Summary: Joe and his new bride are attacked by renegade Paiutes.
Rating: K+ Word Count: 6,800
Editorial penned by Lincoln Hays
August 28, 1864
Living in the wilds—as Easterners like to call it—of Nevada, we consider ourselves a hardier breed than our Eastern kinfolk. Setting out to conquer the world, we left the safety of our homes and families to start a new life in the West. But what happens when tragedy strikes? Do we question ourselves? Had we been foolish to follow the trailblazers and pioneers that came before us and settle on land that belonged to somebody else?
The Paiute occupied the territory for hundreds of years before we staked the land and called it our own, and what does that say about us as a people? We want and we take. We never stop to ask, but that’s just one man’s opinion. Mine, and I may be shot dead for stating the obvious. We came to make our fortune in the Wild West, but we’re still shocked when our mere presence becomes grounds for retribution.
A man and his wife were brutally attacked during a peaceful outing last Sunday. Had they crossed that invisible line the white man drew up in one of his various treaties? It’s doubtful the young couple went that far, but that didn’t seem to matter. What matters is that they were easy targets, unarmed and outnumbered. Left for dead, the young man managed to survive but at what cost?
We see this as an outrage, a blatant act of violence where retribution on our part could signal all-out war. Joseph Cartwright suffered a great loss. Our resident physician, Dr. J. Paul Martin, says that in time, the son of one of our most prominent families will recover from his wounds, but the horror of that day will be seared in his mind forever.
Though our condolences go out to the family, such unconscionable matters won’t be discussed in polite circles, and the story of Joe Cartwright’s loss will soon fade from our memories, gone and forgotten until the next brutal attack.
“You’ve got to get him out of that house, Ben. Find something, anything for him to do. His wounds are healed, and there’s no physical reason he can’t go back to work.”
“But he refuses, Paul. The boys and I have tried everything we know how, but he’s broken inside. He won’t talk. He won’t listen, and I don’t know how to repair the damage.”
“A trip maybe. Is there anywhere he’d like to go?”
“I wish I could say yes but . . .”
“Persuade him, Ben. It’s time to dig deep. Find something of interest because the longer Joe remains isolated” —Paul gripped my arm tightly— “I assure you the consequences are grim.”
I shook the doctor’s hand, but I didn’t let go immediately. The warmth and strength of his grip kept me on my feet and gave me hope for Joe’s future.
“If you think I crossed the line—”
“No, no, Paul.” I shook my head and released his hand. “The truth had to be told.”
The look in Paul’s eyes mirrored my own. My dear friend had always succeeded in the past. Whether Joe suffered from a childhood illness or a broken bone, Paul was on hand, but this time was different. Not even Hoss and his easy ways had been able to succeed in turning the mind of his young brother. Freeing Joe from the misery and humiliation he felt had been a waste of time and energy, and the three of us had been stonewalled at every turn.
Though I fight the memories, not a day goes by that I don’t remember the gruesome sight or the look on my older sons’ faces when we found Joseph’s motionless body. He’d given up the fight and willed himself to die. With words I couldn’t bear to hear, Joseph begged us to let him die.
Joe’s wrists were bound to a branch of a dead cottonwood tree. A three-foot-long stick separated his ankles and left him immobile in an awkward spread-eagle position. His head lolled forward, but the garbled mumblings proved there was still life. In short, hesitant breaths, Joseph recited the 23rd Psalm, the prayer of a dying man.
Hoss had pulled a knife from inside his boot and handed the weapon to Adam. “I’ll hold him,” he said. “You cut the ties.”
My oversized son held Joe’s legs while Adam shimmied up the tree so he could cut the bindings at Joe’s wrists, but Indians have a way with rawhide. Soaked in water, leather shrinks as it dries and leaves permanent gouges in a man’s tender skin.
Hoss’ hunting knife was large and though Adam tried his best, he nicked Joe’s skin several times trying to slide the blade’s tip under the rawhide. When his arms were free, it took both Hoss and me to catch Joe when he fell. I held my son’s legs and Hoss caught his shoulders before we laid him on the ground. Adam cut the rest of ties at Joe’s ankles and that’s when the protest began in earnest.
