A Tale told in 2 parts:
Part I: The Darkest Hour: When Joe is missing, he’s not the only one trapped in darkness.
Part II: No One: Even after Joe comes home, a part of him remains lost.
Rated: T Word Count: 22,500
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The Darkest Hour
The Darkest Hour
Dark. That’s all there was. It was so dark he could almost believe the world itself had gone away, gone away and left him alone, desperately alone in a black void. A black, empty void.
He felt empty. As though he had nothing left, nothing at all. Maybe it was true. Or maybe he’d had nothing to start with. Maybe all he had was a dream. Not even a memory, but a dream, a dream born of hopelessness. It was hopeless, after all. He was nothing, no one, locked into a world that had no care for who he might have been, or might almost have been, once upon a time.
“Joe Cartwright,” he said in a voice he hardly recognized, a voice ravaged and raw, like the pull of a saw dragging through a piece of fresh timber. He caught a fleeting vision of a lumber camp, of working side by side with his brothers, cutting timber. He caught the vision, but he couldn’t hold it. It was too dark. “Joseph Francis Cartwright,” he said, as though saying the name could bring it all back—or make it come to be.
For an instant, it almost did, or it seemed to anyway. He could see it, as through frost covered glass. There was a house framed in pine, its front door open and inviting. But he didn’t want to go in. He wanted to go out. Because outside held a blue, cloudless sky. It was a bright summer day. And there stood Hoss, laughing so hard the earth itself had to feel it. Joe could almost hear it, too. He wanted to hear it, that great big belly laugh only a mountain like Hoss could produce. But all he could hear was the slow, steady drip behind him, the belly of a different mountain, a cold, dark, empty mountain swallowing whatever was left of the winter’s snow. Swallowing it all, and leaving nothing for him, dry as he was. Dry and empty and wondering if who he’d been had ever been real at all.
Hoss laughed. He laughed good and hard, and then took a long swallow of beer to soothe the scratches that laughter left in his throat. And then…then he realized what he had done. He’d laughed.
How could he? Setting his mug on the table in front of him, he looked to the men gathered around, saw their smiles, heard their laughter, and couldn’t figure out how it had all come to be.
When someone slapped him hard on the back, he turned in an instant, fist raised…only to see another smiling friend.
“Good to have ya’ back, Hoss!” Hank Mueller said, hoisting his own freshly filled mug.
Good to have ya’ back.
Was he? Was he really back? Could anything ever really be back to the way it had been before? No. It couldn’t. It shouldn’t. Not without Joe.
Feeling suddenly ill, he rose, stiff and slow, and then pushed his way through the Friday night crowd at the Silver Dollar saloon, his eyes focused on the endlessly swinging doors. The closer he came, the more desperate he was to breathe the fresher air outside. When he finally stumbled across the walkway, clumsy and ill-balanced, he grabbed hold of the hitching post, eased himself to the ground…and gave in to the tears his laughter seemed to have forced to the surface, tears he no longer cared to hide away. It didn’t matter who saw or heard him. He didn’t even want to know who came up behind him—not until he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay to laugh, Hoss,” Adam said, setting himself down beside his brother.
“No. No it ain’t. It ain’t right at all.”
“Even grief has its limits.”
“It ain’t grief, Adam. I ain’t ready to grieve. I ain’t ready to give up.”
He heard a heavy sigh. “I’m not either. But it’s been two months and we’re no closer to finding him. We have to accept the possibility that we never will.”
Hoss shook his head, slow and sure, as he tucked his tears back inside, way down deep. “I ain’t giving up,” he repeated. “I ain’t ever giving up.”
The light was back. It started as a tiny dot without substance. He wasn’t even sure it was real until it began to grow, getting bigger and brighter with each heartbeat. In time he had to turn away from the painful, blinding glare, and then he heard the shuffling sound of feet moving across loose dirt. It sounded heavier than the scurrying of the rodents he’d been living with for so long. And he began to smell something. It smelled like…like beef. Like cooked beef. It might have made his mouth water if his saliva hadn’t all dried up—or close to it, anyway.
“What’s your name, kid?” a gruff voice whispered.
“I’m…I’m no one,” Joe answered as he knew he must.
“Ya’ got to tell me your name.”
No, Joe told himself. It’s a trick. It has to be a trick. They must have grown tired of the monotony in his response, maybe as tired as Joe had grown of the beatings they used to give him before he’d learned the rules.
“I’m no one,” Joe repeated, his voice barely a scratch louder than breathing.
“I can’t help you if you don’t give me your name.”
