Summary: Joe receives an odd but heartfelt gift from his eldest brother, Adam. At first, he questions its value but within time, he finds the small leather book becomes more a part of his life than he’d ever dreamed possible.
Word Count 17,000. Rated K+
Summer – 1860
“What’s this?” I asked my eldest brother after he’d entered my room and handed me a leather-bound book.
“A journal,” Adam replied, handing the curious gift to me.
Adam stood next to my bed as I examined, front and back, the tan-colored, leather-bound book. Inside, the crisp, white pages were blank. “I don’t understand.”
“Well,” Adam said as he pulled a chair up next to the bed. “I thought maybe it would give you something to do while you’re…out of commission so to speak.”
“You expect me to write in this thing?”
“That’s what I had in mind when I bought it.”
“I don’t know nothin’ about writing.”
“Maybe you’ll learn,” Adam said, leaning back in the chair. My brother seemed pleased with himself for suggesting I fill in the empty pages.
“What the heck do I write about?”
“That’s up to you.”
“But I’m no writer,” I said. “You, maybe, but not me.”
“Joe—” Adam said. He leaned forward in the chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “You were born eighteen years ago, which means you have eighteen years worth of tales to tell.”
“Yeah? But who wants to read about my life?”
“A journal is for your eyes only. No one else will ever read what you’ve chosen to write.”
“Oh—” I said, still not catching on to the actual reason for keeping a journal. “So why bother?”
Adam shook his head and stood from the chair. “Do what you want, Joe. I’ve got work to do.”
I know Adam was trying to be thoughtful, and I was indeed “out of commission,” but this was the dumbest gift I’d ever received. I fanned the blank pages almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. Me? Write something profound and meaningful in a journal? Adam had done nothing but throw his hard-earned money away on a gift like this.
I looked up when someone tapped on my door. My brother was back. He walked into my room carrying the silver tray Hop Sing used to serve coffee after dinner and to guests on special occasions plus, a brand new inkwell and pen, now at my disposal. “I forgot these,” he said. “Enjoy.”
I thanked my brother before he slipped back out the bedroom door, but this was nuts. This was like doing schoolwork, and Adam was the bookworm, not me. Did he forget how much I hated school? How I’d begged Pa to let me quit an entire year before he’d even consider my request? How could Adam forget how I hated all them poems with silly, rhyming words? Why the heck would I want to sit here and write something no one, including me, would ever read?
So, now what? What was I s’posed to write about? I opened the journal to the first page and dipped my pen in the ink. The tip carrying black ink hovered over the first blank page.
Maybe I’d use this as more of a calendar. I suppose I could keep track of things that way. I filled in the first blank page.
July 16, 1860
Stuck in bed.
Broke my leg during the cattle drive.
July 17, 1860
Played checkers with Hoss.
July 18, 1860
Earlier today, I’d tried to reach the silver tray I’d set on top of my bedside table. I fell off the bed. Cracked my cast. Pa’s not happy with me right now. He’s already sent word to the doc to come by at his earliest convenience.
Like every night since I’ve been laid up, I just finished playing checkers with Hoss. Asked Adam if he’d seen Julie in town. He said no.
July 19, 1860
It rained all day.
Thinking about Julie.
My leg itches something fierce. Pa’s been up to my room a dozen times. He caught me once, trying to ease my hand down the loosened cast. You can imagine the look on his face.
When Hoss came up to play checkers I’d said no, not tonight.
Now I’m bored outta my mind. Should have played checkers with Hoss.
July 20, 3:00 a.m.
It’s three in the morning, and I’m wide awake.
Thinking about the fight I had with Julie.
Sure wish she’d stop by so I could tell her I’m sorry. Wonder if she even knows I’m back from the drive. How could she? Heck, no way she’ll come and visit after hearing the words I’d said in anger. Man, was she ever mad.
Outta sight outta mind. Isn’t that the old saying? I’m out of sight all right and now, I’m outta mind. She’s probably taken up with that idiot, Sam Moody. He’s always doin’ his best to horn in when I’m not around. Sure hope they’re enjoying each other’s company while I’m stuck in this miserable bed.
Wasn’t hungry this morning.
Pa’s not at all pleased with my behavior, and earlier today he told me so. My down-in-the-dumps attitude is getting on everyone’s nerves. It didn’t help matters that I kicked everyone outta my room, except Pa, as soon as they stepped foot through the door. I was in no mood for food or chit-chat or anything else.
Julie consumes my thoughts—Julie and the fight we had just before I left on the drive. It was stupid, really. She’d accepted a date to the dance with Sam Moody only because I’d said it was okay by me. I shouldn’t even be upset. There never should’ve been a fight.
“It’s only a Saturday night dance, Little Joe. I’m not apt to run off and marry the likes of Sam Moody,” she’d said. Knowing she was right and I should have nothing to fear, I’d said okay. I knew how much she loved to dance, and I knew how bored she’d be while I was away on the drive. Then, when I had time to think things over, I’d asked her—nicely—not to go.
The rest is history. When she said she’d already made plans with Sam, and then reminded me it would be rude to cancel at this late date, I lost my temper. I knew Sam well. Sam was no gentleman and I told her so. Before I knew what had happened, she’d turned tail and stomped up the front steps and into her house, slamming the door behind her.
“Fine,” I’d yelled—fool that I was—hoping she could hear me from inside the house. “Do what you want. Don’t bother about what I might think.”
I had to get out of this room. I had to see Julie—apologize for being such a fool. Maybe I could have Hoss bring her out to the ranch. This is stupid. Another 2-3 weeks in this cast. I couldn’t wait that long. I need to see her and straighten this thing out.
This journal was stupid, too. I didn’t wait for the ink to dry before I slammed it shut and threw it across the room. What good did it do to write about things I could do nothing about? Maybe this whole writing thing was something Adam enjoyed, but not me. He could sit in his room every night and write in his stupid journal. I was finished with mine.
I tried to lie back in my bed, but the heavy, plaster cast grabbed awkwardly at my leg, making each minute of my life even worse than the minute before. I was so tired of lying on my back—so tired of it all. Doc had said it was a bad break, and he’d debated whether to cast it this soon or not. I suppose he felt he couldn’t trust me with just a splint.
I turned my head to face the door when I heard a knock. It was Pa followed by Paul Martin. Pa gave me one of his looks, let me know I better behave more pleasantly with the doc than I had been with the rest of the family.
“Sorry it took me so long to get out here.”
I looked down at my leg. “Yeah,” I said.
“I would have come right out when I got word of Joe’s, should we say unexpected fall, Ben, but I’ve been terribly busy since the accident.”
“The what?” I asked.
Paul glanced at Pa and then back at me. “You haven’t heard?”
“We’ve been pretty busy around here since we returned from the drive,” Pa said, glancing quickly at me. “Adam and Hoss rode in to get supplies this morning. I guess you missed the two of them on your way out.”
“Well, I was out at Amy Hilden’s earlier this morning. A baby boy. Mother a son doing well.”
“What’s this about an accident?” I asked.
“There was an unfortunate accident, Joe, right in front of the hotel. I think you both know Silas.” Pa and I nodded our heads in unison. “Well, he was driving the stage, and a group of kids set off a round of firecrackers in the alley, just off of C Street. The horses spooked, and poor Silas…well, he lost control of the stage. Three innocent bystanders were struck down in the middle of the street.”
“Anyone we know?” Pa asked.
“Well, yes there is. In fact, I think you know the girl, Joe.”
Oh, God, no. “Is she…alive?”
“Yes, but she’s in rather poor shape at the moment, which is why I can’t recast you today.”
I glanced up at my father then back at Paul Martin. “I need to see her, Doc.”
“Not with this leg you’re not going anywhere.”
Pa cleared his throat. “Joe and Julie Morris have been seeing each other for a few weeks now, Paul.”
The doctor seemed surprised to hear Pa’s revelation. “I didn’t know, Son. I’m sorry.”
“So…how bad…I mean, is she hurt bad?” When the doc glanced at Pa first, I knew the answer to my question. “How bad,” I repeated.
“I’m afraid it’s touch and go right now. Had I known you and she were—”
“Why would that matter, Doc. You mean you wouldn’t have told me?”
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t have blurted it out like I did.”
“You still haven’t told what happened to her.” What the hell did I have to do to get an answer?
Paul pulled the chair up next to me and lowered himself slowly while Pa circled the end of the bed and stood beside me. He rested his hand on my shoulder. The doctor leaned forward, rubbing his palms together while I waited as patiently as I could for him to explain.
