Doubt That The Stars Are Fire (by McFair)
The lovely blonde woman stood by the window, a letter in her hand. She had read it a dozen times and was about to make it a dozen and one. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something about the perfectly penned words that bothered her.
Spreading the folds of her elegant lavender silk dress wide, she sat on the window seat that filled the southern end of the vast drawing room in her four story brick home and read it again. Paying close attention, she perused the carefully written lines. She had received dozens of letters from this man over the years, all filled with news and fairly dripping with affection. She smiled at the intensity of pride she detected when the man spoke of the diversified interests he had – the lumber industry, silver mines, cattle breeding and horses. Earlier this year she had cried with him when a cherished family member died, and laughed at the antics of the young red-headed boy who could never take the missing loved one’s place, but whose earnest presence had filled the void it left just a little bit nonetheless. The letters were among her most cherished possessions. She knew this man as well as she knew herself. He was no liar.
But he wasn’t telling her the truth.
The young woman stared at the two page letter in her hand and then laid it aside on the cherry table that butted up against the wall. Rising, she crossed to the rosewood secretary. Using the key she wore around her neck, she unlocked it and lowered the drop-front. The rest of the man’s letters were archived there, kept in a small cedar box, including those of the last six months – the ones that had been nearly impossible to read. They spoke in guarded terms of the descent into darkness of the one she loved. Lifting the lid, she placed her fingers on the top one. She hadn’t exactly hidden them. Still, she had been afraid Mary would find them, or Michael.
The woman choked. Her breath came in quick little gasps. Dear Michael…she had loved him with all of her heart.
That was a lie.
Not with all of her heart.
There was a part of it she had never given him. He’d known and yet he had loved her anyway – had married her anyway. She owed him everything. If not for Michael, her family would have been destitute, lost after her father’s sudden illness. It was all her ma could do to care for him and it seemed, for a time that her little brother and sister would be forced into menial labor, or even worse, end up on the street. Michael had been a good husband and a wonderful provider. They’d met when she came to his house to deliver the dresses she had fashioned for his youngest sister, Martha. Michael had been in his early forties. He’d opened the door and smiled at her, and she had been taken at once with his dark brown, almost black hair, that was shot through with silver and his wide green eyes. She’d made several trips to deliver the goods and on the last one, he had asked her to stay to dinner. In spite of his family’s objections, he’d continued to see her and had, a month later, asked her to marry him. When she hesitated, Michael had taken her hand in his and told her that he knew – he knew there was someone else. Did she love him? ‘Yes’, she had said. Then he asked, ‘Can you be with him?’
She told him then about her family, about her father who suffered from apoplexy, and about her hard-working mother. About her dear little brother and sister. About….
Michael had listened intently. He’d released her hand and touched her face. He’d offered then to care for her family and for her and to never ask questions if she would promise to remain faithful to him.
And she had.
Until he had died.
With trembling fingers the young woman inserted the key into the desk’s central compartment keyhole and turned it. This opened an inner hidden door in the secretary. She turned the key upside-down and inserted it again, repeating the motion. There was a click and the sound of gears moving, and then the bottom of the compartment fell away to reveal a secret chamber below. The blonde’s smile was wistful. The desk had been a present from her husband. Michael told her he valued her secrets and this was his way of showing his faith that neither they nor she would do anything to part them.
Quickly, she drew the stack of letters out of the recessed chamber. This stack was bound with an ancient ribbon adorned with a small tarnished ring fashioned out of silver paper. She sighed as she tucked a lock of honey-blonde hair behind her ear and then slipped her finger into it. This was that missing part of her heart, these missives she had received and cherished for eight long years. The oldest were faded . The newest darkened with her tears. With a sigh, she slipped her finger back out of the ring and untied the ribbon. Selecting the letter on top, she returned to the window and unfolded the sheet. It was the last one she had received from him. The words stabbed her like a knife. First of all as a woman and, secondly, as a friend. How had he survived, this man she knew so well – this man who loved so deeply and was wounded so easily?
Had he survived?
Looking at the letter she’d left on the table, written by another who loved him, she began to doubt it. They were hiding something from her. Both men. One out of love, and the other, she feared, out of false pride – or if not pride, then something worse.
The sound of someone clearing their throat brought her out of her reverie.
Mary stood in the open doorway. Her husband’s eldest sister was old enough to be her mother. She was a hard woman with dull dishwater blond hair that she kept tightly knotted at the back of her neck. Mary hadn’t approved of their marriage.
Just as she didn’t approve of her.
“Yes?” the young woman asked.
“Rafe is here. He’s wondering if you’re still determined to go?”
Raphael Ashton was her husband’s younger brother. Though Michael’s will had left everything that was his to her, there were business holdings, accounts, and other things still connected to their late father’s shipping business that had passed to Rafe. It made them partners in a way. Rafe had made it very clear that he disapproved of her travel plans.
“Yes,” she replied at last. “I am determined to go. Please remind Rafe that he has no say whatsoever over what I choose to do or where I choose to go. I am using Michael’s money, not the family’s, and as you know I need consult no one about what I do with it.”
Mary’s sour face told her what she thought of that.
Her sister-in-law’s pale eyes moved past her to the open compartment in the desk and the stack of letters resting there. She had been foolish not to close it the moment she realized someone had come.
“I suppose those are from him,” Mary sniffed.
The young woman’s jaw set in defiance. “Yes. He is my friend. Is there anything wrong with keeping a friend’s letters?”
“Nothing, if the man is only a friend.” Mary’s pale eyes narrowed. “I warned Michael about you. About marrying damaged goods.”
They’d been over this before – so many times it was no longer worth the effort to argue. “If that’s what you think.”
“It’s what I know. You forget. I watched with him at the wedding. I warned Michael it was him you loved. Why my brother wouldn’t listen – ”
She rounded on the other woman. “He knew! Don’t you understand, Michael knew!”
It was why she had finally agreed to marry him. Michael knew she loved another man and didn’t care. All the younger men had cared. They’d wanted every fiber of her being and she simply couldn’t give it. Michael understood that a piece of her heart remained on that thousand acre ranch in Nevada.
Looking at Mary, she wondered how two siblings could be less alike.
The older woman straightened her sober black skirts and stiffened her back. “Well, if that is true, it is a sad thing. You used my brother. You are no better than a strumpet.”
With that, Mary left the room.
The young woman began to shake. The letter fell from her fingers. She followed it quickly to the floor. Placing her head in her hands, she began to sob. How had she come to this? How? How had she gone from that joyful child who loved life to a woman who only wished it would end?
The blonde woman’s eyes returned to the letter on the table. She’d sensed in the older man’s words a desperate cry. The man she loved needed her as much as she needed him. She didn’t how she knew, but she did. As she knew she had to go.
She had to return to the Ponderosa.
It took all of the blonde woman’s strength to rise and return to the secretary. She replaced the letters in the secret compartment, turned the key, activated the inner mechanism, and hid them once more from prying eyes. Then she went to the table and picked up Ben Cartwright’s letter and read the last paragraph again.
You asked and I can tell you Joseph is well. He continues to work with the horses and that has brought him peace as regards his loss. He had a run in with an outlaw a short time ago, but it was nothing serious. A broken arm, nothing more. Joseph says to tell you hello and that he will write soon. He apologizes for the lack of letters this last few months. His hands had to heal after the fire. That and the break prevented him from writing. He says to tell you there is nothing to worry about.
He is fine.
Well, she was fine too.
Bella Carnaby Ashton laughed and the sound was bitter.
She should have been a Cartwright after all.
“Ben, you better come quick! It’s happening again!”
Ben Cartwright dropped the ledger he was holding to his desk top and turned toward the office window. The shout had come from the front yard. It was late September. They were experiencing what was known as Indian summer and the air in the house was stifling. He had opened the window in the vain hope that some cool early evening air would make its way in.
Closing the ledger, the older man rose wearily from his chair. As he rounded the desk, he exchanged a glance with his youngest son, Jamie, who was settled on Marie’s striped sofa with his nose in a book. The boy’s love of reading was suddenly at war with another, deeper love. A love they shared.
One that had pushed them both close to the brink more than once over the last six months.
“Do you think Joe’s hurt?” Jamie asked as he put the book down and rose to his feet.
No. He didn’t think it.
He knew it.
Ben crossed to the front door and threw it open. His assistant foreman Jim Appleby, his grizzled face shining with sweat, was standing just outside in the yard.
“Joseph?” Ben asked even though he knew he didn’t need to.
Jim gave him a sympathetic look. “Yep. I know you told me to call you if…well….” The ranch hand hesitated. “Seems Joe took exception to somethin’ one of the new men said. He’s in the bunkhouse yellin’ at him.”
Ben’s gaze went in that direction. He could hear raised voices and see movement within the quarters where their men were housed. If Jim had called him, there was something more. Joseph could take care of himself.
“Which new hand?”
Jim winced. “Abel Ramsey.
A chill snaked down the older man’s back.
Abel Ramsey, along with a dozen or so other drifters, had been hired on in preparation for the fall cattle drive. Ramsey was a hard-living man. He was also a half-foot taller than Joe and weighed at least one hundred pounds more than his still slender son, and had a penchant for fighting that was legendary. At one time Abel Ramsey had been a bouncer in one of the houses of ill repute in Carson City. He’d also been known to prize fight from time to time. He was a powerfully built man with a strong musculature.
Trouble was, Candy said, Abel had even more muscle between his ears.
Jim moved closer and dropped his voice. With an eye to Jamie, who was standing in the open doorway, staring toward the bunkhouse, he muttered, “I tell you, Ben, it seems sometimes that youngest of your three is trying to get himself killed.”
Ben nodded. Sadly, Joe had come close to succeeding several times in the past few months. There had been brawls in the saloon and brawls in the street, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Joe was pushing himself beyond endurance and expecting the men to go with him. That had caused brawls at home.
Like this one.
As the argument within the wooden structure grew louder and more heated, the older man blanched.
“Jim, what’s the date?”
The other man snorted. “Easy to lose track, ain’t it? September 12th, I think.”
How could he have missed it?
It was six months to the day since Joe’s wife, Alice, and his unborn child had been murdered.
The signs had been there. He’d noticed how tense Joe had become over the last week or so. His son had barely eaten or slept for days. He’d often come down early in the morning to find him sitting, staring into the fire. Everyone in the household from Jamie to Hop Sing had felt Joe’s baseless wrath. At first, the older man had felt nothing but sympathy for his son. Joe had been through so much and he felt he owed him time to come to grips with all he had suffered. As if the sudden death of his brother and the murder of his wife and the loss of his child had not been enough….
Then, there was Tanner.
A few days before, in spite of his best intentions, Ben’s patience had run out. By his own admission, Joe had always been moody and prone to fly off the handle with little or no cause. Hard as that was to deal with, his son had also been just as prone to admit he was wrong and apologize. ‘Sorry ‘was a word Joseph Francis Cartwright knew all too well. This week, there had been no apologies. His son’s anger had simmered and boiled over at the least provocation and he had stubbornly and sullenly refused to express any kind of regret. Several days before they had come to words. Joe had ripped into Hop Sing about something their cook and friend had shifted in his room, bringing the man from China near to tears. He’d taken his son aside and told him he was acting like a child.
There was an old phrase. ‘If looks could kill’.
He had known its meaning that day.
Joe had slammed out of the house and gone to the barn and mounted and ridden away. He was gone three days without sending word. When his son returned, it was obvious he’d been drinking and had been in another brawl. Nothing was said. No questions were asked.
Joe knew it as well as he did. His actions had proven his father’s point.
Since his son’s return tensions had run high but, for the most part, they’d gotten along amicably enough. It was time to get ready for the cattle drive and, like every man on the ranch, Joe had more than enough work to do. They had a record number of beeves this year and it would take all of them to get them to winter pasture. On top of that, they’d secured a new contract with the army and there were a dozen horses to be busted and broken. Ben chewed his lip thoughtfully. The horses were Joe’s area of expertise and – usually – his salvation. When his son was with his horses it seemed he could forget – for just a moment – the life that had almost been.
