Summary: Laughter and tears, dreams and disappointments, sickness and health, life and beyond . . . Joe learns the truth of the old proverb: a friend loves at all times.
Rated: T WC 15,000
The Seasons of a Friendship
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
The ongoing clanging of pans in the kitchen had long since signaled that supper was ready. Ben glanced up at the clock by his desk. Six-thirty. Well past the usual time for the evening meal, but his sons hadn’t yet come in.
As if on cue, Hoss and Adam burst through the door, stomping their boots and blowing in their hands to warm them. The autumn evenings had turned from merely brisk to downright cold in the space of a few days.
“Hey, Hop Sing, ain’t supper ready yet?” called Hoss.
The little Chinaman darted around the corner, eyes flashing. “Supper ready long time, nobody come, nobody eat! Hop Sing work, work, work, nobody eat!”
“I’ll eat!” Hoss assured him, but the little man glared.
“Where Li’l Joe?” demanded Hop Sing. “Can’t eat if family not together!”
“I don’t think he’s going to be home for dinner,” said Adam mildly.
“He’s over at the Wilsons’?” asked Ben, rising from his desk.
Hoss nodded. “Went over there after lunch.” For a moment, he looked apprehensive, as if he’d revealed a secret, but his father just nodded.
“He mentioned this morning that he was going to head over at some point,” Ben said, his dark eyes somber. “Let’s eat.”
The grandfather clock was chiming eleven before Ben heard hooves outside. He wondered if Joe had eaten at all. Quite possibly not, depending on what needed to be done and what the Wilsons had to share.
He forced himself to sit quietly, pretending to read, until the front door opened. He looked up as if pleasantly surprised to see his youngest son. “It’s pretty late,” he said simply.
“I know,” said Joe, not meeting his eyes. “I thought I’d be back earlier, but the barn was a mess.” He unbuckled his gunbelt and coiled it painstakingly on the credenza. Carefully, with uncharacteristic precision, he hung his hat and jacket on their usual pegs.
When Little Joe didn’t turn to face his father, Ben asked quietly, “How’s Gabe?”
“Not too much pain today,” said Joe. “Still making jokes. And Martha made cornbread tonight, but–”
“But what?” asked Ben when his son didn’t continue.
“He couldn’t,” Joe said finally. “He tried, but he couldn’t eat it. Barely swallowed, and then he couldn’t keep it down.” Ben waited quietly as his son gathered himself. “He always loved Martha’s cornbread,” Joe continued, his voice shaky. “He used to say that that was why he married her, so she’d never make it for anybody else.” His voice broke at the end, and he ducked his head, turning his back to his father.
“Son.” Ben rose, crossing the room to lay a hand on his son’s shoulder, but Joe evaded his father’s touch, holding up his hand.
“I’m all right,” he said, his face turned away. “Just–I’m all right, Pa.”
Ben watched the young man’s set shoulders, his bowed head. His heart ached at his son’s pain. “Did you have any supper?”
Joe shook his head, not looking up. “I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat something,” his father said gently.
“I had some of the cornbread,” said Joe. “That’s all I wanted.”
“At least have a sandwich,” said Ben. “There’s some roast beef left over from supper.”
“I don’t want anything,” said Joe, his voice unsteady as he adjusted the perfectly-coiled gunbelt. “I’m going to bed.”
“Joseph.” The father’s voice was quiet with compassion. He reached again for his son, and this time, Joe didn’t move away.
“Pa, I want to go back over in the morning,” he said, his gaze still fixed on the gunbelt. “Even with all the weight he’s lost, Martha’s having a hard time lifting him, and he can’t help the way he used to.”
“Of course,” said Ben, patting his son’s shoulder. “You just do what needs to be done there. And if there’s anything we can do, you let us know.”
At last, Little Joe looked up. Pain, and fear of pain, etched lines in his young face. “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered.
Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “You get some sleep, son,” he said. He resisted the urge to pull Joe close, to hold him tight enough to shield him against this loss.
“Good night, Pa.” Joe pulled away and headed upstairs, leaving his father to watch, his heart aching.
* * * * * * * * * *
Little Joe didn’t look up at the unfamiliar voice. It wasn’t his pa or his brothers, and nobody else mattered. He sat on the bank of the creek, not even caring that he was getting mud on the seat of his church pants. He broke off pieces of branch and threw them into the creek, trying to focus on them so fiercely that he wouldn’t remember this morning.
“Hey,” said the sandy-haired boy again as he sat down next to him. “What’cha doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” snapped Little Joe. “Throwin’ sticks in the creek.”
“Oh.” The boy shut up like Little Joe had said something perfectly sensible. After a minute, he picked up a stick and started breaking off pieces, just like Little Joe.
“Your ma was pretty,” the boy said after a while.
“How did you know her?” Little Joe didn’t remember seeing this boy before.
“She came in the store a few times,” said the boy.
“You the Wilson kid?” asked Little Joe.
The boy nodded, sticking out his hand. “Gabe Wilson,” he said.
Little Joe shook his hand solemnly. “Little Joe Cartwright,” he said.
“I know,” said Gabe, and Little Joe grunted. Of course, Gabe knew who he was. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been at his mama’s funeral.
“I ain’t seen you before,” Little Joe said, almost accusing.
“We just got here,” said Gabe. “I been helping Pa in the store.” He spoke with such confidence that Little Joe could picture him standing on a stool behind the counter, waiting on customers.
“Where’s your ma?” Ordinarily, Little Joe wouldn’t have asked a question like that. If a ma or pa wasn’t around, it wasn’t seemly to ask after them. Adam and Hoss had both lost their mas, and now so had he. You never knew. Somehow, though, it felt all right this time.
Gabe didn’t seem to mind. “She died when I was little,” said the five-year-old. “She got sick.”
“I’m sorry,” said Little Joe, and he was. He was sorry for Gabe, and for Adam and Hoss, and for Pa and for himself. . . .
Without warning, his tears spilled over. He ducked his head so Gabe wouldn’t see. Furiously, he swiped at them with his shirtsleeve.
“Little Joe! Where are you?” Hoss’ voice rang through the trees.
Little Joe scrubbed at his face. “That’s my brother,” he said.
“I know,” said Gabe. “I saw him at the service.” He gave Little Joe a long, critical look, and then he pulled out his shirttail. He knelt down by the creek, dipped the fabric in the water, and said “Here,” offering it.
They could hear Hoss crashing through the brush. Little Joe took the wet shirttail and wiped away most of his tears. Hastily, Gabe wrung out his shirt and tucked it back into his pants, just as Hoss appeared.
“Where you been?” Joe’s big brother demanded. “We been lookin’ every place for you.”
“I was just down here with Gabe,” said Little Joe.
Hoss looked at Gabe, who nodded. “Well, you better get back to the house,” Hoss said. “It’s gettin’ dark.”
“Ain’t that dark,” said Little Joe, even as he pushed to his feet. He tried to brush the mud off his seat, but he could feel that it was no use. He caught Gabe’s eye, and the other boy shrugged.
“Come on, you,” Hoss said to Gabe. “I ain’t leavin’ you out here all by yourself. Who’re you, anyway?”
“Gabe Wilson,” said Little Joe. “His pa has a store.”
“Your pa the feller who just bought the mercantile?” asked Hoss.
“Yep,” said Gabe proudly.
“Well, you get on up to the house,” said Hoss. “I reckon your pa’s prob’ly ready to go home by now.” He took each boy by the hand and hustled them along the path at such a pace that they could barely keep up. Still, the whole way back, the boys kept looking at each other like they had a secret, and Hoss never knew.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe could hear the baby crying as he rode into the yard. Hastily, he dismounted, looped Cochise’s reins around the post, and headed inside, where the irate infant shrieked in her cradle.
“Hey, Martha! Gabe!” Joe scooped her out of the cradle by the stove. Babies usually made him nervous, but he was getting to know this one, and she wasn’t as scary as he’d expected. In fact, she was pretty cute when she wasn’t screaming. He was starting to figure out what she wanted without Martha always having to tell him. Sometimes, he could even get her to stop crying.
“Come on, now,” he said, bouncing her in his arms. “Stop all that yelling.” He kissed the tiny bald head, now furiously red, as he checked to see whether she needed to be changed, a pin was sticking her, or something else obvious was wrong. No, no, and no. “Look, that name isn’t my fault,” he whispered conspiratorially. “I don’t blame you for crying about it, but there ain’t nothing we can do about it now.”
“Joe? Is that you?” called Martha from the bedroom.
“Yeah, I’m here,” he said. “I think little Miss Wilson may be hungry,” he added as he headed into the bedroom.
The smell hit him as soon as he came through the doorway. “Here, I’ll trade you,” said Joe. “You take her, and I’ll take him.”
“No, it’s okay, I can handle this,” said Martha. “Gabe, just roll toward me, that’s it. Now, hang on–”
“Let me do that,” said Joe over the baby’s shrieks. He returned the child to her cradle and strode back in, braced. “All right, Wilson, let’s go. Hang onto my neck.” He lifted Gabe from the bed and settled him in the chair. With an efficiency even Hop Sing would have approved, Joe stripped the bed and remade it with fresh linens while Martha fetched a basin, soap and washcloth.
