Summary: A Joe story for Valentine’s Day
Word Count: 1800
Joe Cartwright studied his reflection in the mirror. He stared, hard and unblinking, at the unshaven, bleary eyed and wretched looking face, his once boyish good looks no longer evident and replaced by the signs of excess whiskey, lack of sleep and too little food. He didn’t like what he saw but he couldn’t be bothered to look after himself these days.
It was just too much effort.
Joe readily accepted he was no longer the rational, hard working and good- humored man he once was. Now a bad tempered and emotionally unstable individual, his moods were as changeable as the Nevada weather. No wonder on the rare occasions he went into town, old friends and acquaintances made a point of crossing over to the other side of the street rather than face one of his dark staring glares of irritability or sullen bursts of uncalled-for anger. But he couldn’t be bothered to be sociable and pleasant to folk these days.
It was just too much effort.
The unmistakable sound of loud raucous laughter filtered through the air and Joe’s silent miserable musings fleetingly ceased as he looked through his bedroom window onto the yard below.
February 14th had dawned cold and wet, but even the bad weather refused to dampen the spirits of the several ranch hands who were making their way out of the bunkhouse. Tonight was the annual Valentine’s Day dance, a much looked forward to gathering for the citizens of Virginia City, and Joe could sense the rising excitement and enthusiasm that emanated from the men as their voices grew louder, all of them washed, changed and spruced up for the occasion.
They were loyal, hard working Ponderosa employees Joe had known for years. They’d even called him friend once. But no more. Nowadays they neither queried nor argued about orders Joe issued in case they’d face one of his lightening fast volatile tempers that could emerge at any hour of the day or night. And there was no feeling of respect or comradeship shown towards him, the ranch hands having learned to their cost to keep both their distance and their opinions to themselves and from their young boss.
Joe continued to gaze down through the curtains and watched the men mount their horses and then quickly canter out of sight. He sighed deeply as he sank down onto his bed. He missed and longed for their camaraderie once more, but Joe couldn’t be bothered to change his ways and become the Little Joe of old again.
It was just too much effort.
He closed his eyes and his thoughts lingered on his father who’d been forced to watch the son he loved more than life itself slowly disintegrate in front of his eyes and turn into the wretched individual he’d become. But even though Joe had known he was breaking his heart, he couldn’t be bothered to mend his ways and return to being the Joseph his father once cherished.
It was just too much effort.
Suddenly a vision of loveliness floated around in Joe’s mind’s eye. It was the face of the woman he loved. He’d been thinking a lot about her lately, feeling guilty because he hadn’t visited her for such a long time. But no amount of pleading or cajoling from his father would persuade Joe to go see her. He couldn’t…he wouldn’t. It was as if it was just too much of an effort.
But today was Valentine’s Day…a celebration of love between a man and a woman. She would be broken-hearted and hurt beyond belief to think he couldn’t make the effort for her sake after all she’d gone through. She didn’t deserve to be treated in such a callous way. Surely he could do something to show her how much he still cared? After all, hadn’t he once vowed that nothing would be too much trouble…too much of an effort for the woman he loved?
Feeling shame and disgust at the kind of man he’d turned into, Joe bit back the tears of depression that had saturated his pillow every night since he’d last seen her smiling face. And it was then, as if by a miracle, Joe suddenly found an inner strength. In that instant, he knew what he could do…what he would do….what he had to do.
He pushed off the bed and rushed downstairs into the wash house, leaving an open-mouthed Hop Sing staring after him as he claimed all the hot water his housekeeper could provide. As he filled up the tin bath and then took a long leisurely soak, Joe slowly and meticulously shaved away the untidy stubble that had darkened his jaw, then scrubbed away the trail dust and the smell of horses and cattle that seemed to have permanently followed him around for months. It felt good to feel refreshed and human again. He was glad he’d made the effort.
