Elias Cross screamed, “Fire!” again, as he hurried his students toward the staircase. “Come on! Let’s go! Go, I said! Faster! Move faster!”
The proximity of the man’s voice led Joe to him. He grabbed Cross by the arm.
“Have you told the other teachers?”
“What’s the matter, Cartwright? Are you deaf as well as blind? I just yelled fire, didn’t I?”
“Did you knock on their doors?”
“No I didn’t knock on their doors. Unhand me! I have a responsibility to my students!”
“You have a responsibility to every student on this floor, Cross! Now help me notify the rest of the teachers.”
Cross wrenched himself from Joe’s grasp, and shoved Joe aside.
“Get away from me, Cartwright, and stay away!” He turned back to his students, running until he was at the head of the line. “Come on! We’re at the top of the stairs. Start moving down! Follow my voice! Hurry! Hurry! Come on now, hurry!”
“You jackass of a coward,” Joe muttered, fury burning so strong that if it weren’t for the children relying on him, he’d have followed Cross and beaten him to a pulp. The man could see. He should have been the last one to leave this floor, not the first.
Joe turned back to his boys. He could smell wispy tendrils of smoke starting to fill the hall. He quickly moved among his students, identifying each one by nothing other than a touch to a shoulder, or to the top of a head, or the side of a face, and gave orders they were too scared to question.
“Henry, get to the front of the line. Billy, get behind Henry. Pete, you’re next. Jacob, get behind Pete. Tony, get behind Jake. Caleb, stand here behind Tony. . . .”
On and on Joe went, until he had all the boys lined up with a younger child in-between two older ones.
“Now grab the hand of the boy in front of you and don’t let go.”
Once Joe’s human chain was formed, he shoved Shakespeare’s leash into Henry’s hands.
“Hang onto Shakespeare, Henry. Keep everyone here. I’ll be right back.”
“Henry, keep everyone here!”
That Henry offered no further protest was a testament to his fear, as well as his trust in Joe.
Joe hurried down the corridor, his right hand gliding across the wall. He didn’t hear any noises coming from the other classrooms that indicated Cross’s cry of, “Fire!” had penetrated their closed doors.
Keeping one hand on the wall for bearing, Joe did what Cross could have accomplished in half the time. He pounded on the first door he came to, while opening it and yelling, “Fire! Everyone out! Fire! Get your students out!”
When there was no sound of a teacher taking charge, or students jumping to their feet, Joe paused to listen. The room had an empty air about it that even a blind man could detect.
Joe moved on. He repeated the pattern of pounding on the door and calling fire with the next room he came to, and then the next, and then the one after that, only to find each one empty. With the exception of Cross, no other teacher on this floor would leave under these circumstances without making sure everyone got out of the building. Joe didn’t have time to dwell on where these teachers and students might be – in the school’s newspaper office, on a field trip, outside at recess – the “where” wasn’t important right now. What was important was the fact that all the sighted teachers on the floor were gone, leaving Joe and Laddie to get their students to safety without help.
Music came from Laddie’s room – the sound of a piano, and girls’ voices singing “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.” Laddie’s students were among several dozen slated to perform at the school’s benefit concert scheduled for the second week in December. The practice session explained why Laddie hadn’t heard anything going on in the hallway.
Joe pounded on Laddie’s door and thrust it open.
“Laddie, come on! Get your girls outta here!”
Notes still vibrated from the piano keys even as Laddie stopped playing. The girls’ voices slowly dwindled out with confusion at the interruption.
“Joe. . . ? What’s going on? Why. .
“There’s a fire.”
“I don’t know, but the hallway’s already filling with smoke. Get the girls out here. I’ll help line them up.”
Laddie instructed her students to place their songbooks on their desks, and then make their way to the door in an orderly fashion.
“Come on, girls,” Joe urged, touching each shoulder that passed by him. He couldn’t identify Laddie’s girls like he could his boys. “Come on, get out in the hall. Line up along this wall.”
The smoke was thicker now. Joe coughed, and for a few brief seconds when he squinted, he swore he saw the foggy haze that was filling his lungs with noxious fumes.
“Laddie, have your girls line up so an older one is in front of a younger one, then make them hold hands!”
Laddie could identify her students by touch as easily as Joe could identify his.
“Mary, stand at the front of the line. Beatrice, there’s no time for crying, honey. We’ll be all right. Now you stand here behind Mary. Jane, stand behind Beatrice. Martha, stand behind Jane.”
Laddie hurried along until she had all twenty of her girls lined up.
“Ready?” Joe questioned.
“I’m gonna lead your girls to my boys. Come on. Take my hand!”
Laddie grasped Joe’s left hand. He placed his right hand on Mary’s shoulder.
“Come on, girls! We’re moving about thirty steps forward. Hurry, but no running! Don’t trip anyone, and keep holding hands.”
When they reached Joe’s class, Joe put Mary’s free hand into the free hand of John, the teenager bringing up the rear of boys’ line.
“Laddie, have the girls call off their names! I’ll do the same with the boys, then we’re gettin’ outta here.”
Joe started with Henry, ordering the boys to call off one by one. He mentally took attendance, confident all twenty of his students were present when the last boy in line shouted, “John!”
Joe was just about to tell Laddie
to grab the hand of the last girl in her line, with his own plans to take
Shakespeare’s leash in one hand, and Henry’s hand in the other, when Laddie
cried, “Charlotte! Charlotte, where are
you? Charlotte! Does anyone know where Charlotte is?”
Joe shouted, “Did we miss one?”
“No, she was here, Joe! I know she was. But she’s so little. She won’t be six for another month. She might have gotten scared and ran back to my room!”
“All right. I’ll go find her!”
“No, I’ll go. She’ll come to me if she’s frightened!”
Smoke blanketed the hall now, causing the kids to cough and wheeze. Laddie was gone before Joe could stop her. He hurried to the front of the line again, barely taking notice that he could see the shadowy outlines of the children through the haze, and the rusty red color of Henry’s hair. He grasped the teenager by the shoulders.
“Henry, you’re gonna have to lead the kids outta here. Our boys, and Miss Brockington’s girls, too.”
“But, Mr. Cart--”
“Look, Henry, you can do it. I know you can. Shakespeare knows the way. He’ll keep you safe. Just hang onto his leash and go wherever he leads you. He’ll take you outside, I promise.”
“O-okay. If-if you say so.”
“I do. I’m counting on you, Henry.”
Those seemed to be the words Henry needed to bolster his confidence.
“I can do it, Mr. Cartwright. I can.”
Joe briefly cupped the side of Henry’s face. “I know you can, son. Now get moving. You’re at the top of the stairs. Tell Shakespeare, “Forward,” and he’ll go.”
As Henry did that, Joe moved down the line, instructing the children to hang onto each other’s hands no matter what.
Caleb stopped his progress. He grasped Joe’s arm.
“I didn’t do it, Mr. Cartwright! I didn’t!”
Joe knelt beside the child. “You
didn’t do what?”
“I didn’t start the fire!”
Joe smiled, running a hand through the boy’s hair – hair that he could faintly see was the color of winter wheat.
“I know you didn’t, Caleb. Now come on. Take Tony’s hand again, and don’t let go.”
“But I don’t wanna leave without you.”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout me. I’ll be outta here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Now do as I say. Take Tony’s hand.”
Without realizing he didn’t fumble at all when seeking out the boys’ hands, Joe cleanly slipped Caleb’s into Tony’s.
Joe kept reminding the kids to hold hands, while assuring them they’d be all right as they passed by him in a linked line. Those in front were already making their way down the stairs, as Shakespeare led them toward the third floor. Joe could only pray the dog would find them safe passage to the first floor, and then to one of several doors that led outside. Or, better yet, he prayed they’d meet up with a sighted person who could take charge of them. He imagined that, by now, caretakers and groundskeepers were doing all they could to help the students from the building.
As the last girl reached the top step, Joe ran for Laddie’s classroom. Black would give way to gray, then reappear, then give way again, as though Joe’s sight was fighting to return. There was no time for Joe to worry about what this meant. If a blood clot killed him instantly – well, it was a better way to die than burning up in a fire, that was for sure. However, before death claimed him, no matter what the cause, Joe was determined to get Laddie to safety. Adam had suffered enough in recent years. He didn’t need to lose this woman he loved more than he was willing to acknowledge.
Joe could hear Laddie yelling, “Charlotte! Charlotte!” as he ran in to her room. He joined in the search.
“Charlotte! Charlotte, where are you?”
Joe dropped to his knees, trying to think of places a child would hide.
“Feel under the desks, Laddie!”
Joe didn’t wait for an answer as his hands traveled a row of cupboards that held books and paper. He opened door after door, feeling inside while calling the child’s name. When he didn’t find the missing girl, he searched under Laddie’s desk, then beneath the piano, and then crawled to every corner of the room, trying not to think of how much precious time they were losing. Trying not to think of how even just a few seconds could make the difference between life and death when attempting to escape a fire. He crossed the room next, and searched the cupboards lining another wall. It wasn’t until he reached the very last cabinet that he saw a flash of blue gingham topped by a white pinafore, then heard sobs.
“Come on, Charlotte. It’s okay, sweetheart. We’re gonna be fine.” He reached inside, pulling the huddled child out and into his arms. Over his shoulder he yelled to Laddie, “I found her!”
“In one of the cupboards. I’ve got her in my arms. Now come on, let’s get outta here!”
Joe shifted Charlotte to his right hip. He held out his left hand, snaring Laddie’s arm as her shadow came into view through the smoke. She moved her hand up to clasp his, so she and Joe, too, formed a human chain.
Laddie crooned words of comfort to the crying Charlotte, as Joe led the way out of the room.
“Stop crying now, Charlotte. It’ll be okay. We’ll be outside soon.”
“I want my mama!”
“I know you
do, sweetheart, but Mama isn’t here, so you must be a brave girl and do what
Mr. Cartwright and I say. Can you do that for me?”
Joe felt a small nod against his shoulder. He assumed the child verbally answered Laddie as well, but between the sound of fire burning somewhere below them, and his own coughs, he couldn’t hear what she said. She’d calmed down a little though, so at least Laddie’s presence was soothing her.
