SUMMARY: Joseph Cartwright returns to the Ponderosa to find everything has changed in his absence – for the worst
Rating K (4,116 words)
Where Ghosts Walk
The pinto horse moved slowly up the weed-choked drive, his head hanging low. The rider pulled the horse up in front of the large, rambling house and stared with a bewildered gaze at what lay before him. How could all this have happened in such a short time?
He sat very still, blaming the blowing dust for making his eyes water. He had spent too many years learning to be tough. Why should he cry now? And over a house of all things. It was just a place, empty of the people that had loved it best.
The house was still standing, tall and strong and stately. One end of the porch had fallen in and grass and weeds had grown up through it. The roof had several missing shingles and many of the windows were broken and boarded over. It had stood the years well, but then it had been built to last.
If he sat very still and listened he imagined he could hear laughter, a guitar strumming, and voices raised in friendly banter. Voices that for far too long had gone unheard and had last been raised in anger.
Slowly, he swung down in front of the old hitching rail and made his way up the wooden walkway. A flowerpot still sat on a windowsill, the dried stalks of long dead flowers rustling in the breeze. The familiar door was wired shut, but the wire was rusty and broke easily in his hand. He hesitated for a moment and then stepped inside.
The furniture was all there, covered with old sheets. He rested a hand on the back of the sofa and stared into the empty fireplace, wishing for the warm, crackling flames. He could almost see his father, brandy glass in hand, seated right over there. And his brothers, one slouched in the chair book in hand, the other coming from the kitchen, munching on something he had begged from Hop Sing. Yes, and he could even hear the little cook’s voice raised in happy chatter.
He turned quickly, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of his father seated at his desk. The desk was there, its surface covered with papers, but the beloved figure was not. He closed his eyes and wished that it was all a dream. But when he opened them, only the lifeless room stared back.
Crossing to the stairs, he tested the railing. It seemed strong enough if a little shaky. He started up, muttering to himself when his foot broke through a rotten board. His boots echoed in the empty hallway. Slowly he pushed open one of the doors and it creaked loudly.
The furniture remained up here as well. In fact, the room, except for the sheets covering everything, looked as though the occupant had just stepped out for a moment, planning to return. Books still sat on the shelves, a guitar stood in the corner, and a brush and comb lay on the dresser. He knew that silver-backed brush well, he had seen it many times in his brothers hand.
Crossing to the window, he lifted back the curtain. He rested his forehead on the cool glass and stared down at the overgrown yard. Marie’s rosebushes had run wild, climbing and creeping over everything. The old rope swing still hung from the tree, twisting slightly with the wind. He could hear the echo of a childs’ cry of joy, “Higher, Adam. Higher!” He smiled, remembering. Life had been so simple then.
Lifting his head, he stared into the distance. The mountains beyond shimmered in the heat, and a tumbleweed blew across the nearby pasture. It was much the same as it had always been and he was glad. Some things would never change. He grinned in spite of himself, as he rested his elbows on the windowsill.
Joseph Francis Cartwright had come home.
* * * *
The week had started out so well, Joe thought ruefully to himself, as he rode away from the Ponderosa. It was a gorgeous spring morning and the wildflowers were in full bloom. He had come bounding down to breakfast, bubbling over with cheer and ready to dive into the days work. Sliding into his chair, he forked a piece of sausage onto his plate and fairly shouted, “Good Morning, everyone!” That had earned him a smile from his father and a glare from Adam.
“What’s the matter, older brother?” he’d teased, “Didn’t you sleep well?”
Adam said nothing, just lifted his coffee cup and took another sip. Truth be told, he hadn’t slept well at all. He’d tossed and turned for most of the night and awoke from the little sleep he’d gotten with a blinding headache. He was unsure why he’d had trouble sleeping. He’d had a good day yesterday. The weather had been unusually nice for early spring, meaning it hadn’t rained mud, and the work of fixing up the Ponderosa after the long winter was coming along nicely. Hop Sing had been in a good humor as well and had fixed an especially nice supper. Afterwards, they’d sat around the big room, talking and reading. His brothers had even forgone one of their endless checkers games and instead had begged for a story. Adam had cheerfully obliged and even his father had put down his papers and come over to listen. All in all it had been a good night. So why had everything turned sour so fast?
