A Grown Man (by jfclover)

Summary:  A falling out between Hoss and Joe leads to a crisis level that may never be rectified.  .  Written in 2011, revised in 2013.  

Rated: MA   Word Count 23,000

A Grown Man Series:

1.  A Grown Man
2. A Harsh Remedy
3. A Change of Heart
4. The World is Round

A Grown Man

by jfclover

~

An old man, sporting an outdated derby with garters holding up his puffy, white sleeves threw back a drink from his bottle before playing a lively rendition of a familiar sounding tune; old Betsy, no, young Betsy or someone from somewhere, I don’t remember, and I couldn’t care less. Adam did a much better job with this little ditty, but that was a long time ago.  Three brothers born by three separate mothers, once a family but no more.

Damn, the bottle was empty . . .

I reached deep in my pocket, but there was nothing left but a ball of lint.  Not sure why Pa thought I deserved wages for doing next to nothing, but I was handed ready cash at the end of every month.  I’m sure Candy and the rest of the hired hands were sick of covering, day-in and day-out, but I didn’t much care what anyone thought.

My eldest brother left home to travel the world, and there’s no mistaking why he chose to leave the ranch and his family behind. Because of me, I’m sure. Because of our continuous fighting and arguing over the simplest of things, one of us had to go.  After nearly thirty years, we never actually learned how to get along; we only tolerated each other until Adam walked out the door for good.

And now, my middle brother—my best friend in this world—has left home, too. I can’t bear to look at my father for fear of what I’ll see in the depths of his chocolate, brown eyes. Pa has grown weary and old.  I’ve made a mess of my life and fools of us all.

“Hoss is a grown man,” my father said. “Time is what he needs right now. He’ll come home when he’s ready.”

Pa tried to make sense of the handwritten note Hoss left behind the morning he rode away. For weeks, I searched his favorite haunts. I rode along the lake and through the meadow he’d picked out for his bride-to-be. I looked everywhere, but I’d return home without so much as a clue. No tracks, no hint of a rider anywhere. Pa was optimistic, but I knew otherwise. Time doesn’t heal all wounds; scars remain embedded so deep a man can’t overlook or forget.

Rather than heading home while there was still daylight, I came straight to the saloon in hopes I could drown in a bottle of amber-colored swill. I circled the rim of my empty glass. Daylight had given way to another evening of whiskey and hammered out melodies I’d heard too many times before. It was past time to start home. It was past time for much of anything, although I was well passed the age when nighttime confrontations kept my father awake and waiting up for his wayward son. I was on my own with no one I called brother and a father who chose distance rather than conflict.

Mornings came early. Breakfast hadn’t interested me in a long time. Without a word, I fastened my gunbelt and rode out to meet Candy and whatever hands were handling those poor little creatures. At least, that was Hoss’ take on branding. He hated this job more than anything, but it had to be done on a cattle ranch. Pa had enough to worry about with Jamie, his adopted son. Me? I didn’t much care what the two of them talked about when I was out of earshot, but I’m sure there were subtle discussions concerning my altered behavior.

~~~

Candy stood back from the pit in a wide-open field, waving his hat high over his head. Maybe he thought I ride right past him and maybe, deep down, he wished I would, but I wasn’t that far gone. I tied Cooch in the shade of a nearby tree next to Candy’s mount then walked toward the men, who were busy dragging squalling calves, one-by-one, up close to the pit. Candy clapped me on the back and handed me the tally sheet; the easiest job there was.

“Thanks,” I said.

The sun was nearly overhead by the time I showed up for work, and what made things even worse was the repeated veil of dust as rider and calf pulled up to stop in front of the burning pit. Plus, every time I looked up, Candy was staring, keeping a watchful eye, a courtesy for Pa.  

“Male,” Candy called out. I marked it down in the book.  

I ran the back of my hand over my sweat-covered face and tried to steady myself under the blazing heat of the sun. I spread my feet farther apart, tilted my hat and took deep breaths to steady the dizziness sweeping through me. My eyes were unfocused; the paper blurred in my hand. My marks were unreadable on the page and I . . .

~~~

Men talked in hushed tones, and Candy was shading my face with his hat.

“What happened?” I asked, trying to sit up.

“You passed out, buddy?”

“Hot—“

“Yeah.”

Candy helped me up and hollered over his shoulder at the men, standing around watching the boss’ son faint dead away. He hollered over his shoulder. “Get back to work. Nothin’ more to see here.” The men would report to him later. Candy was taking me home.

“I can get there by myself,” I said, but Candy had other plans. He dismissed my remark as he’d often done before.

I’d lost track of how many times our foreman had loaded me onto the saddle and ridden with me, making sure I got home and didn’t veer off the Ponderosa and back to the saloon. I should have been grateful.  Candy never complained, never said a word, but I needed a drink more than I needed to be mollycoddled.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been dragged home unable to work, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.  Maybe it was time for me to leave home as well. Hell, everyone else had.  The ranch would run smoother, and Pa wouldn’t have to be constantly embarrassed, having a worthless no-good drunk for a son. And because this had happened more than once, Pa had learned to look the other way when Candy brought me through the house with my arm slung over his shoulder.

“I’ll take it from here,” I said, hoping he would leave my room and close the door on his way out.  He did, and I was grateful.  I threw my hat on the chair and fell back on the bed.  I was so tired.  My mind drifted back to the beginning of the nightmare that had become our daily lives. If I’d only known then what lay ahead, if only . . .

~~~

“You sick or somethin’?  How come you’re not eating?” I asked soon after Hoss and Pa and I sat down for supper.

“Ain’t got no appetite.”

Pa and I both dropped or forks to our plates and with perplexed looks, we stared at my big brother whose appetite for Hop Sing’s meals never failed to amaze.

“You feel all right, son?”

“I’m fine, Pa, just ain’t hungry’s all.”

I have to admit, in all my years living with this family, I’d never heard that statement from Hoss.  I looked toward my father, and we each shrugged our shoulders in disbelief.  

“I . . . I met a gal,” he finally said without making eye contact but turning a subtle shade of red anyway.

Pa and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows at this sudden revelation.  I sat my fork down again and propped my elbows on the table, hoping for a little more information.  When nothing came, I had to ask. “And?”

“Well—” Hoss said, “I met her in town, I mean, I bumped into her at the mercantile and—“

“You mean you actually bumped her or—”

“If you must know, Joseph, I knocked her packages out of her hands.”

It took everything I had not to burst out laughing, but Pa gave me a look that said don’t you dare.  So, I sat across the table from my brother, covered my mouth with balled up fists and kept quiet in order to hear the rest of his story.

“Go on,” I said, trying to keep my voice in control, even though I was as giddy as a schoolboy, waiting for the punchline of a silly joke.

“Well, so I picked up her packages and stacked them all neat like and asked if I could carry ‘em out for her.”

He kept hesitating and it was driving me crazy.  “And—“

Hoss gave me a cursory look then glanced at Pa.  “And I carried ‘em for her,” he said, exasperated by my pushing for the rest of the story.

Pa also had fisted hands to cover his mouth, but they gave way when he reached in his vest pocket for his pipe.  Then he dug his fingers in another for a match.  When Hoss didn’t continue, Pa finally spoke.  “Does this young lady have a name?”

Hoss glared at me again before answering.  “Her name is Allison Parker, and she said I could call her Ali like all her friends do.”

“That sounds very nice, son,” Pa said, and after settling back in his chair, he lit his pipe.

I pushed my plate forward and leaned in, resting my arms on the table and looked up at Hoss, who had that dreamy kind of look on his face.  “Maybe I’d like to meet this girl,” I said.

“You just keep your mitts off her and find your own gal, Joseph.  This one’s all staked out, and she don’t need you botherin’ her none.”

“All right, brother, if you say so.”  I’d let him off the hook for now.  I was only teasing, but it was unfair to tease Hoss about any girl.  I was truly happy for him, but a small amount of ribbing never hurt.

It wasn’t long after that initial conversation that Hoss got up the nerve to bring the love-of-his-life home to meet the family.  Pa and I were dressed in our Sunday best and even though I was well into adulthood, I had been warned to behave myself. I was a grown man, and I knew the proper way to behave no matter what the circumstance.

Hop Sing had cooked and cleaned all day.  He even had Pa and me moving furniture so he could make sure there wasn’t a speck of dust or dirt left in the house.  He’d made special dishes he reserved for special guests and could hardly contain himself when we heard the surrey pull up out in front.

“It’s time, Joseph.”

I nodded to Pa and suddenly my stomach had jitters as if we were entertaining the Queen of England. Good grief, this was just a girl Hoss had met not Victoria herself.  Hoss and I had tried to work a normal day although we had come in at lunchtime and never went back to finish our chores.  He couldn’t keep his mind on his work and like a fool; I stayed here, too, and ended up suffering through cleaning detail with Hop Sing.

Pa and I made sure our black ties were straight then Pa gave me a quick glance before opening the front door.  Light flooded the front porch as the handsome couple stood hand-in-hand. Never in my life had I seen my brother more proud and happy to be alive.

It was a chilly night and the lovebirds came through the door and into the warmth of the house before introductions were made.  Allison Parker was a tiny little thing next to Hoss, not even half his size. With her light-brown hair drawn up off her neck, she still had the look of a schoolgirl.  She was slim in the right places but shapely in others and had a fragile, almost delicate appearance. She wore a simple store-bought dress with a high neckline, which I’m sure she thought was proper attire for meeting a man’s family for the first time.

“Nice to meet you, Miss Parker,” I said, bringing her hand to my lips.  In his own nervous way, Hoss had described her as beautiful. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I was looking at the most beautiful woman in the world.

“That’s enough, Joseph,” Hoss said, cautioning me to let go of her hand.

“Hoss has told me so much about both of you,” she said, glancing between my father and me.

“All good I hope,” Pa said, laughingly.

“He’s very proud of his family.”

Pa looked up at Hoss with such delight, he smiled as only a father could before moving in on that son and placing Ali’s hand on his arm. Pa and Ali walked slowly to the settee, and he offered her a seat closest to his leather chair. I was just now beginning to understand Pa’s thoughts on the matter.  This might be his first daughter-in-law, and he was going to make sure she felt comfortable in every way.

We soon finished dinner with all of Hop Sing’s fancy fixin’s and, as far as I could tell, we’d done our job well in making Ali feel special and, if nothing else, at ease in this house full of men.  If Hoss had been nervous about the evening, he needn’t have. Everything he could have hoped for came true.  Pa was gracious as always, and I had behaved myself quite nicely.

I leaned back in Adam’s blue chair after we’d all come back in front of the fire for an after-dinner drink.  Pa poured us each a brandy, and we all sat and talked without a moment’s unease. The happy couple seemed so right for each other and neither seemed in a hurry to leave so, we had a pleasant conversation and got to know Miss Ali Parker fairly well as the evening progressed.  

She was witty and at times, she had us all in stitches.  She had no difficulty whatsoever conversing with three men, especially my father as he bombarded her with one question after another. Hoss and I sat back and let the two of them talk, and talk they did.

Pa asked about her plans now that she was living in Virginia City. I think he wondered why a young lady would come alone to such a place when she didn’t know a soul in all of Nevada.

Her answer was simple.  “I needed a change, Mr. Cartwright. After my parents died, and with no brothers or sisters, I took a chance.  I remembered my father telling stories about his Uncle Henry, who had come here years ago, planning to make a fortune in the silver mines.  So, I took a chance and came west, too, but not to look for silver or gold.  We never heard from Uncle Henry again so maybe things didn’t work out for him the way he’d originally planned. I wanted a change of scenery; a change from the mass of people all crammed together in St. Louis and look who I found,” she said, gazing up at my brother.  “I couldn’t be happier. I’m so very glad I took the chance.”

“We’re very glad too, Miss Parker.”  Pa winked at Hoss and of course, Hoss blushed.

We said our goodbyes, but we wouldn’t wait up. We would meet with Hoss at breakfast. Knowing my brother as I did, he would still be reeling, and it would be my job to lure him back to earth so we could get in a decent day’s work.

~~~

As weeks turned into months, Hoss and Ali became inseparable.  I missed my brother’s company, and it was time to find an activity of my own. One of those activities was a brown-haired woman with stunning eyes named Marianne Carver.  We often double dated with Hoss, going to barn dances or picnics on Sunday afternoons, but life for Hoss and I had changed.  Hoss was in love, and I was still playing the field.  Marianne was a nice girl and fun to be with although there was no spark, nothing special. Before Marianne, I was seen about town with Deborah, a petite blonde but again, nothing special. I envied Hoss’ happiness, but it was a good envy.  I knew what I wanted, and I realized what I didn’t have, at least not with any of the young ladies I’d been seeing.

The relationship between Marianne and me had run its course just as Deborah and I failed to connect only weeks before. Winter passed, and spring was settling in. The days grew longer as did the constant list of chores.  

As with the dawning of spring, changes were inevitable on the Ponderosa.  Pa hired a new foreman named Canaday, Candy for short.  We would eventually lose Hoss as a permanent ranch-hand after he built a place of his own and, as always, my father felt the need to keep ahead of the game. And since Hoss had always done the work of two men, this was a start in the right direction. The new foreman and I got along well and as soon as he settled in, we all realized he was worth his weight in gold.

~~~

Hoss soon made his announcement.  My brother was getting married.  He and Ali planned a late summer wedding and although she had no relatives attending the event, she still needed time to make all the necessary arrangements.  Hoss made sure she had everything a bride deserved, and he was content with her making all the arrangements and explaining every detail at the end of the day.

“Gonna be the finest shindig Virginia City’s ever seen, Little Joe, and it wouldn’t be right if you weren’t my best man.”

I was speechless when Hoss asked although I clapped him on the back and smiled. “I’d be proud to, brother.” But my thoughts soon jumped to my eldest brother. “You gonna try and find Adam?”

“Don’t know where to write no more since he quit sending letters home.”

“You’re probably right.”  I knew Hoss would want Adam to stand up with him if there was any way to get in touch.  I would talk to Pa, but I knew he was as much in the dark as we were.

Hoss still worked alongside Candy and me, doing whatever Pa had planned for that day, but as soon as we finished, he was shaving his face, changing his shirt, and off to have supper with his future bride.  Who could blame him?  He’d waited a lifetime for this woman named Ali, and he was making every minute count. They were perfect for each other; truly, a match made in heaven.

