Summary: Eight years after Clay Stafford’s departure from the Ponderosa, the truth is revealed.
Rated: K WC 3700
Her First Born Series:
In the first year after Clay Stafford left, I half-expected something like this. The knock at the door, the stranger, the parcel. The sympathetic nod. My son, standing silent in the doorway, the dreaded words leaving him with nothing but bitter certainty, the shocking and yet unsurprising death of the hope he’d refused to admit that he still cherished.
But time passed, and the demands of everyday life pushed such notions far into the background. And so, none of us were prepared when the news finally came.
In those first days and weeks after Clay’s abrupt departure, we’d done what we could to see Little Joe through his grief. His brothers and I spent countless hours listening to him, watching after him, standing by him as he struggled to come to terms with the idea that one brother could just walk away from another. For a time, it seemed that his natural aversion to being alone had multiplied tenfold, but we did our best to reassure him that we were still near and would remain so.
I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to know how many nights Hoss and Adam found him downstairs with a bottle and a glass. Sometimes, I heard them whispering admonitions to him and to each other not to waken me as they supported their drunken brother back to bed. Other times, I watched from the top of the stairs while his brothers sat quietly beside him, resting a hand on his leg or an arm around his shoulders as the last low flames of the evening’s fire flickered in the darkness. Later, as Joe’s initial anguish leveled off, I would frequently hear him riding out alone in the middle of the night. He was always back by dawn, though, and he was so careful not to mention these rides that I never let on that I knew he’d passed the hours in any way other than slumber.
As the weeks since Clay’s departure turned into months, our thoughts moved on to more immediate matters. My thoughts, anyway. Joe still dwelled on those brief days with his brother far more than he was willing to say. That first Christmas after Clay had swept through our lives, I saw hope in Joseph’s eyes every time the mail came, and bitter disappointment when each delivery brought no word from the only person in the world who shared his mother’s blood. Gradually, my youngest son began to brace himself against the hope, refusing to admit that he cared whether he heard from his mother’s first-born son.
It had been eight years since the cardsharp had ridden into our lives and revealed himself to be Joseph’s older brother. Eight years since he’d left without a word, rejecting Joe’s attempts to bring him back. I don’t need your family, and I don’t need you. While I had my own ideas about why he’d acted as he did, they were only theories. Clay alone could have told Joe the truth, and he never had.
Then, one early spring day, when the world was newly born and full of promise, its lush green not yet covered by summer’s dust, a woman came to the Ponderosa, carrying a satchel. “I’m looking for Mr. Cartwright,” she said hesitantly when I opened the door.
“I’m Mr. Cartwright,” I said.
She looked surprised. “Mr. Joseph Cartwright?”
I smiled. “You’re looking for my son,” I said. She was at least ten years older than the typical girl coming to see Joseph, and she had that certain hard edge that revealed her as a saloon girl, past or present. “Come in, Miss-” I let my voice trail off, inviting her to supply her name.
“Holloway,” she said. “Justine Holloway. Thank you. Is your son here?”
“He should be back shortly,” I said. “Can I get you something to drink?” She seemed nervous, and something more.
“No-no, thank you, sir,” she qualified.
I squelched the urge to probe, inviting her instead to take a seat. Whatever her business was with Joe, it was not my place to interfere.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Ordinarily, I can make any guest feel at ease, but for some reason, words were failing me. She was looking every place except at me, her hands working uneasily in her lap. I tried to think of something innocuous that we could talk about while we waited for Joe to return, but nothing came to mind.
“You have a lovely home,” she said finally.
“Thank you,” I said. “Are you from around here?” I didn’t recall seeing her before.
“No, sir,” she said. “I’m from Placerville.”
“And you came all this way to see Joe?” I was trying not to pry, but she wasn’t offering me any other topics of conversation.
“Yes, sir,” she said, and we fell silent again.
Finally, I heard horses outside. “That must be him,” I said, relieved. Hastily, I crossed the room and headed out into the yard, where all three of my sons were dismounting.
“Pa, you ain’t gonna believe it-we got six new calves born jest since Tuesday!” Hoss was delighted, as he always was when any of our animals gave birth.
“That’s wonderful,” I said. In a lower voice, I said, “Joe, there’s someone here to see you. A woman. She came from Placerville.”
