Summary: From tragedy to laughter, a family’s life is made up of many passages.
Word Count: 11,600
My first memory begins with the sound of singing.I can hear it clearly. Voices lift up around me; some are familiar, others belong to names I’ve long since forgotten. They are singing Amazing Grace, and the air inside the church is thick with lye soap and mothballs, like the inside of Mama’s trunk. Folks have already pulled out their woolens and coats from deep storage; Pa says it looks like an early winter. The smell makes Hoss sneeze again and again, just like he does when we play together in the loft above the barn. Everyone is still singing.
My brothers’ voices rise above the crowd in their importance to me. Hoss’ voice carries above all the others. In the years that are to come, I will realize that Hoss cannot carry a tune, and I will joke about it with everyone else, but for now, he sounds just fine. He sounds like my brother. I don’t understand the words that he’s singing. It will be many years before I even think to ask what they mean. Hoss sings with great enthusiasm.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me….”I don’t know what a wretch is, but it sounds bad, and I know for sure that Hoss can’t possibly be one. He is good to everyone and never gets in trouble with Pa, and he knows how to make boats out of paper that really float. Sometimes, it feels like he’s growing big enough to fill up the whole world. My head’s still shorter than the doorknob, and I have to stand on my toes to see anything important. Hoss’ face keeps growing higher than mine, and a lot of times, he gets to look at the same things as Pa and Adam. Mama says if Hoss keeps growing, he won’t fit in our house much longer. I don’t like to hear her talk like that because I never want to live without Hoss.
I’m sad just thinking about it, and it gives me the notion to grab hold of my brother. I haven’t yet learned to set my wants aside and act like they don’t matter. Uncivilized,folks call me sometimes, and I have no way of knowing they’ll be calling me that for years. Pa sets his shoulders back as he begins the next stanza, and I see my chance. I slip past him and lunge sideways to throw my arms around Hoss.
I almost knock him over. Hoss starts to laugh and catches himself on Adam who almost falls onto Mrs. Jenkins. Adam stammers an apology to her and glares at me, hoisting me into the air by the back of my suspenders.
“Behave,” he mouths at me and gives me a little shake.
Adam is already old. He’s almost as tall as Pa, except he’s awfully skinny and Mama says he’s not much more than knees and elbows. He leans against things when he’s standing, like a pine sapling when the wind’s blowing hard. He’s mad at me knocking into him, but I’m not worried. I know I don’t really have to mind him, not with Mama nearby. I try to shake loose, but Adam’s stronger than he used to be, and he’s not about to let go. He sets my boots down on the ground, but he holds tight to my suspenders and keeps right on singing. His voice is deeper than most of the grown men in the room. Folks say Adam sings well. I don’t know about that, but he sure sings awfully loud.
He is singing, “And when this heart and flesh shall fail and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil a life of health and peace….”
Finally, the singing is over, and he picks me up and passes me back to Pa. Hoss tickles my belly as I pass by. Pa plants me on the pew beside him and squeezes the back of my neck, as a warning. I am now sitting between my mother and father, no doubt to keep me out of trouble, but it’s warm, and I’m happy. I wiggle the tips of my new boots. They jut out in front of me, sticking straight out on the pew. They are soaked dark brown, and my pants are mud dappled from the big puddle outside the entrance to the church. The reverend is talking now, but I can’t see him because the folks in the pew ahead of us are sitting up straight, like they’ve got fence posts stuck in their backs. When I try to sit like that, my legs feel itchy, like they’ve got running inside them that needs to be let loose. If I turn sideways just so, I can see rain slanting outside the church windows, etching patterns on the rippling glass. If I could get past Pa, I’d burst out of those church doors and run out in the middle of all that rain. Wouldn’t worry about getting wet. Someday, I will run so fast, not even my brothers will be able to catch me to bring me back.
Pa’s stretches his arm across the back of the pew, and his hand rests on my mother’s shoulder. I can tell he’s feeling happy. He has no lines on his face. I’ve heard folks say that he’s too old to keep up with such a young wife, but Pa looks young enough to me. He still has hair on top of his head, unlike Jack Harley’s pa. My pa sees me looking up at him, and he tickles my knee. I giggle a little and lean against my mother.
Mama rests her hands on her leather-bound Bible, and I play with the tips of her fingers. She smiles down at me but shakes her head slightly. She points at the front of the church. Mama wants me to listen to what the reverend is saying.
I listen to the words, but they mean nothing to me. They whittle their way into my ears, but they don’t linger there.
“Let us listen to the words of our Lord,” the reverend intones. “Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood…”
I shift back and forth on the hard pew, trying to keep my jittery legs from running away with me down the center aisle. Then Mama pulls me close to her side. She smells like rose petals crushed between my fingers.
The reverend is still talking. It feels like he has been talking forever. I’m sure that the whole morning is passing us by, while we are stuck inside, listening to him talk.
He continues, “… So remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting…”
Hoss yawns louder than he should, and Adam elbows him. I want to climb across the pew and sit with the two of them, but Mama is whispering in my ear. Her words are soft enough that I have to strain to listen.
“Patience little one,” she whispers to me and glances over to be certain that Pa isn’t listening. “The sermon’s almost over. Close your eyes and pretend you’re running through the forest. Close your eyes now. Run fast.”
I nod and drowse against her shoulder, closing my eyes like she told me. And it works, just like she promised. Mama’s stories always come to life in my imagination. Unlike the others, she’s never forgotten how moments can stretch into lifetimes for the very young. Her voice is still whispering to me, and now I’m running through the pine trees that stretch for miles behind my home. The wind is warm against my face, and I know how to run faster than I have before. My story is just beginning. This moment will catch up with me before they do. The memory narrows to a circle of light at the edge of the trees. I am sitting with my family. I am running through the forest. If life gets better than this, I cannot imagine it.
“This too will pass, my darling,” Mama is whispering. “Run fast. All this will pass away, in no time at all.”
I am ten years old, and summer feels like it will last forever. Every afternoon, when I finish my chores, I sneak to the barn and saddle the new gelding that Pa bought last spring.
