If Only … (by Doreen)

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7100


My earliest memories of attending church on a Sunday take me back to the age of about three.  I can vaguely remember sitting and then wriggling continually on my mother’s lap.  She would lovingly stroke my curls, twisting them around her long slender fingers and my head would gently fall and I would soon be asleep.  My father and two elder brothers would take turns to carry me out to the buggy when we returned home, and I don’t think I ever managed to stay awake before the completion of a service.

When I was five years old, my mother died.  In retrospect it was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me, though at the time I did not understand or comprehend the catastrophic impact on my family. I still have fleeting, disjointed recollections of her funeral, my first time in the church for such an event.  Many sad faces stared as my Pa led me and my brothers into the church which was filled to capacity.  As we passed by, women friends would take me in their arms and kiss me on the cheek, their own eyes watery and their faces sad, while the men folk would pat me on the head, saying, “Poor Little Joe, it’s all too awful.”

I found this strange attention all too much, and sought refuge with Adam, holding his hand and squeezing my skinny frame tight against his leg.  Moving slowly down the aisle, we finally sat in the front pew, my Pa, me, Adam and Hoss, and while my brothers stared at a dark oak casket placed in front of the altar, I was more interested in another distraction.

There was a somber tune being played on the small organ by an old, and to a five-year-old’s eyes, repulsive looking spinster whose name I could never remember.  I do recall she had an angry looking wart on her face which made me think of her as an old witch.  Poor woman!  To my astonishment, her shriveled fingers glided over the keys so smoothly and gracefully that I was truly mesmerized, hardly able to comprehend how such a musical sound could be made by her withered hands.

I recall there seemed to be a lot of weeping.  With the curious nature of a five year old, my eyes wandered around the room, and I could see family friends all dabbing their eyes in joint sorrow.  I heard a sound alien to me and I looked up at my father.  Surprised beyond belief, I listened as he choked back a cry, then sobbed unashamedly.  This strong man who I loved so much was covering his eyes with a large white handkerchief, not caring who could see or hear him.  I felt confused as I had always been told big boys never cry, yet here was my Pa with tears rolling down his face.

I then looked at my brothers who were also sobbing quietly and it unnerved me.  I had often seen my brother Hoss cry; when his favorite puppy had died, when we lost one of the newly born calves.  In fact, Hoss seemed to cry every time some critter passed away, young or old, tame or wild.  He was and still is real sentimental when it comes to animals.

However, I could never recollect ever seeing my big brother Adam this upset, and the sight of him weeping frightened me.  He tried to control the tears by biting on his bottom lip, making it bleed slightly.  A drop of blood ran down his chin, dropping onto his clean shirt leaving a small red stain.  My five year old mind could not grasp what was happening, so I nervously held onto his hand, scared by all that was going on, and he then squeezed it, harder and harder without realizing his strength, until I cried out in pain.

When he saw what he was doing he quickly loosened his grip and tried to give me a reassuring smile through his tear-filled eyes.  To a small boy who idolized his big brother, this unfamiliar showing of frailty by Adam shook me to the core.  I remember clearly that it was at that moment the five year old child realized the full enormity of what was happening and my tears, held back through ignorance of the situation, began to flow unabated.

Pa had always told us how the Lord was wise and wonderful and loved us all.  When the service began I remember burying my face into Pa’s thick woolen coat, and through muffled sobs I could hear the Minister saying a lot of words that I did not really understand, but one thing stuck in my mind.  He said how my Ma was in a better place now, and happy. This was the moment I decided that the Lord was not as wise as Pa thought he was. After all, my Ma had been more than happy with us and there was no better place than the Ponderosa, so how could she be somewhere better now?  It was from that day that I fell out with the Lord and his church.

My mother was gone, but life went on and I still attended Sunday service regularly under the close supervision of my father.  Now there was no mother’s lap to crawl into, no mother’s arms to cuddle me, no way to escape the monotonous tone of the minister and his musings. As the years passed, I remember with clarity the many sermons endured, my eyes forever growing heavy as I began to feel drowsy.  Pa would be on my one side and Adam on the other, as if they were in charge of a prisoner in the dock, forever nudging me as I began to nod off or fidget.  I would look up at them and they would give me a knowing glare. Be still or suffer the consequences later!  Knowing what the consequences would be to my backside, I did my best, but usually failed miserably. Me and Pa’s slipper sure got to know each other well and I guess that’s when my rebellion at having to be still for more than a minute started, a rebellion that has lasted to this day.

