Summary: Thanks to Michael Landon for recording this wonderful song.
Word Count: 5070
Joe slipped into the dark shadows of the trees and watched as his ladylove slid from her horse. As Joe watched, Matt Cunningham stepped from his own shadowy hiding place into the soft moonlight and when Isabella Rose stood face to face with him, her arms entwined themselves about her lover’s neck.
The tears that Joe had fought so hard to control, slipped silently down his face as he watched Isabella turn her face upward, her rosy lips ready to meet the lips of the man who held her in his embrace.
Joe wiped the dampness from his face, his heart shattered into a million pieces. He had cried for four days, ever since Isabella had humiliated him in front of all his friends at the Bucket of Blood Saloon. The memory of those shocking, eye-opening words, spit at him from the woman whom he had given his love, brought fresh tears to his eyes while he stood alone in the darkness.
Joe turned away from the scene before him, unable to allow his heart to suffer any more misery. He vowed that he would give himself the right to cry tonight, but afterwards, he would cry no more. He had turned his back on his father and brothers, all for the love of this woman who had used him, toyed with his emotions and who had ended up breaking his heart.
His father had been right, his brothers had warned him, but he had paid no heed to their words. He had thought his family too righteous, too judgmental, and too critical of Isabella. Pa had told him that she was too old for him, he too young for her. Adam had warned him that this woman was too worldly, he too innocent, and Hoss had said nothing more than to take it slow, get to know Isabella first, before giving away his heart.
He had ignored them all, turned his back on his pa and his brothers. Now, heartbroken and humiliated, he had no other recourse than to admit to himself that they had been right. Some how they had known all along that he was out on a limb and that one day soon, his heart would suffer the consequences of his careless love. Joe mounted his horse slowly, his usual spring bounce approach to mounting his steed forgotten in his heartache. The need to face his family bore down on his soul, the urge to throw himself into his father’s comforting arms, pulled him toward his home.
Family, that was all any man truly needed, he told himself. There, he was loved unconditionally, he was respected, revered almost, but mostly and most comforting of all, he was never judged harshly for his mistakes. Joe gave one last glance over his shoulder, Matt had lowered Isabella to the ground, his body covered hers, his lips locked onto hers, and Joe turned away, no longer able to feel the love for this woman that he had felt before.
“He’s not in his room, Pa,” Adam explained to his worried parent.
Ben paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, the tips of his fingers hooked into the waistband of his trousers. The anxious father looked up into the dark eyes of his oldest son.
“In fact Pa, Joe’s not even here, he’s gone,” Adam continued, not looking forward to giving his father the last result of his observation. “His clothes are gone.”
Ben’s hands moved to his hips, an angry scowl exchanging places with the worried look he had but moments ago worn. “What in blazes are you trying to tell me, that your younger brother has run away?” demanded Ben, his voice deep with emotion.
“Aw, Pa, Little Joe ain’t run away,” began Hoss, always the first to speak up in defense of his younger brother.
“Hoss is right Pa, Joe’s just moved into town and we all why,” Adam said and then wished he had rephrased his last statement.
Ben’s eyes turned a deep shade of ebony and his thick silver brows moved to the center of his forehead, and Adam knew that his father struggled to keep his wrath from overflowing.
“Just who does that scamp think he is, defying me like that?” Ben roared.
“Pa, calm down, please,” muttered Adam, but stopped when Ben turned his dark eyes onto him.
“Don’t tell me to calm down! That boy will be the death of me yet, what with his smart mouth and defiant ways. You just wait and see what I do to him when I get him home, go saddle my horse!”
Ben grabbed his hat from the peg behind the door and began strapping on his gun and holster.
“Pa, please, wait just a minute,” Adam took his father by the arm and gently turned Ben around to face him.
“Listen Pa, as much as I hate to admit it, Joe isn’t a kid anymore. He’s not a boy, he’s a young man and he thinks he’s in love. Pa, the kid is nineteen he isn’t twelve anymore. Give him a chance to stand on his own two feet. I know, we are all aware of the fact that he’s gonna get hurt, and I hate to see that happen. We all know how it feels to be hurt by someone that we think we love, it’s happened to all three of us. But Joe has never had it happen to him and no matter how much we want to protect him from that kind of heartache, we can’t step in,” Adam explained.
“He’s right Pa, Joe has to learn how to deal with it in his own way,” Hoss added.
