When Joe’s irresponsible behavior lands him in trouble, he decides it’s time to sort out his own problems without the help of his family. But he soon finds himself in much deeper than he’d intended, and his life hanging by a thread.
Rated: T WC 14,000
Being an adult was not all it was cracked up to be!
Joe pushed another couple of sticks into his small camp fire and wrapped his blanket closer around his shoulders as the night chill began to bite. For the hundredth time in two days, he drew the crumpled letter from inside his jacket and stared at it. He didn’t unfold it again. There was no need. He had read it so many times, he knew what it said.
Maybe he should just go home, own up, show the letter to Pa and ask him what he should do. Pa would sort things out. It didn’t matter how big the mess, Pa always seemed to be able to sort it out.
Joe sighed. This time he couldn’t. This time he had to sort out the mess on his own. After the fire at the livery stable, Pa had made it abundantly clear that there would be no more chances.
The fire. Joe’s insides shriveled whenever he thought about it. He would never, never forget the terrible, shrill screams of the three horses trapped in the burning stable, the ones he tried to get to before the blazing rafters came crashing down around him.
He pushed the letter back inside his jacket and curled himself on the ground. The blisters on his shoulders and hands had healed over now, but he could still feel the burning of Pa’s anger. Even the fact that it had actually been Cal Newsome who started the fire hadn’t appeased Pa’s fury. Joe had been part of the stupid dare that had led to the tragedy and that had been enough.
Seemed that lately Pa was always ready to believe the worst of him, no matter how hard he tried. Nothing he did was right any more. Pa was always on his back about something. And if it wasn’t Pa, it was Adam. Even Hoss, who’d always been an ally before, had started giving him sad looks these past weeks, since the fire. Like he was somehow a disappointment.
Then there was the inevitable ‘talking to’ from Pa. How many times had he heard that over the last few months? The lecture about responsibility. It was now so familiar to him, Joe could almost recite the lines word for word with his father. You’re not a child any more, Joseph. How do you expect to be treated like an adult when you behave like a ten year old? Adam and Hoss never had to be bailed out of jail when they were your age. Then there was the line that was always in there, somewhere near the end of the rant, about Pa reaching the end of his tether and how it was high time Joe learned to take responsibility for his own actions.
So, that was what he was doing. Taking responsibility. He wasn’t going to ask for anyone’s help this time. Pa was right. He was a grown man now, not a little kid. This time he would sort out the mess for himself.
He stared hard into the flames and tried not to think about tomorrow.
‘Smells good!’ said Ben as he and Adam came through the door into the house. ‘If I’m not mistaken, Hop Sing’s special ribs.’
‘I think you’re right.’ Adam sniffed the air as he took off his hat and unbuckled his gun belt. ‘Hello, Hoss. How’d you get on with that branding?’
Hoss straightened up from the fireplace. A small frown creased his broad open face. ‘Yeah, all right, I guess. I jus’ got in about twen’y minutes ago.’
Ben hung up his hat and looked round at his second son. ‘Everything all right, son? You looked worried.’
‘Yeah, Pa. Actually, there is somethin’.’
‘Little Joe about?’ asked Adam.
Hoss shook his head. ‘It’s Little Joe I’m worried about, Adam.’
Adam and Ben exchanged glances. Ben’s jaw had tightened already. Lately any mention of Joe’s name had that effect. ‘What’s he done this time?’
‘I don’t know that he’s done anythin’ Pa. I jus’ found this on his bed.’ Hoss held out a sheet of notepaper. Ben took it from him, his stern brow furrowing deeply as he read the brief message scrawled in large letters across the paper. ‘TAKING RESPONSIBILTY.’
In silence, Ben passed the note to Adam. ‘What’s that about?’
Adam stared hard at the two word missive, sensing the resentment that had gouged those letters so hard into the paper. ‘Looks to me like he’s trying to make a point,’ he said, passing the paper back to his father.
‘Come on, Pa. Just lately we do nothing but argue about Joe’s irresponsible behaviour.’
Adam could almost see his father’s hackles rise. This was sensitive ground right now. The livery stable in Virginia City had already been rebuilt but it would be a long time before the image and the smell of the smoke-blackened ruin stopped haunting them. And then there had been the bust up in town just before that; shop windows broken, the saloon smashed up. And the trouble at the dance. Not to mention Joe’s frequent absences around the ranch. The list went on and Adam could see every grievance etched in the lines of his father’s face and the deepening shadows around his eyes.
‘I don’t know what’s got into that boy.’
Hoss and Adam exchanged glances. How many times had they heard Pa say those words in the last few months?
Hoss gave a small shrug. Adam knew he wanted it to look nonchalant but it didn’t quite work. ‘He’s in with a bad crowd, that’s all.’
Adam nodded. ‘It’s just his age, Pa. He’ll get over it. Now that Cal Newsome’s in jail, there won’t be the same trouble.’
‘So what’s this about?’ Pa waved the note in front of them. ‘This just better not be more trouble, that’s all.’
Hoss rolled over in bed and opened his eyes. It was still dark. Only the moonlight illuminated the familiar shapes of his bedroom. What had woken him? Had he just been dreaming or had there been a sound outside on the landing? Was it Joe? Had he come back?
He climbed out of bed and went barefoot to his door. The landing was in darkness. He trod quietly along the carpet until he reached Joe’s room. The door was still wide open. The moonlight fell on the smooth covers of the untouched bed.
He stood in the doorway for a moment, then he crossed to the bed and sat down with a heavy sigh.
Dang, Little Joe, where are you? What was that note about?
‘You could at least’ve told me or Adam where you was going,’ he muttered out loud to himself.
A movement in the doorway startled him. ‘Adam! You made me jump!’
‘I thought you might be Joe.’
‘No, I thought I heard something, but I was mistaken. Just jumpy, I guess. I sure hope that little galoot hasn’t gotten himself into any more trouble.’
‘If he lands himself in that jailhouse one more time, I think Pa will leave him there.’
‘Yeah, I think you’re right, Adam. Pa sure is mad at him lately.’
Adam nodded. ‘With good reason.
‘Yeah, I guess.’ Hoss acknowledged the point with some reluctance. He hated to see Joe in trouble as much as he hated to see Pa angry and upset. Just lately, life on the Ponderosa seemed to be one big fight between Pa and Little Joe.
‘You reckon it might have anythin’ to do with that letter I brung back yes’erday?’ Hoss couldn’t read Adam’s expression in the dark. His older brother was standing very still and quiet. ‘You know, you were teasin’ him about which girl was writin’ to him now?’
Adam nodded his head slowly. ‘Yes. He didn’t say anything though, did he?’
‘No. An’ you didn’t see how red he went when you said that to him, Adam. Face like a boiled beetroot. An’ how he snatched that letter away when I leant over him. He was up those stairs like a hunted jackrabbit.’
‘You didn’t see who it was from?’
‘No, he snatched it away too quick. But he was kinda quiet all evenin’.’
‘Yeah. But then he’s been kinda quiet since the stable fire.’
Hoss didn’t say anything. He didn’t like to remember that night; Little Joe in the jail, hands burnt and blistered, face black, eyes red and swollen with smoke. The enormity of it made his throat feel strangled, like he was being choked by a too tight collar. This was no silly brawl or boyish prank they could just shrug off. This was serious. The sheriff’s frown said it was serious, the smouldering remains of the stable, the charred carcasses of the dead animals. And Joe, when they finally got him back to the Ponderosa, in tears for the horses that had died in terror.
‘I tried to get them out, Pa! I promise, I tried!’
The tightness in Hoss’s throat moved down into his chest. He lowered his face.
‘Hoss, what say you and I ride into town at sun up and ask around? See if any of Joe’s friends know anything?’
‘Yeah.’ Hoss brought his head back up and squinted through the darkness at Adam. He didn’t have to be able to see his brother clearly to know that Adam was as worried as he was about Little Joe’s absence. They knew each other too well. And they both knew Joe, and they both knew that he was in trouble.
Joe reined in his horse and stared with a thudding heart at the small shack in front of him. Once again, he drew the crumpled letter from inside his jacket and shook it open. This had to be the place, he knew, but the certainty did not lessen his trepidation. It was late in the day; it had taken him longer than he’d expected to locate this tumbledown hovel. He could ride back to the town, he told himself. Find a room somewhere and come back out here tomorrow. It was a tempting proposition, but he knew that it would only put off the moment he was dreading. It would still have to be faced.
As he slid from the saddle in front of the rickety porch, the heavy lump that had been growing inside his stomach all day threatened to well up in his throat like nausea. He swallowed hard a few times, took several deep breaths to calm his racing heartbeat, and knocked at the door.
Nobody answered. He forced himself to wait, feeling each rapid heartbeat jump in his throat. Just as he was about to turn away, breathing a deep sigh of relief, he heard sounds from inside the house and the door opened.
