Summary: A heart can only break so many times, and after the traumatic losses he has suffered, Joe is convinced that living his life alone is the only way to protect his heart from shattering. But… Is that really his intended destiny?
This story takes place two years after the season 14 double-episode “Forever.”
Written for the 2018 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The card “suits” were:
Anatomy (body parts)
What Women Want
Things Found in a Saddlebag
Rated: PG 8,640 words
Love, that’s what life is all about. You want to love someone and you want to be loved. Well, what can I say? Love is a perk I can’t get in this lifetime. I thought I could. I dove in and it would be an understatement to say I fell flat on my face. I didn’t. I didn’t even crack my head open – I cracked my heart open. And that wound will never heal. Not after losing Alice and my unborn baby in that fire.
Now, two years later, I still struggled to block out the feelings that would suffocate me if I let them to the surface. Feelings of grief, sorrow, hate, guilt… love. I loved Alice so very much.
Alice, I’m so goddamn sorry for letting you die in that fire. You were carrying our baby, and I let you both down. I should have just loaded that lumber in the wagon and then gotten right back to you. I really shouldn’t have left you in the first place…
My throat tightened and I found it hard to breathe as I swung up in the saddle.
I turned around to see a familiar redheaded figure coming toward me.
Jamie. Terrific timing as ever.
Flinging my head to the other side, I blinked ferociously to get the moisture out of my eyes and pretended to check something in Cochise’s mane. “Hi, Jamie!” I then said with the cheeriest voice I could muster.
I was used to hiding my darker thoughts and more despondent feelings nowadays. When I was younger, I had been like an open book. Unable to hide how I felt because I always felt so much.
Growing up as the youngest brother had always given me a sense of security. I hated being the baby of the family at the time, but I always had someone to fall back on if something happened. Someone to hold me up. And like any youngster, I had hopes for the future and the blithe assumption that everything could work out in the end, no matter how painful.
I hurt easily but I mended quickly. Because I never lost hope. Until I lost Alice and our baby.
What happened might have been that I grew up. I went from being the baby to the oldest son on the Ponderosa and I had responsibilities. I had to stay in charge. Pa relied on me to run the ranch like Adam and Hoss had done. And young Jamie needed security and to feel the same hope for the future as I felt when I was his age.
Jamie walked over to my side. “Hey, Joe? You know Pa asked me to pick up the mail today, but with college starting in a few weeks, I still have a lot of packing to do. I mean, you know me – ” he laughed a little, ” – it takes a long time to decide what to pack. I go through my drawers—”
“Jamie, I don’t think the guys you’ll be boarding with care much about what drawers you wear,” I interrupted with a crooked smile.
He laughed again at my bad joke. “No, I guess they won’t. But I went through my bookshelf this morning, and I couldn’t decide…”
How long until you get to your damn point, Jamie?
“Joe? I thought… maybe you could…?”
I sighed. “Yes, Jamie. I’ll ride into Virginia City and pick up the mail.”
The kid smiled, gratefully. “Thanks.”
I turned Cooch around to get going when he called after me again. “Joe?”
“What?!” I heard annoyance seeping into my voice.
Jamie hesitated. “Are… you okay?”
I spent the night awake, thinking about how I bring death and misery with me. Everyone I love dies or leave. My mother. My older brother and best friend in the world, Hoss. My wife and my unborn child… My oldest brother Adam left the Ponderosa nine years ago, never to return. Now my adopted brother is going away too, even if it’s only for college. My half-brother on my mother’s side, Clay left me only a few weeks after I was made aware of his existence. I have a —
“I asked if you were okay. You seem like a million miles away.”
“Sure Jamie, I’m fine,” I lied.
He looked uncomfortable, unconvinced. “I know it’s been two years since the fire… today—”
“Yeah. Look, I better get going if I should get into town in time.” Not to mention if I’m going to hold myself together.
“I know you miss her, Joe…”
I squeezed my eyes shut, doing all I could to respect his end of the conversation, but it took all I had not to ride off. Jamie had no right bringing Alice into this conversation. On the other hand, I deserved to feel this pain. It was my fault that my wife died. My fault. I lay off my gunbelt when I met Alice. Why didn’t I teach her how to handle a gun? A gun for self-protection and some ammunition close at hand, just for emergencies.
“I’m fine. But I better get going, Jamie. And you better get back to that packing. You wouldn’t want to pack the wrong underpants, now would you?” I winked and rode off before my tears threatened to overflow in front of the kid. The last thing he needed would be to pick up the pieces after me.
She was the first to emerge from the stagecoach, her legs shaky from the long ride. I noticed her from a distance. She was tall, slim and in her mid-twenties. Dressed in a lace-collared gray damask dress, pretty, but businesslike, a felt hat, gloves and high-button shoes.