“Don’t you see Pa, if you make him come home, he will resent you for it, he will turn away from you. But if you permit him to do this on his own, and then he comes home, he would have learned something from it. Pa, remember when I wanted to go away to college? Remember how you felt, and how I felt when you wouldn’t give me the chance to prove to you that I was ready? Well, that’s how Little Joe feels right now, he wants to prove to you and us and to himself that he is ready for this kind of challenge. He’s trying hard to please all of us, and yet he has the need to please himself as well. It’s only natural Pa, the kid’s growing up.” Adam took a deep breath and continued.
“Joe’s gonna be hurt, we all know what kind of woman Isabella Rose is, but he has to find that out on his own. Pa, you have tried to teach him all of his life to stand on his own two feet, don’t cut him down now, not when he is so close to being the man he really thinks he is, let him do this, for himself, please Pa.”
Ben took a deep breath and glanced from one son to the other. “Tell me something son, where is it written that a man’s sons should be wiser than he?”
Adam smiled, his dimples making his face to look so boyish to his father. “Pa, for the last thirty-one years of my life, from the day I was born, you have taught me everyday what it takes to be a man. You have given me the foundation by giving me your love, your wisdom, understanding, encouragement, and respect. When I was ready to fly, you let me try me wings and because of you, I not only was able to fly, I could soar. Joe deserves nothing less than what you have given to Hoss and I.”
“Pa,” Hoss wanted his turn to share his thoughts with his father and to add to Adam’s request to give their younger sibling his much deserved freedom of choice.
“Little Joe’s had the same upbringing as older brother and I have had. He’s a wild, restless spirit that yearns for his freedom. If’n ya was to go fetch him home, ya’d a be ropin’ that spirit, breakin’ it like the boy breaks his mustangs. It ain’t right Pa, to squelch his spirit, cause Joe’s the way he is because of that untamed zest for life and because of the three of us. He’s a part of all of us Pa, we’d only be hurtin’ ourselves if’n we went after him. Let him fall if’n he has’ta, he knows we’ll all be there for him when he finally gets back up on his feet. He knows he can count on us, let him prove it to us and to himself. He’ll be all right, Pa, cause he’s your son.” Hoss smiled, showing the gap between his teeth and then laughed when Ben slipped both arms around each of his son’s shoulders.
“Thank you Adam, and you Hoss. I know you’re right, Joe needs to do this in his own way, regardless of what we think. I only hope he does remember that we love him, far more than what that woman does,” smiled Ben, “and, I hope he knows just how lucky he is to have brothers like the two of you.”
“He might forget it for a little while Pa, but Joe knows,” added Adam with a smile of his own.
Joe smiled into the face of the beautiful Isabella Rose. Never in his life had he ever seen a woman more beautiful, except for his own mother, and Joe ruled that not to count, for all young men thought their mothers beautiful. He leaned down and placed his lips over hers, and his body trembled slightly as she returned his kiss.
Joe had brought her to his favorite place, up near the lake where he had gone all of his life when things troubled him or when he had just wanted to be alone, away from his older brothers who constantly pestered him. He often came here when he had been in trouble with his father, or when his father had one of Ben’s infamous little discussions with him, when his butt needed a reprieve from his father’s hand. Joe smiled; thank goodness he was now too old for his father to turn over his knee. Joe had a pretty good suspicion that Ben would not be happy with him when he found out that his youngest son had moved out of the house and into town, despite Ben’s ranting that he stay away from Isabella.
Joe dismounted and tied Cochise’s reins to a low hanging branch. He slowly made his way to the small opening that hid his hideaway from prying eyes and lowered his body onto the pile of soft pine needles. Joe wiped the moisture from his eyes, and leaned back against the trunk of a huge Ponderosa pine, closing his eyes tightly against the memory that had shattered his heart. Her words had been cruel, cutting him to the very core and it took all the courage he could muster to walk away from her rather than to throw himself at her feet and beg her to love him. Joe reflected back to that day, now almost a week ago.
“Little Joe Cartwright,” laughed Isabella as the men gathered around them to watch the fall of the youngest Cartwright.
Everyone, the men that is, that had known Isabella, knew her for what she really was. All but one and that was Ben’s youngest son. He was going to learn, the hard way.
“You really think I could love you?” taunted Isabella, who had allowed one of the older men to pick her up and set her on the bar where she could face the lovesick boy.
“I thought you did,” muttered Joe, not caring who heard him.
Isabella laughed loudly and Joe turned to look into the faces of the crowd when they joined in her laughter. It was then that Joe first realized that he had an audience. The young woman tossed her head backward and she held her arm across the front of her stomach as her laughter filled the room.
