In the weeks following Adam’s arrival, Joe barely had a moment to relax between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon – the hours Adam declared “school” was in session Monday through Friday, save for a one-hour lunch break at noon. Joe hadn’t studied with this intensity during all of the years he’d attended Virginia City’s schoolhouse. When he’d said as much to Adam, Adam droned, “That doesn’t surprise me,” in a tone that held just the right amount of brotherly teasing.
Learning to read and write Braille took up most of Joe’s time and concentration. He often asked Adam to continue working with him after supper. In a reversal of roles, it was Adam who put a halt to the learning whenever he recognized Joe needed to set the books aside and have some fun. When Saturdays arrived, it was also Adam who rounded up Hoss and Joe for fishing excursions, or journeys over Ponderosa land on horseback. Sometimes Pa came along, while other times he said he had things to do and remained at the house. Pa wasn’t fooling his sons. They knew this was his way of giving them time together as brothers, after too many years apart.
Braille opened the world to Joe in a way he never imagined it could. Adam had books written in Braille, a deck of Braille cards, and a set of Braille dominos and Braille checkers. The cards, dominos, and checkers were also marked in the traditional manner for sighted people, which enabled Hoss and Joe to resume playing the after-supper games they’d indulged in since boyhood.
Other lessons for Joe included learning to saddle Cochise, fill his own plate, shave his face without assistance, make his bed, and fold and put away his clothes. With Adam’s help, Joe also learned to sort his clothing by color and type, so that he no longer worried about making a fool of himself by putting on a pair of trousers meant for church, with a shirt meant for ranch work. He also learned to safely navigate both floors of the house, as well as the stairway. Once Joe accomplished those feats, he learned to traverse the wide-open space of the ranch yard, and then the interior of the out buildings. Joe couldn’t count the number of times he’d heard Adam command, “Head up, Joe. Up, just as though you’re looking someone in the eye. Keep your right arm bent and in front of your face. If you bump into a wall, it’ll hurt a lot less if your arm takes the brunt of it, as opposed to your nose. Palm inward on that left hand. Inward. Remember, it’s the back of that hand you run over walls and furniture, not the front.”
Exactly when these new skills became second nature and he no longer needed Adam’s reminders, Joe wasn’t sure. All he knew was suddenly it seemed like he’d been blind for years. That thought scared him, because it forced him to accept that more time was passing in which his eyesight showed no sign of returning. It forced Joe to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, this is what the future held for him. Braille books, Braille checkers, Braille dominos, and everything surrounded by darkness. Everything he’d known for as long as he could remember – his bedroom, the comforting glow of the fireplace in the great room on a cold winter’s evening, the meadows, streams, lakes, grazing lands, and timberlands of the Ponderosa, and his father’s face – would be only memories in his mind’s eye. Memories that Joe feared would diminish as the years went on, until he couldn’t recall what Pa looked like at all, or how Hoss cocked his head, scrunched up his nose, and pursed his mouth when trying to figure out if Joe was pulling his leg about something, or telling him the truth.
Despite Adam’s lessons and the hope they brought Joe that he could eventually live a semi-independent life, depression remained a companion hidden in the shadows, and creeping over him whenever he dwelled on all that he might never see or do again. Before the explosion, Joe thought his entire future was ahead of him. A future that included a wife and children. A future that included running the Ponderosa with Hoss, long after Pa had lived to be a ripe old age, and then was no longer with them. Now, Joe set all those dreams aside permanently. There would be no wife, no children, and no ability on his part to be a business partner in much of anything, let alone this ranch that encompassed one thousand square-miles.
During these bouts of depression, Joe was an “ornery little cuss,” as Hoss mumbled on a few occasions. It was then that Joe and Adam would invariably have words over something Adam wanted Joe to do, that Joe wanted no part of. And the thing Adam wanted Joe to do the most lately, that Joe in turn resisted the strongest, was taking a trip into Virginia City. Adam brought it up again during that afternoon’s Braille lesson.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Joe asked, as he sat at the dining room table with his brother. “I don’t wanna be stared at.”
“You can’t see. Therefore, you won’t know if anyone’s staring at you.”
Joe ignored Adam’s attempt at humor.
“Because I will. I don’t have to be able to see in order to sense what’s going on around me. You’re the one who keeps telling me that, in case you need to be reminded.”
“I don’t need to be reminded. But you can’t hide out here on the Ponderosa forever.”
“I’m not hiding!”
“Looks to me like you are.”
“Well I didn’t ask what it looked like to you.”
“I realize that, but a trip to town is part of your schooling. You need to learn to navigate in all types of situations, Joe, and with all types of distractions. That includes traveling a crowded sidewalk, making your way through a store on a busy afternoon, and stepping out of the way when you hear a stagecoach coming down the street.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. So on Saturday, we’ll go into town together and--”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes you are.”
“No I’m not.”
“Look, I’m not the kid brother you can boss around any more.”
“I realize that, and I’m not bossing. But you were the one who asked me to be your teacher, and as your teacher, I’m telling you a trip to town is part of learning to cope with being blind.”
“Well maybe I don’t wanna cope! Maybe I don’t give a damn about coping!”
“You may not give a damn about it, but one way or another, you have to come to terms with it. And that means putting up with people staring at you, pointing at you, and probably even whispering behind your back as you walk away.”
“If that’s what coping’s all about, I don’t want any part of it.”
“Joe, you’re not the only person in this family who’s been stared at, you know.”
supposed to mean?”
“Um. . .nothing. Nothing.”
Joe scowled. “That’s what I thought. Nothing. Because you don’t know. Because you’re “Perfect Adam,” and you always have been.”
“I’m not perfect.”
“Sure you are. The Cartwright brother who’s always had all the right answers. The Cartwright brother Pa depended on to help him make the important decisions for the Ponderosa, until you weren’t here any more, and Pa figured out Hoss and I aren’t as dumb as he thought.”
“The Cartwright brother who’s never made mistakes, never made a bad decision, and never made a fool of himself. So yeah, Adam, it’s easy for you to tell me I should go into town, because you’ve never been stared at or pointed at a day in your life! Until you know how that feels, don’t tell me what I have to do!”
Joe flew from his chair and stumbled for the front door, angry at how difficult his sightless eyes made fleeing from a situation he no longer wanted to be a part of. He expected his brother to follow him, but he didn’t hear any footsteps behind him, nor did Adam come outside and try to prevent him from leaving on Cochise. That was just fine with Joe. He didn’t need a babysitter, or a teacher for that matter. Maybe it was time for Adam to go back to Boston. Maybe it was time for Adam to go back to his life, and let Pa, Hoss, and Joe, return to theirs.
But what exactly is my life now? Joe wondered as he rode wherever Cochise took him. What can I do that’ll ever be of any use around here? Of any use to Pa, or to Hoss?
Being on Cochise without someone riding beside him was probably reckless, but Joe didn’t care. Cochise knew the way home, and he wouldn’t let anything happen to Joe. Besides, it felt good to be outside alone, traveling on Cochise like he used to back when he’d taken his eyesight for granted.
Joe trusted Cochise to take him wherever the horse was inclined to. By the warmth on his face, Joe knew they were headed west, but their exact location was a mystery. Joe listened hard for the sound of water lapping against rocks, or the sound of men working cattle, or breaking horses, but he didn’t hear any of the things that might have oriented him to his whereabouts. Still, it didn’t bother him not to be able to discern his location. When Cochise crossed from uneven terrain to a smooth surface, Joe didn’t urge the horse to alter his path until he heard a buggy. That’s when he realized they were on Virginia City Road.
Joe gave the reins an urgent tug to the right. “Come on, Cooch.”
“Joe!” A woman’s voice called from in front of Joe. “Joe, wait! Joe!”
“Come on, Cochise, let’s--”
“Joe, wait! Please!”
Evidently, Cochise was as easily swayed by a pretty face as his master, because he ignored Joe’s command, and stood in the middle of the road waiting for the buggy to reach them.
“Joe! It’s so nice to see you.”
Joe pulled the brim of his hat low on his forehead, and “looked” down at his saddle horn.
“Uh. . .hi, Sally. Nice to see you, too.”
“I ask your father about you every Sunday at church.”
“Yeah. . .um. . .he’s mentioned that.”
“I hope you’re feeling better.”
“I am. I’m feelin’ real good.”
By the silence that followed, Joe suspected the woman was studying him, trying to determine if any signs of injury remained.
“I’m glad to hear that, and glad I ran across you, as well. I was just on my way to your house.”
“I made you some strawberry jam as a get-well present.”
“Oh. . .thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Joe hoped she wasn’t holding the jam out to him, expecting him to get off of Cochise and come retrieve it. The awkward silence that followed told Joe that’s exactly what Sally was doing. She rushed to fill that silence.
“Here, let me bring this to. . .Whoops!”
“Wha. . .what’s wrong?”
“I’ve got my skirts caught in the wheel. No, Bonnie, don’t! Whoa! Don’t move! Whoa, Bonnie! Whoa!”
Joe slid off Cochise and hurried to Sally’s side. In his haste, he forgot Adam’s instructions on how to travel an open area, and instead, fell back into the old habit of waving his hands in front of him.
There was something in Sally’s tone that indicated she’d seen Joe’s actions and knew what they meant. Her, “Thank you,” when he’d gotten Bonnie halted, was hesitant and soft, and held embarrassment for him. Sally released her skirts without Joe’s help, then placed the jar in his hands.
“Here, Joe. The jam’s right--”
He shoved it back at her. “I don’t want it.”
“But I made it for you.”
“Yes, why? Why was it so important to come and see me? So you can tell your girlfriends the rumors they’ve heard are true? That Joe Cartwright really is a helpless blind man who can’t even assist a woman in getting out of a buggy.”
“Joe. . .no. No, I--”
“Just go, Sally. Go, and take this with you.”
Joe shoved the jar at the woman again, forcing it into her hands. He turned, stumbling for Cochise, while Sally called his name. Her presence made it impossible for Joe to concentrate on climbing into the saddle. Cochise did a two-step away from his master, skittish over the sudden yelling and upset.
“Go! Go I said!” Joe hollered, knowing he’d never manage to get on Cochise with Sally staring at him. “Get outta here!”
Joe heard Sally’s cry of surprise at his cruelty, followed by a choked sob. Then he heard the buggy being turned around, and Bonnie urged to travel at a clipped pace toward the Morris homestead. At any other time, Joe would have felt like a cad for treating a woman so poorly, especially one he’d been smitten with. But not today. He hadn’t asked Sally to call on him. He hadn’t asked her to make him jam. And most of all, he hadn’t asked for her pity.
