Summary: Can the Cartwright family strength overcome the trouble brought to them by an ambitious man and his pretty daughter?
Word Count: 9532
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Ben Cartwright sat at the head of his dining table and surveyed the devastation. The immaculately laid out settings reduced to chaos with glasses, plates, cutlery shattered and broken.
Like my family.
The trouble had begun the day Judge Thomas Avery came to Virginia City, with his daughter Mary Ann. Ben sighed. Why did it always have to involve a pretty girl?
A man of formidable ambition. Judge Avery had one goal in Virginia City, to garner support for his campaign to run for Governor. As the owner of one of the largest ranches in the territory, the judge had been quick to seek Ben out; keen to gain his backing.
“I want your support, Ben. It’s time Utah had a Governor who lives and works in the territory. Your commendation carries weight in Washington, and I need that.” He’d told him again and again.
In his wake came his lovely daughter, who rapidly drew the attention of his sons. The young lady favored Little Joe, which surprised Ben. A few years older than his youngest son and cultured in her style and manner, Ben assumed that Adam would be the one to attract her interest, but she’d passed right over him and entranced his youngest; who’d swiftly fallen for the attractions of the elegant brunette. Unfortunately, Joe couldn’t resist rubbing his victory in Adam’s face, and the first seeds of disharmony were sown.
“What do you think, Pa?” Adam turned to him one evening and enquired.
“Do you plan on giving Judge Avery your backing?”
Ben lowered his book giving Adam his full attention. He sensed there was more being asked here than a simple question. They hadn’t discussed the judge and Ben was curious to know Adam’s opinion. “What do you think of him?”
Adam had been leaning back in his favorite blue chair, one leg over the arm, aimlessly strumming his guitar, but he abandoned this position and sat up. Laying the instrument aside, he leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together.
Ben recognized the pose. Here it comes.
“What exactly do we know about the man, other than what we’ve been told by his acolytes? He came to Salt Lake a year ago, and before that, he was a judge in Austin for five years.”
Adam paused. Ben raised an eyebrow. “Yes? There’s nothing wrong with that is there?”
Ben noticed Adam’s interlaced fingers tighten.
“No, but it’s not much. Is it enough to put a man in the Governor’s office? And now we have Little Joe mooning over his daughter. Shouldn’t we find out more before that goes any further?”
Ignoring the swipe at Joe, Ben asked, “What do you suggest?”
“Do you remember Edward King?”
“King? The journalist friend you met in Boston?”
“Yes. He’s based in Austin now and reports from there for his paper the Telegraph and Texas Register. I’d like to write to him and ask for anything he can tell us about Avery.”
Ben weighed up the suggestion. Adam had a keen sense about people and would often be the first to warn of an untrustworthy character. Ben sometimes wondered if his eldest wasn’t becoming too skeptical and guarded, but, if Adam had doubts, Ben ignored it at his peril, and to know more about Avery certainly wouldn’t hurt. How Joe would take such a move, Ben wasn’t sure. He decided when the time came, he would handle Joe.
A crooked smile crossed Ben’s lips as he looked again at the ruined remnants of their dinner. He’d certainly made a poor job of that.
All Ben could do was wait for Adam to get his reply and try his best to avoid the persistent judge. The deepening relationship between Mary Ann and Little Joe worried him, although he couldn’t put his finger on why. Joe’s conversation increasingly centered around Mary Ann and her father’s plans as governor. His endless badgering of why Ben hadn’t given him his support served two weeks later, to deepen antagonisms.
Espousing the virtues of the judge’s case throughout supper, Ben’s patience gave out. “Joseph, I will decide whether I want to back Judge Avery, and I will tell you what I’ve decided when that happens.”
This irritation passed by the over-zealous Joe, who continued to press. “But I don’t understand what’s holding you back? He’s the right man for the job.”
“Maybe, unlike some, Pa likes to consider his decisions fully.”
Joe shot Adam an angry look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Adam levelled his knife at his brother. “It means stop bothering him about it.”
“Aren’t I allowed to have an opinion?”
“Of course, and when you’re capable of making an informed one, you’re free to have it.”
The chair scraped back, and the napkin came down. “You think I’m stupid?”
“No, I’m saying, you make stupid decisions.”
Seeing Joe’s fists clench, Ben stepped in. “Enough! Joseph, sit down! We will have no more talk of this at the dining table.”
Joe wavered on the verge of storming out, but with his father’s eyes firmly on him and knowing Adam would view such a move as childishness; he sat down and continued his meal in icy silence.
The cooling of his relationship with his brother was in stark contrast to the heat of his feelings for Mary Ann Avery. A poised, intelligent and articulate young woman, Joe was dazzled by her interest in him. Given every encouragement, with invitations to dinners, picnics and parties that were held to gather more supporters for her father, his emotions ran rampant. The rest of the family could only watch as Little Joe verged on falling head over heels in love.
Seeing Joe disappear out the door to attend yet another event in honor of Judge Avery, Hoss kicked absently at the stone fireplace. “Joe sure seems stuck on that gal.” He muttered to no one in particular.
Engrossed in his paper, Ben queried, “Hmmm, what’s that?”
Taking the bull by the horns, Hoss asked, “Pa, how d’ya feel about Mary Ann and Joe?”
Ben folded his paper and sighed, “I don’t know. I’m sure she’s a lovely young woman. It’s just I’m not convinced that … well-”
“She’s right fer him.”
Ben nodded. “I’m worried she wouldn’t be happy on the Ponderosa.”
“I know, an’ another thing, it’s all backwards with those two. It ain’t so much he swept her off her feet, but she swept him off his.” Hoss paused. He’d seen his brother in love before and been happy for him, but this time he couldn’t shake the notion Joe was being torn away from them bit by bit. “He never stops goin’ on about Mary Ann, and she does nothin’ but talk about her pa becoming Governor. I reckon she plans to be right by her his side.” Swallowing hard, he voiced his biggest fear. “Iffin he marries her, would he go live with them in Salt Lake?”
Ben looked aghast. The thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Would he? Would his youngest, the only one of his sons born on the Ponderosa, whose roots were embedded deep within it, leave and set up home elsewhere? Joe was almost eighteen. If he made that decision, there was nothing Ben could do to stop him.
