Summary: What if Marie left Ben Cartwright early in their marriage? What if Joe Cartwright grew up running wild on the streets of New Orleans? What if, sixteen years later, he returned to the father and brothers he had never known?
Word Count: 9,000
The stage could rattle the dreams right out of you, the woman thought to herself, and smiled. It was something he might say. She had stared out of that grime caked window for endless hours, watching as the miles of trees folded into themselves, until they were nothing but dust beyond sagebrush and sand. She was young, she was beautiful, and the knowledge of it had already brought her a lifetime of grief. Her loveliness was a desolation; much like the landscape she passed that day.
“Like ashes between my lips,” she mused and startled when the young man sitting across from her gave her an odd look. She had not realized she had said the words aloud.
“I’m sorry,” he shouted. “The noise in here – I didn’t catch what you said.”
“It’s nothing,” she said, and smiled her most winning smile to placate the man. If nothing else, she knew how to handle men. Hadn’t that been his accusation, the source of his rage? She would be damned if she allowed herself to live through such a nightmare again. No, she knew well how to take care of herself. She had done it before, and with sorrow upon sorrow, she could certainly do it again.
The sun was slipping past the last of the foothills, as the coach continued its flight away from the West, from the Ponderosa, from him. She wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and let one hand drop to caress the gentle rounding of her belly. To touch her future still so small it was barely there. With her second chance at life slipping away, she could only allow herself this one last hope. Nobody would ever take this away from her. Never again would she allow a child to be wrested from her arms. A week earlier, she would never have believed him capable of such cruelty, but here she was, overcome by the nature of men.
Never again, she promised herself, and this time her laugh was bitter.
“Where are you heading?” the young man tried again, watching her laugh. His voice cracked in his struggle to be heard.
“Bubbles in honey,” she replied, after hesitating a moment. “The city of bubbles in honey.”
And beautiful, young Marie Cartwright, aching with unborn life, bowed her head and cried.
Sixteen years later
At last, the stage lurched to a stop. The young man wedged between the two spinster sisters longed to stretch, to feel his body at ease again in the sun. Yet the thought of what waited for him on the other side of the stagecoach doors made him pause.
Joseph Cartwright had seen a lot in his short life, and he would be damned if he let anyone call him a coward now. He had made it this far. His mother had taught him to fight – with a rapier, a dueling pistol, a knife, a smile – whatever it took, and with everything he had, he heeded that call. They formed a legion of two, a bulwark, a force of nature: a lovely woman and her beautiful boy.
Laughter and rage, she had told him. Hold on to both, and you will always be strong. Rage and laughter had forged them together, as long as he could remember. From his first shaky steps in the gambling parlor where his mother entertained, to his boyhood running wild on the streets of New Orleans, Joe had let both tether him to the world. It had been a hard and lonely life for a sensitive boy, smaller and prettier than most, who wore his heart on his sleeve. For many years, any common bully could whip the tears out of him. Any careless insult could make him cry.
But Joe had inherited more from his mother than her looks. Beneath the distraction of his appearance, he had inherited the legacy of her fury and her betrayal. She had loved hard and recklessly, and she refused to love like that again. All devotion and tenderness now remained only for her son. She bequeathed him all the fierceness and determination to survive that she could muster. The two had served him well, until that day.
The customer had been little more than a joke to her. A homely and wealthy man who would buy her a drink for some laughs and would help pay for the set of rooms that she and her son called their home. A look, an arched neck, a smile and Marie would be well on her way to providing another meal or a pair of boots for young feet that would not stop growing.
Joe knew that his mother loved him, knew it with all of his heart. But he also knew the price she had paid for that love. He was hardly shocked by his mother’s occupation. He had known the facts of life between men and women, before most children entered school. His mother could not protect him from those facts. She did the best that she could and expected him to do the same.
The man had been persistent at first. He had bothered her long after her obligation was over, with his demands, his needs, and his demons. He had wanted everything from her, but Marie had been long past giving anything of herself to anyone but the boy back at home. So the man waited and watched.
Finally, one steaming, summer night, when the moon hung as an orange sliver in the sky, the man took his chance. If he could not claim such beauty, if he could not grasp it as his own, it could not belong in the world. He grabbed her arm as she passed him, slapped his hand against her mouth, and dragged her into the narrow alley behind the gaming parlor where she worked. Plunging the knife into her chest, the man panicked at the blood that swelled and pooled underneath his hands. Trembling with fear, he eased her onto the dusty ground, touched her golden curls, and fled towards the street. He vanished into the swamp of New Orleans humanity, another man who would never be able to forget the lovely apparition named Marie Cartwright. The man did not kiss her goodbye.
Marie clung to life that night with the sheer willfulness that had marked her entire life. Pierre, the livery boy who found her the next morning, shook at the vision at her still body, lying at the edge of the alley. Gasping for each breath, Pierre flew towards the rooms where she lived with her son, Joe.
Pierre recognized Marie immediately for he had shared a boyhood on the streets with her son. Born a mere month apart, the two of them had bonded over a love of cards, fast horses, and pretty girls. While Joe’s mother had not exactly approved of her son’s lifestyle, she understood the wildness in his heart. She understood it and might have admitted that she encouraged it. And she liked Pierre. He was a handsome devil, just like her little son. Pierre remembered the way her smile lit her face, like sunlight through the mists of the city. She was kind. Running faster, he leaned into the corner and collided directly into her son.