Even though I cradled my son’s head in my lap, I couldn’t shake the fact that he continued to preach a death wish. “No,” I cried. “No, Joseph. Your brothers and I are here. You’re safe.”
He pleaded and cried but there were no tears. Adam held a canteen to my boy’s lips, and he turned his head away. He wouldn’t drink. He wouldn’t open his eyes. He never reached for my hand or my face like he’d done so many times before when he was hurt or frightened. He lay on my lap, unmoving. Silently, I prayed.
A Paiute brave prides himself in four Virtues: Bravery, Generosity, Fortitude, and Wisdom. When a young pup wants to show he’s destined for greatness, he’ll set his sights on those four goals. Young men will often show bravery by leaving their captive to die rather than killing him outright. After senseless torture, a branding or beating, the young brave will often take something he can show the chief as proof of his superiority over his opponent also known as counting coup.
A man is nothing without his horse so the young brave might return with the white man’s mount as an indicator of his conquest. If he left the white man to die of his own accord, he’d be deemed generous. But strength of character might be harder to achieve unless he can show his chief and even grander prize—a woman or child brought back to use as slave labor. In my brother’s case, Joe said Ginny had been killed, that her body had been kicked and beaten until she was believed lifeless.
Joe was a fighter, and the bruises marring his body told a vicious, angry story. He’d put up a hell of a fight and endured more than any man should. After counting the hoof prints surrounding the area, I guessed there were five or six young braves against one young man and his woman. Joe lost the battle and he lost Ginny. He carried a powerful amount of guilt, and his mind had shut down to those of us who tried to help.
We could only guess what happened. Remnants of a picnic lay scattered on the ground. Ginny wasn’t the type for fancy doings. She enjoyed the simple life, and Joe admired her for that. She was content to cook his meals and clean his clothes while he put in a full day’s work with Adam and me. She was never one to expect dinners at fancy restaurants or sit through an event at Piper’s when she knew that was the last thing my brother wanted to do after a day in the saddle.
Me and Adam and Joe built a small house about a mile southwest of the main ranch house. Adam drew up the plans, and Joe and I put our backs into having their home completed before the wedding. Joe kept the site and the structure a surprise clear up till the wedding night when he swept his bride across the threshold and into their new home. “She never suspected a thing,” he’d said. He was so proud.
They settled in that very night. Thinking she’d have to spend her first few months living with Pa and Adam and me, Ginny was overwhelmed and grateful that they owned a home of their own. After losing her parents in a fire several years’ back, she’d lived in boarding houses since the breakup of her family. Her older brother, Geoff, had started a new life in San Francisco and they hadn’t seen one other since.
Ginny was a pretty little gal. With raven, black hair and deep chocolate eyes, she could’ve passed as a native of these parts if not for her creamy white skin. I hated to think what might have happened if she hadn’t, in fact, died that day. No one was a hundred percent sure. Joe said he’d watched her die, but we never found a body and that niggling feeling that maybe, just maybe the young braves had taken her back to their camp weighed heavy on my mind.
After two months time, Joe was still unresponsive. Day and night, he sat inside that little house with the drapes pulled tight. He didn’t want no visitors. He yelled at us more than once to get out and leave him alone, but we didn’t see things his way, and we kept trying everything we knew how.
Two days before the wedding, I found Joe in the barn grooming his horse. Not an uncommon sight and maybe it calmed his nerves if, in fact, he had any second thoughts about tying the knot. “You sure you’re ready for this?”
Joe’s surprised look didn’t catch me off guard, but I’d startled him and he laughed before answering my question. “Are you crazy, brother? There’s no better girl in the whole Comstock.”
“You’re right about that, but is she ready for you?”
Joe set his brush on the half-wall and reached for the rake. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
I chuckled at the kid’s remark, but provoking a reaction from my young brother was the highlight of my day. “Hoss went to pick up that new suit coat he had made, and Pa’s driving Hop Sing to distraction, so I came out here.”