The constant raining the past couple of weeks had turned every street into mud, and her high-button shoes immediately sank down and disappeared into the soft muck. I felt sorry for her. That was the only reason for me not to look away immediately. The only reason for me to approach the 2 o’clock stage and call her attention.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I said the same second the young lady lifted one foot up with a slurp of suction. Realizing the shoe was ruined, the lady stepped back down with a squish before meeting my eyes. “Yes?”
I tipped the front of my hat. “Can I help you in some way? My name is Joe Cartwright.”
She nodded politely and offered her hand. “Destiny Hammond. Yes, may I ask if you know where the Virginia City Hotel is, Mr. Cartwright?”
The stage driver tossed luggage from atop the coach down to the passengers without warning, and half a second too late I realized that the big trunk that smacked down in the mud beside me, belonged to the refined lady. Her suitcase came next, and I managed to catch it with my left hand, my right still holding hers.
“Yes, it’s right up the street,” I replied to her question. “Let me take your bags, I’ll walk you there.” I regretted my offer as soon as the words left my mouth. The 2 o’clock stage. A beautiful young woman staying at that hotel. It reminds me too much of Alice. This Destiny Hammond is standing at the exact same spot as Alice did when I saw her the first time. It was over two years ago, and she was accompanied by her brother. Although, I believed he was her husband. I brought him back to that hotel later that night, passed out drunk. And Alice believed I had stolen her brother’s money.
It was when the misunderstandings became clear to both of us, we fell in love. At that hotel.
“Please come with me,” I told Destiny Hammond as I reached for her trunk and headed across the main street. She fell in beside me, fighting the mud to keep pace.
“If you just slow down, Mr. Cartwright, maybe we can carry the trunk between us?” she suggested. “It’s… rather heavy…”
“Is this your first visit to Virginia City?” I asked politely as we put the trunk down on the hotel room floor.
“Yes, it is. I intend to collect material for the book I intend to write.”
I nodded. “So you’re an author?”
The girl looked downright uncomprehending. Then she laughed. “I don’t think I’ve earned that title yet. I used to study medicine at the New England Female Medical College.”
“That’s impressive,” I replied, surprised that I – for the first time in what felt like forever – felt genuinely intrigued. “And a long way from Virginia City.”
She tucked a loose strand of brown hair behind her ear. “I must admit, this trip has been grueling. The seventeen hundred miles by train from Boston to Omaha took four transfers and eight days, but that was actually the easy part. The bumpy twelve-hundred-mile trek by stagecoach across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Basin took the better part of two weeks.”
“You said you used to study medicine. Are you a nurse?”
Destiny Hammond giggled again. “No, no,” she said. “I studied to receive a real M.D. The Female Medical College was the only medical school to attend women. I quit my studies three months ago, though.”
I nodded. “And decided to come to Virginia City of all places?”
“That’s right. Of all places.”
“We really have some beautiful country around here. We’ve got mountains, trees, lakes…”
“Which is precisely why I decided to come here to the West. If I ever want to succeed with my book, I need to see the world I’m writing about with my own eyes.”
“You know anybody here?”
“Not a single person,” she admitted. “So my next challenge will be to find someone who can show me the scenery around here…”
I don’t know what came over me, but before I could think I had offered her to do the honors.
“Well, if you wouldn’t mind, Mr. Cartwright… I’d certainly be obliged.”
“It would be my pleasure. On two conditions.”
“Would you mind calling me ‘Joe’? When you say ‘Mr. Cartwright’ I have to remind myself you’re talking to me and not my father.” I winked and was rewarded with yet a lovely smile.
“Only if you call me Destiny. Dessie works too. And your other condition?”
“I would like to know more about your book and why you decided to give up medical school and go through all this trouble to write it.”
“That’s a total of three requests, not two,” she said. “Nevertheless, it’s an offer I can’t refuse. I’m very grateful, Mr… Joe.”
I smiled. “It would help to know what sights you want to see and what people you want me to introduce you to for your research for the book.”
“Oh… Local people and local surroundings. I was planning on describing the lives of people the way they really are, not in some overly romanticized way. I won’t use anybody’s real name, and I will certainly change things so nobody will recognize themselves or their neighbors or even the exact locations. But I want to write something genuine. Something people can relate to.” She looked at me with her big, blue eyes. “Are you still interested in showing me around?”
“I’ll be by around noon tomorrow. I’ll bring you out to the Ponderosa if you don’t mind?”
She looked flabbergasted. “You’ll bring me out to a tree?”
“No…” I laughed. “That’s the name of our ranch. My Pa owns the biggest spread in Nevada.”
“That sounds impressive.”
“I hope it will be.”
I saddled up the old sorrel mare for her and led the horse out of the barn to the waiting lady in the front yard.
“You know how to ride?” I asked.
She turned and glared at me. “Do I know how to ride?” she repeated.
“Well, do you?”
Dessie Hammond looked at me, then at the horse, then back at me. “Watch me,” she said, going up to the horse. She hiked her skirts as discreetly as possible, then managed to get her left foot up into the stirrup. She then started hopping on her right foot, in a hopeless attempt to build the momentum to swing her leg up. She would have been standing there hopping until dark if I hadn’t whisked her up off the ground and into the saddle.
