The French Piano Player – #1 (by pjb)

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Summary: When a violent argument with Ben drives Joe from the Ponderosa, the Cartwrights learn that sometimes, you can look straight at a man and never really see him.  

Rated: T  16,300

The French Piano Player Series:

The French Piano Player
Be Still My Soul
Doubt
The Love of His Life

 

                                          The French Piano Player

 
 
Ben Cartwright never forgot an anniversary. His third wife, Marie, had teased him about it, saying that this was what made him a perfect husband. It wasn’t just the big dates that he remembered-wedding anniversaries, births, deaths. He remembered other significant dates. January 23, the day he first kissed Elizabeth, who would become his first wife. May 7, the day his second wife, Inger, told him that she was going to have a baby. August 17, the day Adam had left for college, and July 3, the day four years later that he’d returned. November 21, the day he’d first seen Marie as she rode too fast through the streets of New Orleans.
September 16. The day, two years earlier, when he’d last laid eyes on their son, Joseph.New people in town, who hadn’t known Ben before, heard stories of how he used to be such a warm, friendly person, always ready with a smile and a hearty handshake. He would throw a party for any occasion. He welcomed anyone into his home, especially anyone who needed help. His rich laugh was as well known in those days as the sight of the four Cartwrights together.

Those days were over.

At first, Ben had refused to believe that Joe was really gone. They’d argued before, and the boy had even stormed out a time or two, but he’d always returned and they’d made up. Not this time. This fight had been different. Even now, thinking of it, Ben closed his eyes in pain.

“Pa, you don’t know her!” Joe stood over his father’s desk, hazel eyes blazing. “You don’t know anything about her! How can you judge her when you’ve never even spoken to her?”

“I don’t have to speak to her,” snapped Ben. “I know what she is, and so do you.”

“I know that she’s the woman I love,” said his nineteen-year-old son. “I know that she’s the woman I’m going to marry. I don’t need to know anything else.”

Ben took a deep breath. Joe’s loyalty was absolute, but his naïvete was breathtaking. How could he not see what this woman was? She wasn’t just another saloon girl at the Bucket of Blood. He’d had Adam ask around quietly. She wanted to be a singer, and she was fiercely ambitious. Her husband had died under suspicious circumstances. He’d supposedly been rich, but somehow, she’d been left with nothing; Adam said that the husband’s family had raised questions about her involvement with his death, and she’d left Chicago, where they’d lived, and come west. She was nearly twenty-five. And she did what saloon girls did, every night.

Later, Ben wondered if he might have handled the matter differently if the timing had just been better. It seemed as if the Julia Bulette episode was only just behind them, though, and this looked like nothing more than just another case of Joe’s attraction to women who needed to be rescued from their own bad decisions. Coupled with his own exhaustion from the railroad timber negotiations, the arguments with the Army about the horse contracts, and the general stress of running the biggest spread in Nevada, he just didn’t have the energy or inclination to be the warm, supportive father who gently talks his son out of bad choices. For once, he just wanted to lay down the law and have it be obeyed. Even so, he tried to be reasonable.

“Son, I know you find her interesting, and glamorous, but-you don’t know her.”

Joe looked his father in the eye. “I know everything I need to know,” he said levelly. After all the passionate arguing of the past hour, this sudden control was almost unnerving. A lesser man than Ben Cartwright might have been thrown by the abrupt change in Joe’s demeanor.

“Joseph, don’t you see? She just wants your money.” Ben had hoped that he would not have to say this out loud. His handsome, passionate, kind-hearted, fun-loving son had so much to offer. Even if he were dead broke, any woman would be fortunate to have him. To have this golddigger worming her way into Joe’s affections, just for what she could gain, was intolerable.

“Pa, that’s not true and you know it!” The control vanished, and Joe slammed his fist on the desk. “I love Robin, and she loves me. And I’m going to marry her, no matter what you say!”

That was the final straw. Ben slammed his own fist on the desk. “You’re not going to marry her! You’re only nineteen years old, and you can’t marry anyone without my consent, and I will never consent to this marriage! I promise you, that woman will never be a Cartwright as long as I have breath in my body!”

“Don’t call her ‘that woman’! She’s the woman I love!” shouted Joe. He couldn’t remember ever yelling at his father before, but this was more important than anything he’d ever said. “I don’t know why you want to believe the worst about her, but it’s just not true!”

“It is true!” Ben’s volume matched his son’s. “She just wants to get out of that saloon so that she won’t have to spend the night with drunken miners, and you’re her ticket out. Don’t be a fool, boy!”

“Is that what they told you about my mother?” Joe demanded.

Ben’s hand cracked across his son’s face. Both men froze. While his father had tanned his backside plenty of times, never had he struck Joe in the face. The men stared at each other in shock and disbelief. Joe could feel the tears welling up, but he was damned if they would spill over. His father looked horrified, as if his own hand had betrayed him. Without a word, Joe wheeled and ran out the door, grabbing his gunbelt, hat and jacket.

“Joe, wait-son, I’m sorry-wait!” Ben ran after him, but Joe was already riding away. In the months that followed, he would berate himself a thousand times for not riding after Joe right then. Maybe if he had, they could have talked, and Joe would have come back. But he watched his son ride away, and his guilt and remorse were so overwhelming that he let him go. They could talk later, after they both cooled down.

Only there was no later. Joe didn’t come home that night. Not completely unexpected, under the circumstances. Adam and Hoss offered to go into town and bring him back. There was no question that he was in town, with Robin. Ben shook his head.

“Let him be,” he said. “He’ll come around.”

When three days had passed, and Joe was still not back, they began to worry. Without consulting Ben, Adam and Hoss rode into town, determined to haul their little brother back to the Ponderosa by the scruff of his neck. They strode into the Bucket of Blood and were mildly surprised not to see Joe at the poker table. They exchanged glances. He was probably upstairs with Robin.

“Hey, Bert!” Hoss leaned on the bar. “Where’s Little Joe?”

The bartender finished polishing the glass and set it casually on the bar. He’d been expecting them. “He ain’t here,” he said.

Adam drew a bill from his wallet and laid it on the bar. “You sure about that?”

Bert regarded the brothers with mild contempt. Thought they knew everything, these Cartwrights did. Well, they were in for a surprise. “I’m sure,” he said. Pocketing the bill, he added, “He ain’t been in here since Tuesday.”

Adam’s puzzled look mirrored Hoss’. Why would Joe fight with their father about Robin and then go someplace else? Then, the penny dropped. Adam reached across the bar and grabbed Bert’s shirt. “Where did they go?”

Bert shrugged, unperturbed. “Dunno. He came in, she quit, and they left. Didn’t say where they were goin’. Didn’t ask. Didn’t think they were goin’ out to the Ponderosa,” he added. Hoss looked as if he wanted to pummel the bartender into paste, but Adam placed a restraining hand on his brother’s arm.

“Let’s go,” he said. They walked outside and looked up and down the street as if Joe might appear.

“Let’s try the livery stable,” said Hoss. “Maybe they rented a rig.” They headed down the street, neither willing to say what they were both thinking: if Joe and Robin had left town three days ago, they could be anywhere by now. The chances that they’d stayed in town were remote at best. More likely, they’d gone somewhere else, where no one knew Robin’s reputation.

“Hey, Larry!” called Adam as they entered the livery stable. As their eyes adjusted to the dim interior, Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm and pointed. There, in the farthest stall, was Cochise. Joe’s pinto was more than his mount; it was his friend, and the most important thing in his world after his family. If Cochise was here, Joe was still around. “Larry! Where the hell are you?”

“Stop screechin’, I’m right here.” The little man limped out of one of the unoccupied stalls. “Can’t a man get a few winks on a quiet day?”

“Not right now, he cain’t,” said Hoss. “Where’s Little Joe?”

“How should I know?” The little man spat into the corner.

“His horse’s here,” said Hoss.

“Yeah, ’tis,” Larry agreed. “He said to give him to you when you came.”

“What?” Hoss couldn’t have heard right.

“Little Joe said that, when you came in, I’m supposed to give you the pinto,” said Larry, speaking slowly and clearly, as if Hoss might be hard of hearing or just a little slow.

“When did he say that?” asked Adam.

“Lessee-must have been Tuesday,” said Larry. “That’s right. Today’s Friday. That’s three nights I kept him, and this is the fourth day. So, you owe me a dollar.” He seemed pleased with his business acumen.

Adam handed Larry a dollar. “Joe knew we’d be coming,” he said to Hoss. “He knew we’d go to the Bucket of Blood, and he knew we’d come here. Where else would he expect us to look for him?”

“The hotel, if’n they’re still in town. Or mebbe the stagecoach office?” ventured Hoss. “If they ain’t here, and he ain’t got his horse, they must’ve left on the stage.”

“Unless-” Adam turned to Larry. “Did my brother rent a rig or anything else from you?”

“Nope,” said the little man. “Jest came in, handed me the reins, and told me you’d be in and I should give you the horse. Seemed right broken up about leaving the critter,” he added.

“Was he alone?” asked Adam.

“Well, sorta,” said Larry. “When he left, I saw there was a gal waitin’ on the sidewalk for him, and they went off together.” He spat again, and the brothers nodded to each other.

Davey at the International House hadn’t seen them. Mike at the stagecoach office confirmed that Joe and Robin had caught the stage to Carson City late Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Beamer at the bank said that Joe had emptied and closed his bank account. Mrs. Nelson at the mercantile said that Joe had bought clothing, a comb, a canteen, some jerky and a satchel. Reverend Abbott hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Joe.

“Why’d you want to see him?” asked Hoss as they left the parsonage.

“Means they didn’t get married before they left,” said Adam.

“You think he changed his mind ’bout marryin’ her?” Hoss asked hopefully.

