Fallen (by Debbie L)

Summary: The sixth story in the “Return” series. Joe’s relationship with Julia Bulette brings back painful memories for the rest of his family. This story incorporates characters and events from “The Julia Bulette Story”.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:
 PG
Word Count:  14,600


 

Everyone knew Julia. Of course, some knew her better than others, but that was the way it was with such things. Like Joe said, they snubbed her on Sunday and came to her place when Monday came around. It was a fallen world, but a man’s business was his own, and it wasn’t polite to make too much of it.

Virginia City was still an upstart town, teeming with miners and riches to be had, and Julia Bulette was a good businesswoman. She knew full well that fortune was not likely buried in the piles of rock that surrounded the town. The real treasure was buried in men’s hearts, and she had always been good at mining such sources of wealth. She’d made a name for herself on the sinful streets of the French Quarter, and that name had followed her all the way out West. It was the prospect of a lifetime, and she wasn’t one to turn her back on such good fortune.

It was no surprise that the Cartwright kid took to Julia. Everyone knew where he had come from. The Cartwright name didn’t change a thing. You couldn’t get rid of a scar simply by washing it away. A boy like that was trouble. Everyone agreed on it. He took after his mother, they said. She’d been all about trouble, and it wasn’t any surprise that the boy was following in her footsteps. Already, the Cartwrights had supplied the town with gossip to last a lifetime or two and still they were hungry for more. Every decent citizen in Virginia City knew why Marie Cartwright had left her husband, and they knew why her young son had eventually returned to the Ponderosa. It was heady stuff, even in the untamed West, and had provided hours of entertainment. Nobody expected the boy to stick around as long as he had.

Unfortunately for the gossips, Joe fit in better than anyone would have predicted. He almost seemed like he might turn respectable after all. But then he met Julia. And from there, everything had pretty much fallen apart.

Adam took a long draw from his beer. It was warmer than usual, not much comfort in the miserable heat, but it would do. It would have to. He and Hoss been sent to bring the kid home. Pa had insisted on it over breakfast. Had said that a bordello, no matter how well appointed, was no place for a seventeen-year-old boy to spend all his time. The boy was still impressionable, he said. Adam had traded looks with Hoss across the table. He was pretty sure that Joe was already pretty damn impressed, but he didn’t say so to his father.

Adam could hear the cowboy waltz rising from Julia’s Palace, across the street. A new upright piano had arrived the month before, shipped all the way from New Orleans. It was a sign of the times. Business was good at the Palace, as it was in every establishment that existed to comfort and con the hoards. Business had always been good for Julia but had only gotten better after Joe had started hanging around. He was just a boy, but he was also a card sharp, and he’d never been caught. Every good thing had to come to an end. It was only a matter of time.

Through the swinging door, Hoss ambled into the saloon. He slid a coin across the bar and nodded to Bert, who handed him his beer wordlessly. Hoss knocked back the contents of the draught and turned to his older brother.

“He’s in there, all right,” he said. “Having a fine time and in no hurry to leave. Says business is good and he’ll be along when he’s ready.”

“Business!” Adam muttered into his drink. “Pa’s right about one thing. His business is going to kill him. Julia has no right to encourage him. The Palace isn’t the Bucket of Blood, and her patrons aren’t going to take kindly to being swindled by a seventeen-year-old kid.”

“She was sitting with him,” Hoss said quietly. “I don’t know, Adam. I ain’t sure that Pa’s got it right this time. There’s something about this thing with Miss Bulette. She seems to really like him, sort of like they’re friends or something. I can’t explain it right, but I ain’t so sure it’s what everybody thinking.”

“It doesn’t matter what it really is. It matters what it looks like, for Joe anyway. Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s likely that any good’s going to come from it.”

Hoss tugged on the brim of his hat, trying not to look as miserable as he felt. It was an unusually hot day. The air outside was charged with an approaching storm, and inside, the room reeked of full spittoons and sweat. It was near enough time to go home. Pa would be fussing over them being gone so long. There were chores piling up at the ranch, and he’d sent the two of them into town in the middle of a workday to retrieve his youngest son, not to settle down with a beer. Sometimes, attending to Pa’s wishes was a lot easier said than done. Hoss was miserable over the trouble with Joe. It was different than the typical trouble one might expect from a young man sowing his oats. Joe had been coming right along, working alongside them, and learning the ways of the ranch with astonishing aptitude. Hoss couldn’t imagine life without his little brother. He couldn’t explain it, but it was like everything was turning out the way it was supposed to be, after being wrong for so long. Adam said it was going too good, but Hoss didn’t want to believe him.

Then Joe met Julia. It had been their fault really. Pa was still riled at them over that, but Adam said there were a hundred ways he could have met her, and it all would have turned out the same. It had been over a month since he and Adam had teased Joe into paying a visit to Julia’s Palace. It didn’t take much, and they should have known better. Joe wasn’t an innocent country kid being tempted by sin in the big city. Amused at them for thinking he’d be embarrassed, the kid had raised an eyebrow at his older brothers, turned tail, and walked into the Palace on that bright sunny day, in front of a street full of witnesses. It was a scandal for almost a week, as much for his age and his name than for the fact that he was still wearing his Sunday best when he entered.

They all should have known better.

Should it have been a surprise how Joe had taken to Julia? Most men in town had, in one way or another. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful. There were other beautiful women in town, attracted by the easy money of the mines. It was something else. Julia was entirely likeable, a weapon she honed until it was nearly lethal. She was also emotionally generous in the way she treated a customer, as if she knew everything about him and found something to appreciate anyways. That was her gift of course, but Julia used it well. She saw a similar gift in Joe, and she put him to work with it right away.

She and Joe had hit it off from the beginning. It started after the kid threw himself on John Millaine when he saw the man strike her. The con artist had followed her from New Orleans, obsessed with her beyond all reason, but Julia had always figured that she could handle Millian. She was amused and touched to have her honor defended by such a gallant, handsome young man. It had been a long time since she had seen New Orleans’ “Code” in action, and almost never in her defense. If he’d had an epee handy, she wouldn’t have been surprised if the young man challenged Millian to a duel. Yet, Joe Cartwright was no fool romantic. He was a professional, the same as her, and the fact he had a soft heart didn’t change that basic truth. She found a place for him in the palace, and it wasn’t long before Joe had added significantly to her profits, taking all comers with his cutthroat gift for poker, faro, and blackjack. He was too good to be true, but as long as he got away with it, Julia didn’t seem to mind.

Needless to say, Joe wasn’t making it home in time for supper.

Ben Cartwright was fit to be tied about his boy being in the hands of “that woman” and folks in town were tickled pink to have something new to talk about. During the past month, Hoss had heard just about all he could take. He’d heard talk that could stand on its own two legs as tall as a man, and he wished he could knock it down as easy. The women were the worst, even though it pained him to think it.

“It’s to be expected,” he’d heard them whisper at church socials, “with a mother like his that he’d go back to his own kind.”

Adam pleaded with him to ignore the gossips, and Hoss tried. But it wasn’t easy. His size led him to believe that God had intended him to be a protector. He’d always looked after those who were smaller than he was. Having Joe in the family had roused instincts in him that had surprised him for all their fierceness. His new role as a big brother came to him naturally, like he was born to it. It was like something he’d always known but had somehow forgotten.

There were things a man didn’t forget, plain and simple.

Marie was one of them. She’d been his mother for less than a year, and yet Hoss could still remember more about her than he’d ever admit to Adam or Pa. It was painful for all of them, and yet there were things he knew he was forgetting. Important things that could have made the difference in how it had all turned out. He’d been so young when she left. Too young for some memories to take hold like they should have.

Nursing his beer, Hoss cast his memory back further than before. The memory he was looking for was back there; he just knew he could find it if he took it slow and paid attention.

After all, who could forget about Marie? Not Adam or Pa neither. Not Joe or the folks in town. And certainly not Hoss. So he tried again, until he found the memory of the one afternoon that he he’d never allowed himself to remember….

