By Debbie L.
“Happy birthday kid,” the cowboy said and set the glass of whiskey down on the table, with a wide smile. “A toast! Kid, may you always make hay while the sun still shines and may all your aces be high.”
Although he did not understand a word the man said, Joe Cartwright certainly knew how to act like he did. With a single swallow, he emptied the glass and raised it dramatically over his head. Immediately, the saloon resounded with cheers and fine spirits, and the fiddler began playing merrily. It was all in all, Joe mused to himself, a marvelous din.
An old gambler perched at the end of the well-polished bar lifted his glass to Joe and shouted over the uproar, “It’s not every day that we celebrate a boy turning into a man. This time, son, the drinks are on me! Another glass of Red Eye for my young friend, Bert!”
Again, a happy shout spread across the room, and Annie squeezed Joe’s hand with real affection. She had been leaning against him for so many hours that her arm had grown numb, and she shook it a little to restore some feeling.
Annie kissed Joe’s cheek, and left to get him his drink. Only the girls who worked in the saloon and Bert the bartender knew the secret behind the boy’s uncanny ability to drink so heavily with so few effects. In New Orleans, Joe had grown up among women who earned a percentage every time a man bought them a drink. Because they could ill afford to drink whiskey all night, needing to stay sober to stay out of harm’s way, the bartender would keep a decanter of tea or colored sugar water to keep the drinks flowing and the profits rising as well. Now Joe liked his whiskey, same as any other man, but for years, he had utilized the old saloon girl’s trick, when he felt he had had enough.
Everyone knew that refusing a man’s friendly offer of a drink could put you at the wrong end of the gun, just as surely as getting caught slipping a stacked deck into a game. It simply was not done. An ambitious, young card sharp needed to be affable, but he also needed to get home at night. Joe could hold his whiskey, better than men twice his size, yet he valued his own sobriety all the same.
Bert had teased him mercilessly, when Joe made his private request, soon after his arrival at the Ponderosa; he had certainly never served the concoction to a man. But the bartender charged the same amount of money for a drink, no matter what he poured in the glass, and it was in his interest to keep the boy at the top of his game. Bert and Annie exchanged amused glances across the bar, as he handed her the kid’s drink, poured from the special decanter he kept hidden underneath the bar.
“Here you go sweet boy,” Annie drawled wistfully, after she returned to sit with him again. “Won’t be able to call you that much longer, what with all this growing up and all.”
“Annie, tell me this,” Joe said, as he winced at the syrupy brew. He tipped his hat to his patron at the bar. “I’m seventeen. You and I like each other as much as two people can. You know it’s the truth. I could get you out of this place right now. So what I’m trying to say is why don’t you just up and marry me and make me an honest man?”
His grin was at once so saucy and so earnest that Annie laughed and pushed him away. “It would take a whole lot more than marriage to make you respectable, Joe. And you know that very well.”
“You may be right,” Joe said. “But think of the fun we could have trying!”
Leaning closer to be heard over the lively laughter and the music, Annie asked him, “Tell me something. Why are you here tonight? It’s late. You should have gone home hours ago and have been spending your birthday with your family. Look at me, Joe.”
He started to pull away from her, towards the lilt of the fiddle and the lure of the ladies of the saloon, but Annie grasped his arm. Reluctantly, he met her eyes.
“I should go,” Joe said. “I promised Sally a dance.”
“Later,” Annie insisted, and held on tight. “Trust me, she will wait. Tell me. Why are you here tonight?”
Joe sighed and wished fervently he had allowed himself another real drink. Why couldn’t Annie leave it alone? Months had passed since the night when they had thrown in their lot with each other and promised that they would always tell each other the truth, no matter what it cost. Even now, while remembering it through a haze of old smoke and cheap whiskey, the moment held for him the solemnity of a sacred rite. He would not lie to his friend, no matter how badly he wished to step around the truth.
“I’m here because they don’t know,” Joe said at last, regretting that he had made the promise to her in the first place. He ran his hand across the scuffed varnish of the table and snagged his palm on a splinter. He swore under his breath; the hand had just finished healing after his slide down the cliff, and here he was tearing it open again. “They don’t know it’s my birthday.”
“What do you mean they don’t know?” Annie asked, not realizing she was squeezing his arm so tight, her grip would leave its mark in the morning. “How can they not know it’s your birthday?”
Joe felt his temper kindle and edge into his voice. “They don’t know, because I didn’t tell them. All right? I didn’t tell them it was my birthday, because I didn’t want them to know. I wanted to be here, tonight. Annie, can’t you just leave it alone?”
With anger that rose to match his, Annie released his arm and said, “No, I can’t leave it alone! This is not your home. This is not your family. I am the only one in this room who loves you. The only thing any of these people care about is what they can get from you! Don’t be a fool, Joe!”
Even as she said the words, Annie knew in her heart they were not exactly true. Although she did not understand it, many people in that saloon cared what happened to this boy. Gunslingers, gamblers, and other ruined men. Yes, there were some that would gladly take him down, leave him broken and penniless, for the money in his pocket or to steal their fair share of his astonishing luck.
Yet, Annie had watched that unrepentant congregation close rank around Joe time and time again, even after he had pulled one too many winning hands. She had observed as a known outlaw, famous for wearing his gun low and loose, fingered his trigger in quiet warning, when a cowhand across the card table didn’t take kindly to being cleaned out by a kid. Something about the boy just stirred up the goodness in hard men.
The saloon girls coddled Joe, played with him, as if he were half child and half man. The time would come, soon enough, when he could play right back and break hearts that were easy for the breaking. Yet Joe had been had been raised and loved by women all his life. He knew that carefully painted faces could conceal every kind of sorrow. In his life, Joe would always treat women with tenderness and care. His knowing would not allow him to grow into another kind of man.
Joe knew he deserved none of the privileges of his current situation. He had gone from being the poorest of boys to living with the most prosperous of men. It made absolutely no sense; there were some days when he could barely take it in. By anyone’s account, Joe Cartwright had been born to live the life in that saloon, and Annie was just as determined to show the door to that life, whatever it might cost her in his company. She simply loved him too much to tell him the truth.
Without a bit of remorse, Annie broke her promise to him and lied, “The people in here don’t care about you. None of them do. Go home Joe, where you belong.”
Before he could answer, the newest saloon girl, fresh from San Francisco and well versed in the edification of boys, strolled across the saloon floor towards him. Brushing suggestively against Joe’s shoulder, she tangled her fingers through his curls. Joe matched Annie’s glare through the filter of the woman’s caress.
“I can’t understand why these fellows believe a word you say,” Joe said. “Don’t lie to me, Annie. It doesn’t suit you. You know perfectly well I belong here. Just the same as you.”
The San Franciscan girl sat down on his lap then, running her hand along the back of his neck. Annie sighed and shook her head.
“You may right,” Annie admitted and stood. “Maybe you do belong here. Maybe even more than I do. But at least, I don’t have to explain myself to those two.”
Annie leaned across the table, moved the other woman aside, and kissed Joe gently on the lips. Then she pointed towards the swinging doors.
“Happy birthday, Joe,” she said and returned to her business of entertaining lonely men. Joe turned and stared directly into the faces of the two men that he least wanted to see that night.
Adam and Hoss walked wearily into the saloon. Adam winced as his eyes came to terms with the light, and he rubbed the back of his neck with more than a little irritation. He was simply growing too old for these midnight rides, but Pa had insisted. Adam would not admit that such foolishness after a long hard day, could be wearing on a man. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Hoss. Where could the kid be, anyways? Together, they ambled towards the poker game, which always seemed to take place in the smokiest corner of the saloon.
So sure they would find him at his usual location, Adam and Hoss walked right past Joe’s table. Slouching behind the saloon girl’s back, for once Joe counted it a blessing to still be small. But it was of no use. Joe watched as they turned and saw him, and the grim expressions on their faces told him everything he needed to know.
If not for the girl on his lap, Joe would have eased back and tried to slide under the table, but she would not move. Trapped by his own good fortune, he smiled weakly at his brothers, and they leaned in, on either side of him.
“Hi Adam. Hey Hoss,” he said, “What are you fellows doing here, this time of night? I’d like to introduce you to…”
“Susanna,” she said helpfully, tracing her finger along his lips. He kissed her hand gently and held it, so he could at least speak.
“This is Susanna. So, what are you doing here anyways?” Joe asked.
“What are we doing here?” Adam asked, and Joe knew that a lecture was on its way. Despite his discomfort, Joe almost grinned at the revelation that he was finally able to read his oldest brother. Maybe it was time to give Adam the chance to try him at poker!
“What are we doing here this time of night, he wants to know?” Adam asked again. “Oh I don’t know! Why wouldn’t we be here, in the middle of the night? You couldn’t possibly think that we might actually care about sleep? Why would anyone want to be sleeping in a warm bed after a long day’s work, when they could ride for hours in the freezing cold through all this slush? Who wouldn’t want to ride to Virginia City -“
“Hey Cartwright, leave him be,” growled a lineman, who slammed a protective hand down on the table in front of Joe, cutting short Adam’s monologue. “You ain’t got no call makin’ noise at the kid like that. This here’s his special day!”
“Now this boy needs to go home,” Adam said, realizing to his chagrin that his little speech had attracted quite an audience. Even the fiddler had put down his instrument and leaned against the wall to watch the possible showdown. “It’s late and our pa wants him home right away. Hoss, go ask Bert how many drinks he’s had. I need to know if he can make it home on his horse, or whether we need to go rent a buckboard.”
The bartender needed no prompting from Hoss.
“Thirteen drinks, Adam!” Bert called from the bar and returned Joe’s grateful look, with a wink. Joe allowed himself to smile back. He could have guessed that Bert would be good for a secret. Joe quickly drained the last drops of sugar water from his glass, before Hoss could sample it and give him away.
“Give me that, you hear,” Hoss chided. He grabbed the glass from Joe’s hand and set it firmly down on the table. “Now you listen to me little brother. You ain’t got no business drinking whiskey, at your age. What were you thinking, boy? How were you fixin’ to get home anyhow? You can’t ride with all that whiskey in you!”
