Summary: When Little Joe is released from prison after serving two years for a crime he didn’t commit, he must fight to rebuild his life as the Cartwrights struggle to protect the bonds that hold the family close. WARNING: Contains references to violence and sexual assault. Rated: MA WC 37,000
Part 1: Freedom, and not
Long before dawn, and long before the guard came through and shouted for everyone to get up, Joe Cartwright was awake. Awake, and waiting. It was a different kind of waiting from the past two years. This waiting scared the daylights out of him, because this waiting wanted to hope.
He’d thought hope was dead a long time ago.
He still couldn’t get over how strange it felt to be clean. They’d let him wash before they hauled him over to the court. He’d expected as much. They didn’t want anyone to know what went on here, how the inmates really lived. The water was cold, but he had a sliver of soap, and he made the most of it. He wanted to take his time and savor the feeling, but he knew better. The scars on his back bore mute testimony to the defiance he’d displayed in the early days. Still, he slid the soap over his body, not caring who might be watching as he washed every last bit of himself, every bruised and battered inch, and fought not to cry at how thrilling it was. All those years when he was a kid and resisted taking a bath. God, if he’d only known. . . .
They gave him street clothes, too. An almost-clean white shirt with sleeves long enough to cover the hard red marks on his wrists, even though they put the shackles right over the cuffs, and worn gray pants that were far too big in spite of being the smallest they could find among the belongings confiscated from the new prisoners. If it hadn’t been for the belt, and McGuire’s awl to punch extra holes in it, the pants probably would have fallen down before they could shove him into the wagon for the trip to court. It occurred to Joe that he didn’t even know what had happened to his own clothes. Probably stolen by one of the guards. Callahan was about his size, or at least the size he’d been two years ago, and the clothes had been well-made and expensive.
He’d thought the judges would decide right then and there, but it was late when the hearing ended, and the one who seemed to be the head judge said they wanted some time to think about what they’d heard. They’d have a decision in the morning, he said.
Joe didn’t look back at Pa; he couldn’t bear to see his father’s disappointment. They were sitting right behind him, and he heard Hoss clap a hand on Pa’s shoulder. They weren’t allowed to reach over and touch him, though. There were rules. So, Joe Cartwright sat very still, his face stony, and resumed waiting.
“We’ll see you in the morning, son,” Pa had said hoarsely, and Joe nodded to show that he’d heard. He couldn’t have spoken, even if he’d been allowed to. He couldn’t think beyond the moment. He couldn’t think what would happen to Pa—to all of them—if the judges said no, they weren’t convinced that Joe had been wrongly convicted, and that the rest of the ten-year sentence was to be served.
Emerson appeared with a bucket of gruel. The others in the cell dove for it, but Joe sat back, watching. He fought to silence the tiny voice in his head that said that this could be his last meal here, the last time he would have to fight with others to plunge his hands into the cold gruel and try to ignore the maggots as he ate whatever he’d been able to grab. Don’t, he cautioned himself. Don’t hope. Don’t think. He’d already done more than his share of thinking and hoping during his first trial, when he’d been so convinced that they’d find the man who attacked Sally Barnes, that no one would ever believe he was capable of such a horrific act, that his father and brothers were right when they told him to trust that justice would be done.
And then, on a day when the sun shone bright in the summer sky, twelve men announced to the world that he was guilty of one of the worst crimes a man could commit, and he was sentenced to ten years in the Nevada Territorial Penitentiary.
“Hey, Emerson,” said Joe.
“What?” The guard looked warily at the kid who sat with his back against the cold stone wall. Everybody knew the kid might be getting out. His old man had reportedly spent obscene amounts of money on investigators and lawyers, and apparently, somebody’d come up with a halfway-decent argument. Hard to know if there’d really been a mistake at that trial or if they’d just found some judge who was willing to be bought.
“What’s the date today?”
“What do you care?” It was a little game the guards played—withhold everything you possibly could, just to let these scumbags know who was really in charge.
“Just wondering,” said Joe. That was the game the inmates played back, pretending that they didn’t really care about anything the guards withheld.
Emerson looked at the kid for a long minute. The others were just finishing up the gruel. There was something about this kid, always had been. Everybody said they were innocent, but there was something about this one that made even Emerson think that it might really be true. “C’mon,” he said. “Time to get dressed.”
Joe regarded Emerson for a few seconds before he got to his feet—not long enough to be insubordinate, but too long to be quite obedient. His cellmates, their breakfast done, glared at Joe. He hadn’t said anything to them about what was happening—hadn’t wanted them to know—but Callahan, the bastard who worked nights, had asked him about the hearing, right in front of everybody. Big Rusty, who’d robbed a bank in Yerington but was a decent fellow, seemed to be genuinely pleased for him, but the others were angry and envious, and they hadn’t held back in letting him see how they felt. If it hadn’t been for Rusty, he might not have lived to see this day at all; as it was, three nights ago, even Rusty hadn’t been enough to keep them from showing their resentment by beating the daylights out of him and then, when he could hardly move, having a “special time” with him. He’d barely been able to walk into the courtroom yesterday, but that was all right. He’d have crawled on his hands and knees if he’d had to.
He nodded to Rusty, who nodded back. He felt the eyes of the others on him, like a swarm of spiders. Head held high, Joe walked out of the cell without a backward glance, praying like he’d never prayed before.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe stood as straight as he could. Beside him, Hiram Wood fixed his attention on the three judges who took their places. On his other side, the guard stood, hand resting on his gun. There were armed guards at every entrance to the high-ceilinged room, just in case anybody got any ideas.
“Be seated,” said the judge in the center, pounding his gavel. He looked around the room soberly. “We have reviewed all the documentation in this case, and there is quite a bit of it,” he began. “The long and the short of it is that the defendant claims that he was wrongly convicted. He had a fair trial. He was represented by the attorney of his choice. The jury heard all the evidence and returned a unanimous verdict. There’s no claim of bias. And yet, the defendant asks this court to find that the jury made a mistake and convicted the wrong man of this heinous crime.”
Joe felt his stomach lurch. He clenched his jaw to hold back any sign of emotion. His hands, held by shackles beneath the table, curled into fists, and he drove his fingernails into his palms.
“As I said, we’ve reviewed all the documents and briefs in this case,” said the judge. “We took the very unusual step of hearing evidence to ensure that no questions remained. We listened to the defendant and to six other witnesses yesterday. My brother judges and I have discussed the matter at length.” He looked around the room again. “We have a system of laws in this country. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have. One of those laws, our constitution, provides that when a man is accused of a crime, he’s to be tried before a jury. It’s no small thing to ask this court to throw out a jury’s verdict and to substitute its own judgment.” He paused, looking first at the judge on his left, and then at the judge on his right. “Will the defendant please rise.”
Joe and Hiram stood. Joe prayed that his trembling wasn’t visible to the three white- haired men who sat behind the high bench, ready to seal his fate.
The judge fixed his gaze on Joe. “Mr. Cartwright, you have served twenty-three months of a ten-year sentence. There is nothing that this court can do about that. However, it is the opinion of this court that the verdict was contrary to the evidence, and that the evidence presented in this matter was such that the jury could not legally and logically have returned the verdict that it did. Therefore, the court hereby sets aside the jury’s verdict and remands this matter to the trial court with direction to enter judgment in favor of the defendant.” He watched Joe’s face, and when it was clear that Joe hadn’t understood the legalese, the judge said, “The defendant is hereby ordered to be released from custody immediately. Mr. Cartwright, the territory of Nevada apologizes deeply for what you and your family have endured these past two years. We wish there was more that we could do for you, but there isn’t. We wish you the best, young man. You’re free to go.” He pounded his gavel. “The court stands in recess.”
“All rise,” intoned the bailiff, as if he had not just witnessed a miracle.
Joe turned to Hiram. “What did he say?”
Hiram’s smile was as wide as the ocean. “We won, Joe. It’s over.”
