Abide (by Debbie L)

Summary: Sequel to “The Return” How does a man abide in a world he never knew? How does he make the choice to remain? How does a family show him the way?*
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  12,350

*The following story is a sequel to “The Return” and should be read in chronological order.


                             

Brought low, Joe Cartwright raised his face from the dust. The other man had already braced himself against his knees, leaning forward and exhaling. Find his weakness, Joe urged himself, the moment of his undoing. Nothing came to him, until the huge man snorted, his victory already won. At that sound, he smiled slightly through the throbbing of his battered face. Now he could see the way. Arrogance. It could do a man in, every time. Still sprawled on the ground, he waited until his enemy rolled his shoulders with languor, like a libertine waking up after a good night.

“Guess that’ll teach you,” the man said. “Won’t look so pretty in the morning. Now I don’t want to see you around our decent women. Stick to your own kind. Stick to your own kind of trash, like your mother -“

The moment was not quite perfect but it was just, and Joe knew as well as anyone that justice was hard to come by in this life. He pounced from the dust, the small knife already cradled in his left hand. He struck his knee at the man’s most vulnerable center, downing him instantly. He straddled him then and flicked his knife at the exposed base of the man’s throat.

“Street fighting in all its glory,” Joe proclaimed, still panting. The man’s eyes widened considerably, at the tickle of pain that left a crimson speck in its wake.

“Now, I really can’t kill you,” Joe continued mildly. “Pa wouldn’t like it. And I’m new here, so I’ve got to be good, but you already knew that didn’t you? I don’t think he’d be bothered if I just poked you a bit. Now my mother, that’s another story. You remember my mother? You mentioned her earlier, outside the saloon? She might have never let me come home, if I didn’t cut your throat. Good thing for you she’s not here, wouldn’t you say?”

“Good thing,” the man hissed, the cords of his neck taut with disbelief and fear. Who would have imagined that this slip of a boy could have managed this? He had seemed so ripe for the picking. As the knife flicked again against his neck, the man could remember the nerve of the boy holding court in the saloon a mere hour ago, as though he were king of the world. The gall of it, and the look on the saloon girl’s face as she sat talking quietly with him. That boy was no more a Cartwright than he was. Any fool could see just what kind of boy this was.

The man had followed the boy out of the saloon and had watched as Joe had adjusted the saddle on the pinto. While not the type of man who thought in complete sentences, he only knew he would like to cause the kid pain. He aimed to confront him right there on the street, but then she unexpectedly trotted around the corner, the pretty girl, the one he had longed to see. He tipped his hat to her, but she forged past not quite seeing him, her eyes narrowing in on that boy.

“Joe Cartwright,” she teased, perching her hands at her waist. The two stood close enough to him, that the man could hear every word. “It is high time you come to church with your family. Why, it’s a scandal that you’ve never been. Everyone says so. And the church picnic will be here before you know it.”

“Now Emily,” Joe answered with a hint of a smile. “I’m sure the good people of Virginia City have more to worry about than saving my soul. Aren’t there enough saints to fill the pews from here to Carson City?”

Emily’s saucy smile stalled, uncertain. Since he had arrived three months earlier, under such titillating circumstances, Joe Cartwright had become the ultimate challenge to bored young ladies for miles around. Handsome enough to steal your breath away, but made respectable by that Cartwright name, he was a tantalizing prospect indeed. Emily just knew she could catch him if given half a chance. But now, lingering in front of a saloon her mother would never even name, flirting with a boy her father would shoot if given half a chance, well… Emily wasn’t so sure. There was a well of danger in that boy and who could tell if he had hit bottom.

Joe sighed. He had seen the hesitation gather in her eyes. Not that it mattered. He knew that she would have moved quickly to the other side the street had he caught her eye in New Orleans. Yet, there was no point in holding it against her. She was only a girl, after all.

“Hey, come to think of it, I do have some sins that could use forgiving. Come say hello on Sunday, all right?” he said.

In her element again, Emily flashed her very pretty smile and hurried away. She would be quick to boast to the other girls of this triumph, even if she wasn’t sure about the prize. Joe returned to the pinto, the first love of his life in his life, in Virginia City.

The man stood watching the boy, acid and revulsion rising in his throat. How dare he even speak to a girl like that? Somebody had to remind that boy who he really was.

*****

As he straddled his opponent, Joe paused for a moment, the man still pinioned by the tip of his knife. Oddly enough, he felt satisfied, even settled. He had all the time in the world. His anger at this man’s words about his mother still drove him. Yet, it was almost a relief to have finally heard honest words spoken. The man had simply said out loud what everyone else was thinking.

“I think you’re going to have to apologize to the lady,” he said, in a voice that did not reflect his young age.

“Lady?” the man sputtered, his neck slick with blood and sweat. “No lady here. You’re crazy, boy.”

“Oh, she’s here. She’s always here,” he said and began to flick the knife once more. During the course of this battle, the world around him had darkened until it was nothing more than a tunnel of light that contained only the man, Joe, and the knife. He did not sense the horses that were abandoned a safe distance back, did not hear the trepidation of footsteps at his back, and certainly did not see the understood gesture between the two men that had always signaled one word – Now!

Joe flew backward to the ground, as the massive hands threw him aside; the bloody knife lay just as uselessly in the dust. He heard the sound of guns cocked before he managed to lift his head toward the back of his two brothers with their guns drawn.

“All right Dalman.” Adam’s voice sounded calm, even bored to someone who did not know him. “I suggest you get up and ride. While you still can.”

“That boy’s crazy. He’s crazy,” Dalman protested, his hand pressed against his bleeding neck. “He came at me, I tell you. He needs to be locked up, put away. He has no call to be living among decent folk.”

“Yeah, and you had nothing to do with his face.” Hoss’s voice sounded almost soothing in its fury. “He’s sixteen, you-. Now you better get, run quick you hear. If I see you so much as look at that boy, there won’t be enough of your throat left to hang.”

Still shaken, Nate Dalman rose and pointed furiously at Joe. “I tell you, that boy’s trouble. You Cartwrights should get rid of him or send him back to that -“

The gun’s recoil kicked Adam back up against Joe who still sprawled in the dirt, the fight in him already spent. The bullet, aimed at Dalman’s feet, sprayed gravel into the man’s face and mouth. Immediately, he retreated towards the horse he had left tethered at the old oak.

“That boy ain’t no Cartwright,” he muttered. He would ride away but he would not forget this humiliation, this violation of the natural of order of things. “This ain’t over. I won’t let it be over.”

This isn’t over, Adam sighed, as he watched the man disappear through the trees. It was never over, the first time around. Pa always said that good triumphed in the end, but Adam knew very well that evil could give them one hell of a ride.

He turned away then and dropped to his knees, next to his two brothers. Hoss already held the boy, probing the myriad of scrapes and abrasions marring his face, with blunt, gentle fingers. As skilled fighters, both men could read the story of the fight in every bruise and cut on the boy’s face. Adam reached for Joe’s chin and turned it this way and that. With a grunt of relief, he could find no damage that time and liniment would not repair. Even through the scorch of his rising anger, he appreciated that the boy did not pull away from his touch.

