“He’s evil!” The man thundered; his face turned upward, as though seeking affirmation from God above. “You simply refuse to see it! To accept it and correct it! You must take action before it’s too late! You must!”
His hand maintained steady downward pressure on Joe’s back until he could no longer feel his nephew struggling.
“You have to break the boy, Benjamin, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Train up the child in the way he should go, sayeth the Lord. Train up your son! Train him up right, or spend the rest of your days on this earth begging the Lord to forgive you your failures. I’m sparing you, Benjamin! Don’t you see I’m sparing you from the same regrets I have? From the same failures I’ve suffered?”
Daniel Cartwright received no answer to his inquiries - or at least, not a verbal one.
His hand was steady, his aim true. The time for hesitation had passed. He cleared his mind of what he was about to do, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger.
For as suddenly as death had claimed him; life returned. He coughed, sputtered, choked, and gasped, his body bucking against something broad and solid as he struggled to get air into his lungs. He was flipped over in someone’s arms as easily as Hop Sing flipped the pancakes on the griddle. He hung over a massive arm on his belly, his head and feet dangling mere inches above the water, that action once again reminding him of another way he used to carry Old Sam. But the water was moving – or maybe he was moving – and pretty soon the distance between the water and his head grew wider. The heel of a hand whacked him solidly between his shoulder blades.
“Cough it up, Joseph! Cough it up, son!”
Throwing it up seemed like a better idea, which is exactly what Joe did when they reached the shore and Hoss set him on the ground. He didn’t mean to vomit on his father’s boots, but Pa didn’t seem to mind. Actually, he seemed relieved, because once the water was out of Joe’s body, air was able to flow into it. As soon as they could all see he was breathing, someone cut the ropes from Joe’s wrists and ankles. He gave a low moan at the pain of stiff limbs finally being freed from the positions they’d been confined to for so many hours now.
If he’d had the ability to complain about physical discomfort, Joe didn’t know which discomfort he’d voice first. The multitude of bumps, bruises and abrasions covering him from head to toe? Or the powerful headache that threatened to make him throw up again? Or the way his throat burned and his lungs ached, as though he’d just sprinted ten miles from a scalp-hungry band of Apaches? Or the cold that seemed to penetrate all the way to his bones, making him feel like he had no hope of ever being warm again. As though it were mid-January on the Ponderosa, and not early September.
Somehow, Pa must have known he was cold, and sore, and sick, and too exhausted to voice any of it, because what was left of his shredded trousers were removed and replaced with the pair Adam always carried in his saddlebags. The pants were too big around Joe’s waist, and the shirt Adam supplied hung off his shoulders, but beggars can’t be choosers, as the expression went. Once dressed in the dry clothing, Joe was wrapped in a blanket, and then he was pulled into his father’s arms with all the gentleness a grown man uses when cradling a newborn baby.
At first, the words floating above him blended together, muffled even further by the towel Adam retrieved from a saddlebag that Pa now gingerly used to dry Joe’s hair. Quiet reassurances were exchanged – Adam apologizing for doing something, while Hoss told him there’d been no choice, and then Pa adding, “I was just about to do it myself,” to which Adam responded, “I know. That’s why I did it. I couldn’t let you.”
But what exactly Adam had done Joe wasn’t sure of until Hoss said quietly, “We’ll get ‘im out, and put him on Daisy, Pa. Once we git home we’ll worry ‘bout the rest.”
Now Joe understood. Getting “him out” meant getting Uncle Daniel’s body out of the water. And “worry ‘bout the rest” meant all that would follow – explaining to Roy Coffee what had happened, holding a proper burial, and getting word to Uncle Daniel’s family of his death.
If Joe were honest, he’d confess he hated that old man. Hated Uncle Daniel for the way he’d treated Joe since the day he arrived, and hated him even more for what he’d put Joe through for reasons Joe still didn’t fully understand. But he didn’t confess any of it out loud, because it wasn’t something you told your father about his brother, even if the crazy old coot had just tried his best to kill you.
Therefore, Joe was surprised when tears welled up in his eyes. Tears for what Adam had been forced to do. Tears for what Pa had to witness. And tears for Danny. Danny - the cousin Joe had never met, but was somehow linked to in Uncle Daniel’s mind. The cousin Joe now knew died a frightening, painful, and tragic death at the hands of his own father.
As his brothers headed back for the water, Joe sought comfort against his father’s warm chest. In a voice both raspy and weak, he said with choked emotion, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If I’d listened to you, none of this would have--”
Pa wouldn’t let him finish. His arms tightened around Joe’s body, and through the towel still draped over his head, Joe felt his father’s kiss.
“It would have happened regardless of anything you did or didn’t do, Joseph. Don’t blame yourself. Daniel. . .I’m only now beginning to understand just how. . .how ill your uncle really was.”
“But if I’d done what you’d told me to. . .I. . .I’m sorry I’m not a good son, Pa. I’m sorry I’m the son I am.”
Joe wasn’t sure, but he thought Pa might have started crying then, too. He was being held too close to his father’s chest to raise his head and look, but he heard the same choked emotion in Pa’s voice that he’d heard in his own when he was assured, “You are a good son. Don’t ever doubt that. Don’t ever doubt it for a minute. And far as being the son you are – that’s exactly the son I want.”
“Wouldn’t consider tradin’ me in for one that causes less trouble?” Joe quipped.
He felt the chuckle building from his father’s chest before he heard it.
“I’ve been tempted a time or two, but no. No, Joseph, I wouldn’t trade you for anyone, and that’s a promise.”
As the moment of heavy emotion between father and son slowly receded, Joe shivered.
“So cold,” he murmured.
His father wrapped him ever more snuggly in his arms and in a soothing voice comforted, “We’ll be headed home in just a few minutes. I’ll have Hop Sing fill the tub with hot water, and I’ll have him make you a hot breakfast, and we’ll get Doc Martin out to look at you. How’s that sound?”
It all sounded good to Joe except for the part about Doc Martin. He didn’t argue with his father though, because he knew it would do him no good to, and because he was suddenly too tired to do anything but let his eyes close.
They remained like that, father and son, with their backs to Lake Tahoe, Joe wrapped protectively in his pa’s arms, as the body of Daniel Cartwright was carried from the water.
Joe’s memory of what happened after his brothers brought Uncle Daniel’s body to shore was sketchy at best. He’d fallen asleep in his father’s arms, the heavy slumber brought on by both his ordeal and the lingering affects of chloroform. A few days later, Doc Martin would say it was a wonder the chloroform alone hadn’t done him in, seeing how liberally it was administered by someone without medical knowledge. Added to that, Pa and Doc fretted over the possibility of pneumonia setting in given all the water Joe swallowed, but thankfully, that malady never came to pass. And although he was stiff and sore for the better part of a week, Little Joe healed with remarkable speed.
“That’s what happens when you’re a young buck of eighteen,” Joe overhead Doc say to Pa on the day he made his final house call, declared Joe “fit as a fiddle” and said he could return to his normal routine. “Now if this same thing happens to Little Joe when he’s thirty-eight…well, you can bet the recovery won’t be so swift.”
“I surely hope this same thing doesn’t happen to Joseph when he’s thirty-eight.”
“I surely hope it doesn’t either, Ben, but knowing your youngest son as well as I do forces me to say I wouldn’t count on it.”
Pa chuckled, although Joe could tell his heart wasn’t in the joke. But then, given the circumstances that brought Joe so close to drowning that he himself wasn’t certain he might not have been dead for a few seconds – if such a thing were possible – it was understandable that Pa couldn’t find much humor in Doc’s words.
Thankfully, the oblivion sleep brought meant Joe hadn’t seen his uncle’s body wrapped in a blanket and tied over Sweet Daisy, nor was he awake when Hoss loaded the body onto a wagon and drove it to Virginia City’s undertaker. Joe was, however, present for the graveside service at the cemetery in the Baptist churchyard. Pa had left it up to Joe as to whether he’d attend the funeral or not. It was only out of respect and love for his father that Joe went. Had Daniel Cartwright been anyone other than Pa’s brother, Joe would have skipped the entire affair in favor of a couple of beers and a card game at the Bucket of Blood.
As it was, the service was brief and private. Uncle Daniel hadn’t gotten to know many people during his stay other than some of the Ponderosa’s ranch hands, the Dunn boys, the Baptist preacher and a few members of his congregation. A larger attendance would have undoubtedly come to pass had Pa opened the funeral to the public, but only because Pa was well known and well thought of. However, Pa kept things as quiet as he could, making it clear to those who asked that attendees to the service wouldn’t extend beyond himself, his sons, and the Baptist minister whom he’d hired to preach a few appropriate words from the Good Book.
“My brother’s family back in Ohio will hold a memorial service,” Pa said to those who asked, though Joe thought Pa was only guessing a ceremony of some sort would take place, as opposed to having confirmation of it. Uncle John was telegraphed about Daniel’s death, but Joe assumed the words were fleeting and without details. After all, how could Pa convey in a telegram all that had happened since Uncle Daniel’s arrival?
