Marie’s Boys (by Doreen)

Summary:  A What Happened Next for “The Storm”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9500


Grief: A deep and intense feeling of sorrow.

Depression: A mental disorder giving a feeling of extreme dejection or melancholy.

Both words described perfectly how Joe Cartwright felt.  His thoughts and actions leaving him in a state of total and utter exhaustion.

*****

Ben Cartwright walked slowly down the stairs as the large clock in the main room of the Ponderosa ranch chimed 6 am.  He was halfway down when he heard the closing of the heavy oak front door and he realized he had just witnessed the early departure, yet again, of his youngest son.

*****

Joe Cartwright, 23 years old, had never been a lover of early mornings, had always been the last to rise, his appearance at the table usually coinciding with the departure of his two older brothers who had already eaten their breakfast.

As Adam and Hoss began their morning chores, Joe would eat and drink at a leisurely pace, taking time to talk to his father, prolonging the inevitable moment when he too would have to join his brothers in their daily routine around the ranch.  Ben always savored these few minutes alone with Joe, enjoying the conversation, the laughter and the company of his youngest.

However, for the past three weeks there had been a very different routine in the Ponderosa household.  Joe would be the first one up without fail, his only nourishment a cup of coffee, then departing before his father and brothers made it downstairs.

Joe was the natural and fearless horseman of the family, and Ben had placed him in charge of the horse side of the Ponderosa business empire when he had turned 21 years old.  He had taken the responsibility seriously, his passion to succeed intense, earning the respect not only of his father, but both his older brothers, Adam and Hoss.

There was currently a major contract with the Army, started three weeks previously, that needed to be completed within the week.  Fifty of the best two year old colts had to be tamed for the saddle, a task usually shared between the best and most experienced horse breakers on the Ponderosa.  However, Joe had seen fit to oversee and do the whole job on his own.  So for the past three weeks, from dawn to dusk, he had pushed himself to the limit.  His father and brothers had tried to talk to him, persuade him to share the dangerous load, but to no avail.  Joe just shook his head, pointed out that it was his responsibility and his alone, and he would do the job as he saw fit.

Returning late every evening, sore and exhausted, he was just relieved that he had managed to survive another day.  Barely eating enough to sustain him, he would sit silently with his family for a few minutes, staring blankly into the fire, his whole body aching with the physical exertion of the days efforts.  Ben and his older sons would chat about the ranch, trying to draw Joe into the conversation, but he would not respond.

As he sat with his family, a voice in his head would constantly shout and scream, “Talk!

Talk to them, let it out, they can help take away your misery,” the voice growing louder and louder, blocking out all other sounds.  But he still kept silent, unable to utter a word as if he were struck dumb.

The resulting feeling of melancholy made him feel even worse, so he would excuse himself and retire to his room, leaving the three men downstairs in an awkward silence.

There was never a smile on his face, never a desire to go to Virginia City, never a joke to pull on his brothers.  Joe Cartwright was totally consumed with grief and depression, and his family didn’t know what they could do to help him.

*****

Ben walked over to the table and sat down, pouring himself a cup of coffee.   It was at troubled times like these that Ben would think of his beloved Marie.  How he missed her.  If only she were still with them, maybe her loving motherly embrace could have soothed the troubled mind of her son, their Joseph.  Ben sighed deeply knowing he had to cope alone.

Within a minute of each other Hoss and Adam walked down the stairs, both looking towards the door, noticing the familiar green jacket and tan hat that was missing.

“Joe gone early again, Pa?” asked Adam as he sat down.

Ben nodded, his face desolate.  Both his sons knew he was worried, frightened for the welfare of his youngest son, but feeling helpless.

“How long is this gonna go on for, Pa?  He is gonna kill himself if he don’t change his ways.” The heart-felt feeling of Hoss Cartwright was not lost on the other two men.

“Grief is a strange thing, Hoss.  Some can cope, bounce back, some can’t.  This time Joe just can’t come to terms with what’s happened.  I just don’t know what to do.”

*****

Joe’s state of grief had started six weeks before, on the day his beloved Laura had died.  A lovely girl, a childhood sweetheart of Joe, she had been visiting with her father, Captain White, an old seafaring friend of Ben.  At first he had thought it was just a sentimental attraction, but quickly they both discovered a love for each other that had taken hold of them both.  Joe and Laura made plans to be married.

Adam and Hoss had helped Joe rebuild a derelict cabin which was to be their new home.  It was beautifully furnished with everything needed by the young couple, and much to Joe’s astonishment, Adam presented him with a wonderfully carved wooden cradle, that stood center stage in the small sitting room.  The thought and effort put into the cradle by the eldest Cartwright brother was not lost on a grateful Joe.

However, their happiness together was not to be.  Unbeknown to all but her father, Laura was dying.  When she was finally told, she had made her way to the cabin, her only desire to see the home that had been built so lovingly for her by Joe.  Noticing she was missing from the ranch house, Joe had followed Laura to the cabin, finding her overcome with exhaustion.  They had held each other, knowing each minute may be her last.  She collapsed and Joe carried her over to the bed, where she had laid dying in Joe’s arms.  As she took her last breath, Joe had vowed she would be a part of his life. Always.

Compounding to Joe’s distress, her father had insisted that her body be placed in the most expensive casket available in Virginia City, and taken straightaway to San Francisco.  Here the Captain had decided to live, within sight and sound of the sea he loved. It was in San Francisco that Laura was to be buried.  So Joe had been denied a funeral at which he could focus his grief, denied a grave where he could visit in the weeks that followed.

