Written for the 2016 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
Summary: A dream is a wish your heart makes. But what happens when your heart is broken?
Rated: T Word Count: 4988
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“Come on in,” Candy called out in response to a knock on the door of the Ponderosa bunkhouse. He stopped what he was doing when his boss walked in. “Something I can help you with, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Nooo.” Ben drew out the one syllable word with a sigh. He shoved his hands into his front pockets and walked past his foreman to wander the length of the room, pausing to examine one item or another but without lingering anywhere in particular.
The ranch’s living quarters for hands were spacious in comparison to those found at other spreads. Solidly built and comfortably furnished, the long, narrow structure held two rows of five double decker beds in the center of the room bookended by communal living areas. The bunks were re-roped frequently, the mattresses aired and turned often, and linens washed weekly. Two stoves, one at each end of the building, kept the interior comfortable even in the dead of winter. Shuttered windows on the walls provided cross ventilation and protection from the elements.
In addition to a billiard table and dartboard, the bunkhouse contained a well-stocked library. Floor to ceiling shelves held every sort of book imaginable from a large collection of dog-eared dime novels to a set of McGuffy’s Readers and Ray’s Practical Arithmetic to books of poetry and the classics—a testament to the value the Cartwrights placed on education. No man ever left the Ponderosa payroll without learning to read, write and cipher unless he chose not to learn.
Candy played solitaire at a table near the door. He kept his head lowered, but at each turn of a card lifted his eyes to study his employer. The man had aged during the last two years. Hell, they all had. Accidental death, murder, and illness had taken its toll on everyone in or close to the family circle, none more so than its patriarch—at least outwardly. Joe Cartwright, in contrast, carried his scars on the inside.
When Ben returned to where Candy sat, he slumped into a chair and laced his fingers across his chest. As he stretched his legs out, he noted his foreman’s elevated foot.
“How’s the ankle?”
“Sore,” Candy admitted.
“I’m not surprised. You are as bad as Joe, always jumping off things: logs, wagons . . . lofts!”
“I used the ladder. I just missed a step.”
“More like two or three. Please tell me you’re not climbing into an upper bunk.” When Candy shrugged, Ben shook his head. “You would be more comfortable in a larger bed.”
Candy shuffled the cards and grinned, again amused by his boss’s never ending campaign to move him into the main house. He deflected the invitation by suggesting a game of cribbage.
Ben agreed and rose to retrieve the board from the bookshelf while Candy dealt the cards. “Where is everyone?” he asked.
“It’s Saturday night and the moon is full.”
“Ah, the Barn,” Ben cracked a smile. “Of course, I should have known.” Most eligible bachelors went to the social hall to meet respectable women. Except his third son. He knew Joe was not among them. Nor was he at home and therein lay the reason for his visit to the bunkhouse.
Ben sorted his cards and laid down a six and a four. “Ten. How is he doing, Candy?”
“He puts on a face with me and Jamie. Says all the right things. Eats the food put in front of him. Offers his opinion when asked.”
“Fifteen for two. But?”
“Twenty-two. He doesn’t initiate conversation, spends too much time alone, and his smile no longer reaches his eyes. Even his beloved horses don’t appear to hold the same appeal.”
“Maybe a change of location would do him good. Twenty eight for three.”
“Certainly not San Francisco. You said yourself the hunt for Damien queered his desire to return there,” said Ben. “And he’s too familiar with Arizona. Go.”
“So somewhere new. Portland?” Candy offered.
“Too rainy this time of year. Twenty-nine for me.”
“What?” Ben leaned forward over the table.
“You missed a point.”
“Argh!” Ben threw his cards down. “I’m a poor excuse for a partner tonight.”
“It’s all right. Your thoughts are elsewhere.” Candy settled back in his chair and again studied his employer. The man had lost two sons and confidants—one missing, one dead—and he shielded his adopted son from his concerns whenever possible. As an outsider, listening was all he could do, but perhaps that was the most important thing of all. “There’s whiskey in the cupboard.” Candy started to rise but Ben waved him off.