Hoss was five years old when Pa came back from New Orleans, a married man with a young wife so pretty it was practically a scandal. Folks whispered she was a party girl from New Orleans and hardly fit to be a prominent rancher’s wife. Ben laughed off the talk and was so happy that he was forgiven some of it. Hoss only knew that Marie laughed when her husband whispered in her ear and was sad when he was gone. She might have been lonely, but she made due with a sense of humor and a good helping of bravado. Marie Cartwright was his mother, if only for a season.

Hoss was an optimist. He held onto the good and stored the bad away so no one would trip on it. From the beginning, the new Mrs. Cartwright was a whole lot different than the work-weary women who’d settled the territory alongside their men. It seemed funny to think of it, but she didn’t even smell like them. There were things about Marie that just weren’t practical.

Hoss could remember the smell of lilacs as she walked from room to room. Marie was always busy but not doing things like scrubbing laundry, cooking, and soap making. She spent days trying to get roses to grow along the side of the house, yet she never dirtied her hands growing vegetables in the garden. That was what other women did, but Marie had Hop Sing to care for such things. That’s what she told her young stepson with a wink and smile. She claimed that her hands wouldn’t stay pretty scrubbing their clothing with lye soap, which made her husband laugh and her oldest stepson roll his eyes. Adam couldn’t help but compare her to Inger, with her rough hands and her gentle ways. Hoss didn’t remember his own ma, so he didn’t hold her against Marie.

His new mother loved to dance and was good at it. She had entertained many customers in New Orleans by dancing and drinking with them until they were happy enough to lose their money. Her new family watched her at night, trying out all the Western dances. She attempted the cowboy waltz but couldn’t get the timing right and collapsed against Ben, laughing until tears ran from her eyes.

Always singing, sometimes-in French and other times in English, Marie sang with abandon. Her song choices alternated from lovely hymns to ribald ditties, depending on her audience. Devoting herself to learning Chinese, she took it every bit as seriously as Adam took his own studies. Hoss remembered her spending long afternoons with Hop Sing, teaching him French in exchange for Chinese. Most of the time, their cook taught her shrewd phrases that would help her bargain wisely in the Chinese district. Hoss could still remember one particular lesson that Adam interrupted on a gloomy winter afternoon. She had just attempted an off color translation, when Adam came through the kitchen after washing up. Unfortunately, her perceptive stepson immediately understood what was going on.

“You’re learning to swear in Chinese?” he asked incredulously. “In front of Hoss?”

“He doesn’t understand Chinese and neither do you,” Marie retorted. “It never hurts to learn all of a language. It’s a sign of respect and shows you’re not one to be trifled with. I’ll get much better bargains this way.”

“Like anyone would trifle with you,” Adam snapped, bristling with twelve-year-old righteousness. He yanked the back of Hoss’ collar, and the little boy practically tumbled off his chair. “I’m not letting my little brother hear this. I’ve still got some say in this house!”

And Adam had hauled Hoss away but not before he’d stolen one last, shy glimpse of his stepmother. She winked at him, before continuing with her lesson.

Other memories were not so easy.

Hoss could remember the fighting. He had always been a big-hearted boy, and it hurt him to hear them. All the same, he knew that when the fight was over, everything always turned out right. Marie was always doing things that Ben didn’t approve of. She rode her horse too fast and spent too much time on C Street. Risk was relative, she liked to say. Folks speculated that poor Ben Cartwright didn’t know what he was getting into when he married her. That just showed they didn’t know Pa one bit. He was never one to back down from a challenge, and anyone could tell he adored his willful young wife. Even while they were still mad at each other, she could laugh both of them out of a dark mood. That’s how it had always happened before, and on that terrible afternoon Hoss still believed in happy endings. He didn’t know that the rules were going to change, and things weren’t going to be all right again, not for a long, long time.

He’d been by the creek at the back of the house, having already finished his chores for the day. A fine family of ducks had made their home at the crossing, and Hoss had named each one of the furry, brown-tufted babies. At five years old, he usually preferred the company of little critters to that of people. He’d just waded into shallow current to clear a bramble of fallen twigs, when he heard them. He heard shouting, and he could hardly believe the angry voices belonged to his pa and mama. Instinctively, he flung himself toward the shore and held on, as if the world was knocking about, and only the hard ground could save him.

They were yelling about his mama and another man. Hoss couldn’t understand much of it, so he kept holding on. Finally, the yelling stopped. He started crawling, trying to make himself small again. At five, he was already heavy-boned with feet that nobody thought he would grow into. Marie had been tallying his growing by the threshold, and he’d grown practically three inches since she’d arrived. She said that someday he would grow bigger than her arm could reach, and then he’d have to chart his own growing. That afternoon, he was scared of being big and tried to make himself smaller than the big boy he was going to have to be. He was the baby of the family and had no way of knowing how long he would stay in that role. It didn’t suit him and would never rest easily on his shoulders.

By the time Hoss made it to the house, the knees of his pants were torn and filthy from the crawling. His stomach felt sick and achy inside, but not over his torn clothing. His mama would mend them for him. Marie was good at that. She finished all her needlework with a tiny embroidered heart, stitched where only he could see it. Hoss liked to look at the stitched hearts, which held up surprisingly well against the filth and carelessness of ranch life.

Hoss snuck into the kitchen. His pa was nowhere to be seen, but he heard crying. It wasn’t his mama, as he’d feared, but rather Hop Sing curled into himself and weeping next to the stove. He hurried past their cook. Usually he’d get hungry just walking into the kitchen, but this time his belly felt sick, as if he had drunk too much sarsaparilla. Creeping up the stairs, Hoss realized he was almost big enough to take them two at a time, but he didn’t. Somehow, it didn’t seem like an afternoon to take things quickly.

Hoss found her in the bedroom. Marie wasn’t crying but was packing her carpetbag with terrifying efficiency. The wardrobe was still filled with dresses when she closed its doors. She wasn’t taking very much with her. High necked church frocks, riding boots, and the three of them would all be left behind.

“Mama?” Hoss found his voice at last, and she turned to him, dropping to her knees. Hoss saw where tears had tracked across her face. She was so pretty and so sad, the prettiest and saddest person that he had ever seen.

“My sweet boy,” she whispered and reached for him. He sat next to her, almost on her lap but not quite. He was too big for such things, but she didn’t hold it against him. She had always known it was the inside that really mattered. Hoss still had the heart of a little boy.

“Don’t go, Mama,” he pleaded, but she shook her head.

She said,” I’m so sorry, Hoss. This isn’t fair to you.”

“Pa don’t mean it,” he said. “He don’t stay mad long. He’s always sorry later.”

With that, she started to cry. He couldn’t tell if she was scared or still angry. He was too young to know the right word for desperation, but he could feel it in the air all around them. She was trembling from her need to flee, but she couldn’t turn him away so easily. Marie gathered him in. Resting his cheek against her belly, Hoss could almost feel the life inside her. Marie had told him about the baby, but it was their secret, and he knew nothing was more important than keeping a secret. The baby was still awfully little, and he was the only one she’d told.

The secret was a little brother. Hoss just knew it, and he also knew God had made him big so he could take care of a brother who’d always be smaller than he was.

“I’ll come too,” he said. “I’ll keep you safe, I promise. I won’t let no one hurt the little baby neither.”

Marie pulled away, and he saw it – the real fear on her face. It would be almost two decades before he understood it, but he knew right away she was sorry for telling him about the baby. At once, she began to tremble.

“Darling, listen to me,” she pleaded, clearly terrified. “You have to forget that I told you about the baby. You can’t tell your father- you can’t. I would take you with me, but you belonged to him before you belonged to me. You belong here. But this baby… Darling, I was wrong to tell you about the baby before I told your father, and it’s just as wrong to ask this of you. But you have to forget about our secret. You can never tell anyone I’m going to have a baby. Will you do this for me?”

By then, he was sobbing right along with her, and his answer got stuck in his chest. He’d never kept anything from his pa, but he was an obedient child, and his mama needed him to say yes. Hoss nodded.