Joe had already experienced true love in his short life.  First, Julia Bulette, an older woman, most unsuitable for Joe some would say, but he still lost his heart to her.  She had died when a former jealous lover had killed her.  Then, months later, Amy Bishop, a sweet young woman, who was inadvertently killed during a fight between Joe and a murderous ranch hand.   Both had died in tragic circumstances, leaving Joe grief stricken and inconsolable.  However, he would grieve openly, his eyes constantly moist from tears that would flow at a whim. He would open up his heart and talk to his family; their ability to just listen lessening the heartache, his ability to talk lessening his pain.  In time his broken heart had healed and his life went on.

However, after Laura had gone Joe found he was suffering in a different way. Since the day Laura’s father had left Virginia City and Joe had last visited the cabin, there had been no tears.  Neither could he talk about his feelings, his heartache.   He just could not dig himself out of the pit of depression and unhappiness that he felt.  This time the grief was too much.  He knew he was hurting his family, causing them much distress, but he could do nothing to shake off the mantle of misery.

How he wished his mother was still alive. A loving mother who would understand his anguish, comfort him, help him, as mothers had done since the beginning of time.  It wasn’t that he wanted to die.  He just didn’t feel like living.  Such was his depression.

For the first three weeks, he had just laid in his room, or stared into the large hearth in the ranch house.  His family had bided their time, left him alone, waiting for him to open up to them, cry out his grief.  This had never happened.

Then the Army contract had been agreed, and Joe had forced himself out of the comforting walls of his room, to the corrals in the meadow.  By working every hour and riding every horse he found he could forget his misery.  In normal times he would have shared the horses between his six most trusted ranch hands.  However, these were not normal times.  He just existed within his private hell, constantly questioning his sanity.

*****

The three Cartwrights discussed their worries as they ate their breakfast.

“At least the Army contract is nearly completed,” said Adam, “Maybe then he will slow down.”

Shaking his head, Ben gazed into the distance. “Once it’s finished he will find something else to keep him occupied from dawn to dusk.  It’s as if he can’t stop, can’t relax, doesn’t want to think about what he has lost. There was a time when he would talk to us, let us know how he feels.  This time there’s nothing.  No shouting, yelling, no sign of anger.  Just silence.”

Adam and Hoss stared at their father as Ben brought his hands to his face, his despair clear.  His hands still on his face, he continued, his words barely audible. “I don’t want to lose him, but the way he is going…” His voice trembled and became silent.

The two brothers looked from their father to each other, knowing he was saying what they both felt.

Hoss fought back the tears that were forming in his eyes.  It had seemed all his life Joe was a magnet for trouble, always in the middle of it, fists flying, usually with Hoss in the background, ready to help, his massive frame such a definite advantage.  Joe had often returned home hardly scathed from his fights due to the help and presence of his big brother.   However, this time the big man, so powerful in body, was powerless to help.

Hoss wished Marie was still with them.  The only woman he had called mother, his own mother dying when he was only weeks old.  She had helped him to change from the insecure, outsized little boy, called slow-witted and teased beyond belief by other children, to become the sensitive, shy but good-natured and tolerant man that he was now.  He put his hand on his father’s arm.  He had no words to ease the pain away, but just the loving gesture of a gentle touch.

Ben put down his hands and looked at his son, whose face was full of sympathy and sadness.

“I just wish there was something I could do, someway I could help him.  All I want is to have my little brother back the way he used to be,” Hoss said.

With a smile of affection Ben nodded. “I know, Hoss. We all do.”

Breakfast continued in silence, all three men unable to make sense of Joe’s feelings and actions.  He had always been the most open, always the easiest to read. The way he was now totally confused them all.

Adam thought hard as he ate, knowing he had to do something, anything, before tragedy struck the Cartwright household.  As he gulped down the last of his coffee, he pushed back his chair and looked down at Ben and Hoss. “Excuse me, Pa, but I got some business in Virginia City.  Should be back by afternoon.”

Not waiting for an answer, Adam went to the door, putting on his jacket and hat and buckling on his gunbelt.  He turned back, and walked over to the table.  He looked straight at his father. “Don’t worry, Pa. I’m going to do my best to end this.”  He touched his father’s shoulder affectionately. “It’s gonna be alright.”

Ben and Hoss watched Adam as he left the room, both silently hoping and praying for a miracle.

*****

As he left the ranch that morning, Adam’s thoughts stayed constantly on his youngest brother.  If something wasn’t done soon, Joe would either kill himself in the corral, waste away from his lack of appetite. Or worse!  Adam could not bear to think of it.

Throughout his life, Joe’s mood could be read through his eyes. They could so easily flash anger, love, mischief and happiness, but lately there had been no life in them, only a sad depth of emptiness, and Adam was afraid.  Although he was hesitant to think it, he was afraid Joe would try to kill himself.

Even thinking such a scenario made Adam wince with shame.  Surely Joe would never stoop to such a fate; certainly not the brother Adam had known several weeks ago.  But Adam knew his brother was depressed in a way that was slowly sucking the life blood out of his once vibrant body.  He felt Joe was on the edge of a precipice unsure which way to fall, maybe deciding death was the easier option.  This just could not be allowed to happen.  Life without his baby brother was something Adam could not bear to contemplate.

He thought about his step-mother, Marie. She had always referred to Adam as her ‘right hand man’ and had been a great influence in helping Adam develop into the sensitive, solid and intelligent, yet private man he was. If she had been alive, the pair of them would have joined forces together to help Joe, given him inner strength.