As Joe struggled to climb back on Cochise while the horse turned nervous circles, he heard riders coming. The sound made Joe even more desperate to get on his mount and flee this open area. But desperation wasn’t a blind man’s friend, as Joe was finding out. The more urgent he became, the less cooperative Cochise became. With one foot caught in a stirrup, Joe was forced to dance in a circle with Cochise like some sissy fella who’d never sat a horse.
“Joe! Joe, stop!”
“Joe, do as Hoss says and quit moving! Grab the reins and pull back! They’re directly above your left hand!”
Worse even than Sally Morris seeing him in this predicament, was having Adam and Hoss see him while riding to his rescue.
Joe didn’t know who got a hold of Cochise’s reins, but an educated guess told him it was Hoss.
“You okay, little brother?”
A mammoth hand cupped his upper arm and started to lift. Joe jerked away.
“I can do it myself!”
“Don’t much look like it to me.”
“Well I can! Just hold onto him for me.”
“Whatever you say, Joe.”
Adam’s voice followed Hoss’s.
“The saddle horn is--”
“I know where the saddle horn is!”
Joe didn’t need his eyesight to know his brothers exchanged glances.
“Quit looking at each other like that!”
“Like what?” Adam asked.
“Like you’re both so smart, and I’m so stupid.”
“We’re not looking at--”
“Yes you are!”
Adam sighed, but didn’t say anything. Hoss evidently knew better than to contribute his two cents worth at this moment, as well, because all he said was, “Come on. Let’s go home.”
Home to what, Joe wanted to ask. More Braille lessons? More games of Braille checkers? More lessons on learning how to live with being blind? Live? This wasn’t living. This was death as far as Joe was concerned. A slow, painful death, that had stripped every ounce of dignity from him, and made him so dependant on others that he couldn’t even get home by himself on the back of a horse he’d ridden since childhood.
As he rode flanked by his silent brothers, as though he was once again an errant schoolboy being taken home to Pa for punishment, Joe wished the explosion had killed him. In his opinion, death couldn’t be any worse than spending the rest of his life in darkness.
And when all was said and done, it might even turn out to be better.
Supper was a subdued affair. Not since the first evening Adam arrived, had Joe refused to come downstairs and eat, but this evening he did. By the worry on Pa’s face, and how little he ate, Adam knew this step backwards on Joe’s part was gnawing at their father’s insides.
“I’m sorry, Pa. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have been so insistent about Joe taking a trip with me into Virginia City.”
“Would you have insisted with any other student?”
“Well. . .yes. Yes, I would have.”
“Then don’t apologize. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Then allow me to apologize for handling it the wrong way.”
“Handling it the wrong way?”
Adam smiled with chagrin. “Joe was right. He’s not the kid brother I can boss around any more.”
“Meaning?” Pa questioned.
“Meaning, Joe and I are apparently still bound to butt heads every so often over our birth order.” At the confusion on his father’s face, Adam explained, “He still thinks being the oldest is an enviable position he missed out on, and I still think being the youngest wouldn’t be so bad on most days.”
“Well, no matter how ya’ look at it, I’m the brother who’s always caught in the middle between ya’ two ornery cusses.”
“That you are, Hoss,” Adam laughed. “That you are.”
“ ‘Sides, I think Joe’s mood is about somethin’ way more ‘an that, Adam.”
“Way more than what?”
“You and him havin’ a quarrel over goin’ into Virginia City.”
“How so?” Pa asked, as Hoss speared another pork chop from the platter.
“I saw the Morris rig on Virginia City Road this afternoon. I was too far away to see who was drivin’, other than to say it was a woman – unless ol’ George has takin’ to wearin’ dresses and bonnets.”
Hoss nodded. “I think so. I bet she was headed here to see Joe, and he ran across her when he was out on Cochise.”
Adam didn’t know Sally Morris, but he’d heard her mentioned several times since he’d arrived. He assumed the Morris family had moved to the area sometime after he’d gone to sea. He thought a moment, then asked his father, “Does Sally Morris mean a lot to Joe?”
“She does. Before the accident, I was certain Sally was the girl he’d finally settle down with.”
“Then it makes sense.”
“What makes sense?”
“How upset he was when Hoss and I found him. Why he wants to be left alone this evening.”
When Adam didn’t say anything further, Pa asked, “Would you care to explain it to me and your brother?”
“Don’t you see? He’s gotten at least somewhat comfortable with the thought of being blind, as long as the outside world doesn’t intrude. Around us, around Candy and Hop Sing, around the hands he’s worked closely with for years, he’s coming to accept that he has to ask for assistance sometimes, and he’s come to trust that if he stumbles stepping off the front porch, no one’s going to laugh at him. But today, the outside world did intrude, and in the form of a woman who means a lot to him. The last thing a man wants is to appear weak or helpless in front of a woman. I suspect Joe felt both of those things by the time Sally went on her way. Her unexpected presence emphasized to him that the outside world is going to intrude whether he wants it to or not, and that he’s the only one who’s in control of how he handles such intrusions.”
“So it was kinda like a test?” Hoss asked.
“Yes,” Adam agreed, “kind of like that. And speaking from my own experience, I’d venture to guess Joe thinks he’s failed at this particular test, and failed badly. I’d also venture to guess that right now, he can’t see you sometimes have to fail before you can succeed.”
“When will he see that?”
“Hoss, if I had the answer to that question, I’d make my living traveling from town to town with a crystal ball, instead of spending each day trying to interest young boys in classic literature.”
Adam glanced up the stairway. “But knowing our little brother like I do, I don’t need a crystal ball to tell me that when he finally does come to the realization that he has to fail before he succeeds, it’ll only happen the hard way, and with a good deal of stubborn resistance thrown in to boot.”
“I don’t need no crystal ball ta’ tell me that, either.”
“Nor do I,” Pa said with a chuckle.
If nothing else, even though one chair at the table remained empty, supper ended on a lighter note than it had begun.
Joe didn’t know what time it was when he heard the first rumble of thunder, and smelled the damp air that blew in through his window, heavy with the scent of the coming storm. His best estimate of the time – somewhere around one in the morning – was based on when everyone had gone to bed, which was two, maybe even three hours ago. Pa stopped in Joe’s room then, asking if Joe wouldn’t let Hop Sing bring up a supper tray.
“No. I don’t want anything.”
“I don’t want anything, Pa.”
“Joe. . .son, it’ll get better. I promise.”
“Unless you can promise my eyesight’ll return, then no, Pa, it won’t get better.”
There was a part of Joe that regretted the way he hurt his father with those words, and yet, a part of him that didn’t care. He just wanted Pa to go away. He hated what his blindness was doing to the man. He hated the worry, the fear, the despair, and the hopelessness he heard in his father’s voice. Emotions he hadn’t heard since prior to Adam’s arrival. As though Adam had the power to make everything all right.
For a while, even Joe was fooled into thinking Adam had that power. That Adam’s presence would somehow change things, because Adam was the oldest son, and the smartest son, and the son with all the answers. But now they must face the fact that Adam traveling all the way from Boston really hadn’t made a tinker’s damn worth of difference. Oh sure, Joe learned to read Braille, and saddle Cochise, and get down the stairs without falling. But overall, what good did any of those things do him? Today had been proof that he couldn’t ride Cochise anywhere without an escort. And knowing how to read and write Braille weren’t exactly assets on the Ponderosa, unless Pa suddenly started doing business with blind men. Joe supposed it was good that he was no longer falling down the stairs, though actually, a broken neck might be more of a blessing than a curse. At least it would end all of this pain, and allow Adam to return to his home, and Pa and Hoss to return to running the Ponderosa without being burdened by the son and brother who was now dependant on them for so many things.
Pa left the room as quietly as he’d entered. Joe could feel the man’s anguish long after he was gone.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” he whispered in a ragged voice. “I’m so damn sorry.”
One by one, bedroom doors closed, and the house grew quiet. Joe still found it strange to pass from day to night without noticing any difference, because to him, it was always nighttime now. In this ever-dark world, his room seemed like a prison cell. Yes, it was the place he retreated to when he didn’t want his family to bother him, but it was also the place that effectively penned him in, and kept him safe. No one had to worry about Joe when he was in his room, because short of falling out of the window, he couldn’t do himself any harm here. The thought of spending the rest of his life sequestered from people, activity, and the outdoors, was more than Joe could bear. Today’s encounter with Sally only further proved to Joe that he’d never again live the life he’d been accustomed to, despite Adam’s promises to the contrary.
Joe cradled his head in his hands. Not only was the world around him dark, the light inside him had been extinguished, too. When you had no purpose, you had no reason to go on living. Now Joe understood why he’d often heard old cowhands say they’d rather die in the saddle than be put out to pasture. Joe would have rather died in the saddle too, so to speak, but as things stood now, he was doomed to wallow in this pasture of darkness for years to come.
The thought of wallowing didn’t set well with Joe Cartwright’s independent spirit. Sometimes a man was left with no way to prove he could still make his own decisions. Still be in control of his destiny. Given his current condition, Joe didn’t have many ways to prove those things, but he did have one or two.
Using the techniques he’d been taught by Adam, Joe stood and walked to his closet. He opened the door, and with a questing hand, searched the top shelf. He’d encountered his gun and gun belt by accident the other day, when putting some clothes away. All this time, he’d assumed the gun was on the sideboard, or perhaps had been stored in a drawer of Pa’s desk. After all, what good was a gun to a blind man? But someone – Hop Sing perhaps? – had brought the revolver to Joe’s room, and put it in the closet. It made perfect sense when you thought about it. Hop Sing had probably gotten tired of dusting around the revolver, and he didn’t have a key to Pa’s desk, or to the gun cabinet. Hop Sing likely never thought of what the gun could be used for if Joe ran across it on a rainy night when life no longer seemed worth living.
Joe didn’t need his eyesight to smoothly slip the gun from its holster. He rotated the cylinder, and using nothing but one finger, was assured bullets were still cradled in the chamber. He carried the gun to his bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. The firearm seemed unusually heavy in Joe’s left hand, as though it was trying to send him a message. As though it was asking him not to do what he was contemplating. But that was stupid, because a gun couldn’t send a person a message, any more than those soothsayers could who came to Virginia City once a year with the traveling show.
When the thunder, lightning, and rain started in earnest, Joe stood and headed for his door. If nothing else, he was now good at navigating in the dark. The sound of the storm covered his movements, making it easy to get to the first floor undetected. He walked to the liquor cabinet housed at the far end of Pa’s study, and pulled out a bottle that, judging from its weight in his hand, was a little more than half full. A bottle of what, he didn’t know until he uncorked it and took a whiff. Whiskey. Not Joe’s drink of choice, but not one he’d refuse either. Especially if someone else was buying. And tonight, in a figurative manner of speaking, Joe supposed Pa was doing just that.
