Summary: Life never quite takes us where we think.
Word Count: 4398
Sitting at the desk with the ledger open in front of him, Joe Cartwright sighed. He didn’t really need to do the books – they had an accountant in town who did the day to day work for them now. But somehow, it had become a habit to check the books at the end of each week. The ranch showed a healthy profit and Joe knew it was largely down to his efforts that this was the case. However, he didn’t feel proud of his achievements, although he had every reason to do so. He just felt unutterably weary.
Glancing across at the fire, Joe smiled as he met his father’s eyes. Ben was no longer up to riding out each day to check on the work, but he was certainly more than able to keep an eye on things financially. He was grinning at Joe, amused by the habit that made his son check the books at the end of each week, not affronted. Ben knew he was no longer in his prime and had slowed down, but he was still mentally sharp. Joe wasn’t checking up on him, he was simply doing what had become second nature to him.
“Find any mistakes?” Ben asked, teasingly.
Grinning back, Joe replied, “Pa, to be honest, I never really looked. Remember how I used to ‘expose myself’ to my school books? Well, that’s what I was just doing.”
Smiling as he remembered this ploy of Joe’s, Ben beckoned to him to come over and sit down. “I do remember that,” he agreed. “Did I tell you how impressed I was by your imagination?”
“Very loudly, as I recall,” Joe laughed. “Pa, I really don’t know how you put up with me when I was a kid.”
Looking at Joe, with his shaggy grey hair, Ben thought that he really didn’t look that much different. Yes, he had filled out slightly, but was still slender. His face was surprisingly unlined, given the time he spent in the sun and the tragedies that had hit in recent years. “I think you know why,” he replied, his voice soft.
Flashing Ben a glance, Joe smiled. “Because I’m your favorite son?” he hazarded, and this time it was Ben’s turn to laugh.
“You always did like to push the boundaries, didn’t you?” Ben could recall explaining to a very young Little Joe that he had three favorite sons – a favorite oldest son, a favorite middle son and a favorite youngest son. Joe had accepted it quite cheerfully, but by the time Ben heard him relate this to his two older brothers, it had become sadly mangled and Joe had ended up informing them that he was Pa’s favorite son because “Pa told me so.”
“Me?” Joe splayed his hand over his chest, looking wide eyed and innocent. Ben wasn’t taken in for a minute.
“You.” Sometimes, it surprised Ben that he and Joe should be able to laugh like this. For a time, after Hoss died, life had seemed so bleak and hard. And then, hot on the heels of that tragedy had come Joe’s marriage to Alice and her murder. Ben had thought that that would break Joe’s spirit and had feared for his son. Yet somehow, Joe had found the strength of mind and fortitude to come through it all and come out the other side stronger.
But Joe the widower was a different creature in many ways than Joe the bachelor had been. It had been several years since Alice had died and Joe had remained steadfastly single. Or if he had had girlfriends, he had kept them absolutely secret. Yet all Joe had to do was snap his fingers and Ben knew that there would be a queue forming. Girls seemed to find Joe irresistible and he was never short of a partner at the dances.
“Joe, why don’t you take tomorrow off?” Ben suggested.
Blinking, Joe looked startled. Ben realized that, just as he had been lost in memories for a moment, so had Joe. “It’s all right, Pa…” he began, but Ben over-rode him.
“Do what your father says!” he ordered. “It’s your birthday, Joe, for crying out loud! Its not every day a man turns 40! Go out and have some fun!”
Groaning, Joe rolled his eyes. “You just had to say it, didn’t you?” he accused Ben playfully. “I was trying to forget!”
“It’s a milestone in a man’s life,” Ben replied. “Why not celebrate it?”
“Well… No particular reason, I guess,” Joe admitted. “I just hadn’t thought about it.”
“Then think about it now,” Ben suggested. “You and Candy can go and get up to some sort of mischief…” He slapped his forehead in an exaggerated fashion. “What am I saying? You and Candy can get up to mischief walking across the yard!”
“We do not!” Joe denied, but his green eyes were alight with laughter. Ben laughed aloud. “No, really, Pa, we don’t!” Joe went on, but he couldn’t keep his face straight.
“Take tomorrow off,” Ben ordered. “Have fun.”
