Summary: Due to life-changing events, Adam’s faith is tested at an early age. He discovers the welfare of his young brother is suffering more harm than good by his father’s heartfelt beliefs. Rated K+ WC 18,650
In God’s Hands
Miracles don’t exist in my world. I gave up caring about God or worrying about heaven and hell when I was a still in my teens. I had my reasons, and my perception of a godless society was sound and most of all practical. In a world where death comes as quick as a lightning strike, I consider my beliefs honest and valid, and I have no use for the scriptures my father forced on me as a child.
My mother died giving birth. I never knew her as a vibrant, beautiful, young woman, and I’ve relied on my father’s memories to bring her back to life in the eyes of a young boy who missed a woman he’d never known. When Pa and I crossed the prairie together, he talked earnestly about the three things that meant the most to him. First, was his god. Second, was my mother, and third was his time at sea and how that part of his life was behind him, though his spirit for adventure was what led us across the prairie searching for a place to call home.
During our travels west, Pa and I met a very special woman. Her name was Inger Borgstrom, and I took to her right off. I believe the feeling was mutual. She loved and cared for me as much as any woman possibly could. In fact, I had taken to her long before Pa realized how truly wonderful she was and how she and her gentle ways could make our lives complete. It took some time, but my father finally came around and the day after he and Inger were married, we were back in the wagon, searching for my father’s dream.
It was a happy time, a time of change for a young boy like me. We sang songs with so many verses that long days confined in a tight space passed quickly. At times, we played games or Inger would tell me tales of a world far away from the relentless prairie. I was spellbound, in part by the gentle lilt of her voice, but mostly by stories filled with magic and dreams of our future together.
Every Sunday afternoon was like Christmas. Inger would have me join her inside the wagon, and I’d sit patiently while she rummaged through her trunk. It was a game only the two of us shared, and she cleverly raised my anticipation level to new heights.
“Adam,” she would say. “I have something special for you.”
She’d hand me a different leather bound book every week. Some were simple stories with pencil-drawn illustrations while others were more advanced. No matter which one she chose, I was grateful for my new mother. Even if I only recognized a few words on each page, I learned more on that trip west than any other boy who studied reading and writing inside a schoolhouse every day of his young life.
But the best gift of all was my new brother, Hoss. Our lives were perfect. We were a family of four. We were a family who laughed and enjoyed each other’s company and who prayed every night for another safe day of travel.
And then the Indians attacked.
I lost a piece of my heart the day Inger died and we were forced to leave her behind. Never once did I shed a tear; I stayed strong for Pa and my new baby brother. I tried to take her place; I tried to fill her shoes as we traveled farther west, but the Christmas-like Sundays were gone forever.
Pa’s third attempt at happiness came a few years later when Hoss, who was just a little shaver at the time, and I was introduced to a different type of woman. A petite southern belle named Marie entered our lives and, as it had been with Inger, our home was filled with love and endless laughter. Tragedies, such as my mother’s and Inger’s deaths were behind us and, with the addition of a new baby brother named Joseph, our lives were complete once again.
But the day my third mother lay dead on the ground after falling from a horse she’d ridden every day for years, I didn’t pray for acceptance. I cursed a ruthless and merciless god, a god whom I could no longer accept into my heart and soul. Marie’s death forced me to see the world differently. The cruelty of life can easily change the mind of an impressionable young man and from that day forward, I had no use for my father’s god.
I lost my faith that day. Pa’s endless teachings meant nothing to me anymore. In my eyes and in my heart, the bible was just another storybook filled with tales of adventure and tales of hardship, but nothing was sacred. The lessons I’d learned as a child didn’t much matter, and I was freed from belief, free to live my life as I saw fit.
For men like me, the future was nothing more than a crapshoot. No one’s future is in God’s hands, as my father believes. Fate, providence, luck, one in the same, rule our lives, but lives are never altered by an actual miracle from God. Some men are more fortunate than others. Some men live long, full lives while others do not. Some men only exist; their lives have been altered in some way. I call it fate. My father calls upon his god for help and understanding.
I steadied the half-full bottle on the arm of the rocker and listened as the curved, wooden rungs kept a steady beat against the weathered pine slats. Inside, the house was quiet; everyone had gone to bed, and I’d given the same excuse as always. I was staying up to read. But, as usual, the words blurred on the page, and I found myself alone on the front porch, rocking and drinking Pa’s whiskey, and realizing how much had changed since we’d returned home just a few days ago. We weren’t the same family. We didn’t act the same as we had before the “incident.” We tiptoed over and around the problem, but no one talked, no one managed to say what was on his mind.
Naturally, my father assumed all guilt. He directed anger at himself though Hoss and I felt we, too, had been part of the initial situation. We should have been aware. We should have taken precaution. The incident revolved around a timber contract that would have benefited the Ponderosa more than delivering a herd of cattle to market or counting on profits our silver mines could produce during the coming year.
The reward for our efforts would be extensive. Pa’s proposal was fair, after all; he planned to win the contract hands-down. Bids for lengths of timber poured into Conley and Sons, not only from the Ponderosa but also from friends and neighbors, men we knew, men we trusted or thought we could trust. We were wrong.
Removing Ben Cartwright from the competition would leave the field wide open. That was the intention and, because other bids came from “friends and neighbors,” one of those we trusted knew exactly how to achieve the results he desired. The solution was simple. Saddle our pa with fear and my father would withdraw his bid and forgo the contract, leaving the field wide open.
In the dead of night, a note was nailed to the front door of our house. It read: We have your boy. Withdraw your bid or the boy dies.
I glanced toward the front door where I’d found the note that morning then lifted the half-full bottle to my lips. I drank another shot. No one knew about my nighttime outings, but it gave me time to think, time alone without distraction or worrisome talk. Friends and neighbors. An uncanny thought but the “friend” had been caught, stood trial, and had been convicted for his involvement in the kidnapping of my youngest brother, Joe.
Though he begged for mercy, he was sentenced to prison. His name was Alfred Morrison, and his ranch butted up to the northeast corner of the Ponderosa. But Alfred wasn’t the man who’d done harm to my young brother. He’d concocted the plan, but he’d let his older brother take charge after the initial kidnapping. His brother’s name was Joshua, and he’d recently returned to Nevada after a three-year stint in a California prison they’d named San Quentin.
Since my brother was unable to make the ride into town and testify on his own behalf, the sheriff, along with Dr. Paul Martin, my father, and Hoss, all testified as to the kidnapping and my brother’s current state of mind. Although Joe had been rescued and was healing at home, rumors had circulated during the trial that Ben Cartwright’s youngest son hadn’t fully recovered from his injuries, that not only his broken bones were a factor, but there was also concern about his overall well-being.
Copies of Morrison’s association with San Quentin were sent to the circuit judge. Though none of his paperwork was read during the trial, Judge Carter Williamson asked my father to join him for a drink at one of the newer saloons in Virginia City.
“Morrison is a detriment to society,” Williamson said over shots of whiskey. “I gave him the maximum penalty according to the law. That’s all I’m allowed to do. I wouldn’t say this to just anyone, Ben, but that man should be hung after what he did to your son.”
“I appreciate everything you’ve done, Judge.”
“The man swears he’s found God, that he’s reformed, that he never meant to hurt your boy. He says the broken leg was an accident as was the cut on your son’s face.”
I didn’t have to see Pa’s reaction during that conversation to know what he was thinking or how the judge’s words meant nothing to Joe or to our family.
“That may be so, Judge,” Pa had said, “but since my boy hasn’t relayed his side of the story, how would I know what’s true and what’s not? Let me ask you this. What about the fear my son still lives with day and night? What about the nightmares or the anxiety he faces every morning when I ask him to come out of his room. What lasting effects will my sixteen-year-old boy have to endure because of a man like Joshua Morrison?”
I corked the bottle. Morning would come soon enough and there was much to be done. I thought about my father’s words to the judge, and I wondered if we’d ever know the full story. Would Joe end his silence and realize Pa and Hoss and I weren’t the enemies and that the enemy was behind bars and couldn’t hurt him anymore? That he was safe with us.
I uncorked the bottle; I took one more healthy swig.
At nearly seventeen and before the “incident,” Little Joe was anxious to begin his new life as a full-time ranch hand. He talked of nothing else. I was often the first to excuse myself using some made-up chore needed doing. Hoss wasn’t long for Joe’s dramatic conversations either, and there were times we’d camped out in the barn long after our chores had been completed. Our father stayed and listened. Our father indulged the boy more than I thought was necessary, but Joe and I were two different types of people, and it was better for me to leave the room and let Pa humor his baby son than sit and listen to Joe’s long-winded banter.
Since the day Little Joe was born, we’d all been guilty of coddling him and making sure he was safe from harm. I was as guilty as anyone else, but Joe was growing up, and he needed to learn the ins and outs of a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. It wasn’t all fun and games. It was a working ranch.
Over the years, we’d all been too protective. Joe wasn’t made of glass but that’s how we treated him. Sure, he’d had his share of scrapes—broken bones, cuts, and bruises—though never any permanent damage, just kid stuff. This time, we hadn’t protected him from the world outside our ranch. He’d had to fend for himself and for that, I blame us all. I blame myself for not stepping up earlier and teaching him more about the real world, that we as a family couldn’t always shelter him from monsters like Joshua Morrison. That at times, a man had to have eyes in the back of his head to keep himself safe from harm.
My young brother’s mind was locked in a far-off place none of us could reach. Pa barely left Joe’s side. Hoss found chores that didn’t need doing. I drank whiskey after everyone else went to bed. None of us were dealing with the problem. Joe was scared. Joe was adamant about not wanting to leave his room; even venturing downstairs caused fear we didn’t understand but after time, Pa and Doctor Martin had other ideas.
“You’ve got to get him out of that room,” Paul had said. “Small steps at first. Make him walk the upstairs hallway, then make him come down for meals, but don’t make him go outside just yet. Take it slow, Ben. You’ll know when he’s ready for more.”
Pa listened to Paul and did as instructed. He forced Joe to get dressed every morning, and he forced him to come downstairs for meals, but nothing changed. My brother rarely spoke. His limited amount of words were barely above a whisper, as though someone might hear, as though he wasn’t allowed to speak outright for fear of . . . another beating? Something worse? We simply didn’t know.
Inside his bedroom, with the door closed and heavy drapes pulled across his window, my young brother sat in near darkness. He liked it that way. He fought intrusion of any kind, but none of us stayed away. Though our best efforts to temper his mood had been useless so far, we were persistent and no one was going to let Little Joe remain in a near comatose state forever. For someone like my young brother, who’d always been a lively sort, the “new” Joe was quiet and withdrawn; his somber demeanor frightened us all.
