The One that Got Away (by Cheaux)

Summary:   More than a fish story . . . this tale recounts how loss, memories, and discovery shape the friendships we form and the people we become.  Set in Season 9 shortly after Candy comes to work on the Ponderosa. References are made to “Bank Run,” “Between Heaven and Earth,” and “Sense of Duty.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9700


 

1

For the third time this week Joe Cartwright was awake before sunup.  If truth be told, he hadn’t slept more than a few hours any night since the bank robbery in Carson City a month ago.  A life snuffed out by the snap of a finger.  That’s what Dan DeQuille’s editorial in The Territorial Enterprise had said.   Joe wasn’t there; but his friend Tom Watson was . . . at least until one of the robbers snapped his fingers and his partner fired, dropping Tom before he could finish his sentence.

Tom Watson didn’t normally come to town on a weekday, hard-working man that he was. But he was happier than a tick on a fat dog to be making the last payment on his small farm. “There was no reason to shoot him; he wouldn’t have caused nobody any trouble,” bank teller Orville Loomis said.

According to Loomis, two men entered the bank shortly after Watson. Neither spoke. One of them pulled the shade down; the other pulled a gun. “Tom was jabbering away—that man could talk the hind legs off a donkey, you know.  Must have irritated the man at the window cause he snapped his fingers once and the man with the gun shot Tom dead right in the middle of a word.”  Along with all the silver, gold and bonds in the safe, the robbers took the greenbacks right out of Tom’s fist.

Not for the first time did Joe wonder about the twists of fate that would allow a man or woman to rise from bed healthy and happy in the morning only to be laid to rest in a coffin before day was done.  Not for the last time did Joe make a wish upon the morning star that his Pa would come home safe.

The grizzled cook, his apron stained with grease, stepped out the side door of the Cartwright’s kitchen and rang the bell, loudly and without rhythm.

“Come an’ get it ‘afore I throw it out!” he yelled before hawking up a wad of phlegm and spitting into the bushes.  Joe watched from his bedroom window as reluctant ranch hands emerged from the bunkhouse one by one and headed toward the wrangler’s mess, looking as if they were going to a funeral . . . their own.

Tucking his shirt into his pants, Joe picked up a bundle off his dresser and headed downstairs to the dining room where Hoss sat in his usual place scowling at the platter on the table.

“What’s the matter, big brother?”  Joe asked.  “Off yer feed?”

“Dadgummit,” Hoss said, stabbing a burnt piece of toast with his fork and shaking it at Joe.  “Ain’t nothin’ been served in this house for two weeks that ain’t burnt!”

“I hear tell a little charcoal’s good for your digestion,” ranch hand Candy Canaday said cheerfully as he emerged from the kitchen and slid into Joe’s usual seat.

“A little!  I ate enough charcoal since Hop Sing went on holiday to fuel a forge!”  Hoss threw his fork down and jerked his chin at Joe.  “Ain’t it a bit early for you to be up?”

“Take heart, brother.  Hop Sing is due back Friday.”  Joe placed the bundle on the table in front of Hoss.  “Here.  Don’t say I never did nothin’ for ya.”

“Hot diggity!” Hoss exclaimed as he untied the checkered napkin.  “Cinnamon rolls!  Where’d you get ‘em, Joe?”

Candy sniffed, reaching for one.  “Larson’s Bakery is my guess.  Nobody makes cinnamon rolls like Helga Larson.”

“Mmmmm mmmmmm,” Hoss sighed as he sunk his teeth into a soft, gooey roll.

“Better not let Hop Sing hear that you favor Helga’s rolls over his or we’ll be stuck with ‘charcoal Charlie’ permanently,” Joe laughed.

Hoss pulled a face, but when he noticed Joe had made no move to sit down and eat, he said, “Where are you headed?  There’re still chores to finish before Pa gets back from Sacramento,” and pointed at the center of the table.  Even though their Pa no longer felt compelled to put one of them “in charge,” he persisted in leaving a detailed list of things to be accomplished whenever he was out of town.

Joe rolled his eyes at the irony of a work order anchored by a salt box, but made no move to pick it up.  Instead, he reached for the coffee pot and filled the cups on the table.

“Your father leaves you a list of chores?” Candy could barely contain a snicker.

“Yeah,” Hoss said.  “He started doing that when Adam was just a little tyke.  Pa says he was the orderly sort from the time he was born.  Everything had to be on schedule—”

“He ate and slept by the clock and changed his own diaper, too,” Joe interjected.

“—so to teach him ta read, Pa wrote a list every day when they were on the trail comin’ west.  Got to be a habit for both of ‘em, I reckon.  The chores used to be fairly sensible until Adam started bein’ in charge.  Then he started throwin’ in them curvy things.”

Candy looked bewildered.  “Curvy things?”

“Ahead of the curve,” Joe explained.  “If we got caught up before day was done, Adam always had extra chores we could start on to get ahead.”

“Not much fun was he?”

“Well, older brother had his moments,” Hoss chuckled, “but he could get all self-important, that’s a fact.”

Joe let loose with his trademark high-pitched giggle and reached for the list.

“Let me see this,” he said shaking his head as he read down the page, then turned it over and found more of the same on the back side.  “You’d think Pa would remember there are only two of us now.”

“Hey!” protested Candy between mouthfuls, “What am I?  Chopped liver?”

“Au contraire, mon frère!  If you were, Hoss would have fried you up with bacon and onions by now.”

While Hoss and Candy both snorted, Joe continued perusing the list.  “Look, most of these are done.  Candy and I are going to take care of number nine; you do six, twelve and fifteen and I’ll do the rest when I get back.”

“We can cross number nine off,” Hoss said.  “Dakota already rode that fence and didn’t find anything wrong.”

“By yesterday’s count, we lost another steer,” said Joe.  “I asked Candy to come with me for another look.”

“Dang.  That’s prime beef up on that section, too.”

“Don’t worry, brother,” Joe assured, snatching the last cinnamon roll.  “We’ll find where they’re getting out and put everything to rights before Pa gets back so you can get an ‘A’ on your paper.”

And with a final chortle and a lick of the fingers, he and Candy were gone.

