Summary: What Happened Next for the episode “Alias Joe Cartwright”
Word Count: 16,000
By the time I’d returned, the excitement was over. It had been over for a week, as a matter of fact. My father summed up his telling of the tale by saying, “All’s well that ends well,” which brought to mind the words Helena said in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name: ‘But with the word the time will bring on summer, when briers shall have leaves as well as thorns, and be as sweet as sharp. We must away; our wagon is prepared, and time revives us. All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.’
“All’s Well That Ends Well” is a Shakespearean comedy, but what Joe went through could have just as easily read like one of Mr. Shakespeare’s tragedies. For a short period of time, Joe tried to fool me into thinking he didn’t dwell on the latter possibility, just like he’d fooled Pa and Hoss into thinking the same thing. But as Shakespeare said in another play he penned, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Joe played the part he thought was expected of him, or maybe better put, the part he expected of himself. I played a part, too – the same part I always play. That of wise older brother, ever ready to offer sound advice, until Joe saw through me, and forced us both to admit that just because something ends well, doesn’t mean it’s over.
I’d arrived in Virginia City by stage three days earlier than my family was expecting me to. Because of my premature homecoming, no one was waiting with a buckboard to pick me up. After I got to the ranch, I found out if I’d looked around town I’d have probably run across Joe, who was getting supplies at Tanner’s Hardware and Blake’s Feed and Seed. But I didn’t look around. I didn’t linger in town at all. I’d been on the stage throughout the night, the rough ride not allowing me to catch more than a catnap here and there when the driver stopped to switch horses, or when we hit a smooth patch of road that stretched for a few miles.
I was tired, dirty, and hungry. Not exactly the way a man should return from vacation, but I was smiling with fond memories as I walked to Jensen’s Livery, so I suppose that speaks well of my three weeks in San Francisco.
I’d met an old friend from college there. I hadn’t seen Kenton Voss since we’d graduated, which meant twelve years had passed with letters mailed between the Ponderosa and New York City as our only means of staying caught up with one another’s lives. Kent seemed enthralled with my stories of the “wild west,” while I admit to some envy over the life he’d made for himself back East as a successful lawyer, husband, and father. When he’d wired me saying he was in San Francisco on business for an extended period of time and asked if I could him meet there, I hadn’t hesitated to send a wire back that said yes, while confirming the date I’d arrive at the hotel where he was staying. I hadn’t given any thought to the trip I’d promised Pa I’d make to Lode City. And when I did finally think of it – on my way home from Virginia City after having already sent Kent my reply – I knew one of my brothers could go in my stead. Which was what my father said when I told him of my unintentional blunder.
“Don’t fret about it, son. Hoss or Little Joe can head over to Lode City. You go on to San Francisco and have a good time. You deserve a vacation. And besides, it’s not every day a man gets to visit with an old friend who lives on the opposite side of the country.”
“No, it’s not,” I agreed. “Still, I’d have spoken to you first before wiring Kent if I’d thought about that meeting with Mr. Billings. It’s just that his wire took me by surprise. When Dave shagged me down and handed it to me, I wanted to get a reply off as soon as possible so Kent would know I’d be on my way.”
“That’s understandable. As I said, don’t fret about it.”
Pa smiled at my excitement. I’ve always been the “serious one” when it comes to how people define Ben Cartwright’s sons, so I suppose my father enjoys seeing me display the kind of enthusiasm that normally exudes from his youngest child, not his oldest.
I hadn’t gotten the chance to say goodbye to my brothers before leaving. Hoss was west of Hightop Ridge rounding up strays, and Joe was at Norm Crane’s place, helping Norm and his boys dig a new well. I wasn’t a fool when it came to why Joe volunteered for that job on a 95-degree day in mid-July. It certainly wasn’t because he wanted to spend time with Norm, who we all swore only quit talking when he was asleep, and even then we weren’t willing to bet money on it. Nor was it because Joe had any desire to spend time with Norm’s sons. It had been a few years now since my youngest brother wanted to play marbles with a ten-year-old, or mumblety–peg with a twelve-year-old. It was Melinda Crane that Joe had his eye on, Norm’s nineteen-year-old daughter. And Pa likely knew it when, at breakfast that morning, he’d asked for a volunteer to go over and give Norm a hand.
I’d packed for my trip after talking to Pa, ate an early supper with him, then went to Virginia City where I spent the night at the International House before getting on the first stage for San Francisco early the next morning. I’d left Sport at Tom Jensen’s Livery Stable. Pa promised to send someone to town for him.
It was a promise Pa kept, as I knew he would, because Sport was nowhere to be seen at the livery when I walked in to rent a horse for my trip home. I talked to Tom only long enough to be polite. I was too tired to stand there and catch up on the happenings in Virginia City since I’d left. I paid for the horse, secured my two valises to either side of the animal, told Tom someone from the ranch would return the horse the next day, and headed down Main Street without ever catching sight of Joe.
My father stepped out of the house, greeting me with a mixture of surprise and pleasure. The kind of greeting that always feels good to come home to. He took note of the rented horse one of the hands was walking to the barn.
“You didn’t see Little Joe while you were in town?”
“No. Is he there?”
Pa nodded. “He’s running errands.”
“Didn’t see hide nor hair of him.” I walked into the house carrying one valise, while Pa carried the other. “But then, I didn’t look for him, either.”
“No, of course you didn’t,” Pa said, in way of acknowledging I wouldn’t have known Joe was in town. “So, young man, what’s first? A bath? Lunch? A nap? Or telling me about your trip?”
“How about a bath, and then I’ll tell you about my trip over lunch. The nap can come afterwards if there’s nothing pressing you need me to do.”
“No, nothing pressing. As far as I’m concerned, you’re on vacation for three more days yet.”
I laughed. “That might be the way you see it, Pa, but I doubt my brothers will see it that way when they realize I’m home.”
“They can at least see it that way for the rest of today. You look tired.”
“I was on the stage overnight.”
“Ah, that explains it. So what brings you home early?”
“Kent wrapped up his business and was eager to return to Mary and the children. He’s never been gone from them this long before. So when he started his journey east, I decided it was time for me to get home too.”
“I’m glad you did. I’ve missed you, son.”
It wasn’t unusual for Pa to say that to my brothers or me after we’ve been away from the Ponderosa for a week or more, but something in his tone made me study my father as he called for Hop Sing to start heating water for my bath. It was as though telling me he’d missed me was a priority. As if something had happened while I was gone that made him realize life is fragile, and can be taken from any one of us in the blink of an eye by illness, accident, or mistake.
Before I got a chance to ask Pa if he was all right, or if something happened, Hop Sing came from the kitchen.
“Who want bath middle of day? This not Hop Sing Bath Shop. Hop Sing making lunch. Now you say Hop Sing stop and heat water.”
“Hop Sing, Hop Sing,” Pa placated, “Adam’s just gotten home after a long, dusty trip. Surely he deserves a hot bath, don’t you think?”
Hop Sing sniffed the air, then wrinkled his nose. He must have decided I needed to bathe, middle of the day or not.
“Fine. One hot bath. But you not tell Mr. Hoss or Little Joe, or they think Hop Sing heat bath water any time day or night.”
“I won’t tell them,” I promised our housekeeper. I chuckled as he scurried off, glad that no matter how long I was gone from home, I could always count on some things never changing.
Pa shook his head with amusement, then followed me up the stairs. He set the valise he was carrying on my bed. “I’ll let you unpack and get your bath. I’ll see you at lunch.”
“See you then, Pa.”
He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Again, son, it’s good to have you home.”
“It’s good to be home.” As Pa turned for the door, I questioned, “Pa? Are you all right?”
He turned around and smiled. “Do I look all right?”
“Well. . .yes, but…”
“But what, Adam?”
“You just seem. . .very glad to see me.”
Pa chuckled. “Is there anything wrong with a father being glad to see his son?”
“No, I don’t suppose there is. It’s just that I’m getting the impression something happened while I was away.”
Pa’s smile faltered a little. He hesitated a moment, then confessed, “Something happened, but it worked out fine.”
“I’ll tell you at lunch.”
“We can talk about it over lunch, Adam. It’s nothing urgent. And as I said, it worked out fine.”
His smile widened again. “I’m sure. Now go on. Get unpacked and take your bath. I’ll see you downstairs in a little while.”
“All right,” I agreed. “See you in a little while.”
After Pa left my room, I stood there wondering what was going on, or better put, what had gone on, but I finally quit pondering it and started unpacking. Pa said whatever it was had worked out fine, so evidently it wasn’t anything alarming.
Or at least that’s what I thought; until I found out Joe came so close to being shot by a firing squad that it was a miracle I hadn’t received a wire telling me to come home for a funeral.
I’d fallen asleep in the bathtub, meaning I arrived at the dining room table clean and well-rested, although an hour past noon, which is when lunch is normally eaten by any Cartwrights who are close at hand and able to gather around the table. Hop Sing didn’t complain about my tardiness, however. I suppose having to stop to heat water for my bath had thrown him off schedule when it came to the meal preparation. Nonetheless, I made sure to say all the right things just so he wouldn’t threaten to go work for a family who’d appreciate him.
“That was very good, Hop Sing,” I complimented, as he picked up my empty plate. “Better than any meal I had in San Francisco.”
“No one in San Francisco know how cook ‘cept Hop Sing’s Number Four Cousin. Did you see Number Four Cousin?”
