Joe stood in the doorway of his classroom on Monday morning, waiting for the bell to clang that signaled the start of the school day. He took his watch out of his suit coat pocket, flicked open the lid, and felt the position of the hands. Eight twenty-eight. He shut the lid and returned the watch to his pocket, then took a deep breath. This either worked, or he was headed back to the Ponderosa to live out his life trying to find ways to be useful.
Joe’s room was on the fourth floor of the building, with Laddie’s room down the hall from his. Elias Cross’s room was housed on this floor, as were the classrooms of several other veteran teachers. Joe wondered at the logic of putting the newest students on the uppermost floor of the building, meaning they had to navigate the most stairs, but he supposed it didn’t hamper them much. Or least ways, he couldn’t tell it by how the boys in his class charged up those stairs like a herd of stampeding cattle.
Speaking of stampeding cattle, at the sound of the bell, the stairs vibrated with pounding footsteps. Joe heard the disapproving, “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” from the other side of the hall, where Cross was no doubt standing at his classroom door, waiting to monitor everything Joe and his students did.
Today, Joe was ready for those stampeding cattle. He grabbed the first boy to reach his door by the arm and brought him up short, causing the other boys to bump into him. From the sounds of things, Joe guessed a few had fallen on their rear ends, but he figured it served most of them right.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?”
Joe immediately identified the speaker.
“The big idea, Henry, is that things are going to be done differently in this classroom starting right now.” Joe “looked” at his students. “Boys, I’m leading Henry into the class. The rest of you will follow in an orderly fashion, just like the school rules state.”
“I ain’t waitin’.”
Joe was prepared for the boy who tried to plow his way past Henry. So prepared, that he could have predicated the teenager’s actions. Joe grabbed this boy with his free hand.
“Oh yes you are, John. Now come on. It’s your lucky day.”
“You and Henry here, have the privilege of setting an example for your classmates.”
Joe marched the two troublemakers into the class, his grip firm and strong.
“Hey, you’re hurtin’ me!”
“Then quit trying to twist out of my hold, Henry.”
This was the first time Joe had called the boys by name on a regular basis, because it was the first time he could easily identify who they were. His week of observation was already paying off. It seemed to make Henry and John a little nervous now that Joe was directly calling them on their misbehavior.
Joe turned to face the others.
“Come on, boys. Come in the room. But don’t sit down.”
“Because, Tony, there’s a new seating order.”
“New seating order?”
“That’s right, Pete. Everyone stay where you are, while I lead Henry and John to their seats.”
Some of the younger boys giggled at the thought of the “big boys” being led to their desks like little kids.
Henry turned. “Shut up!”
Joe gave the teen’s arm a firm squeeze. “No, Henry. No more talk like that in this classroom.”
“Talk like what?”
“Telling someone to shut up. Calling someone names. Hitting, throwing things, tipping over desks. . .it stops as of today.”
“What if we don’t wanna stop?”
“It doesn’t matter what you want. I’m in charge here.”
“Haven’t been up until now.”
“Well, kid, it’s a new day.” Joe propelled the boy forward. “Now come on.”
When Joe came to the first desk in the first row, he let go of the boys, took Henry’s hand, and ran it over the wooden placard screwed to the back of the seat.
“This is your name written in Braille. It’s the first thing you’re gonna learn today. Now sit.”
“What if I don’t wanna?”
Joe shoved the boy downward. “Do it anyway.”
Joe smiled as he heard Henry trying to do exactly what he’d expected once the boy was seated – tip the desk over.
“Don’t waste your time, Henry. The desks are bolted to the floor.”
Joe smiled again at the collective, “Awwww,” of disappointment that resounded throughout the room.
“Now come with me, John. Your seat is the last desk in the last row.”
“But I wanna sit by Henry!”
“I’m sure you do. But starting today, you’ll sit back here. Give me your hand. This is your name written in Braille.”
Once Joe had John seated, he turned to go and retrieve another boy. However, he was forced to make a detour to the new bookcase he’d had installed on Saturday, where he heard someone trying to open the doors.
“That’s locked, Henry. Until you boys can learn books are for reading, and not for throwing, it’ll stay that way. Same goes for the paper. It’ll stay locked in that bookcase until you learn it’s for writing on.” Joe placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Now come on. Back to your seat.”
Despite Henry’s resistance, Joe ran the teenager’s fingers over the name placard again, telling him once more, “This is your name in Braille.”
As Joe assumed would be the case, he didn’t meet with resistance from the younger boys when it came to the new seating arrangement. It was only the older boys who voiced their displeasure with it.
“I don’t know what difference it makes to you guys anyway,” Joe quipped at the complainers as he seated Tony Marcelli, “it’s not like you can see the blackboard, no matter where I put you.”
Joe’s comment was met by shocked silence at first, followed by a smattering of laughter from the teenagers.
“Good joke, Mr. Cartwright,” John said.
“Yeah, Mr. Cartwright,” fifteen-year-old Pete Simmons agreed. “Pretty funny.”
Although Joe didn’t tell the boys this, there was a reason for the new seating arrangement. On the first day of class, the boys had been made to sit according to the Braille seating chart provided for Joe, which placed them in alphabetical order based on their last names. By the end of that first day, however, they were sitting wherever they wanted to. Which meant, like Pa often used to say rather pointedly to Joe when he was a boy, “Somehow the troublemakers always find one another.”
Pa’s wisdom regarding troublemakers proved to be sound where Joe’s students were concerned. Therefore, his new assigned seating arrangements split the troublemakers up, and had younger boys seated between them.
Three times during the process of getting everyone familiar with the Braille version of their names, and then getting them seated, Joe had to tell older boys to return to their desks. But now he didn’t feel at a disadvantage, because he recognized every voice and every footstep. He’d immediately refer to a youngster by name, and command that he get back to his seat. Joe’s sense of hearing told him if his command had been complied with or not.
Joe walked over to shut the door, and then seat the last child.
“Come on, Caleb. Let me show you to your desk.”
The boy yanked himself from Joe’s grasp. “I can find it myself!”
Joe was taken aback by the child’s anger. Because his attention had mostly been on the teenagers the last two weeks, he hadn’t observed a lot, good or bad, about Caleb Greers, other than the boy was quiet and seemed to keep to himself. At a time when Joe was desperate for a quiet boy, he took Caleb’s silence to be an indication of good behavior.
Joe didn’t try and touch Caleb again. The boy stumbled around the room feeling for an empty desk, Joe following behind him.
“Come on, kid, let Mr. Cartwright help ya’,” Tony advised. “If you hadn’t noticed, you’re blind.”
“Yeah, kid, quit trippin’ over your feet and sit down!” Henry called. “Ya’ can’t see the broad side of a barn, ya’ know!”
Caleb whirled toward Henry’s voice. “I can too! I can see! I can!”
“Then whatta’ ya’ doin’ here? Take a wrong turn on the way to Georgia or somethin’?”
Laugher erupted at Henry’s remark.
“All right, boys,” Joe said, “that’s enough. Go on, Caleb. Find your seat.”
“I can do it myself!”
“I never said you couldn’t. Just find it, please, and then sit down.”
Joe waited until he knew the boy had found the only empty seat left in the room.
“Your name is on the back of it in Braille. Why don’t you see what it feels like.”
“ ‘Cause I don’t wanna! I can read real words! Regular words written like they’re supposed to be.”
“Braille is regular words, too.”
“No it’s not, and you can’t make me learn it!”
“So you’re going to do your lessons in “regular words,” is that it?”
“All right. If you can do it, I’ll accept your work that way.”
“I can do it.”
“Okay,” Joe agreed, hearing the anger and defiance in the boy’s voice, as though he was daring anyone to say he was blind. “When we get that far, we’ll see how it goes.”
“It’ll go fine!”
Joe ignored the boy’s declaration, instead, turning his attention to the entire class. For once, the older boys were riveted by someone causing trouble other than themselves. Joe walked up and down the four aisles made up of five desks each. He didn’t realize how much he sounded like his father when he spoke, both in tone of voice and words chosen, though if Adam or Hoss had been present, they would have had hard a hard time discerning who was in charge of this classroom – Joe Cartwright, or Ben Cartwright.
“Boys, as I said earlier to Henry, it’s a new day in this room. Name calling, hitting, pushing, shoving, running in the halls, throwing things, shouting, and switching seats, won’t be tolerated. Therefore, Pete and John, get back to your assigned seats.”
Joe listened, smiling when he heard the two boys mumble under their breath as they did as he commanded.
“Thank you,” Joe then told the boys, wanting to give them the respect they deserved for obeying him. He kicked Tony’s feet aside as he continued to walk the aisles, causing the boy to grunt with pain.
you’re smart, you won’t stick your feet out and try to trip anyone either, will
“No, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Good man. You learn quickly. “Now--”
Joe grabbed his forehead. Once again, he’d been the victim of someone’s peashooter. But this time, he knew right where it had come from. He’d heard the boy take a deep breath, and then let it out fast and hard. He walked over to the first desk in the first row, and held out his hand.
“Give me the peashooter, Henry.”
“I don’t got no peashooter.”
“I’m tellin’ ya’, Mr. Cartwright, I don’t got no pea--”
Joe grabbed the boy by the shirt collar and yanked him from his seat.
“The peashooter, kid. Now! Or you’re gonna find out I’ve got me a real nasty temper that my father’s warned would get the best of me someday. I don’t think you want that to be today, now do you, Henry?”
“Um…um…uh…no. Uh…here it is.”
The peashooter landed in Joe’s palm.
“Thank you. When the rest of us go out for recess after lunch, you’ll go to Headmaster Cartwright’s office, and write five times in Braille, ‘I will not bring peashooters to class.’ ”
“But I don’t know how to write in Braille.”
“I’m sure Headmaster Cartwright will be happy to teach you.”
“But it might take me more than one recess to get it done!”
“Then that’s the price you pay for bringing your peashooter to class.”
“I’ll escort you to his office after we eat. And take it from me, Headmaster Cartwright is a real stickler for things bein’ done all nice and perfect-like, so you’d better plan on doing a good job right from the start, or you’re liable to be spending two months’ worth of recesses in his office.”
“Aw, Mr. Cartwright, that’s not fair.”
“Well, Henry, I hate to be the first one to break the news to you, but life isn’t fair sometimes.”
Joe turned to face the rest of the class.
“Anyone else with a peashooter, I suggest you either turn it in to me, or keep it in your pocket, unless you wanna join Henry in the headmaster’s office. And don’t bring them to class again, boys.”