Joe didn’t bother with a glass. He tipped the bottle, taking a long, careless swig that allowed liquor to run down his chin and stain his shirt. Cradling the bottle against his right side, and with his gun in his left hand, he walked toward the front door.
The rain they’d needed for so long hit the dry ground with hard splats. Water pelted Joe’s skin like pebbles. He headed for the barn, cursing when the toe of his left boot caught a hitching post. He tumbled forward, barely managing to keep the whiskey upright. He climbed to his feet, no longer sure which direction he was traveling in, but not caring, either.
It was only by chance that Joe bumped into a corner of the barn. He slid along the rough boards of the structure until he reached the doors. He set his bottle down long enough to open them, picked the bottle up, and slipped inside the building. His clothing was drenched, his saturated hair dripping water down his face and neck.
With his gun still in his left hand, Joe felt his way to Cochise’s stall. He eased himself to the ground, leaning back against a wooden support beam. The horse nickered softly behind him, and for just a moment, a nose nuzzled Joe’s wet curls.
Joe lifted the bottle in the form of a salute to his loyal mount.
“Might as well get this party started. Here’s to you and me, Cooch.”
Joe took his second long swig of the night, followed quickly by a third, and then a fourth, and then more swigs than he could keep track of. The liquor burned going down, but soon the burning changed to a comforting sort of warmth. The kind of warmth that wrapped Joe tightly in its embrace, and made him forget that what he intended to do in this barn would break his father’s heart, leave Hoss grieving for his best friend, and send Adam back to Boston thinking he’d failed.
“Well, ya’ didn’t fail, Adam,” Joe slurred, as he took another healthy swallow. “I just ain’t much of a student, big brother. Guezz ya’ could say I flunked. Yep, thaz what I did. I flunked bein’ blind, ‘cause I just ain’t no good at it.”
Tears ran down Joe’s cheeks as he caressed the butt of his gun.
“Nope, I just ain’t no good at it. I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry, Hoss. Adam. . .I’m. . . I’m sorry. I’m real sorry, but I just ain’t no good at bein’ blind.”
Thunder rattled the windowpane, waking Adam. He turned away from the sound and was just about to drift off to sleep again, when lightning cracked somewhere in the distance, splitting a tree in half. Adam came to full awareness as rain slammed against the side of the house. He threw the sheet back and yawned, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He crossed to his window, the billowing curtains tangling around his shoulders. He freed himself of the material and shut the window, effectively keeping both the wind and rain outside where they belonged. He listened for sounds in the house indicating someone else was up and moving about, but couldn’t hear much over the storm.
I’d better see if Pa’s shutting windows, or if I need to do it.
Adam lit the lamp on his nightstand. He pulled on the pants he’d laid across the end of the bed when he’d retired, then grabbed a clean shirt and a pair of socks from a dresser drawer. He put the socks on and slipped into the shirt, but didn’t bother buttoning it, or tucking the tails in. He picked up the lamp and exited the room.
Adam’s light cast a yellowish glow against the log walls of the hallway. Pa’s bedroom door was still closed, as was Hoss’s. It wasn’t like Pa to sleep through such a powerful storm. Adam suspected his father’s continuous worries over Joe, and the restless nights those worries caused, had finally caught up with the man. He rapped on the door, calling softly, “Pa.”
When there was no answer, Adam knocked again.
When his father still didn’t respond, Adam opened the door. Pa was sleeping on his right side in the center of the big bed and remained oblivious to Adam’s presence. Adam set his lamp on the dresser, then crossed to the window. He shut it, retrieved the lamp, and exited the room as quietly as he’d entered.
Adam knocked on Hoss’s door next. As with Pa, he received no response other than the loud snores that indicated Hoss was sleeping on his back. Adam entered the room. As another deafening snore vibrated the pitcher on the washstand, he thought it was a wonder Joe hadn’t come in here and made Hoss turn over – a ritual that dated back to when Hoss was no more than sixteen, and started raising the rafters with his snoring. Maybe Joe couldn’t hear Hoss over the storm. Or considering the snores rivaled the rumbling thunder outside, maybe Joe couldn’t distinguish between Mother Nature and his brother.
Adam repeated the pattern he’d followed in Pa’s room. He set his lamp on Hoss’s dresser and shut the window. Unlike Pa, however, the presence of someone in the room woke Hoss in the middle of a snore.
“Rrrrph. Umph?” Hoss hitched himself up on his elbows. Wispy hair stood in wayward tuffs, looking as out of sorts as Hoss himself. The large man squinted into the glow of the lamp.
“Yeah, it’s me. It’s raining. I came in to shut your window. Go back to sleep.”
Hoss glanced toward the window. “Rainin’?”
“Uh huh. Pretty wild storm, too.”
Hoss settled back down on the mattress. “Good. Need the rain. ‘Night.”
Adam picked up his lamp and slipped from the room. He smiled and shook his head with affection when the snores started again.
The man proceeded down the hall to Joe’s room. This door was open. He held up his lamp, looking inside. Joe’s window was raised, but the bed hadn’t been slept in.
Mmmm. If I didn’t know better, little brother, I’d think you were up to your old tricks of sneaking out in the middle of the night to go meet up with some girl, or join your buddies in a poker game. But you’re too old to have to sneak out of the house these days, and somehow I don’t think even you’d be foolish enough to climb down from a two story window without your eyesight. Or at least I hope you’re not that foolish.
Adam craned his head, looking out the window just to make certain he was right. When he didn’t see signs of anyone below, he shut Joe’s window and left the room.
He must be downstairs shutting windows. Or maybe skipping supper got the best of him, and he’s raiding Hop Sing’s pantry.
Adam headed for the stairway. If Joe hadn’t already shut them, the windows in the dining area would be open. It wasn’t until Adam reached the landing that he saw the open front door. He frowned with puzzlement as he made his way down the reminder of the stairs, and hurried to shut the windows behind the dining room table. The kitchen was dark and silent. Adam stepped in there briefly, his lamp revealing nothing but an empty room.
The man walked back to the foyer. Water soaked the soles of his socks as he went to the doorway and looked out. It was too dark to see anything, until a streak of lightning made it seem like noon. Though the opportunity to view the ranch yard didn’t last long, it was long enough for Adam to spot the open barn doors.
What the. . . .? Joe must be out there. Wonder if he heard something? Maybe one of the horses got spooked.
Adam set his lamp on the sideboard and grabbed his boots from behind the door. He pulled the boots on and left his lamp where it was, exchanging it for a lantern. He lit the lantern and picked it up by its wire handle. He stepped out into the storm, firmly shutting the door so no more water would blow into the house. With running strides, Adam crossed the ranch yard, his shirttails flying out behind him like a cape.
“Joe? Hey, Joe, are you out here? Joe!”
Adam lifted the lantern, shining it around the yard as he ran toward the barn.
“Joe! Joe, where are you? Joe! Joe, where--”
“Lookz like ya’ found me, big brother.”
Adam stopped in the barn’s doorway. He stepped farther into the structure when the driving rain began to soak his clothing. He hung the lantern from a nearby hook.
“What are you doing out here?”
Joe’s laughter spoke of silliness brought on by too much alcohol.
“Boy, Adam, fer a smart guy, you surely can be dumb sometimes. Whaz it look like I’m doin’?”
“Feeling sorry for yourself.”
“Don’t cock an eyebrow at me and say that like yer some kinda’ know-it-all.” Joe lifted his left hand, giving Adam his first view of the gun now being waved in his direction. “Which ya’ are, ya’ know. A know-it-all.”
Adam kept a wary eye on the gun. He wasn’t concerned Joe had any intention of shooting him, but regardless of intentions, a drunken blind man wielding a firearm warranted caution.
“I am, huh?”
“Yep.” Joe took another swallow of whiskey. “Now, as far as what I’m doin’, Mr. Know-It-All. I’m gettin’ drunk.”
“Looks to me like you already are.”
“Oh no.” Joe shook his head with exaggerated awkwardness. “No no no no. I’m juz gettin’ started.” Now the bottle was waved at Adam instead of the gun. “Care ta’ join me?”
“Not right now. It’s late, Joe. Let me help you back to the house and--”
“No! I don’t need yer help! I’m fine juz where I am.”
“That’s your problem, isn’t it?”
“Whaz my problem?”
“The word help. You can’t accept that, for the rest of your life, there’re times when you’re going to need help.”
“Not for the rest of my life!”
“Yes, Joe, for the rest of your life.”
“No! I’ll get my sight back. Doc Martin says--”
“Doc Martin doesn’t say anything, because he hasn’t been out here in weeks. Why do you think that is?”
“Because he’s biz . .biz. . .busy. . .” Joe stumbled over the words, trying to collect his muddled thoughts. “Busy mendin’ some cowboy’s busted leg. Or some miner’s busted arm, or some kid’s busted nose, or some woman’s busted ankle – boy, oh boy, we sure are a clumsy bunch ‘round these parts, aren’t we. Or maybe he’s deliverin’ a baby, or--”
“Joe, he hasn’t been out here because he can’t help you. Because he knows your sight isn’t going to return, and that there’s no use in getting your hopes up, or making you empty promises.”
Joe struggled to stand. He fell back to his butt three times before he finally got to his feet. He swayed back and forth like he was on the deck of rocking ship.
“Shut up! Shut yer mouth, Adam! Go back to Boston where you belong! I didn’t ask you to come here in the first place. I don’t need you! I don’t need you, or anyone else for that matter!”
“Why? Because when you’ve got yourself plied with a sufficient amount of liquor you plan on putting that gun to your head and pulling the trigger?”
“So what if I do?”
“Have you given even the smallest bit of thought as to what that’ll do to Pa?”
“I’ll be doin’ him a favor.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because he won’t have to spend the rest of his life takin’ care of his blind son!”
“He doesn’t have to take care of you. No one has to take care of you.”
“I need help! You said so yourself.”
“Needing help is a lot different from being taken care of.”
“Not to me it’s not.”
“Okay, so to you it’s not. What’s supposed to happen come morning then? Am I supposed to tell Pa where to find your body? Or Hoss? How do you think Hoss’ll feel when he walks in to this barn, and sees you slumped over a stall with half your skull missing and your brains splattered all over the walls? What do you think a sight like that will do to Hoss, and then to Pa, when Hoss brings him out here?”
“I don’t care!”
Even though Joe couldn’t see him, Adam thrust a finger at his brother.