He’s a beauty, but a wild one and no one but Charlie knows I’ve been riding him every day. If Pa catches me, I’ll be in a whole heap of trouble, but so far no one suspects a thing. Riding this horse is a risk I’m willing to take. Besides, with Adam on his way home from Boston, everyone’s got their wits addled trying to get things ready. Like there was something wrong with the Ponderosa before we knew he was coming home! Even the older ladies in town ask if I’m getting excited. They ask how I can stand to wait until my oldest brother comes home from college. I remember to say all the right answers, but I’d sure like to tell them that waiting is the least of my troubles. It would suit me fine to have everything stay exactly the same.
I tighten the cinch and vault into the saddle, the way I’ve been practicing all summer. I still can’t do it the fancy way that Harry, our new hand, showed me. By the time school starts next month, I expect I’ll have it down enough to impress my friends. My horse skitters and rears just a bit, before settling to the feel of me in the saddle. He’s always nervous when we get started. He bares his teeth and blows out short, hot breaths, but I hold steady, and so does he. He snorts, until I make gentling sounds, like I’ve heard Hoss do, when an animal is feeling peevish. It works, and we trot down the bank off the main road, heading for the eastern meadow. We lope through the dust and begin to gain speed, with my legs pressed against his flanks.
We ride. The horse beneath me knows the way we should go. The air is warm and drowsy in the fullness of summer. The season has already peaked and is tapering down towards fall. The sun is setting earlier and earlier every evening and the nights are getting cooler. Even the mosquitoes seem hungrier and more desperate, like they’re trying to hoard enough blood for the winter.
And Adam is coming home. Pa says that he should be halfway here. The stagecoach is making its way across the plains. I wonder if Adam remembers how to ride a horse. Even if he does, I can’t imagine he’ll be very good at it.
I am very good at this.
We’re coming to a fast gallop across the pasture. We’re kicking up plenty of dust, and I’ll look a sight when I get home. Lucky for me, Hop Sing always lets me come into the kitchen to clean up after I take care of my horse. So far, I’ve always finished up before Pa and Hoss get home. Pa doesn’t think I’m old enough to ride a horse with this much spirit. He thinks I’m not ready, but this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I can’t imagine a day that’s better than this or a horse that’s finer. I slip my hands through the reins and bury them in his mane. I lean forward into the rhythm of the ride. We’re going faster than I’ve ridden before, but I’m not afraid. I’m never afraid on the back of a horse.
The hills are burnt and brown, the color of the rust when it spreads on the wheels of our wagon. The grass is dead, and the flowers aren’t more than faded blotches of color on drooping stems. Time’s passing by, but I’m ten years old, and it feels like I’ve been this age forever. Older women pat my cheek and say, “You’ll be as big as your brothers, dear, before you know it.”
I don’t want to be big, and I don’t want to be old. I might turn out like Adam and send letters home that sound like I have big words stuffed in my britches. No thank you! Being ten suits me just fine! I want everything to stay the way it is. I may be small but I’m fast, and I can ride a horse with the best of them. Even Charlie knows it. Otherwise, he’d never let me ride. I can ride this wild pony when no one else can. Because I’m still small, I’m not much more trouble than air. He doesn’t even try to throw me off, like he does with the other riders. I’m pretty sure he knows this is the last summer I will be ten.
I feel his hooves beat to a faster gallop, and we are flying, my boots barely hooked in the stirrups. I’m going to be late, and I’m going to get caught, but it doesn’t matter. This ride, like the summer, just has to last forever. Knowing it’s almost over is a niggling source of pain, like a splinter worrying its way under my skin. It’s impossible to believe it will ever come to an end.
I can still see the blood on my hands. I am sixteen, and I’m in front of the Grady homestead, standing behind my father and brothers. Even though I have scrubbed my hands with lye soap, I feel as if am marked by the man’s blood.
I tried to save Jim Grady’s life.
The door of the house opens slowly. Mrs. Grady’s hand flies to her mouth when she recognizes the look on our faces. She braces herself on the frame of the door, as Pa tells her about the stampede.
Jim Grady’s widow looks at the wagon on the road and screams, “My God, oh my God! James! Oh my God!”
She collapses into Pa’s arms and I hear her sobbing and his words of consolation twining together in the quiet of the morning. Adam comes beside Pa and places his hand on the small of her back.
Adam is telling her gently, “He was a good man, Mrs. Grady, a very good man. Everyone who knew him would say the same.”
Hoss adds, “I’ve never known better. He died bravely, Ma’am.”
I wonder how they can keep talking. My own voice is clutched in the memory of lightning cracking across the foothills. Of cattle lowing and spooking, of hooves and the flashing of their eyes. Of panic, and men and beasts wailing in the night. Of Jim Grady’s life ending as he lay under my hands. Of how much I had looked forward to this cattle drive…
Mrs. Grady is keening. Her desolation cuts through the brightness of the morning. I can see squirrels chasing each other up and down the eaves of the barn, chittering and leaping about, like it was an ordinary day. They don’t seem to care that the world ended for three families today, all because their men were driving Cartwright cattle to market.
“James. Oh my sweet Jimmy,” she sobs.
Pa doesn’t say anything else. He holds her and rests his cheek against the top of her head. She does not push him away.
I have not moved from my position behind my brothers. I have watched my father and brothers deliver this news three times this morning, and I stand behind them each time. Every time they tell it seems worse than the time before, but they don’t waver. Their faces are calm and unlined, but any fool can see what this day is costing them. They are good men, my father, and brothers.
I am still a boy and a useless one at that. My earlier boasts and triumphs now taste like ashes. I can hardly stand to think of the way I exalted myself to everyone who would listen! So proud to go on my first cattle drive alongside my family, even if it was riding drag. A man, at last, I told myself.
I told my friends the same thing, as we sat on the rocks by the lake, rolling tobacco in paper and lifting it to our lips. We inhaled deeply, like it was our manhood we were taking in. Smoke rolled around us, in wisps and drifts, and we passed around a bottle of bourbon that Seth swiped from his father. I hear myself talking and feel the sting of my words now.
“I’ll be gone for the rest of the month on the drive,” I drawl, raising the cigarette to my lips and letting it linger there. It is Sunday, and we have been swimming all afternoon and are allowing ourselves one last smoke, before putting our clothes back on. We are men all right, but we don’t want our fathers to catch a whiff of us and have something to say about our new manly interests.
We are all done with school and feel like the world is ours. No one can tell us what to do. We control our own destiny.