“Damn fool thing,” he said, noting that the boy began to shake in the onslaught of adrenaline and fear. “Unbelievable. I’d beat the hell out of you if you weren’t done in already. What did you think you were doing, fighting a man like that? Nate Dalman? You could have been dead and half buried, by the time Hoss and I found you.”

“But I wasn’t,” Joe said, finally finding his man’s voice. He had been dangerously close to crying in his brother’s arms. Adam’s anger had saved him from giving it all away. “I had it under control. What did you think you were doing anyway, getting in my way? What makes you think I need your help? You’re calling me a fool? Next time I see him, he’ll be sure to take me on, thanks to you!”

“Next time?” Adam exploded and sprung to his feet. He flung his hat to the ground, stormed to the nearest tree, and barely resisted breaking his fist against it. He turned back to his brothers. “Next time? So help me God, boy, if you go near that man, I’ll kill you myself. What were you going to do, slit his throat? Don’t you know you’d be hanging from a rope before Sunday? What were you thinking? That man outweighs you by at least a hundred pounds!”

“It was kind of something,” Hoss tried hard to keep a straight face. “Seeing a puny thing like you sitting on top of a giant like Nate Dalman. Lordy, it was like watching David and Goliath all over again!”

“That’s enough Hoss,” Adam snapped. “This is serious and you know it. You’re not doing him any favors. The way you and Pa tiptoe around him, the two of you are going to coddle him all the way to his grave.”

Joe rolled his eyes, and pushed himself away from Hoss, glaring at Adam in disbelief. This had certainly gone far enough. Didn’t they realize he had saved himself from men like Nate Dalman his whole life through? Oh, yes indeed, he knew monsters. With a set to his jaw, he allowed himself the memory of his hands slick with his mother’s spilled blood. He closed his mind to it. That was enough. A man could not go on living with monsters under his skin. He struggled to his feet, swaying slightly with the legacy of whiskey and pain.

“I can take care of myself,” he repeated. “I want to go home.”

As he walked slowly to his horse, Hoss and Adam looked at each other. Neither had to ask each other the question that had stepped out of the stage that day in the form of a sixteen-year-old boy. Who exactly was Joe Cartwright and how would he fit in their lives?

*****

Ben paced. He had marked a path from his desk to the table to the hearth and back again. Since Joe had returned, three months earlier, he could have sworn he was wearing off the finish of the old wide-planked floor, his own trail of worry.

Joe was late, of course. His life in New Orleans seemed to have left the boy with no regard for clocks or deadlines, for schedules, for even the passage of time. He had tried, especially at first. Ben doubted that Joe even slept at all, that first month, he was so bound and determined to wake up in time for breakfast. While working on chores or other tasks around the ranch, he noted how the boy studied his brothers and the other hands, careful to imitate the habits of their day. He was a quick learner, that new son of his.

He remembered Marie’s first months at the Ponderosa, her kind attention to Hoss and Hop Sing, and the gradual weakening of Adam’s determination to despise his third mother, barely out of her teens. He could never have doubted that she could accomplish anything she set out to do. Certainly, she had perfected her own disappearance, and he shook his head at the tragedy of their marriage, at the loss of that boy. How could these past months, this blind stumble into fathering, possibly restore Joseph Cartwright to the life of a family his other two sons had always known?

And that boy was late. Adam had practically told his father that he was a fool to send Joe to Virginia City alone. Adam was often right. But the errand was so banal, so simple to complete. Deliver a message to Nelson at the bank, return the holster to the central livery, and pick up the mail: tasks that should have taken up an afternoon at best. And his young son had wanted to go, was, in fact, desperate for it, but he wore his impatience graciously, and Ben could think of no good reason to say no. Adam and Hoss had plenty of work to do around the ranch and he had certainly managed to survive so far during his life with seemingly little supervision of any kind. But Ben wondered at the price that had been paid for that survival? He had seen the ghost of New Orleans drift into the boy’s eyes. Bubbles in honey, Marie had called it, but to Ben, that city had been haunted by the ghosts of old sins.

The familiar sound of horses riding fast broke into his reverie. The well-honed ears of a father could make out three riders, home at last. He smiled, sighed, and steeled himself for whatever the next moment would require of him. Lord, please help me, he breathed and set forth to meet his sons.

Adam dismounted from his horse and frowned at his father’s immediate appearance through the front door. Of course, he would be waiting. During the long ride home, he had hoped to spirit his younger brother into the house through the kitchen, clean him up a bit, and spare his father the worst of the boy’s bleeding and dirty face.

Joe eased his body off the pinto gingerly, turning from his father. It had been a misery of a ride; every bump and curve had rattled the very marrow of his bones. He knew he must look a sight. He could barely see through the swelling of one eye and his careful smile seemed to split his face in two. At least, he mused, I have an excuse for missing the church picnic.

Ben gripped the boy’s shoulder. “Young man,” he said, softly. “Do you have any idea what time it is? We have been very, very worried.”

Adam and Hoss glanced at each other, communicating clearly in their life-long language of raised eyebrows and shrugs. They knew that quiet voice full well.

“I’ll take care of the horses,” Hoss said, taking the reins of the pinto from Joe. Deprived of his distraction, Joe sighed, and turned to his father, whose gasp was audible even to Hoss, already halfway to the barn.

“Good Lord, boy. Your face!” Ben grasped his young son’s face, frantically probing for broken bones or unseen damage. “Who did this? Answer me. Who did this to you?”

“You should have seen the other guy,” Joe tried to quip, but his bones ached under his father’s inspection and he tried to squirm away. His body was a glory of pulled muscles and strains, and he longed to curl up into himself, to have a moment of quiet, to run away. However, Ben’s face was determined with worry and he held tight, beginning to unbutton his son’s shirt with shaking fingers.

“Pa, please. Not here,” Joe glanced nervously at the bunkhouse. All he needed was for just one hand to wander out and witness the new Cartwright kid being disrobed by his unnerved father. He cast a look of absolute desperation at his oldest brother. “Can’t we go in?”

“Come on Pa,” Adam said gently. “Let’s go inside.”

*****

Ben set the washbasin aside and turned to Joe. Not another word had passed between them, and Joe longed to run from the inevitable confrontation. He had little experience with typical adolescent rebellion. In order to be defiant, one needed to have rules to disobey. In New Orleans, he had often returned home, with bloody knuckles and a half-ruined face. Yet Marie had merely sighed, fixed the damage as best as she could, and told him to be more careful. He could not remember a time when she had asked for details. She knew he was truly doing his best to get by.

“Son,” Ben said. “Isn’t it time to tell me what happened?”

“It was all just a misunderstanding,” Joe explained and coughed a bit with a wheeze in his chest. Maybe he had cracked a rib after all. “I had it all under control.”

