Summary: A WHN for “Bullet for a Bride.” The Cartwrights struggle with the consequences of Ben’s decision not to tell Joe before the wedding that Tessa had regained her sight.
Rated: K. WC 15,000
The Caldwells’ wagon was gone from sight before Joe said anything. Foolishly, I’d thought that, just maybe, he was all right. Granted, his parting from Tessa was more than merely cordial; I saw true fondness between them. He walked her out to the wagon with his arm around her shoulders, much as he might a dear friend. Before he helped her up into the wagon, he was teasing and flirting. It didn’t look to me as if he were merely putting a brave face on the matter; I saw real affection in his eyes. Maybe it could have worked between them. As happy as I was to have her deadbeat father and brother out from under my roof, I almost wished that the family could have stayed, if only so that Tessa and Joseph could test whether a phoenix might rise from the ashes of this debacle.
Instead, we watched them drive away, and Joe laid a hand on my shoulder. My heart leapt in gratitude.
But then, he had no idea what I’d done.
I was proud of him yesterday. It sounds peculiar, under the circumstances, but it’s true. He had made up his mind that he was going through with this marriage, and I felt certain that he would do it regardless of what I said. He’d already made that clear when he first told me he planned to propose to the woman he’d blinded in a hunting accident. He’d had great difficulty controlling his temper when I suggested gently that he oughtn’t to make a martyr of himself because of her accident; had one of his brothers said this, I have no question that punches would have been thrown. I told myself that further talk on the subject would serve only to drive a wedge between us. So, I stood behind my son, aching to speak now rather than hold my peace.
Reverend Abbott intoned the familiar words. “Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here together in the sight of God and the presence of this company to join this man and this woman in holy wedlock.” I waited for the inevitable next line, as uncertain as I have ever been, but the reverend proceeded straight to the vows. Only later did I learn that Tessa’s father had taken the reverend aside beforehand and asked that he leave out the part about asking if anyone knew of a reason that the couple should not be joined in matrimony. Whatever else people might say about Marcus Caldwell, he is no fool.
Joe’s brothers and I stood behind him. Joseph took his vows without giving the slightest hint that they were motivated by anything other than deep and abiding love for this girl. And when Tessa turned and ran back up the stairs—something only a sighted woman could have done—he followed her without hesitation. He didn’t stop to ask questions or seek guidance. Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of her deceit, and led only by his heart—his supple, generous, loving heart—my youngest son went after his bride. I have no doubt that, at that moment, he’d have married her anyway.
Joseph has always believed in happy endings, even though life often refuses to cooperate.
As long minutes passed, everyone milled about, and Hoss and Adam and I agonized about what to do. Finally, Joseph appeared alone at the top of the stairs.
“Friends? Can I have your attention for a minute?” He hardly had to ask. As soon as he came into sight, the crowd in our main room fell silent. Hoss clutched my arm. I tried to telegraph support to my son as he stood alone, brave and handsome in his blue-gray wedding suit.
“First, Tessa and I want to thank you all for coming today. It means a lot to both of us that you were willing to come and celebrate with us. Having good friends like you all is a special thing, and we’re grateful for every one of you. But—well, as you have probably figured out, there’s not going to be a wedding here today.” No explanation about what they’d all just witnessed. Not a word by which they could have judged Tessa. My son is a gentleman.
His eyes roamed the room; they rested only briefly on me and on his brothers before moving on. If he was in pain at that moment, he was not showing it. He smiled, that lopsided grin that has charmed more girls than any other in Virginia City, adding, “But Hop Sing has been cooking all week, and he’s gonna mighty put out if you don’t eat. Even my big brother, Hoss, can’t finish off all this food by himself. So please—stay for lunch, everybody. You all just relax and have a good time.” With that, he met my eyes directly. For just a second, the ease and confidence faltered, hinting at what lay beneath his public persona. I stepped forward. I knew my role, and I fulfilled it. I owed him that much.
“Everybody eat!” I called out with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. Hoss and Adam set to work, rounding up guests who were understandably a bit uncomfortable and securing them plates. Tessa’s father and brother wisely stayed on the sidelines. Watching them in their discomfort, I realized that they must have known, too. The only one who hadn’t known about the return of Tessa’s sight was Joe.
Considering how the party started, it became surprisingly boisterous and lively. As I tended to our guests, filling punch cups and dinner plates, I kept an eye on the stairs. I wondered if Joe would come downstairs. I knew some of the older women well enough to know that they would have no hesitation in asking for the details, and I was determined to spare him that much.
Joe’s laugh caught me off-guard. I turned to see him with our long-time sheriff, Roy Coffee, and his deputy, Clem Foster I hadn’t seen my son come downstairs. Judging by the din in our living room, neither had most of our guests; I couldn’t believe that the chatter would have continued unabated if they’d realized that he had returned. He had changed from his wedding suit to everyday clothes—not party clothes, I noticed. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but silently, I blessed Roy and Clem. I couldn’t imagine that my son would have had much to laugh about without them.
Eventually, the afternoon wound down, and the guests began to leave. It was almost as if they’d forgotten why they were here in the first place, as if this had been just another party at the Ponderosa. Few of the departing friends made any reference to the aborted wedding when speaking to me. A couple of the older ladies kissed Joe on the cheek, and he smiled graciously as he accepted their best wishes. Watching him, I was filled as much with pride for him as contempt for myself.
Finally, it was just our family and Tessa’s. The girl had stayed in her room throughout the party. Part of me felt, self-righteously, that this fiasco was all her doing, and she could just hide up there forever if she was so inclined, because I wasn’t about to give her any quarter. The other part wanted to go upstairs and see if she was all right. I liked the girl, always had. If circumstances had been different, I’d have been delighted to see Joe marry her. And to her credit, she had found the courage to stand up and do the right thing, even if she’d waited until the worst possible moment to do so.
Joe was stacking plates when I placed a hand on his arm. “You don’t have to do that,” I said quietly.
“Hop Sing needs a hand,” he said, his attention focused on the plates. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he ignored me, but he wasn’t meeting my eyes. My stomach dropped.
“Joe. . . ?” I was suddenly consumed with fear that someone had told him what I’d known.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” said my son, busily stacking dirty plates. “Excuse me, Pa.” With a gesture so slight that no one else would have noticed it, he slid out from under my touch and carried the plates into the kitchen.
Hoss laid a hand on my shoulder. I knew he’d heard, and seen. He and I watched Joe move around the room, helping Hop Sing clean up. Neither of us quite dared to approach him.
Adam came in from seeing off the last guests. He regarded his younger brother and me grimly. He was in a slightly different position from Hoss and me: he’d only found out that morning about Tessa’s returning sight. He’d come into my room as I was dressing for the wedding and Hoss and I were agonizing about whether to tell Joe.
* * * * * * * * * *
To say that Adam was appalled was an understatement. “How can you not tell him?” he demanded as I adjusted my collar, focusing on my reflection in the mirror instead of his outrage.
“Adam, it ain’t that easy,” said Hoss, ever the peacemaker. “Little Joe says he loves this girl. If that’s true—if that’s why he’s marryin’ her—then it don’t matter. He’ll just be happier when he finds out.”
“And what if he really is marrying her out of guilt?” demanded my eldest son, hazel eyes blazing. “How do you think he’s going to feel when he finds out that his family stood by and let him sacrifice his entire life for a lie?”
I closed my eyes for a moment. I’d asked myself the same question time and again through the previous sleepless night. Haltingly, I tried to explain to my sons the conclusion I’d reached. “If we tell Joe—we’re telling him that we don’t believe in him as a man who can make his own decisions. I’ve talked to him before about marrying her out of guilt. He insists that he’s marrying her because he loves her, regardless of whether she can see. If we tell him that Tessa isn’t blind, we’re saying that we don’t believe that to be true. We’re saying that we know better than he does how he feels about this girl.” Adam looked unconvinced. I didn’t blame him; I was only half-convinced myself. “Whether we like it or not, Joseph is a man, not a boy. I know—” I held up my hand to stave off Adam’s interruption. “I’m as guilty as anyone about forgetting that. Or more so,” I added at my eldest son’s raised eyebrow. “The point is that we all tend to jump in and try to fix things for him. I just don’t think that this is something we can jump in and fix.”
“But, Pa, this isn’t some little misunderstanding that’ll blow over by next week,” said Adam. “This is a marriage. Till death do them part. We’re not talking about a few days, or a few weeks. We’re talking about the rest of Joe’s life. And she’s deliberately deceiving him. I don’t think that this is the time to start experimenting with how good he is at making decisions. The stakes are just too high.” He started for the door.