Joe leaned the rake toward me. “You can take my place.”
“That’s okay. I’ll pass.”
“Figured you’d say that.”
Two days later, I stood at his bedroom door and watched the transformation. Primping is what Joe did best. I can’t remember how long he fussed and carried on in front of the mirror that morning, but every hair was in place and every speck of lint had been dusted from his blue suit. The word perfection comes to mind but if a man’s lucky, he only marries once in a lifetime, and Joe took the role of husband and provider seriously.
Things were different now. That feeling of loss, of quiet desperation, had taken Joe to the gates of hell and was calling his name. No longer did he resemble the man I’d witnessed the morning of his wedding. His hair was an unruly mess. The early stages of a beard he couldn’t grow properly covered half his face, and his clothes smelled like he’d worn them for a lifetime, but today was the day. If I had to beat him senseless, I aimed to drag him out of that house and back among the living.
After saddling Sport, I slipped away from the ranch unnoticed. I didn’t want Pa or Hoss with me or to follow me to Joe’s house. This was between him and me. He could fight all he wanted, but I wasn’t much of a man—or an older brother—if I couldn’t handle him in his weakened state.
I tied my horse to the hitch rail and walked to the front porch. I’d taken pride in building the little house and so had Joe, but the thrill had all but left him now.
No sound came from inside, but I knew he was there. After opening the door, I stepped inside, but it was too dark to see. The draperies were pulled tight, and I pushed the heavy brocade to the side, which gave enough light that I realized Joe wasn’t in the kitchen, dining, or living area. I walked to the bedroom, pushed the door open, and stared at my youngest brother.
“Get up,” I said overloud. “Now!”
Though his back was to me, he didn’t move a muscle when I shouted, but that didn’t hinder my plan. I grabbed his arm and dragged him to the side of the bed. Still nothing. No acknowledgment at all, so I took matters a step further. I pulled him off the bed to the floor.
He rose up on one elbow. “Happy now?”
“This is only the beginning, Joe. You’re not going to like what I have in mind, but it has to be done.”
“Get out.” His voice was just above a whisper, but I wasn’t about to leave. I’d made up my mind when I’d crawled out of bed before daylight that the madness would end today.
With two hands, I grabbed his whiskey-soaked shirtfront and pulled him to his feet. His legs were like willow branches, but I held him upright. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Dunno. Don’t care.”
“How much have you had to drink?”
“Not nearly enough.”
“Wrong answer again, little brother.”
When Joe’s legs gave way, I scooped him up, carried him out of the house, and looked at the trough. “Okay. If this is how you want to play the game.” Though he sputtered and spit the foul-tasting water, I dunked him again. He was mad, and I was relieved to know there was still some fight left in the kid. He tried to swat my leg, missed, but it was a good sign all the same.
“You ready to get cleaned up?”
“What for? What do you care?”
“I care. Pa cares. Hoss cares. That’s why.”
“Leave me alone, Adam.”
“Nope. Not today.”
The clothes Adam made me wear were too clean, scratchy and stiff, and I was perfectly happy before my brother showed up, but he seemed determined to have his way, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to fight him. He sat me down at the table and scoured through the pantry for food.
“Peaches? Is that it?”
I shrugged at his condescending tone. I couldn’t have cared less, but Adam pried the can open and poured the contents into a bowl. He held a spoon out in front of me. “Eat!” When he turned his back to make a pot of coffee, I set the spoon on the table and leaned back in my chair. My stomach wasn’t ready for food, and I closed my eyes. I’d nearly drifted off when “Eat the damn peaches!” resonated like thunder.
“Fine.” I pushed up taller in the chair. “What’s your problem anyhow?”
“You, that’s what.”
“Pa send you?”
Holding the pot in his left hand, Adam glanced over his shoulder. “No.”
“Then why are you here?” I was losing patience.
“Why are you?”
My temper got the best of me and I shouted. “Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Because you have a job,” he cited. “Because Pa pays you a salary, but you sit on your butt all day doing nothing. Tell me, Joe. Are you proud of yourself? Are you happy with your life? Do you know how your behavior affects Pa?”
