Summary: Still haunted by the death of his wife six years before, Joe seeks comfort in strong drink. Will his family ties be enough to save him? This story is based on an idea given to me by another fan who goes by Australian and Joe’sAussieFan.
Rating: T (27,525 words)
Zachariah Carson brought Zephyr, his big palomino gelding, to a halt before the narrow path leading from the road to the old foreman’s cottage roughly a quarter mile distant, where Joseph Cartwright, one of the men working for his father, lived with his four children. Joe’s wife died six . . . going on seven years ago now, in the course of a bank robbery in Virginia City, when daughter Marie, his youngest, was just a baby. Zach climbed down from the saddle, and for a time stood, unmoving, with the lead of his horse clasped firmly in hand and eyes fixed to the path before him, uneasily contemplating.
The job lying ahead of him was by far the hardest thing he’d ever had to do.\
“Mister Cartwright ain’t here, Boys . . . . ”
The hoarse, gravelly voice of Emil Driscoll, the duly elected lawman for the better part of the last twenty-five years of a small town called Mormon Springs, located twenty miles south of the Circle C Ranch, echoed once again in the ears of his inward hearing. The sheriff stood beside that enormous roll top desk of his with back straight as a poker and arms folded loosely across his broad chest.
“ . . .THIS time you’ll find him over at Doc Jacobs’ office.”
“Doc Jacobs’ office?!” Aaron echoed with a bewildered frown. “What the hell’s he doing over THERE?”
“From what I’ve been able to piece together, it seems he mistook that new gal over at Fat Annie’s Saloon for that dead wife o’ his,” Emil replied in a wry tone of voice, as he reached into the front pocket of his shirt and pulled out a chaw of tobacco. “‘Lucky’ Larry . . . you know . . . that big, mean fella working that claim ol’ Ben Yoder abandoned ten years ago? Well, HE took exception.”
Zach groaned softly. Everyone knew that “Lucky” Larry had staked his claim on that new gal almost from the minute she had started work at Fat Annie’s and avoided her like the plague.
“How bad is he hurt?” he asked.
“Doc said he’s got a couple o’ cracked ribs . . . a lump on his head the size of a goose egg . . . a sprained ankle . . . a gash down his cheek that took thirty-two stitches . . . and he’s gonna be black ‘n blue all over come morning . . . but he’ll live.” Emil paused briefly, then added, “A miracle considering that he tangled with ‘Lucky’ Larry . . . . ”
Zach bristled against the wry, sarcastic tone by which Emil had just recited the litany of injuries sustained by Joe Cartwright. His mouth thinned and his jaw tightened, as he fought to contain his rising ire. “So tell me, Sheriff . . . is ‘Lucky’ Larry at Doc Jacobs, too?” he drawled, as he straightened his own back, and glared down into the sheriff’s flaccid, unshaven face.
“Nope,” Emil responded, seemingly unimpressed by the man every bit of six feet four inches towering head and shoulders above his own height of just under five feet seven.
“Then why isn’t he locked up?” Zach gestured to the row of empty jail cells behind Sheriff Driscoll with a sweep of his arm.
“Because ‘Lucky’ Larry didn’t start that fight . . . Joe Cartwright DID,” Emil replied.
“Dammit, Sheriff . . . . “ Zach exploded, his temper getting the better of him, “there’s a whole world of difference between a man rightly defending himself and a big, strong man like ‘Lucky’ Larry beating another who’s smaller and weaker to a pulp. If you DON’T know that, then maybe it’s high time you LEARNED.”
“I don’t like this any more than YOU do,” Emil angrily shot right back, “but in case you’ve forgotten, Bright Boy, MY job is to uphold and enforce the letter of the law, ‘n like it or not, the LETTER of the law says ‘Lucky’ Larry was defending himself.”
“Come on, Aaron ,” Zach said, seething, “let’s get Joe from the doc’s office ’n get him home.”
“Not so fast, Boys. The only place Joe Cartwright’s going when he leaves the doc‘s office is right back here,” Emil said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder at the row of jail cells behind him. “Miss Pietrov told me she intends to press charges for all the damage done to her saloon.”
“How much?” Zach demanded.
“I’ve got the bill right here.” Emil picked up the two sheets of paper lying on top of the pile neatly stacked in the middle of the desk. “The total comes to a couple o’ thousand.”
“A couple o’ THOUSAND?!” Aaron echoed, incredulous. “How in the ever lovin’ world can a fight between two men POSSIBLY do two thousand dollars to a saloon barely worth fifteen hundred?”
“Easy when a dozen or so friends get into it,” the sheriff retorted.
“ Pa’s gonna have a fit when he hears about this,” Aaron muttered.
“Aaron, Pa’s not gonna hear about this,” Zach declared, “because I’M not gonna tell him and neither are YOU.“
“What?!” Aaron exclaimed. “Zach, are you crazy?!”
“Sheriff . . . . ” Zach ignored his brother and turned his attention to Mormon Springs’ lawman.
“You tell Cosima . . . uhh, Miss Pietrov I’ll make good on ALL the damages— ”
“I don’t BELIEVE this,” Aaron angrily grumbled.
“Shut-up, Aaron,” Zach growled.
“How do you intend to pay for two thousand dollars with of damage to Fat Annie’s saloon?” Aaron demanded. “You tell me HOW when you’ve just about run through your entire savings bailing Joe Cartwright out of one scrape or another— ”
“Look! I’ll BEG or BORROW it if I have to,” Zach argued, “but I WILL make good on the damages at Fat Annie’s.”
“No, you’re not, Zach . . . not THIS time,” Emil said. “Miss Pietrov was real clear about that, too. She told me in no uncertain terms she intends to give this bill to your PA.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Zach said.
“Not a real good idea right now,” the sheriff warned. “Miss Pietrov was madder ‘n a nest full of disturbed hornets when she came in here with that bill an hour ago. She told me she’s long past sick ‘n tired of Joe Cartwright comin’ in her place every pay day . . . gettin’ himself fallin’ down drunk, and picking fights with every blamed yahoo that so much as looks at him cross-eyed. ‘N to be up front ‘n honest? I can’t say as I blame her, because I’M mighty sick ‘n tired of it, too.”
Upon their arrival home that night, they saw the lamp burning in the window of their father’s study, sure sign that he was waiting up. Zach and Aaron decided the better part of wisdom and valor would be for them to tell their father, the formidable Samuel Wycroft Carson, all that had happened at Fat Annie’s Saloon and Joe Cartwright’s involvement before Sheriff Driscoll and Miss Pietrov had the chance. Pa would be very angry of course . . . no getting around that. But, he would be a whole heckuva lot LESS angry, hearing what had happened from his sons first, Zach especially since it had been his idea to hire Joe in the first place.
“I see,” Samuel murmured quietly, after Zach and Aaron finished talking. “Come morning, I’ll ride into town and take care of things.”
“You, uhhh . . . want me to go with you?” Zach hesitantly ventured, astonished and wary of his father’s cool, calm, and collected demeanor.
“Thank you, Zach, but I think it would be best if I went into town ALONE,” Sam said as he rose from his place behind the desk in his study, and stretched. “Aaron?”
“Reuben’s upstairs in his room reading,” Sam said. Reuben, aged twenty years, was the second youngest of the five Carson children. “He, of all of us, seems to have established the best rapport with Joe’s oldest boy, Jess. Ask him if he’d be willing to stay the night with the Cartwright children.”
Aaron responded with a curt nod of his head, before bolting across the room and bounding up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Pa . . . . ” Zach ventured, after Aaron had gone upstairs.
“I promise you, I’ll pay you back every cent— ”
Sam held up his hand. “That WON’T be necessary, Zach,” he said complacently. “Lord above knows you’ve done more than your share to help Joe . . . . ”
“He saved my LIFE, Pa. I OWE him.”
“I know, Son, and believe me, for that I’ll ALWAYS be grateful,” Pa said, his tone and manner softening, “but it’s long past time you . . . me . . . and the rest of us faced the facts.”
“What facts?” Zach queried with dread.
“The man who saved your life . . . the man you know and remember as friend . . . he’s gone, Son,“ his father said sadly, “dead ‘n buried, like as not, along with that wife of his, may God rest her soul.”
“So what happens next?” Zach asked with trepidation and with heaviness of heart.
“I ride into town in the morning and do what I can to straighten things out,” Sam replied. “In the meantime, you’d best g’won up to bed. Those calves up from the south pasture ain’t gonna brand themselves.”
True to his word, Sam Carson rode into Mormon Springs the following morning and made good on the damage done to Fat Annie’s Saloon. He also offered owner Cosima Pietrov another fifteen hundred over and above to make up for the business she stood to lose during the clean-up, the extensive repair work, and waiting for the delivery of new furniture and other goods, if she would agree to drop the charges.
“ . . . I also had to promise Miss Pietrov AND Sheriff Driscoll this wouldn’t happen again . . . ever,” Pa told their mother, Rachael, Aaron, and himself after the family had eaten their breakfast this morning. David, the youngest, aged seventeen, had left for school; Reuben presumably was still with the Cartwright children at the old foreman’s cottage; and daughter Lucy, the middle child, had stayed the night in town at the home of Johanna Hals, her best friend.
“Pa . . . how can you possibly MAKE such a promise?!” Aaron demanded. “You know as well as I do the minute he’s feeling better, he’ll be trotting off to town with money in his pocket he DIDN’T earn by the way . . . drinking himself into oblivion and getting into more barroom brawls . . . same as he’s ALWAYS done.”
“Aaron, what happened at Fat Annie’s night before last will NOT happen again,” Pa replied.
“HOW do you know?”
“I know because as of this morning, Joe Cartwright is no longer on our payroll,” Pa replied in a grim, somber tone of voice.
“It’s about time!” Aaron crowed, drawing a stern glare from his father. “Come ON, Pa . . . . ” he entreated in a more conciliatory tone, “for the better part of the last year, even YOU’VE been complaining about him not putting in anything CLOSE to an honest day’s work because he’s either drunk as a skunk or holed up nursing a hangover.”
“Aaron, ease up willya?” Zach begged. “His wife— ”
“HIS wife . . . HIS wife . . . dammit, Zach, I’m sick to DEATH of hearing you go on and on about HIS wife,” Aaron shouted. “In case you’ve forgotten, Brother, I lost a wife, too . . . AND our son.” He threw down his napkin and shot out of his chair. “I-I have NOTHING left of the time Annabelle and I had together . . . nothing except memories that grow dimmer with each passing day. HE has their children . . . something for which he oughtta be down on his knees thanking God instead of . . . of . . . of trying to drown himself at the bottom of a bottle of cheap rotgut whiskey.” Aaron abruptly turned heel and stormed out of the room.
“Samuel . . . there must be SOMETHING we can do . . . . ” Ma spoke up for the first time.
“Another chance, Pa . . . please? Can’t we give him one more chance?” Zach begged.
Sam reluctantly shook his head. “Zach, you’re a good man. I know of only one other man with a kind heart like yours, who genuinely cares so much about people,” he said quietly. “I’m proud . . . very proud indeed to be able to call a man like you my son. You’ve helped a lot of people who have stumbled and found themselves down on their luck to get back on their feet again, but, Son . . . there’s no way in the world you can help a man who’s plain and simply hell bent on destroying himself. If you’d like . . . I’LL ride over and tell him.”
“No, Pa,” Zach said stiffly, as he rose from his place at the table. “Since I’M the one who hired him . . . it’s up to ME to fire him . . . . ”
“Might as well get it over with,” Zach muttered under his breath as he climbed back into the saddle, and urged Zephyr down the path.
“Horse,” Jess Cartwright muttered as he tore noiselessly across the cottage’s small common room to the dirty window looking out onto the parched, dry yard outside the front door. He spit on the heel of his left hand and rubbed it across the center window pane.
“Jess?” Lucy Carson queried, taking care to keep her voice low so as not to awake the boy’s father, who had been snoring raucously in the smaller of the two bedrooms ever since the deputy sheriff brought him home earlier that morning. She removed the coffee pot from the stove and carried it to the small, crudely fashioned table set square in the middle of the common room. “Jess . . . can you see who it is?”
“Not yet, Miss Lucy.”
“You’d better g’won, get your brothers and sister up,” Lucy said quietly, as she cracked open the eggs Margaret Loomis had brought over within ten minutes after Joe Cartwright had finally arrived home. Margaret’s husband, William, had worked for the Carsons as a wrangler for the better part of the last decade or so. They had six fine healthy sons, ranging in age from just barely five to seventeen years. Margaret longed to have a daughter, but following the birth of their youngest, had been strongly advised by Doctor Jacobs not to have any more children. It was no secret she eyed Joe’s daughter, named Marie Rebecca for both of her grandmothers, like a hawk.
“Now you be sure to tell Mister Cartwright if he . . . well, if he needs someone to look after of that beautiful daughter of his, I’m more than willing,” she said after she had given the eggs to Lucy.
“Mrs. Loomis, my pa and I can look after Marie just fine,” Jess said, his face darkening with anger, as he stepped in front of Margaret, barring her path to the closed door of the larger bedroom in the cottage, where his only sister and two younger brothers lay sound asleep on the floor.
“Jess, this is something you’ll understand a lot better once you’ve grown, married, and had a daughter of your own. I’m sure you and your pa CAN look after her, but a little girl like her . . . well, she needs a MOTHER’S love.”
Lucy and Jess both shuddered upon hearing Margaret’s words and the condescending sing-song tone of voice by which she had uttered them.
“Now you be sure to tell Mister Cartwright what I said,” Margaret blithely continued, returning her attention to Lucy.
“Thank you very much for the eggs, Mrs. Loomis,” Lucy said, as she took the older woman by the arm and began walking her toward the open front door.
“Miss Lucy?” Jess queried, drawing her from her reverie.
“I’m gonna get Benjy, Toby, ‘n Marie up ‘n dressed . . . but I’m NOT going to school,” Jess said firmly.
“Jess, you promised Mister Reuben— ”
“I know . . . . ” Jess said miserably, “but when I promised, I didn’t know Pa was gonna come home all busted up like he is.”
“Jesse Holmwood Cartwright, you missed school yesterday AND the day before,” Lucy said sternly. “Tell you what . . . I’LL stay here and look after your pa until you, your brothers, and sister get home from school.”
“Do as Miss Lucy says, Jess.”
Both turned and found Joe Cartwright leaning heavily against the branch he occasionally used as a walking stick, still clad in the same clothing he had worn now for the past two days. The ripped, torn shirt hung open on his near emaciated frame, looking very much the worse for wear.
“Joe . . . you shouldn’t be up . . . . ” Lucy admonished him gently, as her eyes took in his battered, swollen, discolored face and the tight binding around his ribcage. “Come on . . . let’s get you back to bed— ”
Joe angrily waved off her attempts to help. “Jess,” he snapped, glaring down at his son. “Now.”
“But, Pa . . . M-Miss Lucy . . . well, she can’t look after you all by herself,” Jess stammered.
“I don’t NEED Miss Lucy to look after me and I don’t need YOU either,” Joe said stiffly, the scowl on his face deepening. “Now you g’won ‘n get yourself ready for school like Miss Lucy said. I won’t tell ya again.”
“Yessir,” Jess murmured, before darting past Lucy and his father toward the bedroom he shared with his brothers and sister.
When Zach reached to the old foreman’s cottage, he found his sister’s chestnut gelding, Star Bright, tethered to the hitching post, much to his dismay and outrage. He dismounted quickly, and after securing his own horse to the hitching post alongside his sister’s, he bounded up to the front door.
“ . . . and just what the hell are YOU doing HERE?” Zach demanded the instant the door opened and he found himself face to face with his only sister.
“Oh for—!!!!” An exasperated sigh exploded from between Lucy Carson‘s lips, now thinning with her rising anger. “Zachariah Livingston Carson, get your mind out of the gutter.”
“Reuben left at sun-up and headed out to Black Rock Canyon to help Jim and Eli round up some cattle of ours that’s strayed out there,” Lucy said stiffly. “Zach, I swear . . . everything was strictly on the up and up. If you don’t believe ME, you can ask Reuben yourself.”
“I intend to,” Zach angrily vowed. “I also intend to tell Ma and Pa that you LIED to them about staying in town with Johanna and HER family.”
“I did NOT lie,” Lucy returned, her voice rising. “I DID go to Johanna’s day before yesterday, but when I heard the sheriff was going to throw Joe in jail, I rode out here straight away. Zach . . . SOMEONE had to come and help Jess look after the younger ones . . . . ”
“Why NOT me?”
“Your reputation— ”
Lucy groaned loudly and rolled her eyes heavenward. “Zach, I FAIL to understand how spending two nights in a cabin with my younger brother and four children can possibly sully my reputation.”
“You thick headed, stubborn— ”
“Hey! If the two of ya hafta argue would you mind taking it outside and far away?” Joe growled, as he reached up with one hand to gingerly massage his throbbing right temple.
“Sorry, Joe,” Lucy murmured, contrite.
“Joe, I need to talk to you, but it can wait until— ”
“Zach, look. I’m real sorry about the other night,” Joe said his voice assuming a softer, more deferential tone. “I . . . won’t be able to do much work for the next day or so . . . . ”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” Zach said, trying his best to ignore the ice cold lead weight that had coalesced deep in the pit of his stomach.
“ . . . I’m gonna pay it all back,” Joe continued. “I’m gonna pay back every last cent not only for the other night at Fat Annie’s, but for all the other times, too.” He paused, grimacing in agony when he tried to take a deep breath. “I mean it, Zach.”
“I . . . I know you do, Joe,” Zach said. “Why don’t you g’won back to bed and get some rest? We can talk later— ”
The scowl on Joe’s face, borne of his physical agony and the emotional turmoil raging within him, deepened, upon realizing Zach Carson’s eyes seemed to be glued firmly to the bit of floor space separating them. “You’ve come to fire me, haven’t you?” he accused.
Lucy gasped. “Joe . . . no! Of course he hasn’t— Zach?”
