Little Joe Cartwright couldn’t think of anything worse on a Friday morning than waiting around Virginia City for a stage to arrive while dressed in his Sunday best. Not that being dressed in his Sunday best was Joe’s idea, mind you. Pa made that request of his sons during breakfast. If it had been up to Joe, ordinary work trousers, boots, and shirt would have served this occasion just fine.
It was the kind of June day just made for breaking horses – and then made for sneaking off to a fishing hole with Hoss later in the afternoon. But there wouldn’t be an opportunity for fishing today. Or at least the youngest Cartwright didn’t think so, unless Uncle Daniel proved to be more of an outdoorsman than Joe expected.
He didn’t know much about his uncle, other than he was sixty-seven and a shopkeeper all of his adult life. Therefore, Joe pictured a wizened old man, pale, bleary eyed, and stooped at the shoulders, who had no business traveling from Ohio to Nevada by himself. It’d be a wonder if he hadn’t climbed off the stage at a stop somewhere along the journey and forgotten to get back on, or if he didn’t drop dead the moment he set foot on Virginia City soil. Back when Uncle Daniel wired he was coming for the summer, Joe tried to tell Pa that he didn’t think an old man should travel so far by himself. But Pa had just laughed, as though he knew something about Uncle Daniel that Joe didn’t. Given Pa hadn’t seen Uncle Daniel in twenty-five years, Joe wasn’t certain how that was possible, but to question his father further would have been considered disrespectful.
“So, Joseph,” Pa teased the day of the wire’s arrival when the family was gathered in the great room after supper, “how soon are you planning on keeping your own feeble old pa from traveling alone?”
“I didn’t say you were feeble. Just Uncle Daniel.”
“And what makes you think he’s feeble?”
“He’s close to seventy years old for one thing.”
“Age doesn’t necessarily define the man, son.”
“I suppose not,” Joe reluctantly conceded, “but he’s been a shopkeeper all his life.”
“And that means what?”
“Well. . .you know. That. . .that. . .”
“That he’s weak?”
“Well, not weak exactly but. . .uh. . .well. . .um--”
“Kinda scrawny and puny, Pa,” Hoss supplied in way of helping his little brother out. “Ain’t that what ya’ mean, Little Joe?”
“Yeah. That’s it. That’s what I mean.”
Pa laughed again while winking at Adam. However, he didn’t explain what he found so amusing about Joe’s assessment of the uncle he’d never met, and Joe decided to let the subject drop. He knew more teasing would come his way if he didn’t. Besides, Pa’s perspective regarding old men was likely a little off plumb. Not that Pa was old per se, but in Joe’s opinion, he was headed in that direction.
Because waiting wasn’t one of Joe’s strong suits, he hit upon a productive way to spend his time between when they arrived in town, and when Uncle Daniel’s stage was due.
“I’ll be back in a little while,” Joe said, as he and his brothers stood outside the bank. Pa was inside the building transacting some kind of lengthy business that required him to meet with the bank’s president.
“Where you goin’?” Hoss asked in a tone that indicated he had no desire to stand around waiting, either.
“Just gonna help a friend.”
Adam arched an eyebrow. “Help a friend?”
“Yeah. I promised Reba I’d help her move to a new room the next time I was in town.”
“Joe, Pa said we’re all supposed to be here when Uncle Daniel arrives,” Adam reminded.
“I’ll be here. It’ll be another hour before the stage comes in. Maybe two, if Pete’s drivin’ and he goes slow on account of his rheumatism.”
“But if you’re delayed--”
“I won’t be delayed. How much stuff can Reba have? The rooms are furnished. It’s just a matter of moving some dresses, and hat boxes, and female notions, and stuff like that.”
“Nonetheless, I don’t think today is the day to risk being late. Or to have to explain to your father in front of the brother he hasn’t seen in twenty-five years, that you were held up while helping a saloon girl move to the new residence where she’ll be entertaining gentlemen callers after-hours.”
“Pa likes Reba.”
“Pa is friendly to Reba when we go in the Silver Dollar, yes. Just like he’s friendly to any man or woman who waits on him in a store, bank, or saloon. But--”
“Adam, if you’d quit jawin’ at me, I coulda’ been gone and back by now.”
“But,” Adam continued as though his little brother hadn’t interrupted him, “all I’m saying is that I don’t think you want to upset Pa today, regardless of how. . .
um. . .noble your reasons are.”
“I won’t upset him. I’ll be back in plenty a’ time.”
“I’ll be back, Adam,” Joe promised, then hurried off down the sidewalk toward the Silver Dollar before his oldest brother could make a grab for his arm.
~ ~ ~
With envy in his eyes, Hoss watched his little brother head toward the saloon. For two bits, he’d have followed Joe. However, Hoss wasn’t one to throw caution to the wind. He had no desire to incur his father’s wrath on this day when they were all expected to make a good first impression on Uncle Daniel.
Hoss looked at Adam. “How come ya’ didn’t stop him?”
Adam leaned sideways against a timber supporting the overhead roof. He crossed his arms against his chest and gave a smug grin.
“Hey, the kid’s eighteen now, as he keeps reminding us. Old enough to make his own decisions, as we’ve heard him say numerous times since last October. So, if the lamb is willing to go to the slaughter, that’s his choice.”
“Yeah, but for some reason I gotta feelin’ Pa’s gonna blame us for lettin’ him leave.”
“Oh, Pa’ll blame us all right, but that won’t last long.”
“No,” Adam assured. “Pa’ll be so mad at Joe if he shows up after the stage arrives, that he’ll forget all about being angry with you and me.”
A slow grin spread over Hoss’s face. “Yeah, guess yer right about that, now ain’t ya.”
“You bet I am.”
“And it’ll be kinda fun watchin’ the fireworks when Pa explodes, won’t it?”
“That’s just what I was thinking.”
Hoss leaned against the post opposite his brother and pulled the brim of his hat low on his forehead. “And here I was just sayin’ to myself that there ain’t much in the way of entertainment in this town on a Friday morning when all a fella’s got to do with his time is wait for a stage.”
“Well now, brother, maybe we can count on Joe to raise the entertainment factor for us.”
“Maybe we can,” Hoss agreed, while not feeling a bit a guilty over the trouble potentially awaiting Little Joe. If it were serious trouble, Hoss would go after him and haul him back. But this was the kind of “learnin’ a lesson” trouble that wouldn’t really do anyone no harm, other than the harm it did to Joe’s eardrums when Pa hollered loud enough to make it rain. Therefore, Hoss figured the kid deserved whatever came his way for defying their father, and then for not listening to Adam when he cautioned against it.
The brothers remained where they were, dutifully waiting for their father. Every now and then they’d glance toward the Silver Dollar, while making bets with one another as to just how long it would be after the stage arrived before Little Joe showed up. It wasn’t the most fun Hoss had ever engaged it, but it did provide a portion of that entertainment he was hankering for.
It didn’t take long for Little Joe to discover how foolish his rhetorical question to Adam of, “How much stuff can Reba have?” had been. Like he’d told his brothers, he didn’t have to move any furniture for the woman, but between her piles of dresses, hats, shoes, jewelry boxes, notions, and the feminine “delicate items” Joe had far more knowledge of than his father was aware of, it took the young man more time than he’d anticipated. Fortunately, Reba was relocating only two doors down from her old room. Had she been moving to a new saloon altogether, it would have taken Joe the better part of the morning to get the job accomplished.
As Joe hung the last of the dresses in the wardrobe, Reba turned from the bureau where she’d been putting away undergarments.
“Thanks, Little Joe. I really appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
“I didn’t do that much other than move two tons a’ dresses and three tons a’ hats.”
“Hey now, a gal can’t have too many ways to look pretty for a man.”
“So I’ve just finished learning.”
The red headed woman sauntered over to Joe with an exaggerated sway of her hips. She looked up at him and winked, while seductively fiddling with the black string tie around his neck.
“Is there any. . .uh. . .special way, you’d like me to extend my thanks, Mr. Cartwright?”
A sly smile touched Joe’s lips. “Well, Ma’am, now that you mention it, I can think of several ways, but unfortunately, I don’t have the time.”
“A pity.” The woman let Joe’s tie drop from her fingers and returned to unpacking her delicates. “After all, you’re considered one of the best catches in town.”
Joe knew Reba was just teasing him. He’d never shown an interest in her that went beyond friendship, and vice versa. Besides, among other things he knew that he kept a closely guarded secret, was that Adam bedded Reba every now and again. When it came to his oldest brother, potential blackmail material was hard to come by. Therefore, Joe wasn’t going to jeopardize it by sleeping with the woman himself. If he did, and then Reba ever told Adam. . .well, it would destroy this ace Joe carried around in his back pocket, so to speak. Besides, where saloon girls were concerned, Iris captivated Joe’s fancy. It was safer that way. Adam wasn’t interested in Iris.
“I’m one of the best catches in town, huh?”
“That’s the rumor.” She turned and winked at Joe again. “Of course, I wouldn’t know, considering you’ve never asked me to entertain--”
Before the woman could finish her sentence, a boy of about ten appeared in the open doorway. Mismatched gingham patches were stitched on both knees of the trousers that hung a good three inches above his ankles, holes dotted his shirt, and his face carried a week’s worth of dirt.
“You Joe Cartwright?”
The disheveled kid’s chest heaved and out, as though he’d been running. He held up a quarter. “Yer brothers sent me to find ya. Said ya’ need to hurry.”
“Oh shit. The stage!” Joe grabbed his hat and suit coat off of Reba’s bed. “Pardon my language, Ma’am.”
Reba laughed. “Don’t you worry about that none, Little Joe. I’ve heard enough salty language in my day to make milk curdle.”
Joe jammed his hat on his head and shrugged into his coat with a quick “Bye!” called over his shoulder to Reba.
“Bye, Joe! And thanks again!”
The boy led the way to the back stairs. “Follow me! Yer brothers said to meet ‘em in the alley.”
Joe raced after the boy, galloping down the steps. If Adam and Hoss were trying to keep him out of hot water with Pa, then it made sense that they’d want him to come out the back door of the Silver Dollar. Pa might see him if he exited from the front of the saloon. But by exiting into the alley, Joe could arrive at the stage drop-off from any direction. Now all he had to do was come up with a plausible story as to why he was late.
Something to do with old ladies, Joe thought as he barged out the door behind his young messenger. If I say I had to do an errand for an old woman, there’s no way Pa can be mad at me. The Widow Ferguson! That’s it. I’ll say she asked me to carry her packages home from the general store. I’ll say she asked me in for a piece of pie, and that I didn’t want to be impolite by telling her no. I’ll say--”
Before Joe could perfect the rest of his story, a fist slammed into his face. He flew back against a wall of the Silver Dollar with an “uff!” He caught a brief glimpse of his attackers as they swarmed him like bees to a hive. They were all scruffy and dirty – a gang of miners’ kids who lived out at the camps and didn’t attend school, and not a one of them over twelve. Nonetheless, Joe didn’t stand a chance against eight boys who’d been paid to beat him up. Nine, if you included the messenger clawing at Joe’s suit jacket in a determined effort to strip him of it and run off with it.
Perhaps if Joe hadn’t initially been concerned about hurting the boys, he could have fended them off long enough to reach the street. But by the time he realized these hooligans had no reservations about hurting him, Joe had already been driven to his knees and was trying to defend himself against the fists pummeling his back, face, and chest.
As his suit jacket gave way to the boy set on owning it, something hard and solid whacked the side of Joe’s head. The young man saw stars for a few seconds, then saw nothing as his body crumpled to the ground amidst hoops and hollers of victory.
Ben Cartwright exited the bank, squinting as the June sun assaulted his eyes. His stomach rumbled and gnawed toward his backbone. It was almost noon. Ben thought of the meal Hop Sing would have waiting for them when they arrived. A beef roast, two roasted chickens, potatoes, peas, carrots, baked beans, apple butter, corn bread, cherry pie, peach pie, strawberry pie, and a half dozen other items Ben requested, much of it grown or raised right on the Ponderosa. Come to think of it, if Hoss had managed to make a few requests of his own, then numerous additional foods would accompany their meal. That was all right, though. It would make supper an easier affair for their Chinese houseman. Platters laden with leftovers that everyone could pick and choose from would be fine for the evening meal. But for today’s lunch, the first meal upon Daniel’s arrival, Ben wanted nothing less than a spread normally reserved for a dozen guests at Sunday dinner.
