Romeo (by pjb)

Summary: When Adam directs Joe in a local production of “Romeo and Juliet,” he learns more about his little brother–and himself–than he ever expected.

Rated: K+  WC 20,000

 

                                                               Romeo

 

If I live to be a thousand, I’ll never understand what possessed me to say I’d do it.  One minute, I was sitting with the members of the Virginia City Cultural Society in a parlor on C Street, drinking weak tea and smiling genially amid too many ferns.  The next minute, I had somehow agreed to produce a play.  In Virginia City.  With members of the community as actors and stage hands.  And yours truly as the director.There must have been something in the tea.

The Virginia City Cultural Society is comprised mainly of ladies with lace collars and gentleman with suit jackets.  I am the only one in the group who routinely gets his hands dirty, but that’s considered acceptable in their view because I do it on the Ponderosa-apparently, our cattle are somehow cleaner and more refined than the rest.  Also, I’m the only one in the group who actually finished college, and I did it in Boston, so they’re doubly impressed.  Sam Nemeth spent a year at a college in St. Louis.  Nobody knows exactly what happened, but shortly before the school year should have ended, Sam was back in town, serving as a seriously chastened apprentice in his father’s bank.  Still, in a town where a fair number of the citizens sign their names as “X”, Sam’s almost-year of college counts for something.

So, when the self-appointed guardians of art decided to form the society, they approached me.  Hoss and Joe found the whole notion hilarious, but they would.  You couldn’t get culture into those two with a crowbar and a quart of axle grease.

I don’t recall now who first raised the notion of putting on a play.  To be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention.  Roundup had ended only two days earlier, and I was exhausted.  It wasn’t being the trail boss that did it, or even endless hours of herding obstinate cattle.  If the cattle had been the only obstinate ones, that would have been fine.  No, it was the fact that, once again, I spent nearly the entire time butting heads with my little brother.  The kid makes cattle look positively reasonable.

I lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of his mother.  I was twelve when Joe was born, and I remember Marie sitting in the living room, looking more pregnant than anyone ever should.  She was well past the date when she should have had the baby.  Pa was becoming more frantic with each passing hour.  You couldn’t blame him for that; after all, he lost my mother in childbirth.  It’s not a process he takes lightly.  He wanted that baby born, and born now, and pretty much everybody does what Ben Cartwright commands.

Everyone, that is, except my stepmother.  Marie was not going to be rushed and, by extension, neither was her son.  She kept telling Pa to sit down, that the baby would come when he was ready and not one minute before.  I remember her rubbing her belly and cooing to it, “Are you ready to come and see us, little one?  Would you like to meet your family?”  And on and on, gently suggesting to him that it might be nice if he were to be born-that is, if it wasn’t too terribly inconvenient for him and it wouldn’t interfere with any other plans he might have.

So, by the time Joseph Francis Cartwright made his entrance into this world, two things had been well-established.  First, he would do whatever he was going to do on his own time schedule, and the rest of the world could just wait for him.  And second, no one was going to tell him to do anything.  One might ask, request, cajole, suggest gently, or even beg, but never, ever tell.  Even before he drew breath, my little brother had developed an aversion to taking orders.

That attitude might work in other settings, but during roundup, diplomacy isn’t a priority.  Things happen fast, and you don’t have a lot of time for niceties.  In all candor, even if opportunities for graciousness did exist, that’s not my approach.  Pa says that I’m like my grandfather in this regard.  Grandfather Stoddard was a ship’s captain, which is another profession in which little things like keeping your crew alive and getting to your destination safely and with cargo intact have to take priority over making sure that everyone’s warm and happy and tucked into their cozy little beds at night with a cookie.  I’m not one for requesting and coaxing under any circumstances, but definitely not on the trail.  I tell my men what to do, and I expect them to do it.   But the prima donna of the Ponderosa tends to get his back up when he’s given an order instead of a request, which makes for a lot of wasted time arguing.  Plus, we end up with three of us standing around instead of two, because Hoss inevitably drifts over to the discussion, to trying to keep the peace-or simply to keep each of us in one piece.

Pa once asked me why I don’t simply recognize Joe’s foible and use it:  in other words, if I know he’s going to balk at an order, phrase it as a request, and save us both a lot of time and energy.  I’d never admit it, but he’s sort of right.  I’m sure it would be a lot more efficient, and we’d all have a lot less aggravation.  The thing is, I tell everybody else what to do, and they do it.  If I ask Joe instead of telling him, it undermines my authority with the others.  Besides, I shouldn’t have to coddle him to get the work done.  This is what Joe refers to as my “Yankee granitehead” approach to life.  He doesn’t mean it as a compliment, but I take it as one.

So, as the Virginia City Cultural Society discussed their next attempt at infusing culture into our fair city, I was only half-paying attention.  I smiled and nodded while my mind was out at the Ponderosa, calculating how much time we had before the first load of timber had to be delivered to McNamara for his mines and whether we had enough hands to move the cattle that were scheduled to go to Sacramento.  I was also enjoying the fact that, for a moment, nobody was inappropriately offended because I’d had the temerity to give an order.

“Adam, what do you think?”  Mary Ann Wilmot poured me another cup of tea without my asking and placed two more cookies on my plate.  In hindsight, I realize that this should have made me suspicious; Mrs. Wilmot is not one of the more generous members of our community.

“I beg your pardon?”

“What do you think about a play?”  she asked.  The others looked at me expectantly.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” I said.  “I love the theatre.”  I didn’t know what acting troupe they intended to bring to town, but whoever it was had to be better entertainment than the girls who sing with the drunken cowboys-including, when he’s overimbibed, my little brother-at the Bucket of Blood on Saturday nights.

“And there’s nothing better than Shakespeare!”  Fred McCarthy announced, as if this were news.

“Nothing better,” I agreed.

“So, Adam, you’ll take care of it?”

This, as it turns out, was where I made my fatal mistake.  The brightness in Ellen Brill’s eyes as she asked the question should have made me suspicious.  The others leaning forward eagerly should have made alarm bells ring.  How I assumed that they were merely asking me to arrange the logistics of bringing Shakespearean actors to town is beyond me now.  I can only plead exhaustion and distraction.  But, without inquiring any further, I said, “Of course.  I’d be happy to.”  And shortly after that, amid all the exultation and excitement, I learned what it was that I’d agreed to take care of.

Later, Pa asked why I didn’t simply tell them that I’d misunderstood and that I wasn’t willing to direct a play.  I gave him a credible-sounding explanation about how excited everyone seemed and how much it would mean to the town to have a theatre group.  I sounded positively altruistic.  Pa didn’t seem entirely convinced, but he stopped short of saying so, and so I didn’t have to confess the real reason:  in my heart of hearts, I wanted to direct.

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was Edwin Booth.  Edwin is an amazing actor.  He can turn from Edwin into the character right before your eyes, with nothing more than a shift of posture, a tilt of the head, the wrinkle of a brow, the curl of a lip.  I did one play with him in college.  He had the title role in “Doctor Faustus,” and I had a bit part.  That was when I found out how difficult acting is, at least for a Yankee granitehead.  Edwin could let emotions flow out of him until the audience was weeping.  Even if I were willing to do that, I just can’t.  Big, sweeping, majestic pronouncements are well within my grasp, but don’t ask me to show heartbreak and vulnerability to a roomful of strangers.  I don’t even show that to my own family.  So clearly, acting was not for me.  Directing, on the other hand, was something I’d always suspected I could do well.  Guiding the actors, crafting the scene, creating a world on the stage-I could do this.  I was certain of it.  And even if I had to do it with a bunch of cowboys and miners, I wasn’t about to miss what was likely to be my only chance.