Furious, Adam stormed to the bar. “I should go to the sheriff,” he hissed to the bartender, and grabbed the man by the front of his shirt. “You had no call serving that much whiskey to a boy his size. You could have killed him!”
Joe moaned and buried his face against the saloon girl’s back. All he needed was for everyone in that saloon to take a closer look at his personal business. He wouldn’t have survived a season in the gambling dens of New Orleans, with his two brothers serving as his protectors.
Curley Wolf, a miner so big his friends swore he’d been born full-grown, lumbered across the saloon to glower at Adam. “Listen feller,” he said and poked his stump of a finger into Adam’s chest. “I don’t know you and I don’t want to know you, but I do know the kid. He’s a friend of mine. And I don’t cotton to you calling the kid a boy. Ain’t that right kid?”
“Yes sir, Mister Curley Wolf,” Joe said mildly, not wanting to offend a champion who might prove useful in the future. “But I think it’s best I get on home. Knowing my pa, I probably have an early morning waiting for me.”
On his lap, Susanna insisted, “But you can’t go already. It’s your birthday. And we’re just getting started!”
“Another drink for the kid! It’s his birthday!” a voice proclaimed from the back of the room, and the fiddler started playing once again.
Joe untangled himself from Susanna and to stand in front of Adam and Hoss. To his consternation, he found he could hardly look at his brothers.
“What do they mean it’s your birthday?” Adam asked, and reached for the boy’s chin, raising it so that Joe had no choice but to meet his brother’s eyes. “Is it true, Joe?”
Joe nodded, unable to speak. He was not a boy who liked to dwell on his own mistakes, but he suddenly felt very sorry for his decision. For the life of him, he could not explain why he had not told his family about his birthday. All day long, it had seemed like something that he was perfectly entitled to keep to himself. He realized too late that many things had changed since his last birthday.
“Come on little brother,” Hoss said, and there was no mistaking the hurt in his voice. “Let’s get you on home. You must be plumb tuckered out. You reckon you can ride?”
Again Joe nodded, suddenly very tired indeed. He let his brothers walk him to the door, even though there was not enough whiskey in him to require their help. At the door, Joe stopped and searched for Annie. Across the room she laughed flirtatiously, bantering with a young ranch hand. She didn’t fool him for a minute; he knew she had been watching him with his brothers, all the while. As he lingered at the door, Annie paused and let Joe catch her eye. Blowing him a sad little kiss, she smiled and returned to her night’s work.
“I don’t understand,” Ben said, and he took a long, hard look at his youngest son. “What in heaven’s name do you mean it’s his birthday? Joseph, is this true?”
It had been a long, cold, and tedious ride, with Adam and Hoss stopping every mile or so to insist Joe take a turn at their canteen to flush the whiskey out of his system. After a while, Joe had a mind to come out with it and tell them the truth about the drinking, but he was too tired to get the words out. So he just kept on going.
By the time they made it to the ranch house, the sun had begun to rise above the eastern ridge, casting startled glints of ruby and amber against the morning clouds. It should have been a beauty of a sight, but to Joe, it told him that a long, hard day had already begun. A full slate of chores and work awaited them all, and he berated himself for putting his brothers through a sleepless night. He just didn’t think things through. It was, he knew without a doubt, entirely his fault.
As he faced his father, Joe almost wished the man would be angry. Instead Ben stood by the hearth, prodding the last of the night’s embers. To his son, he looked tired and just a little bit old. Joe blamed himself entirely for the gravity that had settled on his father’s face.
“Joseph, answer me,” Ben said, with unexpected gentleness. “Is today your birthday, son?”
“Well, it actually it was yesterday,” Joe said. “I guess the day’s over, by now.”
“Why, boy?” Ben asked, and he gestured for his son to join him by the hearth. “Why wouldn’t you tell us such a thing?”
Hoss yawned loudly and stretched out on the settee. “You should have seen it, Pa. They was having the biggest celebration you ever did see out at the saloon. Seems our little brother has himself a whole bunch of admirers keeping him company.”
“Is that you didn’t tell us? So you could get drunk on your birthday, play poker, have a good time with pretty girls?” Adam did not intend the sharpness of his rebuke, but once the words were out, there was no taking them back.
Joe shook his head miserably, and much to his consternation, struggled to keep his eyes from welling with tears. Even at his age, he still couldn’t keep himself under control. His mother had always warned her son that his emotions would be his undoing, and she spoke from hard won experience. Again, Joe asked himself why he hadn’t thought it through. Why hadn’t he told them about his birthday?
“Son, don’t you know that in a family, we share things with each other? We celebrate together and we help each other when things don’t go as we planned. Good times and bad. That’s what makes us a family.” Ben draped his arm over his young son’s shoulder and pulled him in, by his side.
“Yes sir,” Joe said, and wiped furiously at his eyes. “I do know that. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I guess I’m just tired.”
“Joe, I just want to know,” Ben tried one more time. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Don’t you know?” Joe asked, his good reasons already turning into nothing more than a dull ache behind his eyes. His father shook his head, and Joe heard the words slipping out before he could rein them in. “It’s the first time… Don’t you see? Mama and I, we always spent birthdays together. We never spent a single one apart. She always had to go to work, but she would take me with her.”
“She would take you to a saloon on your birthday?” Adam asked, his disapproval apparent on his face.
“Saloons, gambling dens, dancing halls,” Joe snapped. “Wherever she needed to go for the night! For God’s sake, where else would she take me, Adam? You should know better, of all people. I know you’ve thought about it. Where do you think I spent my birthdays? Where do you think I spent my life? Do you all think you are my only family?”
“You miss her, don’t you?” Adam asked softly.
Joe turned away. Lately the missing of his mother was a cipher that seemed to take the color out of everything. It had happened so fast, the matter of her dying. In the confusion of it all, the violence of her death had overlapped with the drama of his return. Like a dream born of fever, he could not keep the two events separated in his mind.
At first Joe had pushed aside all thoughts that he did not need to survive. Yet during the past few months, as he had grown more comfortable with his new family, the old grief seemed to take on a life of its own. It was not just her death that wouldn’t leave him alone. It was the ghosts of the other things, the old sins and demons that would no longer stay away. During the past few weeks, he just could not stop remembering.
Joe remembered the fragrance of the gardenias his mother wore in her hair that lingered in the room, after she left for her night. He remembered her amused laugh at his worries that evening, as she kissed him goodbye and slipped out the door. He remembered coming in late that night to the darkness of the empty room. He remembered the creaking of the old buckled floors as the man crept towards him, a percussion of nightmares reborn. He remembered lying on that floor, awash in blood and astonished by pain. He remembered her desperate face, as together they managed the weapon and thrust it through. He remembered the death howl of the man as he went down. Joe squeezed his eyes tight against the memory. Remembering had a price, and the cost was far too dear for a poor boy to afford.
“Yes,” Joe said at last. “I miss her.”
Whatever emotion Joe’s family might have expected, they were unprepared for the look that had settled upon his face. For a moment, Adam thought that Joe looked more like an old profligate regretting his wasted youth than like a boy who was only beginning to live. Such profound regret looked so out of place on such a young face.
Adam noticed that Joe seemed to rub his back absently. Remembering the scars on Joe’s back, Adam could picture the particular scar that seemed to bother him, could remember the angular jolt of it, still red and furious against the boy’s skin. The last time Adam had seen the scar, while tending to his brother’s injuries in the old-line shack where they had hid, it had seemed to him that the old wound had never healed quite right.
“Is it hurting you?” Adam asked. Joe looked at him sharply and drew his hand away, knowing exactly what he was asking. There was no hiding a thing from his older brother.
“I’m fine,” Joe said.
With that, Hop Sing bustled into the room and announced, “Breakfast ready. You come eat. Little son needs to eat after long night.”
All four men groaned at the thought of the morning that had arrived too soon, and Hoss muttered, “Little son needs to eat? How ‘bout big son needs to eat? I’ll need every bit of energy to make it through the day without no sleep.”
They made their way to the table. Joe sighed as he waited for his coffee, rubbing at his tired eyes.
Hop Sing came behind him and patted his shoulder. “Little son no worry about birthday. I make big cake today. Already have what I need to make it. Late don’t matter. We still celebrate birthday.”
Joe turned and held Hop Sing’s arm. “Xia xia, Hop Sing,” he said. “Thank you. I do appreciate it. I’ve never had a birthday cake before.”
Hop Sing beamed at Joe, before scowling at the startled looks of the other men at the table.
“Why you all look surprised?” he asked. “Missus Cartwright’s boy learn very quickly. I teach Chinese. He learn very quickly. He very smart, just like his mother.”
Joe smiled at his friend and replied in a soft stream of language the other men did not understand.
Hop Sing nodded, patted him briefly on the head, and repeated, “Missus Cartwright’s boy very smart. Very smart boy.”
Hop Sing disappeared into the kitchen. While Hoss dug voraciously into the eggs, Adam and Ben stared, still dumfounded at Joe.
“So you speak Chinese?” Adam asked finally, lifting an eyebrow, as he reached for the platter.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it speaking,” Joe answered and laughed. A couple sips of coffee had done wonders to improve his spirits. A hot breakfast waiting for him every morning was an indulgence that still took his breath away. In New Orleans, he would never have dreamed that he could eat so well, day after day, without giving a thought to where that food might be coming from. By nature, Joe was a good-natured boy and was happy enough to focus once again on pleasant things. He told his family, “I’ve learned enough to say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I liked dinner.’ That’s pretty much what he’s taught me so far.”
“How did you learn to speak it so quickly?” Ben asked and took a long look at his son, so suddenly a year older. He tried to eat a bite of his breakfast; it would not be easy. The food tasted coarse and unappetizing, as he considered the revelations that had already unfolded that morning. “Chinese seems like a very difficult thing to learn.”
“It’s not easy,” Joe admitted. “It would have been a whole lot easier if I’d grown up hearing it. Don’t forget though, I already know French. Once you know more than one language, it makes it a lot easier to learn other ones. Mama always said that if a man knows how to speak different languages, he could travel the world and never meet a stranger.”