“I’m . . . I’m afraid he’s right, Lucy,” Zach said, deeply relieved that the reason for his visit was now out in the open, yet feeling very much the coward because Joe had been the one to bring it up.
“Zach! How COULD you?!” Lucy demanded, outraged and righteously indignant.
“It’s PA’S decision, NOT mine,” Zach said tersely, taking his guilt and anger out on his sister. He, then, turned back to Joe and this time forced himself to meet his eyes. “What happened at Fat Annie’s the other night between you and that cowardly bully of a prospector was the last straw.”
Joe hobbled over to the table, set for breakfast, and fell heavily into the nearest chair, his senses reeling. “Zach . . . I told you I’d pay it all back,” he said, tersely.
“Cosima’s bill for all the damage done to her saloon totaled nearly two thousand dollars,” Zach said in a somber tone.
“Cosima!” Joe spat with contempt. “That greedy, thieving, li’l—!!!” He broke off upon catching sight of Lucy Carson standing at his elbow, wringing her hands. “Zach, ain’t no possible way two men could to that much damage. She . . . well let’s just say she’s exaggerated that total a mite?”
“The damage to Fat Annie’s wasn’t caused by two men, but by nearly a dozen after other men who work for pa and that prospector’s friends got into it,” Zach said. “Joe, if Cosima DID exaggerate the total on her bill, it was because she UNDERestimated. I saw the damage myself.”
“Ok,” Joe said curtly, closing his eyes against a room that suddenly began to pulsate nauseatingly before him. “Zach, you’ve said what you came to say, now the BOTH of ya . . . get out.”
“Joe,” Zach entreated. “I’m sorry. I truly am— ”
“I DON’T need your pity,” Joe said stiffly. “You tell your pa my kids ‘n I’ll be out of this shack and off his land within the next hour.”
“Joe, I’m sure pa would allow you and the children to stay here until you find work,” Lucy said quietly.
“Lucy,” Joe said through clenched teeth, “you’ve done a great deal for my family and me . . . and I’m grateful. But, I won‘t take charity.”
“Let‘s go, Lucy,” Zach said curtly.
“Zach . . . . ”
“I SAID, ‘Let‘s go.’ There’s nothing more we can do here.”
“Joe, I . . . I don’t know about this,” Frank Barker ventured hesitantly. He stood framed in the open door of Abel Barker and Sons Livery Stable, with one hand planted on his hip and the other nervously stroking his neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard.
Frank had been sole owner of the livery stable since the death of his father and the subsequent departure of his two older brothers, one out to California in search of his own pot of gold and the other somewhere back east. He had bought out his brothers’ share of the livery and, in the years since his father‘s passing, turned it into a prosperous, thriving business. Three years ago, he married the former Martha Travers, no raving beauty, but sturdy and as faithful as they come. They had two wild, energetic sons and a third child well on the way.
“Aww . . . come on, Frank,” Joe wheedled, “my kids and I need a place to stay until I’ve mended enough to start looking for work. I promise ya, it won’t be any more than three days, four at the very most.”
“Three or four days?!” Frank echoed, incredulous. “Joe, who do you think you’re kidding? Busted up as you look— ”
“Ok, fine!” Joe snapped. “You don’t want to help me out . . . well that’s just peachy dandy. We’ll go somewhere ELSE. Jess . . . gimme a hand will ya?”
Jess ducked past his father and stepped into the barn. “Mister Barker, please? Please DON’T turn us away,” he begged.
Joe turned and glared down at his oldest son. “Jess, stop it,” he growled, wincing with every breath. “We don’t need HIM . . . Sam Carson . . . or anyone else— ”
“Tell you what, Mister Barker,” Jess continued, turning deaf ear to his father. “If you’ll let us stay, I’ll help you around the livery. Tend the horses . . . muck out stalls . . . keep the tack room straight . . . anything you want. I’ll work from morning ‘til night . . . six days a week— ”
“Oh all right,” Frank reluctantly gave in. “But you’ll work for me AFTER school, Jess, ‘n all day Saturday,” he said sternly. “That understood?”
“Mister Barker, I CAN’T go to school,” Jess argued. “I have to look after Pa— ”
“Jess, I told you before I DON’T need your help,” Joe said curtly. “I’m perfectly able to look after myself. Now you’ll do as Mister Barker says. Clear?”
“Yes, Pa . . . clear,” Jess said reluctantly.
“I’ve got three empty stables in the back,” Frank said as he stepped aside, allowing Joe and his children to enter. “The straw’s clean and if it gets chilly come night, you can borrow a horse blanket from the tack room. Come morning, you can wash up in the horse trough outside.” He fell silent for a moment. “Sorry I can’t offer you better . . . . ”
“ ‘S ok, Frank. This’ll be fine,” Joe said, suddenly weary. “I’m much obliged to ya. Jess . . . . ”
“Yeah, Pa?” Jess queried warily.
“Gimme a hand, will ya?”
“Yessir.” Jess moved in and took firm hold of Joe’s left arm. He, then, turned to his younger siblings. “Toby, you g’won in the tack room and get Pa a blanket. Benjy . . . Marie . . . you get our stuff out of the buckboard Mister Reuben loaned us and put it in one of the empty stalls in the back.”
The younger children all ran to do their oldest brother’s bidding . . . .
He stood at the front of the church in Virginia City, dressed in his very best Sunday-go-to-meeting suit, surrounded by his three brothers, Adam, Hoss, and Jamie. Hoss was his best man, Adam and Jamie his groomsmen. Pa, Hop Sing, and Hoss’ wife, the former Bessie Sue Hightower , sat together on the very front row, their faces and eyes shining with sublime happiness.
Hoss’ daughters, Inger and Hannah, twins, then aged three, sat between their grandfather and Hop Sing, while infant George, rested quietly in his mother’s arms. The sun shining in through the clear class windows bathed the sanctuary, filled to overflowing with good friends and well wishers, with a gentle, white, ethereal light, transforming the familiar to something otherworldly.
The organist had just finished playing the fanfare, and moved into the traditional wedding march. Everyone in the sanctuary rose to their feet in unison and turned as one Amanda Joy Holmwood, looking radiant in her white wedding gown, entered the sanctuary, her gloved hand resting lightly on her father’s arm.
The instant Amanda took her place beside him, gunshots rang out, and the church transformed to a bank, dimly lit and shrouded in deep shadow. Amanda, still clad in her wedding gown, lay at his feet, unmoving, with blood the color of a deep rich port wine flowing like a river from her chest and pooling on the floor beside her. He knelt down beside her, knowing deep in his heart she was dead, yet desperately praying he was wrong.
“Why, Joe?” Amanda’s round unseeing eyes, gone from sparkling blue to a flat slate gray, accused. “Why did you let me die?”
“I’m sorry, Amanda . . . . ” he sobbed . . . . “ . . . so sorry . . . f-forgive me? Please . . . forgive me, Amanda,”
Joe moaned softly, his head tossing to and fro on his makeshift pillow of rough horse blanket.
Joe’s heart wrenching pleas roused his oldest son, Jess, from a sleep, that had been at best troubled and fitful.
Mercifully, the watery veil of his own bitter tears obscured the sight of his wife’s lifeless face and those accusing eyes.
His father’s voice shattered his veil of tears into a thousand million pieces. The bank and the sight of his wife, lying dead at his feet, had vanished. He found himself kneeling in soft earth, freshly turned, before an obelisk of pristine white marble, thrusting into the clear blue sky above like a knife. The words “Amanda Joy Cartwright . . . beloved wife of Joseph Cartwright . . . loving and devoted mother to Jesse, Benjamin, Tobias, and Marie . . . gone now to her eternal rest” were cut into its face. Beneath the words were the years of her birth and untimely death.
“Joe,” Pa entreated. “Why?”
Joe slowly lifted his head, and found himself staring up into the shocked, grief stricken faces of his father and brothers.
“How could ya let it happen, Li‘l Brother?” Hoss queried.
“Why did you let Amanda die, Joe?” Adam asked.
“Why?” Jamie begged . . . .
“ . . . accident . . . didn’t mean it . . . f-forgive me? Please, Pa? Please? H-Hoss? Adam? Jamie?? Forgive me?” Joe wept. “I’m so sorry . . . . ”
With heart in mouth, Jess knelt down beside his father, and with tentative hand, reached out and touched his forehead.
“Pa, no . . . . ” Joe tearfully begged, still trapped in his nightmare. “Don’t LOOK at me like that . . . f-for the love of God . . . DON’T . . . LOOK at me like that . . . . ”
“ . . . burning up,” Jess murmured fearfully. He leapt to his feet with the swiftness and grace of the very young and made his way to the tack room in search of something . . . anything . . . that would hold water. After what seemed an eternity of groping about in the darkness, his small hands finally seized upon a canteen lying in a far corner. Jess wrapped one arm tight around the canteen and stumbled through the darkness toward the door by sliding his free hand along the doors to the stalls. Once outside, he made his way to the horse trough in the back, and filled the canteen with water.
He started upon hearing his name, and peering into the darkness saw his brother, Benjy, standing just inside the door, “Dad blast your hide, Benjamin Nathaniel Cartwright!” Jess blustered, sotto voce. “You nearly scared me outta ten years growth! You oughtta know better ‘n to creep up on a body like that!”
“S-Sorry,” Benjy meekly apologized, as he jogged to keep pace with his older brother’s longer stride. “I heard Pa and saw YOU gone . . . . ”
“ ‘S ok, forget it,” Jess said with a sigh. “Toby and Marie still asleep?”
“Yeah . . . I think so.”
“Good. Since YOU’RE awake, go into the stall where our things are and find me something I can use as a rag to bathe Pa’s face,” Jess ordered. “He’s burning up with fever.”
Joe’s two oldest children remained with him the next couple of hours, taking turns drawing water from the horse trough cooled by the dropping night temperatures, and bathing his face and neck, with few words spoken between them.
“Thirsty . . . . ” a hoarse voice rasped from the darkness in the still hours just before dawn.
Jess peered hard into the darkness. “P-Pa?” he ventured.
“Thirsty,” Joe said again. “My bottle . . . gimme my bottle . . . . ”
Jess closed his eyes and swallowed nervously. “Y-Your bottle’s EMPTY, Pa,” he said, his voice a calm, near dead monotone. “Remember? You drank all there was after we got here . . . . ”
“No,” Joe half sobbed, his entire body trembling like a leaf. “Thirsty . . . I . . . I n-need a drink so bad . . . . ”
“Jess?” Benjy queried, his eyes filled with fear. “Jess, what’ll we DO?”
“You stay here with Pa,” Jess ordered. “I’ll see what I can find.” He rose and went back to the stall he shared with his brothers and sister. He knelt down on the straw, taking care not to wake Toby and Marie. Grabbing hold of the jacket he had used for a pillow, he reached into the inside pocket and pulled out a small, drawstring bag, made of red silk with embroidered Chinese dragons, bats, and white lilies.
“This for YOU, Little Joe Number One Son . . . . ”
He heard the voice of the Chinese man who had presented the bag to him on the occasion of his fifth birthday, and saw his rounded, smiling face in his mind’s eye.
“ . . . dragon . . . bats . . . red . . . all good luck.” Inside was a bright, shiny, fifty cent piece, minted the year he was born.
He had kept that bag and the fifty-cent piece contained therein a closely guarded secret, one he didn’t even share with his brother, Benjy, Mister Reuben, or Miss Lucy, the only three people he trusted in the whole wide world. In the years since his mother died, he had added to it, a penny from an odd job done for Mrs. Loomis, a nickel for helping Mister Reuben or Mister Zach stable their horses. At last count, he had nearly a dollar fifty. Surely that would be enough to buy something to slake his father’s thirst.
The instant Jess put his hand to the latch on the livery stable door, a stronger hand wrested it from his grip. The dark silhouette of a big man loomed menacingly just on the other side of the threshold. Jess instinctively moved away from the door, swallowed nervously, and mentally braced himself to stand his ground for the sake of his family.
It was Mister Barker. Jess exhaled a sigh of deep, profound relief, collapsing to the straw covered floor when his shaking legs would no longer support him.
“Jess?! You all right, Boy?” Frank Barker queried anxiously as he rushed to the boy’s side.
“Fine, Mister Barker, I’m fine, really, I’m fine,” Jess babbled.
“I woke up a short time ago ’n couldn’t get back to sleep, so I thought I’d come over ’n see how you and your family were getting on,” Frank said, as he helped Jess to his feet. “Where were YOU off to in such a hurry . . . and at this time of night, too?”
“Pa’s thirsty,” Jess said, “I was gonna see if I could get something . . . maybe whiskey from one of the saloons around here.”
“You’d have wasted your time,” Frank said sternly. “No bartender in his right mind’s going to sell to a young ’n like you.” Especially if his name happens to be Cartwright.
“Do YOU have any whiskey to spare, Mister Barker? Please?! Pa needs some awful bad . . . . ”
“Come on. Jess . . . let’s you ’n me go have a look at your pa,” Frank said, hearing the note of urgency in the boy’s voice. He found Joe lying on his back, half covered by a horse blanket taken from the tack room, his eyes wide open and staring. His breathing was shallow and rapid, and his entire body was drenched with sweat. “Joe?” Frank spoke the stricken man’s name softly as he knelt down alongside him. “Joe, it’s me . . . Frank. Frank Barker.” He lightly touched Joe’s forearm, and to his dismay found the skin cold and clammy to the touch. “Joe,” he said raising his voice slightly, “Joe, can you hear me?”
“Pa w-was . . . he was calling out to Mama just a minute ago, telling her he was sorry about something . . . then he just all of a sudden got quiet,” Benjy said, his voice shaking, his eyes round with fear.
“Boys,” Frank said grimly, “we need to get your pa to Doc Jacobs right now.”
Jess collapsed to the straw covered floor, his senses reeling. “We can’t . . . w-we’ve got no money . . . . ”
“Jess, if we don’t get your pa to Doc Jacobs right now this instant, your pa stands a real good chance of dying.”
Jess Cartwright flew right out of his chair the instant he heard the latch of the door to the Jacobs’ parlor, where he sat waiting with Frank Barker. Frank rose, walked over to where the boy stood, his entire body stiff as a board, and placed a gentle and he hoped reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Easy, Jess . . . . ”
Doctor Stanley Jacobs entered the downstairs parlor of the townhouse he shared with Vera, his wife for the better part of the last thirty years, clad in the clothing he had worn the day before.
“Doc, how’s Pa?” Jess demanded, his face white as a sheet, his eyes round with shock and terror. “Is he gonna be ok? Doc, he’s not gonna . . . h-he’s not gonna . . . . ”
“Easy, Son,” Stanley, Stan to friends and family with the exception of his wife, gently admonished Jess. “For the moment, your pa’s resting comfortably, and appears to be stable, but he’s far from out of the woods.”
“What’s THAT mean?” Jess demanded, laboring desperately to keep hold of himself amid the panic rising swiftly within him.
“Let’s sit down,” the doctor suggested . . . .
Jess sat huddled in the bay window of the Jacobs’ family room upstairs, his face turned to the well-manicured flower and vegetable gardens out back, both of which were maintained with love and fierce pride by the doctor’s wife. He, his brothers, and sister had stayed the night here at the doc’s, while he sat up the entire night with pa. Come morning, Toby and Marie appeared to have slept well enough, something for which he was thankful, but Benjy, bless his heart, hadn’t slept a wink, his protestations to the contrary not withstanding. After lunch, the younger children had gone to the mercantile with the housekeeper, while Benjy retreated to the guest room upstairs, unable to stay awake a minute longer.
As his eyes followed the neat rows of spindly, barely half grown tomato plants, Jess could not ever recall a time in his life when he felt so frightened, alone, and utterly helpless. Pa had awakened several times during the morning, usually just long enough to beg for a drink, something “a whole helluva lot stronger than water or that damned watered down tea.” The very last time Pa woke up, however, he had gone into a violent spasm of what the doc called dry heaving. Jess was terrified, but he remained with Pa, nonetheless, stroking his hair, promising over and over and over again that everything was going to be all right, all the while desperately aching to believe it himself.
Jess was troubled not only by the fact that Pa hadn’t moved a muscle since that horrible bout of dry heaving, but by the return of those frightful nightmares about Mama he had back when they first left his grandpa and uncles.
“So tell me, Vera . . . what ARE Mister Cartwright’s chances?”
It was Mrs. Loomis, their neighbor when they still lived in the old foreman’s cottage on the Circle C. From the sound of her voice, she stood just on the other side of the closed door to the family room.
“Guarded,” the doctor’s wife replied.
“How is he REALLY?” Margaret Loomis pressed with a sly smile as she threw open the door and sailed into the room. “I’VE heard from a couple of very reliable sources that Mister Cartwright practically lies at death’s door.”
“NO!” Jess shouted, his face suddenly contorting with raw fury. “NO! MY PA’S NOT GONNA DIE AND EVEN IF HE DOES . . . I . . . I’LL SEE YOU GO TO HELL BEFORE I LET YOU HAVE MY SISTER!” With that, he leapt to his feet, and bolted from the room.
Margaret stared after Jess’ retreating back as he tore down the stairs to the first floor. “W-Well I . . . I . . . n-never . . . . !!” she stammered the instant she found her voice.
“Margaret, first of all, your sources are WRONG about Mister Cartwright practically lying at death’s door,” Vera said in a very quiet, yet very firm tone of voice. “When I said his condition is guarded, I meant exactly that. He has every chance of pulling through as he has of . . . of not.”
“Still and all, that boy was quite RUDE,” Margaret replied with an emphatic nod of her head.
“He’s frightened,” Vera immediately came to Jess’ defense, “frightened his father’s going to die, and perhaps even MORE frightened about the prospect of his family being split up. It’s no secret, after all, the way you’ve been eyeing Marie like she’s something good to eat, and the Williamses have been looking at Toby and Benjy in very much the same way.”
“I just remembered an appointment,” Margaret snapped. “Good afternoon, Vera.” She, then, turned, and flounced out of the room and on down the stairs.