~~~

It was early May when Hoss and Candy and I headed out to finish the branding, which I admit was my least favorite chore on a ranch, and one I would gladly turn over to anyone else who’d take it on.  Pa looked at the tallies this morning before breakfast and thought this should be our final day.  We’d already figured that out ourselves, but that was my father’s way, always in control, always providing directives to his sons, grown men or not.

None of us were in a big hurry, and we rode at a leisurely pace out to the fire pit where we’d spent most of the past week.  Two ranch hands had arrived before us and were already rounding up boisterous young calves for us to mark.

“I’ll ride out—see what I can find,” I hollered to Hoss and Candy.

They were perfectly happy with my decision and both stayed behind to work the pit. It was amazing where we’d find these little critters, hiding behind shrubs, rocks, and everything else.  By the time I’d done a couple of hour’s worth of ridin’ and ropin’, I was ready to climb out of the saddle.  A hot cup of coffee sounded mighty good even though it was my turn to stand over the sweltering pit.

“Ready to trade places, little brother?” His face was red; sweat and grime dripped from his brow. The heat was intense and the afternoon would prove long.

“Yeah, my turn.”  I glanced at Candy, holding a pencil and tally. “Is this all you’ve been doing while the rest of us slave away?”

“Yep.”

His lack of remorse made me shake my head. “Seems only fair, I should take over, right?”

“You two work it out,” Hoss said before mounting Chub.

I felt generous and conceded to our new foreman. Candy keep tally while I knelt down, digging the iron deep in the reddened coals.  He owed me now and he knew it. Next time I needed a favor; all I had to do was ask.

Hoss brought in a couple of calves early on, but that had been some time ago.  By the end of our last day, it became harder to find the remaining few since we were never sure of the exact count. It was a guessing game, but it wasn’t like Hoss to be gone this long, and I was feeling a bit uneasy.  Sure, he was a big boy and could take care of himself, but accidents happen.

“Doesn’t it seem like Hoss has been gone a long time?” I asked Candy, as I stood to stretch out my legs and lower back.

“Yeah. I’m sure he’s just being thorough, you know how he is.”

“Maybe I should go have a look-see.”

“Gettin’ tired of that branding iron?”

Sure I was.  Anyone would be, but that wasn’t the reason this time.  “Yeah,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll take over here.”

Candy knew I was concerned although, more often than not, he kept his thoughts to himself.  He was a good man to have around.  The more I worked with him the more I was glad Pa’d hired him on. Even the hands thought he was a good foreman and a fair man; best we’d had in a long time.

I headed north where it was mostly ravines and rough terrain, plenty of places for those little varmints to hide and where Hoss might try to scare them out in the open. There stood Chub; his head lowered to the ground, munching away on a patch of green grass.

“Hoss?” I called out with my hand cupped to my mouth.  “Hoss?”

I rode up to Chub and quickly dismounted Cochise.  I ran my hand over the horse’s shoulders and flank finding nothing, no telltale signs of anything out of place. I called out again before I took off down a ravine and immediately spotted my brother. He lay face down on hard-packed ground. I raised his head just a touch.

“Mmm—”

“Thank God,” I said. “You scared the hell outta me.  What happened?”

“Snake—”

“You bit?”

“No . . . scared Chubby.” His breath was uneven and pain etched deep-set lines in his face. “My leg . . .”

“Looks broke, Hoss. Anything else?” There was no answer. “Hang on, Brother.” I ran back to Cooch and grabbed my canteen and bedroll.  “You need to take a drink.”  I was afraid to move him; I didn’t know the extent of the damage, and when I tried to lift his head, he cried out before the canteen met his lips.  “What else? Talk to me, Hoss.”

“Shoulder—“

Although the air was warm, I covered him with the bedroll and leaned in close to his ear.  “I’ll send Candy for help.  You can’t ride like this.” God, I hated to leave him, but I had no choice.  “I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Uh-huh . . .”

I could almost feel my brother’s pain as I ran to Cochise, forcing him to run before I mounted.  I rode fast, faster than I should have, and when I met up with Candy, who’d stepped away from the other two men by the pit, I skidded to a stop, spraying a cloud of dust in my wake.

“Hoss is down. I’ll need a wagon to take him home. Can’t put him on a horse.”

“Okay.  I’ll go.  Where is he?”

“He’s just before the ravine passed a big cottonwood on the right.”

“I’ll hurry,” Candy said, “but it’ll take me least an hour to there and back.”

“I’m taking your bedroll and canteen.  Send someone for the doc before you leave; have him meet us at the house.” I was shouting orders right and left but this was my brother, and Candy understood the seriousness of the situation.

“On my way.” Candy grabbed his canteen and untied his bedroll, handing them down before he took off.

“Let’s call it a day, fellas.” They’d seen me ride up and had overheard me barking orders to Candy.

Jack was the first to step up. “Anything I can do, Joe?”

“Yeah, come with me and you can take Chub and Cochise back to the house.  Explain to my father what’s happened, and we’re on our way home.”

Jack and I rode together.  I grabbed the canteen and bedroll from Chub before he left.  “Thanks,” I said, before sidestepping back down the ravine to my brother.

I knelt down next to Hoss and rested my hand on his broad back, but there was no movement at all. Hoping he’d only passed out, I shook out a bedroll, folded it in a square and placed it under his head; the other I’d save for the trip home.

When his eyes opened, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. “Let’s try the water again,” I said, raising his head and holding the canteen to his lips. Most dribbled onto the folded blanket but with patience, he managed small sips.

“Ali—”

“Candy’s gone for the wagon and someone’s gone to get the doc.  I’ll let Ali know in the morning after we get you all patched up.”

“Supper—”

“You’re hungry?”  Then it hit me.  He would have gone to Ali’s for supper.  “I’ll let her know as soon as I can, Hoss, just lay still. Don’t worry, I’ll take special good care of your girl.”  

~~~

“I’ll take special good care of your girl.” Those words were said months ago when we were a family; when I was still considered an honorable man. But I’d let my mind wander back to the day that changed all of our lives.

As I dropped one foot to the floor, it kept me steady in a room spinning out of control. Just like my life, spinning in circles, spinning and going nowhere. My head pounded relentlessly as I pushed myself to the edge of my bed and wondered why I bothered doing anything at all. Flashes of Candy dragging me home made me realize I’d missed another day of work.

But days and nights ran together, and I drifted, semi-consciously, through a hazy world turned upside-down, semi-aware of time or surroundings. Somehow, I remained alive, though there was no reasonable explanation for my continued existence, considering the path I’d chosen.

Planting myself in front of the washstand, I splashed cold water on my face and glanced at my reflection in the small, oval mirror. A half-baked smile formed, and I dropped my head and walked away. I needed a drink and reached into my drawer for the few dollars that remained of my pay. I shoved the notes in my pocket and picked up my gunbelt, draped it over my shoulder and left the serenity of my room behind.  

“Joe?”

I’d hoped Pa was anywhere but behind his desk, pretending to be working when actually, he was waiting for me to make an appearance. Out of courtesy, I hesitated when my father approached and cautiously, he touched his hand to my arm.

“Will you stay for supper?”

I closed my eyes to block out the pleading undertones in Pa’s tentative voice. This was not my father. This was a man who’d lost everything he held dear. No amount of wealth or power could repair a broken family. His smile was gone; his eyes red-rimmed most of the time. His world had collapsed, folded in on him like a closed book. No more chapters would be written.

If I wanted to stay, I would. If I wanted to talk I would, but I was incapable of either. I was incapable of sitting down to supper with Pa when the lure of a smoke-filled, rowdy saloon called my name, forcing me to leave my father and walk away from the type of life we once shared.

“I’m sorry, Pa. Not tonight.”

Taking my usual table near the back of the saloon, I’d already picked up my bottle and glass at the bar. It was early, but soon the music would start and the ladies would waltz down the stairs with their painted faces and low-cut dresses. They’d work their magic and lure eager, young men to their rooms for a few short minutes of off-color entertainment.  Night after night, I sat alone; the painted faces didn’t bother to entice but tonight, memories of that day in the ravine with Hoss, broken and in pain, traveled straight through me.

~~~

My brother was in agony, andI stayed by his side, forcing water until Candy and Pa pulled up in the wagon. Pa knelt by my side, and I tried my best to stay calm and tell him what I knew so far. We needed to get Hoss loaded into the wagon and get him home; he’d been out in the elements a good long time.  

Paul Martin was ready and waiting on the front porch when we pulled the wagon up close to the front door. Pa had climbed in back with Hoss while I sat up front with Candy.  The three of us managed to get my brother to his room.

After getting Hoss settled, it was close to three hours before Paul Martin and Hop Sing descended the stairs.  He looked exhausted as he rolled down his sleeves and graciously accepted the cup of coffee Pa handed him.

“Well?” Pa asked, anxious for word.

After taking a deep breath, Paul took a seat in my father’s chair while Pa eased down onto the low wooden table in front of him. “His leg is broken, Ben, but he’s also fractured his collarbone and at this point, I’m not sure which will take longer to heal.  He’s not in pain right now, I gave him a sedative, but he’ll definitely feel the results of my efforts when he wakes up.  The leg will mend nicely I’m sure, but we’ll have to watch him closely for infection with the shoulder.  I had to open him up to set the bone, and I gave Hop Sing all the instructions for his care.  The next couple of days are going to be rough, and I suggest you take turns staying with him day and night until we’re sure he’s out of danger.”

I listened along with Pa and Candy, wondering why this couldn’t have been me instead. That’s all I could think of. Hoss had so much to live for, so much to look forward to. He should be enjoying the summer months with his bride-to-be, not laid up from a stupid, senseless accident. Although Pa was speechless, I suddenly remembered the last thing Hoss asked me to do.

“Ali,” I blurted through the quiet room. “ She needs to know.”

“It’s late son. No sense worrying her tonight.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head and starting for the front door. “I promised Hoss.  I won’t be long.” My father would want to sit with Hoss tonight anyway and if I spoke to Ali now, I’d be ready to relieve Pa in the morning. It all made perfect sense.

“Joe . . .”

“I won’t be long.”

Luckily, there was a full moon or I could have easily ended up in the same predicament as my brother.  I tied Cooch up in front of Ali’s cream-colored house and headed up the front walk.  I’d been here before with Hoss, but this time was different, and I dreaded the story I’d have to tell.  Even though it was late, too late for Hoss or for dinner, it wasn’t too late to call. With a lamp burning brightly in the front window, she was probably still dressed and waiting for my brother to arrive.

“Who’s there?” Ali called from inside the house.

“It’s Joe Cartwright.  I need to speak with you.”  The door opened slightly and quickly, she turned her head away, but not before I saw red-rimmed eyes and realized she’d been crying. I stepped inside. “Ali?”

With a frilly, lace handkerchief, she quickly dabbed her eyes then turned to face me. “I’m sorry, Joe.” Her voice was unsteady. She tucked the handkerchief back in her skirt pocket. “I don’t understand. Why are you here?”

Now I was more nervous than ever. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea; maybe Pa was right. How would I tell her about Hoss when something else had her so upset? “May . . . maybe I should go,” I said hesitantly.

“No,” she said, pulling herself to full height. “I’m okay now.”

I felt awkward, standing alone in Ali’s house, but I’d promised my brother.  Hoss wanted her to know, but I could always soften the blow. Just tell her the bare minimum. I glanced at her small, round table, draped with a floral cloth, set with china and candles, and knew Hoss had been expected earlier. I wasn’t sure where to begin. No one would have stopped by and told her already; none of our hands would have thought that far ahead.

I followed her into the kitchen. “Can I help?” I asked.

“Oh,” she gasped.  “You scared me.  I was just making a fresh pot of coffee.”

“What’s wrong, Ali?” Damn. Why’d I go as ask? I never did have the sense to keep my mouth shut.

Tears came again.  Although her back was to me, I watched her pull the same handkerchief from her pocket.  I walked toward her and let my hands fall on her shoulders. “Hey, Ali, nothing’s that bad.”

She turned suddenly and wrapped her arms around me.  I held her until she regained control.  “Come on,” I said, guiding her to the small sofa in the parlor.  I sat down next to her, resting my arm across her shoulders. She leaned into me and began to explain.

“Hoss and I had an argument and when he didn’t show up for supper—”

“Ali, it’s not what you think.  He couldn’t come.”

“What?” she said, shakily.

“Look at me,” I said, touching her chin and tilting her head so our eyes would meet.  “Hoss is hurt.  He fell from his horse and—”

Her body stiffened as she took in my words.  “Fell?  He’s hurt?”

“It’s bad,” I said.  “He fractured his leg and his collarbone.” So much for bare minimum.

“Will you take me out to the ranch?”

I thought over her request. Hoss had been sedated. He wouldn’t know anything until tomorrow and that was soon enough.  “Let him sleep tonight, and I’ll come and pick you up early in the morning.”

