Synopsis: Learning bits and pieces of the past enforces a difficult lesson regarding thinking before one acts, and the need to hear both sides of a story before reacting. With the family poised to fall apart, can harmony be restored?
Genre: Western, prequel
Word Count: 16,235
Chapter 1 – The Eruption
“SHE WAS MY MOTHER!” sixteen year old Little Joe Cartwright yelled as he angrily stood over his eldest brother who lay sprawled on the ground next to the hitching rail in front of their home. Joe’s left hand pointed accusingly towards his brother, his other fist tightly clinched. With his chest heaving and his cheeks burned crimson red as tear stains streaked his face, he screamed, “I HATE YOU!”
Ignoring the perplexed and pained expression on his brother’s face, the youngest son of Ben Cartwright turned away and ran to the barn. A few moments later, he raced his pinto out of the yard without looking back at the scene of chaos he had created.
In agitation, Sport pulled against the reins that held him tied, yet still allowed him to nervously move only a few feet away from his downed rider. Adam had only managed to raise himself up to resting on an elbow as he stared in disbelief at the disappearing figures. The dust was gently settling back to the ground; in complete contrast to the manner in which it was kicked up. Slowly, Adam pulled his legs under his center of balance and using the hitching rail, pulled himself up and shakily stood to his feet. While trying to settle Sport, he heard soft footfalls padding across the wooden porch.
“Mr. Adam, you alright?” Hop Sing inquired as he offered a steadying hand to the oldest son of his employer.
“Yeah… Yeah, I’m alright,” Adam answered and grimaced slightly.
“Why Lit’le Joe yell? Why you on ground?” he’d seen the pale dirt coating the backside of Adam’s clothing.
“I have no idea,” Adam replied as he ruefully shook his head and thought better of it. “He came storming out of the house and threw me a left hook.” Using his right hand he moved his jaw back and forth in an effort to make sure the joint still functioned properly. “That smarts,” Adam offered as he spat out the blood that had pooled within his mouth.
“Come, I get cloth, clean you up.”
The Oriental man stayed close at hand as Adam cautiously made his way inside and walked as if slightly inebriated. He guided his charge to the striped settee and helped him sit down.
“Rest head back, I get cloth and witch-hazel, ease hurt.”
“Thank you Hop Sing.”
Fifteen minutes later, with his head resting against the back of the settee after having been attended to, Adam attempted to contemplate his youngest brother’s actions but the ringing in his ears prevented him from focusing clearly on the problem at hand.
Hop Sing quietly went about his duties as he tidied up the mess that he had made in tending to the oldest son, and prepared to dispose of the water bowl, the towels, and the bottle of witch-hazel. He hadn’t been surprised to find the lump on the back of the man’s head, considering how unsteady he had been while walking into the house. He looked up from his task after hearing the front door open and saw his employer’s middle son enter the home.
“Shhh,” he warned. With his arms full, he chose to nod his head forward in an effort to indicate the man resting on the settee as he stepped away.
Seeing the dark head of hair resting back, Hoss asked, “What happened? Ain’t like older brother to leave his horse outside unattended to come in here and snooze.” He removed his hat and placed it on the high table behind the settee. As he walked around to the front of the piece of furniture he said, “Ow…” and grimaced as he saw the developing bruise. “What’d he tangle with?”
“He no tangle… brother tangle him,” Hop Sing answered as he left the room.
Gently lowering himself to sit on the low table placed in front of the massive fireplace, Hoss slowly shook his head back and forth, curious about what had set his sibling off.
“What did you say to him this time?” Hoss asked, not realizing he’d spoken aloud.
“I didn’t say anything except hello,” answered Adam, his eyes still closed.
“That’s gonna be a right colorful bruise Shortshanks gave ya. Somethin’ had ta set him off.”
“All I did was come home… tie Sport to the railing… and turned around when I heard someone approach. I’ve never seen him so angry before.” Opening his eyes he slightly lifted his head forward in an effort to see his brother sitting there, he twisted his head on his neck in an effort to see Hoss straight. The act of Hoss slowly shaking his head back and forth made Adam feel queasy; so he allowed his head to fall back and closed his eyes.
“I had ta leave before you two finished breakfast, did ya have words after I left?” Hoss asked.
“No… Hoss I know that kid’s been chafing at the bit… the restrictions Pa and Doc Martin placed on him… But I have no idea what set him off this time.”
“Where is he? He upstairs?”
“No, he took off on Cochise.”
“He done what?! Oh Lordy… Pa… He ain’t gonna be happy with him.”
Both brothers hated the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs as they heard the voice calling from out in the yard.
“Adam?! Hoss?!” Ben Cartwright called as he halted his horse in the yard and saw two of his sons’ horses standing, still saddled, in the afternoon sun. “Joe?!” he called as he stepped down from Buck.
“In here Pa,” Hoss called from the doorway before retreating back inside.
By the time their father entered the great room, Adam had given in to fully resting his body across the entire length of the settee.
“What happened?” a concerned Ben asked having seen the dark head of hair, knowing how unusual it was for this son to relax during the busiest part of the day.
“Three guesses and the last two don’t count,” Adam sarcastically answered as he sensed his father’s footsteps approach.
“Where’s your brother?” Ben asked as he sat down on the edge of the settee cushion and turned to take a closer look at the forming bruise.
“He lit out of here a few minutes after… this,” answered Adam as he gave a flourish of his hand to indicate his jaw.
“Why?” Ben looked back and forth between his two sons.
“I have no idea,” answered Adam.
When Ben looked up at him, Hoss shrugged his shoulders and slipped his hands into his front pockets and answered, “I weren’t here.”
Ben startled at the realization of his son’s earlier statement, “He’s left? Where’d he go? He knows he’s not supposed to be in the saddle yet!”
Ben’s feelings for his sons flittered between concern towards their injuries and anger that they had actually resorted to fighting; and now Joe was out riding with who knows what injuries inflicted by his oldest brother, when he should have still been in the house, resting.
“Hoss, go look for your brother and get him back here,” Ben angrily ordered. “And you,” Ben looked to Adam.
“I didn’t lay a hand on him. He practically blindsided me.” Even with his eyes closed, Adam knew what his father was planning to say; he understood the tone of voice used.
“Mr. Adam right,” Hop Sing championed. “I hear him come home, Joe storm out of house. He yell at brother, ride out. I find numba one son on ground by horse. Help him to house, stop him falling down. I tend his injuries.”
Listening to what had been said and not said, Ben sternly spoke to his eldest, “Adam, open your eyes and look at me.”
Hearing the soothing tone of his father’s words, Adam hesitated, but ultimately he slowly complied as he turned and raised his head to look at the man he had so long admired.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“I can’t answer that Pa… because I know my answer is going to be wrong.” He lowered his head back to the settee, eyes closed.
Ben looked up and saw that his middle son had yet to leave to find his missing brother.
“Hoss, go get Paul. I think Joe will have to wait,” stated Ben.
“Yeah, if he’s this mad, I shore don’t wanna tangle with him, neither. Probably best to let him cool his heels,” acknowledged Hoss.
Ben nodded. As his middle son left the house, he returned his attention to the one lying so still beside him.
“Besides your jaw, where else do you hurt?” Ben asked.
“I think I struck my head on the railing.”
Gently Ben used his fingers to explore his son’s head, “You have a goose egg on the back of your head.”
“An ostrich egg would be more fitting,” Adam quietly teased, trying to allay his father’s fears and not wince at the touch. Behind his closed eyes, white pin dots of light flickered across the blackness of his vision.
“Come on, let’s get you up to bed,” Ben offered as he reached for his son’s arm.
“Actually, Pa… I think I’d prefer to stay right here. I’d hate for Hop Sing to have to clean up a mess on the stairs or down the hallway.”
Adam raised his knees in an effort to quell the sensations emanating between his head and his stomach.
“Yeah,” Adam whispered.
“You’re probably concussed,” Ben commented.
“Probably so,” Adam answered as his body relaxed more, knowing his father was close at hand. “Tired…”
“Take it easy son, Doc Martin will be here soon. Guess it won’t hurt for you to sleep, seeing as you’re coherent…”
“Sleep…” Adam mumbled.
Ben gave a knowing look to Hop Sing as he stood up and stepped away from his eldest.
“I’ll be right back, I need to put Buck and Sport away, or I might see if one of the men is available to take care of them.”
“I watch Mr. Adam,” Hop Sing acknowledged.
Several hours later, Doctor Paul Martin entered the Cartwright home followed by Hoss.
“He was here on the settee when I left,” Hoss quietly stated as he took the doctor’s hat and set in on the sideboard, along with his own hat and gunbelt.
“He still is,” Ben quietly answered as he stepped from his study area.
“Hoss said Joe lit into him? Did he lose consciousness at all?”
“I am here, you know,” Adam quietly stated, hidden from the view of the good doctor by the back of the settee.
“I’m sorry son, I thought you were sleeping,” Ben quietly answered as he walked over to be near his eldest.
“That’s alright Pa, I did for a while. It’s kind of hard to sleep the way my head is feeling,” Adam answered having yet to open his eyes.
Ben nodded as he stood behind the settee while the doctor walked to the other side and sat down on the low table.
“So… care to tell me what happened, and where you hurt and how bad?” Paul asked.
“As for why Joe lit into me? I have no idea. My jaw just aches, but this ostrich egg…” Adam moved his hand to the back of his head while one corner of his mouth teased up into a smile, for his father’s sake, “…is quite tender.”