“Oh, no,” said Adam, rolling his eyes. “What have you gotten yourself into now, Little Brother?”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t think I know any women in Placerville,” he said. “At least, none that are still speaking to me,” he added with a grin at his brothers.
I ignored that last statement. “Well, she’s waiting for you inside,” I said.
“Is she good-looking?” asked Joe.
“Joseph!” The woman was making me uneasy enough without Joe’s impudent comments.
“Just wondering,” my youngest son said with a wink. He headed into the house with his typical swagger, and his brothers rolled their eyes as we followed.
“How do you do, ma’am,” said Joe, removing his hat and extending his hand as he crossed the room. “I’m Joe Cartwright. These are my brothers, Hoss and Adam, and you’ve already met my father.”
Miss Holloway had already risen. Uncertainly, she took his hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, her voice faint. For a moment, her eyes glistened. Her nervousness gave way, and she looked up at my son with something approaching awe, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“So, what can I do for you, ma’am?” Joe sounded jaunty, not particularly concerned about either his question or whatever her answer might be.
“I-I-this is difficult, Mr. Cartwright,” she said.
Joe frowned. “Why don’t we sit down,” he said. He sat on the long, low table in front of the settee as she resumed her seat. His brothers and I took our usual places, and we all waited for whatever Miss Holloway had to say that was so difficult.
The woman drew a deep breath. “You don’t know me,” she began, to my vast relief. “But we know someone in common.” At Joe’s furrowed brow, she forced the words out. “Clay Stafford.”
Joe’s easy manner vanished. His back was suddenly ramrod straight, his fists clenched. “What about him?” His voice was tight.
Miss Holloway watched him for a minute as if deliberating whether to continue. “He asked me to come here,” she said finally. “He wanted me to give you this.” She reached into the satchel and withdrew a small object. Almost against his will, my son reached for it. I closed my eyes, knowing instinctively what she’d brought, and why.
You bring this back someday, he’d told Clay that night. Afterward, as he’d grieved the loss of his brother, Joe had told me how he’d pressed into his brother’s hand the small framed picture of their mother. Joe had never been without it since the day I gave it to him. It was his most valued possession, and he gave it to his brother in spite of-or perhaps because of-Clay’s harsh insistence that he didn’t need Joe in his life.
Joe’s hand closed around the silver frame. For a minute, no one spoke, no one moved. Then, Joe rose abruptly. “All right, you’ve done what he said,” he said, his voice rough. “You can tell for me that he’s the worst kind of coward, sending a woman to do his dirty work for him.”
“Mr. Cartwright-” she began, but Joe’s words rolled over hers, his voice louder, his control slipping.
“What happened? Did he find it in the bottom of his saddlebag with his dirty laundry and figure he ought to do something before he lost it? Or did he just decide he didn’t need any more reminders of his family?” He tucked the picture into his jacket pocket, his hand lingering on the frame. He started for the door, then stopped and turned back. “Tell him thanks for not just throwing it away by the side of the road.”
“Joseph,” I said, trying to rein him in.
“Mr. Cartwright, wait,” said Miss Holloway, rising. “There’s something you need to know.”
“Ma’am, there’s nothing else about Clay Stafford that I need to know,” snapped Joe. He was reaching for the door latch as her words reached him.
“Mr. Cartwright-Clay’s dead.”
For an instant, everything stopped. Joe turned back, his mouth open but no sound issuing. All the color had drained from his face. He started to sway, and his brothers were on their feet, but he was out the door and riding away before any of us could do more.
“Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll bring him back,” said Hoss as he and Adam reached for their hats.
“No,” I said. The shock and grief in his face haunted me. “Let him go.”
Miss Holloway still stood by the settee. I looked closely at her. Her sorrow was more than just regret at bearing the bad news, and I knew then that she’d loved Clay. Without asking, I poured brandy into four glasses, handing two to my sons and giving the third to our guest.
When we’d all resumed our seats, I asked her gently, “How did it happen?”
She sipped her brandy. “A man accused him of cheating at poker,” she said. I drank to keep from asking, but she volunteered, “He wasn’t, you know. He hadn’t cheated in years, but you know Clay-he had that look about him. So, when he did well at the table, people tended to assume he’d been cheating.”
“Did you know him well?” It was the first time Adam had spoken to her.