His father eyed him over his own cup of coffee. “Something the matter, Adam?” Getting no response he shrugged and turned to his other two sons. “I thought today we’d divide up the tasks. There’s no large jobs to be done at the moment and I think we’ll get more done if we split up. Hoss, I want you to get the list of supplies Hop Sing needs and go into town.”
Hoss cheerfully agreed. He liked driving into town. Ben expected an argument from Joe, but was pleasantly surprised when there was none. “Adam, Joe – you boys get your chores done in the barn and then we’ll divide up the rest of the list.” He smiled as his youngest son bounded up from the table, almost knocking over his chair, and headed for the door. “Okay, Pa!” he replied, again at almost top volume. Adam in contrast, slid from his chair and fairly oozed towards the door, which seemed a million miles away. Although he knew they needed to be done, chores were the last thing he wanted to think about at the moment.
Ben watched him go, and sighed. He wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Adam wasn’t getting sick. He would never admit it of course, but a father just knew. It wasn’t like him to act this way.
Joe was currying Cochise when Adam finally reached the barn. “You’re awfully slow this morning, older brother,” he teased, “I’ll be out of here before you even start your chores.”
Adam glared. “And I’ll probably have to do half of them over,” he growled, “Why can’t you ever slow down and do things right?”
Joe was startled. He’d only been teasing. Now his own temper flared. “I can do my chores just fine without your help. I have been for years. What’s the matter with you this morning, anyway? You’re about as much fun as a wounded grizzly.”
“Just shut up, Joe!” Adam shouted, “I don’t need your smart mouth this morning.”
Joe turned on him. “My smart mouth? You started it!” Cochise snorted uneasily and sidestepped as their voices raised in argument, each determined to have the last word.
Ben, drawn by the shouting, stormed into the barn just as fists were being raised. “Stop it! Stop it both of you! Can’t we ever have one peaceful morning without you two arguing? Now, what’s this all about?”
Both his sons spoke in chorus. “He started it!-”
Ben held up his hands. “I don’t care who started it. I want it to stop – right now! You’re both too old to be acting this way!” He held out a piece of paper. “Adam, I want you to get the men started on this list and then come find me. I have some other things for you to do. Joe, I want you to go out to the high meadow and check on the new calves. Make sure they aren’t being bothered by mountain lions. I was going to send you two together, I thought it would be a nice ride. But until you can get along, I’ll just have to separate you – you might kill each other!”
Adam snatched the list and stormed out of the barn. Joe shrugged and swung his saddle up onto Cochise. “Sure, Pa. I don’t know what’s gotten into ‘ol Adam . . .” He stopped as his father gave him a look.
“Joe. I know Adam’s hard to get along with sometimes, but you know how to push him. I’m sure this wasn’t entirely his doing.”
Stung by his father’s criticism, Joe led Cochise out of the barn and swung into the saddle. He hadn’t done anything – this time. He’d been minding his own business and Adam had jumped all over him. Well, fine, at least he knew the truth. He scowled as he rode away from the ranch – and he’d been in such a good mood too. Sometimes, he wished Adam would just disappear.
* * * *
Joe reached the high meadow in good time and rode around, checking on the new calves, and looking for mountain lion tracks. He grinned, some of his good humour restored. The babies sure were cute, he thought, watching a couple of them playing what appeared to be a game of tag.
He swung down and dropping Cochise’ reins to leave him ground-tied, perched on a flat rock and munched on the apple he’d brought along. He could enjoy this nice day for a few moments . . . who would know? The sun was warm, and he felt himself drifting off. Well, maybe just a little nap. Just for a few moments . . . .
