Summary: When Joe Cartwright returns to the Ponderosa after his annual month-long vacation, he discovers a world turned upside down where nothing is the same.
Word Count: 30,935
Prologue — Joe
“Here ya go, sonny,” the old timer said.
I could barely make out the words. Between my pounding headache and the tobacco wad in his toothless mouth, it was hard to know what he was saying. By the look of his buckskins he could be a trapper or trader; maybe even an old scout, but not an Indian—not with curly hair and steel blue eyes. His withered hand shook when he handed me a battered tin cup.
“Th—thanks,” I stammered. The water tasted brackish, but it was wet and I swallowed greedily.
“Easy up, young’un. You be airin’ the paunch, iff’n’ ya don’t.”
Sure enough, the bile rose in my throat and I turned my head and spat but the drool kept coming as I wretched painfully. Could this day get any worse?
“Ya look a might puny. Scoot back agin that tree an’ I’ll git ya some more from the creek.”
I snorted. Puny! Ha! That would be something big brother Hoss would say. But I did what the old man asked and the shade was welcome as was the breeze that skimmed across the water. I went easy on the second cup and started to feel a little less shaky.
“Zachariah August,” he said resignedly, as if he’d said it a thousand times before. “Most folks just call me Gus.”
I nodded and gave him a half-hearted handshake. “Joe.”
“Um . . . Cartwright?”
“Don’t sound like yer too sure about that, sonny.”
“I am. Joe Cartwright,” I said more forcefully.
“Where ya from?”
I looked around to get my bearings. Pyramid Lake is north. “Not far; that away,” I point westward. “The other side of Virginia City . . . near Tahoe.”
“Heard tell of it. Don’t cotton to city folk much. Stay as fer away as I kin get.”
“Ben Cartwright’s my pa,” I volunteer. “He owns the Ponderosa Ranch.”
Gus spit a stream of tobacco juice and grunted.
“I’ve been on vacation,” I said as if I needed to explain why I wasn’t at home. “You know, holiday?”
“Don’t have to work much, do ya? Bein’ the boss’s son and all.”
I chafed at this remark and got a little hot under the collar. “I pull my weight.”
Gus laughed hard at that one. “Considerin’ how skinny ya are, that can’t mean much!”
“I work hard! Me, my brothers, the ranch hands . . . all of us, including Pa. Pa never asks anyone to do something he isn’t willing or able to do himself!”
Gus spat out his chaw, stood up and pointed at a black patch of dirt. “Earn yer keep if ya wants to eat.”
I fumed as I gathered stones and wood for a fire. I didn’t know why it bothered me that Gus thought I was a freeloader. Pa doesn’t hand out money; I earn it, same as my older brothers Adam and Hoss. Pa pays more than a fair wage and rewards effort as well as results. Part of that reward is time off every year to pursue our own interests.
Maybe it was the crackle of the dry wood or the burbling of the water in the creek, but I suddenly couldn’t keep my eyes open. I literally crawled back to the tree and as I stretched out to wait for the food Gus would bring, I found myself drifting, dreaming of vacations past.
Adam always accused me of frittering away my holiday time chasing the four Ps . . . Petticoats, Ponies, Poker, and Pugilism. Leave it to Adam to use a five dollar world when a five cent one would do. He wasn’t far wrong though. All of those P words were certain to be involved during my 30 days of relative freedom from Pa’s ever present thumb. I say “relative” because being a Cartwright carries a burden all its own as I learned quickly enough when reports of my transgressions inevitably made their way back home.
By the time I was allowed to travel on my own I was too old to receive a “necessary” talk for bad behavior but, according to both my brothers, I’d never outgrow “The Look,” “The Voice,” or “The Stance” as they had come to be known by us. And, if I had done something to warrant all three at the same time . . . well, Lord have Mercy! I have survived this long only by embracing a fifth P . . . Pals. And like my Pa, I have acquired plenty of pals over the years. Unlike my Pa, however, I seem to do all the visiting.
A tap to my boot brought me back to the present and the odor of roasted rabbit hung in the air.
“S-sorry,” I yawned and sat up, rubbing my hands together in anticipation. “Smells good. Oh.” The spit was empty; all that was left was a pile of bones. “Oh, no.”
Gus laughed. “You been sawin’ wood for nigh on two hours.”
I guess I looked pretty pathetic ‘cause Gus stifled his guffaws. “No need to fret, sonny. Rabbits is mighty scarce today, but thar’s a string of trout in the creek with your name on it.”
I grinned like a school boy and scampered over the bank to the creek. It didn’t take long to clean and cook the fish and I finished every last one of them. While the coffee was boiling, the old man gave me a hard time about going off on “vay-kay-she” when there was work to be done.
I explained that we didn’t take “vay-kay-she” until the early fall when the final roundup was over and preparations for winter had been made. Sometimes there are only a few good weeks left before snow sets in so scheduling is always tricky with three sons vying for the best weather. My brothers and I used to draw matchsticks to see which of us got to go first, but after older brother Adam left to seek his fortune, Hoss and I decided we’d just trade off. It was my turn to go first this year.
“Winter you say?” Gus gave me a funny look but right then his mule Sally started heehawing somethin’ fierce and he got up to tend to her.
I realized how late it was and with home so near, it was time to mount up. I said as much to Gus as I saddled my horse. He looked at me kinda strange and asked if he could ride along for a while. I didn’t have the heart to say no, even though I knew the mule’s pace would slow me down.
We made better time than I thought. My head was still bothering me a bit and a couple of times I doubled up. Gus started asking questions. I guess he thought keeping me talking would take my mind off my pains.
So I told him the saga of the Ponderosa. He didn’t comment much throughout the long story except to spit occasionally. I told him it was better when my Pa sang it. He about swallowed his chaw at that and pounded his thigh until Sally hee-hawed. I didn’t know what was so funny; Pa has a great voice.
Then he asked where I’d been on “vay-kay-she” so I told him I’d been visiting the Hanovers down in Arizona. I’ve known Suzi since she was knee-high to a grasshopper and just as flighty. Her name was MacGregor then. Her father was from Scotland; her mother from Georgia. She had this accent that was a little bit of both.
“What she be doin’ in Arizony?”
“She eloped with a soldier named Garrett after she’d only known him for a week. He was regular Army and they moved around a lot which was hard on her since she never got a chance to make friends. But then he got promoted and they were posted to Fort Yuma on the Colorado River.”
“Know it. Not bad if you like grasshoppers,” Gus laughed and started slappin’ his thigh again.
I didn’t get it. Garrett and I, on the other hand, share a peculiar sense of humor. We’ll dissolve into hysterics over one silly thing or another that Suzi doesn’t get at all. She will just roll her eyes and shake her head at us. Listening to Gus, I’m beginning to understand how she feels.
About then we hit the turn off for the ranch. I thanked him for his hospitality and wished him well. I doubted I would ever see him again and that made me kinda sad. I could have sworn I saw tears in his eyes when we parted but it may have just been dust in the wind.
I have had to say farewell to a lot of people in my life, and it never ceases to touch me deeply. Pa says that friendship is the wine of life and the longer we keep it, the stronger and sweeter it grows. I don’t know that my wine cellar of friends will ever equal what Pa has collected, but I do have my share of vintage pals.
Over the next hour or so as I made my way home, I thought again about the saga of the Ponderosa, the journey that Pa has made and all he’s endured—his sorrow at being widowed three times, his joy in realizing a dream come true. He says the Ponderosa is a little piece of heaven right here on earth and I agree. I could never live anywhere but here.
I thought also of the Hanovers and their dreams. This was an especially good visit because I was there when Suzi told Garrett they were finally going to have a baby. Garrett, of course, was over the moon. Sadly, her own family had not softened one bit even when they learned there was to be a grandchild.
Yes, Pals were definitely the best P of all . . . even above Ponies. Especially above ponies I decided. I finally realized the reason I was bone tired all the time was because the horse I was riding had the worst gait of any I had been on in a long, long time—each step of its stride jars my spine and makes my head throb.
If it hadn’t been for a stone bruise, I would have ridden my beloved pinto to Yuma but the journey was just too long and the way too unforgiving to chance risking further injury to Cochise when there were plenty of other horses on the Ponderosa at my beck and call. I just hadn’t remembered this particular roan’s gait being so unnatural. I would have to make a note in the stud book when I got home. No way am I going to allow this trait to be passed on. No sir. I have spent too much time and invested too much energy in establishing JFC Stables as a new enterprise for the Ponderosa, one that has earned the ranch—and myself, to be honest—a reputation for not only breaking and training the finest horses west of Denver, but for breeding them as well. Thanks to my efforts the Ponderosa is now not only known for its prime cattle and timber, but for the finest quality horses as well. The pride and sense of self-worth that has brought me is beyond measure.
It was nearing dusk as I came around the bend and saw the ranch house in front of me with the emerald blue green waters of Lake Tahoe in the distance. I paused for a time, deeply breathing the clean pine air and drinking in the view. Then, grinning from ear to ear, I kicked the roan in the ribs and galloped into the front yard as I always do.
I was home.
A man dressed in a red shirt with black vest came out of the barn just as Joe Cartwright rode into the yard. Even in the twilight, he knew exactly who it was.
“Candy!” he yelled in surprised delight. Candy Canaday was a good ranch hand and an even better friend. He had come to work on the Ponderosa several years ago after he had wandered on foot—in the middle of Indian territory no less—into the camp of the 116th Militia commanded by Ben Cartwright. Ben had been reactivated under a special order from Colonel Brell and ordered to form a patrol to assist the Army in escorting a renegade Paiute named Wabuska to Fort Churchill. Joe and Hoss went along.
At first the Cartwrights were incredulous at Candy’s audacious behavior, but it didn’t take long for them to appreciate his skills with a gun and survival savvy, not to mention his affability. By the time they were finished with Wabuska, Candy had earned everyone’s respect and—although he hadn’t been the sort to stay long in any one place—when Ben offered him a job on the Ponderosa he accepted on the condition that he could come and go when the mood struck him, which it did from time to time.
Joe hadn’t seen him in several months and he looked forward to hearing about Candy’s latest adventures, including those involving the fairer sex. In the pursuit of women, they were undeniably well-matched and each took great delight in regaling the other with tales—real or imagined! Joe almost asked whether any new conquests had been made in his absence, but decided to reserve that conversation for another time and a less public place.
“When did you get back?” Joe asked as he dismounted.
Candy stood frozen, his mouth gaping as Joe smacked the rump of his horse and came around behind it.
“Close your mouth, old buddy, you’ll catch flies.”
“You’re dead,” said Candy.
“Yeah, I know.” Joe brushed the dust off his pant legs as he moved closer. “I told Pa I’d be back by the end of the month, but I got delayed down at Yuma Crossing. Do you know there’s some crazy talk about building a bridge across the Colo . . . .”
Joe realized he was the only one talking and that Candy was staring.
“You can’t go in the house.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain it to Pa. Come on, I’m starving . . . and I smell fried chicken. We’d better get to the table before Hoss eats it all.” Joe turned and headed for the house but Candy caught up to him and grabbed his arm fiercely.
“Hey, cut it out!”
“You can’t go in there!”
“Are you crazy? Let go of me!” Joe tried to pull away, but Candy held on.
“You have to let me go inside first to talk to your Pa,” he urged.
“I told you, I’ll explain it to Pa. Jeez, Candy, what’s wrong with you? You’d think I’d never been late before.” Joe broke away resuming his walk towards the house.
“Not two years late.”
Joe stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned. Dread filled his heart. “What are you talking about?”
“You died two years ago.”
He remained motionless, fixed on Candy.
“Your Pa placed a memorial up at the lake near your mother and . . . Hoss.”
The dull headache that had been dogging Joe all day suddenly exploded into what felt like a thousand shards of glass each piercing every part of him—his eyes, his heart, his lungs. He couldn’t breathe at all. His vision pulsated and blurred and he sank to his knees only vaguely aware of someone lifting and dragging him away from the house as blackness enveloped him.
Ben Cartwright was pacing in front of the stone hearth in the great room of the ranch house—back and forth; forth and back; around the settee to the foot of the stairs where he looked in vain towards the upper landing, and then back to the hearth again. Every so often he varied the pattern, stopping at the grandfather clock that stood sentinel near the front door, or moving to the alcove that housed his desk, picking up the silver frame holding images of his three wives—Adam’s mother, Elizabeth; Hoss’s mother, Inger; and Marie—oh! Marie—his third and last wife, the mother of the son he thought he had lost forever. Joseph.
Candy watched silently from the blue chair to the right of the fireplace. He had done what he could to ease the trauma for his employer. When Joe collapsed, he pulled him into the tack room so he could keep Joe out of sight until he had a chance to warn his boss as he was afraid that the sight of his son—his very much alive son—could well harm him.
When Candy couldn’t rouse Joe, he had left him on the cot, asked one of the hands to ride to town for the doctor, and found another to stay with Joe while he broke the news to the elder Cartwright.
Mr. Cartwright had absorbed the information as well as could be expected, Candy thought. In shock at first, Ben downed the proffered brandy in one gulp and then demanded to be taken to his son. When they entered the tack room, however, Joe was seizing and a frightened young man was desperately trying to restrain him.
“Billy!” Ben shouted, “Move away!”
He’d seen seizures before from injuries and high fevers. They were always frightening—especially where his sons were concerned—but he knew what to do. Ben quickly removed Joe’s gun belt and kicked away some sharp tools that were nearby. Though it seemed like an eternity, the seizure lasted little more than a minute and afterwards Joe’s breathing returned to normal although he remained unconscious. With Ben clearing the way, somehow Candy and Billy were able to get Joe into the house and up to his old room which had changed little in the last two years.
When Ben was satisfied Joe was no longer in distress but merely sleeping the deep sleep that often follows a seizure, he politely, but firmly, escorted Candy and Billy out of the room instructing them to send the doctor up as soon as he arrived.
Leaning heavily against the closed door, Ben stared at his youngest son. His son . . . his not-so-young son anymore, but always his child. Ben sat on the edge of the chair next to the bed. Picking up Joe’s hand, he covered it with his own and began to pray.
Paul Martin, M.D., physician and friend to the Cartwright family for nearly four decades, could not believe what he was hearing when he arrived at the Ponderosa. As Candy had explained it to him, Joe—missing and presumed dead for nearly two years—had shown up at supper time, riding an unknown horse, looking tired and grubby, but otherwise seeming in fine spirits. Candy, concerned about what the suddenness of Joe’s homecoming might do to Ben, had begged Joe to let him break the news but before he could, Candy had watched in horror as one side of Joe’s face pulled into a grimace and he collapsed.
Now here he was, looking down at the boy—for just as Ben did, Paul looked past the prematurely graying chestnut hair and saw only the boy he had brought into this world.
Paul had probably set every bone in Joe’s body at one time or another, removed more bullets, stitched more wounds, and cured more infections and fevers than he could count. He had no doubt whatsoever that he was the doctor he was today because of the challenges faced and obstacles overcome in tending Joseph Francis Cartwright!
When Ben became aware of his presence the doctor asked his friend to leave the room so he could assess his patient’s condition without Ben’s undue influence
“And just what do you mean by that?” Ben asked indignantly, sitting back in the chair.
“Now, Ben, I don’t mean anything other than that I want to observe Joe without you being present. We don’t know exactly what has happened here and I want to be able to ask Joe questions without him becoming upset or self-conscious.”
“I don’t see why my presence would make Joe self-conscious.”
“Think about it Ben. What is Joe’s usual response to any inquiry about his health?”
“‘I’m fine.’ That’s what Joe always says and you know it. He does that so you won’t worry.”
“You know I’m right. Just wait for me downstairs. Can you please do that for me? For Joe?”
Ben looked at Paul for the longest time before nodding briefly and blinking away the moisture that was clouding his vision. Paul moved next to his friend and put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. Feeling it sag beneath his touch, he tightened his grip and gave Ben a little shake.
“He’s still young and he’s a fighter, you know that. More important, he’s not alone in this fight. He’s come home, Ben. By whatever stroke of luck or Providence, he’s come home.”
Ben slumped forward and was silent for a time, then arose slowly from the chair pulling the blanket up around Joe’s shoulders as he did so. In a familiar gesture—one that Paul had seen him make a thousand times—Ben brushed the hair away from his son’s face, letting the back of his fingers rest on Joe’s cheek a moment before bringing himself to his full height and walking out the door without another word.
An hour later, Joe opened his eyes.
Paul didn’t say anything at first, choosing instead to wait and see just how much Joe could do on his own. There were several false starts as he repeatedly blinked, drifted in and out of sleep, or shifted his position, but eventually his eyes remained opened and gradually focused on the doctor.
“Welcome back, young man.”
“Mmmm,” Joe mumbled. He tried to sit up but couldn’t and fell back.
“Here, let me help you,” said Paul, holding out his arms palms up indicating Joe should put his hands in the doctor’s. When he did so, Paul pulled Joe forward and then moved some pillows behind his back. “What can I get you?”
Joe sagged back against the pillows and closed his eyes, again. His breathing was heavy, Paul noted.
“Th . . . thirsdy,” Joe finally said rather thickly.
From the pitcher on the night stand to Joe’s right, Paul poured a small amount of water into a cup and held it out. Joe was able to grasp the cup, although he miscalculated the distance to his mouth and needed Paul’s assistance to drink.
Joe shook his head.
Paul kicked himself for asking close-ended questions. If he was going to assess Joe’s speech, he was going to have to ask questions that required more than a shake or nod. He decided to try another tactic. Walking nonchalantly around the room to the vacant chair on the other side of the bed, Paul inquired casually, “Candy tells me you just returned from vacation. Where did you go this year?”
Joe looked puzzled for a minute and then replied, “U . . . mmm . . . sus.” Joe shook his head, took a deep breath and then puffed the air out his cheeks, concentrating. “Yuma. Su. . .zi.”
“Han . . . ver,” Joe corrected.
“Hanover, of course. How long has Suzi been married now?”
“T-two years,” Joe said hesitantly.
“Mmmm. I thought it had been longer than that. August of ’67, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. May. ’68. Two years,” Joe said much more confidently, then he leaned back and closed his eyes.
“What’s wrong, Joe?”
“All right. You rest now. We’ll talk later and get caught up. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you. When was the last time I saw you, Joe?”