It seemed so silly to me with my childhood logic to have to go into this austere building once a week and be very bored, listening to the inane words of the minister.  The only highlight for me was the singing of the hymns, and I would join in with gusto whether I knew the words or not.  I can still hear the deep bass of my Pa, and the sweet baritone sound of Adam’s voice in my head.  Hoss was also loud but occasionally out of tune, yet his voice would boom, drowning out all others sat in his vicinity.

I could never understand why the church pews had to be so hard and uncomfortable. How anyone could sit still for such a long time on such a hard surface without feeling the need to wriggle around was beyond me.  My brother Hoss never seemed to have the same problem.  He would sit throughout the service, as if glued down, transfixed at every word the minister had to say, never needing to shuffle.  Maybe his bigger bulk gave him a more comfortable seat.  It was certainly a continual mystery to me for years.

As I grew older, into my teens, the discomfort on my backside never lessened. With the rebellious nature of a teenager, I would often ask my father why did we go to church every Sunday. Was it really necessary?  He would look down at me and shake his head, answering me each time with the same line, “Joseph, we need to thank the Lord for all that he has given us.”

I was never satisfied with the answer. This Lord had taken my mother away from me, something I could not forgive him for. Also, had not my father, the well known owner of the biggest ranch in Nevada, Ben Cartwright, obtained everything we owned through his hard work, his diligence.

“But Pa, everything we have is through our own efforts.  What’s the Lord got to do with it?”

My father would sigh deeply. “The Lord has everything to do with it, Joe. Without him, there would have been no land, no mountains, no cattle, no silver mines, no life. There would have been nothing for us here. We greedily take everything he provides and yet he willingly gives it up to us continuously.  It is only fair we give thanks.  Now no more arguments. You are going to church on Sunday whether you like it or not.”

My father had spoken and I knew I had lost the argument. I went to church but only under sufferance.

It was not until I had turned 18 years old that my father allowed me to make my own choice, just as he had given my two brothers when they had reached that age.

To go to church or not to go.

He reckoned I was now an adult, able to make up my own mind, decide how to pursue my faith which ever way I wanted. It was not a difficult decision for me.  Attending church every Sunday was something I could live without, apart from Easter and Christmas when I would make the effort.  I could see my father was disappointed in my decision, but being the man he was, he did not force me to change my mind.

So it would be every Sunday that I would stay in bed while my father and two brothers departed for their weekly ritual.  If both Adam and Hoss still wanted to suffer those hard wooden pews, then it was up to them. I was just content to turn over in my warm soft bed and close my eyes for another hour.

Sunday sermons may have failed to entice me into this building over the past few years, but I have found myself within its four walls occasionally, attending the funerals of those I have loved and subsequently lost.  Many tears have flowed from my eyes; tears for lives cut tragically short: Amy Bishop, Julia Bulette and most recently, Laura.  Sad days, unhappy recollections, always remembered with a sinking feeling in my heart.

All these past memories flood my brain as I sit in this church once again, but today is Saturday, not Sunday. It is still a place I am not comfortable to be in, unable to totally erase the sadness associated within its walls, but I hope today will be the beginning of a new and happier era.

The pew is still wooden and hard, but at 25 years old I am now able to fidget at will.  There is no father at my side this time.  No brother to poke me in the ribs to remind me to stop my restlessness in God’s house.  My family is sitting behind me in the church wearing their Sunday best, as I sit in the front row, nervous and tense, the sweat slowly running down my face.

Once again there is music floating in the air from the same small organ, only this time it is not somber, so different to my Ma’s funeral.  Miss Abigail, the school teacher is playing and she occasionally looks round, smiling at everyone.  Although now middle-aged, she is still a striking looking woman, but I don’t envy any man who would attempt to court her.  Her quick temper and sharp tongue are legendary around these parts, as my brother Adam has found out to his cost in the past.

There is a new minister in charge now.  He is young, full of fresh ideas to keep the running of the church smooth and popular with the citizens of Virginia City and west Nevada. I have heard his sermons are full of humor and interesting comparisons between the life of Christ and modern day man. Attendance on a Sunday is growing week by week so maybe I will return one day and hear what all the fuss is about.