His concerns were further heightened when the inevitable happened. Joe approached him in that quiet, earnest way he had when he wanted to talk about something important. Ben’s heart beat a little faster as Joe settled himself into the chair in front of his desk.
“Pa, can I invite Judge Avery and Mary Ann to dinner Saturday?”
The hand that rested on Ben’s knee tightened. “Won’t he be having another one of his supporter dinners?”
Joe sat forward, the eagerness clear in his voice. “That’s why I want to invite him now before he gets a chance to arrange anything. I’ve a big question to ask him, and I’d like to do it here.”
Ben forced himself to query, “Can I ask what that question is?”
Joe dropped his eyes. After studying the floor for a moment, he raised them. The fire and excitement burning there made Ben’s stomach lurch.
“I want to ask permission to court Mary Ann.”
Before he could stop himself, Ben blurted out, “To court – you mean marriage? But Joe, you’ve only known her a few weeks.”
“Six weeks, Pa. How long was it before you asked Ma to marry you?”
Of course, he would throw that at me.
Ben picked up his pencil and tapped it gently on the desk. Joe always jumped feet first into a relationship. The affair with Julia Bulette and the tragedy of little Amy Bishop still loomed large in Ben’s memory. Once his son’s heart was engaged, however, there was nothing anyone could do but accept it. “You’re sure, then?”
Joe leant forward in his chair. “I love her, Pa. She’s wonderful, everything I always wanted.”
Unable to bear Joe’s earnest look, Ben studied his pencil. He picked his next words with care. “Have you thought about what will happen once you’re married?”
“Happen? I don’t understand?”
“Mary Ann seems devoted to her father. If he becomes Governor, he’ll take up residence in Salt Lake City. I imagine she’ll want to be close to him.”
Joe frowned, considering the question. “I guess she may want to be with him at first. I don’t mind visiting for a while, but we wouldn’t stay long.”
His answer eased Ben’s worried heart. However, Avery was a determined man, used to getting what he wanted, and although Mary Ann was charming, she struck Ben as being cut from the same cloth. The fear flickered inside him that Joe might not find returning to the Ponderosa as easy as he thought if neither of them wished it.
“Well, that’s something the two of you may want to talk over.” Tactfully, he added, “She’s a lovely girl. Of course, invite them for dinner.”
Joe’s sparkling smile burst into life. “I’ll ride into Virginia City now.”
“Now? Aren’t you fixing fences with Adam and Hoss today?”
Ben folded his arms. Feeling on safer ground, he pinned his son with his dark eyes. “You’ve been rather absent lately, thanks to Mary Ann.”
Joe’s scratched his head, and a sheepish grin broke out. “Sorry, Pa. I guess I have been shirking my load. I promise I’ll make it up to everyone.”
“You can start now by joining your brothers in the lower forty.” Seeing the dismay and hesitation in his son’s face, he continued, “You can ride into Virginia City later. The judge will still be there.”
Patience wasn’t his youngest son’s strongest gift, and it amused Ben to watch the quandary playing out in Joe’s face.
“Okay, I’ll do it later.”
Ben smiled. “Thank you, Joseph.”
If Hoss and Adam noticed their younger brother had ants in his pants all day, they never mentioned it. Impatient to carry out his plans, Joe was out the door within half an hour of reaching home.
Adam lowering himself into his favorite blue chair, asked, “What’s he so all fired up about?”
Trying to sound casual, Ben replied, “He wants to invite Judge Avery and Mary Ann to dinner Saturday.
Adam’s keen eyes fixed on Ben’s. “Why?”
“He wants to ask his permission to formally court Mary Ann.”
“He’s going to ask her to marry him? They’ve only just met.”
“He’s in love.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Of course he is, with a woman he barely knows.”
Coming to Joe’s defense, Hoss told him, “You know he always falls quick.”
He received an angry glance from his older brother. “So, you’re okay with this?” Hoss’ face gave him away, and Adam snorted in triumph. “We can’t let him do it. At least, not until I hear from Edward.”
Hoss looked lost. “Edward?”
Adam explained, and the lost looked turned into a scowl. Hoss paced in front of the fireplace and pushed his hands deep into his pants pockets. “I don’t like it. Sneaking around, goin’ behind Lil’l Joe’s back.”
“If nothing comes of it, he need never know. But if something does, wouldn’t you want him to find out before he marries the man’s daughter?”
“Well, yeah, but-”
“It’s for his own good.”
Hoss looked at his brother’s determined face and sighed, “You gotta bad feelin’ about the judge, huh?”
“Something just doesn’t sit right.”
Hoss nodded. He had a lot of respect for Adam’s judgement. “All right, I won’t say nothin’, but I still don’t see how we can stop Lil’l Joe askin’ Mary Ann to marry him before we hear from this reporter fella?”
Ben found two pairs of eyes on him. As a father, he was expected to have all the answers, but this time, he felt as hopeless as they did. “I don’t think there is anything we can do. Let’s just hope you’re wrong.”
The day of the dinner dawned bright and sunny with Joe at his most exuberant and distracted. After requesting him to pass the hammer for the umpteenth time, Hoss had enough and sent him back to the house. There he dived into Hop Sing’s hallowed ground and was promptly driven out.
Walking in, Ben discovered his cook brandishing a massive knife at his youngest as he shooed him from the kitchen into the main room.
“You go. Leave Hop Sing alone. I cook food fine. I no need your help!”
“But, Hop Sing-”
“No, you go now!”
“What’s all this?”
“Mr. Cartwright, you keep Number Three Son out of kitchen, or I quit and go back to China!”
“Hop Sing, I was only tryin’ to help.”
The knife wafted under Joe’s nose. “No want your help! Stay out!”
After waiting for a beat to see that Joe obeyed, Hop Sing released a, “Huh!” and scuttled back to the kitchen.
“Joseph, I wish you’d leave Hop Sing to get on with things.”
Joe grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry, Pa. I just want tonight to be perfect.”
Ben’s heart went out to him. Whatever his thoughts about Joe’s wish to marry Mary Ann, for Joe, this was a monumental moment. Placing a hand on his shoulder, he told him, “I know. Don’t worry.”
This advice didn’t suppress Joe’s nervous energy, and it wasn’t long before Ben suggested he go for a ride until it was time to wash and change.