After all his scheming, Alfred’s plan to win the contract ultimately failed. Rumors of a kidnapping spread rapidly through our small town and nearby ranches. Believing someone was trying to force Ben Cartwright out of the running, Conley and Sons had delayed offering the contract for two weeks, hoping my young brother could be found. It was a decent thing to do and in the end, the Ponderosa’s bid was accepted, but my father turned it down. Though I couldn’t blame him, considering Joe couldn’t be left on his own to heal, it was still a blow when Pa’s longtime acquaintance, Barney Fuller, won the lucrative contract.
Virginia City wasn’t much to look at six months ago, but our little town situated halfway down Sun Mountain was booming. After word spread that gold and silver were being mined on the eastern slope of the Carson Range, men from as far away as England and Ireland came to make their fortunes just over the mountains from our home, the Ponderosa.
Each time I rode into town, a new building had been constructed in place of miner’s tents, which had dotted the landscape only weeks ago. Boarding houses, saloons, bordellos, and even churches were popping up along newly formed streets cut into the side of the mountain.
As I reminisce over events that took place over the last few weeks, I recall how my family and I had ridden in and out of town in search of my brother or, at the very least, information that might lead us in the right direction. It was a day like any other. We rode in to check with the current sheriff, who apologized but knew nothing more than the last time we’d asked, which left us to our own devices if we were to ever find Joe. It wasn’t long before Hoss was hungry, and we stepped inside a newly built saloon called The Bucket of Blood for a steak and a cold beer.
Though finding Joe was forefront in our minds, my brother’s appetite was nothing to take lightly and, putting our mission aside for the time it would take to sit down and eat lunch, we all stood in awe of the bright, gas lights and the opulent gaiety of the new saloon.
It wasn’t the first saloon I’d been inside, but every saloon built prior to this one had been erected in haste. Empty whiskey barrels held up long wooden slats forming a bar. A man drank whatever was available; usually rotgut, and it burned like fire, but backwoods swill was the standard issue.
The new saloon was a beautiful sight. Crystal chandeliers hung above a polished bar and bottles of whiskey, rye and other blends were lined up in front of a huge beveled mirror. A man wearing a derby hat and a shiny gold vest played an upright piano while men gambled away their hard-earned pay at the many felt-covered gaming tables.
The saloon had San Francisco class, and I couldn’t help but think of Little Joe and how wide-eyed he’d become and how his jaw would drop open as he oohed and aahed over the lavish décor and fancy young women. My young brother was just coming of age, and this new addition to our little town would have sparked unstoppable chatter from a kid who was ready to take on the world and the ample amount of entertainment a place like this could provide.
Pushing our way through the throng of off-the-clock miners, the three of us stepped up to the bar and Hoss signaled one of the barkeeps. “You got steaks and all the fixin’s?”
“Sure do, mister. How many you want?”
“Make it four and we need three cold beers.”
I glanced at Pa whose eyebrows rose only slightly after hearing my brother’s request. It wasn’t uncommon for Hoss to out-eat us all, and he didn’t hold back in public either.
“You two get a table,” I said to Pa, “and I’ll bring the beer.”
Pa and Hoss squeezed through the crowd while I remained at the bar. Conversations sprinkled throughout, each vying for dominance through the mass of boisterous men. Most of the patrons were miners and, after having had one too many, their voices rose in volume and often times their theatrical comments earned them more than they bargained for—like a punch in the nose. The saloon might be a new addition to town but attitudes, including a good-natured barroom brawl, were as old as mankind.
When two miners began mouthing off about this and that, a man’s elbow connected with my ribs and I moved to my left. His apology was a nod of his head. I did the same, but I wouldn’t be used as some clown’s punching bag either. Catching wind of yet another conversation, I heard the word contract, and I turned my attention to the voices of two men who each fingered half-empty shot glasses sitting on the bar.
“And the kid’s right here in town, right under their noses,” one man chuckled.
“Shut up, you fool. This ain’t over till it’s over.”
“You worry too much, baby brother.”
“Damn straight, I do. Now drink up, and let’s get outta here.”
One man, I didn’t recognize. The other had his back to me and I wasn’t sure, but his voice sounded familiar. Was I overanalyzing their conversation or could the kid they referred to be Joe?
The man whose back was to me turned his face at the sound of a ruckus starting across the room. Alfred Morrison. I’d know him anywhere. Secondly, I knew he’d bid on the contract offered by Conley and Sons.
“Mr. Morrison?” I said, extending my hand in a friendly gesture.
His jaw dropped and his face paled, and after a quick glance at his brother, I felt certain our “trusted” neighbor had knowledge of my young brother’s whereabouts. “Cartwright,” he replied hesitantly. “Nice to see you, Adam.”
“Who’s your friend?” I asked, pretending I hadn’t overheard their conversation.
He turned and faced the second man. “My brother,” he said. “Josh, this is Adam Cartwright. Adam, Josh Morrison.” Alfred’s brother drank the remainder of his shot and sat the empty glass on the bar. He reached out to shake my hand.
“Why don’t you join us?” I said. “Pa and Hoss already have a table.”
“Uh, no thanks, Adam. We were just leaving, weren’t we, Josh.”
“That’s right, Mr. Cartwright. Maybe another time.”
“Right,” I said. “Another time.”
I waited until they’d made their way through the batwings and, neglecting Hoss’ appetite, I threw a five-dollar gold piece on the bar and told the barkeep we wouldn’t need those steaks after all.
“Let’s go,” I said to Pa and Hoss. Brushing off the look on my brother’s face, I said, “Now!”
We stood just inside the swinging half-doors as I explained what I’d overheard at the bar. Alfred was already riding his horse down C Street, but his brother was on foot. “He doesn’t know you, Hoss,” I said. “Follow him.”
Pa and I moved slowly up the street, staying a good block behind my brother. Hoss was a big man; he was an easy man to spot and when he and his big white hat turned left at Washington Street, we rushed to the corner then continued at a slower pace. Two more blocks and Hoss stopped behind a clapboard building. He turned and waved us forward.
As Pa and I huddled next to my brother, he pointed to a rundown shack across a narrow alley. “He went inside that cabin,” he whispered as though we were standing outside the front door. “The one with the burlap curtain on the side window.”
“You’re sure about this, Adam?”
“I told you what I heard, Pa. You know as much as I do.”
My father was a cautious man but in this instance, he looked like a general marching headlong into battle. Hoss and I flanked him on either side. Pa didn’t bother to knock. With his gun drawn, he kicked the front door wide open.
But, Hoss had a plan of his own. He knocked Pa and me aside as he bolted headlong into Josh Morrison’s midsection. Using his bulk, my oversized brother bashed the poor bastard against the far wall of the tiny, one-room cabin. Though Pa and I had drawn our guns before entering, firearms weren’t needed and with Hoss in control of the situation, we holstered our weapons and moved inside the cabin.
“Where’s my son?” Pa growled at the helpless man.
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” he whimpered.
Hoss moved behind Morrison and had him facing our father. He never let go of the man’s arms and when he didn’t like the answer Morrison had given Pa, he jerked back on both elbows until Morrison’s face knotted with pain. “You answer my pa,” Hoss said in his deepest voice, “or I’ll rip both arms outta their sockets.”
“He can, you know,” I added.
“He—he’s in the cellar.” Morrison sang like a bird, and his eyes moved to the trap door in the floor.
Pa knelt down and lifted the hatch. The cellar was pitch black, and I reached for a lantern Morrison had sitting on a center table. I struck a match and quickly put it to the wick. Pa was halfway down the wooden ladder before he had enough light to see anything in the dugout cellar of the cabin.
I turned to Morrison. “My brother better be alive.”
I moved toward the open hatch. “Pa?”
“He’s handcuffed, Adam. Get the key.”
My blood boiled, but I remained calm. I wasn’t sure if Hoss could remain in control after hearing Pa’s request.
“In my vest,” Morrison replied.
I reached into an inner pocket and pulled out a single key. “Wait here,” I said to Hoss.
I climbed down the ladder and the first thing I saw was Joe lying prone on the dirt floor. Pa held a dirty rag in one hand and was stroking Joe’s face with the other. He handed me the rag—a filthy, blue kerchief—I wadded back up and I threw to a corner of the room.
“Joe was blindfolded, Adam.”
Pa’s eyes were glassy with tears. I could barely make out his words, but I took a deep breath before I slipped the key into the lock and freed my brother’s right hand. Joe had been chained to a wooden support beam in the center of the room. He was only dressed in his trousers. No boots, shirt or jacket to protect him from the elements. The cellar was at least twenty degrees cooler than the floor above. Nights would have been worse yet.
Pa helped Joe to a sitting position and tried to pull him toward his chest, but the kid immediately wrapped his arms around himself for warmth. His cries were soft, meager whimpers at best.
“See if his clothes are upstairs,” Pa said.
I climbed back up the ladder and faced Morrison. “Where are the kid’s clothes?” Morrison didn’t speak; he only nodded to a far corner of the room. I looked in that direction and saw Joe’s boots, shirt, and jacket had been thrown in a heap on the floor. “Why?” I questioned. “He’s just a kid.”
The man wasn’t stupid. Anything he said could be used against him in a court of law. His lips were sealed. Even when Hoss jerked back on his arms, he refused to say anything more.
“Take him to the sheriff,” I said. “Then, ride out and find his brother, Alfred. He’s part of this too. Pa and I will get Joe to Doc’s, and we’ll meet there.”
Hoss was too angry to argue the point. As much as he wanted to see Joe and make sure the kid was okay, he tucked Morrison’s gun in his own waistband, hung on to the man’s right arm and shoved him through the cabin door. I climbed back down to the cellar, to Pa and Joe.
I knelt down next to my father, but he never looked my way, never acknowledged my presence. Gently, he stroked my brother’s cheek and called his name with such a tear-filled voice, I nearly broke down myself. The magic came when Joe’s eyes fluttered open, and he saw the two of us for the first time in ten days. His Adam’s apple bounced like popping corn in a hot iron skillet as he formed his first word.
My brother’s voice was soft, but I couldn’t explain how satisfying that gentle whisper sounded. I only wish Hoss had been there too. I hung back, letting Pa have center stage, but I stared at my young brother from head to toe. Joe was a growing boy, lanky and wiry, and he ate like a horse, at least he had been over the last few months. He was never full, even sneaking into Hop Sing’s kitchen when he thought no one was watching. Now, he was thinner and pale and looked younger than his sixteen years.
Noticing Joe’s white, cracked lips, I rushed back up the ladder, grabbed the canteen off my saddle, and handed it to Pa. “Here,” I said. “See if he’ll drink.” And, he did, but he gulped too fast and Pa had to pull the canteen away.
