Summary: (A What Happened Instead for the episode “First Born”)
Word Count: 20,000
Clay Stafford lay in the barber’s chair, soaking in the warm towel after the barber had completed the shave on his clients face. The face of a man in his late 20s with dark wavy hair, green eyes and a pencil thin moustache, Clay Stafford was indeed a handsome man.
He had arrived the day before from San Francisco and had booked into a hotel for two nights, before his connecting stage to New Orleans arrived. After a good nights rest, and an adequate breakfast, he had wandered onto the streets of Virginia City, and spying the barbers shop, decided that he needed a refreshing shave. Then he was to seek out a special man, his half-brother Joseph Cartwright and learn about a special woman, his mother.
“Now you know this is when you can smell a true gentleman” said the barber.
“What do you mean?” replied the client, lying prone on the barber’s chair.
“This here is genuine bay rum – absolutely free!” said the barber, removing the towel, and as he poured a spoonful onto his hands, proceeded to rub it into the face of the man in the chair.
The shave completed, the barber stood back and Clay Stafford arose swiftly putting on his jacket and hat. The barber stood staring at Clay. He looked nothing like the usual rough neck cowboys of Virginia City – this stranger was not from these parts, his curiosity got the better of him. “You’re not from around here are you – you after a job?”
Smiling, Clay took out the dollar to pay the barber and placed it in his hand. “No – just passing through” he replied.
The barber then looked out of the window, down the main street. “Now, there’s a man who needs a few men to work for him at the moment” said the Barber, indicating three men who rode down the main street towards the mercantile.
“What with the mines paying top dollar these days, no one wants to work for the ranchers. Ben Cartwright and his boys have been in this town everyday this week trying to recruit men to work on the ranch, but he is having a hard time finding anyone willing. He sure is persistent though!”
Clay Stafford followed the finger of the Barber as he indicated the three men riding down the street – the grey haired man on his buckskin, closely followed by two younger men – his two sons.
“Which one is Joseph?” asked Clay.
The barber paused, frowning and confused. “Joseph? I thought you were a stranger here? How come you know of Little Joe?”
Before Clay could answer, the barber continued, “You better not start asking questions like that around Ben Cartwright right now”.
Stunned by the answer Clay looked at the barber. “What do you mean? I only asked which one was Joseph.”
“Well,” said the barber, “if you knew anything of the Cartwrights, you would know that Joe has been dead for nearly a year – yeah – seem to think it must be nearly a twelve month exactly since he passed away – and its not a date Ben Cartwright or his other two sons want to be reminded of!”.
Stunned by the answer, Clay Stafford noticeably paled and put his hand to the window to steady himself. That was not what he had expected. All these miles he had traveled with the intention of meeting his brother Joseph, and now he was told he was dead! The barber watched, bemused by the reaction of the flashy dressed man.
“You OK son?” said the barber kindly.
Clay gathered himself, turning to the barber and asked the question that screamed in his head. “Would you mind telling me how he died?” said Clay, as he removed another dollar from his waistcoat pocket and put it into the barber’s hand.
The barber, being a true gossip, was only too happy to earn another dollar in such an easy manner. “Sure thing, mister” and as he started clearing up the used implements of his trade he began his tale.
“Joe was down in Tucson Arizona – buying a stallion called ‘Wild One’ from Mort Fletcher at the Lazy M ranch. Seems he wanted the horse to improve the breeding program on the Ponderosa. Well, while he was there sleeping in his hotel room there was a bad fire – arson they reckon – and Joe and about 20 other patrons were caught trapped. Didn’t stand a chance. When the telegraph arrived with the news, Ben and his boys had to go down there. Seems there was no body that they could identify, nothing to bring back to bury. All they had as a reminder of him was his pinto that had been tied to the hitching post outside. It was terrible. Ben grieved for months – hardly did a thing. Poor Adam and Hoss had to take over the running of the ranch, though they were grieving just like their Pa. Anyway, Ben has slowly started to show an interest again and he and his boys seem to be coming to terms with their loss. Yeah, I’m sure it must be about a year ago it happened”.
The barber, having finished his tale, looked at Clay, sensing something strange about the request for these details of the Cartwrights and their tragedy. He continued, “They had a fine memorial service for Joe, and laid a plaque up on the Ponderosa by the lake, on a knoll next to his mothers grave. What a turnout that was – just about every one from Virginia City must have been there – Joe was a real popular guy, you know”.
Clay Stafford sighed, and thanking the Barber, walked out into the warm air of the July morning, and tried to think things through. Everything had been so clear when he had arrived in this town the day before. He was going to visit his long lost brother and family, and then he was heading back to New Orleans, safe in the knowledge that he had family, somewhere. Now it was all changed. His brother was dead! The brother he did not know had existed until a few months ago, and who he had decided to seek out, was no more. Tears welled in his eyes – tears for the brother he would never know. What to do now?
He slowly found himself walking up the street, to the direction of where Ben Cartwright and his sons were sat at a table. They were collecting the names of men who showed interest in working the ranch rather than the mines. From across the street Clay studied the man who had married his mother, Marie. The mother that he had never known. She had been shunned by his fathers’ family following the death of his father while Marie had been only 5 months pregnant. With wealth on their side, they had managed to arrange the abduction of her child when she had given birth. While she had lain exhausted, poor Marie had been told by a greedy money-loving midwife that her child had been born dead. These grandparents had then kept the child of their own dead son and raised him in New Orleans, telling him as he grew older that his mother had died in childbirth.
It was only when he had been given the diaries of his deceased grandmother that Clay had learned the true facts. These had explained all that had tragically transpired nearly 29 years previously.
Clay had tried to hate his grandparents for their deception, but he could not bring himself to do so. He had much to be grateful for. Being the only surviving relative he had been left considerable wealth from his grandfather’s estate, and so, wishing to know of his mother’s whereabouts, had paid handsomely for information from various organizations. Finally, he was rewarded with news. His mother, who had continued to live in New Orleans, seemingly married a visiting western gentleman, Mr. Ben Cartwright some 25 years previously and moved to his ranch, The Ponderosa, in Nevada. She had borne a son to Ben Cartwright – Joseph Francis Cartwright, now 23 years old – the son who was Clay’s half brother. He was also informed that his mother had died nearly 18 years ago.
Clay shook his head and wiped his eyes as they began to water again. He continued to study Ben Cartwright. He was a broad shouldered man, in his sixties, with thick grey hair. He had a weather-beaten but kindly face, though it was edged with lines from the sorrow of the past year. Clay then studied the remaining sons of Ben Cartwright – Adam and Hoss the barber had called them. Clay guessed that Adam was the tall, dark haired, handsome man, wearing all black, who stood by his father’s side. Hoss was a mountain of a man, wearing a large hat, who was talking and laughing with an old cowboy who had shown up to sign onto the Cartwright payroll.
They seemed a close knit family thought Clay – a family I could have been a part of. Not now though. His only true link had been his brother Joe. He could not, would not, intrude on these three men and their grief. Clay gave them another glance taking in their appearance again, then slowly turned around and walked towards the livery stable. He had never known his mother but before he left Virginia City he wanted to visit her last resting place. This one place he knew he and his brother would have visited together had life not dealt them such a bitter blow.
Reaching the livery stable he hired a horse and asked the owner, Pete, directions to the knoll on the Ponderosa where the grave of Marie Cartwright lay. The owner of the stable was at first hesitant to give such details – he knew what the place meant to Ben, Adam and Hoss – but the dollar piece that Clay held invitingly in his hand persuaded the man. Clay mounted the hired horse, a big muscular chestnut, and headed out of Virginia City, deep in thought.
Pete pondered for a few minutes, wondering about the flashy dressed stranger. Feeling a mite guilty, he walked down the street where he could see Ben Cartwright sat at a table. Ben was writing down the name of another man in need of a job on the ranch. Adam was talking across the street to Roy Coffee, the local sheriff, and Hoss could be seen in the mercantile, ordering the weekly supplies for Hop Sing, their Chinese cook and housekeeper. As the last man was signed up, Ben rose, rubbing his back from sitting on such an uncomfortable seat for the last 30 minutes. Pete, seeing Ben get up, called to him asking if he could have a quick word. Ben nodded, glad to be up and moving around.
“Sorry to bother you Mr. Cartwright” said Pete, “but I thought you would like to know something. Young man just hired himself a horse and told me he was going up to the Ponderosa to visit the grave of your late wife.” Pete conveniently forgot to tell Ben that he had given him the directions for a dollar piece.
Ben looked confused for a second or two. Had he heard correctly? “What was that again, Pete?” “You been at the drink already?”
“No Mr. Cartwright – I swear to God. That’s where he said he was going. Complete stranger too! Just thought you ought to know.”
With that, Pete turned heel, and headed back to the stable, unaware of Ben Cartwright staring at him, his face in a worried furrow. Adam, who had been in a deep discussion with Roy, was suddenly jolted by a call from his father.
“Adam, I am just going for a ride. Take over for a while, will you?” said Ben suddenly.
Adam, looking quickly at his father, nodded. Unaware of the direction Ben was going, he watched out of the corner of his eye as Ben mounted his horse, and gently cantered down the street in the direction of the Ponderosa.
Adam, who still worried about his father, did not like to see him wander off on his own. He sighed deeply. The family seemed to have slipped uneasily back into the life and running of the Ponderosa, but he knew in his heart that his father would never truly get over the loss of Joe. Just as he knew his own heart would never truly heal. The heart ache of losing his younger brother was so intense at times that Adam wondered how he could carry on. How he had loved the kid who had become such a remarkable young man.
“If only I had been more patient with him,” thought Adam, “given him more slack, praised him more often. I only hope he knew how much I loved him.”
His brother Hoss had also suffered in the same way, and though there had been much discussion between the two men, they knew that their joint pain and grief – though it continued – had to be disguised. It was the only way they could jolt their father into normality again, into living the life he had worked for all his life. So, slowly they encouraged Ben to be interested in the Ponderosa, and had hardly ever mentioned Joe. However, he knew his father was a stubborn and proud man, and there were times when he just needed to be by himself. Time to reminisce and weep in private – for the pain went on and on.
Ben gently guided his trusty horse Buck down the main street, away from the familiar sights and sounds of Virginia City. He wondered why someone would be visiting the grave of his beloved wife. Squeezing the sides of Buck, it was as if the horse knew the urgency of the request as he responded by quickening his pace, and the two of them made good time to the boundary of the Ponderosa. Ben turned away from the main route to the ranch house and made his way towards the lake, and the one place on earth that Ben had grown to hold more sacred than any other. Here he had come constantly over the past years to cry for his wife, long gone, and now the beloved son, the joy of his life, who was so quickly taken from him.
He was soon at the knoll, and seeing the chestnut that he knew to be from the livery stable, Ben pulled Buck to a stop and dismounted. He tied the reins to a branch and then quietly walked toward the familiar piece of ground. He began to feel anger towards this stranger who was visiting this sacred piece of Cartwright property. Seeing the man, he was about to shout out when he stopped in his tracks. This stranger, with his hat in his hands, was not only kneeling at Marie’s grave, he was also crying. Not silent tears, for his shoulders were heaving under the emotional turmoil that was going through his body.
