Choices (by pjb)


Summary:  The vote in favor of statehood has been cast. Now, in the aftermath of the convention, as one Cartwright struggles with heartache, another learns about respect. A WHN for “The War Comes to Washoe.”

Rated: K+  WC  3200




The last rays of the setting sun slipped behind the house as they rode into the yard. In the shadow of the barn, the four Cartwrights dismounted, as silent as they had been ever since they left Carson City. It had been an historic day, but for some, it had come at great cost.

Maybe it was just the fading orange light, but Ben couldn’t help thinking that Little Joe looked far too young for all he’d done that day. He was too young to be a convention delegate. Too young to make history by casting the deciding vote in favor of statehood. Too young to choose between principles and love.

Now, Joe stood by his horse as though he had no idea what to do next. That was enough for his father. “Joseph,” said Ben quietly. When his youngest son didn’t move, Ben said to his older sons, “You boys take care of the horses.” Without a word, Hoss gathered the reins of Ben’s mount and Joe’s, leading them into the barn as Adam followed with his own and Hoss’s.

“Come on, son,” said Ben, resting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. After a moment, Joe walked with him into the house, still not speaking.

Once inside, Ben tried again. “Joseph,” he said. “Son, look at me.” Almost unwillingly, Joe lifted his head. Anguish flamed in his eyes. His jaw was clenched. “You did what you believed was right,” Ben said. “That’s all you could have done.” Joe stood silently, and Ben cupped his hand around the back of his son’s neck. “Are you all right?” At last, a response: Joe nodded slightly. “Then let’s see what there is for supper,” said Ben.

“I’m not hungry.” The words were barely more than a whisper. Before Ben could speak, Joe had ducked out from beneath his hand and was heading for the stairs.

Ben had assembled a large platter of sandwiches by the time he heard Adam and Hoss come in. He carried the platter out to the dining table, calling as he did, “Good thing Hop Sing’s going to be home tomorrow, because I just used the last of the bread!” He set down the platter and surveyed his elder sons. “You boys wash up?”

Instead of the eye-rolling grin he’d anticipated, Ben got a nod from Adam and an unexpected question: “Where’s Joe?”

“In his room,” said Ben. “Go and let him know supper’s ready.” He half-expected Adam to balk, but his eldest son simply grunted and headed upstairs.

Hoss seated himself at the table and began to pile sandwiches on his plate. “Is Little Joe okay?”

Ben took his seat and unfolded his napkin. “He says he is.”

Hoss shook his head. “He really liked that little gal, didn’t he?”

“He was in love with her,” said Ben. “Said he wanted to marry her.”

“He did? I didn’t know that.” Hoss harrumphed as he debated between the ham sandwich in one hand and roast beef in the other. “Danged shame it had to turn out this way,” he said. “He knows he made the right choice, though, don’t he?”

“I don’t know,” said Ben. “I don’t know how much comfort that’ll be right now anyway.”

Hoss shook his head. “It’s too bad. She seemed like a nice gal. Mighty pretty, too. Is there any mustard?”

“I don’t know,” said Ben. He selected a ham sandwich as Hoss headed out to the kitchen for the mustard pot. He wasn’t at all sure he agreed with Hoss; as much as he didn’t want to see Joe hurting, there was no question that a marriage between Joe and the only daughter of Judge David Terry would, at the very least, have complicated their lives. In fact, he reflected, it would quite possibly have meant the end of the peace they’d enjoyed on the Ponderosa. It would certainly have meant the end of any civil conversations between Adam and Little Joe.

Not that their dealings of late had been particularly civil anyway. Barely two weeks earlier, Ben had walked into the barn to find Adam and Joe nearly in a fistfight after Adam had made harsh comments about Morvath Terry and her ties to the South. Joe had argued that the girl was separate from her father’s political beliefs, but Adam was insistent that the two could not be segregated. Not only did he claim that she represented a way of life devoted to the enslavement of innocent people, but he even suggested that her purpose in being with Joe was to lure a Cartwright into the Terry camp. Ben knew that Adam felt very strongly about the war and that he was quite concerned about Joe’s entanglement with Judge Terry’s daughter, but Adam of all people should have known that he’d never get through to Joe by insulting his girl.