Joe began to tremble. He brought his knees to his chest and with white knuckles, he grabbed and held tight to Pa’s vest. His chest and face were bruised and as soon as he pulled his right leg up, he dropped it back flat to the ground. A deep cut on his left cheek needed tending. Any other injuries I wasn’t aware of and wouldn’t be until we got him upstairs and to Doc Martin’s surgery.
After slipping Joe’s jacket on his chilled body, I offered to carry him, but Pa wouldn’t let him go. He carried him in his arms toward the ladder. I scrambled to the top and together; we hoisted my brother up to the main floor. When his right leg bumped against the hatch, we knew by his halted scream, the leg was either broken or sprained.
Fortunately, Paul Martin was in his office and directed Pa, carrying Joe, to his surgery so he could look the boy over. Though Joe still had a stranglehold on Pa’s vest, the doctor thought it best if the two of us waited outside until he finished his initial exam. After Pa had a quick word with Joe, assuring him he’d be right outside the door, I led my father to the waiting room where we each took a chair, but the silence of the outer room was deafening. Not knowing how Joe might fare without Pa made the wait seem like a lifetime.
Being at a loss for words, I studied my surroundings rather than say something I might regret. Though realizing someone would treat Joe with such disregard for his age wasn’t easily overlooked. But Joe had survived. His injuries would heal and life would return to normal, or so I thought at the time.
The door to Paul’s surgery opened and eager to hear the doc’s first impressions, Pa and I stood from our chairs.
“He’ll recover nicely, Ben,” Paul said. “I’ve cleaned the cut on Joe’s face, but I’ll need to put in a few stitches or he’ll have a nasty scar. The boy’s too young to be saddled with an unsightly reminder of these past few days. For good measure, I’m going to wrap his ribs and splint his right leg.”
“Is his leg broken?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, but Joe’s ankle is too swollen for a cast, and we don’t know how long it’s been that way. There may be a slight fracture or it’s possible we’re only looking at a sprain. Either way, Joe’s ankle needs to be immobilized for now.”
My brother wasn’t just young, he was always on the move, plus; he was vain, very vain about his outward appearance. Girls had become a recent factor in his life in fact; just these past few weeks, Joe was experiencing his first real attraction to a girl his age, and it wasn’t just a matter of puppy love. According to my young brother, this was the real thing.
Her name was Sarah Linden. She was a young lady who’d taken her final exams along with Joe. Out of the four students in his graduating class, she was honored with the title of valedictorian, but her superior rank meant nothing to my brother. She was pretty and she was petite, and she adored his playful manner. She wasn’t a know-it-all like some of the girls he’d spent the last few years with inside the tiny classroom, and she’d become quite an important element in his life. If he wasn’t chattering about becoming a full-time ranch hand, he was singing her praises to anyone who’d listen.
Joe was a handsome kid, and Doc Martin was well aware of what an unsightly facial scar would do to the boy. With the precision of a man who cared about the outcome, I knew Paul would do his best to repair the deep cut on Joe’s left cheek. A lasting scar might be young brother’s undoing if it wasn’t taken care of properly, and Doc was the best man for the job.
My father sat quietly. He hadn’t spoken to Paul; he’d only nodded his head in agreement. My guess is that he was so involved in silent communication with his god he couldn’t break the momentum to focus his mind elsewhere.
The way I looked at the situation was quite different from my father’s vigilant efforts to count on prayer to see Joe through. It was pure luck we’d even found my brother and that Paul was in his office and could tend to Joe’s needs immediately. The doc could have been out of town, out to a nearby ranch, or seeing to a gunshot wound in one of the local saloons. But, no. He was sitting in his office when we needed him most. That’s luck—pure and simple, not some godly intervention.
I hadn’t slept a full night through in weeks. Drinking Pa’s whiskey didn’t help, but I continued my nighttime ritual longer than I should have. If my father had noticed my late hours, he’d said nothing. Joe was his main concern, not his eldest son looking for answers that would fix a broken family.
Pa had lost weight. Gray markings shadowed the skin under his eyes. I wasn’t the only one not sleeping properly. Like clockwork, Hoss left the house every morning after breakfast. He’d fix fences, round up steers, or break up tangled beaver dams, anything to keep busy so he wouldn’t have to deal with the “new” Joe, the silent Joe, who kept to himself and feared his own shadow.
Days passed, and we all came up with scenarios as to why Joe wouldn’t shed light on the days he’d spent—hungry, cold and alone—under the floorboards of that old cabin. Pa assured Hoss and me that Joe would come around. He asked us not to push but to be there for my brother and this matter would clear itself up in time.
Hoss was beside himself. His best friend was in serious trouble, and he had no idea how to make things better. More often than not, he stayed away, stayed busy with other things. Though he’d see Joe every day and encourage him to open up, his attempts failed, and it hurt Pa and me to see Hoss living each day with such a feeling of loss. An aura of misery plagued my middle brother every waking hour.
I’d come to think Joe had something to hide though I never mentioned this to Pa or Hoss. I was making assumptions that were unfounded and didn’t need to be explored except with Joe, if or when he was ready to talk.
Late one afternoon, I walked into Joe’s room with a pair of kitchen shears. His hair had grown long over his collar, and I thought he might feel better if I gave him a quick trim. Though I tried to make light of his riverboat gambler appearance, I’d only caused Joe to blanch at the sight of what he considered a weapon. Like a wounded animal, frail and scared, his fears highly irrational to anyone but himself, he groped for the headboard and held a pillow over his face for protection from his attacker. In his eyes, I’d become a monster, not a brother, and I cursed myself for not thinking things through.
“Joe,” I said cautiously. As always, the room was dark. A bedside lamp, the wick turned low, left the room in eerie shadow. “I’d never hurt you. You know that, don’t you?” A muted moan came from behind the pillow. I stepped toward Joe’s dresser and laid the scissors down. I held up my empty hands. “No more scissors, little brother.”
I wasn’t sure what to do next, but it was time Joe moved forward rather than stagnate, trapped as he was in a world of fear. Sitting down on the edge of his bed, I let my hands dangle between my legs. I waited to see if he’d lower the pillow. I had all the time in the world. I hoped he’d make the first move.
Minutes passed. I stared at the floor in a non-threatening way since simple eye contact seemed too much for Joe to deal with at this point of his recovery. Letting him find his own way back was my main intent. He was fragile and I didn’t dare push. My posture was relaxed; I was content to let him set the pace and low and behold, he spoke my name!
With a thin, ragged voice of a child, trusting but uncertain whether to say more, I turned my head slowly. “Yeah,” I replied just as softly. He still gripped the pillow although he’d lowered it to his chest. “What is it, Joe?”
Doc Martin had removed the stitches yesterday, but the cut on Joe’s cheek was still an angry red line. Paul said would fade in time.
Time heals all wounds. Wasn’t that the old saying? I wondered. My brother still sported splints on his right leg and hobbled downstairs for meals with the set of crutches he’d been forced to use—newer orders from the doc that Joe gets up and join the living as often as possible.
“It’s better if he’s up and moving around rather than lying in bed all day. Besides coming down for meals, I want him outside in the sunshine, but I want one of you with him just in case.”
There were times I thought back on Paul’s words. Just in case what? Joe stumbled and fell or was he talking about something else? I’d talked to Paul about the “new” Joe and asked what we could do to bring him back to his old self. The cowering, nearly mute Joe wasn’t the little brother I knew before the kidnapping. How could we turn things around? How were we to reach inside and repair the damage that monster had done?
The physical injuries had been obvious at first glance, and Joe was on the mend, but what had happened to frighten him so? What was he holding back? Why couldn’t he talk it through with the family he loved? Why was he so afraid to give us anything to go on, to help us understand the inner workings of Little Joe Cartwright? I thought I knew my brother inside and out, but this new Joe was a stranger to me and to everyone else.
“How about we go sit on the front porch?” I suggested casually. “The sunshine will do you good.” Joe’s Adam’s apple moved as he swallowed back his fear. He hugged the pillow a little tighter and shook his head. “What if I open your window . . . let’s have some fresh air?”
Per Joe’s initial request when we’d first arrived home from town, the window had been closed and the drapes pulled tightly together. Even with the lamp’s low flame, the buttery light left an atmosphere that was suffocating and, above all, depressing as hell. My brother had been to hell and back, and it seemed he was begging us to let his underground existence continue.
“I’ll stay here with you, Joe, but fresh air will us both a world of good.”
A brief nod was all I needed, and I pushed up from my seat on Joe’s bed. Pulling the drapes aside, I raised the sash and for the first time in days, sunlight streamed into the room. After blowing out the lamp, I sat back down on the bed. I reached out and patted his good leg but as soon as I touched him, he clutched the pillow and pulled his left leg toward his chest.
“I’m sorry, Joe.”
But Joe shook his head as though he was the one who should be sorry. His focus remained downcast, afraid to look up, afraid to meet my eyes.
“Talk to me, brother.” Again, I waited for a response and this time patience won out.
“He blindfolded me, Adam.”
“The whole time you were there?”
Joe nodded his head. “I wasn’t allowed to look at him. He . . . he said he’d kill me if I saw his face.”
I pinched my lips tightly together and let out a slow, deliberate breath. This was a beginning, and I hoped he’d tell me more of the story. “Were you chained to the post the whole time too?”
“That didn’t leave you much room to move around, did it?”
Joe remained silent.
“Could you sit up at all?”
He shook his head, and I questioned whether I should proceed, but I gave it a shot anyway. What did I have to lose? These had been the first words out of his mouth and containing my excitement was harder than I thought it should be. I wanted to smile. I wanted my young brother to smile and fight his way back to us. The last thing I wanted was to cause more damage by seeking answers he wasn’t ready to give. I kept my questions simple and my voice as casual as possible.
“What happened to your leg?”
Joe buried his face in the pillow. Was he remembering the pain? Had I gone too far? Should I have waited for another day rather than push for answers?
“My leg hurt, Adam. Is it broke?”
“Doc wasn’t sure. It’s either a bad sprain or you have a fracture. That’s why it’s splinted, so your leg won’t move unnecessarily. You won’t have to wear the splints too much longer. Does your leg still hurt?”
“No, not really.”
Although I’d only gotten short, quick answers, I decided we’d talked enough for one day. I’d let Joe rest, gather his thoughts and hopefully, we’d talk again tomorrow. Since I’d promised him I’d stay as long as the window was open, I moved to sit in the chair rather than on the bed. When he felt the movement, he turned his head to make sure I hadn’t left the room.
“I’m right here, Joe.”
“He pushed me off Cochise when we got to the cabin. I was blindfolded, Adam. My hands were tied behind me, and I couldn’t break my fall.”
The mental picture made me want to choke the life out of Joshua Morrison. Mr. Tough Guy. Mr. Reformed because he found God, according to the judge. A grown man who gets off hurting a helpless kid isn’t very godly in my book. What kind of mind works like that, and what was in it for him? Kidnapping was enough for Pa to pull his bid. There was no reason to cause a sixteen-year-old kid undue pain.
