Summary: In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and change. A WHN after Season 2.
Word Count: 6496
Chapter 1 — Summer Storms
An upstairs door slammed with enough force to rattle not only the dishes on the china shelf in the dining room, but the glass doors on the bookshelves in Ben Cartwright’s office as well. At first he thought it might have been an earthquake since the tremble seemed to roll through the house from one end to the other, but the sound of boots clomping on the hardwood floor upstairs and another door slam dissuaded him from that notion.
Heaving a sigh, Ben looked at the picture of his first wife and pleaded, “Can’t you do something?”
“You need somethin’, Pa?” Hoss said as he ambled toward the study munching an apple.
“I need for your brother to get well so the ranch can get back to normal.”
“Doc still has Adam on bed rest?”
“Yes, and you know how feeling less than a hundred percent puts him in a foul frame of mind.”
“I take it Little Joe’s reacting poorly to his mood.”
“You could say that.”
“Ah, Pa, all that stompin’ around is just him workin’ out his worries. You know he don’t much like it when one of us is sick.”
Ben nodded in agreement. That was the thing about his youngest son—he not only had a mercurial temper, his emotional barometer registered the slightest change in atmosphere. Although Adam had overcome the doctor’s initial grim prognosis, the severity of his illness and the long recovery had taken its toll on everyone. To his credit, Joe had been holding his tongue whenever he and Adam interacted, but his barometer was about as low as it could go. Like thunder on the horizon, the pounding of floorboards and rattling of glass signaled stormy seas ahead if he didn’t intercede soon.
“Would you mind if I did your evening chores after supper? I’d like to spend some time with Joe.”
“A night off? Sounds right fine to me.”
“Going into town?”
“I just might do that.”
It took a while, but the camaraderie created by caring for the stock together had worked as Ben hoped. By the time they headed into the house for pie and coffee, Joe willingly opened up about his frustrations. More important, he discussed them without rancor.
“I don’t know what more I can do to satisfy him, Pa. I did everything on his work list without question or complaint. I even took care of other stuff that needed doing and he just blew up like a misfired cannon when I told him.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“The bunkhouse. I varnished the door, fixed the broken shelves in the bookcase, took inventory and restocked the cupboard. All items on the list. While I was doing that, the new hired hand Harry came in and said there was a whole lot of whistling and rattling during last week’s windstorm. We doubled checked all the windowpanes and caulked the loose-fitting ones. Then I noticed that the stove was leaning kinda funny, so Harry help me move it and I saw the floorboards underneath had dry rot. I replaced them, reinstalled the stove, fired it up and checked that the flue was drafting properly.”
“Adam must have been pleased at your initiative.”
“Heck no. He had a fit. Said there were other things that needed attention that were more important.”
“What other things?”
“He sputtered some but couldn’t come up with anything. Pa, if that stove had tipped over when it was in use, it could have burned the bunkhouse down, maybe even set the house on fire!”
Ben’s pursed his lips. Joe was right of course. It could have been a disaster if it had happened. But what concern him more was the reaction of his clear-thinking, logical oldest son. “Can you think of any reason why he might have been upset?”
“I don’t know.” Joe rested his cheek on his fist. “I thought he’d be pleased—not that I fixed things, I mean that’s my job—but that I actually remembered to write them down on his blasted checklist. You know how he likes to keep track of every minute detail—how many nails, how much paint, what gauge wire. whether the wind was blowing from the north or the west, if my socks were blue or black.”
Ben chuckled. “I do indeed and it’s probably my fault he’s that way.”
“How so?” Joe loved to get his pa talking about the ranch’s early days.
“When Adam began overseeing work crews, sometimes things fell through the crack. We were growing fast and there were a lot of pieces to manage. After one particularly epic fail, I suggested we could make the best use of the men’s time and effort if we had a record of all the repairs made each season, including the minutia, so they were properly supplied—minus the socks, of course.”
“Epic fail, eh? I’d like to hear about it.”
“Another time, son. Suffice it to say I had grossly underestimated the time and money needed for a project and I shared that lesson with Adam.”