“More likely, he figured that Reverend Abbott knows how old he is and wouldn’t marry them without Pa’s consent. So, if they tried, not only wouldn’t they get married, but word would get back to Pa that much sooner that they’d tried,” Adam said. “Our little brother seems to have planned his disappearance pretty thoroughly.” He squinted into the sun. “I guess the next stop’d better be the telegraph office. Find out if they’re still in Carson City or if they caught another stage out of there.”

Hoss shook his head. “Older Brother, I got a bad feelin’ about this,” he said. “I seen Joe upset a million times, but I ain’t never seen him do anythin’ like this. It’s like he don’t wanna be found.”

“Well, he may not want to be found, but Pa wants him found,” said Adam. “So, no matter how clever he is, we’ll find him.”

“That’s jest it,” said Hoss. “It ain’t like he’s bein’ clever and jest funnin’ with us. This feels serious, like he really don’t wanna have anything to do with us.” He shook his head. “This is gonna kill Pa.”

“Pa’s going to be fine, because we’re going find that young scamp and drag him back to the Ponderosa if we have to tie him up and throw him in the back of the buckboard,” said Adam with a confidence he didn’t feel. “And those two will make up, and everything will be all right.” Hoss regarded his brother. “It’ll be all right,” Adam repeated. “Because it has to be.”

The telegraph operator sent the message, and Adam and Hoss settled in to wait for the reply. On another day, they would have gone for a beer and told the kid to where to find them. This time, they sat for more than an hour, until the machine came alive and the operator took down the message: “No Cartwright on any outgoing stage this week.”

“So, they’re still in Carson City,” said Hoss.

Adam nodded. “Let’s ride.” He took a piece of paper from the operator’s desk and scrawled a note. Seeing Hoss’ questioning look, he said, “Just wanted to let Pa know where we’re going.” Hoss nodded. He understood.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Honey? Are you awake?” Robin kissed Joe’s bare shoulder. He lay on his side, facing the wall. She kissed him again. “Joe?”

“I’m awake,” he said, rolling onto his back. She nestled under his arm, and he held her close, stroking her hair.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Joe grunted. Was he okay? On the one hand, he was in bed with his beautiful wife, the woman he loved more than any other. On the other hand, he’d left his family without so much as a goodbye, and he had no reason to believe that he’d ever see them again. His father had made it clear that Robin was not welcome at the Ponderosa, and if his wife wasn’t welcome, neither was he. His fingers played with her black hair, as straight as his was curly. He could feel her blue eyes on him, even in the dark. How could his father not have seen the innate goodness in this woman? Sure, she’d had some lousy breaks, and she’d had some rotten jobs, but that was all in the past. She wanted to be a singer, and by God, he was going to do everything in his power to make her dream come true.

Robin climbed on top of him and kissed him lightly. Her hair tickled him like silk feathers. He held her and kissed her deeply. She was his family now.

It had been surprisingly easy. By the time he’d gotten into town, his tears had dried and his rage had hardened. When he told Robin what had happened, she had been horrified and not a little bit scared; when he admitted that his father had hit him, she had cried. “What do you want to do?” she asked finally. She braced herself for a kind, but firm, goodbye.

He took her hand in both of his. Oblivious to the poker game in the corner and the scattered drinkers calling for refills, he leaned forward and said, “I want to marry you, Robin Walker. I want to live my life with you. I want to take you away from all this, and I want you to become a famous singer.”

“Joe-are you sure?” She withdrew her hand. “Your father will never accept me-”

“That’s going to be his problem, not ours,” said Joe, reclaiming her hand. “We’re not going back to the Ponderosa. We’re going wherever we need to go for you to become a singer.” His hazel eyes held her blue ones for a long moment. “Marry me,” he whispered.

“Yes,” she whispered back. They kissed for a long minute. Then, Robin called out, “Hey, Bert! I quit!”

Bert shrugged. “So get out,” he said. “We don’t serve ladies here.”

“Damn straight,” Robin laughed. To Joe, she said, “How you do like that? Just like that, I’m a lady!” She laughed as if this were the funniest joke, as if the status of a lady were not something she had long despaired of ever attaining.

Joe smiled. “You always have been,” he said quietly. Her eyes filled with tears. “Come on,” he said, drawing her to her feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

After that, it seemed but a few minutes before they were on the stage. A handful of errands, and they left Virginia City behind. When they reached Carson City, they went immediately to the church. They told the elderly parson their names and lied about Joe’s age, and the parson called his wife in to witness the ceremony.

“Do you, Robin Elizabeth Walker, take this man to be your lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold, to love, honor and obey, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others and cleaving only unto him, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” she whispered.

“And do you, Joseph Francis DeMarigny, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to have and to hold, to love, honor and cherish, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others and cleaving only unto her, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” he said. He’d braced himself, but it was still a shock to hear the name. This had been one of his decisions on the way to town. His father had said that Robin would never be a Cartwright. Fine. He’d honor that. DeMarigny was his mother’s name when she met his father. Taking her name would be his way of keeping her with him. He felt certain that she would have accepted Robin, even if her husband did not. From what he had been told, his mother would have been the last person to judge his wife for doing what was necessary to survive.

They’d checked into the hotel for a one-night honeymoon. After this, they would have to be very, very careful about money. Joe hadn’t yet sorted out the question of how he would earn a living in a city while Robin tried to be a singer. He certainly wouldn’t allow his wife to return to being a saloon girl. His own skills were much better suited to ranch life than town. Still, they’d figure out something. They were young and in love, and they had already given up too much for failure to be an option.

The next morning, the DeMarignys boarded the stage for San Francisco. And so, two days later, when Adam and Hoss wired the stagecoach office, there was no record of any Cartwright leaving town on the stage. No one asked about a young couple with a French surname.

For the first month, Robin auditioned for every musical group in the city. None denied her lovely voice, but there never seemed to be openings. It was small consolation that every other singer she encountered seemed to have the same difficulty. Reluctantly, she broached to Joe the possibility of singing in a saloon.

“Absolutely not!” He pounded his fist so hard that the top of the cheap bureau cracked. He resisted the urge to smash it into pieces. “The whole reason we came out here was so that you could be a real singer. If all you want is to sing in a saloon, we could have stayed in Virginia City.”

“I do want to be a real singer,” she said. “But I’d also like to be able to pay the rent and buy food this week.”

“We’re fine! You don’t need to go back to the saloons!” Joe had been playing poker every night, trying to parlay their original investment into enough to live on, but his success rate was understandably sporadic.

“We need something regular,” Robin insisted. “Besides, if I sing there, somebody may hear me who can get me into one of these groups.”

Joe considered this. The idea of Robin back in the saloon galled him, but if it could help her become a singer, maybe it wasn’t so awful. “On one condition,” he said. “You’re never there without me.”

Robin breathed a sigh of relief. She would never had admitted to him how much she wanted to hear precisely that. Without him, she knew what would happen: a return to her old job. With her husband beside her, no one would expect her to do anything other than sing.

The search for singing jobs in saloons was not much easier than singing jobs elsewhere, however. Those saloons which would have hired Robin to sing expected her to “entertain” as well. Joe’s poker playing stretched out their funds, but the increasingly small balance in his wallet worried them both.

Joe had always prided himself on being resourceful, but then, he’d never really been tested. Until now, his life had been a party at which he was the honored guest. There had never been a day when he had had to worry about having enough to eat or keeping a roof over his head. His family gave help, rather than receiving it. Even though they had all worked hard, Joe had grown up knowing plenty. He had heard the stories of the trip west, and how Ben had sometimes scrounged to provide for Adam and Hoss, but these were only stories. He had no experience with want.

As their savings dwindled, though, Joe began to know what it meant to be poor. At first, he simply felt that they needed to be careful, and this sufficed. As time passed, careful was not enough. Their first room cost fifty cents a night; after a month, they moved to another room that cost only thirty-five. A month after that came the room that cost twenty-five cents a night. The plaster was cracked, the furniture cheap and dented, the single lamp barely adequate, the mattress lumpy, and the neighborhood so dicey that Joe would not let Robin walk alone, even in daylight. When he went out to play poker, he insisted that she barricade the door behind him; when he came home, he whistled beneath the window to let her know that he was coming up the stairs.

He might have been able to stand their seedy surroundings, but he found it increasingly difficult to deal with the treatment he received. All his life, his name had opened the doors that mattered. Sure, there were people in Virginia City who resented the Cartwrights, but the resentment was based on envy, not their belief in their own superiority. “DeMarigny” was no magic key in San Francisco. Not only did no one know who the DeMarigny family was, it was clear that they didn’t care. Most people couldn’t even pronounce the name and didn’t bother trying, calling him “Frenchy” or “Hey, you!” Only his concern for what would happen to Robin if he were to be seriously injured kept him from tackling the contemptuous and beating them to a pulp.

Their luck changed after two months, on a cold November night. Joe was playing poker at a saloon called the Singing Dove. The piano player was crusty, with a gray-streaked beard and a repertoire unlike any Joe had ever heard in a saloon. In addition to the usual popular songs, this man played ballads that could make drunken sailors stop and listen, remembering lost loves in other ports. He also played odd, free-form pieces that sounded like the fog on the bay or the chatter of the gulls on the pier. Joe had found himself distracted from his game by the music. It occurred to him that Adam would have appreciated these pieces.

After the game broke up, Joe approached the piano player. “You owe me twenty dollars,” he said without preamble.

The piano player’s fingers never lost a note. “Why?”

“Because I was listening to you when I should have been looking at the cards,” Joe said.

“Hmmpf.” The piano player segued into a different motif; if he’d had to describe it, Joe would have said that the music shifted from blue to gray. Joe listened for a while without speaking. Finally, the piano player said, “What do you want?”