He made his way to Virginia City, walking his horse slowly down the main street and pulled up outside the doctor’s office.  This was a place the Cartwrights knew well, all having been treated by Doctor Paul Martin over the years, their lives having been saved by the skilled doctor on more than one occasion.

Walking into the office, he was relieved to see the doctor was free of patients and was sitting behind his desk.  Adam pulled up a chair and the two men began to chat, Adam desperate to find out what could be done to help Joe.

Doc Martin knew Joseph Cartwright well.  He had brought him into the world 23 years before, his first birth on settling down in Virginia City.  He did not feel he was failing his doctor’s oath by talking about Joe to Adam.  Paul Martin was as good a friend as he was a doctor to the Cartwrights, and if discussing the medical condition of the youngest Cartwright with his brother would help him recover, then so be it.

Over the years, Joe had had his fair share of injuries.  Doc Martin had seen him shot, knifed, flung from horses sustaining broken arms and legs, and every time the resilient young man had bounced back, fully recovered.  It was as if a guardian angel was forever looking out for him.  However, physical injuries of the body were totally different to the emotional turmoil of a grief stricken mind.

The doctor explained to Adam, “You see, Adam, we have all suffered grief, known the anguish, but have fought it and managed to get on with our lives. Even Joe has managed this in the past.  However, this time he is suffering much more than grief.  His depressed behavior and his physical being can now truly be called an illness.  He is clinically depressed.”

The doctor paused, giving Adam time to take in all he said. “There is no magical cure, no pill he can take.  The only thing that can help Joe is Joe himself.  He needs to talk through his misery and hope that a single gesture, a word, will turn his mind from the road of depression to the road to recovery.”

The look on Adam’s face was enough to convince the doctor there was something else to worry about. “What is it Adam?  Something else bothering you?”

Adam stood up and walked to the window, looking out over the main street.  He didn’t want to say the unthinkable, not about his brother, but it had to be said.

“Is he drinking too much Adam?  Is that what’s wrong?”

Adam turned around, confused. “Drinking?” He shook his head. “No, Joe hasn’t been drinking. In fact, can’t say I’ve seen him touch a drop in the past six weeks.”

“Oh,” said the doctor, slightly at a loss.

Adam turned back to look out of the window. “It’s….it’s difficult….”  His voice wavered with uncertainty.  Adam Cartwright, probably the most articulate man in Nevada was unable to express what he wanted to say.

Doc Martin moved over and put his arm on his shoulder.

Turning round, Adam’s face conveyed the distress he was feeling. “I’m scared, Paul. I’m scared for Joe.  I really think he might try and kill himself and there’s nothing I can do to stop him.”

The words were said.  Even as he said them, Adam felt ashamed. Ashamed that he could think such a thing of his own brother.  But, as he thought back to the conversation at the breakfast table only hours before, had not Ben also hinted, through tear filled eyes, that he also thought the same?  He shook his head and clenched his fists, trying to hold onto the emotions that he felt within himself.

Paul took a step back, and paused, considering what Adam had said. “No, Adam!  Not Joe!  Never Joe.” The doctor moved back to his desk.

“But you don’t understand, Paul. I’ve seen his eyes, the way he just stares into space.  There’s just no desire to live in his eyes, none at all.”

Doc Martin opened a draw and took out two small glasses and a bottle of brandy.  He poured out two measures and offered a glass to Adam.  Taking the glass with a shaking hand, Adam gratefully swallowed the liquid, then the doctor refilled his glass.  As he drunk his brandy, Doc Martin studied Adam, noting the look on his face.  He was truly worried for the welfare of his baby brother and it showed.

Finishing his drink, Doc Martin put his glass back in the drawer and taking a deep breath, looked Adam straight in the eye and spoke in a strong and honest tone. “I have known your brother since the day he was born. He came into this world too early, kicking and screaming, and no one else I have ever met has loved life more or lived it to the full, as much as Joe.   I can’t, won’t believe he would do such a thing. You’ve gotta have faith in him, Adam.”

Hearing the Doctors positive words gave Adam a new sense of hope.  Maybe he was just reading too much in the eyes of his brother.  He smiled at the doctor, and nodded. “I guess your right Paul.  Thanks.”

“Don’t give up on him, Adam. Try and get him to talk. Persevere for all your sakes.”

Adam knew the doctor was right in his diagnosis and prognosis.  He shook his hand, thanking him for his help.  As he went to leave, Paul pulled out the brandy bottle from his drawer and handed it to Adam.

“Go find your brother, Adam.  Share this with him.  It might be just the medicine to give him that push he needs.”

Adam looked down at the bottle, and a small smile appeared on his lips.  He nodded his thanks to the doctor, slipping the bottle inside his jacket, he went outside, mounted Sport, and made his way out of Virginia City.  As he made his way to the Ponderosa, one thought was uppermost on his mind.  He needed to find Joe and complete the task he had promised his father that morning.  With a sense of urgency, he pushed on towards the ranch.

Reaching a fork in the road, he took a detour to the corrals where the horse breaking was taking place.  All was quiet when he arrived, and he noticed that the young colts were in two corrals, obviously ready to be delivered to the Army.  Joe’s work was done.  He looked around nervously for his brother when he noticed one of the ranch hands. “Hey Abe, you seen Joe?” he shouted.

The ranch hand pointed in the direction of a small wooded area about two miles away.  Adam nodded.  He knew exactly where Joe had gone.  That was the direction of the small cabin where Joe had hoped to live with Laura and had refused to visit since she had died. Shouting his thanks to Abe, Adam turned his horse and feeling slightly uneasy, kicked Sport on to a steady gallop.