“Do you know what Ramsey said to upset Joseph?” Ben asked Jim as the shouting grew louder still.
Jim looked slightly sick. The other man touched his temple with two fingers. “Had somethin’ to do with Joe not bein’ right up here.”
The ranch hand looked apologetic. “Cause of what happened with Tanner.” At his look Jim added, his voice pitched low once again, “It’s all over town, Ben. Some say Tanner broke Joe just like he’s been breaking those high-spirited horses all these years. Sorry to say, there’s men a plenty who have been waitin’ for somethin’ to take Joe Cartwright down.”
Jamie – who was still on the porch – had shouted. His call came just as a man barreled backwards out of the bunkhouse door. It took a second to realize it was Candy Canaday. His current foreman rolled over twice and landed on his feet. Candy’s chest was heaving. His chiseled features were set in anger. Ben expected to see Abel Ramsey come flying out of the bunkhouse after him.
Instead it was Joe.
Joseph Francis was thirty-one years old now. He’d gained some bulk over the last five years, adding muscle so his lithe frame filled out. As a boy and young man, Joe had been deceptively thin. Larger, powerful men thought of him as an easy mark and were often surprised by how long it took them to defeat him – if they defeated him at all. The one thing they didn’t understand was the boy’s determination.
He looked very determined now.
Joe was between Candy and the bunkhouse. His lower lip was split and bleeding, and there was a deep gash over his right eye. He was breathing quickly, drawing air in through flared nostrils and snorting it out just as quickly. His son’s mouth, which had once been so quick to smile, was a thin line drawn in rage.
Joe stormed up to Candy and jabbed a finger in his chest. “I told you to keep out of this and I meant it!”
Candy was wiping blood from his own lip with his thumb. “You want me to listen to you, Joe? Make sense and I will!” he countered. “Ramsey could have killed you!”
“I can fight my own battles!” Joe shot back.
“Well, pardon me!” their foreman snapped. “The fact that you were on the ground with a boot in your spleen kind of seemed to me a pretty good indication that you can’t!”
His son’s jaw tightened. “I would have taken him down.”
“Down with you, you mean? Into the grave?” Candy shook his head. He reached out with one hand. “Joe, admit it. If I hadn’t stepped in you’d be dead!”
Ben’s gaze went to Jamie. The boy had left the porch and was standing in the yard to the side. His adopted son was ghostly pale. Jamie adored Joe. He looked up to him. Unfortunately, like the rest of them, the newest Cartwright had been forced to come to terms with his older brother’s current penchant to attract trouble like the proverbial moth to the flame.
Realizing it was time, the older man moved toward Marie’s son.
“Joe, that’s enough,” he said.
His son started and then pivoted on his heel. Ben had seen many looks out of those green eyes in a little over thirty years – anger, sadness, humility and humiliation. The face his son turned toward him now held a new one.
“Pa….” he stuttered. “Pa, I…can’t….”
There was a noise.
The roar of a bull elephant couldn’t have been louder.
Joe swung around just as Abel Ramsey exploded out of the bunkhouse turning the air blue with curses. Ben winced as the behemoth that was Ramsey charged and his son’s body took the full brunt of the man’s anger. Before anyone could do anything, the powerful drifter drove Joe to his knees and then to the ground and then, as his son lay there supine, began to pound him.
For one stunned second they all remained where they were. Then Candy and Jim Appleby were on the move. Ben remained where he was and drew his gun. He didn’t want to shoot the man, but he would if it meant saving his son’s life. Raising the gun, he fired two rounds into the air. Then he pointed the barrel at Ramsey’s chest.
“Abel! Abel Ramsey! Stop! Stop it now!”
Ben had seen rabid animals before. The look out of Ramsey’s eyes was the same. His hands were on Joseph’s throat and his fingers were closing.
“Think man! Is it worth your life?” he shouted.
“Abel!” It was Candy this time. “You kill Joe, you kill yourself. Let him go! Do you hear me? Let him go!”
Joe’s face was crimson and his chest rose and fell unevenly as he struggled for air.
Was he going to watch his son die before his eyes?
Ben’s finger tightened on the trigger. Candy was pulling at the big man now. He was still shouting; trying to reason with him.
“Pa?” Jamie called, his voice quaking. “Ain’t you gonna shoot him? He’s gonna kill Joe!
He was going to. But God was gracious.
Abel Ramsey let go.
Later, when he considered what had happened, there was little Ben could recall about the next few moments. Men pouring out of the bunkhouse. Ramsey’s beefy hands opening as he rose. Joseph’s battered form dropping to the earth like a sack of meal. Candy shouting at the men, rallying them. One of them finding a rope and binding Abel’s hand with it.
Jamie, in the dirt, kneeling by Joe, shaking him and calling him by name.
He’d run to Joe’s side. His son’s skin was livid and his lips were tinged with blue. Almost as soon as he felt panic overwhelm him, Joe coughed and drew in a great gasp of air and began to breathe.
It seemed it was over.
Sadly, the older man knew better. He’d sailed the seas for many years. During that time he’d often seen young lads, new to the sailor’s life, rest easy after they weathered a storm, not realizing what was yet to come. Looking at his son now as he staggered to his feet and leaned heavily on his younger brother, he – a seasoned sailor – recognized the moment for was it was.
The calm before the storm.
Supper that night was quiet.
Very, very quiet.
As soon as he could, Joe dismissed himself from the table and headed out to the barn. Candy had eaten with them and, when his friend followed him out the door, he was afraid he would try to talk to him. Instead, sensing his mood, Candy had merely bid him goodnight and headed for the bunkhouse.
His ‘mood’. That was all it seemed he had lately – moods. Joe snorted and then winced at how much it made his head hurt. His fingers explored the gash over his eye. It had required two quick stitches, which Candy had obliged him to do, saving him a trip into town to see the doctor. It might not be the prettiest job – and who knew if it would leave a scar – but he had long since gotten over his vanity.
‘Long since’ being six months ago.
Joe drew a deep slow breath in through his nostrils and let it out through his lips. Involuntarily his hand went to his throat. He’d tied a kerchief around it for supper. The sight of himself in the mirror as he left his room had made him feel like he was seventeen again, but it hid the bruises left by Abel Ramsey’s fingers. That didn’t stop Pa’s eyes from going to his neck. Time and time again. He knew he’d scared his father, taking on a giant like Ramsey. He’d scared himself.
Mostly because he couldn’t stop himself.
Yeah, Ramsey had made him damn angry, saying what he did in front of the men. Still, it wasn’t like he hadn’t heard it half of his life.
Look, there’s Joe Cartwright, old Ben’s mollycoddled son.
You see Joe Cartwright over there? Pretty boy ain’t got a brain in his head. Good thing that ain’t the part the ladies are interested in.
Joe Cartwright? Ain’t you heard? Since his wife died, he ain’t right in the head.
Joe laughed again as he reached up and untied the kerchief.
Well, he couldn’t argue with that last one.
He’d been managing – at least as well as a man can ‘manage’ when dealing with a horror that went beyond belief. Oh, he’d had his bad days. Hell, he’d had days when all he could do was sit in a corner and cry. But that was to be expected. After all, his whole life was a train wreck where everybody died but him. There were moments when he didn’t want to go on. But that’s what they were – moments. With each passing day, everyday life had seemed a little more possible to endure. After all, he had his work and still had Pa and Jamie. Thinking of the boy his father had adopted, Joe shook his head. How he wished he could apologize to his two big brothers. He’d had no idea what they had to put up with! He loved Jamie, but there were times when the boy’s enthusiasm and energy were enough to drive him….
Bad choice of words.
Arriving at the barn, Joe opened the smaller door and entered through the workshop area. Moving quietly, so as not to frighten the horses, he went to where Cochise was stabled and slipped into the slat-wood box that was his friend’s home. Picking up a brush, he began the rhythmic motion that was grooming Cooch’s coat. It was something he did – groom Cooch – when his nerves had him jumping higher than a kite. He’d done it so often over the years, it was a wonder the poor horse had any hair left! He kept it up for about five minutes while the animal shifted, wrinkling his back muscles in delight or disdain, he wasn’t sure which. Eventually, he gave up and returned the brush to its housing.
It wasn’t working tonight. That kite was still flying high.
Moving over to a bale of hay, Joe plunked his weary body down and lowered his head into his hands. Since the fire he’d been plagued by nightly terrors that left him bathed in sweat and trembling from head to toe. There was never any sound. Like a magic picture show, the images went round and round in his head. He was driving the wagon. He saw the flames and realized what was happening. Jumping from the wagon, he’d run toward the house and try to pound the door in. In real life he hadn’t seen her, but in his dreams Alice was always standing in the window, in the midst of a rain of fire, calling out to him. Calling with no sound. As his pa grabbed him and dragged him back, a man’s hands circled her waist, reminding him of, well, of what he was sure happened before she was murdered. He’d end up laying on the ground with the pain in his fried hands pounding, almost too great to bear, and then she’d reappear. Alice would walk out the door bearing before her the shriveled and burnt corpse of their child, and offer it to him.
As if the responsibility for their deaths was his.
Joe sighed. Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Recently, the nightmares had intensified. They were no longer silent. Now they were accompanied by that song. The one Bill Tanner had whistled incessantly.
That damn song.
Joe lifted his tear-streaked face and ran the back of his hand across his eyes. He sniffed as he looked toward the house where his pa and Jamie were, waiting for him to show. His house with the comfortable, warm bed he’d slept in for over thirty years. There was many a man would kill to sleep in a bed like that.
Not him. He’d decided to give up sleeping.
It was wearing him down and he knew it. His frayed nerves were close to breaking. He didn’t know where that was going to lead him, but he had a notion – either that mad house Ramsey’d said he needed, or to that place by the lake where his mama lay resting.
God, he needed to rest.
It was why he’d taken Ramsey on, even though he was twice his size and three times as mean.
He wanted to die.
His green eyes closed. Not now. Not….
Joe drew a breath and forced a half-smile as he turned. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
Jamie shrugged. “It ain’t that late. I’m sixteen, you know? I ain’t a kid anymore.”
How familiar that sounded.
“I don’t know,” he replied with a ghost of a smile. “If Pa heard you say ‘ain’t’, he might just treat you like one.”
“You say it.”
He snorted. “Yeah, I do. Don’t I?”
Jamie was kicking at some old straw on the barn floor. It took a second, but he asked what Joe knew he was going to ask. “Can I talk to you?”
“Look, Jamie, if Pa sent you out here to scold me –”
The redhead glanced toward the house. “Pa don’t…doesn’t know I’m here.” He looked a little embarrassed. “In fact, he told me to leave you alone.”
Joe’s brows peaked toward the tangle of silver curls on his forehead. “Oh?”
“He said you needed time by yourself.” Jamie looked straight at him. “I think he’s wrong. I think…you spend too much time alone.”
Sage wisdom from a sixteen year old kid.
Joe patted the hay bale beside him. Jamie hesitated only a moment before joining him. Then the two of them sat there in silence.
“Well?” he asked a minute later.
“I’m right sorry about everything you’ve been through, Joe. You know that, don’t you?”
How could Jamie wonder about that? Then, with sudden insight, he realized the boy was taking the distance he had put between them personally, just like he had always done as a kid. Jamie didn’t think he wanted to be alone. Jamie thought he didn’t want to be with him.
Moved, Joe sniffed back another stream of tears. “I know.”
“Then why….” The boy paused. He did that thing, where he pursed his lips and wrinkled his brow, looking for all the world like a kid working a sum. “How come you don’t want me around?”
Joe chuckled. “It’s not that I don’t want you around. I don’t want anyone around.”
He looked at his hands. How did he explain it? He didn’t want the stares, the concern or the pity. Didn’t want to have to think about what it was that caused his family to feel they had to give those things to him. Because every time he looked up and found one of them watching him, he had to wonder why. Then he had to remember. He had to remember the brother that was no more. Had to remember Alice. Remember the child he had lost.
Remember Bill Tanner and the torture he had suffered at a madman’s hands.
He felt Jamie’s hand on his arm. “Are you all right, Joe?”
