Summary: Someone is watching Joe from the shadows… someone who loves him and who can never let him go. Because love lasts forever.
Rated: K+ (3,220 words)
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You
I love to watch him doing ordinary things; chopping wood, drinking coffee, grooming his horse. Even after all this time, I can’t keep my eyes off him. There’s something so compelling about him, something I can’t let go off. So I watch him, my heart in hiding.
Of course, he doesn’t know I’m here, looking at him from a distance,just longing to be with him again, to feel his arms around me and the warmth of his breath on my neck, making small shivers of delight run down my spine and infusing my body with a deep joy. I just have to catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye and my heart will beat a little too fast. But what can I do to make him notice me?
He intrigued me from the very beginning. There was something indefinable about him that made people notice him: something about the way he walked with a slight swagger that sent his hips swaying; something about the way he wore his hat and most of all, something about the way he looked straight at you, as if he could see straight into your soul. All those things made him different from any other man I had ever met and meant he stood out in a crowd. Oh, I can’t explain it – but there was just something about him that made me feel that little bit more alive. He would walk past a saloon and you would see the girls begin to preen themselves, standing up that little bit straighter, thrusting their breasts out and batting their eyelashes at him. How I envied them their courage!
Other men would probably have taken up the invitation – either that or they would have hurried on by, red in the face and hoping no-one who had seen the little show would tell their wives. But not him. Oh no, he would tip his hat gallantly, with a continental flair and meet the coquettish glance directly. And he would smile and say “Ma’am,” in the most courteous tone that nevertheless held a hint of roguishness and then saunter slowly past. In his wake, the girls would give a collective sigh, then shake themselves and get back to the serious business of enticing paying customers into the saloon to buy beer, to play cards and maybe rent a room for an hour.
I’m not as naive as I look, you see. Sometimes I envied those girls their confidence, their daring, even as I pitied the existence they were forced to endure. What happened to them as they grew older, once their looks began to fade and their bodies grew a little too slack? Where did they go and how did they live? Those fears were something I could relate to, for I was no longer a fresh-faced schoolgirl myself and my greatest terror was that one day I might be faced with such a prospect. But then, of course, I met Joe Cartwright and I fell in love. And for some reason I could never quite fathom, he fell in love with me.
I had only been in Virginia City for a few hours before hearing about the Cartwrights. They were the most famous family in the area, known not only for their wealth, but for the way they treated people, whether the men who worked for them on the ranch, the townsfolk and neighbouring ranchers or even complete strangers. The Cartwrights had a reputation for being people you could trust, people who did not wait to be asked for help but who would stretch out a willing hand to anyone in need. They had even taken a young boy into their home and were bringing him up as one of the family, but it seemed there was little else to say about Jamie Hunter and I was not particularly interested in a teenager. No, it was Joe Cartwright who interested me, despite all my efforts to push him out of my mind.
At night, lying in a narrow hotel bed that had seen years of hard use and which bore the traces of rather too many of its previous occupants, I would dream about Joe. Such dreams! Dreams that made me blush when I recalled them. Those dreams surely made me no better than one of those saloon girls, flaunting their bodies in tight dresses that exposed their breasts and legs. It worried me, for if I could feel all these emotions before I had even spoken to the man, how on earth would I react if I actually met him? I was already in love, you see.
Looking back, over the distance of years, I can laugh at myself for my girlish emotions, even if I was in my twenties at the time. A young woman, of good (if impoverished) background behaving like a girl fresh from a ladies’ seminary, while having decidedly erotic dreams was surely an oddity. But, back then I was young and very innocent in spirit and it showed. I had not had many suitors and did not know how to flirt. I had no money for fancy dresses or jewelry to enhance myself with. What did I have to offer a man like Joe Cartwright?
When I arrived in Virginia City I was beginning to resign myself to a life of spinsterhood and wished only for the comfort of being a beloved maiden aunt, surrounded by nieces and nephews. The only fly in the ointment there was my brother, who was not exactly the type to settle down and live a respectable married life.He had aways been a worry to me. I envied Joe Cartwright for his family, his home and his whole life. It was everything I had ever hoped for, but I knew it was a merely a castle in the sky for a girl like me.
And then I met him and everything changed. It was just a chance encounter, but nothing else was ever the same for me after that. How is it possible for one man to have such an impact? What was it about Joe that made me throw my caution to the winds and allow myself to fall in love with him? I wish I knew. But I gave my heart and I loved him. More amazingly, he loved me.