“The coffee!” she cried when we both heard it boil over and hiss on top of the stove.  She ran from the sofa and pulled the steaming pot away from the heat. “You’ll stay for a cup?”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

Hoss and Ali fighting?  I tried to picture the scene. Hoss hated confrontation of any kind so it was hard to imagine. Although, he could lose his temper with Adam and me when we were younger, but he’d never be upset with Ali.

After she cleared away the dishes, we each took a seat at the dining room table. Without asking, she cut me a piece of apple pie she’d obviously baked for my brother.  I explained what I could. “Seems a snake spooked Chub and sent Hoss flying off the horse’s back.” I quickly admonished myself. Easy Joe. Bare minimum. The doctor’s already come and gone, and he guaranteed Hoss would heal just fine in time.”

Ali hung on every word, sitting quietly and listening while I spoke.  She never touched her piece of pie and neither did I.  It had been a long, exhausting day, and I was tired and needed to return home.  There’d been no hint or explanation as to why she was upset when I’d arrived, but they’d work things out, of that, I was sure.

“I’ll leave the ranch at daybreak, Ali. I’ll drive you out and bring you home later in the day.”

“You won’t forget—”

“I won’t forget.”  I leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.  “Don’t worry.  He’s as tough as they come.  Everything will work out fine.”

~~~

Five simple words. I poured another drink.  Oh yeah, everything turned out just fine.

Loud voices and spirited pandemonium interrupted my thoughts. A simple drink in a quiet bar would have been a luxury, instead; I lifted my eyes to see what the commotion was all about.  It was nothing I hadn’t witnessed before, an upturned table with glasses and cash money crashing noisily to the floor.

Someone had a winning hand and someone else was not at all pleased with the outcome; same story, different night. The sheriff would walk in shortly to haul the rowdy men off to jail or send them all home. I knew the routine. The saloon would settle back down to a low roar until it started all over again.

This is what I’d been reduced to; sitting night after night, wasting away, clinging to this bottle if for no other reason than I had nothing better to do with my life.  That’s what Pa called it early on; wasting my life, but nothing else felt right, nothing else really mattered.

In the beginning, my father had Candy follow me.  Pa was worried—Pa always worries—and he’d send our foreman out looking when I didn’t make it home before dark.  Well, he’d find me; same place, doing the same thing.  He often tried to cheer me up and in his own light-hearted way, make me believe my brother would someday return and like brothers usually did, we’d patch up our differences.

Candy wasn’t naïve. He’d figured things out long before anyone else, but he never cast blame.  “Takes two to tango, my friend.” I hadn’t found anything to smile about for a long time. That night, I did.

I often wondered if Hoss felt as lost as I did.  Where was he tonight and where would he be tomorrow?  Hoss disappeared with no forwarding address while I disappeared into a bottle. Pa was right. He’d lost two sons. Pa was right about many things; things he couldn’t change but God bless him, he tried.

As it turned out there was only one barroom dispute, a slow night for Roy and, as my bottle and glass sat empty, a sense of tranquility for me. Tomorrow was just another day, and I was in absolutely no rush to ride home. Pa’s wayward son would stumble into bed and repeat the ongoing process again tomorrow.

The night was clear, and Cochise knew the way. And, in the dulled recesses of my inebriated brain, I thought back to last summer when so many lives suddenly changed

~~~

“Make sure you pick Ali up for church in the mornin’, Joseph. She don’t like goin’ by herself,” Hoss said, looking up from the checkerboard we’d set up on his bed.

“Don’t we always? Pa and I take such good care of that girl she’ll be spoiled rotten by the time you’re up and around. I assure you, brother, she’s being looked after quite well.”  

“Just make sure you do.” A smile broke through and with his good hand; Hoss jumped one of my blacks. “King me, Joseph.”

Being laid up was my specialty, not my brother’s. I’d been confined to bed more times than a man should, and I knew from experience how boredom could affect a man’s disposition. I was truly sympathetic, and I did everything I could to keep my brother entertained. We all did.

Ali spent her days with Hoss. I’d drive in early to pick her up while Candy did the morning chores. We’d head out to work, and I’d make the return trip to town in the evenings. The days were long but we all seemed to manage the hectic schedule.

Red checkers lined up in a precarious order . . . so pretty, and I smiled when I realized my next move. “Ready?”

“For what?” Hoss scrunched his eyebrows tightly together

One, two, three in a row—I jumped my brother’s red pieces and leaned back in the chair, grinning at his furrowed brow.  “I can’t concentrate no more,” he said.  “I hate lying here.  Dadgummit, Joe, my brain’s wastin’ away to nothin’.”

“Don’t look like you’re wastin’ away at all, big brother.”  He scowled, which he did every time I mentioned his girth, but he knew I’d never stop. Quickly, I changed the subject.  “Hey, Hoss—why haven’t you ever taught Ali to ride?”

He shrugged his one good shoulder.  “I don’t know,” he said. “Kinda like her dependin’ on me, you know?”

“Oh,” I said.

“Why ya ask?”

“I donno. Why don’t I bring here out here after church tomorrow?  She can start out on old Nellie.  She’s like sittin’ a rockin’ chair, and if the doc ever lets you out of bed, you can watch her progress in the yard from your window.”

“Yeah,” Hoss said, his face lighting up with a smile. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because I’m the one with the brains, and you’re the one with the brawn.”  I quickly ducked when the checkerboard flew my way.

~~~

After church the following morning, Pa rode home on Buck, and I drove the buggy to Ali’s to get a change of clothes although I didn’t tell her the plans Hoss and I’d made. “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on, Joe?”

“Because it’s a surprise—that’s why.”

“And I have to change my clothes for this surprise?”

‘Yes, ma’am.”

I wanted to laugh when I saw the half-smile on her face. It took me back; something about that look reminded me of . . . Adam would have played the same trick on me, and I remembered how much I hated having to wait, not knowing the outcome when everyone else did.

Considering how nervous she was around horses, I was leaving it up to Hoss to tell her the plan.  She wasn’t going to con me into spilling the beans like everything else she’d gotten out of me when I should have kept silent.  She was very crafty that way.

No one made me laugh like Ali Parker.  There was always a jab here, a jab there, a sideways look or a subtle giggle.  She was quick-witted and compliments came easy, and she definitely knew how to boost a man’s ego.  She was much more than just a pretty face, which made me understand perfectly why Hoss had fallen in love that day in the mercantile.

“Giddy-up,” I said, pulling away from her house. I was able to keep the secret, but we still laughed and teased during the trip to the ranch. I only hoped her cheerful disposition continued after Hoss told her the plan.

Reaching for her hand, I pulled her up the stairs to Hoss’ room. Although he saw her more often, now that he’d been laid up, a wide grin spread across my brother’s face. “How’s my girl?”

“Well, your younger brother has been teasing me unmercifully.”

I smiled and dipped my head, but Hoss looked terribly confused.  “Joe?” he said, looking my way.

“Yes, Joe,” she cut in.  “I have this bundle of clothes, and your brother won’t tell me why on earth I had to bring them.”

“Oh that,” Hoss chuckled.

“Well?” Her look nearly unnerved my brother. With her bundle in one hand, the other hand resting on her hip, she tried her best to look upset with the two of us. I smiled again and backed slowly out of his bedroom, leaving Hoss to explain.  I had done my job and brought her here.  Now it was up to him to convince her to give it a shot but before anything else, it was time to eat Sunday dinner.

With Hoss not allowed out of bed, Pa and I filled our plates and headed upstairs to eat with the lovebirds.  My brother’s bedroom was already filled with extra chairs since that’s where Pa and I spent our evenings and Ali spent her days.  Hop Sing carried up a tray with two more plates, one piled much higher than the other, and the four of us had dinner before the riding lessons would begin. Because we outnumbered Ali three-to-one and because we thought, learning to ride was important here in the west, she caved and said she would give it a try.  

“Joe’s the best teacher you’ll ever have,” Hoss said.  “He’s the horse expert in this family.”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say—”

“Well, I would. And . . .”

Hoss continued his praise and naturally, I grew embarrassed only to look away before glancing back toward Ali who turned just slightly and winked. The room felt suddenly warm, and I forced a smile in her direction.

“He’ll take it nice and slow, won’t ya, Joe, so ya got nothin’ to worry about no how.”

I was no more of an expert than anyone else, but Hoss wanted to take away any doubts or fears, leaving Ali at ease since she had to spend the day with me rather than him. Hoss was like that.  He was a master at creating a relaxed atmosphere out of an awkward situation.

With my dinner plate empty and Hoss begging for seconds, I excused myself, changed out of my Sunday best, and headed to the barn to ready Nellie and Cochise.  By the time I led two saddled horses into the yard, Ali had changed into a white blouse and dark split-skirt and had even unpinned her hair, letting it cascade over her shoulders. Although there was no real bounce to her step, she was being a good sport about this whole endeavor.

“We won’t go far today,” I said, already seeing signs of fear in her eyes.  “We’ll just walk—nothing more, okay?”

“He’s awfully big, Joe.”

I had more to explain than I originally thought.  We really did have to start at the beginning.  “First off,” I said, draping my arm across her shoulders, “this is Nellie, and she’s a she, not a he.”

Her large brown eyes met mine.  “Oh,” she said, now blushing and turning away. “I’ve never been around big animals, Joe.  You’re talking to a city girl who knows nothing about such things.”

I squeezed my hand tighter against her shoulder and smiled.  “I’ll teach you everything you need to know; no need for worry.  What do I know about living in the city? Nothing. So we’re even, right?” With a slight nod of her head, I hoped I’d said the right thing.

“Right,” she said.

“You ready?”

“You’re the expert.”

“That’s the spirit.”

I gave her a leg up, and Nellie didn’t move a muscle.  I handed her the reins and showed her how to hold them properly before I mounted Cochise.  “You won’t leave me alone, will you, Joe?”

“No,” I said, trying not to chuckle in front of her pale, fear-ridden face.  “I won’t be but a foot away from you at any given time.  I promise.” After we’d circled the yard a couple of times, I pointed to the side of the barn.  “Let’s head that way.”

Ali was far from comfortable, and I tried to imagine how difficult this really was for a city girl. While I’d sat a horse before I could walk, as did most boys here in the west, this was completely foreign and patience was the key.

I took things slow and easy, knowing Nellie was the best mount we had for this type of situation. She wouldn’t act up even though she could easily sense Ali’s nervous legs gripping tightly to her sides.  We moved toward the open meadow ahead, and as we walked side-by-side as slow as possible, I sensed she was becoming more relaxed.  She even shot me a smile and sat a bit taller in the saddle.

“If we go much farther you’re bound to be sore tomorrow,” I said, after about an hour’s time.  We’d made a wide circle around the meadow and heavy, black rain clouds were bearing down on us from the west.  This poor girl didn’t need to be caught in a storm on her first day out.

“I hate to go back, Joe.  This really isn’t so bad after all.”

“Believe me. You won’t be saying that by nightfall.”

Raindrops began to fall; the dark, angry sky threatened more to come. “Let’s pick up the pace.” Ali’s smile vanished, and she gripped tightly to the pommel. I pushed Cooch a touch faster, and Nellie followed in stride.  

Halfway to the house, the sky opened up, leaving us disadvantaged in an absolute downpour.  I grabbed Nelly’s reins and urged both mounts toward the barn. “Stay put,” I shouted over the raging storm. I jumped down to open the doors then quickly led Nelly and Cooch inside.

When I reached up for Ali, she nearly fell into my outstretched arms. “Oh, Joe, I was so frightened.”

“We’re safe now although I’m sure Hoss will skin me alive for scaring you on your first day out.”

Because the temperature had fallen so fast and because we were soaked to the skin, Ali shivered and wrapped her arms around her heaving chest. I couldn’t help catching sight of her sheer, white blouse, the outline of her camisole and what lay beneath. A loud clap of thunder caused her to jump, and a strong gust of wind blew both barn doors, crashing them loudly against the barn wall.

Startled, Ali pitched forward, wrapping both arms around my waist, and her head lay snug against my chest. As her grip tightened, her utter closeness set alarm bells ringing in my head. I was holding my brother fiancée in a very improper way.

“I’m afraid I’m not cut out for—”

“Hey,” I said softly, tilting her chin. “It’s just a storm. A little thunder and lightning.”

Before I realized what was happening, Ali’s slender hands had moved up my chest and around the back of my neck and, in a moment of weakness, I lowered my head to hers. Her lips were soft and full, still moist with droplets of rain. As she pulled me closer, I became caught up in a moment of passion. The moment was over quickly, but trust between brothers had been broken.

Suddenly, she was gone, running toward the house through the pouring rain. I stood alone, searching my soul for reasons why. Madness—complete madness. God, why? I slammed my fist against the stall then cradled my throbbing hand to my chest. The torn skin and immediate bruising revealed my anger, but traces of blood and ragged skin wouldn’t heal the mistake we’d just made.

For weeks, we’d been thrown together, back and forth from town, teasing, laughing, joking but remaining friends, never giving a thought as to how close we’d become. There was no excuse. Hoss was my brother; more important, he trusted me as only a brother could. 

I remained in the barn, rubbing down both horses long after I had them fed and dry, and when I rested my face against the white blaze on Cooch’s soft muzzle, tears of shame and regret burned my eyes. What happens now? How do we erase such a foolish mistake? How do we face each other . . . and Hoss? Oh, God, Hoss. I’d stalled long enough; taking this much time to stable two horses would set everyone wondering where I was. So, like Ali, I ran through the pouring rain toward the house.

“What took you so long, Joseph? I was beginning to worry,” Pa said after I’d closed the door behind me.

“Just trying to get the horses dry, Pa.” I didn’t look up as I unfastened my gunbelt and hung my hat up to dry.

“Looks like you two got caught in the storm. Ali raced through here so fast I didn’t get a chance to ask her how it went.”

“You mind if I change first, Pa.  I’m soaked clear through.”

“No—no—go ahead.  I’ll put on a fresh pot of coffee.  Bring Ali down with you, son.  I’m sure she needs something hot to warm her, too.”

“Sure, Pa.”

I closed my bedroom door and leaned back with both hands still clutched to the brass knob.  Not only would we both have to sit with my father, I would have to drive Ali back to town, later on, today. My heart raced; an indirect reply to the disgust I felt.

I ripped off my wet clothes, throwing them haphazardly over the back of the chair and changed into something dry.  Sensing Ali had done the same; I was forced to make an appearance; to stand up before my brother and act as though nothing had changed. Reluctantly, I plastered a silly grin on my face and walked down the hall.  

Hoss was sitting up in bed, leaning against the headboard, talking and laughing with his bride-to-be.  I felt a huge sense of relief, seeing how things hadn’t been destroyed by one small act of reckless, irrational behavior. “Hey, little brother,” he called out when he looked up to see me leaning against his doorway.

“Hey, yourself.”

“Ali said you were a fine teacher, and she really had a good time until you both got caught in the rain.”

I nodded and forced another ridiculous smile.  “She did real well, Hoss. Your girl’s a natural.” Obviously, Ali had played her part well. “Um . . . Pa’s making a fresh pot of coffee and said those of us who could make it downstairs should join him for a cup.”

“Funny, little brother—real funny.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll bring her back,” I said. “Might even bring you a cup if there’s any left.”

Ali turned my way, showing signs of guilt written clearly across her face. The look of remorse in her large, brown eyes made me turn my head away.  After leaning over and kissing Hoss, she whispered something I couldn’t hear.  He smiled, and she stood up and sailed through the door as though I wasn’t even there.  I followed her down the stairs where Pa waited for us at the dining room table.  She took the chair across from mine, and Pa slid a cup and saucer to each of us.

“So tell me—how did the first lesson go?” he asked, looking first at me and then at Ali. “I hope you two didn’t do anything you weren’t ready for.”

I cringed at his selection of words, but I spoke up first.  “She’s gonna be out ridin’ and ropin’ steers in no time, Pa.  Like I told Hoss, his girl’s a natural.”  I looked across the table and realized I’d made her blush, but my mouth kept going.  “It’s true. Another couple of lessons and no telling what she can do.”

“Sounds like you accomplished more that you planned today,” Pa said, smiling.

I caught Ali’s eye but quickly turned back to my father.  Yeah, Pa, we accomplished a whole lot, if you only had a clue.  At this point, I certainly wasn’t anxious to continue with more riding lessons.

“Oh wait,” Pa said. “Hop Sing baked a chocolate cake before he left for San Francisco.  Why don’t I cut us each a slice before we tell Hoss it’s here?”

Pa was out of his chair and into the kitchen before I could get a word in edgewise.  If Ali’s stomach was as nervous as mine; cake was the last thing either of us wanted.  I kept my eyes fixed on her, and she did the same with me.  God forgive me, but I felt drawn to her in a most improper way, and I quickly shook any thoughts of continuance from my mind. What was done was done. It was over.

It wasn’t safe to talk while my father was still within earshot.  I’d wait until we were alone. We’d settle things for good and life would proceed, as it should; never again would either of us fall prey to each other’s wants or needs. Never again would we sink so low as to break my brother’s heart.

We muddled through some of our cake and a second cup of coffee, and as much as Pa tried to carry on a conversation, it fell flat. “Hoss is going to think I got lost down here,” Ali said if only to break the silence.  “I’m going to take him a big slice of chocolate cake.  That should please him, don’t you think?”

She was off to the kitchen; not really needing an answer although Pa nodded his head in approval then leaned back in his chair.  He lit his pipe and tilted his head upward, letting blue, spiraling smoke pass his lips.  For Pa, his world was complete with a soon-to-be daughter-in-law and hopefully a passel of grandchildren running through the house and bouncing on his lap.  A son finally married, a long-awaited dream come true.

After Ali left to sit with Hoss, Pa challenged me to a game of chess.  I agreed, and we moved across the room to the chessboard, but my mind was miles away and so was my common sense. I made my initial move with my bruised and swollen hand. Pa looked at me strangely then asked, “What on earth?”

“It’s nothin’. Just a scrape is all.”

“Maybe you should—”

“It’s nothin’, Pa.”

A game, which could last for hours, ended before it began. After capturing both knights, my bishop, and queen, Pa called checkmate. “Something bothering you, son? Your mind certainly isn’t on the game.”

“Me?  No.  Just thinking I probably ought to get Ali back home now that the rain has let up.”

“I suppose you’re right.  Let me go up this time. I’ll see what the lovebirds are up to.”

“I’ll go hitch the buggy.”

Even though it was summer, the rain had cooled the air and Ali, who had changed back into her Sunday best, would need something warm around her. I grabbed a blanket from the sideboard, and when Pa and Ali approached, I stopped cold.

“I’m going to leave my wet clothes here for now if that’s all right, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Oh, no problem, Ali,” Pa said.  “You know I’ve been thinking.” His tone was light as he took her hands in his.  “Since you’re only a formality away from being part of this family, I think this whole Mr. Cartwright business needs to be remedied.  I really wish you would call me Ben.”

“I’d love to . . . Ben, but it will take a bit of getting used to,” she said, looking up at my father.

Pa leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.  “You’re everything I’d ever hoped for.  You make my son very happy.”  Pa glanced up at me. As I leaned against the front door, I wondered how Ali could carry on a simple conversation when every nerve in my body pulsed faster than a galloping horse.  “You make all of us very happy, doesn’t she, Joseph?”

I had to clear my throat. “Yes, she does.”

“Well, you two better get going; the roads are going to be rough. Joseph, not too fast now.”

“Yessir.”

“Thought you might need this,” I said, handing Ali the blanket after helping her into the buggy. I slapped leather against the horse’s rump as Ali turned and waved to Pa and by the time we’d cleared the barn, she’d already secured the blanket around her shoulders and across her lap.  

Pa was right; it was slow going. The rain had left deep ruts, fallen branches and plenty of pools of water. But missing from the ride altogether was the laughter and fun times we’d shared over the past weeks, and an eerie silence prevailed. Eventually, we’d have to talk.

I slowed the buggy and pulled to a stop on the side of the road. I couldn’t wait any longer to say what was on my mind. I was nervous, and I didn’t know if the words would come out right or not, but they had to be said.

“I want to apologize, Ali. Believe me, this will never happen again. I’ve hurt you, and I’ve hurt my brother. I can’t take today back, but I can assure you nothing like that scene in the barn will ever happen again.”

I gripped so tightly to the reins as I rendered my speech my knuckles showed white. Ali reached for my swollen and scraped hand. “Because of me?” I didn’t look up. “You don’t understand,” she said

“What’s there to understand?” I’d said what was needed, I apologized, and I thought the conversation was over.

“You’re not to blame.”

“No?” I nearly laughed. “I should have had more sense.”

“Things like this don’t make sense, Joe. They just are.”

“Are what, Ali? What are you trying to say?” My God. I tried to make thing right; make this nightmare go away and she was talking in circles. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Yes you do, Joe. We both wanted—”

“No. You don’t mean that.  You’re not thinking straight.”

“I do mean it, Joe.  That’s what makes this so hard.”

I pulled my hand away and slapped the reins. Three lives were at stake, three lives that could easily be damaged beyond repair.