Though he hadn’t voiced it to his sons, and thought he’d done a good job of hiding it as well, Ben was a bit uneasy over the impending visit of his eldest brother. As a boy, Ben hadn’t really known Daniel. He couldn’t remember Daniel living with them in Ma and Pa’s farmhouse. After Daniel married Clara when Ben was just three years old, he lived nearby and worked in his father in-law’s store. Ben was certain his brother must have visited home from time to time, and dimly recalled some Christmas dinners with Daniel and Clara present, and later on, little Ruth, too. But his memories of these gatherings weren’t especially clear. Maybe the lack of memories surrounding Daniel were because Ben was a young boy then; busy, and active, and full of mischief – off somewhere catching frogs with John, or playing tricks on his sisters, or cutting hay with Pa, and not paying any mind to the brother fourteen years his senior, who’d always seemed like a grown man to Ben. In truth, what few clear childhood memories Ben did possess of Daniel revolved around stern looks and even sterner admonishments. At even the young age of twenty, Daniel seemed to think children should be seen and not heard, and couldn’t cotton to the lively personalities of his younger siblings.
Pa used to tease Ma and say Daniel was all Weston and no Cartwright. Ma would grow offended, but soon Pa had her smiling again. From what Ben had grown up hearing, Ma’s people were pious folks who believed no good came of fun and laughter. Pa always said that if Ma hadn’t married him, she’d have been just like her kin – all sour and disagreeable, like an apple left too long in the fruit cellar. Ma always protested those words, but never with much vigor, which lead Ben to conclude that Ma’s people were far different from the boisterous, fun-loving Joseph Cartwright she’d fallen in love with.
For the brief time Ben had spent with Daniel as an adult living in his brother’s home and working in his store, he found the man a critical taskmaster. Without being asked for his opinions, he freely gave Ben advice on raising Adam, though Ben never thought it sounded much like advice. Instead, it always sounded like orders Ben was supposed to follow without question. Daniel treated him the same way in the store, not giving Ben credit for being an intelligent, twenty-eight year old man who’d already seen and done more in his life than Daniel would ever think of doing. Instead, it was, “Do this,” and “Do that,” and “Is that the best you can do, Benjamin?” as though he were an eight-year-old who wasn’t smart enough to know how to stack canned goods or sweep a floor.
Ben hadn’t much liked the way Daniel treated Ruth, either. And then when the day came that Daniel decided Ben should re-marry, and when he spoke of knowing a young widow in Reedsville with four children who would make Ben a “fine, Christian wife,” Ben knew he had to take Adam and move on. If he’d stayed out the winter as he’d originally planned, he’d have had cross words with his brother, and he was determined not to do so. He felt that a rift between himself and Daniel would be a dishonor to their father’s memory. The man who had adored his children, and was always ready to laugh, or pull a prank, or instigate a little spur-of-the-moment fun, had died three years earlier. Upon Pa’s death, John and his ever-expanding young family moved onto the farm with Ma. John ran the farm, and would continue to do so following Ma’s death, which came a few months after Ben reached Nevada with Adam and little Hoss.
Over the years, Ben had mellowed where thoughts of his oldest brother were concerned, and assumed Daniel might have mellowed with age, too. Granted, Daniel’s letters were still filled with dire warnings of “fire and brimstone” if a good Christian life wasn’t led. But Ben ignored most of his brother’s ranting, often not even reading it to the boys, knowing that Daniel would always be a “Weston,” as Pa would say. And besides, Ben felt he’d lived that good Christian life Daniel often spoke of, and had raised his boys with a combination of moral guidance gleaned from both his mother and the Bible, things he’d learned at his father’s knee, and admittedly too, things he’d learned by the seat of his pants. Especially where Little Joe was concerned. Although Joe was his mother’s child in so many ways, he was also his Grandpa Cartwright’s grandson; there was little doubt about that.
As far as his invitation of an extended visit to Daniel went, Ben supposed that had come from sentiment. After all, none of the children of Joseph and Anna Cartwright were getting any younger. Someday in the not-too-distant-future the family circle would further be broken by death. Lately, Ben found himself longing to see Ellen, Lilly, John, Dorcas, and Addie again. Funny how his longings had never extended to Daniel until he’d received that letter from John, in which John expressed his concerns for their eldest brother.
Now, Ben found himself both apprehensive, as well as eager, for Daniel’s arrival. He smiled at the sons who were waiting for him.
“Any sign of the stage yet?”
“Not yet, Pa, but I reckon it’ll be comin’ along soon.”
“Should be,” Adam agreed. He dug out his pocket watch. “It’s five minutes to twelve.”
“Well, then,” Ben smiled, “unless Pete’s driving, the stage should be right on time.” Looking around, he suddenly realized one son wasn’t in the nearby vicinity.
“Where’s Little Joe?”
As he slipped his watch back into a pocket of his black suit coat, Adam said, “Funny you should ask that, Pa.”
Hoss pasted a false grin on his face. “Yeah, funny you should ask.”
“I don’t think it’s funny. Now where’s your brother?”
“He said he had to help a friend move,” Adam supplied.
“One a’ the little gals at the Silver Dollar.”
“You let your brother leave to help a saloon girl move after I specifically told you boys to wait right here!”
“Well now uh. . .ya’ see, Pa, we didn’t exactly let Little Joe leave. He just. . .did,” Hoss finished weakly.”
“Oh, he just did, did he? And you two couldn’t stop him, is that it?” Ben turned to Adam, thrusting a finger into his chest. “You, who outweighs him by thirty pounds,” Ben faced Hoss, “and you, who outweighs him by well over one hundred pounds.”
“It wasn’t exactly about stopping him, Pa.”
Ben arched an eyebrow at his oldest son. “It wasn’t?”
“No. It was about teaching him a lesson.”
Ben’s lips tightened in a familiar way that made Hoss give a regret-filled grimace.
“It seems to me that if any lessons need to be taught in this family, I’m the one who should be teaching them. As for you two. . .” Ben shook his head in exasperation. There was no time for a lecture. “Never mind. I’ll go find your brother myself. You wait right here, and I do mean right here on this very spot, until I get--”
The sidewalk trembled beneath Ben’s boots. He turned as the rumble of horses’ hooves announced the stage coach’s arrival before it could be seen. As the stage rounded a corner and came into view, he mumbled, “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”
Ben plastered a smile on his face, gathered the two sons who were present by putting an arm around each of their shoulders, and stepped forward to greet the brother he hadn’t seen in over two decades – all the while hoping Little Joe would show up before Daniel got off the stage.
“Little Joe. . .? Little Joe. . .?” The young woman glanced over her shoulder to make certain no one was watching her from the mouth of the alley. When she’d determined she was still alone, she turned back to the man she was crouched beside and shook his arm again. “Little Joe. Little Joe, wake up.”
Joe moaned as his head rolled back and forth in the dirt.
“Little Joe? Little Joe, wake up.”
Eyes blinked heavy and reluctantly, as if Joe were being awoken from a deep sleep he didn’t want to leave.
He looked up at her, eyes bleary with confusion, as though he had no idea who she was. And maybe he didn’t. After all, they hadn’t been in school together for a couple of years now, and a vast parade of other girls had caught and held his fancy in the time since they’d sat across the aisle from one another in Miss Jones’ classroom.
She glanced over her shoulder again. When she turned back to her old schoolmate, awareness shone from his bruised face.
“I can’t stay long. I left Timmy in the general store picking out candy with Nora and Henry. If I don’t get back there soon, they’ll come looking for me.”
By the puzzlement on his face, Nan could tell Joe didn’t understand why she spoke in a rushed, nervous whisper. She glanced over her shoulder again before whispering a confession to Joe.
“It was Paul and Charlie.”
Little Joe grimaced as he pushed himself up on his elbows. “Paul and Charlie what?”
“They were the ones who paid those boys to beat you up.”
Joe voiced his muddled thoughts in a one-word question. “Boys. . .?”
“The boys from the mining camps.”
Nan’s explanation, though succinct, seemed to be all Joe needed to bring forth memories of the events in the alley.
“How do you know that?”
“I just do. Working for the Dunns I. . .I hear things sometimes that I’m not supposed to. Now come on, let me help you to your feet.”
Nan sat the woven basket she was carrying on the ground, grasped Joe’s arm, and helped him stand. He swayed back and forth a moment, making Nan fear he was going to lose consciousness again. When he finally steadied, she asked, “Do you need me to get Doc Martin?”
“Naw.” The battered young man gave a terse shake of his head while wiping blood from both corners of his mouth, and then taking his cowboy hat from Nan. “I’ve been hurt worse bustin’ broncs.”
“I’ve got to get along then. I can’t let the children find me with you. Or Paul or Charlie, either.”
Joe grasped her arm. “But--”
Nan wriggled from his hold. “I can’t tell you any more than I already have. That’s all I know. And. . .and please, Little Joe, don’t tell anyone it was me that tipped you off about Paul and Charlie hiring those boys.”
She hated the fear she heard in her voice. If she really wanted to do the right thing, she’d be willing to go to Sheriff Coffee and report what she knew. But she needed her job. And besides, Mr. Dunn was an important man around these parts, and she was just Nan Henning, the daughter of a crippled, unemployed miner. If the sheriff didn’t believe her, Mr. Dunn could make things even more miserable for Nan and her family than they already were.
Despite his addled brain, Joe must have heard the fear too, or maybe he saw it on her face. Either way, he didn’t hesitate when he promised, “I won’t mention your name to a soul.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
He offered her a grin made lopsided by his puffy lower lip. “Hey, it should be me thanking you, not the other way around.”
She picked up her shopping basket. “I have to go. Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be fine. Make sure the coast is clear, then be on your way. I’ll wait a couple minutes before leaving after you.”
Nan nodded. She gave Little Joe one last grateful look for his understanding, then hurried to the mouth of the alley where she cautiously peered out and viewed the street. When she didn’t see any signs of Paul or Charlie, she slipped from the alley to the sidewalk in one smooth motion and headed toward the general store.
~ ~ ~
Currently, Joe Cartwright didn’t have time to dwell on what Nan revealed. He did as he promised, waiting in the alley while she walked to the store. As soon as she had safely entered, Joe would hurry on his way. If he were lucky, Pete would be driving the stage, meaning Joe still had thirty minutes to make good use of. Not to do with what he wanted to, however, which was to track Paul and Charlie down and give them a taste of their own medicine. Instead, Joe would make a stop at Soo Ling’s bathhouse, where he could pay a nickel for some warm water and soap to wash his face with, and then he’d head to Keegan’s Gentlemen’s Shop for a new suit coat and a white shirt that wasn’t bloodstained. The hooligans who jumped him had taken his wallet, but Pa ran an account at Keegan’s, therefore Joe could get what he needed despite his lack of funds. As far as the cuts and bruises on his face went – and though Joe couldn’t see them, he had no doubt they were there by the way his flesh stung, and by how much it hurt to move his mouth – he’d tell Pa that the Widow Ferguson asked him to carry some things to the upper story of her house, and that he’d tripped on a rickety step and tumbled down the stairs.
But, as the old saying went, “The best laid plans. . .” The incoming stage flew by the alley where Joe remained hidden from view. He waited a few minutes, hoping his uncle had missed the connection to Virginia City. When he finally worked up the nerve to peer out at the town, Joe saw his brothers loading luggage into the buggy, and saw a barrel-chested man with a thick shock of gray hair standing beside Pa. A man who could have been Pa’s identical twin, had it not been for their age difference.