“He took on Nate Dalman, Pa,” Adam said in a low, serious voice. He gazed steadily into the glare of his younger brother. “He took on Nate Dalman, and he had a knife to his throat when Hoss and I stopped him.”

“I told you I knew exactly what I was doing,” Joe snapped. Adam’s knowing look was prying away at the last vestiges of his self-control. “If you hadn’t interfered when you did, I would have – “

“Nate Dalman.” Ben repeated with incredulity. “Nate Dalman from the mining camp? Why that man’s bigger than Hoss! I didn’t even think he ever went into Virginia City!”

“Had him pinned to the ground too, Pa,” Hoss said with more than a touch of brotherly pride. “You should have seen it, a little ol’ thing like Joe, set atop a mountain like ol’ Dalman.”

Flattered, Joe turned to grin at his brother, before his father turned his face with a firm grasp of his chin.

“Joseph,” he said softly. “Who started this fight?”

“He did,” Joe said. He would not repeat the man’s words to anyone left alive, but Joe would never abide with anyone talking about his mother like that. She had already suffered to the point of death and that should be enough for anybody.

“Who threw the first punch?” Adam asked quietly. Ben glanced at his oldest son and then again at Joe.

“Well son,” Ben said and waited.

Joe glared at his older brother and grumbled, “I threw the first punch Pa. But damn it, he started it!”

“Watch your language, boy,” Ben warned and there was no mistaking his meaning. He cocked his an arm over his Joe’s shoulders and could feel the tension within the boy, his muscles tight and driven. How many walls did one need to breach to reach a sixteen-year-old boy? How many strongholds? “Now you are going to tell me exactly what happened.”

Joe sighed and closed his eyes, somehow drawing strength from his father’s hold on him. In all honesty, he didn’t know what had happened. He had finished talking to the pretty girl, had tightened his cinch, and had almost vaulted into the saddle, when at once, the man had been there beside him, spitting oaths into his ear. It had all been so confusing for he had never seen the man before. He couldn’t even imagine how the man had known his name. He was the vaguely menacing sort of thug that Marie had always tried to stay clear of in the saloons. Perhaps not bright, she had seemed to counsel in his ear, but oh so dangerous!

Joe had shivered and tried to wrench free from the man’s manacle of a hand that clenched his arm; it would leave bruises in the morning.

“Let go of me,” he had hissed, but the man was so odd, so insistent. He kept talking. He only spoke words, the old, ugly words that he had heard so many times on the streets of New Orleans. Joe was not a boy who could be easily routed by words. He and Marie had been far too pragmatic for that. Sticks and stones, fire and brimstone, it was all the same. Then the man started cursing his mother.

Now Joe had heard her called many different things. She had taught her son the art of crossing the street at the first scornful look, the first narrowing of the eyes from the respectable people of the city. Avoid the epitaph in the first place, she told him, and save yourself a world of grief. The curses of strangers meant nothing to her. Absolutely nothing.

But now she was gone, over three months dead and buried in a pauper’s grave outside the city, and she could no longer lift her head high. He could not stand to hear his mother’s name mixed with the spittle in the man’s mouth. It would fall to Joe alone to rescue her from evil men, to protect her from men of violence. It was a role he had failed at during her life.

“Mister, let’s take this outside town,” Joe said. The man startled by the calm in the boy’s voice, let go of his arm. “Women and children, you know.”

And Joe Cartwright threw, with chin held high, the first punch.

*****

Joe opened his eyes. His father still held him against his shoulder, Hoss had cupped his knee with his large hand, and Adam dabbed at his cheek with a moistened cloth. None of them wanted to let him go. Patient men, they waited still for his explanation. He sighed. He already knew what his mother would say. Give thanks for the good. Leave the evil behind. Joe could not bring the man and his words into this good house.

“I started the fight,” he said.

*****

Upstairs in his younger brother’s bedroom, Adam fumbled with the last button and pulled off the remnant of Joe’s ruined shirt. He realized that he would have to buy the kid a new set of clothes during his next trip to town. The other men of the house were many sizes larger than this slight boy. Ben had asked him to get his brother to bed. As the firstborn, he had much experience standing in his father’s stead. And Pa had aged so much since they received Marie’s letter, had seemingly grown years older in the months since Joe’s arrival. This was just a season, Pa kept telling them, just one passage in all of their lives. They would certainly see it through. Cartwright men deal with what life gives them. Cartwright men always rise to the occasion. Adam would stake his life on his father’s creed, yet he had seen the sorrow etched early on his brother’s young face. My God, he considered, they might rise above this, but how bittersweet the rising.

“Let me help you,” Adam murmured, as Joe reached for his nightshirt. He drew his hands across the boy’s back and inhaled sharply. How could he not have noticed it before? Beneath the florid bruises and abrasions of the day, he could see a web of small scars, far too many for a boy of sixteen. From a distance, his skin had appeared flawless and young. Yet sitting close by, Adam could make out a narrative of scars, very different from the typical childhood falls and skinned knees. He ran his fingers over his back, surprised when his brother did not pull away.

“Tell me about your scars,” Adam said softly. Tell me who you are.

Joe wrinkled his nose and smiled in genuine amusement. These Cartwrights were certainly the most peculiar men he had ever known. In his world, no one had shown the least bit of interest in injuries of any degree, save the one that killed you.

“You want me to tell you about my scars?”

Adam nodded, completely serious.

“Well, all right,” he drawled, still eying Adam curiously. “You might as well sit down. Where do you want me to begin?”

Adam sat down on the bed next to him. “This one, the diamond shaped one on your shoulder.”

“Oh that’s a good one,” Joe affirmed. “I remember that one like it was yesterday. I was riding too fast – I did that sometimes – and my horse tripped over Old Lady Douglas. She wasn’t hurt a bit, but my horse dumped me on the gate outside the old convent. The finial on the gate went right through my shoulder. I’d still be stuck there if one of the sisters hadn’t come along.”

Joe grinned so hard at the memory that Adam had to smile along, even though the image made his stomach turn. Joe continued, pointing to an old, white bolt of a scar along his forearm.

“Now this one here,” he explained. “Is one that I got from old Matt Brewer. I wouldn’t steal money from Mama, so he broke the bottom off a whiskey bottle and let into me. God, that must have been five years ago.”

“You were eleven?” Adam gasped.

“Yep, guess so,” Joe said, after thinking it over for a bit. “They executed him last year in Jackson Square. Time sure flies.”

He smiled pleasantly at Adam. This time, Adam could not quite return the smile.

“What about this one?” he asked, touching the half moon crescent under his left arm.

“My first duel,” Joe said, with more than a little pride. “He cut me before I could even parry. Good thing Mama had just given me a new epee for Christmas. She said it was so close, one more thrust, and I would have had him. I sure wish I could have brought my epee, but they wouldn’t let me have it on the train.”

“You mean to say Marie approved of you fighting a duel?” Adam asked in shock. The image was utterly foreign to the lovely Marie of his dreams. “My God, how old were you?”

“Fifteen,” he answered. “Last year. Healed up nicely already. Adam, you just don’t understand.”