The inquest into Uncle Daniel’s death was only a tad lengthier than his funeral. Or at least Joe’s portion of it was. He told Roy Coffee, and then later Pa’s lawyer, all that occurred from the moment he snuck out of the house, until he was held under the waters of Lake Tahoe by the uncle determined to kill him.
“Adam had no choice but to do what he did,” Joe declared to both the sheriff and the lawyer. “My uncle. . .my uncle would have killed me. I know Adam didn’t wanna do it, but Uncle Daniel didn’t leave him any other option.”
After all the statements were given and accurately recorded, the circumstances surrounding the death of Daniel Weston Cartwright were presented to the circuit judge. Pa kept the date and time of this presentation to himself, not even sharing that information with Adam. All Joe and his brothers knew was that two weeks after Uncle Daniel’s death, Pa came home from Virginia City and said that the matter was behind them.
“Whatta ya’ mean, Pa?”
“I mean that no charges will be brought against Adam. . .against any of us. There won’t be a trial. Daniel’s death was ruled a justifiable homicide.”
After that, Pa said nothing further about his brother, until the morning arrived in late September when Pa announced he was leaving for Ohio on the afternoon stage. As Joe and his brothers saw their father off, Joe knew Adam and Hoss were still reeling from the shock of what seemed to them an impulsive, foolhardy decision on the part of their father. Given the time of year, he’d be lucky to get home before the heavy winter snows came and left him stranded somewhere between Reedsville and Virginia City. But Pa didn’t appear to care. He seemed determined to return to the place of his birth, and no amount of pleading on the parts of his oldest sons to wait until next spring to make the trip could change his mind.
Unlike his brothers, Joe didn’t plead. Nor did he question. Nor did he debate. Actually, he didn’t say much of anything in response to Pa’s announcement. He wanted to understand his father’s reasons for this trip, but since Pa wouldn’t voice his reasons, Joe was left guessing. That is, he would have been left guessing if he’d cared enough to put the effort into it. Instead, as the stage pulled away with Ben Cartwright on it, all Joe could recall was how he’d felt in that cave the day his back had been whipped raw – alone and abandoned by the man he wanted most to remain by his side; his pa.
Ruth Cartwright wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. A biting autumn wind blew, rustling what few rusty colored leaves still clung to the old trees that shaded the cemetery in summer, and stood like stern, ancient sentries in the winter, their thick gnarled branches bare and powerful.
The woman bent and leaned forward, lightly tracing her fingers over the etching of the recently added stone.
Daniel Weston Cartwright Sr.
Born: April 3rd 1794
Died: September 7th, 1861
She didn’t allow her touch to linger long. Not nearly as long as it did each time she repeated this same action when bending before her mother’s gravestone, or when kneeling in front of Danny’s.
Ruth straightened and stepped backwards. She sensed the man’s presence just before his arm slipped around her shoulders in the way she imagined a loving father offered comfort to his children in time of need, no matter how old those children were.
She relished the warmth of his embrace. It not only offered protection from the raw October wind, but it also seemed to offer the love and understanding she never received from her own father. She glanced up at him as she spoke.
“I wish you weren’t leaving already. You’ve barely just arrived.”
“I wish I weren’t leaving either, but if I delay my departure, snow will block the mountain passes.”
She nodded her agreement, even though she’d never seen a mountain pass, let alone traveled through one by stagecoach.
“Thank you for buying the stone and having it placed. You didn’t have to do that. I could have paid for it.”
“I know. But I wanted to.”
“I hope you didn’t do it out of guilt.”
“I didn’t do it out of guilt,” he assured her. “I did it out of respect.”
“Respect for my father?”
His answer was a neutral, “Out of respect for my entire family. Out of respect for my parents. Out of respect for you and your sisters. To give you a place to come and remember him.”
She turned back toward the stone. Her father’s body didn’t lie beneath it. His body was in a Baptist cemetery in Virginia City. Uncle Ben said Papa enjoyed attending the Baptist Church during his summer stay, so it seemed fitting that the church’s cemetery was his final resting place. Beyond that, where his soul resided. . .well, Ruth didn’t think his eternal home was likely in the place he’d always predicted it would be, but she preferred not to dwell on that.
“He tried to harm one of your sons, didn’t he.”
It wasn’t a question, and for a long moment her uncle didn’t answer. When he finally spoke, his answer was an honest one.
“Yes. He tried to harm – he did harm Joseph.”
“Then you did the right thing, because he would have killed Little Joe had he gotten the chance.”
She sensed his confusion. He’d been here ten days, and he hadn’t given her or her sisters any details of their father’s death, other than to say it had been sudden and he’d died early one morning without suffering. Ruth’s sisters assumed Papa’s heart had given out on him, or perhaps he’d had a stroke like old Mr. Wilkes did last year. But Ruth knew better. After all, she’d read Papa’s journal. Only she knew what he was capable of. And ever since Uncle Ben had arrived she’d sensed a sorrow about him. A sorrow born of guilt over unspoken words, half-truths, and things he didn’t understand the root of.
The unspoken words and half-truths were his alone, but the root of understanding she could help him with.
“He murdered Danny.”
“Who?” He asked the question because it would have appeared odd had he not. But his tone of voice said he’d already guessed the answer.
“My father. He murdered Danny.”
“Did you. . .did you see this happen?”
“No, I didn’t see it. But I suspected it almost from the very day Danny died, and then when Papa was gone this summer I found a journal he’d kept. The details – well, the details don’t matter. And there’s never been a point to me telling anyone. My sisters would never believe me, even if I let them read his journal and they saw the words for themselves. And no one else in this town would believe me either. Besides, it’s too late for my brother. My father ended his life far too soon. Therefore, whatever you had to do to save Little Joe, to protect him, then you did the right thing.”
She felt his arm tighten around her.
“I did what any father would do.”
Ruth shook her head and felt the weight of sadness deep in her heart when she replied, “Not any father. But a good father. You did what a good father would do, Uncle Ben.”
Ruth cast a final gaze upon her father’s stone. When she turned to walk away, she smiled and nodded at her uncle in way of letting him know she would be all right.
She reached out for his hand – the hand that was calloused and rough and strong from years of hard work – and clasped it within her own. Together, they walked toward the cemetery’s gate, where Ruth was suddenly bathed with a sense of the paternal love and support she’d never received from her father.
“Uncle Ben, do you think there’s any reason why a woman can’t run her own general store?”
“No, Ruth, I can’t think of one reason why a woman can’t run her own general store.” He chuckled while giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “Why? Do you have such a business in mind?”
The self-confidence and happiness his reply inspired almost made her break out in one of Danny’s jigs right there in the cemetery. Instead of a jig, though, Ruth settled on behavior more befitting a woman her age. She stopped their progress for a brief second, got on her tiptoes, and bussed her uncle on a cheek that smelled of musky cologne.
“Thank you, Uncle Ben. I promise I’ll make you proud.”
“I have no doubt you will.” He patted her hand and headed them out of the gate and down the sidewalk toward the store that would undergo a minor name change in the weeks to come. No longer would it be just Cartwright’s General Store. It would be Ruth Cartwright’s General Store.
“Now come along,” Uncle Ben urged. “ I won’t be leaving until for two more days. Perhaps there are things I can help you do in that store of yours before my departure.”
“There’s always work to be done, Uncle Ben.”
Ruth’s uncle laughed. “If Little Joe were here he’d say that you sound just like your cousin Adam.”
“And from things you’ve told me about Little Joe, I’d tell him that he sounds just like my brother Danny.”
“Good memories?” Uncle Ben asked.
For the first time, tears didn’t spring to Ruth’s eyes as she thought of her deceased brother.
“Good memories,” she confirmed. “Believe me, Uncle Ben, I have nothing but good memories of my little brother.”
And because they were no longer in the cemetery, and because her brother’s lively spirit seemed to surround her, Ruth lifted her skirts and did a little jig on the sidewalk, then threw her head back and laughed. Uncle Ben laughed with her, because although she hadn’t told him why she suddenly felt the need to kick up her heels and dance, he seemed to understand a lot about love, and loyalty, and brothers, and treasured memories that would forever be carried in a sister’s heart.
Little Joe pantomimed from outside the storefront. He indicated to the young woman on the other side of the glass that the hem she was sewing in a dress on a display mannequin should be shorter. Shorter to the point it would be considered scandalous, and the exaggerated expression on her face told him so. As did the way she made a “Now shoo!” motion with her hand, her silent message clearly saying, “Go about your business, Joseph Cartwright, and behave yourself while you’re at it.”