Arriving back before his younger brother, Hoss hung his hat on an empty rack and asked. “Adam not back yet?”
Ben checked the clock. Adam had gone into Virginia City to talk to their lawyer about a contract and pick up the mail. “I expect he’ll be back any minute.”
“Where’s Lil’l Joe?”
“I … erm … sent him off for a ride earlier.”
Hoss grinned. “Gettin’ on your nerves too, huh? He was driving me plumb crazy.”
Ben laughed, “He’s so jumpy I’m not sure he’ll make it through dinner.”
The two men were still laughing when Joe came breezing through the door. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, erm, nothing Joseph. Did you have a good ride?”
Joe’s eyes darted suspiciously between the two men wondering at their odd behavior, then shrugged and replied, “Sure. I’m gonna go get washed up.” As he got to the half landing, he turned and asked anxiously, “You two are changing, aren’t you?”
Hoss roared with laughter. Keeping a straight face, Ben waved him quiet and replied, “Of course we are.”
“What’s gotten into him?” Joe asked, who didn’t wait for an answer but turned and ran up the rest of the stairs. Leaving his father and brother to their amusement.
Hoss had just gone up when he heard his older brother’s bedroom door slam and figured he’d arrived back from Virginia City. Once ready, he sauntered down to Joe’s room, situated at the back of the house, and peeked through the door.
He wrinkled his nose and spluttered, “Whew! You put on any more of that fancy pomade, and we’re gonna hav’ta open every window in the house.”
“What? Is it too much? Quick, help me wash it off!”
Taking pity on his brother, Hoss nudged him with his shoulder. “I’s only joshin’ ya.”
Releasing a breath, Joe gasped, “Don’t do that.”
Joe reached for his string tie. Seeing his shaking hands, Hoss tutted and taking it from him began to tie it.
“You’ve gotta calm down boy, or you’re gonna bust.” Hoss’ heart melted when Joe looked up at him. He’d seen his little brother sad, angry and frightened but never downright terrified. “It’ll be all right, jest you see.”
Joe plopped down onto his bed and dropped his head between his hands.
“I’ve never wanted anything to go as well as I do tonight. The Judge and Mary Ann are used to fine things. They’re … sophisticated, yeah, that’s it, that’s the word Adam would use.” Eyes filled with desperation were lifted to Hoss. “What’s if he thinks I’m not good enough for her?”
“Aww, he won’t do that. You and Adam are the finest matrimonial catches in the territory.”
“Hey! What about you? Ain’t you a catch?”
Hoss blushed. “Nah, I ain’t good lookin’ like you an’ Adam.”
Joe looked his brother right in the eye as he told him, “You’ve got something worth a lot more. A good heart.”
Hoss “Aww’d”, chuckled and to Joe’s annoyance ruffled his hair, so he had to brush it neat again.
Laughing, the brothers headed to the stairs. At the top, Joe stopped and caught his breath. From there, he saw the dining table laid out ready. A polished candelabra set in the center winked in the light reflected from its candles, flanked on either side by flowers arranged in low standing vases. The crystal glasses sparkled and the cutlery that Hop Sing spent hours polishing shone like jewels.
“Look at that,” Joe breathed.
Hoss glanced from his brother’s face to his father, and they both shared a private smile at Joe’s delight.
“I must go and thank Hop Sing. Hey, where’s Adam? They’ll be here any minute.”
“I’ll fetch him,” Hoss told the retreating form.
Hoss stuck his head around Adam’s door. “You ready? They’ll be here-” He broke off seeing his brother seated at his desk still in the clothes he’d worn that morning. In front of him were spread a pile of newspaper cuttings. He turned as Hoss entered, showing his brother a haggard, drawn countenance.
“What’s goin’ on?”
“It’s worse than I thought.”
“What is? You better hurry Adam, they’re gonna be here any moment and you ain’t even dressed.”
“I’m not going down to dinner. I can’t sit making polite conversation with that man.”
A frown descended on Hoss’ face. He couldn’t believe Adam would be that selfish. “Now jest a minute. Our younger brother’s down there ‘bout as excited as any man can be. Whatever’s in those papers – well, it’ll hav’ta wait. Tonight’s fer Lil’l Joe. You gotta do this fer him.”
Hoss towered over his older brother. Adam could be mighty stubborn, and he was prepared for a fight. He’d drag Adam downstairs if necessary because there was no way he was letting Little Joe down. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.
Adam nodded, “You’re right. I’ll get changed.”
As Adam was finishing, he heard the buggy with their guests drive up. He left his room to head downstairs, but not before he picked up one of the newspaper clippings and slipped it into the inside pocket of his dress jacket.
The evening began like a marvellous dream for Joe. Mary Ann looked stunning. Her dress of white silk was elegantly woven with a pattern of full-blown roses in blue, the plain white bodice and sleeves were finished with broad bands of blue embossed velvet around her décolletage. Her hair, she wore up, dressed with lappets of blue and gold ribbon. She took Joe’s breath away.
The dinner started well. Hop Sing had excelled himself with the food, Judge Avery and Mary Ann were lavish with their compliments, and if Adam was unusually quiet, Joe didn’t notice.
At the head of the table, sat Ben, on Ben’s right was Judge Avery and then Joe, who sat in between her father and Mary Ann. Opposite were Hoss and then Adam. At the last moment, Adam had foregone his usual seat, next to Ben, and sat facing Mary Ann.
Over the main course, Judge Avery deftly turned the conversation to his Governorship and Ben’s endorsement. “It’s time we put a stop to these patronage appointees from Washington. We need a Governor who lives in the territory and has invested here.”
Adam’s rich voice drawled, “Would you call someone who’s lived in Utah for just a year invested?”
Joe bristled at the challenge in the question. Avery laughed.
“In my case, yes. A man like myself who’s chosen to move to this fine territory. To put down roots and look to its future. A man-”
“Sorry to interrupt your speech Judge, but just why did you leave Texas?”
His smile lost its warmth at the interruption. “I told you, I wanted to help create a future for Utah.”
“Really, so it had nothing to do with the Martinez family?”
Getting anxious, Joe broke in. “Adam? ”
Flicking his eyes briefly at his brother, Adam snapped, “Judge Avery wants to be a politician Joe. He needs to get used to answering questions.” From his jacket pocket, Adam pulled out the newspaper clipping he’d slipped there. “Mr. Martinez and his family, you’ve heard of them?”