~~~

The house was dark, and Ali asked me to walk her to the door. On any other night, I would have been a courteous gentleman but tonight, I just wanted to get the hell away. She fumbled for the key and eventually turned the lock. “Wait here.” She entered the house and with my back to the door, I waited until she’d lit the lamp.

“Joe?”

I didn’t want to talk. I’d said my piece, and I was done, debating the issue. “What about tomorrow?”  I said, turning back to Ali.  “You still want me to come for you in the morning?”  

“Please, Joe. Come in so we can talk.”

“I don’t think that’s a good—”

“Please . . .”

Ali was my brother’s fiancée and at this point, I didn’t trust myself to be alone with her. The riding lessons would be hard enough, and I was truly afraid to walk through the door.

“Coffee?”

“No, I won’t be staying.”

“Will you stay long enough for me to explain?”

My frustration grew. “Ali, there’s nothing to explain.  We made a stupid mistake, and it’s over.”

Ali took a step toward me. “I love your brother. He’s the kindest, sweetest man I’ve ever known.”

With that said, my nerves began to settle, and I could actually breathe and stop fidgeting with the rim of my hat. I’d seen the way she looked at Hoss; we all did, with eyes that would melt his heart and with a gentle touch of her hand, Hoss’ smile could light up a room.

Ali moved toward her sideboard and poured us each a shot of whiskey. She handed me a glass, and while she chose to sip, I downed my quickly. I settled my hat on my head and started for the door.

“Joe? There is one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“As much as I love Hoss, I’ve fallen in love with you.”

 The scowl on my face should have said it all, but Ali wasn’t finished and I was fool enough to stay. Nothing good could come from what she’d just said.  It was out in the open now and could only get worse if I didn’t stay strong.  I couldn’t deny I had certain feelings for her, but they were of friendship, a sense of family, not the kind of love she was referring to.

“These past few—“

“Don’t say any more, Ali.  You love Hoss, and you’ll be married in just a few short weeks.  Please don’t make this any worse than it already is.”

“I can’t marry Hoss now.”

“Why?” My voice was shrill like a jaybird.  Damn if everything wasn’t falling apart.

“I can’t,” she said.  “It wouldn’t be right.  I didn’t mean life to turn out this way so you tell me. How do I hide my true feelings if I marry your brother?”

The small room with too much furniture and too many useless trinkets became over warm as walls closed in, and I felt trapped in a nightmare with no end in sight. “So what happens now?  What are you going to tell my brother?  I’m in love with Joe, and I don’t love you anymore?  Is that it, Ali?  Is that what you plan to tell Hoss?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t mean for—“

There is no us, Ali.”

I’d searched my soul for answers since I’d made the mistake of taking her in my arms, of letting my own feelings show when I knew how wrong my actions were. I did the unthinkable, and we’d all pay the price for that one small but gigantic error in judgment.

“Do you love me?”

“It doesn’t matter, Ali.  Don’t you see?”

“But it does matter.”

“I have to go.”

“You can’t walk away from me.  Please, Joe.”

As she said those words, my mind cried out with contempt. But the forbidden apple tugged at my heart, and the man inside fought with everything he had. I sensed her standing behind me; and I suddenly became a scared little boy, frozen in time and space. Static filled the air; the storm was gathering momentum. Slowly, her hands crossed my hips and for an instant, I longed for her touch, for our lips to meet.

“No.” A sudden whirlwind of anger took hold. “It all stops here. I’m sorry, Ali. We can never be.”

~~~

“Candy—” Ben called when the foreman strolled through the front door.

Since taking over the morning chores, sitting down for a decent breakfast usually slipped by the wayside. And since Hoss had left the Ponderosa, Candy and Pa had taken it upon themselves to keep things running as smoothly as possible, knowing neglect and poor management could force the ruin of any ranch.

“Yes sir,” he said, rounding the grandfather clock to stand next to Ben’s desk.

“I’d like you to pick out two good men. I think they can finish the count today, don’t you?”

“Oh, no problem, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I’d also like you to stay here this morning. I . . . well, I need a favor.”

“Whatever you need, I’m your man.”

“It may not be that simple.”

“Oh?”

It had to be Joe. Nothing else brought this amount of concern to the elder Cartwright. Secrets had been kept and lies had been told for Joe’s benefit and for Mr. Cartwright’s. What Joe didn’t realize was how his father was spiraling down this dirty little path with him, taking years from the old man’s life every time Joe rode into town and failed to make an appearance till noon the next day.

Ben stood from his desk and walked around to meet Candy face to face.  “Joe didn’t make it home last night and I—“

Candy raised his hand, cutting Ben off mid-sentence.  “I’m on my way, as soon as I talk to the men and get them on their way.”

“Thanks, Candy.  I’d appreciate if you’d keep this . . . under your hat.”

“I always do. Mr. Cartwright.”

After dismissing the ranch hands, Candy saddled his mount and started down the road toward Virginia City, keeping alert for any signs along the way. He saw no evidence of Joe on his ride into town, and the first person he encountered was Roy Coffee as he cantered his way down C Street.

“Candy—” Roy called out, raising his hand to the foreman.  “A little early to be in town ain’t it?”

“Oh, just an errand for Mr. Cartwright, Sheriff.” His plan was to collect information without giving anything away as Ben had asked.  If Joe was in Roy’s cell or if had there been any kind if ruckus in the saloon, Roy would be first to let him know and if not, no one would be the wiser.  “Anything new in town?”

“Not much, just makin’ my mornin’ rounds.  Saw Little Joe last night.” Candy nodded and the sheriff continued.  “Any word from Hoss?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Well, tell Ben I miss our cribbage games and to get hisself into see me when he can.  Tell him I’ll even spring for a beer,” Roy said, smiling up at Candy.

“I’ll do that, Sheriff.”

Candy tipped his hat and rode to the far end of town, thinking he’d check the livery and after seeing no sign of the pinto; he backtracked down C Street then turned his mount back toward the Ponderosa.  He rode faster this time; knowing Joe must have started home at some point last night. Retracing his steps, he studied for clues along the way.

Whether Ben Cartwright knew it or not, every hand on the Ponderosa and half of Virginia City knew about the gradual decline of a once proud and caring man. Candy had watched Joe sink deeper and deeper, lost in a world he’d created—a world he tried to block from his mind.  A rather vain man who had taken pride in his appearance no longer cared.  A man who worked harder than anyone else on his father’s ranch couldn’t put in a full day’s work any longer.  

When this whole fiasco began, Candy had tried to dissuade the situation with light-hearted comments and casual conversation, but any words of comfort fell by the wayside. “It’s my problem, and I’ll work it out in my own way and in my own time,” Joe had said.  His way was killing him; a slow and miserable death, and what made it unbearable to watch was how his descent into a bottle of whiskey was killing his father, too.

Ben was proud of all his sons but as Candy had observed over the past few months, the family of strong, proud men was folding in on itself. Ben’s genuine love of life had gone missing. He’d become withdrawn and at times careless when it came to ranch business. The ranch was still holding its own, but it wouldn’t take much for the entire operation to collapse, leaving a man who once held such pride, alone and withered. A man, whose legacy meant everything, was beginning to falter.

Candy relinquished those thoughts as he pulled rein at a Y in the road.  One way led to the Ponderosa; the other led south toward Carson.  Cochise knew the way without any help from his rider, and Joe could always count on his mount to carry him home safely no matter what condition he was in.  So, if Joe chose a different path, it was intentional.

And that’s the road Candy followed; the road that led away.