I can feel my family staring into my back and I intuitively know for sure what each is thinking.

Hoss will be looking around and wishing the proceedings would start and finish quickly so he could get to the serious business of eating. Food and Hoss are a truly devoted couple!

Pa will be staring at the back of my head, suddenly noticing that the hair on the nape of my neck is curling around my collar. Realizing I obviously did not get the hair cut I was requested to have the week before, I can visualize him tut-tuting and shaking his head.  Since the time I was old enough to know what a barbers pole looked like, he and I have fought over the length of my hair, and the regularity of visiting the barber’s chair.  The constant battle of wills between father and youngest son became a running joke in the family over the years.  Of course he won at first, even though I had to be taken kicking and screaming, usually by Adam, who on a few occasions ended up with bruised shins for his trouble.  However, now in my twenties, I was at last winning the war!  I still feel slightly nervous though; my failure to visit the barber will no doubt be mentioned some time in the future.

Adam will be wondering how it’s possible that I am wafting his own expensive and exclusive cologne usually secured in his top drawer. There is no doubt he will have a few choice words with me for ‘borrowing’ it.

If only I had asked him first.  If only!

In my early rebellious years he had nicknamed me the ‘If Only Kid’.  I could never think things through logically, was impatient, would say something in a temper forever making matters worse.  Adam would shake his head trying to make sense of this kid brother who seemed to feel the world was against him.  He would look me up and down as if studying a prize bull, his dark brown eyes flashing with exasperation.

“If only you would look before you leap, Joe.  If only you would think what you are going to say before you say it.  If only you would realize the consequences of your actions before you jumped into a situation.  If Only!”

The ‘If Only Kid’ never did learn his lesson.

Solid, dependably and logical Adam. Drawn towards the civilized East, he would soon be leaving to make a new start in Boston. It had been a painful decision for him to make, a decision he had mulled over in his mind for months. My father knew of his desire for a new future away from the ranch, and though it would be a painful departure for us all, did nothing to change his mind. After all, Adam was in his late thirties and far too old to be given instructions on how to live his life. In fact he should have left weeks ago, but willingly postponed his journey so that he could be here on this special day for his little brother.

I will miss him terribly when he leaves the Ponderosa. Over the years we have had our differences, the occasional fight, arguments, but as eldest brothers go, I feel surely blessed at having Adam to protect me, to guide me. Always honest, reliable and at times courageous, my life would no doubt of been over years ago if it weren’t for him.  Before he finally departs I must remember to tell him how I feel.

If only he knew how much of a hero he was to me, had always been and would always be.  If only!

The starch in my collar makes it tight around my neck and combined with the thin black tie I find it difficult to swallow. Hop Sing has really gone to town with my white shirt.  He must have spent hours ironing out the ruffle that runs the length of the front using the flat iron heated on his open fire.  I must remember to thank him for his hard work to make me look presentable. My suit is dark blue and the jacket collar is trimmed in a thin black velvet braid.  My recently purchased black boots are shining but tight, and I can feel my toes are sore in their new constricted home.

If only I had listened to Adam who advised me to put them on around the ranch for a few days to loosen the leather and wear them in.  Once again the ‘If Only Kid’ had not heeded the wise words of his brother.

Outside it is a pleasantly warm but increasingly cloudy September morning. I take out the pocket watch from inside my jacket and check the time. Still ten long minutes to go!  Ten long minutes to midday!  I sigh a long sigh in frustration at the seemingly never ending wait.   Inside the church it feels hot and claustrophobic and the air is oppressive.  I feel uncomfortable and self conscious wearing such a smart and well fitted jacket at this time of the day.  My father had studied me closely this morning as I slowly walked down the stairs dressed in my best finery, and I could see tears in his eyes. His smile spoke volumes.

“You look so very handsome, Joseph.  Your mother would have been so proud to see you like this.”

I nodded and smiled back at Pa, trying my best to hide the onset of nerves that I know will be with me all day. However I fail miserably as my face shows the anxiety I feel and Pa looks at me with compassion. He knows how I always feel uncomfortable and awkward dressed in clothes that are worn so infrequently and only on special occasions.  How I wish I could wear my working clothes at this moment in time. At least I would feel more relaxed as I struggle to swallow with the tight collar that practically throttles me.