For just a moment, Joe thought of fleeing in the opposite direction, but as another old saying went that Pa often used, “When all else fails, I always catch the pig at the trough.” So, since Joe would have to show up at home eventually and own up to his tardiness where Uncle Daniel’s arrival was concerned, he figured he might as well face his father’s wrath now and get it over with.
The young man straightened, winced at the way that movement bit into his sore ribs, counted to ten in order to brace himself for the tongue lashing that was to come, then stepped onto the sidewalk and headed towards his family.
The initial moment of greeting was an awkward, stumble-footed dance. Ben let his arms slip from his sons’ shoulders, and stepped forward to hug his brother. Daniel seemed startled by this display of affection, then for a brief second acted like he was going to return it, before changing his mind and thrusting his right hand at Ben.
Ben dropped his arms. If Daniel had been John, they’d be locked in an embrace not even Hoss’s strength could break. But this was Daniel, not John, and Ben wasn’t surprised by the man’s rebuff.
Ben gripped the hand held out to him, pumped it with enthusiasm, and smiled with a warmth that came through in his voice.
“Daniel, it’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, Benjamin. Thank you for the invitation.”
“No need for thanks. The boys and I are just happy to see you had a safe journey.”
“It was the will of the Lord.”
“Yes. . .yes, I’m sure it was.”
Remembering quite well how Daniel could carry on for hours about the “will of the Lord,” made Ben decide to keep the conversation moving. He turned, facing his sons.
“Daniel, you remember Adam. Though I imagine he’s changed some since the last time you saw him.”
Daniel appraised Adam from head to toe. Ben was proud of his eldest son, standing there so straight and dignified in his black Sunday suit.
Ben’s brother nodded his approval, as though Adam passed his inspection. He offered his hand to his nephew.
“Adam. You appear to have grown into a fine man.”
“Thank you, Sir. You look well.”
“For a man of my years, I am well. The Lord will decide when my time on earth is through.”
Adam cast an amused glance at his father while replying to his uncle, “Uh. . .yes. Yes, the Lord has a plan for all of us, doesn’t he.”
“Yes, he does, Adam.” Daniel turned to Ben. “It appears that you’ve raised the boys with the Lord close their hearts.”
“I have,” Ben nodded. He veered the conversation off-course once more, directing Daniel’s attention to his middle son. “And this strapping young fellow is my son Hoss.”
Just like he’d done with Adam, Daniel appraised Hoss from head to toe – though it took considerably longer for his eyes to travel Hoss’s height and girth. Hoss shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, a sure sign to Ben that the scrutiny made him nervous.
Ben let out a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding when Daniel finally extended his hand to Hoss.
“I’ll call you Eric, young man. I fear the good Lord doesn’t cotton to nicknames.”
“Uh. . .yes, sir. That’ll be fine, Uncle Dan’el. Eric is just dandy by me.”
Daniel dropped Hoss’s hand and looked around. “And Joseph? Where’s your youngest, Benjamin?”
“He’s. . .um. . .helping a friend here in town with. . .with some things.”
“What kind of things? The Lord’s work, I pray.”
Ben shot Adam and Hoss a glare when one of them stifled a snicker by coughing, and the other one did the same by clearing his throat.
“It’s a. . .uh. . .goodwill gesture on Little Joe’s part, yes. He’ll be along soon.” Ben hurried to deflect this subject. “Let’s get your luggage and load it onto the buggy. If Little Joe’s not back by the time we’ve got it secured, I’ll send the boys for him.”
Hoss and Adam got their uncle’s trunk and travel bag from the top of the stagecoach. Hoss hauled the trunk on one shoulder, while Adam carried the bag. They placed the items in the open space behind the buggy’s seat.
If Daniel had been John, Ben could have further stalled for time by taking his brother to one of the saloons for a drink. But then, if Daniel were John, no stalling would be necessary, because John wouldn’t have been bothered by Little Joe’s tardiness, nor held Ben’s parenting skills in judgment because of it.
But, since Ben couldn’t take the tea-totaling Daniel for a drink, and since he felt like he was being judged as they stood under the hot sun waiting for his youngest son, he was just about to send Adam and Hoss in search of their brother when he spotted Joe walking toward them.
Oh no, Ben moaned inwardly as his son drew closer and he got a good look at him. Joseph, not today. Not today of all days! How am I ever going to explain to Daniel that you got into a brawl over a saloon girl?
Ben took a deep breath, resisting the urge to strangle his youngest when the battered, bruised, and bloodied Joe tried to offer a contrite smile with his split lips while stammering, “Uh…hi, Pa. Sorry—Um, sorry I’m late.”
Joe stood with his head bent, risking a wary glance every now and again at the faces around him. Adam’s own head was bent as he hid his smile from Pa. No doubt big brother was garnering a great deal of amusement from Joe’s predicament. At least in Hoss’s gaze Joe found sympathy. No, there was no hint of amusement there, just a look that said, “Aw, shucks, Little Joe, why’d ya’ have ta’ go and start things off on the wrong foot with Uncle Dan’el? Ya’ really got Pa riled with this stunt.”
Joe knew he had his father riled, because even though he wouldn’t risk meeting Pa’s eyes, he could feel the man’s heavy gaze boring into him, just like he could feel his Uncle Daniel’s gaze of disapproval, as though he’d already decided that Joe didn’t live up to his expectations.
Well, Joe didn’t much care if he didn’t gain the approval of a man he’d never met, though he knew better than to voice those thoughts. Besides, he had other things on his mind right now, and none of them had to do with making a good impression on an uncle who, as far as Joe knew, his father had never been very close to anyway.
Joe had to hand it to Pa. He set his anger aside, didn’t ask any questions of Joe in front of their visitor that might potentially tarnish the Cartwright name, and slipped an arm around Joe’s shoulders. Granted, the hand that rested on his upper arm squeezed with just a little too much force, but nonetheless, Pa managed a smile while introducing with good humor, “If you haven’t come to the conclusion on your own by now, Daniel, this young scallywag, who evidently left his pocket watch at home today, is my son Joseph. Little Joe, your uncle Daniel.”
Joe extended a hand to the man. “Hello, Sir. Nice to meet you.”
Uncle Daniel gave a curt nod. He ignored the offer of Joe’s hand, to instead aim a directive at Pa.
“Evidently this one needs a good strapping to set him on the right path, Benjamin.”
Joe cast a sideways glance at his father when the hand gripping his arm loosened and gave a light pat.
“Oh now, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Joseph knows what path I expect him to walk.”
“Yes, Benjamin, he may well know what path you expect him to walk, but the question being, is he traveling that path, or only fooling you into thinking he is?”
Before Pa could answer, Uncle Daniel turned and headed for the buggy. Joe felt his father’s chest expand as he took a deep breath, and then heard him let it out slowly. For reasons he couldn’t identify, Joe didn’t think that deep breath had anything to do with his transgressions, but instead, had something to do with Uncle Daniel. He was more certain of it when Pa patted his arm one more time before releasing him, and then said in his best host voice, “Come on, boys, let’s get your uncle out to the Ponderosa. He’s probably hungry and looking forward to a good meal.”
As Pa climbed into the buggy and took the horse’s reins, Joe and his brothers walked to where their mounts were tied to a hitching post in front of the bank. Adam’s cheerful, “Thanks, little brother,” made Joe scowl.
“Thanks for what?”
“Before you showed up looking like you’ve been on the losing side of a saloon brawl, Pa was giving Hoss and me the what for over your absence. It’s always nice to know that we can count on you to get entangled in the kind of trouble that’ll make Pa forget why he was angry with us.”
Hoss patted Joe’s back. “Yep, little brother, I gotta agree with Adam on that one. It sure is handy to have you come along at just the right time and get Pa all in a lather.”
“Glad I could be of help,” Joe mumbled as his brothers chuckled quietly, while their father called, “Boys, hurry it up there!”
“Coming, Pa,” Adam responded with a humorous lilt to his voice, only to be echoed by Hoss’s dutiful but equally light, “Yes, Sir.”
Joe knew they were still making fun of him, but given he was already on shaky ground with Pa, the young man decided it was best to leave his brothers to their teasing and concentrate on being an obedient son for the rest of the day.
He got in his saddle with one smooth leap, then allowed Cochise to follow Sport until they were riding alongside Uncle Daniel, while Hoss rode on the opposite side of the buggy, Chub keeping an easy pace beside Pa.
Soon, they were headed toward the Ponderosa on Virginia City Road. Pa, Adam and Hoss eagerly pointed out various sights to Uncle Daniel as they traveled. Joe’s attention, however, was far removed from his family’s conversation with their visitor as he rode in silence, his mind mulling over recent events.
As Cochise trotted beside the buggy, Joe pondered what Nan had told him. So Paul and Charlie Dunn paid those camp kids to beat him up. Joe probably would have never reached that conclusion on his own. Or at least not for several days. If Nan hadn’t tipped him off, he would have thought he was the victim of nothing other than a robbery. It wasn’t unheard of for gangs of miners’ boys to cause trouble in town. Roy Coffee tried to keep their devilment at bay, but the sheriff and his deputy could only be in so many places at one time. That fact left a good deal of Virginia City and her citizens as fair game for the undisciplined boys with nothing better to do than cause mischief.
But from what Nan said, Joe hadn’t been the victim of a robbery. Oh sure, his suit jacket had been stolen along with his wallet, but more than likely those boys wouldn’t have been lying in wait for him if Paul and Charlie hadn’t paid them for their efforts. Joe thought back to other incidents in recent weeks. Odd happenings hadn’t ended the April evening Cochise stumbled over that wire. One day in early May, when Joe was marking a stand of trees for cutting, Cochise disappeared. Joe had left the horse tied up beneath a grove of Ponderosa Pines while he worked. When he took a break at noon and went to get his lunch from his saddlebags, the horse was gone.
At first, Joe wondered if he hadn’t tied the horse securely, but just as quickly as that thought came to him the young man negated it. He knew he hadn’t been careless with his horse, and besides, even if Cochise did somehow loosen his reins from the branch Joe had looped them around, the horse wouldn’t wander far. He was too well trained, and too loyal to his master, to go running off like a skittish colt.
Joe trekked three miles that day before finding his horse. It hadn’t been difficult to track the animal, but then, Joe didn’t suppose Paul and Charlie intended for it to be difficult, as opposed to just being aggravating. Any questions Joe had in his mind regarding how Cochise managed to wander off were answered when he found the animal standing beside a fence, his reins tied around a rail. Unless Cochise had acquired a new talent, a person, or better put, two persons, were involved in his disappearance.
But since he hadn’t seen or heard anyone, Joe couldn’t prove that, so he didn’t say anything about the incident to his father or brothers. Then, two weeks after that, Joe was working in the same area mending fences. He didn’t have Cochise with him that day, but rather a wagon loaded with tools. When he’d come back to the wagon bed after taking a short walk at lunchtime to loosen his sore back muscles, a hammer was missing. And not just any hammer, but Adam’s favorite hammer. How someone could have a favorite hammer Joe still didn’t know, but he sure heard about it the next day when Adam went to get that hammer from the barn and couldn’t find it.
“Have either of you seen my favorite hammer?”
Joe had been in the ranch yard with Hoss, helping his brother replace some warped boards on a horse trough.
“Nope, Adam, ain’t seen it,” Hoss said from where he knelt beside the trough, his back to the barn. He held up the hammer he was using. “This’n ain’t the one you like. Joe, didn’t you have that hammer a’ Adam’s in the toolbox yesterday when you headed out to mend fence?”
“I didn’t know Adam had a hammer. I thought every hammer around this place was free for the using.”
“They are free for the using,” Adam said. “But they’re also free for the returning. So where is it?”
What Joe wanted to say that day was, “Probably somewhere on the Dunn ranch.” But to do that would have precipitated a discussion the young man didn’t want to have with his brothers, because ultimately they would have told their father about the trouble Paul and Charlie were still giving Joe.
“I don’t know where it’s at.”
“How can you not know where it’s at? You either used it yesterday and brought it home, or you didn’t. Now which is it?”
“I used it, but it never came home with me.”
“And just how did that happen?”
