Summary: Joe reminisces about those who were a part of his life, and left.
Word Count: 5,455
With all the many trials and tribulations a man goes through in life I sometimes find it hard to think of the many ways in which I have been blessed, especially when inside my heart is breaking. I force myself to think of those not as fortunate as myself and as I do, a sense of guilt washes over me.
The Mercers lost their first-born last year and now their second beloved child is fighting for his life. Mr. and Mrs. Mercer don’t say much, they never complain, but I know they are finding it hard to make ends meet. Heaven only knows how Mrs. Mercer is managing to feed that baby of hers; she doesn’t seem to eat enough to keep a bird alive, let alone herself and small son. My father and I have offered to help, tried to ease their burden, but Mr. Mercer is a proud man.
Looking down from my vantage point at the top of the hill, I can see Vince Martin making his way into town and the sun has only just risen. No doubt he is on his way to the Bucket and Blood saloon to blow his months salary on whisky and women, while his poor wife struggles to feed and clothe their six children on whatever is left. Sarah Martin doesn’t deserve to have a husband like Vince.
These distractions are fleeting as once again I put my hand in my pocket and, with some reluctance, take out her handkerchief. Why I torture myself like this I’ll never know. For what must be the twentieth time in the last few hours I lift the delicate lace to my nose and inhale the smell of lavender; the fragrance that brings her back to me. I close my eyes and I can almost imagine her still here with me and that is when the pain becomes almost too much to bear.
The vision of her smiling face is still vivid in my head; she could be standing looking at me in the way that only she could, innocent but so alluring. Oh God, how I long to lie with her again and feel her body pressed up against mine in sleep. She was so young, so vibrant, so wanted. I have to take deep breaths and try to calm down. The rage within me, that is never far away, threatens to engulf me as it rises to the surface once more. In the months since her death I have embraced this emotion inside me, for without it I too would probably have died. Anger has been the only passion I have allowed myself to feel for so long and now that the reason for my fury is no more, I feel lonely and empty, my purpose in life unfocused and unclear.
Why did God allow her to die? What purpose could he have for taking someone so beautiful, so loved, so needed? A waive of guilt passes over me again as I think of the Mercers. I shout about the unfairness of life, but what makes my pain any worse than theirs? Surely their baby was just as cherished, just as precious. Sometimes I can be such a selfish man, but grief is all consuming, all encompassing and at times it is hard to think of others.
In the early days after her death I felt as if I was suffocating. Everyone around me tried to be so kind, saying the right words, but the ache in my heart was too private; I couldn’t share it with anyone. I have felt grief on many other occasions, but nothing that compared to this. At other times in my life I have been able to put on a brave face, I have smiled and talked; but this time I can’t do that, I can’t pretend. Grief is not just emotional; it is a very physical pain and the tightening I feel around my chest often makes me gasp for breath, it is far worse than a bullet and just as deadly.
I can’t help thinking of my father and the many loved ones he has buried in his lifetime. He is an emotional man and yet at the end of the day, he picked himself up and carried on. How did he do it? I don’t know but I realize with sadness he is a stronger man than I will ever be.
Thinking back the death of my mother was probably my first experience of losing someone close, but I wasn’t quite five years old and my memories of the actual events are hazy. I cried when told of her accident, but I was almost certainly reacting to the atmosphere around me, because the concept she was not coming back never entered my head. Each day for weeks afterwards I expected her to walk through the door, smiling and laughing as before, and it took a very long time for the reality of the situation to sink in that she was gone forever.
Many of the memories I have of my mother I am sure are not my own. As I grew up I never tired of hearing stories about her from my father and brothers and those stories are so embedded in my head I no longer know whether they are mine or not.
One of my favorite tales was the one Pa often regaled to me about the very first time he saw her. He was in New Orleans when she rode through the town on her horse and almost knocked Pa down. My father said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and for him it was love at first sight. She was dressed all in black with white lace at her neck; her elegant hat also black, trimmed with white and a bright red plume at the back. This vision of loveliness was to remain within my father’s mind always.
In many ways the pain of losing my mother has never left me and I grew up envying my friends as I stood by and watched their mothers’ fussing over them. Of course I always had Pa, and he did his best to be both mother and father to me, but often I longed for the gentle touch only a mother could give. Hoss and Adam needs always seemed different to mine; they were men’s men. I tried to be the same, but deep down I longed for the caress of my mother’s hand on my face and the sweet sound of her voice as she lulled me to sleep.