*****

2

The trail up to the east pasture was a gentle one, made all the more easy by the vistas from which the magnificent sunrise was viewed.  Although the ascending red sun held the promise of a hot day, the grasses in the pasture were still wet with the dew that clung to each shaft like tears.

Joe’s previously jovial mood had noticeably altered the further they travelled.  As the sun rose, the grasses began to bend towards the ground and weep.  In the increasing light, Candy couldn’t help but notice the unshed tears in Joe’s eyes.

Not for the first time did he marvel at the man’s capacity to surprise him.  Not for the last time did he wonder what made Joe Cartwright tick.

Joe could sense the unspoken questions that radiated off of Candy like French perfume off a harlot.

“What?” he asked.

“What do you mean, what?”

“You got somethin’ to say, say it.”

They rode in silence a while longer before Candy spoke again.

“Adam used to be in charge when your Pa was away.”

“Yep.”

“Then he left and now Hoss is in charge when your Pa’s away.”

“Yep.”

“But you make the decisions.”

Joe looked over at Candy before answering.

“What makes you think that?”

“You said, ‘You do six, twelve and fifteen, and I’ll do the rest.’”

“So?”

“You made the decision.”

“No.  Pa decided what work needed to be done when he wrote out the list.”

“Well, that makes no sense whatsoever,” Candy protested.

“Why?”

“Because he’s been gone two weeks and you didn’t even look at what he wrote until this morning!”

“So?”

“So how did you know what work he wanted done?”

Joe pulled ahead of Candy and turned Cochise so they were face to face.  “Do you really think Hoss and I don’t know what it takes to run the Ponderosa?”

“Well, no . . . but . . .”

Joe stared at Candy for a moment then smiled and resumed riding.

“Look,” Joe began when Candy caught up.  “The first time Hoss was left ‘in charge’ he rode roughshod over me somethin’ fierce, actin’ all puffed up and full of himself.  Had me doing all sorts of chores that were beyond my abilities at the time.”

“Hoss?”

“Yes, Hoss.  And the first time I got put in charge, I did the same thing only since there’s not much Hoss can’t do, I gave him silly stuff like white washing the smoke house of all things.”

“No foolin’?”

“No foolin’.  Worse, I got us into a mess a trouble with Roy Coffee and we wound up with our faces on a wanted poster.”

“What for?”

“Bank robbery.”

“You two robbed a bank?!”

“Of course not.  We were protecting the citizens’ money from an unscrupulous banker but Pa liked as to have had heart failure when he got back home and saw the posters plastered all over town.”

Candy whistled.

“So, Hoss and I decided we weren’t ever going to do that again.  Pa makes his list.  Hoss does what he’s good at.  I do what I’m good at.  Right before Pa gets home we check everything off and everybody’s happy.”

“What if not everything gets done?”

“The list always gets done, Candy.  Whether or not Pa believes it, we know what to do.  Doesn’t mean we don’t need help, just that we know what needs doin’.  And right now what needs doin’ is for us to find those steers.”  Joe kicked his horse into a canter and rode ahead.

Candy shook his head in amazement.  Getting to know the Cartwrights was like peeling an onion; just when he thought he knew what to expect, another layer was revealed.

“Dang, if that don’t beat all.”

*****

3

When they reached Kings Crossing Road Joe and Candy veered north to the pasture where the cattle were grazing then headed in opposite directions to check for breaches along the fence’s perimeter.

It was late afternoon by the time they reunited near where they had started.  All posts were up and the wire taut.  Frustrated at their inability to find anything amiss but lacking another plan of action at the moment, Joe agreed when Candy suggested they take a break in the shade of an old tree atop a nearby hill.  Leaving the horses to graze on the other side of the knoll, they stretched out in the shadow of the gnarled tree with their canteens and some jerky.

“Well, I don’t know what to make of it,” Joe said at last, working his jaw on the dried meat.

“It’s a mystery, that’s for sure,” Candy agreed.  “Look, there’s only three maybe four head missing.  Why don’t we just post extra men and let it go at that.”

“We’ll post the men all right, but that’s not enough.  These cattle are the result of years of special breeding.  I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell Pa we lost even one of them,” he said as he ripped another piece of jerky.  After chewing a few minutes, Joe spat out the remains and sank back against the tree with a great sigh.

Again Candy bore that quizzical look, but this time Joe waited for it while absentmindedly pulling tufts of grass from the base of the tree.  He didn’t have to wait long.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask.”

“Are you always this changeable?”

Joe’s whole body froze for a moment before he dissolved into laughter and tipped over, holding his sides.

“What’s so funny?”

“Y-you!” Joe sputtered.  “What kind of a question is that?”

“I’m just trying to figure you out.”

“Better men than you have tried!” he said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

“You’re a puzzle, Joe.  You’re all over the place . . . happy, sad, angry.  I never know what goes on in that head of yours.”

“Now you sound like Adam.”

“I am not your brother.  But I’d like to be your friend.”

“We are friends, Candy.”

“Are we?”

“Sure.  What makes you think we’re not?”

“I don’t know anything about you really.  You don’t know anything about me.  I work for your Pa, that’s all.”

“So? I work for Pa, too.”

“So it takes more than workin’ together to be friends; takes giving up a part of yourself.  The truth is . . .  I don’t make friends easy.”

That was an absurd statement and Joe was about to say so, but the look on Candy’s face left him dumbfounded.  It wasn’t the first time, of course.  He remembered the moment not that long ago the man had sauntered unannounced into a supposedly secure camp with a grin a mile wide and an easy way about him.  Pa was flabbergasted at Candy’s gall but offered him a job anyway.  So instead Joe said simply, “I can’t believe that.”

“I don’t deny I’ve been around . . . met a lot of people in my travels.  Friends are another matter though.  Gotta put down roots to have friends.”

“And you’re a tumbleweed, is that it?”

Candy shrugged.  “We’re a lot alike, you know,” he said. “I change locations; you change temperament.  Result is the same . . . keeps people from getting too close.”

Suppressing a quick comeback, Joe considered this remark while he pondered his response.