“I’ll get it,” he said and retrieved the bottle and two tumblers, filling them halfway. The two men toasted, and then Ben downed his whiskey in one swallow and refilled both glasses to the brim.
“I don’t know how to help him, Candy. When I lost my wives, I had my boys to focus on and a dream to follow. I had a purpose. Joe is a superb businessman. He loves this land as much as I do. He will fight to preserve it until his last breath, but he has lost his passion for life.”
“A dream is personal. You can’t conjure one up for him. No one can.”
“I know,” Ben nodded, draining his glass again. “Jamie goes back to college soon, and Joe and I will be alone.”
“He’ll return after graduation.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. The ranch was not enough to hold Adam. And what happens to Joe when I’m gone? What will become of him then? I can’t stand to think of him rattling around in that big house all alone.”
The two men continued to drink in silence until Candy spoke.
“If you’ll help move my gear, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll take you up on that offer of a larger bed.”
“Los Angeles?” Joe sputtered the following Sunday at supper. “You’re sending me to Los Angeles?”
“No, Joseph, I am not. Abby Conrad wondered if you would accompany her to Los Angeles and I am relaying that request. Had you been in church this morning, she would have asked you herself.”
“She’s accepted a teaching position there. Since her trip coincides with Jamie’s return to Berkeley, he will accompany her that far, but she’ll be alone for the rest of the journey and would appreciate an escort.”
“I meant why isn’t her husband going with her?”
“Ex-husband. She and Stuart are divorced.”
“What!” Joe dropped his fork with a clatter. “When did that happen?”
“Judge Rheinhold granted the divorce last month and she decided to start over in a new environment. Given your long-standing friendship, I thought you wouldn’t mind helping her out, but if you would rather—”
“—No, I’ll do it, of course. She shouldn’t travel alone. I just wish she’d told me about the divorce.”
“She didn’t want to trouble you. They separated around the time Alice died.”
Joe’s eyes clouded over and he stood abruptly to go to his room. Before ascending the stairs, however, he paused. “I have business to handle but I can be ready to travel on Wednesday with Jamie.”
“Fine. I’ll purchase your ticket and arrange for a hotel in Los Angeles. The boarding house where Abby will be staying once the school term starts will not be available until the first of the month. In the interim, you can help her get her classroom set up and become acclimated to the city.”
Sitting in the blue chair by the fire, Candy waited until he heard Joe’s door click shut before whispering, “Is Abby actually moving?” His question earned a blank stare, so he elaborated. “She has always been the independent sort. I can’t imagine she would be afraid to travel alone. Or is this a ruse for Joe’s benefit?”
Ben sat down on the plank table in front of the fireplace with his hands between his legs and lowered his voice. “You are right. Abby is independent and courageous. While many women would endure marriage to a philanderer and a drunk for appearance’s sake, Abby chose to leave him despite the stigma of divorce.”
“I take it Virginia City’s matrons have been less than civil?”
“To put it mildly. She solicited my help in securing a teaching position elsewhere. The school in Los Angeles is a good one. The timing couldn’t have been better so I suggested she travel with an escort.” Ben stood, and before walking away added, “I may have mentioned the trip would be good for Joe as well.”
Candy thought his boss might also be doing a little matchmaking. Not that it bothered him. Not much anyway. He had courted Abby for a while after she and Joe broke up, but it was all too clear she only had eyes for Joe. When he married Alice unexpectedly, she turned to Conrad.
If she still carried a torch, maybe it would ignite Joe’s passion.
A week later, Joe and Abby boarded the Southern Pacific train to Los Angeles. After settling into their respective compartments, they met in the dining car for lunch. Orders taken, Joe turned to the window ostensibly to watch the changing scenery. In reality, he studied Abby’s reflection. She had changed little over the last five years. Fuller in face and body perhaps, dark brown hair tinged with golden highlights now worn up in a sophisticated twist, but she still had the same sweet smile and those big brown doe eyes. Eyes that were fixed on him in a penetrating stare. He shifted uncomfortably and fiddled with his knife and spoon until they were in perfect alignment with the water goblet. After using his fingers to smooth out the linen tablecloth, he placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his fists. Taking a deep breath, he raised his eyes to meet Abbe’s gaze head on. She wasted no time in taking him to task.