A girl stood there; a thin girl with dark rimmed eyes and dull blonde hair pulled into an untidy ponytail. For an instant, neither of them moved or said anything; just stared at each other in frozen silence. Then the girl seemed to gather her senses.
‘Little Joe! What are you doing here?’
He swallowed hard. ‘You wrote me. So I came.’
She had not looked like this when he saw her last, at the end of the summer. Her appearance shocked him so that he knew he was staring too hard. Her face looked thin and hard, and her lifeless hair was dull. The stained and patched shirt she wore tucked loosely into her drab brown skirt was surely a man’s. She sensed his shock and rubbed her hands self consciously over her hair.
‘I… I didn’t expect you to…’ She broke off and cleared her throat. ‘Well, since you’re here, you’d better come in.’
He followed her into the dingy shack, his heart sinking lower with every step. She hadn’t been exaggerating in her letter when she said she had no money. There was a rusty iron stove and a plank table with a rough wooden bench, and little else. The room smelt musty and stale. A rope had been strung across one end of the room, draped with a grimy patchwork curtain of ragged fabric.
Now that they were actually face to face, Joe couldn’t think of a word to say. They stood awkwardly, each trying not to catch the other’s eye. Finally Joe fished inside his jacket and pulled out a stuffed envelope. ‘I brought money.’
The girl’s face lifted a fraction.
‘But it’s not a lot. I couldn’t get hold of much at short notice, and it’s been a bit difficult for me at home lately.’ He realized he was beginning to babble, so he stopped and drew another deep breath. ‘I’ll get some more, I promise. It’s just that I’ll have to talk to my father, and he…he…’
‘He doesn’t know you’re here?’
‘No. Nobody knows. Not yet anyway. Sarah, I…’
She shook her head. ‘You shouldn’t have come here, Little Joe. I only asked for you to send the money. You shouldn’t have come all the way out here.’
‘I had to. When you said about…’ he faltered and cleared his throat, and once again they froze into an uncomfortable silence. This time, when Joe forced his voice out, it sounded feeble and wobbly even to his own ears.
‘Where is she?’
Sarah turned her head in the direction of the ragged cloth screen. Slowly she crossed the poky room and drew back a length of faded checked fabric that might once have been a tablecloth. She stood back to let him pass. As he brushed past her, he noticed that she smelled sour, like bad milk. It made him feel more nauseous than ever.
There was not much light in the cramped sleeping space. A straw mattress, spread with a dirty quilt took up almost the entire space, but there was also a wooden crate jammed into the corner, and in the crate, wrapped in cut down blankets was a baby, fast asleep and twitching gently.
For a moment, Joe forgot to breathe. Sarah’s voice said, ‘I call her Hannah.’
He crouched down beside the crate and stared. The baby was tiny. Little fingers, so pale they looked almost translucent, curled around the edge of the blanket, each tipped with a perfect fingernail hardly bigger than a grain of rice. Her eyes were closed, but as Joe watched, her rosebud mouth puckered, and her porcelain cheeks made little sucking motions.
‘Hannah,’ he repeated in a whisper, the sound almost a sigh on his lips.
As if she had heard her name, the baby’s tiny face screwed up and she let out a thin reedy mew, like a hungry kitten. Joe stared in fascination. The mew became a quavering wail. ‘Sssh,’ he murmured, softly, and laid a finger to the delicate cheek.
‘She’s hungry,’ Sarah said flatly. ‘Let me get her.’
‘I’ll do it.’
Almost fearfully he slid his hands beneath the little blanket-swathed body and lifted it clear of the crate. It felt warm and alive to his touch, but far too small to be human. He held it carefully, like a priceless piece of china, feeling the tiny body writhing as the cries grew louder and more desperate. Sarah reached out and took it swiftly from his hands.
‘Little Joe, you need to go,’ she said bluntly as she plumped down on the edge of the grubby mattress, tugging her oversized shirt free of her waistband, and lifting the baby to her breast.
He could not move, nor could he take his eyes from the baby. He had to make several attempts even to speak. ‘She’s so…beautiful,’ he managed at last.
Sarah, whose gaze had been focused on the child’s head, lifted her face to him with an expression of puzzlement. Looking back down at the baby, she stroked the pale fluffy down on its head with her finger. ‘Yes,’ she said, as if he had reminded her of something she had forgotten. ‘She is beautiful.’
Joe felt suddenly weak, almost as if his legs might give way at any moment. He sank down next to Sarah on the mattress and watched in silent fascination as the baby suckled.
‘Little Joe,’ Sarah said again, the urgency in her voice unmistakable, ‘you must go.’
He shook his head. ‘Not unless you come with me.’
Something like alarm crossed Sarah’s face. ‘I can’t.’
She shook her head. ‘It’s not that simple.’
The baby had let go of Sarah’s breast. It began to mew again, rubbing its face against the loose folds of the rough cotton shirt. Sarah leaned over her, rocking gently. ‘Sssh, my darling, sssh.’
The baby’s cries got louder. Sarah turned her around and pressed the little face to her other breast, and the pitiful mewling ceased again as the baby set to suckling once more.
Joe’s face was creased in a frown. ‘You can’t stay here. It’s not right. Come back with me.’
Sarah shook her head. The baby pulled back again and took up its bleat of protest once more. She muffled its cries against her body, but Joe could sense her agitation.
‘What’s the matter with her?’
Sarah shook her head again. ‘She’s hungry, Little Joe, that’s what the matter is. Here, you take her!’
She thrust the child into his arms and rose in one swift movement. She went to the stove, pushing her oversized shirt back into her waistband, and put a coffee pot on to heat.
‘Don’t you want to feed her?’ Joe looked down helplessly at the protesting infant, unsure what to do. Cradling her inexpertly against his chest, he climbed to his feet to hand her back to her mother, but Sarah held up her hands and backed away.
‘There’s no point. I’ve nothing to give her, Little Joe. I’ve had nothing to eat for days. It’s why I wrote to you. I’m desperate. I can’t watch her starve.’
Joe stared at her in horror, then back at the tiny bundle nestled so easily into the crook of his elbow. Hannah’s cries were subsiding.
‘You see. She doesn’t even cry for long now. Soon she won’t cry at all. She’ll be too weak. She’ll just lie there and look at me. And there won’t be anything I can do to help her.’
The blood drained slowly from Joe’s face. He could think of nothing to say. The despair in Sarah’s voice frightened him; the gloom and the dirt and the dank smell of the room pressed so heavily upon him, he thought he might suffocate if he didn’t get some fresh air.
Once again, he held out the baby to Sarah, and this time she took her with a resigned sigh. He made for the door and the clear air of the evening beyond.
Thankfully she didn’t follow him. He stumbled around the side of the shack and leant his back against the broken planking, breathing hard, as though he’d just swum up from the depths of a deep lake. Sliding down to the ground, he dropped his face onto his knees and wrapped his arms around his head, as if he could fend off the horror of what was happening that way.
He realized he was trembling; uncontrollable spasms that shook him from head to foot. ‘Oh, God,’ he muttered. ‘God, God, God! What have I done?’
God didn’t answer. And Joe already knew.
‘You come up with anythin’ Adam?’ Hoss joined his brother at the bar and Adam pushed a beer at him.
‘Not a lot. Jed Benson says Joe came by yesterday afternoon wanting to borrow some cash. You find out anything?’
‘Yeah. Jimmy Flammery said Joe called on him and tried to borrow some money from him too. And he drew money outa the bank.’ Hoss fixed his brother with troubled blue eyes. He could see his own doubts reflected back at him in Adam’s clouded brown gaze. ‘What do you make of it, Adam?’
Adam lowered his eyes to the glass in front of him on the bar. He pursed his lips. ‘Well, if that letter was from a girl… ’ He stopped the sentence short, his voice heavy with misgiving.
Hoss nodded. ‘Then Joe’s got the kind of girl trouble that needs money. What do you reckon that might be?’
Adam didn’t answer. He tilted his beer and swilled the liquid slowly around in the glass. ‘Hope we’re wrong, Hoss.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
Adam was still staring hard into his beer, as though he might find the answer to their problem there, somewhere at the bottom of the glass. ‘But if that is the case, who is she and where is she writing from? What girls does Joe know who live that far away they have to write?’
Hoss pursed his lips and shifted uncomfortably. ‘Thing is, Adam, I think I know who it might be.’
Adam’s head flicked up, his drink forgotten. ‘Who?’
‘Sarah McCall?’ Adam wrinkled his nose trying to remember the name. ‘Didn’t she use to hang around with that… what’s his name? Tom Travis?’
‘But Joe was never interested in her. I could name a dozen others, but she wouldn’t be one of them!’