He couldn’t stop them. The tears began to flow. He managed for a moment and then a great sob escaped him and suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.
Finally, he managed to choke something out. It was one word, but it was everything.
He thought for sure Jamie would panic and go running for their pa. Instead, the pressure from his hand increased and then his little brother slid in closer to him and circled his shoulder with his arm. For a moment they sat there, saying nothing. Then….
“Joe, don’t give up. Please, don’t give up.” Jamie drew a breath. “I know you want to. I saw it… I saw it in your eyes today. Joe, you think no one would care. That we’d be better off without you like you are. It ain’t true.”
He turned his head. Jamie was so earnest, it almost made him smile. “It ain’t, huh?”
“Joe, I….” His adopted brother cleared his throat. “I know you lost who you loved, but, well, I love you.” A different light entered the boy’s eyes, reflecting, perhaps, a bit of his own anger. “You just ain’t thinkin’ straight. Do you really want to do to your pa and me the same thing those bad men did to you?”
There were no words.
He was struck to the core.
Joe caught his little brother’s shoulder with his fingers and squeezed it. Unburdening himself to a teenage boy seemed unfair, but – suddenly – he needed to talk to someone.
“Jamie, I….” He sniffed and swallowed. “I don’t…know what’s wrong. It’s like I’m in a dark place where there’s no light and no way to find any. I know there’s something there in the dark with me, waiting to pounce, waiting to…devour me. I fight it.” He looked at the boy, who was staring at him wide-eyed. “I fight it for all I’m worth, but there’s no winning. No amount of grit or guts can put me on top and…it’s beginning to pull me down.”
Joe stopped himself. He’d been about to say, ‘And I know when I reach bottom, that’s the end. There’ll be nothing left – nothing left of me.’
How had that Shakespeare fellow Adam liked so much put it? For some morbid reason the passage from Macbeth was one of the ones his brother had read that stuck with him.
Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
“You wanted to die today, didn’t you? You wanted Abel Ramsey to kill you”
The question came at him like a bullet from a Colt. He couldn’t dodge it.
Maybe he didn’t want to.
“Yeah,” Joe admitted with a sigh. “But he didn’t.”
He didn’t know what reaction he expected, but it wasn’t what he got. Jamie shot to his feet. The boy’s jaw was tight and he was snortin’ air like a bull ready to charge.
“You know what you are? You’re selfish! You ain’t thinkin’ about anybody but yourself! Do you think this is what Alice would have wanted? You behavin’ like a baby?” Tears of anger streamed down the boy’s face. He threw his hand out and pointed toward the door. “You want your pa to lose all of his sons? You want to kill him too?”
He should have felt shame.
Instead, he felt rage.
“What do you know? You’re a child! You haven’t lost –”
“Oh, I don’t know ‘cause I ain’t lost anything important? What about my ma dying when I was little? And what about my pa? What about me watching him being tarred and feathered, and then watching him waste away and die?” Jamie was furious. His anger made him bold. “I know your pa’s ashamed of you. I think Alice would be too!”
He didn’t mean it.
The sound of the back of his hand contacting Jamie’s cheek echoed through the barn along with the boy’s sobs.
“I hate you!” he screamed.
And was gone.
Joe stood unmoving. He wasn’t angry with the boy.
He hated himself too.
Ben’s head came up from the book he was reading as the front door flew open and Jamie ran up the stairs. He didn’t even have time to ask what was wrong or scold the boy for leaving the door open before he disappeared. Seconds later there was another slam as Jamie’s bedroom door was closed, apparently with vigor. At the sound Hop Sing came out of the kitchen, a dishcloth in his hands.
“Which boy make so much noise?”
Ben had to smile in spite of everything. Hop Sing refused to stop referring to Joe as a ‘boy’.
“Jamie,” he said.
The man from China frowned. “Where Little Joe?”
He was also the only one who could still get by calling Joe that as well.
“In the barn, I think.” Unfortunately, he was fairly certain that was the place Jamie had fled.
Hop Sing tucked the dishcloth behind the waistband of his apron. A determined look settled on his face. “Hop Sing go to barn and tell Little Joe to come in and stop worrying father.”
“Hop Sing, no.” He put the book down and rose. “I’ll go talk to Joseph, that is, if he hasn’t saddled Cochise and ridden off again.”
“When boy get better,” his old friend breathed. It was more of a question than a statement.
Ben placed a hand on Hop Sing’s shoulder and for a moment they stood there, united in their concern for this man they had reared and loved from a child. Then, with a shake of his head, he turned and walked out the door.
As soon as he entered the yard, Ben saw that the smaller door to the barn was open. In all likelihood Joe was still within, as he would have had to open the larger one in order to ride out. Quietly, the older man crossed the yard and stepped in. Joe had his hip anchored on the edge of the table they kept in the area that served as a sort of office.
There was a whiskey bottle in his hand.
As he watched, his son placed something in his mouth and then he lifted the bottle and took a long, drawn out swig. Curious – in truth, frightened – Ben cleared his throat, making it apparent he was there.
Joe looked at him, his expression as sheepish as it had been when, as a boy, he’d caught him kissing a girl in the church closet.
“Hey, Pa,” he said, his voice feeble.
“Hey, yourself.” The older man crossed to the table. Taking one of the chairs from its side, he pulled it back and sat in it.
He said nothing.
Joe remained silent for several heartbeats and then asked, “Is Jamie okay?”
“I wouldn’t know. He ran straight up the stairs to his room and locked his door.” Ben paused. “Do you know anything about that?”
His son hesitated. “I guess he was angry with me.”
“I see.” He studied Marie’s boy. The beating Joe had taken earlier was evident in his split lip and the bruising on his face and neck. But there was something else. Something…indefinable.
“And did Jamie have a reason to be angry?”
Joe looked straight at him. It seemed he had aged a decade in the last few hours.
“Pa, I need to go away.”
Ben steeled himself. He’d seen this coming.
“You’re a grown man. I can’t stop you.”
Joe’s expressive eyebrows danced. “That’s it? No argument, just goodbye? It’s been nice to know you?”
The older man spread his hands wide. “Obviously, I don’t want you to go.”
“It might be nice to hear it,” his son said quietly.
“And if I had said ‘no’, you would have acquiesced and gone docilely back into the house?” Ben shifted. “If you want to go, there’s nothing I can do to keep you from it. I can tell you, though, that it won’t work. Joseph, what’s wrong is inside you. You’ll take it with you wherever you go.”
His son stood and walked over to look out the window that fronted on the house. “You’re speakin’ from experience, I suppose.”
Joe looked over his shoulder. “I’m not you, Pa. I don’t know if…. If I’ve got in me what you had in you to make it through.”
Ben rose and walked to his son’s side. He placed a hand on his shoulder. Joe was trembling like a leaf. “You may not know, but I do.”
His son was silent for a second. “Did Candy tell you what Abel Ramsey said to me?”
The older man shook his head and lied. “No.”
“Ramsey said Bill Tanner broke me, Pa. Broke me like a wild mustang.” Joe’s jaw grew tight even as tears appeared in his eyes. “And you know what? He’s right.”
His fingers tightened on his son’s shoulder. “So what if it is? Joseph, you know why we tame horses. It’s not about breaking them. It’s about teaching them to bend. It’s about taking something that is wild and reckless, something that might injure itself or others, and turning it into something positive that has a purpose. Joseph,” he paused, “do you understand?”
His son crumpled before his eyes. Ben caught him just as he hit his knees and circled him with his arms. Together they knelt in the dirt and debris of the barn. Joe’s fingers gripped his pale blue shirt, digging into the fabric as he desperately clung to him.
His face pressed into his shoulder, his son breathed, “Pa, help me. I’m so alone. I can’t find my way back.”
“You’re not alone, Joseph. You’ll never be alone.” Tears streamed down his face. “I’m here and I’ll help you find your way back. Son,” his voice grew stern, “look at me.”
Joe did as he was told. His face was that of the child he had been.
“Do you trust me?”
It took a second, but he nodded.
Ben forced a smile. “Remember that time when you were five and climbed Eagle’s Nest?” He knew he did, and so he continued. “It was night by the time I found you. I could hear you crying. I was coming to get you, but you couldn’t see me. You thought you were all alone. That no one was coming. That you would never make it home.” He placed his hand over his son’s trembling one. “Am I right?”
Joe nodded again.
“But you did make it home. Someone did come. You were not alone.” Ben drew a breath. “Son, you’re not alone this time either. We’ll make it through this. You’ll make it through this.”
Joe sniffed. “Are you sure, Pa?”
He ran his hand through his son’s curly locks, marveling as the light streaming through the window turned them to pure silver.
Joe remained still for a moment and then he said, “I need to apologize to Jamie.”
“I imagine you do.”
His son rose to his feet. Joe ran the back of his sleeve over his face, wincing when he hit his sore lip. Then he smiled.
With a shy grin, Joe disentangled himself and headed out of the barn.
Ben remained behind for some time, thinking. Joseph had always been a study in contradictions. Vibrant and alive one moment, optimistic and enthusiastic, and then just as suddenly sullen and depressed and given to dark moods that at times frightened him. The thing that saved Marie’s boy was that there had always been a balance, as many good days as bad, as much laughter as anger.
It had been many weeks since he had heard his son laugh.
Rising slowly, Ben made for the door. As he walked, his foot encountered something laying on the floor. Reaching down, he realized it was the liquor bottle Joe had been holding. With the memory of his son guzzling the whiskey came another. What was it Joe had swallowed just as he came in the barn, or was it only his imagination that he had? Maybe his split lip was hurting him? Perhaps, he had been wiping away a trickle of blood.
Relegating his concern over what he had seen to the back of his mind, Ben Cartwright concentrated on the needs of the moment as he headed toward the house, leaving that question for another time.
It was a mistake.
Bella nodded to the servant who stood in the street by the family carriage. He would wait for her until she was done and then take her to the stage depot. From there, she’d travel to the port on the Colombia River and board the steamship ’City of Chester’ and be on her way.
The blonde woman mounted the steps to the front door of the building in front of her. She waited a moment, gathering her thoughts, and then opened it and went in. The door was attached to the modest white house her parents and siblings had moved into after her father’s illness rendered him incapable of keeping a farm. It was much smaller than the one her pa had built when they first arrived in Canyon City, Oregon, but was lovely nonetheless. They’d lost the big house after Pa took ill, when he couldn’t work anymore and pay the taxes. After that they’d rented, but the places they could afford were in the bad end of town and they had to worry all the time about someone breaking in or stealing from them. The house she stepped into now was in a fine part of town. It was neat and comfortable. Since Jack was away at college, it was just her ma and pa, Sophie and Benjie-Joe living at home so they had plenty of room.
The blonde woman smiled as she closed the door behind her. She could see her youngest brother’s scowl. He’d been at the tail end of the line and so had been the one – like Little Joe – who got the nickname that stuck way past its time. Her youngest brother was almost seventeen now.
She’d have to remember to call him Benjamin.
As she paused just inside the parlor, Bella heard a noise off to the right that indicated someone was in the kitchen. Instead of calling out, she headed that way. The cook room was to the rear of the house and looked out on a yard that went back some forty or fifty feet. It wasn’t much, but then land in Canyon City land was at a premium. It was big enough to house a chicken coop and a few other small outbuildings, and went sideways with a stable and barn. Since his sickness her pa couldn’t manage much more than that and, truth to tell, he only managed what he did due to the fact that Benjamin had elected not to go to college. Ben said he didn’t want to go in debt and was saving up money to go later, but they all knew he’d stayed home because they needed him. Pa’s left side had never fully recovered. His muscles were weak. He just couldn’t do the heavy work any more.
As she approached the kitchen, passing through a little side parlor into which the early morning light was spilling, Bella stopped. The window curtains were open and a golden shaft struck the ornate silver frame on the table. The elegant sterling frame looked a little out of place in her parents’ humble home with its handmade wooden items and out-of-date settee. She crossed over to the table and picked the frame up and stared at the smiling couple whose images it held. It had been a housewarming present from Michael to her parents – just as the house itself had been a present to her, so she would know they were taken care of. She’d been an old twenty-three at the time she married him. Michael had been a young forty-two. Bella smiled as she remembered her ma and pa’s reaction the first time she brought him to their home. Ma’d caught her by the arm while they were working in the kitchen and said how much he looked like an older Little Joe. Pa said he reminded him of Ben Cartwright. Bella sighed as she returned the likeness to the table. She should have loved him more. Michael was such a good man. He had deserved better.