“What could there possibly be to understand? A fifteen-year-old boy in a duel? With an epee?”

“We followed the Code,” Joe said in a voice so soft it almost faded to a whisper. “You don’t understand. Mama hated the Code her entire life, but she knew I had to fight him. He had attacked a – a friend. She worked in the saloon. She was fifteen too, and we grew up together. It was to protect her honor, Adam.”

“How old was this man?” Adam queried softly. “And why did this girl have to be protected by a fifteen-year-old boy?”

Joe wrinkled his forehead in consternation. He could barely remember the man. The memory of the duel was shrouded in blood and in pain that still pinched a bit when he bent over too quickly. Yet it seemed his brother intended to wait for an answer, so he surmised, “I don’t know. Maybe he was your age, maybe the same as Hoss. Didn’t seem important at the time. Why did I challenge him? She didn’t have anyone for herself. I was all she had.”

In his mind, Adam journeyed to this city of broken bottles and childhood duels. He could almost imagine the girl gazing in horror at the blood of a boy and trying not to run away. He could see the life of the boy, draining away at the point of the epee. The scar was dead. It could not be erased. What would he give to gather up his younger brother from this life already lived? But Adam could not look away.

“And this one?” he said, at last, running his fingers over the violet, jagged scar that ran from the boy’s bottom rib down into the waist of his pants. Joe stiffened at once.

“We don’t talk about that one,” he said, in the familiar, flat voice he had used when he first arrived at the Ponderosa.

“Who is we?” Adam persisted, as the boy pulled away at last to finish undressing.

“Mama and me,” he said. “That scar’s a place I’ve already been to. I’m not going there again.”

Joe climbed into his bed, barely aware of his older brother pulling the blanket over him. It had been such a long, long day. His eyes closed before he said good night. He no longer saw his brother, who fell back into the chair by the bed. It would be such a long, long night.

Adam Cartwright buried his face in his hands and did not cry.

*****

“Hoss,” Ben instructed his middle son quietly, glancing up at the closed bedroom door at the top of the stairs. “I want you and Adam to stay home from the cattle drive this year.”

“But Pa,” he protested, “We’ve gotta be at that drive. You said so all year. It’s our biggest one yet. We’ve got everything riding on it.”

“Not everything, Hoss,” he said pointedly, and again looked up at the stairs. “Son, we’ve got more to worry about than cattle. Charlie can handle the drive. I need you and Adam to stay at home.”

“Because of Joe and that Dalman fellow?”

“It’s not just Dalman,” Ben said and sighed. He could not remember ever having felt at such a loss for easy answers. “It’s… it’s everything I guess. I thought this would be more simple. I need you to stay with Joe for now. Don’t let him out of your sight.”

“You mean, you want me to follow him?” he asked, suddenly uncomfortable. The image of his little brother as a trapped, wild animal came unbidden to mind.

“No, not to follow him,” Ben said. “To come alongside. I want you to teach him what you know, both you and Adam. He’s been alone his entire life. It’s going to take more than talking at dinner. We need to try to make him understand.”

“Understand what, Pa?”

“What it means to be a Cartwright, to be a part of this family. To not be alone.”

Ben rubbed his eyes. All was silent in the little bedroom at the top of the stairs. He had expected Adam to be down already. By any measure, it would be a long, long night.

*****

“Hey little brother, over here!”

Joe rolled his eyes and smiled. They had been repairing fences for days, and at the rate they were going, it would be months. Every quarter mile or so, Hoss had stopped everything to tell him something new. Joe had learned that Blazing Star grew everywhere and tasted just like carrots. Horsemint, on the other hand, was bitter but could be used as an antiseptic, when injured a long way from home. The gully at the western ridge flooded last April and should always be evacuated at the first hint of rain. Rattlers could be best avoided by steering clear of the tall grass on the meadow during hot summer days. Golden trout were scarce and could only be found in a few high elevation lakes. For Hoss, the Ponderosa should have been the only schoolhouse that the world contained.

He rode to where Hoss knelt by the shore of the lake. He did not have the heart to tell his older brother that he was already converting this world of information into other names: that purple flower, Hoss’s favorite rock, that snake. It wasn’t that he did not enjoy these efforts at edification. His previous life had taught him not to treat such kindness lightly. In fact, Joe drew a strange satisfaction, just in hearing his brother’s voice.

He had never known a man like Hoss before, such gentleness tempered in strength. In New Orleans, his friends had mostly been as rangy and wild as he, children of the street. When scrambling hard to survive, there had been precious little time for studying the currents in white streambeds or for picking out the clouds that meant bad weather was near. For Joe, a fine education had taught him to do what whatever it took to get his next meal, to cheat at cards if given the chance, and to run like the devil when he got caught.

It was not that he was entirely without instruction. Unlike the other children he had grown up with, Joe had certainly learned to read and write. Marie, educated as a girl in Latin and classical literature, did not suffer having a fool for a son. No decent school would have accepted the boy of a saloon girl, but she managed to teach her son to read, write, and know his numbers. They had little money for supplies, but she used her childhood Bible for his primer and managed to sweet talk some of her more literate customers out of their unwanted books.

She had loved to read and had tucked into a book every time she had a moment for herself. The last book she snagged had been huge, well over a thousand pages, and she had read it again and again. Clarissa, he remembered with a smile. He would never understand why his mother had loved her books so, hours of her life gone that she would never see again. In a city of spirits and haunts, Joe Cartwright was determined to live.

He felt a tug on his arm. Hoss was still talking and was pointing at the shallow currents at the edge of the lake.

“Now listen here, little brother,” he said. “There ain’t no golden trout in this lake, but if we get up early enough tomorrow morning, we could catch enough rainbow trout to last Hop Sing a week. It’s still early in the season. See that dark part with the rocky bottom? That’s just the spot. I know there’s a whole mess of them right there. What do you say?”

Joe laughed and shook his head. “Doesn’t anyone around here have any work to do? We’re never going to finish with that fence.”

“This is work,” Hoss grinned. “Besides, I know Pa would say it was all right. It’s the sort of thing he wants us to get done.”

Joe stared at Hoss strangely. Little in his past embarrassed him, yet now he felt awkward and almost shy.

“I don’t know how to fish. I’ve never done it before,” he admitted.

He might as well have said he had just killed a man. His brother’s eyes opened so wide, Joe thought he might drop dead from the disbelief of it right then and there.

In that terrible silence, it seemed that Hoss bordered on tears, but he shook himself from it and said, “Lord have mercy. Never gone fishing. In all my days, I never heard of such a thing boy. Boy, what kind of world did you live in?”

“My mother’s world,” he snapped and then softened his voice. “It’s not like I never caught anything. Sometimes we’d go trap crawdads and crab out by the bayou near the Mississippi. Just never been fishing, that’s all.”

“Well boy howdy.” Hoss draped his arm across his brother’s shoulders and they stood together looking at the great expanse of lake before them. “I can tell you one thing, little brother. Tomorrow morning, you and I are going to go fishing!”