Hoss hesitated, not sure how to proceed now. He had promised Little Joe, after all, and, even with Joe missing and all the worry, somehow it didn’t seem right to break a confidence.
‘What makes you think it’s her?’
Hoss pulled an uncomfortable face. ‘I promised Joe I wouldn’t tell, so you gotta promise too, Adam. This is just between the two of us.’
‘All right. Go on.’
‘It was jus’ after Little Joe started hanging out with that Cal Newsome and his gang, an’ he was tryin’ to impress them. He reckoned he could snatch Sarah McCall right out from under Travis’ nose. It was a dang stupid boast, Adam, ’cause that Tom Travis was mighty handy with his fists.’
‘Yeah, I remember. Got chased out of town in the end, didn’t he?’
Hoss nodded. ‘Yeah, real mean. And d’you remember that fancy dance they held here in town, end of last summer? Well, that was when it happened. Joe asked Sarah to dance and then they left together. He said he was walkin’ her home. Then later, I heard him boastin’ to Cal and Jimmy about what had happened, on the way back to her house. I reckoned maybe he was jus’ talking big to impress ’em. But when we was riding home, I asked him about it, and he said yeah, it was true. But he made me promise to keep quiet about it ’cause he didn’t want you and Pa to find out.’
‘Sarah McCall,’ Adam said quietly. ‘What happened to her?’
‘That’s jus’ it, Adam. I was walkin’ back here an’ going through my head about which gal it might be, an’, well, most of Joe’s gals are still here, round and about. There’s no others I can think of that’s moved away. But Sarah McCall? She went away before Christmas last year, and I ain’t seen her since. Her pa says she went away to college.’
‘Maybe she did.’
‘Yeah, maybe she did. But maybe she didn’t. I been thinking that you and me should pay a visit to the McCall’s and see what they have to say.’
*** *** ***
Joe lifted his head and stared blankly at the deepening gloom around him. Despite the sun having slipped below the hills, it wasn’t yet cold and there was no reason for him to shiver, but still he did.
He had a daughter. Beautiful, tiny, and terrifyingly helpless.
The lead ball in his stomach finally swelled into his throat and he stumbled clumsily to the patch of desolate scrub behind the shack, making it just in time to heave the lump into the dirt. It didn’t make him feel any better, but it did seem to ease the uncontrollable trembling that had taken over his body. He had to pull himself together, he knew. As hard as it was to believe, he was now a father, and he needed to behave like a grown man and take charge of a terrible situation.
So why did he feel like curling into a small ball and weeping?
Cochise was still tied to the porch rail. Joe stopped to take a mouthful of water from his canteen to rinse the sourness from his mouth, then groped in his saddlebag for the biscuits and jerky left from his ride.
Sarah was sitting on the wooden bench, just inside the door. The baby was nowhere to be seen. Back in its crate, Joe supposed. The girl lifted her face to him as he came through the door and his stomach clenched again at the hopelessness in her lacklustre eyes. ‘I thought you’d gone,’ she said.
‘I’m not going,’ he told her. ‘Not without you. I already told you. Here. Eat these.’
He dropped the food onto the table and she stared at it blankly for several moments. Then she reached for a biscuit and bit hungrily. ‘Thank you,’ she muttered.
‘I’ll make coffee,’ Joe said, crossing to the stove to see what was in the pot she had put to warm there. ‘D’you have any light?’
‘There’s a candle, there on that box.’
He lit the candle and found two chipped cups into which to pour the coffee. It was lukewarm and very weak. He realized the stove must be out, but they drank it anyway, and Sarah ate everything Joe had put in front of her, which was little enough. It was only when she had finished eating that either of them spoke again.
‘Tomorrow I’ll ride into town and get you some more food,’ Joe told her. ‘And some clothes for Hannah.’
Sarah shook her head. ‘No, Little Joe. You have to leave tonight. Now.’
‘I keep telling you, I’m not leaving without you.’
‘You don’t understand, Joe.’ She lowered her face and her hands fiddled nervously in her lap. Her voice was very small. ‘I’m married.’
‘Married?’ His face paled. He looked around the miserable little house. ‘Where is he, then?’
She shook her head again. ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, it was wrong of me to write to you.’
‘No it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. I jus’ wish you’d told me earlier.’
‘I thought it would all be all right. After it happened…’ She faltered, struggling to find the right words. ‘After it happened, and I found out there was going to be a baby, my father threw me out. I didn’t know what I was going to do.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me when it first happened? I would have helped. I would have…’ Joe stopped, uncertain.
‘What? Married me?’
The question felt like a sharp slap on the face. Joe swallowed hard. ‘Yes.’
‘Oh, Joe!’ she shook her head. ‘I know you would. If you thought it was the right thing to do. You Cartwrights, you always do the right thing.’ He thought he detected an undercurrent of bitterness in her voice. ‘Think what it would have been like.’
‘We could have made it work. For the baby’s sake.’
‘But that would’ve been it, wouldn’t it? The only thing we had in common. Let’s face it, Little Joe, there were no real feelings between us.’
He opened his mouth to protest, but in his heart he knew she was right. Some clumsy fumbling in a dark alley. A few stolen moments of thoughtless pleasure just to satisfy his own pride. Not the foundation on which to build a future. ‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered.
She shook her head. ‘Anyway, I met somebody I loved. Somebody who loved me. So it seemed that everything would be all right. We came out here, found this place. We had big plans to do it up. He found a job in town.’ She stopped and lifted her coffee cup. Joe got the distinct impression she was fighting back tears. ‘But then, it all started to go wrong. He lost his job and we had no money; no one here that we knew…’
‘Where is he now? Your husband?’
She gave a small shrug. ‘In town, I guess. He doesn’t come home much any more. Says it depresses him too much. Says there’s nothing here he wants to come back to.’ Her voice broke as a sob caught in her throat. ‘He’s right, isn’t he?’
‘No.’ Joe leaned across the table and caught at her hand but she snatched it away, straightened her back and forced her tears under control. Struggling to find the right words, and on the verge of tears, himself, it was difficult to keep his voice steady. ‘No, he’s not right, Sarah. He’s not. The most precious things he could ever have are right here.’
Sarah seemed to rally. She rose from her seat and picked up the two cups. ‘Little Joe, you really must go. If he does come home, he mustn’t find you here.’
A question struck Joe. ‘What did you tell him about the baby?’
Sarah turned away to put the coffee cups on a broken shelf. ‘He thinks Hannah is his.’
The answer hit him like another blow. His head was beginning to ache. ‘Sarah, come back with me. Even if it’s just for a little while, till you can get things sorted here. Come with me, for Hannah’s sake. You can have proper food and a bed, and everything you need for the baby, I promise.’
The laugh she gave wrenched at his heart, it was so empty and without hope. ‘Just like that? You seem to think it can all be so simple. What would your family say? What about all those nice, respectable friends of yours? I’m a married woman, remember. Your name would be mud.’
‘That’s not important. We can work that out. Please, Sarah. You can’t stay here. And I’m not going to go away and leave you.’
‘Oh, Little Joe, you must! You should never have come. I should never have written to you. You’ve done more than I could have hoped for.’ She gestured at the envelope he’d laid on the table earlier. ‘That will help so much.’
‘It’s not enough. You’re going to need much more.’
‘I’ll manage. I’ve managed so far.’
Joe looked around at the dingy room, the lack of furniture, the fuel less stove, the empty shelves and cupboards, but he said nothing about that. ‘She’s my daughter too. I’m not leaving her here.’
Sarah sat down again on the bench, and her shoulders slumped. It was only then that he realised how completely exhausted she was.
‘Listen,’ he told her, ‘you get some sleep, and tomorrow I’ll take you and the baby into town and we’ll get some supplies, and we can talk about this some more when you’re feeling better.’
This time she didn’t protest, too tired to argue any more. He got up from the table and took her by the shoulders and led her to her bed. She made no demur as he pulled the shabby quilt around her. The baby lay sleeping in its makeshift cradle, making its strange little sucking noises to itself.
He went to see to Cochise, and brought in his saddle and bedroll, settling himself as comfortably as he could on the hard wooden floor, carefully extinguishing the candle to save on wax. But he did not sleep. The enormity of the muddle that was all his own doing pressed down on him like a stifling weight. He thought of Adam and Hoss and Pa, and longed for one of them to walk through the door and tell him exactly what he needed to do next.
From behind the tattered screen he heard Sarah’s stifled sobs, desolate and broken. They pierced his heart like a knife. No matter which way he looked at it, Sarah was in this pitiable mess because of him. For the first time, he thought about how frightened and lonely she must have felt when her family disowned her, with the baby already growing inside her. Tears started again in his own eyes and he shook his head in despair at his own uselessness.