“Well you’d better care! You’d better start thinking of someone other than yourself for a change, Joe, because it’ll kill Pa. As surely as I’m standing here, it’ll kill Pa to see you like that. It’ll kill him to know you took your own life. He’ll spend the rest of his days wondering how he could have helped you. Wondering what he could have said that would have kept you from drinking yourself into a stupor, then using that gun to end your life.”
“He couldn’t have said anything! Tell him that, Adam. You tell him he couldn’t have said anything! Tell Pa it’s not his fault.”
“I’m not telling him a damn thing except that his youngest son was a coward!”
“I’m not a coward!” Joe raged over the thunder and driving rain.
“Looks to me like you are. Only a man who can’t face up to, and then conquer the hardships God has handed him, commits suicide.”
“Oh, so yer a preacher now too, is that it? Brother Adam, the preacher who holds church in a barn, with nothin’ but a blind drunk for an audience. Brother Adam Cartwright.” Joe giggled. “That’ll be easy to remember, ‘cause you already are my brother.”
“I’m not preaching. I’m just telling you--”
“You’re just tellin’ me horseshit. Blah, blah, blah. God, Adam, but you must put yer students right to sleep.”
Joe lifted the bottle, gulping the remainder of the liquor in four swallows. The bottle slipped from his fingertips and fell to the barn floor with a “plunk” as he swiped at the whisky dribbling down his chin.
Joseph, you sure are a sloppy drunk. Now drop the gun like you did that bottle.
But Joe hung onto the gun as he warmed up to his next subject.
“And you talk about conquer, Brother Adam?” Joe paced in unsteady circles as though he was the one giving a Sunday sermon. “What do you know about conquering anything? You can see. You can see, Adam! You sit at yer fancy job all day, then go home to yer fancy house, and yer fancy neighbors, and yer fancy parties, and Lord knows what all.”
“You don’t know anything about how I conduct my life.”
Joe stopped, pivoting in the direction of Adam’s voice. “And just whose fault is that? You were the one who quit writing, not me! Well. . .okay, I did, but only after you quit writing first.”
“And the hardships God has handed me, you say? Hardships? Being blind isn’t a hardship! Being blind is. . .it’s like a disease I can’t get rid of! It’s like I’m a cripple, do you understand? I’ve still got two arms and two legs, but I’m a goddamn cripple! I can’t do the things I used to do. People’ll look at me differently. They’ll treat me differently.”
Joe pointed his gun toward the rafters, the butt resting against his temple, his index finger on the trigger. Although Joe couldn’t do himself much harm with the gun aimed in that direction, Adam feared this was his brother’s first step toward committing an act that would end in the kind of tragedy their father would never recover from.
Adam moved two steps closer to Joe.
“And that’s a reason to die? Because someone looks at you differently?”
“Yeah, it is! It’s a good reason as far as I’m concerned.”
“If you ask me, it’s a dumb reason.”
“Well I didn’t ask you! Besides, ya’ don’t know anything about it.”
“I’m getting a little weary of you telling me what I do and don’t know about.
Now come on.” Adam stepped forward, shagging his brother by the arm. “Let’s go in the house.”
Joe jerked from Adam’s grasp. “Leave me alone!”
“I thought you were years past acting like a spoiled brat, but I guess I was wrong!”
“And I thought you were years past acting like a self-righteous, know-it-all jackass, but I guess I was wrong too!”
Adam took a deep breath, and then counted to ten in an effort to gain control of his temper. This exchange was proof that he and Joe could still get underneath one another’s skin if they put their minds to it. But now wasn’t the time for angry words they’d both eventually regret. Now was the time for Adam to do what older brothers do best. Take charge of the situation, calm everyone down, and in this case – get that damn gun out of Joe’s hand.
“Joe, look, I shouldn’t have called you a spoiled brat.” Adam took another step toward his brother, hoping the sound of the storm would prevent Joe from discerning how close he was. “I’m sorry.”
“Well if you’re expectin’ an applegy. . .appolog. . .appolo. . .damn, that’s a hard word to say when a man’s drunk.”
“Thaz the one. So if yer expectin’ me to say sorry, I ain’t gonna, ‘cause I’m not ready to yet.”
“I’m not expecting anything. Now give me the gun, and let’s go in the house.”
Adam let out a deep, pent-up breath. “Joe. . .”
Joe took a step backwards. “Quit movin’ towards me! Just go back to the house and leave me alone.”
“You stubborn hard-headed mule. Now come on! It’s late, and I’m sick and tired of standing here watching you wallow in self-pity because you can’t see. A lot of people can’t see. I’ve got an entire school full of children who can’t see. Children, Joe! Children who have accepted their lot in life with more dignity and grace than you seem to possess.”
With a cry of outrage, Joe doubled over and charged his brother, catching Adam below the ribs with his right shoulder. He backed the man up all the way to the far wall, slamming him against it, and driving Adam’s breath out in a pain filled “Ooof!” As Adam had known when he’d first arrived on the Ponderosa, he was no longer a match with Joe where strength was concerned.
“Shut up!” Joe shouted. “Don’t lecture me about pity. I’m don’t pity myself!”
“You do too!” Adam struggled to push Joe off his chest. “You’ve done nothing but feel sorry for yourself since the day you lost your sight, and it’s past time you stop! It’s past time you face up to the rotten hand you’ve been dealt and learn to live with it!”
“What do you know about it? What do you know about any of it?”
“What do I know about it?” Adam finally managed to shove his brother away. “I’ll tell you what I know about it!”
Adam grabbed a fistful of Joe’s shirt and jerked him forward. He clasped onto Joe’s hand and pressed it to his right side.
“Feel that, Joe?” Adam shouted. “Do you feel that?”
“Exactly. Nothing! My right arm is gone. It’s gone, Joe.”
Joe staggered backwards. “Wha. . .what?”
“It’s gone. It had to be amputated after an. . .an accident at sea.”
“But. . .but why? Why. . .”
“Why didn’t Pa tell you?”
Joe swallowed hard and nodded. Adam’s news seemed to have sobered him up quicker than any of Hop Sing’s home remedies could have.
“Because I asked him not to. Because I didn’t want you and Hoss to know.”
“Because, just like you, I went through a long period of time where I wallowed in self-pity. Because, just like you, I went through a long period of time where I didn’t want to be seen by anyone, or acknowledge what happened to me, or accept help from anyone. Not even my own family. And when I finally was able to move forward with my
life. . .well, even though Pa knew of my physical limitations, I still couldn’t bring myself to let him tell you and Hoss. I didn’t want either of you feeling sorry for me.”
“I wouldn’t have--”
Adam smiled. “Yes, you would have. Just like I felt sorry for you, when Pa first wired me about the explosion. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve come to learn that someone feeling sorry for me isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means that person cares.”
Joe thought over Adam’s words. He finally gave a slow nod, then took a few hesitant steps toward his brother. His gun fell as he reached out his left arm. Adam grasped the arm as Joe stepped forward and buried his face in Adam’s chest. Whether the alcohol made it impossible for Joe to stand any longer, or whether he was simply exhausted, Adam wasn’t sure. Regardless, when Joe slowly crumpled to the barn floor, Adam went down with him.
Tears came to Adam’s eyes as Joe cried into his shirt. He rested his chin atop Joe’s head and rubbed his back while murmuring, “I know. It’s all right. I know. It’s okay,” each time Joe said, “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Adam knew the repeated apologies covered an array of things Joe was unable to voice. From the name-calling, to the words said in anger, to all of the times in recent weeks that Joe had accused Adam of not understanding what he was going through, to Joe’s sorrow over the physical handicap Adam had lived with day in and day out for the past three years.
“Don’t cry for me, Joe,” Adam said gently. “Don’t cry for me.”
Joe’s arm wrapped tighter around Adam’s vacant right side.
“I’m. . .I’m just sorry I didn’t know. I would have helped you. If I’d have known, I’d have done anything I could to help you.”
“I know you would have. But you didn’t know, and that was by my choice. Don’t blame yourself, kid. Don’t blame yourself.”
Adam’s use of the word “kid” got a small chuckle from Joe.
“Haven’t been a kid for a while now. Got the gray hair to prove it.”
“Yes, you do, but no matter how gray your hair gets, you’ll always be my kid brother.”
The storm had quieted to a soft, steady rain, by the time Joe loosened his grasp on Adam and sat up. He swiped at his eyes in a self-conscious sort of way that Adam tactfully ignored.
Adam hooked his left hand beneath Joe’s armpit. “Come on. Let’s get up off this floor.”
Joe didn’t protest when Adam helped him stand. He swayed for a moment, but Adam surmised that was more from the effects of a long, emotional night, rather than from the whiskey.
Adam bent and picked up Joe’s gun. He thrust it at his brother.
“Here. Hold onto this.”
Adam could tell Joe was surprised that he’d trust him with the gun. He could also tell he’d made the correct decision. Joe needed to realize that when he stumbled – literally or figuratively speaking – Adam had confidence he would get back on his feet again, and keep going in the right direction.
“And I’ll get rid of this before Pa finds it.”
“The whiskey bottle.”
“Oh. Good idea.”
“I think so too,” Adam said, as he buried the bottle in the bottom of a wooden barrel used for trash.
Actually, Adam wasn’t concerned that Pa would say much of anything to his twenty-nine year old son for over imbibing, and he doubted Joe was too concerned about it, either. But the less Pa knew of what almost transpired in this barn tonight, the better.
Adam took the lantern off the hook. He carried it in his hand, while jutting his elbow toward Joe and giving him a gentle nudge.
“Come on. I think it’s past time we call it a night, don’t you?”
“Guess so.” Joe laid a hand on Adam’s arm, using it for guidance as they walked from the barn. He was still unsteady on his feet, and his words came a bit slowly, as though his alcohol-laden brain had to think hard to string them together. “If Pa figures out I’m hung over come morning, he’ll be tossing me out of bed at daybreak.”
“Probably,” Adam agreed as he stopped to close the barn doors. “Though he won’t hear it from me.”
“Thanks, Adam. I don’t want him to know about. . .you know. The gun and all.”
“I know. And you’re welcome.”
The brothers walked together through the rain to the house. Adam made sure everything would look as it should to Pa come morning. He put his boots back where they belonged and blew out the lantern, returning it to the sideboard while retrieving his lamp. Joe’s hand remained on Adam’s arm as they climbed the stairs. When they reached Joe’s room, Adam stopped.
“Here you go.”
“You’re welcome.” Adam turned to head toward his own room. “Good night.”
“Hey, Adam,” Joe called softly.
Adam turned around.
Joe pointed in the general direction of Adam’s missing arm.
means we’re both left handed now, huh?”
It was the kind of bad joke only brothers would find funny. And then even funnier, when a deep voice from behind a thick oak door shouted, “What in blazes are you two doing out there laughing like a couple of wild hyenas? Do either of you know what time it is?”