“No, I don’t believe I did.”
“Good. ‘Cause even though he good cook, he big dummy.”
Pa and I exchanged smiles as Hop Sing carried our plates to the kitchen.
“Sounds like Hop Sing and Number Four Cousin have had a falling out.”
“Apparently so,” Pa agreed.
As we each forked off a piece of the cherry pie our cook brought us, I returned the conversation to the point it had reached before Hop Sing entered the room. “What’s going to happen to Borden and Merced?”
“They’re being escorted back to Fort Craig. Borden’s already been convicted of killing a superior officer. I assume Merced will now stand trial for his role in that, and if convicted, he’ll face the firing squad along with Borden.”
“Seems like just-punishment considering the fate Little Joe almost met because of those two.”
Pa gave me an uncomfortable smile, as though the memory of seeing his youngest son lined up against a wall with a dozen loaded rifles aimed at his chest was still too fresh to dwell on.
“Yes, well. . .it’s as I said a few minutes ago, all’s well that ends well. I’m sure the Army will carry out the appropriate action against both Corporal Borden and Captain Merced. It’s no longer our concern.”
Which was Pa’s way of saying that, while he doesn’t always endorse the death penalty, he believes there are times when it’s warranted. And his, “It’s no longer our concern,” was his way of saying he was glad Joe didn’t have to travel to Fort Craig to testify against the two men.
“No,” I said quietly, my mind suddenly preoccupied, “no, I don’t suppose it’s our concern.”
My father changed the subject then. Whether that was because he felt there was no need to discuss further what almost happened to Joe at that military outpost, or whether he’d heard the wagon pull up by the barn, I’m not certain. But either way, by the time Joe entered the house a few minutes later we were talking about the low water levels in the creeks due to the lack of rain in recent weeks.
Joe called, “Hi, Pa!” as he walked in the front door, as though he knew it was a given that his father was somewhere in the house. I heard a soft “plunk” as his hat hit the sideboard. He did a double take as he rounded the corner and saw me sitting at the table. He grinned as he walked over to Pa and laid the mail beside his plate. “Ah, the prodigal son has returned from his extended vacation.”
“That he has,” I agreed.
Joe pulled his chair out and sat down. Pa leafed through the mail while asking, “Did you eat lunch, Joseph?”
“Yeah, ate in town.”
“Then how about having some dessert with your brother and me?”
Pa turned toward the kitchen. “Hop Sing! Please bring Joseph a piece of pie and a cup of coffee.”
I heard Hop Sing grumbling as he moved about the kitchen. He plunked Joe’s plate and cup down in front of him.
“Not Hop Sing’s Restaurant any more than Hop Sing’s Bath Shop. You want food, you be here noon on dot.”
“But I didn’t even ask for the pie,” Joe protested in that high-pitched octave his voice manages to reach whenever he’s proclaiming his innocence. “Pa did.”
“No matter who ask. Breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, supper at six.”
“Yes, Sir,” Joe teased, trying to keep a straight face. “Seven, noon, and six. Got it. With the way you keep track a’ time for us, Hop Sing, we could probably sell that Grandfather clock over there and never miss it.”
Hop Sing shook a finger under Joe’s nose. “Boy have smart mouth. Maybe boy go hungry for few days and then learn be nice to Hop Sing.”
Joe laughed, and I swore I saw a smile tugging at the corners of Hop Sing’s mouth as he scurried back to the kitchen. Joe’s always been able to get away with saying things to our cook that, if Hoss or I said them, would have had the man chasing us around the table with a butcher knife.
Joe turned his attention to me as he picked up his fork. “So what brings you home early, big brother? Your friend get tired of you and send you packin’?”
“While that’s what your friends would do to you, and with good reason, that’s not the case where I’m concerned. Kent finished his business and was eager to return home, so I decided to do the same.”
“Great. Just in time to help me unload the wagon.”
Pa spoke before I had the chance to. “Now, Joseph, Adam’s still on vacation for another three days.”
“And what’s he plannin’ to do? Sit around and watch his beard grow?”
I ran a hand over my smooth chin. “No, wasn’t planning on doing that. I might, however, read the book of poetry I bought in San Francisco, or study the Latin text Kent gave me.”
Joe cocked an eyebrow at me and wore the same expression he had when he was two and Marie introduced him to a bowl of boiled beets. “Kent gave you a Latin book?”
“Boy, Adam, with a friend like that, you sure don’t need an enemy.”
“At least my friends don’t empty my pockets at the poker table on Saturday nights.”
“Maybe not, but I’d gladly lose a few bucks to Mitch and Tuck every Saturday for the rest of my life if it means they won’t give me a book written in Latin and call it a gift.”
“Yes. Now I don’t have to worry about someone duplicating the Christmas present I bought you.”
Before Joe and I could continue our brotherly game of verbal one-upmanship, Pa chuckled.
“What are you finding so amusing?” I asked our father, as if I didn’t already know.
“I knew Little Joe wouldn’t be in the door more than ten minutes before you two started in on one another.”
“The important word here, Pa, is started,” I said. As in, Joe started it.”
Joe shot Pa an impish smile and bragged, “Don’t I always?”
Pa nodded. “Usually.”
“Then I wouldn’t wanna disappoint ya’, Pa. You can always count on me for a little excitement around this place.”
“Yes, Joseph, I’ve become well aware of that fact over the years.”
“Speaking of excitement,” I said to my brother, “I heard you just about had more than you bargained for while I was gone.”
Pa gave me a look that spoke of his disapproval over this subject being resurrected in front of Joe. But he’d never told me it was off-limits, and based on Joe’s reaction, I didn’t think it bothered him to talk about it.
My little brother tossed me another grin. “Yep. Like I just said, you can always count on me to make things exciting.”
“We can,” I agreed, “though that’s not the type of excitement any of us wanted.”
Joe shrugged. “Not much I could do about it, considering that excitement you’re talkin’ about wandered into my campsite and found me without asking first if it was welcome.”
“So Pa told me.”
“Then I suppose he also told you that ‘all’s well that ends well.’ ”
“And he’s right.” Joe stood. “See ya’ outside.”
“To help me unload the wagon.”
“Joe, as our father mentioned, I’m still on vaca…”
Joe cut me off with another grin. “Velle est posse, Adam.”
“You heard me. Velle est posse,” he repeated flawlessly.
I don’t know if Joe was laughing at the dumbfounded expression on my face, or because he knew he was the victor in this round of one-upmanship.
After the door front door closed behind my departing sibling, Pa looked at me. “I’m pretty rusty where Latin is concerned. What’d he just say?”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Pa laughed. “I guess that’s Joseph’s way of telling you that he remembers his schoolhouse Latin lessons better than you thought he did.”
“Actually, Pa, I think that’s Joseph’s way of telling me he’s determined to have my help unloading the wagon.”
I wiped my mouth with my napkin, placed the napkin on my empty dessert plate, and stood. “I’d better give Joe a hand before he gets so impatient that he drives the wagon right through the front door.”
“All right. When you come back in, I’d like to talk about the cattle auction if you don’t mind discussing business while you’re still on vacation.”
“If I don’t mind unloading a wagon filled with supplies, then I can’t fathom discussing business will bother me.”
Pa chuckled as he stood and headed for his desk. His eyes didn’t glance at Joe’s dessert plate as he walked past it, like mine did. My brother’s cherry pie still sat there untouched, and he’d never filled his cup with coffee. I’d also noticed that, despite his assertion to Pa that he’d eaten lunch in town, he looked thinner than when I’d left. I hadn’t missed the faint gray shadows beneath his eyes either, as though any sleep he’d gotten lately hadn’t been all that restful. None of the changes were pronounced yet, which was probably why Pa hadn’t observed them. Sometimes, it takes a person who’s been away for a while to see the obvious.
All’s well that ends well, huh, Pa?
As I walked out the door, I answered myself with the Latin phrase, Gaudeamus igitur super nusquam.
So let us rejoice over nothing.
Which is just what my little brother seemed to be doing as he whistled a jaunty tune while unloading the wagon using slow, plodding steps that spoke of days filled with haunting memories, and nights filled with bad dreams.
It wasn’t like me not to face my problems head-on. Even as far back as childhood, I recall thinking it was a waste of time to set things aside and deal with them later. “Never put off until tomorrow what can be done today,” as Benjamin Franklin is credited for saying.
Like Mr. Franklin, I always thought it made sense to accomplish whatever needed doing, and then be free to move on. Whether it was a lesson to be learned for school, a chore to complete on the ranch or a conflict I was having with one of my brothers. In theory, the latter worked well when the conflict was between Hoss and me. When it involved Joe and me. . .well, the “never put off until tomorrow what can be done today,” philosophy sometimes fell by the wayside due to short tempers, sharp tongues, and more “dadburn stubbornness than a whole pack a’ Missouri mules,” as Hoss often says about Joe and me when we’re locked in disagreement.
This time, though, there were no disagreements. No fits of temper. No exchange of heated words, and no stubbornness, either. Just avoidance on my part. Of course, Joe seemed to be doing a good deal of avoidance himself, as he pulled pranks on Hoss, and teased Pa, and arrived out-of-sorts to the breakfast table on those mornings when he claimed we started our working day far too early for his tastes. This occurrence generally came after a night of painting the town with Mitch and Tuck. In other words, Joe made sure no one detected a difference in his personality that could be traced back to the incident with Angus Borden.