Help me? Joe dared a look. The lantern’s glow seemed bright enough to burn his eyes right out of their sockets, but he endured the pain long enough to see this man was different than the others. He showed Joe his face, his real face, rather than hiding it under a hood. Joe stared at it, enthralled by the dark whiskers and the nose that sat slightly askew, clearly having been broken at some point in time, maybe more than once. This man was real. He was real.
“You gotta tell me your name, kid,” the man demanded, his tone soft and…compelling. “I gotta leave, and you might not get another chance.”
This man wasn’t only real, he seemed…genuine, as though…as though he wanted to help. Joe studied him, saw something of compassion in his gaze. Maybe it was just the lamplight, the way it flickered across the moist surface of his eyes, softening the brown flecks of color like the warm glow of a campfire…but there was something inviting about it, something that pulled the real answer from Joe’s lips. He knew it was the wrong answer, but it was the real answer, nonetheless.
“Joe.” He flinched on instinct, expecting a blow that never came. “Joe Cartwright,” he added, flinching again.
Still the man stayed his hand. Instead of hitting Joe, he nodded and then dropped a tin plate to the ground by Joe’s hip. “Eat,” he said. “It ain’t much, but it’s better than nothin’.”
Joe watched him turn away. The man slipped a hood over his head before he walked out, taking the light with him.
As the darkness returned, Joe relaxed, welcoming the way it soothed his eyes. It wasn’t until later—minutes? hours?—that he remembered the plate. He reached toward where he believed it to be, his hand feeling heavy, weighted by the chain and the metal clamp secured at his wrist. His fingers brushed something soft and wet. Wet? Suddenly desperate, he grabbed hold of the plate, using both hands to bring it to his chest. Once again he smelled cooked beef. It seemed impossible, too good to be true. Yet an instant later he filled his mouth with broth-soaked bread. He savored every swallow.
Roast beef. It was a fine, Sunday dinner, and tonight was one of Hop Sing’s finest. But Adam had no appetite for it. He stared at his plate, almost repulsed by the sight. Even the smell taunted him, making him imagine it was sickeningly sweet and more rotten than cooked.
He knew why. He knew exactly why. He had spent the weekend scouring the desert, looking for any sign at all that Joe might have passed through it—or worse, never left. He almost thought he’d found Joe, too. He still wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t. He’d found the body of a man badly decomposed and nearly picked clean by buzzards. It was only the clothes and boots that had convinced Sheriff Coffee—and Pa, and Hoss—that it wasn’t Little Joe. Adam wanted to believe them. He wanted desperately to share their optimism. But how could he? It had been too long with no trail and not a single clue to prove Joe was still alive.
All they had was Joe’s horse. Two days after Joe had disappeared somewhere between the lumber camp and home, they’d awakened to find Cochise hitched to the rail out front. Adam could still remember the relief he’d felt at the discovery. Pa had been relieved too, relieved enough to get angry.
“Joseph!” he’d bellowed an hour later when Joe had still failed to make his presence known. “Joseph Francis Cartwright! You get in here this instant!”
But, of course, he never did. Clearly, someone else had returned Cochise, returned him in the middle of the night and then swept the trail clean. It was proof enough that Joe’s disappearance had been neither Joe’s idea nor accidental. No other proof ever came, and no reason was ever provided. If he’d been kidnapped, why had there been no ransom note? The only answers Adam could find were the worst he could imagine. Whoever had been responsible must have wanted the disappearance to be permanent. The pinto would have been too conspicuous to keep.
“Adam?” Pa’s voice pulled him back to the table.
“Sorry, Pa. I guess I wasn’t listening.”
“Eat, son. Please.”
Adam sighed, looking again at his plate, and again seeing the man in the desert. He shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”
“Well, you’d better,” Hoss said. “‘Cause I don’t need you fallin’ down hungry when we go lookin’ tomorrow.”
“Looking? Where, Hoss? Where haven’t we looked?”
“It don’t matter. We look everywhere all over again. He’s out there. You know he’s out there. We just got to find him, is all.”
And that was the problem. Weeks ago, finding Little Joe was the only thing Adam wanted to do. Now Adam was afraid to find him—afraid to find what might be left of him.
The bread was barely a memory by the time Joe saw that light again. And once again, the man who came showed his face. Only this time, it was a different face. It was narrower, longer…and colder. There was something chilling in the way this man’s nostrils flared and his upper lip curled, like a wolf baring its teeth. Joe turned away, trying not to shiver.