I can see in my mind’s eye my favorite green jacket which is hanging behind the front door at home.  It is often muddy, torn or faded through at the elbows, but I wear it constantly – it is what makes me the individual that I am.  I miss not wearing my gunbelt.  It has been a part of me day after day for years, and I feel vulnerable without its reassuring feel around my hip. My work boots are scuffed and scraped but always comfortable, though the heels are constantly worn down on one side.  Adam is forever telling me to have them repaired.

Brother Adam always so smart in his appearance, never allowing the heels on his boots to wear down!  They always look so pristine, so new.  Maybe he has a hidden store of them!  Knowing my brother as I do this could well be a possibility.  He never likes to look anything but well attired, dressed mainly in black from his black stetson to his black shirt and trousers, his dark hair complementing his clothing.  Being well dressed most of the time may suit Adam, but for me comfort is always more important.

I have only been sat here for ten minutes but it feels like hours. I squirm on the hard seat, feeling a numbness growing on my backside.  Behind me I can hear the shuffle of friends as they enter and find places on the long pews where they will sit. Without looking back I know I would recognize every face in the congregation. There is no one in the whole of Virginia City with whom I am not familiar, nor they of me.  I imagine them all, the ladies dressed in their best colorful dresses and the men in their Sunday suits.  Quite a spectacle I am sure, but I dare not turn my head to observe them.  I do not want them to see my pale face and my state of agitation.

Slowly increasing in magnitude is a respectful murmuring within the echoing walls of the church, but I am too anxious of the impending ceremony to make sense of any conversation, so I just lean forward with my elbows on my knees and hold my head in my hands. I hope it looks like I am praying to the Lord, but in truth it is the only way I can stop myself from being physically sick.

I slowly sit up again and find myself staring around the church, just as I had done years ago as a small boy trying to relieve my boredom. There is little change as I note the bareness of the walls, and I can see the only splash of color still comes from the cloth that covers the altar.  For all the money made around Virginia City from the rich silver mines there is a stark and poor feel to this building.  Maybe that’s how God’s house should be.  No rich trappings, just the feel of a poor carpenter’s home, with no distractions for the congregation sat within its walls.  The only added color for this day are the bunches of flowers that festoon each end of the pews, their fragrance at times quite overpowering.

A shaft of sunlight flows through a high window and forms a spotlight in front of me.  I stare, the sight of it sending a shudder of remembrance through my body, and as I close my eyes, I daydream of another spotlight far, far away in distance and time from this church.

It had been a couple of years ago when visiting San Francisco alone on business for Pa. I had done well for once, completing the business deal in double quick time so had an evening to spare before leaving on the stage the following morning. Walking around the theatre section of the city I came across a board in front of a large imposing building.

The star of the show was performing her last night in a successful tour before returning to New York.  I looked at the name and did a double take. ‘Julia Grant’.  I stood stock still for a minute, stunned, remembering the woman belonging to that name.  Julia.  She had visited our ranch the year before with her young son and I had fallen head over heels in love with her.  I had even planned to ask her to marry me, but finally realized her desire to be an actress far outweighed any desire to stay the wife of a rancher’s son.  If only I had persevered with her, begged her to stay.  But, the ‘If Only Kid’ had just given her up and let her follow her dream on the boards of the music hall. She followed her dream and had become an overnight sensation.

I bought a ticket and went into the theatre, watching the woman who had so nearly become Mrs. Joe Cartwright.  She was indeed a wonderful singer, dancer and comedienne, the spotlight never leaving her as she moved around the stage. The audience was enthralled, cheering and clapping for minutes, calling for several encores after the final curtain.  I left my seat and walked outside around to the side door, hoping to see and talk to her.  I was not alone.  The alley was packed with others wishing to glimpse this star close up, full of ‘stage door Johnnys’.

She eventually ventured through the outer door and was immediately surrounded by cheering and enthusiastic fans.  I stayed back, hiding in the shadows of the building, watching her as she laughed and joked while making her way to the large opulent carriage that would carry her to the best hotel in San Francisco.  Still so beautiful, still the Julia I remembered so well.  For a moment we were barely a yard apart and I nearly cried out her name, but something inside kept me silent and she moved on, unaware of my presence.

If only I had said something then, maybe we would have rekindled our passionate feelings for each other.  If only!