As he passed the wood and turned a corner into a clearing, the familiar sight of the cabin came into view.  Now completely restored under Adam’s architectural eye, its walls were white washed, and the tree by its side, now fully leafed, had a carpet of dead blossom covering the ground around it.  A small pond was surrounded by snow-stars, a delicate white flower that grew in abundance around the cabin.  It was indeed a picturesque spot, the view over the meadows and mountains beyond taking ones breath away.

Tied in a lean-to was Joe’s horse, Cochise, who whinnied at the familiar sight of his stable companion.  Dismounting, Adam tied Sport in the lean-to next to the pinto, giving Cochise a friendly pat, then walked onto the small verandah. All was quiet, and with a feeling of trepidation in the eerie silence, he took a deep breath and gently knocked on the front door, then slipped inside.

The room was dark and smelt musty from its lack of ventilation and habitation.  The curtains at the windows were closed shut, and as Adam’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he saw the figure of his brother, slumped in a wooden rocking chair by the fireplace, slowly rocking as his hand gently caressed the hand-made cradle.  Joe’s hat was on the floor by his feet, and he was staring blankly into the empty fireplace.  Even in the semi-darkness Adam could see how Joe’s face was pale and drawn.  If Joe had looked up then, he would have seen the noticeable look of relief on his brother’s face.  But Joe did not look up.

Joe had heard the sound of a horse and had been unsure who was outside, but had felt no desire to investigate.  It was only when the door opened, and the familiar fragrance of an expensive cologne wafted in that Joe knew his visitor was his older brother.  No one else in the State of Nevada wore the same cologne as Adam, it being imported from New York, at some expense, and had been the butt of many jokes between the three brothers over the years.  Joe continued to rock in his chair, tapping his foot slowly as he did so, the sound on the floorboards echoing around the small compact room.

Adam made his way to an arm chair opposite Joe and sat down, taking off his hat and placing it on a small table.  He looked around.  Nothing had been moved since Laura had died. There was still the tall clock in the corner by the door, the bed in the partitioned off bedroom, the well polished dining table, candlesticks on the mantelpiece, the wooden chest by the wall.

No words were uttered for several minutes as the brothers sat opposite each other.  Suddenly the foot tapping stopped and Joe pulled his hand from the cradle.  He ran his fingers through his hair, and closing his eyes, sighed deeply. “What you doing here, Adam?  You been following me?”

“No, Joe. Just thought I’d have a ride out today, and happened to pass this way.”

Joe was not quite so easily fooled.  He had known his brother had been watching him over the past weeks, and he even thought he saw a look of fear in his face at times.  At first he had not understood, but slowly it had dawned on him.  Adam thought he was capable of suicide.  He inwardly laughed.  How perceptive his big brother was, how close he was to the truth.  If only he knew how the thought had crossed his mind, more than once.  Not now, though.  He had always thought of himself as fearless, but to kill himself was something he had been afraid to do.

“Tell the truth, Adam. You saw I had finished the horses, realized I now had too much time on my hands, time to sit and think.  Maybe you thought I might try and do away with myself, eh?”

Adam stared at his brother, amazed at the accuracy of his statement.  Unable to speak, he hung his head down and stared at the floor.  Joe opened his eyes and sat forward.

“Come on, Adam.  Tell me!” Joe’s voice echoed around the walls of the small room.

Adam lifted his head, and deep brown eyes stared into deep green.  He nodded, unable to speak.

Joe sat back, closing his eyes once more, strangely comforted that Adam had known what had been at the back of his mind for so many weeks. “I wouldn’t have gone through with it.  Thought I could for a time but hadn’t the guts.  Guess I wanted to live more than I knew.”

Adam stared at him, wondering just how close he had come to losing his brother.

“Does Pa know?  Do you think he guessed what was on my mind?” Joe’s voice trembled, as he thought of his father.

Adam shifted uncomfortably, unwilling to admit to his brother the fears of the man they both loved beyond belief.

Without waiting for a reply, Joe continued. “Guess he thought his son would never be capable of such a sin,” he mused, thinking aloud. He had always been slightly in awe of his brother Adam, the man he could always turn to when he needed advice, the brother who was strong willed, intelligent, honest and who Joe could always depend on.  Over the past weeks his only desire had been to talk through his troubles with his family, but had been unable to do so.  However, as he continued to sit in silence with his brother, a feeling of calm came over him.  He knew the need to talk through his grief had arrived and he had to do it now, otherwise the opportunity would be lost forever.  The nightmare had to end.  His mouth was dry, but he forced out the words.

“What am I going to do, Adam?” Joe said softly, his voice barely a whisper. “Why can’t I get over this?  Am I going mad?”

Joe opened his eyes and saw the look of concern in his brother’s eyes.

“Oh, Joe.”

Adam bent forward and took his brothers cold hands in his.  At long last Joe was talking.  He looked into the troubled green eyes, usually so vibrant.  Joe stared back, unused to the physical contact of his older brother, but comforted by his touch.

 “You are not mad!  Its just your grief has taken hold of you in such a fierce way, more than it does to most. I know you’re hurting inside but believe me, it won’t be there forever. You have got to be strong, talk about your feelings, and let us help you.   Laura wouldn’t want you to be like this. You just need to live your life Joe, live it for Laura’s sake.  Just give yourself time to heal.”

“I don’t know if I can give it much more time, Adam.  I know I have pushed my body to its limit.  Some times I just want to close my eyes and go to sleep, never to wake up.”