“Julie Morris is suffering from a head injury, Joe. It’s serious. There are broken bones, but they’ll heal in time. She’s still under my care. Though her mother has been staying with her during the day, enabling me to make my morning rounds, I need to get back to the office. Julie needs all of our prayers right now.”
I listened carefully, but I wanted to write down everything the doc had told me. I wanted to remember every word. “Pa? I seemed to have dropped my journal. Do you mind?”
The little tan book laid catawampus against the far wall. It was fairly obvious it hadn’t been dropped.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” Pa said. He bent down and picked up the journal, which now sported a few crumpled pages. He set it on my tray next to my pen and ink.
“Thanks,” I said, embarrassed by the consequences of my over-zealous temper.
The doctor was here earlier today and before he left, he said he’d be back tomorrow or the next day to replace the cast. He apologized for not having time to remove it today, but I assured him I was in no hurry to go through the process again besides, Julie was high priority right now. The crack was large enough that Paul was afraid I’d somehow twist my leg inside the loosened cast, causing further damage.
I had direct orders not to move an inch without help from someone in my family, preferably Hoss. I had sensed from their ongoing eye contact; the doc wanted to talk to Pa alone. That was fine with me. I was more interested in writing down what Paul had said rather than continuing on with more questions when obviously, there weren’t many answers. The only thing I knew, the only thing that really mattered was Julie was lying in a bed at Doc Martin’s, and I wasn’t there with her.
Pa wasted no time coming back to my room after the doctor had left. He didn’t say anything more to me about Julie’s condition, and whether he was keeping things from me, I couldn’t really tell.
“A head injury,” he’d said. What did that mean? A concussion? I’ve had those before and come through with flying colors. Was this more serious?
I decided I needed an ally. Hoss could find out what was really going on and report back to me. I just had to ask. My brother never denied me anything.
Earlier this evening, Pa had carried his dinner upstairs and eaten with me in my room. It was actually Adam’s turn to sit with me since he and Pa and Hoss rotated nights, but I guess my father assumed I’d want to talk. What was there to say? I was stuck here on the Ponderosa and Julie was stuck in town. End of story. I’d made things worse by not saying anything at all. Pa always wanted to talk. So again, my father wasn’t pleased but at this point, I couldn’t have cared less. I couldn’t begin to make everyone happy when I was so miserable myself.
Pa and my brothers had stopped in earlier to say goodnight, and now the house was quiet, too quiet, too still. Too much time to think and worst of all, I’d napped on and off all day so I was wide awake now.
I could only apologize to Julie in my mind and I had, over and over, but only to the four walls that surround me. The stupid fight we’d had on her front porch was entirely my fault. She’d been right all along, and I’d pushed her too far. I’d led her to believe I didn’t trust her, and I’d never had the chance to take back the harsh words I’d said in a frustrated moment of anger.
I’d ridden out with Pa and my brothers the following morning, driving a herd of cattle to Sacramento. And now, nearly a month later…I was such a fool.
How much longer—how many more days before I can apologize face to face?
I fell asleep sitting up with my lamp still burning on the table beside me. It was still a couple of hours till daylight, and for some crazy reason I wanted to write, but all I could think of was Julie? I inked my pen—
July 21, 4:00 a.m.
Oh, my sweet Julie,
My girl with golden-blonde hair.
With green eyes that sparkle and brighten the day.
I’d be there alongside you,
If only I could get out of this damn bed and ride into town.
God forbid anyone would ever get a hold of this journal. I’d be laughed right outta town if someone read this striking verse. I couldn’t rhyme anything if I tried. I suppose it would take a bit more practice before I’d be considered the next Lord Byron.
Hoss stopped in to see me first thing this morning. I asked if he’d mind riding to town and checking on Julie. I knew Pa and the doc were trying to spare me the details, but I needed to know everything. Hoss said he’d go and he’d find out all he could without making himself a bother. I’d heard him ride out just after breakfast, although the time spent worrying about what he’d come back and report was almost more than I could take.
Pa had already been in to see me twice this morning. He’d offered to play a game of chess, but my mind was too preoccupied to concentrate. Besides, I hated to lose, and that’s exactly what would happen if I accepted the challenge. I told him maybe later. He had bookwork to do and said he’d be glad to bring his paperwork upstairs if I wanted company. Again, I said no. I was fine here by myself, waiting for Hoss and writing whatever I felt like in my journal.
From this angle, all I could see was the sky out my bedroom window. I’d been forced to stay in bed for more than a week now, and stir-crazy had become my middle name. The only thing I could really do was scribble my thoughts by filling in the blank pages, but what was there to write about? Day after day of sitting in bed didn’t give me much to go on. I remember Adam saying I had eighteen years of tales to tell, but what tales? What in my life had ever been important enough to write about?
Do I write about broken bones? Love interests? Cattle drives? My family? Where do I start? So far I hadn’t written much of anything worthwhile. I started a fresh page.
I was born eighteen years ago in my mother and father’s bedroom. Is that what I’m supposed to write about? My entire life story? I can’t write about things I know nothing about. I’ve only been told stories about that night. There’s no way I give a firsthand account.
Okay, maybe I should write about my first important memory. I really don’t want to write about that either. It’s a sad memory and over the years, everyone in my family has chronicled the day’s events numerous times and in different ways. I’m not sure what my very own recollections are, or what parts of that day have been explained to fill in the blanks of a young child’s mind.
What I do remember is from that day forward my life changed. No longer was there songs at bedtime. No longer was there afternoon stories and games. No longer was that sweet smell of lavender when Mama entered a room. I didn’t understand anything that had happened.
My father went on business trips all the time, leaving my brothers and me at home in the care of Mama and Hop Sing. So, being a child, and having the intellect of a child, I honestly thought Mama was on a trip, and when she returned we’d play games and sing songs like we’d always done before. But Mama didn’t return. I remember pulling my chair up close to my bedroom window and staring out into the yard, waiting for her to come home. Days and eventually weeks passed, but she never came.
At first, I was mad. Why would Mama leave on a trip and not take me with her, especially if she was going to be gone for so long? Pa always came back from his trips. He’d always promised me he would, and Pa never broke a promise to anyone. With my five-year-old mind racing in every direction, I thought maybe she and Pa’d had a fight, and maybe she’d run away from home. (My father definitely has a temper.) It wasn’t long before I blamed Pa for the unthinkable. He’d made Mama run away and leave Adam and Hoss and me behind.
Once I’d sorted that all out in my head, I went up to my room and packed my bag. Actually, I stripped off my pillowcase and stuffed it full of my favorite things, none of which would have done me a bit of good on a trip like I’d planned to take. I had no food or clothes, but I had what seemed important to me at the time.
I was leaving home to find my mama. I knew her favorite place by the lake. We’d gone there together several times, just the two of us. I’d sit on her lap and she’d tell me stories of a place she used to live before she’d met Pa. At the time, I didn’t know where that place was or how far away, but I told her we would go there when I got big like Adam and Hoss. Just Mama and me on an adventure of our very own where we could do anything we wanted and no one could tell us differently.
Before I was completely packed and out the back door, my father had come upstairs to check on me. He asked if I was planning on going somewhere. I told him I was gonna go find Mama and bring her back home. He asked if he could come along. I said I was big enough to take care of myself and besides, I was the one who knew where she would be hiding.
I didn’t mention that last part to my father, thinking he was the reason she’d left, but as soon as I found her, I would tell her we all missed her, and we needed her here with us. I would bring her back with me so everything would be the way it used to be before she ran away.
“See, it’s this way, Papa,” I’d said. “Mama’s just on a trip, but it’s time for her to come home now. We miss her don’t we, Papa?” Tears filled my father’s eyes. He told me he missed her very much.
I don’t remember much else except for Pa sitting down on my bed and holding me on his lap. Pa cried real tears, just like he had the day Mama left, but I assured him I wouldn’t come back without her. When his tears finally stopped, he said he had something to show me. If I was willing to stay the night here, the two of us would ride out together the next morning. Reluctantly, I agreed to the plan.
Pa saddled Buck and he let me ride with him in the saddle just like Mama used to do. We rode up to the lake—the same spot I’d planned to go before Pa interrupted my packing. There was a big gray stone I didn’t remember being there before.
Pa tried to explain why the stone was there, and then he read the inscription out loud. That day ended my dreams of Mama ever coming back to me. I realized there was no trip after all. There was only sadness and tears.
