Joe’s arrival at his students’ assigned table in the dining hall on Monday was greeted with cheers and applause. This enthusiastic welcome touched Joe. It was hard to believe that less than two months earlier, these same boys were doing all they could to disrupt the school day and cause him trouble. The exception to the warm welcome was Caleb, who sat in stony silence, not commenting one way or another on Joe’s presence. Adam told Joe the boy’s room and personal belongs had been searched for more firecrackers, or any other item he could use to cause trouble with. Since nothing was found, Adam had decided Caleb could return to class for the time being.
That night over supper, Joe discussed his plan of action regarding Caleb. Like Joe, Adam thought the possibility of success was small, but he didn’t deny Joe the opportunity for one last attempt. As he said, Joe was far more versed than he in the ways of punishment where little boys were concerned, so with a chuckle, Adam allowed that this was Joe’s area of expertise. The only stipulation Adam put on Joe, was that the discussion with Caleb take place in his office. He didn’t want the other boys to overhear or interrupt, and given Caleb’s attack on Joe, he didn’t think Joe should be alone with the child.
“Would you quit bringing that up?” Joe moaned. “And for heaven’s sake, when Hoss gets here, don’t tell him I got beat up by a ten-year-old.”
“I thought you said you didn’t get beat up by a ten-year-old.”
“I didn’t, but you keep insisting that I did, so considering that, I know Hoss won’t be off the train more than five minutes before you’re tellin’ him things that aren’t true.”
“I never speak anything but the truth.”
“Then let me use this opportunity to remind you of the time when you were seventeen, and swore to Pa you’d been busy rounding up strays all day, when you’d actually snuck off to meet Mary Katherine Paulson by Miners Creek.”
“How do you know that?”
Joe waggled his eyebrows. “Told you I’ve had years of practice at paying close attention to things you or Pa wouldn’t tell me.”
“When I was seventeen, you were only five,” Adam scoffed. “There’s no way you knew whether I was rounding up strays or not.”
“Yep, I was only five. But you made the mistake of asking Hoss to cover for you with Pa, and Hoss told me, so the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Big brother, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Hoss has always told me everything. He couldn’t keep a secret when he was kid if he tried, and he’s still not any good at it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
On that note, Joe stood to head to the parlor and read the latest weekly edition put out by the New York Braille Press. It was a newspaper published specifically for blind adults that kept them abreast of what was going on in the world, just like any newspaper available for sighted people. Adam had given Joe a subscription to the paper as another “early birthday present.” Between the Braille watch and the newspaper subscription, Joe would have figured further doings for his birthday would be limited to a special dinner cooked by Mrs. O’Connell, topped off by cake, if he hadn’t overheard Laddie and Adam talking about a party one evening. He wasn’t privy to the details, however, because he hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, so had quietly backed through the dining room and returned to the kitchen, where he’d been filling Shakespeare’s food and water dishes.
As Joe sat down in his favorite chair to read the paper, he heard Adam walk up behind him. A hand touched his shoulder, giving it a squeeze, before Adam moved on to the settee.
“I just wanted to say that if what you’re planning with Caleb tomorrow doesn’t work, I don’t want you thinking you’ve fallen short in some way. You’ve done all you could for the boy. You can walk away holding your head up high, knowing you gave him everything you’ve got.”
“I suppose,” Joe agreed, having no desire to think about the possibility of failing Caleb, because it hit too close to home.
Caleb’s anger and refusal to learn mirrored Joe’s emotions of just a few months earlier. If Adam hadn’t stuck with him and pointed him back in the right direction every time he’d veered off course, Joe knew his life wouldn’t be as rich and full as it was today. Would he prefer to be living on the Ponderosa, working beside his father and Hoss, rather than teaching school in Boston? Yes, even with all the rewards teaching brought him, Joe wouldn’t hesitate to take his old life back if someone could give it to him. But his old life was just that – old, a thing of the past. This was his life now. Boston. The institute. And his place in Adam’s home. It wasn’t necessarily the life Joe wanted, but it sure beat sitting in a chair in the ranch house trying to stay out of everyone’s way, while bitterness and anger ate at his soul and turned him into a miserable person no one in his right mind would want to be around.
Joe kept his thoughts to himself. Instead, he said what he knew his brother needed to hear.
“I know it’s not a great plan, Adam. Don’t worry, I’m prepared for it to fail.”
Those words seemed to ease Adam’s concerns, because he didn’t say anything else, and soon, Joe heard the pages of a book being turned. In actuality, Joe wasn’t nearly as prepared for his plan to fail as he’d told Adam, but if he did meet failure head on, he’d keep the promise he made to his brother on Saturday. The one about allowing Adam to put Caleb on a train bound for home without giving him any arguments over it.
It was the last thing Joe wanted to see happen to the boy, but as he started to read his newspaper, he was forced to acknowledge Caleb’s permanent expulsion from the institute was a very real possibility.
After lunch had been eaten on Tuesday, Joe grabbed Caleb before he could rush outside for recess with the other children.
“Come on, Caleb. You have an appointment.”
The boy squirmed, trying to yank himself from Joe’s grasp.
“I don’t know anything ‘bout no appointment.”
“With the headmaster.”
The delight that suddenly filled Caleb’s voice was impossible for Joe not to hear.
“Really? Is he gonna paddle me, and then send me home?”
“You know, you’re not supposed to look forward to a paddling,” Joe grumbled as he kept a firm grip on the boy, while leading him down the hall to Adam’s office. “If I’d been in the position you are now when I was your age, I’d have earned myself a darn good lickin’ from my pa when I stepped off that train at home.”
“Oh, I’ll probably get a lickin’ from Pa all right. But that doesn’t matter.”
No, I don’t suppose it does, you little imp, because you’ll be right where you wanna be. Back home with your parents and brothers.
When they arrived at Adam’s office, Joe stopped when he felt the closed door. He raised a hand and gave three firm knocks with his knuckles.
Upon hearing Adam’s invitation to enter, Joe opened the door and led Caleb inside. He shut the door, then placed a hand on Caleb’s back, urging him farther into the room. Not that Caleb needed any urging. As soon as he heard Adam say, “Hello, Caleb,” the boy asked, “You gonna give me that paddlin’ now, Headmaster, and then put me on the train for home?”
“Well, young man, I don’t know. Mr. Cartwright wants to talk to you about your punishment first. Let’s wait and hear what he has to say on the matter.”
“What’s there to say? I brought firecrackers to class and blew ‘em off. A kid should be paddled and sent home for that.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s one way of handling things. But I believe Mr. Cartwright has another way.”
Caleb whirled and “looked” up at Joe, Adam’s presence forgotten for the time being.
“Another way? What other way? I should be paddled and sent home. That’s what it says in the student handbook.”
“You can’t read Braille,” Joe pointed out. “How do you know what the student handbook says?”
“My ma read her copy to me ‘fore she and Pa sent me here.”
“Evidently, you did a good job of memorizing it.”
“Doesn’t matter if I memorized it or not. You have to do what it says, Mr. Cartwright. If a student puts his fellow classmates in danger, then the headmaster has to paddle him and send him home for good. It says that right on page nine.”
It was all Joe could do to keep from laughing. He hadn’t seen this side of Caleb before. The earnest, intelligent, lively boy, determined to figure out a way to get sent home. It made Joe think of himself at the same age, and what extremes he’d have gone to in order to be reunited with his father and brothers if he’d been sent away to a boarding school.
“Well now, Caleb, that’s where you’re wrong. I don’t have to do what the handbook says, because it’s just a guideline.”
“Guideline? What’s that mean?”
“It means that I can ask the headmaster to paddle you, and then send you home, or I can come up with some other form of punishment for you misbehavior.”
“But I don’t want another form of punishment! I wanna be sent home!”
“I’m sorry to hear that, because unfortunately, I can’t oblige you.”
“I said I can’t oblige you, son. Your parents sent you here to learn how to cope with being blind, and--”
“I’ve told you a million times that I’m not blind!”
“And I’ve told you a million times that saying it doesn’t make it so. You are blind, Caleb. You’re blind, and you were sent here to learn how to live without your sight. I won’t be doing right by your parents if I just give up on you and send you home.”
“You don’t even know my parents!”
“That’s true, I don’t. But I’m a teacher, so it’s my job to see that all my students learn their lessons. Now, since you’re so far behind on those lessons, it seems to me that the only solution is for you and I to have private tutoring sessions.”
“Where it’s just you and me in the classroom. We’ll start today after school is dismissed. You’ll stay behind, and we’ll work together for an hour or two. We’ll do this every day, Monday through Friday, for the next few weeks. Come Saturday, we’ll work together again for several hours in the morning. We’ll continue to do that, too, until you’re caught up with your classmates.”
“I don’t care about bein’ caught up with them! I wanna go home!”
“And you will, at Christmas time, if you know all your lessons. If you don’t, you’ll stay right here at school and I’ll continue tutoring you.”
Joe imagined the boy bent partially at the waist, his hands balled into fists, and his face red with fury as he screamed, “You can’t do that! You can’t keep me here at Christmas! My pa and ma won’t let you! They’re expecting me home for a whole month come Christmas time!”
“I’ll write to your mother and father. Explain to them that you got off to a bad start, and are behind the other boys where your lessons are concerned. I’m sure they’ll understand. After all, they sent you here to learn, didn’t they? This school is costing them a lot of money.”
“You won’t wanna be stuck here with me at Christmas,” Caleb said in a triumphant tone, as though he’d just figured out something Joe hadn’t thought of. “You’ll wanna go home to your own family.”
“Headmaster Cartwright is my family. He’s my brother, and I live at his house right here in Boston.”
“I know that, but you said you got a pa and another brother in Nevada. You told us that in class. You’ll wanna go home and see them, I’ll bet.”
“Nope. Won’t need to do that, because they’re coming to visit the headmaster and me in a few weeks. So see, when Christmas arrives, I won’t have any place else to be but right here, and nothing better to do but spend my time teaching you. Heck, with no classes in session, not to mention no chores to do every morning, or horses to break, or supplies to get from town, or fences to mend, or cattle to round up, or brand, or move from one pasture to the next, I’ll be lookin’ for stuff to do. That’s the one thing I haven’t gotten used to about Boston yet, Caleb. All this free time I’ve got. Spending it with you, helping you get caught up to the other boys, sounds like more fun than staying at home over Christmas break, listening to the headmaster snore after he falls asleep in his chair reading one a’ them fancy books of his.”
Adam remained silent through all of this, as he’d previously told Joe he would. He’d said he’d step in only if he deemed his intervention necessary. So far, he must have thought Joe was handling things okay, because based on how quiet Adam was, Joe would have sworn his brother had left the room if he didn’t know better.
“You can’t do that!” Caleb shouted. “You can’t keep me here!”
“I can, unless you earn the right to go home by learning your lessons.”
The boy cried out with rage and launched himself at Joe in a flurry of flying fists, but this time, unlike last, Joe was expecting the tantrum. He snared Caleb by the wrists, keeping the boy far enough away that his flailing feet couldn’t make contact with Joe’s shins.