Unaware of his audience, Clay sobbed and sobbed in a way he had never done before, not even on the death of his grandparents. He had never been much of a believer in God Almighty, yet being in this quiet secluded place he felt he was nearer to a God than he had ever been before. His heart was breaking in a way he did not think possible. Here, he was finally with the woman who had given him life, a woman of whom he had known nothing for so many years. By the side of the grave stood a cross with an engraved plaque. He had read it on entering the knoll and the words seemed to reach out to him and tear out his heart with one violent motion:
Joseph Francis Cartwright
Beloved Son, Brother, Friend
Taken from us so cruelly, so quickly
We did not have time to say goodbye
Resting in Peace with his mother
For All Time
This was the brother he had so looked forward to meeting. He had been denied the pleasure of knowing both his mother and his brother and he was heartbroken. For a full five minutes the only noise was the heart wrenched sounds of Clay as he sobbed. Ben, amazed and bemused held back, unsure, but willing to let this stranger weep and mourn, though he knew not why.
Ben looked at the cross and read the inscription. He closed his eyes and bit his lip as the pain of the words hit him again. How much longer would it be that the mere sight of his youngest son’s name would bring back such anguish? He had managed to disguise his suffering from his two surviving sons during the past months, but there was always the dull ache in his chest felt with every beat of his heart. As Ben opened his eyes, Clay seemed to sense the presence of another, and he looked back. Ben Cartwright and Clay Stafford. Their eyes met and locked together – both had a common bond – heartache!
For a full minute nothing was said; they just looked at each other in silent misery. Ben, whose eyes had started to moisten at the scene, wiped away a solitary tear, and the movement seemed to free Clay from his trance. He slowly arose, hat in hand and walked towards Ben Cartwright. He took a white handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his eyes. This was a confrontation he had not anticipated and he felt nervous and slightly embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” said Clay in a quiet southern drawl, “but I had to come. Had to visit this place.” Clay looked toward the grave of Marie.
Ben looked closely at Clay, seeing him clearly for the first time, noticing some similarity with some distant memory that he could just not place. Ben was perplexed – this stranger knew who he was, and where he was.
Clay went on, “My name is Clay Stafford. I didn’t intend for you to see me here. I’d like to explain why I’m in this state.” Clay stood, staring at Ben, waiting for his reaction.
Ben nodded, unable to speak. Something about the stranger tore at his memory, but what was it? He slowly walked over to the grave of his wife, and could see a bunch of freshly pulled wild flowers, placed reverently by the headstone. A small tribute from this stranger. This was something his beloved Joe had often done when he had visited his mother’s grave. Whatever the season, he would bring something from the ranch to place by his mother. Whether the wild growing spring or summer flowers, or in autumn the cones from the large pines that grew everywhere on the ranch. Just a small thing, but it meant the world to Joe, just to visit, to talk, to leave a gift.
Ben could feel a lump in his throat at the memory. “Not now, Ben, pull yourself together,” thought the older man, as he turned away from the knoll. He looked at the man in front of him. Feeling no hostility from the stranger, Ben went towards his horse, and looking at Clay beckoned him to follow. “Come with me to the ranch,” he said, “We can talk there”.
Without a backward glance, Ben mounted Buck, and headed towards the Ponderosa ranch house, while Clay mounted his chestnut and followed, silently. Each man deep in thought and wondering what the other was about to say.
Ben and Clay rode into the front yard of the Ponderosa ranch together, both dismounting and tying their horses to the hitching post. Neither had spoken during the short journey. Clay looked around quickly and noticed the large barn, corral and house. It was as grand as he had expected it to be. Ben walked to the front door and entered the ranch house, Clay following.
Once inside Ben took off his hat and hung it on the peg behind the door. He made his way behind a large desk, sitting down on a chair, and poured two glasses of brandy from a decanter. He indicated a chair in front of the desk and motioned Clay to join him. Clay took off his hat, and sat down nervously facing the patriarch of the Ponderosa. Ben offered the glass of brandy to Clay, who taking hold swallowed it in one deep gulp. How he had needed that!
Ben, sipping the brandy, studied the young man sitting in front of him closely. Three photographs stood on his desk – one of each of his beloved wives, all deceased. His eyes fell onto the third of the three. This was Marie, and he picked it up and handed it to Clay. Clay took the photograph in nervous hands and studied the picture of the woman who was smiling at him. He smiled. So this was his mother! Looking at her he knew it was Marie, for they both looked so similar – their eyes, hair and smiling mouth. Ben could now see what had puzzled him at the knoll. The similarities between his wife and Clay were now so obvious. Not only that, his features also reminded him of his beloved Joe.
“Well, Clay Stafford, I think you had better explain,” said Ben, in a quiet voice, curious to know about this young man sat nervously in front of him and his connection with Marie.
Clay looked up from the photograph, and cleared his throat. “May I have another one of those?” he said, indicating the brandy. Ben poured him another glass and sat back in his chair, waiting.
Clay swallowed the brandy, and looking at Ben began to tell the story that had begun nearly 30 years before, and had ended that very day in Virginia City. He was concise and accurate in all his details, and throughout Ben stayed silent. He just nodded his head and tightened his mouth at the information Clay was divulging.
As Clay finished, explaining that he had no idea that his brother had died until that very day, Ben stood up. He turned his back on Clay and looked through the small window that was behind his desk. Hands in pocket he stood very still for a couple of minutes deep in thought, thinking of Marie and Joe. Clay stayed silent, head down looking at his mother’s portrait, not knowing what else to say. Ben turned around. Looking at Clay he spoke, his voice faltering with emotion. “I always knew Marie had been married before, and that there had been a child. She really thought the child had not survived. I know it had affected her until the day she died.”
There was silence again in the great room – the only sound was the ticking of the large clock which stood near the front door, distant neighing of the ranch horses, and the crowing of one of the chickens cooped at the back of the ranch.
Clay felt he had to say something else. “Do you believe me Sir? Do you believe I am Marie’s son?”
Ben smiled, and looking at the photograph in Clay’s hand said, “I have no reason not to believe you – you are so obviously my Marie’s son”.
Ben walked to the front of the desk, and Clay rose up unsure what was about to happen. Ben stood in front of the young man, and put his arm out, cupping Clay’s neck in his hand and held him close. Clay let himself be hugged in this way, for it was an experience that had been sadly lacking in his past and it felt so good, so comforting.
The two men parted, and Ben motioned Clay to sit on the settee in front of the large open fireplace. He then asked Clay what it was he wanted now. Clay sat back, and with his eyes watering, looked at Ben. “I came here just to meet my brother and learn about my mother, but now things have become a little confused. I’m so sorry to bring back all the heartache. This was not part of the plan.” As he finished, his voice broke and he could feel a sob at the back of his throat.
Ben looked at the man in front of him knowing the distress that he obviously had. “I’m sorry too Clay. You are so much like Joe. He too was the image of his mother.”
Ben turned round and sat in his favorite leather chair by the hearth. There was silence for a minute while Ben gathered his thoughts. He then spoke. “You will never meet your brother but I can tell you about him. There is also Marie, your mother. If only she could have been here, to meet you. Would you like me to tell you about them both?”
The nodding smile on Clay’s face gave Ben the answer.
Ben began to speak, hesitating at first, but soon getting into full flow. He described Marie, her life in New Orleans and what happened when she came to Nevada, married to Ben, and an instant step-mother to Adam and Hoss. Then there had been the birth of Joe, followed by five happy years until her untimely death in a riding accident.
Ben stopped suddenly, looking blankly into space, memories of past times flashing through his head. He continued, “You know Clay, if she had had an inkling that you were still alive, she would have sought you out, come hell or high water! You must believe that”.
The sincerity in Ben’s voice made Clay shift in his seat uneasily. His mind wandered. If only his grandparents had not intervened – how his life might have taken such a different direction – maybe on this ranch in Nevada.
Ben continued, unaware of the effect his words were having on the young man. “I guess the reason Marie spoilt Joe so much was not just because he was the youngest, but she was trying to make up for the first son she had lost but still cherished.”
There was silence for a minute as both men thought their private thoughts. The sudden chime of the old clock seemed to jolt Ben, who continued in a lighter tone. “As for your brother, where to start?” said Ben, gently smiling at the memory. “Joe was a handsome boy, hair like yours, green sparkling eyes, not quite as tall as you, but strong and muscular. There were times when he could twist me around his little finger.”
Ben paused, looking towards the stairs, remembering days gone bye when a young man would come bounding down, laughing. He continued, “He had a temper at times, too quick for his own good! He could also be stubborn – something he inherited from his mother. His laugh was so highly pitched and contagious, and he could turn on that boyish charm so no one could resist him. The best horse breaker this side of the Sierras, he was forever trying to prove himself – to me, to his brothers but mostly to himself. He was kind, generous and helpful to anyone and led his brother Hoss into no amount of trouble, and had even got the better of Adam on occasions! He seemed to revel in causing chaos sometimes!”
Clay quietly laughed with Ben at this statement. Feeling lighter in his heart than he had for a long time, Ben went on, “He was also doing a great job with the horse breeding program. Buying the stallion in Tucson had been his dream for months. The discussions we had as he tried to get me to give him the money for that horse.”
Ben smiled at the memories of the long nights as Joe tried to convince his Pa that the horse was just what was needed for the Ponderosa. Joe had finally won over his father’s approval for the deal, and with much excitement had left for Tucson. Ben continued, telling Clay how they could not bring themselves to buy the horse or even see it when they had gone to Tucson. Ben finally stopped and looked at Clay.
“You would have been proud to call him brother – I’m just so sorry that you never had the chance to meet him or know your mother. Joe would have loved to meet you, I am sure of that. If there was one thing Joe had, it was a heart full of love, just like Marie.”
Clay sat silently, taking in all that Ben had said. Ben sat, thinking deeply. He never thought he could have talked about Joe this easily. Maybe this young man, Marie’s first born, was just what was needed to heal the painful ache in his heart.
Suddenly, the sound of horses could be heard, and within a minute the front door opened, and Adam and Hoss walked in. Although looking calm, they had in fact been worried about Ben leaving Virginia City so mysteriously. They had only breathed a sigh of relief when they had seen the big buckskin tied in the yard next to a chestnut horse from the livery stable. Both removed their hats and placed them on the pegs behind the door, then seeing Ben sat with a stranger moved towards the great hearth.
Ben stood up, and smiling at his boys, indicated to the man sat on the settee.
Clay rose up, and turned around to face Adam and Hoss. He nervously put out his hand to Adam. “Adam, I’m Clay Stafford. I am, er, was your brother Joe’s brother”
Instinctively Adam shook his hand, not really understanding what had been said, but noticing a similarity between the stranger and the long dead step-mother he had loved.
“Pa?” Adam looked at Ben for some sort of explanation. Ben smiled, and quietly told Adam and Hoss that it was indeed true. This was Marie’s first born.
Hoss, always the most welcoming of men cried as he shook Clay’s hand. “If this ain’t just the best thing – where you been all these years? To think our little brother had another brother of his own!” There was no trace of bitterness or jealousy in his voice.