“Then maybe it’s because I sullied his perfectly penned list with my unreadable backhanded scrawl.”
“I think he’s had enough practice reading your ‘distinctive’ scribble to make out what you wrote. Besides, you know he’ll re-write that list at least half a dozen times between now and the end of the year.”
Now that’s funny, Joe thought.
Ben cut two more slices of pie and said, “Have you considered that perhaps he was embarrassed he hadn’t noticed those things himself?”
Joe’s eyebrows knitted together as he contemplated his father’s question. “He shouldn’t be. He’s been sick is all. I’ve had enough fevers to know how your brain feels like scrambled eggs afterwards.”
“Well, it’s rare for Adam to run a high fever, that’s why it was so frightening. I think we can assume he’s unaccustomed to that ‘scrambled’ feeling.”
During Adam’s illness, the family spent as much time with him as the doctor allowed. Hoss took the morning shift, Joe the afternoon, and Ben the evening. Knocking lightly in case his son was asleep, he opened the door gently.
“I’m awake, Pa.”
Ben crossed to the bed and put the back of his hand against his son’s brow. “Cool,” he reported. “Do you need anything? Water? Something to eat?”
“I’m good. Hoss brought me a piece of cheesecake from that new Greek bakery.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of chicken broth or soft-boiled eggs.”
“Influenza is not the stomach flu, Pa. I can eat real food. Hop Sing’s been giving me nothing but broth and eggs for a week now. No wonder I have no stamina.”
“All right. I’ll make sure ‘real’ food is on the menu for tomorrow.”
Ben pulled the desk chair over to the bed and sat down. “How are you feeling? Really. Not just what you’ve told the doctor.”
“And you’re also not Little Joe, so the truth.”
Adam cleared his throat. “Fatigued. Getting dressed is exhausting and as soon as I do, I’m ready for bed again.”
“Frustrated. I can’t concentrate on anything for more than five minutes.”
“You were extremely ill, son. We almost lost you. It’s going take some time to build up your strength both physical and mental.”
“I know. There’s just so much to be done this summer and here I am stuck in bed.”
“Bed rest doesn’t mean you can’t get up occasionally. I can have Hoss bring up your blue chair and put it next to the window. Fresh air and a different view would do you a world of good.”
Adam nodded slightly. “Anything’s better than staring at the ceiling. By the way, the plaster’s cracked. I’ll add it to the repair list.”
“Right below Joe’s additions?”
“You heard about that?”
“Only in passing,” Ben said, quick to dissuade the notion that Joe had been tattling. After all, his youngest was nearly nineteen, not nine. He wasn’t a child anymore, no matter what what his oldest thought. “He’s worried about you, son. We all were, of course, but Joe was . . . shaken to the core. Your illness brought back old memories and fears.
“Yes, when you first took ill,” Ben admitted and one nearly every night since.
Adam remembered too well the scream-filled nights that followed Marie’s death. “His mother?”
Ben nodded, uncertain just how much to reveal. “They start the same each time. He’s wandering in the desert, fevered, delirious, pulling a coffin-sized strong box on a travois.”
“What’s in the box?”
“It varies. He’s afraid but compelled to look. Sometimes it’s his mother. Other times you. Me. Hoss. Hop Sing. Even Cochise.”
“Everything he treasures.”
“Everything he’s afraid of losing, including your respect.”
“What do you mean?”
“This summer he’s pulled more than his own weight—and no cracks about how slight he is—around the ranch trying to live up to your expectations.”
Adam twisted the edge of the light summer quilt covering his legs before responding. “I was unfair. He saw something that needed to be done and took care of it. Guess I wasn’t prepared to see that level of maturity in my kid brother.” He looked into his father’s dark eyes and saw another truth there as well. “Perhaps I was also a bit chagrined that I hadn’t notice those things myself.”
Ben smiled. “Joe blames the fever for scrambling your brains.”