“I. . .I guess I musta’ lost it.”
“Lost it? Joe, you’re eighteen not eight. How do you lose a hammer?”
“I don’t know! I just did, okay! It wasn’t like I meant to. And besides, it’s just a hammer. There’s at least six more like it hanging in the barn. Grab one of those!”
“I don’t want to grab one of those. I want the one you lost!”
“Well if I could give it you I would, but I can’t.”
“You know, if you paid attention to what you’re doing and were more responsible--”
Joe took a step toward his oldest brother. “I do pay attention to what I’m doing, and I am respons--”
“Hey, now, fellas,” Hoss placated while standing. “It’s just a hammer.”
“My favorite hammer.”
“I heard ya’ the first time, Adam. An’ just as soon as Little Joe an’ me are done fixin’ this trough we’ll take a ride out to where he was workin’ yesterday and look around for it. But in the meantime, if ya’ need to use a hammer, then like Joe said, there’s a buncha them right there in the barn.”
“Oh, never mind,” Adam huffed as he turned for the barn. “Sending the two of you to look for a hammer just means that much more work doesn’t get done around this place today. Joe probably planned it that way so you could take a side trip to a fishing hole.”
If Joe hadn’t been in a bad mood to begin with that morning, he would have found Adam’s remark funny, and then would have suggested to Hoss that they do just what big brother said and go fishing. But he didn’t suggest a trip to the fishing hole, because he was growing weary of Paul and Charlie Dunn and their high jinks, and was preoccupied trying to figure out a way to put a stop to their shenanigans without involving his family. Obviously, Joe hadn’t come up with any bright ideas, given that the Dunns had hired those kids to beat him up today.
Without realizing it, Joe scowled as he rode beside the buggy thinking of Paul and Charlie. It was interesting, in an ironic sort of way, as to how life worked sometimes. For two months, Joe hadn’t wanted to tell his father of the Dunn boys’ harassment. But now, when he was beginning to think it might be prudent to talk to Pa, the opportunity wasn’t readily at hand due to the presence of their visitor.
Joe gave a quiet sigh of resignation. His mind was so far removed from what was going on around him that he barely noticed when they arrived in the ranch yard, or the smells of roast beef and chicken wafting from the house that made his stomach growl.
Daniel remained attentive to his brother and two oldest nephews during the trip to the ranch, while still managing to focus a good deal of his attention on Benjamin’s youngest son. This one was trouble, just like Danny had been. Daniel could spot it a mile away, even when it didn’t arrive beaten up and bloodstained. Those were just the outward signs. Daniel was well aware of this, because Danny had come home more than once looking just like Joseph did now.
The boy’s silence, which was most certainly an indication of idle daydreaming, was another sign, along with that scowl that came and went from his face. The good Lord only knew what evil was churning in that mind of his, just like the good Lord only knew what evil was churning in Danny’s mind until He saw fit to reveal those thoughts to Daniel.
This boy. . .Joseph. . .he reminded Daniel of his son in numerous ways. Although Benjamin had mentioned in his letters over the years that Joseph strongly resembled his mother, Daniel could plainly see the boy possessed Cartwright features, too, just like Danny had possessed various Cartwright features. Joseph was built like Danny – slight and wiry. That’s how Pa had been built, and John was built that way as well. As for where Daniel and Benjamin got their larger, broader builds – they took after the Weston side of the family in that regard.
Then there was the dark curly hair that Benjamin should hold this boy down and take a razor to – well, that was Pa’s hair. Pa always wore his hair far too long and unruly. And whenever he did finally allow Ma to cut it, he never let her give him a proper trim, not even when he was an old man and looked downright foolish with that bushy head of curly hair gone stone white with age, and grown to his shoulders.
John had Pa’s curly hair, though it had more gray in it now days than the dark brown of his youth. Danny had inherited Pa’s curly hair also, though he’d been blond like his mother, and Daniel barely allowed those curls to spring to life before demanding they be cut off.
And then there were the eyes. Joseph and Danny both had their Grandfather Cartwright’s eyes. Maybe Joseph’s mother’s eyes were green as well, that Daniel didn’t know. Regardless, Pa’s eyes had been green, and so were Ellen’s, John’s, and Adele’s, as were Danny’s. Joseph’s eyes reminded him of theirs. And most especially of Danny’s. As though behind the light in those eyes he had a secret he was keeping from Benjamin, just like Danny had kept secrets.
Now Daniel knew why the Lord had sent him to visit Benjamin. His brother might not realize it yet, or he might be refusing to realize it, but he needed help with his youngest son. Joseph needed the Lord’s salvation, and Daniel would do everything in his power to gain the boy that salvation before he met the same fate Danny had. The fate of a sinner damned to the fires of hell for all eternity.
As Benjamin, Adam and Eric continued to tell him all about the Ponderosa as they rode into the ranch yard, Daniel said a silent prayer, asking the Lord to help him cast out the demon residing within young Joseph.
“Amen,” Pa, Adam and Hoss echoed respectfully, though Joe swore Adam’s “Amen” sounded more like, “Praise the Lord this prayer’s finally come to an end,” and Hoss’s sounded more like, “Praise the Lord that we can finally eat.”
Joe’s “Amen,” came on the heels of his family’s, because his uncle’s long-winded thanksgiving had lulled him into a light doze that he hoped no one was aware of. By the piercing gaze Uncle Daniel cast upon him from the end of the table opposite of Pa’s chair, Joe had a feeling his little nap hadn’t gone unnoticed.
As platters of food were passed and plates filled, Uncle Daniel seemed pleased with the spread Hop Sing had prepared, because several times he complimented Pa on the skills of his “Chinaman.” Joe didn’t let that phrase bother him the first time, especially because his father courteously and smoothly corrected Uncle Daniel by saying, “Yes, we’re lucky to have Hop Sing. He’s been with us since before Little Joe was born. I don’t know what we’d do without him.”
However, by the fourth time throughout the course of the meal that Uncle Daniel referred to Hop Sing as “the Chinaman,” and even called Hop Sing that as though it were his proper name, Joe was silently seething. He glanced over at Hoss and Adam, neither of whom seemed bothered by it. But then, Adam was good at hiding his feelings, and Hoss was probably too intent on filling his plate with his fourth helping of food to pay any mind to the way Uncle Daniel was subtly insulting Hop Sing, and the way he stubbornly refused to adhere to Pa’s polite corrections. Not even when Pa’s voice held a hint of exasperation while he emphasized their houseman’s name – “Yes, Hop Sing is quite the cook,” – in his most recent attempt to get his brother to understand that no one in this household ever referred to Hop Sing as “the Chinaman,” as though he were a possession and not a person.
While they ate, Pa inquired about family members and friends “back home” in Ohio. Uncle Daniel didn’t seem nearly as interested in talking about these old connections he shared with his brother as Pa was. With a good deal of rudeness, Joe thought, considering how much Pa was enjoying the reminiscing, Uncle Daniel changed the subject. How they got from Cousin Ginny and her problems with failing eyesight, and Aunt Lillian’s newest grandbaby, and Pa’s memories of the nice old man who had owned the dry goods store when he was a boy, to the “Good Lord,” Joe didn’t know. Not that Joe had any strong objections to religion as a topic of conversation at the dinner table, but here on the Ponderosa, that tended to be a discussion reserved for a lazy Sunday afternoon, when Adam and Pa debated the preacher’s sermon, with Hoss and Joe only half-listening while playing checkers.
Joe’s mind drifted as Uncle Daniel rambled on. Adam and Hoss appeared to be daydreaming too, once they determined this topic wasn’t going to die out soon. Uncle Daniel was like a traveling sideshow evangelist. Full of theatrical enthusiasm where God was concerned; yet having no idea when to put an end to his preaching and let his congregation savor his message.
Joe smiled a little as he glanced at his father. He could tell by Pa’s expression that he was thinking the same thing, though he managed to keep his attention on Daniel and act as though this was the first time in all his fifty-three years that he’d heard the Good Word.
“And just what is it that you find so amusing about the Lord, Joseph?”
Joe’s felt his face grow hot under his uncle’s scrutiny. Just his luck. Adam and Hoss were woolgathering same as him, but he was the one Uncle Daniel chose to call on it.
“Uh. . .nothing, Sir.”
“Well, it must have been something, with the way you were sitting there smiling as though you harbor some kind of a secret.”
“Perhaps Little Joe was just appreciating your good preaching, Daniel,” Pa said.
Joe threw his father a grateful look. “Yeah. . .yeah, that’s what I was doing.”
Uncle Daniel didn’t respond. His eyes lingered on Joe a moment longer before he finally broke his gaze.
Boy, I bet this guy was a barrel of laughs as a pa, Joe thought, feeling sorry for Danny and his sisters, while at the same time feeling grateful that he’d been born to Ben Cartwright, and not Daniel Cartwright.
“Do you know the meaning of your name, Joseph?”
Joe had foolishly thought his uncle’s attention had shifted from him. He let his forkful of mashed potatoes drop back to his plate.
“I asked if
you know the meaning of your name.”
“The meaning of my name? Well. . .I know I’m named for Pa’s father, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“No, that’s not what I’m asking. I mean the Biblical meaning. He shall add. Joseph means, ‘He Shall Add.’ ”
“Oh. Oh. . .well, no. I didn’t know that. Thanks. . .uh thanks for tellin’ me.”
Joseph, just what have you added to this family?”
Hoss jumped in before Joe got a chance to reply.
“Oh, that’s a right easy one ta’ answer, Uncle Dan’el. He’s added a whole passel a’ trouble.”
“Yes, and a wagon load of annoyances,” Adam contributed.
“Not to mention a big ole list a’ pretty little gals just lined up and waitin’ for him to ask ‘em for their hands in marriage.”
“And speaking of pretty little gals, there’s that angry father over in Placerville just hoping to lay eyes on Joe again in order to--”
“Boys, that’s enough,” Pa admonished. Normally, he’d let Adam and Hoss have their fun, but Joe sensed that Pa knew Uncle Daniel wouldn’t recognize good natured humor if it bit him on the rump of his britches – or exaggerated brotherly joshing, either.
Once Adam and Hoss had quieted down, Uncle Daniel asked again, “Joseph, you didn’t answer me. What have you added to this family?”
Thankfully, Pa jumped in before Joe had to formulate a reply, because based on how his temper was rising, Joe was certain that whatever he said, it wouldn’t be considered an appropriate remark for a visiting relative.
“Joseph’s added much to this family, Daniel, just by being my son. He’s added more than I ever want to think of living without, just like all my sons have.” Pa stood. “Now, why don’t we choose our dessert from all those pies Hop Sing has on the sideboard, then carry it and our coffee out to the table on the front porch. After we’re done eating, I’ll take you for a walk around the ranch yard – show you the outbuildings and garden.”
Joe’s father laid a hand on his shoulder as he passed by. Joe wasn’t certain if that gesture was nothing more than a show of affection, or if it was Pa’s way of telling him not to let Uncle Daniel get under his skin. Either way, Joe didn’t rush to join his family in picking out a piece of pie. He would have been happy to remain in the house and out of his uncle’s line of vision, but knew he had no choice but to head to the porch when he heard his father call, “Joe, get your dessert and come join us, son!”
“Yes, Pa!” Joe answered, because no matter how much Pa might disapprove of Uncle Daniel’s ways, he would also expect Joe to be polite and accommodating for the duration of the old man’s visit.
Joe grabbed a dish that held a large slice of peach pie while mumbling, “Boy, I bet Cousin Ruth is sure glad this old guy’s here, and not at home with her.”
He jumped when Hop Sing startled him from behind. “Hop Sing think Cousin Ruth happy girl too, Little Joe.”
Joe laughed at the wink Hop Sing shot him before disappearing into the kitchen with an armload of dirty plates.
If nothing else, Little Joe arrived on the front porch in a better mood than he’d been in at the dinner table. Thankfully, he was able to remain out of Uncle Daniel’s view by leaning against the house while he ate, and then he and his brothers were excused by Pa to take care of whatever ranch duties needed attending to. Joe was never so happy to fill several hours by chopping wood for Hop Sing, mucking horse stalls, and straightening the tack room, as he was that afternoon.