Of course, Ben reflected, his own gentler attempts to discuss the matter with Joe hadn’t been any more fruitful. The boy was in love, and when that happened, he was deaf to any who would try to discourage him.

Each one of is going to have to make his own decision, Pa. Joe’s words that day at breakfast had caught him off-guard. He hadn’t realized until that moment how close Joe was to taking a different side in the war that threatened to divide the territory as it had divided the rest of the nation. Then, when Judge Terry arranged for the appointment of a second delegate from the Ponderosa, knowing full well that Adam and Hoss were away, it had taken all Ben’s willpower to keep from telling his son the best way to vote.

Because the boy was right. He had to decide for himself.

And now, he was paying the price.

Ben glanced up the stairs. Adam was taking an awfully long time fetching Joe, but he didn’t hear any yelling. He wondered if this meant that they were finally talking like brothers.

* * *

Adam stood in the hall, his hand raised to knock on his brother’s door. He’d been standing just like that for several minutes, waiting–for what, he wasn’t certain.

Not a sound issued from inside. He wasn’t sure if this was good or not.

Things had turned out for the best. There was no question of that. Morvath Terry could never have turned her back on the South. Her brother had died for the Confederacy. Her father was invested heart and soul in the Cause, as southerners called it. If Joe had married her, he’d have been sucked into the vortex of their beliefs. He could even have ended up fighting for the South–and dying for it.

Frederick Kyle. The name flashed through his mind, catching him by surprise. Adam hadn’t thought of Kyle in a long time. Kyle was a southern sympathizer who had come to town several years earlier with the intention of using Little Joe to gain access to wealthy investors even before the war had begun. He had exploited his acquaintance with Joe’s New Orleans-born mother to convince Joe to assist him. Had Kyle succeeded in persuading Joe to join the Cause back then, today would likely have had a very different ending.

Still, it should have been an easy choice. The South’s position was just plain wrong. They wanted to be able to keep slaves–innocent people who were treated as property, to be bought and sold like so many heads of cattle. Through no fault of their own–just the sheer misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the line–the slaves lived and worked in a world where they received no pay, where they lacked the ability to come or go as they chose, where even basic rights–voting, owning property, marrying the person of their choice-were denied them. It was a despicable practice, and there was no justifying it. The Union might not be perfect, but none of its flaws were anywhere near the horror of buying and selling human beings.

So why didn’t he feel more satisfied?

More sharply than he’d intended, Adam rapped on the door. “Joe! Supper’s ready!” He waited, and when no answer came, he opened the door. “Joe, supper’s ready.”

He was surprised to see that the room was dark. For a moment, he wasn’t certain if Joe was even there. He strained in the darkness to see whether Joe was in bed. Then, he saw the familiar silhouette by the window, not moving.

“Joe, come on,” he said. He lit the lamp on the bureau.

“Turn it out.” The words were barely audible.

Adam sighed impatiently. “You can’t just stand here in the dark. Come on down and have something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You have to eat something.” Even to his own ears, he sounded like Pa. “Starving yourself isn’t going to make it any better.”

“Get out.”

“Joe, you did the right thing today. I know it was hard, but you did it. Now, come downstairs and have supper.”

“I said, ‘Get out.'”

“Look, Joe, I know you liked this girl–”

“Don’t you say a word about her.” Joe still didn’t turn from the window, but now his fists were clenched.

“She’s the only reason you even considered voting against statehood.” Adam didn’t know why he kept talking. He wasn’t at all certain he was right, anyway. Joe had wavered toward the southern Cause since Kyle.

“Adam, I swear, if you don’t get out of here–”

“What? You’re going to smash my face in? You know that’s not going to happen, so why don’t you just come downstairs and have supper?” It was as though the words were flowing from a pump he just couldn’t shut off.