He awoke with a start, to find the son had gone behind a cloud. A chill wind had come up and he shivered in his light jacket. He should have known better, should have worn a warmer coat. The weather could change so quickly in the mountains, especially in the spring.
Getting to his feet, he climbed down from the rock . . . and almost fell when his cowboy boot slid on a patch of moss. Cochise was nowhere in sight. Joe frowned. It wasn’t like the horse to just wander off like that. There were no cows in sight either. Had there been a raid while he’d been sleeping? Not likely, and yet. . . .
He pushed his hat back from his forehead, or tried to anyway. His had was gone too. He looked around but couldn’t spot it anywhere. This was all too weird. With a sigh he started walking, back towards the house. Maybe Cochise had gone home without him. Boy, would he ever hear about that!
* * * *
Joe walked and walked for what seemed like hours. He was growing more puzzled by the moment. There were no cows to be seen anywhere. Pa wasn’t going to like this. Where could they be? There were no tracks showing signs of rustlers, in fact there were no horse tracks anywhere. And where were the hands? Surely he should have spotted some of them by now. He was hoping to borrow a horse from one of them – cowboy boots were fine for riding but they were murder for walking in.
Reaching the edge of yet another of the Ponderosa’s meadows, he stopped to rest for a moment. Something caught his eye and he peered across the meadow, wondering if he could be seeing things. “Cochise?” he murmured.
Galloping across the meadow in front of him was a herd of horses, wild horses from the looks of them. And in the middle of the bobbing brown backs was a patch of black and white. A very familiar pattern of black and white. Even as Joe watched, the herd slowed and gradually stopped. They fanned out slowly and, heads down, began to graze. Well, there was one way to find out if it was Cochise.
Joe pursed his lips and whistled. Once, twice, three times. The pinto paused in his grazing and lifted his head to sniff the air. He began slowly moving towards Joe, stopping occasionally to look back at the herd. It was Cochise, Joe was sure of it. But where were his saddle and bridle? He must have gotten them off somehow. Great, just what he needed – one more thing for Pa to be upset about.
The horse finally reached Joe and nuzzled him affectionately. Joe patted him, happy to see him, his eyes scanning for any injuries. He saw none, but what he did see puzzled him. Granted, the horse had been running around for several hours and had probably rolled trying to get the saddle off. But Joe had curried him just before riding out – and now he looked like he hadn’t been brushed for several . . . years?
Joe shook his head in bewilderment and noticed something he hadn’t noticed until now. Cautiously he reached a hand up and touched the back of his neck. He almost yelped in shock. He clearly remembered getting a haircut just last week, Pa had ordered him to as a matter of fact, but now his hair hung long and curly down past his shoulders. Abandoning the startled Cochise, Joe sprinted across the meadow and leaned over the creek. The water calmed there at the natural ford and in the still pool Joe could easily see his reflection. After one startled look, he shrieked and jumped back, nearly falling in the water in his haste to get away. That old man with the long gray curls couldn’t possibly be him, so just whose reflection had he seen? He glanced around, but there was no one else in sight.
Returning to Cochise, who was calmly standing where Joe had left him, he vaulted onto the horses back, surprised at difficult it seemed. He normally did this without even thinking about it, but today it took him several tries. Turning the horse, he headed back towards the ranch as fast as he could go.
* * * *
Joe stumbled down the stairs, nearly falling headlong in his haste. In his mind he could hear the echo of his father’s voice – “Joseph! How many times do I have to tell you not to run on the stairs?!?” He’d give anything to hear that voice now.
Joe stopped dead in the middle of the big room and looked wildly around him. Was this some kind of joke? It didn’t seem to be. Where was his family? What had happened to his home? And his hair, his gorgeous chestnut hair, why was it . . . it was all he could do to even think the word . . . gray.
“Hop Sing?” he called, uncaring that his voice had gone shrill with fear. “Pa, Adam, Hoss? Where are you? This isn’t funny anymore.” There was no response. He wandered through the dining room and into the kitchen. A mouse ran across the floor, almost across his boot, and he jumped back in spite of himself. The stove was cold, cobwebs hung from shelf to shelf, and a thick layer of dust coated everything in sight. No one had been in here in a long time.