She touched his cheek.

“Always remember that I love you,” she whispered. “You’re a strong boy; you have a bigger heart than anyone can see. You take care of them for me. And I’ll take care of this little one for you.”

Hoss nodded again, crying harder than he’d ever cried before in his five years of life, but he would keep her secret.

“Don’t be gone long, Mama,” he said.

Marie kissed him on the top of his head, and then she was gone. The room smelled like her for days and days.

Hoss couldn’t have known that he would never see her again, but he did what she asked of him. He forgot about her secret. For nearly two decades, he had forgotten that he was never supposed to have been the youngest Cartwright….

“Hoss… Hoss?” Adam’s voice startled Hoss out of his reverie.

Hoss looked up at his brother in surprise and a good dose of confusion. He was still sitting in the Bucket of Blood, holding a glass of beer in his hand. Sweat stained his shirt. The memory of what he’d forgotten for so many years settled on his shoulders like a stone.

“Hey brother, where’ve you been?” Adam tried again, gentler this time. “Didn’t you hear what Bert said? Our gallant little brother is accepting a challenge from Millaine. The man’s not worth your beer, but he’s a lot bigger than the kid. I think the two of us should keep an eye on things.”

Still lost, Hoss shook his head. He could hardly keep track of what Adam was saying. With a shudder, he tried to put Marie behind him and focus on the situation with Julia. He stared intently at Adam with his wide, troubled eyes.

“Time to save the day. You with me?”

Hoss wasn’t with him. He was back in time, crying on his mama’s bed, smelling her perfume, and missing his little brother. A part of him couldn’t stop asking the question over and over: if his father had known about the baby, would he have tried harder to find her? The answer really didn’t matter. He couldn’t do a thing to save Marie, but he could darn well protect her son.

“I’m with you,” Hoss said grimly, and followed Adam to the door, before punching his fist through the wall of the saloon.

It didn’t help one bit.

*****

Ben couldn’t stop pacing. He knew it didn’t do the least bit of good, but it made him feel better all the same. That woman! He could feel the gloat beneath her impossibly calm smile. He knew full well what it meant. What would it take to get to the heart of Ben Cartwright? Julia was no fool. She knew that it would take a son.

The night was groaning with wind that had come down from the Sierras. A summer storm, yet Ben suspected that the tension in the air had less to do with lightening and more to do with the fact that his three sons were already very, very late. How long could it take to retrieve a seventeen-year-old boy from a bordello in Virginia City? Ben sighed and rubbed his eyes. Not just any bordello, but rather the most infamous one for miles around. Leave it to Julia to build a brothel and name it a palace! She had always been one to reinvent herself. He had known her for a long time and was well aware of her different incarnations. Like he’d said to Joe, just because you wash it, a scar doesn’t just disappear.

His fists clenched at his side, Joe had replied. “You know Pa, sometimes to find a scar you have to go looking for it. Is that why you couldn’t forgive my mother?”

At that moment, Ben had been tempted to strike his son over such a comment so he closed his eyes instead. He opened them just in time to hear the front door slam shut.

It killed him to admit it, but there had been some truth in the boy’s comment. While he would have given his life to see her again, there was a part of him that could not forgive Marie for what she had done. When he watched the boy riding his horse across the upper meadow or saw him laughing easily with his brothers, he gritted his teeth with the knowledge of what the boy’s life might have been had Marie chosen to stay.

She had no right to leave him.

Ben would never forgive himself for not believing in her, but he’d tried hard to forgive her for not giving him a second chance. Seventeen years later, he could almost look at her picture and feel the anger subside. She’d been more beautiful than sunlight on water, but she’d made the world seem shadowed and drab after she was gone.

Ben had always believed that everything happened for a reason. He’d never been one to wallow in regret. He’d always moved forward, even during those dark days when he had searched high and low, looking for any trace of her. Marie had moved on and had clearly expected him to do the same. Every year, he asked his lawyer in New Orleans to conduct another search. Every year, the detectives he hired came up empty-handed. As it turned out, none of them were looking in the right places. Marie had chosen to live where no respectable man was going to find her. Law officials didn’t patrol the streets where she raised his boy, and his hired detectives weren’t about to either.

Ben honestly didn’t know how she had survived, but there were things he didn’t need to know. Once Adam had dared to ask Joe, and his oldest son had been unusually quiet after they talked, sitting with a book but not really reading. He never told Ben what they had talked about. It was just as well. The less said about some things, the better. New Orleans, as far as Ben was concerned, was a God-forsaken city many blessed miles away from their life on the Ponderosa. Joe fit into their life more and more every day. He almost believed they were moving on from all that misery.

Then Joe fell in with Julia. And everyone was talking about it. They gossiped about Julia, but they might as well have been talking about Marie. The whole thing might have been a detour in the road for other boys, but it was a disaster for Joe as far as his father was concerned. Ben was angry with Julia, angrier than the situation probably warranted. He knew she was angry with him as well. She was getting even. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand it. Their past was just that – the past! Ben had no reason to resurrect it, and he was surprised that Julia would avenge herself with a seventeen-year-old boy. Could anger with a father drive a woman to ruin the life of a son? He’d asked himself that question again and again over the past few weeks, until the answer finally came to him. Marie had done just that. Could she have stayed so angry that she was willing to sacrifice her child to the streets of New Orleans?

No! He refused to believe it of Marie. She had fled out of desperation and fear and not out of anger. He knew about her life before she’d met him and all the men who had failed her. It was no wonder that she did not expect more of him than she did of any other man.

When he accused her, he became just that – another man who didn’t believe in her. Her child was different. He was everything. And she had to save him. Her life meant nothing compared to her child. She’d already had one baby snatched out of her arms and had been told that he had died weeks later. There was no way she would ever let it happen again. She’d sacrificed herself to save her son’s life, not to destroy it.

Ben shook his head. Something about the trouble with Julia brought back the memory of Marie in a way he didn’t understand. Julia couldn’t hold a candle to Marie, not by any reckoning, and yet he hadn’t stopped thinking of her since the whole thing began. There was something about Julia that brought Marie back to life again. He couldn’t help but expect his lovely young wife to come sweeping down the stairs, laughing at him that the whole thing had all been some ridiculous mistake.

However, there was no mistaking she was dead, and it was raining outside. A summer storm, warm and miserable, sweeping down from the mountains. He was glad Joe had fixed the roof. He’d done a decent job of it, catching on quick after Adam showed him how. The boy had caught on quick to just about everything they had to teach him. Ben had believed that it was because he belonged to their family, not because he was learning a new trade. Adam had argued that it didn’t matter what the boy’s intentions were; the outcome was the same regardless.

Ben heard the sound of horses over the wind and flung open the door, heedless of the slanting rain. Charlie had already met the boys and had taken the horses to the stable. Adam came inside first.

In the shadows, Ben couldn’t read the expression on his oldest son’s face, but Adam dimpled and said, “Don’t worry Pa, we saved the day. He’s still in one piece and not too worse for the wear.”

Hoss followed close up, and Ben detected uneasiness in his middle son that he had not seen before. On top of that, his right hand was raw and bleeding.

“Son?” he asked, reaching for it, but Hoss shrugged him off.

“Better see to Joe,” Hoss said gruffly and stepped aside.

Troubled, Ben watched him pass, but his attentions immediately shifted to his youngest son, framed in the doorway. Despite his resolution to stay calm, he couldn’t help but groan at the sight of him.

The boy was a mess. His face was a swelter of cuts and abrasions, and his left eye looked like he could hardly see out of it. To top it off, he looked like he could care less.

With a sheepish grin, the boy ran his fingers through his hair and said, “Hey Pa. Is there anything to eat? I’m starving!”

It was a poor apology for the days he’d been gone, but it would have to do. Ben reached out and helped shed his oil slicker, running his hand along his son’s shoulders as if he could somehow fix everything in their relationship that was broken. He tried to get a better look at his face, but Joe wouldn’t have any of it. He slipped out of his father’s grasp.

