Summary: In the sequel to “The Barn Cat,” Ben discovers what is–and isn’t–most important about his youngest son. Rated: T WC 36,000
The Barn Cat Series:
The Most Important Thing
Laughter and applause fill the dining room as Hop Sing places the birthday cake in front of my son. Shouts of “Happy birthday, Joe!” come from all directions as he readies himself for the all-important ritual.
“Happy birthday, Pa!” A small, high voice chimes in, and we all laugh again. At three, Jennie is now old enough to wish him a happy birthday on her own, and that sweet little voice is a delight to hear.
Joe slides the cake over slightly so that it is directly in front of her as she perches on his left knee. “You ready?” he asks with his most serious expression, brows drawn and mouth pursed. At her vigorous nod, he says, “Okay. One, two, three—blow!” The tow-headed angel blows with all her might at the cake, and Joe subtly adds a puff of his own to extinguish the candle.
“Bravo!” shouts Candy. He reaches over to stroke the child’s hair. “Good job, Jennie!” My granddaughter beams and wriggles with pleasure, and when Candy winks at her, she giggles. No two ways about it: Joe’s daughter is just as much of a flirt as her father.
Conversation mingles with the clinking of china as plates are passed to the head of the table where I insisted Joe sit tonight. “You’re the guest of honor,” I pointed out as we all moved from the living room to the dining room.
“Pa, I’ve lived in this house for thirty-nine years,” he grinned. “I don’t think you can call me a guest anymore.” For just an instant, the same memories flashed between us, but neither of us said it aloud. There had, in fact, been times when he’d lived elsewhere. During his marriage to Alice, and before that, when he was in Oregon at the Collins place. But always, he’d come back. This was his home.
“All right, you’re not a guest, but you are sitting in the place of honor, and that’s all there is to it, young man,” I said, smoothing over the moment with a bit of extra heartiness and a hand on his shoulder.
“‘Young man’? Can you still call him that?” Candy laughed as he held a chair for his wife. He and Sarah were married right here in our living room last December. Joe was his best man.
“You’d better watch yourself,” Joe cautioned. “Your birthday’s only a couple months from now.”
“But his hair’s never gonna be as gray as yours!” Jamie chimed in, and Louise giggled beside him. They’ve only been married since June, and they’re already expecting their first child. I know Joe and Candy have teased Jamie mercilessly, but they’ve wisely kept their comments out of my hearing.
And so, Joe sits at the head of the table, with Claire at the foot in the proper hostess seat. I sit at Claire’s right hand, where I can feel Joe’s questioning look, but I pretend not to notice. The truth is that I can see him better from here. Tonight, what I want is to watch my son—the only one who shares my blood—and to remember other years, other times.
He went gray young, just as I did. His hair is still thick, but it is more wiry than curly now. Whenever Adam comes to visit, the ribbing is inevitable: Adam has lost most of his hair, but the monk’s tonsure that remains is nearly all black.
I no longer chide Joe about the length of his hair. Even if the calendar hadn’t decreed him too old for such comments, I would still have refrained. The child of my middle age has grown into the man who bears the weight of the Ponderosa on his shoulders. This is the son who defied me so that his brother could pursue his dreams. He has stood tall through hardship and sorrow, the one I leaned on as grief and loss threatened to consume me when Hoss died. And though I’d never have faulted him for staying away, he came home after Alice’s death, and he resumed his work with fierce intensity.
Never once in the years since his brothers have been gone has he even hinted that I am too old to run the ranch. Instead, he has smoothly assumed tasks that were once mine, handling them so quietly that at first, I didn’t even notice I’d been relieved of them. Even before he married Alice—has it really been eight years since her death?—I began to hear ranch hands referring to Joseph as “Mr. Cartwright.” I’ll admit that my feathers were a bit ruffled, but Jamie set me straight.
* * * *
“He’s the bull of the woods, Pa,” Jamie said simply. “Has been for a while.”
I thought back to the days when I’d been “the bull of the woods”—the toughest one of them all, the one who could command respect from even the most ornery hands. The mantle had passed, and I hadn’t even noticed.
That evening, as Joe settled in at my desk to work, I pulled up a chair. “What’re you working on?” I asked in my most casual voice.
“That railroad bid we talked about,” he said, barely looking up.
“I didn’t realize we’d decided about that.” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice.
“It makes sense,” said Joe, still writing. “We’ve got that stand of fir up above Greyrock Ridge. We can supply what the railroad needs for less than Fuller can, and we’ll still end up with a good profit.”
Less than Fuller can. Once, that would have meant Barney Fuller, my chief competitor. Now, Joe was talking about Barney’s son, Rodney. The mantle had passed there, too.
“Don’t you think we ought to talk about this?” I tried not to sound put out that he’d already made the decision.
At that, he looked up. “Talk about what? Don’t you think we should do it?”
“I didn’t say that. I just thought—well, this is a big contract, and we should talk about it.”
Joe laid down his pencil. His brows were drawn. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Don’t you want to do it?”
I don’t want to be left out, I wanted to say. I don’t want to you to run on ahead without me. But I couldn’t say the words out loud without sounding like a petulant old man who was afraid of being left behind.
In the next instant, he understood. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said, his voice softening. “I just assumed you’d want us to do this. You’re right; I should have asked you first.”
His words sent an unexpected shaft of pain through my heart. Time was when he’d have taken my question as an insult, a suggestion that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he wasn’t old enough or smart enough to make this decision. I’d have understood that. Many was the time he’d railed at me, shouting, “I’m not a child anymore!” As though it had happened this morning, I recalled the time when he was seventeen and he wanted to be a temporary sheriff over in Rubicon. When I’d said that I didn’t like the idea and that perhaps he should tell them to find someone else, he’d snapped, “You mean ‘find someone older,’ don’t you? Someone who isn’t the baby of the family?” He’d spent his life following in the footsteps of Adam and Hoss, and they’d left very large boots to fill.
But Joseph had filled them. His brothers would have been proud. I know I was.
We sat across the desk from each other, not speaking, for what seemed like a long time. I wanted to say something honest, and yet I didn’t want to admit my sudden insecurity. I opened my mouth to speak. Then, a slight movement caught my attention, and I couldn’t help smiling.
The chair in the corner was so far in shadow that its small gray occupant was nearly invisible. Curled up on the seat, only a single triangular ear revealed where the cat’s head tucked into its body. As I watched, the ear flicked again as though displeased at what it was hearing.
I looked back to see Joe smiling somewhat sheepishly. “I should have asked you,” he repeated, and for an instant, I thought he was referring to the cat being in the house.
“No, son,” I said. “You don’t need to ask me for permission to do anything with this ranch. You’re the bull of the woods.” His eyes widened as they used to back when he was a young boy who’d discovered that he hadn’t managed to keep a secret from his old pa after all. I pretended not to notice as I continued, “But I would like to know what’s going on, maybe put in my two cents.”
The man behind the desk nodded his understanding. Probably no one else would have noticed the slight crinkle between his eyebrows as he tried to discern whether I was upset. Bull of the woods he might be, but first and foremost, he was my son. He might be as tough as nails to the rest of the world, but in this house, he was the one I leaned on, the one I’d laughed with and cried with a thousand times, the one I’d held to give and receive comfort. The one I trusted with the Ponderosa. The one I’d trust with my life.
Just then, the cat stood and stretched stiffly. The arch in its back wasn’t what it had once been. Its gray fur was slightly ragged with age. Even so, it jumped lightly from its chair to Joe’s, stepping onto the desk. It sat beside the papers as though aware that they should not be messed up, blinking its large green-gold eyes at me. The crinkle between Joe’s brows relaxed, and his hand stroked the cat as he said to me, “What do you think of this job? Do you think it’s a good idea?”
I listened as he outlined the various aspects of the deal. He was right: this was a good contract to bid on. I asked a few questions as he explained the terms, but the decision was clear. The cat lay down, sphinx-like, still avoiding the papers. Joe continued to stroke the once-silky fur with one hand as he gestured with the other.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” I said truthfully when he’d finished. “I think we should do it.” I rose, feeling my hips creak. “And I’m going to leave you to work out the numbers, and I’m going to bed.”
“Sleep well, Pa,” my son grinned. He took up his pencil again, and by the time I’d reached the stairs, he was engrossed in the papers before him. I watched as he read, his hand still resting on the gray cat. Finally, I hauled myself up the stairs, leaving Joe to his work.
* * * * *
Maybe it’s always this way for a parent. You’re going along from day to day, and suddenly, you look at your child and he’s no longer a child, hasn’t been in years. Joe’s thirty-nine, which means that Adam is fifty-one. As if it’s not enough that my youngest child is nearly forty, I have a child who is in his fifties. A child who is in his fifties. The words don’t even make sense. It’s incredible, this notion that a person I once held in my arms, whom I bathed and diapered and taught to walk and talk, is now more than half a century old.
Life hasn’t turned out at all the way I expected, not even a little bit. So much tragedy—first, the loss of my beautiful wives, and then Hoss, and then Joe’s Alice and their baby. And Adam leaving, first as a youth going to college, and years later, as an adult following his dreams. It’s not at all what I expected.
I’m proud of Adam, of course. What father wouldn’t be? My son is a professor. He’s traveled to Europe to study the architecture of Paris and London and the ruins of Rome. He’s helped to design buildings in major cities. Now, he’s even writing a book. I can’t even imagine such a thing, but one day, hopefully soon, I’ll get a package in the mail, and there it will be—a book written by my son, with his name emblazoned on the cover. Not that I expect that I’ll understand most of it—it’s about architecture, which I know next to nothing about—but that’s not what matters. Adam is doing what he loves—studying, teaching, sharing knowledge. How can I begrudge him that?
I don’t, I truly don’t. Before Joe met Claire, though, I worried. It was hard enough that it was just the two of us here. Not to say that Jamie and Candy aren’t important members of our family, but—well, it’s not the same. Not to me, and not to Joe. He’s spent his entire life on this ranch. It’s in his blood. When I’m gone, there will be nobody here who shares his bloodlines, his memories. Nobody who remembers when he was Little Joe Cartwright, quick-tempered and dashing, falling in love three times a day and riding the wildest horses—
I have to stop there. Even after all these years, those memories bring me up short. I pour water into the washbowl and splash it on my face, less to clean away the day’s dust than to reroute my thoughts.
Thank God for Jamie and Candy, Claire and Jennie. I couldn’t bear to think of Joe as the last one on the Ponderosa, left alone here when I die. Not that I don’t think he could handle it. I know he could. There was a time when I’d have doubted, but no more. Over the years, I’ve seen time and time again that there is nothing Joseph can’t handle. Miracle after miracle, more than any of us could have dreamt.
I think again of my boys as infants. They kicked and cried, their tiny faces red with exertion. Adam’s little legs were sturdy, Hoss’s were chubby, and Joe’s were almost scrawny. Their tiny feet punched at the air as they struggled against the helplessness of infancy. I recall how I took each in my arms on the day of his birth and pushed aside the blankets to count fingers and toes. Ten fingers. Ten toes. I thought the question was settled.
I taught each of them to walk. With tiny hands clutching my work-roughened fingers, each of my babies made his unsteady way across the floor, step by uncertain step, until it was time to let go. Adam’s first steps were determined, his little face creased with concentration. Hoss seemed to be down as much as he was up, plopping down on a well-diapered bottom and immediately crawling to the nearest leg or piece of furniture to haul himself back up, his lone tooth making his grin all the more appealing
And Joe. . . .
I sit on the edge of the bed, remembering. Some milestones are only supposed to come along once. If there has to be a second time, it’s harder, the victory bittersweet. It’s not the same the second time. You know you should cheer at the triumph, but the voice in the back of your mind still protests the fact that it had to happen at all.
I take off my boots and set them by the bureau, side by side. Idly, I notice that they’re looking worn. I should ask Hop Sing to polish them. Or perhaps I should do it myself. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a pair of boots. I should express my gratitude for such a blessing by taking better care of them.
As I turn back the bedclothes, I hear Joe passing my door. Before he proposed to Claire, he asked me whether it would be all right if they lived here in the house with me. I was certain that his primary concern was for me and my safety as I might become less steady, and so I protested. I wasn’t a doddering old fool. I could live on my own; I didn’t need a keeper. Besides, they should have their own home. When I said as much, though, his eyes darkened, and I realized that concern for my safety was only a small part of it. He’d had a home of his own with Alice. He still owns that parcel—it was my wedding present to them—but I could see in his eyes that the thought of building another home there was a hard one. I could understand that, I supposed. I’d never had to face that particular challenge, but it made sense to me that there might be places which his heart still reserved for Alice. He and Claire needed a fresh start in a new place. And this, after all, was his home.
So, I swallowed as much pride as I could manage and agreed to let the newlyweds move in—on one condition. “You’re taking the large bedroom,” I informed him.
“I can’t take your room!” Joe protested. “We’ll be fine in mine.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense. There will be two of you. You should have the larger room, and I’ll take your old room.” It was the only logical choice. When Adam visited, he stayed in his old room. Neither of us could have brought ourselves to move into Hoss’s room. Unspoken, but real, was the recognition that one day, Joe and Claire would have children, and when those little ones were too old for a cradle in their parents’ room, that room would be needed again. Not now, but someday. The dream of putting lively little ones in the room of one who had loved children so much felt right.
But that was a discussion for another time. I eventually prevailed, as I had every intention of doing. Now, after four years, Joe’s old room feels every bit as much my own as the large bedroom once did. He tried to insist that I keep the carved mahogany bedstead I’d ordered from San Francisco as a gift to his mother on our first anniversary, but I pointed out that it would never fit in this room.
And so, I now sleep in the bed that I spent so many hours sitting next to during those hard times after Joe’s accident. As I drape my clothes on the bedside chair, I remember the countless hours I spent sitting there and how desperately I prayed as my boy, only eighteen and full of life, struggled against the ominous darkness that threatened to take not only his leg, but his spirit—and possibly even his life.
I climb into the bed—my bed—and I turn down the bedside lamp. The moonlight is bright, illuminating the sheer white curtains at the window. As I close my eyes, I find myself remembering that time, all those years ago, when I finally learned the most important thing about my youngest son. . . .
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Little Joe slept fitfully. I kept the compresses on his head cool and moist, but they didn’t seem to soothe him. The wooden frame that kept the weight of the bedclothes off his right leg was harsh and bulky. In the lamplight, the boy looked even younger and more frail than in daylight.
Nothing seemed to soothe him. Hoss massaged his good leg, his arms, and even his neck and shoulders when he could do so without disturbing his brother too much. Adam played quiet, gentle pieces on his guitar. I read to him in the softest voice I could manage, and when I couldn’t read any more, I still kept up a low murmur in the hope that he would rest better just knowing that someone was near. “Easy, son,” I said, stroking his hair. “Just take it easy. You’re going to be all right. What you need now is rest.”
But he couldn’t seem to keep still. His eyes were closed, but he turned his head from side to side as though trying to find a comfortable position. Small grunts escaped him. I couldn’t tell whether he was awake and trying to tell me something, or sleeping but in too much pain to keep silent. “Settle down, Joe,” I murmured. “Pa’s right here.”
I dipped the compress into the water again and wrung it out. As I turned back to Joe, a most remarkable thing happened. A small gray cat—more like a half-grown kitten, really—appeared from nowhere, jumping up on the bed and walking from the foot up toward Joe’s head. When it reached his chest, it climbed onto him and curled up, just as though it was well-accustomed to doing so. In the deep quiet of night, its purr sounded loud and deliberate, almost daring me to interfere. I started to rise so that I could remove the creature, but before I could lay hands on it, my son’s movement stopped me.
Without opening his eyes, Joe reached up with both hands and found the cat. One hand caressed the small head while the other stroked the soft back. The purring grew louder. The cat lifted its head, rubbing its whiskers against his hand.
With that, my son’s restlessness melted away. I watched, fascinated, as his hands slowed and eventually stilled. His agitation faded, and the pain noises stopped as he slipped into a deep sleep. Even when his hands slipped off the cat, the cat never budged.
I hadn’t realized that I, too, had dozed off until I woke to the light footfall of Hop Sing. For reasons I’ll never quite understand, I didn’t let on that I was awake. Instead, I watched from behind barely-open lids as he set Joe’s breakfast tray on the night table, cast a guilty look at me, and scooped up the cat. He whispered something in Chinese, but I don’t know whether the cat understood him any better than I.
* * * * *
The grandfather clock struck nine, but the night felt much later, darker. I knew I should turn in, but my mind was still wrestling with the question of what, if anything, we could do for Joseph.
Weeks had passed since Doc finally operated on his leg. He’d taken a good bit of the flesh and muscle, but he’d been able to avoid amputation. It was a miracle, make no mistake. We’d all thought it a certainty that Joe would lose the leg. When Doc finally came downstairs that night, blood spatters on his normally pristine white shirt, I could hardly stand up. Behind him, Hop Sing carried an oddly shaped oilcloth package that I knew had to contain whatever Doc had cut from my son’s body.
“Is he all right?” I managed. Hoss rested his hand on my shoulder; dimly, I noticed that his hand was cold, his grip tight. Adam stood ramrod straight, just as his grandfather would have done when facing pirates on his ship.
Doc’s pale blue eyes searched our faces. Then, he broke into a small smile. “I didn’t cut it off,” he said.
“What?” The words made no sense. Hop Sing slipped past the doctor, heading for the door. I knew where he was going: to bury the contents of the oilcloth package in the back, where we disposed of whatever we no longer needed, such as the pile of testicles left after a day of castrating the new calves. If there were bloody cloths in the package that were beyond salvage, he would spread them out to dry, and then they would be burned.
“I didn’t have to take his leg off,” said the doctor. “I took the affected tissue and muscle, but the leg itself is still there. It won’t be perfect, but hopefully, with time, he won’t need more than a cane.”
“Wait—you didn’t cut his leg off?” Hoss sounded confused. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t understand, either.
“You said you didn’t have a choice.” There was an angry iron note in Adam’s voice.
“I didn’t think I did.” The doctor looked perplexed. Apparently, he’d expected us to greet the news with whoops of joy, not disbelief and hostility.
“Paul.” My use of his name rather than his title was deliberate. “Is my son going to be all right?”
He nodded. “I think so.”
“You think?” Adam’s jaw was tight.
“There are never any guarantees,” said the doctor. He was responding to Adam, but he was looking at me. “Infection is always a possibility. Complications of all sorts can happen. But barring any of that—yes, he should be fine.”
“But is it gonna be any good to him?” Hoss asked. “Will he be able to walk?”
Doc’s face fell, just a little. “He should,” he said. “But he’ll probably need a cane. He’ll need to do exercises to strengthen what muscle there is. It’s not going to be like before. He’ll probably always have some discomfort, but hopefully, it’ll lessen as time passes and the leg heals.” He looked from one of us to another. “The important thing is that the leg is still there. Now that the infected part is gone, his fever should go down, and he should begin to recover nicely.”
“Can I see him?” I could hardly hear my own words, but the doctor nodded.
“Of course,” he said. “You all go on up. I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee if there’s any left.”
“What? Oh, of course.” I didn’t recall whether we’d emptied the coffeepot sitting on the long, low table in front of the settee, but at that moment, I didn’t care. I just needed to see my son with his two legs.
And I saw him, of course. We all did. We could barely make ourselves leave even for essentials like sleep. His fever took time to abate, and we had a rough few days after the operation before it finally broke. But there was something else, something we couldn’t quite put our fingers on. Doc had told us that the pain would be bad, but it seemed to me that Joe was struggling with more than just pain. Not that he said anything; quite the contrary. But there was a heartbroken, faraway look in his eyes, as though he was remembering a beautiful place that he would never see again.
Naturally, the whole thing would have hit him hard. After months as an invalid, he faced many more months of restriction and pain. Even when the worst of recovery was behind him, the permanent limits would remain to be faced: no more dancing with pretty girls, no more running up and down the stairs. If I had anything to say about it, no more breaking ornery broncs. I didn’t know whether he’d even be able to ride. I’d seen his leg, and even with the bandages, it was so impossibly thin that I didn’t see how it could bear a man’s weight. I couldn’t imagine how he would ever walk without assistance.