“Does he now?” Adam returned the grin. “Well, he would know how that feels more than anyone else in this family. What was it Marie used to say? ‘That child can get a fever looking at a stove.’” To deflect any reproach, he asked for water.
There was condensation on the outside of the pitcher Hop Sing had brought up after super. Given the lingering heat of the day, Ben figured he must have filled it with ice and left it to melt. When Adam had had enough to drink, his father fluffed his pillows and sat back in the chair with Dickens’ Bleak House in his hands.
“Shall we continue with Chapter 8–Covering a Multitude of Sins”?
Chapter 2 — A Multitude of Sins
Solid food and the opportunity to get up and read in his chair for short periods a few times a day began to work its magic. Soon Adam was able to dress unassisted and join the family downstairs for one meal where he would make adjustments to the crew work orders for the next day based on what had been accomplished so far. He made a point to tell both Hoss and Joe how pleased he was with the work being done and thanked them for their assistance during his recovery.
As he turned the pages on the calendar, however, the dwindling days of summer in which to complete both the seasonal work and make the ranch ready for winter, ratcheted up his anxiety and, despite his father’s warnings, he became more demanding and less effusive in his praise.
While listening to his brothers’ reports after supper one night at the end of July, he checked off each task and made notes, usually responding with a grunt of acknowledgment or a query asking how much longer, what else do you need, why is it taking so long, etc. Hoss was downright chatty with his answers providing more than enough detail for Adam.
Joe, on the other hand, after being told repeatedly to be succinct, had taken to giving one-word answers and waiting for the next question. He slouched, hands in his armpits and stared, never moving his head but instead fixing his gaze on one aspect of Adam’s person before moving to another, studying every nuance, every tic.
Perhaps, because Joe had been in motion since the day he was born, this stillness had the unnerving effect of making Adam feel like a fly under a microscope. Putting his pencil down, he said abruptly, “What?”
Joe shifted his gaze to Hoss whose clear blue eyes widened, then he looked Adam in the eye. “What were you doing up on Miller’s Ridge yesterday?”
Ben dropped his fork on his plate and sat back in his chair with both palms flat on the table on either side of his plate.
Caught out, Adam surveyed his family’s faces, coughed, and replied, “I was checking a stand of fir for possible milling.” Then he went on the offensive. “And what were you doing there?”
“Taking payroll to the Timber Camp.”
“Payroll is Hoss’s job.”
“Without telling me? WHY? I make assignments for a reason.”
It was Hoss who now slammed his fist on the table. “Dadburnit, Adam, my bunions were hurtin’ somethin’ fierce and you knew that! I couldn’t ride all the way to town, up to camp and back to the house. So I traded with Joe. He handled the payroll and I cleared that beaver dam so as I could soak my feet in cold water. Everything got done and you woulda never known if you had been in bed instead of up on Miller’s Ridge!”
“In the rain,” Joe added. “A real gully washer it was, too, Pa. Soaked me clear through to my . . . well, clear through.”
Ben was furious. “Barely more than month out of a deathbed and you’re out riding in the rain.” He sprang out of his chair and reached Adam in three steps simultaneously feeling his forehead and the back of his neck. “You’re hot. Joe, go for the doctor. Hoss, help me get Adam into bed.”
“I can manage on my own,” Adam protested, but weakly. Now that he was found out, he felt like an hours-old foal, his legs barely able to support his weary body.
Hoss entered the house after tending the stock just as his younger brother trotted down the steps. “Pneumonia?”
Not yet,” Joe said as he collapsed onto the settee. “Doc gave Adam hell for running all around God’s creation. Pa’s beside himself. Hop Sing’s fixin’ up a hot bath.”
“Dang, it’s a good thing you saw him up on that ridge. He woulda never admitted to bein’ sick again.”
“Evidently pneumonia can be a side effect of influenza, that’s why Pa overreacted.”
Hoss moved in front of the fireplace and sat on the hearth. “You sure you’re okay? You got drenched too ya know and you’ve been in the saddle most of the past 24 hours.”
Joe yawned. “I’m just tired.” When he saw the concerned look on Hoss’s face, he added, “Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix. Pa said we head ‘em up, move ‘em out at dawn.”
