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Joe supposed he could have blamed the jackrabbit.
The large, wiry hares were as much a part of the Ponderosa landscape as pine trees and mountains. While they weren’t normally found near creek beds, he supposed they had to have water as much as any other animal. When the tawny creature darted out unexpectedly, Cochise startled and reared, tossing his rider to the rocky ground. The jackrabbit was long gone, but the damage was already done.
Joe’s leg was broken; he had heard the horrifying snap almost before he felt the explosive pain that shot clear up to his hip. And as he shifted and tried to move himself into a sitting position, he sucked in his breath at the sudden stab in his right side that told him that he had re-injured his already damaged ribs. He painfully turned his head and scanned the horizon for his horse, but he was nothing more than a white speck in the distance, no doubt relieved to be free of his unusually demanding master.
Cochise had tossed his head and originally resisted Joe’s attempts to spur him into a lope on the treacherous terrain. The pinto was wisely cautious — even if Joe was not — of the danger of such a pace on the sloping rocky ground surrounding the small stream. Pa had been warning him since he could sit a horse to avoid the area around Mud Creek; too many Ponderosa horses had already been injured there. But it was a shortcut, and Joe had been anxious to get home in time for dinner. Two days of his own cooking at the remote line shack was about as much as he could tolerate. Plus, he was lonely, though he would have died before admitting it to anyone.
Grimacing, Joe carefully steadied himself on his forearms and tried once more to move his leg, but collapsed again from the sudden pain the effort caused. As he lay on the hard ground panting, he took in the situation he now found himself in.
Didn’t look all that promising. Miles from the house, no horse, and he couldn’t even move enough to crawl home. Plus, it was getting dark.
Yeah, he supposed he could have blamed the jackrabbit, alright.
But in the end, Joe knew it was his own damned fault. Just another unhappy and unscheduled event in the life of Joseph Francis Cartwright; another stupid decision that just assumed its rightful place at the end of a long list of stupid decisions lately. And if it weren’t for his own stupidity, he wouldn’t have even been here to begin with, Joe mused reflectively. He’d be with Hoss and nearly all the hands on the cattle drive to Sacramento.
But one unfortunate night in the Silver Dollar had sealed that particular fate. He hadn’t meant to get in a fight, really he hadn’t. He had actually prided himself on his restraint as some drunken cowpoke took issue with a losing hand of poker. Joe had rolled his eyes and turned away, ignoring the plethora of insults being hurled at his back…..save for one, that is.
“No wonder yer brother left.”
The drunk had mumbled it under his breath as he turned away, but Joe still heard it loud and clear. And after that, all bets were off. Even though Joe’s normal lightning quick reflexes were dulled by an evening of beer drinking, he had easily flattened the smaller man with a potent left hook. And that was that.
Then the cowpoke’s friend showed up. And he was bigger, meaner, and……well…..soberer. It had been only the timely intervention of Hoss that allowed Joe to escape with only three cracked ribs and a colorful collection of bruises that night. But, it was enough to get his typical what-were-you-thinking-son-you’re-23-years-old-aren’t-you-getting-a-little-old-for-this-nonsense scolding from Pa and the subsequent order from Dr. Martin to stay in bed for a week.
So, for the first time in as long as he could remember, he was forced to sit out a cattle drive, something he looked forward to every year. And even after Joe was allowed out of bed, his black mood remained and he resumed his frequent trips to the saloon. Before long, Pa had had enough, and had sent his angry son off to take line shack inventory on a remote part of the ranch. Actually, banished was probably a better word for it.
Two days away, however, had cleared his head. The mountain air can do that, Pa always said. Maybe that was the real reason Pa had gotten rid of him. The line shacks turned out to be already sufficiently stocked, something Joe suspected his father already knew. Still, after a couple of long nights alone, he was ready to come home and make his respective apologies. Apologies for a lot of things.
He couldn’t explain why he had been losing his temper at the drop of a hat these days, why he had been snapping rudely to the hands, why he so frequently found himself tossing back whiskey in the Silver Dollar. He only knew that it had been going on for one month. One month and two days, to be exact.
Ever since Adam left.
Pa was already waiting for Joe as he gingerly made his way down the stairs for the first time in nearly a week after the altercation in the saloon. He thought being up and about after being confined to bed for so long would improve his mood, but it was not to be.