“Now, how do I get him to move forward?”
I fought desperately to keep a straight face. “First lesson, it’s a ‘her’, not a ‘him’. And you want to loosen the reins. Good.”
Destiny sat perched precariously on her horse. Even though we were only at a walking pace, she hung onto the saddlehorn.
After a rather unstable ride on Destiny’s part, we dismounted close to one of my favorite childhood fishing ponds and tied our horses to a tree.
“My oldest brother Adam went to college in Boston too,” I told her as we walked toward the water.
“I’d love to meet him.”
We sat down on a fallen log close to the water. “Yeah… So would I,”I said bitterly.
Destiny looked up at me, shocked when she thought she understood. “Oh, I’m sorry…”
“No,” I interrupted her. “It’s not like that. He is not dead.” At least not that I know of, I thought to myself.
“Where is he then?”
I screwed up my eyes against the reflection of the sun on the pond. “I don’t know. He left home several years ago. Wanted to see the world. … We haven’t heard from him in two years.”
She followed my gaze toward the water. “Do you have any other siblings?”
I nodded quietly. Not knowing if I should say “one” or “two”. Or maybe “three”?
“You don’t want to talk about them?” the girl asked.
“I think you’ll find a lot more interesting local people to write about than the Cartwright family.” I crossed my arms and legs. Then, realizing I was adopting an extremely defensive position, I tried to relax, straightening my arms and legs instead.
But the girl had noticed my change. “I wasn’t asking for material for my book. And I’m not going to write anything about anybody without their consent. Nor was it my intention to pry, I apologize if I overstepped my bounds. I was just hoping to make a friend, Joe.”
“Well then… I grew up with my Pa and two older brothers. Actually, we were all half-brothers… Adam was the oldest, then there was Hoss…”
“Hoss?” she asked when I didn’t continue.
“He was the middle brother. A big guy, strong as an ox. The most gentle soul you could ever imagine. He was the kind of guy that everybody loved…”
“What happened to him?”
“He died. Drowned two years ago…”
She met my gaze with genuine compassion in her eyes. “That must have been terrible.”
“Yeah,” I whispered. “It was.” My eyes darted toward my lap, unable to hold contact with Destiny’s. “Then I met Alice and I felt hope again.”
Why did I tell this lady I didn’t even know about Alice?
I sighed. “She was my wife. I lost her in a fire just a few months after we got married.”
Without seeming to be conscious of what she was doing, Dessie Hammond put her hand on my shoulder. “My God, Joe… I’m so sorry…”
I straightened up, forcing a smile. “And then there’s Jamie. My 17-year-old adopted brother. He’s going off to college soon. The kid couldn’t be more excited. And my father couldn’t be more proud. Jamie was 14 when Pa legally adopted him.”
Destiny nodded, without returning my smile. Her hand was still resting on my shoulder.
What was it with this young woman? I was drawn to her. There was something about this person that simply made want to crawl into her arms and weep. I wanted to tell all the secrets of my heart and pour out my innermost thoughts to her. Dessie Hammond stirred up my emotions in a way I didn’t recognize.
“So how was your day, Joe?” Jamie asked at the dinner table.
I passed him the potatoes and looked at him with mock severity. “Terrible. I got to ride around, showing the surroundings to a lady, knowing that you were stuck at home chopping the wood and mucking the stalls.”
The kid laughed. He always laughed when he knew I was joking with him. And I had learned to be very clear about when I was joshing him and when I was serious. He couldn’t read me like Hoss had been able to. To this day, he was still so insecure, like an innocent child. Searching for approval and acceptance. I had to remind myself that he had been through a lot too. Jamie had—
“Who is this lady?” Pa woke me up from my musings.
“Her name is Destiny Hammond. She is from Boston and wants to write a book about the West and the lives of the locals and the surroundings. But as far as I know, she has no ties to this part of the country at all. She has grown up in the city.”
“Will you see her again?” Jamie asked.
I nodded. “Yep. She needs to talk to different local people. And there is still a lot of things I want to show her. I hope you don’t mind, Pa?” The last sentence was directed to my father.
“As long as you don’t neglect your responsibilities here on the ranch.”
“I won’t. I’m just… outsourcing them. To Jamie,” I added with a sly grin before turning serious. “Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll do it in my free time.”
“You want to see the spread on the north pasture, the lumber camp or some of the leading citizens in Virginia City today?” I asked as I escorted the lady out of the hotel lobby to the waiting buggy.
“It depends, Joe. Who will have time to talk to me?”
“The spread wouldn’t say much quote-worthy,” I chortled. “That’s a bunch of cattle. But I’m sure the men in the lumber camp will accept any excuse to get away from work. And in town, we have Doc. Martin, our old sheriff Roy Coffee and his former deputy, Clem Foster. He is sheriff now, but Roy still likes to stay updated about everything that goes on in Virginia City.”