“He knew I was hurt, but he made me walk anyway, and he laughed when I stumbled and fell through the cabin door. I couldn’t hold my own weight, Adam, and when I made it back to my feet, he kicked me from behind, and I ended up face down on the floor again.”
I rarely fought for words but in this case, I kept my mouth shut and hoped Joe would continue. What could I say that would take away the memories? They were Joe’s memories, and they’d be with him forever. Nothing I said would erase the pain and humiliation he felt when he was taken to that cabin.
“I started to get to my feet, but he told me to find the trapdoor. I ended up crawling across the floor and that’s when he pulled his gun.”
“He’d shoot on one side of me and then the other and I didn’t know which way to go. I didn’t know if he’d shoot me or not. He thought it was funny when I covered my ears, and he yelled at me to keep moving. I didn’t want to die, Adam. I just wanted to come home.”
Damn, I could picture the scene, and it was so disturbing to think someone could be so cruel to a boy who had nothing to do with bids and contracts. Joe was an innocent yet he’d been caught up in this man’s malicious way of taunting his prisoner. Joe sniffed back tears and when he wiped the back of his hand across his face, I handed him my handkerchief. He wiped his eyes and nose. Experiencing the whole ordeal again had to be hard, and I wouldn’t blame him if he rolled over and went back to sleep, but even if he fought for every word, he wanted to continue his story.
“I found the hatch on the floor and pulled the door open. He told me to climb down the ladder but when I started down, he fired off another round and I stopped moving. He had my attention. He—he said . . .”
“He said what, Joe?”
“He said the cellar was my new home; the last home I’d ever see and to make myself comfortable.”
I realized how afraid my young brother must have been. It wasn’t just cuts and bruises; it was living through Morrison’s depraved antics. The things he’d said had Joe believing his life was over. That he’d die in the cellar and never see his family again. The mental torture was ten times worse than any of his physical injuries and Joe’s days of silence, his skittish behavior, was beginning to make sense.
“There’s nothing any of us can do to change what happened to you, Joe.”
“I know,” he said, but I heard a slight sob in his voice.
“But believe me, if I could have changed places with you, I would have.”
“That’s just it, Adam. He took me. He didn’t go after you or Hoss. You’re too smart and Hoss is too big to let someone get the jump on him like I did. It’ll always be me. I’m the weak link in this family. Don’t you see? This isn’t over. This is how it will always be. When will it happen again? It won’t be you or Hoss. It’ll always be me.”
“There won’t be a next time, Joe. It’s over. Morrison is behind bars. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“Someone else will. I’m a target, Adam. I’ll never be big like you. I’ll always be the runt of the family. You know it and I know it.”
“You can’t think that way, Joe. This was a one-time shot. There’s no one else out there that will come after you.”
“Maybe not today, but what about next time someone wants Pa to withdraw a bid? Maybe it won’t be a contract, but it will be something else instead. Everyone knows I’m an easy mark; I always will be.”
“Let’s not worry about that now. I think you’re exaggerating this whole thing, Joe. Let’s worry about today and tomorrow, okay? This ordeal with Morrison is over and we need to get you well. Understand?”
I felt relief. Maybe we could move on. Though I understood Joe’s mindset, I couldn’t let him dwell on what might happen on down the road. We had to correct the here and now and not dwell on the future.
“Do you remember what happened next?”
There was a tap on the door and we both looked up to see Hop Sing carrying a tray with soup and a glass of milk.
“For Little Joe,” he said. “Boy need eat.”
I took the pillow Joe had clutched to his chest and helped him sit up straighter in the bed. I was surprised he let me touch him. This was real progress. Hop Sing set the tray on Joe’s lap.
“I bring Mr. Adam dinner too.”
“Thanks, Hop Sing. Where are Pa and Hoss?”
“They eat in dining room. Mr. Ben say you and Little Joe excused from table tonight.”
“All right,” I said. “Tell Pa I’ll be down later.”
Hop Sing scooted from the room and I turned my attention back to Joe. He hadn’t started eating and it wasn’t out of politeness. Every meal since he’d returned home took gentle persuasion.
“Smells good,” I said. “Vegetable beef?”
Joe stared at the tray. He said nothing; he just stared.
“Need some help?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized I was treating my brother as an invalid and that wasn’t my intention. I sounded like my father who forced us to eat no matter what.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just not very hungry.”
“Would you rather continue our talk? You don’t have to eat if you don’t feel good.”
“I’m fine,” he repeated. “I feel fine.”
Joe’s standard response made me smile, but I wanted to know more and I wasn’t sure how to get Joe rolling again. It must have been hard for him to admit he felt like the weak link of our family, but we could get past that if I knew what else happened in that cellar.
“When we found you, you only had on your trousers. It must have been cold, lying on that dirt floor.”
“It was cold.”
“When did you lose the rest of your clothes, Joe?”
“He took ‘em when I tried to escape.”
Joe shook his head, and I might have heard a slight chuckle but I wasn’t sure. He reached for his glass and drank until all the milk was gone. I set his tray aside. At least he had something in his stomach.
“It was the first night. It was quiet upstairs. He paced a lot, and I couldn’t hear him walking around anymore. I thought he’d taken off; maybe he’d gone to a saloon or somethin’. I took off the blindfold, and I climbed up the ladder. I pushed open the hatch, and I nearly fell back to the dirt floor when I saw him sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the open door. He had a rifle lying across his lap. He was waiting for me, Adam. He just sat there grinning. He knew I’d try to escape.”
Joe’s captor bewildered me. He enjoyed playing games. Did Joshua care at all about his brother obtaining the timber contract or was he simply an insane byproduct of the Morrison family? I wondered if Alfred knew how evil his brother had become.
The fact that we’d had Alfred and his sons to our house for supper on several occasions interrupted my current train of thought. I’d never expected anything like this from him, and when Joe began talking again, I quit my generalized analysis of the Morrison family.
“He put his rifle barrel to the side of my head. He told me to count to three. I didn’t want to die, Adam. I didn’t want him to pull the . . .”
When Joe began to tremble, I moved back to the edge of the bed and reached for his hand, but he pulled away. I settled my hands on my lap and laced my fingers together so he’d know I wouldn’t touch him again.
“You’re okay, Joe,” I said. “You’re alive and that’s all that matters. You beat him at his own game and now you have to move on. You have a lot of life ahead of you.”
“I didn’t count, Adam.”
For a moment, I was confused. “What?” I said.
“I didn’t count to three. I dropped back to the cellar floor and away from the hatch, but he followed me and . . . and he beat me with his stick. He ripped off my boots and told me to take off my shirt and jacket. He said I was never leaving the cellar alive. He called me a sissy boy. He said I was just like them sissy boys in prison, that I was a worthless piece of shit and I’d never see my rich daddy again.”
“He had a limp. He walked with a stick, and it sounded loud against the floorboards.”
“That’s right.” I forgot about the cane lying on the cot Morrison used to sleep on while Joe lay on a dirt floor. “Go on,” I said.
“He went back up the ladder and closed the hatch. It was dark, and I just sat there in the middle of the room. He tricked me, Adam. I knew if I tried to escape again he’d beat me even worse.”
“I guarantee you’re no sissy boy, Joe. Hoss and I would have done the same thing you did. You tried to escape. That’s what matters. Morrison had all the power. You had none. You had no choice.”
Joe shook his head. Though it was the truth, I doubt Joe believed a word I’d said. Morrison made him feel powerless. He humiliated him to the point that my brother began believing his captor’s words. He believed he was worthless, that he was of little value to anyone.
“Close the window, Adam.”
I could tell Joe was tired. He rolled to his side, away from the window, and pulled the blankets up over his shoulders.
“You did good, Joe. You did real good.”
I stood from the edge of the bed then lowered the window and pulled the drapes tightly together. “You rest now. I’ll come back later.”
When I opened the bedroom door, I nearly crashed headlong into Hop Sing. He carried my supper tray. I put my finger to my lips. “He’s going to sleep for a while,” I said. “I’ll eat downstairs with the family.”
We all took turns sitting with Joe but so far, he’d only opened up to me. I can’t explain why, but I was glad he felt comfortable enough to say what he had so far. As I explained everything to my father and Hoss after Hop Sing served warm apple pie, I saw the look in Pa’s eyes. He was hurt. There were no two ways about it. Joe had confided in me, not him.
Joe was embarrassed. He’d been beaten and humiliated, and when I thought back on all he’d said, it seemed he’d rather tell Pa than his older brother about what he considered his shortcomings. He’d made comparisons to Hoss and me and maybe there was a part of him that didn’t want to disappoint our father or make himself out a lesser man in Pa’s eyes. I wasn’t a doctor and I couldn’t read Joe’s mind. Everything I thought might be true was just an assumption on my part.
Joe and I had only made it through one day of his captivity. There were nine days left to go, but the words “sissy boy” stuck with me. I know it went right over Hoss’ head but even though Pa didn’t comment, I couldn’t help but think he was pondering over the same commonly used term for men who were too weak or too small to defend themselves against larger, tougher men or, in this case, a man who’d spent time at San Quentin. Had something vile and disgusting happened to my brother? Was he holding back? Was this why he couldn’t talk to Pa?
My father’s bible sat on Joe’s nightstand. Pa read to him every day. Passages he thought would help my brother heal were marked with small slips of paper, and I’m guessing the same verses were repeated more than once. It was Pa’s way. God heals, and I couldn’t berate him for his beliefs. They’d been ingrained since childhood, and nothing—not even the deaths of three wives—had caused my father to lose faith in the powers of the Almighty.
As days progressed and more of Joe’s time spent under the floorboards was revealed, we put bits and pieces together and tried to form a timeline. Joe’s leg was his first injury. A beating with Morrison’s cane, and then forced to disrobe all but his trousers also came that first day. What Joe forgot or hesitated to mention was he’d been chained to the post only hours after his attempt to escape. That little piece of information didn’t come for two more days of talking one-on-one in his cave-like bedroom.
When he mentioned the handcuff and chain, he also said it was at least two days after he’d been captured before Morrison dropped a canteen down the open hatch. Not only was the cellar cold, Joe’d had nothing to eat or drink for 48 hours.
“I never thought I’d see anyone ever again, Adam. I thought he’d left me there to die and no one would ever find me. The ground was cold, and I tried to sit up, but the chain was too short. I wondered if my leg was broke. My ankle was swollen and I could barely move. When he dropped the canteen, I drank too much and . . . I just wanted to come home.”
“Doc says your leg will be fine, Joe. You won’t have to wear the splint forever. Soon, you’ll be up and around like before.”