He had been restricted from doing anything strenuous until his ribs completely healed, but on a working ranch like the Ponderosa, that didn’t leave much to do. Pretty much everything was strenuous.
So, instead, Pa guided him over to the desk and sat him down in front of the open ledger. Bookwork. Budgets and revenues and expenditures.
Joe blinked down at the page in front of him. It was filled entirely with his brother’s neatly rendered columns and notations. “This is Adam’s job,” he grumbled.
Pa frowned at him. “You’re right, son. Adam was the one who usually did most of the bookkeeping,” he explained patiently, as if he was speaking to a child. “But he’s not here now, and so we have to take care of it ourselves.”
Joe felt himself growing unexpectedly angry at that. “No, he’s not here, is he?” he snapped. “Maybe he’d still be here if…”
If you had stopped him. If you had told him he wasn’t allowed to leave. If you had begged him to stay home. The arguments screamed over and over in Joe’s head, but they sounded ridiculous even to him.
“Never mind,” Joe said finally, not trusting himself to say more.
There was a long moment of awkward silence before Joe closed the book and stood. “I think maybe there’s something I can do in the barn instead,” he said, turning toward the door. He left without a backward glance.
And so it went for the next morning and the next and the next. Before long, every saddle had been thoroughly cleaned and oiled, every harness and bridle inspected and repaired, and the tack room had been organized to perfection. Cochise had been groomed so frequently he fairly glistened. And then every evening, Joe would head into Virginia City for a long session in the saloon.
Pa never commented about his behavior. He never mentioned the fact that Joe seemed to be avoiding him, or questioned him about his nightly trips into town, but he hadn’t needed to. The frown that greeted Joe at the breakfast table each morning said enough.
On the fourth evening, as Joe settled into another round of poker in the Silver Dollar, he resolved to go home early for once. Maybe he should try and talk things through with Pa, he reasoned.
But as the hours passed, time escaped him once again; the blessed capacity of whiskey to help him forget had proved irresistibly tempting. Unfortunately, awareness brought with it a worse than usual pounding headache the following morning. The very morning Pa had selected for the talk.
Joe saw him from the top of the stairs, sitting in his tufted blue chair, fingers steepled beneath his chin, brows sternly furrowed together, staring into a cold fireplace. Joe hesitated and considered going back to bed, but Pa had already heard him.
Pa’s voice was deceptively soft, but Joe knew better. He’d heard his name spoken in just that tone more times than he could count. And it never boded well.
Joe paused and closed his eyes. Might as well get it over with, he decided. It was nothing more than he had expected, after all.
Still, nothing wrong with playing innocent. Old habits died hard.
“Good morning, Pa!” Joe said as brightly as his throbbing head would allow. “So what’s for breakfast?” he continued, trying not to notice that his father was scowling even deeper at his son’s pretense at cheerfulness.
Pa ignored the question. “Sit down, son.”
The tone broached no argument, and Joe reluctantly did as he was told.
Pa waited a long moment before speaking, so long that Joe nearly found himself squirming uncomfortably as if he were a little kid. No one but Pa could make him feel that way.
“Good job in the barn, Joe. I don’t think my saddle has gleamed that much in years.”
Joe blinked at the unexpected compliment, but didn’t respond. He had a feeling that Pa had more to discuss than Joe’s skill in caring for the tack.
“I’ve got another job for you to do, son, as it seems you’ve already taken care everything in the barn.”
Joe looked over at his father, confused. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as he thought. “Sure, Pa. What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“I want you to ride out to the northeast line shacks and take inventory. Make a list of supplies that we’ll need, then when Hoss returns next week, we can go back and stock them all for winter.”
Joe was puzzled. They’d never stocked the line shacks that way. “But Pa, that doesn’t make any sense. Usually we just load the buckboard up with all the supplies we need and just…”
“I know how we usually do it, Joseph!” Pa interrupted.
Joe tried again. “But, Pa! The northeast shacks? That’ll take three, four days at least!”
“I know,” Pa said quietly.
Joe’s eyes widened as he realized his father’s intent. Pa was sending him away on purpose. Then, his surprise abruptly gave way to anger.
“Fine, then,” Joe snapped. “Fine! I’ll leave after breakfast, if that’s alright with you? Or do you want me to leave now?”
Joe shot to his feet and glared down at his father.