I shifted my eyes to my brother. He’d hit a nerve. “Is something wrong with Pa?”
“No, he’s not sick if that’s what you mean.”
“Then let it go, Adam.”
“That’s not the plan. Not today.”
I stood from my chair. “I’m going to bed.”
“Sit back down, little brother. There’s work to be done.”
“When was the last time you brushed your horse?”
“My horse? What’s he got to do with anything?”
“When was the last time you did laundry or cooked a decent meal?”
“Why do you care?”
“Why? Because you look like hell, and because I don’t want your death on my hands. We have a calf count to make. I want you ready to ride in five minutes.
I don’t know how he did it, but Adam was my hero. He dragged Joe out of the house, set him on his horse, and brought him to work. Neither of us mentioned Ginny or the event that put him in such a state, and Joe seemed to do okay. Either that, or he put on a darn good act. Thing was, though, he tired quickly. By noon, he was sound asleep in the shade of a big ol’ tree. I’d have let him sleep a while longer, but Adam made me the bad guy. “I got him here, you wake him up.”
“Oh, Joseph,” I said in my best sing-song voice. “Up and at ‘em, little brother.”
A smile flittered across his face but when he opened his eyes, the smile vanished and his eyes narrowed like his mind was cluttered with other thoughts. Had he been dreaming of Ginny? I dared not ask, ‘specially after seein’ them watery eyes and the look on his face when he realized where he was and why.
“You comin’, little brother?”
“Lunchtime’s over. Time to get movin’.”
“Oh . . . yeah. I’m coming.”
That’s when I knew he’d been dreamin’ of happier times, and I felt awful for disturbin’ them little bits of happiness he’d conjured up in his mind. When Adam stopped for the day, we followed Joe back to his house. His mood had worsened after lunch, and we were kinda nervous about leavin’ him by hisself. “Mind if I come in for a cool glass of water?”
“You didn’t have to follow me home, you know. I’m a big boy now. I don’t need a keeper.”
“That ain’t why we’re here, little brother,” I lied, but Joe wasn’t stupid. Me and Adam had watched over him since the day he was born, and he was well aware of why we’d stopped by his house before riding home. “Mind if I get that drink now?”
Joe waved me to the kitchen before he plopped down in the overstuffed chair he’d ordered from San Francisco. After seein’ Adam’s plans for the house, he knew right where it would go. When the crate was delivered, Joe tore the planks and packing away and tried it out right there in the front yard. He sat this way and that, wiggled his backside till it fit just right then crossed his legs, laid his head back, and closed his eyes. The half-crooked smile told us that little brother was quite pleased with his overpriced purchase.
The house weren’t as clean and sparkly as when Ginny lived there, but it weren’t a complete pigsty either. “Hey,” I said. “Why don’t you come home with me and Adam and eat some of Hop Sing’s good cookin’?”
“This is my home, Hoss. I can do my own cooking.”
“You could if you had any food in the house, but you don’t. One good meal ain’t gonna hurt you none.”
I don’t think he realized how much weight he’d lost or how pale and sickly his skin looked. Hop Sing often cooked extra and would bring a care package to Joe. He’d never said nothin’ to Pa, but I caught him sneakin’ out the back door one day with a full picnic basket. “What you got there?”
“For Little Joe. He not eat if I not bring.”
I clapped our little Celestial on the back. “You’re a good man, Hop Sing.”
“Hop Sing do what right. Keep Little Joe alive. Broken heart take long time to heal.”
Joe wouldn’t come home with us, but for the next two weeks, Adam and I set up a routine. We took turns draggin’ Joe out of bed and off to work. He still hadn’t come home for supper, but every day I asked, and every day I got the same answer. “Not tonight, Hoss.”
I’d seen some improvement, though. His face showed some color and he lasted longer in the saddle. Not that work was fun and games, but we tried to throw somethin’ good into every day. On one particular day, I decided we’d take a swim.