Some things about Joe are easy to predict on most days. His hot temper, his love of practical jokes, his debonair ways with the fairer sex, and the distinct laugh that can be picked out of any crowd and easily identified as belonging to my youngest brother. The sensitive nature he feels comfortable displaying with Pa, but often tries to hide from his big brothers. His drive to best Hoss and me at any competition – or perceived competition on Joe’s part – to the point that his zeal borders on dangerous at times. Pa says that’s because when a boy has two older brothers, it’s natural for him to strive to be considered their equal, and keep on striving in that direction long after he’s reached an age when it’s not necessary anymore.
One thing that’s never been easy to predict is whom Joe will turn to in times of trouble. He’s probably the only one amongst us who doesn’t have a specific confident within the family that he generally goes to for advice, or when he just needs a listening ear. With Joe, it can be any one of us, depending on the circumstance and what he’s seeking to resolve.
Although neither Joe nor Hoss have ever told me this, I have no doubt it’s Hoss that my youngest brother seeks out when he doesn’t want a word of what he says breathed to Pa. And it’s always Pa whom Joe turns to after he’s struggled all he can with a problem that’s on the verge of overwhelming him.
As for me. . .well, when Joe comes to me, it’s usually because he needs a quick solution that gets him from point A to point B in a logical fashion, and he often starts out by saying, “A friend of mine has a problem that I thought you might be able to help with, Adam,” or, “A buddy of mine is in kinduva tight spot, and I’m not sure what I should tell him to do.” I’m not certain why Joe can’t just come out and tell me that, nine times out of ten, he’s actually the “friend” or “buddy” who’s in need of my opinion. Maybe it’s because twelve years separate us, and for quite some time that meant I was more of an authority figure to him than a brother. Or at least I tried to be an authority figure. Joe did his best to thwart that authority, often leaving me wondering how Pa managed to make it look so easy to be Little Joe’s father. Pa used to tell me that was where I was making my mistake. That I needed to remember I wasn’t Joe’s father, and that being his brother was enough.
I suppose Pa was right in the end, because Joe and I have gotten along better during the past couple of years, when I finally acknowledged that he wasn’t a little kid anymore and didn’t need my help staying on a “straight and narrow path” nearly as much as I’d once thought he did. That’s not to say Joe doesn’t veer from that straight and narrow path every so often, but then, he wouldn’t be my youngest brother if he didn’t take an occasional side trip for a view of the scenery. Or so Joe often tells me with a devilish grin on his face while mischief shines from his eyes.
Because I was suddenly putting things off until tomorrow, I didn’t find reasons to linger in Joe’s vicinity as we went about our working day, waiting for him to approach me with, “Adam, a uh . . .friend of mine has a problem I thought you might have some good advice for.” But then, I got the impression Joe had no intention of approaching me for advice, as he continued to fool everyone but me by acting like nothing was bothering him, and I continued to fool everyone by pretending I didn’t notice.
“Hey!” I raced toward the man. “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I smacked the rifle skyward with my open palm, then snatched it from his hands.
“Aw, Adam, don’t be sa’ sore. I was just havin’ me a little fun is all.”
“A little fun!” I cocked the bolt and eyed the chamber. “You call pointing a loaded rifle at someone fun?”
“I wasn’t gonna shoot ‘im, if that’s what yer worried about.”
“Shoot him. . .” My sentence trailed off, my mouth hanging open with disbelief. My gaze traveled to Joe. His white-washed face seemed devoid of all color other than the green of his eyes – eyes that were wide and dilated as he stood there panting in uneven breaths, as though he’d just run a foot race across the Sierras.
Considering the man had just been aiming a loaded rifle at my brother’s chest, I found his attitude to be so nonchalant that for one of the rare times in my life I couldn’t find the words to voice what I was thinking. But my loss for words was brief. Extremely brief. When words finally came to me, they sprang from my mouth in a loud fit of temper. I grabbed the hired hand by his upper arm, yanked him to me, and squeezed his bicep.
“Pack your stuff and get off the Ponderosa!”
“Adam. . .”
“You heard me, McDonald. I’ll get your pay while you collect your bedroll.”
“But, Adam, it was just a joke. Just a practical joke. I wasn’t plannin’ on hurtin’ Little Joe. I’ve worked for you folks goin’ on five years now. You know me better ‘an…”
“No, I don’t think I do know you better than that. I don’t think I know you at all, Mac, if you’re so foolish as to point a loaded rifle at someone and call it a practical joke. My brothers and I weren’t more than six years old when our pa taught us that lesson. I’ll take a guess and say you were probably about that same age when you were first taught that lesson too.”
My eyes wandered to the four other men who’d been standing there chuckling and guffawing when I’d come upon the scene. As soon as they’d figured out I didn’t find this little “practical joke” nearly as funny as they did, they’d sidled away from Emil and dropped their eyes, kicking self-consciously at the dirt in the ranch yard, creating little clouds of dust around their boots. Each one of them gradually met my eyes and gave tight nods, acknowledging that what I’d said was true – not only of my brothers and myself, but of themselves as well. Any boy who’d grown up with guns in his home — and that was most everyone I knew — had been taught early on that those guns served the purpose of helping to feed and protect the family. Guns weren’t toys. If a boy wanted to earn the right to his first squirrel gun, he learned at a young age to respect the lessons his pa taught him and show he was mindful of those lessons.
“Now go collect your things and…”
“But, Adam, honest, it was just a joke. Just a joke on account of that guy pretendin’ he was Little Joe, and then Joe gettin’ tossed in the stockade and. . . .uh…uh…”
At least he was smart enough to let his sentence end there, before he went on to say anything about Little Joe facing the firing squad. I swear, if he’d said that, I would have thrown a punch that would have convinced him he’d just been round-housed by Hoss.
“I’m not interested in hearing excuses for your inane behavior. What I’m interested in is you getting off the Ponderosa as fast as your horse will take you.” I dropped his arm and started to move toward the house. “I’ll get your pay and…”
For the first time since I’d appeared from around the corner of the barn, Joe spoke. He wasn’t nearly as white as he had been a few minutes earlier, and his breathing was under control too. In other words, as Hoss would say, he no longer looked like he was “gonna faint dead-away.”
“I said no. Don’t fire Mac.”
“I said don’t fire him, Adam.”
I approached Joe, gently backing him away from the men with nothing more than the forward movement of my body. When we were out of earshot, I said quietly, “Joe, you don’t have to take this kind of ribbing. You’ve got nothing to prove to them.”
As Ben Cartwright’s son, Joe has sometimes been forced to prove to the hired men that he’s not a wet-behind-the-ears kid. That he’s capable of making sound decisions. That he’s not a spoiled rich boy who tattles to his father when he observes someone napping after the noon break is over, or when he knows one of the men is hung over because he saw him the night before tying one on in the Silver Dollar. He’s had to prove that he’s willing put in a full day of hard work and then some, and prove he’s worthy of their respect, in the same way both Hoss and I had to prove these things in years past. But “years past” is the key phrase. Joe isn’t a teenager any longer just out of school and starting his full time employment on the ranch. He’s a man, and as I’d just told him, no longer had to prove anything to anyone. Most especially not to someone who’d just pointed a rifle at him and thought it was funny.
“I know I don’t have to prove anything. I’m not. It’s just. . .”
“Just. . .” He seemed to change his mind with regard to what he was going to say. He gave his head a small shake as if to clear it, then said firmly, “It was just a joke. A bad joke, but a joke nonetheless. Like Mac said, he wasn’t going to hurt me.”
“It doesn’t matter whether he was going to hurt you or not. He was pointing a loaded rifle at your chest. If he’d accidentally fired it somehow, he could have killed you.”
“But he didn’t accidentally fire it and I’m still standin’ here, so let’s let bygones be bygones.”
“Give him his rifle, Adam, and let’s all get back to work. That’s what I want. Please.”
I mulled his request over for a moment, still not certain I shouldn’t pay Mac what we owed him and send him packing. But then Joe said what I suspect had been on his mind ever since I put an end to the fiasco.
“Please, Adam, don’t fire Mac. I don’t. . .I don’t want Pa to know.”
“You don’t want Pa to know what? That Mac has all the common sense of a jack-ass with only half a brain?”
My dry comment would have normally gotten a laugh out of him, or at the very least a grin. But this time all he offered was a weak smile and slight nod. “Yeah. . .yeah, exactly.”
I waited to see if he had more to say on the subject. When he remained silent and refused to meet my gaze, I sighed and turned around. I walked to Mac and thrust the rifle at him. “Here. I’d better never see you point that at anyone on this ranch again. You understand me?”
Mac gave a contrite nod. “Yeah, Adam, I understand.”
“Go on then.” My eyes swept over the entire group. “Get back to work.”
They all hurried to disperse, Mac pausing only when I said, “Oh, and McDonald, you can thank my brother that you still have job. If it was up to me, you’d be gone.”
“Yeah…uh, yeah, sure. Thanks, Little Joe. Thanks a lot. And I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
Joe waved a hand in dismissal. “I know you didn’t. Don’t fret over it.”
“No hard feelings, then?”
“No, Mac. No hard feelings.”