Hoss brought my lunch up to my room when he returned from town. He apologized for not having much to report. “She sleeps all day. Her ma and the doc were both with her. Her ma’s really takin’ this hard, Little Joe.” Hoss continued by assuring me he’d told Mrs. Morris I was laid up with a busted leg or I’d a been there in a heartbeat, but he said the doc had already mentioned my casted leg to her before he got there.
Hoss is a good brother. Hoss has always been a good brother. He didn’t get any new information, but he’d done his best. He left my room after we’d finished lunch and went back to work with Adam. I won’t see either of them again until suppertime. It’s just me and my journal, and time for another tale. Like Adam, I’m gettin’ the hang of this now, and I think I’ve got another story to write.
I dipped my pen and started a fresh page.
Last year was my first cattle drive, and it was Hoss who took it upon himself to show me the ropes. If I rode drag; Hoss rode drag. He wasn’t about to let me go off on my own and risk getting injured somehow. If I had second watch, which was the middle of the night and the worst shift of all, Hoss never made me do it alone. He made sure I stayed awake by telling me story after story until the dreaded three hours were over. I never asked him to do any of those things. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
There were times I wanted to be on my own—times I wanted to prove myself to the other men on the drive—and Hoss understood that too. He backed off, some, but still, he kept a close watch. With Hoss really never more than a frog’s hair away, I listened and I learned, and by the end of three weeks, he told me he was proud of me. He told me I was as good as any of the seasoned men on the drive.
This year, when I busted my leg after the cattle were spooked by a sudden flash of lightning during my nighttime watch, Hoss was the first one to find me and kneel down beside me. Cattle had scattered in all directions, and when one slammed hard into Cochise, frightening him something awful, I’d fallen, and thankfully, far enough away from the advancing herd not to be trampled to death.
The cattle meant nothing to Hoss if I was hurt. (My brother missed his calling. He really should have been a doctor.) Right off, he knew how much pain I was in, and as gently as possible, he straightened my leg, adjusting the bone back in place before anyone else even knew I was down.
My cries, which I kept to a minimum for my brother’s sake, were also muffled by the sound of cattle bawling and panicked and still racing out of control. Right then and there, Hoss removed his own shirt and ripped it into strips so he could wrap the wound and keep as much dust and debris out as possible. Like the doc said initially, it was a bad break—the bone actually broke through the skin—and as Paul explained to me soon after he’d finished the cast, Hoss not only saved my leg but my life.
When we were just kids, although I don’t remember Hoss ever being a kid at least not a little one, he’s been my protector. When I was in school fights, and eventually saloon brawls, he was always there watching my back. I remember the first time Johnny Buchman, a kid who was a couple of years older than I, and outweighed me by twenty or thirty pounds, tried to pound me out in the schoolyard. Johnny would have nailed me good if Hoss hadn’t stepped in and put an end to the fight.
When school let out, Hoss and I rode home together, and when we’d walked through the front door late that afternoon, I was forced to tell my father what had happened. I couldn’t believe my ears when the first thing Pa did was scold Hoss for interfering. If I chose to fight, which Pa didn’t condone at all, but if there was absolutely no other way to solve the problem, it was high time I learned to fight my own battles without any interference from my brother. Hoss was devastated. He tried to explain Johnny’s age and size, but my father held his ground. If I couldn’t learn to settle an argument with words then it was up to me to settle the dispute on my own.
When Johnny set his sights on me later that week, my brother stood back and watched. If nothing else, Hoss has always been the obedient son. I got the shit kicked outta me that day, and when Hoss bent down to lift me up off the ground, tears filled his sky, blue eyes. I brushed myself off and told him I was okay. He said it weren’t about that. At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant.
We never once talked about that day until years later when we were sitting together one night on second watch. He told me how awful he’d felt that day as he watched blood seeping from my nose and mouth, and he wasn’t allowed to step in and help. It made me all teary-eyed inside as I listened to him tell his side of the story. His anger had been directed at Pa, and he’d stayed mad at my father for a long time after that. He’d blamed Pa for me getting beat up so badly that day, and he’d continued blaming Pa for all the other schoolyard fights I lost to Johnny Buchman.
We talked long into the night as we circled the cattle, keeping watch for anything that might upset them and cause a stampede. By the end of that school year, I’d learned how to fight, and I’d learned how to defend myself from the worst Johnny Buchman had to offer. Pa had been right all along, and with the silvery moon shining down on the two of us during that long stretch on second watch, Hoss finally forgave our father.
Another day of camping out in my bedroom has come to an end. Hoss said he’d check on Julie for me again in the morning. Did I mention what a good brother he is?
The days are hot, but here on the Ponderosa, the nights are still cool enough for comfortable sleeping. That’s if a person was tired enough to fall asleep. I hadn’t told the doc how much my leg ached, I guess because he’d never really asked. But tonight, the constant throbbing seemed worse than it had been before.
Pa tapped on my door before walking in. It was never a trait of his to wait for an answer.
“How’s it going, son?”
I smiled. “Fine, Pa.”
“May I sit down?”
He handed me a glass of brandy. “What’s this for?”
“Thought it might help you sleep.”
I downed the shot and set the empty glass on my bedside table.
“I see you’ve been writing.”
The tray with pen and ink and with my journal abruptly closed, for fear Pa might glimpse a word or two of what I’d just written, remained on my lap.
“Yeah … some. Silly stuff, really.”
“I doubt that,” Pa said with a smile.
“I’ve been thinking about some of the things that happened to me when I was a kid, and I’ve been writing a few of those memories down, at least everything I can remember.”
“I think that’s an excellent idea, Son. Something to save for your grandchildren.”
“Maybe you should worry about me getting married before you start thinking about grandkids, Pa.”
“Yes…maybe so, but somehow I think you may be the first to wed.”
“Me?” Not me, Pa. I’m waiting for my two old-maid aunts to get married off first.”
“Sorry, Pa.” I don’t think Pa appreciated my sarcasm.
“Hoss tells me you asked him to ride in and check on Julie Morris again.”
“That’s right. Is that okay?”
“Oh, sure it is. I guess I didn’t realize how serious your relationship was.”
I studied the tray on my lap for a minute before I said anything to Pa. “I guess it’s serious. There aren’t any other girls I’d rather be with.”
“I’d call that serious, Son.”
I chuckled. “I’m not ready to get married if that’s what you’re thinkin’.”
“Believe me, Joseph; I’m not trying to rush you.”
“Sure wish I could be with her. Maybe if she heard my voice …”
“Hoss says her mother’s been there every day since the accident.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just …”
“I know, Son…and I’m sorry things turned out the way they have.”
I tried to smile, but it was only a half-smile. He understood how I felt even if there was nothing more he could do or say.
July 22, 3:00 a.m.
I just scared myself wide awake from what some may consider a nightmare. It wasn’t the screaming kind of dream that sometimes wakes the whole family; it was the fact that in this dream I was surrounded by at least nine or ten children, all of different sizes and ages. My father was sitting high up in the clouds on a throne; his arms spread wide, beckoning my rather large brood into his welcoming arms.
“Thank you, son. You’ve made an old man proud.”
Pa had gotten the grandkids he’d always wished for but ten? Surely, I never promised him ten!
It was the middle of the night, and Hoss wouldn’t be riding into town for another four or five hours. God, I hate this. My leg is throbbing as if it’s got a heartbeat of its own. I suppose that’s really why I woke up. Against doctor’s orders, I’d pulled myself up in bed to write. I could sure use another shot of brandy, but the house was asleep and of course, I wasn’t going anywhere.
I’d broken bones before, although I don’t remember them aching as bad as this. Once, when I was just a little kid, Hoss and I were playing hide-and-seek out in the yard. I’d hidden behind the water trough, thinkin’ I was safe from my giant of a brother. When he finally found me, he grabbed hold of me, like I’d seen wrestlers do in a roped-off ring at a Virginia City fair. Hoss tossed me into the water only to have my arm hit the side of the trough at an awkward angle. We each heard the crack and the sudden shriek that followed.
I screamed and cried bloody murder as Hoss carried me into the house, soaking wet from head to toe. His voice was strained, and he began crying too when he was forced to tell Pa what he’d done. So I was screaming and Hoss was crying. What a combination to hit Pa and Hop Sing with on an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon. I remember the chaos; Pa and Hop Sing scurrying around, trying to get us both to calm down so they could figure out what was wrong.