Clay, feeling truly welcome, gave the two brothers a quick resume of his life, and why he was now at the Ponderosa. The Cartwright brothers, Adam sitting in his favorite blue chair, and Hoss standing by the huge hearth, listened intently in silence to what they were told. Ben sat without making any comments, studying Clay, and thinking of his Marie. His narrative finished, Clay waited for reaction from the two men.
Both Adam and Hoss were stunned at the story told by their step-mothers first child. They too could recall how upset she used to be when the birthday of her first born came around – the child she had believed to have died the day she gave birth. Yet, here he was, in the flesh! At least there was now one son of Marie Cartwright alive and well on the Ponderosa! Could they share their memories of Little Joe with this man they could call brother? They looked at their father, waiting for his reaction.
Ben could see Adam and Hoss were waiting for a sign – could they talk about Joe? Or was there still too much pain? Ben smiled at his sons. “I think we had better let this young man know what kind of brother you two had to contend with!” he said, chuckling.
Like a giant dam releasing water, the conversation then flowed and flowed. It was such a relief for Hoss and Adam to finally be able to talk about Joe in front of their father. Ben did not mind at all; in fact, he joined in when describing some of the many escapades that his youngest had got up to in his life. Convincing Hoss to rob a bank! His attempt to match-make for the local school mistress which had caused Adam so much grief! His wooing of an Indian Princess that had nearly started a war! For the first time in a year, the great room of the Ponderosa ranch was filled with the sound of Cartwright laughter, as past happy memories rose to the surface. They also spoke of the serious side to Joe. The time he had become a sheriff at Rubicon, and when he had saved the whole family from being hung by a dishonest sheriff. Yes, there were many sides to this Joseph Cartwright.
The afternoon sun was sinking into the horizon when Clay at long last stood up. He looked at the family of three who had been so welcoming to him, though it must have been causing them so much distress. He need not have worried though. Talking about Joe had been the best thing that could have happened. Ben, Adam and Hoss each felt like a huge weight had been lifted.
“Thank you for being so welcoming, sir”, said Clay, looking at Ben. “I’d better be getting back to Virginia City before it gets dark. I have a stage to catch first thing tomorrow.”
“Surely you can stay longer, Clay? This is as much your home now, as it was for Joe. Marie would have wanted you here, we want you here. You are after all my stepson!”
Clay could feel his eyes watering again. What was it about this family that brought on these tears so easily? “Thank you, sir. I know I was mixed up earlier, but now you have given me something to take back to New Orleans – the memories of a brother and mother – and the friendship of a wonderful family. It will stay with me always. I just need to go back to where I came from and make some sense of all this.”
Clay walked over to where he had left his hat, and picking it up, looked around the great room, taking in the pictures, statues, furniture. All this would have been so familiar to Joe. If only fate had taken a different road, he too might have called this home.
Adam and Hoss, at a loss for the reason for the sudden departure, looked at Ben questioningly, but Ben silenced them with his finger. He moved to the front door and opened it, walking through followed by Clay. Adam and Hoss followed and moved out onto the verandah. Before reaching his horse, Clay looked into the corral and saw a lone pinto which stood looking at the men. It seemed to be waiting for a certain voice, but when he did not recognize his master’s tone, he resumed munching the hay in the corner. Clay walked to the corral and looked at the horse. Ben followed, knowing that the sight of the pinto always brought back such painful memories but unwilling to give the horse his freedom. Adam and Hoss walked over to the big chestnut horse, which stood next to Buck, giving him a friendly pat, and waited for their father and Clay.
Ben and Clay placed their arms on the top rail, and looked at the pinto.
“This was Joe’s horse, wasn’t it?” said Clay.
“Yes,” said Ben, “They were a close pair, Joe and Cochise. We brought him back from Tucson – all that we had left.”
Ben’s voice broke with emotion. He had never managed to talk of Joe like this since the accident, not to anyone, not even his sons. Clay studied the horse, noting its beauty and fine lines. Joe could certainly pick a winner – no wonder he did so well with the horse side of the ranch, he thought.
Clay smiled at Ben, and turning round, returned to the hired chestnut. Shaking his hand, Ben pulled Clay to him, hugging him, eyes closed. It was as if he were his son. He was so much like his Joe and he nearly imagined this was his youngest, back again in his arms.
“Come back one day, please” Ben whispered in Clay’s ear. Pulling apart, tears in their eyes, they studied each other. Suddenly Ben turned, and as he walked to the house, called to Clay to wait a minute, that there was something he wanted to get. Adam and Hoss standing by the chestnut horse also wanted to say goodbye to this handsome stranger, who was now family.
Adam put out his hand, and suddenly the usually aloof, skeptical brother let down his guard. With much emotion, he put his left hand around Clay’s neck just as he had often done to Joe. This may not be his beloved kid brother, but he was Joe’s brother. Adam pulled Clay to his chest and then, as he pulled back looked into green eyes – so like the Marie he remembered and Joe. He smiled and with his right hand shook Clay’s hand. “Your visit has been such a blessing in disguise, Clay, thank you. I just know you and Joe would have been the best of friends”.
As Adam and Clay parted, Hoss came over and gave Clay a hug that left the young man quite breathless.
“You take care and come back, you hear” said Hoss, his voice breaking. Having Clay there seemed to keep a part of Joe forever with them.
Ben walked back from the house and opening Clay’s hand laid a small silver locket in his palm. “This belonged to Joe, but I think you should have it now” he said, looking into Clay’s eyes.
Clay looked down at the locket and opened it. Inside was a portrait of his mother, similar to the one on Ben’s desk, but smaller.
With tears in his eyes, Clay closed the locket and carefully placed it in his inside pocket. This small possession meant more than anything Clay had ever been given.
“Thank you all – I just wished things had been different. Wish I’d been here a year early,” said Clay, looking into Ben’s kind, understanding and loving eyes, as he mounted his horse. He studied the three men in front of him, then turned towards Virginia City. Looking back as he went around the corner of the barn, he could see the men had not moved, but were just staring at him, as if willing him to return one day. With a backward wave of his arm, Clay kicked his horse on to a canter, leaving the three Cartwright men alone.
Ben walked back towards the corral. He had kept Cochise close to the ranch even though the sight of him always brought back painful memories of a young man riding like the wind across the Ponderosa, moving as one in motion with his horse. However, after Clay’s visit, something had changed. The horse, knowing Ben, walked up and put his muzzle in Ben’s hand. Instinctively Ben stroked the nose of the horse, then he suddenly moved to the gate. He made a decision, and opening the gate went into the corral, guided the pinto to the opening. With a shout, he hit the horse on the rump.
Cochise, startled at seeing freedom for the first time in such a long time, shook his head and snorted, moving quickly out of the confines of the corral. He stopped, looking back as if looking for a familiar figure, but as he did not see the face he sought, he began to gallop and headed out into the luscious meadows of the Ponderosa.
Ben looked at the horse as it raced away. “Run like the wind with your master’s spirit,” thought Ben, and he turned to face Adam and Hoss who stood transfixed – they had never thought Ben would let the horse out on its own, to run free. It belonged to Joe – all they had left! Ben could see what they were thinking and smiling stood between them, putting his arms around the necks of the two men. One son may be dead, but he had two others who needed him, and he needed them. “Come on boys, we have got a lot to talk about from this afternoon, and things are going to get better. I just know they are.”
With that the three remaining Cartwrights walked arm in arm into the house, and closed the door.
The ride back to Virginia City gave Clay a chance to think the day’s events through.
The talk with Ben and meeting Adam and Hoss had helped to heal the broken heart that Clay had felt since hearing of the death of his brother. Delivering the horse back to the livery stable, he then made his way to his hotel room.
Tomorrow he was booked for the New Orleans stage, but a thought was festering in his brain and it would not leave him. Today had been such a mixture of emotions – but a decision had to be made. Yes, thought Clay. New Orleans can wait. Today I saw where my brother lived and loved, but tomorrow I have to go to where he died. I may be a year late, but I have to go to Tucson – I have to say goodbye there and maybe bring back that stallion for Ben. If ‘Wild One’ is still available, it would be a fitting tribute to the work Joe had started. Thinking of the plans he would have to make, Clay lay on the bed and eventually fell asleep dreaming of a young man with dark wavy hair, green eyes and a contagious laugh.
It was the year before Clay had arrived in Virginia City that Joe Cartwright had left with high hopes and excitement on his way to Tucson. Aged 23 and the youngest, he always felt he had to prove himself – justify his abilities to his family and himself. With his beloved horse, Cochise, he left happy and confident in the knowledge that he was going to buy ‘Wild One’. This stallion would help make the Ponderosa horses the best quality herd in Nevada, he was sure of that. Little did he realize that his father and brothers thought him more than capable and were proud of the hard work that he had done in putting together the horse contracts for the Army and the stock breeding that he had organized.
Man and horse, enjoying each others company, traveled steadily south east, slowly losing sight of the snow capped Sierra Nevada and eventually crossing the border into Arizona. They passed the western edges of the Black Mountains, and eventually, in the far distance, Joe could see the rust-colored peaks of the Big Horn Mountains which were such a contrast to what he had grown up with on his beloved Ponderosa. Steadily they went on and on, until the terrain changed into flat land that was covered with boulders, shrub and cactus. On they trekked until after nearly three weeks, Joe and Cochise arrived in the old Arizona town of Tucson.
Joe wandered up the main street, and just around a corner he spotted a suitable establishment called the Tucson Queen Hotel, so he dismounted from his horse and tying up Cochise went inside. It was a small but clean hotel and the clerk was sat, dozing, behind a large desk at the end of the foyer.
Hearing a new client enter, the hotel clerk sat up and with a smile greeted the weary traveler. “Can I help you, sir?” asked the clerk.
“I’d like a room for a couple of nights, and a hot bath” said Joe, suppressing a yawn.
Coming inside from being out in the fresh air, he could smell himself after being on the trail for three weeks, as could the clerk from the way he screwed up his nose.
“Certainly, sir, here is the visitors book to sign, and that will be five dollars to be paid now.”
Joe took the pen offered by the clerk, signed his name, took out a five dollar bill and handed it to the man. He then collected his room key, number 12, and began to move off.
“Excuse me, er, Mr. Cartwright, would you mind taking this card also?”
Joe looked at a card offered by the clerk, which had the name of the hotel on one side and the number 12 on the other. He looked quizzingly at the clerk.
“Idea of the mayor and sheriff. Seems that a lot of the clientele seem to drink too much around here and can never remember where they are supposed to sleep. This way, when someone gets too drunk to remember where they are bedded down, the card will tell the sheriff where they belong. That way he doesn’t have to put them up in his jail all the time to sleep it off – seems to be working.” said the clerk as he put the money in the box under his counter.
Joe, too tired to argue, took the card placing it in the inside of his jacket. He was too tired to even contemplate getting a drink! Asking the clerk for directions to the livery stable, Joe went outside. Collecting Cochise, hr made his way to the stable and bedded down his faithful horse. Giving him a grateful pat, he returned to the hotel where his bath was ready. Into the bath, and then straight to bed was all that Joe had the energy for. Seeing the comfortable mattress, his body craved comfort from being on the trail for so long, so Joe finally laid on the bed, and fell asleep dreaming of snow-capped mountains and luscious meadows and horses running free.