“You have not once looked at me directly since we left Virginia City.”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t been in the best of moods of late and San Francisco is not my favorite city.”
“Candy warned me.” Abby softened a bit recalling that Mr. Cartwright had said Joe needed this trip. She could see that now—the subtle creases in the once-smooth skin, the sadness in his eyes. “I met Alice, you know.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Yes, at the hat shop. We ran into each other quite often actually at the mercantile or post office. That sort of thing. She . . . she was lovely.” Disturbed when a tear rolled down Joe’s cheek, she added, “I’m sorry to open old wounds.”
“No need to be. Water under the bridge. Life goes on. She’s in heaven and I remember the good times,” he said. Except there were so few good times to remember. No birthdays, no Christmases. Only the day she told him they were having a baby. Joe turned once more to the window shielding his face with his left hand.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” Abby whispered. She reached across the narrow table and squeezed his elbow.
They remained that way until lunch appeared. As the brochures promised, the meal was quite good and the wine better. The couple’s long friendship provided fodder for conversation and conjured pleasant memories. Both were startled when the dining steward inquired if they wished to see a dinner menu.
“Are you hungry?” Abby asked.
“I could eat a horse!” Joe laughed.
“Me, too! But first I need to get out of these traveling clothes and put on something more suitable for dinner.”
Before following Abby back to the sleeping cars to clean up, Joe tipped the steward and requested a table on the other side of the train so they could watch the sunset while dining. While shaving, he reflected that this had been the first non-working day in a long time that he had not dreaded. It was good to talk to a woman who shared the same memories, only . . . .
Only there was one thing he could not give her, and he could not—would not—hurt her again.
“Abby, there’s something I want to talk about. Let’s go to the club car for a drink before dinner.”
He spotted two chairs that faced each other and afforded some privacy. After ordering a sherry for Abby and a beer for himself, he guided her by the elbow to the end of the car.
“What’s wrong?” she asked sitting down with her back to the bar. Joe sat opposite, their knees almost touching.
“Nothing’s wrong. I wanted to thank you for a wonderful day. It’s the first time in a long time that I have felt normal. More like my old self. And I don’t think that would have happened with anyone else but you.”
“Not your family? Or Candy?”
“My family, no. They are always watching. I know they mean well, but sometimes it’s too much. A bit like suffocating in a dark room.”
“I know Candy. I can’t believe he makes you feel that way.”
“No. He lets me be me without judging or asking anything in return. He’s a lot like Hoss in that regard.”
“That is what best friends do.”
“Yes. They do, and I’d do the same for him.” Joe bent forward, elbows on his knees. “And for you.”
As the meaning behind the words sunk in, Abby put a hand to her cheek. “It’s warm in here, don’t you think?”’ She reached into the hidden pocket in the seam of her skirt and pulled out a small oblong object, snapped it open and began fanning herself. “Whew! Better.”
Joe reached for her other hand and held it between both of his. “Abby, I love you, but I’m not in love with you. This trip . . . .”
“You don’t have to explain. I understand.” She put down the fan and took a sip of sherry. “Once upon a time I had hoped to marry my best friend, but I realized it was a young girl’s foolish dream even before you found Alice.”
“Is that when you met Stuart?”
“Yes. He was good to me at first, but after we married, he changed. I disappointed him somehow. I tried to be a good wife in all respects, but he resented everything I did, especially when the money ran out. He stayed away for nights on end and came home drunk. When he hit me—”
“—He hit you?” Joe was horrified.
“Only once. I left him the next day and filed for divorce. Your father arranged safe housing and paid the legal fees. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
“I am so ashamed I wasn’t there for you when you needed me.”
“You’re here now,” Abby smiled. “And you are still my best friend. I hope that never changes.”
Joe raised the back of her hand to his lips and kissed it. “You can count on it.” He pulled her to her feet as he stood. “Now, let’s go find that horse!”
“Are you sure this is our hotel?” Abby asked as Joe lifted her from the carriage. Once he settled her on the ground, he pulled their travel documents from his inside coat pocket.