Joe winked at her and waved goodbye, then headed down the sidewalk without going inside. First of all, if Mitch or Tuck saw him entering Mrs. Mason’s dress shop they’d give him nothing but heck for a month of Sundays. And second of all, he was no longer Nan Henning’s suitor. As it was, their courtship had been a brief one born of friendship and gratitude, and never quite blossoming to love. Joe’s gratitude toward Nan was for the courage she’d shown the night she’d fled the Dunn ranch intent on telling his family he was in danger. Nan’s gratitude resulted from Joe’s father and brothers believing her story, and then for the way Pa made certain she was returned safely to her parents’ home. Not to mention Pa had being instrumental in convincing Mrs. Mason to hire Nan. A decision Mrs. Mason didn’t regret.
Nan’s mother already worked at the dress shop, and “like mother like daughter.” Nan proved to be an industrious employee who did anything asked of her without complaint, from stitching ruffles on a petticoat, to sewing on buttons, to sweeping the floor. She also possessed a talent that was previously unknown, even to Nan herself – a knack for designing and creating ladies’ hats. Though she’d only been employed at the shop for a couple of months, her hats were already the talk of Virginia City. Or at least the talk amongst the women-folk. Joe didn’t pay much attention to any of it, other than to be glad new opportunities had come to Nan, and that through them she was finding success. Success, as well as a gentleman caller by the name of Raymond Mayer.
Joe didn’t know Ray other than in passing. His family was new to Virginia City. Ray’s father owned the mercantile, and Ray worked there. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, and Joe hadn’t heard any gossip to make him think otherwise. But after Joe and Nan mutually agreed to be just friends, and after a few weeks passed and Ray started courting Nan, Joe grabbed a fistful of Ray’s apron front one day in the mercantile and yanked him behind a stack of brooms.
Neither Joe’s smile nor charm kept Ray from getting all pale and shaky-like, as though certain he was about to be called out to the street for a gunfight.
“So, Ray, I hear you’re sparkin’ Nan Henning.”
“Ye. . .uh. . .uh yes. Yes, that’s right. I am. I thought. . .I’m sorry, Little Joe, but I thought you and she had. . .had…you know…gone your separate ways. But if you still have a mind to court her then I’ll--”
“No, no,” Joe assured. “I don’t have a mind to court her. You’re
right. Me and Nan parted ways. I just
want ya’ to understand she means a lot to me.
Matter a’ fact, I think of her as the sister I never had. So I better
not hear of you treatin’ her with anything less than the respect she deserves,
you got it?”
Ray’s Adam’s apple bobbed in time to his head. “Sure. . .sure. I got it, Little Joe. I got it just fine.”
“Great.” Joe winked while straightening the young man’s apron. “Sure glad we could have ourselves this nice chat. You have a good day now, Ray.”
“Yeah. . .uh, yeah. You too, Little Joe.”
That conversation took place a few weeks back. Joe had seen Nan and Ray leave the Methodist Church together this past Sunday, so he didn’t figure his talk with Ray had hurt anything, and if nothing else, felt assured Nan would never have to worry about Ray treating her the way Jim Dunn had.
As Joe headed toward the Bucket of Blood he looked up at the sky heavy with gray clouds. Not rain clouds, but the kind of clouds that often accompanied a “Big North’ner” as the old timers referred to the first hard snow of the season.
Joe pulled his green jacket closed and nimbly wrapped the clasps around the buttons. Soon, he’d have to hang it in his closet in favor of his winter coat. He’d only had this jacket since the end of October, but he’d already grown fond of it for some reason. Maybe because of its comfortable fit, and the way it possessed just the right amount of lining to make it serviceable in both fall and spring. Or maybe because it was cut short at the waist and didn’t hinder his movement as he jumped on Cochise. Or maybe because the jacket, along with the gray trousers, tan hat, and tan shirt he was wearing, had been birthday gifts from his brothers.
The black trousers he’d once favored were torn to shreds when Uncle Daniel dragged him to the lake. His white shirt and black hat had never been found. Joe assumed Uncle Daniel tossed them into Lake Tahoe. And his blue jacket was damaged beyond repair when he’d used it smother flames the day of the fire. He had other clothes to wear of course, and had made do with those, but the old red jacket he’d been wearing since fall set in was too small and tight. He hadn’t used it since his school days and should have put it in the church’s donation box last year. It was in the donation box now, however, thanks to these new clothes his brothers had given him. Joe thought the colors looked good on him – far better than black and white. And he liked the style of the hat. It made him look older somehow. Or so he thought now that he’d been nineteen for almost one full month.
In-between recovering from his injuries, seeing Pa off to Ohio, his brief courtship with Nan, and his birthday, had been the fall cattle drive. Even without Pa present, the drive was a success. Not that Joe had any reason to think he and his brothers couldn’t get the cattle to market, but he’d just never before imagined that Pa wouldn’t be a part of the annual ritual. And especially not voluntarily absent from it. But Pa hadn’t seemed concerned when Adam tried to use the cattle drive as a way of getting him to put his trip on hold until spring.
“You boys are perfectly capable of getting the cattle to market and getting a fair price for them. You don’t need me there.”
Not even Hoss’s, “Well, now, we might not need ya’ there, Pa, but we sure want ya’ along with us. Can’t quite cotton to a cattle drive without ya’.”
“That’s very nice of you, Hoss. But since I can’t be two places at one time, you boys will take care of the cattle, and I’ll take care of the family business I must attend to in Ohio.”
Pa hadn’t so much as mentioned whether Little Joe should be allowed to go on the cattle drive given his recent injuries. That was another decision he apparently decided Adam and Hoss were capable of making. After Pa left for Ohio it was brought up for debate. Joe protested over the thought of remaining behind with Hop Sing.
“I’m fine. You both heard Doc say so. Besides, Hop Sing looks forward to all of us being gone every fall so he can air out the house and give it a good cleaning.”
“That right,” Hop Sing had agreed as he plopped platters of pancakes and side pork in the middle of the table. “Little Joe go on cattle drive. Hop Sing not want anyone under feet during fall cleaning.”
So in the end, it was Hop Sing who settled the issue. Though Joe surmised his brothers gave in so easily because of their concerns for his safety. To leave him behind meant they couldn’t keep an eye on him should Jim Dunn try to once again seek revenge. Not that Hoss and Adam said that in front of Little Joe, but he overheard them talking in the great room one evening when they didn’t realize he was standing at the top of the stairs.
Worries over Jim Dunn proved to be unnecessary, however, since by the time the three Cartwright sons arrived home from the cattle drive, the Dunn family was gone. No one knew for certain where they went. The gossip spreading around Virginia City regarding their sudden departure had them meeting up with Paul and Charlie somewhere, as Orville Houston seemed to think Mr. Dunn owned land in Wyoming or Colorado, or perhaps it was the Dakotas. At any rate, most people were in agreement that it was a foolish time of year to set off traveling a long distance in a covered wagon with young children and a wife soon due with another baby.
Joe himself figured it wasn’t any more foolish than his father’s decision to head to Ohio and then try to make it back to Virginia City before winter set in, but of course he didn’t say that to anyone. Not even to his brothers, who had voiced it several times amongst themselves when they didn’t think Joe was within earshot.
Aside from fattening the Ponderosa’s bank account, the cattle drive had given Adam and Hoss a chance to make their apologies to Joe. Little Joe was pretty certain the apologies weren’t coordinated or spoken of between them. Instead, it seemed to him that what they hadn’t recognized about Uncle Daniel gnawed at them individually.
Adam caught Joe alone beside one of several campfires lit when they’d stopped for the night. Cattle bawled in the background while men stood in line at the chuck wagon, talking and joking as they waited their turn for the evening meal.
“Aren’t you getting in line?”
“In a minute. I’m not like Hoss. I don’t have a big belly to fill. I’d rather wait until the line dwindles some instead of just standin’ there and watchin’ everyone’s boots shuffle forward.”
“I’ve been known to have a good thought on occasion.”
Adam chuckled. “I’d debate you on that point, but I’d lose.”
Joe wasn’t sure he’d heard his brother correctly. “You’d what?”
“I said I’d lose.”
“Now that’s a first.”
“What’s a first?”
“I didn’t think I’d ever hear you say you’d lose a debate to me.”
“Don’t let it go to your head, kid. But in this case, I would.” Speaking of shuffling boots, Adam’s shuffled a bit right then as he scuffed at the dirt as though he didn’t know how to voice what was on his mind.
“Uh. . .look, Joe, I owe you an apology.”
“For not recognizing how dangerous Uncle Daniel was. For not recognizing that he was intent on harming you.”
“How could you have recognized it?”
“By his actions. By some things he said--”
“Just…things. Nothing that seemed very important at the time. Oddities I passed off as more of Uncle Daniel’s quirks, let’s put it that way.”
“Look, Adam, you can’t see around corners any more than I can, and you’re not one of them gypsies with the travelin’ shows who claims to be able to tell the future.” Joe shot his brother a sly look as he finished with, “And just because you’re the oldest and a know-it-all to boot, doesn’t mean you’re always expected to know it all.”