“Wait a doggone minute. The cattle drive is on? What about Adam?”
“Yep. A contract’s a contract. Adam’s stayin’ home.”
“What makes Pa think he’s gonna stay put?”
“Hop Sing’s gonna take charge. He’ll probably hide all Adam’s clothes.”
The image of older brother running around buck naked being chased by their cleaver-bearing cook was priceless and both Joe and Hoss cackled.
“Wait, if Hop Sing’s gonna be tendin’ to Adam, who’s gonna be Cookie?”
“Chuck wagon is already packed. Pa sent Harry over to the Lazy K to borrow their cook.”
“Hot diggity! Slim makes the best son-of-a-bitch stew.”
“You and your stomach! It’s a short drive. You’ll survive.” Joe’s jaw opened in another wide yawn. “Think I’ll get me a glass of milk before bed. You want anything?”
“Naw. I’m gonna go up and check on Adam.”
“He was lookin’ kinda pained over the attention of Papa Hen. Better see what you can do to get Pa off his back.”
Hoss snorted. “Right.”
“Better you than me, brother. G’nite,” Joe waved over his shoulder as he headed for the kitchen where he heated up some milk and dribbled honey into his mug. On the way to bed he paused at the table by the foot of the stairs to add a shot of brandy.
Maybe that would calm the tickle in his throat.
Assured that Adam had just overdone it and was not in danger of a relapse, Ben had reluctantly agreed to leave him at home under the watchful eye of Hop Sing. The size of the herd would be manageable with the three remaining Cartwrights, six cowboys, and Cookie, so they could begin on schedule. Even so, he was thankful the herd could be driven to Sacramento in 5-6 days, 7 at the outside.
As usual, Ben was trail boss, in charge of everything and rode out in front of the herd. Adam, as Segundo, would normally have ridden beside him, scouting ahead for places to graze the cattle, cross rivers, or looking out for trouble. Hoss now filled that role. As Wrangler, Joe had pre-selected the horses for the remuda. Each cowboy had three or four horses and it was his job to feed, saddle, and care for all of them.
The rest of the crew rode swing, flank or drag. Riding for the Ponderosa was a coveted job and drovers willingly returned year after year because of Ben’s reputation as a tough-but-fair boss who treated cow punchers better than other outfits. Positions were rotated. not assigned on the basis of seniority or favoritism, and rank did not have its privilege as even the Cartwright sons took turns riding drag. This impressed every crew member because riding at the back of the herd was the worst position on a cattle drive. It meant eating dust and rounding up strays who were too lazy to keep up with the herd.
It was no surprise to anyone, therefore, that Joe volunteered for drag on the third day. No one suspected that he did it to stay as far away from his father as possible and no one questioned his raspy voice and cough at evening campfire.
“You lookin’ a bit peaked, boy,” said the grizzled cook. He was shorter than Joe, wider than Hoss and, with one leg shorter than the other, walked like a duck.
“I’m fine,” Joe croaked. “Just the dust.”
“Uh-huh. And I’m a ballerina.” Slim waddled away and returned with a bowl and spoon. “Arroz con leche. It’ll go down easier than that stew.”
“Thanks,” Joe said, trading his mess plate and fork for the bowl.
“Come mornin’ I’m gonna take a look at that throat. No arguments.”
“Don’t say anything to the Boss, okay?”
Slim stood flat footed with his hands on his hips.
“My brother nearly died of the influenza a while back. I don’t want to worry him over nothing,” he said, but the effort it took to swallow belied his nonchalance.
“Morning. Don’t make me come lookin’ for you,” he grumbled, and returned to the chuck wagon to finish cleanup and start preparations for breakfast.
Joe put his bowl and spoon in the bucket of hot soapy water and then picked up his canteen and hurried down to the river to fill it. While there, he ducked his head in the fast-moving current mostly to wash the caked dirt off his scalp and neck. That the water also cooled his fevered skin was a bonus.
It was time to check in.