~~~

The sound of soft snoring caused me to turn my head and open my eyes. There sat my father, his head resting on his hand, his elbow propped on the arm of the chair. My bedroom was dark except for a few lighter shadows spiking on walls by a low-burning lamp.  My clothing had been stripped away and a nightshirt had taken their place.

I fixed my eyes back on Pa; how miserable his life had become. Even in sleep, deep lines creased his forehead. Because of my selfish behavior, I’d destroyed the bond we’d shared since the day I was born; an inner connection I held dear in my heart was now broken. I’d burned all my bridges, leaving a shattered family to rise from the ashes. There was no turning back; life would never be the same.

I closed my eyes; hoping sleep might bring back memories of good times. A time when our family was whole, when laughter prevailed and where my brother was content, living on the land he loved. Although I knew better, I’d only dream of the chaos I’d brought to this family. I was so tired . . .

~~~

Monday morning came early and, as I’d done for weeks, I drove in to pick up Ali.  Questions would be raised if I didn’t continue the routine we’d started long ago.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she said, walking toward the buggy.

I held her hand as she climbed in beside me just like I’d always done before, but, of course, today was different. Overnight, our lives had changed. She rested her hands in her lap and looked straight ahead until we were out of town and out of sight of onlookers prying eyes.  We both spoke at the same time, and I nodded for her to go ahead.

“What happens now, Joe?” she said, after turning to face me.

“Nothing,” I was quick to reply.  “Nothing at all.”  I knew the correct response, and it was the only answer that made any sense.  Her eyes faced forward again even though the conversation had only begun.

“I can’t pretend, Joe.  It’s not fair to Hoss to keep—“

I jerked the horses to a stop and turned to face her but the words, which should have come easy, stayed trapped inside. How could I force her to love my brother? His whole life lay before him, and Ali was a major player in that life.  And what exactly were my own feelings? Was that the real reason I couldn’t press forward, couldn’t find the words I needed to say? For God’s sake, I had to try.

“We can’t be together,” I said.  “It would never work and you know that.”

Ali looked at me as though I’d plunged a slender stiletto straight through her heart. Tears formed in her eyes and God help me, but I’d fallen in love with this woman. Life had played a cruel and unforgiving joke on all three of us and, if I took the next step our lives would change forever. I couldn’t let that happen.

I took Ali’s hand in mine. “You have to tell him something, anything.  Tell him you’re going away.  Tell him—”

Her head fell against my chest; tears stained my shirt.  Surely, she would keep my name out of it, but she had to tell Hoss it was over.  She couldn’t pretend if there was nothing left.  He would be hurt but in time, the love he felt would pass.  If he found out the reason why, it would destroy him.  It would destroy us all.

It was all I could do not to lay Ali down on the seat, pull up her skirts, and sink myself inside. Our feelings had surfaced; the lust, the sudden desire between a man and a woman, daring me to take the next step, to satisfy the overpowering passion that burned between us.

The tiniest whimper; the sound of her girlish voice weakened my constitution. I’d become aroused, hard and straining against my trousers.  I reached for her, running the back of my hand slowly across her breast, appreciating its contour imprisoned behind a pale, green blouse. With a subtle moan of pleasure, her hand pressed against mine before unfastening the small, pearl buttons and allowing me access. Her body trembled with eagerness and impatience, but I finally came to my senses. I pulled back. “We can’t,” I said. “I’m sorry. We just can’t.”

Clearly humiliated, she stared at me with flushed cheeks and tear-filled eyes. She fastened her gaping blouse and busied herself straightening the folds of her skirt. Her eyes faced forward; no words were spoken. When I pulled up in front of the house, neither of us moved from our seats.  Again, I repeated an apology. “I’m sorry.” They were only words and they meant nothing now. They’d come too late for either of us. I remained seated as Ali climbed down from the buggy and with her head held high she walked toward the house.

While she sat with Hoss, Candy and I had a full day’s work ahead. Work became a godsend; the perfect solution to occupy my mind; to prevent me from thinking and God knows, I didn’t need time to think.

~~~

Candy and I worked well together just as Hoss and I had in the past. There was laughter and storytelling, usually stories my father preferred not to hear, but try as I might, repairing broken fence didn’t come easy when my mind retreated to a faraway place. It was obvious to Candy I was lost in another world and struggling to keep my temper in check when things didn’t go just right. My mind was full of questions. Was she telling Hoss now or would she wait until the end of the day? How would she break the news and what excuse would she give?

“Ready for lunch?”

“Huh?” I said, barely catching the words.

“Lunch?” he repeated.  “Don’t know about you but I’m starved.”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

We sat on the tail of the wagon and pulled out sandwiches we’d brought from home.  “Should finish this up pretty soon, don’t you think?  Joe?”

“Huh?”

“What’s the matter with you?  You’ve been off-kilter all day?”

“Sorry, just some loose ends to tie up. Guess my mind’s not really on work.”

“So, you meet a new girl?  Some pretty little blonde pull into town on the stage and fall madly in love with you at first sight? A brunette? A fiery redhead?”

I wish he were kidding.  Ali was beautiful and even fiery although without the red hair but definitely not new in town.  She was my brother’s fiancée.  Should I tell him that? Should I give away secrets that destroyed lives?  “No,” I said.  “No new girl.”  At least that part wasn’t a lie.

We worked the rest of the afternoon then climbed in the wagon; tired and knowing we’d have to return to finish the job tomorrow.  “I’ll put up the team,” Candy said.  I didn’t argue; I walked to the house.

“Is that you, Joe?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Pa.”

I hung up my gunbelt and hat and flopped down in a chair in front of my father’s desk.  My mind drifted to the numerous times I’d sat in this very same chair as a kid, listening to a lecture on what I’d done wrong and why I needed to be punished.  We’d head to the barn together, and Pa would pull his belt slowly through the loops of his pants.  A few good whacks and the punishment was over and forgotten.  If problems could be solved that easy now, I’d loosen Pa’s belt myself.

“Joseph?” I looked up at my father who had leaned forward with his elbows resting on his desk.  “Something bothering you, son?”

“Oh—sorry.  I’m just tired.”

“You and Candy finish up today?”

“I wish,” I said.  “We’ll have to go back tomorrow, should only take a couple hours at most.”

“We had good news today,” Pa said, reaching in his vest pocket for a match.

“Yeah?” Good news might lift my spirits. Not much else would.

“Paul was out and said your brother could get out of bed.  He can’t take the cast off just yet, but at least Hoss can move around now and start getting his strength back.”

“That’s real good news, Pa.”  I started to stand, but Pa wasn’t quite finished talking.

“Ali seemed a bit preoccupied.”

“Ali?”

“Yes, Ali.”  I gave Pa a look I don’t think he appreciated.  “Do you know what’s troubling her?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you?” A lilt of frustration was clear in my father’s voice.

“How would I know? You need to ask her not me. You’re the one who knows women.”

“I wouldn’t say that, but why so defensive, Joseph?  I just thought she might have said something while you were driving out this morning.”

“Nope.  She didn’t say anything to me.”

At least nothing I can repeat.  I needed to stay calm, to watch my words and my actions. The idea was to keep things as normal as possible before Pa suspected anything out of the ordinary. No one caught on faster than my father, and he’d be the first to realize, as Candy said earlier, something was off-kilter.

“You want some coffee or something to eat before you drive back to town?”

“No, but I’ll hitch the team if you’ll tell Ali I’m ready.”

It was bad enough I would have to sit next to her; the two of us draped in silence, but I couldn’t face Hoss, not after she’d told him there’d be no wedding. The joy he must have felt after the doc was here and now, his heart was breaking into.

Pa stood and clapped me on the shoulder.  “It’s awfully good of you to do this for your brother after a full day’s work, Joseph.  I know Hoss and Ali appreciate everything you’ve done for them.”  I nodded, forming a tight-lipped smile but quickly turned away, leaving the room and making a beeline for the barn.

After we’d driven a mile or so from the house I finally had to ask.  Ali had come out to the barn to meet me, but she hadn’t said a word.  I thought she’d want to explain how it went with Hoss or at least some of the details. “Well?”  I asked, slowing the team so we could talk.

She shook her head.  “I couldn’t tell him, Joe.”

“Why?” I whined like a little kid.  “You can’t put this off, Ali.  The longer you wait—”

Her hands fidgeted nervously with the pleats of her skirt.  “The doctor came out today and, well, he was so excited to hear the news, and I didn’t have the heart to hurt him.”

“Tomorrow then. You have to tell him tomorrow.  He has to know the truth.”

“The truth? Joe, I couldn’t.”

“That’s not what I meant exactly, but he has to know you’re leaving, that you can’t marry him, that it’s over between you two.”

“Maybe you could—”

“No. It has to come from you. Hoss deserves that much.”

We rode in silence; the days of laughter were over, and we’d become overnight strangers. So, when I stopped in front of her house, neither of us knew quite what to do. Ali sat perfectly still until I jumped down to give her a hand, but as her hand lingered in mine, I feared some passersby might take notice and make a quick judgment of their own. We were in direct eyesight of anyone who’d be keen on spreading malicious gossip, especially about a Cartwright.

“Please come in, Joe.”

“Ali . . .“

With fear of being noticed as we stood in plain sight, I tied the horse to the rail and followed Ali inside. Instead of putting on a pot of coffee, she reached inside a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of scotch.  

I stood in the presence of danger, weak-kneed and afraid. As we each held our glasses but failed to drink, I stared at the woman before me. Deep brown eyes stared back and I leaned forward and touched my hand to the side of her face. “You’re a very beautiful woman.”

Tears welled in her eyes, and she reached for my glass. Time stood still as I slipped my hand around the nape of her neck and drew her tight against my chest. We were in a world behind closed doors, where I found myself captivated by a woman I could never have, a woman who belonged to another. But as my lips met hers, the moment I crossed the line and carried her up the stairs, I’d taken that initial step, the step, which would lead to the destruction of Joe Cartwright.

~~~

I’d fallen in love with Allison Parker, and she’d fallen in love with me.  As days and nights passed, after our evenings of passion and promises, I found any excuse to be close to the woman who’d captured my heart.

We worked diligently at keeping our affair hidden from family or prying eyes. Ali’s home had become a lover’s paradise where behind closed doors; we were free to entertain our passionate desires. Since no one could ever know, we played our parts well, like actors performing on stage.

Our time spent together proved exceptional. There were evenings we made love; passionate, forbidden love and there were nights we laughed hysterically at ridiculous comments only the two of us understood.  We didn’t want or need anyone else in our lives, which, in reality, was nothing but a fantasy world where only Ali and I existed. Our world was private, never brought to the attention of others.

Ali said I was her first, and I was willing and perfectly satisfied to take things slow and let our love evolve as nature took its course. And, with gentle coaxing on my part, she soon fulfilled every sexual desire. As time progressed, and as our passion soared to new heights, it became impossible for us to remain apart.

During the weeks that followed, I kept up with Ali’s riding lessons, which led us to a small hidden meadow where we could be alone and away from the one person who trusted us most. But Hoss was on the mend. The cast had come off and he was allowed simple chores. The end was coming soon.

We’d each perfected our skills although Ali was a much better actor than I. Lies were told to protect the innocent but we were nearing the first of August, and she had yet to call off the wedding. “Tomorrow,” she’d say but tomorrow never came.

~~~

Like I’d done the entire summer, I drove Ali home, but I’d said goodbye at the door since we’d already taken advantage of our afternoon, using riding lessons as an excuse, after all, a night spent at home was necessary now and again. She’d told Hoss she wouldn’t be out the next day, mentioning errands and generally catching up on her own chores, which had piled up over time.

When morning came and Pa planned a trip to Virginia City to send a wire to an acquaintance, concerning the price of a new bull, I jumped at the chance to take his place although a bit more enthusiastically than necessary. “I’ll send the wire, Pa.”

“What? Oh, Joe, I appreciate the offer, but you deserve a day off. You’ve been driving back and forth from town every day for weeks.”

“Then I won’t have any trouble finding my way.”

“Well, if you’re sure, I have plenty to keep me busy here. Of course, I could send Hoss.”

“I’ll go,” I said casually. “Be home by noon.”

I grabbed the missive, and I was out the front door. If I rode quickly, if I wasted no time, I’d have an hour or better to spare. So after racing into town and sending the wire off first, I fell straight into the arms of the woman I loved.

Our meeting was unplanned, and Ali’s chores and errands were quickly held over for another day. We played like children, ripping at each other’s clothes as we made our way up the stairs. A sweet scent of lavender filled the air due to her freshly washed hair, still damp, and I pictured a tub filled with bubbles and my lady wearing nothing at all.

