Synopsis: Twenty years etched into the memory of a man who stands at the crossroads of his life.
Word Count: 10,815
It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve felt this nervous… The last time I stood with all my worldly possessions at my feet I was prepared to leave for college. Excitement and trepidation consumed me as I thought about leaving my father and my brothers to travel to the other side of the country to study engineering and to meet my grandfather. My mind had always been eager to learn. I remember offering my own advice and asking questions as the layout of our house was crudely drawn out on paper, and then watching Pa and our workers build it. I wanted to know what made the structure function and not fall down like a miss-matched stack of kindling. My desire to understand the construction of our home was only the beginning.
As we wait for the stage, all my memories from those days still gather around me. Joe was almost six and Hoss had turned twelve earlier in the spring. It hadn’t been that long since Marie’s tragic death and Pa felt that he’d asked enough of me, even though he hadn’t actually asked.
During the time he was missing… I guess I shouldn’t get too far ahead of myself, see Pa left home, my brothers, and me, for several months after Marie died. And… I stepped into the role of being a father to take care of Hoss and Joe, to try to put some stability back into their young lives; to let them know they were still loved. I also assumed the running of the Ponderosa. Our ranch foreman was instrumental in seeing that I understood the big picture… the men, the cattle, the horses, and our fledgling lumber operations. Long after my brothers retired for the night, the two of us would discuss what needed to happen, how and when.
After Pa’s return, I stepped back to stand by his side as we tried to put our lives, and our shattered family, back together.
I remember the first night Pa came home, dinner was a quiet affair. Unsure eyes flitted back and forth among the three of us; Joe and Hoss never really looked at Pa. I had the feeling that it was almost as if they didn’t believe he was there; expecting him to disappear and vanish like the morning mountain mist.
Later that evening, as had become habit, I informed Joe and Hoss it was time for them to head on up to bed; telling them I’d be up later to tuck them under their covers. Both immediately followed my instructions, came to hug me and bid me goodnight. I remembered my place when I heard Pa’s voice say, “Good night, boys… Sweet dreams.”
“Uh, night… Pa,” Hoss answered as he looked to where Pa sat; the chair that had remained empty of our father for so long, but now…
Joe hugged me a little tighter and I felt his uncertainty as he involuntarily trembled. I hugged him securely, knowing that today had been difficult for him.
Our had Pa returned right when Joe and Hoss were in a wrestling match with me, and I was letting both my brothers get the upper hand. But Pa didn’t know, and chose that moment to yell at Joe as he jumped on my back and wrapped his arms around my neck and yelled, “Ya can’t make me!” The three of us were having a good time together, almost as it had been before Pa had left. But Pa’s stern, “JOSEPH!” sobered us and Joe lost hold from around me and fell to the ground as I stood up. It had been a shock and a surprise to see Pa sitting there on his horse. I guess none of us handled the situation all too well. Eventually, our manners returned and I welcomed Pa home as I shook his hand. Hoss and Joe warily approached and gave Pa the briefest of hugs.
As we entered our home I had hoped there would be an explanation for his departure, an offering of an apology for leaving us, or something… All he had to say was that he had missed us and it was good to be home. Soon afterwards, Hop Sing announced supper.
But that was earlier. For now, I smiled and nodded while giving my littlest brother a nudge and whispered into his ear, “Go give Pa a hug. It looks like he needs one from you.”
Hoss gathered Joe’s hand and together, both headed to where our father sat. Timid was never a word I would use to describe my youngest brother, but that night, it was the only word I could think of to use. With his head down and the little puffing sound he made as he shuffled his feet across the rug; a little church mouse facing a mountain lion was the image that came to mind.
I didn’t hear what Pa said to Hoss, but I saw the result. A large smile spread across the boy’s face as he threw his arms around Pa’s neck. He’d sat forward to the edge of his chair and held out his own arms to receive his middle son. When Hoss stepped back and turned to Joe, I could see tears welling in my middle brother’s eyes. He’d accepted Pa was home… a hug can heal wonders.
Joe tentatively stepped forward, or was slightly propelled by our brother.
“Good night, Joe,” Pa quietly spoke to his youngest. Still sitting on the edge of his chair, only this time his hands were clasped between his knees, his shoulders indicated his own uncertainty.
Hoss leaned forward and whispered something into Joe’s ear…
“Welcome home… Pa,” Joe quietly replied, his eyes still cast downward.
Pa reached forward with his right hand, palm upturned, but stopped not quite to Joe’s chin.
“I love you Joseph.”
Joe eyes focused on Pa’s hand. At first I wasn’t sure I saw it, but then Joe’s hands were moving. Pa waited with baited breath to see if his youngest would accept him. Joe turned Pa’s hand over, his fingers barely touching the blood vessels and bones as he explored. Moments later, Joe had their hands palm to palm; his own tiny hand was dwarfed by Pa’s. Next, Joe positioned Pa’s hand so it was palm up again and he traced the outline of Pa’s fingers. My little brother looked up, slowly.
I saw hope and grief painted across my father’s face. Hope that Joe would forgive him for leaving, grief because he had abandoned the child produced through the love he’d shared with Marie.
Joe stepped closer and reached forward, moments later Joe pulled himself into Pa’s lap; his head rested on our father’s chest, hands wrapped in Pa’s vest.
“Papa,” Joe quietly cried as tears fell from his eyes. “You’re really here.”
“I’m home, Joseph.”
Loving arms enveloped my youngest brother as Pa rested his cheek to the top of Little Joe’s head after he had planted a kiss there.
I felt a slight amount of jealousy towards my brother right then and there; I wished I could be the one wrapped in Pa’s arms, sitting on his lap; allowing tears to wash away all the hurt. I had been there, years ago, but not now. Probably never again.
