Summary: A romance has ended badly and Joe needs to find some peace of mind.
Rated: T (2,480 words)
To Say Goodbye
He walked purposefully up to the saloon door, “It’s now or never!” he thought, but still his nerve almost failed him, and he paused for a moment, wishing he could just turn tail and head back to the ranch.
But, he’d come this far, and there could be no turning back now. With a deep intake of breath, Joe straightened his shoulders, pushed through the swinging doors and walked into the bar of the Silver Dollar.
The room seemed to fall silent as he entered, and he was aware of many heads turning in his direction. He could feel the pity in the watching eyes and shrank from it even as he dredged a smile from somewhere and headed for the bar.
“Beer, Joe?” Milo the bartender jumped to attention, grabbing a glass and rushing to serve him before he even had a chance to answer the question.
“Thanks,” taking the drink the man eagerly offered, Joe took a deep draught of the cool liquid, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“H…haven’t seen you in a while…” Milo stuttered nervously, unsure what to say. “H…how are you? I mean . . . are. . .”
“I’m fine.” Joe assured him abruptly and, relieved that the conversation appeared to be over, the bartender turned away to serve another waiting customer.
Leaning on the bar Joe took another sip of his drink and looked around him. His heart ached as he recalled the last time he had stood here. Then, unbidden, even earlier memories returned, and in his mind it was once again late summer, some six months previously.
She had been sitting in the corner when he had ambled in that afternoon, hot and dusty from the ride into town. He had noticed her at once, a petite young woman, with dark blue eyes peeping at him coquettishly over the rim of a whiskey glass. He smiled at her as he waited for Milo to bring the beers he had ordered for himself and his brothers, taking in the heart-shaped face framed by tendrils of silky blonde hair, the figure hugging red dress that enhanced her ample bosom and showed off a pair of creamy shoulders.
“New girl?” He asked Milo as the bartender placed three glasses of foaming beer down on the counter.
“Names Henrietta,” Milo told him, shooting a quick glance at the girl, who was talking now to a young cowboy. “Came in on the stage from Sacramento a couple of days ago. Just passing through, she said. Needed a job.”
“Henrietta…” Joe said softly, not really listening any more.
With a shrug and a wry smile the bartender turned away and set to polishing some glasses. Looked like the youngest Cartwright boy was smitten again.
Any plans Joe was making to introduce himself to Henrietta were forestalled that afternoon by Adam and Hoss’s arrival. They drank down their waiting beers quickly, and headed back to work, dragging their recalcitrant younger brother with them.
Some two days later Joe was back at the Silver Dollar. He’d managed to wangle himself a trip into town with some papers for his father. The job was to have gone to Hoss but a mention of a visit to the barber’s had swung things in Joe’s favour and now he found himself with time to spare, and he knew how he wanted to fill it..
She was sitting in the same place as before, but this time she was alone. A bottle of whiskey and two glasses on the table in front of her indicated that she had recently been entertaining someone and Joe experienced a niggle of jealousy at the thought. Today she wore green, a shimmering, silky fabric that clung to her body, accentuating every curve.
“Ettie,” She introduced herself, standing up and sashaying boldly across the floor towards him, “and you are?”
“J…Joseph, ma’am,” he stammered, suddenly nervous though he didn’t know why, “Just call me Joe.”
“Joe.” She held out her hand and he took it, a frisson of excitement running through him at the touch of her cool flesh.
That first hour had passed so quickly as they sat and talked together. He wasn’t surprised to find that Ettie was a good listener. That, after all, was part of her job. But Joe found that she was also interesting to listen to, an intelligent girl with a keen sense of humour and a bright, tinkling laugh that made him smile.
Over the next few weeks Joe found himself heading for the Silver Dollar at every opportunity, spending more and more time with Ettie. As his affection for the girl grew his family began to notice and, though his brothers were amused and tolerant at first, his ongoing dalliance with the saloon girl eventually began to concern them.