*****

“I’m telling you Pa, it was the saddest thing I ever heard,” Hoss said that evening, after his little brother had gone out to the barn to feed the horses. “His life before he came here… it was different than ours!”

“And this thought just occurred to you?” Adam asked, his lips quirked in an off-center smile.

Ben frowned at his older son and turned to Hoss. “You’re doing the right thing, son. Both of you. We can’t do anything to change the life Joe’s had, but we can do everything possible to help him right now, for his life with us here.”

“Do you think he’ll stay?” Adam asked quietly, ignoring his brother’s outraged glare. “I mean Pa, what really is keeping him here?”

“He’s a Cartwright,” Ben snapped. Sometimes Adam could try a man’s patience. “Where would he go? He belongs with us here on the Ponderosa?”

“Pa, he’s seen and done things we could never dream of. I don’t want Joe to leave. I hate to say it, but I can barely stand to have him out of my sight. But we can’t just ignore his past and make it go away. My God. Hoss is ready to cry over the kid and fishing! When are you two going to face the facts and try to find out who he really is?”

“More time,” Hoss said gently. “We’ve just gotta give him time. He’ll tell us about everything when he’s good and ready.”

“Have you seen his back?” Adam had not planned to say it aloud, but the other men frowned at his words. “Have you seen the scars on his back, on his body?”

“I have,” Ben said. “I planned to ask him about those. Later. When he’s ready. Now Adam, you have to admit he’s doing a good job abiding by our rules.”

“Oh he abides all right,” Adam said. “When he’s not drinking whiskey in a saloon or about to cut a man’s throat, he abides just fine.”

“Time,” Hoss said again. “He needs more time. He needs to know we’re here for him. Adam, we’ve always had each other and Pa to back us up. He never had anybody. Of course, he’s not going to do everything the way we do. We got to teach him our ways, that’s all.”

“He had his mother. He had Marie. Isn’t that somebody?” Adam said. It occurred to him that in the months that Joe had lived with them, they had barely mentioned the boy’s mother, as if she were a ghost they dared not invoke. Did her spirit wander the streets of New Orleans looking for her lost son or had she inhabited the land of the living Ponderosa all along? Since that night outside the Bucket of Blood, only Joe had spoken his mother’s name out loud.

“Yes, he did. He did have his mother,” Ben said and looked down. He wore the old grief lightly, and yet it remained “I know I’ve avoided things that need to be said. I just want to do right by the boy. I suppose I am afraid he will leave if we push too hard.”

“He’ll leave if we don’t push him,” said Adam, suddenly as convicted of his own words as if he were a prophet of ancient days. “Pa, why haven’t you made him come to church with us?”

“He was uncomfortable at first. I didn’t think he was ready. And now with his face and the beating he took-“

“His face is fine.” Hoss said, with surprising assurance. “Adam’s right. Joe needs to come to church with us. It’s time for him to be beside us, you said it yourself.”

“Fine, fine. He comes with us on Sunday. I’ll tell him when he comes in. Are you satisfied?” Ben frowned and shuffled the papers on his desk, suddenly a man of importance again, with much left to be done.

As his sons walked to the table by the hearth to begin a game of checkers, Ben covered the hint of a smile with a large receipt for one hundred head of cattle. By any measure, he was a blessed man.

*****

“Comfort, comfort my people…” the reverend proclaimed in front of the congregation. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for…”

The words drifted over and about Joe. He was well versed in the language of sin and redemption. Confession, repentance, pardon for sins. The words had held special significance for Marie Cartwright and her son, who had never attended Mass. Yet, she had seen to it that they never missed Confession, that they could leave their sins behind every week with the priest at the altar. Joe suddenly realized that his lifetime of transgressions had weighed more heavily on his shoulders here on the Ponderosa than they ever had in New Orleans. It actually seemed good to be in this place.

Yet, it felt almost surreal and just plain wrong to be seated in the front pew, flanked by his brothers, to be dressed in fine clothes. To feel the eyes of every decent man and woman of Virginia City bearing into the back of his small frame…

Adam glanced at his young brother and slid closer to him, so their hips were almost touching. He met Joe’s eyes with an edge of a smile, and rested his hand on the boy’s knee before attending to the sermon.

Joe shivered at his oldest brother’s uncanny knack at getting under his skin. Of all the men of the Ponderosa, he found Adam to be the most unnerving. Hoss, he loved, simple as that. It had been the easiest relationship of his life, save than the one he had shared with his mother. His father and he still deferred to each other, with courtesy and respect, maintaining a fortress of mutual reserve that had not yet been breached. It was not from lack of trying. Ben remained in constant physical contact with his son, as if to reassure himself that the boy was really there. They simply had not yet found their way. But Adam was something different….

In New Orleans, Joe had fought to keep his anger in check, had struggled to never let a foul mood get the best of him. It was a battle worth waging. Losing his temper could have determined whether he survived the day or was buried in an early grave. Inclement emotions and a fierce temperament had been the greatest obstacle to that survival. Joe sensed that Adam knew this, knew that his restraint was not natural and that he was determined to pry from him the truth of his nature. To enter into secrets that he kept so utterly and eternally stored away.

At the same time, Adam was the only man that Joe had ever really wanted to know. The man was a wellspring of information, some useful and some not. To his amusement, he found he actually wanted ask him about poetry and bridges, about the fastest way to draw a gun, and how to court a girl and look like you weren’t even trying. Joe wanted to ask all these things, but he just did not dare. Giving too much away chipped away at his very cornerstone. He could not take such a risk. So he drew close to his brothers instead, biding his time, and taking what was offered.

“You all right?” Adam mouthed, and the boy nodded. That morning had been so trying as they all had tried to convince Joe that the bruises were all but gone, that his eye was practically normal, that there was nothing in his appearance that would ever mark him as blemished or unclean. By all accounts, he now looked handsome, more than presentable, and utterly assured, but Adam would swear his younger brother’s knee trembled underneath his steady hand.

The reverend’s final reading marked the end of the service.

“Every valley shall be raised up,” he said. “Every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

The ancient words lodged in Adam’s mind, as he stood for the benediction, next to his brother. He considered them again and again. Could it possibly be? Was it possible to alter the natural course of geography? To fill in the canyons and lower the peaks of life to a level ground? To restore the topography of the human heart?

*****

The picnic had progressed far more pleasantly than Ben had even hoped. Far from being shunned, the boy had been the target of every pretty girl’s most avid attention. In fact, his family had been unable to get anywhere near him, as he was plied with endless offerings of fried chicken and pie, lemonade, and sweets. It was the scenario of many a young man’s most pleasant dreams.

Only Adam had recognized the look of utter despair on Joe’s face, heard the desperate plea of a very young child, as the four had walked to the picnic grounds.

“Don’t leave me!” Joe had whispered in Adam’s ear. He had seen the boy pin a man twice his size, but he had never observed such fear in him before. In fact, his bravado had seemed absolutely boundless, without any regard for rules or common sense. His bravery was the true mark of a Cartwright, Adam thought with some pride. Was all this foolish courage to be utterly undone, by the workings of a Virginia City church social?