But Joe still didn’t move from the window. His attention was fixed on the darkness outside as though he expected to see someone ride up.

Adam moved closer. “You know she’s not coming, don’t you?”

“Leave me alone.”

“Joe–do you really think-”

“I said, ‘Leave me alone’!”

“She was never going to choose you over her father. You knew that all along.”

“So help me God, if you don’t get out of here–”

“She’d never have had the gumption to defy her father, even if she actually did love–”

The fist that snapped his head back was so fast that he nearly didn’t see it coming. Adam stumbled backward, catching himself against the bureau. His first instinct was to strike back, but he held himself in check. It was, after all, what he’d been waiting for.

He regarded his brother. Joe was trembling now. His eyes glistened. The punch had released something, just as Adam knew it would, and now everything inside Joe was about to spill over.

Just a few years ago, it would have been easy. He’d have put his arm around the kid, Joe would have cried his heart out, and in a couple days, everything would have been all right.

But this wasn’t a kid standing before him now. Adam had known it for a long time, and yet somehow, there were moments when that truth still took him by surprise. Like now. Almost without Adam’s realizing, the skinny youth had developed into a lean, muscular man. The thick, wild curls had been tamed–somewhat–with hair oil. The softer planes of a boy’s face had grown more taut and defined.

But it was more than just his appearance. For an instant, Adam could see the scene again: the delegates arguing among themselves, Judge Terry looking desperate, and the moderator, prepared to throw Adam out for trying to speak to the delegation without credentials. In the middle of the ruckus, Joe’s voice rang out: “I’m a delegate, and I have credentials. If my brother says it’s important, I believe him. I think we should hear him out.” He knew–he had to know–that the information Adam and Hoss brought would support the cause of statehood, would be a nail in the coffin of the Cause. And yet he’d stood before the convention, the youngest and most uncertain of them all, and he’d used his authority as a delegate so that Adam could reveal Judge Terry’s plan.

The South has the right to work out their own problems without being dictated to by a bunch of northern politicians.

It was what Joe had said that day in the barn. He’d been wrong, of course; the war was about much more than that. But as he rubbed his jaw, Adam knew for the first time that Joe hadn’t just been talking about the Confederacy and the Union.

He might be young, but no kid could have made the decision Joe had made today.

Watching his brother struggle now to maintain control, Adam realized something he hadn’t before: Morvath was the first woman Joe had ever lost by his own choice. He’d had his heart broken any number of times by women who died or left him, but this was the first time Adam could recall where Joe had been the one who made the decision that led to their parting. He wondered how much of a difference that was making right now.

Abruptly, Joe turned away, his back to Adam, his attention on the dark window. He held himself so stiffly that Adam knew the tears had begun to fall.

He placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “That was a hard thing you did today,” he said. “Not a lot of men could have done it.” He felt the slim form shudder beneath his hand. “I was proud of you, Joe.”

“Get out.” The words were broken.

Adam stood behind his brother. Reflected in the glass, he could see that Joe’s eyes were closed, his face was contorted, and he was biting his lip. Another few moments and his loss would overwhelm him.

He squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “Whether you believe it or not, I’m sorry things with Morvath had to turn out this way.” He turned to leave, but he paused at the doorway. “I’ll tell Pa you weren’t hungry.” He waited until his brother nodded before he turned out the lamp and stepped outside, closing the door loudly as the first sob escaped Joe.

As he stood in the hallway listening to his brother’s anguish, Adam fought the urge to go back into the room and take Joe in his arms, holding him close until the storm passed. It would be wrong. Worse, it would be disrespectful. He knew what Joe wanted, and being comforted like a child wasn’t it.

The South has the right to work out their own problems.

All right, Adam said silently. All right.

He stood in the hallway, his fingertips against the door. The wood was rough beneath his hand. On the other side, alone in the darkness, Joe wept.

I’m here, Adam thought as hard as he could. He rested his forehead against the door. He’d never felt so helpless.

