Word Count: 7250
“But Pa! Why can’t I come into town with you? I’m not a little kid anymore and it’s just not fair to punish me like this, especially on a day like today!”
Joe Cartwright’s hazel eyes met those of his father without flinching, but even after asking the question, in his heart, Joe was certain of the negative answer he was about to receive. However, with dogged determination, the eighteen-year-old decided to persevere in an attempt to wear his father down.
“I mean it’s not as if that fight last week was all down to me this time. And I’ve already arranged to pay the money Sam said I owed for damages out of my wages. Though with all that was going on, I don’t see how he could say I was the one who threw the chair that broke his fancy mirror. I know for a fact he was hiding behind the bar from start to finish, with his backside in the air, and couldn’t have possibly seen a thing!”
The image of the overly rotund Silver Dollar barman in such a precarious and undignified position caused a quick burst of laughter from both Adam and Hoss as they followed the battle of wills between father and brother with interest at the breakfast table.
For once, Ben threw his two eldest a stern, silencing stare then looked directly at his youngest son’s faintly bruised face and fading black eye, outward signs of the trauma inflicted by the hands of drunken miners that night. “Joseph. This is not a form of punishment and not letting you loose again in Virginia City today has got nothing to do with what happened at the saloon or your age, though at any other time it most certainly would. My decision has got to do with your health and well being and you know it!”
Pointedly Ben then took his time as he placed his knife and fork down to rest on his empty breakfast plate before continuing. “You’ve still got several cracked ribs which haven’t had chance to heal properly yet and that blow to the back of your head left you with severe concussion. How you managed to find your way back to the ranch in that state I’ll never know! So until the doctor says you’re truly healed up and can be allowed to ride again without fear of collapsing, you’re not going anywhere,” he ordered, silently cringing as the distressing memory of finding his son crumpled up in a heap by the front door flashed into his mind.
Already bored by several long days of confinement to the ranch house, Joe shook his head vehemently; the vigorous movement causing a stab of pain to shoot across his tightly bandaged chest. He automatically flinched. “But Pa, I’ll go crazy if I have to stick around here much longer and I’m feeling fine now…really I am!” He smiled deceptively, hoping no one noticed his discomfort. “And I could go in the wagon with Hop Sing if you like…that wouldn’t do me much harm.”
However his pleading was to no avail as Ben shook his head firmly, well used to the charade being played out in front of him by his youngest. “The answer is still no, Joseph. You’re not to step one foot from this house until you get the all clear from Paul, however long it takes. And I want you to promise me you’ll follow my instruction to the letter. Do you understand?”
For a brief moment, Joe looked like he was about to start fighting again; his fists clenched as though in need of something to smash in his frustration. After all, he was a full grown man now and old enough to take care of himself, and the thought of his father being over-protective and over-cautious like he was still a defenseless baby was more than he could bear.
Ben noticed his exasperation but said nothing as a long silence followed; he waited patiently as the tension that had taken hold of his youngest began to slowly dissolve away as he knew it eventually would. “Well, Joseph? I’m waiting for an answer.”
Joe nodded his head, albeit reluctantly, as he let out a deep sigh of resignation. “Yes sir, I understand. I’m not to leave the house until Doc Martin says I can. I promise.”
With compassion in his eyes at his son’s dejected expression, Ben reached over and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Thank you, Joseph. I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Though I don’t see why you’re so fired up about going into town today of all days. I’d have thought you’d enjoy having a good reason to skip one of the Reverend’s overlong sermons for once.”
Before Joe could answer, Adam sat forward, a faint smile of amusement covering his face. “Reckon after his altercation at the saloon, Joe feels in desperate need to repent before he builds up too much of a backlog in the sinning department!” he chipped in teasingly. “Who knows what other misdemeanors may be lurking just around the corner?”
If his legs had been long enough, Joe would have lashed out with a foot at that point towards Adam’s unsuspecting ankle in some crazy childlike way. But he resisted temptation. However, knowing his verbal response to his brother was not only inappropriate on the Sabbath but above all something that could not be repeated in front of their father, Joe instead found himself raising his upper lip towards Adam in a sneering fashion like the fiery tempered ten-year-old of years gone by. Then Joe inwardly giggled. So much for growing up into a mature adult!