Stan Jacobs frown as he stepped from the examination room, and saw the oldest Cartwright boy beating a straight path toward the front door. “Jess?” he queried.
Jess turned. “Tell me the TRUTH, Doc,” he begged. “Is my pa gonna live or die? Please, Doc . . . I gotta KNOW!”
The doctor took due note of the boy’s agitation, his pale face, and trembling hands. “Jess . . . please . . . . ” Stan entreated, taking care to speak calmly and quietly. “I need for you to take a deep breath, and try to calm yourself.”
Jess squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep ragged breath once, then again.
“I want you to listen to me very closely,” Stan continued. “Right now, your pa’s condition is stable and he appears to be sleeping. To be honest, it’s possible he might die . . . but it’s equally possible he’s going to pull through. You, your brothers, and your sister have every reason in the world right now to hope and pray for the best. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Jess replied, nodding his head. “Yes, Doc, I understand. I just remembered something I wanted to fetch from our stuff in Mister Barker’s livery . . . would it be ok if I went?”
Stan smiled. “I see no reason why not. Just don’t be too long . . . . ”
“I won’t, Sir,” Jess promised.
Jess hated himself for telling the doctor such a blatant, bald faced lie. He had no intention of going to the livery stable, rather he was headed for the telegraph office. It was a crazy idea.
“ . . . Jess, the truth of the matter is we CAN’T go back,” he remembered his pa saying the last time he had asked about a grandfather and uncles, whose memories dimmed with each passing year. “My pa . . . your grandpa threw us out. You, me, your brothers, and your sister, too . . . bag and baggage.”
“Why?” Jess demanded.
“How should I know?” Pa returned, angry. “Jess, my pa told us to leave, and THAT plain and simply is that.”
Upon reaching the telegraph office, Jess paused for a moment. Pa would be very angry if he found out. Furthermore, if what Pa had told him about his grandfather was true, who was to say that he wouldn’t toss the message aside and simply decide not to come?
“Mister Reuben’s always telling me nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he mused silently, “in any case, I don’t know what else to do.”
Jess closed his eyes, took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and marched almost defiantly into the telegraph office, turning deaf ear to all the nagging doubts that continued to plague him.
“May I help you, Young Man?” the telegrapher asked politely.
“Yes, Sir,” Jess responded. “I’d like to send a wire to Mister Benjamin Cartwright. I think he’s in Virginia City.”
Ben Cartwright stood unmoving before the white marble gravestones marking the final resting places of Marie and Amanda Cartwright, respectively the beloved mother and wife of his youngest son, Joseph Francis Cartwright.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured softly, his voice filled with bitterness and deep regret. Two words, in his mind woefully inadequate to express the burden of guilt he had carried in his heart for the past six years now. “I failed him. At a time when he needed me the most, I . . . I FAILED him . . . and in failing HIM, I’ve failed YOU as well.”
Memories of that last argument he’d had with Joe returned with raw, brutal crystal clarity, as if those events had taken place the day before rather than nearly six years ago.
Ben set the pencil in hand down on the desk alongside his open ledger and rose the instant his youngest son appeared at the top landing, still wearing the clothing he worn the day before. Joe paused for a moment, then started down the stairs, clinging to the banister as if for dear life, grimacing with each step. His stomach lurched when Joe stumbled upon reaching the middle landing, and for a long moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, teetered perilously over the remaining steps leading down to the first floor.
With heart in mouth, Ben bolted out from behind his desk and tore across the room, beating a straight path toward the stairs. Joe, by sheer luck and perhaps a measure of divine intervention, managed right himself before taking what would have surely been a very nasty fall. He paused once again, then started down the remaining stairs, treading very slowly, and very cautiously, moving more as one very elderly rather than as a man in his early thirties.
Ben’s stomach churned, and for one brief, uneasy moment, he feared that he was going to return the large breakfast he had eaten a short time before with his other sons, Adam, Hoss, and Jamie, the young man he had adopted about a year before Joe’s marriage to Amanda. Of all his sons, Joe had always been the easiest to reach in times of trial, whether it was tending to a skinned knee at the age of five, helping him find his courage in the midst of near paralyzing fear atop Eagle’s Nest, or seeing him through the sudden, tragic deaths of his own mother and two lovely young women with whom he had fallen in love as a very young man: Amy Bishop and Laura White.
Now . . . .
. . . when Joe needed his family, his pa especially more than he had ever had need of them before, he pushed them away. Ben felt angry and frustrated, but those feelings were directed toward himself mostly, for his inability to reach through the walls Joe had erected, walls that grew higher and wider with each passing day.
“Joe . . . we have to talk,” Ben said in a firm, no nonsense tone of voice once his son had finally reached the safety of the first floor.
Joe closed his eyes and moaned softly. “ Aw, Pa . . . can’t this wait?”
“No, Son, this CAN’T wait,” Ben said stiffly. “Your drinking— ”
“You’ve been harping on my drinking for last month,” Joe argued. “All right . . . I’ HAVE been drinking a bit more than usual lately . . . but I can handle it . . . and in any case it‘s MY business. Not YOURS and not anyone else‘s, either.”
“Now THAT’S where you’re dead WRONG, Joseph,” Ben angrily returned. “When Jamie and Candy hafta do YOUR chores in the morning along with their own . . . when ADAM has to step in and take over YOUR job breaking a string of horses for that Army contract with Colonel Dawson . . . when Hoss and his wife, Bessie Sue, have taken over the job of caring for YOUR children along with theirs because if you’re not falling down drunk, you’re violently ill from a hangover . . . your drinking problem becomes OUR problem, too.”
“Pa, you’re making a damned mountain out of a molehill! First off, I do NOT have a drinking problem,” Joe vigorously denied Ben’s allegations, “and second . . . I never asked anyone to step and look after my children OR do my work.”
“You’ll keep a civil tongue in your head when you speak to me, Boy,” Ben responded speaking in a low, almost menacing voice, enunciating every word, every syllable, “or so help me, I’ll drag you out to the barn and thrash you within an inch of your life. You understand me?”
“Pa, I’m NOT a child— ”
“Then stop ACTING like one.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, my wife died— ”
“ . . . and in case YOU’VE forgotten, you have three sons and a daughter who desperately need their father,” Ben said, his voice colder than the deep snow and cutting winds that blow in the Sierras during the winter. “I’ve got a real good mind sue you for custody of those children.” He regretted giving utterance to that threat the instant he saw the look astonishment and horror on Joe’s face.
“ON WHAT GROUNDS?” Joe shouted, his initial shock and horror quickly giving way to raw fury.
“ON THE GROUNDS THAT YOU’RE SHOWING YOURSELF TO BE MORE AND MORE UNFIT AS A FATHER WITH EACH PASSING DAY!” Ben yelled back, unable to contain the fear, anger, and frustration that had grown steadily since the day they had buried Amanda . . . .
To say that things went downhill from there would be to grossly understate the matter. Bitter, angry words were exchanged; words that in the years since, Ben fervently wished every day he could take back. At dinner that evening, Joe’s face was pale and his stomach felt rocky . . . his words. But he was alert and sober as a judge for the first time in many weeks, and much to Hop Sing’s delight, managed to eat a good bit of his supper. Joe was a mite on the quiet side, but was attentive to his children and engaged his brothers in a few snatches of conversation. Ben guardedly hoped that maybe . . . just maybe . . . had had finally gotten through to Joe, and steered him back toward the right path.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The following morning, Jamie, then aged thirteen, ran down the stairs and told the family that Joe and his children were gone.
“What you mean they gone?” Hop Sing demanded with a bewildered frown.
“I mean they’re GONE!” Jamie answered, just as confused and bewildered as the Chinese member of the Cartwright family. “Joe’s bed hasn’t been slept in, and all of their belongings are gone. The only things left— ” He broke off for a moment, just long enough to take a couple of shallow breaths and swallow. “The only things left are . . . Amanda’s things.”
A subsequent search of the barn revealed that a wagon, and Billy Boy, one of the draw horses, were missing. Cochise, however, remained in his stall, quietly munching on hay given him earlier that morning. For one brief, blessed moment, Ben felt a sense of deep, profound relief. Surely Joe would never, not in a million years, ever leave his beloved paint behind if he had intended to leave for good and all. That assumption and blessed relief were shattered when Hoss’ wife, Bessie Sue, somberly announced that she had found Joe’s note lying on top of the credenza by the front door.
“Pa,” the note read, “I need to take my kids and get away. Too many painful memories. Will write when I can. Please don’t look for us. Joe.”
Ben and his remaining sons, Adam, Hoss, and Jamie had searched diligently for Joe. He had even gone so far as to ask Roy Coffee send to wire every lawman he knew of between San Francisco and Texas, inquiring about Joe and the four children. The only response was from a Sheriff Judd Ames in a little hole-in-the-wall town, somewhere in Arizona, consisting of a half dozen houses, a saloon, a church, and a jail. Short and to the point, the message stated, “Nothing. Sorry.”
Adam had gone so far as to hire Jack Cranston, a man he had met during the years his wanderlust took him away from the Ponderosa. Jack was a Pinkerton man, one of the very best, according to his first born. But even the very best came up empty handed.
It was as if Joe and his four children had vanished right off the face of the earth.
Hoss climbed down from Chubb’s saddle and tethered his horse to a nearby tree. Peering through the delicate interlace of tree branches and saplings, he saw his father standing before the marble stones marking the final resting places of the woman he knew as simply Mama and Joe’s wife, Amanda. For the past six years now, Pa had come here, to this place on the day they found Joe and his children gone, seeking absolution he had yet to find, and in all likelihood, would never find . . . until the day Joe finally came home. Hoss knew in his heart that he would never stop hoping for that eventuality, for his pa’s sake especially, but for the rest of them as well. They had gone on as best they could, but Joe’s departure had left a void in all of their lives, one that would never be filled until the day he and his children returned home where they belonged.
Hoss walked to the clearing in which his pa stood, and upon reaching the edge, he made his presence known by clearing his throat.
Ben started slightly, then turned.
“Pa . . . sorry, I didn’t mean t’ intrude, but a wire came for you . . . I’ve not read it, but George at the telegraph office said it was urgent,” Hoss said as he reached into the pocket of his shirt and drew out an envelope with B. Cartwright hastily scrawled across its face.
Ben took the proffered envelope from Hoss, lifted the flap, and pulled out the single sheet of paper, neatly folded in half. Short and to the point, the message read:
“To Ben Cartwright
From Jess Cartwright
Please come. Pa very sick. Need help because I don’t know what to do.”
Ben read the message through once, then once again through eyes round with shock. “I . . . I don’t believe this,” he muttered, his voice barely above the decibel of a stage whisper. “All this time . . . . ”
“Pa?” Hoss queried with an anxious frown. “Pa, what is it?”
“Here! Read for yourself.”
Hoss took the message from his father’s trembling hands, and read. “Well I’ll b-be dadburned . . . . ” he murmured softly. “H-He’s been in Mormon Springs all this time?!” Like his father, he found it inconceivable that Joe had spent the last six years living in a little town barely a day’s ride from the Ponderosa. Then, a memory, obscure and elusive, rose like the thin tendril of smoke from a candle, just snuffed.
It was about a year, maybe a year and a half after Joe and his four children had left . . . .
“ . . . Adam! Good! This saves me a long trip out t’ the Ponderosa.”
It was Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, and long time friend of the family. Hoss and his older brother were in front of the mercantile loading supplies, just purchased, into the back of their buckboard.
“George over at the telegraph office asked if I’d deliver this,” Roy continued as he dug into the right hand pocket of his vest. “Says it’s from that friend o’ yours . . . y’ know . . . the Pinkerton man?”
Hoss favored Adam with a long searching look upon hearing the words Pinkerton man.
“Thanks, Roy,” Adam said, as he took the proffered envelope from the lawman‘s outstretched hand.
“What’s that all about?” Hoss asked after the sheriff had bid them a polite good afternoon and continued on with his rounds. “That ain’t the friend you hired t’ look for Joe after he . . . after he, uhhh . . . left . . . is it?”
“Yes,” Adam replied, “this is from my friend, Jack. Says he was in Mormon Springs working for another client, when he spotted a man who appears to be the same height and build as our brother, though grayer around the edges and more unkempt . . . . ”
“What ELSE does he say?” Hoss demanded.
“Jack says he spoke to the man, but he vigorously denied being or even knowing our brother,” Adam responded with a doleful sigh.
“You still have that friend o’ yours lookin’ for Joe?” Hoss queried, mildly surprised. “After all this time?!”
Adam nodded. “I’m paying him a monthly retainer to keep his eyes peeled,” he replied. “Jack’s picked about a half dozen or so leads over the past year, all of which, unfortunately, turned out to be dead ends.”
“You checked ‘em out?”
Adam slowly nodded his head. “ . . . and I’ll go right on checking them out until either Joe comes home on his own accord . . . or we find him.”
“I, uhh . . . guess that means you’ll be takin’ a trip out t’ Mormon Springs sometime real soon . . . . ”
“I’m leaving tomorrow morning at first light for Genoa to get a look at that colt sired by Major Collins’ prize stallion last spring,” Adam said. “I’ll stop off in Mormon Springs on the way.”
“Adam . . . . ”
“You, uhhh . . . know Mormon Springs lies a whole day’s ride in the opposite direction?”
“Yes, Hoss . . . I have a very good working knowledge of local geography,” Adam retorted with a wry half smile, then turned serious. “I want you to promise me something . . . . “
Hoss frowned. “What’s that, Adam?”
“Please don’t tell anyone else,” Adam begged. “If this lead doesn’t pan out . . . well, I don’t want to raise hopes only to see them dashed later. This has been very hard on all of us . . . especially PA.”
“I won’t,” Hoss solemnly promised, “ ‘n I hope THIS lead pans out.”
“I hope so, too . . . . ”
The brothers’ hopes were in vain. Adam never saw any man even remotely fitting the description his friend, Jack Cranston, had given him, and when he had asked folks straight out whether or not they actually new a man by the name of Joe Cartwright, they shook their heads or shrugged their shoulders, then walked away.
Chances were, the man Jack had encountered was a drifter just passing through.
On the other hand, however, Joe’d had a knack for hiding right out in plain sight, just like that big calico barn cat everyone referred to as Mama Sam, from the time he was a small child playing Hide ‘N Seek with his two older brothers.
“Yep! If that li’l brother o’ mine don’t wanna be found, ain’t no one EVER gonna find him.”
“What did you say, Son?”
Hoss started, for he had been completely unaware until that moment he had just spoken.
“Nothin’, Pa,” he replied, “nothin’ . . . just thinking’ out loud ‘s all.”
Over the past couple of days that big bay window in the Jacobs’ family room had become a place of refuge for Jess, a place he could be alone with his troubled thoughts. He watched the doc’s wife moving among the rows of spindly, fledgling plants, gently watering them from an enormous red watering can.
“Aaaahhhhh’ma gonna gitcha!”
Jess heard the delighted squeals of two boys . . . two very young boys, not much more than babies, assail the ears of his inward hearing. They stood in the midst of another garden, filled with lush, ripening vegetables, tended by the same Chinese man, who had given him the drawstring bag in which he kept the money he’d managed to put by.
“Aaahhhh’ma gonna gitcha!”
A man wearing a green jacket, with the same thick, chestnut brown mane he and Toby had, lumbered into their midst, his bright, emerald green eyes sparkling with pure mischief.
“Aaahhhh’ma da boogeyman, ‘n Aaahhhh’ma comin’ t’ gitcha!” the man growled, all the while trying his hardest to look mean and fierce.
The two boys turned and ran, fast as their pudgy little legs could carry them, their laughter sounding for all the world like a litter of playful puppies. The man in the green jacket lumbered after them. He caught up with them easily and scooped one, then the other up in each arm.
“Gotcha!” he said, before breaking into peals of the kind of laughter that made everyone around him want to laugh, too.
The three of them collapsed to the ground, laughing, much to the annoyance of the Chinese man.
“Awww . . . c’mon,” the man in the green jacket begged, still chuckling, “we were just playing . . . . ”
“You play, you play in front of house,” the Chinese man snapped.
“ . . . tomorrow,” another voice, a woman’s, chimed in. “It’s time now for THREE mischievous little boys to come in and wash up for supper.”
The voice belonged to the most beautiful woman Jess had ever seen. The had the same color hair as his sister, Marie, with the same curls . . . the same bright sky blue eyes . . . .
It was a dream. It had to be. Odd thing was, he couldn’t remember ever having that dream . . . .
“ . . . and the Chinese man IS real,” Jess ruminated silently. Had he not given him that silk drawstring bag?
But if the garden, the two boys, the man in the green jacket, and that beautiful woman were also real, then who was the other boy? He was older than Jess. Not by much, but he was older.
Jess vigorously shook his head, as if to physically dislodge the last vestiges of . . . of whatever that garden and the people in it were and all of the confusing thoughts and uneasy questions that always came with those pictures. Then, all of sudden, seized by an intense, fearful need to know where his brothers and sister were, he abruptly turned, nearly toppling from his seat in the window. He was greatly relieved to find all three safely present in the room with him. Marie, bless her heart, slept fitfully on the settee, her eyes still red and swollen from the many tears she had shed earlier. Mrs. Jacobs had removed her shoes and covered her with the knitted afghan she kept draped over the back of the settee. Benjy and Toby sat on the floor with their heads together, trying to puzzle out an arithmetic problem.
“Thank you, God,” Jess silently, gratefully prayed, as he slowly let out the breath he had been holding. But how much longer would he be able to keep them all together, especially after what happened this morning . . . .
“Toby, how many flapjacks— ” Mrs. Jacobs’ words ended with a terrified gasp.
Jess, his brothers, and sister were seated at the kitchen table, washed, dressed, and ready for school. The doctor’s wife had just turned from the hot stove, with the bowl of batter tucked in the crook of her left arm, and saw her husband standing framed in the door between the kitchen and the dining room. His patient stood behind him, a little to his right, pressing the barrel of a derringer up flush against his temple.