Joe didn’t have a chance to say anything else, because Pa was holding him so tightly that he couldn’t breathe. “It’s over, son,” he said, crying unashamedly as he held his son for the first time since before that despicable verdict had been returned. “It’s all over, Joe. We’re going back to the Ponderosa. We’re going home.”
“Pa.” Joe stood still, allowing his father to hold him. He couldn’t feel anything. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t move. Finally, he said again, “Pa.”
“What is it, son?”
Joe held up his hands, still shackled. “I need to get these off.”
Ben stared for a moment. Slowly, he rested his fingers on the heavy iron cuffs surrounding his son’s bony wrists. He bowed his head over Joe’s hands, his tears falling on the rough black manacles. At Hiram’s gesture, the guard with the key released the shackles on Joe’s ankles, and then on his hands. The iron clanked against itself as he took them away, and Ben pulled Joe close again, as if he could never hold him enough. Hoss and Adam pounded Joe’s back and tousled his hair, and Hiram
“Let’s go home,” Ben said finally. He swiped at his eyes, seeming not to notice that his son remained dry-eyed. With his arm around Joe’s shoulders, Ben led the way out of the courtroom.
Joe blinked in the sunlight. Even though he’d just been brought in a few hours earlier, it felt like years since he’d seen the sun. “What’s the date today?” he asked.
“The seventeenth,” said Adam. At Joe’s questioning look, he added, “Of May.”
“Oh,” said Joe. May 17, 1863. The day my life began again. It didn’t feel real. The wooden sidewalk was springy beneath his feet, so unlike the stone floor of his cell. A light breeze ruffled his hair. People walked past them, laughing and chatting as if they had all the time in the world to tend to their business. The prison wagon had waited for him; now, it rattled past, and he had the sudden, absurd sense that it was disappointed to be empty.
May 17, 1863, he repeated silently. He waited to feel something inside, anything.
While he waited, he listened to the eager chatter of his father and brothers, and he felt their arms around him. This is real, he told himself. It’s not a dream. It’s not a mistake. It’s real. He recited the words again and again as his family escorted him down the street, but he couldn’t make himself believe them. He’d dreamed of this moment too often, and in his heart, he knew he wasn’t brave enough to survive another disappointment. He’d already used up every scrap of his courage just to survive the past two years, and there wasn’t any left.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Is he asleep?”
Ben nodded and held a finger to his lips as he closed the door to the bedroom. Adam and Hoss sat in the parlor of the hotel suite, the remains of their celebration dinner still covering the table.
“It’s no wonder,” said Adam. “The kid’s got to be worn out. He’s had a hell of a time.”
“Adam,” his father remonstrated mildly. He didn’t ordinarily care for that kind of talk, but in this case, he couldn’t object too strongly: the description was merely accurate.
“I can’t believe it’s really over,” said Adam, shaking his head in wonder.
“I can’t believe it happened in the first place,” said Hoss. “How anybody could’ve thought Joe would’ve done somethin’ like that—it never made sense, not for a minute.”
“I know,” said Ben.
Ever since the night Roy Coffee had come out to the Ponderosa to arrest Little Joe, Ben had remained convinced that somehow, someone would figure out that this was a horrible mistake. And yet, twelve men—some of whom had known Joe all his life—sat in a room and pronounced the impossible possible. Hiram had asked that the jury be polled, and the judge had asked each of them individually what their verdict was. Twelve times, the word rang out: “Guilty.” Each time, Joe’s body recoiled just a little, as if he’d been shot.
The boy had only cried once that they’d seen. None of them had broken down in front of the others. Ben had restricted his emotional moments to the privacy of his room, late at night. By day, he was strong for his sons, just as they were strong for him. And they all held themselves together, right up until the moment Joe was about to leave Roy Coffee’s jail cell to be transported to the territorial penitentiary.
“It’ll be all right, Pa,” Joe had said, looking far younger than his nineteen years as the guard clamped the heavy iron shackles on his wrists and ankles.
Ben reached out to hold his son one more time, but the guard said, “Sorry, sir, you can’t touch the prisoner.”
“That’s my little brother, and we can—” Hoss began, but Ben laid a hand on his arm, and he stopped.
“Joe, we’re going to come and see you every chance we get,” said Ben. He fought to sound calm and reassuring, to keep the desperation from his voice. “Don’t you worry about anything. This is all a mistake, and we’re going to get it sorted out. You just take care of yourself, and we’ll handle everything else.”
The guard yanked Joe’s arm. “Come on, kid,” he growled. Joe stumbled over the chain connecting his ankle shackles before he found his footing, and he trudged the few steps across Roy’s office without looking up from his feet, seeming not to notice that his father and brothers walked with him.
Just before the guard shoved him into the prison wagon for the trip to Yuma, Joe looked back at the stricken faces of his father and brothers and Roy, and panicked tears rolled down his cheeks. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Then, the guard hauled him into the wagon, and the door slammed behind him. As the wagon drove away, Ben felt his knees give way, and he would have fallen if Hoss and Adam hadn’t caught him.
They had indeed come to Yuma many times to see Joe, but they’d rarely been permitted a visit. Over the course of his incarceration, he’d been allowed visitors barely a half-dozen times. Each time, the guards threatened him with lurid stories about what would happen if he told his family or his lawyer anything that went on behind the prison walls, and each time, they beat him afterward, claiming that he’d revealed something or other. And even though his family told him that they were trying everything, hope grew fainter and fainter.
Adam poured each of them a brandy, and they drank in silence. It was too remarkable, the notion that Joe was in the next room. If they wanted to, they could just open the door and walk right in and see him, talk to him, touch him. It didn’t matter that Joe had barely touched his dinner or that he’d hardly said a word since they left the courthouse. For tonight, it was enough that he was here.
“Well, I’m gonna turn in,” said Hoss, rising and stretching. He’d won the coin toss, and he was going to get to share a room with Little Joe tonight. He bid everyone goodnight and went into the bedroom. An instant later, he darted back out.
“Pa, he’s gone!”
“What?” Ben and Adam were on their feet and in the room. There was no question about it. Joe wasn’t in the bed.
“That’s ridiculous. Where could he have gone? We were right outside the door!” Adam lit the lamp as if the answer was hidden by the dark.
“The window’s closed,” offered Hoss.
“We’re on the third floor,” said Ben sharply.
Adam moved to the window and stopped, holding a finger to his lips. Joe was curled up on the floor in the space between the bed and the wall, a blanket drawn partly over him. The nightshirt Ben had brought him from home was so outsized now that it looked as if he’d borrowed it from Hoss. In sleep, he looked younger even than the boy who had left them in shackles, two long years ago.
“What the—” Hoss looked perplexed.
Adam shrugged. “Doesn’t look like he fell,” he whispered. “Looks like he meant to be there.” He looked questioningly at his father. “What do you think? Leave him, or get him back to bed?”
Ben regarded his youngest son. His deep brown eyes were troubled. “Let him be,” he said heavily. “If that’s where he wants to be. . . .” His voice trailed off.
“He’ll need another blanket, then,” said Adam. He pulled a blanket from the empty bed and knelt to tuck it around Little Joe.
In the next instant, Adam was on his back, Joe was kneeling on Adam’s chest, and his hands were around Adam’s throat.
“Joseph! Stop it!” Ben yanked his son back.
Joe jerked free of his father’s arms. His face was twisted in rage and hatred. In the next instant, horror filled his eyes as he realized where he was and what he’d done—and to whom.
“Oh, God, Adam, I’m so sorry,” he breathed. He stood shakily and reached down to help his brother to his feet. “Are you all right? I’m sorry, Adam. I don’t—I didn’t—I’m sorry.” His breathing grew rough and ragged as he tried to contain himself against the enormity of what he’d done. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he repeated, fighting for air.
“It’s okay, Joe, I’m fine. You didn’t hurt me.” Adam guided his brother to sit on the edge of the bed. He kept his voice low and even, as if he were calming a skittish horse.