Joe had been strolling towards the saloon in search of his mother. Although it was not unusual for him to spend his mornings alone, he had awakened to an empty stomach, no money, and no way to feed himself, save from the trash heaps in the alleys behind the shops. While he certainly had foraged in the past, he had no intention of doing so that morning. Joe knew his mother’s latest conquest had been flush and easy with money.
Joe was not a boy who was shocked by the desperate things of the world. Love was a business transaction for his mother, nothing more and nothing less. If Joe needed to twist the truth to win a game of poker or swindle a drunk out of his last paycheck, then so be it. Their life at night filled their stomachs in the morning. With her latest proceeds and his genius at cards, by nightfall Joe would be able to triple his mother’s earnings. For this month at least, Marie and Joe Cartwright could survive in style.
He was smiling at the thought of the evening’s bounty when Pierre plowed into him from around the corner.
“Hey friend,” Joe started, with his easy laugh. He stopped Pierre and placed his hands on his shoulders. “Which girl’s chasing you this time?”
“Joe,” Pierre gasped. “It’s your – it’s Marie. It’s Marie.”
Joe did not ask any questions. He ran. He ran until the breath erupted from his chest in sickly gasps. He was a fast boy, in every way, and he outran his friend, with ease. He did not need to ask the way. He knew exactly where he was going.
By the time Joe reached the alley, a small crowd had gathered around the body of the tiny woman, and a constable had reached the scene, pushing the onlookers out of the way. Despite his small size, Joe shoved past every gawker until he knelt in the dirt next to his mother.
“Mama,” he cried, his voice betraying his age. “Mama, it’s me. It’s Joe.”
She would not have opened her eyes for anyone else. The onlookers gasped, as the woman they assumed was dead shuddered and looked steadily at her son.
“Mama, I’ll get help. I need a doctor. A doctor!” Joe sprung to his feet and grabbed the collar of a man who was standing by his side. The amused smirk on the man’s face sent fury spiraling through Joe’s body and he pulled a knife from his pocket before the man could react. “Mister, you better run and get a doctor, or so help me God, I’ll cut your throat.”
The man’s smirk vanished in a moment. It was only a boy, a slip of a boy at that, but something in the boy’s eyes scared the hell out him. He fled towards the doctor’s office.
The constable also turned away. He had more to concern himself with than the stabbing of a party girl and her boy.
Joe knelt beside his mother, a child once more, tears streaming down his face.
“Mama,” he crooned. “Mama, you’ll be all right. Don’t worry about anything.”
“Joe, my darling. Oh my darling,” she whispered. “I have been so unfair to you. All my pride, my foolish, foolish pride.”
“Don’t talk Mama. It’s all right. The doctor’s coming.”
“No my love. I won’t leave you yet. I still have something to tell you. Something to do.”
Later, after the grueling weeks of travel on steamer, on train, and finally on the stage to Virginia City, Joe would try to remember his last moments with his mother. He did not remember the arrival of the doctor, the awkward stiffness of her body as she was carried by strangers, or the way Pierre had stayed by his side, until the moment Joe slipped behind the doors of the doctor’s office. Joe did not know that he would never see his friend again, so he never said goodbye. It would become one of the many regrets that had marked his young life.
Thinking back on those terrible days, the only memory that remained was the lovely translucence of her face and the calmness in her voice, as she told her story. But oh what a story she told. Joe would never know where she found the strength to tell him the story.
All his life, Marie had lured Joe to sleep with fables of the mystical West. In his dreams, trees soared to the stars, and knights rode on horseback. Good and evil dueled on every dusty street corner, with guns instead of rapiers, and little boys grew to be men, strong and true. Joe loved these stories that told of a life so different than his own, and he often begged for more, not understanding the look of sorrow that passed over her face.
But this story….. this story was so unexpected, so fantastical, he could hardly believe it was true.
Yet, his mother had never lied to her son and he had always believed her.
Even as Joe handed his mother the paper and pen and watched as she wrote the letter, he could not comprehend her words. Her fingers trembled violently as she composed the letter. Her script was weak and shaky, but any fool would have known it was hers.
When she finished, she handed him the letter. With a voice that was already folding into itself, Marie whispered, “Send this to your father.”
Much later, to his disgust, Joe found that he could not even remember the moment of her death. Eternally stubborn, Marie had refused to die for days, for weeks, until the telegram arrived that answered her desperate letter.
The telegram was succinct, compassionate, and made Marie remember the depths of her feeling for the only man she had ever really loved.
“In shock. Stop.
Looked everywhere for you. Stop.
Of course the boy must come home immediately. Stop.
All funds have been wired. Stop. Love Ben.”
After Joe read her the telegram, Marie smiled her brilliant smile and closed her eyes. Her child was safe and she could rest. Life for her had been cruel and unjust, but her child could return to the land of tall trees and brave men that danced at the edges of her dreams.