There was a brief silence.

“Can you make the pain go away, Adam?” his voice almost pleading.

Adam shook his head, still holding onto his brother’s hands. “I’ll be honest with you, Joe.  I can’t take away your misery.  The only one who can do that is you.  I know.  I have been through it, just like you,  Joe.” As he spoke, a look of anguish crossed his face.

Joe looked keenly at his brother, perplexed at the confession. “You mean you lost someone you really loved?  You felt as if your whole life was meaningless?”

Adam nodded, and he fell back into the armchair. “Yes Joe. I know exactly how you feel.  I went through the despair and the desolation, but there is light at the other side, Joe, and you will get through it.  Just let us help you.”

Joe’s curiosity was aroused. “Who, Adam?  I don’t recall you losing anyone who you were so close to.”

Adam said nothing for a minute as he looked at his brother, then put his hand inside his jacket and pulled out the brandy bottle.  He opened it and took a swig then passed it over to Joe.

 A little surprised, Joe took the bottle, and with a nervous smile, swallowed, the liquid warm and smooth as it raced down his throat.  Oh, how it tasted good!  For the first few weeks he had longed to take a bottle, any bottle, and drink it dry, hoping to find solace as it emptied.  But something had stopped him.  For some reason, he knew that if he had opened one bottle, there would have been another and another.  Grief and depression may have controlled his every sense over the past weeks, but the thought of being a drunken wreck truly abhorred him and he had fought against it, and won.

Taking another mouthful, savoring the taste, Joe handed the bottle back to Adam, and repeated his question. “Come on, Adam. Tell me. Who was it?”

Adam took another swallow, then replacing the cork, placed the bottle back in his jacket.  He sat back in the chair, a thoughtful look covering his handsome face. “Oh there was someone, Joe. A woman who I grew to love, and I would have willingly died for.  She was beautiful, gentle, kind, and gave me love that I had never been given before.  She gave me the confidence to fulfill my ambitions in life, to follow my dreams. When she died, I was overcome with grief.  It took weeks; my heart felt it had been ripped apart.  The days and nights just blended together in misery. Then slowly, the heartache became less, and I began to live again, yet her memory grew stronger and stronger.  It is still with me even today. I have never forgotten her, but I moved on.  I had to live one day at a time, but I did live my life again, as I knew she would have wanted me too.”

Joe stared intently at Adam.  His brother was never one to pour out his inner feelings, and so this rare glimpse caught Joe slightly off guard. “Who was she, Adam?”

Adam swallowed the lump in his throat as he stared into his brother’s green eyes. “Her name was Marie,” he said, “Your mother.”

Joe’s eyes glistened at the sound of her name.  His mother had been killed when he was barely five years old, and he never really thought about the effect her death would have had on Adam or Hoss.  She had been a true mother figure to both the boys when she had married Ben Cartwright, and Joe now realized just how much of a mother she had been to his brother.

“I’m so sorry, Adam. I never realized. I guess I never thought…..” Joe, unable to finish the sentence, blinked back tears.

Adam nodded solemnly. “I know, Joe,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “You know, Joe, there’s one thing about you I have always been envious of.”

“Me?  You been envious of me?” said Joe incredulous.  To Joe, Adam had always been the perfect Cartwright, both in mind and body.

Adam nodded, half smiling.  “Yes Joe.  Always envied the way you could show your true feelings without embarrassment, without fear of ridicule.  You’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve, not worried who knew how you felt. You’ve never been afraid to shed tears when they needed to be shed.  I’ve never been able to do that.  Always kept my feelings tight inside me, unable to share them with anyone.  Guess that’s why some think of me as unfeeling. A Yankee Granite Head!”

Both men chuckled quietly at the name.

“When Marie died, all the anguish just got locked up inside, and though my head kept yelling at me to let it out, talk to Pa, cry with Pa; I couldn’t.  Took me a long time to get over her death, much too long, and there was a lot of unnecessary suffering for me and Pa.  Don’t suffer like I did, Joe.”

The two men sat in silence, Adam reliving the heartache of many years ago.

Joe looked at his brother, who had laid back in the chair, his eyes closed. The brother who he now realized he knew so little about.  Solid and dependable Adam, with his New England mother’s dark hair and brown eyes. Adam had always been there for Joe yet there had been times when the two men had come to blows, the two men, so different in personality, yet always drawn together in brotherly love. How lucky he was to have an older brother like Adam.

For the first time in such a long time, Joe had a gleam of hope.  Maybe he too could come to terms with Laura’s death. Adam had learned to live again, then surely he could try, for his family’s sake, for the sake of Laura’s memory.  Just take one day at a time, like Adam had.

As the brandy warmed his body, and soothed his troubled mind, Joe was caught unawares.  A sudden flash of Laura’s smiling face came to him and before he knew what had hit him, tears formed in his eyes.  As if a dam had been released, he began to quietly sob, the tears pouring down his cheeks and falling onto his hands.  His shoulders shook, and as he put his hand to his eyes to wipe away the tears, he felt the presence of his brother, kneeling, one hand on the back of his neck, gently stroking, the other holding onto his knee.  In his misery, he was comforted by the knowledge he was not alone.

*****

While Joe sobbed, Adam stayed by his side, unwilling to move away, as if he were keeping vigil over his distressed brother.  It seemed like hours, but only minutes passed, when finally Joe was all cried out.  Adam slowly stood up, and putting his hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out a crisp white handkerchief.  He passed it to Joe, who took it gratefully, and wiped his eyes dry.  Adam sat down again in the arm chair, feeling as emotionally drained as Joe.  Without embarrassment or need for privacy, his brother had let down the barriers of grief and depression in front of him, and it was something he would never forget.  Doc Martin had been right.  Persevere.  It had worked.