Finally, Gabe was cleaned up and settled in bed, Martha was nursing the child in the front room, and peace reigned for a few minutes. “Sorry about that,” said Gabe, his thin voice a shadow of the booming baritone that had always seemed incongruous in a man of his slight stature.
“Don’t worry,” said Joe. “I’ll send you the bill next week.”
“And I’ll pay you next month,” Gabe responded. “Or maybe the month after.” He winked, and Joe managed a crooked grin.
The first time it had happened, Gabe had been furious and mortified, refusing even to look at Joe or Martha as they tended to him in embarrassed silence. As the days had passed and Gabe’s body betrayed him more frequently, sheer repetition forced them all to treat such incidents as nothing unusual, simply another part of the disease that was eating away at his insides. Just yesterday, Gabe had even made a joke of it, commenting that Martha was now the only one in the family who didn’t wear diapers.
Now, Joe pulled the chair close to the bed. “How’re you feeling this morning?”
Gabe shrugged. “That laudanum’s fine stuff,” he said. “Don’t feel much at all.”
“You take some already?” Joe frowned. Gabe seemed awfully alert for somebody who’d had laudanum. Joe hated taking the painkiller; it always made him feel like somebody had wrapped his head in cotton, and he knew he didn’t half make sense when he tried to talk.
“Not yet,” said Gabe. “Waiting. Don’t want to sleep more than I have to.”
“But if you’re hurting. . . .”
“Rather be hurting,” said Gabe. “At least then, I know I’m still alive.”
“Oh, you’re alive, all right,” Joe said. “Believe me, I know the difference. Corpses make a lot less noise than you do.”
“See? I always knew you weren’t as dumb as everybody says,” said Gabe.
“Just keep that between us, okay?” Joe forced himself to sound light at the old joke.
“I’ll take it to my grave,” Gabe promised. His weak grin faded, and he mused, “Guess that used to be funnier.”
“Yeah, but that’s not surprising,” said Joe, determined not to give in. “Your jokes always were lousy.”
“Not half as bad as yours,” said Gabe. “Danged if I know why Maybelle Taunton always thought you were the funny one.”
“Because I was,” said Joe. “A lot funnier than you. Plus, I was handsome and charming and debonair.”
“You were ten!” Gabe’s chuckle turned into a cough. His eyes grew wide as he gasped for breath.
“Easy, now, I’ve got you,” said Joe. Quickly, he moved to the bed and sat Gabe up, holding him and rubbing his back. “Just take it easy. Little breaths, that’s all. That’s it, just a little.”
“Gabe? Joe? Are you all right?” called Martha.
“Don’t worry, we’re fine,” called Joe. More quietly, he said, “See? You’re breathing. That’s it, now. Easy does it. A little at a time, that’s right. Slow it down now.” He kept talking, holding Gabe up, until the spasm eased. Then, he laid his friend back on the pillows. “How about I get you some of that cough medicine, and you sleep for a little while?”
Gabe nodded without lifting his head from the pillow. “Sounds good.”
Joe sorted through the bottles on the table until he found the right one. “You need any of the others as long as we’re doing this?”
Gabe’s brow creased. “I think–I think maybe the one for my stomach. And the laudanum.”
“Okay,” said Joe in his most matter-of-fact voice. He poured first one medicine into the spoon, and then another and another, holding each spoonful to Gabe’s lips, just as he recalled his father doing with him when he was small.
“Yuck,” said Gabe drowsily as Joe replaced the bottles. “Medicine tastes just as bad now as when we were kids.”
“You want some water?” Joe had already picked up the pitcher, but Gabe shook his head.
“Just gonna go to sleep,” he said, his voice already slurring. Joe stood by the bed, pitcher in hand, as his friend’s eyes closed.
“I’ll see you later, then,” he whispered. He opened the window to let out the smells of the sickroom, recalling the time, not so long ago, when this little house welcomed him with the warm fragrance of apple pie and pipe smoke.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Here,” Joe said, handing the gift-wrapped box to Gabe.
“What’s this? My birthday’s not until January!” Gabe turned the small package over in his hands.
“It’s for the baby, kind of,” said Joe.
“A baby present? Aren’t you supposed to give those to Martha?”
“Not this one,” said Joe. He grinned as Gabe ripped off the paper and opened the box. “It’s just like Pa’s,” he said as Gabe removed the pipe from the box.
“But–I don’t smoke a pipe!” Gabe was clearly trying to be tactful.
“That’s because you’re not a pa yet,” said Joe. “But every pa has to smoke a pipe.”
“Mine didn’t,” Gabe pointed out.
“Well–probably because he didn’t a friend to give him one,” said Joe. “Lucky for you, you’ve got me.”
Gabe surveyed the pipe. “So, now I’ve got to get some tobacco,” he said.
“Nope,” said Joe, pulling a small parcel out of his jacket. “Would I give you a pipe and no tobacco?”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to give me lessons, too,” said Gabe, still clearly uncertain.
“No, but Pa can,” said Joe. He grinned at Gabe’s expression. “Let me tell you something. One of the first things I remember from after my ma died is waking up from a bad dream. Pa came in and held me real close. He must’ve just been smoking his pipe, because I could smell the pipe smoke on him. I remember feeling so safe, like somehow, things would be okay, even though Mama was gone. Maybe it was just the way he held me, or that deep voice of his, but I think part of it was the pipe smoke. ‘Cause ever since, whenever I smell his pipe, I just feel like, no matter how rough things might get, everything’s going to be all right.”
Gabe looked at Joe for a long moment without speaking. Then, he tucked the pipe and tobacco into his pocket. “Do you suppose your pa’s home now?”
“Well, I’ve got to learn how to smoke this thing without choking to death, and something tells me I’m going to need a lot of practice!” Laughing, he swung up on his horse, and Joe followed as they headed out to the Ponderosa.
It seemed like only an instant later that they’d learned of Gabe’s sickness, the baby was born, and the Wilsons began to need more help managing the farm. In the midst of everything, Joe forgot all about the pipe. Gabe had never mentioned it again after that day when Pa tried to teach him how to smoke it, and Joe mentally filed it away as one of those good ideas that just didn’t work.
Then, one evening after Josie was born, Joe rode up to the farmhouse to see the little family sitting out on the porch together. Martha was rocking the baby, humming softly. And Gabe–Gabe was puffing on his pipe like he’d been born doing it.
“What in tarnation are you doing, Wilson?” Joe asked as he looped his horse’s reins around the post.
“What does it look like?” asked Gabe, puffing expertly. “I’m a pa now. Gotta act like one.”
Joe grinned as he kissed Martha on the forehead and admired the baby. “I figured you’d given up on this notion,” he admitted.
“I almost had,” Gabe admitted. “But after Josie was born, I got to thinking about how things are probably going to be a little rough for her, not having a pa around and all, and I thought about what you said about the smell and–well, I just figured that, even if she doesn’t know why, maybe someday, she’ll smell the pipe smoke and it’ll make her think of me.”
For a minute, the lump in Joe’s throat kept him from saying anything. He bent over the baby, stroking her tiny head. “Good choice, Wilson,” he said finally. “Better that than she should think of you when she smells cow manure!”
Martha shook her head, laughing, and Gabe guffawed. “You’ve always been a sentimental type, Cartwright,” the new father said. “How about some pie? Martha just made it. First apples of the season.”
“Sounds good,” said Joe. He sat down on the porch, his back against the post, as Gabe handed him a plate and Martha asked after Joe’s family. The late summer breeze was redolent with new-mown hay and pipe smoke as Joe rested his head against the post, secure for that solitary moment in the feeling that everything would indeed be all right.
* * * * * * * * * *
Martha was buttoning her dress as Joe closed the bedroom door behind him. The baby lay in her lap, sated and happy. “Thanks, Joe,” she said quietly.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Joe. “You want me to burp her?”
“I’ve got her,” said Martha. She laid a cloth over her shoulder and lifted the infant. For a minute, there was only the gentle sound of the mother patting her daughter’s back and humming softly. Then, a loud burp split the silence, and Joe and Martha dissolved into laughter.
“Josephine Frances!” Martha kissed the baby’s head. “You’re starting to sound like your papa and your Uncle Joe!”
“Don’t you fret, Josie,” said Joe. “I don’t care how much you burp, you’re still going to be a lady. Your ma’ll see to that.” His eyes darkened then, and he turned away before Martha could respond. “Listen, that ladder up to the loft needs fixing–I’ll take care of that right after I finish milking the cow.”
“I already milked the cow,” said Martha as she laid the baby in her cradle. “Milked her and fed the chickens and the horses before Gabe and Josie woke up.”
Joe shook his head. “You must be worn to a frazzle,” he said. “You just had a baby. Why don’t you take a rest for a bit? Let me do some of this.”
“I’m fine,” said Martha. “It’s not like she was just born–she’s almost two months old, and she’s a good baby. And you’re already doing so much for us. I don’t know how we’d be managing if it weren’t for you.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Joe. “Besides, if the tables were turned, you and Gabe would be over at the Ponderosa every day, and you know it.”
