Summary: It’s 1859, and Joe has received a letter that sends him on a journey to discover where he truly belongs.
Rating: T (9,750 words)
The stage rumbled into the city, and the seventeen-year-old felt as though his heart was going to pound out of his chest. It was the first trip he had ever taken by himself, and the first time he had been more than a day’s ride from home. Had his reason for the trip not been so serious, he would have been having the time of his life.
The stage came to a jerky halt, and the boy stiffly clambered out. A couple of men were pulling bags from top, and several people stood around, waiting for the other passengers to climb out. He knew there was no one waiting for him. Looking around, trying not to appear too overwhelmed by the huge buildings, he started down the street.
He turned around, back toward the driver who was calling to him. “Yes sir?”
“You’ll need to get your bag. We don’t store anything overnight,” the man said.
He shook his head slightly. “I don’t have a bag, thanks anyway.”
The man closed the distance between them. “I don’t want to pry into another man’s affairs,” he said quietly. “But I can tell you’ve never been out here before. Do you know where you’re going? Have somewhere to stay? This city can be a little overwhelming.”
“Thanks, but I have a place to stay,” he replied with a slight smile. The butterflies in his stomach seemed to grow larger at the lie. He didn’t know if he had a place to stay yet.
The man sighed. “Just be careful, all right, Joe?”
He nodded. “I will. Thank you, sir.”
The sun was getting lower in the sky as Joe pushed on through the trees. He really should have started out earlier, as soon as he had arrived in town, but he was afraid of asking the wrong person for directions and having the reason for his visit questioned. He glanced down at the letter again. His father’s words were easy to read, yet confusing. It didn’t make any sense to him, and in some ways he hoped the letter was wrong. His father was a good man…
Joe stopped, and looked to his left, where two men on horseback were waiting with drawn guns.
“You can turn around and get off our property,” the man continued.
Joe tried to swallow, but his throat felt as though it had gone completely dry. “Whose property is this?” he asked, and some of his confidence returned at the surprised strength of the question.
“This here’s the Ponderosa, and you’re trespassing,” said the other man, who was larger than his dark haired companion.
“I’m here to see Ben Cartwright.”
“About what?” the first man asked.
“None of your business.”
The two men bristled at his rather rude statement, and Joe could tell they were sizing him up. He’d never been in a fight before, and the thought of one now both challenged and scared him.
“I’m asking nicely one last time. State your business or get off of the Ponderosa.”
“I already told you. My business is with Ben Cartwright.”
The dark haired man tucked his gun away before he slid off his horse, and the other man followed suit. Joe didn’t move as they came forward. When they were standing in front of him, Joe realized just how much bigger they were, and he had to fight away the uncharacteristic fear that started to form. “I really don’t want trouble,” he said. “I just need to see Mr. Cartwright. It’s important.”
“We’re his sons; you can take up anything you want to talk to him about with us.”
That startled Joe, and he knew his expression had faltered for a moment when he saw the glance exchanged between the two. Ben Cartwright had sons?
He saw the dark haired one looking down slightly, and Joe realized that his dad’s letter was still in his hand. He moved quickly, trying to tuck it away, but the man realized that it had something to do with his visit, and grabbed his wrist. “No!” Joe yelled as the man pulled the letter away. The bigger man caught him and pinned his arms, holding him tightly as the dark haired man unfolded the letter. “No, don’t read it! Give it back! Give it back!” Joe fought in vain until he saw the expression change on the man’s face, and he knew he had read it all.
The man stared at him.
“What’s it say, Adam?” asked the big man.
Joe looked down, sagging against the man holding him. He had hoped to present his case directly to Ben Cartwright. “Please don’t send me away,” Joe said quietly. “I…I didn’t know, I grew up and I didn’t know…I just wanted…I just wanted to at least meet him, I’m not asking to be…part of…I’m not trying to…” Joe stopped his incoherent explanation when the dark haired man stepped closer to him, lifting his chin up so he was looking at him. The man searched his face, and finally smiled slightly.
“You do have Marie’s eyes,” he said softly.
“Who?” Joe asked, but they didn’t seem to hear as the bigger man released him, turning him around so he could see him as well.
“Joe?” the big man asked.
Joe nodded slightly. “That’s my name…”
“Joe!” The big man swept him up, almost squeezing the air out of him. “Joe!” He dropped him back to the ground, grinning ear to ear and hugged him close again, a beefy arm around his shoulders. Joe couldn’t help but smile back, the man’s joy was so contagious. “What happened to you? How did you get here? Are you all right? Where have you been?”
Joe nodded. “I’m fine, and I’m not really sure…”
“Can you explain the letter?” the man named Adam asked him.
Joe shook his head. “I don’t really know about it. My dad just…gave it to me…before he died.”
Adam looked at it again, and said, “Here, Hoss, it says, ‘Dear Joe, This is one of the hardest things I’ve done…had to explain to you what happened. First of all, I am not your father. You were kidnapped and given to me by an old friend to care for when you were very young. I raised you as my son, even though I knew your father was anxiously searching for you, for years. It is something I am not proud of, but please believe me, it was the hardest decision I had to make, and I just couldn’t do it. I do love you, Joe, I love you as a son. I never wanted to hurt you. I’ve written this letter, knowing that someday, when you’re grown and I’m gone, you’ll find it. Please don’t hate me. I know what I’ve done is wrong and selfish, and I am sorry if I’ve caused you any hurt. Your father, your true father, is a man named Ben Cartwright. He lives in Nevada territory, and owns a property called the Ponderosa. I’ve heard he is a good, fair man. I’m giving you this information so that you can find him, if you choose to. I truly wish you the best, son. Signed, Samuel Becker.’”
