Summary: Memories return on a moonlit night. Sequel to “The Return”. This story is part of a series and refers to events portrayed in “The Return”, “Abide”, “Interlude”, and “Gravity”.
Word Count: 3,530
* This story is part of a series and follows the events portrayed in the stories, “The Return”, “Abide”, “Interlude”, and “Gravity”. In this series, Marie Cartwright left Ben Cartwright early in their marriage and raised Joe on the streets of New Orleans. After her death, Joe Cartwright returned to the Ponderosa to live with a family he had never known…
It had been a chilly dusk, but the cold had lost its edge after the sun went down. It had turned strangely warm under the canopy of stars, and the four men sat companionably around the small fire. The moon had risen, orange and ridiculously oversized, over the tips of the pine forest. Amused, Ben had wondered what a harvest moon was doing rising over the Ponderosa in the middle of July. He hadn’t thought of it originally, but Joe was right. The moon looked just like the one that he’d seen hanging over the bayous and lamp lit streets of New Orleans, covered with the faintest sheen of clouds.
Before Joe’s comment, Ben Cartwright had been sitting back, prodding the fire with a forked stick, and wondering at the fact that his life had ever been any different than the way it was that night.
Looking at the faces of his boys around the fire, he felt a surge of pride in his three sons. It had taken him months to get used to the idea of having three of them. He’d never realized that a single number could make such a difference in a man’s life. He’d always been so proud of his two boys. Adam and Hoss were two young men that any father would have been proud to claim as a legacy. He had three sons now, Adam, Hoss, and Joe, and it had taken a while before the number stopped tripping over his tongue.
During the first months after Joe’s return, Ben secretly rehearsed what he would say when asked about his family.
“I have three sons,” he would repeat to the mirror over his bureau, night after night, the soft stream of moonlight through the window rendering his hair more silver than gray. “Three fine sons. Adam, Hoss, and Joe.”
The nightly rehearsal did the job, because he never got it wrong, not even once. Nobody would have guessed that the sudden appearance of a third Cartwright son had caused much of a disruption in the life of the Cartwright family. Of course there had been issues. Anyone would have expected that. The sixteen-year-old boy had entered their family, downing whiskey like it was water and cutting a deck of cards like he was a riverboat gambler. Which of course he was…
But they had worked out so many things, had come so far over the past year. Joe had worked hard to smooth over the vestiges of his past. Even the boy’s Southern drawl had faded over the past month. He’d learned to bust a bronc better than the other young men in the territory and had acquired a cowboy’s swagger that amused his older brothers to no end. But it was more than just outward appearances. The boy had changed on the inside, or so the father thought. He seemed more at ease in the world, less weary. He no longer seemed to check around corners before stepping forward. His smile even seemed different somehow, less like he was hiding behind it. Ben might have thought his son had settled in beautifully if it weren’t for the dreams.
What dreams could possibly wake up an eighteen-year-old boy like that, night after night? The violent intensity of the boy’s nightmares rattled the breath right out of all of them. They showed Ben how helpless he really was in all of this. The protective father could shepherd his new son through his waking hours, but he couldn’t protect him from his dreams.
Ben often wished he could draw a curtain over the years his son had lived away from him. There was so much he could have offered his son, so many horrors he could have prevented him from seeing. It had been his right as a father to raise his own boy. But Marie had taken that right away…
Ben would never admit it to anyone, least of all to his sons, but his anger with his late wife had been growing, over the past year. It was a quiet anger that he kept well hidden inside. At first, grief over Marie’s passing overshadowed everything else. He had loved her, deeply and desperately, and her death had been sudden and violent. And she had sent her son home, where he belonged. It had been a gift so profoundly generous, he had accepted it from the dying woman with much gratitude.
But as he watched his son growing stronger and sturdier, breathing the good Ponderosa air, and riding his Indian pony faster than he had a right to, Ben felt haunted by all that should have been. The boy should have been raised in the West, surrounded by his father and brothers. The deprivations he had known, the horrors he had seen… All were empty and meaningless, in light of what should’ve been.
