Adam said. “You mentioned he was here earlier this morning.”
“Well, Mr. Cartwright, after bullying his way inside when my orderly opened the front door, your brother used excessive force against the young man. He demanded to see his wife, and when the attendant said she wasn’t here, your brother didn’t like the answer. He swung his fist and blackened Jeffery’s right eye. The foul language he used in front of my nurses was uncalled-for, and I had no choice but to send one of my orderlies to town for reinforcements.”
“The sheriff, if you will. I’m sure you’ll find your brother locked inside a cell in the Carson City jail. He’s been charged with assault.”
Adam stood. I followed his lead.
“Thank you for your time, Doctor. As stated earlier, Melody Cartwright is indeed my brother’s wife. He’s very much in love with her and he’s concerned for her well-being. He’s a distraught young man who has yet to accept his wife’s—I’m not sure what medical term you use, but my young brother is not normally a violent man. He’s frightened and he feels betrayed by the court’s decision to have his wife committed. I can only give you my sincere apologies for any disruption he might have caused you or your staff.”
“Your brother acted irrationally, Mr. Cartwright, but under the circumstances—let’s just say you’ve made your point quite clear, and I’ll excuse his violent temper this once, but I won’t stand for it a second time. Is that clear?”
“Let me jot down a note to Sheriff Cummings, and I’m sure he’ll release your brother into your custody.”
“I appreciate that, Doctor.”
Adam pushed the note into his shirt pocket and we left Morris-Dexter. We mounted our horses and headed for the Carson City jail.
“I can’t hardly blame Joe, Adam. The kid’s beside hisself with worry.”
“That may be, but if he tries a stunt like that again, they’re apt to lock him up alongside his wife.”
“Adam?” I said. “You don’t think—”
“What?” Adam chuckled. “You think that was Joe’s plan all along?”
“It ain’t that far-fetched, is it?”
“Don’t be putting ideas in his head. Look, we got what we came for. We’ll spring Joe and head for home. That’s all we can do.”
We rode into Carson and pulled our mounts up in front of the sheriff’s office. “Here goes nothin’,” I said.
“Cross your fingers that we won’t have to drag him home by his bootstraps.”
“Oh, man, I didn’t think of that. This whole mess is—”
Sheriff Cummings was a stout man with graying sideburns and a pleasant demeanor, a gentle reminder of Roy Coffee if you was to ask me. In no time at all, Adam explained the situation, handed him the note, and we both sighed with relief when he unlocked the door to Joe’s cell.
“What are you two doing here?”
“Would you rather stay locked up?” Adam sighed.
Cummings handed Joe his hat and gunbelt. “Your horse is at the livery, son.”
“Thanks for everything, Sheriff. ” Joe’s snide remark was loud and clear, and Adam and I shook our heads as Joe stormed out the front door.
“Thanks, Sheriff,” I said. “He don’t usually act that way. He’s had a rough go the past couple days.”
“No hard feelings,” Cummings said.
With his hands clamped on his hips, Adam stood on the boardwalk watching Joe march down the street to the livery. We mounted and followed our young brother. Getting him outta jail was one thing, but gettin’ him home might prove to be a battle of wills.
“You know Joe can outride us, Adam.”
“Every day of the week.”
“Then how we gonna stop him?”
Adam shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Joe paid the livery boy a day’s rent for his horse and stepped into the stirrup to mount. “You two ready to ride?”
“Joe—” I said.
“Not now, Hoss.”
Joe went with us peaceful-like, but no one said a word until he slowed his horse at the fork in the road. The main road, crossing the Ponderosa, veered right. A lesser-used road, leading to his little house, was when he pulled to a stop.
“This is my turn-off,” he said.
“Ain’t you comin’ home with us, little brother?”
“Why? I have my own home.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“Why don’t you come with us, Joe?” Adam said casually. “Pa would like to see you.”
“My father? No, I don’t think so, big brother.”
“What’s that mean, Joseph?”
Joe chuckled. “You serious? Believe me, Hoss. Pa’s the last person I want to see.”
I looked to Adam for answers, but he quickly changed the subject.
“See you in the morning? We’re behind schedule. We start roundup this week.”
“I—I don’t know, Adam.”
“We’ll head out at seven.”
Joe jerked his reins and headed down the smaller road. I turned toward Adam. “Ain’t there somethin’ we can do?”
Just outside the front door, Pa stood with his arms crossed and his legs braced for battle.
“Pa don’t look too happy,” I pointed out as we rounded the barn.
“That’s an understatement.”
“I’ll stable the horses while you explain things to Pa,” I said rather sheepishly.
By the time I walked inside the house, they each held empty cups of coffee, and Adam had finished the story. “That’s about it, Pa,” he said. “Joe came peacefully and we split up at the fork.”
“You let him ride off on his own?”
“He went home, Pa.”
“Did you try to stop him?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then why isn’t he here? Why didn’t you bring him home?”
“Because Joe’s not a kid,” Adam said calmly, but I knew he was boilin’ over inside. “Because we can’t control what he does anymore. He’s a grown man, Pa. He has a wife. He has responsibilities. You’ve got to let him go.”
Like a ghost in the room, I stood behind the settee. I hadn’t said a word. I listened but when Adam when off on Pa about Joe, just like I had yesterday, I felt ashamed of us both. Pa had Joe’s best interest at heart—always had, always would. That’s just the way our pa operated. And though I never doubted my father’s love, he’d always had a closer connection with Joe. Something I ain’t sure how to describe, but somethin’, a certain intimacy existed between them two. Maybe I should’ve been jealous, but I’d never let it bother me. Guess I never would neither.
Adam had left the room. He’d gone upstairs to be alone, and there I stood—the ghost. The son my family considered the peacemaker had nothing worthwhile to say. No words of wisdom came to mind.
Pa stared at the flickering fire as though I were invisible. Maybe I was. Maybe in his eyes, Adam and I were both invisible right now. We told him the truth as we knew it, nothing but the truth, but I felt guilty inside all the same.
By seven the following mornin’, there was no sign of Joe. Adam sent the other two wrangles ahead and told them we’d be along before they rounded up the first calf.
“We’ll give him a few more minutes to show up, and then we’ll have to ride out, Hoss.”
“I don’t like this, Adam—” I held up my hand — “and I know what you’re gonna say. I’m frettin’ just like Pa, but my gut tells me we need to check on Little Joe before we catch up with them other fellas.”
Adam stared at the ground. He scuffed the toe of his boot over a clod of dirt before he answered. “Fine. But this is the absolute last time.”
When Little Joe’s clapboard house came into view, I couldn’t help but remember the morning I found my young brother lyin’ face down on the barn floor. Some images can’t be forgotten, and seein’ Joe’s lifeless body was pressed in my mind like a tintype portrait of one of them unlucky soldiers who died on a faraway battlefield. Today would be different. There’d be no lifeless body bleedin’ out and no search for the truth. The truth was behind us now. We had to get on with our lives. We hitched Sport and Chubby and walked up to the front door. Adam reached for the latch.
“Ain’t you gonna knock?”
Adam pushed the door open, and I followed him inside. The drapes were drawn. A whiskey bottle sat empty. Expecting to see my brother’s blood still marking the walls and floor, the entire room had been gone over; the walls and floor nearly sparkled since I’d last been here last. I wondered if Pa had asked Hop Sing for a special favor.
“Bedroom?” I said.
Sprawled across the bed like a cat soaking up afternoon sun, Joe slept like a baby. Seven a.m. had come and gone, and I imagine the quart of whiskey had something to do with his failure to show up on time. My gut feelin’ had been wrong this time. Joe was fine and I’d worried myself and Adam over nothin’.
“I s’pose we should let him sleep?”
“Might as well,” Adam said. “He’s won’t be worth his weight today. Let’s go.”
Pa had nothin’ to say when we mentioned Joe’s condition during supper that night. Neither of us said anything hurtful; we’d done enough of that already, but when Pa finished his meal, he said goodnight and retired to his bedroom. When I looked at Adam, his response was to shrug his shoulders and finish the food on his plate. I started to comment then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Pa’d had a rough few days too. We was all tired and ready to get back to normal, whatever normal might be.
When Joe didn’t show up the next mornin’, Adam and I didn’t check on him like we had the day before. As Adam had said to Pa, Joe was a growed man. I needed to remember them words and quit trackin’ Little Joe’s every move. Guess I needed some growin’ up myself.
After stablin’ our mounts that evening and thankin’ the other two men who’d put in as long a day as me and Adam, we headed for the house only to be greeted by the Chinese whirlwind called Hop Sing. His rant wasn’t what neither of us needed or wanted to hear. We was hungry, bone-tired, and ready for a good night’s sleep.
“Why you so late?”
“I’m sorry, Hop Sing.” The last thing I wanted was our cook to give up on the family and make good on his threat to “go back China,” but tonight’s commotion angered me more than usual.
“Where Mr. Ben? He leave. He no come back.”
“Where’d he go?”
“He no tell Hop Sing. He leave early this morning.”
“Let’s eat, and then we’ll go look for Pa,” Adam said.
“Chicken all burnt!”
“Chicken’s all burnt,” I repeated to Adam. Of course, Hop Sing had more to say, but I’d never learned much Cantonese.
After our meager supper of cold side dishes, Adam reached for the harness, and I questioned his intentions. “We takin’ the buggy?” Sport and Chubby had put in a long day, and I assumed we’d saddle fresh mounts, but Adam had other ideas.
“My backside requires a cushioned seat.”
“Hey,” I smiled. “I kinda like that idea.”
“Okay, Hoss. What does your gut tell you this time?”
“Same as yours, I ‘spect.”
“You’re gettin’ smarter every day, big brother.”
We were right on target. Pa’s buckskin was tied to the hitch rail. Adam pulled the buggy up next to Joe’s front porch, but neither of us jumped down from our seat.
“Guess we were right,” I said. The drapes hadn’t been drawn and soft golden light poured through the front window. “You tempted to turn around and go back home?”
“No. We’ve come this far. Let’s see what this is all about.”
Something didn’t sit well with me. Often times I felt like an intruder and this was one of them times. Pa was inside with Joe, and I didn’t know if Adam or me were needed or even wanted.
“You sure about this?” I said.
We climbed the porch steps. Adam knocked on the front door then pushed it open. Joe and Mel didn’t have a lot of furniture. A rocking chair and a small sofa took up most of their living space. Pa sat in the rocker. His head popped up, and he quickly put his finger to his lips.
We moved quietly through the front room where we found Joe sound asleep, his stocking feet hanging over the padded arm of the sofa. Pa stood and motioned us back outside. Since there were only two chairs on the porch, I gave way to my elders and took a seat on the front steps.
The two mismatched rocking chairs had been wedding gifts: One from Paul Martin and the other from Roy Coffee. Having both chairs presented at the same time, Joe joked about how he and his bride would each have their own rocker, especially if Mel ever gave birth to twins. Problem was that neither chair would fit in their small parlor, and since both were made of solid walnut and neither was upholstered—one cane-backed and the other had a horseshoe engraving for good luck—Joe had placed the two small rockers on the covered front porch.
Pa didn’t waste any time gettin’ to the point. He leaned forward in his chair and filled us in on the day’s events. “Mel kept a secret journal,” he said. He tightened his lips and shook his head.
“And Joe found it,” Adam replied.
“I’m afraid so.”
“What’s that mean, Pa?”
“I’ll say this upfront to both of you. Until you have children of your own, neither of you can begin to understand a father’s worry, so bear with me and I’ll explain.” Seems it was Pa’s turn to set me and Adam straight. I was ready to listen.
“I’d thought over everything you’d both said, but after the two of you left the house without Joe for the second day in a row, I saddled my horse. I needed to check on my youngest son, grown man or not, and I found him sitting right here on the front porch. He was half-dressed; a pair of wrinkled—probably slept in—trousers was all he wore. I hitched Buck to the rail and sat down beside him. He didn’t look up, but he had a leather-bound book sitting unopened on his lap; his finger marked a page.
“Morning, Joseph, I said, but I got no response. Minutes passed before he turned to face me. ‘Ain’t gonna be no baby,’ he said. Though this was common knowledge to everyone but Joe, I kept silent. ‘Mel lost the baby. She never told me, Pa. She never said a word about it.’ Naturally, my heart cried out. Still, I hoped he’d say more, but the “more” I’d hoped for came later, but I’ll get to that.