“You’ll be in no condition to work with the new string of horses tomorrow,” Ben said huskily, hanging up the boy’s slicker. “You can help Hoss with the branding instead.”

“I’m going back to town, tomorrow morning,” Joe said. “I have a poker game scheduled with a businessman from Carson City. Julia said he only plays strong hands and hardly ever bluffs. I’m sure I can take him, no problem.”

Joe looked happy enough. It had been a good day and a good fight, and despite everything, he was glad to see his pa again. It had only been a couple days but he missed him. However, Adam and Hoss looked at each other miserably over the confrontation that was sure to follow.

There was no doubt about it. It was going to be a long night.

*****

It was a long night and an even longer ride back into town.

Joe had hoped to come home, eat dinner, and get some much-needed rest. But Ben had other plans. He quietly brought out the antiseptic and a basin of cool water and stood back as Adam helped his brother get cleaned up. His pa didn’t say a word while Hoss bound his ribs with strips of muslin. He just watched the undertaking, his arms crossed against his chest, and his lips pressed into a grim line.

Joe was too tired for what was coming. Like Hoss said, he might have grit, but that didn’t make his body feel any better. It wasn’t just that he was physically tired. He was tired of the whole thing. His relationship with Julia was his business. His pa had no right to question him about it. The truth of the matter was that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore, to Pa or anyone else.

Ben had different ideas about the matter…

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. Joe could hardly believe some of the things his pa said about Julia. Of all people, Ben Cartwright had always struck him as someone who saw the inside of a person and not just what everyone else saw. If his pa felt that Julia was irredeemable, then what did he think about his own son? Joe didn’t say it out loud, but he’d also seen a good deal of the world and had the scars to prove it!

It all came down to Ben laying down the law. Even as he said it, Adam rubbed his forehead with his hand, and Hoss cringed as if in pain. Obviously, they both knew that it was not going to turn out well. His pa should have known better than to issue an ultimatum, but he was obviously too angry to be thinking clearly.

“I expect you to abide by my rules, young man!” he thundered, slamming shut his desk drawer, as if that ended the argument. “If you’re going to live in this house, you are not going work as a professional gambler in that woman’s… establishment!”

“Then I won’t live in this house,” Joe answered quietly. It was simple as that. He was every bit as angry as his father but not as hot-tempered. His pa had forced his hand, and Joe had little choice but respond in kind. He turned on his heels and walked silently to the credenza, reaching for his gunbelt and jacket.

Adam and Hoss had stayed out of it during the argument, but they followed him out to the barn. Adam tried to reason with his little brother to get him to reconsider. Hoss had pleaded with him, telling him that Pa really didn’t mean it. It was the truth, but Joe wanted none of it.

“This is who I am,” he said. “Who I really am. If Pa doesn’t like it, then I expect he’s right. I don’t belong living in his house.”

Joe tipped his hat to them and swung onto his horse. He didn’t look back as he rode away, a fact that disturbed them more than the fact that he left.

Joe rode into morning, taking the road slow and easy. His pinto knew the way, but he wasn’t in that much hurry to get away from the Ponderosa. The storm had blown through quickly, and ghostly strands of clouds were chasing each other across the moonlit sky. The temperature had dipped, but he hardly felt the cold. It was a beautiful night, one of the things his mother loved about the West. He’d grown up hearing her tell about it in stories, about a full moon that rose perfect and sinless in the big sky. If he hadn’t seen it for himself, he might not have believed her. He felt she was riding with him. He wanted to tell her the stories that he now carried with him. In every way he could think of, he had changed from the boy he had been in New Orleans. In every way that mattered, he was still the same. The ride couldn’t be too long. He was heading to Julia’s, but he had no idea where he was really going.

After leaving his horse in the livery, Joe walked slowly towards C Street. He passed the saloon where his friend Annie had worked until the previous month. Business wasn’t what it had been, and she had moved on to Placerville along with several of the other girls. They wrote frequently, and Joe fully intended to visit her after the roundup. He’d been terribly lonely without her, until he met Julia.

He stopped before the two story building that Julia had dubbed a palace. She’d be asleep still, probably until noon if not later. Both of them earned their money by working through the night, but he didn’t mind the wait. Entering the front room was a little like returning to New Orleans. Julia had insisted on the best, and only the best, for her establishment. Plush carpets might be quickly soiled underneath the filthy boots that walked across it, but the crystal chandelier cast glints that could cover many imperfections. The rules she established were just as clear-cut. Anyone coming into the Palace had to clean up their boots and their language and leave their expectations at the door. This was her kingdom, from carpets to chandelier, and anyone who entered was expected to play by her rules alone. Most men believed that she was in control. Joe knew better.

Julia’s life was a war, disguised as a sport.

He breathed in the perfumed air, which had been carefully scented to hide the smell of its unwashed patrons. The palace was like walking into a party. Tom, the barkeep, nodded, not bothering to glance menacingly at the shotgun he’d kept behind the bar as a warning for unruly patrons. He smiled instead. Joe knew all about that smile. It meant he belonged. He’d grown up in rooms just like this one and already knew the rules. It was a club that no decent citizen wanted to join, but it suited him all the same. He didn’t hold it against them. In a different life, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to join either.

“Up early,” Tom remarked, sliding a whiskey down the polished bar.

“Too early,” Joe agreed but accepted the drink. “Any sign of Millian?”

“No. Probably drinking it off. Besides, I think those brothers of yours scared him off last night. Probably won’t be back for a day or two.”

Joe smiled. “You mean it wasn’t my prowess as a barroom brawler that scared him away?”

Tom smirked, taking in his young customer’s bruised and battered face. Joe was no coward, but he wasn’t a fool either.

“Not this time, kid. Like your big brother said, one of these days you’ll beat him. Last night just wasn’t the night. You might as well go home. The lady won’t be down for a couple hours yet.”

“I can wait,” Joe said, smiling. “Until my opponent gets here, I don’t have much to do but wait for the lady.”

“No gambling today, son. The doctor was by today and warned us that he’d have the town council shut us down, if he got wind of any more games on Sunday. Seems the house has been too lucky on the Lord’s Day.”

“The house’s lucky streak is none of their business,” Joe said, irritably. “Julia’s money is good enough for them, so they shouldn’t be worrying about what day of the week it’s coming from. I expect my money’s good enough for them too.”

Tom snorted, “I just work here, son. Don’t make the rules. I’ve seen a lot of cardsharps come and go, but you’ve got your own kind of talent. It’s carried you a long way, but it’s gotta run out some time. Who taught you to play cards like that, anyhow?”

Joe replied. “They say I’m natural born to it.”

It wasn’t too hard to remember why he’d learned to play cards.

He’d learned to play cards to eat. To keep his mother from making even more desperate choices than she already had to. Why Joe still played cards was another question. He couldn’t help her anymore, and he should have left gambling in his past. He didn’t depend on his next hand for his next meal. He wouldn’t be turned out of his home if he couldn’t bring back enough of his winnings. It should have been all over, but the game had a hold on him, stronger than he’d admit to his father or brothers. Joe’s gambling roots went deep into the Louisiana soil. The stakes had been higher there; in New Orleans, being found to be a cheat could well be a death sentence. However, being branded a card sharp was awfully serious in Virginia City as well. His youth and angelic face could only take him so far. Adam had warned him, and he was right. Being taken by a kid could make a certain kind of man even angrier than being swindled by a player of legal age. He no longer made his living in the underbelly of society, but in some ways, little else had changed.

Joe had wanted to meet Miss Bulette from the moment he heard about her. It didn’t take much of his brother’s teasing for him to take the bait. He’d walked into her establishment, knowing full well what it took to earn a living in the wilds of any town, whether in the hard-bitten West or in the swamps of New Orleans. The owner of the Palace had made a name for herself in New Orleans but had left the city before he was old enough to meet her for himself. Knowing she had walked the same streets made him feel like he was going home. Joe knew it wouldn’t bring back what he’d lost. His mother was dead, in a watery grave by the docks. Joe knew enough about life to know that the dead didn’t rise again, no matter how much you missed them.