“Uh. . .sorry, Pa,” Adam apologized.
“Yeah,” Joe said in-between one of his staccato laughs. “Sorry, Pa.”
“Don’t be sorry! Just go back to bed!”
“Now!” came the shout, when Joe’s laughter started all over again.
It had been a rough night, but nonetheless, it was times like this that made it difficult for Adam to think about returning to Boston. Without his family being aware of it, Adam’s work here was almost finished. However, he had a proposal to make to Joe, but that could wait until later in the day. Even at forty-two years of age, Adam wasn’t willing to try his father’s patience at three in the morning.
“ ‘Night, Joe,” Adam whispered.
“ ‘Night,” Joe stage-whispered in return, still laughing.
Adam waited in the hall until Joe entered his room and closed the door. He turned for his own room again, all remnants of humor evaporating as he wondered how Pa would take it if he were told his youngest son was leaving the Ponderosa, and moving across the country to start his life anew.
Two weeks had passed since the much needed rain storm. Ben Cartwright sat at his desk, recording figures next to names in the ranch’s payroll ledger. He glanced up when the front door opened, but couldn’t see who’d entered. Nonetheless, by the careful, steady-paced walk, he knew it was his youngest son.
Gone were the days when Joe bounded in and tossed his hat on the sideboard with a cheery, “Hi, Pa!” What Ben wouldn’t give to hear the footsteps that indicated the energy and fearlessness that had defined Joseph Cartwright since birth. Although Ben knew the energy was still present, it was now tempered by the caution Joe exercised so he wouldn’t trip over a piece of furniture, tumble down the stairs, or walk into a wall.
As far as fear went. . .well, Ben silently acknowledged no man was without fear, regardless of how vehemently that man might deny it. But as Joe’s father, it caused Ben deep pain to think of the fears Joe now had to live with by virtue of having lost his sight. The things most people took for granted – the ability to flee a burning house, jump out of the way of boisterous cowhands racing their horses down a Virginia City street, navigate alone outdoors – were all situations that could cost Joe his life without someone nearby to assist him. These possibilities, and so many others, worried Ben. He wanted to do all he could to keep his son free from harm. Yet Ben knew Adam was right, each time Adam reminded him that he’d do Joe more harm by trying to restrict his movements, rather than let him explore the world as a blind man, and take a few falls along the way.
Ben forced a false note of cheerfulness to his voice, just like he’d done for so many weeks now whenever he spoke to Joe.
“I’m right here, Joseph. In the study.”
Joe came around the wall and stopped when his left hand encountered the front corner of his father’s desk.
“So, you boys are back from your ride?”
“Adam and I are. Hoss stopped to help Candy fix some fencing damaged during that storm.”
“Where is Adam, then?”
“Taking care of the horses.”
“And he’s not bossing you around,” Ben teased, “while making you help?”
“No, not this time for a change.”
“Then you might as well get washed up for supper. Hop Sing’s been banging things around in the kitchen for the last two hours, which can only mean we’re going to eat soon.”
“Yeah, probably so. But. . .uh. . .Pa, I need. . .I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes first, if you have the time.”
“Of course I have the time. It sounds serious.”
“No. Not serious. Well, I suppose it’s kind of serious.” Hastily, Joe added, “But it’s nothing bad.”
“It’s been quite a few years since I’ve worried about you reporting anything of a “bad” nature to me.”
“Guess that’s true,” Joe agreed. “Boy, I’ve sure gotten boring in my old age, haven’t I?”
Ben laughed. “I wouldn’t say that.” He put his pencil on the open ledger page, stood, and placed a hand on his son’s elbow. “Come on. Let’s go over and sit down.”
Joe didn’t protest as his father led him to the settee. He sat on the end closest to the dining area, while Ben sat in his leather chair.
Joe’s legs jiggled up and down, that movement indicating his uneasiness to Ben. If this had been fifteen years ago, Ben would have known he was about to be told of a poor mark in school, or a homework assignment left undone, or a prank pulled in town that Mitch Devlin and Joe had gotten caught at. But because Joe hadn’t needed to confess to misdeeds of that nature in a good number of years now, Ben was left uncertain regarding the source of his son’s nervousness.
“Uh. . .yeah?”
“You said you needed to talk to me.”
“Um. . .yeah.” Joe stilled his legs. “Yeah, I do.”
“Then just go ahead and say what’s on your mind, son.”
“Okay. . .um. . .well, I. . .Pa. . .um, Pa. . .Adam’s. . .Adam’s. . .uh. . .”
“Adam. . .he’s asked me to go back to Boston with him.”
Although this announcement of a visit East was unexpected, Ben couldn’t say he was completely surprised by it. He didn’t know what had transpired between Adam and Joe the night of the storm – other than some heavy drinking on Joe’s part that the boys thought their father was ignorant of – but ever since then, Joe’s mood had improved, and no longer did he sink into periods of depression. Or at least not so that it was obvious to his family.
Ben had also come to realize it was sometime that night when Adam finally told Joe he’d lost his arm. What transpired between the boys in that regard was never spoken of to Ben, either. But he’d noticed Adam no longer kept the right side of his body shielded from Joe, and he’d also overheard a couple of jokes about Adam now being left-handed too. As well, something about the sudden improvement in Joe’s mindset indicated to Ben that Joe finally understood he wasn’t alone when it came to being forced to adjust to a new way of life.
“Pa?” Joe questioned with trepidation at Ben’s silence. He joked, “You still here?”
“I’m still here, Joe. Just thinking a moment.”
“So. . .?”
“So. . .I’d say it’s a good idea.”
Ben chuckled. “Don’t sound so shocked. Yes, I would. It’ll be a nice opportunity for you to see. . .for you to get acquainted with a different part of the country. You deserve a long vacation. Then right after the fall cattle drive, Hoss and I’ll join you for a couple of weeks. Candy can run things here while we’re gone. We’ll celebrate an early Christmas with Adam, then the three of us can head home before winter sets in and travel becomes unpredictable.”
“Um. . .uh. . .yeah, that sounds good. You and Hoss coming to Boston, I mean. Adam would like that. But. . .uh. . .Pa, I. . .um. . .”
“I. . .I’m not talking about visiting Adam. I’m talking about living with him.”
“Living with him?”
Joe nodded. “Moving there.”
Now it was Ben who couldn’t keep the shock out of his voice. “Permanently?”
“Yeah.” Joe smiled and shrugged. “Or at least until I wear out my welcome. Maybe eventually I’ll buy a home there and hire someone to help me with the things I can’t do. Adam said Boston is full of “gentlemen’s assistants,” whatever that involves.”
Almost absently, Ben recited, “Helping you with your mail and other personal correspondence, doing household chores, doing the marketing, taking you where you need to go in the buggy, things of that nature.”
“That’s what I thought. Sounds pretty stuffy for a bronc buster like me, but that’s a ways off yet. I’ll be living with Adam until I save the money to go out on my own.”
“Joe, you don’t have to save any money. I’ll give you whatever is needed for a home and the hired help you require.”
“No,” Joe shook his head. “Don’t you see? That’s exactly why I have to do this.”
“Do what?” Ben leaned forward in his chair. “Son, I’ll admit I’m confused. Just what is it that’s suddenly so attractive about moving to Boston? I can have a house built for you right here on the Ponderosa if that’s what you want. I can hire as many assistants as you need. I can--”
“Listen to yourself, Pa. It’s all you. What you can do for me.”
“But you’re my son. I want to do things for you.”
“I know, and I’m grateful for that. I really am. But I don’t wanna take charity.”
“I wanna pull my own weight, just like you’ve always expected your sons to do. I don’t want you giving me a house and money if I’m not doing anything in return to earn them.”
“But you will do things in return to earn them.”
“What? What will I do? I can’t see, Pa. I’m never gonna see again.”
“No, don’t say it. You and I both know it’s true. I’m not gonna get my eyesight back. Because of that, I need to figure out a way to earn a living, and I just don’t see how that’s possible here on the Ponderosa.”
Ben cast about for something to say. Something to offer Joe that would make him feel useful, and as though he’d be able to earn his keep. The problem was, there was little Ben could think of.
As though he could read his father’s mind, Joe said, “See, you can’t come up with anything either.”
“That’s because I haven’t given it a lot of thought yet. I. . .I’ve been hoping as much as you have that this condition would be temporary.”
“I know,” Joe said softly. “But you and I both have to face that it’s not going to turn out that way.”
“Yes,” Ben acknowledged in a tone as quiet as Joe’s, “I suppose we do, don’t we.”
Joe allowed his father a minute to gather his thoughts and emotions before speaking again.
“There’s just not a lot of things I can do on a ranch to earn a living, Pa. But in Boston I can earn a living.”
“Teaching at Adam’s school.”
Joe chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Me, Joe Cartwright, a teacher. Who’d have ever believed it, given how much I hated sitting in a schoolhouse all day. But Adam’s been talking to me about it the past couple weeks. He’s even been teaching me how to be a teacher.”
“What exactly would you teach, son?”
“Skills for the blind. Adam said another teacher aside from Miss Brockington is needed to work with the new pupils. He’s wanted to split off her classes for some time. Have her teach just the girls, and have a male teacher for the boys. He said he hasn’t been able to find the right person for the job, and that he thinks I might be that person. The school board would have to approve of me first though, so it’s not like I’m guaranteed the job or anything. But Adam thinks I have a pretty good chance.”
“Well, I don’t suppose Adam would ask you travel all the way to Boston unless he’s fairly confident the school board will hire you.”
“He said as much. And he even wants me to teach the students about living and working on a ranch.”
“Sounds like your area of expertise.”
Joe smiled. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can convince the school board I know a few things about ranching.”
“I’m certain you can.”
“It’ll. . .it’ll be a big change for me. To live back East, and teach school. It’s not something I ever thought about, let alone thought I might be doing someday. But I hope you understand why I have to give this a try.”
As much as Ben hated to endorse this idea, he wouldn’t be doing right by his youngest if he didn’t give Joe his full support.
“Yes, Joe, I understand.”
Joe brightened. “You do?”
“I do. But don’t think there won’t be some bumps in the road. Some adjustments to make.”
“I don’t think that.”
“Good. Because not only will you have to adjust to a way of life that’s foreign to you, but you’ll be doing so while living under Adam’s roof, and having him as your boss, as well. Are you sure you’ve given that sufficient thought?”
“I’ve given it some.”
“You and Adam don’t always see eye to eye, you know.”
“Even less so now.”
Ben couldn’t help but smile a little at Joe’s humor. It hurt to hear him joke about his lost sight, but at the same time, it felt good to hear him joke about it, too.