While it might be a blessing that he could not remember the last weeks of her agonizing life, Joe berated himself for forgetting her death. Now, as he watched the two elderly women elbow each other off the stage, he fought the sudden desire to hide under the seat, to keep riding, to move on. He had not allowed himself the luxury of grief, yet he longed for his mother’s gentle touch on his cheek. For the look on her face that told him that she understood him, understood everything about him, and nothing could ever drive her away.
He had not believed she would actually leave him.
He longed to run, to take his chances in one of the rough and tumble towns he had passed along the way, but Joe Cartwright was raised to be a fighter. He could not be afraid of anything.
Joe lifted his chin defiantly towards the dusty world that lay beyond the stage door. He could take on anything or anyone. He only looked like a boy. With a confidence that did not reach his eyes, Joe vaulted out of the stage to meet his father and his brothers.
Adam Cartwright was a tired man. Night after night, he had sat in the armchair by the hearth watching his father pace endlessly, hour after hour. The letter had changed all their lives, in the few minutes it had taken to read it, but no one had been transformed more dramatically than his father.
“I don’t understand,” Ben would say again and again. Adam listened even though it didn’t seem to matter to his father whether he had an audience or not. “We looked everywhere in New Orleans. Everywhere. She just vanished without a trace. All these years. How could she have been there all these years?”
“New Orleans is a big city, Pa,” Adam would say, but it didn’t matter. His father just continued on.
“A child. A boy. Why didn’t she tell me? Am I such a monster that she couldn’t tell me? Why didn’t she tell me? Stubborn, so stubborn. Heaven and Earth. I would have followed her anywhere.”
“Pa, it’s not your fault, Pa.”
“My God, Adam,” Ben gasped in a voice edged with grief and regret. “Can it possibly be too late? Too late for Marie?”
Adam shivered now, standing in the rain, as he leaned against the hitching post at the crossroad of Virginia City’s main road, waiting for the stage. He stood next to his father and brother and tried to shake off the fatigue that had settled over him like a second skin during the past month.
“Dadburnit Pa,” Hoss muttered, flicking off the water that kept pooling on the brim of his hat. “That stage was due an hour ago. Where could it be? I’ve a mind to ride out and meet it myself.”
“Easy Hoss.” Ben’s smile was kind now, his pacing and fury replaced by gentle regret. “It’ll be here son. Sooner than we know.”
“Pa. I was wondering. I don’t remember Marie – Ma – at all anymore. What do you think he will be like? You know, my… my brother? Do you think he’ll look like me or Adam none?”
Ben wrapped his arm around his son’s large shoulders. Of all of them, Hoss had typically reacted to the letter with the purest of emotions – shock, surprise, and then utter joy. He did not remember Marie, but he loved her for his father’s sake, and already felt for his unknown brother a love that surprised even himself. For Hoss, life was all about possibilities and never about complications.
“Well Hoss,” Ben began, “You and Adam favor your mothers, and so I would imagine that Marie’s son -Joseph – would do the same. She was the most beautiful woman any of us had ever seen. Isn’t that right Adam?”
“Yes Pa, that’s right,” Adam assented, even as his long fingers pinched the bridge of his nose. He certainly did remember Marie’s beauty, though she had only lived in their home for a matter of months. It haunted him in dreams and outshone the loveliness of every pretty girl he had ever held in his arms. He had been twelve years old when Marie left, and sometimes he felt that her memory had spoiled the promise that any mere girl would ever hold for him.
His father’s adoration for Marie was forever tangled in the memory of “that day.” It was no wonder Hoss had no memory of his young stepmother. Hoss managed to turn his back to everything that was hurtful or unpleasant. It was not that he was naive or slow. He just had no darkness in him. Adam often envied his younger brother.
Ben cleared his throat and Adam could feel his father’s body tense. He had stood by his father’s side through so many trials, big and small, that Adam had always felt that they needed few words between them. They were not that type of family. But this was something new altogether.
“It’s coming,” Ben said.
The rain seemed to a slow a bit, just as the stage rattled around the corner to a shuddering halt. The driver hopped off his perch and opened the door with a weary sigh. It had been a long trip and he hated driving the team in the rain. Shivering and holding their hands to their backs, the Slattern sisters exited the stage. Adam held his breath for what felt like an hour, but was just a moment. Next to him, his father and brother also appeared frozen in their shared expectation; they knew everything was changing. Nothing would ever be the same.
The moment ended when the boy inside bounded out of stage. Adam had expected a display of nervousness, maybe some fear, but nothing prepared him for the intensity of life that now stood before them. He knew it as soon as he saw him. The kid was the picture of Marie. Adam would have recognized him in any crowd, on any street corner, in any city. The boy looked around until his eyes rested on the three men standing before him. His eyes met Adam’s, he frowned for just a moment, and then his face dissolved into a slow, deliberate smile.
Joe was terrified out of his mind. Any confidence he thought he had mustered in the stage, vanished at the sight of the three strangers. His curls dripped into his eyes and he pushed them back impatiently. He knew he should have had his hair cut at one of the stops along the way. Breathing slowly and steadily, Joe made himself smile. Charm was a survival skill his mother had taught him before he could walk. Use everything you got Joe, he told himself. He forced his legs to move, one after the other, until he stood in front of the oldest of the three. Joe told himself this must be his father.