“What kind of a tongue twister was that?”
“Think about it for a few seconds, big brother. With all that college learnin’ you got under you’re belt, I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out.”
“Yes, I’m sure I am,” Adam agreed as he lightly cuffed the back of Joe’s head, then placed a hand on his shoulder and steered him toward the chow line. “And what’s this about me being a know-it-all.”
Little Joe laughed but refused to answer his brother. Soon his playful insult was forgotten as they filled their plates and coffee cups, then joined Hoss and a group of men who were already gathered around a fire eating.
It was the following day that Hoss extended an apology. He and Joe were riding beside one another at the back of the herd, keeping an eye out for strays while at the same time urging the cattle to continue their forward movement.
“Uh. . .Little Joe, listen, I been wantin’ to say I’m sorry an’ all ‘bout Uncle Dan’el.”
“Sorry about what? That he was a crazy ole’ coot?”
“Well yeah. Just like you said all along. He was a crazy ole’ coot, and when you tried to tell me that I made fun a’ ya.”
“Hoss, if I had me a nickel for every time you’ve made fun of me over the years when I’ve tried to tell you something, I’d have more money in my bank account than Pa’s got in his.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“Oh yes I would.”
“No you wouldn’t, ‘cause iffin you had more money than Pa, you’d have it all spent on poker games and saloon girls in less than two days time.”
“You’re right, I would. Which is why I’m a heck of a lot more fun than Pa is.”
Hoss wouldn’t let Joe sidetrack him. Before the conversation could take a further turn toward teasing and joking, he grew serious again.
“Look, Little Joe, I really am sorry. I shoulda’ listened to ya’ when you tried to make me see that Uncle Daniel always acted different toward you than he did toward me and Adam. Harsher. Kinda mean-like. I shoulda’ seen it with my own two eyes instead a’ teasin’ you right there in front of him at the supper table I don’t know how many times.”
“Hoss, forget it, okay? You couldn’t have known what he was capable of. You and Adam had your fun at my expense, just like I woulda’ done to either of you given the chance. It’s what brothers do. Besides, when I needed you the most you were there for me.”
“When was that?”
“When you pulled me out of Lake Tahoe, you big galoot.”
“Oh.” That comment made Hoss smile. “Oh, yeah. Guess that was one a’ those times when you needed me most, wasn’t it.”
“Brother, you can bet it was,” Joe agreed. He’d never told his family how close he came to death that day – how he was certain he was on the brink of standing at the Pearly Gates when those two massive hands that belonged to Hoss Cartwright brought him up and out of that water where air flowed into his starving lungs.
They spotted a couple of stray cattle right about then, which put an end to their conversation. That was fine with Joe. Both of his brothers had now gotten the opportunity to say their piece, and Joe hoped it would allow them to bury any further guilt they were carrying. As he’d told each one of them, they’d couldn’t have foreseen the events that would eventually unfold. However, it wasn’t beneath Joe Cartwright to use their guilt against them in the future when some “brotherly blackmail” was necessary to keep them from telling Pa about some escapade of Joe’s, or to wheedle money out of them for use at a poker table.
Joe shivered and picked up his pace. The cattle drive and those apologies seemed long in the past now. The evening Adam had spoken with him the air had just a mild autumn nip to it, and the day he and Hoss spoke was warm enough that they’d stowed their jackets in their saddle bags and rolled their shirt sleeves up past their elbows. But autumn was behind them now. Maybe not based on the date on the calendar, but certainly based on the temperature as far as Little Joe was concerned. He wondered if Pa would make it home before the heavy snows began, or if he’d end up spending the winter somewhere between Virginia City and Reedsville. Although they knew based on the most recent telegram Pa had sent that he’d started his journey home, Adam and Hoss still spoke of his foolishness and the risk he was taking. Joe, however, was finally beginning to understand the reasons behind both the foolishness and the risk. He didn’t share those thoughts with his brothers, though. He figured it was up to Pa to explain it all to them if he wanted to, or to keep his own counsel if that’s what he chose to do. Besides, when you were the youngest of three sons, sometimes it was nice to know something your brothers apparently hadn’t figured out. Such an event didn’t happen often. Joe wanted to silently bask in the knowledge for as long as possible.
When he entered the Bucket of Blood, Joe saw Mitch and Tuck were already waiting for him at a corner table. He picked up a mug of beer from Sam as he passed by the bar, then joined his friends.
As often happened when the three young men got a few beers in them on a lazy afternoon, their conversation veered in all directions – most of them initially about women, before heading toward downright silly. The alcohol evidently made Joe’s friends forget about his recent brush with death.
“So,” Tuck asked after his fifth beer, “whatta you fellas think is the best way to die?”
“I still say drownin’,” Mitch drawled with a bad Southern accent that always seemed to come over him when he’d had too much to drink. “Seems to me it would be real peaceful like. What do you say, Little Joe?”
Even though Joe had been matching his friends drink for drink, he was suddenly as sober as an old lady in church. He stared into his mug for a moment, then pushed it aside.
“Take it from me, fellas. Drownin’ ain’t peaceful at all, and as of today I’m changin’ the rules of this game.”
“Changin’ the rules? How?”
“By declaring that it’s okay to say the best way to die is when you’ve lived to be an old old man and you go in your sleep with your family standing around you.”
Joe looked at Mitch. “No buts. Unless you’ve almost drowned, you don’t get to make the rules.”
Mitch looked like he was about to argue with his friend, but then something – the expression on Joe’s face, or perhaps a look in his eye – made him back down.
“You’re right. Unless I’ve almost drowned I don’t get ta’ make the rules. Fair ‘nough. We all agree dying in your sleep after you’ve lived to be an old man is the way to go.”
The three friends raised their glasses, clinked them together, and said, “Here here,” for good measure.
Talk of death was quickly replaced by talk of girls, which was fine with Little Joe. Girls meant life. Death – well death he could happily wait on until he was years and years older than Pa, and a grandfather at least ten times over.
Ben always knew where Little Joe’s impulsive nature came from, and while he’d allowed everyone to believe that was a trait Joseph inherited from his mother, it was actually a Cartwright trait. A trait that had run heavily through the veins of Ben’s father, and one that ran heavily through Ben’s own veins. After all, why else would an Ohio farm boy leave home just two days after his sixteenth birthday, headed for Boston with little more than the clothes on his back and three dollars in his pocket, with the dream of sailing around the world on an ocean he’d only read about in books? Or why would, some years on down the road, that same farm boy strike off for the untamed west in search of land he could homestead?
Ben hunkered into his thick winter coat, its fur-lined collar tickling his ear lobes. He burrowed his hands into the deep pockets as he stared out the window at the passing landscape, now dead and brown from winter’s chill.
The stagecoach retraced the route it had traveled in September, this time taking Ben toward the Ponderosa, instead of away from her. No one shared the coach with Ben other than the driver up top. His sons would probably explain his lack of companions by saying no man in his right mind would be foolish enough to travel such a great distance by stage this time of year. And if they did say that, Ben couldn’t deny they were correct. But it was that old impulsive nature Ben had never quite grown out of, but instead learned to temper over the years, that had him traveling when common sense dictated otherwise. And for once, his impulsive nature left Ben with no regrets. There were things about Daniel he had to lay to rest, and Reedsville was the only place he could do that. From paying for the placement of Daniel’s gravestone, to supporting Ruth in her venture as a storeowner, to visiting his parents’ graves in the little cemetery on the farm, to having a family dinner with his siblings, their spouses and offspring, to roaming the old familiar fields and pasture land with John, to arriving at conclusions about Daniel he couldn’t have reached without traveling to the place of his birth and visiting the family he’d long ago left behind.
Ben glanced up at the sky. He didn’t like the look of the clouds overhead, and hoped he’d make it home before the first Big North’ner of the season blew in. If he didn’t – well, if he didn’t, it would be a long, boring winter spent at some rickety way station trying to keep warm, all the while hoping the food supply lasted, and that his sons didn’t act on their impulses and set out looking for him.
Ben was sufficiently jostled and bruised by the time he climbed off the stage in Virginia City. His knees were stiff and his lower back achy and sore, but he didn’t voice any complaints for the rough ride. For the past two days they’d been outrunning a brewing winter storm and had made it home ahead of the snow.
Ben didn’t linger in Virginia City. Cold air and a threatening sky caused him to bypass Sheriff Coffee’s office, the Cattleman’s Hotel, the saloons, the cafes, the general store, and any other places he could catch up on all the goings-on since he’d been away.
Ben paid two passing teenage boys to get his trunk off the stagecoach and carry it to Jensen’s Livery. He followed them, carrying his valise. He rented a rig and a horse from Tom Jensen, getting a few tidbits of town gossip while Tom hitched the horse to the wagon.
“You’ve been gone quite a spell, Ben.”