“I told him I was sorry, deeply sorry about everything that’d happened, but Joe’s tear-filled eyes said it all. ‘Are you, Pa? Can you honestly say you’re sorry?’ I reached for his hand. I needed him to believe me, but he tucked his arm tight against his side. He declined any comfort I could give.
“I let him know I’d give up my own life if I could take away his pain. I told him what he meant to me, what all my sons meant to me, and that I was willing to do whatever it took to see him through.
“He didn’t answer; he laid his head against the back of the chair. ‘At least you have a son.’ I reassured him that I had three sons and that he would too someday, but I quickly regretted my choice of words. I knelt down in front him. I tried to explain my fears; that if there had been a next time with Mel, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him over another senseless attack, and that’s when the “more” I’d hoped for was revealed. Joe said he was never attacked, and that we’d gotten it all wrong.”
“But, Pa. We know better,” I said. “Why’s he still tryin’ to protect her?”
Pa held up his hand. “According to Joe, we didn’t have all the facts.”
“And what facts are those?” I could tell by Adam’s tone that he didn’t believe a word, and he was growing impatient. Guess I was too, ‘specially if what Joe had said was true. But I saw the bruises. I’d seen the hurt she’d done to my brother.
“From what I gather, Mel—well, somehow she got in her head that Joe would do to her what her father had done to her mother.”
“Yes,” Pa said. “If what Joe says is true, Mel wasn’t trying to kill him, she was trying to—”
“—kill herself,” Adam finished. “And you believe that?”
“Adam,” Pa said, “I have to believe.”
“That changes everything, don’t it, Pa? That’s why Joe broke down in court over that letter. He knew she’d be sent to an asylum instead of prison, right?”
Pa grimaced and I knew I was right. “If he’d only talked to me,” Pa said. “Told me everything. Maybe—”
Adam looked up. “Are you saying prison would have been a better option?”
“I don’t know,” Pa answered softly. “Maybe Paul Martin could have helped her. Maybe a doctor somewhere else—San Francisco, St. Louis. I just don’t know.”
“Ain’t they gonna make her well down at Morris-Dexter. Ain’t that the whole point?”
Adam cleared his throat. “I’ve heard stories, Hoss. There was an asylum in Boston. I’d pass it sometimes when I was out walking.”
“Did it look like Morris-Dexter?”
“No. This facility was built to house a hundred patients. Boston’s a bit more populated than Virginia City, brother. It was large, but as I recall, the asylum was overcrowded. As rumors went at the time, there was always double the number of patients. Morris-Dexter holds what? Maybe ten or twelve women?”
“Size isn’t the issue here, boys. What it all boils down to is that I pushed for what I considered a safe haven over prison time and from what I gather after talking to your brother, being sent to an asylum was Mel’s greatest fear.”
“You couldn’t’ve known, Pa. Joe can’t blame you for wantin’ the best for his wife.”
“Oh, but he does, Hoss, and not only me.” Pa glanced at the two of us. “He blames us all.”
My stomach tightened, and Hop Sing’s cold side dishes weren’t sittin’ too well no more. I had a real bad feelin’ this whole business was a long way from over.
“The letter didn’t get in William’s hands by accident. I put it there,” Pa said, “and I’m the one your brother blames. I tried to explain why I’d done so but by that point, Joe had stopped listening. He pushed past me and went inside the house. There was nothing else I could say.”
“You can’t fault yourself, Pa,” I said. “Joe’s hurtin’ real bad right now. We know how much he wanted that baby, and we know how much his wife meant to him. Maybe we oughta leave him be for a time. You know—let him works things out alone.”
Pa stood from his chair. “I thought I was doing the right thing,”
Adam stood, too; he slid his hand across Pa’s shoulder. “And you did, Pa. Joe might not think so now, but Mel is much better off at Morris than if she’d been sent to the territorial prison.”
“Is that what you think?”
I cranked my head as all eyes turned toward the doorway where Joe stood, his shoulder braced firmly against the jam. We hadn’t heard him come out of the house. We didn’t know how long he’d been listening. Pa moved across the narrow porch and took hold of my brother’s free arm.
“Are you all right, son?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? You got what you wanted. You all got what you wanted, didn’t you?”
“Please what? What do you want from me, Pa? You want me to pretend nothing happened? That there was no trial? That there was no marriage? That Melody never existed? You tell me, Pa, what exactly do you want?”
Joe’s voice grew louder with every new question. His eyes, though somewhat glazed, had narrowed as he looked down his nose at all three of us. Emotions ran high and not just Joe’s. Adam and I stood like fence posts, unsure what to say or do, but not Pa. His instincts took over. He pulled Joe to his chest, but Joe pushed hisself away. He didn’t want no part of any of us right then.
Adam stepped forward. “Why don’t we sit down and talk this out?”
“There’s nothing to talk out, older brother. It’s all been said.”
“No it ain’t,” I said, but my voice sounded weak and unsure. “Let Pa explain, Little Joe.”
A fear came over me, and maybe it was similar to what Pa felt when Joe hadn’t showed up for work. Could my father have known how explosive Joe’s emotions would become or how much pain and anger he stored inside?
Joe turned to face Pa, but I couldn’t read him this time. I don’t think none of us could. I waited for him to strike out with more angry words but his legs like to give out, and he hugged hisself to the doorframe. Pa reached for his shoulder, and Joe turned his head away; his pain seemed too private to share.
“I loved her, Pa.”
“I know you did, son.”
“I love her still.”
Joe couldn’t take it no more. His emotions was so raw that his cry for help brought me and Adam across the porch and standin’ next to our pa. We was family. We’d weathered storms before and at times, we’d come through even stronger. I laid one hand on Pa’s shoulder and pressed the other against Joe’s back. Adam did pretty much the same, and that’s when Joe turned to face us all. He looked each of us in the eye just before his whole body buckled and sagged into Pa’s waiting arms.
Joe came home with us that night. I rode Buck so Pa could sit with Joe in the buggy. The next day, Adam and me collected Joe and Mel’s stock—Jezebel, their milk cow, Joe’s six green-broke army horses and Mel’s little bay, even their small flock of chickens were thrown together with ours.
Enclosed in the small copse of pines we’d left standing when Joe’s new home was built, it saddened me to see the little house look so empty and deserted. Where once there’d been happiness, nights of terror, of shouts and pleas, of blood streaking the floor and walls, now held a blanket of misery and despair instead of a lifetime of promise. In time, Joe would decide the fate of his home, but I often wished for a lightning strike, an end to the memories that nearly sent my brother to an early grave.
Melody’s fate had been sealed. She was no longer a part of our lives and in the weeks after Joe returned home, there’d been no mention of her by the three of us. I wasn’t a mind reader, but there were times when Joe closed his eyes to the world around him, times that he’d drift off to another time and place. I hoped they was happy memories. I hoped he remembered the good times rather than the bad. I hoped he could find a moment’s peace.
Though the knife wound had healed and Joe was riding out with me and Adam every mornin’, he wasn’t the same little brother I once knew. A certain kind of maturity had come over him. A calmness some might say. The boy who loved life, who cherished every waking moment had quieted and become more of a workhorse during the day and was the first of us to say goodnight in the evening.
We all had different ways of managing grief, and that’s what I saw in Joe. Grief. As though his wife had died, but unlike his mama, there was no grave to visit, nowhere to release a range of emotions when daytime wouldn’t end and nighttime brought troubled sleep.
I wasn’t normally a prayin’ man though I prayed every night that Joe’s troubles would end, that he’d find peace, and that we could help him overcome the melancholy that had taken hold and wouldn’t let go. I wanted to set him free. I wanted to see him smile and laugh. I wanted my brother back.
Weeks passed before I saw a glimmer of hope. A gentle smile or a subtle chuckle at one of my off-color jokes began to appear, and I started to think my young brother had a future after all. Even with Mel only a few miles away, Joe had begun to tackle life without her.
A letter came yesterday. Captain Morrison asked for a new batch of mounts for his troops. I watched Joe scan the missive, and I glimpsed a smile on his face as he handed the letter to Pa.
“Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you, son.”
“He didn’t say how many,” Joe replied.
“You’ve got six green-broke. That’s a start.”
“Yeah, guess I better get busy.”
If we could carry it off, me and Adam had big plans for Saturday night, a night in town and a couple of drinks at Joe’s favorite saloon. Little Joe hadn’t stepped foot off the Ponderosa since he’d run off to Morris-Dexter lookin’ to find his wife. We was his brothers. We’d do most anything to correct a wrong done to one of our own. We’d keep on tryin’. If Joe weren’t ready this week, we try the next, and again the next, until we was satisfied we’d done all we could to make things right.
Maybe a Saturday night spent in a local saloon sounded like me and Adam was simpletons and had our hopes ridin’ on lost causes, but we’d never considered Little Joe a lost cause. He might be tarnished around the edges, but we knew he could shine bright. We’d never give up hope.
He’d been hit where it hurt most, but he’d survived the impact, and he was learning to live again. Pa said healing took time, and we had all the time in the world.
Holdin’ his palms up at shoulder level, Roy stopped me and Adam from movin’ farther into his office, “He didn’t break no laws, boys.”
“Then why is my brother behind bars?“
“Don’t you raise your voice to me, Adam Cartwright.”
“I’m sorry, Roy,” Adam admitted. “What’s the charge this time?”
“Ain’t no charge, boys, but Doc thought I should keep him here a while. Kind of a precaution.”
Adam was as tired as I was. After a grueling day’s work, Pa sent us both to town to find Joe. He’d had one simple chore. Pick up the week’s mail. He’d left right after breakfast and now, it was nearing suppertime, and Roy weren’t helpin’ the matter none. Joe was in jail. Pa had bailed him out more’n a few times over the past few weeks, but there was also times Pa didn’t know about, times me and Adam had paid the kid’s fine and didn’t say nothin’ to our pa.
“Just give us a straight answer,” Adam said.
“Your brother has a head wound. Doc said he didn’t think it was serious, more of a burn—you know, a scrape.”
“And how did Joe get the scrape?” Adam continued.
Since the trial, Joe’d had his share of scrapes. Saloon brawls had become second nature, too many for his own good. I don’t think he was lookin’ for a fight exactly, but he was the first one to throw a punch if someone riled him. Adam said he was fightin’ demons. I weren’t sure what he meant, but older brother said lots of things I didn’t understand.
“A man named Madison,” Roy said.
Adam was losing patience. “And just who is Madison?”
“He’s the man your brother shot and killed.”
“Killed?” I said. “Why?”
“Sit down, boys.”
I stared straight at Adam, but he didn’t know nothin’ more’n me and since I’d gone kinda weak in the knees, sittin’ down seemed like a good idea.
“According to witnesses over to the Silver Dollar, this Madison fella had been hangin’ around the saloon all day. A loudmouth, you know the type. Sam said when Little Joe stopped in for a beer, Mr. Madison, sidled up to the bar next to him and started shootin’ off his mouth.”
“Truth or not, boys, this ain’t a real easy story to tell.”
“Just tell us, Roy,” Adam said flatly.
The sheriff was one to pussyfoot on occasion, and nothin’ topped off my brother’s temper more’n wastin’ time on a whole lotta nothin’. Roy leaned forward, laced his fingers, and rested his arms on his desk. “He said some things about Joe’s wife.”
“About Melody?” I glanced at Adam. “He don’t even know her, Roy.”
“We don’t know that for sure, Hoss. Madison told Joe he knew her pretty well.”
“Aw, that don’t make no sense unless he . . . does he work at the asylum? Is he an orderly or somethin’?”
“The man’s dead, Hoss. I don’t know nothin’ about him, but before this is over, I’ll know every detail. I’ll ride down to Carson this afternoon and talk to Sheriff Cummings, see if he knows anything. Then I’ll head to the asylum, but I doubt he was ever an employee at Morris-Dexter.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“This is just hearsay, boys, but the way Madison talked in the saloon, there’d been—there’s things happenin’ down at the asylum that—“ Roy steepled his fingers. He was strugglin’ to get things said. “Madison said some things about—well, he said he’d been with your brother’s wife . . . romantic-like.” I shot Adam a look. “He said he’d paid some fella for her services. I don’t know if his accusation was true or not, but Joe believed him and—“
“Wait, wait, wait, Roy,” Adam said. “You’re saying that—that the man my brother shot said he’d been intimate with Joe’s wife—you mean inside the asylum?”