Pa knew that it was late, and encouraged Hoss and Joe to go on up to bed. It surprised me when the boys headed up the stairs that Pa didn’t readily follow as he always had in the past; a past that had Marie at his side.
Sitting in the settee and staring into the fire, I heard the long clock by the front door strike the hour and figured I’d given Hoss and Joe time enough together to talk before I headed up. In the past I had enjoyed my brothers joining me in my room as they waited for Pa and Marie, we’d chat about anything and everything, but since I became the father figure… I was on the outside looking in.
As I walked up the staircase, I paused on the mid-landing… On top of my earlier jealousy, now I felt guilty for wishing Pa wasn’t home. Was it wrong of me to wish for one more night of just the three of us? Where the three of us were at ease with each other; and not this strained atmosphere that surrounded our family… Maybe I wanted one more night where I could just be their brother… like before? But now that Pa was home, I wondered if I would ever be accepted completely back to share in their brotherly bonds. Why hadn’t he wired to say he was coming home?
With Joe and Hoss tucked in for the night, I returned to the great room and it honestly didn’t surprise me to find Pa at his desk in the study area. The ledger I had tried so diligently to keep up to date was open and Pa was perusing it. I felt irritated… he couldn’t wait until tomorrow? Didn’t he realize how emotionally draining tonight had been? I didn’t have the energy to expend any more time on those blasted books or talk about the brainless cattle that couldn’t help but get bogged down or caught in brambles or explain how I had to deal with the indolent ranch hands who objected to taking orders from someone my age. I didn’t want to discuss how for two months I’d handled it all – and taken care of my brothers!
‘What about me?!’ I wanted to scream.
Pa closed the ledger and stood up. As he looked at me, I recognized the grief that momentarily flickered across his face.
“You did a good job son. I’m proud of you. Thank you.”
Pa walked over to me and rested a hand on my shoulder and gave me an encouraging squeeze. Before he headed up the stairs, leaving me standing alone in the great room, he said, “I’m so sorry, son.”
I heard the hitch in his voice as I wondered, ‘What was that about?’
Pa had been home for almost as long as he’d been gone when he asked me to join him outside one night. Hoss and Joe looked down from the mid-landing… Pa pointed them on up to bed. As dutiful sons, they obeyed and I followed Pa.
With his pipe in hand, Pa sat down in the rocker placed outside the doorway, he motioned for me to have a seat in the other chair. He inhaled deeply and exhaled… The fragrant smoke wafted on the breeze that blew my direction; it revived memories I’d struggled to tamp down, just like pa does the tobacco in his pipe.
We sat in silence, listening to the sounds of the surrounding woods settle for the night. There was something soothing as the crickets chirped their own melody. An owl called to a mate while the wolves howled as they caught scent of their prey and orchestrated their attack. Our horses shuffled and snorted occasionally within the coral. A few clouds drifted across the sky, veiling the stars and the moon before allowing them to shine again. I took all of this in while waiting for Pa to speak first; after all he was the one who invited me to join him.
Pa canted his head slightly to the side, as if listening to someone whisper, before he stated, “For the longest time it was just the two of us… son.”
“Do you miss those days?”
I looked to my father, curious why he was asking. It had been a long time since it had just been the two of us. Longer yet, than it had been when it was just the two of us.
“I love my brothers…” I answered, not knowing what else to say.
“I know you do. You did a wonderful job watching over them while I was… away. But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“The days of just the two of us are long past… I grew up.”
“Yes, you did… Adam, I’ve been remiss in my duties as your father.” Pa continued on with very little pause. “Please, hear me out. I left here, four months ago blind in grief… I abandoned my home and my sons… my three little boys, even though you’ve not been so little for quite a while. My first night home, I realized what I had done to you.”
As I watched Pa, I sensed that he was looking beyond the confusion on the face of his eldest son.
“My dream drove me west, and I brought you along with me. You had no say in the matter. You came with me because you were my son. And… you grew up much too quickly as we traveled; I feel you didn’t get to enjoy your childhood. And when I… left… I forced you to grow up again… to become a father figure to Hoss and Joe, and to step into my shoes to run the Ponderosa. Again, you had no say in the matter, but you did it… because you’re my son. It staggered me, that night… I’d come home to see everything in its place and every place as it should have been. Everything except you… I finally saw you as a young man instead of my little boy. And I wondered where all that time went. For that, I beg your forgiveness.”
“I did what I had to do. I took care of my brothers because there was no way that I couldn’t not look out for them. As for the Ponderosa… she’s your dream… I didn’t want to see her die.” I looked at Pa, hoping I’d answered his questions, but still the look on his face. “Pa, it was inevitable that I would grow up… As I did what was necessary, so did you. There’s nothing to forgive you for. ”
“Yes, yes there is. You did more than should have… more than should have been asked of you.” Pa held up his hand as I attempted to speak. “I know, I didn’t ask. Before Marie’s death, we were excited about your plans. And through my leaving I forced you to give up on your own dream and I aim to see that corrected. I know we should have spoken that first night, but I could see how draining everything had been. And I didn’t know how to apologize… I hope this can begin to set things right between us.”
Pa handed me an envelope he pulled out from his inner vest pocket. Everything that had been said before was only a preamble. This was the reason for Pa inviting me to come outside with him. By the lantern hanging over the entryway, I noted the return address. Carefully, I opened the envelope and pulled out a sheet of paper. It was a Letter of Admission into one of the more prestigious colleges back east, the one I’d had my heart set on attending, before Marie died.
I stood from my chair and walked across the yard. I didn’t want Pa to see, yet I knew he knew. How could he not, he was my father. Resting my arms on the top rail of the corral and one foot on the bottom, I allowed my tears to fall. Here in my hands I held the proof that my dream was still alive.