Still, he had the leg, and that was something. A very, very large something, and I didn’t have to be reminded to be thankful.
But as the weeks passed and his body should have been healing, his spirit was still caught in the web of hurting and fear that had consumed him ever since the accident. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite see where the problem was. Doc warned us not to push; he said that Joe needed to recover at his own pace, and we should let him rest. If he wanted to talk about anything, he certainly knew where to find us—right at his bedside. But he didn’t talk, and I often had the sense that he wasn’t listening when we spoke.
Then one evening, just as the clock struck nine, I looked up to see Hoss trudging down the stairs from Joe’s room. His face was red, as though he’d been weeping. Immediately, alarm bells sounded in my mind.
“Hoss, what is it? What’s wrong?” I pushed past the table, reaching the bottom of the stairs at the same time as my son.
It was as though he couldn’t make himself look at me. “I found out what the problem was,” he said. “Joe told me.”
“What is it?” I hadn’t heard Adam coming in from the kitchen, but now he was beside me.
Hoss’s voice was beyond sorrowful. “He didn’t know,” he said. He raised his head to meet our perplexed looks and clarified his words: “He didn’t know Doc didn’t take his leg off.”
“What? How could he not know? Couldn’t he feel it?” Clearly, the notion didn’t make any more sense to Adam than to me.
Hoss shook his head. “Doc had told him about something called phantom pain, where people think they feel the leg after it’s been cut off. That’s what he thought he was feeling all this time. He said when he woke up, he asked Adam how much, and Adam told him Doc had taken a fair bit, so he thought that meant he’d cut it off.”
My eldest son’s eyes widened. “My God,” he breathed. Reflexively, I glared at his misuse of the Lord’s name, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I tried to tell him—he must not have understood—I can’t believe—oh, my God—”
“Easy, Adam,” said Hoss. “It ain’t your fault. With all the laudanum he’s been taking, it’s a wonder he understood that much.”
“Hoss is right, son,” I said, but to be honest, whatever Adam had or hadn’t said wasn’t my main concern. Hot tears blurred my vision as I thought of Joe lying in bed, thinking the worst and none of us even suspecting. No wonder he’d been so despondent, so lifeless. Eighteen years old and facing life without his leg, and not so much as a word of encouragement or comfort from his family. He must have felt so alone, so frightened.
I swiped at my eyes with the back of my hand. “I’ve got to see him,” I said, pushing past Hoss to head up the stairs.
Joe was dozing when I opened the door. “Hey, Pa,” he said drowsily.
I approached, my steps slow and heavy. Joe squinted at me as though trying to figure something out. Then, a shadow passed over his face, and I knew that he knew.
“Joseph. . . .” My voice faded.
“It’s all right, Pa,” said Joe. He started to push himself up to a sitting position, but my hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“You just rest, son,” I said. I stood by the bed as though I had no idea what to do next—which, in fact, I didn’t.
Joe reached up and tugged gently on my arm. “Sit down,” he invited. I sat, and Joe rested his hand on mine. “It’s all right,” he said quietly.
I pressed my lips together to keep control. “I should have known,” I said finally. “I’m so sorry, Joe. I should have realized. . . .”
“How?” Joe asked with surprising reasonableness. “How were you supposed to know? It’s not like we ever talked about it. First I was sick, and then I was taking all that laudanum, and then. . . .” His voice trailed off.
“And then you were grieving,” I finished. “And none of us knew why, and we should have. I should have guessed—or I should have asked.”
“Asked what? How I felt? You ask that every day.”
I shook my head. “I knew something wasn’t right.” He was trying, but I couldn’t let him take the blame. Not for this. “The way you were acting—I knew something was wrong. I should have figured it out. I’m so sorry.”
“Pa.” Joe’s voice was just the slightest bit unsteady now. “Please. Don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
Joe swallowed hard. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. You did the best you knew how. You thought I knew. You didn’t know what Doc had told me about that phantom pain, and you figured I could feel my leg. It wasn’t your fault, so just—please, don’t say any more.”
He looked away, his jaw clenched as though he was determined to keep control. Maybe I was asking too much of him right now. Everything he and Hoss had talked about, and then finding out about his leg—that would have been a full day right there. But for me to come in here after all that and ask him to be strong and brave and forgiving—it wasn’t fair, not right now.
I took his hand. I could tell that he was waiting for something else—one more apology, or some other comment about how we’d all been wrong.
“You’re a very brave young man,” I said. It wasn’t what I’d planned to say, and the abrupt turn of his head toward me revealed that it wasn’t what he’d expected, either. I squeezed his hand as I continued, “I can’t pretend to understand everything you’ve been going through, but I suspect that if I’d been in your place, I’d—well, I’d have been scared right out of my mind.”
The admission was so startling that Joe looked up at me. He was easy to read now. He wanted to reassure me, to tell me it hadn’t been so bad. But Joseph had never lied to me about anything important, and we both knew that if he said that, it wouldn’t be the truth.
He closed his eyes, biting his lip. He was worn out in body and soul. So was I. And so, without thinking, I said the one thing we both needed to hear.
“Come here, son,” I murmured.
Joe started to push himself up, but before he could do more, my arms were around him, pulling him up to a sitting position and holding him close. He rested his head against my shoulder as I stroked his hair. He felt so thin, so frail. He’d been so brave, fighting so hard and so alone. His arms went around me, clutching me, and I held him tighter. He started to tremble. I felt his body jerk with a single catch of breath, and his scalding tears began to soak my shoulder. For the first time in this whole wretched ordeal, my boy clung to me as sobs shook his wiry frame, as though months of terror and loneliness and heartache and physical agony were finally breaking through their flimsy barriers to flood his heart.
At last, he quieted. He lifted his head from my wet shoulder, and I loosened my grasp just a bit. As he sat back, I handed Joe the handkerchief I’d used just a few minutes earlier, and he wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
“I didn’t expect that,” he admitted as he handed back the handkerchief.
I just smiled and brushed his hair back from his moist face. “Feel better?”
Joe considered the question as I released him and poured a glass of water for him. “I don’t know,” he said with uncharacteristic candor. He drank and handed the glass back. His face, so pale from weeks of being inside, was gaunt and tear-stained and utterly exhausted. My heart ached at the thought of what my boy had endured, and tears welled up in my own eyes as I stroked his cheek.
“Think I need a shave?” he quipped.
To my surprise, I chuckled at his attempt to lighten the moment. Another time, I’d have made some joking response, but my emotions were still too near the surface, like exposed nerve endings that burned at the lightest touch. The best I could manage was “Maybe tomorrow.” He bit his lip slightly, and I knew that he needed for me to back up a bit, to lessen the intensity of my reactions. He’d already had all the storms he could handle for one day.
“I’ll tell you what,” I suggested as lightly as I could. “How about you lie back and rest, and I’ll read to you for a while?”
For a moment, he appeared to be tempted. Then, he shook his head. “I think I just want to go to sleep,” he said. His eyes were somber now, and they asked me to understand.
I didn’t want to, but I did. I needed to be with him—to talk, to listen, to hold him and make certain that he truly knew how sorry I was. But what he needed now was quietude. Rest. Solitude. The oblivion of sleep. A chance not to think. To let the churning of his mind and heart begin to settle, as stormy seas gradually calm down after the fiercest gales have passed.
So, I helped him to lie down. “Sleep well, son,” I said, rising. “You call if you need me.” A small smile let me know that he found comfort in the familiar words. I’d been saying the same thing every night since he first got hurt.
“’Night, Pa,” he said. Eighteen he might have been, but at that moment, he looked both childlike and wise beyond his years. Wrestling with life-changing terror, as Jacob once wrestled with the angel, will do that to a man.
I leaned down and brushed his forehead with a kiss. It had been years since I’d done such a thing—at ten, he’d told me flatly that he was too old—but as I straightened, I saw in his eyes that this time, it was all right.
He watched me as I blew out the lamp and headed for the doorway. “Good night, Joe,” I said. As I drew the door closed, I heard him whisper again, “Good night, Pa.”
* * * *
The next morning, as I approached Joe’s room to retrieve his breakfast tray, I could hear Hoss. “Hey, Little Brother, how’re—hey, what’s that doin’ there?”
“What’s what doing where?” Joe’s voice was groggy in spite of the cup of coffee Hop Sing had reluctantly included on the tray.
“That cat lyin’ right there!”
“Lying right where?”
“Right there! On your bed!”
“On my what?”
“What’re you talking about, Big Brother?”
“Dadburnit, Joseph, there’s a cat lyin’ right there on your bed!”
“That one!” Hoss’s roar nearly lifted the door off its hinges.
I waited until I was certain my face bore no trace of a smile before I entered. “Morning, Joseph,” I said. “You all done with your breakfast?”
For a second, he looked worried, as if his little companion was about to be ousted. Carefully avoiding any glance in the direction of the cat curled up at the foot of the bed, I reached over and picked up the tray. His expression slid into confusion.
“Hoss, would you mind picking up the mail this morning? Adam had to go down to Carson City to meet with Hank London about that timber contract for Gold Hill.”
“Huh?” Hoss was still staring at the cat, which had remained motionless through the entire conversation. “Oh, sure, Pa.” He looked helplessly at the cat and then at me as I studiously avoided looking down.
“Joe, you need anything?” I asked.
“Could somebody just get me my book?” His voice was hesitant, as though he was still waiting for the explosion. Hoss, who looked slightly dazed, handed it to him. Then, with one last look from me to the cat, he shook his head and left the room.
“All right, then. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.” I left the room, chuckling to myself.
* * * * *
As the crisp autumn days grew colder, I found myself watching Joe for signs of—well, I wasn’t certain what. He still seemed to tire so easily. Hoss reminded me how pain can wear a man down. I couldn’t argue with that, and certainly, Joe had had more than his fair share of pain over the past several months. Now, every night, he and his brothers did the exercises Doc had prescribed to strengthen the remaining muscles in Joe’s leg. With the night air moving from chilly to downright cold, the boys had set up an area in the living room, right near my desk, with a mat and weights and other odds and ends that they’d added to the routine. Even when I was across the room in my chair, I could hear Joe grunting as he worked. His brothers cheered him on, and I tried to concentrate on what I was reading, having been firmly instructed by my sons early on that they could manage without me.
One night, I put down my book. As casually as I could, I ambled over to where Joe lay on his back. His right leg was bent, and he was trying to push against Hoss, who was holding his foot. His face was red and scrunched up, his eyes closed and his hair damp with sweat. “Come on, Joe, harder!” Hoss urged. “Push me away! Come on, you can do it!”
“Kick him, Joe!” Adam was holding Joe’s shoulders. “Kick him away!” Joe’s left leg started to rise, and Hoss held it down.
“Come on, Little Brother! You kick me away, or I’m gonna land right on top of you!” Hoss kept pushing for another minute, but if Joe was moving him at all, I didn’t see it.
Finally, Hoss said, “Okay, that’s enough.” He sat back, setting Joe’s foot carefully on the floor. Still breathing heavily, Joe didn’t answer or open his eyes.
Adam released Joe’s shoulders. “We’re done,” he said, getting to his feet.
“That was quite a session,” I observed.
Joe’s eyes popped open. “Hey, Pa,” he managed.
“You boys are working pretty hard.” I tried to sound casual, but Adam’s glance let me know that I hadn’t quite succeeded.
“We’ve got to do something to wear him out,” he said. “Otherwise, he’s going to drive us all crazy before winter even gets going.”
“Sort of like when he was a young ’un and you used to send him outside to run in circles before supper so’s he could sit still at the table,” said Hoss. Joe propped himself up on one elbow as he accepted the glass of water Hoss was offering.
I chuckled at the memory. Then, like a fist in my gut came the realization Joe would likely never run anywhere, ever again. I turned away and walked to my desk as though I’d just remembered something on it. Unfortunately, I’d put everything away when I stopped work before supper, and so I had to move to the other side and fumble in the drawer.
“What are you looking for?” asked Adam as he helped Joe stand.
“What? Oh, nothing important. I’ll deal with it in the morning.” I slammed the drawer with more force than necessary as Hoss handed Joe his crutches. I searched my brain for some topic other than what I’d just seen. “Adam, you didn’t tell us what Richard had to say,” I recalled suddenly. Richard was one of Adam’s college friends. They had both studied history and architecture. Over the twelve years since they’d finished their studies, they had remained faithful correspondents, and Adam regularly read aloud Richard’s tales of city life. This morning’s mail had brought a new letter from Boston.
“Read us his letter,” said Joe. He made his way over to the settee and sank down on it, clearly worn out. “It’d be good to hear there really is a world out there instead of just a lot of snow.”
“Yeah, read it to us,” Hoss chimed in.
An odd look crossed Adam’s face, but almost immediately, he assumed a neutral expression. “I think it’s upstairs,” he said.
“You want me to go get it?” Joe offered.
“Sure, why don’t you?” Adam said. “I’m kidding,” he said as his brother started to pick up his crutches. “He didn’t have much to say. He’s working on a design for a new building they’re going to build in New York.” Richard was now considered one of the leading architects in the east. I occasionally wondered whether Adam might have achieved similar status, had he not chosen to come home after college.
“What kind of building?” I asked.
“For businesses,” said Adam. “A newspaper office, mainly, but maybe stores as well. Richard says it’s going to be nine stories high.”
“Nine stories?” Hoss whistled appreciatively.
“They just built one in Boston that’s five stories high,” said Adam. “Richard says that the fellow who’s hired them said he wants his to be the tallest building in the country.”
“How would you get up to the top floor?” Joe asked, nudging his crutches with his left foot.
“Probably they’ll have those rising rooms,” said Adam.
“I rode in one of those once,” I recalled. It had been a strange experience to feel the tiny room moving and to walk out of it on the third floor of the hotel. I wasn’t at all certain I’d want to ride in something like that all the way up nine floors.
“Wouldn’t want to be up on the ninth floor if’n I needed to use the outhouse,” Hoss commented, and Joe chortled appreciatively.
“They’ll have water closets in the building,” said Adam. “That’s pretty typical in city buildings now.”
“It sounds like a very important project,” I said, settling myself in my chair and lighting my pipe. “Richard must be very excited.”
“I guess he is.” Something in Adam’s tone was odd. I looked up from my pipe, but he’d already assumed his usual spot in the blue velvet chair and taken up his book.
“Hey, Joe, want to play checkers?” Hoss suggested.
Joe yawned. “No, thanks,” he said.
“Are you all right?” The question was out before I could stop it.
Joe shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “Just a little tired. Those slave drivers wore me out.” He yawned again. “In fact, I think I’m going to turn in. Good night, everybody.” He picked up his crutches and made his way across the room and up the stairs.
When I could no longer hear him, I turned to my older sons. “What do you think? How’s he doing?”
The glance that they exchanged said it all, but I waited. Finally, Adam said, “It hasn’t been that long. He’s still having a lot of pain, so there’s only so much we can do.”
“But is he improving?” I pressed.
“Some,” said Hoss. “But it’s like Adam said. It ain’t been that long. Another few months, and I bet he’s ready to put weight on that leg.” I tried to sort out whether he sounded confident or merely hopeful even as his words echoed in my head: another few months. It had already been four months since the surgery, six since the accident. At the rate Joe was recovering, it would be years before he could walk normally.
If he ever does. For the second time that evening, I felt as though I’d been punched in the gut. I drew on my pipe, nodding, just like I’d heard exactly what I’d expected and it was perfectly fine.
Half of that was true, anyway.
* * * * *
“Let’s get goin’, Little Brother!” Hoss shoved back his chair, his grin so wide that his round cheeks nearly hid his eyes.
“Do I get to finish my coffee?” asked Adam with pretend grumpiness.“Sure, Older Brother,” said Joe. “You just sit back and take your time while Hoss and me get all those strays rounded up.” Time was when Joe would have been irked by the notion of doing all the work, but today, he was as excited as a young boy.
The snows had melted, the birds had returned, and the scent of spring was in the air. Bitter winds had been replaced by soft breezes. The air grew mild and sweet. We watched with grateful relief as enormous piles of snow shrank and disappeared. The boys moved Joe’s exercise equipment back out to the barn. Some evenings, I heard them out there talking and laughing long after the exercise was done, just because it was spring and they could.
It had been a year, almost to the day, since the chestnut stallion crushed Joe’s leg. May 13th would be exactly a year. I hadn’t nearly put the memory of that day behind me, but Joe never mentioned it. All he’d talked about for weeks, even before the snow started to melt, was getting back on a horse, riding like the wind, being independent and useful again. I knew how it had chafed when he had to ride in the buckboard as his brothers rode alongside although, to his credit, he’d kept his complaints to a minimum.
Now, after months and months of suffering and healing, the day was here. Doc Martin had given his consent for Joe to try riding. As with all Doc’s consents, it had come with conditions: a quiet horse, a short ride, and Joe was to be very, very careful. The two “verys” were directly from Doc himself and were accompanied by a wagging finger that my son pretended to take seriously, but the truth was that he was too excited to pay attention to admonitions, stern or otherwise.
As I walked the doctor to the door, he said in a low voice, “This may not work, you know.”
“What do you mean?” Startled, I glanced to where my sons were laughing and making plans for Joe’s first ride.
“The pain may be more than he can stand.” The doctor’s eyes were somber.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said heartily. “This is Little Joe we’re talking about. He handled the last year, he’ll handle this.
My old friend looked as though he wanted to say something more. Then, he put on his hat and said, “Let me know how it goes.” We said our farewells, and I closed the door behind him, annoyed at the cold water he’d thrown on this triumph.
I turned back and looked—really looked—at Joseph. He was sitting on the settee, his right boot resting on the table. As I watched, he reached down and picked up his crutches. With skill born of months of practice, he got to his feet and headed to the kitchen with his brothers.
And not once did he put any weight on his right leg.
I shook my head to rid myself of the niggling worm of worry. Riding used different muscles from walking. The horse would bear most of his weight. Besides, he was a natural rider. He’d make whatever adjustments he needed to.
That evening felt like a Christmas Eve from back when the boys were young. Joe was practically bouncing in his seat at the supper table, barely eating as he talked a blue streak about where they would go the next day. The rest of us just laughed at his excitement, but the truth was that we all shared it.
The next morning was like Christmas itself. Joseph was up before dawn, clattering down the stairs and shouting for Hop Sing. A night’s sleep had done nothing to quiet his chatter. As if their brother weren’t there, Hoss and Adam exchanged long sighs and comments about how nice it was to have such a quiet, peaceful meal, and wasn’t it good to know that they’d be riding out where the only sounds were the wind in the trees and the chirping of the birds. And as for me . . . my heart was too full to do more than watch them all. It was a day I’d thought would never come again, and all I could do was give thanks.
Finally, we all headed outside. The hands had already saddled the horses—all four of them. Adam had kept Joe’s pinto exercised through that long year, but the horse had clearly been disconcerted by the change in riders. Not only was Adam larger and heavier, but his style of riding was quite different from Joe’s. Adam rode the way most of us did—serviceable, without much thought, focusing on the result rather than the technique. For Joe, riding was almost like a dance with the horse. His movements were so subtle that it looked as though the horse was responding to his thoughts—and perhaps it was.
Now, Cochise nickered at the sight of Joe. “Hey, boy,” said Joe. He balanced on his crutches, stroking the black and white neck. “Ready to go for a ride?” He’d spent the winter months grooming the pinto, and now the moment had come.
“Hey, Joe, what’re you gonna do with your crutches?” Hoss asked suddenly.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t need ’em when I’m riding.”
“But you will when you get off the horse,” said Adam. He perused the horse for a moment. Then, he reached over and took Joe’s rifle out of the scabbard. “Give me a crutch,” he said. Joe relinquished his left crutch, and Adam slid it into the scabbard. “Not bad,” he said. “We’ll figure out something better for tomorrow. Now, let’s get going.”
That was all my youngest son needed to hear. He took hold of the saddle and dropped the right crutch.
“Let me give you a hand.” I started forward as Joe took a deep breath.
“I’ve got it.” His hands were in position as though he was about to do his infamous swing mount. One quick bounce, and he hoisted himself up, swinging his right leg wide to clear the saddle.
The next instant, he was on the ground, clutching at his knee and screaming.