Remorse stabbed her and she began to weep.
“Bella?” a voice called from the kitchen. “Is that you?”
The blonde woman ran her hand quickly under both eyes before turning toward the footsteps that indicated her mother was approaching.
“Yes,” she replied, even as the older woman appeared. Her ma was still beautiful. Pa said she was slender as a sapling but sturdy as an oak. Mary Carnaby was nearing fifty, but her hair – for the most part – was still dark brown. Like Joe’s had been the last time she’d seen him, it was shot through with silver that made it spark like lightning when the sun hit it just right. Her mother had aged, though, since the apoplectic fit her pa had four years back. She had a lot to do to take care of Pa even though – thank God! – he could do more for himself now.
Her mother came to her, took her by both arms, and pressed a kiss on her brow. Then she stood back and stared at her as if she was judging horse-flesh.
“You look thinner,” she said.
Bella shrugged. “Maybe a little.”
“Are you eating?” Before she could answer, the older woman added, “Are you eating enough?”
“Three times a day, like everyone.” Bella paused. “Mary gets mad if the family doesn’t eat together.”
Her mother’s tight lips and crinkled eyes told her just what she thought of Mary!
“All that silly French food, I suppose,” Ma said with a shake of her head. Catching her arm, the older woman started to draw her toward the kitchen. “You just come with me. I have a pot of chicken and noodles on the stove.”
Bella resisted and her mother turned to stare at her. Her raised brows asked the question.
“I can’t stay long.”
Ma was staring again. “And why is that?”
The blonde woman hesitated. “Mama, I….” She drew in a deep, steadying breath. “I’m going to Nevada.”
She didn’t know what she expected her mother’s reaction to be. Fear, maybe, for her making such a long journey. Disapproval, perhaps, that she was chasing a man. After all, she was recently widowed. If word got out that she was going to visit the man she’d once loved….
The older woman let out a breath. With it came the words, “It’s about time.”
Bella blinked. “What?”
Her mother removed her work apron. Folding it so the clean side was out, she laid it carefully across the back of a nearby chair. Then she took her hand and drew her over to the settee. They sat and turned toward each other as her mother took both of her hands in her own.
“You’re going to the Ponderosa.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Does Joe know you’re coming?”
This time she shook her head. “No. I’m not wiring ahead.”
“Can you tell me why?”
Her forehead furrowed with a frown. “Ma, I don’t know if Joe would want to see me. I…. I can’t take the chance he would tell me not to come.”
Her mother was startled. “Do you think he would?”
She didn’t know what to think. Joe hadn’t written her since, well, since everything had happened. And from what his father said in his letters, she thought he might not want to see anyone. Bella paused, seeking the right words.
“I think…since Alice died he’s…lost.”
Her mother raised a hand to touch her cheek. “Are you sure it isn’t you who are lost?”
Bella sniffed in tears as she rose to her feet and began to pace. “I know what I’m doing, Ma. I’m not running away from Michael’s death any more than I am running to Joe. He’s my friend. I’m worried about him. Mr. Cartwright is hiding something.” She turned and looked at her mother. “Something is wrong!”
A slight smile curled her mother’s lips. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Again, it was not the reply she expected. “What do you mean?”
Her mother rose and came to her side. “Something has been wrong since you returned from the Ponderosa eight years ago. Since you ran from life and from the man you love.”
They’d talked. Ma knew why she’d left. That she’d been….
Her mother took her hand and drew her over to the window. As the glare from the sunlight died down, she saw her pa and little brother outside. Benjamin was chopping wood. Pa, who was seated beside him, was stacking it.
“He looks a little stronger,” Bella said hopefully.
“He is. But your pa will never be what he was. He’ll never be able to do what he did.” Her mother turned toward her. “Bella, you know we almost lost your pa.”
“There were no Indians. There was no evil man with a gun. There was no desert to die of thirst in or mountain of snow to be buried under, and he still almost died.” She squeezed her fingers. “Nothing is certain in this world.” The older woman paused. Then she smiled. “Well, no, that’s not true.”
Bella waited. When her ma failed to go on, she asked, “What is it?”
“Love, child. Love is certain.” The older woman hesitated again. “It’s the only constant we have.”
“But Ma, loving someone hurts…so much.” Tears entered her eyes. “I was so….”
She hung her head in shame.
“I was afraid when your pa took ill too,” Ma said, her voice growing wistful. “I was afraid Levi would die. But you know what?”
Bella looked up. “What?”
“Even if Levi had died, I wouldn’t have traded the time I’ve been with him and loved him to escape the pain his death would have brought me. ” She held her gaze. “You married Michael because it was safe, because he was over forty and had survived. But it wasn’t really safe, was it? Michael died anyhow. Bella, anyone, anywhere can die at any time. We have to be brave. We have to choose to love for whatever time we are granted.”
The tears fell from her eyes to strike their joined hands. “I was so stupid,” she breathed.
Her mother’s laugh was gentle.
“No, you were young.”
As Ma reached toward her, there was a knock at the door. The older woman frowned and then went to open it. Bella heard her exchange a few words with whoever it was, and then watched as the older woman backed up so they could enter.
Bella’s breath caught.
It was Michael’s brother Rafe.
Mary Carnaby noted her daughter’s body language as the young man entered the room. Rafe Ashton was a handsome, well-monied son of wealth who bordered on being spoiled, though he did have the redeeming quality that he loved her daughter. It was evident to anyone who was in the company of the pair. Rafe had been extremely jealous of his older brother when Michael and Bella married and had actually gone away to Europe, she believed, as a result of a broken heart. He had recently returned to handle his brother’s estate. Rafe had come to see them a few days back to assure them that their home was safe even with Michael’s demise. In case of his death before theirs, a small trust had been established to keep them there until they passed and to help with other things like their children’s educations. She’d watched Rafe standing by the table, staring at the image of his brother and the woman he loved in the silver frame. Unlike his brother and sister who had dark hair and light eyes, Rafe’s hair was blonde with reddish tones and his eyes and brows were brown as the coat of a bear. Everywhere he went he had eligible young ladies flocking after him. But Rafe had eyes for only one.
His brother’s wife.
“Mrs. Carnaby,” Rafe acknowledged her with a nod. “And how do you fare today?”
“I’m well,” she answered.
“And your husband?”
“He’s out in the yard with Benjamin. Mr. Carnaby is as well as can be expected.”
“I am glad to hear it.” The handsome man’s eyes went to her daughter. “And you, Bella Are you well?”
Rafe couldn’t see it, but she could – Bella’s ramrod straight back, her clenched fists; the way her lips drew into a line as her blue eyes sparked.
Her daughter was ready for a fight.
“Did you follow me here?” Bella demanded, her tone rude.
That curly blonde head whipped toward her. “Mama, I…”
“You are in my house where Mr. Ashton is a guest. You will keep a civil tongue.”
Bella glared at him a moment and then looked down. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Drawing a breath Mary turned to the young man. “Would you like a drink?
Rafe seemed quite unaffected by Bella’s attitude. “Thank you. That would be very welcome.”
Her daughter went straight for the parlor door. “I’ll get it,” she said, and was gone.
Michael’s brother watched Bella go and then turned a bemused face toward her. “Did I say something wrong? Or, do you think, it is merely the fact that I exist?”
He was a charmer, with that thick head of sandy red hair and those deep dark brows and eyes. Mary smiled inwardly. She’d bet he’d gotten by with just about everything when he was little!
“Bella is a little on edge today,” she said.
“May I?” Rafe asked, indicating a chair.
She nodded. “Of course, forgive me for not offering.”
As he sat, Rafe said, “I have been knee-deep in my late brother’s affairs since very early this morning, trying to wrap up loose ends before the stage leaves today.”
“Are you going somewhere so soon?” she asked. “Bella said you’d only arrived a week ago.”
“So, she does mention me – without curses, I hope.” He laughed. “I came in six days ago.”
“Where are you going?”
His eyes shot to the kitchen into which Bella had disappeared. “I intend to see your daughter to Nevada.”
“Does Bella know?”
He frowned slightly, as if there was no need for her to know. Then he said, “She is an unmarried woman now and cannot travel alone. She must have a chaperone.”
“And you’ve appointed yourself to be that chaperone?”
He was unperturbed. “Of course. I am her closest male relative – on my brother’s side.”
Mary’s eyes flicked to the kitchen. She could hear Bella slamming drawers. “Does my daughter know about this?”
“No. It’s what I came to tell her.”
Bella was horrified.
She glanced at her little sister Sophie who was joyfully banging cupboard doors and rattling glasses so that their mother would think she was getting them all drinks. She had snuck back to the edge of the parlor and hidden behind the accordion doors to listen to what Rafe had to say.
Come with her indeed.
If wishes were horses!
The blonde woman though furiously. What was she going to say? How was she going to stop him? The idea of traveling weeks by stagecoach and days by steamship with Rafe at her side fawning and hinting and practically slobbering on her was more than she could bear!
A finger tap on her shoulder made her turn. Sophie, who was about twenty, stood behind her. She was carrying a tray that held four glasses of cider. Her sister peered out from under the wave of golden-brown curls on her forehead and asked, “Can I take them in?”
“Whatever for?” Bella replied.
Sophie looked past her. Her cheeks flushed. “I think Rafe’s beautiful.” Her little sister let out a little sigh. “Even his name is beautiful. Raphael….”
Bella took hold of the tray. “Rafe Ashton is a self-centered, self-indulgent, Beau Brummell!” she snapped, careful to keep her voice low.
“You’re just saying that because you don’t think I’m good enough for him, and because you want him yourself!” Sophie shot back.
“Because I…? “ The blonde woman blew out an exasperated breath. “Well, I never! I wouldn’t marry that fancy Dan if he was the last man on the Earth!”
“Oh, right. Because you’re going to marry your cowboy now and go live with him in the Wild West where a rattler will eat you!”
Bella rolled her eyes. “Rattlers don’t eat people.”
They both turned toward the sound.
It was Ma.
“Yes, Ma’am,” they said in tandem.
“Mister Ashton is waiting on his drink.”
Bella pulled the tray from her sister’s grip and rounded the folded accordion door with it. She plastered a false smile on her face as she said, “Here we are.” Crossing over to Rafe, she served him first and then beat a hasty retreat to sit beside her mother on the settee.
“May I join you?” Sophie asked, her voice all sweetness and light.
Rafe took a sip, put the glass down, and then rose to his feet. He crossed to Sophie and, taking one of her hands in his, lifted it to his lips and planted a kiss on the top. “I have a few matters of business to discuss with your sister concerning my late brother’s affairs and, for that, we need privacy.” At her petulant look, he added, “However, when I am finished, I would be most grateful if you would accompany me on a short stroll. I would be the envy of the town with such a beauty as you on my arm.”
Bella had one word for that.
For a second Sophie was dumbstruck. She blinked, drew a breath – which was a good thing because Bella though her sister had forgotten how to breathe – and then turned and floated to the kitchen.
Her mother was laughing. “That was sweet of you, Mister Ashton.”
“Rafe,” he said with a charming smile.
“And just what business do you have to discuss with me?” Bella asked, knowing full well what it was. “From what I’ve been told, all of Michael’s affairs that can be settled at this point have been.”
He nodded. “All of Michael’s business has been settled, but…. Sister Mary and I have talked and we agree you simply cannot go to Nevada alone. It wouldn’t be prudent or proper for an unmarried woman to do so.”
“Oh, and I suppose traveling with you – an unmarried man – would be wise?” she countered sharply.
Rafe looked surprised. “Since I am your brother-in-law, yes.”