Pa, however, seemed unfazed by the defiant reaction. He stood up casually and faced Joe, his hands on his hips. “Whatever you prefer, son.”
Pa looked so indifferent and expressionless that Joe nearly caught his breath.
But Pa was already moving away from him toward the dining room. The conversation was over, and Joe had clearly been dismissed.
Dusk was rapidly being chased away by night, and the first stars were starting to wink their appearance in the sky as Joe tried to shift to a more comfortable position on the uneven ground. He knew he should maybe fashion some sort of splint for his leg, tried to think how he could even go about doing such a thing with nothing around but rocks. He had attempted to crawl closer to the creek to at least get a drink, but he collapsed after scooting only a couple feet, succumbing to dizziness and pain. And the water remained desperately, heartbreakingly out of reach, the rushing water seeming to laugh at him with each passing hour.
It was all his fault, his own damned fault.
The last two days by himself had given Joe time to think, leaving him newly filled with a resolve to be more responsible, to act his age. But he hadn’t even made it back home before he messed things up again. He knew Cochise would eventually find his way to the house, knew Pa would become concerned and come looking for him, but it would be hours — probably even morning — before that happened. But he now realized that his pain and injuries left him no choice but to wait.
Wait to be rescued, wait to be saved, like some stupid, helpless little kid.
It would be completely dark soon, and he could hear the occasional skittering sounds of curiousity nearby. Raccoons, maybe. He tried not to think of the bigger, scarier animals that might also be lurking in the area, like wolves or mountain lions or bears. He tried not to think of how helpless he would be should such a creature decide to investigate the injured human over by the creek. All he could do was hope that there weren’t any critters around that were particularly hungry tonight.
He made an effort to concentrate on something less worrisome, to distract himself from the pain and the fear. The night was clear and cloudless, and as the stars became too numerous to count, he tried to locate some of the constellations that he could remember.
He had always loved gazing at the stars, had always been somewhat reassured by their constant unchanging presence, even through the volatile changes in his own life year after year. He remembered how he used to think his Mama was up there among those very stars, looking down on him, how he used to talk to her when he was a child, thinking she was listening, and how he still talked to her even after he was pretty sure she wasn’t.
He knew he should try to stay awake — he knew it. He was alone and unprotected; anything could happen. But before long, the lulling sound of the rushing water and the peaceful twinkling display above him combined with exhaustion, and he could feel sleep starting to overwhelm him. And soon he was dreaming. Dreaming of stars…
Little Joe waited impatiently. He knew Pa would be coming up to bed soon but as the time passed, he found it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. Finally he heard the familiar tread on the stairs and then his door opened. He smiled secretly in the darkness. Pa always checked on him.
“Little Joe?” Pa sounded surprised. “Why aren’t you sleeping, son?”
“Pa, can you……..can you take me out to talk to Mama?”
A long moment passed, and then Pa sighed. “It’s awful late, Little Joe….”
Another sigh. “Well….just this once, son. And only because it’s your birthday. How old are you again? Three years old?”
Joe giggled. “No, Pa, I’m five!”
Even in the dark, Joe could tell that Pa was smiling. “Oh, yes. I keep forgetting. Pretty soon you’ll be bigger than your brothers!”
Joe giggled again. “Then maybe I can give Hoss horsey back rides!”
“Maybe,” Pa replied, laughing softly. “You just never know.”
Pa leaned over and removed Joe’s blanket from the bed. “We’d better bring this along; it’s chilly out there tonight.” Pa wrapped the blanket around him and Joe felt himself lifted up high in his Pa’s arms.
“Pa?” he said. “Aren’t I too heavy?” Joe knew he was a big boy now. Someone who was five years old was much too grown to be carried.
“Of course not, boy,” Pa replied. “I’ve carried things lots heavier than you.”
Pa carried him from the room and down the darkened staircase. Joe knew that he was too old to be held like a baby, but as he nestled his cheek next to his Pa’s strong chest, he found he didn’t mind it so much.
It was chilly outside, just like Pa said, and Joe felt the bite of the cool night air on his cheeks as Pa opened the door. But the rest of him was warm; Pa had tucked his blanket all around him so snug that he could barely move.
Pa took him out into the yard and perched him on the hitching post so they could see the stars.