When he first walked into the room, Julia was ordering John Millaine to leave. The man slapped her hard, the blow almost knocking her off her feet. Joe flung himself into the middle of it and would have gotten himself beaten to a pulp it the barkeep had not intervened, hitting Millaine over the head and ending the fray. Even though Joe realized that she did not need him to protect her, seeing that man strike her had roused the most visceral reaction he’d felt since leaving New Orleans. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a woman struck by a man who didn’t deserve her.

They became friends. In some ways, she reminded him of his mother. Both were beautiful, smart, and lived their lives like the devil was on their tail. Yet Julia seemed to have mastered something that Marie had never gotten down. Julia had perfected the fine art of never allowing herself to be vulnerable to anyone. No matter how warm and engaging she appeared to her customers, she kept her true self locked securely away.

Marie had tried to do the same. Love had brought her nothing but heartache and pain. And yet she kept betraying herself, a thousand times over a day, every time she looked at her young son’s face. He was sure of it – loving him was the one thing that separated his mother from Julia Bulette. Looking back on it, Joe wasn’t so sure it had been a good thing to have him around. If it weren’t for him, he was convinced that she would still be alive. Marie would have been a different person without him, harder and more cunning. If she hadn’t been worried about providing for her son, she would have recognized the evil in the man who murdered her and wouldn’t have taken such chances. Everything she did was filtered through that sacrifice. It was her singular gift that she softened her heart to love him.

It hadn’t been the easiest life, but a smile and a small swig of whiskey made the most of it. It worked for her, and it would have to work for him.

Joe asked for another drink. It was early, and his pa wouldn’t approve, but his face throbbed like a calamity and every bone in his body felt like John Millaine had taken him apart and put him together again all wrong. Another shot of whiskey would take the edge off. Besides, Pa didn’t approve of much of anything he’d been doing lately. Drinking had been discouraged since his first day on the Ponderosa, and the gambling had been everything short of forbidden. His time with Julia seemed to make his father angrier than the rest of it put together. Ben had done everything short of forbidding Joe to see her. That might have driven him away for good, and his pa knew it.

Joe kicked back in his chair. The parlor was still in shambles from the brawl the night before. It brought to mind Adam and Hoss and the way they’d stood back and watched him fight Millaine.

“The kid’s got grit.”

He’d heard Hoss say it to Adam, and it was one of the finest compliments he’d ever heard.

His brothers had given him enough room to fight his own battles but not a whole lot more. It was an odd feeling – knowing that someone had your back. He’d grown up a scrappy little kid in the area of New Orleans known as the Swamp. The constables didn’t dare patrol the streets of his childhood. He had always known if he didn’t survive to see another day, he’d have no one to blame but himself. In his new life, he’d been loved and looked after in the most surprising ways. He appreciated his family’s protectiveness. Joe was not a fool who took such things for granted.

However, Ben’s reaction to Julia bothered him deeply. If he was so offended by Miss Bulette, how would he react if knew everything about Joe’s past? About who he really was?

“Well, what do you know?” Tom said, shaking his head. “The great lady awakes.”

Joe looked up and saw Julia standing at the top of the narrow stairway. She was indeed awake, and as always knew how to make her entrance. It was only a brothel with well-worn stairs, but she smiled at him and grandly descended as if it were a palace.

*****

Adam sighed as he prepared himself to face his father. It wasn’t something he looked forward to. He’d been sent to town to check on the kid, preferably to bring him home. Two weeks had already passed since Joe had left the Ponderosa. Paying for his room out of his winnings, Joe moved into the International House. The scuttlebutt had it that Julia was supporting him as well. Ben had sent his sons to town on a daily mission to check up on the boy, but they hadn’t bothered sharing that piece of information. Finally, after letting two weeks pass by, Ben approached his oldest son.

“Bring Joseph home,” he said. “Tell him that I didn’t mean what I said. Tell him whatever you want. Just bring him home.”

“Maybe you should go get him,” Adam had suggested, but his father shook his head.

“No,” Ben replied. “I saw the look on his face, and he’s not going to forget what I said for a good, long time. The boy’s the picture of his mother. She would have felt the same way.”

As the dutiful oldest son, Adam had carried out his father’s wishes, but it hadn’t gone well at all. And now he had to tell his father that Joe wasn’t coming home.

Leaning against the fence by the barn, he stared out towards the setting sun, an amber glow behind the feather tips of the trees. Dusk was settling in; it had been a long day, and he had the distinct feeling that the rest of it wasn’t going to go any better.

Don’t be a coward, he scolded himself. Get in there and tell Pa what happened.

The truth of the matter was that Adam wasn’t exactly sure what happened. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how he’d let himself get so angry. Things with Joe had been going so well. He’d been in their lives for just over a year, but already Adam couldn’t imagine life without his younger brother. He wished to God he’d never dared the kid to walk into Julia’s Palace. He knew that the trouble they were having wasn’t all about Julia, but she certainly didn’t help things.

It didn’t take long to hear the full story from folks who were all too happy to tell it. The kid had been having himself a fine old time in town with Miss Bulette, relieving the Comstock of its riches. Supposedly, Joe Cartwright was at the top of his game, although the novelty of a boy card sharp had to be wearing dangerously thin. However, Adam figured his brother had been on his own for most of his life, and there were certain things they didn’t have a right to say anything about. His card playing was one of those things. Julia was another.

The relationship was getting out of hand, although Adam couldn’t figure it out. The infamous lady was much older than his little brother; even though they’d seen much of the same things in life, they couldn’t have had much in common. Folks in town said it was all about his mother, and for once he considered that the gossips might be right. It would have been fine if it ended at that, but from there the rumors got a whole lot uglier. Adam had busted his fist against a couple jaws to quiet some of them, but he couldn’t take on the whole town, no matter how bad the talk got. His old buddy, Ross, had put it a bit more generously. Said Joe was probably homesick and was going back to what he’d always known. It was a kinder way to put it, but Adam held it against his friend all the same. The kid was home. New Orleans was a world away, in every way that really mattered.

Adam could certainly understand his brother’s attraction to Julia Bulette. She was a beautiful woman, and she conducted her affairs like the whole world was at her beck and call. Adam could see how that would appeal to him. The kid missed his mother. He missed the life they’d shared together, but Marie was gone. It was even hard for Adam to believe that he would never see her again.

The afternoon his stepmother left his father, Adam had been two weeks shy of thirteen. He hadn’t been home that afternoon. He’d been drinking tarantula juice with Ross and a couple other friends behind old McAllister’s barn and hadn’t made it back until evening, worrying he’d be in trouble for neglecting his chores. No one noticed he’d been gone. Marie was gone, and his father was riding the Ponderosa, frantically searching for her. He’d been sure she had gone riding to calm herself down. That’s what had happened in the past after one of their fights, and he was praying that this would go the same way. Ben had looked through her wardrobe, but she’d left so much behind, he hadn’t realized anything was missing. By the time he made it to Virginia City, she had left on the stage. Adam had never forgiven himself for being gone that afternoon. Somehow, he was certain that he could have made a difference if he had only been home. He was sure he could have made her listen to reason. Yet reason only went so far.

He would never forget five-year-old Hoss, still sobbing on her bed, as if his very life had been broken. Adam tried sitting him on his lap and asking if he’d seen his mama, but his little brother was too torn apart to talk. He sobbed on and off for days before quitting altogether. He learned young what they all knew, that crying didn’t change a thing. It would be a long time before Hoss would cry in front of his family again.

That day changed all of them. They lost Marie, and for a while they lost their father as well. They lost more than they could have ever imagined. It took years for Ben to accept that she was gone, and so many years later, he still grieved deeply. Adam would never forget the weeks and months his father had left them, traversing the French Quarter to search hopelessly for her. But New Orleans was a big city, and Marie had been determined to not be found. Pa’s sojourns had taken a lot out of Hoss, and if he were honest with himself, he’d have to admit that they took a lot out of him as well. Adam had grown up a lot faster than he should have.