Sitting on the bank of the river, I prodded and teased my little brother until he had no choice but to dive right in, clothes and all. “You gonna drown with them boots on,” I hollered, but he paid me no mind. I shed my own boots and stripped down to my long johns before I jumped in after him. “Give me them boots, you dang fool.”
The boots came off one at a time, and he tossed ‘em up on the bank. “Happy?”
The current wasn’t too bad for this time of year and Joe tried to float on his back, but without no fat on his bones, his tries were useless. Not sure if it was my imagination or not, but I might’ve heard him giggle. I listened for more, but . . . Joe’s moods had always gone from light to dark in an instant, and the light had gone out of his eyes.
Nights were always the worst. With the new routine Adam and Hoss had conceived, I kept busy most of the day. But, by late afternoon, they had no choice but to head back home and every day, they asked the same thing. “Come with us, Joe. Hop Sing always makes plenty.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go. The fact was I couldn’t bring myself to step foot inside the ranch house. There were too many good times in that house, ones that included Ginny, and I could still picture everything. The seat she liked best in front of the fire. The songs she tried to teach Hop Sing while they worked in the garden. I could name a hundred other reasons I couldn’t go home. If I stayed in my own house, I could dream and reflect and no one said a word.
Some nights were different, though, and my mind didn’t go straight to Ginny and the good times we had. My thoughts were of that day, so peaceful and perfect, and the announcement that would change our lives forever. I tried, Ginny. I tried and failed. I should’ve listened to you. I should’ve paid more attention. Maybe things would’ve turned out different.
“Not only did I marry the most beautiful woman in Nevada,” I said, “but I married a woman who can cook. That’s hard to come by, you know.”
“Oh, Joe. Don’t be so silly.”
“I’m serious. I got more than I bargained for. Two for one.”
“In that case, I’m glad your tummy is happy.”
“That’s not all that’s happy.” I cupped her face and covered her lips with mine. And, after sinking my fingers in her silky dark hair, I kissed her long and hard. Ginny was soft and warm and when a small moan escaped from the back of her throat, when she moved her hand to my shoulder, I wished away my jacket. I wanted to feel her hand slide along my skin and . . .
The interruption made me pause. “What, darlin’?”
“Do you have plans for next April?”
“April? I don’t know. Roundup, I guess. Why do you ask?”
“And then the drive?”
“Yeah. End of April, first of May. Sometime around there.”
“What if I asked you to stay home this year?”
I shifted my weight and leaned up on one elbow. “What’s this all about?” Ginny smiled, but I was slow to catch on. “Is something wrong?”
“No, something’s very right.”
I was never good at math but I finally realized . . . “Are you sure? Have you been to see the doc?”
“Yes, and yes.”
Ginny blushed when I touched her cheek and eased her down alongside me on the quilt she’d made just for picnics. Our legs intertwined when I pulled her even closer, but moments later she stiffened and looked up. “What was that?”
“Thought I heard something.”
She leaned in and kissed my forehead. “No, it’s nothing. Probably just a squirrel.”
But it was something. Hidden in a grove of trees, they were on us in seconds. Faces painted with red and black stripes—two distinct lines on each cheek—five young braves circled the blanket and screamed angry words in their native tongue.
I jumped to my feet and pushed Ginny behind me. “Stay calm,” I whispered. “We don’t know what they want.” My gunbelt lay next to the basket, and I’d taken my boots off just as Ginny had when we soaked our feet in the stream. Unarmed, I was helpless to defend and take a stand. “Take what you want.” I gestured with my hands at the picnic basket and blanket. It wasn’t much but I hoped they’d be satisfied with white man’s trinkets.
I prayed my voice wouldn’t crack. I couldn’t show fear, and I stood my ground, but Ginny trembled behind me. She’d grabbed my hand so tight; I hoped the blood would still flow if I were forced to fight. Hoss could fight them off with one hand tied behind his back. Protect and defend, but I didn’t have his strength.
Cool and composed Adam would never provoke a fight. I wouldn’t either, not when the odds were against me. When the one in charge shouted words I couldn’t understand, I stepped back so they could pick through our belongings if that’s what they’d come for.