From across the campfire, Ben watched Joe stop and talk with each of the men, listening to a story or a trading quips as he made his way to where he and Hoss were sitting. His youngest worked a camp the way his mother had worked the salon at Eduard D’Arcy’s club in New Orleans.
Hoss saw what his father saw. “A born politician that one.”
“Let’s hope not!”
“He’s doin’ real well, though, ain’t he?”
When Little Joe first started going on cattle drives at age 14, Ben had hovered. He tried not to, but there was so much danger and his son was fearless. Someone had to watch over him. When one of the drovers started calling him “Sissy Joe” and “Daddy’s Little Darling,” Ben knew he had to do something. He fired the drover and told Joe could have the run of the camp—eat where he wanted, sleep where he wanted—on two conditions: one, that he obey every command from anyone, and two, that he checked in with Adam in the morning, Hoss in the afternoon and himself at night. It worked. Free from harassment, Joe was observant and inquisitive. The men enjoyed sharing their expertise and wisdom and schooling the boy in the ways of cattle. Joe’s sense of self-worth and pride grew over the next four years as he gained new skills. By letting go, there were more eyes on Joe than Ben could have ever hoped for. And now, no matter how exhausted after a day’s work, his son still checked in. Ben smiled.
“Yes, Hoss, he’s doing just fine.”
“Hiya,” Joe said in a raspy voice.
“Eat a lot of dust today, short shanks?”
Joe could only nod as a coughing spasm took him.
“Did you get enough to eat, son?”
“Sure did! Slim was a good hire, Pa.”
“Don’t let Hop Sing hear that,” Hoss said.
“Boys, I’m going to be leaving early in the morning for Sacramento to make arrangements at the bank for the payment of wages and bonuses. I probably won’t be back until the following day. Hoss is charge, understand?”
“Sure. Um, Pa? I know bonuses are never guaranteed, but if I were to be gettin’ one—“
“Could you see that Red gets mine?”
“Thought you was savin’ up for that new saddle,” said Hoss.
“Was. Found a better purpose.” Joe wondered if they thought he had only volunteered to ride drag to get the bonus. He had, but not for the reason they thought. “Red lost his wife to the influenza and he’s got little ones. A girl and twin boys.“
“He would be eligible for a larger bonus if he had worked the herd rather than the remuda,” said Ben.
“Waste of a good drover if you ask me,“ said Hoss.
“Is there more to tell, Joe?”
“Last couple months I’ve been working with Red teaching him about horses. Figured he could get a job that wasn’t so dangerous. You know. Since he’s—”
“—the only parent those children have,” finished Ben.
“The twins are five, Pa.” Joe’s voice broke and he swallowed hard.
Ben noticed and assumed it was the recall of losing his own mother at such a young age. “I’ll take care of it.”
Hoss and Ben watched Joe headed toward the remuda instead of where they knew his bedroll was.
“Checkin’ to see Red took care of things proper,” guessed Hoss.
“As supervisor, he is the one who is ultimately responsible.”
“Supervisor! Dang, he’s grown up mighty fast. Too bad Adam ain’t here to see it.”
“Mmm. Your older brother does have trouble seeing him as—“
“—a politician in the making?”
“A potential leader of men.”
Chapter 3 — Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
The role of Cookie meant Slim was not only chief cook and bottle washer, but also father confessor, counselor, and medic. A hand to the forehead and one look at the throat earned Joe confinement to the chuck wagon for the duration of the drive.
“But I feel better,” Joe whispered.
“No, you don’t. Eat your egg custard and go back to sleep.”
Hoss rode up beside the wagon and asked about the verdict.
“Tonsillitis. He’ll need surgery.”
“Dang! Does he need to see a doc now? I can take him in to Sacramento as soon as pa gets back.”
“No need. He’s hurtin’ some but I suspect he’d rather have Doc Martin do the surgery rather than some stranger.”
“That’s for dang sure. Pa, too.”
Later that afternoon, Hoss spotted his father coming down the hill and rode to out meet him to deliver the news about Joe.