“Joe!” I knelt beside him as he tried to catch his breath. “Easy, boy, just stay still. What happened?”
“He hit his leg on the saddle,” Hoss said grimly.
The hands had come running at the commotion, and Adam shooed them away as I helped Joe to sit up. His face was white, and his chest heaved. He hid his eyes with his hand, and I met Hoss’s gaze as I shook my head.
“Just give him a few minutes,” said Hoss in a low voice. “He’ll be all right.”
“Let’s get him inside,” I said in an equally low voice.
Joe’s head snapped up at that. “I’m all right,” he said, his voice breaking. “It was just a bad mount. Haven’t done it in a while.”
“Son.” That was all I said, but his eyes grew round even as tears of pain glistened.
“I can do this,” he insisted. “Doc said I could.”
“Joseph.” I didn’t want to have this conversation within earshot of the hands. Adam held out Joe’s crutches, and my youngest son shook his head, lips pressed together. “Let’s go, son,” I said. Hoss helped Joe to his feet, holding him securely as Adam offered the crutches again. Not looking at any of us, Joe took them. Then, he lifted his chin, his eyes silently beseeching me to change my mind. I shook my head; the lump in my throat prevented words from passing. I pretended not to see his chin quivering as he headed into the house.
“Charlie, you can unsaddle Buck and Cochise,” said Adam over his shoulder. To me, he said, “We can come back at lunch. Maybe by then. . . .”
“No,” I said. “You boys go take care of the strays. We’ll be all right here.”
“I shoulda helped him mount up,” mumbled Hoss.
“It’s not your fault,” I said. It was nobody’s fault, except maybe a chestnut stallion now long dead.
As my elder sons rode out, I went inside to find my youngest in his usual place on the settee, his head bowed—whether in pain or defeat, I couldn’t tell. Everything in me wanted to take him in my arms and try to shield him against this fresh disappointment, but I restrained myself. Instead, I approached loudly, my boots clicking firmly on the wooden floor.
“How’s your leg? Any better now?” I asked as I seated myself on the table in front of the settee. My stomach twisted as he shook his head.
“It’s never gonna work, is it?” His voice was dull, thick with tears.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe with time. . . .”
He lifted his head. His face was wet and shiny. “It’s been a year. How much time does it need?”
“I don’t know,” I said again. “But it was a bad injury, and that operation was serious. It’s like Doc said—he had to cut out a lot, and those nerves take a long time to heal. Maybe a year just isn’t long enough.” I laid my hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry, son. I know how much you were looking forward to this.”
“I could try again later.” There was still so much hope in his voice. “Maybe . . . maybe somebody could help me mount up.”
My heart ached. I knew what it cost him to say that. As gently as I could, I said, “But what about once you’re in the saddle? Think about pressing your leg against the horse’s side.” I waited, and when he looked away, I knew he understood. “You’re not ready yet,” I said. “Someday, when there’s less pain, we’ll try again.”
“When there’s less pain,” he snorted. “There’s never going to be less pain.” Sometimes, it seemed that the lines between self-pity and justifiable disappointment, anger and frustration were paper-thin.
I cast about for something to say that was both encouraging and true. Finally, I just patted his arm. “Maybe you should lie down for a little while,” I suggested.
But Joe shook his head. “I’m all right,” he said. His voice still wasn’t completely steady, but bless his heart, he was trying.
“Okay,” I said as though I believed him. “I’m going to get some coffee. You want some?”
“No, thanks.” I waited another minute, but when he said nothing more, I went out to the kitchen. Normally, I’d simply have called for Hop Sing, but this time, I wanted something more.
Our cook was kneading bread dough so industriously that I knew he’d heard everything. “Hop Sing,” I said in a low voice.
“Yes, Mistah Cahtlight.” He didn’t look up
“Where is Joe’s cat?”
His head shot up. “Hop Sing not know what Mistah Cahtlight talk about.” He looked back down at the dough, kneading fiercely. The bread would undoubtedly suffer for it.
“Hop Sing.” I hadn’t spent more than thirty years as a father of sons for nothing. I waited as he worked the dough, the heels of his hands pressing the mass, fingers flipping it a quarter turn, heels pressing again. Finally, when he could knead no more without creating a doorstop instead of a loaf, he deposited the dough into the large blue bread bowl and covered it with a towel. Still, I waited.
“Hop Sing make soup,” he said. He tried to get around me to the basket he used to gather vegetables, but I took a step to the side, blocking his way.
“The cat, Hop Sing. Where is it?”
“Hop Sing not know—”
“He needs it.”
The little man stood still. At last, he looked up at me. “Hop Sing find.”
“Thank you.” I poured myself a cup of coffee and returned to the main room where my son sat, silent and unmoving. “I’m going to take the ledgers out on the porch,” I announced. If Joe heard me, he didn’t let on. I made a great show of gathering my books and coffee and going out the door, closing it loudly behind me. I spread everything out on the table. As I began my work, Hop Sing slipped out the kitchen door, and I heard him calling in Chinese. I tried to focus, but the truth is that I was more aware of his movements than of the numbers before me.
Finally, he came out of the barn with a gray cat in his arms. Not looking at me, he scurried across the yard and into the kitchen. I let my pencil fall as I pictured the cat wandering through the main room and over to the settee. In my mind’s eye, it jumped up on the settee, settling itself beside my son. After a moment, his hand came to rest on the soft gray fur, and he put his head back, eyes closed, as the rhythmic purring soothed his hurting heart.
* * * * *
“You boys take care,” I said as Hoss and Adam mounted up. The other hands were already mounted and organizing themselves to ride out. At the familiar din of lowing cattle, eager horses, and men calling to each other, a rush of longing flooded through me. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to ride out with them, to spend long days in the saddle with the sun beating down and the dust in my nostrils, sitting by the campfire at night with the cold at my back and the heat at my front as I sipped bitter coffee and ate bland beans.
“You behave yourself, Shortshanks,” Hoss called. “I don’t wanna come back an’ hear that you done lost the Ponderosa in a poker game!”
“I ain’t making any promises,” Joe called back. The edge in his voice was well-disguised, but I could hear it. It wasn’t the first cattle drive since his accident, but watching his brothers ride away never seemed to get easier. He balanced on his crutches and raised one hand, and Adam and Hoss waved back as they turned and rode out. Then, without looking at me, he headed across the yard through the still-swirling dust to the barn.
By lunchtime, the quiet had settled in. The only sounds in the house were the crackling of the fire and the faint sounds of pots and pans clanging as Hop Sing cooked. Gratefully, I closed the ledger as Hop Sing came around the corner to announce lunch.
“I’ll get Joe,” I offered, stretching. I marveled at the peace of the yard as I went to the barn. “Joseph! Lunch is ready!” I entered the cool darkness and paused to let my eyes adjust. “Joe!”
“I’m right here.” His voice sounded tired.
“Barn looks good,” I offered. He’d swept and organized everything that is inevitably left in disarray after the drive has left. His pinto and my buckskin stood in their stalls, munching hay, surrounded by the empty stalls. “Why don’t we turn those two out for a while?” I suggested.
Joe shrugged. “Sure.” He unhooked the ropes that kept the horses contained, nickering to them. Understanding their cue, the pinto came out of the stall, and the buckskin followed. I opened the corral, and the two ambled in as though recognizing that this was all the excitement their day would offer.
I closed the corral behind them and turned back to Joe. He looked worn out. Concern flickered in my mind. Don’t be silly, I chastised myself. These first few days would be hard for him, but we would find our own rhythm soon enough. We always did.
Still, I found myself watching him over lunch. His color was higher than I’d noticed earlier, but I put it down to the strain of the morning’s work. No matter how he tried to hide it, the fact was that even barn chores were more difficult while balancing on crutches. That, coupled with being left behind like a child, was undoubtedly all that was bothering him.
Thus assured, I turned my attention back to my meal. Later, I would wonder if it would have made any difference at all to have pushed him for information. Doc claimed that it wouldn’t, that while we might have postponed it, we would simply have been staving off the inevitable. Still, I can’t help but think that even the postponement would have been worth so much.
But it is always easier to judge the past than to assess the present. At the time when it mattered, I chose to respect my son as an adult working through his own challenges instead of coddling him like a child. If he blames me for that choice, he has never said.
In any event, so went the first few days after everyone departed. Joe remained quiet and withdrawn, and I watched him more closely than I let on. At least once a day, I inquired into how he was feeling, but the only response I ever received was a shrug and his standard response of “Fine.” Only on the last day, when the world changed, did he say anything more. By then, it was too late.
On that day, I announced at lunch that I planned to go into town. “Do you want to come?” My invitation had two purposes: one was the pleasure of my son’s company, and the other was to try to pull him out of his doldrums.
But Joe shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “I think I’m just gonna stay here and take it easy.”
“Are you feeling all right?” I tried to sound casual, as though he routinely declined invitations to town. The truth was that I couldn’t recall a time when he’d ever said “no” to such a suggestion.
He didn’t look up from his plate. “Just a little tired,” he said. “It’s probably just from doing Hoss and Adam’s chores.”
It was the closest he’d ever come to complaining about his workload since the day the chestnut fell on him. I peered more closely. His eyes looked remote, as though he was focusing on something other than our conversation. His jaw was tight. His cheeks were flushed. I reached over to lay a hand on his forehead, and he didn’t jerk away.
“You’re running a fever,” I said as though he wouldn’t have known. “What’s the matter?”
He shrugged again. “I don’t know. I’m just tired.”
He obviously wasn’t interested in eating, so I pushed back my chair. “Come on. I’ll give you a hand getting up to bed.” That he didn’t argue should have sounded an alert as urgent as any army bugle, but still I didn’t understand. I helped him to his feet, calling over my shoulder for Hop Sing to put on some broth to heat. I handed him his crutches, and he made his way over to the stairs, where I took them and said, “I’ll help you up.” Again, he made no objection, and again, I didn’t recognize what was right in front of me.
A few minutes later, he was sitting on his bed as I knelt to remove the boot from his right leg. Unprepared, he let out a yelp of pain as I tugged. I looked up to see his eyes closed and his lips pressed together.
“Hang on, son,” I said. I worked the boot loose and slid it off, and he relaxed visibly. I fetched a nightshirt from the bureau as he unfastened his trousers, but when I turned back, he was struggling to remove them without bending his right leg. “I’ve got that,” I said, sliding them off. The same ensued when he tried to take off his drawers. As he pulled the nightshirt over his head, I took advantage of the opportunity to look at his leg.
The leg was red, warm and swollen. “Joseph.” I heard the slight quaver in my voice. “How long has your leg been like this?”
He didn’t pretend not to know what I meant. “A couple days,” he said. “I just worked too hard, that’s all. Probably strained it.”
I inspected the leg as best I could. At my instruction, he lay back and turned on his side so that I could see the back of the calf. I tried to assess whether the angry scar seemed redder than usual. “I’m going to have Hop Sing make up a poultice,” I announced finally. “See if we can’t get that swelling down.” I tried to ignore the niggling worm in the back of my mind that suggested some sort of a connection between the leg and the fever. It was just a coincidence. It had to be.
Joe nodded his agreement to the poultice as he shifted himself on the bed until his head reached the pillow. “That should help.”
As I drew the covers over him, I could see in his eyes relief that he didn’t have to worry anymore because I was taking care of everything. I stroked his curls, doing my best to sound calm and certain as I said, “You get yourself some rest. Hop Sing will bring up the poultice and some broth for you, and I’ll stop by Doc Martin’s to let him know what’s going on.”
“Doc doesn’t have to come out here,” Joe protested. “It’s just a strain.”
“And a fever,” I reminded him. “Anyway, that’ll be his decision. You just take it easy and listen to Hop Sing. I’ll be back soon.”
And so I left him there. In the days to follow, I told myself that it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference if I’d stayed. I couldn’t have stopped what came. I might even have made matters worse. At least this way, Doc got the message sooner. But the message would have been different. . . .
I returned just ahead of sunset. The lamp burned in Little Joe’s window as I rode up. My horse received only the most cursory of care before I went inside, more anxious than I’d let myself admit. As I came through the door, Hop Sing came downstairs. His face was grim.
“How’s Little Joe?” I demanded without preamble.
Hop Sing shook his head. “Fever up. Leg not good. Hop Sing think leg have infection.”
The unavoidable piece fell into place with an ominous thud. Without taking off my coat or my gun, I ran up the stairs to my son’s bedside.
“Well, young man, what have you been up to?” I made my voice deliberately hearty, but my stomach dropped at the change a few hours had wrought.
His eyes were bleary, his color high. He trembled beneath the quilt as though he lay naked and uncovered in the cold night air. Still, at the sight of me, he managed the most faint of grins. “Pa.”
I swallowed hard as I crossed the room. “How’re you feeling, boy?” I asked as I lifted the compress to rest my hand on his brow.
He shook his head. “Not good.”
I dipped the compress into the bowl of water on the bedside table, wrung it out and replaced it. He nodded slightly to let me know that it felt good. “How’s the leg?”
“Still hurts.” If he was admitting it, “hurts” was undoubtedly an understatement.
“I left a message at Doc’s office for him to come out,” I said. “He was out when I got there. Mrs. Martin said she’d send him out when he came back.” All he did was to bite his lip, but that was enough to tell me how bad he really felt. “Don’t you worry, son,” I said as I stroked his hair. “We’re going to get you all fixed up. By the time your brothers get back, you’ll be as good as new.”
“Sure,” he murmured.
“You try and get some sleep now,” I said. “I’ll see about having Hop Sing make up another poultice.”
“’Kay.” His assent was barely audible, and his eyes closed as he spoke.
I took advantage of his oblivion to move the covers from his leg. He grunted in his sleep when I moved it, and this time, I saw the faintest streaks of red emanating from the scar. “Lord, have mercy,” I breathed. I didn’t know when or how, but Hop Sing was right. Joe’s leg was infected, and it was bad.
I don’t recall now if any of us ate supper that night. Hop Sing kept making up fresh poultices, and I alternated between tending Joe’s leg and trying to bring down his fever. All the while, I tried to remember exactly what I’d said in the message I’d left with Rose Martin. Had I mentioned the fever? Had I described the leg? Had I told him to hurry?
I must have said something that conveyed urgency, because late that night, when anyone else would have been long asleep, Paul Martin’s buggy drove into our yard. “Doc’s here,” I told Joe as I replaced the drying compress on his forehead with a fresh cool one. “He’s going to take care of everything. Soon, you’ll be feeling just fine.” I couldn’t tell whether he heard me, but it almost didn’t matter. By that time, I was trying to reassure myself as much as Joe.
Hop Sing led the doctor up the stairs as if Doc hadn’t made this trip dozens upon dozens of times. The little man stood like a sentry in the doorway while the doctor set down his bag and removed his coat. I told Doc as much as I could, and Hop Sing filled in with details about what kind of poultices he’d used and how often.
Finally, there was no more for us to say. Doc moved the quilt and assessed the leg with a frown. Then, he leaned over and laid his hand on Joe’s forehead. “Joe, can you hear me?” he asked.
Joe grunted. His eyes opened, but they didn’t seem to be focusing. “Hey, Doc,” he murmured. The doctor slipped the thermometer into his mouth, and it seemed forever until he removed it, studying it with a frown.
“How long has he been like this?” he asked me.
“He said his leg’s been swollen for a couple days,” I said. “The fever’s more recent. He hadn’t complained, and I just recognized it earlier today.” I didn’t mean to make excuses, but all at once, I felt judged. I forced the words out: “What do you think?”
His eyes met mine. He jerked his head toward the door, and I followed him into the hall. Hop Sing stood with us as the doctor said in a low voice, “I’m not going to kid you, Ben. This is bad. It’s come up fast and hard, and if we don’t act just as fast, he may not survive.”
My stomach lurched. Beside me, Hop Sing stood ramrod straight, his face completely immobile. Only the horror in his eyes revealed that he understood. We glanced at each other, and then I said the words aloud: “You’re saying we need to cut off the leg.”
“Yes.” No mincing of words. “It’s the leg or his life, Ben.” He made it sound like a choice, but it was no choice at all.
Silence swirled around us. I could hear Hop Sing breathing. I tried to force out a word, but no sound came from my lips. Doc’s pale blue gaze was intent. If I said nothing, he would do it because it had to happen. All I had to do was to stand there. He would do the rest by himself. When Joe woke up, I could tell him I wasn’t responsible, that it wasn’t my fault.
Except that I was responsible. I was responsible because he was my son. My blood. No matter what, no matter how old he was, I would never cease to be responsible for him. No matter where, when or how. It was part of the territory of fatherhood. Of family. Of love.
There was so little that I could do at this moment, but at least I could do this. As his father, I owed it to him not to leave this decision to someone else.
I swallowed hard. Finally, I forced the word out.
* * * * *
Steam from the pot of boiling water hung thick in the air, coating the window and the mirror. Every cloth and bandage in the house was piled onto a wooden tray on Joe’s bedside table. Lamps had been gathered and lit and set all around the room. The chair had been pushed over to a corner of the room. The fire was stoked to keep away any chill. The night table from Adam’s room stood on the other side of the bed at Doc’s right hand. It bore a metal tray that had been held in the boiling water until Doc decreed it sterile. Now, the tray lay untouched, waiting for the instruments that would remain in the boiling water bath until the last possible minute.
“Hold the lamp closer.” Doc was bent over my son’s leg, studying it. “Bring it over here,” he said, gesturing toward the inner side of the leg. He turned the leg toward him and leaned over to see the inner part of the knee.
I held the lamp as close as I dared: he needed enough light to see, but I didn’t want him to bump it. I barely breathed as he examined the area right above the knee, slowly moving up the once-muscular thigh. He flipped up the edge of Joe’s striped nightshirt, pushing it up well above his hip. Without thinking, I reached over and replaced the fabric to preserve my son’s modesty. With only the slightest glance at me, Doc moved the nightshirt again so that the entire leg was uncovered, and this time, I resisted the urge to interfere.
On the doctor’s instruction, we carefully turned Joe onto his stomach. Even in his half-conscious state, my boy was clearly trying to hold back, but small whimpers of pain escaped him with each movement of his leg. Again, the painstaking examination of every inch of the leg. I bit my lip at the flaming red and blackening flesh on the lower part of what had once been his calf. How could it have gotten so bad so fast? As instructed, I held the lamp close as the doctor bent his head to the area behind the knee. I didn’t know what he was looking for, but I prayed that whatever he saw would be good for Joe.
Finally, the doctor straightened. “I’m going to try to leave the knee,” he said in a low voice. Hop Sing leaned in closer as he continued, “It’s going to depend on what I find when I get in there, but from what I’m seeing, I believe I can take the leg here—” and he touched a spot about two inches below Joe’s knee. He fixed me with a stern blue gaze. “I won’t do this to him twice. If I see anything at all that gives me concern when I open up the leg, I’m going higher. I’m telling you that now because once I start, there won’t be time to argue. You’re going to have to trust my judgment.”
“I do.” I don’t know how he heard me, but he nodded.
“All right, then. Let’s turn him back over.” We did as instructed, and Doc looked up at me. “Are you ready?”
Was I ready? Had there ever been a more absurd question? Could a father ever be ready to stand beside the man who would take a saw and cut off the leg of his youngest son? I took Joe’s hand, so strong and yet now so limp, and I squeezed it to let him know that I was there, that I had done all I could. His fingers curled around mine. God, help me, I pleaded, my head bowed.
Then, I took a deep breath. I laid my son’s hand gently on the bed. I turned to the doctor and stood as tall as possible against the grief that threatened to crush me.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m ready.”
Long afterward, Paul Martin told me that the operation took nearly forty-five minutes. I wouldn’t know. I held that lamp steady, and I did my best not to watch as Hop Sing took firm hold of Joseph’s leg, lifting it up, and the doctor positioned his knife between the strong, square brown hands. The sickly sweet odor of ether made my stomach turn. The tourniquet was tied tightly two-thirds of the way down my boy’s once-muscular thigh. I clutched the lamp as the knife sliced into my son’s flesh and deep red blood oozed out. I closed my eyes when the doctor laid the knife on the tray and picked up the saw. Moments later, I heard the saw strike the bone. I heard the doctor say something—I don’t know what or to whom—and the saw began to grind its harsh way through Joe’s shin. I tried to take deep breaths, to pretend that I was in a forest felling a tree, to will myself to be anywhere else, but I couldn’t shut out the sound that would haunt my dreams for months. When I heard the first bone snap, I felt as though someone had punched me. Doc spoke again, and this time, he said my name.