Joe sat back in the rocking chair.  “I guess I should of done that a long time ago.” he said, his voice still full of emotion.

Adam nodded and smiled but said nothing.

Joe stood up and walked over to the small window, pulling open the curtains and allowing the sunlight to shine through the glass panes. He remembered the last time he had looked at this view. He had been holding Laura, stroking her hair, as they had both looked towards the mountains on their last day together.  The whole room lightened up as if the specter of unhappiness was fading away. For the first time in weeks, Joe looked out onto the distant mountains of the Sierras appreciating the beauty of the countryside.  Maybe life was for living after all, even without Laura.  He remembered something his father had said to him, the last time he had been in the cabin, the day after Laura had died.

“Don’t brood son.  Just keep a warm spot in your heart.”

Feeling a rush of strength that had been so sadly lacking for the past weeks, he took a deep breath.  He would have the memories; she would be a part of his life.  Always.

Adam looked across at Joe, noting how he was gently smiling.  Could the nightmare of the past weeks be coming to an end?

Joe turned round, and looked at the room in the light of the day. “Sure is a pretty little cabin.  Shame its empty,” Joe said. “Laura would have never wanted it to be left to rot away. She thought it was so beautiful.” He walked over to each piece of furniture, gently pulling his fingers over the chairs, stroking the table, desk and mantelpiece. He looked at the fireplace, remembering when he had first lit a fire and he and Laura had sat together, huddled, keeping warm, and sharing their first loving kiss.  In his own way, he was saying goodbye to his past, to what might have been.  Adam watched him, but said nothing.  He could see Joe was looking more like the brother he knew so well, and he was beginning to shake off his cloak of grief.

As he turned towards Adam, Joe looked down at the cradle, and a smile came over his face. “Sure is a beautiful cradle, Adam. You did a fine job.  One day there will be a baby Cartwright being rocked to sleep in that there cradle.”

Although there were still tears in Joe’s eyes, they were not the tears of despair, but the tears of hope for the future.

Adam stood up, picking up Joe’s hat from the floor and handing it to his brother. A thought came to him about one of their ranch hands who had worked for them for quite a few years. “I hear Tom is in need of a home, now he and Rosie have wed,” said Adam. “He doesn’t like having to live with his mother-in-law from what I have heard.”

Both men chuckled as they thought of Rosie’s mother, a fierce Irish woman of nearly twenty stones, who had a liking for whiskey when she could get hold of a bottle.

Joe looked around the room.  No use letting the ghosts of the past live here.  This was a home for the living. He nodded, suddenly feeling as though the weight of the world was lifting from his shoulders. “It would be a fine home for them,” he said, placing his hat on his head.

As Adam went to open the door, Joe turned to the cradle and picked it up. “They can have everything else, but this cradle is coming home with us.  A piece of Cartwright heritage for future generations, whoever they may be.”

Opening the door, Adam and Joe emerged into the late spring sunshine.

Adam brought the two horses over to the verandah and held onto the cradle as Joe mounted.  Taking the cradle from his brother’s hands, he balanced it precariously on the front of his saddle, the polished wood shining in the bright sunlight.

As Adam mounted, Joe put his hand on his brother’s knee. “Adam.”

Adam turned and faced his brother. “Yes Joe?”

“Thanks.”

Both men looked at each other,

“That’s what I’m here for,” said Adam smiling. “Taking care of my kid brother. Always. You gonna be OK, Joe?”

Joe looked around, as if seeing the landscape for the first time.  He nodded. “Yes, Adam.  I think I am.”

With a smile and look of affection between the two brothers, they gathered up their horses and walked away.  As Joe held onto the cradle tightly, he gave the cabin a final backward glance.  Yes, he was going to be fine.

*****

Ben was stood by the large barn as Adam and Joe slowly walked their horses around the corner.  He could see what Joe was carrying, and walked towards his son, taking the cradle and gently placing it on the floor.  Joe dismounted and tied his horse to the rail, then turned towards Ben, smiling.  Ben was momentarily caught off guard.  The smile on Joe’s face had not been seen for such a long time.  It was the smile of a son, lost for a while, but returned to the fold, safe.

“Brought us back Adam’s cradle, Pa.  Reckon it will come in handy one day,” said Joe, winking at his father.

Ben realized the implications of his statement, and smiled back. “You’ve been to the cabin then, Joe?”

“Yeah, Pa.  Brother Adam found me there.  We had a good talk, Pa.  A real good talk,” Joe said, nodding towards his brother who was still sitting on his horse.  A sincere look of thanks and gratitude passed from youngest to eldest.  He turned back to his father. “I’ve decided to let Tom and Rosie live in the cabin.  That’s OK ain’t it Pa?”

Ben nodded, his mouth open with surprise and delight.

Joe picked up the cradle and carried it inside the ranch house.

“Is Joe OK, Adam?  Really OK?” Ben asked

The flash of uncertainty in his father’s face, and the croak of his voice gave Adam a jolt.   How he must have suffered, thought Adam silently.

Ben continued to look at Adam, then saw his first born smile gently, slowly nodding; words not needed to convey his answer.

With a rush of relief, Ben knew that all was now well.  Somehow a miracle had taken place, and its name was Adam!

Ben gently tapped his son’s thigh, silently mouthing the words, ‘thank you’.  He turned away and followed Joe into the house, happy and content again.