“Martinez? No, I don’t think I’m familiar with that name.”
Adam waved the clipping in front of him. Mesmerized, Judge Avery’s eyes moved with it as it flapped back and forth.
“You’re not? Yet it was a big case for you.”
Ben frowned at his eldest and wondered what was in that piece he was wielding like a weapon. He could see Adam was mad, the brittle edge to his voice betrayed the emotion he was struggling to check, he hadn’t seen him like this since Joe was almost beaten to death by John Reagan.
Ben was right. Adam was angry. The package he’d received from his friend appalled him. The man sitting before him was a fraud and more. Taking them for fools by trying to hoodwink them with his deceptive front. Worse than that was their calculated use of Joe. For that, Adam’s fury burned white-hot because Joe was still just a kid. A kid they were using to win over their father. Why else would Mary Ann single him out, except to use his inexperience against him? Joe was tough, but when it came to his heart, he was vulnerable.
Adam continued his pursuit. “If you don’t remember Mr. Martinez, perhaps you’ll remember the other name in the case. You did rule in his favor – Lawson.”
Avery bowed his head slightly. “Ah yes, I remember now. A rather sad, difficult case.” Turning to Ben, he explained, “Mr. Lawson had laid claim to land around El Paso, and Senor … Martinez, did you say? Yes, Senor Martinez asserted rights to it. Unfortunately, I had to rule against him.”
“The Martinez had farmed that land for over sixty years. Who had more right to it than they did?”
“That is true, but this was a complicated legal matter. Their claim was made under Mexican rule. Mr. Lawson’s claim had been legally registered under American law. I had no choice but to rule in Lawson’s favor.”
“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo protected their property rights.”
The judge’s smile turned indulgent. “You’re mistaken. Parts of that treaty were not upheld by the Senate, and it does not give any guarantee of property rights. I defended the rights of an American Citizen, whose claim was properly filed under US law. I’m sure you understand, Ben.”
Before Ben could answer, Adam jumped in. “I’m not sure anyone can understand how it’s right to take away land that’s belonged to a family for three generations, and there have been cases where the Hidalgo Treaty was upheld.”
His dismay growing, Joe turned to Mary Ann as she put her hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Must we talk about this?”
Immediately, he responded to her wish. “No, of course not. Look, Adam, let’s drop this.”
“This is too important to stop talking about just because Miss Avery doesn’t care for the subject.”
“Why, what is so important? What is that anyway?”
“A clipping from an article a reporter friend of mine wrote and sent me.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I asked him for information on Judge Avery.”
“You did? You went behind my back?”
Trying to stem the brewing storm, Ben told him, “Joseph, I asked Adam to write. Judge Avery is asking a great deal. To assist a man to become governor is a great responsibility.”
“We both know you wouldn’t’ve thought of that, Pa if it wasn’t for Adam.”
“I don’t deny it was my idea. I believed we should find out more. You would too if you weren’t so blind. Wake up, Joe. Can’t you see she’s not interested in you? They’re just using you to get at Pa?”
Joe erupted straight at Adam. Glasses fell as the table lurched. Pushing back, Adam just avoided his brother’s grasping fingers.
“Joseph! Sit down! This is no way to behave in front of guests.”
Joe remained standing, glaring at his brother.
Adam got up and threw down his napkin. “If you’ll excuse me. I’ll retire to my room.”
Joe came around the end of the table as Adam walked passed. Abruptly, he halted at Joe’s next word.
Adam stopped. Drawing himself up, he turned slowly back to face his brother.
“I’m telling the truth. Maybe it’s time you stopped letting yourself be blinded by a pretty face.”
Joe’s eyes flashed. “The truth? The truth is you’re jealous.”
“Don’t push me, Little Joe.”
Adam couldn’t have looked any more dangerous if he’d been wearing a gun. Joe didn’t care. Fury stoked his words. “As you once told me, Brother. Any time you’re ready, you can forget all about us being kin.”
“Joseph! That’s enough!”
Ignoring their father, the two brothers locked eyes.
“I’m right, aren’t I? You are jealous. You never liked that Mary Ann wasn’t interested in you. You can’t stand the fact that she prefers me over-”
Usually a man of reason, Adam heard his brother’s words and let the red mist descend. Charging Joe, he lifted him bodily and slammed him down onto the table behind. Ben’s roar was drowned out by the crash of his youngest hitting the tabletop, sending the beautifully laid tableware flying. Joe responded by kicking and thrashing. The sound of smashing crystal and china filled the room.
Ben flew out of his chair and ran around the table, yelling at Hoss to grab Adam. Hoss pulled Adam off, and Ben caught Joe, who tried to dive at his oldest brother. Ben could feel the tautness of Joe’s muscles as he bucked and strained against him.
“Stop this both of you! I will not have fighting in the house!”
Pulling himself together, Adam glared at Hoss who released him. Adam told the room tersely, “Excuse me.” With a twitch of his jacket, he went up to his room.
Once Adam was out of sight, Ben let Joe go.
Mortified, Joe turned to the Avery’s. “I’m sorry. Can I at least escort you home?”
Mary Ann smiled. “Certainly, Little Joe, that will be very thoughtful.”
While Joe fetched their guests’ coats, Hoss, who wanted to be anywhere else but standing awkwardly in the room with them, disappeared to saddle Cochise for his brother.
Ben saw his guests to their buggy and apologized again for the disruption.
His jaw tight and shoulders rigid, Joe told him, “I’m going to stay in Virginia City tonight. I’ll get a room at The International.”
Ben heard the anger in his son’s voice. Knowing how important this night was to him, he couldn’t blame him. “All right, Son. I’ll speak to you tomorrow.”
After watching them ride away, Ben walked back into the house and sat down at the table and surveyed the chaos before him.
Ben sighed and reached down to pick up a piece of broken plate. At least Hop Sing had used the plates Ben had bought for special occasions and not the set for everyday use. Those had been picked out by Joe’s mother. To have them broken would’ve been a terrible loss.
“I’ll help you clear that up.”
Ben looked up and smiled at Hoss. “Thanks, I’m sure something can be salvaged.”