I helped her up in the buggy, walked around the horse and climbed up on the other side, grabbing the reins.
“I’d love to meet the physician, of course,” she said. “You can certainly understand why, given my own aspirations to get my license to practice medicine.”
“That reminds me, you have yet to fulfill your end of the bargain we made. Why did you decide to give up medical school?”
She hesitated. “It wasn’t my decision. I was born in Beacon Hills in Boston. My father was a banker of excellent repute and a very successful businessman. My mother had inherited a fortune when her parents passed away. When she brought me into this world, she and my father resolved they would do the best they could for me and give me a good education. They both believed in a girl being fitted to earn her own living whether she ever had to or not. With the family wealth, it was unlikely I would ever have to earn my own living, but nobody knew what might happen in this uncertain world.”
I urged the horse to start moving. “Sounds like wise people.”
“I think they both were. My mother died before my fourth birthday, so my memories of her are those of a child.”
Just like the memories I have of my own mother.
“But my father led me to think and explore and discover for myself,” Destiny continued. “He encouraged straying from the old beaten paths, and believed in me and supported my decision to attend medical school. My studies were funded by money from both of them.”
“I see. So what happened that made you quit?”
She exhaled. “After the death of my mother, father met a new woman and remarried. My stepmother didn’t believe in the higher education of women at all; she thought it ‘unfit for a lady’s true sphere’. She didn’t have a say in the matter though… until a few months ago.”
“What happened a few months ago?”
“My father passed away suddenly and my stepmother inherited all his money. She refused to keep giving me financial support for my education.”
“She did? Against your father’s wishes?”
“Yes, she did. That’s part of why I decided to come here and write this book. Like I said, my father encouraged me to think and explore and discover for myself.”
“You’re not afraid to explore different parts of the world, huh?” I asked.
She giggled. “I’m terrified of it. But sometimes you have to do things, even if you are afraid. Try new things, learn what it’s really like to walk in the shoes of people with a different upbringing and life. I’m terrified but ready to do that. I want to learn as much as I can about the life here. Everything from getting used to streets without cobblestones to handling a gun.”
I looked at her. “You want me to teach you how to handle a gun?”
“If you’d approve of the idea.”
If I had taught Alice how to handle a gun, she might still be alive…
“I approve. When do you want to start? Before or after we visit doc. Martin?”
“You’re my guide and teacher. What would suit you best?”
“Well, Doc. Martin always seems to want to stitch me up or squeeze my whole body to look for damages…”
“It’s called palpation.”
“Well, he likes to palpitationize—”
“He likes to touch any part of my body that’s injured. And I bet it’s just to hear me say ‘ouch’. So why don’t we practice firing a gun first? Then once you’ve hit me with a bullet, I think it’s time to let Paul Martin palputen me anyway…”
“I have my gun with me. I’ll just make a quick stop and buy some more ammunition.”
“So, have you ever used a firearm before?”
“No, I haven’t. It’s not proper for a woman…”
“It’s not proper for a woman to go to medical school either,” I countered. “But you did.”
“And I learned what damage a bullet can do. Internal hemorrhage—”
“Do you want me to teach you how to use a gun or not, Dessie?”
“I do. But this is a deadly weapon, Joe! I just don’t want to—”
“Destiny Hammond!” I mock castigated her. “You’re acting like a coward.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Well, beg all you want. But I’m not acting. I am a coward! Now how do I do with this thing?”
“The gun is loaded, right?”
“You know it is.”
“And you can see the target?” I asked, motioning to the rock I had placed on the cliff in front of us.
“My vision is fine, thank you very much.”
“Right. Then pull the hammer back, aim… and squeeze the trigger gently.”
My Colt went off with a loud bang, several feet from the intended target.
“Oh, my God!” the girl exclaimed.
I sighed. “Destiny, you didn’t aim. Now let’s try it again – nice and easy. Once you’ve managed to hit that rock, we’ll sit down and talk.”
“How come you’re so eager to teach me how to fire a gun in the first place, Joe?”
The view from the hill was wonderful. To the left, a meadow sloped down toward a small pond where part of the cattle usually went to drink in the summer. Straight ahead lay the woods.
I glanced out over the landscape. “A woman should know how to handle a gun. To be able to protect herself.”
“I suppose the protectiveness of the second amendment is a recurring motif here in the West?”
I turned to stare at her. “Would you mind saying that in plain English?”
She giggled. “I mean, guns are really important here, aren’t they?”
“Being able to protect yourself is really important to me.” I listened to the echo of my own words. They had come out a lot harsher than intended. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I apologize, I didn’t mean to get upset…”
What’s the matter with me? I’m a grown man acting like a blubbering fourteen-year-old boy.
Destiny flashed me a grin. “Great,” she said. “I’m not the only hot-tempered person around here.”
I looked at her – that hair of hers that was somehow always in motion, the eyes that saw straight through me. I averted my gaze. She grew serious, sounding sincere at last. “But are you telling me that you can’t stay safe without a firearm?”