*****

Slowly, life on the Ponderosa began to get back to normal.  Joe, though still grieving, felt an inner strength helping him through each day, and he would talk through any torment he felt.  He was still caught off guard at times, just staring into space, his face a mask of unhappiness, but these times were few and far between, and his infectious laughter was often heard around the ranch.

Almost immediately, the familiar early morning routine of the Ponderosa was once again in motion, Joe being the last to rise, the last to have breakfast.  The only difference now was that, whereas before his brothers had already left when he had deemed to come down, Hoss was always waiting at the table.  His excuse was that he wanted Joe’s company doing his chores, and Joe would accept it in good humor.

As the days past however, Joe slowly became aware of a fact that he was never alone. Wherever he went, Hoss seemed to be there.  If he decided to ride out to see the herds of horses or cattle, Hoss would be on his way there too.  On his visits to Virginia City, Hoss would somehow appear on the road, having decided he wanted to have a cool beer at the Silver Dollar.  When Joe had to visit neighboring ranches, Hoss would tag along, for the sake of something to do, he would say.  The only time Hoss was not around was when Ben and Joe would ride out, or Adam and Joe would stay around the ranch and work at the accounts together.

At first, Joe had accepted it, but as the weeks went by, the realization that Hoss would, or could, not let Joe out of his sight began to unnerve him. The situation finally came to a head when one day Joe decided to take a slow ride to a sacred piece of Cartwright land.  His mother’s grave.  He had purposely risen early, before the onset of the days work, and as he saddled his horse, was suddenly aware of his big brother standing in the doorway of the barn.

“Your up early, Joe?  Where you going?”

Joe looked towards the figure in the doorway, shaking his head. “Hoss!  What you doing up this early?  How did you know I was here?”

Looking sheepishly, Hoss walked into the barn, his air of nonchalance not fooling Joe. “Oh, I just decided to get up early.  Saw you coming over here.”

Joe Cartwright had known his brother too long to be taken in so easily.  He walked over to Hoss, and gazed up into his blue eyes.  “Come on, Hoss. What’s going on?” he asked, inches from his brother.

“What you mean?  Nothing’s going on.”

Joe poked his big brother in the shoulder with his forefinger. “Don’t give me that bull!   You ain’t let me out of your sight for weeks.  Everywhere I turn, there you are, large as life.  Heck Hoss!  It’s a wonder you ain’t followed me to the out-house!  What do you think I’m going to get up to if I’m alone?”

The big man looked at his boots nervously, not sure how to respond.  He was physically huge compared to his younger sibling, and was open and as honest as the day was long.  He could not look his brother in the eye and lie.  It was not in his nature.

“Well?” Joe asked, his green eyes beginning to flash in anger.

“Didn’t mean no harm, Joe.  Honest.” Hoss answered, his face coloring in a brilliant shade of red.

Joe’s anger disappeared as quickly as it had appeared as he noted the embarrassed stance of his brother.

“Just worried for you, Joe.  After all you been through, I just wanted to be there for you, in case things got bad again, if you needed someone around.” Hoss’ voice was quiet.

The two brothers stood together, the smaller man placing his hand on the others shoulder. “What did you think I was going to need you for, Hoss?  You think I would go back to grieving like I was before?”

Another thought hit Joe, as he stared into his brother’s face. “Have you been talking to, Adam?  Did you think I was going to harm myself?”

The look on Hoss’s face told Joe his answer.

“Oh, Hoss.  I didn’t realize…..Oh my God.”  Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

What had he done to his family?  He opened his eyes and his face softened as he looked at his brother. “You really thought I might try to kill myself, didn’t you?”

Hoss slowly nodded and continued to stare at the floor.

“I admit it did cross my mind, Hoss, when I was at my lowest.  But that’s all.  I could never have gone through with it, no matter how cut up I was about Laura.  I would never have done anything to hurt this family. Not then and not now.”

There was an embarrassed silence in the barn, as both brothers stood inches apart.

“You do believe me, don’t you, Hoss?”

Hoss looked up at Joe, noting his handsome face, and the gentle, caring smile that slowly appeared.  He nodded. “I believe you, Joe.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier, if you were so worried?”

Turning away, Hoss walked over Cochise, and stroked the velvet muzzle. “Ah, you know, Joe. Adam is the clever one when it comes to words. I just get tongue-tied, never can say what I really mean.  He managed to talk you out of your depression, after all.  Not that I ain’t grateful.  It’s just that I felt as though I had failed you, Joe.  Failed to look after you like I promised her I would.”

Puzzled, Joe stared after his brother. “Promised who, Hoss?”

“Your Ma, Joe.  I promised Marie, and I felt I had let her down.”

The realization of his words hit Joe.  He sat down on a bale of straw, thinking of his mother and how she had affected Hoss.  Just as he had sat with Adam weeks before in the cabin, he knew past secrets about his brother’s relationship with his mother was about to be revealed.

“You want to talk about it, Hoss?  About Ma?”

Hoss smiled and nodded, sitting down next to his brother.  He coughed nervously, working out in his head how to say what he needed to say.  “When your ma arrived at the ranch, she took to me and Adam like we were her own, loving us and taking good care of us both.  By the time I was six years old, I had grown so much I looked like I was twelve. Great big hands and feet, taller by half a foot than all the others in my class at school. Always felt the odd one around.  You know what I mean, Joe?”

Joe nodded, understanding his brother’s plight at such a young age.