Joe had managed to keep the tears out of his eyes, and offered a slight shrug. “That’s what I know,” he said quietly.
No one said anything for a few moments, and then finally Adam spoke up. “We haven’t even introduced ourselves. I’m Adam, and this is my younger brother, Hoss. Well, actually your older brother.”
Joe looked up, smiling slightly. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said.
“Come on,” said Hoss. “Let’s go to the house and find Pa.”
All of Joe’s nervousness came rushing back. “Do you think…that he’ll want…?”
Adam nodded. “To meet you? I think so.”
They walked back to the horses, and Adam helped Joe swing up in front of him. As they rode, Joe looked around in amazement. “Is all this yours?” he asked Adam.
“Well…yes, this is all part of the Ponderosa.”
For the rest of the trip, Joe just looked around at the endless trees. In town, he’d heard that the Ponderosa was the biggest property in the territory, and now he truly believed it.
Pretty soon they arrived in a clearing in front of an enormous house. Joe slid off the horse, and Adam and Hoss looped their reins around a hitching post. Hoss hurried into a barn, and then came back out a few seconds later. “Pa’s horse is still gone. I’ll go find him.” He swung back onto his horse.
“Don’t tell him,” Joe called, and Hoss looked back. “I…want to tell him, if that’s all right,” he finished, looking from Hoss to Adam. They both nodded, and then Hoss rode away.
“Here.” Adam went over to a pump in the yard, splashed some water on his face, and then took a long drink of water. Joe followed suit, grateful to finally wash some of the road dust off.
He followed Adam into the house, and when they got inside, he gasped out loud, and then laughed a little when Adam looked at him. “Sorry, it’s just…this room is bigger than my whole house!” He caught himself. “I meant my old house.”
Adam put his hat and gun belt on the sideboard. “Do you want anything? Are you hungry?”
At the mention of food, Joe’s stomach audibly growled, and he felt his cheeks color slightly. “I guess I am,” he said ruefully.
Adam walked around a large chair, and tossed him an apple from a bowl on the low table in front of the fireplace. “Sit down,” he invited, and then grabbing an apple for himself, sank into a chair. Joe did his best not to swallow the apple whole, and Adam didn’t say anything until they were both done eating. “Where did you travel from?”
“That must have been a long trip.”
Joe nodded. “It took several weeks. I’m not really sure exactly how long.” He thought for a moment. “What day is it today?”
“Wednesday, the 7th of September.”
“My dad died August 9th,” Joe murmured, not even really listening to himself. “He gave me the letter and some money for fare the day before, and I left a few days later.”
“Was he ill?” Adam asked quietly.
Joe nodded. “He had been, the last few years. He wasn’t able to do too much around the farm, and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. He got really bad, just so weak and he couldn’t eat at all. He knew…” Joe sighed. “He gave me the letter, and said he intended for me to get it after he had died. He said he’d had it for years.” Joe looked down. “I’m sorry, Adam, I just…I didn’t believe it. He never did anything wrong, ever. I just don’t understand… am I really Joe Cartwright?”
Adam sighed. “I don’t know. You certainly…look like Pa in some ways and Marie in others. And that letter…it seems to explain things.”
“Marie was your mother. She died about 4 years after you went missing; a fall from a horse.”
Joe looked away thoughtfully. “When I asked about my mother once, he told me he didn’t want to talk about her. Told me he’d tell me later. Someone said that she ran off and left him, and I hated her for years. I feel bad about that now…”
Joe sank back in the chair. He had never shared so much with anyone other than his dad before, but it seemed…different, now.
The door opened then, and Joe stood up next to Adam. An older man walked inside, followed closely by Hoss. The man had stern features and graying temples. His clothes were covered in dust. He tossed his hat down, and looked towards Joe.
“I’m Ben Cartwright. My son tells me you have some sort of business with me,” Ben said.
Joe nodded, taking a nervous step forward. “Yes, sir, I do. I…” he suddenly didn’t know what to say, or where to start. Everything he had rehearsed seemed contrived. He faltered a few times until Adam spoke up. “You said you had a letter…”
Joe glanced at him and nodded, grateful. “That’s right. I have a letter…well actually it was given to me by my father…or rather the man I knew as my father. Anyway, he gave me the letter, and said to find you, so I did. I’m not sure if it’s all true, or why…but here it is…” he walked forward and handed it to Ben, and then watched the man’s face carefully as he read it.
Ben seemed to read it through several times before he finally looked up. Joe wasn’t sure if he believed it. “Your…father…gave you this letter.”
Joe felt as though he was going to collapse, his knees were so weak. “Yes…yes, I didn’t know anything about it. He gave it to me…just before he…died…sir…” He couldn’t look at the man’s face anymore, and stared at the floor. “I didn’t know…We’d lived in Iowa for the last ten years, I think, and Texas before that, and I never knew…that he wasn’t…and I just thought…” Joe wished he hadn’t come. There was no way Ben Cartwright would believe him, and why should he want to? He should have just turned around when Adam and Hoss stopped him.
“What did you come here for, son?” Ben’s question was gentle, and it gave Joe courage to look up at him.
“I just wanted to meet you, sir, to see what you were like and if the letter was true. I…” Joe glanced away for a moment and shrugged, “I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and I…I was just trying to see if it was true. I don’t really expect anything from you, it that’s what you thought. If you want me to leave right now, I’ll go. I’d completely understood.”