“P-Pa?!” Toby queried, his voice shaking, his cherubic face white as a sheet.
“Quiet, Jess,” Joe said tersely, his face contorted with raw fury.
“B-But, Pa . . . I-I’m not Jess . . . I’m TOBY!” the boy protested.
“I told you to keep quiet!” Joe snapped. “Now you get down, you hear me?”
Toby remained in his chair, paralyzed by shock and fear. Every muscle in his body had gone rigid, and his breath came in ragged, shallow gasps.
“Jess,” Joe growled, the black scowl on his face deepening, “I TOLD you— ”
“Pa . . . . ” Jess rose very slowly to his feet, his heart racing. “Pa . . . I’M Jess— ”
“Sit down,” Joe snarled, “and keep those hands right there on the table where I can see ‘em.”
“But, Pa— ”
“Jess, you do as your pa says,” Vera Jacobs ordered, laboring to keep her voice calm and even. She set her bowl down on the table, then straightened, and turned to face his father. “Mister Cartwright,” she said, “please . . . let my husband go.”
“Your husband robbed a bank and killed my wife,” Joe shot right back.
“You’re mistaken, Mister Cartwright . . . my husband is NOT the man who killed your wife,” she stated, with fear and trembling. “My husband is the doctor here in Mormon Springs . . . you’re his patient.”
The rage that stood poised and ready to eat Pa whole vanished in an instant, leaving him completely disoriented. “Muh-Mormon Springs . . . . ” he muttered, his eyes darting from one face to the next.
“That’s right . . . you’re in Mormon Springs,” Vera carefully pressed, “in the home of Doctor Jacobs. You were ill last night . . . Stan and Mister Barker brought you here. Do you remember?”
“I . . . no,” Pa shook his head, “don’t remember . . . m-my wife . . . where’s my wife?” He gazed about the room with the wide eyed look of a trapped wild animal.
“Please, Mister Cartwright . . . let my husband go,” Vera begged.
“Amanda?” Pa cried out. “Amanda!”
“She’s not here,” Vera said evenly.
“WHERE’S MY WIFE?!” Pa shouted, his face once again contorting with fury. “AMANDA?” he yelled, with tears streaming down his face. “AMANDA! ANSWER ME, AMANDA . . . PLEASE!”
Pa’s hold on the sawbones loosened. Gritting his teeth, Stan Jacobs drove his elbow into Pa’s abdomen. Pa doubled over, bellowing like that crazed bull Mister Carson had back on the Circle C. The derringer flew out of his hand and came to rest on the kitchen floor next to the table. The doctor’s wife bent down and retrieved the weapon as Pa dropped to his knees with a dull, sickening thud and toppled over on his side.
“Amanda . . . . ” Pa whimpered softly, as he slowly rocked back and forth.
“Jess, please . . . help me get your pa back into the examination room,” the doctor said. “I’ll give him a sedative . . . . ”
Jess wasn’t sure what hurt the most: Pa reliving what was more than likely Ma’s dying, and nearly killing Doctor Jacobs; or the fact that Pa didn’t even recognize him. After the doc had sedated Pa, he tried to explain that what had just happened was part of a process called withdrawal and it had something to do with the fact that Pa hadn’t had any of what the Temperance League in town called strong drink in the last three, maybe four days.
“Is Pa gonna be all right?” Jess demanded. “He’s not . . . h-he’s not going to . . . to–” He broke off deathly afraid of giving voice to the dire question that yet remained uppermost in his thoughts.
“I don’t know, Jess,” the doctor said gravely. “Your pa’s in a bad way right now, and as bad as things were this morning, they’re more than likely going to get worse before they begin to get better. I promise you I’m going to do all I can to help your pa through this, but whether he pulls through . . . or not . . . will depend on your pa . . . and on God.”
Jess wanted to remain here with his father, of course, but the doc and Mrs. Jacobs insisted that he accompany his brothers and sisters to school.
“The doctor and I will be right here, Jess,” Mrs. Jacobs assured him.
“Your pa’s more than likely going to sleep the rest of the day, all night, and well into tomorrow morning,” the doctor said in a quiet, yet firm tone of voice. “I think you wanting to stay by your father’s side is very commendable, but there’s no point. He wouldn’t even know you were there.”
“All right,” Jess reluctantly gave in. “I’ll go to school but you have to promise you’ll to send for me if . . . if Pa’s condition changes.”
“I will, Jess,” the doctor replied. “I give you my word.”
The school day, or perhaps more accurately, the half school day was a humiliating disaster from the moment Mister Polk, the school master rang the bell, signaling the start of class. Although Jess had seen to it that Benjy, Toby, and Marie went to school and kept up with their class assignments, he had done neither for the better part of the last year, with Pa growing sicker with each passing day and the responsibility of looking after his younger siblings falling more and more on his shoulders.
Jess took his place among the other students his age, and discovered much to his embarrassment that he had forgotten most of his multiplication tables, and long division problems, something his classmates had learned at some point during the last year, proved itself a process far beyond his meager ability to grasp. The teacher had given two pop quizzes; one in spelling and the other in U. S. history. He got a big fat red zero on the spelling quiz, and though he had somehow managed to correctly answer half the questions on the history quiz, he had still failed the test. Thankfully, Jess remembered his letters, how to read and write, but according to his teacher, a first grader just learning had much better penmanship, and his reading . . . .
“ . . . wasn’t at my grade level either,” Jess mused in silence, his face reddening again upon hearing his teacher make that assessment in front of the entire class, and the entire student body, except for his brothers and sister, laughing uproariously in response.
But as bad, as humiliating as the morning had been, the worst was yet to come.
“YOUR pa’s nuthin’ but a no good, dirty, fallin’ down DRUNK!”
That voice belonged to Tommy Miller, a fourth grader who, along with his brother, Pete, seemed to take pleasure in bullying students younger and smaller than themselves. They got away with it easily because none of the little ones the Miller boys singled out as victims ever told on them because the very few who had were the ones who got punished because Tommy and Pete’s mother just happened to be Mister Polk’s oldest sister.
“Didja HEAR me?” Tommy demanded. “I SAID your pa’s nuthin’ but a no good, dirty, fallin’ down DRUNK!”
“He is NOT!”
Jess glanced up sharply upon recognizing his youngest brother, Toby.
“Well I say he IS,” Tommy countered with a smug grin Jess wanted so badly to smack off the boy’s round, pudgy face.
“YOU’RE A LIAR!” Toby yelled back.
The smile on Toby’s face instantly vanished. “Take it back,” he ordered in a voice low and menacing.
“Come on, Toby . . . please?” Marie begged. She caught hold of her brother’s arm and tried to drag him away from the older boy looming so high above their heads.
“Sissy boy, sissy boy,” Tommy taunted as he strutted like a fighting cock that had just won the day amid the crowd of children now gathering around him and Toby. “Sissy boy . . . hiding behind his LITTLE sister’s skirts.”
The other children laughed.
As Jess rose to his feet, he saw Benjy walk up behind Tommy and tap him on the shoulder. “I’d say YOU’RE the REAL sissy boy,” Benjy said, “the way you seem to like picking on kids a whole lot smaller than you . . . . ”
“You sayin’ my brother’s chicken?”
That was Tommy’s oldest brother , Pete, who stood nearly as tall as Jess and weighed a good ten pounds, maybe fifteen, more.
“Well if HE’S not, I sure as shootin’ AM,” Jess declared as he waded into the fray.
Pete gritted his teeth and swung at Jess. Jess easily dodged, then followed through with a hard jab to Pete’s face. Pete reeled backward two or three steps, then fell, landing ignobly on his rump, eliciting gales of laughter from the circle of children gathered to watch.
Pete scrambled to his feet, his face beet red with humiliation and rage. He lowered his head and charged Jess like a bull, catching him square in the abdomen. Both boys fell, and upon striking the ground, began rolling in the dirt, pummeling each other with their fists and calling each other every vile name and expletive they knew at the tops of their voices.
Tommy, in the meantime, turned and advanced on Toby, with murder in his eyes. “Now I’m gonna get YOU,” he vowed.
“You big bully!” Marie screamed with angry tears flowing down her face like rivers. “Why don’t you leave us ALONE?!”
“Aww,” Tommy taunted, “cry baby cry!”
Benjy eased his way between his younger brother and only sister. “You want to get my brother and sister, you no good worthless yellow bellied coward, well, you’re gonna have to go through ME!” he declared, gazing down on the younger boy with the meanest, nastiest glare he could summon.
“What’s going on here?” a deep, stentorian voice bellowed. It was Mister Polk. He leaned over and seized Jess and Pete by the shoulders, and forcibly separated them.
“HE STARTED IT!” Pete shouted, pointing his finger at Jess.
“Jess did NOT!” Marie cried, outraged and highly indignant. “TOMMY ’S the one who started it!”
“I did NOT, you li’l liar!” Tommy returned, his face contorted with rage.
“That will be quite ENOUGH,” the schoolmaster declared in a tone of voice colder than ice. “Pete . . . Tommy . . . and the rest of you children, go on back inside. Recess is OVER.”
The other children groaned, but obediently turned and shuffled reluctantly toward the schoolhouse.
“You Cartwrights!” Mister Polk exclaimed, his voice filled with contempt. “Quarrelsome trouble makers each and every one of you. Thoroughly rotten to the core same as that miserable excuse for a father— ”
“But TOMMY’S the one— ”
Mister Polk glared balefully down at Marie. “Young lady, I will NOT stand for you making accusations about my nephew when he’s not here to speak in his own defense. You will apologize at once.”
“My sister will apologize to you after YOU’VE apologized to US for the things you just said about our PA . . . with HIM not here to take up for himself,” Jess said evenly as he stepped between the school master and his younger siblings.
“You insolent young pup!” Mister Polk exclaimed, his face blackening with rage. “So help me . . . so HELP me . . . if I never teach you anything else, I WILL teach you respect for your betters.”
He reached for Jess, with every intention of giving the boy a beating he would never forget, and one that would make sitting an uncomfortable prospect for the better part of the next week.
Jess stepped back, eluding the school master’s grasp. “You so much as lay a hand on me . . . OR my brothers and sister for something we DIDN’T do . . . I’ll KILL you,” he passionately vowed. “I swear, I’ll kill you.”
Mister Polk stared at him for what seemed an eternity, then stepped back. “You kids get out of here,” he ordered, his voice shaking, “and if any of you so much as come within ten feet of this school, I’ll fetch the sheriff.”
The worst . . . the absolute worst and most fearsome thing of all was a heated conversation between that horrible Mrs. Loomis and the doctor’s wife, when the woman came by right after they had all finished lunch. Jess hadn’t meant to eavesdrop. Pa had taught them all better. But when he heard Mrs. Loomis utter his name . . . .
“I don’t know which is worse! That child being under the influence of a father who’s clearly unfit . . . or being under the influence of her dreadful brother, Jess,” Mrs. Loomis ranted.
The doc’s wife stood at the bottom of the stairs while Mrs. Loomis paced back and forth in front of the front door. Jess, who was on the top landing, quickly moved out of sight.
“I’m sure you heard what happened at the school today,” Mrs. Loomis continued. “Jess threatened the school master’s LIFE!”
“All things considered, I’D say he had good cause,” Mrs. Jacobs said evenly.
“He’s a bad apple, same as his father!” Mrs. Loomis declared. “I just got through filing for custody of Marie Cartwright on the grounds that her father is woefully unfit, and I understand the Williamses intend to do the same with regard to the YOUNGER boys, if they’ve NOT done so already.” She paused for a moment, then gave Mrs. Jacobs a smug, triumphant smile that sent a chill racing down the entire length of Jess’ spine. “My lawyer assures me that I have a solid case.”
“Why are you telling ME this, Mrs. Loomis?” Mrs. Jacobs demanded.
“Because you AND the doctor will be called upon to testify as to Mister Cartwright’s unfitness as a father,” Mrs. Loomis said.
“No. Stan and I WON’T do it.”
“You won’t have any choice . . . not after the lawyers representing my husband and me . . . AND the Williamses . . . have you subpoenaed.”
Jess quietly fled from his hiding place and returned to the Jacobs’ family room, his thoughts and heart racing a mile a minute. He gave serious thought to running away, taking Benjy, Toby, and Marie with him . . . .
“ . . . but . . . what about PA?” he silently fretted. He couldn’t just pick up and leave Pa. Jess felt as if he were drowning. “Please, Grandpa,” he silently, desperately prayed, “please, please, PLEASE . . . send word that you’re coming . . . . ”
That evening over supper, Ben told the family about the wired message he had received from Jess that afternoon. A stunned, uneasy silence fell on everyone gathered at the table, child and adult alike.
“Grandpa?” Hoss’ third child, George Hightower Cartwright, aged thirteen, at length, broke the strained silence. Named for his maternal grandfather, he was the image of his father; a big man, with the same reddish brown hair and blue eyes, and same heart larger than the great outdoors.
“He’s our uncle,” Inger replied. She was Hoss’ oldest by virtue of entering the world almost two minutes before her twin sister, Hannah.
“Same as Uncle Adam and Uncle Jamie?” George asked.
“Yes,“ Ben replied. “Exactly the same.”
“Uncle . . . Joe. Uncle Joe,” George silently ruminated. He felt an odd stirring deep inside.
“ . . . your Uncle Joe and his children have been gone a long time,” Ben continued with a touch of sadness. “You and EJ . . . . ” short for Eric Hoss Borgstrom Junior, “were pretty little . . . . ”
“Whad about ME, Gran’pa?” Hoss’ youngest, Jeremy, short for Jeremiah, demanded.
“You were just a baby,” Hoss replied . . . .
“Aaaahhhhhh’ma gonna gitcha!”
Grandpa’s news and the name, Uncle Joe . . . Uncle Joe, turned over and over and over again in Daniel’s mind drew forth . . . a dream perhaps? Or was it something else?
“Aaaahhh’ma gonna gitcha!”
For a moment, he found himself standing in the midst of Hop Sing’s garden out back. There was a man out there, whose face he couldn’t see, wearing a green jacket, Hop Sing, of course, and two very small boys, younger even than EJ.
“Aaaahhhhh’ma da boogeyman, ‘n Aaaahhhhh’ma gonna gitcha!”
The man’s voice was low and hoarse, kind of a cross between a low croon and a playful growl. The boys turned and ran, laughing and squealing with pure delight.
“Aaaahhhhhh’ma gonna gitcha! Here I come!”
The man lumbered after them, half bent over. He caught the younger boy first, then the older. The three of them tumbled to the ground, much to Hop Sing’s chagrin. The two boys ganged up on the man in the green jacket and began tickling him silly. The man laughed, making them laugh, too.
Hop Sing muttered something in Chinese, interspersed with an occasional “Bad boy! Very, VERY bad boy!“
The man in the green jacket laughed. “Know what, Hop Sing? These two fine piglets I just caught are so cute, I’m gonna eat THEM for supper. Whaddya think about THAT?”
“Hop Sing think too much foolishment. Supper ready, two minute.“ With that, he turned and stomped back into the house.
“You heard what Hop Sing said, Bad Boys . . . .” came a voice George hadn’t heard in a very long time. It belonged to Aunt Amanda, who lay buried in the family cemetery down by the lake, next to the grave of Grandma Marie.
“ . . . enough foolishment! Let’s get inside and get washed for supper before Hop Sing decides to feed it to the chickens . . . . ”
Then, with a start, George all of a sudden realized that he was the older boy in the garden, and the younger boy’s name was Jess, same as the one who sent Grandpa that telegram.
A hard kick to his ankle rudely jolted George back to present time and place. He turned and found EJ glaring up at him ferociously.
“ ’Bout time you woke up!” EJ admonished. “I’ve been askin’ ’n askin’ ’n askin’ ya to pass the mashed potatoes . . . . ”
George opened his mouth with every intention of promising EJ a bath in the horse trough out front, only to snap it shut upon seeing the grim looks on the faces of his father, grandfather, and his uncles. “Aww, dadburnit, EJ, here’s your mashed potatoes,” he growled, as he placed the large bowl in front of his brother.
“ ’Bout time,” EJ growled back.
“EJ, I believe the right word is thank you,” his mother, Bessie Sue, said in a quiet, complacent tone of voice.
“Thank you,” EJ said with a disparaging sigh.
“Mormon Springs.” Adam, meanwhile, said slowly, thoughtfully. “Mormon Springs.” He shook his head very slowly. “Has he really been so close all this time?”
“I don’t understand that myself,” Ben said. “I know Roy sent a wire to the sheriff there, and we know people in Mormon Springs, Sam Carson and his family, Gene Kramer among them.” The latter owned a small but very lucrative horse ranch called the Sierra K. “If Joe HAS been there all this time, why in the WORLD didn’t anyone see fit to tell us?”
“So far as I’M concerned, that don’t matter none,” Hoss said firmly. “Only thing that DOES matter is, we can go ’n fetch him ’n his kids back home where they belong.”
“When do we leave?” He, Hoss, and Jamie turned to Ben expectantly.
“I leave tomorrow morning, first light,” Ben said firmly.
“Alone?” Adam queried, with eyebrow slightly upraised.
“We can’t ALL go,” Ben pointed out. “Someone has to stay here and keep things going. We’re still in the midst of calf branding for one thing— ”
“Candy ’n Hank can oversee that,” Hoss pointed out.
“ . . . and just about everything ELSE,” Adam added his own two cents worth.
“It‘s true . . . Candy and Hank are more than able to oversee the calf branding, and all the other daily chores,” Ben had to concede, “but they can’t negotiate that timber contract for the Gould and Curry.”
“Pa, we could postpone— ”
“Adam, you know as well as I do that the owners of the Gould and Curry are very anxious to have their timber, and any delay at this point might very well end up costing you that contract,” Ben said.
“Ben’s right,” Bessie Sue said very quietly, “simply because we’re counting on money from that contract to buy winter feed for the stock AND to hire extra men to drive the cattle to market come Fall.”