“Golly, but this class sure ain’t no fun any more.”
Joe smiled at John’s remark. “There’ll be plenty of fun if everyone behaves, and you work hard at learning your lessons. The reward for hard work is fun. The reward for not working hard, is more hard work.”
Before any of Joe’s students could comment on that, someone knocked on the door.
“Come in!” Joe called, already certain he knew the identity of his visitor.
“Is now a good time, Joseph?”
“Yes, Mrs. O’Connell, come in. Boys, say hello to Mrs. O’Connell.”
A chorus of “Hello, Mrs. Connell,” sounded around the room.
“Henry, I didn’t hear you say hello to Mrs. O’Connell.”
“Hi, Mrs. O’Connell,” the teenager grumbled.
“My my my, what nice young gentlemen yeh have in yer class, Joseph. They wouldn’t be hungry fer a snack now, would they?”
The smell of chocolate and warm cinnamon traveled with the woman as she walked toward Joe’s desk.
“Oh, I don’t know. . .”
“I’m hungry!” John called.
“Me too!” Pete and Tony echoed. Even Billy Fitzgerald joined in.
“I’m hungry, Mr. Cartwright!”
“Well, I’m glad to hear yeh lads say that, because I just took some cinnamon rolls from the oven, and I just finished icing some chocolate doughnuts. I even stopped on me way here, and bought a cold pail of milk from that nice Mr. Harvey at the market down the street. Joseph, have yer boys here been good enough to have a snack, or should I just leave everything for yeh and the headmaster to share?”
“Mmmm. . .” Joe pretended to contemplate this proposal that he’d prearranged with Mrs. O’Connell, “let me see. Other than a few small incidents, I’d say yes. These boys deserve the snacks you brought.”
“Even me?” Henry asked.
“Yes, Henry, even you.”
Mrs. O’Connell took plates and cups from a picnic basket, along with the rolls and doughnuts she’d made that morning after she’d gotten breakfast on the table for Adam and Joe. Adam hadn’t even realized she was up to something. He didn’t pay much attention to the running of the kitchen, allowing his housekeeper free rein over the planning of the meals. He might make a special request now and again when he was having company, but overall, he let the kitchen be Mrs. O’Connell’s domain, in much the way the Ponderosa kitchen was Hop Sing’s.
Joe asked Mrs. O’Connell to pass out the plates and let the boys choose a treat from her basket. While she started that process with Henry, Joe went to the other side of the room with the pail of milk and the cups, giving the boys their first lesson in how to pour their own drink. A few of the boys had mastered this skill on their own at home, but most of them were like Joe had been just a few months earlier – dependent on someone to pour their milk for them.
The boys were eager to learn this new skill. Joe smiled a little at something he was learning as well – that you could make schoolwork fun, and in so doing, the kids didn’t realize they were actually completing an assigned lesson.
As Joe was showing Billy how to tell when his cup was full, Mrs. O’Connell gave a startled cry. Joe heard a “thud!” and rushed to the woman’s aid.
O’Connell, are you all right?”
“Yes. . .yes. . .” the woman answered a little breathlessly. “I think I’m okay. . .me old body doesn’t take a spill like it used to. Thanks be to Saint Thomas that I didn’t drop me basket of treats.”
Joe turned at the sound of a snicker.
“Caleb, did you trip Mrs. O’Connell?”
“So what if I did?”
“Oh, Joseph, surely the lad didn’t do it on purpose.”
Joe crossed his arms over his chest. If he’d had his sight, he’d have stared a hole through the boy.
“I have to differ with you on that. I think Caleb did do it on purpose.”
You gonna make me write sentences in the headmaster’s office, too? I can do ‘em
in regular writing, ya’ know. I don’t
need to learn none of that Braille stuff.”
“Nope, no sentences, Caleb.”
“Mr. Cartwright! That’s not fair! You’re making me write sentences!”
“Be quiet, Henry.” Joe turned to face Caleb again, taking the plate off his desk that held a warm cinnamon roll. “As for you, young man, no snack this morning.”
“I don’t care! I didn’t want it anyway!”
“Well, that’s good, because you’re not gonna have it. Snacks are rewards for good behavior, and obviously, your behavior toward Mrs. O’Connell is about as far from good as it gets. You don’t ever treat a woman that way in my classroom, Caleb. You go it?”
When Joe was met with nothing but silence, he poked the ten-year-old in the chest with a firm finger.
“Caleb, I asked you a question.”
“Yeah,” the boy grumbled.
“I got it.”
“Good. Now apologize to Mrs. O’Connell.”
When Caleb didn’t do as Joe ordered, Joe repeated, “Caleb, apologize to Mrs. O’Connell.”
Caleb hesitated, then finally mumbled, “Sorry.”
“Your apology is a little short on sincerity, but I’ll let it go for now.”
boy have his roll back now, Joseph?”
“No, Mrs. O’Connell, not today.”
“But he apologized and--”
Joe gently urged the woman to move on up the aisle to the next child waiting for a treat from her basket. “Yeah, he apologized, but he lost his chance at a snack when he tripped you. Now come on. Let’s get the rest of these boys fed.”
While Mrs. O’Connell continued on her way with her basket, Joe resumed passing out cups and teaching the boys to pour milk. When he came to Caleb, he said, “You can have milk if you want some.”
“Don’t want any!”
“All right,” Joe agreed, moving on to the next boy. Despite what Caleb claimed, Joe knew better than to think the boy didn’t want something to eat, and a cup of milk to go along with it. No ten-year-old refused a doughnut or cinnamon roll, and especially not when the rest of his classmates were enjoying one.
Let him be punished by his own stubbornness. That’s what Pa would tell me to do. Lord knows I punished myself that way a time or two when I was ten.
When the boys had been taken care of, Joe pulled a chair up to his desk and insisted Mrs. O’Connell sit down and eat with him. Joe chose a doughnut from the basket, while she chose a cinnamon roll. After everyone had finished, Joe asked the boys to bring their plates and cups to the front of the room. Again, many of them were learning a lesson without realizing it – how to pick up after themselves.
Joe helped Mrs. O’Connell pack her basket, then thanked her for coming.
“Boys, thank Mrs. O’Connell for bringing snacks to us.”
“Thank you’s” were called out. Joe took note of how Mrs. O’Connell’s presence seemed to be a positive thing for the younger boys – especially Billy, who hadn’t cried at all since she’d entered the room. He decided she’d become a regular visitor to his classroom.
“Now, a man always walks a lady to the door. Henry, can you do that today, please.”
Joe heard the pride in the teenager’s voice.
The boy stood and waited for Mrs. O’Connell to reach his side. When she did, he walked with her to the door and opened it. Joe just about fell over with shock when Henry said, “Thank you for comin’ here today with your snacks, Ma’am. Please come back sometime.”
aren’t yeh a nice lad. I’ll do that
‘Enry. Maybe bring some of me sugar
cookies next time. Would yeh like that?”
After Mrs. O’Connell left, Joe told Henry to shut the door and return to his seat. Henry did as Joe asked without hesitation, which was a first where Joe and Henry were concerned.
“Thank you, Henry. You’re quite the gentleman, aren’t you,” Joe teased, with just the right amount of humor. He could picture Henry blushing as John and Tony joined in the teasing, but he sensed Henry liked it. Maybe this was the first time Henry had ever gotten attention for good behavior, as opposed to all the attention he’d garnered over the years as a result of bad behavior.
“Okay, boys, that’s enough. Settle down. It’s time all of you start learning to walk around a room without bumping into things. Billy and Henry, come up here, please. We’ll start with the two of you.”
And that’s how the morning proceeded. Joe paired an older boy with a young one, and then taught them the basic lessons of navigating a room, just like Adam had taught him. When it came to anyone giving him problems, it wasn’t Henry, or John, or Tony, or Pete, but instead, Caleb, who refused to employ the methods Joe showed him. The boy stumbled around the room in the same way Joe remembered stumbling around the ranch house. He purposely pushed a chair in Caleb’s path, wincing when he heard the child topple over it. He reached down to help the boy up.
“Now you know why you should do what I tell you to. You wouldn’t have fallen over that chair if--”
“Leave me alone!” Caleb twisted from Joe’s grasp. “Just leave me alone! I don’t need ta’ learn any of your dumb ol’ lessons ‘bout bein’ blind. I’m not blind; do you hear me? I’m not blind!”
Joe clamped a hand over Henry’s mouth. “Be quiet,” he told the teenager.
“Caleb, you’re right. If you’re not blind, you don’t need to be here. You can go ahead and leave.”
“Yeah. Go ahead. Leave the room. You might as well pack up your stuff and go home. It’s silly for you to be here learning with us, if you’re not blind. I’m glad I got to meet you, but seems to me it’s a waste of my time and yours if there’s nothing you can learn from me.”
“All right then. I’ll leave.”
Joe was taking a big gamble that the boy wouldn’t actually leave the building and disappear somewhere in Boston. But it was a gamble Joe was willing to take in an effort to deflate some of Caleb’s bravado.
And it was a gamble that paid off, because when the bell clanged an hour later signaling the start of lunch break, Caleb was leaning against the wall outside Joe’s classroom. The only thing Joe said to the youngster when the boy tried to sneak by him was, “Get in line, Caleb. We’re going to lunch now.”
“I don’t need to be here, ya’ know.”
“I realize that. But until I figure out how you got sent here to the institute by mistake, you might as well keep comin’ to my classroom, don’t you think?”
Caleb refused to answer, but for some reason, Joe knew the boy would be present in his assigned seat when recess ended.
After lunch, Joe took Henry to Adam’s office and explained what the boy’s punishment was. As Joe knew would be the case, Adam took exaggerated delight in using this opportunity to teach Braille to Henry.
“Henry, I admire a boy who’s so diligent that he volunteers to stay in at recess to do his lessons.”
“I. . .I mean, yeah. Sure. Sure, Headmaster. Whatever you say.”
“That’s better. Go on, Henry. It’s eight steps straight ahead to a chair by my desk. I’ll be right there.”
Joe out into the hallway. “How’d this morning go?”
Joe smiled. “Better. A lot better.”
“I thought as much since I haven’t heard any crashes coming from above, and since Cross hasn’t been in my office with a battle report.”
“It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and it probably won’t be for a few days yet, but I. . .I think I’m on my way, Adam.”
Adam clapped Joe’s upper arm. “Good for you. What’s your secret?”
“Yeah. How’d you turn things around?”
“I told you. I’m being like Pa.”