There were millions and millions of stars; or so it seemed to Joe. But he knew Mama was up there in heaven, looking down on him. Pa always said so. She was an angel now.
“Mama?” Joe whispered. He didn’t really know why, but it seemed better to whisper. Maybe angels didn’t like loud voices. “It’s my birthday, Mama. I’m five years old now, and Pa says I’m getting real big and everything. Hop Sing made cake and I ate two whole pieces and Pa said I didn’t even have to eat all my carrots first.”
Pa chuckled quietly in the darkness, but Joe didn’t think it was all that funny. He was starting to feel his heart getting all sad again. Sometimes it was like that when he talked to Mama.
“But, Mama…..I made my wish, Mama. I blew out all my candles, and I made my wish. When are you going to come home, Mama? I don’t want you to be an angel anymore.”
Then suddenly Joe found himself lifted and clutched against his Pa’s chest, strong arms encircling him so tightly he could hardly breathe. He could feel Pa’s lips pressing against his head.
“Time for bed now, son.” Pa’s voice was strange and husky in his ear.
“But Pa….I’m not…”
“Time for bed.”
Pa carried him back inside, but Joe caught one more glimpse of the stars before the door was shut against them. He squeezed his eyes shut as tight as he could, and hoped with all his heart that Mama had heard him this time.
Joe startled awake, and his eyes wildly searched the darkness as he tried to remember where he was. He unintentionally moved, and the sudden shooting pain caused his memory to come slamming back; and he caught his breath at the intensity of it.
The moon had risen, and Joe guessed that a couple hours had passed. Still no one around, though. He wasn’t so naive to think help would arrive so quickly, but as the discomfort was seemingly getting worse by the minute, it sure would be nice.
Relax, Joe, he told himself. Concentrate. Focus on something else besides the pain. Help will be here soon. Or at least he hoped.
The stars had shifted their location, tracing their distinct and steady paths across the darkened sky as they had for millions of years. Only the North Star seemed to stand in place. What was it called again? Pol- something…
Then he remembered. Polaris. Something Adam had taught him once.
The thought of his brother was like a knife in his gut. Adam had been gone for one month and two…well, now three days.
He missed him; of course he missed him. Things weren’t the same without older brother around. But Adam had been away from home this long before; shoot, they all had.
Yet Joe knew it went beyond just missing his brother, very much beyond. Adam’s departure had affected him in a way he couldn’t even understand or explain; it didn’t even seem to make any sense. He only knew how it made him feel. Hurt. Sad. Afraid. Almost like something deep inside had been ripped away from him.
He was foolish, immature for feeling like this, he knew it. Pa would be bewildered, maybe even disappointed in him, if he knew. Adam has a right to make his own decisions and live his own life, he would say.
So Joe tried not to let it show, tried to carry on as if he didn’t really care one way or other. He’d got up every day, ate his breakfast, finished his chores, did what was expected of him. But it didn’t erase the terrible emptiness inside. And within a week, he gave up trying to pretend a normalcy that he didn’t feel; his easygoing tendencies were replaced by an uncharacteristic bitterness, and his lone pleasures were found in a glass of whiskey or beating the tar out of anyone who had the nerve to rile him.
Rationally, he would never have argued against anyone trying to make their own way in the world, to make their own choices about their life and future.
But the Ponderosa was his life. It was his father’s life, and it had been quietly understood for as long as Joe could remember that he and his brothers would play important and distinct roles in its future. Joe couldn’t even conceive of any other life, and had assumed that his brothers felt the same.
Sure, Adam had gone away to college. But he eventually came back to the Ponderosa, back to where he belonged.
But it wasn’t where he belonged. Or so Adam had said. He had tried to explain as much to Joe, tried more than once. But Joe didn’t listen. He couldn’t. On the morning Adam left, Joe found himself bristling with so much hurt and anger that he could barely bring himself to look his brother in the eye.
“I’m sorry, Joe.”
The stage had already arrived, the last of Adam’s bags had been tossed on top with a bit more care than usual, thanks to Ben Cartwright’s generous tip and sharp eyes. Adam was standing with one foot perched on the step stool, holding the door open, but he made no move to climb inside. The two other passengers were already on board, looking impatient as they fanned themselves against the summer heat.