A nostalgic smile played on her lips. “I met Clay eight years ago,” she said. “I work at the Golden Horseshoe, over in Placerville. He came in one day, looking about as down as a fellow could. Only time I ever bought a customer a drink.” She sipped again, remembering. “He stayed around town for a few days, and he promised he’d be back. I’d heard that one a million times, but he really did come back. Every few months, he’d show up again. He even wrote to me when he was away. Said I was his girl.” Tears welled up in her eyes, but she blinked them back. I imagined she’d had a lot of practice.
“Eight years ago?” Adam was clearly thinking the same thing I was.
She nodded. “Right after he’d left here,” she said. “He didn’t tell me about that for a long time. First time I met him, I thought maybe somebody had died, he was so sad. Then one night, he started to talk about his brother. Lord, he loved that boy.” I caught my breath as Adam and Hoss looked sharply at each other. Not seeming to notice, she continued, “He used to ride over this way sometimes, just to see your ranch, and maybe catch a glimpse of his brother. He told me how, one time, he spent an entire afternoon up on a hill, watching a bunch of cowboys down in the corral, busting broncs. He said his brother was the best of any of them. He was so proud.”
I had to ask. “Miss Holloway-if he was in the area so much, why didn’t he ever get in touch with Joe again?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I tried to get him to come by, or at least mail one of those letters he was always writing, but he wouldn’t. All he ever said was that trouble followed wherever he went, and it wasn’t going to follow his little brother if he had anything to say about it.”
“Joe never got a letter from him,” said Hoss, not quite challenging her.
“I know,” she said. “Clay was always writing to him, but he wouldn’t mail any of the letters. Once, I took one and was going to mail it, but I couldn’t. I figured that Clay must have his reasons, and it wasn’t my place to be stirring things up.” She reached into the satchel and brought out a thick bundle of envelopes, tied with string. “I thought it would be all right now. I figured his brother might want them, but maybe he doesn’t. He seems-well, awfully mad.”
“It was hard on him when Clay left,” I said quietly. “We didn’t know where Clay had gone, and we never heard from him again. After a while, we just gave up hoping.”
I sipped my brandy, remembering. Little Joe had once been so carefree, so open, so lavish in his affections. All that changed after Clay. I’d watched as my youngest son became more guarded, slower to welcome new people into his life and quicker to release his light hold on them. The boy who used to fall in love as easily as other men sneeze was gone, replaced by a man who still flirted and charmed the ladies, but whose smile often didn’t reach his eyes. As the years passed with no word from his brother, Joe’s easy trust hardened into cynicism, and his supple, loving heart gradually developed a protective shell that seemed by now to be nearly impenetrable. Few things appeared to touch him deeply any more; the tears that once flowed at the slightest provocation, good or bad, were rare now, as though little mattered enough to bring forth such a reaction. No woman had ever shattered my son’s heart as completely as his brother did.
Miss Holloway laid the bundle of envelopes on the table. “I should be going,” she said, setting her empty glass beside it as she rose. She met my eyes intently. “Mr. Cartwright-Clay really did love his brother,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, also rising.
“I mean it,” she said, as if I were arguing with her. “That boy was so important to him.”
Too bad he never told Joe that,” Adam commented.
She bristled. “Clay wasn’t real good at talking about things like that, but you know what? He died in my arms, on the floor of that saloon, and you know what the last thing was he said to me? ‘You make sure that picture gets back to my brother.’ Eight years I was his girl, but the last words he said on this earth were about his little brother.” This time, her tears spilled over, and she reached into her satchel, drawing out a man’s handkerchief.
“Miss Holloway-” I began, but she held up her hand.
“You just make sure he knows,” she said as she dabbed at her tears.
“We will,” I promised. We walked her out to her buggy. Adam helped her up, and Hoss handed her the satchel. As she tucked it by her feet, I wondered what other memories resided in its depths.
She picked up the reins. “I’m going to be staying in Virginia City for a couple days,” she said. “If your son wants, I-I could tell him more about his brother.” Wistfully, she added, “It’d be nice to talk about Clay with someone who cared about him.”
I rested my hand on hers. “Perhaps you could come back for supper tomorrow,” I suggested. “We’d like to hear about Clay, too.” Adam and Hoss nodded their assent, and she smiled-a small smile, but genuine.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’d like that. Very much.” She slapped the reins on the horse’s back and drove off.