“Take it easy now. Everything’s all right.”
Ben sat next to his son, his arm around Joe’s shoulders as his son gasped for breath. “Just slow down, son, you’re okay,” he said in the same soothing tones. “Deep breaths, slow and easy, that’s it.” He took the glass of water that Hoss had fetched. “Take a drink, Joe,” he said. He steadied the glass in Joe’s hand, and Joe managed to drink.
Ben looked up at Adam with a question in his eyes, and Adam nodded reassuringly. He was a little shaken, to be sure, but he wasn’t hurt. Even if he had been, though, he would never have admitted it. He had a pretty good idea what had just happened and why, and if he was right, a few bruises were nothing in the face of what Joe must have been through.
They sat quietly together until Joe was calmer, his breathing easier. The young man pressed his head into his hands, not looking up as his father rubbed his back. “What do you think, son? You ready to try going back to sleep?” Ben suggested gently.
“I don’t know,” Joe said, trying to control his voice. It was bad enough that he’d been unable to sleep in the bed. He’d really thought he could do it—he’d even started to doze off—but then his father had left the room, and he’d panicked. And then to attack his own brother. . . . He couldn’t bring himself to look at any of them. He couldn’t face the questions, or worse, the well-meaning, concerned silences.
“Maybe a little brandy will help you relax,” suggested Adam. Gently, he wrapped Joe’s hand around the glass he’d fetched from the parlor.
Joe shook his head. “I haven’t—I haven’t had anything to drink since before—”
“You’ll be fine, son,” said Ben. “Don’t you worry about that. It’ll help you sleep, that’s all.”
Slowly, almost mechanically, Joe brought the glass to his lips. The first sip tasted like bitter fire, and he cringed. There was nothing pleasant or familiar about it. Wordlessly, he held out the glass, and Hoss took it without question.
“Just lie back for a little bit,” Ben suggested. He was at a loss as to how deal with something like this, but his instincts told him to move slowly. “You don’t have to go to sleep if you don’t want to. Just try lying back and see how you feel.”
Reluctantly, Joe slid back onto the bed and lay down. The faint sweet scent of laundry soap on the crisp cotton sheets made his stomach turn. The softness of the mattress and the pillow were cloying. He could imagine sinking down into them, down until they closed over him, suffocating him. He shifted, fighting down panic by trying to find a position that made sense to his body. His father drew the blankets up over him, and in one movement, he shoved them aside and sat bolt upright, unable to catch his breath.
“I can’t,” he said at last. “I’m sorry, I just can’t.” It didn’t make sense, any of it, but he couldn’t help himself.
Somehow, Hoss seemed to understand. “It’s all right, Little Brother,” he said. “C’mere.” He reached to help Joe out of the bed. Barely touching his brother, he guided Joe out into the parlor and settled him on the settee, wrapping an afghan around his shoulders.
“Are you warm enough, Joseph?” Ben asked as he pulled up a chair beside the settee. Without waiting for an answer, Hoss added wood to the fire. Then, he turned down the flames on each of the lamps until the room was warm and dimly lit, the comforting scent of woodsmoke reminiscent of days long gone by.
“How’s that, Little Brother?” Hoss asked as he settled himself on the edge of the settee. The panic in Joe’s eyes seemed to be relaxing somewhat, and Hoss patted his knee
Joe nodded, forcing a smile that was weak, but genuine. “Thanks,” he murmured. He pulled the afghan closer around himself, trying to pretend that they weren’t all watching him. No one seemed to know what to say, and the silence stretched out. Finally, Joe said, “If you all want to go to bed, that’s fine. I’m just going to sit here for a little while.” Even he could hear how shaky he sounded, and he pretended to focus on the fire so that he wouldn’t have to see the worry in their faces.
Ben looked to his older sons. “It’s late,” he said. “Why don’t you two turn in?”
Adam frowned as if he wanted to say a great deal, but he resisted. Instead, he said, “Good idea, Pa. Good night. ’Night, Joe.”
Hoss appeared equally reluctant. “’Night, Pa. ’Night, Shortshanks,” he said, rising. As he’d hoped, the use of the nickname brought a small smile from his brother.
“Good night, you two,” said Joe. He watched his brothers leave the room before he turned to his father. “Pa, you don’t have to stay up with me,” he said. “Why don’t you go to bed, too?”
Ben stroked his son’s hair. “I still can’t believe it’s all over,” he said. “I keep feeling as if this is just a dream.”
“Well, if it’s a dream, we’re both having the same one,” said Joe.
Ben smiled for a moment before he grew serious. “Son, I don’t know everything you went through in there,” he said. “I know you already know this, but—whatever you need, we’re here.”
“I know,” said Joe, and he did. Whether he could articulate it, to them or even to himself—well, that remained to be seen. Still. . . . “Thanks, Pa.”
They watched the fire, neither speaking, until Ben noticed Joe’s eyelids drooping. “You ready to go back to bed?” he suggested.
“I think I’m just going to stay here,” said Joe, drawing the afghan closer around him.
Ben’s eyes were somber. “What is it, son?” he asked quietly. He braced himself for whatever he might hear.
Joe shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I used to dream about sleeping in a big, soft bed, with clean sheets and real blankets—but for some reason, it just—I don’t know, I just can’t.” It’s too much, he wanted to say. I can’t explain it. It just is.
“Then you stay right here,” said his father. “You’ve got a lot to get used to again. Just take your time. You’ll do it when you’re ready.” He disappeared into the bedroom, returning a minute later with the pillow and blankets from the bed. “In the meantime, I don’t want you getting chilled,” he said with mock gruffness as he spread the blankets over his son. He tucked the pillow behind Joe, and his voice grew softer. “Do you want me to stay with you?”
It was an offer with no conditions, no judgment—just a father’s love and concern—but Joe shook his head again. “I’m all right,” he said. “You just go on to bed.”
“If you’re sure. . . .” Ben looked dubious.
“I’m sure,” said Joe with more assurance than he felt. Ben looked unconvinced, and so Joe forced a smile as he squeezed his father’s hand. “Good night, Pa.”
“Good night, Joseph,” said Ben, his throat suddenly thick with tears. He leaned down and kissed his son’s brow, and Joe felt the stirring of something inside him that wanted desperately to believe he was finally safe. Long after he heard the door of Ben’s room click shut, he sat on the settee, watching the flames dance.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Mornin’, Pa,” said Hoss, stretching as he strolled into the parlor. Ben held his finger to his lips and nodded toward the settee, where Joe was still asleep. Hoss’ brow wrinkled. “Did he sleep there all night?” At his father’s nod, he asked, “But why? There’s a perfectly good bed—”
“I don’t know,” said Ben in a low voice. “I’m not sure he does, either, but that’s what he wanted.”
Hoss sat down at the table, pouring from the coffeepot that room service had brought.
“What do you think happened in there?” he asked finally.
Ben met his middle son’s eyes. Yes, it was a genuine question, not the reluctant request for confirmation he’d have gotten from Adam. Even in light of everything— including what they’d seen the night before—Hoss still cherished the hope that his brother had been spared the worst.
But Ben wasn’t naïve. Joe was only nineteen when he went in, shorter and slimmer than most young men of his age. Women had long commented on how attractive he was, and even men had described him as “the purty one” of the Cartwright brothers. That his face bore only one small scar, at the corner of his mouth, was nothing short of a miracle. He could not convince himself that the boy had remained untouched. Ben was a man of faith, but that faith did not extend to the inmates who had shared Joe’s cell.
Before he had to answer, a noise from the settee drew their attention. Joe sat up, yawning. He looked around, an instant of panic supplanted by relief and wonder. He smiled sleepily at his father and brother. “Morning, everybody,” he said.
“Good morning, son,” said Ben. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like a rock,” said Joe. “Guess I was more tired than I thought.” He pulled on the dressing gown Ben had left on the chair for him and padded over to the table. “What’s under here?” he asked. He lifted one silver dome after another, each offering more tantalizing than the one before. The delicious aromas reminded him that he’d barely eaten the night before.