“Don’t it bother you none what she does fer a livin’,” Hoss asked one evening as they put up their horses after work. “Yuh know…” his broad face had flushed with embarrassment at raising the subject, but he ploughed on, “her bein’ with all those men an’ all.”
It did bother him, of course it did, and truth be told Joe was finding it harder and harder to deal with.
“She won’t be a saloon girl much longer,” he had told Hoss, confiding his plans, “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”
“Hoss says you want to marry the girl,” Adam confronted him later that evening, coming unannounced into Joe’s room. “Whatever are you thinking of, Joe? What do you reckon Pa will say?”
“He might not like it at first,” Joe told him, confident that his father would eventually accept his marriage to Ettie. “But I love her Adam, more than anything in the world and he’ll see that.”
And he’d been right. Ben had many misgivings about the relationship, but his son’s happiness meant everything to him, and he eventually agreed to reserve judgement until he’d actually met Henrietta.
When Joe had brought Ettie to the Ponderosa she had charmed Ben, as he’d known she would. Even Adam had warmed to the girl, surprised to find that she was as intelligent as she was lovely.
So, Joe had asked her to marry him.
He’d planned the proposal for days. It was Ettie’s day off and they’d ridden out to the lake to watch the sun go down. It was beautiful there, the pink tinged hues of the sky reflected in the darkening waters, the sweet smell of the wildflowers filling the air with their heady aroma. They had sat on the grass, arms around each other and when she turned to him and pressed her mouth to his in a deep, passionate kiss, it seemed the perfect moment to ask her to be his wife. But Joe hadn’t reckoned on Ettie’s response.
“Marry you?” she’d repeated, and let forth a peal of laughter. The expression on his face at her reaction had sobered her, and she’d reached out to take his hand. “I’m sorry, Joe, but I don’t want to get married. I’m happy with my life the way it is.”
“But I love you,” Joe protested in vain. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“With a saloon girl?”
“But you wouldn’t be a saloon girl once we got married. You’d be my wife. A Cartwright.”
Gently, quietly, she had explained that she liked him, liked him more than any man she’d known. But liking wasn’t love. And besides, she enjoyed her job and had no wish to give it up.
Joe had been stunned, disbelieving. She enjoyed being a saloon girl? Having all those men pawing over her? Didn’t she want to change, become a respectable wife and mother?
Her reply was sharp, almost angry. Yes, she did enjoy the company of men.
“Not everyone wants to be respectable,” she’d said, imbuing the word with scorn.
“And when you grow too old to attract the men?” he’d asked bitterly, wanting to hurt her as she’d hurt him, “what then?”
She had plans, she told him, big plans. She was heading East, working as she went and saving money. One day she intended to own a house of her own … employ a few girls.
“I’ve been a fool, haven’t I?” Joe had railed. “I treated you like a lady, seems I was wrong. I thought you loved me, really loved me, the way I love you.”
She was sorry. Sorry that she couldn’t return his feelings. She liked him, enjoyed his company and it was nice to be with a gentleman occasionally, and be treated so well. But she didn’t love him, and never would.
They’d ridden back to Virginia City in silence and though, when they’d parted, she’d begged him to stay friends, he’d resolved to keep away from her.
Love can’t be ignored that easily and though, for a while, Joe avoided the Silver Dollar, he soon strayed back there. His thoughts, his dreams, were filled with Ettie and visions of what might have been. He had to see her again.
She was pleased to see him, as friendly as ever, but no more. It was as though the proposal had never happened. Joe’s heart ached; it hurt so badly to know that she didn’t love him. He longed for her, yearned for her and was soon spending every spare moment he could with her, despite the pain it caused him.
His father and brothers worried over him, advised him to move on, forget about Ettie. She’d made it plain she didn’t want him, why hurt himself more by seeking her out all the time?
But, like a moth to a flame, Joe headed for the Silver Dollar whenever he could.