Knives and fists. Whoops and cries, and I gasped for air when bones cracked and broke with the weight of their fury. “Ginny,” I cried in a near-muted voice. “God, no.”
Joe asked me a question I couldn’t answer. “You never say her name. Why, Adam?” It was a simple question, and I didn’t know the answer except we thought we were sparing his feelings by not talking about his deceased wife. We all loved Ginny, Pa especially. Had she been twenty years older, he might’ve taken her for his own bride. He cared deeply for the raven-haired young girl that had become his first daughter-in-law, and he was nearly as comatose as his youngest son.
She was a fun sort. Not a woman I’d find intellectually stimulating, but she’d been a perfect choice for Joe. They never found cause to fight. They were that much alike and that much in love. They respected each other and were making a life together that was the envy of Joe’s friends and the envy of family too.
We all search for that perfect mate, but Joe had searched since he was fourteen years old. One girl after another came and went. There’d even been marriage proposals when he was a younger man, but life always took a turn until Ginny.
Maybe we’d been mistaken. Maybe Joe was right. Ginny was gone but far from forgotten. Pa had contacted her brother in San Francisco soon after we’d brought Joe home and realized Ginny was dead. He sent a letter expressing his condolences, but since there was no outright funeral, only a few words spoken when we placed a headstone next to Marie’s. We never heard back from Geoff. We hadn’t met the man when Ginny was alive, and I didn’t expect to meet him any time in the future.
For the last two weeks, we’d ridden to Joe’s and taken him to work with us, but the day came when he said he didn’t want any more wake-up calls. Tell him where we’d be, and he’d get there himself. We took him at his word, but we were wrong to do so. Rounding up steers or digging out water holes wasn’t the distraction I’d hoped for. Getting Joe out of that house and back to work had been my main goal, and the first day we didn’t rouse him out of bed, he failed to show.
“What now?” Hoss said.
“The sooner we finish the job, the sooner we can get cleaned up and see what that fool kid is up to.” We were up to our necks in mud, and Hoss turned on me in a flash. He didn’t hold back.
“He ain’t no kid, Adam. He’s nearly twenty-three years old and his wife is dead. Remember that next time you call him kid. He needs our help, Adam, not attitude.”
“You’re right. It’s just habit.”
“One you oughta break right quick.”
As always, Hoss was right, but I changed the subject anyway. “Pull that branch out, will you?” I never gave Joe the credit he deserved. He’d been young and foolish for so long that old habits were hard to break.
Both of us were in a mood, but Hoss seemed more frustrated and more intent on making the job harder than it should’ve been. The problem wasn’t the beaver dam as much as it was Joe not showing up that had set him off and fueled his grumpy disposition.
“Why don’t I finish here and you go get cleaned up,” I said casually. “Joe would rather see you than me anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I just know, now go.”
“All right. If that’s what you want.”
I moved upstream where clear water flowed and scrubbed the mud from my pants. When I climbed onto dry land, I pulled on my boots and mounted my horse. I’d dry on the way to Joe’s. Joe worried me. It weren’t like him to break his word and not meet us when he said he would. His home was closer than the ranch house anyway. I didn’t want to make two stops, and I didn’t want Pa to know what I was up to.
I knocked on his front door and let myself in without waitin’. “Joseph? You here, Joe?” The house was dark, the drapes drawn tight. I made my way across the room to his favorite chair and found him slumped against the arm, passed out or asleep, I wasn’t sure. He’d flung his leg over the far side and after a final drink of some rotgut swill, an empty bottle lay on the rug. “Joseph!”
“Hmm . . .”
“Get up,” I hollered. Nothin’ we’d done seemed to help, but I couldn’t watch him backslide into oblivion again. Lettin’ cheap whiskey solve his problems weren’t the answer.
“What dang fool thing have you done now?”
“Get up and get dressed. I’ve had enough foolishness for one day.”
Joe dragged his leg off the arm, leaned forward, and cradled his head in his hands. “Sorry, Hoss.”
