Deception (by Cheaux)

Summary: In 1873, the deaths of Hoss and Alice so close together left Ben and Joe physically and emotionally, bankrupt. Father and son masked their grief, each hiding serious health issues from the other. By a miracle, both men survived and in the aftermath, Dr. Paul Martin prescribed the whole truth and nothing but the truth as a remedy. In 1875, their pact is still intact…or is it? A sequel to “My Father’s Heartbeat.” It is helpful but not necessary to have read the first story.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: T
Word Count:  18,487


DECEPTION

Chapter 1 — Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

From the kitchen, Ben Cartwright heard the front door close but no subsequent tapping of boots on the hardwood floor. Worried, he walked into the great room to find Joe with his eyes closed leaning against the credenza, perspiration dripping from his matted hair, hat still clutched in his hands.

Ben pressed a closed fist against his chest and reached with his other hand for the arm of the settee to steady himself.

“Joe?”

A soft grunt was the only reply.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fi—,” Joe started to say, then exhaled and said simply. “I’ve got a headache. Too much sun. Thought I’d get out of the heat for a bit.”

“It is not much cooler in here,” Ben said, pushing himself up straight.

Joe opened his eyes and offered a small smile. “I was hoping it was my imagination.”

“Hop Sing is making lemonade. Why don’t we sit outside in the shade?”

Joe nodded. “Let me change out of these sweaty clothes and I’ll join you.” He dragged his feet across the room and labored up the stairs one riser at a time instead of making his normal two-step ascent.

Dismayed at Joe’s demeanor, Ben absentmindedly rubbed his sternum which still bore the bruise caused by his son’s fist. Whatever Joe had done to bring him back from the dead, he didn’t remember. According to the doctor, Ben’s heart had stopped beating and he was no longer breathing. If not for Joe’s rage at the thought of his father giving up, he would not be here now.

Ben did recall Paul had lit into both of them for hiding their conditions—him his chest pains and Joe, his weight loss and exhaustion. Deception and subterfuge had to end if either expected to live. No more hiding their anguish at the loss of son and brother, wife and daughter-in-law, child and grandchild. No masking their physical pain and deteriorating health behind the infamous Cartwright response to everything . . . “I’m fine.” Paul would not tolerate it and threatened, despite more than 30 years of friendship, to never see or treat either of them again if they didn’t stop lying to each other and start being open and forthcoming.

It had been difficult for both of them to follow the doctor’s edict of total honesty, but it was beginning to pay off as today proved. Joe would never before have confessed to suffering a headache. No. Previously he would have said he came up to the house for something to eat or drink or a tool of some kind and then gone back to work without admitting he was less than one hundred percent fit.

Ben picked up the newspaper from his red chair and called to Hop Sing. “Joe and I will be on the porch. Please bring the lemonade when it’s ready.”

Outside he sat down and began pleating two sections of the newspaper into fans using an accordion fold. As he methodically creased each row he wondered how he  became so accustomed to the recovery regimen that had kept him on a short leash following his illness. At the time, restricting his activities to bookkeeping, brief forays around the ranch and occasional trips into town for short visits with friends had been essential, but it was no longer necessary.  With Jamie now away at school, it occurred to him that Joe always found an excuse to accompany him wherever he went or send Candy or a ranch hand along on one pretense or another. No wonder he felt like an ancient, useless old man. What a fool I’ve been!

*****

Joe poured water into the basin and threw a towel in to soak before stripping off his shirt. It wasn’t only the heat that had done him in, it was the task ahead that weighed heavily. God, what am I going to say?

Squeezing out the excess moisture, he held the wet cloth against his eyes and sat on the edge of the bed making a practiced effort to even out his breathing. After a time, the pounding in his head lessened. He washed his face and neck and wiped under his arms before putting on a clean shirt leaving it loose and unbuttoned.

*****

“Ah, there you are,” Ben said when Joe took a seat at the table on the porch. “I was beginning to think you’d fallen asleep.”

His cheeks bulging, Joe could only mumble. “Npp. Hab to suberbise Hob Sink.” A torrent of Chinese emanated from the open kitchen window when the cook realized the macaroons he intended to serve for dessert that evening were missing.

“Uh-oh. Looks like you got caught,” Ben said.

Joe swiped a hand across his mouth to cover a cheeky grin, then brushed the crumbs off his chest and pants. Using the toe of his boot, he hooked the rung of an empty chair and pulled it closer to serve as a footrest.

“You know what we need here?” he said, stretching out.

“What?”

“A hammock.”

“Been many a year since I slept in one. Nice idea.”

“When was the last time?”

“The last time you had an idea?” Ben teased as Hop Sing set a pitcher and a plate of cookies on the table. When Joe reached for another macaroon, the cook slapped his hand.

“These for Mr. Ben. You not have more, spoil suppa!” Hop Sing scolded but when he reached the kitchen door and looked over his shoulder to see both father and son munching away despite his admonition, he decided supper could wait.

“The last time I slept in one must have been when I took the clipper ship to New Orleans and met your mother. Nowadays passenger ships have cabins. But there is nothing like being cocooned and rocked to sleep.”

“We should get one then.”

“Mmmm,” Ben said noncommittally before popping another of the moist morsels into his mouth.

“Pa . . . I want to talk to you about something.”

The choice of verb did not go unnoticed by Ben. Want, not need. His jaw tightened but he tried to keep his voice even. “Of course, son.”

“Regarding Doc’s ‘truth serum,’” Joe rolled his eyes, “there has been something on my mind.”

The corner of Ben’s mouth twitched at hearing those words. He watched Joe study the scar on the pad of his thumb as if he’d never seen it before. That action melted the years away and brought another twitch to Ben’s lips. How reminiscent of the child you once were. He ached to reach out and tussle the tow-headed boy of his memory, but when a breeze ruffled his son’s salt and pepper hair, the image dissolved and he saw only the careworn face of a man who had become as transparent as . . . a boulder. Ben huffed inwardly at the thought. Paul is right; we have been hiding from each other. “Is this personal or business?”

“A little of both.”

“I’m happy to serve as a sounding board or play devil’s advocate—whatever you need. You remember Adam and I would frequently have discussions where we took the opposite point of view.”

“Those discussions always scared me.”

Although surprised, Ben kept his tone light. “Scared? You?”

“Hoss’s snoring would wake me up, but then I’d hear voices so I’d sneak out to the landing where I’d lie on my stomach and look between the spindles. In the beginning, I didn’t understand much, but it sounded important so I’d listen. When you got to arguing, though, I got scared you would go away like Mama, and when Adam left for college, I was certain it was because of one of those arguments.”

“I often relied on Adam to test my reasoning when working out a thorny problem—to see if there were any fallacies in my logic.”

“I figured it out eventually, but it sure made for some sleepless nights when I was a kid.”

“I’m sorry, son. I had no idea our discussions were so troubling to you then. Of course, you shouldn’t—”

“—have been eavesdropping. I got it.”

Ben smiled. “I’d like it if you would feel free to challenge me and my thinking at any time.”

“And you’ll do the same for me?  Without lecturing?”

“Yes, son, without lecturing.”

Joe took a swig of lemonade and let out a belch. He had the grace to look sheepish.

Ben raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’ve been thinking about our enterprises:  cattle, timber, mining, horses.”

“What about them?”

A hint of fear flickered before Joe blinked and lowered his eyes. “I think it is too much for us . . . without Hoss.”

Ignoring the fact he had been thinking the same thing, Ben replied sharply. “I suppose I should thank you for using the plural.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed as he lifted the glass once more to his lips. Sipping slowly, he stared over the rim at his father trying to decide whether his Pa had spoken in earnest or had merely attempted to deflect the topic.

“You thinkin’ I was gonna put you out to pasture?” he spoke into the glass.

Ben met Joe’s gaze head on, neither man wavering. Honesty. “The thought had crossed my mind,” Ben said at last.

“Well, you can put that thought away right now,” Joe said, punctuating the statement by banging his glass on the table so hard that lemonade slopped over the edge and onto the cookie plate soaking the remaining macaroons. “Gosh darn-it!” he said, jumping up.

“Take it easy, son.”

Joe held the remaining macaroons in place with his fingertips and tipped the plate to drain the liquid into the dirt at the edge of the porch. When he sat down again, he rested his elbows on the table and rubbed his temples prompting Ben to ask if the headache had returned. No response signaled it had.

Ben rose and tiptoed to the side door of the kitchen. When he returned, he set a cup of ginger tea on the table, placed a dampened towel on Joe’s neck, and began rhythmically rubbing his back. I guess there are some things an ancient old man is good for after all.

*****

After their late supper, Joe lingered at the table—something he wasn’t in the habit of doing unless there was company. Hoping they could finish the conversation begun on the porch, Ben requested Hop Sing serve coffee right then rather than later in the great room. Ben sipped while his son did nothing more than stare at the liquid in the cup and run his right ring finger around the rim in slow motion.

“Spit it out,” Ben said.

Joe raised his head and stared at his father. “What?”

“You said you had something on your mind. Talk.”

“Right. Okay.” Joe took a deep breath. “Candy’s become a part of this family.”

“I agree.”

“I’d like to give him a piece of the Ponderosa to call his own. It wouldn’t change our arrangement—he would still be free to come and go as he pleased, but I’d like him to know he has something to come back to regardless of what happens.”

What happens?  Ben’s heart skipped a beat. He swallowed hard, “Is there something you need to tell me?”

Joe ignored the implicit question, stating only, “It is something I’ve been thinking about. The idea came to me the last time he went a-wanderin’, you know?  Thought knowing he owned something more than his saddle bags might make a difference someday.”

“I suppose you have a specific piece in mind.”

“I didn’t get that far, Pa. I wanted to hear your thoughts first.”

Despite his accusatory tone, Ben didn’t have to think long. He—the whole family—owed Candy more than they could ever repay. “I think it is a fine idea. When you decide, have the area surveyed and ask Hiram to draw up papers. I’ll sign them.”

“Just like that?”

“Is there something wrong with my agreeing with you?”

“I thought . . . I expected you’d put up a fight.”

“Why?”

“You spent more than half your life building the Ponderosa. I thought you might want to discuss it or at least have an opinion about which parcel to give away.”

Joe’s sharp reply startled Ben and when his son started to rise, he said, “Sit down.”

“Why?”

“Please.”

Joe dropped into the chair and jutted out his chin. “All right, I’m sitting.”

“First of all, your request is not without precedent. You remember Big Swede?”

Joe had to think for a moment. “Hoss’s friend?”

“Yes. Hoss wanted him buried on the Ponderosa instead of boot hill because he had no family, no home.”

“I’m not talking about a burial plot!”

“How much land do you want, Joe?”

“I don’t know,” he shouted. “How much did you start with?”

“Don’t raise your voice to me, young man.” I may have one foot in the grave, but I still deserve your respect!

Joe jumped up from the table knocking over his chair and stomped out of the house, slamming the door behind him. Stunned, Ben replayed the scene in his mind until Hop Sing trotted in from the kitchen.

As the cook picked up the chair he said, “Little Joe not himself.”

“No, he’s not.”

“I open windows, draw bath. Good for him to cool down before sleep.”

“Thank you.”

Ben finished his coffee before strolling outside. The sun had dropped behind the mountains and although it was still hot the scent of pine was soothing. He looked in the barn for Joe but saw the horses were gone and figured his son had turned them loose in the pasture to cool down.

Joe leaned against the fence with his arms draped over the top rail. He felt as dejected as he looked. “What a hot mess,” he grumbled to no one in particular. This wasn’t what I wanted—not any of it.

“Breeze is up a bit. Hop Sing opened the upstairs to let in the night air,” Ben said. “And there is bathwater for you when you’re ready.” A slight nod was the only acknowledgement he received.