“It’s like this,” said Joe. “My wife is a singer, and we can’t seem to find someplace for her to sing. I figure that you’re not a regular saloon piano player, just like she’s not a regular saloon singer, so maybe you’ve got some ideas.”

“Hmmpf,” said the piano player again. He continued playing without comment. Joe rose and dropped a couple of coins in the mug on top of the piano. As he started to walk away, the piano player asked, “Is she any good?”

“Yeah,” said Joe, turning. “She’s got a voice like an angel.”

“Hmmpf,” said the piano player. Joe waited. At last, the piano player said, “Bring her by tomorrow. Ten o’clock. Let’s see what she can do.”

Joe broke into a smile. “Thanks, mister,” he said. He started to leave, then turned back. “She just sings,” he said.

The piano player nodded. “I get it,” he said, his fingers dancing over the keys.

And so began the collaboration between Robin and Dusty, the piano player. During the day, Joe sat back, sipping a beer and listening as his beautiful wife rehearsed with Dusty. At night, she sang as he played poker. It was an arrangement that suited them. Some nights, her earnings barely offset his losses; other nights, he did well and her share of the tips simply augmented his accomplishment. The other girls in the saloon recognized Robin as one of their own, but they were gracious enough not to resent her for having improved her lot. They eyed Joe, but none was foolish enough to do more than the most joking bit of flirting. When the DeMarignys were not around, the girls speculated about how Robin had snagged a man of quality, and how it was that he was now earning a living as a gambler. Like a seamstress who knows the difference between silk and muslin merely by the brush of a finger, these girls knew that, while Robin was from their world, Joe was not.

* * * * * * * * * *

There had been no sign of Joe for more than two months. Adam and Hoss had done the majority of the searching. Ben spent most of his days at his desk, pretending to work on his ledgers as he relived his last moments with his youngest son. As the days passed with no word, his mood grew darker, and his depression deepened. He had handled loss in the past, but never like this. Never before had the loss been his fault. After Inger died, he had beaten himself up plenty, telling himself that if they’d stayed in the town where he met her, she’d still be alive. Those thoughts had passed, though. He knew that she had come with him not just voluntarily, but happily. It had been an adventure for her. Inger had found delight and beauty in even the smallest things, and the sights and sounds of the trip west had enchanted her. Even the inconveniences, such as having to be quiet while making love in the back of the wagon, had been amusing rather than annoying. When the time had come to fight, she had been by his side, not because he asked it of her, but because she chose to be.

With Joe, it was different. Maybe the boy would have left anyway, but to have him go as he had, with his father’s handprint blazing across his cheek, had broken Ben’s spirit in a way that his previous experiences with loss and grief had not. Why hadn’t he handled it differently? Surely there would have been a better way to dissuade Joe from this notion of marrying the saloon girl. If he’d thought about it, he could have managed something. Instead, he charged in like a bull, and just as clumsily, he’d smashed any hope of getting through to the boy. He should have known better. If there was anyone walking the earth who was as stubborn as Ben Cartwright, it was his youngest son.

One night in late November, the three Cartwrights went into town for dinner with the Mackenzies, old and dear friends who knew not to speak of Joe’s absence. They did not know that, while they ate and drank, a knife was slipped between the shutters of the downstairs bedroom at the Ponderosa, lifting the latch, and a young woman climbed over the sill. Aided by a candle, she found her way up the stairs and into a now-unoccupied bedroom, where she plucked a single item from the bedside table and hurried out again to where her beau waited in a buckboard.

A few days later, Ben walked into Joe’s room. Every few days, he wandered in, almost as if by accident, and sat in the chair by the bed. He’d spent many hours in that chair as his son slept, hot with fever, or bruised or broken. He’d worried and fretted over Joe’s recovery in that chair, and he’d rejoiced there when the fever had broken and the bleary hazel eyes opened.

On this morning, the room looked different. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something had changed. He looked carefully around the room. Nothing stood out, but something was different.

Hop Sing dusted the room every week, but he never moved things. If Joe came back today, he would find everything as he left it. Ben stood in the middle of the room. Something had been altered. “Hop Sing!” he called.

The little Chinese cook came up the stairs. “Yes, Mista’ Caltlight?”

Ben felt foolish asking, but he had to. He and Hop Sing had been together since before Joe was born, and he trusted the man utterly. “Does something in here seem different to you?”

Anyone else would have laughed, but Hop Sing knew what he meant. The atmosphere was charged. He looked carefully around the room, then pointed triumphantly at the night stand. “Picture gone!” he exclaimed.

“What?” Ben stared. It was true. The picture of Marie that had sat on Joe’s night table for the past fourteen years was gone. “Adam! Hoss!”

His sons bounded up the stairs. “What’s the matter, Pa?” asked Hoss.

Ben pointed to the night stand. “The picture of Joe’s mother-it’s gone.”

The brothers stood dumbfounded. Finally, Adam said, “Is anything else missing?” They went through the bureau drawers, looked under the bed, examined every surface. Nothing else was missing, or had even been moved. They were about to leave the room when Ben suddenly sat down in the chair, his face white with the understanding of what had happened.

“Pa!” Adam sat on the edge of the bed. “Pa! Are you all right?”

Ben looked up with tears in his eyes. “He’s gone,” he whispered. “Your brother’s really gone.” Adam took his father’s hands in his own, and Hoss laid a protective arm around Ben’s shoulders. There was nothing more to say.

* * * * * * * * * *

As the weather grew colder, Joe’s mood grew darker. He hadn’t won in days, and money was increasingly tight. Robin was singing nearly every night, but he wasn’t about to be supported by his wife. He focused on money issues, pretending that this was his primary concern.

The truth was that he was homesick. Not a day had passed that he hadn’t thought of his family and the Ponderosa. Every time he lay in bed and listened to the snoring on the other side of the thin wall, he recalled Hoss’ resonating snores when they were out on the trail. When he heard Dusty playing his original pieces, he reflected on how Adam would have enjoyed the music. When he cut through the alley on the way to the Singing Dove and the smells of waste, human and horse, assailed his nostrils, he remembered the scent of pines and meadows and wildflowers. And whenever he saw a man with silver hair, or someone behaving with honor, he thought of his father.

What would his father think of him now? A common gambler, living in squalor. He cheated when he could get away with it, because there was rent to pay and food to buy. His only true accomplishment had been convincing a beautiful, talented, kind woman to marry him, and his father wouldn’t have thought that anything to boast about in this case. From the height as heir to the Ponderosa, Joe figured that he had fallen just about as low as his father could have imagined.

When these thoughts flooded his mind, he entertained them for a few minutes. Then, he straightened and turned his back on them. He had made his choice. His lovely wife with a voice like spun sugar, the woman who loved him with all her heart-she was his family. She was his life. She would never judge him. She knew all too well what he had given up to be with her. She never told him that when she heard him talking in his sleep, it wasn’t her name that he said, but those of his father and brothers. She was bound and determined that somehow, someday, she would make it up to him.

One morning, as he stood before the mirror, razor in his hand, not moving, Robin came up behind him. “What do you want to do?” she asked, resting her chin on his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his waist as she met his eyes in the mirror.

Joe didn’t pretend not to know what she meant. “We can’t go back,” he said.

“We can if you want to,” she said.

Joe shook his head and laid the razor down. “We can’t,” he said. “I’m not of age. If we went back, or even if he found us here, the first thing my father would do would be to have our marriage annulled.” He rested his hands on hers. “I could live with almost anything but that.” They stood in silence for a few minutes before he whispered, “I just wish I could let him know I was all right.”

Robin kissed his shoulder. “That, we can do,” she said. She extricated herself from her husband’s grasp and found a pencil and paper. “What do you want to say?” she asked, prepared for dictation.

“What are you talking about?”

“A wire,” she said. “Don’t worry, he won’t know where it came from. Now, what do you want to say?”

“Just tell him-just say that I’m all right, and I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

Robin scribbled for a minute. “Anything else?”

“Sign it-‘Love, Joe.'” His eyes welled up, and he turned away.

Robin pretended not to notice while Joe pulled himself together. “Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said with forced gaiety. She’d thought this plan through many times already; only her respect for her husband had kept her from going ahead with it before now. She took a handful of coins from the cracked coffee cup on the shelf and picked up her wrap.

“Wait a minute, I don’t want you walking alone in this neighborhood,” Joe protested.

Robin waved her hand. “It’s nothing, I’ll be fine,” she said. She was out the door and gone before Joe could follow. When she reached the telegraph office, she sent the wire to a friend in Kansas City with instructions to send the wire to another friend in New Orleans, and another in Chicago, and finally to another friend in Baltimore who would send the message to Virginia City. If the Cartwrights tried to trace the source of the wire, they would be on the wrong side of the country for months.

The idea of sending the message cheered Joe for a few days, but the approach of Christmas turned his mood black. And so, despite their pact that they would not spend money they did not have on Christmas gifts, Robin sent five dollars to Sally at the Bucket of Blood as a thank-you, with instructions on how to get into the Cartwrights’ house, where to find the photograph of Marie, and where to send it. She warned against taking the one from Ben’s desk; not only was it not Joe’s, but there was the chance of taking the wrong picture, since the three wives were in identical frames. Ben Cartwright did not know that Robin had been in his home. Joe had brought her there once, when his father and brothers were out of town, and they’d spent the night in his room. “What would your father say if he knew where we are right now?” she whispered as Joe held her close.

“He’d think I was the luckiest man alive,” murmured Joe drowsily. Robin brushed his curls back from his forehead and resisted the urge to point out the truth, that Ben Cartwright would never have approved of her anywhere, but most certainly not in his house, in his son’s bed. Joe had a tendency to believe that the world was always going to work out in his favor. Robin found this touching, but nothing in her life had given her any reason to believe that it was true.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shortly after the first of the year, Dusty pulled the DeMarignys aside and said, “There’s somethin’ you folks need to know.” He paused for dramatic effect.