So, that explains why I didn’t try all that hard to get out of the job.  The choice of play, however, was something else again.  Someday, I would like for someone to explain why new theatre groups always want to do Shakespeare.  There’s plenty of other material out there, and some of it is very good.  Almost all of it is a thousand times easier than Shakespeare.  But no, these groups always have to do Shakespeare.  And nine times out of ten, it’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  Our group was no exception.  The ladies twittered madly as I tried to explain that we would do well to start with something less ambitious.  They were having none of it.  Romeo was coming to Virginia City, and there was nothing I could do to stop him.

* * *

I broke the news to my family over dinner.  The reaction was predictable.

“You’re going to do what?”  Pa’s fork froze mid-way to his mouth.  His eyebrows shot up in disbelief.  My brothers were already laughing their fool heads off.

“I’m going to direct a play,” I repeated.  I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice.  “The Society asked me to direct ‘Romeo and Juliet.'”

“‘Romeo and Juliet’?  Ain’t that the one with the balcony?”  asked Joe through a mouthful of steak.  I suppose it was a credit to my efforts to bring culture into my own family that he knew even this much.  On the other hand, the fact that he was reducing the world’s greatest love story to a bit of architecture suggested that, just maybe, I hadn’t accomplished as much as I’d thought.

“Yes, it’s the one with the balcony,” I conceded, clenching my teeth.

“‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?'”  Joe clasped his hands and fluttered his eyelashes as he delivered the best-known line in his famous falsetto.  In his regular voice, he said, “He was right there under the balcony, that’s wherefore he was arting.”

“She isn’t asking where he is, she’s asking why that’s his name,” I snapped.

“Well, that makes more sense,” Joe snickered.  “Personally, I’d have named him Bob.”  He and Hoss convulsed with laughter, and even Pa couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Are you saying that you’ve already agreed to do this?” asked Pa finally.  The unspoken conclusion to the sentence was clear:  without talking to me first?  Ever since Pa made me a partner in the ranch when I came back from college, he and I have done our best to keep the other apprised of our various commitments.  When a project is likely to be unusually time-consuming or expensive, we generally consult with one another before agreeing to it.

Somewhat sheepishly, I nodded.  He’d have a right to be upset.  I knew, from watching Edwin in college, how much time this would take up.  Factoring in inexperienced actors-and a novice director-I was looking at a minimum of six solid weeks of rehearsal after casting, assuming that I could rehearse them five nights a week.  My instincts told me that, if I ran rehearsals longer than that, the actors would lose interest, but if we went shorter, they wouldn’t be ready.  No, six weeks felt right.

Pa regarded me for a long moment.  It was impossible to read the expression in those deep brown eyes.  Either he thought I was insane, or he was going to list the reasons that this would unduly interfere with ranch business, or he would wish me all the best and lighten my load.  I waited, holding his gaze.  Finally, he smiled.

“When will you hold auditions?” he asked.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I’d made it over the first hurdle.

* * *

A week later, I stumbled through the front door, feeling utterly defeated.  I’ve had some pretty awful evenings in my time, but if you leave out the ones that included death, heartbreak or significant bloodshed, this one was the winner, hands down.  My father and brothers stared at me as I dropped my gunbelt on the credenza and headed for the brandy.

“Son, are you all right?”  Pa put down his book and approached me as I poured a brandy, knocked it back, and poured another one.  I should point out that I never do this.  Ever.  It’s the kind of thing Joe would do.

“Am I all right?”  I swallowed the second brandy in a single gulp and poured a third.  Pa took the decanter out of my hand and replaced it on the table.  “I’m going to need more than this,” I informed him, reaching for the decanter.

Pa intercepted my attempt and led me over to the settee.  “What happened?” he asked gently.

“It was an unmitigated disaster,” I said, swallowing the third brandy in a single gulp.

“A what?” asked Hoss.  He looked to Joe, who shrugged.

“This is never going to work,” I said.  “Never.  It was a huge mistake.  Tomorrow, I’m going to tell them that the show will not go on.”

“Son, what happened?” asked Pa.

I stood up and started to pace.  “What happened?  What didn’t happen?  Every female in Virginia City between the ages of twelve and sixty was there and wanted to be Juliet.  Do you know how many women that is?  I had a grandmother who wanted to read for that part.  Sarah Evans wanted the part, and she’s going to have a baby in three months.  Evaline McCormick wanted the part.  She even brought me cookies.”  I paced back over to the brandy and commandeered the decanter.

“Ain’t she the skinny one with no chin?” asked Hoss.  He was looking around, presumably for the cookies.

“You’re thinking of her sister, Amelia,” I said.  “Evaline is the one who weighs almost as much as you do.  Then, for variety, I also had Rory Deaver wanting the part.”

“Rory Deaver?  Wanted to be Juliet?”  Pa’s eyebrows shot up.  Rory’s a scrawny little guy who works at the mercantile.  He spends most of his time sitting behind the counter, reading, instead of helping customers.  Nobody’s ever figured out how he’s kept his job so long.  Joe thinks Old Man Miller’s wife is sweet on Rory and she won’t let her husband fire him.  I have to admit, if I were a woman, I’d take little Rory over Fred Miller.  At least Rory bathes on occasion, and he has all his teeth and most of his hair.

“That’s how they did it in Shakespeare’s time,” I said.  “Men played all the parts, and Rory thinks we should do it that way.”

“I always wondered about him,” said Hoss.

“You and me both,” said Joe.  “I’ll tell you this.  If you make Rory Deaver Juliet, you can forget about anybody wanting to be Romeo.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I said.  “And then, I had a saloon girl who wanted to be Juliet’s mother.”

“Which one?” asked Joe.

“Carrie somebody, I think.”

“I know her,” said Joe.  “Never really thought of her as the motherly type.”  That observation went without comment from the rest of us.  Pa especially tries very hard not to think about Joe’s various dealings with the girls who work at the Bucket of Blood.

“What about the men’s roles?” asked Pa, probably to avoid further discussion of my little brother’s liaisons with saloon girls.

“I had seven men show up, and I have twenty-one male roles to fill,” I said.  “Even if I double-cast, I’m still short of men.”

“‘Double-cast’?”  Hoss looked as if I were speaking a foreign language.

“Assign somebody more than one part,” I clarified.  “Directors do this when the parts are small and not on stage at the same time.”  I looked around the room.  “I don’t suppose any of you-”

“No,” Pa said firmly.  Hoss and Joe shook their heads emphatically.

“But Pa, you have such an eloquent speaking voice.”  I poured myself another brandy and held up the decanter.  “Would you like one?”  It was certainly doing me a world of good.  I didn’t feel nearly as frazzled as when I’d walked in the door.  I carried the decanter with me as I returned to the settee.

“No, thank you,” said Pa.  “And no, thank you, to the play.  I am not an actor.”  His deep, rich voice resonated.  He would have made a wonderful Capulet.  This was a true tragedy.  Still, I wasn’t so drunk that I didn’t know the extent to which I would need to impose upon his good graces in the coming weeks, so I dropped that argument and turned to my brothers.