“No! No! You can’t do that! You can’t! I’ll. . .I’ll burn the school down if you do. I will! You can’t make me stay here! You can’t keep me here through Christmas! Ma and Pa are expecting me home! Matthew and Phillip and James – they’re expecting me too! You can’t do this! Paddle me! I don’t care, paddle me ‘til I can’t sit down for a week, and then send me home! Send me home now!”
“No,” Joe maintained firmly. “I’m not gonna do that. There’ll be no paddling, and no train ticket home. You’ll stay here and learn, Caleb, and if takes through Christmas break to get that into your stubborn little head, then so be it.”
Caleb wrenched himself from Joe’s grasp and backed up, coughing and sputtering as though his temper was getting the best of him. As though he was so angry his body no longer knew how to handle his fury.
“You don’t understand!” the boy yelled, sobs gulping out between each word. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me! To be blind! I. . .it was them dumb ol’ firecrackers! I didn’t know. . .I didn’t mean for anything bad to happen with ‘em. George and me, we found ‘em on New Year’s Eve! Me and my family were at George’s for a party. It was the first party I was ever at. We had roast turkey, and potatoes, and stuffing, and bread, and pies. . .more pies than I ever saw in my whole life.”
Now that Caleb had started confessing his wrongdoing, he couldn’t seem to stop. Joe got the impression the boy had never actually told the entire version of the story to anyone else, not even his parents, and that by telling it to his teacher, he was trying to absolve himself of the guilt he’d been carrying as a result of his disobedience that night.
“We were gonna stay up until midnight, to see in the New Year, Ma said. George’s pa was gonna shoot off fireworks, only me and George shot ‘em off first. Our folks told us to stay outta the barn. They told us not to touch anything, but we didn’t listen. We snuck off while everyone else was playin’ charades, and we found the box of firecrackers and some matches. I swiped some – firecrackers and matches both – and put ‘em in my coat pockets. So did George. He said it was okay. That his pa would never miss a few, and that maybe we could shoot ‘em off in one of the fields come summer. Then he lit a match and said we should blow off some of the firecrackers right then. I. . .I told him we shouldn’t, but George said it would be okay. He said everyone would be laughin’ and carryin’ on so much in the house that they’d never hear. I. . .I don’t know what happened after that. I was standin’ there holding some firecrackers, and then all of a sudden I wasn’t standin’ there at all. I was layin’ on the ground, and my eyes felt like they were burnin’ up right in my head. George ran into the house screamin’, and the next thing I knew, my pa was running with me in his arms and climbing into our wagon. George’s pa drove us to Doc Berry’s house. He wound a buncha’ bandages around my head, but said there was nothing else he could do! He told my. . .he told my. . .” Caleb’s sobs threatened to overtake him at this point. The boy took a ragged, deep breath. “He told. . .he told my pa and ma that I’d never see again.”
Joe stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Caleb. I’m so sorry.”
“No you’re not! You’re just like all the rest of them! You don’t care, you just wanna stare at me ‘cause I’m different now! ‘Cause I’m the little blind boy. You don’t know what it’s like! You say you’re sorry, but you’re not. I can’t do my chores any more! I can’t go to my old school where Miss Kennelworth teaches. I can’t walk through the meadow to George’s by myself, or ride my horse, or. . .or. . .or play with my brothers. I can’t do the things my brothers do, not even James, and he’s the baby! They leave me out! Ma says they don’t mean to, but it doesn’t matter, ‘cause whether they mean to or not, they still leave me out. I hate it! Do you hear me? I hate it!”
Caleb turned and raced around the room, sweeping his arms out, trying to destroy everything in his path. Books, a clock, and paperwork on Adam’s desk went flying. Joe ran after the boy, whose movements were easy to track based on the noise. Maybe Adam ran for him, too. Joe figured his brother probably did, but Joe got to Caleb first.
“I hate it!” the boy screamed again, kicking as Joe grabbed him from behind, spun him around, and held him at arms length. “I hate it! I hate being blind! I hate it, and don’t tell me you understand ‘cause you don’t!”
“No, Caleb?” Joe yelled just as loudly in return. “I don’t? Is that what you think? That I don’t understand what you’re going through because you can’t see? Well if it is, then you thought wrong, kid, because I’m blind too!”
Joe shook the boy a bit for emphasis. “I’m blind, Caleb, and believe me, I hate it just as much as you do! Until a few months ago, I still had my sight! Then, like you, I had an accident. A stupid accident. And like you, too, I have brothers, so I know what it’s like not to be able to do the things they do! I know what it’s like to feel left out! I know what it’s like not to be able to do my chores, or ride my horse, or feel like I no longer belong in the house I was born in! I know what it’s like, Caleb, so don’t you dare tell me I don’t, because the one thing I pray to God for every night, is that I’ll get my sight back. My sight, Caleb! That’s all I ask for. That’s all I want.”
At Joe’s final words, the boy melted against his teacher, sobs once again overtaking him.
“I know.” Caleb cried into Joe’s shirt. “I know, ‘cause that’s what I ask God for, too.”
Joe held the boy close, stroking a hand through his hair, not paying any attention to the tears running down his own face. God, it hurt so much. Saying those things to Caleb brought all the pain and hopelessness of being blind back in full force.
Joe let Caleb cling to him and cry until the boy didn’t have any tears left. Joe bent down then, pulling his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiping it over Caleb’s face.
“You okay now?”
The boy sniffled. “Ye. . .yeah. Guess. . .I guess so.”
“Do you still wanna go home?”
“I. . .I don’t know.”
“Caleb, listen to me. I know you’re a smart boy. I read everything about you in the reports your parents and Miss Kennelworth gave us. Because of that, I also know that if you’re willing to work real hard during the next few weeks, you’ll be able to earn the right to go home for Christmas break.”
“How. . .how many weeks away is
“About eight. Two months.”
“Is. . .is two months enough time to learn my lessons, and be caught up with my class?”
“For a smart young fella like you, I’d say so.”
“And. . .and will you still help me after school?”
“You bet I will.”
“And on Saturdays?”
“And on Saturdays, too,” Joe confirmed.
“I’m a quick learner, Mr. Cartwright. Honest I am. I never had to stay after school in my whole life to do lessons. When I could see, I was always at the top of my class.”
“And I bet you’ll be at the top of your class again by the time you go home for Christmas.”
“You really think so?”
The boy wrapped his arms around Joe’s neck and buried his face in Joe’s shoulder. “I still don’t wanna be blind. I’d give anything to see again.”
Joe rubbed a hand up and down Caleb’s back. “I know you would, because I feel the same way. But if you’ll let me help you, being blind will get easier. I promise.”
Caleb lifted his head. “Who helped you?”
“And did you cause him trouble like I’ve caused you?”
Joe chuckled. “Some.”
Adam interrupted for the first time with a questioning, “Some?”
“I think that’s the headmaster’s way of saying I gave him quite a bit of trouble now and again.”
“But then you got caught up with your lessons, right? You must have learned ‘em jim-dandy like, ‘cause you’re here teaching us.”
“Yeah, I’d say I learned my lessons pretty well, but then, I had a good teacher.”
Caleb seemed to be thinking things through while remaining securely encased in Joe’s arms. When he finally spoke, he said, “I’d. . .I’d like to try, Mr. Cartwright. I’d like to try and learn, if you’ll still teach me.”
The boy eased out of Joe’s embrace, then slowly turned toward Adam.
“Yes, Caleb. I’m right here.”
“I know you gotta paddle me for the firecrackers. It says so in the book. If…could you do it now, while the other guys are at recess?”
“I suppose I could,” Adam said with great sincerity, as though he was thinking Caleb’s proposal over, “but how about this instead? If you don’t cause Mr. Cartwright any more trouble, and if you stop picking fights with your classmates, and if you behave for Mr. Murphy, and if you’re completely caught up with your lessons by the time Christmas break arrives, then there’ll be no paddling, and no need for me to mention any of your transgressions to your parents.”
“I can do all of those things. Really I can, Headmaster. I hardly ever got in trouble at home. My pa always said I was a good boy. And I never got a lickin’ at school. Never. Not even back when Mr. Cooper was our teacher, and he was a lot stricter than Miss Kennelworth.”
“It sounds like you know how to behave yourself.”
“Good, because if you so much as step out of line even once, I’ll paddle you so hard that when you ride that train home at Christmas time, you’ll be standing up the entire way. Do you understand?”
“Yes. . .yes, Sir,” Caleb gulped.
“Well, young man, there’s still twenty minutes left before your fellow students come in from recess. I’d say this would be a good time to return to class with Mr. Cartwright and start working on those make-up lessons he’s been discussing with you.”
“Yes, Sir. I think so, too.”
“Glad to hear it.” Adam turned to Joe. “Mr. Cartwright, take your pupil and teach away. I’ll expect a full report on his behavior tonight at dinner.”
“Yes, Headmaster,” Joe said, putting a false note of sternness in his voice that Adam no doubt recognized as a disguise for humor, but that Caleb would take seriously.
Joe told Caleb to thank the headmaster for his time, to which Caleb dutifully said, “Thank you, Headmaster,” then led him from the room.
As had been the case with his other students when their behavior finally began to improve, Joe wasn’t foolish enough to think Caleb wouldn’t have a few up and downs in the coming weeks, but Joe had faith in the boy. And sometimes, as Ben Cartwright’s faith had taught him on numerous occasions, all a kid needed in order to stay on the right path, was an adult who believed him.
Adam walked around his office, picking up the mess Caleb had created. He supposed he should have made the boy stay and pick it up himself, but Adam thought that Caleb getting a start on all those lessons he’d missed was more important than a few books and papers scattered about.
Being a silent observer was enlightening, as Adam had known since childhood. His silent observations today revealed what an excellent teacher Joe really was. Not that Adam possessed any doubts about his brother’s newfound abilities; he just hadn’t realized what a natural gift Joe had for the profession. And then the things Joe had said about being blind – how his lack of sight made him feel left out, and made him feel like he didn’t belong on the Ponderosa any more. If Adam had given it any thought, he’d have easily concluded Joe felt those things at times, but as the old expression went, “life goes on,” and pretty soon what was at first a tragedy – like Joe’s blindness – slowly begins to seem normal. Or at least to the man who can still see.
Joe’s words to Caleb had reopened some old pain within Adam that he’d thought was long healed. Feeling on the fringes of your family circle. Feeling like you no longer had a place, or purpose, in the home where you were raised. Feeling like a failure because you could no longer do all of the things you used to. All of the things that had once defined you as a man.
Yes, Adam understood exactly how Joe felt, because even though over three years had now passed since his accident, Adam had yet to grow completely accustomed to missing an arm.