“I’m glad someone at this table sees things my way . . . . ”
“Now you hold on just a second there, Ben,” Bessie Sue said. “Sure, I agree with ya as to why Adam can’t go, but I DON’T agree you should go alone.”
“Surely you’re not about to suggest Jamie—?!”
“Why NOT, Pa?” Jamie demanded.
“No, I wasn’t,” Bessie Sue responded, “and it’s NOT because I or anyone else here has any doubts about your capabilities, Jamie. It’s because YOU have a whole lot of studying yet to do and not much time left to do it in.”
Adam had been tutoring his youngest brother, Jamie, just turned twenty, preparing him to take the entrance exams for his old alma mater, Harvard University, for the last year and a half. If Jamie passed, he would enroll and spend the next four years studying English Literature with a minor in Art History.
“But, Bessie Sue,” Jamie protested, “September’s five months away.”
“More like four and a half,” Bessie Sue said, “and that time’s gonna pass by almost before you know it.” She, then, turned back to her father-in-law. “Ben, you need to take Hoss with you.”
“But, Bessie Sue . . . what if the baby comes while Hoss is gone?” Cecilia, Adam’s wife for the better part of the last year, asked.
“WE . . . . ” Hannah cast a sidelong glance over at her twin sister, Inger, “can help Ma if Pa’s not here when the baby comes.”
“You bet!” Inger agreed with an emphatic nod of her head.
“Cecelia, I’ve had five now without a lick o’ trouble,” Bessie Sue said, “and I expect no different from this one. Mrs. Shaunessey’ll be moving day after tomorrow and will remain until the baby comes. Between her and my daughters, I‘ll be just fine.
“But, Ben . . . that wire you got from Jess says Joe’s ailing. Tending to him AND looking after his four children . . . it’s a lot for one man to do all by himself, and though Jess, bless his heart, is around same age as George, I‘VE got a real strong feeling he‘s been looking after things ever since Joe became ill, and he‘s worn to a frazzle from doing it. You’re gonna need Hoss.”
“How ‘bout ME, Ma?” Jeremy piped up. “Can I go with Pa ‘n Gran’pa?”
“While I’m gone, I’m gonna need you here t’ help your older sisters ‘n brothers look after your ma,” Hoss said.
“Mister Cartwright?” It was Hop Sing, standing at Ben’s elbow with a pot of coffee, just made.
“Yes, Hop Sing?” Ben queried.
“You and Mister Hoss, you bring Little Joe and Little Joe children home where they belong,” the Chinese man none too gently admonished, punctuating his words with an emphatic nod of his head.
“We WILL, Hop Sing, you can count on it,” Hoss promised, all the while silently praying that he and his father wouldn’t end up arriving too late.
Late the following evening, two men arrived in Mormon Springs. They had set out that morning, just as the dim gray twilight gave way to the silvery light of the dawn. Their journey was a silent one, each man lost in his own anxious thoughts at to what they would find upon reaching their destination; and though it had passed without incident, the long hours spent in the saddle coupled with their great concern for a man who was son and brother had left them bone weary. They climbed down from their saddles and tied their horses’ leads to the post just outside.
“Ben?” a voice called from the darkness. “Ben Cartwright?!”
The big silver haired man turned upon hearing his name, and saw a man roughly his own height, though a good twenty or thirty pounds heavier and a handful of years younger. “Do I know you, Mister?” he queried, peering hard into the darkness obscuring the other man’s face.
“Sam Carson, Circle C,” the man replied. “It’s been a while.”
“Sam Carson, Circle C,” Ben murmured softly with a puzzled frown. “Sam Carson . ..” Then, suddenly, the light of recognition dawned. “Sam Carson. Of course.”
“It’s been a few years . . . . ”
“Sam, I’d like a chance to visit with you and your family, but, well . . . another time,” Ben implored. “I just received word that my youngest son and his family are here. You wouldn’t happen to know where they are—?!”
“Ben, I . . . I had to FIRE him . . . I guess it’s been four days ago now . . . . ”
“You . . . WHAT?!” Ben demanded, his face darkening with anger.
“To make a long story short, he started work for me five years ago, and— ”
Ben drew himself up to the very fullness of his height and glared down into the face of the man standing before him. “You mean to tell me that Joe’s been working for you all that time, and you never saw fit to let me know?!”
“He asked me not to,” Sam said ruefully, “though I suppose I should have when he—”
“Say, Mister . . . did you say you’re related to Joe Cartwright?” another voice asked.
“ . . . and YOU are?”
“Frank Barker, Sir. I own the livery stable here in town. You’ll find Joe and his family over at Doc Jacobs’ office.”
“Where’s Doc Jacobs’ office?” Hoss asked.
“Back the way you came, ‘bout a quarter mile or so,” Frank replied. “I’ll show you the way if you’d like. I’ll be going by there to get to the livery stable . . . and home.”
“Thank you, Mister Barker. We’d be much obliged to ya,” Hoss replied.
“You can call me Frank, Mister Cartwright . . . . ”
“ . . . ‘n you can call me Hoss,” he said as the three climbed up into their respective saddles.
“COMING!” Vera called out in response to the loud pounding on her front door. She made her way from her husband’s examination room down the short expanse of narrow corridor fervently praying the late night caller hadn’t come with some dire medical emergency. “WHO IS IT?” she demanded upon reaching the closed and locked front door.
“MY NAME IS BEN CARTWRIGHT! I’VE BEEN TOLD MY SON’S HERE—!”
Vera immediately threw the door open. “Please come in,” she invited, standing aside to allow the two men standing at her threshold to enter. “You say you’re Joe Cartwright’s father?”
“I had no idea he had other living relatives . . . apart from his children, that is,” she said, before turning her attention to Hoss. “And you, Sir?”
“Hoss Cartwright. I’m Joe’s older brother . . . one of ‘em anyway. Ma’am?”
“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”
“Please, call me Hoss. With all these Mister Cartwrights around, things’ll be a whole heckuva lot less confusin’ that way . . . . ”
“All right . . . Hoss it is,” she responded with a weary half smile. “My husband is with your son and brother right now. Why don’t you both make yourselves comfortable in the parlor— ”
Ben, Hoss, and the doctor’s wife turned and found Jess standing at the top landing, clad in a nightshirt a few sizes too big.
The boy stared hard at Ben for a long moment. The face was a mite thinner and had more lines than he remembered, but the hair and voice were still the same. He tore down the stairs, running as if he had the very devil himself holding fast to the hem of his nightshirt. “Grandpa,” he murmured softly, incredulous, his voice shaking. “Thank God— ” Jess collapsed into his grandfather’s outstretched arms, buried his face tight against Ben’s shoulder, and wept as he never had before.
Ben placed his arms around the boy and held him close. “I’m here, Jess . . . your uncle, Hoss, and I are both right here,” he whispered softly, his own voice breaking, “you g’won . . . let it out now . . . just let it all out . . . . ”
“Doc . . . what did your wife mean when she said she had no idea that Joe had other livin’ relatives other than his children?” Hoss asked.
He and Doctor Jacobs were seated at the kitchen table, with two steaming hot cups of freshly brewed coffee before them, virtually untouched. Vera Jacobs had gently escorted Ben and Jess to the formal parlor, then ushered her husband and Hoss to the kitchen. After making up a pot of coffee, she had gone to sit with Joe, who still remained well sedated.
“Two years ago, I treated him for a broken leg,” the doctor explained, “the break was a bad one . . . left him with a bit of a limp, but all in all, it‘s a miracle he can walk at all.”
“How’d it happen?” Hoss asked.
“He was trying to break a wild horse, part of a herd Sam Carson’s son, Aaron, and a few hands brought on off the range,” the doctor replied. “Aaron told me he was tossed, and while he was still lying on the ground, the horse stomped on his left leg.”
Hoss winced. “I don’t understand how such a thing could happen,” she said quietly, shaking his head in disbelief. “Joe was the one o’ the best Pa ever had when it came t’ breakin’ wild horses, if not THE best.”
“Mister Cartwright . . . uhh, Hoss, first time I met your brother . . . it was not long after he and his family arrived in Mormon Springs, he had a reputation for being a heavy drinker,” Stan Jacobs explained, “a reputation that was well deserved. He went to work for Sam Carson after his first employer, a man by the name of Karl Wilson sold out and took off for California in search of gold. So far as I know, Sam’s been more than satisfied with him work, until after the accident in which your brother broke his leg. He started to drink more heavily after that, and has declined markedly since, especially over the course of the last year.
“At any rate, when I treated his broken leg, there was a real good chance at the time of him never walking again. I asked if he had other family he could go to . . . he told me there was no one. I, mistakenly it seems, took that to mean that he had no other living relatives.”
“Jess said in his telegram that Joe’s very sick . . . . ”
Stan nodded. “He’s not had any beer or whiskey since the incident at Fat Annie’s Saloon . . . I guess it’s been four nights ago now, maybe five,” he said. “He’s going through a process called withdrawal— ”
“What’s that mean . . . exactly?”
“The alcohol in beer, whiskey, brandy, and the like is a drug, Hoss,” the doctor explained.
“Yes,” Stan Jacobs replied, “very much like opium and in its own way alcohol is every bit as addictive. When a man who’s used to drinking very heavily . . . like your brother . . . suddenly stops, he’s likely to suffer from symptoms ranging from mild like headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety, and nightmares . . . to very severe like vivid hallucinations, fever, and seizures.”
“Is Joe gonna pull through this?”
“I’d say right now his chances are fifty-fifty,” Stan said somberly. “I’m doing all for him that I know how to do, but as I explained to your nephew after . . . well after what happened yesterday, whether he pulls through this or not is going to be up to him and God.”
“What happened yesterday?” Hoss asked.
“Yesterday morning, it would seem he mistook me for the man who killed his wife,” the doctor replied, his voice suddenly shaking. “I went in to check up on him while my wife was fixing breakfast, and the next thing I knew he had a hammerlock grip around my neck and the derringer I keep in the top left hand drawer of my desk pressed right up against my temple.”
“Joe’s a strong, wiry fella . . . ‘n he’s always been able t’ move real fast,” Hoss said. He picked up the cup of coffee before him and took a tentative sip. “I, uhh . . . hope he didn’t hurt ya . . . . ”
“No, not physically at any rate. My wife, bless her heart, was able to talk your brother through the hallucination he suffered. Jess and I took him back to the examination room, where I gave him a sedative . . . as strong a sedative as I dared,” Stan said. “He’s roused from time to time through out the day, and when he sleeps, he cries out for Amanda. I assume she WAS his wife?”
“Yessir.” Hoss drank more coffee from the cup in hand, wincing against its strong bitter taste. “She died . . . . ” He fell silent for a moment to do a bit of mental figuring. “I guess it’s goin’ on six years now. She was killed during a bank robbery.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t know all the details, Doc. Joe ‘n Amanda were in the bank at the time along with a couple o‘ tellers ‘n a few others . . . . ”
It was a standoff. Roy Coffee had the bank completely surrounded by armed deputies. The four robbers, the infamous Wilson brothers, were effectively trapped.
Victory for the good guys right?
It would have been if the Wilson gang didn’t have hostages, which included two tellers, Heather Lowell, Mark Everly and his daughter, Jill . . . Joe and Amanda, along with a few others.
The sound of gunfire and a scream the like of which Hoss had never heard issue from human or wild animal shattered the tense, uneasy silence that had begun to settle over everyone in town that day into a thousand, million pieces. A second gunshot was heard less than a moment later. Almost without thinking, Hoss charged in with Roy Coffee following close at his heels. Inside, he and Roy found Heather Lowell, Mark and his little girl, and the other customers in the bank that day pale and shaken. Jill Everly clung to her father, as if for dear life, while trying desperately not to cry. Hoss very quickly and easily disarmed the boy standing look out by the door, and the eldest brother, Frank Wilson. Roy found of the tellers lying dead on the floor behind his cage, and Ed Wilson as well, shot down in the bank vault by the surviving teller. His brother, Joe, was found straddling the fourth robber, Emil Wilson, raining down blow after blow after bow to the man’s face and head. Amanda lay sprawled on the floor not ten feet away, bleeding profusely from a bullet to the heart. It took three very strong men, including Hoss, to drag Joe off of Emil.
Amanda was taken straightaway to Doc Martin’s office, but there was nothing the kindly physician could do except pronounce her dead.
“ . . . ‘n somewhere in all that confusion, Emil Wilson got clean away,” Hoss concluded the grim, tragic tale.
“I’m so sorry,” Stan Jacobs said very quietly. “I . . . I can’t begin to imagine what your brother went through then . . . what he’s still going through now. Hoss?”
“Don’t misunderstand . . . I’m grateful you and your father are here,” Stan said earnestly, “but I am curious as to how you both KNEW to come . . . or is your arrival a lucky happenstance?”
“Pa got a wire from Jess late yesterday afternoon sayin’ that his pa was very sick ‘n he didn’t know what to do,” Hoss replied.
“That nephew of yours is quite a boy, Hoss,” the doctor said, with a touch of awe and a great deal of respect. “For the past year or so, he’s been the glue that’s held his family together, but there’s only so much a boy can do.”
Hoss frowned. “Is there somethin’ y’ ain’t told me, Doc?”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, Grandpa . . . truly! Pa taught us better than that . . . . ” Upstairs in the Jacobs’ dark guestroom, Jess had spent the better part of the last hour pouring his heart out to Ben. He knew this was a man he could trust and rely upon from the first moment he laid eyes on him standing at the bottom of the stairs with that big man wearing a the biggest ten gallon had Jess had ever seen.
“ . . . that’s your Uncle Hoss,” Grandpa said . . . .
“I know he did, Son,” Grandpa said in a firm, yet kindly tone of voice. “I also know that a child or a young man like yourself sometimes overhears things without meaning to initially.”
“I wasn’t gonna stay and listen until I heard the name Loomis,” Jess continued. “That Mrs. Loomis . . . . ” he shuddered, “she’s got six boys, Grandpa, but she wants a little girl. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that, except she wants MARIE to be her little girl. She’s . . . she’s filed something, Grandpa . . . something that would give her the right to take Marie away from us, and there’s another family, too. Name’s Williams. THEY want Benjy ‘n Toby, but between you ‘n me? They don’t love ‘em . . . they don’t care much about ‘em at all. They just want hands who’ll work for nothin’ on that farm Mister Williams just saved up enough money to buy.” Jess’ words tumbled out of his mouth one, after the other after the other. “They say . . . they say Pa’s unfit . . . . ”
“ . . . and what of YOU, Jess?”
“No one much likes me, I’m afraid, except Doc Jacobs and his wife . . . Mister Reuben, and Miss Lucy.”
“Who are Mister Reuben and Miss Lucy?”
“Mister Reuben’s one o’ Mister Carson’s sons, and Miss Lucy’s his daughter,” Jess replied. “The Loomises and the Williams . . . they work for Mister Carson, same as Pa . . . or same as Pa DID . . . . ”
“Jess, I want you to listen to me, and I want you to listen real good.”
The firmness in his grandfather’s tone mixed with a certain gentle quality, caught and held Jess’ attention.
“First, we’re ALL going to do what we can for your pa,” Ben said, “Doc Jacobs, his wife, your uncle, me, and you, too, Son . . . you, your brothers, and you sister. If . . . . ” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “If your pa doesn’t pull through, then you, Benjy, Toby, and Marie WILL come home with your uncle and me. You have my word on that, Jess, and you have my word that the four of ya will remain together.”
Jess’s eyes began to blink excessively against the acrid sting of a fresh onslaught of tears, just forming. “Grandpa, what if . . . what if the Loomises and the Williamses try to s-stop you?”
“They can’t,” Ben said with confidence. “If your pa doesn’t pull through, the law says you go with your next of kin. That would be me and your uncles.”
“Yes. You’ve seen your Uncle Hoss, and you have two more waiting at home.”
“Uncle . . . Adam and . . . Uncle Jamie?”
“Yes. You remember them?” Ben queried, mildly surprised.
Jess shook his head. “Their names came to me just now, but I don’t remember them . . . not really. I dream, I think, about playing with another boy . . . he’s older, but not by much. There’s a man, who— ” He choked back a sob. “There’s a . . . a man who looks an awful lot like Pa there, with a Chinese man and . . . and a woman. I can’t see her face, but she’s got the same kinda hair as Marie.”
“That other boy’s your cousin, George. Hoss’ son,” Ben explained, his voice filled with sadness. “When you both were real little, your pa used to rough house with ya in Hop Sing’s garden— ”
“Hop Sing! Is he the Chinese man?”
“He’s REAL? He’s not someone I dreamed up?”
“Hop Sing is very real, Jess,” Ben hastened to assure the boy. “So’s George, though, like you, he’s not a real little boy anymore, and your pa . . . . ” He remembered Joe as he was in those years now gone by, how he, according to a very annoyed and irate Hop Sing sometimes, was “more little boy than little boys.” He wondered, then, if he would ever see that side of Joe, that naughty, mischievous little imp that had so endeared him to Amanda, and his father as well, ever again. Or had that wonderful, naughty little boy died by the same bullet that had so cruelly taken his beloved wife?
The sound of Jess’ voice in the darkness stirred Ben from his melancholy reverie. “Yes, Son?”
“The woman who’s also in the garden, you know, the one with hair like my sister? Is SHE real, too?”
“She’s real, Jess, though she’s no longer with us,” Ben replied, his heart all of a sudden unbearably heavy. “She is . . . was . . . your mother.”
After Jess had finally, at long last, dropped off to sleep, Ben slowly made his way downstairs, his head, his senses reeling from all that his grandson had told him. He saw the light in the kitchen, upon reaching the first floor of the Jacobs’ home, and walked down the long, narrow corridor toward it. Hoss and the doctor were seated at the kitchen table, each with a near full cup of coffee before them, that had long ago gone ice cold.
“ . . . uhhh . . . Doctor Jacobs. Am I right?”
Hoss and the doctor glanced up sharply and found Ben leaning heavily against the door jamb.
“Indeed you are, Mister Cartwright,” the sawbones said, rising. “How’s Jess?”