Ben adopted his son’s posture, putting one foot on the lower rail and his arms on the top. “That young palomino is coming along nicely. What’s his name?”

“Princess.”

“I thought Buttercup’s foal was a colt.”

“It is. A very finicky, prissy, colt who doesn’t like mud and will only eat carrots if you peel them.”

“I see. Well, Princess it is.”

“I’m sorry I raised my voice, Pa.”

“And I’m sorry I upset you by not understanding what you were after. Define ‘decent-sized’ spread.”

“A thousand . . . two thousand acres—enough land to raise cattle, horses, crops—whatever he wants.”

“That would be the crux of it then—what he intends to do with it. If he wants to run 100 head of cattle, he will need five to seven thousand acres, depending on how much pastureland there is. Of course, he could always mix his cattle in with ours. Unless you think he might want to raise horses?  Or alfalfa?”

“I don’t know what he wants to do or if he’d even want to own a ranch. I’m… I’m afr—“ Joe’s voice broke and he turned away from his father.

“You’re afraid the next time he leaves, he won’t come back.”

When Joe nodded, Ben put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“It is silly of me, Pa. You’ve dealt with so much more sorrow in your life than I have, but if we’re telling the truth . . . I gotta tell ya, I don’t have it in me to absorb another loss.”

“I believe God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

Joe huffed. “I don’t have your faith anymore, Pa. Maybe I never did.”

“I have enough faith for the both of us, son.”  Ben weighed his next words before speaking. “You know Candy better than anyone. You also know every square inch of the Ponderosa, undoubtedly better than I do these days. I trust you to select the section that would be right for him but I am more than happy to go along to scout locations or offer suggestions, if you want.”

Joe turned and leaned his back against the fence with his arms folded across his chest. “Oh, sure. Any excuse to get out of doing the books.” And then he laughed.

Although bewildered by Joe’s mood swing, Ben felt relieved. “We can go next week.”

“Can’t. I’m going to San Francisco next week.”

Ben was taken aback. “Pleasure or business?”

“Business. Remember, I told you this afternoon I thought we had too much to handle.”

“And what do you hope to accomplish in Frisco?”

“I made appointments with our attorneys and investment advisors to get a better understanding of our holdings. That was always yours and Adam’s forte, not mine, and I need to understand how everything fits together.”

Years of experience told Ben there was more to this trip than Joe let on and yet his son’s reasoning was sound.

“Of course you do,” he said. Before something happens to me.

Chapter 2 — San Francisco, California

Henri DuBois, a tailor of extraordinary skill, removed snippets of fabric and thread from his bench, and put away his scissors and chalk. Satisfied with the restoration of his pristine work area, he sat down to enjoy a cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling tea, his reward for completing a bespoke. Custom orders were his specialty.

One of the things Henri loved best about San Francisco was the variety of teas, herbs, and spices available in the city. He had fallen in love with aromatic blends when he sailed aboard an India Clipper to seek his fame and fortune in America. Talent notwithstanding, the sixth son in a family of tailors going back four generations had no hope of inheriting the haberdashery owned by his father. Henri twisted the end of his thin, blonde moustache with his thumb and forefinger as he absentmindedly sketched a design for his new collection.

Raised voices from the front of the store seeped into his consciousness. Stepping through the curtains onto the sales floor, Henri at once spotted the source of the commotion. A . . . Qu’est-ce que c’est?   How do you say?  . . . cow-boy, dusty and dirty from a long journey argued with a salesclerk who was trying to direct him to the mercantile across the street where counters stacked with Levis and other work clothes would fit his needs more than the haberdashery could. Tsk. Aside from the obvious customer service issues, one glance told the tailor this man’s physique was not suited for ready-to-wear. Further, however unclean they might be, the tailor could spot well-made garments of superior material and rushed to intercede.

“Excusez-moi, Monsieur!  May I be of assistance?”

Joe Cartwright beamed. “You’re French!”

“Oui, Monsieur!  Parlez-vous français?”

“Non. My mother was from New Orleans. Hearing the language reminds me of her.”

“I am from Paris. Henri Dubois at your service. I am a tailor and can make anything you desire.”

“My trip to San Francisco was unexpected and I didn’t pack clothes appropriate for the city. Do you have anything in my size?”

“The occasion?  Day or evening?”

“Day into evening?” Is that even possible?  Life was a lot simpler on the ranch where he wore the same thing every day. “And I need it today. This afternoon to be exact.”

“Mmm.” Henri held his index finger to his lips and walked around Joe, looking him up and down. A shirt with the proper neck measurement would be too tight across the muscular chest and arms; pants fitting the slim waist would be too short in length and not ample enough in the crotch to accommodate the gentleman’s assets. This man definitely needed a bespoke, but there was not enough time, even for a tailor of his skills. Still a client is a client.

“Monsieur, may I suggest a four-button coulter shirt and a Callahan frock coat to hide any flaws until your pants can be properly fitted.”

Discomfited, Joe drew out a long, “O—kay,” and made his way to a fitting room to undress.

With a clap of his hands, Henri directed the clerk here and there to assemble the necessary garments including underwear and accessories and then he entered the dressing room with tape measure, pad and pencil in hand.

*****

Joe poked the prong of the buckle into the last hole of the new belt, pushed the end through the loop, and then accepted the string tie held out to him. After tying the bow, he placed his arms into the waiting coat. The sleeves on the shirt were a bit long, but the cotton material was soft and the color was complementary to the chestnut brown frock coat. It was a little dandyish to his way of thinking but appeared to be similar to what men were wearing in San Francisco.

Stepping back, he checked the crease of his trousers and twisted his torso to view his profile in the shop’s cheval mirror. Next, he pulled his elbows, first one then the other, across his chest to gauge the coat’s fit. Last, he rolled his shoulders before letting his arms hang loose at his side. Not satisfied, he tugged the cuffs of his shirtsleeves down slightly and then stood still. His hazel green eyes surveyed the reflected image and a small frown appeared. I need a haircut and a different hat.

Misunderstanding the frown, Henri offered assurances he could make adjustments to the garments.

Joe looked at his reflection and thought again it wasn’t him. But isn’t that the point?  “These will do for now. I’ll wear them.”

“But sir,” the tailor begged to argue and was silenced by a piercing look. “Of course, sir. Shall I put this on account?”

“No. I’ll pay cash,” Joe said, retrieving his wallet from his green jacket hanging on the dressing screen. “Please have my other clothes delivered to the Grand Hotel with a note asking them to be laundered.”  Joe wrote ‘John Carter’ and a room number on the back of the sales slip and left it on the counter with payment and a generous tip.

“Certainly, sir,” Henri called out, but the shop’s door had closed.

*****

Aaron Perdue, M.D., Ph.D., MDCM, stepped onto the cable car at Clay Street marveling anew at the system of wire ropes, grips and levers that enabled the cars to traverse the steep incline up Nob Hill. The cable car system was a masterpiece of speed and efficiency compared to the horse-drawn cars of old. Even though the cable terminus was several blocks away from his home, the brisk walk enabled him to clear his head and focus before arriving at his office. He inhaled deeply allowing the ocean air’s restorative powers to revive him after his long night and morning at the hospital.

When Dr. Perdue reached his destination, he paused in front of the Victorian structure to examine the freshly painted exterior. Upon entering, his assistant Jarold took his coat and announced a prospective patient in the parlor. The doctor raised an eyebrow in response and looked down on the man, a habit that had as much to do with his considerable height as it did with his superior manner.

Unnerved by the arched brow, the assistant gulped and explained. “I’m sorry, Doctor. The gentleman said James Flood referred him. Since your calendar was clear, I took the liberty—”

The doctor extended his hand palm up and waited for the intake file to be placed thereon. “Don’t fret, Jarold, it is not becoming. I will speak with Mr. Flood about his proclivity for referring hopeless cases. Give me five minutes and then you may show the gentleman into my office.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and Jarold, tell the painter the pair of corbels at the southwest corner are not of the same hue as the others. I expect the defect to be remedied today.”

*****

Perdue closed the file and picked up a medical journal. A few minutes later, the door opened and a man wearing a chestnut brown coat and trousers crossed the threshold. The doctor took in his appearance but did not rise nor did he offer the gentleman a chair.

“I am a busy man, Mr. Carter. I do not have time to waste on fools who come here under false pretenses.”

The man’s left eye narrowed imperceptibly, but he kept his voice even. “What do you mean?”

“You appear to be middle aged, although I suspect younger than your gray hair suggests. Despite the quality of your coat—which, by the way, is last season—your clothing is untailored and ill-suited to your frame. You are left-handed and accustomed to wearing a weapon of some sort. The city is not your home. You prefer the outdoors and are, no doubt, more comfortable in a saloon than a salon. In short, Mr. ‘Carter’ . . . you are not who you claim to be. I cannot abide deception or insolence.”

To Perdue’s surprise, the man before him did not wince at this brusque reproof, nor did he shrink from the withering gaze that routinely sent medical students, presidents, and kings alike running for cover. No matter. He would not tolerate such impertinence and this man was no longer of concern to him. “Close the door on your way out.” Perdue dismissed him with a wave of his hand and resumed reading the medical journal.

Joe stood still for a moment, the acerbic words still ringing in his ears, then turned and closed the door.

It was moments before the doctor looked up and saw the gentleman had not only remained in the room, but now stood immobile in front of his massive desk. Testosterone radiated from him. When the man placed his fingertips on the desk blotter and leaned forward until his face was but inches away, the doctor pushed his chair back. Before he could protest, however, he heard what sounded like a feral growl.

“My name is Joe Cartwright. I’m 33, a rancher, and I break horses for a living. At one time or another, I’ve broken nearly every major bone in my body and a host of smaller ones. I’ve been shot, stabbed, drugged, and beaten . . . more than once.”

“Bravo for you, dear boy. The point?”

“The point, dear doctor, is I am not a simpering fool who weeps over a hangnail. I know what pain is.”

Resuming his customary aura of superiority, the doctor waved a hand abstractly, “And how should that concern me?”

Joe straightened his back but otherwise did not budge.

In a contest of wills, Dr. Perdue was a champion, but he had never before met a Cartwright, especially this Cartwright.

When the doctor blinked first, Joe resisted the urge to smile. Instead, he stepped back from the desk and walked the perimeter of the walnut-paneled room. Three walls featured floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with medical textbooks—several, he noted, written by Perdue—classic literature and novels by modern masters like Dickens, Poe, Balzac, Stevenson, Cervantes, and others. A stack of obviously well-read periodicals and newspapers in at least five different languages (damn!) rested in neat piles on a low table in front of an enormous maroon velvet chaise. An array of citations and awards in various languages and diplomas from three universities adorned the walls on either side of the door where he had entered. Odd. Most doctors display their credentials so their patients can see them on the way in, not on the way out.

“I was told you were the best diagnostician west of Chicago,” Joe said when he returned to face the doctor.

“I am the best in the country, if not the world.”

“Modest, too, I see.”

“There is no room for modesty when lives are at stake.”

“Some would say that is arrogance.”

“I’ve been accused of being arrogant, but when you are very good, there is no shame in admitting it.”

“Are you, doctor?” Joe tilted his head to one side. “Very good? I already know you are arrogant.”

Beneath the question, Dr. Perdue heard something else. Aware his size intimidated most men he rose from his chair and moved to the center of the room to stand in front of Joe. At 6’6” and 290 pounds, the doctor had few equals in stature. He was, therefore, surprised when this Joe Cartwright not only did not flinch but never lost eye contact with him.

“What are your symptoms?”