Joe’s eyes remained closed, but after a moment he replied, “Sad . . . Sadurday.”
“Last Sad . . . .”
“Last Saturday?” the doctor asked doubtfully.
Joe nodded, “Hoss birthday.”
Ben and Candy both jumped as the doctor descended the stairs.
“Well?” Ben asked.
“Is that coffee hot?” Paul inquired, spying the pot on the table.
“No,” replied Candy, “but there’s some fresh on the stove. I’ll get it.”
“Thank you, Candy. Oh, and would you ask Hop Sing to heat some water while you are out there? Just enough to wash up,” Paul added as he sat on the edge of the blue chair. Candy nodded and left the great room quickly. Although he knew the doctor may have wished to talk privately, he wanted to hear firsthand what was going on with Joe.
Ben was getting impatient, “Paul!”
“All right, Ben. Calm down and I’ll tell you what I think. Mind you, it’s only a guess at this point.”
“For the last time, Paul, I am calm. I just want to know what is wrong with my son.”
“You know about the seizure. The question is what caused it. I can’t ignore the possibility that Joe has had a stroke.”
“What!” Ben exclaimed incredulously. “He . . . he’s too young. He . . .” Stunned, Ben collapsed into his red leather chair and stared at Paul.
“Did I hear ‘stroke’?” Candy asked, almost running in with the fresh pot of coffee.
“Yes, your observations were correct, Candy. There’s a slight weakness on his right side. His left side appears to be unaffected.”
Candy poured a cup for the doctor while asking, “This ‘weakness’ . . . he’ll recover?”
“Yes, I believe so; in time, with therapy.” The doctor gestured over to the brandy decanter and looked towards Ben. Candy understood immediately and poured another cup adding a generous shot of the liquor before handing it to Ben and then sat himself down on the settee.
Paul went on, “He also has some difficulty speaking, but it’s too soon to ascertain whether it’s just fatigue or something more serious. I’ll know more in the morning.”
Candy could see that Ben was still absorbing the shocking news so he continued asking the questions he figured Ben would want to know. “What about the seizure?”
“That’s a good question, but I’m afraid I don’t have a ready answer for you. It could possibly be from a stroke, or it could have been from the other injury.”
Ben came to life at that, “What other injury?”
“I gave Joe a thorough examination before he regained consciousness.” Paul rose from the chair and stood in front of the fire hoping the heat would erase the chill that suddenly ran down his spine. “Ben, I have a mental catalogue of just about every injury Joe has ever suffered; I know every inch of that boy’s body.”
With a deep breath, he turned to face his friend. “And tonight I saw a wound about which I know nothing. The most logical explanation is that it happened during the time he’s been gone.”
“What kind of wound?” asked Candy.
Paul shook his head, “I don’t know what might have caused it, but there has been serious trauma to the left side of his head.” Paul used his hands to demonstrate the track of a scar from the hairline above the left ear running towards the back of the skull.
Ben nodded slowly and then something Paul had said finally sank in. “You said his speech was garbled. Is that from the stroke?” he asked, alarmed.
“Mmm. Well, his speech is more hesitant than garbled, so not necessarily,” answered the doctor uncertainly. “And I said ‘possible stroke.’ The head injury could easily be to blame.”
It was now Paul’s turn to pace, rubbing his lower jaw while he worked his way silently through the various causes and effects which could produce such symptoms. Concussion, trauma, stroke; weakness on the right side, aphasia.
“Ah—what?” both Candy and Ben asked simultaneously.
“Aphasia,” replied Paul, still lost in his own thoughts and not realizing he had spoken out loud. Candy and Ben glanced at each other not understanding a wit what the doctor was talking about.
“I’m sorry; let me explain. Aphasia is the impairment of language ability either in speaking or in comprehension. It can also involve the ability to read and write. Let me assure you that Joe understands what is being said to him, he’s just having trouble responding right now.”
“I knew a man who could only babble nonsense after a stroke. Is that what’s happened?” asked Candy, horrified. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like for Joe to live like that.
“No. Joe’s speech is fairly clear, but hesitant—as if he’s struggling to find or form the words—not that he doesn’t know what the words should be. When he first awakened his responses were limited to one or two words. I have to warn you that may be the best we can hope for and that could prove difficult for Joe.”
“Why? I mean, if we can understand what he’s saying then what’s the problem?”
Paul frowned. He wasn’t explaining this very well. Then he had an idea, “If I said the word ‘coffee’ to you what would you think I meant?”
Ben was poking the fire, so Candy answered, “That you wanted coffee.”
“Ah, but perhaps I was offering you coffee. Or, maybe, I was trying to tell you that we were out of coffee and you needed to buy some. Or, maybe, just maybe, I was asking after Roy Coffee.”
“Enough!” Ben said, putting the poker down and turning to look directly at Paul. “Will he make a full recovery?”
Paul looked up and met Ben’s gaze head on before answering. “I don’t know, but from what I’ve read in my journals, recovery could happen quickly or not at all. He’s trying, Ben. That’s a good sign. Whatever caused Joe’s symptoms is irrelevant. It’s what happens next that matters. And whatever tomorrow brings, Joe—and you,” the doctor said pointedly, ”will learn to deal with it eventually.”
Ben knew the doctor well; well enough to know there was another “but” lingering unspoken on his lips. Ben raised an eyebrow, unblinking; Paul returned the stare; and Candy looked back and forth between the two men, holding his breath.
The only sound in the room was the ticking of the grandfather clock by the door. After what seemed an eternity, Paul sighed deeply and—though it broke his heart to say it—continued,
“But in Joe’s mind, it’s 1869, Hoss is alive, and he never heard of anyone named Alice.”
“Mr. Cartwright?” Candy whispered.
When there was no response, Candy put his hand on Ben’s arm and shook him gently “Mr. Cartwright?”
“Hmm, wh—what?” Ben came awake suddenly, his eyes immediately seeking out his son. No change. Slowly Ben became aware of Candy’s presence. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, sir,” Candy said. “I just thought you’d want to know that Jamie’s here. He just rode in.”
“At this hour?”
“He finished his exams early and thought he’d be here by dinner, but the train was late.”
“Does he know about Joe?” Ben asked.
“Not yet. I didn’t know how much you wanted me to tell him,” Candy said, “and I knew if I said anything at all wild horses couldn’t keep him from bustin’ in up here.”
Ben sighed. He’d have preferred not to let Jamie know about Joe’s return until they knew more about his condition, but it was too late now.
“What are you going to say?” Candy asked.
“Nothing,” Ben said; then, catching the look on Candy’s face, he added, “yet. Morning is soon enough. Let him get some sleep.”
Ben checked the rhythmic rise and fall of Joe’s chest for a minute and then, satisfied that all was well for the time being, asked Candy to stay while he went to greet his other son.
It was the sound of the rain, the constant drumming at the window that awakened Joe. The room, smothered in grey shadows, remained blurred behind his lashes as he slid further under the covers. Darkness. Too early to get up. But it didn’t feel early. For one thing, he was awake by himself without any assistance.
A frown crossed his brow as he groped along the night stand for the clock.
Joe forced his eyes open and stretched the length of the bed before curling under the covers as he checked out the room again.
It was his all right, but why did it feel so different?
Joe’s eyes settled on the window across from the foot of the bed and a smile grew slowly as he remembered the morning he had shattered it with a flying boot in retaliation for Hoss throwing water on him to roust him out of bed.
A clap of thunder brought Joe back to the present. Ah, that’s it . . . Brother Hoss has failed in his duty this morning. The brothers made a pact long ago that Hoss would wake Joe up so he could be on time for breakfast and Joe would roll Hoss over when he came in at night so his snoring wouldn’t wake their Pa.
Joe threw the covers back and in one fluid motion put both feet on the floor, rose to his feet . . . and promptly fell flat on his face. As he collapsed, a flash of lightning illuminated a nearly white-haired man in the mirror.
“What the hell?!” he shouted, but the strangled sound he made was lost in the tympani of the storm.
Ben thundered down the hallway in a matter of seconds, berating himself for having stepped out of Joe’s room to wash up and change his shirt.
“What happened?” Candy asked, as he rushed into the room and saw Ben hovering over an unconscious Joe.
“He must have tried to get up and couldn’t stand,” Ben said, turning Joe over carefully.
“Mmpm,” Joe moaned softly.
At that moment, Jamie crashed into the door frame as he skidded into the room in his stocking feet. “What’s going on?” he shouted, then seeing Joe on the floor, “Joe? JOE! My God, it’s Joe!”
“Mrgphmmf,” Joe moaned again.
“I’m right here son. Your Pa’s right here. You’re going to be all right.” Ben said, stroking Joe’s head and then bellowed, “Where’s Paul?!”
“I’m right here,” Paul said as he moved past Jamie and bent down to grab Joe’s wrist.
“Let’s move him to the bed,” Ben said.
“No, don’t move him yet.”
“Paul?” Ben asked.
“Just a minute, Ben.”
The doctor began checking Joe’s vital signs, including lifting his eyelids and waiving a lighted match back and forth. At that point, Joe reached up and batted the doctor’s hand away angrily.
Eventually satisfied that Joe was no worse than before, the doctor said, “Would everyone leave, please. Ben, that means you, too.”
“No, buts. Everyone out. Now!” the doctor demanded.
No one moved.
“Please,” the doctor said again, looking specifically at Ben knowing the others would follow him. Reluctantly, Ben stood up but did not make a move to exit the room.
“Candy,” the doctor implored. Candy looked from Joe to Ben and then nodded as he and Jamie each took an elbow and escorted Ben out of the room.
Paul rose from where he was kneeling and closed the door behind them.
“It’s all right, Joe. Everyone’s gone. You take your time. I’ll help when you’re ready to get up.”
Joe was silent, but wild eyed and his breathing was labored. It was some minutes before it slowed enough for him to try to speak again.
“Me. Wrong. What. Wrong. Me,” Joe said finally, with effort.
“It’s called vertigo . . . just a five dollar word for dizziness. You got up too fast. It will pass,” the doctor said calmly, avoiding the speech issue altogether.
While he waited, the doctor poured a small amount of cold water from the washstand pitcher into the bowl and dropped a cloth in to soak.
The dizziness soon began to subside and Joe’s breathing evened out. He sat up slowly on his own and leaned against the bedrails for a few minutes before pushing himself up onto the mattress mostly with his left leg, the doctor noted. Paul smiled to himself. Still the fighter. Good for you, Joe.”
The doctor let Joe rest a bit after his efforts and then helped him settle back against the pillows before handing him the wrung-out cloth which Joe pressed against his face and eyes.
“Are you nauseous?” the doctor asked.
Joe nodded, so the doctor put the basin on the bed next to Joe. “Just in case,” he said.
The rain was still coming down and, even though it was darker than usual for this time of day, Paul partially lowered the window blind. “Better?” he asked.
Joe nodded again.
“Joe, I’m going to go downstairs for a few minutes and let your family know you are all right. Are you okay with my doing that?”
For a few seconds Joe didn’t move, but then he removed the cloth from his face and nodded once more.
The doctor tucked the covers in and patted Joe’s leg. “You rest and we’ll talk when I come back.”
Paul was not surprised to see the entire family in the great room when he descended the stairs. They all turned to him and started talking simultaneously.
“What happened?” Ben asked.
“Was it another stroke?” Candy asked
“Little Joe hurt?” Hop Sing asked.
Paul raised his hands as if to push them back. “Please, everyone. Not all at once.” When he got to the last step, he continued, “It was not a stroke; it was vertigo from getting up too fast. He is not hurt, just dizzy and nauseous, but that’s passing.”
“I’m going up,” said Ben as he charged for the stairs.
“No, Ben, you’re not,” Paul put out his hand to stop his friend. “I won’t allow anyone to see him just yet. He’s overwhelmed right now. He needs time to sort things out and I need time to assess his condition and find out just how much he understands about what has happened to him before I will allow anyone to see him. That includes you, Ben. I’m sorry, but my first obligation is to my patient.”‘
Paul stood firmly at the base of the stairs and looked each person squarely in the eye to make sure they understood he would brook no interference. One by one, they acquiesced and backed away.
“I know you all care about Joe and are deeply concerned about his welfare, but charging in like a herd of elephants, grabbing at him, and fussing over him, is not helping,” Paul stated emphatically.
Seeing their contriteness, he softened somewhat and added, “I understand your frustration, but you have to understand that Joe is in a very precarious state right now. He knows something is desperately wrong, but he doesn’t know what. Let me talk to him. When he’s able to digest the information, I’ll let you each see him, but you have to allow him time to process what’s happened. Do you understand?” Paul asked, again looking at each in turn.
When he was satisfied that they did and that they would respect his wishes, the doctor turned and went back upstairs to his patient.
The first thing he noticed when he re-entered the room was that Joe had made use of the basin. After giving Joe some water to rinse out his mouth, Paul picked up the offending receptacle and went to the top of the landing, calling “Hop Sing? Could I see you for a moment please?” When the family’s cook arrived, he took the bowl from the doctor understanding without being told what was needed.
“Make tea for Little Joe. Easy on stomach. Make better,” and hurried back down the stairs as fast as he had come.
Paul returned to Joe’s side, listened to his heart and checked his eyes once again before saying, “Hop Sing will bring some of his special tea to settle your stomach.”
There was no comment, but when the doctor put his fingers on his patient’s wrist to take a pulse, Joe looked up, his hazel eyes filled with questions. Paul let out a long, slow breath of air as he sat down on the edge of the bed, gently cradling Joe’s right hand in both of his.
“It’s possible you may have had a small stroke,” the doctor began.
It was mid-afternoon before the doctor returned to the great room. The storm had worsened so there was little the men could do outside except tend the stock when it was feeding time. Ben was purporting to work on the books, Candy was polishing boots with a decidedly lackluster amount of enthusiasm, and Jamie was half-heartedly braiding a leather bridle. The remains of lunch lingered on the dining room table; it seemed even Hop Sing’s heart wasn’t in chores today.
Paul nearly made it all the way to Ben’s desk before his friend looked up from his papers. As soon as he saw Paul, Ben started to rise.
“Relax.” Paul motioned for him to sit and took a chair on the other side of the desk. “I gave him a mild sedative; he should sleep for a couple of hours.” Then, looking at his friend’s anxious expression, he added, “And yes . . . you can see him when he awakes.”
“Doc, there’s roast beef. Can I fix you a sandwich?” Jamie asked.
“That would be wonderful, Jamie. With cheese and mustard if you can, thank you.”
“How about a brandy, Doc?” added Candy handing him one already poured.
“With pleasure. I think Ben could use one, too,” the doctor added. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”
Candy poured a stiff one for Ben and one for himself and then turned the other desk chair around and sat down backwards, arms crossed along the top.
“How is he?” Ben asked simply.
“Confused. Tired. I told him about the possible stroke.” Paul saw Ben’s eyebrow arch at that. “I’m still not 100% convinced he had one. As I explained before, the head trauma alone could easily account for seizure and memory loss.”
Jamie returned with a plate of sandwiches and napkins for all. Ben declined with a wave of his hand, but Candy and Jamie both joined the doctor. Between bites, Paul related the rest of his conversation with Joe about his right-side weakness which he felt could be remedied with therapy and the speech problems—which although frustrating for Joe—were most likely temporary.
“What makes you think so?” Candy asked.
“His speech is already clearer, but he’s still speaking only one or two words—mostly nouns, verbs; no conjunctions. I’ll know more when I get a response to that cable you sent for me yesterday, Candy, but speaking in short groups of words, frustration at not being understood, all of which is worse when he’s tired is not atypical. Given the rapid improvement in just the last two days, I’m very optimistic about that portion of his recovery.”
Even Candy heard the “but” this time around and Paul could see the look exchanged between him and Ben, so without further prompting, he continued, “but what concerns me now is the vertigo.”
“I thought you said it was just because he got up too fast,” Jamie said.
“It’s possible. It’s also possible it’s a permanent condition; one that will profoundly affect Joe’s life.”
“A little dizziness?” Candy asked incredulously.
“Vertigo is more than dizziness, Candy. It affects vision and balance. It can bring on nausea and vomiting which we know has already happened. It can impair the ability to concentrate or think straight.”
As they all sat silently digesting this information, Candy poured more brandy for everyone and then rose to stand at the window and watch the rain. Ben slouched in his chair, his cheek resting on his left fist. In his right hand he turned a pencil end on end, mindlessly sliding his thumb and forefinger down the wood shaft, flipping it and sliding again and again only vaguely aware of Jamie sitting on the edge of his desk just like Joe used to do.
For his part, Paul was acutely aware of how troubled the family was and how uncertain the days ahead would be. “It’s important for you all to know that Joe’s mind is fine. He’s not impaired in any way mentally. And it’s important that you treat him the same way you always have. He may have trouble expressing himself, but don’t rush him. Let him find his own rhythm.”
“What I don’t understand is how he got hurt,” Jamie said breaking the silence.
“He doesn’t know,” Paul replied. “The last thing he remembers is visiting the Hanovers. He was looking forward to telling you that Suzi was with child. He doesn’t recollect the return trip. He just remembers riding into the yard yesterday and then waking up on the floor of his room this morning with everyone grabbing at him.”
“Doc, we looked everywhere for him,” Candy said without turning from the window. “Mr. Cartwright and I both made numerous trips to Arizona. The sheriff sent wires to every town between here and Mexico and from there to the ocean and east to Texas. It’s as if he just dropped off the face of the earth.”
“Well, he was somewhere, that’s for sure,” Ben got up from his chair and paced. “He could have been wandering for months; disoriented; incoherent.”
“I don’t think so, Ben,” Paul said. “The loss of muscle tone indicates a prolonged convalescence, though he may not have had access to any formal medical care. The scar on his head is jagged; no stitches or rudimentary ones at best. Then something happened; something that cleared his mind enough for him to head home without any idea so much time has elapsed.”
Ben stopped pacing and abruptly and sat down. He leaned over the desk with his head in his hands, feeling unbelievably weary. “God help us,” he whispered.
“Ben, he’s scared. I’m sure he doubts his sanity. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him; why he can’t remember; why he can’t stand up without retching; why he struggles to find the words he wants. He needs time; time to settle down; time to come to grips with everything. All I’m asking is that you give him a chance to get his bearings and that you don’t bombard him with questions he can’t answer. Let him ask the questions. Don’t lie to him, but don’t volunteer information he hasn’t asked for.”