I stood in the yard, watching, long after she was gone from sight and my sons had taken their horses into the barn. It occurred to me that she hadn’t said how long ago Clay died. Not long, I suspected. She didn’t strike me as the type to drag her feet, especially not over something that would have been important to the man she loved.
I meant to go back inside to wait for Joe, but suddenly, I found myself heading to the barn to saddle my horse. Ordinarily, I’d have let him come back on his own, but not this time. There were things he needed to hear, and the sooner, the better. Eight years of not knowing was long enough.
I nearly ran into Adam and Hoss as they were coming out of the barn. “I’m going after Joe,” I said simply.
“We’ll come with you,” said Adam. Within minutes, the three of us were riding out in search of our fourth.
Dusk was falling when we spotted the pinto on the road far below us. We cupped our hands around our mouths, shouting, and Joe looked up. Even in the fading light, I could tell that he was perplexed. He urged his horse forward, and we met where the ridge eased down to the road.
“Is everything all right?” Joe called as soon as we were within earshot.
“It’s all right,” I called. As we drew up beside each other, I said, “We need to talk, Joe. It’s important.”
“What’s the matter?” Joe looked from one to another for a clue.
“Son, Miss Holloway-”
“I don’t want to hear anything she had to say,” he cut me off.
“I think you do, Shortshanks,” said Hoss, using the nickname he hadn’t employed in years.
“Hoss is right,” said Adam. “There are some things we never knew.”
Joe looked from his brothers to me, almost challenging me to make good on their intimations. “It’s true, Joe,” I said quietly. He looked away as I rested my hand on his arm, and as the last rays of sun slid between the pines, I told him how his brother had loved him after all.
I could feel Adam and Hoss watching as I recounted what Miss Holloway had told us-the broncs, the letters, everything. Finally, there was nothing more to tell. The three of us barely moved as we waited for Joe’s reaction.
He said nothing. No argument. No acknowledgment. He didn’t meet my eyes. It was as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “Clay did care,” I said again, as though sheer repetition would convince him.
He sat, unmoving, his head bowed as the breeze ruffled his horse’s mane. The reddening sunlight came from behind him, shadowing his face. I recalled again the night Clay had left, how utterly devastated Joe had been. I’d have given anything that night to be able to offer him this comfort.
But all these years later, when I could finally tell him, my words met with no response. My heart ached, and I wondered whether the damage Clay had inflicted was beyond repair. Whether it was, quite simply, too late.
He was still motionless, still silent. I wished for something more to say that would persuade him, but there was nothing else. He would believe or not, as his battered heart would allow.
I was about to suggest that we ride for home when he turned to face me. Even with the sunset behind him, I could see his eyes, intent and probing, fearing truth and yet demanding it. I met his gaze without quite realizing that I was holding my breath.
“He watched me busting broncs.” The words were barely audible over the rustling of leaves in the evening breeze.
A long silence. “He wrote to me.”
I nodded again.
A longer silence. Finally, he whispered, “What did he write?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But the letters are at home. She left them for you, if you want them.”
He sat straight and tall in the fading daylight. But for the breeze’s lifting of the hair that curled over his collar, he could have been a statue. The only sounds were the rustle of new leaves and the occasional snort of a horse. He turned away, his profile silhouetted against the sunset.
And right before my eyes, just a little, the shell began to crack.
His chin was quivering. Without thinking, I slid my hand down his forearm to cover his hand as it rested on the saddle horn. His hand turned under mine, and I thought he was going to move away from my touch.
Then, his fingers curled around mine, holding tightly.
I squeezed his hand. “Let’s go home, son,” I said hoarsely.
He turned back to face me, nodding as the tears spilled over. Roughly, he swiped his sleeve across his eyes as he nudged the pinto’s sides, leaving us to follow.
As we four rode together through the gathering darkness, I wondered what else Justine Holloway would tell us about the man who had lived among us so briefly. I imagined what the letters might say. I wished with all my heart that Clay could have trusted life, the fates, or whatever he believed in, enough to come back even once and let Joe know the truth.
But as the warm, welcoming lights of our home appeared through the trees, I understood that, just maybe, he had.
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