“But if we interfere—and that’s how he’ll see it—we force his hand,” I said. “Then, he has to decide whether he’s going to make his own decision or do what his family tells him to do. And I’m afraid that, if he feels forced, he’s going to choose the marriage just to show us all that he can make his own decisions.” Adam’s skepticism was palpable. I added, “Joe told me he wants to marry her, and he says it’s not because of her blindness. And she told me that she would marry him if she was sure he wasn’t doing it because she was blind. So, as long as they both want to be married to each other, our telling him isn’t going to make things better for them. It doesn’t matter how well-meaning we are. He’s going to see it as our trying to break up this marriage because we don’t believe that he knows his own heart.”
“And you think that, if we never give him the choice, somehow he’ll make the right decision? That doesn’t even make sense!”
I fumbled for the right words. “It’s not just up to Joe,” I said. “Tessa has a say in this, too. She could step up and tell him the truth.”
“And if she doesn’t?” The incredulity in Adam’s voice made me cringe. Maybe he was right. I was playing poker with my son’s life, and that girl was holding all the cards.
“I don’t think she’s the kind of girl who would marry a man she didn’t love,” I said, aware that I was echoing my earlier words to the girl herself. “She may be keeping quiet because she loves him so much that she’s afraid of losing him.” I stopped myself there. Regardless of whether my son agreed with me, I would not tell Adam the rest of that particular truth. For an unexpected moment, the memory surfaced again. . . .
Stephen Anderson’s laughter mocked me as I stormed along the pier. When I reached her house, I yanked on the bell ferociously. The door opened, and my lovely Elizabeth stood before me.
“Ben, darling!” She drew me inside. Her smile faded at my expression. “Ben, what’s wrong?”
“We need to talk,” I said, barely controlling my voice. I saw the puzzlement on her face give way to fear and dread, and I knew in that moment that Anderson had told me the truth. Head held high, she led me into the parlor and closed the door behind us, propriety be damned. Well, she’d certainly damned it before.
“Is it true?” I demanded without preamble.
“Is what true?”
“You and Robert Simpson—is it true, Elizabeth?” I was keeping my voice down only because I did not know if her father was at home. If I’d been certain we were alone, I’d have been thundering like the worst gale.
She sank to the settee. When she looked up at me, her lovely brown eyes were brimming with tears. “I was afraid to tell you,” she whispered. “I was afraid that—things would change between us.”
My knees were weak. I stumbled to a chair. “When?” I asked finally. “When did it happen?”
“When I was sixteen,” she said. Two years earlier. Her voice was steady. “I was young and foolish. I thought I was in love. He said he loved me. He said he wanted to marry me.” She drew a deep breath. “Ben, I understand if this changes things. A man wants his bride to be pure, untouched. If you—if you wish, I will release you from our engagement.”
I could not speak. Anderson’s mocking laughter still rang in my ears. “You think she’s a lady, Cartwright!” he’d chortled. “Everybody in Boston knows about her! She’s a wildcat, that one—you’ll have your hands full, keeping her satisfied! Isn’t that right, Simpson?” His laughter continued even as my fist slammed into his mouth.
I raised my head. Elizabeth was watching me, tears running down her cheeks. I felt like a fool. I’d spent a year courting her, treating her like a lady, controlling my passions. It had never occurred to me to do otherwise. It had never crossed my mind that she. . . .
And yet, she had said nothing. She had to have known that she couldn’t keep it a secret forever. Surely, she knew that I would find out the fact, if not the details. The terrible thought flashed through my mind that she’d somehow intended to entice me into this marriage to gain respectability, withholding the critical information until it was too late for me to do more than protest my ignorance. Even as my heart rejected this notion, I found myself wondering what else I did not know about my fiancée.
I opened my mouth to demand that she tell me if Simpson had been the only one, or if there had been others. But in the next moment, seeing her before me, my righteous anger faded as suddenly as it had flared, and I knew that I didn’t want to know any more. Nothing good could come of knowing. Her past was just that, the past, and it would poison what we had if we allowed it to. I loved Elizabeth Ann Stoddard with every fiber of my being. I loved her delicate beauty, her grace and intelligence and wit, her ladylike gentleness and her infernal stubbornness, her New England propriety and her simmering passion. I knew in my heart that I didn’t want a life that didn’t include her, and I was willing to pay any price to have her. The past didn’t matter. I didn’t care if there had been a dozen men before me. I didn’t have to be the first. I only wanted to be the last.
Deliberately, I pushed from my mind the image of my beloved Elizabeth intertwined with Simpson. I rose. Her lips trembled. I crossed the room and knelt before her.
“I love you, Liz,” I whispered. “I don’t care about your past. All I care about is our future. I love you, and I want to spend my life with you.” I took her hands in mind. “Elizabeth Stoddard—will you still marry me?”
She dissolved into sobs. I sat beside her and drew her close, kissing her hair and inhaling the scent of her light, sweet perfume. As she wept against my chest, apologizing over and over, reassuring me of her love and fidelity, I found myself wishing, with all my heart, that no one had ever told me about Robert Simpson.
I never spoke of the matter again, to Elizabeth or anyone else. Thirty-five years later, I watched her son pacing in my room, insisting that all truth should be known. I wanted to tell him that only some truth should be disclosed. Other truths should never see the light of day, and still others should be revealed only under certain circumstances, and by particular individuals. What I didn’t know was which category applied to the return of Tessa’s sight. And time was running short.
“Pa, are you listening to yourself?” Adam demanded, yanking my thoughts back to the present. “You don’t think we should tell Joe the truth because this girl who is willing to trick him into marriage might really have feelings for him? This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard. I’m sorry. I can’t be a party to this. Joe deserves to know the truth. What he does with it is up to him.” He opened the door.
“Where are you going?” My voice was intentionally sharp.
“To talk to my brother.” Adam raised his chin defiantly.
For a moment, I was ready to let him do it, to take the decision off my shoulders. I didn’t know whether we were right to keep silent or not. All I could think of was how, once Joe knew about Tessa’s deception, he could never again not know. His faith in the woman he said he loved would be damaged, if not destroyed. If they loved each other, they could survive her silence. If we told him now, we had to be sure it was the right thing to do.
“Adam.” Hoss’ voice was as somber as his face. He reached past Adam to close the door. “Don’t do it.”
“Why not?” The question was a challenge.
“Because he’s gonna marry her, no matter what you say to him.”
“You don’t know that.” But I heard the slight uncertainty in Adam’s voice.
Hoss nodded. “Yes, I do,” he said. “I know our little brother, and so do you. And we both know there ain’t no way that he’s gonna tell that girl on her wedding day that he ain’t gonna marry her. That ain’t Joe. He gave his word, and he’s gonna see it through, no matter what. And if you try to talk him out of it and tell him she’s lyin’ to him, he’s just gonna dig in his heels, and all you’ll have is bad blood between you. The only person who can tell Joe not to marry Tessa is Tessa.”
The three of us stood silently as Hoss’ words sank in. The smell of my bay rum cologne seemed unusually strong. Hoss’ tie was crooked, as usual. Adam’s jaw was set. Dimly, I could hear Hop Sing downstairs, clanging pans and chattering as he finished preparations for the wedding feast. Down the hall, my youngest son was preparing to take a sacred vow that would bind him for all time to a young woman who was pretending that she was still blind. At that moment, everything in me wanted to sit him down and tell him about her deception. If he married her then, at least he would do so knowing the truth.
But Hoss was right. Knowing would change nothing for Joseph. He would marry her because he said he would. For better or worse, my son is a man of his word.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now, as I watched him carry dishes to the kitchen, I was overwhelmed with the wrongness of my decision. The fact that Tessa proved to be the woman I thought her to be was of no importance. What mattered was that the three of us stood by and left Joseph to endure the anguish and humiliation of being left at the altar. I was as proud of the way he handled this day as I was ashamed of myself for being a party to causing him such pain.
As Joe and Hop Sing worked in the kitchen, Adam and Hoss and I hovered by the fireplace. Joe’s brothers pretended to play checkers, but the pieces moved slowly and with no enthusiasm. I picked up my book, but Dickens did not hold the same charm he did only a few short weeks ago.
I could hear Hop Sing speaking to my son in soft tones, most unusual for him. Normally, Hop Sing’s voice is strident, his words almost operatic in their drama. Even when he is not staging one of his mock-tantrums, our cook would have the world believe that he is the most misunderstood, put-upon and tragic of figures.
Beneath the drama, however, lies a heart that long ago took my sons as his own. Although he loves all three of them, Hop Sing has always had a special soft spot for Little Joe. I honestly believe that Hop Sing would lay down his life for my youngest son without a second’s thought.