Someone opens a creaking side door in the church and I am brought back to reality.  The spotlight of sunshine dissipates as clouds begin to cover the blue sky.   What am I doing thinking of a past lover when the most beautiful woman I have ever known and whom I love with all my heart is about to walk down the aisle of this church?  Damn your daydreaming, Joe!

Its now fifteen minutes since I sat down.  Why did Pa insist on arriving so early?  Maybe it’s because he knows I have never been the most reliable of time-keepers.  At least he has made sure I am in the right place with time to spare.  No chance of Joe Cartwright being late today.

My stomach feels tight and empty probably because I did not eat breakfast.  My nerves were so taut I could hardly swallow the coffee poured for me by my father as I had sat down in front of the large hearth at home.  He had tried to persuade me to force down something more solid but I had just shook my head.  Maybe the paleness of my face made him realize that if I had eaten then there may have been a quick visit to the out-house and a need to empty my stomach of its contents.

I wish I could stay calm, look confident, concentrate but I feel so nervous.  For weeks I have repeatedly played out this day in my mind and even though I know exactly what I must do, what I must say, there is a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.  My hands are sweating so I wipe them on the side of my trousers and I just hope no one else notices my plight.

I clear my throat and it only makes me realize how painfully dry it is.  Such is my anxiety I would rather go through a gunfight against a gang of rustlers than face what is about to happen in the next hour!

Sweat begins to trickle down my back, making me shift uneasily, and I rub my backbone on the hard wooden slats on the back of the pew.  Adam coughs and I instinctively become tense and still.  It is as if I were 6 years old again, being warned by my older brother to stop moving, keep quiet, behave!  How I wish I were 6 years old at this moment.

If only I were that little boy again.  If only!

I glance across at the man sat next to me, my best friend for just about ever, Mitch Devlin.  We have grown up together, school, teenage years and now adulthood.   Last year, through my own stupidity, I nearly allowed myself to spoil something very precious – true friendship.  I hear myself chuckle as I recall that time.  How could I have been so stupid?  Just because I could not force myself to retrieve a rifle on Eagles Nest due to my irrational fear of heights, I had taken it out on my family and my best friend.  Eventually, at my father’s insistence I apologized, telling Mitch the truth, admitting my fear and with good grace he accepted my words.

If only I had swallowed my pride at the start and admitted my fear, there would have been no need for the harsh words I spoke in haste, my impetuous nature once again getting the better of me.  If only!

I don’t think I could have gone through with this day if Mitch had not been sat by my side on this special Saturday morning.  He appears to be fearless, unruffled and without an anxious bone in his body.  How I envy his demeanor and wish our roles were reversed.  Maybe then I would be enjoying all that is going on, appreciating the magic of the day.

He looks at me and grins.  I smile back, but my nervousness is clear to see.  He shakes his head in wonderment.  The rough and tough Joe Cartwright, nervous!  It was truly a sight to behold and he was enjoying every minute of it.

Wearing his best suit he looks stylish in appearance and handsome, a far cry from the young boy with a permanent dirty face, who was forever tearing the knees in his britches, and going through the elbows of his shirts.  We look a striking pair sat together, his straight fair hair greased with hair-oil and my dark brown curls going in every direction.  I subconsciously wipe my sweaty hand through my hair, trying to flatten it down to look more presentable.  I hear my father snort behind me as he watches my feeble attempt and I realize I have obviously failed to make a difference.

If only I had done as my father requested and had that haircut after all.  If only!

Mitch lost his parents about 5 years ago and is working hard to keep the Devlin Ranch profitable.  I know my Pa thinks a lot of him and has helped him out in many ways over the years, and in a way he has adopted him and taken him under his generous wing.   In return, Mitch looks up to Pa as a ‘father-figure’ giving him the uttermost respect.

As far as I am concerned Mitch is as much a brother to me as Adam and Hoss, and even Clay.

Clay! I think back to the last time I saw Clay and it still hurts inside. I remember clearly how I took his hand and placed my silver locket with our mother’s picture inside into his palm.  Closing his fingers around it I left him alone, riding back to the ranch, my eyes full of tears and sobbing.  If only the circumstances had been different and he could have been persuaded to stay with us and be family. We would have been a great team together, Marie’s two sons.  What havoc we could have created around Virginia City!

If only he could have been here now, no doubt enjoying the sight of me in such obvious discomfort.  If only!