Watching the exchange, Hoss chuckled as he swallowed down the last portion of ham on his fork. Then he shook his head decisively, determined to put in his two cents worth. “Reckon you’re wrong there, Adam. Seein’ as our little brother considers himself a gift to women these days, I have an idea he’s been secretly eyeing a few pretty fillies lately and was aimin’ to make a bid for one of their picnic baskets at the Church auction this afternoon,” he said as his blue eyes flashed mischievously. “Ain’t no better way to impress a woman and have a chance of courtin’ her than to lay down good money for her homemade apple pie! That’s more like it, ain’t it, Joe?”
Although Hoss had pretty much hit the nail on the head, Joe refused to admit that had been his plan and shrugged, pretending nonchalance. “Sometimes your imagination gets the better of you, big brother, and no mistake. I’ve got better things to do with my cash and definitely don’t need picnic auctions to get me any female,” he said, inwardly chiding himself that through his own stupidity and hotheadedness he was going to miss out on one of the highlights of the Virginia City social calendar.
A disbelieving grin now showed on Adam’s face as he recognized the telltale signs of disappointment sounding in Joe’s voice. “Never mind, Lothario,” he smiled as he wiped his napkin across his mouth. “There’s always next year.”
Joe was tempted to stick out his tongue in response but thought better of it, and instead just sipped the last dregs of coffee from his cup as the long-cased clock by the front door struck the hour. Ben re-checked the time on his pocket watch then stretched out his arms and stared over towards Adam and Hoss. “Reckon we better get going, boys. I can’t speak for God but I know the Reverend doesn’t like to be kept waiting, and if we hang around much longer, we’re going to be late for Sunday Service.”
With a joint nod of agreement from his eldest sons, there was the sound of scraping chairs on the oak planked floor as they all rose in unison and made their way in the direction of the front door.
“I’ll go check Hop Sing has packed enough for us all to eat, then I’ll help him load our hamper onto the wagon,” Hoss said, quickly picking up his hat and giving his little brother an affectionate pat on the head as he headed back towards the kitchen. “I’ll make sure we save some for you to eat when we get back, Joe,” he called before disappearing from view to supervise the selection of provisions with their much loved Chinese cook.
Joe nodded his thanks, then cautiously pushed himself up from his chair and held perfectly still for a moment, breathing in slowly and no longer bothering to disguise the soreness he felt from his damaged ribs.
Adam watched, and now feeling a degree of sympathy for the one left behind, considered his plight and realized his brother needed some sort of distraction, something to get his mind off the lonely hours ahead. “You’re welcome to look through the books in my room if you want something to read, Joe,” he offered as he tugged down his hat. “There’s that new Dickens novel on my dresser. It only arrived the other day and I haven’t had chance to read it yet but I’m sure you’d enjoy it.”
With their previous hostility already forgotten and appreciating his generosity and thoughtfulness, Joe gave his brother a grateful smile. “I might just do that, Adam. Sure would make a change from one of those dime novels I’ve been looking at lately. Gets a little boring when you know the bad guy always gets his comeuppance every week.”
Ben slipped on his coat and as Joe walked slowly into view gave him a final concerned glance. “We won’t be late back, so just put your feet up and enjoy the peace and quiet for once. But you mind what I said, young man. No over-exertion and don’t even think about taking Cochise out for a ride.”
Joe gave a wry smile. “Don’t worry, Pa. The way I’m aching I can hardly climb on my bed, never mind my horse!” he chuckled. Giving father and brother a farewell wave, he closed the front door behind them and was left alone.
Minutes later after the sound of horse’s hooves and a wagon died away, Joe took his time clearing the dirty breakfast dishes into the kitchen then returned to the large sitting room. He stood by the fireplace, savoring the silence and wondering what he could do to keep himself occupied for the next few hours without incurring his father’s wrath. Might as well take Adam up on his offer, he finally decided with a resigned sigh. After all, it wasn’t often his elder brother allowed anyone free access to his collection of books.