He still lived in the house he was born in, made friends easily, and had been blessed with a lot of them although many had turned out to be what his father termed fair-weather friends.  Joe had also lost good, through-thick-and-thin friends; some tragically like Tom Watson, some through his own self-righteous arrogance like Mitch Devlin.  Joe sensed, rather than knew for a fact, that Candy had had his share of fair-weather friends in the past, too, and few, if any, of the thick-and-thin variety.  But Candy was right about him.  He had armed himself with every weapon at his disposal:  charm, wit, laughter, and a dazzling smile—whatever it took to keep people from getting close enough to see the warts that were his short comings and failures.

Candy had only known him a short time and yet saw right through him with uncanny precision.  It was unnerving in a way and at the same time comforting.  Being around the affable ranch hand was easy because he felt free to be himself with no pretenses, no excuses.  It was like being with his family.

But before Joe could say as much, Candy poked him and pointed.

“Look there!  What’s he doing?”

*****

4

The buckboard had turned off Kings Crossing Road and was headed straight for them.  Just when it looked like it would run straight into the fence, the driver stopped and climbed down.  Joe and Candy watched in fascination as the man lifted a fence pole and, keeping the wire taut, moved away from the fence line leaving an opening wide enough for the team and wagon to pass through.  Then he replaced the pole and continued across the pasture around the knoll.

Joe nudged Candy and pointed north.  “Go!”

Hugging the ground near the tree while Candy slid down the back side of the hill and saddled the horses, Joe watched the progress of the buckboard until he heard Candy’s birdcall.  Slowly he inched his way off the ridgeline keeping a low profile.

They followed at a distance for quite some time.  By now the sun was setting and it was getting difficult to see.  To their amazement, the man in the buckboard lit lanterns on either side of the wagon obviously not concerned that he was being followed.

“Careless or cocky, either way it’s good for us,” Candy said.

“Or, it’s a signal,” Joe said more cautiously.  “One if I’m alone; two if I’m being followed . . .”

“Oh.  Good point.”

“Let’s back off a bit.”

“Are we still on the Ponderosa?”

Joe looked around to get his bearings.  “No.  But I think I know where he’s headed.  There’s a box canyon at the end of a ravine not too far from here.  Good place for a hideout.”

“You think he’s taking supplies in?”

“Looks that way.”

“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”

Joe nodded.  “A steer or two would feed a lot of men.”

“Damn.”

In the event there were sentries watching the road, Joe and Candy headed west as if they were returning home.  When they passed beneath an outcrop, Joe pulled up.

“Let’s trade horses.”

“Why?” asked Candy.

“Because on your horse I can get in closer and figure out what’s going on.  Cochise is too visible even at dusk and he’s widely known in these parts.  If you take him and stick to the road, nobody will think twice about a rider on a paint headed toward the Ponderosa.”

“I’m not going back without you.”

“Why not?”

“For one thing, Hoss would have my hide.  For another, you don’t know for sure where that buckboard is going and, if you’re right, you don’t know how many men will be waiting for you.”

“You got a better plan?” Joe asked.

“Leave Cochise here and let’s ride double back to the road.  I’ll follow the buckboard on foot; you ride for the Marshal.”

“Why me?”

“Because the Marshal knows you; he doesn’t know me.  Besides, I’m quiet on foot, remember?”

“O.K.  I don’t like it, but O.K.”

*****

5

Candy was right.  It was hard enough to convince Marshal Irwin in the dead of night to send his men into the Sierra foothills to find a box canyon in a blind ravine when he carried the Cartwright name.  A stranger would never have had a chance.  Well, maybe that was unfair, Joe reasoned later.  The Marshal would have listened to Candy eventually, just not at midnight.  But with Joe doing the talking, the posse was on the road by 1 a.m. and at the ravine before sunup.

Using the call of a mourning dove as a signal, Candy joined up with Joe and the posse and proceeded to fill them in on the relative position, strength and habits of their prey.  At first doubtful, the Marshal was won over by the military precision with which Candy related the facts.

After minimal gun play, the gang members were overpowered and surrendered; only one had gotten away.  Given the terrain, the Marshal was not overly concerned, but when Joe learned the escapee was none other than the man with the snapping fingers, he became obsessed with pursuing him.

“Joe, settle down,” Candy said. “The Marshal will find him.”

“You don’t understand,” Joe was seething.

“I do.  He’s responsible for your friend’s death.  I get it.  But you going off half-cocked, with no sleep, and no food to speak of in the last 24 hours, is not smart and I took you for a smarter man than that,” Candy said.  “Am I wrong?”

Hearing the shouting, the Marshal approached.  “He’s right, Cartwright.  There’s nothing more you can do here.  We wouldn’t have found any of these men if it weren’t for you and Canaday, and I need you—both of you—alive and well to testify at their trial.  We’ll find Jameson—that’s his name, by the way—Robert “Fingers” Jameson outta Oklahoma.  He’s had his fingers into every kind of thievery including cattle rustling, horse stealing, robbing stores, banks, holding up stagecoaches, and taking the last bit of cash from lone riders.  He’s also acted as a fence for stolen jewels and has been implicated in at least a dozen land swindles.”

“But not murder?” Candy asked.

“He’s a smart man; not known to carry a gun and always has someone else pull the trigger.  Don’t worry, he won’t be going far.  We found a blood trail leading into those rocks and my men are on it.  We’ll find him.”

The canyon was a dead end, Joe knew.  Nevertheless he looked over Candy’s shoulder to where the Marshal was pointing and weighed Jameson’s options:  One, he could fight and die; two, he could surrender, be tried and hanged; three, he could bleed to death . . . any way you looked at it, the outlaw was a dead man and the posse didn’t need him or Candy at this point.

Joe rubbed the back of his neck with his hand and sighed.  “I guess I could use some shut eye.  Sorry for yelling.”

“Tell you what,” the Marshal said as he walked between Joe and Candy toward where the prisoners were being held.  “Sheriff Nightingale could use some help with cleaning up this mess.  Why don’t you and Cana—”

With lightning speed, Joe moved away, drew his gun, dropped, rolled, and fired three rounds into the rocks in rapid succession.  At first there was no movement, just stunned silence as everyone straightened up from the hunkered-down position they had assumed when Joe began firing.  Then they watched as a body slowly, almost gracefully, dropped to the ground.  Candy used the toe of his boot to turn the man over.  Dead; still clutching a gun.