“Did you lose consciousness?”
“No, but my vision was blurred and wouldn’t focus for a while,” answered Adam.
“How about now?” Paul asked.
“Haven’t opened my eyes lately.”
“Paul, he said was feeling quite nauseous earlier and we felt it best to leave him down here instead of trying to get him upstairs and to his bed,” Ben offered.
“You did the right thing in not moving him.” Turning his attention back to his patient, Doc Martin stated, “Why don’t you go ahead an open your eyes now Adam. Take it slowly.”
Patiently they waited until Adam’s eyes were open.
“How’s your vision? Blurry, multiples?”
“No, other than my eyes hurting a little, I can see you and everything clearly,” answered Adam with a sigh of relief.
“Do you think you can sit up?” Paul inquired.
“I’ll have Hop Sing bring in a basin,” Ben announced, he’d barely turned before their housekeeper was at his side, handing a bowl to his employer.
“Have you thrown up since this happened?” Paul asked.
“Not yet… And I don’t want to, either,” replied Adam, a scowl on his face indicated how hard he had tried to settle his insides.
“We’ll take it nice and slow. Hoss, would you help raise Adam to a sitting position?”
“Shore doc,” Hoss answered as he stepped around the settee to assist his brother. “How’s that?”
“The room isn’t spinning,” answered Adam.
Adam slowly moved his head left and right to indicate no, he exhaled deeply. “No, thank goodness.”
“And your vision?” Paul asked.
“It wavered in and out of focus for a moment, but right now the only thing that’s fuzzy is what set off Joe.”
Fifteen minutes later Paul stood and happily informed the family that he didn’t feel there Adam had sufferen any lasting damage, said to give him a few days rest and two weeks of light duty.
“Your pupils are slightly uneven as I would expect from being concussed, but I’m sure by morning they’ll have balanced out. I’ll leave some powders to take of an evening so you can fall to sleep. Just take them for the next three nights and see if you can go the fourth night without. If you can’t, try taking only half a dose.”
“Thanks Doc,” answered Adam as he watched the packets exchange hands from the doctor to their factotum.
The doctor’s final prognosis was that by the end of two weeks Adam should be able to return to full work, as long as he listened to his body and stopped when necessary until that point in time.
Stepping to the front door, Doc stated, “Just send for me if Adam needs me. Oh… and tell Joseph, that I’m thinking of adding another week to his restrictions for riding out of here before I cleared him to ride.”
Having followed the doctor to the door, Hoss stated, “Between you and me Doc, I think he’ll take your punishment better than he’ll probably take to what Pa’s gonna do to him. How bad’s this gonna set him back? I mean…”
“Don’t worry, I had planned to let him start doing some light chores and allowing him to begin riding when I came out tomorrow to give him one last examination.”
“… But he don’t need to know that, do he?” inquired Hoss, hoping the physician understood his intent.
“No, he doesn’t,” Doctor Martin answered in a conspiratorial tone of voice as he placed his hat on his head and walked out the door.
Shutting the door behind the doctor, Hoss returned to sit with his family.
“How are you feeling now, son?” Ben asked.
“Better. Still would like to know what set the kid off…”
“Did he say anythin’?” Hoss inquired.
“Did he say anything? No. But he screamed that Marie was his mother…” Adam slightly winced as he felt the back of his head. “…and that he hated me. That’s all he said before he raced Cochise out of the yard.”
“What?!” Ben grew appalled. “What did he mean by that? How could he hate you?”
“I have no idea, Pa. No idea at all.”
The flames from the fire illuminated the room as Ben rested back in his leather chair, waiting for his youngest son to return home. Shortly after supper he and Hoss had assisted Adam upstairs and helped him get ready for bed. Hoss offered to sit with his brother at least until he fell asleep. An hour had passed before Ben heard one door open and close, followed by footsteps attempting to be quiet walk down the hallway, and another door opened and closed.
Chapter 2 – The Current Past
While waiting, Ben had thought on how it had been such a long six weeks since that fateful day. The days leading up to it had the whole family and all their hands out gathering the herds and looking for wayward strays as they endured the annual branding season. Riding, roping, and branding cattle was hard work, and they all had put in several week’s worth of strenuous labor.
When the family had finally returned home after the last calf was branded and released, Joe had been quiet the whole trip for which they all were all thankful. But in looking back, that should have been the first indication to something being wrong. He also didn’t put up a fight about being the last one in line to bathe. When the wash tub was finally available for the boy’s use, Ben had found him asleep on top of his bed covers. The father roused him well enough that Joe made it to the bath house on his own. Thirty minutes after he’d entered the wash house, Hoss had found him asleep in the tub with his nose barely above the waterline.
Shaking his head, he smiled as he dumped cold water on the unsuspecting youth who bolted wide awake and screamed, “HOSS!” and sputtered at the water dripping down his face.
“Ya been in here long enough, ‘sides, you were plumb near under the water. Ya want to drown yourself?”
“You done a good enough job on that already!” Joe retorted, his anger over rode his discomfort.
“Yeah, yeah, get out.”
Hoss left the room in a good mood, happy he’d gotten one on his prankster of a brother.
Sitting at the dining room table, Ben and Adam had laughed at Hoss’ description of what had transpired.
After draining the water from the tub, and drying off and dressing, Joe begged off dining with his family, proclaiming he just wasn’t hungry and was too tired to sit. Ben saw the look in the boy’s eyes and took slight comfort in the humor having heard his son say he’d probably end up face down in the mashed potatoes and gravy if he sat down.
Everyone bid the youngest goodnight as he left the dining room. Ben watched as Joe slowly climbed the staircase, each footfall slower and more of an effort than the previous, before he disappeared around the corner. He knew that a lot of Joe’s exhaustion had to do with his age and size, and his wanting to prove himself as good as his other family members.
Ben shook his head. How many times had he suggested his youngest to slow down a little or step out of the saddle for break? Joe glared at him the way only the boy could; a look that expressed his displeasure at being treated like a child and at the same time thanking his father for the offer; an offer he only accepted when Hoss or Adam were taking a break as well.
There were several times where before riding away Joe called out laughingly, “Can’t, got too much work to do and not enough daylight! Besides one of us Cartwrights needs to be working!” He waved to his brothers as they drank from their canteens while standing upwind from the stench of burned hides.
But it had been several days since the laughter accompanied the statement. Ben knew from past experience that long days in the saddle dealing with recalcitrant calves pulling at tired muscles could wear any man down, let alone a sixteen year old boy. He had looked forward to the branding of the last calf and giving his sons several days to do as they pleased. He’d envisioned joining them for an afternoon down at the fishing hole.
“Don’t worry Pa, he’s still growin’ and all this work ain’t easy on him,” stated Hoss as he scooped a large helping of potatoes to his plate.
“I know… Still… at sixteen, he’s just so much smaller than either of you were at the same age.”
“Shucks Pa, at sixteen, Adam was so much smaller than me,” teased Hoss.
“He’s doing a good job, Pa,” boasted Adam. “He just needs to get that occasional chip off his shoulder, if he could do that, he’d make a right fine ranch hand.”
“He’s not just a ranch hand, he’s your brother! And one day he’ll stand right along beside the two of you and help run this place,” Ben used the tone of voice to indicate he didn’t appreciate his eldest son’s sarcastic comments, even if they were disguised in good humor.
“I didn’t mean anything by it Pa. I know you’re worried about him. He’s probably just tired, like he said,” Adam conceded. “This is the first season he’s worked full time on the ranch; he’s finding out it’s not as easy as he thought it would be.”
Later that night, before going to bed, Ben checked on his youngest and it didn’t surprise him to see the boy curled and twisted tightly in his blankets. As a father he marveled at how even in sleep Joe Cartwright seemed to always be on the go.
Morning came and all four Cartwrights sat around the table, three happily enjoying the biscuits and sausage gravy breakfast Hop Sing had cooked. Joe ate sparingly.
“Joe, you need to eat to keep your strength up, son,” Ben encouraged.
“Just not hungry Pa,” Joe answered as he set his fork to the side of his still full plate.
“Are you feeling alright?” Ben queried.
“Sure Pa, just not hungry.”
“Then if you’re not hungry, why don’t you go out and hitch up the surrey,” suggested Hoss as he reached across the table. “I’ll just finish cleaning your plate.”
“Sure,” Joe answered as he pushed his plate away, stood, and left the house. Once out of sight of his family, he hurried across the yard and promptly lost what little breakfast he had ate.
“I’m worried about him,” Ben stated as he heard the door close.
“He’s fine, Pa. After church he’ll probably be as hungry as Hoss here,” rejoined Adam as he drank from the China cup containing his morning coffee.
“That is if he can sleep through the preacher’s sermon,” teased Hoss.
Ben ignored his sons’ repartees.
Ben would have enjoyed the ride into town more had he not kept an eye on his youngest as Joe appeared to struggle to find a comfortable position in which to sit in the back seat of the surrey. Their father paid little attention to the conversation between his two oldest as they talked while sitting in the front seat; he frowned as the boy leaned against the upright that supported the top and shifted one way or another.
As a father, he did worry about the slight sheen of his youngest son’s sweat-glistened face, but then it was a rather warm Sunday.
Ben didn’t focus much on the sermon as he kept a watchful eye on his youngest. The congregation stood and had just begun to sing the closing hymn when Joe doubled over, clutching both arms across his stomach, and collapsed to the floor while curling into a fetal position. Several women in the pew and behind the family began to scream and the organ music screeched out a sickening sound.
