Summary: This is the sequel to “The French Piano Player.” Joe’s return to the Ponderosa proves to be more difficult than he or his family expected, to the point where questions arise as to whether he can stay on the Ponderosa, or whether he will go back to his life as a piano player in San Francisco.
Rated: T WC 26,000
The French Piano Player Series:
Be Still, My Soul
Morning. Bright, sunny morning. Invasive morning. Light that penetrated the draperies, his eyelids, and his consciousness. Joe wrapped his pillow around his head and turned away from the window. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the sunrise, except on his way to bed. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Mornings were definitely overrated.
He heard noises in the hallway. Hoss, trying to walk quietly so as not to waken him. Bless Hoss. Who else would have been so concerned about letting him sleep? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard them talking, didn’t know how his father and brothers felt. He’d overheard Adam’s comments about his pulling his own weight. He wasn’t pulling his weight; Adam was right, and he knew it. Once, he’d have moved heaven and earth to prove Adam wrong. Now, he just couldn’t figure out a way to make himself care enough.
It had been nearly a month since he’d returned to the Ponderosa, and he still didn’t feel as if he were home. Home was with Robin, in a cheap rented room on the third floor of a San Francisco tenement.
Except that Robin was dead. And he was here.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t missed his father and brothers. For the entire two years that he’d been gone, not a day had gone by that he hadn’t thought of them, missed them, loved them. What he hadn’t bargained on, though, was what it would take to get back to them. In the end, it had cost him everything.
His memories of his brothers’ rescue mission were vague. Most of what he knew was reconstructed from other people’s accounts. It was no exaggeration to say that he’d been near death when Hoss had appeared before him, as if in a dream. Adam and a doctor had arrived moments later, and they’d swept him off to the hospital where he’d reconnected with his father and had endured withdrawal from alcohol. Only later did he discover that the only item his brothers had considered worthy to take with them from his room was the picture of his mother. Everything else—Robin’s blue scarf, the combs she’d used to secure her silky dark hair, the journal she would never let him read—all of this had apparently been deemed worthless. By the time he was able to go back, the landlord had cleaned out the room, and all their meager possessions had been thrown away. Even Judith, who had first been Robin’s best friend and, after her death, his own lover, had saved nothing.
He was back on the Ponderosa now. Everything should have been fine. Somehow, though, the ranch didn’t seem to fit him anymore. It made no sense. He was born in this house, he’d grown up here, and he had always loved everything about living on the ranch. Until Robin, he’d never thought of living anywhere else. The whole time they’d lived in San Francisco, he’d been homesick for the Ponderosa as well as his family. Except for that one day when they’d rented a buggy and driven out into the countryside, he’d gone two years without ever feeling the rough leather of reins in his hands or the power of a horse at his command. He’d been so happy that day. He’d missed the beauty and grandeur of this land. For a long time, he’d compared the bustle and noise and stench of the city to the purity, the majesty, the peace of the Ponderosa. When he’d played the piano, he’d tried to recreate in music the sounds and feeling of being here.
And now that he was here, it was like wearing another man’s boots. Even though the boots were made of the finest materials and fashioned by the most skilled craftsman, they just didn’t fit.
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. “Joseph?”
“Yeah, Pa, I’m up.” The door opened, and Ben raised his eyebrows at the sight of his youngest son, still lying in bed. “Okay, I’m getting up,” Joe admitted, grinning.
Ben chuckled. A part of him would have been content just to close the door and leave Joe to sleep as late as he wanted. Two years of having this room stand empty had worked a toll on him that he still didn’t fully appreciate. He knew that he was treating Joe with kid gloves; even if he hadn’t seen it himself, Adam’s comments left no room for question. “Pa, he’s not going anywhere,” Adam had said recently. “It’s okay to expect him to do what he can, to pull his weight.” But Ben remained cautious, lest he again step over the line and drive his son away, perhaps for good this time.
He had thought the issue settled. Father and son had talked for hours as Joe convalesced in the hospital and later, in the little house on Hudson Street where they’d lived until Joe was strong enough to travel back to the Ponderosa. Both had admitted fault and asked forgiveness, and both had forgiven. And so Ben was surprised to find that, back in the familiar surroundings, the relationship was not as easy as it had been in San Francisco. The connections that had seemed so solid felt looser here, almost wobbly at times.
Just yesterday, Ben watched through the window as his youngest son repaired a harness. It was a simple task, one Joe had done more times than he could count, and yet the boy seemed to be challenged by it. He started to fit the pieces together, then stopped and undid what he’d done, and started again. More than once, and for no apparent reason, Joe’s hands stilled, and he looked off into the distance as if seeing someone who was no longer there. Then, he shook his head quickly and returned his attention to the job at hand, brow furrowed. Ben drew back from the window, troubled. On Hudson Street, he’d have gone out immediately and sat with his son, and they’d have talked about it. Now, Ben found himself afraid, as if one wrong word would send the boy back to San Francisco, or off to parts unknown.
Ben came out of his reverie to see Joe watching him carefully. The boyish grin had faded as Joe studied his father. Their intense time together in San Francisco, just the two of them, without the distractions of running the ranch, had enhanced and strengthened the bond that had always existed. As he’d matured in these two years, Joe had also grown more perceptive. The result, Ben realized ruefully, was that he could no longer evade the scrutiny of his youngest son.
“What’s the matter, Pa?”
Ben smiled. “Nothing,” he said. “Just—come down to breakfast when you’re ready.” He pulled the door closed behind him before Joe could inquire further.
The others were well into their breakfast when Joe came down the stairs. “Hey, Little Brother!” Hoss’ delight at seeing him every morning never seemed to fade. “What’re you doin’ up so early?” Joe’s dislike of early hours had been well established since his childhood.
“I heard a rumor that people get up really early around here, so I thought I’d see if it was true,” said Joe, sliding into his seat. He looked around, grinning. “Now that that’s settled, I don’t expect to be doin’ this again. But don’t worry, Older Brother,” he added, waving his coffee cup at Adam. “I promise I’ll be up by lunchtime tomorrow, no matter what.”
“You have no idea how that sets my mind at ease,” Adam said. “Eggs?” He offered the platter.
Joe shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “Just coffee’s fine.”
Hoss frowned. The kid was still way too skinny. When they’d found him last fall, there’d been nearly nothing left of him, and there wasn’t much more now. “You gotta eat somethin’,” he said. “Strong wind’s gonna blow you right away.”
“I never eat in the morning,” said Joe, refilling his cup.
The table fell silent. Before he’d left with Robin, Joe had always eaten a normal breakfast, just like the rest of them. Apparently, this habit had changed in San Francisco. Whether it was the result of working nights as a saloon piano player or simply being too hung over in the morning to eat, no one was willing to ask.
Before the silence could become too long and awkward, Ben said, “I’ve got to head into town this morning. What do you boys have on for today?”
“Hoss and I were going to head up to the north pasture to fix the rest of the fences,” said Adam. “We figure it’s about a day, maybe a day and a half, to finish.”
“I could come, too,” Joe said. “Then we’d be sure to finish in a day.” Maybe getting out and working with his brothers would help him to feel more like he was home. Ever since he was a kid, going off to mend fences was a regular part of his routine. Sometimes, he’d worked alone, with nothing in his mind but what he was doing at that moment. More often, he’d worked with Adam or Hoss, and talk flowed as easy as a stream in early summer, the way it could when men didn’t have to look right at each other. Being in the house was too intense. Maybe out there, they could relax a little.
“You sure you’re up for that?” asked Ben uneasily. Doc Martin had said that Joe still needed to take it easy. They hadn’t discussed the details with Joe, but even he knew that strenuous labor, like digging post holes, was beyond him at this point. There were things that he could do to help mend fences that weren’t all that demanding, but still. . . .
“It’s not that hard,” said Joe. He looked from his father to his brothers. Nobody was going to override Pa. They didn’t even look like they wanted to. “I still remember how to fix a fence,” he said, trying to hide his irritation. Maybe they just wanted to be out there on their own, without him. Without the one they’d had to cover for, search for, rescue. The troublemaker. He felt his face growing hot.
“Nobody’s sayin’ you don’t,” said Hoss, ever the peacemaker. “It’s just—well, you think you’re ready? You been pretty sick.”
“You mean pretty drunk, don’t you?” Joe threw down his napkin and shoved back his chair. “I’m never gonna live this down, am I? Take a good look, folks, here he is: the family drunk!” He started to storm out of the room.
Ben’s sharp voice stopped him in his tracks. Joe took a deep breath and turned around. To Hoss, he said, “I’m sorry, Brother. I know what you meant.” To Ben and Adam, he added, “I’m sorry. I—I’m sorry.” He turned, grabbed his jacket, and headed outside.
The others sat in silence for a long minute. Finally, Adam said, “Well, I, for one, am so glad our young brother made a point of getting up to join us for breakfast.”
“That’s enough, Adam,” said Ben wearily. Joe had always had a short temper, but these days, it flared without warning, like a sudden summer storm, blowing over just as quickly. “You two do the fences,” he added. “Joe can go into town with me.”
“Pa, he jest wants—” Hoss began.
“I know what he wants,” said Ben. Joe wanted things to be back to normal. So did his family. “But he’s not doing anything until Doc Martin says it’s okay, and I doubt the doctor will approve your brother to be out mending fences right now.” He drained his coffee cup. “I’ll see you two tonight.”
He found Joe in the barn, untangling the harness that had fallen from its hook. He watched a moment as Joe worked the leather straps. “Your brother didn’t mean anything,” he said finally. “And neither did I. We’re just concerned about you.”
“I know.” Joe didn’t look up from the harness.
“I’d like you to go into town with me today,” said Ben. “You haven’t seen Doc Martin in nearly two weeks.”
This time, Joe looked up. “I’m doin’ fine,” he said with the slightest touch of belligerence. “I am,” he added, catching his father’s expression.
“Then it won’t hurt to have Doc Martin take a look at you,” said Ben. “And if he says you’re up to heavier work, then fine. You can do whatever he says.” And if, as Ben expected, the doctor said he couldn’t do anything heavier—well, at least Joe wouldn’t blame his father.
Two hours later, Joe sat in Doc Martin’s office, buttoning his shirt. “Well?” he demanded. “How am I?”
“You’re coming along,” said Doc Martin. He scribbled on the paper where he’d recorded Joe’s recent visits. “Are you eating better?”
“I’m eating fine,” said Joe.
“If I asked your father, what would he say?”
Joe snorted. “Pa doesn’t think Hoss eats enough.”
The doctor smiled. “You’re probably right, but Hoss isn’t my patient right now,” he said. “And if you don’t eat, you’re not going to get stronger.” He made another note. “I’d like to see you in a week.”
“A week? It was two last time!”
Doc Martin consulted his notes. “So it was,” he agreed. “Let’s do one week this time anyway. A lot more rest, no work. Three full meals a day. No alcohol.”
“No work? Not even what I’ve been doing?”
“You’re doing too much,” said the doctor. “Let’s try a complete break for a week and see what happens.”
“But you said I was getting better!”
“I said you were coming along,” said the doctor. “But you’re not well yet. Joe, I’m not sure you understand just how seriously ill you were. Your doctor in San Francisco had pretty much given you up for dead when the hospital admitted you. From what I’ve read in his notes, that was a pretty reasonable view. As far as I can tell, if Adam and Hoss hadn’t found you when they did, it would probably have been too late—and I mean, if they’d come by a day or two later. You did quite a job on yourself, and you did it for an entire year. The fact that you’re alive at all is nothing short of a miracle. You need to give yourself a decent rest in order to recover. The human body isn’t built to endure what you did to it.”
“So, this is all my fault,” said Joe, tucking in his shirttail. Was there anyone who wasn’t blaming him?
“Not all,” said the doctor. “Different people handle loss differently. Yours hit you harder than some, I don’t know why. You’re the one who poured the whiskey down your throat, and for that, yes, you’re responsible. But how your body handled it—everybody’s different. Some men could have drunk as much as you did or more and survived, and others wouldn’t have lasted a month at that rate. There’s only so much a man can do about that. So yes, it’s partly your fault, but only partly, so stop feeling so guilty about it.”
Joe was startled. “I don’t—” The doctor raised an eyebrow, and Joe broke off. “How did you know?” he asked finally.
“I brought you into this world,” said Doc Martin. “I think I know you pretty well by now. You’ve always been one to blame yourself, whether you should or not.”
Joe said nothing for a long moment. Finally, he admitted, “I need to get back to work. Even if it’s just fixing fences, and stuff like that. I need to be out there working with Adam and Hoss.” I need to pull my weight, he wanted to say. I need to make up for what I did to my family. I need to know if I can still be here. I need to know if the Ponderosa is still my home.
“What you need is to be resting and taking care of yourself,” said the doctor. The young man looked unconvinced. He was going to need the whole truth. “Joe, I’m hearing something in your chest that I don’t like. I’m hoping it’s nothing and that it’ll clear on its own. That’s why you need to take it easy and take better care of yourself.”
“In my chest?”
“Your heart,” admitted Doc Martin. “The rhythm’s not right. I don’t know if it’ll correct itself or not, but I’m hoping. You can help by not exerting yourself.”
“And it’s just happening now?” This didn’t make sense.
“It’s been there since you came home,” said the doctor. “Probably a long time before then, if the truth be known. I didn’t mention it before, because as long as you were still in bed, there was a chance it would clear without my having to worry you. I’m telling you now because I have a feeling that, if I don’t, you’ll be out at the corral with the broncs.”
Joe thought for a moment. “Does Pa know?” Doc nodded. “But you didn’t tell me. . . ?”
“Maybe we were wrong not to,” admitted the doctor. “It was a judgment call, based on your condition at the time.”
“Whose idea was it not to tell me?”
The doctor hesitated. “It doesn’t matter,” he said finally. “Your father and I agreed.”
“It was his idea.” It wasn’t a question.
“As a physician, I agreed with him,” said the doctor firmly.
Joe shook his head. In the end, there it was—Pa and the doctor, two old friends, against the kid. The doctor was right. It didn’t matter. He knew what was really wrong with his heart. He’d heard of people dying of a broken heart. He’d just never believed before that it was possible.
He returned to the primary issue. “You said ‘rest’. But I don’t have to stay in bed or anything like that?”
“Bedrest would be ideal, but I know you,” said the doctor, relieved at the change of focus. “So I’ll settle for telling you to rest for now, and we’ll see how that goes. If it doesn’t improve, though, bedrest will be the next step.”
The jangle of the bell on the door heralded Ben’s arrival. As he entered the doctor’s office, he saw his son and the doctor coming out of the examining room. Both looked somber. “Is everything all right?”