“Yes, well, I had quite a distance to travel.”
“It’s nice you were able to visit yer family and then make it back ‘fore the snow flies.”
Ben nodded his agreement. He hadn’t told Tom where he’d gone or why, but he supposed word had traveled around town by now. Given Daniel’s death, then Ben’s sudden departure, it wouldn’t take people long to assume he had business to attend to in Ohio. Perhaps they thought he’d had to settle Daniel’s estate. Or break the news of Daniel’s death to other family members. Regardless, what folks assumed didn’t matter much to Ben, and he didn’t plan to fill in any details now that he was back.
Thankfully, Tom didn’t dwell on the subject.
“Say, Ben, did any a’ yer boys wire with the news ‘bout Jim Dunn?”
“No. What about him?”
“Just up and left. Him and the whole family. Even the missus and the two little ones. Foolish if you ask me, her being with child like she was, and then Nora and Henry not even old enough for school yet. Bad time of year for travelin’ under those circumstances, wouldn’t you say?”
Ben had no desire to discuss Jim Dunn with Tom, anymore than he had the desire to discuss Daniel with him. He wasn’t going to assist in pouring fuel on the fire of gossip.
“Yes, it’s a difficult time of the year to travel with a young family,” Ben acknowledged in a neutral tone. “But Jim’s a smart man. I’m sure he thought it through before leaving.”
“Some folks are saying he high-tailed it ‘cause he got himself in trouble with the law.”
Tom glanced up from his work, landing an expectant gaze on Ben as though sure he’d get confirmation of this.
“I wouldn’t know.” Ben smiled amiably. “I’ve been away for some time, remember?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Just thought maybe Adam wired ya’ with news now and again.”
“No, not with news that extended beyond letting me know the cattle drive was a success.”
And that was true. Ben wired his sons when he’d arrived in Ohio to let them know he’d gotten there safely, and then wired again while he was in Ohio with happy birthday wishes for Little Joe. He’d wired them once more when he left Reedsville to head home, and then a final time when he transitioned from the train to the stagecoach at St. Joseph, Missouri. He’d only heard from Adam once, after the boys arrived home from the cattle drive. As far as Ben was concerned, hearing from Adam just one time was good news. It meant nothing had occurred like fire, flood, famine, illness, or anything else of a nature to cause a father worry.
Ben plopped his valise next to the trunk in the back of the buckboard, then climbed on the seat.
“If the weather holds, I’ll send someone into town tomorrow with your buckboard and horse, Tom.”
“No hurry. There’s plenty more where those came from.”
Ben said a final thank you and goodbye, then lightly slapped the reins against the horse’s rump and headed the animal down Main Street. He soon left Virginia City behind as he traveled toward the Ponderosa.
The barn was absent of three familiar horses when Ben arrived home that afternoon. He was disappointed, although had no reason to be. After all, he hadn’t wired the boys when he’d reached Carson City to let them know of his impending arrival. Maybe given his abrupt departure and lengthy time away, he was concerned his homecoming would be greeted with indifference, and the absence of his sons proved him right?
Well, Ben Cartwright, now’s a fine time to second-guess that old impulsive nature of yours.
Ben chuckled. Adam and Hoss might think him an old fool, but they understood his reasons for going. Of that he was certain. Little Joe – well, Little Joe was younger and the adult world was still new to him, so Ben didn’t expect him to understand. Yet, unlike his brothers, Joe hadn’t voiced any opposition to his father taking the trip. Which could mean he didn’t have opposition to voice, or could mean he’d left a lot unsaid. With Joseph, it wasn’t always easy to guess, and Ben had learned long ago that when it came to his youngest son, assumptions shouldn’t be made because they often proved to be wrong.
Ben stowed the wagon in the carriage house. He left his trunk in the wagon’s bed for the time being. He’d get Hoss to bring it inside later.
Ben picked up his valise with one hand and led the horse to the barn with the other. He put the animal in a stall, then fed and watered it. He took a few minutes to say hello to Buck, who was nickering a greeting. After Buck’s nose and long neck had been sufficiently rubbed and petted, Ben fed and watered him as well. He gave both horses fresh bedding, plucked his valise from the hook he’d hung it on, and headed for the house.
He bent his head, holding onto his hat, as a fierce, cold wind blew. When he entered his home, Ben placed his valise on the sideboard by the door and gave his feet a few hardy stamps, trying to bring feeling back to his cold toes. As he hung up his hat and coat he took note of the fire crackling in the fireplace, while the smells of simmering beef stew and baking bread drifted from the kitchen. Ben also thought he detected the aromas of warm cinnamon, nutmeg, and apples. He recalled the summer day a few months earlier when he envisioned just this scenario, while longing for the stress of Daniel’s visit and the trouble with the Dunns to be in the past.
Well, now those things were in the past, and though both situations ended in ways Ben never could have imagined, he’d be lying if he didn’t admit he was happy to have this moment when the comforts of home and family were close at hand.
“How many time Hop Sing say not stamp mud off boots in clean house? I get broom right now and you sweep--” The houseman’s tirade ended as he came around the corner and saw who had arrived. His scowl changed to a wide smile.
“Mr. Cart’light! Hop Sing not know you here. Think Little Joe home.”
“No, Hop Sing, it’s just me. And I can assure you that I don’t have mud on my boots. I was just trying to get my toes warm.”
“Then you come sit by fire ‘til supper ready. Hop Sing not know you coming home today, but made plenty eat.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing. It smells delicious. And to be honest, I didn’t know for certain that I was coming home today either. But the stage made good time, so here I am.”
Ben sat down in his favorite chair, savoring its soft cushioned seat after weeks of traveling on a stage. “Speaking of being home, where are the boys?”
“Mr. Adam leave for town little while ago. He hold practice for Christmas play.”
Ben nodded. Adam directed the town’s Christmas pageant each year, and with Christmas just two weeks away, he’d be spending numerous evenings in Virginia City. They must have missed one another as Ben traveled home. Since Adam wouldn’t have been encumbered with a wagon, he likely took a shortcut across Ponderosa land, rather than travel Virginia City road.
“He say eat supper in town, and if storm come he stay at Cattleman’s Hotel tonight.”
“Sounds like a good idea. And what about my other two sons?”
“Mr. Hoss help friend Mr. Jed add room on house for children. Mrs. Jed soon have baby, and say no space left for family. He say probably eat supper there, and spend night if snow start.”
Again, Ben nodded. Jed Donavon was a friend of Hoss’s from boyhood. He owned a piece of land west of the Ponderosa. With Jed’s wife due with baby number five shortly after the new year, an educated guess told Ben a bedroom was being added on for the older children to share.
“And Little Joe?”
“Little Joe say he stuck with all the work while older brothers go off and have fun.”
Ben laughed. “That sounds like Little Joe.”
“He checking shelters to make sure good for cattle before snow come. He say be back before dark.”
“Then he should be home soon.”
“Yes,” Hop Sing agreed. “Make supper Little Joe asked for since he only Cart’light at home tonight until Mr. Ben come.”
“Don’t worry about me. Whatever you’re cooking smells wonderful. I’ll be happy to eat what Little Joe has chosen.”
“Beef stew, loaf bread, applesauce cake.”
Ben smiled. “Somehow, I knew that’s what was on tonight’s menu, and believe it or not, it’s just what I would have ordered.”
“Then Hop Sing better go check make sure nothing burn unless Mr. Cart’light need something.”
“No, no. I don’t need anything, thank you. You go about your work and pretend I’m not here.”
Hop Sing nodded and headed back to the kitchen. Ben stared into the fire, the warmth radiating outward providing a sense of tranquility he hadn’t felt in months. He dozed off, waking to the sound of Hop Sing setting the table, before drifting into a light sleep again. The next time he awoke, it was to the sound of someone stamping his feet, followed by Hop Sing threatening to hand that someone a broom.
“Aw, Hop Sing, my boots ain’t muddy. I’m just warming up my toes, that’s all.”
“Humph! That’s what father say. Only Hop Sing believe father, but not believe you.”
“Yes, father home.”
“I wondered when I saw the strange horse in the barn.”
“He ‘sleep in chair, so be quiet.”
“Fine, I’ll be quiet. But--”
Ben peered around his chair. “If that’s you being quiet, I’d hate to hear what noisy sounds like.”
Based on the enthusiastic hug Ben received as he rose to meet Little Joe, the man suddenly knew he’d been worrying for no good reason when it came to concerns about his return being greeted with indifference.
Father and son barely had time to say hello before Hop Sing was putting supper on the table. They moved as one, Ben sitting in the chair he’d been long absent from, while Joe took his familiar place at his father’s right.
“We might as well eat while the food is hot. Hop Sing said your brothers won’t be joining us tonight.”
“Nope, they won’t be.”