“Hello sir,” he said, and held his hand out. He was gratified to see that it was no longer shaking. “I’m Joe.”
Joe’s action seemed to stir the Cartwrights out of their fugue. Ben shivered as he reached for the boy’s hand. It was like something out of a dream. His darling Marie’s face resurrected and transposed on the face of this very young boy. He was a stranger. Ben had never seen him before in his life, and yet he would have known him anywhere. In that moment, the missing pieces of the puzzle of his life began to fall into place.
Ben grasped the boy’s hand and arm and shook it a little too eagerly. The boy’s smile faltered and his lips seemed to tremble. Never a quiet man, Ben felt himself unable to speak a word.
“Well, boy howdy,” Hoss was exclaiming and immediately circled the boy’s slight shoulders with his massive arm. Joe was utterly swallowed by the man’s embrace. “Ain’t you a sight? Look at you. Anybody’d know you was a Cartwright, wouldn’t they Pa?”
Oddly, Joe felt relaxed in the large man’s arms. He couldn’t imagine anyone more physically different from his petite mother, but this man’s embrace felt natural and somehow comforting.
“Hoss,” he said out loud, remembering his dying mother’s tutelage. “You must be Hoss.”
Adam stepped forward, his good manners reasserting themselves, as the shock of seeing the boy wore off. “I’m Adam. How was your trip? The stage is terrible this time of year.”
Ben looked at his sons gratefully. He had to be able to speak to this boy, this living embodiment of Marie. The words felt like gravel in his throat, but he managed, “You must be tired. We brought the wagon. It’s quite a long ride to the Ponderosa.”
Before he could stop himself, Ben reached out his hand and pushed aside a curl from the boy’s forehead. For a moment, Joe flinched. Like his mother, he hated to be touched by strangers unless it was for business. You never knew when a pretty girl could make a bad poker game right, but Joe had learned to control himself at all costs. Giving too much away could cost you your life in the gambling palaces of New Orleans. Adam saw the tiny movement and wondered at the boy’s smile. Who was this kid and how would he fit into their lives?
“That sounds great sir,” Joe said, in a voice as light and easy as he could manage. Don’t give too much away, he told himself. You don’t know anything about them. You don’t know anything at all about these people, except that they turned her away. Joe kept smiling. He had been told by more than one experienced girl that his smile could cover a multitude of sins.
“Are you hungry? We could eat here, before we go.” Ben asked, draping his arm around his new son’s shoulders. He knew he was simply used to his older sons’ large frames, but this boy looked so slight and bedraggled in the rain, it seemed to Ben a stiff wind would blow him away.
“No thank you sir,” Joe answered, reaching for his bag. “I don’t eat much.”
“Well, anyone could tell that by looking at you,” Hoss exclaimed, beaming at this small new brother. “Sally Mae makes the best apple pie in town. She’ll be plumb put out if you don’t try a lil’ ol’ piece.”
“And it has nothing to do with the fact that you’d do about anything for a piece, yourself, is that right brother?”
Adam, Joe remembered, as he felt an unsettling surge of affection towards these men his mother had called his brothers. What would it have been like to have grown up under the arms of such men? The darker man, Adam, smiled a funny half smile and took his other baggage.
”This all you got?” he asked, and Joe was grateful that he didn’t ask him to eat anything. Joe tried to keep his manners animated and lively, the way he watched his mother work a crowd, but he could feel himself fading with the exhaustion of the trip and this meeting.
“That’s it,” he replied. “you hold my life in your hands.”
At that, they all smiled and walked as one to the wagon. Adam sighed. This would be one hell of a ride.
The journey stretched into hours as the wagon rolled through the most beautiful land Joe had ever seen.
“And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” The words came to mind unbidden, but somehow, he heard the silver tinkle of his mama’s voice.
Hoss, his huge horse trotting easily by the side of the wagon, kept up a constant stream of narrative, pointing out what seemed to Joe to be an endless collection of creeks, crags, and ravines. Every rock seemed to have a name, and every name seemed to be just a footnote on the world that was the Ponderosa. Joe could barely wrap his mind around the size of it.
The ride was long and twice, they encountered ranch hands, who gaped at the new arrival in unabashed curiosity.
“This is my son. Joseph,” Ben almost growled, and his stern visage ensured that no one muttered a word other than, “Nice to meet you, young fellow.”
Joe wondered at the man who ruled this empire, who seemed to frighten the toughest of men with a mere expression. Until a month ago, he had not given a second thought to even the possibility of a father. Many of the street kids he ran with were the scrappy children of unmarried saloon girls. Others had lived in terror of their fathers’ drunken rages. A father was an idea that would take some getting used to.
Joe knew this man had sent his mother away, yet the hand that held his arm was as gentle as hers had been. He considered that he should hate this man, but his voice, his touch was like something out of a half-remembered dream. Closing his eyes, he could hear his mother’s voice and for a moment, she was with him, weaving in and out among the trees.
“Tired?” Again the voice was strong and soft, and Joe opened his eyes and nodded.
“I guess so,” he replied. “All this space. It kinda gets under a man’s skin. I guess I’m used to making due with smaller spaces, sir.”