I was trying not to comment on the worst parts, but nothing I said brought a smile to Joe’s face. Even though he was willing to give minimal details, I listened carefully. I’m not sure he heard a word I said. He was trapped in a world of his own, and I could only hope some of my remarks were sinking in and he’d realize his life wasn’t over, that his injuries were not life-threatening, and that it was only a temporary setback and he’d be as good as new in no time.
All of this torment over a timber contract.
I looked at Joe now. Even inside a room that was suffocatingly warm, he’d kept himself wrapped in blankets. With the door and window closed, it seemed as though he was still fighting the effects of his captivity, but my musings ended when Joe’s whispered voice caught me off guard.
“He kept calling me sissy-boy, Adam. He told me I was prettier than any man he’d seen in prison. He’d come down the ladder just to tell me things like that. He always carried that stick, and he’d poke my arm or my leg or slap that stupid cane hard against my chest. I’d flinch or try to move out of his way, but it was no use. I was blindfolded and chained to that post.
“I didn’t know what he wanted from me. I’d roll on my side just so I didn’t have to face him, but he’d grab my arm and make me lay flat on my back. Sometimes he’d kneel down next to me. He’d grab my chin and turn my face upright, but I couldn’t see what he doing or what he was lookin’ at.”
“Did he do anything else . . . I mean, he fed you, right?”
My thoughts had taken a direction that scared me, and I changed my line of questioning quickly to food rather than hear if Morrison had ever touched my brother in a certain way, a prison way.
“He brought food, but the stew was always cold and greasy, sometimes a piece of bread. Some days were worse than others. I could hear him walking, and I could hear his stick hit the floor. I could smell food cooking, but I didn’t always get a meal. It was dark, Adam. I never knew if it was day or night. He’d leave me alone for hours. I didn’t know if he was coming back, and sometimes I wondered if he’d gone away and left me there to die alone.”
I reached for my brother’s hand and again he pulled away. He hugged that damn pillow tighter to his chest. Always the pillow, as though it was a shield, as though it might protect him from all the bad things in the world. He pulled his left knee to his chest, his backup defense.
“I couldn’t see, Adam, but I could smell. I smelled his cigars, and I knew when he was in the cellar, but I couldn’t see him. He’d kneel down on the floor and grab hold of my hair. He’d pull my head back so far back I thought my neck would snap into. Then he’d run that stick across my throat like a knife . . . then he’d laugh. He always laughed”
I could sense the terror in Joe’s voice, but he seemed willing to talk and I kept at him. The sooner it was all out in the open, the sooner we could get Joe out of this room and move on with our lives.
“When did your face get cut, Joe?”
“That was later. He, um . . . he brought down a plate of stew and held a spoon to my mouth. It had been days or maybe just hours, I don’t really know, but I couldn’t eat. My stomach was all messed up and when I wouldn’t take a bite, he threatened me with his knife.”
“He held it under your chin?”
“Yeah, but I—“
“Come on, Joe. What happened next?
“I fought him, Adam. I fought back.”
“That’s good, Joe!”
Joe shook his head. His fingers tightened around the pillow.
“Don’t you see, Adam?”
“No, I don’t see.”
“It wasn’t his fault. I grabbed his wrist and we fought, but I only had one hand. It was a stupid move and that’s when the knife . . . when the blade sliced my face. It wasn’t him it was me. It was my fault. If only I hadn’t fought him . . .”
Joe raised his hand to his cheek and fingered the small bandage still covering the cut. Hop Sing came upstairs every morning after breakfast and changed the dressing after he applied a generous amount of his herbal salve to the bright, red scar.
“Joe,” I said just above a whisper. “You did what you had to do.”
“You don’t understand. He apologized. He put his handkerchief on my cheek. He said he was sorry.”
“He said he was sorry.”
I sighed overloud. Nothing made sense. He tortures the kid and feels guilt at the same time? What kind of crazed man was Joshua Morrison?
“None of this was your fault. You remember that, Joe. You did what any man, under those circumstances, would have done. You fought back. You tried to protect yourself.”
Joe half-smiled. “Yeah, and look what good it did me. Look at me now, Adam. I’ll always have a scar and . . . and what happens when—“
His voice trailed off, but Joe was easy to read. He couldn’t even say her name out loud, but I wasn’t born yesterday. Besides everything else, Joe’s acute sense of vanity was beginning to surface.
Sarah Linden had come by the house twice since we’d returned home. Pa had sent her away both times explaining that Joe wasn’t ready to entertain guests just yet, but he’d send word as soon as my brother was up and around. Seeing and hearing Joe now, I knew Pa was right. Though I’d never considered Joe a sissy-boy, his facial features were fine, almost delicate—so much like Marie—and he prided himself on his appearance. Considering his vulnerable state, I don’t think Joe could handle visitors of any kind, especially his girl.
A severe case of puppy love—those two. At nearly seventeen years old, they enjoyed each other’s company a great deal. They’d been to a couple of dances together and had gone buggy riding on Sundays after church. Not only was she the class valedictorian, but she was also a banker’s daughter, and her father kept a sharp eye. He knew Pa and therefore he trusted Little Joe to follow Pa’s example of decency and high standards when it came to his little girl.
“That’s enough for now,” I said. “We’ve had a good talk, but you’re tired and you need to sleep a while this afternoon. And most of all, I don’t think you need to worry about Sarah.”
“Isn’t she part of the problem?”
Joe turned his head. “She won’t want to be with me now.”
I wanted to smack him. Instead, I challenged him. “I guess she’s not much of a person, is she?”
“Sarah’s the best, Adam. You have no right—“
“If she’s the best, little brother, then nothing you’ve been through will matter to her. She’s been here twice asking after you.”
“Yes, but Pa didn’t think you were ready for visitors.”
“Oh . . . he’s right, you know. I don’t want her here. You keep her away, Adam. Promise me.”
Finally, I got a rise out of Little Joe, and it gave me hope for the future. Not only did he fight Morrison, he fought for his girl. That’s the Joe I wanted to see come back into our lives. That’s the Little Joe we all needed to fight for.
“Do you think Pa’s right? Do you think everything’s in God’s hands?”
“I don’t know. What brought that on?”
Joe seemed embarrassed to say more, but I wasn’t going to play guessing games. I prompted him to go on.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I lied.
Pa was drowning my brother in scriptures. That was his way of healing, not mine, and I wondered what verses they’d discussed over the past few days.
“Pa reads to me from the bible. Sometimes he explains what he reads. I know he means well, but I can’t answer him. I don’t know what to say, and I can’t tell him what he wants to hear.”
“You tell me things, Joe. Why not Pa?”
Joe turned his head.
“It’s nothing, Adam.”
“Come on. Tell me what’s really bothering you. I know there’s more. Is it Morrison? Is it something he said or did?”
“Did he touch you, Joe? Did Morrison put his hands on you?”
Joe looked straight at me. “What do you mean?”
“Did . . . did he do anything that embarrassed you, that you don’t want anyone else to know about?”
I didn’t want to come right out and say it, but Joe was making this hard. Did he even know about such things? Was he too young to understand my meaning?
“I guess not,” he said.
His answer was so casual, so nonchalant that relief washed over me like a train roaring down steel tracks. I was finally confident Morrison hadn’t used my brother in that way.
“You can’t ever tell Pa,” he said.
Oh no. Had I jumped to the wrong conclusion? Usually, my instincts were right, but had I been too quick to put those assumptions behind me?
“Tell him what, Joe.”
I held my breath. I wanted to cry out to my father’s god and ask why he’d let this happen to my brother, my innocent young brother.
“I wanted to die.”
“What? But, Joe, you fought to live. Why would you say that now?”
“Just before you and Pa and Hoss found me, he told me he’d killed my family. He said he’d tied all three of you to chairs and set fire to the house. He said he’d burned you alive, that I was the only one left, and he’d have to kill me since he’d just confessed to three murders.
“I told him to get it over with. I . . . I begged him to kill me. I begged him, and that’s why you can’t tell Pa. I didn’t want to be the only one left alive. Don’t you see?”
“But he didn’t kill you, Joe.”
“It doesn’t matter, Adam.” Joe’s eyes bore into mine; his voice rose in volume.
“Pa won’t see it that way. No one should beg to die. The bible says . . . I went against God. You and I both know that’s wrong, and you know how much it would hurt Pa if he knew what I did. I was ready to die, Adam. If Pa ever knew that he . . . he’d hate me. He wouldn’t want to call me son.”
“Come on, Joe. Pa could never hate you.”
“Promise you won’t tell him. Promise, Adam.”
“But, Joe. Pa has to know.”
“Can’t we talk this through?”
“No. It’s all been said.”
Joe dug himself deep under the blankets. The discussion was over and without another word, Joe expected me to leave his room. For now, I’d let him sleep, but this talk of death and dying was far from over.
Crashing in on my own lighthearted dream, Joe’s sharp, keening cry broke the silence that generally existed in the dead of night. Forcing the three of us from our beds, Hoss, Pa and I nearly collided with each other in the dimly lit hallway. Pa had his dressing gown pulled over one shoulder and was fighting to slip his other arm through when I stilled his urgent strides toward my brother’s room.
“Let me,” I insisted. “You two go back to bed.”
My heart went out to my father. He’d spent endless hours at Joe’s bedside, and backing away from his son’s nighttime cries wasn’t part of his mindset. I knew what had brought on the nightmare, and I felt I could end Joe’s torment easier than Pa this time around. I’d made Joe a promise and, in this particular instance, I knew I could do the most good.
“Please,” I said. “Just this once.”
Hoss yawned and scratched his thinning hair and without a comment of his own, he turned and walked back down the hall. Pa hesitated but after only a moment, he gave me the okay, he let me be the one. After a quick nod to my father, I pushed Joe’s bedroom door open.
Joe had not extinguished his lamp. With the wick turned low, I had enough light to realize his bed was empty, and his bed sheet and blanket draped the floor on one side. Scanning the room quickly, I found my brother cowered in a corner of the room; his hands covered his head. The kid was trembling with fear. He whimpered softly. The muted sounds of his cries told me there was more to the story and, in his mind, the demons were attacking in earnest. Something else happened in that cellar, and I was determined to find out everything my brother had endured.
Proceeding cautiously, I called his name. “Joe,” I whispered. “It’s Adam. You’re home. You’re safe.”
I reached for his shoulder. His shirtfront was wet, either tears or perspiration, I wasn’t sure which. And, like a scene from years past, when childhood monsters attacked at night, Joshua Morrison had returned to haunt and terrorize Joe’s young mind. Though I’d comforted him as a child, childhood had long since passed but this time, the monster was real. He had shape and form, and even though Morrison wasn’t physically here in the room, the image of his tormentor had enough dominance over Joe to overpower his mind. This monster was very real.