Joe’s thirtieth birthday marked the closing of October. He decided he’d heard Adam and Laddie wrong when it came to a party – or at least a party for him – because the day was honored quietly, with dinner cooked by Mrs. O’Connell, followed by one of Joe’s new favorite desserts, Boston Cream Pie. The “pie” part of the dessert’s name was deceiving, since it was actually a rich concoction consisting of a two-layered sponge cake filled with vanilla custard and glazed with chocolate.
The celebration took place on Thursday evening after the school day ended, with only Adam and Laddie in attendance, and at Joe’s insistence, Mrs. O’Connell. She protested the notion of dining at the same table with her employer and his guests, but Joe wouldn’t allow her to refuse, telling her if she didn’t join him for his birthday dinner, he wasn’t going to eat it.
After the meal, there were presents for Joe to open. Laddie gave him a set of handkerchiefs with his initials embroidered on them in Braille. From Adam, Joe received a set of a dozen Braille dime novels as a joke, which Joe appreciated much more than his brother could imagine, along with a subscription to a magazine printed in Braille. Joe was grateful for these gifts of new reading material, because as he’d told Caleb, he had a lot of time on his hands now, and was always looking for ways to fill it.
From Mrs. O’Connell, Joe received a book, also printed in Braille, about the history and settling of New Orleans.
“Yeh told me, Joseph, that yer mam was born and raised in New Orleans. I thought yeh might like to read a book ‘bout where it is she came from. Mr. Cartwright ordered it special for me from the Braille shop.”
“Thank you. I know I’ll enjoy it.” Joe ran his fingers over the cover and felt the raised Braille lettering that read: New Orleans, The History of a Southern Jewel. “But you shouldn’t have spent your money on me.”
“Ack,” the woman scoffed, “ ‘an just who else do I have to spend me money on? I wanted to wish yeh a happy birthday, I did, an’ no proper birthday wishes come without a present or two.”
Joe would have protested further over what the book must have cost the woman, but he knew he’d only hurt her feelings. So, instead, he graciously accepted the gift while telling Mrs. O’Connell that he was certain it would be one of his favorites.
After Laddie had left to go home, and Mrs. O’Connell had retired to her room for the night, Adam gave Joe one more present by surprising him with letters that had arrived that day from their father and Hoss, both of which included birthday wishes.
“We’ll celebrate your birthday after we arrive, son,” Pa’s letter stated, which Joe knew probably meant a few more presents, and another big dinner topped off by Boston Cream Pie – a desert that would be new to Hoss, and one that he’d no doubt want two or three helpings of.
The thought of further presents was of no interest to Joe. The gift he cared about the most would arrive in the form of his father and Hoss walking through the front door of Adam’s house.
“Does Pa say when they’re coming?” Joe asked, when Adam had finished reading. The brothers were in the parlor now, with Shakespeare lying between the chair Joe was sitting in, and the settee where Adam sat.
“No. Other than when he told you he’d see you soon, there was no mention of a date. I suppose that means he’s still planning on a mid-November arrival.”
“Which means they must be leaving Virginia City sometime in the next two weeks.”
“I’d say so,” Adam agreed. “If you want to write him back tonight and ask him, you can dictate a letter to me.”
“No, not tonight. It’s been a long day. Maybe we can just send Pa a telegram tomorrow or Saturday.”
“Sure. We can do that.”
Although Joe appreciated all of the assistance his brother gave him, the one thing he hated was not being able to write to his father and Hoss without the letters being dictated to Adam. There was something personal lacking in this kind of correspondence. The funny little stories he wanted to tell Hoss about Adam’s infatuation with Laddie went untold, and the opportunity to thank his father for all he’d unknowingly taught Joe about how to handle mischievous, energetic boys, also went unsaid. So for now, when dictating Hoss’s letters, Joe limited his news to tales about his visits to the Brockington estate, places he’d gone with Adam, and all the new foods he was encountering in Boston. To Pa, he sent general sort of news – like letting Pa know that things were going well at school, and that he was fine, and that he and Adam were managing to live together without killing one another, or even threatening to.
have been able to read Joe’s thoughts, because he asked, “You’re looking
forward to their arrival, aren’t you?”
Joe couldn’t keep from smiling. “Yeah, I sure am. I have so much I wanna tell both of them. So much I wanna show them. Hey, do you think it’d be okay if they came to school one day and sat in on my class – met my boys?”
“I think that would be just fine.”
“And do you
think Laddie’s parents might invite Pa and Hoss to their home one Sunday for
“I have no doubt such an invitation will be extended.”
“I can’t wait for Hoss to learn to play croquet, or golf. He’ll probably think they’re the stupidest games he’s ever seen.”
Adam smiled. “He probably will.”
“But you know Hoss. He’ll be too polite to say so, which means Franny will have him playing about a dozen rounds of croquet before he finally manages to get out of her clutches.”
“I imagine that’s the way things will unfold. Hopefully, it doesn’t snow before Hoss has a chance to swing a croquet mallet.”
“That’s okay if it does. Then they’ll just have to stay longer if the trains can’t leave.”
There was a long moment of silence, then Adam said, “You really miss them.”
Joe hesitated before finally nodding. He didn’t want to hurt Adam’s feelings, or make Adam think he was any less important to him than their father or Hoss. Adam seemed to understand though, because he said, “I miss them, too. It’ll be good to have them here.”
As long as they were talking about Pa and Hoss, now seemed like as good a time as any to Joe to bring up something he’d been mulling over in recent weeks.
“Adam, can I talk to you about something?”
“Little brother, I thought we had that talk about fifteen years ago.”
“We did, and by the way, you were about a year too late.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Joe laughed. “If you can’t figure it out, I’m sure not explaining it.”
“Sometimes I still don’t know when you’re kidding me, and when you’re telling me the truth.”
“Good. Keeps you on your toes.”
“So anyway, what I wanted to talk to you about. . .?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“I know. . .well, I know this is kind of jumping the gun, because I realize it’ll be a couple of years or so before I really have the experience under my belt that I need,
but. . .uh. . .I’ve been thinking. . .”
been thinking what, Joe?”
“It might be a dumb idea, but remember when you told me there’s a need for schools other places around the country that are affiliated with the institute?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well. . .do you think. . .I mean, given some time and some more experience
. . .that I. . .well, that I could open one of those schools
and teach there?”
When Joe’s question was met with a lengthy silence, he gave an embarrassed laugh. “Like I said, it’s probably a dumb idea. I know I’m just beginning to learn and--”
“No, it’s not a dumb idea.”
“No. As you said, you need some more experience, but two or three years down the road, I think it’s feasible, Joe. I really do. Though there’s a lot more to it than just deciding to open a school.”
“Getting investors involved to financially support the school, for one thing. Getting approval from our school board. Getting some estimates together on how many students you think would attend the school, what size the building needs to be, how many staff members it’ll take to run it, the monthly costs of maintaining it, where the best location would be--”
“Um. . .I was thinking of Virginia City,” Joe said in a sheepish tone, as though he expected Adam to laugh at the notion.
But instead of laughing, Adam agreed. “That’s certainly something to consider.”
“Without a doubt. We have a number of students who travel to us from west of the Rockies. Virginia City would be a lot closer to home for them than Boston.”
“You’re right about that.”
you what, let’s put this idea of yours on hold until Christmas break. Past experience with Boston winters tells me
there’ll be days when we’re snowbound in this house. That’ll be a good time for
us to sit in my office and get some facts and figures together, don’t you
“Sure. Sounds fine to me. Thanks, Adam. Even if this idea of mine doesn’t turn out to be worth pursuing, I appreciate your support.”
“You’re welcome.” Adam was quiet a moment, then stated, “You’re homesick.”
“Um. . .well, yeah, I guess I am. Don’t get me wrong,” Joe rushed on to say, “it’s not that I don’t like living here, or appreciate all you’ve done for me, or--”
“I know that, Joe.”
“I’m glad, because I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to find a way to leave. If I have to live here the rest of my life. . .well, that’ll be okay. Really it will. But no matter how hard I try to get used to Boston, the Ponderosa will always be home to me. I’ve known it since the day we got here. Plus, you need your privacy.”
“I shouldn’t be living with you.”
talked about this before we left Nevada.
I told you that I don’t mind. I
want you here. It’s worked out well,
don’t you think? Like you said to Pa in
one of your letters, we haven’t killed each other yet.”
“I know, but it’s just that you were used to living here alone. I feel like I’ve intruded on your territory. . .on your privacy.”
“Sometimes living alone doesn’t just translate to privacy. Sometimes it translates to loneliness.”
“Then ask Laddie to marry you.”
“I’m not kidding. What’re you waitin’ for anyway?”
“The right time.”
“Well tell me when the right time is gonna be, and I’ll leave the house for a few hours and take Mrs. O’Connell with me. You can ask Laddie then.”
Joe heard the amusement in his brother’s voice.
“You’ve got this all planned out, is that it?”
“Look, Adam, I’m just trying to give you a push in the right direction, is all.”
“I don’t need any pushes, thank you very much. When I’m ready to ask Laddie to marry me, I will, and not one minute sooner.”
“Okay, but you’d better keep in mind that I’m not getting any younger.”
“What’s your age got to do with a marriage between Laddie and myself?”
“Uncle Joe would like the chance to swing your kids in the air before rheumatism sets in.”
“So now I
have kids, do I?”
“I hope a whole passel of ‘em. Five or six boys just like me, and then you can start in on making a few girls.”
“Five or six boys like you? I don’t think I’d live through their childhoods.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll sure be fun watchin’ you try.”
“I’m sorry for the disappointment, but it’s not an amusement I’m going to provide you with any time soon. Therefore, let’s put an end to this talk about my privacy. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you want to. Even if Laddie and I do marry in the future, you’re still welcome to stay.”
sure Laddie will appreciate that. The brother-in-law who’s the permanent
houseguest on the second story.”
“More like the crazy uncle in the attic, but either way, for reasons I can’t fathom, Laddie’s quite fond of you. Therefore, I know she’ll extend the same invitation to you that I just have.”
“Adam, just marry the girl for cryin’ out loud, and quit worrying about me.”
“Joe. . .” Adam warned, in a tone Joe knew better than to ignore.
“All right. All right. End of discussion.”
“Thank you. And on that note…” Adam stood. “I’ll wish you a final happy birthday, young man. . .or perhaps I should say old man, now that you’re thirty, and your hair has more gray in it than mine.”
As Adam passed by his brother’s chair, he paused and squeezed Joe’s shoulder.
“Good night, Joe. Happy birthday.”
Joe patted his brother’s hand in return. “ ‘Night. Thanks for everything.”
“You’re welcome. Sleep well.”
“I will. You too.”
Shakespeare remained in the parlor with Joe, inching closer to Joe’s chair on his belly as Adam made his way up the stairs to bed. When the dog nuzzled Joe’s leg as if to say, “Hey, I’m here,” Joe reached down, running a hand back and forth across soft fur.