“All right, Pa,” Joe agreed. “Thanks.”
Later, alone in his bed, Joe found himself unable to sleep. The house was silent, both Ben and Candy asleep in their rooms and Joe assumed that Hop Sing was also sleeping. But sleep eluded Joe until he finally gave up trying and opened his eyes, staring around his room in the rosy darkness.
How hard it had been to come back and sleep in this room after Alice. That was partly why Joe had felt compelled to wander – constantly moving to try and come to terms with what happened. By the time they had caught Alice’s killers, Joe was exhausted, physically and emotionally. He and Candy had returned home, turned the men over to the sheriff and then Joe had collapsed.
Oh, there had been physical causes behind his collapse, but Joe knew that the real reason he had slept almost non stop for four days was not that his head injury was so very serious. No, the real reason was that he didn’t want to start living again. What did he have to live for? His wife and his unborn child were gone and Joe wanted to follow them.
But something stopped him; something drew him back from the edge. That something was Ben. Day after day, Ben sat by Joe’s bedside and spoke to him. He recalled incidents from their past, amusing stories, sad stories, the every day minutiae of life. And Joe realized that he was being selfish. Yes, he had lost his wife; but his father had buried three wives. Joe had buried an unborn child, but Ben had buried a grown up child and his oldest son was gone and had not been heard from in a long time. Joe realized that he couldn’t leave his father totally alone in the world and so made the effort to come back to life.
It had been hard, especially after he had been attacked by a mad man when going to sell horses to the army. Joe had nearly died that time and the memories of it still gave him nightmares sometimes. But he had lived and moved on.
Shifting his position, Joe shoved a pillow up against the headboard and sat up. The room was close; the night air was thundery. Joe threw the covers off and looked down at his body. It was still lean and hard, well muscled but slender. He had always been the most slightly built of the Cartwrights, taking more after his mother in that respect.
“Forty.” It startled Joe to realize that he had said the word aloud. Forty was a number that had no real relevance to him, he thought. Forty was old. Most men didn’t live much past forty and it was unusual for someone of his age to still have a parent living. Joe knew he was lucky.
Still, he’d always thought that by the time he hit 40, he would be married with several children running around the house. Lord knew, it wasn’t for the lack of looking. Joe hadn’t found anyone he was interested in seriously over the last few years. He knew, from things his friends said, that he was considered the catch of the town, but Joe couldn’t see himself married to one of the airhead girls in town. They all seemed so young and it depressed him to realize that he could be their father! No, Joe wasn’t looking for a ‘girl’ any more; he was looking for a woman.
Shoving another pillow up behind his back, Joe wriggled until he felt more comfortable. He wondered if Adam had married yet, or if he, too, carried the scars of losing someone. It had been a huge disappointment to Ben when Adam’s letters – never a flood – had slowed to a trickle before petering out. The not knowing was the worst thing. Was Adam alive or dead, happy, unhappy, well, ill? Joe had always had the feeling that Adam was not coming home again when he had left to explore the world. Had Adam realized that? Wherever he was, Joe wished him well, the hurt he had felt on his brother’s leaving but a dim memory now.
“Fifty two.” Joe sniggered. He could hardly believe that Adam was 52. At 52, men were old, grandfathers or great grandfathers. He wondered what Adam looked like now. He had been beginning to lose his hair before he left home and was understandably put out when Joe had teased him by flaunting his own head of thick curls. “Are you as bald as a coot, big brother?” Joe whispered and inexplicably felt like crying.
Blinking back the tears, Joe turned his thoughts to Hoss. His adored big brother had been gone for quite some time now and on a day to day basis, Joe didn’t feel the pain all the time. But sometimes, the feelings of loss crept up and surprised him and this was one of those times. Thinking about Adam going bald and the teasing had reminded Joe of the hard time he had given Hoss when he began to lose his hair.
The teasing had been a two-way street, for Hoss had got his revenge on Joe by buying a wig one day and then complaining loudly for several days that he thought his hair was getting thinner. Joe had taken great glee in assuring Hoss that it was thinner, and had done a splendid double-take when Hoss had come down to breakfast the next morning wearing the hideously ugly, but very thick, wig. Thereafter, the wig would be found in many extraordinary places until one day, Hop Sing mistook it for a rat and set the barn cat on it!