A footfall at the end of the hall caught his attention. Pa was standing there, watching him. His brow was furrowed. Just as Adam turned, Pa lifted his head like a bird dog catching a scent. Hurriedly, Adam shook his head and moved quietly to where their father stood.

“He’s not hungry,” Adam said in a low voice. Before Pa could speak, Adam took his arm and hustled him down the hall. “He wants to be alone right now,” he added as they reached the top of the stairs.

“What happened to your face?” Pa gestured to the sore spot on Adam’s jaw.

“Nothing,” Adam shrugged. He stepped back to let Pa go downstairs first, pretending not to notice the odd look Pa gave him as he passed.

Adam settled himself at the table and surveyed the small pile of sandwiches remaining on the platter. As he selected a roast beef sandwich and reached for the mustard, he imagined that he could still hear the sounds from Joe’s room. Firmly, he forced himself to focus on the discussion at hand, munching as Pa and Hoss debated how long it would take to cut and transport the timber.

Four sandwiches remained on the platter. Without thinking, Adam started to reach for one. Then, he drew back his hand.

“Well, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it,” Hoss announced.

“Haven’t you had enough?” Adam commented.

Hoss looked startled by the question. “Well–if you want ’em, that’s fine. I just didn’t want them to go to waste, that’s all.”

“I think there’s still some cake in the pantry,” Ben offered. With a shrug, Hoss ambled into the kitchen.

Adam could feel his father watching as he transferred the remaining sandwiches to the unused plate at Joe’s place and covered them with a napkin. He met the brown eyes squarely. “I might be hungry later,” he said, aware that he sounded just a touch defensive.


Adam carried the plate to the kitchen. Hoss was still rummaging in the pantry, and so he waited.

“Found it!” Hoss emerged triumphantly with a plate containing half of the spice cake Hop Sing had baked earlier in the week. Beaming, he carried the cake out to the dining room as Adam slipped into the pantry with the sandwiches.

The bottom shelf at the back of the narrow pantry had long served as the place where Little Joe hid treats to protect them from his large brother’s late-night foraging. The shelf was simply too low for Hoss to search easily. To this day, Joe routinely used it to hide the last piece of pie or half-bottle of whiskey. Adam had discovered Joe’s secret place years ago and had on occasion helped himself to his brother’s private larder, although he steadfastly denied it.

Now, Adam knelt and tucked the plate behind jars of Hop Sing’s gooseberry jam. He stood back, appraising his work. Satisfied, he nodded and stepped out of the pantry into the dimly lit kitchen.

He should have been happier. Nevada was going to be a state. It would support the Union in this war. It would help to annihilate the scourge of slavery. And if that cost some men more than others–well, it was still a small price to pay.

With that, Adam closed the pantry door, secure in the knowledge that no one would find the sandwiches on that shelf-unless, of course, he already knew where to look.

As he turned back to the dining room, Adam rubbed his jaw gingerly. No two ways about it–Little Joe threw a hell of a punch.

One of these days, Little Brother, I’ll get you back, Adam vowed.

And for the first time in too many days, he smiled.

13 thoughts on “Choices (by pjb)”

  1. You caught the tension between the brothers so well. There wouldn’t have been an easy resolution to their differences, and a pat on the back or hug would have seemed patronizing at this point. I’m glad Adam respects Joe as a man as much as he loves him as a brother. I really enjoyed this follow-up, Jo. 🙂

  2. Oh dear. It’s me again. I’m not much of a short story reader – I prefer a saga, but Choices is the exception. I love this story!

  3. Enjoyed this. At least Adam and Joe didn’t fight (not counting the fist to Adam’s jaw). Adam at least talked to him, left and saved and hid the sandwiches for him like a good brother.

    1. Adam’s finally recognizing that Joe may be his little brother, but he’s also a grown man. So glad to hear you enjoyed it, Ruth! Thanks!

  4. I needed a short story to read on my phone and Choices fit the bill. (My first phone read.) Without much conversation between brothers, you set the mood and the outcome worked very well. Of course, I’ve read this before, but this story is worth more than one read.

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