Joe faltered for a second. “Well…yes…” he said quietly. “I mean, I’ve never seen you before, and you certainly haven’t seen me…well, unless I really am Joseph Cartwright, and then you would have, but I don’t remember you. And…and…you have…other sons…you wouldn’t need me, even if I was your son…” Joe sighed and looked down again. “There’s no reason in the world you should believe me, and no reason I even believe it myself. My dad probably made it up, so that…” Joe couldn’t bring himself to say or even hardly think that his father had purely financial reasons for sending him here. He started for the door. “I’m sorry for taking up your time, sir…”
“What if I asked you to stay?”
Joe turned back and stared at him, trying to choke back the lump in his throat.
“Would you like to stay?”
Joe nodded. “Yes sir…I would…but…why?”
Ben moved towards him. “Because I also want to know if it’s true. Nothing would make me happier than to have my son back.” Ben placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders, and for a moment Joe thought he was going to pull him forward into a hug, but he didn’t. Ben turned and put his arm around Joe, and looked at Adam and Hoss. “You two already knew all this, didn’t you?”
Hoss kind of laughed, as Adam said, “Well, we sort of found out by force.”
Ben shook his head, and then looked down at Joe. “Well, let’s get you set up. You said you came from Iowa; did you have a good trip?” He started to lead Joe to the stairs.
“Yes, sir, I suppose so. I don’t really have anything to compare it to,” he said with a slight laugh.
They reached the landing at the top of the stairs, and Ben stopped. “Oh, did you have a bag?” he asked, looking back into the great room.
Joe thought for a moment of lying, and saying it was lost, but then he finally just shook his head. “No, not really. Just me…and a letter,” he said as lightly as he could.
Ben glanced back at him with a smile, and Joe was relieved to see no signs of pity in his face. “Come along then…let me show you your room.”
Joe closed the bedroom door behind him with a sigh, leaning on it for a moment. Dinner had been amazing…the largest meal he had ever eaten at one time. He felt a little self-conscious at times; there were so many things he had never seen before. There were two different forks, and two different drinking glasses, and he didn’t even know what some of the food was. They didn’t have to prepare the meal themselves, or even clean up after it. Their cook, Hop Sing, did that. And then he had been overwhelmed with questions from them…where he had lived, how long he’d lived there, any detail of his childhood he could remember. He tried not to talk about Sam much…it hurt too bad.
Walking over to the bed, he picked up a piece of clothing that hadn’t been there before. It was a nightshirt. He smiled a little, but then sat down with a sigh and tears in his eyes. He knew they were trying to be nice, and generous, but he didn’t want pity. He didn’t want them just to give him things…he wanted to earn them.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” Joe called.
Adam walked into the room. “I just came in to say goodnight, and see if you needed anything.”
Joe shook his head, and then glanced around the room with a sigh. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just so…big. Do you know my old room had just a bed, with enough room to walk around it? Not even a window…” He saw the look on Adam’s face. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to keep comparing everything. I just…I never thought something like this would happen to me. I don’t want to get used to it.” Even he was startled by this admission, and he quickly stood up, hoping Adam hadn’t been paying attention. “Well, good night to you, too,” he said with a large, fake smile. Adam raised an eyebrow, and Joe’s false happiness disappeared, much to his chagrin.
“And what does that mean?” Adam asked.
Joe sat down again. “I don’t know…”
Adam sat down next to him. “Pa’s not going to kick you out.”
“I didn’t really expect him to ask me to stay,” he said with a shrug. Adam didn’t say anything, and after a few seconds Joe shrugged again, trying to shake off the uncomfortable feeling the man’s gaze brought him. “I just…it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel permanent. I can’t…” Joe stopped himself, and looked away.
“Are you thinking of leaving?”
“Adam…I don’t…” he started quietly.
“I don’t think I fit in here, even if I am a Cartwright.” Joe found himself clasping his hands tightly together, and he consciously relaxed them, but then didn’t know what to do. He settled them on his knees, but then moved them together again when that felt too contrived. Self-conscious under Adam’s look, he stood up and moved away from him, picking up a carving of some sort from a nearby table. “I don’t have anything,” he whispered. “I can’t just stay here and…take things from you, with no way to ever pay you back.” He closed his eyes, his pride creating a dull ache, it seemed.
“Giver yourself a chance,” Adam said. Joe could tell that he stood up, and moved a little closer. “We’re not just going to throw you on the back of a horse with a rope in your hand, you know. We’ll teach you…that’s what big brothers are for.”
Joe turned back, a spontaneous smile lighting his face. “Big brothers?” he said lightly.
Adam smiled. “Sure…we’ve got 17 years to make up for.”
Joe laughed, but then sobered as reality seemed to hit him again. “What if I’m not Joe Cartwright?” he asked, trying to keep it light but knowing he failed.
“Maybe you need to stop thinking that way.”
Joe nodded slightly, looking down. “I’m trying to…” he said quietly. “I just…I keep wondering what’s going to happen if it comes to an end, if I’m not really a Cartwright, and he wants me to leave.”
“Joe,” Adam said quietly. “Until you believe it yourself, you’re never going to answer that question.”
“And once I believe it, what will the answer be?”
“Once you believe it, you’ll know that would never happen.” Adam reached out and squeezed his shoulder briefly. “Goodnight, little brother.”
Joe watched as he left the room, and then lay back on the bed with a sigh. “Goodnight, older brother…” he tried, and then smiled. “I like the sound of that…” he whispered to himself, and then got up to get ready for bed before the rest of the family came in to say goodnight.
“Joe, have you ever ridden a horse?”
Joe looked across the table at Hoss. Joe swallowed the mouthful of bacon, and then shook his head slightly. “Not really. We had plow horses, not saddle horses. I’ve ridden them bareback a few times, but that’s it.”
Hoss nodded. “Well today we’re gonna get you on a horse.”