Only twenty-four hours earlier, Joe’s breakfast had been a bucket of cold, insect-riddled gruel. But for the grace of God and three judges, he might still be there. A shudder ran through him, and he shook his head to banish the thought.
“Want some coffee, Little Brother?” Hoss was already pouring.
“Sure,” said Joe. He seated himself, gazing on the bounty of the table in something approaching awe. Pa had clearly gone all out, probably ordering whatever the kitchen had in the obvious hope that something would tempt his youngest son.
“How about eggs? Flapjacks? A steak?” All of the above graced Hoss’ plate.
“I can’t make up my mind,” said Joe honestly. Such abundance was almost unnerving.
“Well, then, you jest try some of everything!” Hoss proceeded to heap a plate full, and
Ben laughed as Joe’s eyes grew wide.
“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten this much in my life!” said Joe, but he didn’t protest when Hoss set the plate in front of him.
“I’m sure your brothers will finish off whatever you don’t,” said Ben, patting his arm.
As Joe began to cut his steak, Adam came in. Surveying Joe’s plate, he grinned, “I don’t suppose you saved me anything.”
“Don’t worry, Older Brother, I think there’s still a little for you,” said Joe. He took a bite of steak, closing his eyes blissfully as he chewed. When he opened his eyes, he saw his father and brothers looking at him. “Haven’t had steak lately,” he said simply, turning his focus to his plate.
Ben broke the awkward silence. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “Why don’t we stay here for a few days before we head home?”
“Stay here? Why?” Hoss looked confused.
Ben glanced at Joe, who was intent upon his breakfast. “I just thought it might be good for us all to take a little break,” he said. “Once we get back to the ranch, it’s back to work, and I thought a few days off might be nice. Of course, if you really want to work. . . .”
“Not me,” said Adam. He’d caught his father’s glance, and he had a pretty good idea why Pa suddenly wanted to stay in town. He didn’t know what Pa and Joe had talked about last night, but it was already obvious that Joe’s release wasn’t going to be as seamless as they might have hoped, and clearly Pa wanted to ease the kid into regular life a little bit at a time. Besides, it would be good for him to get used to being with the family again before he tried to deal with the hands, many of whom had been hired during the past two years.
“I could stand a few days off,” said Hoss, understanding.
“Joe? What do you think?” asked Ben.
“Who, me? Sure, whatever you want,” Joe said through a mouthful of food. The boy hadn’t had much appetite last night, but he was sure making up for it now, Hoss
“It’s settled, then,” said Ben. “Joe, you can slow down a little, there’s plenty,” he added.
Joe froze in mid-chew. Two years of fighting for every morsel, racing through what he grabbed in order to grab some more, had left its mark after all. He turned red, and he set down his fork and swallowed. “Sorry, Pa,” he said, bowing his head.
“You all right, son?” Ben wasn’t sure what had just happened, but somehow, he’d apparently said the wrong thing. He reached over to pat his son’s hand, but Joe moved his hand away so smoothly that it was unclear whether he’d seen his father’s gesture. “Joe? Is something wrong?” Ben asked, trying to catch his eye.
“No, everything’s okay,” said Joe, but the genial atmosphere of a moment earlier had vanished.
“You want another steak? Some more eggs?” offered Hoss.
“No, thanks, I’m fine,” said Joe, not looking up from his plate. The others exchanged glances, each inviting the other to pick a new, innocuous topic.
Finally, Adam said, “Well, I’ve got to go over the livery stable and let the owner know the horses will be staying a while longer. Hey, Joe, why don’t you come with me? There’s somebody there who’d like to see you.”
“Me? I don’t know anybody in this town—leastwise, nobody who’d want to see me,” said Joe. He drained his coffee cup slowly and set it down with such care that the cup made no sound as it met the saucer.
“Oh, that’s not quite true,” said Adam. “And I think I can guarantee that this is somebody you’d like to see, too.”
Joe’s brow furrowed, as did his father’s and Hoss’. After a moment, though, the other two smiled, understanding. “I think that sounds like an excellent idea,” said Ben. “While you boys are over at the livery stable, I can pick up some clothes that fit Joe a little better than that outfit he was wearing yesterday.” He didn’t mention that he’d packed some of Joe’s old clothes; the boy had lost so much weight that they wouldn’t fit
“As soon as you’re done with breakfast, Little Brother, we’ll head on over,” Adam said.
“I’m done now,” said Joe, pushing back his chair. The half-eaten steak and barely- touched eggs sat on the plate, cooling in their own grease.
“Joseph, I didn’t mean—” Ben began.
“Pa—I’m done.” Joe rose, and a moment later, the bedroom door closed behind him.
After a few minutes, Adam knocked once, then entered. Joe was sitting on the bed, the borrowed pants in his hand. His eyes revealed no emotion, but his jaw clenched. “Pa really didn’t mean anything,” Adam said, sitting beside his brother.
“I know,” said Joe dully.
“He’s spent over thirty years correcting everybody’s table manners,” Adam said. “He can’t help himself.”
“I know,” said Joe again.
“He feels pretty bad that he upset you.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“What is it, Joe?” asked Adam quietly. “Time was when you wouldn’t even have noticed a comment like that, or you’d have made a joke about it.”
“Times have changed,” said Joe just as quietly. “I’ve changed. And I don’t need to have it shoved in my face.” For an instant, he looked up, and the pain in his eyes was sharp.
“That wasn’t what he was trying to do,” said Adam. “If anything, he was treating you the way he always has.”
“It didn’t feel like it,” said Joe, eyes fixed again on the floor. He forced the bitter-tasting words out: “It felt like he was laughing at me.”
“Joe, you know Pa would never do a thing like that,” said Adam. “This is Pa, remember? He could never be cruel.”
Joe was silent. He felt as if he’d lived forever in a world where nothing made sense. One of his oldest friends had accused him of attacking her. People he’d known all his life sent him to prison. Inside the cold, dark prison walls, guards and inmates alike seemed to take special pleasure in mocking the handsome rich kid, educated and well- spoken, who’d found himself in with the lowdown and dirty and ignorant, and who foolishly insisted that he was innocent. Once cheerful and optimistic, he’d learned all too well to expect the worst, and nearly always, those expectations had been justified.
Adam rested his hand on the back of Joe’s neck. “He didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I swear he didn’t.”
“I know,” said Joe unconvincingly. He cast around for another topic. “Now, let me get dressed, and we can go see whoever it is who wants to see me.” He forced himself to look up. “Can you at least tell me her name?”
Adam grinned. “Not a chance,” he said. “You’re just going to have to wait.” He stayed where he was for a minute, but when Joe made no further move to get dressed, he rose. “Just don’t take too long,” he added as he left the room. Joe waited another minute to be sure no one was going to come in before he pulled his nightshirt over his head, exposing the florid bruises left by his cellmates.
When he was dressed, Joe opened the door, and conversation stopped. He gathered up his nerve, strolling into the parlor as if he owned it. “Everybody ready?” he asked as his father was about to speak.
“Ready if you are, Little Brother,” said Hoss.
“Then let’s go,” said Joe as jauntily as he could manage. He saw his father’s tremulous smile and dropped his voice to a stage whisper. “Pa, could you do me a favor?”
“Of course, son. What is it?”
“Well, Pa, it’s like this.” He took a deep breath, as if bracing himself. “When you go out and get those clothes—well, can you just remember that I’m only twenty-one, and not get me old-man clothes like Adam’s?” As he’d hoped, his family burst into relieved laughter, and his father tousled his hair gratefully.
“I’ll do my best,” Ben promised. “You boys enjoy yourselves. I’ll see you back here later.”
“Sounds good, Pa,” said Adam. As the three brothers headed for the door, he patted his little brother’s shoulder proudly. The kid might have changed, but underneath it all, he was still Little Joe.