“Ah. A fox in the bear cub den, is that it?”
“Something like that. Listen, I gotta get outside and help supervise recess. . .plus say a couple of “I told you so’s” to Cross. See ya’ later.”
Adam normally would have admonished Joe to leave Elias Cross alone, but not today. Today, he wanted Joe to revel in his victory, because God knew Joe deserved to.
That afternoon, Adam didn’t have to help Joe pick up desks, papers, or books. Instead, he silently admired his brother’s ingenuity when he stopped by Joe’s classroom at the end of the school day.
“Who helped you do all of this?” Adam asked, referring to the desks bolted to the floor, the name placards on the back of them, and the new bookcase.
“A lot of people. Ray and Boyd helped me with the desks,” Joe said, naming two of the building’s caretakers, “and some of the kids on the newspaper staff did the placards for me, and Mr. Murphy went with me to get the bookcase, along with a few things I wanted from that Braille shop where you bought my watch.”
Joe answered vaguely, “Oh, just some toys, games, things like that.”
you’re not going to bribe these kids, are you?”
works, big brother.” Joe grinned as he passed Adam on his way out of the door.
Adam followed in Joe’s wake. “Pa never resorted to bribery.”
“Maybe not with you he didn’t, but with me he did.”
“All the more reason not to be the oldest child.”
Joe laughed. “Guess not, if that means you missed out on chocolate drops every time you were good after a visit to Doc Martin, or on new marbles every time you sat still in church.”
“You got marbles
for sitting still in church?”
The only answer Adam received was another laugh.
As Joe lay in bed that night drifting towards sleep, he smiled over his successes as a teacher. Like he’d told Adam after lunch, he still had a ways to go before the seas weren’t a little choppy now and again, but overall, it had been a good day. A day Joe was proud of. A day he’d remember for a long time to come. Granted, he hadn’t made any headway with Caleb Greers, but right now, as Joe basked in victory, one angry ten-year-old was the least of his worries.
Joe Cartwright was likely the most unorthodox teacher that the Boston Institute for the Blind had ever employed, but the headmaster was willing to look the other way – not because Joe was his brother, but because his methods worked, and his students were prospering. After all, as Adam told Elias Cross one morning, how could a teacher be held at fault who had, despite an unproductive start, managed to make up two weeks worth of missed lessons by the end of September, and now had his students on schedule.
“But there’s too much laughter coming from that room, Headmaster,” Cross complained.
“Isn’t that better than shouting, and crying, and general chaos?”
“It disturbs my students.”
“Then perhaps you should tell them not to concern themselves with what’s going on across the hall, and instead, focus their attention on you.”
Cross glared at Adam, then moved on to his next complaint.
“He allows his students to go outside during times that aren’t designated as recess. He says he’s holding lessons out there.”
“Then I’m sure he is.”
“Playing horseshoes and baseball?” The man sneered with disgust. “I highly doubt it, unless horseshoes or baseball will somehow become a way for blind men to gain employment.”
“Possibly not employment, but I’m sure it’s teaching them teamwork, while building their self-confidence.”
“Self-confidence? And just how might that be?”
“I’d suggest you run around a base path with your eyes closed to discover the answer to that question.”
“It appears to be nothing other than fun to me. Of no value whatsoever.” Cross shrugged, “But you’re the headmaster, so if you disagree. . .”
“So be it. But one thing you can’t disagree with me about, is that your brother takes off his suit coat and tie, and rolls up his shirtsleeves, not five minutes after the morning bell rings. All of that is a direct violation of the dress code for this school’s male teachers.”
“Since his students can’t see him, I don’t think it makes a lot of difference, do you?”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if he wasn’t your brother.”
Adam sighed. Maybe Cross was right about that. He’d told Joe more than once in recent weeks to put his coat and tie back on. Joe would apologize sheepishly, claiming he “forgot” about the dress code, and then do as Adam asked. Somehow, though, by the time their paths crossed again during any given school day, Joe’s memory where the dress code was concerned had managed to fail him. Adam finally gave up on trying to make Joe adhere to it, figuring his brother deserved a little leniency given how hard he’d worked to master his new career.
“Look, Elias, I know my brother’s ways are a bit. . .informal, but you have to keep in mind that until very recently his life’s work was as a rancher. He’s used to a more relaxed atmosphere.”
“Then perhaps he should return to roping steers, or panning for gold, or chasing Indians, or doing whatever it is you people do out West.”
Adam shook his head as the scrawny man with the stick-thin legs and arms turned on one heel and walked stiffly from his office. If Joe could see Cross, with his erect bearing and beak-like nose tilted upward with disdain, he’d ask Adam who’d shoved a hot branding iron up the man’s ass.
The headmaster chuckled at that thought, then walked to his office window. He looked toward the ball diamond, seeing Joe’s class engaged in a game. Adam knew Joe was using some of these impromptu trips outside as a way of rewarding the boys for good behavior, and for working so hard to get caught up in class. Despite Cross’s complaints, Adam was hard-pressed to find a reason why Joe couldn’t reward the boys every now and again. Plus, Adam truly believed they were learning from each new experience Joe gave them, even if it was playing baseball. When it came to engaging in common schoolyard games, they were discovering they could enjoy the same entertainment sighted children did, albeit adjusted in some ways to allow for their handicap – like the rope strung around the diamond that guided the boys as they ran from base to base, and the ball with jingle bells inside of it, that allowed them to use their hearing to track its movements as it was pitched, and then hit. Shakespeare, who now went to Joe’s classroom on most days, chased the boys around the bases, playfully barking and nipping at their heels.
Joe’s shouts of encouragement drifted in through the window, as did the boys’ laughter. Adam couldn’t tell who was having more fun – Joe, or his students. Well, all except for Caleb Greer, who was sitting on a bench and not participating. An educated guess told Adam the boy was once again being punished for misbehavior. So far, nothing Joe had tried seemed to get through to the ten-year-old. He was the only student of Joe’s lagging behind where progress was concerned.
They’d had a few students like Caleb since Adam’s tenure at the institute. Angry, sullen children, who refused to learn, and who Adam eventually sent home to their parents. Adam hated giving up on those kids, but since so many other children were waiting for a place at the institute, he couldn’t see the point in keeping a student who didn’t want to be here. He’d broached the subject of Caleb’s possible dismissal with Joe, but Joe wouldn’t entertain the notion.
“I’ll get him to come around. Just give me more time.”
“I’m not saying I’m sending him home tomorrow, Joe. I’m just saying that he’s been here for a month now, and he hasn’t made any progress. If I don’t see his attitude change soon, then quite frankly, notifying his parents and asking them to come get him is my only option. There are too many other deserving children on our waiting list.”
“Give me more time, Adam,” Joe requested in that voice that sounded so much like Pa’s – the one Adam doubted Joe even realized he used when he was determined to accomplish something. “Give both Caleb and me more time.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You didn’t give up on me when I didn’t wanna learn, so don’t ask me to give up on him.”
Adam had reluctantly agreed to do as Joe asked, but added, “I’ll give you until Christmas break. If Caleb’s still refusing to learn at that time, then I’ll have to tell his parents not to send him back to us when school resumes in January. Deal?”
“Deal,” Joe nodded in agreement.
Adam watched out the window now, as Joe called a halt to the ball game and told the boys they had to return to class. Joe put a hand on Caleb’s shoulder, but the boy jerked from his grasp. While the other boys walked across the grounds toward the building with one arm protecting their faces, and the other arm extended in front of them, Caleb stumbled along, tripping over everything in his path.
Adam shook his head, wondering if the boy would ever be willing to learn, or if, when school resumed after Christmas, another child would take his seat.
October had always been one of Joe’s favorite months. The days were still warm enough to make being outdoors enjoyable, but the nights spoke of winter’s pending arrival. It was a time on the ranch when they’d be busy making repairs to buildings and line shacks, so animals and people had protection from the cold, and getting ready for the cattle drive. Hop Sing would be bringing in the last of the vegetables from the garden, filling the kitchen with rich smells as he canned pumpkins and squash for winter pies, cakes, and breads. That was one of the few memories Joe had of his mother – the way she’d help Hop Sing in the garden all summer and fall, and then helped making jams, jellies, pies, as well as canning whatever vegetables were currently being harvested.
Adam said autumn in New England was truly a season of beauty, with brilliant oranges, golds, yellows, and reds bursting from the trees. Joe would have loved to see the colors that spoke of an old year slowly slipping away, but then, he would have loved to see a lot of things. He still wasn’t completely used to being blind, and wondered if he ever would be – or ever fully accepting of it, either, for that matter. He kept that non-acceptance well hidden now. After all, it seemed petty to wallow in self-pity when he was surrounded by children who didn’t complain about their misfortune in life. A misfortune just like his own.
Joe’s teaching skills continued to grow that fall. As he’d known would be the case, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The entire month of September was as much a learning experience for Joe, as it was for his students. His confidence grew as October progressed, and the boys settled into the daily routine. No longer was Joe confiscating peashooters, or sending someone to Adam’s office to write sentences, or dealing with John, Henry, Pete, and Tony, doing their best to switch seats at the start of each day. The younger boys were thriving, too. The calm routine that prevailed in the classroom now seemed to put their fears to rest, and even Billy no longer cried for his mother.
Mrs. O’Connell made “surprise” visits now and again, bringing treats baked in Adam’s kitchen, and Joe also gave out other rewards for good behavior, or lessons well mastered. For the little boys, the rewards were things like tin whistles, toy soldiers, Braille building blocks, wooden horses, hand-carved cowboy and Indian sets, modeling clay, Braille card games and board games, and candy from Casey’s Sweet Shop – everything purchased with Joe’s own money. The older boys received “passes” to places Joe took them on Saturdays – horseback riding at a nearby stable, a picnic at a park down the street from the institute, and upon an invitation from Laddie’s father, “amusements” at the Brockington estate. Mr. Brockington even taught Joe and the boys a new game called golf. It seemed silly to Joe, trying to hit a tiny ball into a small, round hole, but Mr. Brockington claimed the game would be all the rage soon. Silly or not, it didn’t matter to the teenagers. A day away from the institute was a treasured prize. They didn’t care where Joe took them, they were just happy to have the opportunity to leave the grounds with him, which probably accounted for at least some their good behavior in class.
The only child who had yet to earn a reward was Caleb Greers. He’d taken over where the older boys had left off when it came to disruptions. Tripping his classmates, striking out at them in anger, name calling, sweeping books off his desk, shouting at Joe – and if he wasn’t doing those things, then he was sitting sullenly, refusing to learn, all the while maintaining that he could see and shouldn’t be at the institute.