“Joe, where are we?”
Joe squinted, no longer knowing if his world was gray because his eyes were playing some sort of tricks on him, or because he was actually seeing what was ahead of him.
“Almost to the stairs. Hang onto my hand! We’re headed to the first floor as fast as I can get us there.”
“But the fire! I can hear it!”
“Never mind the fire! Let me worry about that. Just don’t let go of my hand, Laddie. I’ll get us outta here! I promise.”
In many ways, all of this time spent without his sight was an asset for Joe. Even with perfect vision, he wouldn’t have been able to see through the smoke. Therefore, he had to rely on how well he’d come to know this building in order to get himself, Laddie, and little Charlotte to safety. Joe hugged the wall with his body, silently counting each stair step as he led Laddie to the third floor, and then continued down toward the second.
The fire roared louder now, and the smoke was so thick that tears streamed from Joe’s burning eyes. Charlotte had her head buried in Joe’s shirt, trying in vain to keep the smoke out of her lungs, while Laddie’s choking coughs spoke of how little fresh air she was getting. As Joe rounded the corner to the landing that would drop them off on the second floor, or allow them to continue down the stairs to the first, a flash of orange through the gray caught his attention. He looked the other way, seeing fire roaring from that direction, too. The flames were just seconds away from gobbling up the second floor landing.
He turned around, dragging Laddie along with him.
“We can’t get out this way! We’re going back to the third floor!”
“But, Joe, we can’t go up there! We’ll be trap. . . “
“Laddie, just hang onto my hand! Now come on, let’s go!”
Joe dashed up the stairs. The speed of his sprint forced Laddie to lift the hem of her skirts with her free hand so she wouldn’t trip.
When his boots hit the third floor landing, Joe turned left, pulling Laddie into the first classroom he came to. It was directly below his room, meaning that it, too, had a long bank of windows that faced the street below.
Joe shut the door. The room was filled with smoke, but by closing the door, Joe hoped to keep more smoke from drifting in. He ran to the windows, steering Laddie clear of the vague outline of desks.
He thrust Charlotte into Laddie’s arms.
“Hang onto her! Whatever you do, don’t set her down!”
Coughing and gasping, the sweat-soaked Joe unlatched a middle window and raised it. He stuck his head out, and was immediately overwhelmed by the smoke rising from below. He pulled his upper body back into the room. He’d seen enough fires in the timberlands of the West to know that the smoke could shift quickly, depending on a change in the wind. Just because he was obscured from view now, didn’t mean someone below wouldn’t be able to see him a minute from now.
Joe looked around the room. Everything was fuzzy and out-of-focus. His sight suddenly went black again, as an excruciating stab of pain ripped from one temple straight through to the other like a bolt of lightning streaking across the sky.
No! Not now! No! Joe silently pleaded. Not now!
He doubled over for a just a second, clutching his head. Then, as quickly as the pain came, it was gone, and that fuzzy, out-of-focus world was back.
Joe took in smoky gulps of air as he looked around the room again. He spotted what he wanted and dashed for it. Laddie’s soft words of comfort to the terrified Charlotte droned on in the background, as the roar of a fire rapidly digesting a stairway grew ever closer.
Joe ran with the American flag like a soldier charging a hill. He thrust it out of the open window and waved it back and forth, all the while praying someone saw it as he yelled, “Up here! We’re up here! Hey, we’re up here!”
Adam tucked his wool scarf a little deeper inside his topcoat. The wind ruffled his hair and nipped his cheeks almost numb, reminding him that winter would soon settle in for good. The blustery, gray day didn’t dampen Adam’s spirits, however. The meeting at Edward’s office had been a profitable one, both figuratively speaking, as well as literally. Next year’s budget should now allow for additional dorm parents, three additional teachers, and some necessary improvements to the school building. And Joe’s dream of starting a school in Virginia City might even have taken on the beginnings of roots today. Of course, roots were a long way from a full-grown tree, but if nothing else, Adam would be able to offer his brother some solid advice and guidance when they sat down together in December and discussed, “Joe’s Western School,” as Adam was already thinking of it.
The headmaster tried not to allow troublesome thoughts of his brother’s health to intrude into his plans for the future. Whether or not Joe should have surgery. . .well, Adam hadn’t formed an opinion yet. He’d venture to guess his father and Hoss hadn’t, either. How the hell does a man help his brother decide whether or not to undergo an operation that would likely kill him? Yet, choosing not to have the operation might prove to be just as deadly. It was a dilemma Adam had avoided thinking about that morning, when he needed to concentrate on the meeting instead. But now that the meeting had ended, Joe’s fate pushed its way to the forefront of Adam’s mind.
He paid little attention to the passing scenery, not registering at first, the fire wagon that passed them, or the men running behind it carrying buckets. It wasn’t until the stable boy driving the carriage pointed toward the east.
“Look, Headmaster. Smoke there in the distance.”
Adam stared at the thick black cloud billowing upward.
“Whatever’s a’ burnin’ is sure burnin’ hot and fast.”
“Yes, it certainly is,” Adam agreed, leaning forward in his seat. “Have the horse pick up his pace, Darby. If that fire’s anywhere near the school, we’d better evacuate the building just to err on the side of caution.”
The young man slapped the horse’s rump with the reins. “Gid-up! Gid-up, there now! Gid-up!”
The sudden change in speed threw Adam backwards, but he didn’t complain. Fire could burn through a city quickly, especially on a windy day like this one. If even the smallest flicker of flames danced close to the school, Adam wanted the students and staff out as fast as possible. A couple of hours standing in the cold while waiting for the danger to pass, was better than being trapped in a burning building.
Adam reviewed his options for housing the students, if the safest choice was to leave the school empty throughout the night. Edward would be the first to volunteer to put up a good portion of the children in his home, and Adam could probably make room for Joe’s boys, even though they’d have to sleep on the floors throughout the first and second story. At least Pa and Hoss were there to help keep an eye on the kids. And then there were other staff members who lived in Boston, too, who could temporarily house students, as well as house teachers who resided at the school.
All in all, Adam thought he was prepared for what he might be facing, until the carriage turned a corner, and he saw it wasn’t a building near the school that was on fire, but the school itself.
Adam jumped from the moving carriage. He shoved people aside, looking for anyone he recognized. Of the two hundred students in the building, fifty were gone on a field trip to a candy factory owned by a blind man. That covered many of the students on the fourth floor. Amongst the exceptions, however, were Elias Cross’s students, because he found field trips to be “frivolous endeavors,” and refused to allow his class to participate in them. The remaining exceptions were Joe’s class and Laddie’s class, because this wasn’t an excursion first-year students went on.
A cry of, “Headmaster! Headmaster, over here!” drew Adam’s attention to the grounds north of the school. He weaved through firemen and ordinary citizens with buckets of water, fighting his way to Killian Murphy. As he got closer, Adam saw Killian’s wife, Maggie, the entire kitchen staff, teachers, nurses, caretakers, groundskeepers, stable boys, and children – the beautiful sight of scores of children milling about, being tended to by adults attempting to calm their fears and dry their eyes.
Adam scanned the crowd for a glimpse of Laddie or Joe, while asking, “Killian, is everyone out?”
“I’m not certain, Sir. We were just ‘bout to take a headcount, we were.”
The man reeked of smoke; his clothes and face were smudged with soot, and his eyes bloodshot. Adam wondered how many times Killian had risked his life to run into that building in an effort to get children to safety. He noted groundskeepers and caretakers in the same condition, their continuous coughing and streaming eyes a testament to multiple trips in and out of the burning school.
Adam stood on the toes of his boots, straining to see over the crowd. “My brother and Miss Brockington. . .?”
“I’m sorry, Headmaster, I ‘aven’t seen ‘em yet. But surely they got out. Mr. Cross did.”
Adam moved amongst his staff and students, searching for Elias Cross. He took careful note of everyone he passed. Other than the teachers away on the field trip, the only names he hadn’t silently recited in his own form of taking attendance were Laddie Brockington and Joe Cartwright.
Elias Cross stood at the far edge of the crowd, forever the outsider by his own choice. Adam ran over to him.
“Elias, where’re my brother and Miss Brockington?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“What do you mean, you wouldn’t know? You didn’t leave them behind, did you?”
“Really, Headmaster, your brother is a most stubborn man. Wants to do things his own way, like a cowboy on the range, I quite imagine.”
“Does that mean you saw him?”
“Yes, I saw him. He tried to keep me and my students from leaving.”
“If he tried to keep you from leaving, then he had a good reason.”
“Not one that I could see.”
“Did he ask for your help, Cross?”
When Elias refused to answer, Adam grabbed a fistful of the man’s suit coat and jerked him forward.
“I asked you a question, Elias. Did my brother ask for your help?”
The man paled in the face of Adam’s fury. “He. . .he might have. Something about notifying the other teachers on our floor. But I’d already yelled fire, and besides, my first responsibility was to my students, wouldn’t you say?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
And with that, Adam let go of the man’s coat, drew back his fist, and punched Elias in the jaw. The teacher flew backwards; landing sprawled on the ground, his limbs akimbo like some kind of ill-manufactured long-legged doll a child had discarded.
Adam glared down at the man, not caring who’d just witnessed his assault on the teacher.
“You know, Cross, my brother’s right. You are a whiney jackass.
Adam turned away from Cross, unable to stand the sight of him. He put one foot forward, almost in motion to dash into the burning school, when someone hailed him over the roar of the fire.
“Adam! Hey, Adam! Adam, over here!”
The voice belonged to one of Adam’s brothers, but not the brother he was searching for.
Adam looked to his right, seeing his father and Hoss running toward him. He didn’t bother asking them how they’d known about the fire, or how long they’d been on the grounds. The only question of importance came from his mouth the instant they reached his side.
“Have you seen Joe and Laddie?”
By the looks on their faces, Adam knew the answer before Hoss gave it.
“Haven’t seen neither of ‘em. Hoped they’d be over here somewhere with the other teachers.”
“They’re not.” Adam said. “No one’s seen them. And I haven’t seen their students, either.”
Pa’s eyes traveled to the flames shooting from a second story window. “We tried getting in the building. The firemen wouldn’t let us near it.”