Bella was at a loss. What was she going to say? How was she going to foil Rafe’s well-thought out plan? As she sat there, mortified, her eyes alighted on her youngest brother outside the window. Benjamin had finished his work. With a nod to Pa, who remained in his chair, he headed for the back door.
“But I’m not going alone!” she blurted out.
Her mother and Rafe exchanged a look even as Bella heard the back door open and swing shut.
The first little crack in Rafe’s oh-so-charming armor appeared as he scowled and demanded, “And just who is going with you? There is no one to go with you.”
Her brother appeared in the doorway of the parlor, cider in hand, drawn by their voices no doubt. Ben had been working hard and sweat dripped from the ends of his auburn curls. The simple clothes he wore – a pair of dark canvas trousers and a well-worn burnt-orange work shirt – clung to his slender frame. He smiled at her when he saw her looking and then something else entered his brown eyes. They had always been close. In some ways, she’d raised him since their ma was so busy with her work and then, with their pa.
Ben knew something was wrong.
“There he is!” she exclaimed happily, springing to her feet and crossing over to her brother. Linking her arm in his, she announced, “It’s Benjamin. Ben is going to go with me!”
God love him, her brother resisted asking where.
“Sure am,” he said. Ben put his arm around her shoulder. “Can’t let my big sister go alone.”
Bella locked eyes with her mother. She knew it would be a hardship. She had some cash set aside, so she could pay for someone to do Benjamin’s chores while she was gone, but it would still be tough for their pa.
Rafe was staring at the two of them. “He’s a boy,” he finally said.
“Hey!” Benjamin protested. “I’m almost seventeen.”
Bella hid a smile. ‘Almost’ meaning in half a year.
“Still,” the older man protested.
Her ma rose then and went to Michael’s brother. She placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Rafe. I was about to tell you. You see, Benjamin Joseph is named after two of Bella’s dear friends, Benjamin and Joseph Cartwright. He has his heart set on meeting them and, well, this is a perfect opportunity.”
The look out of her mother’s eyes said she meant it.
Benjamin was beaming too. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s right!”
Rafe, being a creature of deception himself, glared at her brother. He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it just as quickly, evidently deciding that – for the moment at least – he’d been outmaneuvered.
“Very well,” he said. “Since you seem to think an sixteen year old boy is enough to keep your daughter safe on trip of some five hundred miles or more, I yield to your better judgment.” Rafe’s glare shifted from Ben to her. “I saw that your belongings are out front with Michael’s man, so this is goodbye, Bella. I pray you have a safe and successful trip and will call upon you at your return.”
Bella wanted to melt into a puddle. Instead she held her hand out and let him kiss it – and kept from wincing.
“Thank you, Rafe. I’ll see you in a few months.”
Rafe was already nodding to her mother. “Madame.” A second later he was out the door.
Bella sighed. Sophie was going to have a fit!
As the door closed, their mother chuckled softly. “I was afraid, for a moment there, that he might take off the roof!” The older woman’s eyes shifted to her brother. “Benjamin, I hope you don’t mind going with your sister.”
“Heck, no!” he said, and went on in spite of their mother’s disapproval of his choice of words. “Where am I going?”
Bella laughed. “Nevada. To the Ponderosa!”
Ben’s brown eyes lit like a sky with fireworks. He grinned from ear to ear. “You mean I really do get to meet the legendary Cartwrights?”
Her brother suddenly sobered. He looked out the window to where their pa was sitting soaking in the sun. “Is it okay, Ma? Really?” he asked. “I know you need me here.”
“I’ll pay for someone to come and help,” Bella assured her mother.
Her mother squeezed her hand. “I know you will. We’ll be fine. You two go and have your great adventure.” Turning to her brother, their ma said, “You’ll need to pack, son. Bella is leaving shortly.”
Ben hesitated only a moment and then he shouted, “Huzzah!”
Bella laughed. “Huzzah?”
He grinned. “Yeah, huzzah. Or maybe it should be, ‘yeehaw’! I get to be a cowboy!”
At that, Benjamin put a hand to his backside and began to slap it and then he and his pretend horse made their way up the stairs as quickly as they could in order for him to pack.
“The Ponderosa will never be the same,” her mother said with a sigh.
Bella crossed to the window and looked out, her eyes following the retreating coach that held Michael’s brother.
She certainly hoped not.
“Mister Cartwright? Mister Cartwright, you can come in now.”
Joe was seated by the office window, looking out. He started from where his thinking had taken him and turned away to look at the young lady who’d stepped into the room. Jennie had dark brown eyes and a winning smile that belied the fact that, most of the time, she was welcoming people with…well…with problems.
People like him.
His grin was forced, but the charm was still there. “I thought I told you to call me ‘Joe’.”
Jennie was a sweet girl, barely twenty, and from what she’d told him the last time he’d come to Carson City to see Doctor Beverly Brandon, just married. There was a ring on her finger now. She blushed prettily as she stepped out of his way.
“Doctor Brandon will see you now…Joe.”
He rose from his seat and crossed to where she was standing by the office door. “You be sure to tell that man you married that I said he was one lucky fella.”
The blush deepened until Jennie’s cheeks were nearly as crimson as the pattern on her blouse.
As Joe entered the office, Doctor Brandon rose to greet him. “Are you flirting with my receptionist again?” he asked.
Doctor Beverly Brandon was about Adam’s age, somewhere in his early forties. He was an American, but had gone to Europe to study medicine and returned just in time to treat the veterans of the conflict between the states – the Confederate veterans. Brandon had been born in South Carolina and so his family and loyalties were there. Due to that family he had relocated to Carson City in eighteen-seventy and opened a practice. At first there was a lot of resentment but, since he had not fought in the war, when his techniques proved successful with Union veterans as well it turned the tide of opinion toward him. Brandon was a tall man – at least three inches taller than him – and slender, with pale yellow hair that laid flat on his head and a thin mustache that curled slightly at the ends. Sometimes the doctor wore glasses, but more often than not, like now, he had them pushed back and perched on his head. Like his office, Beverly Brandon was well-attired in the latest fashion, but there was nothing showy – everything was utilitarian and comfortable. Everything was about making the people who came to see him comfortable.
Because, if you were here, you probably thought you were crazy.
Doctor Brandon came around the desk and offered his hand. He studied him a moment and then asked, softly, “I take it things are no better?”
Joe frowned. “Does it show?”
The older man shook his head slightly. “I have a trained eye. I doubt anyone else would notice.” The doctor released his hand and indicated the chair in front of his desk. “Sit down and tell me about the last two weeks.”
It had been that long since he had seen him.
Joe sat down and tried not to squirm. This was hard for him – really hard. All of his life he’d taken on impossible challenges and overcome them. He’d pushed through and survived. He prided himself on the fact that no one could beat him or best him. No one could stop him.
No one, it seemed, except himself.
Doctor Brandon waited patiently. It seemed to Joe that the man always knew what he was going to say before he did, anyway.
“When you’re ready.”
Joe sucked in air and spit it out. “I’ve been a bastard.”
Brandon’s blond brows peaked. “I see. And just how have you been a bastard?”
Since Alice’s death and since…Tanner…Joe often found himself unfocused and lethargic. He just had no energy or intent to do anything. But there were times like this, where he felt he might explode if he didn’t move. Literally jumping from the chair, Joe began to pace.
Where to begin?
“I jump all over everyone. I got a fuse that’s about an inch long and when it reaches the end, I go off like dynamite. I’ve pissed off about every hand we have and traded blows with half of them and last night….” He paused. “Last night I made my little brother cry.”
Brandon was silent a moment. “These fights,” he said at last, “do you instigate them?”
Joe dropped back into the chair. Pacing hadn’t helped. “Yeah.”
“Do you know why?”
He met the doctor’s clinical stare and knew there was no point in trying to deceive him. He’d been through this too many times over the last few months.
“I guess I figure if I keep pickin’ on every hand we have, sooner or later one of them is gonna be bigger and faster than me and the whole damn thing will end.”
“The ‘whole damn thing’? Meaning your life?”
Joe sunk back in the chair. “Yeah.”
The blond man nodded. That was one of the reasons he’d kept coming to see Doctor Brandon after Doc Martin’s assistant recommended him. No lectures. Just understanding.
“Have you been taking the medication I prescribed?”
He nodded. Probably too quickly.
Joe shrugged. “Mostly.”
Beverly Brandon stood and came to the front of the desk and leaned on it. He looked at him directly. “And if I told you I had ‘mostly’ checked the cinch before I climbed into the saddle to bust a bronco, would that fly with you?”
Joe ran a hand across his mouth and favored the older man with a smile that was chagrined. “I’d say when you broke your neck, that you deserved it.”
He nodded. “Precisely.”
“It’s just….” Joe hesitated. Somehow it seemed he was insulting the doctor. “I think I should be strong enough to beat this without taking pills.”
The doctor’s lips turned up in a wry smile. “And tell me, how is that going for you?”
He held Brandon’s gaze for a moment. “It’s not.”
The older man placed a hand on his shoulder. “That, Joseph Cartwright, is one of the first signs I have seen that you are getting better. I know it’s hard, especially for a man like you. I know your reputation. I know how strong you are.”
Joe scoffed. “How strong I used to be….”
“No. How strong you are still. Joe, science is discovering every day that the human mind can only take so much. Even the strongest man has a breaking point. Your wife’s horrific death,” Brandon paused, knowing the pain he inflicted with his words, “the death of your child, and your mistreatment at the hands of a madman…. Only one of those would have been enough to break most men. You survived. You are still here. You are just in need of help to recover. The mind is no different from the body. If you had a broken limb, you would have to let it rest. You need to let your mind and soul rest.” Brandon rose and returned to the desk chair. “The medication I gave you will do just that.”
Joe shifted uneasily.
“Are you able to turn your mind off, Joe? Can you banish the flames and the images of being hunted like an animal on your own?”
His jaw was tight; his nostrils flared as if he was preparing to fight. “You know I can’t.”
“The medication will allow you to do so. That is all. If you take it as I prescribed, an hour or so before you go to sleep, it will help your body and your mind to rest.”
“I should be able to do that on my own.”
Doctor Brandon leaned back and sighed. “Should. How I wish I could banish that word from mankind’s vocabulary.” He paused before going on. “You know most of my patients up until recently were veterans?”
“ ‘What if?’ ‘I should have.’ Do you know how many men, how many families have been ruined by those words? How many lives lost?” The older man leaned forward and met his defiant stare. “Joe, if you are having suicidal feelings, then you are in danger. I don’t want to go to your father –”
“You can’t tell Pa!” he exclaimed.
“I can and I will. If I think your life is in danger, I have an obligation to do so.” Brandon looked right at him. “However, I am willing to wait so long as you take your medication as prescribed and continue to come see me at least every two weeks. Joe, you are my responsibility now.” The doctor hesitated. “I would like to say as well, that you are my friend. I like you, Joe. The last thing I want to do is see you hurt.”
He left the word ‘yourself’ unspoken, but it hung between them.
“How many doses have you skipped?”
Joe scowled. “I took one yesterday.”
“And the day before?”
He shook his head. “About three days last week.”
“You need to take it every night. Don’t skip any doses. All right? If that doesn’t work, the next time you come, we’ll up the dose to three pills. I’d hate to go any higher, but you can take up to four.”
“Two is more than enough,” he grumbled.
Doctor Brandon stared at him a moment and then laughed. “I was warned about you Cartwrights. Did you know that? You and your father are quite well known in Carson City.”
“So what was the warning?”
“That the good Lord created man and made him single-minded and determined, and then he made the Cartwrights and gave them a double dose!”
A smile tickled his lips. “Sounds like you’ve been talking to people who know us.”
Again, the older man rose to his feet and came to stand before the desk. He waited until Joe rose as well to speak. “I know you can’t hear this now, Joe, but I am going to say it anyway. I admire you. You are not a quitter, no matter what you think at the moment. You have inspired me in the time I have known you and you will continue to do so, I am sure, as your recovery progresses.”
He didn’t know what to say. Telling your doctor he was a liar didn’t seem to be an option.
The blond man held out his hand. “Until next time?”
Joe took it. “Thank you, Doctor Brandon.”