Adam’s bedroom was always spick and span and a far cry from his own, so Joe took a moment to look around after stepping inside his elder brother’s haven of tranquility and tidiness.
A warm breeze fluttered the curtains as it gently wafted in through the open window; a couple of finely painted seascapes inherited from Adam’s grandfather Stoddard adorned two walls. Then, on the third, a bookcase jutted out, filled from ceiling to floor with numerous first editions of various classics, poetry and Shakespearean works. On the bedside dresser, a green leather-bound book with its title, ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’ clearly embossed in gold lettering on the front caught Joe’s eye. He walked over, picked it up and carefully flicked through to the first page.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”
Joe blew out his cheeks and shook his head, clearly unimpressed and unmoved by the inspiring introduction. Maybe I’d be better off with my dime novels, he silently pondered and was about to place the book back down, but on reflection, decided against it. After all, he had nothing better to do and Joe knew it would please Adam to think his little brother was turning into a literary enthusiast at long last. So slowly and carefully easing onto the bed, Joe made himself as comfortable as he could, then began to read.
However he’d only managed a couple of paragraphs when there was the unexpected sound of flapping wings close at hand, and to Joe’s surprise, a band-tailed pigeon suddenly flew in through the open window and landed on top of a tall double-door wardrobe which stood at the far side of the room. For a brief second, both man and bird stared at each other, both in shock and amazement. Then the pigeon fluttered off again, obviously in a panic at its strange and confining surroundings. It flew around a couple of times in obvious disorientation, but as it headed back towards the window and freedom, the bird unfortunately misjudged the opening and hit the pane of glass with a loud thump. The noise created was enough to make Joe feel sick to the stomach as loosened feathers floated into the air and he watched the pigeon fall heavily behind Adam’s writing bureau which was positioned directly under the window.
There was a deathly silence for a few moments; then grimacing with discomfort, Joe pushed himself up and made his way slowly across the room. He peered down into the gap, expecting to see the body of the lifeless creature lying on the floor in a bloody mess. However, to his astonishment, the pigeon was well and truly alive and just looked up at him, covered in cobwebs and wedged tightly between wall and desk.
“You darn fool bird,” Joe muttered as he stared down at it. “Why’d you have to pull such a stupid stunt? I’ve a good mind to shoot you here and now for trespassing and let my brother eat you for supper!”
The pigeon began making pitiful, almost pleading, sounds from the back of its throat and Joe’s heart melted with compassion. He shook his head. “All right, I was only joking,” he murmured, knowing he couldn’t leave it suffering unnecessarily. Yet what could he do? He needed more space to rescue the luckless bird but the heavily built twin pedestal desk was extremely weighty; in fact, its cumbersome bulk was the main reason for it not changing position over many years. Mindful of his cracked ribs, Joe wondered if he’d have the strength to move it.
Maybe if I take out the contents of the six drawers first, I’ll manage to shift it more easily, Joe convinced himself, and giving a silent apology to his elder brother for invading his privacy, quickly began emptying private papers, files and endless reams of paper onto the floor into separate piles. Then after clearing everything off the top of the bureau, Joe took hold of the desk and pulled. It barely budged an inch. Taking a different tack, he rocked it back and forth until eventually the bureau began creaking slowly forwards and the gap was twice as wide and much more accessible.
Exhausted by the effort as his chest throbbed painfully, Joe took a moment to regain his breath, then cautiously leaned forwards and peered back down at the unmoving bird. The only sign of life was a terrified beady eye blinking towards him. “If my Pa had just seen me do that after telling me to take it easy today, chances are I’d be going for a walk with him behind the woodshed tonight,” Joe joked with a chuckle, knowing for a fact, though his father was strict at times, he’d never raised a hand towards any of his sons over the years.