“How did you know, Cartwright?” the Marshal asked, incredulously.

“I heard a snap.”

*****

6

With Jameson accounted for, the Marshal and his men returned with their prisoners to Carson City but not before letting it be known there was a sizable reward which would no doubt be shared by the two cowboys.

“Do me a favor, Marshal,” Joe said.  “See to it that Tom Watson’s family gets my share.”

Candy nodded in agreement.  Although he didn’t know the Watsons and money was little comfort for the loss of a husband and father, the widow would surely need funds come winter.

As suggested, Joe and Candy remained behind with the Sheriff to bag evidence and clean up the site. They had just finished when one of the deputies returned with Cochise in tow.

“Thought it was the least we could do,” said the lawman as he handed the reins over.

“Much obliged.  It would have been a long walk home,” replied Joe.

“Let’s get out of here,” Candy urged.  “Isn’t Hop Sing due home today?”

“You’re as bad as Hoss,” laughed Joe.  “There’s some place I want to stop first though.”

*****

7

Tom’s widow and daughter were on the porch swing when Joe and Candy rode in.  Emma lay with her head in her mother’s lap, lip quivering with the kind of hiccups that remain after a long cry.  Sherlene rested her cheek on one hand while the other absentmindedly stroked her daughter’s curls.  Neither seemed aware of their visitors.  When there was no greeting, Joe dismounted, walked up the steps and knelt in front of them.

“Sherlene,” he called softly, placing a hand on her arm when she didn’t respond immediately.  “Sherlene, it’s Joe.”

“Joe?  What are you doing here?

“I brought news.”

“Emma, honey, get up.  Look who’s here.”

The little girl sat up and rubbed her eyes, then screamed “Uncle Joe!” and threw her arms around his neck.

“Hi, darlin’.  How’s my favorite girl?”

“F-fine,” the little girl said, snuffling.

“Emma, I bet Uncle Joe would like to meet Lulu.  Why don’t you go get her?”

“All right.”

“Lulu?” Joe asked after Emma went in the house.

“Her new dolly.  Tom must have ordered it the day he . . . before he . . . .” Sherlene’s eyes filled with tears and her voice trembled as she said, “It came in the mail, all the way from San Francisco.”

Joe took her hands in his.  “Sherlene, we came to tell you that the man responsible for Tom’s death was found.”

“Found?” she said, momentarily perplexed.  “Oh, yes.  He got away.”

“He won’t hurt anyone ever again.  He’s dead.”

“He’s dead,” she repeated while it sank in.  “It’s over then.”

“Yes.  We wanted you to hear it from us.”

“—Us?” she questioned, looking around.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, Mr.?”

“Canaday, ma’am.”  Candy touched his hat in greeting, but remained astride his horse.  “Call me Candy.”

Sherlene nodded and then turned back to Joe.  “You look done in, both of you.  Are you hungry?  There’s bread in the oven and I can fix omelets if someone will gather the eggs.”

“My pleasure, ma’am,” Candy said, dismounting.

Sherlene sliced some ham for the griddle while the bread cooled and Joe sat cross-legged on the rug with Emma helping her dress Lulu.

“No, Uncle Joe, you’re doing it all wrong,” Emma pouted.  ”The pantaloons go under the petticoat, not on top.  Don’t you know anything about girls?!”

“Apparently, very little, Emma,” Joe chuckled.

“I could only find a dozen,” Candy said coming through the back door.

“Those will do fine, Candy, thank you,” Sherlene said, taking the basket from his hand.  “Everyone go wash up, lunch will be on the table shortly.”

Joe unfolded his legs and picked up Emma by the waist.  She squealed as he slung her over his shoulder and galloped through the door to the outside pump, nearly knocking Candy down along the way.

Candy hadn’t moved since handing over the eggs.  Sherlene’s skin was soft for a farm wife but it was her eyes that had mesmerized him.  Despite still being red and puffy, they were the most astonishing shade of sapphire blue he had ever seen.

After lunch, Joe volunteered to put Emma down for a nap leaving Candy to help with the dishes.  Being close to Sherlene was no chore, but given his earlier reaction to her touch, he felt awkward around the young widow and unsure whether there was a history between Joe and Sherlene.

“Joe sure is good with Emma,” he said finally.

“Does that surprise you?”

“Don’t really know him well enough to be surprised or not.  How long have you known him?”

“Joe?  Oh, about ten years I guess,” Sherlene said, handing Candy a towel to dry the dishes.  “My husband and Adam had gone to college together and they kept in touch after graduation.  Tom was always intrigued by Adam’s tales of western life.  During the War Between the States, Adam encouraged him to come out here and take up ranching; said his family would help.  That’s when I met Joe.”

Candy was doing the math.  He had heard about Joe and older women, but didn’t hold much with bunk house talk.  Either Sherlene was a lot older than she looked which was not likely given the hard life of a farm wife, or she was a lot younger than her husband.  If there were something between Joe and Sherlene, he’d back away, but if not—well—he reckoned he’d like to get to know this woman better.

“Tom spent some time in St. Louis.  That’s where we met and got married and I came west with him.  Even though I liked it well enough here, I missed my parents and the Cartwrights became a second family.”

“How did you wind up with a farm instead of a ranch?”

“Tom thought cattle were stupid.”

“They are,” Candy laughed.

“So we decided to grow alfalfa.  With all the livestock hereabouts, it’s a good crop.  We get in three or four cuttings a year.  We also have the orchards, chickens and goats.   Those plates go in the sideboard.”

“So you were never interested in Joe?”

“No, why?”

“No reason.”

“Joe’s a good man, don’t get me wrong, but he’s just a friend . . . a very good friend.  I think Adam was always surprised by that, or maybe bemused is a better word.  After all, he and Tom were intellectual equals, but Tom and Joe shared a sense of humor and a zest for living that defied explanation given their age difference.  They would pull the most outlandish pranks on each other.”  Sherlene stopped scrubbing the kitchen table and was lost in memories for a few minutes.  Then she smiled and said, “Thank you, Candy.  That’s first time I’ve thought about Tom in a month that I haven’t wanted to cry.”

*****

After Joe removed Emma’s shoes and socks, he fluffed the pillows and then tucked the summer quilt around her and Lulu.