“You’ll be a lot sorrier if you don’t get up and get movin’.” Seems any energy he mustered failed him within seconds, and he sunk deeper into the overstuffed chair. His eyes were swollen red, and his hands were shaking. “Joseph? What ‘s wrong, boy?”
“Nothing,” he sobbed.
I knelt down on one knee. “What, Joe? What happened last night?”
“Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens. Ginny’s gone, Hoss. She’s dead. That’s what happened.”
“Aw, Joe . . . come on now.”
“No, Hoss. I’m tired. I can’t do this anymore.”
My leg was startin’ to cramp, and I eased my backside onto a table in front of my little brother. “But you was doin’ fine yesterday. What changed?”
“I can’t pretend anymore. I can’t do it, Hoss. It’s too damn hard.”
“You listen to me ‘cause I’m only sayin’ this once. Rotgut ain’t never the answer. Ginny’s gone and I’m as sorry as you are, but there ain’t nothing we can do to bring her back. Look at me, Joe.” He tried to move away but I clamped my hands on the arm of the chair. “You ain’t dead, but you might as well be the way you’re carryin’ on. What would Ginny say if she saw you like this? Huh?” He turned his head to the side and started to squirm. I needed him think rational-like. “Exactly, Little Joe. I’d be embarrassed too.”
“I don’t want to be here without her, Hoss.”
“I know you don’t, but you’re better’n that, Joe. Where’s the man she fell in love with? He sure ain’t what I’m lookin’ at now.”
“You don’t understand.”
“You’re my little brother, and I understand you better’n anyone else. I know you’re hurtin’, but you ain’t just hurtin’ yourself. When one of us is feelin’ low, everyone in the family feels the same, and you got no right to hurt the ones who care about you.”
“Then leave me alone. Leave me be, Hoss.”
“Can’t do that, Joseph. You got family. Have you considered what all your sulkin’ and hidin’ in this house day after miserable day is doin’ to Pa? Do you know how much he’s hurtin’? He don’t know how to make things better for you, and it’s tearin’ him up inside. Ain’t a day goes by that his eyes don’t tear up, but you don’t care about no one else, do you? It’s all about Joe Cartwright and nothin’ else matters.”
“Is Pa okay?”
“No, Pa ain’t okay. Ain’t you heard a word I said?”
Joe looked like more like the town drunk than his old self. His clothes was rumpled; his hair was a mess. He needed a shave and he smelled bad. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? You’re a sight, little brother, and I don’t mean that as a compliment neither. Good thing Ginny can’t see you now. That’s all I gotta say.”
When Joe didn’t react, when he wouldn’t say two words in his own defense, I stood from the table and started toward the door. Maybe Pa or Adam could get through his thick skull, ‘cause I was wasting my time. “Do what you want, Little Joe. I got better things to do than to sit here lookin’ at a smelly old drunk.” I slammed the door on my way out. I was madder’n hell. Adam was wrong to send me. I said words I shouldn’t have. Hittin’ a man when he was down weren’t right.
Straightening tack and polishing my saddle kept me busy enough that Pa wouldn’t ask questions I couldn’t answer to until Hoss came home. Since I’d flapped my jaw telling Pa how good his youngest was doing, I didn’t want him to know Joe hadn’t shown up to work.
When Hoss finally rode in, I capped the can of polish and waited for the lowdown on Joe, but after he dismounted, he shook his head. “You never should’ve sent me, Adam, ‘cause I did more harm than good. He was too hung-over to work and I shouted at him—”
“Hung-over? I thought we’d gotten through to him.”
“Guess his ears was closed, big brother, ‘cause he’s right back where he was two weeks ago. Dragging him outta bed didn’t do nothin’ but make things worse.”
“Don’t say anything to Pa.” I stood a few feet away as Hoss loosened Chubb’s cinch, pulled the saddle from his mount, and picked up the brush. Taking swift, short sweeps across Chubby’s flank, my brother tried to ease his frustration the only way he knew how. “You’re not to blame, you know.”