“Well?” Robin said impatiently.

“I’m goin’ home,” the piano player said.

“Now? It’s almost time for the first show!” Joe dismissed the statement as absurd.

“I don’t mean home here,” said Dusty. “I’m goin’ back to St. Louie.”

“What? When?” The young couple gaped in horror.

“In the spring,” said Dusty. “These old bones cain’t take the wet out here much longer. If’n the weather warn’t so chancy, I’d go now. But I thought you two should know now.”

“But-who’ll play for me?” Robin’s eyes were round. Joe put his arm around her shoulder to support her.

“Dunno,” said Dusty. “Guess you’ll have to find somebody. Mebbe he can do it,” he added, nodding to Joe.

“Me?” snorted Joe. “I’m about as untalented at music as anybody you ever met.”

“Tain’t hard,” said Dusty. “Stuff your missus sings is easy as pie. I could teach you in no time. ‘Sides, if’n you played, you wouldn’t have to split the take with nobody. Dunno who you’ll find who’ll share as much as I do.”

Joe and Robin stared at each other. The thought of Joe playing the piano was wild, but the notion of keeping the entire take was attractive enough that they didn’t dismiss it out of hand.

“You don’t have t’decide tonight,” said Dusty. “Jest thought you ought t’know. If’n he wants to learn, we should start soon.” He turned to the keyboard as if the matter were closed.

That night, after the saloon closed, Dusty gave Joe his first piano lesson. Joe had always accepted as gospel the family credo that Adam had all the musical talent. So, he was stunned when Dusty pronounced him a fast learner for mastering three chords.

“You just might be able to pull this off,” said Dusty as he closed the cover on the keyboard.

That night, as he sat on the edge of the bed, Joe said, “Seriously. Do you want me to play for you, or would you rather find somebody who knows what he’s doing?”

“Seriously?” Robin sat on his lap and linked her hands behind his neck. “The truth is, there’s nothing as sensual as making music together-unless it’s making love.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “So, all this time, you’ve had a thing for Dusty?” he said with mock sternness.

Robin growled with pretend lust. “You haven’t lived until you’ve kissed a man who has crumbs in his beard,” she murmured. They both exploded with laughter, and he lay back, pulling her down on top of him.

“I mean it,” he said softly. “If you want a new piano player, we can figure out a way to do it.”

“I want you,” she said simply. “If you think you can do it, I want to try with you.”

Joe kissed her. “I’ve never done anything like this,” he said. “I don’t know if I can.” To no one else would he have admitted such a thing.

“You can,” she said. It wasn’t just love talking. She’d heard him tonight, on his first foray into making music, and her ear told her that he could handle it. He might not be a virtuoso, but he had an instinct that nobody, including Joe, had ever suspected. All his life, he’d been good at handling the world outside-horses and cattle, and following trails and discerning shifts in the weather by reading the clouds. It had never occurred to anyone that he had any other skills, except maybe charming pretty young ladies.

For the next three months, Joe spent every spare minute at the piano. If Robin was willing to place her career in his hands, he was going to be equal to the task. Dusty was a surprisingly hard taskmaster. He focused Joe’s musical education on theory. As long as the boy knew the basic major and minor chords, he’d be able to get through pretty much anything Robin wanted to sing. It wasn’t as if they were training him for the concert hall, after all. Most of Robin’s songs were pretty straightforward musically. If Joe reached the point where he could add little flourishes, so much the better, but even if he couldn’t, he was still adequate. They’d be able to keep all of the take.

One night, after the saloon closed, as Joe sat at the piano, Dusty came up from behind him and put a bandanna over his eyes.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Joe tried to pull it away, but Dusty was tying it at the back of his head.

“Leave it,” Dusty said. “You’re payin’ too much attention to other stuff. Now, just play what you hear, and don’t worry about the rest.”

“Play what I hear? What are you talkin’ about?”

Dusty sighed. “Ain’t you ever listened when I play?”

“‘Course I’ve listened,” said Joe. “I couldn’t play if I hadn’t.”

“I don’t mean Robin’s stuff,” Dusty said. “I mean the poems. Like this.” He reached in front of Joe and played one of his free-form pieces.

“You want me to play like that?”

“I want you to play your own music,” Dusty said. “It won’t be much at first. Took me years to figure it out. But you should start now. Play what means somethin’.”

Joe sat still, his hands resting on the keys. He thought of the Ponderosa. He remembered the hawks soaring against the impossibly blue sky, and the creek burbling over rocks as he and Hoss waited patiently for trout to bite, and the wind and dust in his face as he and Cochise raced along the Virginia City road far too fast. The rhythm of Cochise’s hooves, the feel of his horse beneath him, the mane fluttering in the wind, the sheer freedom of being young and alive . . . . Tentatively, Joe’s fingers began to move on the keyboard, trying to capture the glorious beauty of those bygone days. Some of the notes were awkward, and others were simply wrong, but the spirit was there. Dusty sat beside him, saying nothing, until the notes trailed off into silence. Joe was suddenly glad for the bandanna and the darkness. He pressed his eyes through the bandanna, trying to blot the tears before he removed the bandanna. Without a word, Dusty patted his shoulder, and he heard the older man walk away. He pulled the bandanna over his head and wiped his eyes.

“Honey? Are you ready to go?” Robin came down the stairs from where she’d been visiting with one of the girls.

Joe nodded, turning his face away. “I’m ready,” he said. His voice cracked.

Robin wrapped her cloak around her shoulders. “Are you okay?” she asked, reaching out to stroke his curls.

“I’m fine,” said her husband, dodging her hand and reaching for his jacket.

* * * * * * * * * *

Robin and Joe proved to be an unexpected success as a musical team. While the first few shows were more than a bit clunky-and absolutely terrifying-they soon established a rhythm that worked well. Robin Dee, as the Singing Dove billed her, was definitely the main act, and Joe was merely the accompanist. The regulars knew who he was, but the everchanging sea of faces floating through San Francisco saloons neither knew nor cared about the name of the piano player. On the rare occasion that someone asked, their attempts to pronounce his mother’s name would fail dismally. “Hey, Frenchy!” became the call of those seeking a favorite song, and finally, everyone except Robin called him by the nickname.

As winter lightened into spring, Joe’s longing to be out of the city grew more acute. Spring evenings were some of the best times on the Ponderosa. He remembered sitting on the porch with his father and brothers after dinner, Adam with his guitar, just lazing away the evening as the sky turned from blue to pink to orange to purple to black with a thousand tiny white stars. He and Hoss would sit on the steps to play checkers. Hoss was always so surprised when Joe won, because, even after all these years, he was rarely able to detect his brother’s cheating. Occasionally, Joe would look up to see his father gazing on first one son, then another, with a smile so contented that Joe was envious. What must it be like, he’d wondered, to be that completely happy?

By the end of May, the DeMarignys had saved enough money to rent a carriage and go for a drive. Joe resisted the urge to compare his present circumstances with the days when he could have rented anything, anytime, without a moment’s thought. Now that they were performing nearly every night, Joe had few chances to play poker. While their income was now steadier, the occasional peaks from a really good hand were among the sacrifices. On their current budget, it took weeks of hard saving to be able to afford the afternoon in a buggy, but as they drove out of the city, they both knew that it was worth it.

What the young couple did not know was that, while they drove through the countryside, two cowboys were moving from saloon to saloon, seeking their younger brother. They’d checked dozens of ranches on their way in from the Ponderosa, to no avail. The wire they had received from Baltimore last fall had thrilled them all, but they hadn’t heard anything since. None of them could have said why, but they didn’t believe that he was still in Baltimore, if he was ever there at all. It just didn’t make sense: Joe knew no one there, he’d never been there, and there was no reason to believe that the little port city held any particular charms. Besides, there was nothing Joe would be able to do there to earn a living. None of his skills would do him any good if he wasn’t on a ranch. Adam and Hoss felt confident that their little brother had returned to the west. If they were right, and he was within a day’s ride of a saloon, he’d be there sooner or later. All they had to do was to ask at the right place.

Adam and Hoss stood on the board sidewalk, looking up and down the street. “There’s gotta be fifty saloons around here,” said Hoss. “D’you think we should split up?”

“Not around here,” said Adam. “All we need is to get shang-haied.”

“You don’t think mebbe Joe-” Hoss couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought.

“Let’s not borrow trouble,” Adam said. “We don’t even know if he’s in San Francisco. For all we know, he went east. Remember, that’s where that wire came from. This is just a guess.” They’d wired detectives in Sacramento, Denver, New York, Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans with Joe’s description, but so far, no one had seen him.

“When we find him, I’m gonna tan his hide so that he cain’t move!” grumbled Hoss.

“Get in line,” said Adam. They pushed through the doors at the Singing Dove. Only a few diehards graced the tables. The brothers leaned against the counter.

“What’ll it be?” asked Phil, the bartender.

“Beer and information,” said Adam, sliding a ten-dollar bill across the counter.

Phil pocketed the bill and poured the beer into two mugs. “What d’you wanna know?”

“Lookin’ for a young feller,” said Hoss. “‘Bout yea high, curly hair, greenish eyes, twenty years old.” Joe’s birthday had passed since he’d left. “Seen him?”

Phil regarded the pair. “What’s the name?”

“Cartwright,” said Hoss.

Phil shook his head. “Ain’t seen anybody by that name,” he said. “Only one even close to that description is a French kid who plays the piano here, and he ain’t even here today.”

Adam chuckled. As if anyone was going to confuse their little brother with a French piano player. “Thanks for your trouble,” he said, draining his mug. He and Hoss stepped outside into the spring sunshine. One down, forty-nine to go.