Joe smiled. “I’d like that; that is unless there’s work to do. I can help out with anything you need me to.”
“Well, Joseph,” Ben said, as Joe turned his attention to him. “A lot of the work on this ranch involves riding. I’d actually like you to work with Hoss the next couple days and try to get used to being in a saddle.”
“I’m a quick learner,” Joe said with a grin.
Hoss let out a short laugh. “We’ll see how sore you are tomorrow.”
“Good morning,” Adam greeted as he walked into the dining room. They all responded as he sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Hoss,” he said as he helped himself to bacon and flapjacks. “Don’t forget to leave your clothes out for Hop Sing.”
Hoss started slightly. “I almost forgot, thanks Adam.”
“And Joe, I can lend you something while Hop Sing does yours too.”
Joe realized his face must have reflected his confusion, because Hoss piped up, “It’s laundry day today. Every week on Thursday Hop Sing washes everything.”
Joe nodded, trying not to appear overwhelmed. “I see.” He went back to eating. Laundry day… in his old home clothes were done when they needed to be done.
“Joe, how come you didn’t have anything with you when you came? Not even a change of clothes, nothing…”
Joe looked up at Hoss, and caught the slightly warning looks on Ben and Adam’s faces. “It’s all right,” he said quietly. He looked at Hoss. “After…after the funeral, I went back to the house, and there was a man there from the bank. The property was heavily mortgaged, and they were taking everything. He wouldn’t let me inside to get anything…not even a hairbrush, a book, nothing. He sent me away. Luckily, I had the letter and the money for fare on me; otherwise…” Joe shrugged, and glanced away.
“The day of the funeral?” Hoss said.
Joe nodded. “I honestly had nowhere to go.” He looked up. “But I didn’t come here just to get something, or just to have somewhere to go,” he said to Ben. “I want to work; I’ve worked hard all my life, and I’m not going to change that. I haven’t really earned or deserved any of this, and I certainly don’t feel entitled to any of it. I didn’t come here, and I don’t want to stay here just because it would be easy. I don’t want it to be.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t,” Adam said wryly, and Ben chuckled.
“It is a lot of hard work, and I’m glad that you explained your feelings, but you needn’t worry about it, son. Both Adam and Hoss receive weekly wages, which they can spend or save however they wish, and it will be the same with you. However, you do need to start out with everything you’ll need. Tomorrow I was planning on us heading into town; you’ll need boots and clothing more fitting to ranch work. And don’t worry about not having earned it… if you like, I’ll take it out of your first week’s pay.”
Joe nodded. “Yes sir, thank you.”
“Well, let’s all finish breakfast. We all have a lot of work to do today.”
Joe shut the corral gate and latched it, and then picked up the saddle and walked across the yard towards the barn. Hoss had already gone inside, but Joe had wanted to stay outside a little while longer and practice. As he neared the barn, he heard voices coming from within.
“…so he really had no idea?” a man was asking.
“None,” Joe heard Ben say. “That man kept from him everything about his past…lied to him, tricked him into staying there, put him through so much. Joe shouldn’t have had to grow up like that.”
“Too bad you never had the chance to confront him, or to put him behind bars where he belonged,” the other man said.
“I would have let him know exactly what kind of low-life snake I thought he was. Only the worst sort of human being would do something like that, knowing that it was wrong and doing it anyway.”
There was silence for a few seconds as Joe stood outside; holding his breathe and feeling as though he couldn’t stop shaking.
“At least I have my son back now.”
Joe turned and tried to walk away as quietly as he could. He set the saddle down, and then went quickly into the house and upstairs. A while later he heard Hoss yell up to him, about leaving the saddle outside, but that moment he didn’t really care.
“You’ve been awfully quiet,” Hoss commented.
Joe glanced up from his dinner. They were all looking at him. He merely shrugged and went back to eating. “I really don’t have anything to say.”
“Is something bothering you, son?” Ben asked.
Joe paused, considering whether or not to confront his father. Finally he made up his mind. “I heard what you said today. About Sam.”
Ben’s eyebrows went up briefly, and then he said, “What about it?”
“I don’t think it’s fair. You didn’t know him; I just don’t think you ought to talk about him like that.”
Joe could see his father’s anger at his words build. “Joseph, that tone is unacceptable. And first of all, how can you defend someone like him? Secondly-“
Joe cut him off angrily. “Someone like him? What does that mean? He was always nice to me, he treated me like a son.”
“He had no right to take you!” Ben burst out.
“He didn’t take me, the letter says that!”
“He had no right to keep you. He knew who you were, where you belonged. I can’t believe you’re defending him.”
“I don’t know why he did what he did, but-“
“He did what he did because he was a selfish, hurtful man.”
Joe stood up, quiet fury tainting his voice. “He wasn’t. He was the kindest, most selfless person…” Joe could tell his father wanted him to hate Sam as much as he did, but he just couldn’t. Sam had been there for him, and given him everything ever since he could remember, and he just couldn’t. He turned and almost ran from the room, ignoring his father behind him. Outside, he started into the woods. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he just needed some space.
Eventually, he saw water through the trees, and realized he was near the lake Hoss had told him about. He turned towards it, and arrived at the edge. It was a beautiful sight, and it dissolved his anger a little. He just stood for a moment, taking in the blueness of the water and the scent of pines, and then after a few minutes turned and started to follow the shore. After a while he climbed up a hill and then stumbled into a little clearing. With surprise, he saw there was a headstone just in front of him. Curious, he moved so he could see the name. As soon as he did, a shudder went through him and he sank to his knees. “My mother…” he whispered. It hit him hard, and he dropped his head to the ground as tears threatened to spill.