“Comfy?” he asked.

Emma nodded and put her thumb in her mouth.

“Can I ask you a question, Em?”

He took her silence for permission.

“You were crying earlier.  Would you tell me why?”

The little girl chewed her lip.  “Papa’s birthday is next week.  We always go fishin’ on his birthday, but Mama said we can’t this year.  Why? Why can’t we, Uncle Joe?  Doesn’t Papa want to fish with me anymore?  Is that why he went away?”

“Em, your papa loves you still.  I know it’s hard to believe.  I lost my mama when I was about your age.  It took me a long time to understand why she was taken from me.  But I had my Pa and my brothers and they loved me, too, and helped me understand that I did nothing wrong; I was not responsible for her going away.  You’ve got your mama and me and your grandparents back in St. Louis.  We all love you and we want you to know what happened to your papa had nothing to do with you.”

Emma held her arms out straight and Joe gathered her up into a tight hug.

“Would you sing me a song?”

“Sure.  Which one would you like to hear?”

“The one you sang to Papa at the church.”

“Shenandoah,” Joe whispered.  “It’s my Pa’s favorite song, too.”

Candy and Sherlene were sitting on the front porch when Joe emerged from the house and announced, “She’s asleep.”

Sherlene stood and poured Joe a glass of lemonade.  “The song was sweet, Joe.  Thank you.”

Joe sat on the porch rail holding the glass between his hands.  “Sherl, where did Tom like to fish?”

“Up at Kings Canyon Creek.  Why?  She didn’t badger you to take her fishing did she?”

“No.  Nothing like that.  I just think it would be a good way to spend next Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?  Isn’t that the day your Pa comes back from Sacramento?” Candy asked.

“Yeah, but not until suppertime.   I figure we could fish in the morning, have a picnic lunch and still have time to meet Hoss for a beer before the stage gets in.”  Joe held the glass to his lips and asked, “That okay with you, Sherlene?” before downing the liquid in one big gulp.  Only then did he look at her.  She was staring back.

Without saying a word, Sherlene moved to the other side of the porch and wrapped her arms around the post, laying her cheek against the warm wood.  She closed her eyes savoring the soft breeze that lifted the tendrils around her forehead.  The scent of honeysuckle permeated the air and she breathed deeply.  Eyes open once again, she looked out into the yard at the whimsical giant white rabbit with waistcoat and pocket watch Tom had placed in the garden because it made Emma laugh, at the barn door he’d painted a bright blue because it was unexpected, at the birdhouse he built that looked like a medieval castle complete with moat because she was his queen.

“’It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’” she said.

Joe and Candy exchanged glances but remained silent.

A small sound escaped her throat when she turned to see the looks on their faces.

“Never mind,” Sherlene said, shaking her head.  “It’s time to move forward.  We’ll go fishing with you Wednesday.”

When Emma woke up, Joe and Candy took their leave.  As they rode out the yard, Joe turned in the saddle and shouted.

“It’s what the White Queen said to Alice.”

“Very good, Joe.  There’s hope for you yet!”

*****

8

“I’m telling you,” Candy exclaimed while making a chopping motion with his right hand against the upper part of his extended left arm, “it was this big!”

Hoss nearly choked on his beer. “Yeah, sure it was, Candy.  And I’m Little Red Riding Hood.”

Candy swiftly jabbed his left elbow into Joe’s shoulder as he lifted his mug.  “Tell him, Joe.”

“Don’t look at me,” Joe protested, wiping the foam from his mouth.  “I was busy with the hook.”

“And why is that exactly?” said Candy, loosing focus on his tale. “Emma can bait her own hook, her mother said so.”

“Hey, I was just being helpful.”

“Yeah, too helpful if you ask me.”

“Since when is it a crime to assist a lady in need?”

“Emma is no lady.”

“Who isn’t a lady?” queried Ben who heard only the tail end of the conversation as he approached the table in Virginia City’s Silver Dollar Saloon.

“Hey, Pa!” “Mr. Cartwright,” the three chimed in unison.  As Ben took a seat throwing his saddle bags on top of the table, Hoss signaled the bartender for another beer.

“You’re back early, Pa.  We weren’t expecting you until the 6 o’clock stage; everything go all right?” asked Joe.

“Just fine.  I’ll tell you about it when we get home.  Now, what’s this about ‘no lady’?  Who’s not a lady?”

“Emma, Sherlene’s girl,” Hoss provided helpfully and was promptly kicked under the table by his younger brother.

“Sherlene Watson?  From Carson City?”  Ben questioned.  When Hoss nodded, Ben frowned and threw a collective scowl at Joe and Candy.  Even though he lowered his voice, both men could hear the reproach implicit in his tone.  “A little early to be courting, isn’t it?  Her husband hasn’t been in the ground a month yet.”

Candy—at least—had the decency to look chagrined.  Joe’s expression, on the other hand, did not change one iota as he continued to drink his beer, peering at his father over the brim.

Hoss rocked back in his chair, his fingers laced across his stomach.  He was sure glad Candy had come into their lives.  Often as not these days, it was his younger brother and the ranch hand that could raise Pa’s ire leaving him in the heretofore-much-envied position of elder brother and good son.  Hoss grinned and decided to help things a long a little.

“I been up since afore sunup every day while you been gone, Pa, working on that list of chores you left.” Hoss waggled his finger at Candy and Joe and said, “These two scalawags on the other hand, took Emma fishin’.”

“And her mother, too.  It’s not like we abducted the ch—” Candy broke off, seeing Joe’s eyes narrow and realizing he wasn’t helping any.

“And just what were you boys doing fishing in the middle of the week when there’s work to be done?”

“We finished our work, Pa,” Joe said quietly.  “Seems older brother here isn’t of a mind to tell you that, or to mention that we helped round up the men involved in the Carson City bank robbery.”

“You found them?” Ben asked, looking at both Candy and Hoss for confirmation.  Hoss skewed his mouth sideways, but gave a quick nod and Candy jumped right in.

“More than that, sir.  Joe and I found out what happened to the missing stock—”

“What missing stock?” Ben again looked around the table for an explanation. “Just what in tarnation has been going on around here while I’ve been gone?”