* * * * * * * * * *

As the summer drew to a close, and the anniversary of Joe’s disappearance approached, Ben became increasingly despondent. In the evenings, he would sit with his book in his lap, and never would a page be turned. He ate so little that Hop Sing threatened to quit and go back to China. If Mista’ Ben didn’t like Hop Sing’s cooking, Hop Sing would go where people knew good food. Even the Chinese cook’s mock tantrums failed to rouse Ben from his despair.

“He’s just going to have to get through it,” said Doc Martin when Adam consulted him. “He’s like this with anniversaries, you know that. Remember how he was when Marie died?” Adam remembered. His father had been so distraught that he’d left the Ponderosa, ostensibly on business, two weeks after her funeral. The running of the ranch, and the responsibility for his younger brothers, had been left on Adam’s seventeen-year-old shoulders. Ben had returned within a month, but when the anniversary of Marie’s death had come around, he’d made noises about leaving again. Only Adam’s pleas had convinced him to stay, and even then, Ben had spent the better part of the anniversary week sitting beside Marie’s grave.

“Is there anything you can do?” Adam asked. He was unsurprised when the doctor shook his head.

“To tell you the truth, I’m amazed that he’s held up as well as he has,” Doc Martin admitted. “I expected some sort of breakdown long ago.”

Adam was silent. If his father hadn’t told the doctor, one of his oldest friends, about the disappearance of Marie’s picture, he wasn’t going to. Ben was convinced that Joe had come into the house, taken the picture, and left again. The idea that his brother would have done such a thing was so farfetched that Adam could barely refrain from telling his father how preposterous he was being, but the truth was that Adam had no better explanation. The picture had never been found, and nothing else had been missing from anywhere in the house. Even the pictures on Ben’s desk, all framed in gold, were untouched. Someone had known what they were looking for.

In the weeks after the picture vanished, Ben had descended into a pit of despair like none Adam had ever seen, even after Marie’s death. The arrival of the wire hadn’t improved his mindset. Over and over, he replayed that last fight with Joe, remonstrating himself for his clumsy handling of the confrontation and for laying a hand on his son in anger. Finally, his sons had had enough.

“Pa, don’t you get it?” shouted Adam. “Joe is a big boy, and he made his choice. Yes, you were wrong, but you weren’t the only one. He didn’t have to run off. He did that all by himself. It wasn’t just you. You’re only partly responsible. The rest of the blame lies with Joe. You can sit here and beat yourself up all you want, but it’s not going to bring him home. He’s the only one who can do that.”

Ben shook his head. His deep brown eyes were rimmed with red. “You don’t understand,” he said flatly. “I’m his father. I can’t just write him off. It’s my fault. It has to be. . . .” His voice trailed off.

“-Because if it’s not, then that means that you’re not in control of everything,” Adam finished. “Well, sorry, Pa, but you’re not. The only person in charge of Joe right now is Joe. Personally, I think it stinks that he just left this way, and if he were here right now, I’d put his head through the wall. But that’s his fault, not yours. Maybe you’re the reason he left, but he’s the reason he stayed away. We’ll keep looking, because we can’t not look, but it’s time to stop blaming. That’s not doing anything for anybody.” He sat down beside his father and put his arm around the older man’s shoulders. Hoss, who had observed the entire exchange without speaking, reached over and took his father’s hand.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he said. Adam shot him a look, and Hoss ignored it. “I don’t know how I know, but I know he’s okay. We’ll get him back. I know we will. An’ when we do, you an’ him’ll patch things up, and it’ll be okay.”

Ben met his son’s gaze. “Do you really think so?” he asked slowly.

Hoss nodded. “I really think so,” he said.

After that night, Ben’s mood had lightened, imperceptibly at first, but definitely as time passed. He knew that neither of his sons would lie to him, and he trusted both of them. So, he took their words on faith, and he did his best to convince himself that he was not entirely at fault and that one day, Little Joe would come home. He still knew dark days, but he clung to these words as gospel.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Joe-the bowl.”

Joe grabbed the bowl from the nightstand. He barely got it in front of his wife before she was sick. After a few moments, he handed her a glass of water. She rinsed out her mouth and lay back, spent.

When Joe returned from washing out the bowl, he sat down on the bed next to her. “Is it always like this?” he asked, brushing her hair back from her face.

“That’s what they tell me,” she said. It was September 16, their first wedding anniversary. The baby was due in February. That drive in the country last spring had turned out to be more than simply a nice day.

“Maybe you should stay in bed today,” he suggested. The whole notion of pregnancy made him nervous. The thought of being a father didn’t make him nervous: it scared the daylights out of him. Even though he looked forward to it more than he would ever have expected, he was consumed with the fear that he’d bungle it. He knew in his heart that his father regretted the terms on which they’d parted, and he’d always figured Ben Cartwright for the wisest man he knew. If his own father couldn’t handle fatherhood, how was a flawed curly-haired cowboy-turned-piano player supposed to manage?

Robin shook her head and sat up. “I’m going to have to stop singing soon enough,” she said. “Not even Phil is going to keep me on once I start to show. We’re going to have to figure out what to do once I can’t sing.”

“I went over to St. Catherine’s yesterday,” said Joe. “Starting next week, I’ll be playing the Sunday morning services.”

“Well, look at you,” smiled his wife. “Who’d have thought that that dashing young cowboy would turn out to be a musician?”

“Certainly nobody who knew me,” said Joe, kissing her.

“Not so,” Robin whispered. “I always knew you were great with your hands. How do you think we got into this predicament in the first place?”

“It was my hands?” Joe was honestly surprised. “I always thought it was my boyish charm that won you over.”

“Oh, you had plenty of boyish charm, but it wouldn’t have gotten you anywhere if you hadn’t had the goods to back it up,” she said. “The first time you took my hand-” she picked up his hand to illustrate-“you ran your finger so lightly down the inside of my forearm, down my wrist, and to the center of my palm. By the time you kissed me, you could have had anything you wanted.”

“But you made me work anyway,” he said, remembering how she’d refused to go out with him for the first several weeks.

“Of course I did,” she said. “Couldn’t have you thinking I was easy, now, could I? You already knew what I did for a living. I had to make sure you knew you were special.”

Joe kissed his wife. It was at moments like this that he felt he’d made the right decision in leaving with her. As much as he missed his family, he could never have tolerated their disdain of this amazing woman. He’d been forced to choose, and most of the time, he was certain he’d made the right decision.

“Come on,” she said, bringing him back to reality. “We have to be at the Dove in half an hour.”

“That gives us a few minutes,” said Joe, unbuttoning her nightgown.

Robin pushed his hand away. “Not now,” she said firmly. “Tonight, you can do whatever you want-as long as I don’t fall asleep as soon as I cross the threshold.” It was a valid point: now that she was pregnant, she was so exhausted after the show that Joe would have to carry her up the stairs to their room. It had been two months since they’d made love at night.

“Tonight it is,” Joe agreed. He crossed to the hook where he hung his clothes and inspected his shirt for stains. Finding it passable, he buttoned it, chatting casually with his wife about anything and nothing-the baby, the show, the possibility of moving into larger quarters, what to have for dinner. Later, he would remember it as one of the best moments of his life.

* * * * * * * * * *

When Joe awoke, his shoulder was on fire and his head throbbed. What the-what was going on? He felt the way he had back on the ranch when he’d been shot. Where was he? Where was Robin? Had it all been a dream? He tried to sit up, and gentle hands pushed him back.

“Stay down,” said a female voice. Not Robin. He opened his eyes. Robin’s best friend, Judith, sat on the side of the bed. Her eyes were red, and her face was blotchy.

“What’s going on?” His voice was weaker than he’d expected. The room was unfamiliar. Where the hell was he? “Where’s Robin?”

Judith’s eyes welled up. “Just rest,” she said.

“How is he?” came another voice-Ruthie, and Eileen was beside her. What was going on? When Robin found out he was with the girls, he was going to catch hell.

“He’s awake,” said Judith, as if he weren’t.

“I’m fine,” said Joe. “Where’s Robin?” Ruthie and Eileen burst into tears and ran out. He grabbed Judith’s arm with his good hand. “I mean it. Tell me where my wife is.”

“Do you remember anything?” Judith asked.

Joe squinted, then shook his head. “What am I supposed to remember?” he asked suspiciously. His stomach flipped over: whatever had landed him in this bed was bad. What the hell had happened?

Phil came in. “You’re awake,” he announced.

“Yeah, I’m awake,” said Joe. “Now, somebody had better tell me what’s going on, now.” For a moment, the arrogant young cowboy who had nearly always gotten his own way had returned.

“He doesn’t remember anything,” Judith said to Phil.

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here!” Joe sat up and started to push the covers aside, but a wave of dizziness struck with such force that he nearly fell out of bed.

“You have to stay in bed,” said Judith, pulling the covers back around him.

“Tell me where my wife is!” Joe fought to sit up again, but Phil reached past Judith and pinned him to the bed with one hand.

“She’s dead,” he said simply. “The same cardsharp who shot you, shot her.”

“Shot me? What the-what are you talking about? She’s not dead. She can’t be dead. She’s going to have a baby. Tell me where she is!”

Judith laid a cold cloth on his forehead. “It’s true,” she said.

As his eyes met hers, the memories rushed back. Robin singing. A fight breaking out at the poker game in the corner. People scattering. Tables overturned, glass breaking, men flying through the air, pounding one another. Joe grabbed Robin and pulled her out of the way, into the corner behind the piano. “Stay here,” he’d said, jumping into the melee. He’d succeeded in putting down two of the card players when he heard a shot. The older fellow had drawn on the tall card player, and the older man hadn’t had a chance. As Joe reached for his gun, there was another shot, and he was down.

