Summary: A What Happened Next for Season 5’s episode “Triangle.”
Word Count: 2750
The dying sun was peeping over the high ridges of the western Sierras as if reluctant to say goodbye to the day as Joe Cartwright made his way slowly home from Virginia City.
He was physically tired and emotionally exhausted. The young man had left the house before dawn to spend many hours checking over various clauses within an exceedingly lucrative contract with the newly formed Union Pacific railroad, all of which needed to be agreed and the paperwork signed and sealed before the end of the day.
Usually this side of ranch business was left in the capable hands of Joe’s elder brother, but because of unforeseen circumstance and an oversight on Adam’s part, the crucial deadline had been forgotten until a conversation the previous evening between Ben and his eldest son brought the matter to light.
Adam had been distraught when it became apparent his forgetfulness might be the cause of them losing one of the most profitable deals to ever come the Ponderosa’s way in a long time. But to a man, his father and brothers had all been quick to comfort and reassure, unashamed tenderness sounding in Ben’s voice as he had tried to allay his eldest son’s obvious distress as he placed a caring hand on his shoulder. “Adam you’re not to feel blame in any way. It’s no wonder you forgot after all you’ve gone through lately, and under the same circumstances, any one of us would have most likely ended up doing the same.”
And to be fair, Adam had gone through a mixed assortment of high and low emotions over the past few months, enough to make anyone wonder if they were coming or going! The initial euphoria when Laura Dayton had agreed to marry him, the joyous excitement he secretly concealed from all but his father as he began to build his future wife a house. Then the uncertainty he’d ever walk again after the fall which left him wheelchair bound, and later the shocked realization Laura’s love had been transferred to Cousin Will.
Unfortunately, Ben’s consolatory tone only served to worsen Adam’s sense of guilt at his unusual incompetence and absent-mindedness. Unable to forgive himself, he swigged back a glass of brandy and straightaway announced he’d go into town at first light to try and wrap up the deal before it was too late and the contract was declared null and void, thus leaving the Ponderosa to pay a hefty penalty for reneging on the fixed time scale arranged.
However, Ben immediately overruled his son’s decision, telling him in no uncertain terms that any thought of taking the long trip into town, even on a wagon, was out of the question. For though he acknowledged Adam was on the road to recovery now — he was able to walk short distances with the aid of a single stick — Ben was not willing for the sake of a business deal to allow his son to run the risk of exacerbating his spinal injury to such a degree he might be forced back into a wheel chair for the foreseeable future.
Adam had nodded half-heartedly, seeing the wisdom in his father’s words and reluctantly agreeing with his father’s logic. Ben then turned his attention to his youngest son, and without a moment’s hesitation, informed Joe he’d have to go and sort out the contract in his brother’s place.
Initially apprehensive about tackling such intricately complicated legal technicalities, Joe openly aired his fears and concerns with them all about his ability to step into Adam’s shoes at such short notice. He even questioned why his father or even Hoss couldn’t take it on.
However, Ben was insistent, saying it was time he became more involved with the business side of ranching instead of leaving it for Adam to do most of the time, adding with a confident smile he had the utmost faith in Joe’s ability to pull it off.
But still Joe remained skeptical and gnawed nervously on his bottom lip with obvious unease until Adam stepped forward to give him a few pointers and hints as to what he’d need to look out for when scrutinizing every word and line contained within the dozen or so pages of the highly complex contract.
So having a little more confidence and self-belief, Joe took on one of the most well versed and highly skilled lawyers on the Western Coast the next day, and to his amazement managed to reach a successful agreement on all points of contention during his meeting. The negotiations were completed and hands shaken on the deal with just minutes to go before the 3 pm deadline.
Minutes later, as he stood outside the lawyer’s office, Joe placed the new contract safely into his jacket pocket as the enormity of what he’d managed to accomplish slowly sank in. Though eager to pass on to his father the good news and see the look of relief on his elder brother’s face when Adam found out the contract had been saved, the thought of having a few well earned congratulatory glasses of beer while he had the chance was a lure too inviting to miss. So with now a noticeable spring in his step and a happy whistle sounding from his lips, Joe made for the Silver Dollar saloon instead.