“You look at me, boy. Look long and hard.” The voice was cold too. The man’s hand wasn’t though. He grabbed Joe’s chin, pulling Joe’s face up close to his own. “What do you see?”
This question was new. Joe wasn’t sure how he was supposed to answer. “I don’t…I don’t know.”
“You see a man who matters. A man people listen to. A man people remember. Do you?”
Confused, Joe didn’t know how to answer. “Do…do I what?”
“Do you remember me?”
Joe stared back at him. He didn’t know this man. He couldn’t remember ever having known him. So he said nothing. He simply stared. And then he tried to brace himself, expecting a fist…or worse. Instead, the man released his hold, pushing Joe away from him with a snort of disgust, as though Joe represented a kind of filth he should never have deigned to touch.
“Who are you?” the man asked him.
“No…no one,” Joe answered.
The man pointed at him. “You remember that. I’m everything, and you’re nothing. Nothing at all. Now who am I?”
“And who are you?”
“No…nothing.” It was the right answer. Joe knew it was the right answer. But the man hit him anyway. He hit Joe in the cheek with a fist that felt as solid as a rock and a punch strong enough to slam the back of Joe’s head into the rocky wall behind him.
“Who are you?”
Joe wanted to answer, but he couldn’t find the word. His thoughts swam through a dizzying stream of flashes.
The man kicked him in his side. “Who are you?”
The question was meaningless. Joe had no answers. He had no thoughts, no sense of anything except pain and cold and dark.
He felt himself being lifted, a fist taking a firm hold of what was left of his shirt collar.
“Nothing.” The word reached Joe’s ear an instant before the stench of rancid meat found his nose on the heat of the man’s breath.
Joe felt himself retching, but there was nothing for his stomach to purge.
Disgusted again, the man threw him to the ground. Only Joe never landed. He kept falling. He fell right into oblivion.
Ben came awake with a jerk that pulled every muscle taut. Even his throat was locked, making it hard to breathe.
He’d found Joe. Ben had found him at the bottom of a gulley, beyond his reach. He had leaned too far, too fast. And then he’d found himself falling. But that was okay. He hadn’t been worried about falling. If that would bring him to his son, then so be it. He would fall. He would jump if he had to. No, the falling was fine. It was the ending that had disturbed him, because just before he landed, when he was barely a finger’s width from reaching Joe, he’d found himself back here, in his bed. And Joe was still out of reach.
It was always the same. Oh, the dreams were different. He wasn’t always falling. But Joe was always…always just out of reach. Would it ever change? Would he ever touch his son again?
Weary but no longer tired, Ben pushed himself out of bed and then shuffled into his slippers and night robe. He stepped out into the hallway, stopping at Joe’s bedroom door—stopping, but not going inside. He couldn’t bring himself to open the door. He couldn’t bear to see that room empty. Not again. Not anymore.
He couldn’t bear any of this anymore. His missing son weighed down on him, a burden he had no strength left to carry. It was suffocating him, crushing him, wearing him down to nothing.
When a loud snore pulled Ben’s attention to Hoss’s door, he smiled sadly. He still had two sons, two sons who were also being crushed. Ben needed to be strong for them. He needed to find the strength, somewhere, somehow to help guide them out of this…this emptiness. He may be old and weary, but they were still young, too young to be so worn, to be so…so beaten.
Sighing with a heaviness that made him almost believe that crushing weight was pushing the air from his lungs, Ben closed his eyes, the lids sliding across gathering moisture, and prayed to find the strength, and the courage…and more importantly, the wisdom to know when enough was enough, to recognize—to accept that Joe was lost to them, that he would remain forever out of reach.
And then he prayed that he would never need such wisdom.
Reaching out, he put his hand to Joe’s bedroom door, pressing against it with his palm and spreading his fingers wide. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
Water. It splashed his face, touched his lips. Joe reached for the drops with his tongue. It wasn’t enough.
“Wa…water.” The word came as a struggle. He opened his eyes, blinking past the wetness. The light was still there, filling the rocks with a ghostly glow. “Water?” Joe pleaded.
Joe turned his head, the effort bringing pressure and pain. But the wetness mattered more. He ignored the pain. Looking up, he saw a man standing in front of him, the man with the long face. Long face.
Longfellow. He was a poet, wasn’t he? Adam…Adam had a book. The name on the cover was ‘Longfellow.’ Joe closed his eyes, looking for Adam.
Someone kicked his leg. “I said beg!”