My mother’s sudden departure from my life was catastrophic, but nothing could have prepared me for my father’s absence so shortly afterwards. Those were dark days and it is only now, all these years later, I fully understand the pain and feeling of desolation my father must have been going through. I too can now feel his pain, but with one significant difference. I don’t have children who depend on me and help to pull me back from the brink, but I do have my father and he needs me in much the same way I needed him all those years ago. Am I strong enough? I mustn’t let him down but I fear I may.
In many ways my early years were filled with drama and heartache. No sooner did I come to terms with my mother’s death and the initial desertion of my Pa, when I had to adjust to Adam leaving home. Looking back it must have been worse for him, departing from his whole family and going east and into the unknown. But at five years old all I could think about were my needs and my hurt.
Adam went to great lengths to try and explain to me about college and how far away Boston was, but the gaining of knowledge and the length of a mile was still way beyond my comprehension. I remember sitting in the yard each evening waiting for him to come home. Pa and Hoss would say repeatedly Adam wouldn’t be home for four years, but time held no meaning for me, till eventually I began to think of him as being in heaven, just like Mama.
When Adam did return home, I don’t know who had the bigger surprise, him or me! He was expecting the baby he left behind while I on the other hand had vague memories of a loving teenage brother who read me stories and let me sleep in their bed when I was frightened. Adam the man found it difficult to come to terms with my independence and I struggled and fought against his protectiveness.
For a long time, Adam and I were like strangers, our relationship fragile, to say the least. We had to start from scratch and get to know each other all over again, and it was a rough ride along the way, especially when I hit my teens. I thought he was such a hardheaded bossy boots, an elder brother whose sole purpose in life was to stop me having fun. He on the other hand accused me of being lazy and irresponsible; a spoilt and indulged baby brother. Perhaps he was right!
During my teenage years, my relationship with Adam was always tempestuous to say the least. Most thought it was the age difference and the clash in our personalities, but Pa once said that it was because we were too much alike. Both of us were stubborn and headstrong. I didn’t see it at the time; how could Pa liken me to ‘anything whelped out of a thin-nosed, blue-blooded, Boston Yankee’?
As the memory of those words comes back to me, I have to smile. Adam and I had really traded insults that day. We ended up fighting, but if my memory serves me well, Adam had struck the first blow, but only with his open hand. The very fact he didn’t fight me as an equal had made me angry; he was telling me to act like a man, but he treated me like a boy.
Trading insults about our heritage was never anything serious with Adam and me. At the end of the day we were just brothers looking for a way to wind each other up. But that all changed when Frederick Kyle arrived in Virginia City. I was so wet behind the ears in those days, I just couldn’t see how I was being manipulated and sucked into taking sides in a war I didn’t understand. I shudder to think of how that man almost broke our family in two. ‘Brother against Brother’- my father’s angry words still ring in my ears. Thank God for the close bond of family my father had instilled within us; without his teaching I think I may have been lost, carried along by a man with hate in his heart. The lessons were learnt and Adam and I came to a better understanding from that day forward.
It took me a lot of years and a lot of growing up before I really appreciated the love and protection my family gave me. Why I felt this great need to prove myself all the time I’ll never know; it wasn’t just being the youngest, it went far deeper than that. Looking back I think it was probably more the men whose footsteps I tried to follow. Adam, Hoss and my Pa never expected me to be like them, they were happy for me to be my own person. But in my eyes they epitomized everything a man should be and I spent all my growing years trying to live up to the image I had created of them.
The first time I struck out in business on my own, Pa taught me a very valuable lesson. In the weeks beforehand I had been a real pain, drinking in town until all hours and generally getting into trouble. Pa had sent Adam and Hoss to fetch me back to the ranch and I resented their interference. I can still remember the look on my brothers’ faces when my friend Dave Donovan referred to them as my ‘Old Maiden Aunts’. It’s a memory that can still bring a slight smile to my mouth.
That night back at the ranch, Pa had tried to straighten me out and he actually listened as I listed all my petty complaints and then whined about how I needed to prove myself. I couldn’t believe it the next morning when he granted me permission to go after the timber contract for the Sun Mountain Mining Company. He was putting his faith in me and I was determined to make it on my own.