“The breeding stock up in the east pasture,” said Hoss.  “We lost a few.”

“Someone please start at the beginning,” Ben sighed, taking a big draw from his mug.

Joe wasn’t talking, so Candy began.  “From the decreasing headcount it seemed there was a breach but dang if we could find it.  After riding the perimeter twice, we took a break up near that big gnarly oak.  You know the one?”

Ben nodded. “Yes, go on,” he said to Candy, but kept his eyes on Joe who remained atypically silent during this recounting.

“We hadn’t been there long when this buckboard comes up the road from Carson.  We’re not paying it much mind when all of a sudden it turns and heads straight for us; then the driver jumps down, lifts a pole clean outta the dirt and walks it to another hole hidden by brush.  Then he drove the rig right into the pasture.”

“Are you telling me there is a gate?” Ben said incredulously. “In my fence?”

“Yes, sir.  No wonder we couldn’t figure it out; we were looking for a downed fence.”

“Was he aware he was being watched?”

“He looked around, but we had the sun behind us,” Joe said, picking up the story where Candy left off.  “Even if he saw us, he’d probably thought we were part of that twisted tree, so we just stayed put until he got around the hill and then we followed the buckboard to a ravine near the old logging trail.”

“That trail hasn’t been used in years; too many rockslides,” Ben said.

“Perfect cover for them that wants to be hid,” added Hoss.

“Yeah, pity no one thought to look there a month ago before the bank was robbed,” Joe slammed his mug down and rose from the table.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ben asked, watching his son head out the back door of the saloon to the privy.  There was a definite slump to his shoulders.

“He’s been outta sorts since we went fishing,” Candy said.

“That don’t figure.  Joe likes fishin’ almost better than gals!” Hoss said.  “But it’s a fact.  He’s been irritable and contrary and downright ornery sometimes since you found them outlaws.”

“What are you not telling me?”

“Nothing, Mr. Cartwright.   I kept watch and Joe headed for Carson City to get help.  He was back by morning with the law.  Seems these fellas were part of a larger organization that’s been commitin’ robbery, assault, and other crimes across the territory.  They were using the ravine as a base of operations.”

“Then they weren’t rustling?” Ben asked Candy.

“Not for profit.  Helpin’ themselves to Ponderosa beef was just an added benefit.”

“What happened then?”

“Like I said, Joe fetched the Marshal, Sheriff, and a whole platoon of deputies.  They rounded everybody up; end of story.”

“Just like that?” Ben said doubtfully.  “No gunplay?”

“Well . . . some, but we’re fine.”

Ben looked at Hoss questioningly.

“Joe’s fine, Pa.”

Joe returned to the table bearing two mugs in each hand and sat down.  “We found where they’d been butchering the steers.  A real shame, too . . . they didn’t use half of what they slaughtered.  After the Marshal left with his prisoners, Alan—Sheriff Nightingill— stayed and helped us burn the carcasses.  Nice guy.  Straight shooter.”  Joe sighed, flicking a fly out of his foam.

“On our way back to the ranch Joe insisted we stop at Sherlene’s to let her know the men who killed her husband had been caught,” Candy continued.  “Found her and Emma crying on the front porch.  We thought they’d already heard the news, but it turned out Emma was crying because Tom’s birthday was coming up and her Pa had always taken her fishing on his birthday.  So ol’ softie here,” Candy jerked his head towards Joe, “volunteers us to take them fishin’.  Said it was fittin’ to have a birthday picnic for Tom and that he’d be mighty pleased to know they were enjoyin’ the day, remembering all the good times.”

“Yep.  Joe’s a might fond of birthday parties.  Not surprised he’d think of something like that,” Hoss said kindly, and gave his brother a toothy grin.

Joe acknowledged the smile with a small nod and added, “I just didn’t want her last memory of her Pa to be a funeral.”  I remember what that’s like.

“So, where did you go on this picnic?” Ben asked.

“Kings Canyon Creek,” said Candy.  Ben’s intake of air was audible, but no one seemed to notice except Joe, who looked sharply at his father.

“Hop Sing baked a cake and we had fried chicken and all the fixin’s,” Candy said.  “Joe hung balloons and streamers up in the tree, and we played games and sang songs.  But the best part was the fishin’.  I know you don’t believe me, Hoss, but there was a green striped fish in that creek as long as my arm.  BIG sucker,” Candy held his hands about two feet apart and added sadly, “But he got away.”

“Well, I’ll be . . . Big Bertha,” Hoss said.

“What?” asked Candy.

“Big Bertha is the Mother-of-all large-mouth bass.  Some says she’s 25-26 inches and weighs a pound for every inch.  Joe had a run-in with her when he was just a little tyke,” Ben said.

Candy turned to Joe, “You caught Bertha?”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Hoss laughed heartily.  “More like she caught him!”

“It’s not funny, Hoss,” Joe growled.

“No, it certainly wasn’t funny at the time,” Ben said.  “And more likely it was a relative of Bertha’s as bass only live about fifteen years.”

“What happened?” Candy asked.

“Joe was what?  About four, almost five,” Ben looked at Hoss for confirmation.

“Yes, sir.  Just a peanut.  The whole family had gone fishin’ for Adam’s birthday at that same spot you was talking about just above the waterfall.  Joe was doin’ pretty good for a young ‘un and had a nice string of catfish going when, lordy, he hooked the biggest wide-mouth bass I ever did see.  He held fast to that pole and wrestled with her but she was too much for him and she pulled him into the water head first, pole and all!”

“The creek was running fast with the spring runoff,” Ben said, shaking his head.  “I had my back turned when Marie started screaming.  In less time than it took me to turn around Joe was not only in the water, but under and I couldn’t see any sign of him.”  Ben paled just remembering.  “Turned my hair white right then and there, it did.”

“What did you do?” asked Candy, leaning forward, elbows on the table.

“Hoss was on the other side of the creek and had a better vantage than I did,” Ben replied.  “Go ahead, son, tell Candy what happened.”

“Pa was looking right where Joe had been standing, but as he told ya . . . the creek was running high and fast that day.  I dunno, something made me look to the right and sure enough I saw a flash of Joe’s red bandana in the water about twenty yards away and moving downstream fast.  Just about then Adam came outta the brush where he’d been—you know—taking care of business and I started yelling at him to grab Little Joe.  Took Adam a second to realize what was happening, but then he, too, saw the bandana and jumped in just in the nick of time or our little brother would have been the one to get away . . . right over that waterfall!”