All in all, it had been a birthday worth remembering. The meal was excellent, the presents appreciated, and the conversation afterwards with Adam a rewarding one. Maybe opening a school in Virginia City was just a dream that would never bear fruit, but if there was any way Joe could make it happen, then he was determined to do so. Because, despite being thirty years old, like Caleb Greers, Joe desperately wanted to return to the only place he thought of as home.
By the time the weekend following Joe’s birthday arrived, a person knew winter wasn’t far off. The autumn nip that had been in the air previously, grew just a bit nippier as November replaced October. Adam told Joe the trees were now rapidly losing their leaves, and that the first snowfall probably wasn’t far off.
Joe walked to school that Saturday with Shakespeare as his guide. He’d kept his promise to Caleb regarding private tutoring sessions, and this was the third Saturday in a row that they’d met. Joe worked with the boy until lunchtime. He was pleased with Caleb’s progress, and told him so.
“You keep working as hard as you have been, and you’ll be on that train home come Christmas.”
“I hope so, Mr. Cartwright. I really hope so.”
Joe clearly heard the longing in the boy’s voice. “Well, I know so,” he emphasized, in order to give Caleb further confidence. And besides, unbeknownst to Caleb, Joe had no intention of not letting him return home for Christmas, provided the boy continued to be diligent with his studies and behaved himself. If he was still a week or two behind his classmates where lessons were concerned when Christmas arrived, so be it. He’d get caught up easily enough when school resumed in January. Now that Caleb was on the right track with his behavior, he was easy to teach, and Joe had already awarded him for his academic advancements with a set of tin soldiers and a card game.
Joe ate lunch with the students at the institute that day, but begged off participating in a baseball game with the boys from his class, saying he was sorry, that he needed to get home. In truth, though, Joe felt a headache coming on.
While teaching Caleb that morning, Joe’s black world had turned murky gray for all of twenty seconds, and then suddenly a vague shadow that seemed to shimmer back and forth sat in front of him, making Joe think of a ghost child. But it wasn’t a ghost child; it was Caleb. Before the boy came into focus, however, Joe’s world went black again.
No pain had accompanied that experience, but Joe couldn’t deny it was unnerving. Now, as he walked home with Shakespeare leading the way, the pain increased, though not enough to knock him off his feet, thank goodness.
Adam wasn’t at the house when Joe arrived, for which he was grateful. After the visit to Dr. Warren, Adam had made Joe promise that he wouldn’t keep any more headaches a secret, but Joe figured what Adam didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Besides, Adam had plans to dine at the Brockingtons’ that night. Something about some old friends of the family that Mr. and Mrs. Brockington wanted Adam to meet. Adam frequently met with people who might be potential financial supporters of the school, so Joe assumed this dinner would be more business in nature than pleasure. Or at least, that’s the way Adam had made it sound when he spoke of it earlier in the week. Regardless of the dinner’s purpose, Joe didn’t want his health to keep his brother from his evening out.
Mrs. O’Connell was also gone when Joe got home. Adam gave her Saturdays off unless he was hosting a dinner party, so she usually left shortly after breakfast, and didn’t return until sometime in the early evening hours. Her absence was beneficial to Joe, as well. He was able to go right up to his room and lie down without anyone questioning if he was ill, or reporting his behavior to Adam.
The headache didn’t escalate to a point much beyond painful inconvenience. Which, in Joe’s opinion, sure beat rolling around on the floor moaning, and throwing up on your brother’s expensive rug. Joe had another brief episode of seeing a foggy, out-of-focus world when he stood to walk to the lavatory to get a cold cloth to place on his forehead, but once again, the phenomenon passed almost as quickly as it came.
Joe couldn’t deny it worried him — these headaches combined with the fleeting moments of vague eyesight. He wondered if they meant a blood clot was moving, or if he had a tumor, or something else was going on that no doctor could cure. But even the fear over his health didn’t prompt Joe to tell Adam about the headache when the man arrived home a couple of hours later. By then, Joe’s pain was gone, and he was sitting in the parlor reading one of his new dime novels.
“I see you made it home all right,” Adam said, referring to Joe’s trip back and forth to the institute with just Shakespeare as his guide. It was a habit Joe knew Adam still wasn’t keen on, but after having seen for himself that the dog could do all the things Joe claimed, Adam had kept his end of the bargain regarding Joe’s use of the animal.
“Yep, made it home just fine.”
“How’re Caleb’s studies coming along?”
“Real well. He’ll earn that Christmas train ticket without any problems.”
“And even if he is still lagging behind the other boys, you plan on letting him go anyway,” Adam said knowingly.
“As long as he continues to work hard and behave himself, yeah, I do.”
“I’d argue with that, but you know what, I can’t think of one good reason to.”
“Adam Cartwright, I’m disappointed in you.”
“You’re gettin’ soft in your old age.”
“Must be the bad influence my baby brother is having on me.”
“Must be.” Joe turned in his chair as Adam passed by on his way to the stairs. “Where were you, anyway?”
“Just out running some errands. . . .Oh, and by the way, I stopped and sent a telegram to Pa for you. Maybe we’ll have an answer back on Monday as to the exact date they’ll be arriving.”
“Probably will. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Now I’m going to soak in the tub for a while, then grab a short nap. Elliot’s picking me up at six.”
Joe nodded, while resisting the urge to tell Adam for what would probably be the tenth time in the past two months, that he needed to have a carriage house built on this property, then get his own horse and carriage. However, Joe knew he’d just get the same argument in return – carriages were easy enough to hire throughout Boston, and the streets of Beacon Hill were never short of cabbies looking for fares. In addition to that, the school provided Adam with a carriage and driver when needed, not to mention that Edward Brockington was generous toward Adam in this regard, too.
“Better marry that girl,” Joe quipped, as he returned to his book.
“Laddie. You’d better marry her, if for no other reason than having free use of Elliot and that carriage he drives.”
“Joseph, you’re incorrigible, you know that?”
“Now that you mention it, seems I’ve heard my oldest brother say that about me a few times.”
“Your oldest brother is a very wise man then.”
“If nothing else, he seems to think so.”
“I’d love to continue this pointless conversation with you, but a hot bath awaits me.”
Joe smiled and shook his head, but didn’t say anything further. He remained where he was, sitting by the fireplace reading, while Adam bathed, and then took a nap. The smell of cologne preceded Adam when he finally returned to the main floor. Joe could picture him dressed in his best black suit, with a crisp white shirt, minus his tie yet, because he’d have to ask Joe to tie it for him.
Joe stood and held out a hand before his brother had the chance to make the request. He crinkled his nose when he felt what was placed in his palm.
“I hate tying this stupid Ascot tie for you. Feels like a bib.”
“I happen to like the way it looks.”
“Guess if you wanna wear a bib, that’s your choice. But I’ll tell ya’ one thing, brother, wearin’ a tie like this in Virginia City would get a man laughed clean outta town.”
“I can do without the commentary, Joseph. Just tie it.”
While Joe did as Adam ordered, he laughed and said, “Did you ever think about how ridiculous we look? A blind man knotting a tie for his one armed brother.”
Adam couldn’t help but laugh at Joe’s words. “I suppose it does look kind of odd, uh?”
“I’d say so. I hope no one’s peering in through your windows.”
Joe could tell by Adam’s movement that he’d craned his neck to look out the front window.
“No, no one’s peering in, though I see Elliot’s waiting. I’d better go. Will you be okay until Mrs. O’Connell gets back?”
“Of course. It’s not like I haven’t been alone before on a Saturday night when you’ve had a date with Laddie.”
“Mrs. O’Connell left chicken and dumplings in the warmer for you. And bread she baked before she left this morning. And she said something about a cherry pie on the sideboard. Have a piece of that, too.”
Joe couldn’t figure out why his brother sounded so. . .guilty, was the only way Joe could think of describing it. Like he felt bad about having plans this evening, and leaving Joe home by himself. But that didn’t make any sense, because Adam had gone out with Laddie on plenty of other Saturday nights and left Joe by himself without sounding remorseful about it. Maybe he was just feeling bad for some reason, because he had a woman to court, while Joe didn’t. Which, admittedly, would have been unheard of for Joe Cartwright prior to his loss of sight.
“I’ll have some of everything,” Joe assured, with regard to the food Mrs. O’Connell had left for him. “Now go on.” He brushed imaginary lint from the shoulders of Adam’s suit coat, then gave his brother a little shove toward the door. “You don’t wanna be late when it comes to meeting the Brockingtons’ friends. You know what Pa always says about first impressions.”
“Sometimes it’s the only impression you have a chance to make.”
“Exactly. So go. Have a good time. Behave yourself. And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“I think I’d better just stick to not doing the things I wouldn’t do.”
“Probably. If nothing else, that whole first impression thing will likely be a bigger success.”
“I wholeheartedly agree.” Adam’s footsteps indicated he was moving toward the foyer closet to retrieve his coat and hat. “Don’t wait up. It’ll be late before I’m back. You know how these business dinners go.”
“Yeah. Long and boring. But still, try and have fun.”
“Yes,” Adam agreed, with a laugh that sounded uncomfortable to Joe. “I’ll do that.”
After the front door closed behind Adam, Joe briefly wondered what was wrong with his brother this evening. Adam always looked forward to being with Laddie, regardless of what plans the night held. But as Joe returned to his book and resumed reading, he soon forgot about Adam’s mood. He became so lost in the adventures of Sheriff Cimarron and his deadly foes, the pistol-packing Parker Brothers, that he read right through the dinner hour, and didn’t realize he’d missed his meal until Mrs. O’Connell came home. Joe put his book down and ate in the kitchen with the woman, enjoying her company. When the meal was over, he took Shakespeare outside for his nightly duties, then reentered the house with the dog and went upstairs to bed.
Joe slept so soundly that he didn’t hear Adam come home. The next morning over breakfast, when Joe asked his brother how his evening went, Adam said in a noncommittal, indifferent tone, “It went fine. The Brockingtons’ friends were very nice,” and then changed the subject without offering further details. Joe took that to mean the night was just as long and boring as he’d imagined it would be, and not for the first time, he was glad he hadn’t been invited.
Adam and Joe attended church with the Brockington family the next day, the brothers arriving outside of the building in one of those hired carriages so readily available in Adam’s neighborhood. When the service was over, they rode to the Brockington estate like they did each Sunday – in a carriage with Laddie, that was just one amongst the fleet of carriages Mr. Brockington owned in order to transport his large and ever-expanding family.
Adam said the sun was out, but because of the way the temperature had dropped that weekend, Joe wondered if after-lunch “amusements” would take place outside today, or inside, in the form of parlor games like dominos, or charades – the latter with Adam and Laddie’s sister, Margaret, assisting Joe and Laddie by verbally describing what the person in the front of the room was doing. Or maybe everyone would gather around the piano and sing while Laddie played. Joe was amazed at her talent on the instrument. He admired her parents for giving Laddie the same opportunities throughout her childhood that had been given to her sisters, while raising her to believe her lack of eyesight couldn’t prevent her from accomplishing anything she set her mind to doing.