“I’m tired. All the time, regardless of how much I sleep. I’m losing weight no matter how much I eat. I have headaches no remedy—pharmaceutical, patent or herbal—will touch.”

“Pain?”

“Are you familiar with ranching, doctor?

“Enlighten me.”

“Aches and pains are a part of living. There is not a single job on our ranch I don’t tackle myself. Not every day, but often enough to show the hands I know what to do, understand what I ask of them, and comprehend any problems. I break horses meaning I get thrown often and land hard. I lift bales of hay, grass, alfalfa . . . 75 – 100 lbs. each. I . . . .”  Joe’s shoulders slumped. What is the point in arguing?  “Sometimes my gut gets out of whack.”

“Constipation?  Diarrhea?”

“Yes.”

“If I should decide to accept you as a patient, it would be with conditions.”

“Such as?”

“Two weeks here in my private clinic. A fee of $3,000 which includes a battery of tests, many of which are unpleasant. You will follow my rules without exception. One violation and you will be discharged. No refund.”

“One week. Prorated. And if I should decide to accept you as my doctor, it would also be with conditions.”

“Such as?”

“No one is to know my real name or that I am here. No one.”

“What about James Flood?”

Joe smiled.

Of course. Deception again. “Have you even met him?” Perdue asked.

“As a matter of fact, I have, which is why I must insist on anonymity. My family is a major stockholder in the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company and the Bank of Nevada. My father is recovering from a heart condition and I am in charge. If it became public knowledge I am less than fit, it could have devastating consequences for the ranch as well as our numerous investments.” Joe moved back a step and again took in the myriad diplomas and citations adorning the walls. “Flood raved about your skills when you diagnosed his daughter and prevented an unnecessary surgery.”

“I saved her life.”

“He said she will never have children, but she will live. Said it was a miracle.”

“Are you looking for miracles, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I believe we make our own miracles, Dr. Perdue. I also believe in God-given skill and talent. I’m asking for yours.”

“One week,” the doctor agreed and then opened the door. “Jarold, show Mr. Carter to the examination room and have him disrobe.”

*****

Unlike the Doctor’s windowless office, the examination room in the cupola on the third floor had windows on three sides which flooded the space with light. Painted an unusual shade of white, the walls reflected the changing colors of the waters of San Francisco Bay as sunlight moved across its surface. In addition to the natural light, there were a half dozen sconces around the perimeter of the room and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

Center stage was a leather-covered platform at least four feet high with a small pillow at one end and a folded sheet at the other. Joe disrobed and hung up his new outfit on a clothes tree next to a white coat that looked like a slicker but was made of cotton, not oil cloth.

With nothing else to do, Joe hopped up on the table. Dr. Perdue arrived as if on cue, carrying a portable writing desk with inkwell and pen which he placed on a side table before exchanging his grey morning jacket for the white coat. He then dipped the pen in the inkwell and began writing.

Dr. Perdue was thorough and dispassionate in obtaining a complete medical history. Joe tried to match his tone and manner but discovered being naked in front of a total stranger while answering probing questions concerning every malady, sneeze, hiccup and cough that had befallen him in more than three decades of living was unnerving. Chicken pox, yes. Scarlet Fever, no. Measles, yes. Typhoid, no. Cholera, no. Flu, yes. Bronchitis, yes. Consumption, no. Pneumonia, once or twice. Erectile dysfunction? No. Whooping cough, not that he remembered. Tonsillitis? Appendicitis? Piles? Ingrown toenails? Gum abscesses? Boils? No. No. No. A thousand times no!

When the doctor put his pen down and capped the inkwell, Joe started to feel relieved until Perdue pulled matches from his vest pocket and began to light every lamp in the room, including the chandelier which operated on an ingenious pulley system. When the wicks were turned up, Joe shaded his eyes from the glare, but not before he clearly saw the doctor remove the largest magnifying glass he had ever seen from his coat pocket. What the hell?

“Lay face down, please. You may use the pillow if you wish.”

With equanimity rarely displayed in Paul Martin’s presence, Joe endured the exam without complaint as the doctor moved the looking glass over every inch of Joe’s scalp and backside, including the soles of his feet and in between his toes, pausing often to write in his portfolio.

Aside from an occasional “hmm,” the pen scratching was the only sound in the room. Curious, Joe glanced sideways at the notepad and saw outlines of a male figure front and back with arrows pointing to notations in the margins. To keep from imagining the worst, he focused on the sounds of the city, the fog horns on the bay, the chimes from the clock tower on Nob Hill. He must have dozed off for when the doctor tapped his shoulder and motioned for him to roll over the sun was lower in the sky.

Joe’s bravado evaporated. It was one thing to expose his bum and quite another to lay face up naked as a jaybird. He grabbed the sheet from the foot of the table and covered his privates before the doctor began again. Even Paul Martin had never been this up close and personal—at least not since he was born. Joe bit his lip and gripped the side of the table until it was over.

“Come to my office when you are finished dressing.”

*****

Joe brightened. “A diagnosis so soon?”

“A few follow up questions. Please be seated.”

Deflated, Joe took a seat and waited impatiently while Dr. Perdue perused numerous pages of notes.

“Your scars have healed remarkably well.”

“Thanks to our cook’s salves.”

“And the credit for suturing?”

“To our local doctor, Paul Martin, and a few others whose names I don’t remember for injuries received on cattle drives, gun fights, accidents, bar brawls. Life in a frontier town, you know?” Joe’s quip was ignored.

“Gunshot wounds?”

“A few, most through and through, although a few needed doctoring.”

“The scars on your left shoulder?”

“Rifle slug and a wolf bite.”

Dr. Perdue raised his head. “How long ago?”

“Years ago. Ten more or less.”

“Right shoulder?”

“Arrow. I do remember that doctor… Issac Dawson.” Joe pressed his lips together and to keep them from trembling. “Honorable man.”

“Do any of these scars give you trouble?”

“How do you mean?”

“Restricted movement, aches, throbbing?”

“No. My brother Hoss had bunions that predicted the weather, but me… no.”

“Past tense.”

“Excuse me?”

“You used the past tense. Your brother is no longer living?”

“No.”

“Illness or accident?”

“Accident. Wrong place, right time.”

“You mentioned your father was recovering from a heart ailment. Your mother?”

“Died almost 30 years ago. Fall from a horse.”

“Any other siblings?”

“Younger brother at University. Older brother living abroad.” Agitated, Joe stood. “Are we done here? I have things to do.”

“Give Jarold your local address on your way out so we can contact you regarding your stay at the clinic. Good day—” The door slammed shut before Perdue could say, “—Mr. Carter.”

The doctor stared thoughtfully at the closed door for some time before picking up his pen, dipping it in the inkwell and continuing to write in his portfolio.

Chapter 3—San Francisco, California

“John Carter” returned to the Grand Hotel that evening and made arrangements to move into a room with a private bath, explaining business in the area would take him in and out of the City over the next month. Despite the ostentatious name, the hotel was in reality a small establishment, off the beaten track and one Joe felt would keep him away from gossips and prying eyes. Mr. Wilhelm Stuyvesant, general manager, was more than willing to accommodate a semi-permanent guest who insisted on the utmost privacy, especially one who paid cash up front and tipped well.

Getting away from the ranch for a week would be a problem, but one Joe could surmount. He wasn’t above using his younger brother as an excuse, but he would leave Candy out of any sleight of hand or downright deception. He reasoned Jamie would forgive him at least once, but he wasn’t so sure Candy would again. He had put his best friend through the wringer testing their relationship at every turn. Joe knew what a horse’s ass he’d been—willful, unreasonable, cantankerous, and at times petulant. Every form of abuse heaped at one time or another upon his older brothers over his lifetime had been thrust solely at Candy in the past two years . . . why?  Because Candy can take it and Jamie wouldn’t begin to know how.

Jamie’s own hold on being a Cartwright was too tenuous. Although the adoption was their father’s doing, he and Hoss had not objected because they understood Pa needed Jamie as much as the orphan needed a father. Since then, the boy had been wrapped in wadding. True, Pa held him accountable for his actions, but the young man hadn’t shared in building the ranch; never defended the Ponderosa against all comers; never been shot keeping what was theirs; never been beaten to a pulp because his last name was Cartwright. Joe laughed aloud, as surely as Adam would have, if he knew what his kid brother was planning.

First-born Adam had fought hard to balance the family’s over-indulgence of the youngest scion. Although he had taught his youngest brother how to fight, how to shoot, how to make love to a woman—the one thing he had never taught Joe was how to lie. No Cartwright lied. Ever.

Joe scheduled another business trip to San Francisco and, on the pretext of visiting Jamie, extended his visit. Ben saw no reason to object.

Chapter 4—Berkeley, California

The day after his business meetings concluded, Joe headed over to the University. After a half-hour pacing the floor in the parlor of Jamie’s boarding house, Joe stormed up to campus in a fit of pique. When the admissions office informed Joe there were over 400 students on campus, he regretted not paying more attention to the pre-college planning discussions and late-night conferences between his younger brother and their father.

The only recourse was to plant himself under a tree outside South Hall and wait for classes to let out. Twice the building disgorged students onto the lawn. He had thought spotting a curly redhead in the crowd would be easy, but a number of students wore hats and scattered like ants at a picnic. He brought his hands to his mouth and mimicked the call of the Western Meadowlark—but aside from receiving a few odd looks, no one responded in kind.

The doors opened a third time and another wave of students exited. This time he whistled louder and saw a head turn searching for the source of the familiar sound. He repeated the call and Jamie started running.

“Joe! I almost didn’t recognize you in city clothes.”

“How ya doin’, Jamie?”

“I’m—wait. Why are you here? Is it, Pa? Has something happened to him? Is he all right? Did Candy come with you? If you’re here, who’s—”

“—Whoa! Slow down. Pa’s fine. Doing real well in fact.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Candy sends his best. Oh, and here you go,” said Joe pulling a parcel wrapped in waxed paper from his jacket. “Hop Sing sent along some gingersnaps.”

“Ah, great. Hey . . . it’s been opened.”

Joe laughed. “Well, I confess, I had a couple while I was waiting for you.”

Jaime peeked under the flap and frowned. “A couple?”

“Okay. A few. How about a beer?”

“I ah . . . um.” Jamie stammered, looking over his shoulder toward the steps where a comely girl with honey brown hair waited.

“Your young lady can join us for coffee.”

“What? Oh. She’s not . . . aw, she’s a friend.”

The red tint rising from Jamie’s neck to brow betrayed the statement but Joe let it go, remembering all too well how mercilessly his older brothers teased him when he had started sparkin’. Grabbing his brother by the arm, Joe said, “Come on. Introduce us. She probably prefers mature men.”

“Whaa?” Jamie pulled up short. “You’re funnin’ me, right?”

Joe’s only response was to wiggle his eyebrows.

Flustered, Jamie fumbled the introductions, but Gwyneth didn’t notice. When she offered her hand to Joe, he kissed it and tucked it into the crook of his elbow.

“Now, where can a fella get a cup of coffee around here?”

She blushed before identifying a nearby café. “The menu is not extensive, but the coffee is strong and the service is fast. I have another class in an hour.”

*****

When Joe removed his hat upon entering the cafe, Jamie exclaimed, “You cut your hair!”

“It is still longer than Pa prefers and he most likely won’t even notice.”

“Why do it then?”

“I decided appearing like a riverboat gambler was not the best look when dealing with bankers and lawyers.” He shook his shoulders in a mock shiver. “I hope it grows back before the snow falls.”