* * * * * * * * * *
As they neared the livery stable, Joe’s steps slowed. He couldn’t imagine who would want to see him. As far as everyone else knew, he was a convict, a felon, a man who had committed a despicable act against an innocent girl. “You know, maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he said.
“Nonsense,” said Hoss too heartily. “It’ll be fine. Believe me, this is somebody you’re gonna want to see.”
“I can’t really picture that,” said Joe. He swallowed hard and didn’t notice that his brothers exchanged a concerned glance over his head. At the door of the livery stable, he stopped. “Look, fellows, I don’t want to do this. Not yet, anyway. Just tell whoever it is that I’m sorry, but I had to go.”
Hoss laid an enormous arm around his shoulders. “You just trust us, Little Brother,” he said quietly. “I promise you, you’re gonna be fine.”
“Hoss, I don’t want to do it,” said Joe, a tinge of panic in his voice as he ducked out from under his brother’s arm.
“Hold up a second, Joe,” Adam said. He placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders, careful to mask his dismay at how frail his brother felt. The thin shoulders fairly vibrated with tension under Adam’s hands, making the younger man seem simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous. “We wanted to surprise you,” Adam said. “Maybe that was a bad idea right now. If you want, I’ll tell you who’s in there, and you can make up your mind whether you want to go in. And if you decide after you’re in there that you don’t want to stay, you don’t have to. But believe me, Joe, we’re not going to let anybody hurt you, in any way. We promise you that.” He looked directly into his brother’s eyes. “It’s up to you, Little Brother. What do you want to do?”
Joe looked from Adam to Hoss. Everything in him wanted to run away, back to the hotel room where he was safe. But he had trusted them his entire life. They wouldn’t lie to him. He had to try again. His heart was pounding so hard that they must have heard it. He took a deep breath and resisted a sudden insane urge to grab their hands like a small child. “Let’s go in.”
The brothers walked into the cool darkness of the stable. “Hey, Red, you here?” called Hoss. There was no answer. “Guess he ain’t around,” he shrugged. He turned to Joe. “Close your eyes.” Against his better judgment, Joe closed his eyes, fighting down panic as Hoss led him across the stable.
Then, he felt Hoss place his hand against a warm, velvety muzzle. His eyes flew open, and there before him was his beloved Cochise. “Oh, my God,” he breathed. His brothers stood back as he stroked the horse’s neck. Cochise whinnied, nudging him. “He remembers me,” said Joe, his voice breaking.
“’Course he does,” said Hoss. “Here, I brought something for you to give him.” He handed Joe an apple from the fruit bowl in the hotel lobby. Joe held out the apple, and the pinto took it daintily, tilting his head as if asking for more.
“What—why—what’s he doing here?” Joe asked finally.
“It was Hoss’ idea,” Adam said. “He figured that you’d need a way back to the ranch.”
The big man’s face was all grin as his little brother looked up at him. “Thank you,” Joe whispered. “Thank you both.” He buried his face in the horse’s neck. “I can’t believe he’s here.”
“You think mebbe you want to go for a ride?” suggested Hoss.
“Is my saddle here?” Joe looked around.
“All your gear,” confirmed Adam. “Otherwise, you’d be riding bareback all the way home, and we didn’t figure that’d be all that comfortable.”
Joe winced at the thought. “Oh, I’d have just used yours,” he said lightly, and he was grateful for his brothers’ chuckles. When Hoss handed him the saddle, his hands remembered what to do even before his mind asked the question. He slipped the bit between the pinto’s teeth and the bridle over his head. Then, he turned to his brothers.
“Well, am I riding alone, or are you two going to saddle up?” he demanded with mock
“Just give us a minute,” said Adam, controlling his voice with effort. Hoss, the big softy, had tears in his eyes. They saddled their horses and led them outside to where Joe and Cochise waited.
“Do you remember how to do it?” asked Adam.
“I think so,” said Joe. His brothers held their breath, and Joe closed his eyes for a moment, recalling the feeling. Then, he opened them, grabbed the saddle horn, and swung into the saddle without touching the stirrups.
“Good for you!” Hoss punched Joe’s arm as Adam applauded. A moment later, they were mounted, and for the first time in two years, the three Cartwright brothers rode out
* * * * * * * * * *
It was nearly noon when they returned to the stable. They were hot, dusty and tired, and elation shone from Joe’s face. “I can’t believe you brought him,” he kept saying. At one point, he turned to his brothers. “What if the hearing hadn’t gone—the way it did?”
“Then, we’d have taken him home to wait for you,” said Adam simply, betraying no trace of his feelings about the idea of leading the pinto home, his saddle empty.
The currycomb was still in Joe’s saddlebag. It felt hard and cold in his hand. He’d been using it that night when Roy walked into the barn, with Pa right beside him, to tell him that he was under arrest for attacking Sally Barnes. When arguing proved fruitless, he’d dropped the currycomb into the bag and saddled Cochise for the ride to town. Holding the currycomb, stroking the horse—just two of the thousands of moments he’d lost.
Now, as his brothers’ talk swirled around him, Joe focused intently on his horse, forcing his mind to see nothing but sweat marks and loose hair and dust. The conversation receded, as if his brothers had moved far away. He dropped his head against the beloved black and white flank, his breathing becoming rough as he reached up with one trembling hand to grab a handful of mane.
Then, he felt the currycomb being taken from his hand, and Hoss pulled him into a hug. Adam’s hand rested on his shoulder as he trembled against Hoss’ broad chest. “That’s it, you jest let it out,” Hoss murmured, but he couldn’t. He’d spent so long holding in his feelings that he was frightened now of letting go, of letting terror and pain and loneliness and despair overflow their banks. For a moment, he felt like if he started to cry, he would never stop.
He closed his eyes and shook his head, taking a deep breath to push back the threat. Then, braced against his own feelings, Joe let himself lean against Hoss. and he felt the familiar strong arms around him, holding him up. As Adam patted his shoulder, and Hoss rubbed his back, Joe knew that, for a moment, he was safe.
“I’ve got to finish grooming Cochise,” he said finally. With one last squeeze, Hoss let go of him, and Joe picked up the currycomb his brother had dropped. There was something soothing about grooming, the rhythmic motions of the currycomb and the soft nickering of the horse. His brothers watched without comment as he worked, talking softly to the gelding as he combed and brushed and picked hooves. At last, Little Joe looked up. “We should get going,” he said. “Pa’s probably going to wonder what happened to us.”
“Don’t worry, he knew what we were doing,” said Adam. “Why do you think he didn’t insist on your going shopping for clothes?”
“I thought he was just being nice,” admitted Joe. He dropped the grooming tools into his saddlebag and patted the horse’s neck. “Thanks,” he whispered.
“Good to see the two of you together,” said Adam. “Now, let’s get back, or Pa’ll eat lunch without us.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” said Hoss. “’Cause I’d go down to the kitchen and eat everything that was left!”
Joe managed a tremulous grin. He felt fragile and watery, and at the same time, he’d felt just a hint of his old self. Walking between his brothers, it occurred to him that, just maybe, everything would be all right after all.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben was in the suite when his sons returned. He’d waited there for the first hour, half- expecting that Joe would be back. When he was finally confident that all had gone as planned, he set out to buy new clothes for his son and to tend to other business in town. Even so, he returned to the suite long before his sons. Restless, he arranged for a tub to be brought up—if Joseph had been riding all this time, he was likely to be sore, he told himself, but the truth was more complicated. It occurred to him that maybe, if Joe had a chance to wash off the dust of prison, literally as well as symbolically, and to dress in fresh, clean clothes, he might feel—and act—more like his old self.