From behind, Pa’s comforting hands rested on my shoulders where he firmly squeezed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner what I was doing, I didn’t know if the Dean would accept my explanation of events. You’ll be allowed a late admission, and I’ve hired a tutor to travel with you to make sure you’re ready to face college on your own. The man wants to return to Boston, to his family. He’s even indicated that he’s willing to continue to tutor you as long as necessary.”
“Are you sure? I mean…” I turned and looked around the yard, looking beyond the buildings, seeing everything that was our home.
“Adam, if my eighteen year old son can manage the Ponderosa and his brothers…” He looked at me in that fatherly way he has. “I love you as much as I love your brothers, maybe a little bit more. You’ve been right here by my side and done without so many times… You stepped into filling my shoes when you weren’t ready too, but you did it. I can’t ask any more of you. You deserve a chance to strike out on your own, to experience your own dream. If this is what you really want.”
“I want to learn, Pa. I want to build and understand how to do it properly.”
“Then you’ll go… with my blessing, and my love.”
I tried to stop my tears, to be a man. Pa pulled me away from the fence, his hand cupped the back of my head and he moved me to his shoulder. Those arms that I wished for two months ago felt as good as I imagined they would, as they held me tight. All my hurt and some of my grief washed away with my tears.
Softly Pa spoke, “I can never give you back your childhood, but I can see that your future becomes all you want it to be.”
Before we retired for the night, Pa informed me he was going to give me a few days off to do with as I pleased.
The next morning, as I saddled up Beauty and tied down my bedroll, Pa came up behind me.
“This isn’t going to be easy on your brothers, but you need to express your grief over Marie and have some time strictly for yourself.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow night. And thanks, Pa.” I answered as I climbed into the saddle. Looking over, I saw my brothers one on either side of Hop Sing. “I’ll see you two tomorrow night! Don’t give Hop Sing any grief!”
I rode out of the yard feeling lighter than I had in a long time.
A few weeks later, we waited outside the trading post, for that was all it was back then… It wasn’t even Virginia City, it was known as Eagle Station. There was no official depot; no set time… just an approximate of what part of the day the stage might arrive to transport me to Sacramento, and my tutor. The plan was for us to travel to San Francisco, where we would take a clipper ship south to the Isthmus of Panama. From there, travel progressed via stage coach to the Atlantic, and then a paddle wheeler north to Boston, and my grandfather. It wasn’t safe to travel via overland stage across the western frontiers; there was trouble brewing between various Indian nations and the white man. The United States Army had declared they couldn’t protect all travelers. Pa didn’t want to unnecessarily risk my life or that of my tutor, and so we set to sea.
As if it were yesterday I remember Joe pleading for me not to leave him; he wasn’t old enough to understand the difference between his momma leaving and my leaving. Strange, he wasn’t this upset when I left for a couple of days. I told him I’d be back once I graduated, which only made him cry harder, as he struggled to tell me, “Momma said she’d be back, too.” Now I understood. Two weeks ago I told him exactly when I would be back; two days and one night wasn’t that long. But now… years were a lifetime to a child his age.
The only way I could think to counter Joe’s fears was to remind him that Pa had gone away and come back, but then that would open up a whole other can of worms. I couldn’t leave him wanting to know if Pa came home, why couldn’t his Momma. Instead, I just hugged him fiercely and told him I’d be back, I promised.
Pa knew I needed some time alone with Hoss and so he took Joe from my arms and walked back to the wagon horses. I hadn’t expected Hoss to look as happy as he did. I didn’t want to ask him about it, but I guess he saw my expression. Sometimes he just knows what a person is thinking. My middle brother told me he was looking on my leaving as being something of an adventure. Here I was the one going away to travel on oceans and land I’d only read about in books, and he was eager about it. Not about my departure, but the fact that he’d finally get to be Joe’s big brother.
“Ah shucks Adam, I know I’m his big brother, but it’s different with you here. You’re the real big brother. But with you gone off ta college, I get to be Joe’s ‘BIG’ brother.” Hoss’ eyes grew wide, as big as his smile while stretching his arms out from side to side.
Semantics… but I understood.
I watched them quickly shrink in size as the stage took me away from my home. Hoss was enthusiastically waving his arm over his head while Pa held and tried to sooth a tearful Little Joe in his arms.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
I returned home five years later to find almost everything had changed. The trading post had grown into a small town called Virginia City that was ever expanding. Soldiers, traders, trappers, cowboys, mountain men, and a myriad of other people who populated the frontier came west in droves.
As I stepped from the stage, Pa almost looked the same, a little bit grayer around the temples and peppered throughout his head of hair, but his eyes and words were so filled with emotions. He could tell that during my time away I had matured; I hadn’t been his little boy in a long time and I guess his expression reflected that loss. But his son was home, and that made up for all the heartache.
What surprised me the most on my return was the fact that the two little boys I had left behind were not quite so little anymore. Imagine my astonishment when I realized I had to look up to look Hoss in his ambient blue eyes. And, as I remembered, he heartily welcomed me home; lifting me clean off my feet as he swung me around. He expressed how excited he was to hear of my adventures and all I had seen while on the other side of the country. He couldn’t wait to show me all the new horses and critters that were now on the Ponderosa. He was the same as I remembered; only there was more of him.
And Joe… The little boy who had been so dependent on me was soon to be eleven, and very much his own person. It hurt when he only held out his hand in greeting, I had imagined Little Joe jumping into my arms, wrapping his arms and legs around me has he had done whenever I’d return home from working our land during those months after his mother’s death. My little brother’s green eyes hid a wide range of emotions; wariness, uncertainty, bravado, mischievousness. Oh yes, I saw it all.
But as I told Pa several years ago, ‘I grew up’ and I guess Joe did too.