“It says here Pico House.” Joe stretched his neck to take in the three-story Italianate structure and whistled. “It’s not like Pa to be so extravagant. He must like you better because he never spends this kind of money on me.”
“Oh, pshaw!” Abby swatted him with her reticule, picked up her skirts, and walked under the archway into the lobby where she gaped at the chandeliers and furnishings. The porter retrieved their luggage from the curb and ushered them past the grand staircase to the reception desk where Joe signed the register for them both.
A bellman showed them to a three-room suite on the third floor overlooking a courtyard that featured a fountain and aviary. After opening the floor to ceiling windows and adjusting the curtains to allow maximum airflow, he pointed out the features of the suite and informed them there were separate bathrooms and water closets for men and women across the hall, and a French restaurant on the ground floor. Before leaving, he showed them the bell pull by the door and said, “Jeremiah is the steward for this suite. Do not hesitate to call on him day or night for anything you need. Good day, Mr. Cartwright. I hope you and your daughter will have a pleasant stay.”
When the door closed, Joe twisted his head toward Abby and wiggled his eyebrows.
“Do you think we should have corrected him?” Abby giggled, collapsing on one of two matching settees in the parlor.
“Why? No one knows us and we do have separate bedrooms. Besides, we won’t be here that long.”
“You are wicked, Joseph Cartwright!”
“And hungry. Let’s get something decadent to nibble while we explore. Hoss never thought Los Angeles would amount to anything, but that was 10 years ago. There must be something fun to do in this backwater town on a Saturday night.”
“I’d like to unpack. How about I meet you down by the aviary in a half hour.”
Joe scanned the courtyard, seeking the source of the inquiry. Aside from Abby, he did not know anyone in Los Angeles and could not imagine who would call him out. He noted several couples strolling the cobblestone pathways admiring the exotic birds and flowering hedges, but no one who looked familiar.
“It is Joe Cartwright, isn’t it?” the deep voice said again.
Joe pivoted and stood within inches of a handsome young man of equal height with sandy blond hair, blue eyes and dark eyebrows. The gentleman wore a brown business suit and carried a newspaper. Wary, he responded, “Yes. Do we know each other?”
“It’s Tom, sir. Tom Grant. You know my mother, Julia.”
Joe searched the broad face until his memory clicked. “Tommy?” he exclaimed, grabbing the proffered hand in a fierce shake. “What are you doing here? The last I heard Julia was in New York.”
“Six months ago. Since then we have been in St. Louis, Albuquerque, Tucson, San Diego, and now here. We opened last night,” Tom said, handing Joe the paper folded to the theatre review section:
The Merced Theatre was crowded last night and the extreme silliness of the play kept the audience in convulsions of laughter from first to last. Miss Grant was irresistibly funny as Roderigo and fairly excelled herself in the farce.
“Is the theatre near here?”
“It’s right next door. In fact, you can enter directly from the hotel.”
“Sorry it took me so long,” Abby said, sidling up to Joe.
“There you are. I worried you were buried under a sea of crinoline. Abby, may I present Tom Grant. Tom, Abigail Con—”
“—Pettigrew. Abby Pettigrew. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Grant.”
“Likewise,” Tom’s eyes widened. His obvious enchantment amused Joe, and one glance at Abby confirmed the feeling was mutual.
“Tom’s mother is an actress.” Joe explained, handing the newspaper to Abby who read the article quickly.
“A farce, how in keeping with the day,” she said, batting her eyelashes at Joe.
“I can leave tickets for you at the box office if you’d like to see the show. The curtain is at 8 p.m.”
Abby assented with a quick nod. “You can,” Joe said, “if you and your mother will join us for dinner . . . and recommend a restaurant. Neither of us are familiar with the area.”
“I usually sup with Mother following the performance. Shall we meet in the lobby at, say, 10:30? If you need a bite to tide you over, I can show you to a European cafe a few blocks from here. May I arrange a carriage?”
“A walk would be lovely,” replied Abby. “We’ve been cooped up on a train for two days.”
“Whatever the lady desires,” deferred Joe.
“Excellent. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I will let Mother know where I’ll be.”