It was starting to get dark when a branch snapped nearby. Joe sat up, startled, and turned to see Hoss coming towards him. He was almost disappointed that it wasn’t Ben.
“It’s kind of funny,” Hoss said. “You and Pa do exactly the same thing…come here when something’s troubling you.”
Joe looked at the headstone in front of him. “I didn’t even know about it,” he said quietly. “Why was she buried here?”
Hoss sat down on a log near him. “She loved this spot.”
“What was she like?”
Hoss had a rather far off look on his face, bringing back memories. “She was beautiful. She was kind, and generous. She loved to laugh…she brought so much happiness into our house. I was a little fellow when Pa brought her back, and she was the only mother I ever knew.”
“Wasn’t she your mother?”
Hoss shook his head. “No, Pa was married three times. Adam’s mother, she was from back east. She died right after Adam was born. My mother died during the trip out here…she was killed by an arrow. I do have an uncle… Gunnar Borgstrom. I’ve never met him, but I’m sure he’s just like my mother. She was a good woman, according to what Adam and Pa have told me.”
Joe was quite for a long time, his thoughts going in many directions. Finally, rather quietly, he said, “She must have been heartbroken when I was kidnapped.”
“I’d never seen her cry before,” Hoss answered just as quietly. “And Pa…it almost killed him. He was gone for days at a time, searching. After she died, he left. For months. When he came back, it was as if he’d lost a piece of himself, too, and had been searching for it but hadn’t found it. It feels…better, now…”
Joe stared at the ground in front of him, wondering again if he should have come out here. He couldn’t really believe that this was ‘better’, that bringing up all these old hurts and memories was doing anybody any good, especially if he ended up not being able to stay.
“Let’s get you home.”
Joe got up and followed his brother to his horse, swinging up behind him a little stiffly, sore, after the hours of riding this afternoon.
Joe opened his eyes and rolled over. He sat up in the dark and listened. He wasn’t sure what had awoken him, and pushing the blankets aside, got up and went to his door. He quietly opened it, and then poked his head into the hallway, just in time to see someone disappear around the corner to the stairs. Joe stood back for a moment, and then looked towards his bed. He was awake now; it would be awhile anyway until he fell asleep again.
Joe opened the door, and quietly went into the hall and around the corner to the top of the stairs. He knelt down at the top, and watched as Ben put some logs in the fireplace, stoking it up. From the dim light of the growing flames, Joe could see that the man was in his dressing gown. As he watched, Ben got out a pipe and tobacco, and then sat down and started to smoke. Feeling a little foolish just sitting there watching him, Joe got up and went downstairs. Ben looked up as Joe stopped next to the settee where he was seated. “Did I wake you?” he asked.
Joe shook his head. “No, sir, I don’t think so. I wake up a few times every night.” He glanced at the shadows dancing on the wall from the light coming from the fireplace, and then looked back at Ben, who was staring at the flames as he smoked. Joe sighed, and then sat down next to him. “I’m sorry for the way I behaved,” Joe whispered.
Ben was shaking his head slightly. “Was that the way you were raised?”
Joe looked up in surprise. “No, sir. He never would have…” Joe suddenly looked down, staring at his hands on his lap as he felt his cheeks burn. This was his father, and he did… he did deserve the same amount of respect that he had always paid Sam. “I’m sorry.”
“And I’m sorry too. I supposed you had a right to be angry…what you heard me say…” Ben sighed and then put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “It’s just that I am angry…jealous, even. He had…so much time with you…time that should have been mine. I wish that the way you felt about him, you felt about me.”
Joe felt tears slipping down his cheeks as he leaned his head against his father. “I want to…”
“But what’s wrong?”
“I just…it’s so hard for me to believe that he could have done something so wrong. It’s like…it’s like as if someone told Adam or Hoss that you had kidnapped them as a child. They wouldn’t believe it. They…” Joe sighed and closed his eyes. They loved their father too much to believe something like that. “I just don’t know how to give that up,” Joe whispered.
Ben was quiet for a long time. Finally, he said quietly, “You shouldn’t have to.”
Joe looked up at him. “What?”
Ben’s jaw muscles were moving, and Joe could feel his arm around his shoulder was tensed. “You shouldn’t have to. It’s not fair for me to ask you to give that up.”
“But you really want me to,” Joe whispered.
“No,” Ben said, looking down at him and meeting his gaze. “No, son…I don’t. I want you to be happy, and if being happy means that you never see me as a replacement for your dad, then so be it.”
Joe could see just how hard it was for Ben to say that, and he brought his arms up and hugged him as tightly as he could. Never had he seen anyone, not even Sam, do or say anything like that; something that came from so deep inside, and hurt so much to say, but said it anyway because that’s what love was. It was caring about someone else’s needs so much more than your own. Sam had given him a lot. And when times were hard, and they had to go without he always made sure that Joe had food to eat, or shoes for winter; but Joe now realized he had never seen such a deep amount of emotion before. His father was willing to give him up, if it meant he would be happy. “No,” he said, cradled in Ben’s arms. “You are my father. What he did was wrong.” Suddenly realizing and admitting that was the hardest thing he ever felt he had done, but at the same time, it was as if a huge weight had lifted from his shoulders. He cried into his father’s shoulder. He still didn’t know exactly how he was going to do this; he still felt like an outsider. But somehow now it seemed a little easier to face.
Joe held his reins tightly in his left hand, slid his feet out of the stirrups, took hold of the saddle horn, and then swung his right leg behind him and over the saddle and slid to the ground. He landed, trying to mask the wobbling in his sore legs and keep from collapsing in the dirt next to his horse. After a second or two he composed himself, and then followed the lead of Adam in looping his reins around the post near the store. Ben would have had him ride on the wagon instead of Hoss, but Joe really wanted to work on his riding. Hoss had promised he’d get better and soon outride him if he kept up with it daily, and Joe was determined to make him proud. Joe felt Ben’s hand on his shoulder, and together they walked into the store.