Fetching a bucket and broom from the kitchen, the cleanup began. After a while, Hoss said, “That information Adam received from his reporter friend. It ain’t good. I can understand why he were so upset.”
Hoss swallowed, hearing the disapproval in his father’s tone. “Yeah, can’t really blame him for losing his temper like that.” Seeing the look Ben gave him, he rushed on. “Not that he ain’t real sorry he made a scene, coz he is Pa.”
Other than giving his middle son a withering look, Ben carried on picking up the debris. He recognized this tactic. One son smoothing the water for the other. They weren’t fooling him. He wondered how soon it would be before Adam appeared. It wasn’t long.
“Pa, I wanted to apologize.”
Straightening up, Ben caught the, ‘I’ve-done-my-best’ look that passed between the two. No, they weren’t fooling him.
“Hoss, could you give Adam and me a moment alone.”
“Sure, I’ll take this mess out an’ get rid of it.”
Ben went to his chair and sat down and waited for Adam to do the same.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. When I read what Edward had sent me… it’s terrible, but that’s no excuse.
Ben’s eyes rested on the packet in Adam’s hands. “What does it say?”
Handed the package, Ben began to sift through the clippings. Adam watched his father, trying to read every frown and twitch. When he got to the last article, Adam found his task easier, there was no mistaking the grim look on Ben’s face.
“This was the one you mentioned, about the Martinez family?” Adam gave Ben a nod in response. Ben closed the package. “How reliable is your friend?”
“Very, he’s a passionate man who’s keen to expose corruption, and unlike our friend, Clemens, he believes in only publishing the truth.”
Ben grunted. The memory of the ‘Ponderosa Wild Man’ still horribly fresh in his mind, his opinion of reporters was not high, but he trusted Adam.
Adam pointed to the clippings. “Little Joe needs to see these. He has to know before this thing with Mary Ann goes any further.”
“He’ll be back in the morning, you can show him then.”
Adam’s eyes dropped to his hands. “Actually, I thought I might take a trip up to the high pasture. The line shack up there needs some work. I’ve been putting it off. Now would be a good time to do it. Give Little Joe the chance to cool down. I’m guessing I’m the last person he wants to see right now.”
“He’s upset. Those things he said about you two forgetting you’re brothers. I know you’d never say that to him…” Ben trailed off, seeing Adam’s rueful expression. “Adam, you didn’t?”
“It was that day Joe was to bring the thousand head down to the bottomland, and we had that fight in the house. He’d been sassing and bucking me for days, and when I came in and found him wasting time playing with that épée – well, I just had enough.”
“But, to tell him to forget you’re kin?”
“I know, Pa, I know! I lost my temper and said the worst thing I could think of. I’m not proud of it.” Adam leapt up and went to stand behind his chair. Leaning against the back, he added, “Anyway, things have been strained between us since that business with Frederick Kyle and now Mary Ann. Maybe, more was churned up than I realized. Guess Little Joe’s just returning the favor.”
Ben’s eyes dropped to the last newspaper clipping. “He’ll take this hard.”
“And what about Avery?”
“He’ll get no endorsement from me.”
“Good, I think we need to-”
Adam was interrupted by a yelp of, “Hop Sing!” from his middle brother. Coming around the corner from the kitchen, a frantic Hoss trailed a determined Hop Sing, bag in hand, heading for the door. “Please, don’t leave!”
Exchanging dismayed looks Adam and Ben rushed over.
“Hop Sing, what’s going on?”
“I leave. Go back China. I no stay. I make lovely table. Cook lovely food and this what happen. All this mess and no one eat dessert!”
Hoss, standing in front of the little man, pleaded, “I’ll eat your dessert Hop Sing. I’ll eat it right now. Just don’t go.”
“We all will, and don’t worry about the mess. It’s my fault, and I’ll clear it up. I’m very sorry it happened.”
Nodding in agreement, Ben begged, “Please stay. What would we do without you?”
Hop Sings dark eyes darted to each man. Stabbing at their chests with his finger, he snapped, “Dessert wait till tomorrow. You clean up mess tonight!”
Turning, he marched back to his room, leaving the three men to heave a collective sigh of relief.
Little Joe walked through the door just as Ben came down the stairs for breakfast. This came as a considerable surprise, usually, his youngest was the last up, he must’ve got up very early to arrive back at this hour.
“You’re back early,” he greeted.
Joe gave him a black look. “Is Adam about?”
Choosing to ignore Joe’s just shy of belligerent tone, Ben told him, “No, he’s still in bed.”
“Good, coz I don’t wanna see him.”
“Now, just a minute- ”
“No, Pa. He embarrassed the judge and hurt Mary Ann’s feelings. He ruined everything. I couldn’t talk to the judge after what happened. I don’t wanna see Adam, and I’m gonna move into town until I’ve sorted this out with her.”
Before Ben could say a word, Joe darted up the stairs. He was back down in less than ten minutes. Changed out of the dress suit he’d still been wearing, he had his saddlebags slung over one shoulder.
Ben clenched his jaw. He wasn’t about to let Joe leave without talking to him. “Before you go, you need to see what this is all about.”
“I’m not interested!”
“Don’t raise your voice to me.”
The green eyes dropped before his father’s censorious dark ones. “Sorry, Sir.”
“Come over here and sit down.”
This wasn’t a request, and Joe meekly followed, lowering himself down in the chair by his father’s desk. Ben took out the packet and dropped it in front of his son. Leaving him to it, he returned to the dining table to pour himself some coffee.
Despite his insistence otherwise, Joe desperately wanted to see the clipping. But dread tightened his gut. Steeling himself, he reached forward.
Taking a cup of coffee over to Joe, Ben set it down in front of him before returning to the table to drink his. He could hear Hop Sing clattering about in the kitchen preparing breakfast but let these familiar sounds drift into the background as he kept his eyes on his youngest and wondered what was going through his mind.
When Joe had finished, he pushed the packet away, his eyes blank as he continued to stare at the papers. With a jerk, he rose from the chair. Hooking his thumbs into the back of his trousers, he wandered to the fireplace. What he’d read revolted him. The principles he’d been raised with were in direct opposition to the actions of the man who was the father of the woman he loved. Mary Ann, God, what would she do when she found out? A feeling of cold panic washed over him. What could he do? Did he even have the right to reveal her father’s transgressions to her?