With her breasts released from the confines of layers of clothing, she pulled off my shirt and tossed it over the banister as we giggled and teased until we fell onto her upstairs bed, rolling with pleasure at this unexpected meeting of body and soul. When our time together was over, I needed to return home for an afternoon of chores on the ranch. As I reached for my pants and boots, I remembered my shirt hadn’t made it to the bedroom. Ali slipped into her clothes and with one final kiss; it was time, I was on my way.

“God knows where my shirt ended up,” I joked, remembering how quickly and playfully she’d slid it over my head, never bothering with buttons, before tossing it over her shoulder.

“I prefer you much better without so don’t be in such a hurry to put it back on.”

“I don’t think the good citizens of Virginia City would appreciate seeing me half-naked when I leave this house.”

“Oh, but think of how much fun they’d have. The bluebloods would be talking for days on end. That crazy Joe Cartwright. Just who does he think he is, parading around town in his birthday suit?”

After I pointed to my shirt, which had draped over a single candlestick on the dining room table, I rolled my eyes and stole another kiss as we ran down the stairs, laughing like children. But, without warning, my life flashed before my eyes, stealing my breath and I quickly pushed Ali behind me. Three men stood just inside the front door. Three filthy men dressed in tattered, ill-fitting clothing held guns at waist level.

“What’s this all about?” I demanded, finding my voice, cracking, dry as desert sand. Most likely a robbery, but Ali had nothing; and me, I had about $40.00 in my shirt pocket. One of the men stepped forward while the two larger men closed and blocked the door.  

“Tell him. Tell this man of yours why I’m here.” Ali trembled with fear, but she chose not to speak a word. “Cat got your tongue? Afraid of me? Well, you should be, you goddamn whore.”

I was living a nightmare and the odds weren’t in my favor. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“Step away from the woman, and we’ll discuss this man-to-man.”

“Not till you tell me what this is about.” I tried to show bravado, but my knees were shaking and my heart pounded as if the wind had been knocked out of me already.

“You’re fucking my wife, mister-whoever-you-are. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

When the man took a step closer, I glanced at my gunbelt halfway across the room. No way could I take on all three and come out ahead of the game, so I remained calm and tightlipped, trying to come up with a decent plan. 

None of the men were familiar, and none of them knew my name. Two issues prevailed: staying alive and leaving no sign I’d ever been here today. I studied the men closely, keeping Ali behind me when her so-called husband took another step forward.

I leaped on top of him, sending his gun flying across the wooden floor. I swung hard and fast and when he went down, I pulled him to his feet before letting loose on his face and chest. He fell to his hands and knees, panting and forcing much-needed air into his lungs. But suddenly, I was grabbed from behind, my arms held tightly by the other two gunmen.

When the man rose to full height, he took two ragged breaths before he turned his shoulder and circled his arm in roundhouse fashion, plowing deep into my gut. I felt every blow as he wheeled his fists, one after the other, forcing my head back and forth with no chance to recover, leaving me bloody and nearly unconscious.

“No!” Ali screamed. “That enough. I’ll leave with you.”

Not able to stand on my own, I was released only to fall to the floor, my body lifeless and my face battered and raw. When I found the strength, I reached for the banister, determined to pull myself up off the floor. An explosion of gunfire and the sudden impact of a bullet skimming across my arm spun me backward against the bottom step. I gripped my shoulder; Ali knelt down beside me.

“Forgive me. Oh, God, please forgive me.” Her words floated through me like church bells, interrupting the thunder, fueling it way through my head. Her hand touched my face, “I love you,” until she was wrenched away from my side.

I tried to move forward, my breath hitching between clenched teeth. A second explosion knocked me back against the stairs. My leg was on fire. I curled, bending in half and placing one hand over the other to stop the flow of blood then fell from the step, unmoving.

~~~

When I woke, shadows moved only marginally where diminished light existed, leaving images distorted and yet yielding to unmovable objects. Where words were spoken but seemed foreign and unclear, and so I remained motionless, drifting in and out as my mind searched for a position without pain.

“He’s coming to.”

“Joseph?”

“Joe—can you hear me, son?”

I’m right here, Pa.

The struggle to lift my eyelids left me too tired to speak. I was being tested by severe intervals of pain, and I fought to return to that peaceful existence where constant misery faded into a glorious abyss. “Pa?” My lips formed the word but with the absence of sound. My father’s grip tightened around my wrist, assuring me he was close by.

“You’re at Doctor Martin’s, son.  You’re going to be all right.  He’s got you all patched up, and all you need to do now is lie still and rest.” Pa straightened the bed sheet across my chest, and I took comfort in his presence. Then, memories flashed: Ali, men, guns . . .

“No,” I mumbled. “No, Pa.”

“Son. Take it easy. No one here will hurt you.”

Oh, God. Did he know? Did he find me at Ali’s? Did the doc? “No . . . Hoss. Don’t—“

“Easy. That’s enough, Joseph. Lie still.”

Why was I still alive, and at what cost? What price would we all have to pay? The day’s events forced their way through my mind, the beating, the shots, Ali being dragged out of the house. I searched my mind for her final words. Regret? Sorrow? What had she said?

Chair legs scraped the wooden floor as my father settled in for the night. No matter what I’d done or mess I’d made of our lives, Pa was there to see me through. The doctor would poke and prod and my father would hang on every word until the threat of danger had passed. I would tell my side of the story, answer any and all question before the sun rose in the morning. I would beg for forgiveness but in my heart, I knew it could never be given.

At some point, I would have to face Hoss, and that unspoken trust between brothers would be forever lost. I’d broken every rule, and Hoss . . . oh, God, how could he ever trust me again? The despair, the lost opportunity of life with his new bride forever taken away because of what I’d done.

Ali was not to blame. Our love went both ways and when all was said and done, how could I fault the time we’d had together, a love that provided joy and laughter, a love I would always cherish. Yes, I betrayed my brother and yes, I would pay dearly for my decision and God, I would give the world to have Ali remain a part of my life.

As morning light filtered through the window, my father slept while I studied the deep-set lines in his face. I’m the one who’s to blame, Pa; I’m the one who’s at fault. I’d said those words many times over but never to my father. He would carry the weight of both sons; my indiscretion and the heartache and promise of my brother’s lost future.

Upon returning home, I would be confined to bed, spending countless days, maybe weeks, recovering from the damage done to my leg. It hadn’t been a clean shot with an exit wound. I was shot at close range, serious enough that infection from the gaping wound was always a major concern. The bullet had cracked the bone and it took hours of Doc’s surgical skills to repair torn muscle and seared flesh just so I’d be able to stand on both feet again.

My shoulder suffered no more than a burn, and the cuts and bruises would fade with time, but we’d all be forced to live under the same roof, Pa and my brother and me. I hadn’t seen Hoss although I can’t say I was surprised by his choice to stay away.

Tears filled my eyes as I considered the rough days ahead. Not the physical healing; I’d survived gunshot wounds before, but how would we survive as a family? I feared the worst was yet to come.

~~~

Days later, I was sent home; the healing process seemed deliberately slow. First, I was confined to bed for nearly ten days then, after the reduction of infection and bouts of fever, the leg was finally casted. I don’t remember much about those first few days. My memory fades in and out, tying fantasy and real life together, dreams and reality become a mixed blessing.

I hobbled around on crutches; nearly killing myself in the process or maybe that was my intention since nothing else really seemed to matter. Finally, the use of a cane helped steady the leg that, after all this time, still couldn’t handle my weight. Pa was sympathetic to my injuries although that’s as far as our relationship went. Hop Sing brought meals upstairs so I could dine alone. I preferred it that way. Hoss had never once come to my room.

At times, Candy ventured upstairs for a game of checkers or to go over assignments he’d given the men even though my opinion meant nothing. Pa was back in charge of ranch operations. My days of being an asset to running the ranch had come to an abrupt end and with me laid up, he’d had no choice but to step in and take my place.

By the time I became proficient with the cane and was leaving my room to join the living, Hoss had left the ranch. A brief letter stating he needed time to himself had been left on Pa’s desk. The answer was crystal clear. Hoss couldn’t stand the sight of me. I understood why time alone appealed to him, but it should have been me who walked away, not my brother.

I barely existed in my father’s world so the next best thing was to keep my distance. Three grown sons to take over the ranch had been my father’s dream, and now that dream had been crushed. Pa was left alone, his legacy crumbling before his eyes.

When I was able to sit a horse, I spent most of my non-working hours in town, anywhere other than home. This night was different, and I’d taken an alternate route. Home was no longer an option. I veered off the preferred road, longing to shelter myself from memories. My life was a sham and by breaking all the rules, I’d driven the family apart. But my escape was short-lived when Candy found me, cowering in a ditch alongside the road. Shivering and barely breathing, he loaded me on his horse and once again dragged me back home.

~~~

“Good morning,” Pa said when he entered my room.

My head ached and my body felt burdened under layers of bedclothes I didn’t normally use. I remembered the cold, the sudden onset of a fast-moving blizzard, and the way I’d curled into myself to stay warm. Slowly, I pushed myself up, feeling a catch in my side before leaning back gently against the headboard. Focusing on Pa was harder than it should have been, and I rubbed my eyes and ran my hand through my tangled hair.

“Morning,” I said then asked the same questions I’d asked many times before. “What happened? How’d I get home?”

Pa pulled a chair up next to the bed and settled in to talk. “Candy found you along the road heading south.”

I nodded my head. “Good old Candy.”

Pa seemed to be struggling with the right words to say, so he offered nothing. He only stared. Maybe he thought I could come up with answers to his unasked questions. Memories of the night before began flooding my head. Falling snow and a strong gust of wind had carried my hat to the side of the road. I slid off Cochise and immediately fell into a ditch while chasing my damn hat.

“My hat,” I mumbled, but Pa didn’t catch what I said.

“What?”

“The wind . . . I lost my hat.”

Pa nodded but ask for more of an explanation. “Think you can eat something?”

“Coffee. Just coffee.”

Pa returned moments later with two steaming mugs. He handed me one. “Thanks.” I held the cup with both hands; Pa returned to his chair. We each sipped coffee in silence; a silence we had grown accustomed to over time. “What time is it?” I asked.

“Oh, about seven o’clock.”

“Candy gone yet or is he waiting for me?”

“It’s Sunday, Joe.”

“Sunday?”

“I’m sensing you missed yesterday altogether.”

“You mean—”

I’d lost an entire day; I’d never let that happen before. But as I held the heated cup, I watched the steam rise and realized life had taken a turn. The whiskey was leaving black holes in my memory . . . although wasn’t that the point after all?

“Paul was here yesterday,” Pa said.

“Why was he here?”

My father leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs. “When Candy found you, he figured you’d fallen from your horse and—”

“I lost my hat. I got down to find my hat.” For some reason, I needed to make that clear. Did Pa think I was so far gone I’d fall off my own damn horse? I found myself repeating, for the umpteenth time, my reasons for falling in the ditch. “The wind blew my hat.”  

“Obviously, you fell at some point.” Pa’s voice took on a bitter edge, and I nodded rather than arguing the point. “There was no permanent damage as far as Paul could tell, only bruising around your rib cage.”

My father stood from the chair. He moved toward my bedroom window where his shoulders slumped forward after he’d placed his hand on the sill. Pa was a broken man, a tired man, a man who had more to say and was trying to find the exact words to use. After taking a final sip of coffee, he returned and sat down on the edge of my bed. I immediately became concerned when the look on Pa’s face conveyed a look of fear. A lump formed in my throat. “Is it Hoss?”

“No,” he said, interlacing his fingers together with unease.  “Still no word from your brother. What needs to be said concerns you.”

“I’m sorry, Pa. I know I haven’t been pulling my weight, and I’ll—“

Pa shook his head. Obviously, this wasn’t the issue. With both hands, he gripped tightly to his empty cup and looked me straight in the eye. “This is a bit more serious, son.”

“I’m fine, Pa. Bruised ribs, remember? I’ll be back to work in no time.”

“There’s more, Joseph. The doctor doesn’t think you have much time left. He said the amount of alcohol you’re consuming is doing severe damage to your insides.” I started to object, but Pa held up his hand. “If you stop drinking now, you have a chance at life. If not, you’re going to die.”

Paul was wrong; he was over reacting. “We’re all going to die, Pa.”

“Yes, but you’ll be the first.”

“I don’t understand.  I thought Doc gave me a clean bill of health.”

My father never took his eyes from mine as he continued. “If you continue the way you’ve been going, if you choose to lose yourself every night in a bottle of whiskey, Paul doesn’t think you’ll live out the year.”

It took a minute for Pa’s words to sink in but when they did, I knew for certain Paul was using scare tactics to somehow rein me in and end my nightly trips to town.  I’d hit the bottle hard, never worrying and never caring about the outcome of throwing the god-awful swill down my throat, but what if I’d guessed wrong. What if Paul’s prediction was on the up and up? Yes, there were days I preferred death to living another day. I wanted to erase the memories that haunted my soul every waking hour. But when tears glistened in my father’s eyes, a decision had to be made if not for my sake, for my father’s. Maybe it was time to end the charade and choose whether to live or to die.

“I can’t make any promises, Pa.”

“I only ask that you try.”

Pa reached out and squeezed my shoulder. I nodded my head, accepting the challenge. If my father thought I was worth saving then maybe it was time I turned my life around. I was the last son living on the Ponderosa; the only son Pa had left to keep his dream alive. So much had changed; so much time and energy wasted on the wrong things.

Forgiveness is not absolute, but compassion is. It would take time to heal but maybe with time, the past wouldn’t matter although I was kidding myself if I thought that was true. I’d created this mess; I’d sent my brother running for greener pastures. That in itself would always come between Pa and me.

But the simple touch of my father’s hand became a turning point. For weeks, we’d lived as strangers—a word in passing, a longing stare—a final resignation cut deeply into my father’s eyes when he’d finally given up. His entire world revolved around his sons and the land he’d worked for years to establish as one of the finest ranches anywhere. His dream, his legacy, his entire world was crumbling before his eyes.

I didn’t know whether I had the strength to restore the man I used to be, to fight for the reputation I’d always known as Ben Cartwright’s son. I was thirty years old, the one son, who, from a young age, had to prove himself, prove he could do the work his brothers took for granted. I barely remembered what normal was. A good night’s sleep, eating regular meals and working a full day seemed foreign to me.

Pa had continued his trips to church every Sunday although, since Hoss had left, he’d made the trip alone. Today, he stayed home with me. He excused himself from my room so we could both dress and meet downstairs for our first meal together in a very long time. Even though I couldn’t eat much, as my body was still paying the price left by the vestiges of alcohol, for my father’s sake I managed some of what was on my plate.

We took a long ride around the ranch, just the two of us.  Idle conversation wasn’t deemed necessary but as we stared across the lake, the calm blue water, I felt at ease in the company of my father. This land was all Pa had left; one son off to Europe, another, we didn’t know his whereabouts, and me, the disappointment. Today, I didn’t feel like the disappointment.