“Sleeping now, thank the Lord,” Ben murmured wearily, with gratitude deeply heart felt.
“Pa, maybe you’d best come in ‘n sit down,” Hoss said, with a worried frown. “Some o’ what the doc here just told me . . . . ”
“ . . . is, I have the feeling, the same as a lot of what Jess told ME,” Ben said. “Morning’s soon enough to talk about things. Right now, I want to see my son.”
It had been an odd dream filled with voices, familiar and much loved . . . voices he’d not heard in a very long time . . . men’s voices that conjured up a whole string of images from memories that seemed to belong to a whole other lifetime . . . .
. . . a young man galloping across a wide meadow on a black and white pinto, with the wind in his face, chasing a beautiful young woman with a long, thick mane of wavy chestnut brown hair, the sound of her teasing laughter rising like a song above the sounds of their horses’ hooves striking the earth . . . .
. . . two brothers standing up for a third on the day he took that beautiful woman with that long, thick mane of wavy chestnut brown hair for wife . . . .
. . . the birth of that young man’s first child, a son named Jesse Holmwood for the man who had long ago adopted the infant’s mother when both of her parents were killed, and raised her as his own . . . .
. . . of that same young man playing in an enormous vegetable garden with his own son and his nephew, son of his older, biggest brother . . . .
. . . a cake, lavishly decorated, set square in the center of the dining room table in honor of that young man’s birthday. He stood at the head of the table, surrounded by three very fine sons, two brothers, a father and sister-in-law, two nieces and nephews, and a Chinese man, tenderly cradling the infant daughter born early that morning . . . .
“Make wish,” the Chinese man said.
“I already have everything I could possibly ever wish for,” the young man said . . . .
His eyelids cracked open slightly, then slammed shut under their own, unbearably heavy weight a second later . . . .
It was one of the voices that had through some strange kind of bewitchment that had summoned forth all the good, kindly, loving images from times past, so very different from the ones, filled with pain and devastation, that had haunted him for the better part of the last year now.
“Hey, Joe . . . c’mon now . . . time t’ wake up.”
He forced his good eye wide open, so wide he could feel the minute muscles, many he never realized he had until that moment, straining. A big face, set with a pair of eyes the color of the sky on a bright sunny day, and crowned with a thinning halo of reddish brown hair, peered down into his own.
“H-Hoss?” he rasped, astonished at how hoarse and feeble his own voice sounded in his ears.
The lips parted to reveal a big gap toothed smile that lit up his entire face. “Big as life ‘n twice as ugly, Li’l Brother,” the face responded.
“ . . . must be still dreamin’,” he murmured. His eyelids banged shut, and he allowed sleep to claim him.
“Pa? Oh, Pa, I . . . I’m burning up . . . . ”
“Shhh, Son . . . rest. You rest now . . . . ” He felt the gentle pressure of a cool, wet cloth against his forehead. “I’m here, Joe . . . I’m RIGHT here . . . and I’m gonna STAY right here . . . . ”
“I promise . . . . ”
He had to be dreaming. There was no way in the world his pa could be here sitting beside him. Even though he was but a day’s ride from the Ponderosa, Pa had no idea where he was . . . no idea as to where to begin looking.
Still, hearing his father’s rich, warm, baritone voice uttering those words so quietly, yet with conviction stronger and more firm than the earth upon which they all stood, soothed and reassured even though it was part of a fevered dream.
“Sleepy,” he sighed.
“Why don’t you close your eyes and sleep for a while? Sleep would probably be the best thing in the world for you right now . . . . ”
“Will you be here when I wake up?”
“Yes, Son . . . I will.”
“I promise . . . . ”
Ben set the half empty bowl of ice water aside, then reached out and placed his hand over top Joe’s forehead. “Still hot,” he noted with concern.
Ben slowly lifted his head and found Jess standing in the open door to the doctor’s examination room, just on the other side of the threshold, with his younger brothers and sister, crowded in close behind.
“It’s late,” Ben said with a kind, if weary smile. “The four of you should be in bed.”
“We can’t sleep,” Jess replied. “How’s Pa?”
“He’s sleeping now.”
“Can we see him, Grandpa?” Jess begged. “Please?”
“Well, seeing that the four of ya can’t sleep anyway, I suppose it’ll be all right,” Ben relented, “but you’ll have to keep very quiet so you won’t wake him.”
That was all the invitation Marie needed. She neatly sidestepped around Jess and boldly marched across the room. “Are you REALLY our grandpa?” she asked in a quiet yet very bold tone of voice.
“Yes, Sweetheart, I am,” Ben replied, his voice catching. She was the image of her mother with that thick, wavy chestnut brown hair, and in the way she carried herself. Her eyes and the fire in them, however, came from her father . . . and her namesake. He reached down and gently lifted her into his lap.
“Are you crying?” she asked in a very solemn tone of voice, while her brothers silently filed into the room.
“A little . . . I g-guess.” Keeping one arm wrapped around her shoulders, he reached up with his free hand to brush away the single tear now lowing down his cheek.
“I’m sorry, Grandpa. I didn’t mean to make you sad . . . . ”
“No, Marie . . . no. You didn’t make me sad,” Ben hastened to reassure. “Sometimes grown-ups cry when they’re very happy.”
She leaned against Ben’s chest while mulling over his words. A moment later she lifted her head and looked him square in the face. “Are you saying you’re happy?” she asked, favoring him with a dubious glare.
“Yes, I am,” Ben replied, his heart swelling when she reached up with her small hand and gently wiped away the second tear that had just slipped over his eyelid.
“I’m happy because I’ve finally found your pa . . . and all of YOU.” His watery gaze took in his three grandsons, who stood clustered together in a semi-circle before him.
“You ARE?!” Benjy queried, incredulous.
“Your uncles and I have been searching for you since the day we woke up and found you and your pa gone,” Ben said earnestly.
“Grandpa?” Toby, the next youngest, barely a year older than Marie stepped closer and placed both hands on the leg not occupied by his sister.
“When Pa’s all better . . . are we gonna go with YOU?”
Ben wished with all his heart he could respond in the affirmative, but what if Joe ultimately opposed the idea?
“Toby . . . . ” another voice replied before Ben could begin formulating an answer to his youngest grandson’s question. He looked over at the examination table and saw Joe staring up at him, the eyelids of his good eye barely cracked open. “ . . . the answer’s yes. When I‘m better . . . we‘re going with your grandpa.”
“Then you’re . . . you’re N-NOT mad because I . . . because I sent f-for grandpa?” Jess asked, then mentally braced himself.
Joe shook his head, wincing. “No, Jess . . . I’m not mad . . . you . . . y-you did the right thing . . .”
Margaret Loomis sailed into Judge Silas Mason’s chambers with back straight, head held high, a triumphant smile on her face, and her eyes sparkling with intense anticipation. Her husband, William, a quiet, mild mannered man trailed meekly in her wake. Yesterday afternoon, she and William received word that Judge Mason wanted to see them this morning, nine-thirty sharp in his chambers.
“He’s going to grant our petition for custody,” Margaret crowed the night before, though she was somewhat surprised the judge had come to a decision so quickly. Judge Mason tended to err so much on what he referred to as the side of caution, it took him three times longer to make up his mind than it did anyone else.
“We’ll see,” William grunted after he’d finished the last of his supper.
Her sons were less than enthusiastic about the idea of having a little sister to put it mildly, and her husband honestly had no care one way or the other. Though disappointed, Margaret Loomis was bound and determined not to let them dampen her delight at the prospect of finally having the daughter for which she had yearned for so long.
After Judge Mason ruled in favor of their petition, and she knew beyond all doubt that he would, she and her husband would be able to take Marie home straight away. Certain formalities had to be observed and requirements met before they could legally adopt her, but their lawyer had assured them all those trivialities could be wrapped up within six months to a year.
Margaret and William had a daughter born to them, a year and a half after the birth of their oldest son. They had named her Miranda Elizabeth for the mother Margaret had lost when she was a small child. She was so perfect with that fine halo of spun gold framing a cherubic face with pink cheeks and bright blue eyes. Six weeks later, her healthy appetite began to decline, and she began to slowly waste away. Doctor Jacobs had done everything he knew to do, but in the end, the little girl couldn’t be saved.
Failure to thrive, Doctor Jacobs said . . . .
Five healthy, robust boys followed. A month after her youngest son was born, the “apparatus for having babies” . . . the doctor’s words, had to be surgically removed due to complications. Margaret Loomis had no idea as to the nature of said complications, nor did she particularly care. The only thing she DID know was, she couldn’t have any more children.
Just at the point Margaret Loomis had come to a grudging resignation of sorts, Joe Cartwright hired on out at the Circle C and moved into the old foreman’s cottage with his four children that included a beautiful baby girl she just plain and simply couldn’t get out of her mind.
“Good morning, Mister and Mrs. Loomis,” Judge Silas Mason rose from his place from the enormous roll top desk that dominated the small, windowless room. He shook hands with the husband first, then the wife.
Margaret was a bit surprised to see Aubrey and Louise Williams there as well . . . . “ . . . but perhaps I shouldn‘t be,” she ruminated silently. She’d heard that they had filed to take custody of Joe Cartwright’s two younger boys. Aubrey and William worked together out at the Circle C, but the Williamses were a dour, taciturn couple, who tended to keep very much to themselves.
“Mister and Mrs. Loomis . . . Mister and Mrs. Williams, first of all, I want to thank all of you for coming on such short notice,” Silas said apologetically. “This is Mister Eric Cartwright . . . . ”
“Cartwright?!” Margaret queried with a dubious frown and an uneasy sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. The frown deepened when she glanced up and saw the big man standing behind Judge Mason, with his fingers curled loosely around the rim of an enormous ten gallon hat.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Hoss affirmed, his tone of voice polite, yet cool.
“Surely you’re NOT related to . . . uhhh . . . . ”
“If you’re askin’ whether or not I’m related t’ Joe Cartwright, Mrs. Loomis, the answer is yes. I am,” Hoss replied. “He’s my brother.”
“Y-Your brother?!” Margaret echoed, incredulous. “I was under the impression he . . . that Joe Cartwright had no living relatives . . . apart from the children, that is . . . . ”
“So was I,” William Loomis said very quietly, “but to tell the truth, I can’t ever recall a time Joe out and out SAID that his folks had all died.”
“Mister Cartwright here and his father arrived last night after receiving word that Joe Cartwright was ill,” the judge continued. “If he’s found to be unfit, or if he dies, heaven forbid, custody of Marie Cartwright AND her brothers automatically goes to Mister ERIC Cartwright and his father.” He paused briefly, then said with a sidelong glance over at Mister and Mrs. Williams, “I have no choice but to deny both of your petitions for custody.”
“NO!” Margaret cried out in anguish and outrage. “Judge Mason, no! You CAN’T do that!”
“Let’s go.” William stepped forward and took his wife’s arm.
Margaret easily pulled her arm from her husband’s grasp. “Mister Cartwright, for the last five years I’ve given your brother and his children food . . . what little I could spare, of course . . . my older sons kept that shack they called home on the Circle C in good repair . . . and many’s the night my husband brought your brother home because he was too damned drunk to sit his horse. Where were you and your father all that time?” she demanded, with arms folded tight across her ample, heaving chest.
“Margaret, please— ”
“I have a right to know, William,” she insisted.
“Mister Cartwright, I apologize for my wife— ”
“ ‘S ok, Mister Loomis. I don’t mind answerin’ her question,” Hoss said, then turn his attention to Margaret Loomis. “Ma’am, since the mornin’ my pa, my brothers, ‘n me woke up ‘n found Joe ‘n his kids gone . . . we’ve been searchin’ for ‘em ever since. My brother, Adam’s, been payin’ a good friend o’ his, who happens t’ be a Pinkerton man, a monthly retainer t’ keep an eye out.”
“It’s a shame no one in your family even thought to look right here in Mormon Springs,” Margaret observed with rancor.
“We did, Ma’am . . . ‘n every time folks either said they didn’t know my brother, or they shrugged their shoulders ‘n walked away.”
“Mister Cartwright, speaking for myself, I’m very happy to know that Joe has other family members who care about him, in addition to the children,” William Loomis declared with an emphatic nod of his head. “When Joe gets to feeling better, please tell him I wish him all the best.”
“Thank you, Mister Loomis. I’ll be sure t’ tell him.”
“Mister Cartwright,” Margaret said, with tears borne of great sorrow and anger coursing down her cheeks. “You’ve NOT heard the last of this— ”
“Margaret, stop it,” William ordered, his face darkening with anger. “The law says if anything happens to Joe, his kids go to his pa and brothers. There‘s nothing you or anyone else can do to change that. Now let’s go. You have six boys at home who need their mother.” With that, he took hold of her arm once again and ushered her toward the door.
Margaret, crestfallen and utterly defeated, meekly followed.
“I got three queens,” Toby declared, grinning broadly. “See? One . . . two . . . three.” He placed the queens of hearts, clubs, and diamonds down on the table placed in front of the settee in the Jacobs’ family room upstairs, where Joe had been moved with help from the doctor and his father.
“Aww, dadburn it!” Marie sighed. “All I got ’s three jacks ’n two fours.”
“You got ME beat,” Jess declared, as he placed his own cards face down on the table.
“You got ME beat, too, Princess,” Joe said, smiling. “Looks like you and Toby are the big winners.”
“I got fifty matchsticks ’n Marie’s got fifty-three,” Toby declared. “Pa?”
“How’s that work out in pennies?”
“Two match sticks for a penny,” Joe declared, “IF you both keep up with your school work.”
“Yes, Pa,” Marie responded.
Toby vigorously nodded his head.
“Have you done the lessons your grandpa asked you to do for today?” Joe asked, his gaze taking in Jess along with his two youngest.
“We’ve all done our arithmetic problems, Pa,” Marie replied. “But I ain’t done my spelling words yet.”
“You HAVEN’T done your spelling words yet,” Jess automatically corrected his young sister.
“I just said that!”
“Well, you kids have about an hour or so before Mrs. Jacobs serves up lunch,” Joe said. “Why don’t you g’won and get some work in on those spelling words? And Marie . . . . ”
“I think maybe YOU need to make a point of going over your English grammar, too,” Joe said, with an amused half smile pulling hard at the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, Sir,” she responded with a melancholy sigh. English grammar was by far her least favorite subject.
“Come on, Marie . . . you, too, Toby,” Jess said quietly, as he turned to usher his younger siblings out of the room.
“I’d like to talk to you for a minute,” Joe said quietly.
“Sure thing, Pa,” Jess replied, before turning to Toby and Marie. “You two, g’won ahead. I’ll be along directly.”
Joe waited until the two younger children had left the room. “Jess, first off, I want to let you know how proud I am of you for all you’ve done to look after your brothers and sister. I . . . Son, I know I’ve been a miserable, lame excuse for a father, this past year especially— ”
“ ‘S ok, Pa,” Jess said, not quite knowing what else to say.
“No, it’s not,” Joe said firmly, “and I promise you THAT’S going to change.”
Pa had made that promise so many times before, only to break it a day or two later. Jess had long ago come to the place of taking his father’s promises to do better with a grain of salt. But today, hearing his father utter those same words, something was different. He felt the stirring of something deep inside, something he’d not felt for a very long time.
“You will, Pa,” Jess said quietly, believing his father‘s words despite any and all intentions to the contrary. “I KNOW you will.”
“ . . . ok, Toby . . . summer,” Jess read the next word down in his old third grade spelling book.
“That’s easy,” Marie piped up with a confident smile. “S— ”
“Marie, it’s TOBY’S turn,” Jess chided his sister, not unkindly.
“Summer,” Toby said slowly, “suh . . . mer . . . . ” Then, suddenly, the puzzled frown evaporated as the light dawned. “Summer,” he repeated the word with a broad grin. “S-U-M-M-E-R. Summer.”
“That’s absolutely right,” Jess declared with a wide grin. He, then, turned to his sister. “YOUR turn, Marie . . . camp.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she responded in a dismissive, ever so slightly condescending tone. “K . . . . ” She paused for a moment, frowning. “NO . . . that ai-, uhh ISN’T right . . . camp. It’s a C word. C . . . A-M-P.”
Jess closed the speller, smiled over at Marie first, then at Toby. “Very good. You got ‘em all right first time around.”
“Can Toby ‘n me . . . I mean Toby ‘n I . . . play some checkers until we eat lunch?” Marie asked, with a longing gaze over at the board and pieces set up for play on the cedar chest placed at the foot of the double bed her two older brothers shared.
Jess glanced over at the regulator clock hanging above the fireplace mantle in the Jacobs’ guest room. The time was a quarter before the hour. “I guess it’ll be ok,” he decided, reasonably confident the two younger children would perform equally well for their grandfather later when he tested them on their spelling, “but you two mind the rules and keep it quiet.” This last he added with an anxious glance over in the direction of their brother, Benjy, who yet remained under the covers, with his back pointedly turned toward his family.
Toby and Marie quickly chose their colors, then settled themselves on either side of the checkerboard, and began to play.
Jess, meanwhile, walked around the bed, and knelt down bringing him face to face with Benjy. “You feeling any better?” he quietly asked.
“No,” Benjy responded in a sullen tone, with his eyes squeezed shut.
“You want me to ask Doc Jacobs—?!”
“No. I just want you to leave me ALONE.”
Jess reached over and placed the back of his hand against Benjy’s forehead. “Cool as a cucumber,” he murmured softly.
Benjy opened his eyes and glared over at Jess. “You calling me a liar?” he demanded, outraged and righteously indignant.
“No,” Jess replied, “I just said you didn’t have a fever ‘s all— ”
“A guy CAN be sick without running a fever, y’ know . . . . ”
“Yes . . . I know.”
“Then why are you making such a big deal over whether or not I have a fever?” Benjy demanded.
Jess frowned. “Benjy, I’M not the one making a big deal . . . YOU are,” he countered.
“WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE?” Benjy yelled, then yanked the bedclothes up over his head and turned away from his brother.