Realizing something was horribly wrong and in an effort to prevent Joe from striking his head on the back of the pew in front of them, Ben and Adam had attempted reach for him, but neither could totally stop Joe from writhing on the floor.
Ben supported his son’s head in his lap while Adam loosened the boy’s tie and unbuttoned his collar. Both men were oblivious to the quietness that settled within the church as they tended to their family member.
“What’s wrong with him?” Hoss asked as he looked down at his family. Joe’s arms were wrapped around his stomach while he breathed heavily and moaned in pain. Feeling a hand on his arm, Hoss looked up to see Doctor Martin trying to gain access to the stricken young man.
“Hoss, let me in there,” Doc Martin stated.
Hoss slipped from the row, as did Adam, to allow the physician to reach their brother.
While Paul and Ben tended to their sibling, Adam, Hoss, and the minister asked everyone to please leave the church.
“What happened, Ben?” Paul asked.
“I’m not sure. He just collapsed.”
“No previous symptoms?”
Shaking his head Ben answered, “We’ve all put in two long weeks of branding, he wasn’t hungry last night, nor this morning. He was fidgeting, couldn’t sit still on the ride into town.”
“He’s got a quite a fever running,” Paul stated.
“I can feel it,” Ben answered. “He was sweating a little as we rode in, I thought it was the weather…”
“Joe tell me where you hurt.”
The only response Paul received was a groan. Looking up from his patient, Paul called out, “Adam, Hoss, let’s get your brother to my surgery. It’ll be easier to examine him without the confines of these pews.”
He moaned loudly and grabbed his stomach tighter as his middle brother lifted and carried him out of the sanctuary. The pain he felt prevented him from hearing the words of comfort that his father offered as he strode with his sons to the doctor’s office. Tears slipped from tightly shut eyes, an indication of just how much pain the youngest member of their family was suffering.
Hoss spoke soothing sounds as Joe rested his head on his shoulder; and he felt the wetness of his brother’s tears dampen his shirt.
Adam grabbed their hats from where they had fallen, before he followed his family to the doctor’s surgery.
Two and a half hours later, Paul Martin stepped out from behind the closed doors of his surgery to address the worried family. Ben appeared grief-stricken as he sat in one of the more comfortable chairs in the room. Hoss stopped his pacing when he heard the door open. Adam, leaning against the wall, turned his attention from looking out the window as Paul cleared his throat to announce his presence.
“Joe is going to be okay,” he stated first off, holding up both hands to indicate they should patiently listen, because there was more he needed to say. “However, he’ll need to spend a few days here. I want to make sure there are no complications before I send him home.”
“What’s wrong with ‘em doc?” inquired Hoss as he worried his large hat, turning the brim around and around in his hands.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to talk with you before I operated…”
“Operated?!” Ben felt his stomach drop.
“After examining him, I determined it was critical that I performed the surgery immediately. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting for so long, but it couldn’t be helped. Right now, there’s nothing to worry about, everything worked out for the best. We can all be thankful that he was lucky to be in town when the pain became intolerable.”
“Why did you have to operate?” Ben asked.
“He suffered an acute case of appendicitis,” Paul answered.
“With appendicitis, isn’t there more warning than him just collapsing?” Adam asked.
“Yes, and from what little I was able to gather during my examination and the questions Joe could answer…”
Paul looked to the various family members.
“Didn’t any of you notice anything?” Paul asked.
“He’s been more tired than usual of late, but we’re branding… He weren’t hungry last night or this mornin’, but that ain’t too far from his norm…” stated Hoss.
“When we were traveling into town this morning, he couldn’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit,” answered Ben.
“I guess I should have said something during services, I thought he was running a fever, but it was so warm in church today,” Adam offered.
“I should have noticed… As his father I should have noticed his symptoms before this morning,” voiced Ben in his guilt of not paying closer attention to his son.
“Pa, ya know Joe… If he don’t want us to know somethin’, he’ll do his best to hide it,” Hoss offered.
“Pa, Hoss is right. Joe wasn’t going to let anything stop him from proving he was capable of working right alongside his family,” Adam agreed.
“Doesn’t surprise me, knowing your brother the way we all do. Joe doesn’t want anyone to know when he’s sick. From what you’ve just said, he’s probably been trying to prove himself to you… so he chose to tough it out instead of saying anything.”
“Tough it out? How serious was this, Paul?” Ben queried.
“I won’t lie to you… Had he not been in town, he probably would have died. There’s not much that can be done once the appendix ruptures… As I stated, it was an acute case, and in order to save his life, I had no time to spare. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to say anything before..”
“It didn’t…” Ben faltered at the thought of losing his youngest.
“Not until I had already removed it and was placing it in a pan to dispose of later,” Paul answered.
“My God,” Ben breathed out as he collapsed back to the chair he had previously sat.
Doctor Martin understood the fear the entire family must have felt while they waited, not knowing what was happening behind the closed door. He’d been sorry to have prolonged notifying them of the surgery, but he felt he needed to clean up his surgical suite as he knew this family would want to see Joe more than anything. He didn’t want them to see the bloody clothes and instruments, nor did he want them to see the organ he had removed from their loved one.
“Rest assured, the boy will make a full recovery, but it is going to take some time,” Paul said to encourage them.
“Can we see him?” asked Ben.
“Sure, but he won’t know you’re here. He’s still heavily sedated and I plan to keep him that way until morning.”
The family quietly gathered around their youngest member and gave thanks that he had come through this crisis.
Knowing that Hop Sing would be worried when they failed to return home, Adam wrote a brief note to him and another more detailed note to their foreman, Charlie, informing them what happened. He asked the telegrapher if his son would mind riding out to the Ponderosa to deliver the messages, and promised the boy a dollar when he returned.
The afternoon dragged on for the two brothers, who came and went in order to alleviate their own concern and burn off nervous energy. Ben stoically remained by his youngest son’s bed side as the sun dipped past the horizon and night settled over Virginia City.
Adam and Hoss brought supper and ate in the room with their father, while Joseph continued his medicated sleep.
Monday morning dawned in Virginia City before Joe woke from surgery. Paul entered the room to see Ben sitting in the overstuffed wing-back chair in what appeared to be a very uncomfortable position. The doctor’s eyes focused on his patient as the boy began to slowly move about under the sheet.
“Take it easy Joe,” Paul leaned over and whispered in Joe’s ear. “I had to perform surgery and I need for you to lie still.”
Joe’s voice sounded graveled as he voiced one word, “Pa…”
“He’s asleep. Here, take a small sip of water.”
Paul lifted Joe’s head from the bed and held the glass to his lips. After two shallow swallows, Paul pulled the glass away and laid Joe back to the bed.
“Let’s see if that will stay down, and I’ll give you some more in a few minutes.”
“Pa?” Joe asked as he tried to move and grimaced.
“I said, lie still.”
“Ow…” Joe cried out, reaching for his stomach.
“Paul?” Ben called as he roused at hearing his son’s distress.
“Our patient is waking up,” Paul answered while attempting to prevent Joe from moving. The physician’s words brought Ben to full attention.
“Good morning, son,” Ben greeted. “How are you feeling?”
“Wanna go home,” Joe answered as he fisted his hands, hidden under the sheet, against the pain.
“Not yet young man. You had major surgery yesterday and it will be a few days until you’re well enough for me to allow you to travel to the Ponderosa,” Paul answered as he offered another sip of water to his patient.
“Uh uh,” Joe replied as the queasiness made its presence known. “Sick…”
Paul and Ben carefully rolled Joe to his side as the physician slipped the bedpan under his patient’s face.
Joe wrapped his arms around himself as the convulsions pulled at the incision site; he curled his body against the pain. The young man moaned in between each gagging reflex until Ben help lay him back in total exhaustion.
“Joe, just take a sip of water to rinse out your mouth and then spit it out. We’ll see if you can keep some water down the next time you wake.”
Joe obediently complied, anything to get the vile taste out of his mouth; and then complained of being cold.
The doctor pulled a heavy blanket out from one of the cabinets in the room and spread it over his patient.
Only a few minutes later, Paul and Ben were thankful when the boy drifted off to sleep allowing the physician to examine the boy without any hindrance.
“How’s he doing?” Ben asked as he watched Paul finish his examination and pull the sheet and cover back over the boy’s chest.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he suffered after-effects from the anesthesia. I’m pleased with how his incision looks, a little strained, but the stitches are holding tight.”
“He looks feverish…” Ben rested his hand on his son’s forehead.
“I know… I’m a little concerned about the low-grade fever he’s running…”
“Couldn’t that just be his body’s reaction from what he suffered?” Ben asked.
“I think so… I’d prefer it to be that versus something else that would force me to have to perform another surgery. We just need to keep an eye on him.”
Hoss and Adam had been pleased to return to the doctor’s office Monday morning to be told Joe had woke, only to be disappointed they had missed a chance to talk with him as he had returned to sleeping. They left telling Paul they were going to the diner to order breakfast and would return to eat with their father.
Later in the morning, once Joe had awakened again, and they had spoken a few words with him, Adam and Hoss finally gave into their father’s insistence that they return home to take care of business and to prepare for the upcoming cattle drive. And to let Hop Sing know Joe’s condition and that it would be several days before Ben or Joe returned home.