Ben looked at the “man” sitting next to him, and couldn’t help but smile. He looked both younger and older than he had expected. At sixteen, both Adam and Hoss had resembled grown men, both in stature and physique. This boy looked years younger, not only because of his small size.
Yet, in another way, he seemed older than Adam and certainly more knowing than Hoss. There was something in the eyes, a weariness that Ben found familiar, but could not quite place. The boy had not stopped smiling since he hopped off that stage. The smile, however, never reached his eyes. It was like he had already seen the world, at age sixteen, and found it wanting. And then he remembered.
Involuntarily, Ben’s hand flew to his mouth to cover the beginning of a groan. Astride Sport, on the other side of the wagon, Adam glanced at him quizzically, one eyebrow raised.
“Nothing,” he mouthed, to his oldest son, who wouldn’t believe him anyways. They knew each other too well from their many years of working side by side. But it wasn’t nothing. The expression in this boy’s eyes mirrored the look in hers, so many years ago, when he found her with the man.
That afternoon, after he found them together in the outbuilding behind the barn, Ben had felt the cravings of his heart melt into a merciless rage, but she… she… He remembered the look in her eyes.
Struggling out of the man’s embrace, she had met Ben’s eyes without flinching. She saw his face. She knew he would never believe her. Her lovely, lovely smile turned into a grimace, marred with pain. At first, Ben thought she cried. But the sound that escaped from Marie Cartwright’s throat was a laugh. This laugh had nothing to do with the sound of silver and light that Ben had fallen in love with. It was the laugh of one already damned. She laughed and laughed, because she knew. Ben could think of nothing in the initial roar of his jealousy, but she already knew how their story would end. Comedy or tragedy. Laughter or rage. It was over when it had barely begun. And Ben never forgot her eyes….
Hop Sing wiped the sweat from his brow with the edge of his sleeve. Despite the rain outside, the kitchen was steamy with the fruit of his exertions. He began cooking as soon as he got word that the boy was on the stage. Hop Sing needed no prompting; he fully understood the significance of this day.
Hop Sing had never forgotten Marie Cartwright. She had arrived at the Ponderosa mere months after he began working there and he had fallen for her with a devotion that had never faded away. It wasn’t just her beauty, which was considerable, or her easy smile. It was her kindness that Hop Sing remembered the most. Marie had understood what it was like to be an outsider looking in, and her thoughtfulness towards him far exceeded the polite gratitude of the rest of the household.
Along with everyone else on the ranch that afternoon, Hop Sing had heard the shouts, the epitaphs, the accusations. He too had trembled at Ben Cartwright’s rage. Marie had fled into the house through the kitchen, scrambling towards the back staircase. On the third step, she froze and looked down at the small man cowering by the stove.
“Xiao Xiao,” she said softly to Hop Sing and smiled. Thank you. She was the only one who had tried to learn his language. A woman already condemned, Marie pivoted and disappeared up the stairs.
Hop Sing would never see her again.
But Hop Sing stayed with the family, despite his anger at the man who had driven her away.
Ben’s wrath was quickly spent, however, and when Hop Sing saw his employer’s utter remorse and despair, he decided to forgive. Ben Cartwright would have gone to the ends of the earth to restore his family, and Hop Sing had become a part of that family. In a family, love forgives all things. So he stayed.
As he stirred the stew boiling at the back of the stove, Hop Sing heard the familiar sound of horses approaching and the rattle of the wagon as it pulled in front of the house. Finally, they were home. Sixteen years later, Marie’s son was home at last.
Joe wondered at the size of the ranch house. Imposing and handsomely set back from the clearing, he couldn’t imagine ever calling such a place his home. In New Orleans, home for Joe and Marie had changed from month to month, and sometimes week to week, largely depending on which landlord Marie could sweet talk into providing an inexpensive roof over their heads.
Adam cleared his throat and offered Joe a hand down from the wagon. Joe frowned a moment before accepting. He had not fully regained the strength of his muscles after his weeks of travel. But he couldn’t afford to let his guard down, and he eyed Adam a bit more warily.
Adam Cartwright was the type of man his mother had warned him to stay away from in card games. Joe had recognized his type right away. Far too clever for the usual tricks, you should never try to con a man like that. Marie had told him, he’d see right through you. Stick to the soft ones, the naive types, who could never imagine the guile that could hide in the heart of a boy.
Ignoring his mother’s advice, Joe turned his back on his father and Hoss and followed Adam into the barn. He knew he should stick close to Hoss, who’s already struck him as the most innocent and trusting of men, but something drew him to Adam. He stood beside Adam, silently watching the man care for his horse. The look of cool appraisal that Adam gave him almost made him back away. Could it be possible, Joe wondered, that someone might know him, understand him, and not push him away?
The whinny of a nearby horse drew Joe’s attention away from Adam. There in the corner stall waited the most beautiful horse he had ever seen. Taut with unspent energy, the animal looked almost mean. The embodiment of the wilderness, the pinto could not have been more unlike the well-bred horses of the New Orleans elite. Joe was so entranced by the horse that he did not notice that Ben and Hoss had followed him into the barn. They stood next to Adam, watching this boy with amused smiles.
“What’s her name?” Joe breathed, betraying his age at last, with his unabashed desire.