My left arm was broken, and that same afternoon the doc came out and slapped on a huge plaster cast, similar to the one I have now. That ended any plans I had for summer vacation. No swimming. No fishing. No riding my pony. I hated Hoss for wrecking my summer, and I made sure he knew how he’d totally ruined my life. That night, after the rest of us had gone to bed, Hoss packed his own pillowcase. Unlike me and my five-year-old stunt, Hoss was older, maybe fifteen or sixteen at the time, and because he was older and a bit wiser, he made it out the back door without getting caught.
The next morning Pa left me with Hop Sing since I was unable to ride, and he and Adam went out searching for my brother. I sat on the front porch all day long with my heavy cast perched on my lap, waiting for Hoss to come home. When Pa and Adam walked their horses into the yard late that evening, my heart sank. My big brother wasn’t with them.
I ran to my room and slammed the door, knowing I’d lost the best friend I’d ever had. Pa tried to console me, but it was all my fault my brother had run away. I’d told him I hated him when actually, I loved him best of all. Tomorrow I would ride out somehow, find him and make him understand I was wrong.
Pa and Adam left early the following morning on their search to find Hoss. When Hop Sing wasn’t looking, I took off too. Pa told me everywhere they’d looked the day before so I figured I knew exactly where he would be. He’d be at our happy place—a place Pa and Adam didn’t know about. It was a place just for Hoss and me.
In order to sneak away, I had waited patiently till Hop Sing had climbed down into the root cellar, and I ran quickly to the barn. It was hard enough to get the bit situated in my pony’s mouth, but I was forced to ride bareback since I couldn’t begin to lift the saddle with only one good hand.
There sat my brother, overlooking the deep gulch and the lake below, so absorbed with its natural beauty, he didn’t hear me ride up behind him. He sat with his hat on his lap; the constant breeze swirling through his light, blonde hair. He turned around when he heard my boots heels scrape against the rocks leading down to our favorite spot—our special rock where we sat and pondered the world around us.
“Bet you’re starvin’ to death,” I said, trying to break the ice. I sat down next to him, and I opened the bag of goodies I’d stolen from Hop Sing’s kitchen. “Here,” I said, handing my brother a slab of roast beef leftover from the night before.
He thanked me, but he wouldn’t look my way. He kept his eyes glued straight ahead.
“I didn’t mean what I said, Hoss.”
“Yeah, ya did. I heard ya plain and clear.”
“But I didn’t mean it. I was just mouthin’ off like I always do.”
“It was stupid of me. I was just mad and I…I could never hate you. You know that, don’t ya?”
I explained to Hoss it was my own fault I’d broken my arm. I’d been winding up so I could punch him for tryin’ to throw me in the trough.
“What else you got in that bag?” Hoss asked.
I pulled out two slices of bread. Hoss looked at me funny like.
“Why’d ya save the bread and give me the meat separate?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Guess I forgot what I brought.”
“Oh…” Although Hoss seemed a bit confused, the ice was beginning to melt.
“I brought you an apple too.”
“Good. I’m plumb starvin’ to death.”
We rode home side-by-side. Hoss scolded me for coming out to get him, and he scolded me a second time for riding my pony with a dadblamed broken arm. I didn’t mind this time. We’d made up and things were right between us again. I didn’t realize at the time how much my words had hurt him—how those three simple words—I hate you—had made my brother want to leave his home and the family he loved so much.
Again, I apologized, but this time Hoss said it weren’t nothin’ and told me to forget it. We met up with Pa and Adam on the slow ride back to the house. Hoss would only let me walk my pony but as soon as Pa spotted us, he and Adam came racing our way.
Pa started in on me, but Hoss, who’d become my ally once again, assured him he’d already had it out with me for riding out to find him. Pa let it go at that, and the four of us rode home together. Hoss never had cause to run away again.
“Paul’s here to see you, Son.”
Pa and the doc entered my room. It was early; I still had my breakfast tray on my lap. I happened to be Paul’s first patient. He’d seen Hoss on his way out to the ranch so he and my brother had ridden back here together.
“How’s Julie?” I asked before we started in on anything else.
He sat his bag down on my nightstand. “Nothing new, Joe. So far, there’s been no change in her condition.”
I glanced up at Pa, but there was nothing to say. Paul lifted the sheet off my leg. “Let’s get this cast off and take a look,” he said. After soaking, and then cutting through the heavy plaster, the look on Paul’s face said it all. “We’ve got a problem here,” he said.
“What do ya mean, Doc?”
“I’m afraid…” Paul hesitated and shook his head. “There’s probably something lodged down deep in the wound. I’m going to have to open you up, Joe. You’ve got an infection and if it settles near the bone…”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Let’s not take that chance.” Paul turned to my father. “Have Hop Sing boil plenty of water. I’ll need to drain this infection immediately.”
I glanced at Hoss, who stood toward the back of my room, not wanting to be a bother but ready to help if he was needed. He nodded at Pa and quickly left to do Paul’s bidding. I could tell by the look on his face—the set of his eyes and the slight shaking, back and forth, of his head—exactly what Hoss was thinking. He blamed himself. He’s the one who’d popped the bone back into place. My pant leg had been torn when the shattered end of the bone protruded, only slightly, through the skin. Dirt or cloth could have easily fallen into the wound before he’d bandaged it up.
“Why’d it take so long, Doc?”
“That’s the way it works sometimes, Joe. Whatever is in there has worked its way down, and it’s taken this long to finally make its way back to the surface. It could be something as small as a splinter you’d dig out of the tip of your finger.”
Paul leaned over the bed and touched the incision. My entire body tensed. I tried to stay calm, but I couldn’t’ help but throw my head back and gasp for air.
“How long? Paul asked.
The doc turned to Pa. “I wish I’d known about this sooner.”
Paul mixed some powders in a glass of water, and that’s all I really remember until I woke up a few hours later disoriented and totally confused by my surroundings. This wasn’t my room.
“Pa?” I said, weakly.
“I’m right here, Son.”
“What…where am I?”
“The surgery is over, Joseph. Paul and I thought you might rest easier if you were here at his office. That way he’ll able to check on your leg every few hours.”
“I’m at Doc’s?”
“She’s right here, Son.” Pa glanced at the bed across from me before straightened the sheet up over my shoulders. “You rest. You can talk to her after you get some much-needed sleep.”
I was beat. I closed my eyes. “Kay…”
A china lamp, the wick turned low, glowed softly on the table between the two beds. Pa was snoring softly in a chair next to my bed. I wiggled the toes on both feet, making sure the dream I’d just had hadn’t come true. Two sets of toes remained under the sheet, ending the panic I’d felt upon waking. I was thirsty, but I hated to wake Pa.
There was a shadowy movement at the far end of the room. I heard someone pouring water into a glass. I turned my head slightly to see Mrs. Morris walking toward me. “Thought you might need a drink,” she said.
I handed her back the empty glass, and even though we’d been as quiet as church mice, we’d woken my father. “Guess I nodded off there,” Pa said, scrubbing his hands across his sleepy face. “How do you feel, Son?”
Pa looked up at Julie’s mother, who was still standing next to my bed, holding the empty glass. “You have to understand Joseph, Margaret. ‘Fine,’ is my son’s standard response to any injury he’s ever had.”
“My Julie’s just the opposite,” she said, trying to smile but failing miserably. “Milks even a tiny scratch for all it’s worth.”
I wanted to smile after seeing the desperation in her eyes—reassure her that in time Julie would be fine—but I was too tired to do much of anything.
“Is she awake?” I managed to say.
“I’m afraid not, Little Joe. But maybe hearing your voice…”
Mrs. Morris turned slightly and picked up her daughter’s hand. The room was small. There were two single beds, a small bedside table and two chairs between the beds for visitors; Pa and Mrs. Morris. At the far end of the room another wooden table stood, which held a basin and pitcher. This was the only spare room Paul had for patients who weren’t in his surgery. I knew Pa wouldn’t leave my side. I suspected Mrs. Morris wouldn’t leave Julie’s either.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“About 8:15,” Pa said.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. The glass of water seemed to restore some of my energy. “Why don’t you go on home and get some sleep?”
Paul entered the crowded room. “I thought I heard voices. How’s my patient this evening?”
“Oh, he’s fine, Paul. Just fine,” Pa said, mocking my earlier response.
“Let’s take a look, shall we?”
The doc set his cup of coffee on the table between the beds. He inspected the new wound on my splinted leg and seemed satisfied with what he saw. He glanced at Mrs. Morris, who shook her head, a sign of defeat. “Tomorrow’s a new day. Why don’t you two go home and get some rest? I’ll stay here tonight with our patients.”