~~~

Pa and I were home in time for supper. Two days without a drink, and my stomach reacted to just the smell of roasting beef. I excused myself before I became sick and headed upstairs to my room. God, how I needed a drink—God, how a trip to town would relieve this constant torment—God, how the small, silver flask in my saddlebags called my name.

I’m trying, Pa. But was my best good enough; did I have the strength necessary to fight my own demons and dismiss the life I’d created? I collapsed onto my bed and within minutes, I was back up, pacing back and forth like a crazed wildcat when I noticed Pa standing in my doorway.

“I brought coffee.”

I wet my lips and steadied my shaking hand as I reached for the steaming cup. I wanted to shout, to scream at the top of my lungs. “This isn’t working, Pa. A cup of coffee isn’t the magic cure.” Of course, I refrained from announcing to the world how life was unfair, how rotten I felt or that Pa’s challenge was never going to work.

I was a drunk, plain and simple. I was a falling down, dangerous drunk who chose this life just as my brothers had chosen theirs. I couldn’t do this. I didn’t have the strength like my virtuous father, who never made mistakes, who was strong and powerful. I was the black sheep, the worthless son, and the son who failed in more ways than one.

My father was an extraordinary man. The land had tested him over the years; fires caused by something as simple as lightning, years of drought and years when snow was so deep, we’d lost half our herd. Pa had weathered most anything thrown his way and prided himself by surviving desperate times.

But the land meant nothing if his sons weren’t standing alongside him. How many times had he said he’d give it all away and start over if it meant keeping his family together? These past few weeks had been a new experience for my father, one he never expected, and one he never saw coming.

I was reluctant to have Pa witness what was to come. I’d had symptoms before; the bouts of shaking, nerves about to burst into a million pieces, the utter craving for that first drink of whiskey. My father was strong, stronger still in his convictions though he wasn’t naïve. Maybe he knew what to expect more than I did. Maybe he’d seen men fight the bottle, but how many of those men found a way out? How many of those men would Pa call friends? No, that wasn’t my father. He had no use for men who’d lost control; men who gave up and wasted the life God gave them.

“What can I do to help?”

My body cried out for relief, but this was something I had to fight on my own, something Pa could do nothin’ about. I was a grown man though I wanted my father to wrap his arms around me and tell me tomorrow would be a better day, silly, but true. I was alone. The battle was mine to bear.

But even now, after what I’d done to this family, and as I began to struggle through the lowest point of my life, Pa was there. With tender words and a true sense of compassion, Pa was willing to fight alongside me.

“I’ll be okay,” I said after seeing the deep lines of concern in Pa’s face. His eyes glistened with unshed tears, wanting to take away the pain. “Takes a little time is all.”

“Son?”

“No, Pa. I’m fine.”

“Of course, you are, but I wanted to . . . there’s something you should know.”

Pa’s words scared me. His tone was different, sorrowful. “Is it Hoss?”

“No. It’s . . . well, it’s something I’ve never discussed with anyone. Not Adam or Hoss or you. But it may be time set the record straight. It may be time for you to learn a little something about your father.”

Pa knew how to set a man’s mind whirling. Did I really want to know? He made whatever the problem was sound so ominous, so out of character. “Okay, if . . . I mean it’s not necessary, Pa.”

“Yes, it is, son. Let’s find seats on the front porch. I’d feel more comfortable there.”

“All right.”

Most of the ranch hands were gone for the day. It was their day off, and Pa and I had the place pretty much to ourselves. There were always men who remained, but they busied themselves playing cards or a game of checkers in the bunkhouse. Occasionally, someone would step outside for a smoke or a drink from the pump, but they wouldn’t interfere with our private business, not on Sunday.

We settled ourselves in comfortable chairs. The air was cool and we’d both grabbed our jackets, but the sun’s warmth felt good on our faces. The blizzard from the other night almost seemed like a dream. The snow had already melted and you could almost feel a touch of spring in the air. I waited for Pa to speak.

“When your mother died, things changed, Joseph. I changed. I left the ranch; I left all you boys behind . . . in a way, it’s like Hoss has done now.”

“Pa, I really don’t want to talk about—“

“Be quiet, Joseph.”

“Yessir.”

Oh, God. Had I known this was the topic of conversation, I would have feigned a headache. Maybe feigned wasn’t the right word. My head was already pounding.

“I rode away because I had to,” Pa said. “I needed peace; I needed to be alone to ask how something like this could happen, how could my Marie be taken from me in such brutal fashion. I talked to God, oh; I talked to God many times. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why take my wife, why take everyone I loved away from me?’ Then, somewhere along the way, something changed. I got mad, Joe. Mad at God, mad at the world, mad at every living thing.”

“Pa—“

“I’m not finished.”

Pa was determined to finish this . . . I don’t know, this parallel of his life. I knew exactly what was going through my brother’s mind. He’d ridden out just like Pa, and for the same reason. Okay, maybe he was working for some rancher, I didn’t know, but I knew he was alone. Hoss loved this place; he loved this family, even me. But why was Pa drilling these comparisons into me as if I’d never thought twice about how Hoss felt and why he’d left home?

“As I was saying, I got mad. Of course, we’ve often talked about that time, and I tried to smooth things over and make you understand why I had to go away, but that’s not the point I need to make.”

“Then what is the point, Pa? Don’t you think my brother is on my mind every waking hour?”

“This isn’t about Hoss. This is about me, Joe. For nearly three months, I found solace in a bottle. I didn’t care about anyone or anything, only myself. I drank in saloons. I drank as I rode my horse. I drank next to my campfire at night. I drank, Joseph.”

“Why . . . why did you stop?”

Pa shook his head. “I wish I could lie and tell you I saw the light, that I turned a corner in my life and decided my sons were worth everything to me . . . which you are, but that’s not how it happened. I became careless.” Pa stopped to roll up his shirtsleeve just below his elbow. He pointed to a scar. “See this?”

I nodded. I’d seen it before but Pa always brushed me off, said it was nothing but an old scar.

“A gunfight in a bar.”

“You?”

“Yes, me, because someone hit my table and sent my bottle crashing to the floor. At some point, I hit my head, maybe after I was shot, and didn’t remember much until the doctor in Genoa told me we were both very lucky men. The two of us had winged each other. No charges were pressed, but that was my wake-up call. I could have been killed that night, Joseph, or, I could have killed an innocent man.”

“You never told us any of this.”

“I wasn’t exactly proud of my actions. Is that something you’d want your sons to know?”

I chuckled slightly. “No, I guess not.”

“The point is, I don’t want you finding yourself in the same situation. You can bet there are a few hidden secrets your old man has kept from you, but this one I never felt the need to get off my chest . . . until now.”

“I’m glad you did.”

“So am I, son.”

“So what happens now?”

“Well, that’s up to you.”

“Yeah. Sure don’t need a gunfight.”

“No.”

I laid my head back against the tightly woven wicker and rocked for a while, thinking about Hoss and thinking about the guts my father had to summon in order to tell a secret he’d buried long ago. I was my father’s son, more than I knew, and I suppose that’s why he thought it necessary to come clean, to lay all his cards on the table and hope the telling wasn’t in vain.

“Maybe someday you’ll forgive me, Pa.”

“Son, I already have.”

~~~

I remained on the front porch until the sun dipped behind snow-capped peaks, and I was forced to return inside. But evening proved long, and I fought to stay sober, to remain in my room and ride out the months of abuse. I paced, sensing the walls closing in and leaving a rather disjointed space to vent my frustration. I wanted to hurl something against the wall, to hear it shatter, to witness the fragmented pieces that mirrored my life. Instead, I threw open the window for some much-needed air. The flask in my saddlebags was full, begging, calling.

But down below in the dark of night, I caught sight of my father, his arms gently resting on the corral railing. The air felt cold; the touch of spring had vanished. I watched as Pa dug the heel of his boot back and forth in the dirt. Was he second-guessing his decision to broadcast his past or was he longing for Hoss ride into the yard? Maybe both.

Within an hour’s time, Pa walked into my room. By then, I was lying on my bed, watching shadows dance on the ceiling as the cold breeze blew through the open window. Pa rubbed his arms, finding it colder than he expected. “Chilly up here,” he said.

“Yeah, guess it is.”

I hadn’t really noticed, but maybe the cold had kept me from dwelling on my present condition. I swung my legs over the side of the bed. Lightheaded and sensing the room, swirling around me, I scrubbed my hands over my face and took a deep breath.

Pa sat down next to me, worrying his hands in his lap. “Doing okay?”

“Yeah, Pa,” I lied.

Pa forced a smile and slid his hand across my shoulders. My body stiffened at first, but when his grip tightened, the raging tempest began to subside. I turned to face my father and accept his help without fear of rejection. He’d walked in my shoes before and for the first time, I felt the worst was over and we could leave the past behind. Above all, there was still love in my father’s heart for his youngest son.

~~~

Pa had left his decanter of brandy in the open, riding on faith I would have strength enough to leave it alone and, by the end of the week, I had Pa follow me out to the barn.  I reached in my saddlebags and while Pa stood by my side, I tipped the silver flask, letting its golden contents soak into the ground.  His look of pride, along with a simple nod of his head, meant the world to me.

I was back to work most days, some good, some not so good. I could laugh and joke one day and explode like a lit keg of powder the next, but Candy hung tight. There was never a cross word, even though I’m sure he had to refrain from taking me down a peg.

Since Pa and I were back on track and our lives had settled into a pretty normal routine, Pa asked Candy to move into the house. Our foreman seemed hesitant, trying to justify the reason for the request. “Don’t know when I’ll feel like movin’ on, Mr. Cartwright.”

“That’s always been our agreement,” Pa reminded him. “But I feel you’ve become a valuable asset to this family.”

Candy extended his hand to my father. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“Then you’ve got a deal.”

No doubt, Candy was a fine man, but was Pa trying to replace my brother—or brothers? I didn’t think that was the case but nonetheless, I was curious about his motives.

The three of us sat down for breakfast the next morning and Hop Sing treated our new occupant like royalty.  He’d truly outdone himself, fixing more food than any of us could eat.  Pa handed me a list of supplies we needed from town. “If you two ride in together, you’ll manage twice as fast and be home in time to get your chores done this afternoon.”

I held my temper in check. It didn’t take two of us to pick up supplies. I’d held my own for nearly two weeks; not a slip-up, not a drop of alcohol had passed my lips. Maybe my thoughts were irrational, but they hovered in the back of my mind as I hitched up the team before Candy and I drove into town. Was I being watched? What there still a trace of doubt in Pa’s mind?

“Here’s the list, Jake,” I said, after I’d jumped down from the buckboard.

“Looks like Hop Sing’s out of about everything,” he said, glancing down both sheets of paper. “Take about an hour for me to get this all together, Joe.”

“You set it all out. Candy and I will be back to load up.”

“That’s a deal.”

“Well, buddy,” Candy said, draping his arm across my shoulders. “We’ve got an hour to kill.  Got any ideas?”

“How ‘bout a beer?”  The look I got from Candy was exactly what I expected.  “I can handle one beer.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”  

It was obvious neither my father nor the ranch foreman trusted me in town by myself.  I wasn’t here to get drunk, and I wasn’t here to forget.  I wanted to see if I could sit in a saloon and have a casual beer with a friend. I wasn’t sure if I could or not but for my own peace of mind, I needed to know.

We sat together like old times; two friends laughing and enjoying a beer, but it didn’t take long for my mood to change.  Maybe it was the table I’d chosen, the one where the bottle and I had become best friends.  Maybe it was the sound of the piano or coins scraping across poker tables but after drinking half a beer, I felt it was time to leave.

“Let’s get outta here,” I said.  I started toward the batwings, surprising Candy with my sudden urge to get the hell away from the saloon.

We loaded the wagon in silence and started for home.  After handing the reins over to Candy, I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes.  Candy held his tongue.  He was a smart man.  No questions asked, no answers given.

Candy pulled up close to the house, and we unloaded Hop Sing’s supplies and after witnessing my mood in town, I told Candy to go on inside, I’d put up the team this time around.  Dragging the horses behind me, I stopped cold just inside the barn. My brother’s horse filled his stall. I stood without moving, staring at Chub as he munched on oats in the feed bin.

