Summary: Tennyson said, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” What would Joe Cartwright say? (WHI/WHN for The Truckee Strip and part of the Ties That Bind AU series)
Rating K+ (1782 words)
Ties That Bind Series:
SOMETHING ABOUT AMY
“Is this the place?”
Joe Cartwright narrowed his eyes against the glint of the sun, expelling the air from his lungs in a measured breath. “Yeah.”
They were standing on the bank of a creek that meandered across a parcel of Ponderosa land they called the Truckee Strip—at the very spot where he first met Amy Bishop. He had intended to come back before now, but the thought of returning always provoked some excuse to put it off. Did that make him a coward?
It wasn’t as if he’d never lost anyone close to him, but when his mother died he was too young to understand death. Its finality was something he would learn. All he knew then was that she wasn’t there to take him in her lap or dry his tears or tuck him in bed with a story and a goodnight kiss. At first he marked her absence by the things they used to do together, but as he got older the things he remembered and missed the most about her were simpler and yet harder to put into words—the lullaby of her voice even when she wasn’t singing, the scent of roses and lilacs when she held him. Time had blurred the edges of that pain, the loss absorbed by the years and the resilience of youth.
But the grief that consumed him now was fresh and raw, a gaping hole that threatened to swallow him if he got too close, and there was nowhere to run. Some days he teetered right on the edge.
A lot of girls had turned his head during his eighteen years of living. Amy certainly wasn’t the first, nor was she even the most beautiful. But there was something about her—she was different—and he took notice that day, there on the creek bank.
It was Cartwright land, verified by a court of law, but Amy’s father, Luther Bishop, hadn’t seen it that way. The dissension between the owners of the Ponderosa and the Concho was deep and widely known, and a judge’s ruling couldn’t erase a man’s animosity when he felt he’d been cheated.
When Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth, Joe figured he probably hadn’t counted on Ben Cartwright. There was nothing meek about his father when it came to the land. From as early as he could remember, Pa had preached to him about the land. The land was life, like the blood and sweat that had bought and nurtured it, to be preserved and protected as a father’s legacy and his children’s inheritance. No man dare take it from them.
Joe had accepted all this as fact, like a dutiful son, never questioning. The Strip had no particular significance to him except that it was theirs. And so when word came that someone was cutting timber up there, he was righteously indignant, along with the rest of his family.
Most likely the perpetrators were Bishop’s men, according to Pa. Joe lost the trail of one of them near the creek. Unnerved by a noise in the bushes, he drew his gun and threatened to shoot. That’s when Amy emerged—a brown-haired, slip of a girl clad only in her chemise and petticoat, holding her dress as a shield. He clearly held the advantage and was enjoying it until the subject of trespassing came up and identities were revealed.
She promptly insulted him for being a “high and mighty Cartwright.” Well, what else could you expect from a Bishop?
The moment she screamed, he only did what came naturally. It seemed she was more startled by a frog than a Cartwright pointing a gun at her. He grabbed her by the waist to steady her, thinking she had the prettiest white shoulders he’d ever seen, especially the way her dark curls fell softly against them. And when she raised those doe eyes and smiled at him, didn’t his heart skip a beat? It sure seemed like it. Anyway, it was something he’d never felt before. He left her that day knowing he would see her again, no matter what Pa might have to say.
Amy was a tiny thing, probably not much more than five feet, but she fit in his arms as if she were made precisely for that purpose. They spent stolen hours by the creek while she read sonnets to him. He didn’t pretend to understand them—he just loved the sound of her voice, loved watching her face, waiting for just the right moment to capture her lips in a kiss. Before long, they were planning their future together in spite of the fact that their families were bitter enemies. He wanted her for the rest of his life. Yes, it could be. Love was stronger than hate, he assured her. He’d been raised to believe that.
But he never got the chance to prove it to her. It wasn’t fair. He would grow old, and she would always be seventeen.
Was it worth it – all that fighting over a bunch of trees? He had asked the question and never really gotten an answer, only his father’s assurance that he would never place the land above his family. But by then it was too late.