“Please, Adam. Please don’t tell Pa. The scripture says anyone among the living has hope.” His voice was frantic and his eyes showed extreme fear. “Pa read those words to me so he can never know I wanted to die. He read those words from the bible, Adam, and if he finds out, he’ll know I’m a sinner. Please. You can’t ever tell Pa.”
“Joe. You’re very much alive and you’re not a sinner. Tell me what else happened to you. What else did Morrison do?”
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
“What else, Joe?” My tone was harsh and unkind. I needed to break through the nightmare and find the truth.
“We need to pray, Adam. We’ll pray together.”
Joe was near panic. His voice had become more frenzied now, but he’d bowed his head and palmed his hands together.
“Let’s get you back to bed,” I said calmly.
“No, no no. We have to pray for salvation.”
I tried to lift him from the floor but with his right leg splinted, I couldn’t move him for fear of snapping one of the wooden supports Doc had used.
“Please, Joe. You need to get back in bed.”
“He said it was time to die.”
“Morrison?” I questioned. Surely, these weren’t Pa’s words.
“He unchained my wrist, but he left me blindfolded.”
“He took a shot. Dirt sprayed my face. I started crawling. He kept shooting forward, but I couldn’t find the ladder, Adam. He laughed at me. He reloaded his pistol and the shots came closer, and I ended up scrambling to a corner of the room. I couldn’t go any farther. I was trapped and he laughed louder. That’s why we have to pray. I’d already begged him to kill me, but when he started shooting I didn’t want to die.”
“You’re alive, Joe. You beat Morrison. He liked playing games but look who won. He’s behind bars and you’re home with me and Hoss and Pa.”
“Pa won’t understand. I begged him, Adam. Pray with me. Our Father who art in heaven . . . Adam? Hallowed be thy Name. Oh, God. I can’t face Pa. He hates me. Did you tell him? You told him, didn’t you? Oh, God, oh, God. Why, Adam, why? You promised!”
I grabbed Joe’s arms and jerked his hands apart. “Joe! That’s enough!”
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as—“
“Joseph! Stop it!”
Joe clutched the front of my nightshirt and I let go of his upper arms. He wrapped his arms around me and with a sudden outbreak of emotion; he pressed his face against my chest and cried like the wounded animal he’d become. It broke my heart to realize how hard Pa tried to make things right for his son, but his words and the scriptures he’d chosen to read had backfired and had left Joe longing for peace of mind.
Still kneeling on the floor, I rocked my young brother back and forth until a sense of calm came over him. The tears, along with reciting chosen verses, had ended. I slid one arm under his legs and the other behind his back. I lifted him onto the bed and covered him with several blankets. The worst had passed, and Joe slept.
Outside his bedroom door, my father stood with his back pressed against the wall. Tears threatened, but none fell. He’d managed to listen and not interrupt our conversation, but Joe’s words had left deep wounds. I could try to smooth things over, but Joe’s guilt over wanting to die and Pa’s verses alluding to salvation had given Joe fodder for the nightmare.
“Yes, I heard.”
I pulled Joe’s door closed. “Let’s go downstairs.”
“You better put on something warm,” Pa said. “I’m sure the fire’s gone out.”
I returned to my room, grabbed my robe and slippers, and by the time I made it down to the first floor, Pa had added logs to the fire and was jamming the iron poker at last night’s coals. He stood ramrod straight, and I could tell from his stance that he was ready to square off using me as a sounding board.
I wasn’t prepared for the conversation. Per Joe’s request, I had kept his promise and in our family, that’s not how things worked. We didn’t keep secrets and we didn’t tell lies, and I’d been party to both. In my father’s mind, concealing facts was the same as lying. I was guilty as charged.
The clock struck two times as I reached for the container of brandy and two glasses. Call me a coward, but I needed liquid strength and I imagined my father did too. After pouring two shots, I walked back toward the fireplace, handed Pa a glass, and took a seat on the settee closest to my father’s large, leather chair.
Pa still stoked the fire. He hadn’t looked my way, not even to acknowledge the drink I’d placed in his hand. He was upset; I realized that but the sooner we talked this out, the sooner we both could go back to bed and be ready to face Joe tomorrow.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I had to break the ice somehow but silence remained. Rather than down the shot all at once, I sipped my drink and waited for Pa to say anything, something I could expound on so that no one was to blame.
“What else haven’t you told us, Adam?”
Us referred to Pa and Hoss.
“Nothing. I’ve told you everything Joe’s said except the part about wanting to die. He made me promise not to tell you.”
Pa set the poker down and turned to face me. “I don’t understand.”
Here’s where it got tricky. My father’s and my opinions differed, and it wasn’t the proper time to have a conversation concerning the merits of the Christian religion. This was about Joe. I didn’t live my life according to ancient scriptures, and I had to choose my words wisely. We’d never had a sit-down discussion concerning our contrasting beliefs or the fact that I’d given up on Pa’s god years ago.
“In Joe’s current state,” I said haltingly, “I think the verses you chose to read from the bible might have—” Pa’s glare nearly unnerved me but I continued. “He might have taken the scriptures too literally. Joe believed you would find him weak or . . . or, I’m no doctor, Pa. I can’t say for certain, but Joe thought you would hate him, maybe even disown him if you knew he’d begged Morrison to kill him. But that’s not the whole story. There’s more you need to know.”
I’d always relayed everything to Pa and Hoss after I’d spoken to Joe, up until the part about Morrison telling my young, half-starved, frightened brother his family was dead, tied to chairs and burned alive. I explained in detail everything Joe has said then questioned my father. Surely, he would understand Joe’s reasoning. Under those conditions, I might have felt the same as my kid brother.
“Don’t you see, Pa? Do you realize what the kid was going through? Morrison told him he was never leaving the cellar alive. When he made up the story about all of us dying in a fire, Joe saw no reason to prolong his life. He wanted it over, and that’s when he begged Morrison to kill him.
“When you read certain scriptures to Joe, he realized he’d been wrong, that no one should beg to die. He felt ashamed. He felt he couldn’t face you after what he’d done or said to his captor or confessed to me. Wanting to die was against everything you believed. Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you understand why he made me promise not to tell?”
My father looked tired and old. He didn’t respond and I explained the remainder of the story, the part about Morrison shooting at Joe in the cellar. Pa nodded his head. He’d listened to all I had to say, but he was torn, inconsolable, and I didn’t know what to say or do next.
“Is there anything else you haven’t told me?”
“No. That’s everything.”
I downed the rest of my brandy. I remembered the nights I’d spent on the front porch when we’d all shied away from discussing the “incident.” Whiskey and quiet. A good combination at the time. Now, we knew everything about Joe’s time away from the family, but we were no closer to bringing my brother around than we’d been the day we’d brought him home. What was the answer? I waited for my father’s response.
“I’m for bed,” he said.
Like father, like son. And Pa wonders where Joe gets the same exact response. There would be no answers. Maybe that was for the best. Maybe Pa needed time to put everything I’d said in perspective.
The sun shone brightly; not a cloud in the sky. A gentle morning breeze stirred the thin, sheer curtains at my bedroom window. Unlike days past, this was a day of possibilities and, with any luck at all, it would be a day of new beginnings. In desperate times, optimism was the key to success or was it just a bunch of crap that filled my mind and gave me a reason to crawl from my bed and start a new day.
I had to think positive for Joe’s sake, Pa’s too. I rolled my feet to the floor and glanced toward my open window. I’d slept later than usual, and I wondered why Hoss hadn’t been up to wake me at Pa’s insistence that we all sit down together for breakfast.
I shaved and dressed before I headed downstairs to find the morning meal had been cleared away and the house was empty and quiet. Glancing at the grandfather clock, it read nine-twenty. I moved on toward the kitchen, knowing I’d find Hop Sing and hopefully the information I was after. Where was everyone?
“Morning, Mister Adam.”
“Morning, Hop Sing.” Before I could say anything more, a mug of coffee was doctored with a heaping spoon of sugar and handed to me. “Thanks,” I said.
“Father sitting on front porch.”
Being a mind reader was one of Hop Sing’s many talents. He had several, but this invaluable asset saved time and effort on everyone’s part. I thanked him again and walked through the kitchen door that led outside. And when I saw the two of them sitting together, as if nothing had happened over the course of the last few days and nights, I nearly spilled my steaming-hot mug of coffee. I walked toward Pa and Joe. They both looked up at the same time. Both were dressed, shaved, smiling and sipping their own mugs of coffee.
“Good morning,” I said cautiously.
“Have a seat, son.”
My world was suddenly turned upside down. Here were Pa and Joe sitting outside Joe’s cave-like room where my brother had barricaded himself behind closed windows and doors and barely spoken a word unless prodded for each tiny scrap of information.
“Morning, Adam,” Joe said.
“Joe,” I acknowledged.
“Nice morning, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, still questioning the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed attitude my young brother conveyed. “Very nice.”
Pa chuckled softly. Maybe it was the look on my face. Maybe it was the way I shifted in my chair, but I was at a loss for words. Dumbfounded was the reaction my father saw but didn’t comment directly.
“Little Joe and I’ve had a long talk this morning. He brought me up to speed, didn’t you, son?”
“No more hiding truths from each other, right, Joe?”
“Yessir.” Joe turned to me. “I’m sorry, Adam.”
“For everything I said. For making you promise not to tell Pa.”
“No need to apologize, Joe. I’m just glad to see you dressed and outside and . . . talking.”
Had this sudden reversal been easy for him? Had I been wrong to keep a promise? Or, was I being forgiven for breaking a promise I couldn’t keep after Joe nightmarish reaction threatened my own relationship with my father?
“From now on, we talk things out,” Pa said. “We don’t keep secrets from each other.”
“Maybe I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
“That’s right, son. Apology accepted.”
Why did I suddenly feel like an outsider in my own home? Eventually, I would have convinced Joe to tell Pa everything. One more day of talking with him and I would have accomplished the task, but I felt I was being chastised for my part in Joe’s recovery.
That’s when I noticed Pa’s open bible sitting on the table in front of him. More Old Testament scriptures? Had Pa been hammering additional ancient verses into my brother while I slept, while I wasn’t on hand to question my father’s motives? After our discussion last night, I thought I’d made it clear. Was I losing my mind completely?
“Where’s Hoss?” I asked.
“He took a wagonload of supplies out to the south pasture. I told him to let you sleep in this morning, and you’d meet him there later.”
I hadn’t touched my coffee. I tossed the still-hot liquid on the ground.
“I’ll get going then.”
“Wait,” Pa said. “Have Hop Sing fix you something to eat.”
Food was the last thing I wanted. “I’m fine. I’ll eat an early lunch.”
Joe looked up, smiling. Pa gave a quick nod. I said nothing. I walked back inside the house, grabbed my hat and gunbelt and headed for the barn to saddle my horse. When I reached Hoss and his fencing supplies, I tied Sport to the rear of the wagon and looped my gunbelt over the saddle horn.