The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. So uneventfully, that when Joe was lying in bed late that night unable to sleep, he found himself once again puzzling over the ironies of life.
When they’d gotten home with Uncle Daniel that afternoon, Pa pulled Joe aside and told him to change into a clean shirt and have his face tended to by Hop Sing. Joe did as his father requested, arriving at the table clean and looking fairly unscathed, other than the bruises on his face that he couldn’t do anything to hide. But the odd thing about all this – or rather the puzzling ironic thing – was that Pa never asked Joe how he’d come by those bruises in the first place. Granted, that wasn’t an inquiry Pa would have made in front of Uncle Daniel, but knowing Pa, if he were determined to get answers, he’d have carved out some private time with Joe. But Pa didn’t do that, nor did he knock on Joe’s door after everyone retired for the night, as Joe expected him to. If private time wasn’t to be had during the day, then surely after the house was quiet and Uncle Daniel was asleep in the guest room on the main floor, as he was now, then Pa would have wanted to talk to Joe about his transgressions in Virginia City.
And so, this was just another oddity in the winding path Joe was traveling lately. Or maybe better put, the winding path the Dunns continually seemed to be leading him down. Weeks back, when he’d tangled with Paul and Charlie for the first time and arrived home bruised and battered, Joe hadn’t wanted his father’s ministrations. Now, he’d have welcomed those paternal ministrations he’d shunned, and willingly taken any stern admonishments that came his way, too, for not remaining with his brothers at the stage stop, just for the opportunity to speak with Pa about the pranks that were escalating to a level Joe wasn’t prepared for. But evidently Pa thought Joe had gotten caught up in a saloon brawl that morning, and for whatever reason, maybe due to Uncle Daniel’s presence, had chosen not to pursue the matter further.
At any other time, Joe would have thanked his lucky stars that he’d gotten off so easily. But this time. . .well, this time Joe would have paid to be on the receiving end of Ben Cartwright’s anger, just to have the chance to talk to Pa.
“Little Joe! Joseph, get a move on! Day’s a wastin’!”
Little Joe hurried out of his room, tucking his shirttails into his pants as he trotted down the stairs. He’d overslept, but not because he’d snuck out his window and spent the night gambling in Virginia City. He’d overslept because he’d tossed and turned until after two a.m., trying to come up with a solution to Paul and Charlie’s harassment.
Everyone was seated at the table when Joe arrived. His own rear end had barely touched his chair before Uncle Daniel said, “The shiftless man goes hungry.”
“Pardon?” Pa questioned.
“Proverbs chapter 19, verse 15, Benjamin. ‘Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry.’ If this one were mine, he’d pay for his tardiness with no breakfast this morning.”
By the look on Pa’s face, Joe would have bet a week’s wages he was thinking, “Well, this one isn’t yours, Daniel. He’s mine.”
But Joe would have also bet a week’s wages that even if Pa were thinking that, he wouldn’t say it considering Uncle Daniel was a guest. And he didn’t. Instead, he informed his brother, “All of my sons put in a full day’s work on this ranch six days out of seven. Therefore, in this household, no one starts his day on an empty stomach.” Pa’s eyes shifted to Joe in mild rebuke. “Not even those who arrive late to the breakfast table.”
Pa nodded, as if to say all was forgiven, but don’t let it happen again. And especially not while your uncle is here.
With the way Joe’s luck was running where Uncle Daniel was concerned, it had to be him who made the next blunder as well. He reached his fork out and stabbed two flapjacks off the platter in front of him. They hung in mid-air, halfway between the platter and Joe’s plate, when Uncle Daniel asked, “You don’t thank the Lord for the bounty He’s provided before you eat, boy?”
Joe wanted to say, “Actually, Uncle Daniel, with the exception of before we eat Sunday dinner, or when the preacher is visiting, or on Christmas Day, no, we don’t.”
Oh, how he wanted to say it, and by the gleam in Adam’s eyes, Joe had a feeling his older brother wanted to say it too. But both of them kept their mouths shut – Adam, because he knew when it was prudent to hold his tongue, and Joe because he figured he owed his father a bundle of thanks for the endless number of ways Pa had come to his defense since Uncle Daniel’s arrival. The least Joe could do in return was keep his temper in check and his smart remarks to himself. Though what the heck, it would be fun to share some of them with Hoss later.
A mere movement of Pa’s head prompted Joe to shake his flapjacks back onto the platter. Pa never answered Daniel directly about the issue of prayer before every meal. However, he made a request.
“Daniel, would you please offer the blessing this morning.”
Joe dutifully bowed his head, wondering if the man would finish his lengthy blessing by noon, or if they’d just be able to thank the Lord for lunch as well, and eat both meals at the same time.
Hoss must have been wondering the same thing, because as soon as Uncle Daniel said, “Amen,” he tagged on a hasty, “Amen,” of his own and grabbed the bowl of scrambled eggs. He hurried to scoop a pile onto his plate, as though if he started eating Uncle Daniel couldn’t decide he’d forgotten to praise God for something and start praying all over again.
Joe retrieved his flapjacks, then passed the platter to Pa. The young man decided the best way to stay out of trouble with Uncle Daniel was by passing platters of food, filling his plate, eating, and then hightailing it out of the house as soon as Pa indicated it was time to start the working portion of this day.
Conversation buzzed around Joe that he didn’t pay much attention to. He was too busy concentrating on not saying or doing the wrong thing in front of Uncle Daniel. So far, it seemed like everything he’d done was wrong in the man’s opinion. Not that Joe Cartwright was one to put much stock in the opinions of others – not even the opinions of visiting uncles. But out of respect for his father, Joe wanted to, at the very least, not draw any more of the man’s ire.
Joe thought things were going pretty good in that regard, too, until Uncle Daniel held up his cup.
“Chinaman, more coffee.”
Joe glared at his uncle, though the man didn’t appear to notice as he watched Hop Sing refill his cup.
“Thank you, Chinaman.”
“His name’s Hop Sing.”
Uncle Daniel cast a dark gaze on Joe. “What was that, Joseph?”
“Hop Sing. Pa told you three times yesterday that his name is Hop Sing.”
Joe’s tone was sharper than it should have been, especially coming from an eighteen-year-old speaking to an elder, but he didn’t care.
From across the table, Hoss winced, and Adam gave a slight shake of his head. With just that small movement, Joe knew his oldest brother was saying, “Just let it be, Joe. Let Pa handle Uncle Daniel.”
Pa’s, “Joseph,” wasn’t loud or angry, just a firm, no nonsense warning that told Joe impertinence toward his uncle wouldn’t be tolerated.
Unfortunately, Pa didn’t convey that same message to his brother, who also needed to be told to keep his mouth shut as far as Joe was concerned. Purposefully ignorant of Joe’s feelings for Hop Sing, the place the houseman held within the structure of the Cartwright family, or the fact that Hop Sing was still standing in the dining room, Uncle Daniel asked, “Do you know what the Bible says about the yellow race, Joseph?”
Joe saw Adam’s eyes roll upward, as if he knew Uncle Daniel had just fired a round Joe would be determined to answer. At the same time, Joe felt a nudge against his shin. The large boot belonged to Hoss, who was undoubtedly telling Joe not to rise to the bait.
But Joe ignored the eye roll and the foot, as well as the way his father cleared his throat in warning. He laid his utensils down, rested his arms on the table, and met his uncle’s cold stare with one of his own.
“No, Uncle Daniel, I don’t know what the Bible says about the yellow race, but I do know that it says we’re to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I don’t believe it says anything about sorting our neighbors out by color before we extend that love.”
Pa’s, “Joseph!” came just ahead of Uncle Daniel’s, “Are you going to allow this kind of impertinence, Benjamin?”
Pa gave Joe a heavy scowl. Yet the sigh accompanying that scowl seemed to convey that Pa’s patience was wearing thin with not only his youngest son, but with his oldest brother as well.
“Joseph, help Hop Sing clean up the kitchen, then meet your brothers outside.”
“Oh, and I think you owe your uncle an apology.”
Joe didn’t think he owed anyone an apology. If any apologizing was done, he thought it should be Uncle Daniel apologizing to Hop Sing. But the trouble refusing to apologize would cause wasn’t worth the effort. Or at least not right now. As Adam had always told him, you have to pick your battles wisely. If Uncle Daniel stayed until the end of summer as planned, Joe had a feeling he and the man would engage in a few more skirmishes before the stage left for Ohio.
Joe’s, “Sorry,” was mumbled, and he wouldn’t look at the man when he said it, but Pa let it ride.
“Now go help Hop Sing.”
Joe didn’t consider helping Hop Sing in the kitchen to be punishment, and he doubted his father considered it so either. He figured Pa thought this was the best place for him to cool down while staying clear of Uncle Daniel for a while. Besides, he could eat his breakfast in here just as well as he could eat it in the dining room, and the atmosphere was sure a lot more hospitable as he shared the small kitchen table with Hop Sing.
“Little Joe keep big mouth shut,” Hop Sing ordered quietly. “No get in trouble with Number One Uncle for Hop Sing.”
“I don’t care about any trouble I might get into. He’s not gonna spend the next three months calling you Chinaman if I have anything to say about it.”
“Hop Sing been call worse. Beside, as Honorable Father tell you many time, words just words. Mean nothing unless hotheaded boy let them.”
Joe would have kept on arguing with Hop Sing in the whispered voices they were using, but he quieted to listen to the conversation drifting in from the dining room.
“Is sending Joseph off to do woman’s work really an appropriate punishment, Benjamin? I was thinking more along the lines of a good thrashing followed by a day of hard labor. That’s what the boy needs in order to make him into a respectable man.”
Joe strained to hear his father’s reply.
“There’s no such thing as woman’s work on the Ponderosa. Just work that needs doing, and sometimes that includes any one of us assisting Hop Sing. And as for a hard day of labor, Little Joe is no stranger to those.”
“And the thrashing?”
“Joseph is my son, Daniel. I’ll decide on punishment when and if punishment is necessary. He apologized to you and was sent from the table. That’s enough for now.”
“Humph. Hardly, in my opinion.”
“Well, you’re entitled to that opinion, just like I’m entitled to one of my own. Boys, let’s get the day started. Adam, why don’t you help Uncle Daniel saddle a horse. He’ll be spending the day with me. Joseph! Finish up in the kitchen, then help Hoss load the wagon!”
“Yes, Sir!” Joe called back, hurrying to shovel the remainder of his breakfast into his mouth. He pumped water into the sink for Hop Sing, then turned to the stove to remove pots and pans that needed washing.
“Go,” Hop Sing instructed, taking a pan from Joe’s hands. “Help Mr.
Hoss like Father say — and stay far ‘way from Number One Uncle.”
“But I oughta’ at least clear the dining room table. Pa sent me in here to help you, not to finish my breakfast.”
“I tell father you help if he ask. Now go.”
Joe playfully pouted. “Hop Sing, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were tryin’ to get rid of me.”
“Get rid you, yes. That what Hop Sing try do. Every time father help Hop Sing, or send boys help Hop Sing, dishes get broke, supper get burnt, and kitchen get dirty. Hop Sing no need that kind help.”
Joe laughed while scampering out of the kitchen when one end of a dishtowel smacked against the hind portion of his britches.
His merriment died as he entered the great room to see his father standing in front of the fireplace with his hands spread on the mantel, staring down at the cold logs.
Joe assumed he was in for one heck of a lecture if he let his presence be known. If he were smart, he’d pluck his hat and gun belt from the sideboard and sneak out of the house. But either he didn’t possess a lick of sense, as Adam sometimes said, or his desire to talk to his father about the Dunns outweighed any trouble he was in for being rude to Uncle Daniel.
“Uh. . .um. . .Pa? Pa, I. . .I need to talk to you about--”
“Joseph, let’s just lay what happened this morning to rest. Your uncle. . .well, his manners aren’t always what they should be.” Pa turned from the fireplace to face Joe and hold up a stern finger. “But that’s no excuse for you to practice bad manners too, young man.”