“She ain’t got a name yet,” answered Hoss. “She’s still half wild. We’ve only had her for a month at best. Pa traded a string of horses to the Paiutes for her.”
Ben stepped forward. He had to be able to talk to his son.
“You can have your own horse, Joe,” he offered. “Of course, we’ll have to teach you how to ride.”
“I know how to ride,” Joe snapped. His voice was more bitter than he wished it to be. “My mother taught me. I… I had a friend who worked in the livery. I helped him in the afternoon. I rode every day.”
The men smiled at each other, with some surprise.
“Well, Joe,” Adam offered. “Tomorrow, you can pick out a horse and we can see how you do. We have a lot of horses on the Ponderosa.”
“I want this one.” Joe’s voice was so soft, he wondered if he had said the words out loud. From the collective groan that answered, he knew his words had been heard.
“This ain’t a horse for a beginner, boy-” Hoss blurted out.
“Joe,” Ben protested, “this horse will take months before it’s ready to ride.”
“You can’t be serious,” Adam sputtered.
“Enough!” Joe silenced them all. The anger welled to the surface, before he could clamp it back down. As if sensing his emotion, the pinto unexpectedly gentled under his steady hand. “All of you! You don’t know anything about me.”
Joe leaned into the horse and crooned into her ear before storming out of the barn. Exchanging looks with each other, the three men followed.
The evening passed slowly and awkwardly, and at last, Ben headed toward the stairs. It concerned him that such a young boy had not turned in for the night, but Joe showed no inclination to do so, as he beat Hoss at another game of checkers. Not quite a father, not quite a host, Ben followed his heart and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Joe,” he said gently. “It’s been a long day for all of us. Let’s call it a night.”
Knowing that the law had spoken, Hoss and Adam pushed back their chairs to follow their father upstairs. Hoss ruffled his new brother’s hair affectionately as he walked by. Already, he could not help himself. Adam mildly patted the back of Joe’s chair.
Joe remained seated until it was clear that the group fully intended for him to follow. Nobody in his young life had ever shown the least bit of interest in when he should go to bed. He shrugged, rather amused before he stood and followed the men up the stairs.
An hour later, Adam crept down the stairs, gun in hand. The noise that awakened him had been odd, the distinct clatter of glass and the squeak of cupboard doors. The sight before him left him wide-eyed in wonder. For once, Adam’s steady well of sarcasm ran dry.
“What the hell are you doing?” he hissed. He strode to Joe’s side and shook the child who had just downed his third glass of whiskey like it was water. Without hesitation, Joe whipped the small knife out of his pocket and held it under the taller man’s dimpled chin. Adam felt Joe’s breath on his neck, before the boy pulled the knife away, his left hand still trembling. Dimly, Adam remembered Marie had been left-handed too.
“You shouldn’t scare a man like that,” Joe said, trying to control his breathing. He was revealing far too much, too soon. “I’m not used to these early nights. I needed something to relax me.”
“Early,” Adam sputtered, his voice still weak and shaky. “It’s well past midnight. And a boy your age should not be drinking whiskey.”
“I am not a boy,” Joe stated with an authority that floored Adam. “And I’ve been drinking whiskey long as I could remember. My mother taught me how to hold a drink.”
He poured a fourth glass, downed it, and looked at Adam with genuine curiosity.
“But I’m a guest here,” he continued mildly. “Of course, I’ll abide by your rules.”
Joe put the bottle back in the cupboard and headed up the stairs.
“Good night,” he said with that smile, and then he was gone.
Adam slowly released the breath he had been holding. He had never met anyone like Joe Cartwright.
“Good night brother,” he whispered and picked up the empty glass. “Whoever you are.”
Time passed. The first awkward hours melted into days and weeks. To everyone’s amazement, the boy transitioned rather easily into the complicated organization, known as the Ponderosa. Joe had not survived on the streets of New Orleans for sixteen years by being difficult to live with. He knew how to get along, and in the Cartwright’s house, he was biding his time. He did not know what he was waiting for, but his mother had asked him to leave New Orleans to join this family, and he would have done anything to make her happy. In his own way, he had been an obedient son.
But it was not easy, and Joe chaffed under the mass of rules and restrictions that festered like splinters under his skin. Marie had asked very little of Joe. She had been careful to instill in him a courtly set of manners that would help him survive in New Orleans. Yet she worried little about the choices he made and the moral code he picked up from his life on the street. It was not that she did not care. She simply did not have the time to borrow trouble. Tomorrow would have to take care of itself.
Marie had certainly never worried about his safety. Joe was a street child, through and through. Every instinct he possessed was finely tuned toward self-preservation. Nobody knew better how to keep Joe Cartwright alive than Joe Cartwright himself.
That is, until Ben, Adam, and Hoss Cartwright came along.
“Absolutely not,” his father thundered, for the third time that day. “You are not riding that horse until someone is able to fully break her.”
“But sir,” Joe protested, cocking his head to the side with the most winning look in his personal arsenal. “I just know she can be ridden. She’s been waiting for me.”
Highly amused, Adam and Hoss cocked their hats further over their eyes and watched the showdown. Neither felt the boy should be allowed to ride that horse, but they sure enjoyed watching him try. Adam had never seen anybody as skillful at changing his pa’s mind as Joe.
