Summary: Jamie meets another adopted member of the Cartwright clan. Originally written for the March 2017 Pinecone challenge, and expanded for inclusion here. Prompt: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. (Kris Kristofferson)
Rating: G Word Count: 1248
The knock interrupted another too-quiet evening. Ben professed to be reading, but for the last half-hour he had been staring over the top of his book into the crackling flames. Joe didn’t even pretend. He sprawled on the settee, booted feet on the heavy table unchallenged, turning a single checker over and around in his fingers. Jamie huddled with his homework at Ben’s desk, but his eyes drifted more often to his silent father and brother than to the open pages.
Hoss’s death had sucked the life out of the Cartwright men as surely as it had the empty bedroom in the upstairs hall, and he didn’t know how to help—or if he even could help.
He didn’t know how to stop hurting, himself.
“It will be all right,” Ben had assured them numbly, one arm around Joe’s shoulders and one around Jamie’s as the family finally left the grave site that awful day. It had felt like his pa was trying to hold them all together through the sheer strength of his grip, and Jamie had wished he would ease up some—but he wouldn’t have said it out loud, not for any amount of money. Better to be held too tight than left to make that walk alone. “It won’t be the same, it won’t be… what we wanted. Not for him, not for us. But it will be all right.”
His new family had known their share of grief, and with his own father’s death still so fresh (a couple of years wasn’t really that long, not when you were only fifteen) Jamie thought he understood. They would be all right not because things would go back to the way they wanted, but because there was nothing else they could do. The family hadn’t reached that ‘all right’ point, though — none of them had figured out yet who the Cartwrights were without Hoss. They were … something unfamiliar, something new and unwelcome, and they didn’t know how to talk around it, or past it, or through it… so they didn’t. Not yet.
All three stared as the knock came again, and finally Joe rolled to his feet. He crossed to the door and ducked his head close. “Who is it?” It was late—dark and still for hours already. Whoever it was, was unexpected.
Ben laid the book aside and rose swiftly as Joe yanked the door open. “Candy!” Jamie edged away from the desk, curious for a glimpse of the drifter-turned-foreman-turned-drifter. A tall, lanky man with a mane of thick hair and a wide smile stepped inside, engulfing first Joe and then Ben in a tight embrace. The grin faded, and Candy gripped Joe’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here for the funeral.”
“No, it’s all right, Candy. It’s good to see you.” Ben motioned their guest toward the settee. “We thought of trying to contact you, but we weren’t sure where you were.”
“Colorado, lately.” Candy flashed another grin as Hop Sing brought coffee, dried apple pie, and a word of welcome. The startling blue eyes, rimmed with dust and travel fatigue, closed with a contented sigh as Candy took that first long gulp, then he sat and dug into the pie. Ben returned to his chair and Joe dropped onto the coffee table. Jamie drifted closer. “Durango. But I’m back to stay, if you need me.”
For the first time, the newcomer seemed unsure.
Joe’s grin was crooked, a real one that had been rare since Hoss. “What about your freedom?”
Candy shrugged. “Well … one thing I figured out since leaving you Cartwrights—freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
Even Ben smiled faintly, his eyes turned back toward the flames. Then he rose and crossed behind the settee. “We’re glad to have you, never doubt it.” He thumped Candy on the shoulder. “And Candy …” He looked down, away, his grip tightening. The grief which had retreated briefly upon the arrival of an old, welcome friend crept back into Ben Cartwright’s gaze. “Thank you for coming.” Candy reached back to pat Ben’s wrist awkwardly, and as he did Ben glimpsed Jamie watching the scene from the shadows. He motioned the boy forward. “Jamie, come meet Candy Canaday—another member of the family.”
Candy looked around, motioning to the table beside Joe as Jamie approached. “Ah, so you’re Jamie, huh? Heard they’d suckered in another one. Good to meet you.”
Jamie perched gingerly, expecting his pa to remember at any moment the rules about sitting on furniture not made specifically for that purpose. If Ben did notice, however, he left the infraction alone this time. Jamie offered a nod to the newcomer, unsure what to make of Canaday’s words—but the man’s blinding smile and Joe’s faint snicker reassured him that no harm was meant. Ben even snorted softly before striding out of the great room.
“Hop Sing!” Muffled muttering drifted from the kitchen, followed by the little cook himself. “Candy will need a room set up.”
“No need, Mr. Cartwright. I can sleep in the bunk tonight, you don’t need to—”
“Candy, eat your pie.”
Candy snapped his mouth shut, exchanging a grin and raised eyebrow with Joe. Hop Sing scurried across the room, grumbling about ‘friends who say they sleep in bunk, Hop Sing don’t know what foolishness Mr. Candy been picking up since he leave here’, with Ben close behind offering advice about which room to make ready. Joe winced and shook his head, then looked back around.
“You eat dinner, or you want some of that too?”
“Well, since you didn’t do the cookin’ …”
Joe actually laughed, the familiar cackle rebounding from the walls for the first time in a very long time. Something Jamie didn’t even know had been coiled tight inside him relaxed, leaving a deep ache in its place. He drew in a long, easy breath, wondering how he hadn’t noticed before that it hurt to breathe. When Joe disappeared into the kitchen and he looked back around, he found Candy’s eyes on him.
“So, kid. How you doin’?”
He was surprised at the interest from a man he’d never met. “Me?”
Candy stuffed down the last piece of pie. “Nobody else here.” He set the plate aside, took a long swig of coffee, then nudged at Jamie’s boot with his toe. “Look. I know how it is with Hoss Cartwright. It don’t … didn’t take the man any time at all.”
The slip was quick, but Jamie was looking right at Canaday when it happened and he saw the flash of real grief that dimmed the bright smile.
Yeah. That sure was true about Hoss — it didn’t take long, not at all. Candy’s words tumbled around in his head for a minute, and got Jamie to thinking. Maybe … maybe the man really did know. Hoss and Joe and their pa all thought of Candy as family. Maybe here at last was somebody he could talk to about his grief without worrying the whole time that he was making things worse.
He just hadn’t been able to risk putting Joe or their pa through that.
“I …” Jamie looked down, suddenly awkward. “I miss him. A lot.”
“Yeah.” The man sighed. “Me too.” Candy leaned forward to thump Jamie’s knee, and the two shared a glance of solemn understanding as Joe hustled back into the room with a plateful of dinner.