“No, Sir. I know it’s not, and I’m sorry. But, Pa, what I really wanted to talk to you about is yesterday.”
“What happened in town. Why I was late--”
“Benjamin!” Came the call from the front porch. “I’m ready! The Good Lord doesn’t cotton to shiftlessness in the father anymore than he cottons to it from the son.”
“Shiftless,” Pa grimaced. “I’ll show him shiftless...”
Pa suddenly seemed to remember Joe was standing there. He gave his son a weak smile.
“Come along, Little Joe. You’d better help Hoss while I take your uncle with me for the day.”
“Okay. But before we leave, I’d really like to talk to you about yesterday. About why I got beat--”
“Benjamin! Benjamin, are you coming?”
“On my way, Daniel!”
Pa jammed his hat on his head and was still buckling his gun belt as he stepped outside. He glanced over his shoulder at Joe.
“I’m sorry, Joe. What is it you need to talk to me about?”
Joe glanced at Uncle Daniel, who was waiting a few feet from Pa.
“Uh. . .um. . .nothing. Nothing, Pa. It’ll. . .it’ll keep for a better time.”
If Pa was going to form a reply, it was cut short by Uncle Daniel, who was now marching across the ranch yard toward the horse Adam had saddled for him.
“Come along, Benjamin. We’re already losing daylight.”
Adam leaned against a porch support post wearing a sly smile as their father passed by.
“I’d say it’s going to be a long summer, wouldn’t you, Pa?”
As Uncle Daniel bellowed again, “Benjamin!” Pa took a deep breath, mumbling, “Yes, Adam, a long summer. A very long summer,” before hurrying to catch up with his brother and climb on Buck.
After his father and uncle rode away, Joe helped Hoss load the wagon with supplies. As Adam set off to check a stand of timber, Hoss and Joe set off in the opposite direction to spend the day restocking line shacks. By the time they returned home that evening, everyone else was present and supper was ready.
To Pa’s credit, he did remember that Joe wanted to talk to him. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to remember what the subject matter was, or that Joe had tried to speak with him privately.
Pa reached for a dinner roll as Joe passed the basket to him. “Oh, Little Joe, you wanted to speak to me about something this morning,”
“Uh. . .” Joe’s eyes shifted uncomfortably from person to person. He wouldn’t have necessarily objected to having this conversation in front of Adam and Hoss, but he wasn’t going to have it in front of Uncle Daniel. “Uh. . . it’s not important, Pa. It’ll keep.”
Once again, Joe felt Uncle Daniel’s piercing gaze boring into him in a way he’d yet to see it bore into Adam or Hoss.
“Only thing that “keeps,” young man, are secrets. Are you keeping secrets from your father? Benjamin, you’d be wise to find out what this boy doesn’t want to tell you.”
Adam gracefully saved both his father and brother from having to respond by asking Uncle Daniel about the overhead costs of running a general store. Uncle Daniel quickly warmed to the subject, while Pa cast his oldest son a grateful look.
Joe didn’t give anyone grateful looks. Instead, he returned to eating his supper in silence.
Adam was right. This was going to be one long summer. One very long summer indeed.
If Joe Cartwright and his cousin Ruth were granted the opportunity to meet, they’d have found themselves kindred spirits where their opinions of Daniel were concerned.
Although it was surely sinful to entertain such thoughts, Ruth was glad that her father was on the Ponderosa for the summer, and not at home with her. Running the store with the assistance of her nephew Joshua made work enjoyable.
Just like Ruth had always known, she was quite capable of managing the business. Even without Papa present to bark orders, the shelves got dusted, the floor got swept, the windows got washed, and the purchasing and ordering got done. Ruth had no problem making certain she bought only fresh eggs from the Widow Johnson, nor did she have any challenges negotiating fruit and vegetable prices with Mr. Taylor. Actually, she’d secured even better prices from Mr. Taylor than Papa did. Ruth didn’t know why, though she assumed it might be because she treated Mr. Taylor with respect, and always greeted him with a smile and warm, “Hello, Mr. Taylor,” and ended their transaction with a “Thank you, Mr. Taylor,” and “Have a nice day, Sir.” None of which George Taylor had ever heard from her father in all the thirty some years he’d done business with him.
Joshua wasn’t as much fun as Danny, but then, he wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as Papa, either. He was only fourteen. A shy, quiet boy who, with Papa away, seemed to be opening up more and more each day, like a flower blossoming under the new atmosphere of sunshine Ruth brought to the store. Esther and her husband planned that Joshua would clerk for Papa full-time after the upcoming school year ended. Whether that’s what Joshua wanted, Ruth didn’t know, though an educated guess told her the teenager wasn’t given a choice in the matter. She hated to see him forced into a line of work against his will as Danny had been. She hoped an opportunity to discuss this with him would arise, but for now, Ruth kept her peace. She couldn’t have Joshua saying anything to Esther, for fear Esther would tell Papa that Ruth tried to thwart the plans laid out for the boy’s future. Possibly as the summer wore on, Ruth would grow to feel she could confide in Joshua, and he in her, in the same way she and Danny had confided in one another.
“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a fence post in my eye,” as Danny used to say whenever they exchanged secrets.
For the time being, Ruth put thoughts of Joshua’s future to the back of her mind. When she wasn’t running the store, she enjoyed her freedom from cooking and ate her supper at the Reedsville Café four nights out of seven. And on the nights she didn’t eat there, she sometimes did what she and Danny would have – ate beans from the can, and then had chocolate drops and licorice sticks for dessert. She’d even had two dresses made that weren’t black. One was pale blue and white, and the other was pink. When she wore them to work, several customers complimented Ruth on her new style, something Papa would have found scandalous, but Ruth didn’t care. She didn’t know what she’d do with the dresses when Papa returned – hide them under her bed perhaps, or in the back of her wardrobe. What she wanted to do was gain the courage to wear them in front of him, and tell him that she didn’t give a hoot what opinions he held about a woman dressed in brightly colored clothing. But without Danny here, she didn’t know if she could find that courage. She kept hoping that by the end of the summer she’d be a different woman from the one Papa said goodbye to in the spring. A stronger woman. A woman able to stand up to her father.
Even with her father far away, Ruth still kept the living quarters neat and tidy, as her mother taught her to do from the time she was a little girl. Of course, back then Ruth thought she’d someday employ these skills in her own home, for her husband and children. She never imagined herself a spinster left alone to take care of her disagreeable, widowed father. Nonetheless, dusting and sweeping and straightening up still needed to be done. Or at least those daily chores had to be done in order for Ruth to feel comfortable in her home.
Before the store opened one morning, Ruth went from room to room, raising windows to let the summer breeze in. She carried a feather duster in a pocket of her apron, running it over furniture, shelves, and knickknacks as she traveled. In another pocket she carried lilac scented sachets. She’d purchased three-dozen of them from Mrs. McCarthy, and had already sold fourteen. Papa would have never considered buying “foolish female notions,” but Papa wasn’t here to do the purchasing, Ruth was. Of course, she’d have to remove the sachets from his dresser drawers before he came home, but for now, she opened two of those drawers and slipped a sachet in each one, thinking of how much her mother would have enjoyed the delicate, sweet smelling lace pillows if only Papa had allowed her some small pleasures now and again.
Ruth crouched down and pulled open the bottom drawer. She removed her father’s winter sweaters in order to place a sachet in one corner of the drawer, when a bound black book slipped out from the clothing. At first, Ruth thought it was a Bible. But upon closer inspection she didn’t see the words ‘Holy Bible’ embossed on the book’s cover, and besides, Papa wouldn’t have left his Bible behind when packing for his trip to Uncle Ben’s.
Ruth absently put the sachet back in her pocket and set the sweaters on the floor. She stood, moving backwards to sit on the edge of her father’s bed. She shouldn’t be nosy, but it was hard to resist the urge to peek at the book when hidden treasures in this home were so rare to run across.
She should have shut the book as soon as she realized it was her father’s journal. That voice inside Ruth that often reminded her she was a sinner, was reminding her of that very fact right now, as she willfully violated her father’s privacy. However, forgoing the temptation to discover something about her father – something personal that might finally give Ruth a glimpse of his inner thoughts and feelings – was impossible.
Initially, Ruth was disappointed with the book’s contents. Based upon the date on the first page, her father started this journal the same year he purchased the store. The majority of recordings were dry and fact-based. Papa wrote of the weather, and what he had to pay for a barrel of flour, and what profit he made on that same barrel over the weeks as he sold it to customers pound by pound. On Sundays, Papa recorded much of the preacher’s sermon, printing Bible chapter and verse numbers he evidently felt tied into the sermon in some fashion or another. Knowing Papa, these were verses he thought the preacher was negligent in making use of on that particular Sunday.
It took a few minutes of reading before Ruth finally came to that “something personal” she’d been searching for. She smiled as she read what her father wrote on the day Danny was born.
~ ~ ~
Though we are no longer young, the Lord has seen fit to bless Clara and I with a son. At this moment, I know how Abraham felt when God said to him, “As for Sarah, your wife, I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Abraham, at one hundred years of age, was so grateful to the Lord for this miracle of a baby boy, born to him by ninety-year-old Sarah. Clara and I aren’t as advanced in years as Abraham and Sarah, but we are both well past the age where we thought another child possible. I dared not hope the child would be a boy, but God answered my prayers in this regard, and Daniel Weston Cartwright Jr. was born this morning as the first rays of sun lit the March sky.
~ ~ ~
Ruth might have been envious of the eloquent way her father spoke of Danny, but how could a woman be jealous of a brother who’d brought her so much joy, and who’d lit up an otherwise bleak life?
Ruth kept on reading. Papa’s happiness over Danny’s birth was written of numerous times during the first year of the boy’s life, but then the tone of the entries regarding Danny began to change, and soon Papa wrote only of the challenges he had with the child.
Challenges, Ruth thought with disgust. If you call running, and playing, and shouting, and getting dirty, and giggling over some silly rhyme he’d made up or song he’d overheard, challenges. Personally, I call it allowing a little boy to be just that – a little boy.
But for some reason, Danny’s childhood seemed to frighten Papa. Maybe it was because, after raising four girls, he didn’t know how to father an active boy. Or maybe Danny’s personality differed so from Papa’s, that he couldn’t even reflect back on the memories of his own childhood and recall what it was like to be a boy.
I bet Uncle Ben knows all about raising boys. It’s a shame we didn’t live nearer to him, or him to us. Maybe things wouldn’t have been so difficult for Danny if he’d grown up playing with Hoss and Little Joe, and if he’d had Uncle Ben and Adam to turn to for guidance, instead of a father who stubbornly refused to guide him down any path other than the one Papa had preordained for him.
Ruth continued reading, paying no attention to the time. The journal contained hurtful things, too. Things that didn’t come as a surprise to Ruth, but yet, things that had never been spoken of aloud.
~ ~ ~
Ruth is a plain, dull girl, not blessed with the fair features of her sister Miriam, nor with the many talents of Anna, nor the intelligence of Esther. She will live her life here at home, taking care of her mother and me as we age, like a dutiful daughter should.
~ ~ ~
And so, as Ruth long suspected might be the case, her life, like Danny’s, had been preordained by her father. She flipped through the pages of the journal, skimming passage after passage. Jack Stevens wasn’t mentioned, but the woman had little doubt that if her father had mentioned him, he would have said he’d run Jack off on purpose so his plans for Ruth’s future couldn’t be derailed.
As she progressed through the book, Ruth once again found many notations that didn’t extend beyond the recording of the day’s weather, a Bible passage, or how much it cost Papa to have his hair cut by the barber down the street.
And he thinks I’m dull. If I ever kept a journal, I’d surely write about things more interesting than rain, sunshine, and the three-cent increase in the price of a haircut.
Ruth shook her head with disappointment when she came to additional passages about Danny. These were written more recently – during the last two years of the young man’s life. How little Papa knew about his own child. About his only son. How little he appreciated the gifts and talents Danny was born with.