When I brought Marie to the Ponderosa as a bride, she and Hop Sing formed a distinctive bond, both understanding what it was like to be so different from the others in this harsh western world. She spent hours in the kitchen, working with him while respecting that that was his domain. She taught him French and English, and he taught her Cantonese, and their conversations were an outrageous mix of the three languages. I often heard them laughing as they veered from one language to the next, even in the course of a single sentence. Marie told me slyly that they did this so that no one could eavesdrop.
Loving Marie as he did, Hop Sing’s special closeness with her son was inevitable. From Little Joe’s first day, Hop Sing battled us for the privilege of caring for him. He insisted that the baby, born late in the autumn, should have a cradle next to the stove in order to stay warm through the winter months. Little Joe grew up at the kitchen table, listening to his mother and Hop Sing laugh and argue and banter in all their languages. While we are all grateful for Hop Sing’s efforts, Joe knows from his childhood hours by the man’s side just how hard Hop Sing works to keep our home together, and he never fails to let the little man know that he understands and appreciates.
After Marie’s death, when we were all devastated, Hop Sing took it on himself to take care of her little boy. In my grief, I was essentially useless. I left the lion’s share of responsibility on Adam’s young shoulders, with only eleven-year-old Hoss to help him. While my older sons did their best to run the ranch, Hop Sing kept Marie’s boy in his kitchen, feeding him cookies and giving him chores to do and trying to get him from one day to the next. More than once, I walked into the kitchen to see my five-year-old son cradled in Hop Sing’s lap, weeping against the little man’s chest as Hop Sing murmured to him in a language I couldn’t understand, but Joseph could.
This closeness has persisted through the years. Only Joe can make Hop Sing laugh. They still speak that peculiar mixture of French, Cantonese and English. After this fiasco of a wedding, it came as no surprise that Joseph sought comfort in Hop Sing’s kitchen.
Eventually, I heard the closing of the door from the kitchen to the porch. The three of us exchanged glances. A few moments later, we heard hoofbeats as Joseph rode from the yard.
“I wish he’d taken his jacket,” I said, half to myself. “It’s too cold to go without.”
“I don’t imagine that’s his biggest concern right now,” Adam said dryly.
“Mebbe not now, but it will be when he’s sick.” Hoss rose as if to go after his brother and insist on his dressing warmly.
“Hoss.” The big man turned to me. “Let him go,” I said quietly. We all knew that the jacket was only an excuse.
We turned as one. None of us had heard Tessa coming down the stairs. Her voice was hesitant. I couldn’t blame her for that. She had to wonder what type of a reception she would receive.
“Yes, Tessa?” I wasn’t inclined to give an inch. Joe’s brothers eyed his former bride warily.
“I just want to tell you all how terribly sorry I am for everything.” The girl’s poise was amazing. “We were wrong to do what we did. You all were kind and generous, and we tried to take advantage of that. It would be easy to blame everything I did on my father, but I’m the one who agreed to go along with his plan. I am so sorry for hurting you all. I hope that, someday, you can find it in your hearts to forgive me and my father and brother.”
“I don’t think it’s our forgiveness that you need to be worrying about,” commented Adam. He ignored the look I shot him.
Tessa flushed. “Of course,” she said, bowing her head. “Joe and I have talked, and we both agree that this is for the best, but I don’t know how he feels right now.” She looked squarely at each of us in turn. “I do care a great deal for him,” she said. “Just—not enough for marriage. He’s a wonderful man.” Her voice broke. “Anyway, I—I’m sorry.” She turned and ran back up the stairs.
“That girl’s worth ten of her father and brother put together,” muttered Hoss. I had to agree. Marcus and Lon had stayed downstairs at the party for most of the afternoon, leaving Tessa alone in her room. At no time had either said a word to me about their duplicity. As far as I knew, they’d said nothing to Joseph, either.
It was late when I heard hoofbeats in the yard. Hoss and Adam had already turned in, but I was waiting up. When I heard footsteps on the porch, I picked up my book, pretending to read. The door opened, and I looked up.
“I wondered when you’d be along,” I said casually. “You must be cold. Coffee?” I had the pot sitting on the hearth, waiting.
“No, thanks.” Joe stood before the fire, warming his hands. His cheeks were ruddy from the chilly night air. His tan shirt looked as insubstantial as Tessa’s veil had earlier, and Joe rubbed his hands up and down his arms. I took the rough red Indian blanket from the back of the settee and wrapped it around his shoulders, holding him close for a moment.
“Are you all right?” I asked softly.
Joe shrugged. “I’m fine.” His standard response, whether for a broken leg or broken heart. He leaned down, reaching for the coffee pot he’d rejected a moment earlier, and I handed him a cup without comment. “I suppose it’s for the best,” he mused, unconvincing. “I just wish—” he broke off.
“You wish what?” Dread began to fill me.
“I wish I’d known before the wedding,” he said. “I know her father and her brother were pushing her, but I wish she’d had the courage to say something before. Even yesterday, when she said she was getting a little bit of sight back.” This revelation caught me by surprise. She must have been testing the waters. “If only she’d told me the rest of it—”
“Then what?” I prodded. I tried again to summon up the memory of my long-ago conversation with Elizabeth, to convince myself that I’d done the right thing.
“I don’t know.” He sipped his coffee and sat down on the edge of the hearth. “Maybe nothing. Maybe we’d still have gone ahead with the marriage eventually. It’s hard to say. I guess it would have depended on why she was marrying me. If I’d known she could see, we could have talked about whether she still wanted to marry me. Then, if she didn’t want to, we could have just cancelled the wedding. But—well, maybe it’s selfish, but—well—I felt like a fool, standing there. Here she had this great big secret, and I had no idea. I just stood there in front of all our friends and proclaimed my love for her, only to have her throw it back in my face like it meant nothing. If only she’d told me beforehand—at least then, I wouldn’t have felt like such an idiot.”
Joe set his cup on the table and rested his elbows on his knees. “Remember Millie Olson? Mama used to take me along when she went to visit Mrs. Olson. Millie was a spoiled little thing, but I always thought she was kinda cute. ’Course, we were only about four years old.” Trust Joseph to have discovered girls before he could even write his name, I thought wryly. He continued, “She used to sneak me a piece of her mother’s dried-apple pie if I’d play ‘wedding’ with her. She’d have a towel draped over her head like a veil, and I was supposed to walk her down some pretend aisle in their backyard and marry her. Of course, whenever I said I wouldn’t do it, Millie would cry, and then Mama would make me do it anyway, without the pie. I always kicked up a fuss, but the truth is, Pa, even then, I liked the idea of getting married someday. The night I proposed to Julia, I could just picture her coming down the stairs toward me in a fancy white dress and veil.” For a moment, a faraway look crossed his face, as if he were remembering a visit to a beautiful land he would never see again.
I remembered Julia well, of course. The notorious Julia Bulette was Joseph’s first love. She had been murdered in her room during a robbery, only hours after my son, barely half her age at seventeen, asked her to marry him. It didn’t surprise me even a little bit that his romantic, foolish gallantry would have dressed the owner of Julia’s Palace in the bridal attire normally reserved for innocent maidens.
“She would have been a beautiful bride,” I said quietly. It was true; even for all her flaws, she was always a stunningly beautiful woman. More important was the fact that, as much as I’d disapproved of that union on other grounds, there was no question in my mind that Little Joe and Julia had loved each other.
Joe has always worn his heart on his sleeve. His love for Julia was as clear and unvarnished as only a first love can be. She was his, and he was proud to say so, even when the stiffer-necked members of our community whispered behind their hands. He defended her against all comers, even me, fiercely rejecting any insinuation that her past was anything more than that—the past. At the time, I’d thought him merely young and naïve. Only in retrospect did I recognize his stubborn refusal to allow Virginia City to judge her as admirable, and possibly even a bit heroic.
Julia was far more cagey. I’d watched her try to hide her feelings, to pretend that Joe was nothing more than an amusing young man, a handsome plaything to serve as her escort by day and her lover by night. As we all worked side by side through the epidemic of fever that swept the town, though, I sometimes saw her looking at Little Joe when she didn’t know I observed her. There was a longing, a depth, a vulnerability in her gaze when she watched him. Seeing her in those unguarded moments, I knew that somehow, my passionate, reckless young son had won Julia Bulette’s heart in a way that everyone—including me, and including Julia herself—would have sworn was impossible. And so I told her that, if it was Little Joe’s wish, I would accept her as his wife. While I’d thought of Julia on occasion during the five years since her death, until today, I’d never found myself wishing that that marriage had taken place.