“Well, somebody would have to help keep you in line,” said Martha. She poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Joe. They sat at the table as she continued, “Gabe said that when you broke your leg that time the two of you went hunting, you were the world’s worst patient. He couldn’t wait to give you back to your pa!”
“It was a heck of a time to find out that he didn’t know how to make a travois!” Joe laughed. “And then it started snowing–I thought we’d never make it back. I think that was the longest three days of my life, but Gabe kept us going.”
“He never wanted you to know, but he was scared to death,” Martha confessed. “The way that infection was building, he was afraid you were going to end up losing the leg.”
“He never let on,” said Joe. “Just kept making jokes and telling me about how next year we’d go to New Orleans instead and all we’d be hunting would be pretty girls and prettier ones.” He chuckled, savoring the memory. “And a few months later, he came by and started telling me about this girl he’d met who had the softest red curls and eyes as blue as a summer sky and a smile that made his stomach flip over.”
“He said that?” Martha pushed her red curls back from her face.
“Uh-huh,” Joe said. “I couldn’t believe it. He sounded like a doggone poet when he talked about you. ‘Course, I teased him about it every chance I got, but he expected as much.”
“So, I’m the reason you never went to New Orleans?” Martha refilled Joe’s cup.
Joe shook his head. “We’d been planning it since we were kids, but it always got put off. There was always some reason we couldn’t go. One year, Adam had to go to St. Louis on business and Pa needed me on the ranch. The next year was when Gabe’s pa was sick and Gabe had to take over the store. Year after that–I think that was when I started doing more with the horses and we’d gotten our first contract with the army. And then, there was the year Gabe met that pretty girl with the red hair, and I couldn’t have gotten him more than arm’s-length away from here, even if I’d tried. And the next year, he and that pretty girl got married.”
“And the next year, he was sick,” she finished quietly. She patted his hand and rose. “I should get back to work.”
“You need to take a break,” said Joe. “Everybody else is sleeping. You do the same. I’ll be here if Gabe needs anything.”
“I don’t need a break,” said Martha. “I need to get the bread going and weed the vegetable garden. Besides, we’ve been blessed with enormous help. You’re doing so much, and the ladies from church have been bringing us meals a couple times a week, and Sun Lee and his wife have been taking the laundry.”
“They’re good folks,” said Joe. “Gabe’s pa did a lot to help them get started when they came to town.”
“I remember,” said Martha. “Sun Lee loves to tell me how nobody else in town would sell to a Chinese, but John Wilson sold him everything he needed and told him to take his time about paying. He always says that, if it weren’t for John Wilson, he wouldn’t have been able to stay here.” She smiled as she dipped flour from the sack in the corner into a bowl. “It’s not true, of course,” she added. “If Sun Lee hadn’t been able to pay, I’m sure his relatives would have sent money to help.”
“But he didn’t have to ask them,” said Joe. “Mr. Wilson made that possible. That means a lot to a proud man.”
Martha reached for the salt cellar. Almost dreamily, she said, “Gabe was always a proud man. Never wanted to ask for help.” She came out of her reverie with a sad smile. “And look at us now.”
“You’re still proud, both of you,” said Joe. “A proud man may not want to ask for help, but it’s a foolish one who won’t ask when he needs to.” He drained his coffee cup and set it on the drainboard. “I’m going to take care of that ladder,” he said. Before she could answer, he was out the door to the barn, where he wouldn’t have to think–where he could focus on driving nails and sawing wood, and the horses and the cow wouldn’t need for him to be funny and matter-of-fact and brave in the face of unspeakable loss.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Pa? Hey, Pa, you here?”
Ben laid down his pen, marveling that two boys could make so much noise just coming into a room. “Right here,” he called. “What’s up, boys?”
“Hi, Mr. Cartwright,” said Gabe. “Little Joe says you know all about-” He looked to Little Joe.
“New Orleans,” Little Joe supplied. “He does, too,” he added. “That’s where he went and met my ma, and he fought a duel an’ everything!”
“What’s it like there, Mr. Cartwright?” Gabe’s eyes were wide with admiration.
It was on the tip of Ben’s tongue to tell them the truth, that he had work that needed to be completed and didn’t have time to talk. In the next moment, though, he saw the sparkle of pride in his son’s eyes and the awe in Gabe’s, and he laid down his pen. Too many times, as Adam and Hoss were growing up, he’d been forced to put work ahead of time to relax and enjoy his sons, to tell stories or listen to their thoughts. He hadn’t had a choice, and he knew they’d understood that–they needed to have food on the table and a roof over their heads. But he’d vowed that, once those necessities were assured, he would never again turn his boys away in favor of work that could keep.
So, he rose and called, “Hop Sing!”
“Yes, Mistah Cahtlight?” Hop Sing ran into the room.
“I think we need some lemonade and sugar cookies,” Ben said, noting the delight on the boys’ faces. A few minutes later, they were ensconced on the porch, the boys’ shirtfronts already dusted with sugar, utterly rapt as Ben spun stories of that strange, fascinating city where moss hung from the trees and beautiful women rode their horses too fast right through the middle of town.
“An’ did you really fight a duel?” asked Gabe when Ben paused.
Ben sipped his lemonade while he formulated his answer. Little Joe, of course, had heard about the duel from his brothers years ago, even before Marie’s death. He wanted desperately to learn to use her epée, but Ben was adamant that the boy not touch it until he was twelve. Now, with Little Joe’s twelfth birthday only a few weeks away, he knew that his answer was going to have ripples beyond this afternoon.
“I did not,” he said at last.
“But–Adam said–” Little Joe sputtered.
“Joseph.” Ben waited until his son was quiet. “There was a duel. A man died as a result–a very dear friend of your mother’s. She and I tried everything possible to stop it, but your mother’s friend insisted on dueling. But when it was my turn, I did not duel. Instead, I fought the other man with my fists.”
“But why?” asked Little Joe. “Because he killed Mama’s friend?”
“Partly,” said Ben. “Your mother’s friend–Marius–was once a great duelist, but he should not have been dueling that day. He was too old.”
“Then why did he do it?” asked Gabe.
Ben chose his words carefully. “In New Orleans, people duel if they believe someone’s honor has been harmed. That was why Marius accepted the challenge.”
“Did somebody harm Mama’s honor?” Little Joe’s eyes were suddenly fearful, as if dark secrets were about to be uncovered.
Ben drew a deep breath. “The man Marius dueled with–the man that I fought–had spread lies about your mother. We forced him to admit that what he had said was not true.”
“What did he say about her?” His son’s lips were trembling, and for a moment, Ben felt a sickening stab of fear. Frantically, he cast about in his mind, trying to think what the boy could have overheard, and from whom. The lies Edouard D’Arcy had spread about Marie being unfaithful to her first husband were just that–brutal, vicious lies–but the other stories about her past could not be so easily dismissed. He had done his best to protect Little Joe from hearing of such things, but the town gossips who had resented her extraordinary beauty were not always discreet.
He patted his son’s arm, reassuring himself as well as Little Joe. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “What matters is that what he’d said was a lie, and he admitted that in front of everyone.”
“Do lots of people fight duels in New Orleans?” asked Gabe.
“I’m afraid so,” said Ben. Little Joe still looked very troubled, and Ben knew that they would discuss this topic again, just the two of them. He forced his attention back to Gabe, continuing, “It’s the same way people fight with guns out here. Sometimes, it’s necessary; other times, it’s not. But there’s much, much more to New Orleans than duels. They eat all sorts of strange foods, like crawfish. . . .” He continued, describing the most bizarre meals he’d eaten and the oddest people he’d met, until he was satisfied that the boys’ attention had moved away from the duels.
Later, when he’d returned to his desk, he could hear Little Joe and Gabe on the porch. “I think we should go to there someday,” said Gabe.
“Go where?” Little Joe sounded distracted.
“New Orleans, dummy!”
“Don’t call me a dummy!”
“Sorry.” Ben could almost hear Gabe’s shrug. Silence stretched out. Finally, Gabe said, “Everybody knew they were just lies. Your pa said so.”
“Him and that Marius even fought the bad guy and made him tell everybody he lied.”
“I reckon I’d be pretty mad if somebody lied about my ma.”
“You okay, Cartwright?”
“Yeah,” said Little Joe. “I’m okay.”
Gabe clearly was no more convinced than Ben. “There’s one more cookie. You want it?”
“You have it,” said Little Joe.
“We’ll split it,” said Gabe. Another silence. Then, the boy said, “How long do you think it would take to get there?”
“New Orleans! Sheesh, Cartwright, what’ve we been talkin’ about all afternoon?”
“Dunno,” said Little Joe. “Pa went by ship. Adam said he was gone for a real long time.”
“We should ask him how long it’ll take,” said Gabe. “That way, we can plan.”
“Our trip to New Orleans! You think we could go next summer when school’s out?”
Little Joe snorted with disgust. “Our pas won’t let us to go New Orleans by ourselves.”
“Then we’ll go when we’re older,” said Gabe. “An’ we’ll go an’ see the places your pa talked about, and where your ma lived and where that Marius fellow lived. An’ if the bad guy’s still there, we can duel with him and make him sorry he ever lied about your ma!”