He could not bear the sound of her weeping. He rose from the floor, crossed the darkened room, sank down beside her and took her in his arms, letting her bury her heartache in the comfort of his shoulder. Her sobs grew so deep and dreadful, he thought they would tear them both apart, while his own tears fell silent and unnoticed in her unkempt hair.
‘Our daughter went off to college last December.’
Mr McCall owned a tailoring business in Virginia City, and it was no secret that he was doing very well. His house, on the outskirts of the town, was testament to a lucrative income, newly extended, tastefully decorated, and finely furnished. Hoss and Adam sat in the parlour on a stuffed blue velvet chaise while Mrs McCall served them tea in delicate china cups, and small iced cakes on a tiered cake stand.
‘Thank you, ma’am,’ said Hoss, accepting a third cake from Mrs McCall and popping it whole into his mouth. ‘Real tasty little cakes these are.’
She acknowledged the compliment with a smile. She was an elegant woman in a glamorous dress of gold striped silk. Expensive, thought Adam. Certainly Mr McCall could easily afford to send his daughter away to be educated.
‘And how is she enjoying the experience?’
Mr McCall inclined his head in Adam’s direction. ‘Very much, thank you for enquiring, young man.’
Adam took a sip of his tea. ‘And which college is Sarah at, Mrs McCall?’
Was he imagining it or was that a brief flicker of alarm he caught in Mrs McCall’s eyes? Before the woman could answer, however, her husband jumped in.
‘Why are so interested in our Sarah, Mr Cartwright? I hadn’t realized you and she were close acquaintances?’
‘Oh, no, we’re not,’ Adam assured him, smiling. ‘It was my youngest brother, Little Joe, who was friends with Sarah. It’s why we’re here, actually. We think Joe might have gone to visit your daughter, and we don’t know where that is.’
‘Little Joe?’ Adam saw husband and wife exchange a brief worried glance.
‘We think Sarah wrote to him, inviting him to visit.’
‘I’m sure you’re mistaken, Mr Cartwright. My daughter has never mentioned your brother’s name to us.’
‘We’d still be interested to find out where she is so we can put our minds at rest.’
Until that moment, Mr McCall had been the embodiment of hospitality. Now when he spoke there was an unmistakable frostiness in his tone. ‘Mr Cartwright, my daughter’s affairs are no business of yours. I’m sorry to hear your brother has gone missing, but I can assure you, my daughter has nothing to do with his disappearance.’ He pulled a watch from his pocket. ‘Now, I do have some pressing affairs I need to attend to in town, Mr Cartwright and…er…Mr Cartwright, so I hope you won’t think I’m rude if I hurry you with that tea.’
*** *** ***
‘Something’s not right, that’s for sure,’ Hoss told Adam as they made their way back into town.
Adam nodded, looking thoughtful. ‘I agree, but short of punching it out of him, I don’t know what else we could have done. Do you want something to eat?’
‘I could do with a beer,’ Hoss told him. ‘Wasn’t enough tea in that little cup to feed a fairy. And what was with them cakes, Adam? I ain’t never seen a cake so small!’
They tied up their horses and went back to the Silver Dollar. As they gloomily contemplated their drinks, wondering what to do next, an elderly man ambled through the saloon doors, and raised a friendly hand in their direction. ‘You boys the Cartwrights?’
Hoss nodded. ‘That’s us.’
‘There’s a lady outside asking to speak with you.’
*** *** ***
‘I’m sorry,’ Mr Cartwright.’ Mrs McCall seemed agitated, casting anxious glances around her as she addressed herself to Adam. ‘If my husband sees me talking to you, he’ll be furious.’
‘What can we do for you, Mrs McCall?’
‘It’s Sarah, Mr Cartwright. She’s…she’s not at college.’
Adam waited for her to enlighten them further, but she appeared to be struggling to speak. ‘Where then, Mrs McCall?’
‘Placerville. Just outside Placerville. She wrote to me soon after she left, and that’s where she was then. But my husband, he won’t hear her name spoken. He was furious when he found out she’d written and he won’t let me write back.’
Hoss shook his head. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. You must miss her.’
‘Yes.’ Mrs McCall’s voice caught and she cleared her throat. ‘I’m her mother, whatever she’s done. Of course I worry about her. That’s why I wanted to catch you alone, and speak to you. You see, if she has written to your brother, and he has gone to see her, well, I’d just like to know that she’s all right. You do understand, don’t you?’
‘Listen, ma’am, we’re gonna find our little brother, and if he is with Sarah, we’ll make good and sure to let you know.’
Mrs McCall smiled gratefully.
‘Mrs McCall, why did Sarah leave?’ Adam asked.
Mrs McCall flushed a furious red. ‘They argued all the time,’ said quickly, ‘my husband and Sarah. He didn’t want her hanging around with that terrible Tom Travis. I expect you remember him, don’t you, Mr Cartwright.’
‘And when Tom left town, Sarah threatened to run away after him. Oh dear! William was so angry with her when she said that.’ Mrs McCall stopped. She looked away, still flustered, and fiddled nervously with her handkerchief. Hoss and Adam waited patiently to see if she was going to elaborate, but she seemed to have run out of words.
‘So, is that why she left, ma’am? Hoss prompted finally. ‘After the argument with her pa, she went after Tom Travis?’
Mrs McCall nodded.
Hoss looked to Adam for help. It was obvious to them both that Mrs McCall was holding something back.
‘Mrs McCall,’ said Adam, lowering his gaze. ‘I’m sorry I have to ask you this, but when Sarah left here last December, was she… was she expecting a baby?’
‘A tear sprang in Mrs McCall’s eye. She brushed it away, briskly, turning her face away to the street so that she wouldn’t have to meet their eyes. ‘Yes,’ she whispered hoarsely. ‘Yes, she was.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
Joe jumped awake with a start and leapt instinctively to his feet. An early dawn light had pushed back the darkness, and a dark-headed man with square shoulders and a bruised face was standing over the mattress, with murder blazing in his eyes. His hands rested on his hips, and his knuckles were grazed and reddened. He peered at Joe, breathing heavy fumes of whiskey, and Joe stared back.
‘I know you,’ snarled the dark-haired stranger. ‘Cartwright, isn’t it? Little Joe Cartwright.’
Joe nodded. ‘Tom Travis,’ he said flatly.
Sarah was on her feet by then. She put out a hand towards her husband. ‘It isn’t how it looks, Tom. Joe just came by to offer us some help.’
Tom’s face twisted into a scornful leer. ‘I know his kind of help, all right. I remember how he helped you out once before. Tried to make a fool of me then too.’
‘Tom, calm down and listen to me. Little Joe’s brought us some money to help us out. Just a loan, that’s all.’
‘And you were returning the favor, is that it?’
Sarah shook her head desperately. ‘There’s nothing going on between us, Tom. Nothing happened. Little Joe’s leaving now. No harm done, you’ll see. Please come and sit down. I’ll find some wood, we’ll light the stove. I’ll make some coffee.’
The baby chose that moment to wake. Her bleating wail distracted them all for a second. Travis spat at the floor. ‘Is that miserable brat still alive?’ He aimed a kick at the crate and the baby cried louder. Sarah flinched and bit her lip. Joe reached down and lifted the child in his arms.
Travis’s lip twisted in a sneer. ‘What do you think you’re doing, Cartwright? Are you hoping I won’t hit you because you’re holding a baby?’
Joe ignored the remark. He spoke to Sarah. ‘Sarah, this is your chance. Tell him you’re leaving and coming back to the Ponderosa with me.’
Travis gave a cold laugh. ‘Since when? Sarah’s my wife and she goes where I tell her to go.’
Sarah turned pleading eyes on Joe. ‘Little Joe, please, just go.’
‘Not without Hannah.’
‘Hannah!’ Travis raised his eyebrows. ‘And what would you want with a sniveling baby, Cartwright?’
Joe clutched the infant tighter against him. She was still crying, but feebly. ‘Tell him, Sarah.’
Sarah dropped her eyes. Travis stretched his reddened hand towards the baby. ‘You’re not going anywhere with anything that belongs to me, Cartwright.’
‘She isn’t yours, Travis, she’s mine.’ Joe wasn’t sure how he had expected Travis to respond to this announcement, but he certainly hadn’t expected him to find it funny.
Travis peered at him for a few seconds with a puzzled expression, and then he burst out in a bellow of laughter. ‘Yours? Is that what she told you?’
Joe stared first at Travis, then at Sarah, but still she would not meet his eyes.
Travis let out another roar of amusement. ‘Well, that’s funny! I see it now. That was your plan, was it, Sarah? Get money out of Cartwright by telling him the baby is his. I like it, Sarah. You’re smarter than I thought, girl.’
Joe had had enough. Still clutching the whimpering child, he reached out and took Sarah’s arm. ‘Come on, Sarah, we’re leaving.’