“Tom, don’t tell Julia I’m here. I’d like to surprise her after the show.”
“I’m quite sure you’ll do just that, sir.”
Joe leaned against the doorframe of the dressing room with his arms across his chest and watched from the shadows as Julia removed first her wig, then the pins and net holding her hair in place. A quick head toss sent auburn locks tumbling down her back.
“Still lying, cheating, and stealing in pursuit of your dream?” he asked.
Julia grabbed the icepick she kept on her dressing table for emergencies and spun around prepared to eject the intruder when a familiar figure stepped forward into the lamplight.
“Joe Cartwright.” His appearance left her breathless. “My god . . . your hair is gray!”
“Sign of my misspent youth as a stage door johnnie in love with an actress.”
“You look wonderful,” she choked and rushed into his embrace.
After a moment, Joe held her at arms’ length. “And you . . . you look like a man!”
Julia performed a quick pirouette and then bowed from the waist. “Ingénue roles have passed me by, I’m afraid. I’m currently playing Roderigo in a bloody farce!”
“The audience loved you. You had them eating out of your hand as always.”
“You saw tonight’s performance?”
Joe nodded, as Tom walked in. “Miss Grant, I . . . oh, Mr. Cartwright. I see you found Mother.”
“Tom, you knew Joe was here?”
“Yes. He wanted to surprise you. I’ve asked him and his companion to join us for a late supper.”
“It’s been a long day, Tom,” Joe said. “I am not sure Abby will want to go out again.”
“The restaurant is in the hotel, sir, on the ground floor.”
“Companion?” Julia quizzed.
Joe detected a note of jealousy in her voice and found that somehow pleased him. “A friend from Virginia City.”
“Her name is Abby Pettigrew, Mother. She will be teaching at the high school on Pound Cake Hill and she speaks French!”
“Ah, well then. Permit me to change into something more presentable and we shall all dine together. N’est-ce pas?”
Contrary to Joe’s supposition that Abby would be too tired to go out, she accepted the invitation with verve. She appeared in the lobby impeccably attired in a pale green silk dress with a high collar, form-fitting bodice and bustled straight skirt, she projected a demure, if womanly, image of innocence. Combs held her hair off the face allowing curls to cascade freely over her shoulders and down her back.
Tom was mesmerized.
Joe was stunned.
Julia laughed, “Come, mes chéris, let us dine! Monsieur Laugier, my usual table s’il vous plait.”
The Maître d’ clicked his heels. “Oui, Madame. Par ici s’il-vous-plait.”
Joe’s French had all but vanished over the years since his mother’s death. He could make out a few words on the menu and Abby helped by subtly pointing to dishes she knew he would like. Wine and conversation flowed around course after course of delectable dishes, but when the cheese and fruit arrived, Joe stifled a yawn.
“I’m sorry, but this rancher is dead on his feet. Abby?” Joe said as he pushed back from the table.
“You go ahead. I’ll stay and finish my coffee. I can get a key from the desk. ”
“Perhaps a stroll afterward?” Tom offered. “The courtyard is lit and there are many night blooming flowers that can only be appreciated after sunset.”
“It’s almost dawn!” Joe squeaked.
Julia rose from her chair and took his arm. “Come, dear. These young people don’t need a chaperone and I, like you, am ready for bed.” Julia gave a conspiratorial wink to Abby as she dragged a sputtering Joe away from the table.
Julia’s lodging paled in comparison to the Pico House accommodations, but it was clean and comfortable, if sparsely, furnished. There was a bookcase and a small sitting area next to the bed. A washstand and wardrobe took up the corner. It appeared to Joe that Julia lived out of trunk at the foot of the bed as the open lid sported an assortment of garments, unmentionables, and accessories.
The walk had revived him and upon arrival, they were deeply engaged in a spirited discussion revolving around the obvious attraction between Tom and Abby.
“She’s older than she appears. Doesn’t the difference in their ages bother you?”
“Joseph Cartwright! Did the gray in your hair addle your brain? Or don’t you recall telling me there was nothing wrong with a man courting an older woman?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh yes you did. When I mentioned the differences in our ages, you said it might have mattered when I was 5 and you were 1, but it had no bearing when I was 27 and you were 22. Or are you sweet on Abby yourself? Is that it?”