As we traveled out of town, Joe pointed out various establishments that were keen on his list of places to visit, the general store because of the candy, the livery stable because of the horses, and the blacksmith shop for the same reason.
I can’t believe how much candy a dime would buy back then…
At seventeen, Hoss whispered and pointed out a few places he warned me to stay away from. He told me of how Ross Marquette had gotten into trouble after having his father find him in a rather precarious position in one of the buildings. From the way the women standing on the second floor balcony were dressed, I knew exactly what happened. Pa pushed the team of horses a little faster past these structures, all the while encouraging Little Joe to find a certain piece of candy from within his paper sack.
Time changes everything; it’s a matter of fact with nature. Trees grow or die or are cut down or lost to wild fires. A mighty river cuts a new course during a flash flood or over the millennia it wears down a boulder in the middle of its route. A new stallion takes over a herd of horses. Life and death, it is the cycle of nature.
But in human nature; one step forward, two steps backwards is seems. There were still the ranch hands who objected to taking my orders. Not so much that I was too young, but they felt I was too dandified, too educated, or too stuck up as I’d overheard Joe repeat one night. I think I learned to like it better when my little brother called me a ‘Yankee granite head’. He could be mad as a hornet, but he always said it with an inkling of love. It was just something between us.
As I reintegrated myself into the running of the Ponderosa, I stood my ground and I was knocked off my feet on a few occasions, but more often than not, the name Cartwright prevailed. The hands realized I was my father’s son and I earned their respect. My ideas were drawn to paper and once I’d convinced Pa of their purpose and benefit, they were constructed. The Ponderosa continued to grow and expand, becoming an empire encompassing, cattle, horses, lumber, mineral ore, and my brothers. Pa had written of all the expansions and acquisitions within his letters, but to actually see them…
Hoss had away with animals and the men; that had been evident even before I’d left. Getting over the changes in Joe took the most to get used to. He had a way with horses that scared me, and I saw the same fear reflected in Pa’s eyes. It was scary to imagine Joe instead of Marie riding the horse that tripped and stumbled.
In fact, we didn’t have to imagine it… Pa saw it happen a few years back.
As my brothers grew and their abilities blossomed, they took on their fair share of work, but I do declare that I never thought that Joe would ever live long enough to grow up. The pranks he contrived as an adolescent only became more complicated as he matured. I have no idea how he managed to survive neither his childhood nor his teen years.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
As Joe became a man, there came fist fights in the various bars or out on the range, for the same reasons as I had fought in order to prove myself. He lived his life fast and furious; it was his way of showing everyone that he was just as worthy of the name Cartwright. We never had to worry about Hoss and fistfights, he knew his size and so did the other men.
I guess at times Joe felt we took him for granted, to be our ‘errand boy’. Hoss and I came home to learn he was out to show us, and the world, that he was more than just the little brother, that he could handle a serious job. He’d had enough of how we treated him and informed Pa he was going to take the job as temporary sheriff over in Rubicon; which only sent us to laughing again. Yeah, we’d get stuck doing his chores, but we thought it funny that he still needed us to help take care of him and here he thought he could take care of a town. Who wouldn’t set to laughing at the image of Joe Cartwright being a sheriff, temporary as it was.
It was funny, until several days later when a young woman, Sylvia Ann Goshen, showed up in the middle of the night saying that Joe was going to be killed. It had all been a set up by the town’s cowardly mayor, her father. I remembered our ride, fearing that the way I had treated my little brother had drove him from home, and ultimately to his death. I should have known better, when we arrived in Rubicon, this was Joe we’re talking about. Turns out he found out about the setup. Had it been me, I’d probably have left them to fend for themselves. That’s not right, I wouldn’t have been suckered into the situation in the first place. But as I said, this was Joe… The way he saw it he had a job to do and he did it.
Another time, Joe spent the night orchestrating a bid on a lumber contract with Sun Mountain; a contract Pa was eager to steal away and shove down Will Poavey’s throat. Pa and I had spent the evening before trying to discuss the figures that would win us the contract… a bid that I ultimately agreed with Pa to forget about. We understood the economics… financially we couldn’t meet the specifications and be profitable. The distance to travel and the teams of horses and drivers required were cost prohibitive. I didn’t see it. But he did, Joe had the vision and jumped in feet first. His idea was to build a flume to deliver the timber down to the river, knocking off countless days and miles of hauling the felled trees across land. There were plenty of lumberjacks who were just as good on the water as on the land.
My little brother became the bull of the woods; that is until one of his ‘buddies’ realized that Joe was a Cartwright. Oh, he knew my little brother’s last name, but he’d never seen Joe be that responsible before. Pa told us how Joe came home, like a dog with his tail tucked between his legs and received the same lecture Hoss and I had received years ago – united we stand, divided we fail. It seems my little brother forgot that even after ‘on my own’ is declared that the Cartwrights stick together and help when it seems the darkest. The three of us stood by our youngest member and took directions from him, but he also was smart enough to listen to our suggestions.
Over the years there were so many times I just wanted to give up on him, declaring he’d never grow up, life was a game to him as was evidence by his playing with the epee left to him by his mother. But then he’d go and prove me wrong, again. He stood up against our friends and neighbors when the posse turned vengeful and was ready to hang a man who had murdered Vannie Johnson. The only problem… Joe and I stood between them. The man was guilty, he’d admitted it, but the sentence had to be handed down and carried out by the law. We swore to get the man back to town in order to stand trial. With me knocked out, Joe held off the posse, our friends, at gunpoint. My little brother… Yes he questioned me on why go through the bother since the man had confessed, but Joe finally understood that this was the way it had to be… The way civilized people carried out the law.