“Hey, brother,” I said.
“’Bout time you showed up.”
Hoss took out his kerchief and wiped sweat from his face. It was warm, and he’d already put in a couple hours work. I held the replacement post he’d set into a hole and let him hammer away. Although it was a two-man job, my big brother seemed to manage quite nicely alone until I arrived. With my right boot, I kicked loose dirt around the base of the pole and stomped it down. The pole was set.
“Let’s take a break,” I said.
“A break? You just got here.”
“I know. Come on.”
The advantage of being the eldest of three is that, more often than not, my younger brothers do as I say. Hoss dropped the sledge on the ground, grabbed his canteen from the back of the wagon, and followed me to the shade of an old oak where we both plopped down on the ground.
“What’s up?” Hoss asked. “You ain’t actin’ yourself.”
“You’re here five minutes and you’re ready for a break. Ain’t you feelin’ good?”
“I feel fine,” I said. Refusing the urge to correct my brother’s grammar, I wasted no time getting to the point. “Was Joe up when you left the house?”
“Nope. Pa was.” Hoss chuckled. “Seemed he was tryin’ to get rid of me ‘fore I even finished my breakfast. He said you’d be sleepin’ late and I should go on without you.”
“You have any trouble gettin’ Joe calmed down last night?”
“No, not really,” I lied. Why drag Hoss into this? I was the one with the problem, not him.
“So, what’s up? What’s botherin’ you, Adam?”
“I was thinking about Joe,” I said. “He and Pa were sitting on the front porch together when I came downstairs.”
“Really?” Hoss’ face lit up. His eyes rounded and his smile was genuine. “I’ll be dadburned. He’s finally come out of it . . . hasn’t he?”
In an instant, Hoss appeared worried. His smile faded; his eyes narrowed, and it was my job to assure him all was well.
“I hope so. He seemed to enjoy being outdoors with Pa.”
“Hot Dog! Let’s hurry up and get these posts in. I can’t wait to talk to little brother.”
After settling the horses in the barn and storing the remaining supplies, Hoss and I walked to the house together. Hoss was the first to speak. I was still mulling the morning’s events over in my mind.
“Hey, Pa,” he hollered.
Pa rounded the corner with his forefinger to his lips. “Quiet, son. Joe’s resting.”
Joe’s voice came from the settee where he’d been napping while Pa concentrated on paperwork at his desk, less than ten feet away, where he could keep a sharp eye and know every move my brother made. My father thrived on a controlled situation.
Was I jealous? Call it silly or call it my fragile ego, but I was troubled and I wasn’t sure why. My role as a go-between was over. Like a knight banished from King Arthur’s Round Table, I felt I’d been used and discarded, as though my presence wasn’t unnecessary, as though my time spent with Joe had been a fruitless venture on my part.
“Excuse me,” I said as politely as possible. Maybe if I freshened up, I’d have a change of heart. I walked toward the stairs.
I was halfway across the room when Joe called my name. He’d swung his stockinged feet, managed his awkward splint, and had scooted to the edge of the settee. He looked a bit disheveled. His shirt was untucked and his hair—well, it needed a good brushing. In fact, he looked like one of the young urchins we often found begging for coins on the streets of Virginia City.
I glanced at Pa before I sat down next to Joe. I’d been put on the spot, like an actor taking center stage, but I was lacking a script. What if I said the wrong thing? What if Joe . . . what if Pa was right all along and Joe had come this far after listening to Pa read Bible verses rather than talking things out?
“I just wanted to say thanks, Adam.”
“Yeah. For everything.”
“Joe, I . . . we all tried to help. We all want you to get well.”
“I am. I’m better now, Adam.”
Joe’s hands hung between his legs. I patted his arm, and he still flinched at my gentle touch.
“Sure you’re okay?” I said for his ears only. Joe nodded, but his head remained bowed toward the floor. “We’ll talk later, okay?”
A second nod followed the first.
Hop Sing called supper, and the four of us took our seats at the dining room table. Joe placed his napkin on his lap and looked up at Pa—for what? Support? Encouragement? Pa winked at Joe before he passed the large platter of pork chops.
I regarded Joe’s movements. They seemed mechanical in nature, as though he was asking permission for every move he made. What had I missed? What kind of message had my father driven into the kid? More verses? More ways for Joe to punish himself for the misery that man put him through under the floor of that cabin?
“You gonna ride out with us tomorrow, Joe? You ready to set some new fence posts?”
“Hold on there, Hoss,” Pa cut in. “I’m not sure Joseph’s ready for a full day’s work just yet, especially with his leg still splinted.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, Joe. I plum forgot about your leg.”
“Paul said a couple more weeks and Joe will be fit for just about anything.”
“A couple more weeks.”
The Doc must have stopped by. Funny, Pa didn’t mention that earlier. Hoss’ voice held such excitement I’d nearly joined in and encouraged Joe myself. Apparently, Hoss wasn’t seeing the same thing I was. The downcast eyes. The quick glances at our father. Even the way Joe was eating. He hadn’t had an appetite until tonight. A glass of milk or maybe a half a bowl of soup and he’d been full. Tonight, he was eating everything on his plate until . . .
Without the use of his crutches, Joe sprung from his chair and hobbled quickly into the kitchen where we overheard evidence of Joe losing his supper. Pa jumped from his own chair and followed. Too much too soon, but what brought on this sudden change in Joe’s eating habits?
“Poor kid. He sure is tryin’, ain’t he, Adam?”
“Yeah,” I replied sarcastically. “He’s sure is.”
“Why’d ya say it like that? Ain’t you happy he’s gettin’ better?”
I sat taller in my chair and nodded at Hoss. “Yes,” I lied. “I’m happy for him.”
My appetite was gone; my plate was half full and I couldn’t force another bite if I tried. I needed to talk to Joe. I needed the truth. Yes, Joe was trying, but he was trying too hard. Was he trying to make Pa love him again? They must have discussed the nightmare, but what were the end results, and why was Joe trying so hard when his mind and body weren’t ready to be whole again?
When I pushed my chair back from the table, Hoss turned my way. “Ain’t you gonna finish your supper?”
“Not tonight. My stomach’s a little off.”
“Hope you ain’t comin’ down with somethin’.”
“I’m fine. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure.”
I reached for Joe’s crutches and started toward the kitchen when Pa and Joe came around the corner into the dining room.
“I’ll take those,” Pa said.
He waited for Joe to situate each crutch then walked alongside my brother to the settee. I assumed Pa would take Joe upstairs to bed, but I was wrong. He called to Hoss.
“How about a game of checkers, son? I think your young brother is ready for a night with the family.”
Hoss glanced at me before he answered my father. “Yessir,” he said, but we’d both been thinking the same thing. This wasn’t Joe’s idea; this was Pa’s.
Hoss scrambled to fill his mouth with two more bites of pork and potatoes then pushed away from the table. He set up the board and lined checkers on both sides. He sat on the coffee table opposite Joe who sat on the settee.
“You go first, little brother.”
Joe hadn’t said two words all evening. He scooted to the edge of the settee, adjusted his splinted leg under the table, and moved a checker. Pa sat in his chair and lit his pipe as though we were one big happy family, as though Joe was suddenly cured and life was back to normal.
“Won’t you join us, Adam?”
It wasn’t a request and from the tone of Pa’s voice, I knew what was expected. “Certainly,” I said.
After one game of checkers, the look on Joe’s face said it all. He was miserable, tired, and completely wrung out. After Hoss had all the kings stacked in front of him, Pa realized his plan for family time wasn’t working like he’d hoped. He moved toward Joe and he helped him upstairs to bed and when he didn’t come down after a few minutes, I wondered why, but it was none of my business. Not until I talked to Joe myself. Not until I understood the complete change in Pa’s attitude toward his youngest son.
I bid goodnight to Hoss and headed up to bed myself. All the bedroom doors were closed but a light shone under Joe’s, leaving me to believe Pa was still inside with him. I washed up and slipped into my nightshirt. Even though my mind was cluttered with today’s events, I pulled out a book to read. Maybe, if I concentrated hard enough, I could appreciate someone else’s story and leave the Cartwright saga for another day.
Nearly an hour had past when I heard footsteps and bedroom doors closing. Either Hoss or Pa—maybe both. I didn’t get up to check. I’d wait a few more minutes before I confronted Joe.
“A Tale of Two Cities” The book seemed promising but I couldn’t get my head around anything but the first few lines . . .
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . “
I read and reread the opening passage until I’d memorized every word. How apropos. I’d picked up Dickens’ newly released novel over a week ago and hadn’t had time to even scan the first page. He wrote with such insight into a man’s soul that I almost felt content knowing our family wasn’t alone, that others suffered as we did, that mistakes were made, and that my gut told me we weren’t out of the woods yet.
Reading any more of Dickens’ tale would have been a waste of time. I rolled my legs off the bed and slipped into my dressing gown. As I reached for the ties, my bedroom door opened. I had a visitor. Like days of old, when he couldn’t sleep, he’d tiptoe down the hall and climbed in bed with me. Then, he began talking a mile a minute about this and that. Tonight, I was confident I knew the subject matter better than Joe did himself.
“Come in, Joe,” I said.
Though he’d already closed the door behind him, I gave him a friendly greeting just in case. Joe was funny that way. In an instant, he could bolt from my room without saying a word. We needed to talk. I wasn’t about to let him leave.
Again, he spoke in the childlike voice of a frightened five-year-old kid.
“Come sit down, Joe.”
Clad in only his nightshirt, I had him crawl in my bed and I covered his legs with blankets. I sat on the edge, not so close that we’d touch, but close enough. I waited for him to begin. Unlike Joe, I wasn’t one to jump to conclusions without all the facts. I didn’t want to put words in his mouth so I waited.
“Pa . . .”
His voice trailed away. He loved our father so much; I assumed it was hard for him to say anything belittling or offensive about Pa, but he was obviously troubled about something.
“Go on, Joe. Just say it?”
“I can’t . . .”
I waited for more but more didn’t come. “You love Pa, right?”
Joe’s eyes shot up and met mine. “That’s a stupid question, Adam.”
“Pa loves you, right?”
His eyes dropped; he stared at the patchwork quilt covering his legs. He shook his head.
“Pa loves you more than life itself. He dotes on you, Joe. You’re his baby son. You’re his pride and joy.”
Outright clichés, but words Joe would understand and needed to accept as truths—because everything I said was the honest truth.
“What happened today?” I asked.
“I read stuff.”
“From the bible?”
“Did it help?”
“No. It only made things worse.”
Joe shook his head. His shoulders dropped; he played with a loose string on the quilt. Again, I had to choose my words wisely. I didn’t want Joe running off before we hashed out today’s problems.
“You’re not betraying Pa by telling me. Is that what you think?”