“Think of what a wonderful experience it would be,” I suggested.

“Nope,” said Hoss.  “I ain’t never even read no Shakespeare.”

“That’s all right,” I said encouragingly.  “I’d work with you on your lines.”

“Nope,” he said again.

“Don’t even think of it,” interjected Joe before I could say anything to him.  “I’m busy anyway.  We have a whole string of horses coming in next week.  I won’t have time to do anything else.”

I slumped on the settee, glass in hand.  Pa and my brothers exchanged looks.  Finally, Pa said, “What are you going to do?”

“What can I do?”  I drank my brandy and poured myself another one.  Carefully, I set the decanter on the table, next to Joe’s feet.  “Don’t kick this over,” I said.

“Joseph!”  Pa, who hadn’t noticed that Joe was once again using the table as an ottoman, snapped to attention.

“Sorry, Pa,” said Joe, giving me a black look as he removed his boots from the table.  With exaggerated sweetness, he said to me, “Maybe you should just assign roles to people, instead of waiting for them to come to you.”

I drank my brandy.  I was slowing down; this one took two gulps.  I was feeling much better.  Much.  “Fine,” I said.  “You can be Romeo.  Gee, you’re right.  That was easy.”  I hiccupped as I refilled my glass.

“What?  Have you lost your mind?  I’m no actor!  Besides, didn’t you just hear me tell you about the new horses?”

I lifted my glass in an unsteady toast.  “Here’s to Romeo,” I said.

“Adam, I think you’ve had enough to drink,” said Pa.

“I said I’m not doing it!” said Joe.

“Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much,” I said, downing my drink.  “Pa, don’t you think Little Joe would make a fine, fine Romeo?”

“Well-”  Pa began.

“Well, nothing!  I’m not doing it!”  Joe grabbed the glass out of my hand.  “You’re drunk, and I’m not an actor.”

“Y’know, Little Brother, it ain’t as farfetched as-”

“Yes, it is!”  Joe cut Hoss off.  “Why don’t you be Romeo, if you think it’s such a great idea?”

“‘Cuz I ain’t the one all the pretty girls want,” Hoss said.  “That’s you.  You’re already Virginia City’s Romeo.  You might as well do it in the play.”

“You’ve all lost your minds,” Joe said.  “I’m going to bed, and when I get up in the morning, there ain’t going to be any more talk about my being in a play.”  He turned and stormed up the stairs.

“Good night, sweet prince!”  I called after him.  “Oops,” I said to Pa and Hoss.  “That was Hamlet.  I think.”

Joe’s bedroom door slammed.

* * *

My head throbbed as I descended the stairs.  I hadn’t had that much to drink-at least, it hadn’t seemed like it.  Besides, if I was drunk, I’d earned the right.  That meant that I should have been spared the hangover.  Clearly, there was no justice in the world.

“Morning, Older Brother!”  I couldn’t tell if Joe was unusually energetic or if he was deliberately being loud just to torture me.

“Morning.”  I wouldn’t give him the pleasure of knowing the pain he was causing.

“Eggs and bacon?” he asked sweetly, offered the platter.  My stomach flipped over.  The little brat.  He knew precisely what he was doing.

“In a minute,” I mumbled.  I poured coffee and laced it liberally with cream.  I ignored my father’s surprised look; normally, I take my coffee black, and woe to him who tampers with it.  This morning, though, black coffee felt far too harsh.

“We’re going to need to move those cattle out of the north pasture and up to the higher ground,” said Pa.  I resisted the impulse to shoot him a grateful look.  Had Joe been in this condition, there would have been no end of paternal fussing and grumbling and lecturing.  Fortunately, my father and I have a more equal relationship, and he respects me enough to let me endure the occasional ill effect of my choices without comment.

I drank the coffee-and-cream concoction and remembered why I normally drink my coffee black.  Cream makes the coffee too thick, too dilute, too-creamy, I guess.  I like coffee that stands up and demands my attention.  Hoss and Joe always grumble when I make the coffee, but theirs is so watery that it barely deserves the name.

“Pa, if it’s okay with you, I think I’m going to stay here this morning and work on the play,” I said.  I wasn’t really asking his permission, and he knew it.  I just didn’t want to duck out of work and give Joe an excuse to think he could do likewise.  Besides, with another round of auditions tonight, I did need to sort out what I was going to do if the turnout was no more promising than it had been last night.

Pa considered my statement.  He looked at my brothers, both of whom were focused on their meal.  I could tell that he was already starting to be concerned about the effect of this play on my work.  I wanted to reassure him that the worst would soon be over, but I wasn’t at all certain that it was true.

“Fine,” he said at last.  “You can meet up with your brothers after lunch.”  He was clearly taking me at my word about wanting just the morning.  Hangover or no, I would have to make these few hours count.

After Hoss and Joe left, I sat down to review my options.  As I read through the play, a sense of overwhelming dread began to smother me.  Mentally, I ran down the list of every man I knew.  I considered deleting scenes, rewriting scenes, adding scenes.  Nothing helped.  I needed someone who could handle the romance and heartbreak and swordplay convincingly.  It would also help if he was handsome, passionate, and dashing enough to dazzle the ladies so that no one would realize how truly awful the production was.  Inevitably, I came back to the same horrible conclusion.  The only man in Virginia City who could play Romeo was . . . my little brother.

“Have you lost your mind?”  Joe demanded, his voice skidded up into its highest registers.  I’d waited until we were on our way back to the house to mention the idea.  Foolishly, I thought it would help that he might be tired out from a long day with the cattle.  “I already said ‘no’!”  He didn’t sound tired.  He sounded resolute.

I took a deep breath for control.  Nothing galls me more than having to ask a major favor of Little Joe.  I have never met anyone who enjoys more the sport of making me grovel.  Half the time, he’s already decided to help out, but he’ll stand there, stone-faced, just to make me beg.  I should have known then that he could be an actor.

I decided that the devious approach might work better.  “Sorry,” I said.  “Just thought I’d ask.”  I rode on ahead.  Over my shoulder, I said, “I guess Pa was right after all.”

“Right about what?”  He was talking to me, but he was challenging Pa.

“He didn’t think you’d be able to do it, either,” I lied.

“‘Able’?  Who said anything about ‘able’?” demanded Joe.  Sometimes, he was almost too easy.

“Well, I’m sure that’s not what he meant,” I said languidly, dropping back to where Joe was.  “I’m sure he meant . . . something else.”  I tried to sound as if I were covering for my father’s criticism.  “That’s okay.  Don’t worry about it.  I’m sure there’s someone else in town who can handle an epée.”  I kicked Sport’s sides and moved ahead.

Joe didn’t disappoint me.  He and Cochise cantered up beside me.  “What do you mean?”  He was trying to mask his curiosity, but he wasn’t doing it very well.  I hoped that he’d be more convincing with my direction.

“There’s a fair bit of swordplay in the play,” I said casually.  “I’m hoping to save lot of time by getting some actors who already know how to use an epée.  That way, I can focus on teaching the others how to handle them.”

You’re going to teach people how to fence?”