“Hey . . . what’s all this?”
Three heads, three pairs of eyes turned toward the open bedroom door, just as Uncle Hoss stepped into the bedroom.
Jess immediately rose to his feet. “It’s Benjy, Uncle Hoss. He says he’s not feeling well,” the boy replied sheepishly.
“I see,” Hoss murmured, as his eyes drifted to the small mound in the middle of the double bed. “Jess, would you do me a favor?”
“Sure, Uncle Hoss. Anything.”
“Mrs. Jacobs told me she’s gonna have lunch ready in another five minutes or so,” Hoss said. “Would you please take Toby ‘n Marie down to the kitchen ‘n see they get washed up?”
“Come on, Kids,” Jess invited, as he made his way across the room toward the door.
“Uncle Hoss?” Marie queried. “Did you take care o’ that mean ol’ Mrs. Loomis?”
“Yep. Now that the judge knows about your grandpa, me, ‘n your two uncles back home, he told Mrs. Loomis, ‘n the Williamses, too, they got no grounds for takin’ custody over YOU, Young Lady . . . OR Toby ‘n Benjy,” Hoss replied. “I’ve not told your pa ‘n grandpa yet . . . . ”
Benjy pulled the bedclothes down to his neck. “Don’t NEED to tell PA,” he said peevishly. “Like as not he didn’t even KNOW about the Loomises ‘n the Williamses wanting to split us all up . . . ‘n even if he did? Wouldn‘t have mattered, because he doesn‘t give a flying fig about us . . . . ”
“ . . . uhh, Jess?”
“Yes, Uncle Hoss,” the boy said quickly. He took his youngest brother and only sister by the hand and lead them out of the room.
“Benjy, I don’t know who told you a thing like that, ‘n t’ be honest, it don’t matter none, ‘cause it plain ‘n simply isn’t true,” Hoss said very quietly, yet in a very firm tone of voice. He walked over to the side of the bed his young nephew occupied, and carefully sat down on the edge. “I KNOW your pa— ”
Benjy angrily folded his arms over his chest and glared pointedly up at the ceiling. “You DON’T know my pa, Uncle Hoss. Neither does Grandpa! How could you possibly know him when y’ ain’t even SEEN him in six years?!”
“It’s true . . . your grandpa, your uncles, ‘n me haven’t seen your pa in six years,” Hoss admitted, “but we . . . all of us except your Uncle Jamie, have known him since he first came into this world. Your pa’s had a real rough time of it since your ma died, ‘n I know it’s not been easy for you, Jess, Toby, ‘n Marie, but things are gonna change.”
“I HATE him.”
“You don’t MEAN that . . . . ”
“Yes, I DO!” Benjy ardently, passionately declared, his eyes blinking against the sting of angry tears, newly formed. “If he ain’t out drinkin’, or sleeping it off, he’s mean, ‘n nasty, ‘n . . . ‘n he’s a LIAR, Uncle Hoss. Nothin’ but a dirty, stinkin’, lyin’ DRUNK.”
Hoss closed his eyes and slowly counted to ten. “Benjy, that’s NOT your real pa,” he said quietly, fighting back the urge to drag the boy out of bed and down to the Jacobs’ gardening shed for what Pa oft times called a “real necessary talking to.”
“That’s six years o’ whiskey talkin’, ‘n I’m real sorry that’s the only thing y’ see when y’ look at your pa. You wanna know what kinda man he really is deep down inside?”
Benjy pulled the covers up over his head and turned away.
“Your pa came into this world about a month or so early,” Hoss continued. A nostalgic half smile tugged against the corner of his mouth. “Pa . . . MY pa that is, your grandpa . . . said he was impatient t’ get out in the world ’n start livin’. He was right, too, ’cause I’ve never met a man with more love o’ livin’ life than your pa. He’s a good man Benjy, with a real good heart . . . ’n you know what? We’re gonna see that man again real soon.”
Benjy remained under the covers, with his knees up under his chin. Hoss thought for a moment he had caught the sound of a strangled sob. He placed his hand on his nephew’s shoulder and gently squeezed.
In the meantime, Marie and Toby trooped into the Jacobs’ family room, washed and ready for lunch, with Jess following close behind.
“Jess?“ Joe asked. “Where’s Benjy?” He had shifted from lying on the settee to sitting up, with a fluffy down pillow behind him and his slippered feet propped up on the ottoman.
“He ain’t . . . I mean isn’t! Feeling good, Pa,” Marie responded as she flounced across the room and climbed up in the empty place on the settee next to her father.
“Oh?” Joe queried, looking from his daughter to his oldest son.
“He didn‘t say HOW he was feeling sick, just that he is,” Jess said. “He doesn’t have a fever though. I checked.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Joe said, “but he still needs to eat— ”
“It’s all right, Mister Cartwright, let the boy rest,” Vera Jacobs said as she entered the room, with Hoss following behind carrying an enormous tray, laden with food. “I’ll fix him a couple slices of toast and some peppermint tea after we have our lunch.”
“Mister Cartwright?” Stan ventured, as his wife quietly told Hoss where to set the tray down.
“Yes?” three men automatically responded in unison.
“Oops, sorry, I meant Mister JOE Cartwright,” the doctor said sheepishly. “I’d be more than happy to take a look at Benjy if you’d like.”
Joe winced against a sharp stab of pain right between the eyes. “Maybe you’d better call me Joe,” he said with a weak half smile. “Less confusing that way, ‘n besides . . . I tend to think of Mister Cartwright as being my pa’s name anyway . . . . ”
“You all right, Son?” Ben asked. An anxious frown deepened the lines already etched into his brow.
“I’m ok, Pa . . . just a bit of a headache’s all,” Joe replied. The delicious, heady aromas of chicken stew, biscuits piping hot from the oven, and fresh brewed coffee began to turn his stomach.
“Pa?” Marie solemnly, fearfully ventured. “Are you sure you’re ok?”
Joe gave the child what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’m fine, Marie.”
Marie shifted from sitting to kneeling. “You feel kinda warm,” she said softly as she placed her hand against Joe’s forehead.
Joe gently took her hand in his and kissed her palm. “Now that you mention it, Sweetheart, your pa IS feeling a bit warm, but I’m gonna be ok.”
“I promise.” Joe, then, turned to the doctor’s wife. “Mrs. Jacobs, you’ve fixed a real scrumptious looking feast, but I . . . all of a sudden, I’m feeling a mite sick to my stomach. I-I’m sorry . . . . ”
Jess immediately leapt to his feet. “Pa? You want me to take you back to your room?”
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “Thank you, Son.”
“I’ll give ya a hand, Jess,” Hoss said, as he also rose to his feet.
“Mrs. Jacobs, I-I’m so sorry . . . . ”
“You’ve nothing to apologize for, Mister Ca— Joe!” Vera said, kindly yet firm. “You lie down and rest.”
“Thank you . . . . ” Joe sighed.
“Come on, Li’l Brother,” Hoss murmured softly, as he reached down and helped Joe to his feet. He deftly slipped Joe’s right arm about his own shoulders, then looked down at Jess. “Would you mind gettin’ the door?” he asked, favoring the worried boy with a warm smile.
Toby and Marie left their places and walked over to the easy chair that Ben occupied.
“Grandpa?” Toby asked, his voice barely above the decibel of the softest whisper. “Is . . . is Pa gonna die?”
Ben patted his lap and opened his arms. The children immediately climbed up and snuggled close. “No,” he said firmly, “your Pa’s NOT going to die.” He looked down at Marie with a tremulous smile. “Didn’t he just promise you he was going to be ok?”
“Yes,” Marie replied.
Toby nodded. “I’m scared, Grandpa . . . . ”
“Me, too,” Marie said with a half sob.
“It’s ok to be scared,” Ben said softly, his own voice catching. “I’m feeling a little scared, too, but I know your pa’s going to get well, then we’re ALL going back to the Ponderosa.”
“I think I feel a little less scared ‘cause YOU’RE here . . . . ”
Hoss half dragged, half carried his younger brother down the room they shared with their father at the end of the hall. Mrs. Jacobs had apologetically explained last night that it was their twin daughters’ bedroom. The girls were back east in New York, visiting their maternal grandmother for the summer. Come Fall, Vera had said, they would move into one of the dorms at the finishing school they would be attending for the next two years. Hoss felt a mite uncomfortable sleeping in what amounted to a world of white and varying shades of pink, amid ribbons, ruffles, lace, and all the fru-fru gewgaws that remained in the room, much to Joe’s amusement and that of their father.
With Hoss’ help, Joe eased himself down on the bed set against the wall to the left of the door. His face was white as a sheet and he balled his hands into a pair of tight fists to try and quell their trembling. “H-Hoss, I . . . I think I’m g-gonna be . . . . ” He squeezed his eyes tight shut against an environment that had started to pulsate and spin before his eyes with nauseating intensity.
Jess immediately dived under the bed slept in by his grandfather and dragged out a chamber pot of white porcelain painted with dainty pink roses. Clutching it close to his chest, he tore across the room to his father’s side, and shoved it under Joe’s head. “Here y’ are, Pa,” he whispered, his own face a sick ashen gray hue and his eyes filled with fear.
Joe bent his head over the chamber pot and returned the breakfast he had eaten that morning, while Hoss gently held his head. After his stomach had emptied, he went into an intense spasm of dry heaving. “D-Drink . . . . ” Joe gasped, “H-Hoss . . . drink . . . n-need a drink . . . please . . . . ”
Jess jaw dropped upon hearing those words. “Pa,” he begged, wagging his head slowly back and forth. “Pa, no! You promised.”
“ . . . flask . . . in my bag,” Joe continued, oblivious to the stricken look on his son’s face.
“Joe, you can have all the water y’ want, or if you’d rather, a cup o’ that peppermint tea Mrs. Jacobs is gonna fix up for Benjy,” Hoss said very firmly.
“ . . . no,” Joe moaned, “s-something stronger . . . please . . . all I need’s just one sip . . . . ” He struggled mightily to rise, and Hoss, much to his astonishment found himself suddenly hard pressed to keep his younger brother down.
“Jess, go fetch the doc,” Hoss ordered.
Jess remained, as if he had taken root, with his arms wrapped tight around the near full chamber pot, staring over at his father, with tears streaming down his face, still shaking his head.
“NOW, Jess,” Hoss said tersely.
Jess started violently upon hearing his uncle’s voice and dropped the chamber pot, which upon striking the floor, broke, spewing its contents over the pink and white rag rug in the middle of the room.
“Go get Doc Jacobs,” Hoss urged again.
Jess turned heel and fled from the room.
The grandfather’s clock, standing against the wall to the left of the Jacobs’ front door, chimed the hour of three in the morning rousing Ben from a sleep, fitful at best. He glanced down at his son, lying on a cot in Doc Jacob’s examination room, and noted with a measure of relief that for the moment he still slept.
“Thank God Jess had the wherewithal to send that wire,” Ben murmured softly, his heart breaking anew at the sight of Joe’s battered face and the sound of his shallow, labored breathing. Doctor Jacobs has assured him, and Hoss, too, that his ribs would heal, the lurid bruising on his face would fade, and, if Joe was lucky, the scarring from that jagged cut on his cheek, held together with neat, tiny stitches from black thread, would be kept to a minimum.
“Hard to believe Joe and the kids’ve been here . . . in Mormon Springs . . . right under our very noses,” Ben observed in a melancholy tone. “If only we’d been more diligent in our search for Joe and the kids . . . more thorough . . . . ”
Ben knew that Joe had forgiven him when he told his children they would be leaving Mormon Springs and returning home, to the Ponderosa. Question was, would he ever be able to forgive himself for all the suffering Joe and the kids had endured for the past six years.
The sound of Jess’ voice, filled with fear and anguish, echoing in the ears of his inward hearing drew Ben from his self recrimination and guilt.
The boy had burst into the Jacobs’ family room, breathless, his face white as a sheet, his eyes round and staring, reminding Ben of a trapped wild animal. “Doc Jacobs! Please!” Jess begged. “You gotta come quick! My pa NEEDS you!”
Ben leapt to his feet in the same instant as the doctor, his heart racing. Almost from the instant he stepped out into the long, narrow hallway, which led from the family room to the bedrooms at the back of the house, he could hear Joe crying out for Amanda.
“Doc Jacobs . . . Pa . . . I’m sure glad you came quick as you did, ’cause I don’t know how much longer I can keep him down,” Hoss greeted them as they burst into the room belonging to the Jacobs‘ twin daughters. His face was red and brow covered with sweat from the exertion.
Stan Jacobs lost no time in taking charge of the situation. “Mister Cartwright . . . Hoss . . . let’s see if we can get him down to my examination room,” he said grimly. “We can bind him to the cot down there much more easily than to this bed.”
“B-bind?!” Ben echoed, outraged and feeling very sick at heart.
“Mister Cartwright, the state your son’s in right now poses a great danger to himself and to everyone else in this house,” Stan said curtly . . . .
Joe had snapped the rope they had initially used to bind him with an ease both ridiculous and terrifying, all the while screaming for his late wife. In the end, Mrs. Jacobs brought in a pair of bridles belonging to their daughters. She and Ben cut them into long ties, while Hoss and the doctor struggled to hold Joe down, then set to work securing Joe’s ankles and wrists to the cot. Ben knew it was necessary, but the act of binding his own son same as he might a wild animal was as a knife wound straight through his heart.
The doctor gave Joe a mild sedative . . . .
“ . . . this is all I DARE give him,” Stan said as he deftly filled the syringe. “I just hope and pray it’s enough . . . . ”
After what seemed a dreadful eternity, Joe fell into a troubled sleep, sobbing his wife’s name over and over. Ben realized, then, that Jess, who had remained in the room through out most of the ordeal was no where to be seen.
“I’ll look for him, Pa,” Hoss offered, exhausted and, from the look in his eyes, every bit as heartsick as Ben himself.
“No . . . I’LL look for him. You sit down a minute and rest . . . . ”
Ben found Jess outside, sitting on the steps leading up to the kitchen door, with back slightly bowed and arms folded tight across his chest.
“Jess?” Ben said softly as he sat down beside the boy. “You all right?”
Jess slowly raised his head, and looked his grandfather square in the face. His eyelids were red and swollen and his cheeks were wet with tears. “H-He promised, Grandpa,” the boy said softly, his voice breaking.
Ben automatically reached over and gently rubbed his grandson’s back, same as he had done for the boy’s father from the time he learned to walk almost until the day he had picked up his children and left whenever he was upset or bothered by something.
“He PROMISED that . . . that things were going to . . . to change,” Jess sobbed, “but when Uncle H-Hoss and I took him to his room? He was BEGGING Uncle Hoss to give him whiskey.”
“I heard your pa make that promise, too, Jess,” Ben said, “and no matter how things look right now, I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to KEEP his word.”
Jess stared up into Ben’s face earnestly. “H-How can you be s-so sure?” he whispered, wanting so desperately to hang on to the hope he had felt earlier that morning when his father had made that promise.
“Faith,” Ben replied. “Faith in the man I’VE come to know and love very much as my son.”
“I . . . I’m n-not sure I understand, Grandpa . . . . ”
“Faith is believing in something even though you can’t see it yet,” Ben patiently explained. “Right now, your pa’s a very sick man, Jess. When you heard him begging Uncle Hoss for whiskey, that was his sickness talking. But, I know your pa’s going to find the strength and will to overcome his sickness and keep his promise.”
Jess silently mulled over his grandfather’s words. “Grandpa?”
“I WANT to believe you . . . and I want to believe PA, too,” Jess said, his voice shaking, “but it’s so HARD.”
“You were a real little fella when your ma died,” Ben said quietly, “a bit younger than your sister now, but . . . can you remember anything from that time?”
“There’s this dream I keep having, leastwise I thought it was a dream until you and Uncle Hoss came . . . but now I‘m not sure,” Jess began haltingly. He, then, shared the picture of two small boys in a garden tended by a Chinese man playing with another man wearing a green jacket that he had seen from time to time in his mind over the years.
“I . . . remember that day very well . . . . ” Ben said wistfully, drawing a sharp glance from his grandson.
“Then it’s NOT a dream,” Jess murmured softly. Somehow knowing that for certain warmed his heart, though he had no idea in the world why.
“No. It’s NOT a dream,” Ben affirmed. “Jess . . . . ”
“I have a feeling your pa’s promised you before that things were going to change . . . . ”
“Lots of times,” Jess replied, wiping his eyes and cheeks against the heel of his left hand, “it got so I didn’t believe him anymore . . . ‘til today.”
“Why did you believe him today?”
Jess shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I dunno, Grandpa . . . something was different, I guess . . . . ”
“I think maybe the something different was you heard the man in that green jacket, the one you remember playing with in the garden, make that promise, not the sick man,” Ben explained. “Now it could be the sick man wanted to keep that promise, but he’s never had the strength. The man wearing the green jacket DOES have the strength. It’s going to take him time . . . a lot of time, maybe, for him to overcome the sickness so he CAN keep his promise, but he WILL.”
“Amanda . . . . ” Joe’s voice, so gravelly and hoarse, drew Ben from his musings back to the here and now, “Amanda? Where ARE you?”
Ben stared down at his youngest son, now beginning to stir, not knowing how he should respond.
“Amanda . . . where ARE you?” Joe demanded, his voice rising. “Amanda!”
“Joe, she’s not here,” Ben responded, surprised at how calm and even his voice sounded in his own ears. “Amanda’s not here.”
Joe open his eyes slightly and stared long and hard into Ben’s face. “P-Pa?”
“I’m here, Son,” Ben assured him.
“Pa, I’ve got to find Amanda,” Joe insisted, panic stricken. He began struggling to rise.
“Joe . . . stop, please,” Ben implored, fearful that Joe’s physical exertions might cause him more injury. “Please, Joe . . . you need to rest—!”
“AMANDA! AMANDA!” Joe screamed, his head tossing rapidly back and forth. When he turned again to his father, Ben saw no sign of recognition whatsoever in those emerald green eyes. “WHERE’S MY WIFE?” he demanded. “WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY WIFE?! AMANDA!”