Mac gave Joe a final “Thanks,” then ran to catch up with the rest of the men, all hurrying to escape my sight. I suspected the events of this afternoon would be passed around the bunkhouse, and that as a result, Little Joe was going to be held in high esteem for quite some time. After all, nothing ingratiated a man to the hired help quicker than having them discover he was on their side.
“Well, I’d say you’re on your way to becoming a legend with the men, while my name will be mud.”
“I didn’t intend for it to be that way.”
“I know you didn’t.” I shot him a smile. “I’m only kidding. Besides, I imagine my name has been mud before.”
This time, he returned the teasing. “Oh, I’d say you can bet money on that, older brother.”
Before I could respond, he sobered. “Adam, you won’t tell Pa about this, will you?”
“Yeah, maybe you should, but you won’t. Right?”
If he’d still been a kid, I wouldn’t have promised him any such thing. But as I said earlier, he wasn’t a kid any longer, and he could take care of himself. He could also make his own decisions. Whether or not I agreed with some of those decisions was neither here nor there. He was now of an age where I had to accept them. “I think Pa should know, but if you don’t want me to tell him, then no, I won’t.”
“I just don’t want Mac to get in trouble. I don’t want Pa to let him go because of me.”
“If Pa were to let him go, it wouldn’t be because of you, Joe. It would be because of Mac’s actions.”
“I realize that, but still, there’s just no use in Pa gettin’ all riled about it.”
“Because then I’ll just have to talk him out of firin’ Mac in the same way I just had to talk you out of it. Seems like a waste of effort if you ask me. You know how I hate to do the same job twice in one day.”
“Yes, I do know that. So in an attempt to keep you from overtaxing yourself, I won’t tell Pa.”
He turned away from me and I let him go without acknowledging what I knew to be the truth. That he wasn’t as concerned about saving Mac’s job as he was about Pa knowing how much this practical joke had affected him.
As my little brother walked into the barn, I realized given my loss of temper and the way I was ready to fire Mac without allowing him an explanation or a second chance, that I’d just acted more like Joe Cartwright than like myself. And given Joe’s level head and calm defense of Mac, he’d just acted more like Adam Cartwright than like himself.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, ran through my head as I entered the house without further comment on what I’d witnessed, or what it had done to my brother. As I began sorting through the pile of ledgers stacked on Pa’s desk, another quote of Mr. Shakespeare’s nagged at my brain.
A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
I normally think of myself as a wise man, but on that day, on that particular stage, I knew I was the biggest fool of all.
Perhaps it was Hoss’ thunderous snores that prevented Pa from hearing the front door open, and then close, in the middle of the night. Or perhaps he was sleeping soundly due to the drought that had us working long hours moving cattle to higher ground that was richer with both water and grazing land.
Regardless of the reasons, I appeared to be the only Cartwright who’d heard someone exit the house. I quietly swung my feet to the floor and reached for the pants I’d discarded on the end of the bed. I silently slipped the pants on, and just as silently crossed the floor to my bedroom door. I opened it, peering out into the hallway. No shadows or noise of any kind, other than Hoss’ snores. When I was reasonably sure no band of armed robbers was on the second floor, I made my way down the hall, hugging the wall. Pa’s door was closed, but as I came upon Joe’s, I saw it was open. I looked inside, seeing an empty bed and a tangle of blankets that spoke of restless sleep.
Logic told me it was likely Joe I’d heard leave the house. Nonetheless, I didn’t drop my guard as I made my way down the stairs. If someone was lurking about, Joe might have heard him and gotten up to investigate.
When I came to the sideboard, I felt for my gun belt with one hand, while reaching for my boots with the other.
“No need take gun, Mr. Adam.”
I jumped, emitting a strangled, “Ah!”
“Hop Sing sorry, Mr. Adam. Didn’t mean scare.”
Our houseman stood there in his nightshirt, a lit lamp in one hand, and a meat cleaver in the other. As if to explain his need for a weapon, he said, “I hear someone come down stairs, but then I see who is.”
“Little Joe. That why you no need gun. It just Little Joe. He go outside.”
“Is he sick? Did he say he needed some air?”
“He not say anything. Walk past me like I not here even when I call name. Like used do when little boy. Walk in sleep, remember?”
“Yes, I remember.”
As far as I knew, Joe hadn’t walked in his sleep for years. When he was young, he’d occasionally make nocturnal journeys that always seemed attached to bad dreams or unspoken worries.
I left my gun where it was and slipped my bare feet into my boots. The one fear we’d always had when Joe slept walked as a child was that we wouldn’t hear him leave the house and he’d wander off. Now that I knew he’d taken up that old habit again, the fear returned.
“Thanks, Hop Sing. You can go back to bed.”
“You want me wake Mr. Cart’light?”
“No, let Pa sleep. I can take care of Little Joe.”
Hop Sing smiled in a nostalgic sort of way, as though I’d just repeated a phrase I’d said more than once many years ago. “Okay, let Father sleep.”
“And don’t mention this to Pa in the morning, okay? He’s got enough to worry about with the drought and all. If Joe wants to tell him, he will.”
Hop Sing nodded. “Little Joe man now. Old saying from China: Wise man keep own counsel.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “that’s often true.”
“On other hand,” Hop Sing followed me as I stepped out onto the porch, “second old saying from China: He who turns to family in time of need is wise beyond his years.”
As he turned and headed for his bedroom, I was once again assured of the fact that Hop Sing often knew more of what was going on in our household than we gave him credit for.
Perhaps I should have taken his advice that night. Not the advice about a wise man keeping his own counsel, but rather, the advice about a wise man turning to his family in time of need.
The sky was clear and the moon full, its glow providing me with all the light I needed to see by until I reached the barn. I opened one of the doors, stepped inside, and softly called Joe’s name. When all I heard was the slight movement of horses within their stalls, I called again.
“Joe? Little Joe!”
I reached for the matches and lantern on the shelf to my right. I lit the lantern, picked it up by the handle, then toured the barn. Joe wasn’t standing out in the open, so I walked from horse stall to horse stall, stopping to check not only the empty ones, but the ones that contained animals as well. One night not long after Marie died, I found him curled up in a stall where his sleepwalking journey had taken him for whatever reason. Maybe he’d been drawn to a stall because his mother’s death was due to a fall from a horse. Or maybe, even at the young age of five, he was drawn to a favorite horse for comfort as he often is yet today. Or maybe where he ended up was nothing other than a random chance. At the time, I didn’t dwell on it. I was just happy I found him, and so was Pa when I carried him into the house where my father and Hoss were conducting their own search of closets, bedrooms, dark corners, and beneath any piece of furniture he was small enough to fit under.
I opened the door to the tack room and looked inside. There was no sign of Joe, and nothing in the room appeared to have been disturbed. I walked back into the barn, climbed the ladder to the haymow, and checked up there. Once again, there was no sign of my youngest brother.
I climbed down to the main floor. Still carrying the lantern, I walked around the outside of the barn, though once again the moon provided me with adequate light to see by. The carriage house, smokehouse, granary, and chicken coop were all situated in various locations beyond the barn. I’d need the lantern to look inside those buildings. If I didn’t find Joe by the time I’d gone through them, then I’d have to wake Pa and Hoss because it was going to take more than one man to find him.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to disturb the rest of my family. As I reached the back of the barn, labored breathing caught my ear. I spun to my left, suddenly wondering if I’d made a mistake when not bringing my gun.
But no wild animal or ruthless outlaws had Joe backed up against the barn. Only Joe’s subconscious mind was keeping him pinned in that position. I set the lantern on one of the tree stumps we used when chopping wood. With soft steps, I approached my brother. His eyes were shut, and he was breathing heavily through his mouth, his chest expanding and contracting in uneven rhythm. I took note of his clothes next. He wasn’t wearing his nightshirt, nor was he wearing the gray trousers and tan shirt he often favored that Hoss and I had bought him for his birthday a few years ago. Instead, he had on clothes I knew to be his, but that I only saw him in when everything else he owned was at Mi Ling’s Laundry in Virginia City – or “Number 17 Cousin” as Hop Sing refers to his distant relative.
The shirt was a blue plaid flannel, the trousers a dusty tan. They’d actually been my trousers years ago and were hand-me-downs to Joe when I’d grown out of them because Hoss was always by-passed when it came to Cartwright brother hand-me-downs. As for the suspenders – well, I don’t know where Joe had gotten those. I hadn’t seen him sport a pair since he was a schoolboy, so I assumed that, while sound asleep, he’d pulled them from depths of his wardrobe, or from a far corner of his bottom dresser drawer. The only items he sported that I regularly saw him in were his boots.
I stood there watching him a moment, mesmerized by his silence. Was this the way he’d faced the firing squad? Without making a sound? Without so much as a whimper or a begged, “Please, no.”
It was only hours later that I realized how quickly I came to the conclusion that Joe’s dream had him back at Fort Meade. I never even wondered how I knew, or second-guessed myself in that regard. It had been three days since Mac aimed the rifle at Joe. I had little doubt that incident triggered this night terror.
I took another quiet step closer. “Joe?”
When he didn’t respond, I tried again. “Little Joe?”
Louder this time, and with more authority, I demanded, “Joseph! Joseph, wake up!”
Even my attempts to sound like Pa didn’t have an impact on Joe. I watched his breathing grow more panicked and erratic, all the while wondering how he was managing to stand so still and straight.