Paul knew the next request was going to be the hardest to make. “Jamie, I’d like you to stay away from Joe for a while.”
Jamie looked at his Pa, and then to the doctor. “Why?” he asked.
“Because you’ve changed the most of anyone in the family. You’ve grown half a foot and filled out. He’s going to have a difficult time adjusting as it is without being reminded of the gap in his memory.”
“He doesn’t remember me?” Jamie asked, his voice breaking.
Ben sat up straight and shifted his gaze from Paul to Jamie and then back again. “Paul?”
“He does, Jamie. He remembers you . . . as Jamie Hunter.”
“But not as his brother?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
Jamie stood and stared at the doctor, stunned by this admission. “Then he doesn’t know about Hoss . . . or Alice, does he?”
Paul paused and slowly shook his head. When Jamie looked at Candy, he got the same slight shake of the head. Finally, Jamie turned to his Pa, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ben opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Because I’m not blood,” Jamie shouted and stormed out, pushing past Hop Sing who was listening quietly in the shadows.
Ben started to rise from his chair to go after Jamie, but Candy placed a hand on his shoulder and said quietly, “Let me.”
“Ben, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t Paul. It’s not your fault. I should have told him last night. I just kept hoping that things would be different in the light of day; that Joe’s coming home to us at last would end the nightmare we’ve been living.”
The two friends were silent for some time before the doctor said simply, “You never believed he was dead.”
Ben shook his head.
“And yet you placed a memorial up at the lake.”
“I needed some . . . something to touch,” Ben choked. “It seemed right somehow to have some remembrance of him near Marie and . . . and Hoss. To think of him here on the Ponderosa and not God knows where.” Ben sagged in the chair and shook his head. “Where, Paul? Where has my boy been? What happened to him?”
Paul watched his friend come as near to a breakdown for the second time in two days as he had seen since Hoss’s passing. He knew he had to say something to keep Ben going; to keep the whole family going.
“I don’t know, Ben,” he said, finally. “I don’t know that Joe will ever be able to tell us what happened. He’s been physically gone nearly two years, but the memory loss covers a greater period than that. He needs you, Ben. He needs you to show him the way home.”
Candy saw the barn door close as soon as he exited the house. Crossing the front yard carefully to avoid the huge puddles, he stepped into the dimly lit interior of the stable without bothering to hide his entrance. Jamie ignored him, intent instead on measuring out feed for the horses so Candy settled on a nearby bale of hay and waited patiently while Jamie tended the stock.
“You’ve taken real good care of that horse,” Candy said, gesturing toward Cochise. “Joe will be grateful.”
Jamie didn’t reply and kept on working.
“Doc didn’t mean anything by it.”
“By asking you not to see Joe. He was just saying what he thought best.”
“I know.” Jamie sat down on the bale of hay next to Candy. “Pa told me that Adam, Hoss, and Joe were born to him, but that he chose me and that made me special.”
“But you don’t always feel special.”
“Not always . . . not even after what Joe told me before, you know, he disappeared.”
“What did he say?”
“That it takes more than blood to make a brother.”
Candy smiled at that and put his arm around Jamie’s shoulder.
“They didn’t adopt me, Jamie, but I feel closer to this family than I ever did to my own family. Before the Cartwrights I didn’t belong anywhere. They made me a part of their family—blood or not. Joe’s the closest friend I’ve ever had—as much a brother to me as Hoss and Adam were to him. Maybe more. Like Joe said, ‘it takes more than blood to make a brother.’”
Jamie shrugged but didn’t say anything.
“Did you believe him?” Candy asked.
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” He looked up at Candy questioningly, “I want to, but . . . .”
“But then something like this happens and you feel left out.”
“Really. The funny thing is, I think Hoss and Adam felt that way, too, sometimes.”
“What do you mean?” Jamie asked.
“Hoss told me that he and Adam—both of them—had a good relationship with their Pa, but that they knew there was a deeper connection between their Pa and Joe, one that defied explanation. Maybe that’s why he never believed Joe was dead.”
Candy stood up and moved over to the water barrel. Taking a ladle off a nearby hook, he lifted the lid for a cool drink.
“For what it’s worth, I think he’s wrong,” Candy said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
“The Doc. I think you’re just who Joe needs to see, so he can understand what’s happened. The sooner he does that, the sooner he’ll get on with it.”
“You think so?”
“Joe’s a survivor. He’s overcome more tragedies than anyone I’ve ever known. Your Pa? Well . . . he tends to overprotect him. Maybe he has his reasons, but I know Hoss—and probably Adam, too—wouldn’t hesitate to tell Joe what’s what and kick his sorry butt clear to China and back if they thought it’s what he needed.”
“Guess that’s our job now, huh? You and me?” Jamie smiled at Candy.
Candy grinned back, “to knock some sense into that pigheaded—”
“—ornery son of a gun!” finished Candy.
“Yeah,” said Jamie more brightly.
“Here’s to you, me, and Joe,” Candy proposed, raising the ladle once again.
“To brotherhood!” echoed Jamie, accepting the ladle and the toast.
Ben entered his son’s room quietly and stood at the foot of the bed, watching him sleep. In repose, the lines of anxiety and tension etched so deeply that morning had diminished. Although the shadows under Joe’s eyes signaled a lingering fatigue, Ben was nonetheless pleased to see that Paul had been correct and the enforced solitude had yielded the hoped for results. Joe’s breathing was steady and his body had relaxed into its usual sprawl.
Ben repositioned a bare foot under the light summer coverlet and then smiled when Joe immediately shifted position and stuck it out again. Even in the sub-zero dead of winter, buried under six quilts, blankets and occasionally a fur lap robe, Joe would sleep with one foot extended. Some things never change.
But so much had changed over the last two years. Even in sleep Joe couldn’t tolerate his foot being moved. What will he do when he discovers his world has been moved?
He thought he understood why Paul had said Jamie should be kept away for a few days, but when Jamie posited that it was because he wasn’t “blood,” Ben’s heart broke. He, Hoss and Joe—even Hop Sing—had all done their best to erase Jamie’s doubt about adoption and becoming a part of the family.
Is this what it meant to be a Cartwright? Not enjoyment of hard-earned wealth or position, but suffering relentless pain and hurt, not only from illness, wounds, and broken bones, but from the unbearable heartache of loss? To hurt one son to save another pain? To watch Joe relive the agony of losing Hoss? To see him grieve anew the death of Alice and their unborn child?
Ben shook his head and moved quietly to the window, pealing the blind gently away from the casement so as not to disturb his son. The waning moon rising over the pines cast barely enough light to illuminate the yard. In the softly blurred shadows, Ben saw the barn cat lapping water from the last of the rain puddles. A low hum of voices coming from the bunkhouse was punctuated by the occasional sound of laughter or murmured expletive, but the sounds were friendly, not hostile. The volume increased briefly as a door opened and a shaft of light silhouetted a lone figure before he drew the door shut behind him as he exited. Ben recognized Griff as he stretched lazily and then ambled around the building on his way to the outhouse no doubt.
Griff. Before the Yuma trip, he and Joe had had a tenuous relationship at best. How to explain that Griff was now in charge of the horse operation that used to be Joe’s responsibility? He would have to send Griff along with Candy tomorrow when the cattle were moved to the high country. It would be hard enough for Joe to hear about the horses without being constantly reminded of the fact every time he saw him.
Candy. Ben couldn’t have asked for a better man to be Joe’s best friend and he saw tonight that Candy was a friend to Jamie as well. In many ways, Candy was a composite of his older sons; capable of engaging in unending battles of wit, pranks, and ribald humor and also serving as a steadying influence, confidante, and sounding board when needed. It was Candy in whom Joe had placed his trust after Hoss had died and it was Candy who kept Joe together after they discovered Alice was murdered.
Billy. Billy the Kid, Joe had dubbed him when he fished him—quite literally—out of a bog and mended not only his broken body, but his spirit as well. The boy had been desolate when Joe disappeared and Ben hadn’t had the heart to send him on his way. He would have to find some work to keep him busy and away from the house for he had grown a foot in the last two years also.
Paul said it was his responsibility to help Joe find his way home. Ben didn’t know how, but he would have to keep everyone at bay until he could give Joe time to adjust.
Exhausted, Ben turned from the window and willed his legs to carry him down the hall to his room. Before he could surrender to the sweet embrace of his feather bed, however, he had one more stop to make.
“Jamie,” Ben said quietly. “Jamie, I know you’re awake. Please look at me, son.”
There was no response.
Jamie might as well have faced his Pa the first time his name was called, for as he had learned by now there was no escaping The Voice. Reluctantly, the young man sat up in bed but he clasped his arms across his chest and wouldn’t look at his father.
Ben smiled inwardly when he saw the lower lip stuck out. Blood or not, if only he realized how like Joe he was.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ben put a finger under Jamie’s chin and raised it so he could look into his eyes. “I owe you an apology, son.”
Jamie’s eyes widened a bit, but he didn’t say anything.
“I should have told you about Joe the night you came home. It was just . . . I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to think, much less what to tell you, but it was wrong of me to keep that information from you. We are family. You deserved to know what was happening,” Ben concluded contritely.
“What is happening, Pa? Where has Joe been? Why can’t he remember?”
“You know as much as I do, son.”
“I don’t understand, Pa. If he remembers going to Yuma, why doesn’t he remember Alice? He went down there after she died.”
“That’s the point, Jamie,” Ben said patiently. “Paul feels the injury may have affected more of Joe’s memory than we think. What Joe remembers is another visit to see Suzi and Garrett after they were married.”
“But that was a long time ago!”
“Exactly. He thinks Garrett is still alive and Suzi has just found out she is going to have a baby.”
Jamie frowned, chewing on his lip. Hearing this information for the second time didn’t make it any easier to comprehend.
Really, really like Joe, Ben thought again. “Is there anything else you want to ask me?”
“How did he get hurt?”
“We don’t know. We may never know, but the injury was severe and debilitating. We just have to trust in the Lord. Say a prayer for your brother before you go to sleep, Jamie, and then get some rest. We could all use a good night’s sleep.”
“Sure thing, Pa.”
The next day Ben implemented his plan.
He strongly suggested Jamie help out in Dr. Martin’s clinic, taking advantage of the doctor’s tutelage to bolster his science scores on the college entrance exams next month. Ben had maintained his academic contacts after Adam finished college, but Jamie would have to do well on the placement exams if he expected to study veterinary medicine at Cornell.
Candy was dispatched to move the herd to the high country—a bit earlier in the spring than usual, but Candy hadn’t objected . . . much. Griff, on the other hand, protested loudly at being told to go along, stating that he had better things to do and was needed up at North Ranch to oversee the breaking of the new string of horses for the Army and not only that, he had spotted some wild mustangs near Truckee Meadows that he thought Billy should look at and so would need to take him along. When Ben argued that Billy was needed at the house to help Hop Sing with chores, Hop Sing started sputtering in Cantonese about “not needing help” and that idea being “velly, velly bad.”
“Fine! Do it your way!” Ben yelled, adding he was too tired to argue and ordered everyone out of the house and away from his sight. As he shut the door loudly behind them, he smiled smugly. I didn’t raise three world-class conniving boys without knowing a thing or two about how to get what I want!
Candy knew it was a risk, but he had to take it anyway. Mr. Cartwright’s decision to move the herd so early threw a monkey wrench into his own plans but he knew he couldn’t openly defy the Boss. He moved the herd as instructed but as soon as they were within a day’s ride of the high pasture he turned the ramrod responsibilities over to Hank and high-tailed it back to Virginia City to collect Jamie.
“Candy, what if we’re wrong?” Jamie asked. There was worry in his voice, not just curiosity. “Dr. Martin was really adamant about not giving Joe any more information than he asked for.”
“Trust me, this is the right thing to do for Joe,” assured Candy.
“But what if he has another seizure?”
“How do you know?”
“Well . . . I don’t for sure, but we have to take that chance.” Candy reached over and took hold of Jamie’s reins, forcing him to pull up. “Look, Your Pa is going to keep Joe wrapped in gauze like a mummy until all the fight goes out of him. I bet Joe’s already suffocating in that room upstairs. We gotta get him riled up a bit and this is the only way to do it.”
“I g-guess,” Jamie still sounded unsure.
“Did you deliver the message?”
“Yeah, she’ll meet me at the crossing at noon.”
“Good. Take the buckboard; Joe might need it.”
“Pa’s gonna be really mad we went against doctor’s orders,” Jamie said, shaking his head.
“That’s why I’m going to be the one to do it, and I’ll be the one to do the talking. If your Pa is going to be mad at anyone, let it be me.”
“No, Candy. We’re in this together, remember?”
“Good,” Candy grinned. “Now, let’s go resurrect your brother.”
And with that the two men kicked their horses into a gallop and headed for their respective destinations eager to begin their mission.
The last two weeks had not gone well by any stretch of the imagination.
Ben had hoped with everyone except Hop Sing out of the house that he would be able to slowly introduce Joe to his new world—picking and choosing the moments of revelation and thereby cushioning the blows.
He should have known better.
Although Joe’s color improved and he stayed awake for longer periods of time, his speech was still punctuated by long pauses as he struggled to find the words he wanted. The one word Joe said clearly without effort was, “No!”
Was he hungry? No!
Did he want a bath? No!
How about something to drink? No!
His son was stubborn, cantankerous, and defiant and in many respects reminded Ben of a petulant two-year-old.
At first Joe had definite ideas about his recovery regimen which included ignoring every piece of medical advice offered. He spent his days doing exercises to strengthen his right side, most of them of his own invention given his limited resources in the space available to him. However, it became apparent with each passing day that the vertigo was not subsiding. Neither was it predictable.
Only Hop Sing was able to reach middle ground and convince Joe to take—if not the medicine that had been prescribed—at least the teas he brewed, some of which smelled foul but lessened the nausea and vomiting enabling Joe to move around his room without too much trouble. The stairs were another matter however.
In the past, Hoss would have carried a convalescing Joe up and down, allowing his little brother the luxury of a change of scenery even if that scenery was only the great room. Ben no longer possessed the strength or agility to carry even an underweight Joe up and down, but—with Hop Sing’s help and taking one step at a time, they were eventually able to get him settled in the downstairs bedroom where it was easier for Joe to get to the dining table for meals or outside occasionally. But every time he attempted to visit the stables or tackle the simplest of chores, the vertigo returned with a vengeance. He fell down repeatedly, suffering bruises but no broken bones—yet.
If Joe wondered why Hoss wasn’t there to help him, he didn’t ask.
If he was disturbed by his grey-haired reflection when shaving, he didn’t mention it.
Gradually, he stopped saying “No”; then he stopped talking altogether. He stopped exercising and ate only because Ben threatened to hog tie and force feed him if he didn’t.
Eventually Joe returned to his bedroom upstairs where he remained sullen, silent, and secluded. Any illusion of using this time to apprise Joe of the many changes that had been made in his absence fizzled like spit on a griddle.
Ben rued his brilliant plan.
The window was cracked just enough for Candy to get his fingers underneath the sash and raise it. He put one leg over the sill and ducked through, careful to avoid hitting his head.
Coming in from the bright June morning, it took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkened room. As he paused, he heard voices rise and fall from downstairs sounding as though an argument of some sort was in full swing. Good, let those ranchers go at it full tilt. The more noise they make, the less Mr. Cartwright will hear. Nevertheless, Candy tiptoed across the room and pulled the bedroom door shut lest Joe startle when awakened.
“Joe,” Candy called in a stage whisper from the door. “Joe, wake up.” He thought it odd that Joe was asleep this late in the morning. Joe was laying on his right side in his stocking feet with pants on, but no shirt.
As Candy neared the bed, he could see bruises on along the ribcage and upper arm which weren’t there before. What the devil? Just as Candy was about to shake him, Joe rolled away, so Candy said again, insistently “Joe.”
This time Joe’s eyes opened immediately but he had to blink several times to focus.
“Yeah. Come on, get up,” Candy said, rummaging through Joe’s dresser to find a clean shirt. “Here put this on.”
“I’m bustin’ you outta here.”
“Pa,” Joe said uncertainly, looking at the door.
“What he don’t know won’t kill me . . . but we gotta hurry.”
“Are you dizzy right now?”
“N-no. Will be.”
“Well, you’re not right now so let’s get going and worry about ‘dizzy’ later, okay?”
Joe looked uncertain, but he swung his legs over the bed and picked up his shirt. Candy noticed the pinched expression as Joe fumbled with the buttons, but he kept silent. His boots finally pulled on, Joe stood up and braced himself against the bed for a moment before moving toward for the door.
“Not the door. This way,” Candy said and held the lace curtain back from the window. Joe looked at him horrified.
“Come on, you can do it. You’ve done it—what?—a hundred times?—a thousand? Piece of cake.”
“Fall,” Joe croaked, growing wide-eyed at the mere idea.
“No, you won’t,” Candy replied, reaching out the window onto the roof where he had left a rope. “See,” he said, holding it up. “I won’t let you fall, buddy. Ya gotta trust me here.”
Joe shook his head and took a step back towards the bed, but Candy grabbed his elbow and drew him toward the window.
“This can’t wait, Joe. There’s some things you need to know about; things I’ve got to show you. Besides, there’s someone down there who wants to see you.” Candy jerked his head toward the window and drew back the curtain so Joe could see out. It took a few seconds for Joe to spot the black and white horse through the pines.
“Mmm,” Joe grunted and nodded his head once; the desire to see and be with his beloved pinto overcoming any reservation. Candy tied one end of the rope around Joe’s waist and secured the other to the leg of the bed then he helped Joe out over the window sill and on to the porch roof before slipping out the window himself.
Joe waited for Candy to go ahead of him, but Candy said, “You go first.”
“Because I don’t wanna be crushed when you fall.”
A look of panic crossed Joe’s face before he saw Candy’s grin and he relaxed. Being treated like a normal person rather than an invalid was far more agreeable, he decided, than the way his father had been babying him and a short laugh escaped his lips. Candy, I’ve missed you!