“You have to be kidding, Little Joe. You are nothing more than a boy, a kid!” she giggled.
Joe felt the redness creep from beneath his shirt as it made its way upward to his face and he dropped his head to hide his embarrassment. How could she say such things? He had believed her every word when she had whispered words of love in his ear when he had kissed her. He believed she had been sincere, but now…now she was destroying him and in front of everyone.
“When I want a man, I want a real man, not a little boy, Little Joe!” she rebuked him, adding emphasis to his name in a most mocking manner.
“How can you say that? I thought…”
“YOU THOUGHT? Did you men hear that? Little Joe thought…thought what dearie,” she turned her attention back to the young man standing before her, “that I, Isabella Demont, could love a boy? A child?” she sneered.
The room erupted with gales of laughter and Joe felt himself being elbowed by those standing closest to him. He wanted nothing more than to lash out, to strike the beautiful face of the woman whom he had given his heart too, but his upbringing would not allow him to do so. He glanced around him, every face in the room had their eyes turned toward him, and suddenly Joe felt as if he were the little boy that Isabella spoke of and not knowing exactly why, he wanted his father.
Joe stepped back from Isabella as she slid down from the bar and into the arms of one of the men who stood nearby. Brazenly, she let her body mold to the cowboy and when his lips pressed against hers, Joe ran from the building, the laughter of the onlookers ringing in his ears.
Joe hurried to the hotel where he had been staying since leaving home more than two weeks ago. His hands trembled as he fought to get the key in the lock and it took him several tries before he was successful in getting the door opened. Once inside, Joe jerked his jacket from his body and flung it across the room, nearly knocking over the lamp that sat on the chest of drawers on the opposite side of the room.
Angrily, he paced the room, unaware of the tears that clouded his eyes and threatened to spill over. Three times he walked the length of the small room and on the fourth about face, stopped at the wall and slammed his fist into the oak panels of the thick wooden door. Pain shot from his knuckles up into this arm and moved quickly into his shoulder. Joe groaned; his tears finally succeeded in flooding his eyes to the point that they rolled slowly downward and dripped from his chin. His weeping caused him to turn to the bed where he lowered himself to the edge, rubbing the soreness in his fist. Giving in to his heartache, Joe lay down and turned his face into his pillow where his sobs could be muffled from those persons on the opposite sides of the walls.
How could he face his friends? He had been humiliated and embarrassed in front of everyone. How could he face his family? What would he tell them? He had no doubt that before morning, everyone in Virginia City, and the surrounding area, would know what had happened in the saloon. He could see them now all of them, laughing at him, poking fun at him and calling him names. Would he ever be able to hold his head up again or walk down the street without someone remembering?
Why had she led him on so? He had given her his heart; he had loved her unconditionally. He knew of Isabella’s reputation. His father thought that he was blinded by his love for the beautiful lady, but he knew better. To him, her past had not mattered; he had loved her in spite of it.
Joe closed his eyes, her face danced before them.
“You are so sweet Little Joe, where have you been all of my life?” she had cooed to him as he held her in his arms. “I have never known anyone like you.”
Joe leaned his head down and placed a kiss on her lips. His arms embraced her and he felt his heart beat rapidly, his desire for the sensuous woman nearly driving him beyond his control. Isabella Rose returned the impassioned kiss with one of her own. Her head reeled with pleasure and she swayed slightly to better position her body against his. He wanted her, she was sure, and she enjoyed the feeling of his body entwined with hers as she moved seductively, toying with his desire to posses her. She had played the game before, he was not the first, nor would he be the last. Isabella thrived on it, seduction was a game she loved, and she had never failed to be the victor.
Suddenly the boy pushed away, his face flushed, his brow beaded with tiny droplets of water as he backed away. She had smiled at him, and advanced toward him, her hand outstretched as she let her finger tips trace the outline of his lips. She had almost laughed at the look of lust in his eyes and she knew that given a little more time, she would be able to have her way with him. Isabella wondered briefly what it might be like to conquer one of the mighty Cartwrights. Her unexpected laughter startled both of them and Little Joe seemed to snap out of his trance as he quickly brushed his lips across hers and backed out of the door.
“I love you, Isabella,” he had stammered as he found the doorknob and opened the door.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, and he had returned, many times after that first night.