It’s an old wives’ tale that waking a sleepwalker is dangerous. Or at least dangerous to the sleepwalker. I’d learned a long time ago that the only danger was generally to the person doing the waking, not to the one doing the sleeping.
Carefully, I reached out, calling Joe’s name again in an attempt not to startle him. “Joe?”
I lightly touched his shoulder. “Little J. . .”
And that’s when the danger came. His eyes flew open, blank and dazed, accompanied by flying fists. I ducked, but not before two knuckles grazed my chin. Before I could straighten, Joe was on me. We rolled over and over in the dirt like two schoolboys locked in battle. His fists continued their wild flailing, but his eyes were still unfocused meaning his punches didn’t connect. Finally, I was able to flip him onto his back and gain control. From my seated position in the center of his chest I commanded, “Joe! Joe, wake up, damn it! Wake up!”
And wake up he did. Just by watching him I knew the awakening was sudden, frightening, and startling. I remained where I was, but lifted my weight a bit his gasping breaths allowed him to get sufficient air.
“Joe? Joe, are you okay?”
The remnants of the nightmare seemed to clear as he spoke in a raspy voice. “Where am…?” he glanced around. “What am I doin’ out here? And what the hell are you doin’ sitting on my chest?”
“I’d say trying to keep you from hurting yourself, though in actuality, it’s more like trying to keep you from hurting me.”
He scowled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” I climbed to my feet and stepped over his body. “Forget it.”
I reached a hand toward him. “Here. Let me help you up.”
He grabbed onto my hand and allowed me to pull him to standing position.
“Are you okay now?”
He nodded, giving a terse, “I’m fine.”
With a trepidation not common for me, I asked, “Do you…do you. . .uh, want to talk about it?”
“Don’t have anything to talk about.”
“Joe, you haven’t walked in your sleep for years. If something’s bothering you…”
He looked down at his clothing. “Evidently the only thing that’s bothering me are nightmares about bein’ back in school.”
I went along with his joke for the moment. “Maybe so. The suspenders do make you look all of thirteen again.”
“Guess they do, but I haven’t seen thirteen in a while now.”
“No, you haven’t, which means if. . .if whatever’s bothering you is too much for you to handle on your own, maybe you should talk to uh. . .well, to Pa or Hoss.”
If Joe noticed that I didn’t offer myself as someone he could talk to, he didn’t comment on it. Instead, he headed toward the house. “I don’t need to talk to anyone, ‘cause there’s nothing to talk about. It was just a dream, Adam. A bad dream I can’t even remember.”
“Then how do you know it was a bad dream?” I asked as I grabbed the lantern and trailed along behind him.
“Because only in the middle of a bad dream could I put on clothes that make me look like I’m getting ready to pick up my slate, grab my lunch bucket from the cloak room shelf, and walk Becky Johnson home from school.”
Before I could respond, he turned around and pinned me with a gaze. “Oh, and just so you know, there’s nothing that I can’t handle on my own. I’m not your little brother anymore.”
Normally, I would have begged to differ with him on that. After all, no matter how old he got, he’d always be my “little brother.” And as far as handling things on his own went – I respected the man Joe had become, and was confident in his abilities to shoulder whatever life threw at him. I should have told him that then, but I didn’t. He seemed intent on letting the subject drop, and I was just as intent on going along with him where that was concerned. To say any more was to invite a discussion I wasn’t prepared to have. And that I don’t think Joe was prepared to have, either.
I paused in the ranch yard, watching Joe enter the house. Hop Sing had said a man who turns to his family for help is wise beyond his years. I had suggested Joe do just that. It wasn’t my fault if he ignored my suggestion and didn’t talk to Pa or Hoss.
Because like Hop Sing said too, a wise man keeps his own counsel. Which is exactly what I did as followed my brother into the house.
I had the perfect opportunity to break my counsel the next morning at the breakfast table when Pa asked, “Adam, what happened to your jaw? You didn’t have those bruises yesterday.”
Joe glanced across the table at me, then glanced back down at his plate.
As smoothly as though I’d rehearsed it, I lied, “Took a tumble down the stairs on my way to the outhouse about two this morning.”
“I didn’t hear you fall,” Pa said.
“Me neither,” added Hoss between bites of scrambled eggs and pancakes.
“With the way you were snoring, I’d say not.”
Pa reached out to gently turn my jaw toward him. “Looks like you whacked yourself pretty hard. What’d you hit?”
“The banister. And it wasn’t too hard. Barely noticed it, actually.”
“Well now, that’s good to know. I’m surprised I didn’t hear you.” Pa chuckled. “But then, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had to sleep lightly while listening for one particular young man to arrive home.”
Pa’s teasing eyes slid to Joe, who kept his own on his plate. When Joe didn’t respond, Pa asked, “Joseph, are you all right? You’re awfully quiet this morning.”
“I’m fine, Pa.”
“You look haggard.”
In an attempt to deflect Pa with humor, Joe shot him a smile that wasn’t nearly as bright and sincere as usual. “What exactly does haggard look like?”
“Like you,” Pa stated, not being as easily distracted as Joe had hoped. Just like he’d reached sideways to get a look at my jaw, he now leaned in the opposite direction and placed a hand on Joe’s forehead.
Joe jerked back. “For cryin’ outloud, Pa! I’m twenty-two years old!”
“And what? Twenty-two-year-olds don’t get sick and run fevers?”
“Well if they do, their fathers sure as heck don’t reach across a table and put a hand on their foreheads.”
As Pa allowed his hand to drop, evidently certain Joe wasn’t coming down with something, he said the tried and true phrase my brothers and I could repeat in our sleep. “You just wait until you’re a father. You’ll see.”
The subject of paternal nurturing ended there as Pa urged us to finish our breakfast so we could ride out and start moving more cattle. Within five minutes, we were getting to our feet – Pa draining his coffee cup, Hoss scooping the last of the eggs onto a piece of toast to take with him, me finishing the last bite of my pancakes, and Joe…well, Joe just standing while most of his food remained on his plate.
This time, the leftover food did not go unnoticed.
“Joseph, you hardly ate a thing. Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
“I’m fine, Pa. Just not that hungry this morning.”
“Hop Sing, pack an extra sandwich for Little Joe! He’s going to need it come mid-morning.”
“Yes, Mr. Cart’light!” Hop Sing called from the kitchen. Our cook never said a word about the perfectly good breakfast Joe left practically untouched. Like I said, Hop Sing often knew far more about what was going on in our house than we gave him credit for, because at any other time he would have said, “Little Joe eat breakfast Hop Sing get up at crack of dawn to make, then not need extra sandwich.”
But this morning there were no complaints from Hop Sing, and all Joe did was roll his eyes as his old school lunch bucket was thrust at him.
Hoss clapped a hand on one of Joe’s shoulders as he passed. “Gee, little brother, all ya’ need now is some schoolbooks and a pair a’ suspenders and you’ll be all set.”
“Very funny,” Joe grumbled as we all jostled for a position at the sideboard grabbing hats, boots, and gun belts.
We headed for the horses that were saddled and waiting for us. Pa kept a close eye on Joe for a while, but as our day got underway, he appeared to be satisfied that Joe was fine and turned his attention to the work at hand.
It was after dark when we rode back into the ranch yard. I’d venture to guess we all looked haggard by then. We were eager to wash up, eat a hot meal, then collapse into the comfort of our beds.
After tending to the horses, we entered the house, once again juggling and jostling around the sideboard as we removed the same items we’d put on that morning.
“Hop Sing, whatever it is you’ve got cooking sure smells good,” Pa said.
Hoss rubbed his hands together. “I’ll second that.”
We took turns traipsing into the summer kitchen to wash up. Joe didn’t even complain about always being last in line and ending up with dirty water that he always had to toss out the door and then replace with clean water from the pump before finally getting to wash his hands and face. But then, he hadn’t complained about anything that day, because the only time he’d spoken was when someone’s statement or question required him to. Pa must have noticed it, because on the ride home he’d asked, “Joe, do you still feel all right?”
His answer of, “I’m fine, Pa. Just tired like everyone else,” seemed to satisfy our father.
When we’d all finally sat down at the table, Hop Sing brought the food, then stood next to Joe a moment longer and slipped an envelope from his pocket. “Mr. Dave bring this today, Little Joe.”
Hop Sing headed back to the kitchen while Joe opened the envelope containing a telegram.
While Hoss speared several slices of roast beef from the platter I’d passed to him, he teased, “Sure hope that ain’t from some little gal’s pa sayin’ there’s gotta be a shotgun weddin’. Don’t think my ‘goin’ to church’ boots is polished, and my weddin’ suit was a might tight last time I wore it.”
“No wonder,” I cracked, watching my middle brother pile his plate with food.
The first I knew something was amiss was when I heard Pa’s concerned, “Joe? Joseph, what’s wrong, son?”
I looked across the table and saw Joe’s face had suddenly taken on a sickly shade of gray.
“Joseph?” Pa asked again. “What’s the telegram say?”
Pa reached for the paper Joe was still holding, but just as quickly, Joe snatched it from his grasp.
“Nothing. It doesn’t say anything.”
“Well it must say something that’s got you so upset.”
“I’m not upset, Pa!”
I’ve always found it interesting the way Joe will insist he’s not upset by yelling at whatever family member it is who’s accused him of being upset in the first place. If he hasn’t figured out by now that’s a dead giveaway, far be it from me to tip him off.
“Joseph. . .”