“Yeah, that about sums it up, Adam.”
“Come on, Roy. Don’t tell me you fell for a story like that? That place is locked up tight. No one goes in or out.” Adam chuckled softly. “Joe believed every word the man said, didn’t he?”
“Put yourself in Little Joe’s place, son. True or not, Madison shoulda never said them things. Joe’s a loose cannon right now, and he can’t control his temper. How many times have I locked him up after he’s fought half the men in the saloon ‘cause someone mentioned his wife? Not in a good way, mind you, and that sets the ball rollin’ every time. How many times have you two paid damages and kept it from your pa? Now, a man’s dead. This can’t go on, boys. You gotta keep that brother of yours outta my town till he simmers down. You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t. It ain’t gonna be no drifter lyin’ face down in the street. It’s gonna be Little Joe Cartwright.”
There’s more’n one way a man could die. He could die by accident or by sickness. He could die by another’s hand or by his own, and I tried to bury all them thoughts about Joe lyin’ facedown, but I couldn’t shake ‘em all together. Adam masked his anger well; he never said nothin’, but neither would I. What was the point? We each had our own private thoughts to contend with.
Roy let Joe out of the cell. Because it was deemed self-defense, there was no disputin’ the reason for Madison’s death, no trial this time, and while Joe paid Manuel a day’s rent for Cochise, I asked Adam the single question that was festerin’ in my mind.
“You think Madison was tellin’ the truth?”
“Dadburnit, Adam. Don’t answer a question with a question.”
“No, Hoss. I don’t believe it’s true. Your young brother takes some man’s word at face value then calls him out before he thinks things through. A man is dead because Joe can’t control his temper.”
“Joe’s had a rough go, Adam. Can’t you cut him some slack?”
“Joe’s temper got a man killed. He’ll have to live with that. Can you?”
I didn’t have an answer; I didn’t know what to think, and I turned from Adam and mounted my horse. Joe hadn’t said nothin’, not a word to Roy or to Adam or me. He believed what he’d heard, and that kind of talk would make any man reach for his gun. How could I fault my young brother for defendin’ his wife’s honor?
“You comin’?” I said.
“No, you two go ahead. There’s something I need to do before I leave.”
As he led Sport down the street, I glared at my older brother’s back. Joe needed us both, but Adam had other plans. I didn’t call him back. I let him go, but it didn’t mean I liked it none.
Joe and me rode back to the ranch together. I dreaded tellin’ Pa, but there weren’t no other choice this time. I couldn’t push this one under the rug like I’d done in the past. Pa met us in the yard.
“He had somethin’ to take care of in town,” I said. “He’ll be along.”
“Joseph?” Pa said. He looked directly at his youngest son.
Joe handed me his reins. He looked up at Pa. “What?”
“What?” Pa repeated. “What in tarnation took you so long to pick up the mail?”
Joe reached inside his jacket pocket. He handed Pa a tied bundle of five or six letters. “Here,” he said. “Here’s the damn mail.” He sidestepped Pa and headed toward the house.
With his back still turned, Joe mumbled, “Ask Hoss.”
Pa turned to me. “This better be good,” he said.
“I’ll put up the horses,” I replied.
“I’ll help you.”
My explanation was nearly as hesitant and choppy as Roy’s had been. The sheriff was right about one thing. It was a hard story to tell, ‘specially the part about Joe’s gunfight, but just as I’d finished explainin’, Adam rode into the barn and dismounted. He often pinched the bridge of his nose when he had somethin’ important to say. This was one of them times.
“You explained everything?” Adam asked.
I glanced at Pa. “Yeah. Joe ain’t talkin’.”
“It get’s worse.”
“Come on, boys. Let’s take the discussion inside. Let’s have Little Joe tell his side.”
“No,” Adam said. He reached for Pa’s arm. “Not this time.”
Pa glared at Adam. He stance was strong and defiant, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “What’s that mean?”
“I went to the Silver Dollar. I talked to Sam.”
“Let’s just say he whitewashed some of his explanation to the sheriff.”
Adam sighed heavily before he continued. “This Madison, the man Joe killed, may have been telling the truth.”
“Aw, Adam,” I said. “You told me you didn’t believe a word.”
“Okay,” he conceded. “I might’ve been mistaken.”
Pa relaxed his stance. “What’s this all about, son?”
“Apparently, Madison had a large crowd of men surrounding his table and enjoying his brand of storytelling before Joe showed up at the saloon. Sam admitted he’d only heard bits and pieces, but Madison had his “new” friends convinced he’d—that he’d been with—that the woman who’d entertained him the night before had been Joe wife.”
“That’s impossible . . . ain’t it, Adam?”
“It gets even worse, brother. When someone argued that she’d been locked up in the crazy house and there was no way his story was true, Madison went into detail about how he acquired her services.”
“Bold-faced lies,” Pa said. “I’m not blaming Sam, but he’s a busy man. How can he be certain—“
“You want to hear the rest,” Adam said smoothly, “or should I stop now?”
“Maybe we should let Adam finish,” I said. “For Joe’s sake.”
“Fine,” Pa said. “Go on.”
“Madison said he made friends with an orderly. He told the young man guarding the back door that visiting new arrivals was common practice; that he’d been doing it for years. In exchange for a bottle of whiskey, he’d get an hour with the newest women. Apparently, the fool believed him and led him through the back door of the asylum.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Pa growled. “That man’s a liar.”
Even with Pa’s constant outbursts, my brother remained calm. He continued his story. “I only have Sam’s word, Pa. Madison’s dead. The story is secondhand, but Sam has no reason to lie, does he?”
“Is that all he had to say?” Pa asked though I knew how uncomfortable he was just digestin’ such an unbelievable story.
“His exact words to Joe were, ‘Even though her wrists were chained to a solid stone wall, your saucy little wench was a feisty one. She put up a real good fight.’”
“That’s enough, Adam. Enough!”
I swallowed hard. Pa stormed out of the barn, but I was frozen in place. I jammed my hands in my pockets and stared at my boots. I didn’t know what to believe.
“I’m sorry, Hoss. Maybe I was wrong to ask questions.”
“No, you did the right thing. It’s just—“
“I know, and maybe Pa’s right. Maybe Madison was nothing but a bold-faced liar.”
“We’re gonna find out, ain’t we?”
“You bet we are.”
After cleanin’ his gun, and not sayin’ a word to any of us, not even when Pa tried to console him, Joe said goodnight and went upstairs. The silence grew louder until Adam leaned forward in his chair.
“There’s something I need to do,” he said.
Pa glanced at the grandfather clock and back to Adam. “Not tonight, I hope.” The clock read 9:35.
“As a matter of fact yes, and I’ll need a bottle of whiskey.”
Adam saddled a gray gelding. Sport was tired and the gray would do just fine. With the bottle tucked inside his saddlebag, he rode to Morris-Dexter and tied his mount out of sight near the rear entrance. He pulled out the bottle and walked up to the back door. He knocked. A tall, young man answered, and Adam held up the bottle.
“I’m a friend of Madison’s,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve come to enjoy the spoils.”
“Hey, man.” The orderly poked his head out the door and looked from side to side.”
“How do I know you ain’t the law or somethin’?”
Adam chuckled. “Not in this lifetime.”
“I don’t do this for just anyone, you know.”
Pulling a ten-dollar note from his back pocket, Adam handed the young man cash along with the bottle. “Will this help you decide?”
“Sure you ain’t a sheriff?”
“You want the money or not?”
“You bet, mister. Come on,” he said. “Ten bucks and a bottle will get you a full hour with our little wildcat?”
“Our newest addition. Still ain’t broke yet, that’s why she’s kept in the cellar. That’s where they learn the ropes—you know, how to behave proper-like.”
Adam winced at the young man’s comment but regained his composure after concluding he’d won the man over by adding a little extra to the pot. He’d gained entrance, just as Madison had revealed in the saloon. The added note probably wasn’t necessary, but it was of no consequence now.
A narrow flight of stairs to the right led to an underground cellar inside the house, not typical of most homes but convenient all the same. The young man lit a candle and handed it to Adam. He kept the second one for himself and pulled opened the cellar door.
“She’s down here,” he said.
He motioned his visitor forward, but Adam hesitated. “Just how many women are kept down there?”
“Just one right now. Doc makes the rules and I follow, ‘cept for my little sideline business,” he chuckled. “‘Course there’s room for more of these crazy ladies, but you and the wildcat will have the whole place to yourselves. Doc comes down here once a day and hands me a glass of water with some kind of calming medicine mixed in. Says all new patients go through a transformation and the medicine speeds up the process. It ain’t always easy to get this one to drink. She’s a fighter, but whatever’s in that glass usually calms her down for the rest of the day.”
“Does this woman have a name?”
Another chuckle. “Can you keep a secret?”
The man seemed willing to talk, but Adam knew he had to keep any concern for his sister-in-law hidden. He couldn’t slip up now. “Look,” he said. “It was a simple question. Forgive me if I like to taunt my women. Every woman, especially “wildcats” need to be controlled, and using their given name affords me a certain power over the lesser breed.”
“I like your style, mister. This little gal’s special. I assure you, she ain’t like any of them saloon girls who spread their legs for the highest bidder. This one’s chained to the wall; she ain’t goin’ nowhere, but it ain’t took the fight out of her yet. She’ll kick and scream; she’ll even rip the hide right off you if you ain’t careful.”
“Hence the name wildcat?”
“You got it, mister. Now, far as I know, she ain’t diseased or nothin’, but with so many men comin’ and goin’, who the hell knows.”
“My buddy Madison led me to believe he was the only one who’d been with her.”
“He’s the first outsider I let in.” The orderly said. “She’s young, pretty too. Some of these crazies ain’t worth a second look, but this one—hell, I had my way with her the first night she was brought in.”
Adam played his part well. He forced a chuckle. “Makes the job all worthwhile, doesn’t it?”
“Damn right. I do her most nights. The benefits outweigh the shitty pay if you know what I mean.”
“Tell me one more thing—that’s if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. Shoot.”
“How long are the new ones kept down there?”
“She’ll spend a few weeks in isolation before she’s allowed to bunk with the rest of the women. Doc says it’s best that way. He says all animals have to be broken.”
“I suppose the doctor knows best.”
“Hey man, I just follow the rules. I feed and water ‘em, and I give ‘em clean straw. I keep ‘em alive. Doc does the rest.”
“One more question. You asked if I could keep a secret. What was that all about?”
“Aw, nothin’ really. Just that this one’s some rich man’s wife, least that’s what I heard. Name’s Cartwright. Melody Cartwright. Crazy ass bitch with a crazy ass name, right?”
“She’s all yours, mister. I’ll whistle when time’s up. Word’s out on this one. She usually gets more’n one visitor a night.”
By eight o’clock the following morning, me and Adam was sittin’ in Sheriff Coffee’s office. Pa stayed home with Joe. Pa aimed to keep Joe safe. When Adam didn’t arrive home until nearly three a.m., he woke me and Pa up, and we followed him down the stairs for one of the worst nights of my life.
“Keep it down,” Pa said. Don’t wake your brother.”
Without a word from Adam, I knew in my heart that Madison had told the truth. Somehow, someway, he’d gotten inside the asylum; he’d been with Joe’s wife, and before Pa and I could drum up questions, Adam cut us off. He began his story. Barefoot and wearing only my nightshirt, I had to leave the room partway through his explanation. I’d had enough. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t hear no more about a woman we all loved.
Adam repeated—word for word to Roy—everything the young orderly had told him. He didn’t leave nothin’ out, and I was forced to sit and listen a second time. This was no time for tears yet they threatened. Roy’s unease was apparent, so was his embarrassment as Adam drove the story home.
“I want her out of that place today,” Adam said. “I’ll take full responsibility.”
“It ain’t that easy, son.”
“Then make it easy, Roy,” Adam fired back. “If not, I’ll get her out myself.”
Roy bolted from his chair. “Now you listen to me, Adam Cartwright. You’ll do no such thing.”
Adam stood too. He glared at Roy then slammed his fisted hand on the sheriff’s desk. He leaned forward; his face just inches away. “No? Watch me. Not one more night in that godforsaken place, Roy, or I swear to God—”
“Easy, Adam,” I cautioned.
“Stay out of this, Hoss.”
“I can’t, brother. There’s a right way and a wrong way.”