“My wife…” I wavered for a second. “She would still be alive today if I had taught her how to use a gun. My baby would have been one year old, going on two.”
“Your baby?” Noticing my apprehension, she angled her head with deference. “I’m not going to write anything about this… unless you want me to of course. This is just between you and me as friends. And only if you want to tell me. I didn’t know you had a child…”
I hesitated, hesitated, then took the plunge. “An unborn child. Alice was pregnant when she died…”
“Will you let me take it from the start?”
“Of course. If you feel up to it.”
“I was broken when my brother Hoss died. We all expect to lose our parents at some point. But the loss of a brother comes wholly unexpected and changes the landscape of your world so quickly that it’s impossible to grasp.”
“I can only imagine…”
“I had experienced losses many times in my life. But never one like this. The death of my middle brother hit me harder than anything had ever done before. It was as if everything inside of me was ripped out.
Hoss was more than just my brother; he was my best friend. He was the big brother that I had always depended on, he was my rock and now my rock would be six feet under. The thought of never seeing him again tore my heart apart. It felt like everything inside of me changed. I realized that nothing in this world could be taken for granted.”
“That’s how you felt? Like everything changed?”
“First came the numbness. I felt like being on my own, at the same time I felt scared to be alone. My whole world was in turmoil. I was in a constant limbo, a state of being between two states; life without my big brother had not yet begun, neither was it really over. It was a frightening place to be. Emotionally and physically, I felt unanchored, drifting, not belonging, directionless, unsure of what was real and what was imagined. Everything that happened felt unreal, and at the same time unimaginable.
‘Had this really happened? Had my big brother really drowned? This beautiful night, in our family, had we really lost him forever?’
Everything was in painful slow motion.
We were all having a tough time holding it together. We were desperately trying to make sense of what was going on.”
“You mean you, your father and adopted brother?” Destiny asked. “Neither one of you could grasp his passing?”
I nodded. “Kind of like that. My brother had died, and I was faced with what seemed inconceivable – life without him. I had been forced to embark on a journey that was so different than any I had taken before. Nothing could have prepared me for this loss or the intensity of the pain and sorrow I felt. It hurt so much.
My life had been completely shattered and I knew I’d never again be the person I was before Hoss’ death. Life was different. I was different. Days stretched endlessly, they were filled with a pain deeper than any I’d felt before. A part of me had died. Would I always feel this overwhelming emptiness? Would I ever experience any sense of wholeness again? Could life have meaning if my brother was no longer there to share it with me?”
“How did you manage to adjust… or did you manage to adjust to a life without him?”
“I did my best. All of a sudden my life was filled with new responsibilities, responsibilities I never wanted or asked for. Responsibilities, both for my father, Jamie and the Ponderosa.”
“The day you learned about your brother’s passing… Can you remember that day?”
“How could I ever forget? It’s etched into my memory ’til the day I die.”
“My father didn’t say anything first, but his face was ashen and tense as if holding back something explosive and painful.
‘Pa, what’s wrong?’ I asked.
The sob that came from my father racked me to my core. It was like the cumulative pain of every parent who ever lost a child. He blurted out as though he hadn’t the strength to hold it in any longer, ‘Hoss is dead.’ His face left no doubt of the sincerity of his statement.
I stood there. A cold wind blew through me and seemed to strip me of all emotion. A numbness enveloped me. In a way, I understood my father’s pain much better than I did my own. His was so overwhelming, and I knew instinctively that there could be no greater loss than that of a child. My grief seemed almost selfish by comparison. So I would have to hold it to myself.”
“And you did, didn’t you? You held it to yourself…?”
“I talked to Jamie about it… Once.”
A tap on my bedroom door made me sit up in my bed. Jamie push opened the door. I motioned him to come in so he eased through the door and shut it behind him. Silent tears streamed down his cheeks.
‘Come here,’ I said, holding a hand out to him. He came closer to me and took my hand.
‘I miss him,’ was all Jamie could say, before completely breaking down the second he made eye contact with me.
I embraced him awkwardly as he buried his face in my shoulder. We weren’t used to having much physical contact; Jamie had passed the hugging stage by the time he came to live with us. But this time the awkwardness quickly disappeared.
Closing my eyes, I tried not to let it all hit me like it was hitting Jamie right then and there, but it was hard. I could hold it in for my father because he needed me to be strong for him. I wasn’t sure Jamie did or not.
Not wanting to console him with empty, overused words, I just pressed my cheek against his head without telling him to try to stop crying; I knew it was impossible because now I was crying, too. I had managed to keep it in so far, but I couldn’t anymore. I continued to hold Jamie and he continued to hold on to me because it’s nice to be able to find solace in such an ugly, lonely situation.
Being able to be there for Jamie gave me a sense of being needed.
“And then what happened?” Destiny asked.
“My brother’s body was recovered and moved to the undertaker in Virginia City. Watching him for the first time after his death was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life.”