He couldn’t take it any longer. He had to get out of here – had to find some answers.
* * * *
Virginia City was not at all the way he remembered it. There were few people on the streets and they all seemed a bit worn and haggard. The constant pounding of the stamp mills seemed to have dwindled as well. Many buildings were boarded up, and some seemed to have been torn down all together. Joe blinked his eyes, hoping it was all a bad dream, but when he opened them, all he saw was the same dusty street stretching out in front of him.
Swinging down, he tied Cochise and stepped up onto the boardwalk. He saw no one he recognized. Everyone was a stranger to him. He took a deep breath and approached a stout lady pulling a small boy down the sidewalk. “Excuse me, ma’am? I was wondering if I might ask you a question?”
The woman let go of the boys hand and planted her own hands on her ample hips. “Well, speak up,” she demanded, “I’m in a dreadful hurry.”
Joe bit his lip, intimidated by her flashing brown eyes. “Have you seen Ben Cartwright around anywhere?”
The woman frowned. “Never heard of ’em.”
Joe was aghast. “You never. . . .”
“I never heard of him,” she repeated. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. Jimmy, get away from there!” She took off down the sidewalk after her son, moving surprisingly fast for such a large woman.
Joe watched her go. “She never heard of Pa?” he repeated in disbelief, “Well, she must be new around here.” He approached several more people, but only got more frustrated as they continued to give him the same response. It appeared that no one in this town had ever heard of the Cartwrights. Joe was ready to explode, when suddenly an idea occurred to him.
“I’ll check with Roy. He’ll know where Pa is.”
Entering the sheriffs office, he was surprised to see a thin, pale young man sitting behind the desk. What was more surprising was the sheriff’s badge pinned to his jacket. He looked up when Joe entered.
“Where’s Sherriff Coffee?” Joe demanded, “I need to talk to him right now.”
The young man shrugged. “How should I know?”
“How should you-” Joe barely kept his temper in check.
“That’s what I said. Some days he sits down in front of the general store in the sun. You might check there. Or in the Bucket of Blood Saloon.”
“The Saloon? Why isn’t he in here doing his job?” Joe sputtered.
“‘Cause it ain’t his job.” The young man grinned. “It’s my job. He retired some time ago now.”
“Retired!” Joe’s shout almost rattled the windows. “Since when. Roy’s not old!”
“Mister, you been out in the sun too long? Or you been drinking something? Maybe you need a doctor?”
“Doctor.” Joe’s eyes lit up. “Yes, I need a doctor. Get me Doc Martin.”
“Doc Who?” The young man looked as puzzled as Joe felt. “The only doc around here is Doc Harlowe.”
Joe couldn’t take it any longer. He stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him, and almost ran into a large crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk.
“There he is,” came a shrill voice. Joe looked up to see the stout woman he had questioned earlier, pointing excitedly at him. “He looks crazy doesn’t he!”
“He sure does, Martha,” another woman cried. “Somebody go get the doc.”
The sheriff had come out onto the sidewalk as well. “Now let’s just calm down everyone. Ted, you go get Doc Harlowe.” He put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Why don’t you just come inside and sit down . . . out of the sun.”
Murmurs were growing through the crowd. “Maybe he’s a crazy miner. . . . No, I think he’s the man that robbed that bank over in Reno a couple weeks ago. . . . Don’t be silly, Jenny. He’s the one that robbed that train and murdered all those people. I saw his picture on a poster.”
The crowd was growing ugly now. The murmurings were getting louder. Joe could see there was going to be trouble. He pulled his gun from its holster and stared at it in shock. It was rusted and worn and looked as though it had been laying out in the hills for a long time. The crowd roared. “He is crazy! Look at that gun he carries around!”
Joe took a step back looking desperately for a way to run . . . and an old man tottered out from the crowd and walked right up to him. He grinned a toothless grin. “Joe Cartwright. Little Joe Cartwright. I’d know that face anywhere.”