“Will you bring my journal and ink when you come back tomorrow?”
“Does that mean you’d like me to leave?”
Pa leaned over and squeezed my arm. “I’ll see you in the morning, Joseph. Rest easy, Son.”
Under no other circumstances would a young man such as myself, and a young lady be left alone to share a room overnight. All parties involved seemed to think we couldn’t get into too much trouble—each of us confined to our beds like we were. As for now, I couldn’t move much more than my head, but I watched every breath Julie took, barely making out the rise and fall of her chest in the dim light of the china lamp.
The other two bystanders, who’d been hit by the runaway stage, had only minor scrapes and bruises. Paul had treated them and sent them on their way. Julie hadn’t fared so well. Her ribs were bound and her right arm had been splinted, not plastered. I could only imagine Paul wouldn’t make the effort until she woke from this long sleep he’d referred to as a coma.
I’d watched Mrs. Morris, and then Paul, give Julie sips of water from a glass straw. They each had to nudge her lips open with the tip and trickle water in slowly. But, reflexively, Julie managed to swallow each drop she was given.
There were no facial expressions—no movements of any kind. She looked peaceful as if she was enjoying a pleasant dream and didn’t want to wake up just yet. Even though we shared the same room, I couldn’t begin to reach her. If I could just hold her hand; let her know I was here and that I’d do anything…
I smelled coffee brewing. My stomach rumbled, and I realized I hadn’t really eaten since breakfast yesterday unless you consider a cup of broth I’d had last night, food. Doc walked in with a cup for me and one for himself. “How’s she doing this morning?”
“She’s still breathin’,” I said, realizing it was a pretty lame answer.
“That’s all we can hope for right now, Joe.”
“How long will this last, Doc?”
Paul leaned back in the chair Pa had used earlier and crossed one leg over the other. “I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. Could be today. Could be a week from now.”
There were footsteps, sounding in the hallway, and the doc and I turned our attention toward the open door.
“Any more of that coffee?” It was my father’s voice. “Sure smells good.”
“Did you sleep at all, Pa?” It was early; the sun had made its appearance through the window just a few minutes ago, and I was well aware of how long it took to ride into town from the house.
“Some.” Pa smiled as he crossed the room. “I couldn’t leave my youngest for too long now could I?”
“Well, since you’re here, help me sit up taller, will ya?” I was leaning up on one elbow which wasn’t the easiest position for drinking hot coffee.
It took two grown men to pull me up to my full height in the bed without having a negative effect on my leg. I let out a small groan as Pa and the doc each hooked their elbows under my arms and leaned me up against the headboard of the narrow bed. “Better,” I said, breathing hard. “Thanks.”
Pa had set a carpet bag on one of the chairs earlier. “I brought you a change of clothes and the things you’d asked for, Joe.”
“Good. Thanks, Pa.” I looked up at Paul. “How long will I be laid up this time, Doc?”
“When I think I can cast your leg. Let’s just say you’re not going anywhere for a while.”
“But maybe I could sit in a chair, right?”
“We’ll see. Not today, though, so you just relax and forget all about moving around. You and your pa can watch over Julie while I make my morning rounds.”
“Where’s Mrs. Morris?”
“I told her to stay home today with her husband and younger children. Hopefully, she listened to what I said better than your father.”
I winked at Pa. It was only to prove to me he was capable of following doctor’s orders that my father rode home to begin with.
“I’ll get you that cup of coffee, Ben.” Paul couldn’t help but smile at the two of us before he shook his head and headed out of the room.
Pa pulled the chair up closer to the head of the bed after he emptied the carpetbag of my journal and supplies. The clean clothes remained in the bag, and Pa slipped them under the bed for now. He looked toward Julie and shook his head. I knew what he was thinking without him having to actually say anything out loud.
“She’ll be fine, Pa.”
“I sure hope so, Son.”
“Still countin’ those grandkids?”
“Joseph…” Pa shook his head again, this time at me. “Enough of that.”
Pa and I both turned our heads when a slight moaning sound came from the other bed. “Get the doc,” I cried. “Hurry, Pa.”
Pa literally ran from the room. He nearly collided with Paul and the steaming-hot cup. “It’s Julie, Paul. The mug of coffee quickly changed hands. Paul grabbed his stethoscope and rushed to the side of her bed, but with his back to me, I couldn’t tell what was happening.
“Is she okay?” I asked, straining my neck to see. “Is she awake?” Even though I tried to lean to the side without moving my leg, the doc’s back still blocked me from seeing Julie at all.
“Hang on, Joe. Let me listen a minute.”
When Paul was finished, he turned to face me. “Her heartbeat is sound.”
I could barely breathe. I trembled at the words I prayed to hear. “See? I told you, Pa. I told you she’d be fine.”
“Hold on now,” Paul said. “She’s far from fine.”
“She’s not out of the woods yet, Son. Don’t get me wrong though. She’s trying her best to come back.”
“Maybe…maybe if I talked to her. Maybe I could make her want to…”
“Easy, Joe. Paul said these things take time.”
“I know all that, Pa, but if I could touch her…talk to her.”
Pa and the doc locked eyes. “It couldn’t hurt, Ben.”
It was a small battle, but I’d felt as though I’d won the war.
It took the better part of a half an hour before the room had been rearranged and put back together. The beds were pushed closer together with the visitor’s chairs and the small table on the outer sides of each bed.
“Thanks,” I said, winking at both men. “This will do fine.”
I reached over and took Julie’s hand in mine. Her fingers were warm to the touch and slightly swollen. I remained sitting with my splinted leg on top of the bedding. I wore a nightshirt and a pair of black long johns with the right leg cut off above the incision. I looked ridiculous, especially in front of my girl, but I didn’t have much of a choice.
Pa stayed with the two of us while Paul drove out to a couple of ranches where he was needed on a regular basis. By noon, Pa said goodbye for now, and Paul returned to his office, saying he had some paperwork to do between walk-in patients. Now that Julie and I were finally alone, I was hesitant as to what to say.
I talked to her in a normal voice, as if we were holding hands and walking through a lush, green meadow on a warm summer’s day. I imagined she was answering all of my questions and asking ones of her own. Julie and I got along well. We liked the same things, and more often than not, we were happy just being in each other’s company. There didn’t always have to be talk.
I rested the back of my head against the headboard and closed my eyes. I still held Julie’s hand then realized I wanted my thoughts written down, not just drifting into space.
July 23, 1860 – 1:00 p.m.
Julie doesn’t know I’m here with her, but I know she will soon. Maybe there’s a chance she can hear me while I rattle off stories I think she’ll enjoy. I’d been transferred to Paul’s office soon after the surgery he’d performed while I was still home. The doctor had cleaned out the infection, but I hate to tell him my leg hurts worse now than it had before. He’d said he could keep a closer eye on me if I was here at his place. I thought differently than the doc. I didn’t give a damn about anything, including my leg if the unthinkable happened to Julie.
She began to stir earlier today, and I’d taken that as a good sign. The doc didn’t want me to get my hopes up too soon, but I couldn’t help thinking of the times we’ve yet to enjoy. Before long, the two of us would be riding and going to dances, stopping for lemonade and laughing together like we’ve always done in the past.
Pa had asked if Julie and I were serious. I didn’t really know how to answer him when he’d first brought it up. Somehow, with us both laid up, and not having seen each other for over a month due to the cattle drive and all, I’d found my answer. I really did love this girl, and if she’ll have me, I’ll summon the preacher and marry this girl the minute she wakes up. And, in time, we’ll give Pa that passel of grandkids he’s always wanted.
If I knew how to wake her I would. I talk to her off and on, but she hasn’t made another sound. I have nowhere else to go and all the patience in the world. Well, maybe my family would disagree with the second part of that statement. But I’ve grown up some, even over the past month, and if I hadn’t learned patience before, I’m certainly learning it now.
Pa’s harped at me my entire life about losing my temper and my lack of patience. “Slow down, Joseph.” Those were his favorite words when I was a kid. “What’s your all-fired hurry, Little Joe.” That was Hoss. Now with Adam, there are still comments about anything and everything I do, and none of them are very encouraging either. I can rarely satisfy my eldest brother’s requests no matter how hard I try. “Mr. Perfect” expects too much—at least more than I’m willing to give.
Once, a couple of years ago, Adam and I really got into it over a horse; an absolutely beautiful, black stallion we’d seen up by Montpelier then again, close to Alice Point. He was the most magnificent horse I’d ever seen. I sat perfectly still on the back of Cochise, watching his sleek, black mane streaming in the wind while every well-defined muscle glistened in the mid-day sun as he stretched out his legs in a full-out run.