Joe chuckled as he remembered Hoss declaring, quite solemnly, that they would have to give it a decent burial. He missed Hoss, for the two of them had been more than brothers – they had been friends, too, soul mates. Joe sighed, knowing that if Hoss had been alive, he would have given Joe a thorough teasing for reaching the grand old age of 40. Joe might have complained aloud, but inwardly, he would have loved it.
Starting to feel sleepy now, Joe rearranged his pillows and slid down the bed. He felt peaceful, as he often did after thinking about Hoss. For a moment, Joe almost felt as though his adored big brother was in the room with him. “I still love ya, Hoss,” he murmured, sleepily.
The promised day off dawned bright and sunny. “I’ll meet you in town later on, Joe,” Ben told him. “And we’ll have dinner at the hotel.”
“That would be great, thanks, Pa,” Joe replied. His father had given him a handsome new leather wallet and a new pocket watch. The one that Joe had carried for many years had suffered irreparable damage in a fall a short time before. Joe loved his gifts.
Together, he and Candy headed off into town. Joe couldn’t help smiling at the notion that his father still thought him young enough to want to go and raise Cain in town, but he was sure that he and Candy could find enough to keep them occupied while they were there.
But their plans changed as they rode in. They were about half way between the ranch and Virginia City when Joe frowned and stood slightly in his stirrups, peering against the sun. “Candy? You see that?” he asked.
Following the direction of Joe’s pointing finger, Candy was quite prepared to find he was on the receiving end of a joke, but for once his friend was serious. There was something on the road. “Yeah,” he replied. “Looks like a wagon.”
Exchanging a look, they rode on a little faster. Both of them were quite well aware that this seemingly innocently over-turned wagon could prove to be a trap of some kind, so they were cautious in their approach. However, as they drew nearer, they could see that this was a poor place to set a trap – there was no natural cover to speak of and certainly not enough to hide men and horses.
“Are you all right?” Joe asked the young woman who was sitting on the ground by the wagon and looking at the belongings spilled everywhere.
“I’m not hurt,” she replied in a tight voice. “But I don’t think I could say I’m all right.” She sniffed suddenly and drew in a deep breath. Joe knew that she was fighting back tears. He tried not to look at her as she rubbed her nose.
“My name is Joe Cartwright, and this is our foreman, Candy Canady,” Joe began. “My father and I have a ranch not far from here. Can we help you, ma’am?”
“I’m Mrs. Anne Winters,” she answered. She beckoned and two small children, a boy and a girl, came out from behind the wagon. “These are my children, David and Laura. I’ve just bought a small place not far from here, I’m told. I was on the way there when we hit a stone or something, I’m not sure, and the wagon tipped over. We’re not hurt, but I really don’t know what to do.” Once again, the threat of tears could be heard in her voice towards the end of her story, but she drew in another deep breath and controlled them once more.
“We can help,” Joe assured her, and he and Candy both dismounted.
It didn’t take long for the men to make sure that the wagon wasn’t damaged in any way. Then they removed the last of the load and set about righting it.
“Pity Hoss ain’t here,” Candy panted as he and Joe arrived at the most critical and difficult moment. Hoss’ massive strength and tall stature made this kind of activity very easy.
Giving a snort, Joe almost lost his grip on the wagon. He shot Candy a glance that promised retribution at a later date and strained his muscles. The wagon teetered for a moment before crashing gracelessly to the ground.
Panting, Joe wiped the sweat from his brow. “We’d better check the wheels are all right,” Joe suggested. “It went over with quite a crash.”
“Like I said,” Candy murmured, bending over to look at the wheels. “It’s a pity Hoss ain’t here.”
This time, Joe did laugh out loud. “It sure was his specialty,” he agreed. He started to pick up the discarded furniture and stack it on the wagon bed again.
“I really can’t thank you enough,” Anne told him.
“No trouble, ma’am,” Joe smiled. He thought how pretty she was and then cut the thought off. She was married, he reminded himself. “I hope your husband is waiting for you at your home to help you unload this stuff.”
“My husband is dead,” Anne replied.
“I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled, embarrassed.
“Don’t be. You couldn’t know,” she assured him. She calmly gathered the children up. “Come along, you two. Say ‘thank you’ to the nice men for helping us.”