The low-grade fever persisted for almost a week, which made Joe even grumpier when he was awake because the physician wouldn’t allow him to go home until his temperature returned to normal.
Doctor Martin had also stipulated that he would only allow the boy to travel home after he proved that he could, and would, eat a meal; and not feel the urge to toss it back up. He’d had no problem keeping broths down for the first few days, but the first time he ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, it quickly made a repeat appearance which caused Joe untold grief as his stomach continually contracted and pulled at his injury. By the time the spasms eased, Joe was totally exhausted and crying as he laid across his father’s thighs, the man rubbed circles across his son’s back.
After spending ten days at the physician’s surgery with his son, Ben was just as ready to go home as was Joe. Paul Martin had warned his patient that he was not to do any work and under no circumstances was he to ride until given permission.
Adam and Hoss delayed their departure with the men on the cattle drive telling Charlie they would catch up with the herd just as soon as they helped their father return Joe home. The following morning, they left before sunrise, both having peeked in on their brother before leaving.
Fourteen days after the surgery, Paul traveled to the Ponderosa to remove Joe’s stitches and discuss his condition with the boy and his father as part of his post surgical evaluation. After listening to comments and concerns, Paul was happy with Joe’s progress that he gave the youth permission to perform light chores and said if he wanted to, Joe could even help Hop Sing in his garden or to groom Cochise. But he was still restricted from riding or performing any strenuous labor; he knew the boy was eager to get out of the house and thought if he reduced some of the restrictions the boy would find it easier to continue his convalescence. He hoped Joe would appreciate spending time grooming Cochise, even if he couldn’t ride the gelding.
Ben attempted to keep Joe pacified, but as his condition improved and he felt better than he had in a while, he chafed at his continued restrictions. Hop Sing also helped distract the boy by telling him tales of his homeland as they work side-by-side in the kitchen or the garden. Whenever Joe announced his intention to head to the barn to groom his horse, Ben made sure he moved his paperwork from the study to the deck outside. It’s not that he didn’t trust his son; it’s just that he knew his son.
Chapter 3 – About the Past
It had been almost five weeks since Joe’s surgery and during his recovery the warm weather of summer had transitioned into a warm fall. The cattle drive had been a success as the oldest brothers and their drovers delivered the herd to just outside of Sacramento.
After only being home for ten day, Adam and Hoss had spent the day with Ben surveying their land and making decisions for which pastures would be best to use as wintering grounds. The older members of the family returned home to find Joe napping on the settee with a book lying open across his chest. Ben and Adam looked at each other as Hoss took a quick glance at his youngest brother and snickered, before heading up the staircase.
Adam had been pleased earlier in the week when Joe had finally taken him up on the offer to read some of the books from his personal library; he held off from offering books that had belonged to his mother.
That night, Adam and Ben were intrigued as they delved deeper into answering questions that Joe posed to them; simple answers just wouldn’t suffice. Joe had immersed himself in reading Moby Dick and was captivated by the tale Herman Melville had written of the captain gone mad in his quest for the white whale. Joe asked how the story related to Ben’s years at sea. The youngest brother also made sure to include Hoss in the conversation, he excitedly told of the dramatic passages he had read.
The conversation slightly waned while waiting for dessert. Hop Sing delighted the family as he placed a chocolate cake on the table and served four large slices to the family.
“Joe, if you’d like, up in the attic I’m sure I kept boxes that contain the books that belonged to your mother. Books she enjoyed reading,” Ben stated. He had never offered the books to Marie’s son, knowing he hadn’t inherited her love of books, as Adam had from Elizabeth.
“My mother has books…in the attic?” Joe asked as he ate a piece of chocolate cake. He swallowed before adding, “Sorry, Pa. I shouldn’t have spoken with my mouth full.”
“You’re forgiven, son.”
The following morning, after Hoss and Adam headed out to the range, Ben escorted Joe into the attic and to the boxes that held his mother’s possessions.
Father and son spent the morning going through the boxes as they searched for the books, with Ben explaining the items that piqued Joe’s curiosity. Ben wasn’t sure what was in each box; after the funeral, Hop Sing had been the one to pack away all of Marie’s belongings. As the son opened each box and removed its contents, Ben marveled as he remembered each item. The box containing the books had been found early on; however, Joe was curious to explore the other boxes. It pleased Joe to learn something of his mother that he had either never known or had long forgotten. For Ben, it was another step in healing the long ago hurt that was never absent.
“I wish that I’d known that she loved to read these books,” Joe offered as he closed the final box and returned it to the storage chest.
“I’m sorry that I’ve never brought you up here before.”
“Thank you for sharing your memories of my mother…” Joe hesitated in speaking, seeing the emotions his father’s face conveyed.
“You alone of my sons are the only one who ever knew your own mother… I never intended to keep any of this from you… In the beginning, it hurt too much to want to go through her possessions. And… you just never seemed as interested in books…”
“I understand Pa, I mean… Adam’s the brains of the family.” Excited by what he held in his hands, Joe continued, “I can’t wait to read these and to discuss them with you and Adam, like we did last night. Do you think Adam would mind?”
“No, you know he always wanted you to apply yourself more to your studies when you were in school,” answered Ben.
“I’m not going to college,” Joe flatly stated.
“We know that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn more through reading and discussing what you read with your family.”
Joe was following his father down the steps from the attic into the main hallway of the second floor, carrying a box containing his mother’s books.
“Pa, do you mind if I spend time in my room reading?”
“No, Joe, go right ahead. I’ll call you when Hop Sing has lunch ready.”
“Thanks, Pa,” answered Joe as he entered his room and closed the door behind him.
“Just remember, lunch should be ready in about an hour.”
Joe gently pulled a book from the box and examined its cover; he read the first few pages in an attempt to decide which story might be the first one to read, before he set it aside to look at the next. He’d almost reached the bottom of the box and had set the more interesting books in one stack, and the others that didn’t seem as exciting in several other stacks.
“Joe?!” Ben called from the bottom of the staircase. “Hop Sing has lunch on the table.”
“Coming, Pa!” Joe hollered back as he carefully stood and walked around the piles, in order not to knock over the books.
Joe made it to the table just as Adam and Hoss entered the home and sat down at the table.
“Say Shortshanks, ya find your momma’s books?” Hoss inquired.
“Sure did. Pa and I found a box of them.”
“Have you decided which book to read first,” Adam asked.
Ben eagerly listened, allowing the boys to direct the conversation. He knew which books Marie had enjoyed the most and he was eager to hear which books intrigued his youngest; without pressuring the boy to read something that he didn’t find interesting.
“Not yet… I’m reading the beginnings of them, just to see which order I want to read them; don’t want to get bogged down in one book when there might be another exciting book waiting to be read. I’m almost to the bottom of the box.”
“I remember your mother sitting in the blue chair reading of an evening. Sometimes you’d be on her lap, other times you were already upstairs asleep,” Adam explained. “She could paint a vivid picture as she read. And… we’d talk a little about what she was reading.”
“Could we do the same?” Joe hesitantly asked.
“Sure, I’d be happy to,” Adam answered, pleased that his brother was finally taking an interest in literature.
“Pa, do you mind if I spend the rest of the afternoon upstairs reading Momma’s books?”
“No. Not at all,” Ben answered; pleased that something had taken his son’s interest that would prevent the boy from realizing he was still following the doctor’s orders.
After lunch, Joe returned to his room and pulled another book from the box and noticed a few smaller books at the bottom of the box. Joe pulled out the last books, but as he looked at them, he realized they weren’t published books, but rather, they were his mother’s journals. Quickly opening each journal in turn, he glanced at the first few entries in an effort to decide which one to read first, he decided on the journal that coincided with his parents meeting each other in New Orleans.
He read of names he had never heard his father mention: Eduard D’Arcy, Marius Angerville, and Madame deMarigny. There were locations noted that he had no idea where they were. He grew enthralled at the idea of a duel, but worried when he read that his father was involved. Joe relaxed, realizing his father must have been the victor, otherwise he wouldn’t be here.
He skipped over his mother’s entries related to the events of her marriage to Ben Cartwright and their honeymoon, but he quickly began reading again as her writing continued during their travels to the Ponderosa.
Over the course of the next few days, Joe giggled as he came to his mother’s description of meeting Hoss for the first time, not quite believing the child was as young as Ben had stated, but then when the child wrapped his arms around her after being introduced, she had no qualms that he was only five years old. The journal entries continued to focus on the wonders of the land surrounding her new home, the love that Hoss gave freely, and the impression that her oldest step-son was very reserved with his emotions.
Joe scanned over a few uninteresting entries, but read with interest the words describing the small home being remodeled into a larger home and enjoyed the humor of his mother describing how she would watch young Adam working alongside his father in deciding what needed done as they drew out the floor plans.
The home had finally been completed and everyone settled in their new rooms; and Joe wanted to close the journal, but the words written next drew Joe to continue reading.
‘How can I keep this from Ben… How can I hurt the man I love in such a manner as to tell him that his oldest son hates me? I knew that Jean had come out west, and Ben said Jean had worked for him… It was the news of Jean’s death that brought my beloved to me… But I cannot tell him what has happened, of the argument and the cruel words Adam shouted.
‘How could Jean have been so cruel as to tell such lies to a child? How do I convince Adam that those stories were nothing but lies? Adam has declared that he hates me and that he will never love me.’
Joe’s emotions were in turmoil. His mother had written that his brother hated her? Who was this Jean? How could Adam hate her? Joe’s anger and curiosity drew him to read more, and as he read, his rage only increased.