More than anything, Marie should have believed him. She had once told Ben that her first husband had not believed her. Well, Ben Cartwright could level the same charge against her. She should have believed that he would never have abandoned her, despite the fact that she had been betrayed so many times before. She had seen the worst in men and had been so willing to believe the worst in him. Marie should have given him another chance. She owed him that much.
But such things were in the past. He would never know what might have been if he hadn’t found her with that man. If he hadn’t lost his temper, that day, and just for a moment his common sense as well. If she hadn’t run away from him, taking her unborn child along with her. There was little use in speculating about such things. The past was past. Done was done. He’d been given this second chance with his son and was determined to see his way through it.
There were days that he believed in the possibility of a second chance. There were days on the Ponderosa when the sky was so achingly blue you could see for miles and miles. On those days, Ben believed they could put it all behind them. On those days, there were no shadows. They could have been a world away from the forced gaiety and high spirits of New Orleans, from the hanging moss and the blood-soaked soil underneath the dueling oaks. On days like that, Ben could look at his son’s unlined face and tell himself that the boy’s childhood didn’t make a difference. That the boy had made a fresh start out here in the West, that he had left New Orleans behind him…
And then something would happen that would jolt Ben’s confidence right out from underneath him. Something would happen that would remind him that the boy’s beginnings had nothing to do with him. It might be a brawl in town that got way too serious too fast. Other times, the reminder came from Roy Coffee’s lightly veiled suggestion that Joe was a little too lucky at cards. Other times, the reminder came from realizing that his son’s almost professional charm at church socials and dances didn’t quite mask the misery in his eyes.
Or the reminder could come when Joe pointed out the New Orleans moon hanging in his father’s Western sky.
A long silence hung over the campfire.
“How do you mean, Joe?” Hoss asked after a long silence hung in the air after Joe’s statement. “How’s it a New Orleans moon?”
Ben traded looks with his oldest son. Their unspoken pledge with each other was that it would be best to not talk about the past, to allow the boy to put New Orleans behind them. The two of them might have changed the subject to the next morning’s branding, but Hoss had plowed ahead without them. Hoss had broached the one subject they didn’t talk about anymore. Hoss had asked about New Orleans.
Joe looked up from the campfire, his face partially lost in the flickering shadows. He smiled at Hoss and then looked over at his father and at Adam. Ben wasn’t such a fool that he couldn’t see the intense question in his youngest son’s eyes. The boy didn’t know if he should answer. Years of playing poker had certainly taught him how to gauge the feelings of others, and he knew his father felt about New Orleans.
Feeling much like a man who had never bluffed in his life, Ben nodded reluctantly.
“Go ahead, son,” he said. “Tell us about New Orleans.”
Joe smiled and leaned back, almost shifting his weight against Adam, but not quite. He half closed his eyes in the flickering light and started talking.
“It’s the way the air feels,” Joe said. Oddly enough his Southern drawl seemed to resurrect itself in the moonlight. “Can you feel how it’s different? It’s heavy, like it would get stuck in your lungs if you breathed too deeply. Like the air has a fever. That’s what nights are like in New Orleans. The moon’s almost yellow, like it’s got the fever too.”
Joe looked around at the campfire and smiled at his family. He cast his head back and stared up at the unusual moon, still rising over the tips of the pines. The outlines of the old trees looked like feathers against the moonlight.
Hoss said, “Don’t seem like a place I’d like to visit anytime soon. With that fevered air and all. Don’t seem too healthy.”
Ben smiled. Hoss had never shown much inclination to leave the Ponderosa, for any reason, except for the occasional trip for ranch business. His largest son had his roots firmly planted on the Ponderosa.
Joe smiled too. “Don’t be so sure, Hoss. There’s no place like New Orleans, I’m sure of it.”
“If you mean there’s no other city as full of decadence and corruption, then I’d imagine you’re right,” Adam said quietly, shoving a log into the fire with his boot.