Joe turned over onto his back. He had wanted her, he remembered, more than any thing in the world, but he had always been a gentleman. His body had begged for him to give in to his desires, and though he came close to tossing aside everything that his father had taught and preached to him about a man being able to keep his emotions under control and though he longed to satisfy his desires, Ben’s words of wisdom was a constant reminder of his honorability.
The night dragged on for the heartsick young man. His first real taste of true love and where had it left him? Alone and heartbroken, alienated from his family and alone locked in a hotel room. His family had warned him, but he had turned his back on those who had truly loved him and walked out on them. Joe shivered from the coolness of the night breeze that blew gently at the curtains hung over the opened window. Down below he could hear the music and all the laughter and shouts that came from the barroom down the street and he moved to pull back the drapes and peer outside. The man who had held Isabella in his arms staggered from the doorway and ambled down the street, stumbling in his inebriated condition toward the livery where Joe felt sure his horse was stabled.
Joe sighed, he had wanted to slug the bastard, but discretion was the better part of valor, his father and brothers had always told him. Why at that exact moment he had remembered the words, he would never know, but he had walked away, his head held high and his eyes focused on the barroom doors just ahead of him.
Somehow, Joe managed to fall asleep and when the rooster crowed the next morning, Joe stirred from his slumber. His eyes laden with sleep, Joe forced himself from his warm bed and aimlessly stood before the mirror, gazing at his reflection. He looked like hell, he thought. His hair was mused, his face needed shaving and Joe knew he could use a bath. How many days had he wallowed in his self-pity, three, maybe four? He couldn’t remember for sure.
Joe ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed at the stubble on his face. It was time to move on with his life, he had cried himself to sleep for the last time. She wasn’t worth it, throwing away his life would prove nothing. He could never have her, he didn’t think he even wanted her now. She had used him for her own gain, and then had cast him aside as if he had been nothing. Joe heard himself groan; he had been a fool, giving up his father and brothers for a careless love. He was going home, and if need be, he would beg his family to forgive him and if he had too, Joe swore he would get down on his knees and plead with his father to let him come home. He knew now that his father and brothers had been right about what would happen, they had known all along that he was in for a heartache, and they had been right.
Joe gathered his things and quickly made his way down the hall to the bath. He would bathe, shave and put on clean clothes before going home. He wanted to attempt to wash away the unclean feelings that still plagued him, for he felt dirtied, used and he cringed at the thoughts that he had brought it all upon himself. Maybe Isabella Rose Demont had been correct, he was still a boy, playing at being a man. The thought unnerved him.
Ben was just coming from the barn when Joe rode into the yard. He stopped and watched his youngest son as Joe dismounted and tied the reins around the hitching post. Ben walked slowly toward his son, noting the slump to the shoulders, the sad expression on the handsome face, the lack of sparkle to the hazel eyes. Joseph looked broken, thought Ben.
Adam had come from Virginia City two nights ago with the news of what had happened to the boy. He had ventured into the saloon late on the same night that his younger brother had been persecuted by the woman whom he had so innocently given his heart to, and the talk of his persecution had reached his ears. Joe’s so-called friends had made it a point to tell Adam of Joe’s abasement and when all had been said and done, Adam had gone looking for the youngest Cartwright.
Adam had found Joe at the hotel and had stood outside of his brother’s room and listening with a heavy heart to the uncontrollable weeping from inside the room. Adam had not let his presence be known to his brother and had stood guard at his door until the next morning. The oldest brother, who had argued at such lengths with his father to allow his youngest brother to stand on his own two feet, now ached for the emotional battle that the boy was being forced to endure.
Adam returned home and explained in detail to both Ben and Hoss all of which he had been told. Ben had yearned to go to his son. Thinking with a father’s heart for his distraught child, Ben had fought the urge to see and hold his son, he had held back his desire to comfort and reassure Joseph and had instead, allowed the boy his time to grieve and to come to terms with his dissolution in his own way and in his own time. Now Joe stood before his father, his heart on his sleeve, tears in his eyes, looking so much like the little boy that he tried so hard not to be.
Ben found his voice first. “Welcome home son.”
Joe swallowed the lump that squeezed his throat and slowly raised his head, seeing his father’s dark eyes looking into his own. It was all he could do to keep from throwing himself into the arms that had always brought him such comfort and reassurance.
“Pa…” began Joe, his voice quivering.
“I’m sorry…you were right, all of you. Isabella was…just as you said she would be.” Joe blinked his eyes and the tiny beads of water began their downward descent. “I loved her…but…she didn’t love me. She never did, she just used me…I was a fool.”