“Thank you,” they chorused, dutifully.
“My pleasure,” Joe grinned and the little boy grinned back at once. Joe recognized a kindred spirit immediately. It took the little girl a moment or two longer before Joe’s charming grin broke though her defenses, but when she smiled, it was blinding.
As Anne popped the children back onto the wagon seat, Candy came over to stand by Joe. He took one look at his boss and sighed. “I know what’s coming,” he declared.
“You do?” Joe asked.
“Uh-huh,” Candy nodded. “You’re gonna say that we can’t let her try and unload all that stuff herself and why don’t we help her, aren’t you?”
Grinning broadly, Joe twinkled at his friend. “Why, Candy, what a good idea.” He walked off, leaving Candy smothering a desire to swear loudly while strangling his friend, and on his birthday no less.
“Mrs. Winters, I hate to think about you trying to move all this furniture yourself,” Joe began. He could see the instinctive protest starting and carried on talking; not something he would usually do, but Joe wanted to make Anne understand that he just wanted to offer help, nothing more. “Candy and I will come out to your place and give you a hand. It’s no trouble, honestly. We don’t have anything else planned at all for today. Well, not until later, anyway.”
“Mr. Cartwright…” Anne began.
“Please, let us help you,” Joe added softly. “We’re going to be neighbors and neighbors always help each other out.”
For another long moment, Anne hesitated. She had had no idea how she was going to unload the furniture when she reached her new home, just as she had had no idea how she was going to get the wagon upright again. However, there was something about this handsome man with the warm green eyes that made her trust him. She smiled. “Very well then, I accept. Thank you very much, Mr. Cartwright.”
Grinning broadly, Joe replied, “Call me Joe. Mr. Cartwright is my father.”
Neither Joe nor Candy was surprised by the location of the small homestead that Anne Winters took them to. In fact, Joe practically led the way. Anne was relieved, as she had not been exactly sure where it was they were heading. The directions she had been given turned out to be more accurate than she had thought, but Joe’s confidence went a long way to bolstering her own confidence.
“Well, doesn’t this look cozy?” Anne asked her children as the wagon pulled to a stop in front of the house.
“Yes, Mama,” they chorused dutifully, but the little girl did look as though she agreed with her mother while the boy just looked disinterested. To him, a house was simply a house.
Helping Anne down from the wagon, Joe began to loosen the ropes that kept the load on the wagon. “Oh not yet, Joe,” Anne protested. “I’ll have to make sure the house is clean before I take anything inside.”
Smothering a groan with a smile, Joe could do nothing apart from agree. The house looked reasonably clean, but Anne set to and kindled a fire in the stove and heated water to wash the floors. While she did that, Joe and Candy unhitched the team and settled them into the barn. They had some hay, but there wasn’t much of it and no straw to soften their beds. “Remind me to send over some stuff for her, till she gets settled,” Joe whispered to Candy. Rolling his eyes, Candy just nodded.
Finally, the house was deemed clean enough to bring the furniture in and Anne directed the placing of it while the little girl supervised the kettle boiling on the stove. Lunch consisted of a few slices of salt pork and a cup of coffee, but by mid-afternoon, the moving was completed and Anne was unpacking her dishes into the cupboards. Candy was outside with the kids and Joe was handing plates and cups to Anne.
“Why did you decide to move here?” Joe asked.
For a moment, Anne wondered at the directness of this question, but she had already learned that Joe was honest and straightforward and he meant no harm. “We – my husband and I – had always wanted to live out here. Bernard had lived here when he was younger and always wanted to come back. After he died, I couldn’t bear to stay where we were, so I thought I might as well try coming here.” She sighed and looked around. “And here we are.”
“It was a very brave thing to do,” Joe praised her. “Not many women would have done this alone.”
“No, I suppose not,” Anne agreed. “But I’m a widow with no other family. What choice did I have?”
“None, I guess,” Joe admitted. “I’m a widower myself.” He hated that word – it always implied that someone was old, but he knew this frequently wasn’t the case.
“I’m sorry.” For a moment, the two were connected by shared sorrow.
“Well,” Joe drew his new pocket watch out and looked at the time. “We’d better be going. My father is taking Candy and me out for a meal tonight to celebrate my birthday.”