“Bev, please. I think we know each other well enough now.”
Forcing a smile, he agreed. “Bev. See you in two weeks.”
“Be sure to schedule it with Jennie. That way I’ll know if you back out,” Bev said with a hint of a smile.
The Joe Cartwright he had been would have laughed and made some cocky remark. But he wasn’t the Joe Cartwright he had been.
Instead Joe nodded and walked out the door.
Jamie Cartwright drew his mount to a halt and slid from her back. After tethering the animal to the rail, he started for the house. He’d gone to town on his own to pick up the mail and just arrived back. It was supper time and he caught the scent of pot roast with root vegetables on the wind. It made him smile. Hop Sing’s roast beef was one of his favorite things on the earth. There’d be a big hunk of beef sitting in the center of the china platter, swimming in red wine and juices and surrounded by parsnips, potatoes and carrots. You couldn’t beat it!
Jamie halted just outside of the front door, stopped by a sudden unwelcome thought. Pot roast was one of his big brother’s favorites as well, though sometimes it made Joe sad when Hop Sing served it as it reminded him of Hoss. It reminded him of Hoss too, but the thought made him happy ‘cause he could see the big man sitting there, claiming all of it and laughing at they tried to get their share.
Sometimes it seemed like Joe had forgotten how to laugh.
While he stood there, thinking, the door opened and his pa stepped out.
“Jamie! I was just wondering about you.” The older man looked at his empty hands. “Did you get the mail?”
He knew he had a tendency to be a bit forgetful. It seemed like his mind was always running away with him and he was thinking of the next thing before he had the current one done.
“Sorry, Pa. It’s in the saddlebag. I’ll go get it.”
It only took a moment. Jamie pulled the pile of letters out of the leather satchel, tied it off, and headed for the house. Pa was waiting for him and put an arm around his shoulder to let him know he wasn’t mad, and then the two of them headed into the house. Once they were inside, the older man headed for the kitchen to let Hop Sing know they were ready to eat. As his pa disappeared around the corner, Jamie began to file through the letters. He’d sent for information from a couple of veterinary colleges and was expecting to hear back any day. He hadn’t really decided if he was going to go to school or not, but Pa and Joe both said it never hurt to look into things. Most of the letters were common stuff. None were from the colleges. There was one that he found interesting. The envelope was made of really expensive paper, like the kind documents were written on, and it was blue.
It smelled too. Like a girl.
“What do you have there?”
He looked up to find that Pa was back. Jamie held the envelope out. “It’s for you.” He paused and then added with a mischievous smile. “You got a girl you ain’t told me about?”
“Is there no return address?” the older man asked as he came to claim it.
Jamie shook his head. “Nope.”
Pa turned the letter over and checked the back. “Hmm,” was all he said.
“You gonna open it?”
At the moment Hop Sing called them to supper. His pa went to his chair and placed the letter on the table beside it. Then he took his arm and directed him to the table.
As they sat down Jamie looked at the empty chair opposite him and asked, “When’s Joe due back?”
The older man opened his napkin and placed it on his lap. “Your older brother is…less forthcoming about his movements than he used to be.”
Jamie waited. “So you don’t know.”
Pa sighed as he glanced at the door. “I don’t know. I had hoped he would be back by supper.”
It was legendary how many nights Pa had sat up waiting for his older brother when Joe was the youngest Cartwright in the house. He’d tried real hard not to make his pa worry about him, though it hadn’t always worked.
“I bet he’ll be back before we’re done,” he said encouragingly.
By the time they finished, Joe had still not appeared.
As Hop Sing cleared the table, the two of them went into the great room and sat down. He’d left the book he was reading there. It was one from Adam’s old room. It had a funny name, Les Misérables, which his pa had told him meant ‘the miserables’. Victor Hugo had written it. At first he’d passed it by, but after opening it and reading a few pages, he found out that the story was really good. It was big book and he’d been working on it for some time. As his pa took a seat in the red leather chair, Jamie parked on the settee and picked it up. It wasn’t until ten minutes or so later that he remembered the mysterious envelope and looked up to see if Pa had opened it.
The older man was sitting with the letter in his right hand. Two fingers of his left hand were perched on his lips and he was staring into the fire.
It looked like it might have been bad news.
“Pa? Is something wrong?”
The older man started. He remained as he was for a moment and then straightened up. “No,” he said at last, “in fact I think it might be the best news I’ve had in a while.”
When he said nothing more, the redhead asked, “Can you tell me why?”
His pa thought a moment. “Do you trust me, Jamie?”
It kind of startled him, that question. “Of course I do.”
“Then, you’ll believe me when I tell you that I can’t explain right now.”
The question was out before he could stop it. “Does it have to do with Joe?”
The older man opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment the door opened and along with a chill wind, the object of his question blew in. Joe removed his gun belt and placed it on the credenza. Then he parked his hat and green jacket by the door. When he saw them sitting in the great room, he looked mildly surprised and mightily embarrassed.
“Sorry I’m late, Pa.”
Their pa rose to his feet and went over to meet him. “How are you, son?” he asked softly.
For a moment, Joe said nothing. When he saw him looking, he said, “Hey, Jamie.”
“Hey, Joe,” he replied.
The silence that followed was awful.
Pa stirred at last. “I’ll go tell Hop Sing to fix you a plate.”
As he turned to leave, Joe caught his arm. “Pa, please. I’d like to talk to you first. And to Jamie. If that’s okay.”
Pa reached up and cupped Joe’s cheek in his hand. He nodded.
Jamie watched them as they came over to the hearth. He had to admit that when he first came to the Ponderosa, he’d been a little jealous of how close the two of them were. He’d loved his own pa, but he’d never known that kind of closeness and he’d longed for it. It didn’t take him long to realize that Ben Cartwright had more than enough love to go around. Now, when he saw them together, it just made him realize how lucky he was.
How lucky Joe was.
They all sat down. Joe took a seat on the hearth and stared into the fire for so long they both thought he wasn’t going to speak. Then, suddenly, he did.
“I owe you both an apology for today, and for what happened yesterday with Ramsey.” He snorted. “Well, for just about everything, really.”
Jamie shuddered at the memory of the big man pounding on Joe. He was glad Pa had pressed charges and Abel Ramsey was in jail so he couldn’t go after his big brother again.
Pa was shaking his head. “Son, there’s no need –”
“Yeah, Pa. There is. I’ve haven’t….” Joe stopped and then started again. “I’ve only been thinking about myself. I’ve caused both of you a lot of grief. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, son –”
Joe’s temper flared. “No, it’s not! I’ve been sulking like a little kid, like no one in the world ever went through what I’ve…gone through.” He drew a calming breath. “For God’s sake, Pa, you lost three wives!”
Pa hesitated. His words were quiet. “But none in the way you lost Alice, Joe. And none of them were carrying my child at the time.”
They hesitated to speak of it. Almost like when they did, they were telling Joe something he didn’t know.
He did, of course.
Joe’s jaw was tight and tears shone in his green eyes. “You lost a child too, Pa,” he said quietly.
“And you lost a brother.”
Joe sniffed. Then his older brother looked at him. There was a hint of a smile.
“And gained one.”
He grinned back.
“You look tired, Joe. Maybe we should continue this tomorrow.”
Pa was right. Joe looked all in. He’d lost weight recently and he knew he’d hardly slept at all. Their bedrooms were near to each other and he’d heard him getting up every night and going downstairs. Joe’s skin was usually a deep golden color. It was pale now and all pinched around his eyes and lips. Jamie met his brother’s gaze. There was something missing in those green eyes.
A kind of light that had gone out.
Joe ran a hand over his face. He smiled in that way he had when he was kind of embarrassed, where one eye winked and his lips curled up at one end.
“I look that bad, huh?”
When Pa said nothing, he piped up. “Just don’t go to near the horses, Joe. You know how skittish they are. You might scare them away.”
Joe’s eyes widened and then took on a look of trouble. Before Jamie knew it, his big brother was over the table and had plowed into him. It took a second to realize Joe wasn’t angry, he was just pretendin’ to be mad like he used to before…everything. Joe caught him in his arms and they rolled off the sofa and hit the floor. After tumblin’ a couple of times, Joe hugged him. He held him for all he was worth. Then, he began to cry. He didn’t say nothin’. He just shook.
Jamie hugged his brother back and they sat there, with pa watching, until –completely exhausted – Joe fell asleep in his arms.
Later that night, after he had seen Joseph to bed and sat and talked with him as he had done when his son was a child, Ben Cartwright returned to the great room and his red leather chair and the envelope he’d left laying on the table beside it. He sat down and picked it up, withdrew the letter from inside it elegant housing, and read the lines written on the parchment paper again.
I am coming to see you. Please don’t tell Joe. I have to come, and I know he would try to stop me if he knew. Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t reveal his secret. It wasn’t what you said in your last letter, but his silence that alerted me to the fact that something is terrible wrong. My little brother and I board the steamship ‘City of Chester’ tomorrow. It will take a month or so for us to reach the Ponderosa. I wasn’t going to write at all, but when Benjamin decided to join me – he’s the one named for you – I decided I had best confess. I thought you should know there would be two of us imposing on you instead of one.
I can see you face – that slight frown, the way your forehead furrows and the skin crinkles at the corners of your eyes. I know you think me foolish. Most likely I can’t do anything to help, but I have to try. I love your son. I have always loved him. The biggest mistake of my life was running from him. No matter what happens, whether Joe accepts me or turns me away, you know I always will.
Bella Carnaby Ashton
Ben ran a hand under his left eye to wipe away the moisture. He was glad Jamie had gone to bed as well. The boy wasn’t there to be upset by his tears.
Replacing the letter in the envelope, the older man rose and went to his desk. He opened the drawer where he kept his personal correspondence – the one the boys knew was taboo to rummage through – and placed the envelope inside. Then he went to the front door and stepped out. Ben stood for a moment, looking toward town, and then went and sat in the rocking chair near the door. With winter coming on the old chair that had witnessed so much of his life at this house would soon move inside, but for the moment it remained and held a comfort of its own.
The autumn air was crisp and cool. He found it reminiscent of the last time Bella Carnaby had graced their home with her sweet and ebullient spirit. It was hard to believe it had been eight long years. Harder still to believe that she’d been only eighteen and yet had known she loved his son with a passion that time would not dull. He’d been aware that she was in love with Joseph, but had thought her a child. He’d thought hers was the kind of love a girl in her teens has – a love filled with wild romantic notions and based on physical attraction. At the time be didn’t believe it to be the deep, sure kind you needed to marry. Rising, the older man took a few steps away from the house and looked up at his son’s window.
He wondered now what Bella’s life – what Joe’s life – might have been if he had encouraged rather than discouraged them to pursue their feelings.
Ben pursed his lips and shook his head, cutting that line of thought short. What was done was done. It was time to look to the future.
And maybe, just maybe, with Bella’s return his son would have one.
Joe stepped back from the window and dropped the curtain. He’d caught a glimpse of his father outside in the yard and it made his heart sink. Now that he was older and had spent the months he had with Alice thinking about the responsibility of rearing a child, he understood the deep grief he’d caused his father over the years.
Understood the deep grief he was causing him now.
The curly-haired man went to his bed and dropped onto it and placed his head in his hands. Why couldn’t he stop this constant jumble of emotion that had him at the point of tears one moment and angry enough to kill the next? Why was he continually plagued with horrific images when he closed his eyes – Alice standing in the window of their house screaming as she burned, his child running toward him, aflame.
And God damn him, Tanner. Bill Tanner. Always one step behind, always his cast shadow overtaking him.
He’d awakened from more nightmares than he could count a second after Tanner put the nose of his rifle against his head and only a second before the gun went off.
Why? Why was he so weak?
Joe glanced at his dresser. There was a bottle of whiskey there. Pa knew about it and hadn’t said anything – letting him fight his own demons, he guessed. He’d thought about drowning his sorrows. He’d done it before and not all that long ago. After the nitroglycerin explosion that blinded him, he ‘d thought his life was over. He’d sunk into so deep a melancholia that it seemed to him, at the time, that there was no way out. He hadn’t told anyone then, but he had just wanted it to end. He didn’t want to go on living if he was impaired; if he could only be a burden to those he loved.