“Cartwright, I don’t know anyone luckier than you,” Seth swears and blows circles of smoke out of his mouth. He’s been practicing. He’s getting good. I’d never admit it, but I don’t like the way the smoke settles in my lungs, and I’d never smoke if the others weren’t around. It slows me down, and I don’t like anything to slow me down.
“Yeah, I hear that Miss Nora on C Street could tell us something about his luck,” Jack snickers, and we are all laughing at that, at the glory of being sixteen years old.
My friends and I are young, we ride our horses faster than we have any right to, and pretty girls smile at us on the street when we pass by. During the day, we work alongside our fathers. The possibilities for our lives are limited only by our imaginations and our poor decisions.
However, now I am standing in front of the Grady household, and I wonder if Jim Grady felt the same way when he was sixteen. Did he smoke with friends by the lake and chortle over the life that was waiting for him? I hear children stirring in the house, see them tugging on their mama’s skirts and asking questions about their daddy.
A hand settles on my shoulder, and I look up to find Adam looking down at me, his eyes filled with obvious compassion.
“Are you all right, Little Joe?” he asks.
I want to tell him that I’m fine, but my voice is still hitched in my chest. I don’t want to be here. It’s all can do not to break away to my horse, swing into the saddle, and ride away. I want to ride away as fast as I can. Unbidden tears fill my eyes, and I’m ashamed. My family knows how easily I cry and even though they don’t usually tease me about it, I’ve been thinking it’s all behind me, now that I’m sixteen.
“You tried to save him,” Adam says to me, and to my astonishment, he circles an arm around my shoulders. It’s been years since he has done this. “We’re proud of you, buddy. You handled yourself like a man.”
It’s a generous thing to say, and it’s more than I deserve. I did no more than any of them.
I hardly did anything at all.
I remember the horror of the night. With the first bolts of lightning, the cattle started running. I remember mounting with the other men and riding into the waves of stampeding oxen and cows. I remember the confusion of the yearling calves. We galloped alongside them, and they were bellowing and roaring, and I could hear the thunder of hooves mixed with the thunder from the lightning. Clouds tumbled across the big sky, but the moon was round and bright in its center. It would illuminate the events of the night with ghostly precision. Who could forget the death shrieks of men and of horses or the bodies lying gored and trampled on the ground? After trying to rein in the cattle, I forgot what I was supposed to do. My mind seemed to stop working, and I sat on my horse in the middle of the stampede, while the men around me fought to control the herd. Then Hoss saw me. He raced up beside me, grabbed my reins, and pulled me out of the worst of it, before he reined himself back into the maelstrom. I couldn’t move. I sat on my horse and for a moment, watched the stampede like it was part of someone else’s life.
Then I saw him. I saw Jim Grady, writhing and moaning under his bay horse. His eyes were wild with pain, and he looked right at me. He had always been kind to me. When I was little, he would ruffle my hair and slip licorice into my pocket, if no one was looking. The memory of the confection’s sweetness made me gag, even as I sat on my horse, watching him dying.
My body remembered what to do before my mind could make sense of it. I flung myself out of the saddle and scrambled towards him, slipping in the mud and the muck. I crouched down and grabbed hold of his shoulders, pulling him away from the horse with all of my might. He came loose easier than I thought he would, and we both fell backward with a sickening thud. I pressed my hands against his wounds, trying to stem the flow of blood, and for a moment I thought I could save him. Yet the moonlight soon showed me the folly of my thinking. Blood gushed from gashes along his belly and his leg. The whites of his eyes were showing. He wasn’t even looking at me anymore. His breath came out in wheezing gasps. He sucked in one last breath of air, held it this time, and then stopped breathing altogether.
I don’t know how long I sat there, in the mud, locked into his open-eyed death stare. Could have been minutes. Could have been hours. Time lost a lot of its meaning. But then, Adam grabbed me. Yanked me out from under the dead body and almost carried me back towards my horse. He shook me in the moonlight, trying to gauge if I was hurt. I was covered in mud and Jim Grady’s blood.
When he realized the blood wasn’t mine, he shouted over the roar of the wind, “Joe, ride with me! Stay close boy, and do everything I do!”
I did what he told me. I rode with my oldest brother until the stampede was contained. When we finally staggered into the main camp, Pa wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me close. I didn’t want to let go of him, but my father had other responsibilities. He hired those men as drovers for the cattle drive, and he needed to take care of them. As Hoss carried the bodies back to the wagon, Adam poured water into a basin and helped wash away blood and gore, none of which belonged to me. It was the longest night I had ever known.
And now I stand in front of the Grady homestead, watching another family’s life fall apart, in front of us. Pa and Hoss are still embracing Mrs. Grady. Adam stands next to me, waiting to see what I need. I watch my Pa and my brothers handle responsibilities that many men would flee from.
I know I’m not a man. Not yet. But I know what a man is supposed to be like, and I want to be one. I want to be like my father and brothers. I watch as they comfort Mrs. Grady and do not shy away from her misery. I don’t know how anyone can look into this life of misery and blood and not be consumed by it, but they do what they have to.
I can’t imagine what’s to come. I’m afraid of knowing.
Right now, I’m still a boy. I’m sixteen years old. And I lean into the bulwark of Adam’s strong arms, and I cry.
Life is good. It is very good. I lean back against the hard-backed chair in the Bucket of Blood, and I savor my beer. It’s markedly flat, but to me, it tastes like victory!
I am nineteen, and today I’m invincible. My brothers and I have just sold our string of horses for a tidy profit, our pockets are flush with cash, and we are celebrating. All day, the three of us have been in a good mood and have been enjoying each other’s company. Yet, all that pales in comparison with the past couple hours. While I was sure at first that the first wins were flukes, I have since taken on almost every man in the saloon.
It’s been such a surprise! I didn’t realize I’d gotten so much stronger, over the past year. This just confirms that I’m not a kid anymore, and my brothers no longer have to run to my rescue. Honestly, I had no idea I’d come this far.
One after another, grown men have been coming to my table, ready to test themselves against me. It’s impossible to believe, but it’s true. I’ve beaten all of them. I roll my shoulders back and order another drink.