Joe hadn’t even wanted to come this far, preferring to say his grumbled farewell at home. Only Pa’s stern insistence and guilt-inducing glares forced him into saddling up and riding alongside the buckboard to Virginia City. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Joe?” Adam repeated, louder this time, since his younger brother had turned away and was heading toward the hitching rail.
Joe sighed and turned around. “What?” he bit out harshly. “What are you sorry for? You’re leaving, aren’t you? Isn’t that what you want?”
Adam looked at him for a long moment before responding. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “But one day you’ll understand, Joe. I know it.”
And with that, his brother stepped into the stagecoach, and was gone.
He should have said goodbye, Joe decided. Easy to think of such things after the fact, of course, but at least he should have said goodbye. Adam deserved that much. Maybe if he had, it wouldn’t be so hard now. Maybe he wouldn’t feel so miserable all the time.
Joe choked back the lump starting in his throat and sighed. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about Adam, he thought as he closed his eyes. More important things to think about right now…
He shouldn’t have done it; he knew that now. But he was nine years old, and he could ride better than any other kid in his school. Almost as good as Hoss, even. Everybody said so.
He knew his horse could clear the corral fence; he knew it–no matter what Pa said. Why didn’t Pa ever let him do anything? But no, Pa just kept on forbidding it. Kept telling Joe that it was foolish to show off on a horse and he’d break his neck.
And Joe ended up being right all along. Well, sort of. The horse had cleared the fence, but Joe hadn’t. He lay sprawled in the dirt right where he had fallen, wondering if he had indeed broken his neck, and was too afraid to even move.
And in an instant, Pa was there beside him, anxiously touching him and checking him for injuries. “Little Joe? Come on now, son. Open your eyes for me.”
“I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean…”
“Hush now, boy…Pa’s here.”
Joe found himself looking up into Pa’s eyes, and searching for the anger, the condemnation, the I-told-you-so. And it wasn’t there. “Joseph?”
“Joe? Come on now, son. Open your eyes for me.”
Hands, warm and familiar, were embracing his face; anxiously patting his cheeks. Pa’s hands.
And suddenly the sound of rushing water was back, deafening in the morning air as awareness carried him abruptly back to the present. Joe opened his eyes to sunlight and his father’s face. Pa’s dark brows were furrowed together, the lines around his mouth drawn downward. Was Pa mad?
No. Joe looked into the fathomless brown eyes above him, and saw only the frantic worry reflected in them. God, he’d been such a fool.
“Dear God, Joe, I’ve been out looking for you all night,” Pa said anxiously. “What are you doing all the way out here? When your horse came back last night without you, I almost…”
“I’m sorry, Pa..” Joe started, but his parched voice was too soft to be heard.
Joe felt his head being held up, and he drank from the offered canteen gratefully. He licked his lips and tried again to speak. “Pa, I…”
But Pa wasn’t listening. He was examining Joe gingerly, touching him here and there, and Joe winced and bit his lip to keep from moaning aloud whenever Pa hit a sensitive spot, and there were plenty. When Pa’s hand gently brushed against his right leg, Joe arched his back and gasped from pain it caused.
“Joe…your leg’s broken.”
Pa had turned his head to look at him, as if this bit of news would be a surprise to him.
Even under the circumstances, Joe conjured up a small grin at that. “Yeah, I know. I pretty much figured that out last night.”
Ben sat back and worried his lip, considering. “I could probably splint it somehow,” he said. “You think if I helped you up, you could sit a horse? I don’t think Buck can pull a travois over these rocks. Or maybe I could go back and get the buckboard…”
Joe didn’t think he could even sit up, much less manuever himself onto the back of a horse, but the thought of waiting several more hours alone while Pa went back to fetch the buckboard was nearly intolerable.
Joe nodded. “Sure, Pa. I think I can,” he said, though he doubted his own words.
Pa left him briefly to search in the nearby stand of trees for suitable splint material. He returned after several minutes and began to fashion a crude splint with strips of wood and several lengths of rope. Joe found himself nearly holding his breath, anticipating the excruciating pain of having his injured leg handled again.
When it came, Joe nearly fainted from the intensity of it.
“I’m sorry, son,” Pa said, frowning at Joe’s distress. He touched a worried hand to Joe’s face. “No fever at least,” he said. “But I need to get you home.”