Whether after-lunch entertainment took place inside or outside didn’t matter much to Joe either way. He had a warm coat on, and gloves in his pockets. He assumed all of the children were dressed warmly too, and eager to run around the grounds surrounding their grandfather’s home. He wondered how many games of croquet Franny would make him play before someone came to his rescue.
This Sunday seemed no different from any other Sunday to Joe as he exited the carriage, and waited for Adam to lead both him and Laddie to the house. Laddie took Adam’s left arm, while Joe stood on his right side. Joe had gotten pretty good at memorizing the layout of the Brockington home, so overall, he didn’t need much guidance from Adam any longer.
Joe, Adam, and Laddie brought up the rear of the procession, as the family paraded in the front door of the mansion. As Joe knew it would be, the marble foyer that was big enough to host a dance in was full of adults and children chattering away while taking off coats and hats, with three maids on hand to hang everything in a closet. Smells that made a man’s stomach growl wafted about from the kitchen, filling the house with a mixture of pleasant aromas that ranged from turkey, to roast beef, to freshly baked bread, to pies just out of the oven. Everyone headed for the dining room in one large group when Mr. Brockington said, like he did each Sunday, “Come along, my dear family and friends. Lunch is about to be served.”
But this Sunday, before Joe could reach the long table and the chair he always sat in on Adam’s right side, shouts of, “Surprise, Mr. Cartwright!” mixed with other shouts of “Surprise, Joe!” just about knocked Joe over.
He stood there for a few seconds caught off-guard, and having no idea what was going on until boys’ voices shouted in unison, “Happy Birthday!” and small hands grabbed each of his. The person on his left spoke first.
surprised, Mr. Cartwright? Uh, are
Joe grinned. “Yeah, Caleb, I’d say I’m surprised, all right.”
“After you went home yesterday, Headmaster came to the school and invited us to the party. We couldn’t wait to get here!”
Now Joe knew the nature of those “errands” his brother had been running the previous day. Adam wouldn’t have wanted the boys to know about the party any sooner than necessary, for fear one of them would accidentally let the secret out in class.
“Well, I’m real glad you were able to come. It sure wouldn’t have been much of a party without you.”
Joe’s felt a tug on his other hand.
“This is gonna be the best party ever, Mr. Cartwright, don’t ya’ think? There’s lots of stuff to do here,” Billy Fitzgerald said. “The big boys already told me about everything, ‘cause they said you’ve brought ‘em here before. We all get to go outside and play in a few minutes.”
Before Joe could answer Billy, each one of his students approached him to wish him a happy birthday, the little ones grabbing onto his hands and arms, the older boys patting him on the back and shoulders while extending their good wishes. Killian Murphy was even in attendance. Joe supposed Adam had invited the man for two reasons – one, because Joe had grown to become friends with him, and two, Adam was likely paying Killian to keep an eye on the boys throughout the afternoon’s festivities.
Joe turned to his brother while the room swelled with conversation, friendly shouts, laughter, and the sound of excited children dashing to and fro.
“How’d you get the boys here?”
“Edward sent carriages to pick them up after the morning service.”
By “morning service,” Adam was referring to the church service held at the institute on Sundays for the children and live-in staff.
“That was nice of him. This whole party was nice of him and Mrs. Brockington. I’ll have to thank them – if I can ever find them in this crowd.”
“I’m sure you’ll run across them soon. As for the party, it was Laddie’s idea really.”
“Oh no,” Laddie said, “that’s not true, Joe. It was all your brother’s idea. Every single bit of it. I just provided the place to host it, when we realized the guest list had grown so large that Adam’s home wouldn’t hold all the people.”
“Well, either way,” Joe said, in-between acknowledging pats on the back and words of birthday congratulations from various members of Laddie’s family as they walked past, “thank you. Thank you both. I sure never expected something like this. To say I’m surprised doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
“Then maybe you can’t take one. . .or better put, two more surprises,” Adam said.
“What surprises? Adam, come on, you’ve given me enough presents for one birthday.”
“Normally, I’d agree with that, little brother. But this year. . .well, a man only turns thirty once, and because of that, I wanted to get you some special presents.”
“What kind of special presents?”
had to send far away for.”
“Far away for?” Joe tried to think of what foreign treasures Adam had at home, that he’d admired by feel alone and voiced a desire for. Trouble was, while Joe had admired numerous things, like a set of African tribal masks and the maracas, he couldn’t remember ever saying he actually wanted any of them. “What did you have to send far away for?”
Upon saying those words, Adam urged Joe to turn slightly so he was now facing the massive foyer. He waited for Adam to place something in his hands, or lead him somewhere, but then he felt two hands come to rest on his shoulders, and heard a familiar voice say, “Hello, son. Happy birthday.”
Joe didn’t think his own voice worked when he mouthed “Pa?” with stunned shock, but it must have, because his father replied, “Yes, Joseph, it’s Pa.”
Joe raised trembling hands to either side of his father’s face, his fingers tracing the features as though he still didn’t believe the man standing in front of him was Ben Cartwright. Calloused hands covered his and gently squeezed.
“Son, it’s your pa,” Joe’s father reiterated, as if he understood his presence had caught Joe by such surprise, that Joe wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming.
“Pa. . .Pa, it’s really you,” was all Joe could think to say before being pulled into his father’s strong embrace.
Time seemed to stop for Joe. He could still hear the animated conversations coming from all corners of the home’s main floor, he could still hear the pounding footfalls of running children as they raced in and out of the front door, he could still hear maids hustling back and forth, but he paid no attention to any of it, and didn’t care who witnessed him clinging to his father while tears ran freely down his face.
“It’s really me, Joseph,” Joe heard in his right ear as a hand came to rest on the back of his head. Pa’s voice had a funny catch to it, like he was speaking around a lump in his throat. “It’s really me.”
“And it’s really me, too, Short Shanks.”
Somewhere in Joe’s subconscious mind, he’d known Hoss must be in the room too, but he was so focused on his father that he’d momentarily forgotten about his middle brother.
A hand the size of one of those baseball mitts the Brockington grandsons owned cupped the back of Joe’s neck. Joe turned, stepping from his father’s embrace and into Hoss’s. He swore he felt a tear splash against his face, but he didn’t tease Hoss about it, because God knew Joe couldn’t hold back his own tears, and he’d venture to guess Pa was crying, and that Adam’s eyes were moist too.
The tears quickly turned to a good deal of laughter and backslapping, as they generally do with men. Questions flew from Joe’s mouth almost faster than he could coherently verbalize them. Over the next couple of minutes, he found out that his father and Hoss had arrived in Boston the previous morning, and that Adam met them at the train station and brought them directly to the Brockington house. They’d been invited to spend the night here so their arrival could be kept from Joe.
Joe turned around, where Adam still stood behind him.
“So that’s why you sounded so guilty last night.”
“I sounded guilty?”
“You sure did. Like you felt bad about going out and leaving me behind.”
“I guess I almost gave it away, uh?”
“I wouldn’t say that. It wasn’t like I figured out why or anything. I just thought you sounded kind of funny. Like you were dreading the evening.”
“I’ll admit it; I did hate having to fool you. I kept thinking that while I was going to be here eating dinner with Pa and Hoss, you were going to be sitting home alone.”
As Joe felt his father’s arm come to rest across his shoulders, he grinned at Adam and absolved his brother of any remaining guilt.
“For this surprise, Adam, I’d say it was well worth sitting home alone.”
“Glad you feel that way.”
“Believe me, I do.”
Joe started leading his father and Hoss away. “Come on, I want you to meet my boys. And hey, Hoss, there’s a little girl around here somewhere who’ll just be itchin’ to teach you a new game.”
“Why I do I get the feelin’ I ain’t gonna like this “new game” none, little brother?”
“Oh, trust me, you’ll love it.”
“Joe, it always gives me a downright terrible pain in the pit of my stomach whenever ya’ tell me to trust ya’. You comin’ to live here in Boston ain’t changed that, and don’t ya’ go forgettin’ it.”
Before Joe could say anything else, Franny ran up and grabbed his hand.
“Joe, come on! Let’s go play croquet. We’ll have time ‘fore everyone’s ready to sit down and eat.”
“Franny, this big, friendly looking fella here is my brother, Hoss. And you know what?”
“He’s never played croquet before.”
Franny transferred her hand from Joe’s to Hoss’s.
“Hoss, come on, I’ll show you how we play croquet.”
“Well, now, Miss Franny, I don’t reckon I ever heard of that game before.”
okay. You’ll like it. Joseph Beauregard
“Joseph Beauregard?” Joe’s father questioned, with a certain air of sternness Joe immediately recognized.
“It’s. . .uh. . . it’s just a game Franny and I play, Pa. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Because Joe doesn’t like his middle name,” the child volunteered before Joe could stop her.
“Oh, he doesn’t, does he? And just what’s wrong with being named for your grandfather, young man?”
Joe could picture his father standing before him with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Uh. . .nothing, Pa. Nothing.”
“Frances is a girl’s name, Mr. Cartwright. It’s my name. That’s why Joe doesn’t like it.”
Trying to put an end to this subject before the child got him in any more trouble, Joe urged, “Franny, why don’t you take Hoss outside and show him how to play croquet.”
“Okay! Come on, Hoss. Let’s get your coat. I already know it’s the biggest one in the front closet.”
“Joe. . .”
Joe ignored Hoss’s plea, to instead laugh, as he pictured little Franny leading his brother around for the rest of the day. It was kind of like picturing a lively elf dragging a shy giant through the house.
“And now, about this middle name business, Joseph. . .”
Joe put a quick end to his father’s focus on this subject.
“Pa, have I
told you yet how nice it is to have you here?”
Pa laughed, knowing exactly what Joe was up to.
“Maybe not in so many words, but it was well understood.”
Next, Joe turned around, “looking” for Adam.
“Right behind you, Joe. Just enjoying the fact that it only took you five minutes to cause some family upheaval, which means Hoss owes me ten dollars.”
“Ten dollars? Why?”
“Because he said you’d be so surprised to find him and Pa here that it’d take you at least an hour before you got around to causing trouble.”
“Glad to hear I made you some money.”
“I’m glad to hear it, too.”
Joe stepped forward, giving the surprised Adam a quick hug.
“Thanks, Adam. No matter how long I live, no one will ever give me a surprise as good as this one’s been. Or as appreciated.”
“You’re welcome. I was happy to do it.” Adam patted Joe’s back. “Now go on. Take Pa outside so he can meet your boys, and then enjoy Franny making Hoss play croquet until he starts hiding the mallets on her. We’ll call you when lunch is ready.”
“All right. See you in a little while.”
As often happened at the Brockington house, a maid seemed to magically appear, as though she’d anticipated the needs of the guests. Joe’s coat was placed in his arms.
“Here’s yer coat, Mr. Joe.”
Joe recognized the woman’s voice. “Thanks, Maureen.”