Joe handed his father his bowl. Ben ladled stew into it thick with tender chunks of beef, carrots, and potatoes – just the way Little Joe liked it – and seasoned with finely chopped onions along with a multitude of spices Hop Sing wouldn’t reveal.
“I hope neither one of them starts home later if it’s snowing.”
“They won’t. To tell ya’ the truth, Pa, I think they planned it this way.”
“Oh you do, do you?”
“Yep. They both seemed pretty eager to high-tail it outta here and leave me with all the work. And they also seemed pretty eager to tell me they probably won’t be back until sometime tomorrow.” Joe grinned as he accepted a slice of warm bread and then lathered it with butter. “ ‘Course if they’d a’ known you were gonna come home I bet they woulda’ been here.”
“Because they missed me?”
“Heck no. Because it doesn’t look good for them to be gone and leave me in charge.”
Ben laughed. “From where I’m sitting it looks just fine.”
“Guess it must, or you wouldn’t have been sleepin’ in your chair when I got home.”
“I won’t have been?”
“Nah. You’d have been out searchin’ for me to make sure I wasn’t gettin’ myself into trouble.”
“Well see there. That thought never even crossed my mind.”
The conversation moved on to a discussion about the cattle drive, and from there to whatever news Joe wanted to share. He never mentioned the Dunn family, his uncle Daniel, or his father’s trip, so Ben didn’t bring up any of those subjects either. They talked about Christmas some, and the fact that they both had presents to buy yet, and that soon they’d have to make their annual trek over the Ponderosa with Adam and Hoss in search of the perfect tree for the great room.
“I see you bought yourself some new clothes while I was gone. Saw your new hat and jacket hanging on the hook, too. They make you look quite dapper.”
Joe smiled at the good-natured teasing. “They were presents from Adam and Hoss for my birthday.”
“Speaking of which, I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help celebrate.”
Joe shrugged. “I’m nineteen now. No need for celebrating.”
“There’s always a need for celebration, no matter how old a man gets. And we’ll do just that as soon as your brothers are back and Hop Sing is able to put together a special meal and a cake. Perhaps the day after tomorrow. What do you think?”
Joe tried to sound grown up, as if he was far too old now to be concerned with a family birthday party held in his honor. “No need really.”
“Yes there is. Besides, I’ve got some gifts for you in my trunk that I bought in Ohio.”
The young man, who moments earlier was too old to be concerned with birthday celebrations, suddenly changed his mind.
“Oh, well okay. Then I guess there is a need.”
Ben chuckled before taking another mouthful of stew. He hadn’t been gone that long, but Little Joe seemed to have changed somehow. Maybe it was the new clothes. Maybe they made him look older. Or maybe he’d grown some. Back when Ben had concerns Hoss would never stop growing and that Little Joe never would grow, Paul Martin had told him that a young man could continue adding height and muscle mass until age twenty-five.
It wasn’t until the table had been cleared and Hop Sing was eating his supper in the kitchen that Joe brought up his father’s trip. They had moved to the great room, plates of applesauce cake in one hand and cups of coffee in the other. Ben settled in his chair once more, while Joe sat on the settee. Joe ate three bites of cake before finally asking what was on his mind.
“So, did you…did you uh….have a good trip?”
“If by that you’re asking was my journey uneventful, then yes, considering the miles I traveled it was.”
“That’s good I s’ppose. Though it sounds kinda boring.”
Ben cocked in eyebrow. “When you reach my age, Joseph, you’ll come to appreciate boring now and again.”
“Can’t imagine it, but if you say so, Pa.”
“And um. . .Uncle Daniel’s family?”
“What about them?”
“How. . .I mean. . .well, the news and all. How’d they take it?”
“I can’t say I gave them much news beyond what I informed them of in the telegram I sent right after Daniel died.”
“And what exactly was that? If you don’t mind me askin’ that is.”
“I don’t mind. I told them Daniel passed away suddenly and peacefully.”
“There was no need to tell them more, Joe.”
“I never said there was.”
“No, you didn’t. But your tone of voice sounds as though you disagree with my decision.”
Joe ate the last few bites of his cake and drained his cup before speaking again. He set his dishes on the coffee table, then relaxed against the back of the settee. He gazed into the fire, not meeting his father’s eyes.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with it. I’m not sure what I would have done in your place. Guess there was no point in tarnishing Uncle Daniel’s memory for his daughters and grandchildren.”
“No, there wasn’t.” Thinking of Ruth, Ben added, “Besides, there were those who knew the truth without me speaking it aloud.”
Joe looked at his father. “What do you mean?”
“Your uncle didn’t arrive here with thoughts and opinions that weren’t a large part of who he was back in Ohio as well.”
“No. No, I suppose he didn’t.”
“And for that, I owe you an apology.”
“I do. As difficult as it is for me to admit this about my brother, I always knew he was. . .odd. Not quite right in his thinking. Or at least his thinking was a far cry different from my own.”
“Thank the Lord for that.”
Ben chuckled rather than admonishing Little Joe for his use of the Lord’s name. Besides, he quite imagined Joe’s, “Thank the Lord,” was indeed a heartfelt prayer, as opposed to a curse of any kind.
“Yes. . .well, when I received John’s letter about Daniel’s loss of Clara and then Danny, both so close together, I allowed sentiment to overrule clear thinking. I should have known inviting him were wouldn’t be a good idea due to his somewhat...
uh. . .sour personality, is how I’ll phrase it.”
“Knowing something isn’t a good idea just ‘cause a guy’s a sour puss isn’t the same as knowing a man is capable of kidnapping and attempted murder. You can’t make me believe for even one minute that you knew Uncle Daniel was anything more than self-righteous, opinionated, and cantankerous. If you had, you never would have asked him to come.”
As Ben set his own empty dishes on the coffee table, he gave his son an appraising look. “Are you sure you only turned nineteen back in October?”
“Why are you askin’ me that? You know I turned nineteen.”
“Because you suddenly have the wisdom of a man twice your age.”
“Hey, do me a favor and make sure you tell that to Adam when he gets home.”
Ben laughed. “I’ll do that.”
“So anyway, Pa, quit blaming yourself. You invited Uncle Daniel ‘cause you thought a change of scenery would do him good. That being able to get away from his grief for a while might help him heal. He was your brother. You hadn’t seen him in twenty-five years. You just. . .you just couldn’t have predicted all that was gonna happen once he got here.”
“No…no, I guess I couldn’t have.”
The gentle hissing and spitting and crackling of wood in the fireplace were the only sounds in the room until Joe finally spoke again. His voice was quiet and contained a note of confusion. As though he was still trying to figure out why his uncle had wanted to hurt him.
“He wasn’t. . .he wasn’t right in the head, was he. I mean, his thinking – it wasn’t right, was it?”
“No, Joe, his thinking wasn’t right.”
“ ‘Cause he was old?”
Ben gave a slight smile of amusement at that question.
“Well, that could have had something to do with it, yes. But even as far back as when I was young boy, your uncle Daniel viewed the world in a manner that greatly differed from the way the rest of us saw it. My pa used to tease and say it was because he had a lot of Weston in him.”
“Yes. Only Ma. . .I’ll be the first to admit she was the one who made the Bible a focal point in our household, and saw to it that we attended church each Sunday and knew our scriptures, but nonetheless, there was a warmth about her and a sense of humor that was lacking in Daniel. Of course, the poor woman had to possess a sense of humor in order to be married to the first Joseph Cartwright.”
“Your pa was. . .what’s that word Adam uses? Irrepressible? Is that it?”
“Yes, that’s it. And that describes my pa pretty well. Impossible to hold back or restrain. He embraced life in much the same way you do – by just plunging right in instead of checking the water first.”
“Not checking the water first is half the fun, Pa.”
“Somehow I knew you’d say that. Which is also the reason I have this head full of gray hair, young man.”
It was Joe’s turn to laugh. When he sobered, he seemed to be contemplating a question that was too big to ask.
Ben’s, “Hm?” sounded drowsy and distant. The long trip, his full stomach, and the warm room all combined to make him sleepy. Alertness returned, however, as Joe asked, “What Uncle Daniel said about Saddam and Gomorrah. . .about Danny. . .do you think Danny did what he said?”
“Did what he said?”
“Um. . .uh. . .you know…uh, was with. . .was with men?”
“You heard that?” Ben asked; certain Daniel was holding Joe under the water when he claimed Danny had been with men.
Joe’s reply was no louder than a whisper. “You’d be amazed at how many things you can hear when you’re almost dead.”
“What’d you say, son?”
“Uh...I said yes, I heard him.
Ben shifted his chair, slowly sitting up straighter. This wasn’t a conversation he’d ever imagined having with one of his boys. Talking to them as young teenagers about the responsibilities and actions of an honorable man when he was alone with a woman had been difficult enough. A necessary talk, Ben felt each time he conducted it throughout the years, but not a comfortable one. Fortunately, Adam just nodded and left the room with a thoughtful look on his face, while Hoss blushed and hurried from the room as fast as he could. It was Little Joe who, at fourteen years old, dragged the talk out, peppering Ben with questions until it was the father who was blushing and hurrying from the room rather than the son.