“You didn’t see what I saw,” Adam said. “A rabid dog gets better treatment.”
I reached for my brother’s arm. “Come on now. Let Roy have his say.”
The sheriff nodded a silent “thank you” and we all returned to our seats.
“First off,” Roy said, “we’ll have to contact Judge Peterson. We’ll need a court order.”
“Good, let’s go.” Adam started for the door.
“Sit down and let me finish, young man.” Roy stared directly at Adam until he was seated once again. “He’ll need proof.”
“My word’s not good enough?”
“Probably not. I’ll have to investigate myself.”
“Aw, come on, Roy,” Adam raged. “You start nosing around and no telling what they’ll do to Melody. No. There has to be a better way.” Again, my brother’s glare said volumes. “You know I’m right. Let’s go. We’re wasting time.”
Roy fastened his gunbelt and reached for his hat. “The judge ain’t gonna be happy.”
“Good,” Adam said. “That makes two of us.”
I followed behind Adam and Roy. Though this whole thing tore me up inside, I realized the sheriff was right. We’d need release papers signed by the judge or we’d be charged with—I guess—kidnapping our own sister-in-law. She’d been found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to three years, three years of hell, it seemed. She knew all along what would happen. She tried to tell Joe and he tried to tell the court, but no one listened. No one realized what actually went on in them places, but now I understood why she was so afraid, why she’d tried to end her own life, and how stabbing Joe was truly an accident.
Roy knocked on the judge’s front door. A cocoa-skinned girl, wearing a high-collared, black uniform, answered. “Yes?”
“We need to see the judge,” Roy said. “Tell him it’s important.”
“Wait here, please.”
Moments later, the judge, dressed in a navy-blue smoking jacket and gray slacks, opened the front door. He wore house slippers and didn’t seem pleased that the three of us stood at his front door.
“Sheriff Coffee—“ he said. “Dare I ask what’s so all-fired important this early on Sunday morning?”
“Best if we talk in private, Judge.”
“All three of you?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“Don’t make this a habit, Roy.” He turned to the girl. “We’ll have coffee in my study, Daisy.”
We followed Judge Peterson through a set of double doors that he turned and closed as soon as we were inside his office. “Take a seat, gentlemen.”
Roy looked at Adam. “You wanna explain?”
Adam leaned forward in his chair, dug his elbows into his thighs and palmed his hands together. He began—for the third time in a few short hours—telling a most questionable account of what he knew to be true.
“My young brother gunned a man down over an unproven rumor he heard in a local saloon. I thought him a fool, a stupid, reckless fool, but the boy is my brother, and I took steps last night to prove the accusations were false.”
“Get on with it, Mr. Cartwright,” said Peterson “Let’s not beat around the bush. What’s this all about?”
“It’s about sentencing women to Morris-Dexter, Judge. My sister-in-law was sentenced almost two months ago.”
“I visited Morris-Dexter late last night . . . after midnight in fact, and I used the back door to gain admittance.”
“You broke into the asylum?”
“No. A bottle of whiskey gave me access.”
“You’re making no sense, young man.”
“Then hear me out, Judge. I assure you my story isn’t pleasant, but it is the God’s honest truth.”
Hearing Adam’s third rendition only accentuated the horror of Melody’s imprisonment. I thought of Joseph. I cried for Mel. I wanted to destroy the wretched asylum board by board, but there I sat, my hands tied, waiting for the judge’s decision.
“If what you say is true, Adam, we have one of two options,” Peterson stated. “I can send your sister-in-law to prison or we can find another, more suitable, asylum.”
My brother sighed overloud. Maybe he was collectin’ his thoughts or maybe he was tryin’ to control his temper. I weren’t sure, but if I had to guess . . .
“If I may,” Adam said carefully. “I realize the court found Melody guilty but, in truth, the whole incident was an accident. My sister-in-law knew what those places were like. She’d visited her mother, who spent years in an asylum, and she was frightened about ending up in one herself. She tried to take her own life. The knife turned in her hand when my brother tried to stop her.”
“Why wasn’t that brought to my attention earlier?”
“My brother—let’s just say he can be stubborn at times, your Honor. He thought if he kept silent, his wife wouldn’t go to prison. It never occurred to him she’d be sent to an asylum until her attorney read her sister’s letter in court. As you know, that’s when he caused the disturbance in your courtroom and was shackled for the remainder of the trial. His only wish was to take his wife back home with him. He loves her very much, sir.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but Mrs. Cartwright is still a threat to herself, maybe to society. She’s far from cured, and who’s to say she won’t try to harm herself or her husband again.”
“I have no guarantees,” Adam surrendered. “I’m well aware of Mel’s condition, but prison isn’t the answer and neither is another asylum. My sister-in-law is barely hanging on, Judge. She’s been beaten, drugged, taken advantage of by how many men, I don’t know, but this can’t continue. She may be dead already, I don’t know that either. Have her released today. I’ll take full responsibility until we can find a suitable solution.”
“This is highly irregular, but since I know your father and his reputation in this community, I’ll grant you and your family temporary custody. Take your sister-in-law home to the Ponderosa and—“ he said, looking straight at Adam— “under no circumstances will you let her out of your sight. Is that understood?”
“Yes, it is, Judge. Thank you.” Adam turned to me. “Go to the livery and rent a buggy. I’ll meet you outside as soon as the papers are signed.”
Oh, Lordy. My boots sounded loud as I trotted down the boardwalk. Lordy, Lordy, Lordy. What happens now? What about Joe? What will Pa say? What in God’s name have we done?
After stabling Sport and Chubby, trading them for one of Manuel’s better rigs, I pulled up in front of Morris-Dexter. Adam jumped out of the buggy before I’d even tied off the reins. He pounded on the front door. I followed right close behind.
“Ain’t you a little bit nervous? “ I said.
“Good,” I said. “Then it ain’t just me.”
Adam and I had been asked to wait in the front parlor while Miss Pinchface—the nurse manning the front desk—left her post to find Dr. Asbury. I sat in the doc’s overstuffed chair; my hands hung between my knees. Sweaty to the touch, I felt every hardened callus as I raked my palms back and forth nervously.
“We’ll take her to see Doc Martin first,” Adam whispered. “She needs to be checked out. I’ll stay with her and you ride back and explain things to Pa.”
“Oh, no you don’t. Not this time, big brother.”
“Just tell Pa the truth,” Adam said. “Tell him it was all my doing, but he has to be told before I bring Melody home.”
“You sure we’re doin’ the right thing?”
“Neither am I, Adam. I’m scared. What’s Joe gonna say? What’s he gonna do?”
“I don’t know. I wish I had all the answers but I don’t. We’ll just have to play it by ear.”
“Kinda risky, ain’t it?”
Doctor Asbury entered the dreary, lamp-lit parlor. With narrowed eyes and a clipboard tucked under his left arm, he seemed rather put out by our unexpected visit. “I’m a busy man, gentlemen,” he said. “What can I do for you this time?” Adam handed him the sealed envelope from Judge Peterson. “What’s this?”
“Read for yourself, Doctor.”
He scanned the letter. “Released? On what grounds?”
“Mrs. Cartwright is a very sick woman. She can’t be moved.”
“I suggest you reconsider,” Adam said.
“Or what? You’ll bully your way through my hospital?”
Adam glanced at me. “If that’s what it takes.”
“You surprise me, gentlemen. Most families chose to dispose of their undesirables yet you chose to have this woman released into your custody. May I ask the reason why?”
“I didn’t come to answer foolish questions, Doctor,” Adam said calmly. “I’m calling the shots, and if my sister-in-law isn’t dressed and ready to leave your so-called hospital in the next five minutes, I guarantee my brother and I will bully our way through this place, and I assure you that’s not what you want.”
“Don’t threaten me, Mr. Cartwright. I have patients to think about and any kind of disturbance—”
I took a step forward. “Time’s wastin’, Doc.”
Though half my size, the doctor held my gaze longer than I reckoned a man with his stature might. Shoving his clipboard higher under his arm, he turned abruptly. He reminded me of a soldier on duty as he marched down the dimly lit hallway.
“Maybe we should follow,” I said.
“We’ll give him five minutes, but I have an idea. Why don’t you cover the back door . . . just in case.”
“Just in case?”
I started around the side of the house and though I was a big man, there were enough trees and low-growing shrubs to keep me hidden from sight. I hovered a few yards from the back door and I waited. Like my brother had said, just in case. A young man, possibly the one Adam spoke to earlier in the night, stepped outside and slipped a cheroot between his teeth. He’d just struck a match when the back door was opened and startled the poor orderly half to death. The little cigar forgotten, crushed under his right boot, he darted back inside.
Stayed rooted I said to myself . . . just in case.
Time passed, too much time, and I started to think Adam might be in trouble. I hated to leave my post, but I could always check the parlor and come back. Just as I turned to leave, I heard a shriek, a frantic scream, and I raced to the back door and yanked it wide open.
Though his back was turned, I recognized the doc’s gray tailored suit, and he was reaching for something in his jacket pocket. The orderly who’d given up his smoke was trying to contain a wild-haired young woman who fought to free her arms from his grasp but had no possible way of escape.
Without realizing I’d entered through the back door, the doctor jabbed a needle through her filthy, cotton nightshirt, and the reaction was immediate. Her eyes rolled back in her head and rather than controlling her, the orderly tried to keep her on her feet.
“Let her go, Clancy,” Asbury said. “She’s as good as dead.”
The doctor’s words triggered my normally calm disposition, and I grabbed his right arm, sending the syringe crashing to the floor. I wasn’t sure who I hated most, the doc or the man called Clancy, but I fisted my hand and knocked the orderly senseless with one single blow.
The doctor’s eyes widened with fear, and before I turned into a one-man wrecking machine, I hollered for my older brother.
“Adam! Adam, come quick!”
Staring through little gold-rimmed glasses, Asbury knew he was a dead man. I’d seen it all. He’d let my sister-in-law fall to the floor and with quick little movements; he back-peddled till he was against the far wall, but the doc weren’t my main concern. Though I didn’t lose sight of him, I knelt down on one knee next to my brother’s wife. I whispered in her ear. “Melody.”
Her frail body trembled. She’d pulled her knees to her chest, but I could tell things weren’t right. Her lips were moving, but I couldn’t make out the words. I slid my arms underneath her and lifted Mel from the floor. I hugged her to my chest. “I’m takin’ you outta here, Mel. It’s just ol’ Hoss, and I’d never do nothin’ to hurt you. You know that, right?” She circled her arm around my neck, and though her body felt like dead weight, I could tell she felt safe with me.
“You’re all right now,” I continued. “Ain’t no one ever gonna hurt you again. I’m takin’ you home to Joseph so don’t you fret no more, you hear?” Realization came slowly, but she’d already relaxed in my arms. Adam stood in the doorway. “We gotta hurry, brother. The doc just gave her a shot.”
Adam glared at Asbury. “What’d you do to her?”
“She’s my patient, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Not anymore.” Adam picked up the empty syringe. “This isn’t over,” he said.“ Mark my words, Doc. You’ll regret the day you every laid your eyes on a Cartwright.”
“We can’t waste no more time, Adam.”
I slid into our rented buggy. I balanced Mel on my lap, tight against my chest, like Pa had done when we was little boys. From skinned knees to sore throats, just the sound of another heartbeat can calm the fear right out of a body’s soul. I didn’t let go; I didn’t want Mel to feel abandoned. She’d had enough of that already.
Adam drove the rented carriage straight to Paul Martin’s office, but by then Mel was sound asleep, out cold. I didn’t pay no attention to the scenery; I hadn’t even realized we’d pulled into town. If I had, I certainly would’ve recognized the pinto tied in front of the Bucket of Blood.
“Where’s Joe?” Paul asked. “You better find him quick.”
“Is she gonna die?”
Paul didn’t look up from his patient, his hand pressed against her forehead. “I can’t say, Hoss, but she’s been drugged, and I don’t know what that doctor used or how much she was given.”
“She was awake when we got there,” I said. “She still had some fight left in her. I thought she’d just fallen asleep.”
“She’s out now, and all we can do is hope she comes around.”
“You mean I should’ve kept her awake?”
“Don’t go blaming yourself, son. There’s no way you could have known.”
“That’s why she was dead weight in my arms, ain’t it?”
“We’re wasting time, Hoss. What Melody needs now is to hear her husband’s voice, feel his touch. That’s the best medicine we can give her.”