He opened his eyes again…his eye. Only one eye would open. The other…that was where he’d felt the pressure…pressure forcing his lid closed. He wondered at that for a moment, and then remembered the man had hit him. He’d lost all sense of time, but it had to have been days, maybe weeks since anyone else had hit him. None of those men had ever shown their faces, not until the man with the broken nose had come. Things were changing. The rules were changing and Joe didn’t know why. More importantly, he didn’t know what they were changing into.
The man with the long face was looking down at him. Joe saw a canteen in his hands, and suddenly nothing else mattered. Already Joe was forgetting the rules, the old rules, the ones he had learned to follow almost on instinct. He reached upward. “Water.”
The toe of a boot kicked his knee with the force of an iron mallet. “On your knees!”
Slowly, awkwardly, like a baby discovering how to crawl, Joe maneuvered himself to his knees. There was a stab of pain from the man’s kick, but he barely gave notice to it. His entire focus held to the canteen. Once in position, he reached upward again. The weight of his chain made it feel like he was pushing a boulder uphill, but that, too, was nothing. All that mattered was the water. “Please,” he begged.
The man laughed. He laughed and opened the canteen, and then…then the man with the long face took a long swallow.
“Ple…please,” Joe begged through a choked sob.
“Look at you,” the man spat. “Pathetic. Worse than a lame dog. I’ve waited a long time to see this. You don’t know how I’ve dreamed to see this. Little Joe Cartwright stripped of all his charm, all his wealth, all his stubborn, arrogant pride. What do you think those fine ladies would say now? Who would dance with you now?” He shook his head. “No one. You’re not even fit for a mangy, flea-bitten she-wolf in heat.”
Joe dropped his hand. He knew this man. He was supposed to know this man. So why couldn’t he remember? Without thinking, he dared to break another rule. “Who…who are you?” he asked.
“Someone you’ll never forget again.”
Forget? Had he forgotten? How was that possible? How could he forget a face like that, a man…like…like that?
“You took my girl right off my arm. I waited a year to get her to dance with me, and a minute later you took her away.”
A dance? All this for…a dance?
“You don’t even remember. Even now you don’t remember. Sheriff Coffee threw me in his jail that night, while you rode on to that fancy house of yours. We were both in the same fight. And you were just as busted up as I was. So why’d I land in jail, while you rode on home?”
Joe shook his head.
“Because folks in that town saw you as somethin’ and me as nothin’. You know what happens to a man who’s nothin’?”
Joe stared at him, dumbfounded.
“He gets locked up, that’s what happens. Locked up in a dark cell. You know what happened to me after that night?”
Joe was afraid to answer.
“Territorial prison, that’s what. That one night in jail, and then nothin’ was the same ever again. Only way I could get anythin’ from there on out was to take it. Next thing I knew, I was in that prison. All on account a’you seein’ me as nothin’. But all that’s finished. I know better now, know how to take what’s rightfully mine, and keep it, too. Like you. Your life is mine. I’m the one who’s somethin’ now, and you’re the one who’s locked up in a dark cell. Ain’t that right?”
A dark cell? Is that what this is? No. This isn’t a prison. It’s worse. Has to be worse. They don’t make prisons out of caves. And Joe hadn’t been arrested; he’d simply been…taken.
“Ain’t it?” the man shouted.
Joe found himself nodding. He didn’t even know why.
“What do you think those folks in Virginia City would think if they saw you now, huh?”
Joe shook his head.
“What are you?”
“Nothing,” Joe whispered.
“That’s right. You’re nothin’. Don’t you forget that ever again. And no one else will, neither.”
And then the man turned away, taking the light, and the canteen, and any hope for salvation Joe might have had up until that moment right on out with him.
Nothing. That’s what Roy expected. Not a doggone thing. It was the same every day, but he went every day nonetheless. It was part of his daily rounds, three times a day in fact, first thing in the morning, again at noon, and last thing at night. Whatever information he did get from the telegraph office never had anything to do with Little Joe. He sure didn’t expect it to today. So when he read the piece of paper that was put in front of him, it was almost like he was reading words he’d never seen before, a message that was foreign and beyond his comprehension. Then he read it again.
“Son of a gun.” He looked to the clerk. “You sure this is right?”
The clerk stared at him, wide-eyed, and nodded. “Every word, just as they sent it.”
Roy whistled. “Well, ain’t that somethin’. Ain’t that….” He turned again to the clerk. “You know what you just done?”
The clerk shook his head.
“You just gave Ben Cartwright about the greatest gift he could ever hope to get. Now you send that warden a message back. You tell him we’re on our way. Got that?”
“Why, me and Ben and his other two boys, of course. You tell him we’ll be there by sundown.” Roy didn’t wait for a response. He was too eager to ride out to the Ponderosa.