Marie left traces of herself everywhere. The house smelled like her for months after she had left. The roses she planted bloomed dutifully six months later. Exquisitely, the vine flowered for three weeks, until they came home from school one afternoon to find their father had chopped it down.

“I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore,” he said. “It’s too much like her. Please forgive me, boys.”

Ben wept that afternoon, the only time Adam could remember seeing his father cry. He wrote about it in his journal, but it would be sixteen years before he found out that his baby brother was born on the same day that his pa chopped down the roses.

There were other reminders. Marie had bought him a fine bound edition of the Bard’s sonnets for his birthday, inscribed it, and left it on his bed before she fled the house. He’d refused to open the book for several years but brought it with him to the university despite his intentions to throw it away. When he finally opened the book, he fell for her all over again, no matter how determined he had been to push her out of his memory. His young stepmother had been part of their lives for less than a year, but she had already done her damage.

She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen; every girl who came after suffered in comparison. He couldn’t help holding her beauty against them. Marie had the audacity to remain young and doomed and tragic as hell. He’d been haunted by her while she was alive, and after death, her ghost had only grown more persistent. If only he’d seen her one more time – seen weariness or wrinkles – anything that marked the passage of time, it might have helped. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Joe said she remained the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen until the last day of her life. Adam didn’t put it past her. He half expected she’d held onto her beauty just to show them she could.

Either that or out of desperation….

Marie Cartwright was not a woman to be taken lightly. Neither was Miss Bulette.

Adam sighed as he paused in front of the door. He could hear Pa and Hoss talking inside. They’d be finishing up with dinner, but he wasn’t the least bit hungry. Pulling off his hat, he brushed off the trail dust, stalling for time. The evening air was wet and warm. Fevered air. While in town, Doc Martin had warned him to stay away from the mining camps until the recent epidemic burned itself out. There’d already been too many cases of fever in the congested settlements of Gold Hill, and it was only a matter of time before it spread to Virginia City. You could feel illness in the air; it had been an unusually humid summer. It reminded him of the last trip he took with his father to New Orleans to look for Marie. It was the kind of heat that made clothing stick to skin and made one fear to breathe too deeply.

The evening sky was smeared with darkening clouds, and lightning branched out over the mountains. The rain would come in soon, the storm spreading east toward the high desert. Folks in town said they were in for some wild weather. Really, they had no idea. He wasn’t in a hurry to go in. He’d gladly take his chances with the storm outside rather than the one inside the house. His pa wasn’t going to like what he had to say. Joe had been seen escorting Julia everywhere, from her expensive box at the Opera House to the Fireman’s Ball. The pair had attracted more than their share of attention wherever they went, and Joe had the bruises to show for it.

Adam caught up with his brother at the International House earlier that day. Although Tom, the barkeep at the Palace, had tried to warn him, he’d been taken aback anyway. His little brother was a mess, plain and simple. It looked like the whole town was having a brawl across his face. Adam immediately grabbed him and took hold of his chin, turning it this way and that. Joe tried to pull out of his grasp but finally submitted to the inspection, holding still until Adam had seen enough.

Wearily, Adam pinched the bridge of his nose, remembering the conversation that had followed. There was no avoiding the fact that it had gone rather badly…

Joe finally pulled away from his big brother and stood up a lot straighter than he needed to.

“Let me be, Adam. I’m fine. I’ve been through a whole lot worse.”

“You’ll go through a whole lot more if you don’t stop picking fights with the whole damn town,” Adam said dryly.

“How do you know they’re not picking fights with me?” Joe retorted.

Adam leaned against the wall, crossing his arms against his chest. “All right, Joe, why don’t you tell me what this is all about? You’re not even trying any more. For more than a year, you’ve been doing the right things, saying the right things. I’ve watched you trying to fit in and get along. What makes this time any different? Why does Julia change things for you?”

“Her name is Miss Bulette,” Joe said coldly. “What are you trying to say, Adam? Are you claiming I’ve been lying to you all along? Playing a part, isn’t that what you mean? Why don’t you just come out and say what you want to ask me? What is it you want me to tell you?”

Joe’s hands had clenched into fists, and Adam suddenly realized that they had caught the attention of everyone in the lobby. He could see the fight rising in his brother. Raising his hands in surrender, he backed off. Just a little.

“What should I tell Pa?” Adam asked.

“Tell him what you think he wants to hear,” Joe said, looking his brother in the eye. “I’m sure anything but the truth will do.”

“That’s enough, Joe. I don’t know anyone who cares about the truth more than Pa.” Adam could feel his own anger rising to match that of his brother. “If you’ve got something to say, boy, I suggest you just come out with it.”

Joe bristled at the word “boy”. He was not a boy; he’d never really been a boy, and anyone in New Orleans would have agreed.

“If Pa cares about the truth,” Joe hissed, “then why didn’t he believe my mama? She told him the truth but he wouldn’t listen to her. Pa wants the truth but only the truth that suits him.”

“Do you really believe that?” Adam asked, his anger fading away. The boy who stood in front of him was so young and so sad. Adam could live a couple more lifetimes and never know what it was like to be that sad.

“Why else would he care if I’m with Miss Bulette?” Joe demanded. “Does it embarrass him…me being with a woman like her? Well let me tell you something Adam. You don’t know anything about me and neither does Pa. If he doesn’t think she is good enough to associate with the Cartwrights, then what does he think about my mother? What does he think about me?”

He thinks you’re his son and that’s enough, Adam thought, but didn’t say it.

Instead, he insisted, “Joe, you don’t understand what Pa’s gone through. How he’s suffered during these years.”

“How he’s suffered!” Joe sputtered. “What could he know about suffering? Tell me this, Adam – did Pa even bother to look for my mother?”

Adam’s fist, when it connected, was a powerful uppercut to the jaw that sent Joe sprawling onto the wool carpet. The boy lifted his head, glaring at his bigger brother. It had been a hard blow and the swelling that resulted was already adding to his collection of injuries. Adam had no doubt that the kid had deserved every one. He was trying to keep himself under control but could hardly breathe, he was so angry.

“I suggest you watch yourself, Joe,” he warned, his voice shaking despite his efforts to control it. “You don’t know what you’re saying. It’s obvious you don’t know much about Pa, and I think it’s high time that you spend more time at the Ponderosa so you can find out.”

Joe pushed himself up. Adam resisted the urge to help him. He looked so pitiful, trying to remain standing, but Adam reminded himself that his little brother was a lot tougher than he looked. They had all been guilty of underestimating the boy, right from the beginning.

“What are you going to do?” Joe taunted. “Knock me out so you can sling me over your saddle? You can drag me home, but you can’t make me stay there.”

“Why are you doing this?” Adam asked, ignoring the pleading tone that had crept into his voice. He realized he was not above begging for either his father or his brother. “Why don’t you let us help you? I don’t understand what this is about.”

“I don’t need help,” Joe said, reaching for his hat from where it had fallen. “Miss Bulette is my friend, and I’m not going to abandon her.”

“Abandon her to what?” Adam asked. “What do you have to offer her that could be so important?”

Joe looked at his big brother as if he had asked the most ridiculous fool question he’d ever heard. But his temper tended to run its course quickly, and he wasn’t mad anymore.

Joe answered politely, out of sheer upbringing. “I can keep her safe. I… I think maybe I can save her.”

“What do you mean, save her?” Adam tried to ask, but his little brother was already heading toward the stairs.

He called over his shoulder, “I’ll be seeing you, brother. Thanks for stopping by.”

Adam stood in the fine lobby of the International House by himself. Joe was right about one thing. The only way he was going to bring Joe home was over his saddle, a solution that wouldn’t solve a thing. What was he going to tell Pa.?

The front door to the house opened, startling Adam out of his reverie. Even as distant thunder sounded over the mountains, Ben Cartwright’s voice was low and steady.

“Well son,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “Where is your brother? Is he coming home?”

Adam couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. He’d always told his pa some part of the truth but this time wasn’t sure which truth he’d be willing to part with.