I held my smile in place by sheer will.  Had I not needed his help-and his face-that little comment would have earned him a decent pummeling, or at least an impromptu bath in the horse trough when we got back to the house.  I know full well that I’m not Joe’s equal with an epée, but I’m not half bad.  Joe claims that his New Orleans heritage gives him an edge.  I think the more likely answer is that he’s smaller and more graceful than I am.  Also, he spent hours playing with that thing when he was growing up, hours that I spent working the ranch.  So, yes, he’s a better fencer than I am.  Of course, while I might admit that to other people, I would never say it to him.  He’s already too cocky by half.

“Of course, I’m going to teach them,” I said.  “I know what I’m doing.”  I sounded just a touch more defensive than I wanted to, but Joe didn’t seem to notice.  Instead, he snorted.

“Older Brother, you may be good with a gun, but when it comes to an epée, I think you just need to face the fact that you have a distinct disadvantage, being a Yankee and all.”  As always when he starts with this line of talk, a southern drawl crept into his voice.  Considering that the kid has never spent a day of his life in New Orleans, the accent is incongruous, but I have to admit that he makes it work.  He trots it out sometimes when he’s flirting, and the girls just melt.  No two ways about it.  Swordplay and charm.  It killed me to admit it, but this was the Romeo I needed to salvage this play.  He sounded as if he just might be interested after all, if only so that he could bounce around with an epée.  If I could just reel him in. . . .

* * *

The opera hall was bustling when I arrived.  I looked over the crowd, and my heart sank.  No sign of my brothers.  Hoss had promised that he would deliver Joe to me.  I didn’t know what ruse he expected to use, but I suspected that it would involve convincing Joe that the funniest sight in town would be me casting this misbegotten play.  I had a feeling that, if he sold it that way, our little brother-compassionate soul that he is-wouldn’t need much convincing.  I’d be lucky if they weren’t hooting and hollering all the way through the auditions.

I perused the list of people who had signed in.  I knew most of the women on the list, and I would never have considered them for anything, much less one of the world’s most tragic lovers.  The three men on the list were guaranteed parts solely by virtue of my having so few men and so many parts.  I already suspected that I was going to have to dress up some women for the minor men’s parts, an approach that would undoubtedly cause great consternation among the would-be Juliets.

There were a few women who were possibilities for the female roles, though.  I looked around again.  No sign of my brothers.  If they didn’t come soon, I would start with the less appealing choices.  Hopefully, Joe and Hoss would arrive before I had to listen to the ones who truly seemed to be reasonable options.

I heard Joe’s giggle from behind me and relaxed slightly.  Hoss had done his part; now, hopefully, the lovely ladies of Virginia City would finish the job.  I pretended that I didn’t know they had come in as I read over the list of would-be actresses.

“Hey, Older Brother, who’s Juliet?” asked Joe.  “Maybe Mrs. Warner’s available.  I’ll go see if I can pull her away from her great-grandchildren.”

I grimaced at him.  Mrs. Warner was practically the only woman in town who wasn’t here.  She actually wouldn’t have been half-bad as the nurse.  I looked at the list and identified the prettiest girl in the room, Beth Peters.  I’d save her for later.  “Can I have Sally Bowers, Annie Bridges, Clarice Nelson and Ned Swanson onstage, please?”  To paraphrase another of the Bard’s works, there was a method in my madness:  I wanted to work through all the men and as many of the women as possible before springing the trap.  I’d already eliminated Sam Nemeth from the running by imploring him to be the stage manager; I figured that, if Joe absolutely refused, I could always put Sam in as Romeo.  I assigned parts and said, “Act three, scene five, begin when you’re ready.”

The reading was as excruciating as I expected.  I took notes and tried to figure out what to do if the remaining auditions were so bad that I actually had to cast any of these people.  Joe and Hoss sat behind me, snickering and whispering, until I turned and glared at them to shut up.  It wasn’t that their comments were inaccurate; I was just afraid that they’d be overheard.

Finally, Joe leaned forward and said in my ear, “You have fun here, Older Brother.  We’ll be over at the Bucket of Blood when you’re through.  If you promise not to use any of these people, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Aren’t you going to stay?  We’re almost done here.”  I tried not to sound as if I cared.

“Who could you possibly have left here that anybody’d want to watch?” asked Joe.

That was my cue.  I consulted my list.  “Elizabeth Peters,” I called.  I pretended not to notice Joe perk up at this.  In addition to being the prettiest girl in the room, Beth Peters was one of the few girls in town who hadn’t yet succumbed to the famous Joe Cartwright charm.  Of course, she was new to Virginia City, and Joe had been sparking Ellie McDermott since just before roundup, but that should have been over by now.  I knew my brother well enough to know that if Ellie’s charms were wearing thin-and I suspected that they were-Beth was probably next on his list.

“Beth, would you please start reading at act one, scene five?”

“The dance scene?”

The girl knew her Shakespeare.  This was promising.  I saw several of the other women shoot her dirty looks for knowing the play.

“Yes, Beth, the dance scene.”  I leaned back as if bored.

“Where in the scene should I begin?”  Good for her.  Even without opening the book, she knew that Juliet’s first line is a reaction to Romeo’s speech.

I flipped through the pages.  “Hmmm,” I grunted.  I pretended to be frustrated.  It didn’t take much pretending; there were nearly no men in the room, and I’d already heard the ones who were here.  I turned to Joe as if inspired.  “Hey, Joe, go up and read with her, will you?”

Joe was busy staring at Beth.  When he said nothing, I shook his arm.

“What?” he demanded.

“Go up and read with her, will you?”  I tried to push the book into his hand.

“Adam, I told you before-”

“I’m not asking you to be Romeo.  I’m just asking you to read with her so that I can see whether she should be Juliet.  How’s the girl supposed to talk about wanting to kiss a guy if there’s no guy to kiss?”

Joe brightened at the notion of Beth talking about wanting to kiss him.  He looked torn between that and his suspicion that I was doing precisely what I was doing.

“Go ahead, Little Brother,” said Hoss unexpectedly.  “Go give that little gal a hand.”

It probably shouldn’t bother me that Joe is so much more willing to listen to Hoss than to me.  The fact is, I could have stood there and argued with Joe all night, and I wouldn’t have been nearly effective as Hoss’ one statement.  At that moment, I almost hoped that my brother would be so bad that I could abandon the notion of casting him.

“All right,” said Joe, taking the book from me.  “But you’re gonna owe me your new saddle.”

I resisted the urge to tell him that, if it was a pound of flesh he wanted, he was reading for the wrong play.  Besides, I had a feeling that he would thank me at the end of his audition.

He bounded up onto the stage with his characteristic good humor and smiled at Beth.  She returned the smile shyly.  I didn’t know if she was flirting or just getting into character.  I didn’t care.

Beth pointed out the place in the script where they were to read.  Joe’s line was first.  I didn’t want to give him direction in an audition, but I hoped that he would read it over quickly enough to realize that he was supposed to be holding Juliet’s hand.  Fortunately, Beth knew what to do.  I saw her murmur something to him, and he picked up her hand with his most debonair smile.  I relaxed.  This was going to work.

“If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this;

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”

As if to prove his sincerity, Joe brushed her hand with a kiss.  Beth lowered her head demurely, gazing at him from beneath her lashes.  I sat back, relaxing for the first time since the Society decided on this play.

Juliet said, “Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.”

Romeo responded, “Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.  Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.”  At that, my brother followed the stage direction as I knew he would, kissing her lightly, but passionately.