I whooped and hollered, and I’d all but claimed him as mine, but when I turned toward my brother, knowing we’d hit the jackpot when we’d spotted this horse, of course, Adam disagreed.
“He’s too wild, Joe. You don’t have patience for an animal like that.”
I glared at my brother. I’d been verbally attacked, and with those words said, Adam had automatically challenged me to prove him wrong. I set out the next morning, alone, to find the powerful, black stallion and bring him home. I’d left before sunrise, leaving a note on Pa’s desk. I’d be gone for a couple of days. Ask Adam for more details I’d written as an afterthought.
I wasn’t a baby anymore. I was sixteen-years-old, and I could break any horse I set my mind to. Adam thought he knew everything about me, but he didn’t. So I set out to show him how wrong he could be.
I spotted the black on the second day out. I’d probably chased him for ten to fifteen miles until he wound up trapped in a box canyon. All I had to do now was wait. “Patience,” I wanted to tell Adam. I had enough for ten men when it came to this spirited horse. With rope in hand, I steadied myself at the edge of the canyon, waiting. I roped him on the first try. He fought and bucked, and even though I’d worn a pair of heavy work gloves, he nearly ripped my hands to shreds.
I kept right up with him until he finally settled, then I tied the extra length of rope around my saddle horn to lead him home. We took it slow, stopping for water and even taking time for him and Cooch to graze on lush, green grass. I talked to him often, keeping my voice soft and steady, and even as I spoke nonsense to this big and powerful horse, it seemed to me he listened to every word I said. By the time we returned to the Ponderosa, the stallion had gotten to know me more as a friend than an enemy.
I’d never felt as proud as the day I rode into the yard with my valued prize prancing gallantly behind me. Pa came out the door first. He was flanked by Adam and followed by Hoss, who’d chosen to stay farther behind. My smile quickly faded when Pa marched straight toward me; his eyes blazing with anger.
“Get down off that horse, Joseph.”
Quickly, I glanced at Hoss. He stood with his hands sunk deep in his back pockets, shaking his head as he stared down at the tips of his boots.
Adam stood next to Pa; the same wild look of anger shooting from his eyes.
I untied the black from my saddle and slid off of Cochise. The stallion stood patiently behind. I took a few steps back till the stallion and I were standing side by side.
“Give the rope to Adam,” Pa said.
“Why? It’s my horse, not his.”
“Why?” None of this made sense. I ran my hand down the stallion’s neck, making sure he didn’t panic with all the new, loud voices erupting that day in the yard.
“Because I said so.”
My heart pounded as I dropped the rope to the ground. I flew past my father and brothers. I can’t describe how furious I was at Pa and if I had to guess, Adam was behind the whole thing. I stormed into the house, ran up the stairs and slammed my bedroom door. The stallion was mine, and I didn’t understand why Pa was acting as though—
“What?” I said, turning my head to the sound of my name being whispered by Julie in the adjacent bed. “Julie?” I wasn’t sure if I’d only imagined she’d said my name or if it had been real. I set down my journal and leaned toward her bed. “Julie? Wake up now, Julie. It’s me. It’s Joe.”
Maybe I’d only imagined her speaking. I gently stroked the side of her face, and I honestly believe she pressed her cheek closer against my hand. There were no more words, only the slight movement of her chest as she breathed in and out. I sat back up and leaned against the pillows propped against the headboard. This was a good sign, but there was nothing more I could do for Julie. She’d fallen back asleep. I picked up my pen and my journal. I was not quite finished with the story.
I stood beside my window, staring at the yard below. As Adam led the black to the corral, Hoss took care of Cochise, but it wasn’t long before Pa opened my bedroom door. I was still fuming, and I wasn’t interested in anything he had to say. Adam had betrayed me and I wanted no part of their conspiracy to rid me of my new horse.
“I’ve spoken to your brother,” Pa said as if I didn’t already know. “Joseph?”
I kept my eyes focused out the window and on my brother down below. He’d closed the corral gate. He walked toward the barn, coiling the rope I’d used on the black while the stallion pranced like the king of the world around the inner perimeter of the corral. He looked far from ordinary with his head held high and his gait precise. I’d already begun the bonding ritual I’d used on other wild horses. He was mine, only mine.
I hadn’t heard Pa cross the room. His voice, as he stood right behind me, startled me. Again, I heard Adam’s words, only this time my father spoke about patience and the nature of the animal.
“Adam says this particular horse is too wild, too unpredictable.”
I whirled around and faced my father. “That’s his opinion, Pa, and he’s wrong. I can gentle that horse.”
“Not this time, Son. It’s too much of a risk.”
I was fuming. I’d never been so angry. “You gonna let Adam have him?”
“Tell me one thing, Joseph. Why is this horse so important to you?”
“He just is. I saw him first, and the second I laid eyes on him I wanted to bring him home and tame him myself.”
“Why didn’t you discuss this with me instead of sneaking out in the middle of the night?”
I knew why, but Pa would never understand. “I just did, Pa. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything to you before I left”
“I’m guessing it has something to do with your brother. Am I right?”
I turned back to the window. Hoss and Adam were walking toward the house.
“Yes!” I said, staring at Pa over my right shoulder. “It has everything to do with my brother.”
“Why? Come on, Pa. Adam doesn’t think I can handle him, but I can. I’m already halfway there.”
“What’s that mean.”
“He knows me, Pa. He trusts me. Half of working a horse is trust.”
“He does, Pa!” I turned back to the window before I said something I might regret. The sturdy, black stallion stood silently in the corral, waiting patiently for my return. But if Adam and Pa had their way, it was over. Hot tears burned my eyes, and I wasn’t about to let my father see how upset I’d become. “Just forget it. Just give the damn horse to Adam. I don’t care anymore.”
I glanced over at Julie, and what I saw shocked the hell outta me. Her eyes were open. She stared, not at me, but toward the ceiling. “Julie,” I whispered. “Julie? It’s Joe. Can you hear me?”
I leaned toward her and picked up her hand—a hand that was cold as ice.
“Doc!” I screamed. “Doc, come quick!”
Summer of 1872 – Twelve years later.
As soon as she removed the cloth from his forehead, Joe began to stir. For two long days, he’d suffered, close to delirium, from a fever brought on by an infection he developed after he’d sliced his leg with an ax while cutting down a tree.
At first, she was frightened. After seeing blood, soaking the bottom half of his pant leg, it wasn’t long after the initial shock that she scolded him for working alone. Joe was in such a hurry to clear the land, to have everything right, to make his bride proud.
“Where’s Candy?” she’d asked. “Why isn’t he with you?”
“Had to ride back to the ranch to help Pa.”
Joe’s voice was barely audible as he managed to climb down from the wagon. Hitting the ground with his good foot, he accepted his wife’s assistance and draped his arm around her shoulders. Even though he’d done his best at the time, blood-soaked the shirt he’d ripped up for bandages. The four-inch gash caused him more pain than he’d let on.
Alice did her best to clean the wound and re-bandage Joe’s leg, but when she’d wanted to call the doctor, Joe refused. “I’ll be fine,” he’d said. “It’s nothing more than a scratch.”
Although he’d said no, Alice had sent for Doc Martin anyway. After reprimanding Joe for being so dadblamed stubborn, Paul assured Alice she’d done the right thing. The fever, due to infection, had kept a tight hold, causing her husband to cry out at times or mumble words she tried desperately to understand. Something about his brother, Hoss—a man she admired but had never met—and something about his leg, but she couldn’t quite decide if there was a connection or not.
Between keeping cold compresses against her husband’s forehead, and bathing his face and chest repeatedly with cool water, she remembered an old journal Joe had thrown in a dresser drawer when they’d first moved into the house. He’d told her it was nothing but a kid’s ramblings, something he’d used to pass the time when he was laid up once with a broken leg. His brother, his eldest, had presented him with the tan-covered journal to keep him from getting bored during the long, confining days of recovery.
She wondered why he’d kept such a thing. Was the broken leg what he’d referred to when the subject of broken bones and childhood illnesses was once discussed? Since Adam, whom Joe no longer had any communication with, had given him the book as a gift, had that been the ultimate reason for keeping some old journal he considered nothing worth reading?