“Yeah,” said Little Joe slowly. Then, with more enthusiasm, he said, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” For a few minutes, there was no sound except the crunching of sugar cookies. Then, Joe said, “How old do you think we’d have to be before our pas would let us go?”
“Prob’ly at least thirteen,” mused Gabe. Ben stifled a cough as Gabe continued, “So we can’t go this year–but next year, we’ll go.”
“Next year,” agreed Little Joe, and Ben heard the lemonade glasses clink as if in a toast.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe sat on the edge of the porch as the early autumn darkness settled in. Martha was in Gabe’s room; he could hear them talking quietly. He’d thought of leaving–going to town, or even home, just to give them some privacy–but they were past the point where Martha could handle the baby and Gabe on her own. She was surprisingly strong for such a small woman, but when a screaming infant and a sick man both needed attention at the same time, an extra pair of hands could make all the difference. So he stayed without saying anything about it, and he pretended not to notice their grateful looks.
He ran his hand up the porch post, noting reflexively that there was a tiny spot that had gotten rough somehow. He’d smooth it out in the morning. Wouldn’t do for anybody to get a splinter.
The stars were just breaking through the darkness. The night was deceptively peaceful. Right now, with the crisp, pungent air and the quiet murmur of voices and animals, you’d think nothing could possibly be wrong. Certainly, nobody could be dying. Not here, where a young family was supposed to be putting down roots and growing stronger and more blessed by the day.
The question, of course, was why this was happening at all. Why was a fellow like Gabe–the nicest fellow you’d meet in a day’s walk–dying, and in such a horribly needless way? He’d had everything–a lovely wife, a small spread that was beginning to be something, a baby on the way–when one day, out of nowhere, he’d had such a pain in his gut that he’d doubled over, right there on C Street, spewing his lunch all over the sidewalk. Joe would never forget helping him over to Doc Martin’s office, and sitting beside his bed in the clinic while they waited for Doc to get back from a call. Then, Doc had shooed Joe out to the waiting room for what seemed like hours. And that was the beginning of the end.
Gabe refused to let Joe drive him home in a borrowed buckboard. He insisted on riding out of town that day, just like Doc hadn’t pronounced sentence. Joe rode beside him, trying not to be too obvious about the fact that he was watching his every move. Finally, Gabe reined in his horse, glaring.
“Listen to me, Cartwright,” he said. “I’m going on alone from here. You go on back to the Ponderosa.”
Joe shook his head. “You’re not riding alone.”
“I’m not dead yet,” said Gabe. “I don’t plan to be dead for a long, long time. And I’m damned if I’ll have you worrying over me like a nursemaid every day between now and then. So just go on home, and leave me alone.”
“What if you get sick again?”
“Then I’ll get sick,” said Gabe. “It happens.”
“Oh, yeah? How many times has it happened lately?”
“None of your damned business.” Gabe started to move as if he were going to ride off, but Joe grabbed his arm.
“Like hell, it’s not my business!” he snapped. “You’re my friend. Outside my own blood, you’re the closest thing I’ve got to a brother. If you’re sick, it’s my business, too, just like you’d make it your business if I was sick. We’ve been friends too long to pretend it’s any other way.” He broke off, looking away as he fought back tears, but he didn’t let go of Gabe’s arm.
The hot summer breeze ruffled the horses’ manes, but that was the only movement for a long time. Finally, Gabe rested his hand on Joe’s.
“Joe, I just need to be by myself,” he said. “Can you understand that?”
“No,” Joe admitted. “I don’t understand anything. I don’t understand how you were fine, and now you’re sick and you’re going to–” He couldn’t say it, but Gabe nodded his understanding.
“Neither do I,” said Gabe. “I don’t even know what I think about any of this. It doesn’t seem real.”
“I know,” said Joe. “It feels like a bad dream.” For a moment, he wanted to scream to see if he could wake himself up. Whenever he woke up screaming from a nightmare, he always found himself safe in his own bed, with Pa there to reassure him that everything was all right.
Gabe nodded. “I know what you mean,” he said. “But you need to let me go home.”
“I can’t,” said Joe. He felt like, if Gabe left, he’d never see him again. “You gotta let me see you home. Let me do something to help. Anything. I just–I can’t–you gotta let me help.”
“Right now, the only thing you can do to help is let me go home by myself,” said Gabe. “Don’t worry, there’ll be stuff later. After the baby’s born, we’ll probably need a hand. You can change diapers or something. The messy ones.”
“Seriously, Wilson,” said Joe, smiling in spite of himself.
“Seriously, Cartwright,” said Gabe. “Now, go home. Just do me one favor, okay?”
“Don’t say anything to anybody for now, okay? Not until–not until me and Martha have a chance to talk about it.”
“Okay,” said Joe reluctantly. “But you let me know when I can tell Pa. He’ll want to know what he can do to help.”
“Deal,” said Gabe. “Now, I’m going to ride home alone, and you’re going to let me.” He held Joe’s gaze until Joe felt tears threatening and looked away.
“You go on,” he said, not looking up. “Just–be careful, okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” said Gabe.
But, of course, Gabe wasn’t fine. It had been more than three months now, and Doc said that was a very long time for this type of sickness, but it was obvious to everybody that the end was near.
The door opened behind Joe, and Martha said, “He’s asking for you.”
Joe’s head shot around. “Is he–?”
“No,” she reassured him. “I think he wants to work on the letter.”
Joe took a deep breath. “Tell him I’ll be right in.”
A few minutes later, fortified by a quick slug of whiskey, Joe entered the bedroom. The lamp burned softly, and for a minute, the shadows made Gabe look like he was already dead. Just as Joe caught his breath, Gabe opened his eyes.
“You ready?” he asked, his voice breathier than yesterday.
Joe opened the wooden box on the bureau and removed several sheets of paper and a pencil. He settled himself on the bedside chair, box serving as a lap desk. “Ready.”
“You’re gonna copy this over, right? In ink?”
“‘Course I am,” said Joe. “And I’m gonna print,” he added before Gabe could ask.
“Good,” said Gabe. “Your handwriting stinks.”
“You want to hire a scribe instead?” Joe raised an eyebrow.
“Too late,” said Gabe. “If I’d thought earlier, sure. . . . But I guess now, you’ll have to do.”
“Try to be brave about it,” said Joe. “Now, what do you want to say?”
“What have I said so far?” asked Gabe.
Joe swallowed hard. It was one thing to write down what was said, and quite another to read it. But this was what Gabe wanted, and so. . . .
“Dear Josie,” he read aloud. “By the time you’re old enough to read this, you’re not going to have the slightest memory of me. Maybe you don’t now. You’re only two months old–not even, really. You’ll be two months on the seventeenth, but I probably won’t be here then.
“Your Uncle Joe is writing this for me. If you can’t read what he’s written, you make him read it to you. You’ll find him at the Ponderosa in Nevada Territory. He’s never going to leave there, but that’s okay. He’s a good man, Josie. He’s been my best friend almost my whole life, and he’s been real good to us. You’re named after him. He says to tell you that that wasn’t his idea and you should forgive me for that.
“Well, as it turned out, just before you were born, I found out I was dying. So, there’s a whole lot I want to tell you, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be around to tell you in person, so I’m writing you this letter.
“First, always remember that your mama is the best person in the world. If you can be half of what she is, you’ll be too good for any boy you ever meet. Listen to her. She’s smart, and she’s wise. She’s lived through all this, with you being born and me being sick, and she’s never once said a cross word to me. Of course, I don’t know what she says to the cow, but it doesn’t matter. She’s the best person in the world, and don’t you ever forget that.
“Second, never trust boys. I was one, and your Uncle Joe was another one, and he agrees with me on this. I think you should go into a convent when you turn twelve, but your mama will probably fight me on that. You two figure it out, but you know where I stand.”
“You think she’ll know I’m kidding about that?” asked Gabe.
“Probably,” said Joe. “I’m sure Martha’ll tell her how bad your jokes were.”
“Maybe I should say something about how I’m just kidding, and I just want her to find a boy who’ll treat her right. Add something about that, okay?”
“Done,” said Joe. He scribbled for a minute. “Okay, that’s it so far. What else do you want to tell her?”
Gabe’s eyes were closed, but he opened them at the question. “Bring her in here,” he said, his voice little more than breath. Joe regarded him for a moment. Then, he set the writing utensils on the bed and went into the front room.
“Gabe wants Josie,” he said to Martha, who was knitting. He knew that she didn’t like being out of Gabe’s room, but he also knew that Gabe wanted her out while he wrote the letter, because they both knew she’d cry so much that he wouldn’t be able to concentrate.
Martha nodded wordlessly toward the cradle. Josie slept peacefully, one tiny fist by her head and the other on her belly. Carefully, Joe lifted her and took her into the bedroom, kicking the door closed behind him.
“Don’t wake her up,” he whispered, settling her in the crook of Gabe’s arm.
“Hello, sweet girl,” Gabe whispered, kissing her tiny head, covered with the lightest of red fuzz. “You’re going to be a redhead, just like your mama.” For a second, he bowed his head. Then, he said, “Okay, I’m ready.” Stroking her tiny cheek, he began to dictate.