Well, he damn well was a burden to them now.
Lifting his head, Joe turned and looked at the nightstand by his bed. Rising slowly, wearily, he went over to it and opened the drawer and drew out the small amber-colored bottle he had filled at the apothecary before leaving Carson City. He’d asked the man behind the counter about what was in it and been told that the pill was known for its effectiveness to treat cholera, several kinds of pain, and to help distracted persons. Joe snorted.
What a polite word for someone who was crazy.
Sitting on the edge of the bed again, Joe opened the bottle and let two of the little blue pills spill into his hand. The trouble was he didn’t like what they did to him. They made him nauseous and he was thirsty all the time. Worst of all, he needed to make more than the normal amount of runs to the outhouse, which was mighty hard thing to do when you were a man riding fence-line all day or driving cattle across the land.
On top of all that, just the fact that he needed to take them made him feel like a failure.
With a sigh, he recapped the bottle and returned it to the nightstand. Rising, Joe walked over to the other side of the bed and poured himself a glass of water. He stood there for a moment, staring at the pills. In spite of what he had told the doctor, he’d never taken two at once. He’d figured one was more than enough.
Joe placed the pills on his tongue. He tossed a half glass of water after them, swallowed, and then laid down on his bed fully clothed. Within half an hour, he’d drifted off and passed the entire night in untroubled sleep.
His sleep was untroubled, all right.
It was when he woke in the morning that the nightmare truly began.
Jamie looked over his shoulder at his older brother. It was late October and Joe was standing in a patch of mud left behind by a some early snow that had melted, stringing some of Glidden’s new-fangled 15.5 gauge barbed wire along the top of one of the Ponderosa’s boundary fences. The roll of wire, partially opened and played out, was laying in a tangled mess at his feet. They’d traveled out about as far as they could go before Joe had chosen a spot to begin. Pa hadn’t been too keen on using Glidden’s wire on the fence here. He said he thought it seemed right unneighborly, to which Joe had replied that their neighbors weren’t going to be the ones trying to jump a fence and rustle cattle. In the end big brother had stormed off to town, bought a bale of it, grabbed him on his way through the yard, and come up here to start putting it out.
Joe’d done a lot of that the last five days.
Pa had a couple of words for it. He said everything Joe had been through in the last seven months had left him ‘touchy’ and ‘irritable’. The men were using other words for it. When the redhead had been out with the ranch hands , the words he’d heard whispered behind Joe’s back were ‘thin-skinned’ and ‘cantankerous’. The miners said Joe was ‘short-fused’ and ‘volatile’, just like dynamite. They all agreed on one word though – dangerous.
Sooner of later, they said, Joe was gonna get either himself or someone else killed.
Which was why he’d followed Joe today without asking Pa’s permission. Jamie knew he’d get it when he got back to the ranch house, but he didn’t care. It wasn’t safe to leave Joe alone. He knew it.
Someone had to take care of Joe and since the mysterious Adam and big brother Hoss were gone, it was up to him.
Jamie studied Joe’s rigid figure. The older man was standing still, facing the bale of wire and staring at it like it was an enemy. He’d seen him do it before, like he was working out strategies so the wire wouldn’t win. It was kind of frustrating. Joe had brought him along to help, but so far he hadn’t let him do anything. The teenager glanced at the sky and realized it was about noon.
Maybe if he offered to cook….
“Are you hungry, Joe? I could fix us some grub.”
Joe was kneeling by the wire now, straining hard with his gloved hands to unwrap one prickly strand from the other. His jaw was tight and his green eyes narrowed. The muscles in Joe’s arms, built up over a lifetime of hard physical labor, rippled in the sunlight. Even though the air was chilly, he was covered with sweat. It bathed the front of his shirt. To someone just walking by, it wouldn’t look like anything was wrong, but he knew better. Something was definitely wrong.
Joe was shaking like a man with a fever.
Wincing at the blow of words he expected to get for asking, Jamie moved a little closer. “Joe? Hey, Joe. Are you all right?”
Joe’s head came up; that head of silver curls that were shining in the sun. He looked puzzled and then he said his name, “Jamie….”
Almost like he’d forgotten he was there.
Jamie sniffed. It wasn’t fair! He wanted his older brother back the way he’d been. The older brother that always had a smile and a joke, who loved to laugh; the brother who had accepted him and taken him under his wing and been so patient to teach him all the things he needed to know to be a part of the Cartwright family.
This man was a stranger.
Jamie took another step. “Joe, let me help. Maybe together we can figure out what’s wrong.”
For a moment it looked like Joe was considering it.
And then all Hell broke loose.
Joe rose to his feet. He pulled his leather gloves off and threw them to the ground and marched toward him. Stopping several feet away, he growled, “You do it then, if you think I’m so incompetent!”
It took a second before Jamie realized that Joe thought he was complainin’ about how long it was taking to get the wire unrolled.
“That’s not what I meant. I’m worried –”
Joe flashed him a warning look. He knew enough to heed it. After living with the Cartwrights for near four years, he knew that set of older brother’s jaw and the flash in his eye well enough to be aware that fists ususally followed. Jamie stepped back as Joe headed for Cochise and the canteen that hung from the saddle horn.
“Why isn’t the food ready?” the older man demanded as he recapped the canteen and turned back toward him.
“I didn’t know you wanted me to cook –”
“Well why the hell did you think I brought you out here? You didn’t think I was going to trust you with that wire, did you? You’re a child.”
Every word was meant to hurt. Every one.
Jamie fought back tears as his own temper flared. “Will you just stop it!” he shouted. “What is wrong with you?”
Joe’s jaw remained tight. His voice was just as tight – and quiet. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m fine.”
“You keep sayin’ that and it just ain’t true! “ His jaw was tight too, but it was from fighting back tears. “I know it. All the men know it.” He paused. “Pa knows it too, Joe, and it’s killin’ him!”
His brother’s eyes were trained on his face. “Don’t you mention my pa.”
Jamie steeled himself. “I may not have been born a Cartwright, but he’s my pa too. Every day, most every time you open your mouth, you hurt him. Can’t you see it, Joe? The worry is wearin’ him away!”
Something different flashed in the older man’s eyes.
Was it fear?
“Well, I’m sorry,” Joe snarled, in a tone of voice that said he was anything ‘but’. “I’m sorry if you don’t like the new ‘me’, but it’s who I am now, so you’re just going to have to get used to it. I’m going back to work.”
“Can I help?”
“No!” he snapped. “It’s too dangerous. You get to cooking!”
“I said, ‘No!’.”
Still fighting back tears, the young man followed his older brother’s progress as he headed toward the fencing. Just as Joe bent down to take hold of the barbed wire, he saw Joe’s gloves on the ground.
Snatching them from the grass, Jamie barreled toward him, shouting, “Joe! Hey Joe! Don’t! You’ll get hurt!”
Joe stood up abruptly and took a step toward him. They met about three feet away from the opened bale of wire. Before Jamie knew it, Joe’s fingers gripped his shirt. He started shaking him and yelling. Jamie didn’t know what was happening, but he knew he was scared as Hell and he had to fight back. When he did, it only enraged Joe more. The redhead saw it coming before it happened.
The awful thing was he could do nothing to stop it.
Joe pivoted, still holding onto him. As he yelled again, screaming, ‘I told you to stay away! Don’t you ever listen?’ his older brother shoved him.
A rat’s nest of barbed wire was a mighty hard place to land.
Bella Carnaby Ashton glanced over at her brother. Ben made her laugh. Due to her connection to the Ponderosa, Ben had spent his young life reading penny dreadful novels and dreaming of the life of a cowboy hero. Maybe it had been a mistake to pass on the books Joe sent to her, she thought as she watched her little brother gawk out the stagecoach window at every cactus that passed by.
Ben was no doubt looking for hidden Indians or highwaymen.
Bella shuddered at the thought. She hadn’t taken the stage since that dreadful trip through the Sierras five years before when Fleet Rowse had led a band of Indians to attack it and murdered nearly everyone on the coach. It hadn’t been easy, but she’d managed to ride a horse or take a buggy or train since then. Michael had known about her fear and always arranged things so she was able to avoid it. Unfortunately, as they were heading to Virginia City, Nevada from Placerville, California, there was really little choice if they wanted to make good time. She’d done her best to hide her terror from her brother, but she thought he suspected. Ben had taken the seat beside her and was always sure he made physical contact from time to time to let her know he was there. He knew from what she’d told him that this was the same route she had taken all those years ago. Ben kept up an endless line of chatter as well, annoying the preacher and his wife who sat across from them. So far, they were the only other passengers traveling on the coach. More passengers might join them, of course, at one of the upcoming way stations. In fact, they probably would.
Then Ben could irritate them too.
“What are you snickering at?” her little brother asked.
She turned to look at him. Though Benjamin was going on seventeen, she couldn’t help but think he was the cutest thing. He had a round face like their ma and the biggest chocolate-brown eyes. His hair wasn’t quite as curly as Joe Cartwright’s except when it was wet, which it was now because Ben was sweating in the close confines of the coach. The trailing ends of the reddish-brown curls that spiraled down onto his forehead made him look like a Wensleydale sheep.
“You,” she fessed up.
Ben was mock indignant. “Well, if you ain’t got anything better to do than laugh at a fellow….”
“I’m not laughing,” she corrected.
His brown brows popped. “No?”
“No, I’m snickering.” Bella reached out to brush one of the errant curls away. “You are just so cute!”
He batted her hand aside. “For Gosh sakes, Bella, you don’t tell a grown man he’s ‘cute’.” His eyes flicked to their fellow passengers who were pointedly ignoring them . “I’m almost – ”
“Almost seventeen. I know.” She stifled another giggle. “You’re just ancient!”
His anger was a little less ‘mock’ now. “And I suppose you are ancient and all-wise at the grand old age of twenty-six?”
It was at that moment that Bella recognized the scenery speeding past. She could see it through the open window behind her brother. The low rise of the hill. The long stretch of open land.
The high ridge made of rock where she had hidden with Little Joe Cartwright and where she thought she had lost him.
Where she thought he had died.
Bella shuddered. She barely swallowed the sob that followed it.
Any trace of annoyance on her brother’s face vanished. He took her by the hand. “Bella? What’s is it?” Following the trail of her gaze, Benjamin looked over his shoulder and out the window at the passing landscape. When he turned back, his lightly tanned skin had paled a shade. “Was it here?” he asked.
All she could do was nod.
Ben moved closer and slipped his arm around her shoulder. He was quiet a moment and then he asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
She closed her eyes against the memories, but it didn’t helped. Everything was there. The Indians attack. The renegades deadly race to overtake the coach. Men falling; arrows piercing their chests and backs. Seeing Joe stuck with a club. Thinking he’d been mortally wounded.
And the smell. She’d never forget that.
The smell of roasting meat.
Showing unexpected concern, the pastor’s wife – who had traveled most of the way with her nose in a copy of the periodical, The People’s Literary Companion – asked, her voice soft with worry, “Are you all right, child? Do you need the stage to stop so you can get some fresh air?”
In that moment it dawned on Bella that she might have misjudged the pair. Perhaps their silence had been a way to let her and Benjamin enjoy what was obviously his first trip to the West together and not a judgment on her or her brother.
She shook her head. She knew if she spoke, the words would come out with tears.
Benjamin answered for her. “My sister took this route five years ago. There was an attack on the stage. A lot of people died.” He looked at her and smiled. “Bella survived.”
As the minister’s wife responded, Bella drew in several slow, steadying breaths in an attempt to slow her heartbeat, which was galloping like a racehorse. She smiled at the woman and then turned to her brother. She didn’t think it was possible, but he held her even closer as the pastor reached over and closed the curtains on the window.
Ben said she had survived.
Sometimes she wondered if there was any truth in that.
Joe Cartwright stared in horror at the aftermath of his unreasonable anger. His violent reaction to Jamie’s concern had sent the boy directly into the nest of barbed wire that had been created when he unrolled the bale. When he’d shouted for him to keep still, hoping to minimalize the damage, Jamie had fought even harder, his blue eyes wide with fear.