Doc and Joe exchanged glances, and Joe nodded. As the doctor explained his concerns and instructions, Joe looked at the floor, out the window, and everywhere except at his father. As if he hadn’t put his family through enough already, he reflected. He was back, but he might just as well not be, for all the use he was. A thought occurred to him. “I’m gonna be okay, aren’t I?” he asked.
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” said the doctor.
Aiming for. If there was one thing Joe Cartwright knew, it was that you didn’t always hit what you were aiming for.
* * * * * * * * * *
March was coming in like a lion this year. By the time Joe and Ben had reached the house, the winds had picked up, and a mix of snow and rain was beginning to swirl around them. Hoss and Adam appeared hours later, drenched and shivering. Privately, Ben congratulated himself on having forbidden his youngest son to go with them. No point in asking for trouble.
After dinner, the family gathered around the fire. As Ben watched Joe and Hoss playing checkers and Adam tuning his guitar, his heart was full. Adam caught Ben’s eye and nodded slightly, a small, private smile playing on his lips. He knew what it meant to his father to have them all home again. He hadn’t realized just what a hole Joe’s absence had left until the kid returned. Finding him had required long hours, lots of travel, a fair bit of money, and a wagonload of luck—or grace, as his father called it. Other things—even important things—had gone unattended to, while Hoss and Adam searched for their brother like a pair of detectives in one of Joe’s dime novels. But now, they were together again, and life could return to normal.
Adam plucked the strings of his guitar and launched into one of his favorite songs, “Early One Morning.” Halfway through the first verse, he realized that Joe was stifling a giggle. Perturbed, he stopped. “May I ask what is so funny?” he inquired archly.
As soon as Adam stopped singing, Joe stopped stifling, and he roared with laughter. It was the first time since they’d found him in San Francisco that anyone had heard him laugh. “Sorry, Older Brother,” Joe said finally, wiping his eyes. “It’s just—no, don’t worry, just keep singing.” He tried to choke back the laughter, but it burst forth like a river that would not be dammed up.
“What in tarnation is so funny?” Hoss was so tickled to hear his little brother’s laughter that he was joining in without even knowing the joke.
Joe laughed so hard that he started coughing. He reached past Hoss for the teacup sitting on the coffee table. The habit he’d developed on Hudson Street of a nightly cup of tea had stuck. He sipped the tea to relieve the coughing and sat back, still chuckling.
“Okay, it’s nothin’ personal, Adam,” Joe began.
“Nothing personal that you’re laughing at my singing?”
“It’s not you,” Joe said. “It’s the song. Robin really hated that song.”
“And that’s funny?” Ben didn’t understand the joke.
“Not that, but—you know how things go. It’s a saloon song, and sooner or later, somebody’d always ask her to sing it. Well, every now and again, if she hadn’t had to sing it in a while, I’d get somebody to ask for it, just to liven things up. We always had fun watching her try to hide how much she just didn’t want to sing it. Ruthie or Eileen’d tell some sailor that they just loved that song, and—well, you know how sailors are. They’ll do pretty much anything if they think it’ll get them upstairs for an hour. Not you, Pa,” he added hastily. If his father’s youthful seafaring days had ever included behavior like that have the sailors who’d docked in their port, he preferred not to know about it. “But the ones in San Francisco. So, the girls’d say they wanted to hear the song, and the sailors would ask for it, and Robin would have to sing it.
“Well, eventually, she figured out what was going on. So, when they’d ask for it, she’d say that she didn’t know the words. But one time, there was this cardsharp who asked for the song. It wasn’t a setup—the guy really wanted to hear it—but Robin thought it was my doing and she wasn’t gonna sing it. So, she just says she doesn’t know the words and does he want to hear something else. The guy gets up, strolls over to the piano, and stuffs a fifty-dollar bill in our glass and says, ‘Are you sure you can’t remember the words?’ Fifty dollars—that was a whole month’s worth of tips, right there. And Robin looks up at him, all five-foot-nothin’ of her, and he had to be as tall as Hoss, and she gives him that smile she had that could just light up a room, and she says, ‘For that, I can remember both verses.’”
”Both’? That song has four or five verses,” said Adam.
“Actually, I’ve heard as many as seven,” said Joe. “And for fifty dollars, I’d have played all seven verses, and I’d have done it with a smile. But this guy got two verses for fifty bucks, and Robin gave such a performance that he was happy about it!” He sipped his tea, chuckling. “I always wondered if the guy might have thought his money was buying him something else, but as soon as the song was over, we went on break, and I made damned sure he knew that Robin was my wife.” His eyes clouded for a moment, then cleared. “And she got that fifty out of the glass real fast and slipped it to me for safekeeping. We ended up splitting it with Ruthie, because she kept the guy distracted for a while after that, just to make sure he didn’t change his mind.” He sat back, smiling. “Those were good times,” he said reflectively. “Didn’t have two nickels to rub together some days, but damn, we had fun.” He drained his teacup. “Hey, Hoss, it’s your move.”
“What? Oh, okay.” Hoss turned his attention to the checkerboard. Joe chuckled softly, remembering. He didn’t notice the troubled expression in Ben’s eyes or the look Adam shot his father.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe’s hands flew over the keyboard. He’d never played so well. The notes sparkled, clear and pure, precise and elegant. His left hand maintained a rich, full bass as his right fashioned a delicate filigree that rang like crystal. The beautiful woman stood in the curve of the grand piano. Her dark hair shone in the stage lights of the concert hall. Her blue silk dress molded her impeccable figure. He nodded, and she opened her mouth to sing.
Just as she began to sing, shots came from the audience. “Get down!” he yelled. He couldn’t move from the piano bench. She continued to stand by the piano. She kept singing, and he kept playing. “Get down!” he yelled again. Bullets struck her. Bright red blood poured down her sapphire dress. Still, she kept singing and he kept playing. “You have to stop!” he shouted over the gunshots, her singing, and his inexplicable piano playing. Bullets continued to fly. He saw one, curiously slow, making its way toward her. It hit her forehead, and blood gushed forth. Finally, she closed her eyes and her mouth.
“Robin!” he screamed, lunging for her as she fell.
“Joe! Joseph! Wake up, son. It’s just a dream.”
Joe opened his eyes. His father sat on the bed beside him, shaking his shoulder. Why was his father in their room? Where was Robin? “Where is she? Is she all right?” He floundered to a sitting position, trying to catch his breath, oblivious to the tears running down his cheeks.
“It was a dream, son,” Ben said gently, holding him steady. Joe had had these nightmares regularly on Hudson Street, but this was the first time since he’d come home.
The door opened, and Adam and Hoss came in. “You okay, Little Brother?” asked Hoss.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” said Joe. He knew where he was now. More important, he knew who lived here—and who didn’t. He drew a deep breath to brace himself against the inevitable wave of grief that washed over him every time he woke from a dream to find her gone. He ran his hand through his hair to buy a moment. With only a slight quaver in his voice, he said, “Sorry to wake everybody.” He wiped the wetness from his face with a corner of the sheet.
“You want something to drink?” asked Adam.
“Oh, God, yes,” said Joe. At this moment, he’d gladly trade his hard-won health and sobriety for the oblivion that comes in a bottle.
Ben’s head snapped around to glare at his eldest son. Adam bit his lower lip. “I meant water or tea, or something like that,” he clarified.
“Oh,” said Joe, caught. A man’s habits don’t change overnight. “Tea sounds good,” he lied. He moved to get out of bed.
“Stay there, I’ll bring it up,” said Adam.
Joe opened his mouth as if to argue. After a moment, he said, “Thanks, Brother.”
After Adam and Hoss had gone downstairs, Ben asked quietly, “Which one was it?”
“The concert hall,” said Joe. There were four different settings for the dream—a concert hall, a saloon, someone’s living room, and a meadow—but the events were always the same. No matter what he said in the dream, Robin kept singing until the last bullet struck.
“I told her to stay down,” Joe said, as if he hadn’t told his father the story dozens of times already. “But when she saw I was hit, she came to me. If she’d stayed where she was, she’d have been safe.”
“I know,” said Ben. He still remembered how Inger had handed baby Hoss to Adam and grabbed a rifle. If she had stayed in the corner with the boys, the way he’d said to, the arrow wouldn’t have killed her.
“You’re the only one who does,” Joe said. “If only she’d listened . . . .” Tears welled up again, and Ben handed him a handkerchief.
They sat in silence until Adam and Hoss returned with the tea. “Thanks,” said Joe, accepting the cup. He leaned back against the pillows his father had propped up and sipped. “Is this one of Hop Sing’s herb teas?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Hoss. “I think it’s the one that’s supposed to help you sleep.”
“You think?” Joe raised his eyebrows.
“Well, if we’re wrong, I guess we’ll know soon enough,” said Adam.
“I guess we will,” Joe said, forcing a smile. Nothing was going to make him feel better, but he loved them for trying.
The next morning, Joe awoke to overcast skies. It was impossible to tell the time. He’d fallen asleep after drinking the tea, with his father still by his side. This time, his sleep had been deep and blessedly dreamless.
He listened and heard nothing. No footsteps, no voices. He threw back the covers and fumbled for his dressing gown. It couldn’t be too early for everyone to be up; even with the cloud cover, there was too much light. He opened the door and listened. Still nothing. He padded down the hall to the top of the stairs.
Ben was seated at his desk, surrounded by papers. He seemed utterly content as he made notes on a document. Neither Adam nor Hoss was anywhere to be seen.
Ben looked up, smiling broadly. “Morning, son,” he said.
“What time is it?”
“Almost ten.” Ben laid down his pen and rose. “Did you sleep well?”
“Almost ten?” Joe was incredulous. “Why did you let me sleep so late?”
“Obviously, you needed to,” said his father matter-of-factly.
“But Pa—” Joe didn’t even know what to say. This was beyond strange. Granted, Doc Martin had said that he needed to rest, but sleeping until ten o’clock was just unheard-of on a working ranch. The only times he’d ever slept that late were when he was truly sick.
“Why don’t you go on back to bed? I’ll have Hop Sing bring up a tray for you.”
“Because I’m not sick!” What was going on? He’d heard everything the doctor had told his father. There couldn’t possibly be any more secrets. “Pa, Doc just said I need to rest. He didn’t say I had to stay in bed.”
“But you’ll rest better in bed,” said Ben. His casual manner belied his own anxiety. If rest was good, bedrest was better. “Besides, Doc said you’re not to be working, so there’s no reason for you to be up.”
“That doesn’t even make sense! Pa, I’m fine. He just doesn’t want me to do anything strenuous. So, I’m not busting broncs or digging post holes or herding cattle. It doesn’t mean I have to spend the next week in bed!”
“Joseph, you need to rest, and I think you should do it in bed.” Ben’s pleasant tone was slipping. He didn’t want to upset the boy—that couldn’t be good for his heart—but he wasn’t going to brook any interference, either.
“But there’s no need! I’m going to get dressed, and I’m going to come downstairs, just like a normal, healthy person.” This was ridiculous. What was his father trying to do? He was a grown man, and he could decide for himself whether he needed to be in bed.
“But you’re not a healthy person! There’s something wrong with your heart, and I’m not taking any chances with that!”
“Neither am I!” shouted Joe.
The front door opened, and Adam walked in. At the sight of Joe in his dressing gown, he asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” said Joe emphatically.
“No,” said Ben at the same time.
Adam looked from one to the other. “Okay,” he said slowly.
“I’m fine,” said Joe, glaring at his father.
“He’s going back to bed,” said Ben, ignoring his son’s anger.
“There’s no reason for me to be in bed,” said Joe. “What?” he demanded as Adam shook his head, grinning.
“I seem to remember this conversation from somewhere,” Adam said. “I think you might have been seven at the time.”
“Adam!” snapped Ben.
“Pa, he’s a grown man,” said Adam. “If he needs to be in bed, he’ll go to bed.”
“Thank you, Older Brother,” said Joe. He turned on his heel and headed back to his room to dress.
“And if that’s settled, I could use a hand in the barn when you’re ready,” Adam called after him.
“He’s not to be working,” said Ben.
“It’s nothing physical,” said Adam. “I’m just rearranging some things, and I could use an opinion.” Once he was sure Joe was out of earshot, he said quietly, “You’ve got to give him some breathing space, Pa.”
“He doesn’t need breathing space,” said Ben. “He needs a heart that works properly. Doc seems to think that resting will help, so I’m going to see that he rests if I have to sit on him.”
“He can have both,” said Adam. “Look, Pa, I’m no expert on any of this, but you know as well as I do that something’s just not right—and it’s not his heart,” he added as Ben opened his mouth to interrupt. “I know you’ve noticed it. Last night, when he was talking about Robin and that song—that’s the first time since he’s been back that he’s shown any enthusiasm about anything. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it had nothing to do with us or the Ponderosa. Now, I don’t know the answer, but I just don’t think that leaving him upstairs in bed, by himself all day, is it. Even if he just sits out in the barn with me and never lifts a finger, it’s got to be better for him than lying in bed, doing nothing except thinking about Robin.”
Ben considered this for a long moment. Finally, he met his eldest son’s eyes. “I can’t lose him again,” he whispered. “I just can’t take that chance.”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” said Adam softly. “I’ll take good care of him.” He stepped back as Joe bounded down the stairs.
“See you later, Pa,” said Joe cheerfully, grabbing his jacket.
Ben nodded, not trusting his voice.
* * * * * * * * * *
“So, this is what I was thinking,” said Adam with uncharacteristic cheer. “If we move the tack over here, and store the tools over there—”
“Adam?” Joe interrupted.
“Exactly how stupid do you think I am?”
Adam started to make an excuse to keep up the façade, but he stopped himself before the first word. “I don’t think you’re stupid,” he said.
“But you think Pa is?”
Adam shook his head. He pulled up a stool and sat facing his brother, who was seated on the feed box. “I thought you might want a break from being under his thumb, that’s all,” he said. “I didn’t put it to Pa quite that way, but close.”
For a long moment, Joe looked down at his boots. When he met Adam’s gaze, the younger man’s eyes were dark with misery. Adam moved closer to his brother. “Talk to me,” he said softly.
Joe opened his mouth, but no sound issued. He closed his eyes against the tears that threatened. “I don’t know what to do,” he said at last.
“About anything,” confessed Joe. “It’s like all the answers are locked up in a box, but nobody knows where the key is.” He met Adam’s gaze, and Adam saw the flames of a distant agony lingering in his brother’s eyes. “I didn’t mean for things to turn out like this. Nobody sets out to become a drunk. But after Robin died, it just hurt too much. Such a damned coward. Pa could handle losing three wives, but I couldn’t handle losing one. Whiskey numbed me enough that I could survive.” He closed his eyes again. “I almost didn’t play anymore.”