Taking a deep breath, he moved silently across the porch roof and over the side using his left arm on the rope to slow his descent to the ground rather than jumping as he usually did. Candy followed swiftly. The Cattlemen’s Association board meetings usually lasted several hours. With any luck they’d be back before the meeting was over and the Boss wouldn’t be the wiser. Nevertheless, Candy tucked the rope in place behind a rain gutter away from prying eyes.
Joe was waiting with his arms around Cochise. Although a little shaky at the exertion, so far he wasn’t experiencing any dizziness or nausea.
“You all right?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. He managed to put his left leg into the stirrup, but he needed Candy to help him into the saddle.
“Nothing faster than a walk, Joe. Do you hear me?”
“And you hold on.”
“No, but despite your long hair, you’re not Samson either. We’ll stop if you need to; so don’t be a hero, you got it?”
It took longer than Candy figured to reach the small cabin Joe had once renovated for Laura White, his bride-to-be-but-never-was. The carriage and buckboard were already there, although its occupants were inside. Joe had recognized where they were headed almost instantly, but he couldn’t figure out why.
“I thought you’d be comfortable here; you know, in case you got to feelin’ poorly and needed to rest,” Candy answered unbidden when he saw the puzzled look on Joe’s face.
Joe nodded. He was beginning to feel a little queasy but he hated to admit it. Nevertheless, Candy seemed to know and helped him dismount, supporting him until he felt strong enough to walk the few paces to the back of the buckboard and sit down. As Candy steadied him he noticed Joe’s mouth was starting to salivate. Uh oh. A sure sign he’s going to heave.
Before that happened Candy shoved a canteen at him. Joe was expecting water and was surprised when he uncorked the vessel and smelled Hop Sing’s special tea. It wasn’t the most savory drink in the world, but it did seem to have magical properties that quieted his churning stomach and stayed the nausea. He pulled a long swallow and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Better?” Candy asked.
Joe didn’t dare open his mouth so he nodded. When he looked up, he saw a red-haired man step off the porch and slowly approach the wagon.
From a distance, Joe thought the man looked a little like Jamie and wondered if he were some long-lost relative come to claim him. Is this what Candy felt was so urgent? Pa needs help convincing this stranger that Jamie belongs on the Ponderosa with us, is that it?
When Candy didn’t make any move to introduce them, he searched the man’s features again noting the familiar gait, the wide-set eyes, freckles, and weirdly kinky hair.
“Hello, Joe,” the man said.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
“Jamie?” Joe whispered then shook his head from side-to-side. “No. No! NO!” he said with each syllable becoming louder and more vehement.
Concerned about Joe’s agitated state, Candy motioned Jamie to step back a bit and then sat on the back of buckboard next to Joe, putting an arm around his shoulders to calm him. Joe tried to shrug him off, but Candy only tightened his grip.
“It’s all right, Joe. It’s all right,” Candy said soothingly. “I tried to tell you the night you returned, remember?” Joe didn’t respond or take his eyes off Jamie, but he stopped struggling. “You’ve been gone two years. This is Jamie; he grew up while you were gone.”
No, this can’t be right. Jamie is just a kid.
“No! One . . . two.”
“One, two, what, Joe?”
“M-months. Gone two months.”
This was proving harder than Candy thought it would be. With a jerk of his head, he signaled Jamie to go and retrieve their ultimate weapon in the fight for Joe’s acceptance of the situation.
Joe pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes and shuddered.
“Dizzy?” asked Candy to no response. “More tea?” Again, no response.
The female voice with a slight Scottish lilt caught Joe’s attention immediately. He lowered his hands and looked straight into the eyes of Suzi Hanover, the woman he had been visiting not more than a few weeks ago.
“Suzi,” Joe cried and reached out to take her in his arms holding on for all he was worth. Suzi instinctively knew what he needed and clutched him tightly repeating over and over,
“It’s all right, Joe. Everything is all right. I’m here now. Shhhhh. It’s all right. It’s all right.”
“Tell. Tell them,” he demanded.
“I can’t, Joe.”
She took his face in her hands and gazed into those magnificent hazel green eyes that reminded her of the Scottish moors. “Because it’s true. It’s been two years since I’ve seen you,” said Suzi with tears in her eyes. “And I can prove it.”
Jamie had quietly returned to the wagon with a two-year-old in tow. Suzi reached down to pick up the boy who clung to her neck while eyeing the stranger with interest.
“This is my son—and your godson—Joseph Garrett Hanover. We call him “Little Joe.”
It was evening before they were through talking . . . at least as much talking as Candy felt Joe could handle.
The trio had agreed beforehand that they would fill Joe in on significant events from the missing years before he disappeared with the exception of anything to do with Hoss or Alice. What happened after his disappearance they’d leave for another day. So among other things Jamie told about the circumstances surrounding his adoption; Suzi shared the highlights of Joe’s visits to Arizona and Little Joe’s birth; they even covered the nitro explosion and Joe’s temporary blindness.
Throughout it all, Joe sat in the rocker by the fireplace. Though he didn’t overtly react to the information imparted or ask more than perfunctory questions, he watched carefully as each spoke. As Jamie and Suzi alternated storytelling duties, Candy monitored Joe’s reactions becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the intensity of Joe’s gaze, the sweat on his brow, and the rapidity of his breathing.
Jamie, too, became acutely aware of Joe’s demeanor, noting the way his white knuckles gripped the arms of the chair as Suzi began another tale. Suddenly, Joe bolted for the open door but caught his shirt on a loose nail in the jamb. Before he could unhook it, his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed, the cloth ripping the only sound in the room.
“Has this happened before?” Suzi asked, placing a wet cloth on Joe’s forehead.
“I don’t know,” Candy admitted. We’ve not been around him for the last couple weeks.”
“He doesn’t have a fever and his pulse is steady, but fast. We’d better get him back to the Ponderosa and fetch the doctor,” Suzi said, calmly.
“Jamie, you take Suzi and the boy back to town and I’ll take Joe home and face your Pa.”
“We’re in this together, Candy, remember . . . ‘to brotherhood.’”
“Yeah, well I had thought we could get back before that meeting was over. Your Pa must have discovered Joe was missing hours ago and will be frantic by now. You didn’t sign up for that.”
Jamie stood taller and stuck his chin out. “I can stand up to my Pa. Joe would, if necessary. I can do this, Candy. Let me ride ahead and tell him what happened and then—“
“I’m coming, too,” said Suzi. “I’m as much a part of this as you are and I’ll take my share of the responsibility.”
“All right. If we’re going to do this, then let’s do it together. Jamie, you take Joe and Suzi in the carriage; I’ll bring the buckboard and the horses.”
“I can drive the carriage, Candy; I’m not helpless, you know,” said Suzi. “Besides, there’s not enough room for three adults and my son. Joe needs to lie down. You and Jamie take him in the buckboard and I’ll follow with Little Joe.”
“Mr. Cartlight,” Hop Sing shook Ben’s arm. “Mr. Cartlight, you wake up now. Horses come.”
“Whaa?” Ben bolted from his chair when it registered what the Chinese cook was saying. He was outside in a flash just as the buckboard pulled into the yard.
“WHERE’S JOSEPH?!” Ben yelled, beside himself.
“He’s right here, Pa,” Jamie said, jumping out of the back of the wagon.
Joe managed to sit up and wave at his father before doubling up and vomiting. When the retching wouldn’t stop, Ben started yelling for Hop Sing while Candy and Jamie were both talking at once trying to explain what had happened.
Amidst all the activity, Suzi arrived in the carriage and Little Joe, frightened out of a deep sleep by all the yelling, began wailing.
Oh, Lord Almighty!! What now?! was all Ben could think.
“Well, Ben, despite your concerns, he’s not suffered a relapse. He’s exhausted, of course, and likely will sleep until morning, but I can’t see he’s any worse off.”
“But he was so sick; he couldn’t stand up; he couldn’t focus; he—”
“I know, Ben, but as disturbing as that is, it is ‘normal’ for him right now.” The doctor sat down in the blue chair before continuing.
“The good news is that he went almost the entire day without an attack, even with all the physical activity. Candy, again you astound me with your powers of observation; you should have been a diagnostician,” the doctor said.
“Huh?” said Candy and Jamie together.
“Your comment about Joe watching people as they spoke and that he didn’t seem to hear you sometimes was astute. I would bet there is some residual hearing loss from the injury. How permanent that might be only time will tell.”
As the doctor was speaking, Hop Sing placed the coffee service on the table in front of the fireplace.
“Hop Sing, you’d better keep some of that tea brewed and ready. If it helps Joe as much as you all say, he’s likely to need it when he wakes.”
“And Hop Sing, would you mind if I heated some milk for Little Joe?” asked Suzi. “He’s rather anxious and I think it might help him sleep.”
“Hop Sing fix, you rest. Everybody rest. Too much foolishment for one night. Hmmph!” he said as he padded off to the kitchen.
“Ben, I know you’re angry with Candy for the way the events of today came about, but after what you told me about the last couple weeks, this may have been a blessing in disguise,” said the doctor.
Candy and Jamie looked at one another perplexed and Ben looked a bit chagrined.
“You might as well know,” Ben admitted. “I didn’t handle things well with Joe while you were gone. I thought I could ease him into all the changes that have happened, but all I did was send him into a deep depression. As much as I hate to admit it, if you hadn’t come along today Candy, I don’t know what I would have done. So, as furious as I still am,” Ben shook his finger at Candy, “I am grateful as well,” he finished, extending his arm.
Candy was speechless, but slowly shook Ben’s offered hand. “I don’t know what to say, Mr. Cartwright. Joe means . . . you all mean . . . more than I . . . I just wanted to help.”
“We both did, Pa,” said Jamie. “Candy and I talked about what it means to be a brother and what Adam and Hoss would have done to help Joe and it just seemed that’s what we had to do, you know, since they’re not . . . since we’re all that’s left.”
“And I had a hand in this, too, Mr. Cartwright,” said Suzi. “I owe Joe everything and I only wanted to help him face the truth. When Jamie asked me to come, I didn’t think twice. Aside from my son, Joe’s the only family I have. Perhaps it’s selfish, but I couldn’t bear to think of him not remembering Little Joe.”
“It seems you all gave my son a lot more credit than I did. I know we still have a long way to go and Joe still has to face the reality of Hoss and Alice, and how things have changed around here, but—“
“Well, everyone,” interrupted the doctor, “I think it’s time for me to head back to town and for you all to get a good night’s sleep. Ben, if I might suggest—and I know you don’t think too much of my suggestions of late—but I’d wait a bit. He’s pretty angry right now about a lot of things. I know you have to weigh the consequences of how much more you’re going to tell him and when, but I’d give him a chance to make some sense of what he’s heard today before you decide what to do next.”
“Thank you, Paul,” said Ben as he walked the doctor to the door.
“I’d better be going, too,” said Suzi.
“You’ll do no such thing young lady. It’s much too long of a drive into Virginia City for you and that little boy after the day you’ve had. You’ll stay and I don’t want to hear any argument. We can make you comfortable in the room downstairs here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.”
Joe was often troubled by nightmares he couldn’t later remember, but last night’s dream would have been an ordinary one if the context had been normal. Instead, vivid images of people, places and things were all mixed up. Mama speaking Scots in the desert; Jamie wearing a sugarloaf hat; Hop Sing chewing tobacco, and Pa’s lips moving but no sound coming from them. It was the last image that unnerved him. And then he’d heard it echoing in his head . . . The Voice . . . yelling and shouting; arms reaching for him, grabbing him. He told them all to go away, but all he heard was the unearthly howl of a wild animal. He enunciated clearly a demand that he be left alone. And again the only thing that touched his ears was the unintelligible growl of a wounded creature in pain.
It was him.
Joe awoke feeling completely undone.
Ben rode Buck into the yard around noon, Suzi ran toward him in hysterics.
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright,” Suzi sobbed. “I can’t find him.”
“Can’t find who?” Ben looked puzzled.
“Little Joe,” Jamie said as he came out of the barn.
“How long ?”
“Hour; maybe more.”
“I was doing laundry (hiccup) and he wanted to play and I was too (hiccup) too busy and then the water boiled over on the stove and I was afraid he’d get burned (hiccup) so I told him to get out of the kitchen and play (hiccup) somewhere else and by the time I cleaned up the mess I . . . I couldn’t find him,” she wailed, clinging to Ben.
“Hush, hush now, girl,” Ben patted the young mother’s back.
“Where have you looked?” he asked Jamie.
“The barn, the corrals, the pastures. Everyone’s been looking.”
Ben mouthed to Jamie “The stream?” The small stream near the house was normally just a trickle, but after the recent storms, it was running high and fast.
Jamie shook his head. “We checked there first.”
“Did you look upstairs?” Ben asked.
“He doesn’t know how to climb stairs,” Suzi snuffled.
“My dear,” Ben sighed. “Trust me when I say—and I speak from long personal experience—just when you are certain your children can’t do something is exactly when they prove to you they can.”
Suzi started to break from him and run toward the house, but Ben restrained her. “Calmly. No need in frightening the boy. Remember, he’ll take his cue from you.” Ben took Suzi by the hand and they quickly—but quietly—went inside and up the stairs.
In the first room they looked they found the boy curled up fast asleep in his godfather’s arms.
From then on, the days moved quickly. Focusing on Little Joe, gave Joe something to think about besides himself. He took delight in the child’s antics and willingly watched over him when Suzi was busy.
If Big Joe fell down, Little Joe took it for nothing more than a game and lay down beside him, content to stare at the clouds or play soldiers on Joe’s chest or babble incessantly—which didn’t bother Big Joe at all. When Joe read to him, the boy didn’t mind if the words came hesitantly or Joe stumbled occasionally. Gradually, Joe’s speech grew less stilted and he was able to put longer sentences together.
Ben decided to follow the advice he had given Suzi—remain calm and Joe would take his cue from him. He made every effort to treat his son as he always had, assigning tasks, expecting him at meals, holding him accountable for his actions. He had introduced Joe to Griff and Billy with the briefest of explanations as to their functions on the Ponderosa.
Due to the vertigo and the weakness of his right side, Joe was still limited in the scope of the work he could perform. Although he was beginning to participate in some of the decision-making, he appeared unwilling to wander too far from the main house and kept his associations to family, ranch hands, and close friends. At the doctor’s insistence, all had been instructed to explain context to Joe whenever possible to ease his reintroduction to ranch and community life. He had learned of Roy Coffee’s retirement and Clem’s appointment as Sheriff; the building of the new Fourth Ward School; the completion of the intercontinental railroad and other events of the last several years.
The one thing Ben had not dealt with was the subject of Hoss and Alice. He understood why Joe hadn’t asked about Alice; it was simply because he didn’t remember her at all. But why he hadn’t asked about Hoss’s whereabouts confounded Ben. Did he remember and not let on? Oh, if only I knew what you are thinking, Joseph.
One morning at breakfast, Ben took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and asked Joe to go into town for the mail.
“Do what?” Joe asked, dumbfounded.
“You heard me. I need you to go into town, pick up the mail and deliver the timber contracts to Jack Wood.”
Joe looked across the table at Candy who shrugged, then at Jamie who jumped up a little too quickly.
“I’ll hitch the buggy for you,” he said, and ran out the door. Obviously, this had been previously discussed.
Joe scowled. Misunderstanding the look, Ben explained, “Jack is Hiram’s son, Joe. He joined the practice a few—“
“I know who Jack is,” Joe snapped. “A buggy?” he added incredulously.
“Ah, we thought it would be more comfortable. You know, in case you get dizzy.” Candy offered. “Something to hang on to. If you need it.”
Joe looked back and forth between his father and Candy. He wasn’t sure about this at all. He hadn’t been further from the house than down to the stables. It’s true the attacks of vertigo weren’t as numerous as before, but they still came on without warning and were no less debilitating. Joe could just imagine it . . . Here, Jack . . . oh, excuse me while I spew on your patent leather boots. And a Buggy! What? I’m so old like Jedediah Milbank?
“I can’t really spare anyone else, Joe,” Ben said calmly—more calmly than he felt.
Joe stood from the table without a word and made his way to the credenza by the front door. He put on his gun belt which he hadn’t worn in . . . he couldn’t remember, then donned his jacket and hat. By the time he got outside, The Buggy was waiting.
Ben handed him his kangaroo portfolio which Joe tucked under the seat.
“Take your time, son. Enjoy the day, and remember Paul’s office is just a few doors down from Hiram’s if you need anything.”
“So long, buddy,” Candy said as he threw a canteen on the seat and placed a bucket on the floorboard. Joe felt like he was six years old and going off to school for the first time. Only no Hoss to hold my hand.
Afraid to open his mouth for fear the bile in his throat would cause him to vomit right then and there, Joe waved a perfunctory goodbye and slapped the reins.
As soon as the buggy rounded the corner of the barn, Ben called to Billy who was mounted and waiting by the corral fence.
“Go, but keep out of sight. I don’t want him to know he’s being followed.”
“What do I do if he gets sick?” Billy asked.
“You know what to expect. Just keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s safe, but don’t interfere unless it’s absolutely necessary. As soon as he gets to the law offices, you high tail it back here and report. Griff is already in town and will follow him home.”
After a few miles, Joe began to relax. Candy was right; the buggy was comfortable. The seat hugged him and he could steady himself by holding on to the straight portion of the bow that supported the canopy. He began to breathe more deeply and enjoy the fresh air and scenery.
On a whim, he decided to take the long way to town and drove through a meadow his mother had loved. Belle Fleur she had called it because of all the beautiful flowers that bloomed there in the spring. The summer grasses were all that blew in the wind now or he might have stopped to pick a bouquet for her grave. Strange, he could still smell those flowers and hear her laughter even now.
It was a funny thing about memories. Why could he remember so clearly the sound of her voice, her smell and touch, but not see her face? Why could he remember his brothers’ penchant for tickling him, but not where he’d been for the last two years?
Joe ran a hand over his face and felt stubble. He shaved yesterday but because he couldn’t bring himself to look in the mirror at a face he no longer recognized, he maintained a perpetual state of five o’clock sunshine. That’s what older brothers used to call it anyway. Adam had five o’clock shadow by noon; Hoss by sundown. They used to rib me somethin’ fierce about my lack of facial hair when I was a kid. That’s when the sunshine joke started. Took until my twenties before lathering up was a daily occurrence.
Why could he remember that and not what had happed to him? Am I unwilling to look in the mirror because I am afraid of the man I’ve become?