“I don’t know nothin’ no more. Adam. Joe ain’t no better off than he was after the attack. He’s movin’ backward in time. He don’t see no future without Ginny, and nothin’ I said seemed to matter. I ain’t no genius when it comes to words, so it’s up to you and Pa now. I ain’t goin’ over there again and watch him destroy his life.”
Hoss’ final comment wouldn’t last five minutes if he thought he could help our brother, but we put our discussion to rest before going inside the house. We’d sleep on it and maybe by morning, one of us would come up with a new and better plan.
My father knew grief. He’d lost three wives, and he mourned each of their passings, but he hadn’t fared much better than Joe when it came to his third wife, Marie. Those were hard times. Pa left the ranch; he left me in charge of my brothers but upon his return, nothing more was said. The subject was closed; the grieving, the drifting, and the misery had been left behind.
Joe was so much like Pa that I wondered if this, too, would pass just as abruptly. I considered the long days on the trail when Pa had wandered the Utah Territory alone. Had he taken to the bottle as Joe had? I’d never know for sure, but I tended to think along those lines after seeing how easily Joe could sink into a bottle of booze.
With supper finished, we all migrated in front of the fire. Pa lit his pipe and picked up the newspaper, but I could almost guarantee no article would hold his interest for more than a minute. His thoughts would be elsewhere, same and Hoss’ and mine. Hoss set up the checkerboard and assumed I’d rather play a game with him than read from a leather-bound book. Maybe he was right. The simple days of concentrating on a good story were few and far between.
“Black or red?”
“Black’s fine.” I considered my mood.
Hoss moved his piece then looked up. His eyes circled the room like a vulture sniffing for prey. “You hear somethin’?”
“You trying to distract me already? You sound more like Joe than—”
“I’m serious, Adam. Thought I heard a horse ride up.”
I moved a black piece. “Your move.”
Bootheels sounding on the front porch proved Hoss had sensitive hearing, and he smiled that big told-you-so smile. “See? You heard it too, didn’t you?”
“Why don’t you go see who’s at the door.”
“I plan to do just that.”
I sat back in my chair and crossed my legs. I picked up my copy of Thoreau, opened to the middle of the book, and chuckled when I scanned the first passage.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it’s because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
If that wasn’t Joe Cartwright, I wasn’t sure who else Mr. Thoreau had in mind. Had we gone about this all wrong? When Hoss pulled the front door open, my young brother stood at the threshold.
“Joseph?” Pa called from his chair. “Is that you, son?”
“It’s him.” Hoss smiled at Pa then turned his attention back to Joe. “You just gonna stand there?”
Embarrassed, it seemed, Joe stepped inside the house. He carried a carpetbag in one hand and held his hat in the other. Pa and I both stood from our chairs and started across the room. “Joseph?” Pa repeated. “Come in, son.”
“I—I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Sorry?” Pa slid his hand across Joe’s shoulders. “Sorry for what?”
“I don’t know. Everything, I guess.”
I caught Hoss’ eye and motioned him to follow me upstairs. “We’ll say good night, won’t we, Hoss.”
“Huh? Oh . . . yeah. Night, Pa. Night Little Joe.”
From the first landing, I looked over my shoulder and watched Pa guide my brother to the settee. And though his steps were hesitant, Pa had developed a keen sense of patience where his youngest son was concerned.
I wondered what Hoss had said. Something more powerful than he imagined, some breakthrough comment had brought Joe looking to our father for comfort. If the kid ever considered his actions might affect Pa in a bad way, these last few months would have played out much differently.
I clapped my oversized brother on the back. “I don’t know what you said,” I whispered, “but I guess you’re a genius with words after all.”
Sharing the same grief bonded Pa and Joe together in a way only they could share and relate. They might talk long into the night. There might be tears, hopefully, a hint of laughter, but I hoped for Joe’s sake, Pa could crush the demons and bring new light to a haunting situation. If anyone had the power to set my brother on a new and different course in life, it was our father.
Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
The words/phrases dealt to me were:
Sitting on the bank of the river