Suddenly I see the young minister walk down the aisle and he turns and stands still, looking at Mitch and myself and smiling happily. With a Bible in his hand, he scans the congregation then looks through to the open door at the far end of the church.  He nods over to Miss Abigail who has been awaiting his signal.

I draw in a deep breath.

Miss Abigail starts to play “Here Comes the Bride” and I find myself standing up along with Mitch and the congregation.

The time has come.

I turn my head to look behind and I see her framed in sunlight in the doorway.  My heart misses a beat as I view the vision of loveliness who is Kathleen Mary O’Hara.

Her long thick red hair is piled on her head and a small veil covers her face, but I know her green eyes will be sparkling with anticipation.  Not for her the new fashion from England of wearing a wedding dress of white.  She wears a dress of dark emerald green in honor of her beloved Ireland.  She is just 23 years of age, and as she glides up the aisle on the arm of her proud father I can see the congregation gasp collectively at the sheer beauty of her.

It was 10 months ago that she had arrived with her parents.  After leaving Ireland for America to make a new life for themselves, the O’Hara family had made their way across this massive continent to settle in Virginia City where Mr. O’Hara had joined his brother at the Mercantile store as a full partner.  Mrs. O’Hara opened a small select boarding house, and the family settled in well.

The first time I saw Kathleen she had been in the Mercantile, chatting to her uncle. Standing in the doorway, unable to move, I just stared at this vision of loveliness as she conversed.  Her long red hair hung down her back in ringlets, her figure was perfect and she suddenly giggled, the Irish lilt in her voice making it sound as if she were singing a gentle lullaby, and I had been totally overcome with desire.  Her uncle introduced us and as she shook my hand I gazed into those deep laughing green eyes that shone so brightly and she smiled at me, leaving me breathless.  Never before had I felt such immediate passion and desire for anyone, and I then knew life would never be the same for me again.

For once I did not rush into a relationship head on without thought.  I followed the example of Adam, calling in occasionally to chat, inviting the family over to the Ponderosa for dinner, taking Kathleen for drives around the ranch.  I was a gentleman through and through.  We became good friends, yet as each week passed I knew I loved her more and more, but I was determined not to hurry Kathleen, just let her take her time to get to know me and this new country she now called home. For five months I bided my time, only stealing an occasional kiss and she seemed relaxed in my company, but if she had any feelings for me she kept them to herself.

 I had to go to the railhead with a herd of cattle which took me away from the Ponderosa and my darling Kathleen for a month.  While we were miles apart, I had time to think out my feelings, work out what I was going to do. My decision was soon made. I was going to tell Kathleen just how much she meant to me, would court her properly, and hopefully she would one day feel the same way.  Then I would ask her to marry me. I made plans in my head – what I would say to her, how I would tell Pa and my brothers. I had even worked out where we would live.  There was an ideal piece of land on the Ponderosa where a new cabin could be built.  Adam would draw out the plans for our new home and he and Hoss would help build it, just as they had helped years before, for Laura and me.

I returned, but my life never did turn out the way I had planned it on that long drive.  As I rode into town to visit my hearts desire, ready to open up my feelings, I was met with a sight that caused my heart to break. Walking down the street Kathleen was on the arm of another man, and the way they looked at each other was enough for me to know that I had lost her forever.  She was in love and did not care who knew.  He obviously felt the same.

Kathleen and her father stop at the top of the aisle and our eyes meet and we give each other a slight smile.  She knows I love her, but it is an unrequited love that she shows in her eyes.  As she turns to look at Mitch the passionate radiance on her face tells me her heart is for him and him alone.

I take a step back as the couple faces the minister, and the service begins.  I do my duty as the best man.  I hand over the ring at the required time looking happy for the couple, yet all the time I am living a lie.  My heart is breaking inside, but I wear a veil of pretence throughout the service and at last it is over.

Mitch and Kathleen are joined in matrimony and as they kiss for the first time as man and wife my eyes fleetingly betray the pain of losing her.  I just hope no-one notices I have dropped my guard for a moment so I quickly look around and luckily every member of the congregation have eyes only for the happy couple.  All except one.  We stare at each other for a moment and I realize he alone has guessed my secret.  Looking away quickly, I resume the role of best man and best friend of the groom.