For a minute, I thought Pa was going to wrestle the telegraph away from Joe. And I actually think he would have had I not intervened as he reached for it again.
“Pa, leave him alone!”
“Pa, he’s a twenty-two-year-old man, not a twelve-year-old boy. He has the right to his privacy.”
“I know, but…”
“Look, I realize you’re concerned about whatever it is that has Joe so upset…”
At which point Joe interjected, “I’m not upset, damn it!”
At which point Pa interjected, “Watch your mouth, Joseph!”
At which point Hoss guffawed at all the tomfoolery and went right on eating, while Joe stood up with the telegram in hand.
“I’m going to bed.”
“Joe, I’m sorry,” Pa immediately apologized. “I was out of line. Adam’s right. Whatever’s in that telegram is none of my business. Please, son, come sit down and eat.”
Joe didn’t pause on his way toward the stairs. “I’m more tired than I am hungry, Pa. Like I said, I’m going to bed.”
I think Pa would have ordered him back to the table if he could have, but ever since Joe’s twenty-first birthday, Pa’s been learning what it’s like to have three grown sons living under his roof. Therefore, I think on some days he realizes that the saying, “there’s too many cooks in the kitchen,” is appropriate when it comes to comparing four adult males all sharing the same home. I have no doubt he’s begun praying for three daughters-in-law to come along soon, all who want homes of their own.
Whatever news the telegram contained remained a mystery that night. Hoss went to bed shortly after he finished eating, assuring Pa as only Hoss can do by saying, “Little Joe’ll stew for a while, Pa, then he’ll be ready to talk to one of us ‘bout whatever news that there telegram brought him. Don’t you worry none.”
Pa smiled and briefly patted the hand Hoss had laid on his shoulder. When I headed up to bed a few minutes later, I said, “Look, Pa, I’m sorry for interfering. I should have kept my mouth shut. The dispute over that telegram was between you and Joe, and I should have left it that way.”
“It wasn’t a dispute, Adam, and besides, you were right. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had no call to try and take it from him.” Pa smiled wistfully. “Sometimes I forget that my youngest is a grown man. That’s disrespectful of me.”
Candidly, I agreed. “It is, but nonetheless, I’m sure it’s difficult to acknowledge that your last born isn’t a child any longer.”
Pa nodded with a hint of longing nostalgia on his face. “On the day you’re forced to, you realize how fast the years have gone by, and you find yourself wishing you could live each and every one of them all over again.”
I chuckled. “Even when the child’s boyhood you want to relive is Little Joe’s?”
Pa laughed in return. “Yes, son, even when it’s Little Joe’s.” His smile faded. “I’m worried about him, Adam.”
“Worried about him?”
“He’s lost weight. I haven’t said anything, but I’ve noticed it these last few days. He’s just been picking at his food. And he doesn’t seem interested in going to town, or over to Tuck’s, or…”
Once again, keeping my counsel, I said, “We’ve been busy, Pa. None of us have had much interest – or time – to go to town or visit with friends.”
“I know. It’s just that I can’t figure out if something’s bothering him, or if he’s getting sick. Just the other day I heard there was an influenza outbreak over by Placerville. I hope Little Joe isn’t coming down with that.”
“I doubt he is. But if you’re concerned, mention it to Hoss and Hop Sing so we can all keep an eye on him.”
Right then, I could have eased my father’s worries by telling him about my suspicions regarding what was really bothering Little Joe. And I could have told him about the stunt Mac had pulled, Joe’s reaction to it, and his subsequent nightmare. But I didn’t say anything, because I’d promised Joe I wouldn’t. And because, quite frankly, like my little brother, I just plain didn’t want to talk about it.
“Pa, don’t worry,” I said. “Joe will be fine. Like Hoss said, when he’s ready to talk to one of us about what that telegram contained, he will. Until then, just let him ride it out in his own way.”
“He always does, doesn’t he.”
“What? Do things his own way?”
“Has since he was old enough to run in the opposite direction when he spotted one of us chasing after him.”
Pa chuckled a little at the memory of the rascally toddler it often took three of us to catch when bedtime rolled around.
As I said a final goodnight to my father and headed up the stairs, I didn’t know if I was being loyal to my brother, disloyal to my father, or simply a coward for not facing head-on what was eating at both Joe and me.
The first pink rays of dawn were just breaking the next morning when I heard, “Adam! Hoss! Get down here now!”
Considering the fourteen-hour days we’d been working, my first thought was I would have appreciated a gentler awakening – along with another hour of sleep.
I untangled my legs from my covers and reached for my pants. I envisioned Hoss doing much the same in the room down the hall. For whatever reason, I didn’t notice that Joe’s name hadn’t been included in our father’s morning bellow. My brain was still so foggy with sleep that I was too busy concentrating on pulling a clean shirt from my wardrobe and a pair of socks from my dresser than to pay attention as to how many sons Pa yelled for.
I hopped down the hall trying to pull on a sock, my shirt unbuttoned and flailing out behind me. Hoss was in much the same state of undress as he emerged from his room carrying his socks while slipping into his shirt, his thin hair sticking up in uncombed tufts.
Hoss was still barefoot as we made our way down the stairs, and my shirt remained unbuttoned.
“Gee, Pa, I know you wanted to get an early start, but I thought we agreed we’d be up at 5:30 and ready to leave by 6:30.” I glanced at the Grandfather clock. It’s not even five yet.”
“Yeah, Pa, it’s just a few minutes past 4:30,” Hoss complained with a wide yawn.
My father offered no explanation other than to thrust a piece of paper at me. “Here. Read this.”
I immediately recognized Joe’s distinct left-handed penmanship that’s a combination of some cursive letters and some printed letters – often within the same word.
I passed the note to Hoss as I buttoned up my shirt and tucked in the tails.
“I’ll go after him,” I said.
“No,” Pa countered, “I will.”
Hoss interrupted me as he read out loud, “ ‘Dear Pa, I left for Fort Craig. Please don’t worry. I have plenty of money and supplies. Will wire you when I arrive. Love, Joe’. ”
Hoss’ features screwed with confusion as he looked from Pa to me.
“What’s this ‘bout Little Joe goin’ to Fort Craig? Doesn’t he know that’s all the way in Montana territory?”
“I’m sure he does,” I said.
“But doesn’t he know how long it’ll take ‘im to get there and get back again?”
Again, I assured, “I’m sure he does.”
“So why in the Sam Hill does he wanna make a trip like that?”
“Because of what that telegram said.”
“What it said? Did he let ya’ read it, Adam?”
“No, he didn’t let me read it. But then I didn’t ask him to either. And given that note you’re holding, I don’t need to. I know what it says.”
“I suspect the Army sent it to inform Joe of the execution date for Corporal Angus Borden and Captain Richard Merced.”
“And you think that’s why he’s run off?”
I smiled. “I believe our younger brother is a little too old now to say he’s ‘run off’. I think he left because he needs to put something to rest.”
Pa headed for the sideboard. “Watching two men be executed isn’t going to put anything to rest for Joseph. If anything, it will only make things worse.” As Pa reached for his gun belt, he demanded, “Why didn’t one of you tell me your little brother was having a difficult time with this?”
Hoss was the picture of innocence and rightfully so. “Didn’t know nothin’ about his troubles, Pa. Honest.”
Pa turned to me. “Adam?”
“He hasn’t voiced any concerns to me, Pa, but I’ve. . .ever since I returned from San Francisco, I’ve suspected the entire incident has been weighing heavily on his mind.”
“Then why didn’t you say something? I could have talked to Little Joe about it.”
I practically pushed my father out of the way as I took his gun belt from his hands, returned it to the sideboard, and picked up my own. “I didn’t say anything to you because it’s been weighing heavily on my mind too.” I looked at Hoss. “Have Hop Sing pack some food for me. Whatever he can put together quickly.”
“Sure thing, Adam.”
As Hoss left to wake our cook, Pa put a questioning hand on my arm. “Why does it have to be you who goes after him?”
“Because I’ve seen this building and haven’t done anything to stop it. I’ve. . .I’ve let Joe suffer alone.”
“Oh now, Adam, I don’t believe that’s true.”
I smiled at his faith in me. At the faith that as his eldest son, I could never let either him or my brothers down. “I’m sorry, Pa, but I beg to differ because it is true.”
“What makes it true? What makes you a part of this to the exclusion of both Hoss and myself?”
“Because, Pa, Joe went to Lode City in my place.”
“And?” he questioned, knowing by my tone I’d left something very important unspoken.
As I opened the door I added softly, “And evidently Angus Borden doesn’t look like me.”
The good thing about setting out after Little Joe alone was the solitary ride gave me time to come to some conclusions. The first being, if Joe were truly intent on reaching Fort Craig by a specific date, it would have made more sense for him to catch the stage out of Virginia City. Riding on horseback through the upper third of Nevada, all of Idaho, and a good deal of Montana would take the better part of three months. Although I had no idea as to the execution date, somehow I didn’t think it was that far off.
The second conclusion I reached as I rode on Sport’s back: if Joe hadn’t wanted anyone to follow him, he wouldn’t have stated where he was going. He could have simply written he had business to attend to, would be gone quite a while and would wire periodically to let us know he was safe. Granted, a note that vague wouldn’t have kept Pa from going after him, but at the very least it would have made it difficult to know which direction to search in.