Adam’s gaze locked with his father’s. “Since when do the Cartwrights let something like that stop them?”
“That’s exactly what I said to Hoss right before we spotted you.”
“Come on,” Adam beckoned, pointing toward the rear of the building. “There’s a back hall where supplies are delivered. Maybe we can get in that way.”
The three men ran together toward the back of the school. The wind blew smoke over their heads, but that didn’t prevent them from swallowing a good dose of it. The closer they got to the building, the harder it was to breathe. Adam wondered how much longer anyone trapped in the school could possibly survive. Did they have minutes left, or only seconds, or had Laddie, Joe, and their students, already perished?
Adam stopped short, stunned and almost disbelieving, when through the gray haze, he saw Shakespeare emerge from the door that opened into the back hall. Following Shakespeare was Henry, gripping the dog’s leash. He passed the leash off to the child behind him, Billy Fitzgerald. Henry briefly said something to Billy, then remained where he was and held the door open for the rest of the students, who appeared one by one, holding hands, coughing, and in some cases crying, but alive. Very much alive.
The boys came first – Adam counted all twenty of them as he sped toward them – and then came the line of girls. Shakespeare knew exactly where he wanted to take his charges – to the ball diamond they often played on, that was far enough away from the burning building to provide safety.
Adam was barely aware of other people joining him and his family – Killian, Maggie, and several of the caretakers, ushered the children over to their fellow students and teachers. He heard Maggie’s, “They’re all here but one!” which he took to mean a student of Laddie’s was missing. He waited by the open door, straining to see down the smoke-filled hallway, sure that at any moment, Laddie, Joe, and the missing child would appear.
Henry’s shouts of, “Is everyone out? Are they all here?” drew Adam’s attention to the teenager. He put his hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“Henry, where are Miss Brockington and my brother?”
The boy bent over at the waist, his hands on his knees as he took big gulps of fresh air. Adam bent down so he could hear the teen.
“They wen-went ta’ look for Charlotte,” Henry explained between coughs. “She ra-ran way-away and hid. Mr. Cartwright made me take Shakespeare and lead the rest of the kids out. Are they all here? Did they get out?”
“Everyone’s here, Henry. You did a top-notch job.”
“But what about Mr. Cartwright and Miss Brock--”
“I’ll find them. Now come on. Go with Mr. Murphy. He’ll take you to where everyone’s gathered. You’ll be safe there.”
Adam passed the teenager off to the dorm father. He looked at his own father and Hoss, both ready to enter the building with their kerchiefs tied around their noses and mouths. If Joe could see them, he’d laugh and say they looked like a couple of misfit bank robbers, but now wasn’t the time to think of Joe’s quick wit. Now was the time to try and find him and Laddie.
Adam didn’t bother asking his father or brother to tie his own kerchief around his face. With the toe of his boot, he knocked a block of wood they kept by the door beneath its frame, so it would stay propped open. He then dashed into the building with Pa and Hoss right behind him. Smoke immediately filled Adam’s lungs and burned his eyes. As thick and solid as a wall, the black smoke obscured Adam’s vision in a way that gave him an idea of what it must feel like to be blind.
Despite their determination, the three men didn’t make it beyond the point where that supply hallway opened onto the main corridor of the first floor. A wall of fire rolling at them from both ends of the corridor drove them back. Hoss grabbed onto his father’s coat and yelled, “Come on, Pa! Come on! We gotta get outta here!” when it appeared as though Pa didn’t plan on letting anything stop him from finding his youngest son.
They tumbled out into the yard, coughing and gasping for air, Pa and Hoss pulling their kerchiefs from their faces and using them to wipe their burning eyes. Just as the first powerful waves of grief washed over Adam as he thought of what must have happened to his little brother, the woman he loved, and a child so young that he almost hadn’t accepted her for this year’s school term, two of his caretakers rounded the corner.
“Headmaster! Headmaster, ‘round front! They’re around front!”
Adam didn’t have to ask who “they” were. He followed Ray and Boyd, shouting to his father and Hoss, “Come on!”
As Adam reached the front of the building, he expected to see Laddie, Joe, and Charlotte standing somewhere on the sidewalk, but instead, his eyes were directed thirty feet upward by Ray’s pointing finger and instruction of, “Look!”
Adam wasn’t sure who mumbled a shocked, “Oh my Lord. . .” - himself, his father, Hoss, or some other bystander altogether.
An American flag waved back and forth from an open third story window. Seconds later, the flag’s movement stopped, and Joe stuck his head out.
“We’re up here! Hey, up here! We’re up here!”
Yes, you’re up there, all right, Adam thought, watching with dismay as flames ate their way through the first and second floors, showing no signs of slowing in their hungry quest for the remainder of the building.
You’re up there, and I have no idea how the hell we’re going to get you down.
The room grew hotter with each passing minute, as though someone was shoveling coal into an already overheated boiler. That meant just one thing – the fire was burning fiercer, and getting closer.
Joe coughed through the film of smoke, calling again, “We’re up here! Hey, we’re up here!”
At first, the call back was faint and garbled by all the noise below. But the second time it came, it was louder and clearer, as though everyone outside the building had been ordered to be quiet.
“Joe! Joe, we’re right below ya’! Are Laddie and the little girl with you?”
It was Hoss’s voice, and as the smoke momentarily parted and blew off to the north, Joe saw the shadowy image of his middle brother. His vision wasn’t clear enough to make out Hoss’s features, but he could see the burly brown coat his brother wore, and the ten-gallon hat sitting on top of his head.
“Hoss!” Joe called back.
With his hands cupped around his mouth so the sound would travel better, Hoss repeated, “Joe, are Laddie and the girl with you?”
“Yeah! They’re right here behind me!”
“Okay! Joe, now listen ta’ me, and listen ta’ me good! You’re gonna have ta’ throw ‘em down ta’ me, then you’re gonna have ta’ jump!”
Before Joe could yell, “What?” in a voice he was certain would have come out three octaves above his normal range, he noticed Adam and Pa for the first time. Like Hoss’s features, theirs were indistinct. Nonetheless, just by their wild gestures, Joe could tell they were saying a few, “What’s?” of their own to Hoss’s plan, and probably a good number of other things as well.
Joe knew the raging fire wasn’t going to allow for any kind of a logical plan on Adam’s part, or a safe plan on Pa’s. Therefore, the only possible plan to follow was the one Hoss had already lain out.
The man didn’t wait for his family to finish their discussion. He charged to the front of the room and tossed the teacher’s chair out of the way. He grabbed one end of the teacher’s desk and pushed it across the floor, stopping when he reached the open window. In this classroom, like in all the rest, the windows were long and wide, probably built that way to allow as much of a breeze in as possible during the warm days of September and May. Right now, the reason for their size didn’t matter. What did matter was, the length and width just might be an asset.
“Joe?” Laddie asked, “Joe, what are you doing?”
“Moving the desk.”
“So I have something to stand on.” Joe scrambled onto the desk, then turned to the woman. “Give me Charlotte.”
She tightened her grip on the child with a questioning, “Joe. . .?”
Laddie had evidently heard enough of what Hoss said to have strong reservations about implementing it. Not that Joe blamed her, but if his father and brothers were gathered on the street below, then that meant it was no longer possible for anyone to get into the building.
“Give her to me, Laddie.”
“What are you--”
“Just give me Charlotte. It’ll be okay. We’re gonna get outta here.”
“Hoss is down below us. Adam and my pa, too.”
When all Laddie said was a hesitant, “But. . . .” Joe surmised the fear filling her mind prevented her from wondering how he knew his father and Adam were with Hoss.
“Don’t worry. As my pa would be the first to tell you, Hoss and I have pulled off some pretty “darn fool” things in our day, without a scratch to either one of us. We won’t let you or Charlotte get hurt.”
“But what about a ladder? Can’t they set a ladder up?”
“They must not have one tall enough to reach us,” Joe answered. He left out the other reason a ladder would no longer be of any help to them. Flames were shooting out of the windows below them. A ladder would be incinerated seconds after being propped against the building.
Although Laddie didn’t like Hoss’s plan, she must have come to the same realization Joe had. That if Adam was on the street, as opposed to racing up the stairway to rescue her, then the only possible escape was through the window. She reluctantly passed the sobbing Charlotte to Joe.
As he turned toward the window, Joe ordered, “Stay right here behind me.”
Laddie let out a small, uneasy laugh. “I don’t think my options for going anywhere else are very good at the moment.”
“No,” Joe agreed, with a small laugh of his own “I don’t think so, either.”
Joe held Charlotte’s upper body tightly against his chest with his right arm; her legs sprawled over his left. He couldn’t allow her to clamp her arms around his neck. If she managed to get in that position, he’d never be able to get her loose and toss her to Hoss.
He stuck his head out the window again. If his family’s debate wasn’t over yet, he’d put a quick end to it. He could hear the crackle of burning wood as the flames climbed the stairway. There was no time left for anyone to come up with another escape plan.
Through the smoke, Joe caught a glimpse of a black top hat to Pa’s left, and a white carriage parked on the other side of the street. Somehow, word of the fire had reached Edward Brockington. Joe didn’t tell Laddie her father was below, as he focused solely on communicating with Hoss.
“I’m right here, Joe!”
“Just like at home, Hoss! It’s no different than when I’m in the loft!”
“Gottcha’, little brother!”
That, “Gottcha’, little brother!” told Joe that Hoss understood what he’d meant by the reference to the loft. Now that he was on the desk in front of the big open window, it was similar to standing in the barn’s hayloft. Joe couldn’t count the number of times over the years that he’d cleanly tossed sacks full of feed down to Hoss, and Hoss had cleanly caught them. Of course, he was thirty feet off the ground this time, not fifteen. And between his wavering eyesight and the smoke, not to mention the flames at the windows right below him, this would likely be a lot more challenging than what he and Hoss were used to, but they didn’t have any choice. Besides, Charlotte weighed less than a sack of feed, so at least that was in their favor.
“I’ve got the girl, Hoss! I’m sending her down!”
“Okay! I’m at the edge of the sidewalk, Joe! That’s as close as I can get! I’m right outside the window you’re at, standin’ at the edge of the sidewalk!”