When the light came again, Joe was too tired, too thirsty…too defeated to care. He thought it seemed brighter than all the others, but it was just a niggling curiosity. He didn’t even try to raise his head to look. Maybe his eyes weren’t right anymore, or his head. Maybe he just didn’t know what was right anymore, like he didn’t know what was real anymore.
He would probably earn a kick for lying still like he was, could be more than one kick. But it just didn’t matter. Not anymore.
Joe felt a hand on his shoulder. “Pa?” He barely breathed the word; it was really more a moving of his lips than any sort of utterance. He knew the voice he’d heard had been wrong. And the hand, too, felt wrong. But he really didn’t know, did he? How could he tell what was wrong, if he couldn’t tell what was right?
“Can you hear me, boy?”
Joe opened his eyes…his eye to see the face of another stranger. The man had light hair, but it was blonde, not white. Pa’s hair was white, wasn’t it? And the uniform…. Pa had never worn a uniform like that. It wasn’t Army. It wasn’t anything Joe recognized.
“It’s over, son. You’re going home.”
“Home?” Joe saw that house again, the one with the pine frame and the laughing mountain outside. But that had been a dream, hadn’t it? No, it couldn’t be real. He was afraid to believe it might be real. He wanted it too much.
“Can you stand?”
As the blonde man in the strange uniform helped Joe to sit up, something astonishing happened. Joe’s hands felt…light. He lifted his left one, puzzled and awed to see the chain gone, the shackle no longer encircling his wrist. He was puzzled and awed and…lost. It felt almost as though a part of him was missing.
“Let’s see about getting you to your feet.”
The man pulled him upward, but Joe’s legs felt like…like paper. They wanted to crumple beneath him, like the overworked scrap sheets in the wastebasket by Pa’s desk, useless and worn thin.
The basket by Pa’s desk. That was real, wasn’t it?
“Matelin?” the man called out.
And then another man took Joe’s other arm, a man with a familiar, crooked nose. “Told ya’ I could help if you told me your name, now didn’t I, Joe Cartwright?”
Joe Cartwright. Joseph Francis Cartwright. That was right, wasn’t it? That name was real. He was real. And maybe, just maybe that house was real, too.
Overwhelmed, Joe’s head spun with thoughts and voices and memories. And then he fell into them. He fell eagerly and willingly, desperate to get out of the dark.
By the time they were all ushered into the warden’s office, Ben Cartwright had endured enough platitudes to tax his patience on any given day, and this was not an ordinary day.
“Mr. Curry,” he said, ignoring the usual protocols associated with formal introductions. “I demand to see my son!” There was thunder in his tone; Adam would not have been surprised to see lightning in his eyes.
“Please, Mr. Cartwright,” the warden replied with all the patience Pa lacked. “There are things we must first discuss.” He gestured toward one of two chairs in front of his desk.
Pa made no move to accept the invitation. “We can discuss whatever we need to after I have seen my son!”
The warden held his stance, his arm still extended toward the chair. “I am afraid I must insist.”
There was something disconcerting in the man’s gaze and the casual, subdued nature of his insistence. Apologetic, Adam decided. That’s what it was, as though the warden felt some degree of regret over whatever it was he had to tell them.
“It might be a good idea to hear him out, Pa,” Adam suggested, keeping his focus on Mr. Curry while moving closer to his father. He felt rather than saw Pa’s gaze shift momentarily toward him.
“Then speak quickly,” Pa said after a moment, setting himself down on the edge of the chair, making it clear he was not planning to stay seated long.
Mr. Curry took a deep breath, his chest rising as his lungs filled with the stale, dusty air in the room. Adam had the distinct impression the action was done more to boost his strength than his presence. As that air was expelled, the warden slowly, purposefully, took his own seat. It did not appear he had any intention of being quick, and Adam was feeling increasingly unsettled. He cast a glance toward Hoss, who looked equally concerned. Sheriff Coffee did not look Adam’s way; his own gaze was locked on the warden, eyes narrowed in thought—or suspicion.
“Mr. Cartwright,” the warden said, “your son had been held under conditions I would never impose upon any inmate, not even the worst and most violent.”
Adam’s hand moved to his pa’s shoulder.
“What sort of conditions?” Pa asked, his voice hard, his tone clipped.
The warden took another heavy breath. “It appears he spent the majority of his captivity, if not all of it deep underground, in absolute darkness.”
“He was given barely enough water to survive,” Mr. Curry continued, “and even less food. When we found him, he was severely malnourished as well as dehydrated. He had recently been beaten, and my physician has found evidence of other beatings as well.”