~ ~ ~
Concerns for my son’s salvation are never far from my mind, and weigh heavy on my heart. The boy is a daydreamer and keeps secrets. His head is filled with evil thoughts. I see things in Danny that are inspired by the presence of Satan. I get on my knees each night and pray that the Good Lord will cleanse Danny, or instruct me on how I’m to do the cleansing.
~ ~ ~
Ruth read further, knowing full well she shouldn’t, but unable to stop herself as page after page, a story was told. A story so unimaginable that she couldn’t shut the journal, put it away, and pretend she’d never seen it like she wanted to.
By the time she was done reading, Ruth couldn’t catch her breath. She sat there crying and gasping, her heart pounding in her chest. Papa had been wrong. It wasn’t Danny who harbored secrets. It was Papa himself who harbored them. Terrible, awful secrets that Ruth now knew had taken Danny from them. No, there wasn’t a written confession, but Ruth wasn’t nearly as dumb and dull as her father thought. She could easily read between the lines.
Before Ruth could think further, a voice called from the bottom of the stairs.
“Aunt Ruth! Aunt Ruth, it’s time to open the store!”
When Ruth didn’t answer her nephew, he started climbing the stairs.
“Aunt Ruth! Aunt Ruth, are you all right?”
Ruth grabbed the bedpost and pulled herself to her feet with a trembling hand.
“I’m. . .I’m. . .,” Ruth paused to gather her wits and swallow the tears clogging her throat. “I’m fine, Joshua! I. . .I’ve been cleaning and lost track of time. Please open the store. I’ll be down in a few minutes!”
When she heard boot steps descending the stairs to the store, the woman shut the journal, shoved it in-between her father’s sweaters, and returned them to the drawer. She had no idea what to do with the information she’d obtained. All she had to go on were the suspicions she’d harbored for months, and now an old man’s recordings in a journal. Who would believe her? Certainly not her sisters. And even if they did, none of them would want to cause trouble for Papa.
Uncle John? Maybe he’d listen to Ruth, but it was doubtful he’d have any suggestions about what she could do without evidence. And as for the town
constable. . .well, he wouldn’t believe her either, because Papa was a well-respected member of the community, and a deacon at the First Church of Christ. In comparison, who was she, other than Ruth Cartwright, a homely spinster who relied on her father for employment and a place to live? Maybe they’d all think she was angry with Papa for her lot in life and was trying to seek revenge against him. Or maybe they’d think her accusations were nothing but the ramblings of a middle aged woman made “addled in the head” by the female changes her body was undergoing. Ruth had heard such things whispered about other women. Women who up and left their husbands without so much as a goodbye, and were never seen from again. Or women who committed suicide for reasons no one could fathom. Or women like Mrs. Bolling, who’d sat on her front porch and cried every day from the time she turned fifty, until her husband finally committed her to the state sanitarium. Women had few legal rights, and even fewer ways to execute those rights. Ruth didn’t want to end up in a sanitarium because no one believed the conclusions she’d reached about Danny’s death.
Ruth untied her apron, using a corner of it to swab the tears running down her face. With a fierce determination she didn’t know she possessed, she gazed at the wooden cross hanging on the wall above her parents’ bed and spoke aloud to the empty room.
“You always told us we’d eventually have to pay for our sins, Papa. But you never mentioned paying for your own sins, as though you were above God’s judgment. But you’re not. You’re not above His judgment, and someday you’ll find that out. Someday you’ll find that out, and when you do, it’ll be far too late for repentance.”
The woman picked up the hem of her dress and fled the room. When she arrived in the store ten minutes later, all traces of her tears were gone, and no one could have guessed what she’d learned by the reading the pages of a hidden journal as she greeted George Taylor with a smile.
Amens echoed around the table. Even Joe had learned not to be tardy with his “Amen,” during the three weeks since his uncle arrived on the Ponderosa. Not that Joe hadn’t thought of purposely delaying his amen until about five minutes after the blessing just to get the old man’s goat, or not saying it at all for that matter. But Joe’s respect for his father kept his devilish side in check. Besides, it had become apparent Uncle Daniel was a harsh judge of character, and that Pa tried hard to please him in order to avoid that judgment.
It amused Joe to see his father thrust into the role of “little brother.” He could tell it rankled Pa to be treated by Uncle Daniel as though he was ten years old. Joe silently laughed each time he witnessed that treatment, knowing someday he’d remind his father of these moments, when Joe had a complaint about Adam being bossy, or Hoss being overprotective, and Pa brushed it off by saying, “Joseph, your brothers are just doing what all good older brothers do. They’re watching out for you.” Joe was just itching for the opportunity to come back with, “Just like Uncle Daniel was watching out for you, huh, Pa?”
Unlike Pa, Joe generally encountered Uncle Daniel’s prickly ways only at breakfast and supper. Pa kept the man with him on most days, finding things for Uncle Daniel to do or learn to do. That was the one area in which Joe held admiration for his uncle. Daniel wasn’t afraid of hard work, and for a man of his years, was willing to take on any task asked of him.
When business affairs required Pa to take leave of his brother, he put the man in Adam’s care. Neither Adam nor Hoss seemed to find Uncle Daniel as disagreeable as Joe did. But then, Adam was too polite and proper to speak ill of their uncle, and Hoss was too good hearted to say any unkind words about the man.
“Don’t you think he’s an ornery ol’ cuss?” Joe had asked his middle brother just three days earlier as they rode through brush and scrub trees looking for strays.
“Aw, Joe, he ain’t so bad. Ya’ just gotta git to know him.”
“I’ve already gotten to know him all I want to. I’m tired of him always starin’ at me, as though he’s waiting for me to make a mistake.”
“What kinda mistake?”
“Like not bein’ able to give him the chapter and verse of some Bible passage, or not bein’ able to tell him what the preacher’s message was this past Sunday. He’s sittin’ in church same as me. Why the heck does the old coot need me to repeat the sermon?”
“Some folks is just like that, I reckon. You know, real outward about their ties to God.”
“He can be as outward as he wants, but I don’t know why he’s always callin’ on me for answers like I’m a kid in school who didn’t study my lessons. Have you ever noticed that? He doesn’t pick on you or Adam a lick.”
“ ‘Cause me and Adam don’t deserve to be picked on. We done know our lessons.”
Hoss laughed after he said that, and laughed even harder when Joe didn’t find it nearly as funny as he did. When his merriment abated, he said, “Ya’ know what yer problem is, little brother?”
“Ya’ take Uncle Dan’el too seriously. Don’t let his ways git under yer skin. Come September he’ll be gone, and I’d say it’s a long-shot he’ll ever visit these parts again, given his age and all them miles between here and Ohio.”
“Praise the Lord for small favors.”
“Better not let Pa hear ya’ say that.”
“Oh, I think Pa’s said it more than once since Uncle Daniel got here, just not in front of us.”
“Well now. . .ya’ might be right about that. He is kinda hard on Pa. But still, you know how Pa feels when it comes to bein’ polite and respectful to houseguests. Even the ones who are a bit on the cantankerous side.”
“Yeah, I know how Pa feels. Why do you think I haven’t told the old codger to jump off a cliff yet?”
“Figured you was learnin’ to practice that restraint Adam’s always tellin’ ya’ would be to yer benefit.”
“Then, Brother, you should think again.”
“And so should you, ‘cause Pa won’t cotton to you tellin’ his brother to jump off a cliff.”
“I suppose not — ‘cause Pa probably wants the first chance to say it.”
Joe laughed at the admonishment.
“Come on. Let’s get back to work and forget about Uncle Daniel for a while. Supper time’ll roll around soon enough, and no doubt he’ll be askin’ me to recite somethin’ from the Bible, or wanna know what I did when I was in town this morning, or accuse me of “harboring secrets,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
“Me and Adam always have thought ya’ was a sneaky little bugger.”
“With two nosy older brothers like you, a guy’s gotta be sneaky in order to have a moment’s peace.”
“More like in order to git hisself in the kinda trouble he don’t want his pa to know nothin’ of.”
“There’s that too, Hoss.” Joe waggled his eyebrows and shot his brother a mischievous grin. “There’s that too.”
Today, however, Joe wasn’t being sneaky, or getting into trouble. All he’d done so far was his morning chores, and then attended church with his family.
Now that the amens were said, platters of food circulated the dining room table. Joe breathed easy when it appeared his uncle was intent on rehashing the Sunday service, as opposed to asking Joe to rehash it.
As the man droned on, Joe’s mind drifted to the dance he’d attended the previous evening in Virginia City. He could usually count on his brothers tagging along with him. More than likely Pa put them up to it in an effort to keep Joe out of that trouble Hoss spoke of the other day. But on this particular Saturday night, Adam accepted an invitation to dine at the home of an old friend, and Pa sent Hoss to the Carter ranch. A broken leg had Abe Carter laid up. Hoss spent the day doing a long list of neglected chores, then stayed on for supper at Mrs. Carter’s insistence. Joe figured Mrs. Carter regretted that invitation once she saw how much food Hoss could pack away, but if nothing else, his appetite probably provided the five Carter children with some much needed entertainment.
For reasons Joe couldn’t explain, he hadn’t been drawn to the crowd of young women he usually danced with on Saturday nights. He hadn’t asked Grace Thompson to write his name on her dance card. He hadn’t kicked up his heels with Rachel Davis when the fiddler played the Virginia Reel. He hadn’t tried to hold Jenny Parsons so close that her bosoms rose and fell against his chest with each breath she took while they waltzed in a circle around the floor, nor had he tried to dance Amanda Evans right out the door and behind the barn where. . .well, where things went on that neither Amanda’s father, nor Joe’s, would approve of. Instead, Joe’s eyes fell on the girl standing by herself in a far corner. He wondered if Nan Henning always attended these Saturday night dances. If she did, he’d never noticed her before.
He approached her, not hindered by any other young man trying to get his name on Nan’s dance card. Nan didn’t even have a dance card tied to her wrist with a ribbon like the other girls did, as though she didn’t expect anyone to ask her. Joe supposed most guys would consider Nan plain, and he guessed she was. Or at least a fella wasn’t immediately drawn to her face or figure. But there was something about her – something Joe had never noticed before. A demeanor that spoke of quiet confidence and determination. A demeanor that spoke of a girl who was no stranger to hard work, but also didn’t complain about what she had to do in order to put food on her family’s table.
Nan seemed startled when he’d first come to stand in front of her. Joe wondered if she still feared her employment with the Dunns would be in jeopardy if she were seen with him. He looked around, not spotting Paul or Charlie anywhere.
When he turned back to face Nan, Little Joe’s voice held a tinge of shyness that surprised him.
Nan’s response was equally as shy. “Hi.”
They both laughed then, as if realizing they’d known one another going all the way back to their early years at Virginia City’s schoolhouse. Therefore, shyness on either of their parts was just plain loco.
“Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to say a proper thank you for the way you helped me in that alley.”
“No thanks are necessary.”
“Well now, Miss,” Joe said with a playful, gallant air, “that’s where I think you’re wrong.”
Nan smiled, her eyes twinkling with amusement. “All right, Sir, then thank away.”
Joe laughed again. As the sound of a fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mouth harp swelled around them, Joe sobered.
“Thank you. Who knows how long I would have laid there if you hadn’t come along. And thanks for telling me--”
Wariness lit the girl’s eyes. “I didn’t tell you anything.”
“Thanks for telling me to watch my step,” Joe finished, giving her a wink. “I appreciate it.”
“I. . .I wish I could have done more. . .helped more, but I couldn’t, Little Joe.” The girl’s eyes flicked around the dance hall, making certain no one was eavesdropping on their conversation. “My job--”
“And. . .and things are okay?”
Joe smiled. “Things are fine.”
“No more trouble?”
“Nope. No more trouble.”
And Joe was telling Nan the truth. He hadn’t experienced problems of any kind since that day in the alley. Which was also why he hadn’t made further attempts to speak with his father about the Dunns. Hopefully, Paul and Charlie had gotten the anger out of their systems over those lost timber contracts.