“Joe, you sure beat all,” Hoss said, after swallowing another mouthful. His disposition had also improved with breakfast. “None of us know nothing about you talking French. How come you never speak it in front of us?”
“I don’t need to speak to you in French,” Joe said and reached again for his coffee. “If I met a French gambler in the saloon, now that would be another story!”
“That reminds me little brother,” Hoss said. “When Adam and I came to fetch you in the saloon, you wasn’t anywhere near that poker game. I was sure you’d be right in the middle of it. How come you didn’t play none last night?”
Happy with his breakfast and satisfied that all the unpleasantness was out of the way, Joe completely missed the look that passed among the other men.
“I wasn’t working last night,” Joe said, amused that the answer wasn’t obvious. “It was my birthday.”
The package arrived in early summer, a late birthday present to be sure, but it had traveled quite a distance, all the way from New Orleans. The idea had come to Adam that morning after Joe’s birthday, and he had rode back to Virginia City to order the item at the general store, on the same day.
It been a long wait to be sure, but it was worth it to Adam, as he watched his younger brother fumble with the strings and the packaging. The boy bit his lower lip in such an obvious display of frustrated anticipation that Adam could not keep himself from grinning. Finally, when Joe lifted it from the box, Ben and Hoss gasped along with him. Adam had told neither of them about the gift.
“An epee,” Joe breathed, holding it before him in amazement. “I can hardly believe it, Adam! Where did you find an epee out here in the west?”
“Had it shipped all the way from New Orleans,” Adam answered, more than a bit satisfied at his brother’s obvious pleasure. “Cal at the general store helped me order it. I’d imagine that originally it was made in France.”
Joe stood and balanced the epee in front of him. His hand fit the grip perfectly. It was longer and slightly heavier than the weapon he had reluctantly left behind at the train station in New Orleans. However, the good food and the strenuous exercise of the Ponderosa had done wonders for his physical maturation and the epee felt like it was just the right size. Joe fervently hoped that he had left his boy’s body behind at last. He practiced a lunge, and his family drew back, startled at the suddenness and the seriousness of the move.
“Not inside!” Ben found his voice at last and scowled at Adam. He had seen for himself the gruesome aftermath of duels in fought in New Orleans, and had no desire to bring the blood sport to the Ponderosa. “If you are going to play with that, young man, you need to take it outside!”
Joe grinned merrily and replied, “Playing with it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, Pa. Thanks a bunch Adam! I can hardly believe it. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see one of these again!”
“Hey Joe,” Hoss asked, curious at the idea of a weapon he had never seen before. “Can I take a look at it? It’s kind of a puny thing.”
“Outside!” Ben thundered and Joe looked meekly at his father, before breaking back into his grin.
“Yes sir,” he chirped and bounded to the door. “Come on Hoss. I’ll teach you how to fence. But there’s one problem Adam.”
“What’s that?” Adam asked.
“I guess I won’t be able to practice much. It takes more than one person to really practice fencing,” Joe said.
“Now haven’t you learned by now,” Adam teased, smiling at the kid. “That I tend to think of these things? I found your mother’s epee stored out in the barn. It’ll take some cleaning up and it won’t hold a candle to yours, but I’d imagine it will do just fine for practicing. In fact, I’ll have you know that it has always been my secret desire to learn how to use an epee.”
A slow smile spread across Joe’s face. “All right then! Come on, Hoss!”
As they hurried out the door, Ben asked his oldest son, “Are you sure about this, Adam? He already has half the young men in the territory wanting to start a fight with him, although I have no idea why! I know your intentions are good, but don’t you think that this might just be asking for trouble?”
Adam smirked and replied, “Pa, I’d imagine that trouble is going to follow that kid, no matter what type of weapon he’s got in his hand. I’ve watched him with the other fellows in town, and far as I can see, Joe hasn’t done a thing to provoke them. There’s just something about him that gets at them. Think about it, Pa. You’ve always said it yourself. A man can’t live his life being afraid of what others might do or think.”
“He’s a boy,” Ben protested, with a hint of anger in his voice. “He’s not a man. He’s still very young. His home is here now, on the Ponderosa. Not on the dueling grounds of New Orleans!”
“Pa, we can try to keep everything the way it is,” Adam said. “We can just go on pretending that his past doesn’t matter. But it’s part of him, no matter what we all do or say.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Ben said. “He has a right to leave his past behind and he has a right to start over again.”
“It matters to him,” Adam said firmly, and he leaned over the armchair to meet his father’s eyes. “His mother matters to him. All the things that have happened to him, the things we don’t know about, they all matter to him, and they should matter to us.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Ben mused, after a long moment’s deliberation. Affectionately, he placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I suppose I must have done something right, when I can learn a thing or two from my own son.”
“Well Pa, I had the best teacher,” he said, and the two men held the moment for as long as they knew how, before Adam turned towards the door.
“Now you keep an eye on that boy,” Ben reminded his oldest son with a sigh.
“Pa, I’m out of my element on this one. I think Joe’s going to have to keep an eye on me!” Adam said and went out to join his brothers.
“No, no Adam, not like that. You have to set back on your heels, like this.” Joe demonstrated once more the proper form of the parry and shook his head dramatically, as his brother tried the move again. “No, no, no! You’d never win a duel, standing like that. You look like you’re trying to brand a calf!”
More exhausted than he would have admitted, Adam leaned against the barn and said, ”It’s no use Joe. I just don’t think I have it in me.”
“You’ve barely even started,” Joe protested. “You can’t give up now! Adam, you’ve got to think of it like you’re playing chess, only with your body. Now think in your head about what I might do next, and then make your move. Your epee just acts out what you’re thinking. Watch me again.”
Adam exchanged an amused glance with Hoss. For the past week, they had spent every evening after dinner doing little more than watching Joe. Both men had honestly tried to learn the sport of fencing; after all, their younger brother so badly wanted to share it with them. Adam and Hoss had learned the words: attack and defend, lunge and deflect, thrust and parry. But in Joe’s hands, the epee was a language in itself. It was more than a weapon. It was an ancient expression of force, an art form of power and of grace.
There was no mistaking Joe’s agility, born of experience and innate ability, from the artless attempts of his brothers to wield a sword. Both men would have given up the effort days ago, if it had not seemed so important to the boy.
“Hey Joe,” Hoss said, passing a cup of water to Adam. “I was just wondering. How’d you get so good at all this sword fighting and all? How’d you even get started?”
Joe wandered under the huge pine tree by the barn. He lifted his epee and swished it idly in the air, slashing at pine needles, as he considered his answer. It was both the simplest and the most complex of questions. How did one describe both a blood sport and a way of living?
He looked up into the branches of the tree. Already, the light green needles that had emerged in the spring had darkened and blended in perfectly with the older growth. The ever-changing Ponderosa was so different from the ancient landscape of New Orleans. In his adopted home, the new seemed to catch up so quickly with the old. Everything grew, adapted, and died off again with so little fanfare, it seemed that nature was rewriting itself before his eyes. It was very different in New Orleans.
Leaning against the trunk of the pine, Joe could remember the old dueling grounds, by the ancient grove of oaks. In his mind, he could see moss, like the arms of the dead, hanging from the thousand year old trees. Mildew and fungus draped everything that did not move. At the edge of the bayous and swamps, anyone who did not know better could easily lose their direction. The green jungle could lead even the most capable man astray. Who knew how a single mosquito could kill a man? Why did tall marsh grass always seem to conceal a deadly patch of quicksand? Why did a cottonmouth only seem to strike from the loveliest patch of flora? How could he explain the perils of New Orleans to a man who had never lived there?
Against this backdrop of the living and dead, duels were fought almost every day. A fine old tradition, everyone had said. His mother had despised the mandates of the Code and had tried to instill the same sense of loathing in her son. Yet, sending him out in the world unable to fight a duel would have been as foolish as a man in the West leaving his home without his gun. So Marie had taught her son how to fence.
Of course, Joe had taken to it immediately, as Marie knew that he would. It was in his blood, as a grandson of pirates and privateers. But she would never encourage him in that heritage. In spite of her own life, Marie wanted a different legacy for her son.
In New Orleans, a duel could result from an unwise word, a look, or a whim. More than one young man had died under the oaks, after answering a half-hearted call to match swords on an otherwise frivolous night. Joe did not duel for frivolity nor did he try to prove himself in the blood sport.
Yet, he played cards for a living, every night in the Swamp. With liquor and short tempers in ample supply, the possibility of lying in a wet grave made dueling a skill that he needed to survive. In the sections of New Orleans that Joe frequented, a man could find a drink and the good company of a woman, and be murdered before the evening had even begun.
Joe had avoided many brawls because he was young and because he was fast. He used discretion in choosing his opponents and he cultivated friends with great care. By the age of sixteen, he had already dueled twice under the oaks. Joe knew that his odds of holding out much longer were decidedly slim.
Already, the advantage of his youth had begun to wane, and the cool appraisals of grown men across the card table let him know they wanted more and more to take him on. His handsome face and his charm had already saved him more times than he had realized. More than one fight had been averted, when a sympathetic saloon girl had slipped him out the back door at the last minute. Joe’s grace period as a boy had been dwindling to its natural end, when Marie had died.
“Joe? Hey Joe! Did you hear me, boy? I was asking who taught you to duel like that? How’d you get so good at it?” Hoss’s voice rang out in his ear.
Hoss’s question brought Joe back to the Ponderosa, and he gladly inhaled the heady scent of pine needles and the hay from the barn. The question was still waiting. How did he learn to duel and what did it mean to him? As always, with his brothers, Joe offered the simplest answer first.
“Mama taught me to use an epee,” Joe said, with a smile. He began to practice his fencing positions on his own and prepared himself for the moment of the thrust. “And I had plenty of volunteers to help me get better at it.”
“Okay, Marie taught you to duel,” Adam said, not accepting his brother’s answer as complete. “Let me ask you another question. Who taught you how to how to win at cards?”