“How could you?” Pa’s voice threatened like the low, deadly rumble of an earthquake. He rose just as slowly as Mr. Curry had lowered himself into his chair moments before, and then planted his hands on Mr. Curry’s desk, glowering down at the warden with as fierce a glare as Adam had ever seen. “How dare you subject an innocent, young man to treatment you wouldn’t inflict upon your worst inmates?”
Mr. Curry kept his seat—as well as his composure. “Mr. Cartwright, I assure you what happened to your son occurred with neither my permission nor my knowledge, and it was brought to an end the very instant I was made aware of it.”
“Who is in charge of this prison, Mr. Curry?” Pa asked.
“Why, I am. Of course.”
“Then how is it something so monstrous could happen inside these walls with neither your permission nor your knowledge?”
Mr. Curry finally pushed himself up, meeting Pa’s accusing glare straight on. “What happened to your son did not take place within these walls, Mr. Cartwright. He was taken to the mines, several miles from here, and locked away in a long abandoned cavern. It is entirely possible I might never have become aware of the situation at all, if not for the astute observations of one of my best guards.”
“What sort of observations?”
“Prisoners may be incarcerated, but they are not always powerless. Some find the means to certain privileges through bribes or threats. My informant paid particular attention to one inmate who apparently managed both. He earned the respect of his fellow inmates by proving he was more…deadly…than they were. And he earned the…loyalty of certain guards by promising to pay them off with funds from a bank robbery he claimed to have hidden away somewhere prior to his capture. It was that sort of loyalty which caused your son to be taken in the first place.”
“Are you saying your own guards kidnapped Little Joe?”
The warden nodded. “I am. They took him, and then they…looked after him to whatever extent they were willing to bother.” As Pa’s face reddened and his eyes grew darker, Mr. Curry held up a hand to stave off the impending explosion. “I can assure you they are all being appropriately dealt with, and it will not be pleasant for any of them. Guards who become inmates among the men they guarded can be very difficult to protect from…accidental harm. Fortunately for your son, I also have some very good men under my employ, and it is to one of these we all owe a debt of thanks.”
Mr. Curry was wise to add that final statement. Adam noticed his pa’s gaze softening in recognition of that very debt. He took that as an opportunity to get to the heart of why they had come. “I’m sure we would all like the chance to meet that guard, if we could,” Adam said, giving Pa a chance to gather his thoughts. “I’m also sure we all have a lot more questions for both of you, but…we can get to that later. For now, if you could please just take us to Little Joe.”
The warden looked his way, and then he nodded. “He is not well, you understand. He is very thin, very weak. And his eyes are highly sensitive to light. The room must be kept as dark as possible. We’ve moved him to an inner room, away from windows for that very purpose. The air is a bit thick, but nothing can be done about that for now. The doctor believes he can be moved again in a day or two as he is gradually reintroduced to light. Then it will be a matter of keeping the curtains drawn.”
“Thank you,” Adam said as Mr. Curry opened his mouth again, seeming more intent on talking than on moving from where he was. “I think we understand well enough what to expect. Just take us to him, or tell us where he is.”
Mr. Curry gave another small nod, and then personally escorted them out of his office.
“Mr. Curry?” Hoss asked as they moved outside the prison proper, making their way to the warden’s own house. “I’d like to know just one thing.”
“And what is that?” the warden acknowledged.
“Who was that prisoner? And what did he have against Little Joe?”
“His name was Edgar Blakely. As to his motivations,” he shook his head. “I have yet to understand such details.”
“Edgar Blakely.” Hoss repeated the name three times before turning to Adam. “Hey, Adam? ‘Member that party over at the—”
“Missy Grady’s homecomin’,” Sheriff Coffee interrupted. “Yep, Hoss. That’s where we kin remember Edgar Blakely from. He caused a ruckus when his gal gave her attentions to Little Joe instead of him. Had to lock ‘im up before he tore the whole place apart.”
“Has to be more reason than that,” Hoss said. “Don’t ‘ya think?”
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Curry stopped moving when he’d reached the steps to his front porch. “If there is one thing I have learned since assuming this position, it is that many prisoners are not willing to accept responsibility for what led them here. They will cast blame to anyone and anything that might have at some point in time offended them, and to any such offense, however slight. For a man as deranged as Mr. Blakely had become, it is entirely possible he had no more reason than the one your sheriff has suggested.”