I could help but think of Little Joe and all the mishaps he’d gotten hisself into over the years, and I knew Paul was right. Pa’s deep baritone voice, and his gentle touch did more than medicine ever could.
“I’ll ride home as quick as I can.”
“No need,” Adam said.
“I saw Cochise at the Bucket of Blood.”
“Yeah?” My eyes widened and I smiled at Doc. “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and I’ll have Joe sittin’ right here next to his wife.”
Steadying my pistol tight against my leg, I ran down the boardwalk, crossed the street, and banged through the batwings to find my little brother nursin’ a half-empty bottle of whiskey.
“Joseph,” I said. “Thought Pa was keepin’ you home today.”
“Leave me alone, Hoss.”
I sat down beside him, pushed back my hat, and crossed my arms on the table next to several wet rings that showed against the rough grainy surface. Slouched back in his seat, Joe poured hisself another drink. He threw back the shot, and I pulled the bottle away.
“That’s enough for today.”
Joe chuckled. “Since when did you become my keeper?”
“Since right now, little brother.”
Joe leaned forward in his seat and reached for the bottle. “My mood don’t allow for no games, big brother.”
“Stay right here.” I stood from my chair. I walked up to the bar. “Got any hot coffee, Bruno?”
“Pour me a big mug . . . to the rim.”
I carried the steaming, black coffee back to the table and set it in front of Joe. “Drink,” I said.
“Pa send you?”
“Nope, but I need you sober so drink up.”
“Why? What’s the point?”
I grabbed my brother’s shirtfront. “I thought you gave this up.” I nodded at the near-empty bottle and thought back to all them times since the trial that me and Adam had dragged Joe’s butt out of the saloon.
“Things change,” he said.
“Every new day brings change, Joseph.”
“You an expert now?”
“Far from it. Drink.” I pushed the mug of coffee closer to my brother.
Joe held the mug with two hands. He sipped, and I smiled when he cringed with disgust. “God that’s awful,” he said.
“Keep goin’, boy. We gotta get movin’.”
“Pa did send you, didn’t he?”
“I told you no. Pa didn’t send me. Doc did.”
“Doc?” Wide-eyed, Joe leaned forward. “Is it Pa?”
“Finish your coffee.”
Joe pushed the mug aside. He reached for his hat and stood from his chair. I stood too and grabbed hold of his arm. “Not yet, little brother. You need to know what’s happenin’ first.”
His features changed quickly from relaxed and carefree to edgy and frightened. “It is Pa, isn’t it?”
“Something happened to Pa? That’s why Doc sent you to get me.”
Joe wrenched his arm away. “No, Pa’s fine, Joseph. It’s—” But he’d already bolted from the saloon.
Mel had been moved from Doc Martin’s operating table to a more comfortable bed in a room just off his surgery. Though I’d called after Joe, he was nearly two blocks ahead of me, and I made chase. He’d already pushed past Paul when I walked through Doc’s front door. I was breathin’ hard.
“It’s all right, Hoss. He’s in there with her.”
“Whew,” I sighed. “He ran all the way from the saloon.”
“I figured as much.”
“He thought it was Pa,” I said still catchin’ my breath. ”He thought Pa was sick.”
“Then he doesn’t know what happened?”
“No, not a clue. Dadburnit, Doc. He never gave me a chance to explain.” Paul dipped his head. I knew what he was thinkin’ ‘cause I was thinkin’ it too. “Maybe he don’t have to know the whole truth,” I said as an afterthought.
“Thanks. I could use a cup.”
Paul headed for the kitchen and when he returned, he held two white mugs in his hand. He handed one to me then reached into his desk drawer. He pulled out a pint bottle.
“Will this help?”
“Can’t hurt.” I held out my cup. “What’d’ya really think, Doc?”
“It’s too early to tell, son. That girl’s been to hell and back. It’s up to her now.”
“So there ain’t nothin’ broke you can fix?”
“I’m afraid not.” Paul sipped his coffee before movin’ to sit behind his desk. “She needs a reason to live and that’s more than I can give.”
With my coffee nearly finished, I sat my cup down. “Adam?” I asked.
“He rode home to tell your father.”
“That’s good ‘cause I ain’t got the strength.”
Paul only smiled. What could he say that would make a day like today any better? Adam had to be exhausted too. He hadn’t slept at all last night. He’d ridden to Morris-Dexter and now he was ridin’ back to the ranch. Dadburnit. I should’ve been the one to make that ride.
“Maybe I’ll just look in. Make sure Joe’s okay.” Paul nodded his head, and I walked toward the adjoining room. When the door creaked open, Joe glanced up. He looked so young, so lost and afraid. His cheeks was shiny wet; a tangled weave of curls snaked across his forehead.
Kneeling at her bedside, his hand clasped over hers, Joe held her thin, frail fingers to his cheek. His words were soft, his tears silent, but every word he spoke encouraged her to come back to him.
Paul had freed the tangled knots in her hair and from what I could tell, he or maybe Adam had washed Mel’s face and hands and removed her filthy nightgown. She wore clean nightclothes, and she’d been covered with a warm, heavy quilt. I can’t say she looked a hundred percent, but I was grateful Joe hadn’t seen the worst of it, but I realized something right quick. This was a private time between husband and wife, and there weren’t nothin’ I could say or do to make their lives better. I turned to leave, but the lilt in Joe’s voice changed. He was talkin’ to me.
“Hoss?” I turned back around. “I don’t understand,” he said.
My eyelids scrunched together, and my lips tightened in anger. My initial reaction revealed that I knew more about Melody’s condition than Joe did, and that weren’t my intent, but the damage was already done.
“What happened to my wife?”
“Who did this, Hoss?” His voice was soft but demanding. “Who hurt my wife?”
Though her face and hands had been washed, bruises left by constant abuse were evidence that Mel hadn’t been cared for in a way we’d all hoped. Her fingernails were jagged and crusted with weeks of filth that couldn’t be washed away with a single scrubbin’. Scratch marks on her face and neck gave proof of how desperately she fought anyone who took advantage during them weeks of neglect and abuse.
After Joe’s initial attempt to see his wife, Asbury had Sheriff Cummings issue a restraining order that kept Joe from visiting Mel for ninety days. Even Doc Martin thought it was normal hospital regulation. “There’s a period of adjustment,” he’d said. “And it’s probably better that the patients are separated from family members for a certain period of time.”
Had anyone known what that adjustment period actually meant—Paul, Judge Peterson, and even Sheriff Cummings—no one could’ve guessed that Asbury’s new patients were treated in such a manner.
Pa had kept a close eye on Joe, we all had, which is why I thought it odd to find Little Joe sittin’ in a saloon sippin’ whiskey. As growed up as any of was, we’d always let Pa have the final word, but I worried that Joe hadn’t respected our pa’s wishes, that some kind of argument had occurred, and Joe may have bolted out the front door in anger.
It seemed like a lifetime ago but in truth, Madison was gunned down only yesterday, and now Joe was dealin’ with somethin’ even worse than killin’ a lowlife, loudmouth. The woman he loved, the woman he treasured more’n anyone else in this world had yet to open her eyes, had yet to realize the comfort Joe was tryin’ to give.
Adam had discovered the truth, but I weren’t sure Joe could handle the truth. Let him think Madison was the only one. Was that so wrong? An isolated incident. A one-time thing that never should’ve happened.
The room seemed to swell with heat. I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead before I reached for an empty chair and pulled it up close to the bed. I sat down across from Joe. Mel still hadn’t woken, she hadn’t stirred at all, and though I didn’t know if Joe expected an answer to his question or not, I spoke up anyway. The silence was unbearable.
“I don’t know why, Joseph. I wish I had answers but I don’t.”
“You wanna know the truth?”
“The truth?” I repeated. I didn’t know where he was going, but I nodded my head. Fearin’ I might say the wrong thing, I didn’t say nothin’ more. For Joe’s sake, I had to stay strong. I had to be the big brother he could confide in.
“When I called Madison out, I didn’t believe a word he’d said. Did I tell you that already? No . . . probably not. I thought he was all talk, like he was only using me as fodder—you know, so all those fools in the saloon would buy him more drinks. I knew he was lying, but he’d used Mel’s name. He said he’d—said he’d been with my wife, and I had no choice. I had to call him out. What else could I do?”
“Me and Adam thought they was lies too, ‘specially Adam, but then he questioned hisself, and that’s why he packed a bottle in his saddlebags and rode down to Morris-Dexter to see if there was any truth in what Madison said.”
“He what? Adam did what?”
“You was asleep so we didn’t say nothin’, but we had to act fast.”
“Wait,” he said. Joe laid Mel’s hand down on the quilt. He stood to his feet and moved toward the end of the bed. “Act fast? What are you saying? You mean” —Joe pressed his fingertips to his temples; he closed his eyes—“Madison was telling the truth?”
Damn. What had I gone and done? “I ain’t sayin’ for sure, Joe.”
“He put his hands on my wife?” Joe kept his voice soft, but he was near panic. “He touched my wife? He raped her, didn’t he? Everything he said was true. He raped my wife!”
Paul appeared in the doorway. He looked straight at me. I stood from my chair but the look on my face told Joe everything he needed to know. I couldn’t take it back. It was too late.
Joe’s reaction frightened me, and I’m sure his rigid stance frightened the doc too. He grabbed Paul’s lapels with fisted hands. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”
Paul didn’t move. Footfalls sounded in the outer room. We had company, but Joe’s eyes held steady until I pried his fists away and grabbed his shoulders. I turned him to face me.
“This ain’t Doc’s fault,” I said. “If you wanna lay blame, blame me. I shouldn’t have said them things.”
“You couldn’t keep a secret if your life depended on it, Hoss.”
“Joseph, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? For what? For telling me the truth?”
“No, not exactly. I’m sorry about everything.“
“What’s going on?” Pa demanded from the open doorway. “What’s all this shouting?”
“Everyone out!” Joe yelled. “Get out of this room!”
Paul turned to me first. He pressed his hand against my back. “Come with me,” he said. “All of you.” Pa and Adam were confused by Joe’s outburst. They’d just ridden in from the ranch and shouting was the first thing they’d heard.
“What this all about?” Pa asked again. “I want to see my son.”
“Come on, Pa,” I said. I placed my hand on Pa’s shoulder. “We need to talk. Let Joe alone for now.”
“Adam?” Pa questioned, but my brother only shrugged his shoulders.
“Let me explain,” I said. “I’ve made a real bad mistake.”
Without using my head, without thinking things through, I’d caused my young brother more pain than he ever should’ve dealt with. After tellin’ Pa and Adam what I’d done, I left Paul’s office and ended up back in the saloon, sittin’ at the same table I’d found Joe at earlier. I’d just uncorked a bottle of rotgut when Adam walked through the batwing doors.
“I really messed up this time,” I said after my brother sat down.
“Don’t beat yourself up. He was bound to find out sooner or later.”
“You’re wrong, Adam. Joe wasn’t sure about anything till I opened my big, fat mouth.”
“Okay,” Adam said, making sure he had my full attention. “Isn’t it better that this whole mess is out in the open? No more secrets. No more lies. Joe’s a tough kid; he’ll pull through.”
“I ain’t so sure. You shoulda seen the look in his eyes. I ain’t never seen him that broke up before.”
“He’ll mend. He always does.”
“You don’t know that,” I said. Adam didn’t know everything. He wasn’t in the room with Joe and Mel. He didn’t see the hurt I’d seen. “Joe ain’t the same as you and me, Adam. He lives hard and he falls hard. Maybe he’s too trusting. Maybe he has too much faith in people, I don’t know, but this business with Mel could ruin him forever.”
“Let me be, Adam. Just leave me alone.”
I poured myself another drink.
The sun had nearly set by the time I walked out of the saloon. Adam had left me alone with my thoughts, and I appreciated him for that. I wasn’t up for a lot of chitchat. Standing alone on the boardwalk, I let the cool evenin’ breeze wash over me. That’s until my eyes caught on Doc Martin’s shingle, a hand-carved plaque that swayed in the gentle breeze. It brought all them events into focus. Madison’s story. Adam’s midnight ride. The story he told. The story I’d let slip. I had to make amends.