And before Joe could even prepare himself for it, Pa was lifting him, holding him, half-carrying him toward Buck. Joe bit his lip as hard as he could to keep from crying out from the movement, trying not to add to Pa’s already obvious concern.
With tremendous effort, Pa’s help, and some likely divine intervention, Joe managed to lift himself unsteadily into the saddle, but he would have fallen straight off again if Pa hadn’t been there to support him. As they made an agonizingly slow journey back to the house, Joe desperately fought off the effects of pain and exhaustion and focused on the task of remaining conscious, leaning back against Pa’s capable chest and clutching the supporting arm holding him upright in the saddle.
As the familiar and comforting structures of the house came into view, Joe’s felt his grip on awareness begin to wane. Pa reined in Buck and quickly jumped down to assist Joe.
“Easy now, son. Let me help.” Pa said, reaching up to him.
But Joe knew he was too far gone, and in the next instant he was falling. He collapsed into Pa’s ready arms and he felt himself being carried.
“Pa?” Joe whispered, trying to focus dazed eyes on Pa’s anxious face. “…aren’t I…too heavy?”
Pa stared down at him in surprise.
“Of course not, boy,” he replied. “I’ve carried things lots heavier than you.”
Joe slammed the pencil to the desk and rubbed his eyes. He picked up the letter and reread his hastily scrawled words and blew out his breath in frustration. Crumpling it up in disgust, he tossed it to the desk, just as he had for his last five attempts. He wished once more that he had the eloquence and gift for language that Adam had so he could put into words the million things he wanted to say to his brother. I miss you. I didn’t mean what I said. I’m sorry.
He sighed in resignation and reached for his crutches. Later. Maybe later he would figure out what to write. Hop Sing would likely be calling him down to dinner soon anyway, so maybe after that he could try again. He hobbled through the door, and nearly cursed when his injured leg brushed against the jam. Another month of this blasted cast, but it was his own fault anyway.
He paused at the top of the steps, intending to descend, but on impulse turned and moved toward the end of the hall and opened the door to the bedroom next to his own.
Joe continued inside, and stopped near the neatly made bed, looking around. Adam’s black hat rested on the chest, his book collection stood at attention on his shelf. The small writing desk was arranged just so — the way Adam preferred it — the chair pulled out slightly as if waiting patiently for its master to return. Without thinking, Joe caught himself glancing toward the door, as if some ghostly version of his brother would suddenly enter and demand to know what Joe was doing in his room.
Joe sat on the bed and reached for Adam’s soft eiderdown pillow. On impulse, he brought it close to his face and rested his cheek lightly against it. Even freshly laundered, the pillowcase still bore the faintest scent of his brother’s Bay Rum cologne, an aroma that Joe knew would remind him of his brother for the rest of his days.
Suddenly melancholy, Joe returned the pillow to its rightful place, and lay down on the bed. He knew he shouldn’t be here — Hop Sing would likely have a fit — but Joe felt a strange comfort in that moment, pressing his face into his big brother’s pillow, and he knew that Adam wouldn’t mind. And soon he was sleeping. Dreaming…
“And what’s that one called again?” Adam asked. He sounded pleased that his little brother had memorized so many of the constellations he had taught him.
“Polaris,” Joe said. “The North Star.”
Joe wiggled to a more comfortable position on the hitching rail and leaned back against his big brother’s chest. Adam seemed like so much more of a grown-up since he had come home from college. Sure, he was always big to someone like Joe, but he seemed big in a different way now. Big like Pa. He sure was smart like Pa.
“Right, Joe,” Adam said. “Did you know that there’s a Paiute story about the North Star?”
“Really?” Joe tried to sound interested. He didn’t care all that much about some dumb Indian story, but he didn’t want to go back inside just yet. It was kinda nice in the dark, just him and Adam.
“Yeah. The Paiutes believe that the North Star is the chief star. Kind of like the father of all the other stars. And all the other stars travel in a circle around him, over and over, night after night, while the chief star stands strong and watches over them all.”
Joe looked up at the North Star. Must be boring to just stand still all the time, he thought. Who’d want to do that?
Then, he gasped as a star suddenly streaked a bright diagonal path across the sky.
“What kind of star is that, Adam?” Joe asked, pointing toward the horizon as the twinkling light faded and disappeared.
Adam chuckled. “Well, I guess that’s what you might call a renegade star.”