As the music changed tempo and slowed, Joe asked, “How about a turn around the dance floor?”
“The dance floor?”
“Yeah. Come on.”
“I. . .I’m not a very good dancer. Or at least I don’t think I am.”
“You don’t think you are?”
Her eyes dropped to the floor as she shook her head.
“I. . .no one’s ever asked me to dance before.”
“Well all the more reason to say yes, then. You don’t know what you’re missin’.”
Joe slipped a hand into one of hers. “Come on. I’ll teach you.”
“Little Joe – Little Joe, wait.”
“Wait for what? If we wait too long this song’ll be over.”
“Your. . .your pa might not approve.”
“My pa? What makes you say something like that?”
“I’m just the Dunns’ house girl. I’m not someone – someone from an important family like Jenny Parsons is.”
“Those kinda things don’t matter to my pa. And besides, he didn’t ask you to dance with him, now did he? It was me who did the askin’.”
Nan smiled at his joke. “Well, if you’re sure.”
“The only thing I’m sure about, Nan Henning, is that if we don’t get to dancin’ pretty soon you’ll be gettin’ you’re first lesson with no music. Won’t be long and the fellas’ll be takin’ a break.”
“All right, all right,” she finally agreed with a laugh, letting Joe take her out to the dance floor.
Joe didn’t pay any mind to the girls who stared and whispered that night. Girls who were likely angry with him for dancing with Nan Henning five more times, then walking her home. He didn’t try to kiss her as he stood outside the front door of the small home her parents rented on the south side of Virginia City. They talked for a few minutes about their school days and things going on around town, then Joe said a shy, “Good night, Nan. Thanks for the dances,” as though he wasn’t certain if this was the start of a friendship, or something more serious.
Nan didn’t pretend to trip on the hem of her dress and then fall into his chest with the hopes of stealing a kiss as Grace Thompson always did, nor did she stand there looking up at him with big old calf eyes and lips parted invitingly as Rachel Davis did. He actually liked it that all she did was say, “Good night, Little Joe,” in return, and, “Thank you for this evening. I had a lot of fun.”
After he’d seen Nan safely into her home, Joe caught up with Tuck and Mitch. They teased him a little about dancing with Nan, but they didn’t speak ill of her. Just voiced their surprise at Joe’s choice of partners – Tuck even said it was the first lick of sense Joe had ever shown where a girl was concerned, and Mitch said he thought Nan was a real nice gal.
Little Joe stayed in town that night longer than Adam or Hoss would have let him. That was the nice thing about being there without them – and about hooking up with Tuck and Mitch. No need to go home too early on a Saturday night. Especially not if there was a chance that Uncle Daniel was still awake.
The house was quiet when Joe slipped in the front door at one-thirty on Sunday morning. Without making a sound, Joe removed his gun belt and set it on the sideboard. He blew out the lamp that Pa left lit for him. His brothers’ horses were in their stalls, so the lamp didn’t need to continue glowing for any other Cartwright son.
He bent and took his boots off, then carried them in his left hand as he silently walked to the stairs. Joe was halfway to the second story when he thought he heard a soft “click” behind him, as though a door had been closed. He turned, but didn’t see anyone. After a few seconds Joe shrugged, then continued to his room.
Joe’s mind was still focused on the previous evening when a voice boomed from the end of the table.
“Speaking of the devil’s evils. Joseph, what had you out until after one a.m. on a Sunday morning?”
Joe looked at his uncle. Evidently, the recounting of the Sunday sermon had come to an end. As the man glowered at him, Joe was once again tempted to give an answer sure to rile the old man.
A girl, a few beers, a shot of whiskey, and a hand of poker, Uncle Daniel. That’s what had me out until after one on a Sunday morning.
“Uh. . .I went to a dance.”
“I told your father I don’t approve of dances.”
“Nonetheless,” Pa said from the opposite end of the table, “Little Joe had my permission to attend, Daniel.”
“And did you ask him what he did there? Or why he arrived home at such a late hour?”
“If I thought it was necessary, I would. But I don’t see any reason to.”
“Then evidently I must do your job for you, Benjamin.”
Joe heard the warning tone in his father’s voice. As though he was on the verge of telling his brother he was growing weary of the man’s interference.
For as much as Joe wanted to see that happen, at the same time he didn’t want his father and uncle exchanging words because of him. As Hoss had said, come September Uncle Daniel would be gone, and Pa would probably never see him again. Regardless of Daniel’s difficult personality, he was still Pa’s brother, and Joe didn’t want his father to someday have regrets about this visit.
“It’s okay, Pa,” Joe assured. He turned to his uncle. “I danced at the dance. That’s what I did.”
“And who did you dance with?”
“Just…just a girl.”
Why Joe couldn’t bring himself to say Nan’s name he wasn’t sure. He supposed because he didn’t want to put up with the teasing he’d get from his brothers. Not that it would be mean spirited teasing. They’d say similar things to what Tuck and Mitch had said, and Pa would say something like, “Well, now, Nan Henning. She’s a nice girl, Joseph.”
And she was a nice girl. It was just that this was one of the first times in Joe’s life that he had something private. Something one of his brothers didn’t already know about. And since he was confused about his feelings for Nan – were they real, or were they steeped in gratitude over the way she’d helped in the alley, or had he felt sorry for her standing all alone in the corner last night, or were they based on old school chum camaraderie – he didn’t want to try and explain them to his family. It was bad enough that he couldn’t sort them out. He sure didn’t need to get all red in the face and tongue-tied over a girl that, first and foremost, he hoped would be his friend.
“And did this girl have a name?”
Joe looked at his plate. “I. . .I suppose she did.”
“Well, what is it?” Uncle Daniel demanded.
“Yeah, Joe, come on,” Hoss said, “what is it?” He winked at Adam. “Bet it was that new little gal Joe’s had his eye on. What’s her name? Lenora?”
“Leona,” Adam supplied. “Leona Merriweather.”
“Well, Joseph,” Uncle Daniel questioned, “is it this Leona Merriweather your brothers speak of?”
Joe mumbled, “Only if I’ve takin’ to squirin’ seventy year old women around town.”
Over Adam’s and Hoss’s laughter, Uncle Daniel said, “What was that, boy? Speak up. There’s no reason to mumble if you’re walking a righteous path.”
Joe looked to his father for help. Thankfully, Pa remembered what it was like to be a young man who had the right not to tell his family every detail of his life.
“Adam. Hoss. That’s enough. Same goes for you, Daniel. Little Joe deserves some privacy. If he doesn’t want to tell us who he danced with last night, then he doesn’t have to.”
Uncle Daniel shook his head. “You’re making a mistake where this boy is concerned, Benjamin.”
Pa raised in eyebrow. “Then it’s my mistake to make, not yours. Now please pass that fried chicken around the table again, Adam. I could use another helping.”
Joe thought his father could likely use a stiff drink to go along with his chicken, but Pa didn’t voice it, so Joe refrained from suggesting it.
Daniel’s eyes followed Joseph as the boy walked out the door with his brothers. Soon, he heard horseshoes clanging against metal stakes. He didn’t disapprove of horseshoes per say, as long as no gambling was involved. However, he did disapprove of this game being played on the Sabbath. He’d said as much to Benjamin on several occasions, but there was little use in bringing it up again. Benjamin was a church-going man, but wasn’t committed to the Lord in the manner he should be. This is what Daniel feared would come of life in the West. It made him doubly thankful that he’d put an end to Ruth’s foolish notions of heading west with her Uncle Ben all those years ago.
As Benjamin sat in his chair reading the newspaper he’d purchased after church, Daniel sat in the chair opposite him with his open Bible in his lap. He’d tried to read, but found himself unable to concentrate. He wished Benjamin could see all the troubles that lay ahead with Joseph, troubles that would bring with them a shame so deep and painful that Benjamin would never want to speak the boy’s name again. Those evasive answers Joseph gave – he’d “danced” at the dance, and with “a girl” who apparently had no name. These were the kinds of answers Danny had given, until the day arrived when Daniel found out there was no girl, and that Danny had gotten quite skilled at lying and dishonoring the Lord.
Daniel pondered how to broach the subject of Joseph with his brother. Thus far, he’d had little success at pointing out the error of Benjamin’s ways when it came to the raising of Joseph. Whenever it seemed as though the Lord laid an opportunity forth, as he’d done today during lunch when Daniel questioned the boy as to why he’d arrived home so late, the devil seemed to work equally as hard at making certain Benjamin remained willfully ignorant to Joseph’s wrong doings. This had happened time and time again since Daniel arrived. From the very first day when the boy came to the stage late and in a deplorable condition, to the way he paid scant attention in church each Sunday, to the nights he came home long after everyone else was in bed, to the answers to questions that weren’t really answers at all, but instead just vague double talk that Benjamin accepted without further inquiry.
Benjamin was stubborn. And if the devil was at work blinding him to Joseph’s evils, then that stubbornness would prevail. But all the stubbornness in the world couldn’t stand up against the Lord. So as his brother continued to read the Territorial Enterprise as though he possessed not a care in the world, Daniel silently prayed that the right opportunity would come along to open Benjamin’s eyes before it was too late, and Joseph was condemned to the fires of hell for all eternity, just like Danny had been.
Joe waded through the fast-flowing stream, water sloshing over his boots and soaking the hems of his trousers. The stream was wide enough and deep enough in places to harbor the dangers of a river each spring when it filled with melting snow from mountain runoffs. During the summer months, this was one of several sources the Cartwrights depended upon to provide water for their cattle. Thanks to some industrious beavers, this particular water source was now dammed. Adam spotted the pesky critters’ handiwork earlier in the week, but didn’t have the time to tear apart their barrier of sticks, leaves, and branches. Or at least that’s what Adam claimed when he assigned Joe this particular task on Thursday morning.
Joe took the lunch Hop Sing packed for him and headed off toward the high country after breakfast. It was close to ten when he finally reached the dam. He sat on Cochise shaking his head while surveying the mess. Adam hadn’t been fibbing when he said he didn’t have the time to deal with it. It would take the better part of the day to clear the stream.
The young man worked for over two hours, stopping only long enough to remove his hat, shirt and gun belt, and to take a few swigs of water from his canteen. Tearing apart the massive barrier was like unlocking pieces of a puzzle. If you pulled on the wrong branch, you got nothing for your efforts but a sore back. Joe found himself forced to start at the top and work down, taking the dam apart in the reverse order the beavers built it. Except as time went on and Joe realized how tight the interlocking branches fit together, he began to wonder if this dam had been built by beavers at all. He straightened and stood back, studying it. Given the amount of time he’d already put in, he hadn’t made much headway. And unlike other dams he’d torn apart, he couldn’t seem to grab onto any branch in the middle, give it a good tug, and have a portion of the structure tumble apart.
“Those beavers either had a blueprint,” Joe mumbled as he subtly glanced around, “or a couple of beavers by the last name of Dunn have been hard at work causin’ trouble again.”
Joe kept his stance casual and loose, as though he was resting for a few minutes. He listened, but didn’t hear anything other than water trickling across rocks in the creek bed. Cochise was tied off to Joe’s left, out of the sun and minus his saddle. Considering Joe figured he’d be here until late in the afternoon, he’d taken the saddle and blanket off his horse. The saddlebags that held his lunch were sitting on the ground beside the saddle, as was his canteen. His stomach growled; reminding him it was past noon. But for the moment, Joe was more interested in taking a stroll than he was in eating.
Neither his eyesight nor hearing revealed anyone in the area. Nonetheless, Joe continued walking, doing his best to act nonchalant while remaining vigilant.
I’m gonna feel like seven ways a fool if it was just beavers that built this dam.
Despite that thought, Joe continued his surveillance. Which, unbeknownst to him, was exactly what Paul and Charlie Dunn wanted him to do. Joe was so intent on observing the land around him, that he wasn’t paying any attention to the land below him. Without warning, that land gave way, and Joe disappeared from view as though the ground had just swallowed him whole.