“That scamp! Why didn’t he say something?”
“Didn’t want to worry ya none. I told Cookie to make evening camp at the river bend outside Parker. It’ll make for a long day today but shorten the time tomorrow.”
“Good. I’ll ride with Cookie.”
“Figured you might.”
“Right now, I’m going to give that boy a piece of my mind.”
As Ben rode off toward the chuck wagon, Hoss smiled. From Leader of Men to Pa’s Little Boy.
Steak, fried potatoes, beans, and apple cobbler awaited the drovers when they arrived at camp that evening. After they’d eaten, Ben spoke to the crew.
“I want to thank you all for efforts in getting the cattle here in record time and also working shorthanded after Joe took ill. Red will be taking care of the remuda from here to home. Hoss will handle the sale tomorrow and distribute your pay and bonuses afterwards. I’ve arranged for room and board for everyone for two days at Cattlemen’s Lodge.”
“Does that include a bath for Jake? We got here early cause them beeves were running from him!”
“For Jake and you, Clint,” Ben said. “In fact, I hear the Sheriff in Sacramento has issued a warrant for any cowboy going into town without bathing first!”
“Ah shucks, Boss, I dun took a bath last year.”
“You mean last decade, don’t you?” Ribald laughter echoed through the camp.
“We’ll see you back at the Ponderosa in two weeks. After all, we have cattle to move to winter pasture.”
Groans filled the air.
It was a common enough surgery which Paul had performed hundreds of times. What he didn’t tell the family until afterwards was that adults sometimes didn’t fare as well as children. That confused Adam. Maybe it was the scrambled egg brain he still suffered from occasionally, but as far as he was concerned, he and Hoss and Pa were the only adults in the house.
“Then I don’t see the problem,” Adam said.
“The problem is that Joe is not a child,” Ben said. “If you had been with us on the cattle drive you would have seen a different side of him. The men treated him as an equal. He undertook the retraining and supervision of an older, granted not by much but nevertheless, older man who accepted his leadership and authority without question. He has a gift for intuitively knowing what people need. He took Harry under his wing while you were sick, working with him side by side, showing him the ropes, helping him to fit in with the other hands.”
“I meant what is the problem with Joe? Why is it taking him longer to recover?”
Paul answered. “There was a lot of scar tissue from prior bouts with tonsillitis and the tonsils were hard to remove. He bled profusely. I had to spread his jaw pretty wide to access them and the ligaments are torn. They’ll mend, he just won’t be able to chew for some time.”
It was Ben’s turn not to understand. “Joe’s only had tonsillitis once when he was seven.”
“His tonsils were shredded indicating he’s had several bouts. I would guess within the last year or two. He never complained?”
Ben looked at his sons. Shrugs all around. “Hop Sing?”
“Mister Joe sometimes have sore throat. He say from dust or yelling. He drink hot soup, tea. Keep working. All better few days.”
“Makes sense, Ben. Tonsilitis lasts a week. I wouldn’t have been able to do much more for him than he did for himself. He’s tough.”
“He’s also in big trouble.”
“Aw, Pa,” Hoss said. “Not being able to chew for a couple of weeks has got to be punishment enough.”
Joe was in for a rough go for a while. He hated the ice bags on his cheeks. He could talk but only with his jaw clenched shut which forced a liquid diet. His fever spiked once and then vanished, but the recurring nightmare about a coffin-sized strongbox continued unabated. The only difference was that Joe saw himself in it. Eventually, even the dreams stopped and by the end of August, he could finally open his mouth again and eat real food and get back to work full time.
Paul Martin dropped his stethoscope into his medical bag and snapped it shut. “Ben, I think it would be more economical for you to put me on a yearly retainer than pay for each visit.”
“That’s not funny, Paul,” Ben croaked.
“Not intended to be. So far, that new hired hand—what’s his name?”
“Harry. Harry Crawford.”
“Harry is the only person on the Ponderosa who has not required my services this year. Nice young man, by the way, helping out wherever he was needed while you and your boys were laid up. Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long for you to get sick.”