“Then have my lips the sin that they have took,” said Juliet a little breathlessly.

“Sin from my lips?  O trespass sweetly urged!  Give me my sin again.”  And he kissed her again, more deeply this time.

“Thank you,” I called out.  They continued to kiss.  “Thank you!”  I was louder this time.  They broke apart, still holding each other’s gaze.  My brother was wearing that little smile he reserves for moments like this, when he wants the girl to know just how special she is.  I was too far away to see his eyes clearly, but I knew they were echoing everything he’d just read.  Beth’s eyes looked just the same.

Sometimes, I am just brilliant.

* * *

I’ve been supervising employees ever since I came home from college.  There have been innumerable times in the past ten years when I’ve been called upon to address a group of ranch hands or timber workers or miners.  After the first couple of times, it has never fazed me.  I can stand cool and collected in front of the biggest, meanest-looking men, armed and ugly, and tell them what to do and how to do it without breaking a sweat.  And if they refuse, I have no compunctions about firing their obstinate posteriors-with, of course, the one notable exception who is usually the bane of my professional existence, but to whom I now felt near-overwhelming gratitude.  Not that I would tell him that, of course.  I barely admitted it to myself.  Besides, I already suspected that, by the time this show opened, I was likely to have enough to trouble just keeping his head from outgrowing his hat.

In any event, I was used to talking to groups.  So, will someone please explain to me why I was so all-fired nervous about addressing the cast and crew at the first rehearsal?

I set the rehearsal for 7:00.  At the appointed hour, nearly everyone was present.  I say “nearly,” because predictably, my little brother had not yet arrived.  Considering that we’d left the ranch at the same time, I’d expected him to show up on schedule, but clearly, that was asking too much.  That kid will be late to his own funeral.

“Hello?  May I have your attention please?  Ladies and gentlemen?  Would you settle down?”  I could hardly be heard above the hubbub.  Everyone was excited, chattering and giggling and milling about.  I’ve seen more orderly stampedes.

A piercing whistle brought absolute silence and stillness.  We turned as one body toward its source.  Lounging in the doorway at the back of the room was Joe.  He smiled at everyone, and they all smiled back.  Then, he nodded to me, graciously handing over control of the group.  I managed a smile.  I was going to have to tamp down the urge to beat him up for the next two months.  I needed that face intact.  But as soon as the show was over . . . I would wipe that smug smile right off his face.

I began by introducing myself.  It seemed a bit silly under the circumstances, but I was following Edwin’s instructions to the letter.  I’d wired him as soon as I found out about the show, and he’d responded with a lengthy missive in which he explained precisely how to direct a play.  He said that the first rehearsal should be about everyone getting to know everyone, outlining expectations, and reading through the script.  He emphasized the familial relationships that develop during production and said that I would need to encourage such closeness.  Edwin probably wrote that part just to torture me.

The next step was to have the cast and crew introduce themselves and tell everyone what they would be doing.  Most of the people knew each other, but there were a few new people.  Beth was one of them.  Interestingly, the ladies seemed to want little to do with her.  I expected that it was because she had landed both the plum role and the leading man, all in one shot.  Joe had sauntered over and dropped oh-so-casually into the seat beside her, as if their audition scene had been purely professional and he had no real interest in her, but we all knew better-I because I’ve known him his whole life, and the ladies because they just know these things.  The only person who might not have known that Joe was after Beth was Beth, but I was certain that would change shortly.

As the others introduced themselves, I noticed that Joe made a point of twisting around in his seat to see them and that he favored each of his fellow actors and crew with his dazzling smile.  Some of them were nervous as they stood to speak, but something about Joe’s attention seemed to make it easier for them.  By the time it was Joe’s turn to introduce himself-as if that were necessary-all of them, even the men, were fixated on him, and they applauded him when he was done.  I’d never seen anything like it.  I knew he could turn on the charm with the best of them, but this was something else again.  Something in the pit of my stomach felt uneasy.  If I’d thought he was tough to control before, I had a feeling that I was about to find out just how tough my little brother could be.

* * *

I had been trying to ignore the hilarity coming from the lobby as I rehearsed Juliet’s mother and the nurse, but finally, my patience reached its limit.  “Ladies, a moment, please,” I said with a forced smile.

I strode up the center aisle, through the house doors.  My brother, still giggling, took an epée from Billy Markham, who would play Tybalt, and said, “Okay, let’s try it again.  Hand like so, wrist flexible, sword arm forward, free arm back-and lunge and thrust.”  Even through my annoyance, I had to admit that, in Joe’s hands, the epée looked entirely natural, like an extension of his arm, and his control over it was so complete that it might just as well have been.

“Hey, Adam,” said Matt Berman, our Benvolio.

Joe turned and grinned.  “Hey, Older Brother, help me out for a minute.”  He tossed me Matt’s epée and said over his shoulder, “Now, you all watch.  En garde, brother!”  I barely had time to adjust my grip on the hilt before Joe was coming at me, swift and graceful, barely seeming to touch the ground.  In comparison, I felt heavy and slow, which only added to my irritation.

“All right, all right!”  I held up my hand and put down my weapon.

Joe looked disappointed for a moment, but his customary good nature reasserted itself.  “Okay, Tybalt, let’s try it again.”  He took the epée from me and handed it to Billy.

“And try it more quietly,” I said.  “We’re rehearsing inside.  Joe, I’m going to need you in about five minutes.  And try not to have so much fun dueling with Tybalt.”

“Killjoy,” said Joe.

“Not ‘killjoy.’  Director,” I said, hiding my irritation.  “You’re Romeo.  Tybalt just murdered your best friend.  You’re angry with him.  Think fury.  Think betrayal.  Think revenge.  Think of how much you want to kill him for what he took from you.”

“Hear that, Tybalt?  You’re a dead man!”  Joe assumed a ready position and nodded to Tybalt to do the same.  “En garde!”

Joe lunged, and Tybalt shrank back, dropping the epée.  My brother glanced at me, barely suppressing a grin.  I rolled my eyes and went back inside.

* * *

“All right, let’s try it again.”  I was reaching the end of my patience.  The scene just wasn’t that difficult.  Edwin had given me very specific instructions about blocking, which is simply who stands where and when they move to another place.  True to his advice, I had prepared a set of diagrams showing the placement of the actors on the stage in each scene.  It should have been simple.  On the other hand, Edwin never tried to direct my brother.

For reasons I’ll never understand, Joe seemed to be unable to stand where I told him to.  He had three different marks that he had to hit, and that was all:  downstage right for his first lines, upstage right while Mercutio and Benvolio talked, and center stage left, just under the balcony, for the rest of the scene.  It wasn’t that difficult and yet somehow, he ended up moving when he shouldn’t and not moving when he should, pacing all over the stage and inevitably landing in the wrong spot at the wrong time.  Granted, he’s a restless sort by nature, but his inability-or refusal-to follow my blocking was quickly wearing through my already-limited tolerance.

“Start from downstage right,” I sighed.  Joe rolled his eyes, as if it were he who was being put upon.  I saw Beth try to catch his eye, but he didn’t look up to the balcony.  I waited for the inevitable.  Finally, he said it.

“My right or your right?”