I regarded Joe for a moment before abandoning the coffee pot and pouring us both a brandy. He took the glass without comment. Finally, he said, “I just never thought—well, that my wedding would turn out like this.” He dropped his head into his hands. He was silent for a long minute. My heart was in my throat. Any defense I could have mounted crumbled at my son’s words. Just as I was about to confess, he looked up. The anguish was plain on his handsome face. “Do you think any of them knew?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, obviously, Tessa knew she could see, and her father and Lon knew. But—do you think anybody else knew? Was anybody else standing there, thinking what a poor dumb fool I was, getting suckered into this marriage by a girl who was pretending to be blind?” He tossed back his brandy in one gulp. “Pa, it was so humiliating. It would have been different if she’d called off the wedding yesterday, or even this morning—but to wait until the middle of the ceremony, and then she starts crying like marrying me is the worst thing she could be forced into—”
I poured us each another brandy. “Son,” I said carefully. “Sometimes—well, things happen, and people don’t know to handle them, and they make mistakes. They hope that something will happen to set things right, because they don’t know quite what to do.”
Joe snorted. “‘Things happen,’ Pa? That’s your explanation for this? I get my heart stomped in front of a roomful of people by the woman I love because nobody had the guts to tell me the truth, and all you can say is ‘things happen’?”
I laid a hand on my son’s knee. “Do you love her, Joseph?” He nodded. I forced the next question past the lump in my throat. “Would you still have married her if you’d known she could see?”
“Eventually,” he admitted finally. “Not today, but someday. I’d have wanted to wait, to take our time and get to know each other better. If I hadn’t thought she needed me to take care of her, we could have courted and planned and—I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Obviously, she wasn’t willing to marry me if she didn’t have to.” He sipped his brandy. “She said that what I felt for her was guilt, and what she felt for me was fear of being alone in the dark. But there was more than that, at least for me.” For the first time in that long, difficult day, I saw tears welling up in his eyes, and my heart ached. Call me a coward, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth at that moment. I just couldn’t add to his pain any more. I’d already done enough.
I moved to sit next to him on the hearth. I took his glass from him, setting it on the table, and I held my son close as the sobs shook his slim body. As he wept, he whispered the same words over and over, and each time, it was as if he’d stabbed me afresh.
“I just wish I’d known,” he kept saying.
“So do I,” I whispered. And it was true.
* * * * * * * * *
Joe and I watched the Caldwells drive away, out of the yard and our lives. Tessa carried the letter I wrote to Joshua Harrison, an old friend in San Francisco. I know that Joe was surprised that I was willing to give Marcus and Lon Caldwell a letter of introduction after all they’d done, but he didn’t ask why, and so I didn’t have to explain that I didn’t do it for them, or even for Tessa. I did it for my son, so that he could have the comfort of knowing that the woman he loved would have some security, some protection against being used by her father and brother in the future.
“I should get down to the corral,” Joe said. “Those horses aren’t going to break themselves.”
I frowned. I didn’t like the idea of his trying to break horses in his frame of mind. He knows better than anyone that bronc busting is a dangerous job that requires absolute concentration. “Are you sure?” I asked finally.
He gave me the lopsided grin that he’d used to such fine effect on the wedding guests the day before. “I’m sure,” he said. “Besides, it’ll do me good. Give me something else to think about.”
“All right, then.” If he was man enough to sort out his own lovelife, then he was man enough to know when he should or should not break horses.
It was nearly lunchtime when I finally made my way over to the corral. Hoss and Adam were perched on the fence, whooping and hollering as Little Joe struggled with a large gray that he’d been working for nearly two weeks. If his brothers seemed a bit overenthusiastic, Joe didn’t seem to notice. To me, their shouts and whoops sounded forced.
“How’s he doing?” I asked as I climbed up beside Adam.
My eldest son shouted, “Come on, Joe, ride him!” His hazel eyes were somber, though. Dropping his voice, he said, “He’s distracted, that’s for sure. He hasn’t ridden one to a standstill all morning, and there are at least a couple he should have been able to handle easily.”
I looked to Hoss, who nodded his agreement with Adam’s assessment. “Then I want him out of there,” I said.
“Pa, we’ve been tryin’ for the past hour,” said Hoss. “He jest ignores us and gets on the next one. We didn’t want to have to drag him out of there, but. . . .”
“I’m his father and his boss,” I said. “Let him get angry with me if he wants.” At least here, I knew I was on solid ground. “As soon as he’s done with this one, I’m sending him into town. There has to be something we need.”
Adam opened his mouth as if to make a suggestion, but he never had the chance. Joe flew over the gray’s head and landed in the dirt, too close to the rearing beast. Before any of us could move, a front hoof came down squarely on my son’s right wrist.
“Joseph!” All three of us flew off the railing as two of the hands grabbed the gray’s reins. “Adam, ride for the doctor! Now!” I added as he hesitated. I knew that he wanted to see if his brother was all right, but he could see that later.
Joe was curled into a ball, hugging his right arm to his chest, his eyes tightly closed against the pain. Hoss and I knelt beside him, gently touching him to let him know we were there. The swelling and discoloration in his hand and wrist were almost instantaneous. Hoss popped open Joe’s cuff button to release the pressure against his swollen wrist, and he pulled up Joe’s sleeve past his elbow.
“It’s all right, son, we’re here,” I murmured, stroking his dusty forehead. There was a lump rising on his left temple from where he’d hit the ground. “Can you hear me, Joe?” He nodded slightly, eyes still closed, jaw clenched against the pain. “Good. Hoss and I are going to help you sit up in a minute. Do you think you can do that?” A pause, and then another nod. “Good. That’s good, Joe.” I kept gentle contact with him, murmuring reassurance.
One of the hands passed Hoss a canteen, and Hoss splashed the water onto his hands. With infinite gentleness, he ran his wet fingers over Joe’s wrist. “Jest hang on, Little Brother,” he said softly. “We’ll get you out of here in a minute.” He met my eyes and nodded. As if there could have been any real question that the wrist was broken. The only question was how badly, and that wasn’t something Hoss could answer here.
“Okay, Joe, we’re gonna try sittin’ up,” he said. “Hey, Sam, gimme your neck cloth.” Sam handed over the neck cloth, and Hoss fashioned a sling, looping it under Joe’s forearm, well back from the wrist area. He knotted the cloth at the back of Joe’s neck and reached underneath Joe’s left side. “On three, now. One, two, three, up. Okay, now let’s jest sit here a minute.” Almost at once, Joe doubled over, his breathing rapid and his face ashen. Even in the midday sun, his skin was cool and clammy.
“He’s in shock,” I murmured unnecessarily. Hoss knew the signs at least as well as I did. If my middle son heard me, he gave no sign. Instead, he kept his attention on his brother, his tone as casual as if they were discussing feed prices.
“You know what, Little Brother, how about you lie back down for a minute,” Hoss said. Over his shoulder, he added, “Can somebody get me a saddle and a blanket?” The requested saddle appeared in moments, and Hoss slid Joe’s feet up onto it. He draped the blanket over his brother and turned to me. “We’re gonna need the buckboard, Pa,” he said, his voice lower and serious. We held each other’s gaze for a minute, neither of us willing to leave Joe’s side. I knew that Hoss would take excellent care of Joseph, but this was my son. After everything he’d been through in recent days, I wasn’t leaving him.
“I’ll be right back,” Hoss conceded. He hoisted himself to his feet and pounded across the corral as I sat by my son, stroking his forehead.
Two hours later, Doc Martin came out of Joseph’s room, rolling his cuffs back down. Dried plaster spattered his shirtfront. “You can go in,” he said. Adam and I had waited in the hall while Hoss helped the doctor set Joe’s wrist. It wasn’t my idea to be out of the room, but I’d been through this with Paul Martin before. It wasn’t as if I’d never set a broken bone, but doing it to one of my sons was such a harrowing experience that I found it difficult to be as effective an assistant as he needed. Hoss, with his natural talent for doctoring, was better able to focus on the ultimate end rather than the immediate pain he was causing. Hearing Joe’s screams from the hallway was hard enough for me.
Joe’s eyes were closed, his breathing even. He looked like a schoolboy, not a grown man. The white bandage that wound around his head was a near match for his pallor. Only the bruise on his cheekbone had any color. The heavy cast on his right wrist rested on a pillow which the doctor had covered with a towel. The plaster extended almost to the first joint of his fingers. At my questioning look, Doc said, “It’s to keep him from using the hand. Otherwise, he’ll overdo, and the breaks won’t heal properly.” Paul Martin definitely knew my youngest son.
“Joe, can you hear me?” I asked softly, pulling up the chair by the bed and resting my hand on his shoulder. He made no response. I stroked his cheek with my fingertips. He was warmer now than he’d been at the corral. “Just sleep, son,” I whispered, as if he could hear me.