Virginia City had a quiet time. A time when supply wagons no longer crowded rutted streets and saloons were beginnin’ to fill with the next round of miners and work-worn cowpokes. I gave up my daydreamin’ when I realized Sport and Buck were no longer tied at Doc’s hitch-rail. Paul’s orders, I imagine. “Go home, Ben. Leave Joe and Mel alone.” I could almost hear his words as I knocked on his front door.
“Come in, Hoss.”
Paul Martin looked tired, and I didn’t want to be no bother, but I wasn’t quite ready to ride home. “Thanks, Doc,” I said. “Joe still here?”
“Pa and Adam leave?”
“They did . . . on my request.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thought so. You gonna kick me out too?”
Paul smiled. “I’ll bet Joe could use a friend.”
“Holding her own.”
“Good,” I sighed. “And Joe?”
“Doing as well as expected.”
“Yeah. You think he’s—I mean, you think he’d see me?”
Paul nodded his head. “Yes, son, I do. Your father tried to talk to him, as did Adam, but I’m afraid he wasn’t ready for company. It’s been a few hours. I’d like you to try. He needs to know he’s not alone.”
I took a deep breath. I shouldn’t’ve been scared of my little brother but that’s how I felt. Afraid of what I might see in his eyes, and afraid I’d make another stupid mistake. The door creaked when I pushed it open. The lamp was turned low, and it took me a minute to realize Joe was lying beside his wife on the narrow bed. With one arm draped over her waist, he lifted his head from the pillow. His eyes met mine.
“Mind if I come in?”
A simple nod was my answer. I closed the door behind me and walked toward the near side of the bed. Mel’s eyes was still closed. There weren’t no movement at all.
“It’s just Hoss, sweetheart,” Joe whispered. “I’ll only be a minute.” He moved her frail, white hand under the quilt and eased hisself off the bed. “You just rest. Everything’ll be fine.”
Joe stood to his full height; he put his hands on his hips and twisted from side to side. I bet he hadn’t moved for hours, but it’s funny how other things—meaningless things—come into view. Like pictures on the walls, pictures no one ever stops to notice, but the oil-painted landscapes Paul had handpicked just for this room gave a more homey appearance, an element of calm that might help override the most desperate situations.
This was a death room, a room for the critically ill. Not many of Doc’s patients walked out of their own accord. The mortician would carry them out and make the necessary arrangements. Gunslingers and town drunks were given a pine box, a gift from taxpayers, whereas the more prominent citizens were given options, choices that would give the troubled family a distraction during times of grief.
Paul had disappeared from his outer office. He was a good and thoughtful man. He understood when privacy outweighed a crowded room and a bunch of unnecessary questions.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I said first off.
I couldn’t get the words out fast enough. He started to shake his head, but when I took a seat in one of Doc’s office chairs, Joe didn’t follow my lead. He moved toward the only window. His back was turned to me, and he pressed the palm of his hand against the cool glass. He gazed into a far-off distance.
“She knew, Hoss. She knew what her life would be like in that place, and I let her go. I couldn’t stop the judge. I couldn’t find the right words. I couldn’t save my own wife.”
Joe didn’t blame no one but hisself, probably not even Madison really. The loudmouth had only started the ball rollin’, he’d even caught Adam’s attention, but the end result was that Joe didn’t see things the way we did. He carried all the blame hisself.
“What can I do to help, Joe? What’d you need right now?”
A slight chuckle escaped; his hand dropped to his side. “I need to turn back time. Can you do that, brother? Can you turn back time?”
I dropped my head. “No,” I said.
“Neither can I. I can’t turn back time. I can’t—I can’t help her, Hoss. I can’t kiss her and make it all better.”
“Maybe you can. Maybe all she needs is you.”
“Yeah.” Joe turned to face me. “I’m the one who did this to her. I’m the one who wouldn’t listen, and I’m the one who thought it would all go away if I took Pa’s advice, if I was patient and understanding. I’m the reason she was sent to that place. I’m the reason for everything that happened to her.”
I stood from my chair. I closed in on my little brother and stood right in front of him so he’d have to listen to every word I said. “You ain’t thinkin’ straight right now, Joseph. You’re lettin’ your thinkin’ get the better of you, but you gotta keep strong . . . for Mel. You gotta fight for her. You gotta keep tellin’ her how much you love her and how you need her to get well. That’s what you gotta do, and quit all this blamin’. It don’t do nobody no good.”
Joe’s legs kinda gave way, and his whole body collapsed onto mine. When his head fell against my chest, I wrapped my big, strong arms solidly around his thin frame. And as his cries seemed to mount one on top of the other, louder, breathier, I kept him on his feet. I pulled him tighter against me, hopin’ I could take away some of his pain and sorrow.
Pa and Adam sat in front of the fireplace, each pretending to read one of their favorite books but looked up anxiously when I walked through the front door. Adam placed a finger to hold his page, but Pa stood from his chair, his interest in someone else’s fairytale forgotten. Though I stayed in town late into the night, I knew no one would dare sleep until I brought news home about Joe.
I moved toward the settee before sayin’ a word to anyone. Since my thoughts were gonna sound harsh to Pa’s way of thinkin’, I wanted to get them straight in my mind. I took a seat and let my hands fall between my knees. The fire roared bright and strong, too hot for my taste but, as usual, I didn’t complain. The ride home had almost been a godsend. I’d breathed in the cool night air. I’d let it soothe my soul, but I couldn’t shake the vision of Joe’s despair from my mind.
“I’m worried,” I said. “About Joe.”
“Is it Mel?”
“No, sir. Little Joe’s still with her.”
“You look tired, son. How about some coffee?”
“How ‘bout somethin’ stronger.”
“I figured you’d had enough for one day,” Adam said. If he was tryin’ to make light, I wasn’t in the mood, and I scowled back at him. I was a big boy. I could handle my liquor.
“I’ll know when I’ve had enough,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Hoss,” he answered. “I have some good news, though.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Asbury and Harris have been arrested. Roy’s got them in jail pending trial.”
“You mean the doc and—”
“—Clancy Harris, the orderly who let me in the back door.”
“That’s all well and good,” Pa said, “but tell us about Joe.” He handed me a shot of brandy. Shot. Funny word for a drink. A man gets shot. A man has a shot at winning. A man’s boots are shot . . .
“Oh, sorry, Pa.”
“What’s bothering you, son?”
I looked straight at my father. “Joe blames hisself. Did you know that? He don’t even blame Madison no more. He blames hisself for not savin’ Mel from that place.”
“Not to Joe it ain’t.”
“He told you that?”
“In plain words. I ain’t tellin’ lies, Pa. I ain’t makin’ up stories.”
“Hoss—” Pa said softly. “I didn’t mean—”
“I’m sure you didn’t, but we gotta do somethin’ soon. Joe ain’t right in the head and . . . and if Melody dies, we’re gonna lose him too.” I didn’t look up. I didn’t want to see the look on Pa’s face. I studied my hands instead. “I’m gonna ride back in the mornin’.”
“I’ll go, Hoss. You and Adam have work to do.”
I shook my head. “Work?” I wanted to laugh, but I controlled that little part of me that thought Pa had lost his mind ‘cause he weren’t thinkin’ straight neither. Work? The Ponderosa? Them things meant nothin’ when Joe was in so much trouble.
“There’s nothing more you can do, son.”
“I can be there for my brother, Pa.”
“You’re worn out. Get a good night’s rest, and we’ll talk about this in the morning.”
I stood and headed for the stairs. “Goodnight,” I said.
When sleep didn’t come, probably not for Adam or Pa neither, and especially not for Joe, I rose an hour before sunrise, saddled my horse, and rode back to town. There’d be no early mornin’ discussion on who would ride in and sit with Joe.
Doc Martin was on call twenty-four hours a day, but that didn’t mean he didn’t lock his front door every evening ‘fore he went to bed. Since my callin’ this early wasn’t an emergency, I tied Chubby and sat down on his front steps. I waited for the day to begin.
The large, glowing ball of sun crept higher over the horizon, topping every clapboard building to the east. It was a pretty sight, I’ll admit, and it wasn’t long before draft horses pulling heavy, loaded wagons came rollin’ down C Street. The day was beginning; even Doc was ready to start another long day. He slid the bolt, and I stood to my feet.
“Been here long?”
“No,” I said. “Just enjoyin’ the sunrise.”
“Come in, Hoss,” Paul said. “I haven’t been in to see them yet. I’ll start a pot of coffee.”
“I could sure use a cup.”
Paul chuckled. “I bet you could.”
I followed Doc to the kitchen. “Anything I should know about? Anything happen after I left last night?”
“Sit down, son.” Bad news. I could tell right off, but I took a seat at Doc’s kitchen table and waited for him to explain. And though his back was to me while he scooped coffee into the pot, he began talking. “Mel hasn’t come around, she hasn’t moved at all, and I’m very concerned.”
“What about Joe?”
“He lies on the bed beside his wife. He won’t leave her side. He won’t eat or drink. He scowls if I open the door. He’s isolated himself from the rest of the world, and it worries me.”
“I knew it, Doc. I tried to tell Pa and Adam.”
“What’s that, son?”
“If Melody dies, we’re gonna lose Joe too. You know I’m right. You just said he won’t eat, and if he don’t drink nothin’ either, it means he don’t wanna live without her.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Hoss. The initial shock will wear off. It takes time, but I think Joe will come around. We just have to keep a close watch.”
“I ain’t so sure, Doc. I seen his eyes. I seen the hurt this whole mess caused, and I’m tellin’ you right now. If he don’t die from starvation, he’ll find another way. Maybe he’ll call another man out, a faster gun. Maybe he won’t even draw. I’m tellin’ you right now. He don’t wanna live without Mel.”
Paul poured two mugs of coffee. He placed silver containers of cream and sugar down next to my cup. “I understand your worry; I even accept your thoughts about the situation, but you can’t let Joe know what you’re thinking. You’ve got to stay strong and, even more important, I think you’re the right man for the job.”
“How’s that, Doc? What am I s’posed to tell him? ‘Buck up, little brother. Life ain’t as bad as you think.’ Is that it?”
“The words will come. Joe trusts you. He thinks the world of you.”
“How’s that trust gonna help any of us now?”
“It will. You’ll see.” Paul filled an empty mug. He added cream and sugar and stirred until the steamin’-hot brew was milky-white. “Take this to your brother.”
I took a deep breath before pickin’ up both cups, Joe’s and mine. The bedroom door was ajar, and I stepped inside. Two bodies lyin’ side-by-side, a sliver of mornin’ light showed on either side of the window shade. Joe looked up.
“Mornin’,” I said. “I brung coffee.”
“He’s not in his room, Pa,” Adam said. “I’ll check the barn.”
“Don’t bother. We both know where he’s gone.”
Adam took the seat opposite his father at the breakfast table. “Hoss is worried. That’s all.”
“We’re all worried, Adam, but that’s no excuse to ride out in the middle of the night. I’d expect that from your youngest brother, not Hoss.”
Adam leaned forward in his chair then finally stood so he could reach the coffee pot. He poured himself a cup. Hop Sing carried out a large platter of bacon and eggs and set it in the middle of the table where no one could reach and, before the Chinaman could spout his complaints about Hoss missing the meal he’d gone to great lengths to prepare, Adam picked up his cup and moved down to Hoss’ chair.
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” he said. “Breakfast looks delicious.”
“Stay right here,” he said. Joe dashed through the bedroom door and straight to the outhouse in the alley behind Paul’s office. I took a minute to glance down at Mel before I made myself comfortable in a nearby chair. Still holdin’ both mugs, I sipped my coffee, but I looked up and smiled when Joe came back in the room. I handed him a mug. He drank.
“Thirsty,” he said.
“Doc’s cookin’ breakfast. Maybe you should take a minute to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Who said anything about bein’ hungry. You still gotta eat.”
“’Cause I said so. It’s what normal people do, Joseph.”
My young brother grinned. “Sorry, Hoss, but not everyone has your appetite.”
“I’m just sayin’.” Joe’s face was drawn; he needed a shave. Even in the dim light, I could see he was past exhaustion. “You get any sleep last night?”
He shrugged his shoulders. Without lookin’ my way, Joe moved toward the window. He lifted the shade and with the back of his hand; he slid the lace curtain aside. He gazed toward the busy street, but I knew he wouldn’t focus on just one thing, but I wondered. What—if anything—might attract his attention and give him a moment’s peace?
“It’s funny, you know,” he said softly. “When life gets twisted up in knots, living one more day or even one more hour becomes a burden. I know that now. I understand it.”