Inside the house, Mr. Curry led them to a furnished but unoccupied bedroom, and then indicated another door on an inner wall. “Through that door, Mr. Cartwright, you will find your son. But there is one more thing I must impress upon you before you see him.”
Pa stared at the door, his fingers curling into loose fists and then opening again, as though he couldn’t quite decide whether to be angry or worried or any number of other emotions.
“He is confused,” Mr. Curry went on. “I am not entirely certain he’s willing to believe he is not still trapped in that cavern.”
“How can that be?” Hoss asked. “He can see he ain’t.”
“Occasionally we are forced to place men into isolation. Not many handle it well. Sometimes they hallucinate, making themselves believe they’re somewhere else. Your brother was in isolation far longer than any of my prisoners. Perhaps such hallucinations tricked him once too often.”
Maybe Joe was confused, as the warden said. But Adam saw confusion in Hoss’s eyes, and he felt it in his own heart as well. They all had questions, some of which might never get answered. At least one question no longer had to haunt them. Little Joe was still alive. And he was waiting for them on the other side of that door.
Adam was the first to go in. He moved past his father, who was still curling and uncurling his fingers and watching as Roy prodded the warden with more questions. Adam was pretty sure Roy’s intent was to get Mr. Curry out of the room and give the family some privacy, but Pa seemed torn, as though he felt he needed to be a part of the conversation—or maybe he was just as confused as his sons. Adam decided his own confusion would be best faced with the same attitude he would use on a stubborn mustang: when it throws you off, jump right back on; don’t give it time to work up more energy.
Once Adam was through the door, he noticed the voices of Roy and the warden were already beginning to fade before his eyes had even started to adjust to the darkened room. He could almost believe it was the oppressiveness of the stale air combined with the darkness itself that caused a muting effect. But then he heard the outer door drawn closed, effectively shutting out the voices altogether. Roy’s tactic had worked. The Cartwrights were left alone.
Adam had just caught sight of a shadowed figure lying prone on a bed in the center of the small room when Hoss stepped in behind him, and he found himself grateful. The sense of his brother’s bulk standing so close somehow bolstered his courage. He had waited weeks for proof Joe was still alive, yet now that proof was right in front of him and he was afraid to face it, afraid to see that Joe wasn’t Joe anymore. After everything the warden had told them, he imagined a skeletal figure less gruesome yet similar to the corpse in the desert nonetheless.
“Joe?” Hoss brushed past him much like Adam had brushed past his pa, and uttered their brother’s name in an urgent though hushed tone.
Only then did Adam realize he could finally see clearly…yet he still hadn’t looked.
“Joe!” Hoss said again, his voice lighter now. “It sure is good to see you, punkin’!”
Finally, Adam looked.
It was Joe’s face after all, though swollen on one side and sunken on the other. And it was nothing like the face—or the remains of the face in the desert. But…those weren’t Joe’s eyes. Those eyes—one fully open, the other merely a slit through Joe’s swollen lid—looked at Hoss like…like he wasn’t even there. And then…then Joe’s gaze slipped away, moving without searching, looking without seeing.
“Joe.” When Joe’s eyes found Adam, he pulled the name from his throat only because his stomach helped to push it out. He felt heartbroken and relieved all at once. Relieved because Joe wasn’t just alive, he was awake. Heartbroken because Little Joe seemed to look right through him before his gaze slid past, moving to the ceiling and then closing, as though to shut his brothers away. But was he really shutting them away? Or just what he thought was the illusion of them?
“Hey, Little Joe,” Hoss said. “It’s alright now. There ain’t nothin’ more you need to worry about.”
Curious about the soothing tone in Hoss’s voice, Adam looked closer, close enough to see tears spilling to Joe’s pillow—tears that didn’t look like they belonged to Joe. His face was too calm, his brow not the least bit knitted, as though the moisture came from someone else, or his eyes held a secret the rest of him had not been privy to learn.
Adam sat gently down on the edge of the bed and reached for Joe’s hand, taking it between both of his. “Joe, this is real. We’re real. You’re not in that cavern anymore. I promise you that.”
Joe’s eyes opened again. He turned his head, his gaze landing where his brother’s hands encircled his own. Encouraged, Adam was aware of Joe raising his other hand. He came to anticipate Joe reaching for him, touching him. Instead, Joe looked away again, this time turning his attention to his other hand. He studied it as though he had discovered something odd. Maybe he wasn’t really seeing it at all. Adam saw that his brother’s gaze seemed to be studying not just his hand or arm, but the space around it, the air itself. Was he seeing something else? Or wondering about something he couldn’t see, something that was missing?