*****

From where he sat, Doc Martin could hear a woman singing to a dying man. It was a bawdy tune, with lyrics that would make a respectable nurse blush. Not a likely dirge for a deathbed. What did you expect, he chided himself? Turn a brothel into a hospital, and you take what you can get. Despite the situation’s shortcomings, he was indeed grateful.

The fever in the mining camps had reached epidemic proportions with more ferocity than he had expected. It had spread into town, and the good people of Virginia City had reacted predictably when asked to help out. Barely taking time to pack, they had fled the town, leaving behind the poorest and the weakest to fend for themselves. Only Julia Bulette and her girls, the Cartwrights, and a few ragtag Samaritans had stuck around to help.

The doctor sighed and gazed around the room. He’d never been inside Julia’s Palace before the epidemic. He was a married man, God-fearing, and thoroughly ashamed for the things he had said and thought about Julia.

It wasn’t something he liked to think about, let alone say out loud.

Let he without sin, throw the first stone, the good Lord commanded, and somehow the good doctor had forgotten to duck. Julia might not have been the most righteous of women, but her heart was where it should be. Without hesitating, she’d placed her palace at his disposal. Joe Cartwright had immediately stepped up as well, offering to do whatever was needed. If love covered a multitude of sins, the doctor figured that Joe and Julia had more right to throw stones than the rest of them. He was deeply moved, watching them treat the mostly indigent patients with sincere dignity and respect.

He turned and watched Julia joking with a desperately ill miner. The man was gazing at her as if she were an angel, no matter how fallen. An exhausted angel, he thought to himself but decided that maybe that was the only kind that really mattered. Julia looked a lot younger than when he’d seen her from the other side of the street.

“Where do you want the ice, Doc?” He turned around. Young Joe Cartwright stood in front of him, sweaty and pale with the effort of hauling in another bucket from the icehouse.

The doctor examined his young worker with a critical eye. He didn’t look good. Weary to the bone, Joe looked like he had aged a decade over the past couple weeks while Julia only seemed to be getting younger. Their ages were quickly coming to meet in the middle. Doc Martin had watched the two of them over the week. They were easy together, comfortable with each other’s strengths and shortcomings. A more unlikely pair, he couldn’t have imagined, but then again, the two of them had experienced things he would never understand either.

“Take the ice over to Julia,” the doctor said gently, “and then I want the two of you to take a break and get some rest. You’re working yourselves to the bone, and the last thing I need is two new patients.”

“I’m not tired-” Joe began to protest, but the doctor cut him off.

“You’re not tired, but she is,” he said. “Go on, take care of her. You both deserve some time to yourselves.”

Surprised, Joe stared at the doctor for a long moment. Then he grinned.

“Doctor’s orders,” he conceded cheerfully and carried the ice over to Julia.

Doc Martin watched and smiled as they made their way outside. A little fresh air would do them more than a world of good. He could use some himself, but there was no rest for the weary. Like Julia, Joe, and the others who worked at the Palace, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had any sleep. It was his job, and there was no other way that he’d rather have it.

When the door swung open, he wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the other three Cartwrights stride in. They had been handling things outside the sickroom, hauling good water and supplies from the Ponderosa to help combat the infection. In between runs, they had made every effort to check up on the youngest Cartwright. Just as diligently, he’d made every effort to avoid them. The bonds between the newly formed family were wearing thin. The doctor didn’t know whether either side was going to give. It was a good thing he wasn’t a gambling man; either way, he didn’t like the odds. Something had to change. Someone had to give in, or the Cartwright family wasn’t going to hold together. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see the boy leaving on next week’s stage with Julia.

“Where’s my boy, Paul?” Ben asked quietly.

“He’s outside, Ben,” Doc Martin replied. “Getting some sleep, I hope. He’s been working hard. He’s a good boy, a credit to you, even if you didn’t raise him.”

The words earned a dark look from Ben and a smile from Hoss, who chose to take the comment as a compliment, pure and simple. He was proud of his brother, and he’d missed him. He knew his pa was also hurting over having Joe gone for the past few weeks. Hoss only prayed that his father would be able to let Joe go enough to be able to keep him.

During the past couple weeks, Hoss had been bothered by the idea that he should have told his father about Marie being with child. He’d agonized over the idea that it might have made a difference. However, he had come to realize that it would have made no difference at all. Ben Cartwright would have moved Heaven and Earth to save his lost wife, and now he would do exactly the same for Marie’s son.

Slowly, in his own way, Hoss was coming to peace with the choice he’d made. He had done what Marie had asked of him. That was all that could be expected of a five-year old, and there were no easy answers. Sometimes the best a soul could do was to muddle through and pray for the best. That’s what they all were doing while working things out with Joe- the best they could under the circumstances.

“He’s my boy now, and I want to see him,” Ben said, keeping his voice calm and steady. “It’s been too long. He needs to come home with his family and get some rest.”

“He’s with Julia, Ben.”

The comment interrupted Ben Cartwright’s momentum. He sighed and exchanged a long, tired look with Adam. The oldest Cartwright son reached behind the bar and pulled out a bottle of the palace’s finest brandy.

“It’s on me,” he asked. “I’d say we could all use it.”

Hoss shook his head. “Nah. Just a beer for me. I’m tuckered helping Hop Sing haul all that water onto the wagon. Pa, I’m gonna go have a look at Joe for myself. I don’t like the idea of him sleeping in the middle of the day. Sounds to me like he might be coming down with the fever himself.”

Ben glanced worriedly at Paul, but the doctor shook his head.

“No, he’s not sick, he’s just spent,” he said. “Ben, I need to tell you something about Julia and your boy…”

“I know all about Julia,” Ben said.

Paul Martin shook his head at the man standing across from him. In the poor light of the shuttered palace, Ben looked worse than awful. He looked older and more tired than the doctor had ever seen him. The past month had taken a lot out of him. However, the doctor was determined to have his say, even if it offended his old friend.

“Ben, I thought I knew all about Julia too,” Doc Martin said. “But I was wrong. Really wrong, in fact, and I was wrong to have wanted Joe to stay away from her. Town pride isn’t worth a thing if it means we turn our back on the best of us. Working with the two of them… well, let’s just say a person is more than what they’ve done. You and I know it, but it’s easy to forget sometimes. The Good Book says that man looks at appearances and God looks at the heart. The two of them- there’s nothing wrong with their hearts. If that’s good enough for the Lord, then by golly, it’s good enough for me and I expect it should be good enough for you as well.”

Ben smiled at the doctor. They’d known each other for a long time, and he could count on the man to tell it like it was. It was something he’d needed to hear. He’d been acting on his instincts for too long, and his instincts had not always served him well. The problem wasn’t Julia. The problem lay within him and had everything to do with Marie. No matter how many years had passed, the questions that tormented him remained the same. Had he looked hard enough for Marie? Was there any way he could have found her? Could he have saved her?

Was there a part of him that had been relieved to see her go?

Theirs had not been a simple marriage, and there were no simple answers to be found in looking back on it. About his son, Ben had no doubts at all. He would have done anything to have saved Joseph. Anything at all. Nothing mortified him more than watching his boy continue to gamble. By fending for himself, Joe was clearly declaring that he didn’t trust anyone to look after him as well as he could look after himself. The rejection stuck, like a dagger, in his heart. And yet, he couldn’t blame his son. It would take a great deal more time to make up for what they’d lost. And that’s what it came down to. There was no sacrifice Ben could make that was too great. No part of his life he wouldn’t be willing to lay down on the line for his son.

Julia wasn’t the issue, and Ben wasn’t sure if she ever had been. Whether or not she was good enough for his son was beside the point. It all came back to him and whether he had been a good enough father. He hadn’t been a good enough husband, that was for certain. And by failing to find them, he had failed at a parent’s most fundamental responsibility – keeping his son out of harm’s way. He’d failed to save him.

Ben accepted a glass of brandy from Adam. The amber liquid swirled in the glass, but it didn’t spill over. It was a good thing – he was going to need every drop of it.