“What?” I could barely breathe, much less speak.
“Are you all right?”
I nodded. There was no choice. I had to be all right.
“Just hold on. We’re almost there.” I nodded to show I’d heard, and the grinding of saw against bone began again. I never knew blood had such a pungent odor. I squeezed my eyes shut, trusting that I was holding the lamp in the right place. Another snap. I heard the doctor say something, and Hop Sing responded, but to this day, I have no idea what they said. More words, and I heard Hop Sing step away from the bed and then return. Then, I felt the lamp being taken from my hands.
“All right, Ben, you’re done,” said Doc.
“What?” The words made no sense.
“I want you to leave. Hop Sing can handle it from here.” His voice was not unkind, but neither did it allow for argument.
I opened my eyes. The little Chinese man who had been our family’s mainstay throughout Joe’s life stood across the bed from me. He held a handful of cloths against the place where my son’s leg used to be. The cloths were soaked with blood. Little Joe’s blood. Deep, violent redness staining the snowy whiteness. As I watched, a drop fell to the towel that was already sodden with the essence of my son’s life. Hop Sing’s head was bowed so that I could not see his face, but my boy’s blood dripped between his fingers. He reached for a clean cloth, pressing it against the leg to catch more blood, dropping the useless one behind him.
For a moment, I wanted to protest. I was Joe’s father; I should see this through.
But then, I looked past Hop Sing, and I saw the oilcloth package on the floor by the bureau. The dark gray cloth was wrapped around something long and narrow. The tiniest drop of bright red blood had seeped out onto the floor. I began to tremble.
“Ben. Go.” The doctor’s voice was sharper now. I was distracting him at a time when he could ill afford distraction. Blindly, I stumbled from the room, pulling the door closed behind me. I made my way down the hall to my own room, where I barely closed the door before I fell to my hands and knees and vomited.
I don’t know how long I stayed there before there was a light rap on the door. “Just a minute,” I managed. I didn’t get up, though. I sat back and could do no more. After a minute or so, the door opened.
“It’s over,” said Paul Martin. He sounded exhausted.
“Thank you,” I whispered. How hard this must have been for him. He’d brought Joe into the world on an October day much like this one. On that day nineteen years ago, my beautiful, shrieking baby boy had had two legs with which he kicked vigorously, and nobody ever foresaw the day when one of them would have to be cut off.
Pull yourself together, I told myself. Joe was going to need me. Joe was going to wake up, and he would need me to be strong.
The tears that spilled over then scalded my face. I dropped my head into my hands and let my grief overwhelm me. “My boy. . . .” I choked again and again.
After a time, I became aware of someone sitting beside me. I raised my head to see Hop Sing. Only once before had I seen tears in his eyes, and that was the day we buried Marie.
He laid his arm around my shoulders. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never done such a thing, and it finished me. Sobs wrenched themselves from deep within me; for a time, I could hardly draw breath. Eventually, I realized that I was being held. The notion that someone else would be the strong one, if only for a brief time, was so sweet that I let go and allowed myself to grieve for my son.
Finally, I sat up. Doc was squatting in front of me. I hadn’t heard him leave, but now he held out a glass. “Drink this,” he said. I took the glass. He poured again and handed one to Hop Sing. He waited while we both drank the brandy, and then he poured a glass for himself.
“Joe,” I said, straightening. “He’s going to wake up, and we’re all in here and nobody’s with him—” I tried to scramble to my feet, but my legs were asleep, and Doc and Hop Sing caught me.
“He won’t wake up for a little while yet,” said Paul as he eased me down to the floor. He refilled my glass. “It’s all right,” he said at my hesitation. I sipped as he refilled Hop Sing’s glass and his own.
The three of us sat on the floor, drinking and not speaking. At last, I said, “I’m sorry. I need to clean up—” I gestured to the befouled floor.
“Hop Sing clean,” said the little man with gentle firmness.
“No,” I said. “You took care of my boy. You don’t need to clean up in here.” I placed my hand on his. “Thank you, my friend,” I said. “Mrs. Cartwright would be so grateful.” As I knew it would, the mention of Marie seemed to overwhelm him for a moment. Then, he rose.
“Hop Sing clean up,” he said in a tone which would accept no argument. “Mistah Cahtlight wash up, go back to Li’l Joe.” I looked to Paul, who nodded his acquiescence.
“Thank you,” I whispered. I managed to stand this time, and I set the glass on the washstand and poured water into the basin. I splashed water on my face as Hop Sing busied himself cleaning up and the doctor gathered the glasses and decanter. Then, I turned to my two dear friends. Again, I said the words that were so heartfelt and yet so inadequate: “Thank you.”
Slowly, I walked down the hall to where Joe slept. One foot in front of the other, because I could. Because I had a foot to put in front of another foot. But Joe didn’t. For the rest of his life, he would have only one leg, one foot. I remembered how Marie had held the infant Joe in her arms and untucked the blanket from his legs. “Look, Ben!” she said. “Ten little toes!” At the time, it seemed merely sweet, a charmingly motherish thing to say. I’d been through that with Adam and Hoss, and I was used to it. All babies had two legs, two feet, ten toes. It was how life was.
At Joe’s door, I paused. The room still smelled of blood, coppery and pungent, even though all traces of the operation had vanished. I knew without asking that Hop Sing had changed my son’s bed, even with him in it. Nothing would have been more important to him than making sure his Li’l Joe had been taken care of.
The outline of the frame showed through the blankets. I’d forgotten that we’d tucked it under the bed, out of the way. Once, it had covered an injured leg; now, it covered a stump and an empty space. An observer would never have known anything changed. If Joe had merely awakened and looked, he’d never have known the difference. But I knew. I knew that what would have been under there yesterday wasn’t there today, never would be again. I knew that my son’s life had changed forever. Doc had taken more than a leg. He’d taken everything the boy had known about how to live in our world. I felt the tears welling up as I looked at him, pale and motionless.
Then, he moved slightly. That was all I needed. I hastened into the room, snatching up the washbowl as I passed the washstand. Joe had always had a hard time with anesthesia of any type, and ether was the worst. I set the bowl on the floor and stroked his hair, not bothering about whether he was awake enough to know. “It’s all right, boy,” I whispered, not because I thought he could hear me, but because I wanted it to be true. I kept stroking and whispering, and eventually, his eyelids fluttered.
“Pa?” I could barely hear the word.
“I’m right here, Joe,” I said, leaning close. “It’s all over. You’re going to be fine.”
He squinted as though trying to see me through a thick fog. “Gone.”
My stomach lurched. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I couldn’t do that to him. I couldn’t make him ask a second time. “Yes,” I managed. “And you’re going to be just fine. I promise.”
“Leg,” he whispered. “Gone.”
I swallowed hard. “Some of it,” I said. I wanted to reassure him, to convince him and myself that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, but his eyelids were fluttering like injured butterflies, and I knew this wasn’t the time to get into the whole matter. So, I asked, “You feel sick?” For a few moments, I wasn’t certain he’d understood the question; then, he nodded. “I’ve got the bowl right here,” I said. His eyes closed again. Moments later, he was pushing himself up and grabbing for the bowl. I positioned it and held him up enough to make use of it; then, I set it on the floor and eased him back down. I poured water into the bedside glass and lifted his head enough to enable him to sip without choking. It was all so familiar, except that it wasn’t: this wasn’t a broken bone or gunshot wound or fever. All those things healed, leaving him as good as new. But not this time. He would never be as good as new again.
He was reaching for me. I caught his hand in mine, holding it against my cheek. “I wish,” I whispered. I didn’t know whether he heard me, but he didn’t ask any more.
* * * * *
The lamplight was warm, the scent of woodsmoke comforting. Darkness fell early this late in the autumn. As soon as Joe had been well enough to eat regular meals, I’d started taking mine up to his room so that we could eat together. He didn’t eat much anyway, but I hoped that my presence would make mealtime feel slightly more normal.
I tried to keep up casual dinner conversation as I balanced my plate on my lap and Joseph moved his food around his plate without actually eating anything. “Son, you need to get something in your belly,” I said when it became clear that he had no intention of doing more than rearranging his food.
“I’m not hungry.” It was his standard response at every meal these days.
I knew I should try to get him to eat, but all at once, I was just too tired. The days had been long and demanding as I tried to balance nursing my son with running the ranch. A letter had come for Adam from his friend, Richard, and I found myself longing for the freedom to go off to New York and watch people building what had to be the tallest structure in the world, complete with rising rooms and indoor water closets. It occurred to me that if things had been different, Adam might have been able to take such a trip. He might even have been able to work with Richard on such an exciting project.
If things had been different. . . .
At least we had reached the point where Doc no longer made daily calls. Once he’d assured himself that there was no sign of infection and that he’d trained me adequately in caring for Joe’s stump, he reduced the frequency of his visits—reluctantly, in my opinion, but with a nod to balancing our needs and those of his other patients. It had to happen, but I could see that it cost him. I suspected that he’d never stop worrying about my boy, any more than I would.
The doctor had warned us that even after Joe’s fever faded, it would take time before he was strong enough to be out of bed. “And then, there will be the other things to manage,” he said. I was grateful that he didn’t feel the need to elaborate. There would be time enough for that later.
Joe’s fork clattered as he dropped it on the tray. “I’m done,” he said as though I was going to challenge him, but I just nodded.
“Let’s change your bandage, and you can go to sleep.” I set my half-empty plate on his full one and moved the tray to the floor by the door. Then, I brought over the small tray from the bureau. This one held the necessary supplies—alcohol, clean cloths, freshly boiled bandages that hung by the stove to dry. Keep the wound scrupulously clean, the doctor had said more times than I could count. I didn’t need for him to enumerate the dangers infection could bring, especially after a siege of this nature. And so, I’d become as adept as any nurse at cleaning the healing wound and wrapping the bandage around the stump so that it stayed in place.
Even so, I still had to steel myself before I drew back the covers.
Part of the routine involved Joe lying back and looking away as I worked. I started to reach for the pillows that I’d propped behind him so that he could sit up for supper. His hand on my wrist stopped me. “No,” was all he said, but the tightness in his voice told me everything.
“Are you sure?” I tried to sound matter-of-fact. He hadn’t looked at his leg since the operation, even with its bandages.
He nodded. As casually as possible, I drew back the covers. The initial shock of seeing only one leg below the hem of his nightshirt was something I suspected would never quite leave me. I was careful not to look at his face as I busied myself sliding up the nightshirt just far enough to expose the bandages. I unwound the strips of cloth and removed the pads, examining them for evidence of seepage or infection. Joe said nothing as I inspected and cleaned the healing wounds, but when I reached for the fresh bandages, he put out his hand to stop me.
“Wait.” His voice was hoarse. I looked up from his leg, and his face was white, his eyes fixed on what was left of his right leg. I moved the tray from the bed and reached for the covers to hide the stump, but again he stopped me.
“Just—” The sentence faded, but the meaning was clear. I stepped back and watched in silence as my son reached out to touch the place where his leg ended. His fingers hovered; then he yanked his hand back as though he’d nearly touched a hot stove. A minute later, he tried again. This time, when his hand came to rest on his leg, he caught his breath sharply, as if in pain.
“Joe.” I moved closer, and he shook his head, holding me off even as his breathing grew rougher. For what seemed an eternity, I waited—for what, I wasn’t sure. Later, I would put words to what I knew instinctively that night: Joe needed to see, to touch, to grieve, and he needed to do it on his own. It was his leg, and he needed to make his peace with it.
Slowly, his fingers explored the flap of skin Doc had sewn over the place where the rest of his leg had been. The stitches were gone, but the scars that outlined the flap were still raw, like reddish rope. All color had drained from his face. His jaw was clenched. Still, he reached down with his other hand as though he would gain more information. His breathing began to sound strangled. Deep, guttural moans escaped him as he bent low, his forehead nearly touching his knee.
Then, he lifted his head, grief dark and naked in his eyes. “It’s gone.” He bowed his head again, his forehead nearly touching the place where his leg ended. “It’s gone,” he breathed, his voice breaking.
“Oh, Joseph.” I wrapped my arms around him as best I could, my cheek resting against his trembling back as he bent low over his leg. “Hang on, boy,” I whispered. “Just hang on.”
Eventually, the shuddering stilled. His breathing quieted, and I felt the tension in his body ease. I loosened my grip, and he sat up, clearly exhausted.
“Are you all right?” I asked without releasing him.
He exhaled as though he’d been holding his breath for a long time. He shrugged, but he sat up straighter, subtly moving from my embrace. He studied his leg for another minute, and then he said, “So, that’s it.” The words were simple. The anguish of finality resonated.
“We should probably get it bandaged,” I began, but he was shaking his head.
“Just leave it,” he said. His voice was still ragged. Even so, I had the sense of a storm having passed.
I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to leave the leg unbandaged for a while. The wound was healing well, with no sign of infection. “Do you want to lie down?”
My son snorted. “You know what I really want?” I raised my eyebrows in question, and he said, “A drink. Not water,” he added as I started to turn to the pitcher on the night table.
I considered his statement briefly. Well, why not? He was certainly old enough. He wasn’t running a fever. He hadn’t had any laudanum since morning, and his leg probably hurt. There wasn’t any medical reason to say “no.” And as far as I was concerned, he deserved it.
I went downstairs, returning a few minutes later with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. A slight grin tipped the corners of his mouth; I’m sure he thought I would bring up the decanter of brandy. Give the old man a little credit, I nearly said.
I poured each of us a drink. Before I could move to the bedside chair, he slid himself over to make room for me on the bed. I sat, we clinked our glasses and drank, and I poured another round.
We were probably on our fourth or fifth round before either of us spoke. “I knew this was gonna happen someday,” he said, holding out his glass.
“Knew what was going to happen?” I poured as I tried to make sense of his words.
“This.” He gestured with his free hand. “I always knew it would happen. From that first day I woke up after that damned horse rolled on me, I knew someday, I’d wake up and my leg would be gone.” He tossed back his whiskey and held out his glass.
I didn’t chastise him about his language as I ordinarily would have. Instead, I refilled both our glasses. “What made you think that?”
He shrugged. “I dunno,” he said. “But when I was sick last year and Doc kept trying stuff—every time, I thought, ‘This is it.’ And when he operated, I really thought it was gone and I was just feeling that phantom pain. Then, when it wasn’t gone, it was like a miracle, but I still knew it wouldn’t last. It just—it just couldn’t. Not feeling like that.” He stared at the amber liquid without drinking.
I didn’t know what to say. Naturally, I’d dreaded the idea of amputation, but the truth was that I’d truly believed for a long time that Joe’s leg would heal. The day he tried to mount his horse had been the first time I allowed myself to realize that Joe might never recover completely. Still, I’d maintained my faith that even if his leg might not be perfect, it would be sufficient to let him return to normal life. The line between faith and denial was sometimes difficult to identify.
“How’s the pain now?” I asked after a while.
“A little more of this, and I won’t be feeling any pain at all.” His words were slurring slightly, and he belched. I knew it was probably time to put the bottle away, but the truth was that I didn’t want to. For the first time in a very, very long time, I wanted to keep pouring until I was blind drunk.
Slightly to my surprise, Joe drained his glass and handed it to me. “I’m tired,” he mumbled, flopping back against his pillows. It was no wonder, I reflected as I rose and set the glasses on the night table with the bottle. He’d had a long, hard siege—not to mention a fair bit of whiskey on an empty stomach.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” he said as though he’d read my thoughts. I must have looked startled, because he emitted a tipsy giggle.
I rebandaged his leg and settled him in for sleep. By the time I’d cleaned up the medical supplies and loaded up the tray of dirty dishes and glassware, my son was snoring softly. I chuckled as I blew out the lamp and rested my hand on his shoulder.
“Good night, Joseph,” I whispered even though I knew he couldn’t hear me. “Call if you need me.” I left the door ajar, just in case.
As I reached the top of the stairs with my tray, a movement below caught my eye. I squinted through the whiskey haze. The gray cat was sitting beside the settee, watching me. As I descended to the living room, the cat never took its eyes off me. At the bottom, I paused, but it didn’t seem at all daunted by my presence.
“Go on,” I told it, jerking my head toward the staircase. The cat didn’t move, and I shrugged as I went on to the kitchen. A few minutes later, I returned to the living room to find it gone. I thought of going upstairs to see whether it was in Joseph’s room, but instead, I sat down in my red leather chair, leaned my head back, and closed my eyes—just for a minute, I told myself.
When I opened my eyes, my neck ached and my head pounded. Too-bright sunshine streamed in the dining room windows. A blanket had been draped over me. The rich earthy aroma of strong coffee wafted from the coffee pot which sat beside a cup and saucer on the low pine table.
I groaned. The gray cat paused on its way down the stairs to stare at me. Maybe it was the whiskey, but I’d have sworn its expression bespoke approval.
* * * * *
I tried to focus on my work, but Joe’s silence was so loud that I couldn’t concentrate. Every time I stole a glance out of the corner of my eye, the picture was the same. His jaw was clenched, his eyes clearly not seeing the yard before us. If it hadn’t been for the light breeze that ruffled his unruly curls, he might have been carved from stone.
I forced my attention back to the papers on the table. No matter what hardships befell us, we still needed to keep the ranch running. I took up the letter from a cattle buyer in Kansas City who had heard about our beef from a mutual acquaintance. “Hmmm,” I said aloud as I read, but Joe showed no sign of having heard, much less of any interest in what was provoking my reaction.
I considered the options. Hoss and Adam would be home at the end of the week. We’d need to round up the cattle and drive them to a point at which we could load them on trains bound for Kansas City. I knew how many head we had ready to move—any rancher would know that without having to check the books—but what I didn’t know was how far we would need to drive the cattle, much less whether we would even have the manpower to do so.
I laid down the letter, considering. Time was when I wouldn’t have had to think twice about such a question. But things were different now. Joe obviously couldn’t drive cattle any more, and I couldn’t leave him alone here. The thought flashed through my mind that there might never come a day when I would feel comfortable leaving him on his own, but I closed my eyes against it for an instant. Surely he would learn to function well enough to be on his own. He’d lost a leg, but someday, he’d learn to manage.
In the softening of the late afternoon light, I saw movement by the barn. I peered across the yard, and the small shape emerged from the shadow. It was the gray barn cat that Joe was so fond of—at least, it looked like it. To be honest, I couldn’t tell one cat from another, and I didn’t even know how many of the cats running around the ranch were gray.
This one was on the trail of something. As I watched, it darted across the yard after something I couldn’t see. I snuck a glance at Joe and was quietly gratified to see that he seemed to be watching the cat, too.
We sat without speaking as the cat dashed back and forth after its prey. It crouched low, waggling its back end until it leaped forward like a bullet. I allowed myself another glance at my son; if he wasn’t smiling, at least he wasn’t frowning. Right now, that was something.
I was about to speak when the cat dashed toward the porch, stopping abruptly at the bottom step. I waited for Joe to call it, but he was silent. To my own surprise, I clucked to the cat. “Come here,” I called. The cat perked its ears and favored me with a brief look before turning its attention back to Joe. “Come on up,” I invited, and this time, the cat simply ignored me.
I was about to call it again when it lifted a paw as though about to ascend the stairs. Then, something—some invisible prey—caught its attention, and the cat did a most incredible thing. In a single, graceful motion, it twisted to face the direction it had come from, leaping high into the air—at least five feet—and smacking its front paws together as though catching something. It landed with the lightest thump and proceeded to eat whatever it had plucked from the air.
“How about that?” I was honestly impressed. Joe made the smallest grunt of acknowledgement, and I shook my head. “I guess nobody ever told that little one that cats can’t fly!”