The next morning feeling refreshed, Joe dressed, went downstairs and had breakfast, then collecting Cochise, headed for the Lazy M. It was a steady ride for about an hour before the Lazy M came into view. A large ranch, with many corrals, each containing various numbers of mares and foals, the ranch house had the look of a Mexican hacienda, and as Joe entered the main yard, a man came out to greet him.
“Mr. Fletcher? asked Joe.
“Mr. Cartwright,” smiled Mort Fletcher, as they shook hands.
“Joe, please,” said the youngest Cartwright. “Mr. Cartwright is my father”.
“Of course, Joe. Welcome to the Lazy M, and I’m Mort”.
Mort Fletcher was a man in his fifties, with a bald head, such a contrast to Ben Cartwright, thought Joe. He was a friendly man who had worked hard for many years in that area of Arizona and built himself a good quality horse ranch. He had been lucky with the Apaches, who had never attacked his ranch, and he felt mighty blessed.
“Hope you had a good journey, Joe?” said Mort, as he took Joe into his house for a cup of coffee. “Manage to get booked into a hotel OK?”
“Certainly did. Nice little hotel called the Tucson Queen and I was glad to have a bath last night, and sleep on a comfortable bed for the first time in days!” laughed Joe. “You would not of liked to smell me yesterday after so long on the trail.”
Both men laughed and sipped their coffee. Mort liked this young man, with his handsome features, sense of humor and friendly smile. When they had finished, Mort stood up and turning to Joe, said, “I guess you want to see this young stallion of mine?” He knew just how keen the young man had been about this horse since their first correspondence on the matter.
Joe smiled his agreement at this statement, and they walked out of the ranch house to a small corral at the back.
There was a single horse in the corral, a jet black horse except for its tail that he held high and swished around. This tail was mainly white, looking like a huge plume of cascading water. With muscular chest, long legs and a beautiful head that tossed up and down while it danced around the corral it was indeed everything that Joe had hoped and expected. This was definitely ‘the one’. He was ‘Wild One’.
Mort Fletcher could see that the young man looked at the horse with admiration and desire. Joe whistled his appreciation of the fine stallion.
“He earns his name well enough. He has been broke, but no one can get near him most of the time,” said the rancher.
Joe stared at the horse. To get the stallion back to Nevada he would have to be able to keep the horse on a halter and lead him behind Cochise. If he was not gentled, he could see that the journey would be a very long hard trek. Joe sighed. “Here goes,” he thought and he moved to the corral fence, removing his hat and laying it on the ground.
Climbing over the fence, Joe went into the corral and stood in the middle, while the stallion pranced and snorted at the man who was invading his territory. Joe just stood bare-headed and still, hands in front of him, quietly talking, humming and as the stallion looked straight at the man, Joe would turn his back on him.
Mort Fletcher looked on in amazement. “Sure has guts this, young fellow,” he thought as he watched Joe doing a slow dance of turning his back to the stallion whenever the horse faced him. Slowly the horse, not understanding the man in the middle and being inquisitive, walked up to Joe and with his muzzle, rubbed Joe’s back. Joe smiled, and softly muttering, turned to face the horse. He then began to gently blow into the nostrils of the stallion, while the stallion stood stock still. Slowly, Joe put up his arm and stroked the face and neck of the huge beast, while still blowing into its nostrils, and murmuring softly. The horse seemed to go into a trance, and closing his eyes, allowed the man to stroke his chest, back and withers. Man and horse were now master and servant.
Giving the stallion a final friendly pat, Joe turned, walked to the fence and climbed out of the corral. Smiling, he turned to Mort Fletcher, and looking at the rancher said, “Guess I won’t have any trouble leading him home now!” The whole procedure had taken no more than 15 minutes. As Joe retrieved his hat, Mort shook his head. He had never seen anything like that – no wonder Joe was so successful on the Ponderosa.
Both men smiling turned and went to the house to conclude their deal. After having lunch with Mort, Joe arranged to return the next day with the bank draft for the purchase of the horse. Mort Fletcher shook his hand, and watched as Joe mounted Cochise and cantered away from the ranch on the pinto. He was in awe of the young man who had done so much with the stallion in such a short time. He stared after him until he could see him no more, and then turned towards his ranch house.
In the opposite direction he heard the jingle of reins, and saw an old man and wagon pulled slowly by an old mule, coming into view. Mort Fletcher smiled and waved his hand.
After a half hour of riding, Joe pulled Cochise to a stop. Joe was hot and guessing that the horse also needed a drink, he moved away from the road to a large boulder where he dismounted. He took the canteen from his saddle, and removing his hat, poured water into it and offered it to Cochise. The horse eagerly drunk his fill, and then Joe put his hat back on his head, and raised the canteen to his lips and began to drink.
As his mouth began to swallow the water from the canteen, a lone shot rang out, the bullet hitting Joe in the side of the head and his hat flew off. Cochise, startled by the suddenness of the attack, jumped back, and as Joe fell, the canteen dropped, the precious water pouring out onto the hot baked desert. Cochise in his haste to escape reared up and hit his master on the head with his hoof and then he galloped off, leaving Joe lying on the floor. The last sight Joe had before he slipped into unconsciousness was of Cochise becoming smaller and smaller in the distance. Then there was nothing, only blackness.
The lone renegade Apache who had shot Joe and whose own horse had broken its leg that morning, cursed as Cochise galloped off into the distance. He had noticed the white man riding towards the Lazy M, and had patiently waited for his return. The pinto had caught the eye of the Apache – that horse was just what he desired – so forgetting all about the white man he had just shot, he ran off in the direction the pinto had gone.
Cochise galloped on for about five miles, too far for the Apache who eventually gave up the chase. The pinto slowed down and finally stopped to get his breath. At that moment, a young cowboy, Sam Thomas, who drifted in and out of jobs in the area, cantered up the road on his way to Tucson. Seeing the pinto standing alone on the road with its coat sweating and sides heaving, he stopped, dismounted, and grabbed hold of the reins. Looking around, he could not see the owner of the horse, and noticing a green jacket which was tied to the bedroll on the saddle, he untied it and looked inside the pockets. He found a wallet containing a few hundred dollars, a letter of introduction to the local bank in the name of Cartwright, and the tell-tale bedroom number card of the Tucson Queen Hotel.
If nothing else, Sam Thomas was an opportunist. The sun was rapidly sinking in the sky and the chill of the Arizona night began to wrap its arms around the young man, so he put the money and the hotel ticket back into the green jacket pocket and put on the jacket, which fitted well. This is my lucky day, he thought. Holding onto the reins of the pinto, he mounted his horse, and made his way to Tucson.
Musing at his luck, he decided to take the horse to the sheriff – might be a reward for its return, he thought. Although he made good time, it was dark on his arrival, and so he decided against telling the sheriff straightaway that he had found the horse. That could wait until the morning. Instead he tied Cochise outside the hotel and decided he would use the ticket for bedroom 12 – it would be the first comfortable bed he had slept in for many months and it was a shame for it to go to waste!
On entering the Tucson Queen Hotel, Sam Thomas went to the hotel desk and removed the ticket from the jacket pocket. The night porter who took the card from the cowboy gave him key 12 and wished him good night. He did not realize this was not the Mr. Cartwright who had signed in the day before. He was just happy that another client of the hotel had checked in for the night and soon he could go in the back and get some shut eye. Sam Thomas made his way upstairs, unlocked the bedroom door, slipped into the room, and lay on the comfortable mattress, quickly drifting off into a deep sleep.
So deep was his sleep, that a couple of hours later he did not smell the acrid smoke, hear the crackling of the flames, or the shouts of the people outside, as the fire started at the back of the hotel. All too quickly the fumes engulfed room 12 and all the other bedrooms of the hotel, most of the occupants sleeping off the beer and whiskey of the local saloons.
Quickly and quietly Sam Thomas breathed his last. His good fortune had not lasted long, and he was dead before the flames consumed his body. By morning the hotel was a black burnt out shell, and 20 souls were gone.
Joe Cartwright was oblivious to all the commotion in Tucson that night. He lay where he had fallen. The bullet wound that had grazed his head had bled onto his shirt then slowly stopped leaving a huge blob of congealed blood in his scalp. The mark on his forehead where Cochise had hit him was red, angry looking and swollen. For hours he lay prone on the ground, through the cold of the Arizona night to the heat of the Arizona day. Eventually he came round, dizzy, distressed and his vision blurred.
He tried to stand, but just fell down again. His confused mind told him he had to get up, so he slowly rose and staggered off, not knowing where. Again he fell, again he rose, driven on by some unknown sense of self-preservation. On and on he went, the heat of the Arizona sun on his bare injured head contributing to his delirious state. He did not know where he was going, he just forced himself on and on, until the evening came, and again he succumbed to the painful headache and vomiting. He lay exhausted, finally falling into a painful and fitful sleep.
A full night passed until the day light brought him round. Something kept pushing him on, forever moving towards who knows where. His shirt became torn as he crashed into cacti, rocks, and the hard floor of the desert, his arms bleeding from the cuts and scrapes. Eventually his body could take no more, and he collapsed. He laid for hours, totally alone, the desert empty, no one to help. His body yearned for water and his head pounded with the heat-stroke and the pain of the injury he had sustained. Life was beginning to ebb away from the young Cartwright.
It was just before another night was drawing in that a lone wagon pulled by a mule, and driven by an old half-breed Indian by the name of Cactus Jack pulled up alongside the man laying on the hard baked dirt.
Cactus Jack had spent the last two days at the Lazy M, arriving shortly after Joe had left the ranch. Cactus was a kindly man, who had taken a lot of prejudice and unpleasantness in his life. Being a half-breed had made him belong to no one side, neither Indian or white man, and yet he was proud to tell anyone who asked that he was a God-Fearing Indian, as he had been brought up in a Catholic-run orphanage many years ago. He had named himself in his teenage years Cactus Jack — Cactus after the large cacti that grew so freely in Arizona, and Jack after the priest who had run the orphanage.
He had spent most of his life riding in his wagon visiting ranches in Arizona, mending anything that needed repairing. He was good with his hands and people over the years had come to trust this strange half-breed, saving up all their broken furniture and utensils so that Cactus could repair them.
Cactus had just completed his visit at the Lazy M, repairing various items, and talking to Mort. Mort Fletcher had returned from a visit to Tucson that day with a weary heart. The young man who he had entertained the previous day had died during the night in a hotel fire, and Mort had the morbid task of contacting the young man’s family. Cactus had comforted the rancher, and now he was on his way to visit the next ranch on his yearly journey.
Seeing the body lying on the hard-baked ground, he slowed his mule to a stop and went to investigate. He looked around, checking to make sure there were no attackers ready to pounce but he could see they were alone. The young man laid so still, his shirt torn and soaked in blood, his arms red from scratches and cuts. His forehead was red and swollen, congealed dried blood covering his hair. There was no horse, no sign of a struggle. The young man still had his gun in its holster. Where had he come from? thought Cactus. A moan came from the young cowboy on the ground. Cactus then knew he was still alive, but only just!