“Mr. Cartwright, could I talk with you?” the young mother asked.
Ben was grateful for the distraction. Billy had reported back that Joe had had an uneventful, if meandering, ride to Virginia City, but that was hours ago and there was still no sign of him or Griff. His patience was wearing thin and he could no longer focus on the financial accounts; perhaps a conversation would fill the time until they arrived.
“Of course, Suzi, although it’s been some time since I was the parent of a baby. I don’t know how much help I can be. Children seem to be growing up so much faster today than when my boys were young.”
Suzi looked perplexed, but then realized what the older man was thinking. “Oh, no, sir,” she quickly asserted. “No parental advice sought!” and there was a lilt to her laughter which pleased him to hear. Suzi had been through so much after her brother was killed at Shiloh and her parents had turned their backs on her because she married a Yankee.
“Well, then,” Ben said. “Let me just put away these papers and we’ll go out on the porch where it’s cooler. Hop Sing!”
“Umm—” she hesitated, casting a glance at Little Joe playing with tin soldiers under Ben’s desk.
“Hop Sing will look after him,” Ben assured her and turned to call the cook again.
“Why you yell? Too hot to yell,” Hop Sing interrupted as he came in from the kitchen.
Ben ignored his protests. “Hop Sing, would you please bring some lemonade out to the porch and keep an eye on Little Joe while we’re outside?”
The Chinaman disappeared back into the kitchen muttering in Cantonese, but Ben was not fooled; he knew Hop Sing was secretly delighted to spend time with the youngster. His eyes gazed at the little tow head bobbing up and down under the desk as he moved his soldiers over the hills and dales of some imaginary plain and for a brief moment the last thirty years vanished and his own Joseph was once again master of his universe. Oh, how I wish it were so!
With a shiver that belied the heat of the day, Ben shook himself out of his reverie.
“Now, let’s see about that lemonade, shall we?” he said as he took Suzi’s arm and escorted her out to the front porch.
It was cooler outside and a nice breeze had come up, keeping the gnats at bay. Hop Sing had already placed a pitcher, glasses and some fresh-baked cookies on the table so Ben pulled out a chair for Suzi and took the other himself.
“What is it that you wanted to ask, Suzi?” he said while pouring them both a glass.
“It’s more what I needed to tell you, Mr. Cartwright,” she began. “Something that I didn’t mentioned when you came to Yuma after Joe disappeared.”
“Something about where he might have gone?” Ben asked hopefully.
“No. No, nothing like that,” Suzi assured him, sensing his concern. “It . . . oh . . . oh, it’s nothing, really,” but there were tears in her eyes as she said it and her shoulders rounded when she put her chin to her chest, looking very much younger than her 24 years.
“Suzi,” Ben patted her arm. “Why don’t you just begin wherever you feel comfortable and if I don’t understand something, I’ll ask. All right?”
Suzi nodded and took a sip of the lemonade, looking sideways at him from under her lashes. Just being in the presence of this man was so overwhelming and yet she sensed the kindness in him. She certainly had heard about Joe’s family over the years, mostly from her brother, of course. Joe never shoo’d her away like Russell’s other friends did. He didn’t seem to care if she was a girl; he just accepted her. And after Russ was killed, Joe had kept tabs on her to make sure she was getting on all right. Joe was the first person she told when she fell in love with Garrett and planned to elope. That hadn’t endeared the Cartwrights to her family, even if Joe was half Southern.
“I was always worried about Joe’s visits,” she put her glass down and sighed. “I mean, Joe stood up for us when we were married, but I knew he did that out of loyalty to Russ more than anything. I was worried about how Joe would be with my husband. I mean, my parents didn’t like Garrett at all and made it very clear to me that I was no longer welcome at home. I knew because of Russ, Joe would always be my friend, but I wasn’t sure that that friendship would extend to Garrett. Oh, he would be polite—you raised him proper, after all—but I was worried his first visit would be awkward. Wouldn’t you have been concerned, too?”
Ben paused with glass in mid-air, stunned by the rush of her words. How she had managed all of that without taking a breath he would never know. But before he could open his mouth to answer, she continued, “I needn’t have worried. He and Garrett bonded immediately. I don’t know why exactly. They are very different men, with different backgrounds, but they clearly felt a kinship with each other; a passion about life—Garrett’s for the Army and Joe for his horses and the Ponderosa.
“And argue! They would start at breakfast and still be going at lunch about anything and everything. At first it frightened me a little. I mean, growing up my father and brother never discussed anything in any way controversial with women ever and certainly not at the dinner table. The time for men’s talk was after dinner and my mother and I weren’t allowed to participate. But Joe and Garrett would involve me in their debates and it was quite stimulating. They actually wanted to hear my opinion and wouldn’t let me get away with slinking off to do laundry or housework. Sometimes night would come and the breakfast dishes were still undone. Then they’d pitch in and we’d clean up and cook, and then clean up again. It was a magic month, that first visit.”
Ben smiled. He’d raised his sons to be knowledgeable about current affairs, to express their opinions, and live up to their convictions; but most of all, he raised them to respect women and value their contributions. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Suzi, growing up in a household where she was dismissed out of hand.
“And the last visit?” he asked. “Were you still worried?”
“Not worried so much as concerned. We knew about Alice, of course. Joe had written—just the bare minimum, but enough that we saw through the words and felt his pain.” Suzi took a bite of cookie to cover her quivering chin.
“We wanted to ask Joe to be godfather to Garrett Jr., but we were both worried that when he came down for the Christening . . . seeing us together with the baby might be too much for him and perhaps bring bad memories to the surface. But it didn’t; that’s what surprised us. He seemed totally comfortable with our lives—maybe a little wistful—but not bitter or sad—somehow at peace. Garrett and I both remarked on it, but didn’t understand why that would be so.
“The baby was mesmerized by Joe. He stared at him endlessly and his eyes followed him around the room wherever he was. Whenever he heard Joe’s voice he cooed and gurgled and started looking for him. Joe could get him to sleep when neither Garrett nor I could—he was colicky, you know—and sometimes between that and the heat and the dust we were all so exhausted . . . well, Joe was an angel in disguise that month.
”Garrett never did like the idea of hanging a ‘junior’ tag on his son, so before the Christening, we asked Joe if he would mind if we named the baby Joseph Garrett Hanover, and called him ‘Little Joe.’”
Before Ben could ask, Suzi continued, “Joe didn’t say anything at all, but we watched the blood drain from his face before he turned away. Garrett and I looked at each other thinking we’d made a really big mistake. Neither of us knew what to do, so we all just stood there for the longest time.
“When Joe finally turned back, we could see his face was wet, but his eyes were sparkling and he had on this unforgettably brilliant smile . . . bigger than I’d ever seen before. And he just nodded.”
Suzy dabbed her own eyes at the remembrance.
Ben—imagining that moment—coughed a little to cover his own emotion. “That nickname caused Joseph a lot of grief over the years and it took him a long time to shed it. I’m surprised he agreed.”
“I remember his complaints, too,” Suzi laughed lightly. “That night, Little Joe spit up and had diarrhea somethin’ fierce. Joe insisted on cleaning him up. As he bathed and dressed him, Joe gave his namesake quite a lecture about nutrition and eating what was good for him so he could grow up as big as his Uncle Hoss, ‘cause being ‘little joe’ was only going to be cute for so long and then he would have to stand tall, make his own way in the world, and be the man his father expected, regardless of his actual stature.’”
“You know what?” Suzi asked in amazement. “Little Joe never spit up again. From that moment on, the colic and the diarrhea were gone and he’s never been sick—knock wood—since.”
“Joseph has always had a way with children, I’ve seen that myself over and over again,” Ben said. “All of my sons have had that gift; perhaps because their own childhoods were so abruptly altered by the loss of a parent they intuitively sense a child’s vulnerability and seek to protect them.” Like Joe with Billy, he thought.
Ben studied Suzi for a moment before asking, “Was this what you wanted to tell me?”
“What? Oh. No. I mean, yes, I wanted you to know how much Joe has meant to Garrett and me and Little Joe—how much he will always mean even if he can’t remember himself. But, no, that wasn’t what I wanted . . . what I needed . . .” Suzi stifled a small sob and buried her head in her hands.
“What is it, Suzi? You can tell me,” Ben soothed. “It will be all right.”
“I just don’t know. You all are trying to decide how much to tell Joe about the last few years.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Ben nodded his head. “The doctor believes we should give him the basic facts, but that we shouldn’t volunteer too much information unless he specifically asks. But as you know, it took being confronted with you and Jamie for Joe to begin to accept his condition. I can’t say I agree with Candy’s subterfuge, but I do appreciate what you’ve all done—how you’ve helped Joe come this far.”
“And what about Alice?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I know something that he won’t know to ask . . . that no one knows? Do I tell him?”
Ben straightened his back and narrowed his eyes. “What do you know and how do you know it?” he asked quietly.
Suzi felt the dark chocolate eyes bore into her. She was transfixed, but strangely not afraid. Unlike her own father, this father cared about the welfare of his children. This father knew what it was to lose a spouse. This was a father she could trust to do the right thing. And so she told him.
“The last night before Joe left, he and Garrett were up late,” she began. “Well, that wasn’t rare . . . they usually talked half the night away. But that night it was different. I had gone to bed early as I was dead on my feet. It had rained that day and there was cool breeze coming off the mountains so the windows were open. Garrett and Joe were on the front porch rambling on about horses and breeding, troop movements and the Indian situation—same ol’ stuff they’d been talking about all month and I drifted off easily. Then all of a sudden it got very quiet. Call it a mother’s intuition or curiosity or whatever, but I was instantly awake.”
Although Ben had gotten used to Suzi’s style of talking by now, he was growing impatient. “Go on.”
“They started talking about the night Joe lectured the baby about becoming the man his father would want him to be. Garrett said it really brought him up short to think that he might not be there for his son in the years ahead and that he was pleased Joe had embraced his role as godfather. Garrett was worried that if something happened to him that I would be alone with the baby. He didn’t like my family any more than they liked him and he was concerned that my father would get his hands on our baby and turn him into . . . well . . . let’s just say it’s not what my husband wanted for his son. Joe promised him then and there that he would never let that happen; that he would always be there for Little Joe and for me.”
“Suzi,” Ben started to say, but she put her hand up to silence him.
“And then Joe got real quiet and for the first time talked about Alice; how they’d met, how sweet and pretty she was; about the house he built for her and the nursery he was adding on when the fire happened; about discovering she had been murdered and bringing the killers to justice.
“Garrett asked him if he felt guilty because he wasn’t there when it happened. My heart nearly stopped at that. I didn’t know how Garrett could ask such a question; but what surprised me was the answer. Joe said ‘yes, but not for the reasons you might think.’ He said he felt guilty because—although he had loved Alice, he realized he had married her for all the wrong reasons. He said that she was exactly the type of woman Hoss would have loved and that marrying her was a way for him to keep Hoss close because he wasn’t ready to let go of his brother, not then, not ever.
“Joe said the last few weeks of seeing what a marriage could be made him realize what he didn’t have, hadn’t had with Alice . . . may never have with anyone ever. Alice was a very sweet, soft-spoken woman who had trouble sustaining a conversation. Maybe Joe could have drawn her out like Garrett did me, but he didn’t think so. He said she was so quiet, so fragile, that he was sometimes even afraid of being too physical in their marriage bed because she was so delicate.
“And then he said that he had failed her on so many levels, including the fact that he hadn’t buried her in the family plot by the lake and that his failure to do so was as if she had meant nothing, nothing at all to any of you, as if she never existed.”
Ben had always wondered about that. He knew Alice hated the city and loved the Ponderosa. But it never made sense to him why Joe had chosen a field far from where his mother and Hoss were laid to rest. Was there some significance or was it grief that clouded his judgment?
“Did he say why?”
“Not that I heard. They were quiet for a good while, then Garrett mumbled something and they came inside. Joe left the next morning. Three weeks later we got your telegram that he was missing. Six months later Garrett was killed in action.”
Griff saw the buggy hitched in front of the law office, but there was no sign of Joe so he started to walk to the doctor’s office when he heard retching noises. He found Joe in the alley between C and D Street bent nearly in half, his left shoulder bracing against the wall, hands on knees. So much for staying out of sight. Griff went back to the buggy and grabbed the canteen.
“Joe. Joe, it’s Griff.”
“Griff. I work on the Ponderosa. You know me. I bust broncs for you.”
“Griff?” Joe rolled from his shoulder onto his back and slid ungracefully down the rough brick wall into the dirt.
“That’s right. Here, drink,” he said kneeling and holding the open canteen to Joe’s lips. Joe half-heartedly pushed him away. “It’s Hop Sing’s tea, remember. Easy. Not too much.”
“Come on, fella. Let me take you to the doc’s.”
“Well, you can’t stay here; people are staring. Let’s go home.”
“No. Lie down. Wanna lie down.”
Griff looked around; there wasn’t much choice in this part of town but he had an idea.
Lucy was from Iowa, newly arrived in Virginia City and in love with every cowboy she met; didn’t care so much for miners—or old men—so when she saw what she took for a drunken “grandpa” at her door, she was disinclined to let the grey-haired man into her room. All that changed when she saw it was that cute Griff from the Ponderosa holding him up and the door swung wide.
“You were supposed to follow him, not talk to him!” Candy shouted as soon as he closed the barn door.
“I didn’t talk to him! Well, I did, but not about ranch stuff,” Griff countered.
“Then who told him?”
“I don’t know! He’s a smart guy. He probably figured it out.”
Candy had a sinking feeling. D Street was near the red light district. “Griff?”
“Well, what did you want me to do . . . leave him in that alley? He was starting to attract the wrong kind of attention. I thought it best to get him out of there.”
“Into a brothel?”
“Hey, it wasn’t like it was his first time, ya know?”
“What?! Jeez, Griff!” Candy threw up his hands and paced. It was either that or hit the cowboy. “Which house?”
A low growl escaped Candy’s throat as he asked, “Who? Kate?”
“No, Lucy with the big—“ Griff gestured with his hands in front of his chest.
“—jeez, not his type.”
“Well, he didn’t seem to mind . . . several times.”
“Well . . . we were only there an hour.”
Next to telling a woman she is in the family way, a doctor likes nothing better than letting a mother know her child is healthy and developing normally. So on this beautiful summer day, Doc Martin took great pleasure in letting Suzi Hanover know that Little Joe was thriving.
“Oh, thank you, doctor!” Suzi gushed. “I was so worried. If the Cartwrights hadn’t taken us in, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“You’ve done just as much for them, Suzi. Having Little Joe around has been a tonic for the whole family, especially Joe. Watching out for that little man has given Joe something to occupy his day while he recovers his motor and speech skills. I don’t believe Joe would be making the progress he has without you.”
Suzi looked doubtful.
“Is there something concerning you?”
“I’m really grateful for all everyone has done for us, but . . .”
“I think my son is starting to think of Joe as his father.”
“Haven’t I heard you refer to him as Big Joe around the boy?”
“Yes,” she responded timidly, then brightening, she added, “He calls Hop Sing, ‘Hoppy.’ Joe put him up to that. Hop Sing protests, but I think he secretly enjoys it. And he calls Uncle Ben ‘Papa.’ I don’t know—I just think he’s getting confused about the relationships. I . . . I think it might be better for everyone if Little Joe and I were to get our own place in town only—”
“—Only you don’t know how you will manage?”
“Yes. In Yuma I worked in the infirmary on the base. Do you think I could find work doing something like that if I could find someone to look after Little Joe during the day?”
“Forgive me for saying so, my dear, but isn’t it your place to take care of Little Joe right now?”
“Well, of course, doctor! I wouldn’t neglect my son!”
“Now, now, I wasn’t suggesting you were, Suzi. I just wondered who was going to care for him if you were working.”
“Well, I . . . I . . . I don’t know!” Sobbing, Suzi collapsed in the nearest chair.
Paul quietly stepped into the hallway to summon his housekeeper. “Mrs. Wilson, would you mind taking this young man—who has been a very good patient today—to the kitchen for some milk and cookies? Would you like that, Little Joe?”
“Cookies!” said Little Joe enthusiastically and ran to the kitchen as fast as his little legs would carry him.
Paul closed the door to the examining room and pulled a chair up next to the young mother. “Now, why don’t you tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Suzi dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief but didn’t look up.
“Are you worried that the family is becoming too attached to your son?”
The question elicited a tentative nod.
“Suzi, are you falling in love with Joe Cartwright?”
That question brought about an audible gasp.
Paul had known Joe all his life. For a while it seemed Joe fell in love every week. He had broken a lot of hearts and had his own broken in return. He also knew Joe was an honorable man who would not be cavalier about a young woman’s feelings, not knowingly anyway.
“Has Joe led you to believe that he’s in love with you?”
“No. He’s been nothing but kind to me, to my husband, to our son. As much as I want to, I just don’t think I should stay there any longer.”
“Let me see what I can do. There might be something in Carson City or Genoa. Those towns would offer a better environment for Little Joe than Virginia City.”
“Thank you, doctor. And you won’t say anything to the Cartwrights?”
“Of course not, my dear.” The doctor escorted Suzi to the foyer and called Mrs. Wilson to bring the boy.
“Now you tell Ben that I’ll be out in a few days to check on Joe, see how he’s getting on.”
“With his hip and that cracked rib. He took quite a spill yesterday. I would have preferred it if he’d stayed at the hotel a day before heading home, but at least he had come to town in the buggy. I told him no horseback for a week. If he stays off his feet, it shouldn’t set his recovery back too much.”
“Of course. Good-bye, doctor. And thank you again.”
“Good-bye my dear, Little Joe,” and the doctor shut the door leaving Suzi on the boardwalk holding her boy.
“Come on, son. We need to get home and let Papa know that Big Joe has been very, very naughty!”
When he awoke, Joe felt more alive than he had in weeks, if a little sore. Must have been the ride into town or . . . he smiled . . . the ride I took on D Street.
Joe had told her all he wanted to do was lie down, but she took that as an insult and set about proving her worth. He took her clumsy ministrations as a challenge and set about educating her on the finer points of sex. She had a lot to learn, but she was a quick study. If she could confine her intercourse to sexual matters, he might enjoy seeing her again, but her chatter drove him to distraction. More than that, it had downright infuriated him.