She stared down at her husband, so peaceful and calm, and prayed his fever was waning. She thought of the two brothers she’d never known. Adam, the one who’d left home for another kind of life, and Hoss, the brother who’d just recently died. She remembered a time before they were married when they’d taken a buggy ride to one of Joe’s favorite places. He’d called it his happy place. He spoke of Hoss and she remembered the emotion in his voice as he tried to describe his beloved brother.
Joe was definitely not a loner. He was happiest in the company of friends and family. She could only imagine his despair at moving forward in life—a life which didn’t include either of his older brothers.
She sat next to their bed until she could stand it no longer. The journal, and what it may reveal about Joe’s past, was calling out to her, but did she dare? Alice stood up and crossed the room. Without making a sound, she opened the dresser drawer, and under Joe’s long johns and handkerchiefs he never used, laid the tan, leather-bound book. She glanced quickly at Joe then slowly turned to page one.
July 16, 1860
“Stuck in bed.
Broke my leg during the cattle drive.”
Twelve years ago, she thought. Only eighteen-years-old.
Could this be what Joe was trying to tell her about or was she using his mumblings as an excuse to seek out something private and not meant for her to read? The temptation was far too great, and after wringing out another cool cloth and placing it gently on Joe’s forehead, she picked up the journal again. She flipped through the pages, turning to the final sentence only a third of the way through the book. The entry’s had stopped suddenly, and she couldn’t help but wonder why.
“Just forget it. Just give the damn horse to Adam. I don’t care anymore.”
This was the end of Joe’s writing and she didn’t figure this entry—and the prior argument with his father—had much to do with a broken leg. On the other hand, maybe he’d taken a fall from this particular horse and somewhere in-between, there could be an explanation. She’d have to go back and start from the very beginning.
“Later,” she thought, setting the book on the table next to the bowl of cool water. The fever came first.
Ben Cartwright dropped by daily—typically twice. His visits were welcomed, and his continual reassurance that Joe, more than anyone else in this world, had been blessed with the God-given will to survive. His words had brought Alice comfort. Ben’s daily support and his own profound faith had kept her from falling apart as she’d watch Joe wrestle, on and off, with memories of long ago. Knowing Ben was just as frightened as she, never once did he let on. His words were gentle and kind, reflecting age and wisdom and the deep sense of love he felt for his youngest son.
She had everything she’d ever hoped. During these first few weeks of marriage, her life had moved forward from a miserable existence with her lying, gambling brother, to a world she’d always dreamed of but never thought possible. Without Joe and his genuine love of life, she was happier than she’d ever been slipping from town to town before loan sharks discovered her brother was long gone and heir money was lost forever. Joe was her knight in shining armor, her prince among men, her lover, but most importantly, her best friend.
By mid-afternoon, as Alice routinely smoothed the cool cloth across her husband’s pale face, Joe blinked repeatedly before opening his eyes. The corners of her mouth turned up, and slowly, she smiled. A sense of relief washed over her; the worst was over. The fever had finally broken.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he replied softly.
Although the fever had broken Joe was exhausted, and after a much-needed drink of water, he fell back into a restful rather than restive sleep. Alice straightened the sheet up over his shoulders, picked up the journal and sat back down next to their bed. She quickly scanned the first few entries. Realizing Joe was trying to get his bearings and figure out what to write, he began recounting long-lost stories. Certain entries were clearly more important than others, although she tuned into every word of the awkward writing of her left-handed husband’s scrawl.
“Thinking about Julie.”
Not long after this girl’s name was mentioned came the poem, and Alice had to cover her mouth to contain a giggle before she woke her husband and had to explain why his choice of words had tickled her so. Lord Byron, he was not. She continued on, trying to picture her thirty-year-old husband as an eighteen-year-old boy, a young man deeply in love with a girl named Julie.
Certain entries gave her pause, and she found herself feeling a special kind of love, a deeper love, for this man who lay sleeping peacefully before her. Suddenly, feeling guilty for delving into his private memoirs—seeing how his emotions and his sensitive nature had actually come out in print—she quickly set the book aside.
Joe had made one thing clear right from the beginning of their marriage. “The future is ours to live, to enjoy every day to the fullest.” Although our brothers, living or not, were never far from our minds, neither of us was allowed to dwell on misfortunes and tragedies we’d been forced to live through in the past.
Hesitating for only a minute, she picked the journal back up and continued reading. There were more entries about Julie, who seemed to preoccupy most of Joe’s thoughts during that period of his life, but she also enjoyed reading about Hoss, the brother who’d always been there for Joe; the brother she wished she’d known.
Glancing up at Joe more frequently now, and making sure he was still asleep, she continued through the pages as if they held the magic key to his past life. There was more she wanted to know, more insight into the boy he’d once been.
She turned to the next entry and read more about big brother, Hoss, and what a caring young man he had been. Maybe Joe had been wrong. Maybe leaving the past behind was a mistake. All the memories Joe had of his brothers, whether good times or bad, had been an intricate part of his life.
She laid the book in her lap and thought about her own brother, John. He had been a decent brother at one given time, and she wanted to remember the way life had been when they were young and carefree—a time before gambling had become an all-consuming part of his life. At some point, the timing would be right and she would sit down with Joe and make him realize his brothers were a vital part of the man he’d become. To deny the past, whether it was hurtful to relive certain memories or not, was not what she wanted for their future.
She turned the page and read on.
“I didn’t give a damn about anything, including my leg if the unthinkable happened to Julie.”
Again, Alice glanced at Joe, his chest barely moving while resting comfortably during this stage of uninterrupted sleep. She couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to this girl he’d been so fond of. It was obvious she was very sick or had been injured somehow, although she wasn’t sure just yet what had happened.
As Alice was eagerly learning more about Joe’s love for Julie, the entries switched suddenly to a story he’d remembered about a black stallion—a horse he’d been proud to bring home and gentle himself. She’d been so consumed with finding out more about Julie, she realized she’d already read through the parts concerning Hoss and Joe’s broken leg; her excuse for pulling out the journal in the first place.
She couldn’t stop now, even if she’d already read what she’d initially been looking for. Alice leaned back in her chair, trying to picture the look on a younger Joe’s face as he rode into the yard elated by what he’d accomplished. His joy faded quickly as if a knife had been plunged straight through his heart. For a brief moment, she cursed her father-in-law and an older brother she hadn’t known. Weren’t they aware? Didn’t they sense that feeling of pride on the young boy’s face? She quickly wiped at a tear. She turned the page, hoping in the midst of all this fighting, Joe had come out the victor.
“Just forget it. Just give the damn horse to Adam. I don’t care anymore.”
The adjoining page was blank; she flipped to the next. She found nothing. She fanned the pages, hoping for the written word to explain what had happened to the black stallion, and what about Julie? In her furry to read more, to search for answers, she’d all but forgotten about Joe lying directly in front of her.
Her husband stared up at her from his bed of white linens, clearly aware of what she held in her hand. Quickly, she closed the book, trying to hide it within the skirt flowing from her lap.
He said nothing.
“Joe, I’m…I didn’t mean…”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It was a long time ago.”
Alice was devastated. She’d done the unthinkable. “I…I don’t know what to say.”
“Forget it,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I never should’ve—”
Joe rolled onto his side, facing his wife. He reached out for the worn-looking journal. She handed it to him. He, too, fanned the pages. “Guess I lost interest,” he said after reading the final entry. “Did you finish reading?”
Joe chuckled as he read a few of the words on the final page. “I remember that horse. I was sixteen-years-old then.”
Alice kept silent.
Still smiling, Joe looked up from the book. “I hope you didn’t laugh too hard at my meager ramblings.”
Alice shook her head. She’d only laughed once, but she would never let on.
She swallowed the lump in her throat before she could ask the single question that had driven her to finish reading the journal. “Yes…” she said hesitantly. “I only have one.”
“Shoot,” Joe said softly.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure, I’m sure.”
“Okay,” she said and cleared her throat. “Whatever happened to Julie?”
Alice sprung from her chair when Joe began pushing himself up in the bed. She lifted both pillows, placing them upright behind him. “Thanks,” he said
But he said no more. Alice wouldn’t ask twice, and now she wished she’d kept her promise and let the past remain the past. She wouldn’t blame him at all if he chose not to tell her anything about this young girl he’d written so lovingly about. After all, they’d promised each other…
“She died,” Joe said in a whispered voice, shattering her thoughts and capturing her undivided attention. “She’d been…it was an accident and she…she never recovered from a head injury.”