‘You’re not going anywhere.’
‘Just you try and stop me, Travis?’
‘Oh, big brave Cartwright kid! Talks like a real man with his gleaming gun at his side. But you see, Cartwright, I’m not a rich kid and I don’t have a nice shiny gun like yours. I have to get by with just my fists. How big a man are you without your gun, huh?’
Joe pursed his mouth. Handing the baby to its mother, he reached down and unbuckled his gun belt. Travis followed him with his eyes as he crossed to the table and laid it there, next to the envelope containing the borrowed money.
‘All right, Travis, we’ll do it your way. But if I’m the one left standing, Sarah and Hannah come with me.’
‘No, Little Joe!’ Sarah tried to catch at his arm but she was too late; his fist had already flown out, straight at Travis’s face.
Travis caught the punch in his own fist. He was quicker than Joe had bargained for. They wrestled, locked together for a few short moments. Joe could hear Sarah sobbing again, just out of the range of his vision. Then a hefty elbow made contact with his jaw and sent him spinning.
Travis was fast and heavy. It was not going to be an easy fight. Joe launched himself back at his opponent, left fist flying. He felt Travis’s nose crunch beneath his knuckles and heard him curse hotly, but then a blow like a mule kick caught him hard beneath the ribs and he fell crashing against the stove, retching for air. Through a swirling redness and a loud buzzing in his ears, he heard Sarah scream. ‘No, Tom, don’t!’
Joe, struggling to regain his feet, felt something hard and hot thud into his right side. He gasped with pain and surprise, and slumped again. Sarah was still shouting. Raising his head he peered groggily across the room. Travis was facing him, and in his hand he held Joe’s revolver. The smell of gun smoke drifted into Joe’s fast fogging brain. Another blast from the gun and his left shoulder exploded in a searing burst of pain. He slid down the stove. Every instinct screamed at him to run, but his body refused to move. Sarah and Travis were receding into the distance now, and the smoke was blurring his vision, but something flashed with the brightness of metal in Sarah’s hand. She was lunging towards Travis with it.
There was too much red smoke now in the way. He could no longer see Travis, or Sarah, or Hannah, only the swirling crimson mist closing in and darkening around him.
*** *** ***
When he came to his senses again, he was lying crumpled against the stove. There was a hot poker in his belly and another in his left shoulder, so painful he could barely breathe.
The room was eerily silent. Immediately in front of him was a small rectangle of sunlight on the wooden floor. He stared at it blankly while his mind slowly pieced together what had happened. Fear and horror washed through him in a sickening gush.
‘Sarah,’ he muttered, but no one answered. He raised his head, groaning at the pain it cost to move. ‘Sarah? Oh, God!’
She lay on her back beside the table, a knife hanging loosely in her hand, and the front of her shirt wet with a gleaming redness. He pushed against the floor with his good arm to raise himself, and his hand slipped away beneath him. He cried out in fresh agony as he went down again. The floor was wet. It was a moment or two before he registered that the slippery wetness was his own blood. He gave up trying to rise and began to drag himself instead on his belly, panting heavily at the effort.
After an eternity, he finally manoeuvred himself within touching distance of the prone girl. He lay gasping for a few seconds, gathering what little strength remained in his limbs, then he stretched out his good arm and took her hand. It felt very cold.
‘Sarah?’ He could not hold his head up any longer. He lowered his face to the floor and took some deep breaths, holding onto consciousness by sheer force of will.
When he lifted his head again, he saw that she had turned her face to him and was watching him out of dark, hollow eyes. He saw her pale lips flutter to form words. ‘Joe.’
He squeezed her hand. ‘Stay with me, Sarah. We’ll be all right.’
‘Joe… I’m sorry.’ A tear rolled out of the corner of her eye and dropped down into her hair.
‘Nothing to be sorry for.’
He could hardly hear her. With a final effort he dragged himself a few inches closer.
‘I wish…that she had been yours, Joe.’
A tear trickled down his cheek. He lowered his face.
‘Where is she?’
‘She’s sleeping, Sarah. She’s fine. She’ll be all right.’
He felt the slightest pressure on his hand. He squeezed back.
‘Don’t leave me.’
He tried to laugh and grunted in pain instead. ‘Not going anywhere,’ he assured her, feeling fresh warmth seeping into the floor beneath him. ‘Right here.’
‘Down there.’ Hoss reined in his horse and pointed. ‘Some kind of building. That must be the place. That fella in the saloon said it was in bad shape.’
Close to, the shack looked even more dilapidated than it had from the top of the hill. It was ominously silent and bereft of any signs of life.
‘Not much of a place, is it?’ said Hoss, dismounting to approach the broken porch steps. He knocked lightly on the rotting boards of the door. No one answered.
‘There’s no one here,’ said Adam, running his eyes over the derelict building. ‘We’re wasting our time. If Joe was here, we’d have seen Cochise. This place is abandoned.
Hoss knocked again. There was still no sound or movement from inside. He made to turn away, hesitated, and on an impulse, gave the door a push. ‘Sheesh!’ He recoiled involuntarily. There was no mistaking the horror in his voice. ‘What the….?’
Ben and Adam slid down from their saddles. Hoss had vanished into the gloom of the interior. Alarmed, they hurried after him, every sense alert.
‘Joe!’ Ben cried out in dismay as he dropped down on his knees beside the prone body of his youngest son, face down, unmoving on the floor. Hoss was already fumbling for a pulse in his brother’s neck. Adam stood frozen just inside the doorway, his mind too stunned to process the scene that confronted him.
There was blood everywhere. The girl lay in a thick congealed pool, and a dark crimson flower had spread and crusted over the front of her oversized shirt. Blood was spattered over the table, and soaked, in dark, uneven stains, into the rough planks of the floor. There was more beneath Joe too, and a smeared trail, edged with bloodied hand prints, from the direction of the lifeless stove. The room smelt like a butcher’s shop. Flies crawled everywhere.
Hoss had said nothing. His silence was shrinking Adam’s gut into a tight, hard ball. ‘Hoss?’
Hoss looked up. There was desperation in his eyes. ‘I can’t find anything, Adam.’
Adam stared transfixed at his brother’s body, unable to comprehend what Hoss was saying. From where he stood, he could see Joe’s face, his left cheek pressed against the boards of the floor. His eyes were half open, his bloodless lips parted. He looked, Adam realized, his throat constricting with suffocating tightness, dead.
It was suddenly difficult to breathe.
‘Adam, Hoss, help me turn him over.’
Ben reached out and uncurled his son’s blood smeared fingers from the dead girl’s hand, and gestured urgently with his head at his oldest son. ‘Come on Adam, lend a hand.’
Pa wasn’t ready to give up yet. For a moment Adam’s own panic became secondary to the fear and grief he knew Pa had to be feeling in that terrible instant, kneeling there in Joe’s blood, holding his dead son, refusing stubbornly to let him go.
‘Adam?’ Hoss was staring up at him too, questioning why he hadn’t moved to help. Gentle-natured Hoss could deal with this tragedy while he, Adam – the sensible, practical one – was paralysed with helpless fear.
‘Right.’ Forcing the word out through his constricted throat seemed finally to release the immobility of his limbs. Adam dropped on one knee and slid his hands beneath Joe. Blood, treacle thick and sticky, oozed between his fingers. He swallowed hard against the bile threatening to gag him.
Carefully they raised Joe enough to turn him over onto his back. Ben slid his hands behind his son’s shoulders and hugged him close to his chest. ‘Joe?’
Joe’s head lolled. Hoss put out his big hand and pressed it again into his brother’s neck below his ear.
‘How long have they been lying here?’ Adam muttered. Joe’s eyes seemed to be gazing at him from beneath half closed lids. Adam wondered if he should reach out and close his brother’s eyelids, but he wasn’t sure his father was ready for that just yet.
Then Joe’s eyes flickered. Adam was almost certain he saw them move. ‘Joe?’ he said hopefully.
Hoss leaned his cheek close to Joe’s lips. ‘He’s breathing!’ he exclaimed softly, a note of triumph in his voice. ‘He’s breathing! He’s alive!’
Ben gave his son a gentle squeeze. ‘Good boy, Joe. You hang in there, son. We’re going to get you to a doctor. Get some water, Hoss.’
Adam saw Joe’s eyes flicker again and his pale, cracked lips moved.
‘He’s saying something, Pa.’
They both leaned in, but, although Joe’s lips moved, no sound emerged from between them. Hoss came hurrying back with a canteen, and dribbled water gently into Joe’s mouth.
‘What’s he saying?’ he said, as he drew the flask away and saw Joe’s lips fluttering once again.
‘Sarah?’ suggested Adam, looking with dark, sad eyes at the stretched body of the girl beside them. ‘Sarah’s here, Joe. We’re going to take care of her. Don’t worry.’