My heart raced and my body was shaking as we walked into the room where Hoss was. Sweat was forming on my forehead and all I could think was that I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t. Did Pa or Jamie notice how my mind raced?
The casket was to the left of the entry, against the wall. I couldn’t see my brother in it, and I secretly hoped that Hoss wouldn’t be there. That it was all a terrible joke, and that he was alive and well.
As we approached, I caught the first look at my big brother since he left the Ponderosa a couple of weeks earlier, the last time I saw him alive. He looked peaceful, but that feeling lasted for about five seconds and then I realized that he was in a casket, and that shouldn’t be.
At that moment I lost all control. Tears welled up in my eyes; Biting my lower lip until it bled, I tried to remember to breathe. Pa put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted to back away, but instead, I broke down in sobs, overwhelmed by emotion. The whole building was completely quiet and I knew everybody could hear my breakdown, but I couldn’t stop. I was standing in a room with my big brother lying in a casket in front of me. I reached to him and touched his hand. His big hand. that always used to be warm was now cold. I held it in mine as I fell to my knees beside him while my already broken heart now completely shattered.
“Did people show the respect and understanding you needed after that experience?”
I laughed bitterly. “I wouldn’t exactly say that.”
“What would you say then?”
I was going to be late, the bank must have opened at least an hour ago. I walked along C Street, not inclined to hurry. The world was the color of lead. I couldn’t shake the vague sense of unreality that was enveloping me. People drifted past me, like unfathomable shadows, with such rigid expressions that I wondered if they were really alive or just pretending.
I’d woken up this morning and not known where I was. The light had been falling on my bed, gray and heavy, making it difficult to breathe.
Life since Hoss died had been a period of freefall, without any frame of reference, minutes and hours of shrieking emptiness.
I stopped on the street, shutting my eyes against the grayness. People carried on streaming past me, bumping into me and muttering apologies for treading on my toes.
One point of stillness, something to cling to. That was all I needed. A shape and a color in the emptiness…
‘Joe Cartwright,’ the banker said as soon as I reached his desk. ‘Your father never signed that contract like I asked him. I hope you have it with you since it is due today.’
I hadn’t even thought about what we might have had due over the past weeks.
‘No, I don’t have it with me.’
He looked up from whatever he was looking at on his desk and eyed me. ‘We are closing for lunch in half an hour. See me at my desk, then.’
After what seemed like hours, it was finally my turn. I sat down on the chair by Mr. Whitman’s desk when the bank cleared out so that the banker could practice his retaliation on me. Once the building was occupied by just the two of us, he walked to the front of his desk and leaned against it, folding his arms over his chest.
‘I know your family has been through quite the ordeal and I’m sorry for your loss. I just hope you and your father realize that unfortunate things like this are going to happen throughout life, but that doesn’t give you the excuse to not live up to your expectations.’
Jesus, he sounded like my old schoolteacher, Abigail Jones. And it was a signature on a contract my father had failed to provide, not the damn Constitution. I knew I should just nod and agree with the banker, but he picked the wrong day to play preacher.
‘Mr. Whitman, Hoss was the only blood-related brother I had left, so I actually don’t foresee this happening again. As much as it seems like it happens repeatedly, he can only die once.’
The way his eyebrows creased together and his lips tightened into a firm line made it apparent that he didn’t find me amusing at all. Good, I wasn’t trying to be.
‘I would hope you would have a little more respect for your brother than that,’ he said flatly.
I hated the fact that I couldn’t punch the banker. I immediately stood up and walked swiftly to where he was standing, stopping just inches from him, my fists down at my sides. My proximity caused his body to go rigid and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction knowing I’d scared him. I looked him directly in the eyes, clenched my teeth, and lowered my voice.
‘Don’t you ever mention my brother again.’ I stared at him for several more seconds, seething, waiting on his reaction. When he failed to say anything, I turned around and grabbed my hat. ‘You’ll get your contract tomorrow,’ I said, exiting the bank.
“But I thought life would give me a second chance when I met Alice. I found myself having these brief moments where my life wasn’t sad every second of the day. I took her to Hoss’ and my ‘Happy Place’, and I would realize it was my first time talking about my brother without crying at least one tear. The sadness that was my life became the moments, and my happiness with Alice became my life.” My voice broke.
Dessie reached down into the pocket of her skirt and pulled up a handkerchief. “Go ahead and cry. It usually helps. God put tears in the human body for more reasons than just to lubricate our eyes.”
I sighed, took the outstretched piece of linen she offered me… then rested my chin on top of her head. “But I lost that too… And I’m scared I won’t ever be able to love again.”
“Because of the fear of pain to lose another loved one?” Destiny asked, her head against my chest and her arms stroking my back.