“I already told you your mama is the best person in the world, but that’s worth repeating. I bet you’re going to be the best person in the world who isn’t your mama. Think how lucky I was, getting to have the two best people in the world living with me, even if it wasn’t for very long. I’m so lucky, Josie. I know, you’re probably thinking, ‘Is he crazy? He’s dead!’ But honey, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t lucky. I got to know you, and your mama, and your Uncle Joe. Do you know how many people never get to meet even one person who’s that special? I got three of them. I figure that makes the luckiest man in the world.”
“Hey, Cartwright, you get all that?” Gabe added.
“Yeah, I got it,” said Joe, writing furiously. He swiped at his nose with his sleeve, and Gabe groaned.
“Oh, cripes, are you cryin’? I swear, Cartwright, for a tough guy, you cry more than anybody I ever met!”
“Do not!” snapped Joe as if they were seven years old again.
“Do so!” Gabe snorted. “Heck, you cry when they sing ‘Happy Birthday’!”
“Oh, shut up,” muttered Joe. Gabe had been teasing him for years about how easily he cried, but Gabe had also stood by him, his own eyes suspiciously moist, on too many occasions to count. “Now, what else do you want to tell her?”
Gabe closed his eyes. “Nothin’ right now,” he said. “I’m tired. I just want to hold her for a little while.” He drew the infant a bit closer, and she closed her eyes, too.
Joe rose. Gabe was pale and drawn, but he looked utterly peaceful. The infant nestled in the crook of his arm looked like an illustration, perfect in every way. The lamplight was soft, bathing father and daughter in its gentle light.
Joe laid the letter in the wooden box, closing it quietly. He set the pencil and box on the bureau. Then, he drew the dark blue wool blanket up so that it covered as much of Gabe as it could without covering too much of Josie.
In the doorway, he turned back. Part of him wanted to leave them alone with the tiny smidgen of privacy that was still theirs, and the other part wanted to stand watch, just in case something went wrong–the baby cried, or Gabe got sick, or anything of a thousand other things that could happen.
Gabe shifted slightly in his sleep, and Josie made a small sound, like a coo. Resolute, Joe picked up the chair and moved it as far away from the bed as possible in the miniscule room. There, he sat, not watching the bed, but ready, just in case.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hoss reined in the team and looked around. There was something about late afternoon in the fall that nothing else could beat. The air felt clearer, cleaner, with the crispness of a ripe red apple skin and the light, slightly pungent scent of the leaves that wafted down from the trees so gently, as if they had all the time in the world to reach the ground. The outline of bare tree branches against the deepening hues of the evening sky always reminded him of a picture one of Adam’s college friends had painted, where the tree was completely black and infinitely precise, with tiny branches as thin as a hair, against a background of the most lavish sunset colors a man could imagine. Adam said the fellow had painted the view from his window on his parents’ farm in Connecticut. It was the only thing Hoss had ever seen that made him want to go east, just to see that tree and that sunset.
No sound emanated from the house or the barn. Frowning, Hoss climbed down. He was tempted to call out, but then he thought that Gabe or the baby might be asleep. So, he began to unpack the crates containing jars of broth that Hop Sing had prepared, carrying the first crate into the house.
“Hello?” he called from the doorway.
“Just a minute,” came Martha’s voice from the bedroom. Hoss set the box on the table. A few minutes later, Martha came out of the bedroom, a cloth over her shoulder as she patted the baby’s back. “Hoss! How good to see you!”
“Good to see you, too, ma’am,” said Hoss. “And look at this little one. Ain’t she a beauty. Hey, there, Josie, how’re you doin’?” The baby chose that moment to favor them with a loud burp, and Hoss chuckled in delight. “Glad to hear it,” he said.
“What’s all this?” asked Martha.
“Oh, Hop Sing was makin’ some of that broth he keeps on hand, and he thought Gabe might like some, so he sent over a little bit.” Hoss tried to sound casual, but the sadness in Martha’s eyes let him know that she understood.
“I’m sure he’ll like it,” said Martha. “Thank you so much–and do thank Hop Sing for me.”
“Let me get the rest out of the buckboard,” said Hoss. “Where do you want me to put it?”
“What do you mean? There’s more?”
“Yes’m–two more crates.”
“But-there are twelve jars here already. What did–” She broke off, turning away, and in that moment, Hoss understood his gaffe.
She didn’t need three crates of broth for Gabe. She probably didn’t need more than one–if that much.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Hoss said. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I reckon we weren’t thinkin’. Don’t you worry. I’ll put it down in the root cellar, and it’ll keep so’s you can use it through the winter.”
Martha turned back, a determined smile on her face. “Thank you,” she whispered. In a stronger voice, she said, “We appreciate all your kind help, we truly do. The root cellar will be just fine for the rest.”
“I brought you a little something for supper as well,” said Hoss. “As long as Hop Sing was cookin’, he figgered he might as well make up a batch of chicken and dumplings, seein’ as how you prob’ly ain’t had much time to cook lately.”
Tears filled her eyes. “Thank you, Hoss,” she said again. “That would be lovely. You’ll stay to supper, of course?”
“I oughta be gettin’ back,” said Hoss.
“No, you can’t just bring it and leave–you must stay. Besides, Gabe just went to sleep, but he should be awake in a little while, and he’d be so sorry to have missed you.”
“I’d be sorry to miss him, too,” said Hoss. “I’d be much obliged, then. Now, where’s that no-good little brother of mine?”
“I’m not sure,” Martha admitted. “I know he was heading out to the barn a while ago, but that was before I fed Josie. Maybe he found something else out there to fix.” Her expression grew wistful as she laid the baby in her cradle. “We’ve decided that we’re going to sell the place,” she said. “It would be too much for me here alone with the baby, and my family’s all in St. Louis, so after–after we sell, we’ll be heading back there.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am,” said Hoss. “We sure will miss you.”
“I’ll miss you all, too,” said Martha. “But it’s best. And now that we’re trying to sell, Joe’s been spending every waking moment fixing the place up so we can get the best price for it.”
“Well, I’ll go and see what he’s up to after I bring in the rest of the grub,” said Hoss. “Mebbe I can even give him a hand.”
Once the food was inside, Hoss sauntered on over to the barn. Not a sound from inside. He pushed open the door. “Joe? You in here?” He peered through the shadows until he found the lantern, hanging unlit on a nail. He lit it and called again, “Joe? Joseph, you here?”
His concern was mounting. This wasn’t like his little brother. Cochise was in one of the stalls, placidly munching on hay. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
And then, he came around the corner of the cow’s stall to see Joe, sitting on the stool, his head resting against the broad red flank, sound asleep.
For a moment, Hoss was torn between wanting to thrash him and hug him. He set the lantern on a barrel and shook his brother’s shoulder. “Time to get up, Little Brother,” he called in his best imitation of Joe’s school days.
“Wha–what?” Joe jerked awake. “Oh–Hoss. What’re you doing here?’
Hoss leaned against the edge of the stall. “You got a new trick now? Milking cows in your sleep?”
Joe shook his head, trying to clear away the cobwebs. “Must’ve dozed off,” he admitted. “Never done that before.” He peered into the bucket. “At least I came pretty close to finishing.” Expertly, he stripped the cow, shaking his head. “I can’t believe I fell asleep in the middle of milking,” he chuckled.
“Ain’t never heard of that before,” Hoss agreed. Then, his expression grew solemn as he reached over and smacked Joe lightly on the back of the head. “Why didn’t you send for us if you needed help?”
“They just decided the other day that they wanted to sell,” said Joe. “I thought at first of just leaving things as they are until–afterward, but then I thought, what if somebody comes along before I can get it done? I want them to get the best price they can for this place. It’s really all she’ll have.” He stood, stretching and rubbing his neck. “A word to the wise: don’t sleep on a cow. It ain’t comfortable.” He reached for the pail. “Can you take this inside? I’ve just got a couple more things I want to take care of out here.”
“Nope,” said Hoss firmly. “You’re gonna come inside and have some supper. Hop Sing sent over chicken and dumplings. And no buts about it, Little Brother,” he added firmly as Joe opened his mouth to protest. “Now, bring your pail and come on inside.”
“I’m not done out here,” said Joe. “There’s more to do.”
“Mebbe so, but you can do it in the morning,” said Hoss. He started to leave, but turned back when he realized that Joe wasn’t coming. “What?” he asked. “What’s the matter?”
“I feel like I’m not doing enough,” said Joe so quietly that Hoss almost missed his words.
“Not doin’ enough? Joe, you’re tendin’ to Gabe and his family, you’re runnin’ this farm, and now you’re wearin’ yourself to a frazzle, makin’ it ready to sell. What more do you think you should be doin’?”
“I don’t know,” said Joe. “But it seems like there’s something else.”
“Like what?” Hoss peered at his brother in the dim light. Then, he rested a large hand on Joe’s shoulder. “No matter how much you do, you can’t keep him from dying,” he said softly.
“I know,” said Joe. “But. . . .” He looked up, and even in the dusk, fatigue and heartbreak were clear on his face.