I weren’t sure what Joe was sayin’. Was Joe worryin’ over Mel or was he talkin’ about hisself? “I ain’t sure I understand, Joseph.”
“It’s nothing.” He let the curtain fall back in place. “It’s just talk. Silly talk.”
“It means somethin’ or you wouldn’t’ve said it.”
Joe set his mug on a small pie table next to the window. He’d removed his boots and gunbelt the day before so he could lie down with Mel, but what I saw as he moved silently across the room was a man without hope, a lost soul. He looked half his age, like one of them rag-tag orphan boys. His hair hadn’t been brushed, and his shirttail hung loose over wrinkled trousers, but his appearance was the least of my worries.
I couldn’t help but remember how he’d primped in front of the mirror before he drove into town to have supper with Melody Birmingham, their first official date. It was love at first sight. Although, that kind of behavior wasn’t uncommon for Joe, we’d seen that dreamy-eyed look a hundred times before, but all them other gals never quite compared to the young woman who’d stepped off the noonday stage nearly a year ago.
Things was different now, and the magic of them first few weeks of courtin’ seemed like a dream, even to me. As Joe studied Mel’s lifeless form, tears filled his eyes, but he kept hisself in control. Even though Mel hadn’t woken since me and Adam brought her in, Joe tried not to show any signs of pain or worry, but it was useless. He’d left his boyhood behind and had eased gracefully into manhood. Anyone could see the change that had come over my little brother, but that kind of change weren’t always for the best.
“Sometimes the price is too high, Hoss.”
I stood from my chair. “You don’t know that, Joseph. Mel’s stronger than you think.”
Joe smiled then shook his head. “Thanks for the coffee,” he said although it was his way of ending the conversation. He’d said all he had to say, and he was askin’ me to leave. I picked up his empty cup and closed the door behind me.
“Everything okay?” Paul asked when I walked back into the kitchen.
“Yeah. He didn’t say much, but what he did say worries me, Doc.”
“Have something to eat, son.”
There was a place setting for me and Joe at the table, but even the smell of bacon didn’t much whet my appetite. “Thanks, Doc, but I ain’t very hungry.”
“You got Joe to talk. You got him to drink,” Paul said as he refilled my cup. “That’s a beginning. Tell me, Hoss. Who’s more resilient than Little Joe Cartwright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I hope you’re right.”
Twisted in knots. Burdens. Whose burdens was they anyhow? I didn’t rightly know but one thing I was sure of. I weren’t gonna leave Joe by hisself anytime soon.
“I’m riding into town,” Ben said. “You start loading the wagon, and I’ll send Hoss back to help.”
“Yeah, right,” Adam mumbled under his breath. Hoss wasn’t about to leave Joe. He hadn’t missed the determined look on his brother’s face the night before, and if Pa thought he was getting any work out of the big man today, he was sorely mistaken.
“What was that?” Pa grumbled.
“Oh, right,” Adam corrected. “I’ll fill the wagon.”
Adam had never shied away from a hard day’s work. He’d load the wagon, but counting on Hoss for a full day’s work was wishful thinking. Even if the big man rode home, his mind wouldn’t be on the job. In troubled times, Joe and Hoss were inseparable. They’d talk things out. Things Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t say to Pa, he’d confide to Hoss, which often became a heavy burden Hoss to carry.
“I’m not sure when I’ll be back,” Ben said.
“We can’t get behind like we did during the trial. We’re just now catching up.”
“Make sure Hoss does his share. I know he’s upset, but that doesn’t excuse his behavior.”
“I will.” As Buck and his father disappeared around the barn, Adam found himself chuckling at his disrespectful thoughts. “Hang in there, big brother.”
“You hear somethin’, Doc?”
“What’s that?” Paul looked up from a well-worn medical book. Was there was something he hadn’t tried, hadn’t thought to try? Without knowing what the injection consisted of, the doctor was at a loss.
“Never mind. Guess I’m just spooked by—by what Joe said earlier. Can’t get his ramblin’s off my mind.”
“Joe’s tired, Hoss, and he’s trying to make sense of it all. The drugs, beatings, the rapes, everything imaginable or should I say unimaginable, surfaced at once and caught all of us off-guard. No one ever expected Mel would ever suffer such humiliating brutality in a place like Morris-Dexter.”
“It ain’t right, Doc,” I forced through clenched teeth. “It just ain’t right.”
“Of course, it’s not right, but all we can do now is hope for the best. Hope Mel’s strong enough to get through this.”
“What about Joe? I seen a difference in him. I seen him ready to give up, and I ain’t sure he’ll make it without her. He ain’t hisself, Doc. He ain’t got no fight left in him.”
“Don’t lose faith, son.”
“I ain’t. I just don’t know what to do. Hoss eyed the platter of food Paul had set on the table. He reached for a hot biscuit and tore it in half. He slid a piece of ham inside. “For Joseph,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be lucky.”
“You’re a good brother, Hoss.”
“Just doin’ what I can. Just doin’ my job.”
“You do it well, son. You’re Joe’s lifeline right now. You’re his only connection to normal. He trusts you. He’s starting to talk. I believe he feels comfortable confiding in you more than anyone else.”
I rapped on Mel’s bedroom door before pushing it open. “Joe? Brought you a sandwich—Joe?”
The window shade had been drawn. No lamp was lit, and the room was dark. I looked back at the small bed along the far wall. My stomach sunk to the ground. I dropped the little sandwich on the floor. “Oh, no—” But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t make sure. I yelled for Doc.
“Hoss?” Paul had rushed down the hall. He glanced at me then stepped farther inside the room. He stood next to Mel’s bed and slowly removed the sheet that covered her face. With two fingers, he felt for a pulse. His chin dropped to his chest. “I’m sorry, son.”
“Joseph . . .”
I’d heard a noise earlier; I’d even mentioned somethin’ to Paul, but I’d brushed it off as my imagination runnin’ wild. I could kick myself, but I didn’t have time for nonsense. I had to find Joe, and I ran from Paul’s office and quickly canvassed the bustlin’ street. No sign of Joe. I rushed down to the livery first. At least I’d know if Joe was still in town. His horse was gone. He’d paid Cochise’s rent, and Manuel said he’d ridden back through town at a real good clip.
Vengeance? Would Joe go after the men who were responsible? Was he even aware of the details? No, there hadn’t been time to explain, but I headed to Roy’s office anyway. Just as I opened the sheriff’s front door, I heard my name being called. I turned to see the dust cloud left by Buck. Pa had ridden in fast. He didn’t look none too happy.
“Thought I’d find you here,” he said.
Only briefly did I drop my head. “Sorry, Pa.”
I watched the way my father dismounted, and I knew what kind of mood he was in. His leg barely cleared the saddle in his haste to scold me for runnin’ off before daybreak.
“Sorry, Pa? That all you have to say?”
“Mel’s dead,” I said. “She died this mornin’.”
“Oh, no. Where’s Joe?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? I thought you were with him.”
“I need to see Roy, Pa. I’ll explain the rest later.”
Pa followed me inside. Roy sat behind his desk; he seemed surprised to see us. “Howdy Ben, Hoss. What can I do for you this mornin’?”
“You still got them two locked up?”
“Sure do. Why you ask?”
“Joe’s wife died this mornin’. I ain’t sure where Joe is, but he might come lookin’ for them who’s responsible. He’s all busted up inside.”
Roy stood from behind his desk. He looked straight at Pa. “You find that boy of yours, Ben, and keep him outta my town. I don’t want no trouble.”
“None of us do, Roy. That’s the last thing we want.”
“I’ll find him, Pa.”
“You sure he’s not in town?”
“His horse is gone. I’ll try his place first. Then, I don’t know where.”
“Stop by the ranch and take Adam with you, son. I need to talk to Paul. Arrangements will have to be made. Mel’s family will have to be notified.”
We didn’t take time to unload the wagon Adam had readied hisself for a long day’s work. Instead, we unhitched the team and stabled the horses before riding to our first destination, Little Joe’s clapboard house. I don’t mind sayin’ I was nervous inside. I didn’t know what we’d find, but I recalled what I’d seen just a few short months ago. Images of Joe’s blood-soaked body still haunted me. I thought of it often. Flashes of red, of blood on the walls and on the floor. Images of chaos. Images of a near-fatal attack were hard to dismiss.
Cochise stood at the hitch rail, still saddled, unable to graze or find comfort with such short rein. He bobbed his head as his stablemates came to stand alongside him. “He must be here,” I said, but Adam didn’t answer. Calm collected Adam. I never knew how he felt, not really. It was always a guessin’ game with him, a pretense of calm, even if his nerves was shot.
We didn’t bother to knock. We barged through the front door as if we had the right. Joe looked up. With an exaggerated flourish, he waved us inside. He held up a near-empty bottle.
“Join me, brothers?”
Neither of us said nothin’. I wandered over to the sofa, but Adam remained standin’. Maybe he thought Joe would bolt, but I knew better. My brother wasn’t goin’ anywhere at all. His right leg dangled over the arm of the wooden rocker set next to the fireplace, but there weren’t no fire. The whiskey he’d already drunk was doin’ a fine job of burnin’ him inside and out.
His shirttail was half-in-half-out, and he’d discarded his boots, tossing them a few feet away from where he’d chosen to sit and get drunk. He looked no different than when I’d seen him earlier. Uncombed, half-dressed only now, he was three sheets to the wind.
“I just left Doc’s,” I said.
“Then you know.”
“Yeah, and I’m real sorry, Joe.”
“I’m sorry too, Hoss.”
“Anything me and Adam can do?”
Joe seemed determined to drink hisself to death though I could hardly blame him; in fact, I’d tried doin’ the same thing yesterday. One shot after another; there was that word again. Shot. But Joe weren’t sippin’ shots. He was well on his way to oblivion.
“How about we go out to the house for supper?” Adam said. “Hop Sing had a roast in the oven when we left. One of your favorites, Joe.”
“Sober up and eat with the family, huh? Why don’t you just say it, Adam? I shouldn’t be drinkin’. I shouldn’t be by myself. What else shouldn’t I be doing on this fine day?”
Adam glanced at me before he replied. “Did it ever occur to you that your family might be worried and that we’d like to see you through this in one piece.”
Joe gulped the last inch of whiskey and dropped the empty bottle on the floor. He leaned forward in his chair. “One down,” he said, his words just beginnin’ to slur. “Ten—no, e—eleven to go.”
“Bottles, what else, big brother. I told Bruno, you know Bruno, right? Told him Pa was—said Pa didn’t buy enough—um, whiskey, for—I forget. A party. Yeah, a party on the Ponderosa. Pretty good thinkin’, huh?”
“You really fooled him, Joe. You’re one smart cookie,” I said.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “I thought so too.”
That’s when I noted Joe’s saddlebags. Propped against the hearth next to his gunbelt and hat, each side bulged with eleven full bottles of the bartender’s rotgut. I knew we couldn’t let Joe uncork another. Me and Adam had to cut him off and get him home to Pa before things got too far outta hand.
Adam moved toward Joe’s chair. “Time to go, Joe. Up and at em, boy.”
Joe looked at me. “He’s funny,” he laughed. “Fu—funny, Adam.”
“Come on, little brother,” I said. “You know we ain’t gonna leave you here alone. You know that, right?”
“This is my home, Hoss. See the roof. It’s a fine roof . . . and the walls? I like—like the walls best. They’re good walls. Adam said they—they’d last a hundred years. Ain’t that right, big brother?”
“That’s right, Joe, but Pa’s waiting at the house. He asked us to bring you home.”
Joe laid his head against the back of the rocker and closed his eyes if only to block me and Adam out of his world. “A good house,” he said.
“But you can’t stay here. Not today, Joseph,” I said then softened my voice. I tried to reason with his whiskey-soaked brain. ‘It ain’t a good place for you right now.”
“You’re right,” he muttered almost silently. “It’s a bad place, a real bad place.”
“Let’s get them boots back on, okay?”
When Joe pushed hisself forward in the chair, even smiled that lopsided grin, I knew I’d gotten through to him. Maybe he’d come willingly after all. At least it looked that way until—in one quick motion—he pulled his gun and cocked the hammer. He’d loaded a single shot. His pistol was ready to fire.
“Joseph—” I cautioned. He tipped the barrel toward the ceiling.
“A good house,” he repeated. “My house.”