“Wasn’t my plan.”
“No, I don’t suppose it was, but you’ve been run ragged taking care of first Adam, then going on that cattle drive, and then caring for Joe after his surgery. Frankly, I don’t know how you stayed healthy this long.”
“If Joe had admitted he was sick—“
“—That’s enough, Ben. For the last time, Joe had tonsillitis. You’ve got a common cold. Not the same thing. Sip your tea and rest your voice.”
“It doesn’t feel common.”
Ben glowered at his friend and sank his chin deeper into the collar of his robe.
Chapter 4 — Change of Plans
If anyone had told Adam a month ago he would be spending Pa’s birthday anywhere but home he would have thought them insane. Holidays—especially birthdays in Ben Cartwright’s world—were sacrosanct and the four Cartwrights spent them together to remember their mothers, reflect on the passage of another year, and share hopes for the year ahead. Instead, Hoss and Ben were together on the Ponderosa and Joe and Adam were in Monterrey, California, a city that was built three hundred years before Joe was born.
That wasn’t the plan. At least not his.
Hoss told him that their father was hankering for he and Joe to spend some “quality” time together. Like they weren’t going to see enough of each other this winter when they would all be snowbound together for weeks on end, maybe months? Endless days and nights of sameness. No visitors, no trips to Virginia City or Carson City, Piper’s Opera House, no newspapers, no mail. The same meals over and over again, looking across the table at the same faces.
After Joe recovered, Ben pulled Adam aside.
“You’ve had a tough year.”
“No worse than any other, Pa. The Ponderosa takes hard work. Always has, always will.”
“I’m not talking just about the ranch. You have experienced personal losses this year. It takes a toll son, I know.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“I won’t intrude on your grief. Don’t look at me like that. I know what grief looks like. You have buried yourself in multiple projects and lists to keep busy. And that tactic worked until you got sick at the end of May and had nothing else to fill your time except think. Now you are fully recovered and summer is over to be replaced by a new season of projects and lists.”
“What is it you want?”
“I would like you and Joe to find each other again. You and he are not so different, you know. There’s that look again. I understand the two of you experienced different situations growing up. You lived in a wagon; Joe had a permanent home. You were an only child until Hoss was born. Joe had two big brothers from the start. You’re the first born, he’s the youngest. But if you stop looking at the differences and look for the similarities, you’ll find you and he have more in common than you think.”
“Loss. You and he both lost mothers when you were five. You lost Ruth and Ross this year. He lost Amy and Julia last year. You both love Hoss.”
“And me. And the Ponderosa. Adam, please. These years go by so fast. Take some time to discover the man Joe’s becoming, not the kid you remember. Find neutral territory. Call it your birthday present to me. Please.”
And that’s how he and Joe wound up in Monterrey, a city neither had been to before. As hard as it was to admit, the change was good for them. They explored the city together and learned about its history. They fished, ate wonderful food, found entertainment they both liked. They made friends—with each other and with others. One of them was Manuel de Guerra who invited them to his ranchero.
Casa de la Guerra was a typical Spanish hacienda built around a center courtyard filled with palm trees, blooming hibiscus, and other flowering shrubs. A mariachi band played in the corner. A wide variety of food filled the plank tables. Beautiful women in colorful dresses strolled by with their chaperones in tow.
Adam helped himself to the punch which he discovered was heavily laced with tequila. Joe declined, opting for a beer instead. That was the thing about Joe. Life alone intoxicated him—a fast ride with the wind in his hair; a good joke that produced either a deep belly laugh or a high pitched giggle; and a woman—not necessarily a beautiful one in the traditional sense—any woman, young, old, or in between.
Case in point. The moment their host introduced him to an elderly señora, Joe brought her arthritic, liver-spotted, blue-veined hand to his lips all the while gazing into her eyes. Adam couldn’t hear what he said, but she smiled slyly and inclined her ancient head forward. Joe helped her rise and led her to the center of the courtyard as the crowd parted. He bowed from the waist and assumed a ballroom stance with open left palm and his right palm on her left shoulder blade. Adam was taken aback, but he supposed his brother could have seen a picture. Or a book on “How to Dance.” Brother Hoss was always bringing home “How To” books.