Hoss took the pail and set it down. “Come here,” he said. He laid an arm around Joe’s shoulders and led him over to where two bales of hay sat next to each other. “Sit down,” he said.
“But I’ve gotta–”
“Sit.” The brothers sat, and Hoss pulled Joe close. “You can’t do everything, Joe,” he said. “You’re wearin’ yourself out, and you ain’t gonna be no good to anybody that way.”
“It’s only been a couple weeks–”
“Only a couple weeks that you’ve been stayin’ here,” said Hoss. “And workin’ round the clock the whole time, I’ll bet. But you been runnin’ back and forth ever since last summer, when Gabe got sick. How many times have you run to town to fetch the doctor? An’ how many times did you sit up with him at night, and then come home and work all day? Or put in a day’s work at the Ponderosa and then come over here to tend the stock and see that their hired men weren’t goofin’ off now that Gabe couldn’t watch over them?” When Joe didn’t answer, Hoss added, “Where are the hands, anyway?”
“I fired them,” said Joe, closing his eyes. It felt so good to lean on somebody. “They were collectin’ wages and not doin’ anything. I tried to get them to shape up, but they were useless. I don’t know how Gabe ever got any work out of them, but they sure weren’t about to listen to anybody else.”
“So, you been handlin’ Gabe and this place all by yourself ever since?”
“Not all by myself–Martha’s working real hard, and there’ve been some folks from town who’ve helped out with meals and laundry and such.”
“You dadburn ornery little–you should’ve sent for us the day you fired them lowlifes.” Hoss cuffed him affectionately, and Joe grinned.
“I know,” he admitted. “But there wasn’t anybody to send, and I didn’t feel like I could be gone from here that long. I don’t even like to leave long enough to fetch the doctor. Martha can’t lift him if he needs to be moved, and he can’t help anymore, not really. And I figured I could handle it all, because–”
“–because it wasn’t gonna be that long,” Hoss finished quietly, and Joe nodded.
“It feels so awful, thinking like that,” Joe said. “I feel like the worst kind of scum. I’m not supposed to think like that. I don’t want him to die, ever, I really don’t, but–” He bit his lip, and Hoss pulled him closer.
“Of course, you don’t,” the big man soothed. “You’re just worn out, that’s all.” He rubbed Joe’s arm, and for a few minutes, there was no sound except the munching of hay. Hoss could see the moon rising through the bare branches, and it was even prettier than the sunset. How the world could be so beautiful and so filled with pain, all at the same time, was something he just couldn’t fathom.
He gave Joe a squeeze. “Now, you listen to me, Little Brother. You’re goin’ back to the Ponderosa tonight, and you’re gonna get yourself a good night’s sleep in your own bed. You been sleepin’ on the floor here, ain’t you?”
Joe nodded. “I got a bedroll. And sometimes I sleep in the chair. Depends if I’m sitting up with Gabe or Martha is.”
“You go home tonight,” said Hoss firmly. “Then, you can come back here tomorrow with some of the hands. I’ll stay here and help Gabe and Martha out.”
Joe sat up straight, shaking his head vehemently. “I can’t leave him, Hoss,” he said. “Any more than I could leave you, or Adam or Pa. I can’t leave him now. What if he died and I wasn’t here? I just can’t leave him.” He fought to keep the agitation from his voice, but his big brother heard it and understood.
“Okay, okay,” said Hoss. “Then here’s what we’ll do. I’m gonna stay here tonight with you. Tomorrow morning, you and me’ll go around the place and figure out what has to be done, and then I’ll fetch the crew. Meantime, I’ll send Adam to town to start seein’ about whether anybody’d wanna buy this place when Martha’s ready to leave.”
“You don’t have to stay–” Joe began.
“I know, but I’m gonna, so you just get used to the notion,” said Hoss, rising. “Now, let’s get inside before Martha thinks we done run off with her milk pail.” He pulled Joe to his feet.
“Thanks,” Joe whispered.
Hoss picked up the milk pail. Grief made the boy look so young and so old, all at the same time. He wanted to say that Joe should hang on and everything would be all right, but they both knew it wasn’t true. So, he just slung his arm around Joe’s shoulders, and together they headed up to the house.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Just a little more, okay?” Joe held the spoon to Gabe’s lips. “Come on, now. If you don’t finish it, Hop Sing’s going to come here and stand over you while you eat–and believe me, I know. He’s done it to me enough times.” He slipped the spoon between Gabe’s lips and carefully maintained a casual smile as Gabe swallowed. “Good work. That should keep Hop Sing away for a little while.”
The corners of Gabe’s mouth turned up just a bit. “Thanks,” he whispered.
“No problem,” said Joe. He set the bowl and spoon on the bureau, trying not to notice how little Gabe had eaten. He turned back to see Gabe watching him. The deep brown eyes–as rich and dark as Ben Cartwright’s–were glassy. Patchy whiskers dotted his sunken cheeks. His sandy hair was wispy, and no matter how much Joe combed it, it went right back to looking like Gabe had just been out in a windstorm.
The sun was coming up, but it didn’t matter. Days and nights ran together now, with Gabe sleeping and waking on even less of a schedule than Josie. When he woke, they fed him and tended him and gave him medicine, and he went back to sleep for a few hours until it was time to do it again.
Joe felt like he should put on a big smile and try to jolly Gabe along, but right then, he couldn’t. It wasn’t honest, and he and Gabe had always been honest with each other. So, Joe returned to the chair by the bed and said, “What do you want to do now? Sleep?”
Gabe shook his head. “Talk to me.” His voice was barely audible.
“About what?” Joe asked. He slid the chair closer.
“Us.” Gabe moved his hand toward Joe, and Joe took it. Oh, Lord, no, he begged silently. Not yet. Not today, please. Another day. Not this one.
Determinedly, he said, “Hmmm. Let’s see. I’ve got it. Remember the time we decided we were going to learn all about girls by eavesdropping on Adam and Hoss?” The smile in Gabe’s eyes told him he’d chosen well, and Joe threw himself into the story with gusto. . . .
“You sure this is gonna work?” Gabe cast a worried look over his shoulder as he climbed up into the loft.
“Sure, I’m sure!” boasted Little Joe. He’d heard enough scraps of conversations from this very spot to know that, sooner or later, he’d get to hear the good stuff, too.
“But how do you know that’s what they’ll be talking about?” asked Gabe.
“‘Cause ever since Adam came home from college, it’s like every time him and Hoss think they’re alone, Hoss is askin’ him about all them girls he met back east, and Adam’s tellin’ him!”
“Tellin’ him what?”
“All sorts of stuff, like where they went and what they did-and he even talks about kissin’ them, and stuff like that!”
Gabe regarded Little Joe suspiciously. Gabe was interested in girls, all right, but nobody quite measured up to Little Joe Cartwright in that department. For not-quite-thirteen, he seemed to be quite fascinated with females–even the ones as old as eighteen or nineteen. Most of the boys their age weren’t really interested in anything but horses and hunting and fighting and such, but Little Joe was different. Not that he wasn’t interested in those things, but somehow, he’d always had an eye out for the girls, and they giggled and blushed whenever he held a door or favored them with a wink and a smile.
The boys flattened themselves on the floor of the loft. The important thing, they knew, was not to get caught. No matter what they did or didn’t hear, if they were caught eavesdropping, things were not going to be pleasant.
Gabe was just dozing off when he heard horses and voices. He nudged Little Joe, who was snoring softly. Immediately, Little Joe was alert, stifling a giggle. Motionless, the boys waited.
“So, how’d you meet her, anyway?” Hoss was asking as he and Adam led their horses into the barn. Gabe and Little Joe grinned triumphantly at each other.
“She was a friend of my roommate’s sister,” said Adam. It was clear that he was enjoying telling the story. “I tell you, Hoss, the first time I laid eyes on her, I just knew that she was going to be very special in my life.”
“How’d ya know?” demanded Hoss, and the boys in the loft nodded encouragingly.
“How does a man ever know when he’s met the lady who will introduce him to worlds he’s never known?” mused Adam. They could hear him walking around, putting his saddle and bridle away. “I’ll tell you, Younger Brother, she was a wonder, all right.”
“Well, like how? I mean, what did you do? Did you just go up and say ‘howdy’?” Hoss sounded like he wanted to take notes, and Gabe knew just how he felt. He stole a quick glance at Little Joe, but his friend was fixated on the conversation below.
“As it turned out, my dear brother, the lady–well, she wasn’t exactly a lady, and it seems she’d had her eye on me for some time. No sooner did I arrange an introduction than she began to talk about how warm it was inside and how much she’d love to go for a walk in the cool night air. So, naturally, I offered to escort her on a walk of the gardens.” Adam had set himself on the feed box. Little Joe and Gabe looked at each other apprehensively. If Adam looked up, he’d be able to see them. They’d have to stay down and silent.
“You took her on a walk at night all by yourselves?” Hoss sounded aghast. “A lady you just met?”
“Ordinarily, I’d never have done that,” admitted Adam. “But that night, with all that fine cabernet sauvignon coursing through my veins, I threw propriety off the end of the harbor and followed my, uh, manly instincts.” He sounded slightly sardonic, almost as if he were mocking himself, but Little Joe’s mouth dropped open.