All day they went into different stores, until Joe felt positively dizzy. He’d tried on shirts and pants in one, and Ben had bought him several work outfits and a dressy one and a jacket and hat, along with a number of undergarments. Out of a catalog they ordered boots that would arrive in several weeks from San Francisco. In another store he had purchased a number of personal items including a razor and a hairbrush. After several hours of making stops, they went to a restaurant for lunch. It was the first time that Joe had ever been to one, and the others seemed to enjoy his excitement. Finally, they went into the last store, to purchase some supplies needed for the ranch. Joe wandered outside as Adam and Ben were finalizing their purchases, and he looked up and down the street at the busy people who were rushing by. Maybe he could get used to this…
A man came to a stop in front of him, and Joe greeted him with a nod.
“Well, howdy,” the man said. “Don’t know if I’ve seen you in these parts before. I see you came in with the Cartwrights…friend of theirs?”
Joe didn’t particularly like his attitude, but he decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He must know his family, somehow. “Sort of,” he replied. “I’m Joe Cartwright.”
The man snorted, and leaned closer to him. “There’s one thing I know for sure, and that’s you’re not Joseph Cartwright.”
Joe felt a glare settle on his face.
“Now before you get all riled up sonny, maybe you better listen to me. See, I figure you’re just some money-hungry kid who saw a chance. I see the way they’ve been parading you around town, just dropping money on you. Well, I want a piece of that action too. I want 500 dollars, and I’ll keep your secret.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t, do I?” The man leaned closer to him. “The body of Joseph Cartwright is buried in a nameless grave at the edge of the desert. Old Man Cartwright doesn’t know about it…see, I never told anyone. But I have proof…and I’ll gladly give it to him if I don’t get my money.”
Joe could tell he was shaking, but he hoped the man didn’t see it. “You’re lying…” He had no idea how to argue against him.
The man laughed. “No, I’m not. Unless you want to be penniless again, you get me 500 dollars.”
Joe shook his head. “I can’t just ask him for money-“
“Ask him for money?” the man guffawed. “What do you care…just steal it! That’s what you’re doing anyway.”
“I am not!” Joe lunged forward and grabbed the man’s shirt.
Suddenly the man’s expression changed, and anger covered his face. He pushed Joe away from him, backwards into the street. “You have two days, fake Cartwright.” The man walked away, and Joe pushed himself off the ground, brushing the dirt from his clothes.
“Hey, are you all right?”
Joe looked up. “Oh, hi Hoss.” He tried to smile, but he felt like crying so he was sure his expression was rather sickly.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know…just some crazy guy. Just forget it, okay?”
“Did he say any-“
“I said forget it!” Joe instantly felt bad for snapping at him, and sighed and patted his arm. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Hoss said, and then followed Adam and Ben to the horses and wagon. Joe trailed along, and then managed to get on his horse without falling off, for which he would have been proud other than the fact that what the man said was bothering him. On the ride home, he thought about what the man had said, and puzzled it out in his head. Finally he decided to not bring it up. He didn’t really believe him, and there was no point in trying to make trouble by mentioning it if it wasn’t true. By the time he got home, he was almost back to his normal self, and ready to help with unloading the supplies they had purchased.
There was a roar of laughter, and the last man holding cards at the table threw his hand down in disgust. Joe laughed along with the observers and scooped the money in the center of the table up. “Look at that, Chad, he beat you and he doesn’t even know how to play poker!” a man yelled. Everyone started laughing again, and someone handed Joe a small glass of something. Joe downed the bitter tasting liquid, mimicking the other men he has seen drink a shot of whiskey. He coughed less than he had last time, and glanced around at the men surrounding him. He had lost his brothers a few hours back, and had ended up in this bar. Still no sign of them, and the little voice in the back of his head became more persistent, telling him to get up, leave, and go find them before he got into trouble.
He pushed back the chair, his hands not quite knowing where they were supposed to go, almost. He got to his feet, holding onto the edge of the table for support. “Thank you, gentlemen. I’m sure I’ll see you around again. I need to find some lost brothers.”
A couple of men clapped him on the shoulder, helping him out as he left the saloon. Outside, he took a deep breath of air, and the contrast between the stuffy, smelly bar and the clear crisp air outside became startlingly apparent. He savored it for a moment.
It had been a long, grueling week. He was practicing riding daily, and getting better even though he was so sore he felt hardly able to sit in the saddle. Bruises covered the insides of his legs, and his arm and bottom as well from the falls he had taken. In addition to that, he had taken on all the barn chores, freeing the others to work on moving the herd to a new pasture, and was busily repairing fences in the corral. This morning Ben had congratulated them all for the hard work of the week, and Joe had accepted his wages proudly. Ben had kept some of it as he had promised for the clothing he had purchased, but Joe knew that he still hadn’t kept enough, as it would take at least three weeks of work to pay off everything he had bought him. Ben had merely shaken his head when Joe pointed this out. “Just think of it as catching up on seventeen years of birthday presents,” he had said.
Someone was stopping in front of him. Joe turned his attention to the woman before him. She was older, not terribly attractive, and smelled rather like the saloon he had just exited. “Looking for anything in particular, mister?” she asked.
Joe shook his head. “No thank you, ma’am,” he said quietly. Hoss and Adam had informed him of the many wonders of Virginia City, including the places where he could go, and the places he was to definitely stay out of. She seemed to be from one of the banned places. He offered her a small smile and a shake of his head, and then turned and started rather unsteadily down the street.