And so, as I picked up his trail once again after having lost it for several miles, I was quite pleased with myself when my final conclusion was drawn. The note was an invitation for one of us to accompany him, and Joe’s way of finally asking for help.
On the other hand, when I rode into my little brother’s campsite and nearly swallowed the barrel of his gun for supper, I realized that Hop Sing would remind me: “The prudent man gathers facts, while the impulsive man jumps to conclusions.”
“What the…Adam, damn it! I almost blew your darn fool head off.”
“Well if you didn’t have such an itchy trigger finger…”
“Itchy trigger finger! You’d have an itchy trigger finger too, if a stranger rode into your camp and. . . .and. . . .and. . . .” He allowed his sentence to die unfinished, as though he thought he could hide the fear and vulnerability Angus Borden had instilled in him.
“If a stranger did what?” I asked.
“I’m not a stranger,” I calmly reminded as I got off Sport.
“You could have been.”
“But I’m not. And maybe if you hadn’t been in such a hurry to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’, we wouldn’t be having this disagreement.”
“Oh yeah?” he challenged in a tone he hadn’t used with me in a while now. “Well, maybe if you hadn’t followed me, we wouldn’t be having this disagreement, as you call it. And by the way, any normal person would call it what it is – an argument.”
I reached for the coffee pot he had over the fire. “Sounds harsher.”
“So disagreement sounds better, is that it?”
“When it’s between brothers, yes, it does.”
“Okay, fine. We’re having a disagreement. And that’s exactly how you can phrase it to Pa after you climb on Sport, turn yourself around, and head back to the Ponderosa.”
“How I phrase it to Pa?”
“Yeah. You can tell him I sent you packing because we had a disagreement over your unexpected arrival.”
I took my camp set out of a saddlebag and filled my plate with some beans that were stewing in a pot. Without asking, I also took half of the rabbit he’d roasted.
“Hey, that’s my supper!”
“There’s plenty here for both of us.”
“Maybe so. But I wasn’t plannin’ on sharin’.”
“So what were you planning on doing? Throwing the leftovers to the cyotes?”
“No. I was gonna eat ‘em for breakfast.”
I shrugged. “So snare another rabbit.”
“Right. And if it was that easy, I’d just forget the snare altogether and pull a rabbit out of my hat like one of those sideshow magicians.”
“If all else fails, I have plenty of food in my saddlebags.”
“Which means between what you packed and what I packed, we should have enough to get us to Montana. Taking into account stops in towns along the way, of course, for a hot meal now and again, along with restocking our provisions.”
“You’re not coming to Montana with me.”
I looked up at him from the log I’d settled on as a chair. “Joe, your note. . .”
“My note didn’t do more than inform Pa where I was headed, that I had all the money and supplies I needed, and that I’d wire him when I got where I was going.”
“Maybe so. But I read between the lines.”
“Between the lines? Big brother, I hate to break the news to you, but there was nothing between the lines to read.”
“I think there was. I think you wanted one of us to come with you.”
“And that’s the conclusion you came to while you trailed me, is that it?”
“Yes,” I acknowledged, perhaps a little too smugly. “That’s the conclusion I reached.”
“Adam, allow me to impart one of Hop Sing’s old Chinese sayings on you.”
“ ‘The prudent man gathers facts, while the impulsive man jumps to conclusions.’ Except when Hop Sing says it, it goes more like this. ‘Prudent man gather fact, while big dummy jump to conclusion. Ah!’”
“Funny you should mention that,” I muttered.
“What? The part about you being a big dummy?”
“No, not that part. And actually, to coin one of your phrases, never mind.”
He must have decided he wasn’t going to chase his dinner guest away as easily as he’d assumed, because he pulled out his own camp set and began filling his plate with the remaining food. He sat on the other end of my log. “Just so we have something straight here. . .”
“If I’d wanted to extend an invitation for company, I would have written it on some of that fancy paper Pa has and put an RSVP at the end.”
I nodded my understanding. “All right.”
“What the note said, Adam, was exactly what I intended. As Pa has told me more than once in recent years, if I’m leaving the Ponderosa for an extended period of time, I owe my family the courtesy of letting them know where I’m going and when I’ll be back, regardless of how old I am. When I finally do that, what’s he do but send you after me.”
“Pa didn’t send me after you.”
His tone was disbelieving. “He didn’t, huh?”
“No, he didn’t. I came of my own accord. Now granted, I had to prevent Pa and Hoss from coming along, but still…”
“Still nothing. He wouldn’t have come after you or Hoss.”
I knew that argument was next on the agenda. I was hard pressed to debate it beyond saying, “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“There’s no maybe about it.”
“Look, Joe, there’s no point in us discussing it because Pa and Hoss didn’t come with me, okay? And if, when morning arrives, you still want me to head back to the Ponderosa and let you go on alone to Montana, then I will.”
“You damn well better believe you will.”
I didn’t rise to the challenge in his voice. As though he’d forgotten he was a grown man and actually did have the right to tell me to stay out of his life. I didn’t point that out of him. Old habits die hard, and if there are times when he still defers to me as his “wise, eldest brother and authority figure”, then far be it from me to tell him that I’m not all that wise on some days, that I make my share of mistakes, and my years of issuing orders that I expect him to follow ended quite some time ago.
I let the gentle silence of the night bathe us, figuring Joe needed it to calm down, and I needed it to work up the gumption to say my piece.
He didn’t say anything when he stood to collect my dirty dishes, nor did he chide me to help clean them. He seemed to appreciate the silence as much as I did.
When he had our gear washed and stowed, he sat down, this time reclining on the ground and leaning his upper back against the log. If I’d reached out with the toe of my right boot, I could have touched his shoulder.
We sat that way a while, me on the log and Joe on the ground, the night time silence occasionally punctuated by the crackling of the fire and a serenading chorus of crickets.
When one of us finally breached the night by speaking, it was Joe. He stared into the fire. “It was just like this the night he came into my camp.”
“Yeah. That’s why I drew my gun on you.”
“I knew why you drew on me. Don’t give it a second thought.”
“I shouldn’t have. Drawn on you without knowing first who it was, that is. Like Hop Sing says, it’s a big dummy who jumps to conclusions.”
“I think Hop Sing, like me, will forgive you given the circumstances. I should have called out. No man likes someone entering his camp after dark without the visitor announcing his arrival. It was my fault for assuming you knew it would be me.”
He glanced up. “Why would I have assumed that?”
“Because. . .” I sighed heavily then confessed quietly, “Because it should have been me, Joe.”
He looked at me as though I were daft in the head. “Yeah, we’ve already concluded that I should have assumed it was you for reasons I still don’t understand.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Then you’d better explain to me exactly what it is you do mean, ‘cause I’m startin’ to feel like we’re talking in circles here.”
“I mean. . .well, what I mean is that I was the one who was supposed to go to Lode City. You went in my place.”
“I know that. What about it?”
“Don’t you see? If I’d gone, this never would have happened.”
“What never would have happened?”
“Borden coming into your camp.”
“So? He woulda’ come into your camp instead.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he would have ridden on when he realized there was no resemblance between us.”
“Could be,” Joe conceded, “but I doubt it.”
“Adam, Borden was desperate for a horse, a gun, and a change of clothes. Yeah, I guess it was convenient for him when it turned out he and I are about as near to the same height and weight as two men can be without being twins. And added to that, we bore a passing resemblance to one another.”
“Passing resemblance? Pa said it was more than that.”
“Okay. Striking resemblance then. But still, he was running for his life. Literally running for his life. Believe me when I say I’m pretty sure he would have made do with your clothes, your gun, and your horse if he’d come upon you rather than me.”
“Maybe so. But there wasn’t any way those soldiers could have mistaken me for him.”
“Yeah, there was.”
“None of them knew what Borden looked like. The only one who did was Captain Merced, and he was in cahoots with Borden. So therefore, think about it. Merced coulda’ claimed you were Borden same as he claimed I was. None of the soldiers at Fort Meade would have known the difference one way or another.”
“Oh. Oh, I didn’t know that. I assumed some of the soldiers knew Borden by sight.”
“Nope, none of ‘em did. And they didn’t seem to know he had a Southern accent I’m lacking. Not to mention a mustache that looked like someone glued the branch of a fir tree to his upper lip.”
“It was that bad, huh?”
“Let’s put it this way. Seeing it on him pretty much ended any thoughts I’ve had of growing one.”
“Well, then, if nothing else, you can look upon that as the one positive experience you garnered from crossing paths with Angus Borden.”
Joe chuckled. “Yeah, guess I can.” He sobered as he shifted slightly on the hard ground so he could look up at me. “Adam, is this why you haven’t seemed like yourself lately? ‘ Cause of Borden?”
“I don’t know. Is Borden the reason you haven’t seemed like yourself ?”
He shifted his gaze back to the fire and let a long moment pass before he spoke. “I suppose what almost happened to me at that army post because of him has been on my mind some, yeah.”
“Just like I suppose it’s been on my mind too, if that answers your question.”
He nodded. “It does.”
“And because Borden’s been on your mind, and because you’ve now been notified of his execution date, you’re headed to Fort Craig, is that it?”
“Well, I’m not exactly goin’ to Montana to sight-see, if that’s what you’re askin’.”
“I didn’t think it could be as simple as that, though I was holding out hope.”
When Joe didn’t respond to my comment made in jest, I said quietly, “You know, Joe, witnessing a man’s execution is ugly business.”