He tried to make himself focus on innocuous questions, such as whether to have dinner in the room or downstairs in the restaurant, but his mind refused to be confined to such mundane matters. Snippets of memory tumbled through his mind—Joe at five years old, laughing with delight over the birthday cake his mother had made; at nine, fists on his hips as he argued for the chance to ride with the men on the cattle drive; at fourteen, thrilled beyond belief as he received his first lesson in handling a sidearm; at eighteen, dancing with the prettiest girl at the party as music and laughter filled the Ponderosa.
At nineteen, standing stunned and disbelieving as the jury pronounced him guilty of assaulting that same pretty girl.
The opening of the door interrupted his thoughts. “Well, it’s about time you three got back here!” he scolded good-naturedly.
“We jest about had to pry this ’un away from that danged horse!” teased Hoss.
“I thought he was going to ask if he could bring him back to stay with us,” added Adam.
Ben smiled at his youngest son, who was grinning at his brothers. “So, you had a good time?”
“The best,” said Joe. He looked almost relaxed, and silently, Ben blessed his sons for their idea.
He pulled the rope for room service. “I thought you boys might want a chance to clean up,” he said. “There’s a tub in the bedroom, and they’ve got the water ready downstairs.” He felt a pang of sadness when Joe lit up at the prospect. So many things that the boy had missed, and right then, he wanted to make up for every single one of Joe turned to his brothers. “You want to draw straws for first bath?”
Adam patted his shoulder. “You take it, kid,” he said. “You’re the one who hasn’t been in a saddle in two years. Something tells me you’re going to be a little sore by tomorrow, so you might as well start soaking it out now.”
“If Adam’s givin’ up first bath, I reckon you better take it,” said Hoss. “I ain’t seen that happen since my sixteenth birthday when Bessie Sue was comin’ to my party.”
“I reckon I better,” said Joe as the hotel staff came in with buckets of steaming water.
A short time later, he was lying back in the tub, luxuriating in the heat of the water. Adam was right about the sore muscles; already, he could feel the ache in his thighs, but it was a good ache. He closed his eyes, remembering again the power of the pinto between his legs as they galloped along the road, Hoss and Adam coming up behind him, but never passing. He wondered suddenly who had ridden Cochise over the past two years. Somebody must have; they would never have left him to pasture all that time. Adam probably, he decided, content with that answer.
He slid down in the tub to wet his hair. The last lice shampoo, done only last week, seemed to have done the trick, a fact for which he was grateful; he’d have hated to come back to his family needing to be deloused. Fact was that the guards didn’t give two pins if the inmates were crawling with bugs, but they didn’t want to risk getting them themselves, and so they made a point of washing them down with harsh soap a couple times a year.
A knock on the door roused him from his drowsy thoughts. Before he remembered, he sat up and called, “Come in.”
Ben opened the door. “I forgot to bring you towels—” He broke off as he saw the bruises on his son’s emaciated torso. “Joseph, who did that?”
Too late, Joe tried to sink down in the tub, but his father was already across the room. “It’s nothing, Pa,” Joe said. “Just an argument with some of the fellows.”
“But, Joe—” Ben had seen his son beaten up, but nothing like this. “You didn’t crack any ribs, did you?”
“No, nothing like that,” said Joe. He didn’t offer the fact that his cellmates knew what would happen if they inflicted anything that would have been obvious to the court. The guards didn’t care if inmates beat each other to a bloody pulp, as long as no outsiders knew. If Joe hadn’t been scheduled to go to court, the beating would likely have been quite different. “It’s all right, Pa, I’m fine,” he added. Go away, he pleaded silently. Let me think about today, nothing before that.
Ben reluctantly set down the towels. “You want me to wash your back?”
Later, Joe couldn’t imagine how he said yes to that question. The only explanation he could think of was that he was so desperate to get back to his relaxing bath that he forgot what he needed to hide. And he leaned forward.
At his father’s gasp, he turned quickly, as if that would hide the scars, would make them go away. The shock in Pa’s eyes was unlike anything Joe had ever seen. Bitterly, he berated himself for taking away his father’s innocence.
Ben knelt beside the tub, his hand resting on Joe’s wet shoulder. “Who did that to you, son?”
“The guards,” Joe said in a flat, emotionless voice.
Gently, almost fearfully, Ben turned his son to face away from him. He ran his fingers over the scars. Some of them were old, but others looked like they were still healing.
Joe shrugged. “Whenever they felt like it,” he said. He looked back, and the agony in his father’s eyes was too much to bear. He rested one wet hand on his father’s arm.
“It’s over, Pa,” he said gently. “It’s all behind us.”
Ben bowed his head. He knew what Joe was doing, and he was humbled. He rested his cheek against his son’s wet curls for a moment before he stood. “Where’s the soap?” he asked, controlling his voice with great effort. And then, with hands that trembled only slightly, Ben Cartwright began to wash the scars on his son’s back.
* * * * * * * * * *
Adam walked soundlessly into the darkened parlor. Without a word, he poured two brandies and took one to where his father sat in the chair by the window. “Feel like talking about it?” he asked quietly, pulling up the ottoman to sit next to him.
Ben’s head jerked around at his son’s voice, but he relaxed almost immediately. “Thank you, Adam,” he said, accepting the glass.
The two men drank quietly for a few minutes. Then, Adam asked, “What happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“You barely said two words ever since we got back, and the way Joe kept watching you, as if you were going to do something—it’s pretty clear that something happened. You want to talk about it?”
Ben drained his glass. “They beat him,” he said finally.
“We suspected as much,” Adam reminded his father gently. “How do you know? Did he tell you?”
Ben shook his head. “I saw the scars,” he said hoarsely. “When he was in the bath. Some of the other inmates had beaten him up, and he was pretty bruised, but then I saw his back—Adam, they used a whip on that boy. And not that long ago, either— some of those marks were only about half-healed.” He shook his head, and Adam refilled his glass. “Have you seen his wrists and his ankles? He has scars there, too— from the shackles, he told me. There’s practically nothing to him—I can’t imagine what they fed him. And God only knows what they did that I couldn’t see. . . .” He dropped his head to his hands, and Adam placed a hand on his father’s trembling shoulder.
“He’s my son. I was supposed to keep him safe. I’m his father. That was my job. And instead, these people beat my boy, they tortured him, and he went through that hell alone, and I wasn’t there to protect him, or take care of him, or even hold him. . . .”
“Pa, you did the best you could,” said Adam. He felt helpless in the face of such anguish. “You fought for him, and when everybody said it was impossible, you got him out of there anyway. He’s safe now. We’re all going to take care of him and help him heal from what happened. He’s going to be fine.”
“We’re going home in the morning,” Ben said. “I want him at the Ponderosa, where we can take proper care of him.”
“All right,” said Adam. He knew better than to argue, even if there were an argument to be made. “Right after breakfast, we’ll head out.”
“We’re stopping in Virginia City on the way,” Ben said. “I want Doc Martin to take a look at him.”
“Makes sense,” Adam concurred. He rose, patting his father’s shoulder. “Why don’t you get to bed now, Pa? It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Ben, also rising. He managed a small smile for his eldest son, the one he could always lean on. “Thank you, Adam,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Adam. He set the glasses on the table, and he and Ben disappeared into the far bedroom.
Which was why they never heard the tiny click as the door to the other bedroom closed, and Joe leaned against it, trembling.
He’d been about to go out into the parlor himself when he’d heard the voices. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but eavesdrop he did, and he heard everything.
If they were this upset about what they could see, he couldn’t even imagine what it would do to them to know the rest.
In the darkness, Joe made his way back to the bed by the window and huddled under the covers. Strange to think that, just last night, the notion of sleeping here had been so upsetting. He hadn’t known what upsetting was. He curled up on his side, knees drawn up to his chest, and clenched every muscle in his body in order to avoid making any noise, even if any would have been audible over Hoss’ snoring.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben, Adam and Hoss walked into the waiting room at Doc Martin’s office. There was no sound. “Maybe they were done earlier than they expected,” suggested Adam. Both Doc and Joe had been adamant that they didn’t need the rest of the family to stay.