‘No,’ said Ben. ‘Not Sarah. He’s saying something else.’
Joe’s face twitched, and he breathed a sound like a sigh. With an effort he repeated it.
‘Hannah?’ frowned Ben. ‘I think that’s what he’s saying.’ He stroked back Joe’s hair from his forehead. ‘Just relax, son. We’ll take care of everything. Don’t try and talk.’
‘Who’s Hannah?’ Hoss wondered.
Joe’s bloodless lips closed and parted purposefully twice.
Comprehension dawned. ‘Baby,’ said Ben. ‘He’s saying baby.’
‘Oh God!’ Adam felt his stomach plummet. His legs felt suddenly as heavy as lead. He had to force them to move the short distance to the tattered patchwork screen that divided the room. Pushing it aside, he stared down in silence.
He stooped and reached down, wrapping the tiny grey body back inside its coverings, lifting the little bundle from the crate. When he raised his eyes again to meet the dread in the eyes of Hoss and Pa, none of them needed to speak to know.
‘Baby.’ Joe’s mouth shaped the feeble sound again.
Ben held him tighter. ‘It’s all right Joe. Adam’s got the baby. We’ll take care of it. Everything is going to be just fine, son.’
*** *** ***
Joe’s life hung by a fine thread.
‘That boy should be dead,’ said the doctor, grim-faced, as he washed and dried his hands. ‘What a mess! Must have been lying there for a couple of days.’ He flexed his shoulders stiffly. ‘I’ve done all I can for him, but I have to be honest with you, Mr Cartwright, I’m not hopeful.’
‘You don’t know my son,’ Ben told him. ‘He’s too stubborn to give up that easily.’
He wasn’t the only stubborn one, thought Adam, as he helped Pa sponge Joe’s burning body with cool water. The last thing Joe needed was a fever. He was too weak to fight infection, the doctor told them sombrely. Adam could tell that the doctor did not expect his brother to be alive in the morning. Still Pa refused to concede. Pa would drag Joe through this by sheer force of will.
Sheer force of will was all Joe had left.
Five people stood at the graveside: the preacher, Adam, Hoss, and Mr and Mrs McCall. There was only a single coffin. Mother and daughter would be reunited in death. Adam and Hoss between them had composed the brief telegram that had brought Sarah’s parents to this place. Adam had been vaguely surprised to see them. Their presence made the whole affair more harrowing than it already was, Mr McCall standing rigidly composed and expressionless throughout the brief ceremony, his wife trembling and weeping and finally folding in a broken heap by the grave, her heaving sobs shattering the still air of the little graveyard.
The preacher departed. Hats in hand, Adam and Hoss went to make their murmured condolences to Sarah’s parents. Mrs McCall was making a brave effort to recover her composure. Her husband looked as unyielding as ever. He fixed Adam and Hoss with a stony glare. ‘What right had you to interfere in our affairs?’ he hissed. ‘She had nothing to do with your brother. Why couldn’t you leave well alone then none of this would have happened?’
Adam cleared his throat, biting back the urge to tell Mr McCall what he really thought about him. Politely but firmly he said, ‘My brother was only trying to do what was right by your daughter, Mr McCall.’
‘It was none of his business!’
Hoss said swiftly, ‘Pardon me, sir, but it was very much his business. It was his child, after all.’
Mr McCall’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. His wife looked up from her handkerchief, startled out of her tears.
‘His child?’ she said.
The McCall’s exchanged puzzled looks. ‘I don’t know from where you got your information, Mr Cartwright, but the child was not your brother’s,’ said Mr McCall.
For a few moments they all stared at each other in accusing silence, then Adam spoke. ‘But your daughter wrote to Joe.’ He reached into his jacket and pulled out the crumpled sheet of paper he had retrieved from Joe’s pocket. Blood had smeared the ink but the contents were still discernable. He passed it to Mr McCall. ‘She told him the child was his.’
The McCall’s read the letter in tense silence. Mrs McCall began to weep again, but this time more softly. When he had finished reading, Mr McCall passed the sheet back to Adam, and some of the stoniness had dissolved from his face.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Cartwright, but there never was any dispute over whose baby my daughter was carrying. She was very clear that Tom Travis was the father. That’s why she ran away. To find him. Worthless good for nothing that he was. I don’t know why she wrote that letter to your brother all these months on, but the child was certainly not his.’
Adam bit back the anger as he remembered the dilapidated hovel and the dead baby in his arms. Keeping his voice civil, he said, ‘Maybe she wrote it because she was desperate. Because she had no one else to turn to.’
A choking sob caught in Mrs McCall’s throat. She turned and stumbled away.
‘Go after your wife, Mr McCall,’ said Adam. ‘She needs you.’
*** *** ***
‘Does Joe know, d’ya think?’ asked Hoss as they walked back into town.
‘I don’t know.’ Adam’s dark eyes looked darker than ever, sunk into shadows of tiredness. None of them had slept properly for days. ‘We’re not going to find out until he wakes up, I guess.’
Neither of them voiced the doubt they each knew was in the other’s mind; that Joe might not wake up.
‘I sure hope he does know,’ Hoss said with feeling. ‘Otherwise, when he wakes up and finds out that baby didn’t make it… ’ He left the sentence hanging and shook his head.
Adam tightened his lips and stared down at the road. He didn’t want to have to remember that little grey body.
‘I’m kinda ashamed to admit it, Adam,’ confessed Hoss, pulling a face at the ground, ‘but I can’t help feeling just a bit relieved that it wasn’t Joe’s baby we just buried. An’ I reckon Pa’s gonna feel mighty relieved too to know it wasn’t his grandchild. Is that bad, Adam?’
Adam shook his head, uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know Hoss. All I know for sure is, I’m not looking forward to telling Joe when he does wake up.’
*** *** ***
The fluttering life thread trembled precariously, but somehow it held. Against the odds, Joe’s fever subsided, his heartbeat steadied, and the day after Sarah’s funeral, he finally opened his eyes, lucid for the first time since they found him. Pa was in a chair by his bed, Hoss was asleep in an armchair across the room, and Adam was gazing through the window at the darkening street below.
‘Joe!’ Pa started forward, and grabbed his son’s hand. Hoss sprang awake and Adam swivelled from the window.
Joe’s dazed eyes took them all in, vaguely puzzled to see them there. Slowly his gaze drifted around the strange hotel room, and came back to rest on Pa. Ben saw his eyes glaze, as though his vision had turned inward. His mouth moved but no sound emerged. He tried again and forced a hoarse whisper. ‘Sarah.’
Adam and Hoss had drawn close to the bed. They exchanged anxious glances.
Ben said, ‘I’m sorry, Joe, Sarah didn’t make it.’ He reached for the tumbler on the bedside table. ‘Here, son, try a drink.’
Hoss hurried to raise his little brother so he could swallow more easily. Ben raised the glass to his lips, but Joe turned his head away. ‘Hannah?’
Adam’s insides clenched in that familiar knot. He thought about the baby, silent and unmoving in its rough wooden crate, wrapped in its soiled rags, a tiny, pale grey ghost. ‘Hannah’s dead, Joe.’
Joe seemed to slump in Hoss’s arms. He closed his eyes again. Hoss gave his brother a squeeze. ‘There wan’t nothing we could do, Little Joe.’ Carefully he lowered Joe back down onto the pillow.
Joe forced his eyelids apart again and turned his head to his father. ‘She lied to me Pa,’ he murmured. ‘She said Hannah was mine, but she wasn’t.’
Ben squeezed his son’s hand. ‘Don’t worry about it, Joe. We know.’
*** *** ***
‘He’s making a remarkable recovery,’ the doctor told Ben. ‘Maybe you’re just expecting too much.’
Ben’s face was creased with fatigue and worry. He shook his head. ‘I know my son, doctor. It’s not like him to be so… so low.’
‘After what he’s been through, Mr Cartwright? Just give him time.’
Ben nodded, but his doubtful expression belied the gesture. ‘He wants to go home. I think that might help.’
‘He’s a tough boy, Mr Cartwright, but don’t expect too much from him, too soon. He’s got a long way to go yet. There may be other complications. All that blood he lost. Yes, he beat the fever, but that’s only half the battle. What he needs now is time and rest.’
In the soft forgiving darkness of his own familiar bedroom, Joe lay on his back watching the shadows dance in the autumn moonlight outside the window and heard Adam call out goodnight to Pa. There was no sound of a door closing. He knew there wouldn’t be. Since they had arrived home, his father and brothers had taken to sleeping with their doors ajar. Just in case he needed them, they told him. All he had to do was call.
But at least it was night. Joe let his body relax and breathed out a long sigh. Night was his salvation. All day long they pestered him, but at night, they left him alone.