When the band began to play a waltz, Joe glided smoothly in 3/4 time without missing a beat.
Adam heard a few gasps and murmurs buzzing around him and surveyed the room quickly, ready to put an end to his brother’s social faux pas, but all he saw were smiles and nods of approval. He caught their host’s eye and raised an eyebrow, each man threading his way through the crowd toward the other.
Señor de Guerra met him halfway. “I sense disapproval. Is everything all right?”
“More like bewilderment, Manuel. I was concerned my brother had overstepped as there seemed to be a few people upset with his actions. We are most grateful for your hospitality and intend no disrespect. “
“On the contrary, Adam. What you hear is not only approval, but gratitude. Señora Perez, the Doña your brother is dancing with, is much beloved in this community. She has been in mourning for far too long and there has been nothing any of us could do to bring her out of her depression.“
“There was an accident in the mines and her husband and only grandson were both killed. They were a close family. She hasn’t spoken publicly in over a year, much less danced. Her husband loved the waltz. I can’t imagine she would tell a stranger that. Your brother must have intuited it.”
“Perhaps. Women love him and he loves them.” Manny looked slightly alarmed at this revelation. “Not in that way. He has a genuine appreciation of the fairer sex, and he treats them with respect. All women. No matter their station in life. Our father instilled that in all his sons.”
“A wise man.”
“Yes, he is.”
“He is not with you on this trip?”
“No. My other brother, Hoss, got his foot stomped on by a horse. Pa didn’t feel comfortable leaving him.”
“A parent never stops worrying about their children.”
“No, I suppose not,” Adam said.
The music ended and Joe escorted Señora Perez off the dance floor. After she placed her hands on his shoulders and whispered in his ear, he took both her hands in his and kissed the back of each before easing her into her chair. They exchanged a few more words before he bowed again and left to find another partner.
“Well you certainly made an impression,” Adam said when he caught up with Joe later in the courtyard.
“What do you mean?”
“Señora Perez. Did someone tell you to do that?”
“Dance. The old woman?”
“Oh, no. She just looked sad.”
“Yeah. So I asked her to dance. What?”
“Nothing. You amaze me sometimes, that’s all.”
“Only sometimes? Gee, I must be getting rusty.”
Adam wandered through the throng of guests overhearing snatches of conversation in several tongues. His French was rusty, but his Spanish was good. It appeared party talk was universal, regardless of the language—business, gossip, politics, match-making, fashion.
When he came upon Joe in a passionate discussion with two gentlemen about the finer points of breeding horses, he listened. The points Joe made were valid and he could see the men were interested in hearing more from him. Throughout the afternoon and evening he had had several opportunities to observe his brother’s interactions with people from all walks of life and hear their discourse. He came to the conclusion that his father, again, had been right. Unacknowledged grief had altered his perception of the world and clouded his ability to accept change.
He was on his way back from the punch bowl when he heard an exchange between two young women that brought him to a dead stop.
“He is good-looking, but dresses as such a boy!”
“Did you see him arrive? That little blue jacket and small brown hat. Who could take anyone like that seriously?”
Adam tossed and turned all night. In the morning he asked Joe if he were ready to go home.
“If you were homesick, why didn’t you say something?”
“I’m not homesick. In fact, I love it here. I met this really nice girl named Emily and she’s invited me—us—back for a visit. She’s a good horsewoman.”
“Then why do you want to go home?”
“Have you forgotten Pa’s birthday is Thursday? If we hurry, we’ll only be a little late.”
Adam laughed. “Fair enough, but first we have to make one stop.”
When Ben met the stage in Virginia City on Saturday, he almost overlooked the first man to step down. A man in a tan Stetson wearing a green jacket.
And thus it was evermore.
Written for the 2020 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The game was Five Card Draw. The words or phrases I was dealt were:
New Hired Hand