Now that he’d spoken, Alice was dumbfounded as to what to say. Why hadn’t she realized that’s why there were no more entries? The sadness in Joe’s eyes conveyed those long-ago feelings, and being a deeply reserved woman, she didn’t move a muscle or say anything that might upset him even more. Tears glistened in his eyes, but that’s where they remained. He took a deep breath, refusing to let them fall.
“Doc called it a coma. She never…” He turned to Alice and lifted the corners of his mouth in a half-smile. “It was a long time ago.”
“You loved her very much.”
“Come here,” Joe said, reaching his hand across the bed.
Alice stood from the chair and joined her husband on their bed. He wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close enough that her head rested against his shoulder.
“I love you more,” he said before kissing the top of her head.
Alice tilted her face toward his and smiled, and even though she lay alongside him, she felt the need to hold him tightly, to comfort that young man who’d lost the girl of his dreams. The young man who’d fought to keep what he’d considered his; the magnificent black stallion and who struggled every day with the memories of a beloved brother who’d left this world too soon.
She draped her arm across his chest, and he welcomed her hand in his. And only because their love was strong, and their future together held such promise, did she allow Joe the time needed to reflect on this young girl who was taken from his life unexpectedly.
“Will you promise me one thing?” she said after a suitable amount of time had passed. Soon, she would tell him of her delicate condition, something she couldn’t keep hidden much longer.
“Anything,” Joe answered.
“Promise we’ll be together forever.”
Autumn – 1872
Pa and I pushed back our chairs and stood up from the dining room table. Again, we’d overeaten after trying to sift through half the bountiful spread Hop Sing continued to prepare. The only reason our cook had never made good on his threat to go back to China was because he knew how much he could count on Hoss appreciating his cooking. It wasn’t that Pa and I didn’t appreciate; it’s that between the two of us combined, we couldn’t possibly eat what Hoss managed to devour in one sitting.
Pa motioned me to follow him to his desk. He handed me a package he’d picked up earlier today at the post office. We both recognized the handwriting; the finely tuned script that adorned the brown paper wrapping was my brother Adam’s. I glanced up at Pa and though I could tell he was anxious, he folded his arms across his chest and waited patiently for me to rip off the paper and see what my brother had sent.
A smile crossed my face when I realized its contents. A leather-bound journal similar to the one I’d received when I was just a kid. He’d been away for years; I had given up writing him long ago. My father kept him abreast of everything that went on in our lives. Leave it to Adam to realize not only had I lost my wife and my unborn child; I’d lost everything else in the fire. I glanced up at Pa and with tears holding steady, I gripped tightly to the new leather book and climbed the stairs to my room.
Oct. 16, 1872 – late evening
It seems like a hundred years have passed since I’ve inked a pen and written anything down. I suppose there were times I could have or maybe should have put my thoughts to paper, but maybe I was lazy or maybe life got in the way. More important things took up my time, and writing down my thoughts in a journal was not something I ever much thought about. I wasn’t like Adam who wrote endlessly in his own set of journals but for some reason, one I may never understand, the time seems right to start writing again.
A lot has happened—a lot of years have gone by, and I’m feeling a bit rusty. I remember Adam telling me a journal was for my eyes only. How wrong was that statement? I remember the look on Alice’s face the day I looked up to see her frantically flipping through pages, looking for an ending to a story I’d never taken time to finish. Again, life, or should I say death got in the way.
At first, I felt embarrassed she’d resurrected the old thing. I thought I hidden it safely away, although I’m not real sure why I’d kept it in the first place. After twelve long years, none of those stories mattered anymore anyway. That time of my life was ancient history. It was just the scribbling of a boy who had nothing better to do.
Like my brother, Hoss, my wife is no longer part of my life. There are days the grief is so raw—like an open wound festering until I just want the pain, maybe even my life, to end. I fight hard to keep myself from collapsing and losing hold of that very fragile edge called sanity. I ask myself why? What could possibly be God’s purpose for wanting me to face every day of my life with this overwhelming feeling of loss?
When Hoss died, I thought I’d lived through the worst life had to offer. But as we all know, life never stands still, never stays the same, and living without the ones you love…
So I’ve moved back to the main house, back to my old room, back into the house where I was born. But I’m not truly alone. My father, who keeps a close watch, who makes sure the edge never gets too close, is my only saving grace in a world which has turned upside down.
Thinking back a few years, I remember another life-changing moment. It was in the spring of ’65 when Adam sat us all down in the great room after dinner. I had no idea what was to come—no idea how one single night would affect the rest of our lives. After he’d placed an unnecessary log on the fast-burning fire, we’d all gathered around to hear what he considered an important announcement. Hoss and I rolled our eyes, but this was Adam, and the two of us wondered what could be so hell-fired important.
“I’m leaving the Ponderosa,” he said.
His words were blunt and to the point, and I’ll remember those four words for the rest of my life. I glanced up at Pa, who was standing alongside my eldest brother in front of the fire. When he dipped his head slightly, nodding at Hoss and me who were seated beside each other on the settee, I realized my father had already been informed of Adam’s decision.
My overwhelming disbelief in what I’d just heard caused me to stumble through a variety of words although none of them were the right words. I tried my best over the next few days to dissuade my eldest brother from making the biggest mistake of his life, but I soon realized he’d been yearning to leave for years. Maybe I was still too young to understand and I wished him well. I’d surrendered the battle, raised the white flag, and let my brother win the war.
While some choose to leave their world behind, others are taken from us when we’re least expecting, and the loss is so great the mind never really heals. When Hoss left this world less than a year ago it wasn’t by choice. There wasn’t a discussion in front of a roaring fire, no time to digest the devastating blow and the toll it took on all our lives. “I’ve lived long and good,” Hoss said. He knew what was to come but for me, knowing and keeping my feelings hidden was next to impossible.
I took over sitting next to him in his oversized bed when Pa felt the need for a break. My brother’s eyes were closed; he lay peacefully. Tears had always been part of my world although never in front of Hoss. Like I’d done so many years ago while waiting for Julie to wake, I sat and watched the rhythm of my brother’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall. But as I stared this time at the sheet covering my brother’s chest, there was no rise and fall. My best friend was gone and I was alone.
When I stood from the chair, I found my father standing in the doorway. Pa knew, but I had no words of comfort to give. I rushed past Pa and within minutes I had Cochise saddled, and I was racing away from the house, from my father, from Hoss. I rode fast and hard and when I hit my destination, I ran, nearly sliding down the rocks to the spot we’d loved best. Some would say I’d done an injustice to my father, leaving him as I had, but Pa understood. And as I sat on the edge of the ravine and gazed down at the lake below, I knew I had to be strong. It was just the two of us now, but how would we ever survive without Hoss?
Oct. 17, 1872
My birthday’s at the end of this month. I’ve asked Pa not make a big deal this year. Birthdays mean a lot to my father, but celebrating this pointless milestone seems unnecessary when there’s just Pa and me.
Oct. 30, 1872
My father is one of a kind. I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I was asked to explain what this man means to me. He knows me better than anyone in this world does, and I’d like to say I know him just as well. We’ve been through a lot together during these 31 years of my life. We’ve laughed and cried, and somehow Pa has taken into account there’s still joy to be had in this world.
Tonight, my father had to drag me back into the house after asking me if I planned to spend all night in the barn. I chuckled at his comment, even though I was tempted to make my bed right inside the stall.
He’d respected my wishes and instead of a celebration, and one of Hop Sing’s brightly lit birthday cakes, my father gave me a gift I will cherish forever—the king of all horses—a majestic black stallion. I’d only seen one other animal in my entire life that compared to the magnificent beauty of this horse.
I still have a vivid memory, as clear as if it was yesterday, of standing at my bedroom window, watching, but not believing the events taking place at the corral down below. My father had instructed Adam to let the stallion go—to send him back off to the herd. The horse I’d captured alone and brought home—the animal I wasn’t allowed to keep.
I was sixteen-years-old, and the most important lesson I learned that day was life was unfair. As Pa tried to explain why this had to be done, I’d tried not to listen. He’d used words like reasonable and wary, common sense and fear. I’d closed myself off to him and even more to my brother, Adam.
But time has a way of healing all wounds. I didn’t stay mad forever; I guess because life got in the way. So, here we are now, a lifetime later. I know, deep in my heart, Pa is only trying to ease the pain of the previous year, even though it wasn’t only me who’d suffered. Maybe he was making up for the stallion he’d sent back to the herd when I was a just a boy.
The “why” didn’t matter. The gift—the stallion—was a symbol of my father’s love. I treasure this horse, but I’ll treasure my father forever.
Camp in the Pines Challenge
July – 2012