Ever since he had first opened his eyes, they had been fussing; Pa, looking grey and tired, bringing him food, offering him drinks, tutting over medicines, clucking over bandages; Adam, keeping him up to date, reading to him from newspapers and books, playing his guitar to fill the long hours, and all the time watching him out of anxious dark eyes that Joe didn’t want to meet; and Hoss, trying to cheer him up with funny stories and tales of what the various animals around the ranch were doing, and urging him to get out of bed and start walking again, all with that same pain Joe saw in Pa’s drawn face and Adam’s dark eyes, thinly veiled behind his forced smile.
They all meant so well, but why couldn’t they just leave him alone? He hated the worry in their faces, the exaggerated cheer in their voices, the clumsy attempts to make him feel better, the thinly disguised attempts to get him to talk, to tell them what had happened.
He hated that most of all.
Today the sheriff had come by to say that Travis had been found, and Cochise was safe. The sheriff in Placerville had circulated descriptions of man and horse, and Travis had been spotted by a sharp-eyed deputy in Sacramento. When they had tried to take him into custody, he had gone for his gun – Joe’s gun – and now he was dead.
They had all thought he would be relieved to hear the news. Relieved to know that Cochise was safe; relieved to know there would be no need for a trial; relieved to know Travis was dead; relieved to know he was not Hannah’s father, after all.
He knew he should have tried. Made more effort. Especially for Pa’s sake. Pa, so stooped and etched with worry.
Joe sighed again. So why hadn’t he? Why hadn’t he at least looked pleased to hear about Cochise?
The truth was, he didn’t know.
It wasn’t the bullets; it wasn’t the pain. Something else had happened as he lay there on the floor of the shack, with the blood draining from his body and the life draining from Sarah. He couldn’t explain it to anyone, because he didn’t understand it himself. It was like all the softness had drained out of him, seeping away with his blood, and left in its place a hard lump. As though, inside, he had turned to stone.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to care, but as if he’d lost the ability to do so. More puzzling still, he didn’t care that he didn’t care.
It exhausted him to think too much, but thinking was something he could not stop. Laudanum helped. Not only did it numb the pain in his side and his chest, it deadened the thoughts that tormented his brain so they no longer had the potency to hurt him. But now Pa had started to worry about that as well, like he worried about everything, and he had taken away the bottle. Now Joe was allowed small doses only if Pa or Adam or Hoss administered them.
Pa. Why did he worry so much, all the time?
Joe’s brow flickered as he recalled his father’s arms cradling him as he lay on Sarah’s floor. He had prayed for that, an eternity before, when Sarah stopped speaking and her hand turned cold. He had prayed with a fervour he now recognised only from a distance. He would never feel that impassioned again. About anything. Then he had wanted to live. To help Sarah. To hold Hannah again. Now he no longer cared. Living or dying, neither filled him with any dread or desire.
He had sensed Sarah’s life slipping away from him. Strange. He had never had any real feelings for Sarah. Even that evening of the dance, last summer, those brief, breathless moments in a dark back street alley. Sarah might have been any girl that night – as long as she was Travis’s. That was all that had mattered; courting danger by stealing as much as he could from Travis. He had never really given the girl another thought after that evening. Not until he read her letter. And saw her again. Saw the state she was in. All drab and skinny, and made plain by hunger.
Drab and skinny and plain, she had suddenly become real. He had hardly spared her a thought, and now she was the only thing that could stir any emotion inside him. Sarah and Hannah.
Joe’s breath caught with pain, but it was not pain from his wounds, though they still ached fiercely enough. He could think about Sarah, but he would not think about Hannah.
He had kept talking to Sarah, for as long as he could force words out of his mouth, and even after that. Even when he had felt the coldness of death stiffen her fingers, he had kept hold of her hand, kept talking to her.
‘Don’t leave me, Joe,’ she had whispered, her lips as white as her face. After that she had spoken only twice more; each time a single word: ‘Hannah.’
Joe’s face flinched at the memory. He turned on his side and shut his eyes, but he could not keep from thinking. Could not keep from remembering the silence.
He had tried to move, to reach Hannah, for Sarah’s sake. He had called out her name into the stillness. But his limbs would not do what his brain told them. Each effort only brought another hot gush of blood beneath him, another wave of nauseating pain.
He had prayed. He had prayed with all he had left that Sarah would have the strength to hold on. In Sarah’s strength lay Hannah’s. At least that was how it had seemed to Joe’s confused mind as he began to drift in and out of consciousness, and Sarah’s life sputtered like a spent candle.
He had thought about Pa, and Adam, and Hoss. He’d wanted to believe they’d come looking for him, sort out the mess like they had always been able to do. But they did not know where he was. His pride and arrogance had made sure of that.
Silence. And the darkness of night. The cold fingers of another dawn. Dear God, how long did it take to die? There was no more point in praying. God was not listening.
‘Hannah.’ He had tried to call the name but his voice, like his limbs, had ceased to function. He stopped trying. He had no strength left to weep, to think, even to feel.
*** *** ***
Joe’s eyes snapped open again. The wind was still tapping on the window, tugging at the shadows on his bedroom ceiling. He rolled onto his back and stared at the uneasy darkness.
Maybe this was the price he paid for not caring enough in the first place. Never to care again.
What was the point of cheating death only to be left with a life of numbness?
‘Stop it!’ he hissed at himself. ‘Just go to sleep!’
What if he hadn’t cheated death? What if death had cheated him? What if living would be his punishment?
What if Sarah had only had some food to eat, and the baby some milk?
What if he had never taken her into that alley?
What if he could have brought her back to the Ponderosa?
What if Hannah really had been his?
Joe swore aloud. He had to stop thinking. He pulled himself into a sitting position, wincing as his wounds tugged sharply, and groped for the small vial of laudanum Pa had left by his bed. In case he needed it in the night. Screwing his face at the bitterness, he frowned at the dark rectangle of his open door. He needed more to stop the pain of thinking. Where had Pa put the bottle? When he had taken away the empty vial to refill it, he had been gone only moments. It had to be in his room. On the stand, most likely. The doors all stood open. All he had to do was to tread softly a few paces along the passageway, and the moonlight would be enough.
He swung his feet over the edge of the bed. His right side was throbbing, but he took some deep breaths and the pain subsided. He had not been out of bed in over three weeks. He would take it carefully. Sit for a moment. Let his body adjust.
Grimacing, he pushed himself to standing. Creakier than Pa after a long day in the saddle.
Somehow, his legs didn’t feel right. They trembled alarmingly. He was tempted to sit down again, but that would mean starting over, and he was halfway there now. Take a few breaths. Steady himself. He would be fine.
Just breathe, he told himself, sternly, shaking his head to dislodge the loud humming in his ears. The room dipped and swayed like the deck of a boat, and the darkness thickened and closed in around his head. Through the buzzing fog, the floor lurched towards him. He didn’t recall the thud and the splintering crash as he hit the rug.
How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?
Adam swept up the last fragments of the broken lampshade from the floor by Joe’s bed. Oil had soaked into the boards and the rug in a dark irregular stain that reminded him vividly of other stains, dull red, on other boards. He pushed the image away and looked instead at his youngest brother, now safely back in his bed.
No wonder Pa was worried about him. Pale and thin, eyes sunk deep in their sockets, hair overgrown and wild, Little Joe looked childishly young and frail, propped against his enormous pillows.
Pa looked almost as hollow-eyed as Joe. Sometimes Adam didn’t know which of them to worry about most. Pa would drive himself to his grave at this rate, and Little Joe was not helping one bit. Adam had already picked up the small vial left earlier by Pa. It was lying amongst the broken pieces of the lamp, still intact; stoppered and empty. Adam’s jaw had tightened as he returned it to the table.
‘Pa, I’m all right. You don’t have to fuss.’ Joe’s voice was still shaky.
‘You know what the doctor said, Joseph. Don’t run before you can walk.’
‘I was hardly running.’ Joe scowled, his face assuming the sulky look that had become its habit of late.
‘Dadburnit, Little Joe! If you needed help, all you gotta do is shout, you know that!’
The uncharacteristic sharpness of Hoss’s tone made them all look up in surprise. Hoss’s towered over his younger brother’s bed, his big frame shrouded in an enormous checked nightshirt, and his brows pulled down in disapproval.
Joe scowled too. ‘I didn’t want help.’
‘No, you just wanted to do it all your own way as usual, and darn the consequences! You’re jus’ as stubborn as that mean old mule of Frank Hogan’s that kept kicking and biting ’til it got itself shot! Ev’ry day we been asking you if you want help gettin’ up and walking, an’ ev’ry day you snap at us like we’re askin’ to cut your arms off instead, and then you almos’ kill yourself trying to do it all by yourself under cover of darkness! You’re killin’ Pa, Joe, with all your tempers and your self pitying…’
‘Hoss!’ Ben held up his hand to stem the unexpected tirade. ‘That’s enough, son. Let’s not fight about this.’