Joe continued, “Now, you’ve seen me ride horses and you know I’m good. Charlie over there says I’m a natural.”
Adam and Hoss nodded in agreement. All of them had watched the boy ride and it was a thing of beauty to see him ride a horse. He was a natural, just as his mother had been.
Ben felt his throat tighten at the thought of Marie. Twice, he had tried to talk to the boy about his mother, but Joe’s face had hardened immediately. No. Talking about Marie would have to wait.
“Look, all I’m asking for is a chance. How can I ever be part of this family, if I’m never given a chance?” Joe pleaded and suppressed the smile he could feel twitching at the corners of his mouth. It was working beautifully. He had played his hand perfectly. Hoss’ eyes filled with tears and even Adam had to look away. Joe had no intention of becoming a part of any family, let alone of the one that turned his mother away. But Lord Almighty, he did want to ride that horse.
He knew he had won the hand when Ben leaned against the fence, sighed, and shook his head. His father wasn’t going to call his bluff.
“All right Joe,” Ben sighed. “You can give her a try. But any sign of trouble, and you fall clear, you hear? Be safe.”
“Yes sir,” Joe breathed, but before he raced away towards the barn, for the first time, he looked at them directly and the Cartwright men saw the true smile of Joe Cartwright.
It turned out to be the right call. Several days later, even skeptical Adam had to chuckle as he watched the boy gallop across the meadow, his curls whipping across his eyes as he rode.
“Ain’t never seen nothing like it,” Hoss affirmed and let out a low whistle. “Like he was born to ride that horse.”
“I guess he was right. That horse has been waiting for him,” Ben admitted, walking behind his sons. He rested his arm around Adam’s shoulders. “It’s been quite a month, boys. But I feel like we’ve gotten through the worst of it. Joe’s really coming around.”
Adam wasn’t so sure. “Well, he certainly loves that horse. He’s helpful with chores, doesn’t complain much. But, Pa. Don’t you think…. I mean, we don’t know anything about him. Anything about his life with Marie – Don’t you think it’s time -”
“No Adam.” Hoss’s tone was sharper than he intended, but he held it firm. “We don’t want to scare him off. That look in his eyes, Pa. He’s like a little critter that doesn’t know how to trust nobody no more. I seen it before Pa. We gotta give him time, Adam, we just gotta. I never knew we had him, but I ain’t planning to lose him again. We’ve lost enough already.”
“Yes, we have Hoss, yes we have,” Ben said. How much loss could a man face in one lifetime and not lose his mind? Or a sixteen-year-old boy, for that matter? He had so many questions that he longed to ask his son. So many questions that would have to wait. But Ben Cartwright was a patient man.
He spoke firmly, “We wait.”
Ironically it was Joe who finally broke the impasse. For two months of life on the Ponderosa, he had woke up earlier than he had ever imagined possible, sweated through hours of tedious chores, and eaten meals in a schedule he had never known existed. Breakfast, supper, and dinner. Every morning, he steeled himself to be as affable as he knew how and he hung the smile on his face like a helm. By all appearances, he had made a breathtakingly easy transition into the Cartwright clan. But he had learned from the best teacher. Throughout his childhood, Joe had watched his mother prepare herself for her evening’s work in much the same way that he readied himself for life with this family. Joe was a professional survivor. He knew no other way.
Yet as the days wore on, his motivation to survive at the Ponderosa ebbed and flowed. Sometimes, he sensed the ghost of his mother, felt her hovering close, urging him on. But whether she wished him to stay or to go, he could not be certain. During his rare moments alone, he could almost smell her perfume. How had she suffered in this place? How could he dare to like it here, to risk losing himself to the suffering she had always known? They had let her go.
In the midst of this restlessness, Joe found himself longing for the gaming saloons of New Orleans. The gentlemen and ladies in those saloons had been his teachers and classmates, his mentors, lovers, and friends. He began to miss the exhiliiarating rush of a fine hand of cards, the warm drizzle of whiskey down his throat, and that knowing glance from the perfumed girl on the other side of the room.
He knew that life, he was made for it, and he willed himself to want to live it again.
His opportunity came late after dinner one night, when his family had left to visit the Randall family, which had recently fallen on hard times. Despite their repeated requests to join them, Joe begged off, saying he was tired and wanted to turn in for an early night. They allowed it. He did have a look of exhaustion about the eyes. And he had been working so hard. He had even begun the grueling task of breaking the new string of horses with Adam. Born for it, everyone said so.
After they left, Joe crept to the barn, mindful of the many hands that always seemed to be watching him, curious about the new Cartwright boy. As he vaulted into the saddle to ride towards Virginia City, it occurred to him that this was the first time in his life that he could recall ever sneaking away. He was no saint. It was just that no one had ever asked him where he was going.
Ben, Adam, and Hoss had been riding through most of the night. Ben’s eyes ached with the struggle to make his way in the moonlight and with the memory of the empty house they had left behind. Joe had not even tried to disguise his flight. His bedroom door had been left wide open, his gun belt was missing from the credenza, and the door of his horse’s stall was creaking in the wind. Grimly, he met Adam and Hoss at the door. Without a word, they had followed their father back to the barn. They had never even taken off their hats.