Acting purely on gut instinct, Ben took Joe’s head in both hands, stilling its agitated tossing about. “Joe, please! LISTEN to me! Amanda’s dead, Son . . . she’s DEAD . . . . ”
“I’m sorry, Joe, but there’s nothing I can do for Amanda,” Doctor Paul Martin said, his face a few shades paler than normal, his voice dreadfully calm. “She’s gone.”
With a strangled cry, Joe shoved the doctor out of the way. He collapsed to his knees beside the cot upon which his beloved wife, the woman he had many times professed to love more than life itself, was lying in Paul Martin’s examination room.
She couldn’t be dead, she couldn’t be. She had a husband, four children, one of them still a baby, who needed her and wasn’t the seventh anniversary of their wedding day next month? He had made plans for them to take the honeymoon trip they had postponed seven years ago to San Francisco. She couldn’t be dead.
“Amanda?” he called to her softly, relieved to find that the blood from the wound in her chest no longer gushed forth like a mountain spring. He gazed down into her face, into those eyes still half open . . . .
“Why?” those eyes, those beautiful luminous eyes, begged. “Why did you let me die?”
“I-I‘m sorry, Amanda . . . forgive me? Please . . . please forgive me,” Joe sobbed.
Ben, with tears flowing down his own face, loosed the leather ties binding his son to the cot in Doctor Jacobs’ office and pulled him into his arms. Joe held on to the material of Ben’s shirt, clutching as if for dear life, and buried his head tight against his father’s shoulder, and wept.
They remained thus until the dark, early hours of the morning, began to give way to the silver light of dawn.
“I killed her, Pa,” Joe said, his voice painfully hoarse after the many hours he spent weeping.
“Who, Son?” Ben reluctantly asked, as he gently eased his son back down on the cot.
“Amanda. Dear God in Heaven, she loved me . . . trusted me . . . she c-counted on me to protect her that day and I . . . I as good as killed her,” Joe replied.
“No,” Ben vehemently protested. “Joe, please . . . LISTEN to me. You did NOT kill Amanda, you didn’t.” He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep, ragged breath. “Son, you need to rest,” he said in a tone of voice more kindly. “We can talk later, after you‘ve— ”
“NOW, Pa,” Joe pleaded. “Please, I HAVE to say this now.”
“All right,” Ben agreed, then mentally braced himself.
“He was right you know . . . . ”
“WHO was right?”
“The man who led the gang who robbed . . . who TRIED to rob the bank that day,” Joe replied. “He told me I . . . that I was responsible for my wife’s death.” A single tear slipped down over Joe’s eyelid and flowed down his cheek. “I wanted to beat his brains out for saying that . . . and God help me, I . . . I tried . . . . ”
Ben saw Joe with tears streaming down his pale face and eye blazing with a fury the like of which he had never seen before, straddling Emil Wilson, leader of a gang of brothers who had tried to rob the bank in Virginia City six, going on seven years ago now, raining blow after merciless blow on the man’s face. The bank robber’s arms were tightly pinned against his sides, rendering completely helpless against the onslaught of Joe’s tight, rock hard fists.
It had taken three very strong men, including Hoss among them, to drag Joe off the man . . . .
. . . and it wasn’t until the following morning when Emil Wilson turned up missing that Ben and Roy Coffee learned he . . . Emil . . . had been the man who had pulled the trigger, killing Joe’s beloved Amanda in cold blood.
“Everyone said I w-was a hero,” Joe half sobbed, “because they found me trying to beat him to death. But, Pa? How can I possibly be the hero everyone said I was . . . when I ended up killing my own wife?”
Ben was afraid to ask the question that had just popped into his mind, but gut instinct told him he must. “Joe . . . . ” he ventured with fear and trembling, “what, exactly happened the day Emil Wilson and his brothers tried to rob the bank?”
It was the last day in August. The afternoon was pleasantly warm, but the nip in the air upon rising presaged the end of Summer and the approach of Fall and Winter. The sky above was the same bright blue as his wife’s eyes, with not even the slightest wisp of cloud to obscure its pristine appearance.
“Last one into the bank’s a rotten egg,” Amanda declared with an impish grin. She abruptly turned and darted across the street before Joe had the slightest chance to think of a response.
Joe set off after her at a dead run, catching up to her just as she reached the other side of the street. They darted into the bank, laughing like a pair of errant school children who had just decided to spend a lovely day like this one playing hooky from school.
“I win,” Amanda laughed.
“You’ve got your nerve . . . you know that?” Joe queried, trying his utmost to summon the meanest, most ferocious scowl it was in his power to call forth.
“What?” she demanded. The smile on her face and the laughter he heard in her voice told him that she wasn’t the least bit impressed.
“The way you keep referring to ME as a child . . . .”
“I guess it takes one to know one,” Amanda quipped before giving him a playful kiss right on the tip of his nose.
Had they not been out in public . . . .
“Children, children, children . . . .”
Joe and Amanda looked over and smiled upon seeing Heather Lowell standing before them with arms folded across her chest, shaking her head. The mischievous gleam in her eyes gave lie to the stern school mistress’ demeanor, something she had had plenty of time and opportunity to cultivate over the last three years serving as teacher at the school in Virginia City.
“Does this mean we have to stand in the corner?” Joe teased.
“ . . . AND wear the dunce cap,” Heather added with a chuckle.
“How’s Sarah?” Joe asked, turning serious. The oldest of the Lowell sisters had come down with one of those summer colds back in early June, and for the life of her, she just couldn’t seem to shake it. Seemed every time she showed signs of getting better, she’d suffer a relapse.
“She seems to be on the mend,” Heather replied. “The new medicine Doctor Martin gave her— ”
“All right, everyone . . . stay right where you are,” a rough voice ordered.
Joe, Amanda, Heather, and the other patrons in the bank turned and saw four men standing just inside the door, with guns drawn.
“Jeb . . . . ” the man who seemed to be the leader growled. Joe would later find out his name was Frank Wilson, and that he and his three brothers were wanted for bank robbery and murder in California and Nevada.
A very young man, not much more than a boy actually, nodded curtly in response before closing the door, and flipping the sign around indicating that the bank was closed.
“None of you’ll get hurt, just so long as you do exactly what we say and don’t try anything stupid,” Frank continued, turning his attention back to the patrons and the two tellers. “You!” He glared over at Joe and Wally Jones, whose family had recently laid claim to that small spread up by Montpelier Gorge, the one left abandoned when Dowd and his partners were sent to prison many years ago now for stealing medicine Joe badly needed. “Unbuckle those gun belts nice and real slow . . . and toss them right here at me feet.”
Joe and Rick immediately did as ordered.
“Now all of you . . . over there against that wall,” Frank ordered with a nod of his head toward the outside wall to his right.
The patrons did as ordered, talking very softly among themselves. Joe made sure he kept himself between Amanda and the gun barrels aimed in their direction.
“Shut up,” Frank growled, and immediately everyone fell silent.
While the four bank robbers’ attention was momentarily diverted toward the nine patrons in the bank, Danny Brooks, the younger teller, all of nineteen years old reached for the revolver he kept hidden at his station for just such a happenstance. He aimed, but before he could even think of squeezing the trigger, the man standing behind Emil, to his left, fired hitting the teller square in the chest.
Danny Brooks was dead before he hit the floor.
“Y-You . . . you KILLED him!” Jill Everly, aged six whispered, staring up at the man who pulled the trigger through eyes round with horror. She was there with her father, who owned and ran the hardware store in town.
“Of all the damned, stupid . . . .” Frank sputtered, as he turned and glared over at the brother standing to his left, the man who had just fired. “Frank, if you weren’t my brother—”
“If I hadn’t shot him, he would’ve shot YOU,” Emil said complacently.
“NOW what’ll we do?” Jeb queried, his eyes round with fear. “We’ve got witnesses— ”
Frank quickly resumed charge of the situation. “You,” he barked at the remaining teller, “start gathering up all the money you got in this bank. Ed, you go with him.”
The fourth man nodded, and set off after the teller.
“Frank, there’s a crowd gathering outside,” Jed reported.
Frank swore. “Is the sheriff—?!”
“Yeah . . . he’s pushing his way through the crowd now,” Jed replied.
“ED!” Frank yelled. “HURRY IT UP BACK THERE!” He, then, turned to Frank. “You grab whatever money ‘n valuables these folks here have on ‘em and make it quick.”
Emil sauntered over to the patrons crowded together. “All right, folks,” he said with a nasty smile as he removed his hat, “come on now, let’s ante up.” He held his hat out to Heather Lowell first.
Heather removed the few dollars she had in her small reticule and placed it in Emil’s hat.
“Come on, Lady . . . ALL of it!”
“That’s all I have,” Heather protested.
Emil snatched the reticule from Heather’s hand and turned it upside down. Upon seeing it was completely empty, he threw it down on the floor in disgust. “That ring!” he growled, with a pointed glare at the gold ring set with a single garnet on the pinkie finger of Heather’s right hand.
Heather removed it without a word and placed it in Emil’s hat.
“Come on, come on, we ain’t got all day,” Emil growled as he moved in front of Joe.
Joe pulled his wallet from the left hand pocket of his jacket and tossed it in the hat. Amanda placed her handbag in the hand.
“Those earrings, too, Lady, and that ring,” Emil snapped.
Amanda removed the earrings and placed them in the hat.
“NOW, Lady,” Emil growled when she hesitated before removing her wedding ring.
A loud pounding on the door of the bank startled everyone, eliciting a gasp from the elderly woman standing on the other side of Joe and a cry of alarm from Jill.
“This is Sheriff Coffee,” Roy called out. “We’ve got the building surrounded. Throw down your weapons— ”
“ED,” Frank yelled, “GRAB WHAT YOU CAN AND GET OUT HERE! EMIL, YOU GRAB THE KID!”
Mark Everly shoved Jill behind him. “No,” he said, his voice calm and even, “you can’t have my daughter.”
Emil lashed out with a powerful straight jab, hitting Mark square in the face. He toppled over backwards, and crashed to the floor with a dull, sickening thud.
“PA!” Jill screamed, as she knelt down beside him. She lifted her head and glared murderously at Emil. “YOU KILLED MY PA!” she yelled with tears streaming down her face.
“Dammit, Emil, grab the kid!” Frank said through clenched teeth.
“Leave the kid alone,” Joe said, as he cautiously stepped between Emil and the girl. “If you want a hostage, take ME.”
“Joe!” Amanda gasped.
“I’ll be all right,” Joe said, with far more confidence than he felt.
“Y’ know? Now that I think about it, I’d rather take HER!” Emil reached past Joe and seized hold of Heather Lowell’s wrist. “This one’ll be a helluva lot more fun to play with than that whiny little kid . . . or you, either, Mister.”
“ED!” Frank, meanwhile, yelled again, louder this time.
The sound of gunfire came in response.
Emil turned, and Joe wasted no time taking advantage of the momentary distraction. He struck the bank robber with a powerful right cross and immediately followed through with a jab to the abdomen. Roy Coffee burst into the bank with his deputy, in the same instant Emil doubled over and fell to his knees. Before anyone had timed to react, Emil raised his gun, took aim, and fired.
Amanda Cartwright collapsed without a sound and lay on the floor ominously still, like a marionette whose strings had just been cut.
“It’s YOUR fault she’s dead,” Emil taunted. “If you hadn’t rushed me . . . it’s YOUR fault! Your own wife, Mister, and YOU as good as KILLED her.”
For what seemed an eternity, Joe felt as if he couldn’t breathe. There was a roaring in his ears that completely obliterated the sound of a child weeping, of booted feet clattering across the floor of the bank, of voices raised in urgency. In the distance some one screamed, then, for Joe, everything went black.
The next thing he knew, Hoss and three other men were dragging him off Emil Wilson’s battered form.
“I killed her, Pa . . . God help me, I . . . I killed my own wife,” Joe wept anew.
Ben gathered Joe in his arms and held him close, his mind, his senses reeling. Had Joe actually been blaming himself for Amanda’s death all this time? He bitterly castigated himself for what he saw as his inability to reach the son he now clasped so tightly in his arms.
“Joe . . . Son . . . please? Look at me?” Ben pleaded when, at long last, Joe’s piteous, gut wrenching weeping subsided to a whimper, barely audible.
Joe raised his head and gazed warily into his father’s face and eyes.
“If you never again hear another word I say to you, please, PLEASE hear this,” Ben continued, wincing against the sting of new tears in his own eyes. “You did NOT kill Amanda.”
Joe closed his eyes and shook his head. “I d-didn’t mean to, but I did all the same,” he said dolefully.
“No!” Ben ardently, passionately pressed. “You acted to keep a gang of men known to be violent, cold blooded killers, from taking a frightened child as their hostage, but that does NOT make you in any way responsible for Amanda’s death. Emil Wilson . . . the man who pulled the trigger . . . HE’S the one who killed her.”
“Then I . . . I didn’t . . . . ?!”
“No, Son, you didn’t! You couldn’t!” Ben insisted. “I wish I’d KNOWN . . . . ”
“That’s not YOUR fault, Pa. So many times I wished I could tell you how I felt, what was eating at me, but I couldn’t bring myself. I felt so ashamed.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of, Joe. Nothing.”
“ . . . and neither do YOU, Pa.”
“So . . . what’s the word, Doc?” Joe asked.
Doctor Jacobs, clad in nightshirt, robe, and slippers, yawned just as the grandfather’s clock in the downstairs hallway struck the hour of five in the morning. Joe Cartwright sat on his examination table, while his father stood nearby, trying his best not to hover too closely. Hoss and the four children were outside loading the wagon that Ben Cartwright had purchased from the livery stable the day before in preparation for their trip back home to the Ponderosa.
“Well, the good news is given time, plenty of rest, three hearty squares a day from your Hop Sing, and a little patience . . . . ”
At this, Ben good naturedly rolled his eyes heavenward.
“ . . . you can expect to make a full recovery,” Stan Jacobs continued. “The ribs are going to need more time to mend, but you’re walking much better on that ankle now . . . that gash in your cheek’s healing nicely . . . the swelling in your face is gone, and so will the bruising be within a week, two, maybe at the very outside.”
“Ok . . . what’s the bad news?” Joe asked, then mentally braced himself.
“The bad news, Joe, is . . . you can’t touch another drop of alcohol . . . ever,” Stan said sternly. “If you do, the best you can expect is all the pain and suffering you’ve gone through this last year especially.”
“ . . . and the worst?”
“It could very well kill you,” Stan replied.
The doctor’s pronouncement hung over father and son like a pall.
“I think I can safely say that the worst of the withdrawal‘s behind you, but I know from experience, as a doctor and personally, that the real hard work lies ahead of you,” Stan continued. “It’s going to be a day to day struggle, especially in the beginning, but if the brothers at home are anything like the men Hoss and your father here are . . . and with those fine children of yours, there’s every reason in the world to be optimistic.”
“Thank you, Doc,” Joe said, holding out his hand, “for everything. I wish there was some way to repay you . . . . ”
“You get better and keep working on being the kind of man your father, brothers, and children can be proud of, that’ll be more than enough payback for me,” Stan said as the two shook hands. “You’re a lucky man, Joe. I hope you know that.”
“I do, even though it‘s taken me six long years to come to that realization, ” Joe replied.
“All the best, Son . . . . ”
“Well, Li’l Brother?” Hoss queried when he saw Joe and their father approaching the wagon now loaded and ready to go. Doctor and Mrs. Jacobs followed close behind. “Did the doc say you’re fit t’ travel?”
“If I had any real say in the matter, Hoss, that brother of yours would’ve waiting another week at least, maybe two,” Stan replied with a smile, “but I can understand why you all might be anxious to get home.”
“All we’ve gotta do now is get Joe settled,” Hoss said, “ ’n we’re ready t’ go.”
“I wish you’d stay long enough for me to fix you a proper breakfast,” Vera said ruefully, while Hoss and Jess helped Joe into the back of the wagon, “but I know you’ve got a long trip ahead of you.” She handed the enormous basket in hand over to Ben. “I’ve fixed something for you to eat on the way.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jacobs,” Ben said gratefully.
“You bet,” Hoss added with a broad grin, “ ’cause I’m powerful hungry right now . . . . ”
“So what ELSE is now?” Joe quipped, eliciting a chuckle from his son, Jess.
“Li’l Brother, if it weren’t for those broken ribs, I’d be real tempted t’ drop ya right on your head,” Hoss returned. The sparkle in his blue eyes gave lie to the ferocious scowl on his face, something not lost on Jess from the amused smile on his face.
“ ‘S ok if you do, Uncle Hoss,” Toby said with a yawn, “ ‘cause all us Cartwrights have real hard heads.” He looked over at his father and smiled. “Ain’t that right, Pa?”
“Isn’t,” Joe automatically corrected, while trying his best not to wince as Hoss and Jess helped him get settled in the back of the buckboard.
“Guess that means Toby has to study HIS grammar more, too, hunh, Pa?” Marie queried with sleepy smile.
Joe started to laugh out loud at the comically grotesque face his youngest son pulled. Less than a moment later he gasped when his mending ribs gave agonizing protest.
“You ok, Pa?” Jess inquired anxiously as his uncle, grandfather, and brother, Benjy climbed up into the seat of the buckboard.
“I will be, Son,” Joe promised, giving his firstborn what he hoped was a reassuring smile. He knew the road before him would be difficult. But coming to the realization, finally, that he bore no responsibility for Amanda’s death brought a measure of healing to his tormented soul, yet at the same time was akin to ripping open a very deep wound that had lain festering for many years just under the surface. His grief and sorrow over her loss was every bit as raw and fresh as if it had all happened six minutes ago.
He also knew that he had a lot to make up for to his children. They, like every child, deserved a father who loved and cared for them, and he was fiercely bound and determined to be that, and to the best of his ability fill the role as mother, too, same as his pa had done.
“Thank you, Lord,” he silently prayed, “for giving me a second chance.”