Then there was the time we were framed and bound to be hung… actually, Pa and I were twice in that predicament. The first time, Joe had Hoss at his side when Pa and I had been charged with murder and convicted, right here in Virginia City. Regardless of all their efforts, our friends returned to their darkened homes and waited. Thankfully, a stranger came to town and was able to convince the key witness to admit the truth of what she’d seen, not what she believed had happened. I know they promised Pa, but I know my brothers. I’m sure Hoss and Joe were ready to break us out of jail… to shoot anyone who stood in the way of their effort to rescue us. But it never came to that.
The second time we faced the gallows… again the charge was murder but committed while robbing the bank in Alkali. Funny how we could have arrived so late at night and by morning have ascertained how much money was in the bank and killed one of the tellers. It was our unfortunate luck that the money we’d received from the sale of our herd of cattle was used as evidence against the four of us. Ten thousand dollars was missing from the bank and my saddlebags contained ten thousand dollars. We were tried and convicted in a mockery of a court, but Joe managed to escape as Pa, Hoss, and I argued the verdict and the sentence.
Knowing our lives were held in the balance, Joe went for help with a posse fast on his tail. We worried and fretted that he’d be caught. My little brother knew what he had to do, all the while staying within the confines of the law. Joe did it, just barely, but he proved the sheriff and his two deputies were the real culprits.
As we rode home from Alkali, all four of us, we thought on our youngest… We’d had plenty of time to talk while waiting in jail, hoping that Joe could evade the posse and would stay away. We were angry for the treatment we received from this town, and had no other recourse other than to accept our fate since we were strangers. Our one bright thought during our incarceration was if Joe just stayed away, he’d be safe. But this was Joe
We took the time to enjoy our freedom. Yet, Pa was still worried, his baby appeared to be a bundle of energy riding out in front of us and then returning before setting off again.
“He’s scared,” I remembered telling my family after Pa shook his head as he watched Joe’s latest departure.
“Shortshanks scared? Nah,” Hoss blew me off as he watched Joe run Cochise over the next rise.
“He is,” Pa replied. “He’s not ready to be on his own. He still needs us.”
Hoss and I looked to our father and waited for his explanation to continue.
“This was the first time he’s faced the possibility that he would be alone… Sure, there’ve been times in the past when he’s had to face the possibility that one of us might not return home, but he’s never faced all of our deaths.” We rode in silence as we thought about Joe and his past. “How long has it been since he bolted from that ‘court’?” Pa’s words dripped with derision. “Thirty-six, forty hours?”
“Somewhere between,” Hoss answered.
“And who all rode into Alkali to help back him up?” Pa asked.
I envisioned all the ranchers and the hands, our friends, who rode with Joe to surround the town. It wasn’t just our men; there were ranchers from miles around; and not just along a straight line between there and home.
“He was desperate to save us. How much sleep has he had while we cat-napped and slept in that jail? He’s ridden how many hours, non-stop, to get back home, to get our men and our friends. And he made it back before they hung us,” Pa finished.
“But Pa, Cochise is still fresh…” Hoss countered.
“He’d never put that horse at risk, he probably borrowed a horse at the first ranch house he came to and then picked him back up once everyone was together,” Pa suggested.
“He’s riding on raw nerves,” I answered.
“Fear drove him, and still has a grip on him…” Pa corrected.
“He’s gotta be exhausted,” Hoss mustered.
We kicked our horses forward, enough of this leisurely ride; we needed to get Joe home. We needed to put Alkali behind us.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
Could our little brother have done any of this without me? I’d like to think not; I’d like to believe that I was a huge part of shaping the man he’s grown to be.
Joe did make us proud, but then there was Red Twilight. I don’t know where or how I summoned the strength to follow Joe out into the barn. The bullet crease across my temple throbbed in rhythm with my pulse. I wanted so much to collapse, to leave it all to someone else. But I had promised Hoss… I promised Hoss that I wouldn’t allow Joe to do anything stupid. The words muddled in my mind as I tried to calm my hot tempered bother, but everything I said only drove him further into his rage. Drove him further because I found out the truth, the whole time he rode with me to find Twilight, he was planning on killing the man. Finally, while Joe held a gun to the man’s head, I told him to do it. Go ahead and kill the man. Satisfy his revenge. Fall to the same level of the man he was going to kill and I hoped he enjoyed it. I was desperate. I couldn’t stand there and watch my little brother destroy his life for a man like Twilight. I also couldn’t face the possibility of losing both my brothers; Joe to a hanging, even if the man was a murderer, he was unarmed. And Hoss still wasn’t out of the woods yet, according to Doctor Martin. I saw the anger leave my brother’s body as light returned to his eyes. And then Hoss called to our brother. He stood right there in the open doorway of the barn and admitted he was going to be all right.
Yes, it’s rare, but sometimes my emotions take control of my normally ordered thinking process. I’ll never admit to Pa how right he was in his fears of what Joe might do. For the sake of my brothers, thank God the words from my jumbled mind got through to Joe. Thank God that Hoss was going to be alright as well.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
Looking back on my relationship with Hoss, I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I accepted that Hoss wanted to take care of himself, he didn’t want his older brother helping him. I understood, he was big enough that no one would pick on him for being small. But I didn’t take into consideration the opposite; because he was so big for his age that the other schoolboys would tease him about being stupid and such. He kept that from me for a while… but big brothers have a way of learning secrets. I helped him put those bullies in their place; he studied hard and placed first in his class that year. It was a long year for me.
When it was time for Joe to attend school, Hoss became a champion for our little brother; the bullies had transferred their aggression from the largest Cartwright to the smallest. I imagine Joe felt like Hoss had when I stuck up for him. And so Hoss let Joe prove himself, to a certain point. It still didn’t make it any easier on Hoss, but he survived school; albeit leaving earlier than Pa would have preferred. But Pa finally accepted that Hoss wouldn’t be following in my footsteps when it came to his education. He was content on the ranch. He knew more than enough to work the Ponderosa and he’d be able to manage some of the contracts just fine with Pa and me there to guide him.