I have lost count of the number of times I have watched him coming riding out to the ruins of the burnt- out house on the Ponderosa. Of course, I know what happened here and the dreams that turned to ashes. The very earth seems imbued with sadness. Joe is always sombre when he is here and his shoulders seem to slump under the weight of the memories .This is where he does his mourning, rather than at the graveside. The hard-packed earth here has received so many of his tears.This is where he mourns and shouts out his sorrow to the wide open skies, little realising that I can hear every word. It hurts me to see him like this and I want to go to him, to comfort him and tell him that I am here. But, of course, I cannot. He has come here to be private and alone with his grief. And, of course, he does not know that I am here, in the shadows of the trees, watching him and aching alongside him.
My son tugs at my hand. “Why is he sad?” he asks, with all the innocence of youth. He is so young and he is all that I have left of his father.
I look down at his face, so like Joe’s, only softer, not yet written on by life and I feel my heart ache with love for both of them. “He’s lonely,” I say. “He’s lonely because he is all alone.”
“We’re not alone,” my little boy states with confidence. “We’ll always be together.”
And I smile at him, take him in my arms and walk away,holding him close to me and pressing my eyes tight shut so that the tears will not fall and betray my feelings. We leave Joe, standing alone, with his hat held so tightly between his fingers that the skin shows white over his knuckles and his eyes fixed upon the ground. I wonder what he sees and if it gives him any comfort. I leave him alone with his thoughts.
The first time we made love was the beginning of my new life. It had been a whirlwind romance; something that the local gossips had assured me was typical of Joe Cartwright.
“Oh, Joe falls in love at the drop of a hat! So you be careful, dearie, because those handsome men throw their charms around.”
I didn’t listen to them. Why should I? I loved Joe and I knew I could trust him – could trust him to the ends of the earth. He promised to look after me and I knew he loved me. I knew the gossips would be talking about that too. What did I have that would entice a man like Joe Cartwright? That did not bother me in the slightest, because I believed in him. And I needed him. I had never realised before just how much you could need someone. To contemplate life without him was unbearable. I knew I would love him forever.
Last autumn, Joe got married. I stood on the corner of the street with my son beside me and I watched as he and his father drove past in the buggy to the church where his bride was waiting. I watched as they came out of the church and people threw handfuls of rice. He looked so happy and she… well, she looked at him as if the sun rose and set in his eyes. I used to look at him like that too – gazing into his mesmerising green eyes and seeing te world in them, but now I can only look at him from a distance and my world has shrunk to nothingness.
Life is very unfair, but I have grown accustomed to that and I know there is no sense in fighting against things you cannot change. I try to console myself by saying “he loved me first!” but it is of little help. My son is older now, his head is level with my waist and he reaches up and takes hold of my hand. At least I still have him. He will stay with me always. I smile through the darkness as Joe and his new wife ride off to begin their lives together and I remember what we once had together.
After it was over, I met Joe’s brother. He had left the Ponderosa some time before, but I could sense his heart was still there. I liked him immediately, for he was so friendly and welcoming, but he was lonely and talked of his home with such passion it was obvious he longed to return.
“Why don’t you go back?” I asked. “It’s still all there and you could see your family again. Joe used to talk about you often. He misses you and so does Ben.”
He shook his head. “It wouldn’t be the same,” he said in an undertone, and I knew what he meant. There is no way you can go back to the past, after all. But it is impossible for me to stay away from Joe for long, I just cannot help myself. I simply cannot stop going back to the places where I spent time with Joe and trying to recapture what we had. Perhaps it is stupid; certainly it is futile, for I make sure he does not see me, but I cannot help myself. I need to see him. My love for him continues, over the years. And, although we do not meet, I keep watching him. I can never tire of watching him.
Joe is happy now, I can see that. He and his wife live in the big house on the Ponderosa, where his father still oversees all the many operations of the ranch. Ben is still tall, although he has got a little thinner over the years since I first met him, but his voice is as strong as ever.
Today I sit in one of the dark corners of the barn and watch as Joe grooms his horse. It is high summer, outside the sun is pouring down like honey and both man and beast are hot and tired. Joe stops for a moment and pulls off his shirt. It is all I can do to stop myself rushing forward and greeting him, throwing myself into his arms and holding him as if I would never let him go.