“Saying it doesn’t make it so, Caleb,” Joe had told the boy more than once.
“Yes it does!” the stubborn child insisted, and kept on insisting it even when all the other younger boys were playing with new toys and games Joe had given them.
At least Joe was dealing with only one child not willing to learn now, instead of twenty. He continually thought of ways to make the boys’ lessons fun. When Adam discovered the older boys reading dime novels in Braille with titles like, “The Adventures of Tex Mathers and the Cowboy Kid,” and “Shootout at the Circle B Ranch,” and “Pistol Pete and His Trick Horse Maverick,” he told Joe, “I can’t believe you’re letting them read that trash.”
“That ‘trash’ as you refer to it, entertained me on more cold winter nights than I can remember when I was a kid.”
“Which explains a lot.”
Joe ignored his brother’s teasing sarcasm.
“They’re perfect for teenage boys just learning Braille.”
“And why is
“Because those novels make them want to read, that’s why.”
“Thoreau and Hawthorn should make them want to read, too. Not to mention Shakespeare.”
“All those guys ever did for me was put me to sleep. But either way, there’ll be enough time for Thoreau and his buddies next year, when the older boys are in your literature class. In my class, it’s nothing but Tex and Pistol Pete.”
“And candy, and games, and my housekeeper showing up with a basket of cookies, and--”
“And whatever works, Adam,” Joe said with a grin. “Whatever works.”
When it came to Joe teaching the boys table manners, Adam thought he’d gone too far when all of them but Caleb, who’d refused to leave the institute with his classmates, showed up in Adam’s dining room one Saturday evening. Laddie, however, thought it was ingenuity at its finest. The boys took turns pulling out her chair for her, spreading their napkins across their laps, passing dishes of food without spilling anything, filling their own plates and cups, and then offering Laddie their arms and leading her to the parlor after the meal was finished. The final touch was when the boys wrote Adam a thank you note in Braille to express their gratitude for the evening.
“I would have never guessed you knew it’s proper to send a thank you note to your host after a dinner party,” Adam told his brother on the evening the thank you note had arrived in the mail.
“That’s because you think all the manners Pa taught us only rubbed off on you. Hoss and I picked up on a few things, too, ya’ know.”
“I’m beginning to learn that.”
“About time you did, big brother. About time you did.”
Joe’s headaches continued to come and go during September and October, but he’d been able to keep their existence from Adam. Some were mild enough that Joe could go about his normal routine without interruption. He’d had a bad one on a Saturday evening when Adam was out with Laddie, and Mrs. O’Connell was doing some kind of charity work for her church, which made it easy to go to bed early without Adam being the wiser. Another bad headache occurred one day at school right before lunch. That day, Joe managed to keep the pain hidden while getting Laddie to take his boys to the dining hall, and then to recess, saying he had things to catch up on his classroom. By the time the boys returned an hour and a half later, the headache was gone.
But probably worse than any headache, was the heartache Joe felt when one particular letter arrived from Pa. Adam, of course, had to read Pa’s and Hoss’s letters to Joe. After Adam had read the news Pa wrote about the price he was anticipating for the fall market steers, and that the nights were growing colder, and that Hoss was busy repairing and stocking line shacks while wishing Joe was there to help him, and how old Bart Thomas was predicting a bad winter because his bursitis was bothering him something fierce, Adam’s voice faltered and trailed off.
“Is that it?” Joe asked, from where he was seated in what had become his favorite easy chair in Adam’s parlor.
“Uh. . .no. There’s. . .there’s one more paragraph.”
“Go ahead then, read it.”
“Joe. . .”
“Um. . .never mind. It says. . .it says. . .” Adam took a deep breath, then read, “Joseph, I’m sorry to have to write of this news, son, but I didn’t think it was right to keep it from you. Sally Morris’s parents have announced her engagement to Carl Jeffers. The wedding is to take place in February.”
Joe stood as Adam finished reading.
“Don’t say anything, Adam. There’s nothing you can say.”
“How about, I’m sorry?”
“No need to be sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Joe whistled for Shakespeare and went to the closet for his leash. “I’m taking Shakespeare for a walk around the neighborhood. Be back in a little while.”
“No. Thanks but. . .no. Not right now.”
Adam was still sitting in the parlor when Joe returned a half hour later. Joe knew this was his brother’s way of saying he was available to talk if Joe wanted to, but Joe didn’t want to. Instead, he bid Adam good night, and went upstairs to bed.
Joe lay awake for a long time that evening, trying not to feel sorry for himself, while thinking of all the dreams that had died when he’d lost his sight.
“Come on, Caleb. Let’s go. That was the breakfast bell.”
“I’m still dressing!”
“Well hurry! I’m not gonna be late for breakfast again ‘cause a’ you. Last time that happened, that ol’ weasel Cross gave me detention.”
“Then go on without me! See if I care, why don’t ya’.”
Caleb could tell the older boy had paused with indecision. Emil Sheen was the “sergeant at arms” of this room, meaning it was his job to make sure the daily rules were followed; like beds being made, clothes being folded and put in the dresser, the floor swept, and getting to breakfast on time. Caleb’s other roommates, a teenager named Hal Jenkins, and that stupid crybaby Billy Fitzgerald, had already left for the dining hall.
“Just go on!” Caleb yelled, when he couldn’t stand Emil’s silent presence any longer. “I don’t need you walkin’ me there anyway.”
“It’s my responsibility.”
“I don’t care about that. I don’t care about anything!”
“Don’t need to tell me. Pretty much figured it out the first day I met ya’.” Emil didn’t attempt to keep the disgust from his voice. “Fine. Have it your way. I’m not servin’ detention again ‘cause a’ the likes a’ you, that’s for darn sure.”
“Just go then!”
“Don’t worry, I am.” Emil stomped out of the room, muttering, “Loony kid,” as he headed for breakfast.
Caleb finished buttoning his shirt, though his state of undress didn’t really have anything to do with why he was running late. He was lagging behind on purpose, hoping a long-awaited opportunity would finally present itself.
The boy dropped to his knees beside his mattress. His was the lower bed of a wooden bunk bed set. Emil slept above him, with Hal sleeping on the upper bunk of the other bunk set in the room, Billy on the bed below him.
The beds reminded Caleb of the room he shared with his brothers at home. Matthew slept above Caleb, and Phillip slept above James. Caleb remembered when James was still too small for a bed, and slept in a cradle in Ma and Pa’s room. But James had grown quickly, like Mama said he would, and it seemed like in almost no time at all before he joined Caleb and the older boys in the “bunk house,” as Pa jokingly referred to their room.
“There’s no bunkhouse on a farm, Pa,” Caleb would say at those times. “Ranches have bunkhouses, not farms.”
Caleb’s father would laugh again and agree, while telling Caleb what a smart boy he was. Caleb didn’t know how he came to have all the knowledge that seemed to be stored in his head, ready for him to pick and choose it at will. Maybe he was smart because he’d always liked to read, or because sums came easy for him, or because he was a good speller, or because, unlike a lot of other boys his age, he liked school. Or at least he had liked school until his parents sent him to this stupid place. He didn’t need to be here. He’d told them that before they brought him. He told them he didn’t want to come, but they wouldn’t listen. He promised he’d earn his keep by doing the same chores on the farm that he’d done before the accident, but Ma had cried a little when he said that, and Pa had hugged him, and told Caleb that the school in Boston would teach him how to do those chores.
“But I don’t need anyone to teach me! I know how to do my chores! I been doin’ ‘em by myself since before James was born!”
However, when Caleb tried to prove that to his father, he fell over a milking stool, knocked over the pail of milk that Phillip had just gotten out of Susie, and somehow ended up face down in a pile of manure.
So, Caleb had ended up here, at this dumb school with all these blind kids. He wanted to be at his own school, the one just over the hill from his parents’ farm, where Miss Kennelworth taught. She was pretty, and she smelled pretty too – sweet, like the way a lilac bush smells when it blooms in the spring. Not like Mr. Cartwright; he smelled like men’s cologne. Caleb didn’t want a teacher who smelled like a man. He wanted a teacher who smelled like Miss Kennelworth. And besides, he was the one who was supposed to be in charge of James this year. James was going to school for the first time, and just like Matthew had been in charge of Phillip, and Phillip in charge of Caleb, it was Caleb’s turn to look out for a little brother and show him what school was all about. But they sent Caleb to Boston instead, and Phillip probably got to look out for James, or maybe Matthew, ‘cause he was the oldest.
It wasn’t right that one of them got to do Caleb’s job. It was an important job, too. Pa said so. But Pa seemed to forget that it was supposed to be Caleb’s responsibility to see that James made it to and from school safely, and learned where he should hang his coat, and what shelf his lunch bucket went on. Ever since Caleb and his best friend, George Fillmore, had played with those firecrackers, nothing had been the same. It wasn’t fair! George hadn’t been hurt when they went off – he’d hadn’t gotten so much as a scratch. Not that Caleb wanted George to be hurt. Ma would say a good Christian boy didn’t wish for bad things to happen to his friends.
Well, maybe a good Christian boy didn’t, but Caleb wasn’t even sure if he cared about being a Christian any more. Right after the accident happened, he’d prayed and prayed and prayed that God would give him his eyesight back. But so far, God hadn’t answered his prayers, and Caleb no longer believed you could call upon Him for all of your needs, as Mama often told Caleb and his brothers was the case.
Footsteps coming down the hall caused Caleb to sweep his hands under his mattress. He smiled when he encountered what he’d smuggled from his winter coat pockets into his suitcase before leaving home. These would sure make a jim-dandy noise in class today. Billy would cry for his mother again for days on end.
Caleb stuffed his treasures in the pockets of his woolen trousers, just as someone stepped in the room.
“Ah, Caleb lad, there yeh are,” Mr. Murphy said. “Glad to see yer sayin’ yer prayers. Now finish up, and let’s hurry on to breakfast. There’s barely ‘nough time left to eat a’fore classes get underway.”
Caleb stayed on his knees a few seconds longer, pretending to do the activity Mr. Murphy mistakenly thought he was engaged in. He mumbled, “Amen,” for good measure, then stood. He didn’t even pull away when Mr. Murphy laid a hand on his back and urged, “Come along, lad.”
Had Caleb’s mother been present, she would have realized what her son was up to, because in some instances, for reasons known only to God, little boys don’t always learn their lesson the first time.