“I’ve known Doc all my life,” Joe had said to his father. “There’s nothing to worry about.” And so the others had reluctantly gone about their business, waiting impatiently for the hour to be over.
Just then, Doc came out of the examining room, sporting a large purple bruise on his jaw that he hadn’t had an hour earlier. “Paul! What happened?” Ben was appalled at his friend’s injury.
Doc shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Where’s Joe?” asked Ben.
The doctor sighed. “Come inside,” he said. The Cartwrights didn’t look at each other as they headed into Doc’s private office, and he closed the door after them.
“Joe’s in the clinic,” Doc said. “He should be coming to soon.”
“Coming to? What happened? Did somebody break in?” None of this made sense to Ben.
“I wish,” said the doctor, sitting behind his desk. He looked from one Cartwright to another. In his most professional, detached, matter-of-fact voice, he said, “There was a problem. I was examining Joe, and it was going fine, and—well, when I reached a certain point, he apparently panicked.” He looked again from one to another to ensure that they all knew what he meant. Hoss looked unsure, but Ben and Adam nodded grimly. Then, he continued, “He tried to run out of the examining room, even though he was completely undressed at that point. Naturally, I tried to stop him, and we struggled. I called for Rose to get a cloth with chloroform. He got as far as the outer office— fortunately, there was no one out there except old Bernard, doing the cleaning—and Bernard and I were able to pin him long enough for Rose to hold the chloroform over his face. When he passed out, we moved him into the clinic, and he’s there now.”
For a minute, no one spoke. Finally, Ben asked, “Is he all right?”
“Physically? He’ll be fine,” said the doctor. “He’s younger and stronger than I am. I’m just glad I was able to tackle him—otherwise, I think he’d have run out of the office.”
“You said he’ll be fine ‘physically,’” said Adam. “Are you saying he’s not fine in some other way?”
The doctor suppressed a sigh. “The boy’s been through hell,” he said. “I know you already know that—just as I suspect you already know what my examination revealed. Emotionally, he’s very fragile right now. He was just a boy when he went to prison— maybe if he’d been older, he’d have been able to handle it better. I can’t say for certain. All I can tell you is that, right now, that boy is terrified of—well, most everything, I’d imagine. Everything is strange for him right now—what he’s doing, how he feels—what he thinks you all think of him. You’re going to have to be very patient. Don’t expect him to be the way he was before. Just let him work things out in his own way.”
“Paul, I’m so sorry,” said Ben. “I can’t believe he did this to you. What about Rose and Bernard? Are they all right?”
The doctor waved the apology away. “We’re all fine,” he said. “Right now, I’m much more concerned about Joe. He’s going to be very upset when he realizes what happened.”
“Are you saying he doesn’t know?” asked Adam. “Didn’t he know it was you he was fighting?”
“I think he did,” said Doc. “But he’d told me what he did to you that first night, too. Then, he didn’t know what was going on, and he was just reacting. This time, he knew it was me, but I’m not at all sure he knows what he did. His panic was so far beyond any normal reaction that I’d be willing to bet he reached a point where he didn’t know what was happening.”
“That poor kid,” breathed Hoss. “If I knew the fellers who did this to him. . . .”
“The more important issue is—” Doc broke off as there was a light tap on the door.
Rose Martin poked her head in the door. “I think Joe’s coming out of it,” she said.
The men rose and hustled over to Joe’s room. At the doorway, Doc stopped them.
“Ben, I think maybe you should go in alone,” he said. “Give him a few minutes to get his bearings. Then, he and I can talk.”
Ben nodded, his trepidation well-hidden. In all his years as a father, he’d never experienced anything remotely like this. He opened the door to see his son stirring, and he grabbed the washbowl; Joe tended to have a harsh reaction to anesthesia. Sure enough, the boy had barely opened his eyes when nausea overtook him and he vomited into the bowl. Ben poured a glass of water, and he helped Joe to steady it enough to rinse his mouth. Then, he poured a fresh glass, and Joe drank before he leaned back.
“How’re you feeling, son?” Ben asked.
“Must have hit my head,” managed Joe. “It’s killing me.”
“That’s probably just the chloroform,” said Ben. Joe’s chloroform hangovers were worse than most men’s whiskey hangovers. He dipped a cloth in cool water and wiped Joe’s face, as much to buy time as for any other reason. Finally, he made himself ask, “Do you remember anything about what happened?”
Joe shook his head, wincing at the movement. “I had the strangest dream, though,” he said. “I dreamed I was stark naked and wrestling with Doc Martin on the floor of his office. He was a tough old bird, too.”
“Do you know why were you fighting?” asked Ben.
Joe shrugged. “Dunno,” he said. “I remember being so scared, but that doesn’t make any sense. There’s no reason to be scared of Doc.”
Ben stroked his son’s brow. “Joe, it wasn’t a dream.”
“What? What do you mean?” Joe blinked hard, squinting through the chloroform fog.
“You did fight with Doc Martin,” Ben said.
“I did what?”
In his gentlest voice, Ben recounted what Doc Martin had said. As Joe listened, color drained from his face. No. He couldn’t have done this twice. There had to be some mistake.
“No, Pa, it couldn’t have happened that way,” he insisted. “It was a dream. I don’t know, maybe this is a dream, too. I don’t know. All I know is I couldn’t have done something like that, I just couldn’t.”
His father’s eyes were compassionate and sad. “I’m sorry, son,” he said, taking Joe’s hand. “I can’t imagine how upsetting it is to hear something like that—but it’s true. It wasn’t a dream, Joe. It really happened.”
“No!” Joe sat up quickly, but a wave of dizziness and nausea demanded his full attention, and he doubled over, eyes closed. Pa helped him to lay back, murmuring quiet, soothing words as he sponged Joe’s face with the wet cloth. As Joe tried to think of an explanation, he reached up and felt his own shirtless chest. Tentatively, he reached under the covers and his hand brushed his bare thigh. It was true. It was all true. He pressed his fist against his mouth, eyes tightly closed, and turned in the bed, his back to his father.
“Easy, Joe, just take it easy,” said Ben. He laid one hand on Joe’s shoulder as he moved to sit on the bed beside his son. “You’re all right, everything’s all right. You didn’t hurt anybody. Just take it easy, son. Everything’s going to be fine.” He sat by his son, rubbing the young man’s shoulder.
After a few minutes, there was a light knock on the door, and Doc came in. “Joe, I need to talk to you,” he said.
Joe turned and sat up. “Doc, I’m so sorry,” he blurted. “I—did I do that?” He stared at the bruise on the elderly man’s face.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the doctor. “I expect Bernard and I may have left you with a few bruises, too.”
“Bernard?” Joe’s eyes widened. Bernard was the elderly black man who cleaned for the doctor. As long as Joe could remember, Bernard had been grizzled and bent over, and he’d always looked as if a strong wind would blow him away. “Did I attack Bernard, too?” His stomach was suddenly churning again. “Pa, the bowl—” Ben seized the bowl just in time, and Joe was sick again.
The doctor laid a hand on Joe’s forehead. No fever; this reaction was likely a combination of the chloroform and the news. “Lay back for a few minutes,” he said. When Joe had done so, he said, “And no, you never laid a hand on Bernard. He came to help once you were down.”
“Did you knock me out?” He didn’t feel as if he’d been punched.
The doctor shook his head. “We used chloroform,” he said. “None of us was in a position to punch you that hard, although Rose could probably have done it if she had to.”
“Mrs. Martin was there, too? While I was—” Joe broke off, his face flaming with embarrassment.
“Joe, she’s been my nurse for over forty years,” said Doc. “Believe me, she didn’t see anything that surprised her.” It wasn’t strictly true. She’d assisted at Little Joe’s birth, and she’d been by Doc’s side as he’d tended the boy’s illnesses and injuries over the years, but he’d never seen her speechless until today, when she saw the angry red marks of a whip on Little Joe Cartwright’s back.