The jealousy was the hardest thing. Every time he saw her smile at a man, or accept a kiss, anger would flare within him. Only the fact that he knew she would hate him if he interfered, kept him from pulling the men away from her. From time to time he contemplated using her as those other men used her, assuaging the desire that burnt deep in his belly every time he saw her. But he couldn’t, he didn’t want to posses her in that way knowing that she would never truly be his. He loved her too much for that.
Would he have got over her in time? Found himself ready to leave her behind and get on with his life? That was something he’d never know.
It had been a cold evening, mid-October and the first snows already deep on the high meadows. The Silver Dollar was a warm oasis of light and music, and Ettie was entertaining a middle-aged businessman at a corner table.
Joe watched them, jealousy knifing through him as Ettie reached up and gently ran her finger across the man’s mouth, parting his lips slightly, before following up the gesture with a quick kiss.
Joe had turned away, unable to take any more, and poured himself a whiskey from the bottle he’d ordered, tossing it back swiftly. Since she’d turned him down, he’d taken to drinking more than usual, the liquor helping to numb the pain in his heart, for a while at least.
“No, get off me…” The sound of her voice pulled his attention back to Ettie and her companion.
The man had got to his feet, a proprietorial hand on Ettie’s arm, and was pulling her up towards him.
“I don’t want to go with you,” she’d protested, a tinge of fear edging her voice as the man tightened his grip, “just leave me alone please.”
“You owe me…” The man’s voice was a menacing growl, “Flirting, leading me on. Just for my money wasn’t it? Well, I’ll show you…”
“Leave her alone!” Joe had leapt across the room, grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him away from Ettie.
The man had shaken him off, turned once more to Ettie. Joe grabbed him back and shoved him towards the bar. The man stumbled, almost fell, somehow managed to regain his footing, and as he did his hand went for his gun.
“No!” Ettie’s scream was the last thing Joe was aware of before the world exploded in noise and pain.
“Joe! Joe!” The familiar voice brought Joe back to the present and he found himself looking into the anxious eyes of his eldest brother. “Joe, you all right?”
Joe stared at Adam in bewilderment for a moment, still caught up in his memories. “Yes,” he said eventually, “I’m fine.”
“You had us mighty worried for a while there, little brother,” and Joe realised with a start that Hoss was there as well, standing to one side. “Didn’t you hear us talking to you?”
Joe shook his head, he hadn’t even realised that his brothers had come in.
“Pa wondered why you took off like that,” Adam said quietly, still a little concerned.
“I needed to come here tonight,” he looked up, meeting Adam’s eyes again. “Can you understand that?”
Adam nodded. He understood well enough.
“First day the doc let you out of the house, though,” he protested with a half-smile. “Couldn’t it have waited just a little longer?”
Joe shook his head, “It was six months ago today,” he said simply, “six months since I met her.”
Adam and Hoss exchanged worried glances. Both reliving that terrible day when Ettie’s customer had shot first Joe, then Ettie herself. The girl had died instantly and Joe was barely clinging to life when the doctor got to him. He’d pulled through, but it had been a slow, prolonged recovery, made worse by his grief over Ettie. For a long time Joe has simply not wanted to live and it had taken all the love and devotion that his family could give, to bring him through those dark days.
“I kind of wanted to say goodbye,” Joe explained softly, his gaze looking beyond his brothers to the corner table where he’d first seen Ettie, “and to see if I could ever come in here again, without seeing her everywhere.”
“And?” Adam asked.
Joe took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “And I think I’m ready to let her go,” he said, “not that I’ll ever forget her, but she’s part of the past now.”
“Then are you ready to come home?”
“Not quite yet,” Joe looked from Adam to Hoss, seeing the relief apparent on their faces at knowing that his obsession with Ettie was over. “Thought I might buy you two a beer first.”
And though, as the three brothers drank and talked, Joe’s eyes occasionally strayed to the corner table, the weight had lifted from his heart. He had said his goodbyes.