I remember on the day of their engagement party I had been sitting under a tree sipping mulled wine, and Kathleen had joined me while Mitch was talking to a group of friends.   As we sat together I said all the right things; hoping they would be happy, glad to help in anyway I could, proud to be asked to be best man at their wedding, and she had held my hand and squeezed it gently.

She knew I had deep feelings for her, yet I stepped back and left her and Mitch to love one another.  I had no desire to upset their plans with the added complication of a jealous best friend, for Mitch was too much like a brother to hurt him that way.  As she stood up to leave I looked into her beautiful eyes that twinkled with happiness.  The effect of too much mulled wine swirled around in my head and I took hold of her hand. “Kathleen. Do you think you could have ever loved me?”

She had stared at me for a moment, slightly surprised at my question.  She then brushed away a wayward curl on my forehead, stooped over, and brushing her lips on my cheek, whispered in her soft Irish voice, “Oh Joe.  If only you hadn’t gone on that cattle drive.”

I released her hand and then she had gone, rejoining her beloved Mitch, and the matter was never discussed between us again.

As I continued to sit under the tree her words echoed around my head.

If only you hadn’t gone on that cattle drive.   If only!

It is late now and the day is almost through. At Pa’s insistence, their wedding reception was held on the Ponderosa and it has been a wonderful party.  Now it is over and the happy couple have left for the Devlin ranch, keen to start their married life alone together.  Slowly the guests have departed, and it is nearly midnight.

All is quiet as I walk out into the chilly September evening and stand by the corral, staring up into the dark abyss.  My nervousness has now gone and so have the blue jacket and tight collar and tie.  No longer do I have to maintain the mask of pretence.  Mitch knows nothing of my deep love for Kathleen and that is the way it must always be.  She and Mitch are made for each other and I sincerely wish them well.

The pressure of the day’s charade and the knowledge that I must never divulge my secret desire for another man’s wife suddenly overwhelms me and I feel the tears forming in my eyes.  Without warning I begin to cry, my shoulders shaking slightly as I let out all my pain and frustration.

I hear a movement behind me and become tense until I feel the long arm of my eldest brother around my shoulder. He squeezes it gently, but stays silent as I sob. He knows my feelings for Kathleen, realizes what I have gone through this day. He alone had seen me drop my guard in the Church for that fleeting moment, had seen my misery.  He knows all too well the hell I have been going through.

 It was only a couple of years ago that he also suffered his own personal loss when his beloved fiancée, Laura, decided she wanted to live out her life with cousin Will, and Adam was left desolate.  I feel a sudden pang of guilt.  Where had I been when Adam needed a sympathetic arm around his shoulder?  Probably drinking in the Silver Dollar with my friends, the youngest Cartwright not giving his elder brother a second thought.

My tears fall without embarrassment in his presence, and slowly relieve the pressure of unhappiness from inside my heart.  Eventually I am all cried out.  It will take time to heal the wound I carry inside, for the scar to fade, but the process has begun and we stand together, content to be with each other, staring up at the star-filled Nevada sky, the big brother looking out for his younger sibling, just as he has done since the day I was born.

In three days time Adam will be gone from my life, maybe forever, so I savor his closeness, enjoy this moment of peace and tranquility with him.  I wonder what adventures await him in the new world he will create for himself and I silently wish him happiness and contentment.

The yowl of a distant coyote ends the moment of brotherly revere.

“You did a good job today, Joe, and I could never be more proud of you.  If only I could leave knowing for certain you will find true happiness one day; you deserve it so much.”

I have no words to answer him. With an uncharacteristic show of affection, he ruffles my hair and then puts both his hands on my shoulders.  I stare into his deep brown eyes that seem to penetrate my very soul.

“God bless you, Joseph Francis Cartwright.”

With that, he returns to the warmth of the ranch house leaving me alone, his words ringing in my ears and my eyes become moist again.  I realize this is his private and personal way of saying goodbye. We have never nor probably will ever be as close to each other as we have just been and the memory of it will stay with me forever.

Later as I lay in bed, I reflect on this day now gone and the words of my elder brother.

Would there ever be a time when I would stand waiting in a church for someone special to walk down the aisle, her eyes shining with a passionate love and desire for me and me alone?  I wish and hope with all my heart there is another ‘Kathleen’ somewhere, and maybe one day, if the goddess of destiny will allow, we will find each other.

If only I knew what the future had in store for me. If only!

***The End***

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