Hoss and Adam lean against the bar, watching the events unfold and drinking their beers. I look back at them, every time I win. They smile widely at me. Even Adam looks like he’s having the time of his life. Occasionally, he ducks his head against Hoss’ shoulder, and Hoss tips his hat over his face. I can tell they can hardly believe what they’re seeing. They usually don’t approve of my getting myself in the middle of something like this, but this time, they leave me alone. It’s been a great couple of days. The three of us have drunk weak beer and flirted with pretty gals in towns from here to the army base. At long last, I’m proving myself as an equal to my brothers. I can tell by the expression on their faces that they’re pleased by how things are going.
Another man approaches. I don’t know his name, but think I’ve seen him working a mining claim near the Comstock. His eyes are bloodshot and thick lidded. He’s a mountain of a man, but he looks mean and kind of hungry. I expect he’d slit my throat in exchange for another dollar in his pocket. It makes me nervous to look at him. I swallow and glance over at my brothers across the saloon. Hoss smiles at me, and Adam winks. They’re counting on this, and I have no choice but to go through with it. I can’t back down now.
I place my elbow on the table and so does the miner. We grip hands, and the battle begins. My victory is far from assured. I am using my right arm, which doesn’t have nearly the strength of my left. It’s a miracle I’ve made it this far. I brace my leg against the table and feel every muscle in my arm tremble and threaten to give in to the pressure he’s exerting. I struggle to lock my body and arm together as one.
My opponent’s face is hard to read. He looks inscrutable, bored even. He has to be working harder than he lets on. I am just about spent, but I find one final burst of strength, and his resistance evaporates, all at once. His face blurs as I drag his hand down to the table. He has no choice but to succumb. I am bending his wrist. I am pinning it to the table. I win again!
A cheer rises from the saloon, and above it, I hear the voices of my brothers. I feel my heart pounding in my chest, as I turn to smile at them. Adam and Hoss raise their beers to me, in a toast to my achievement. I can’t remember ever seeing bigger grins on their faces.
“Good match,” I say to the miner, eager to appease him after his loss. I hold out my hand to him. He wrinkles his forehead and looks at me kind of funny. Then he cracks a smile.
“You come from a strange family, kid,” he says.
I have no idea what he means. He shakes my hand and ambles back to the bar. Oddly enough, he seems to be talking to my brothers. Adam mumbles something I cannot hear and reaches into his pocket, which strikes me as peculiar. However, I am flush with victory and good spirits. I turn away and take a long, glorious draw of my beer.
It has been a perfect day. I can’t wait to get home and tell Pa all about it.
The four of us are waiting in the front room of Roy Coffee’s jail. I am twenty-three years old, but I feel decades older. I cannot remember a day when I felt so old, tired, and sad. Who knows what terrible decisions we may be forced to make tonight, all for the sake of principle? My father and brothers are steadfast. My own principles straddle on shakier ground.
We are readying ourselves to take the lives of folks I’ve known all my life to defend a man who will be rotting in hell by the end of the week. Roy Coffee has been arguing with us for hours, but he hasn’t swayed Pa one bit.
“Ain’t no way around it,” Hoss says, loading his gun. “We ain’t leaving this jail until that judge churns up dust making it into town. I’ll tell you one thing. If he ain’t’ here in a hurry, there’s no telling how this is going to end.”
Sheriff Coffee turns away from Hoss to my father.
He pleads, “Now Ben, be reasonable. Aren’t the lives of your friends and neighbors worth more than the life of this… this monster?”
“He is a man who deserves a trial,” Pa said. “Our friends and neighbors are not judge and jury, nor do they have the right to take the law into their hands. Nothing has changed, Roy. How many times have we been in this situation before?”
“Ben, that man is guilty!” Roy explodes. “There isn’t a jury a hundred miles around that wouldn’t see it that way!”
Adam looks up from cleaning his gun. He’s been awfully quiet lately, like he’s a hundred miles away and not sitting in the room just a few feet from us. For a moment, he almost looks startled that we’re still in the room with him. Then the veil drops, and he shifts into attention right away. He stands up and positions himself next to my father. It doesn’t surprise me one bit. My oldest brother has never backed away from my father’s code of right and wrong.
“Not until he’s proven guilty, Roy,” Adam says. “We don’t know if he’s killed anyone until he’s tried. That’s the law.”
Roy pounds his fist down hard on his desk. “Proven guilty? Adam Cartwright, if you ain’t the stubbornest man… Your own brother saw him do it!”
Everyone turns and looks at me. It’s the truth. I am the sole witness to the shootings.
I got to the bank first thing in the morning, early enough that Widow Grady and I had time to talk a spell, while we waited for the doors to open. She asked about Pa and told me how her children were faring in school. I’d always taken a special interest in her little ones, after her husband died and was glad to hear they were doing so well. We smiled at each other, when Jeb Holloway finally let us in. He was a little late, but after all, he’d just started working at the bank the week before. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old.
It was an early morning robbery, intended to generate as little attention as possible. The robbery itself is a blur in my mind, but I’ll never forget its aftermath. I’ll never forget the bored expression on the robber’s face, right before he shot Mrs. Grady and Jeb. He had his money. He didn’t need any witnesses or any complications. It was as simple as that. I had already surrendered my gun. When he started shooting, I dove to the ground and rolled across the floor, flinging myself against his legs. I’m sure he didn’t realize I could move so fast. I knocked the gun away and rendered him senseless with just a couple blows. It would have been so easy to have just killed him, right then and there. Saved us all the misery of trying to save him. And yet, as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t do it.
I left the robber lying senseless on the bank floor and crawled over to Mrs. Grady. I tried not to look at Jeb. The poor kid had died the moment the bullet entered his brain. His body lay askew on the varnished floor, in a growing pool of blood.
Mrs. Grady was dying. I held her, as I held her husband six years earlier. She looked at me and I could see the clarity in her eyes. I started praying but didn’t even know what I was asking for.
“Boy, you’ve seen us both on our way,” she whispered, a sly smile on her face. Mrs. Grady always had an appreciation for irony. She had never gotten over losing Jimmy. I knew that a part of her wasn’t sorry to be following in his wake. If it weren’t for her children…
“Hang on Mrs. Grady,” I said. “Help’s coming. I can already hear them on their way.”
“My children. Be sure my children…”
She could not finish, so I finished for her.
“Your children will be taken care of,” I said. “I promise you that.”
She nodded, and I could see the life drift out of her eyes. By the time I looked away from her, the bank was filled with rescuers, guns already drawn.