Fear of him.
He’d been so terrified as he saw the barbs bite into his little brother’s skin that he’d dug in and fought to keep the wire away from him. The boy was surrounded by it. It cut into Jamie’s back, arms and legs, but even more frightening had been the large portion of it that dangled perilously above the teenager’s head. Joe had thrown all caution to the wind as it shifted and began to descend. Regardless of the danger to himself he’d moved in, placing his body above the boy’s, and then reached up and taken hold of the menacing metal.
Forgetting that he was no longer wearing his gloves.
They’d both emerged alive, as he knew they would, but their battered and wounded flesh showed they’d been through a battle. His upper left shoulder was deeply gashed and his lower legs were covered with deep, jagged cuts as were his arms. Wherever it struck, the wire had not only pulled the skin away but had driven the cloth and sweat and dirt covering it into his open wounds. Every single gash was hot and crimson with blood and hurt like hell.
Jamie was much worse.
Joe ran the back of his bloody arm across his face, driving away tears, mud, and more blood. His little brother’s skin was ashen white and clammy to the touch. Jamie’s heartbeat was too rapid. The redhead’s chest was rising and falling, but the breaths were short, troubled, and came too fast. There was a slight tinge of blue to his lips.
He was in shock.
Joe had done the best he could. He’d managed to untangle himself just as Jamie passed out from the pain. Drawing his thick leather gloves on over hands that looked like something in a meat house, Joe had located the wire cutters and returned to his brother. Taking advantage of Jamie’s unconscious state, he’d begun the most onerous part of freeing him, pulling the wire barbs out of the boy’s tender skin.
And all the while the tears had flown.
As he worked, Joe’s thoughts had gone to Adam, recalling that day when his brother had accidentally shot him while they were hunting a wolf. He remembered Adam’s pain and guilt. His never ending remorse. It drove home again to him the fact that he was the older brother now. That he had to be the responsible one.
Joe’s eyes moved to the silent form lying on the ground before him.
For the last few weeks he’d been anything but responsible. Somewhere over the last month he’d lost it. He’d behaved in only one of two ways – enraged or unhinged.
He’d kept telling himself it didn’t matter. That it didn’t effect anyone but him. Jamie’s earlier words – so true that they were a spear thrust to his heart – had caused him to go berserk. The moment the anger in him had turned to rage and boiled over, he had become incapable of rational thought. He told himself he didn’t realize the boy would fall into the wire, that he hadn’t wanted to hurt Jamie.
Joe wet his lips. He struck away more sweat and tears.
Yeah, he kept telling himself that. He had to.
Otherwise, he’d go insane.
It was all Joe could do to rise to his feet and stagger over to where he’d left Jamie lying. He’d bandaged the worst of the boy’s wounds the best he could using strips torn from an extra shirt he’d brought in his saddlebag along with other clothes. Jamie had been shivering and so he’d gone and gathered every piece of cloth he could find – their extra shirts, pants, their bedrolls, and even the saddle blankets from their horses – and wrapped the redhead in them to keep him warm. At the last minute he’d rolled one of the saddle blankets up and placed it under the boy’s feet. That was after he remembered Doc Martin always told them to elevate a victim’s feet to increase circulation.
His main worry for Jamie wasn’t the blood loss though, in truth, both of them had lost more than their fair share. It was the threat of infection. While the wire had been clean , the mud he’d been standing in and filthy sweat-soaked cloth they both wore were not.
Some of the cuts on Jamie’s skin already looked angry.
Joe looked up at the sky. It was late afternoon. His father would be wondering where they were. The trouble was, he’d been so enraged when he left that he hadn’t told anyone what he was doing or where he was going. Pa wouldn’t have any idea where to begin the search. In the hopes that it might help, he’d removed Cochise’s saddle and slapped his horse’s hind-quarters and sent him on his way. When the animal returned home without gear or rider, and with a bloody handprint just above his tail, Pa would understand and send someone out to find them. They still had Jamie’s horse. The other one they’d brought along with them – the one attached to the sled that had carried the wire – had spooked and disappeared. He was afraid to go after it and leave Jamie alone, so he’d decided to rig a travois to carry the boy. Joe didn’t know how he was going to manage it, given that his hands looked like Hop Sing had taken a meat mallet to them, but he was damn well going to do it. This was his fault.
Whatever pain he experienced, he deserved.
Joe knelt down beside his little brother. Carefully, with his teeth, he tugged the leather glove off his left hand. He would have preferred to leave it on since the tight fit was stifling the blood flow, but he needed to touch Jamie’s skin to see if he was developing a fever. From the thin sheen of sweat on his brother’s pale freckled face he was pretty sure he was. As crimson blood began to flow between his thumb and forefinger, Joe placed his palm on Jamie’s forehead. The boy’s fever was low, but it was there.
As Joe removed his hand, Jamie stirred. His brother moaned and his eyes opened. At first they were without focus. Then, they lighted on him. As recognition dawned, Joe saw it.
Penitent, he placed his hand on the boy’s chest. As he took in the cuts on Jamie’s face, the deep gash at his hairline that had bled like a stuck pig, and the wounds he could see on other parts of the boy’s lanky frame, Joe sobbed. The words were wrenched out of him.
“Jamie, I am so sorry. I never meant….” He paused. “I never meant for this to happen.”
The boy’s reddish lashes brushed his pallid cheeks as he fought toward consciousness. Jamie swallowed, winced, and then his blue eyes opened on a world of unendurable pain.
“Joe!” His name came out with a moan. “Joe. God, Joe! It hurts!”
Jamie’s left hand was the least effected, so Joe took hold of it and gripped it tight. “Squeeze, Jamie! Squeeze my hand. Give it all you’ve got! When you can’t stand the pain, squeeze!”
The boy did as he told him. Joe was somewhat surprised by the strength of his grasp.
“Good! Keep at it!” he commanded, biting back his own pain.
Jamie was looking around, puzzled. “What…. What happened?” he asked.
God, he wished he knew.
“I…I lost my temper, Jamie. I pushed you. I swear I didn’t know the bale of wire was there. I wasn’t thinking….”
A small smile – very small – lifted one corner of the boy’s lips. “You…ain’t been…doin’ much of…that lately.”
Joe frowned. “What?”
Joe touched the boy’s face with his right hand. “I guess I haven’t.”
“Or…maybe too much. ‘Bout…the wrong thing….” Jamie winced and his back arced a bit. When it came back down to earth, he moaned and the light in his eyes dulled.
Joe forced a smile. “You get some sleep, you hear? I’m going to build a travois so I can get you home.”
His brother roused a bit as he said that. “No. Hurt….”
“I know it will hurt, buddy, but we have to get you – ”
“No.” Jamie’s voice was firmer. His gaze went to Joe’s hand. “Hurt…you. You’re…hurt…too….”
Joe opened his mouth to tell the boy he was fine, but decided he didn’t deserve that. He swallowed once and admitted. “Yeah, I hurt like Hell.”
His little brother’s lips curled in a small. “Don’t…let Pa…hear you talk…like that.” Jamie drew a sharp breath as pain shot through him. “He’ll wash…your…mouth…with….”
He was out again.
Joe rose wearily to his feet. He’d been pretending all month that everything was fine, that he wasn’t out of control; that he could manage whatever was happening to him. It was a lie. Plain and simple. A lie he had been telling to everyone, but mostly to himself.
As the curly-haired man headed for the tree limbs he’d gathered to build the rig with, recent memory took him unawares. He saw himself on the travois Tom Griswold and Ern had built. He was being pulled toward the Griswolds’ home. The whole way there he was plagued by delusions. The one that held the most horror for him was that of Hoss aiming a gun at him and pulling the trigger. Joe staggered to a stop and looked back. Wasn’t that what he had just done with Jamie? Aimed his anger at him and then pulled the trigger? After that nightmare, he had shied away from his big brother until he was able to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t real. Hoss wouldn’t hurt him.
This was real. He had hurt Jamie.
Would their relationship ever be the same?
Candy had come to the main house to talk to Joe, only to be told by his friend’s father that he hadn’t returned and the older man had no idea where he was. As he’d listened to his boss, he’d reached up and fingered the bruise on his chin without thinking and it hadn’t taken Mister Cartwright more than two heartbeats to figure out who had put it there. He’d crossed Joe one time to many the day before and his friend had let him have it. He’d tried to pass it off as something that happened during a friendly disagreement – boys will be boys – but the older man would have none of it. Ben Cartwright knew his son was in trouble.
Like they all knew Joe was in trouble.
Worried for his friend, Candy had made a point of running into Doc Martin’s new assistant and possible replacement while he was in town the day before. He’d invited the man for a beer and then proceeded to pump him for all the information he had. He’d listed Joe’s symptoms from A to Z, starting with the uncontrollable anger and ending with the fact that he’d caught Joe sitting in the barn one day shaking from head to toe and mumbling about things that weren’t there. He told the Doc he was afraid his friend was going crazy.
Unfortunately, Julian Corwin agreed.
The young doctor went on to explain that, while the kind of melancholia Joe was suffering from had once been thought as a matter of choice, science had recently proven it to be a ‘biomedical disorder’ of the emotions and beyond the sufferer’s control. Julian said there had been a mental ‘reflex’ in Joe’s mind to all he had gone through. The sensation, he said, passed through the victim’s brain without alerting the consciousness. In other words, Joe had no idea of what was going on. It seemed the brain stored up all kinds of images and ideas. When an increasing amount of these ‘impressions’ were negative – say, being chased down like an animal by a madman or watching your wife and child burn to death – these ideas and images became distorted.
In other words, the brain became diseased.
He’d asked. So far as Doctor Corwin knew there was no cure. Julian said the fact that it had been seven months and Joe was getting worse instead of better was not a good sign.
Corwin recommended an asylum.
Ben Cartwright cleared his throat. Candy’d almost forgotten the older man had asked him a question – his boss had asked him what he thought they should do about Joe.
He sure wasn’t about to give him Doctor Corwin’s answer.
Candy shrugged. “Some men carry grudges for decades. No one thinks anything about that. It’s only been a little over half a year. I say we give Joe more time.”
The older man sighed. “I’m not sure how much more time I can give Joseph. His behavior is disrupting not only this household, but the business of the ranch. I’ve had half a dozen men in here in the last five days telling me they will no longer work with him.”
Must have been the new ones. The old hands, like him, were worried sick about Joe.
Candy ran fingers over his stubbled chin. “I suppose you’ve tried talking to him?”
“Tried and failed.” Joe’s father paused. He got a wistful look in his eyes. “It’s times like these that I miss Joseph’s brothers the most. Adam would have given him a strong talking to and Hoss…” He paused. “Hoss would have simply been there for him.”
Candy nodded. He missed the big man too.
“It seems like Joe gets along well with Jamie. Maybe he could talk to him,” Candy suggested with a smile. It was fun watching the two of them together.
Well, it had been until lately.
“The trouble with Jamie is that Joseph has to be the strong one, the one who has all the answers.” His boss went to the door and put his hand to the latch. Apparently he’d made the decision to go after his sons. “Right now I don’t think Joseph has any answers for his little brother or for himself.”
“It’s gettin’ cold out there,” Candy warned as the door opened “You might want to put on a coat….” The foreman’s voice trailed off as the older man stiffened and then shot outside. He didn’t know what he expected to see, but it certainly wasn’t what he saw.
Joe’s horse was standing in the yard. Cochise’s saddle was missing. Well, actually everything was missing including his rider.
Candy went to join Ben Cartwright where he stood at the animal’s side.
The older man shot him a look. “Something’s wrong.”
It didn’t take much to figure that out. “I’ll get some of the hands and we’ll form a search party.”
The white-haired man had moved. “Candy,” he called softly.
Joe’s father stood to the rear of the animal and he was pale as the day. His boss nodded him over and when Candy looked, he saw why.
Above Cochise’s tail there was a handprint stamped in blood.
Ben Cartwright’s look was grim.
“Better make it fast.”