“He sure looks like he’s having a good time, don’t he Pa?” Hoss also watched with pride. Having suffered from terrible shyness his entire life, he had once thought he would give anything for the bounty of female attention bestowed on his new brother. Instead, he beamed at the fruits of Joe’s good fortune. “You ever seen anything like it Adam? I reckon every girl in Virginia City’s ready to spark him.”

“I guess so,” Adam said, uncertain. He had reassured Joe he would not leave him alone, but had been unable to elbow through that mob of young ladies in order to keep his promise. He could certainly see why Hoss believed that Joe was having a good time. That lively smile lit up his face, he laughed at every joke, and leaned in to flirt with one girl at a time. He was so good at this charmed guise, he could have been born to it.

Then Joe gazed at him through the tangle of pretty faces and elbows, and he saw the expression on his face. Adam did not understand it, but could not turn away from the unabashed misery in his eyes, the call to be rescued.

“Pa, we need to get Joe home,” he said.

“What?” Ben asked, his irritation apparent. Leave it to Adam to find the problem in a pleasant afternoon! The social had been going so well and he had received so much affirmation and praise. The boy was the picture of his mother, everybody said, and Ben chose to ignore the history behind the words. Joe seemed content enough under the ministrations of Virginia City’s finest. It was what any handsome young man was due. He wanted to give his boy a chance to fit in, to find his way, and already Adam was urging him to leave.

“Adam, we just got here. We can’t leave now. What in Heaven’s name would everyone say?”

“Pa, we have to go,” Adam repeated. “Joe needs to leave right now-“

“Hey, Pa-” Hoss interrupted. “Where did Joe go anyways? He was just there, but I don’t see him no more.”

They turned to stare at the blanket. The girls still milled about in some disarray, like bees swarming after the last crumb of food. But Joe was nowhere to be seen.

*****

Joe tied the reins to the hitching post outside the saloon. He couldn’t believe he had actually gotten away. Easing the tie at his neck, just a bit, he looked again over his shoulder at the main road and laughed aloud in grim relief.

The social had been a horror, everything he imagined it would be. Not a word unspoken had escaped his attention. After all, he had long learned how to read a room before choosing an opponent for a game of cards. He could tell an easy mark by the set of their shoulders, the confidence of their handshake, the directness of their eyes. In New Orleans, that crowd would have had him halfway to his hanging before the day was through. So much for a day of rest!

Oh, the girls were flirtatious and friendly enough. He imagined himself a curiosity to them, knew his handsome face attracted more than his fair share of attention. He was not a boy who gloried in personal vanity. His looks were a commodity, pure and simple. However, his mother had paid the ultimate price for her own beauty, and Joe knew his could cost him dearly as well. He saw the glares on the faces of overprotective mothers who pulled their innocent darlings close when he passed by. He saw the grim visage of the fathers who scowled and tipped their hats further over their eyes.

Yet, it was the young men, closer to his own age, who posed the greatest danger. When they looked at him, he could already see the months of fistfights that loomed ahead. He saw them fingering the triggers of their guns in lurid anticipation and knew that any one of those pleasant young men would gladly bring him down if given half a chance. He could feel their animosity, coiled and ready to spring. They would love to see him brought low, for daring to make their girls tingle at his name.

Joe knew all this without a word being spoken. They were all well bred and would not voice the ugly words of Nate Dalman. Some things simply did not need to be said out loud.

He knew his family watched him, and he could feel their good wishes for him, a bulwark protecting his back. To please them, he set his best smile across his face, and he flirted and teased until his heart throbbed with the weariness of it all.

Then he saw Adam. Immediately, he knew his oldest brother understood, saw things as they really were, and would help him as he had promised. Joe nodded slightly at him and waited for his rescue. When he looked again, he saw Adam deep in conversation with his father and Hoss. Joe sighed and closed his eyes, shutting out Emily and Grace and all the rest. No, he wouldn’t wait for Adam or anyone else for that matter. As had always been the case, he would have to take care of himself. Somehow, despite all of the odds, he would always get away.

*****

Joe pushed through the doors to the saloon. The Bucket of Blood was almost deserted. The worn brocade chairs and card tables still waited for the fine folk to finish at the church social. Joe preferred the saloon late at night when hard drink and hard women made a man feel invincible and wild, giving him ample opportunity to rake in his bounty.

Behind the bar, Bert nodded at Joe. He was too young to be in there, was just a kid after all, but he was good for business. Bert reached for the whiskey, but Joe shook his head.

“Make it a beer. I’m trying to be good,” he grinned.

“I can tell,” Bert replied, gesturing wryly at Joe’s attire.

“Sunday best,” Joe said. “Hey, is Annie here?”

“In the back as always. She’ll be glad you’re here. It was a rough night.”

Joe ambled towards the back of the saloon but she had already heard his voice and was reaching for him.

“Joseph Cartwright,” she drawled. He ran his hands through her gold-streaked hair.

Bert lifted his eyebrows to the heavens. Those two! “Hey, kid. Here’s your beer.”

Annie stepped back and whistled appreciatively. “Well, look at you. Now, what is a fine young church-going man like you doing in a place like this?”

“I know, I know. Go ahead and give me grief. I came just as quick as I could to be with my best girl.” He gestured at the table in the corner. “Come on. Set a while and be with me.”

She feathered his cheek with her fingers, could detect the last vestiges of the bruises he had acquired since the last time she had seen him. Of course, everyone in the saloon had heard of the fight.

“Seriously now, what are you doing here? You should be with all those pretty young things at the picnic. I’m sure you had your pick.”

Joe nodded seriously and said, “They’re girls, Annie.”

“Sweet boy,” Annie said, the pet name punctuated with meaning. “You are sixteen. And you belong in the company of… girls.”

“You didn’t seem to feel that way the first time we… met.” Joe let his eyes drift up the back stairway to the rooms upstairs, and his lips quirked in an easy smile.

She smiled back. “Now we agreed. You and I need each other as friends more than anything else.”

“Guess you’re right,” Joe said and leaned back in the chair, savoring the good beer and her good company. He could feel the unpleasantness of the social slipping away, and could almost relax back into his place in the world. For a poor boy, all was as it should ever be.

He had met Annie during the first weeks of his life on the Ponderosa. Raised in the South, her parents long dead, she had worked at saloons from Alabama to Virginia City. Joe understood her well; she was simply doing the best she could. Even though she was closer to Adam’s age than his own, it didn’t seem to matter. They could sit together in laughter or quiet regret. They were friends.

She tried again. “Why don’t you try harder with those girls, Joe? Why don’t you give them a chance? You don’t even know what they’re like.”

“Annie, tell me this. Would any of those girls come in here and sit a while with you?”

“No,” she laughed, shaking her head at the very thought.

“Would those pretty girls say good day, if they saw you on the street?”

“Of course they wouldn’t Joe, you know that!”