“How was he doing before this happened?” asked Paul quietly from behind me. He and his wife were among our guests the day before.
“Pretty much as you’d expect,” I admitted. “I shouldn’t have let him go down to the corral today, but he wanted to, and I didn’t want to stop him.”
“I thought he handled himself very well yesterday,” Paul said. “I was surprised at that girl. She seemed like such a nice young lady when I met her.” Paul had, of course, been the one to treat Tessa after the accident, and he’d made several follow-up visits.
“She was a very nice young lady,” I said with finality. I laid a hand on my son’s forehead. He didn’t move. Silently, I breathed a prayer of thanks that he was sleeping through this conversation.
“I was very surprised that she kept a thing like the return of her sight a secret,” Paul said. “From what I understood, her father and brother knew about it, and they all kept quiet.”
“Yes, everyone knew.” I knew I sounded a bit curt, even before Paul gave me an odd look.
“Ben—you didn’t know, did you?” Only my oldest friend could have gotten away with that question. My older sons and I exchanged sharp looks, and that was enough for Paul Martin. “All of you knew she could see? But what about Joe? He didn’t know, did he?”
“No,” said Adam. The anger from yesterday’s discussion was still evident in this admission. His words were clipped. “Joe was the only one who thought she was still blind. The rest of us knew she could see.”
“But why didn’t you—” Paul broke off as Joe stirred, eyes still closed.
“Pa?” he managed.
My stomach dropped. The panic in my heart was mirrored on the other men’s faces. With the greatest effort, I controlled my voice. “I’m right here, son,” I said calmly, reassuringly. Joe groped for me with his uncasted left hand, and I held it to my face. “I’m right here,” I repeated. “You’re going to be fine. Nothing to worry about.”
“Pa?” His voice was weak and breathy, but I could hear agitation.
“I’m here, Joseph,” I said again. “You just go back to sleep now. Everything’s all right.”
“Pa?” The agitation was increasing. I looked to Paul, who looked sober as he began to dig into his bag. My son opened his eyes just enough to see me. I could tell that he was having difficulty focusing. As I started to reassure him again, he murmured, “You knew?”
The moment of stunned silence seemed to last forever. Eventually, I mustered a voice. “You need to get some sleep, young man,” I said with mock sternness. “Doc has some medicine that’ll help with the pain.”
“You knew,” he said again, his voice cracking. It wasn’t a question this time. “You all knew.” I had to fight my own tears back.
“We’ll talk about this later, when you’re feeling better,” I said.
“You knew.” The words were barely a whisper. He pulled his hand from mine and turned his face away. “Just go. Please.” A tear trickled down his cheek.
“I’ll stay with him for now, Ben,” said Paul in a low voice. “It’s entirely possible that, by tomorrow, he won’t remember any of this anyway.” As if that would make things all right, I reflected. More loudly, Paul said to my son, “Joe, I’m going to give you something for the pain so that you’ll be able to sleep.” Without further ado, he maneuvered a spoonful of brown liquid between my son’s lips. Joe’s eyes closed again, but his shoulders shook and he held his hand up, trying to hide the tears running down his cheeks.
“Little Brother—” Hoss stepped to the side of the bed, but Joe turned his face away again.
“Just go.” Fatigue, tears and medicine slurred his words, but the meaning was clear.
Hoss looked as if he’d been punched in the gut. I laid my hand on his arm and nodded. My older sons left the room. I stood at the foot of Joe’s bed until the shaking and the tears stopped. For the umpteenth time in the past twenty-four hours, I wished for the ability to turn back time so that I could tell Joe the truth about Tessa before it was too late. Before she and I, together, broke his heart.
* * * * * * * * * *
Whatever medicine Paul had given Joe was strong enough that my boy slept through to early evening. When he finally woke, I could tell that he was still very much feeling its effects. His eyes barely opened, and it was clear that they weren’t focusing at all. I prayed that Paul was right, that Joe didn’t remember anything from before.
“How do you feel, son?” I asked, laying a hand on his forehead below the bandages.
“Dry,” he managed. I poured a glass of water and, supporting his shoulders, held it to his lips. He drank a bit and turned his head away. I eased him back down to the pillow.
“How’s your wrist?” I found myself anxious, wanting to keep discussion to his physical condition. Anything to avoid reminding him about the past two days.
“Fine.” His standard response.
“How about your head?”
“Doc left some of that painkiller here if you need it,” I ventured.
“Maybe later,” my son allowed. I knew he had to be in serious pain to consider this offer at all.
“Why don’t we try to get some food into you, and then you can have some more medicine and go back to sleep,” I suggested. Paul had said that, if possible, he shouldn’t take the medicine on an empty stomach. Hop Sing already had some broth staying hot on the stove, and this, with a piece of bread, would probably be even more than Joe wanted.
“’Kay,” Joe managed. I wasn’t at all certain he’d stay awake long enough for supper, but I wanted to try to get something into him. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, our last meal before the Caldwells left. It seemed like a hundred years ago.
I headed down to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a tray and Adam. Between us, we were able to help Joseph, who was still barely awake, to sit up, propped up by pillows. I placed the tray across Joe’s lap and resumed my seat in the chair while Adam settled himself at the foot of the bed.
“Hoss?” Joe murmured as I held the cup of broth to his lips.
“He’s out in the barn,” I said. Adam and I exchanged a quick glance. If Joe was asking for Hoss, he probably didn’t remember telling his big brother to leave.
Joe’s brow furrowed slightly, pulling at the bandage. It was as if something was suddenly troubling him, but he wasn’t certain what. In an attempt to distract him from his memories, I said, “That gray you were riding today was looking real good. I bet he’ll make a fine mount for the Army.” I threw a desperate glance to Adam, who picked up the conversation, launching into a monologue about which of the horses would be most effective for which types of work. As I’d hoped, Joe’s eyelids grew heavier as Adam prattled on.
Finally, with most of the broth and some of the bread eaten, I interrupted my eldest son to address my youngest. “How about you take some of this medicine now, and we’ll let you go back to sleep?” Joe nodded ever so slightly, and I poured him two spoonfuls. His grimace at the taste was so like Joe as a boy that I smiled for the first time in days.
After Adam took the tray and we helped him to lie down, I leaned over to brush Joe’s forehead with a kiss. As my lips touched his brow, he whispered, “Why?”
“What was that, son?” I drew back, half-afraid that I understood.
“Why?” he repeated. He was barely awake, but his words were chillingly clear. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
His eyes closed before I knew how to respond. I sat beside his bed, holding his hand as he slept. Finally, I whispered, “I’m sorry, Joe.” There was nothing else to say.
* * * * * * * * * *
He was awake, staring at the ceiling, when I opened his door the next morning. I forced jollity into my voice. “Morning, Joseph,” I said. “You’re looking much better this morning. Are you up for some breakfast?”
“No, thanks.” His voice was polite, emotionless, as unlike my youngest son as anything could be.
I rested a hand on his forehead. No sign of fever. “How’re you feeling?” I asked.
“Fine.” The response was not clipped enough to be rude, but it barely fell short. I know he must have felt me watching him, but he avoided looking at me.
Clearly, he remembered what had been said the day before. “I’ll have Hop Sing bring up something for you,” I said quietly. Joe and I needed to talk—that much was clear—but the father in me wanted him to have his breakfast first.
Adam and Hoss were already eating when I reached the dining room. The quick glance they shared before looking up told me that they’d been discussing the situation. “Mornin’, Pa,” said Hoss. “You seen Joe yet?” I nodded. “How is he?”
“You haven’t been in?” I was surprised.
Hoss shook his head. “I don’t reckon he wants to see me right now,” he said. The simple words spoke eloquently of the pain in my large son’s heart at this rift.
I rested a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “He didn’t want to see me, either,” I admitted.
We both looked at Adam, who shrugged. “I’m in the same boat as you two,” he said.
“But you were gonna tell him,” said Hoss.
“But I didn’t,” responded Adam. “I suspect that, in Joe’s view, any good intentions I might have had don’t mean much right now.”
I sat down heavily. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how everything had turned into such an unholy mess. Just a few weeks ago, Adam and Joe were out hunting a mountain lion, a regular chore in ranch life. In a second, a ricocheting bullet set into motion a series of events that none of us could have predicted. Now, my youngest son lay upstairs, angry and bitter, as the Caldwells made their way to California and I tried to pick up the shattered pieces of my mistake.
Hop Sing padded in from the kitchen. “Morning, Mistah Cahtlight,” he said. “You want egg?”