With an exaggerated lunge and a sly grin at his face, Joe thanked the good Lord that the second question was easy enough to answer.
“Mama always said that the devil himself taught me to play poker,” Joe said. He bowed in a grand gesture to his invisible adversary.
“Now Joseph,” Ben said. “Are you sure you want to try this? Charlie says that mare has a lot more fire than she lets on?”
Wiping the sweat off his forehead, Joe leaned against the rail of the corral and raised his eyebrows at his father and brothers in amusement. He looked at the mare that paced back and forth in the pen. Her spirit was evident to them all, as was Joe’s desire to take on a challenge. He had been breaking horses for several months on the Ponderosa, and even his father had to admit that he did it quite well.
“Pa,” Joe said. “You must want me to break that horse something fierce. I can’t think of a better way to get me to do something than say that it might be too hard. Hey, Sam. Is she ready? I’m going to give her a ride.”
Joe walked over to the water trough by the corral and carefully poured a ladle of water over the legs of his pants, which amused his family. It was a sweltering morning for early summer. Usually in the heat of the day, Joe had taken more to pouring water over his head than over his clothes.
“Hey little buddy,” Hoss called out. “That’s a mighty strange way to cool yourself off when you ain’t even done any work yet!”
Joe grinned at his brother, as he sauntered towards the pen. “Charlie told me to try it. Says sometimes it helps for holding on. I’ll try anything once!”
Adam exchanged a look with Hoss, and Ben ruefully shook his head. Was there ever a truer statement? Joe vaulted into the corral and readied himself to mount the new bay. The horse greeted him with a deceptively mild snort.
“He sure looks like he’s been doing this his whole life, don’t he?” Hoss asked, leaning against the fence. “You’d never know he’d only been at it for less than a year. I reckon he’ll be a right good bronc buster someday, seeing as he’s only half grown.”
“He’d be even better if he’d been doing it his whole life,” Adam replied. “Some things never are the same when you begin doing them too late.”
“Don’t let him hear you talking like that,” Ben admonished with a smile. “He’d only set out to prove you wrong. Look now. There he goes!”
They watched as Joe signaled to the cowhand and with a nod, swung onto the back of the horse. The previous restraint of the mare immediately came unbound, and the struggle began in earnest. The horse pitched violently and began to spin. Holding tight with his legs, Joe fought hard to remain in the saddle. In the distance, he could hear his family cheering him on, but his attention was focused on staying on. For a long minute, the horse plunged, lurched, and twisted, fighting hard to dislodge its rider. Yet Joe held on, until the horse quieted at last. Panting to regain his breath, he dismounted and rubbed his hand over the horse’s neck.
“Thanks for the ride,” Joe whispered to the mare. “Thanks for making me look good.”
Joe walked back to his family, who had whooped and hollered, throughout his ride. The cost to his aching muscles was apparent from the way he struggled to raise a trembling leg to straddle the fence next to Adam. Immediately, Hoss reached under the boy’s arms and hauled him over the fence effortlessly.
“Little brother,” Hoss said. “That was dang near the prettiest ride I ever did see. You made it look plumb simple.”
“It was a fine ride, son,” said his father, resting a hand on his shoulder. “A fine ride! Beautifully done!”
“Thanks Hoss. Thanks Pa,” Joe said, beaming. Just knowing that his family approved of his skill filled him with a rush of pleasure that far exceeded the satisfaction of the ride. “Don’t know if I’ll be good for much more today. That mare sure knew how to kick!”
“Think you’ll be any good for the dance?” Adam teased. “I take it you haven’t forgotten that it’s tonight.”
Joe scowled at his older brother and rolled his eyes. Trust Adam to take the edge off a perfectly good morning! The barn dance that evening would be the first social event he had attended since he had fled the church social so many months before, and Joe would have been perfectly happy to have missed this one as well. However, his father had insisted, and said it was high time that his youngest son became better acquainted with their friends and neighbors. A boy couldn’t spend his entire life in a saloon, he had said.
“All right, sir. I’ll go because you want me to,” Joe had told his father. “But I can’t imagine it’ll turn out well.”
Ben remembered his son’s comment, as he watched the boy gingerly make his way to his horse. He would have a hard enough time sitting a horse, let alone fighting off the girls at a dance.
“Go on home, son,” Ben said. “Have Hop Sing start you a bath. You need to take it easy a while. You’ll feel like a new man before you know it.”
“Guess I’d better,” Joe said, with a wry smile. “Otherwise, I’d expect the dance will be over for me, before it even gets started.”
“We’ll meet you at home,” Ben said. “And that was a fine ride, son.”
Joe smiled his thanks to his father, before pulling a biscuit out of his saddlebag and offering it to the pinto.
“Here you go, Cochise,” he said, rubbing the horse’s forehead. “I know you’ll be sure to give me an easier ride than that little filly.”
Adam heard the soft remark and walked over to stand next to Joe. He patted his brother’s horse, and admired the fine markings of the animal, not for the first time.
“So you decided to name him Cochise?” Adam asked. “Kind of an unlikely name for a horse. Might be ill advised, considering that his namesake has been behind all the recent raids in these parts? Don’t you think you might be able to find a less provocative choice?”
“Cochise is a warrior, older brother.” Joe eyed the horse and for a moment, considered vaulting into his saddle, just to prove he could, but reluctantly decided to hitch his foot in the stirrup. “He’s had to prove himself to survive, simple as that. Adam, this horse has given me everything he’s got since the first day I rode him. I just had to give him a fighter’s name. Besides, you know I’ve never been one for making safe choices.”
And Joe tipped his hat to them all and loped away on Cochise to head back to the ranch.
As Joe prepared to enter the dance hall, the lively whine of the fiddle and the strum of the banjo almost made him glad he had come. It had been so long since he had been to a dance, and although this barn dance was a long way from the “contre danses” of New Orleans, the raucous laughter and the lilt of the music made him feel very much at home. He had worn his only suit, his face had actually healed from all recent mishaps, and he was young. It had been long enough since he had settled into a good time. Like his mother, Joe Cartwright did love a dance. Joe felt a touch at his arm and he looked down into Annie’s eyes. He was incredibly grateful that she had agreed to come.
When he first rode into Virginia City with his father and brothers, Joe had explained that he needed some time to take care of some business before joining them at the dance.
With more than a little suspicion, Hoss had insisted, “Little brother, I’m fixin to go with you. You can be slower than molasses in January, when you’ve got a mind to take your time. Why don’t I come along?”
“Hoss, I promise I’m coming back,” Joe said. “Just trust me on this. There’s something I need to do first.”
“Joseph,” Ben said, placing a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s not that we don’t trust you. But I know that agreeing to this dance was difficult for you. Now several young ladies have already informed me that they are planning on taking their turn dancing with you tonight. It will not go well for you at home tonight, if you make me explain to every girl in Virginia City why you are not here! Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir,” Joe said, and wondered if he should just come out and tell them that he had already invited Annie to the dance. He considered confessing it then, but smiled instead. After all, they would know soon enough. And there was no sense in borrowing trouble before its time. His mind made up, Joe flashed his family an impish grin and raced off into the shadows of Virginia City to go retrieve his best girl.
As they neared the dance hall, Joe looked down at Annie with a smile, and she accepted the offer of his arm. She looked so beautiful that night, with her hair loose upon her shoulders. In the dim light, Joe could see her new kid boots in sharp relief against her red, ruffled skirt, fringed with sequins. He whistled under his breath. There was no doubt about it. Annie had come to dance. Joe had no doubt that they were going to make some kind of impression that night. Although he might never admit it, a part of him was looking forward to seeing how it all played out.
The musicians had paused for a breather between songs, and as Joe and Annie entered the room, the good people of Virginia City had plenty of opportunity to stare. To Joe’s surprise, with Annie by his side, it just didn’t seem to matter. The terror he had once felt at the church social already seemed distant and hard to remember. So many things had happened since then. As they walked across the floor, Joe realized there was no turning back, and he squared his shoulders into as full a Cartwright stature as he could muster.
Joe saw his father and brothers, standing watch next to the punch bowl. Clearly, they had been waiting for him. Even from a distance, there was no mistaking the exasperated expression on his father’s face when he spotted his youngest son and realized that Joe had not come to the dance alone. With a slight quirk of a smile, Adam leaned back against the wall, obviously intrigued by the possibility that an ordinary barn dance was about to get a whole lot more interesting. When Hoss saw Joe, he beamed widely and hurried across the dance floor to greet him.
“Little brother,” Hoss said. “We was just fixin’ to come after you. But now I reckon I know why you took so long. It’s a right pleasure to see you again, Ma’am. You look as pretty as a picture tonight.”
Annie looked up at Hoss with the same smile that she usually displayed for Joe. He felt sure that he had made the right decision in asking her to come. As the music began to play, Joe took her hand to dance. Before they got any farther, a woman scowled at them as she walked by, shaking her head in obvious disapproval.
“She looked like she wanted to spit at me,” Annie whispered. “Land sakes, Joe! I think I finally understand why you don’t come to these things. I feel like I have a sign that says ‘sinner’ hanging from my neck.”
Joe tilted her chin upwards, so her eyes met his. For a moment, Annie forgot he was a just a boy. Lightly, he kissed her on the lips. Then he pulled back and gave her a playful smile. The musician was making his fiddle speak a language that made Joe’s feet more than ready to dance.
“Come on pretty lady,” Joe said. “Let’s show the good people of Virginia City how a couple of sinners can dance!”
With a happy laugh, Annie took his hand, and together they launched themselves into the blur of mayhem known as the Cowboy Waltz.
Joe loved to dance. His mother had a passion for dancing, and she had seen to it that Joe learned to dance while still a child. In his short life, Joe had never lacked for partners. The loveliest women had always sought him out at the disreputable French balls. At first, the women danced with him for the amusement of dancing with a charming little boy whose education had barely begun. But soon enough, their motivation began to change. As he grew older. Joe could track his own maturation in the looks of anticipation in his dance partners’ eyes.