“Then, I guess you can understand why I don’t try harder with those… pretty… girls.”

They sat silent for a spell, and she traced circles on the back of his hands. Joe finished his beer with a sigh. His family would be finding him any time now. He figured it would be best for everyone involved, if they didn’t find him hiding in back of the saloon, on a fine Sunday afternoon, keeping company with a beauty of a woman who had never been “a pretty girl.”

He kissed her hand with a smile. “I should be on my way, lovely lady, before my reinforcements arrive.”

“Hey sweet boy, stay.” She held his hand and squeezed it tight. “I have something to say to you. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and it’s important.”

He could think of many flippant replies, but the serious set to her face restrained him. In her own way, his mother had raised him to be a gentleman of sorts, and he knew how to respect a lady.

“I’ll stay, Annie. What do you want to tell me?”

“It’s like this, Joe,” she said. “The way I see it, you been given this chance… it’s a miracle, really. People like us don’t get second chances. Now those people at church, they could never live our life. They would never make it. We know that. But Joe, somehow you’ve been given this second chance to make it all right. Now if you just give up, it would be like you were turning your back on all of us, everyone like us. I know your father and your brothers are good men. Never mind the rest of them. You stay. Don’t be alone. Make a life with them.”

“She didn’t have a chance,” Joe said, quietly. “My mama never had a second chance.”

“But she did, Joe,” Annie said with unexpected urgency. “I’ve been thinking and thinking about it, ever since you told me about her. She did have a chance, and she made her own choice about what to do with it. She wanted you to do the same.”

“Tell me how,” he whispered, and she saw his eyes fill with tears. “How do I abide in this world when I don’t even know what I’m doing? How do I stay?”

“You just make do,” she said, starting to cry as well. “You do your best. You remain.”

From the bar, Bert coughed and looked at the two with undisguised curiosity. Joe and Annie realized they must look a sight, and they laughed at each other through their tears.

Resting his forehead against hers, Joe whispered, only half in jest, “Marry me, Annie.”

She dimpled and pushed him away. “Ask me again when you’re done with all that growing. Sweet boy.”

She watched him saunter to his pinto outside, saw the confidence return to his stride, and she smiled. Joe Cartwright would be just fine.

Then she noticed the large man standing by the stable, glaring at them as they waved goodbye. For a moment, Annie considered that she should alert Joe to the man. There was something so peculiar in the way he held his stare. But he was already racing away with lovely abandon. She shook her head. That was one boy who knew how to take care of himself.

*****

The three men dismounted in front of the saloon in silence. It had taken them longer than they intended to escape from the picnic. By the time they realized that Joe was actually gone, there were still apologies to offer and offended girls to assuage. It had taken some time.

They stopped at the doors of the saloon. Adam eyed his father, waiting, until the older man burst out, “All right son, you were right. The boy wanted to leave, and I didn’t see it. I don’t know. I’m trying to understand him, but I’m going into this blind. I just don’t have a good feel for what I’m doing.”

“Pa.” Hoss rested his hand on his father’s shoulder. “You always do what’s right. We’re all doing the best we know how. Joe too. Ain’t like none of us ever lived this life before.”

“We’re a family,” Adam said, “We’ll see it through. And he’s a Cartwright.”

“That he is boys,” Ben said, smiling a bit. It was true. He knew how to be a father. “Let’s get him home.”

Plowing through the swinging doors, they looked in vain through the dim lighting of the saloon for the boy. They had just assumed he would be sitting at a table, lost in a good game of cards. Bert emerged from the back and smirked at the sight of the men.

“Should have known you three would be here,” he said. “And almost on time.”

“Where is he, Bert?” Ben’s voice was tired but calm.

“You better ask the lady.” Bert gestured to the back room. “I reckon she’d know his whereabouts better than anyone around.”

Eyebrows raised, the three ventured warily towards the back room. Annie sat at the same table she and Joe had shared not long before.

“You’re late,” she said. “He expected you an hour ago.”

“Well, we had to take care of things,” Ben mumbled. “Excuse me Maam? Do I know you?”

“Probably not,” she answered. “But I do know you.”

“And do you know him?” Adam asked pointedly.

“I do.” She held his stare. “Know him. Your brother is my friend.”

“I see,” Ben said. “And would you happen to know where my son might be at this moment?”

“I’d imagine he’s heading home.”

“Well, we best be heading that way ourselves. Our thanks to you, Maam.”

“My name is Annie,” she said and stood before them. “Gentlemen, be good to him. He’ll be a fine man someday. Don’t let him go.”

“Annie,” Ben said and took her hand gently between his two. “Thank you for being my son’s friend. I promise you this. We have no intention of letting him go.”

Then, as they headed for the door, she said, “One more thing. There was this man, a big man. He was watching Joe from the stable when he was leaving. He just kept watching Joe. I can’t stop thinking about it. Do you know who he might be?”

*****

Joe perched on the edge of the rock, gazing at the blue waters of the lake. Ever since Adam had brought him to this place several days earlier, he had returned again and again to the lovely, little cove.

“This was Marie’s favorite place,” Adam had told him. “We would always find her sitting here, reading or just thinking. We even called it Marie’s Cove for a while, until…”

“Until she left?”

“Yeah. Until she left,”

As he watched the currents bubble over and around the pebbles of the shore, Joe understood why his mother would have been drawn to this spot, why it would have been a refuge for her. No one had ever left her alone. Solitude, like this, would have been a comfort.

In the stillness of the passing day, Joe thought he could hear her voice. He knew she watched over him still. In New Orleans, everyone knew the dead took great interest in the ways of the living. In the quiet of his mind, he could hear her call to him.

This spot, this lovely clearing, should have been the site of her grave. The thought came upon him with such violence that he cried out loud. His mother should never have been buried in an unkempt lot, should never have been abandoned to a pauper’s grave. It was all wrong, as if the earth had suddenly gone askew, and Joe felt the tears fall again, for the futility of it all.

How had it all come undone? If his father had been late that afternoon, could Marie have fought the other man away? If the stage had been late, would his father have caught her in time before she had vanished forever from his life? If they had relived that day over and over again, would it ever have ended differently? Nothing seemed to remain of the life he and his mother had hobbled together, out of desperation and unrealized dreams. What would his life have been like, if only she had remained?

It was a funny thing, about growing up with constant noise and bustle. In the cacophony of sounds of New Orleans, Joe could make out the curses of a brawl from blocks away and hear the low whistle of a man as he crossed the street. Yet, he had no history with silence. He was unacquainted with the danger of being utterly alone. He had not considered that solitude had its price.

As Joe cried by the lake, he did not hear the soft whinny of the horse, the crunch of pine needles and twigs under heavy boots. He did not hear the snort of triumph as the man beheld his prize. He did not turn his head when the man crouched behind him, did not smell the sour violence of his breath. And he did not feel the gun being yanked from its holster until it was much too late.