Hoss took a deep breath. ‘Somebody needs to say somethin’ to him, Pa!’
Adam saw Joe’s throat move as he swallowed hard, staring at Hoss out of shocked, dark eyes. His voice when he managed to speak was low and hoarse. ‘I didn’t ask for your help.’
Hoss’s mouth twitched unhappily. Adam knew how much it had cost him to say what he had said; what, after all, they were all feeling. Pa, too, thought Adam, if truth be told.
Ben ran a hand through his silver hair and shook his head, half in despair. ‘We’re just worried about you, Joe, that’s all.’
‘Well, you don’t need to be. I’m gettin’ better, Pa. I’m gonna be fine. You don’t need to keep worrying!’
Pa sat down on the edge of Joe’s bed. ‘Joseph, that would be like telling me not to breathe.’ He reached out and squeezed the hand Joe rested on the quilt. ‘That’s what parents do, boy; they worry. It doesn’t matter how old their children get, parents just keep on worrying. Look at Adam and Hoss here. All grown up years ago. Yet I worry about them every time they leave this house. You’re my sons; I care about you more than anything else in the world.’
Hoss looked down at the floor. Adam flicked Pa the smallest hint of a smile, but Joe still looked strained. ‘When did you know that, Pa?’ he asked in a harsh little voice.
Pa frowned. ‘Know what?’
Joe cleared his throat but his voice still sounded frayed to Adam’s ears. ‘That you loved us.’
Pa looked puzzled. After a moment, he said, ‘The minute I first laid eyes on you.’
‘You knew as soon as you saw us?’
Ben nodded slowly.
Something unpleasant was constricting Adam’s throat. Joe looked terrible, almost grey against his pillows, the smudged circles of his eyes like dark bruises.
‘That’s what I felt,’ he whispered.
Anywhere but here, thought Adam to himself. I don’t want to hear him say this. But he could not move.
‘I picked her up.’ Joe’s sunken eyes turned inwards. ‘She was so small. So tiny. So perfect. I just couldn’t believe she could be mine!’
Adam’s face did not move but for a little muscle that twitched just below his ear. A waxen doll, grey and without life. He had thought he was holding Joe’s dead baby.
‘I just wanted to protect her,’ said Joe.
She had weighed almost nothing. She had been lying uncovered in the rough wooden crate, dressed only in a few dirty rags. He had not known what to do. Although she was clearly dead, he had wrapped her gently in a tattered square of rough wool, as though he could still warm her matchstick limbs and give her comfort that way.
‘I picked her up,’ whispered Joe, ‘and I fell in love with her.’ He closed his eyes, too late to prevent the tears escaping.
‘Joe, come here.’ Ben reached forward and pulled his youngest boy toward him. Adam watched his arms embrace Joe’s lean frame, heard the husky sob in his brother’s throat, and felt a familiar stab of helplessness. Why could Pa reach out to Joe like that, and yet he, Adam, could not? Could not manage a single comforting thing to say.
It’ll be all right.
You’ll be fine.
We’ll work it out.
He could not have spoken now even if he had been able to think of something meaningful to say. Joe, face buried against Pa’s shoulder, was weeping as though his heart was breaking. His grief was like an aching wound in Adam’s chest, but the tears on Pa’s cheeks hurt him most.
He turned away swiftly to hide his own face and made for the door. The landing was in merciful darkness. He leant back against the wall and drew some deep breaths to try and steady his racing heart and his bruised emotions, but he could still hear Joe’s heaving sobs. The vision of his father’s tears made his throat swell ominously.
‘Adam?’ Hoss’s big shadow loomed in the doorway.
Adam forced his face back under control.
‘You all right?’
Adam stared at the darkness. For a moment he said nothing. Then he cleared his throat and shook his head. ‘You know, Hoss… when I picked up that baby, I thought it was…’ His voice cracked dangerously and he paused to draw another deep breath. ‘I thought it was Joe’s.’
‘I guess we all did.’ Hoss shook his head. ‘She sure was tiny, wa’n’t she?’
‘And then, when we found out she wasn’t, there was this immense relief. And I don’t know why. I mean, she was no less dead, was she? It was just knowing there was no blood tie, no real responsibility on our part. Like it wasn’t our tragedy after all.’
Hoss nodded. ‘Yeah, I know.’
‘How did we get it so wrong?’ Adam pressed his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Fighting the tightness in his throat was making his chest hurt. ‘All the time, we thought Joe would be relieved that she wasn’t his; that he was off the hook. That she wasn’t his responsibility after all. None of us stopped to think even for a moment that he might be sorry about that. That he might have fallen in love with her. That losing her was what was really messing him up.’
‘Yeah.’ Hoss’s voice had an unfamiliar huskiness about it too. ‘Guess we sold him short, huh?’
Adam didn’t trust himself to speak again. He nodded his head silently in the darkness. Hoss, still silhouetted in the light from Joe’s doorway, shifted his broad bulk and Adam felt a big hand clasp his arm. ‘Hey, Adam.’
Adam didn’t move. Hoss took his hand away but the next moment Adam felt it round his shoulder. He neck muscles stiffened involuntarily, but he didn’t move away. Instead he raised his own arm and returned the gesture with a clumsy hug. It felt strangely comforting.
‘Little Joe’s gonna be a’right,’ said Hoss. Adam couldn’t see the expression on Hoss’s face, but he could detect the trace of an optimistic smile in his brother’s voice. ‘He ain’t gonna have no choice with the three of us houndin’ him, is he?’
‘You better not let Joe hear you say that!’ Adam forced a laugh into his words. Like the hug, it felt good. ‘Last thing he wants, the three of us on his back.’
‘Naw,’ said Hoss. ‘That’s what he says, but he’d miss us if we weren’t here!’
Adam crossed from the barn to the house, whistling softly to himself as he went. When he reached the porch he stopped and his lips twitched. Even through the thick planks of the door, he could hear Hoss’s loud protests and Joe’s high-pitched laughter.
He pushed open the door. An aggrieved Hoss stood across the room from him, back to the fireplace. Pa, with his back to the door, had a large pair of forceps in his hand, and Joe lay on the sofa, still propped by pillows, and wrapped in a blanket. Despite the fact that his face was still too pale and a shade too thin, he was laughing, and the shadows had faded from his eyes.
Adam looked between them all. ‘What’s going on?’
Joe twisted his head to the door. ‘Oh, Adam, you’re back.’ He gave another giggle. ‘It’s Hoss. That chestnut with the mean eyes, he tossed big brother here right outa the saddle and onto the fence. Now he’s got a great big sliver of fence post wedged in his backside an’ he won’t let Pa pull it out.’
Hoss looked to his older brother for sympathy. ‘It ain’t no laughin’ matter, Adam.’
‘Come on, Hoss.’ There was no mistaking the enjoyment Pa was extracting from Hoss’s dilemma and Joe’s amusement. ‘Let’s just get it over and done with. I’ll whip it out quick. You won’t feel a thing.’
Hoss gave a grudging nod at Joe. ‘Not with that little banshee giggling fit to bust you ain’t.’ He reached forward and snatched the forceps from Pa’s hand and limped painfully towards the stairs. ‘I’ll do it myself!’
Pa tried to sound reasonable. ‘You can’t do it yourself. You can’t see what you’re doing.’
‘Yeah, well.’ Hoss stuck out his jaw. ‘I’m gonna find me a mirror.’
Joe gave another squeak of laughter. ‘Better be a big mirror! Ow! Don’t make me laugh. It hurts!’ Clutching at his wounded side, he fell back in another fit of giggling. Pa started to laugh too. Adam looked between the two of them and his mouth turned up in a smile. But it wasn’t Hoss’s predicament that brought the grin to his face. He looked across at Hoss, who was standing at the foot of the stairs wearing an injured expression, and rolled his eyes.
‘Like a couple of kids!’ he sighed, in mock despair. He crossed to join his brother by the stairs. ‘Come on, Hoss, I’ll lend you a hand.’
He put a hand on Hoss’s arm to move him up the stairs. Together they glanced back at Joe and Pa, still giggling like schoolboys together, then they looked back at each other, and a slow smile spread across Hoss’s face and lit up his gentle blue eyes. He didn’t speak. He didn’t need to. Adam knew what he meant.
They were going to be all right.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this story, please consider leaving a review, however short. I’m always pleased to receive comments via PM too.
Other Stories by this Author
- Somebody else’s dog (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Of Men and Angels (by Inca / aka Tye)
- The Secret (by Inca / aka Tye)
- The Youngest (by Inca / aka Tye)
- The Girl With The Red Hair (by Inca / aka Tye)