“Your right,” I said through clenched teeth, as if we hadn’t started this scene from precisely the same spot five times in the last half-hour.  At least he seemed to remember that downstage was the front of the stage, closest to the audience, and upstage was the back.  Joe returned to his starting place, and Benvolio and Mercutio-who had somehow congregated at stage left-hustled over to join him.

“No!” I tried not to snap at them.  “Romeo enters first, then moves upstage, and Benvolio and Mercutio come in downstage right, to the exact same spot.  You two don’t see him, and that’s why you’re talking about him, but he’s close enough to hear what you’re saying.”  Joe flipped back a page or so and studied it for a moment.  Apparently satisfying himself that I was telling the truth, he moved to the very edge of the wings.  “Cue!”

Joe strode onto the stage with far too much verve for a man who has just fallen in love with the daughter of his family’s enemy.  I let it pass for the moment.  First things first.  Let him figure out where to stand, and then I’d deal with little details like acting.

“Can I go forward when my heart is here?  Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.”  Joe’s delivery of the lines was actually not bad.  Unfortunately, having spoken, he stood there instead of retiring upstage, and Benvolio and Mercutio nearly ran him down as they barreled onto the stage.

“Damn it, Joe!  Upstage as soon you finish your lines!”  I must have sounded harsher than I intended, because everyone stared at me.

“What’s the problem if I stay here?” Joe demanded.

“If you stay there, Benvolio and Mercutio are going to run you down when they come on,” I snapped.

“So bring them in from someplace else!” Joe retorted.

“Look, I’ve worked out the blocking, and they’re entering from downstage right.  All you have to do is move back about six steps.  Now, is that too much to ask?”

“Adam?” Beth interrupted, her gentle voice cool and calm against the increasingly heated brotherly byplay.

I took a deep breath.  Just what I needed:  Joe’s girl, taking his side.  “Yes, Beth?” I said with slightly exaggerated patience.

“What if Romeo enters from upstage right?  Then, he’s already in place when he speaks, and Benvolio and Mercutio can come in right away without waiting for him to move.”

No one spoke for a long moment.  What she was saying made sense on several levels.  Not only was it less movement for everyone to remember, but it was more logical for the scene.  “Try it, and let me see how it looks,” I said.  Joe glanced up at Beth, who was standing on the balcony, and she nodded.  I bit my lip.  Apparently, direction from the director was no longer good enough for our leading man; he had to have it confirmed by his lady friend.  Joe retreated to the wings.  “Cue!” I called.  He strode onto the stage, still with too much bounce in his step, and delivered his lines.  Immediately, Benvolio and Mercutio entered and began to speak.  Beth was right.  Not only did the scene flow better, but it would be easier for the actors.  When Benvolio and Mercutio exited, before Romeo’s next line, I said, “All right, make a note.  We’re keeping that blocking.  Good suggestion, Beth.”

Beth smiled shyly at me.  “Thank you, Adam,” she said softly.  I thought she was blushing, but I couldn’t see for certain.  Joe winked at her, clearly proud of his girl.

* * *

“How are rehearsals coming?” asked Pa over dinner on Sunday.  It was the first day since we’d started that I didn’t have to rehearse, and I was luxuriating in that fact.  To be honest, I was also luxuriating in my little brother’s absence.  He and Beth had gone for a drive after church, to my everlasting relief.  Working together all day and rehearsing together all night was far more Joe than any man should have to deal with.

“Slowly,” I said.  “We’re having to do a lot of background work.  I don’t think many of them realized that there’s a lot more to this play than the balcony scene.”

“Like what?”  asked Hoss, digging into a mound of mashed potatoes.

“Well, the problem for Romeo and Juliet is that their families have been feuding for so long.  They meet and fall in love without realizing who the other is, and then it’s too late.  They get married, but they still have problems.  Mercutio and Benvolio, who are friends of Romeo’s, get into a quarrel with Tybalt, who is Juliet’s cousin.  Romeo tries to stop it, but Tybalt kills Mercutio, and so Romeo kills Tybalt and has to run.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Hoss through a mouthful of steak.

“But it doesn’t end there,” I said.  I caught Pa’s smile.  I knew I sounded like a teacher now, but that was fine with these two.  If Joe had been here, he’d have been firing off smart remarks and getting in the way.  Enjoying myself, I continued, “Romeo’s been banished for killing Tybalt.  Then, there’s a whole complicated bit where the friar tries to help them work out a way to be together, but it goes wrong.  Juliet drinks a drug that’s supposed to make her look as if she’s dead, but she’s not really dead, but Romeo is told that she did die.  So, he stabs himself and dies next to her, but then she wakes up and sees him dead, and she stabs herself with his dagger.  And after that, the families are reconciled.”

“It don’t sound real cheery to me,” said Hoss skeptically.

“Oh, it’s not,” I said.  “It’s one of the great tragedies in English literature.  It’s also one of the all-time great love stories.”

“Which is why you got Little Joe,” Hoss said.

“Exactly,” I said.  “That, and his dueling prowess.”  I certainly hadn’t cast him because he was such a pleasure to direct.

“And it’s not a problem that he’s apparently taken up with his leading lady?” asked Pa.

“Edwin says it happens all the time,” I shrugged.  “He says that every time he’s played Romeo, he’s had an offstage romance with Juliet that lasts pretty much through the run of the play.  I guess that’s just the way theatre folks are.  Just as long as Joe can stretch it out until the end of the play, we should be fine.”

“That’s kind of a long time for Joe to be sparking one gal,” said Hoss.

“I know,” I admitted.  Therein lay the problem.  We had six weeks until the play opened.  That was long enough for Joe to fall in love at least a dozen times.  I could only hope that, between work and rehearsal, he wouldn’t have the chance to meet anyone else.

“What will you do if he loses interest in this girl before opening night?” asked Pa.

I sighed.  “Pray that he turns out to be a really gifted actor.”

* * *

I galloped into Virginia City in the way I might have expected of Joe, hard and too fast.  I hadn’t expected to be back from Carson City until tomorrow, but Seamus O’Hara had proven to be unexpectedly reasonable about our ability to commit to his requirements for timber.  Pa and I had gone over all the documentation before I left, and I knew our limits, but I’d expected much more of a fight about them from O’Hara’s people.  I wanted to believe that it was my negotiating skills that had carried the day, but I had a sneaking suspicion that O’Hara had accepted our terms for a reason we would one day find to be less palatable.  Still, a deal was a deal, the terms were fair and appropriate, and the ink was dry on the contract in my saddlebag.  If there was something else to worry about later, I was willing to wait for later to arrive.

Much as I hated to admit it, I’d missed being away from rehearsals.  I’d left Monday morning and not expected to return until Friday.  I’d only missed three rehearsals-Thursday’s rehearsal was going on even as I rode in-but it felt as if I’d been away a long time.  I had faith in Sam’s ability to keep things together in my absence, but I doubted that much real progress had been made.  Still, missing three days didn’t leave us with too much ground to make up.  Hopefully, they’d all have their lines memorized by the middle of next week.  According to Edwin’s letter, they should have been off book this week, but he’d overestimated my actors’ ability to handle the language.   Ah, well.  Next week would be soon enough.

I swung off Sport and stopped.  The noise coming from the hall was nothing like a rehearsal.  If anything, it sounded like a church social.  I counted to ten, then twenty.  I knew in my gut what had happened.  Somehow, Joe had wrested control of the rehearsal from Sam, and my carefully-planned schedule had turned into a free-for-all.  I could feel my blood beginning to boil.  Face or no face, Joe was going to answer for this one.