Joe said nothing. We watched together as the cat finished its snack and sauntered back across the yard to the barn. Just as I was about to suggest that we head inside, Hop Sing appeared to announce supper. I started to get up, intending to pick up Joe’s crutches for him, but before I could do more than rise, he’d gotten them himself. I gathered up my papers while he organized himself to stand—crutches in one hand, the other on the arm of the chair, his balance adjusted just so as he transferred one crutch to his other hand. Hop Sing, who’d stood quietly by, came forward to help Joe down the two steps from the upper porch, but Joe shook his head.
“I’ve got it,” was all he said, but there was something in his voice I hadn’t heard since his operation, and I looked up, startled. The slight furrow between Hop Sing’s brows told me that he’d heard it, too. It was the impatience of the Joe we’d known before, the one whose childhood refrain had been, “By self!” Hop Sing looked up at me as Joe maneuvered the steps, and I shook my head: we were both close enough to help if he needed us, but if he wanted to do this by self, I was willing to let him try.
For one who had been on crutches for so long, Joe still seemed hesitant about the steps. Doc had told us that it was different now. Joe needed to learn a whole new way of balancing, and that would take time and practice. “You have to let him do it on his own as much as you can,” the doctor had told me out of Joe’s hearing. “He’ll let you know when he needs help.”
Joe placed the crutch tips on the bottom step. Carefully, he swung his foot down to that level, but he nearly toppled over. “I’m all right,” he snapped as we both stepped forward instinctively. When neither of us moved back, he glared from one to the other. “I’m fine,” he insisted. With no further unsteadiness, he made his way into the house.
The little gray cat was still darting around the yard after whatever insects it deemed worthy of the hunt. I tapped the bottom edge of my papers against the table. I couldn’t help feeling as though I was supposed to be learning some larger lesson here, but all I could think was that Adam and Hoss were going to be home soon, and they wouldn’t know to be proud of Joe for getting down two steps without falling. Hoss especially would be devastated when he finally saw Joe’s loss for himself. Knowing Hoss, he would want to coddle and hover until Joe lost his already-limited patience. Adam would likely be on the other side, pushing Joe to do the best he possibly could. And in the middle of it all would be my youngest son, who was trying to figure out how to meet challenges he could never have anticipated.
The cat leaped again. I didn’t know what the larger lesson was, or if there even was one. All I knew was that I had a remarkable son. One way or another, we would figure out this new life together
* * * * *
Down in the root cellar, I had just lifted the dusty crate with its jars of string beans when I heard the voices, faint but unmistakable, in the living room. For a moment, I couldn’t move. They’re his brothers, I told myself. They won’t say the wrong thing. But I hustled up the stairs with my load, hoping to somehow forestall whatever comments were coming.
I deposited the crate in the kitchen and rounded the corner to the sound of Hoss’s ribbing. “You lazy cuss!” he chortled. “Get your sorry carcass off that settee before I pound you!”
“Hoss! Adam! So good to see you!” I called loudly.
But my attempt at distraction came too late. Just as I reached the dining table, Hoss came around the end of the settee and stopped dead. Later, he told me that he’d spent every night since they got my letter trying to picture what he would see, and he’d thought he was ready. But no amount of imagining could have prepared him—or anyone—for the sight of that pinned-up trouser leg. He blinked as though he simply couldn’t believe it, as though the leg must be bent underneath Joe. Then, the truth that would not be denied settled across his features like bitter ash from a forest fire. His eyes widened, and his jovial grin rounded to an O of unbelieving horror.
“Joe,” he breathed. “Your leg. . . .”
“Yeah, it’s gone.” My youngest son’s voice was defiant.
Adam stepped in then. “Pa wrote us,” he said, carefully looking only at Joe’s face. “Said you’re coming along real well.” His voice was so matter-of-fact, but I heard how deeply he was hurting for his brother.
“I am.” The words wobbled ever so slightly. “How was the drive?”
Hoss swallowed hard. “Joe, I—” His words trailed off.
“You boys must be hungry,” I announced far too heartily. “Why don’t you go and wash up? Supper won’t be ready for another hour, but I’m sure we can rustle up a snack in the meantime.” But it was clear from their faces that there was nothing they wanted less at this moment than food. I tried to think of another distraction, but none came.
“I’m gonna tend the horses.” Hoss’s deep, booming voice was a mere whisper. Before any of us could challenge the veracity of his statement—Hoss would never have come in without first tending to his horse—my middle son was out the door.
I rested my hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You’ve been up for quite a while,” I reminded him. “Feel like taking a rest before supper?” At first, I thought he hadn’t heard me, but then he nodded. As Adam looked on, I retrieved Joe’s crutches from under the settee and helped him to stand. When he had his balance, he tucked the crutches under his arms and made his way to the stairs, where he transferred the crutches to his right hand and took hold of the banister with his left. He rested the crutches on the step above him and pulled himself up so that his foot rested on the same step. A deep breath, and repeat. His eldest brother and I watched as he took the stairs, one at a time, pausing to rest at the landing and then pushing on. Not until he reached the top did I go up. “Good job,” was all I said, but he knew why I was there. Without comment, I matched his slow, labored pace as we headed down the hall. When we reached his room, he sat on the edge of the bed and let the crutches clatter to the floor. His jaw was set as he pulled off his boot, and I waited for him to lie back before I spread the afghan over him.
“Do you want a little painkiller?” I asked. Slightly to my surprise, he nodded. I opened the bottle slowly, almost giving him a chance to change his mind, but he simply waited. When he had swallowed, he lay back and closed his eyes.
I wanted to tell Joe not to judge his brother too harshly. I had no doubt that Hoss felt terrible about his reaction, maybe almost as awful as he did about the fact itself. His immense love for his little brother, the shock of the reality, and the fatigue of the long ride had all overridden his natural sensitivity for a moment.
But I knew, as Joe did, that this wasn’t an isolated incident. People would stare, would whisper, would make thoughtless comments a thousand times and more. Pity, horror and fear would mark his encounters with strangers and his reunions with old friends. Still, I knew that no reaction would ever hit him as hard again. No one else’s response could ever matter to him as much as Hoss’s did.
I rested my hand on Joe’s curls. “Get some sleep, son.” I meant to leave, but as my boy closed his eyes, the mask dropped and he pressed his lips together against the anguish. Without a word, I sat on the bed, stroking his hair until sleep claimed him.
Eventually, I made myself rise. I smoothed the quilt and arranged items on the night table until I had to admit that I was stalling. I blew out the lamp and, with one last look at my sleeping son, I left the room, leaving the door open in case he called for me.
The living room was empty when I went downstairs. I wondered briefly if Adam had joined his brother in the barn. I poured a more generous brandy than I normally would and swallowed it in a single gulp. Then, I poured another, and this time, I sipped in my usual fashion.
I was finishing my third brandy when Hop Sing came out of the kitchen to announce that supper was ready. “Where everybody?” he demanded.
“I don’t know.” I could hear the weariness in my voice. “Little Joe’s sleeping,” I added, daring him to complain.
“Where Mistah Adam and Mistah Hoss?” The little man didn’t sound quite so strident.
“Probably in the barn,” I said. “I’ll call them.” With uncharacteristic reluctance, I set down my glass and headed out to the barn in search of my older sons.
They looked up as I entered the barn. Naked grief was clear in their faces, grief and something more. I couldn’t tell for certain in the fading light, but it looked as if Hoss might have been crying. Adam looked as grim as I’d ever seen him.
“Supper’s ready,” I said when neither of them spoke. When they didn’t move, I added, “Joe won’t be coming down. He’s asleep.” They flinched, and I knew my words had struck home.
I turned away, both to leave and to hide my sudden anger. They still had their legs. For them to be hesitant to come in and see their crippled brother infuriated me. How dare they?
Without a word, they followed me into the house and took their places at the table.
Normally, the conversation would have been lively. Hoss and Adam would have recounted their adventures and misadventures on the trail, and I would have brought them up to date on the happenings at the Ponderosa. Instead, knives scraped against plates and serving spoons clinked against bowls. When at last all the dishes had been passed, the sounds of chewing and swallowing seemed to echo in the silence.
As I set down my fork, I looked up to see Hoss’s gaze fixed on me. “What?” I asked when it became apparent he was not going to speak first.
“Is he okay?”
It was an innocent question, born of a brother’s love, but I stared at my middle son as though I’d never seen him before. Before I could stop myself, I spat out the words: “He’s nineteen years old, and he’s crippled for life. How ‘okay’ could he possibly be?
Hoss looked as stunned as though I’d slapped him. Adam said, “Take it easy, Pa,” and there was a touch of heat in his voice.
Everything I’d buried for the past four weeks—all the terror, the rage, the heartbreak—burst out like a geyser. “‘Take it easy’? ‘Take it easy’? And just how do you suggest that I do that?” I pointed to the stairs with a shaking finger. “I stood up in Joseph’s room beside Doc Martin as he took a saw and cut my son’s leg off. Do you know where it is now? Hop Sing buried it behind the barn. Your brother’s leg, buried just like it was a dead animal.”
“Pa—” Adam began, but I couldn’t stop.
“I was there when that boy woke up, and I looked him in the eye and told him that this time, we really had cut his leg off. And every day since then, he has fought for some semblance of normalcy, and I have done everything I can to help him believe that some day, he will lead a useful, productive life when the truth is that I have no idea whether that is even possible.” I rose and fixed my older sons with the fiercest glare I could muster. “And you want to know if he’s okay, and you think that I should take it easy? I’m sorry that your brother and I are not handling this situation as well as you think we should. I expected that you would understand. Apparently, I was wrong.” I threw my napkin onto my plate and stormed across the living room, ignoring the calls of, “Pa, wait a minute!” that followed me up the stairs.
My boots thundered as I headed down the hall to my room. The sight of Joseph’s room brought me up short. I’d completely forgotten that I’d left his door open. I listened as hard as I could for the even, regular breathing that would have reassured me that he’d slept through my tirade, but I heard nothing. Just when I’d assured myself he was still asleep, I heard the long exhale that meant he’d been holding his breath.
I pushed open the door wider. “Joe?” No answer. “I know you’re awake.” No answer. I crossed the room and rested my hand on Joe’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son,” I said. “I didn’t mean for you to hear all that.”
“It doesn’t matter.” But his words didn’t match his tone. My heart twisted, and I tried to remember just what I’d said. The last thing I’d wanted was for him to know how hard this had been for me. What I was going through was nothing compared to how he must have felt every time he looked down at where his leg used to be.
I tried to change the subject. “Feel like some supper?” I wasn’t surprised when he shook his head. “You really should eat something,” I added as though that would make a difference.
“Hey, Little Brother.” Hoss’s large form was silhouetted in the doorway. I hadn’t heard him approach. “Can I come in?”
I stepped back from the bed and lit the lamp as Hoss came near. He laid his hand on Joe’s foot and cleared his throat. “I just want to tell you how sorry I am about before.” His gaze was focused on Joe so intently that I might as well not have been present. “That was downright thoughtless of me, and—well, I know you know I’d never do anything to hurt you on purpose, but I’m sorry anyhow.”
“I know.” Joe’s voice was softer now. “It’s okay. You didn’t mean anything. It just caught you by surprise, that’s all.”
“I wish I coulda been here.” Hoss’s voice was softer, too. “I know there ain’t nothin’ I coulda done to change anything, but I still wish I’d been here when you woke up.”
“I know.” I could barely hear Joe. “But you’re here now.”
I slipped out of the room before Hoss could respond. Whatever else he and Joe needed to say was between them.
In the hallway, I encountered Adam leaning against the wall, clearly waiting his turn. His eyes were still dark with anger. I gestured to indicate that he should follow me to my room. Once there, I closed the door behind us and turned to face him.
“I’m sorry,” I said before he could speak. “You’re right. I just—it’s been hard on both of us, and—I’m sorry.” I turned away, busying myself with arranging brushes on my bureau until my son’s quiet voice stopped me.
“How much did Doc have to take?”
“He was able to save the knee.” I could almost hear Adam thinking, considering. I turned back to him. “I don’t know what he’ll be able to do. Doc says the—the stump has to be completely healed before he can even think about a wooden leg, and it might not work anyway—he says that for some people, the wooden leg is so uncomfortable that they prefer not to use it. But if he can, he might just need a cane instead of crutches, and he’d be able to get around better.” For the first time since the night of Joe’s operation, I felt tears welling up. “I’m trying so hard to encourage him, to help him believe that he’s going to be able to live a normal life—work and marriage and children—and half the time I feel like I’m lying to him. I don’t know anything about how to live with one leg. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just trying to take it one day at a time and hope that somehow, it all works out.”
My eldest son is the least demonstrative member of our family. Now, he surprised me by putting his arm around my shoulders. “Let’s sit down,” he said, guiding me over to the bed and settling us both at its foot.
“He’s going to be okay,” Adam said at last, as though he’d thought through the options and reached a sound conclusion based on logic and reason.
“Is he?” I hated the question, but I had to know.
Adam nodded. “This is Joe we’re talking about.” The slightest chuckle lightened my son’s words, and we released each other. “And if you think that ornery little brother of mine is going to settle for spending his life sitting in a rocking chair watching the world go by, I think you’re in for quite a surprise.” His voice took on a reflective note. “A long time ago—back before his first operation—he asked me what I thought a man might be able to do with only one leg—if he could ride and bust broncs and rope and drive cattle.” He chuckled again. “Looks like we may be finding out after all.”
“Busting broncs?” I don’t know why I hadn’t expected that. As Adam said, this was Joe we were talking about.
“Well, probably not right away,” Adam said. “But one of these days. . . .” He shrugged, and I clenched my fist as a wave of longing broke over me to see my youngest son back on a bronc.
I hadn’t realized that I’d looked away until I felt Adam’s warm hand on my shoulder. “He’s going to be okay,” he repeated. “We all are.” He squeezed my shoulder slightly. “You don’t have to do this alone. Hoss and I are here, and so’s Hop Sing.”
“And Joe,” I added. And the cat, my mind chimed in, unbidden.
“And Joe,” Adam agreed. He let go of my shoulder. “Do you suppose he and Hoss would mind a couple of visitors?”
I smiled. “They’d better not.” As Adam and I headed down the hall to Joe’s room, we could hear them talking in low tones. Well, they had a lot to talk about. We all did, and if we were going to find our way through this thicket, we were going to need to talk about it together.
* * * * *
Winter was long that year. Snow had started in late October, and by January, we felt as though it would never end. Outside, it seemed that the entire world had gone white. Inside, the color was frustration.
Last winter had been so different. With Joseph still needing so much care, there had been a focus for much of our energy. The winter itself had been milder, almost as though the Almighty had been holding back, not giving us more than we could handle after such a rough year.
Sometimes, it seemed almost ironic that Joe was doing so much better this year, without his leg. Now that he no longer had to cope with fever and weakness and constant intense pain, his old energy was returning. It was the timing that was problematic: all that energy and nowhere to spend it. I was reminded of other winters when the snow had kept us all housebound, and forced inactivity had led us all to crave solitude even if it meant heading out into icy winds and bitter cold that froze your breath.
At least Hoss and Adam could go outside and shovel the paths to the barn and the corral; Joseph, of course, had no such ready escape. Even so, he insisted on doing his part. As soon as a path had been cleared to the barn after each snowstorm, he was picking his way along it, placing his crutches as carefully as possible and shrugging off all offers of help. It was all I could do not to stand in the doorway each time, watching him make his halting way across the yard. Bundled in every layer I could convince him to wear, he still fought for balance with each step. It could take as long as half an hour for him to reach the barn, but reach it he would, and on his own. That he was often covered in snow from numerous spills was of no interest to him; he simply dusted off his clothes and got to work tending the stock with as much enthusiasm as he’d shown when he was a boy newly entrusted with their care.
Of course, I fretted. He sported as many cuts and bruises as he had back in his school days, but unlike then, these were not the result of horseplay or fighting. Now, the marks were the byproduct of his labors as he lost his balance while trying to manage with just one crutch, or even none at all. On the snow, he had the sense—or self-preservation—to use both crutches, but once inside, having both hands occupied was clearly something he deemed too inconvenient. Many times that winter, I came into a room or the barn to find him hopping, his crutches tossed aside. I cautioned him to be careful, but the truth was that seeing that spark of energy, of life, of the old Joe, who would not be held back, was too precious. For the first time in far too long, he had the bit in his teeth, and he was bound to go as fast and as far as he could.
Part of that distance was covered on horseback. His brothers and I practically had to sit on him to keep him on solid ground until Doc gave his approval, but the day finally came. The snow was melting, the bitter winds had softened, and the instructions were clear: a short ride in the yard at nothing faster than a walk. “It’s a different way of balancing,” Doc admonished him, but I knew my son wasn’t listening. He’d heard the only words he cared about. The rest was for someone else to worry about.
Joe insisted on saddling the pinto himself. He managed it with such ease that I knew he’d been practicing for this moment during those winter hours in the barn. Adam had taken the right stirrup off the saddle, and he’d fashioned a device almost like a second scabbard to hold the crutches in place so that Joe would have them when he reached his destination.
If Joe was at all anxious, he gave no sign. The rest of us followed suit with varying degrees of success. Memories of his last failed attempt flashed through my mind, but I held my tongue. A glance at his brothers confirmed that they were thinking of the same day. Even the pinto nickered and tossed his head, though it was impossible to know whether it was nervous or merely excited. Only Joe seemed not to be worried. This was a celebration, and failure had no place at the table.
“Easy, boy,” he murmured as Cochise tossed his head. He stroked the black and white neck, and the horse settled down.
“You want a hand?” Hoss offered. Clearly, his mind was in the same place as mine.
“I’m fine,” said Joe, waving him off. I held my breath for fear that he would attempt his old swing mount as he had the last time, but to my relief, he didn’t. Instead, he bent his knee, bounced slightly, pulled himself up—how strong his arms had become from months of crutches—and he slid his foot into the stirrup. Then, he swung his abbreviated right leg over the saddle without so much as brushing the leather, and he settled himself in the saddle.
For a long moment, none of us spoke. We didn’t move. I couldn’t have if I’d wanted to. My boy was back on a horse for the first time in nearly two years. I had to swallow hard to keep my composure.
“Well?” I looked up to see a wide, wide grin on my son’s face. His eyes glowed as he asked, “Am I going alone?”
That startled me into speech. “Going where? Doc said—”
“Don’t worry, Pa, I’m fine.” It was clear that Joseph had decided that whatever Doc might know about medicine, he didn’t know horses and he certainly didn’t know what kind of a rider Joe Cartwright was.
“You just take it easy, Shortshanks.” Hoss seemed to have found his voice, but it bore traces of telltale roughness. “You ain’t doin’ nothing crazy today.”
“I never said I was!” Joe’s voice fairly squeaked with innocence, but his eyes danced with mischief. “You coming?”
“Dadburnit—all right!” As always, Hoss couldn’t deny Joe anything.
“I think some fresh air would do us all good,” said Adam. Translation: my little brother is not going anywhere without me to keep an eye on him. “What do you think, Pa?” he added as he fetched his own saddle and mine.
I started to say that I thought Joseph should stay right there in the yard the way the doctor had decreed. Then, my eyes met Joe’s. He was watching me, not moving.
I could stand firm. I was his father; if I forbade him from leaving the yard, he would do as I decreed. The choice was mine.
Time tumbled back nearly two decades. Just as I had with Adam and Hoss, I’d taken Joe into the saddle with me even before he could walk. Unlike his brothers, though, he’d never shown the slightest nervousness, even when the horse trotted. His high-pitched giggles of glee rang sweetly through the summer air, his chubby fingers grabbing handfuls of mane. As time passed, the childish refrain of “Faster, Pa!” evoked laughter from the hands who watched him grow. Once he was on his own pony, keeping him from racing off to his next adventure was a constant struggle. Then, when he was turning fifteen and I traded with Winnemucca for the paint pony he’d had his heart set on, it was as though I’d given him wings.
So much had changed since then. Now, there were a dozen good reasons to say “no”—and only one to say “yes.”
Because my son had asked me to.
I held his gaze for a long moment. Then, I raised my finger in a warning gesture. Over the pounding of my heart, I said in my sternest voice, “You wait for me to get saddled up. And so help me, if you do anything foolish, you won’t be able to sit in a saddle for a week!”
He laughed with such relief that I knew he understood. But the time had come. All the worries, the fears, the pain and anguish and trepidation about the future—it was time to lay them down.