“I suppose you want me to lift you out as well?” Joe then questioned with a grin as he eased his arms over the edge and took hold of the quivering body. Without protest the pigeon allowed itself to be hoisted up and Joe gave it a quick scrutiny as he gently stroked the soft feathers. “Well, don’t think you’ve damaged your wings but I reckon you’ll have a sore head for a while.”
Carefully Joe placed it on the outside window ledge and stepped back, waiting a few moments for the pigeon to regain its senses and realize it was free. “Go on then…scoot!” he instructed, shaking an arm towards it and smiling happily as the bird flapped its wings and flew off without a backward glance, clearly no worse for wear after its unscheduled ordeal.
With his feathered companion gone Joe stepped back, and for the first time, took a moment to look at the large piece of furniture he’d just moved. Made of mahogany and with obvious French influences in its design, he hadn’t paid it much attention over the years, but now, as Joe studied it more carefully, recollections stirred in the dark corners of his mind.
A family heirloom brought to the ranch from her home in New Orleans, the desk had been his mother’s pride and joy and had stood in the marital bedroom until her death and was then transferred to Adam’s room to be made better use of by the studious Cartwright ever since. Joe gave a small smile as cherished childhood memories flooded back. He called to mind sitting on the floor and playing with the brass swan neck handles while Marie wrote her daily journal, something she did religiously and without fail every evening from arriving at the ranch to that tragic cold, grey February morning, six years later.
Marie had always been very open about the contents of all her diaries as each year she recorded life with her new husband on the Ponderosa, her loving relationship with Adam and Hoss, the arrival of Joseph Francis, and the happy days enjoyed by the tight knit Cartwright family in the subsequent years as the ranch grew and prospered. So it seemed only fitting after she died that Ben should take it upon himself to read portions of each to his sons during those first dark and inconsolable months of grieving. Thankfully, his wife’s detailed musings provoked so many happy memories it proved to be a great source of comfort and solace, not only to Ben but also to the three motherless boys left behind.
However, to Ben’s puzzlement and regret, the sixth book chronicling the last few weeks of Marie’s life went missing after her death, and even though every closet and drawer was turned upside down and inside out in an attempt to locate the precious journal, it was never found. Its disappearance remained a mystery and a topic of conversation still brought up occasionally at the dinner table or on long winter evenings in front of the fire by the mystified Ben.
Many years had passed since the five remaining diaries had been packed away for the last time, no longer needed to console or placate those who’d read them. Joe often wondered, though, if there were times when his father took them out in the privacy of his room and relived those blissfully happy days cruelly cut short by his wife’s untimely death.
Absently brushing away a few stray feathers from the bureau’s molded shaped top, Joe’s thoughts slowly returned from the past to the mundane task of returning Adam’s desk back to its original position. He placed a hand within a slight indentation at the rear in an attempt to get a firmer hold and cautiously took a deep breath as he prepared to push. But as his fingers accidentally placed pressure on a raised area no bigger than a nail head, he suddenly heard the faintest of clicks and a hinged piece of wood approximately ten inches long suddenly dropped down at the back of the desk for the first time in many years.
Joe’s eyes widened with undisguised surprise as he took in the sight, sure no one else knew of the desk’s secret recess. But as he pulled out a small black book from its hideaway, he gave out a gasp of recognition. No one except his mother, he silently acknowledged as he read the all too familiar handwriting on the inside of the front cover.
Hardly daring to breathe, Joe looked at it for several more seconds, realizing what he had in his hands. He sank heavily onto the floor, ignoring the nagging pain from his bruised ribs as he continued to stare down in muted astonishment at his mother’s missing journal.
After all these years it had come to light at last, and for a brief moment, Joe’s face lit up excitedly, knowing the joy his father would feel at its reappearance.
But then Joe’s expression changed and he frowned in puzzlement, for he remembered clearly all his mother’s journals were left out on the bureau’s top when she’d been writing them, available for anyone to read had they wished. But clearly out of character, this one had obviously been hidden after she’d finished her daily musings, purposely secreted away from prying eyes. But for what reason?