I stopped in the doorway to the hall.  Sure enough, groups of people dotted the space, chattering, with nary a book in sight.  The books, in fact, were neatly stacked along the edge of the stage, as if they were irrelevant.  Joe was onstage with his beloved epée, dueling with Billy.  The whole scene was chaos.

I strode up onstage.  Billy saw me coming from behind Joe and said something.  Joe just laughed.  “Joe!” I barked.  I didn’t care who saw that I was angry.

Billy and Joe stopped fencing.  Joe pushed his hair back off his face and grinned at me.  “Hey, Older Brother!  Welcome back!  How do you like Tybalt here?”

“What the devil is going on here?”  I gestured out into the audience.  “This is supposed to be a rehearsal!  We have less than three weeks until the show!  What have you done with Sam?”

Joe’s grin faded.  I could see his temper flaring, but there was something more.  He almost looked hurt.  “Sam’s sick,” he snapped.  “Has been since Monday.”

“Since Monday?  Who’s been running rehearsals?” I demanded, even though I knew the answer.

Joe met my gaze coldly.  “I have.”

“You call this a rehearsal?  The only people on the stage are you and Billy!  Everybody else is just sitting around!  These people need to rehearse, Joe!  You can’t just leave them to their own devices.  You need to work them!”

“They’ve been working damned hard-”

“So now it’s break time?  I can see how much you’ve been working with them!”  I interrupted.  “Just clear off the stage.  I need to rehearse!”

Joe’s eyes were blazing.  “You just rehearse all you want,” he snapped.  He didn’t even bother pushing past me to get to the stairs at the side of the stage.  He just jumped down from where he stood, epée in hand, and marched up the center aisle, the picture of the misunderstood and unappreciated child.  The hall fell silent as he slammed the door behind him.

“All right, then,” I said, trying to inject some cheer into my voice.  “It’s good to be back.  Can I have everybody for act three, scene five?” The group assembled onstage.

“Adam, where do you want us to start?” asked Beth.  A reasonable question, considering that the scene starts with Romeo and Juliet together, and Romeo had just stormed out.

“Right after Romeo’s exit,” I said.  It seemed fitting.  I settled myself in the third row.  The other groups of people were still talking.  “Can I have some quiet here, please?”  They looked at me and fell silent.  I turned to the group onstage.  “Where are your scripts?”  I asked.

They looked at each other.  “Joe says we’re not allowed to use them anymore,” said Juliet’s mother.

“He says what?”  Joe had them off book?  This fast?

She nodded.  “He’s been making us run lines all week whenever we weren’t onstage.”

“Every time I see him in town, he makes me recite something,” Capulet offered.

“I’ve almost got my part memorized,” announced the nurse.

“So do I,” said Paris, who didn’t have much to say anyway.

“He said we had to be off book by the time you got back,” volunteered Benvolio.  “And I’m almost there, but not quite.  Sorry.  Joe said you wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.  I’d have been ready then.”

I looked around.  The people who were not onstage were nodding.  It dawned on me in that moment that these weren’t random groups sitting around; they were specific clusters of actors in particular scenes.  I wanted to close my eyes and disappear.  What’d I thought was bedlam was nothing more than my little brother showing a level of efficiency that put mine to shame.  Unlike me, Joe doesn’t require quiet to do his best work.  The more chaotic the things are, the better he functions.  It shouldn’t have surprised me that he’d have five different groups working at once in the same room.  If he’s not at a party, he creates one.

“Okay, then, let’s start right after Romeo’s exit,” I said, sitting back.  I turned to the folks sitting around me.  “Keep running lines, but do it quietly.”  I turned most of my attention to the stage.  The rest of my mind wondered if Joe would come back.

He didn’t.

After rehearsal, I headed over to the Bucket of Blood to find my brother.  The place was in full swing, but I saw no sign of Joe.  It wasn’t impossible that he’d headed upstairs with one of the girls, though, so I got myself a beer and sat down to wait.

An hour passed, and no Joe.  Finally, one of the girls sat down at my table.  “You look like a man who could use some cheering up,” she said.  “Why don’t you buy me a drink, and I’ll listen to all your problems.”

I smiled.  I knew that she’d been working here for about a month, but that was all I knew.  Between work and the play, I’d barely had time to stop in.  I had no doubt that Joe knew her name and probably her whole history, even though he’d been just as busy as I was.  Never let it be said that meeting his obligations got in the way of a pretty face.

She got a bottle and a couple of glasses and returned to the table. “I’m Adam Cartwright,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  “I’ve heard all about you.  I’m Marianne.”

“What have you heard?”  I asked.

“That you’re pig-headed and stubborn, and you always think you’re right,” she said, throwing back her whiskey.

“I see my brother’s been here,” I observed.

“Been and gone,” she said, pouring another shot for herself and one for me.  “What’d you two fight about, anyway?”

I chuckled.  “Him being him and me being me,” I said.  “Same song, different day.”  I threw back my shot.

“I like him,” Marianne said.

“All the girls do.”

“Do you like him?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you like him?” she repeated.  “It’s a pretty easy question.”

“He’s my brother,” I said.

“I know that,” she said.  “But do you like him?  I mean, if you weren’t brothers, would you be friends?  It’s okay if you don’t like him.  I have a sister, and I can’t stand her.  She’s nasty and mean-spirited and always used to steal my fellows just to show that she could.  That’s one of the reasons I came out here, to get away from her.  She’s in Baltimore.  I’ll tell you, I felt a whole lot better once we had the Mississippi between us.”  She poured more whiskey.  “But why don’t you like your brother?”

“I didn’t say I don’t like him,” I protested.  “He’s my brother.  Of course I like him.”  As if it were that simple.  He was my brother and I loved him, but I don’t think I’d ever actually considered the question of whether I liked him, whether I’d have him as a friend if he weren’t my brother.  I’d have Hoss as a friend, no question about that.  And Hoss and Joe are best friends, even though they’re like day and night.  But Joe and me . . . that was a whole lot more complicated.

To begin with, there’s the twelve-year age difference and the fact that my role with him has always been part brother and part father.  Especially after his mother died and Pa had such a hard time getting through the day, I was the one who had to keep the kid’s world as normal as possible.  Thank God I had Hoss to help me, but he was still a kid himself, barely eleven years old, and he’d just lost the only mother he’d ever known.  Like it or not, until Pa was back on his feet, Little Joe was my responsibility.

For months after Marie’s accident, I had all I could do to keep up with that apple-cheeked, curly-haired bundle of energy who could turn from laughing to crying to screaming to laughing again, all in the blink of an eye.  In all fairness, Little Joe had a pretty rough time of it, too.  I can’t even count how many times I woke in that first year to find him standing next to my bed, clutching his pillow in one hand with the other resting on my arm and tears glistening in those big green eyes.  Other times, when I’d slept through his attempts to get my attention, I awoke in the morning to find him curled up at the foot of my bed.  Even though the stress of losing his mama had somehow compromised his nighttime bladder control, I could never send him back to his own bed.  I just spent a lot of time doing laundry.