“Yer very welcome. And yer coat, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
Joe put his coat on, feeling his father doing the same beside him. When they were bundled against the late autumn chill, Joe put a hand on his father’s arm and walked with him toward the back of the house. He couldn’t put into words how happy he was, but then, he didn’t figure it was necessary. The grin Joe couldn’t stop wearing probably said all that he wasn’t able to voice.
As they stepped out the back door onto the veranda, Joe said, “Pa, I’ve been wanting to thank you for everything you taught me about being a good parent.”
“About being a good parent?”
Joe laughed. “After you meet all twenty of my boys, you’ll know just what I mean.”
“So what you’re saying is that, in quite an unexpected way, all those times I said, ‘Joseph, someday I hope you have one just like you,’ have now come to pass.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Only you usually yelled it, Pa.”
Now it was Joe’s father’s turn to laugh. “With good reason.”
“I can’t deny that, so I won’t even try.”
“You’d better not, you young rapscallion you.”
“You don’t how good it is to hear you call me that.”
“And you don’t know good it is to have the opportunity to call you that. Now come on and introduce me to those boys of yours. I’ve been looking forward to meeting them.”
From the introduction of his students to his father, to the huge meal, to the games out in the yard once the meal was over, to adult conversation in the parlor later in the afternoon, Joe savored every moment of that day. When all four Cartwrights were finally headed to Adam’s house in a carriage driven by Elliot long after dark had fallen, Joe’s family must have found him to be unusually quiet, because at various intervals throughout the ride, each one in turn, asked him if he was all right.
“I’m fine,” Joe assured for the third time, after Pa had asked, “Joseph, are you okay?”
Pa was sitting next to Joe, so he turned to face the man and smiled.
“I’m happy, is all. I’m just happy, Pa.”
Joe felt his father’s arm slip around his shoulders. Pa pulled him sideways, holding him in a half embrace for a moment before releasing him. Nothing else was said after that, but then, nothing else needed to be.
Ben Cartwright sat in the chair he’d come to realize was Joe’s favorite and opened the morning newspaper dated, Tuesday, November 12th, 1872. He paid scant attention to the headlines; letting the newspaper rest in his lap as he reflected back upon the time he and Hoss had now spent in Boston.
Ten days had passed since Edward Brockington’s driver, Elliot, picked them up at the train station in a gleaming white carriage with Adam on board. Thus far, those ten days had been spent in a variety of ways. Eating dinner at some of Adam’s favorite restaurants, getting to know Laddie – who Ben thought was a wonderful young woman – getting to know her family, making two visits to the institute, and walking all around the city with Hoss on a day when Adam and Joe were at work. Ben showed Hoss places familiar to him from when he’d lived here forty-five years ago. Ben did the same thing with Adam when he’d visited shortly after Adam lost his arm, and had another such father and son outing planned with Joe for Saturday afternoon. Even though Joe wouldn’t be able see the places on their agenda, Ben knew Joe would enjoy hearing the stories that went along with those old haunts of his father’s, and appreciate their time alone together.
Another event that had taken place during their first ten days in Boston – Joe’s surprise party – was a great success. One of the warmest memories Ben would always carry of that party, other than the moment when he saw his youngest son walk in the front door, was watching the blind children playing alongside the sighted ones. It gave Ben hope that Joe’s future held the ability for him to live comfortably in both the blind and sighted worlds.
Ben would forever be grateful to Adam for organizing the party. It was Adam who wrote his father in late September, suggesting the date of Ben and Hoss’s arrival, and then detailing the proposed party, and that it would be kept a secret from Joe. After that, telegrams flew back and forth between Boston and Virginia City, finalizing the arrangements. While all of this planning was going on without Joe’s knowledge, Ben continued to write his youngest son letters that never failed to mention he wasn’t quite sure when he and Hoss would be traveling to Boston, other than to say sometime by mid-November.
Rather than mid-November, however, Ben and Hoss had arrived in early November, completely fooling Joe in the process. They’d had to work a few longer days on the ranch in order to get ready for their departure, but the effort was well worth it. After the cattle drive, the seasonal help was let go for the winter, though many of them would return come spring – the same men who came back year after year seeking employment on the Ponderosa. Some of them were now the sons of men Ben had at one time employed. He supposed if he lived long enough, he’d even begin to see some grandsons of his first generation employees on his payroll.
Candy had been left in charge of things, which caused Ben no worries at all. The reliable foreman had a capable, veteran crew of twenty men; the number they normally kept on year round.
Hop Sing had left on a stage for San Francisco on the same day Ben and Hoss caught the train in Reno. He planned to visit his bounty of cousins for three weeks, then return to the ranch. Ben took advantage of the house being empty of her men to hire Harriet Guthrie and her daughter to give the home a thorough cleaning and airing out. Or as Hoss referred to it, “Spring cleanin’ in the winter.” By the time he and Hoss returned, every window would be sparkling, every rug free of dirt, and every nook and cranny free of dust.
Ben’s thoughts skipped from spring cleaning, to the two times he and Hoss visited the school where Adam and Joe worked. Adam hadn’t been employed there yet the last time Ben was in Boston. Ben’s oldest son was at loose ends then, unsure of what life held for him. He knew he didn’t want to continue running his grandfather’s business – Stoddard Shipping – and had sold it while Ben was there. The money Adam got from that sale, along with everything else he’d inherited from his grandfather, had left him set for life. He could have chosen not to work again, but Ben was glad that Adam didn’t ultimately make that choice. He’d thought all along it would be a mistake for Adam to sit in this house and wallow in regret, guilt, and self-pity. He’d prayed that Adam would find a purpose again, much like, more recently, he’d prayed the same for Joe. How ironic that the job Adam took not long after Ben left for home, would turn out to be a way that he could eventually offer his youngest brother employment.
Adam’s roommate in college, Lindell Taylor, had been the headmaster at the institute for ten years, when he was offered a more lucrative position running a boys’ preparatory school in New York. He knew of Adam’s situation – was probably one of the few friends of Adam’s who did – and came calling on Adam one afternoon. Lindell told Adam about the vacancy at the institute, and said he wanted Adam’s permission to recommend him to the school board.
Ben could only imagine how Adam must have protested that. His college studies hadn’t been in the field of education, and aside from that, he didn’t know the first thing about the financial aspects of running a school. But as Lindell likely pointed out, Adam had taken some business courses while in college, and had years of experience under his belt when it came to running many aspects of a business, from the Ponderosa’s holdings, to Abel Stoddard’s shipping company. What made Adam finally decide to interview with the institute’s school board, Ben never knew. He’d never bothered asking either, because he was just happy that his oldest son was ready to get out and live life again. That Adam was having great success as the institute’s administrator and headmaster came as no surprise to Ben. Adam was the kind of man who would be successful at almost anything he tried.
On the first day Hoss and Ben had visited the institute, Adam gave them a tour of the building and the grounds. Though the building was old, Ben found it to be clean and well maintained. Later, without Joe’s knowledge, they stood in the doorway of his classroom, watching him teach. Ben was so proud of him that it was a wonder he hadn’t popped the buttons on his shirt. That’s how far his chest stuck out that morning. Adam had said Joe possessed a gift for teaching, and he wasn’t lying. There was a lot of laughter and fun going on in that room, but there was a lot of learning going on too, along with liberal doses of encouragement for each boy from Joe. It gave Ben insight to what kind of father Joe would be, and made his heart ache as he wondered if a woman would be willing to look past Joe’s blindness and take the time to learn that, even without his sight, he’d be a good husband, father, and provider.
Upon their second visit to the school, Ben and Hoss sat in on one of Adam’s literature classes, and then spent the rest of the day in Joe’s class. As was true to their personalities, Adam’s class was conducted far differently from Joe’s. It was quieter for one thing, more orderly, and Adam’s suit coat wasn’t tossed haphazardly over his chair, nor was his shirtsleeves rolled up, his tie missing, and his top collar button undone. He was an excellent teacher to his students, just like Joe was to his, but again, as true to their personalities, their methods weren’t anything alike. Ben was grateful to Adam for allowing Joe to conduct his class in his own way. He knew it must have been hard for his oldest to stand back and keep his opinions to himself, as he watched Joe struggle those first few weeks. Ben and Hoss hadn’t been aware of those struggles until after they arrived. Joe entertained them for a good hour one evening after supper, telling about his first two disastrous weeks as a teacher. Joe could laugh about it now, but he probably hadn’t found it so funny when he was wondering if he’d made a mistake in coming to Boston and accepting the job.
In Adam’s class, Hoss and Ben were quiet observers in the back of the room. In Joe’s, they got away with no less than active participation all day, helping the boys do whatever Joe directed. Ben was surprised at how much fun he had, and how much the experience poignantly reminded him of what it was like to have little boys in your life. Of course, once he got a reminder of what it was like to have teenagers in your life, in the form of the irrepressible Henry, John, Tony, and Pete, the feeling of nostalgia didn’t burn quite so strong.
Lost in thought as he was, Ben didn’t hear Mrs. O’Connell approaching until she was at his elbow.
“Would yeh like another spot of coffee, Mr. Cartwright Senior?”
Ben glanced up at the woman and smiled. “No, thank you.”
From the end table at Ben’s elbow, Mrs. O’Connell picked up his empty cup and the saucer it sat on.
“I’ll just be gettin’ this outta yer way then.” The woman’s eyes traveled the room. “Where’s Eric this morning? I thought he might be ready for a morsel or two of a snack.”
Ben chuckled at the way Adam’s housekeeper had quickly grown accustomed to Hoss’s appetite. His merriment also came from her insistence on using Hoss’s given name. Upon first meeting Ben’s middle son, she said it wouldn’t be proper to call him Hoss, but before Hoss had the chance to tell her, “Really, Ma’am, Hoss’ll be just fine,” as Ben knew he was about to do, Joe jumped in.
“I think you should call him Eric, Mrs. O’Connell. That’s his given name. Don’t you think it sounds like a nice, manly sort of name?”
“Why yes, Joseph, I do. Quite manly, and quite proper, too.”
“Uh. . .Ma’am, now ya’ don’t have to go callin’ me that, despite what my little brother here says.” It was then that Joe got a strong jab between his shoulder blades. “Hoss’ll do just fine.”
“No no no. T’ain’t proper for a housekeeper to use nicknames and such. Which is why I don’t call yer dear younger brother anything but Joseph.”
Hoss grinned. “Joseph, ya’ say?”
A big hand came to rest on Joe’s shoulder, probably squeezing just a little too hard on purpose “Well, I reckon if Little Joe here is goin’ by his proper name, then you can go right on ahead and call me Eric.”
“Oh, Joseph, yeh never told me about that nickname. It’s quite cute, it is. Perhaps you’d be more comfortable if I call yeh Little Joseph.”
For reasons not fully understood by Ben, this provoked gales of laughter from Adam. Joe shot Hoss a dirty look, then turned to Mrs. O’Connell and said meekly,
“Uh. . .no, Mrs. O’Connell, please don’t do that. Just plain Joseph is fine. Really it is.”