Joe was stunned. The voice was so familiar, but the body and the face. . . . “Roy?” he all but whispered. “Is that you?”
“So you do recognize me. I wondered if you would. Where you been, boy?”
“Roy, where’s my family? Where’s Pa? What happened to you?”
“What happened to me? Boy, I got old. It happens to all of us you know. In fact,” he cackled, making Joe’s skin crawl, “You don’t look so young yourself anymore!”
“But Roy, I was young just this morning. . . .”
Roy winked. “Sure you were. So was I. That’s the way it goes, Joe. You turn around and suddenly you realize the years are gone and you don’t even recognize what’s left.”
“But my family? Roy where’s Pa? And Adam and Hoss?”
“Dead, boy. They died years ago. When you just up and left, your Pa couldn’t take it anymore. He worked himself to death trying to forget what he’d said to you just before you left. And Hoss, well, he couldn’t stand the things people were saying about you – that you ran away because you were yellow – so he tried to shut the mouth of the wrong person and got hisself gunned down.”
Joe could hardly speak. Surely this was all just a bad dream. “And . . . Adam?”
“He wandered off into the hills and never came back. Someone found him lying out there, dead. Never knew quite what happened to ’em. Some say he was looking for you – and died trying.”
“Nnnnnnnoooooo.” Joe threw back his head and howled. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t really want you to go away, Adam. Come back, please. I’ll never think it again. Adammmmmmmmm.”
* * * *
Something brushed his face and he struck out at it blindly. “No. Leave me alone!! Adammmm! I want Adam!”
“I’m right here, Little Buddy. Joe, I’m right here.”
Joe opened his eyes, blinking with surprise. “Adam? Is that really you?”
“I’m right here, Joe. Everything’s all right. You’re home now.”
Joe struggled to sit up. “Pa? You’re here!”
Ben chuckled. “Where else would I be?”
Joe frowned. “Where’s Hoss?”
“Right beside ya.” His brother put a hand on his shoulder. “You gave us quite a scare, Joe.”
“You gave me a scare,” Joe retorted. “I thought you were all dead.”
His family exchanged glances. “Pa, are you sure he’s okay. Maybe I should get Doc Martin.”
“You can’t,” Joe mumbled. “He’s dead.”
Ben leaped to his feet. “That settles it. Hoss go get Doc.”
“No wait.” Adam was watching his brother’s face. “There’s something strange here. Joe, why do you say he’s dead.” Joe looked confused. “Dead? Did I say that? Adam, what happened. What’s going on here?”
Adam sat down on the edge of the bed. “All right. Let’s take this slow. Joe, do you remember Pa sending you out to look at the calves this morning?” Joe nodded, carefully – his head hurt really bad – and Adam went on. “This afternoon Cochise came in without you. We went looking and found you up in the high meadow, lying next to a large rock. From the look of the lump on your head, I’d say you hit it on that rock.”
Joe frowned. “I slipped. . . .”
“Could be. Anyway, we brought you back here. We were just about to go get Doc when you started stirring.”
Joe suddenly grinned. “And you’re all here. And you’re all all right. Boy, am I glad to see you!”
Ben shook his head. “He’s not making sense, he must be all right.”
Joe squeezed his father’s hand. “You guys won’t believe the “dream” I had.” He proceeded to tell them all about it. When he had finished, the room was so silent you could hear a pin drop. And then Adam laughed.
“Joe,” he proclaimed, between chuckles, “I thought it would be the last book to give you nightmares, but I guess I was wrong. That’s the last time I ever read Rip van Winkle to you before bed!”
* Rip Van Winkle: Legendary character created by Washington Irving in his 1819 tale of a man who falls into a magical 20-year sleep and wakes to find he has slumbered through the War of American Independence
** My apoligies to Virginia City. I made it, and its occupants old and decrepit at the end merely as a way of showing just how much Little Joe’s life had turned upside down.