“Yes, even less so now,” Ben acknowledged. “Regardless of that, you and Adam can butt heads more than a couple of old rams fighting over the same mountain. Added to that, you haven’t had to live or work together for six years. Are you both prepared to be around one another as much as Adam’s proposing?”
“I think so. We’ve talked about it. We know it might not be easy at first.”
“All right,” Ben nodded. “It’s good that you two have discussed it. Obviously, none of us can predict how well this arrangement will or won’t work. All I ask, is that neither of you let any disagreements escalate to the point that they cause a permanent estrangement in your relationship.”
“And I want you to remember something else.”
“That at any time, if you want to come back to the Ponderosa, you’re more than welcome to. As I told Adam when he left for sea, there will always be a place for you here, son. A permanent place, should you choose to return to it.”
“Thanks, Pa. That means a lot.”
“Has Adam said when you boys are leaving?”
Six days. Six days from now, Ben would be left with just one son by his side to run the Ponderosa. It wasn’t how he’d envisioned the future, but then, Joe hadn’t envisioned his future as a blind man, any more than Adam had envisioned a woman named Laura Dayton would prompt him to leave Nevada, and from there, experience a chain of events that would eventually have him running a school in Boston.
Ben fought to keep the sorrow from his voice. “Well, now, that’ll give us some time yet to get used to the idea of both you and Adam leaving.”
“Yeah, guess so. And, Pa?”
“Please don’t tell Hoss about this. I need to be the one who does that.”
“You do,” Ben agreed. “I won’t lie to you. Your leaving is going
to be hard on him, Joe. Harder than it was when Adam left.”
“I know. I hate doing this to him. If I thought there was a better choice I’d make it in a heartbeat. I really would.”
“I understand that, son. Hoss will understand it, too.”
“I hope so.”
The two men sat in silence for a few minutes. When Hop Sing began carrying food to the table, Joe stood.
“Guess I’d better wash up.”
“Looks like it.”
Joe laid a hand on his father’s shoulder as he brushed by the back of Ben’s chair. Ben reached up and clasped the hand, not wanting to ever let go. Joe seemed to understand that, because he stood there patiently while Ben gave his hand a long squeeze before finally releasing it.
Ben watched Joe climb the stairs. When his son was no longer visible, Ben leaned his head back and closed his eyes. It was another hand on his shoulder that caused Ben to open his eyes and lift his head.
“I’m sorry, Pa. The last thing I want to do is take him away from you.”
“You don’t need to apologize. I can’t fault you for offering Joe the one thing he wants most right now.”
Like he’d done with Joe, Ben squeezed Adam’s hand. He released it when Hoss walked in the door, remembering to smile and not let on to his middle son that, in just six short days, their household would grow smaller, quieter, and lonelier, as they became a family of two.
“You’re awful quiet today, little brother. Somethin’ wrong?”
“Uh. . .no. No. Not at all.”
“Now if I was a bettin’ man, I’d stake a ten spot that you’re fibbin’ me.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
Hoss reached for Joe’s fishing pole and yanked his line from the creek.
“ ‘Cause this is the second time you’ve cast your line in without baitin’ the hook.”
“Oh. Uh. . .guess I’m not paying attention to what I’m doin’.”
“Guess not. Unless you’re figurin’ on comin’ up with a new way of catchin’ fish that don’t involve worms.”
“Wasn’t figuring on it, no. But hey,” Joe shrugged, “if it works. . .”
“Take it from me, the fisherman in this family. It won’t.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” Hoss put the pole back in Joe’s hands, this time with a worm on the hook. “There ya’ go. Cast it again.”
Joe stood, drew the pole back over his left shoulder, and in a smooth motion flung it forward, casting his line into the wide creek. He sat down beside Hoss on the grassy rise along the banks of Walcott Creek, where they’d eaten lunch two hours earlier.
“Now maybe you’ll have better luck.”
“Doesn’t matter what kinda’ luck I have. You’ve already caught a dozen fish.”
“Well now, Joseph, that just there goes to show ya’.”
“Show me what?”
“That aside from bein’ a better cowpoke than you, and a better tracker than you, and a better blacksmith than you, and better at doctorin’ sick animals than you, I’m a better fisherman, too.”
“Seems that way.”
Joe jerked back when a big hand was laid on his forehead.
“What the heck are you doing?”
“Seein’ if you gotta fever.”
“What in tarnation for?”
“ ‘Cause it ain’t like my little brother to say nothin’ more than, “Seems that way,” when I tell him I’m better at stuff than he is.”
“Well enjoy it while it lasts.”
“I will,” Hoss muttered, while studying his sibling. Joe had been the one who’d suggested this Saturday afternoon fishing trip. When Hoss said something about Adam coming along too, Adam quickly – too quickly for Hoss’s taste – claimed he had other things to do. And Pa. . .well, he’d been a little too enthusiastic about letting Hoss take the day off during a time when they were still discovering damage from the storm scattered all over the Ponderosa.
“Okay, Joe, what’s goin’ on?”
“Whatta ya’ mean, what’s goin’ on?”
“I mean, you asked me to come fishin’ with ya’, but ya’ haven’t said more than three words since we left home. And Adam claimed to have things to do that kept him from comin’ with us, but I can’t figure out what exactly those things are. And
Pa. . .”
“What about Pa?”
“We’ve still got lots of cleanup from that storm. It’s not like Pa to be so eager for me to take the afternoon off when there’s work to be done.”
“Maybe Pa’s gettin’ soft in his old age.”
“Maybe, but I don’t rightly think so.”
“Oh you don’t, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. So, are ya’ gonna tell me what’s goin’ on, or am I gonna dump ya’ headfirst in this creek?”
Joe’s chest jutted out in challenge. “You ain’t big enough or tough enough to dump me headfirst anywhere.”
“You wanna rethink that statement, little brother?”
“You’re sure ‘bout that now?”
“You bet I’m sure, ya’ big ox.”
Joe and Hoss hadn’t been brothers for almost three decades for Joe not to know what was coming next. Except without his sight, he wasn’t quite quick enough to thwart Hoss’s grab for him. What followed was the kind of free-for-all the brothers had engaged in since childhood, with Joe struggling for all he was worth to break free, and Hoss fighting to keep the sly little bugger in his grasp, while at the same time being careful not to hurt him.
Hoss wasn’t sure which one of them ended up in the creek first. All he knew was that someone’s foot hit the bait bucket and sent the worms flying, while someone else’s foot hit the empty lunch bucket and sent it flying, and then they were tumbling down the bank, rolling over and over with their hands locked onto each other’s shoulders and shouting like a couple of Paiutes on the warpath.
They both yelled when they hit the cold water. What was refreshing on a hot summer’s day when they were boys, was just plain uncomfortable now. They splashed handfuls of water in each other’s faces for old time’s sake, then Hoss grasped Joe by the arm and pulled him to his feet. He looked around, spotting his hat and Joe’s bobbing a few feet away. He grabbed the hats with his free hand, tossing them onto the grass to dry. The brothers stumbled together to the bank, laughing, cussing, and dripping. Hoss guided Joe in scaling the incline, then collapsed beside him in the warm sun.
Joe pulled his shirttails from his pants so his shirt would dry completely. Hoss did the same. They removed their boots next, dumped the water out, then set the boots upright so the sun would shine into them. Hoss said, “Be right back,” and gingerly walked in his stocking feet, gathering the buckets they’d scattered, along with their fishing poles and hats. He put everything in a pile by the buckboard, figuring their fishing expedition was likely over for the day. The fish he’d caught had been spared during their playful brawl, and still swam safely in a big bucket a few yards away. Hoss was thankful for that. Those fish would taste doggone good come supper time, along with a pile of roasted potatoes, a thick slice of corn bread warm from the oven and slathered with butter, and topped off by a couple of pieces of that peach cobbler he’d seen Hop Sing making after breakfast.
“We still got the fish you caught?” Joe asked, as Hoss sat down beside him again.
“Sure do. Them’s the one thing we didn’t manage ta’ kick ta’ high heaven.”
“Good, ‘cause I sure was lookin’ forward to pan fried fish with roasted potatoes, along with some of that peach cobbler Hop Sing was making before we left.”
“Me too.” Hoss scrunched up his nose. “Hey, how’d you know Hop Sing was making peach cobbler?”
“Smelled the peaches as he was slicing them.”
“But how’d you know it wasn’t gonna be a peach pie?”
“Oh yeah? How?”
“Adam likes peach cobbler better than he likes peach pie. And if you haven’t noticed, Hop Sing’s been making all of Adam’s favorites ever since Adam got here.”
“Guess he has, now that ya’ mention it. Never really noticed before.”
“That’s because any food is your favorite.”
“You wanna be thrown in this creek again, Joseph?”
“I don’t believe I was thrown. I believe I overpowered you, and we fell in together.”
“Overpowered me, huh?”
“Seems like it to me.”
“I’d argue that one, but my shirt’s just beginnin’ to dry. Don’t feel like startin’ the process all over again.”
“This was a lot more fun when we were kids.”
“What? Taking a tumble into the creek, or sitting in the sun in wet clothes?”
“I agree. Which means, big brother, that we’re either gettin’ old, or we’re gettin’ smart.”
“My vote’s on smart.”
“Adam would probably say we’re gettin’old, and that we ain’t got the sense God gave us.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t ask Adam, now did we?”
Hoss chuckled at his brother’s sharp comment. It felt good to spend an afternoon alone with Joe. Since Adam’s arrival, Joe’s time had been taken up with all kinds of learnin’. Not that Hoss wasn’t grateful for what Adam had taught Joe about bein’ blind, because he was. And if Hoss was available, he was always included in anything Joe and Adam did outside those lessons – like a ride around the Ponderosa, or a fishing trip, or a game of horseshoes with Pa. But Hoss wouldn’t deny that he and Joe had always been close, and had grown even closer after Adam left for sea. They’d worked, lived, and played side by side for a lotta years now. Hoss hadn’t ever pictured it being any different, other than when the day came they each found themselves some pretty little filly to settle down with. But even then, though they’d have their own homes somewhere on the Ponderosa, they’d still work together every day, and likely as not, live close to each other, and their kids would grow up playin’ together, and goin’ to school together, and workin’ on the ranch together, and gathering at their grandpa’s house for dinner after church every Sunday – probably even be more like brothers and sisters than cousins. Or at least that’s what Hoss had always hoped would be the case. But now, with Joe’s loss of eyesight, Hoss’s assumptions of what the future held were altered, just like he knew Joe’s assumptions of the future had been altered. Exactly what the future would hold, Hoss wasn’t certain, though as much as it saddened him to acknowledge it, Hoss was certain about one thing. Quite likely the future didn’t hold Joe ever working beside him again.