“Your birthday?” Anne sounded scandalized. “You mean you’ve been working this hard on your birthday? Joe! That’s awful!”
“I volunteered,” Joe reminded her, his whole face lit up with amusement.
“Candy didn’t,” Anne smiled.
“True, but even though I’m his boss, he has today off. If he hadn’t wanted to help, he wouldn’t have done, believe me. Candy takes orders only when he has to.”
“And you?” she challenged.
“That would be telling,” Joe teased and Anne laughed.
“I still have to thank you for all your help,” she reminded him. “I really couldn’t have done it without you.”
“It’s been my pleasure,” Joe assured her, with perfect truthfulness. He felt a sudden urge to kiss her, but restrained himself, knowing that it was inappropriate.
“Goodbye,” he said and left.
About the first thing Joe did when he got into town was to go into the grain merchant’s store and order some grain, hay and straw to be sent to Anne Winter’s place. He knew that she would be upset with him about it, but he was confident that she wouldn’t refuse the help once he set about placating her. He also let it be known that she was a friend of his. Joe didn’t often feel the need to use his influence as a Cartwright, but it did come in handy sometimes.
That done, he and Candy headed for the saloon to have a couple of beers. Joe smiled as he raised his glass in a toast. Somehow, turning 40 didn’t seem to have been as bad as he feared. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed a day so much.
“I’m worried about him,” Candy concluded, as Joe finished relating the story of their day to Ben. “Working like a dog and on his birthday, no less!”
“Does sound peculiar,” Ben agreed, his dark eyes twinkling merrily as Joe simply sat there and looked smug. “What do you say, son? Are you feeling ill? Should we go home now?”
“I feel fine,” Joe assured him, grinning. “I can’t help wondering about you two, though,” he shot back. “You’d think I never did any work!”
“Isn’t this the same fella who’d do anything to get out of round up?” Candy asked Ben.
“I think so,” Ben agreed. “Perhaps we’d better get the doctor in.” He promptly stood up and waved. “Hey, Doc, over here!”
“Pa!” Joe scolded and turned his head in time to see Paul Martin, the town doctor, coming their way.
“Happy birthday, Joe!” Paul cried. He was older and greyer, but still working. He had a young partner now, a man that everyone was growing to trust. It had taken Paul a while to find someone suitable, after the fiasco with Ingram, when Hoss had nearly died, but he had succeeded in the end.
“Thanks, doc,” Joe smiled and shook hands with his old friend. He wondered who would appear next and wasn’t terribly surprised when it turned out to be Roy Coffee, with Clem Foster, the current sheriff in tow.
Roy had been retired for quite a few years now and was beginning to be a little wandered sometimes. He was very frail and very hard of hearing. However, that night, he seemed to be quite with it, although he did still insist on calling Joe ‘Little Joe’. The birthday boy bore the indignity quietly.
It was a night for reminiscing. Memories came thick and fast and laughter echoed around the room. After a time, Ben found himself watching Joe as the talk eddied around the table. Joe looked just the same as he had that morning, but there was something about him that was different.
Suddenly, Ben knew what it was. Joe wore an air of serenity that was quite new. The ghosts of his past seemed to have slipped away to leave him untroubled and contented with himself. It was an attractive change; a change that Ben had hoped would come to Joe one day and he wondered what the catalyst had been.
“Pa?” Joe was looking at him with concern.
“I was just remembering,” he replied, smiling.
“Have you had a good day, son?” Ben asked as they walked out of the hotel to their horses.
“Yes, I have,” Joe replied. “A very good day. Thanks, Pa.”
“Well, back to work tomorrow,” he suggested.
“Sure,” Joe nodded. “But I’ve got to check on Anne first and make sure she got that stuff I ordered for her.”
Everything became clear for Ben then. He didn’t say anything, just nodded. But somehow, a hope that he had buried with Alice sprang into being and burned brightly in his chest. Ben drew in a deep breath. He felt younger than he had done in years; he wanted to sing and shout, cheer loudly, but he didn’t. He just allowed a smile to grow on his face. Behind Joe, Candy was smiling, too. He sees it, too, Ben thought and it warmed him even more.
“I think that’s a very good idea,” he agreed.