“Howdy, there, young Cartwright.”
Joe turned to see the sheriff walking up behind him. “Hello, Sheriff Coffee,” he greeted him.
“You can call me Roy, son. Where are you headed? I saw your brothers over that way, they were looking for you.”
Joe smiled. “Oh good, I sort of lost them.”
Roy nodded. “Well you be careful, Joe, this town can get mighty crazy at night. I know you’re still not sure of how to use this, so don’t go messing with anyone who’s a troublemaker.” Roy patted the gun at his side, and Joe glanced down at his own. Adam was teaching him to shoot, but there was no way, especially in his condition now, that he was ready to take aim at anything.
“I won’t. I’ll be careful, sir.”
“You see that you do. Good night.”
Roy started down the street, and Joe turned in the direction he had pointed out. Just in front of him, there was a crash, and a man went flying out of the saloon doors. There was a roar of laughter, and Joe cautiously made his way up to peer inside, just in case anyone else followed. There was a man at the bar, everyone was patting him on the back and seemed to be buying drinks for him. He downed the shots in front of him, and then turned back. “Anyone else?” he called. There was laughter, shouts, and a few protests as the men goaded each other, daring each other to take him on.
Perhaps it was the alcohol in Joe’s system, that made his competitive streak stronger and his common sense all but gone as he pushed open the doors. The little voice in his head was drowned out by the adrenaline rushing through him as he stopped in front of the big man. “How about me? I’ll do it,” he said. The men laughed and chided him, and the big man looked him over with a smile.
“All right, sonny,” he said, with a laugh. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
His head pounded as he closed and opened his eyes again, and then tried to focus on Hoss. “But what happened?” he asked.
“Joe, would you be quiet!” Hoss pushed the wet cloth against his head, and Joe yelped.
“Hoss, no, no hurts…” his words didn’t seem to come out as he intended. He tried again. “Its hurts…”
Hoss gave an exasperated sigh. “Would you let me clean you up, for pete’s sake? We can’t take you home like this, Pa would have yours and our hides for sure!”
“But what happened?”
Hoss groaned as he wiped Joe’s face. “For the last time, I’ve said this three times already. You challenged Big Bob to a fight. You very nearly won. You got drunk. Adam and I found you passed out outside the bar a half hour ago, and he went to get coffee and our horses so we can get you home.”
“I unnerstand that. That I un…und…understand. I do. But how did it happen?”
“You say one more thing I’ll tan your hide myself after Pa gets done!”
“Joseph, I am shocked and appalled at your behavior! You are old enough to know better than to act this way. It is completely unbecoming of anyone to get so drunk that he has to be carried out of anyplace. I am terribly disappointed in you, and your complete disregard for rules of proper behavior!”
It was the next morning, and Joe felt as though his head was going to fall off. Adam and Hoss had come into his room this morning, informed him that he had to suffer the consequences of his actions, and then hauled him out of bed and made him get dressed. He was a little angry with them for it; he had never been hung over, or even drunk, before, and they seemed more amused than sympathetic.
Ben turned angrily away, pounding his hand on his desk and making Joe jump, startled. Joe stole a glance at Adam and Hoss, and to his anger, discovered they actually seemed to be enjoying Ben’s tirade. He wished he could just disappear, and that none of this had ever happened. Ben turned back. “I ought to take you outside, and give you a good tanning!” Joe felt his mouth drop open in shock. “Do you have anything at all to say for yourself?”
Joe wasn’t sure what to say. “I…didn’t mean to do anything wrong…”
“Didn’t mean to do anything wrong?” Ben roared.
“You went into town, got into a fight, and then got so drunk you couldn’t sit straight on your horse…and you didn’t MEAN to do anything wrong? What did you think was right? No son of mine would be caught acting in such an appalling manner!”
Joe felt as if he had been slapped. The sick feeling in his stomach intensified and he felt hot and cold all over. He knew he had to leave before he either threw up or started yelling back. Joe turned and almost ran for the front door. It was so far away.
“Joseph!” Ben yelled.
Joe stopped at the front door, grasping the handle, his knuckles white, shaking.
“You do not leave when I am talking to you. Come back here.”
“I can’t.” Joe choked. “Please, let me go-”
“Joseph, come back here right now.”
Reluctantly, Joe dropped his hand from the door, and slowly turned back. He couldn’t break his gaze from the floor in front of him, and he couldn’t make his feet move at all.
Ben waited a few seconds, but when it became apparent that Joe wasn’t moving, he said, “Seeing that you don’t know how to properly conduct yourself when you go into town, you are restricted to the ranch for the next month, and if you wish to step off the Ponderosa after that time period, you will do so only in the direct presence of myself, and you will not leave my side. Do you understand?”
Joe looked up, angry tears burning his eyes. “You can’t do that.”
Joe saw Adam and Hoss, who had lost all traces of amusement and were now standing up near their father.
“Joseph, in this house I set the rules and the consequences for breaking them. If you wish to live here, then you will follow those rules.” Joe could tell he was furious as he took a deep breath, and said with some restraint, “I think you ought to go to your room and remain there the rest of the day.”
Joe cleared his throat. “I just need to…step outside for a minute, please…” he mumbled.
Ben nodded, and Joe practically flew out the door and around the side of the house. He passed up the outhouse; he hadn’t needed anything other than to get away for a few minutes. He sat down just inside the edge of the woods on a stump, and then waited until the throbbing in his head lessened.