“That’d be fine, Hop Sing, thank you,” I said. “Oh, Hop Sing—when you get a moment—would you please take breakfast up to Joseph?”
I’ve known Hop Sing for more than twenty-five years, but I don’t think I ever saw him as stunned as he was by that simple request. “You no want to take food?” he asked finally, concern evident on his face.
“I think it’s best if you do it,” I said quietly. Even I could hear the pain in my voice.
Hop Sing searched my face. Then, he nodded. “Hop Sing take care of Little Joe.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” I said, focusing on pouring myself a cup of coffee. The little man remained by my side another moment. When no one else said anything, he patted my arm and retreated to the kitchen to prepare a tray for my youngest son.
I’d intended to wait until Hop Sing came back downstairs before returning to Joseph’s room, but after Hoss and Adam rode out, I found myself quietly climbing the stairs. It wouldn’t be fair to say I was sneaking up on them, but I deliberately kept my footsteps light as I approached.
The door to Joe’s room was partway open. I pushed it farther to reveal Hop Sing sitting quietly beside my son’s bed as Joseph ate. Neither spoke, but I had the sense that a great deal was passing between them. At the sound of my footfall, Joe looked up sharply. Almost immediately, his eyes slid to Hop Sing, who hadn’t moved.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said, awkward in my own house.
Joe’s attention was on Hop Sing. I watched my son ask a question without words. A moment later, our cook rose. “You finish,” he said to my son. “Father bring tray back to kitchen.” He ducked out of the room, leaving me alone with Joseph.
“May I sit down?” For the first time I could remember, I felt it appropriate to ask.
“Of course.” Joe’s tone was no different from earlier. He turned his attention to the plate in front of him, as if the eggs required all of his concentration.
“Joseph, I’m sorry,” I said without preamble. He didn’t look up, but his fork stopped moving. “I wish there was something I could do to change what happened. The last thing I ever wanted was for you to be hurt.”
For a long minute, neither of us spoke or moved. Then, Joe lifted his head and looked me in the eye. The hurt and betrayal were so evident that I nearly looked away. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
It was my turn to focus on the breakfast tray. None of the reasons made sense any more. Nothing I’d told Hoss or Adam justified what we’d done—what I’d done, and they’d gone along with. I drew a deep breath and lifted my head to meet my son’s unwavering gaze. I tried to explain my thoughts to Joseph, just as I had to my older sons before the wedding. But my logic sounded like nothing more than flimsy excuses before the hard green stare of my youngest son.
Finally, my words trailed off. For something to do, I picked up Joe’s tray and set it on the bureau. “I wish that there was something I could say to make it better,” I said.
“So do I,” said my son quietly. The rancor in his eyes had faded to almost unbearable sadness.
I needed to give him something. There was no more explanation that I could offer—I would never reveal Elizabeth’s secret—but I could speak of Tessa. “Joseph—she did care for you,” I said. “Before she said ‘yes’ to you, she came to me. She wanted me to tell her whether you truly loved her. She said that if you did, she’d say ‘yes’ so fast it would make my head spin. Those were her exact words.” I remembered the pain in her lovely face as she struggled with the implications of being a blind wife. “She asked me whether I would hate her if she married you, whether I would think she was doing it just because she needed you. I told her the truth—I didn’t think she was the kind who would marry a man for selfish reasons. And when we talked before the wedding, I told her that I was sure she’d have your best interests at heart. I thought she was going to admit everything then.”
“You talked to her about this, but not me?” Joe was incredulous.
“I didn’t actually tell her that I knew,” I protested. Every time I opened my mouth, it seemed that matters got worse. “I wanted to encourage her to talk to you herself.”
“Why did that matter? Were you protecting her? Did you think I’d back out of the wedding if I knew?” His anger flared, and I knew I’d chosen wrongly again.
I closed my eyes. “I suppose—in my own foolish way—I was trying to let the two of you work the matter out yourselves. When you told me that she’d agreed to marry you and I realized that you didn’t know she could see—son, I didn’t know what to say. You looked so happy at the idea of marrying her, and after what she’d said—I was afraid that if I said something, I’d be interfering.”
“Interfering!” Joe’s voice was harsh, mocking, not a tone he had ever taken with me. Not a tone I’d normally tolerate from anyone, and especially not from my son. “Pa, this isn’t like telling me that her father is poor instead of rich. You knew the truth about the most important thing, and you deliberately kept it from me. Hadn’t been for her own conscience—” he broke off.
“—you’d have married the girl,” I finished quietly. “I—I trusted her, Joseph. I trusted that she cared enough about you to tell you the truth.” It was small comfort now that my trust turned out to be well-placed.
“Funny thing,” said my son, his eyes fixed on mine. “I trusted you that way, too.”
The words penetrated my heart like a precisely-aimed bullet. “Joseph, I’m just so sorry,” I said. I could hear the pleading in my own voice. “I don’t know what else to say to you. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
Joe lay back against his pillows, giving no sign that he’d even heard me. I reached for his left hand, and he drew it away. I felt as if he’d struck me. “I’d just like to sleep now,” he said at last. “My wrist hurts. Is there any of Doc’s painkiller left?”
“Of course.” I poured out a spoonful. Joe propped himself up on his left elbow, but he couldn’t grip the spoon with his right hand in the cast, and so I held it for him as if he were a child. “Another?” He nodded, and I obliged. I didn’t know whether his wrist truly pained him this much or whether this was simply his way of deadening the other pain that flamed in his green eyes.
“Thanks,” he said simply, lying back on the pillows.
I adjusted his blankets and laid a hand on his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Joseph,” I whispered.
In response, he closed his eyes, his thick lashes dark against his pale skin.
* * * * * * * * * *
Late that afternoon, I looked up from my ledgers to see Joe descending the stairs unsteadily. I hurried over to him, saying, “Just take it easy, son, I’ll be right there.” His shirt was unbuttoned and untucked, and he wore only socks on his feet, but he’d managed to fasten his pants. He clutched the railing with his left hand, balancing the cast on the other railing. I reached for his left hand, but he slid it back, just out of my reach.
“I’m fine,” was all he said, but his meaning was clear.
“All right,” I said quietly. I waited until he’d made his way to the main floor. “Would you like a hand with those buttons?”
“No, thanks.” I tried to guide him to the settee, but he shook his head. “I want to go outside,” he said.
“Not without your boots,” I said. He said nothing, and his silence admitted as clearly as words that he’d been unable to manipulate them with just one hand. “I’ll be right back,” I said. When I returned with his boots, he was seated in the blue chair. I slid the boots onto his feet as easily as I had when he was a child. As he stood, I said, “You’re not going out with your shirt open. You’ll catch your death of cold.” Without waiting for an answer, I buttoned his shirt. I didn’t meet his eyes, but I could feel him glaring at me.
As soon as I was finished, he crossed the room, seized his jacket and tried to fit the sleeve over his cast. When it became clear that this would not work, I wordlessly held out my own coat. He ignored me as he maneuvered his left arm into his jacket, shrugging off my attempts to help. With his unencumbered left hand, he pulled the right side of the jacket over his shoulder. Dressed at last, he jerked open the front door and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
I sank into my desk chair. I didn’t know how long he could go on being so angry at me. From Adam, I might have expected this. My eldest son is given to brooding—long, slow buildup to the confrontation, and longer, slower resolution of his feelings afterward. But from Joe, it was unnerving. His temper explodes like a stick of dynamite, and it is usually gone almost as fast. With Joe, an apology and a handshake or hug can resolve anything within minutes.
Or, as I was now learning, almost anything.
I tried to turn my attention back to the ledgers. Dusk was falling, but Joe was still outside. Through the closed window, I heard the approach of hooves and the voices of my elder sons greeting their brother, but I did not hear if Joe responded. A few minutes later, I heard Hoss and Adam again. I couldn’t understand words from where I was, but they sounded serious. I expected that they, too, were trying to apologize. Again, I heard nothing from Joseph. I squelched an urge to open the window a crack to hear what they were saying.
Determined, I focused on the column of figures that was not coming out right. I muttered the numbers to myself, trying to block out other sounds. Adam’s voice began to rise, his tone sharpening. Hoss’ voice remained low and steady. But it was Joe’s voice, cutting through the deeper tones of his brothers, that got my attention. The anger had a shrill edge to it, a hint of panic, of losing control. As I paused in my writing, I heard the unmistakable smack of fist meeting flesh, and I knew who had thrown the first punch.
I threw down my pencil as voices rose, furniture scraped, and bodies thumped against the wall. I yanked open the door just in time to see Hoss and Joseph tumble off the step, from the high part of the porch to the low part, with all three hundred pounds of Hoss landing squarely on top of his little brother.