Joe winced, trying to fight off the throbbing pressure building behind his eyes. At least in this roomful of blind boys, he had no worries that anyone would notice he was in pain.
As Joe stood beside the desk of seven-year-old Jacob McGregory, helping the boy do a few simple sums, he struggled to keep his concentration focused on the child. He realized now that he should have told Adam he wasn’t feeling well, and stayed home. But Joe wasn’t one to shirk his responsibilities. When he was younger, playing hooky every so often from his ranch duties wasn’t beneath Joe, but with age comes maturity. Or so he’d often overheard Pa assure Adam would eventually happen where Joe’s occasional waywardness was concerned. Currently, maybe Joe was letting his maturity and dedication to his job override his common sense. Or, more likely than that, Joe hadn’t wanted to tell Adam he was under the weather, because he didn’t want Adam taking him to a doctor.
So Joe had toughed it out through breakfast with his brother, and then on the walk to school, never giving Adam any indication that this headache had been brewing since the previous evening. They’d parted ways once they reached Adam’s office, Shakespeare continuing up the four flights of stairs with Joe. The dog now lay beside Joe’s desk, ready to guide him from the classroom if needed, or play outside with the boys.
Joe winced again, massaging his temples while requesting that Jacob repeat the question he’d just asked. He grabbed Jacob’s desk as a wave of dizziness swayed him back and forth. The animated chatter coming from the older boys, who were gathered around Henry’s desk plotting a wagon train route from Boston to Virginia City on a Braille map, grew distant and fuzzy. The younger boys went about working their sums quietly as they’d been instructed to do, or so Joe assumed was the case. The teeth-clenching pain was making it so hard for him to concentrate, that the little boys could have been dancing on their desktops while singing “Oh Susanna” for all Joe knew.
“Do the best you can on your own, Jake,” Joe mumbled to his student. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Just make it to your desk, Joe told himself as he walked on weak legs toward the front of the room. Make it to your desk and sit down. You’ll be okay in a little while. The pain’ll get worse yet, then it’ll pass. It always does.
For just a brief second, the black curtain that had been pulled over Joe’s eyes ever since the day Charlie’s shack exploded was lifted. Or at least it seemed that way to Joe, when suddenly, his world was a foggy, out-of-focus murky gray. Before Joe could figure out if this alteration was real, or a product of his imagination, or the result of a pain-addled brain, a mighty succession of “Bang! Bang! Bang’s!” resounded from the back of the room.
Joe dived for the floor as children screamed and Shakespeare barked.
“Get down! Get down!” Joe yelled. “Get under your desks!” he ordered, as the explosions continued.
The eruptions were over with almost as quickly as they’d started. However, when you’re blind and lying on the floor praying to God someone wasn’t standing in your classroom doorway taking potshots at your students with a gun, the situation seems to go on forever. But when the room was finally quiet again, other than the sound of Billy Fitzgerald’s wails for his mother, Joe came to a very quick conclusion based on the smell of burned fuses. His headache forgotten for the moment, Joe jumped to his feet, demanding, “Who shot off those firecrackers?”
A smattering of, “Not me, Mr. Cartwright,” came from the teenagers huddled beneath Henry’s desk. They all sounded sincere to Joe, and plenty scared, as though they feared they’d be blamed for something they hadn’t done. Six weeks ago, Joe wouldn’t have believed them, but now he had no reason to doubt their honesty. Which left just one culprit on Joe’s list.
A defiant, “What?” told Joe his suspicions were accurate.
“You’ll make things easier on yourself if you tell me the truth.”
“I wasn’t gonna lie anyway. It was me who did it. So whatta’ ya’ gonna do about it? Make me write sentences?”
Joe advanced toward the boy, doing his best to keep his temper in check. He had yet to send any of his students to Adam’s office for a paddling, so stood there in silent debate with himself, wondering if that’s exactly what Caleb needed. Considering the danger the boy had just thrust upon his classmates with this latest prank, Joe was tempted to turn the kid over his own knee and give him a few whacks, before passing him on to Adam for more of the same treatment.
“You know, Caleb, when I was a kid, behavior like this in a schoolroom – endangering my teacher and my classmates the way you just did – would have earned me a trip to the woodshed.”
“I don’t care. Besides, you can’t give me a lickin’, only the headmaster can.”
“Then maybe you and I need to take a walk to his office.”
“Fine with me! Go ahead and tell him what I did! He can give me a lickin,’ and then send me home.”
It was with those words that Joe fully understood the reason behind Caleb’s surly attitude and frequent misbehavior. While Joe had known Caleb was in denial about his loss of sight, he hadn’t realized the kid was bucking for a one-way ticket back to the Pennsylvania farmhouse he’d been born and raised in.
Joe abruptly changed his stance on the form of punishment Caleb needed.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I said I don’t think so.”
“What’s that supposed ta’ mean?”
“It means you won’t be going to the headmaster’s office after all.”
“That’s not fair, Mr. Cartwright! If me, or Tony, or Pete, or John had just done what that stupid kid--”
“Be quiet, Henry.”
“But, Mr. Cart--”
“Henry, I said be quiet. I’ll handle the discipline in this room the way I see fit.”
“No!” Caleb screamed. “No! I wanna go to the headmaster’s office! Take me there! Tell him what I did! Tell him!”
“I’m the teacher here, Caleb, not you. I don’t have to tell the headmaster anything I don’t want to.”
“Yes you do! You do! You do!”
The boy launched himself from his desk. Joe heard the movement, but Caleb was too quick for him. Before Joe could jump out of the way, the boy was on him like a frenzied bobcat, clawing, biting, and unlike a bobcat, throwing punches in a whirl of flying fists Joe couldn’t get under control.
The boy’s unexpected weight threw Joe off balance. He fell backwards, slamming his head against the floor with a “thunk!” The other boys rushed to Joe’s aid, which only made matters worse instead of better. As Shakespeare darted around the room franticly barking, as though trying to summon help, Joe ended up on the bottom of a suffocating pile of tangled arms and legs. Boys’ frenzied shouts and cries, and in the case of Billy Fitzgerald, screams of terror, punctuated the air.
Joe tried to fight his way out from under the kids, tried to order them to stop, but it was like a mob gone out of control. If their original intention had been to pull Caleb off of him, it had quickly changed to beating Caleb up, and in the process, accidentally hitting each other, and Joe, as well.
Joe wasn’t sure how long the free-for-all went on before he heard a shout over all the noise.
“What’s going on in here?”
No one answered the headmaster. The boys were too caught up in their brawl to even take notice of his presence, and Joe was barely able to get any air beneath the weight of their bodies, let alone give his brother any kind of response.
Soon, the burden on Joe began to lessen, as boys were plucked from the pile by some of the building’s caretakers and Mr. Murphy, who had either been summoned by the noise, or by Adam, Joe wasn’t sure which. He could have sworn he heard Elias Cross snickering somewhere by the door. He pictured the yellow-bellied snake being the first one to run to Adam to report the disturbance, but the last one willing to offer a hand when it came to breaking up the brawl.
A hand finally grasped Joe’s arm and pulled him to his feet.
“What happened here, Joe?” Adam demanded over the cacophony of young voices offering explanations and accusations to the adults in the room. “Who started this?”
Joe swiped at the blood running from a corner of his mouth. “No one.”
Adam squeezed Joe’s arm. “I don’t believe I heard you correctly.”
“You did. We were. . .we were goofing around, and things got outta hand.”
“Adam, not here.”
Adam started to say something, but then squelched it, instead letting his aggravation come forth in the form of a sigh.
“Come on. We’re going to my office.”
Joe squeezed his eyes shut against the renewed pain pounding between his temples, but said nothing about it to his brother. Adam paused just long enough to ask Mr. Murphy and Laddie, who’d been drawn from her room by the noise, to take charge of Joe’s students, and get any boys who needed medical care to the nurse’s office. Adam also asked Mr. Murphy to look after Shakespeare for the time being, to which Mr. Murphy responded, “Be ‘appy to keep me eye on ‘im, Headmaster.”
And so, when someone was finally marched to the headmaster’s office that morning, it wasn’t Caleb Geers, but instead, Joseph Cartwright.
Joe steeled himself not to jerk away from Adam again, as a handkerchief soaked with some kind of liniment that stung like the dickens was dabbed against the cut on his mouth.
“There.” Adam returned the liniment bottle to a bottom desk drawer, then folded his blood-speckled handkerchief. He put it in his suit coat pocket, planning to deposit it in the laundry bin when he arrived home. “That’s about as patched up as I can get you. Lucky for you, where you and patching up are concerned, I’ve had years of practice. Now, about that explanation you promised me on the way down here. . . .”
Joe sat in a chair beside Adam’s desk. He propped an elbow on the desktop and rested his head in his hand, which was the only way the pain allowed him to remain upright.
“I already told you,” Joe said quietly, because to talk with any kind of volume only made his head throb with more intensity, “we were goofing around and things got outta hand.”
“And I already told you, that I don’t believe a word of it. Unless you were goofing around with firecrackers, that is.”
Joe brought his head out of his hand, “looking” up at his brother. “Does that sissy Cross have anything better to do than tattle?”
“Apparently not. Now what went on, Joe? There’s no point in protecting whichever boy started this. I’ll find out who it was soon enough. The other kids won’t keep it a secret for long.”
“Well. . .?”
“I can handle it on my own, Adam.”
“I don’t doubt that you can, but as the headmaster of this institution, it’s my responsibility to step in and discipline a child if his behavior has endangered other students. In this case, neither of us can deny that’s what’s happened. Aside from the firecrackers, there’s the little matter of the brawl that ensued afterwards.”
“The kids were just trying to help me.”
“Help you? You’ve got a black eye, a goose egg on the back of your head, and a split lip. That’s their idea of help? And why’d you need help, anyway?”
When Joe refused to answer, Adam took an educated guess.
“One of the boys attacked you, is that it?”
Joe gave a reluctant nod of his head, though just that slight movement made him vow not to repeat the action.
“The same one who blew off the firecrackers,” Adam deduced.
“Yeah,” Joe confessed, all the while hating himself for what he considered his failure with Caleb, “the same one.”
“Which boy, Joe?”
Had Joe been feeling better, he’d have held out a little longer before revealing the child’s name. He might have even been able to convince Adam to let him handle the situation without interference. But his headache was rapidly escalating once again, making coherent thought difficult, let alone the ability to employ stubborn resistance. On the heels of a sigh wrought with weariness and regret, Joe told his brother the boy’s name.