“Joseph,” Ben whispered and stepped closer to his son.
Joe had dropped his head, ashamed to face his father, but when he felt his father’s loving touch, Joe stepped into Ben’s embrace. Ben’s arms closed around the trembling shoulders and for several minutes, he allowed his son to cry himself out.
When Joe finally was able to regain control, he stepped back and looked into his father’s eyes, unsure of what to say.
Ben broke the strained silence. “Joseph, there is no reason for you to feel like a fool. When a man gives his heart to a woman, he doesn’t expect it to be cast aside and trampled on, but on occasions it happens. In this case, it was destined to be, but under no circumstance should you think of yourself as a fool.”
“But I can’t help it Pa. I guess deep down inside I knew you and Adam, and Hoss, were telling me the truth about Isabella, but I wouldn’t listen. You were right, all of you, I guess I am still just a boy.” Joe’s chin began to quiver and he stepped back from his father.
“If loving someone makes you hurt like this, this terrible pain in your heart, this feeling of utter uselessness, then I don’t ever want to be a man. I’ll just stay a boy and I’ll never let myself fall in love again. When love comes knocking at my door, I’ll shut it and I’ll lock it. I don’t want that kind of love ever again. It hurts Pa, it hurts!”
Ben gathered Joe into his embrace for the second time and pressed his head against his heart. He sighed deeply, wishing he had some words of comfort for the ache that his child was bearing.
“Son,” Ben said at last. “Someday, when you least expect it, you will look up and there she will be. You might not know it at first, but in time, you will come to realize that this person is someone whom you love dearly, with all of your heart and what you are feeling right now, will be forgotten. In fact, when the perfect young woman gives her heart to you, you will even question yourself as to what made you think that you could have ever loved someone like Isabella Rose. Joseph,” smiled Ben, “God has a way of helping us forget our foolishness and our broken pride, and someday son, God will send to you, the one He has chosen to be your true love.”
“You are young son, but you have taken a giant step at becoming a man. We all make mistakes, but we learn from them and we move on with our lives. I expect that you will do the same, am I right?” smiled Ben.
Joe wiped away the tears and returned his father’s smile. “I guess so, Pa. I have learned one thing though.”
“I don’t ever want to hurt someone like she hurt me. I don’t think I could ever be as cold and callous towards another human being like she was. It was cruel, and mean. I suppose you’ve heard about what happened in the saloon?” Joe questioned.
“We heard,” said Adam who had joined his father and brother in the yard. “Needless to say, we didn’t like what happened, but being a true Cartwright, we figured you could weather the storm,” smiled Adam, resting his hand on Joe’s shoulder.
Joe nodded his head and then faced his brother. “I’m sorry Adam, for calling you a liar. I was wrong, you were right, and I apologize.”
Adam grinned, a mischievous gleam coming into his eyes. “So…” he paused and then pressed his fingers tightly into the flesh of his little brother’s shoulder where he still maintained his handhold. “What else is new?”
“WHAT!” Joe nearly shouted and then fell silent when Adam began to laugh.
“Joe, how many times do I have to tell you, it takes age and wisdom before a man can understand what makes a woman tick?” smiled the older and wiser brother.
“Yeah Joe, and Adam still ain’t got it figured out, otherwise, he wouldn’t still be single,” laughed Hoss from behind.
Adam turned on his middle brother, making Joe to start giggling.
“I am single because I choose to be,” muttered Adam.
“Ya single because no decent woman would have ya,” snapped Hoss. “Take that Mary Ann gal…she told me…”
Ben slid his arm about Joe’s shoulders and smiled. Whispering he turned his youngest son toward the house, “Let’s let your older and wiser brothers fight this out amongst themselves. I’m hungry, how about you?” whispered Ben.
Joe wrapped his arm about his father and allowed himself to be led inside. “I’m starved, and if we hurry, we can get to the table before Hoss figures out that it’s supper time.”
Joe allowed his father to enter the house in front on him. Glancing back over his shoulder, he smothered a giggle, Adam and Hoss were standing nose to nose arguing about the women in their lives. Joe scratched his head, closed the door and silently vowed never to look at another woman as long as he lived.
His vow was broken a week later when he stood with his father on the platform of the stage depot and waited for Ben’s longtime friend, Jeremiah Peabody, to arrive. Little did the youngest Cartwright know how Jeremiah’s only daughter would affect his life, for love was about to wrap its fingers about the heart of the most desirable young man in Virginia City’s history, and Joseph’s ideals about love, would forever change his life.