Ben sat down in the overstuffed red chair next to Joe. He could see the muscles in his son’s cheek and jaw working.
Ben heard the strain in Joe’s husky words, “It doesn’t change anything. I love Mary Ann. Even if all that is true… ”
“Adam assures me his friend is a good reporter and only interested in printing the truth.”
Joe’s head snapped ‘round to face Ben. His eyes burned bright from the emotion welling through him. “I love her, not her father. She probably doesn’t know anything about this.”
“It’s possible, but he is her father.”
“So what? I don’t care. I love her, and I mean to marry her.”
Rushing to the desk, Joe snatched up the offending article and with fingers that shook folded it and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Ben got up. He watched Joe buckle on his gun belt. The unhappiness in his son’s face tore at his heart. “What’re you going to do?”
“I’m going to talk to them. But, even if it’s true, I can’t discard Mary Ann because of her father. I’m going to marry her.”
On these last desperate words, Joe dashed out the door. Moments later, Ben heard the pounding of hooves taking his son away from him.
“He’s determined, then?”
Startled, Ben turned. His eldest stood at the top of the stairs. “You heard?”
“Yeah. Did he take the newspaper clipping?”
“I think he’s going to show it to the judge.”
Adam pursed his lips as he took his seat at the table. “I’d rather he hadn’t. I was going to take it to Dan and see if he would investigate and publish his own story. The more who know about this, the better.”
“If it helps to keep Avery out of the Governor’s office, then I agree. Does seeing Dan mean you’ve changed your mind about going?”
Adam cut a look up to his father. “No. I’m making the right decision to go up to the line shack. I can’t stay around here and watch Little Joe throw his life away on that girl.”
“Is that fair? After all, he’ll be marrying Mary Ann, not her father.”
“Oh c’mon, Pa. Those two are thick as thieves and haven’t you told me often enough that taking a wife is more than taking a woman, you’ve got to consider her family. If Joe marries her, he’ll never get away from them and being around those two- it’ll destroy him.”
Ben fought the heaviness in his own heart, as he replied, “I don’t think you’re giving Little Joe enough credit.”
Adam paused. “Maybe not. I hope not.”
Tumultuous thoughts battered Joe on his ride into Virginia City. He imagined one scenario after another to justify the judge’s actions only to pick them apart. Never had the ride appeared so long, or so short.
Tying Cochise up at the rail outside of the Palace Hotel, Joe went in. When he reached the judge’s suite, he took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Then he knocked and knocked again. The door was opened by Judge Avery’s forbidding servant, who peered down his long nose, disapproval all over his face.
“Is the judge in?”
“The judge is at breakfast, Sir.”
Joe pushed his way in. “I need to see him.”
At the table by the window sat the father and daughter enjoying breakfast. Joe could see they were still in their dressing gowns. Awkwardly, he yanked off his hat as the inappropriateness of barging in struck home.
“Little Joe, what brings you here so early? I thought we were to meet later?”
“I need to speak to your father.”
Dismissing his manservant, Judge Avery invited Joe to sit down.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“No, thank you, Sir.” Joe fumbled in his jacket and brought out the clipping. “I’ve come about this.”
Mary Ann’s eyebrows rose. “Really, this again?”
“It’s important. Could we speak privately, Sir?”
“I have no secrets from my daughter,” the judge told him as he took the clipping and began to read. When he finished, he dismissed, “I explained this last night.”
“But in the article, it says…” Joe’s eyes flickered to Mary Ann, wishing with all his heart she wasn’t here. To inflict the horrible details on her was the last thing he wanted. “The whole family was killed when that man, Lawson went to evict them.”
The judge tapped the piece of paper on the table. “They were served with a legal warrant of eviction. They chose to ignore it and took arms against Lawson and his men.”
“But the article says their house was burned down. There were women and children in the house.” Joe broke off and looked down at his white knuckled hands, clutching his hat. “Sir, it says you refused to allow charges to be brought against Lawson and his men for the killings.”
The judge tossed the paper onto the table and snorted. “Of course not. I told you. Senor Martinez ignored the eviction notice and threatened the men who served it, and I wasn’t about to take an American into court for removing Mexican squatters from his land? There were no charges to answer.”
The real nature of the judge crystalized before Joe. He didn’t like it. His chest tightened in anguish for Mary Ann, and how she must be feeling, learning her father was capable of this. “I see. Could I speak privately to Mary Ann, Sir?”
Glancing at his daughter, she gave a slight nod. “Certainly, I’ll be in my room.”
Joe turned to Mary Ann and took her soft white hands in his. “I’m sorry you had to hear that. It must be a shock.”
“I don’t understand?”
“The killings … the children? To know your father did nothing? Worse than that, to find out that he prevented the men responsible being brought to justice?”
Mary Ann got up and walked into the middle of the room. “Father just explained the circumstances to you. What was he supposed to do?”
Fretful, he followed her. She obviously didn’t understand what she’d just heard. “Mary Ann, the children were only ten and seven. How could their deaths not be a crime?”
Joe saw the baffled look on her face. A cold fear bloomed in his gut.
Taking a seat on the sofa, Mary Ann invited him to join her.
Smiling, she asked, “I understand that you had some trouble only recently with a land claim?”
Taken aback by this change of subject, Joe replied, “Yes, a woman claimed to be an heiress to an old Spanish land grant. It turned out to be false.”
“How fortunate, but it must’ve been a distressing time for your father, for you all?”
“Yeah, under the claim, we could’ve lost half the ranch.”
Joe found his hand grasped as she fervently told him, “Imagine the difference, if your father had a friend, such as mine, judging the case.”
Joe stiffened. The cold feeling grew. “Is that what your father is, a friend? To people like this Lawson, and who else?”
“Father supports those friends who support him. Mr. Lawson was an American; naturally, Father would uphold him over Mexicans.” The feeling in his stomach began to press, making him feel sick. Desperately he clung to the vision he’d created for the woman before him, but reality cut it down. “It’s unfortunate about the children, but surely you understand Father’s position?”
Unable to bear her touch, Joe removed his hand and stood up. “No, I don’t. Pa taught us that everyone deserves to be treated the same.”
Mary Ann raised an eyebrow, the warmth in her voice vanished like his dreams. “I took you for many things Little Joe, but not naïve.”