Adam’s thoughts were pulled from the puzzle of his brother’s when he noticed a bandage had been wrapped around Joe’s wrist. Concerned about what that might suggest, he plied his grip away without releasing Joe’s hand and saw there was a bandage around this wrist as well. Adam’s heart starting to pound heavier, he slowly unwrapped this nearer bandage until he saw the bruised, blistered and raw skin beneath—the damage relegated to an area just about the perfect width to accommodate iron shackles.
“Oh, Joe,” he breathed softly, slowly shaking his head in useless denial as he put the bandage back in place.
“Joe,” Joe repeated.
Startled, Adam looked to him again and saw that, once again, Joe’s eyes were closed.
“Joe Cartwright,” Joe went on, his voice the slightest whisper. “Joseph Francis Cartwright.” Another tear spilled to the pillow.
Adam forced back tears of his own when he felt a hand on his shoulder. His father’s hand. He turned, seeing moisture in Pa’s eyes as well, and then he rose. Maybe Pa would have better luck.
They took turns through the night sitting with Joe, keeping the door open to the outer room to let in enough light to see by. No one wanted Joe to be left alone. He needed to come to understand the ordeal truly was over, to believe he was in fact free of the cavern and his family was there with him; they were not ghosts or illusions to protect his thoughts from a hellish reality.
They needed to prove to him they were not going to disappear. They were real.
Yet none of them could stay with him for long. The pain of seeing him so…broken, so unlike Little Joe, was overwhelming. And so they took turns.
When it was Adam’s turn again, deep in the night, he watched his brother sleep for a long while, comforted to see that at least in sleep Joe was still Joe. His eyes danced beneath the lids with all the life he hid from them when he was awake. Momentarily content, Adam let his gaze drift to the outer room, where Pa and Hoss both napped, lying fully clothed on top of the still made bed. He listened for the distinctive snores that could prove sleep had found either of them; silence instead proved it had not. But then Adam heard something else. A whispered word coming from his young brother beside him.
He looked to Little Joe, finding his brother’s eyes open and looking right at him—looking so closely Adam could believe this time Joe might even be seeing him.
“Joe!” Adam smiled and reached for his brother’s hand.
Joe’s brow, smooth as it had been for all these hours, was now creased. He shook his head. “No,” he said, and somehow that small word sounded as much like a plea as it did a curse. Then he closed his eyes, tightly this time. “I’m no one!” he cried softly, the tears finally seeming like they were truly his own. “I’m…nothing.”
Adam wrapped Joe’s hand in both of his as he had before. “That’s not true, Joe. You’re not only someone, you’re my brother, Joseph Francis Cartwright.”
“Yes, Joe. I’m real and so are you. You can feel my hands. They’re real, Joe.”
Joe rolled his head back and forth across the pillow. “No.”
“Yes, Joe. This is real.”
“Look at me, Joe! Open your eyes. Look at me!” Adam demanded, tightening his grip. “Joe! Look at me!”
Finally, Joe blinked his vision clear. He looked at Adam, his gaze growing more intense, his brow twisting in grief. “A…Adam?”
Adam grinned down at him, nodding until he could find his own voice. “Welcome back, little brother!”
This time, when Joe’s gaze slipped away, it did so only because Pa and Hoss had stepped into the room—and it didn’t stray for long.
“Adam?” Joe said again, looking to Adam’s hands and tightening his own grip.
“It’s over, Little Joe. You’re safe.”
And then Joe began to cry in earnest.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Adam looked up from the book he’d borrowed from Mr. Curry’s extensive library, toward the room where Pa was talking softly with Joe. It was good to hear the conversation was not one-sided. Joe wasn’t saying much, but little by little his story was unfolding. It was coming in pieces, building from the end, but it was coming. As hard to listen to as it was to piece together, the full details might never really be known by anyone other than Joe—maybe not even by him, confused as he was by the thirst, the hunger…and the darkness. Nor was Adam sure he would ever know exactly why Joe had uttered the name of a poet when he had looked at Adam. But the fact that Joe had said Longfellow’s name had been enough to encourage Adam to read through some of the man’s work. And finding A Psalm of Life seemed to have done something to awaken his own slumbering soul.
The weeks of not knowing were over. Adam could finally look ahead to imagine his brother riding too hard and too fast rather than lying still and broken in the desert.
Longfellow: A Psalm of Life
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;–
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
(Proceed to No One by clicking the next page number below)
Other Stories by this Author
- A Son for a Son: Brand Edition (by freyakendra)
- The Handkerchief (by freyakendra)
- The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (by freyakendra)