He carefully lifted the injured man into his wagon, wiped away the congealed blood with a wet cloth, and strapped a bandage around his head. He then slowly poured a small amount of water into Joe’s mouth. Joe croaked and coughed as the water trickled down his throat. Moaning, he opened his eyes, and with blurred vision saw the sight of a dark skinned man with deep brown eyes, about 60 years of age, wearing a straw hat with a feather sticking in it. He then lapsed back into his unconscious state, oblivious to his fate.
Cactus had a timetable that had to be met, for no other reason than it was the way he had lived his life for so long, he would not change his itinerary for anything or anyone. So, seeing the young man was comfortable, he sat down on the front of his small wagon and slapping the old mule, began his journey again, a journey that with every mile took him and Joe further away from the Lazy M and Tucson.
For the next two days, Joe lay in a semi-coma, moaning and crying out with the pain in his head. Cactus would soothe the reddened forehead with a cool wetted cloth constantly, and the young man would sleep for hours. Though Cactus did not think the young man would live, Joe surprised him by slowly regaining consciousness and taking in water and small amounts of broth. At first, he would vomit the broth up, but knowing nourishment was needed for the injured man, Cactus persevered, until after another four days Joe was well enough to sit up and drink the broth retaining it in his stomach. Joe’s shirt was beyond repair, so Cactus replaced it with one of his own, and gave him one of his old straw hats complete with feather. Joe was slowly becoming more Indian –like than white man.
As the days went by, the dizziness and headaches became less and less. His arms, so badly scratched, slowly healed, and the scars diminished. The water had soothed the burning sensation in Joe’s mouth and throat caused by the lack of nourishment in his first days of staggering about the desert. He had found speech painful so had said little, but slowly his voice returned, and it was one evening when Cactus had made camp, that they had their first coherent conversation.
“My name is Cactus Jack, but you can call me Cactus. Good to see you’re feeling better. Been a mite touch and go – got me and the Lord Almighty to thank for your survival, you know”.
Cactus paused, watching the reaction of the young injured man. Joe still looked dazed and scared. He had been watching the old man each day from the back of the wagon, wondering who he was, and where he was, too weak to move. He had felt frightened, unsure. All he had was a left-handed gun and holster, his only possession. Cactus had seen the young man holding the holster, in case it was needed. He continued, as if reading Joe’s mind.
“No need to be afraid of me. I’m just an old half-breed Indian that those pesky Apaches can’t even be bothered to kill,” Cactus chuckled.
Joe looked at him in confusion but felt less fear. “I, I can’t remember my name” his voice quiet and croaky. “I don’t remember anything – where I am, what’s happened? Who am I?” his voice sobbed.
The look on the young man’s face was enough to tell Cactus Jack that he was telling the truth. Slowly, picking his words carefully, he told Joe all the details of him being found, more dead than alive and how Cactus had taken care of him.
“I guess I have a lot to thank you for,” said Joe, fingering the loose fitting Indian shirt he was wearing.
“You just get your strength back; maybe it will come back to you, your name and where you’re from,” said the half breed kindly. Joe nodded, now feeling no danger, and gratefully fell asleep, his fingers still holding onto his holstered gun.
It was nearly a week later that Cactus Jack arrived at the next stop on his yearly route, a small ranch that bred cattle. Joe had been conscious each day for longer and longer, and had just laid in the wagon, listening to the slow plod of the mule and the wheels of the wagon. He no longer felt like vomiting, and although he still felt dizzy, his vision was not blurred anymore. He was, however, still confused. Who he was and where he was from was still a mystery. It was after a day of lying alone in the wagon while Cactus worked at the ranch, that Joe felt well enough to talk about his predicament. With Joe not knowing his own name, Cactus referred to him as Boy, and so it was Boy who asked Cactus that evening, “You think I will ever remember who I am?”
Cactus looked at Boy. “Tis in the hands of The Lord, I reckon. Time will tell.”
“Do you think I could be wanted by the law?” said Joe, who was staring at his gun and holster.
Cactus studied the face of the young man. “Don’t look like no badman to me, so I would say no”.
“Aren’t you afraid I might try to kill you with this?” said Joe, still staring at the gun. “You don’t know nothing about me!”
Cactus looked at Joe keenly, noting the despondent look on his face. “I been around many unpleasant people in my time, white man and Indian, but I don’t get any feeling of bad coming from you. Not a bit of bad!”
Joe looked at Cactus, relief showing on his handsome features. His next question brought back the downcast face showing uncertainty and pain. “Do you think anyone is missing me?”
Cactus thought for a minute, and choosing his words carefully, answered as honestly as he could, “Don’t know one way or another – but you look like you’re the sort of young man who would have someone out there, and if its God’s will, then one day maybe they will find you.”.
Boy sat back, closing his eyes. How his head ached. He tried to think back and remember, but his head would throb until he could stand it no more, and so he just lay, unthinking and silent, his fingers stroking the holster and gun, his only link with the past.
Another week and there was still no sign of Boy remembering. Thinking of what, who, where, just brought on headaches that pounded for hours, so eventually he just relaxed and accepted his fate. He may find out the truth one day, he may not. The skull fracture caused by his beloved horse slowly repaired itself, though there were still the odd bouts of dizziness. Cactus and Boy would sit together on the wagon, wearing their straw hats and Indian shirts while the old mule would slowly plod on and on. Different though the two men were, the old half breed and the young man seemed to bond well together, so that after three months Boy accepted that his life was with Cactus. He no longer thought of who he had been, just who he was now.
However, in the early hours of the morning, Cactus was regularly awakened by the cries of Boy who in dreams of snow-capped mountains and luscious meadows would call out ‘Pa’ over and over again. Cactus wondered, but never told Boy what he shouted out in the night, and Boy never remembered his dreams when he awoke.
During the long days as the old wagon was pulled lazily along, Boy would sit and wonder if there was anyone who was thinking of him. Hundreds of miles away in Nevada, three men spent their days in a constant state of grief and pain, thinking of the son and brother who had gone forever.
Thus, month followed month, the same steady pace of the mule driven wagon, and the visits to the ranches on the route of Cactus Jack. Unbeknown to Boy, his birthday came and went – a date that brought extra hardship and sorrow to three men far away.
Christmas came, celebrated at a small shack with a lone prospector who was living out his days alone, but who would welcome Cactus each year for a meal and drink of whisky.
In Nevada, three men went through the motions of celebrating the festive season with a quiet family dinner, where an empty chair at the table caused them to reflect on the past years events. Each had their own thoughts of the young man sadly missed beyond belief.
Boy was now recovered. While Cactus did his repairs at each stop, Boy would tend any horses on the ranch and amazed all with his skill, to the point that Cactus would often say he was becoming more like an Indian than a white man. Indeed with his longer hair and tanned skin, old straw hat and Indian shirt, he and Cactus looked like they were kin. Boy was content with his lot; the headaches were gone as long as he did not try to think of his past life. He would often stare silently at his gun and holster, wondering if he had ever used it in anger. There were still dreams when he would cry out for his Pa, but the dreams were always forgotten in the morning, and Cactus never told him what he had shouted out during the dark Arizona nights.
On they traveled, working together as a team, until a full year had passed and on a fine August afternoon Cactus and Boy turned off the main road and headed towards the next ranch on Cactus Jack’s route, the Lazy M.
Two days after his visit to the Ponderosa, Clay left Virginia City on the stage and traveling for a week arrived at Tucson. Retrieving his small valise from the top of the stage, he followed the directions of the stagecoach driver and walked up the main street and around a corner, where the burnt out shell of the Tucson Queen Hotel lay. He stood silently, taking in the sight. Even after a year, no one had bothered to rebuild and the burnt out timbers stood out pointing towards the sky as if placed deliberately as a monument to the dead of a year ago. So, here was where his brother had finally met his maker, mused Clay, with tears in his eyes. Saying a silent prayer, he turned and made his way to the livery stable. He had an appointment to keep.
Before leaving Nevada, he had wired the Lazy M telling Mort Fletcher of his desire to buy ‘Wild One’ for the Ponderosa if he were still for sale. The message had come back that the stallion was still available, so Clay hired a horse and set off for the Lazy M after obtaining directions from the stable boy.
An hour later he arrived at the Lazy M, just as his brother had done the year before, and found a man leaning on the wooden fence of a corral.
“Mr. Fletcher?” said Clay “I’m Clay Stafford.”
“Mr. Stafford, nice of you to come over.”
“Just call me Clay,” said the visitor.
“Just call me Mort then,” said Mort Fletcher.
They shook hands, and Clay told Mort why he was there, describing how the loss of his newly discovered brother had prompted him in this pilgrimage to buy the stallion for Ben
Mort Fletcher listened to the young man’s tale. “I would love you to buy this horse; I know it meant a lot to Joe,” he said. He went on, “When Joe never returned that next day, I went into town to see where he was. That’s when I saw the burnt out hotel, and his pinto still outside. All them dead and Joe one of them. It was heart breaking, it really was. I was the one that had to wire his Pa, and when they came, his Pa and his brothers, I just could not face mentioning this stallion. The misery in their faces was just too much to bear.”
Clay’s face darkened; he nodded silently, as he could imagine the grief that his newly found stepfather must have felt.
“Let’s have a look at this horse then,” said Mort, thoughtfully changing the subject.
Mort and Clay walked over to a corral where ‘Wild One’ was standing. He was everything that Clay had expected to see. This was just the horse needed on the Ponderosa. Joe certainly knew good breeding and that’s a fact thought Clay.
“Will you manage him all the way back to Nevada?” said Mort, looking at Clay. “Only man I saw could control that horse was Joe, and it sure was a sight to behold.” Mort gave a detailed description of how Joe had calmed and transformed the horse from the fiery stallion to the gentle horse that had stood quietly and obediently with the young man from the Ponderosa.
Clay looking at the horse thought hard. He had never even thought how he was going to take him back those hundreds of miles. Both he and Mort stood staring at the horse, which had gone back to his natural aggressive and fiery stance.
In the distance came the jingle of reins, and Mort and Clay looked around to see an old mule pulling a wagon on which two men sat. Mort smiled. “Looks like Cactus Jack is here for his yearly mending spree, and he seems to have found a friend as well!” he said. Clay and Mort walked over to the wagon as it stopped, and Mort shook the hand of the old half breed. “Good to see you again Cactus. How you been?” said the rancher.
“Business been good this year, now I got my right hand man here,” said Cactus, indicating Boy. Mort and Clay looked at the young man wearing an old straw hat. He continued, “This here is Boy, been my companion for the past year.”
As Mort shook his hand, he thought there was something about him that looked familiar but he could not put his finger on it. Clay also shook the hand of Boy, noticing the long curly hair, the tanned skin and the clear, green twinkling eyes. Something about Boy made Clay uneasy. What could it be – who did he remind him of?
Boy shook the hands of the two men, noticing there stares, but thinking nothing of it.
“This is Clay Stafford, come from Nevada to buy my finest stallion,” said Mort as he introduced Clay and pointed towards the nearest corral.
A loud neighing came from the corral, and the men all turned their heads looking towards the large, black horse.
The stallion caught Boy’s immediate attention and he jumped from the wagon and walked towards the corral, staring at the horse, frowning and shaking his head. Cactus quickly told Mort and Clay that Boy had no memory, and had been with him for about a full year after being found more dead than alive.
“You mean he don’t know who he is – he has amnesia?” said Clay.