I looked up from her body and said, “It’s too late.”
It’s too late for Mrs. Grady and poor Jeb Holloway, but Pa says it’s never too late to do the right thing. Adam and Hoss say the same thing. They’ve said it nearly every day of my life. I listen and I act like I’m with them, but I’m not always sure that they’re right. What do you do when the line between right and wrong is so blurred that if you try to step over it, you could come down hard on the wrong side?
They are still watching me, waiting to see how I respond. I have not said much all day, other than relating the basic details of the robbery. I look away from them and out the window, toward the crowd that is milling outside. From a distance, they look like a lynch mob. Up close, they look like our friends.
I see faces in the crowd that I’ve known all my life. I see John Mullen, who tooled my first left-handed holster. I see Jack Harley, who passed many lazy hours with me, smoking and drinking by the lake. I see Harry Dobson, who demonstrated for me again and again how to vault into a saddle until I got it right.
In my mind, I see the Grady children, orphaned by the violence of life. I know what it’s like to lose a parent too early. Despair still stirs inside me, when I remember that my mother is no longer alive in this world. As long as I can remember, I’ve lived in fear that any given day could steal my father. I am twenty-three years old, and that fear is still violent enough to wake me up at night. There are sorrows in this life that don’t pass away with time.
I sigh and bury my face in my hands. Part of me wants to make a run for it and join the mob outside. I’d like nothing more than to see that man swinging from the nearest tree. Hell, I’d even knot the rope. But I cannot so easily turn from my father and brothers.
All my life, I’ve been presented with the same choice. Black or white, right or wrong. Can it possibly be so simple? The reverend says that when the same dilemma keeps coming back to you, it means God’s not giving up until you decide where you stand once and for all.
Finally, I look up. I look at my father. I look at Hoss and at Adam. I have looked up to these men, all of my life. They are big men, in more than size, and I have tried to follow in their footsteps. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fast, just from trying to keep up with my father and brothers.
I laugh out loud. They look at me funny, like I’m going a little bit crazy, and they might be right. All the same, I stand up and take my place beside them. I decide to join them in fighting their good fight. It might as well be my fight.
The four of us stand side by side and look at Roy Coffee. He throws up his hands in exasperated surrender. We move away from each other and return to checking our weapons, to counting our ammunition.
It’s bound to be a long night.
The woman sitting on my lap has a name, but I can’t remember it. I’ve forgotten a lot of things since I’ve been here. I’ve forgotten how many drinks have gone down way too easy, forgotten how many songs I belted out with the pianist…. I’ve forgotten how many months’ wages I lost at that last game of poker.
Too bad I can’t forget why I’m sitting here and trying to forget, in the first place.
“Cartwright’s pretty bad off,” I hear someone say, with a low drawn out whistle. “I expect the old man’s going to have something to say about it when he gets home.”
I try to turn around, absolutely indignant. Like my father has any say in what I do! At my age, I make my own decisions. Of course, I can’t remember my age right now, but I know damn well I’m old enough to drink as much as I please! I’m old enough to make my own decisions, just the same as Adam.
Just thinking about my brother makes me reach for my glass and quickly down the rest of it.
“I’m leaving Joe.” He had the nerve to say it to me, like I didn’t already know.
“So leave,” I replied, irked at the petulance in my voice. My God, I thought to myself right then. Listen to me! Will I ever grow up?
“I don’t want to leave it this way,” he said.
“Then don’t leave, Adam.”
There. I said it, and just as I figured, it didn’t make a bit of difference. He fastened his last bag and threw it into the back of the wagon. We stood in front of the house, like we were characters in someone else’s story. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
Pa drew him in for one last embrace at home; they would say their more dignified public goodbyes at the stage. Hoss clapped him across the back and then stared at the ground; he looked awfully sad. Adam looked at me last and sighed. As usual, I was the only one who was angry.
He promised to write all of us and rested his hand on my shoulder. Then he was gone, making his way to anywhere else in the world. Anywhere but here, home on the Ponderosa, where he belongs.
The woman on my lap is whispering in my ear. Some of the words don’t make sense to me, in the state I’m in, but I understand the possibilities in her voice. She’s new in town and doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t know that the Cartwrights own a good part of the territory. In leaving, Adam has done what disaster, disease, and the malevolent intentions of many evil men couldn’t accomplish. He’s put an end to us, an end to the four Cartwrights.
She’s calling me Cowboy. It’s a name that has always sat well on me. I’m proud to be a rancher, and it’s been a good life for me. It’s what I’ve always wanted, more than anything else. To be grounded in the land, to ride a fast horse, to work alongside my father and my brothers. Sure, I’ve had other dreams. They come and go. But not a one of them could ever lure me away from my home.
Adam, it seems, has been setting his sights on other things. I can’t help but feel jealous, like he’s been cheating on the Ponderosa.
I’m tempted to take the woman up on her offer. It wouldn’t do much to heal the ache in my gut, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. I need to ask her name, but I’m not sure I’d remember it, even if she told me again. The night is blurring into a haze of smoke and whiskey. I know my head will hurt like blazes in the morning, but I can’t bring myself to care. I am following her to the back of the saloon when a hand on my shoulder stops me in my tracks.
“Little brother,” he says. “Don’t you expect it’s about time for you to be getting on home?”
“Pa send you?” I ask, without turning around. I don’t bother to hide the fact that I still care what my father may be thinking. The woman’s already heard my singing. I reckon there’s not much I can do to lower my standing with her. If she’s impressed now, she’ll still be impressed when I’m done talking with my big brother.
“He did,” Hoss confirms. “And by the looks of things, you’ve had right near enough entertainment for one night.”
We both glance at the woman, who is tugging at me with marked impatience. Hoss crosses his arms and looks back at me meaningfully.
“On the contrary older brother,” I hiss. “My night is just getting started.”
Hoss turns to my companion. “Miss, will you excuse us for a minute? Don’t worry none. I promise I ain’t taking him nowhere. I just need to talk to him for a minute, and then he’s all yours.”
She shrugs and sashays to the bar. I get a better look at her and whistle under my breath. She is the kind of woman that can make a man forget all his troubles.
“It ain’t going to fix things, you know,” he says.
It galls me that it’s so easy for Hoss to read my mind. Maybe it’s time I make my own break from my family. Always interfering… treating me like a boy… telling me what I ought to be doing….