“Playing made me feel,” Joe said. “At first, it was so hard, and that’s when I really started drinking. Then, playing became the only thing I could do. It was a way to keep Robin with me, especially when I played our songs. When I’d stop, I’d lose her all over again, and I had to be drunk to survive losing her every night. I couldn’t stop playing until I was so far gone I could hardly stand up. Otherwise, I’d feel it.”
“Have you played since you got out of the hospital?” asked Adam.
“I tried, once,” said Joe. “Just before you and Hoss came for Christmas. Pa went with me to the Singing Dove. I had to see the place one more time. It was so different, though. Maybe it was because I wasn’t used to seeing it in the daytime, or sober. The only times I was there in the daytime were when Robin was rehearsing. I tried to play that day, but it was like I’d never touched a piano before. There was nothing—no life, no imagination, nothing. Pa didn’t know the difference—at least, if he did, he didn’t say anything. But I knew.”
“So you came home,” said Adam.
Joe had the grace to look ashamed. “It wasn’t just that,” he said. “I really did want to be back here with you all. I thought I could have my old life back. I thought I could be the old Joe. I even thought I could live without the piano, whiskey, Robin. But it’s like my old self isn’t here anymore. I don’t know where he is.” He met Adam’s eyes again. The flame intensified. “And I can’t even go looking for him because of what I’ve done to myself. Drinking too much messes up your heart. Did you know that? Talk about shooting myself in the foot. Do you know Pa wouldn’t even let me ride Cochise into town yesterday? We had to take the buckboard—too much exertion to ride. I haven’t been in a saddle since the day I got married.” Tears welled up in the hazel eyes. Adam reached out and rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder. As the sobs began to shake the slender frame, Adam moved from the stool to sit beside Joe on the feed box, his arms around his brother. It had been a long time since Joe had turned to him for comfort.
“You’ve only been back for a few weeks,” Adam murmured. “Give yourself some time. Everything’ll work out somehow.” He held his brother close, praying that he was right.
* * * * * * * * * *
The week passed with glacial slowness. When he’d come in from the barn, Joe had returned to his bed as if exhausted. Ben felt slightly triumphant; clearly, he’d been right. The boy needed more rest than he thought. Granted, in the past, they’d practically had to force Joe to stay when he was ill. Only on the most superficial level did the notion that he might voluntarily agree to bedrest make any sort of sense. Still, Ben accepted it, pushing out of his mind the tiny suspicion that something else might be brewing.
Joe lay in bed, awake and silent. When someone came to his room, he would rouse himself to speak, but when he was alone, he neither read nor slept. Instead, his mind journeyed back to the brief, sweet days of his marriage.
* * * * * * * * * *
“I have an idea,” Robin whispered, kissing Joe’s earlobe.
“You’re gonna have to give me a few more minutes,” grinned Joe as his breathing returned to normal. One of the advantages to working nights was having long, lazy mornings in which to make love. The wind and the early spring rain swirled outside their windows. The dingy little room felt positively cozy.
“I didn’t mean that,” she giggled, snuggling against him. “I was thinking of something else.”
“Whatever it is, we can’t afford it, so I guess we’ll just have to stay right here,” Joe murmured. Robin once joked that lovemaking was the only form of entertainment their meager budget would allow.
“I think we probably can afford it, if we start planning now.” She twisted his curls around her fingers. “I always wanted curly hair,” she said wistfully. “Mine always went straight as string, no matter what I did to it.”
“Preacher said when we got married that the two of us became one,” Joe reminded her. “So, Mrs. DeMarigny, that means this is your hair, too.” He kissed her sleepily. “Just as long as you don’t want to dye it or something.”
“Drat,” she said. “And I was so looking forward to having bright red curls.”
“That was your idea?” Joe raised an eyebrow.
“No, darling, I had a different idea,” she said. “You have a birthday coming up at the end of October.” She paused. “And you’ll be twenty-one.”
“Looking forward to the day you won’t be a cradle robber any more?” he teased.
“You know, ‘Little Joe’—” she began with mock severity.
“Okay, okay,” he said hastily. “You’re not a cradle robber. Much—ow!” He rubbed his arm where she’d pinched him. “So, why is my birthday so interesting to you?”
“Because you’ll be a legal adult,” Robin said.
“Since when do you care about that?” Joe asked.
“Since I was thinking that maybe we could go away for Christmas.”
“Go away? To where?”
Robin took a deep breath. “The Ponderosa.”
“What?” Joe sat up. “What are you talking about?”
Robin sat up beside him. “You haven’t seen your family since we got married last fall,” she said. “It’s already April. By Christmas, it’ll be more than a year. But in another six months, you’ll be twenty-one. Even if they still don’t approve of our marriage, there won’t be anything they can do about it. Your father can’t have our marriage annulled once you’re of age. The worst thing they can do then is to still hate me—and then, at least we’ll know we tried.”
“I won’t take you anywhere that someone might hate you,” said Joe, his gaze hardening.
“I know,” she said softly. “But I’m betting that when they see you, they’ll be so happy that you’re there that they won’t care so much about me. Besides, I’ll bet Hoss would even like me.”
“Lovely lady, anybody who got to know you would adore you,” Joe said, holding her close. She never ceased to amaze him. Nobody but Robin would do this. He knew without asking that she’d been thinking this plan through for a long time. She probably knew exactly how much they would need to save each week in order to afford stage fare, and she likely had ideas about what Christmas presents they would take. And all this to spend Christmas with people who had rejected her without even meeting her, just because she knew that he missed his family. If they couldn’t see how wonderful she was after this, he would shake the dust of the Ponderosa off his boots and never look back.
Robin kissed his shoulder. “We don’t have to decide today,” she said. “It’s just something to think about.”
Joe stroked her silken hair. “You are the most incredible woman I have ever known,” he whispered. He drew his wife into his arms and kissed her deeply, hungrily. “I love you so much, my darling.” He lay her down beside him. There, in their tiny rented room, the young couple held each other so tightly that the two were very nearly one.
* * * * * * * * * *
A month later, they went for that buggy ride in the countryside. It was the only time he’d ever driven a horse with her. He still remembered how absurdly proud he felt when she praised him for his skill. The warmth of the sun, the faint smell of the salt air mingling with the stronger scent of the grasses and the horse, the breeze that played with her silken hair, the nearness of the woman he loved—all of it was so intoxicating that when he saw a secluded little copse of trees, he drove right off the road, secured the horse, and swept her out of the buggy. A month after that, Robin told him that he was going to be a father.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Are you sure?” For a minute, the world stood utterly still.
She nodded, uncharacteristically shy. She looked up at him through her long lashes. “I’m sure,” she admitted.
He waited to feel something, anything. It was as if there had been an explosion, and everything inside him had been blown clean out of there. His body was nothing more than an eggshell filled with air. She’s pregnant, he told himself. You’re going to be a father. His mind was blank. He felt nothing.
A moment later, in a giant swoosh, almost every emotion he had ever felt swirled up in him, violently, like a tornado. He stood stockstill, barely breathing. All he could see was Robin. Everything around her had dissolved like sugar in coffee. Nothing else existed. He felt himself swaying.
“Honey? Are you all right?”
She reached out to touch his cheek. Before her hand reached him, he was holding it, kissing it. Tears spilled down his face. The feeling was so new, so different from anything he’d ever known, that he couldn’t put a name to it. It had so many pieces: excitement, panic, thrills, contentment, worry, anticipation. Amazement. Protectiveness. Jubilation. Thankfulness. Joy. Peace. A deep sense of rightness. And over all the parts, and seeping into the spaces between them, an overwhelming love for this woman and the child they had created. He pulled her into his arms and held her as tightly as he could. His cheek rested on the top of her head, and his tears fell into her dark hair.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe returned to the present to see his father standing before him with a tray. He smiled weakly. He didn’t trust his voice.
“Are you all right, son?” As pleased as Ben had been about his son agreeing to rest in bed, even he had to admit now that something was not right. The young man who had been fighting him just a few days earlier to go out and do something, anything, had vanished. In his place was the one who, when he’d opened the door, was simply lying in bed, staring unseeingly at the ceiling. The book on the night table was unopened. The newspaper on the bed was undisturbed. The lamp had not been lit against the gray day. There had been no sound when Ben opened the door.
“I’m fine,” Joe said, sitting up in bed. He accepted the tray, murmuring his thanks and hoping that his father would leave. He wanted to go back to his memories. Ben’s presence felt like an intrusion.
* * * * * * * * * *
Even in September, San Francisco mornings were damp and chilly. Joe walked along the pier, considering the options. There was simply no way that he would be able to support their family on his income. They were barely able to make ends meet now, with Robin singing. Judith had helped her fix her work clothes, but any day now, Phil was going to figure out that his lovely young singer was not merely putting on weight, and that would be that. He felt reasonably sure that he’d still be able to play at the Dove as a solo, just as Dusty had, but he was equally sure that the tips wouldn’t be nearly as good. The men who came into the saloon liked to look at a beautiful woman, and Robin definitely gave them their money’s worth in that department. Add to that her exquisite voice, her vibrant personality, her sharp sense of humor, and her unmistakable joy in music, and you had a singer who had them eating out of her hand. There was no way that he could generate alone nearly as much as they made as a team.
He turned down a side street, barely paying attention. He couldn’t go back to playing poker—the results were too erratic. He was going to be a father. He needed a steady income. The Dove was at least steady. He needed something he could do in addition. Or maybe it was time to think about moving out of the city. He could get work on a ranch. No, that would mean giving up the Dove. In his heart, he knew that he didn’t want to do that. Not unless he absolutely had to.
He’d never expected to be a musician. All his life, he’d been told that Adam was the one with the musical talent. Joe could carry a tune, but that was about it. He’d grown up listening to Adam and his guitar, but he’d never had any particular interest in trying it himself. He wondered now if Adam would have taught him if he’d asked. Probably. Adam was always trying to teach Hoss and Joe things he thought they should know, regardless of whether they wanted to learn. When Joe was sick in bed as a kid, Adam read him “Paradise Lost” instead of the dime novels he wanted to hear. The ending had been Adam’s mother’s favorite part, and his eldest brother had read him that section several times when Joe was fourteen and laid up during a particularly nasty chest cold. Joe could still remember those last few lines, after Adam and Eve had been thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Now, they reminded him of when he and Robin had left Virginia City to make their way in the world.
“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces throng’d and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
Remembering, he found himself on an unfamiliar street. A small stone church graced the block. Its arched doors needed to be painted, a common problem in a city on the water. The garden around its foundations had been well tended, and some flowers still bloomed. On one side of the door was a sign bearing the words, “St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church.” On the other side of the door was another sign: “The seats in this church are free. All are welcome.”
Joe hadn’t set foot in a church since his wedding, but he found himself following the flagstone path to the door. Somewhat surprisingly, the door was unlocked. He entered tentatively. A soft hush enveloped him. A coat rack stood by a table barely large enough to hold a guest book. A canister for umbrellas sat beneath the table. He opened a heavy oak door. There before him was a small, but perfectly appointed, sanctuary. The smell of furniture polish, oil lamps and incense was heady. Colored light filtered through the stained glass windows. The pews gleamed. At the front were two pulpits, one on either side. A large Bible lay open on one of the pulpits. Between them, a dark table stood on a platform. On the wall at the front was a round window with an intricate pattern of colors and gentle curves, like looking down into a multi-hued rose. Beneath the window was a mahogany cross. It almost looked as if the cross were holding up the window, the stem to a glorious flower.
Up on the platform, behind the left-hand pulpit, stood a grand piano. He had seen a grand piano once before, when he and Adam were in Sacramento, and Adam dragged him to some concert. The piano he played every night at the Singing Dove was an upright, scarred and battered, veteran of many a bar brawl. This instrument was rich and sophisticated. Its ebony case shone in the soft light. Where his piano yowled and twanged, this one would whisper in velvet tones.
Without thinking, he approached the piano and lifted the cover to expose the keys. No yellowed ivory and chipped edges here. These keys were pristine, pure black and purer white. He brushed them with his fingers. Their surfaces were as smooth as glass. Not a crack, not a rough spot. The bench was black, with a needlepoint cushion, a far cry from the wooden chair he used every night. He glanced around the sanctuary. No one was here. No one would know. He sat down at the piano.
Later, he had no idea how long he’d played. The instrument was as responsive as the best horse he’d ever ridden. The action was delicate enough for trills, and yet the bass rang like great bells. He played songs that Robin sang, and when he ran out of those, he played Robin herself. He played his unborn child. He played the Ponderosa, his family, and anything else that swept through him. He was alive, exposed. Tears spilled down his cheeks, unnoticed.
At last, he stopped. He flexed his fingers. He felt as if he had been running for a long, long time, and that finally, he had come to a place where he might rest.
The sound of a handclap startled him. The metallic taste of adrenalin rushed to his mouth as the clapping continued. Instinctively, he reached for his gun with one hand as he wiped away the tears with the other. “Who’s there?” he demanded, as if he had the right to do so.
“I am,” said a calm voice.
Joe stood to see a priest sitting in the front pew. For a moment, he couldn’t move. At first glance, the man could have been his father’s twin. The priest took his cane in hand and pushed himself to his feet. The gentle smile was unnerving. It suggested wisdom and kindness. It was the smile of one who knew and understood and did not judge.
It was the smile he’d seen countless times on his own father.
“I’m sorry,” said Joe, closing the cover. “I didn’t mean to—the door was open.”
“Quite all right,” said the priest. He approached the platform. Quickly, Joe crossed the platform and bounded down the steps to save the priest the trouble of ascending them.
“Well, I’ll be going,” Joe said. “Thank you. That’s a magnificent instrument. I—thank you.” He retrieved his hat from where he’d dropped it on the first pew.
“It’s I who should be thanking you,” said the priest, laying a hand on Joe’s arm. “You play beautifully. I quite enjoyed listening.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Joe. “I haven’t actually been playing that long.”
“But you are a musician.” It wasn’t a question.
“I don’t know about that,” Joe said. “I play at the Singing Dove. My wife’s a singer. I just started playing because her accompanist moved back east.”
“It doesn’t matter why you started playing,” said the priest. “It only matters that you did. I’m a violinist as well as a priest, and I’m telling you this: you are a musician. It doesn’t matter what you do to earn a living.”
Joe sighed. “Funny you should say that,” he said. “It looks like I might have to stop playing at the Dove and go find other work anyway.”
“Why is that?”
“My wife’s expecting,” he said. “She’s not going to be able to sing much longer. I’ve gotta find something else.”
The priest considered this. “Son, do you believe in Providence?”
“You mean God?” The priest nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” The truth was that he hadn’t given God a whole lot of thought, especially over the past several months. “Why?”
“Because earlier this week, our pianist informed me that he will be resigning from his post here at St. Catherine’s,” said the priest. “On the basis of what I’ve heard this morning, I’m prepared to recommend to the deacons that they hire you as his replacement. Would this be something you might consider?”
Warmth swelled through Joe’s chest. They could stay here. He could play. And even if they didn’t get back to the Ponderosa for Christmas, he knew in that moment that somehow, it would all work out. “Yes, Father,” he said over the lump in his throat. “That is definitely something I would consider.”
Joe never saw the priest again. When they arrived at the Dove the next night, Robin told Judith about Joe’s new job. Two hours later, Joe was wounded and Robin was dead. Judith sent a note to St. Catherine’s to let the priest know what had happened. She was surprised not to receive a response. Later, she learned that the priest had been knifed while intervening in an assault on a young woman down on the pier. He lingered only a few days before succumbing to his injuries. When she finally told Joe, he sat silently for a minute. Then, he threw back another shot and turned to the piano.
* * * * * * * * * *
Doc Martin closed the door to Joe’s room. He gestured for Ben to follow him down the hall, out of earshot. Ben’s eyes grew wide, and his jaw clenched. Instinctively, he braced for a fight—not with the doctor, but with whatever the doctor was about to tell him.
“Is he worse?” he blurted out as they reached the top of the stairs. Bad enough he hadn’t been allowed in the room while the doctor examined his son.
Paul Martin considered the question as they descended to the living room. “If you’re referring to Joe’s heart, no,” he said. “He’s clearly been resting, and that’s helped. The rhythm is more regular than it was. The heart isn’t normal, but it’s better.”
“Then what?” What else could there be? Dear God, hadn’t the boy been through enough?
“How long has he been in bed?” asked the doctor.
Ben thought for a moment. “Six days,” he said.
“Why is he in bed?”
“Because that was what you recommended,” said Ben.
The doctor shook his head. “Joe and I had that conversation,” he said. “I told him that bedrest was ideal, but not essential at this point.”
“And I told him I thought he should do what was ideal,” said Ben. “I don’t understand the problem.”
“The problem is that never, at any time in his entire life, has your son voluntarily stayed in bed for health reasons,” said Doc Martin. “Usually, we practically have to sit on him to keep him down.”
“I know,” said Ben. “But he’s a grown man now. Clearly, he’s more reasonable about these things than he used to be. Perhaps this whole incident scared some sense into him.”
“I don’t think he suddenly became prudent since last week,” said the doctor. “I think there’s something else going on.”
A cold hand of fear clutched Ben’s heart. “What?”
“I think it’s his mind,” said the doctor.
“You think my son is losing his mind?”
The doctor shook his head. “Not the way you mean,” he said. “I don’t think he’s irrational or imagining things that aren’t there. But there are other ways that the mind malfunctions, ways we’re only just starting to know about. What I’m seeing here—uncharacteristic behavior, withdrawing from people, not doing even the things that he’s allowed to do or likes to do—when that comes hard on the heels of loss and sickness, it’s cause for concern. It’s as if the mind starts to shut itself down, to guard against things that will make the person feel pain, almost like there’s a wall being built between the person and the rest of the world. It’s like a reduction in feeling, where everything is numbed. Even when I was in there with him, talking to him, I had the sense he wasn’t listening to me, that he didn’t really care what I said. Last week, he was asking questions, wanting to know what he could do, arguing with me. Today, he just accepted what I said without so much as a shrug. I had the feeling that if I told him he had to stay in bed for the next month, he wouldn’t have blinked.”
Ben sank slowly into the blue chair. Paul was right. Talking to Joe these days was like reaching for a candle through a windowpane. How had he let his son get so far away? Because I wanted to keep him safe, Ben realized. And I let him retreat into his shell like a tortoise. A tortoise might be safe in his shell, but it also wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything. It was existing, not living.
“I should have known,” Ben said, half to himself. Of all people in the world, he should have known. He’d lived through the same loss, more than once. But— “Why now? She’s been dead for a year and a half.”
“And he spent the first year drunk,” said Paul gently. “Only after you took the liquor away could he truly feel—which was probably the point of the liquor. Since then, he’s had all he could do to get to the point where he could function physically. So, this is really the first chance he’s had to deal with the loss.”
“But we talked about it in San Francisco,” said Ben. “That’s what I don’t understand. He seemed to be doing so well there. We could talk about anything. It’s only the past few weeks, since we’ve been back here, that things have changed.”
Paul placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Think about it from his point of view for a minute,” he suggested. “San Francisco was where he lived with her, where he was happy. After he got out of the hospital, you and he lived in that rented house, and it was neutral territory—not yours or his. He didn’t have the strength to go anywhere, so you could relax because you didn’t have to worry about losing him. Then, the two of you came back here. You and the Ponderosa might be the same, but Joe isn’t. I’m guessing that he came face to face with the differences between that nineteen-year-old kid who broke horses and herded cattle and did a man’s hard work until the day he left to marry the love of his life, and the widower who came back with a heart condition and a drinking problem. Add to that a father who is so afraid of losing him again that he’s pretty well smothered him, and the question isn’t why things are different. It’s why it took this long for them to fall apart.”
Ben was silent for a long moment. “I knew something was wrong,” he said. “But I thought it was about his heart. I thought it would pass when he got stronger.”
“And it might,” said Doc Martin. “If I could explain all the ways that the mind and the body affect each other, I’d be a very rich man.” He picked up his bag. “I wish there were some medicine I could give him that could fix his mind. Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I said I knew what you should do now. All I can tell you is that his heart is improving. At what cost, I can’t say.”
Ben pondered this as he saw his friend out. At what cost, indeed. He had worked too hard to get the boy back. He wouldn’t lose him again, in any way. Not without a fight.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dusk was falling when Ben opened the door to Joe’s room. The lamp on the bedside table was unlit. In the dimness, he saw that Joe was not asleep. The boy was just lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t even look toward the door when Ben came in.
“Joe? What are you doing?” Ben tried to sound casual.
“What? Oh, nothing. Just thinking.” Joe sounded distant, as if his own words didn’t matter to him.
“About what?” Ben lit the lamp. The room was immediately bathed in a warm glow. He drew the draperies and moved the chair over beside the bed. “What were you thinking about?” he asked again.
Joe shook his head. “Nothing much,” he lied.
Ben hadn’t spent this many years as a father without learning a few things. He knew when one of his sons was not being truthful. Still, right now didn’t seem the time to accuse Joe of lying. Instead, he lit his pipe and leaned back, as if settling in for a good, long visit, and as if he was not watching his son carefully for a reaction. He saw Joe tense. Inwardly, he flinched. How had they gotten so far apart?
“Doc Martin says that your heart sounds better,” Ben said.
“I know. He told me.”
“You must be pleased.” Ben recalled slogging through deep mud in the pouring rain to capture recalcitrant stray calves. Right now, that job seemed easy.
Joe didn’t acknowledge the comment. There seemed little point.
Ben pulled another weapon out of his arsenal. “I saw Tom Simmons yesterday,” he said. “Tom has a three-year-old roan gelding he’s looking to sell.” He paused, waiting for questions, for some sign of interest. The silence dragged on. Finally, Ben said, “I told him to bring him by. Thought maybe you could take a look at him.”
At last, a reaction. Joe looked at his father with a slight frown. “I’m not supposed to get up.”
“I didn’t say you should ride him,” said Ben, trying not to be irritated. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem if you came outside and looked him over.”
“What do you want with another gelding? Can’t breed him.”
Worse than recalcitrant calves in the mud. Much worse. “Another mount. Maybe break him to drive. Depends on the horse, I expect.”
“Thought we had enough horses already,” said Joe.
A frisson of fear ran down Ben’s spine. He’d have bet his last nickel that his youngest son would never say that the Ponderosa had enough horses. Before he left, Joe had been trying to build up that side of the ranch operations. Horses had been his great love from the time he was old enough to toddle into the barn and pester someone into holding him up so that he could pet the horses’ noses. Even before he left school, he was as good a bronc buster as men who had been doing the job for twenty years, a fact that had accounted for many a silver hair on his father’s head. One of the most familiar sights in these parts used to be Joe and Cochise, racing down the Virginia City road far too fast. Enough horses already. If Ben had needed a sign that his son was slipping away, this was it.
He drew on his pipe as if gathering strength. “I remember how I felt when your mother died,” he said quietly. A desperate move, perhaps, but it was the one topic Ben knew his son couldn’t ignore or dismiss. He’d never told anyone more than just the bare observable facts about that day. But now, his son needed to know. Even after all these years, the words were difficult, the memories more so. He pressed on.
“Nothing made any sense. It didn’t seem real, even though I watched it happen. I saw the horse fall. He got up, and she didn’t. I ran to her so fast I tripped and fell just short of where she lay. I didn’t take the time to get up—I just dragged myself to her. I held her in my arms. She looked at me and told me she loved me. Then, I felt her breathing stop. She exhaled, and then she didn’t breathe in again. It was that quiet. I could still smell her perfume, even after she was gone. It didn’t seem right. The perfume should have stopped smelling, too. Her hair shouldn’t have been so soft. There was blood in her hair. Adam came out of the house and saw us there. I think he said something, but I’m not sure. He ran across the yard and knelt next to us. He felt for her pulse. When he realized she was gone, he tried to get me to put her down, but I wouldn’t do it. He sent one of the hands for the doctor, even though there was no point. I think he did it because it was Paul who would come, not because he thought a doctor could help her. He tried to take her from me, to carry her into the house, but I wouldn’t let go. I remember wanting him to get her a different dress, right then, because her dress was dirty from the fall, and she was so particular about things like that. I don’t remember what Adam said, but we didn’t change her dress until later.
“Your brother sat with us in the yard until the doctor came. It must have been hours. Years later, he told me that Hoss came out of the house at some point. Adam sent him back in and told him to make sure you didn’t come out. I don’t have any memory of seeing Hoss that afternoon. Adam said that Paul Martin cried when he told me Marie was dead. I don’t remember that, either. I remember that Paul and Adam talked about where to put her body until we could bury her. It was nearly dark by that time. Adam said that Paul wanted to take her into town to the undertaker, but that I refused. I insisted that she would never want to leave the Ponderosa. In the end, we put her in the barn and locked the door so that you wouldn’t find her. It was the one thing they could tell me that I could focus on—the idea that you shouldn’t happen upon your mother’s body.” He drew on his pipe. “In the end, it was the only thing I could do for her. I couldn’t protect her, but I could protect you.”
Joe didn’t speak. His jaw was clenched, his face immobile. Every fiber of his body was braced against the pain, his father’s and his own. As his father watched for a reaction, Joe began to tremble. He rolled onto his side, away from Ben. He drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, holding himself tightly against what he had heard. Trembling progressed to shaking. Still, he made no sound.
Ben laid the pipe on the bedside table and moved to sit on the bed beside Joe, resting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Gently, he began to rub his son’s back in large, slow circles. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, the shaking lessened, and then stopped. As dusk turned to dark outside the room, Ben stroked his son’s back and shoulder, murmuring soft reassurances. He wasn’t even certain that Joe heard him, but it very nearly didn’t matter. He needed to say these things at least as much as Joe needed to hear them.
“You’re going to be all right,” he said softly. “I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know it seems impossible. But we’re all here, and we love you, and we’re going to walk with you through this. You don’t have to do it alone.” Joe said nothing, but gradually, the tension in his arms and legs relaxed slightly. “I’d have done anything to spare you this,” he whispered. Eventually, Ben realized that the boy had fallen asleep. Even so, he couldn’t leave, couldn’t take his hand off his son, couldn’t break this connection.
A knock on the door. Hoss poked his head in. “Pa—” he began. Ben held a finger to his lips, nodding toward Joe. “Sorry,” Hoss whispered. “Is he okay?” Hoss’ blue eyes were troubled.
Ben shrugged slightly and shook his head to indicate that he did not know. The big man frowned. Hoss and Adam had spent a lifetime taking care of Joe. It was one thing that gave Ben peace when he thought of his own passing: the knowledge that his sons would always look out for each other, no matter what. God forbid something happened to him, Joe would be in good hands.
“Hop Sing wanted to know if you’re comin’ down for dinner.”
Ben shook his head. “You and Adam go ahead,” he whispered. “I’ll have something later.”
“We’ll wait for you,” Hoss replied. “You jest take your time here.”
“No, you two should—”
“We’ll wait,” said the big man firmly. “However long it takes. Don’t you worry about that.”
Ben regarded his middle son. Somehow, they weren’t talking about dinner any more.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Honey, wake up. We need to talk.”
Joe’s eyes flew open. He sat up bolt upright in his bed. “Robin?”
“I’m right here.” She was sitting in the chair beside his bed. The moonlight glowed around her. She reached over and lit the lamp on his bedside table.
“Oh, my God, you’re here,” he whispered. He started to get out of bed, reaching for her, but she held up her hand.
“Sorry, love,” she said. “We can’t get any closer. As it turns out, there are rules about these things.”
“Dead people being in touch with living people.”
“I don’t remember you being much for rules,” Joe said.
“I wasn’t,” she said. “Things changed.”
“Don’t I know it,” he sighed.
“Not as much for you as for me,” she pointed out.
Joe chuckled. “Fair enough,” he said. Even dead, she could still make him laugh. “You really are dead, though, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry about that,” she said. “I was so worried about you that I didn’t do what you said.”
“I know.” Anger flared up in his eyes. “If you’d listened to me, we’d be together now.”
She regarded him. “Just how long are you going to be mad at me for that?”
“I’m not mad at you!”
She snorted. “Oh, please,” she said. “If I weren’t dead right now, we’d be having the knock-down-drag-out fight of our lives over this one. I don’t have that much time as it is so don’t waste it lying to me. And keep your voice down. Your family’s still sleeping.”
“Okay, fine!” He snapped. “I’m mad at you. What does that accomplish?”
“What does it ever accomplish?” she countered.
“I don’t know!”
“Think about it,” she said.
“The making up was good,” he offered hopefully. “Remember the time—”
She held up her hand. “Don’t even start,” she said. “We can’t do that now. What else?”
He thought. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “How about if you come back tomorrow night, after I’ve had a chance to think?”
“After you’ve had a chance to think? You’ve had a year and a half to think about this!”
“I haven’t been thinking for a year and a half!”
“No kidding,” she said with heavy sarcasm. “You haven’t even played the piano—which, by the way, would have helped you think if you hadn’t been plastered.”
“How do you know that?” Joe asked suspiciously. “What do you know about what I’ve been doing?”
“Everything,” she said. “Everything you did after I stopped breathing. And let me tell you something, cowboy. You think you’re mad? Do you have any idea what it was like, watching you guzzle that swill after what I did to keep you alive? Don’t forget, there was a second bullet. If I hadn’t blocked it, you’d be the dead one now.”
“Wait a minute—you could see me after you died?” He was still back on her first point. His eyes grew large as he considered what she might have seen.
“Yes, I know about Judith,” she said impatiently. “Don’t worry about that. If I’d still been alive, you would have had something to worry about, but I was dead, so it was okay. Not that I was thrilled, and it wasn’t a good idea for either of you, but she did keep you alive until your family got there. They sure took long enough,” she added.
“But they did find me,” he said, remembering. “Did you know they were looking?”
“I assumed they were,” she said. “I didn’t know for sure until after I died. But you keep getting away from the point. They found you. They rescued you. So, what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Were you this slow when I was alive, or did the whiskey affect your thinking?”
Joe’s jaw dropped. “I can’t believe you said that,” he said finally.
Robin sighed. She started to reach out to him, but caught herself. “You’re right, that was unkind,” she said. “I’m sorry, honey. I just don’t have much time, and it’s not like I can drop in again next week for another chat. It took a long time to arrange this. We kept waiting for you to work things out on your own, but finally, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, so they let me come.”
“Did you have to fight with them?” He smiled at the thought of Robin arguing with an angel. He could picture her, hands on hips, face close to the angel’s, making her point in no uncertain terms as the angel backed away, eyes wide and wings trembling.
She smiled. “We don’t fight there,” she said. At Joe’s bemused expression, her smile broadened. “Okay, maybe I argued with them a little,” she admitted. He raised an eyebrow. “Okay, maybe more than a little. It’s not like they approve this type of thing lightly. The division between us and you is supposed to be absolute for you folks.”
“But they let you come back to me anyway.”
“Let’s just say this was a special case,” she said. “It won’t happen again. They were very clear on that. This visit is going to have to do for both of us for a long time. The next time you see me, you’ll be dead, too.”
“But you’re here now.” That was all that mattered.
“I am, my love. And here’s the reason. A lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble to keep you alive: me, Judith, your family. We all did it for the same reason. We love you. So, in spite of your best efforts, you’re alive. What are you going to do about it?”
Tears welled up in Joe’s eyes. “You love me,” he said softly. “Even now?”
She smiled. “Of course,” she said. “It’s the one thing we get to take with us. Just you wait. It gets even better once you’re here.”
“I miss you so much,” he breathed. “I miss our life together. You, me, the baby—” He stopped. “What about the baby? Is he there, too?”
“What makes you so sure our baby is a ‘he’?” she teased gently.
“It’s a girl?”
Robin shook her head, smiling. “I’m not allowed to tell you about the baby,” she said. “I was given pretty narrow limits as far as what we could talk about. For the rest, you’ll have to wait until we’re together again.”
“I want to be with you now,” he said. He surveyed the room for something that would accomplish this.
“No, you don’t,” she corrected.
“I do,” he said. “I want to be with you so much it hurts.”
“I know it hurts,” she said. “Believe me, leaving you wasn’t my favorite time, either. But it was how it had to be. And you’re not ready to be with me yet.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because you’re still here,” she said. “You’re a cowboy. You’ve got guns, knives, horses, ropes—there are a million ways you could have killed yourself if that was what you really wanted to do. Instead, you spent a year drinking. Yeah, whiskey’ll kill you, but it takes a long time.” Her blue eyes were gentle. “You didn’t really want to die, and that’s as it should be. If you’d killed yourself, then I’d have died for nothing.”
He considered this. “Were you this smart when you were alive, or did the whiskey affect my thinking?”
“Yep,” she said. They both laughed. Her laughter was as musical as he remembered.
“I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” he whispered. “I’ll always love you.”
She smiled. “Just as long as that doesn’t get in the way of the rest of your life.” She pushed her hair back from her face. “You still haven’t answered my question. You’re here now. What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” he said helplessly.
“You need to work on that,” she said.
“Isn’t that why you’re here? To tell me what I should do?”
Robin shook her head. “That was never my job,” she said. “My job was to love you.”
He felt tears welling up. “You’ve done that well,” he whispered.
“And I will continue to,” she promised. “But in the meantime, you need to figure out your life.”
“Can you at least give me a hint?”
“Okay, just one,” she said, rising. “Live like somebody died for you.” She blew him a kiss. And then, she was gone.
* * * * * * * * * *
He awoke in the morning with a sense of peace so profound that he thought the world had stopped. The tears on his cheeks seemed incongruous. He didn’t know if it had been a dream or if he had really seen her one more time. He waited for the sense of loss that he experienced after the nightmares, but it was nowhere to be found. He didn’t understand why. It almost didn’t matter. All he knew for certain was that, for the first time in a year and a half, he felt truly alive.
“I love you so much,” he murmured. If she was listening, he wanted her to hear these words.
A knock, and the door opened. “Joe? Are you awake?” called Ben. He saw his son’s tear-streaked face and misunderstood. “Are you all right, son?” He sat on the side of the bed and reached for Joe, ready to hold and comfort him.
Joe smiled. It wasn’t a radiant smile, but it was real, and there was something in it that Ben hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Joe laid his hand on his father’s arm and met his eyes squarely. With an assurance he’d thought gone forever, he told the truth. “I’m fine, Pa. Really.” He wiped his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt. “What’s for breakfast? I’m starving.”
Ben searched his son’s face. Somehow, something had happened. The wall was crumbling. He didn’t know why, and he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that Joe’s depression would resolve overnight, but something had changed. The light that had nearly gone out had reignited, and if it wasn’t an inferno, it was more than the lone flickering match it had been for so long. He felt tears starting in his own eyes. Willing them back, he smiled at his son, his eyes glistening. He patted the young man’s arm and rose. “You can have whatever you want for breakfast,” he said hoarsely.
“Then I’ll see you downstairs,” said Joe.
Downstairs. Eating breakfast. Ben’s heart swelled. Casually, he nodded. “I’ll see you in a few minutes,” he said. He closed the bedroom door behind him and stood in the hall, his forehead against the wall, overwhelmed with gratitude.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben watched as his youngest son slid carefully onto the horse. “Okay, turn ’im loose!” Joe called out. Frank and Charlie opened the chute, and the horse burst out, bucking and twisting in the summer sun. Joe stayed with him, riding every move, until the horse settled down. The hands ran out to grab the horse, and Joe strode across the corral to pick up the hat that had gone flying with the first buck.
“Fine ride, son,” called Ben. He nearly reminded his son of their agreement that the boy would ride no more than three horses today, and this had been the second. Start slow. That was what they’d decided, he and the doctor and Joe.
“Thanks, Pa.” Joe barely glanced at his father as he spoke, so focused was he on his tasks. He started back across the corral to the pen where the remaining horses milled about.
Ben tried not to look as if he were watching Joe for signs of fatigue or unsteadiness. The doctor had reluctantly given his consent to bronc busting, over Ben’s vigorous objections. Outside of Joe’s hearing, Doc had admitted that he was agreeing to let Joe try, not so much on the basis of his physical progress, but because he seemed genuinely to want to ride. The curtain of depression had been slow to lift, and the doctor’s instinct suggested that encouraging Joe in things he was interested in might help.
“It’s a balancing act,” Doc Martin said. “Maybe we’ve been protecting the heart at the expense of the mind.”
Ben bit back his instinctive retort, that it would mean nothing to protect the boy’s mind if his heart gave out. He consoled himself with the knowledge that the doctor, his oldest friend, would not put his son’s life at risk. If Doc was allowing this, it must be safe enough.
The urgency in Frank’s voice snapped Ben back to the present. The next moment, he was climbing over the fence and running across the corral to where his son lay, unmoving, next to the pen. “Get the doctor!” he shouted, skidding to his knees beside Joe. Damn Paul Martin for taking chances with his son. He turned the young man over and felt for a pulse in his neck. It was there, thready and uneven, but definitely present. “Joe! Joe, can you hear me? Wake up, son. Can you hear me?”
Joe’s eyelids fluttered. He was far too pale, as if all the blood had drained out of him. “Pa,” he breathed.
“Don’t try to talk, son,” Ben murmured. “We’ll get you back to the house, and you can rest.”
Joe struggled to sit up. “It’s okay, Pa, I’m feeling better,” he said. “I just got dizzy.”
“You just lie still,” said Ben. Over his shoulder, he called, “Somebody bring the wagon!”
“Pa, I don’t need a wagon,” Joe protested. His voice was weak and breathy. “I’ll be okay in a few minutes.”
“Just humor your old father, all right?” Ben held Joe’s head in his lap, trying to shade his son’s face against the heat of the sun. It seemed an eternity before Charlie drove up in the wagon. “Help me get him in the wagon,” said Ben.
“Pa, it’s okay, I can walk,” said Joe.
“Not until the doctor says it’s all right,” said Ben in a tone that would bear no interference.
“I’m fine,” said Joe. “It was just a little dizziness. I can walk to the wagon. It’s only a few feet.”
In the end, they compromised, with Joe walking, but supported so heavily by his father and Charlie that his feet barely touched the ground. A short time later, he was in bed, and his father was wiping his face with a cool, damp cloth.
“So, young man, what have you done?” asked the doctor as he entered the room.
“I got a little bit dizzy,” said Joe.
“He passed out by the horse pen,” said Ben. He glared accusingly at his oldest friend.
Doc Martin raised his eyebrows. He was just about to speak when Hoss burst into the room.
“What happened?” the large man demanded. “Charlie said you collapsed.”
“How about if I talk to my patient alone for a few minutes?” Doc’s tone made it clear that this was an order, not a request. “You, too, Ben,” he said more gently. As he closed the door behind Ben and Hoss, they heard him saying, “All right, now, I want you to tell me exactly what happened, and don’t leave anything out.”
Fifteen minutes later, the doctor descended the stairs to the living room, where Ben and Hoss waited anxiously. “He’s going to be fine,” Doc announced.
“Thank God,” breathed Ben. “What happened?”
“He overdid it,” said the doctor. “He’s not ready for horse-breaking yet, as it turns out.” He held up his hand before Ben could speak. “Yes, you were right. He’ll get there eventually, but he’s going to need more time to build up to it. I told him that I don’t want him out of that bed for at least a week. After that, he can go as far as the chair in his room, but I’m serious—I don’t want him to walk any farther than that, or to exert himself in any other way, for the time being.”
“How far did he set himself back today?” asked Ben.
“Hard to tell,” admitted the doctor. “That’s the problem with these diseases: you just can’t tell what’s going to happen next. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to look at the heart and see what’s wrong. In any event, that’s not today.” He picked up his hat. “Today’s Tuesday. I’ll stop back on Friday and see how he’s doing. Obviously, if anything comes up between now and then, send for me.”
As the doctor drove away, Ben turned to Hoss. “Son, would you heat up some broth for your brother? I’m going to go up and sit with him for a while.”
“’Course I will,” said Hoss. As his middle son retreated to the kitchen, Ben took the stairs two at a time . Outside Joe’s room, he stopped and caught his breath. He knocked gently; when there was no answer, he opened the door.
Joe was asleep. His curls were tousled, and his face was pale. He looked so much younger than his twenty-two years. Ben pulled up the bedside chair and sat close enough to hold the sleeping boy’s hand. The doctor hadn’t said it, but Ben knew in his bones how close he’d come to losing Joseph that morning. He took Joe’s hand in both of his. As he waited for Hoss to bring the broth, he kept vigil over his son.
* * * * * * * * * *
The light and noise assaulted the brothers as they walked through the swinging doors. Men shouted and laughed, and the tinny piano tinkled. Joe flinched slightly. Adam and Hoss exchanged a brief glance over their brother’s head. “I’ll get the first round,” said Hoss casually, as if these first few moments had not been meticulously choreographed. In the six months since Joe had returned from San Francisco, this was his first night out, and the older Cartwright brothers weren’t taking any chances.
“Fine by me,” said Adam with deliberate laziness. He and Joe took up seats at a table, and Hoss brought over three mugs of beer. Much discussion had gone into the question of whether they should leave it up to Joe whether he wanted to drink or whether they should just go ahead as they’d always done. Eventually, Adam and Hoss had decided that asking the question made too much of the issue and left Joe too conspicuous. It wasn’t as if the Bucket of Blood served coffee or lemonade; there were few choices besides beer or whiskey.
“Thanks, Big Brother,” said Joe as Hoss placed the mug in front of him. He tried to hide a smile at his brothers’ studied casualness. “I couldn’t tell you the last time I had one of these.” He chuckled at his brothers’ startled expressions. “It was whiskey that was the problem,” he explained. “When you want to get drunk, and you want to do it as fast as you can, you don’t fool around with beer. That’d take all night.” He took a sip and laughed. “And this beer is as warm as I remember.”
“Bert’s never been much on the finer points of service,” said Adam, relieved. The brothers slouched in their chairs, sipping beer and talking about nothing in particular. It was good to be back as they’d once been, the Cartwright brothers out on a Saturday night. None of them admitted that part of what made it good was that their father wasn’t there to hover.
When they’d planned the evening, Adam and Hoss had speculated as to whether Joe would stay with them or, as in the past, he’d join a poker game or take up with one of the saloon girls. They were unsure whether to be disappointed or relieved that their brother seemed quite content to sit with them. After a while, though, it became clear that Joe wasn’t paying as much attention to the conversation. Adam sipped his beer. “So, Joe, what do you think about that idea?” he asked, a propos of nothing.
“What? Oh, I think it’s fine,” said Joe hastily.
Adam snorted. “What idea are we talking about?” At Joe’s expression, perplexed and irritated at being trapped, he said softly, “Everything okay?”
“Yup. I was just trying to see who was playing. Ain’t seen him before.”
Hoss looked over his brother’s head to the piano. “That’s Zeke Miller,” he said.
“He the regular piano player here now?”
Hoss shook his head. “There ain’t no regular piano player here,” he said. “I expect Zeke’s there ’cuz that’s where he set down when he came in.” He drank and grinned, foam on his upper lip. “Whyn’t you take a turn?”
Joe took a sip of his beer to buy time. Even as nervousness rose up, he found himself surprised by how much he wanted to do just that. It had been too long. He could almost feel the ivory beneath his fingers. He glanced around. It was a noisy saloon on a Saturday night. Nobody would really be listening, except his brothers. And if it didn’t work, he could leave, and no one would be the wiser. “Okay, Brother,” he said. “On one condition.”
“Well, don’t forget, I got my start as an accompanist.” He grinned at Adam. “Somebody’s gonna have to sing.”
Hoss laughed, and Adam sputtered. “I wasn’t the one who suggested that you play! That was Hoss! Make him sing!”
“Oh, now, Older Brother, you know better than that,” said Joe. “Brother Hoss here couldn’t carry a tune if you packed it in his saddlebags for him. You’re the one who took singing lessons. And I never learned how to sing and play at the same time,” he added, heading off what he knew to be the next suggestion.
Adam glared from one brother to the other. He’d have turned the whole fool notion down if it weren’t for the look in Joe’s eyes, like he’d just seen the prettiest girl in the room smile at him. He swallowed the last of his beer and wiped the foam from his mouth. “Come on,” he said gruffly. “Let’s go make fools of ourselves.”
As they made their way to the piano, Hoss stood up and raised his mug. Gesturing wildly, and still laughing, he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my brothers, Adam and Joe Cartwright!”
“Shove over, Zeke,” said Joe. He flexed his fingers and looked up at Adam. “Hey, Bert, we’re gonna need another round up here!”
“You sure about that?” Adam asked quietly.
“I’m just thinkin’ of you, Older Brother,” Joe grinned. He didn’t remind Adam that he’d left most of his beer on the table, and he knew Hoss was probably finishing it even as he spoke. As cavalier as he might pretend to be, Joe knew how fast he could travel down that slippery slope. He also knew, though, that appearances were important in a saloon. The audience didn’t want to drink alone.
Bert handed the mugs across to them, and Adam placed them on top of the piano. “What song are we doing?”
Joe laughed. “Your favorite, of course,” he said. “I’ll even do all seven verses if you want.” With a flourish, he played a surprisingly complex introduction of “Early One Morning,” nodding to cue Adam for his entrance. Adam rolled his eyes at his younger brother and launched into a deliberately over-the-top version of the song, complete with operatic vibrato and dramatic gestures.
At the end, they were greeted with wild applause, boot-stomping and cheering. “Ain’t you ever sung for these people before?” asked Joe over the din.
“This is a first,” admitted Adam. And a last, he thought wryly.
“Well, Brother, let’s give ’em some more, then! You know ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike’, right?” Without waiting for an answer, Joe started the introduction, leaving Adam no choice but to join in.
An hour later, Adam drained the second mug on top of the piano. Joe had been playing nonstop and hadn’t touched either glass. He leaned down and said in Joe’s ear, “What do you say we take a break?”
“Why? Ain’t you having fun?” Joe clearly was.
“My throat’s raw,” Adam said. “But you just keep playing.” Joe nodded, never having stopped, as Adam made his way through the crowd to the table where Hoss sat, grinning.
“Danged if that warn’t the purtiest thing I ever did hear,” Hoss said. Adam dropped into a chair. “Who’d a ever thought it?”
“That I’d be singing in a saloon? Or that I’d be singing with Joe?”
“Either one,” said Hoss. He watched Joe, and his glee softened into something quieter. “Look at him,” he said. “That’s the happiest I seen him since before he left.”
Adam followed Hoss’ gaze. His brother was right. There was a light about the kid that he’d never seen. When they’d heard him play in San Francisco, he’d been in the depths of despair and whiskey, and his music had reflected it. Adam wasn’t fool enough to think that all Joe’s problems were over just because he’d finally gotten himself to a piano, but he also knew that what’s inside a man comes out in his music, whether he means it to or not. After all these months of grief and depression, something else was rising to the surface. At least for tonight, Joe’s music was about laughter and good times, about happiness, about being alive. It was the music of a man who believes in some tiny corner of his soul that there might be something left for him in this world after all. It was the music of a man who has found that he might just still have a little bit of faith.
* * * * * * * * * *
On the steps of the church the next morning, people chatted and laughed. As the Cartwrights approached, Zeke Miller called out, “There he is, Reverend!”
The Cartwrights looked at each other. Ever the father of sons, Ben’s first thought was, Which one, and what did he do? From what they’d said over breakfast, their evening in town had been quite tame. No one came home with blood or bruises, and there was no talk of paying for damages from barroom brawls. Hoss had regaled him with the story of Adam and Joe’s performance while Adam shook his head, grinning. Ben chuckled. Even now, they couldn’t say “no” to Joe, any more than they had when he was a child.
“Joseph!” Reverend Abbott approached him.
Joe gulped. Years of being a less-than-stellar member of the Sunday school rushed back. It was never that he set out to make trouble; it was more that trouble just seemed to find him, even when he had the best of intentions. When he was seven, and he and Mitch Devlin found the frog, it only made good sense that they should take it in with them, because it sure wouldn’t be there when they came back out. When he was ten, it seemed reasonable to try to parlay his offering money into a little bit more for the Lord, and poker games behind the church seemed the most likely way to manage it. And when he was twelve, he found that kissing Ella Tompkins was much more fun than listening to Mrs. Thacker recite the Beatitudes. So, even now, as the reverend singled him out, his first thought was, What did I do?
The men exchanged greetings, and Reverend Abbott turned to Joe. “I wonder if I might impose on you this morning, Joseph,” he said.
“I’m sure there’d be no imposition at all,” said Joe smoothly. Hoss and Adam carefully avoided looking at each other, lest they be unable to keep straight faces.
“Mrs. Droppers is ill this morning,” the reverend said. The church’s longtime pianist was notable for her corncob pipe and her strict adherence to the arrangements in the hymnal.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Joe. He knew what was coming. His first thought was to refuse. He could play in saloons, but a church was something else again. Besides, Dusty had taught him theory and shown him relationships between chords, but precious little time had been spent in learning to play the actual notes on the page. He could read the chords and could work within and around them, but if they wanted Mrs. Droppers’ ultra-precise four-voice hymn arrangements, they had the wrong piano player.
“I was wondering if you would be willing to play for us this morning in her place,” said the reverend.
Joe opened his mouth to decline. Two things stopped him. One was the sudden memory of the priest at St. Catherine’s, all those months ago, the man who had told him that he was a musician. He remembered the feeling he’d had when the priest had said this. It was reminiscent of the stories Adam used to read to him where mere men were transformed into knights by a few words and the laying of a sword on their shoulders. The priest hadn’t had a sword, but his simple pronouncement bestowed on Joe not just an honor, but a responsibility. Part of that responsibility meant using what you had to help out. His own father had taught him that.
And that was the second thing that stopped him from declining: the look on his father’s face as he awaited Joe’s answer. Pa had only heard him play twice. The first time, he was drunk, and they hadn’t even known each other. The second time, just before Christmas, he’d been so locked up in his own grief that the music had been lifeless. For so long, he hadn’t played because he was afraid of what he would feel. But he’d played last night, and he hadn’t fallen apart. More importantly, there had been life in the music. As he stood on the steps of the church, Joe knew that, regardless of what else happened, he would continue to play. It wasn’t just his legacy from Robin, although that was part of it. The need ran deeper. He’d always been one for strong feelings, and he’d expressed them in the accepted ways of the west, words and fistfights and riding too fast and taking too many chances. There had been the less-accepted ways, too: he’d always been quicker to tears than any other man he knew. He would always continue to express his feelings in all these ways. What the piano offered was something different. He’d learned this from Robin, with him. Music was a way to say what he couldn’t put into words. And he had things to say to his father.
“I’d be happy to, Reverend,” Joe said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the broad smile spread across Ben’s face.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Cartwright brothers strode into the saloon in Placerville as if they owned it. Still covered in trail dust and sweat, they’d decided that they would make this quick stop before checking into the hotel. It was another first—the first time that Joe had been away from the Ponderosa overnight since he’d returned from San Francisco. He knew that his father was nervous about the prospect of his overdoing it, but he also knew that Hoss and Adam had privately promised Ben to keep a close eye on him. He wasn’t supposed to overhear that conversation, but the window to the porch had been open, and he couldn’t step away when he heard his name.
“Now, I want you three to take your time and not push too hard,” said Ben. Even without seeing him, Joe knew that there was a sternness in his father’s face that nearly belied the nervousness in his voice. His father’s approach to uncertainty had always been to smack it down, hard.
“Pa, we’ll be fine.” Adam had long years of experience at soothing Ben. “Doc said it was okay for Joe to go.”
“Don’t you worry, Pa,” said Hoss. “We’ll take good care of him.”
Good care of him? Joe bit back a protest. He’d promised himself that he would try not to expect too much from his father. For the moment, it was enough that Ben was willing to let him go on this trip at all. He knew that he needed to be patient with his father.
“Here you go.” Hoss’ voice broke into Joe’s memory as he slid a mug of beer to his brother.
“Thanks.” Joe sipped and started to turn from the bar to survey the room.
“Frenchy!” A high-pitched squeal of delight pierced the din. Joe nearly choked on his beer as Ruthie ran up to him. He barely managed to set the glass on the bar before she had her arms around his neck, hanging on for all she was worth.
“Ruthie!” The two old friends kissed. “What are you doing here?” With his arm around her waist, he turned to his brothers. “Hoss, Adam, this is Ruthie. She used to work at the Dove when I was there.”
“We’ve met,” said Adam. “Nice to see you again, ma’am.” He and Hoss tipped their hats. Ruthie was one of the saloon girls who had told them about Frenchy, the piano player. Their stories had helped Adam and Hoss to deduce that Frenchy was their missing brother.
“What are you doin’ here?” Ruthie laughed.
“We’re just passing through,” said Joe. “What are you doing here?”
“Same,” said Ruthie. She hung onto Joe as they all took seats at a table. “I left the Dove last winter, ’cuz I thought I’d do better back east, but y’know what? I’m not a country girl. I like the city. So, I’m goin’ back to San Francisco. I figure Phil will take me back. I was one of his best girls.” She waited for Joe’s agreement.
He didn’t disappoint her. “You were definitely one of the prettiest,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose. “But why do you want to go back? You used to talk about getting out of the saloon.”
Ruthie shrugged. “It’s who I am,” she said. “Sometimes, you just gotta be who you are and stop tryin’ to be somethin’ else. Like Judith. She’s been in the business a long time, and she ain’t never gonna do nothin’ else, and that’s fine with her.”
Joe was silent. In the months after Robin died, he and Judith had had plenty of time to talk. He remembered lying next to her at night as she opened her heart to him, admitting that she had wanted to be a schoolteacher. She’d left school so young, though, that she wasn’t nearly qualified for such a job. As he’d drifted in and out of an alcoholic haze, she spoke of how much she wanted to be respectable, to have a job where people looked up to her, where she could mold and shape young lives. Instead, she was trapped in the only job she’d ever had, and probably would ever have. Joe tried to force a smile for Ruthie, but anyone could see that it wasn’t real.
Ruthie commandeered a bottle and some glasses. “Let’s drink to being who you are,” she said. She started to pour each of them a drink. As soon she got to Joe, he stayed her hand.
“I can’t do that anymore,” he said. He spoke softly, as if confiding in her. Adam recognized the cleverness of his brother’s approach: Ruthie immediately moved the glass away from him, his newly self-appointed protector against the ravages of drink. Within moments, she returned from the bar with a glass and placed it in front of him. She leaned over and whispered to him, and he smiled and nodded.
“What’s that?” asked Hoss.
“Just a little something the bartender keeps for us to make sure we don’t get too drunk,” Ruthie said. She positioned herself squarely beside Joe. “Are you going to play tonight?”
“Hadn’t really thought about it,” Joe said.
“Oh, you should,” said Ruthie. To Adam and Hoss, she said, “He’s the best I’ve ever heard.”
“Not better than Dusty,” said Joe.
“Much better,” pronounced Ruthie. Joe might have gotten the secret nonalcoholic concoction, but she was drinking whiskey. “You know what you should do? Come back to San Francisco with me!”
“Why should I do that?” asked Joe, sipping his drink and trying not to grimace at its sweet taste.
“Because it’s where you belong,” insisted Ruthie. “Come on. When were you ever happier than that first year you were there?”
“Darlin’, don’t forget, Robin was there for the first year,” Joe said. “It’s not like she’d be there if I went back now.”
“But the rest of us would be,” said Ruthie. “It’d be just like old times, except you wouldn’t be drunk any more. You could play every night, and we’d all have a good time.”
“I don’t know,” said Joe evasively. It wasn’t as if the thought had never crossed his mind, but he didn’t want to talk about it with Adam and Hoss sitting beside him. They were being far too quiet as it was.
“Well, where are you playing now?” demanded Ruthie.
“Nowhere regular,” said Joe. “Occasionally at a place in Virginia City, but just when we’re there for a beer. Oh, and I played a church service once,” he added.
”And some church in San Francisco, Saint Somebody-or-other. I remember Judith talking about it after—afterward,” she ended clumsily.
“St. Catherine’s,” said Joe. “They had a grand piano. That was one fine instrument.” A small, private smile played around his mouth and his eyes grew hazy, as if he were recalling a long-ago love. Dreamily, he said, “I wonder if they ever hired somebody for that job.” Quickly, he shook his head and came back to the present. “I’m sure they did,” he said. “It was such a long time ago.”
“You never know,” said Ruthie. “What if they need somebody now? What if the person they hired isn’t there any more?”
Joe grinned. “Ah, you temptress, you,” he teased.
“You should play now,” Ruthie said. “I haven’t heard you play in so long.”
Joe opened his mouth as if to agree. Something in his brothers’ eyes stopped him. Instead, he said, “Actually, we just stopped in for a quick drink to wash the trail dust out of our throats. We’ve gotta get over to the hotel and clean up before somebody dumps us in a watering trough.”
“It’s okay if you want to take a few minutes,” said Hoss.
Joe shook his head. “Frankly, I’m pretty tired,” he said. “I think I’m just going to clean up and turn in.” He tossed a handful of coins on the table; then, he took Ruthie’s hand and tucked some bills into it. “You have a safe trip back to San Francisco,” he said softly. He kissed her gently and picked up his hat. “You two ready to go?”
Adam and Hoss rose. “Nice seein’ you again, ma’am,” said Adam. He and Hoss tipped their hats, and they followed Joe out of the saloon.
Back at the hotel, it was Joe who was the quiet one. In his quest to ensure that Joe did not become overtired, Ben had authorized whatever expenses his sons chose to incur. It took Adam, as holder of the purse strings, only a glance at his youngest brother to decide on a comfortable suite of rooms, complete with a private bathtub, rather than the usual room and bathtub down the hall. While Joe was soaking in the tub, Adam ordered room service.
“We could have gone out for dinner,” Joe said wryly as the carts were wheeled into the room. Two young men set the table by the window, laying silverware and arranging covered plates.
“I just thought this would be a nice change,” said Adam.
Joe rolled his eyes. “Yes, Pa.” Hoss laughed as Adam tried to keep a straight face.
“Fine!” Adam admitted. “You said you were tired, you look tired, and I just thought—”
“—you thought you promised Pa that you’d take good care of me,” Joe finished. “Don’t look so surprised. Nobody ever closes that window properly.”
“It was Hoss who said that!” Adam said.
“I know,” said Joe. “But he’s not the one who ordered room service. What do we have here, anyway?” He lifted the covers on the plates, inspecting the meal. He looked up to see his brothers watching him, clearly uncertain whether he was upset with them for their protectiveness. He fought back the urge to start the familiar litany. What was done was done. Besides, they might as well be happy now. They probably wouldn’t be later. He forced a grin. “Let’s eat.”
Hours later, Hoss awoke from a sound sleep. He had no idea what had wakened him. He listened. Nothing. Nothing to explain why he felt distinctly uneasy. With a grace unexpected in so large a man, he slipped from his bed and moved soundlessly to the door. Slowly, he opened it. No sign of anything untoward. The doors to Adam’s and Joe’s rooms were closed. He perused the living room by the little bit of light coming in the windows from the street. Something was amiss. He looked carefully. Then, he realized what was wrong.
His jacket and Adam’s hung by the door. Joe’s jacket was missing.
Hoss opened the door to Joe’s room. The bed was empty.
“Damn,” he muttered. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where the boy had gone. He opened Adam’s door. His older brother slept peacefully, snoring softly. “Adam,” he called, shaking his shoulder. “Adam! Wake up! Joe’s gone!”
“What?” Adam was like Pa—as soon as they were awake, they were wide awake. Joe and Hoss were different; they required time to reach full consciousness. “What do you mean?”
“His jacket ain’t here, and neither is he,” said Hoss.
Adam regarded his brother. They both knew where he’d gone. “You think we should go get him?”
Hoss nodded. “I don’t think he’s on his way to San Francisco—leastways, not tonight—but I don’t mind tellin’ you, I’m a little nervous—him, that girl and a whiskey bottle.”
“You’re right,” said Adam. “Just give me a minute to get dressed.”
As they approached the saloon, they could hear the music. It sounded plaintive, almost mournful. Adam started to open the swinging door, but a hand on the top of the doors stopped him.
“Sorry, mister, we’re closed for the night,” said the bartender firmly.
“It’s okay,” Adam said. “We’re with him.” The bartender looked from one brother to the other before stepping aside to let them in.
Ruthie sat in a chair by the side of the piano, and she leaned against it, sound asleep. A skinny black man swabbed the floors. The bartender polished glasses. Through it all, Joe played his quiet, sad music. A half-empty bottle sat beside the piano.
Adam swore softly. When Hoss looked at him questioningly, he nodded to the bottle. “Dang fool,” muttered the large man angrily. They crossed the room, boots noisy on the wooden floor. Joe didn’t look up until they stood beside him. He brought the music to a close before he looked up. His eyes were dark with pain.
“What?” he asked.
“What the hell have you been doin’?” demanded Hoss, jerking his brother to his feet.
Joe tried to pull his arm from his brother’s grasp. “What are you talking about? I’ve been right here all night,” he said.
“Are you drunk?” Adam leaned in to smell his brother’s breath.
Joe drew back. “Are you crazy?”
“Then what’s this?” Hoss snatched up the bottle and held it in front of Joe’s face.
Joe slapped it aside. His face hardened. “That’s what you thought? That’s why you thought I came back here?” He looked from one brother to the other. His eyes were a jumble of emotions: anger, disappointment, sadness, bitterness, resignation.
“We woke up, and you weren’t in the room,” said Adam. ”What were we supposed to think?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Joe evenly. He was controlling his fury and hurt, but just barely. “I came down here to see a friend. And to play. That’s all.” He pushed past Hoss to Ruthie. As he knelt beside her, he looked up at his brothers. “But thanks for your faith in me. You have no idea what it means.” He lifted the sleeping girl and turned to the bartender. “Which room is hers?”
“Top of the stairs on your left,” said the bartender. “Number three.”
Without so much as a backward glance, Joe carried Ruthie upstairs. Hoss and Adam watched him go. “Think we should wait?” Hoss said finally.
Adam regarded the stairs as if they would reveal something. He shook his head. “He’ll be back when he’s ready,” he said.
Hoss looked startled. “You don’t think—”
“No,” said Adam. “I don’t think that at all. She’s his friend, and she’s drunk. Our little brother may have his flaws, but lack of honor isn’t one of them. I just don’t think he’s all that eager to see us right now. Not that I blame him.” He took the bottle from Hoss. “Maybe—” He broke off.
Adam shook his head again. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s go.” He set the bottle on the piano.
Upstairs, Joe set Ruthie on the bed. Without waking her, he removed her shoes and drew the coverlet over her. He stood by the bed, watching her. Part of him wanted to lie down next to her, just to feel the warmth of another person. The rest of him knew that this would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. He took the shawl from the chair in the corner and sat down, stretching out his legs in front of him and leaning back. He draped the shawl across him for a makeshift blanket. It wouldn’t be as comfortable as his bed at the hotel, but it would do for tonight.
Adam and Hoss were finishing breakfast as Joe strode into the suite. “Mornin’, Little Brother,” said Hoss.
”Morning brothers,” he said as he stumbled through the door. He leaned against the door and closed his eyes. Maybe Ruthie was right. Maybe he belonged in San Francisco, among people who weren’t constantly expecting him to fail. He thought about leaving the Ponderosa, and a dark weight pressed on his chest.
A knock made him jump. He opened the door warily. Adam and Hoss looked solemn. Adam said, “If you want some breakfast, there’s still plenty.”
“No, thanks.” Joe started to close the door, but Adam stopped him.
“We’re sorry about last night,” he said. Hoss nodded his acquiescence. “We jumped to a bad conclusion, and it wasn’t fair. We’re sorry.”
“Yeah.” Before Joe closed the door, Adam saw something in his brother’s eyes that he’d never seen before.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben watched the sorrel try to buck his son off. Joe was with the horse, his concentration fierce. Every shift of weight, every squeeze of his legs, every tightening or loosening of the reins, had a purpose. Even after all this time, the boy hadn’t lost his touch. He was still the best bronc buster on the ranch, even if he was limited in how much he could do in a day. If only this could be enough. . . .
It had been nearly three weeks since his sons had ridden in so silently, none of them meeting his eyes. All, when asked, had claimed that the trip was fine. As much as anything else, their use of the same word piqued his concern. He felt reasonably certain that he knew where the problem lay, if not what it was. So, after dinner that night, he went out to the porch and waited, disregarding the slight chill in the early autumn air. Only a few minutes later, the front door opened.
“Joseph.” Ben’s calm voice carried unquestioned authority. Joe stopped in the middle of the yard and turned to his father.
“Come and sit for a minute, will you?” It wasn’t quite a request. Joe sat on the porch step and turned to face his father. “Where are you off to?”
“Just going into town,” said Joe.
“You just got home,” Ben observed.
“Yes, sir.” Joe wasn’t giving anything away tonight.
Ben sighed inwardly. “What happened?” he asked. His deep brown eyes were so tender that Joe had to look away.
“Joseph.” The gentle warning was unmistakable.
Joe decided to tell the part he could. “I ran into Ruthie in Placerville,” he said. “You remember Ruthie, don’t you? Curly brown hair, laughs a lot?”
”I remember her from Hudson Street,” Ben had always suspected that she harbored a crush on his son. “What was she doing in Placerville?”
“Working her way back to San Francisco,” said Joe. “Guess she left around the time we did, thought she’d try life away from the big city. Didn’t work out, so she’s going back.”
Something didn’t make sense. “I don’t understand.”
“She wanted me to go back with her,” said Joe.
Ben’s heart dropped like a stone. “And?”
“Are you going?”
Joe opened his mouth to deny it. Instead, he said, “I don’t know.” Immediately, he hated himself for the pain in his father’s eyes.
“Is that what you want?” Ben braced himself.
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.”
“Why do you say that?” Ask questions, gather information. Don’t assume you know what he’s thinking. There may be a way around this. The boy was impetuous enough. He didn’t need help in jumping to the wrong conclusion.
Joe shrugged. “A fresh start might not be a bad thing.”
A fresh start. Back in San Francisco—it wouldn’t be a fresh start, it would just be going back. Something didn’t fit. Ben took a guess. “What happened with your brothers?” he asked gently. Joe looked down quickly. Bulls-eye.
“Nothing,” said Joe. When his father was silent, he added, “It wasn’t their fault.”
Ben raised his eyebrows. This was new. The Joe he knew used to move heaven and earth to lay all the blame on his brothers and present himself as pure, innocent and entirely put-upon. His son’s response told him two things. First, Joe had indeed grown up. And second, the matter was much more serious than he’d first assumed. “What happened?” he asked again.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Joe, rising. “They meant well, and they had their reasons.” He started for the barn.
“Joseph!” Ben’s deep voice cut through the evening. Joe stopped, but did not turn. Ben waited. He knew he could outwait his son.
He was not disappointed. Joe turned to face him. “Pa, it doesn’t matter what they did. They thought they were doing what was right. They did it because they cared. They just got things wrong, that’s all. People do that. Just let it go.”
“Joseph, I want to know what happened.” It was the stern tone which, when disobeyed, had preceded many a tanning.
“Then you should ask them,” said Joe. Don’t make me repeat it, he thought. Just knowing the words had been said once, by his beloved brothers, was nearly as much as he could stand. In the gathering dusk, he stood almost far enough from his father to disguise the fact that he was barely holding himself together. All he wanted was to escape to the barn before he punched something or cried like a little kid.
“I’m asking you.” The deliberate manner would brook no interference. If he sensed how close his son was to losing control, Ben gave no sign.
“I’ll tell you,” said Hoss quietly.
Neither of them had heard Hoss and Adam come outside. The two men walked across the porch to where their father sat. Ben couldn’t remember seeing Hoss look so troubled. Adam was unreadable, a sure sign that he was upset.
“We accused Joe of bein’ drunk when there warn’t no reason to,” said Hoss. His father might not have been able to see the battle his brother was fighting, but Hoss saw it plain. Even if he hadn’t, he’d have known.
“Why would do you that?” Ben was confused.
Adam began, “Because—”
“Because they did have a reason,” Joe cut in. His words were laced with bitter resignation. “They saw me drunk in San Francisco. They knew what I was capable of. Turns out, it doesn’t matter how long you’re sober. It’s the first thing people think about you.” The tears stood in his eyes; only by a massive effort did he hold them back. “Even when you thought that, just maybe—” His voice broke.
“We’re so sorry, Little Brother.” Adam’s eyes were dark with sorrow and regret. “We didn’t mean it like that. We were worried, and—”
“And you jumped to conclusions.” Ben didn’t try to disguise his anger.
“You can’t blame them, Pa,” said Joe.
“Can’t I?” Why else was the boy talking about leaving, about a fresh start?
“No,” said Joe. “Because you’d have thought the same thing.”
“No, son, I wouldn’t.” The denial was instinctive.
“Pa, you’ve never lied to me.” Joe walked closer to the three men on the porch. He met his father’s eyes. “Can you honestly tell me that if you saw what they saw—me in a saloon in the middle of the night, a piano, a bottle—can you look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t have thought the same thing? Even for a second?” Tears glistened as he held his father’s gaze. Trapped, unable to lie, Ben said nothing. After a long moment, the tears Joe had held at bay spilled over as realization dawned. Until that moment, neither had recognized the hope that he had held in his heart. “You can’t, can you?” his son whispered. He turned and walked to the barn, shoulders slumped. As he watched his son walk away, defeated, Ben felt his heart break.
Three weeks later, he watched his son walk away from him again, this time to choose the next horse for breaking. He looked around the corral and beyond, to the statuesque pines, the rough mountains and lush meadows. The crisp autumn air heightened his sense of the beauty and grandeur of this land. He couldn’t see the lake from here, but its presence was undeniable. He didn’t know how long Joe would be here. He understood now what the boy meant about a fresh start. It wasn’t about starting over with people who didn’t know his past. It was about being with people who simply accepted who he was, without judgment. It was about being with people who would embrace him if he failed, but who weren’t sitting around waiting for it to happen.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Where’s your brother?” asked Ben anxiously.
“Down at the corral, jest like you wanted,” said Hoss. He couldn’t have said why, but this whole thing made him a touch uneasy. His pa was setting such a store by this present. If it didn’t work, if Joe didn’t act the way Pa wanted, Pa was going to be crushed.
Adam had tried to talk Ben out of it. “It’s a magnificent gift,” he said. “But under the circumstances, it could be misconstrued.”
“How? It’s a birthday present!” It was unclear whether he simply didn’t understand or whether he was practicing his response if Joe raised questions.
“It’s a lot more than that,” said Adam. Hoss had to agree with that. When Ben had told them what he was planning, they’d both thought he was plumb out of his mind. It was as clear a bribe as they’d ever seen. Stay here, and I’ll buy you your own piano. As if that was the reason Joe was talking about leaving.
Eventually, Adam had stepped in to help. Until he did, Ben was talking about a concert grand piano. Adam explained that that instrument was nearly nine feet long. It took a number of whispered conversations, conducted while Hoss claimed Joe’s attention in the barn, before their pa agreed that their living room was simply better suited to an upright.
“They have something called a parlor grand,” Ben said hopefully, holding out the letter from the piano manufacturers. “That’s only six feet long.”
“And five feet wide,” said Adam. “Pa, it’s still a grand piano, and it’s still a lot bigger than we have room for.” Ben harrumphed and pored over the letter again, trying to find a grand piano that their home could accommodate.
It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the point. Ben had heard Joe talk about that grand piano at that church where he’d almost gotten a job. As far as his older sons could tell, it seemed as if their father thought that if Joe had a grand piano right here at home, he wouldn’t need to go back to San Francisco.
It seemed to Hoss that Pa wasn’t usually this far off the mark, but the notion of Joe going back to San Francisco had him right addled. Joe hadn’t even mentioned going back since that awful night out in the yard, but Pa had somehow gotten it into his head that getting Joe his own piano would keep him here, would solve everything. Hoss knew better. He’d spent enough time watching his little brother when Joe didn’t know it, and he’d seen the look in his brother’s eyes in those unguarded moments. Hoss couldn’t have said if the boy would stay or go, but he knew in his heart that the decision wouldn’t be made by a piano, no matter how fine.
“Go get him!” Ben was so impatient that you’d have thought it was his birthday, and not Joe’s. Hoss avoided Adam’s eyes as he trudged out to the yard to get Chubb. As he mounted, he thought, Please, oh please, let Joe be excited about this.
Getting Joe up to the house wasn’t a problem. Just before they went in, though, Hoss stopped him.
”Hey little brother.”
“What?” Joe was nearly as impatient as his father had been earlier.
Hoss’ blue eyes were somber. He laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder, and Joe knew that he was serious. “No matter what you think, just remember—he means this in the best way.”
“What’re you talkin’ about?” Joe demanded.
“Jest—jest remember that, okay?”
Joe searched his brother’s eyes. “Okay,” he said. It was a promise.
“Come on,” said Hoss. He’d done the best he could.
As soon as they entered the living room, Ben shouted, “Happy birthday, son!” He swept the sheet off the bulky item along the wall between the landing and his desk. Joe stopped in his tracks, shocked.
The instrument was beautiful. The cherry cabinet was dark red and straight-grained, with no visible imperfections. It was polished to a high gloss. It shone in the lamplight. The bench was made of the same wood. A needlepoint cushion rested atop it.
In that instant, Joe understood what Hoss had meant. He knew exactly what the gift was meant to do. And he knew what was expected of him, what he’d promised without knowing it. So, he threw himself into his performance with gusto.
“Pa! It’s incredible! I can’t believe you did this!” He surveyed the piano. There was no disputing that it was magnificent. Gently, he opened the keyboard cover. He recognized the manufacturer. Steinway & Sons. The finest pianos in the world. The piano at St. Catherine’s had been a Steinway. It was the only Steinway he’d ever touched. The ivory and ebony keys on this instrument glistened. Come to us, they whispered. We are all you’ll ever need. If only it were true.
Ben. Or San Francisco, he thought.
“Theirs is nothing compared to this one!” enthused Joe. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Aren’t you going to try it out?” Ben had been most gratified by his son’s reaction. It was all he could do not to send a smug look in Adam’s direction.
Joe held up his hands. “I’ve just been at the corral,” he said. “I’ve got to clean up before I touch this one. But Pa, it’s just beautiful. Thank you so much!” He darted out to the kitchen.
“See?” Ben faced his older sons. “He loves it. It was the right thing to do.” And he isn’t feeling pressured to stay just because I spent an exorbitant amount on his gift, he wanted to add.
Adam and Hoss didn’t look at each other. Their father sounded as if he believed his own words and Joe’s enthusiasm. They weren’t about to mess with that. When Ben turned his back, though, Adam shot Hoss a questioning look. Hoss nodded slightly. Adam sighed. He’d thought as much.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben and Adam were seated across from each other at Ben’s desk when Hoss opened the front door. “Mail’s here!” called Hoss. His father and brother leaned back in their chairs as he stood over the desk, sorting through the envelopes. “Pa, Pa, Pa, Pa—don’t nobody else ever get mail here? Oh, here’s one for you, Older Brother, and here’s one for Joe.” He looked at the envelope, then looked again. “Since when is the Episcopal church writin’ to our little brother?”
“What?” Ben looked up from his own mail. Marie had been Catholic, and while there had been talk of raising Joe in her faith, logistics had defeated this plan: there was no Catholic church within twenty miles of the ranch. Like many western towns, Virginia City had but one church, a generic Protestant house of worship where the preacher was careful to avoid some of the stickier doctrinal points that had divided folks into various denominations. “Let me see,” he said, holding out his hand for the letter.
Hoss hesitated. “I shouldn’t’ve said anything,” he said. “It’s Joe’s, and it’s up to him what he wants to tell us about it.”
“What’s on the envelope is public knowledge,” said Adam. “The stage driver could know that, so I’m sure it’s okay that we do.”
“Well, when you put it that way—” Something about Adam’s logic didn’t sit quite right with Hoss, but he couldn’t have said what it was. He handed the letter to his father.
Ben read the return address. His heart sank. His gaze fell on the piano, just a few feet away. He handed the letter back to Hoss wordlessly.
“What’s the matter? Who’s it from?” Adam took the letter back and read aloud. “‘Father R. Ryan, St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church, Garden Street, San Francisco.’”
“St. Catherine’s? Ain’t that the place Joe was talkin’ about that night we saw Ruthie?” Hoss asked. Adam nodded. “Wonder why they’re writin’ to Joe,” Hoss mused.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a response to something he’s written to them,” said Adam.
“But why—” Hoss broke off as the memory of the conversation in Placerville refreshed itself. “You don’t think—”
“So, this is where everybody is,” interrupted Joe as he burst through the door. His face was dirty, but he looked quite pleased with himself. “Hey, Hoss, you wanna give me a hand with the wagon? I’ve got to get the new wheel on, but I don’t think I’m up to lifting the wagon quite yet!” He came around the corner and stopped at the sight of the somber faces. “What’s the matter? Is everybody okay?”
“You got mail,” said Hoss, handing him the envelope.
Cautiously, Joe took it. When he saw the return address, his grin faded. He looked anxiously at his family, the way he did as a child when he’d been caught in some wrongful act or other. He looked for a moment as if he were going to try to explain. When no one met his eyes, he tucked the envelope into his jacket and headed back outside. At the door, he turned back. “Whenever you’re ready, Big Brother,” he said.
After the door closed behind him, his father and brothers looked at each other. “I guess he’s serious about going back there after all,” said Ben.
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Pa,” said Adam. “We don’t even know what they said.”
Ben sipped his coffee in an effort to appear nonchalant. “If that’s what he wants. . . .” he said unconvincingly.
“Well, Pa, if’n it’s that or spending his life doin’ the chores he did when he was a kid ’cuz that’s all his heart can take, mebbe it ain’t such a bad idea,” offered Hoss. “You know Joe. He ain’t gonna put up with this forever. Sooner or later, he’s gonna be wantin’ to go full bore, breakin’ all the horses an’ doin’ the roundup an’ all, and if that ain’t gonna happen. . . . well, mebbe he should think about somethin’ else.”
Ben glared at his middle son. His eyes were dark with anger and betrayal. “His home is here,” he said. “He’s not well enough to leave. We’re his family. We’ll figure this out together.”
“But you just said—”
“I don’t care what I just said!” He slammed the cup on the desk. Coffee splashed and china shattered. Silently, his sons moved to gather the pieces of the cup and mop up the coffee. Ben pushed his chair back from his desk and allowed them to clean up. “Thank you, boys,” he said finally. “Why don’t you—why don’t you go and give your brother a hand for a little while.”
Adam and Hoss exchanged looks. “Sure, Pa,” said Adam. “We’ll finish the contracts later.”
As they walked away, Ben dropped his head into his hands. It seemed as if all he’d done for the past three years was to lose Joe or worry about losing Joe. He was tired. Tired of waiting for what felt inevitable. Tired of waiting to lose his son. All he wanted—all he’d ever really wanted—was to keep his family together. Again and again, he’d failed at that simple task. Even though he knew it wasn’t his fault, it still felt like his failure. He looked from one of the framed pictures on his desk to the next. Elizabeth. Inger. Marie. And now possibly Marie’s son. How much more could he lose? How was a man supposed to bear so much loss?
Unbidden, the words came to him. He rose and went to the shelf. The well-worn volume stood in its usual place. He flipped through the pages until he found what he sought.
While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, Thy sons and they daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house: And behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither; the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
“And fell down upon the ground—and worshipped,” Ben repeated softly. He closed the book and held it tightly against his chest.
* * * * * * * * * *
The young man stood beside the brook in the half-melted snow. The early thaw had released the ice that held the current still through the winter. This was one of the places he had always come back to. From the time he was little, he and his brothers had fished here. It was a place of good times and quiet times, of laughter and peace.
He took the envelope from his jacket pocket. He’d been carrying it with him for weeks now. He hadn’t written back, because he hadn’t known what to say. He’d pondered the question all winter, and he felt no closer to an answer. He took out the letter and read it once again.
Dear Mr. Cartwright,
I was delighted to hear from you after all this time. Thank you for your kind words about Father Carroll. He was indeed our priest, in the very best sense of the word, and he is sorely missed.
Father Carroll spoke very highly of you. A musician himself, he saw great talent and potential in you. While we currently have an accompanist for our services, one of our sister churches here in the city, St. Philip’s, is in need of a pianist. I have taken the liberty of forwarding your letter to them, together with Father Carroll’s endorsement of your abilities. While I can make no guarantee, I feel confident that, if you wish, this position is yours, should you choose to return to San Francisco.
It may also interest you to know that we have established a concert series in memory of Father Carroll. If you are returning to San Francisco, we would be most pleased if you would consider participating.
On behalf of everyone at St. Catherine’s, please accept my deep sympathy at your wife’s passing. It is our great hope that we will have the opportunity to meet with you when next you are in San Francisco.
With God’s blessings,
Father Robert Ryan
So. There it was. He could return to San Francisco. He could earn a living playing the piano. No worries about overexerting, about stressing his heart too much. Nobody expecting him to fall back into his old drinking habits. He could even study the piano properly if he wished. The bustle and excitement of the city would be his. He could visit his friends at the Dove. He could make new friends. His family came to San Francisco regularly. He could have a life there. A fine, successful, respectable life. It was his, if he wanted it. He tucked the letter back into its envelope.
The icy brook babbled beneath him, splashing over rocks. It was too early for the birds to return, but their songs would soon fill the air. The cold breeze whispered through the boughs of the pine trees. Behind him, Cochise whinnied. In a few minutes, the horse’s hooves would beat against the still-frozen ground in a rhythm as familiar to the man as his own heartbeat. It was a different kind of music, but a symphony in its own right, glorious and free.
He turned from the brook. He needed to get into town. He had an appointment to keep with the doctor. He started to walk away, back to his horse. Then, he stopped.
He didn’t know what he’d expected. A thunderbolt, maybe. A flash of lightning. Another heavenly visitation from his wife. A voice from above. What he hadn’t expected was this. This quiet certainty. A peace that softened and soothed his damaged heart, like healing rain soaking into parched ground. This conviction that the past few years had been worthwhile, hadn’t merely been wasted time and suffering. The realization that the answer had been here all along. It had only been waiting for him to recognize it.
Joe turned back to the brook. Perched on a rock in the middle of the water was a tiny bird. It was too early in the season even for this one, but there it was. Its red breast flashed as it moved. He chuckled. “You just never give up, do you?” he said aloud.
He took the envelope from his pocket. His fingers caressed it one more time. Lightly, almost carelessly, he opened his hand, and the envelope dropped into the brook. He watched as the current swept it downstream, the sun glinting off the water. Finally, he could see it no more. When he turned back, the bird was watching him, its tiny black eyes fixed on him. Then, it flew away, up into the trees, and beyond.
* * * * * * * * * *
Doc Martin considered his patient. Something different flickered in the young man’s eyes. Life, yes, and that was a welcome change from the past few weeks, but something more. A touch of the old impatience, tempered with something else he couldn’t quite identify.
The doctor turned to his desk, smiling to himself. If only the news was better. He picked up the file and faced the young man.
“Your heart definitely sounds better,” he began.
“Thank God,” breathed Joe. He grinned with relief. “We did it.”
“Not quite,” said the doctor.
“What do you mean? You said my heart’s better.”
“‘Better.’ Not ‘good as new.’” Doc held out the file. “There’s still a little bit of irregularity in the rhythm. From what’s in this file, and what I’ve read in the medical journals, it’s probably never going to be good as new. There’s no way to know for sure, though. You might go on for years and live a perfectly normal life, and one day your heart just stops, or you could do just a little too much, and it could be over a lot faster. Or, you could take it easy, which is what I’d recommend, and maybe you’ll live longer. Hard to say, though. Right now, we just can’t know for certain how long that heart will last.”
“So, you’re saying I could die at any time, no matter what I do.”
The doctor nodded. “Pretty much.”
“Okay.” Joe ran his hand through his hair. He picked up his jacket and hat and headed for the door. With one hand on the knob, he turned back. “Just one question. You say I could die at any time.” He met the doctor’s eyes squarely. The doctor nodded slowly. “So how does that make me different from anybody else in this town?”
“Pardon?” It was the last question the doctor had expected.
“Look around us,” said Joe. “We carry guns here. We fight. We ride horses. We herd cattle. We deal with robbers and Indians and God knows who else who might try to kill us on any given day. Accidents happen. My mother died when her horse stumbled. Robin died because she was singing in a saloon. Way I see it, the only real difference between me and the rest of the people here is that I maybe know a little bit more about how I’ll die. On the other hand, if I get shot on the street when I walk out of here today, I guess we’d be wrong about even that. Point is, nobody’s been promised tomorrow. I’ve had some of the best yesterdays anybody’s ever had, and I wouldn’t have missed them for the world, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow, any more than you do. All I know for sure is that I want to live as much as I can. I want to ride horses, and I want to play the piano. I want to fall in love again. I want to raise a family. I know that sitting back and taking it easy just might buy me a little more time, but when all’s said and done, no thanks to that. I never knew before when I would die, and I don’t know now, so if it’s all the same to you, Doc, I think I’m just gonna get on with living.” He put on his hat and touched the brim in farewell.
“It’s your decision,” said the doctor. Now, he recognized the look in the hazel eyes, and he knew where he’d seen that look before. For the first time, the young man reminded him of Ben. As Joe opened the door, Doc Martin added, “I just have two things to say to you.” Joe waited. “First, you’re a damned fool. If you take it easy, and maybe give up ranching, your heart will probably last longer.” He paused.
“And the second thing?”
The doctor smiled. “Welcome back, Joe Cartwright.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The lamp burned softly as Joe let himself into the house. With the quiet born of years of habit, he laid his gunbelt on the credenza and hung his jacket and hat on the hook, next to Adam’s. As he turned to head up the stairs, he saw the wood of the piano gleaming in the low light. He smiled. Only his father would have done this. He lifted the cover from the keyboard and ran his fingers over the keys. They were as smooth and perfect as those on the piano at St. Catherine’s. He thought briefly of playing now, but he rejected the thought as soon as it crossed his mind. His family was sleeping. There would be time enough tomorrow.
As he closed the cover, Joe sensed that he was not alone. He looked up the stairs to see his father watching him. Hazel eyes met brown as Ben searched for an answer. “It’s late,” Ben said finally.
Joe smiled. “Not that late.”
Ben smiled, too. His youngest son had never been, never would be, easy. Whether Joe stayed or left, Ben’s days would be filled with many anxious moments as he watched the young man make his way, throwing himself headlong into whatever life he chose. As he regarded his son, Ben finally let go of the reins. The choice was Joe’s, and he would respect it.
As he watched his son, Ben felt for the first time the absolute certainty that, whichever road Joe chose, they would not be lost to each other. The ties had frayed, but they had been well-mended, and they were strong enough to withstand time and distance and anything else the world might throw at them. Whether Joe stayed or left, whether he worked as a rancher or a piano player, the Cartwright family was bound, one to another.
“Pa.” The voice was quiet with the confidence of a soul at peace.
“I was thinking,” said Joe. Ben saw the young man’s hand resting on the keyboard cover as he spoke. He braced himself. “There’s a ranch down in Texas that’s said to have some horses that have bloodlines that are second to none. What if Hoss and I went down there next week to see what they have that might be good breeding stock?”
Ben exhaled silently. He felt as if he’d been holding his breath for a long, long time. He blinked the tears that welled up back. Joe cocked his head slightly, quizzically. The young man’s broad smile, the one that had broken so many hearts, had been replaced by a new one. The new smile reflected not just happiness, but pain and loss and grief, survival and maturity and peace hard-won. He was not the old Joe Cartwright, and he never would be again. But that was as it should be. He’d earned that right.
“Let’s talk about it in the morning,” Ben said hoarsely. There would be plenty of time for such discussions then.