Raising the glass in a toast to the others, he said, “To better days.”

Doc Martin looked troubled and said, “I’m sorry, Ben. It’s not my place to interfere with family matters. I was only trying to help.”

“Thank you for that, old friend,” Ben replied, placing a steady hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “It’s time for me to see my boy. Time for me to tell him I’m sorry.”

Adam came alongside his father.

“So you’ve changed your mind?” he asked quietly.

Ben shook his head with a rueful smile. “Not exactly. I feel the same about the cards and the drinking. No good can come from it. I certainly don’t think Miss Bulette is the most suitable companion. But the truth is, Adam, I don’t know if your brother will come home on my terms or not. This might be the only chance I have to make things right. I won’t gamble with something I can’t replace. I simply can’t lose him.”

Hoss let out the breath he’d been holding, relieved beyond all measure. The past month had taken a lot out of him. He missed Joe almost more than he could stand, and he wanted to get back to being a big brother again. He’d never again forget the promise he’d made Marie. She kept her promise to him. She’d taken care of her son and sent him home to them. Now it was his turn to keep his promise and look after his little brother.

Ben smiled at his kind-hearted son, clapped him on the shoulder, and turned back to the doctor.

“Take me to him, Paul. I think I’ve got some fences to mend with my youngest son.”

Doc Martin hesitated and then shook his head. “Ben, I think you’d better wait until he comes to you instead.”

Ben started to protest but then realized the doctor had a point. During the past year, Joe had struggled to adjust to his father’s rules, to find his place among the Cartwright men, and to learn how to live with them. If Ben wanted his boy to remain on the Ponderosa, he’d have to do some of the changing and learn what it took to live in his son’s very different world.

Ben sighed and drank the rest of his brandy. It would be difficult, but it wasn’t impossible. He wasn’t the first wretch that grace had managed to save, and love did in fact cover a multitude of sins.

Ben settled back wearily in the expensive, embroidered chair that Julia had shipped from New Orleans and waited for his boy to come to him.

*****

It had been a long day of attending to death and the merely dying, but Joe was still sleeping…

He knew he was dreaming, but it was good to be walking streets of New Orleans again. Breathing in air that was hot and wet and visceral, he felt excited to be alive. Excited and a little scared. The city was alive and humming. Music poured from bordellos and dance halls, and it seemed like everyone was drunk and intoxicated with the night. In the distance, he could hear shots being fired. No one was likely to be in much danger. The citizens of New Orleans were notoriously bad shots. The sound of a woman screaming came from a nearby shanty. No constables dared to patrol those streets at night.

He passed by the shacks of voodoo queens, open for business late all night. Quadroon and octoroon girls leaned over balcony and porch railings. Some reached out and stroked his hair as he walked by. He kissed their hands and smiled. Joe was a familiar sight on the streets, a natural product of his environment. He was born on Gillatin Street, and everyone knew his name. Gamblers, courtesans, pirates, strumpets, alike. All improvident souls making do, getting by. No better than him and no worse either. There were too many sinners and not enough stones on the streets of his childhood for anyone to do much throwing.

“Hello Louisa,” he called to a familiar Creole beauty who leaned out from an upper window. She asked him a question in her native language and he called back.

As she smiled and blew him a kiss, he was surprised that his drawl had returned along with his French. In the dream at least, he was who he had always been. No cowboy boots, no chaps dusty from a long day of riding. He was not a Cartwright boy, and nobody expected him to uphold the family name. Decent folks had no place where he grew up. He was simply Marie’s boy, making the best of things, and no one expected more of him. Joe was closer to home than he’d been in a long time.

It was time to find some work and get some food in his belly. He was still young, but he wasn’t much of a boy anymore. His childhood had little to offer him, and he was glad to see it end.

As he walked, the air began to change, and the atmosphere of celebration and mayhem faded away. The night crept into morning, seductive and serene. He had worked all night in the most popular gaming parlor in the Quarter, and his pockets were stuffed with his winnings. Every person on the street had a job to do. Vendors and beggars alike nodded as he strolled down Franklin Street. Belly rumbling, he hummed a familiar tune. He’d been too successful at his game to have time to eat, and he’d waited in vain for his mother to come home. He’d wanted to combine their earnings. However, she never made it back, even in the early hours of the morning, which was unusual for her. It was part of their covenant with each other.

There was no need to talk about where they’d been, as long as they came home when it was over.

As he turned the corner, the comfortable feeling of being home again began to slip away, replaced with something closer to dread. Joe could feel the morning turning against him. He knew what would happen next. His mama wouldn’t be making her way home. She had already been stabbed and lay dying and bleeding in an alley a few blocks from where he stood. His old friend Pierre would be bounding into him soon, breathless and almost too terrified to tell him what he had seen. Soon, his hands would be slick with his mama’s blood, and he was desperate with how much he loved her. He was not a card sharp, a gambler, or a con artist. He was only a boy and a hungry one at that. He loved his mother, but it wasn’t enough. It had never been enough.

The suddenness of oncoming grief made him fall to his knees on that filthy street. Before him, he could see it all: their life together, her death, and his failure. He had failed his mama in the only way that mattered. She had done everything to keep him safe, but he had failed to save her….

When he opened his eyes, the morning was over and the air was crisp and cool, smelling of horse sweat and sawdust and French perfume. Julia reclined against him. She’d been watching him sleep all morning, tracing the soft lines of his young face with her finger.

“I was dreaming,” he said.

“I know,” she said, smiling. “You were back in New Orleans.”

“How did you know?” he asked wonderingly.

He reached forward and stroked her cheek. She looked young and lovely, in the golden light that hung over them like a veil.

“I just know,” she said. “It showed. You were dreaming of your mother.”

He didn’t answer. She was right, of course, but Julia was usually right. He was glad to have woken up in her good company, the only one who could understand for hundreds of miles around.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, they were quiet. It was about time to go back inside. The sick were still sick and the dying were still dying. Their respite was over, and the real world was waiting again.

She asked him, “Will you go back to New Orleans?”

Surprised, he stared at her before nodding. “The man that killed my mother was never found. I need to make sure he pays for what he’s done.”

“That’s not the real reason,” she said, touching her finger to his lips. “You’re no vigilante. Your mother’s killer will pay every day he has to live in the world without her. Trust me. Justice has a way of working itself out. Now tell me the truth. Why do you want to go back to New Orleans?”

Joe closed his eyes. It was what he loved about her, the way she wouldn’t take anything but honesty from him. His mother had been much the same. She was always upfront but didn’t bother talking over things she couldn’t change. Marie had told him the truth about everything except the one thing that really mattered: the truth about who he was.

“It’s too hard to stay here. To have them all watching me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “I’m not sure I have it in me anymore, pretending to be a Cartwright.”

“You are a Cartwright,” she said, with absolute conviction. “Just the same as the rest of them. You are your father’s son – believe me, I know. You’re meant to stay.”

“A man goes where he wants to go,” he argued, reaching for her hand.

“A man stays where he’s needed,” Julia said. “And you’re needed here. Your family wasn’t complete, until you returned home. They need you as much as you need them. All of you paid a price for your mother’s decision.”

“She did what she needed to – ” he started to protest, but she stopped him with a kiss.

“She did what she wanted to do,” she said. “That is something I can say for sure. Your mother wanted you more than she wanted anything else. She made her own decision.”

“It’s my fault,” Joe still argued. “She died because she always looked out for me before herself. I couldn’t save her.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Julia Bulette said softly. “That’s where you’re still a boy. You saved her, my dear, in every way that mattered.”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“You will,” she replied. “Give it time. When you’re older, you’ll understand what I mean and the foolish things people do for love.”

He stayed with her a while longer, admiring the graceful lines of her face. It was a fallen world, but he found her beauty perfected in the light. She caught his look and held it, pushing him away with a small, sad smile.

“It should have happened many years ago,” Julia said.

And they were quiet for a spell until the doctor came out to fetch them. There were more sick miners just brought in, and Julia and Joe were needed.

His family was inside, waiting.

***The End***

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