“Well, okay, if yeh say so, Joseph. But Little Joseph is pleasin’ to the ear, if yeh be askin’ me.”
“Maybe to your ears,” Joe mumbled under his breath, “but not to mine.”
Despite Adam’s laughter over the entire matter, Hoss’s smugness at getting one up on his younger brother for a change, and Joe’s mock anger regarding, “Hoss and his gosh darn big mouth,” by the end of that first evening at Adam’s, Mrs. O’Connell had the names worked out to her satisfaction. Joseph would remain known as such, Hoss was now Eric, Adam remained Mr. Cartwright, and Ben was once again christened, Mr. Cartwright Senior, to distinguish from Adam. Which was exactly how Mrs. O’Connell had referred to him the last time he’d visited.
Mr. Cartwright Senior answered the housekeeper’s question regarding Hoss’s whereabouts by saying, “He went out for a walk. Said he’d be back after while.”
“Ah, enjoyin’ a little peace and quiet then, is that it, Sir? Two boys away at work, ‘an one takin’ his morning constitutional.”
Ben chuckled politely, not telling the woman that with both Adam and Joe gone from the Ponderosa now, he’d had more peace and quiet on many days than he could stand.
“Yes, I guess that’s it.”
“I surely hope Eric will be back in time for lunch. I made that Irish stew of mine he likes so much.”
“Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about Hoss missing lunch, Mrs. O’Connell.”
“I’d shudder at such a thought, I would. A big, strapping boy like Eric needs to eat, he does.”
“Allow me to assure you, that big, strapping boy of mine has been eating me out of house and home since the day he came into this world.”
The woman smiled and patted Ben’s shoulder. “Yeh have three fine lads yeh can be real proud of, Sir. Good men, ever’ single one of ‘em.”
“Thank you. I think so too, but then, I’m their father, so I might be a bit prejudiced.”
“There’s nary a thing wrong with a father takin’ pride in his sons. Nary a thing wrong with it at all.”
The woman then told Ben lunch would be ready at noon, and walked away carrying his dishes.
Ben attempted to return to his newspaper, but found his concentration greatly lacking. With a heavy sigh, he folded the paper and put it on the end table. He sat lost in thought again, though this time he wasn’t smiling over treasured memories, but instead, frowning with worry while thinking of the news Joe had disclosed the previous evening after supper.
Suddenly feeling ten years older, Ben pushed himself up from the chair and headed for Adam’s office. There was something sitting in the center of the desk he wanted to review. It hadn’t seemed to hold any answers last night, but perhaps, in the light of a new day, answers of some sort would be revealed that didn’t involve Joe’s death as the likely outcome.
Joe sat behind his desk that Tuesday morning enjoying a few minutes without someone needing his help or attention, as the older boys took an arithmetic test, and the younger ones wrote a short story in Braille about the best day they’d ever had.
There were just five weeks left until the month-long Christmas recess. Most of Joe’s boys would be going home for the holiday, though a couple, like John, would remain in Boston, because their parents could only afford travel expenses for the three-month summer break. In some cases, these children had relatives nearby, and would be staying with them. In John’s case, he’d remain at the institute, along with other students who were staying behind. Adam had told Joe that the staff made things as festive as possible for the children, with an evening of Christmas caroling throughout the neighborhood, a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, a church service on Christmas morning, a big holiday meal afterwards, along with presents to open, games to play, and a sledding expedition.
“Maybe we can stop by on Christmas Day,” Joe had suggested, “before we have to be at the Brockingtons’.”
“We will,” Adam assured. “I always drop by for at least a little while to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”
It was hard for Joe to believe that when Christmas arrived, the school year would be getting close to halfway over. It seemed like he’d just started his teaching career, and yet, with not quite three months into it, he felt like he’d been doing the job for years. As though, if ranching weren’t in his blood, this would have been his calling. But ranching was in his blood, had been since the day he was born, and he couldn’t deny that. Despite the rewards teaching brought Joe, he still missed his old life, and would rather spend most of his time outdoors on the Ponderosa, rather than cooped up in a building from 8 to 3:30, five days a week.
One aspect of teaching Joe had no challenges with any longer was the behavior of his students. Caleb continued to make great strides with his studies, and would likely meet his goal of being caught up to his classmates come Christmas break. The older boys hadn’t given Joe problems in so long that it was difficult to think these were the same kids he’d been on the verge of thrashing to within an inch of their lives the first two weeks of school. Sure, they possessed the normal impulsiveness and zest for life most teenage boys do, but they seemed to respect Joe more and more each day. At first this puzzled Joe, but then he realized word had gotten around that he was blind, just like them. Caleb had likely told Jacob, who was now his best friend, and Jake had probably told Billy, and Billy. . .well, Billy was like the town crier, and not just when it came to his tears. He was always eager to share what he knew with everyone else. Especially if he thought it was a secret.
Once Joe knew the boys were aware that he couldn’t see, he brought the subject up in class. He shared with them what had happened to him, and invited them to share the stories behind their blindness. It seemed to help everyone to realize that their situations were similar – some blind since birth, some blind at an age so young they had only vague memories of being able to see, and then others, like Joe and Caleb, who had lost their sight more recently to accidents. The afternoon of sharing something so personal seemed to be the last step needed to bring them together as a group of boys who cared about one another, and thought of themselves as a family. That didn’t mean there still wasn’t the occasional family argument, but then, Joe and Adam still had arguments now and again, so Joe figured both the good and the bad really was what being a
family. . .or even a class, was all about.
Thinking about the good and the bad where being a family was concerned, caused Joe’s thoughts to drift to last evening. His father and Hoss were due to leave Boston in a week and a half. That, combined with the headache Pa had seen Joe suffer on Sunday morning, meant Joe couldn’t put off telling them about his visit to Dr. Warren. Or so Adam said as they’d walked to school the previous morning.
“You’ve got to tell Pa and Hoss tonight, Joe. It’s not fair to wait and spring this on them just a few days before they’re getting ready to go home. Besides, Pa’s been asking me too many questions ever since you had to leave church yesterday in the middle of the service.”
“Like if you’ve had any other headaches since you got here, and if I’ve taken you to see a doctor, and if you’ve said anything about not feeling well--”
“What’d you tell him?”
“Nothing, other than you had some things to discuss with him.”
did he say?”
“That you’d better start discussing soon, or he was going to take you to a doctor himself.”
So, given that he could no longer “put off until tomorrow what must be done today,” Joe prevented anyone from leaving the dining room table on Monday evening by telling Pa and Hoss there was something he needed to talk to them about. He waited until Mrs. O’Connell had cleared the table and was in the kitchen doing the dishes, then broke the news about the headaches, the brief moments when his black world sometimes turned a misty gray, and what he’d been told by Dr. Warren.
Joe could have predicted what happened the moment he finished speaking. His father turned to Adam and demanded, “Why wasn’t I told about any of this?”
Adam was no fool. He wasn’t about to take the blame. “Because Joe thinks you have one foot in the grave.”
what is that supposed to mean?”
Joe winced at his father’s tone, and was actually glad, for once, that he couldn’t see Pa’s face.
“I asked Adam not to tell you, Pa.”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Joseph, in the future, I’d appreciate it if you’d allow me to decide what I should and shouldn’t worry about.”
“And for your information, young man, your father does not have one foot in the grave.”
“Uh. . .no. No, Sir. Besides, that’s not actually what I said. Adam. . .he kinda made that part up.”
“Oh he did,
“Well. . .maybe not completely, but those weren’t my exact words.”
“At this moment, your exact words aren’t of great concern to me. These headaches, and this surgery you spoke of, are.”
There wasn’t much Joe could say to that. Of course those would be Pa’s concerns.
“Whatcha’ gonna do, Joe?” Hoss asked, the worry in his tone easy for Joe to detect.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve thought a lot about it. Seems like I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.”
Silence lingered around the table. A silence that told Joe his father and brothers were exchanging looks, trying to figure out if any one of them had advice for him. When the silence did nothing but continue, Joe stood.
“I haven’t made a decision yet and have gotten along okay, so I don’t suppose another couple of days’ll matter. I’m kinda tired. Think I’ll go to bed.”
Although Joe wasn’t nearly as tired as he claimed to be, he did what he knew his family needed him to – left the room so they could discuss the situation without him present. That thought would have rankled him when he was younger – probably would have caused a magnificent display of his notoriously short temper – but with age comes insight. And because of that insight, Joe understood why his father and brothers had to talk things over without him there to hear. Besides, if they could come up with an answer for him, all the better, because God knew Joe had no idea what choice to make.
Nothing was said this morning at the breakfast table about the surgery, but then, there hadn’t been time for a family discussion. Adam was in a hurry to leave. A carriage from the school pulled up outside the house before Adam managed to finish his eggs. He had a business meeting scheduled with a group of the school’s financial supporters at Edward Brockington’s office.
Adam said to Joe on his way to the front door, “I should be back at school around lunch time.”
“All right. And hey. . .don’t worry! I’ll run a tight ship while you’re gone.”
came from the vicinity of the front closet.
“Why do I find “Joe Cartwright” combined with the phrase, “tight ship”
to be an oxymoron?”
“An oxy what?” Hoss asked.
“Oxymoron,” Pa said. “It means two contradictory terms.”
“Makes sense then,” Hoss agreed. “I’d say you runnin’ a tight ship is an oxymoron, little brother.”
Before the discussion could continue, Adam called goodbye to his family and dashed out the door.
It wasn’t long before Joe had to leave, as well. Pa wasn’t any keener about Shakespeare being Joe’s guide than Adam initially had been. But like Adam, after Pa watched the dog at work, and upon Adam vouching for this rather odd practice of Joe’s, Pa came to accept it without too many worries. Or at least not worries he voiced. Joe knew his father trailed him at a distance this morning during his walk to school because he hadn’t traveled very far, when he heard the front door open and close, and then boots hurrying down the sidewalk, as though the person didn’t want to let Joe get out of his sight. The footfalls behind him weren’t heavy enough to be Hoss’s, and although it was tempting to turn around and call, “Hi, Pa!” Joe didn’t do it. If following him to school gave Pa peace of mind, then so be it.
Joe’s musing was interrupted by a young voice beside his desk.
“I’m done with my story, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Well, good for you, Caleb.”
“Want me to read it to ya’?”
“I sure do, but quietly. The older boys are still taking their test.”
The boy dropped his voice to a pitch just above a whisper. “Okay.”
Joe could picture Caleb’s hands moving across his Braille slate as he read softly,
“The best day I ever had was at Mr. Cartwright’s birthday party. It was a surprise. We ate lots of good food, and played games, and--”
“Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!”
Joe “looked” in the direction of the frantic voice. “Billy, I’m with Caleb right now. Wait your turn, please.”
“But, Mr. Cart--”
“Billy, what have I told you before about interrupting?”
“But, Mr. Cartwright, I smell smoke!”
Joe sniffed, not detecting anything that caused him alarm.
“It’s probably just our lunch cooking down in the kitchen, son.”