I never really got into arguments that much with Hoss; he always accepted what Pa or I had to say. We worked well together and played even harder. My middle brother is a gentle soul, compassionate about animals, defender of the small, nervous about women, and all too hard on himself when his actions injure another. That’s what happened; his grief drove him away from family and right into Red Twilight’s vengeance and a bullet in the back.
Did I mention that Hoss was nervous around women? Toe dragging and tongue twisting was his modus operandi when it came to dealing with those of the opposite sex. Hoss lacked confidence in himself and worried that his size might cause harm to a little gal. He’d be happy at a local dance talking with the widows or older folks. Most of the time that is; but there was the one time when a real beauty of a woman came to town… Ragan Miller. Hoss fell for her, hook, line, and sinker. But I’d known her kind, I’d seen them frequently enough back in Boston. Bored to a fault, a woman who lived by the excitement of drawing men to her like bees to honey; and then on to the next man when the thrill wore off. Maybe a fly to the spider was as better analogy.
But Hoss was bound and determined that she would be the next Mrs. Cartwright… the first Mrs. Eric Cartwright. How does an older brother go about destroying a brother’s dream?
I’m not sure which type of woman is worse, Ragan Miller or Deborah Banning and her daughter Melinda. If I ever again attempt to step between one of my brothers and the woman of their dreams… I’d do it again in a heartbeat to prevent either of them from being hurt, regardless of the punches I know they’ll throw. I’d do it because they’re my brothers, and I promised their mothers I’d look out for them.
But there were also many brotherly occasions; bantering, drinking, teasing, working long hours side by side.
I remember the time when the three of us thought Pa was getting up there in years, that he needed to slow down. We were faced with rustlers on the Ponderosa and refused to let Pa ride with us. Well, the three of us ended up being trapped by the men we were after. It became serious when Hoss was shot in the leg, and we were on the verge of running out of ammunition and had no way to rescue ourselves. But low and behold our own personal knight in shining armor showed up in the presence of our father. I can still laugh at Josh Tatum wishing it had been the ‘little one’ instead of Hoss that they had shot as we began to carry my large brother home. Joe took offense to that statement, and I’m sure our middle brother wasn’t quite as comfortable as he appeared while lying on the stretcher we constructed after Pa ‘saved’ us.
I’m glad to have Hoss as a brother; and I remember how we almost lost him when Mr. and Mrs. Vandervoort found him, suffering amnesia. Even now, the emotions are difficult to handle, the fact that Pa was willing to give up a son that he would die for, instead of holding on to him and possibly causing him any more hurt. It hit Joe hard, Pa’s actions, but what else could Pa do? Who am I kidding, it hit me hard too, only I was better able to keep my emotions hidden. Like in the past, I was good at keeping my feelings from Pa because he had enough to deal with; I couldn’t add to Pa’s burden. He was ready to let Hoss go to Ohio, as the Vandervoort’s son, so he would still be a part of a family that could offer him comfort and security.
Oh if I ever hear that word again… security. There was the incident surrounding our purchasing a Kentucky thoroughbred to run in the Founders’ Day race. Hoss and I were so sure of ourselves… I should have remembered Proverbs and Hubris; pride goes before a fall… And then to find out the ultimate betrayal? Hoss placed a bet on our brother, NOT our thoroughbred.
We had many a good times, and there were the trips into town that both of us hoped Pa never found out about. I mean we were men, and Pa can’t expect us to be celibate all our lives… I was mortified the first time Joe ever followed us to town… But as the evening wore on, I realized it wasn’t actually his first time, he was too calm… there was no eager anticipation or nervousness. The thought that Joe at eighteen had already been upstairs caused me to blush as I tried to figure out which saloon and which girl had garnered the feather in her cap over my little brother.
One always wants to remember the past and the good times, but there were dire times involving my family and my friends. The time I accidentally shot and almost killed Joe out at Montpelier Gorge and him suffering an attack from that damn wolf we were tracking. I’m not sure whose suffering was worse, the physical injuries Joe suffered or the emotional wounds caused when I had to cut into my own brother’s flesh. I couldn’t walk away as the fever took hold and Joe kept reliving the memory of the attack. I couldn’t walk away, not until I knew whether he would recover. And if he didn’t… Actually, the more time passed, the more I wished to go back to Boston, to where civilized men didn’t have to strap a gun to their leg.
I came close to leaving the Ponderosa then, but changed my mind when my brother’s fever broke and later when he informed our father about how I ‘clobbered that wolf’. I also found out that had I left, my youngest brother would have never forgiven himself. That revelation came when we talked once he was healed; he apologized for putting me through everything. He admitted he should have listened to me in the first place and headed home. Had we gone home, the shooting, the wolf attack, and Sheila Reardon would never have happened.
I’ll also never forget when I was forced to kill my best friend Ross Marquette. It was mind boggling to realize he’d killed Delphine by beating her to death, but that only came after the cattle rustling, robbing a stage, and killing another man. This wasn’t the man and friend I had known and stood up for as the best man at their wedding. I had to find out why and in my efforts, I had no choice but to defend myself when he came after me. It took a long time to get over the entire tragedy. I tried to deal with it alone, but it was my father’s guidance that eventually saw me past the nightmare.
It just goes to prove one never really knows anyone… I proved another friend guilty of murder. Toby didn’t deserve to die like that. It didn’t make sense why Bill Enders robbed that way station; it made about as much sense as the fact that I knew it was him. No one else believed my claim, all because I didn’t see his face. That was one occasion where Joe’s description of me was accurate – Yankee granite head. I got the notion in my head and wouldn’t let go. I had to prove it was possible to be at the way station and make the trip to Virginia City. Everyone agreed the ride couldn’t be made in the allotted time. Hoss and Joe agreed with those in town, but they were willing to go along with me, because they were my brothers. I should have been upset that I failed to make the ride in the allotted time… But in the end it didn’t matter, I told Hoss and Joe when they finally arrived; Mary Enders confessed everything.