“All right.” Disappointment filled Adam’s voice. “I have no choice but to paddle him, and then send him home for good.”
“That’s exactly what he wants – on both accounts.”
“Then it appears he’ll get his wish.”
“Boy, Adam, you didn’t learn
anything from Pa, did you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You don’t punish a kid by making the punishment exactly what he’s hoping for.”
“And you have another suggestion?”
“Not yet, but give me some time and I might.”
“Joe, the boy put you and every student in your room in danger. His behavior instigated a brawl that could have left someone seriously injured, or even dead! As it is, you’re not exactly looking robust yourself right now. Maybe I should take you to the nurse’s office.”
Joe ignored the latter half of Adam’s sentence.
“I know what Caleb did, and I know what could have happened. But don’t you see, he wants to go home. He wants to do something that’ll get him sent home so he doesn’t have to try. So he doesn’t have to admit he’s blind, and needs help.”
“Then I’d say he’s accomplished just that.”
“Joe, I have a list of children waiting for the opportunity to attend this school. I can’t justify keeping one child who doesn’t want to learn, when I have fifty more desperate to be here. Besides, once the school board hears about this, and trust me, Elias will see to it that they do, they’ll demand that I remove Caleb.”
“You make it sound like he’s a horse we no longer have a use for.”
“That’s not how I mean for it to sound, but--”
“I can get through to this boy if you’ll just give me a chance.”
“I have been giving you a chance!” Adam turned away from his brother to pace the floor in frustration. He didn’t like the thought of Caleb being expelled from the institute any more than Joe did, but he was the headmaster, and in the end, these types of decisions fell in his lap. “For weeks now, I’ve been giving you chance after chance after chance with Caleb. But when his misbehavior reaches the point that it puts others in danger and--”
“Adam--” Joe interrupted, his brow furrowed as he tried to concentrate on verbalizing his suddenly muddled thoughts. “Ad. . .Adam--”
“Look, Joe,” Adam said from where he now stood by the window, absently looking out at two of the groundskeepers raking leaves, “I understand that you don’t want to give up on Caleb, and I commend you for it, but--”
“No. . .no. . .I. . .Adam, I-I think. . .I think I need a doctor.”
Adam whirled around. “What?”
Joe half-stood from the chair, his hands groping blindly in front of him as though he was searching for his brother.
“Ad. . .Adam?”
“I’m right here, Joe,” Adam assured, grasping his brother’s right arm. “I’m right here. Come on, let me help you sit back down.”
“No. . .no. . .flo-floor.”
“You want me to help you to the floor? Do you need to lie down?”
Adam took Joe’s barely audible, “huh” to be a yes. Joe’s weight slumped heavy and pliant against Adam’s chest as his legs gave out from under him.
“Joe, stay with me.” Adam eased Joe to the floor. “Come on, stay with me, Little Joe.”
Adam turned his brother on his right side, so if Joe vomited he wouldn’t swallow any of it. He knelt beside Joe, crouching close to his face while brushing a tangle of salt and pepper curls away from his brow.
“Joe, what’s wrong? You need to tell me what’s wrong.”
Joe grimaced with agony. “Head. . .head. . .head--”
“Headache? You’ve got a headache?”
Adam’s fingers lightly probed the bump on the back of Joe’s head.
“No. . .no,” Joe said, trying to give Adam more information. “No. . .had it. . .had las-last night.”
“You’ve had the headache since last night?”
Joe gave a nod so slight Adam almost didn’t see it.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Thought. . .thought it’d go. . .go away.”
Adam kept his tone light – more teasing than scolding, though there was an element of both behind his words.
“By the looks of things, little brother, you thought wrong.”
Footsteps sounded outside Adam’s office. He craned his head, looking through the doorway to see one of the caretakers passing by.
“Ray! Hey, Ray!”
The man stopped when he heard Adam call his name. He turned around, barely getting to the office doorway before Adam ordered, “Send someone for Dr. Nichols. Then come back and help me get my brother to the infirmary.”
Hiram Nichols was Adam’s personal physician, and served as the physician for the institute’s pupils when needed. His office was just three blocks north of the school.
“No. . .” Joe whispered, clutching Adam’s sleeve. “No. Don-don’t mo-move me, please. Don’t. . .move. . .”
“Okay, Joe,” Adam soothed, sliding his brother’s upper body onto his lap. “Okay. If you don’t want to be moved, we won’t move you.”
Adam’s attention returned to the caretaker. “Ray, hurry and do as I asked! Send someone for the doctor. Then go to the infirmary, get a blanket, a pillow, and bring one of the nurses back here with you.”
“Right away, Headmaster.”
The man’s eyes darted briefly to Joe, who was now withering against his brother’s chest with his hands pressed to either side of his head.
“What’s wrong with ‘im, Sir?”
“I don’t know. Now go!
Ray’s pounding boot steps echoed off the hallway walls as he raced to do Adam’s bidding.
Left alone with Joe now, Adam struggled to keep him from rolling into the desk.
“Joe. . .Joe! Lie still! Joe, lie still.”
“Hurts,” Joe confessed, squeezing his eyes shut against the agony that felt like his brain was being clawed from his skull. “Hurts.”
“I know it does.” While cradling Joe against his chest with his knees, Adam used his thumb and forefinger to massage Joe’s temples. “Just try and take deep breaths. Deep breaths, Joe. A doctor’s on the way. He’ll be here soon.”
“Don’t apologize. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“Should tol-told you.”
“Told me what?”
“That I. . .I wasn’t fee-feeling good.”
“That’s water under the bridge now. Just stay quiet, okay?”
Joe ignored his brother’s directive. “Did-didn’t wan-wanna miss work.
Boys. . .boys depend-depending on me.”
“And that’s why you need to stay quiet and still, so you can be back in class with them as soon as possible.”
Joe suddenly cried out, arching his back against the pain. Adam was sure his brother was going to die, but could do nothing other than hold Joe close while promising everything would be all right.
It had been a long time since Adam Cartwright thought about the vast distance that separated Boston from the Ponderosa, but right then, when he felt it was urgent that his father and Hoss be at Joe’s side too, that distance spanning 2,500 miles seemed tragically insurmountable.
Adam rolled his head from side to side, working the kinks from his neck and shoulders. He’d sat in this chair beside Joe’s bed for too long now. He’d caught just a few hours of sleep the previous evening, when Laddie stopped by after supper and insisted Adam get some rest while she remained with Joe.
“He probably won’t wake up until morning,” Adam told her. “Hiram had to give him several doses of laudanum before the pain finally eased.”
“Then just that much more reason for you to get some rest. Joe won’t wake up, so all will be well.”
“If he does--”
“If he does, I’ll come and get you. I don’t think Joe would appreciate finding a woman in his room when he wakes.”
Adam had chuckled at that remark. “Well, under other circumstances, I wouldn’t exactly say that, but given he’s set on being related to you through marriage – though not a marriage between the two of you – he might be slightly embarrassed to find you here.”
“Even though I can’t actually see him in his nightshirt.”
Adam laughed again. Bless this woman for all she brought to his life.
“Yes, even though you can’t actually see him, once he got to feeling better, he’d probably give me an earful in the way only Joe Cartwright is prone to doing.”
“And he will get to feeling better soon,” Laddie assured.
“For now, anyway,” was all Adam had said in return, because “for now” meant that the laudanum had put Joe into a deep sleep, thus making him oblivious to any pain. But as Dr. Nichols had told Adam, it wasn’t a cure for the headaches by any means, nor could it be used on a regular basis as a way to control the pain because of its addictive properties.
“Take him to see Rick,” the man advised Adam, referring to Dr. Richard Warren, the eye specialist who consulted for the institute. “I don’t know what conclusions he might come to, but his knowledge in the area of residual pain as related to eye injuries is far superior to mine.”
So, while had Joe slept on a cot in the school’s infirmary, Adam wrote a note to Dr. Warren, briefly explaining his brother’s situation, and asking to set up an appointment for Joe as soon as possible. He sent Ray to deliver the note, then took Hiram up on his offer to assist with getting Joe in a carriage.
Joe never woke up as he was transferred from the infirmary to the carriage, where they sat him in a half-reclining position against Adam. Adam thanked the doctor, assuring the man he wouldn’t need further assistance when it came to getting Joe into the house, because the stable boy driving the carriage could give Adam whatever help he needed.
While Joe slept the afternoon and evening hours away in his own bed, Adam sat in a chair beside him. He left Joe’s room only long enough to eat the lunch Mrs. O’Connell prepared for him, and then again, when Ray arrived later that afternoon. The caretaker had brought Shakespeare home, along with a note from Dr. Warren that stated Adam should bring Joe to his office at nine on Monday morning. Adam asked Ray to make sure a driver and carriage were waiting outside of his home at eight-thirty on Monday. Ray nodded.
“Yes, Sir. I’ll deliver the message soon as I git back to the school.”
Adam then gave the man a handsome tip for all of his assistance that day, and wouldn’t consider taking it back, even when Ray tried to stuff the money into his hand.
It wasn’t until Laddie came over and insisted Adam get some rest; that the headmaster left his brother for any great length of time.
Now night had passed to morning, and Laddie had gone home hours ago. Joe slept on undisturbed, showing no signs that pain of any sort was interrupting his slumber.
Adam spent a few minutes in the lavatory cleaning up and shaving, then ate breakfast in Joe’s room. His concern at leaving Joe alone stemmed from not wanting his brother to wake up disoriented and perhaps stumble down the stairs. Adam knew from personal experience that the mind-numbing effects of laudanum could last a few hours after the patient awoke, making the world around him seem tilted and out-of-focus. These last two characteristics of the drug prevailed whether you were sighted or not, which Joe proved when he finally began to wake up shortly after ten a.m.
As Joe stirred and mumbled something incoherent, Adam placed his hand on his brother’s arm.
Joe turned toward his brother’s voice, his face scrunched with confusion.
“Joe, it’s Adam.”
Joe rose on his elbows. “Adam?”
A smile twitched at the corners of Adam’s mouth. Dryly, he intoned, “Your brother.”
This time Joe’s, “Adam?” sounded like he was trying to figure out what his oldest brother was doing sitting beside him.
“You’re home, Joe.”
“No, not at that home,” Adam said with chuckle. “At my home in Boston.”
Joe sunk back to his pillow, his sightless eyes focused on the ceiling. His words were thick, as though his tongue was too big for his mouth. Again, another side-affect of laudanum that Adam was familiar with.
“I feel like I’ve been on one very long, strange trip.”