“Who says I want things to be fixed?” I ask, spinning to face him. The saloon spins with me, and for a moment, I have to catch myself on his shoulder. I feel like I could pitch forward into this spinning world, and Hoss grabs hold of me until it steadies.
“Joseph,” Hoss says, shaking his head and holding on. There’s not a hint of rebuke in his voice, just the grit of hard-won experience. The ground is still shaky under my feet. I’m still clinging to Hoss, like he’s a cleft in a rock and I’m holding on for dear life. Hoss has been a rock for me, my whole life through. “Ain’t no shame in missing him. He’s my brother too, and I’d be first to admit that I miss him.”
“Don’t expect he’ll miss us,” I say, sounding more like a child than ever. The woman is still waiting for me at the bar. I need to get myself together and move on. I need to let go of my bitter afterthoughts. I need to stop missing my big brother.
“Oh, he’ll miss us all right,” Hoss says and lets go of my arm. He pulls his hat lower over his face. “Ain’t no doubt about it. Don’t you worry none, little brother. Adam’ll be back.”
“What makes you sure?” I ask, curious despite myself. Adam said his goodbyes with the air of a man, who would not be looking back, over his shoulder.
“I just know,” Hoss says, and he sounds so confident, I have to believe him. “I reckon I know Adam as well as anyone. When trouble comes, for him or for us, he’ll be back.”
I’m about to reply, but instead, swallow my words and double over. The evening’s entertainment is finally catching up with me.
Hoss knows me all too well. He deftly ushers me out the door and into the back alley, where I do not hold my liquor like a man. He waits until I’m finished, and we lean against the building. I look up at the night sky, trying to collect my bearings. The moon is a circle in the sky. It casts strange shadows across my brother’s face. Hoss looks tired and more than a little bit sad.
“Ready to go home, little brother?” he asks and hands me my hat.
“I reckon,” I say, and we start to walk towards the main street. I might as well go home. My pretty companion is probably already occupied for the night. I yawn and realize how tired I really am. I’m always holding off sleep, like a child fighting his bedtime. Once I’m asleep, it’s all over. Like trying to wake up a hibernating bear, Hoss says. Just then, a sudden worry jars me into wakefulness, and I turn back to my brother.
“Hoss?” I ask. “You’ll never leave, will you?”
Hoss laughs out loud, deep from his belly, the kind of laugh that always makes me want to laugh along. He takes my arm and steers me towards the livery.
“Nah, Joe. I ain’t leaving. The way I figure it, the Ponderosa runs through our blood. Take us away from it, we’d probably bleed dry. Adam’s the same, but it might take him a time to come to know it. All that book learning can make a man daft!”
I laugh at that, and Hoss smiles. He looks up at the sky.
I look up again, as well. The moon is almost shining too brightly to see the stars, but Hoss has always helped me pay attention to the details I might have missed, on my own. After adjusting to the brightness, I can just make out the intricate mapping of stars and constellations that has guided me home more times than I can remember. I wonder if the stars look the same, from the other side of the world.
“Don’t you worry yourself, Little Joe,” Hoss says, as we’re walking. “I give you my word. Adam will be back, I’m sure of it. As for me, I ain’t going nowhere. I ain’t never gonna leave the Ponderosa.”
They say ghosts wander in the desert. I should know. I am thirty years old, and they are certainly haunting me.
I don’t sleep anymore. My dreams are filled with glimpses of fire and faces gone slack in death. There is more than one way to die in the desert.
Sojourning here is not a choice for me; it is an act of desperation. This is it, my last chance at living this life. Pa once told me that this place has always been the haunting ground for the doomed, the deranged, and the damned. I can’t help but believe that I can lay a claim on all three.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I loved her the moment I first saw her. Hoss would have loved her too. Even Adam would have approved of his little brother’s choice, for once. It was the thought that crossed my mind, the first time she smiled at me. My brothers would have loved this woman. And who could believe that such a woman could possibly love me? I knew what they’d be saying in town soon: that fool Cartwright kid has finally gotten it right!
Time keeps passing, and some days pass when I forget that she is dead. Sometimes I can forget about Hoss dying, as well. But then the horizon shimmers in wavering heat and shadow, and I see them. I see Alice and Hoss standing in the distance like twin sentinels that are guarding the road ahead of me. I know it’s a delusion, but I can never pull my eyes away from the desert’s magic trick.
I know they are waiting for me to decide.
Other days are consumed by remembering. On those days, I don’t know how I’ll survive into the next minute, let alone the next day. I want to curl up with remembering. I remember the dark, desperate days after Hoss died. I remember Pa mailing letter after letter to Adam’s last known address, practically begging my older brother to come home. Pa and I held on to each other during those terrible days, like shipwrecked men clinging to the debris of a once majestic sailing ship. Even as we worked hard at surviving, I don’t expect either of us imagined the darker days in store.
I try not to remember the smoldering shell of the home I built for Alice. Instead, I try to hold my memory around Alice and the softness of the back of her legs, when I carried her into the house for the first time. I can remember the warmth of her skin and the way her hair smelled like lilacs and spring water.
I placed her on her feet and after I led her to our little bedroom, she smoothed her hair into place, looked at me, and said, “And here we begin.”
After we found the men who killed her, I sent Candy back to the Ponderosa. He argued for me to come back with him but eventually gave in. Maybe, he could see the truth in my eyes and had his own doubts if I could live among people again. I have my doubts as well.
The sun is rising and with it, the decision of whether to live through another day. I am sitting by the wall of a canyon. Time is running past me, all out of kilter. My horse and mule wait in the scant shade for me to decide all of our fates. I haven’t been able to travel as lightly as I’d prefer. I’m weighed down by many pounds of water. I won’t be running out soon. On the other hand, there are many ways to die of thirst in the desert.
This can’t continue. I am very, very tired. I see a road forking ahead of me. It is rising in the air. It’s a mirage, I know it, but can’t bring myself to care if it’s real or not. On one side, I see Alice and Hoss. Behind them are the ghosts of the many, many people I’ve loved and I’ve lost. Adam isn’t with them. I see my mother, recrimination in her eyes. She is accusing me. I’m not fighting back. I’ve stopped running fast.
On the other side of the road waits Pa. For once, he needs me more than I need him. He is waiting and watching to see what I decide.