Suddenly, like a candle extinguished with a single breath, Joe’s distress seemed to vanish. His voice was unemotional, almost cold, and his control was precise. “So, what you’re telling me is that I tried to run out of your office stark naked, you knocked me down, you and Bernard held me down, and Mrs. Martin chloroformed me?” He might as well have been reciting the multiplication tables for all the words seemed to mean to him.
“That’s about the size of it,” said the doctor. “And as I said before, there’s nothing for you to worry about. We’re all fine.”
“I can imagine,” said Joe. He looked away from the side of the bed where his father and the doctor were. “Would you two please leave me alone?”
“Are you all right, son?” Ben stroked his son’s hair, puzzled by the sudden change in the boy’s affect.
“I’d just like to be alone,” said Joe in that same unemotional voice that was so unlike the Joe they knew.
“Joe, there’s nothing to—” Ben began.
“Pa, would you please just leave me alone!” The precise control was starting to slip.
The doctor took Ben’s arm, quietly urging him to his feet. “You stay right there in bed, young man,” Doc said. “You still need to rest a while before you start for home. I don’t want you out of this bed until I say so. Your father and I will be right outside if you need us.”
The door closed behind them. Joe lay motionless, listening as the footsteps in the hall died away. Only then did he allow the enormity of his actions to wash over him. He rolled over and pressed his face into the pillow, fighting panic.
An hour later, Hoss opened the door as Little Joe was fastening his pants. “What’re you doing out of bed?” the big man asked.
“I’m fine,” shrugged Joe. “What do you want?” His hair was mussed, and his eyes were bleary with sleep.
Hoss blinked at the question, which was barely a shade off being rude. His little brother was just tired, he decided. “Doc says you’re supposed to use this stuff on your back. You want me to put some on before you put your shirt on?” He frowned. Joe looked as if he couldn’t possibly have cared less about something as mundane as Doc’s stuff for his back. “Come on,” Hoss urged. After a minute, Joe turned his back to Hoss. The big man began to work the salve into the healing wounds, his jaw clenched lest he say anything about the violent bruises, the vicious wounds, or the knobby backbone and the ribs he could practically count.
“There you go, all done,” he said at last.
“Thanks,” Joe whispered. He put on his shirt, but his hands were trembling, and he couldn’t maneuver the buttons.
“Joe—” Hoss started to reach for him, but Joe held up his hand.
“Hoss, just—just don’t, okay?” His voice was tight with anguish.
“Okay,” said Hoss, hiding his hurt. “Whyn’t you sit down for a minute? You ain’t supposed to be up yet anyway.”
“I’m fine,” said Joe. “Besides, I’ve still got to talk to Bernard and Mrs. Martin.”
“Bernard’s gone home for the day,” said Hoss. “So’s Mrs. Martin—she had to fix Doc’s dinner.”
Damn. Joe yanked on one of his new boots, wondering about the possibility of finding Bernard’s house. He knew that Bernard lived in the shanties on the edge of town, but he wasn’t sure where. Besides, if anybody thought he was guilty of—of what he’s been accused of—they wouldn’t want to tell him anything.
“Come on, Little Brother, let’s get going,” said Hoss as Joe pulled on his other boot. “Just take it easy. You’ll be back at the Ponderosa real soon.”
The Ponderosa. All Joe’s life, the word had conjured up images of meadows and impossibly blue skies with hawks soaring overhead, pine trees so straight and tall that they nearly touched the sky, burbling brooks wandering down a hillside, and the lake in all its glory. And it had also meant family and comfort, belonging and security, and love.
All things that existed—he knew that rationally—but at this moment, he couldn’t have said whether he believed in any of them. It was like believing in Santa Claus: as much as he’d cherished the idea as a child, the time had come when he’d had to admit that there was no such thing. He tamped down the pain as he tried again to button his shirt.
He might not have believed in his illusions, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to.
* * * * * * * * * *
Adam knocked on Joe’s bedroom door once, and then again. When there was still no answer, he opened it. “Joe?” he called softly.
“Yeah, I’m here,” said Joe resignedly. He stood by the window, not turning as he spoke.
“You didn’t answer,” said Adam. “You okay?”
“I just—I really don’t feel like seeing anybody right now.” An understatement, to be sure, and Adam knew it.
Joe had gone straight to his room when they arrived home two hours earlier. Reluctantly, Ben had kept his older sons downstairs, urging them to give their brother a chance to rest. Even so, none of them did much more for the remainder of the afternoon than to watch the stairs, just in case Joe appeared.
“Supper’s ready,” said Adam. “Hop Sing made all your favorites.” When Joe shook his head wordlessly, Adam crossed the room to where he stood, resting a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “Joe, nobody blames you for what happened today.”
“I know.” Unexpected bitterness tinged the words.
Adam waited. The little brother he’d known two years ago couldn’t have kept a thought to himself if you paid him. As the brothers stood in silence, though, he understood again that the Joe who had returned to them wasn’t the same one who had left. And so, he asked, “What’s the matter?” Joe shook his head again. “You’ll feel better if you eat something,” Adam suggested, aware that he sounded like their father at his mother-hen best. “Hop Sing’s going to be mighty upset if you don’t eat,” he added, trying not to sound too serious. When Joe didn’t respond, Adam sighed and patted his shoulder. “Maybe you’ll want something later.” He turned to go, just reaching the door when Joe’s voice stopped him.
Adam turned back. Joe was still facing the window, although Adam doubted very much that his brother was seeing anything outside. “What is it, Joe?”
“Am I crazy?”
“What are you talking about?” Adam crossed the room, brow furrowed, supper forgotten.
“I’ve been out less than three days, and I’ve already attacked two people who I know would never do anything bad to me. There’s only one reason people don’t blame you for that kind of thing.” Joe fought back the panic that lodged in his throat as he turned to face his brother. “You’d tell me, right? You’d tell me if I was crazy, wouldn’t you?” His eyes betrayed his fear as they searched Adam’s face for clues.
Adam rested his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Joe, you’re not crazy,” he said gently. “You spent two years in hell. That’s enough to get anyone turned around. That’s all. You’re just a little turned around right now.” He watched Joe carefully, willing him to believe. “You’re going to be fine,” he said with more assurance than he felt. “Give yourself some time to get used to things again.” When Joe’s expression didn’t change, Adam said, “You look exhausted. Get in bed, and I’ll bring up a tray.”
“Adam?” It was barely more than a whisper. “Promise me something?”
“Promise me—if it turns out that I really am crazy—promise you’ll tell me. Pa and Hoss would never say it, no matter what. So I need you. I don’t want to be one of those people who walk around thinking they’re normal when everybody else knows better. I need to know you’ll tell me the truth—if I’m crazy, you’ll say so.” His voice broke at the end.
“Joe, that’s not going to happen. You’re not crazy.” Adam spoke as definitely as he could, but disbelief was plain on Joe’s face. “Trust me, Joe. You’re not,” he insisted.
“But if I am—promise you’ll tell me.”
The kid was as taut as a bow string. The green eyes that used to dance with laughter were sharp with agony. And yet, there was a raw courage in him that was willing to hear the truth, and uncharacteristically, Adam felt a lump in his throat. Slowly, he exhaled. He felt as if he were admitting defeat, and yet he knew no other choice.
“Yes, Joe, I promise. I’ll tell you,” he said. “Come on, let’s get you into bed. You’ve had enough excitement for one day.” He rested his arm around his brother’s shoulders, and Joe didn’t resist as Adam led him to the bed and sat him down. He handed Joe a nightshirt from the dresser drawer. “You get changed, and I’ll let Pa know you’re not coming down. Don’t worry, I’ll just tell him you’re tired,” Adam added as panic flickered across Joe’s face. At the door, he turned. “You’re not crazy, Joe,” he said.
Joe sat on the bed, not looking up from the nightshirt in his hand. He looked as if he were braced for a blow, but when he spoke, the words were quiet with relief.