Even now, while gliding merrily around the dance floor, Joe was fully aware he was being watched. He saw his father watching him, with a look both relaxed and proud. He saw his brothers watching, and Joe thought to himself that those two needed to be dancing as well. He could not miss the indignation in the eyes of the pretty girls of Virginia City, so close to him in age and so far away in everything else, glaring forthrightly as he and Annie waltzed by. He certainly did not misread the rancor of the young men who seethed at this new display of audacity. Joe could feel their unrestrained glares of hostility, each like a dagger pressed against his neck. Joe sighed when the waltz came to an end. He had felt the same tension before in New Orleans, and it didn’t look like any helpful saloon girl was going to help him get away.
Joe was leading Annie to the punch bowl to join his family, when he spotted the man for the first time. The man had just strolled into the hall and looked directly at Joe, a smile spreading slowly upon his face. Joe did not smile back. Everything about the man brought back a visceral flow of memories. The flowing hair, the fine tailored clothing, even the sanguinity of his pose. Joe had known that type of man every day of his life, from the streets of French Quarter, to the Vieux Carre, to the floating gambling dens on the Mississippi. The man might well be a stranger to him, but Joe knew without a doubt that New Orleans itself had just walked into the room.
Unsettled, but determined to find out who he was, Joe started to walk towards the man, when a furious tug on his arm almost pulled him down. Joe pivoted to stare at Pete Logan, a young man a few years older than himself, who lived nearby on a ranch near the Truckee.
Frustrated in his desire to confront the other man, Joe snapped, “What is it Logan?”
Logan said in a loud enough voice to carry across the room, “You’ve got some nerve boy! It’s bad enough we have to put up with someone like you, but you’ve got no right making our decent women breathe the same air as your-“
The stranger was immediately forgotten. Joe’s straight left hook interrupted Logan’s diatribe before he could spit out the next word. All the tension of the past several months had come to a head, and Joe’s first punch threw it into instant fruition. And the fight was on.
While Logan was no bigger than himself in size, he reminded Joe of a baby rattler Hoss had showed him, who was among the most deadly of the snakes found in the Sierras. The youngest snakes did not hold back their venom, but released it all at once, which made them more deadly than snakes that were fully grown. It would be a lethal mistake to judge his adversary by size alone. In a fury, Logan hurled himself at Joe, and his powerful right straight punch caught Joe hard in his midsection. His wind knocked out, Joe slumped and felt himself caught by strong arms that didn’t let him fall. Joe looked over his shoulder and into the fierce eyes of Adam.
Hoss came from behind and with a powerful blow to the man’s chin, sent him spinning over a table and chairs. Joe tried to follow after him, but Adam kept him firmly in his hold.
“Would someone like to tell me what’s going on?” Ben demanded. His voice echoed across the suddenly silent dance hall. Joe strained to free himself from Adam’s hold to be able to face his father.
“Pa, Pa, listen to me,” Joe said quietly. He tried not to think about the bruising waves of pain across his chest that made it difficult for him to breathe. “Pa, you need to let me do this. I have to do this by myself. Please Pa. You have to trust me.”
Ben stared at his son. The boy was already in quite a bit of pain. Ben wanted nothing more than to gather up Joe and force him out of the door, but something in his son’s eyes made him reconsider. Intuitively, Ben knew what Joe wanted from him. He was asking for his father to believe in him. He was asking for a chance to make it in their world. Ben did not like it one bit, but he knew he had no choice but to give his son what he was asking for.
In a harsh voice he said, “Adam, let him go.”
“But Pa,” Adam gasped.
“I said let him go,” Ben said, and continued to stare at Joe. “Go ahead boy. Do what you need to.”
“Thanks Pa,” Joe said. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Pa you can’t let him,” Hoss protested. “Can’t you see he’s hurting?”
“Yes, I can see that he’s hurting,” Ben said. “And I said let him go.”
Reluctantly, Adam released his brother’s arms and Hoss stood back as well. As they saw it, the boy could barely stand. Both men glared at their father and fervently hoped he knew what he was doing.
Joe turned slowly and surveyed that room. Although Logan lay on the floor still knocked out by Hoss’s forceful blow, a room full of hostile onlookers waited for their turn. Joe could see them all, a relentless parade of bullying young men eager to test their manhood against his own. Joe knew the provocations would go on and on, until he put an end to them himself. And there had never been a better time for such an ending.
“Gentlemen!” Joe shouted, clearly directing his words to every young man in the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Annie beginning to cry in the corner and he longed to go to her, but this needed to be taken care of first. “I get the feeling that some of you have something you want to say to me. Well this is the chance you’ve been waiting for. I’ll take any of you on. But only one at a time and that’s my condition!”
Joe took off his gun belt and handed it to his father.
“Are you sure Joe?” his father asked quietly. “Are you all right?”
“Right as rain, Pa,” Joe answered and grinned. He spoke the truth. He felt just fine. He just had no idea how he would feel in the morning.
The first man who met his challenge was Harry Sullivan, a young man, Joe had seen milling about the saloon, after the last round-up. Taller and more muscular than Joe, Sullivan handed his gun to a friend and approached Joe confidently, his eyes narrowed with disdain.
“All right boy,” he smirked. “It’s about time someone put you in your place.”
Joe knew he was physically overmatched, but he also knew his own strengths were not physical. Laughter and rage, he told himself. Make the most of your advantage. With a quick prayer, Joe drew back his fist and threw the first punch. He had the element of surprise on his side and was pleasantly surprised when his left uppercut made solid contact with the man’s jaw. Fighting left-handed was a problem when dueling with a sword, but in a brawl, it certainly had its advantages. Sullivan staggered back with the impact of the blow, but slowly turned toward him with mounting rage. Joe would not be able to surprise him again.
Sullivan’s next punch landed directly on Joe’s chin and the boy flew backwards, his head slamming hard against a post. He shook off the ringing in his ears and pushed himself up to his feet. Think about your next move, he chided himself, think what your opponent might try next. Like chess, only with your fists, he remembered. Although he had grown and developed considerably during the past several months, Joe still had the body of a boy, and it would take something to overcome the greater strength of a grown man.
As the man raised his fist to drive it in again, Joe dodged out of its path. In a move he didn’t know he even know he had, Joe dove and tumbled in a sharp roll out the way. Despite himself, a smile touched the corner of his lips. His mother always said that he was the luckiest boy alive. Who could have known that he would be good at this as well?
Infuriated, the other man stalked forward to lean over the prone body of the boy, intending to finish him off. Across the room, Hoss practically snarled. He couldn’t take watching his little brother taking a beating for another minute. He started toward them from across the room, but Adam held his arm.
“Just give the kid another minute,” Adam urged. “I have a feeling that he might pull this off.”
As Sullivan leaned over the boy to deliver a final blow, Joe scissored the man’s head between his legs and with precision, flipped him over his head. Sullivan hit his head hard on the ground and did not rise again.
Struggling to his feet and panting hard, Joe looked around for Adam and smiled painfully, when he saw him applauding from across the room.
“Thanks for that move, older brother,” Joe said with a painful smile. He turned to the rest of the room. “All right, gentlemen. Who’s next?”
It took at least an hour and several young men later, but at last Joe stood alone in the shamble of the ruined hall. Broken chairs and split tables littered the room. Every remaining spectator stood with his back pressed into the relative safety of the wall. Annie had left long ago. Her look of reproach as she went out the door would stay with Joe for a long time. He would have to deal with it later, as well as the other costly reminders of his battle. Joe could not even imagine how much money it would take to repair the place. Even though he could barely think through the throbbing of his head, he allowed himself to be glad he had not squandered the winnings that were still hidden underneath his bed. Certainly, it would take quite a few Virginia City poker games to even begin to make amends.
His own body might be harder to repair. Joe had taken more punches, kicks and blows in the past hour than he had ever endured at one time. He had nothing left to give and could hardly even stand, but he could not let it show. He was not yet sure if he was done.
Joe turned to face off the men who remained. Joe stared hard at the son of the banker who had consistently refused to look at him, when they passed on the street. Joe moved on to the young man who worked at the mill and would not take a job order from him, unless his brothers were along. Joe moved on to the local attorney’s young associate who had smirked mockingly, when Ben changed the terms of his will at the lawyer’s office. If any of them still wanted to fight, Joe would find the strength to take them on. Yet, one by one, each man met his eye, shook his head, and walked out of the room. It really was over, at last.
In the onslaught of victory and pain, Joe could feel his body beginning to tremble, could feel the muscles of his legs giving way. It was inevitable. He had nothing left to give. As he collapsed, Joe felt himself being supported before he could hit the floor. His father and brothers held onto him, and he sank gratefully into the comfort of their combined strength.
As they half carried him over to one of the few chairs that remained, Joe suddenly remembered the stranger from New Orleans and looked for him around the room. He saw the man at last, standing near the punch bowl, with a drink in hand.
Hoss brought Joe a cup of water, and spoke to him softly in the voice he saved for the comforting of wounded animals. “Drink this, boy. This will surely help. I’ll tell you one thing, little brother. You ain’t short on guts.”
Joe reached for the cup with bleeding fingers that could hardly hold a thing. He gazed back towards the man.
With a slow, deliberate smile and an exaggerated bow of his head, the man lifted his glass to Joe in a long dramatic toast.
Not really understanding what he was doing or why he was doing it, Joe raised his own cup in his shaking hand and accepted the man’s toast. Together, each man lifted his cup, raised it to his lips, and drank deeply.
For the next few days, Joe waited for the stranger to come. After the battle of the dance, he could barely walk, let alone sit a horse. The long trip home that night, lying in the back of a rented wagon, while Hoss brought him home, had been excruciating. But Joe savored every minute of it and considered it quite a small price to pay for such a satisfying night. The looks that Hoss kept giving him, both worried and proud, let Joe know that his older brother felt the same way.
No one in his family discussed the dance, although Joe could sense an undercurrent of respect, as they bandaged his ribs and tried to make him comfortable, the best they knew how. They had hated helplessly watching him fight the town, but they were proud in the way he took on those men. Joe knew this and was grateful for their quiet understanding. It did not surprise him that Adam and Hoss could feel that way. Yet Joe noticed the greatest change had taken place in his relationship with his father.