If only I hadn’t gone in to get Charlie. Maybe I’d have seen that dadburn cat. Maybe I’d have been able to shoo it outta there, or maybe I’d have been able to catch that bottle ‘fore it hit the ground, or maybe. . .
Hoss shook off those thoughts. They’d haunted him every day since the accident. Pa would tell him it was time to put them to rest for good. That he couldn’t have done anything to prevent what happened, and if he had been in the shed with Joe, he might have lost his eyesight too, or been crippled up real bad, or even be dead right now.
It was as he was lost in his own silence, that Hoss realized Joe had fallen silent again. Hoss let the silence linger, wanting to see how long it would stretch before Joe finally broke it. But just like prior to their few minutes of horseplay, Joe didn’t seem inclined to speak, or share whatever was bothering him.
“Why don’t ya’ just come right out and tell me what’s keepin’ ya’ quieter than a mouse that’s been spotted by a rattler?”
“A mouse that’s been spotted by a rattler, huh? How quiet is that?”
“Pretty dadgum quiet, that’s how quiet. Now come on, just tell me whatever it is you brought me on this fishin’ trip ta’ tell me to begin with.”
“Who said I brought you fishing to tell you anything?”
“No one. But between the way Pa and Adam were actin’ before we left, and the way you’ve been actin’ the whole day, I don’t have to be the smartest guy in Nevada to know somethin’s goin’ on.”
“Good. ‘Cause you aren’t the smartest guy in Nevada.”
“Nope. I am.”
Hoss shook his head while Joe laughed.
“You’re just itchin’ for another dump in this creek, ain’t ya,’ Mr. Wiseguy?”
“Not really. My under drawers are just startin’ to dry.”
“All the more reason for ya’ to quit joshin,’ and tell me what’s goin’ on.”
There was a moment of hesitation on Joe’s part, then a slight nod. “You’re right.”
“So what is it?”
“Well. . .uh. . .Adam’s headed back to Boston come Wednesday.”
“Oh.” While it wasn’t easy for Hoss to think of Adam leaving, he’d known all along that his older brother would eventually have to return to Boston, and the obligations waiting for him at the blind school. “Sure wish he could stay longer.”
“Uh. . .yeah. Me too.”
“But I figured he was ‘bout done here. He’s taught ya’ an awful lot. Didn’t think there was much left for ya’ to learn.”
Joe chuckled. “Well, I’m sure there are a few things. Or at least Adam would probably say so.”
“When it comes to learnin,’ Adam is always one to say a man could do more.”
“So I expect Pa’s takin’ Adam’s leavin’ kinda hard, huh?”
“I suppose so. But I’m sure he’s been aware all along that Adam didn’t come home to stay.”
“Guess you’re right about that.” Hoss thought a moment. “Maybe we can have a big send-off for Adam on Tuesday night.”
“A big send-off?”
“Yeah. We’ll gather the hands, and roast a steer. Hop Sing can get some of his cousins to come out from Virginia City to help him with the extra cookin’, and we can--”
“Sounds nice,” Joe agreed. “But. . .uh. . .Hoss, there’s something else I need to tell you about Adam going back to Boston.”
“That um. . .that I. . .that I’m going with him.”
“I’m going with him.”
“Oh. Well now, don’t guess that’s such a bad idea.”
“No. You’ll probably like payin’ Boston a visit for a few weeks. Be good for ya’,” Hoss said, while thinking an extended visit East would be good for Joe. It would give him something new to occupy his time with, before returning to the Ponderosa and doing. . .well, Hoss wasn’t sure what, but he figured Pa was probably thinking that over right now, and coming up with things Joe could do that would make him feel useful.
“Uh. . .yeah, it probably will be good for me. Or at least I hope so, because I’m not. . .”
“You’re not what?” Hoss asked, when Joe let his sentence trail off unfinished.
“I. . .Hoss, I’m not going there to visit. I. . .I’m going there to live.”
“But. . .but why, Joe? How come? Why do ya’ wanna do somethin’ like that? How come ya’--”
“How come I can’t stay here?”
“Yeah. How come ya’ can’t stay here? On the Ponderosa with me and Pa?”
“Because I have no purpose here. Because there’s nothing I can do here without my sight.”
“Sure there is.”
“Uh. . .well. . .um. . .”
Joe smiled. “You’re just like Pa. You can’t think of anything either.”
“But. . .but. . .but what are ya’ gonna do in Boston?”
“At Adam’s school.”
“Oh. . . I see,” Hoss said quietly. And he did. He didn’t need all the details to know that Joe now possessed skills he could teach to others who’d lost their sight. And he didn’t need all the details to know that Adam had offered Joe, what Joe had desperately wanted ever since going blind – a way to be useful.
“And. . .um. . .you’re gonna leave on Wednesday with Adam?”
Hoss brushed at the sudden moisture that filled his eyes. “Guess. . .” he cleared his throat. “Guess that party I was talkin’ about havin’ for Adam is gonna be for the both of ya’s.”
“I. . .I know I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t want ya’ to go. I can’t lie to ya,’ little brother. I don’t want ya’ to go.”
“I know you don’t want me to go. And in a lot of ways, I don’t wanna go either. But it’s my only chance to make a living. If I can do that, while passing the skills Adam’s taught me on to someone else, then all the better. At least I’ll feel like I’m paying him back for the time he’s put into teaching me. I hope you understand that.”
Hoss squeezed his eyes shut so his tears wouldn’t fall. “I do, Joe. Honest I do.”
“Good.” Joe jostled Hoss’s arm with an elbow. “And now I’m gonna make you a promise.”
Joe’s face swam in and out of focus. “What promise?”
“That if my sight ever does return, I’ll be right back here on the Ponderosa before you can say, ‘Joe, dadburn yer ornery hide! I’m gonna get you for that.’ ”
Hoss couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ll hold ya’ to it.”
Hoss’s smile faded as quickly as it had come. “Joe. . .Joe, I’m really gonna miss ya’.”
“I know,” Joe acknowledge softly. “I’m really gonna miss you too.”
The brothers sat together on the banks of Walcott Creek until late that afternoon, talking about everything from boyhood exploits, to pranks they’d pulled on Adam over the years, to the times they’d tried their father’s patience just for the fun of it, to places they’d traveled together, and things they’d seen and done. The only subject they didn’t discuss was the one most on their minds – Joe’s upcoming move to Boston.
When Hoss finally stood, signaling it was time to head home, their clothes and boots were dry. They pulled their boots on, retrieved their hats, then loaded the buckboard with their gear and Hoss’s bucket of fish.
After they arrived at the ranch, Hoss told Joe he didn’t need any help unhitching the horses or unloading the wagon bed. Joe didn’t try to force his help on his brother, seeming to sense Hoss’s need for some time alone.
Hoss watched until Joe made it safely into the house, then began doing his chores. He swallowed hard and blinked furiously, trying not to think about how much he’d miss his younger brother, and how lonely it would be around the Ponderosa after Joe was gone.
Joe stared out the window with a blank gaze, only able to imagine what the passing scenery looked like. Adam described things to him from time to time, like the breath-taking view when the train traveled over a trestle bridge high above a rushing river in the Rocky Mountains. Or the burnt reds, dark browns, burnished oranges, and soft yellows of the canyons in Utah territory. Or the way the plains of Nebraska seemed to stretch on and on, like one massive wheat-colored ocean. Still, it wasn’t the same as being able to see those things for yourself.
Joe truly felt like a blind man now that he was traveling away from everything familiar to him. No longer could he picture the face of someone speaking to him, unless that person was Adam. No longer could he picture the lay of the land. No longer could he picture what the town looked like each time the train stopped at a place he’d never been before. He wouldn’t say it to Adam, but this frightened him, and whenever they got off the train to have a meal, or stretch their legs, Joe kept a firm grip on his brother’s arm. Getting separated from Adam now held prospects far different from getting separated from him in Virginia City, where so many people knew Joe, and someone he trusted would have quickly offered him help.
As they left the West farther and farther behind, Joe grew increasingly disoriented. The sounds, smells, and accents were different from what he was used to. By the time they’d changed trains in Omaha, and then traveled through Iowa and on into Illinois, where they had an evening layover in Chicago, Joe wasn’t as confident about this move to Boston as he had been just a week earlier. Suddenly, making a living independent of his father’s goodwill didn’t seem nearly as appealing as returning to all that he’d known since childhood. Adam must have sensed some of what Joe was feeling, because as the train chugged past Indiana cornfields Joe longed to be able to see just so he could write Hoss and tell him what a field rich with rows and rows of bright green corn stalks looked like, Adam said, “It’s not easy making a new start, is it?”
Joe turned toward the sound of his brother’s voice. He hesitated a few seconds before admitting, “It’s a little harder than I thought it would be. But I’ll be okay.”
“I know you will. Once you get settled and some time passes, Boston will start to feel like home.”
Joe wasn’t certain about that, but he didn’t say so to Adam. He thought back five days to when they’d left Virginia City on a stagecoach bound for Reno, where the first leg of their journey on the Transcontinental Railroad began. So many emotions had assaulted Joe as they headed for Virginia City in a buggy driven by Hoss, that he’d even forgotten to worry that someone he knew might see him. It was his first trip to Virginia City since he’d lost his sight. All too quickly, it became his last trip there, as the stage arrived and Hoss began helping the driver secure Adam’s suitcases, and then Joe’s trunk, to the top.
With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, Joe waited to board the stage. If anyone he knew passed him and said hello, Joe didn’t hear the person. He was focused solely on how difficult it would be to say goodbye to Pa and Hoss. Soon, he had no choice but to do just that. Hoss finished with their luggage and stepped forward to tell Adam goodbye. Joe heard a good deal of backslapping going on, along with promises of letters being written more frequently on Adam’s part than they had in recent years, and a promise given by Hoss that he’d come to Boston for a visit with Pa after the cattle drive.
Adam’s goodbye with Pa wasn’t nearly as noisy as his goodbye with Hoss, leaving Joe guessing what their parting entailed. After Adam stepped aside, it was Joe’s turn to say goodbye to his family. As with Adam, Joe’s goodbye with Hoss involved backslapping and promises of being reunited in Boston come fall. Whatever else they might have wanted to say to one another had already been said at Walcott Creek on Saturday. Joe knew Hoss didn’t want him to go, and Hoss knew Joe wouldn’t be going if he still had his eyesight. There was no need to say those things again. It would just make the leaving all that much harder on both of them.
Joe stepped out of Hoss’s embrace, and into Pa’s. His father didn’t say anything for the longest time, then finally whispered in a choked voice, “Take care of yourself, Joseph.”