There’s no question that Joe has always kept my life interesting.  I have never met anybody, of any age, who could have so many good intentions and cause such chaos in trying to follow through on them.  I’ll never forget the time when Little Joe was six, and he decided to help Hop Sing cook a special dinner.  Of course, since the kid wasn’t supposed to be in the kitchen when Hop Sing was cooking, that made it a little more challenging, but it didn’t stop my little brother.  No sooner had Hop Sing left the kitchen for a moment than Joe trotted in to start with his part of the meal.  I never found out what he was planning to cook, and I don’t think he even remembers any more.  What he does remember-what we all remember-was Hop Sing’s blood-curdling scream when he came back and saw Joe balancing on tiptoe on the very edge of the stove, with our longest, sharpest knife in hand to extend his reach as he tried to open the top cabinet where Hop Sing kept the special dishes.  Naturally, when Hop Sing screamed, Joe turned too fast, lost his balance, and fell, knife still in hand.  To this day, I don’t know how he avoided killing himself.  The legendary Joe Cartwright luck, I suppose.

What my little brother did instead was to fall in such a way that he put the knife through his forearm-literally, in one side and out the other.  He made a hell of a mess, and an even bigger racket, but he managed not to bleed to death, thanks to Hop Sing.  Joe still has the scars, and I’ve heard him tell admiring young ladies that they are indeed from a knife wound.  He never tells them how it happened-just says that he doesn’t like to talk about it.  The girls are always terribly impressed with his bravery.  It’s clear that they think he was knifed in an Indian attack or a duel or something equally heroic.  I have to wonder how impressed they would be if they knew he was wounded while reaching for a soup tureen.

So, do I like him?  For every trait about my brother that drives me crazy, there’s another that makes me want to keep him around, if only to see what he’s going to do next.  In so many ways, we’re dead opposites-he’s as impulsive as I am contemplative, and he requires socials as much as I require solitude.  The kid throws himself into life like nobody I’ve ever seen, and in all honesty, I sometimes envy him that.  And then, of course, there are the parts where we’re so alike it’s scary-such as our pig-headed stubbornness and our reluctance to admit when we’re wrong.  But still . . . I can’t imagine my world without him, brother or not, and I wouldn’t want to try.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I like him.”

She regarded me for a moment.  “He’s a good man,” she said, as if trying to talk me into liking him.

“I know,” I said.  “I already told you I like him.”

She polished her fingernails against her dress.  “Do you know why all the girls like him?”

As if there were any question.  “Because he’s handsome and charming,” I replied.  Same reasons I’d cast him as Romeo.  He was the same way in real life as in the play.

Marianne shook her head.  “Lots of men are handsome and charming,” she said.  “Your brother is nice to us.  Really nice.  He treats us with respect.  He treats us just the same way he treats those women out there, the ones who walk past us on the street without saying hello.  He asks how we’re doing, and he really wants to know.  He’s not just out for what he can get from us.  He really cares.”

She was right.  I thought back to the first night of rehearsal and the way Joe had responded to each of the cast members.  No wonder they’d all worked their hearts out for him.  It’s another way that we differ:  my focus is on putting on the best possible play, and he’d gladly have a mediocre production and happier actors.  My approach works fine on the trail and at the mill and in the mines, but considering how far the actors had come during my absence, I had to wonder if Joe’s approach might be a little bit better in this very specific context.  Maybe not “better.”  Maybe just-well, more effective in this isolated circumstance.  Or maybe just an appropriate alternate approach that could generate positive results.  In any event, it was something to think about.

I rose.  “It’s been delightful, but I need to be getting home,” I said.  “Very nice meeting you, Marianne.”  Inspired, I lifted her hand to my lips.

She laughed.  “You’re just like your brother!”

I smiled.  For once, I took that as a compliment.

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28 thoughts on “Romeo (by pjb)”

  1. Really fantastic! A fun read, and they work a few things out, too. A good look at Joe in a perspective we don’t normally see (and Adam too, of course 😝).

    Thx for writing!

  2. Brilliantly written. You have the brothers’ relationship so down pat I could hear them and see them in this. Too bad I couldn’t see Joe in tights, but almost. I can’t stop raving about this. It was amazing.

    1. Don’t feel you have to stop on my account! 😉 I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed the story so much, Anne. Thanks so much for your wonderful comments!

  3. I adore this story and have read it many times. Adam under the influence is hysterical and absolutely in character. It is a marvelous story about brothers finally learning to appreciate each other.

  4. Wow! What a LOL funny story! Perfect story. I loved the humor, Adam discovering who his little brother really is and his coming to terms with his old fallibilities. The fight scene played in my mind as I read it. PJB, I miss your stories. I hope you write a new one soon.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, kima09! I haven’t been writing a lot of Bonanza stories lately, because I’ve been focusing more on some original pieces, but I do slip in the occasional visit to the Ponderosa. Thanks for letting me know you enjoy my stories!

  5. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this story. I can’t find fault or flaw – it’s perfect! I can’t say how many times I’ve read Romeo over the years because – it’s perfect! I’ve never read Shakespeare nor do I plan to in the future, but I’ll read this story again and again. Well done!

    1. What lovely comments from such an accomplished writer! Thanks so much, Pat! I never set out to write about Shakespeare, but this story and R&J just sort of fell into each other. (This story line would never have worked with Macbeth or Hamlet – it had to be R&J.) If you have a little extra time, R&J is worth the read on its own – and not just because as you read it, you can picture Joe in those moss-green tights. 😉

  6. love the story in fact I enjoyed it so much I read twice, you portrait both Adam and Joe perfectly just as I think of them. its just so funny but in the end Adam realizes that little Joe may be better than him this time

    1. You read it twice- wow! What a terrific compliment. Thanks so much, Adam31845! I don’t know if Adam would agree that Joe was “better” exactly – maybe “unique” or “excellent in his own way.” 😉 So glad you enjoyed the story – thanks for letting me know!

  7. That was absolutely hilarious! I loved your insight into what makes both brothers tick. You’ve clearly been in the theatre to make this flow so effortlessly and I could see the duel scene playing out beautifully. I was once watching a small theatre production where two “keystone cop” characters accidentally rode kids scooters off the stage into the orchestra pit and then climbed back up onstage and behaved as though it was all scripted. Your scene reminded me of this. Thank you for a totally fun read – and Beth could be forgiven for being torn between the two of them.

    1. Questfan, thanks so much for such marvelous comments! I did spend some time in the theater long ago, but fortunately, I never had to direct a duel like the one Adam and Joe did. (For what it’s worth – writing this story was much more fun than directing a play ever was!) So glad you enjoyed it!

  8. Love this story more than I can tell you!! Adam and Joe stories are my favorite! You captured their personalities perfectly! I could literally picture this being an episode as I read it! Excellent job!! Thanks for such a wonderful story!!

  9. Oh loved this !
    So so funny ! I should have been sleeping ages ago but couldn’t stop reading.
    Just love the banter of these two

  10. Bravo! Bravo!!! I felt sorry for Adam, and the fact it was a few of the town’s people who made him rethink his perceptions. But hadn’t Ben tried the same for years?

    And the fight scene!!! Perfect!!! Perfect!!! Perfect!!! Joe was characterized Perfectly! I think they just might be bound for Off-Broadway. New York City here they come!

  11. I’d forgotten what a great comedy this story is and what fun it is to read the antics of both Cartwright brothers. This is one of the best stories out there that shows Joe and Adam’s true colors. Well done!

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