Although my prayers had been answered, I wasn’t at all ready to face the music. I dropped the reins and held steadfast to the wooden upright separating the big black from my own slighter paint. I stared back at the house, wondering what was being said as I lingered in the barn like a scared little kid. Where was the man, who’d fought his way from boyhood to prove he could make crucial decisions for the betterment of the ranch until personal decisions rocked our world?  

~~~

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked when Candy walked through the front door.

“He’s puttin’ up the team, Mr. Cart—” Candy stopped mid-sentence when he spotted Hoss coming down the stairs.

“Hey, Candy.”  Hoss crossed the room and reached out to shake the foreman’s hand.  “Good to see ya.”

Candy grinned from ear to ear. “Good to see you too, Hoss.”

“Hey, where’s Little Joe?”

“He’ll be here in a minute.  He’s—wait,” Candy said, snapping his fingers.  “I’ll put up the team.  He won’t believe his eyes.”

Candy opened the door just in time to see Joe ducking his head as he rode through the double doors of the barn. “Joe wait! Joe!”

He turned back toward the great room, removing his hat, stalling for something to say. “Um . . . Joe’s gone.” Candy remained just inside the front door, glancing quickly at Ben and then Hoss.

“Gone?” Ben repeated.

“Why would he up and leave, Pa? He had to’ve seen Chubby.”

“He may have forgotten something in town. I’m sure you’re hungry, son, and Hop Sing has lunch on the table. Let’s take our seats; Joe will be back soon.”

Hoss was everything Candy remembered him to be and after months on the trail, he looked no worse for wear. Time away had been kind to the big man, and his love for a good meal hadn’t changed.

While Hoss and Ben caught up on ranch business, Candy only toyed with his food, fretting too much to eat. “I was thinking, Mr. Cartwright . . .“

“Go ahead, Candy,” Ben nodded. “I know you’ve got things to do.” With a skillfully hidden wink from Ben, Candy was out the door before another word was said.

“You look worried, Pa.  Is Little Joe in some kind of trouble?”

“No, certainly not. More steak?”

“Tastes mighty good, Pa. I been missin’ Hop Sing’s fine cookin’.”

“I bet you have. Now, I want to hear how you’ve been keepin’ yourself, where you’ve been and how life’s been treating you.”

Hoss had noticed the awkward glances between his father and Candy, and he wasn’t about to sit back and let things slide. “I don’t mind tellin’ ya everywhere I’ve been and what I been doin’, but first you’re gonna tell me about Little Joe. Somethin’s up and I wanna hear that first.”

Ben hesitated. Telling Hoss on the day of his homecoming was not what he had envisioned. He knew exactly where his youngest had gone and if Joe was drinking excessive amounts again today, the demons were still with him. What should have been a joyous occasion had collapsed into hopeless despair. But honesty had always been the number one rule, and Ben would give Hoss an explanation, as best he could. “Your brother has had some problems while you’ve been away.”

“What kinda problems, Pa?”

“I don’t like telling tales, but this has become a serious issue.”

“What has?”

“Joe’s been drinking heavily, son.”

“Heavily? How heavy?”

“I’m afraid Joseph’s taken this whole incident and let it take him down a difficult path. Your brother’s just now coming to terms with this life or death situation. I can’t lie to you, son. Joe is not the same kind of man you are. You took the time needed to search for answers, and I have to assume you’ve found them or you wouldn’t be here now. Am I right?”

“Yeah, you’re right, Pa. But what about Joe? Why’d he have to do that to hisself?”

“Guilt. Loss of his brother. Maybe he will explain everything in time.”

“He ain’t hurt hisself, has he?”

Ben longed for the right words to say without upsetting Hoss more than necessary. But how did you put into words Paul’s prediction—Joe’s outcome if he continued to pour whiskey down his throat.

“Pa? You ain’t answered my question.”

“Your brother needs help, son. He has to stop drinking or—“

“Or what? He’s gonna kills hisself? That’s what Doc told you, ain’t it, Pa? Joe has to stop drinkin’ or he’s gonna die.

“Son—”

“It’s my fault. I never shoulda—“

“NO!” Ben shouted, scraping the chair legs as he stood and pounded the palm of his hand on the table. “It’s over. You need to realize, and so does your brother. This thing with that woman has gone on long enough.”

~~~

This was the last place I should be, but The Silver Dollar had become my home away from home. I should have kept riding, should have traded places with my brother. Now that Hoss was home with Pa, they didn’t need me interfering with their lives. Numba three son; numba one disappointment.  I chuckled at my desperate attempt at humor but truth be told, my entire life had become nothing but a laughing matter.

I poured another drink, downed it quickly and decided it was time to drain the lizard. The outhouse was out back, but as I gazed across the crowded room, my chances of staying on my feet were challenging at best. When I stood, I steadied myself, grabbing hold of the table’s edge and waiting for the dizziness to pass. Men of all shapes and sizes kept bumping into me as I tried to pass through the saloon.

A sudden crash—a tipped over table was commonplace on a Saturday night. Coins scattered under my boots while men crowded in from all angles. And as the room swayed, I heard shots and broken glass. The music came to a stop, ladies screamed, and I suddenly slammed clear across a wooden table before crashing headlong to the floor.

A ceiling fan whirled above me, sending hazy blue smoke rippling like waves to the far corners of the saloon. A blonde woman knelt down beside me, pressing a wet cloth to the side of my head. Her forehead was lined with worry and when she spoke, her voice was kind and gentle. “You’ll be just fine, Little Joe. The doc’s on his way.” I tried to remember her name.

~~~

I woke with a start, finding I was settled in my own bed, my own room, with no recollection of how I got home. I guessed Candy, but I remembered nothing. I sensed I was being watched, and I turned my head to find Hoss, leaning in the doorway, his arms crossed and the beginnings of a smile rounding out his face.

“See you decided to join the living.” Hoss crossed the room and picked up the pitcher next to my bed.  “Betcha got a hankerin’ for a cool glass of water.”

He slid his hand behind my head and eased me up off the pillow.  “Thanks,” I said.  He lowered me back down, and I wanted to close my eyes, blocking the sight and sound of my brother.

“Doc says you’re gonna be fine.”

“Doc?”  

“Said it ain’t no more’n a scratch.  Good thing that miner weren’t aimin’ for ya or we might not be talkin’ right now.”

“Yeah—” It all came back; the poker game, the sudden eruption of noise, the shot.

“Just grazed ya some, little brother. Didn’t need but a couple stitches is all.”

It was hard to image Hoss standing in my room after all this time. He looked good, clean, rosy-cheeked and sparkling blue eyes; no worse for wear. I’d worried for a long time, wondering how he was making out. “It’s good to have you home,” I said barely above a whisper.

“It’s good to be home.”

My brother pulled up a chair and folded his hands in his lap. There was so much to say, so much healing to be done, but Hoss acted as if today was no different than any other in the lives of Joe and Hoss Cartwright. “All I can say is I’m sorry, Hoss.”

“Ah, Joe. What’s past is past.”

I nearly laughed. “You can’t mean that.”

Hoss leaned back in a chair that hugged him tightly and ran his hands along its wooden arms. “I’ve had time to think, Joseph.”

“But still . . .”

“I loved Ali more’n I ever loved anyone else in my life, ‘cept for you and Pa and Adam.  She was to be my wife.  Imagine me, ol’ Hoss, gettin’ married and havin’ a wife and,” Hoss, blushed, “maybe even a passel of kids.”

“Hoss, I—”

“Shut your mouth, Joseph, and let me finish.”

“For some reason, it weren’t meant to be with Ali and me. I accept that now, and I ain’t blamin’ you no more.  I been thinkin’ long and hard these past few months, and I decided home is where I wanna be.  I love my family and that includes you, and I don’t wanna live nowhere else but here on the Ponderosa.  

“There ain’t no greener pastures nowhere else. I thought I could find ‘em, but I ain’t like Adam. That ain’t me, Joe, and that’s why I come back. This is my home, always will be no matter what.”

I longed to tell him I loved her, too. It wasn’t just a game Ali and I played behind closed doors. But I said nothing; it served no purpose but to cause each of us more pain. My heart ached when my brother included me as one of the reasons he’d come home. I struggled to sit up, and Hoss was quick to lend a hand. Between too much whiskey and the wound, my head pounded faster than a Gatling gun. I pressed my fingers against the bandage.

“Best to leave that be, Joe.”

“I suppose.” For just a scrape, it sure captured my attention.

“Maybe you should get a touch more sleep, little brother.”

Little brother.  How I loved the sound of those words. “I guess you’re right,” I said, sinking back down under the covers. “You’ll be back later?”

“Count on it.”

Hoss stood to leave, and I wished for the magic words that would set us both free but in some respects, we already were. Without much talk, we’d each said enough to begin our lives over; at least I hoped that was the case.

I thought about Ali and the three men who’d taken her with them. If the shorter man was indeed her husband then the woman had duped us both. I’d asked myself that question repeatedly, usually after my second or third drink. She’d played Hoss and me for fools, leaving us both to find our way after she was gone.

My drinking was out in the open. Pa had told Hoss everything, and I knew he would blame himself for the path I’d chosen. It was no one’s fault but my own, but I was ready to put that life behind me and move on. There was nothing like a reformed drunk, settling back into the saloon, to set a man straight.

Tomorrow, I would step up to the plate and ask Pa and my brother for help. Two weeks time wasn’t long enough to say I’d cured, but I felt a sense of renewal. I couldn’t do it alone. As Pa always said, “No man is an island.” It’s time I took those words to heart.

~~~

As promised, Hoss returned to my room, carrying a checkerboard he sat up on my bed.  Pa had stopped in earlier, but he knew Hoss and I needed time alone to make amends.  I still struggled for the right words to say, words that would make each of us whole again.  

He laid out the pieces and nodded for me to start.  I moved my black and he moved his red, and then his words flowed like a fast-running stream.  “Candy told me somethin’ I didn’t figger out about you and Ali,” he said without looking up.  I moved my piece, as did Hoss. “He said you was in love with her, too.”

I kept my eyes on the board; I moved my black.

“He said it was somethin’ out of anyone’s control.”  I started to move.  “It’s my turn,” Hoss said.  I lowered my hand to my lap.

“I blamed you, Joseph.  I blamed you for ruinin’ my life.  I blamed you for takin’ the only woman I’d ever truly loved away from me . . . your turn.”

Slowly, I moved my piece.

“I thought you was the scum of the earth.  What kind a man does that to his own brother?” Hoss moved his red.  I could barely breathe, but I kept silent. I listened although I felt significantly less a man with every word said.

“It took weeks, Joe, months, in fact, but I finally realized you wouldn’t never do that to me without an awful good reason.”

I started to look up, but I failed to meet his eyes. I moved my piece instead as if we weren’t having this conversation at all.

“Somehow, nothin’ made sense to me no more.”  Hoss jumped my black.  “I didn’t know till I got home that you was in love with Ali, too. But before Candy said them words to me, I missed ya, Joe. The hate kinda got less and less each day.”

I moved my black.

“That’s when I started home.”  Hoss moved his red.  “I didn’t want to be gone no more.”  I moved, and Hoss kinged me.  “The way I see things, there’s always a plan, and Ali was sent here as part of that plan.”  

I nearly looked up.  What was he trying to say—a plan—wasn’t a great plan that’s for sure.

“Maybe it was so we don’t forget about the people we care for in this world. Maybe it takes time, but we finally realize the people who mean the most would never hurt us intentionally.  Maybe I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about at all, but maybe you’ll try to forgive me.”

I pulled my hand back and looked up at my brother.  Tears stained his cheeks. “Forgive you?”

“That’s what I said. We was both wrong, Joe.  We’re grown men, and we shoulda known better than to act the way we did.  I never shoulda blamed ya without talkin’ things out first.  That’s how we’ve always done in the past.  I never shoulda run off like a coward and not faced ya head on.”

I appreciated what Hoss was saying, but it was me he needed to forgive, not the other way around.

“I remember Ali tellin’ us her Uncle moved out here and took a chance he’d strike it rich. Maybe she done the same, ya know, so to speak.  Things didn’t work out for Uncle Henry and things didn’t work out for me.  It was a chance I took.  We all gotta take them chances in life.  We gotta put ourselves out there, cuz if we don’t then life ain’t worth livin’.  Your move.”

I glanced down at the checkerboard, and it was obvious Hoss had other things on his mind. “Well, brother, I’m gonna take a chance you won’t kill me after jump your last pieces.”  I jumped three reds, and the game was over.

“Dadburn you’re ornery hide, Joseph!”

I raised my eyebrows and ran my fingers across the burn-mark still bandaged and sore. “Don’t forget I’m wounded.  You wouldn’t hurt a wounded man, would you, Hoss?”

~~~

Ben stood outside his son’s bedroom door.  He’d scolded his boys many times over for eavesdropping, but it was important for a father to know what went on under his own roof.  He’d heard the whole conversation and was proud of his sons for working out their differences in a civilized, brotherly manner.  They would always be his little boys but tonight, maybe they’d finally become grown men.

The End

 

Next Story in the A Grown Man Series:

A Harsh Remedy
A Change of Heart
The World is Round

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Author: jfclover

I fell in love with Joe Cartwright when I was ten years old and over the years, nothing's changed, In 2010, I was goaded into writing my first fanfic, which has become a hobby I thoroughly enjoy. I hope you enjoy my stories.

6 thoughts on “A Grown Man (by jfclover)

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, Joesgal. I feel honored that you read it twice! Thanks so much for letting me know.

    1. If I knew the answer, I couldn’t have written the story, jojay, but they do get themselves in trouble, don’t they? Thanks so much for reading and leaving your comment!

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