“All right!” Joe called in return, not telling Hoss he could make out the outline of his body. This wasn’t the time to get everyone excited about the return of his eyesight. First of all, Joe wasn’t holding out any hope that it would last long. And second of all, if he died today, he didn’t want Pa grieving over a miracle Joe hadn’t lived to enjoy.
Hoss kept calling instructions, telling Joe how many feet he was from the building, so Joe would have a way to judge how far he’d have to toss Charlotte. It was a risky enough action if a man possessed good vision. Joe’s was indistinct at best, and the smoke wasn’t helping any. But it was either this, or stay up here with Laddie and Charlotte and wait to suffocate to death, or burn to death. Neither option appealed to Joe. If he was going to meet his Maker today, then he was doing it on his own terms.
Joe spoke briefly to Charlotte. He had no regrets about lying to her. After all, regardless of age, no one wanted to be told they were about to be thrown out a window.
“Charlotte, honey, my brother is standing right outside waiting for me to hand you to him. He’s a big, strong, friendly man. He’ll keep you safe.”
Whether the girl heard him or not, Joe didn’t know. Her sobs continued without interruption, and he thought maybe it was better that way. Maybe it was best if she was frightened to the point that she could no longer process what was happening.
“Hoss! You ready?”
“I’m ready, Joe!”
“She weighs about 40 pounds!”
“All right! Send her down!”
Joe said a fast prayer, waited a second longer for the smoke to part again, saw the outline of Hoss standing at the edge of the sidewalk, judged the distance he needed to cover, and then pitched Charlotte out of the window like he’d pitch a sack of feed out of the hayloft.
The child’s hysterical screams followed her all the way to Hoss’s arms. Joe didn’t have to be able to see clearly to know Hoss had caught her. The cheers that filtered up through the sound of the fire told him Charlotte was safely on the ground.
Seconds later, Joe heard Hoss’s holler of, “Joe, I’m ready for Laddie!”
Joe turned around. “Charlotte’s down, Laddie. It’s your turn next.”
“Is she okay?”
“She fine. Hoss caught her, just like I knew he would. Now come on.”
Joe put his hands on Laddie arms and helped her climb onto the desk. She was close enough now for Joe to get his first good look at her. By any account, she was a beautiful woman. Pale blue eyes, an unblemished, fine-boned face, tiny hands that fit perfectly on a petite body that couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and five pounds, topped by hair the color of desert sand – a cross between gold and ivory.
Joe scooped up Laddie, holding her the same way he’d held Charlotte. Tossing her beyond the flames below would be a little trickier, since she was larger than Charlotte, but Joe knew he could do it, just like he knew Hoss could catch her. He felt the woman trembling against his chest.
“Don’t worry. Hoss’ll catch you.”
In a firm voice that nonetheless wasn’t able to hide her fear, she said, “I know.”
Joe moved to the edge of the desk, and again waited for the wind to part the smoke so he could judge the distance he needed to throw Laddie. Hoss shouted from below, guiding Joe with his voice.
“Joe, come on! I’m ready!”
“She weighs about a hundred pounds, Hoss!”
“Joe Cartwright. . .”
Joe laughed at Laddie’s scolding tone. “Sorry about that, but he has to know.”
“I hope he’s caught a hundred pounds before.”
“Oh, no need to fret about that. He’s caught a lot more than a hundred pounds, and I’ve tossed a lot more than that to him.”
“All. . .all right.”
Joe gave the woman a quick kiss on her temple. “When this is all over, if that oldest brother of mine doesn’t ask you to marry him, then you tell him I’m gonna ask you.”
“For him, or for you?”
“For me, of course. Pa’s always sayin’ I need a wife to keep me on a straight and narrow path.”
Laddie laughed, which is what Joe wanted her to do. She didn’t have time to say anything else before Joe called, “Hoss! Here she comes!” and threw her out the window.
Laddie didn’t scream going down, but Joe knew she must have wanted to. Her arms and legs flailed as her skirts billowed above her thighs. It wasn’t the most modest way for a lady to travel, but modesty was hardly important at this moment.
Again, cheers from below told Joe that his brother had caught the woman. Seconds later, Hoss’s call came again.
“Joe! Come on! Hurry!”
Joe stood at the edge of the desk, looking below. His vision was no clearer, but that’s not what made him hesitate. He paused because he had no idea how to jump without hurting Hoss. He didn’t think he could jump in a seated position, like he’d tossed Charlotte and Laddie. Yet, slamming into Hoss by going down feet first could injure both of them.
The shouts escalated from below, as Adam and Pa joined with Hoss in urging Joe to jump. Joe knew that meant the fire was spreading even more rapidly. As he stepped out onto the window ledge, still trying to decide how he should proceed, the door rattled behind him, as though someone was trying to break into the classroom. That “someone” was the fire. It gobbled up the door with a whooshing roar. Just as the man bent his knees to leap, an explosion rocked the building, sending glass, wood, bricks, and Joe Cartwright, soaring through the air.
~ ~ ~
For a few moments, Joe felt like he was flying. He went up, instead of down, and seemed to hang in mid-air for several seconds, before he plunged toward the ground. With no warning, his vision was suddenly as clear as it had been before he’d lost his sight. As he fell toward the sidewalk, Joe saw the terror in his father’s eyes, the disbelief in Adam’s, and the determination in Hoss’s. Then, as unexpectedly as his plunge started, it was over, and Joe saw nothing.
Adam trudged up the sidewalk toward home, Shakespeare at his side. Exhaustion and the smell of smoke both clung heavily to the headmaster, making him long for a hot bath and a soft bed. He’d been moving non-stop throughout the afternoon, and well into the evening hours. So much had needed to be done, from making arrangements to house the students, to assuring the children that everything would be fine, to assigning various staff members the responsibility of wiring parents to let them know about the fire, that their child was unharmed, and that Christmas break was starting right now. It would likely be a week or two before most of the children were headed home, and some would probably have to remain with family, friends, or school staff members here in Boston, but at least the notification process was underway. Adam didn’t want any parent to read of the fire in a newspaper, before having heard about it first from the institute.
The fact that no children had been harmed was the best news of all. The building was gone, other than a few walls that stood as charred and blackened reminders of the school Adam had grown to love. The fire still smoldered, and would do so for days yet, but at least it hadn’t spread to other parts of the city, or to any other area of the school’s grounds. The boys’ dormitory was still standing as well, and other than needing a good cleaning and airing out to get rid of the soot and smoke that had drifted in, it could be occupied again in January. Since the girls’ dormitory was attached to the school, it had been lost to the fire.
Like the children, all of Adam’s staff members were accounted for and unharmed. Well, all except for Joe. He’d been unconscious when Hoss carried him to the carriage Edward insisted they use. Joe was taken back to Adam’s house, pale and limp in Hoss’s arms, with Pa and Hiram Nichols riding in the carriage, too. Hiram had arrived at the school to see if he could be of any help just seconds before Joe’s dramatic exit from the third story. Amongst the blessings God provided that day, Hiram’s timely appearance was one of them.
As much as Adam had wanted to be in that carriage with his family, his responsibility to the school forced him to remain behind. Pa understood, because he was the first to say, “We’ll take care of Joseph. You stay here and do what you need to.”
So, Adam had stayed at the institute, all the while hoping his father would send word about Joe. But word never came, which worried Adam now, as he walked home after dark with the gas streetlights glowing overhead. Even this far from the school, he could still smell the smoldering wood and paper.
Adam hadn’t seen Laddie for several hours, either. As long as he lived, he knew he’d never forget the fear and apprehension that lodged in his throat as he watched Joe throw little Charlotte out of that window, followed by Laddie. Adam trusted Hoss, but this was hardly the escape plan he wanted to see put into action. Trouble was, neither Adam nor his father could come up with any other way to get Joe, Laddie and Charlotte out of the building. Every second counted by then, and Hoss’s plan was the only one available to them. To think that Hoss could guide their blind brother with nothing but his voice when it came to throwing two human beings out a third story window of a burning building. . .well, Adam hadn’t thought it possible at first. However, he should have known that with all the crazy things Hoss and Joe had done over the years, they were well-matched to pull off something this crazy, too. And praise God that they were.
After Joe was taken from the scene, Laddie insisted to Adam and her father that she was fine. She had her father carry Charlotte to where the other children were, going along with him, and taking charge of her girls again. Seventeen of Laddie’s students were staying at the Brockington mansion tonight, while three of them who lived in Boston, including Charlotte, were already at home with their families. Whether Charlotte would ever get over her fright remained anyone’s guess. The last time Adam had seen her, she was crying quietly in her father’s arms, still trembling yet, and having a hard time verbalizing what she’d been through. Due to her young age, though, Adam thought her resiliency would kick in after some time had passed. Charlotte came from a wealthy old Boston family, not that dissimilar from Laddie’s family. Therefore, Adam knew she’d get all the love and attention she needed in the coming weeks.
Long after Edward could have gone home, he remained on the school grounds, helping Adam in any way possible. Adam would forever be grateful to the man. It was Edward who wouldn’t allow the headmaster to consider not resuming classes until next September.
“I have a building we can convert to a temporary school. It’s only a few miles from here. Killian can bring the boys over from the dormitory each morning. We’ll find a way to get a dormitory in operation for the girls by the time they return from Christmas break.”
“But, Edward, that’s a lot to accomplish before January.”
“Yes, Adam, I suppose it is, but we shall get it done. You’ll have stable boys, groundskeepers, caretakers, and cooks, all eager to continue drawing a salary. I can’t imagine it will make much difference to them if they have to draw that salary by setting up classrooms, as opposed to doing their regular tasks, can you?”
“No, I guess I can’t. I’m sure they’ll do whatever job I ask of them, but as for pay. . .until I talk to the school board, I have no idea if the school can even be rebuilt.”
“Mark my words, it’ll be rebuilt. And you go right ahead and tell the board members I said that.”
Adam had too many other things on his mind to question what Edward meant, but an educated guess told him Laddie’s father planned to solicit donations from amongst his wealthy social circle in order to get a new school constructed.