Over coffee, Joe learned Gwyneth was majoring in agriculture, with the goal of modernizing methodologies at her family’s alfalfa farm in Grass Valley. One brother had died in the War Between the States and another was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. At first, her father had been perplexed when his daughter expressed interest in farming but when she showed an aptitude for it, he gladly sent her to college. When Joe commented on the number of women he had seen, Gwyneth explained more than half the students at Berkeley were female.

“My older brother Adam tried to get me to continue my education,” Joe said. “If he had told me how many women there were, I might have considered it!”

“You could still attend,” Gwyneth offered earnestly.

“The Ponderosa is all I want.”

Jamie chimed in, “but if you’re really—”

“—It is the only thing that matters!” Joe stood and exited the café leaving stunned companions in his wake.

“I’m so sorry, Jamie.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Gwen. I’m the one who pushed.”

“There is no age limit on learning. Some of the men in my classes are twice my age.”

“Age isn’t the issue. After college, Adam grew dissatisfied with life on the ranch and moved away. Joe never got over his leaving. I think he felt abandoned and it was easier to blame higher education than accept the ranch wasn’t enough to hold his brother. Come on.” He grabbed her books as he rose from the table. “You’ll be late if we don’t go now.”

*****

Joe fell into step several yards behind the young couple when they left the cafe but did not announce his presence. Instead, he watched their body language as they headed back to campus. Jamie gallantly carried her books but did not hold her hand.

Of course, any comparison to himself was pointless. By the time he was Jamie’s age he had loved and buried two women. Joe didn’t know for certain, but suspected Jamie still hadn’t taken a bite of the apple.

He watched as they crossed the plaza and made their way to South Hall. When he caught up to them on the steps, he apologized.

“Gwyneth, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you’ll allow me to make up for my unruly behavior the next time I’m in town.”

“Not at all necessary, sir. I’m sorry if I tugged at an open wound.”

Joe bristled at being called ‘sir’ but smiled politely as she hurried into the building. Turning to Jamie, he asked, “What about you?”

“I’m finished for the day, and I’m starving since you ate all my cookies.”

“Would a steak help?”

“You bet!  I’ll drop my books off at the boarding house and we can head to O’Malley’s before it gets too crowded.”

“Not before I see how you live. Pa’s gonna drill me for details.”

“He is?”

“Sure. But what’s between brothers, stays between brothers, right?”

“Meaning what?”

“Relax, kid. I’m not going to tattle if your room’s a mess.”

“Then I don’t have to worry about the bottle of whiskey under my bed,”

“Whaa?”

“Gotcha!”

Joe doffed his hat and swiped Jamie’s behind.“Scalliwag!”

Jamie laughed but had the disquieting suspicion he was about to be caught in a spider’s web.

As they strolled along the south fork of Strawberry Creek, Joe commented he hadn’t expected to find such a serene scenic spot in the city.

“I come here a lot when I get homesick for the Ponderosa,” Jamie said. “It reminds me of the trail along the Carson River where you and Hoss took me fishin’.”

“Good memories,” Joe said.

“The best.”

“You get homesick often?”

“I miss you and Pa and . . . “

Suddenly, Joe pulled Jamie into a bear hug and held fast. “I’m miss him, too,” he whispered.

As they continued their walk, Joe probed for information about his brother’s classes and what he was learning but resisted the urge to tease him about Gwyneth. At one point, he said, “You can come home anytime you want to. Send word and I will come and fetch you.”

“I can get home on my own, Joe. I’m not twelve.”

“Even at twelve I suspect you got a long pretty well by yourself.”

Jamie puffed up. “Yeah, I did.”

“You had to then.” Joe stopped and turned him so they were face to face. “You’re not alone now, Jamie, even though it may feel like it at this big school. You’re a part of a family. You’re a part of the Ponderosa.”

Jamie drew himself up to his full height, which at age 20 was still shorter than Joe, and looked him in the eye. “So are you, big brother.”

Chapter 5—The Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

“All right. Spill,” demanded Candy after Ben retired for the night.

“Spill what?”

“The real reason you’re taking another holiday. We don’t have time for this, you know. We’ve got cattle to push, timber to cut.”

“You sound like Adam,” Joe said into his coffee cup.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“I sound like Adam?”

“If you heard me, then why did you ask?”

“Because I couldn’t believe you would say I was like Adam.”

Joe mimicked Candy. “‘I’ve got cattle to push, timber to cut.’  Yep, Adam.”

“Cut it out!  You know what I mean. We’ve contracts to fulfill.”

“I signed them, remember! And keep your voice down so we don’t wake Pa.”

“Is this a repeat of last year? Don’t give me that look. You think I don’t notice? You’re not sleeping, you’re losing weight again, and you’re as changeable as Nevada weather.”

“It is not intentional!” Joe shot back. “Last year my condition was self-inflicted,” he said, before breaking eye contact. “Not now.” Joe sat forward with his forehead in the palms of his hands.

Candy stared at his best friend, his brow furrowing.

“You okay?”

“Not really.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing . . . And everything.”  When Candy didn’t respond, Joe added, “I may be sick.”

“Seriously?”

“Maybe I’m a hypochondriac.”

“This from a man whose every other word is ‘I’m fine’?”

“That’s two words.”

Frustrated, Candy got up from the table and retrieved the whiskey decanter from the great room. Surprised when Joe covered his coffee cup with the palm of his hand, he poured himself a double shot and then sat down to wait however long it took. His cup was empty before Joe spoke.

“I saw a doctor in Reno who thinks I might have an ulcer. Another one in Sacramento believes it’s a tumor which he can remove—or not.”

“He’s not sure.”

Joe nodded.

“Odds?”

“He can’t give any.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Exactly.”

“So 50/50 then?”

“More like 80/20.”

“Well those odds aren’t so . . .”

“Against.”

“Damn.”

Joe shrugged. “I’m not even sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s not like he can see inside you. Another doctor wanted to do what he called ‘exploratory surgery’ and root around in my gut. Yet another doctor said the tumor—if I have one—may be slow growing and I’d outlive it.”

“What does your Pa think?”

“I haven’t decided what to say to him . . . If anything.”

“What do you mean ‘if’?”

“If it is a slow growing tumor, it may take years before it causes symptoms I can’t handle. Why put him through that?”

“You and your Pa promised Paul Martin you wouldn’t keep secrets from each other anymore. Wait a minute! Doc Martin . . . does he know about this?”

“No.”

“Criminy, Joe.”

Silence.

“80/20 against?”

“Yeah. Pretty long odds.”

“If you ask me, you’re betting against yourself.”

“How so?”

“You’re going to die without an operation.”

“Were all going to die someday, Candy.”

“But you’re taking the easy bet if you do nothing. I figured you for more of a risk taker.”

“You think I should gamble?”

“It’s what you do. It is what you’ve always done from what I hear. You go all in, Joe. I’ve never known you to do less.”

“Yeah, well, things are different now.”

“How?”

“I’m the only Cartwright left.”

“What about Jamie?”

“I don’t mean the name.”

“Let me get this straight. Isn’t it you who always says it takes more than blood to make a brother?”

“All my life, Pa’s talked about grandchildren. I’m the only left to carry on the blood line.”

“You think your Pa gives a hoot about that?”

“Yeah, I do.”

The ticking grandfather clock in the great room echoed off the stucco walls sounding like far off cannon fire.

“What about this pact you made with Doc Martin? I won’t lie to your Pa.”

“I’m not asking you to. I won’t lie to Pa either.”

“Not telling the truth is the same as lying in my book.”

“I tell the truth—”

“But not the whole truth, right?”

Joe bowed his head in resignation. There was no getting around Candy, as much as he might want to. Not that he did. In truth, it would be a relief to have someone be aware what he was up to—a safety valve so to speak—in case everything went to hell in a hand basket. Sometimes the man could be as doggedly persistent as his older brother, like a burr under the saddle, irritating and unrelenting. “Adam called it ‘The sin of omission.’  Tell enough truth to allow Pa to draw his own conclusions.”

“Which, of course,” Candy said, “were incorrect because he didn’t have all the facts.”

“Sometimes. You’d be surprised how often he got it right, even with incomplete information.”

“A father’s intuition?”

Joe shrugged.

“What about Jamie,” Candy asked.

“I’m keeping him out of it.”

“You are the most exasperating person I’ve ever known.”

“Don’t know many people then, do you?” A weak half smile pulled at the corner of Joe’s mouth momentarily, but soon dissolved. He raised his head and was taken a-back at the intensity with which Candy’s blue-eyes appraised him yet there was no anger, no reproach behind the gaze only concern and caring. So like Hoss.

“I need some time to think it through.”

Chapter 6—San Francisco, California

Joe stood in front of the window in Dr. Perdue’s Nob Hill examination room only halfheartedly listening to the doctor’s findings. The other half of him stared absentmindedly at the ships in the harbor, wondering if Adam had sailed on one of them, and if he’d ever found his dream. Was he living on some tropical isle eating coconuts and making love to topless native women in grass skirts?  Or climbing a mountain in Tibet? Or exploring the ruins of Mt. Olympus, drinking ouzo with a shepherd?

He remembered his ten-year-old self sensing the difference in Adam when he came home from college forever changed. Although he didn’t have the words then to explain it, he had intuitively understood the seeds of wanderlust had been sown and would lay dormant in Adam’s soul awaiting a far distant spring.

A sudden wave of melancholy washed over Joe and his heart sank to the pit of his stomach. The sound of blood pumping in his ears subsided as the doctor’s words rose to the surface.

“…suffering from lead poisoning. You’re welcome to a second opinion, of course, but I am confident in my diagnosis.”

Joe turned to face the doctor and said “fifth” before stepping forward and collapsing against the exam table.

Dr. Perdue swiftly scooped up Joe’s legs and laid him down on the table. He walked to the door and called out, “Jarold, please bring me the sphygmograph and a blanket.”

The requested items were delivered to the physician and Jarold remained to assist Perdue with the placement of the device onto Joe’s right forearm and to make the adjustments needed to measure his blood pressure.

“Will an ambulance be required, sir?”

“I don’t believe one will be necessary, Jarold. Would you please light the stove in my office and clear the chaise of books. I think Mr. Carter will be more comfortable there while we discuss his treatment.”

*****

“Your symptoms have not abated, Mr. Cartwright. If anything, by your own admission they have not only grown more severe but multiplied. Headaches, joint pain, stomach cramps, irritability and now high blood pressure. That alone will kill you if the lead in your body is not removed.”

“And I’m telling you, the bullet was removed. I was conscious for every agonizing moment.”

“Conscious?”

“No anesthesia. No doctor. Ten years ago Nevada was still a territory. On average there was only one doctor every 100 miles. My brother removed the bullet with a kitchen knife.”

Dr. Perdue rocked back in his desk chair. He was, of course, aware frontier physicians were often called upon to operate under less than optimum circumstances in often barbaric conditions, but it made his stomach churn at the thought of an untrained civilian plunging dirty and dull implements into anyone, let alone a relative.

“. . . literature. You and my father have a lot in common.”

The doctor hadn’t been listening and uttered a vague, non-committal, “How so?”

Joe gestured towards the books on the table. “Thoreau, Muir, Powell. My father was one of the first conservationists in the Tahoe Basin. Jim Flood is all too well aware of that.”

“Explain.”

“They have butted heads more than once through the years over clearcutting and watershed issues.” Joe picked up Walden’s Pond and thumbed through it thinking again of Adam and his quiet desperation. He slammed the book shut and tossed it on the table.

“My brother was the one who shot me and the one who dug the bullet out. It will kill him to believe he’s responsible for my illness.”

“And the lead in your body will kill you unless it is removed.”

“He’ll blame himself.”

The doctor flipped open his patient’s portfolio and checked his notes.