Chapter 4 – A Past Exposed
Ben knew that when Joseph decided to finally appear, the boy would be either recalcitrant or remorseful for his earlier actions. The worried father just wished he knew which and how best to address the situation. They had all been worried when Joe had first taken ill, but now, as his health improved; he was testing the limits of restrictions as ordered by the doctor. But for the past week, life had been pleasantly peaceful as Joe immersed himself within Adam’s book and finally his mother’s books.
While waiting for his son to return home, Ben decided to go to Joe’s room to see if he could find any valid reason for Joe’s actions towards his brother. When he had left the Ponderosa early in the morning to attend a Cattlemen’s Association Meeting in town, the boy had still been asleep.
But now, the boy should have been in bed hours ago as the clock next to the front door chimed midnight.
As he lit the lantern on the table and looked around his youngest son’s bedroom, it was evident that Joe had been lying on the bed while reading. The covers were tussled indicating he had moved about. As Ben stepped around the bed to close the window, he stumbled over an object on the floor. Picking it up, he was curious about which book Joe had been reading and was a little upset at his son’s callous actions of leaving one of his mother’s cherished books lying on the floor. Without a title on the cover, Ben opened the book and recognized the delicate penmanship of his late wife.
Ben had written in a journal all his life, ever since he went to sea, however, he never knew his wife kept one as well. He scanned the few pages where the journal had been opened to, and was mortified of the true depths of events that happened between his wife and his eldest.
“You’re not my mother and you can’t tell me what to do!” eleven year old Adam proclaimed as Marie insisted that he return to focusing on his studies after they had eaten their evening meal.
“Adam, all I’m asking is that you focus on your studies…” replied Marie.
“I have work to do, this is a working ranch, not some social club. Chores don’t take care of themselves,” Adam declared.
“I know this is a working ranch, but your father has hired men to take care of his ranch while he is away.”
“His ranch? This is our ranch! And who do you think is supposed to supervise the men while my father is away?” argued Adam.
“That would be Charlie, the foreman,” answered Marie.
“I’m my pa’s right-hand man; it’s up to me to make sure things happen properly!”
“Adam, you are not quite twelve years old and still a child. I know your father believes an education is important and he would be upset to know that you were remiss in your studies. So please, come back to the table so we may continue.”
He couldn’t believe all that had happened in the past three months. His father had returned home from a business trip to New Orleans, not only with the funds from having sold the pelts from the animals they had worked so hard to trap, but he had also come home married. That day, Adam’s heart sank as his father helped the woman who entered their home before him to remove her wrap and introduced his sons to their new mother. Hoss readily accepted this woman and actually cried when he hugged her and she wrapped her arms around him in return.
Adam’s only response had been to acknowledge her by saying, “Ma’am.”
It had been three months of Adam not being able to work alongside his father and the men. Three months of this woman overseeing his studies. Three months of this woman taking his father away from him. Three months of his hearing the people at the trading post talking about the way she dressed, the way she spoke, the way she acted… what she must have done to support herself before Ben had married her and brought her ‘home’.
And then this afternoon, to have found her where he had…
“I am not a child! You might think you’re a Cartwright, Pa might have married you, but I’ll never accept you as my mother. My mother died giving birth to me…”
“I know that your mother died shortly after you were born…” Marie calmly replied, hoping to diffuse the situation.
Marie had spoken on numerous occasions with her husband regarding Adam, inquiring how she could make things easier between them; how she could gain his acceptance. Ben was at a loss, but felt given time, Adam would come around. His suggestion was to, “Just continue being yourself. Your kindness will ultimately worm its way into his heart.”
Adam continued on, ignoring Marie’s comment. “The only other woman I’ll ever accept as my mother is buried at Ash Hollow, and gave me my brother Hoss. I know what you are! Jean told me. Jean said the only reason you married him was to get your hands on his family’s money! I’ll never let you hurt my father as much as you hurt Jean. I can’t believe Pa married you… I’ll break the spell you cast upon my father to get him to marry you! I’ve heard the women in town talk; you’re nothing by a highfaluting whore! I hate you and I’ll never love you!”
Marie sat in shock at the words her step-son threw at her, tears welled in her eyes before she asked him one question, “Do you even know what a whore is?” Not willing to stay any longer in the room, Marie fled up the stairs, seeking sanctuary in her bedroom.
Ben read in Marie’s own handwriting of Adam’s hurtful words. She wrote of how she had thought that the news she would share with the family once Ben returned would be a blessing, but now… with Adam declaring to do anything he could to ruin his father’s marriage… Marie wondered how she could ever tell the family she was with child. Would Ben ultimately leave her, as Jean had, declaring the child she carried was not his? Were the women at the trading post really talking about her in such a manner? Had Ben heard the gossip? Would he believe them?
With his wife’s written words fresh in his memory, Ben remembered back to the events a few months before Jean’s death.
“Papa Help! HELP!” screamed four year old Hoss as he hid under the wagon. “PAPA!”
The chubby boy’s fingers gripped the spokes of the wagon wheel tightly as he continuously peered left and right, occasionally looking out from underneath only to duck back under again. The light from their campfire reached the wagon, casting an eerie shadow underneath as the boy moved about.
Ben Cartwright dropped the wooden bucket at the bank of the stream, as he heard his little boy screaming in terror. Hurriedly he ran across the uneven ground, fearing anything and everything that might have befallen his child. Ben arrived back at their camp to see his eldest boy and his working hand kneeling beside the wagon attempting to coax the younger boy out from under. The worried father relaxed somewhat as his eldest crawled on his hands and knees to reach his brother.
“What happened?” Ben called as he tried to project an air of calmness that he didn’t quite feel.
“I’m sorry Ben… Adam and I were talking… I thought Little Hoss was asleep. I’m not sure what happened.”
“Hoss?” Ben quietly called as he knelt beside the wagon, one hand on the wheel to balance himself. “It’s okay Hoss, Papa’s here.”
“Dunt let im get me Papa,” Hoss cried as he shoved his brother’s arms away and crawled to his papa.
“I’ll protect you. Come here.” Ben held his arms in front of him as he coaxed his son out.
Ben pulled the young boy into his arms; his son wrapped his arms tightly around his father’s neck and his legs around his father’s waist. He felt the boy trembling. He carried the child over to their campfire and sat down on a fallen tree; his son on his lap.
“I be good boy,” Hoss stated. “We go chursh.”
“Yes, we’ll go to church on Sunday,” Ben’s voice and words seemed to sooth his son.
“Pa?” Adam hesitantly asked.
Ben’s body and facial expressions revealed his confusion, at the unasked question from his oldest son, regarding what had scared the youngster. With his heart beat returning to normal the father asked, “Are you okay, Adam?”
“I’m fine Pa.”
“Do you have any idea what might have scared your brother? You weren’t telling any ghost stories, were you?”
Ben continued to soothe his young, distraught child, rubbing his back and holding him tight.
“No sir. We thought Hoss was asleep.”
“Papa, peeze… dunt let ‘im get me.”
“I won’t let anyone get you. Why were you hiding under the wagon? Can you tell Papa what scared you?” Ben asked as he swept his young son’s blonde bangs back from his face.
“I’z hidin’ fom ‘im,” Hoss said as he looked around again and up to the sky.
“Who were you hiding from Hoss?” Adam asked as he placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder and leaned into his father.
At ten years old, seeing his brother as frightened as he had been had scared the older boy. Though he was not a demonstrative child, he still felt the need to be comforted without making it look like it.
“Bad man,” Hoss whispered. “Up dere.” Hoss quickly pointed to the sky.
“Who’s up there?” Ben asked.
Cupping his hand to his father’s ear Hoss said, “The Devil.”
“Hoss, the Devil isn’t in Heaven,” Ben replied.
“No Hewen… da skies.” Hoss burrowed his face into his father’s shoulder.
The other man who shared camp and had worked alongside Ben Cartwright for the past few months began to laugh and attempted to apologize at the same time, “Ben, I am sorry. I tis all my fault, my accent and all.” The man spoke with a thick southern accent.
“What’s your fault?” Ben asked as he tried to understand what had happened to frighten his child.
“I’m sorry. I was telling Adam about the only woman I had ever loved and how she turned out to be a devil in disguise, turned everything good we had, wrong. The boy must have thought I said the Devil was in the sky,” explained Jean deMarigny as he took time to slowly enunciate his words.
After settling the two children into their bedrolls in the back of the wagon, the two men talked. Never had they seriously discussed their wives before, and it was somewhat of a shock to the widower to understand the devastation his friend felt as he described his wife’s betrayal.
“Just how much of this have you discussed with Adam?” Ben inquired.
“Not the details… I’d never tell a child that sordid past. But he knows that I feel she betrayed me and our marriage vows; but I didn’t tell him of how I came home to find her sleeping in bed with another man. Ben, can you believe that later… she had the nerve to claim she was with child and it was mine? I should have listened to my mother; all she wanted was the name deMarigny… With our last name, her world was her oyster, so to speak. Soon after, I left my home and I came west, I wanted to put her deceit and that part of my life behind me, Ben. I hope you understand.”
Neither man realized that Adam Cartwright was listening to their discussions.
It was only a few months later, when they were cutting lumber that Ben realized the true love Jean still carried for his wife. And it was a promise made to a dying man, a dying friend that led Ben Cartwright to travel to New Orleans to tell her the truth, and the news.