“No! We’re friends.” Julia appeared dubious. “All right, we used to date, but that was long ago and we truly are just friends.”
“So what is the problem? My son is a good man and well mannered. Although I have encouraged him to play the field before settling down, he is not given to trivial pursuits and he is not a libertine!”
“I don’t want Abby hurt, that’s all. She . . . she is vulnerable right now. She’s a recent divorcee.”
“And I’m an actress. In today’s world, that makes us kin. Now. I’ve been waiting all evening for you to kiss me, so either do it or go back to the hotel.”
“Yes, ma’am. I always obey my elders.”
The clock ceased to make sense to Joe. Used to rising at 5 a.m. and taking care of the stock for two hours before breakfast, having dinner at noon and supper at 6 p.m., according to Hop Sing’s strict rules, he remained flummoxed by the “ishy” schedule Julia kept. Breakfast at noon-ish, tea at 4-ish, no dinner, supper at 10-ish. And that was on days with an 8 p.m. curtain. He had no comprehension whatsoever when matinee performances were thrown in.
Tom said to relax. If hungry, then eat; if not, then don’t. Simple advice that worked; Joe had gained at least 5 pounds despite running all over Los Angeles obtaining the things Abby wanted for her lodgings and classroom. Of course, if he suggested to Hop Sing that he be allowed to continue this pattern upon his return, the Ponderosa would be short one cook or he would be short one head.
It became more and more apparent as the days wore on that Tom and Abby were falling in love. Abby warned him to stay out of her business. “Let me be who I am without judging, isn’t that what we agreed best friends did for each other?”
Still, he could not stop worrying or talking to Julia about his concerns.
“Sure she’s having fun now, but you and Tom will be leaving soon. Another opening, another show, isn’t that how it goes?”
“There won’t be another opening for me, Joe. This is my last role.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m resigning from the Company at the end of this run.” Julia closed Joe’s open mouth by lifting his chin her fingertips and patted his cheek. “I love the theatre, but it’s cost me dearly. For one thing, I lost you. For another, Tommy had no say in choosing this life. A boy should be able to run through green fields and breathe fresh air. Instead he sat in green rooms and inhaled sawdust so his mother could bask in the limelight.”
“Your travel overseas must have been an education in and of itself.”
“I gave you that impression, didn’t I? All those letters about productions in London, Paris, Hamburg. Oh, the parts were real, but I did not play the roles. Another lie. That’s what acting is all about, pretending to be someone else, to live another’s life, to inhabit another’s soul.”
“The stage is your life, your dream. Didn’t Mr. Booth say you don’t give up the theatre, it gives you up? The theatre hasn’t given you up yet. I read the reviews; I have been in the theatre for every performance since I arrived. The audience loves you.”
“Dreams change. I am getting older, Joe. The only parts left to me are dowagers and farcical old men. I don’t want to lay dying on a divan wondering what I missed. I want to live my own life for as long as I have left.”
Joe gathered Julia into his arms and kissed her deeply and with fervor.
“There is one role you haven’t played yet,” he said.
“And which role is that?”
“Mrs. Joe Cartwright.”
“You’d still want me?”
“Yes,” he whispered into her hair. “Oh, yes.”
“Then I have one more confession. When we met, I was 29, not 27.”
“So that makes me almost 40.”
“And I look 40 … We’re a perfect match.”
“I’m serious Joe.”
“So am I. You asked about my dream. It’s to have a family. I gave up on life after I lost Alice and our baby. However, it appears life did not give up on me. It gave me a second chance with you.
“I want you to be my family. I know Tom is a bit old to think of me as a father, but we always got along and there is still a lot I can teach him. Besides, if Tom and Abby marry, we will likely be grandparents before the year is out and my father will be a great grandfather! That alone should earn a standing ovation!”
“What would we do for an encore?” Julia asked. Then she saw the twinkle in Joe’s eyes. “Oh, no!”
“Well, there’s always adoption . . .”
Words drawn: dying, loft, Julia, field, library