“You said the bullet was lodged deep under bone. It was several days before you arrived at home and could be tended to. By that time infection had set in. Your brother removed what he believed was the entire bullet not realizing there was a fragment left behind. Now a physician might experience self-recrimination in such circumstances, but a layman can’t be held responsible.”

“That wouldn’t matter to Adam. He takes responsibility for everything.”

“Has your family been concerned about your symptoms?”

“I’m a rancher. Aches and pains go with the territory.”

“You haven’t told them you are ill.”

“I don’t hide it. I—”

“—explain it away with one excuse or another.”

The look on Joe’s face said it all.

“You’ve been absent from home quite a bit lately.”

“On business. What’s it to you?”

Dr. Perdue raised an eyebrow at the sharp retort but did not respond except to make an additional note in the file. “I remind you I do not tolerate deception.”

“I told you the truth.”

“Worse than deceiving your family, you are deceiving yourself Mr. Cartwright. That is unwise.”

“I’ve never been accused of being wise.” Foolhardy, headstrong, and stubborn, but not wise.

“See Jarold on your way out to sign the discharge papers.”

“What?”

“You came to me for a diagnosis which I rendered. It is my opinion you are in peril of losing your life if you do not have immediate surgery. You have chosen to ignore my recommendation. Our doctor-patient relationship is ended. Good day to you, Mr. … Carter.”

*****

Stunned at the turn of events, Joe descended the steps of the Victorian house and stood still when he reached the street unsure of what to do next. He couldn’t leave town because of an important meeting with the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company the following day to sign a contract to provide lumber for the square set timbering in their new shaft. His head throbbed in synchronicity with the clang of the street cars and the thought of returning to the Grand Hotel depressed him. Even the Barbary Coast held no appeal. If he were home, he would have gone to the lake and then he remembered what Jamie said about Strawberry Creek.

*****

Jarold found Dr. Perdue in the third-floor examination room in front of the windows. The doctor stood with his hands clasped behind his back staring down at the street observing passersby. It wasn’t long before his patient—former patient, he reminded himself—descended the front steps and stood immobile but turned his head from side to side as if uncertain which way to go.

“Your 11 o’clock cancelled, sir. Your next appointment is not until 2 p.m. Will you be going out for lunch or should I inform Mrs. Grigsby you will be dining in?”

“In,” the doctor said. “Jarold, Mr. Carter said ‘fifth’ before he collapsed. Do you have any idea what he meant?”

“I believe he was referring to the fact you are the fifth doctor he has seen.”

Jarold waited for his employer to issue further instructions. He had grown accustomed to these quiet interludes as the great man puzzled out conundrums. Although he found the waiting tedious, he dared not leave until dismissed.

“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll lunch at the Pacific Club.” Flood owes me one. “That will be all, Jarold. Thank you.”

Chapter 7—Berkeley, California

As before, the walk along Strawberry Creek delighted Joe. A lizard skittered among the rocks lining the creek bed and a red shouldered hawk perched in a redwood tree. The tall oaks and maples provided shade as he settled cross-legged on a flat rock near a small waterfall. It is no wonder Jamie thinks of home when he comes here.

A few students strolled along the path, some ignored Joe, others nodded or tipped their hat. No one questioned his presence.

Ever since his bout with blindness several years ago, Joe intermittently practiced the lesson Mrs. Dobbs taught. Be still. He lowered his lids and listened. He isolated the loud noises first and identified them easily… the clang of a trolley, music pouring forth from the Conservatory, the call of a hawk, most likely the same one he had seen, and the buzz of bumble bees. He heard a crunch behind him…no…to his left… at 10… no… 8 o’clock. Joe peeked and saw a deer. Smiling, he closed his eyes again and inhaled allowing a wind born fragrance to envelop his nostrils. This time it took longer as the breeze was not constant. Patience. He breathed again. To the right… coyote mint… two yards? Joe looked all around to no avail, then he saw the bush across the creek 20 feet away. Dang! Gonna have to practice more.

“Joe?”

“Jamie.”

“What are you doing here? Is it—“

“—Pa’s fine. I have another meeting tomorrow with the folks at Consolidated Virginia. Just gathering my thoughts.”

“Do you have time for lunch? I’m headed to the Cafe. They have chili on Mondays.”

“Will Gwen be joining us?”

“Naw. She’s spending all her free time with some junior now.”

“Ouch.”

“We were just friends.”

Joe unfolded his legs and stood up, brushing off the seat of his pants as they started walking. “You still can be friends.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Don’t discount female friends, Jamie. Mine have been of great comfort to me over the years.”

“Were they former girlfriends?”

“Not all. Some were pals first and always. Not having sisters, they were the next best thing when it came to figuring out how women think.”

“Do you wish you had them… sisters, I mean.”

“I don’t know. At least with a friend, you don’t have to put up with the frilly stuff.”

“Like what?”

“I was always running into the wet stockings Alice hung in the bathroom and then there were the doilies on the back of chairs. I hated those things.”

“You miss her.”

“God, yes.”

*****

Over lunch, Jamie shared he had become quite adept at darts and was the ranking champion in his boarding house at Go, all thanks to Hop Sing.

“Pa will be thrilled to hear what his hard-earned dollars are paying for,” Joe said sternly.

Jamie gulped. “You told me what was said between us stayed between us!”

Joe maintained a severe expression as long as he could before breaking into a laugh. “You should see the look on your face!”

“It is not funny!”

“Sorry,” he said but continued to laugh although more quietly as cafe patrons were beginning to stare. “You can thank your oldest brother for paving the way. Adam returned from college not only with a degree but with expertise in chess and billiards. He convinced Pa learning how men think was as important as what they think.”

“And Pa bought that?”

“Truth be told, I think he expected it. Mark Twain said schooling should never interfere with education and Pa agreed. Being adept at strategy games like chess, checkers, backgammon … or Go … is a skill worth developing.”

“Hoss said you are a whiz at billiards but not a particularly good poker player. He said it is because you are better at playing the angles than reading people.”

“That’s not far off, Jamie. I’ve been fooled by a lot of people, many of them women. One thing I’ve had going for me is intuition, a sixth sense if you will.” Joe pulled his chair closer to the table and leaned in to speak softly. “That is why I’ve been in such a twist over this meeting tomorrow.”

“With Con—“

“—don’t use names in public,” Joe chastised, “and … yes, them. There is something off. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m feeling more and more uneasy about this timber contract.”

“Why? I read they’re producing ore worth over a million and half dollars every month and Pa says they pay dividends greater than any assessments levied.”

“Nice to hear you’re reading something besides textbooks.” Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. As I sat through the stockholders meeting and listened to the blathering, the hairs on the back of neck began to prickle. There are a few rumors but nothing I can show Pa. No statistics or reports. It’s a feeling I have.”

“What does Pa say?”

“He’s left it in my hands.”

“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t?”

“Watch your language.”

“Hey, I learned that in English class. We’re studying the origins of words and phrases. Did you know Shakes—“

Joe grunted and pushed back from the table doubling over and clutching his stomach.

“—what’s wrong?”

“I’m all right, just a cramp. Where’s the—“

“It’s indoors. Back there at the end of the hall.” Jamie rose and went to the counter to ask for water. “Drink,” he said when he handed Joe the glass. He sat down but placed his hand on his brother’s back.

Joe blew out a long breath before sipping. “Chili was spicier than I am used to,” he said by way of an excuse. “Meals have been rather bland this past year.”

“Pa’s really doin’ okay?”

“Stop worrying! He’s going to outlive us all.” At least me. “I want to ask you something before you go to class.”

“Shoot.”

“I’d like you to come home for a few days.”

“I’ll be home at Thanksgiving.”

“I need you before then, Jamie. Look, I understand it is a long way to travel for an overnight visit, but it is important. I want to talk to you and Pa together.”

“What about?”

“Family business.” Palm up, Joe gestured at the crowded cafe, “And not for public consumption.”

“Well you don’t have to get snippy.”

“Look, you’re either a part of this family or not. Your choice. But don’t bellyache if you feel left out.”

Joe stood up, threw some bills on the table and marched out the door knocking aside a man the size of Hoss.

Chapter 8—Virginia City, Nevada

“Mr. Perdue.” Ben Cartwright extended his hand to the gentleman upon entering the lobby of the International House. “Forgive me for not being able to meet you before this. I only received Jim Flood’s letter on Monday and ranch business made it impossible for me to get into town until now.”

“No apology is required, Mr. Cartwright. I have found my stay in Virginia City enlightening. Samuel Clemens’ reportage did not do the City justice.”

“Well, I’m afraid the Ponderosa will be far more sedate in comparison.”

“A factor I am looking forward to, sir.”

“Have you eaten?”

“Just coffee. I wasn’t sure what you had planned for the day.”

“Why don’t we have breakfast here and then we’ll head out to the Ponderosa. Based on what Jim said your interests were, there are a number of things I can show you on the way to the house. Our cook, Hop Sing, is not happy when we are late for a meal.”

“My housekeeper rules with an iron fist, so I am well acquainted with the type. She is a marvelous cook, but a terror to behold if I am delayed at mealtime.”

The men fell into an easy rapport chuckling at their shared domestic situation, and over breakfast they soon found they had other things in common besides the environment.

“Jim mentioned you are a widower, as am I—twice over. I have a grown daughter from my first marriage who lives in Paris.”

“I was married three times and have a son from each marriage, each very different and very much like their mother.”

“I thought Jim mentioned you had four sons. Did I misunderstand?”

“My youngest, Jamie, is adopted. He’s in college in your neck of the woods, actually, at Berkeley.”

“Excellent school. What is he studying?”

“This is his first year so he hasn’t declared a major, but he has expressed interest in becoming a veterinarian.”

“A noble profession. And your other sons? Will I have the pleasure of meeting them?”

“My oldest, Adam, is traveling the world. Last we knew he was sailing the South Pacific. My middle boy, Hoss, passed two years ago. Joseph, my third son, lives with me. Or perhaps I should say I live with him as he runs the ranch now.”

“You are blessed, sir.”

“I am indeed, and please call me Ben.”

“Aaron.”

“Shall we get going? There is a lot of ground to cover before we reach the Ponderosa.”

Chapter 9 – Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Over the next day and a half, Ben and Aaron travelled around the ranch discussing Ben’s theories on conservation, reforestation and issues affecting the watershed. Ben found vantage points where they could overlook timber harvesting as well as the cattle round up that preceded the drive to lower pastures for winter grazing, and, of course, the ongoing horse breaking and training at the corrals. The patriarch was pleased his guest’s questions were intelligent and he quite relished explaining the whys and wherefores of each endeavor. Ben hadn’t felt this alive in over a year.

Before dinner Aaron commented no matter where they went, no matter what the operation—timber, cattle, or horses—Joseph was present at one time or another. “Isn’t that unusual?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“He doesn’t only oversee; he is in the thick of things. The progeny of most of the land barons and industrial magnates I have known delegate rather than get their hands dirty.”

Ben nodded. “I have seen the same thing. However, I taught my boys a leader should never ask his men to do anything he can’t or won’t do. Of course, being the youngest, Joseph was always driven to prove himself to me and his older brothers … taking the worst jobs so the men wouldn’t think he was lolligagger. Mostly, though, I think he was proving it to himself.”

“He is well-respected.”

It was a statement, not a question, but it caught Ben off guard and he paused for a moment before answering. “Yes. I believe he is.”

“Are you surprised?”

“No. It’s only that I never gave it much thought. But you are correct. He’s earned the respect and loyalty of the men who work for us. Or should I say him? The ranch is his now.”

“You sound a bit rueful.”

“I suppose I do. The Ponderosa is my dream and it took a lifetime to build—a lifetime of successes and setbacks, heartache and joy.”

“Comedy and tragedy?” Aaron said, smiling.