Candy laughed out loud and even Ben had to chuckle at Hoss’s play on words.

“It’s not funny,” Joe repeated.

“No, of course not, son,” Ben agreed.  “In fact, if I recall, you were pretty angry when we got you out and dried off.  You didn’t talk to Adam for a more than a week.”

“Yeah, shortshanks, I always wondered how come?”

“How come what?”

“How come you were so mad at Adam?  He was the one that done saved ya.  Why were ya mad?”

“Because he let it happen.  He was supposed to be taking care of me and he didn’t.  That’s why,” Joe replied rather curtly.

Hoping to diffuse the sudden chill in the air, Candy said, “Sounds like it was a good thing Joe had that red bandana on.”

“Oh, his mother insisted,” said Ben.  “Once Joe started walking—”

“Running’s more like it,” Hoss interrupted.

“—she made sure he always wore a bright red bandana whenever he was outside so we could spot him.”

“All the ranch hands knew to be on the lookout for a flash of red and holler for help if they saw it headed where it shouldn’t be,” Hoss added.

“Say, Joe,” Candy pondered. “Why were you fiddling with Emma’s hook anyway?”

“What do you mean?” said Joe nonchalantly, taking another swig of beer.

“Earlier, you said you were helping Emma with her hook and didn’t see the fish.  Wait a minute,” Candy sat up straight in his chair.  “Isn’t Emma about the same age you were when you got pulled in?”

Joe stopped in mid swallow, then took another gulp of beer and put his mug down with a sigh.  “I was fixing the hook so the bait would fall off and she wouldn’t catch anything.”

“She was pretty mad at you when we left.”

“Better me than her Pa.”

*****

9

While Hoss was tending to the stock that evening, Joe and Ben retreated to the study to go over the contracts procured in Sacramento.  However, as much as he tried to feign interest, Joe’s mind was elsewhere.

“And that’s why I’ve decided to sell the Ponderosa and catch the first clipper ship to Tahiti.”

“Sounds good, Pa,” Joe replied automatically.

“Joe.  Joseph!”

“Yeah, Pa,” Joe looked up trying to recall what his father had been talking about.

“Joe, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said for the last half hour.”

“I’m sorry, Pa.  I-I’m just . . . distracted, I guess.”

“What’s wrong, son?”

Joe got up from the desk and stood in front of the window, thumbs hooked into the back of his pants.  After a moment he heard his Pa cap the ink well and settle back in his chair, the springs creaking slightly.  A slight smile played across Joe’s face; he knew his Pa would wait patiently for him to speak.  When he was younger he might have tested that patience, but there was no need to do so now.  When Joe turned around and saw his Pa gazing warmly at him, he was briefly overcome with emotion.

“Joe?”

“I’m glad you’re home, Pa.”  Joe blinked hard.  “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too, son.  It’s good to be home.”

“Yeah . . .  Pa?”

“Yes.”

“You reacted when Candy said we were fishing at Kings Canyon Creek.”

Ben nodded.

“The story Hoss told today about that big fish?  I remember being really angry with Adam because I was wet and cold.  But until Hoss mentioned it, I had no memory of ever being at that creek, let alone falling in.”

“Well, it was a long time ago and you were just a child.”

“Still, it was a pretty traumatic event, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.  It certainly was for your mother and me, but as you said, you were more angry than scared.  Perhaps that is why you didn’t remember how it happened.”

“I got scared all over again when I saw Emma by the water with that pole.  All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.  I was so frightened for her and I couldn’t fathom it.  I just knew in my gut she shouldn’t fish in that creek.”  He looked into his father’s eyes, pleading for an answer.  “Just like Eagle’s Nest, Pa, when I was so afraid and I didn’t know why.  The last few nights I’ve been dreaming about drowning and I couldn’t figure it out . . . not until this afternoon anyway.”

“Mmm,” Ben paused.  “It doesn’t surprise me that you would have dreams.  You have always had an active imagination and your dreams tend to magnify whatever you’re feeling.”

“But why now, Pa?   It’s been twenty years.  Why did I start dreaming about this now?

“That’s difficult to say, son.”  Ben retrieved his pipe and tobacco from the table at the foot of the stairs and filled the bowl rather more carefully than usual to buy some time before answering.  When he was finished, he struck a match and drew deeply until the tobacco ignited.

“Children have a limited point of view and there is much they don’t understand.  A child copes with trauma with whatever tools are available at the time.  In your case—being as young as you were—you put the memory aside.”

Joe could appreciate what his Pa was saying but still struggled to make sense of it all.  “What made me remember now?  I’ve been fishing hundreds—thousands—of times since I was four.”

“Were you afraid of heights growing up?”

“What?”

“Did you climb trees?  Help in the hayloft?   Shingle the roof?”

“Sure, all of that.”

“And you weren’t afraid?”

“No.”

“So, you weren’t—aren’t—afraid of heights, per se.”

Joe nodded, unsure where his father was going with this line of questioning.

“Do you still have nightmares about falling?”

“No.”

“And you evidently still climb trees—you put balloons in the tree for Emma, yes?”

“What are you getting at?”

“It wasn’t being up high that frightened you.  It was Eagle’s Nest itself that triggered the memory of when you were five years old and stuck because you couldn’t see your way down in the dark.”  Ben paused to let that sink in.

“It wasn’t fishing that frightened you but the big fish in Kings Creek itself that triggered the memory of being pulled into the water and carried downstream.  Both of those events were real not imagined.  Your fears were not irrational.  You were justified in feeling the way you did both times.  You don’t dream about falling any longer because you have faced what happened at Eagle’s Nest.  Now that you know what happened at Kings Creek, I don’t think you’ll dream about drowning any more, but if you do, all you have to do is let go of the pole and step back.”

“Step back?”

“Yes.”

Joe thought about this for a while and then nodded.  “Just step back.”

“Yes.  Let go of the memory.”

“Memory,” Joe said disgustedly.  “That’s just it.  What if there are other memories waiting to bite me in the butt everywhere I go?”