Because Joe Cartwright was back in the saddle.
* * * * *
“All right! That’s enough!” I slammed down my fork and glared at Joseph.
I was at my wit’s end. His latest foul mood had been going on forever, it seemed. Whatever anybody said, he managed to take it as some sort of insult or criticism. In the past, I’d have sent him off to restock line shacks, just to get some peace and quiet around here while he worked off whatever head of steam had built up. Failing that, a trip into town had often served to set him right. Obviously, the line shacks weren’t an option now. Maybe town, though.
I considered the question as Joe snatched up his own fork and stabbed a piece of beef, dropping it from the platter to his own plate. I could almost hear his thoughts as he fumed about whatever indignity he believed that he’d suffered. Hoss was rolling his eyes in frustration, but Adam—somewhat to my surprise, my eldest son didn’t look disgusted at his baby brother’s tantrum. Instead, he was regarding Joe thoughtfully; I could almost see the pieces of the puzzle fitting together in his brain.
“I’m going into Virginia City tonight,” he announced. “Anybody want to come?”
Joe’s head snapped up. His expression was a mixture of anticipation and apprehension, and no wonder: he’d made precious few trips out in public since losing his leg. Part of it had been his lengthy recovery, of course, but part of it had been an understandable self-consciousness. Doc had said that he would need to wait at least a few more months before he could be fitted with an artificial leg. Although some fellow back east named Hanger was supposedly making great progress creating artificial limbs that were more than just sticks, the information Doc had gotten so far confirmed that fitting Joe for such a leg would be a complicated process and that the stump would have to be completely healed before any weight could be placed on it.
All of which meant that, for now, any appearance in public meant that everyone would see Joe Cartwright with only one leg. Not that it was a secret, of course, and not that it was anything to be ashamed of, but Joe’s hesitation was understandable. It was one thing to deal with Doc or our ranch hands; it was quite another to subject himself to the stares and whispers of Virginia City. The first time he’d gone into town, Milt Curry had come into the mercantile, taken one look at that pinned-up trouser leg, and turned to go so fast that he’d knocked over an entire display of sewing notions. Joe had been left balancing on his crutches as Milt crawled around the floor, picking up buttons and chasing after spools of thread that had rolled under the counter right where Joe was standing.
“I think that sounds like a fine idea,” Hoss announced. “What do you think, Little Brother? Feel like a trip to town? Scenery’s got to be better than sitting around here.”
Something flitted across Joe’s face at that moment that I didn’t recognize. Then, he grinned as if he’d solved a puzzle. With an odd note in his voice, he said, “I think it sounds like a fine idea.” I peered at him, but he’d turned his attention back to his supper.
“Well, then, let’s finish up and get going,” I said. I caught the briefest of glances between my older sons, almost as though they hadn’t expected me to go along, but I decided to ignore it. I hadn’t spent much time away from the Ponderosa since Joe’s injury, and a trip to town would be a nice change of pace for me, too. I almost assured them that their old man wouldn’t get in the way of their fun, but in the next moment, I caught another glance, and I decided that it wouldn’t hurt them to sweat a little.
Half an hour later, we were on our way. At my insistence, Joe rode with me in the buggy. I still wasn’t all that comfortable with the notion of him riding long distances anyway, especially when he was tired, and he tended toward fatigue by late in the day. Slightly to my surprise, Adam tried to talk me into letting Joe ride, but I was adamant. Grumbling, Joe tossed his crutches behind the seat and climbed up into the buggy, a maneuver he’d worked on until he could manage without assistance. I was barely in my seat when he reached over and took the reins. If he noticed my raised eyebrows, he didn’t let on.
At one point during the trip, I noticed that Hoss and Adam had dropped back. I turned to see them conversing earnestly. Perplexed, I turned back. “Something going on with your brothers?” I asked Joe.
He shrugged. “Not that I know of.” He sounded completely unconcerned, but again, I caught the slightest hint of something.
It was nearly dark by the time we reached Virginia City. I couldn’t believe how good the lights of town looked. The faint sounds of tinny pianos and good-natured shouts and laughter spilled out into the dusty streets. Joe reined in the buggy in front of the Silver Dollar and grinned. “Here we are!” he announced like a train conductor.
Hoss and Adam rode up behind us. “This the first stop?” Hoss asked.
“Looks like it,” I said. I climbed down from one side as Joe disembarked from the other.
“Well, let’s get in there and get us some beer!” Hoss sounded just a little bit too enthusiastic, and I stopped.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
My hunch was right: all three of them stood there like they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. “Pa, why don’t you and Hoss go on,” Adam suggested. “Joe and I’ll catch up to you.”
“What’s going on?” I repeated, letting an ominous note creep into my voice. Adam looked me dead in the eye, and suddenly I knew what my eldest son had planned.
Look, I know that my sons are men. I also know—all too well—that men have certain needs. My youngest son had been homebound for a very, very long time, with very little company other than me, his brothers, Hop Sing, the doctor, and our ranch hands—in other words, men. Apart from our few trips into Virginia City, my hot-blooded son’s last contact with any woman had predated his accident. As the last piece clicked into place, I found myself face to face with certain information that, quite frankly, I could have lived without knowing.
“Pa, let’s go get us a drink,” Hoss said again, pulling at my arm.
All at once, I was tired. It wasn’t the kind of thing I approved of, but right then, I found that I just didn’t care enough to try to stop it. After months and months of taking care of my son, I wanted a night off. If that made me a bad father, so be it. I wanted a night free of responsibility. I wanted to sit back, have a beer, maybe play poker, and not think about what else might be going on. Joe was old enough to make his own decisions, and as long as he exercised proper discretion, I wasn’t going to be the one to stop him.
“Let’s go,” I said to Hoss, and if I’d had any questions left in my mind about my other sons’ plans, the utter relief that crossed my youngest son’s face laid them to rest. I turned and headed into the saloon, wondering only how it was that Hoss had drawn the short straw in this particular match.
“You can go with your brothers if you want,” I said as we reached the door. “You don’t have to watch over me.”
One of the wonderful things about Hoss was his utter lack of guile. “I ain’t watchin’ over you, Pa,” he said. “Fact is, I reckon that once I get inside, I ain’t gonna notice nothin’ you do for the rest of the night.” He favored me with a broad wink and a grin, and I followed him in, wondering which one of us had just been taken off the lead rope.
I honestly couldn’t say when Adam came in. He strode up to the bar and ordered a beer as though he’d just had one of the best days of his life. His grin was positively irritating in its satisfaction. Since I hadn’t seen Hoss in at least an hour, I was pleased enough for company, but I could have managed without his attitude.
“Where’s your brother?” I tried not to sound too fatherly, but I obviously didn’t succeed, because his grin turned into a smirk.
“He’ll be along,” Adam said. He lifted his glass toward me as though in a toast and took a healthy swig.
“Don’t you think somebody ought to . . . walk back with him?” There was no better way to phrase it. The truth was that, while I certainly appreciated my son’s right to whatever entertainment he might like, I was concerned about his maneuvering the sidewalks of Virginia City alone on a Saturday night when ill-mannered drunks would be out and about.
“He’s fine,” said Adam in that infuriating tone he uses to let me know I’m hovering. “I left him in very good hands,” he added.
“I’m more concerned about after he leaves those . . . very good hands,” I snapped.
“He’s a big boy,” Adam said. “Another beer, Cosmo.”
“I told you, it’s not what he’s doing now that concerns me.” I was starting to move beyond annoyance.
“All he’s missing is a leg,” said Adam. “He’s still got everything else he needs.”
Before I could decide whether my eldest son was being inappropriately vulgar or merely sensible, a shout came from outside. Joe. Adam and I exchanged one wild-eyed look before we charged outside to see Little Joe delivering a left hook that knocked Clint Walker off the sidewalk and into the street.
“Son of a bitch!” my son was yelling. “You broke my crutch!” Clint started to stand, and Joe slammed him over the head with the other crutch. The fellow crumpled to the street, out cold. Balancing on the remaining crutch, Joe leaned down and picked up the other one, muttering to himself.
I found my voice. “Joseph? What’s going on?”
“What? Oh, hey, Pa.” He nodded toward the unconscious man in the street. “Would you believe that stupid jasper broke my crutch? Gonna have to get another one tomorrow. Feel like a drink? I’m dry as a desert!” He tossed the broken crutch into the street and hobbled past us into the saloon. Adam raised one eyebrow at me before he turned to follow his brother inside.
I stood on the sidewalk, not sure what had just happened. Clint Walker moaned as he sat up. He pushed the broken crutch to one side and struggled to his feet. I watched as he stumbled off into the night. I could hear my sons laughing inside as though they hadn’t a care in the world.
I picked up the pieces of the broken crutch. After a minute, I tossed them back into the street and went inside, where I found that Hoss had rejoined his brothers. Joe bought a round for all of us, and we settled in at a table and drank just like it was any other night.
* * * * *
Sometimes, it just didn’t pay to be a pillar of the community.
A few days earlier, Reverend Abbott had taken me aside after the Sunday service. An old friend of his was a missionary who was trying to build a hospital somewhere up in Idaho Territory. He was in the midst of a fundraising trip and would be coming through Virginia City. He wished to meet with as many influential citizens as possible. This last statement was accompanied by the kind of overly-sincere nodding that is only convincing from a man of the cloth.
So, I agreed to host a supper for the Reverend Zuckerman. I’d originally suggested a full-fledged party, but I was advised that the reverend frowned on such gatherings. I suspected that his position had less to do with disapproval of festivity than it did with practicality: the more separate meetings that could be arranged, the more opportunities he would have to secure meals from members of the congregation.
On the drive home, I told my sons about Reverend Abbott’s request. They displayed their typical enthusiasm for such an affair.
“Did you say Thursday? Because I’m leaving Wednesday for Sacramento so I can meet with O’Hara about that timber contract,” said Adam.
“We gotta get that herd moved over to the south pasture,” said Hoss. “Shouldn’t take more’n a week.”
“I forgot to tell you, Pa—those line shacks up by the north border need to be restocked,” said Joe. “I’m leaving in the morning, but I won’t be back until at least Friday.” He propped his peg leg against the front edge of the buggy. We were still waiting for the artificial leg that Doc had ordered from that Hanger fellow in Virginia. It had to be made to Joe’s precise measurements, but according to what Doc had learned, it included a foot. We were told that it actually flexed at the ankle and looked like a real leg, and it could be worn all day without too much discomfort. Joe would even be able to wear a boot. In the meantime, he was using a peg leg which, while uncomfortable and somewhat precarious, allowed him to walk with just a cane rather than using crutches. It did not, however, afford him enough stability to go off for several days alone to restock line shacks.
Not that it mattered this time. “None of you will be going anywhere,” I said firmly. “The reverend has asked us to host this supper, and we will do it together—as a family.” I fixed each of them with a stern eye.
“He didn’t say anything about it to me,” said Hoss.
“Me neither,” said Joe. “In fact, I bet he’d be just as happy if I wasn’t anywhere near his friend.”
“He’s got a point,” said Adam. From the time six-year-old Joseph had been caught taking bets on a frog-jumping contest to his discovery at age nine that the hedge behind the church was an excellent place to kiss girls, it could fairly be said that my youngest son’s years in Sunday school had been . . . eventful. It could also fairly be said that none of his teachers had been sorry to see him leave her class.
Even so, I was adamant. If I had to spend an evening listening to a preacher making a pitch for money, my sons would be by my side.
And so it was that, four days later, I found myself half-dozing while the Reverend Zuckerman droned on about some theological point or other and his wife worked on her embroidery. Needless to say, my sons were nowhere to be seen.
Just as my temper was beginning to rise, I heard the buckboard drive up. At last. The other guests weren’t due for two more hours, but having the boys here to soak up Zuckerman’s piety would help. At the least, it would deflect his attention from me.
But minutes passed, and the door didn’t open. Fully half an hour had elapsed before Hoss came through the door.
“Hoss!” Even I could hear that my voice was too hearty and tinged with desperation. “Come in and meet our guests!” Pleasantries were exchanged, and I added, “Where are your brothers?”
“In the barn,” said Hoss. “Little Joe broke his leg.”
“Again? That boy. . . .” I shook my head in frustration.
“He broke his leg? Oh, the poor, poor lad. Is he in much pain?” Reverend Zuckerman’s words oozed with pity.
Hoss shook his head gravely, but I saw the flicker in his eyes. “Not at all, sir,” he said. “Don’t know if we’ll be able to save it this time, though.”
“This time?” Mrs. Zuckerman sounded horrified, and Hoss nodded again.
“It’s the third time in as many months,” he said. “I reckon you know how it is, ma’am. Only so many times you can fix a leg. Sometimes, you just gotta get rid of it.”
“Surely you can fix it again,” I said, meeting Hoss’s gaze squarely.
Hoss shrugged. “Adam’s tryin’, Pa,” he said. “He’s been tryin’ to nail it together, but he ain’t havin’ much luck.”
“Nail it?” Mrs. Zuckerman’s eyes were so round that I could see white all around the pale blue.
“Yes’m,” said Hoss in his most unconcerned manner. “Sometimes, you just gotta cut the broken part right off and nail the rest together. Makes it a little shorter, but it pretty much works.”
“Are you all right, my dear?” Reverend Zuckerman looked pretty pale himself as he fanned his wife with his handkerchief.
“Would you like some more lemonade?” I offered with a quick glance at Hoss to let him know that the joke was over. I didn’t want Mrs. Zuckerman passing out on our settee. They could end up staying for days if that happened.
“Well, that one’s finished,” announced Adam as he came in the door with one arm around Joe, who hopped alongside him.
“Couldn’t you fix it?” Hoss asked.
“Nope,” said Joe. He caught sight of the visitors, and his eyes twinkled. “But it’s not like it’s a waste. There’s plenty of things we can do with that old leg. I bet it’ll make a fine fire. How’re we fixed for kindling?” He let go of Adam and hopped over to the settee. “How do you do?” he asked, extending his hand. “I’m Joe Cartwright.” He shook hands with Reverend Zuckerman and made a great show of hopping over to the blue chair by the stairs, his empty pant leg flapping. “Doggone pants,” he muttered in a stage whisper. Seemingly unconcerned about the visitors, he tied his right trouser leg into a knot just below his knee. “There, that’s better. I—hey, Pa!”
But it was too late. Mrs. Zuckerman had fainted dead away.
* * * * *
A light tap on my door was followed by the entry of Hop Sing with a tray. He smiled to see me awake. “Mistah Ben sleep good?”
“I’ve slept better,” I said, but it was wonder he could understand me. My nose was so stuffed up and my throat so raw from coughing that my voice had gone from deep to an unpleasant combination of nasal and gravelly.
I was already propped up on several pillows, but Hop Sing set down his tray and instructed to me lean forward. I obeyed, and he adjusted them until they suited him. Then, I was permitted to lie back as he placed the tray across my lap.
I smiled my thanks, but the truth was that I couldn’t have cared less about breakfast. Not being able to smell meant not being able to taste. On the other hand, the cup of steaming gray-green liquid next to my coffee cup made me grateful for this temporary impairment. I recognized it as one of Hop Sing’s herbal remedies. While I wouldn’t dispute their effectiveness, the fact is that they routinely taste like something you’d either feed to a cow or clean out of the barn.
“Have the boys already eaten?” I asked.
Hop Sing nodded. “Ate and gone. Not want to disturb father.”
I supposed I appreciated their concern, but I’d have preferred an opportunity to talk to them about what needed to be done. I knew that we had horses that needed breaking and calves that needed to be castrated and branded. I knew, too, that all three of my sons would be out there, taking care of the ranch work as I sneezed and coughed my way through the day.
While I still wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea of Joe on horseback, I couldn’t deny that getting back out there working with his brothers had done him a world of good. I drew some reassurance from the fact that the new artificial leg had indeed lived up its reputation, both in function and in appearance. Doc said that the fellow who invented it, James Hanger, had studied engineering before he lost his own leg in the war. As I watched my boy learn to walk again, I gave thanks for Mr. Hanger’s ingenuity. Granted, he still limped, and he still needed the cane, especially when he was tired. On the other hand, watching Joe ride now, a person who didn’t know any better might not realize that anything was different.
But it was. Joe wouldn’t admit it, but riding wasn’t as easy for him as it had once been. After a long day in the saddle, he was worn out. Still, when he was on a horse, he was the old Joe who could run like the wind, and that was worth everything.
The herbal potion’s pungent odor penetrated my congestion. I cringed, but drank. Hoss and Joe would be up in the north pasture. Hoss and a few men would be at the branding fire, and Joe and some others would be rounding up the calves. Spring had brought so many new calves that we were still catching up, but they would be well worth the effort.
Adam would likely spend the morning in the corral working on the horses with some of the hands. Even in spite of the nastiness of Hop Sing’s brew, I smiled as I remembered the old days when I’d dropped into the saddle of a bronc that would buck and twist in an effort to rid itself of my weight. Then, my smile faded as I recalled the chestnut stallion that had cost Joe his leg. For an instant, I had a vision of my youngest son on a bronc, and I closed my eyes against it. Thank heaven Adam had more sense than to allow such a thing.
The shout from downstairs cut through my thoughts. Without taking time to identify the voice, I set the tray aside and scrambled from the bed, grabbing my dressing gown as I bolted from the room. “I’m right here!” I tried to yell, but my voice was choked by my cold.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw one of the hands trying to get Adam to sit down. My eldest son grimaced even as he pushed Cody away with his right. “It’s nothing,” he insisted in that irritated voice that means he’s in pain.
“What happened?” I demanded as I barreled down the stairs.
“I’m fine,” Adam insisted. “It’s nothing. I just landed wrong.” I looked at Cody, who shook his head slightly.
“Your back?” A few years earlier, Adam had wrenched his back in a fall from a horse. Every now and then, it acted up. It looked as though this was one of those times.
I sent Cody back out to the corral and sat on the table across from my son. “How bad is it?” I asked. I saw in his eyes that he knew what I was asking, and he shook his head.
“Not too bad,” he said. “I must have twisted when I landed. I’ll put some heat on it, and I’ll be fine by tomorrow.”
“You won’t be fine by tomorrow,” I said. In the past, he’d routinely been laid up for a week or more when his back acted up.
“Sure, I will,” he said. “Besides, who else is going to do it? Hoss? You? I’m all we’ve got now.” For an instant, I thought I heard a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
“We’ve got hands who can break the horses,” I said. “Cody and Frank will be fine.”
“They’re not going to be able to get them all ready by the twentieth,” said Adam. “We need somebody else.” His voice trailed off, and I knew that he was thinking the same thing I was: Joe. Even at eighteen, Joe had been one of the best any of us had ever seen on a bronc. I could only imagine what these three years would have meant to his development of that skill. If it hadn’t been for the chestnut, we wouldn’t have had to think twice.
“We’ll talk about that later,” I said, rising. “You need to get some rest, and so do I.” I helped Adam to his feet, and unexpectedly, he chuckled.
“Fine pair of invalids we are,” he muttered as we headed upstairs.
“If you don’t watch yourself, I’m going to put you on a desk job,” I said. In response, Adam emitted a noise that could have been anything from a snort of disgust to a grunt of resignation.
By suppertime, I was feeling enough better that I put on my dressing gown to go downstairs. As I headed toward the stairs, I heard sharp voices coming from below. The first words I could identify came from Adam, who was demanding, “Have you lost your minds?”
Now what? I almost turned to go back to bed. The last thing I was the mood for was their bickering. Hoss and Joe were both shouting, and I couldn’t make out what either was saying. When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw the three of them standing in a circle, gesturing wildly as the volume climbed. “Enough!” I thundered.
They all stopped and looked up. Hoss was a mess, but that was typical after a day of branding. Joe looked dirty and disheveled—not unexpected, but somehow, it was more than I’d have anticipated.
“What’s going on?” Luckily, my nose had cleared enough that my voice sounded more normal.
“Your idiot sons,” Adam snapped.
“What do you mean? What happened?” They both looked reasonably whole. Whatever had gone on, it couldn’t have been too bad.
“Well, what were we supposed to do? Wait for you? Major Jenkins will be here on the twentieth!” Joe shot back.