Ben threw an exasperated glance at his oldest. They had agreed early on never to denigrate Joe’s birthplace in front of him. Adam stared back, recognized his father’s look for what it was, and shrugged. He’d spoken what he felt was the truth and wasn’t about to make any apologies for it.
Joe studied his family’s uncomfortable expressions. He pulled off his boot and shook out a couple pebbles, before looking up again. He stared directly at Adam, and for a moment Ben was shaken at how young he appeared in the firelight. He’d never really had a chance to be a boy…
“That’s only part of it, Adam,” Joe said calmly. “You only know what you’ve read about or what Pa’s told you. You weren’t there. None of you were there.”
“Well, from what you’ve told me,” Hoss vowed, “I wouldn’t want to be there. I could do without all that dueling and fool business about the Code. The way you talk about them mosquitoes makes my skin plumb itchy just thinking about it.”
“The mosquitoes are pretty bad,” Joe admitted with a grin. “But that’s not all there is to New Orleans.”
Ben smiled as well. He could remember walking along Bourbon Street with Marie. He certainly remembered the swarms of insects blustering around them in the wet, warm evening like a Biblical plague. He remembered the scent of the jasmine and the heady lilt of music merging together and rising in the air. Had eighteen years really passed him by, since those days when he had walked with her small hand in his? Where had all those years gone, those wasted years, while she still lived, and had not been in his arms? He looked at his youngest son, with a surprising bit of envy. The boy had spent sixteen years of his life with his mother. Ben’s life with Marie had not lasted a single year.
“Marie hated New Orleans,” Adam said. The certainty in his voice astonished Ben, but his youngest son seemed completely unruffled.
“You didn’t know Mama,” Joe said, calmly. “You don’t know how she felt about New Orleans.”
“I knew Marie,” Adam replied. “I remember her.”
Ben looked at his two sons. They were so clearly brothers, staunch in their own strongly held opinions. Yet, again he wondered at Adam’s persistence on this strange night. For eighteen years, they had hardly mentioned New Orleans or even Marie’s name, and yet it was so apparent that she had never left any of their minds.
“I remember her,” Hoss said quietly. “She used to sing to me at night before I’d fall asleep. I couldn’t understand the words, but she smelled pretty…”
“Like lilacs,” Adam broke in.
Ben looked back and forth in amazement at his sons. Of course, he remembered the scent of lilacs that lingered long after Marie left a room. The house smelled like her for weeks after she left. He remembered the afternoon he walked into the room he had shared with her and found Hoss crying on the bed, his face pressed into her pillow.
“It still smells like her,” Hoss had said, crestfallen at having been discovered.
Oh yes. They all remembered Marie.
“Mama loved New Orleans,” Joe said, and they all turned back to him. “She said that it was the only place in the world where people weren’t afraid to live.”
Ben found his voice at that. He clearly remembered his young wife’s joy at leaving that old city and starting a new life with him, out in the West.
“She was glad to leave,” Ben said. “She said it was a city full of sin and the worst kind of decadence. The kind of decadence that rots the soul, disguised as honor and romance, wrapped around a code that she hated. I’d never seen her as happy as the day she left it behind. Joseph, I have to ask you. If you say your mother loved New Orleans, what did it possibly have to offer her?”
“It took her back,” Joe said quietly. “It took both of us back. We survived.”
“At what price for survival?” Ben snapped. The bitterness in his voice must have surprised them all because even Hoss stopped poking at the fire and stared at his father. “What kind of life is that? Didn’t she deserve a better life than that? For God’s sake, didn’t you? When I think of you growing up on those streets, the hardships you knew… My God, it makes me almost want to – “
“It wasn’t always like that,” Joe said. He wasn’t looking at them anymore, but scuffed dust into the fire. Normally, Ben would have stopped him, but he could tell by the look on Joe’s face, he was thinking of a lot more than the fire. “We had good times, too. We had fun together.”
“Fun?” Adam asked. “What could possibly have been fun about the way the two of you lived? The way that Marie had to – “
“We laughed,” Joe said, cutting off his brother. “We laughed all the time, especially in the afternoon before she’d go out for the night. She always said we couldn’t sit around waiting for life to turn out the way we wanted. She said we’d have to make our own adventures.”