“Oh, it’s just a star that has to go its own way, I suppose.”
Joe was confused. “How come it doesn’t bump into the other stars?”
Adam shrugged. “Maybe the other stars just know they have to get out of its way.”
Joe awakened abruptly and was briefly disoriented until he remembered where he was. Late afternoon had progressed into dusk, and the room was darkened. He turned his head, and was startled to see his father sitting in the chair, looking at him.
“Pa? Um, I’m sorry….I just…” Joe ventured, slightly embarrassed. His first instinct was to apologize for being caught in Adam’s room.
Pa held up his hand, warding off the apology. “It’s alright, son. When you didn’t come downstairs for supper, I thought I might find you in here.” He paused then, a faint smile curving his lips. “Sure brings back some memories.”
“Memories?” Joe asked, confused now.
Pa looked surprised at that. “You don’t remember, do you?”
Joe shook his head. “Remember what?”
“You used to come in here all the time after Adam left for college,” Pa said softly. “You would sneak in here and climb up into his bed and fall asleep.” Pa smiled then. “You would always tell me you were sorry because you knew you weren’t allowed in here, but I didn’t mind all that much. I think it was your own way of dealing with your brother being gone.”
Joe bit his lip thoughtfully. “I don’t really remember it, Pa. I just knew that I missed him a lot, though. I used to think that college was kinda like heaven, where Mama went.”
“Why did you think that?” Pa asked curiously.
Joe shrugged. “It seems a little silly now, I guess. It was just that one day Adam was here, and then he was gone, and I didn’t really understand where he went. All I knew was that I wanted him back home. It was just like when Mama left,” he said quietly. “Pa…I didn’t think he was ever coming back.”
Joe turned his face away then, feeling a bit sheepish admitting something so childish to Pa and he suddenly wished he hadn’t said anything.
When Pa didn’t say anything, Joe looked over at him curiously. He was surprised to see how sad Pa looked.
“I guess that explains some things,” Pa said quietly, as if to himself.
“What do you mean?” Joe asked.
Pa was shaking his head sadly. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t know. But I guess I should have realized. It’s just that we were all still reeling over your mother’s death when Adam left for college and…well, I guess I just didn’t think…”
“Pa, it was a long time ago. I was just a little kid. Kid have dumb ideas sometimes, you know? But Adam came back and everything was okay again.”
Pa reached over and patted Joe on his shoulder. “Well, all the same, I’m sorry, son.” He pushed himself up from the chair and looked down at Joe. “Why don’t you come on down for supper now? Hop Sing’s been roasting that chicken all afternoon.”
“I’ll be down in a minute, Pa.”
Pa gestured toward the crutches. “Need some help?”
Joe grinned. “No, I’m getting pretty good at using the things now.”
Pa turned toward the door. “Well, don’t be long then. You know Hop Sing doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Joe chewed his lip, hesitating. “Pa?”
Pa stopped. “Yes, son?”
“How could you let him leave, Pa?” Joe said softly, almost in a whisper. “Why couldn’t you make him stay?”
“Joe, Adam’s a grown man, and he…”
“I know!” Joe interrupted. “I know he’s an adult and has a right to make his own decisions and live his own life, Pa. I know all that! But he would have stayed, Pa. He would have stayed if you asked him! I know it!” Joe could feel his voice rising and he fought to control the familiar resentment he could feel rising in his chest. He continued, his tone calmer. “I just wish you would have told him to stay.”
Pa was quiet for a moment, gazing down at him thoughtfully.
“Joseph,” Pa said softly. “I suggested that he leave.”
Joe blinked in surprise, at a loss for words. “You suggested it?”
Pa nodded. “Yes, son. I knew that Adam wasn’t happy. I suppose that I tried to deny it for a long time; hoping that he would change. But it didn’t happen, Joe. Adam is not the same as you, son. And I felt that it was wrong for him to try to turn himself into something that he wasn’t just to make me happy, just to make all of us happy.”
Joe sat up on the bed, unable to believe what he was hearing. “Pa, how come he never said anything to me? Why didn’t I ever know that he was feeling like that?”
Pa smiled then. “Probably because you two were so busy fighting with each other these past few months that he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
Joe conceded that. He and his brother had clashed heads even more than usual in those final weeks. Joe had even thought that it was one of the reasons Adam left to begin with.