I cannot decide if this is how it will end. I can’t wander any longer. I’m not a nomad, never have been. I’ve always been a man most comfortable in my own home, with those I love close by me. I have to decide if thirty years of living is enough. I will either mount my horse, ride home, and live, or I will stay here sitting against this rock and die. The road ahead is waiting for me to choose.
It’s hard to believe it has come to this.
It’s a bright morning, on the cusp of summer, and I’m sitting at the edge of the lake, wondering if the trout will ever bite. I am forty-one years old, and truth be told, it’s a wonder to me that I’ve lived long enough to see this day.
It should be peaceful this early in the morning with the sky still grey and dawning. But our little beach is alive with the sounds of children splashing and shrieking and my father’s patient voice trying to teach his grandchildren how to fish.
“Jonathon, you need to stop slapping your line against the water,” Pa says, for about the fifth time in the past hour. “Let your bait float. The fish need to be fooled that the bait’s food for them, not a bear ready to eat them. Amy, stop screaming like that, dear. The fish need peace and quiet to enjoy their meal, just like people do.”
Adam and I exchange amused glances. I’d always believed Pa’s patience came about from some mystical transformation that happened when he became a father, that somehow the sound of a baby crying rendered him wise and all knowing. I’m sorry to say that it hasn’t been the case for me. I’m as hot-tempered and as much a fool as ever. I’ve just been covered with enough grace to make it look like I know what I’m doing.
I attribute much of my good fortune to a woman who loves me, despite my many shortcomings. Sally married me knowing that I would never be the kind of man who could offer her an uneventful life. There’ve been many times I think she’d be happy to trade me in for a more sensible man, but Sally and I have been married for five years now. It hardly seems possible. It seems like something that would happen in another man’s life.
Adam is saying, “Pa, I think you’re losing your touch. I remember when you could have sweet talked the trout right out of the water.”
I laugh at that, and Pa turns to scowls at the two of us. Adam and I are sitting up on a rock above the shore, watching the show unfold. Little children surround Pa, one on his lap, another tugging at his sleeve. He is trying to bait Charlie’s hook, but Amy’s head keeps bumping against his hand. Mary and Will hold poles of their own, and their bare feet are ankle deep in the glacier-cold water. They are serious children; they take after their father and take their fishing very seriously. There are only five grandchildren in all, between Adam and me, but with them gathered around Pa like that, it seems like a lot more.
“I could have brought them here by myself, for all the help my fine sons have turned out to be,” Pa grumbles, but Adam and I aren’t fooled one bit.
We know that Pa is in his glory, surrounded by these five little people who make up his legacy. He is getting older for sure, and Adam and I each had to support an arm, when we helped him make the descent down to the beach. This is what he has lived for, to be surrounded by life, with all of its chaos and blessings.
We haven’t followed an easy road, but it’s led us here to this place. That has to stand for something.
Adam smiles as Jonathon stumbles and falls into the water. He is Adam’s oldest son, but everyone agrees he takes after me. Supposedly, Jonathon is the reason Adam returned home with Beth ten years ago, after many years of living back east. Adam says that he woke up one morning, watched his firstborn sleeping in his cradle, and just couldn’t stand the idea of his boy not being able to sit a horse. The way Adam tells it, he packed up his family and was traveling west by the next day.
Of course, it didn’t quite happen like that. Life isn’t that simple. It turns out that Hoss was right after all. The Ponderosa runs through Adam’s veins, just like the rest of us. He woke up and decided he couldn’t breathe with all that thick, city air filling his lungs. It took some time to convince his wife, but after Hoss and Alice died, he couldn’t stay away any longer. He was needed at home, and Adam was never one to shirk from responsibilities. He returned to the Ponderosa with Beth and Jonathon. Over the last ten years, Mary and William were born, and Adam moved his family to a pretty valley, not more than three miles from the ranch house.
I taught Jonathon to sit a horse, and when his father wasn’t looking, how to ride faster than he should. That boy’s a natural in the saddle. Any fool could see that. I only hope my little Charlie and Amy take to it the same way when they’re old enough to ride.
I glance over at Adam as he sits back down, after pulling his laughing son from the water. Who would have thought it would have come to this? How did we survive long enough to see this day? I can’t get over the fact that my big brother is well over fifty. He looks a lot different than he used to. He’s balding on top, but his remaining hair is still somewhat brown, a fact he gloats over frequently when pointing out my graying curls.
“At least I have hair,” I retort when he teases me. Some things never change, but other things do. I’m awfully glad that he’s living on the Ponderosa again, but I can’t help but feel smug that I ended up with more hair than my older brother.
Once Adam and Beth built their house, they started coming for supper every Sunday night. It’s become my favorite night of the week, and I expect everyone feels the same. Beth and Sally read books or sometimes sit together by the fireplace, whispering to each other and laughing in a way that makes me a little uneasy. Pa is always trying to teach a grandchild the fine art of checkers, just like he taught the three of us. He smokes his pipe while waiting for his turn and inhales with deep satisfaction.
Lately, Adam has been set on arm wrestling with me at the dining table, after supper. I win every time, and I don’t understand how he can still smile after losing so often. It doesn’t make sense to me, but he seems to take so much pleasure in our ongoing competition, I can’t bring myself to end it.
Jonathon starts to yell, and we look over to see his line twitching and jerking, like he’s got a whale on the other end. Pa shifts out from underneath my children and struggles to his feet. He comes up behind the boy and puts his arms around his shoulders, helping him haul out the most glorious trout you’d ever want to see.
Adam whistles in appreciation and hurries over to get a better look at the fish his son has caught.
I say to no one in particular, “When I was a kid, the trout were so big and dumb you could just pull them out the water.”
Pa and Adam look back, amused that I am quoting Hoss again. The Gospel According to Hoss, Adam calls it. It irritates Pa when he says it like that, but it makes me laugh. Pa says he’s being sacrilegious, but all three of us take pains to tell our brood stories about their Uncle Hoss. It doesn’t take away the ache of knowing he’s gone, but it does make it sit a little easier. There are some sorrows in life that never go away.
Then my little Charlie starts jumping up and down, hollering, “I got one Grandpa! I got one!”
Pa has just finished helping Jonathon unhook his catch when he turns to assist his other grandson.