I’d knelt down on one knee, and with Joe’s boots still in my hand; I realized Joe’s state of mind weren’t where it needed to be. We’d interrupted his dream world, a world that included his wife and the way things used to be. Me and Adam had been fools to think our little brother would come willingly.
Joe leveled the barrel at my chest. His gun had a hair trigger, and he was drunk. The odds weren’t in my favor, but when he moved the barrel toward the ceiling again, he released the hammer, but the poundin’ in my heart was still there. I didn’t dare move.
“I don’t wanna hurt you, brother.”
Adam was too smart to make any sudden moves. Joe’s reflexes might be halted some, but at this range, he was sure to hit his mark. He lowered the gun to his lap, and he laughed.
“The party’s over,” he said.”
“Give me the gun, Joseph. Ain’t no good to you now.”
“Can’t do that, Hoss.”
“Come on. Time to get these boots on.”
“You don’t get it do you?”
“What? What don’t I get?”
“I ain’t leaving this house. Not now. Not ever.”
I glanced up at Adam. Between Mel’s death and Joe’s drunken state, I weren’t sure what he was tryin’ to say, but I didn’t like the sound of it none. I was just plain scared. I figgered Adam was too.
“It’s my gun,” he said. He waved it carelessly about. “My home. My gun. My life.”
“Your life ain’t over, Little Joe. Let me and Adam help you.”
He chuckled. “Help me what?”
“This ain’t the way. Not today, Joseph. You’ve got other business to tend to.”
“Business? Ain’t my life my business?”
“There’s no time for guns now. You got other business to tend first.”
“And what’s that, big brother? What could possi—possibly be more important?”
“Your wife. That’s what. Melody. She needs you, Joe.”
“My wife’s dead.”
“Your wife is all alone. She needs a proper burial, don’t she? You can do that for her, Joe. You need to set things right.”
The rug underfoot muted the clatter of Joe’s gun when it hit the floor. He stared straight ahead as if frozen in space and time. Sensing the chaos in his mind had passed; I reached for the loaded pistol. Tears streaked my young brother’s face, and my heart gave way. My eyes glazed over, blurring Joe’s face and everything else around me.
“He’s sleeping now,” Pa said after descending the stairs.
Riding double on Sport, Adam had carried Joe home. I’d led Cochise and stabled him next to Chubby inside our barn. We didn’t talk no more about funerals and such. We’d have time for that later, but even in his drunken state, Joe had recognized the truth, that his responsibility to Mel was unfinished.
I leaned back on the settee and let Adam explain everything to Pa. Truth be told, I could’ve gone straight to bed myself. I was beat, and I drifted in and out during the telling. That’s until Pa stood and poked at the fire, and I felt the blazing heat against my legs.
“We can’t let him go back to that house,” Pa said in a loud whisper so Joe wouldn’t overhear. I’m sure my young brother was out cold, but Pa took precautions anyhow.
“He’s better now,” I said. “He may be over the worst of it. He knows what has to be done next.”
“That may be true, son, but we can’t let him out of our sight.”
“Yessir.” I was too tired to argue the point and besides, Pa was probably right.
“Paul had Peterson’s (funeral parlor) come and pick up the body,” Pa said. “If Joe wants a special casket, he’ll need to make arrangements tomorrow. Plans need to be made with the reverend, and a letter sent to Mel’s family.”
“Supper ready,” Hop Sing announced. “You come eat now.”
At Pa’s direct stare, I dragged myself to the table. Roasted beef and sides of potatoes and carrots covered the china platter. For obvious reasons, we didn’t wake Joe. One bite and he’d been runnin’ to the outhouse. I weren’t very hungry myself, nobody was, and none of us did justice to Hop Sing’s fine meal.
Looking much like a street urchin—orphan kids who ran the streets and stole meager amounts of food from carts and barrels set outside the general stores—Joe made his way down the stairs later that night. Though I couldn’t help but stare, I smiled, and my brother smiled back.
“Come sit down, son,” Pa said. “The fire’s nice and warm.”
Stocking-footed and wearing the same clothes he’d slept in for two days, Joe sat down next to me on the settee. “Guess I should apologize,” he said.
“Ain’t no need, little brother. No harm done.”
Joe sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Somethin’ was on his mind; somethin’ he wanted to say, but he was strugglin’ to get it out.
“Coffee?” Pa asked.
“Yeah, sounds good.”
Pa poured Joe a cup and handed it across the table and, to my surprise, he didn’t bother with his usual cream and sugar. He drank it black, although, with all that whiskey still tumblin’ around inside him, black seemed a much better choice. With unsteady hands, he tried to balance his cup and saucer on his bony knee.
Joe had lost so much weight since the trial, and now with Melody’s death, I wondered how long it might take before he ate a full meal. He was still a growin’ boy when he married but with Joe, emotions ruled what he put in his stomach, and it had been months since he’d been on an even keel. Too happy to eat; too sad to eat. It went both ways with Little Joe.
“I didn’t do right by Mel,” he said, “you know, in front of the judge. I didn’t say the right things.”
It’s funny how a man’s mind works, and how he can dwell on things he can’t change. The trial was over months ago and yet Joe had regrets that seemed important enough to bring up now.
“That ain’t so, Joe,” I said before anyone else could speak. “You did your best, and Melody knew that.”
“I’ll never know, will I?”
“You’re wrong, Joe. That girl loved you more than anything else in this world. Even after all was said and done, she tried to show you how much inside that courtroom. Don’t you remember?”
“Let Joe finish, Hoss,” Pa said.
“I’ve been thinking a lot these last couple of months and—it’s just that the truth never came out. The real truth about that night.”
“We don’t have to discuss this tonight, son.” Pa moved from his chair and sat on the table directly in front of Joe. “You’re tired. You should be in bed sleeping.”
Joe chuckled softly. “Pa,” he said. “I just woke up.”
“True enough,” Pa replied after realizing my little brother was right. He even cracked a smile.
“When Mama died,” Joe said, “things were bad for a while. Granted, I don’t remember all that much, but I remember how empty our lives were. Mel was nearly the same age as me when she lost her ma, and you know as well as I that life is never the same after you lose someone you love.”
Joe’s words reflected how we’d all felt durin’ that horrible time. Me and Adam, bein’ older, remembered much more, but Joe and his mama were so close that he’d never quite gotten over the loss.
“At five years old, Mel believed her father, simply because he was her father, and fathers don’t lie. She had no reason to think otherwise. Not until years later when she discovered the truth. I’m not saying you’d ever do such a thing, Pa, but I tried to put myself in her place. I tried to picture my mother being alive after all that time, and then to find out she’d been committed to an asylum; I can’t—” Joe’s voice fell off to a whisper. “None of it makes sense.”
Pa reached for Joe’s hand but my brother shook his head. He set his untouched cup and saucer on the table and buried both hands between his legs.
“Sometimes she’d have nightmares,” he continued. “I’d ask what was wrong, why she was upset, but she always said it was nothing. That’s until after the drive. That’s when everything changed but I didn’t know why.”
I remembered Joe’s and my conversations. Things change. People change. It seemed so long ago.
“She’d lost the baby, but I didn’t know. She never said anything. She never told me. If she had, maybe—I don’t know. She was so scared, so afraid I’d send her—that I’d do the same as her—God,” he shouted. “She didn’t trust me. She thought I was just like him.”
Joe covered his face with both hands. He leaned forward, his face nearly touching his thighs. His body trembled as he let loose of everything he’d held inside.
“I’m sorry, Pa.” Joe wiped his face and eyes. He leaned back against the settee. “She never wanted me dead. It was an accident and it was my fault. I tried to get the knife away, but it slipped in her hand and—”
“We know that now, son.”
“Don’t you understand? I should have told the judge. If I’d found the right words to say, my wife could’ve come back home.”
“Don’t fight me on this, Pa. I know what I’m saying.”
“Joseph, I’m not fighting you.”
“She begged me, Pa. She begged me not to send her away. I listened but I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand her thinking. I’d never—I mean, why would I send her away? Nothing made sense and that’s when—” Joe looked straight at Pa. “I never would’ve sent her to a place like that. I would’ve taken care of her. Nothing else mattered. I loved her, Pa.”
Joe had sunk into his own private hell, and I weren’t sure how any of us could break down them walls of guilt he’d surrounded hisself with. He’d locked the gate and he held the key, and he weren’t lettin’ none of us in.
Pa motioned for me and Adam to leave. He wanted alone time with Joe, but I was reluctant. I didn’t want to go upstairs. I weren’t tired no more. I was wide awake, and I wanted to hear Joe out. I wanted him to hand over the key. I followed Adam, but halfway up the stairs, I looked back over my shoulder. I watched Pa slide onto the settee next to my broken baby brother.
Me and Adam worked alone for the next couple of weeks. Pa kept Joe at the house with him, close, under his wing, but Joe didn’t seem to mind. There’d been no complaints. Older brother and me tore apart beaver dams, cleaned debris, and saw to it that water flowed evenly again. ‘Course, on any other occasion, Adam would’ve delegated that little job to Joe. Listening to big brother moan and groan kinda made me chuckle inside, and I wish Joe had been with us if only to hear Adam fight and swear at every water-laden log he pulled from them underwater lodges.
When I look back on them days, I realize it weren’t just Joe who struggled with Mel’s death. A kind of melancholy threatened all our lives. it was a quiet time for Joe. He rarely spoke. He did what he was told. He managed chores around the house—choppin’ wood, cleanin’ tack—all them little jobs that took up most of our Saturday afternoons. Me and Adam was grateful but in truth, the days were long without Joe workin’ alongside the two of us. I missed my brother’s company.
Joe weren’t the same person no more. He’d buried a part of hisself along with his wife. He had doubts about his future, and doubts often led to despair. Good days mixed with bad, and even though he tried to hold hisself together, evenings seemed to be the worst. That downtime before bedtime. That time of day when the horrors of life quietly take hold of a man’s mind.
But them days wouldn’t last forever and after a few weeks, Joe began chippin’ away at that rock-hard shell. The walls were comin’ down. One night, he even asked me for a game of checkers. I couldn’t wait to set up the board. I was willin’ to turn a blind eye to his cheatin’ ways but in them days, there weren’t no funny business at all. He played a straight game.
Though Joe’s return to the world was slow, we stood by him. If and when he was ready to talk, we’d talk. And if and when he was ready to ride out with me and Adam, we’d be glad to have him along. We didn’t push. We gave him time to heal.
On Sundays, he’d be gone for hours. We knew where he went. We knew he stopped to pick wildflowers on his way. When he’d return home, he’d go straight upstairs to his room. Maybe he dreamt of better times, the good times he’d shared with his beautiful young wife.
Mistakes had been made. Secrets had hidden truths, and regrets would always be a part of our lives. We’d carry them with us forever. We’d all paid a price for the promises we’d kept.
If I remember right, it was a Saturday night and months after the trial and all that came after. I’d taken a seat on the settee and set up the checkerboard. Joe took his usual seat on the table and made the first move. Pa said somethin’ to Adam about the trip he’d be takin’ to San Francisco on Monday, and I glanced up, but they was talkin’ dates and times, nothin’ that concerned me or Joe. When I looked back down at the board, my pieces didn’t look quite right. I studied the board more carefully.
“Your move,” Joe said.
“Somethin’s different,” I growled.
“What d’ya mean different?”
“The board looks different.”
“Just make a move,” Joe insisted.
“You ornery little cuss. You moved my pieces.”
“You gonna play or not?”
“Dadburnit, Joe. I’m gonna tan your hide.”
“Gotta catch me first.”
In a blink of an eye, that little cuss was up off the table and out the front door, and when I caught up with him, I grabbed hold of his shirt collar and dragged his scrawny hide straight toward the trough. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I pulled up and listened to a cacklin’ sound that was a melody to my ears.
My brother was laughing. That unpredictable little son-of-a-gun laughed good and hard, and that high-pitched giggle sounded like a band of angels had set foot right here on the Ponderosa.
I didn’t drown him that night, and I didn’t tan his ornery hide. Instead, I flung my arm across his shoulders and just like the old days, Pa and Adam stood in the doorway watchin’ the two of us fool around like we was ten-year-old boys.
Joe had taken the first step. He was makin’ the best of a world that had turned its back on the woman he loved. No one said life was fair. Mel’s life had ended too soon but my young brother was a survivor. And they say miracles don’t happen, but I promise they do.
And I always keep my promise.