“What are you talking about?” But I already knew. Between Hoss’s guilty swallow and Adam’s fury, I knew exactly what had happened. “Joseph!” I made my way over to them, glaring for all I was worth. “What did you do today?”
He looked up at me defiantly. “I did what had to be done,” he said. “Hoss is too big, and Adam got hurt, and Cody and Frank—well, they’re just not good enough. Not for as fast as we need those horses.”
“Hoss.” The threat in my voice was unmistakable.
“It ain’t his fault,” Joe cut in. “I told him what I was going to do.”
“And he didn’t try to stop you?” But my words were directed toward his big brother.
“Of course, he did,” said Joe. “But he knew and I knew that we didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t afford to lose a whole day, and there wasn’t anybody else.”
“Hoss,” I said again, and he looked me in the eye this time. “Where were you when your brother was risking his life like a damned fool?”
Hoss straightened at that. “Pa, maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but like Joe said, we didn’t have no others, and—well, fact is, he can still break broncs.”
“He came to the corral with me,” Joe cut in. “And he stayed there and watched for—oh, the better part of two hours. He didn’t go back to the branding until he’d seen with his own eyes that I could handle any bronc we had.”
“With one leg,” I snapped.
“One and a half,” he shot back.
“That’s not enough,” I said. “From here on out, you stay out of that corral.”
But my son shook his head. “I can’t do that, Pa,” he said. “We have a deadline, and there’s nobody else.”
“Besides, Pa, he really can do it,” Hoss interjected. “You should see him. It took him a couple to get his stride, but—dadburnit, Pa, he looked like he used to up there.” For a second, I’d have sworn I saw my son’s eyes glistening, but it didn’t matter. This wasn’t a decision to be based on what used to be. This was Joseph’s life at stake.
“Joseph, I’m not kidding around!” I shouted as best I could with a raspy throat. “You are not to get on a bronc! Is that understood?”
Instead of answering me, he turned and stalked out of the room faster than I’d have thought possible. I turned from watching him to his brothers. “And I expect both of you to see that he obeys me.” I started to walk away, but Hoss’s voice stopped me.
“This ain’t about the leg, is it?”
I turned back. “What do you mean?”
“It ain’t about him only havin’ one leg. You wouldn’t want him on those broncs if he had two good legs, either.”
The ticking of the grandfather clock was loud and ponderous. Finally, I said, “Could you blame me?”
“No, sir, I couldn’t,” said Hoss. “But that ain’t a reason to keep him from doing what he can. And he can do it, Pa. Truth is, I don’t know when I’ve ever been as scared as when I saw him drop down in that saddle, but he did it. And when he got thrown, he got back up there and tried again and again—and you know what? He finally rode that horse to a standstill.” His eyes were glistening again. “I don’t recollect when I ever seen him that happy. The look on his face. . . .” He was silent for a few minutes. Then, he met my gaze. “Pa, I know you want to protect him, but I’m askin’ you anyway—don’t take that away from him.”
“And what if he breaks the other leg this time—or worse?” I was grateful that Adam said it, because I couldn’t have gotten a word out right then.
“I reckon he’s thought about that,” said Hoss. He looked from his brother to me. “We been taking care of that boy for a long time now, and I reckon it’s pretty much a habit. Thing is, he don’t need nobody to take care of him. He’s a grown man, and he can do pretty much anything any other man can do. Mebbe he can’t run and he can’t dance, but other than that—truth is, I’d bet on Joe against any man I’ve ever met.” He held my gaze, and I had to fight not to look away. “Come down to the corral tomorrow and watch him,” he said after a long minute. “If you watch him and then you still say ‘no,’ well, I won’t say no more about it. But give him that chance. Let him prove to you what he can do.” He watched me, and when I said nothing, he headed out the door—whether to wash up or to find his brother, I didn’t know.
After the door closed behind him, I became aware that Adam was watching me. “It’s too dangerous,” he said.
“It’s dangerous for anyone,” I said.
“More so for him,” my eldest son insisted. “He can only use one stirrup. He can’t feel the other one.”
“If he only uses one, that’s less chance of getting a foot caught.” I was surprised by my response.
“What if he comes off the horse and has to get out of the way fast? Even now, his balance isn’t all it needs to be.”
“That’s why there’ll be hands in the corral, just like always.” I waited for Adam’s next point, and when none was forthcoming, I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said. “I need to think about this. And you need to lie down,” I added in my firmest voice. If I couldn’t take care of one son, I could certainly take care of another.
“Yes, Pa,” said Adam in a singsong voice, rolling his eyes to show he understood exactly what I was doing.
Maybe it was cowardly of me, but I couldn’t make myself join Hoss and Joe for supper. I pled illness and went back to my room. The truth was that the more I thought about the notion of Joe on a bronc, the more I wanted to punch something. Lord have mercy, will it ever end? I leaned back against my pillows, spooning up my soup and letting it trickle back into the bowl. Would the day ever come that we could go back to a normal life?
I was dozing when a tap at my door announced my youngest son. Before I could speak, Joe came in. As he generally did after dinner, he’d taken off his leg to give the stump a rest. Still, it always took a second for me to adjust to seeing his trouser leg flapping.
“You feeling any better?” he asked as he settled himself on the foot of the bed and leaned his crutches against it.
I shrugged. “I’ll be all right.”
“You want me to get you anything?”
I smiled. “No, thanks.”
I knew that he hadn’t just come to visit. Even so, for several minutes, we sat in silence. Just as I was about to broach the subject that I knew was on his mind, he said, “You have to trust me.”
Of all the ways he could have said it, this was the hardest to answer. “It’s not a matter of trust,” I said. “It’s a matter of reality. It’s not safe for you to be trying to break broncs.”
“It’s not safe for anybody,” he said. “It wasn’t safe when I had two legs, but you never stopped me then.”
“I should have.” The words were out before I could stop them. “I don’t blame you, Joseph. I blame myself. I knew that horse. I should have forbidden you to ride it. What happened to you—it was my responsibility to keep it from happening, and I failed.” It was what I’d thought a thousand times, but before that moment, I’d never said the words aloud.
I forced myself to look up then, to meet my son’s eyes. He looked stunned. “But—you didn’t have anything to do with it,” he protested. “You weren’t even here.”
“But I knew what you were going to do, and I didn’t stop you.” It was the truth that had dogged my waking and sleeping hours for years.
Joe shook his head in irritation. “Pa, you’re wrong,” he said. “I’d have ridden that horse no matter what you said. I was convinced I could handle it. Even if you’d said no, I’d still have done it.”
“I appreciate the try, Joe, but the truth is that what happened—well, I should have stopped you. I won’t stand by and let something like that happen again.”
Joe rose. Balancing on his crutches, he met my eyes, man to man. “You couldn’t have stopped me last time, Pa,” he said. Before I could answer, he was out of the room, the unspoken words still hanging in the air.
You can’t stop me this time, either.
I was just dozing off when another tap on my door woke me. I frowned at the sight of Adam standing in the doorway. “You should be in bed,” I informed him.
“We’ve got to hire somebody to break the broncs,” he said, ignoring my statement. “Tomorrow, I’m going to go into town and see who’s available.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” I said. “You shouldn’t even be up now.”
My eldest son’s eyes were somber with a glint of heat. “If I don’t do it, who will? Joe? You know as well as I do what would happen—he’d come home and say he couldn’t find anybody good enough and that he’s the only one who can get the job done.”
“What about Hoss?” I felt certain my middle son wouldn’t lie to me.
Adam shook his head. “He’s needed for the branding,” he said. “You heard him. He lost half the afternoon watching over Joe. They’ve got to catch up on that. Besides, it’s my fault we need someone, so I’ll take care of it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “It’s not your fault you got hurt. It happens.”
“I should have been more careful,” Adam insisted. “The least I can do is find somebody else to fill in until I’m ready to go back in.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” He didn’t look any more convinced by my words than Joe had, and I found myself wondering when I’d lost authority in my own home. “I’m going to write to Major Jenkins and tell him we need an extension,” I added as though this had been my plan all along. “I’m sure he’ll give us another three weeks.”
“Two,” said Adam. “I can be back at work by next week.”
“Not if you keep getting up,” I said. “Now, get yourself back to bed. Tomorrow, I’ll send one of the men into town with the letter for the major.” Adam still looked distinctly unsatisfied, but he merely bade me a good night and left, his slow gait evidence of the significant pain he was experiencing.
I was half-waiting for Hoss to come in, but apparently, he felt he’d already stated his case. He merely poked his head in the door to wish me a good night on the way to his room.
I blew out my lamp and settled in for sleep, but pictures of my one-legged son on a bronc darted in and out of my mind like a swarm of minnows in a stream. Finally, sleep claimed me. . . .
“Hey, Pa! Look!” Joe dropped onto the back of an enormous chestnut horse.
“Joseph! What are you doing on that beast?” I tried to shout, but I could barely make a sound.
“You shouldn’t let him ride,” said Adam as he leaned on the fence beside me. “He’s only got one leg, you know. He could be killed.”
“He coulda been killed doin’ this with two legs,” Hoss retorted from my other side. “It’s dangerous work.”
“Then he shouldn’t be doing it.” My voice was hardly audible.
“But he loves it,” said Hoss. “An’ he’s good at it. He’s the best.”
“If you don’t let him do it, you’ll lose the army contract,” said Hop Sing in much better English than usual.
“Breaking horses is dangerous work anyway,” said Doc Martin. “It’s a different kind of balancing. If he gets hurt, I may not be able to fix him this time.”
“I can handle it,” Adam said. “With Joe crippled, I’m the best one for the job.”
“He ain’t crippled,” said Hoss hotly. “He’s just a little banged up.”
“He’s only got one leg!” I snapped.
“One and a half,” Hoss retorted.
“It’s okay, Pa, I’ll take care of it,” said Adam. “I’ll do it all.”
“Joseph! Get off that horse!” I tried to yell, but my youngest son just waved to me.
The chute opened, and the chestnut lunged forward, leaping and bucking for all it was worth. “Ride ’im, Joe!” Hoss shouted.
“Get down, you damned fool!” Adam yelled. “Let me do that!”
“Li’l Joe want some soup?” Hop Sing offered.
“Be careful, Joe!” My voice was raspy, but Joe waved as though he’d heard me.
Then, with one mighty buck, the chestnut sent my boy flying through the air. Helpless, we all watched as he crashed headfirst into the fence and landed in a heap on the ground. The horse danced victoriously as we all leaped to the dirt and tried to run to Joe.
“Joseph! Are you all right?” No matter how much I ran, I couldn’t seem to get closer.
Two of the hands grabbed the chestnut and led it, prancing and snorting, out of the corral. Adam reached Joe and turned him over. “You damned fool,” he muttered. He looked up at me and shook his head. “I said it was too dangerous.”
“What—what’s wrong? Joseph, are you all right? Can you hear me?”
Adam shook his head again. “Looks like he broke his neck this time.”
Doc frowned. “I can’t fix that. I’m sorry, Ben. I told you this was dangerous.”
“You can’t mean—no! No, he can’t be—no! Joe, wake up! Wake up, son!” Hot tears coursed down my face as I tried to get near my son.
“Dadburnit, I’m sorry, Pa,” said Hoss, who had somehow made it to Joe’s side. “I reckon I was wrong. I really thought he could do it.”
“You told me he—you said—I listened to you!” I flung myself forward in an attempt to get to where Doc was pulling a blanket over Joe’s head. Hot tears poured down my cheeks. “You said he could do this! You said he’d be fine!”
Hoss shrugged. “Looks like I was wrong,” he said. “I’m sorry, Pa, but you know that this is how Joe would have wanted to go.”
“Go? No, he can’t go! He can’t be dead!” I yanked at the blanket, but it was as though it was bolted in place. “Let me see my boy!”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” said Doc. “You had your chance. You could have stopped him, but you didn’t.”
“I told you not to let him ride,” said Adam.
“Hop Sing find cat,” said Hop Sing.
“Let me see him!” I demanded. But they took my arms, dragging me away as I shouted, “Joseph!”
“Pa! Pa, wake up. It’s just a dream, Pa.”
I sat up abruptly. Adam was standing by my bed, his hand on my arm. My heart was pounding, and my breath was short. I reached up and found that my face was indeed wet with tears.
“Are you okay?” Joe’s voice had never sounded more beautiful. He came in and sat on the other side of the bed. “You okay, Pa?”
I had to smile. How many times had I come to his bedside after a nightmare and asked the same question? I rested one hand on Joe’s even as I nodded to Adam and to Hoss, who stood behind him. “I’m fine, boys,” I said, wiping my eyes as surreptitiously as I could manage. “You all get some sleep,” I added to show that I was still in charge.
Even in the moonlight, I could see that they all looked troubled. Although I normally set great stock in the truth, at this moment I reached for a lie. “Must have been that herb tea Hop Sing gave me just before I went to sleep,” I said. “I sure won’t be drinking that again.”
“You sure you’re okay, Pa?” Joe wasn’t ready to believe my excuse. Not surprising: he’d always been the most difficult one to hide from. I wondered what he’d heard me shouting in my sleep.
I nodded. “I’m sure,” I said. “You all get to sleep, or you won’t be worth anything in the morning.” Reluctantly, the three of them headed back to their rooms. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was Joe’s worried face in the doorway. Once their footsteps had faded away, I opened my eyes again. I had a decision to make, and if this dream was any indication, two of my sons were going to be very unhappy with my choice.
I was awake before dawn. My body, wretched betrayer, felt so much better than it had the day before that I couldn’t even consider staying in bed. I forced myself to wash, shave and dress, listening as I did for evidence that my boys were doing likewise.
I opened my door and came face to face with Hoss in the hallway, hand raised to knock. “Mornin’, Pa,” he said. “You feeling any better today?”
I nodded. “Is Joe up?”
“Yep.” His blue eyes were solemn. “Pa—”
But I held up my hand. “Let’s just have breakfast.”
Hoss and I were well into our meals when Joe came down the stairs. He still had to hold to the banister to keep his balance on descent. I’d tried, and failed, to imagine what it might be like to step down without being able to feel the floor beneath my foot. That my son did it all day, every day, never ceased to amaze me.
I could feel him watching me as he slid into his chair. As pleasantly as I could, I said, “Good morning, Joseph. Like some coffee?”
“Sure.” He poured himself a cup, but it was clear that his mind wasn’t on breakfast. Just as I was about to speak, he set his cup down. “Well?”
“Joe.” Hoss’s voice held a warning.
Anger flashed in Joe’s eyes, but before he could speak, I held up my hand. “Joseph, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought.” I took a deep breath, steeling myself. “I’m sorry, son. I can’t let you do it.”
“But, Pa!” His mouth worked as he tried to frame his argument, but no more words came out.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I said again. “It’s just too dangerous. The answer is no.”
“Pa, he can do it,” said Hoss. “Come down to the corral and watch him.”
I shook my head. “My mind’s made up,” I said. “I’m going to write to Major Jenkins and tell him we need an extension on the contract. He’s a reasonable man. I’m sure he’ll agree to it.”
“But we don’t need an extension! I can do this, Pa. I can break a bronc as well as any man on this ranch! Hoss told you—I can do this!” But the slight wobble in his voice told me that he knew that arguing was pointless. He slammed his chair back and stormed out of the house. Minutes later, I heard him riding out.
Only then did I turn to Hoss, who had been watching me without speaking. “He could die this time,” I said.
“Anybody could,” said Hoss.
“But it’s more likely for Joe.”
Hoss shook his head. “You ain’t never stopped Adam. How many times has he hurt his back gettin’ thrown?”
“It’s not the same thing.” I drained my coffee cup and rose. “I want you to take my letter into town this morning. I don’t know when Joseph will be back, and this needs to get out today.”
“Yes, sir.” My middle son was polite, but I could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he was as devastated by my decision as his younger brother, but he wasn’t far short of it.
Later that morning, I rode down to the corral. I’d half-expected to see my youngest son there, but the hands said they hadn’t seen him all day. I watched as Cody and Frank worked the broncs. Joe was right; they were good, but not good enough. Certainly not as good as Joe had once been.
I rode up to where a group of hands were branding cattle. Joe hadn’t been there, either. Irritation flared as I rode back to the house. Joseph was too old to go off sulking simply because he hadn’t gotten his way.
Except that he hadn’t gone anywhere. Not yet, anyway. When I rode into the yard, he was strapping his bedroll to the back of his saddle. He looked up briefly as I rode up, returning his attention to his gear.
“What are you doing?” My voice was sharper than I’d intended.
“I’m going away.” His words were clipped.
“Don’t you think that’s something we ought to discuss?” I dismounted and tied my horse’s reins to the hitching rail.
Joe just shrugged. I waited for him to say something about how he was leaving because I’d made it clear that we didn’t need him—in other words, something that would enable me to dismiss him as a child. But he didn’t rise to the bait. He simply finished preparing his mount as though the discussion was finished.
But it wasn’t, not by a long shot. “Joseph—”
“Pa, I need to go away.” He still wasn’t looking at me.
“It’s something I need to do.”
“This isn’t a good time,” I said. “With Adam laid up, I need both of you here.” It was true. It just wasn’t the whole truth.
He didn’t answer. His back was stiff. He clutched the edge of his saddle as if for control.
I rested my hand on his shoulder. “What is it, boy?”
He jerked away. “I’m not a boy!”
I tried to lighten the moment. “You three will always be my boys, no matter how old you are.” I waited for him to soften, but he didn’t move. Fine. “Joe, I don’t know what’s going on, but I need you here at least until Adam’s better. If you still want to go away then, we can talk about it.” By then, whatever it was would likely have blown over anyway.
For a long minute, he didn’t move. Then, he snorted softly, shaking his head. I waited until he untied his bedroll before I headed into the house.
At supper, he was uncharacteristically quiet. Sulking after all, I mused. I’d expected more of him. As soon as we’d finished eating, he mumbled his good night and headed upstairs. Hoss looked perplexed, but I wasn’t inclined to fill him in. I settled into my leather chair with a book and my pipe, determined to rest and relax. Hoss bade me good night and went upstairs.
Perhaps an hour had passed when a movement caught my eye. The gray cat was strolling across the living room as though it owned the house. Irked, I set down my book. Cats had no business in the house. I’d tolerated the animal’s presence when Joe was ill, but he was well now. It was time to put an end to this nonsense.
I strode to the front door and opened it. “Out,” I said firmly. The cat didn’t appear to notice. “I said, ‘out’!” I said more loudly. The cat paused, gazing at me with those inscrutable green-gold eyes. I took advantage of its attention to scoop it up, plunk it down on the porch, and close the door behind it. That settled, I returned to my chair and my book.
The next few weeks were uneventful. Adam was back at work by the time Major Jenkins had responded favorably to our request for more time. Granted, my eldest son came in from the corral at night with more aches than he once would have known, and he spent the evenings in bed with hot towels on his back, but we were going to meet the new deadline with time to spare.
Joe said nothing more about leaving. In fact, he wasn’t saying much about anything these days. He was polite and nothing more. And it wasn’t just with me, either. More than once, I heard Adam try to engage him in conversation, only to be met with one-word answers. Even Hoss didn’t seem to be able to get through to him. The only person I ever heard him speaking with was Hop Sing, in Chinese, and even those conversations were brief.
The day after Major Jenkins pronounced the horses acceptable, Joe came home with the mail. “Is Adam around?” he asked, not quite meeting my eyes.
“He’s riding fence. Why?”
“Wire came for him.” Joe handed me the remaining mail. “I’ll take it out to him. Where is he?”
Something in his voice caught my attention. “Is everything all right?”
Joe just shrugged. “Where’s he riding?”
“Along the north pasture. Joseph, is something wrong?”
He looked at me squarely for the first time in days. He shrugged as though he didn’t know the answer. “I’ll find him.” He was gone before I could ask again.
That night at supper, I put the question to Adam. I didn’t usually pry into his personal life, but this situation was unusual enough that I was willing to make an exception. “Joe mentioned that you got a wire today. Who was it from?”
“Huh? Oh, it was from Richard.” Adam’s voice was casual, but there was an undertone of something I didn’t quite recognize.
“Is everything all right? How’s his building coming along?”