“I was the most awkward kid going. My big hands never seemed to do as they should.  If a plate was to be dropped, then I would drop it.  Big clumsy fool is what they would shout at school.  Big, clumsy and useless, that’s what I thought of myself at the age of six.  Marie would often find me in the barn, crying, and she would take me in her arms and hug me tight.  She realized the hurt I was feeling, and why.” The pain of his recollection showed clearly in his voice, as those distant days came back to haunt him.

Joe put his hand on his brother’s arm, and gave him a squeeze.

“Then you arrived, Joe.  This small, screaming little baby, so delicate.  I remember Pa taking me and Adam up to see your ma soon after you had arrived. You were lying on the bed by her side, and as we came into the room, she smiled at me and beckoned me over. ‘Eric,’ she said, ‘Here is your baby brother. Come and hold him.’ I was petrified.  Me, the clumsy one, being asked to hold you.  I shook my head and held back, but she insisted, so I walked over and she picked you up and placed you in my arms.”

“‘He is going to need someone to watch after him.’ she said to me,” Hoss continued. ‘I want you to promise me, Eric.  You will take care of your baby brother with those big strong dependable hands.’ She had faith in me, and trusted me enough to let me hold the most precious jewel she possessed.  As I looked down at you in my arms, your little fingers tightened around my big thumb, and I was hooked.  I promised in my heart that I would take care of you the best way I could, for her sake, always.”

As tears fell over the cheeks of the big man, the recollections of so many years ago becoming vivid in his mind, Joe sniffed and wiped his eyes with his hand.  This was something Hoss had never told him before, and he was deeply moved.

“Afterwards, I seemed to be less clumsy.  My body seemed to coordinate better, and the cruel words from the children in school slowly stopped.  Your Ma had given me the confidence I needed so badly.  That’s why I’ve been following you, Joe.  Just wanted to be there, to take care of you, like I promised.  After all you went through after Laura died, I just felt as though I had failed you, failed Marie, and failed myself.”

Joe put his arm around Hoss’s shoulder, as his brother wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “You’ve never failed me, Hoss. Not now, not ever!  Heck, I’ve made it to 23 years old, so you must have done some something right over the past years!”

Joe chuckled, his infectious laugh making his brother smile.  He stood up and looking down on his brother, he took his big hands in his and pulled him up. “I am fine. I’m over the worst, taking a day at a time, just like brother Adam said to do. I ain’t gonna do anything to myself, and that’s a promise.”

A big gappy smile appeared on Hoss’s face, his worst fears evaporating in the early morning air.  He nodded his understanding, and was about to turn away and return to the ranch house, when Joe gently grabbed him by the arm.

“Have I ever told you how lucky I am to have you as my brother?” Joe said.

The two men looked at each other with brotherly love and tenderness.

Hoss silently nodded. “Me too, brother,” he said quietly.

With a slight embarrassed cough, Joe wiped his eyes with his hand, then turned towards his horse. “I was just about to go and visit Ma.  You want to come?”

Hoss nodded, though his face betrayed a slight nervousness.  With both horses saddled, the two brothers walked out into the cool air of the early morning and rode towards the graveside.

It was a familiar route to both of them, and they chatted, comfortable and now relaxed in each other’s company.  Pulling up and tying their horses to a tree branch, Joe began to walk towards the grave of his mother.  He suddenly realized Hoss was hanging back, unwilling to walk by his side. “What’s wrong, Hoss?” he asked, frowning.

Swallowing hard, Hoss began to fidget with his hat that he had removed, and was holding in his hands. “Well, it’s like this, Joe.  I kind of done something to your Ma’s grave.  I just hope you won’t mind; I checked first with Pa and he said it was alright.”

Mystified, Joe stared at him, then turned and walked around a corner to the grassy glade where his mother lay.  He stopped in amazement.  All around were small, white, delicate flowers.  Snow-stars.  Just like the ones that had grown by the cabin.

Hoss walked up to Joe’s side, his nervousness still evident.

Joe looked at him. “What…..”

“I knew these flowers were at the cabin Joe.  Knew Laura loved them.  Just thought, having them up here, with Marie, well, its like they would always be together; after all Laura was nearly family.  They could keep each other company. I hoped you would be able to visit your Ma, and know Laura was here too. Always.”

Hoss coughed, sensing the sight of the flowers surrounding Marie’s grave had been quite a shock for his younger brother.

“You did this for me?” asked Joe, as he absorbed the sight. “You planted all these flowers yourself?”

“Yeah.  Is it OK?  You don’t mind, do you Joe?”

The smile on his face, and the tears in his eyes were answer enough.  Hugging his big brother, feeling the big, strong dependable hands holding him close, he hoped his mother was looking down at that moment.

Suddenly a cough behind them made the two brothers pull apart.

“Adam!” said Hoss, surprised to see the familiar figure of their older brother.

“What you doing here?” Adam studied the two men, brown eyes looking into green and blue. “Seems anytime I see my two brothers disappear together, before breakfast, then I think to myself, something is going on that I may regret later.” A hint of a smile appeared on his face. “Thought I would see for myself what mischief the pair of you were up to this time!”

Adam looked down at the flowers that festooned the grassy glade.  He had heard Hoss’s confession about planting them all, and was deeply moved. “Sure do look pretty, all these flowers.” he said, as his two brothers turned and viewed the small area. “You’ve done a great job here, Hoss.”

Hoss smiled at his big brother, and the three men stood, hats off and heads bowed, looking at the grave of Marie, each thinking their private thoughts of the mother, long gone, and the young woman who was fated never to live out her life on the Ponderosa.  Three Cartwright men who would forever be Marie’s Boys.

***The End***

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