Joe could feel his stomach churning. He knew after many long conversations with his father as he grew up that his mother had been one of the most openly honest people Ben had ever known, willingly telling him everything about herself when they first met and sparing none of the more sordid details of her past life which any other woman would have kept to herself. So what possible secret could his mother have been hiding on this occasion from her husband?
For a moment, Joe didn’t know what to do for the best. But knowing he couldn’t rest until the mystery was solved and though he didn’t want to — wished he could stop himself — Joe knew what he had to do.
“I’m sorry, mama”, he whispered, hoping she’d somehow hear and forgive him. Taking a calming breath to still his shaky hand, Joe turned to the first page and began to read.
The thirty one entries covering the first month of 1847, detailed much the same happenings as years gone by as Marie described the daily routine of her family on the Ponderosa during those long hard winter days — the highs and lows, much laughter, few tears.
Joe smiled as he found out things about himself as a four-year-old, his memories of that time now long forgotten and erased from his mind. As he finished his mother’s account of the last day of January, he gave a sigh of relief. There was no hint of any dire secret which warranted the diary to be hidden from view and he felt an overwhelming sense of shame to have thought the worst of her. What had he been worried about? So feeling much more optimistic about the contents he continued to read.
Monday February 1, 1847
I can hardly believe it but this is the second month I’ve missed so I just know after all this time Ben and I are expecting our second child! I’m so happy, ecstatic, want to shout out my news from the rooftop! I’m going to be a mother again!!
I did think of going to see the doctor today to confirm my condition and make it official. But being such a good friend, once Paul knows he’s bound to want to congratulate Ben straightaway and I don’t want him to know. Not yet. Ben will only start worrying about me and at the moment he has too much on his mind and I can’t bear to add to the load, what with the new mines needing overseeing, the on-going timber contract negotiations and all the arguments over Adam wanting to go to College.
That’s why I need to be the one to tell Ben but only when the time is right. And though I expect I could talk Paul round to not betray my secret, which I know he’d be loathe to do under the circumstances, I’d rather not put him in that awkward position.
So diary, for the first time I am going to hide you away for a while in my secret place, out of sight from inquisitive eyes. My wonderful news will have to wait…just a while longer.
Joe tore his eyes from the page and swallowed hard. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So that was her secret! His mother was having another child! Totally unprepared by the revelation he could feel his eyes watering with emotion but anxious to carry on he sniffed away the moisture and continued.
Tuesday February 2, 1847
After a long discussion between the three of us last night, Ben has finally been persuaded to allow Adam to attend college in the Fall. I know he hates the thought of his first born going so far away for such a long while but Ben knows it’s for the best. Adam has such a clever head on his shoulders and it would be such a waste if he didn’t get to prove his potential. Though I’m sure when he disappears on the stage to Boston it will feel like my heart has been torn out of my chest. I love that young man so much, as if he were my own.
Sometimes when I look at Adam I wonder if my first born would have grown as intelligent and handsome as he is. Why my son was taken from me so quickly when I’d only had a few moments to hold him in my arms I’ll never know, but I’ve never forgotten him and never will, not for as long as I live.
A great sadness flowed though Joe’s body. It was no secret within the family about his mother’s first born; the boy dying soon after birth while Marie was still married to her first husband. But until that moment Joe had never really thought of the pain she must have gone through as her dead baby – his half brother – was wrenched from her arms. He blinked hard a few times and pursed his lips tight then began reading again.
I still haven’t told Ben about the baby. My appetite is not as it was and I can’t face a cup of coffee any more but thankfully I don’t think anyone has noticed. Keeping up this charade is becoming such an ordeal for me. I just hope it ends soon as I found myself snapping at Joseph today without good reason. I know he’s a little scamp at times and full of mischief but I shouldn’t have been so sharp with him. He’s only four years old after all, and when he started crying and saying sorry mama over and over, I could have wept with shame.
He’s here now, happily sitting by my side as I write, just as he does every evening before Ben and I tuck him into bed. Sometimes I can hardly believe I’ve been blessed with such a beautiful wonderful son. Maybe it was God’s way of making up for the one I lost.