It was Pa who wrote Jilly about Amy. Joe had never been good at putting words on paper, unlike his sister, and besides, there were some things he just couldn’t put in a letter. Her reply was the next best thing to having her there, and he nearly wore the paper out from so much reading. He would have shown it to the others had they asked, but a part of him was glad they didn’t. He made up his mind that whenever she came back from San Francisco he would show her the spot by the creek where he fell in love for the first time in his life.
He felt Jilly’s light touch on his arm as she spoke. “It’s so pretty and peaceful—I can see why she liked it here. Joe, I wish I could’ve met her.”
“She wanted to meet you, too. I told her all about you. You would’ve loved each other.”
She smiled. “I’m sure we would have. Isn’t it strange that we grew up practically next door and didn’t even know each other? We could’ve been friends all these years.”
“Well, the Bishops and the Cartwrights weren’t exactly on sociable terms.”
“I know. It’s a shame, though, that a strip of land could drive such a wedge between people.”
“It wasn’t just the land. Maybe it was at first, but it went beyond a man’s right to protect what he owns. It was also a matter of pride. Pa and Mr. Bishop both thought they were right, but only one of them could be. After Amy died, it didn’t seem to matter who was right and who was wrong.”
“You don’t blame either one of them, do you?”
“Well, I’m sure Mr. Bishop would give everything he owns if it would bring her back. I feel sorry for him, too.”
“So do I—Amy was really all he had.” He couldn’t forget the grief in Luther Bishop’s eyes that day. His daughter was dead, and he was alone, so Joe left him with a lie out of pity. She said it could never be—a Cartwright and a Bishop. It seemed kinder than the truth, which he would never know.
Jilly’s eyes softened in sympathy. “It’s hard for me to imagine things being any different than they are, especially you getting married, but I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. You said you told her all about me. I’d really like to know more about the girl who almost became my sister.”
“I’d like that too.” He pulled a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to her. “Do you recognize this?”
She scanned the page. “It’s one of my letters.”
“It’s the one you wrote me right after it happened. I carried it with me every day for a while, just so I could read it whenever I wanted to, that’s how much it meant to me. I tried to write you back and tell you about Amy but I just couldn’t get the words down. I decided the best thing I could do was to bring you here and tell you face to face.”
They settled themselves on the bank next to each other. What had been difficult for him before came naturally now. Not that sharing his memories was painless, but the hurt was like a sore muscle being kneaded, the kind that brings healing in the end. The tears were a luxury he wouldn’t afford himself in front of his brothers. Jilly cried too, as he knew she would.
In the silence that followed, they sat shoulder to shoulder and watched the afternoon sun begin its descent into the hills.
“I knew Amy had to be someone really special if she could get you interested in Shakespeare.” She gave him a playful nudge.
A corner of his mouth turned up. “That’s almost a miracle, isn’t it?”
“Joe, do you think Tennyson was right, that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”
It was a phrase he had heard more than once, and he contemplated its new relevance to his life. “Well, there were days when I wasn’t so sure, but yes, I do think so. Besides, you don’t lose everything. Some things you keep; and you’re better for them.”
Her smile was softer, and a little sad. “I was worried this was going to change you, and I can see that it has. You’ve grown up.”
“So have you.”
“I’m really glad you told me about Amy. Now I feel almost as if I did know her.”
“I’m glad, too. Come on, it’s getting late. Pa’s gonna be wondering where we are.” He stood up and pulled her to her feet.
“Do you think you’ll come back here?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but if I don’t, it won’t be because I can’t. I know that now.”
Before she could mouth a reply, an eagle screamed above them, diverting their attention to the sky. They watched until it was no more than a speck on the horizon.
She looked back at him. “It’s good to find out we’re stronger than we think, and that in spite of all the bad that happens, the world is still a beautiful place, isn’t it?”
He smiled. “Yes, it is.”
That’s something Amy would have said.
Next in this series:
Acknowledgements: The characters Amy and Luther Bishop appeared in The Truckee Strip (Season 1 Episode 11), written by Herman Groves. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.” was published in 1850.