Adam and Hoss had offered to help, but I rejected them out of turn, for this was my project and I didn’t need their advice. Pa in his wisdom realized I needed an important reminder about family and sticking together. At first I thought it was a test of strength when he picked up the four sticks of kindling from the hearth and asked me to break them in two. Of course I couldn’t do it and when he took a single stick and snapped it with ease his words left their impact on me then and they still do to this day, “By himself any one of us can be broken”. How very true. Before the month was up I had good reason to have those words imbedded in my brain forever.
I had finally grown up when Adam left home for the last time. Why he wanted to leave the Ponderosa I’ll never quite understand, but at the age of twenty-three, I was finally man enough to shake his hand and wish him well. Part of me resented him going, while the other half envied his upcoming adventure.
Adam had been a very astute businessman over the years and had invested his money wisely, making himself a small fortune. If he so desired, and was careful, he could have traveled without the need to work. But that was not my big brother’s way and in the early years he wrote regularly, informing us of his latest job as he traveled from city to city across America.
Even though Adam was no longer with us in body, he was always with us in spirit and I had no doubt about his love and concern for his family. He had proved over and over again throughout the years that he would put his family’s needs before his own, and so it was very difficult not to worry when his correspondence home suddenly stopped.
Adam traveled to Europe and wrote from Paris, informing us of a wonderful young lady he had met. We all eagerly awaited his next letter but it never arrived. That was three years ago and since then we have heard nothing. I even paid for a private investigator in France to try and find out where he could be, but to no avail. My brother had disappeared without a trace, leaving my father inconsolable for months and a changed man to this day.
Thinking about Adam now is too agonizing, for I am in such a melancholy mood to start with. His disappearance could not be explained, unlike others in my life I have lost, and that made it all the more heartbreaking. The pain of not knowing whether he is alive or dead is far worse than knowing his true fate.
In many ways I find it easier to go back in time and reflect on my youth. As a kid I fell in love so easily, but of all the lovers I have known only four have left any real impact on me.
My first love was a slip of a girl called Amy Bishop. She had the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen and I fell in love the moment I came upon her down by Willow Creek Bank. She was the last thing I had envisaged to encounter that day and I can even smile a little as I remember her coming into view, barefooted and dressed only in her petticoats. Because she was my first love and that love was so pure and innocent, she will always remain very special to me. I can finally look back on our short time together without pain, only regret. Regret that comes from knowing a life had been cut short before it had even begun. She was so young and even now, all these years later, she would still be a young woman if her life hadn’t ended so tragically at the hands of Pete Jessup.
My most treasured memory is of the day we lay on the embankment by the creek and she read Shakespeare aloud to me. I have to laugh as I look back and recall my clumsy attempts to be romantic.
What was it I said? Oh yes; now I remember.
“I can’t compare you to a summer’s day; you’re more like a day in spring.” Clumsy or not it worked, and she fell in love with me. I asked Amy to marry me that day and if our fathers’ raised objections, I persuaded her we should elope. Either way I was determined we would be together.
We were very young and naïve and could never have foreseen how things would turn out. In many ways, we were destined to tragedy like the star-crossed lovers in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Maybe Amy had a premonition of what was to come, because the hopelessness in her voice was evident that afternoon. “It can never be — a Cartwright and a Bishop”. Those were the words she used and she was right, some things were never meant to be.
My relationship with Julia Bulette was different and to this day I’m not sure how I really felt about her. The feelings of love I had were all mixed up with lust and longing. Julia made a man of me in more ways than one, but it was hard for me to love a woman so passionately and then reconcile myself to the longing I felt for a woman who, in many ways, embodied what I thought my mother would have been like if she had lived. That conflict inside my head was never resolved before she too was taken from me. She died at the hands of Jean Millain and once again my heart was broken.
Dearest Laura White was so very different. We had known each other as children and fell in love when reintroduced as adults. I think Laura and I could have been happy, we would have raised our children and grown old together sitting in rocking chairs out on the veranda. The heartbreak of the dreams we made was that Laura was dying when we met and neither of us knew. Would we have prevented ourselves from falling in love if we had been aware our time together would be so short? Can you stop yourself falling in love? I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really thought about. It just happens.
That’s what I used to think anyway, before I met the one true love of my life. I realized then there are some loves that supersede all the rest and if I live to be a hundred I know I’ll never feel the same again about another woman as I did my last love.