“That’s enough!” I thundered. Hoss rolled off Joe, who moaned. Immediately, differences were forgotten as we clustered around him.
“Are you all right, son?” He’d landed face down, chest on top of the casted arm. I winced at the thought and turned him on his back. He was clutching his right arm as he tried to regain the breath that had been knocked out of him.
“Fine,” he managed.
I looked more closely and suppressed a sigh. “Adam, get the doctor,” I ordered. The cast, barely twenty-four hours old, was already broken.
Three hours later, Doc descended the stairs. Adam and I rose as he reached the bottom. “How is he?” I asked.
Doc smiled. “He’s fine. His chest is pretty bruised from all that weight against the cast, but it’s nothing serious. I’m not sure I’d go up there, though. He’s mad as a hornet right now. Not at you,” he added, seeing my face. “At me.”
“You? What did you do?”
“Put him in plaster down to his fingertips and up past the elbow this time,” said Doc. “I told him next time, I’ll cast the shoulder if I have to.” He looked from me to Adam, his smile fading. “Ben, you’ve got to keep him quiet for a couple of days,” he added. “He’s been through a lot this week, and he needs to rest.” My old friend’s expression grew serious. “Have you talked to him about—the wedding?”
I nodded, understanding his euphemism. “This morning. It didn’t go particularly well.”
“At least he didn’t punch you,” Adam said wryly, rubbing his jaw. For the first time, I noticed the bruise. “Hoss and I tried to talk to him when we got back,” he explained. “He wasn’t interested in discussing the matter.”
“Where is Hoss?” My middle son hadn’t come back downstairs with the doctor.
“He’s with Joe,” said Paul. At our raised eyebrows, he added, “Don’t worry, he’s keeping a safe distance.”
“Safe for whom?” muttered Adam. I frowned at him.
“Not that you’ve asked for it, but I’m going to put in my two cents as your friend and Joe’s physician,” said Paul. “You’ve all said your pieces. Now, give him some room. He’s had a rough time lately, ever since Tessa’s accident. Let him work through all this in his own way.”
“It’s not that easy,” I said.
“I can imagine,” said my friend. “But he’ll come around. You just need to be patient with him.” At the look in his eyes, I found myself wondering if Joseph had said something to the doctor.
“I hope that’s all it takes,” said Adam. “I thought his temper was bad before, but today. . . .”
Paul shrugged. “Sometimes, a broken heart’ll do that to a man,” he said.
I shook my head. “I don’t think she broke his heart,” I said. “Bruised it, maybe, but I don’t think she broke it.”
Without speaking, Paul patted my arm and picked up his bag. I was closing the door behind him when I realized that he hadn’t been talking about Tessa.
* * * * * * * * * *
I watched from the porch as my son stood by the corral, a lean silhouette against the dark pinks and oranges of the setting sun. The cast, relieved of its sling, rested on the top rail. I found myself reflecting on how quickly cast and sling had become a part of him, just something else to balance. Even at this distance, I could sense the tension, the sadness in the set of his shoulders.
Part of it, I was certain, was the letter Joe had received earlier in the week. He reported that Tessa wrote that they’d reached San Francisco with no problems. Joshua Harrison had indeed given her father and brother jobs. None of them had ever been to San Francisco, and they found it to be a lovely city. She thanked us all again for our kindness and apologized for they had done.
If she said anything else in the letter, my son did not reveal it.
The past weeks had been fraught with tension. Joe barely made eye contact with any of us. He was polite, nothing more. He never laughed. Once a cuddly, affectionate child, he had become skilled at avoiding physical contact, sliding away from a touch so smoothly that a casual observer would have thought he didn’t realize the attempt was being made. His temper, never well-controlled at the best of times, now flared as quickly and violently as a summer thunderstorm.
Uncharacteristically, I found myself excusing his behavior, making allowances and overlooking comments and tones that were only a shade away from rude. Part of it, I argued to his brothers, was his frustration at being so limited. The new cast, which held his elbow at a sharp angle, made his arm pretty much useless. He did what he could, but it was sometimes painful to watch. He steadfastly refused to allow anyone to cut his meat for him, having worked out a way of using his left hand to stab the fork into the meat, and then bracing the fork against the cast and holding it in place with his chin while he used the knife with his left hand. It took him several days before he worked out a method for saddling his horse, an accomplishment of which I was unaware until the day he came galloping into the yard, triumphant and defiant.
As difficult as it was to see my son struggle with his physical restriction, there was a part of me that was glad for the broken wrist and the extended cast. Without the plaster limiting his mobility, I had no doubt that he wouldn’t be here now. He’d be off somewhere, up in the mountains probably, beyond my reach for weeks, or even months, until he was good and ready to come home.
As if he weren’t already out of my reach now, when we were living in the same house.
And part of the problem, I admitted only to myself, was my own guilt. I couldn’t seem to get past it, any more than Joe could. We hadn’t discussed the matter since that morning after his accident, but it hovered over us like a vulture, picking at the bones of the closeness we had once shared. And so I allowed behavior I would otherwise never have tolerated, hoping that his anger and rebellion would burn themselves out. Hoping that I wouldn’t drive him even farther away. Hoping that he would forgive me.
A nudge at my hand, and I looked down to see Hop Sing with a cup of coffee. “Thank you, Hop Sing,” I smiled, taking the cup. As I sipped, I looked back to the corral where my son remained, unmoving.
The little man’s gaze followed mine. “Number three son have hurt in heart,” he said.
“That he does,” I agreed. “I wish there was something I could do.”
“Already did,” said Hop Sing. “Said sorry. All can do. Now, give time. Let boy remember.”
Hop Sing searched my face. For a long moment, his own was inscrutable. Then, he smiled, just a little. “Remember father only human, make mistake like everybody else,” he said. “Remember father love him, think he do best for him. Remember forgive like father do.”
I smiled. Sometimes, when Hop Sing was throwing tantrums and complaining about people not eating, it was easy to forget how wise he was.
* * * * * * * * * *
I was in the process of reviewing the timber proposal for the Diamondhead Mine when Adam came in. Despite the cool day, he was sweating, as if he’d ridden hard.
“Where’s Joe?” he asked without preamble.
“I think he’s in the barn,” I said mildly. “Why?”
Adam reached into his coat pocket and handed me a wire. I read it, and my heart sank.
JOE—GOT MARRIED TODAY STOP WHIRLWIND COURTSHIP STOP WILL WRITE WITH DETAILS STOP PLEASE BE HAPPY FOR ME STOP MRS. MATTHEW (TESSA) HARRISON
“They haven’t even been out there two months,” I said finally.
“She said it was a whirlwind courtship,” Adam observed. “Is Matthew Joshua’s son?”
I nodded. “He’s about your age.” Neither of us said what we were both thinking, that this marriage sounded an awful lot like another attempt by her father and brother to secure a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I didn’t remember Matthew Harrison very well. The last time I saw him, he was a tall, skinny boy who bumped into things a lot and was more interested in books than people. I hoped, for Tessa’s sake, that she loved him.
“Somebody’s got to tell Joe,” said Adam. I started to push back my chair, and he said, “No, I’ll do it.”
I felt as if I should argue, but I didn’t. “All right,” I said instead. I handed the paper back to Adam and picked up the contract as if I would be able to concentrate.
Darkness fell, lamps were lit, and still neither Adam nor Joe came in from the barn. Hoss was due back from Carson City tomorrow. The house was unnaturally quiet. Finally, Hop Sing came in from the kitchen.
“Where everybody? Supper ready! Hop Sing work long time, nobody eat, nobody appreciate hard work! Hop Sing go back to China!”
So much for quiet. “They’re in the barn, Hop Sing,” I said. “I’ll go and fetch them.” I put on my coat and crossed the yard with a heavy heart, consoling myself that I didn’t hear any signs of an all-out war.
Instead, I heard voices. Calm, reasonable, normal voices having the type of conversation that Joe hadn’t had with anyone in our family since the day the gray horse threw him. I edged closer, careful to stay out of sight. Even though I’d taught my sons not to eavesdrop, the truth was that I’d found it a very useful tool over the years when trying to wend my way through the thickets of fatherhood.
“Joe, nobody knew what to do,” said Adam. “Pa did the best he could.”
I felt my stomach lurch. They were discussing the wedding, and me. I couldn’t force myself to make my presence known.
“I don’t guess I’ll ever understand,” said Joe. “If it were me, I’d have told you.”
I waited for Adam to say something, to admit that he’d wanted to tell Joe but had been talked out of it. But my eldest son was made of stronger stuff. “I would hope so,” said Adam. “We were wrong not to tell you. I wish we had. But we didn’t, and nothing can change that.”