Regardless, those years were behind him, thank goodness. But tonight was a conversation of a different sort. A conversation full of speculation, assumptions, and educated guesses, all based on the ranting of a sick man, and that focused on a side of human nature Ben admittedly didn’t know much about.
He sighed heavily before he finally answered his son.
“Joe, I. . .to be honest with you, son, I just don’t know. I don’t know anything about Danny’s personal life, and what he might or might not have done.”
“But Uncle Daniel seemed so certain.”
“Yes, he did. But we’ve both already acknowledged that Uncle Daniel might not have been thinking correctly.”
“But what if he was? What if he had proof of some sort?”
“What if he did?”
“Does. . .does a father quit loving his son because of that? I mean, I know what the Bible says, but. . .”
“But that’s a big question, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. I can see why a father could quit loving his son over it, but at the same time, I can’t see it either. A father’s love – well, it seems like it’s pretty big, you know? That it forgives a son of a lot of wrong doings.”
“A father’s love is big. I suppose how big, depends on the father. As for myself, I’ve always believed that a father’s love is unconditional.”
“Unconditional? That sounds bigger than big.”
“It encompasses a lot, no doubt. But it doesn’t mean a father always agrees with the decisions his children make or the actions they take. It doesn’t mean a father can’t be ashamed of something his child has done, or embarrassed by it, or just plain angry over it. However, it does mean that at the end of the day, the father forgives.”
“Anything?” Joe questioned with a hint of doubt.
“Anything,” Ben confirmed. “Events can happen that cause a terrible breach in a father’s relationship with his child – I hope that never happens between me and any of my sons, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve known it to occur in other families. Nonetheless, even through the widest of breaches for the most terrible reasons imaginable, forgiveness and love would still be a given. At least for this father they would be, and I believe that someday, when you’re a father, you’ll feel the same way.”
“Even. . .even for something like Uncle Daniel claimed Danny did?”
“Yes, Joe, even for something like that. I might not understand it. I might find it distasteful. I might find it to go against all that the Bible has taught me. But if what your uncle Daniel said is true, and if he killed his son because of it, then he not only broke a commandment, but he also turned his back on his child when that child likely needed him the most.”
Joe nodded. “That’s pretty much how I see it.”
“You do, uh?”
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking it over for a while now, and no matter what Danny did, I can’t imagine a father killing his son, or thinking he had reasons to justify that.”
“Neither can I, Joseph. The only regret I have was that I couldn’t help Danny in some way.”
“That’s why you had to go back to Ohio, wasn’t it. It’s why you couldn’t wait until spring like Adam and Hoss wanted you to.”
“To help Danny?”
“No, not to help Danny. Guess he was long past helpin’ unfortunately. But to get it all straight in your head. To try and figure out what made Uncle Daniel do the things he did. To try and reconcile yourself with it. To be with the people who had known you since you were a boy. The people that came from the same place you did – from the same family you were raised in. To ask your parents to forgive you, and then to let Uncle Daniel rest in peace for good.”
Ben gazed at son. Suddenly, sitting here with Little Joe was like sitting on the front porch of the old farmhouse with John. The same curly hair. The same wiry build. The same green eyes. The only difference was John’s curls were now gray, and his wiry build was broader through the shoulders and chest than it had been twenty-five years ago.
John was the only person to whom Ben confided the true happenings of Daniel’s summer visit and his subsequent death. And from John, he received the same gentle understanding he was now getting from his youngest son.
“Remember when I said you possessed the wisdom of a man twice your age?”
“Well, you do. And for that I’m grateful.”
“Grateful?” The confused Joe questioned.
Ben smiled. “Never mind. Let’s just say all of your assumptions as to why I had to go to Ohio are correct and leave it at that.”
Joe grinned, looking very pleased with himself.
“What’s got you suddenly looking like the first bull in the heifer pen?”
“Oh, just the fact that those older brothers of mine haven’t figured any of this out yet – I mean about why you insisted on goin’ to Ohio at a time of the year when most men wouldn’t risk traveling so far. And based on things they’ve said recently, they’re still no where near figurin’ it out.”
“And you don’t plan on telling them, is that it?”
“Pa, when you’re the youngest of three boys, you don’t usually get the chance be the first one holdin’ all the aces. Considering this may never happen again, I’m just gonna sit here holdin’ onto my aces and let the two guys holdin’ the jokers come to their own conclusions.”
“Well then, your secret’s safe with me.”
Joe winked and nodded. “Thanks.”
Their conversation died as Hop Sing came in to collect their dishes. After the houseman had returned to the kitchen and Ben could hear the clanking of plates and silverware being washed, he asked, “Any more trouble with the Dunns after I left?”
“Nope. They’re gone.”
“I heard that rumor while I was in town.”
“It’s not a rumor. One day they were here, the next day they were gone.”
“Not even Rilla and the little ones remained behind?”
“Where’d they go?”
Joe shrugged. “No one seems to know, or if they do, they’re not saying. I’ve heard they’re headed back east – all the way to Pennsylvania – but then I’ve also heard they’re headed to California, and then a few weeks back someone said something about Texas, but not long after you left there was talk they were meeting up with Paul and Charlie somewhere. Wyoming, or the Dakotas, Mitch said he heard at the general store.”
“What about the ranch?”
“No one seems to know anything about that either. Word is Mr. Dunn left instructions with Mr. Kartcher.”
Lloyd Kartcher was Jim Dunn’s attorney. Ben supposed it was possible that Lloyd had instructions to act on Jim’s behalf to either sell the ranch or lease it.
“Maybe Hoss’ll know more when he gets back.”
“Jed was interested in finding out if it’s for sale. Don’t know if he can afford such a big spread, but like Hoss said, never hurts to ask what a man’s price is.”
“No, no it doesn’t,” Ben agreed, while thinking that if the ranch was for sale for a fair price, he might be able to assist Jed with a loan. The Donavons would make good neighbors, and after the recent incidents with the Jim and his sons, good neighbors looked mighty appealing.
One minute Ben was mulling over the potential sale of the Dunn ranch, and the next minute Joe was giving him a playful swat on the knee.
“Pa, if you’re that tired, you’d better go on up to bed.”
“Uh. . .what?”
“I said if you’re that tired, you’d better head up to bed. This the second time you’ve fallen asleep since we sat down over here.”
“The second time, huh?”
Joe smiled with an almost paternal air. “Yeah, the second time.”
“And what about you? You’ve had a long day, too, from the sounds of it.”
“I have. I’ll probably go to my room and read for a while. Hoss gave me a whole passel of new dime novels for my birthday.”
Ben smiled. Joe had yet to outgrow his love of the thinly-plotted stories Adam found distasteful and a “waste of the boy’s time,” as he’d often put it over the years each time he saw Joe’s nose buried in one of the books. Ben had always taken an opposite stance from his eldest where this subject was concerned.
“The important thing is he’s reading, Adam. You enjoy fine literature, while Little Joe enjoys books filled with adventure.”
“Yes,” Adam would always snort with disdain, “books filled with inane adventures that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”
“Maybe not to you, but to Little Joe they’re worth gold. And as I said, he’s reading, which is what really counts. I’d venture to guess he gleans just as much from them as you glean from Shakespeare.”
And at that, Adam would always sigh with defeat, “To each his own I suppose.”
When Ben’s stiff knees and back didn’t allow him to rise from his chair without a groan, Joe held out a hand.
“Here, Pa, let me help you.”
Ben chuckled, “I’m not that old yet, Joseph,” but willingly accepted Joe’s assistance. “That stage ride sure left me stiff and sore.”
“Guess that happens when a man reaches your age.”
Ben shot his son a stern look, but couldn’t maintain it when Joe started to laugh.
They climbed the stairs together. As they reached Joe’s room and he turned to go inside, Ben laid a hand on his arm. There was one final thing regarding Daniel’s visit that Ben had to put to rest for good.
Joe stopped as he was about to step into his room.
“Given all of our discussion about Daniel and what he did to Danny, I want you to know that there’s nothing on this earth you could do that would cause me to harm you.”
Joe looked puzzled. “I know that.”
“But for a while there you didn’t.”
“Oh. . .you mean after the. . .after the cave and all?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean.”
Rather then just say he was mixed up in the head and let it go at that, Joe finally told his father the truth.
“For a while, I did think it was you, even though at the same time I didn’t wanna believe it. But then once I let my subconscious mind get all the right messages to me, and once I figured out what those messages meant, I not only knew it wasn’t you, but I also knew it never could be.”
“Subconscious mind, huh?”
“One of Adam’s ten dollar words, as Hoss would say.”
“Yes, I’ve heard him use it a time or two.”