“Joe!” screamed Robin, running to his side just as another shot was fired. His mind insisted that she fell on him to get down, out of the way, and that the blood was his. He rolled over so that he was on top of her, blocking her, as the gunfire continued. He couldn’t shoot with her right there; someone might hit her. Finally, he had a clear shot and he took it, and the tall man fell.

The room was quiet. Joe rolled off her. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Robin made a sound. Her eyes were half-closed. “Love you,” she managed. Her head fell back, and her breathing stopped.

“No!” A primal scream ripped from his gut. He clutched her, kissing her, willing her to respond. He ignored the searing pain in his shoulder. Nothing else mattered besides Robin. He clung to her, keening and wailing, until he passed out.

* * * * * * * * * *

Autumn, winter, spring, summer. The annual Cattlemen’s Association meeting was scheduled for mid-September in San Francisco. After some discussion, Ben and his sons decided that all three of them would go. Ben had originally thought of sending Adam and Hoss, but he didn’t want to be home alone on the sixteenth. It had been two years since Joe left. Gradually, he’d become accustomed to the idea that he might never see his son again. Over time, the stabbing pain had become a dull ache. There were occasional flareups, such as when he saw a slim young man with curly hair or a green jacket or a left-handed holster. At first, such sightings could incapacitate him for days. Now, he could tamp down the agony until it was manageable and only his sons would notice. Still, it would be better if he were not home alone when the day came.

After dinner on their first night in the city, the Cartwrights found themselves at the Singing Dove. They might not have entered, but the piano music that drifted through the door was unusual, and they paused. “Hey, Adam, mebbe it’s that French piano player,” said Hoss. When they’d searched for Joe the previous year, a number of bartenders who had heard their description had told them about the French piano player, to the point where the notion had become a family joke: any time they mentioned having seen someone or something unfamiliar, even a stray horse, one of them would say, “Sounds like that French piano player.”

“Might be interesting to get a look at the guy,” said Adam. Something in the music intrigued him.

They pushed through the doors. Most of the tables were occupied. Only the one nearest the door was free. The Cartwrights seated themselves, and Hoss ambled up to the bar for drinks. In the far corner, seated at the piano with his back to the room, was an impossibly thin person. His curly brown hair that fell nearly to his shoulders. When he turned to acknowledge someone who had dropped a coin in the mug on top of the piano, the unkempt beard and dark glasses hid his face. He paused in his playing to pour a shot from the bottle next to him into the glass sitting at the bass end of the keyboard. He threw back the shot in one gulp and resumed playing.

The Cartwrights sat quietly, drinking their beer and listening to the music. Adam could have told them that the piano player was no virtuoso, and had likely had little training. Even so, there was a quality about the music that superseded its technical flaws. The mood shifted from light and breezy to dark and passionate, and everywhere in between. Later, Adam realized that practically the only theme he had not heard had been one of peace.

“Hey, miss,” said Hoss to a young woman passing by. “Who’s that?” He gestured toward the piano.

“Frenchy,” she said. “And I’m Ruthie. Who are you?”

“Just a feller who’s come in to listen to some music,” said Hoss, extricating himself from the delicate situation better than his father or brother would have given him credit for. When the woman moved on, he said, “So, I guess that really is the French piano player. Dang, he’s good.” There was something about him that put Hoss in the mind of his younger brother, but he wouldn’t say that. The evening was going well, and he wasn’t about to spoil it.

Adam snorted. “Don’t know how people were confusing him with Joe,” he said. The piano player’s shirt hung off his bony shoulders, and he was completely focused on the keyboard. If Joe had been in the room, he’d have been bouncing all over, playing poker and talking to people. They might both have brown curly hair, but two more different men had never walked the earth. Of that, Adam was certain.

Ben found himself becoming melancholy as he listened to the music. His youngest son had been no musician, but somehow, the music reminded him of Joe. He shook his head. Probably the impending anniversary was coloring his mood. He drained his mug.

“What do you say, boys? The meeting starts early tomorrow morning.”

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss drained his mug and rose. “Jest a second.” He crossed the room to the piano and dropped some coins into the mug on top of the piano.

“Thanks,” growled the piano player without looking up.

“Welcome,” said Hoss, turning away. He didn’t notice that the piano player looked up briefly when he spoke, and then returned his focus to the keyboard.

By the time the saloon closed, the whiskey bottle by the piano was nearly empty. Joe stumbled to his feet and knocked it over, spilling the few remaining drops.

“I’ve got it,” said Ruthie. “Don’t worry, Judith’ll be here in a minute.” Joe nodded and sat down, closing his eyes behind his dark glasses. He’d gotten the glasses months ago to hide his bloodshot eyes, and he wore them whenever he left his room. Some people thought he was blind, especially when he was lurching through the streets or hanging onto Judith’s arm.

At that moment, Judith materialized. She was older than the other girls, older than Robin would have been, and she’d been in this business since she was sixteen. She had a hard crust and a soft heart, and she’d been drawn to Joe’s pain after Robin died. She explained the connection simply: “My mother named me for St. Jude. Patron saint of lost causes.” Joe had kept the room he’d shared with Robin, and many nights, Judith stayed there with him. The arrangement suited them both, the more so as Joe’s drinking took a toll on his health.

As she took his arm, Joe began to cough. He reached for his handkerchief, and she waited for him to straighten up. He folded the handkerchief so that the blood would not show, and he crammed it into his pocket. “Okay,” he said, unsteady on his feet. “Let’s go.” Judith took his arm, and they headed out as he and Robin had done so long ago.

The next night, Ben had a dinner engagement with an old friend. Adam and Hoss begged off. Without discussing it, they knew that they wanted to return to the Singing Dove. There was something about the place that they’d found unsettling, and they wanted to find out more.

The piano player was in place when they arrived, as was his bottle. “He sure does drink a lot for such a little guy,” said Hoss.

Adam shrugged. “Have to wonder how he’d play if he were sober,” he said. “Might be better, but might not. Maybe he’s suffering for his art.”

Hoss shook his head. He was certain that the skinny young man was suffering, but he didn’t think it was for the piano. He was curiously drawn to the kid. If only Joe had some musical talent, he’d have sworn this was his little brother.

“Hey, Frenchy! Play ‘Beautiful Dreamer’!” called one of the sailors. The piano player raised a bony hand. It was impossible to tell whether it was a wave of acknowledgement or dismissal. A few moments later, though, he segued into the requested song.

Ruthie stopped by the table. “You’re back,” she said approvingly. “Maybe now you’d like me to buy me a drink.”

Hoss smiled. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Phil handed Ruthie glasses and a bottle, and she sat down between the brothers. “So, what do you gentlemen think of our fair city?” she asked, pouring drinks.

“How do you know we don’t live here?” asked Adam.

Ruthie regarded them both. “You don’t,” she said firmly. “You look like you’re from the country.”

“You’re very good,” said Adam. “Where are you from?”

Ruthie shrugged. “Here, there, everywhere,” she said. “Just like everybody else in here. Everybody’s got a story.”

It was the opening the Cartwrights had been waiting for. “Really,” said Adam. “What about-oh, let’s see-the piano player. What’s his story?”

“Who, Frenchy? Lessee. His wife used to sing here, and he played for her. She died just about a year ago. He ain’t been the same since.”

“Is he really French?” asked Hoss with a sidewise glance at Adam.

“I think so,” said Ruthie. “That’s what everybody calls him. I guess they wouldn’t do that if he wasn’t French.” She seemed to be losing interest in her story, and Hoss poured her another drink as Eileen came over and sat down.

“So, tell us about this Frenchy and his wife,” said Adam. He couldn’t have said precisely why he was so interested. A drunken French piano player with a dead wife bore no resemblance to his missing brother. Maybe it was just a good story.

The girls looked at each other. “They were quite a pair,” offered Ruthie after a long silence.

“What do you mean?”

“Well-it’s like-well, one time, they were doin’ their show, and his wife was gettin’ kinda flirty with some of the guys. Well, Frenchy didn’t like it, even a little bit. Finally, I guess one of the guys got a little fresh or somethin’, and he just stops playing and flies across the room and belts the guy. So, the guy starts fightin’ back, and the next thing you know, there’s this whole big brouhaha goin’ on, and Robin keeps yellin’ at Frenchy, ‘Your hands! Watch your hands!’ Well, eventually, the whole thing is over, and she’s busy washing the blood off his face, when all of sudden, she just smacks him on the head and starts yellin’ at him about how he has to watch his hands and how are they gonna pay the rent if he hurts his hands and how he ain’t a cowboy no more and now he has to be careful, and on an’ on. An’ he’s just standin’ there with his mouth open, like he’s never seen this woman in his life and what the deuce is she talkin’ about. And finally, she just throws the washcloth at him and stomps away, and ever’body in the room is dead silent and just lookin’ at Frenchy, and he looks at his hands and says, ‘They look okay t’me.’ And the whole place breaks up laughin’!”

“What about the time they weren’t talkin’ to each other?” chimed in Eileen. To Adam and Hoss, she said, “These two could be so lovey-dovey it would make you sick, but when they had a fight, everybody knew it. Frenchy especially-anything that guy thinks is just all over his face. Anyway, one time, they came in, and they’d had a big fight about something, and they weren’t talkin’ to each other. Well, it’s hard to do a show with someone when you’re not talkin’ to them. So, the first night this is going on, they get through the show, but they’re still not talkin’. The second night, same thing. By the third night, we were placin’ bets on how much longer they’d be able to keep it up. Well, that night, she starts gettin’ friendly with one of the sailors. Right in the middle of the song, Frenchy stands up, marches over to her and grabs her arm. We figure it’s gonna get nasty. Nobody ever took him for the kind who would hit a woman, but you never know. Well, he pulls her away from the guy and over to himself, and plants this huge kiss on her-I mean, huge. Right there, in the middle of the saloon. And she breaks away, and they’re standing there, and she’s glaring at him, and he’s glaring at her, and nobody is sayin’ a word. They just stood there like that for-oh, I dunno, a couple minutes. Then, all of a sudden, still lookin’ her in the eye, Frenchy says, ‘Hey, Phil, we’re on break!’ And he grabs her hand, and they’re up the stairs before anybody can say anything!”