To Joe’s delight, he met up with a few friends and managed to chat away a couple of hours as they swopped news and gossip. With Adam being confined to the ranch since his accident and under doctor’s orders not to ride and just take it easy, all his chores had been divided between his two brothers, leaving the usually gregarious Joe with far less time to socialize as he’d like over the past weeks.
However, as time went on and the late afternoon shadows lengthened, Joe knew he couldn’t put off the inevitable return to the family fold any longer. Reluctantly he said his goodbyes, and picking up his horse from the livery, made his way along the main Virginia City road before eventually turning off and heading towards the Ponderosa ranch house.
Joe stayed along the all too familiar trail for a couple of miles then came to a lesser used track which veered to the left. Pulling his mount to a halt, Joe stared down its length as he pondered thoughtfully for a few moments. He knew there was still a good hour of light left before the shadows of twilight enveloped the land, so impulsively Joe decided on a change of plan. He gave Cochise a sympathetic pat on the neck as if by way of apology at delaying his arrival back to a warm stable, then turned the pinto’s head from the direction of home and pushed forward, eating the miles down the secondary track at a lazy yet well paced canter.
The dirt road meandered through a vast meadow of lush green for a short while, skirted along the side of a small shimmering lake and then made its way up the gentle slope of a canyon before finally descending and ending up by the framework of a building. The timber shell was open to the elements but standing firm and steady in the center of a clearing.
Easing to a halt, Joe slid from the saddle, and leaving his horse to graze contentedly on a large clump of grass, picked his spot and sank down to sit beneath a tall growing pine which stood at the edge of a small copse of trees. Resting his back on the rough barked trunk, Joe placed his Stetson on the ground by his side. Drawing a hand through his hair, he focused his curious gaze on the unfinished silhouette which stood out against the empty sky, the building one Joe had heard about many times over the last few weeks but so far had been too busy to visit….Adam’s house.
At first glance, Joe could see immediately it would have been a fair sized dwelling once completed — a solid built stone chimney nearly as tall as the one on the Ponderosa standing erect and surrounded by an intricately designed and complex timber frame. Various sized planks of oak and cedar wood also lay haphazardly on the ground, the lumber waiting to be cut to size and nailed into place but untouched and discarded since the accidental fall which left Adam nearly crippled for life.
Joe couldn’t help but give a poignant sigh as he imagined the house finished and how it might have been one day had circumstances been different and his brother had married as initially planned: Adam taking in the stunning view of the mountains every morning while sipping coffee with his wife; the sound of his step-daughter’s happy laughter as Peggy played with her friends in the safety of its thick wood paneled walls.
It would have made a wonderful family home for generations of Cartwrights to come. Unable to stop a swell of pride forming, Joe marveled how Adam had managed to construct so much in such a short time and with the barest of help, while keeping the build secret from both his brothers and Laura.
Joe’s smile quickly disappeared and he swallowed hard. That one little word still continued to stir up such painful emotions within him.
He didn’t suppose anyone else realized or even remembered the connection of that name with his own past when Laura Dayton entered Adam’s life. He’d managed to hide his own heartache on each occasion her name was mentioned over the past months. But now alone and under no close scrutiny from his family, without warning the young man’s eyes suddenly moistened and he lowered his head to sniff away a tear.
Joe murmured her name and thought about her again….his Laura.
It was amazing how just that one word whispered from his lips brought back so much hurt and heart-wrenching memories of the woman he’d loved so much and lost so quickly by a cruel twist of fate.
Closing his eyes tight for a brief moment, Joe saw Laura so clear in his mind’s eye that he felt as though he could almost stretch out his hand and touch her as she smiled her beautiful naive smile, her face shining bright with indisputable love, her shadowy ghost haunting him until it gradually faded away and was gone, leaving Joe alone….once again.
Over two years had now passed since Laura had died in his arms, two long, lonely years. Joe still couldn’t believe the pain he’d felt and hid away ever since. For a few minutes, he stared without seeing, curling his fingers tight into the palm of his hands and fighting hard to swallow away the sobs of heartache which threatened to escape from his throat.