I nodded against her soft hair. “Yes. And the fear of losing another child. Like I said, Alice was expecting when she was killed by the hands of an intruder… Actually four intruders. Four men. They attacked and violated her before setting our house on fire. I wasn’t home to protect her and our unborn baby. And I had never taught her to use a gun. That’s why I think it’s so important to know how to defend yourself…”
“That’s terrible,” Destiny said in a low voice. “What happened to your wife, your baby, to you… That’s absolutely terrible.”
“I saw the house go up in flames… with her still in there. I had been home at the Ponderosa for a short visit and to pick up some lumber for the baby’s room. When I returned with Jamie and our foreman Candy, the house was ablaze. I tried to get to my wife… Save her, save our baby. But I couldn’t.” I swallowed hard. “I lost them both in that fire. I don’t know what my Alice ever did to deserve such a terrible fate.”
The young woman beside me closed her eyes for a few minutes, while my abdomen tensed with more unshed tears. My own words rang in my ears: I don’t know what Alice ever did. To deserve. Such a terrible fate. She could have had a future, a child, a home, a family.
Just like me.
People’s problems shouldn’t be more dramatic than having to choose the perfect place for your baby’s cradle; or whether to invite your family to supper on Friday or Saturday. God, how I wished I had problems like that, but I hadn’t been granted the privilege. The right to have a home, a family, and a normal life. Then it hit me. Not only for Alice and myself but for Destiny Hammond as well. Opening my eyes wide, I forced back the new tide of sentimental salt water.
Destiny remained silent and I grew more and more uncomfortable. Maybe this wasn’t the best way to go about telling her my life story. I hoped she didn’t feel pressured to tell me how sorry she was for me. I was so sick of other people’s pity.
Just when I started to regret telling her, she reached out and took my hand in hers, touching me so gently like she was telling me what she was thinking without using words. When I met her eyes, it was not pity I saw there at all.
She looked at me with hope in her tear-filled eyes.
I reached to her face and wiped away a tear, then lightly traced my thumb across the wet trail running down her cheek. She placed her hand on top of mine and slowly pulled it to her. Without breaking her gaze from mine, she pulled me closer, causing my heart to catch in my throat. She just somehow managed to convey every single thought and emotion she felt through this one simple gesture.
“It’s okay, Joe,” she whispered, like a mother soothing a small child. “It’s okay… It’s going to be okay…”
Feeling the tears burning their way from my soul and out through my eyes, racing down my cheeks like forging rivers, I tilted my head until it rested against hers and took her hand, intertwining our fingers. And for a split second, I actually believed her.
No, it’s not okay. It will never be okay.
I knew what Dessie Hammond was telling me came from a place of care and maybe even love, but she had never felt this kind of pain.
“How?” I asked. “How I am supposed to move on from this? How could anything possibly be ‘okay’ again after all this? With all due respect, Miss Hammond, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What happened two years ago had not only altered the future I thought I would have. It had changed me to the very core, it altered the way I looked at the world.
“By living,” was Destiny’s reply to my question. “By having the courage to love someone again. By forgiving yourself. By understanding that the time you did have together was precious and beautiful. Look at what you’ve found, not only at what you’ve lost.”
Her eyes sought mine. She didn’t understand.
The pain of losing a child – even an unborn child – suffocates you. You look back on the beautiful times of immense love and anticipation, wishing you could feel that kind of light and hope and happiness again. But you can’t. The pain of that loss is all consuming. You become one with it as you realize that all the beautiful parts aren’t worth it. Without the love and hope, you’ll never risk feeling this pain again.
Loving a woman and getting married… Expecting a baby… I associate that with death and devastation and agonizing despair. I associate that with terror and guilt and rage.
I have given it all up. No love will ever be worth living through the pain a second time.
“I don’t think I could love again,” I said, feeling a new wave of sadness. “Or forgive myself. Maybe you could move on after your father died. But it’s not the same thing. You don’t know what it feels like to feel empty and as if you’d lost everything.”
Destiny’s eyes shone with unshed tears. “Maybe I didn’t have as much to lose as you had, but I did lose everything. I lost my father, my opportunity to become a doctor and the life I was planning. I left Boston because I didn’t feel I had a home or a family there anymore. I faced every single fear I’d ever had. I decided to travel to the West alone and hopefully write a book. A book about other people’s lives, because I couldn’t stand my own. And then I met you…”
“Destiny…” I didn’t even know what I wanted to tell her. Or what she was trying to say to me. I just felt so very bad for her.
“I know it’s not the same thing at all. But…” She put her hand over her torso, “I heard your heart beating inside your chest just a minute ago. A heart you claim isn’t capable of knowing how to love, but in actuality, it’s a heart that loves so very much.”
I pulled away from Destiny, burying my head in my arms and sobbing so hard that my whole body shook.
She put her arm around my shoulders and pressed her cheek against mine. She didn’t say a word, just kept stroking my back. After a while, I sat up, turned toward her, and crept into her arms. Destiny Hammond gently rocked me, the way I would have rocked my son or daughter right now if he or she’d hurt themselves. If my baby had been alive…
I kissed the top of her head, and she closed her eyes as I put my hand under her cheek, tilting her face toward mine. She opened her eyes for a second, just long enough for our lips to meet.