The euphoria upon waking rapidly dissipated.
He had found through trial and error over the last few weeks that the best method of rising without getting dizzy was to roll to his stomach and push off the bed slowly with both arms. It was a utilitarian move that doubled as exercise for his weakened right side. On good days, he would throw in a few extra pushups. Today was not a good day.
What he hadn’t remembered was the beating his right side took yesterday. Now how am I going to get up? Pressing his elbow into his ribcage, he rolled to his right throwing his left leg over the edge of the bed. Once the pain subsided, he felt around with his foot until it touched the hardwood floor then used his left arm to grab the bedpost and lift his torso enough to pull his right knee under him and pushed off.
Once vertical he was drenched in sweat, but so far—miracle of miracles—no dizziness. He poured a glass of the tea Hop Sing kept handy for him and selected an oat bannock from the basket on the nightstand. Between nibbles and sips he washed and dressed, moving slowly and deliberately, able to minimize the discomfort but unable to forget what he had learned from Lucy. And the more he thought about it, the more infuriated he became.
Joe moved to the open window to watch the horses in the upper corral. He could hear them neighing, saw the younger colts cavorting. His horses. The ones he had bred and raised and trained and now may never be able to work again. Correction. They weren’t his horses any longer. According to Lucy, Griff was in charge. Best bronco buster in Nevada! . . . Pride of the Ponderosa! . . . Savior of the Cartwrights!
It made him angry. Angry at Griff for taking his place. Angry more at Lucy for telling him about it. Angry most at his father for keeping that fact from him.
He had stormed out of Biederman’s after he put two and two together and figured out what Griff’s job on the Ponderosa really was. He thought Griff was just another ranch hand, someone his family had given a second chance to after he saved Pa’s life. At first he was bemused because he figured Griff had embellished his position a bit to bolster his image—play the big man, but soon learned different.
Leaving D Street had proved more difficult than he envisioned. It was all uphill to where he’d left the buggy and the recent vigorous physical activity, plus the vertical climb brought on the worst attack of vertigo he’d had in weeks. He fell down repeatedly and the last attempt sent him tumbling down Union until he smacked into a rain barrel at the corner. The next thing he knew Griff had thrown him over his shoulder and carried him up to C Street and Doc Martin’s. He was not pleased, but neither was the doctor.
Joe endured the lecture stone-faced and left without saying a word. Griff was waiting out front in the driver’s seat of the buggy, his horse tied to the rear. Great. Just great.
Before Joe could climb in, however, a clerk from Hiram’s office ran up waiving papers and apologizing for overlooking them. Expecting copies of the timber contracts, Joe was caught off guard by what he was handed—the new Army contracts, signed by Griff King, as Manager of JFC Stables and William Fenn as Trainer. Billy. Billy the Trainer. Billy the Traitor was more like it.
Joe’s heart sank but he forced a smile, said thank you to the clerk, and added the papers to the portfolio before stowing it under the seat. Positioning one hand on the dash rail and another on the bow, he paused for a moment as if girding himself for the discomfort of boarding. Griff slid over to make room for him and extended a hand. Ignoring the invitation, Joe walked gingerly around the team and boarded from the right side with a grimace and a grunt, effectively—and quite literally—turning his deaf ear to whatever Griff might say. It was a small act of defiance, but it was his and he took it.
The journey home was agony, but he grit his teeth and endured it without sound.
The door was ajar, but Ben knocked lightly on it anyway out of habit. When there was no answer he pushed it open with his fingertips, but remained standing in the threshold, uncertain about entering. He didn’t know how his son felt about yesterday’s events. It was obvious when Joe drove into the yard with Griff that he knew he had been followed. He had shaken off offers of assistance when he climbed awkwardly out of the buggy, walked somewhat tipsily into the house, and gone straight to his room slamming the door, not speaking to anyone. When Ben had checked on him later, he was sleeping with his deaf ear out, a trick he had begun using to avoid conversation. Griff was close-mouthed about why they were delayed.
It was only this morning, when Ben was going through the portfolio and saw the Army contracts that he realized Joe must have seen them also. The title after Griff’s name must have been a shock to Joe, but the word “manager” had many meanings and could be changed with no real harm to either man. Ben was more concerned with the title after Billy’s name because he knew that “trainer” held more significance for Joe. No one trained his horses but him; no one.
Joe didn’t hear Ben’s steps in the hallway or the door creek as it open, but he could feel his Pa’s presence all the same. Doc Martin was right; his other senses were beginning to compensate for the hearing loss. Jamie had told him about a nitro explosion that left him blinded although he had been lucky and had regained his sight as predicted. The Doc had offered no such assurances this time. No, this time the hearing loss was likely permanent as was the vertigo.
Pa’s been smoking again. Joe knew his Pa had given up his pipe after a severe case of influenza last winter—last winter?—but all that must have changed in the time he’d been gone. It was more than the smell of pipe tobacco which filtered into the room when his Pa entered and sat down on the edge of the bed. It was The Look Joe felt boring into his back. He’s worried.
“I’m all right,” he sighed not moving from the window.
“Well,” Ben said, “at least you’re not ‘fine.'”
Joe’s eyes flashed as he snapped his head around towards his father, ready to retort, but seeing the smile on Ben’s face, he held his tongue.
Ben could see what that quick movement cost Joe . . . the way he gripped the window frame to steady himself, the beads of sweat that broke out on his brow and lip. He could sense when the wave of nausea slammed into his son. It even appeared as though Joe had stopped breathing for a moment when he closed his eyes against the dizziness.
“Look at me son,” Ben said quietly.
Joe’s eyes opened and—exhaling slowly—he focused on his father’s face.
Ben wanted so badly to put his hand around Joe’s neck and pull him close as he used to do, but Joe was keeping him at arm’s length both figuratively and literally.
“Talk to me, Joe. I know you’re angry with me, but we need to talk it out.”
When there was no response, Ben changed tactics.
“Tell me what it’s like.”
“These attacks. What do they feel like? What happens to you?”
“I want to know what you’re going through. Help me to understand, son.”
Joe sighed and stared out the window again. He remained that way for a long time. So long that Ben had almost decided to leave the room when Joe began to speak hesitantly as he struggled to put into words what he experienced.
“It’s . . . like being drunk only worse. Instead of the room spinning, I’m the one spinning. I have trouble hearing; my eyes go haywire; my head weighs a thousand pounds and I can’t hold it up. I sweat, throw up, and then want to sleep for a long time. When I wake, I feel like I was rode hard and put away wet. And I know it will happen again. And I know I’m powerless to stop it. But the worst part,” Joe paused. “The worst part is being treated like . . . like Little Joe.” He turned to look at his father accusingly, “like a child.”
Ben swallowed hard and met his son’s gaze. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Joe. You’ve no one to blame but me. I’m responsible for the way you’ve been treated. I’m the one that kept Jamie and the others away from you—to keep you from learning too much, too soon.”
The raw emotion that passed between father and son crackled like heat lightning. Joe was the first to discharge the static electricity with a simple question that had no simple answer.
A hundred responses went through Ben’s mind in as many seconds, each one rejected summarily. In the final analysis there was only one response required—the truth.
The word echoed in Joe’s head becoming louder with each ping. Fear. Joe had felt fear many times, but not his father; not Pa. No matter how old the son is, a father isn’t allowed to be afraid. Fathers are pillars of strength, but even as he thought My Pa’s not afraid of anything . . . he’s the bravest man in the whole world! he realized it was a child’s voice he was hearing, not a man’s. And a part of him—suddenly a very large part of him—wanted to be a child again.
Instead, he lowered himself into the chair by the window and said simply, “Explain.”
It was Ben’s turn to rise from the bed and look out the window, but there was no joy in his stance.
Joe’s insides clenched. He had a very bad feeling and it wasn’t the vertigo.
“Pa . . .”
“Hush, Joseph. You asked for an explanation. I’m trying to give you one.” Ben turned and sat on the window sill, his hands gripping the woodwork. He took his time, weighing his words carefully.
“A child is God’s greatest gift. A parent’s responsibility is to see to it that that child becomes a happy, responsible adult, a productive member of society, socially conscious, a caretaker of the environment, and lives a long and fruitful life. When a child becomes more than a parent ever dreamed possible . . . well, that’s a parent’s gift to God.
“From the moment each of you were born—you, Adam, and Hoss, I’ve sheltered, nurtured, cared for you as best as I could. I realize at times I was perhaps overzealous in that duty of care. I’m not proud of that, but it is instinct . . . a parent’s nature to want to protect their children from disappointment; to absorb as much pain and hurt as possible. That a child will experience those things anyway is a part of growing up, I know. But the desire to protect never goes away, even when that child becomes a man.”
“Pa,” Joe began. Ben raised a hand to silence him.
“One constant fear a parent has is that they won’t be there when their children need them; to help them when they stumble, to see them grow up and flourish. But the greatest fear every parent lives with is that they will outlive their children and not be able to fulfill that promise to God.
“Pa, I’m so sorry you thought I was dead. I don’t know—”
“—where I was. I would have come home if—”
“—I could have.”
Ben leaned forward and placed his hands on Joe’s knees. “Son, I never believed you were dead. Roy, Paul, everyone tried to reason with me, but I never felt it in here,” Ben poked his chest. “What they were telling me made sense in my head, but not in my heart.”
“Then . . . I don’t understand . . . what are you talking about?”
“About the information I kept from you. I’ve been trying to shelter you, protect you from learning things that would hurt; I wanted to save you from the pain—” Ben’s eyes began to fill with tears.
“Pa, I’ll get over this vertigo—”
“—or I’ll learn to live with it like the doc says. You don’t hav . . . you don’t have to—”
Tears were now streaming down his Pa’s face and Joe was beginning to panic.
“—what? What is it I don’t know? What is it you have to tell me?”
“Joseph,” Ben said, placing his hands on his son’s shoulders. “Hoss is dead.”
For a long moment Joe thought it was his ear that had deceived him again; thought he had misheard. Dead? No. Hoss is on vacation. He’s just takin’ his sweet time coming home, getting even with me for being late. But his father’s anguish was genuine. He gripped Ben’s forearms to steady himself and held on, searching the face he knew so well for a sign . . . any sign that this was all a mistake.
“I am so sorry, Joe. I would give anything . . . my life . . . if you didn’t have to go through this again.”
Again? What do you mean again? “When?” he croaked. “How?”
“Nearly four years ago. An accident. He was . . .” Ben’s voice droned on, but Joe didn’t hear. All that echoed in his head was four years . . . four years . . . four years. He’d only been gone two years they told him. I’ve lost four years?
Joe stood suddenly, gulping for air. He had to get out of the house. He ran down the stairs, out the front door, and vaulted onto the nearest horse. There was only one place on earth he wanted to be.
The ride to the lake was a blur. By the time Joe arrived his head was exploding with kaleidoscopic visions. He fell rather than dismounted and promptly rolled to his side to empty his stomach. Spent, he crawled on hands and knees to the moss-covered mound where his mother was buried and then he saw it. No! Next to her was Hoss’s grave, the blooms of a climbing rose entwining both headstones. As his fingers traced each letter of his brother’s name one by one, Joe’s heart fractured bit by bit until there was nothing left. Bereft beyond comprehension, he fell unconscious to the ground.
“Candy! I’m glad you’re here,” Jamie said as he rushed from the house to greet the foreman as soon as he rode into the yard.
“It’s Joe. Pa . . . Pa told him.”
“Told him? Told him what?”
Jamie had grabbed a hold of Candy’s bridle and looked up. “About Hoss.”
“Oh, jeez,” Candy bent over his saddle horn as though he’d just been kicked in the gut.
“Where are they?”
“Pa’s inside; Joe took off.”
“What do you mean he took off?”
“Rode out of here like a bat out of hell . . . bareback!”
“Saddle up! We’ll—”
The word resonated in the air like a foghorn, powerful yet mournful. Candy dismounted as his boss approached thinking the man had aged a hundred years in the few hours since breakfast.
“Sir, begging your pardon, but riding bareback—”
“But Pa . . .”
“I know. I know it’s a risk. But Joe has to find his own way through this to be able to truly come home to us in mind and spirit as well as body. I’ve been wrong trying to protect him from the truth. You both showed me that with your little escapade a few weeks ago but I didn’t learn from it. I still equivocate every time he asks a question. I even tried to control his excursion into town yesterday and look how well that turned out.” The fact that neither Candy nor Jamie offered a retort spoke volumes to Ben. “No, we’ll leave him be for now. He needs to grieve in his own way. But I am sorry . . . sorry to put you both through it all again.”
In a move not unexpected or unknown, Jamie threw his arms around Ben’s neck. What surprised the hell out of Candy was that Ben reached out and drew him into the embrace as well.
Suzi and Little Joe’s carriage arrived a moment later. A quick survey was all that was needed to confirm there was trouble. Lifting Little Joe into her arms, she rushed over to the men.
“Joe knows about Hoss,” Jamie said, pulling away from Ben, who had turned to compose himself.
“He left on horseback. The lake would be my guess,” Candy said.
Alarmed, Suzi exclaimed, “He can’t!”
“He fell yesterday in town . . . down a hill. His hip is badly bruised and he cracked a rib.”
Ben, Candy, and Jamie looked at her in stunned silence.
Little Joe boldly stated his new word, “Naughty!”
Out of the mouths of babes Ben thought. Only “naughty” wasn’t the word he was thinking of right then.
“Saddle my horse,” he hissed to no one in particular, pivoted and strode purposefully back to the house.
Suzi shoved Little Joe into Jamie’s arms and ran after him.
“Mr. Cartwright, wait!” she cried. “Let me go. You’re tired; you’re angry; you’ll say something you’ll regret. I’m the only one who hasn’t lied to him, the only one he can trust right now.”
“We have not lied to him!”
“No . . . just committed the sin of omission.”
Ben was furious, but also taken aback at Suzi’s candor. Maybe she is right. Maybe what Joe needs is a third party to bridge the gap between the past and the present.
“All right,” he acquiesced. “But you’ll need to take some things with you.”
The path to the lake was well traveled although usually not by a wagon and team. Suzi had driven the buckboard at Ben’s insistence in the event Joe would be more comfortable reclining on the way home. Placed carefully in the back were a mattress, blankets, food and water, and first aid supplies.
She found him on a bench under a ponderosa pine.
“You look like something the cat dragged in.”
“That good, eh?”
At least he still had his sense of humor. That’s what she always loved about him . . . his quick wit and effervescent laugh. Those same qualities are what drew her to Garrett.
“I brought food. Are you hungry?”
Joe made a face and shook his head rather vigorously and then regretted the movement.
“Got anything to drink . . . stronger than tea?”
“No,” she laughed.
“I’ll take tea then,” not surprised when she brought forth the canteen she had behind her back.
Joe drank deeply and watched as she retrieved the picnic basket from the buckboard. He admired the grace with which she shook out the tablecloth. As she knelt and stretched to distribute various containers to the four corners so the cloth wouldn’t ripple in the breeze, he became acutely aware of her voluptuous curves and long legs and he found himself becoming aroused.
She’s Garrett’s wife, you idiot!
Then he remembered. Garrett was dead and she was a widow; a widow with a small boy and no one to take care of her.
“Stopped fussing and come sit,” he said, patting the bench.
“I think that’s a one-person bench, Joe.”
“Oh. I guess it is.” Joe frowned. He didn’t remember a bench being here before. With difficulty he rose and looked at it. It appeared to be put together from scraps of wood from . . . no; it can’t be! He looked closer and one of the planks had a name carved in it; a childish script in big letters: JOE
Suzi rose and quietly stood next to him. “Candy told me your father made it from bits and pieces of your old tree house. He wasn’t ready to bury you, but he wanted something of you up here when he visited your mother and brother.”
It was too much for Joe and a gut-wrenching sob tore loose from deep inside his soul. Suzi enveloped him in her arms and he buried his nose in her strawberry blond hair that smelled faintly of violets.
When he had brought himself under control, he held her face in both hands and ran his thumbs across her full and sensuous lips until she parted them slightly inviting his touch.
Despite her passion and obvious desire for him, it was like kissing a sister.
The next week went fairly well for everyone as Joe came to terms with his brother’s death. Although he still couldn’t bring himself to talk about Hoss, he was more animated and engaged with the business of the ranch. When Candy made his reports as foreman, Joe not only listened intently but asked pertinent questions and weighed in with his opinion.
The exceptions were two-fold: Joe would not have anything to do with JFC Stables, Griff or Billy. Griff was ambivalent. Billy was heartbroken.
The other was Ben who was on tenterhooks waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. He still hadn’t told Joe about Alice and didn’t know how he was going to go about it. As it turned out, the decision was out of his hands.
Without knocking or waiting for a response, Jamie walked into the room and sat down on Joe’s bed.
“Joe, you awake?”
No; I’m sleeping you dunce. Joe heard Jamie the first time. Now I know why this drove my brothers crazy.
“What is it, Jamie?” he said, sitting up and putting his feet on the floor. He wasn’t in the mood for riddles.
They all thought he was taking the news so well . . . the news that his brother—his best friend—was dead . . . had been dead four years and he didn’t know. How could I not know? Pa told me he believed in his heart I wasn’t dead even though I’d been missing for two years. How did he know I was alive and I didn’t know Hoss was dead? The enormity of Joe’s confusion rivaled Hoss in size and girth, but he wasn’t about to let anyone know how he felt.
He was in fact, miserable. The dizziness was not gone; he was just hiding it better. He was adapting as the doctor said he would . . . just not in the way everyone expected. And no one seemed to notice or know what he needed, except Suzi. And now she was talking about leaving the ranch and taking Little Joe with her. Life was a misery.
“I, uh, I wanted to give you something,” Jamie said hesitantly.
“What?” Joe was more than a little irritated at this intrusion into his thoughts but he could see the moisture in Jamie’s eyes and realized it must be hard to have Hoss’s death dredged up again. “What?” he said again, more kindly this time.
“This,” he said holding out his arm. Joe couldn’t tell what he was holding. Then Jamie opened his hand and Joe saw it. It was a carved horse that Hoss had made.
“I wanted you to have it,” Jamie said. “Because, you know, Hoss made it and you don’t have yours anymore.”