Ben laughed. “This house holds the memory of a lot of laughter and a lot of tears—both of them having to do with Joseph, I must admit.”

“Moody?”

“No, but he did wear his heart on his sleeve. He was as transparent as a window and incapable of deception. We always knew what frame of mind he was in. At least we used to. Of late, he’s become more adept at masking or at least modulating his emotions. Learned from my oldest, I suspect, or maybe it is something that comes with age.” Ben took a sip of coffee before asking, “What about your daughter? I’m unfamiliar with raising girls.”

“Hannah is mercurial and very much her mother’s daughter as I left the upbringing to her—a decision I now regret.”

“You mentioned she lives in Paris. How long has it been since you’ve seen each other?”

“We crossed paths in Geneva a few years ago but had little to say to one another. Hannah’s an artist, a talented one. She didn’t want anything to do with the life I led or desired for her.”

“I built the Ponderosa for my sons but I never stopped to ask if it was what they wanted. Although Hoss was content here, it wasn’t what Adam desired.”

“And Joseph?” Aaron used Joe’s full name as his host did. “He must feel your passion as deeply to be so dedicated.” When Ben hesitated to answer, he added, “I’ve known many men whose sons took over the family business only to destroy it either through greed or ineptitude.”

“I’ve seen that, too, sadly. We built the Ponderosa’s reputation on integrity and honesty and it became a place where any man could be given a second chance and earn a decent wage. The Cartwright name means something in these parts. I’m fortunate Joseph is intent on maintaining that reputation. However, it is also true we have our critics, those who don’t think we deserve the life we’ve worked hard to obtain. On the other hand, we have had our admirers, too.”

As Aaron reflected on Ben’s words, he decided ‘Mr. Carter’s’ ruse was pure in its intent to keep the Cartwright name out of the rumor mills—and not part of an overall deception. In doing so, he reconsidered his decision to terminate the physician-patient relationship.

“You have your admirers too, albeit grudgingly,” Aaron said. “James Flood for example. He mentioned the two of you have been business adversaries on occasion, but I sensed a great deal of admiration in his tone when he recommended we meet. I must say, I have appreciated hearing your thoughts regarding J.W. Powell’s theories on water rights. He believes there is not sufficient water to supply the land and that we are headed toward decades of litigation if we are not careful.”

“Protecting the watershed is important and that is why clear-cut harvesting must be curtailed, if not outlawed altogether. You saw yesterday the damage already done to old growth forests around Lake Tahoe.”

The sound of footsteps on the porch peaked Ben’s curiosity and he rose to answer the door but it opened wide before he could reach it.

“Jamie! What are you doing here? What’s wrong?”

“Uh, nothing Pa. Joe wanted me to come home. Said there was something important to discuss as a family.”

“You’re sure everything is all right at school?”

“Fine.

“Well, come on in. Dinner will be ready in a bit. Hop Sing! Set an extra place. Jamie’s here!”

Hop Sing entered the great room and twirled the young man around. “Hmph! Too skinny. Not eat enough.”

“Hop Sing, I eat plenty. It’s all the walking around campus and up and down hills that does it. But I am famished, when’s dinner?”

The cook crossed his arms across his chest. “Always in hurry. You wait ‘til I serve! Hmph.” A cascade of Cantonese followed him into the kitchen.

“Sorry, Pa. I thought he’d be glad to see me.”

“He is, as am I, no matter how you come to be here.” Ben took his son by the elbow and turned to face his guest. “Jamie, I’d like you to meet Mr. Aaron Perdue of San Francisco. He’s been visiting for a few days.”

Aaron stood. “Good evening, young man.”

“Hello, sir. Pleased to meet you,” Jamie said.

“I understand you are attending Berkeley.”

“Yessir.”

“Jamie, why don’t you take your bag to your room and get cleaned up. You can discuss your studies with Mr. Perdue during dinner.”

Before the youngest Cartwright could move, more boots clomped on the porch.

“Now what?” Ben asked.

The door opened to the sound of familiar banter which ended abruptly when Joe crossed the threshold and saw Aaron Perdue standing next to his father. He stopped so short that Candy ran into him and immediately moved his hand to the butt of his gun unsure of what Joe had seen.

“Aaron, this is my son Joseph and Candy Canaday.”

Joe nodded slightly. Candy extended and then withdrew his arm when Mr. Perdue acknowledged the introduction with a clipped, “Gentlemen.”

Hop Sing,” Ben called.

Hop Sing entered the dining room with cleaver in hand. “Why you call? You not sit til food ready!”

“I wanted to tell you there will be five for dinner…the boys are back.”

“Humph! All time change. You eat what Hop Sing fix. No more, no less.”

Attempting to keep peace, Ben held his hands up in supplication. “I’m sure however much you’ve prepared will be fine.”

Joe turned his attention to his brother. “I’m surprised to see you, Jamie.”

The redhead was not cowed. “You asked me to come. I’m here. What is it you wanted to talk about?”

“In due time,” Joe said, then turned and walked out the door.

“Where are you going?” asked Ben.

“To tend to the horses,” Joe said over his shoulder.

Candy shrugged apologetically and left also.

Sensing his guest’s unspoken question, Ben explained, “With rare exception, we  attend to our personal mounts ourselves.”

“And Mr. Canaday?”

“Our ranch foreman, but he is more than an employee. Candy and Joseph are as close as brothers and he is in large part responsible for keeping my son on an even keel after—“ Ben looked away for a moment, his eyes falling on the wedding photograph of Joe and Alice on the side table. He blinked several times, then resumed speaking. “—his wife died so close to our losing Hoss.”

“Illness?”

“Murder,” Jamie said. “Pa, I’ll go up and change. See you at dinner, Mr. Perdue.”

“I look forward to our conversation young man. If you don’t mind, Ben, I’ll take my evening walk now rather than later.”

“Of course, take your time. I’ll see if Hop Sing needs any help,” Ben said as he headed toward the kitchen.

Before donning his coat, Aaron took a closer look at the photo of Joe and Alice. Based on what he had learned during his visit, he calculated the passage of time from when the photo was taken until today and frowned.

*****

When Perdue entered the barn and saw only Joe, he inquired about the foreman’s whereabouts.

“In the bunkhouse going over tomorrow’s work orders. Why are you here? You discharged me as a patient, remember?”

“A decision I am reconsidering.”

“What does that mean?”

“The picture of you and your wife…how long ago was it taken?”

Joe sighed and kept on currying Cochise. “Two years.”

“Your appearance has changed considerably in that time.”

“I told you I’ve been sick for a while.”

“Jose—. May I call you by your first name?”

“Just Joe.”

Joe. Our first encounter was a deception on your part…pretending to be someone you weren’t.”

“Only to protect my—“

“—family. I understand now. At the time I knew nothing other than that you gave a false name and attempted to deceive me with your appearance.”

“Talk about deception!” Joe exploded and threw the curry comb into a bucket causing Cochise to snort and skitter sideways. “MISTER Perdue? You lied to my father!”

“I deceived no one.”

“Did you tell him you were a doctor?”

“My profession was not pertinent to our discussions on forest management.”

“I don’t understand.”

“One day during a rather heated debate at my club with James Flood—“

Joe’s eyes widen. “Flood knows?”

“Nothing about our relationship, I assure you. Flood said Ben Cartwright and I were two birds of a feather. Intrigued, I thought your father and I might share common interests so I requested an introduction. It was your father who invited me here.”

“So you could interrogate him about me.”

“Our talks on environmental issues have been straight forward and on point. Naturally, our discussions digressed into other areas. Your father is a well-read and well-traveled man. Is it inconceivable the two of us might have many things in common? You appeared to indicate otherwise in my office.”

The barn door creaked open and Candy entered. “Everything all right? I heard shouting.”

“Candy, this is Aaron Perdue—“

“—we met earli—“

“—the doctor I’ve been seeing in San Francisco.”

A long, slow whistle emanated from Candy’s lips. His blue eyes bored into the doctor’s but his question was directed to Joe. “I thought you said he threw you out.”

“He did.”

“It is a decision I am willing to reconsider,” said Perdue.

“Why?” asked Candy.

“My greatest tool is one of observation. There are more things than tests that go into forming a diagnosis. I came to the Ponderosa to discuss theories on water resource management. But while I have been here I have observed how Joe lives, works, and his familial relationships.”

“What does any of that have to do with the lead in his shoulder?”

Although surprised a man so concerned about rumor and innuendo had divulged sensitive information to a hired hand before he discussed it with his family, Perdue responded simply. “A great deal, sir.”

Candy turned to Joe. “Well?”

Joe didn’t know what to think. He wanted to argue, but he was tired. Tired of keeping up appearances. Tired of hurting. And in truth, part of him was relieved the doctor was here to field inquiries after he told his family. But there was one thing he had to find out. “Answer one question for me Dr. Perdue.”

“Go ahead.”

“Most doctors hang their diplomas to impress their patients when they walk into the office. You display yours so you can see them. Why?”

“As a reminder that no matter how many degrees, citations, and awards I receive, I am not infallible.”

“Could you be wrong about me?”

“I could, but I’m not.”

“Arrogance?”

“God-given talent. I recall you were looking for that.”

*****

Joe slipped into the kitchen through the side door and asked Hop Sing to hold dinner. Anticipating the forthcoming rant, he said, “I have something to tell Pa and Jamie and I’d like you to be there because you are a part of this family.”

Hop Sing nodded at the man he had helped raise from infancy. After removing pots from the stove, and pulling the roast from the oven, Hop Sing went to his room to put on a clean apron.

*****

Returning from his walk, Doctor Perdue entered the downstairs bedroom from the side door. When he heard raised voices, he almost retreated but decided it was more prudent to remain quiet than risk disturbing the family. The truth was—despite what happened to the cat—he was curious and waited to hear more as his host’s deep voice carried through the walls.

Joe, Candy, Jamie and Hop Sing were seated at the table while Ben paced in front of the sideboard. “You called this meeting, Joseph. Why I don’t know—“

“If you’ll let me begin you’ll find out!”

“Before you do Jamie said he’s missing school at your request. Why? And why didn’t you tell me he was coming home?”

“I wasn’t sure he would come after what I said to him at Berkeley.”

“What do you mean?”

Jamie interceded. “He means what is said between us is…” but his voice trailed off at his father’s withering glare. “… between brothers, is all.”

Ben harrumphed. As if I haven’t heard that before. “What is this all about, Joseph? Why have you been going back and forth to San Francisco?”

“I told you. Meeting with our lawyers and advisers to find out—”

“—about our holdings. I know full well what they are.”

“Well I don’t… or didn’t. Not all of it. Not the details.”

“That was your choice!” Ben pounded his fist on the table.

Matching his father in tone and temper, Joe shouted, “It was my choice only as long as I had one… as long as Adam and Hoss were here. Now they aren’t and, with Jamie at college, it is up to me … to hold it all together.”

Jamie opened his mouth to speak but caught Candy’s subtle head shake and shut it.

“You were always welcome at any meeting.”

“I know, Pa,” Joe said, “and I admit on occasion I tuned out unless the discussion had to do with horses. No one’s fault but mine. Now can you please sit down and let me continue with what I have to say?”

The iron door knocker banged loudly.

“Now what!” Ben yelled. “Jamie, see who that is!”

“I got it,” Candy said, sprinting for the door. “Doctor. Come on in.”

Ben moved into the great room. “What are you doing here, Paul?”

“Joe sent for me.”

With sudden clarity, Ben knew what this meeting was all about. His heart raced. The room shifted. He staggered forward, reaching for the red leather chair, missing, and hitting the floor with a thud.