Ben chuckled.  “I’d like to believe that I know everything you experienced growing up, but I know that’s not true.  How you view events past or present is something only you can know.  All I can offer is my perspective if you ask for it . . . and my unconditional love whether you ask for it or not.”  With that, Ben put his hand on the back of Joe’s neck and gave a squeeze.

“Thanks,” Joe gave his Pa a quick embrace then pushed back and said lightly, “So, did you get all the contracts signed?”

“All but one.”

“The one that got away?”

“Yes, son.  Slippery little devil just wiggled right off the hook.  Maybe next year.”

Joe laughed as he draped his arm across his Pa’s shoulders.  “Let’s go see if Hoss left us any dessert.”

As they walked side by side toward the kitchen, Joe whispered theatrically in his father’s ear, “Now, Pa, about Tahiti.  I hear those native women don’t wear—”

“Joseph!”

*****

10

Over pie and coffee, Joe talked more with his Pa about events that had transpired over the last month including what had happened in the box canyon and later at the Watson’s what Emma had shared her fear about having been responsible for her papa’s “going away.”  When Hoss joined them, Hop Sing miraculously produced a second pie much to no one’s surprise and everyone’s applause.

“Where’s Candy?” Ben asked as he took his second piece.  “Doesn’t he want pie?”

“I checked the bunkhouse on the way in,” Hoss said as he sat down. “His gear is gone.”

Joe dropped his fork on the plate with a clang and sat back in his chair with a groan.

“Talk about the one that got away.”

“What do you mean by that, Joe?”

“Candy.”

“You think he’s moving on?” asked Hoss.

“He never promised to stay, son.”

“I know, but I really want him to.”  Joe shook his head.  “I didn’t get around to tellin’ him though.”

“Tell him what, brother?”

“What it means to have him here.  How important he is to me.  To us?”  Joe looked back and forth between his Pa and Hoss.

“If that was a question, Joe, the answer is yes.”  Ben said.  “I’m very fond of Candy.  I think he’s a good man and I’m happy that he’s joined us.”

“Me, too, Joe.  I like Candy fine.  It’s real good havin’ him around.”

“Why don’t you check the barn.  If he’s there, ask him to come in.  There’s something I want to talk to him about.”

Joe grinned from ear to ear.

“Yessir!”

Candy was tacking his horse when Joe sprinted down to the corral.  When he spied the saddle bags and bedroll on the ground, however, the spring in his step vanished.

“Nice night for a ride.”

“I thought so,” Candy replied, ignoring the sarcastic tone in Joe’s voice.

“Pa wants to see you.”  Joe pivoted sharply and strode purposefully back to the house.  Half way there Candy’s words echoed in his mind.  I change location; you change moods . . . same result.

He stopped and walked back to the corral.

“I could have taken Dakota with me,” he said.

“Dak’s a good man.”

“Yes, he is.”

“So why didn’t you?” Candy asked.

“You’re not going to make this easy, are you?”

“Friendship is not easy, Joe.  You gotta give up something of yourself along the way if it’s to mean anything.”

“It’s not enough that I thought you were the better man for the job.”

“You just said I wasn’t.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

“I chose you.  I wanted you to come with me.”

“Why?”

Joe recalled the morning they had ridden up to the pasture . . . how helpless he had felt in a world where the snap of a finger could end a man’s life; how much it reminded him of the day his mother died; how vulnerable he felt when first his father—then Adam—went away; and even now as an adult how the absence of any one of his family still affected him.  But those weren’t things he could admit freely.

You gotta give up something of yourself along the way if friendship is to mean anything.

“Safe,” Joe mumbled.

“What?”

“I like having you around.  Not just because you’re handy with a gun or a good man to have in a fight—which you are—but because with you around it’s easier to be me.  Not the bosses’ son, not an owner, not a Cartwright.  Just me . . . warts and all.”

Candy continued saddling his horse.  When he finished, he turned to face Joe and said quietly, “I been on my own a long time; been a lot of places, seen a lot of things, some of which I wish I hadn’t.  I learned the hard way to walk softly and keep my back to the wall because there’s never been anyone I could count on.  No one.  Ever.”

Joe considered what Candy had just revealed.  No matter how aggravatingly over-protective his brothers were while he was growing up, he couldn’t begin to imagine what life would have been like without them.

Pointing to the saddle bags and bedroll still on the ground, Joe said, “Whether you stay or go; now or later . . . whatever you need, whenever you need it . . . I’ve got your back.”

Joe extended his hand and Candy clasped it.

It was a beginning.

As they approached the house, Candy said, “You know, I was just headed up to the east pasture to make sure that fence gets mended properly.”

“Oh,” Joe said, trying not to sound too relieved.  “Good thinking.”

“That was quite a compliment by the way.”

“Yeah, well,” Joe rolled his eyes as he opened the front door, “don’t let it go to your head.”

“It’s about time you two got here,” Ben called from the dining room.  “I’ve had to hog tie Hoss to keep him from eatin’ the last piece of pie.”

“Much obliged, sir!  I’d sure hate to miss out on one of Hop Sing’s desserts,” Candy said, sitting down—with his back to the open room Joe noted.  “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes,” Ben said seriously as he removed the list from the center of the table and gave it the once over.

Joe and Hoss looked at each other, eyes widening.   With all that had happened in the last few days, neither one of them had remembered to check off the chores.

Ben cleared his throat and spoke to the man at the end of table.  “This ranch will not run by itself.  It would be real nice to know I had someone I could count on to see that things get done proper around here when I am away.”

“You can rely on me, sir,” Candy said, poker faced.

“And, as you’ve worked on a number of different ranches,” Ben continued with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m sure you can think of a few improvements that could be made to modernize the Ponderosa.”

“You mean something more advanced than whitewashing a smoke house, sir?”

Stunned silence ensued followed by peals of cascading laughter.

***The End***

April 2012

End Notes:

The lyrics for “Shenandoah” did not appear in print until the 1880s, but the song was reportedly popular during the War Between the States and some historians date it to the early 19th Century.  On the Ponderosa Party Time album, Ben mentions that it is a favorite of his when Joe sings it for him.

Return to Cheaux’s homepage

Return to Library

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.