“Yep, don’t remember a thing before I found him shot and dying of thirst. Don’t know his name, nothing. I just called him Boy. Ain’t found no one who knows him” concluded Cactus.
Clay and Mort reflected on what Cactus had said then walked together to the corral.
They all rested their arms on the top rail, studying the horse that strutted and pranced in front of them, silently taking in the magnificent sight. Clay who was stood next to Boy turned as Boy began to speak.
“Wild One,” whispered Boy. Clay could just make out what he said, and stared at Boy.
Boy said it again, louder. “Wild One”.
“Whets that you sayin’, Boy?” said Mort.
“This is ‘Wild One’,” said Boy and with that climbed over the fence and walked toward the horse.
Mort cried out, “You young fool, get out; that horse can kill you!”
Boy never heard him; he just stared. Something in his brain had clicked together like the last few pieces of a jigsaw. He had been near this horse before. He began to softly murmur and the horse, which had been prancing and rearing stood still, looking at the man. He was talking to him just as another had once done and the horse liked it. He came up to Boy and as Boy blew into his nostrils, he allowed the young man to stroke his neck, and his ears, and the horse closed his eyes.
The men outside the corral watched in amazement.
“Well I’ll be, no one been able to do that since Joe Cartwright was here,” said Mort.
Clay looked at Mort and then back to the man by the horse.
Cactus looked at Mort and Clay. “Either of you fellers tell Boy the name of that there horse?” Both men shook their heads. “Seems to me Boy here knows that horse – must have seen that horse before”.
“How can that be Cactus; he ain’t ever been here. How could he know?” said Mort in a soft voice, though Boy was oblivious to any conversation as he stood smiling at the stallion.
Mort looked again at the scene in the corral – the man and horse. How it reminded him of another time when man and horse had become master and servant. Mort studied Boy more closely, the long curly hair, the smiling face, and the left-handed gun holster. He felt the hair down his neck go hot and sweaty. He had only met him once, but he knew this companion of Cactus. He turned so his back was to the corral, and looked at the two men.
“As God is my witness, I swear that man is Joe Cartwright.” He looked at Clay, knowing what this information meant to the man.
Clay and Cactus looked at Mort. Mort nodded and went on, “Hair is longer, skin is browner, but he wears his gun on his left side, just like Joe did. No other man could have tamed that horse so quick, in just the same way. I don’t know how or why, but that there is Joe and I would bet my life on it!”
“Who is this Joe Cartwright?” said Cactus, feeling the tension.
“Young man who came here last year to buy this horse, but was supposedly killed in that hotel fire. You remember, Cactus; I told you about it before you left.”
Cactus nodded, recalling the sad events of a year ago. Looking at Clay, he could see the young man was looking pale.
Clay could feel himself feeling faint, and he steadied his hands on the fence. Could this really be his brother, the one he had thought dead? He studied Joe closely. Cactus could see Clay was in shock.
“What’s Boy to you, mister?” he asked softly.
“He is my brother – the brother I never managed to meet – til now”, stated Clay, holding his hands tightly on the fence. Cactus suddenly understood.
Oblivious to the three men, Boy and horse stood together in silence and peace.
Clay, Mort and Cactus moved away towards the wagon leaving Boy and horse together, not wishing for the man with the horse to hear their conversation.
“If this is your brother, you gonna tell him who he is?” asked Cactus to Clay, quietly and slowly.
“Heard tell it can be dangerous to let it out, just like that,” said Mort.
Clay thought long and hard. Boy was still in the corral with the horse, and the two men looked at Clay, expectantly. Clay was obviously confused – so much had happened in such a short time. His brother alive! Could it be? His head buzzed as the thought went around and around. He did not want to hurt his brother. His brother! How the word sounded good to Clay.
An idea then came to him.
“I need to get this horse back to the Ponderosa, and Joe’s father,” said Clay. “What if we get Joe – Boy – to come with me to help? Maybe it would help his memory come back on its own when he gets home.”
Seeming a good idea, the two other men exchanged nods, and Cactus, knowing what had to be done, walked over to the corral. Boy, still oblivious to the three men and the change of circumstances, stood in a quiet world of his own with the horse. Clay and Mort followed Cactus, standing quietly by the fence.
“Hey Boy, come over here,” Cactus cried to his young companion of the past year.
Boy snapped out of his trance and looking towards the voice of Cactus, stroked the stallion for the last time, and slowly walked over, climbing the fence and dropped down in front of the three men. The fact that he had known the name of the horse was already lost to Boy, and he could see they had been staring at him, but it did not occur to him why.
Smiling, Cactus spoke again. “Mr. Stafford here needs to take that stallion up north. Why don’t you go with him? You and that stallion seem mighty friendly, and you would get paid a pretty dollar, wouldn’t he, mister?” Cactus purposely looking at Clay, who nodded. Clay could hardly breathe as he studied the man, his brother Joe. What would his reaction to the request be?
Boy looked confused; he did not want to leave his friend, his new way of life. He was now settled, so why was his friend sending him away? “Why do you want me to go, Cactus? Ain’t I good enough company for you any more?” he said, his voice quiet.
In his heart Cactus was saddened, but knowing what was right he persevered. “Never say no to good honest labor that is well paid, Boy,” he said, and smiling, took Boy by the arm. “You can come back when the job is done; I’ll be awaiting for ye”.
Cactus put on a pretence but inside he knew Boy would never come back this way again. Boy looked at Cactus, and smiled. Anything Cactus wants him to do must be alright he thought.
“OK, if that’s what you want,” said Boy, who, taking another look at the horse, went over to the wagon, and began watering and feeding the mule.
Mort and Clay walked to the house in a dazed state – they concluded their deal for the horse, and sat drinking coffee on the verandah, going over the events of the past hour. Clay studied Boy – Joe – as he tended to the mule and chatted to Cactus. The son Ben had been described in such loving terms, and as he heard him joking with Cactus, he could hear the contagious laugh so fondly remembered by Adam and Hoss.
Clay thought back to the time he had first seen Joe such a short time ago. He had reminded him of someone and now he knew. His mother! Joe smiled and his eyes and his mouth were just like his mother’s portrait that Ben had showed him on his desk, and in his locket, just a few weeks ago. Suddenly Clay put his face in his hands. Mort, realizing the enormity of what had happened to Clay just sat back, in silence.
Clay slowly composed himself and looked at Joe. How fate had dealt this hand was still a mystery to Clay, fate and circumstance both had finally been kind to him and the Cartwrights. Clay suddenly thought, Ben, Adam and Hoss! This is going to be one hell of a surprise – a wonderful surprise! Hope Ben has a strong heart, he thought. What if Joe still does not remember them? Oh hell, let’s cross that bridge later!
Mort, looking at Joe, suddenly had a thought. “I wonder how Joe’s horse got to be tied outside the hotel that night?” he said. He went on, “Always thought something was wrong with that.” Clay looked at the man with a questioning look. Mort went on, “Seemed real strange that day when I went into Tucson and there was that pinto standing in the street. Knowing Joe loved that horse as much as he does, I thought it was not right he had not put him in the stable before he had gone to bed. Never thought much about it after that. Now we know why. He was never there at all!”
Clay nodded in agreement and then stood up, walking over to where Cactus and Boy –Joe — were camping down for the night. All Clay wanted to do was to take his brother in his arms and give him the kind of hug that he had been given by Ben, but knew he could not. Boy did not even know he existed – yet. He held back, and smiling, took a deep breath.
“I’m going back to town now, will be back tomorrow with a wagon and supplies. Then we can make a start, OK?”
Boy — Joe — looked up and smiled at the man who talked in a southern drawl. “Sure, Mr. Stafford, see you tomorrow”.
“Just plain Clay will do,” said Clay, smiling back at his brother.
Boy nodded and turning round continued to help Cactus prepare his last supper with the old half breed who had been his salvation a year ago, and his friend ever since. Clay continued to watch the two men who so obviously cared for each other, as they laughed and talked together, then mounted his horse, and rode back to Tucson.
Leaving the Lazy M that day had been a hard thing for Clay to do. He felt as though he was abandoning his new-found brother and that Joe would some how disappear again from his life. Making good time, he arrived in Tucson and, taking his horse back to the livery stable, organized the purchase of a small wagon, a horse to pull the wagon and another one for Joe to ride. He paid the stable owner in advance, then walked over to the mercantile and ordered supplies that would sustain the two men and the three horses for the journey back to the Ponderosa. He wondered if he should wire the Cartwrights, and tell them his news. He decided against. It would be too difficult to explain. Better to speak to them face to face.
He walked over to the bank and organized the funds for the purchase of ‘Wild One’ and was finally directed by the Bank Manager to a small boarding house. He paid for a room for the night and after eating the supper supplied by the landlady went to bed. He undressed, and fell on the mattress his mind swirling with the events of the day. It took a long time, but eventually he fell asleep.
Next day dawned and Clay awoke feeling like a small boy, excited at the journey he was about to go on with a brother brought back from the dead. He had breakfast, then collected the horse drawn wagon. He tied the spare horse to the back, went over to the mercantile and with the help of the store owner loaded the supplies quickly. With a light heart that he had not felt for a long time, he jumped on the wagon and with a whoop set the horse and wagon in motion.
After an hour, he was at the Lazy M. He could see Cactus already at work, fixing a various assortment of broken kitchen pots, and he looked around for Joe. Mort, seeing the arrival of Clay, came out of the ranch house. After shaking hands, Clay looked around. “Where’s Joe?” he asked.
“Saw him with the stallion, getting him ready to leave,” said Mort, indicating the old corral. Clay looked over, and saw the stallion, wearing a halter and being led by Boy walking towards the two men. Boy smiled. Indicating the stallion, Boy looked at Clay, and said in a quiet voice, “Don’t think we’re going to have any trouble with this big baby” as he looked at the stallion with shining eyes. He did not know why, but he felt some bond with this horse that he could not explain.
Boy tied the horse to the back of the wagon, and as Clay looked at the stallion, Boy looked towards the old half-breed whom he had grown to hold in such high regard. Clay then took out the money for the stallion from his jacket pocket, and handed it over to Mort.
Boy left the two men and went over to Cactus. “Guess its time to go,” he said. “You take care till I get back.” The emotion in his voice was clearly showing.
Cactus looked up at the young white man who had become to mean so much to him. In his heart, he wanted Boy to stay, but he knew this Boy had family, and he must go, never to return. He just smiled. “You do a good job for that Mr. Stafford, and I’ll see you in a while,” he replied, knowing this would probably never happen.
The old man and the young man shook hands, but that was not enough for Cactus and Boy, as they suddenly drew together and hugged.
Boy looked at Cactus with tears in his eyes, then turned and walked back towards the wagon. Although he did not know it, he would never see the old half-breed again. Two days later, the night before he was due to leave the Lazy M on his yearly pilgrimage, Cactus Jack would go to bed and quietly go to sleep, never to wake up again.
Clay and Boy were ready so they both shook the hand of Mort Fletcher, and Clay climbed onto the spare horse, Boy into the wagon.
“Good luck,” said Mort, looking at Clay. Clay nodded, knowing that Mort had meant it for him and the trials that lay ahead.