Joe returned to his room and looked around for something suitable and appropriate to wear. He immediately noticed a pristine white shirt that had been expertly ironed and folded tidily away in a drawer and his best suit that hung without a crease in the wardrobe. For a moment his resolve weakened as he recalled the last time he’d worn the blue jacket and pants. But this was not the time for sad reflection, and gritting his teeth with determination, he shook off the mantle of gloom that threatened to overwhelm him. With strength of purpose he didn’t realize he still had, he quickly dressed then reached over towards an array of various sized bottles on his dressing table and selected one, pouring out a small amount of liquid into the palm of his hands.
As he splashed the Bay Rum cologne around his freshly shaved chin, it momentarily stung and Joe grimaced slightly. He was unused to the short sharp pain after so long, but as the pleasant smelling odor permeated, he took a deep breath and ran a smoothing hand over his face, nodding with silent approval at the scent. It felt good to be clean-shaven again and he was glad he’d made the effort.
Then, as he drew a comb through his long curly locks, Joe gave a smile of remembrance. Before he was considered old enough to make up his own mind, he’d been forcibly frog-marched and sometimes even carried to the one place he refused to enter peaceably. The ongoing war of wills between Joe and his father and brothers had been an entertaining and much looked forward to diversion for the citizens of Virginia City on the days the youngest Cartwright was dragged into town to have a haircut.
In fact, Joe had raged a running battle with his Pa for as many years as he could remember at his unwillingness to visit the barber on a regular basis and keep his hair short and tidily trimmed. But as he glanced in the mirror, Joe noticed his hair was longer and more unruly than it had ever been and he could imagine his father biting back many a retort over the past months about its length, keeping silent rather than incur his son’s wrath. Joe gave a silent chuckle. Maybe a visit to the barbers was in order sooner than later, he mused wryly as he wetted and slicked his hair down into place so it looked half-way presentable. But until then, it would have to do, and at least he’d made the effort.
He glanced down at his boots. They were his favorite pair — old and comfortable and also covered in mud. Joe gave a sigh of vexation as he pulled out a cloth and began to gently wipe away the dirt. But when they eventually gleamed with the polishing, Joe smiled with satisfaction. It had been worth the effort.
He was finally ready at last. It had been a long time since he’d studied himself in the full length mirror and Joe hardly recognized the well-groomed figure that stared back. Gone was the slovenly dressed, grey faced and bitter man he’d been, and Joe smiled softly with satisfaction after making the effort. But still he was unable to stop a nervous trembling, knowing the time had now come to face his father and the woman he loved.
So taking a deep calming breath, Joe made his way downstairs. As Ben looked up from his chair, his eyes widened in shocked surprise, hardly able to believe what he was seeing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his son dressed so elegantly and looking so well-turned out. “Going somewhere, Joe?”
Joe flashed his father a smile so rarely seen in the past months. “Yes, Pa, I’ve got a date.”
Ben furrowed his brow in puzzlement when suddenly the significance of his son’s choice of clothes hit the keen-eyed Ben and he instinctively knew. He moved towards him and placed his hand gently around his neck in a loving embrace. “I’m glad you’ve made the effort at last, Joseph,” he told him with a quivering voice. “Give her my love.”
Joe nodded. “I will, Pa…and everything’s gonna be fine from now on…I promise.”
As Ben watched with a moistened gaze, Joe gave a farewell wave and disappeared through the front door, leaving a relieved father alone to brush away tears and give thanks that the love of a good woman had returned his son back to him.
The rain stopped and a full moon shone down brightly, guiding the way as Joe rode from the ranch house, butterflies fluttering uneasily inside his stomach.
Eventually he arrived at his destination, and after dismounting, Joe automatically brushed away dust from his coat. He wanted to impress her…show her that he’d made the effort. He began to walk slowly at first but, as the corners of his mouth twitched with remembrance of her loving smile, his pace quickened. Then he stopped before her, took a deep breath and reverentially knelt down.
There was still pain in his heart, but as a vision of his lost love flashed across Joe’s mind; for the first time since she’d left him, he was able to smile contentedly at what he’d had rather than cry with despondency for what he’d lost.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you lately, but I found it hard to cope once you’d gone,” he whispered as his fingers gently caressed a smooth white head stone. “But I’ve made an effort and even dressed up in my wedding suit for you tonight, Alice. I just hope it’s not too late to be your Valentine…forever.”