“Pa!” Joe and Jamie screamed in unison. Jamie sprung from his seat and got to his father first followed closely by Paul.

Stunned, Joe rose, groping his way along the table. Halfway to his father, he doubled up, grunted in pain and sank to his knees.

The guest bedroom door opened and Perdue stepped quickly to Joe’s side.

Candy said, “Jamie, help the doc get your pa into his chair. Mr. Perdue, let’s put Joe on the settee.”

“Perdue?” Paul’s head popped up. “Aaron Perdue by any chance? MD, Ph.D, MDCM?”

“The same. Paul Martin?”

“You two know each other?” Candy wondered.

“Only by reputation,” Paul answered. To Perdue, he said, “I am an ardent admirer, sir.”

“And I have had the privilege of examining your work up close. You are an artist.”

“Examining?” Jamie was puzzled.

“He’s the doctor Joe’s been seeing in San Francisco.”

Both Ben and Joe groaned at the same time.

*****

After Paul settled Ben down with the help of a brandy and Aaron looked over Joe, Jamie inquired, “What does MDCM mean?”

“Doctor of Medicine, Master of Surgery,” Paul said. “And the Ph.D. after the MD means Dr. Perdue is a physician-scientist. Joe couldn’t have found a better man to ferret out what is wrong with him.”

Joe caught his father’s look. “I haven’t lied to you, Pa.”

Ben thought back to the day on porch when Joe told the truth about his headache. “Not about how you were feeling, maybe, but what about the cause?”

“Mr. Cartwright,” Candy said, “Joe wanted to understand why he’s continued to feel poorly. He’s been to several doctors—“

“—which he didn’t tell me about.”

“I didn’t want to present you with a problem. I wanted to have an answer as well, Pa, so I could give you some assurance about what lay ahead. I never hid my symptoms from you or anyone. Ask Candy.”

“I was aware,” Candy said.

Jamie was mad. “I wasn’t. At least not entirely. You kept making up excuses. Chili?”

“You’re right. It was stupid. I’m sorry, Jamie,” Joe said. “Pa, every doctor I saw had a different opinion. Dr. Perdue was my last hope. And then he fired me.”

“What?” everyone said at once.

“It is true. I dismissed Joe as a patient because I made some assumptions that turned out to be false.” Aaron picked up the brandy decanter. “May I?”

“Of course,” Ben said. “Jamie, get the man a glass.”

“Treating symptoms alone is counterproductive. As a diagnostician, I endeavor to ascertain the reason those symptoms exist.”

“To get to the root of the matter,” Ben said.

“Correct. Unfortunately, I did not have a clear understanding of the world in which your son lived and worked. Oh, he told me, but I had no frame of reference. I believe you’d be surprised, Ben, as would you Dr. Martin, at how forthcoming Joe was to my probing and often uncomfortable inquisition. He didn’t evade or lie. It was I who lacked context.

“My reason for coming here, Ben, was indeed conservation issues because I am considering joining Powell’s next expedition. But my secondary purpose was to gain knowledge and perspective regarding the circumstances in which my patient lived. And for that hidden agenda, I do apologize.

“This evening’s events have emphasized the urgency with which I say the lead in your son’s body must be removed with all due haste.”

“If there is a bullet fragment present,” Ben said, “it has been in there for almost 10 years. Why now?”

“Because his symptoms, although slow in manifesting no doubt because of your son’s strong constitution, belied its existence. Furthermore, it is common for lead poisoning to take a decade to reveal itself. In the month I have known Joe, his symptoms have increased in number and intensity. His initial complaints were headaches, stomach cramps, weight loss, and fatigue. Since then I have observed irritability, and mood swings. Of utmost concern now is his elevated blood pressure and the tingling in his extremities—something he reported this evening for the first time.”

“Ben,” Paul said, “I am not fit to do the necessary surgery so don’t even ask. Dr. Perdue is eminently qualified.”

“A journey to San Francisco is unthinkable at this stage,” said Aaron, “but there is an alternative.” All eyes fixed on him. “St. Mary Louise Hospital in Virginia City.”

Candy said, “It won’t be open until spring. Can the operation wait that long?”

“The wards are unfinished, but the surgery is complete.”

“How do you know this?” Ben asked.

“I work with the Daughters of Charity at Mt. St. Joseph Orphanage in San Francisco. Sister McInnis encouraged me to tour St. Mary Louise when she learned of my visit. I took the opportunity to do so, Ben, when our meeting was delayed. I was extremely impressed with the surgery and the up-to-date equipment—all thanks to the generosity of Messrs. Flood and Mackay.”

“It is about time the Bonanza Kings stepped up,” said Candy, “with all the mines going full bore and accidents happening almost every day, we need that hospital.”

“But Joe’s not a miner,” said Jamie. “or Catholic.”

“The Daughters of Charity do not discriminate regarding occupation, age, gender, nationality, or religion. Furthermore, they are highly-experienced nurses having provided trauma care during the War.”

“Ben,” said Paul, “with Dr. Perdue operating and the Sisters assisting during surgery and providing post operative care, I believe this is Joe’s best option.”

All heads turned to Joe.

“It’s your decision, Joseph,” Ben said. “We will support whatever choice you make.”

Afraid of living as he had been and further deceiving himself, Joe was most afraid of his father of having to bury another son.  He looked from one to the other and at last at Hop Sing.

“Yǒnggǎn qǐlái, qīn’ài de.”  Be brave, dear one.

Joe pressed his lips in a thin line to keep his chin from trembling.

“Wǒ huì jìnlì.” I’ll try.

*****

After Joe agreed to the operation, he ate a light supper and went to bed to rest up for the journey into Virginia City the following day.

Over a dinner of cold roast beef sandwiches and hot potato salad with vinegar and bacon prepared in the German style, the remainder of the household discussed what was to come.

“The surgery will not be an easy one,” Perdue cautioned.

“How will you find this elusive fragment?” Ben asked.

“Sight and touch.”

“Come again?”

“A surgeon’s eyes and his hands are his best tools. My hope is the fragment is still in the shoulder area.”

“But you don’t think so.”

“If Joe had led a quiet life, perhaps. But after seeing how he throws himself into every task… my intuition tells me it may have travelled.” Perdue paused, assessing the ability of his host to hear what came next. The man still looked pale and was absent-mindedly rubbing his sternum. Aaron’s eyes darted to Paul, then back to Ben and returned to Paul in time to catch the brief nod. “There is something else you need to be told, Ben. Joe is adamant your son Adam never learn the reason for this surgery.”

“Why?”

“Joe told me his brother removed the bullet. He fears if Adam finds out he missed a part of the bullet, he will be overcome with guilt and never return home.”

Ben’s pupils dilated turning his eyes almost black. He turned to Hop Sing who stood silently in the passageway into the kitchen. No one else in the room, including himself, knew firsthand the anguish Adam felt at not only having accidentally shot Joe, but also in being the one to dig the lead out of his brother without an anesthetic.

Hop Sing’s bowed in acknowledgment.

Ben put his head in his hands. He had never before deceived a son. Dear God!

Chapter 10 – Virginia City, Nevada

Dr. Perdue left before sunrise the following morning, driven to Virginia City by Jamie who to return to Berkeley on the afternoon train. Their discussion on the journey to town ranged far and wide from his formative years as the son of an itinerant rainmaker to his adoption by the Cartwrights to past regrets and future dreams. Perdue liked the young man immensely and, when solicited, willingly offered advice regarding course selection and professors.

Jamie delivered the doctor to St. Mary Louise and then made his way up Union Street to the International House to request rooms be made ready for his father and Candy.

The desk clerk eyed the redhead dressed in work clothes from head to toe. “Our rooms are always ready, young man, assuming, of course, we have any available and you can afford them,” said the desk clerk curtly.

Fortunately, the night manager had not gone off duty and stepped in to remedy the situation. His quiet but firm reproach, “Mr. Evans!” startled the clerk who backed up in haste and turned beet red when learned he was speaking to the youngest son of the eminent Ben Cartwright who maintained a permanent suite on the third floor.

“I’ll have the Comstock suite aired and the linens freshened at once,” the manager said. “And, of course, the liquor cabinet will be stocked with your father’s preferred labels. Will there be any special requests this visit?”

“I don’t believe so, sir. Thank you. My father will arrive later today,” said Jamie. He had almost blurted out they would be spending all their time at the hospital but stifled the impulse when he recalled Joe’s admonition about airing family matters in public. “I have some business to attend. I’ll return in a few hours.”

“Of course, sir. Here is your key. Enjoy your stay.”

*****

Given St. Mary Louise Hospital’s location at Union and R Street down slope from Virginia City’s commercial area, Candy opted to take the gentler road through Dayton up Six-Mile Canyon rather than the more direct but steep and twisty Geiger Grade. This route had the added advantage of being away from the eyes and ears of the town’s gossips. Since the hospital was not yet open and the Sisters of Charity were actively fundraising, it would seem the Cartwrights and their longtime family friend Dr. Martin were there on business if anyone were to ask.

It was late afternoon by the time they arrived. A tree-lined lawn led up to the front of the four-story, gabled, red brick structure with Doric columns. Built into the slope, the first-floor surgery was partially below the second-floor entrance and boasted tall windows.

Ben and Candy flanked Joe with Paul Martin trailing as they walked up the ten steps to the porch and entered into a wide waiting room area where a Daughter of Charity greeted the gentlemen warmly and offered tea or coffee. Dr. Perdue politely declined and ushered Ben, Joe, and Paul into the office of one of doctors who would be in residence once the hospital opened.

Candy remained in the waiting room. The nun was dressed in a blue habit with a white collar, but instead of the veil he was accustomed to seeing, she wore a large, pointed headpiece that dwarfed her well-scrubbed face.

“May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Of course, Mr.?”

“Canaday.” He accepted the coffee mug and looked straight into the greenest eyes he’d ever seen. “Um… my friends call me Candy.”

“Aye, ye be havin’ a lotta friends then? Ye bein’ so sweet and all.”

“Ah…no…um…I-I mean yes, ah… Sister?”

“Sister Ailis O’Brien. Ye can call me Sister Ailis.”

“Ailis is your real name?”

“It is me given name, aye.”

“I thought nuns received names like Mary Immaculata or Mary Ignacious?”

“Aye, the nuns in some Orders do take another name when take their vows. The Daughters of Charity, however, are an apostolic order, not a religious one. We keep our own names.”

“I see,” said Candy, but he really didn’t. “What’s the difference? If you don’t mind my being so bold.”

“We are bonded by our community vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but we do not take religious or public vows. Excuse me for sayin’ so, Candy, but ye keep starin’ at me cornette. Is it on crooked?”

“Um…ah.” Candy had never been so tongue-tied in all his life. Fascinated by the starched white cornette, he said, “Forgive me Sister, but with the zephyr winds around here, how do you stay grounded?”

Sister Ailis’ dimples bloomed and she laughed heartily. “Aye! I think that is why they built the hospital on the lee side of the mountain … so we wouldn’t fly away. Although the down draft of those zephyrs is a wicked thing to behold!”

Candy and Sister Ailis were still laughing when the Joe and Paul emerged from the doctor’s office.

“I think it is time we got our patient settled, if it is not too much trouble, Sister,” said Dr. Martin.

“Aye, doctor. As there are still some workmen about, we’ll be goin’ down the nurse’s staircase out of sight if ye take me meanin’.” Sister Ailis turned to Joe. “Mr. Cartwright—”

“Just Joe, ma’am … I mean … Sister.”

“Aye, Sister Ailis.” She reached out to shake his hand. “Ye have yer choice facin’ east or west.”

“I’m not fond of sunrises.”

“Aye, west it is then. Follow me.”