“He’s run into a couple of problems,” said Adam. “He had some questions.”
“You ought to go out and see him in person,” Joe said. “Maybe you can help.”
All three of us stared at Joe. It was the last thing I’d have expected him to suggest. Before I could speak, Adam said, “Can’t. Too much to do here. I’ll just wire him with the answers.
“There’s nothing keeping you here.” Joe’s voice was tight.
“Joe, I’ve got a lot to do,” said Adam in his too-patient big-brother voice. “Besides—”
“—the Ponderosa can’t function without you, isn’t that it? Hoss and Pa and I aren’t enough. Without you, the ranch would just fall apart, wouldn’t it?
“What are you talkin’ about?” Hoss demanded.
Joe leveled his gaze at Adam. “Tell them.”
Adam glared back. “What have you been doing? Reading my mail?”
“Just listening,” said Joe. “And yeah, I saw what that wire said. He didn’t just ask you about his building. He asked when you’re gonna give him an answer about that job.”
“Job? What job?” It was the first I’d heard of any such thing.
“My private correspondence is none of your business.” Adam was seething now. He met my stare defiantly. “Yes, Richard’s offered me a job. He wants me to come east and work on his building. And I’ve turned him down. Several times, in fact.”
“But—why?” My mind was a jumble. Ever since Adam had left for college, I’d always wondered whether he could be lured away for good. Somehow, I’d thought that matter was settled after Joe’s accident. With me getting older and Joe crippled and Hoss being the only one who could handle the heavy lifting—and none of us being able to do things like break broncs—I’d assumed that Adam knew we needed him and that that would be enough.
But as I looked into my eldest son’s eyes, I saw more than just anger at his little brother’s revelation of his secret. I saw conflict and longing and frustration. I saw a man determined to do his duty, even if it meant giving up his dreams.
And I knew in the pit of my stomach that the Ponderosa was not Adam’s dream.
I don’t remember what else was said. After supper, Adam stormed out to the barn, and I heard him riding out in much the way I’d have expected of Joe. I sank into my desk chair and tried to focus on the papers on my desk, but all I could see was the set of Adam’s jaw as he announced that he had turned down the job offer. Several times, in fact.
I looked up to see Joe standing in front of me. His voice was quiet and intense. “I’m leaving in the morning.”
I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath. When I looked up, he was still standing there. “Not tonight, Joseph,” I said. “I can’t discuss this right now.”
“There’s nothing to discuss,” said Joe. “You asked me to wait, and I did. Adam’s made it clear he’ll be here for whatever you need. So, I’m going.” Without waiting for a response, he walked away, up the stairs, leaving me wonder when—or whether—our family would ever be whole again.
Hours later, on my way to bed, I heard low voices in Hoss’s room. Adam had returned and announced his intention to turn in; now, his door was closed and no light peeped out from beneath it. At Hoss’s closed door, I hesitated, then knocked. The voices stopped abruptly. Then, Hoss called, “Come in.”
I opened the door to see Joe sitting on the bed and Hoss in the armchair. Both looked somber. I wanted to tell them that it was all right to feel hurt and confused and angry, but I couldn’t find the words. Instead, I met Joe’s eyes, now dark with emotion, and all I could say was, “Will I see you at breakfast?”
His expression softened slightly, and he nodded. There had been a time when he and I could have talked about anything, when he had no secrets from me. We’d weathered some of the hardest times a father and son could, and we’d done it together. To have him leaving now with no explanation, no details—I felt as though somehow, my loving son had grown into a stranger.
I saw Hoss looking at Joe with a meaningful nod, almost as though he was trying to encourage Joe to say something. Almost imperceptibly, Joe shook his head. Whatever their secret might be, I was clearly not invited to share it.
The next morning, over a nearly-silent breakfast, I wrestled with the notion that my son—my youngest, and with only one leg—was going to go away, and I didn’t even know where or for how long. “Have you decided where you’re going?” I asked finally.
He looked slightly surprised. “Not yet.”
“When can we expect you back?”
Surprise faded into discomfort. “I don’t know.”
“You are coming back, aren’t you?” That from Adam, with a sharp edge of irritation.
But Joe didn’t seem offended by his brother’s tone. Instead, he just said, “I’ll be back.” It sounded like a promise.
* * * * *
After all that time when Joe was unable to work, a person would have thought we’d be used to handling the ranch without him. In fact, it was just the opposite. He might have been laid up or limited for the better part of two years, but ever since he’d been able to work again, he’d thrown himself into his tasks with gusto. I hadn’t realized how much he was doing until he was gone. We hired another man to pick up the slack, and we ended up hiring a second because one wasn’t enough.
Although Joe wrote regularly, his letters didn’t say much. He was fine, the weather was good. Occasionally, he’d tell of some interesting incident or amusing tale, but for the most part, I laid down his letters with no more information than when I’d opened them, save for the most important point: he was all right.
He never mentioned his leg. Of course, he didn’t. There was no reason to. As long as there was no problem, why would he mention it? Or so I told myself as I lay awake, staring out my bedroom window at the moon and wondering whether he was outside or inside, cold or warm, comfortable or in pain. His letters were coming from someplace up in Oregon, but he’d never said why.
One day, when I was in town, I decided to stop in and see Roy Coffee. I opened the door to his office, only to hear him say, “Well, here is he right now.”
A lean man stood in front of Roy’s desk. He was about my age, with a weather-beaten face and scruffy ginger beard. He wore a black patch over his right eye. At Roy’s words, he broke into a smile that was warm and sincere despite several missing teeth.
“Mr. Cartwright,” he said, extending a calloused hand—his left. His right arm hung at his side. The hand was withered, motionless. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” His voice sounded oddly smooth and cultured, considering his hardscrabble appearance.
“How do you do, Mr.—” I shook his hand as I waited for someone to supply the missing information.
“Collins, Neil Collins,” he said.
“Mr. Collins is in town on business,” said Roy. “Came here lookin’ for you.”
“What sort of business are you in, Mr. Collins?” I asked.
His grin widened. “I’m a rancher—and please, call me Neil.”
“I’m Ben,” I said. There was something about his manner that made me feel as if I already knew him—or at least, that he already knew me.
“I know,” said Neil. “You boy talks about you a lot. Fine young man. You should be proud.”
“You know Little Joe?” He couldn’t have caught me farther off-guard if he’d punched me.
Neil chuckled. “He’s been working for me most of the summer. Fine cowboy. You taught him well.”
“I don’t understand.” That was an understatement. I could barely catch my breath.
Neil glanced at Roy. “Why don’t we stop cluttering up the sheriff’s office and go have ourselves a beer?” At my dazed nod, he opened the door and gestured for me to go out ahead of him.
A short time later, we were ensconced at a table at the Silver Dollar. “I take it you didn’t know where he went,” Neil said.
I shook my head. “He said he needed to go away. Wouldn’t say why or where.”
Neil sipped his beer, nodding. “I don’t think he came looking for my place,” he offered. “Fact is, he showed up one day when we were busting broncs. Watched for a while, then said he’d make me a deal. He’d ride the next three to a standstill. If he did, I’d pay him for all three at fifteen dollars a head. If he rode less than all three, I didn’t have to pay for any.”
“Sound like Joe,” I admitted.
“I asked him if he’d ever busted broncs before, and he told me he’d grown up doing it.” I nodded to let him know it was true. “Sure enough, he rode all of them to a standstill. I paid him for them and told him I had more where they came from if he was interested. He’s been riding for me ever since.”
I had to ask. “Did he tell you—I mean, did you know about his leg?”
“Not for almost two weeks after that. I knew he limped some, but lots of men do. I only found out because I went out to the bunkhouse one night and I saw it lying on his bunk.” He took a long drink. “He asked me if that changed anything. I said not as long as he understood that if we ever needed kindling, we might be looking to him.”
I chuckled. I could understand why Joe would have been drawn to this man with his down-to-earth manner.
Neil continued, “He told me afterward that he thought I might give him a chance because I knew what it was like to be different.” He paused, and when I didn’t ask, he grinned. “Stagecoach accident. Long time ago. My wife and my boy and me were heading down to San Francisco to visit friends. That’s where I went to school. The ranch was her pa’s. I was going to be a teacher. I always loved books.”
“Like Joe’s eldest brother,” I nodded.
“He’s told me,” said Neil. He drank and continued, “Not ten miles from home, wheel hit a rock on a blind curve, and we went over the side, down into a ravine. Mabel died right there, and my boy—he hung on for a little while, but not long enough.” His gaze softened as if he were seeing them again. “He’d have been just about Joe’s age now. He was just a little fellow, but he had that same fire, too.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He nodded to show that he knew I spoke as one who understood that kind of loss. “Fact is, Joe was wrong. He’s not different at all. He’s just missing a leg.” I drank to avoid commenting, but Neil was still talking. “To be honest, I don’t know that I’d have let him on a bronc if I’d known about his leg, but I’m glad I did. Would have been a shame to sell him short. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen on a horse. Better than a lot of redskins I’ve known.”
“Thank you.” It was all I could say.
“Thank you,” he responded. “That boy’s been a godsend. My foreman was in an accident in June, and he’s just now getting back on his feet. If Joe hadn’t come along when he did, I don’t know how I’d have managed. I’ve been getting the sense that he’d like to come home, but he says he won’t leave me in the lurch. Says you and his brothers can manage just fine without him.” He drained his beer and signaled for another. “That true?”
“We’ve got some experience,” I said quietly. Neil cocked his head as if in question, so I asked, “Did he ever tell you how he lost his leg?”
Neil shrugged. “Never came up.” He rose from the table, dropped a coin on the bar, used his left hand to pick up the two fresh glasses of beer that were waiting, and brought them back to our table, all without comment.
“Thanks.” I started to reach into my pocket, but he shook his head.
“You can get the next round,” he said. He took a long drink and set the mug down. His face was serious. “I don’t ask a lot of questions about people’s pasts,” he said. “If there’s something I think I need to know, I ask. With your boy, I’m a whole lot more interested in how long I get to keep him than in something that happened before we ever met. If I could get him to stay on as my foreman, I’d be a happy man. But that’s not going to happen, and we both know that.”
“Meaning he belongs here. I just hope that one of these days, another fellow like him comes along. I’m getting too old to be doing everything myself.” He drank again. “But now, you’ve got me curious. What happened?”
“Accident with a bronc.”
Neil’s eyebrows shot up. He whistled softly. “I knew he had grit, but that’s something else again. I don’t know that I’d have wanted to try again after that. I wouldn’t have gone looking for one, that’s for sure.”
I nodded. “That’s Joe for you.”
Neil grinned. “Must have been quite an experience, raising a boy like that!”
“Oh, it was!” I laughed.
“For what it’s worth, you did a fine job,” Neil said, suddenly serious. “He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
We drank in silence while the moment settled. Then, Neil said, “Joe wasn’t the only reason I was looking for you. I came down here because he says you raise the best beef cattle in the west, and I’m looking to expand my herd.”
I chuckled. “He’s very loyal. He’s also right.”
Neil laughed. “And every bit as modest as his pa!” We talked for a while about cattle, and I invited him out to the Ponderosa to meet Joe’s brothers.
As we headed out of the saloon, I had to ask. “He didn’t come with you, did he?” Neil shook his head. “Why not?”
Neil grinned. “Officially—I needed him to run the place while I’m gone.”
The grin softened into something slightly sad. “Because we both knew that if he came back here now, he’d never leave.” There on the dusty sidewalk, he laid his hand on my shoulder and met my gaze squarely, as if to be sure I heard him. As horses galloped past and people shouted and whistled and life went on up and down the street, his quiet words made my heart pound with gladness: “Your Ponderosa—it’s in his blood.”
That night, after Neil had bedded down in our guest room, I knocked on Adam’s door. “Come in,” he called.
I opened the door to see him sitting at his desk. “What are you doing?”
“Just writing a letter.” His tone didn’t invite further comment, but I pressed anyway.
Adam shrugged. “He had some questions.”
“Maybe you should go out there and answer them in person.”
For a second, he looked as startled as if I’d slapped him. Then, his composure returned. “Pa, we’ve talked about that,” he said. “You need me here. Hoss and Joe—”
“—will handle the ranch just fine,” I finished. “They may not do everything the way you do, but we’ll be fine.” I leaned forward and rested my hand on his arm. I had to be sure he heard me. “You need to follow your own dreams. You’ve pushed them off to take care of everything since Joe’s accident, and I’m eternally grateful to you, but—well, you heard Neil Collins. Joe’s perfectly capable of running that ranch. There’s no reason he can’t run this one.”
“Pa, I think Neil may be overestimating Joe a little,” Adam began, but I shook my head.
“Or maybe we’ve been underestimating him.” I sat back, and Adam raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Hoss was right. We’ve all gotten used to thinking of Joe as someone who needs to be protected, when the truth is that—yes, he’s missing a leg, but that’s just not the most important thing about him. There’s so much more to your brother, just the way there’s so much more to you than being a rancher. I’m not saying that you don’t do it well, because you do. But you know, and I know, that this isn’t where your heart is.” My son swallowed hard, and his eyes glistened for just a second, but it was enough. I rose and pointed to the paper on his desk. “I’d appreciate it if Richard can wait for you until Joe gets home, but if he can’t—well, Hoss and I’ll manage.”
Adam nodded. I couldn’t help thinking that in his place, Joe would have jumped up, hugged me, and then flung himself into his chair, scribbling furiously about his new plans. But that wasn’t Adam’s way. The discussion wasn’t over for him. He would need to think and talk about this until he was truly settled with the notion. It was probably a good thing that Joe wasn’t going to be home for at least another month, because it would likely take Adam that long to recognize that I meant it—we really would be all right.
At last, Joe came home, just as he’d promised. He rode in unexpectedly one morning as we were finishing breakfast. Hoss’s whoop must have been heard all the way to Virginia City. Joe’s hair was wild and his whiskers were rough, but he’d never looked better to me. He’d ridden hard to get home before Adam left, and he’d barely made it, but they would have a chance to say goodbye.
Later, as Joe scrubbed off layers of trail dust, Hoss finally confessed to me that he’d known all along what his brother had been doing. It was what they’d been talking about that night I interrupted them. Joe had recognized that as long as he stayed on the Ponderosa, there would be things he simply would not be permitted to do. This, in turn, would mean that Adam could never leave although it was clear that his heart was elsewhere. So, Joe had headed out with the intention of working on other ranches and coming back with references. That was why he’d kept his letters so vague: he wouldn’t tell me the truth, and didn’t want to lie. From his perspective, the success of his plan depended on being able to come home with proof that he could do everything he’d done before, including busting broncs.
All that day, my heart was flooded with joy every time I caught a glimpse of my beautiful, scruffy, exhausted son. I suggested that we take the day off from work and spend the time together, but Joe just laughed and reminded us that he’d be around for a long, long time. Still, even after a festive welcome-home supper and a late evening of laughter and stories about our times apart, I couldn’t resist the chance to say one more goodnight as I passed his room. To my delight, he urged me to come in and sit down, and he told me everything.
Settled in the bedside chair where I’d spent so many hours, I had to ask. “And what if I’d still said no?”
Sprawled on the bed, his head pillowed in his hands, he grinned. “Never crossed my mind.” He stretched like a big cat, blissfully content. His crutches were propped in the corner. His saddlebags were tossed by the bureau. His leg lay on the floor by the night stand, next to his boots. Down the hall, Adam was sorting through his books, deciding which ones to take and which to leave here. He was still calling his trip a visit, but I knew better. The winds of change were blowing through the Ponderosa. We had some adjustments ahead of us, but I knew in my heart that whatever challenge came, we would meet it together.
Just then, the cat strolled into the room as casually as if it did so every night. In fact, I hadn’t seen it once the entire time Joe was gone. It was as though the cat knew exactly when and where to find him. It hopped onto the bed, climbed up on Joe’s chest and rubbed its whiskers against his cheek.
“Somebody missed you,” I commented.
“I think so,” said Joe. He stroked the cat’s fur. “It’s good to be home.” I could have heard the purring from across the room.
“It’s good to have you home,” I said. An understatement, to be sure. I wished him a good night and got to my feet, my knees creaking. At the door, I turned back once more. “Sleep well, son.”
“Should I call you if I need you?” His eyes danced.
My heart overflowed with joy, pride and love. “You won’t,” I said, knowing it was true.
And I stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The grandfather clock downstairs chimes twelve. My memories have been keeping me awake tonight. Good ones and hard ones—there’s no controlling which will choose to visit. Even after all these years, there are times when memories of one of my lost loves—Elizabeth, Inger, Marie—or of my incredible Hoss—can still reduce me to tears. I expect it will always be that way. In the same way, I will always miss Adam, even though he writes regularly and visits whenever he can. Recently, his letters have included mention of someone named Emily. He says that she teaches literature at a girls’ school, and they met in a library. Hopefully, she will visit with him soon.
How blessed I’ve been to have so many wonderful people in my life, even if some have not stayed nearly long enough. At times, I find that I want to say something to one of them that only that person would have understood. It’s the kind of moment that makes their absence so much sharper, even as it floods my heart with gratitude and love for the precious gift of having known them at all.
Still, we’ve had so many more blessings, Candy and Jamie chief among them. While I feel confident that Joe would somehow have shouldered the load of the Ponderosa even without them, it’s meant the world to both of us to have them working alongside him. The three of them work together in a harmony that brings back bittersweet memories of the days when Adam, Hoss and Little Joe worked the Ponderosa together. Of course, the balance is far different now: the boy once known as Little Joe is now the acknowledged leader. Sometimes, I have to hide my smile when he barks at them or the hands, because I know that he sounds exactly the way I once did. The bull of the woods, to be sure.
It’s been twenty years, almost to the day, since I stood beside Paul Martin as he took a saw to my son’s leg. Paul is gone now. It’s another loss that I feel daily. Without him, Joe would never have lived to manhood, much less learned how to get along after his accident. Because of Paul Martin, Joe became the man he is, respected and loved by all who have the privilege of knowing him. When Paul died, it was Joe who arranged for his widow, Rose, to be taken care of. He organized the townspeople to establish a fund, and from that, she receives a generous payment each month. It’s a pension, Joe says. Paul earned every penny, and the town is merely paying back.
I hear whispering out in the hall. Quietly, I open my door a crack to see Jennie standing in the doorway to her room—the room that once belonged to Hoss. She gestures frantically, whispering, “Come here, kitty! Come here!”
The old gray cat sits unmoving by the closed door to Joe and Claire’s room. If it hears Jennie, it gives no sign. I wonder whether it is deaf or simply ignoring the child. In the shadows, I can almost see again the kitten that climbed onto Joe’s bed all those years ago, unconcerned about anything except our boy. I remember the young cat that brought solace to my son in the depths of his struggles. So often, it appeared at just the right time, as though it knew his need.
The gray cat must be twenty-one by now. Remarkable. I never even knew cats lived that long. Maybe they don’t.
Maybe this one is special.
There’s been no scratching or meowing to announce the cat’s presence. It merely waits. Then, the door at the end of the hall opens, just enough. The cat slips inside the room. The door closes behind it. Jennie sighs and goes back into her own room to curl up and dream of tomorrow.
And I close my door and do the same
In memory of Jennie, the gray cat, who died on May 26, 2009, at the age of twenty-one.
She was special.
Author’s note: Thank you so much for reading my story. I’ll be delighted if you’d like to leave a review, but if you do: please, please, please—don’t mention that Joe’s leg was amputated. Some people read reviews before they read the story, and that would spoil the story for them. If you want to tell me privately what you think of those parts, feel free to send me a PM or e-mail. Thanks!
James Edward Hanger was a Civil War veteran who lost his leg in the war. Upon returning home, he put his prior studies in engineering to use to create the first articulated, double-joint prosthetic leg, bending at both the knee and the ankle. He obtained his first patent for “an artificial limb” in March, 1863. Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc. is still in business today.
Richard Morris Hunt was a nineteenth-century architect. Among his notable achievements was the construction of the New York Tribune building in 1874. This skyscraper was located on Park Row on a site which is now part of the access ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge. Originally nine stories high, it was one of the first high-rise elevator buildings. Hunt also founded the first architectural school in the United States.