“No, Sir! It’s not lunch. I really do smell smoke!”
Several of the boys took deep, noisy whiffs of air. Joe expected to hear them gang up on Billy, telling him he was being the class crybaby again. But instead of that, Tony’s voice rang out.
“He’s not jokin’, Mr. Cartwright! Come ‘ere! Over here by the windows! I can smell it, too.”
Joe stood and walked around Caleb, heading for the bank of windows on the west side of his classroom’s wall. “It’s probably just smoke from one of the factories over on Bridge Street, Tony.” Joe felt for the window latch, flipped it upwards, then lifted the window. “There’s no need to wor--”
Thick dense smoke blew into the room from somewhere directly below Joe. He thought he could hear the roar of fire, but he wasn’t certain. He slammed the window shut, coughing and gasping for a breath of fresh air.
Joe quickly moved away from the windows, grabbed Shakespeare’s leash off of his desk, and called for the dog. He secured the leash to the dog’s collar, grabbed Caleb by the hand, and said to his class in a calm tone that nonetheless broadcast his urgency, “Come on, boys, we have to get outta here.”
Ben approached Adam’s desk, walking around it until he was standing in front of Adam’s chair. He looked down at a piece of paper, seeing the column entitled, Reasons For Surgery, and then the column opposite it entitled, Reasons Against Surgery. Ben, Adam, and Hoss, had composed the list last night after Joe went bed. By looking at the list, you’d think this was an easy decision to make. The column containing the reasons why Joe should have surgery was so short it only held two phrases – ‘Might give Joe his eyesight back,’ and ‘Might prevent an early death.’ The column containing the reasons why he shouldn’t have the surgery was long, and held everything from the phrase ‘Possible paralysis,’ to ‘Death from infection’ to ‘High risk of death taking place on the operating table.’
By length alone, the Reasons Against column should have put an end to further discussion. But there was no arguing that the only two items listed below Reasons For, made a man pause in long thought. What made things worse, was that regardless of what decision they reached – for Joe to have surgery, or for Joe not to have it – the risk of death seemed equally as high.
Right after Joe lost his sight, Ben had seen him suffer through a series of painful headaches that Paul Martin attributed to the concussion. Then the headaches eased, and soon thereafter disappeared all together, not returning, according to Joe, until he and Adam were on the train headed for Boston. The headaches came frequently now, Joe had confessed after supper on Monday. Some were mild enough that he’d been able to keep their existence from Adam, while some were so severe that they incapacitated Joe for hours. From what Joe said, the headache he’d suffered at the Brockingtons’ church on Sunday morning was somewhere in-between mild and severe. One moment he was seated between Ben and Hoss, and the next moment he was telling Ben that he needed some fresh air.
“What?” Ben whispered, trying not to disturb anyone around them.
Joe’s request came through gritted teeth. “Pa, I need you to help me outside.”
Ben would have chided his son, telling him he should have used the water closet before they left home, if he hadn’t noticed the tremble to Joe’s hands, and the way all color seemed to have drained from his face.
Ben was seated next to the aisle, making it easy for him to get up, and then help Joe stand. They’d just gotten outside into the crisp air, when Joe sank to the top step leading into the building.
Ben sat down beside his son, wishing he’d grabbed their coats from the vestibule.
“Joe, what’s wrong?”
Joe took several deep breaths. “Noth-nothing. Just a headache. I-I’ll be okay. Just. . .just need some fresh air.”
“Let me get your coat.”
“No. . .no, don’t need it.”
Ben felt Joe’s forehead. He wasn’t hot to his father’s touch, though his skin was damp and clammy.
“Joe, maybe I should see about finding a doctor. Will you be okay while I go get Adam?”
“Don’t nee-need a doctor, Pa. It’ll pass.”
“Jus-it’s just a headache. I’ll be fine.”
“I might have been more inclined to believe that if you hadn’t winced while you said it.”
A small portion of Ben’s fear subsided when Joe managed to smile at that remark. But before Ben could say anything more, Adam came out of the building. He sat beside Joe, asking him if he was all right, and lifting his hand to the back of Joe’s neck where he gently massaged. This action on Adam’s part, and the way the two conversed back and forth as though whatever was going on was familiar to them, made Ben immediately suspicious that this wasn’t an isolated episode.
“Does he need to see a doctor?” Ben had asked his oldest son.
“I don’t think so, Pa. Give him a few minutes. He’s says he’ll be okay.”
“Just give him a few minutes, Pa.”
It took more than a “few minutes,” but by the time the church service ended forty-five minutes later, Joe was back on his feet and claiming to be fine. If he was anything other than that, Ben couldn’t detect it throughout the afternoon hours they spent at the Brockington estate. That the Cartwrights were in the Brockington house was Adam and Joe’s saving grace where further explanations were concerned. But Ben cornered his oldest child after they arrived home on Sunday night, and let him know that he expected to hear the full story surrounding Joe’s health sooner rather than later. Adam refused to break his brother’s confidence, while at the same time promising an explanation would be forthcoming.
“Pa, I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you anything other than Joe has some things he needs to discuss with you. I’ll make sure he understands he has to do that as soon as possible.”
“Yes,” Ben nodded his head. “You make sure he does.”
And now, because of that discussion, Ben was delaying the return trip to Nevada. The original plans were to be in Boston for three weeks. Although the Transcontinental Railroad made travel much easier and safer than it was all those years ago when Ben headed West in a wagon with little Adam on the seat beside him, he still didn’t fancy the notion of being laid over in some Iowa town for a couple of weeks, because the train couldn’t get through the snow. Therefore, he’d wanted to be traveling towards home before December arrived, but in light of Joe’s health, delays due to snowstorms no longer seemed important, and when the trip home would actually take place, Ben couldn’t guess.
Ben picked up the list and studied it closer. Regardless of what conclusion he might come to about the prospect of surgery, or what conclusion Adam reached, or Hoss decided upon, the decision was ultimately Joe’s. That Joe had gone up to bed early the previous evening, knowing full well what his father and brothers would discuss once he was out of earshot, meant he wanted their input before he decided one way or another. Unfortunately, Ben didn’t know what advice to give his youngest son, any more than Adam or Hoss seemed to know what side of the fence to fall on where this issue was concerned.
It was getting late when Adam and Hoss had finally gone up to bed, leaving this list in the middle of the desk. Ben remained on the main floor another hour. He took long, slow puffs from his pipe, while staring absently out the front window at the glow given off by the streetlamps, then headed up to bed himself. He stopped as he passed Joe’s room. He reached for the knob, quietly opened the door, and stepped inside.
The light from the full moon shining through a separation in the curtains was enough for Ben to see by. He never gave it a thought that he could have lit the gas lamp on the wall, and Joe wouldn’t have known the difference.
Out of the darkness, Ben heard, “Pa?”
“Yes, Joe. How’d you know it was me?”
Ben heard the smile in his son’s voice.
“A mixture of Bay Rum cologne, pipe tobacco clinging to your shirt, and worry.”
Ben stepped farther into the room. “I’m sorry for waking you.”
“You didn’t wake me. I haven’t really fallen asleep yet. Just been dozing on and off.”
Joe scooted over as Ben sat on the edge of his bed. It seemed like the logical time for them to discuss the list Adam had devised, to discuss the pros and cons of surgery, but for some reason, neither of them mentioned it.
Ben felt Joe’s hand questing for his. He encased his son’s palm in a strong grip, hoping that action told Joe everything he couldn’t find the words for at that moment.
It must have, because Joe squeezed his hand and said, “I know, Pa. Believe me, I know.”
Ben swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. “You mind if I sit here with you for a while?”
“No. You can sit here as long as you want to.”
“All right. But you’d better go to sleep. You’ve got school in the morning, young man.”
That comment made Joe chuckle, like Ben hoped it would. His presence seemed to ease Joe of all the concerns swirling through his mind, because soon, Ben heard the soft, even rhythm of breathing that translated to deep slumber.
He sat beside Joe a while longer, then gingerly let go of his son’s hand so he wouldn’t wake him, and tucked Joe’s arm beneath the covers.
Nothing was said about the surgery at breakfast this morning, what with Adam having to rush off, and then Joe leaving not too long afterwards, but Ben knew they’d have to discuss it soon.
Still holding the list in his hands, Ben read through it again, and then again, and then one more time. It seemed an effort in futility, but there had to be an answer here somewhere. Just as Ben let out a sigh of frustration and reached up to kneed the bridge of his nose, the front door was thrown open so hard that it banged against the wall.
“Pa! Hey, Pa! Where are you?”
“In here, Hoss. In Adam’s office! And go easy on the door. Your brother’ll have your hide if you dented the--”
Hoss rushed into the room with his father’s coat in his arms.
“Come on where?”
“There’s a buncha men with buckets runnin’ toward the school.”
“Where Joe and Adam work. One of ‘em said the school’s on fire!”
Ben tossed the hated list toward Adam’s desk and grabbed his coat from Hoss. He followed his son from the room at a run, almost knocking over Mrs. O’Connell in the process.
“Where yeh men be goin’ in such a haste? Don’t yeh want yer lunch, Eric?”
Ben placed his hands on the woman’s shoulders, and tried not to alarm her.
“Seems there might be some trouble down at the school. If Adam comes home, send him there right away.”
“But he said he’d be goin’ to the school as soon as his meetin’ ended, he did.”
“I know!” Ben shouted, as he ran for the front door. “But if he stops by here, tell him to get to the institute as quick as he can!”
Ben didn’t wait for Mrs. O’Connell’s answer. He hadn’t sprinted down a set of steps at a full gallop in a good many years now, but today he did, following Hoss over the long concrete path that descended from the house to the sidewalk. A surge of fear made Ben’s heart pound harder at the sight of a team of horses rushing past pulling a fire wagon.
The clang of a bell from somewhere behind Ben indicated another fire wagon was on its way. Men flew out of their homes and businesses throughout Beacon Hill, joining Ben and Hoss in their dash to the school.
The only thought in Ben’s mind as he ran, was of all those children who couldn’t see. . . . How many would be able to get out safely? And Joe. . .Joe all the way up on the fourth floor of that old building, along with Laddie. Did they have enough notice to get their students and themselves to safety, or were they still teaching, ignorant of the fire that could cut off all escape routes in a matter of minutes?
For just a moment, Ben was awestruck when he reached the school. Flames shot out of first and second story windows. Flames no bucket brigade and fire wagons were going to be able to tame, no matter how many men arrived to help.
Children screamed and cried with fear as adults led them from the building, rushing them down the sidewalk and out of harms way.
“Look for Joe and Laddie!” Ben shouted to Hoss over the roar of the fire, instinctively knowing that Joe wouldn’t have left the building without Laddie and her students accompanying him. “I’ll meet you back here in ten minutes!”
Ben barely heard Hoss’s, “Right, Pa!” as they ran in opposite directions, looking for a head of shaggy salt and pepper curls amongst the people who’d safely fled the raging inferno.