It had not taken long for Joe to fall in with his brothers. Their good company had been a balm to the soul of a boy who had never grown up with men. It had been far more difficult to reach such an understanding with his father. Certainly, Joe had come to love and respect Ben Cartwright, had observed in him strength and courage he had never known before in a man. Yet, the relationship had not been easy for the boy. Despite everything he observed and knew to be true, Joe could not shake the feeling that if his father had only believed his mother when she needed him the most, she would have never left the Ponderosa.
Joe had adored his mother and had never willingly disobeyed her while she lived. But he knew without a doubt that it would have been a far better thing if she had stayed. The cost of her leaving continued to that day, and it pained Joe to think of how his life might have been different, if only she had remained.
Joe knew that other people recognized the things that made Ben Cartwright an impressive man: his abiding moral virtue, his powerful body, and his even stronger mind. But Joe had been touched by what outsiders could not know. The depth of love that Joe had experienced in the dance hall that night, when his father believed in his son and acknowledged him as a man. I have a father, Joe told himself again and again, and he knows who I am. It should have been enough to sustain a man, but somehow Joe knew, there was more that still needed to be said. As he grew closer to his family, Joe was finding it harder and harder to hang on to the secrets that he had kept hidden for so long.
So Joe kept waiting. He waited for the man from New Orleans to come to him, and he kept his epee and his gun close by, much to the amusement of his family who did not understand why he needed his weapons, while recuperating inside the house.
“Joe,” Adam had said. “I don’t think any of those fellows from Virginia City are going to be coming after you any time soon.”
“That’s for dang sure little brother,” Hoss had added. “I don’t expect they could do anything to you even if they wanted to. And to tell you the truth, I reckon you pounded the fight clean out of them.”
Joe had laughed with his brothers, but kept both weapons near him, anyways. He did not know what kind of duel the stranger had in mind, but Joe wanted to be ready all the same.
On the fourth evening, after they had just finished dinner, the knock on the door came just as Joe knew it would. Somehow, Joe just knew that the stranger would wait until he had recovered from his fight, before revealing his hand. A man wanted his adversary to be in top form for a challenge. It was simply a matter of good manners, as any man would have known in New Orleans.
“Who do you reckon that could be?” Hoss asked, as he lumbered toward the door. Adam and Ben glanced at each other, both observing how Joe had reached for his gun and tucked it beside his lap.
Hoss opened the door, and the man stood outside, basking in the finest summer evening a body had a right to know.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” the man said, and doffed his hat in an elegant bow. “A wonderful night it is. Summer nights in the West are a glorious thing. Not much like summers in New Orleans, are they son?”
The man smiled from the doorway at the boy who had not moved from the settee. The man observed the tableau before him. It certainly had the appearance of a family, of a home. But the stranger wasn’t convinced. He held his out hand to Hoss, who shook it, however reluctantly.
Ben and Adam joined Hoss at the door.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said, warily. “Do we know you?”
“Oh I’m so sorry I haven’t remembered my manners,” the stranger said. “I am Monsieur Bernard Laveau. And it is truly a pleasure to meet you. I have come a long way for the pleasure of this meeting.”
“And you’ve come from…” Adam prodded, although he was sure he already knew the answer. The man’s origin was obvious, in his accent and dress.
“New Orleans, of course,” Laveau said, with a smile. “I would have thought it would have been apparent. Mr. Cartwright, may I come in, if you don’t mind? I have come a long way to speak with your son.”
“Joseph?” Ben called out, not taking his eyes off the stranger. “Do you know this man?”
“I’m not sure, Pa,” Joe answered truthfully. He knew that he recognized the man, but he could not quite place him, despite his best efforts. And he was afraid. The boy still inside Joe wanted to run upstairs to his bedroom and hide. Act like nothing might change, like it could all stay the same. But the man inside of him, the voice he listened to the most, told him to stay and hear what the stranger had to say. “Honestly Pa, I don’t know if I’ve seen him before. I think it’s all right though. Just let come him inside.”
Reluctantly, the three men guarding the door yielded just enough room for the man to slip in between them. He walked directly to the settee.
“Joe Cartwright. Bonjour. It is so good to see you again. And you have grown so much since the last time I saw you,” Laveau said, with a smile. Calmly, he adjusted the lapel of his striped linen jacket, and removed the hat cocked jauntily to one side. “Don’t stand up, son. I know you must be recovering from your performance the other night. It was an honor to have witnessed it. Brilliant! You have learned a whole, new style from your time in the wilderness. Your mother would be pleased. It would serve you very well in New Orleans.”
“Monsieur Laveau,” Ben interrupted. He had observed many men like this during his stay in New Orleans. He did not want this man anywhere near his son. “This boy says he doesn’t know you. Whatever you’re here for, you better just say it, and then be on your way.”
“This boy!” Laveau exclaimed. “You’re calling this young man a boy? Son, have you told these men who you are?”
“I don’t know what mean, Monsieur,” Joe said, his head tilted in an expression that almost resembled curiosity. Despite his reservations about what was to come, Joe no longer felt afraid of the man.
“Oh I think you know exactly what I’m talking about,” Laveau laughed. “But I can see why they still think of you as a boy. I’d imagine it would be in your interest to let them see you that way. Don’t worry son. I’m not here to give away all your secrets!”
“Exactly why are you here?” Adam asked, not bothering to conceal the hostility in his voice. Instinctively, Adam knew that this man could bring them nothing but grief.
“Oh we will get to that,” Laveau replied airily. “May I sit down? It’s been quite a ride. Gentlemen, I suggest you sit down as well. I have a long, tragic story to tell and it is not the kind of story favors standing. Joe, I am surprised that you do not remember me. I was in and out of your home in New Orleans on several occasions. I was a…friend…. to your mother.”
Laveau’s meaning was clear and it infuriated the three older men. Hoss moved toward him in obvious anger, but Joe grabbed his brother’s arm and held it. Unlike his family, he felt strangely calm. The dispassionate demeanor that had served him so well in New Orleans had returned, and Joe welcomed it back like an old friend.
“It’s all right,” Joe said. “Come sit by me, Hoss. I’m sure Monsieur Laveau knows that my mother had many… friends. You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering all of them.”
“Of course, of course.” Laveau said. “But I was not just your mother’s friend. I also played cards with you twice in the gaming parlor on Gallatin Street. You beat me handily both times, I must add. Two fine games. I am rather insulted that you do not remember.”
“I think it’s coming back to me,” Joe said with a small smile. “I thought you looked familiar. But why are you here? You didn’t come all this way, because you’re upset I beat you at cards.”
“That’s right. Tell us why you are here, and then be on your way,” Adam said. He did not like the direction the conversation was heading and wanted to put an end to it, as soon as he could.
“So soon?” Laveau sighed. “The young man and I were just getting reacquainted. Very well. I suppose I must attend to the unpleasant reason for my visit. Now Joe, I do not intend to make life difficult for you. I am willing to withhold as much as is possible. You have to understand that this is only business.”
“What kind of business?” Ben growled. He could hear his own heart pounding out his trepidation at what the man might say. For a moment, Ben felt out of control, as though things were quickly slipping out of his hands. He fought to quell the panic in his voice. “Joe lives under the protection of this family. What kind of business could a man like you possibly have with my boy?”
“And again they call him a boy,” Laveau said, genuine amusement in his voice. “All right, Mr. Cartwright, I will tell you. I have high hopes that this ‘boy’, as you call him, will make me a wealthy man.”
“And how do you figure that?” Hoss could barely contain his outrage, as he listened to the man talk. “Mister, I don’t know nothing about you. But I do know this. You ain’t up to no good, and you ain’t about to drag my little brother along with you.
“Oh no, Monseur, you misunderstand me,” Laveau said and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. To everyone’s amazement, the boy did not shrug it off, but continued to listen with a thoughtful expression on his face. “I do not mean to harm Joe in any way. In fact, I have only the greatest admiration for your brother.”
“Then what kind of business do you have with Joe?” Adam demanded.
“Ah, the direct approach!” Laveau exclaimed. “One of the most charming aspects of the West. It must have been so difficult for you, Joe, learning to live out here! Well, let’s get to it then, if we must. What do I have in mind, you ask? Well blackmail, of course.”
“Blackmail!” the three men cried out. Only Joe sat calmly, listening to the man.
Adam reached for his gun, and pointed it at Laveau. In a low voice, he said, “Mister, you have one minute to get out of this house, and I suggest you take it now.”
“No Adam.” Joe’s voice was so quiet, they all had to strain to make it out. “I want to hear what Monsieur Laveau has to say.”
“Listen to me Joe,” Laveau said suddenly, with a serious look on his face. “I have no intention of sharing your secrets with your family, unless I need to. Now from one old gambler to another, I know you can tell that I am not bluffing. I just want money, and your secret will return with me to New Orleans.”
“My son is not a gambler!” Ben exploded.
Joe and Laveau turned to stare at Ben. Joe tried hard not to laugh. He just could not help himself. His father was by far the most stubborn man he knew. On the verge of learning all that Joe had so carefully kept hidden, Ben Cartwright could not tolerate his son being called a gambler.
Laveau glanced at the boy and shared his smile. “On the contrary, sir. Gambling his in his blood. I imagine he will be a gambler until the day he dies. In fact, not only is your son a gambler, but before he left, he showed promise of becoming one of the finest card sharps on the entire Viex Carre. You should be honored. Your son gave up a very promising future to join you here.”
“What are you talking about?” Adam snapped. He could stand it no longer. He leaned over and forced Laveau’s hand off of his brother’s shoulder. “What future could this boy have in New Orleans besides an early grave?”
“That’s where you’re mistaken,” Laveau continued. “Joe was just coming into his own. Joe, do you know Monsieur Curtius himself was going to offer you protection, in exchange for you working exclusively for him? You would have done very well for yourself had you stayed in New Orleans.”