“And the best part was,” added Ruthie, “they were upstairs for at least an hour! After a while, we’re all sittin’ around down here, tryin’ to figure out who’s gonna go upstairs and knock on the door. I mean, we can’t just wait forever. We were just getting’ ready to draw straws when they come down, arms around each other, and they picked up right up with the show just like nothin’ ever happened!” She laughed, then sobered. “I never seen a pair like them,” she said. “Those two were so in love. She’d a done anything for him. Rumor was he came from some rich family, and he left ’em ‘cuz they wouldn’t let him marry her. Buncha stuckup snobs or somethin’.”

“Where’d you hear that?” asked Hoss.

“Judith,” said Ruthie. “Her and Robin used to talk all the time.” Her eyes grew dreamy. “Imagine some guy who loved you so much he’d leave ever’thing jest for you. That’d be somebody special. And Robin knew what she had, too. I never seen anybody go so far down as Frenchy when she died. I don’t think he’s been sober for three days running since it happened.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged a long look. The wife was Robin; the piano player, a former cowboy who couldn’t hide his feelings, had left his rich family for her. Was it possible? “Where’s Judith?” asked Adam casually.

“She ain’t workin’ tonight,” said Eileen. “But she’ll be by later to pick up Frenchy. If she didn’t come get him, he’d prob’ly sit there all night. That’s pretty much all he does since his wife died, drink and play the piano. Don’t take a day off. No reason to, I guess. The piano and the booze are here, and he don’t care ’bout nothin’ else.”

Eventually, Adam and Hoss stood to leave. The piano player hadn’t stopped all evening, except to pour himself another drink. By Hoss’ estimate, he’d put away more than half the bottle, and he was still playing. Hoss approached the piano to put some coins in the glass. This time, he tried to catch a look at the piano player’s face, but the wild beard and the dark glasses made identification impossible. If the piano player recognized Hoss, he gave no sign.

As they left, Hoss said, “Tomorrow night, we need to talk Judith.” Adam nodded. They knew that they would not tell their father what they’d heard.

With various Cattlemen’s Association functions, it was three nights before Adam and Hoss were able to return to the Singing Dove. When they walked in, the first thing they noticed was the empty piano bench. “Where’s Frenchy?” Adam asked the bartender casually.

Phil shrugged. “Sick,” he said. “Has been for the past couple nights. Not surprising, but it’s a shame. He was a damned good piano player.”

“Was?”

“The guy lives on whiskey and coffee,” said Phil. “The odds of him pulling though aren’t great. Shame, too. I let him stay on after his wife died, ‘cuz I felt bad about what happened and he’s a decent piano player, but the booze took hold. He was never like that when she was alive. Just goes to show, I guess. Too bad. He was a nice kid.”

“Kid?”

Phil snorted. “He’s been coming in here for two years, and no way was he twenty-one when he started,” the bartender said. “She was older than him. And now he’s with Judith. I guess he just likes older women.”

“Where’s Judith?” asked Adam.

Phil regarded the brothers. “How do you know everybody so well?”

“Just tell us where we can find her,” said Adam through clenched teeth.

“She’s probably upstairs with a customer,” Phil said. “You’ll just have to wait for her.”

Nearly an hour passed before Judith descended the stairs, tucking her auburn curls into an ivory comb. As she reached the bottom, the Cartwright brothers approached her. She raised her eyebrows. “Two at once? You boys are ambitious, I’ll give you that,” she said.

“We just want some information, ma’am,” said Hoss, steering her to a chair. Her eyes grew wide with apprehension.

“What kind of information?”

“Tell us about the piano player,” said Adam. “For a start, what’s his real name?”

“His name’s Frenchy,” said Judith.

“Nobody’s real name is Frenchy,” said Hoss. “What’s his real name?”

“What’s it to you?’ Judith started to get up, but Adam placed a warning hand on her arm.

“If I were you, I’d sit here quietly and just answer the questions,” he said lightly. The threat in his voice was nearly imperceptible, but Judith’s smile froze.

“Why do you want to know about him?” she hissed. “What’s he to you?”

“That’s what we’re tryin’ to find out,” said Hoss.

“Well, you’re going to need to ask him,” said Judith. “I don’t go around telling strangers about other people’s lives.”

“Miss, we know that you know who he is, so if I were you, I’d just tell us now,” said Adam. The threat in his voice was less veiled.

His attempt to intimidate Judith was interrupted when Ruthie ran in the door. “Judith,” she gasped. “Come quick. It’s Frenchy. He’s bad, real bad. Throwin’ up more blood. Eileen’s with him, but we dunno what to do.”

Judith started to follow Ruthie out the door. Turning back, she said, “Okay, Mister. I’ll make you a deal. You bring a doctor, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

“What’s the address?” Armed with this information, Adam ran out the door and down the street in one direction while Hoss followed Ruthie and Judith in the other.

The room on the third floor was tiny and squalid. At the door, Judith said, “Wait here.” She crossed to the bed, and Eileen moved to let her sit next to the young man.

“So, what did you do to yourself?” she asked lightly.

The young man in the bed coughed, a long, hacking cough that ended with a shower of blood. She dipped a cloth into the bowl on the night table and frowned. To Hoss, she said, “Can you get me some fresh water? Down the hall on the left.” When Hoss returned, she met him at the doorway and took the water. “Let’s see if this helps,” she murmured, soaking the cloth and laying it on the young man’s head. To Ruthie and Eileen, she said, “You two go back to the Dove. Phil’s going to need a hand tonight.”

Hoss watched as Judith tended to the young man. Eventually, his gaze moved around the room. Everything was cheap and flimsy and probably second-hand. As he turned to the bureau, he caught his breath.

There, out of place among the dust and the shoddy furnishings, was a gold frame that held a picture of Marie Cartwright.

In that moment, Hoss knew that his instincts had been right. He crossed the room in two strides and looked, really looked, at the man in the bed. The hair and beard were wild, the skin sallow and taut, the eyes bloodshot and sunken, but there was no mistaking it: the young man who lay before him, coughing his life away, was Little Joe.

Hoss reached past Judith. “What are you doing?” she hissed, swatting his hand away.

Hoss’ blue eyes were as hard as marbles. “This is my little brother,” he breathed. Even with all his encouraging words to his father, he knew in that moment that he hadn’t really expected that he would ever say that again. He reached again for Joe, and this time, Judith rose and let him take her place. “Hey, Little Brother,” he said, blinking back tears as he brushed curls back from Joe’s face.

Joe squeezed his eyes shut, and then he opened them. “Hoss?”

“I’m right here, Joe,” Hoss whispered. “Just you wait now. Adam’s coming with the doctor, and we’s gonna get you all fixed up. Pa’s over at the hotel. We’ll send for him as soon as Adam gets back.”

“No,” whispered Joe. “Please, no.”

“No?”

“Please-no.” Tears spilled down the ashen cheeks. “Don’t let them come.”

“What are you talkin’ ’bout?” Hoss was flabbergasted.

“Hoss-I don’t have long. I know how bad this is. Just-please. I don’t want Pa to see what I turned into. Please, Hoss, I’m beggin’ you.” A sob caught in his throat. “Don’t let him see me like this.”

Hoss gathered his brother into his arms. The kid was nothing but skin and bones. “You jest hush now,” he murmured, rubbing Joe’s back. “I promised your ma I’d always take care of you, and I ain’t done with that yet. Adam’s bringing the doctor, and we’ll get help for you, and you’ll be jest fine, you wait an’ see.” He held his brother close, whispering soft promises, as Joe wept in shame and relief.

The door opened, and Adam and the doctor came into the dingy room. Adam stopped stockstill when he saw Hoss on the bed, holding the young man close. He couldn’t see the smaller man’s face, but-“Hoss? Is that-?”

Hoss nodded. “Hey, Little Brother, look who’s here,” he said. Joe buried his face in Hoss’ neck like a child. Hoss met Adam’s eyes and shook his head.

Adam stroked his brother’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you,” he said simply. Joe didn’t look up, but he reached out his bony hand, and Adam held it against his own face.

“All right, young man, let’s see what’s going on here,” said the doctor. He didn’t understand precisely what was happening. He’d been summoned peremptorily by this obviously well-to-do and authoritative man and dragged to a slum to treat someone who was dying of the drink. Ordinarily, he’d have done a cursory exam, pronounced the patient too far gone, and left. In this case, though, he had a feeling that such an approach just might get him beaten into the ground. Whoever the drunk was, it was someone about whom these men felt strongly-and, presumably, someone for whose treatment they would pay well.

“Are you his wife?” he asked Judith, who was standing by the bureau. When she shook her head, the doctor said, “Then I’m afraid you’ll have to leave while I examine him.” Judith resisted the urge to argue. She’d never been more to Joe than a friend, and she knew it. Robin had been his great love, and now he apparently had brothers. He would be well cared-for. She stepped out of the room into the hall, closing the door behind her, and went back to the saloon.

It seemed but a few moments before the door opened. They’d wrapped Joe in blankets, and Hoss carried him down the stairs as if he weighed nothing. Adam followed, with the picture of Marie tucked into his coat pocket. He couldn’t imagine that there was anything else in the room that his brother would want.

* * * * * * * * * *

As the hospital personnel got Joe settled, Adam said to Hoss, “I’m going to go and get Pa.”

Hoss shook his head. “Mebbe you’d better talk to Joe first,” he suggested.