At this point, Adam was too tired, and too worried about Joe, to think any more about the school. He’d talked to most of the board members throughout the afternoon, as they showed up one by one, drawn to the institute by the news of the fire, and bringing blankets, hats, mittens, and coats along with them that were distributed amongst the children. Adam was to meet with the board on Friday morning at Robert Sheridan’s home. There would be time enough then to discuss the school’s future.
Adam walked through the open gate, and traveled up the steps to his house. Lamps burned from all the downstairs rooms. If there was a light on upstairs in Joe’s room, Adam couldn’t see it, because that bedroom window faced the south yard.
The man opened his front door, allowing Shakespeare to walk in ahead of him. It didn’t surprise Adam when the dog headed straight for the kitchen, intent on reaching his food and water bowls.
Adam removed his smoky coat and scarf, hanging them outside over the black iron stair railing. He shut the door and stepped farther into the house. The parlor was empty and quiet, though someone had a fire burning in the fireplace. Movement from his right drew Adam’s attention to the dining room. Laddie rose from a chair.
“Adam?” She questioned, her voice hoarse and raspy.
“Yes, it’s me.”
She ran to him, laying the side of her face against his chest as he pulled her close.
“You shouldn’t,” he scolded, as he kissed the top of her head. “I smell like smoke, and you, pretty lady, look like you’ve already had a bath.”
She nodded, but wouldn’t step out of his embrace. “Mother drew one for me after I got the girls settled. I must say it was the most appreciated bath I’ve ever taken.”
Adam chuckled. “I understand the feeling.”
“At Mrs. O’Connell’s insistence, I’ve been sitting here nursing a cup of tea with lemon and honey in it for my throat, while waiting for you to get home.”
“Where’s Elliot? I didn’t see the carriage outside.”
“He went to eat supper. He’ll be back for me in a little while. Mother, Helen, and Margaret are at the house with the girls. They were all sleeping when I left. Even the older ones.”
“I surmise we have a lot of tired students who are already asleep for the night.”
“Yes, I surmise so, as well.”
Adam’s eyes wandered to the stairs. “Do you know how Joe is?”
Laddie stepped back just enough to “look” up at Adam. “Unconscious or sleeping, I’m not sure which. I don’t believe your father is certain, either.”
“Joe regained consciousness about two hours ago – shortly after I arrived. Mrs. O’Connell said that he didn’t open his eyes, and he wasn’t aware of his surroundings, but he did mumble an apology to your father regarding some accident with a horse, then threw up on his bedcovers, and then lapsed back into a state of unawareness. For as much as that alarmed your father and Hoss, it seemed to be what Hiram wanted to happen. He said Joe should wake up on his own time now, and God willing, with no serious repercussions.”
“To quote that big “little” brother of yours, ‘I’m juz fine, Miss Laddie. Thanks fer askin’.’ Now if you want Mrs. O’Connell’s observation, Hoss is, ‘bruised, battered, and a wee bit sore, but Eric’ll be fit as a fiddle after a few good meals, he will be.’ ”
Adam smiled with amusement. “Hoss always seems to be fit as a fiddle after a few good meals. He was lucky he wasn’t seriously injured – or even killed – with the way Joe landed on him.”
“That’s what Hiram told me. And he said Joe was lucky he did land on Hoss, otherwise he’d have very likely been killed.”
“Hoss never gave up on trying to catch him. That’s why Joe slammed into Hoss’s chest and knocked him off his feet.”
“You told me once that Hoss and Joe have always been partners in crime, in every way that phrase can be defined. I think their partnership paid off today, don’t you?”
“Very much so. I imagine Pa will probably forgive any future shenanigans on their parts for quite a while to come.”
“I imagine you’re correct.”
“Are they upstairs?”
“Your father and Hoss?”
“Uh huh,” Adam said, as he pulled the woman to his chest again, and rested one cheek on top of her head.
“Your father’s sitting with Joe. At his insistence, Hoss went to bed a little while ago.”
“She’s puttering about here and there, trying to make sure everyone’s comfortable. She has your supper in the warmer.”
“I’ll eat in a few minutes. After I check on Joe.”
Laddie’s arms tightened around Adam’s waist at the mention of Joe.
“If it hadn’t been for Joe, Charlotte and I would have perished in that fire, Adam. He wouldn’t leave me when I went back to look for Charlotte. He sent the other children out, and then came to help me.”
“I know,” Adam said softly. “Henry told me.”
“And then once we found Charlotte, Joe carried her and held my hand, leading me down the stairs. When we reached the second floor, Joe stopped. He turned and ran back up to the third floor, dragging me along behind him, even when I told him we’d be trapped up there. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and nothing I said could stop him.”
Adam smiled. “Sounds like my youngest brother, all right.”
“We’d have been killed if he’d listened to me and kept going down the stairs. Even though that’s what I thought we should do, he somehow knew we couldn’t get out that way.”
“He must have heard the fire getting closer,” Adam deduced, “or the smoke smelled stronger to him.”
“One of those things must have been it,” Laddie agreed. “Whatever it was, I’ll always be grateful to him. Charlotte and I wouldn’t have gotten out of there had it not been for Joe.”
“I’ll always be grateful to him, as well.” Adam kissed the woman’s forehead, and then got down on one knee.
Laddie noticed his shift in body position. “What are you doing?”
Adam took her left hand. “This isn’t how I planned to do this, but the time seems right. . .that is, if you can forgive a man for smelling like he needs to throw his clothes away, and then soak for two hours in a bathtub.”
“I can certainly forgive you for that. But the time seems right for what?”
“For me to ask, Laddie Rose Brockington, will you marry me?”
“Will you marry me?”
The woman backed away from Adam, bringing her hands to her mouth with surprised shock as tears flowed from her eyes.
“Ye-yes! Yes, of course, yes! Yes, I will! Oh, Adam. . .I. . .oh, I wasn’t expecting you to. . .oh my goodness. . .when? When. . . .”
“When did I decide to ask you?” Adam stood. “Or when should we get married?”
“I-I don’t know,” Laddie laughed. “Both, I guess.”
“I’ve known I wanted to marry you since the first day I met you. I just. . .well, maybe I just needed a good swift kick in the seat of the pants to get me to ask you. And today, when you were safely out of that building and standing beside your father, your only concerns being for Joe and your students, rather than how you looked, or how quickly you could get away from there, I guess you could say that’s about the time the swift kick came.”
“If I’d have known that’s what it would take, I’d have had Joe toss me out of a window months ago.”
Adam laughed as he walked forward and embraced Laddie again.
“I still have to ask your father’s permission, and buy a ring, so I suppose I’m doing things out of order.”
“Papa will say yes without a moment’s hesitation, and as for a ring – there’s plenty of time to make that purchase.”
“Not if we’re going to get married before the end of the year.”
Laddie practically shouted, “Before the end of the year?”
“I’d like us to be married while my family’s still here. But until Joe’s back on his feet, and I can talk to Pa about how long he and Hoss might be staying, and depending on whether or not Joe has that surgery--”
Laddie brought a hand up to Adam’s lips to shush him.
“Those are all valid concerns. There’s no need to set a date now. If you want to get married next week, we’ll do so. If you decide upon next month, we’ll do that. If it’s next summer, then so be it.”
Adam tightened his hold on his fiancé. “What I want is to get married as soon as possible. I don’t think I can wait until next summer.”
“Then you’d better plan on asking Papa’s permission tomorrow, because once my mother hears how quickly we have to put a wedding together, she’ll have every dressmaker in Boston working overtime.”
Adam kissed the woman deeper and more ardently than he ever had before, murmuring, “I’m sure she will,” against Laddie’s lips.
When the kiss came to its natural end, Laddie laid her head against Adam’s chest and let out a little laugh.
Pretending to be offended, Adam asked, “Was that a comment on how I kiss?”
“No, dear Sir, it wasn’t a comment on your kissing at all. I like how you kiss very much, thank you. I was laughing about something Joe said right before he threw me out that window.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said I was supposed to tell you that if you didn’t ask me to marry you, he was going to ask me to marry him.”
Adam cocked an eyebrow. “Oh he did, did he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Then I think I’d better go upstairs and wait for that little brother of mine to wake up. It sounds like I need to straighten him out on just who’s marrying who around this place.”
“It sounds like you do. But please assure him that I’ll be the best sister-in-law a man could have.”
Adam laughed. “Believe me, he already knows that.”
The ‘clop clop clop’ of horses’ hooves approaching Adam’s house indicated Elliot had arrived. Adam waited while Laddie put on her coat, scarf, and hat, then walked her out to the carriage.
After he’d seen his fiancé safely off, Adam returned to his house with renewed energy brought on by Cupid’s arrow. He took the stairs to the second floor two at a time, and headed down the hall toward Joe’s room.
Joe floated in a dream-like world where he wasn’t quite asleep, and yet, not quite awake, either. It was confusing more than it was frightening. Hop Sing suddenly had an Irish brogue, and a nurturing touch to go along with it. Heavy footsteps in and out of the room were easy to identify as Hoss’s, and the calloused hand that rested against the side of his face from time to time, and brushed his hair away from his forehead, belonged to his father. He’d heard another voice once, drifting up from the main floor, that he hadn’t been able to identify – a woman’s – a young woman with a frog in her throat from the sound of it, and then he thought he’d heard Adam talking to Pa, but how could that be? Adam lived in Boston.
He’d tried to apologize to Pa for the trouble caused by the horse, but his tongue seemed too thick for his throat, and like the mystery woman’s, his voice was raspy and rough also.
Stupid storm. It wasn’t the horse’s fault that the lightning frightened him, but Pa might not see it that way. He was a good horse, too. Joe didn’t want to have to get rid of him. But Joe supposed between the mess in the barn, and then the mess he’d made in the house when he’d tried to give himself medical treatment, Pa wasn’t going to take too kindly to that animal staying on the Ponderosa.
Joe moaned as he restlessly rolled his head back and forth. He moaned again when a painful lump came in contact with the pillow. How’d he get that goose egg, and why did he smell like he’d just spent an entire day burning grass off the south slope of Horseshoe Pasture?
Wincing, Joe pushed himself to his elbows, feeling the tug of bandages wound around his forearms, and the sting of cuts beneath them. He struggled to a seated position on the bed, fighting the blankets tangled around his legs. He kicked the blankets aside and opened his eyes.