“If believing the law should be upheld for all, I’ll gladly be naïve. If that’s how your father thinks, I don’t want him as Governor, and neither will my pa.” He looked at her beautiful face. From the beginning, she’d made him giddy, breathless; as if he couldn’t get enough air. Her beauty bathed him in sunshine so bright he’d seen nothing else. Now the sun had gone in, and he wondered how he’d ever found her attractive. “Goodbye, Mary Ann.”
Mary Ann called after him. “My father could be a good friend to the Cartwright’s, but he’d make a powerful enemy.”
Halted in the doorway, Joe grew rigid at her words. Without a backward glance, he left the room.
Licking his lips in anticipation for the cold beer he was about to enjoy, Hoss entered the Bucket of Blood.
With Adam gone to the line shack and Joe in Virginia City with his girl, it had been left to Hoss to come in after lunch and collect the supplies. The saloon was lively; filled with miners, just come off shift, cowboys and all the other myriad of drifters that a boomtown attracts. Leaning back against the bar, Hoss relaxed, letting his eyes wander around the room. Then he spotted the lone figure at the back.
The enjoyment of his beer turned sour in his mouth as he recognized his younger brother. His stomach dropped to his boots. The line of empty beer glasses told Hoss a lot. That Joe had moved onto whiskey told him it was big trouble.
Hoss eased himself into the chair beside Joe. “You okay?”
Even befuddled from the drink, Hoss could see the pain in his brother’s eyes. “She knew H … Hoss. She knew an’ … an’ she didn’t care.”
Joe poured himself another whiskey, unaware he slopped most onto the table.
Hoss got up and patted Joe’s shoulder. “C’mon Lil’l Brother, I think we oughta get you home.”
Joe shrugged the hand away sharply. “Leave me be. I ain’t goin’ nowhere coz I ain’t … finished my drink.” Picking up his whiskey, he tried to pour another. When nothing came out, he held it too his face, squinting to see the contents. “I need … another bottle.”
Hoss’ mouth set in a grim line and he took firm hold of Joe around his chest. “Oh no, you don’t. You’re comin’ home right now.”
His brother’s shouting and feeble struggles were no match for Hoss. Picking Joe up, he flung him over his shoulder and carried him out of the saloon. Having figured by now that Joe was in no condition to ride his horse, he dumped him into the back of the buckboard. Joe lay there and moaned.
“Dagnabbit Lil’l Joe. Where’s your horse?”
“Oh, Cochise. I … I tied him in front of the hotel.”
Hoss looked around at the hitching post outside The International. Seeing nothing, he squinted as he looked down the far end of the street to The Palace and spotted the distinctive black and white of Cochise. Climbing in the buckboard, he geed up the horses and trundled down to collect him.
The ride home was silent punctuated only by groans and moans from his passenger. After about an hour clattering about in the back, Joe went very quiet. Hoss prepared himself. Sure enough, he heard the plaintive plea to stop. He hauled the team to a halt and helped Joe out so he could complete the inevitable. When Joe had finished, Hoss handed him a canteen.
His pathetic looks and pale and clammy skin didn’t bode well, but Joe took the canteen gratefully and, after swilling out his mouth, took a drink. “Thanks.”
“You up to riding upfront?”
Joe ran a shaky hand over his eyes. “Guess so.”
Riding up front was one thing, getting up there was another. After pushing his brother up and getting a boot in his face for his trouble, Hoss shook his head. “Boy, Pa sure ain’t gonna be happy when he sees you.”
His head now in his hands, Joe made a sound like a whimper. Hoss gave him a disgusted look and got the team moving again.
To Hoss’ surprise, his father said very little when they arrived home. Other than asking Little Joe if he needed anything, he let Hoss take him upstairs and put him to bed.
When Hoss came back down, his pa was waiting.
Hoss shrugged. “I dunno. All he told me was, ‘She knew’.”
Ben grunted. “How much did he have to drink?”
Hoss pursed his lips, he wasn’t keen on the role of tattle-tale. “Aww, a few beers and a bottle of whiskey. Although he spilled most of that.”
“I guess everything is off between them?”
Hoss nodded. “He looked plumb miserable when I found him.”
Ben drew in a loud breath. “He’s young, he’ll get over it. Certainly, easier than he would if he’d married the girl. We can be thankful for that at least.”
Joe’s appearance at supper was not pretty. They could see he’d attempted to wash up; however, he looked green around the gills and from the way he winced at the slightest movement, had a headache.
Ben didn’t approve of running away from troubles using alcohol, but Joe had been in love. He’d spent weeks putting Mary Ann on a pedestal and whatever truth he’d discovered must’ve been hard. Still, he wasn’t going to go that easy on him.
Moving the dish of fried chicken in front of him, he commented heartily, “Glad to see you’re looking better.”
Joe flinched at the volume of his father’s voice and visibly blanched at the chicken, which he quickly passed to Hoss.
Grinning, Hoss teased. “Ain’t you hungry Lil’l Brother?”
Swallowing hard, Joe shook his head. With an unsteady hand, he poured himself some water. As he took a sip, Hoss tore apart a piece of chicken.
“Chicken’s real good. You sure you don’t want some?”
Seeing the nauseous look that swept Joe’s face, Ben took pity on him. “I think it best if you go back to bed. I’ll have Hop Sing bring you up some soup or something else easy on your stomach.”
The grateful smile he got in return, as Joe mumbled, “Thanks, Pa,” warmed Ben’s heart.
At breakfast, Joe appeared better, but still quiet and depressed. On being told that Adam had gone up to the line shack, he played with his eggs for a moment before asking, “He went because of me, didn’t he?”
“He thought it best to give you two some space, that’s all. He’ll be back in a few days.”
Joe nodded but stopped eating and soon laid down his napkin and asked to be excused.
Watching him go Hoss’ clear blue eyes darkened. He thumped down his napkin in frustration. “I jest wish he’d talk to us. Why does he always have to churn things around inside like that? Dadburned ‘ornery cuss.”
“I know, but it’s his way, and you know he always talks in the end.”
Joe worked like a fiend all morning. Sweating out the last of his hangover and, Hoss reckoned, whatever other demons were haunting him. He was ready to talk by the time they’d finished lunch.