“I understand completely. And
you’ll probably feel that way for a couple of hours yet. But you’re fine. You’re in your room at my
house on Beacon Hill. Sound familiar?”
Joe nodded. “For a minute there, I think I lost a few months, but
it’s starting to come back to me.” Joe
turned his face toward his brother again.
“What time is it?”
“A couple of minutes after ten in the morning.”
Joe shot up. “After ten! I’m late for school! Why’d you let me sleep--”
Adam gently pushed his brother back to the mattress. “While you can’t imagine how amusing I find it that you’re concerned about being late for school, just relax. It’s Saturday.”
“At just about this time yesterday morning, you were in my office getting patched up after--”
“You don’t need to remind me. Unfortunately, it’s all coming back in vivid detail.”
Joe sat up on his elbows again. Adam propped his pillows behind him.
“There, you can lean back now.”
“Thanks.” Joe did as his brother encouraged, sinking into the three fluffy pillows propped between his shoulders and the bed’s headboard. “How’d I get here, anyway?”
Adam explained the events that took place from the time the headache had overtaken Joe in his office, until Joe woke up just a few minutes earlier. The only detail he left out was Laddie sitting by Joe’s bedside for several hours.
“What about my boys?”
“What about them?”
“Is everyone okay?”
“Other than a few scrapes and bruises, everyone’s fine. They’re pretty worried about you, but Laddie did a good job of calming their fears.”
“Worried about me? Why?”
“Henry and John were still in the infirmary being tended to when we carried you down there. As soon as they were released, they spread the word to the other boys.”
“Caleb’s fine too, though in Mr. Murphy’s protective custody for the time being.”
“Between the firecrackers, the way he attacked you, and then everything culminating with your headache, Caleb’s not exactly what I’d call popular with his classmates at the moment.”
“First of all, he didn’t attack me. He’s ten years old, for cryin’ out loud.”
“Tell that to your black eye.”
“And second of all,” Joe went on as though his brother hadn’t spoken, “Caleb’s behavior had nothing to do with my headache.”
“I know, but try convincing a few headstrong teenagers of that. Either way, don’t fret over it for right now. Mr. Murphy’s keeping a close eye on Caleb, and as for the other boys, you can explain the situation to them when you return to school on Tuesday.
“You have an appointment with Dr. Warren on Monday.”
“I thought your doctor’s name was Nichols.”
“It is, and like I already told you, he saw you at the school yesterday. He’s the one who provided you with the nice night-night drug.”
“Ah. Powerful stuff.”
“Laudanum usually is. Unfortunately, Hiram – Dr. Nichols – doesn’t feel as though he’s qualified to determine the source of your headaches, so he wants you to see an eye specialist.”
“This Dr. Warren you mentioned?”
“Yes. He’s the consultant for the institute. He can see you at nine on Monday morning.”
“What about my class?”
“Laddie’ll cover for you.”
“But she’s got her own class.”
“Mr. Murphy’s going to help her. It’s only one day. Things’ll be fine.”
“Half a day.”
“If my appointment’s at nine, I can go to school after this Dr. Warren is done with me.”
“Let’s wait and see how you’re feeling on Monday.”
“I’ll feel fine.”
“I’ll feel fine, Adam. As a matter of fact, I feel fine now, other than things being a little muddled.”
“Which is the normal state of your brain.”
“Then I don’t suppose either of us has anything to worry about, do we?”
Adam shook his head in exasperation. You’d think he’d know by now that arguing with his youngest brother was like trying to push a stubborn steer up a ravine. All you got for your efforts were sore arms, muddy boots, and a string of cuss words flying from your mouth that you wouldn’t want your minister to overhear.
“Speaking of things to worry about,” Adam said, “I’ve got a question for you.”
“How angry will I be when I find out how many headaches you’ve had in recent weeks that you haven’t mentioned to me?”
Joe’s eyes cast downward, as if focusing on his covers. Adam held back his laughter over the way Joe could still look like a nine-year-old doing his best to weasel out of trouble – something Joe’d had plenty of practice at.
“Uh. . .I’d say pretty angry, so maybe you’d better not ask.”
“I’ll take your advice where that’s concerned then.”
“I just want you to know, though, that you gave me one hell of a scare.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. By the time I realized that I should have told you about the headache and stayed home from work, Caleb’s fireworks were going off, and from
there. . .well, you know the rest of the story.”
“I certainly do.” Adam stood from his chair. “All right, let’s put it behind us for now. Just promise me that you’ll tell Dr. Warren the complete truth – number of headaches, frequency, intensity, and anything else he needs to know – when you see him on Monday.”
“Okay. I’ll take your word for it. In the meantime, do you want some breakfast?”
“Sure. I feel like I could eat yours and mine both.”
“That’ll make Mrs. O’Connell happy. She’s anxiously waiting for her “Joseph” to wake up. I think she’s got everything from pancakes, to scrambled eggs, to bacon, to toast, to blueberry muffins, in the warmer.”
“I won’t turn down a breakfast like that. Especially since I missed lunch and supper.”
“I’ll bring you up a tray.”
Joe reached out and grabbed Adam’s arm. “No. I’ll get dressed and go downstairs.”
“Are you sure you feel up to it?”
“I will after you help me make a trip to the water closet. I’d like to clean up, shave, and get dressed. Then maybe eating breakfast on the back porch will clear the rest of the cobwebs from my head.”
Adam agreed. “It just might.”
It was a bright, sunny, mid-October day. The kind where the sky was so blue and clear that it looked like you could reach up and touch it. Though the air temperature was on the cool side, it wasn’t prohibitive to breakfasting on the veranda if one wore a jacket. Adam had used this method of fresh, brisk air to clear his head of laudanum more than once back when he first lost his arm.
Adam tossed the bedcovers off Joe’s legs and helped his brother stand. As he’d expected, Joe was a little shaky on his feet, but it wasn’t anything a good meal wouldn’t cure.
“Is your head okay?” Adam asked as they walked to the lavatory.
“None at all.”
Adam stood outside the lavatory as Joe went about his personal business, entering after he heard the toilet flush and water running at the sink. He waited while Joe shaved, brushed his teeth, and tamed his tangled curls with a comb and a little bit of hair tonic, then offered a steadying hand once again as they walked back to Joe’s bedroom.
Adam remained nearby as Joe dressed, but didn’t interfere and offer help since Joe didn’t ask for any.
As Joe tucked his shirt into the waistband of his gray trousers, he said, “Adam, can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Don’t do anything about Caleb until I’m back at work.”
“Joe, I can’t make a promise like that. The school board--”
“Please, Adam. Please just hold off until I’m there. You said yourself I can probably be back on Tuesday at the latest.”
“I said we’d wait and see how you feel.”
“I’ll feel fine.”
“Look, I know I’m trying your patience where Caleb is concerned, but all I’m asking is that you give me the next couple of days to think things out. Maybe I can still come up with a way to get through to him.”
“Joe. . .”
Joe turned to face his brother. “I know I’m asking a lot of you, and it’s not my intention to jeopardize your job in any way. If whatever I come up with doesn’t work, you can tell the school board that I asked you to delay Caleb’s dismissal. You can tell them I’m the one who should be fired, not you.”
“I’m not going to tell them that!”
“Well, it’s a lot better than the alternative, don’t you think?”
Adam thought a moment, then sighed as he gave in to his brother.
“I’m in good enough graces with the board members, that I don’t think we have to worry about either one of us losing our jobs if we don’t act immediately where Caleb is concerned. They’ll likely be willing to give me through this coming week to either get that boy on the right track, or send him home to his parents.”
Joe grinned as he pulled on his tan boots. “Thanks, Adam.”
Adam held up an ominous finger, despite the fact that Joe couldn’t see it.
“But I’m warning you, Little Joe, you get one, and I do mean just one, more chance with Caleb. If whatever you come up with doesn’t work, he’s gone.”
“No arguing with me at all if I’m putting him on a train before the month is out?”
“No. No arguing.”
“All right. I’ll hold you to that.”
“You can. I promise.”
“Okay. Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s get you downstairs for breakfast. Grab your green jacket out of the closet. The sun’s shining, but it’s chilly.”
Joe did as Adam instructed. He shrugged into the jacket, then willingly took hold of Adam’s arm when it was offered to him.
As they walked down the hall toward
the backstairs, Joe asked, “Oh, by the way, since when did you start calling me
Little Joe again?”
“Um. . .rather recently it would seem,” Adam said, thinking back to the previous day in his office when Joe was felled by his headache. “Why? Does it bother you?”
“I guess not, as long as you don’t slip up and say it in front of my students. . .or Laddie, or her family, or any of the staff at school, or heaven forbid, Mrs. O’Connell. I don’t think I can take being called “Little Joseph” for more than about one day.”
“Like Miss Jones used to do?”
“Don’t remind me. I always hated that.”
“You seem to enjoy reminding me of Miss Jones.”
“Yeah, and it’s a lot more fun that way, rather than the reverse.”
“All right, I’ll do my best not to call you Little Joe in front of anyone.”
That was a promise Adam kept as he ate his second breakfast of the day, a muffin and a cup of coffee, while Joe polished off everything Mrs. O’Connell sat in front of him. When Joe was done he wanted to take a walk in an effort to chase away the remnants of drowsiness as caused by the drug he’d been given. Adam obliged, putting Shakespeare on his leash, and then walking beside his brother and the dog as they took a stroll around the neighborhood.
When they returned home, Adam retreated to his office, where he had mail to open and paperwork to complete. Joe retreated to the parlor, sitting in front of the fire burning in the fireplace. Adam quietly checked on his brother several times throughout the late morning hours and into the early afternoon, stepping from his office and looking through the dining room. Joe seemed fine, though lost in thought, which Adam surmised meant that his brother was trying to figure out a way to help Caleb.
Adam considered telling his sibling that until Caleb was willing to accept help, there wasn’t much that Joe, or anyone else could do for the boy. But Adam knew Joe already realized this, so he left his little brother alone, hoping Joe would find some kind of comfort – and maybe even an answer or two – in the flickering flames of the crackling fire he couldn’t see.
Joe was quiet on the ride to the institute Monday morning. His appointment with Dr. Warren had lasted an hour. When the visit drew to a close with the doctor saying Joe could return to work whenever he felt ready to do so, Joe knew any argument Adam wanted to initiate about him needing to rest at home for the remainder of the day had just died a quick death.