“I don’t usually have much use for his big words and fancy theories, but for once, I can’t argue with him. And so as Hoss always says too, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“No, you don’t.”
Ben reached out and pulled his son into his embrace. “I’m sorry I brought Daniel here. I’d never let anyone hurt you if I could help it.”
Joe’s words brushed softly across Ben’s right ear. “I know that, Pa. And do you know how I know it?”
“Because your love is even bigger than the Ponderosa.”
“Not even the Ponderosa comes close to comparing to the size of my love for you boys.”
Joe’s reply was quiet and full of deep thought. “No. No, I don’t suppose it does.”
They parted with Ben giving Joe a final pat on the back. They said goodnight, and Ben took three steps toward his room. Joe’s voice stopped his progress.
Ben turned. “Yes, Joseph?”
“It’s not because I’m all that smart that I knew the reason why you had to go to Ohio.”
“Oh, it’s not?” Ben replied with a teasing lilt to his voice.
“No, it’s not.”
“Then how did you know?”
“Because if something like happened to Uncle Daniel happened to one of my brothers, I’d have to come see you too, Pa. No matter how far away I was, I’d have to come see you, too.”
Ben gazed at his son a long time, then finally nodded. “Thank you.”
“For understanding. And for being the son you are.”
Joe smiled at the reference. “Guess that’s the only son I know how to be.”
“Good. Because where you’re concerned, it’s the son I want. . .most of the time, that is.”
Joe laughed. “Can’t fault you for adding that.”
Ben pulled Joe into one last playful hug and mussed his already mussed curls.
“I didn’t think you could.”
They parted ways for good then, Joe’s bedroom door shutting first, and Ben’s shutting a few seconds later. Ben was asleep within five minutes of his head nestling into his pillow. The light in Little Joe’s room burned for another hour, the young man engrossed in one of his dime novels and not willing to quit reading until the words finally grew bleary and he found himself nodding off.
Joe marked his page, blew out the light, and burrowed beneath his quilt. He could hear snow pelting his window as a strong wind made the logs of the house creak and moan. The Big North’ner had finally arrived, and Pa had beaten her home.
Joe smiled as he drifted off. With his father sleeping just down the hall, and with the house snug and warm and secured for the night, all felt right in his world.
As the wind raged and snow piled up in the yard, Joe slept the night away. For the first time in months, there were no dreams of falling, or drowning, or of forest fires, or of being beaten by a man whose face he couldn’t see but who wore his father’s clothes. Instead, his dreams were pleasant, filled with images of past Christmas seasons, and snowstorms, and sledding down the hill behind the carriage house with his brothers.
As pale gray light began to filter in behind Joe’s curtains, his final dream held the image of a young man he didn’t recognize. There was something familiar about his curly blond hair, green eyes, and slight build, but where Joe knew him from, he couldn’t say. The young man’s grin was playful, and his words – “Tell Ruthie I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and in a place where I can dance all the jigs I take a notion to,” didn’t mean anything to Joe until several hours later, when memories of the dream suddenly came to the forefront of his mind as he shoveled a path to the barn.
Whether it was possible that the dream really had been a message from Danny or not, Joe didn’t know. What he did know was that he no longer disregarded messages from his subconscious mind. And given that, when his father sat down that afternoon to write his annual Christmas letters to far away family members, Joe asked if he could include a note of his own in the letter addressed to Ruth Cartwright.
His father looked at him a moment, surprised, Joe supposed; that he wanted to write to a cousin he’d never met. Pa didn’t question him, however. He nodded his agreement, saying, “I just finished the letter I’m sending to Ruth. You write what you want and put it in the envelope I addressed to her. It’s right here in this stack on the corner of my desk.”
“Okay. Thanks, Pa.”
Little Joe took the piece of paper his father handed him and grabbed the extra ink well and a dip pen. He carried everything to the dining room table where he sat alone and wrote as daylight slowly faded outside the window and the smells of a warm supper cooking filled the house.
Although we’ve never met, I feel like I know you. I’m sorry about the passing of your brother and mother, and now the passing of your father, too. I’m glad my pa was able to visit you. It meant a lot to Pa to see his family, and to convey his sympathies to you. He tells me you own the store now. I’m sure you’ll have great success with it. Pa says you are an accomplished businesswoman.
I don’t know if you put much stock in dreams. I didn’t use to, but recently, I’ve learned to have a greater appreciation for them, and the truths they sometimes hold. I hope you don’t think me daft in the head when I tell you this. Although I never knew your brother Danny, last night he came to me in a dream. He was smiling, and he wanted me to tell you that he’s happier than he’s ever been, and is in a place where he can dance all the jigs he takes a notion to. I figured that might mean something to you.
I know what it’s like to need answers, and then when finally getting them, find peace also. I hope what I’ve told you brings you both of those things – answers and peace.
I wish you a Merry Christmas, Ruth, and a new year full of prosperous beginnings.
Joe allowed the ink to dry then folded the letter. He stood and walked over to his father’s desk, enclosing it with the one Pa had written Ruth. Pa never looked up from the letter he was writing to his sister Dorcas. If he was curious as to what Joe had said to Ruth, he didn’t indicate it. Instead, he instructed casually, “You can go ahead and seal that envelope to Ruth, and if you don’t mind, you can seal the others in that pile as well.”
“No, I don’t mind,” Joe said, as he sat in a chair across from his father’s desk and began securing the envelopes’ flaps with the warm wax seal that was a replica of the Ponderosa brand.
By the time supper was on the table, the Christmas letters were addressed and ready to mail. Hoss and Adam arrived within minutes of one another, Hoss claiming the smells of Hop Sing’s good cooking had led him through the snow, while Adam claimed he’d estimated he’d been gone long enough for Joe to have all the chores done.
For once, Joe didn’t balk at the teasing or toss a smart remark back at his brother. Although he didn’t say it, he was happy they were able to gather again as a family on this cold winter night, the first time they’d sat down to supper together since Pa left for Ohio back in September. No, it wasn’t Christmas yet, but as Hop Sing carried out two plump roasted chickens, and as Joe looked at the smiling faces of his father and brothers, it sure felt like a holiday to him.
Joe’s thoughts flicked to Ruth, maybe eating alone tonight in the rooms Pa had described above the general store. As he piled his plate with chicken and mashed potatoes, and took in the animated chatter as Adam and Hoss peppered Pa with questions about his trip, he hoped his letter gave Ruth assurance that the brother she’d loved so much would always be seated at her table and eager to dance a jig.
They huddled together in tight-knit group, as much to assuage their grief as to try and keep warm. The baby had come early and died. He’d seemed big enough to Jim. Probably weighed six pounds – not as large as the other children had been, but then, he’d been born at the end of miles of hard travel through harsh weather and even harsher territory. Whether that’s what caused the baby they’d named Lawrence to die within hours of his birth, or whether his death was the result of the stress the events of recent months had caused Rilla, Jim didn’t know.
The children were cold, hungry, and tired when they’d arrived in Wyoming to nothing other than the drafty lean-to Paul and Charlie had hastily erected – the drafty lean-to where Lawrence had been born in the middle of a frigid January night. Aside from baby Lawrence, they’d lost Daphne as well. She’d never fully recovered from the trauma of the fire. Just when Jim thought he was beginning to see some sparkle in her eyes and hear some childish laughter in her voice, her spirits seemed to sink again after Nan Henning left. She’d grown more and more despondent as they’d traveled, becoming frail and weak and sick until she eventually refused to eat. She’d died in Idaho. It had broken Rilla’s heart to bury her there in a grave with no tombstone that bore her name, and in a place they’d likely never find again no matter how long they searched.
They stood together now over the grave they’d dug for Lawrence in the cold, hard earth. As his family quietly wept for the baby forever lost to them, Jim gently sidled away from the distraught Rilla’s embrace. He slipped her into Paul’s arms, whispering, “Take care of your mother,” and then said quietly to Charlie as he passed him, “Get everyone in the lean-to and stoke the fire. I’ll be there in a minute.”
As his family walked away from him in a mass huddle of grief, Jim looked west. His eyes narrowed as though he could see all the way to Nevada. He glanced back at the obscenely tiny grave, and then thought too, of Daphne, left behind in an unmarked grave in Idaho.
As his gaze slowly turned toward the west again, he vowed, “You’ll pay for this, Ben Cartwright. Mark my words, I’ll take from you what is most precious, just like you’ve taken what is the most precious from me. An eye for an eye, Ben. An eye for an eye.”
Jim nodded firmly in a silent promise to himself as he turned and slowly walked past Lawrence’s grave.
“You’ll pay, Ben Cartwright. You’ll pay in a way that will haunt you and bring you grief all the rest of your days.”
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* A big thank you to Jane L. for beta-reading this story each time I completed a chapter. Due to my slow progress, it was a long journey. Thanks, Jane, for sticking with the Cartwrights, and for sticking with me.