“What?” whispered Gabe.
Little Joe glared at him, shaking his head. “Later,” he mouthed.
Adam was still talking. “And when we stopped under a tree, she leaned back against the trunk. I would have been quite content simply to talk to her, but she took me by the collar and pulled me forward so that I had no choice but to take her in my arms and kiss her.”
“He kissed her!” mouthed Gabe. He could barely contain his excitement. He was peering over the edge to get a look at this ladies’ man.
“And then, my hands were around her waist as we kissed in the garden, and the next thing I knew, she began to slide one hand upward–“
“Oh, my Lord!” Gabe whispered. He was practically hanging over the edge of the loft.
“Be quiet!” mouthed Little Joe. He shoved Gabe’s head down, and Gabe’s forehead clunked soundly on the wooden floor.
The word echoed through the barn. For a single frantic moment, the boys looked at each other, but there was no way out this time.
“What was that?” Adam stood, alert. Gabe and Little Joe put their heads down and squinched their eyes closed.
“I don’t hear nothin’,” said Hoss, who knew perfectly well what he’d heard.
“I heard something,” said Adam ominously. “And I have a feeling I know exactly what it was. Joseph!”
Like deer sensing danger, the boys didn’t move. Maybe if they just stayed still. . . .
“Joseph Francis Cartwright! Show yourself this minute!” When Adam put his mind to it, he could sound almost as menacing as Pa.
Slowly, the boys raised their heads, and Little Joe nodded. Swallowing hard, they sat up and scooted over to the edge of the loft. “Hey, Adam,” said Little Joe casually.
“Get down here,” said Adam in that eerily calm voice that meant big trouble. “Now.”
“We didn’t know you were back. We were just up here talking, and we fell asleep–“
Hurriedly, the boys scrambled down the ladder. They stood in front of Adam, hands behind them as if to shield themselves from what was coming.
“What did you hear?” demanded Adam.
“Nothing much,” said Little Joe.
“‘Nothing much,'” repeated Adam as if it were the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He turned to Gabe. “What did you hear?”
“Really, not much,” said Gabe. Adam fixed him with a piercing glare, and Gabe blurted, “You had your hands on her waist and you were kissing her. That’s all, really!”
“What were you two doing in that loft?” The boys backed up, their eyes never leaving Adam’s irate face, until their backsides were firmly pressed against the stall.
“I told you,” said Little Joe. “We were talking, and we fell asleep. It’s true, I swear it!”
“Hey! You know what Pa says about swearing an oath!” Hoss might not be too concerned about eavesdropping, but swearing an oath was something the Bible frowned on, and he wasn’t about to stand by and let that one go.
“Sorry, Hoss–but really, that’s all we did! An’ then you came in, and we-we just didn’t come down, ’cause we didn’t want to interrupt!” All of this was delivered with Little Joe’s best puppy-dog eyes and chin quiver, and Gabe found himself envious of his friend’s skill.
“You didn’t want to interrupt,” said Adam. “Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to think about not interrupting people. Joseph, go up to your room and wait for me.”
“But-but-” Little Joe’s eyes grew wide with apprehension.
“I suggest that you not make me any angrier,” said Adam through clenched teeth. It didn’t sound as if that was possible anyway, and Little Joe started to back out of the barn.
“But-what about–” Little Joe couldn’t quite manage his friend’s name.
“Oh, I’ll be having a talk with his father,” said Adam. “And I expect that Gabe’s father will be having a ‘talk’ with him–just the way I’m going to with you. Now, for the last time–Joseph, up to your room, and Gabe, go home!” He stomped his foot, and both boys dashed from the barn. . . .
Joe chuckled. “I can’t tell you when I remember Adam being so mad,” he mused. “I still needed that cushion on my chair the next morning at breakfast.” He grinned. “‘Course, I didn’t find out the real reason until a long time later–Adam was so flustered when he heard us that he couldn’t remember just how much of his story he’d actually told, and he thought he’d told us a whole lot more than he really did!”
Gabe smiled slightly. His eyelids were drooping. Joe released his hand and tucked it back under the blanket. “I think it’s about time for your medicine, isn’t it?” he said, rising. “How’s your pain? You need some laudanum?” Gabe nodded slightly, and Joe gathered the bottles. Expertly, he delivered first one dose, and then another. Finally, he adjusted the blankets covering his friend’s thin form.
“You get some sleep, now, okay?” he said softly, stoking Gabe’s hair. Why, God? Why such a good man? There are so many evil, rotten people–why can’t You do this to one of them?
“Joe.” The word was barely a whisper.
“I’m right here.”
Joe swallowed hard. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll stay.” He forced himself not to think of everything that needed to be done outside that room. It could all wait, but Gabe couldn’t, not anymore.
Joe pulled the chair as close to the bed as he could manage. Gabe’s hand moved beneath the blanket. Understanding, Joe nodded and reached underneath, taking his friend’s hand.
“Thanks,” Gabe whispered. His eyes closed.
Joe clung to Gabe’s hand, not bothering to hide his tears now. Why Gabe? he thought again. Why? He listened, but he heard no answers–only the wheezing of Gabe’s labored breathing.
But for today, that would be enough.
* * * * * * * * * *
At the quiet word and the hand on his shoulder, Joe jerked awake. Immediately, he leaned forward to make sure Gabe was still breathing. Reassured, he turned to his father.
“Pa, what are you doing here?” he whispered.
Ben smiled. “Hoss said you needed some help,” he said. “Why don’t you go and lie down for a little while? I’ll stay with Gabe.”
“She fell asleep while she was feeding the baby,” said Ben with a slight smile. The sight of the young woman asleep in the rocking chair, child at her breast, reminded him of Marie when Little Joe was a baby. His youngest son’s colicky screams had kept them all from getting any decent sleep for the first six months of his life, but Marie had borne the brunt of it: while Ben and the boys were off working during the day, she endured the baby’s seemingly ceaseless wailing. Ben recalled several times when he arrived back at the house to find her asleep in his chair, utterly worn out, while Little Joe calmly nursed, just as if he were every bit as quiet and even-tempered as baby Hoss had been. As difficult as Little Joe’s early days had been, the thought of his beautiful wife nursing their son never failed to bring a smile to his face.
And now, that screaming baby had grown into a haggard young man, exhausted physically and emotionally, spending every ounce of his strength to watch over his dearest friend in these last days.
Ben stroked his son’s shoulder. “Son, you need to get some rest. Go on and lie down. I can stay with Gabe.”
“He asked me to stay,” said Joe stubbornly.
“He’s asleep, Joe.” Ben’s voice was gentle, but Joe shook his head.
“He’s close, Pa,” he whispered. “I can feel it. I can’t leave him now.”
“You need to get something to eat,” said Ben. If he couldn’t make Joe rest, at least he could bring food.
Joe shook his head again. “I’m not hungry.”
“Pa, please!” Grief broke his voice, and Ben tightened his grip on the young man’s shoulder.
“All right, son,” he said quietly. He leaned down to rest his cheek against Joe’s head for a moment. “I’ll be in the other room if you need me.” The door latch clicked quietly, and for a moment, there was only silence.
“Joe?” The voice was as faint as a shadow.
Joe moved to sit on the edge of the bed. “I’m right here,” he said.
“She’s sleeping. Do you want me to get her?”
Gabe shook his head slightly. “It’s okay,” he managed.
“Are you hungry? Do you want some broth?” A slight headshake. “How about a little water?” An even slighter nod. Slowly, painstakingly, Joe spooned water between the cracked, pale lips, pausing in between each sip until he saw his friend swallow. When Gabe shook his head, Joe set the spoon and glass on the table as he said, “Good work. That was four that time. How’s the pain? You need any medicine?”
Gabe shook his head. “Letter.”
“You want to work on the letter? You feeling up to that?”
Gabe shook his head again. “You.”
“You want me to finish the letter?” Gabe nodded, and Joe looked away as he fought back tears. “I’ll finish it,” he promised. “I’ll tell her everything about you. I’ll tell her how you won that spelling bee when we were eight and those older kids were so mad they chased us all the way to your pa’s store. And I’ll tell her about the time somebody tried to rob the store and you took him down, and you just kept saying, ‘My pa worked his whole life for this store, and no dirty thievin’ son of a gun is gonna take it away!’ And I’ll tell her about when you were sweet on Louise Milliken and I didn’t know it and I asked her to the dance and you tried to beat the stuffing out of me, and how neither one of us ended up going because you gave me a concussion and I wasn’t allowed out of bed, and you felt so bad when you found out the truth that you came over and played checkers with me that night instead.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I’ll tell her everything. Everything there is to tell. I promise.”
“We never got there, did we? We were always going to go next year, and we never did.”
“I’ll go someday.”
“No. You. Go. Next–next year. Promise.”
Tears slid down Joe’s cheeks. “I promise,” he said. “I’ll go next year, and I’ll think of you the whole time.”
Gabe met his eyes as hard as he could. “You’re–you’re–”
“It’s okay, take your time. Do you want some more water?”