Adam asked Joe on the carriage ride to school if he was all right. Joe gave a brief, “Yeah, I’m fine,” which Adam accepted without further question. More than likely, he understood that while they were in the presence of the stable boy driving the carriage, Joe didn’t want to discuss the details of his doctor’s visit. Once they reached the institute, however, Adam wouldn’t let the discussion be put off any longer. He didn’t allow Joe to escape to his classroom, but instead insisted, “Come on, let’s go to my office for a few minutes.”
“But my boys--”
“Your boys will wait. Between Laddie and Mr. Murphy, they’re in capable hands. You can join them in a little while.”
Joe walked beside his brother to the headmaster’s office. He heard the door shut behind him and allowed Adam to lead him to a chair. As near as Joe had been able to discern the first time Adam had given him a tour of this space, the office was as simple and plain as the rest of the school. Any elegance normally reserved for the headmaster of a private institution, Adam hadn’t afforded himself because of the school’s tight budget. The items that decorated the room had been brought from home by Adam, or purchased with his own money. Like the comfortable, overstuffed chair Joe was sitting in now beside the fireplace hearth; its twin set at the same angle a few feet away.
“Let me get a fire started, then we’ll talk.”
“There’s not much to talk about.”
For the moment, Adam didn’t push Joe into further conversation. Joe heard him moving about, adding kindling and newspapers to the cold logs in the fireplace, and then striking a match. Burning paper crackled and spit, sounds that grew louder as the kindling, and then the logs, caught on fire.
By the proximity of Adam’s voice, Joe realized his brother had now sat in the chair beside his.
“So, what do you think?”
“About what?” Joe asked.
“Rick’s proposal of surgery.”
“If you wanna know the truth, I don’t think much of it at all.”
“It might give you a chance to see again.”
“Adam, a chance so low that he couldn’t even quote me odds or percentages doesn’t seem like much of a chance from where I’m sitting.”
“I know, but--”
“He doesn’t know if it’ll help me. He admitted that when it comes to restoring my eyesight, it’s a long shot. A real long shot. I’m not exactly fond of the thought of having my skull sliced open for. . .what kind of surgery did he call it?”
“Yeah. Exploratory. Exploratory surgery that could leave me with more problems than I’ve already got.”
When Adam didn’t respond, Joe knew his brother couldn’t argue with anything that was just said. Dr. Warren had told them the headaches could stem from numerous causes. They might be a leftover side-affect of the concussion Joe had suffered in the blast, in which case, surgery wouldn’t make them go away. The doctor said some patients suffered severe headaches on and off for the rest of their lives as a result of a concussion, while for others, it was a relatively short-lived experience. If the concussion was, in fact, the cause of Joe’s headaches, Dr. Warren couldn’t predict how long Joe might be bothered by them.
“If that’s the case, Joe,” the man had said, “you just may have to learn to live with them.”
That hadn’t sounded like such a good bargain to Joe, until Dr. Warren started talking about the possibility of a cancerous brain tumor. Joe knew enough about cancer to know it was a death sentence, and not a pleasant death, either. Unfortunately, the only way this could be determined was through that exploratory surgery the doctor mentioned, which would have to be performed by a surgeon Dr. Warren knew who taught at Harvard Medical School.
“There are a couple of other possibilities, as well. Either of which I’m strongly inclined to believe are the root of your headaches, considering you told me that on Friday you briefly saw gray, foggy images.”
“I said I think that’s what I saw. I wasn’t far from passing out from the pain at that point, so I might have been imagining it.”
“You might have been,” the doctor agreed, “but you might not have been, either.”
“What do you mean by that, Rick?” Adam had asked. He’d been in the examination room upon the advice of Dr. Warren, who said it was always beneficial for the patient to have an extra pair of ears present to hear what was discussed. The doctor claimed the final decision-making process was easier for the patient if he had someone to turn to he could trust for sound advice. Joe figured when it came to sound advice, Adam was about the most trustworthy source he could think of, so he didn’t object to his brother’s presence.
“What I mean is, although it’s rare, eyesight can return even many months after an injury like Joe has suffered. Seeing shadows and gray, murky images like Joe described, is one of the first signs of sight a patient will have.”
Adam grew far more excited about this prospect than Joe. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, so he allowed Adam to question the doctor further.
“Then what are these possibilities you mentioned?”
“Joe could be dealing with swelling of the optic nerves. That in and of itself shouldn’t cause the severe headaches, but such inflammation can compress other nerves nearby, which could then result in the pain he’s enduring. Or, and this is far more life-threatening, he could have a blood clot behind the eyes as a result of the head injury he suffered in the explosion.”
“A blood clot?” Adam questioned, in a tone that told Joe his brother didn’t realize a man could live for months with a blood clot floating around in his head. But then, Joe hadn’t realized it, either.
“Yes. Blood clots can be very painful. And again, given that Joe thought he had some minor return of eyesight on Friday, that could be an indication that the blood clot was moving. You see, a clot lodged behind the eyes can cause blindness.”
“Which means if it can be removed through surgery Joe might be able to see again?”
“That’s what it means, though such surgery is very new to the medical community – so new, it’s still experimental in nature – and the failure rate far exceeds the success rate at this point.”
Joe joined the conversation again. “If it is a blood clot, will it go away on its own?”
“In rare cases, blood clots do spontaneously dissolve. So yes, Joe, it’s a possibility. But I can’t quote you odds. To say living with a blood clot is dangerous is a gross understatement of the facts.”
“I’ll take your word on that, but I don’t think this surgery you talked about sounds like a great alternative.”
“I didn’t say it was a great alternative. It is, however, something for you to give consideration to.”
That’s when Adam asked about the potential dangers of the surgery. Joe wasn’t too fond of the answer he heard, since those dangers ranged from paralysis, to personality change, to being left an imbecile, to death from infection, blood loss, or numerous other reasons doctors had yet to be able to define.
“I think I’m better off with the headaches,” he half-joked after Dr. Warren finished his litany.
“Only you can decide that,” the man conceded. He even refused to give Adam an answer when Adam asked, “Rick, if Joe were your brother, what would you advise him to do?”
“As I just told Joe, only he can decide.”
Joe took that to mean that the odds of him surviving surgery unscathed were slim to none. Of course, the headaches might kill him if a blood clot was involved, but as far as Joe was concerned, that was better than being left in an infantile state that meant his family would have to take care of him for the rest of his life. Drooling, spitting up his food, and wearing diapers, had been fine when he was six months old. But a man about to turn thirty didn’t want to face that kind of future.
Adam now interrupted Joe’s thoughts regarding the doctor visit, bringing him back to the present.
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“As long as you don’t expect me to agree with you, sure.”
Joe heard the smile in his brother’s voice.
“I don’t expect you to agree with me, but I have a feeling that this time you will.”
“All right. In that case, tell me what you think.”
“I think you should hold off on making any decision until Pa and Hoss get here. We should discuss this as a family. Rick’s right. In the end, only you can decide if you want to have the surgery or not, and I know Pa and Hoss will respect that. But I also think you’ll feel better about whatever you decide after you’ve had a chance to hear what they have to say.”
“And what you have to say, too.”
“And what I have to say, too. Yes. In addition to that, if you do choose to have surgery, Pa’ll want to be here for it.”
Joe gave a slow nod. His father and Hoss were due to arrive sometime in the next three to four weeks. They wouldn’t be in Boston in time for his birthday at the end of October, but Pa’s last letter stated he tentatively planned that they’d arrive no later than mid-November, or if luck held, maybe a bit earlier. It was later than Pa had wanted to leave Nevada because of the possibility of snowstorms across the western plains, but ranch obligations had interfered with his original hope that he and Hoss would be in Boston in time to help celebrate Joe’s thirtieth birthday.
“Adam,” Joe requested, “don’t write to Pa about any of this, okay?”
“Please. I know it’s a lot of me to ask, but he’ll be here in a few weeks. We can explain everything to him then.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Joe understood what his brother meant by that question without having to ask. If another headache occurred and for some reason it took Joe’s life, Adam was going to be the one Pa turned to for explanations. And one of the first things Pa would demand to know was why he hadn’t been told Joe was suffering from headaches, and had consulted a specialist about them.
“I don’t suppose it’s one of my best ideas, no. But on the other hand, there’s no point in setting Pa to worrying any sooner than we have to. He’s. . .he’s not a young man any more, Adam.”
“You make it sound like he’s got one foot in the grave.”
Joe smiled. “I don’t mean to make it sound that way. But still, there comes a time when you start to realize that your father’s aging, and that you don’t wanna pile any more concerns on him than you have to.”
“Ah. So that explains your good behavior ever since I left home. And here I thought you were just trying to fill my boots.”
“No desire to do that, big brother. Your boots walk too straight of a line for my tastes.”
“I imagine they do.”
“So anyway, as far as Pa and Hoss are concerned, let’s wait until they get here to tell them about the headaches and my visit to Dr. Warren today. If anything happens to me before then--”
“Probably not, but if it does, you tell Pa that I asked you not to write him with the news. Let him know it’s my doing that it was kept from him, not yours.”
“All right. That’ll be the first thing I shout at your funeral.”
Joe laughed. “Good. Should make for an interesting time. . .and hey, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t.”
Joe sat in Adam’s office a little while longer, mulling over the choices he faced in the coming weeks. Adam didn’t seem to be in a hurry to rush him off. He sat there quietly, making himself available in whatever way Joe might need him.
“Adam?” Joe questioned after several minutes of silence.
“When you lost your arm, how did you decide whether or not you should have the surgery?”
Adam was quiet a moment, as though Joe’s question had caught him off-guard. When he finally answered, he said, “I didn’t have a choice.”
“No. When I woke up, I was in a hospital and the arm was gone.”
“Oh. . . .Can I ask how it happened?”
Before Adam answered, the bell clanged, indicating the end of morning classes and the start of lunch. That seemed to be just the opportunity Adam was looking for because he stood, clapped Joe on the shoulder, and said, “Come on. Let’s get you to the table with your boys. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. After lunch, go ahead and return to your class. We’ll discuss how we’re going to handle the Caleb situation over supper this evening.”
Joe nodded. “All right.” He did want to discuss Caleb with his brother, because over the weekend he’d come up with an idea that just might work where the boy was concerned. It was far from a guaranteed success, but it was worth a final try.
If asked, Joe wouldn’t deny that he also wanted to discuss what had happened to cause Adam to lose his arm, but it was a subject Adam continually evaded, or just downright avoided.
As the men walked together to the dining hall, Joe resigned himself to the strong possibility that he’d never discover what past tragedy had befallen his brother.