Of course, he could have gone anywhere, but they gambled it would be Virginia City. Joe had been quieter than usual for the past week, his already guarded look even more subdued. More than that, he just seemed sad.
So it was with more than a bit of trepidation that the three men pushed through the massive swinging doors that guarded the Bucket of Blood. Adam had recognized his brother’s laugh the moment they rode into town. Yet, nothing could have prepared any of them for the sight of the sixteen-year-old boy in his glory, surrounded by an entourage of cowhands, card sharks, and saloon girls all straining for their share of the prodigy who sat before them.
Joe had just won the eighth round of the evening and was pocketing his earnings with a cheery, “Thank you again, gentlemen. And ladies too of course,” when Ben Cartwright finally found his true voice as this boy’s father.
“Jumping Jehoshaphat, what in Heaven’s name is this?” he thundered.
Joe looked at him, startled but nonpulsed. “Poker, Pa,” he replied.
Even in his anger, Ben realized that it was the first time the boy had ever called him “Pa.”
“Out, out,” he boomed. “No sixteen-year-old son of mine is going to be gambling in a saloon in the middle of the night. Out! And put that down.”
Joe had reached for one last, regretful swallow of his whiskey. Ben grabbed him by the back of the collar as he hauled him towards the door.
He had not stopped shouting. “Don’t you know your brothers and I have been worried out of our minds? We’ve been riding all night.”
Sincerely puzzled in his alcoholic haze, Joe answered, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know where I’d be?”
Recalling the story of another wayward son from the Bible, Adam answered under his breath, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Ben glowered at his oldest son, before returning to his youngest.
“Joe,” he began, this time a bit more quietly. “We don’t know anything about you. Won’t you tell us?”
Maybe it was too much whiskey. Maybe it was his pockets full of easy cash. Maybe it was the glamour of the full moon. Maybe it was the longing in his brothers’ eyes. Whatever it was, Joe knew he could go on no longer. It all had to end there, one way or the other, on the dirt-packed road in front of the Bucket of Blood.
“You know,” he whispered. “If you learn about me, you’ll learn about her too.”
Ben stared at the raw grief in the boy’s eyes. Adam and Hoss each took a step back and took their place as witnesses to a drama that began sixteen years earlier, before this boy was even born.
Joe continued, “Why would you want to know anything about either of us? How dare you? How dare you? You hated us. You sent us away! She never loved anyone but you, and you sent her away!”
Tears now streamed down the boy’s cheeks and his face contorted with contained grief and fury.
He raged on, “You want to know about me? You want to know about her? All right, I’ll tell you about her. She was beautiful, everybody wanted her. She gave herself to anyone willing to pay enough for the privilege. It was nothing to her. Everything she ever wanted, she left behind with you. Everything. Except me.”
“Except you,” Ben echoed, his eyes far away, remembering her laugh that afternoon.
“She loved me,” Joe sobbed, his breathing ragged and primal. “She always loved me. She would never have left me. We did our best. We tried to do our best. But it was so hard. We were always hungry and it was just the two of us. Oh Pa, why did you send us away?”
Ben moaned and his shoulders shook with emotion. He reached for his son and held him in his arms. He could feel the slight body shivering violently, could sense the tension that could easily propel the boy into the night and out of their lives forever.
“Joe,” he said softly and traced his son’s tears with his fingers. “I loved your mother. I loved her more than I can ever describe. I searched everywhere for her. I spent months – months- searching the streets of New Orleans. I contacted all of her relations, even the ones whose names I had prayed to forget. She was gone. Utterly gone. No one had seen her.
“She was so beautiful Joe. She was so beautiful, and I wasn’t strong. When I saw her in the arms of that man – I didn’t think. I just reacted. I lost my temper and I will never forgive myself for it. Never, Joe. She ran. By the time I calmed down, she was gone. Absolutely gone. I believed she was innocent before that man – I can’t even remember his name – came and confessed it was his fault. He had come at her. She was just so beautiful.
“I never would have let her go, never. I would never have let you go. I didn’t know about you, Joe. She hadn’t told me. You see, when I found out about you in her letter, I finally understood. It finally fell into place.”
“What made sense? What fell into place?” Joe’s voice was desperate against his father’s chest.
“Why she wouldn’t come back,” Ben answered, in a voice so full of regret, it reminded Joe of his mother. He ran his fingers through the boy’s curls. “Why she couldn’t forgive me. She couldn’t take a chance of losing another child. Not that way. She and I could be so angry with each other. The fights we had! I’m afraid you got your temper from both of us. But we always left it behind, always forgave each other. But Joe, she would never say goodbye to another child. Never. And I didn’t believe her. Oh Joe, she must have loved you.”
This time, the sobs overtook them both, and Joe felt himself swallowed by grief and regret for this life not lived. He felt strong hands on his back and shoulders and somehow knew that his brothers stood behind him, ready to tether him to this land if he needed them to. Not quite knowing what he was doing, Joe leaned back into those hands, into the arms of men.
He turned, held their gaze for a moment, and he did not smile.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
It was not much. It was barely a start. But it was a beginning.
This story continues with:
New Orleans Moonlight