*****

Sister Ailis was thorough in her ministrations as she took Joe’s temperature and  blood pressure with the same type of instrument Perdue had used. After he used the water closet, he was tucked in bed. He’d knew about “hospital corners” but had never been bound so tightly to a bed in such a fashion. He was thankful Sister left his arms on top of the covers or he would have felt like he was in a straitjacket.

“What if I need to … you know…”

Sister Ailis showed Joe a thin bell pull tethered to the headboard. “Ring the bell and I’ll bring ye a bedpan. Mind ye, no wandering about.”

“I wouldn’t think of it,” he said. I couldn’t if I wanted to!

Ben knocked on the door frame. “May I come in?”

“Aye, Mr. Cartwright. We’re all finished. Ye can have 15 minutes and then it is lights out. Good night, sir.”

“Thank you, Sister.” Ben waited until the door closed before handing Joe a package.

“I hope this is food because I’m famished.”

“Not hardly, but it is something you wanted.” Ben withdrew a pen knife from his pocket and gave it to Joe. “Open it.”

Joe sliced the heavy twine holding the butcher paper wrapping in place and unfolded the contents. “A hammock!”

“You said we should get one.”

“It better be hung by the time I get home.”

“It will be waiting for you, as will I.”

Given their closeness no words were necessary. Ben gripped his son’s hand and they arm wrestled a moment.

“I love you, Pa.”

“I love you, too.”

“Send Candy in, would you?”

*****

“Hey, buddy,” Candy said.

“On the nightstand…the envelope is for you.”

“What is it?”

“Something I want you to have.”

Candy slipped a thumb under the envelope’s flap and pulled out the contents. “A deed?”

“Registered with the land office. You can’t return it.”

“I could sell.”

“You could, but you won’t.”

“No. I don’t suppose I will.”

“If it is not to your liking, talk to Pa about exchanging it for another parcel.”

“Joe…”

“Candy. It’s important to me.”

“Okay.”

“Do me a favor?”

“It depends.”

“It depends?” Joe squeaked. “I’m dying of lead poisoning and you have conditions?”

“Yeah. Depends on what the favor is.”

“Cochise.”

“Done.”

“You don’t know what I’m—.”

“—I’ll take care of your damn horse.”

“Goes without saying.”

“What then?”

“She likes her coffee black. Not too hot. Not too cold. And no sugar, it’s bad for her teeth.”

“Oh, for the love of—“

“—me. Do it for me.”

The two men stared at each other, the unspoken memories of all they shared—the adventures, rivalries, heartaches and losses—flipping through their minds like a Kineograph.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Joe said.

“We have.”

“Has it been worth it?”

“Every minute,” Candy answered.

Joe nodded. “Thanks,” he whispered, “for everything.”

“All in, remember?”

“All in.”

Candy returned the deed to the envelope and put it in his vest pocket. As he opened the door, he turned, grinned and said, “Behave yourself with that Irish—”

“—watch your manners!”

*****

“What time does your train leave, Jamie?”

“I’m not going back to Berkeley.”

“Jamie …”

“I’m not leaving, Joe. At least not now.  Pa said I could stay until after the operation.”

“That is not what I intended…

“Well…the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“Your English class again?”

“Samuel Johnson, 1775. Although there is some controversy about the date.” Jamie wandered around room which was larger than he expected and said so.

“I think it is supposed to be a ward eventually for post-operative recovery. Check out the faucets.”

Jamie went to the sink and turned them on. “They really do have hot and cold running water here!  We need this at home. Hey, you can see straight up the mountain from here. This ceiling must be 12 feet high.”

Joe patted the mattress. “Come here.”

Jamie crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed.

“No matter what happens tomorrow, I need you to promise you will return to school.”

“I can’t, Joe. Pa needs me here.”

“He needs you to get an education. Like he needed Adam to go to college after my mother died.”

“Do you think you’re going to die?”

“I don’t plan to, but if it happens, I want you to promise you will go back to Berkeley and finish what you started. Doesn’t matter what the degree is. Veterinary science, or farming, or word origins …Will you?”

“I-I don’t know. The ranch.”

“Candy will handle the ranch and he’ll be there for Pa. What I need …” he choked. “What I need to know is this school business is settled.” Joe placed his hand on the side of Jamie’s cheek ignoring the wetness underneath. “Promise?” He felt a nod but he wanted more. “Say it.”

“I Promise.”

“Okay. Now go. I need my beauty sleep.”

“And it is sleep ye’ll be havin’,” Sister Ailis said as she entered the room as Jamie left. “Here, drink this,” she ordered, handing him the glass while she supported his back.

Joe made a face. “Sleeping powders?”

“Aye, with a wee bit of me own invention to make ye a little less anxious.”

“Dr. Perdue approves?”

“Aye. Ye’ll not be seein’ a sunrise on the morrow, I guarantee it.”

“Do you sing as sweetly as you talk?”

“Is it a lullaby ye’ll be wantin’ then?” she asked as she tucked in the covers again.

Already feeling groggy, Joe’s response was nonsensical. When the door closed, he turned his face to the window to see the setting sun sink below the mountain crest, its rays backlighting cirrus clouds turning them red, purple and magenta in the growing dusk. He couldn’t have dreamt a more beautiful sunset.

He watched stars pop one by one into the inky sky until his weighted eyelids closed of their own accord.

In the twilight of his mind, Joe thought he heard a lullaby.

Chapter 11 – Virginia City, Nevada

Following surgery, Dr. Perdue—on the recommendation of Dr. Martin who knew his patient’s adverse reaction to ether, not to mention his propensity for becoming active too soon—had kept Joe sedated, diminishing the dosage each time. Three days later when Joe stirred, he was allowed to awaken fully.

Eyes still closed, Joe mumbled, “thirs-dy.”

“Would it be water yer wantin’ then?” said Sister Ailis, moistening her patient’s lips with a wet cloth.

Joe noded.

Sister obliged and after a Joe’s eyes opened, she placed a large ice chip in his mouth. “Let it melt. Ye tolerate it and ye can have a dram or two of water.”

“Good afternoon Joe,” said Dr. Martin. “It is about time you woke up.”

“What day is it?”

“Wednesday.”

“Wed… what?”

“Surgery was on Sunday. You’ve been out since then…with a little assistance.

“Chest hurts.”

“It took a bit of hunting to find the bullet fragments.”

“Mmm. Wait. Fragments…plural?”

“Three to be exact. Here, we saved them for you.” Dr. Martin held up a small vial in which three pieces of lead floated—one large, two smaller.

“Is that all?”

“Dr. Perdue believes he got everything.”

“No. I mean … those little bits … made me sick?”

“Hardly seems possible, does it? You’re incredibly lucky, Joe.”

Joe yawned. “Where’s Pa?”

“On his way. You take a nap and he’ll be here when you wake up.”

“’kay,” Joe managed to say before his eyes closed again.

“Sister Ailis, if he tolerates the water, wait a half hour and then give him a similar amount of chicken broth.”

“Aye, Dr. Martin. I have yer dietary instructions and a schedule. We’ll take diligent care of him.”

“I’m sure you will. But I have to warn you, Joe Cartwright pushes boundaries and you being a Sister will not stop him for long.”

“Aye, but then he doesna know what happens to my six older brothers when they don’t mind me words.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Paul said.

*****

The next morning, Ben was reading the Territorial Enterprise in a bedside chair when Joe awakened.

“Pa.”

“Good morning, Joseph. How are you feeling?”

“Groggy. Time?”

“Almost lunchtime.”

“You were supposed to come last night.”

“I did, but you were sleeping.”

“Thought they stopped giving me—”

“—they did stop. You were not drugged, only tired. You’re going to be tired for a long while, son.”

“Why? They got it out. Saw ‘em.. in that thingy.”

“Yes, but the poison is still in your system. Flushing it out will take time. You’re to see Dr. Perdue in a month. In the meantime your only job is to rest. Would you like me to read to you?”

Joe shook his head. “Can’t concentrate.”

“You get some real food in you, you’ll begin to mend. I think it’s scrambled eggs and rice pudding for lunch.”

“Yipee,” said Joe, decidedly unimpressed. “Where’s Jamie?”

“Back at school as he promised. He’ll be home for Christmas when he can stay a few weeks.”

“Not Thanksgiving?”

“No, he has papers to finish and tests to make up. Aaron invited him to his house in San Francisco for the holiday.”

Joe chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“Hope his San Francisco holiday is better than yours was.”

“Scalliwag!” Ben said, as he tapped Joe’s right arm with the folded newspaper.

Joe grimaced. “Ohh owww!”

“I’m so sorry. I—”

“—not you, Pa. I shouldn’t have laughed. My side. I’ve got stitches in my side!” Joe sputtered, “Why do I have stitches in my side when I got shot in the shoulder?”

“It took Aaron quite a bit of rooting around to find the lead,” Ben said.

A quick rap on the door preceded its opening. “How come every time I leave you alone there is shouting?” Candy said.

“What are you doing here?” Joe asked.

“Nice to see you, too.”

“I’m serious. I’m here, Pa’s here, now you’re here. That’s how rumors start you know. Rumors could ruin us!”

Candy ignored Joe and looked at the elder Cartwright. “Jamie was right.”

“I’m beginning to think so,” Ben said.

“Think what?”

“That you’ve gone off the deep end, Joe,” Candy said. “Cutting your hair, dressing in city duds, using an assumed name. What else did he do?”

“I believe it was making advances to a much younger woman,” Ben replied. “A farmer no less.”

“The shame of it all. Tsk, Tsk.”

Joe scowled. He would have folded his arms across his chest were it not for the bandages binding his shoulder and torso. Instead, the blood drained from his face and he gasped. “Pa!”

“Joe! What is it? Candy get the nurse.”

“I’m fine. I don’t need the Sister.”

“Why did you yell?”

“I forgot to tell you!”

“Tell me what?” Ben asked.

“ConVirginia plans to the take the current shaft down past the 3,000-foot level.”

“I know, Joe, we discussed this. You bid on the project and got the contract.”

“I didn’t sign it, Pa. There won’t be any Ponderosa timber in that shaft.”

“I see,” Ben said solemnly.

“Gee,” mused Candy. “That contract was worth—what?—2-3 million dollars in board feet of timber alone, don’t you think?”

Ben nodded his head. “At least.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Why should I be? I left it in your hands.”

“But…don’t you want to know why?”

“We know why,” said Candy. “Jamie said you had a gut feeling.”

“But I didn’t have any facts or figures to back it up.”

“Statistics have their place,” said Ben. “And there are those people, like Adam, for whom numbers take precedence. But they can also deceive if they are the sole basis for decision-making. Experience and intuition—or gut feelings—are equally as important. Adam learned to weigh both.”

“Besides,” Candy said, “we now have something more valuable.”

Bewildered, Joe said, “We do? What?”

“A contract with St. Mary Louise to complete construction of the hospital.”

“And another thing you’ll be pleased about,” Ben said.

“What, Pa?”

“By not closing the timber deal, you saved a lot of trees.”

***The End***

Author’s Notes:

​St. Mary Louise Hospital opened in 1876, becoming a renowned, state-of-the-art institution. The four-story, brick facility had thirty-six rooms, enough to accommodate up to seventy patients. In addition to the features mentioned in the story, the kitchen had marble counters, a stove so large the room had to be built around it, and a dumbwaiter to bring food and medicine to the upper floors.

Ward patients on the second floor were charged $10 per week for food, medicine, and medical care. Private room patients on the third floor were charged $20 per week. Charges for alcohol and laundry for all patients were separate. The fourth floor housed the Daughters of Charity. They operated their hospital until 1897 when they left the Comstock because the mining district’s population had dwindled and could no longer support them.​

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