“Well, Cooch,” he says in a conversational tone and I remember how he has always treated the animal as if it could understand him. “Lot of changes, boy – lot of changes. You and me – we’ve been together a long time, and I guess you know me about as well as any man.”
The horse snickers and reaches around to nudge him gently and I almost wonder if Cochise does actually understand what Joe is saying. Then I give myself a little shake and mentally tell myself not to be so silly.
Joe laughs. That laugh – I would know it anywhere. He gently runs his hand down the soft nose of the horse in a loving caress and I find myself absurdly envious. How silly – to be jealous of a horse.
“Going to be more changes,” he continues, brushing down the flanks of the animal. His bare torso glistens with sweat and I watch the strong muscles as he works. I note his broad shoulders and strong arms and his slim waist and I think how little Joe has changed. And I remember how he would hold me close against his chest, so close I could feel his heart beating. The next words halt all my dreams and shatter my memories, bringing me back to reality with a start.
“Gonna have a baby, Cooch.” Joe stops tending to the horse and rest his head against its side. “I’m going to be a daddy at last.” His voice breaks and I know the tears will soon begin to fall. Joe was never afraid to show his emotions, that was one of the many things that made me fall in love with him.
My world is spinning out of control now and I know I have to go. This is something intensely private and I should not be intruding. But how can I leave Joe? How can I ever bear not to be a part of his life? What would I do if I didn’t have him to watch over?
“Mamma?” My son is beside me as we walk towards the burnt out house. He is tall and slender, like his father. “Why don’t I remember being here before?”
“It burnt down before you were born,” I answer and the taste of smoke fills my nose and mouth again. I can hear the crackle of the flames and have to fight to beat down the terror that rises within me as I relive those last few moments of my life. “It burnt down and we had to leave and go away.”
“Did you want to go?” he asks, running his hand through his curly hair that is so like his father’s. Every time I look at him I see Joe and I remember all the dreams we shared in this house.
“No, it broke my heart to think I would never see your father again. So I decided to stay close to him, even though he doesn’t know we are here, watching over him, keeping him safe.”
And the boy smiles at me, his green eyes full of love. “I think Daddy wants us to go now,” he says and leads me over to the ruins, where Joe is standing.
Joe’s voice is very low and the tension in the air is palpable. “You’re always here, Alice, always. And you are forever in my heart. None of this makes any difference. I’ll always love you. I’ll love you forever.”
I would give so much to reach out and comfort him, to tell him that I never doubted his love, and that I will always love him. I would give anything to be able to tell him that I love him so much that even death could not separate us. But that isn’t possible. It is only by some miracle that I have been able to stay as long as I have.
“I think you stayed until you knew he was happy again,” Hoss says. He is standing beside me, and despite the bright sunshine, there is something unsubstantial about him. “But it’s time to go now. Time to say goodbye.” His voice is full of love and understanding and the look he gives Joe is so full of longing it almost breaks my heart.
Of course, Joe does not know we are beside him, watching him, looking after him as we have been every day since we died. Perhaps it would have helped him to know he was never alone – or did he sense I had never really left him? How could I leave him when he still needed me?
Hoss takes my hand in his. I feel very small next to him, and very safe. And I know that he loved Joe almost as much as I did. “We have to go, Alice.”
“I can’t go!” I plead. “I’m not doing any harm – I’m just watching him! And I need him…”
Next to us, Joe kneels down and touches what was once our bedroom floor with reverence. “Goodbye, Alice,” he says and is perfectly still for a moment. His hand sweeps slowly across the ground in a loving caress. Then he stands up and begins to walk away. I know that he will not return here again. And all at once I realise that Hoss was right and that it is time to go.
I turn around and let Hoss lead me away, towards the shade of the trees, towards the cool darkness and the solitude. My son follows, with the light step of one who has no cares, for he never knew the world, its sorrows and its joys. He is an unblemished soul, who died before he was born and who lived only in the imagination of his parents.
Just once do I turn around and see Joe riding away, riding back to the Ponderosa and back to his life. I have watched him for so long that I can scarcely allow myself to think this is the last time I will see him. I cannot take my eyes off him, so I stand watching, until he is just a small figure in the far distance. This time, I know I cannot follow him. But I will love him forever.