I’d courted a lot of girls when I was younger. With every single girl I’ve been with, my heart had never reacted like it did to Destiny right here and now. I’m not talking about my heart’s feelings for her, but the literal, physical reaction she had on me. Every time I saw those blue eyes and that infectious smile, every time she spoke or laughed, I felt a physical reaction in my chest. I hated it and liked it at the same time. Every time she talked to me, that reaction in my chest reminded me that there still was something there.
A huge part of me was lost when I lost my big brother Hoss, and I was convinced Alice took the very last pieces of my heart with her when she died. After spending time with Dessie for a couple of days, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Maybe my heart hadn’t been completely empty this whole time, after all? Maybe whatever was left inside me had just been asleep, and she was somehow waking it up?
Kissing Dessie Hammond terrified me. She gently kissed me back, her hands stroke my neck, her fingers tenderly tousled my hair. The supple, yet intense zeal of our kiss spread a blanket of warmth throughout my body. Like by themselves, my thumbs caressed her cheeks as I cupped her face, then slid my hands and arms around her and pulled her closer. A wordless, senseless, desperate yearning gave us away as our lips continued to move in rhythm. I really had to stop, because this wasn’t right. This couldn’t have been more wrong, and the reason was simple. Because I felt something for Destiny Hammond. Something I had sworn off forever. I was half an inch from falling in love with her.
I couldn’t tell what was right or wrong when I was around this girl because what was wrong felt so right and what was right felt so wrong. I wanted to give Dessie my heart, my soul, my future… But I didn’t have any of those things to offer. I would only get her hurt if I acted on my feelings. We could never have a family with children, because the last time…
“We have to stop,” I whispered, pulling away from her. “I’m sorry, I want to love you so much, Destiny.” I breathed out the words like they had been pent up forever. “I want that with you so much. I’m just scared the rest of it will never go away.”
“The pain will never go away, Joe. Ever. But if you let yourself love, you’ll only feel it sometimes, instead of allowing it to consume your entire life.”
I wrapped my arm around her, pulling her forehead against my lips. I kissed her, long and hard, before pulling back.
“We can’t do this. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”
“Can you tell me why?”
No. I can’t tell you that I’m broken, because you’ll think that it is some physical injury that you can mend. I can’t tell you that I wake up by nightmares about loved ones being burned alive because you’re going to think you can help me through that. You deserve a future with marriage, a loving husband, a nice home and children. And I can’t give you that. God knows I wish I could, but I’m just not that guy anymore.
“Please, Joe,” she begged. “Just tell me the truth…”
The truth is that I’m falling in love with you, and It scares the living daylights out of me! I don’t want to hurt you. And I will if I let myself love you.
“I can’t do this because I don’t love you, Destiny.”
“That’s not the truth, and you know that.”
“Yes, it is. You’re better off without me. I’m doing you a favor.”
“By pushing me away?”
I threw up my hands only to let them fall again. “Stop this, please! You know this could never be. You belong in Beacon Hills and my home is here. You’re not going to stay in Virginia City…”
“Unless I have a reason to,” she retorted.
“Well, you don’t! You have no reason to stay here except for finishing your manuscript. That’s why you came here in the first place and that’s what I agreed to help you with! I don’t love you. I don’t need you and there’s no future for us!”
“Then why did you kiss me?”
“I made a mistake. I don’t love you!”
“Do you have a habit of kissing people you don’t love?”
“Do you have a habit of invading other peoples’ privacy? Because it sure seems that way, young lady!”
A tear slipped from her eye, and my unless my heart hadn’t been shattered two years ago, that one tear would have been enough to tear it into thousand pieces, I told myself.
“You’re right. I do tend to meddle where I’m uninvited. I voice my opinion before people have even had the chance to ask for it. If they were ever going to ask at all.”
“Fine. Are you ready to go?”
“No. I’m not.” Dessie stroked my cheek. “One thing about me is that I’m honest. I don’t lie to the people I care about. And…” She took a deep breath. “And I wouldn’t lie to you. So now I ask you to return that favor.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to look me in the eye… and tell me you don’t feel anything for me.”
“Dessie… I think you’re a nice girl, but—”
“Look me in the eye…” she enunciated, “and tell me that you could never love me.”
I steadied myself, took a deep breath and looked right into her wonderful, captivating, beautiful eyes. “I could never love you, Destiny. I’m sorry.”
She met my gaze and I stared into the most beautiful shade of blue God could ever have created. Had she kept our eye-contact for just five more seconds, I would have embraced her again, kissed her on the cheek, explained that I didn’t mean what I just said.
But she didn’t.
The cards (words/phrases) dealt to me were:
Fear of losing another child
To be loved
joker (free pass)
Other Stories by this Author
- Giving You (by Foreverfree)
- Close To a Guarantee (by ForeverFree)
- When Spring Comes Again (by Foreverfree)