“Pa made it sound like it was his decision,” said Joe.
I could picture Adam shrugging at that. “That’s Pa for you,” he said.
“Was it his decision?” Joe persisted.
“We all talked about it,” said Adam. My son was not going to break ranks, no matter how much his little brother pressed him.
“But he knew first.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, he knew first,” Adam admitted. “But we all decided together, and we did what we thought was right at the time. And Joe, that’s all any man can do. Sometimes the decision turns out to be wrong. This was one of those times.”
Joe was silent, and I knew that he knew what his brother wasn’t saying. The decision had been mine. I was about to announce that fact when Joe spoke again.
“You know the funny thing—and this is gonna sound so stupid—I guess I just never thought of Pa as messing up like this. It’s like—he always seems like he knows something the rest of us don’t so that he does the right thing.”
“What, like some special magical powers?” teased Adam.
Joe didn’t laugh. His voice was almost wistful. “No, but—it always seemed like he knew how to do it better than everybody else, whatever ‘it’ was. You know. You’ve seen it a thousand times. A whole group of folks standing around, arguing about something, and Pa comes in and cuts right through it and says, ‘This is the way it is, and this is right, and this is what we’re gonna do’—and in the end, he’s always right.”
“Joe, nobody’s always right,” said Adam. “Although I’ll admit that Pa seems to hit the mark more often than most men.”
“I guess that’s why this was so hard,” said Joe. “It was like—he’s always right about everything else, so why not this time? Didn’t he care enough?” The question hit me like a rock.
“Don’t even think that!” I heard straw rustle. I moved just a bit so that I could see into the shadow of the barn, just as Adam sat down next to Joe in a pile of hay. A single lantern, perched on a barrel, allowed me to see as Adam rested his hand on Joe’s cast. Joe didn’t pull away. Adam continued, “If anything, I’d say that the problem here was that he cared too much. He couldn’t be objective. All he could think of was whether there was a way to get you what you wanted and keep you from making a very serious mistake, all at the same time.” Adam looked intently at his brother, as if he needed to be certain Joe heard and understood. “All he wanted was for you to be happy. He tried his best, Joe. He just got it wrong.”
Joe fell silent again. I was about to clear my throat when he said, “So, what you’re telling me, Older Brother, is that our pa isn’t perfect after all?”
“Sorry, Little Brother, but he’s just a man,” Adam said gently. “Just like you and me.”
“No, Adam, not just like you and me,” Joe said with conviction. “He’s Pa. He’s—he’s Pa.”
I could hear the smile in Adam’s voice. “He’s just a man,” my eldest son said. “As flawed and human as anybody else. Don’t you think it’s about time you let him come down off his pedestal?”
Joe chuckled ruefully. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing? Putting him on a pedestal?”
“Maybe a little bit,” Adam said. “Like a lot of folks around here, I think.”
“But you don’t,” Joe pointed out. “And Hoss doesn’t.”
My eldest son considered this. “No, but it’s different for us. After all, you grew up surrounded by folks who were always talking about the great Ben Cartwright—and he casts one hell of a long shadow. Back when Hoss and I were little, he was still just a struggling dreamer. By the time you were born, everybody in the territory was in awe of him.”
“With good reason,” said Joe. “Think about it. He’s always been larger than life. He sailed the seven seas when he was just a kid, led a wagon train across the rivers and prairies and mountains—”
“—built the Ponderosa with his bare hands—” Adam chimed in.
“—married three extraordinarily beautiful women—”
“—produced three utterly remarkable sons—”
“—indeed he did, Older Brother, utterly remarkable. And don’t forget how he was asked to run for governor even though we’re not even a state yet—”
“—ain’t sure what that means, but it sounds good—leading citizen of Virginia City—”
“—infinitely shrewd businessman—”
“—the wisest man in the territory—”
“—unfailing moral compass—”
“—never makes a mistake—”
“Almost never,” I said quietly. Their heads snapped around. “Pa!” Joe’s cheeks reddened. Adam didn’t bother to hide his smile. “How long have you been there?”
“Oh—long enough.” My tone was deliberately light. “Just wanted to let you know that supper’s almost ready.”
“We should wash up, then.” Adam cast a sideways glance at his brother and pushed himself to his feet. “Excuse me, Pa,” he said, squeezing past me. Only his dimples betrayed him.
Joe and I faced each other in the lantern light. Now that we were alone, I had no idea what to say. It didn’t appear that my son did, either. Finally, I said, “You’re right about one thing.”
“What’s that?” He looked wary.
“I have indeed produced three remarkable sons,” I said. “And there’s nothing in the world that means more to me than you boys.”
“I know.” His words were so quiet that I nearly missed them.
I studied my youngest son in the lantern light. All the if onlys in the world were useless, and yet it was all I could think. Shaking my head, I said, “Joe, I just wish so much that I’d handled the whole thing differently. I’m so sorry.”
For the first time in weeks, Joe smiled at me. Softly, he said, “I know that, too.”
His gaze was clear, direct and unwavering. It spoke of understanding, of maturity, of the recognition that all men are fallible and of the ability to love through the flaws, not just in spite of them. I swallowed hard. For the first time in a long time, I saw contentment in my son’s eyes. I saw rest there, and peace.
And I saw forgiveness, complete and unconditional.
I opened my mouth, but no words came. Joseph favored me with his beautiful lopsided grin. Then, from his spot in the hay, he reached up to me with his left hand. I blinked back the tears that threatened. I reached down and took my son’s hand, pulling him to his feet. His grin widened as he brushed the straw off his backside.
“Come on, Pa,” he said. “Let’s go eat.” My son placed his arm around my shoulders, and we walked to the house.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Now, you just remember, Joe, you haven’t used that hand in more than two months,” said Doc Martin, brushing the last shards of plaster off the table. “You’re going to have to build up the strength again. Don’t expect it to be like the other one for a while.”
“I don’t think there’s much chance of that,” my son said as he slowly, painfully flexed the fingers of his right hand. We watched as he tried to pick up the pencil on the doctor’s desk. It took four tries before he was able to grasp it with his fingertips. Encouraged by his success, he laid his gun on the desk and tried to pick it up with his right hand, but the heavier object clattered loudly as it fell the inch from his fingers to the wood. Joe shook his head ruefully. “Good thing I don’t shoot right-handed, or I’d be dead before sundown!” he snickered.
“Joseph! That’s enough of that kind of talk!” I wasn’t supposed to see my son roll his eyes at the doctor. I thought only briefly of pretending to miss that moment before barking, “Joseph!”
“Sorry, Pa.” His voice was suitably respectful, but his eyes danced. As we left the doctor’s office, Joe said, “You know, Pa, Chet and the crew are due in with that new string of horses tomorrow or Thursday. I’m thinking that if I can get started right away, they’ll likely be greenbroke by the seventeenth, when Major Jenkins comes through, and he can get a first look then.”
“Get started right away? Joseph Cartwright, did you listen to anything the doctor just said to you?”
“Pa, how many hands does a man need on a horse? One, that’s all. It ain’t like l’m talking about something that needs two hands, like chopping wood or fixing wagon wheels—”
“You wouldn’t talk about doing those chores anyway, young man!” I reached over and yanked the brim of his hat down over his eyes. Laughing, he pushed the brim back up as his brothers approached.
“What’s so doggone funny?” asked Hoss.
“Pa doesn’t think a man can break a horse with just one good hand!” Joe announced with mock outrage.
“Well, you know, Little Brother, the great Ben Cartwright is never wrong about these things,” said Adam thoughtfully, hazel eyes twinkling.
“No, siree, not Ben Cartwright,” said Hoss with a broad grin. “After all, he crossed the prairies and swam rivers and did all manner of other stuff I can’t rightly recall. He’d never be wrong ’bout somethin’ like this.”
“You think not?” Joseph winked at me. “Well, gentlemen, get ready to eat your words, because the son of the great Ben Cartwright is gonna prove you all wrong just as soon as we get back to the Ponderosa!”
I couldn’t help laughing at their foolishness. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but the great Ben Cartwright could use a beer before starting that dusty ride home. Joseph, do you think that’s something a man can handle with just one hand?”
“Pa, I think that’s something this man could handle with no hands at all!” said Joe.
“Y’know, I just might be willing to pay to see that,” said Hoss.
“Yeah? How much, Big Brother?” challenged Joe. As they teased and joked, my heart swelled with wonder and gratitude at the laughter and the silliness, the closeness, the undeserved love that had been restored to us, in spite of all our imperfections.
And as the late afternoon sun lengthened the shadows, the four of us stepped off the sidewalk to cross the dusty street together.