Once he told them what had happened with the Avery’s, Joe added, “I told them you wouldn’t support him, Pa. I’m sorry, I had no right to speak for you.”
“You did the right thing. Nothing would make me endorse that man for Governor now.”
“How do people like that get to be judges anyhow? That’s what I don’t understand. It jest ain’t right.”
“No Hoss, it isn’t, and it’s up to us to keep men like Avery out of office.” Ben’s eyes never wavered from the top of Joe’s ducked head. What he’d told them about Mary Ann had been brief. Ben could only guess at the pain he’d felt and the depth of the wound she’d inflicted. Gently, he added, “I’m sorry about Mary Ann.”
Despite getting the meeting with Mary Ann off his chest, Joe’s mood didn’t lift. Ben and Hoss exchanged shrewd looks. There could be only one thing he was brooding over – Adam.
After an afternoon of working with a downhearted brother, Hoss nudged him with his shoulder and demanded, “Why don’tcha go up to the line shack and speak to him?”
Joe watched Hoss straddle the fence and take a long swig from his canteen. Sometimes, he didn’t know whether to be irritated or pleased that his family read him so easily. Kicking the ground with the toe of his boot, he grumped, “I dunno Hoss. He was right an’ I was wrong. He’ll be blaming me for everything.”
“Lil’l Joe, you know Older Brother better ‘n that. The only thing he’ll be doin’ sittin’ up there is thinkin’ up ways to blame hisself.”
Joe hopped up next to him. “Yeah, I guess that Yankee granite head would be doing that.” Joe sighed. Adam might be bossy, obstinate and argumentative, but he always had his back.
With infinite patience, Hoss eyed his brother and waited. Younger Brother always got there in the end.
“Guess I’ve been kinda dumb, huh?”
“Only kinda,” snickered Hoss, giving Joe a shove that sent him flying backwards with a yelp.
Joe was still thinking about what to do after supper when Ben joined him on the porch.
“Hoss tells me you’re going up to see Adam.”
“I thought about it, but I dunno.”
“What’s stopping you, Son? Pride? I know it’s hard for a man to admit he made a mistake.”
Joe sat down on the edge of the porch, where his father joined him. Bowing his head, he thought back to his last meeting with Mary Ann.
“When she said those things to me, it was like looking at another woman. I don’t think I really saw her until then. From the moment she arrived, I created this illusion around her.” He broke off. Every time he thought of his behavior with Mary Ann, his stomach tied itself in knots. After a moment, he admitted, “I’ve been a fool, haven’t I?”
“Maybe, but no more than many men before you, and probably many after you. The question is, are you gonna let it come between you and your brother?”
Joe took a breath and made up his mind. “I’ll ride out tomorrow if that’s okay.”
His father’s reassuring arm slipped around his shoulder, drawing him close to the man he looked up to most.
“Of course, it is.”
Adam paused in his chopping when he spotted the rider approaching. Lifting his hat to shield his eyes from the sun, he made out the black and white of the horse coming his way. Joe.
A brief smile crossed his face. When his brother’s horse reached the shack, he didn’t stop working. Joe didn’t call a greeting, and neither did he. After a couple of minutes, his brother appeared at the other end of the tree trunk he was stripping. Joe had removed his hat and jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. Axe in hand, he began chopping away the branches.
Silently they worked together. The only sound the thud of axes striking wood. After about half an hour, Adam stopped, removed his kerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. Walking over to where he’d left his canteen, he picked it up and took a drink, then offered it to Joe. Taking a long gulp, Joe handed it back. Now was the time for talk.
“I didn’t mean any of those things I said to you. I know you weren’t jealous of Mary Ann. I said it to be mean an’ I’m sorry. I talked to the judge. You were right about him.” Joe hesitated, “and Mary Ann, she knew all about it too.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be, you were right. I guess I was blinded by a pretty face.”
Adam gazed at his younger brother. The kid had grit. Although Adam knew he’d been right in revealing Mary Ann’s true nature to Joe, it had been brutal. Adam was proud of his youngest brother for handling it so well. He reached over and tousled his Joe’s hair. “It was a mighty pretty face. Just a pity there was nothing behind it.” Adam sat down on the trunk. “Joe, I owe you an apology too.”
Joining his brother on the felled tree, Joe waited. It wasn’t often Adam talked about apologizing.
“I never should’ve said that to you about forgetting we’re kin. I lost my temper that day and said the worst thing I could think off. I’m sorry, as the oldest I should know better.”
Joe exhaled, the wind knocked out of him. The realization of how those words had stuck like a thorn, painful and irritating to the touch, hadn’t hit him until he’d hurled them back at his brother. He’d regretted it. Not immediately, of course, his anger at Adam’s behavior during that disastrous dinner had prevented that – but in the end. Now, here was Adam admitting he was wrong, something that didn’t come easy to him. A younger Joe might’ve rubbed his nose in the apology, but he’d grown up some. “Forget it, even older brothers can lose their temper.“ He grinned. “Hoss would say we’re just a couple of ‘ornery bighorn rams buttin’ heads.”
Adam laughed and slapped Joe on the shoulder. “I guess he’s right. Let’s put that energy to good use and get back to work.”
With an air of excitement, Adam walked in the door and handed Ben a copy of the Territorial Enterprise. “Take a look.”
Unfolding it, Ben eyebrows rose as he read.
“What is it, Pa?”
“Judge Thomas Avery has withdrawn his candidacy for Governor of Utah.”
“Hot diggity, ya mean it!”
“Says here, he’s withdrawn for personal reasons.”
“So, his resignation’s nothing to do with the stories every paper in the territory’s been running about him?”
Ben chuckled at his youngest. “Seems not.“
Adam handed around glasses of brandy. “I think this calls for a toast.” Everyone held up their glass, waiting expectantly. “Truth, will out.”
Clinking glasses, they each drank.
Author’s note: The real Governor of Utah from April 12, 1858 to May 17, 1861, was Alfred Cumming (who replaced Brigham Young). Appointed by President James Buchanan, he was, as far as I’m aware, a fine upstanding citizen and a good Governor.
Written for the 2019 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament
The suits were: Location of story (clubs); object desired or coveted (diamonds); person to be avoided (hearts); calamity (spades)
The words dealt were:
Joker (Free pass)
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