Once again I find my thoughts returning to Adam. When Hoss died, I so wanted and needed him to come home to help me cope. Pa needed him more than ever, but we hadn’t heard from him for so long, part of me had to accept he was truly gone; after all, I just knew Adam would have contacted us, if he was still alive.
I have to steel myself to let my thoughts turn to Hoss; my beloved Hoss. He was not only my big brother; he was my champion, my protector, my fellow conspirator but most of all, my best friend. He has been gone for a little over eighteen months, but still the void he left in my life tears at my heart and soul every time I open my eyes and remember he is no more. Perhaps in the future I will look back and only think of the happy times, but for the moment it is too soon. Although I can still smile at some of our antics, and there were plenty of them, I evermore end up bereft and lonely at the end of a long day when his gap toothed smile is not there to welcome me home.
How many times did he fall for my outrageous schemes? I was a kid full of good intentions, well most of the time; I just had the knack of turning those good intentions into trouble! We used to reminisce about our escapades at night, sitting in front of the fire with a glass of brandy in our hands. Pa would shake his head and bemoan his lot in life, saying he worried I would never grow up, but I know inside he chuckled along with both of us.
Some of my schemes may have been hair-brained but, in the end, a few of them turned out all right. The day we robbed the bank comes to mind. Looking back it may have been foolish and I should have done things differently, but when it all boiled down to it, I saved the day. The citizens of Virginia City’s bank kept their money and I felt quite a hero! Pity that wasn’t how Pa saw it!
When Hoss and I finally arrived home that night after it was all over, I expected Pa to have a few stern words, but all in all I thought he would pat me on the back and say well done. Well, he did pat me – but it was a good bit harder than a pat – and just as I was thinking I was too big for a tanning!!!
It was a few years before he trusted me to be in charge of the ranch again, but that didn’t stop me coming up with more bright ideas. Pa and Adam’s face when we brought home that elephant will keep me chuckling to my grave.
I have sat all this time thinking about the people in my life that are no more and much as I miss them all, in many ways I have come to accept their passing. Will I ever get to that stage when I think about her? At this moment in time, I can’t see it happening. She came into my life so unexpectedly, but from that moment on nothing was ever the same.
Alice Harper was not a classical beauty, and she wouldn’t make heads turn, but the beauty she had came from within. We didn’t start off on the right foot, what with her thinking I stole her brother’s money and me thinking her brother was her husband! Once things were sorted out, everything changed, and I couldn’t get her out of my head.
I’ve never been shy around women, but with Alice it was different. Maybe with other women it didn’t matter as much, so I wouldn’t try as hard, whereas with Alice I was so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing because I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.
The first time I took Alice to the valley, the one Hoss and I always called our ‘happy place’, that’s when I knew I had to make her my wife. I also decided there and then, to build a house in our ‘happy place’ and that would be our home.
Those six months of married bliss were the happiest of my life; I didn’t know love could be like that; it made everything I ever felt before pale into insignificance. She was the other half of me; she made me complete. When Alice told me she was going to have our baby, I was so happy I thought I would burst. Me a father!
I don’t think I slept through the night from that day forward; I kept waking up and looking at her, the serene look on her sleeping face making me feel so proud, I was now the bull of the woods! I spent ages gazing at her stomach, and imagining what our child would be like. Boy or girl it made no difference, everything was perfect. Our words, so often said, still echo in my head every time I hear someone mention love…… “Forever” I would say and she would repeat “Forever”. Why couldn’t it have been so?
A shudder passes down my spine as I recall Pa and I standing in the burnt remains of our home, mine and Alice’s, and crying until we could cry no more. That was the one and only time I allowed myself the luxury of grief, because up until then, I had been unaware of the violent nature of her death.
I try not to think about how she died. I hope it was quick and she didn’t suffer too much, but from the knowledge I have of her murderers, Damien and Hanley, I don’t get much comfort. Did she think of me? Did she blame me for not being there to protect her? No she wouldn’t, not Alice. She didn’t have a malicious bone in her body. It doesn’t matter, though, because I blame myself. I left her alone and defenseless and because of that I have lost her and our baby.
It is ironic now, but all of my early life I fought against being the youngest, so wanting to be Adam and have the privileges that go along with being the eldest. Now at thirty-one years old I would give almost anything to have my eldest brother here with me. Given my time again I would cherish my carefree youth and respect Adam for the responsibilities he shouldered on my behalf. But I am now the one expected to run the ranch and take care of my father and I don’t know if I’m capable, I don’t know if I can. My heart is not in it anymore.