After thinking it over, he discovered he was actually more angry with himself. He did know that what he was doing wasn’t right, and he knew he shouldn’t have had so much to drink. He even knew that he should have made sure not to let Adam and Hoss out of his sight. But still, it had happened, and he had let it happen. Joe sighed. He just wanted to fit in; he wished it was easy to know what to say, and how to act. He wished he knew how to stop, and how to prove himself without feeling like he had to prove himself. He wanted to be accepted.
Joe froze as a branch snapped behind him. Shaking his head, he laughed slightly, shaking off the instinctive fear. He needed to stop jumping at everything, too. This was certainly different than the flat, prairie farm he was used to, but he needed to try to feel more comfortable. Suddenly another branch snapped behind him, and he began to think it wasn’t a small forest animal. His heart racing, he turned around.
“Well, well, fake Cartwright.”
With a sinking heart, he realized it was the blackmailer from town. And he had a gun in his hand. The man gestured at him, and Joe reluctantly went ahead of him farther into the woods. With everything that had been going on, he had forgotten about him.
“Stop right there.”
Joe stopped, and then turned around.
“Where’s my money?” the man asked.
Joe shook his head. “You’re not getting it.”
“Why not? Do you want me to tell Ben about the real Joe Cartwright?”
Joe frowned thoughtfully. “Go ahead,” he said. “I don’t think it matters anyway.”
The man glared at him, and then before Joe could bring up a hand to defend himself, the man punched him sharply in the jaw. Joe felt backwards, the pounding in his head almost blinding him and feeling as if he was about to throw up. He felt the man on top of him, and the gun was jabbed at his chest. He looked up.
“Well, then, how about this… you give me the money, and I won’t kill you.”
Joe swallowed, and tried to break away. “Let me go…I’m not giving you anything…”
The man glared at him, and then brought his arm up and swung the gun down at his head. Joe put his hands to his forehead as the pain almost overtook him, feeling the warm flow of blood streaming down his cheek, and barely registered the kicks that were being applied to his body.
Somewhere, faintly, there was a call, “Joe! Joseph, where are you?”
Mustering all the strength he had, he yelled as loudly as he could, “Pa! Pa, I’m here! Help me!”
There was a moment of nothing, and then he felt someone near him. “Son…” He was being lifted as though he were a baby and carried back through the woods. Soon he was inside, and Ben was putting him on the settee. His shirt was being tugged off, and there was tea in front of him as someone cradled his head and someone else attended to the cuts on his face. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, and he was so overwhelmed and he had to close his eyes as he felt tears start to slip down his face. “Pa…” he whispered.
Arms immediately went around him, and he turned his face into his father’s vest. “I’ve got you, son. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Joe closed his eyes, and within a few seconds everything was gone.
“But what I don’t understand is why you didn’t tell us about him before?” Ben said as he sat down with his coffee. It was almost dark out. Joe had slept most of the day, and then awakened a little bit ago to a stream of questions.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess… I suppose I just didn’t want it to have an effect on whether you wanted me to stay or not. I mean, I didn’t really believe him…” Joe glanced down at the cup in front of him. “Pa? How do you know I’m your son?” he asked, and then looked up at his father.
“Because, son, I do.”
Joe smiled, and then shrugged slightly. “That’s why then. I didn’t think anything he had to say would change that.”
Ben nodded. “It certainly wouldn’t, son.”
Joe saw Adam catch Ben’s eye, and their father seemed to nod, slightly.
“Joe,” Adam said. “You told us that you moved from Texas. Why?”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t really know. We just…moved. There was some sort of fight, I think. A man came to our house. I don’t really remember what was said or what happened. He came, and they argued, and then we had to leave. We left pretty much everything and moved to Iowa. Why?”
In response, Adam stood up and then went into the other room and rummaged in a chest. He pulled out a little box, and came back into the room. “Joe, have you ever seen this before?”
Joe took the little wooden box, and opened the lid. At first, all he noticed was that it was a locket. He picked up the piece, and then gasped slightly. “The locket…” he breathed. He pried it open, and stared at the familiar picture inside. “I remember this. I left it at the house. I wanted to go back, but we couldn’t. I thought it was lost…”
“That’s a picture of your mother,” Ben said quietly. “We found it at a house in Texas, the house where Silas Bates, the man who had taken you, lived. He told us you were dead, and he was tried and hung. You loved that piece, and you tried to take it everywhere with you. We figured you had had it with you when you were taken, but we could never figure out how it got to the house or why it was still there, if Silas had indeed killed you on the Ponderosa, as he told us.”
“Why would he tell you that?”
“He was going to hang for a bunch of different crimes,” Adam explained. “If anything, he was trying to keep us from finding you.”
“But why did he kidnap me at all?”
Ben shrugged. “He never said. He was an angry, bitter man. He probably saw it as a way to hurt us.” Ben shook his head, sadness on his face.
Joe looked down, thinking about his mother. “How come you never showed me this before?”
Ben got up, and then sat down next to him. “I wanted you to figure out whether you wanted to stay or not on your own.”
Joe nodded. “I understand.” He thought back to the last couple weeks, from the moment he set foot in Virginia City and then everything up until this point. The work and pain…and the good times too; Ben putting his arm around his shoulder, and Hoss teasing him, and Adam calling him little brother. And the four of them riding into town together. “Pa, I want to stay. I know it’ll be hard work, but I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be.”
Hoss grinned at him. “Glad to hear it, little Joe.”
Joe scoffed. “Little Joe? Just you wait…I’ll catch up.” He smiled at his family, and then laughed. He was finally starting to feel like he belonged.
Other Stories by this Author
- A Warm Place in Your Heart (by Camera Chic)
- The Hostage (by Camera Chic)
- Childless Horror (by Camera Chic)
- To Survive (by Camera Chic)
- Friends and Strangers (by Camera Chic)