As he closed the book, he looked to the stacks of books on his son’s desk and carefully removed the other journals that belonged to his late wife. He had much to discuss with his oldest and his youngest.
Chapter 5 – The Forgiving the Past
Ben had returned downstairs, sitting in his leather chair. He heard the soft footfalls on the steps and looked up from staring at the opened pages of Marie’s journals, surprised to see his eldest coming down the staircase.
“Adam? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine Pa, thought maybe one of Hop Sing’s special teas might help settle my stomach and get me back to sleep. I’m surprised to find you down here at this hour.” And then Adam understood why. “I take it that Joe hasn’t come home?”
“No, he hasn’t.”
“Should I wake Hoss? Maybe we should go looking for him…” offered Adam.
“If he’s not home by first light, I’ll head out. You, young man, are in no condition to be riding.”
“I’ll be alright. I just wish I knew what set him off. We actually had a good conversation before I left the house this… yesterday morning.”
“I think… In fact, I know the truth,” Ben’s tone turned slightly hard as he thought on what had happened on that day so long ago, and the fact that his youngest knew.
Adam proceeded towards his father and sat down on the settee. Ben recognized the still pale complexion of his son as well as his stubborn determination that indicated he was hiding the fact that he wasn’t as well as he tried to display.
“Adam, did you know that Marie kept journals?” Ben asked, he needed to know more; there had to be more behind what Marie had written.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if she did. You and I both have.”
“And in your journals, do you write of things you would never tell another soul?”
“Sure, doesn’t everyone?” Adam answered, his expression changed to one of curiosity.
“Unknowingly, in the box of books that I gave Joseph earlier this week, there were journals from his mother. Joe’s been reading them.” Ben watched to see if any understanding came to his eldest. “Adam, I know in the beginning, when I brought Marie home as my wife, I know it wasn’t easy for you. And I also know that a number of the good citizens at the trading post had certain ideas regarding Marie’s past. I just never imagined that my own son would use that word against my wife.”
“Pa?” Adam grew concerned.
“Marie wrote of some troubling thoughts in one of her journals. Unfortunately, it was from this particular journal that I believe that Joe was reading, and he only read up to the date where the two of you argued and you…” Ben swallowed with great difficulty, “you called my wife a whore.” Ben watched an aggrieved expression appear on his eldest’s face. “She also wrote that you told her that you would never allow her to hurt me as she had Jean.”
Thinking back to those early days, Adam understood exactly what his father was saying. “Pa, I’m sorry… I never…”
“How could you?!” Ben demanded. He stood from his chair and paced in front of the large fireplace.
Adam sat momentarily stunned that his father had found out a secret he had harbored for almost seventeen years. He felt the same punch in the stomach as Marie had felt that day when he had hurled the words at her. He remembered the look on her face before she ran up the stairs.
“Pa, I have no excuse for what I did.”
“I don’t want an excuse… I want an explanation. How could you?” Ben stopped and faced his son.
“At the time I was… I was hurt… I felt like she was treating me like a child…”
“You were a child!” Ben forcefully declared.
“I know, but at the time… I was still hurting over the loss of Inger, and trying to understand Jean’s death, and here you came home with a new wife… And I had no say in the matter.”
“You had no say in the matter when I married your mother…” Ben replied, arching his eyebrows.
“No, but I feel I had a hand in your marriage to Hoss’ ma. It’s hard for me to explain.” Adam inhaled deeply and exhaled the breath very slow. “For me as a child… for so long it had been just the two of us, and then Inger, and finally Hoss. We were the perfect family.”
“That still doesn’t explain your actions.” Ben gave up pacing and walked back to sit in his chair.
“You never told us that she was Jean’s widow.”
“I didn’t think it mattered that Marie had been married before, or that she had been married to Jean,” Ben stated.
“It didn’t, until I found her earlier that particular day at Jean’s grave. I asked her why she was crying there…”
“And she told you.”
“Yes, she said he was… had been her husband… and I remembered what he had told me and what I’d overheard to two of you talking about that night when we were camping out in the woods. I’d also heard the women at the post… talking.” Adam averted his eyes; he couldn’t look at his father.
“And so you chose to disrespect my wife, your mother…”
“I didn’t see her as my mother… not then,” Adam answered, slightly belligerent and with regret.
“Adam, I expected better from you,” Ben sternly stated.
“I know I behaved poorly after Marie joined the family. But once I found out she had been his wife…” Adam knew his explanation was going inadequately. “I don’t expect you to forgive me for my actions of that night.”
“I can’t believe you would even ask me to forgive you… Adam, it just doesn’t make sense, I raised you better than that.”
A troubled silence filled the great room as father and son thought on how to proceed forward. Adam now understood why Marie had insisted in the truth behind their argument not be revealed to Ben, how would they have repaired their father/son relationship with him at such a young age?
Adam struggled to come up with an sufficient explanation so that his father would understand how remorseful he was then, and now, and how he had finally swallowed his damnable eleven-year old pride so as to not cause his father to hurt, again.
“When I finally went to bed that night, Hoss came into my room, he couldn’t sleep… he’d heard what I said… how could he not.” Adam ruefully shook his head back and forth. “Thankfully he didn’t understand the word; all he knew was he was mad at me… that I’d made his Ma cry. He told me what a good mother she was, the only mother he’d ever known. She helped him when he’d skinned his knees or was hurt by the taunting of some of the children when the family was at the post. He loved her because she loved him, and you. Hoss told me that she even loved me, but I was too stubborn to accept her love.”
Ben sat listening to his eldest, and watched as it appeared that Adam was truly reliving those memories.
“It was Hoss who made me realize that I was in the wrong. If I remember, you knew that Marie and I had argued while you were gone on that cattle buying trip.” Adam looked to his father for confirmation.
“Yes, I knew you had argued, but not to the extent in which it went.” Ben leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees, he raised the journal to express his condemnation.
“After thinking what Hoss said, I knew I was wrong. I was still mad and thought… it doesn’t matter what I thought, anyway… I couldn’t sleep. I knew what I needed to do, so I went to your… the bedroom the two of you shared. I heard Marie crying. I realized how much I had hurt her… I knocked on the door and opened it without waiting for permission.”
“Pa, hear me out… please. Marie was packing to leave.”
“Leave?” Ben gasped.
“She was tossing her clothing into several bags, one on the bed and another on a chair. Pa… When she turned to face me, I felt horrible… You’d told me how to think before I spoke… how words spoken in anger could never be taken back… I realized that night why. Marie was going to leave… because of me.”
Adam hung his head in shame, guilt…
Ben sat back in his chair, wishing to feel anything other than the cold pull from the pit of his stomach.
“I remember asking her what she was doing… She just stared at me.” Adam leaned forward, mimicking his father’s earlier posture. “She said that she loved you too much to be able to stay. That her life back in New Orleans was more preferable than staying here and having to live with me under the same roof, that at least back there…”
“Back there what?” Ben asked.
“That she could return to her home because her past had been vindicated by an honorable man, while here… her reputation was besmeared by callous women and ignorant children who only spread rumors and innuendos because they were cruel and petty, and needed to hurt other people in order to feel good about themselves.”
“She was right…”
“Yes, she was. I didn’t feel good about myself as I stood there. I begged her to stay, that I was sorry for what I’d said. I think that was the first time since Inger died that I cried. I… begged her to not leave you… or Hoss.”
“But not for yourself…”
“She asked me that too… I told her I didn’t think she’d want to stay for me, I didn’t deserve for her to stay on my behalf… I’d been so malicious to her.”
Earlier, as Ben had read Marie’s journal, he contemplated the reasons why… why the argument. He’d thought long and hard about why it happened. There was only one reason he could comfortably accept, “I’ve sat here tonight asking myself why… why would my son do this? How could my son do this? The only answer I could come up with was that I believe you didn’t want to get hurt again, should something happen to Marie. And once you knew who she was, you used your belief in Jean’s stories as a reason to push her away so you wouldn’t have to love her.”
“You’re right… At first I was jealous that you had married again and thought that she’d take you away from me… But after I found out she was the woman Jean had spoke of… I was mad. I felt I needed to protect you from the hurt Jean had suffered.” Adam looked up to his father, “We talked for a long time that night, talked as best she could with me not yet being twelve years old and what she thought I could understand. She tried to explain how she had never been unfaithful to her first husband.”
“Yes, I know the story. It all came out after I met Marie.”
“Pa… She said she was mortified, and could never have been unfaithful to her husband, as a Catholic she believed in the sanctity her marriage vows. She explained that they didn’t live in the best part of New Orleans and that she never had anyone who cared enough to want to protect her when it was necessary for Jean to be away. She said she’d told her cousin of her fears, but he only brushed them aside, saying she had nothing to fear. After all, she was a deMarigny now.
“She told me that maybe… if she’d had someone she could really trust, back then, it wouldn’t have happened. As we talked, she asked if I would be there to help protect her during your absences.”
Adam sat on the settee, thinking of those days and all the emotions he had suffered through, and the hurt he had caused.
“Did she tell you that it was her cousin Eduard who had set her up?” Ben asked. “Did she tell you of how she woke to find a stranger in her bed? Oh nothing happened, but just the appearance was enough to drive Jean from their home.”
“No, she didn’t go into details, I was only eleven, but she said she knew it was Jean’s mother, Madame deMarigny who had schemed to drive a wedge between her son and his wife. Pa, I was so ashamed of myself and what I had done… You’d taught me better than to judge without hearing both sides of the story.”