Joe looked over at his book shelf and sure enough there were no figures there. Hoss had made many horses for him over the years and he had kept them all, each one cherished, each one a memory of a time and a place and a season.
“Where are my horses? Did you take them while I was gone?” Joe asked more sharply than he intended.
“No! This is mine. Hoss made it for me. I just wanted you to have something of his because you lost yours in the fire.”
“Fire? What fire?” That dreaded feeling was back. “What fire, Jamie?”
“Um . . . um. I’ll get Pa.” Jamie, wild eyed, jumped up and backed into the hallway and looking for someone to help him. “Pa! Pa!”
Joe launched himself off the bed and grabbed Jamie by the arms hard pulling him back into the room. “What fire?” he shouted. “Tell me, tell me!”
“Joe, you’re hurting me!”
“JOSEPH! Let go of him!”
Pa pried Joe’s fingers off Jamie and pulled the boy into a hug. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “Go do your chores, I’ll take care of this.” Then he gave Jamie’s neck a squeeze and a little push down the hallway. “Go on. It’s all right.”
It is not all right. Those hugs belong to me. I am supposed to be the youngest son.
When Pa turned back to face Joe his eyes were smoldering and he had assumed The Stance.
“Don’t blame your brother. It was my doing. If you are angry with anyone, be angry with me.”
“Pa, I don’t want to be angry, but I don’t want to be lied to.”
“I have. Not. Lied. To you.”
So now I had The Look, The Voice and The Stance. Things were not looking good for me, but I didn’t care. How much more could I be hurt?
“What is it you haven’t told me yet?” A horrified thought crossed Joe’s mind. “Adam? Is it Adam?” Joe blanched and staggered back a step. He would have tripped but Ben caught his arm.
“I am calm!” Joe shouted.
“Sit!” Ben shouted even louder.
Joe couldn’t help flinching at his tone.
“Just tell me, Pa,” his voice broke. “I can’t take any more secrets. Just tell me.”
Ben pulled Joe into his arms and held him tight. It felt good. Oh, so good.
“Please sit down before you fall down.” It was a request, not a demand so Joe did as he asked. Ben pulled up a chair and sat so their knees were touching.
“Shortly after Hoss . . . died, you met a woman named Alice, fell in love and married.”
“Married,” Joe said flatly.
He remembered none of this.
“You built a house not far from here.”
“The meadow Mama loved?”
Ben blinked rapidly and gave a little gasp as if he had just figured something out, but all he said was “Yes.”
“There’s no house there now.” I know because I was up there the other day.
“No. It burned down.”
“She died in the fire.”
“Where was I?”
“Here with Jamie and Candy. You were picking up more lumber for . . . ,” Ben hesitated and Joe saw a flicker of fear in his eyes.
“. . . the nursery.”
Joe stared at Ben but felt nothing. It was as if his pa were reading from a history text book; telling him something that happened long ago and far away to someone unknown to him.
“You’re telling me I was married and going to be a father, that my wife and child died in a fire, and I wasn’t there to save them.”
“There’s more, isn’t there.” It was a statement, not a question.
“The fire was deliberately set. Alice was murdered. You and Candy found the men responsible. They’re dead—legally—tried, convicted, and hung.”
It still meant nothing to Joe. And for some reason, that made him feel worse.
Much to Joe’s chagrin, napping had become a habit. At first it was because he sorely needed the rest to help his body recover. But when Little Joe and Suzi had come to stay at the ranch he found he enjoyed their company and conversation. It reminded him of the lazy warm vacation days spent in Arizona before his world had turned upside down. She seemed to understand his moods better than anyone else. She knew what he needed and when.
And now she was moving.
Doctor Martin had come through with his promise and had found her a position as companion to a widow in Carson City. The woman had a large home and was more than delighted to share it with another widow and her son. In return for companionship, cooking, housekeeping, and light nursing duties, Suzi would have a home and a small stipend. It was perfect . . . if not for one thing.
“Marry me,” he said.
“You don’t love me.”
“You love my son.”
It’s true, Joe thought. He loved everything about the boy from his incessant babbling to the sticky fingers that twisted locks of his hair while he sucked his thumb; to the way he giggled when Cochise blew softly on his chubby hand when he rubbed the pinto’s velvet nose. Joe had never—to his recollection—felt such peace and contentment as when Little Joe snuggled in next to him after a vertigo-induced fall and patted his arm as if to say “there, there; it’s all right”; or as now when he was sound asleep stretched out along Joe’s torso. Joe unconsciously rubbed circles on the boy’s back and listened to the cicadas hum.
“I don’t want you to leave,” he said after a time.
“I know, but it’s for the best.”
“You. Your family. For Little Joe and me. Carson City is not that far away. You can see him anytime you want and we’ll see each other on Sundays at church.”
Suzi buried the knot in the seam and broke the thread with her teeth. “There, all fixed,” she said, holding up Joe’s shirt for inspection.
“It won’t be the same,” Joe replied.
“What are you talking about? You can’t even see the rip.”
“You living elsewhere. It won’t be the same.”
Suzi folded the shirt carefully and placed it on top of the laundry basket, her fingers smoothing the wrinkles from the fabric.
“No, it won’t. But I’ve learned that life goes on. We make the most of what we’re handed. We don’t have any other choice.”
“Lemonade from lemons?” he asked.
“Quilts from scraps,” she corrected.
“Omelets from eggs,” he chuckled.
“Go to sleep, Joe.”
“I do love you,” Joe said. Just not that way.
She picked up the shirt again and held it to her nostrils, breathing deeply. Even freshly laundered the shirt smelled of him.
“I know,” she said. But I love you enough for the both of us.
After Suzi moved, Joe’s world fell apart yet again. Living with him was like riding a runaway ore cart; one minute he was up, the next he was down. The vertigo was back with a vengeance; the dizzy spells so frequent and debilitating climbing stairs was not an option so he moved back into the downstairs bedroom. He snapped at everyone and everything. There wasn’t anyone on the ranch who hadn’t felt his ire; not his father, not Candy, not even Hop Sing.
“It’s been three days, Clem, and he’s no better. He just lays there in his room. He’s not eating; he’s not sleeping; he won’t say anything. I don’t know what’s wrong. He was doing so well.”
“Tell me more, Ben,” the Sheriff urged as he poured coffee for them both. Ben looked exhausted. From what had been said already Clem knew Joe had made progress since his “kidnapping.” Slow, but steady progress. He had accepted the news about Hoss and Alice. He was venturing away from the house, meeting ranch hands, seeing the changes that two years had brought about, asking questions, even beginning to make some decisions himself, reasserting himself into the daily affairs of the Ponderosa.
Then something happened and Joe just gave up again.
“What was he doing just before this happened?”
“He went to look at the new corrals.”
“Did he know about them? I mean maybe it was just one too many changes to absorb.”
“He knew. Candy has been keeping him apprised of everything that goes on. Joe added some modifications to the paddock design to give the yearlings more room. He went down to inspect the progress. We were all so pleased he was re-engaging with ranch operations.”
“I don’t know. He was furious when he came back to the house; angrier than I’ve seen him in long, long time.
“I just don’t know, Clem. I’m at my wit’s end.”
Candy was waiting at the new corral when Ben and Jamie rode up.
“Over here,” he said. “I think I found what Joe was fuming at yesterday, but I don’t know why or what to make of it.” He strode over to a stack of unsalvageable posts and rails from the old corral. Nearby were the remains of a bonfire that had been built to incinerate the old wood. It looked to have been extinguished prematurely. Candy picked up a half burned post and handed it to Ben. The post was scarred from numerous collisions with saddles and spurs, but along what must have been the outside edge were a series of evenly spaced notches, deliberately carved it appeared.
“One of the men said this is what Joe was looking at before he stormed out of here.”
Ben turned the post over in his hand and fingered the notches. “I’d forgotten all about this.”
“What is it?” asked Jamie.
“One of those things between brothers. It was not long after Joe started bustin’ broncs. He was probably fifteen, sixteen.”
Candy whistled in appreciation. “Was he good even then?”
“Oh, he was good . . . very good; made my blood run cold every time I saw the risks he took. Adam was top hand then. What started out as a friendly competition over who would be in charge of the Army contract we had just secured turned into all-out war. Hoss and I had both had enough but didn’t know how to end it. Finally, Hoss suggested a bet; whoever broke the most horses in three days would be in charge of the contracts from then on. Adam and Joe both kept track by notching a fence post.”
Candy looked around at all the strewn posts and started rolling them with his boot, looking at each one. “All these posts are notched. No way two men could have broke this many horses in three days. Besides, that was what—twenty years ago?”
Ben crouched where Candy was standing and looked at another post, then another. When he stood up he walked around the fire pit to where more posts lay and checked them as well.
“All of these have left-handed notches,” he said.
“After all these years he was still keeping track of every horse he broke?” Candy asked.
Ben just shrugged.
“Who won the contract, Pa?” Jamie asked.
“Joe won, but he broke his arm on the last ride so Adam fulfilled it. Afterward, he turned the responsibility over to Joe permanently . . . said the better man had won. Hoss figured Adam had just grown tired of being sore all the time, but I felt Adam was genuinely proud of his younger brother. And I thought being responsible for those contracts made Joe finally believe he was on equal footing with his brothers.” Ben looked around at all the strewn logs and shook his head sadly. “I had no idea he was still keeping track all these years. It must have felt like his whole life—all of his accomplishments were going up in smoke when he saw that bonfire.”
Candy kicked a log near him in anger. “Your son, Mr. Cartwright, is a piece of work.” And he stomped over to where his horse was tethered.
“Candy?” asked Jamie.
“To China and back?”
“If I have to . . . !”
Candy found Joe in the barn cleaning a saddle.
“I want to talk to you!”
Joe did not look up and kept on rubbing saddle soap into the leather.
“Did you hear me?”
“I heard you. So talk.”
“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
“Don’t take that tone with me! You’re not my father or my bro—”
“—Your damn right! I’m not your father or your brother and right now I glad I’m neither. But I am the foreman of the Ponderosa for as long as your father wants me. And as foreman, I’m telling you this . . . STOP! Stop interfering with the work being done on this ranch.”
“If it was being done correctly, I wouldn’t have to interfere.”
“And just what isn’t being done correctly? What? The cattle? The Timber? The horses?”
“You know I mean the horses. I don’t care about the cattle or timber.”
“Oh, you don’t do you . . . well this ranch is more than horses, Joe. You used to know that and take just as much pride in seeing those other enterprises do well as the horses, or have you forgotten?”
“I haven’t forgotten; have you? It’s my job to break the horses and train them. Mine! My horses; my stables!”
“And what were we supposed to do when you disappeared? There were contracts to be met, obligations to fulfill.”
“Griff did his job. He took over running the horse operation with your Pa’s and my blessing. I had my hands full with the cattle and timber, Jamie was away at prep school, and your Pa was consumed with trying to find you.
“Sure, you can step back in and manage the business end—Griff would be happy as a flea in a doghouse if he could go back to bustin’ broncs and leave the books to you as he never was one much for ciphering—but you’re a fool if you don’t leave the day-to-day operations in his hands. He’s done a fine job managing the wranglers and bustin’ the horses. He met every one of those Army contracts you had lined up and he brought in new business when those were finished.
“And whether you like it or not you’ve got to face it, Joe. Your bronco busting days are over. They weren’t going to last that much longer anyway and you know it—not with the injuries you’ve sustained over the years. Your body’s had it.
“Even training’s not an option unless you can get the vertigo under control and, from what the doc says, I don’t know that you can control it; seems like it’s just something that happens to you without warning. Am I wrong?”
“No,” Joe said barely above a whisper, but Candy didn’t stop long enough to hear his response.
“But the breeding end of the business . . . now that’s something you’re good at. The name Joe Cartwright and JFC Stables still carries weight in the horse world even though you’ve been out of it for two years and why . . . because of Billy.”
“Yes, you heard me . . . because of Billy Fenn. You remember him as that scrawny kid you hauled out of a bog with a bum leg and an attitude to match. But he’s changed and you’re the one responsible for much of that change whether you remember it or not. You taught him about being a part of something larger than himself, about caring for others, and you gave him something he never had before—self-respect. Shoot, you’ve been more of a father to him than the so-called man who sired him and then threw him away like a piece of garbage when his leg got mangled.
“He’s got a good eye for horse flesh and he took to the business like a duck to water. Look at the stud book and you’ll see what he’s done. Give him a chance to show you what he’s accomplished. He’s beggin’ for your approval but he’s afraid you’ll bite his head off the way you’ve been snappin’ at everybody lately.”
“Is there anything else you want to say, Mr. Foreman?”
Candy shook his head sadly and turned toward the door but he stood still. When he turned back, he regarded Joe for a long time.
Joe defiantly jutted his jaw forward and returned the gaze.
“We’ve been through a lot together you and me. You showed me what the word ‘home’ truly means; what being part of a family means. And not just me; you and your pa have done that for countless folk. I love you like a brother, Joe, and as a brother I’m telling you . . . your life is more than a series of notches on a fence post. It’s about people; people you love and care for and who care about you because all this . . . ,” Candy waived his arm, “. . . all this means nothing without them. Not the timber, not the cattle, not the horses. And if you can’t understand that your father will give all this away in a heartbeat at any time to save a son . . . well then memory or no memory, you will never be able to come home.”
Candy turned on his heel and walked away leaving Joe immobilized by the force of his words.
The house was a tomb. With Little Joe gone—happily ensconced in his new home in Carson City, Joe felt like he was in mourning. He missed Suzi and her son more than he imagined possible. His pa was in town at a council meeting and wouldn’t be home until later; Candy was riding fence; Griff and Billy had gone with the ranch hands over to Cooper Flats for a few days to participate in a rodeo sponsored by the Carson Valley Cattleman’s Association; and Jamie had fled back to school. Even Hop Sing conjured up a sick cousin to go visit.
Joe marveled at how Suzi’s folks could disown her simply for marrying a Yankee and yet his pa could forgive him for untold indiscretions, disappointments, and bad behavior and still be his constant supporter, his north star, the fixed point of his universe.
He had come to the conclusion that parenting was not for the faint hearted. He never told anyone, not his family—and certainly not Suzi—that he had lost Little Joe one day when he was watching him. He didn’t know how it had happened. He had been holding the boy’s hand as they took a walk around the garden looking for little critters like snails and june bugs when he let go for just a second to dead head some petunias and in that fraction of time the boy disappeared.
At first Joe thought he was playing hide and seek under the bushes, so he got down on his hands and knees and called, “Where are you?” in the funny voice Little Joe giggled at. But there was no laughter. Joe ran around the house twice looking in the woodbox, under tables and chairs, in the storeroom, even places Little Joe couldn’t possibly be like the root cellar, but he was frantic and reason had left him.
Then he heard Cochise. Cochise! I turned Cochise out in the upper corral! Joe sprinted into the yard and sure enough, Little Joe had crawled through the fence and was sitting contentedly in the dirt petting Cochise’s nose with the palm of his hand, laughing when the horse nuzzled him. Joe was sure he had aged 10 years in last few minutes, but the most sobering thought he had—after Little Joe was safely retrieved, cleaned up and put down for a nap—was of all occasions he had unintentionally frightened his father by not coming home on time. Oh, Pa! I am so sorry!
The quarter-hour chimes from the clock in the great room brought him back to the present and he resumed his review of the ledgers for JFC Stables. It wasn’t long, however, before he was lost in thought once again reflecting on what he had discovered in the past week.
He had examined the stud book as Candy had asked. It was not only accurately kept and well annotated, but in the last two years Billy had made some brilliant choices regarding crossbreeding and backbreeding that improved the line. Joe had sought Billy out and told him so. As Candy had predicted, the sun paled in comparison to the smile that lit Billy’s face when his work was acknowledged and praised. It was a lesson Joe wouldn’t forget.
The next revelation was when he watched Griff work. The young man was very, very good at breaking horses. If he was nervous having Joe observe, he didn’t show it. He kept his head and deftly handled the wildest horses in the herd. When Joe called him over, he approached a little warily, but who could blame him? Joe gave him praise where it was due and correction where it was needed. For his part, Griff took the direction without rancor and his next ride was even better. Satisfied, Joe turned to leave and saw Candy leaning up against the buggy.
“How about a drink?” he said.
“I don’t drink anymore . . . I have enough problems staying off the floor without it.”
“Just a beer then. I know a place where they serve it watered down.”
“You wouldn’t by any chance be thinking of Biederman’s would you?” Joe asked.
Candy grinned. “I might.”
The hour chimes brought Joe back to the present once again. He was hungry and his pa would be home shortly. Joe went to the kitchen and retrieved from the ice box the cold supper Hop Sing had prepared earlier. He set the table and selected a bottle of wine. After decanting it, he knew there was one more thing he had to do.
When Ben knocked on the downstairs bedroom door, he hadn’t fully expected Joe to hear him, let alone open the door with a big smile and look him in the eye. Not only that, but he was clean shaven. It seemed Joe had finally come to terms with the man in the mirror.
Hiding his surprise as best he could, Ben took his seat at the dining table but was mystified when Joe walked around the table to sit in chair Hoss always took.
“Can’t,” Joe said finally.
“Can’t what?” Ben asked, as he removed the lids from the fruit salad and platter of fried chicken.
“Can’t look at his empty chair, especially since we’re having chicken.”
Images of his middle son, checkered napkin tucked securely under his chin rubbing his hands together in glee over a platter of fried chicken filled Ben’s field of vision. Joe must have remembered the same thing because he covered his eyes with his hands and tried to swallow the sob that rose involuntarily.
Ben rested his arms on the table and closed his eyes. To Joe, this is all new, fresh grief. He doesn’t remember how long it took for each of us—at our own pace—to accept that life would go on and that we would go on, too, because that’s what Hoss would have wanted.
Ben opened his eyes to see Joe staring at him, his face contorted with emotion.
“S-Sorry,” Joe stammered as he tentatively slid his right arm towards Ben.
Ben laced his left hand with Joe’s right and held it tightly. He didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been said before, so instead he said simply, “I know.”
“No chair. No chicken.”
“I understand not wanting to look at his empty chair, Joe. But why no chicken? You like Hop Sing’s fried chicken.”
“Can’t eat it . . . not now, Pa. Just can’t. It reminds me too much of him.”