He laughs and says, “At the rate you children are catching them, one of us is going to need to fetch another rig to bring home all these fish.”
I lean back against the rock. The sun is rising over the eastern ridge and is already glinting across the blue water. Small waves lap against the sand, slowly wearing away the ancient granite shore that borders it. All these things are passing away. This is a moment in time, but right now I’m happy to be sitting still in it.
My little son is exclaiming, “It’s just like Uncle Hoss always says. The fish was so big and dumb, I just pulled it out of the water!”
Together, Pa and Charlie hold up a trout that is so big, grown men could be justified in bragging about it decades later. It is so big it draws tears from my eyes, and I laugh at the absurdity of it. At the absurd abundance of a life that never goes like we planned.
For the first time in my life, my body feels like it belongs to somebody else. My eyes are closed, and there is pain all around, but it’s distant this time. I am fifty-four years old, and I’m not sure how much time has passed by since I was last awake.
At first, I think that the room is quiet, but then I hear it. I hear the gentle strumming of a guitar and my brother’s voice softly singing the refrain to Amazing Grace.
“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…”
I smile, despite what it costs me, and say out loud, “We were a bunch of wretches, weren’t we?”
I force myself to open my eyes and Adam is leaning over me. He has set his guitar aside, and when he sees me looking at him, a wry smile spreads across his face.
“If I remember correctly,” he says. “You were more of a wretch than the rest of us.”
“True enough, older brother,” I reply, my own smile matching his. “But you have to admit, I made your life more interesting than it would have been without me.”
“I can’t argue that point,” he says, and he offers me a glass of water. I shake my head. For the moment at least, I’m feeling pretty good. I don’t want to take the chance that a drink will unsettle my stomach. I try to focus in the dim light. The curtains are drawn. The last time they were open, the sun bothered my head so much that I could barely keep my eyes open. That afternoon, the room was brimming with all of our families. I was introduced to Adam’s first granddaughter, born just last week. Everyone cried but me. That was a first! Usually, I’m the one who cries at everything!
It occurs to me that the house is awfully quiet behind the closed bedroom door. You can usually hear someone laughing or yelling or the sound of something breaking. I can’t figure out why it is so quiet now.
“Where is everyone?” I ask my brother.
“Sally and I sent them to town,” he replies. “The doctor was here this morning and said there needed to be peace and quiet so you could get some rest.”
“Any change?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
Adam shakes his head and looks so sad that I reach forward and grab hold of his hand.
“It’s all right, Adam,” I say, and I mean every word. “This isn’t sad. We know all about sad, and this isn’t it. Everything will be just fine. I’ve had a great time, and I ain’t sorry for a bit of it.”
He nods and is quiet, but I know full well what he’s thinking. We’re both well acquainted with tragedy. There’s a whole heap of difference between tragedy and the normal passage of life. This is the way that it’s meant to be. I have no regrets, and I hope he doesn’t either.
I’m getting awfully tired. I can hardly get enough sleep, these days. I remember when I was a kid I’d do just about anything to get out of going to bed. Some things never change. I held off on taking to this bed until I had no choice left to me. Pa was the same way. We always said that he would eventually die sitting upright in his own saddle and handing out orders, and it wasn’t too far from the truth.
It’s taken a lot out of me to hold onto this conversation. I can hardly keep my eyes open, but I’ve got something else to say, something I remember hearing an awfully long time ago. I gesture to Adam to lean closer so he can hear me.
“Don’t worry brother,” I whisper. “This too will pass.”
He looks confused, and I smile, letting him think it about it. My brother’s a thinker. It’s how I won our races when I was a kid. He was always busy thinking about his strategy, while I’d just start running like the devil was after me. He’s always been smarter than me, but I’ve always been faster. My mother always said I was the fastest thing on two legs she’d ever seen.
Mama has been dead for five decades, but I can still hear her voice. I hear her whispering to me out of the stillness in the room.
“Patience,” she says to me, as if she is speaking from a dream. “Close your eyes and pretend you’re running through the forest. Close your eyes now. Run fast.”
I close my eyes and it works, just like she said. I close my eyes, and I’m running through the trees that stretch on for miles and miles and miles. The wind is warm against my face, and I know how to run faster than I have before. This is not an ending. The moment has caught up with me, but it doesn’t get much better than this.
All this is passing by, it’s true, but I am running fast.
I am seventeen. I am standing outside the International House in Virginia City.
Lotta Crabtree’s perfume lingers on my clothes, and her champagne runs through my veins. It’s a perfect morning, bright and shining around the edges. I have not slept a wink all night, and I feel just fine.
Hoss ambles out the door, and for some reason, I’m so happy to see him, I want to throw myself on him and pin him to the ground. He pounds me hard across the back, a greeting that’s somewhere between an assault and an embrace. He’s peeved at me for making them worry all night but tickled that his little brother got to dance with Miss Crabtree. I shove him back, and we stand there on the street, grinning at each other like a couple of greenhorns. Then Pa comes out of the hotel.
Pa’s glare is mighty fierce, and I know there will be hell to pay when I get home for coming into Virginia City alone. I should have known better, and I did. But what man living would take a look at Lotta Crabtree and not decide to take his chances?
I’ve got one life to live, and by God, I intend to live it well.
When Pa was seventeen, he’d have done the same thing, I just know it. I smile at him optimistically, and he glowers, but already I can see the smile tucked behind it. I’ve never known Pa to stay mad at me for very long.
Adam comes out next, and he’s got the soul satisfied look of a man who’s been kissed long and hard. I expect he’s been kissing more than Miss Crabtree’s hand. He walks over to me, and I can tell he’s feeling smug, but I don’t hold it against him. This may be Adam’s moment, but mine is yet to come. I hold out my hand to him to make amends. He smiles broadly and knocks off my hat.
Pa shakes his head at such foolishness and declares, “Come on boys. Let’s ride home.”
We mount our horses and head out of town at a hard gallop. I see it all before me. The lake and the forests, the ridges of mountains capped with snow. I’ll never get tired of this life.
I hear my voice whooping it up, and to my shock and joy, my father and brothers join in. They know it, the same as me. It doesn’t matter which path we take. All roads around the territory lead back to the Ponderosa. The four Cartwrights always find their way home.
We ride fast, churning up dust. There’s no time to waste. The story of our lives is just beginning.