“You’re right. I am ashamed of what you did…”
“Pa, that night, she told me that she did have a secret… one that she had wanted to share with you first, but felt that since I was the man of the house, at the time… I had a right to know so I could better protect her.”
“She told you about our child,” Ben stated as fact.
“Yes, she told me she was pregnant… with Joe. Pa, I guess it was that night that I truly started to love her.”
“Marie wrote in her journal of what you just told me, but she never told me… of your agreement to keep it from me.”
“Yes, our agreement. I would suffer through one of your punishments for being disrespectful, but that you would never find out the true reason behind our argument nor the extent to which it went. For that, I am sorry.”
“Sitting here, I realize you had been prejudiced by Jean’s experiences. I know you were uncomfortable those first few months that Marie was here. That night, she told me of your argument and during ‘our talk’ you corroborated that you had been disrespectful, I just never realized the magnitude of all that the two of you kept from me.”
“I also remember that you blistered my backside well enough, at the time. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if you’d had known the truth.” Adam looked down at his hands, clasped between his knees. “Pa, I truly am sorry, and I know that Marie understood, before you returned home, just how much I regretted my actions and my words.”
“I can’t do anything about it now, but heaven help you Adam… if I had known.”
An understanding passed between the two as the fire crackled in the hearth.
“So, how do I mend this rift with Little Joe? How do I get him to accept that I did love Marie, and still do?”
“I think he needs to hear it from his mother. I’ll let him read the remainder of this journal, where Marie wrote of how much she loved you when you realized that you could love her. I’ll need to talk with him about what happened to cause the rift between Marie and Jean. He probably should also be told that Marie had another child, and that the baby died…”
“As for Marie’s first baby, I remember overhearing you and Jean talking, and he mentioned there was another child… I guess I never gave any other thought to what might have happened to the baby…”
“Marie was ill for some time after giving birth, and when she finally recovered, Madame deMarigny informed her the baby had died of fever when the boy was only a few days old.”
“That must have been heartbreaking for her… To have lost her husband in such a manner and then to lose a child, without ever having the chance to hold him.”
“I think you’ll now understand why Marie was always so overly protective of you and Hoss, and then Little Joe.”
“I knew she was, but thought it was just something all mothers went through. But I will say it made me feel special when she’d let me watch Joe while she helped Hop Sing,” Adam explained. “Pa, before you let Joe read the rest of her journal, I’d like the chance to work this out with him…”
Ben nodded, agreeing to allow Adam to the chance to restore the bond between brothers.
“You have read it thoroughly? Haven’t you, Pa?”
Ben nodded, “To a point.” He also knew there were probably some passages that he would prefer to keep from his youngest, but secrets had already harmed this family. “I guess I’ll need to keep Joseph close so I can explain the situations as he reads about them.”
“What about the other journals?” Adam asked, seeing four others sitting stacked on the round table next to his father’s leather chair.
“These are for my eyes only.”
Adam nodded in understanding.
Chapter 6 – Mending the Rift
Ben had banked the fire before he picked up the journals and looked to the door before he headed for the staircase, “Good night son.”
Adam thought on what his father said, and he agreed with the reason why he had acted as he had that evening so long ago. Jean had been his friend, someone who he could talk to when his father wasn’t there. And Jean had treated him as an adult, not a child. Why wouldn’t he believe Jean’s words regarding his wife; a child would never dream others could be so deceitful or spiteful.
As a child, he had not truly understood the implications of the events that drove the wedge between Jean and Marie, but now, as a man, he knew how cruel his words and actions had been that night.
Adam waited until long after he heard the door to his father’s bedroom close before he prepared to leave the house. He had a lot to make up to his brother.
Sport twitched his hears to and fro before he nickered lowly in response to something only he heard. Adam looked up from where he had been dozing in the saddle when his horse stopped. The moon shown through the trees, illuminating the white of the pinto tethered where Adam hoped he would be.
The older brother stepped from his horse and allowed his guilt to wash over him; his youngest brother lay on the ground, arms wrapped across his chest at the foot of his mother’s tombstone. Adam pulled his bedroll from behind his saddle and unfurled it before placing it over the still form. Quietly he returned to Sport and pulled down the canvas sack containing a coffee pot and a small frying pan, along with provisions for coffee and flapjacks for breakfast.
Dawn was painting pink fringes in the eastern sky as Adam waited for Joe to wake. He’d set up a small campfire and had coffee brewing; he planned to wait until his brother woke before starting breakfast.
Alone with his thoughts, he sipped his coffee and prayed that his brother would accept what he had to say. The feeling of nausea had long left, but the back of his head was still tender from where he had struck the hitching rail the previous afternoon. A slight headache hid behind his eyes; he closed them as he sat in quiet contemplation.
Adam opened his eyes at hearing boots scuffing the ground, he saw his brother in the first throes of waking. Blanket cast aside, arms stretched out, legs in motion, and yawning.
Quietly he walked to the fire, filled a second cup and held it out to his brother and greeted, “Morning, Joe.”
Joe’s eyes snapped wide open; his anger still evident.
“Go away,” Joe growled.
“Not yet, not until we talk.”
“I ain’t got nothing to say to you,” Joe retorted as he sat up.
“Fine, then you can listen to me.”
Joe batted away the coffee cup; the contents quickly soaked into the ground, before he stood to his feet and looked around.
“With Sport,” Adam answered, he’d taken the time to move the two horses to ensure his brother would stay to listen to him.
“Where’s my horse?” Joe angrily asked.
“Joe, we need to talk. I need to explain to you what happened.”
“I don’t want to hear any more of your lies; I know you hated my mother.”
Joe stood in front of his brother, hands clenched tightly into fists.
“I didn’t hate your mother,” Adam answered as he stepped back and sat down on the log he had rested against while waiting.
“Now you’re calling my mother a liar?!” Joe huffed.
“No, I’m saying that I was a petulant child, who was jealous of a beautiful woman, and what she represented.”
“Tell me where my horse is!” Joe answered, looking around, and growing frustrated.
“Not until you let me explain.”
“I don’t have to listen to you,” announced Joe.
“No… you don’t have to… but I’d like for you to,” Adam calmly answered, in contrast to his mercurial brother.
“Why, so you can twist around your words?”
“No, so I can eat a healthy dose of humble pie. Please Joe, sit down. Let me fix you a cup of coffee. I also brought fixings for flapjacks.”
Moodily, Joe accepted the coffee and watched as his brother made breakfast. It angered him that he was willing to sit there, but his father’s words kept coming back to him, “You have to know both sides of the story before you can make a decision; especially a decision with serious ramifications.”
Once dishes were washed and put back in the canvas sack, the brothers sat across the fire from each other.
“Pa didn’t know that Marie kept a journal, so he didn’t know that they were in the bottom of that box.”
“That’s obvious,” Joe snorted as he leaned back and folded his arms across his chest.
“Pa read some of her journal last night, and let me say that he was just as appalled at my actions as you were.”
“Joe, I guess you need to understand what it was like before Marie came… ”
Joe sullenly listened.
“It was just the three of us, and Jean.”
“Who was John?”
Adam decided to forgo correcting is brother’s pronunciation, “Jean was your mother’s first husband. Pa said he’d tell you what he felt you needed to know about that time in Marie’s life, but what I can tell you is that things happened… things that were beyond the control of either of them. Jean came out west to get away from his family….”
“I know how he feels,” Joe interrupted.
“We met and he came to work for us… and he became a good friend of mine. He told me some of his life, from when he lived in New Orleans, and I overheard him and Pa talking about his past, too.”
“You… you eavesdropped on Pa?” Joe asked, amazed at Adam’s confession.
“Kind of hard not to. This one time, Hoss and I were supposed to be sleeping and they were talking by the camp fire.”
Adam didn’t feel it was proper to tell of that night’s events, he felt it should be up to their father, but he did want Joe to know more of the story. “Jean was killed in a freak accident a few months later. Pa said as Jean was dying he professed how he was still in love with his wife and asked Pa to be the one to tell her.”
Joe sat forward.
“He left Hoss and I with the Michaelsons while he traveled to New Orleans to try to find Marie deMarigny to tell her that her husband’s dying words were to profess is love for her, and also that she was now a widow.
“When he returned home, he’d been gone for about four months; he told us we had a new mother.”
“And you didn’t like her.”
Joe sat back, his bad mood returned when Adam shook his head, no.
“Not that I didn’t like her, but I was jealous.”
“You jealous? You don’t have any emotions!” Joe retorted.
“I do, I just don’t wear them openly on my sleeves,” Adam honestly answered. “The argument your mother and I had, happened the night that I found out Marie had been Jean’s wife. I know it’s not easy to understand, but I was there when Pa buried Inger, and I can only imagine his pain in burying my own mother. But Jean had spoken of the hurt that Marie had inflicted , and I didn’t want her to hurt my father.”
“My mother would never hurt my father,” Joe replied, using the possessive phrase, as Adam had.
“Not intentionally. And neither would I. I thought I was protecting Pa. But I let my mouth overrun what Pa had always tried to teach us.”
“Imagine that, the great Adam Cartwright spoke without thinking,” Joe taunted.
“Guess you can say that, it runs in the family,” Adam attempted to lighten the mood.
“Joe, believe me… by the end of the night, I had ate a large piece of my pride by apologizing to Marie. I’m not sure Pa would appreciate me telling you, but she was planning to leave. She was packing when I entered their room.”