Joe absently ran his finger across the flowing handwriting as if to feel closer to his mother as her words sunk in. Reading what was so clearly written from the heart about the child he’d once been and the love lavished on him was just too much for him to bear. He wished he could remember more about his mother from those days, recall the touch of her hand in his own, the sweetness of her voice as she laughed or sang him a lullaby. But there was hardly anything, just a shadowy outline whose face smiled at him from a photograph on his bedside dresser to remind him of what he’d lost.
Joe managed to hold back the sobs that threatened but tears still escaped down his cheeks in a silent flow. Eventually he forced them to stop and wiping a sleeve across his eyes to clear his blurry vision he turned to the next page.
Wednesday February 3, 1847
Circumstances have changed so much since yesterday. Ben has finalized the contract he’d been working so hard to procure earlier than he’d expected so that’s one worry off his mind. And now the decision about Adam has been made Ben seems more settled to the idea and there is a much lighter atmosphere around the house.
Adam too seems much more relaxed and is already showing great excitement about his future. I expect it’s all been a strain on him, wondering if he’s doing the right thing by going away; after all he’s been Ben’s right hand man for such a long time and worked so hard to make the Ponderosa the success it is. He’s already made a list of all the books he’s going to need and I’ve promised him a trip to San Francisco so he can be fitted out by the finest tailor and won’t stand out like a sore thumb when he arrives on the fashionable East coast.
I’m not sure if Joseph realizes what’s going on with his elder brother. I don’t think he can comprehend that Adam will be over 3000 miles away in Boston and not the few miles when at school in Virginia City. He keeps telling him he’ll make sure Hop Sing saves enough dinner to eat every evening, as though he were expecting him back each day. Something tells me we’re going to have a few tears when he works out Adam won’t be returning for several years at least.
Maybe having this baby was destined to be so Joseph will be occupied with a new brother or sister when he needs a diversion the most! Yes, that must be it! I am fated to have this baby for the good of my darling Little Joe! Thank you Lord!
This morning I experienced morning sickness for the first time and remembering how I suffered with Joseph and my first little one, I know all too well it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. Luckily Ben had already taken the boys and Hop Sing to town to collect the supplies so I was able to go to the outhouse without gaining any attention and retch to my heart’s content!
I had hoped to say nothing for at least another month but at this rate I won’t be able to hide my condition for very much longer and then my secret will be out.
However its Ben’s birthday next week and I think the perfect opportunity to be able to tell him and make it a big surprise. I just hope I can last out the next few days!
Joe paused, knowing by the date the next entry would have been the last one Marie had written. A knot of apprehension tightened in his stomach and Joe could feel himself trembling as he took a deep swallow, turned the page and looked down.
Thursday Feb 4, 1847
Once again I’ve been feeling sick this morning but luckily I managed to fight against the nausea and feigned a headache instead which seemed to fool my darling husband. I know I won’t be able to trick Ben much longer though, and as I hate all this deceit, today I’ve made a decision.
Whatever the weather tomorrow, I intend to put on my very best riding habit while I still can fit into it and then go out for a long ride, probably down to the furthest end of the Lake before returning home.
And then when I get back, I’m going to tell Ben my news as I just can’t keep it to myself any longer. And I know from that moment he is going to worry about me, the baby, and wrap me up in cotton wool until our child is born. But I don’t mind. I know he does it out of love for me. What more could any wife want from her husband?
So diary after today I won’t have a need to hide you away any more, which will be a great weight off my mind. I hate keeping secrets from my family….even joyful ones!
I can’t wait to see the look on Ben’s face when it sinks in that he is to be a father again. From tomorrow, our lives are never going to be the same and I couldn’t be happier.
As Joe read his mother’s final poignant thoughts, the diary slipped from his fingers and he stared without seeing; images of what happened on that fateful day suddenly swirled around his brain.