“What kind of adventures?” Adam asked, a small smile quirking at the corners of his lips. “What kind of adventures did you have with Marie?”
“We used to track alligators for one thing,” Joe said, kicking more dirt on the fire. He then looked up with a bewildered expression when his brothers burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?”
“I’m trying to picture lil’ ol’ you and your Mama out in some swamp, hunting down some old daddy alligator, that’s all!” Hoss guffawed, wiping his eye with his sleeve.
He traded another look with Adam, and they crumpled over again, holding their bellies like they were in pain. Even Ben had to hide a smile from his youngest son, who was looking more and more offended by the minute.
“I didn’t say we hunted alligators,” Joe grumbled. “I said we tracked them. We weren’t crazy. We didn’t try to kill them. We just followed them a while.”
“Well son, why would you and your mother follow alligators?” Ben asked, trying to imagine his beautiful young wife, swamping through the bayous of New Orleans with her child in tow, tracking down the enormous reptiles. Ben had only seen one of them during his travels to New Orleans and had sincerely believed that his heart might stop beating at the sight.
“We weren’t following the little ones,” Joe explained, leaning back on his elbows. He was apparently mollified that he was finally being asked a reasonable question. “No sir. It was the big ones we were after.”
“I don’t believe a word of this,” Adam complained, his voice tight with barely suppressed laughter. “Why on earth would you have followed the most dangerous ones?”
“Mama said the biggest ones were the only ones worth following,” Joe said. “They were the smart ones. They survived long enough to live that long. She said that if you wanted to survive, you had to pay attention to which of God’s creatures did it the best. That’s why we liked to watch the big ones.”
“Wasn’t she worried you all would get eaten or something like that?” Hoss asked. He had stopped laughing and was clearly worrying over the picture that Joe’s story had stirred up in his mind. Over the past year, he had grown more protective over his little brother than he’d ever believed possible. The idea of his long-lost stepmother and newfound little brother being torn apart by alligators no longer seemed very funny to him.
“Of course not,” Joe said. “We stayed back. We were quiet. Usually, they never even bothered to look at us. Besides, we were armed.”
“Armed?” the other three men chorused in absolute and utter disbelief.
“Of course,” Joe said. “Mama always brought her rapier and I brought my epee. You don’t think we’d go anywhere without planning ahead, do you?”
The laughter that followed lasted longer than any of them would have thought possible. Joe looked from his father to his brother, completely indignant at first. But then, it seemed that he realized how badly they needed a laugh. So he sat back and watched them at first, until he started to smile. And then at long last, Joe started to laugh.
Ben leaned against Adam, amazed, as he listened to his youngest son laugh, all hunched against Hoss. For the couple years, the boy had been with them, he had rarely laughed. The shifting light of the campfire made his face glow, and then Ben saw it. He saw Marie’s face, heard her laugh come to life again. Under the strange moonlight on a warm night in Nevada, he remembered why he had fallen in love with such an impossible young woman. She had known about laughter and survival. She might have taught him how to follow alligators if he’d been willing. And he’d have been willing, if only she had believed in him.
As he watched his young son laughing, Ben remembered the woman who had told him of bubbles in honey. Who believed in him once, when he offered her a second chance at a life that had let her down. She’d taken him up on his offer and traded the city of bubbles in honey for an unseen land where trees stretched up towards the sky. She had taken a chance and left it all behind.
He looked at Joe and tried to think past the sordid tale of survival that clung to her memory, like the moss that hung from the ancient trees. If Marie was willing to track alligators to find out how they did it, so should he. After all, she had survived long enough to give him back a gift he could never repay, not even if the two of them had lived a dozen lifetimes together. She had given him back his son.
It was a strange night, after a long day of sweat and hard work. Another grueling day would follow tomorrow. But for now, Ben watched his son still smiling and leaning against his brothers, and he remembered Marie. He smiled as well.
And he remembered to forgive, underneath the unlikely light of a New Orleans moon.