“Pa said I need to get well.”
“You want to get better, don’t you?”
“Pa said God could help me. He said I should trust in God and He would make me better.”
Again, I struggled for words. Joe looked so sad, so lost. I thought of Dickens. I thought of the passage I’d read over and over until my mind was satisfied Joe wasn’t alone, that none of us were alone in our struggle to bring the old Joe back to life.
“Would you mind reading something other than the bible? It’s a short passage but I think you might like what it says.”
“I don’t want to read nothin’ else, Adam. It doesn’t help.”
“Maybe this will. Do it for me, okay?”
I reached for Dickens’ book. I didn’t have to leave my seat on the bed; I’d placed the book on my nightstand. I turned up the lamp and opened to page one. I handed it to Joe.
“Just read the first paragraph.”
His eyes moved across the page. He read it once, and he read it a second time (for good measure, I guess). Then, he smiled.
“That’s me,” he said. “That’s just how I feel.”
There was a brightness to his eyes, a brilliance I hadn’t seen for days, not since we’d brought him home from the cabin and tucked him into bed in that dark, dungeon of a room. Joe looked alive. He looked willing to face another day.
“I thought so too,” I said. “Reading passages from different authors is sometimes helpful, Joe. The bible is filled with different author’s points of view. This is just another point of view.”
“So I’m not the only one who feels this way?”
“No, your not, little brother. You’re not alone, but you can beat this, Joe.” With or without the bible as your guide. I wouldn’t contradict my father. Not to Joe. Not to anyone. “Keep those thoughts in your head. Know you aren’t alone, that others suffer as you do and, if you’re willing, you can move from the darkness to the light.”
“What about Pa. He won’t understand.”
“You want me to talk to him?”
There was a long pause before Joe nodded his head.
“All right. I’ll have a word.”
“Can I borrow your book?”
“Of course, you may.”
“I’m pretty sure I can sleep now, Adam.”
I smiled at my youngest brother. Whether I could make Pa understand was uncertain but for Joe’s wellbeing, my father would try most anything to help an ailing son. A sensible man might have waited until morning but after I heard Joe’s bedroom door close, I opened mine. There was no time like the present. I stepped into my father’s bedroom and closed the door behind me.
“Hop Sing has everything ready,” Pa said. “Go get your brothers but don’t let on.”
Today was Joe’s birthday—seventeen. We’d said nothing all day. We’d let him think we’d all but forgotten this special occasion. Hoss set it up that Joe’s best friend, Mitch Devlin, would come to his party and bring Sarah Linden with him. I wanted to caution Pa. It may be too soon but for the most part, Joe was on the mend. The splint had been removed nearly three weeks ago and the cut on his left cheek was nothing but a thin, red line, far from the nasty gash it had been when we’d found him.
Though he hadn’t ventured away from the ranch, Joe was back to full-time work status. Hoss and I kept him busier than he’d ever been in his life, and he thrived on every minute. Whether pounding in fence posts or chasing ornery steers, my young brother was in his element and nothing meant more to Joe, except one very important thing—Pa.
Father and son had come to an understanding. They’d made amends. Pa realized his eagerness to fill what he considered a void had backfired. He’d hoped the scriptures he chose would help rather than hinder Joe’s recovery, that he would find solace and begin to heal. Instead, just the opposite took place. Joe considered himself unworthy of our father’s love, and the hole he’d dug for himself became deeper with every new verse Pa read.
We’d had a good talk the night I’d entered Pa’s bedroom without invitation. I’d tempered my dialogue as I, too, worshiped my father and would never want to cause undue grief to a man I loved and admired above all others.
“Love him,” I’d said. “Don’t preach. He loves you, Pa. He wants you to love him back, and he’s afraid you never will. Hold him, praise him, but leave the scriptures for another time. It’s too much for him right now.”
We talked in depth that night. I chose my words wisely. My father is a deeply religious man, and I wasn’t there to discuss our different beliefs. I wasn’t denouncing God to my father, I was merely asking him to try different tactics with Joe.
As I made my way to the barn to fetch my brothers inside for the celebration, I thought back on the conversation Pa and I’d had. Much had changed over the days that followed, and I realized how happy Joe and Pa seemed to be. Joe’s smile was no longer forced and after a couple of days, he’d even hit Hoss up for a game of checkers and won.
“Hey, you two,” I hollered from the barn doors. “Supper’s ready.”
Joe hung the last of the oiled tack on the far wall, and they both came willingly. Of course, Hoss knew the plan but poor Joe was oblivious.
“You might want to change your shirt, little brother.”
“Must I explain?” I said with an edge to my voice. “This is supper, you know, and I’d rather smell Hop Sing’s food than smell you. And comb your hair. You look like something the cat dragged in.”
“Geez, Adam. Hoss don’t look no better.”
“Hoss knows enough to change his shirt before supper. You don’t.”
“Fine. I’ll change my shirt.”
As my brothers climbed the stairs, I sighed overloud. Even though Joe balked at my suggestion, he’d be pleased he’d made the effort when his girl walked through the front door. I heard the Devlin buggy pull up in the yard. I hurried outside, pulled Mitch and Sarah in through the kitchen door and told them to wait. Their timing was perfect. How could things possibly go so smoothly? Did miracles exist after all?
Pa and I also hid in the kitchen until we heard Hoss and Joe come down the stairs and make their way across the room. Pa stepped out first and waved the rest of us forward into the dining room.
“Surprise,” we yelled in unison.
Joe nearly tripped over the settee. As I’d said earlier, he was almost healed. Not often, but there were times his ankle gave out and this was one of those times.
“Mitch? Sarah? Why are you here?”
I knew by the tone of Joe’s voice our surprise wasn’t a surprise at all. Somehow, he’d overheard. Somehow, he’d known all along that we’d planned this special event. Maybe I should add eavesdropping to the list of my young brother’s irritating infractions.
After his near miss with the living room furniture, he crossed the room to Sarah and took her hands in his. “You look lovely,” he said. “I’m glad you came.”
“I’m not just your girl’s chauffeur, you know.”
Joe chuckled “You look lovely, too, Mitch. Let’s eat!”
Supper was as near perfect as anyone could have hoped for. Joe was back to his old self, joking with Mitch and Hoss and never taking his eyes off Sarah. He made her feel special. He was quite the romancer, a side of my brother I hadn’t seen before, a side I knew we’d be dealing with for a good many years to come.
After eating Hop Sing’s chocolate cake topped with seventeen brightly lit candles, Joe opened his presents. He was overly gracious to everyone who’d offered up a gift he’d “wanted all his life.” When the party wound down and our guests needed to start for home, Joe looked at Pa with such pleading eyes, my father couldn’t say no.
“Can I ride along with Mitch and Sarah?”
I winked at Hoss. We had more birthday plans for my young brother, and I hoped at least part of the night would be a surprise.
“Why don’t Hoss and I ride along with you?”
Pa knew about our plans and jumped right in with his answer. “That’s a good idea, boys. It’s late, Joseph, and with that ankle still—“
“My ankle’s fine, Pa.”
“Humor me, son.”
Though having older brothers along wasn’t Joe’s first choice for a romantic moment with his girl, it didn’t hamper his mood. It didn’t take a genius to realize he wanted to kiss Sarah or that she wanted to kiss him back. Little brother was growing up.
Since Hoss and my plans didn’t involve Mitch and Sarah, we said nothing until after the two young people were safe at home. Yes, we turned our backs during Joe’s romantic interlude and then, rather than coming straight home; we’d planned to continue celebrating at the Bucket of Blood Saloon. I couldn’t wait to see my young brother’s reaction. We tied our mounts to the hitch rail in front of the flashy new bar.
“Does Pa know about this?”
“Pa?” Hoss questioned. “Did you tell him, Adam?”
“Who? Pa? Didn’t you?”
“Pa ain’t gonna like this, fellas.”
Hoss lost it first. He laughed so hard he ended up bent over, slapping his thighs with both hands. “You really think we’d try somethin’ like this without tellin’ Pa?”
Joe shot me a look. I winked before I looped my arm over his shoulder. “He knows.”
Joe’s eyes brightened. “Then what are we waitin’ for? Let’s go inside!”
With the Morrison brothers out of the picture, the Bucket of Blood was everything I’d remembered, and seeing the saloon through Joe’s eyes made the experience even more worthwhile. We drank cold beer, but we only let Joe have one. We were surrounded by pretty ladies, and Joe eyed each and every one that looked his way as they passed by close in front of him. I heard enough music and loud voices to last a lifetime, or until next Saturday night when my brother would beg Hoss and me for a return visit.
This was Joe’s night. I advised him to drink slow and enjoy, and he heeded my advice to the fullest. Leaning his back against the bar, holding his mug at chest level, he palmed the butt of the pearl-handled Colt Pa had given him just hours ago. My brother wasn’t a boy anymore. He was a grown man. Though I’d never say those words to him, I was convinced he’d aged a few years over the last couple of months.
Maybe there was a god after all. Had a higher power stepped in and helped my brother recover from his time spent with the devil? It was something to consider. Maybe I’d only set Him aside temporarily, and maybe I was willing to accept my father’s god and make Him a part of my life too.
Joe had fought demons that threatened to ruin his relationship with our father. A simple matter really. He’d begged to die but in Joe’s eyes, he’d done the unthinkable. He’d gone against everything he’d been taught, and he’d convinced himself he lost our father’s love.
I understood the circumstances. I understood why. Any man put in that situation might beg for the same ending Joe had wished for. No one knows what he’ll cry out for or where his mind might take him unless he’s put in the same environment with the same torturous man standing over him.
Joe’s a decent man. We’ve all learned lessons because of the “incident.” Even my father, who my brothers and I often believed could do no wrong, had gone too far. He’d preached too hard.
Gas lights filled the saloon and a haze of blue smoke surrounded each crystal lamp. Harried bartenders tried to keep up with the demands of men hammering the bar top for another drink. This was the new Virginia City. This was Joe’s city. The town was growing rapidly and Joe was just coming of age: he was a part of something big.
I realized the words I’d been searching for, Dickens’ words, but not the entire stanza. Although his narrative was brilliant, I settled for the positive. It was the season of light, it was the spring of hope, we had everything before us. I wondered how much Joe remembered of that opening paragraph. The worst was behind him now and the best was yet to come.
No matter what life had in store, Joe would call Virginia City his home. He would watch it grow around him. He would be an intricate part of a boomtown and all of its trimmings. Beer and women. Poker and gunfights. A town filled with action and excitement was at his disposal.
The following years would bring change for all of us and as I watched my young brother tonight, I realized that, as a family, we could overcome most anything. Hoss was watching him too. We would always watch over Little Joe. Whether he’s having a good time or whether trouble might find him, it’s how we’ve always operated and how we always will.