Puzzlement settled heavily over Joe’s face as he frowned and his brow furrowed. Where was he? This wasn’t his room.
He looked up, down, and around. His bed wasn’t this big, and his curtains weren’t blue, and he for darn sure didn’t own an Oriental rug, nor did he have a gas lamp mounted on the. . .
Joe shot off the bed. His mind was no longer muddled by thoughts of an accident with a horse that had happened over a year ago. He ran to the window and slid the curtains open. It was light out! He could see the daylight! He could see the side yard, and the black iron fence that surrounded the house, and the stone path that led to the back, and that bird bath way over in the far corner, and. . .
He raced to the dresser. Joe splayed his hands on the mirror, not able to believe he was seeing his own reflection. His face was dotted with tiny cuts, and when he lifted his hair away from his forehead, he could see the vivid colors on the lump he sported.
It all came back to him in a rush then. The fire. Running with Laddie and Charlotte to the third floor. His wavering, cloudy vision. Throwing the woman and child down to Hoss, then trying to figure out how to jump without hurting Hoss. Before he could make his decision, it seemed like the whole world blew up. He remembered tumbling toward Hoss, and trying to turn his body so he wouldn’t land on his brother. Was Hoss all right? And Laddie and Charlotte? Were they all right? And the rest of the children? Did they get out? Was everyone safe?
Joe’s mind was processing questions faster than he could fully acknowledge them. He turned around twice, unable to believe he could see the room so clearly. Every color in the Oriental rug was bright and brilliant – the maroon, the deep blue, the pale gold, the shades of red and green, all against a black background. The quilt on his bed was the same deep blue as the curtains at the windows and the deep blue in the rug. He ran a hand across the smooth wood of the dresser – it was maple. When he was blind, he’d somehow known it was maple. He’d somehow expected it to look just like it did.
Joe stumbled toward the open door, not caring who might be in the house, and that he was in his nightshirt. He didn’t put any thought into whom he’d call for first, or what he’d say. His words came out automatically. As though the child he’d once been, that still lived on in some part of his soul, couldn’t wait to share the news with the man who’d silently grieved a son’s lost eyesight ever since the day old Charlie’s shack was blown to kingdom come.
“Pa? Pa! Pa, I need you! Pa! Pa, I need you!”
Joe couldn’t stop the tears of joy from running down his face as he fell back against the doorframe. He tilted his head upward in way of silently saying, “Thank you,” and then yelled again, this time with a catch in his raspy voice, “Pa? Pa! Pa, I need you! I need you, Pa!”
As both his voice and legs gave out on him, Joe slid toward the floor, not worried that he was weak, dizzy, and felt like he’d swallowed a smoking chimney. He could see! He could see, and the first person he wanted to tell that to was his father.
At Joe’s first call from above, three chairs flew backwards from the dining room table. Mrs. O’Connell was just entering with a platter in her hands.
Adam glared at the woman. “You said you’d sit with Joe while we ate.”
“I-I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. I came down fer just a wee bit of a minute to see if Eric needed more eggs.”
“Eric can get his own eggs,” Adam growled, throwing his napkin onto the table and following his father and Hoss up the stairs at a run.
~ ~ ~
Under other circumstances, Joe would have found the sight funny – his father, Hoss, and Adam, scrambling up the stairs, and then barreling down the hall at full speed as if he’d just hollered, “There’s gold in these here hills!” Although figuratively speaking, he sure felt like he’d struck gold. All the gold in the world and then some.
Pa was the first to reach him. He knelt down, placing a hand on the side of Joe’s face.
“Joe? Joseph, it’s Pa. Are you all right? Here, let Hoss and me help you back to bed, then we’ll have a look at you and--”
Joe grabbed the hand and squeezed it. “Pa. . .Pa, I know it’s you.”
Pa smiled. “Well now, that’s good to hear. Dr. Nichols said you might be confused for a while after you woke up. You’ve got quite a bump on your fore--”
“Pa. . .Pa, listen to me for a minute,” Joe said in a raspy voice he barely recognized. “I know it’s you, because I can see you. I can see you, Pa.”
Pa’s smiled wilted. By the doubt radiating from the brown eyes, Joe knew his father thought the bump on his head was making him delusional.
“Well. . .uh. . .young fella’, why don’t Hoss and I get you back in that bed.” Pa turned to Adam, saying softly, “You’d better get Dr. Nichols. I think the concussion is causing--”
Joe put his hands on his father’s arms, drawing Pa’s attention back to him.
“Pa, I can hear just as well as I can see. Adam doesn’t need to get Dr. Nichols. I know exactly what I’m saying. I can see! You’re wearing the tan shirt I gave you last Christmas.” Joe’s eyes traveled up to Hoss. “And Hoss has the ugly green one on that Miss Lucy says makes him look handsome, which always makes Hoss blush, just like he’s doin’ now.” Joe looked beyond Hoss to Adam. “And Adam. . . well, Adam just plain looks like he hasn’t taken a bath in a year.”
Pa’s hands cupped Joe’s face.
“You can see? You can really see?”
Joe nodded, moisture coming to his eyes again as tears filled his father’s. “I can see.”
“As. . .as good as before, Joe? Clear?”
“As good as before,” Joe confirmed. “Clear. Real clear, Pa.”
Pa seemed to forget about his son’s bumps, bruises, and cuts. He pulled his youngest to him, cradling Joe’s head against his chest.
“You can see again,” he murmured, running a hand up and down Joe’s back. “You can really see again.”
“Yeah, Pa,” Joe whispered, “I can really see again.”
For a time that morning, the world seemed to hold only a father and his youngest child, both silently rejoicing together over what the father deemed a miracle, and the son was simply more thankful for than he’d ever be able to express.
Joe wasn’t sure how long he sat on the floor enveloped in his father’s arms. When Pa finally released him, Hoss helped both of them to their feet. Joe was barely steady before Hoss gave him a bear hug, and said in a husky voice, “Always knew ya’d somehow come out a winner in all this, little brother.”
When Joe was released, he playfully punched the big man’s shoulder. “Sure ya’ did, ya’ big lug.”
Joe felt Adam’s congratulatory pat on the back next. He turned around and grinned at his oldest brother.
“Like I said, you sure do need a bath, Adam, but still, as the expression goes, you’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“When you get a chance to do more than admire your pretty face in the mirror, you might realize you need a bath just as badly as I do.” Adam smiled and held out his arm. “Come here, you.”
Another brotherly hug took place, then Adam stepped back and gave Joe a mock glower.
“So, I hear you were planning to propose to my fiancé.”
“Well, if you don’t get around to doing it soon, I figure someone has to make Laddie a member of this fam. . .” Joe paused, his eyebrows drawing together as he cocked his head. “Did you say fiancé?”
“I sure did.”
“You mean. . .does that mean. . .did you. . .you asked her? You finally asked Laddie to marry you?”
“Yes, I finally asked Laddie to marry me.”
Joe pretended to be shocked. “And she said yes?”
“Why you little. . .of course she said yes.”
Joe wasn’t certain who let out the loudest, ear shattering “Yee haw!” – himself, or Hoss. This news brought about another round of hugs and pats on the back, though Pa summed it up best when he put one arm around Joe’s shoulder’s, and the other around Adam’s, and said with a big smile, “It looks to me like the Cartwrights have a lot to celebrate.”
Hoss agreed. “I reckon we do, Pa.”
After all the good news sank in and everyone calmed down, Joe found himself back in bed at his father’s insistence, and Adam, after apologizing to Mrs. O’Connell for being sharp with her downstairs, was off for a long, hot soak in the bathtub, courtesy of the housekeeper who had run the water for him.
To further assuage Mrs. O’Connell’s feelings, Hoss went downstairs for a second helping of breakfast, thereby insuring Adam would retain the services of, “The best durn cook in all a’ Boston,” as Hoss phrased it.
While Joe waited for Adam’s housekeeper to bring his breakfast up on a tray, he scooted over, making room for his father to sit on the side of the bed. He took the man’s hand in a firm grip and smiled.
“I can still smell the Bay Rum cologne and pipe tobacco, but this time, no worry.”
Pa smiled in return. “No, Joe, no worry. No worries at all. Though many years of experience when it comes to having Joseph Cartwright as my son, tells me I’d better enjoy those “no worries” to the fullest, for the short period of time they’ll actually last.”
Joe laughed. “Yeah, Pa, I guess you’d better.”
Pa sobered as he looked into the eyes that looked back at him now, and not at some point over his shoulder. “I’m happy for you, son. I’m so happy for you.”
Joe squeezed his father’s hand. In every line on the man’s face, he saw what a toll his blindness had taken on Pa. When he spoke, he said simply, “Thank you for being my father,” because those six words conveyed Joe’s understanding of how much Pa had suffered right along with him each time he’d tumbled down stairs, walked into furniture, and lashed out in bitterness and anger because he could no longer see.
Pa couldn’t seem to do more than nod at Joe’s words. Joe smiled, adding, “And thank you for not trying to change my mind when I decided to come to Boston with Adam.”
“It was a good choice for you, then?”
“The best choice.”
Joe sat in silence a long time, thinking about the boys in his class, the opportunity Adam had given him, and the teaching career he’d never thought he’d excel at, let alone enjoy. Nonetheless, when Joe’s answer came, he had no doubt it was the right decision for him.
“And now, the best choice is for me to go back to the Ponderosa. But not right away, Pa. I’ve gotta stay here and help Adam in any way I can. Even teach until the end of the school term if he needs me to, but as soon as possible, I’ll be coming home.”
Pa smiled. “I think Hoss and I’ll be staying a while to help Adam, too. And as far as when you return home, remember what I said on the day you told me you were leaving?”
“You said a lot of things.”
Pa chuckled. “Yes, I guess I did. The one in particular I’m thinking of, however, was when I told you there’d always be a place for you on the Ponderosa.”
Joe studied his father a moment, seeing sincerity, desire, and the hope that his youngest son would return to the ranch he’d been born on.
“I never doubted it for a minute, Pa,” Joe said. “I never doubted it for a minute.”
And with that confirmation, Pa squeezed Joe’s hand in return, then stood and moved out of the way as Mrs. O’Connell arrived with a breakfast tray.