There were no winners. Nothing can change the past… Toby is still dead and Roy took a bullet from Bill, who took a bullet from Pa. There wasn’t that much of a trial, and the only reason Bill wasn’t sentenced to hang was because of the baby Mary was carrying.
I’ve heard it say that everyone has a double, somewhere. Joe had one in Angus Borden. It chilled me when I found out how close Joe came to losing his life in front of a firing squad. Knowing what Joe had gone through didn’t prepare me to face my own twin, Tom Burns. It’s one thing to look at yourself in a mirror and have the image mimic you move for move, but to stare into the face of a man and have him be the total opposite of you… Who’s to say which individual is the original? Could this have been my life had I not been raised by Ben Cartwright? It was a sobering ride home as I thought of how alike and how different we were; how different my life could have been… how different his life could have been had he been me.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
Last night, I laid on my bed; ankles crossed and my hands behind my head with my fingers interlaced. The flicker of light from the low burning lamp flame danced across the ceiling of my room. I thought of all the lessons I’d taught my brothers, had they learned enough? Deep down I knew the answer to that question, but I was uncertain to admit the real question that kept me from my sleep, was I ready? Was I ready to accept that my time here was done? Was there anything else I could teach my brothers to make sure they were prepared to face life without me?
I drifted off to sleep knowing Joe and Hoss were ready to stand on their own, they’d learned everything I had to teach them, and more. They knew how to back each other up as they had backed me up, together and separately. They were brothers…
As my eyes closed I finally accepted that I was ready to step out of the shadows cast by my family name, shadows wrapped with protection, warmth, and love in abundance… I was ready to strike out on my own.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
I woke to thoughts of family; those who had visited us over the years, Hoss’ Uncle Gunnar Borgstrom, Joe’s other brother Clay Stafford, Pa’s Cousin Clarrisa Cartwright, and our Cousin Will Cartwright… It’s not yet been a year, but I am still quite thankful to Will for having fallen in love with Laura Dayton, and saving me from making the biggest mistake of my life. Sure I miss Peggy…
I thought of Inger Borgstrom, who married my father and became my first step-mother. She shared in Pa’s dream, but she never saw it realized. She gave me a brother, only to lose her life a short time later while helping to defend the other settlers and her sons from a band of Indians. I see a lot of her charm and compassion in her son, my brother Hoss. She’s buried back at Ash Hollow… I wish it were possible to find her grave and bring her to the Ponderosa, but it has been so many years. Is the small grave marker even still standing?
As I remembered the past, I wished some events had never happened, the senseless losses… but then.
There was the death of Jean deMarigny who worked for my father and became my friend. I wish Jean had not been killed. But Jean did die. Pa traveled to New Orleans to notify his widow, Marie deMarigny. My father ultimately vindicated her honor, and came home with a new wife and step-mother for his two sons.
Months later, after Marie announced her pregnancy, we all were waiting on Joe, only we didn’t have as long to wait as we thought. My littlest brother came into the world almost a month early. And from the moment he learned to crawl, never again were we waiting on Joe, but following and running after him all the time; except when he slept. Correction, we occasionally still wait on him, when he’s getting himself ready to take a beautiful girl to a dance.
At times I wish I could go back and change the past… Had my mother not died after my birth… Had Inger not died in that Indian attack… Sure, there might have been other children, but they wouldn’t be Hoss or Joe. I can’t envision my life with different brothers; especially after Pa once warned me to be careful what I wished for… I could have gotten a sibling much worse. Yeah, they both can be irritating, but they are my brothers, and I love them. If that horse hadn’t stumbled and if Marie hadn’t died… I’d do anything to spare Joe the pain of losing his mother and Pa losing a third wife.
I thought back on the time I spent in Boston with my grandfather, Abel Stoddard. He never had the chance to see my father’s dream fulfilled in person, but he lived it through Pa’s letters and my stories. I wanted him to come west, to join us, but he passed away two years after I graduated from college and is buried next to his wife and daughter, my mother, in a small church-yard cemetery on the outskirts of Boston. His death was sudden and I was not able to return in time for his funeral. I authorized the ship chandler’s store that Grandfather owned to be sold to one of his former first mates, Gordon Rigney. Gordon had turned down his own chance at captaincy in order to live the quiet life, and help Grandfather manage his business. Over the years I’ve heard Gordon has continually expanded the business and has become quite successful.
Many of my former college colleagues have gone on to do well for themselves in their fields of study and expertise. And then there’s me.
I guess during the years following my graduation, you could say I was successful; everything I learned I brought back to the Ponderosa and used to help ensure her success, and that of my brothers.
I’m proud of both my brothers and their accomplishments. Hoss will be able to manage the land and the men, and Joe… now that he knows how to direct all aspects of the Ponderosa, he’ll do fine. He knows how to negotiate the contracts, and more importantly, he knows how to fill my shoes — how to be Pa’s right hand man.
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
As I said earlier, all my worldly possessions are packed at my feet. This time it isn’t Pa encouraging me to leave, to fulfill a dream. This time, it is my heart. I’ve done everything I knew how to do. I’ve given everything I have to give… But no longer could the Ponderosa or my family fulfill me. Something was drawing me away.