“Pa, will he ever come back?” Joe said, unable to keep the tremulous note out of his voice.
“I don’t know, son. I don’t know,” Pa replied. “I hope he does.”
Pa headed toward the door and then stopped, turning to look back at him.
“But, Joseph, Adam is right where he needs to be right now. I realize it now. I hope that someday you can, too.”
The days grew shorter and the nights more generous, and the bitter cold air that arrived with the departure of the sun each evening seemed to bristle with the excitement of an early snow.
Dinner was long over, and occasional clinking sounds emanated from the kitchen as Hop Sing cleaned and tidied things for the night. The scent of his famous peach cobbler still lingered in the air,l mixing with sharp aroma of brewing coffee.
Pa had settled himself into his favorite chair after stoking the fire so its roaring flame lit the room. Steam rose up and lightly caressed his face as he sipped his coffee and turned his attention to the Territorial Enterprise.
Hoss was leaning over the coffee table and neatly arranging checkers on the checkerboard, having vowed aloud that he would catch Joe cheating this time and little brother sure as heck better watch himself tonight.
It was as close to normal as it would ever be again. As normal as it could be without Adam.
“I’ll be back in a minute, Hoss,” Joe said, standing up from the settee. “Don’t you start without me, now.”
Hoss looked up, curious. “You ain’t thinkin’ of backing out on me, are ya, Joe? I got the board all ready to go.”
Joe shook his head and grinned. “No, I’ll be back, brother. Just…..just give me a minute.”
Joe moved to the door and stepped out into the night. His still healing leg protested the movement, and he paused, catching his breath. The cast had been off for almost three weeks now, but he still suffered the occasional aches brought on by weakened muscles.
The late autumn air bit into his cheeks as he stepped carefully off the edge of the porch over to the hitching rail. He probably should have thrown on his jacket, but then, no one had ever accused Joe Cartwright of being sensible. He leaned back against the worn smooth wood, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
The sky was cloudless and brilliant with stars, and Joe found himself automatically seeking out the many familiar constellations that marked their distinct shapes across the heavens, and the reassuring and dependable presence of the North Star, standing his silent and eternal watch over his children.
Polaris. Joe leaned back against the hitching rail and thought back to those times when he and Adam used to look at the same sky, the same stars. Back when they shared the same future.
Joe pulled the neatly folded letter from his pocket and opened it. It was too dark to read, but that didn’t matter. He had nearly memorized its contents.
I received your letter, and I do thank you for apologizing. But there was no need for it, Joe. I already knew how you felt.
It’s difficult for me to put into words, younger brother, the reasons that I felt so strongly about leaving home in the first place. For years I so wanted to love the Ponderosa as you did; I was envious of the joy and contentment that this life seemed to bring you and I tried so hard, Joe. I tried. But over time it became apparent that I could never be like you. The freedom and peace that you experienced within the Ponderosa’s magnificent confines began to represent boundaries to me, and I was beginning to resent it. Pa knew. Pa always knew, but he never said anything about it. In those past few months, however, the resentment turned into a bitterness that was affecting my relationships with those I cared about, and it was only then that Pa spoke to me about it.
What surprised me most of all is that Pa understood. He was sad about it, of course. He had such big plans about all three of his sons taking their rightful place in the legacy of the Ponderosa, but he also knew that sometimes a child’s dream can be much different than that of their parent’s. It was the same for him when he left everything he ever knew to go west and build the Ponderosa. Pa understands about dreams.
I don’t know where this path will lead, Joe, and sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision, but it has been wonderful and exciting and scary all at the same time. I’m off to Europe next week, hitching a ride on a steamship owned by one of grandfather’s friends, and I don’t know what to expect, but I must tell you that I’ve never been happier, younger brother.
But with all my heart, I thank you for your blessing and understanding, Joe. The support of my beloved family back home is what gives me the courage to pursue this new and uncertain future for myself.
Joe carefully refolded the letter and returned it to his pocket. Adam had been gone for four months and thirteen days. He looked back up at the brilliant sky, and gasped as a shooting star arched its way across the heavens and disappeared over the distant horizon.
The renegade star.
“I miss you, brother,” he said aloud in the darkness. “But I understand, Adam. I understand.”
The silent sky offered no response. Joe stood gazing at it for a moment longer, and then stepped back inside to join his family.