Suddenly it occurred to Ben that it didn’t matter that they’d been through all this before. Joe didn’t remember any of it—not the agony of those first few days following Hoss’ death, nor the weeks of shared tears and heartache as father and son forced themselves to go on with daily ranch life, nor the months of suffering gut wrenching memory bellyaches over even the slightest reminder of the big man they had both loved more than life itself—all of what went before was lost to Joe.
Ben starred back at his son blankly for a moment and then looked down at his chicken and his shoulders began to shake.
“Pa?” Joe asked, worried.
“Can you imagine?” Ben chuckled. “A world without chicken!”
“No chicken and dumplings!”
Joe’s eyes widened and he looked at his father as if he were having a fit.
“No chicken catch . . . cacciatore! Or coq au vin!”
Joe’s eyes darted toward the kitchen and then towards the living room, but he remembered there was no one home; no one to help him halt his father’s descent into madness.
“What will Hop Sing do with all those chickens out back?” Ben repeatedly slapped the table with his right hand and bent over his plate laughing.
“Pa . . .”
Joe’s puzzled expression registered with Ben, but he couldn’t stop himself. “I can’t help it, Joe. Think about it,” he said as he tried to stifle his laughter. “If we stopped eating everything Hoss loved, we’d starve!” and the guffaws continued anew.
Comprehension poked its way slowly into Joe’s consciousness. “No pork chops?” he said tentatively.
“No steak and potatoes,” added Ben, his barrel chest heaving.
“Or flapjacks,” Joe said getting into the spirit of things. “Or short ribs!”
“And remember those cherry turnovers Hoss swiped from the kitchen and we found him asleep in the barn covered—“
“—in cherry juice—“
“—and we thought he was bleeding.”
Joe was now laughing as hard as Ben, rocking back and forth in his chair.
“Or apple pie,” Ben added, wiping his eyes with his napkin.
“Cheese,” Joe said soberly, sitting up straight.
“We could eat cheese. He didn’t like cheese.”
“Even on apple pie!” father and son uttered simultaneously bursting into renewed peals of laughter.
Eventually the laughter subsided and they resumed eating. Throughout it all, Ben realized, Joe had never let go of his father’s hand. Fried chicken was just the first of many memory bellyaches Joe would have to endure, but he would endure, of that Ben was certain now.
“You know, Joe,” he began. “It still brings me up short at times . . . looking down the table at Adam’s empty chair.”
Joe looked to his left and then back to his father and saw his eyes wet once again.
“It’s all right, son. It’s all right to let those feelings wash over you when they come—and they will come, sometimes when you least expect them. Just don’t wallow in them.”
“Warm spot in the heart?”
“Yes,” Ben said, remembering the advice once given to him by his father-in-law, and passed on to his sons more than once.
“How what, son?”
“How do you get by?”
“By remembering the good times; the singing, the parties, Adam reading by the fire; you and Hoss playing checkers; the water trough; Christmas, birthdays . . . years filled with laughter.” Ben’s gaze wandered around the great room as he spoke. “Oh, how your mother could laugh . . . and you, Joe; you laugh just like her. How I have missed that laugh.” Ben squeezed Joe’s hand as he said it.
Joe wasn’t sure whether he meant his mother’s or his, but he suspected after all they’d been through of late maybe it was a little bit of both. He returned the squeeze, as hard as he could which was—Ben noted—not hard at all.
“That’s all Candy and Jamie were trying to do, you know.”
Joe looked up quizzically.
“I know they both said things to you that might have hurt, but they did so with the best of intentions.”
Joe pulled his hand away from Ben and let it fall to his side.
“I’m so sorry for all the worry and hurt I’ve caused you. Not just in the last two years, but all my life. I am just beginning to realize how tough it is to be parent,” he said again.
“Little Joe?” Ben asked, amused.
“If you only knew!”
“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime.”
“I will. And about Candy, Griff, and Billy . . . I’ve already apologized to them. And I wrote to Jamie.”
“I’m sure they’ll forgive you. They’re family. No matter what, they love you . . . just as I do.”
“I hurt you. Being gone.”
“It’s all right, Joe. You didn’t do it on purpose and you’re back now. Everything will be all right.”
“I love you, Pa.”
“Welcome home, Joe.”
The knock at the door came unexpectedly during breakfast one morning. Candy, sitting at the end of the table, rose to answer. He returned a moment later with an envelope and handed it to Ben.
“A wire, sir; boy’s on the porch waiting for your response.”
Ben took the envelope and perused its contents not once but twice his brows knitting together in obvious dismay.
“What is it, Pa?” asked Joe. “Jamie all right?”
“No . . . I mean it’s nothing to do with Jamie. It’s from Fort McDermit.”
“No . . . just something I need to take care of.” Ben went outside to give his response to the errand boy and then returned to the table reading the message once more before tucking it into his shirt pocket. After exchanging looks, shrugs and shaken heads, Joe, Candy, and Griff focused their attention on Ben.
“I’ll be gone a week, maybe two; think you can manage without me?” he said, looking around the table, settling on Candy with an unspoken question.
“I’ll keep Joe out of trouble, sir,” Candy responded.
“Oh, yeah? Who’s going to keep you in line?” Joe smirked.
“I guess that would be me,” said Griff, who was immediately pelted with biscuits.
“That’s enough, boys,” Ben said sternly, but a smile betrayed his gruffness. It is good to hear banter at the table again.
It had been several years since Ben had been up to Fort McDermit near the Idaho border. The Fort had been built back in the mid-60s to protect the stage route and wagon road from Virginia City to Star City during a period of continuing unrest between white settlers and the Bannock and Shoshone. Of late, relations had been quiet but despite what he told Joe, Ben was concerned the urgent message from Fort’s commander was an indicator that something was astir. His fears were heightened when he was met by an escort detail at the stage depot in Star City and ushered into the commander’s office without preliminaries as soon as they reached the Fort.
“Mr. Cartwright! Good to see you! It’s been a long time.” Colonel George Leopold Thompson was an impressive man, 6’6” in height, with coal black hair and piercing green eyes. Ben had to look up to see him.
“George.” They shook hands but Ben did not take the seat that was offered to him. “What’s this about? Why the detail?”
“Just a courtesy, sir. Please, sit down and we can get caught up.”
“George, I appreciate the courtesy, but I would prefer to learn why you have summoned me here so urgently. Is it the Bannocks?”
“No, sir. No Indian trouble. Let’s—”
“Well then what in tarnation—!”
“—go to the infirmary,” the colonel replied. “There’s someone who has been asking for you. I think I’d better let the doctor explain.”
Bewildered, Ben followed the commander across the rectangular parade ground, past the stables, barracks, and storehouses to the hospital. A soldier snapped smartly to attention when they arrived.
“At ease Sergeant. Please tell Major Bell Mr. Cartwright has arrived.”
“Yes, sir! Right away, sir.”
It was only moments before the Sergeant reappeared and issued them into the Major’s office without delay.
Major Theodore Bell was as short and round as the Colonel was tall and lean and Ben would have laughed to see them side-by-side if he wasn’t still frustrated by his ignorance as to why he was there. Thankfully, the Major did not waste time or prevaricate.
“Mr. Cartwright, I appreciate you coming. I have a patient who has been quite determined to speak with you before meeting his maker.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Major. Aside from Colonel Thompson, I don’t know anyone at this post. Whom do you mean?”
“A former frontier scout, hermit of sorts now; name of August . . . Zachariah August. He stumbled in here about a week ago dehydrated, fevered. No communicable disease; cancer, I’m afraid. He knows he doesn’t have long to live and insisted on seeing you. I think the anticipation of your arrival has been the only thing keeping him alive these last few days.”
“Major, I am totally at a loss; I do not recall ever meeting anyone by that name.”
“I believe he knew your son.”
“My son?” Ben was at first stymied then gasped, “Joe? He knows Joseph?”
“Let’s find out.” Major Bell led the way out of his office down the corridor into a large ward. There were only a few patients currently occupying the room, most of them in casts or traction. On a bed in the far corner was an old man with matted curly hair, skin the color of tanned leather, looking very small and frail against the fresh white sheet that covered him.
An orderly who was just removing soiled linens stopped to whisper a quick word to the Major before leaving the room. The Major nodded and turned to the Colonel and his guest.
“He’s been drifting in and out of a coma. As I told you, there is very little time left.”
Ben sat down in the chair next to the bed, picked up the old man’s hand and held it in his own.
“Mr. August, my name is Ben Cartwright.”
When there was no immediate response, Ben repeated his name. “Mr. August? Please, open your eyes. Tell me about my son, how do you know Joe Cartwright?”
“Gus. Folks just call me Gus.” The old man opened his eyes and slowly focused on Ben, taking in the white hair, chocolate brown eyes . . . just as sonny had described him.
“You be sonny’s pa?”
“Sonny? I’m Ben Cartwright.”
“Pon . . . pondi . . . ‘Ginia City way.”
“Yes, that’s right. The Ponderosa Ranch. Joseph is my son.”
“Good boy, that sonny.
“Yes, he is.”
“You his pa?”
“Yes, Gus. I’m his pa.”
“He git home? Home to big water?”
“Yes. How do you know my son?”
Ben was bewildered by the inquiry and looked over at the officers. The colonel placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder and whispered. “Sally is his mule. She’s in the stables.”
Ben nodded and squeezed Gus’s hand. “Sally is just fine, Gus.”
“You tell sonny . . . time he be carin’ fer Sally. Earn his keep.”
“Gus, tell me about Joe. Tell me about sonny.”
“Sonny’s a good boy. T’weren’t right in the head when I done found him. Didn’t know his name. S’why I called him sonny. Knew where he was goin’ though. North. Always north . . . looking for water.”
The old man closed his eyes and drifted a bit before going on.
“Found him in a cave near Potosi. Near dead, but he fought.”
“Yes, he’s is a fighter,” Ben agreed. “Has been since the day he was born.”
“Figured him for a scrapper.”
Ben nodded silently in agreement. Still is. “How was he hurt, Gus, do you know?”
“Always headed north. Big water.
“You should know.”
“What? What should I know?”
“Never forgot . . . not like my Jerry.”
Jerry? Ben glanced again at the officers, but neither had a clue about who Jerry was.
“Never came home . . . .” Tears began rolling slowly down the old man’s cheeks, into his hair, onto the pillow. “A pa should know where his boy is. Looked for him. Never stopped. Never.” Gus closed his eyes again. His breaths were coming harder now. The Major picked up his other hand and took his pulse then shook his head. But Gus hadn’t given up yet. He coughed. Ben wiped the spittle from his mouth and continued to hold his hand.
“I understand, Gus. A pa never gives up on his son. I never gave up looking for Jo—sonny—never.”
“Sonny’s a good boy. Earns his keep.”
“I’m glad he earned his keep while he was with you, Gus.”
“Had no name . . . called him sonny. Always lookin’ for home. North. Headin’ north to find water . . . til—”
“Until? Until what, Gus?”
“—til he ‘membered. Cartwright. Pondi . . . ‘ginia city . . . home. He come home?”
“Wanted you to know iffin he didn’t make it . . . he was always tryin’ . . . never gave up.”
“He came home. My boy came home.”
“Not my Jerry.” Another spasm hit Gus and he arched his back in pain clutching Ben’s hand to his chest. Quietly the Major slipped a needle into the old man’s free arm. As the pain subsided, Gus struggled to continue.
“Needed to know if sonny got home . . . my Jerry never came home. Failed him som’thin’ awful.”
“No, Gus. You didn’t fail your son. You never gave up on him, never stopped looking for him. That’s all a pa can do.”
There was so much more Ben wanted to know. How was Joe injured and when? Where had he been? When did Gus find him? Why didn’t they seek help? But all that really mattered was that Gus had cared for and kept Joe safe long enough for him to find his way home.
Thank you, Lord. Bless this man and grant him peace.
“Tell sonny . . . he need be lookin’ after Sally now. He all she got.”
“I’ll see to it. Sally will have a good home on the Ponderosa; green pastures, lots of water,” Ben assured him then placed the palm of his free hand flat on the old man’s head as if in benediction.
“Time for you to go home now, Gus. Close your eyes. He’s waiting for you.”
Moments later, Gus took his last breath.
Later that day a telegram arrived from Washington conferring burial rights with full military honors on Zachariah Benton August for his service to his country as a U.S. Army Frontier Scout during the Indian Wars. As an addendum, the wire included information that Jeremiah Benton August, burial place unknown, was believed to be one of 2 civilians among the 81 men who perished December 21, 1866 during the Fetterman Massacre in Wyoming.
Ben remained at the Fort three more days after the funeral staying with Colonel Thompson and his family. They had met fifteen years earlier when Adam was one of the volunteer soldiers from Washoe who joined up with Army regulars at the second Pyramid Lake battle. Thompson was a West Point graduate and newly commissioned. As a civil engineer, he and Adam had much in common and following the battle George spent time at the ranch whenever he could get a pass.
The visit was a welcome interlude after the strain of the last few months. George reminded Ben so much of Adam whom he sorely missed. Being with George and seeing him happily married with children of his own stirred a long-buried hope in Ben that his first born had found similar happiness in the years since he left the Ponderosa. If only I could know for certain. Ben and George each recounted to the other family events over the intervening years. Ben promised to share news of Adam when he heard from him and George in turn promised to find out what he could about Gus’s movements during the time he would have known Joe, although privately he was doubtful much would be discovered.
Arrangements were made to have Sally sent to Virginia City with the next patrol headed south while Ben took the stage. The whole Thompson family saw him off—George’s wife Elise placed a basket of food on the seat of the stagecoach; the children—unbidden—bestowed hugs and kisses on “Uncle” Ben; and George gave him a firm, but warm handshake and sent along his best wishes to Joe and Hop Sing, whom he remembered fondly. He had, of course, never met Jamie or the other new household members.
As the coach headed south, Ben found himself thinking of Adam once more; wondering where he was and if he was happy, but then reconsidered. “Happy” was not a word that was ever descriptive of Adam. Perhaps “contented” was more apt. Yes, that’s it. I hope Adam is content in the life he’s chosen.
He thought Adam would be pleased that he had become reacquainted with George and vowed to keep in touch with the Thompsons so he would have something to write about if—no, when—he heard from Adam again.
A pa should know where his boy is.
The words reverberated in Ben’s head. Gus never gave up searching for his son. Does Adam lie in some unmarked grave like Jeremiah? His heart skipped a beat at the very thought. Gus never gave up searching for his son. Why have I? Ben made another vow that he would re-engage the Pinkerton Agency as soon as he got home.
Against unimaginable odds, Joe had made his way home in mind, body, and spirit. God willing, so would Adam.
Epilogue — Joe
What a difference a year makes, I thought.
It was early summer. I was home and the house was filled with the sounds of life.
Pa leaned against the frame of the open window in the dining room, drinking a cup of coffee, gazing through the tall pines to the mountains barely visible in the fading twilight. A warm breeze ruffled his hair and I could imagine him at the rail of his ship, feeling the trade winds every sailor savors. Trade winds that blow a sailor home from the sea.
The noises from the kitchen drew Pa’s attention to the activities inside the house.
Having put Little Joe to bed, Suzi was helping Hop Sing with the supper dishes and the baking for Sunday’s dinner. It had been a long time since our cook had willingly let a woman share his kitchen. Pa and I shared a smile; we were both thinking the same thing.
Seated with me at the dining table was Billy. We were discussing the Battle Born Horsebreeders Association auction and debating the pros and cons of pairing each mare in JFC Stables with our newly-acquired stallion.
Candy and Griff were playing checkers on the table by the fire, just as Hoss and I used to do. And there, in the blue chair, sat Jamie reading a veterinary textbook.
The sounds washed over us like waves upon the shore. Life still has its mysteries but it is no longer a misery to me. When Pa put down his cup suddenly and headed for the stairs I asked if something were wrong.
“No. Just tired. I think I’ll write to Adam and then turn in.”
“See you in the morning, Pa.”
“Have a good rest, Mr. Cartwright,” said Griff.
“Nite, sir,” echoed Candy.
“Sleep tight, Pa,” Jamie added.
I noticed he made a point to put his hand on everyone’s shoulder and murmur a response to each as he made his way toward the staircase. As he climbed, the hum of the household resumed and everyone returned to their activities. At the top landing he turned and surveyed the great room. Like a captain on the quarter deck of his ship.
The hum was growing louder and was occasionally punctuated by laughter. I decided to join in.
“Griff,” I called. “Do you know the difference between a table and an ottoman?”
“Then take your feet off the table.”
I heard Pa laugh at that and it made me feel warm inside. Looking around the room I feel the presence of those we’ve lost. Each of us has known sorrow and dealt with it in our own way and we have all been touched by emptiness and loneliness.
I told both Candy and Jamie that it took more than blood to make a brother . . . or a family . . . and more than a house to make a home. It took love. As I look around at the family we’ve created—Pa and me—I know without a doubt that there would always be love in this house. But I don’t know when—if ever—the ranch will know a woman’s touch again.
This is a man’s house.
Maybe that is as it should be. The Ponderosa is a man’s sanctuary. The tall pines have sheltered the Cartwrights for a lifetime. And now not just I, but Candy, Jamie, Griff, Billy, and even Little Joe have found their way home to the warm embrace of the Ponderosa.
It is, indeed, a little piece of heaven.
The Indian word “Tahoe” means “big water.”
Fort McDermit was the longest active Army fort in Nevada, lasting twenty-four years from 1865 to 1889. The garrison was comprised of two companies, one of cavalry and one of infantry. Its purpose was to protect the stage route and wagon road from Virginia City through Star City, Nevada in the Quinn River Valley and on to Boise City, Idaho. Its troops participated in operations against the Bannock and Shoshone Indians and in the Snake War, Bannock War, and the Modoc War. Zachariah August, Jeremiah August, Colonel Thompson, and Major Bell are fictional characters.
On June 2, 1860 the second battle at Pyramid Lake took place. Volunteer soldiers from California and Washoe numbering 544 joined up with 207 regulars of the United States Army under the command of Captain Joseph Stewart. The battle lasted three hours and ended in a draw. Only three whites were killed; the number of Native American losses was unknown but presumed light. Although the battle had been closely fought, the Paiute forces slipped away at night, leaving the strategic victory in the hands of the whites. Source: onlinenevada.org