“Monsieur Curtius?” Joe asked, flattered in spite of the dark looks his family seemed to be giving him. “But he owns the best gaming parlor on Gallatin Street! How did he even hear of me?”
“Talent builds its own reputation,” Laveau answered with a smile. He turned his attention to the father. “On to business. Mr. Cartwright. I am asking for ten thousand dollars. I can assure you, it will be a wise investment for you to pay me now and send me on my way. I do not wish to bring trouble to you or your son, but I am prepared to go public with my information, should you refuse to pay. The notoriety, at the very least, would be most unpleasant for your entire family.”
No one spoke for the next moment. In the stillness of the room, Ben could hear the distinct chatter of crickets and frogs by the creek, through the open window. The warmth of the evening breeze gently swept across the room. It was a beautiful summer night outside, the kind that showed off the Ponderosa to its best advantage. Ben loved it all, loved every bit of his portion of the world that he had staked out through hard work and good fortune. He knew every inch of it, every hill and crag, every mountain ridge and lake, every valley and gorge, every square mile of the land. When he was younger and was still building it up, he had believed he would do anything to defend it, to preserve the legacy of the land. He knew better now. Ben knew perfectly well that he would give it all up, if it meant protecting any one of his sons.
“How soon do you need the money?” Ben asked him quietly.
“Pa,” Joe cried out in shock. He could hardly believe that he had heard his father right. “You don’t even know what has to say!”
“I know he is threatening you, your future here with us. That’s enough for me,” Ben replied, his voice tight with restrained emotion.
Joe pushed himself to his feet and stood, his body still aching and sore from the beating it had endured. He turned toward Laveau and asked, “How did you know about it? How did you find out?”
The man smiled. He realized the boy knew exactly what he was being threatened with. It was the mark of a fine gambler to always keep his opponent’s hand before him at all times.
“I was with your mother that night,” Laveau said. “I was outside the building when… when she found you. When she saved you. I heard the whole thing. I saw the body -”
“And you did nothing to help us?” Joe asked, his eyes flashing with anger. “I was fourteen years old. What kind of man are you?”
“The kind of man that would blackmail another man to make his way in the world,” Laveau replied, sadly. “The same kind of man you may be someday.”
“He’s nothing like you,” Adam snapped. “And he doesn’t have to answer to you, Laveau! You heard my father. We’ll pay you what you want. Just get out of this house right now!”
Hoss stood next to Adam, and together they came between Joe and the man, forming a stronghold in front of their brother.
Hoss said, “Mister, I reckon you better listen to my brother Adam if you value your hide. Because if you talk poorly about my little brother for one more minute, there ain’t going to be enough of you left to pay off!”
Laveau stood up quickly. He had already shown enough of his hand, and it had gone better than he had expected. “Gentlemen. It has been a pleasure,” he said. “Joe, your mother would have been proud of you. She has followed you here, I am sure of it. Marie was never one to be left behind. Until we meet again.”
He bowed deeply and quickly walked out of the house. Hoss followed him outside to be certain he was actually gone.
“Joseph,” Ben said and placed his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “We don’t ever have to talk about this again. Whatever happened in the past belongs in the past. We can pay him his money, and you’ll never be bothered by him again.”
“No Pa,” Joe protested. His voice sounded small and strained. A boy’s voice, he realized sadly. Some things could not be changed. He was tired of sounding like a boy, and he wanted badly to move on. He and his mother had borne each other’s sins for so long and look at the good it had done them! The burden of keeping them had worn him out, made him older and wearier than he could bear. Joe could not carry his secrets alone, and he tried to steel himself for whatever might result from his confession. “I need to tell you, Pa. I need you to know what happened. Have you seen my back?”
“Yes Joseph. I’ve seen it.”
“Then you’ve seen the scar. Pa, please. I need to tell you what happened,” Joe said. “Adam. Hoss. Please stay. I want you to hear it too. I can’t keep it to myself any longer.”
Joe stared into the empty hearth as he began his story, trying to decide where to begin. It amazed him how easily he could return in his mind to New Orleans, but it was a far more difficult thing to bring his family along with him. It was almost as though he had never been away. Joe could easily see himself returning home that night. He could feel the liquid heat of summer on his face and could smell the mildew and decay of the city, as he returned the room he and his mother had shared. Bawdy and raucous, the life of the street was only beginning, although it was after midnight. Men, who had already lost their day’s earnings to the beer halls and gin mills of the district, wandered in and out of alleys and dark corners that Joe himself dared not enter. After all, he had just turned fourteen.
His mother has left him hours earlier to work at a newer dance hall, in another part of the city. It had been a decent job, better than most, and she walked out that evening in an especially good mood. Things were looking up after all. After she left, Joe had gone to his favorite saloon, the luckiest one, where he never failed to win. His pockets full of cash, he did not notice the older man, who waited in the shadows, who had waited for hours for either of the two to finally return home.
Back in the tiny room they shared, Joe struggled with the lamp. Though the wick was partially visible from the light of the moon shining through the window, it was hard to light, and Joe hated to waste fuel. So intent was he on his task, he barely heard the floorboards creaking behind him, until it was too late. He had just about succeeded, so he did not turn around.
“Mama?” he asked, puzzled, over his shoulder. “You’re early.”
The knife slashed him in the small of his back. Tore through muscle and sinew, even as Joe wrenched himself away. As he fell back upon the floor, it struck him as odd that he could barely feel a thing. He must be hurt badly, he thought dispassionately, could be dying even. He could feel the blood flowing, he was awash in it, and he slipped, desperately trying to get away. He groped for the lamp on the table, and managed to throw it out into the darkness. He could barely see a thing and had no way of knowing if it found its mark. Joe felt himself drifting in and out of his body, as if in a half remembered dream.
His life might have ended there, in that dark, stifling room. But his mother also had a way of walking into trouble. The door flew open and Marie, home early that night, hesitated for just a second, taking it all in. She did not scream. She was not a woman who panicked easily, for she knew no good could come from attracting unwanted attention. Marie ran to the wall and pulled her epee from its sheath. In the odd shroud of moonlight, Joe could see the man struggling with his mother, and the light slanted wildly as he started towards them. No one would hurt his mother, he vowed, and with strength born from shock and desperation, Joe crawled towards them on his hands and his knees.
When he reached them at last, his mother took one look at her son and the rage on her face, told Joe that already they had won.
“This will not happen!” Marie screamed at last, and Joe reached for the handle, covered her hand with his own. Together, they held the epee and thrust it through. It found its mark and the man fell to the floor. Joe lay down beside him, felt the floor rough against his cheek, the blood tacky against his face. It would be a good night to sleep, and Joe could feel the darkness cloak him, gently and lovingly. If not for the sound of his mother weeping beside him, Joe would have turned to it with gladness. He was so tired and so cold in the airless room.
But his mother needed him. She cried for him to breathe. Just breathe. And Joe had always been an obedient child. Had always done much of what he had been told. He could not leave his mother alone in that city.
When he awoke, it was early in the morning. New Orleans slept on, still recovering from the night’s revelry. Marie still held her son in her arms, staring hard at the man who lay across the floor from them. Her face was wretched with the horror of it.
“Who is he, Mama?” Joe asked. His voice sounded so young, so small. A voice left over from a childhood he never really knew.
“He’s a man who hurt me a long time ago,” his mother answered. “I don’t know how he found me. He must have been looking for many years.”
And she quickly told him the story of her first marriage, of the man who was not his father. She told him of the first betrayal. She told him the man who lay on her floor was the very man who had tricked her first husband into believing that she had been unfaithful. Marie had always believed it had been a business transaction for the man, a simple matter of money. Marie knew the d’Marignys, her first husband’s family, would have paid well for the purchase of her undoing. Apparently, for the man, the transaction had meant something more.
Marie almost laughed, in her despair. It had always been this way. The worst sort of man would never leave her alone, and she had left the only man who she knew would never harm her.
With her son finally awake, Marie needed to move quickly, that much was certain. Soon the streets would come alive with merchants and vendors, people who worked through the day. They had to get rid of the body. Nobody would ever believe the story of a saloon girl and her son, and one look at the man’s affluent attire told them that he must have had connections.
After changing into clothing not covered with blood, Marie and her son dragged the man down the stairs, out the building’s back door, and as far down the alley as they could manage. Marie had done her best to clean and bandage Joe’s back while he slept, and it had stopped bleeding long enough for him to try to help. Marie wished she had time to take better care of her son’s wound; it might never heal properly. They fled together down the street, leaving behind what little they owned. It was a small sacrifice. Their few possessions would have no worth for either of them, at the gallows or in prison.
From the vantage of his memory, Joe could see it all so clearly. A desperate woman and her only son, slipping away through the sordid streets, through the ancient graveyards of that city. Trying to find a way to live among the ghosts of the dead. Like the raised tombs of New Orleans that rose above the ground in solemn ornamentation, Joe felt the memory itself turn into stone. White marble angels would always keep watch over the dead. His mother’s face would always be before him, calling him to follow her, as they fled. All those monuments would remain, a testament to the thwarted plans of those who still lived.
Joe finished his story. He tore himself away from the memory of death in New Orleans and willed himself back to the Ponderosa. He returned to his father and brothers. He could barely bring himself to look at them, and when he finally did, the look of stony grief on their faces told him everything he wanted to know.
Adam was the first one to speak. “It was self defense,” he said, his voice ragged with an emotion that Joe could not quite place.
“That wouldn’t mean a thing to anyone,” Joe said, shaking his head at his older brother’s naēve faith in justice. “Mama and I didn’t matter at all. No one would have believed us. We would have been sent to prison, before the day was over. Or worse.”
“Joe. You did nothing wrong,” his father protested and tried to place his arm around his son. Ben longed to see sadness, sorrow, or fear on Joe’s face, anything but the look of determined resolve that seemed so out of place on someone so young. “You were a just a boy. You defended yourself in order to live. Joe, listen to me. I will do what you want me to do. I will go see Laveau in the morning. I can pay him or not. Either way, we will take care of this, son. We will make it go away.”