“About what?” Adam was honestly puzzled. Even after Hoss had repeated Joe’s request, Adam was adamant. “Pa hasn’t seen his son in two years, and it’s still possible that he might not get here in time. I’m not going to keep this a secret from him.”

“I’m not sayin’ to keep it a secret,” said Hoss. “I’m just sayin’ that mebbe it should be up to Joe, who he sees and when.”

“I can’t,” said Adam. “Pa’d never forgive us if he wasn’t here.”

“Joe might not forgive us if he is,” said Hoss.

“It’s not up to us to choose,” said Adam. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

* * * * * * * * * *

An hour later, Hoss was sitting on the edge of Joe’s bed, wiping his brother’s face with a damp cloth and talking softly. “It’s gonna be okay,” he repeated. “Jest you wait. Them docs’ll fix you up, and you’ll be just fine.”

Joe closed his eyes. He was so tired. There was no whiskey to be had here, and he knew what was coming. He’d tried to stop drinking before, but it was too hard-the pain, the agitation, the nausea, the shakes, all of it. This time, though, there would be no sweet drink of defeat. The hospital had tied him down, hand and foot. They knew what to expect, even if his brother didn’t. “This is crazy!” Hoss had shouted at the nurses. “Look at him! He couldn’t wrestle a sick kitten!” But the restraints stayed in place.

“Hoss?” His enormous brother’s touch was gentle and sure. He felt safe with Hoss beside him.

“I’m right here,” said Hoss, wiping sweat from his brother’s brow.

“I missed you,” Joe said. “All of you.”

“We missed you, too, Little Brother,” said Hoss. He would not, would not, cry. He would bathe his brother’s face with cool water, hold the basin for him when he was sick, and talk him through the anguish and delirium tremens, but he would not cry. Joe needed him to be strong.

“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Joe whispered. He had to be sure they knew that. All those months of silence-they must have wondered if he even cared.

“We know.”

“Tell Pa-” A fit of nausea seized Joe. Hoss held the basin as Joe retched. Then, he settled the young man back on his pillows and held the glass of water for him to sip. “I’m okay,” Joe whispered. He knew the end was close. He could feel it. He tried again. “Tell Pa-tell him-I’m sorry.”

“Joseph.” The deep, rich voice cracked with tears.

Joe’s eyes widened in horror. He hadn’t heard his father and Adam come in. Instinctively, he tried to hide his face, but the restraints held his hands fast. He squeezed his eyes shut like a child who thinks that doing so will make him invisible. This, above all else, he had wanted to spare his father: the sight of his wasted drunk of a son in his last hours. He tried, and failed, to stifle the sobs that shook his frail body.

Ben sat on the edge of the bed and stroked the wild curls. From the moment Adam had told him, emotions swirled through his mind and heart: relief, anger, fear, resentment, worry, longing. But as soon as he saw Joe, the storm stilled, and one truth stood, pure and clear. Even after everything, this was his son. Bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. His child and Marie’s. Regardless of what the boy had done, Ben would love him and protect him with everything he had. “Joseph,” he breathed.

Joe turned his face away from Ben. Shame seared his soul. He had failed. At everything. He hadn’t kept Robin and their child safe, he had poured his life into the gutter, and now he hadn’t even been able to protect his father from having to carry with him the memory of his wastrel son. There was no place left to stand. The battle was over, and he had lost, in every way that mattered. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, tears seeping from closed lids. He couldn’t bear to look at them. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right, son.” Ben’s voice was warm, soothing. Joe could have counted dozens, hundreds of times that he had heard his father say this. Until today, he’d always believed him. But this time, it wasn’t all right, and he could do nothing to change that. The boy who had left all for the love of a woman, and the man who had been unable to cope with the loss of everyone he loved, had collided and crashed, and now the fragments were too numerous and tiny to glue back together. All he could do was to gather up the shards, brittle and chaotic, and hold them out as an offering of atonement.

With what little strength he had left, Joe summoned the courage to open his eyes and turn to his father. Ben’s rich brown eyes were troubled. Joe took a deep breath to speak, but doing so set off a fit of coughing. Hoss, still seated on his brother’s other side, helped Joe to sit up and held the water glass to his lips. When the coughing stopped, Hoss laid him back on the pillows.

He had to try again. “Pa,” he whispered.

“I’m right here, son.”

“Pa, I’m so sorry.” His chest heaved with exertion. “I never meant-I never meant to hurt you.” He tried to reach for his father, but the restraints held his hands fast. His bloodshot hazel eyes searched his father’s face. His last statement was barely a whisper. “I never stopped loving you.”

“And I never stopped loving you,” said Ben, his voice cracking. Joe saw in his father’s eyes something he dared not name. Ben stroked his son’s cheek, his own tears brimming. Then, for the first time in two years, Ben took his youngest son in his arms and held him tightly. Gently, Adam and Hoss released the restraints holding Joe’s wrists, and Joe’s arms encircled his father, like a reflex too long denied. Trembling, Joe rested his head on his father’s shoulder, surrendering to his father’s strength. Adam embraced his father and brother. Hoss wrapped his massive arms around all three of them. The four men held each other, rocking and crying and rejoicing. They were together at last.

* * * * * * * * * *

The days to come would not be easy ones. Joe’s withdrawal from alcohol was painful and frightening for them all. His recovery from the effects of his year-long binge required strength that Joe had forgotten he possessed. It would be several weeks before he was able to leave the hospital and move into the small house Ben had rented after Adam and Hoss had returned to the Ponderosa. The repair of their relationship would take longer still, but each was willing to listen and to try.

“I was wrong to try to keep you and Robin apart,” said Ben one evening. As was their custom now, Joe rested on the settee, an afghan over his thin form, while Ben leaned back in an overstuffed armchair before the fire.

“You didn’t know her,” said Joe. “I wish you had. She was everything I ever wanted.” He sipped his tea. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to drink alcohol again, but for now, that was all right. He didn’t need it anymore. “She died trying to protect me,” he said. “She knew how to get along in the world so much better than I did. Almost everything she did was for me.” Tears welled up in his eyes. Without the whiskey to dull the pain, he was finally mourning the deaths of his wife and child. His father, who knew better than anyone how he felt, provided a listening ear, a strong shoulder, and a loving heart as Joe struggled with his grief.

“I wish I’d given her a chance,” said Ben.

“I think you’d have liked her,” said Joe. “We shouldn’t have just left that day. I should have brought her back with me. At least you’d have met her.” He drained his teacup and set it on the end table. “She could be almost as stubborn as you sometimes,” he added.

Ben raised an eyebrow. “That must have made for some interesting times,” he said.

“Oh, it did,” said Joe. “Thing was, when she’d get like that, what I’d feel most was how much I missed you.” He stared into the fire. Finally, he said, “I’m just so sorry. Once I’d gotten out here, I didn’t know how to get back. And then, when Robin died, I felt like I’d lost everything-her, the baby, you, Adam and Hoss. Everybody who mattered. If it hadn’t been for the folks at the Dove, I’d have been dead in a gutter a long time ago.”

Ben poked at the fire, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney. The doctor had admitted recently than he hadn’t expected Joe to survive withdrawal. “Alcohol poisoning is hard enough on the body when a person is in otherwise decent shape,” he said as father and son took their daily walk down the hospital corridor to build up Joe’s strength. The young man was still unsteady on his feet, and he leaned heavily on his father’s arm. “With the shape Joe was in, it’s nothing short of a miracle that he made it through,” the doctor added.

“Don’t ever underestimate the will of a Cartwright,” said Joe. Ben chuckled, relieved to hear his son using his name again. Joe had confessed to having called himself by Marie’s name since he left. The hurt and rejection he felt at this news took Ben by surprise. How had he so alienated his son that Joe had ceased to call himself a Cartwright? But Joe was right: Marie would never have rejected the girl. Perhaps her son was even more like her than he’d suspected.

Now, as winter rains lashed against the windows, father and son sat in companionable silence before the fire. Adam and Hoss were coming at the end of the week. Joe wasn’t strong enough to travel yet, so his brothers were coming to celebrate Christmas in San Francisco. Tomorrow, Ben would go with Joe to the Dove. Joe hadn’t been back since he’d gotten out of the hospital. Judith and the other girls, and even Phil, had visited as he’d convalesced. Still, Joe needed to see once more the place where he and Robin had found a family, where they’d done their best to make her dreams come true. Even now, he could close his eyes and see her standing by the piano, radiant with the joy of music and life and love. Once more, he would sit down at the piano and play what he heard in his heart.

And then, Joe Cartwright would go home.

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Author: pjb

Still human.

15 thoughts on “The French Piano Player – #1 (by pjb)

  1. Guess who?. I know. You’re tired of hearing from me, but FPP is worth an annual read, and I couldn’t think of a better series to keep me occupied for a while. It’s late October and 85 degrees. The weather is all wrong but the story is just right. As always, nicely done!

  2. Oh my god this was sooo good !
    Can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed this ! I can’t wait to read the next chapter.
    Just fabulous

  3. One of my favorites series, and it only makes sense that I have it loaded on my Kindle where it’s handy for my annual read. Since FPP was one of your first fanfics, I know you’d probably change things if you wrote it now, but it’s still a winner in my book! On to “Be Still My Heart.”

  4. This is even better the second read through! I really love this, truly I do, pjb! You did such a fantastic job writing this story that I could hardly leave my computer screen-even to get something to eat! Brava!

  5. At the start, I love how Ben remembers every anniversary. Who could have thought something that begins with such sentiment could turn so tragic. The family surely has a long, and emotional, road ahead of them,

  6. Here we go again, Jo. I’m here for my yearly read! Still one of my favorite series and I’ll probably be back again next summer. Great story, great series. So glad you continued writing after part 1.

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