With a wave of their arms, the two men – two brothers – left. Cactus looked on, reflecting on the young man he had shared the last year with, and followed them with his old eyes until they were minute dots on the Arizona horizon.
Clay and Boy fell into an easy relationship as they slowly made their journey towards the northwest. At night, Boy would tend to the horses while Clay would cook the supper, and as they ate they would talk. Clay would describe to Boy his life in New Orleans, and the places he had visited over the past months, Mexico, San Francisco and finally Virginia City. Boy listened intently, taking in all the information but he could not add much to the conversation, having no memory, only adding little anecdotes about his year with Cactus. It was on the second night Clay asked Boy for a favor. “Boy, may I ask a favor?”
Boy looked up, and nodded.
“Seems like I keep calling these horses ‘boy’, and it gets a mite confusing. Can I call you by some other name, just for the trip?”
Boy looked bemused, as it seemed such a strange request. However, he nodded. “What you going to call me then?”
“How about Joe?” said Clay, wondering if there was any reaction from his brother. There was not.
“Joe? Sure, that’s fine,” said Boy, who picked up the coffee pot, and offered Clay another drink.
Day followed day, until a week had passed. Conversation flowed and Clay would talk about the Ponderosa, his stepfather, and the two men he knew he could call brother. Joe would listen, but nothing stirred in his brain, no recognition of name, place, events. Clay would study his brother when Joe was not looking, noting his handsome features and thought of their mother. Would she be looking at them now, up in heaven, her two boys together?
The stallion behaved himself impeccably in Joe’s hands, following the wagon quietly, and the days rolled on, endless mile after endless mile. The two men were into their second week when one night Clay pulled out a large jar from the back of the wagon and pulling out the cork, took a swig and then passed it over to Joe.
“What’s this? – tastes like whisky,” Joe said, as he swallowed a mouthful.
“Pulque” said Clay, with a laugh as Joe spluttered and coughed. “Got the taste of it while down in Mexico. They make it from a cactus down there,” he said, laughing at Joe who continued to splutter.
“Wow! That’s what I call a drink – hot but good,” said Joe, and taking another swig, forced the drink down.
Both he and Clay drunk into the early hours, chatting and laughing. This is what having a brother is all about, thought Clay. Someone to share a good drink with, and laughter.
Eventually the jar was empty, and the two men bedded down in a drunken sleep.
They both slept late the next morning, and when they woke, their heads throbbed in unison. This was also what brothers were for, to share hangovers with, thought Clay as he poured himself a black coffee.
Joe slowly stirred, smelling the coffee in the pot, and as he arose, held his head. What a drink! He had never felt this way since – well, a year, at least he mused. He took a cup of coffee offered by Clay and the two men sat, drinking and feeling heavy-headed. With the sun rising higher in the sky, they began the daily routine.
Joe slowly hitched up the wagon, and Clay cleared away the pots from the campfire. He decided to sit with Joe and so they moved off slowly, the stallion and spare horse tied behind. Joe looked at Clay out of the corner of his eye. He had grown to like this man, as if there was a common link between them, but he was unable to grasp how this could be. Clay sensed Joe was staring at him – what was he thinking about? Joe still had no recollection of his past life, maybe he never would. Clay realized that the Ponderosa was only days away and he still had no plan. If Joe did not know his father and brothers, what would their reaction to him do to his brain?
As they trundled on into the afternoon they turned a corner, and suddenly Joe pulled the horse to a stop. Clay looked at Joe. Joe was staring far into the distance, frowning, and rubbing his head as if in pain. He held his head in his hands, eyes closed. Clay looked ahead – what had Joe seen that had distressed him so?
Ahead was a sight of beauty – the Sierra Nevada. Joe had looked at the mountains, and something in his brain seemed to kick in an electric spasm – another piece of jigsaw fitting together. Clay sat silent. Dare he believe Joe was remembering! A full five minutes later, Joe looked up, the pain in his head disappeared and he stared at Clay, not realizing the reason for the ache in his head.
“Guess that drink kicks in for a long time,” he said, smiling with twinkling eyes.
Clay smiled back, but his heart was heavy. Joe still had not remembered.
The last few days of the journey went quickly, the two men becoming firmer friends. Clay and Joe talked, laughed and took in the beautiful country, the meadows and the mountains. It was on the last night that the men would make camp that Clay knew he had to try something. Should he tell Joe, risk it?
Joe was sat by the wheel of the wagon, drinking coffee and eating the last of the rabbit stew. He had managed to shoot a lone rabbit that morning and the fresh meat was an added bonus to the dried supplies of the past weeks.
He had been silent for a while, and Clay looked at him. “What’s up, Joe?” he asked.
Joe looked at Clay, and shook his head. “Just wondered about Cactus, what he’s doing”.
Clay knew there was more troubling Joe so he asked again. “What else?”
Joe looked at Clay. How well this man seemed to know him. “Oh, just keep thinking about my life before I met Cactus, who I was, you know, my past.” He pulled out his gun from its holster. Clay watched as Joe held the gun in his left hand.
“This is all I have. The only thing I own from my life then.” Joe looked down, not wanting Clay to see his eyes that were filling with tears.
Clay stood up as he thought of what Joe had said. How he wanted to shout out to Joe. Tell him he was Joseph Cartwright, a beloved son and a brother to three men, missed beyond belief for the past year. He dare not though. Instead he poured out another cup of coffee and offered it to his brother. Joe gratefully accepted the cup as he replaced the gun in its holster.
“Tomorrow, we should reach our destination, the Ponderosa,” Clay said to Joe and continued, “Maybe we can work out how to help you, find out where you come from?”
Joe nodded. “Thanks. Been a good trip, had a great time,” said Joe, changing the subject.
Clay sat down next to Joe and thought for a minute or two. He made a decision.
He put his hand in his jacket pocket and withdrew a silver locket. He opened it slowly and stared at the smiling face that looked at him.
Joe saw him staring at the portrait, and feeling inquisitive, moved closer to Clay, looking at the locket as well. “Who is that?” he asked.
Clay held his breath and handed the locket to Joe. “It’s my mother,” he said.
Joe studied the portrait keenly. “Sure is a beautiful woman,” he said. “Can see where you get your looks from.” Joe continued to look at the locket.
“Her name was Marie,” Clay said looking at Joe intently. “She died nearly 19 years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that,” said Joe as he closed the locket and handed it back to Clay.
There had been no reaction from the young man. He had looked upon the face of his own mother, the face that he had held so dear, and yet there had been no recognition.
Clay stood up and placed the locket back in his jacket. He was devastated. Joe still did not remember. What could he do now? He walked around the wagon, checking the horses were secure, and came back to the camp fire and sat down again. He suddenly made a decision. “Joe, there’s something I have to tell you”, he said, looking towards his brother.
Joe, however, had settled down in his bedroll and lay, straw hat over his face, fast asleep, exhausted by the days of traveling but content after the rabbit stew that had filled his stomach. Clay looked at his brother. Tomorrow they would be back on the Ponderosa and still Joe was oblivious to his heritage, his name, his family.
When Clay had first realized that he had found his brother on the Lazy M, he had vowed that he would bring him home. Tomorrow his job would be done. What then? He had no answer, so he lay on his bedroll, turned his back to the campfire and pulling the blanket over him, fell asleep.
The next day was fine and warm, and after breaking camp the two men settled into the routine that had sustained them well over the past weeks. Closer and closer they moved towards the Ponderosa, Joe in the wagon and Clay on the horse, the stallion trotting contentedly within sight of the man he had grown to obey.
The heat of the midday sun was hot on the two men, and Clay took off his coat and threw it into the wagon. They reached a fork in the road that Clay recognized. The Ponderosa ranch was only a mile away. He drew to a halt, signaling Joe to stop. Joe did so, and waited for instructions, not recognizing where he was.
“The ranch house is about a mile down this road, Joe; you wait here while I check that the Cartwrights are at the ranch,” said Clay. He had to see the family first, warn them that their long lost son and brother was alive and on his way home.
Joe nodded, and sat looking around. Nothing of the terrain looked familiar and was certainly different to the area of Arizona that he had become so used to over the past year.
Clay left, kicking his horse on, and was soon out of sight. He galloped to the ranch house, the place he had left barely four weeks previously. As luck would have it Ben, Adam and Hoss were sitting on the verandah, drinking lemonade in the heat of the midday. They looked up at the galloping horseman, and were amazed at who it was. Clay stopped his horse, dismounted, and walked towards the three men who stood up and came over to greet him.
“Clay, my boy, its good to see you again,” said Ben, smiling at the young man.
Adam and Hoss moved together towards Clay, grinning at the unexpected visitor. Clay looked at the men. As he moved towards Ben, he said in a clear voice, “I have just arrived back from Tucson”.
Ben looked pained at the name of the town, and was about to say something, when Clay continued, “I have bought ‘Wild One’ and brought him back to the Ponderosa.”
The three Cartwrights stood staring, thinking at what Clay had said. The name of ‘Wild One’ brought back memories, memories that they had tried to suppress.
“Clay, I don’t know what to say,” said Ben, controlling the feeling of grief that had suddenly thrust itself into his heart.
“There’s something else, sir,” said Clay, his voice quiet and clear.
Before he could finish his sentence, a noise distracted him, and he and Ben looked towards the side of the barn.
In the distance could be heard the sound of a horse drawn wagon moving quickly, and suddenly it appeared from around the side of the barn with a beautiful stallion running behind it.. The men fixed their eyes on the sight, looking at the stallion, and then back to the driver of the wagon.
This vision, green eyed, long haired and with a tanned skin, wearing an old straw hat and Indian shirt, pulled the horse to a stop and climbed down. This strangely dressed man was still instantly recognizable. With tears in his eyes, Joseph Francis Cartwright looked at his family, Adam, Hoss and Ben. “Oh, Pa! Pa!” he cried, and with one bound ran into his father’s outstretched arms.
When Clay had left, Joe had sat for a minute looking at the scenery. Nice place to live he thought, the snow capped mountains and the green luscious meadows. He frowned, thinking. Where have I seen these before? He shook his head – must be the sun getting to me, he thought, as he removed his old straw hat and wiped his fingers through his hair.
Away in the corner of the meadow was a small herd of horses, which started neighing in the distance. As if answering a call, the stallion with Joe pricked his ears and called out, letting all know that the new king of the Ponderosa had arrived. The horses in the herd looked towards the new stallion with interest, and began to move towards the wagon. Joe looked at them and jumped down, calling to the horses in a friendly way.
The herd stopped as one when hearing the voice of the man. Then a horse, a pinto, came from behind the herd, and trotted towards the man by the wagon. Joe looked at the beautiful black and white horse. Cochise had seen the stallion, but also the man – the sight and sound of the man he had known as master and had been without for so long. The horse had remembered the man – would the man remember the horse?
The pinto continued to trot to the wagon and then stopped in front of Joe. Joe looked at the horse, suddenly feeling dizzy and nauseous. His head pounded and he closed his eyes, waiting for relief, when suddenly the memories of so long ago flowed to the surface. As if a veil was lifted, Joe opened his eyes and looked up. The final jigsaw piece fitted. Staring at the horse he whispered, “My God, Cochise!”