“No Pa,” Joe whispered. “I’ll take care of it myself. In the morning.”
Joe turned from them, away from the disappointment he thought he could read in their faces. He could hardly bear to bring his family any more trouble. He should never have returned. As he walked up the stairs, Joe knew what needed to be done.
At the top of the stairs, Joe said, “I’m sorry,” and completely missed the baffled look that passed between the other men, as he closed the door to his room. His father and his brothers longed to go to him right then. But the boy was clearly exhausted. He needed a good night’s sleep. All things that needed to be said would surely wait until the morning.
Backlit by the moon shining through the open window, its glow stark against his shoulders, Joe packed quietly in the bedroom he had come to call his own. He heard the stirrings of his family, as they retired to their own rooms.
“Good night, Joe,” he heard Adam call, but he could not bring himself to answer.
Joe knew what he had to do and knew he had to be quick about it. He had to get away, before he lost his resolve. For the sake of his family, nothing could wait until the morning.
The stagecoach rattled him to the bone, its stark interior a dismal reminder of the angularity of his feelings. Joe could hardly remember what he had been thinking. It had all been so clear the night before, as he considered the pain he had already brought to his family. He and his mother had always known sorrow, and Joe could not allow his father or brothers to be part of his grim heritage. Joe belonged in New Orleans, where pain and suffering were a way of life. He would fit right in, as if he had never been gone. It had seemed so clear, as he rode away from the house, under the brilliance of the stars and the moonlit sky. Now in the heat of the new day, his plan made little sense to him. Why had he been so bound and determined to run?
Sitting across from him in the stage, Laveau half dozed, one foot propped next to Joe. It had been so easy for Joe to find the man cheating at cards in the Virginia City saloon and to convince him to go along with a change in plans. As Joe had suspected all along, Laveau was no villain, just an aging gambler, already past his prime, looking for the next sure thing. Joe considered the man, with surprising sympathy. In all likelihood, he would be in a similar position himself someday. Survival was a tricky thing to manage, when you were on your own.
It had taken little to persuade Laveau that Joe would be of more use to him as a partner, back in New Orleans, than as a one-time windfall. Joe would split his earnings, which would soon amount to far more than the bribery payment. A gifted scoundrel, Laveau appreciated those odds. He agreed to the boy’s stated terms. Joe asked only to leave his family out the business and to depart on the first morning’s stage. As they came to terms during the last hours before dawn, Joe allowed himself to be grateful that Annie had not been working in the saloon that night. If he had been forced to look her in the eye and tell her the truth, Joe could never have gotten away.
As the stage passed through the last of the foothills, Joe said goodbye to the trees, tall from their season of growing, and watched sadly as they faded into plains of scrub and chaparral. His mother had made the same journey so many years before. Had she been glad to come down through the final pass of the mountains? Had she longed to have the last vestiges of the Ponderosa finally behind her? How many mistakes could a man be doomed to repeat, before he got a hold of himself and finally got it right? Joe leaned out the window and tried to breathe in the last of the thin mountain air.
It seemed that a lifetime had passed from the day of his return. Now, he would return to New Orleans, a changed man. The things he had experienced that he had never known before! Joe would never forget the utter joy of racing across meadows and pastures, through poppies and lupine, on a horse as wild and proud as any Indian chief. He had learned that from the top of Devil’s Bluff, a man could see majesty created on the day the world began. He had climbed his first mountain, marveled at the taste of new fallen snow. He had vanquished his enemies. He had made his mother proud.
Joe could suddenly picture his father and brothers and see the look on their faces, when they realized he was gone. They would search for him, he knew it to be true, but miles were already stretching out behind and before him. The dry, hot wind of the desert ahead seemed to warn him that it was quickly growing too late. He could barely understand what he had done.
Joe’s decision now seemed murky and unclear. What could possibly have driven him to it? It had been a revelation of a year, full of wonder and pain. He had survived every season, and he had loved them all. How had he gotten it so wrong?
Joe remembered his mother and her words to him, when she knew that she would die. All my foolish pride, his mother had told him, a lifetime of foolish, foolish pride. He felt for certain, that the words had been her epitaph, her everlasting regret. All her life, when confronted with trouble, his mother had chosen to run away. As her son, it had never occurred to Joe to live his life any differently. Joe loved his mother, he had not been able to save her, and he would miss her for the rest of his life. But he realized with terrible certainty that Marie would never have wanted for her son to make the same choice.
It came to him then, and Joe smiled when he knew what he had to do. His destiny was not predetermined, after all. He was seventeen and he could see it now, with stunning clarity. He had a father. He had brothers he called his friends. He had a family who had overwhelmed him, with a love he had never known. They would never leave him, no matter what had been done in the past, no matter what the future might hold for them all. Joe knew that they had tried to tell him this many times before, but he had been unable to listen until then.
Joe was the youngest son in a family of strong men, and Cartwright men did not run, in the face of the unknown. He could not know what was to come, but he knew his family would be there to see him through it.
Joe looked out the window again and saw that the landscape was not barren and desolate after all. It ached with life and with promise, and with the irrevocable force of gravity, the land called him to go home.
And Joe made his decision. He leaned across the interior of the stage and shook the knee of the old gambler across from him.
“Monsieur,” he called softly. “Please sir. Monsieur Laveau, please. You have to wake up.”
The man slowly awakened and blinked wearily at the young man seated across the stage. Lavaeau was a man who had lived mostly during the night, and the unfiltered light of the western sun made his eyes felt heavy and strange.
“What is it?” he asked the boy. “What is wrong?”
“Monsieur Laveau,” Joe said. “I appreciate your opinion of me, I really do. It means a lot to know that you were willing to give up ten thousand dollars. Part of me really would like to go back, but I just can’t do it. I’m not going to go with you. You will have to decide whether or not to go through with the bribery or not. That’s up to you.”
Now fully awake, Laveau looked at the boy, dumfounded. “Son, I don’t understand what you are trying to say.”
Joe took a long moment to consider his own words before he said them.
“I’ve decided on a change in direction,” Joe said at last, and he reached for the stage door.
Laveau looked out the window at the blur of scenery rushing past, and stared wildly at Joe, hardly believing he could be serious. Yet, the boy’s intent could not be more sincere. A life long gambler, Laveau could always tell when a man was bluffing. Joe meant every word he said.
“You can’t do it son,” Laveau gasped. “You’ll get yourself killed!”
At that, Joe grinned.
“That’s what they keep telling me,” Joe said, and tipped his hat to the man. Pushing the stage doors open with his feet, Joe hesitated for just one moment, before he launched himself out of the stage and into the dry desert air. For the briefest moment in time, he felt as if he could fly, and he wondered how his story might end. Then his body hit the ground hard, absorbed the shock of it, and in his last second of consciousness, he realized he was still alive. Barely able to breathe, he felt the land solid beneath him, accepting him as its own. Closing his eyes to the unbearable sun, Joe allowed darkness to cover him, and he waited to be found.
Ben stopped his mount short and signaled for his sons to do the same. He untied his canteen from his saddle and drank deeply, the lukewarm liquid a small comfort to his chapped lips and throat. Surely, they had ridden all day, following the tracks of the stage, and the desert was unforgiving in the peak of summer. Ben waited until Adam and Hoss had finished drinking, before moving on. They would continue to ride undaunted by the heat, even if meant following the boy all the way to New Orleans.
“Whatever it takes,” Adam had said, and they had all agreed. If they had to pursue him to the very ends of the earth, then so be it. They would never let the boy go.
Hoss, always the most able tracker, saw it first. A breach in the harsh landscape, something lying ahead, in the wake of the stagecoach’s trail. There was no doubt what they saw. All three spurred their tired horses, faster than the exhausted animals should run, and they arrived beside him at the same time.
They knelt beside the still body. Ben gathered the boy into his arms, and Adam felt for a pulse at his throat.
“He’s alive, Pa,” Adam announced, with relief he could not put into words. Hoss hurried alongside them, holding his canteen.
“Let’s see if we can get any water in him,” Ben muttered, taking it from him, his face somber and grim. It certainly looked like the boy had been thrown from the stage, and it was impossible to know how long he had been lying there, exposed and alone. It seemed impossible that his son should live. “Joe, can you hear me? You need to wake up, Joe.”
At the sound of his name, the boy seemed to return to himself. His hand fluttered against his father’s knee, and the ghost of a smile stirred across his face. At last, he awakened and stared directly into the faces of his father and his brothers.
“You found me,” Joe breathed in wonder. “I just knew you would.”
“There’s time for that later son,” Ben said, struggling against the raw emotion in his voice. “We need to see how badly you’re hurt.”
“Pa, I’m going after that stage,” Hoss said, his eyes bright with barely suppressed rage. “I can catch it if I ride fast. I’m going to make that Laveau fellow pay for what he’s done! Throwing a boy off a moving stage!”
“No Hoss,” Joe protested and grabbed his brother’s arm, holding it tightly. “You don’t understand. He didn’t throw me off. I jumped!”
“You jumped?” His father roared. “Off a moving stage?”
“Yes sir,” Joe said. He reached for the canteen himself and took a long draw from the water, before his father gently pulled it away. Hoss took the canteen and used it to wet a rag, and dabbed at his brother’s face and neck.
“Boy,” Hoss said, letting loose with a low whistle. “I reckon you got more lives than that ol’ tomcat that’s lived in the back of the barn since I was born! What made you try a fool thing like that anyhow?”
Joe touched his brother’s hand. “I wanted to get back. Just couldn’t stand to go any farther.”
While Ben clung to his youngest son, Adam looked into Hoss’s eyes and saw in them the same mingling of worry and wonder that had to be visible in his own. It was a mystery to him how it had all turned out so well. How many times could one boy cheat his own death? Would providence or luck ever let him down? Somehow, Adam had a strong suspicion they would all be asking those questions again, in the years that were to come.
Joe looked up at his brothers from his father’s tight hold, and he smiled.
“Are you ready to go home, son?” Ben asked.
“Pa, there’s one thing I’m sure of,” Joe replied. “I am ready to go home.”