“You’re–” Gabe started to cough. Reflexively, Joe sat him up, rubbing his back until the spasm passed, holding the cloth to his lips to catch the blood.
At last, he lay his friend back. “You just rest now,” Joe said. “No more talking. Just rest.”
Gabe shook his head. His hand, once so strong and brown, reached out, and Joe took it, holding it to his own unshaven cheek.
“You’re–you’re a–good brother,” whispered Gabe.
“So are you,” whispered Joe, his tears streaming over his friend’s fingers.
“I’ll get her,” said Joe, but he didn’t move.
“Joe.” Gabe opened his mouth again, but no words came out. His eyes met Joe’s again, and Joe nodded.
“Me, too,” he whispered.
He held Gabe’s hand to his lips. The moment would burn into his memory–the way the afternoon light played in the wispy blond hair, the intelligence that shone even now in the tired brown eyes, the bump that showed where the thin nose had been broken, the slight smile that said more than any words could have communicated. All this, and so much more. He felt that he could have stayed there for the rest of his days, but he knew in his heart that it was time to let go.
Joe squeezed Gabe’s hand, laid it down and rose. They could have talked forever, but the truth was that it had all been said a thousand times, in a thousand ways–by the bank of a creek after a funeral, on a summer afternoon over sugar cookies and lemonade, galloping side by side across the meadows when they were young and strong and thought their world would last forever. In a church, as the groom and his best man stood together, watching a redheaded bride walked down the aisle. A year later in that same church, as an infant girl was baptized and all present gave silent thanks that her father had lived to see that day. On a summer’s day, when one man let another ride home alone. In a small bedroom in the middle of the night, one holding the other steady as fierce coughing spewed droplets of blood across a blanket. And now, at the door to eternity, as one of them paused for an instant on the threshold, nodding to his friend one last time.
As he stood by Gabe’s bed, he found that peace, unexpected and inexplicable, began to soothe the white-hot pain that had seared his heart ever since that summer day on C Street. He would miss Gabe every day of his life, and there would be times when the ache seemed unbearable, but for every moment of pain, there would be ten more of joy as he recalled everything they’d shared. There was no unfinished business between them. In words, in actions, in every way possible, everything had been said, and it was good.
At the door, he turned back. Gabe was still watching him. He didn’t wipe his tears, but he summoned a smile as he winked. Slowly, Gabe nodded.
And Joe opened the door, and stepped outside that room to a world that would never be the same.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe tightened the buckle on the satchel and turned to Martha. “You’re sure you don’t want me to take you to Reno?”
“We’re fine,” said Martha in the tone of one who has said the same words many, many times. “The Harrisons are already going that way, and they’re happy to have us along. Mrs. Harrison hasn’t seen her own granddaughter, and she’s just as excited as she can be about having Josie along.” She rolled her eyes at the thought. “I only hope she stays this excited when somebody has to walk a crying baby up and down the aisles of the train all night!”
“Gabe would have my head if he knew I was letting you go to the train with somebody else,” said Joe, only half-joking.
Martha shook her head, smiling. “He and I talked about this,” she said. “This is the way we want to do it.”
Joe nodded. In the weeks since Gabe’s death, as they’d packed up the contents of the house, he’d noticed how she spoke of him, as if he were simply in the next room. Perhaps Gabe lived on for her, too.
“I don’t like you traveling this late in the fall,” said Joe. “What if the snows come early? You could spend the winter at the Ponderosa, and go to St. Louis in the spring.”
“We’ll be fine,” said Martha with gentle firmness.
“What if–what if you just stayed here?” He wasn’t sure what made him ask, but suddenly, the thought of Gabe’s family being gone was unnerving. Maybe they could do it, he and Martha and Josie. They could make a new family. He didn’t say the words aloud, but the smile on her face said as plainly as words that she understood what he was thinking.
“Joe.” Her fingertips rested on his cheek. “That wouldn’t work, and you know it.”
“I know,” he admitted. “I just hate to think of you two being so far away. And the new folks on the farm–” He looked away quickly.
“I know,” she said quietly. “Maybe it’s easier for us–all the fuss of moving, and settling in–that’ll keep us distracted for a little while.”
“I don’t think it’s easier for you,” said Joe. “I just think you’re stronger than I am.” He’d stood beside her at the funeral, fighting tears while she was calm and composed, her red curls incongruous beneath her borrowed black hat. And later, as they’d sorted through Gabe’s things, she’d packed books and dishes neatly into crates while he’d been almost overwhelmed by the scent of Gabe’s pipe tobacco still clinging to his shirts.
Joe came out of his reverie to see Martha smiling at him. “I have something for you,” she said. She reached into her bag and produced a small parcel and an envelope.
“Something he wanted you to have, and a letter,” said Martha. At Joe’s questioning look, she said, “He wrote it early on, when he first got sick, but he wanted me to give it to you–afterward.”
“No,” said Martha. “If you open them now, we’ll both cry, and the Harrisons are going to be here any minute.”
“Do you know what it says?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“Some of it,” she admitted. “He talked about some of what he wanted to say. But I never read it, if that’s what you’re asking.” She looked as if she were about to say more, but the sound of horses signaled the arrival of the Harrisons.
Too soon, the Wilsons’ luggage was loaded into the back of the buggy. “I’ll have the rest shipped,” said Joe. Gently, he kissed Martha’s forehead. “You take care now,” he said hoarsely. He bent to kiss Josie’s head. “And you, young lady–you take good care of your mother,” he whispered.
“Goodbye, Joe,” said Martha. Her eyes shone with tears. “Thank you–for everything.”
He shook his head. “It was my privilege,” he said. “Now, come on, let me give you a hand.” He took the baby with a practiced ease, assisted Martha into the back seat of the buggy, and handed the baby back. “You send word to let me know you’ve gotten there safely,” he said.
“We will,” she promised. And with that, Mr. Harrison slapped the reins on the backs of the horses, and the buggy headed out of the yard, off to Reno and the train to St. Louis.
Joe watched the road long after the buggy had disappeared from sight. Then, he walked around the silent yard. Martha had insisted on giving them the chickens and the cow. Joe had been equally insistent that she sell the horses, rather than giving them away, and she reluctantly agreed. Slowly, he walked through the house he’d helped Gabe build for his bride, and the barn the neighbors had raised. He noted with satisfaction that the place looked as clean and well-kept as anyone could ask. The new owners would be happy here.
He sat on the porch as the afternoon light faded. He pulled his jacket tight around him, remembering days and nights in this place, and in other places, with his friend by his side.
“Next year, New Orleans,” he said aloud.
He reached into his pocket for the parcel. Slowly, he unwrapped it. His breath caught. He should have given it to Josie, he thought, stricken.
But, of course, Gabe had known better. Joe ran his fingers over the smooth bowl of the pipe. Tears threatened as he inhaled deeply and held his breath, the faintest scent still lingering.
He tucked the pipe into his pocket and reached for the letter. He braced himself for the sight of Gabe’s handwriting, always so careful and precise. At last, he unfolded the single sheet and began to read.
“I watched you ride away today. I know what it took for you to do that. Thanks for letting me go.
“I don’t really know what’s coming, other than the fact that I’m going to die. Doc said I might not be here when Martha has the baby, but he’s wrong. I’ll see my baby born. Count on it.
“One of the things that scares me is that I won’t get to see you any more. You’ve been the best friend a fellow could ask for, ever since we were little. I never told you this, but I used pretend in my head that we were brothers. If I could have had a brother, I’d have picked you.
“It’s going to get hard soon. Doc’s told me what to expect. I haven’t even told Martha yet, but it’s going to be bad. Part of me thinks that maybe I should just get a gun and be finished with it, but I won’t do that. I could never face you in the next life if I took the coward’s way out of this one.
“I’m going to tell Martha to give this to you after I die, because I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything. Knowing you, though, you’ll be sticking around here like flypaper, helping us with everything. So, thanks in advance for all you’re going to do.
“I’m trusting you to take care of Martha and the baby. I don’t mean for you to marry her–the last thing I need is for you to be making me look bad in the romance department. Seriously, she might want to go back home to St. Louis. That would probably be a good thing. She’s still got relatives there. Just keep in touch with them, and make sure they’re all right. Maybe you could stop by and see them on your way back from New Orleans–because you’re still going to make that trip. And when you go, I’ll be there. I promise.
“I feel like I’m supposed to say something deep and profound about life and death, but I can’t think of anything. If I do, maybe I’ll write another letter later. In the meantime, just know that you’re my best friend, and I’m going to miss you something fierce.
Joe sat on the porch for a long time after he finished. The harvest moon appeared through the branches of the apple tree that had been planted by some long-ago hopeful settler. He would have expected to be in tears, but he wasn’t. Instead, that same inexplicable peace he’d felt in Gabe’s room rested in him now. For a moment, he could almost smell the pipe smoke.
The moon had fully risen when he stood. He tucked the letter into his jacket and stretched his arms, feeling the cold night air. He patted his horse’s neck, swung into his saddle and turned to go. Then, he turned back to survey the empty house one last time, and he tipped his hat in gratitude.
“Goodbye, brother,” Joe whispered.
And with the autumn moon to light his way, he put his heels to his horse and headed for home.