He moved towards the pinto, startling the herd of horses who ran off. Man and his horse were reunited. Joe called his name and stroked him, laughing, as Cochise neighed in pleasure and nuzzled his head into his master’s chest. The voice of his master that he had missed for so long, reassuring the pinto that all was well.
Joe suddenly stopped, realizing the significance. He was home! The Ponderosa! Brothers! Pa! Tears began to well in his eyes. Boy was now Joe!
“I’ll be back,” he called to Cochise, as he moved to the wagon and jumped on board. He slapped the horse with the reins, willing it to move as quickly as possible the short distance to the ranch house. Within minutes, Joe had rounded the barn and he could see the familiar faces of his long forgotten family and Clay standing by the verandah.
As he stopped the wagon and jumped down, his family was staring, their mouths open in astonishment! Was this vision real? With tears in his eyes, Joe looked at his two brothers, Adam and Hoss, and finally his father. “Oh Pa! Pa!” he cried and launched himself into his fathers arms.
Cartwright father and Cartwright son blended together as one, the old straw hat falling onto the floor, as Ben stroked the hair of his long lost youngest. He and Joe clung together, weeping unashamedly, oblivious to all who watched in absolute amazement.
The scene which then unfolded was one that would be remembered by those concerned for years to come. Joe and Ben clung together, while Adam stood by their side, tears flowing down his face. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder as if afraid his little brother would suddenly disappear. After a few minutes, Joe moved away from his father and faced his older brother. No words were needed, just a look of love between the oldest and the youngest as Adam put his arm around Joe’s neck and pulled him to his chest. Joe rested his head on the shoulder of his brother, and savored the closeness that had been missing for so long.
Hoss had collapsed onto the verandah step as his legs had become weak and shaky. He sat with his head in his hands, sobbing. Joe and Adam parted, and looked towards their brother, the sound of his weeping tearing at their hearts.
Joe walked over and sat by his side, placing his arm around his big brothers shoulders.
“It’s alright, Hoss, its alright big brother,” he whispered as he pulled his brother’s head to his shoulder. Together the two men wept. Hoss slowly composed himself and looked up into the face of his brother. He studied his eyes, tanned face and hair hanging onto his shoulder. Yes, this was his beloved Little Joe, alive. A toothy grin appeared on his face, and he and Joe started to laugh, quietly at first, but growing louder, the deep pitched voice of the big man and the high pitched sound of Joe. This contagious laughter seemed to permeate throughout the yard as Ben, Adam and Clay joined in with tears of laughter.
Ben turned towards Clay, his voice filled with emotion, so many questions he wanted to ask! Clay was laughing with tears in his eyes as he had viewed the reunion. Joe now knew who he was – his nightmare was over!
“Clay, what can I say? How can this be?” said Ben, as he took hold of his stepson.
Joe and Hoss stood up, still laughing. Hoss gave his brother a bearhug that brought giggles from Joe, who then looked at Clay, questions forming in his head. “Who was this Clay?” he thought as he stood in front of his companion of the past weeks. Ben and Clay parted and stared at Joe.
“I don’t know why, but something tells me you’re someone special,” Joe stated.
Clay smiling walked to the wagon where he retrieved his coat. He put his hand in a pocket and drew out a locket. Joe recognized it straightaway. It was his, the locket that had always stayed with him, except for the last journey away from the Ponderosa when, for some inexplicable reason he had left it in his room.
Clay opened it, and handed it over to Joe. Joe stared at the portrait that was now so familiar to him. “I don’t understand, Clay; you showed me this picture and told me she was your mother?”
Clay smiled. “She really was my mother too, brother!” said Clay.
This time it was Joe’s turn to stand surprised and bewildered as Clay put his hand around Joe’s neck and embraced him as he had wanted to since their first meeting.
There was a lot of explaining to do, but it could wait until later.
Suddenly a horse, a black and white horse, galloped into the yard and pulled up sharply in front of the men. Cochise could not wait! He had followed the wagon and master he had missed so much. He too was now home!
When the bedlam in the yard had calmed down, Adam and Hoss bedded down the horses, and put the stallion in the corral. Meanwhile, Ben, Joe and Clay went inside the ranch house. There was a joyous reunion between Joe and Hop Sing, and then the loyal housekeeper went to prepare enough water for Joe and Clay to wash away the weeks of grime. When the water was ready, Clay was the first to luxuriate in the warm waters of the bath house, so Joe went up to his bedroom.
He stood in the doorway looking in and stared in amazement. Nothing had been moved, nothing changed, nothing removed except for the silver locket that he had always kept on his writing desk. It was clean and no dust had settled. It was just as he had left it over a year ago. A shrine to a lost son and brother. He wondered how long his father would have left it like that, for a son he would never see again. A lump came to his throat as he imagined Ben, sitting in this room, staring at the possessions of his youngest son, broken hearted. Joe looked in the wardrobe. It was still full of his clothes, freshly laundered. He shook his head in disbelief. Hop Sing, their loyal and loving housekeeper, must have continually cleaned the room and refreshed the clothes, as if Joe were returning at any time. Tears began to well in his eyes as he removed the old Indian shirt. Cactus had never possessed many clothes, but he had shared what he had with the young white man, and Joe was eternally grateful. He would have the old shirt washed and would keep it as a reminder of the old man, and see to it that Cactus was rewarded for all he had done for him.
He looked out of the open window, onto the familiar sight of the ranch, and the mountains in the distance. He could hear Clay whistling in the bath house, and smiled. He was home, and with a new brother as well! He went back to the wardrobe, picked out clean clothes then made his way downstairs, to wait his turn for a well deserved bath.
Hours later the Cartwrights and Clay sat in the large ranch house, supping coffee, full from the gargantuan feast prepared by Hop Sing in honor of the safe return of his favorite number three son. Ben and Adam sat in their favorite chairs, Clay and Hoss sat on the settee, and Joe perched on the coffee table, as they talked of the past year.
Joe listened as Clay told him the reason for his visit, the shock of finding his brother seemingly dead and the desire to buy the stallion for the grief stricken family. Joe described the ambush, his life only being saved by the old half-breed, his year with Cactus Jack, and the journey to the Ponderosa not knowing who he was. Not until he had spied Cochise had the jigsaw finally come together as one picture.
“I saw Cochise, the meadow, the mountains behind, and it was as if I had dreamed a dream that had suddenly come to life. Everything just fell into place.”
The five men sat quietly reflecting on the events, Ben stared at his youngest still not believing he was back where he belonged. His eyes began to water – he had so much to be grateful for.
Joe looked at Clay. Now that he knew who Clay was, he thought back to the day they had first met, and the subsequent weeks together. Joe now realized why Clay had wanted him to travel to Nevada, wanted to call him Joe, knew why Clay had talked incessantly about the Ponderosa, Ben, Adam and Hoss, had shown him the locket of his mother. He had been willing him to remember but to no avail. This stranger of a few short weeks ago, who was a brother. So much to thank him for, he thought to himself.
Joe continued to stare at his brothers, Adam, Hoss and now Clay. As Clay was describing the attributes of pulque to the Cartwrights, Joe, deep in thought, suddenly jumped up, and excusing himself, walked to the front door and went outside, closing the door gently behind him.
Adam, raising an eyebrow, looked at Ben. “What’s up with Joe?” he asked, unsure why his brother had suddenly left them.
Ben put down his coffee cup, and arose from his armchair. “I’ll go have a word,” he said, leaving the three remaining men chatting.
Making his way through the door, and closing it behind him, Ben looked around for Joe. He was sitting on the bench on the edge of the verandah, looking up at the stars, his eyes watering from the tears that were on the verge of flowing.
Ben, putting his arm around his youngest, quietly spoke, “What’s wrong, Joseph?”
This was the first time Joe and his father had been alone together that day, and Joe looked up into the warm, loving face that had been missing from his life for so long. So much that he wanted to say, but where to begin. He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know, Pa; guess I just can’t get my head around all that’s happened to me.”
Ben squeezed his sons shoulder, and sat down next to him. He gazed at the young man, now a year older but still vulnerable, still his Joe.
Joe continued, “I keep thinking, what if? What if I hadn’t been ambushed? Would I have really died in that fire? What if Clay hadn’t come to Tucson? Would I of ever remembered? Ever managed to find my home again? Would I have spent the rest of my life in Arizona, never knowing where I was from, who I was? Never seeing the Ponderosa again. Never knowing Adam, Hoss or you!”
With that Joe buried his head on Ben’s shoulder and sobbed. All the trauma of the past year flowed out as he cried, his father cradling his head and gently rubbing his back, just as he had done from the day he was born. How Ben had missed this, and his eyes too began to water.
“Oh Joe! We thought of you day and night – forever hoping there had been a mistake. If only I had not agreed to you buying that horse. If only you had been a week earlier, a week later! I blamed myself for letting you go. We missed you so much; the pain just went on and on.”
With that, Ben raised his son’s chin with his hand and smiled. Joe looked into the eyes of his father. “Seems life is a whole lot of what ifs, and if onlys. You play the hand you are dealt in life, and hope you come out a winner. This time we were lucky. Now you’re home and back where you belong and we thank God for it!”
Ben studied the face of Joseph, a face he had thought he would never see again. The green eyes, shining, so like his mothers, the long hair curling around his neck. Father and son together again. Ben continued, “The past year on the Ponderosa has been much too quiet! I think its time your three brothers get to see and hear the Little Joe who has been missing for so long! The Little Joe who is in desperate need of a haircut!” Ben stood up and laughed as he finished the last sentence.
With that, Joe wiped the tears from his eyes, and laughing, stood up with his father. He was back, and there was a year’s worth of annoying Adam, leading Hoss to more misguided schemes, and getting to know a new brother to look forward to. The mischievous glint in his eyes told Ben that his son was already planning more mischief!
“You bet, Pa! Thanks. I love you,” said Joe, as he walked back into the ranch house and to his brothers awaiting his return.
“Oh my son, if you only knew how much I loved you,” said Ben to himself, watching the heart of the Ponderosa walk into the house. He stood for a minute looking at the dark sky and the shining stars. He said a silent thank you to the Almighty and the old half-breed Indian who had helped return his son, and then followed his youngest into the ranch house to the sound of a high pitched voice laughing.
Joseph was back – life was worth living again!
Clay decided to stay at the Ponderosa indefinitely as he had found family and happiness on this vast ranch. Both Adam and Hoss welcomed him as a brother. After sending a wire to Mort Fletcher informing him of their safe arrival at the Ponderosa, and that Joe had remembered his true identity, Mort returned the wire informing Joe that Cactus had died in his sleep.
Joe was deeply saddened at the loss of the old half-breed who had taken him in, saved his life and taken care of him for a year. Now there was no way he could repay him. However, in his honor, Joe renamed the new stallion Cactus Jack, and the horse ran free with the mares among the meadows of the Ponderosa for many years.
A week after Joe’s return, he and Clay took a short ride to the familiar knoll by the lake. Ben had already arranged the removal of the cross and plaque, so Joe did not have the pain of reading his own epitaph. Clay and Joe knelt at the grave of their mother and at her headstone each placed a bunch of wild flowers picked from the meadow.
Silently, the two brothers said a prayer for the woman who had given them life, and in heaven, a mother would look down on her two sons, and smile.