It had been raining during the night but the day dawned clear and cold. So after breakfast, Marie told Ben her intention of going for a ride that morning. Dressed in her favorite green velvet riding habit, she took out her horse and galloped away from sight, her husband waving her goodbye. An hour she was supposed to be gone, but it stretched to two, three, four, until Ben couldn’t wait any longer. Leaving Hoss and Joe behind under Hop Sing’s watchful eye, he and Adam went searching.
They found her body near a copse of trees which overlooked Lake Tahoe, her neck broken after her horse slipped on the muddy ground and fell on top of her. Death was instantaneous and painless but no less heartbreaking and shattering for those left behind.
Recalling the tragedy left Joe feeling numb and emotionally drained, but as he stared down at the diary, the reality of the situation suddenly hit him.
His father never knew about the baby conceived out of love, never had the chance to cherish and hold his fourth child in those strong gentle hands as he’d done with his three sons before. When Marie died, her secret was buried with her. Until now….now the diary had been found all could be revealed.
Joe shook his head with indecision and gave an involuntary shudder as the options he had whirled around in his head.
Should he keep the secret to himself and say nothing about his find? Return the diary to its hiding place and conceal any signs of its re-appearance in his brother’s room? Keep everyone in ignorance and disregard a lifetimes teaching by his father about openness and honesty within the family.
Or should he come clean about the journal being found? Allow Ben to at long last read his wife’s account of her final few days and in so doing find out about the secret she’d been so eager to share with her husband but which she’d carried to her grave? Surely his Pa had a right to know?
Joe leaned his head back and closed his eyes as his heart beat erratically and pounded loud in his chest. Whatever the outcome, the decision was entirely in his hands now as he considered the implications, and tired in body and soul, he suddenly found himself silently praying, begging for guidance to do the right thing.
It was early evening and the front door creaked open. Ben and Adam took off their hats and coats then walked across the room towards the settee where a figure was fast asleep with an unopened book held tight in his hand.
Adam bent down and nudged his brother gently on the shoulder. Joe blinked his eyes open and stared blankly up for a few moments at the two faces looking down at him. “Looks like our sleeping beauty has been having forty winks,” Ben joked, giving out a warm smile.
Looking noticeably tense and a little pale Joe gave a faint nod of welcome. “Oh…hi Pa…Adam. I must have dozed off. Did you have a good time?”
Ben nodded as he made his way to his favorite leather armchair and sat down. “It was an excellent turnout; most of the citizens of Virginia City must have been there. But your absence was duly noted by more than a handful of young ladies who looked most disappointed when they realized you weren’t around to bid for their picnic donation to the auction!”
The faintest of smiles drifted across Joe’s face then as Adam eased down into his armchair Joe looked around and frowned. “Where’s Hoss? Hasn’t he come back from town with you?”
“Your brother is helping Hop Sing unload the hamper from the wagon,” Ben explained as he picked up his pipe from the fireplace, struck a match and lit it. “I’ve never known such an amount of food packed for one family, so there’s a good deal still uneaten. But you know Hoss. He’s always scared there won’t be enough and he’ll go hungry.”
As if on cue, Hoss appeared from the kitchen carrying a large platter piled high with picnic surplus. “Hi there, little brother,” he called as he placed it down on the coffee table. “Fancy sharing some leftovers? I’ve sure got an appetite since riding back from town.”
Joe gave a weak nod and eased himself slowly up with his free arm held tight across his bruised ribs, giving out a moan of discomfort as Hoss sat down in the space now made available on the settee.
Ben eyed his pale-faced youngest worriedly. “Your chest still a little sore Joe?”
For once the young man willingly nodded. “More than a little, Pa. You see I’ve….”
“Don’t tell me you’ve been out riding?” Ben interrupted with a stern expression. “I told you quite plain you were not to leave the house or go anywhere near your horse!”
Joe shook his head. “No, Pa. I haven’t been out the house. Honest.” He looked over towards his brother. “Fact is a bird flew into your bedroom, Adam, and….”
There was a sudden look of panic in Adam’s eyes as he imagined the possible repercussion of such an event. “A bird? Did it do much damage?” he asked before his brother could explain more.