As Joe ate with Pa sitting in a chair beside his bed, he decided that if his sight was granted for this one day only, then he’d seen all he needed to for the rest of his life – the smile on his father’s face that never quite faded.
The house was quiet late that afternoon when Joe eased himself into a steaming tub of water with a sigh of pleasure. Mrs. O’Connell had added a concoction of some sort that made the surface of the water team with bubbles that smelled like Adam’s flower gardens in full bloom. Joe wasn’t sure a rose scented bubble bath was exactly his style. God knew it would get him laughed right off the Ponderosa by Candy and the other hands, but he couldn’t deny that the hot water felt good against his cuts and bruises, and that the smell of roses saturating his skin was preferable to the smell of smoke and stale perspiration.
Joe washed his body, gingerly running the washcloth over the arms he’d unbandaged before climbing in the tub. He washed his hair next, then slid all the way under the water to rinse it off. He’d have to rinse it again at the sink after he got out of the tub to get rid of the remaining soap, but at least the smoky smell that had been clinging to it was finally gone. Mrs. O’Connell was changing the sheets on his bed while he bathed, and that morning he’d asked Pa to throw out the clothes he’d been wearing yesterday, so maybe the overpowering odor of smoke that seemed to follow him everywhere would now finally be gone.
The water was almost hotter than Joe could stand, but not quite. The temperature would allow for a long soak before he either had to add more hot water, or get out of the tub. He leaned his head back against the massive tub and closed his eyes. His arms were just barely above the surface of the water, as he hung onto the tub’s sides so he didn’t slip beneath the surface.
Joe’s mind drifted back to the fire yesterday. He’d gotten his most important questions answered by Pa while he ate breakfast that morning. Charlotte and Laddie were fine, other than poor little Charlotte being frightened out of her wits. At least she was now at home with her parents.
Joe’s boys and Laddie’s girls had gotten safely out of the school, thanks to Shakespeare and Henry. All of the other students, teachers, and staff members also managed to escape unharmed. Pa said the students were now boarding with various staff members, and parents were being notified of the fire by telegram and asked to make arrangements to get their child home as soon as possible. There wasn’t much left of the building, and whether classes would resume after Christmas, Pa wasn’t sure. He’d said something about Mr. Brockington volunteering a building he owned for use as a temporary school, but by then, Joe had finished eating and was drifting off to sleep, so if Pa had given him any further information in that regard, Joe hadn’t heard it.
When Joe woke up again, it was mid-afternoon. His father and Adam were sleeping in their rooms, and Mrs. O’Connell said Hoss, or Eric rather, had gone to the school to help the caretakers and groundskeepers salvage whatever they could from the ruins. Mrs. O’Connell couldn’t have kept Joe in bed if she tried – and she did, but Joe was feeling well-rested and secure on his feet, so he sat at the kitchen table in his nightshirt, robe, and slippers, eating the sandwich she made for him, then he returned upstairs to fetch clean clothes from his room and enjoy this soak in the bathtub.
The hot, sweet smelling water had just lulled Joe into a light doze, when someone knocked on the bathroom door. He opened his eyes and turned his face sideways so his voice would carry.
“I’m in here, Hoss, and I ain’t plannin’ on comin’ out any time soon, so you’re just gonna have to wait your turn.”
As Joe knew would be the case, Hoss had more than a passing affection for Adam’s modern water closet, and spent hours soaking in the tub whenever he got the chance. Joe assumed he’d come back from the school and wanted to wash off the soot and grime he’d undoubtedly picked up during the course of his work.
“It’s not Hoss, Joe. May I come in?”
“Adam, I’m in the tub!”
Adam didn’t wait for permission that wouldn’t be forthcoming anyway. He opened the door, entered the room carrying a chair, and then closed the door behind him.
“Don’t worry,” he said with a smile to the scowling Joe, “it’s not like I haven’t seen your naked behind before. As a matter of fact, I changed more of your diapers than I care to remember.”
“Then do us both a favor and don’t – remember, that is.” Joe eyed the chair as Adam placed it by the side of the tub and then sat down. “You plannin’ on staying a while?”
“Just until you’re done in here.”
“Adam. . .”
“Joe, you suffered a concussion barely twenty-four hours ago. Therefore, you have no business being in a tub of water up to your chin without someone in here with you.” Adam smiled impishly. “Besides, you look kind of cute in the midst of all those bubbles.”
Joe scowled again. “The bubbles weren’t my idea.”
“Maybe not, but you sure are going to smell pretty when you’re done.”
“You say anything about this to Hoss, and I swear I’ll drown you in this tub. Then we’ll see who smells pretty.”
“I’d take that under consideration, except I know something you don’t.”
“Hoss loves taking these bubble baths of Mrs. O’Connell’s.”
“Hoss? He’s the reason I keep smelling lilacs, roses, and lilies, every time we all sit down together at the dinner table?”
“Yep. He’s the reason.”
Joe laughed. “Oh, this is the kind of information I’d pay to have.”
“If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have offered it free of charge.”
“Too late now, big brother.”
“Apparently so.” Adam studied his sibling. “You feeling all right?”
“I’m feeling fine.”
“Not any more.”
“And your sight?”
“There’s nothing wrong with that, either.”
“Glad to hear it, though Pa’s still going to make you see Dr. Warren for a checkup.”
“Yeah, he said something about that this morning. I tried to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but I have a feeling that’s a battle I’m not gonna win.”
“I know it’s a battle you’re not going to win, so you might as well concede defeat gracefully.”
“I never concede defeat gracefully.”
“You don’t need to tell me that.”
“Speaking of Pa, is he still asleep?”
Adam nodded. “He was exhausted. He didn’t get any sleep last night. I’d venture to guess we won’t see him much before supper time.”
“Good. He needs his rest.”
“Yes, he does.”
“He told me that everyone got out safely yesterday.”
“They did,” Adam confirmed.
“What’s left of the building?”
“Not much. The boy’s dorm is still standing. Other than that, just a couple of walls here and there.”
“I’m sorry, Adam.”
Adam shrugged. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Besides, the important thing is that everyone got out. If it hadn’t been for you, Laddie and Charlotte--”
“Laddie would have found a way out.”
“She says she wouldn’t have.”
“That’s what she thinks now, but yesterday, if she’d been on her own with Charlotte, she’d have figured out how to get both of them to safety.”
“I think you’re being far too modest about the role you played in that regard.”
“And I think you’re giving me too much credit.”
Joe told Adam then, about how his eyesight had returned during the fire. How he saw shadowy, grainy images, and how even that distorted vision was better than no vision at all.
“Vision or no vision, Joe, the fact remains that your quick thinking saved Laddie and Charlotte’s lives. Not to mention your own. And then you and Hoss. . .well, let’s just say I won’t ever again chide the two of you over whatever cockamamie schemes you dream up.”
“Hearing you say that almost makes jumping out a window worth it.” Joe gazed up at the ceiling, wiggling his toes and enjoying the hot water gently lapping at his body. “Do you know what caused the fire?”
“We think it was a surge in a gas line. Some of the cooks said flames suddenly started shooting from two ovens. They tried to get the situation under control, but couldn’t. If there’s any blame to be had at all, it’s that they attempted to fight the fire too long, rather than making the evacuation of the building their first priority.”
Joe turned his head so he could look at his brother. “I’m sure they meant well.”
“I’m sure they did too, which is why they’ll still have jobs with me if the school is rebuilt.”
“You don’t think it will be?”
“Let’s put it this way, Edward says it will be. As for me, I’ll take it one day at a time for a while. The first step will be setting up a temporary school for the children to return to in January.”
“Pa mentioned something about that. He said Mr. Brockington has a building we can use?”
Adam nodded. “I’m going to take a look at it tomorrow.”
“Want some company?”
“Sure, if you think you’ll be feeling up to it.”
“I’ll be feeling up to it.”
“Does this mean you’re going to stay?”
“For a while,” Joe said. “If school resumes in January, then I’ll stay until summer vacation if you want me to. I think you’ll have enough on your plate without worrying about trying to hire a new teacher.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Besides, I don’t wanna abandon my boys in the middle of the year.”
“You’ve grown quite fond of “your boys,” haven’t you?”
Joe smiled. “Yeah, despite all they put me through, I guess I have.”
“Now you know how Pa’s felt for the last forty-two years.”
Joe chuckled. “I do at that.”
“And after the school term ends?” Adam questioned.
“I’ll. . .I’m not gonna make you false promises, Adam. After the term ends, I’ll be heading home to the Ponderosa.”
“I thought as much.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. You’ve done more for me these last few months than I can ever repay. It’s just that--”
“It’s just that now that you have your eyesight back, you’ll be happiest on the ranch,” Adam said with understanding. “It’s where you belong.”
“Yeah,” Joe nodded. “It’s where I belong.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that, Joe.”
“No hard feelings then?”
“None at all.”
Joe thought a moment before asking, “Adam, if you still had your arm, would the Ponderosa be where you belonged?”
“I. . .you know, I’m not really sure. Before the accident, I was happy here in Boston running my grandfather’s business. Very happy. That doesn’t mean I didn’t miss you, and Hoss, and Pa, but I think I would have gone on running the business for many years to come, however. . .well, let’s just say that’s not the hand life dealt me.”
“What hand did life deal you?”
The familiar wariness came to Adam’s voice. The same wariness that was always present when Joe probed about this subject.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. How did you lose your arm?”
“It was an accident.”
“Well I didn’t exactly think you did it on purpose.”
For a few seconds, Joe thought he’d made his brother angry, but then Adam’s scowl changed to a smile, and then he started laughing.
“You’re right. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“If. . .I just want you to know, that if there was any way I could give you that arm back, I would.”
“Don’t feel guilty about my arm just because your eyesight returned. I’m not jealous, Joe, and I’m not asking God why, either. I’m happy for you. I really am.”
“I know, but still--”
Adam held up his hand. “Enough. I don’t want you regretting things neither one of us can change. Besides, do you want to hear my story or not?”
“You’re finally gonna tell me?”