“Yeah, well, almost being executed for a crime you didn’t commit is ugly business too.”
“I’m sure it is. Nonetheless, an eye for an eye doesn’t always make things right.”
Joe turned to look at me again. “You mean you don’t think he should be executed for what he did? Not to me, maybe. But for the fact that he killed another man? His superior officer?”
“I’m not saying that. Not at all. I’m just saying that you had no direct connection to that event. You didn’t know the man who died, and you didn’t witness his murder. Isn’t it. . .well, isn’t it good enough to walk away knowing you’re still alive and Borden is being punished for what he did to that man, as well as what he did to you?”
His jaw set in that familiar stubborn way that told me I might as well be debating with a tree. “No, Adam, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough at all.”
And while his words sounded firm and filled with conviction, there was something in his tone that said he was still mulling this trip over. That’s when I realized that possibly if I hadn’t followed him, he’d have come back on his own. That if I didn’t hold my tongue right now, I might force him into doing something he didn’t really want to do simply to prove to me that I couldn’t control him. That I wasn’t in charge of his life or his choices.
A few years back, I wouldn’t have realized that fact, but as Joe has grown from boy to man, I’ve learned that lesson somewhere along the line. Probably about the time Hoss and I teased him when he’d taken that job as interim sheriff of Rubicon. As Pa told us then, our joshing pushed Joe into doing exactly what Pa didn’t want him to do. Outwardly, I’d dismissed Pa’s concerns, all the while realizing he was right. Joe took on a dangerous job – one that almost got him killed – because Hoss and I made him feel like the little brother who was destined to never grow up because we were determined not to let him.
So this time I did what the prudent man would have. I shut up.
Five minutes passed in which neither of us said a word, or maybe even as long as ten minutes. A wolf howled somewhere in the distance when I was just about to suggest we stoke up the fire a bit and call it a night. Before I was able to say anything, though, Joe glanced up at me. “That’s it?” he questioned.
“You’re letting the subject drop?”
I nodded. “I’m letting the subject drop.”
“No more words of advice?”
“Nope. No more words of advice.”
“No more trying to convince me to head back to the Ponderosa?”
“Nope. No more trying to convince you to head anywhere but wherever it is you want to go.”
“No dire predictions of what my future holds if I make this trip?”
“Nope, none of those either. I’m you’re big brother, Joe, not a soothsayer. If you want dire predictions, you’ll have to look to Hop Sing for those.”
He laughed his agreement while standing. We went about the business of getting ready for a night on the ground in our bedrolls. When we were settled beneath our blankets, Joe on one side of the fire and me on the other, I said softly in way of my final words on the subject of Angus Borden, “You know, Joe, it’s okay to leave some things unseen.”
He raised up, propping his head in his hand and looking across the fire at me. “Never thought I’d live to see the day when Adam Cartwright said it was okay to have unfinished business.”
“It’s not unfinished. You know Borden and Merced were taken into military custody. You know their execution date has been set. Maybe that’s all you need to know. Maybe you’ve seen it through to the end without even realizing it, considering you already know the outcome.”
He didn’t argue with me. He didn’t try to convince me I was wrong. Actually, he didn’t say anything. After a moment, he gave a small nod, as though he was at least willing to admit what I said held some merit. Then he lay back down, putting an end to the subject with a, “ ‘Night, Adam.”
The long ride and the night air lulled me into a deep slumber. When I woke the next morning dawn was breaking, coffee was brewing, and Joe was saddling his horse with the air of a man determined to continue on “a journey of a thousand miles,” as Confucius was noted to say.
My attempts at convincing Joe that I should accompany him did me little good. Not only was he determined to continue his trip, he was determined to continue it alone. Despite my valid argument that traveling so many miles through wilderness territory was far safer with a companion, he still rebuked my offer.
“Joe, I don’t feel right about this,” I said as we broke camp. “And before you tell me I’m treating you in a way I wouldn’t treat Hoss, you’re wrong. It’s a long ride through rough terrain, and neither of us knows the moods of the various Indian tribes you might encounter after you leave Nevada.”
“I’ll travel near towns if I have concerns about Indians.”
“That’s fine when it’s possible to do so. But when it’s not…”
“When it’s not, I’ll take care of myself, Adam. If an Indian in a cantankerous mood has taken a notion to have my scalp, then whether or not you’re with me won’t make much difference. He’ll just get two scalps to hang from his belt instead of one.”
“Well now, there’s a comforting thought.”
“You can’t protect me from every danger. I’m a grown man. Your job as my big brother is done.”
As if it was that easy. I chuckled while giving a slight shake of my head. “I’ll never be done being your big brother.”
“I suppose not, if by that you mean you’ll always be older. But on the other hand, if you think being my big brother means you have to watch out for me for the rest of my life, you’re wrong. That part ended a few years ago now.”
“In theory, I realize that. However, I’ve been doing it for so long it’s become a habit.”
“In that case, it’s a habit you should break.”
He yanked away from the hand I’d laid on his arm. “Adam, go home.” He swung onto Cochise’s back. “I set out on this trip alone, and that’s how I figure on continuing it.”
Short of following him, there wasn’t much I could do. While I admit I did give it brief consideration, I also thought about how furious I’d be if one of my brothers trailed along behind me after I’d told him to leave me be. So, against my better judgment, I watched as he headed Cochise northeast.
He gave a slight tug on the reins and turned in the saddle. “Yeah?”
“And…and at least send a wire a few times along the way to let us know you’re all right. Not because I asked you to, but for Pa’s sake. Okay?”
It took a moment, but he finally nodded his head. “Okay.”
I stood there with Sport’s reins in my hand, watching him ride away. I tried to come up with some prophetic words that would convince him that he didn’t need to make this trip. That he didn’t need to witness the execution of two men. But I was fresh out of prophetic words – either in English or in Latin – that I thought would change my stubborn little brother’s mind.
When I could no longer see him, I climbed on Sport and slowly headed southwest – the opposite direction from the one Joe’d taken.
If I’d traveled a little faster, I would have made it home by nightfall. But Sport and I had “meandered” as Hoss would say, so I ended up making camp about a three-hour journey from the ranch house.
I had the coffee brewing, the beans simmering, and a rabbit roasting when I heard a shout.
“Yo! The camp!”
“Yo! The rider!” I shouted back to let my brother know I’d heard him. Joe soon appeared on foot leading Cochise.
“See,” he said as he tied Cochise next to Sport. “That’s how you’re supposed to enter a camp after dark.”
“And it was quite effective, too.”
He pointed at my still-holstered gun. “Because I didn’t almost get my head blown off, that’s how.”
He got his gear out of a saddle bag and headed for my fire with a tin plate and fork.
“Hey, that’s my supper!”
He grinned. “So, snare another rabbit.”
“You’re been waiting all day to say that to me, haven’t you.”
“Somethin’ like that.” He nodded as he filled his plate.
I filled mine as well, then sat down on the ground next to him.
I let him satisfy a portion of his hunger before speaking. “Can I ask what made you change your mind?”
He stopped eating and stared off into the night for a minute. “What made me change my mind; is that you were right.”
“I was right about what?”
“You were right when you said some things are best left unseen. And you were right when you said that unfinished business isn’t necessarily unfinished when a man already knows the outcome.”
He resumed eating, not seeming to want a response from me. And once again, I decided it was prudent to keep my mouth shut where my little brother was concerned. If I agreed with him, he might perceive it as gloating. And that, in turn, might cause him to resume his journey.
We turned in for the night not longer after that. When I woke up the next morning, Joe had another rabbit cooking. “Not as good as bacon and eggs,” he commented, “but better than beef jerky and hard biscuits.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
We ate and broke camp, then climbed on our horses and headed toward the house. We talked about several things as we rode, but Merced, Borden, and Fort Craig wasn’t among them. After all, if you already know the outcome, then there’s no need to discuss unfinished business.
The remainder of summer passed, with fall coming and going as well. Christmas is behind us, and we’re now fully entrenched in winter. We keep gazing longingly at the calendar, willing February to give way to March, for at least with March comes the promise of spring. But until spring arrives, we’re making the best of the cold and snow. If nothing else, winter provides us with shorter working days, Hop Sing’s savory stews, and nights spent near the fireplace.
Joe has never said whether or not he received word confirming the executions. Not even Pa has asked him about it, as far as I know. When Joe and I arrived at the ranch house that day last summer, Pa hugged him and said only, “I’m glad you came back home, Joseph.”
Joe didn’t do all of the things I expected – admonishing Pa for sending me to look for him. Reminding Pa he’s a grown man who can take care of himself. Or refusing Pa’s embrace while storming off in another direction. I was surprised at the way he accepted Pa’s hug, but then, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Somewhere in all of this, despite ‘all the world being a stage’, Joe apparently learned he no longer had to play any specific role, but could just be himself.
He smiled at Pa as they broke their embrace, assuring firmly with a twinkle in his eye, “Nothin’ to worry about, Pa. As you’re fond of saying, all’s well that ends well.”
And so it has.
And now, as I listen to the fire crackle and feel its warmth on my feet while my brothers play checkers nearby, rather than saying, Gaudeamus igitur super nusquam – ‘Let us rejoice over nothing’, I simply say, “Gaudeamus igitur.”
Let us rejoice.
Much thanks to Jane L. for taking the time to proofread this story.