Another tear ran down his cheek, ignored as Joe drew in a deep breath and pursed his lips tight to stop from crying her name out loud. Would the hurt ever leave him? Could there ever be another to take Laura’s place or was he destined to spend the rest of his days in private mourning?
Not that there hadn’t been others in his life since Laura’s passing — Morvath, Julia, Tessa. All beautiful women, all desirable. But for various reasons, each one of them had eventually left him to go their different ways, and though he’d been truly saddened and regretted losing them all, deep within his soul Joe knew it was Laura who continued to hold the only true claim on his heart.
Tears welled again, threatening to flow, so taking a calming breath Joe hugged his knees against his chest as he tried to concentrate his gaze once more on the unfinished structure in front of him. But within a few moments his mind began to wander uncontrollably and, before he could stop himself, somewhere else, somewhere very special, filled his thoughts once more.
On many occasions Joe had stared for hours from afar towards the small cabin surrounded by a carpet of delicately shaped white flowers — the home he and Laura would have shared had she lived. And every time, Joe would imagine gazing out over the spectacular countryside from his own porch with Laura sitting contentedly at his side, laughing children playing at their feet, all blissfully happy together.
But time had passed, and now the isolated cabin stood silent and neglected on the far side of the Ponderosa. It was the cause of much guilt-ridden shame which tore at Joe’s insides whenever he passed its way — peeling paint where there’d been any paint at all; a window with a curtain waving through a broken pane; the lean-to willingly redesigned and constructed by Adam now overgrown with ivy and its shutters flapping at the slightest breeze.
Full of remorse for leaving it in such a dilapidated state of repair for so long, Joe closed his eyes in misery for a few moments, clenching his fists tight and thumping the hard ground. Damn it, Joe…stop it! Stop it! Think on something else.
And as if answering his silent plea his mind went back a short while in time.
On the day Adam had finally been able to cast the wheelchair aside for good, Joe had asked his elder brother, as they’d downed a few drinks to celebrate Adam’s latest achievement on his road to recovery, what he’d intended to do with the house he’d been building but no longer needed. Pull it down?
Adam had said nothing for a few moments, obviously having never even thought about the place since his accident. “Had I really been in love and left with nothing but a broken heart when Laura and Will went off together, then I guess that would have been my initial thought and course of action,” he’d said eventually with no sign of bitterness or regret in his voice. “But as that wasn’t the case, it would be a shame to waste all that lumber now. So if you and Hoss are willing to help, once the Doc gives me the all clear, I’d like us to finish it then maybe rent it out to one of the married hands. I’m sure any of them would jump at the chance of moving out of town with their family and living there with all that space in their backyard to stare at.”
Joe gave a quiet chuckle. Trust the ever practical Adam to come up with a money-spinning positive outcome to a negative situation, even after all he’d gone through.
Suddenly Cochise nickered, shaking his mane, and the rattle of his bridle jolted Joe from his private reverie. He looked about him and noticed the moon was now rising higher in the sky, and as he shivered with the cold of evening, realized the lateness of the hour.
He picked up his Stetson and pushed up from the ground, then placing his hat down firmly on his head, Joe walked towards his horse and gave him a gentle pat before swinging up onto the saddle. Gathering up the reins in preparation for the ride home, Joe paused for a moment and gave Adam’s house a last long lingering look out the corner of his eye. As his thoughts involuntarily returned to another place, empty and unloved, his lips curved slightly into a sad half smile.
Maybe one day soon he’d have the courage to return to his own run down cabin, open the front door and go inside.
Maybe one day soon he’d too repair the damage left by sun, wind and rain. Transform the ruin back into a secure and cozy place for others to appreciate and share, just as Adam had unselfishly decided to do.
Maybe one day soon Laura would be a distant memory and he’d be able to turn the final page on that chapter of his life, leaving his heart truly set free to love again. As he wiped a hand across his moistened eyes, feeling empty and aching inside, Joe fixed his gaze heavenward as if at a distant memory then urged Cochise forward towards home.
Maybe one day soon…but not today.