“I’ll. . .I’ll tell you, but when I’m done, I don’t plan to speak of it again. I’ve put it behind me as much as I can. Reminders. . .well, reminders aren’t something I need, or appreciate.”
“I know you do,” Adam said, in way of voicing his trust in his brother’s word.
Silence filled the room for a good thirty seconds before Adam spoke again.
“Do you remember old Gabe?”
“Sure I remember him. Pa was in a bad way for a while after Gabe died.”
“And do you remember what was going on before Gabe’s death?”
“Yeah. A lot of hard work, long hours, and Pa was as grumpy as a grizzly bear who’d gotten woken up in the middle of his winter nap, all because of that timber contract with the railroad.”
“Exactly. And I should have learned something from that experience, but I didn’t.”
“Whatta ya’ mean?”
“I pushed too hard, Joe. We were backed up with cargo that we had to get out of our storerooms. We had a ship out at sea somewhere, delayed in returning to port by a storm, another was on its way to South America, and another was docked for repairs. The only ship available to us needed an overhaul, too. I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t have been so foolish as to set sail on her, if my grandfather hadn’t been determined to do just that. Not that I’m blaming him, mind you. I could have vetoed his decision. He’d given me that kind of authority by then. He was retired more or less.” Adam gave a sad smile. “Or as retired as Abel Stoddard would ever agree to be. But the trouble with my grandfather, and with me, as well, is that we’re men who put a high value on our reputations.”
“That’s not a bad way to be.”
“You’re right. Usually it’s not. But when you let concern for your reputation overrule your common sense, things can go from bad to worse in a short period of time. Or so I discovered. We had a deadline on our cargo, and both Grandfather and I were going to meet that deadline come hell or high water. In the end, we encountered a good deal of both those things. You’ve heard the expression, ‘Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in morning, sailors take warning’?”
“I’ve heard it,” Joe confirmed.
“Well, it’s true. Or at least more often than not, it is. I should have heeded that expression, Joe, instead of giving the order to set sail that day. I knew then that I should have heeded it, but a part of me – the part that said I wasn’t a superstitious man, but rather a businessman, ignored the inner voice that told me we were asking for trouble by setting sail on a ship that should have remained docked. Grandfather insisted on coming along to help. We left port with thirty men that morning. When I woke up ten days later, half those men had drowned at sea, including my grandfather, and my arm had been amputated.”
“A storm?” Joe asked.
Adam nodded. “A storm. Though not just any storm. The ‘mother of all storms,’ Grandfather called it. And with a grin on his face, too, I might add. Pa said my grandfather died doing what he wanted to, and I should never harbor regrets about that. Maybe I shouldn’t, because I know Pa’s right. Abel Stoddard’s one true love was the sea. But fourteen other men died, too. Many of them with wives and children. That’s part of the reason I sold Stoddard Shipping as soon as I was back on my feet – so I could give those widows financial compensation for a lifetime of lost wages.”
“That was generous of you.”
“When a man feels responsible for the deaths of others, he can’t be generous enough.”
“No,” Joe said quietly, “I don’t suppose he can.” Joe’s eyes traveled to Adam’s empty shirtsleeve. “And your arm?”
“When the storm caused the ship to capsize, my arm got tangled in the lines of a sail. What kept me from drowning – the buoyancy of the mast – also cut off the circulation to the arm. I took a pretty hard knock on the head, too. I was in and out of consciousness for most of my time in the water. Three days after we capsized, another ship came along, rescued those of us who were still alive, and brought us back here to Boston. I was too out of it by then from a combination of gangrene in the arm, sunburn, a concussion, and dehydration, to know what was going on. Which was why I told you that I never had to make a decision about whether or not to have my arm amputated. And even if I’d been capable of making that decision, the outcome would have been the same. The arm had to go, or I would have died.”
“Not an easy thing to wake up to.”
“Believe me, there was nothing about that time in my life that was easy to wake up to.”
“I’m sure there wasn’t.”
When a minute passed and his brother offered no more, Joe said, “Thanks for telling me, Adam. I’m sorry if I brought up painful memories.”
“Not as painful as they once were. When Pa came to visit me while I was recuperating, he told me I had to learn to accept what happened and put it behind me. I didn’t think that would ever be possible, but time has proven me wrong. I’ll never forget that day, Joe, and I’ll never completely absolve myself of the guilt I feel is mine to bear, but I have learned how to move on with my life.”
“In a way you have every right to be proud of.”
“So see, Joe, I’m not “Perfect Adam.” I make mistakes just like any other man. I have regrets, I have experiences in my past that I wish I had the opportunity to live over again and rectify, I--”
“Adam, I’m sorry. I never should have said that.”
“You said it because there were a lot of things I’d kept from you that I shouldn’t have. You didn’t know what I’d been through.”
“No, I said it because I was bitter, and angry, and jealous, and probably a hundred other things I can’t remember right now. I took a lot of stuff out on you that I shouldn’t have at a time when you were only trying to help me.”
Adam smiled. “I’ve taken things out on you a time or two over the years that I shouldn’t have, so how about if we call it even.”
“I suppose we could do that.”
“Glad you agree.”
After some time passed with no further conversation ensuing, Joe broke the silence.
“I know I never told you that I was sorry about what happened between you and Laura Dayton, but I should have. When you left. . .well, the decision seemed so sudden, and you wouldn’t talk to Hoss and me about it, and while Hoss--”
“Has a forgiving heart,” Adam teased, “you hold a grudge.”
“Can’t deny that. I held onto that grudge until about five minutes after you left on the stage, then I was kicking myself for my stubbornness, and wishing I’d told you all the things I’d wanted to.”
“I think I knew that all along, little brother. And though this information comes six years too late, it’s not just because of Laura Dayton that I went to sea.”
“No, it’s not. I went to sea to find Pa in myself.”
“I had to prove something to myself, Joe.”
“That I’m my father’s son.”
“Now that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard you say. Of course you’re your father’s son. You’re the one who’s the most like Pa.”
Adam’s laughter confused Joe, and continued to confuse him the longer it lasted.
“Look, Adam, I’m the one with the head injury here, not you. If you don’t quit laughing like that, I’m gonna start worryin’ that you swallowed too much smoke yesterday.”
“No need to worry about that,” Adam said as his laughter finally calmed.
“Then what in tarnation is so all-blamed funny?”
“Sometimes you just can’t see the forest for the trees, little brother.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Joe, you’re the one who’s the most like Pa. Always have been.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. Ask Hoss if you don’t believe me. He thinks so too.”
“Yes, he does.”
“I don’t know,” Joe shook his head. “I’ve never thought that myself.”
“That’s because Pa spent so much time over the years telling each one of us how much we’re like our mothers, that he tended to forget to tell us in what ways we’re each like him. Therefore, allow me to tell you that half the reason Pa often “spared the rod and spoiled the child” when it came to you, is because most of the mischief you got into was the same exact mischief he got into as a boy.”
“How do you know?”
“Because while you were out making that mischief, Pa was telling me stories about himself as a kid. And the next time he says to you, “Joseph, mark my words, someday I hope you have one just like you,” rest assured that Pa grew up hearing, “Benjamin, mark my words, someday I hope you have one just like you,” and take comfort in the fact that Grandpa Cartwright has probably spent the last thirty years looking down from heaven, laughing so hard that he can no longer stand upright.”
It was strange for Joe to hear Adam say that both he and Hoss thought Joe was the one amongst them who was most like their father. All of his life, he’d been told he looked like his mother, and that he possessed a good number of her personality traits as well. But somewhere along the line, more and more of the man who raised him was evidently seeping into his soul. And there was no doubt who Joe inherited his prematurely graying hair from, and the wider, powerful build to his chest and shoulders that had developed in more recent years.
“Sure hope I don’t inherit Pa’s belly as I get older,” Joe mumbled, which made Adam laugh again.
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. You’re too “high spirited,” as your mother used to say, for you to ever slow down enough to gain weight around your middle.”
“Good. ‘Cause I’m happy to go on lettin’ Hoss be the Cartwright brother with the weight around the middle.”
“Adam, can I ask you one more question?”
“When you went searching for Pa in yourself, did you ever find him?”
Adam nodded. “I did.”
“I’m glad you realize that, because if you didn’t, I was gonna tell you that doing what you did for the widows of those sailors is exactly what Pa would have done.”
“That’s probably when I realized it myself, Joe.” Adam stood. “Now it’s my turn to ask you a question.”
“Will you be my best man at my wedding?”
“What about Hoss?”
“I already asked him the same question.”
“And he said no?”
“No, dummy, he said yes. I have two brothers, so as far I’m concerned, I can have two best men. So what do you say?”
Joe grinned. “I say yes.”
“Good, then it’s all settled. I’ve asked Pa to read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets during the ceremony. And don’t roll your eyes.”
“Now? Or when Pa’s doing the reading?”
“Boy, Adam, you sure know how to ruin all my fun. So, when are you two getting married?”
“We haven’t set a date yet, but we’ll be doing that soon. We want to be married before Pa and Hoss return home.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a lotta work ahead of you, brother.”
“I imagine I do, though not as much as the bride, I’m sure.” Adam grabbed the towel Joe had placed on the sink. “Now come on, get out of that tub while I’m still in here, and before you start smelling like a five acre rose garden on the verge of blooming.”
Joe climbed from the tub, snatching the towel as soon as he was on his feet and wrapping it around his waist, much to Adam’s amusement. Joe was sure Adam would make some smart remark about having seen his bare behind numerous times before, but thankfully, Adam kept his jokes to himself.
Joe rinsed the remainder of the soap from his hair at the sink, dried it with another towel Adam handed him, and then got dressed.
As Joe and his brother exited the bathroom, Adam with a solicitous hand on Joe’s back, as though he expected the man to topple down the stairs at any moment, Joe looked at his sibling and smiled.
“In case you still have any doubts, you’ve got a lot more of Pa in you than you might think.”
If Adam had anything to say to that, he didn’t get the chance. Mrs. O’Connell was just letting Laddie in the front door. When Joe spotted her, he bounded down the stairs, picked her up, twirled her around, kissed her cheek, and welcomed her to the family. His enthusiasm woke Pa, but as Adam could have predicted, Pa’s admonishments weren’t very harsh, because after all, the apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree.