Summary: A serious misunderstanding threatens Joe’s relationship with Hoss. This is part of a series and refers to events portrayed in “The French Piano Player” and “Be Still, My Soul.” Rated: T 17,000
The French Piano Player Series:
All his life, my little brother has been out to prove himself. He’s ridden horses he wasn’t old enough to handle, gotten into fistfights with men he wasn’t big enough to take, and stared down the barrels of guns drawn by men who were faster than he was. Almost from the time he was old enough to talk, he was pestering Pa and me to let him do more around the ranch. He wanted to hold the branding iron when he was seven. He wanted to ride drag on cattle drives when he was eight. And don’t even get me started about the broncs. He waited until his ninth birthday to ask Pa if he could start breaking them, but he’d been after me about it for years before.
And sometimes he didn’t ask, he just did. Cartwright family history is replete with stories of Little Joe trying to do something for which he wasn’t old enough, or big enough, or just plain ready. When he was ten, he heard us talking about a wolf that was threatening the herd, and he took it on himself to ride out on his little pony, Pa’s rifle in hand, to take care of the wolf. He didn’t get very far before one of the hands caught up with him and delivered him back to Pa, who had his own inimitable way of expressing his displeasure with his youngest son. When Joe was twelve, he snuck out at night to take his first shot at breaking those broncs he’d already been forbidden to touch. That escapade landed him in bed with a broken leg and his first concussion. When he was fifteen and the proud possessor of his first gun, he heard about a bank robbery in town, and he and his best friend, Mitch Devlin, formed their own posse and lit out after the robbers. To their credit, they actually caught up with the robbers; however, since they had not yet mastered the skill of apprehending suspects, they were promptly taken hostage. They managed to escape, but in the process, Joe was shot in the leg, his first bullet wound. Those four days are probably responsible for more of Pa’s white hair than any other single event in his life.
I admit that I generally didn’t think much about my brother’s tendency to reach too far. I always saw Joe as merely high-spirited, excitable, a pampered pup with too much energy and not enough to spend it on. A daredevil personality competing against the world for the sheer joy of the game. I never considered the possibility that some of his antics could be coming from a darker place.
You see, as it turned out, my brother’s endeavors weren’t just about proving himself to the world. Until everything fell apart a few months ago, none of us had an inkling that, in some far corner of his mind that even he didn’t quite understand, Joe was somehow trying to measure up within the family, to earn what he didn’t believe he would otherwise receive, what he didn’t trust to be given to him freely, regardless of his merit.
The love of his family.
Three months earlier
He didn’t slam the door.
Funny. Pa’s been after him his whole life not to slam doors, and he always does it anyway. Not this time. This time, he closed the door quiet after him, like he was trying to sneak out of my life.
I couldn’t say anything. Everything in me wanted to yell at him to just sit down and stay put, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t yell at him any more.
I already done enough.
Pa’s gonna have a fit when he finds out what I done. ‘Course, he’s gonna have a bigger fit when he finds out what I didn’t do first. I can just hear him now: “How could you have let your brother go into that place? Why didn’t you keep an eye on him? You knew what could happen in there! You were supposed to look out for him! You promised! Now look what’s happened!”
Pa’s right. We shouldn’t have gone in there at all. We took too big a chance. Thing was, we weren’t gonna be in San Francisco that long, and Joe wanted to see his friends at that saloon with the funny name. The Singing Dove. Peculiar name for a saloon, if’n you ask me. Anyhow, Joe got to know some of these people pretty good when he was living here, and he figured it would be right cold for him not to at least stop in to say howdy while he was in town.
I could understand that. I knew some of them, too. Not the way Joe did, of course, but we’d had some drinks a couple of times. Back when Adam and I were looking for Joe, more’n three years ago now, we went in that saloon and asked for him. Funny thing was, he was working there then, and we didn’t even know it. He was using his ma’s name, DeMarigny, instead of calling himself Cartwright, and they just called him Frenchy. Plus, when him and Robin ran off to get married, Joe didn’t even know how to play the piano. So, when they told us there was a French kid there who played the piano, we never thought it might be our little brother, and we kept looking.
About a year and a half later, we happened back into the same saloon, and that was how we found him. He was real sick by that time. Seems his wife had got killed a year before, and he’d spent pretty much that whole year drinking. It took a powerful lot of doing, but we got him better and took him home to the Ponderosa. Doc says he’s never gonna be a hundred percent-I guess drinking did something to his heart-but Joe says he’s close enough, and he does everything he can, and a bunch of stuff he probably shouldn’t.
Which is how it was that me and Joe were in charge of the cattle drive to San Francisco. Pa was real nervous about my little brother going, but Joe kept pestering him until finally he said it was okay. I don’t think Joe knows that Pa checked with Doc first. I didn’t blame Pa. That boy may have more lives than an old tomcat, but you don’t want to get to the last one this young.
Before we left, Pa took me aside and made me promise to keep a close eye on Joe. I knew it was important to him, so I made like it was a big deal and promised him real solemn. Truth is, it wasn’t nothing more than what I’ve done every day of that boy’s life ‘cept for when he lived in San Francisco, and even then, I spent most of my time out looking for him. I held Little Joe when he was just a few minutes old. You don’t do something like that and then stop watching out for somebody.
Joe used to complain that Adam acted more like a pa to him than a brother. I ain’t never told Joe, but sometimes, I feel more like a pa to him, too, even though I ain’t but six years older than he is. Like when he was little, and he’d get real scared at night, I always knew it. Everybody always says nothin’ wakes up ole Hoss. Truth is, nothin’ wakes up ole Hoss except his little brother needing him. I don’t know how I knew, but I almost always did. Most times, Little Joe couldn’t really tell me what he was so scared of, but it didn’t matter none. I’d bring him in bed with me, and I’d tell him not to worry about nothin’, how he just had to trust ole Hoss and everything was gonna be all right. We’d pull the covers up over our heads so Pa couldn’t hear us, and I’d tell him stories about the ranch-the animals, the lake, the mountains, how someday we’d go fishing here or hunting there or camping some other place. He always wanted to hear about horses, so I’d tell him how someday we’d catch us a bunch of wild mustangs and we’d ride like the wind on them ’cause we’d be the best danged cowboys anybody ever seen. After a while, he’d fall asleep, curled up against me. Sometimes, I’d just watch him sleep, and I’d promise him how nothin’ bad would ever happen to him as long as I was around.
Turns out that wasn’t the truth after all. Last night was bad. It was real bad. And I was right there, and I didn’t do nothing to stop it. I just made it worse. I made it so bad that now he’s gone, and it’s all my fault.
I gotta admit, I didn’t pay much attention after Joe went upstairs with Judith. I didn’t expect him to do that, but a man’s business is his own. I settled in to play poker and relax until Joe was ready to leave. Them sailors is pretty good, but I was holdin’ my own. Still, I had to pay pretty close attention to what was goin’ on, ’cause one of them looked like the type who might’ve had a couple of aces hid up his sleeve. So, I didn’t really see when Joe came back downstairs and went back over to the piano. I guess I thought he might have sat in for a few hands, but I wasn’t worried about him.
After a while, his music started to sound funny. Now, I ain’t like my brothers. I don’t know nothin’ about music. I know what I like, and that’s about it. I usually like what Joe plays. This didn’t sound right, though. It sounded real dark and scary, like that feeling you get when you’re walking down the street alone at night and you hear somebody behind you click off the safety on their pistol. Plus, it sounded like he was hittin’ a lot of wrong notes. I thought maybe it was some kind of fancy playing that I didn’t understand, and I just let him be. When it didn’t get better, though, I folded and turned away from the table.
That’s when I saw the bottle.
When you’re big and strong like I am, you don’t get to lose control. Somebody like Joe can do it and barely leave a dent. Not me. From the time I was little-well, little compared to now-Pa told me that I had to be careful I didn’t hurt nobody. I always took that seriously. I always kinda thought of my temper like some big, mean old bull in a pen. You gotta keep that pen closed, ’cause if that bull gets out, he’s liable to smash everything before you know what happens.
But that night, when I saw that while I’d been sittin’ there, playin’ poker and drinking beer, my little brother was drinking most of a bottle of whiskey-well, I lost control. The bull got out of his pen, and that whiskey bottle was the red flag wavin’ in front of him.
For a minute, all I could see was the way Joe looked that night we’d finally found him. When I walked into that sad room of his, my little brother was laying there, dying, right in front of me. There was almost nothing left of him, ’cause he’d drunk it all away. His eyes were all red, and his skin was all yellowed, and he was wheezing and coughing up blood. I didn’t even recognize him at first. My own brother, and I didn’t know him. Hadn’t been for the picture of his mother on the bureau, I don’t know if I’d have looked again. But I looked, and I knew him, and I knew he was gonna die if’n we didn’t do something. Adam brought the doctor, and we got him out of there and to a hospital. He dang near died about four or five times while he was in the hospital, and once, early on, he was in a coma for almost four days. Sometimes, he’d get all agitated, fighting against the restraints they’d used to tie his hands and swearing like a sailor when nobody would untie him. Other times, he’d think Robin was still alive and he’d call for her, and when she didn’t come, the look on his face was enough to break your heart. I used to sit by his bed for hours at a stretch, whether he was awake or not, holdin’ his hand and talkin’ gentle to him, just like I did when he was little and scared.
After watching what Joe went through to get better, and what Pa and Adam went through-and me, to be honest-I swore to the good Lord and the memory of Joe’s ma that it wouldn’t ever happen again. It had been long enough now that I didn’t think it could still happen. I thought Joe had learned his lesson and knew better than to touch that stuff. He could handle a couple of beers, but as far as I knew, he hadn’t had whiskey since before we found him. If I’d thought for a second there was a chance he’d ever drink whiskey again, or that he’d ever be drunk on anything, I’d never have let him get anywhere near a saloon.
So, when I saw that bottle was more’n half empty, and I saw Joe-well, the bull saw red.
I grabbed him by the arm and yanked him to his feet. “What the devil do you think you’re doin’?” I roared in his face. He jerked back when I yelled. His eyes were all red and didn’t look like they were focusing. He blinked real hard. He opened his mouth like he was gonna talk, but he started to cough, and I could smell the whiskey.
“Ain’t you learned nothin’ by now!” I was shaking him as I yelled.
He tried to pull loose, but I grabbed him tighter and pulled him close so he couldn’t look away. He stumbled, and he kicked over the bottle. The look on his face when he saw that he’d spilled the rest of the whiskey-I tell you, it like to have made me sick. He looked like it was the blood of his best friend staining that floor, he was so sad.
“I asked you a question, boy! What the devil’s the matter with you? Ain’t you got no sense? Don’t you remember what happened to you last time? Don’t you remember how you almost died? Don’t you remember what Pa and Adam and me went through, trying to save your worthless hide? Are you tryin’ to do all that again? What the hell is wrong with you, Joseph!” And on and on, until Joe looked like he was shrinking in my hands. I was madder than I’ve ever been about anything, and I wasn’t holdin’ back nothing.
“Hoss-” he started.
“What?” I shouted.
“What? What is it you want, boy? You wanna kill yourself? Is that it? You wanna finish off what’s left of your heart? You want more whiskey? Is that what you want? Well, here! Drink it! Drink all of it!” I threw him down on the floor, and he landed on his hands and knees in the spilled whiskey.
For a moment, Joe didn’t move. Without looking up, he whispered, “Hoss-“
I couldn’t stand it any more. I turned on my heel, grabbed my hat and stormed out. If he didn’t care what he did to himself, fine. Let him do what he was gonna do. Let one of his friends clean up after him. They were used to this from him.
It seemed like the smell of whiskey followed me for blocks. Every place I looked, I saw more drunks-sailors, cowboys, men in fancy business clothes, and almost anybody else you can think of. Staggering down the sidewalks, stumbling around, puking in the gutters. It was like I was the only person there who wasn’t drunk. I never hated a place so much as I hated that city that night.
I don’t know how far I walked before I figured it out. It was more than being mad. I was scared. I don’t know when I’ve ever been that scared. All I could think was that it was happening again, he was gonna start drinking and get himself all sick again, but maybe this time we’d be too late, or maybe it would be too hard on his heart, or maybe something else, and this time, he’d die. I knew I had to get him out of here, away from that whiskey and this place and these people who let him drink himself near to death before and didn’t look like they would lift a finger to stop him this time either.
I turned and ran through the streets, dodging people, all the way back to that saloon. When I got there, I burst through the doors, trying to catch my breath. I looked around the room, and it felt like a cold hand was squeezing my heart. He wasn’t at the piano. He wasn’t at the corner table with Judith. He wasn’t at any of the other tables.
He wasn’t anywhere.
Ruthie was hanging on a poker player. She ignored me until I was right beside her. Then, she looked up, real casual, almost daring me to say something.
“Where is he?” I demanded.
Ruthie shrugged. “What do you care?”
“He’s my brother.” I gave her the hard stare I use when I want to scare big men, but that little lady didn’t seem to care.
“You left him.”
It was like she stabbed me. I could feel the bull wanting out. I breathed him down. “I know. But I’m back. Now, where is he?”
She looked me dead in the eye. She wasn’t scared of me, not even a little bit. “He left,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I wouldn’t have put it past her to have him stashed away upstairs, sleeping off his binge.
“Yeah,” she said. “He’s gone.” She sounded like she was telling the truth.
“Where did he go?” If I thought I was scared before, it was nothing compared to this. I could feel my stomach turning over, like I was the one who was drunk.
“He didn’t say. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work.” She turned her back on me and draped her arm around the poker player.
“Miss.” I waited until she looked up. “Miss-if’n you see him-will you tell him I’m looking for him?”
She looked at me for a minute. Something in her eyes softened, just a tiny bit. “Yeah,” she said finally. “I’ll tell him.”
I tipped my hat. “Thank you, miss,” I said. I looked around the room. The folks who worked there were watching me, all except Joe’s friend, Judith. I knew without asking that not one would have told me anything different.
The saloons were closing down and the streets were getting quieter when I finally saw a man about Joe’s size, stumbling along the sidewalk in front of me. He passed under a streetlamp, and I saw the green jacket. “Joe!” I yelled. “Joseph!” I hustled to catch up with him. It didn’t take much trying. He was walking real slow and deliberate, like he was trying not to weave, but he kept losing his balance, and it was costing him.
“Where the dickens you been?” I asked, like it was any other night. He didn’t answer, didn’t even look up. He just kept looking down at his feet, like that was how he’d make them go where he wanted. I reached for him, but he jerked away and fell over. He almost hit his head on the base of the lamppost. That was when I saw the bruises on his face and the cut over his eye. “What the-who did that to you?” He sure hadn’t been in any shape for a fight when I left him at the Dove.
“I’m fine,” he muttered. I could hardly understand him, he was slurring so. I reached for him, and he pushed my hand away. “Can do it myself.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. I’d been hearing them selfsame words from him ever since he was old enough to talk. “If’n you say so,” I said.
“Say so,” he said. I could feel my smile fade as I watched him. It was enough to break your heart. He couldn’t seem to figure out how to get his feet back under him. I watched for a minute and then reached down to help him up. He smacked my hand away. After a few tries, he rolled over on his hands and knees and pushed himself up, holding onto the lamppost until he was standing up. He let go of the lamppost and swayed a little, but he stayed standing. After a minute, he started walking again, real slow, holding one arm against his stomach like it hurt. Much as I wanted to, I didn’t hold him up. But I stayed close enough to catch him if he fell.
At last, we got to the hotel. Neither one of us had said anything the whole way back. I walked behind him up the stairs, just in case. I was surprised to see that he knew which room was ours. He waited while I unlocked the door, and I stood back to let him in.
Inside, he still wouldn’t let me help him at first, even though it was clear he was done in. I tried to unbutton his shirt, and he kept shoving me away, even when it knocked him off his feet and back onto the bed. He was still hard to understand, he was slurring so bad, but he kept talking about how I should leave him alone, and more about something being not good enough. Finally, though, he stopped fighting me, and I got him undressed, cleaned up and into bed.
It didn’t take long before the whiskey caught up with him. I held the basin while he was sick. I knew it hurt him; I already tore up a sheet to bind the ribs I was pretty sure he’d cracked. When he was done, I tried to give him a glass of water to rinse his mouth, but his hands were shaking so bad he couldn’t hold it, so I held it for him. Afterward, he laid back on the pillow, and I thought he was falling asleep at last, so I snuck out to empty the basin.
When I came back, he started to talk again. It was awful, what he was saying. I couldn’t hear him real clear, but what I could hear made me just about broke my heart. He wasn’t making much sense, and he was still hard to understand, but it sounded like he was talking about something that wasn’t good enough, and I finally figured out that that something was him. He said something about Judith that I couldn’t catch. Then he talked about how I was right to be mad and he didn’t blame me. He said he didn’t deserve anything and everybody should just leave him in the gutter where he belonged and wash their hands of him, because he was just a worthless drunk and not worth the bother. In another man, it might have sounded like self-pity, but the way Joe was talking, it sounded like he was just stating facts that no sensible person would quarrel with, like the sky is blue or water is wet. And that just made it sadder.
Listening to him, I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t believe he could think like this about himself. I had a lump in my throat the size of a watermelon. I held onto his hand for all I was worth and tried to tell myself that he was just drunk, he didn’t really mean any of it. Finally, I managed to say, “We’ll talk about it in the morning.” I couldn’t say nothing else. He was so drunk he wouldn’t have heard me anyway. But there was something in his eyes, just for a second, just before he closed them, that scared me.
I didn’t sleep much. I couldn’t. Everything I’d yelled, and everything Joe’d said about himself, kept running around in my head. Every time he stirred, I woke up. He was talkin’ in his sleep, and I couldn’t understand much of it, but it sounded like the same things he was saying before he fell asleep, about not being good enough. When he’d say that, I’d reach across the space between our beds and try to wake him from whatever bad dream he was having. He’d wake a little bit, enough to stop talking, and then he’d fall back to sleep. I wanted so much just to take him in my arms and tell him it was okay, the way I did when he was little, but I didn’t have the nerve. After what I’d said, he’d likely push me away anyway. I couldn’t have stood that.
I finally fell asleep just before sunup. When I woke up, Joe’s bed was empty. I didn’t hear anything at first. Then, I heard the quiet sound of the door opening. I went out to the other room in time to see Joe, all dressed and carrying his satchel, starting out the door.
“What are you doin’?” My head felt fuzzy from not sleeping.
He ducked his head. He didn’t look me in the eye. He was holding himself all stiff and careful, like his whole body hurt. He pointed to the table. “It’s all there,” he said. His voice sounded dead.
“What is? What’re you talkin’ about? Where’re you goin’?”
Joe shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, real quiet. “For everything. I’m sorry.”
“Joseph, what are you talkin’ about?” He wasn’t making no sense at all.
“Hoss.” For the first time that morning, he looked right at me. The scary look in his eyes from last night was still there. He was so pale that his bruises stood out. “It’s all right. I understand. It’s not your fault. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” And he slipped out the door and closed it behind him, real quiet.
“Joe! What in tarnation-” I snatched up that note and read it. By the time I saw what it said and struggled into my clothes, he wasn’t nowhere in the hall. I ran downstairs, and he wasn’t in the lobby. I ran out the door and looked up and down the street, and I didn’t see him anywhere. I ran up and down the streets of San Francisco all day, but I couldn’t find him. It was like he’d walked out that door and off the face of the earth.
I went over to the Singing Dove. They all said they hadn’t seen him. I couldn’t tell if they were lying. I tried to give the bartender money to answer questions, like we did when we hunted for Joe last time, and he just slid it back across the bar and walked away from me.
That was when I knew that I wasn’t gonna find him if he didn’t want to be found. He had people in this town who would help him hide. I was gonna need help to find my little brother.
With a heavy heart, I went to the telegraph office and wired Pa to come to San Francisco as soon as he could.
It’s not so bad here. It’s familiar, anyway. When Robin and I lived in this building, we were just down the hall. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back here, but I knew the place, and I knew the landlord would take me back. Even with everything that went on, we always paid the rent, and that was all he cared about.
I never thought I’d be back here again.
I know what’s going to happen. Hoss will probably send for Pa, and Pa will try to talk me out of this. He’ll tell me I misunderstood, or that Hoss was wrong, or something like that. He’ll say pretty much anything to patch things up. Thing is, that won’t change what happened.
Because I didn’t misunderstand anything. Hoss was right. I know, because I was right, and all he did was agree with me. And it doesn’t matter that I was drunk. I knew what I was saying, and I meant every word. Anyway, the truth is the truth, drunk or sober.
Like the truth about me and Judith. After I got shot, the night Robin died, Judith was the one who nursed me. When I first started playing again, I was pretty worn out by the end of the night, and Judith would walk home with me, even though I insisted I didn’t need help. In the beginning, she just walked with me to the building. It didn’t take long before she was coming upstairs, and then she was staying the night with me, and then she just sort of moved in. And when I started drinking more and more, she stepped up and tended to me. She never once yelled at me for being such a drunk. She must have thought I’d get past it. When I didn’t, she stayed anyway.
I was so stupid and drunk that I thought she was helping me just because she was Robin’s best friend. Every once in a while, I saw a flash of something else, but I didn’t pay it much mind. It never crossed my mind that she could love somebody like me-a lousy drunk, dirt-poor, as pathetic as they come. After Hoss and Adam rescued me, she came to the hospital, and then to the house, to visit. But as I got better, she got more guarded, until finally she stopped coming at all. I thought it was because she felt like Pa disapproved of her, since she’d lived with me even though we weren’t married. Funny thing was, Pa didn’t think anything of the sort. In fact, he was grateful to her. He knew that there had come a point where she was pretty much all that stood between me and death.
It wasn’t until last night, when she looked at me, that I finally put the pieces together, and I knew why she’d been with me, and why she’d stayed. Maybe I knew before and I just couldn’t believe she would love me. She wasn’t family. She didn’t owe me anything. God knew, it wasn’t like I was doing anything for her, except maybe the obvious. But she stayed, and she took care of me. She got me home when I was so drunk I could hardly stand up, and she held my head when I was sick, and she let me hold her at night when I was scared and lonely and had no idea how to get out of this big, black hole that just got bigger and blacker every day.
I just used her.
That sounds so ugly. But it’s true. I never thought of her as anything other than Robin’s friend. How I could have spent so long with her, day after day, night after night, and never have known she loved me-well, I just don’t know. The only answer, which is completely wretched, is that I wasn’t thinking about her. I was thinking about me, and about Robin and our baby, and about Pa and Adam and Hoss, and how all of them were lost to me forever. I drank more and more, trying not to think about any of them.
And I never once thought about how Judith felt.
If I had, I’d never have gone into the Dove last night. I’d never have done that to her-come strolling in, all healthy and strong, clean-shaven and tanned, the good-looking Cartwright kid, with money in my pocket and a smile on my face and a family to go home to. All the parts of me that she never got to have. Better she should have remembered me as that skinny, sickly fellow with wild hair and bloodshot eyes who couldn’t put two sentences together without taking a drink in between.
Things started off fine. Phil said he was glad to see me, and he gave us a couple of beers on the house. Hoss and I sat with Ruthie and Eileen, just relaxing with a couple more beers, and a couple more. Then, Ruthie suggested that I play something.
Now, I’ve played a few pianos since I left the Dove. My piano at home is magnificent, with that rich bass that sounds almost like bells. The piano at our church in Virginia City has a proper and dignified tone, and there’s never a speck of dust on it. Still, that old upright at the Dove, with its yellowed keys and gouged-up cabinet and tinny sound, and those notes way up at the top that stick whenever it rains-well, it may sound foolish, there’ll always be something special about that one. It was the first piano I ever played. It was the only one Robin ever heard me play. A lot of the best moments of my life were spent at that banged-up piano, playing while she sang. Almost from the first day I saw it, I’ve never been able to look at that piano without seeing her standing beside it, with that long dark hair and those blue eyes and the smile that just made everything else seem like it couldn’t possibly matter.
I finished my beer in a couple of swallows, got another and sat down at my piano. I meant to play something upbeat and cheerful, I really did. After a couple of minutes, though, I found myself sliding off into other things. Maybe it was just being here that did it. My beautiful wife was shot and killed in this room, just a few feet from where I sat. This was the place I’d come to when I’d left my family, after Pa slapped me across the face and said terrible things about the woman I loved, and even though he was dead wrong about her, part of me knew he thought just as poorly of me for choosing her. And this room, this very chair, was where I drank myself damn near to death. I can’t say for sure what it was. All I know is that, the more I played, the more I was playing about the dark, desperate memories this room held, known and secret. I felt like I was drowning in the music, going under for longer and longer stretches, until finally I wouldn’t come back up and it would all be over.
Eventually, I made myself stop. The saloon was silent. Nice work, Cartwright. You really know how to bring down a room. I tried to think of something to play that would make the people smile. Before I could figure it out, though, there was a light hand on my shoulder, and that low, dark voice that used to moan so sweetly in my ear said, “You look good, cowboy.”
It was like she’d thrown me a rope. Everything in me started to hum. She was the only one who could get my attention like this when I was in the depths. Even if it was just for an hour, I’d take it. The glimpse of daylight, the chance for survival. The boost I needed to climb up onto solid ground again.
I had to swallow hard before I could look up. I said, “So do you, lovely lady.” It was true. The red curls, the big brown eyes, the sweet, sad smile, the curve of her bosom in that green dress-she was one fine-looking woman. I rested my hand on her hip and gave her my best smile. She smiled back like she’d expected just that, and she leaned down for a kiss. It started like a simple kiss between old friends, but in just a second, we both knew it was going somewhere else completely. She drew me to my feet, and I followed her like a puppy, up the stairs to her room.
Okay, I knew that my motives weren’t even close to pure. Call it being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That old piano; the beers; the way just being in the Dove made me feel all unsettled; remembering how it was during that year after Robin died, when I didn’t want to feel anything because nothing I felt was good, when I’d lost Robin and the baby and wished so badly that I could go home, but knew I’d already burned that bridge good and proper. When all those feelings were churning up again, and I could feel myself starting to slip toward that blackness that almost swallowed me last time, there was Judith again, offering warmth and comfort like she used to. And I took her up on it without thinking, even for a second, about why she was offering.
Afterward, she didn’t say anything. I didn’t worry about that at first. I just held her close, feeling her softness, smelling her light, sweet perfume, and trying to ignore that cold, clear light in the corner of my mind that said that something really wrong had just happened. Two old lovers getting together again-what could be wrong with that? We were adults, we both wanted it, and we weren’t hurting anybody. Sure, I knew Pa would have found something wrong with it, and probably Hoss would give me an earful later, but it wasn’t like we were married to other people or something.
“Jude? You okay, sweetheart?” I kissed her temple, trying to be casual, like what had just happened wasn’t a big deal for either of us.
“How much longer are you in town?” she asked softly, still looking at the ceiling.
“Probably leaving in the morning,” I said. “Just need to pick up the papers on those cattle we delivered, and we’ll be on our way.”
She was quiet after that. Finally, I asked, “Is something wrong?”
“How long have you been in San Francisco?” she asked.
“Couple of days,” I admitted. It was actually more like a week. We’d had some actual business to tend to, like dinner with a potential buyer, but most of the week had been a vacation. Just a chance to have fun and blow off steam without thinking about anything. Plus, I wouldn’t have admitted it, but I had to work up the nerve to come back here. Something in me knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d have thought, to come back to the scene of some of my best and worst memories.
“I guess I’m lucky I caught you, then,” she said. There was a sad, hard edge in her voice that I didn’t remember hearing before.
“I wouldn’t have left town without coming to see you,” I said. It wasn’t quite a lie: I wouldn’t have left town without wanting to see her. If I’d missed her here, I’d have been disappointed, and not just because I’d have missed what we just did.
“Sure.” She sat up and reached for her chemise. We’d flung our clothes all over the room in our haste to get them off. I could see a stocking dangling from the corner of the mirror. One of my boots was lying under a chair, and the mate was nowhere in sight.
“Judith? Honey, what’s wrong?” I was honestly confused now. I reached to touch her, but she moved away from my hand.
“Nothing you’d ever understand,” she said. The bitterness was abrupt and startling, like reaching into the picnic basket and finding a snake.
I sat up in bed, watching as she dressed. “Try me,” I said.
She turned to face me, buttoning her dress. “Am I ever going to hear from you again?”
“Of course,” I said. “I don’t know when I’ll be in San Francisco again, but I’ll come see you then.” It was true, every word of it, but tears welled up in her eyes anyway. “Sweetheart, tell me what’s wrong. I promise, whatever it is, I’ll fix it.” She was starting to scare me.
She turned her back on me, but I could see her reflection in the mirror as she put her hair back up with those ivory combs she’s had as long as I can remember. It was clear even to me that there was something she wanted me to know, but she didn’t want to have to say it. She wanted me to figure it out. Thing was, I had no idea what I was supposed to figure out.
“Judith, what is the problem?” I was starting to get irritable myself. I wasn’t any good at these guessing games. They made me feel stupid and helpless. When she didn’t answer, just kept fussing with her hair, I snapped, “You know, Robin used to do this, too-try to make me guess what I did wrong. Thing is, that list is pretty long, and I need a little help. Would you please be kind enough to tell me which of the three million and forty-seven sins I’ve committed is the one that’s bothering you at this particular minute?” I didn’t even care that I sounded nasty.
She finished fixing her hair. Over her shoulder, she said, “You can just leave the money on the bureau.” The words sliced into me like a knife.
Then, with one hand on the doorknob, she turned and looked at me, plain and unguarded, and I finally understood.
She’d been in love with me all along. She still was. And she knew I wasn’t in love with her, and I never would be. I swear, I’d have given anything in that moment to fall in love with her. I refused to lie to her, though. Give me credit for that much. She deserves so much better than me, always has. She deserves someone who loves her back. Not somebody like me. I don’t deserve her. I’m not good enough for the likes of her. I’m not good enough for anybody. I came up here and used her to make myself feel better, and I never even asked so much as how things were going for her. I’m not good enough to lick her boots. I watched her walk out that door, head held high, and it felt like everything inside me that was even a little bit good or decent came crashing down, with only my worst parts left standing.
I knew right then what I should do: get dressed, get Hoss and get the hell out of there. Habits are strong, though. Stronger than most men realize. Especially bad ones. Even the habits you think you’ve beaten-they’re never really beaten. They just lie in wait, and when you’re not paying attention, they sneak up on you and hit you over the head. Give them the right circumstances, and they’ll bushwhack you every time. In that place, at that moment, with those people and those feelings and that battered upright piano, my old habit got the drop on me, and I surrendered to it.
I wanted a drink in the worst way you can imagine. I wanted it more than I wanted anything else-more than my family, my home, my life, air to breathe, anything. I’ve had times since I went home when I thought I needed a drink, but this made all that look like child’s play. I wanted to climb into the bottle and drown. It scared me, how much I wanted that drink.
But it didn’t scare me enough to get me to walk away.
Let me say right up front that I don’t blame Hoss, not even a little bit, for not stopping me. He was playing poker when I stumbled down the stairs, and I don’t know if he even knew I was back. I don’t think he expected that I’d do what I did, but I don’t know if he was surprised. Besides, I’m a grown man. It’s nobody’s job to rescue me. If I want to do something stupid, I can do it, and it’s nobody’s fault but mine. I’m the one who went upstairs with Judith even though I didn’t love her. I’m the one who told Phil to give me the glass and the bottle. I’m the one who poured that first drink, and I’m the one who drank it. And then I poured the second one, the third one, and all the ones after that.
By the time Hoss figured out what was happening, I was as drunk as I can ever remember being. I couldn’t understand everything he was saying, but he yanked me up from the piano bench and yelled in my face and threw me down on the floor, in the spilled whiskey, and kept yelling. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen him so mad. Even drunk, I knew I deserved whatever he said or did. It was the first time in my life I was ever scared of him.
And then, he stopped yelling, and he just stomped out. All I could do was watch him go. I was still where I’d landed, on my hands and knees in the puddle of whiskey, and I watched him slam the doors open like he wanted to break them off. After he left, the room was so quiet you could have heard a teardrop hit the floor.
Nobody said anything to me at first. I don’t know if they were embarrassed or if they thought I was. I waited for a minute to see if he was coming back, but he didn’t. So, I hauled myself up by hanging onto the piano. I sat on the chair for a few minutes, trying to stop the room from spinning. Ruthie brought me a glass of water. She didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I drank a little bit, but it just made me feel sick, so I put it down, real carefully, next to the piano. I didn’t want them to have to clean that up on top of the whiskey I’d already spilled.
I’d tossed my hat and jacket and gunbelt on top of the piano when I came downstairs. Slowly, deliberately, I stood up and reached for them. I put the hat on first. Then, I put on the jacket. Then, I started to put on the gunbelt, but I thought that I should have put it on before I put on the jacket, so I took off the jacket and the hat and laid them down. Then, I realized that I didn’t have to take off the hat to put on the gunbelt, so I put the hat back on. After I did that, I thought for a minute. Jacket or gunbelt. Something came next. I picked up the jacket, and then I put it down and picked up the gunbelt. I usually didn’t have a problem buckling it, but this time, it was really complicated. I couldn’t remember what the ties at the bottom of the holster were for, so I just left them loose. I patted my head to be sure I had my hat, and I put on my jacket.
“Night, everybody,” I said, real casually, like it had just been a typical night. Which, in a way, it had been.
“You okay, Frenchy?” Ruthie asked softly.
I smiled for her. “Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m just fine.” Then, I drew her closer. “Take care of Judith, will you?” I could feel my eyes welling up a little bit, but I fought it back.
Ruthie looked from me to her. Judith was sitting at a corner table by herself. Ruthie looked back at me, and I knew she probably knew everything. “Sure,” she said. She kissed me on the cheek. “You sure you’re okay?” she asked quietly.
I tipped my hat to her and winked. “I’m fine.” Say what you will about me, but I’m good at getting along when I’m drunk. I’d have to be. Otherwise, I’d have been dead a long time ago.
I made my way to the door and turned back. Judith’s eyes were fixed on the bottle in front of her. I tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t look up. I thought of going over to her and saying something, anything. But there was nothing to say. Nothing I could do to make things better. She’d thrown her heart away on the most worthless of all worthless men, and the best thing I could do for her was to get the hell out of her life.
The cool, wet air outside perked me up a little bit. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to remember which way to go to get to our hotel. I couldn’t even remember its name, and we stay there every time we’re in town. I just knew what it looked like. I stood there, trying to remember, and a couple of fellows bumped into me.
“Hey! Look where you’re going!” I tried to sound tough, but even I could hear how I was slurring. They just laughed and kept going. I wasn’t even enough for them to fight with.
After a while, I started walking. I figured that I’d have to find the hotel sooner or later. I knew I could walk from there to the saloon, so it couldn’t be that far. If only I could remember when to turn. . . .
I don’t know how long I’d been walking when a man in a shiny black suit stopped me. “Excuse me, friend, I wonder if you could help me,” he said. His hair was slicked down, and his mustache looked like he’d done the same to it. He had a friend with him who was dressed pretty much the same.
“Sure,” I said. “Whaddya want?”
“Well, sir, we’re new to San Francisco, and we were wondering if you could recommend some place where a man might partake of a bit of refreshment and perhaps a friendly game of cards.” Even his smile looked oily.
“The Singing Dove,” I said. I started to turn around to point, but I lost my balance. The next thing I knew, both of them had grabbed me, and one of them was reaching into my jacket. “Hey!” I yelled. I elbowed him before he could get my wallet, and he didn’t take that well. Next thing I knew, one of them was holding me while the other was beating me. I tried to get free, or to kick, or to do anything else, but two sober men against one drunk just aren’t very good odds for the drunk. People just walked on past as the two fancy men beat me up. I remember doubling over when it felt like a punch cracked a rib, but that’s pretty much all I remember until I woke up in some doorway. I don’t know how I got there, if I walked or crawled or if they dumped me so they wouldn’t leave the sidewalk a mess. My head was aching, my ribs were sore, and my wallet was gone. On top of which, the world was still spinning from everything I drank, and I could tell my stomach wasn’t going to put up with any of this for much longer.
I hauled myself up by the doorknob. I felt downright miserable, the way you do when all you really want is to curl up and sleep until it’s a week later and everything is over. I stood up, dizzy and sore. I could feel myself swaying. I leaned against the building until the dizziness passed a little bit. I tried moving one foot forward, barely picking it up. I didn’t fall. I moved the other one, holding my arms out for balance. I stayed standing. Slowly, I worked my way across the sidewalk, where there were lampposts and I could see better. It felt like it took forever to get there, but I figured it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do. One step at a time, I made my way along the edge of the sidewalk, hoping that I was going in the right direction, because I knew I only had so much walking left in me.
After a while, I started to think about just finding a bench and sleeping there. It wasn’t like I’d never done that. On nights when Judith was working and I’d had to get myself home, I sometimes didn’t quite make it. More than once, she came along and woke me up and got me home. I don’t know how I escaped being shang-haied, I really don’t. They usually like to take drunks. Probably, I was too much of a drunk, even for them.
I spotted a bench. At the rate I was shuffling along, I could be there pretty soon. I’d sleep there. I tried to move a little bit faster. Relief was in sight.
It sounded like Hoss. I didn’t stop, though. It might not be. It could be the fancy fellows again. I kept going, just like it would make any kind of a difference.
“Where the dickens have you been?” It was Hoss. He didn’t sound mad any more, but I figured he might be. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t have a right to be mad.
He reached out, and I tried to dodge him, but it was more than I could do. I lost my balance and fell over. I tried not to make any noise that would show how much my ribs hurt. He said something I couldn’t hear over the roar in my ears, and I just pushed him away and told him I’d get up myself. I probably looked like those damned tortoises when they’re on their backs, the way I couldn’t get myself up because my ribs hurt so much. Finally, I turned over on my hands and knees and used the lamppost to steady myself as I stood up. I let go slowly and swayed a little. I had to grab the lamppost, but I stayed standing. I let go again, and this time, I didn’t feel like I was going to fall. Even so, I held up my hand so Hoss would know not to touch me. I was afraid that if I fell down again, I wouldn’t be able to get up at all. So, he stayed back, and we made our way to the hotel, step by step by painful step.
When we got back to the room, Hoss started to unbutton my shirt for me. I remember pushing his hand away and trying to do it myself, but the buttons were really, really tiny, and my fingers were huge, and I couldn’t seem to get them to work. He let me try for a while before he reached in and did it for me. I don’t remember anything else until I was in bed. That part I remember clear.
I closed my eyes, and the bed started spinning. My eyes snapped open, and I grabbed for a bowl or something. Like magic, the bowl appeared just in time, and I delivered most of what I’d drunk, plus most of what I’d eaten for dinner. Hoss had bound my ribs, but they still hurt like hell. He gave me some water, and I rinsed out my mouth and wished for a drink to cut the pain.
Hoss disappeared for a minute. When he came back, he sat down by the bed. I tried to tell him that I didn’t blame him, or anybody, that it was all my fault, every last little bit of it. I didn’t want him to feel bad about what happened. I told him how I didn’t love Judith even though she loved me, and how only a truly awful person would treat someone like I had, especially after all she did for me. I told him how I didn’t blame him for being mad at me, because I deserved it for letting him and Pa and Adam down so badly. I didn’t blame him for leaving me there at the Dove. He was right to do it. I told him that I knew I was just a worthless drunk, and I didn’t blame him or anybody for washing their hands of me. It was the sensible thing for them to do. I didn’t deserve them, not my big brother or Judith or anybody else. I said, what kind of a person goes out and gets this drunk after everything they did to save my life last time. A stupid, selfish, worthless dog, that’s who. They were good people, and they shouldn’t be spending so much time on somebody like me. Truth was, I was just too much trouble. They deserved so much better. Sometimes, I said, you just wear out your welcome. When that happens, it’s okay for people to turn you loose, like those stubborn mustangs that you can’t break and you just waste a lot of time and men until you admit it and give up on them.
I meant what I was saying. Even drunk, I knew I was speaking the absolute, unvarnished truth. But something in me wanted to hear Hoss say something against it all anyway. He knew how much it mattered to me, what he thought. Even though he’d be wrong, I wanted to hear him tell me I was out of my mind to think like that, that of course I was good enough. I wouldn’t believe him, but I wanted him to try, to fight me. I wanted to hear him say that he wouldn’t ever turn his back on me. To give me a reason to think that, just maybe, even all the bad things I’d done weren’t enough to change anything between us.
But he didn’t say anything back. Not a word.
His silence shook me to the deepest parts of my soul. He was holding onto my hand, but he didn’t say anything. I could tell he felt bad about what I was saying, but he didn’t deny any of it. He didn’t deny the part about Judith and how awful I was for treating her like that. He didn’t deny what I said about his being mad at me, or everything being all my fault.
He didn’t deny the part about washing his hands of me.
Some people might think that’s not such a big deal, that he just didn’t deny anything. But I knew what that silence meant. See, when I was thirteen, our foreman was accused of robbing a bank. I remember how we all went Virginia City for the trial to show him we were on his side. I’d never seen a trial before, and most of it was kind of boring. One thing I remember, though. When it was time for the jury to go out and decide, the judge told them what the law was that they were supposed to follow. One of the things he said was that, if you say something to a man, and it’s the kind of thing he would normally deny, and he doesn’t deny it, under the law, it’s just like he’s admitted it outright. Hoss was there with us, and he heard the judge say that, same as I did. So, when Hoss didn’t deny any of those things I said, I knew that he knew what he was doing. It was just exactly the same as if he said everything himself, every last word.
All this time, I’d thought that my life had ended when Robin died. Afterward, I’d cobbled together something that looked like a life, but I’d always thought my real life, who I was, died in that saloon on a warm September night with my wife and our unborn child. At that moment, though, in that fancy San Francisco hotel room, I knew I’d been wrong. Even after the shooting, there was a spark that had survived the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I was still alive, right up until the moment my big brother sat by my bed and didn’t lift a finger to contradict me when I said I knew I wasn’t good enough for him to bother with any more. He looked so sad, admitting that.
That was when the last little spark of life in me died, just as sure as if he’d stomped it out with those great big boots.
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