Joe gave a reassuring smile. “No. I managed to get it back through the window before it had the chance and your room is just as you left it, though you might notice a few pigeon feathers floating around over the next few days.”
Visibly sighing with relief, Adam selected a chicken leg from the pile. “Thanks, Joe. Is that the reason you’re a little worse for wear at the moment? Putting in too much effort trying to catch it?”
Giving out a faint smile at the memory, Joe nodded. “Guess so. Looks like my ribs haven’t healed as well as I’d hoped, and I know now for a fact I’d never have made it into town while shaking around in the back of that wagon.”
Hoss leaned over and picked up a sandwich. “I seem to remember that was just what you were told this morning, little brother,” he commented astutely as he took a large bite and began chewing noisily. “Surely after all these years, you must realize Pa always knows best when it comes to our welfare and only says what he says to keep us from getting hurt more than necessary!”
Joe said nothing for a few moments, just absently stroking the book on his lap with his fingertips as he looked intently over at his father; then he agreed. “Yes, I know.” His voice was barely audible, as if in a momentary daydream; a vacancy in his eyes indicated his mind was far away.
Ben noticed his stare out the corner of his eye. “Joe? Is everything all right?” he asked softly, laying a hand tenderly on his knee. Joe felt his father’s touch and shuddered out of his daydream, nodded his head, then directed his gaze back to his elder brother.
“Thanks for the loan of the book, Adam,” he said, holding out the first edition and passing it over to his elder brother’s outstretched hand. “I managed a couple of pages but couldn’t concentrate after that, and to be honest, I don’t really think it’s for me.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Only two pages of Dickens buddy? That’s hardly enough time to decide if you’d like it or not. Maybe you should try reading it another day when you’re in more of a receptive mood.”
Joe shook his head. “I don’t think so. After today, I’ve done enough reading to last me a long time…a very long time!” he said with a bitter edge to his voice. Then with a deep sigh, he rested his head on the back of the settee and stared thoughtfully up at the ceiling.
There was then an uncomfortable silence for a few moments as Ben exchanged bewildering glances with his two eldest, and he was about to question his youngest as to what he meant when Joe suddenly looked back at him with an unfathomable gaze.
“Pa? There’s not much you wouldn’t do to protect any one of us from harm is there?”
Widening his eyes in surprise at the query and the change of subject, Ben gave a confused frown. “Erm….no. I guess there isn’t. But what’s made you ask something like that, son?”
Just shrugging his shoulders, Joe failed to answer, instead continuing with his probing. “Would that include maybe keeping something to yourself even if you wanted to share it, knowing if the secret were found out, it would seriously upset and hurt all of us in some way?”
“A secret?” Ben paused totally bemused, wondering where this conversation was going. “I don’t really know, Joe. I can’t think of any time I’ve been in that position so it’s hard to say what I’d….”
“But you might?” Joe interrupted quickly.
A little taken aback by the barely concealed urgency of his query, Ben nodded. “I suppose if I’d weighed up all the pros and cons and thought it was in everyone’s best interests to say nothing, I might consider it. Though for the life of me, I can’t think of anything I’d ever want to keep from any one of you for any reason.”
Considering his answer, Joe closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath. For a few moments, Ben eyed him curiously, totally at a loss as to what was going on in his head. Although usually wearing his heart on his sleeve and his emotions easily read, ever so often the youngest Cartwright was truly an enigma to them all.
Adam and Hoss also exchanged a look, one that suggested they were as equally perplexed as their father while Ben leaned forward in his chair. “Joseph I can see something’s bothering you. Do you want to get it off your chest?”
With a deep sigh, Joe looked back into the caring face again and shook his head. “Not this time, Pa. Reckon sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie,” he said with an air of someone who now considered the matter well and truly closed.
Then acting like the Joe of old, he playfully pushed a finger into his big brother’s side. “Seeing as Pa says I’m not allowed to exert myself unnecessarily, any chance of some coffee to go with this, Hoss?” he asked cheekily. Giving them all an inscrutable smile, he helped himself to a sandwich and began to eat.