Everything changed. Joe flung himself away from his unseen opponent, even as the shot of the gun slashed through the terrible silence of the lake. He hit the ground hard. Like a man in a half-remembered dream, Joe felt the pain scythe through his arm, felt the blood flow without restraint. This is what it’s like to be shot, Joe thought in his dim haze and wondered if he was in shock. Another scar to show Adam. He laughed a bit. But then he saw the man, his massive body silhouetted by the ancient trees. He seemed to be reloading his gun.

For just a moment, Joe considered that this would not be a bad place to die, far better than the dank alley of his mother’s final fight. She had loved it here, and as he lay on the ground, he could smell the humid fertility of the soil and the sap from the green pine needles that pricked his cheek. The earth was good here; they should never have left this place.

Joe lifted his head. Dalman was swearing and he thought he heard his name.

For a moment, a second really, he had forgotten what was at stake. It was true that this would not be a bad place to die, but it could not happen today. His return had been hard won, and he would not take his leave of this life so easily. It occurred to him that the man’s gun seemed to be jammed, and he saw his second chance.

Cursing the pain that coursed through his useless arm, he launched himself at the man. The sheer might in his small frame had always taken his enemies by surprise. He connected hard with the man’s knees and Dalman crumpled, his head slamming against a rock as he fell. Joe scrambled to his feet, breathing hard and fast. He would not be able to strike at Dalman again. So he ran.

He ran with abandon. He ran past the tree where he had tied his horse, noting that the shots must have frightened both horses away. He kept running. He had always been a fast boy, had run from swindled drunks, angry store clerks, and outraged fathers. He could always get away.

Dizzy fear surged through his body and he braced himself against a tree.

“Where to, Mama?” he whispered, and then he saw it. Hoss’s cave. The cave was barely a crevice between two rocks, half submerged in the water and half in the sand. Hoss had pointed it out to him on one of their rides. Carefully sliding behind the largest of the rocks, he winced as the rough stone brushed against his bleeding arm. It wasn’t a perfect refuge, but it gave him a few more minutes of life.

He waited. In the distance, he could hear the man’s shouts and oaths and he wondered at the violence that could take over the hearts of men. His mother had been stalked by evil, and he wondered if this was how she had felt that morning, if she knew her life was about to end.

He realized he was shaking. Growing up in the humidity of the South, he had never felt truly cold. His father had promised him that the snow would arrive any time now. He had never seen snow before and wondered if it would come too late. He smiled in regret at the thought of his father’s face. Now shivering hard from cold, shock, and pain, Joe lamented that he had not given his father a chance. He had thought he would have another day.

The man seemed to be moving closer. His coarse voice cracked across the lake.

“Oh Mama, what should I do?” he whispered.

The sun was just slipping behind the ridge when Joe heard it. The sound was a liturgy in the wind and trees, but this time he knew for certain that he heard her voice. He could hardly believe her words.

Stay with your father. Call on his name.

He buried his face in his bloodied arms and cried. He didn’t know if he could do it. All his life, he had trusted no one but himself. What must one do to be saved? He heard Dalman’s taunts growing closer, knew his chance at a life was coming to an end.

Of course, it was impossible that his father was near. If he called for him, it was all but certain that Dalman would reach him first. But the voice urged him again. Call on his name.

Joe knew his odds were terrible. Despite his prowess at cards, he was not a reckless player. He generally preferred to keep his hand close to his vest, only upping the ante when he knew he had already won. For this last chance, this final call, he would have to give it all away. This time, he would have to hold nothing back. He would go for broke.

And Joe Cartwright threw in his lot with his father and his brothers.

“Pa,” he screamed, his lungs aching with the effort. “Pa, Pa, Pa!”

A useless litany, he knew his cries would lure the man to his cave. But he had made his choice. He would not stop. He would die shouting his father’s name.

*****

“Pa, I think I heard something.” Hoss had stopped his horse so short, the other two almost rode into him.

“I hear it too.” Adam could not be sure if it was his imagination, but he could swear he heard a voice calling.

Ben frowned. “I heard something too. But why would Joe be over there, by the lake?”

“I think I know why,” Adam said, twisting his reins with impatient urgency. “I showed him Marie’s spot, at the cove. He could have stopped there on his way home.”

“Well then,” Ben said. “Let’s ride.”

*****

Perhaps it was the nature of dusk, the still moment before birds gather and bats search for insects on the lake. Perhaps it was the breeze that seemed to speak a language of its own in the trees. But they all heard the voice calling. They followed it through the shivering pines, through the branches snapping against their cheeks, the horses snorting and slipping down the wet earth that led to the lake.

Hoss saw them first, “There,” he said.

At the tip of the cove, near Rascal’s Cave, a hulk of a man advanced grimly towards the small figure, his rifle already raised. From their distance, the men thought that the boy was crying. But as they crept closer and closer still, they could hear him yell, could finally make out the single word that had guided their way.

Pa was all he said.

Like a firing squad armed with one blank, none of the men would ever know which gun had fired the fatal shot. It didn’t matter. When they lowered their guns, Dalman’s body was already stiff with death. An afterthought. Later, they would barely remember his name.

Ben hurried to the boy, who pressed himself against the rocks, his eyes still shut tight.

His brave shouts had dwindled to a whisper, “Pa, Pa, Pa, Pa.”

Ben grasped his son desperately, saw the blood, felt the cold dread of not knowing where it had come from.

“I’m here, boy. I’m here,” he said again and again. “I won’t leave you. You’re safe. You’re safe.”

Joe’s eyes opened at last.

“You’re here,” he breathed. “She was right. You really came.”

And he sobbed in his father’s arms.

And Ben held him. Held him in his arms, and whispered the comforting words that could carry young boys through all the hurtful things of childhood. He held him as if he could rewrite the history of it all: the bad dreams, the skinned knees, the first kiss, the scar with a story he might never know.

But the boy was alive. He cried and he breathed. It would have to be enough

*****

In the darkness, Adam touched Joe’s arm again. He felt disoriented, as if waking through a dream. He turned from his father and brother to gaze across the lake. The full moon lit the ripples of water that brushed against the pebbles and the sand. He hardly noticed when Hoss stood to come alongside him.

“Adam,” he said quietly, not wanting to disturb the other two. “I’ve been thinking. Joe gave up his hiding space before he even knew we were there. He was calling for Pa, when we were still a long way off. How do you reckon he knew, Adam? How did he know we would hear him?”

“I guess he just knew,” he answered and studied the quiet waters. Marie had loved this place. He wondered if she had also made the sojourn her home, found a refuge at last, from a life and a death filled with pain.

Adam had no answer for Hoss, could barely consider the question itself. He looked again at the rock of the father, still comforting the weeping son, and considered that the very forces of hell might not stand a chance against them. He stared directly into the sorrow of what might have been, and he turned his back to it. In its place, he set his sights toward a future that was unknowable, save that it contained all of them.

He had never really shared his father’s certainty in providence and life’s abiding design. Adam Cartwright was a realistic man, his whole life through, and had never before given thanks for the prevalence of miracles. For the probability of grace.

***The End***

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