I look around me to see the sun has almost set. A night chill has descended on the hills and I shiver with the cold for I’m only wearing my green jacket and shirt. How long have I been sitting here? The whole day has passed and I haven’t given a single thought to food or water. My mind has been so engrossed in the past the time has crept up on me unawares, and I groan as I stand up, my feet feeling like lead weights from lack of movement. It’s funny to think, but my old school teacher, Miss Jones, would have given anything for me to sit still for half an hour, never mind a whole day.
As the circulation returns to my legs, I wince as the feeling of ‘pins and needles’ comes about with the flow of blood. Pa will no doubt be worried; then again Pa always worries; he says it comes with being a father. No Joe! Don’t let your thoughts go there again. I admonish myself, but to no avail; thoughts of my lost child are never far away.
My ride back to the ranch is unhurried. I can’t remember the last time my father had to reprimand me for riding too fast, too reckless. Will I ever want to ride again just to feel the wind in my face? Somehow I don’t think so.
The door to the house swings open even before I have time to dismount and a fleeting moment of guilt passes over me. I seem to be feeling guilty a lot these days. I know I should be more conscious of my father’s feelings; it is unfair of me to worry him like this.
The chocolate eyes looking at me are filled with love and concern. My father is only in his middle sixties, but already he looks an old man. The steely gray hair, still thick and bushy, no longer looks out of place; the worry lines that marked his face on occasions in the past are now permanent fixtures across his brow and cheeks. There is no doubt in my mind that I, more than anyone, have done more than my fair share to prematurely age this caring man.
“Is everything all right, son?” he asks, while all the time his gaze washes over me with an intuitive parental eye.
“Yeah, I’m fine Pa. Just lost track of time that’s all.” The words slip off my tongue automatically. People, even those close to me, don’t know how I really feel. How I wish I didn’t have to go on living; didn’t have to go on pretending that things would get better.
“We have a visitor.”
I look at my Pa wearily, for the last thing I need right now is to make small talk with someone I don’t even want to see. But there is something in my father’s face that I can’t read, and I’m not sure what it is, but he almost looks excited. I nod my head in acceptance and follow him slowly into the house.
The man standing in front of the fire with his back to me appears deep in thought. There is something about the way he stands; well, he doesn’t stand exactly, it’s more of a lean. My head is beginning to swim and my stomach is doing somersaults. Surely it can’t be?
He turns slowly to face me and in that one movement I have no doubt about his identity, for some things never change. At a glance, my mind takes in so much. His hair is thinner, much thinner and is almost white, just like Pa. The face is older, more weathered, but otherwise unchanged. I gaze into his dark eyes and I see love and pain reflected, but also caution. I can read him like a book; he is not sure of my reaction and he doesn’t want to make a wrong move. He smiles at me hesitantly and his face dimples just the way I remembered, his teeth just as white as ever.
The air in the room must be getting thinner, because I can hardly breathe. My breaths are short and labored as I struggle to formulate the words that will break down the barriers.
“I never thought,” I begin in almost a whisper, “that the day would come when I would be so happy, so truly, truly happy, to clap eyes on a thin-nosed, blue-blooded, Boston Yankee.” The last word escaped my lips in a gut-wrenching sob and before he has time to resist I throw myself upon him.
He was not prepared for the onslaught and we both fall to our knees. I no longer have any control over my emotions and my cries cause my body to shake, fill the air and echo off the walls.
His strong arms encircle me into a loving embrace and I am transported back to the days of my childhood once more as he rocks me backwards and forwards and speaks soothingly into my ear.
“It’s all right, buddy, just let it all out. I’ve got you.” His own voice is laced with emotion and as his head leans against mine I can feel the wetness of his tears dropping onto my face.
We stay there on the floor, wrapped in each other’s arms, each giving the other comfort, for what seems like a lifetime. Pa watches over us and cries too with gratitude. He thought he had lost two sons and was frightened of losing a third, yet within the space of a couple of hours, he has two of his children returned safe within the fold.
In the days ahead there will no doubt be many searching questions. Where has my brother been all these years and why has he not kept in touch? But for the moment I don’t care about all the whys and wherefore they will keep for another day. At this moment in time, none of that matters to me. One of the great loves of my life, one that I thought was lost to me forever, has done the inconceivable.
Adam has come home!