“No! My mother would…”
“Joe!” Adam almost shouted. “I had hurt her, I mean I didn’t think how she would react to my anger and I had wanted to lash out at her. But my words contained more hurt than I realized. Hoss told me how mad he was because I’d made his ma cry. He told me the good things she did for him. Hoss said she loved all of us, even me. But in my stubbornness… Just the same way that what you read hurt you and you ran away, my hurtful words were driving her away from Pa.”
“But…” Joe’s heart raced after hearing his brother’s words.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I thought I was protecting Pa, but my actions were going to cause him an even greater hurt. Had Marie left, we would have never known about you. You would have been born and possibly raised in New Orleans.”
“I understand you wanting to protect Pa, but I don’t understand how you would have never known about me,” Joe replied.
“Marie told me that night that she was pregnant, she had only found out earlier that day. Looking back, I guess that was why she was at Jean’s grave. To let him know how much she loved our father, and that their love… a product of their love was… you.”
“But she didn’t leave… I was born here.”
“No, she didn’t leave. I guess her love for Pa, and Hoss, and even me, was stronger than my anger. I never really hated her, I just was an angry boy and I lashed out verbally. From that night forward, life at home changed. She really did love me, and I really did love her. I wanted to protect her… and you. But I will tell you, my actions of being disrespectful earned me a tanning of a life time. I had to wait for Pa to come home, and waiting those three days was almost as bad as the actual tanning.”
“I’m surprised Pa let you live…”
“Pa didn’t know the extent of our argument until a few hours ago. I’m thankful that Pa feels I’m too old for a trip to the woodshed.”
“Pa didn’t know?”
Adam shook his head. “Marie and I agreed that this was between the two of us.”
“What about me?” Joe asked.
“What about you?”
“I don’t think I’m too old in Pa’s eyes… I decked you pretty good. Are you alright?”
“I will be, a few days of taking it easy and a couple of weeks of light duty… according to Paul Martin.”
“That sounds like I’m going to be taking over some of your chores…” Joe quietly answered, ashamed of his actions the day before.
“Some, but not all. Don’t worry little brother, I’ll stand by you, after all, had I not acted as I had all those years ago… your mother wouldn’t have found it necessary to write of it in her journal.”
The brothers sat in quiet reflection of what had happened, now and so long ago.
“Joe I am truly sorry for the hurt I caused Marie and I’m sorry that you had to find out about it in such a manner… I hope you can find it in yourself to someday forgive me.”
“Only if you can forgive me…” Joe responded. “Adam, I don’t hate you… I guess that was my hurt talking.”
“I understand, just as I could never hate your mother. When a person hurts as bad as we both did, we want to dish out and we say things that we know will hurt the most.”
Both brothers mutually agreed and smiled at each other.
“You ready to go home?” Adam asked as the sun rose fuller into the morning sky.
Joe stood and gathered the blanket his brother had placed on him during the night. He walked over to where Adam sat, and plopped down on the ground. He answered, “No, not yet. Would you tell me more about my mother? Some of the good memories?” He stretched the blanket over their legs since the morning sun had yet to fully disperse the chill of the night.
Adam wrapped his arm around his brother and pulled him close.
Chapter 7 – Fathers and Sons
“I go back China!” Hop Sing declared after fixing a second meal with only two people in attendance at the table. “I cook, I clean, no one respect all I do!”
“Now Hop Sing, you know I love your cookin’. Ya cain’t leave us,” Hoss pleaded.
“Hop Sing, I’m sure Adam and Joseph…” the opening and closing of front door stopped Ben’s words.
“Something smells delicious,” Adam announced before he came around the corner and into Ben’s field of vision.
Seeing Ben’s expression, Adam nodded and then canted his head to indicate the answer to the worried father’s unvoiced question was right behind him.
Nothing was said about the events from the day before while they were eating lunch, to which Hoss was eternally grateful; however, he knew that would not be the case once the table was cleared.
“Hop Sing,” Joe began to speak, “thank you for holding lunch for us. I’m sorry I caused Adam to be late.”
“Hop Sing no cook for own health. Hop Sing cook so boy grow up big and strong, be like brothers. Next time, be on time.” The Oriental curtly nodded his head for emphasis.
“Yes, Joe, next time, please… be on time,” encouraged Ben as he refilled his coffee cup and then motioned for his sons to follow him into the great room.
Hoss sat comfortably on the settee, his left ankle resting across his right knee, his left arm stretched casually across the back of the piece of furniture. He looked on as Adam attempted to situate himself in the blue chair that had once belonged to Marie. Joe fidgeted, trying to get comfortable at the other end of the settee, only to think of what was to come and shifted his seat in nervous anticipation. Ben settled into his leather chair and set his coffee cup and saucer aside.
Ben cleared his throat and cast his eyes on his oldest. “How are you feeling today?”
“Okay.” Adam’s hand involuntarily moved to rub his jaw.
“Wishin’ you had taken some of Doc’s powders with ya?” Hoss asked sincerely, yet his eyes shown with mirth.
“Yes, a slight oversight on my part. But the good news is I’m no worse for wear,” answered Adam.
“Should we call Doc Martin out?” Hoss asked. He also remembered the conspiratorial threat the doctor had made towards extending Joe’s restrictions instead of letting him resume normal activities six weeks post surgery.
“No, I don’t believe that is necessary,” Ben answered as he had closely observed both his sons to determine if one of the hands should be sent for Paul.
“Pa, I’m sorry about yesterday. I already apologized to Adam. I really am sorry,” Joe blurted out, unable to wait for his father to address him.
“And why are you sorry?”
“For my actions yesterday. For losing my temper and fighting Adam.”
“Brother no fight brother!” Hop Sing challenged from the dining room.
“No, you’re right,” Joe answered as he looked to the small man before facing his father and saying, “I sucker punched him. I didn’t give him a chance to defend himself.”
“Why?” Ben asked.
Joe looked to his oldest brother, “Adam said you read Momma’s journal…”
“That is not a reason to attack your brother.”
Knowing what his father wanted, Joe continued, “I was mad when I read what Momma wrote… Adam always had said things that I thought were nice about Momma, and here Momma said otherwise. Momma said Adam hated her and he called her a…”
“Yes, well, I know how far you read into her journal. But you stopped there, you didn’t continue to understand everything that happened afterwards, did you?”
“No sir,” Joe looked to his feet.
“There are a few more passages in your mother’s journal that I will allow you to read, under my supervision, just so you know the truth. I want you to read for yourself that Adam and Marie resolved their differences.”
“Yes sir, I know that… now.”
“Do you?” Ben inquired.
“Adam told me…”
“I pray that this argument is over?” Ben looked from his oldest to his youngest, both nodding in agreement. But somehow Ben knew there were still guilty feelings to be resolved between the two.
“Pa?” Joe’s voice had taken on a child-like quaver.
“Adam said Momma had been married before…”
“Yes, your mother was married to a man who became a friend of mine, only I had never met her until after his death.”
“Can you tell me about him, and more about Momma?”
“I’ll explain what I feel you have a need to know, later tonight. Right now, I think you have some chores to do.”
“Yeah, mine and Adam’s…” Joe stood; he hesitated before turning from his father and heading to the door.
“I’ll help ya Shortshanks,” Hoss offered as he pulled himself from the settee.
“Me too, little buddy,” Adam answered using the term of affection he hadn’t used towards Joe since before he’d left for college.
“Thanks,” Joe offered as his brothers surrounded him, one on either side.
The brothers headed for the door to gather their hats, Ben raised his hand to hide the humor he found in hearing his sons converse among themselves, “Just be thankful I didn’t tell Pa I was sorry for behaving like my older brother here, acting without thinking.”
“That’s normal for you,” Adam jested as he shouldered into his youngest brother, “Besides, I had a better excuse.”
“Yeah?” Hoss encouraged.
“I was only eleven at the time. Joe’s five years older than I was.”
With that, Adam quickly left the house followed just as fast by his brothers.
“Mr. Ben know boys’ hurt and not yell at them,” Hop Sing offered as he refilled the coffee cup. “Hurt not go away.”
“No, but working together will continue to heal the rift between them. And Hoss will make sure they behave themselves.”
“You tell Lit’le Joe about mother?”
“Some, but not all. He doesn’t need to know all of it; just enough to instill in him that we were a happy family and that she was truly loved.”
“Missy Cartwright was loved, and missed,” Hop Sing spoke before turning to the kitchen.
“Yes, she is missed,” Ben replied as he wiped a hand across his eyes. He wondered how Madame deMarigny could still inflict pain on those he loved; all because of her jealousy. She had been jealous of the woman who stole her son’s heart. He couldn’t believe the woman’s actions still bore consequences some twenty years after the fact. Ben remembered Jean’s words about a devil in disguise and envisioned Jean’s mother…
‘I guess sometimes, the ‘what could have been’ can be worse that reality. Had she been a loving and compassionate mother, as Marie had been, Jean never would have traveled out here, to his death. I never would have traveled to New Orleans to inform Marie. We would never have met, never have fallen in love, never married… we wouldn’t have had a child. I guess that’s my silver lining… In addition to Adam and Hoss, I have Joseph.’
Author’s Notes: This story started as a response to a Seedling Challenge, to use Devil in Disguise in a story. The prompt inspired the scene of young Hoss hiding under the wagon and the ensuing conversations. My writing muse came up with the surrounding story, incorporating this scene as a flashback.