Stating that he needed a moment, Pa stepped away and into Mr. Johnson’s hardware store, I knew he had a list to drop off. Mr. Johnson’s only son was one of my best friends. He joined the army back in 1861. We all prayed he’d come home, but the battle accounts written in the papers from the War Between the States were gruesome. The number of lives lost was mind boggling, and many young men laid for their eternal rest in unmarked or unidentified graves in places like Manassas, better known as the Battle of Bull Run to the Union forces, Harper’s Ferry, Sharpsburg, Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. If we could have only known…
I remembered the news reports painting vivid pictures, causing my core to shudder. Ghastly images flickered through my mind as a battlefield came into sharp focus. A cacophony of sounds deafened the area. Rifles firing, concussive booms preceded the whistling of projectiles as they traveled through the air, screams of men and animals suffering mortal wounds, commanders barking out orders…
Smoke hung heavy over both sides; a deathly shroud thick enough that eyes watered in irritation and lungs gasped short breaths, starving for clean air. Soot from the black powder used in the rifles and the cannons coated skin and uniforms; blurring the faces and the colors so that one had to look hard to recognize the soldier and his unit.
Craters pock marked the grassy field, in front of and behind the battle lines, as cannon balls and artillery shells impacted the ground; metal fragments exploded out from the epicenter. Dead and dying soldiers litter the field or hung from the split rail fences, while the maimed struggled to find safety. A commanding officer tumbled from his dead horse; dying or unconscious, it was impossible to tell. Dirt rained upwards before gravity pulled it down from the sky.
I guess that was why Pa was so against even discussing the conflict. One son having been born in Boston stood loyal to the north and took a stand against slavery. Another son knew that slavery was wrong; however, he was loyal to the memory of his mother and her southern heritage. Deep down, Pa feared our leaving to fight, and knowing there was a good chance he would lose us both; the same as so many other parents who wept over the death of a son or two.
My emotions ran high when Frederick Kyle came through town. I was all ready to leave and declare my allegiance to the North. Slavery was wrong, and that was my primary focus in supporting this war.
I couldn’t help it, it seemed like Joe’s efforts were going to sway the mine owners. How could they not promise the mineral ore from the Comstock to the South? Kyle was very convincing, and had the backing of one Cartwright. But I knew the little bit of gold and all that silver would ultimately find its way into the hands of the English. The Confederacy needed England’s man power and support in order to win the war of aggression brought down by the Union.
Pa was ultimately able to take his stance to the mine owners, and my little brother… We were one country, one house, one family… we shouldn’t encourage one side over the other in such squabbles. War is ugly and there was never a real winner. In the cost of human life, both sides lost. But I still left.
I thought I had set my course, but once I was alone and had time to really think. It wasn’t Pa’s words that affected me… It was the thought of Joe possibly following my footsteps that stopped me cold. Oh sure, I told Joe when he caught up with me that the only reason I hadn’t gotten farther along was because the beauty of Lake Tahoe got under my skin. I couldn’t tell him the truth. Joe would have balked and maybe he would have left in order to prove himself, and to prove me wrong. This was a secret that I planned to take my grave; I needed to make sure he grew up, that he could handle the Ponderosa. I guess even back then I knew I would one day leave.
Hoss was making sure all my bags and my trunk were accounted for, that he hadn’t lost any on our way into town. I wondered if he was looking forward to being the BIG brother as he had so many years ago. He sure had grown into the role. He would be a good sounding board and second conscious if Joe ever felt overwhelmed to a point and he couldn’t talk to Pa about a situation. So much like their schemes as children, they were always there for each other.
Looking to Joe, he was tying Cochise to the back of the buckboard. He turned away from me, but not before I saw his shimmering eyes. We had finally come to an understanding… brothers we would always be, but now we stood toe to toe as equals. We were men capable of running the empire that was and is the Ponderosa.
Looking over the town from in front of the stage depot I mused about the past. The trading post had long ago fallen to dust and the court house stood erected in its place. Those houses with the scantily dressed women were consigned to D and E Streets. Law and order came full-time to Virginia City when Sheriff Roy Coffee pinned on the badge and took the oath of office. Eventually Clem Foster became his deputy when Roy realized the town had grown to be more than he could handle alone. The Bucket of Blood and the Silver Dollar saloons are now upscale establishments, though they still suffer the occasional brawl.
How many times did Cartwright money pay to fix what Cartwrights broke? I huffed to myself; it almost seems like yesterday… Where do the good times go?
B ~ O ~ N ~ A ~ N ~ Z ~ A
Damn, why is this time so much harder? Twenty years ago, I stood on the precipice of my life, ready to expand my horizons by leaving my family and heading off to college; knowing I would return. Today, I’m standing on the edge of an abyss… I’m nervous because I don’t know exactly where I’m going or what I’m going to do… yet, it’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited at the prospect of tomorrow and the unknown of what will happen. Life is calling me, calling me away from my family and my home of homes. There’s a whole world out there waiting for me that I’m eager to explore.
This time my leaving is so much harder because my family is grieving… I’d like to tell them I’ll be back; unlike the last time, I honestly can’t say.
As the stage lurched into motion, it took longer for the sight of my father and grown brothers bidding me goodbye to fade from my field of vision. Hoss eagerly waved as he had so many years go. Pa waved goodbye with one hand and with the other offered a comforting hand upon Joe’s shoulder. My youngest brother stood between his remaining family, raised his hand and held it there. Maybe that was his way of asking me one last time to stay. As if he was trying to halt the stage, only the driver didn’t see because we were heading away from him. Honestly, I pray that he’s saying, ‘go in peace.’
I refused to avert my eyes until Virginia City blurred into the hues of the surrounding landscape and became indistinguishable. As I take this giant step forward in my life, never will my family vanish from my memory. I am who I am because of them, and I hope they feel the same; that some of me rubbed off on them and made them who they are today, and tomorrow.
Settling in to making myself comfortable on the cushions, a calmness pervades my soul… This is it… I’m finally going to live my dream.
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