“Remember what I said about the Ponderosa always being your home.”
“I will,” Joe promised again.
As Joe stood clutched in his father’s arms, it seemed as though the man couldn’t bear to let him go. Because of that, Joe knew he was the one who had to be strong for Pa, rather than the other way around.
“Guess I’d better get on the stage.” Joe did something then that he hadn’t done since he was a boy. He kissed his father’s cheek, tasting the salt of the man’s tears. “I love you, Pa.”
His father could barely speak when he said in return, “I love you too, son.”
“Take care of Hoss for me.”
“Don’t let him enter any flapjack eating contests without me here to be his manager.”
That got a chuckle out of Pa. “I won’t.”
“And don’t let him go off on his own, searching for any little green men, or give his money to the next inventor who comes along promising he can make Hoss fly. And whatever you do, don’t let him buy any Gerby Royals. You know how skittish he is about skinnin’ rabbits when it comes time.”
“No, I won’t let him do any of those things, either.”
The stage driver called for all passengers to board. The man’s directive made it easier for Joe to move from his father’s embrace and say a final goodbye.
“I’ll see you in the fall,” Joe said.
“Yes,” Pa promised. “Hoss and I’ll see you then.”
“In the meantime, write me every so often and let me know what’s goin’ on around here. Just don’t include anything you don’t want Adam reading to me.”
Pa chuckled again. “I don’t think we have to worry about that.” Joe could hear his father’s tone change as the sadness crept back in. “Goodbye, Joe.”
Joe held out a hand, and for just a moment was connected to his father again. He squeezed Pa’s hand, said, “Bye, Pa,” turned toward where he thought Hoss was standing and said, “Bye, Hoss,” then boarded the stage with Adam’s help, not waiting to hear the goodbyes in return.
Or maybe not wanting to hear them is a better way of putting it, Joe thought now, as every mile the train traveled brought him closer to Boston, and farther from the Ponderosa.
Without having to be told, Joe knew that when he’d fallen silent, Adam had returned to reading the book he’d brought from their sleeping car a little while ago.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Given the noise of the wheels clacking against the tracks, there was no concern about being overheard by any of their fellow passengers sitting nearby.
“How come you never came back home for a visit after you left for sea?”
“Isn’t not exactly easy to visit when a man’s at sea, Joe.”
“I know that. But I mean afterwards. Once you’d settled in Boston for good. After your grandfather died.”
A long enough silence lingered that once again Joe got the impression some kind of painful memory was tied to Abel Stoddard’s death. But before he could decide whether he should inquire further about the old man’s passing, Adam spoke.
“Because of Laura Dayton, I never had a strong desire to return.” Joe could tell Adam was smiling just a little bit when he added, “I suppose you could say that I don’t take well to not getting the desires of my heart.”
Only Adam would use such flowery language to describe a broken engagement.
“Evidently not,” was all Joe said in regard to his brother’s six-year absence, and the role Laura Dayton played in that.
“And then there’s my arm. Or lack of it, I should say. I already told you that I didn’t want you and Hoss to know about it.”
“Aside from that, what good was a one-armed cowboy going to be to Pa?”
“About as much good as a blind cowboy, I’d guess.”
“Joe. . .Joe, I didn’t mean it that way. I was talking about myself, not you.”
Joe smiled his understanding. “I know. But still, it’s true. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be on this train with you.”
“And if I haven’t told you that I’m glad you’re on this train with me, then it’s past time I do.”
Joe chuckled. “Keep that in mind after a couple of weeks have passed, and you’re ready to kick me outta your house.”
“I’ll do that,” Adam droned with that dry wit he possessed.
Joe listened to the rhythmic “clack clack clack” of the wheels for a few seconds, then said, “You mentioned a housekeeper?”
“Yeah. Will she mind me being there?”
“Why should she mind?”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. Because now she’ll have twice as much work to do.”
“First of all, she’s hired to do the work. Second of all, I give her a handsome raise each Christmas, along with a generous bonus. And third, you’ll be doing me a favor by being there.”
“Because now she’ll have someone else to mother besides me.”
Joe chuckled again. “At least it sounds better than being mothered by Hop Sing.”
“Hop Sing doesn’t mother. Or at least not very well.”
“That’s what I mean. Might be nice to be mothered for a change.”
“Be careful what you wish for, Joseph.”
“If you say so. Do you have any other hired help?”
“Just a gardener who attends to my lawn and flowerbeds.”
“What about at school?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“I thought you had a secretary.”
“I told you weeks ago that I don’t.”
“I know. I mean before you told me; that’s what I thought. That’s why I quit writing you.”
“I thought you were dictating your letters to someone, because the handwriting on the envelopes addressed to Pa had changed. I just. . .I just want you to know why I quit writing.”
“Because you thought I was dictating my personal correspondence to someone?”
Joe nodded. “Seemed kind of. . .I don’t know. . .”
“Impersonal?” Adam chuckled.
“Yeah. Impersonal. I didn’t wanna put the time and effort into writing you, if some stranger was writing me back. If I’d have known about your arm. . .”
“I made a mistake in not telling you and Hoss.”
“You had the right to keep it private.”
“Not from my brothers.”
Had this conversation taken place before Joe lost his sight, he might have agreed with Adam. But recently, he’d learned a lot about what pride could drive a man to do, and what it could drive him to avoid doing, as well.
“You know, it’s kind of funny when you think about it.”
“What’s kind of funny?” Adam asked.
“I was mad because I thought you were dictating your letters to someone, and now when I wanna write to Pa or Hoss, I’ll have to dictate my letters to someone. Guess that just goes to show that there is justice in this world every so often.”
“I don’t think you deserve to be blind just because you thought I was dictating my letters.”
Joe turned toward the window again, muttering so softly that Adam couldn’t hear him. “Seems as though someone does.”
Joe only half heard Adam say that he should have taught Pa and Hoss to read and write Braille, so Joe could correspond with them privately. Joe mumbled something about Adam not having time to do that. He also wanted to assure Adam it wasn’t anything to fret over, and that it wouldn’t bother him to dictate letters to Adam meant for Pa or Hoss. But suddenly, he couldn’t speak, because he was doubled over with a headache that had come upon him with the kind of swiftness and severity he hadn’t experienced since the first few weeks after losing his sight. An arm grasped Joe’s waist, keeping him from falling to the floor.
“Joe! Joe, what’s wrong?”
Joe clutched his head, grimacing. “Head. . .headache.”
“Porter! Porter, is there a doctor anywhere on this train?”
“No!” Joe grabbed a fistful of Adam’s shirt with a trembling hand. “No. . .no
jus-just help me to our car. I’ll be. . .be okay if I can lay down awhile.”
Joe fought the nausea the side to side swaying of the train only made worse. He gave a slight nod, too sick to speak unless he had to.
“Joe. . .?”
“I’m sure,” Joe mumbled between clenched teeth. He slowly sat upright, hoping he wasn’t being stared at by every passenger in the car, while knowing that he probably was. “Just get me somewhere that I can lay down.”
Joe stood when his brother urged him to his feet. It felt like someone was trying to pound his way out of Joe’s head with a sledgehammer, and all he could hear was an odd swooshing sound, like blood rushing between his ears.
Joe was barely aware of someone hurrying to help Adam. Another arm snaked around his waist, and when he was finally lowered to his bunk in their private sleeping car – one of only three private cars the train contained – he heard the voice of their Negro porter, Isaiah.
“I see if there be a doctor on board, Mr. Cartwright.”
“No. . .” Joe ordered with as much strength as he could muster, even though he suspected Adam was the “Mr. Cartwright” Isaiah was speaking to. “No. Be. . .I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure, Joe?”
Joe heard Adam’s frustrated sigh of indecision, then heard him asking the porter to bring a cloth and some ice.
The next thing Joe was aware of was the smell of a freshly laundered linen cloth as it passed over his nose, and then the immense relief brought by the ice wrapped within that cloth being pressed against his forehead. Adam had removed his boots and covered him with a blanket, though Joe had no memory of those actions taking place. Either he’d lapsed into unconsciousness briefly, or had been unaware due to the pain lancing through his skull and throbbing behind his eyes.
It took thirty minutes for the pain to begin to recede. Within an hour, it was almost gone completely, just like Joe could have predicted. He fell asleep shortly after that, and woke up three hours later, hungrier than Hoss had ever thought of being. Adam insisted Isaiah bring a supper cart to their car, even though Joe told his brother that wasn’t necessary, and that he could make the trip to the dining car.
“No, we’ll eat in here tonight,” Adam said, and Joe decided after the scare he’d given his brother, he wouldn’t cause Adam more grief by arguing with him. Besides, from what Joe could tell, their sleeping car was luxurious, thanks to Pa’s generosity. Therefore, Adam probably didn’t mind remaining in here. It would allow him to read without interruptions. As far as Joe was concerned, it didn’t make much difference where he ate supper, considering everything looked the same to him these days.
After the brothers had eaten, and Isaiah had been given a handsome tip for all of his help, Adam settled into an easy chair with a paper he’d purchased from one of the butcher boys that morning. The teenage boys boarded the trains at various stops, walking the aisles carrying baskets filled with candy, gum, cigars, newspapers, magazines, dime novels, toys, bakery goods, and just about anything else they could think of that a train’s passengers might buy. Adam asked Joe if he’d like him to read the newspaper out loud, but Joe said no.
“I’m tired.” Joe stood, feeling his way to the lower bunk. “Think I’ll call it a night.”
“Are you sure I shouldn’t try and hunt up a doctor to take a look at you?”
“I’m fine, Adam. And if you ask me if I’m sure about that fact one more time, I swear I’ll throw you off this train.”
“That doesn’t sound like an idle threat.”
“It’s not. So don’t push your luck.”
“Okay. But if you have another headache while we’re traveling. . .”
“You can hunt up as many doctors as you want to,” Joe conceded, if only to ease the worry in his brother’s voice.
“I’ll do just that.”
“As long as you pay for his visit, you can do whatever you want to.”
“Somehow I knew I’d end up getting the short end of this deal.”
“Which is why you should never insist I do anything I don’t want to.”
“I shouldn’t have forgotten that particular personality trait of yours.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Joe agreed with a laugh.
Adam’s newspaper soon held his attention. After Joe had stripped off his shirt and socks, he slipped onto his bunk, being careful not to whack his head against the frame of the bunk built above it, that was Adam’s.
As he waited for sleep to claim him, Joe tried to estimate how many miles they’d now traveled from the Ponderosa, while at the same time, silently berating himself for being homesick like some eight-year-old kid who’d never been away from his pa.