July, 1898

By the Tahoe Ladies



From the Journal of Ben Cartwright:


July 1898



I've decided to go ahead and write this down. Maybe if I do, it will make sense, not just to me, but for those who come after me.

My eyes burn for I haven't slept well for several days. My hands tremble with not just fatigue but with age. I am an old man and I have been made older yet in the last days.


It began night before last. The early summer heat left me somewhat restless and I had gotten up for a drink of water from the pitcher in my room. For a while, I had looked out over the meadow, glistening in the moonlight. I could see clearly, as though by the light of day. In one rail-fenced pasture, my son's old pinto stood, head up, ears cocked forward as the horse gave his attention to the errant breeze. In my thoughts I chastised old Cochise, the horse, and then thought better of it and just whispered that some day soon Joseph would return to ride him.

Joseph, my son. He had been gone only a short while. A message from an old acquaintance had come, asking for his help. A war was brewing with Spain and Joe's one-time companion knew the Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy they called him, was putting together a group of tough men, all Westerners, who would go to Cuba and avenge the sinking of the battleship Maine. The Rough Riders. There had been no talking Joe out of going. The night he had left, I had done everything a father could to dissuade him but he had said that it was his duty.

How could I convince him? His second marriage, so bright and hopeful in the beginning, had fallen into a shamble. His wife spitefully had taken what mattered to him, his children, and returned to the East. Joe had stayed here on the Ponderosa, running it, making it self-sustaining, more so than it had ever been. I was proud of him and I had told him so many times but in the end, it was not enough. He had grinned at me and told me not to worry. He would be home before Christmas. In the end, I knew as a man that I could no longer hold him.


That was in April. Springtime. Now it was July and summer. I'd had a few letters from him, full of wild stories about wild times and I must admit, I envied it all a little, as Jamie or Candy read them to me. More than anything, they were full of Joe. I kept them in my nightstand, next to those from Adam.

But that night, with the moon full and bright, as I looked over the pastures, I grew slightly chilled. I turned, expecting to see my bedroom door open but it was still closed. Again I turned back to the window, and saw Cochise lift his nose into the wind then whirl and gallop to fence. I studied the direction he raced but saw nothing.

I recall thinking that perhaps the old horse was going stir-crazy. After all, no one had ridden him in almost four months. I would change that tomorrow, I promised him. I might be an old man but I can still sit a saddle.

With another glance out the lace curtained window, I returned to my rumbled bed and settled myself on it, drawing the sheet up and pressing my head into the pillows.

What I first sensed was that there was a single strong whiff of gunpowder, spent gunpowder. I sat up and listened carefully. There was no sound…but then there was….faintly, light steps and a tap on my bedroom door. I tried to untangle my legs from the sheet and thought to call out but before I could do either, the door opened.

There he stood. Even deep in the shadows, I could tell it was my son, my Joseph. He stood, one hand on the knob, the other hand running through his shaggy hair.

"Joseph!" I exclaimed, finding my voice suddenly. "When did you get home?"

He didn't answer my question. Instead, he looked over his shoulder as if listening to someone else but I could neither see nor hear anyone but the two of us. Then, in his easy manner, he came on into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed next to me.

"I need to talk to you, Pa." His voice trembled as he spoke and with the long held instinct of being a parent, I reached my hand out and let it lay on his shoulder.

There came again the smell of spent gunpowder, stronger now and wreathing into it, something stronger yet: the coppery tang of blood. Feeling that Joe was hurt, I made to reach for the matches to light my lamp. He grabbed my hand and begged me not to.

"No, please," he begged.

I sat up the rest of the way in bed, leaning against headboard. "What's wrong, son?"

In halting, jerking phrases, his story came out. The glory of battle had not been what he had thought it would. They had been mowed down, man after man, as they had tried to take the hill. Horses had been slaughtered and made breastworks of. There had been so much shooting that the air around him was fogged by gunsmoke, making it hard to see anything but the flash of gunfire. He had watched his friend close at his side take a bullet in the throat and he had died in Joseph's arms. With that admission, he fell strangely silent.

I ran my hand up his arm, unable to find the words to help him face this tragedy but knowing that this son, of all my sons, would respond to simple touch. I was right. He crumpled into my arms. I could feel his back quivering beneath my hands, his tears dampening my nightshirt. Pressing my cheek into his graying curls, I smelled the blood and cordite again.

"Joseph," I said softly, "Are you hurt? I mean-"

He said nothing but tightened his grip on my shoulder, burying his face in my chest. I was not strong enough to push him back to see if he were injured, shot, hurt. Besides, it felt so good to hold him once more that I had no real desire to part.

Finally, his sobs stopped but he did not pull away from me. Again I asked him if he was all right.

 "Please, Pa," he begged and I heard tears in his voice, "Just hold me for a while. Please? I know it's childish but, please?"

How could I deny him? I couldn't and as the moon sailed across the heavens, I held my son, feeling his body warm against mine and the gentle rise and fall of his chest as his breathing steadied. Only once did I hear the downstairs clock chime the hour, two am.

There were so many things I wanted to ask him, to tell him, but I held my peace. Instead, I filled my time marveling at how sturdy he felt and how long it had been since my child had touched me this way, needing me as a sanctuary, as a father.

Before I would see the sun begin to color the sky outside my window, Joe stirred just a little then pressed his cheek to my heart. He took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, a long drawn out sigh. I looked down into his face. His eyes were bright and shining with love and he smiled a little, seeing me, then he closed his eyes. The smile remained and warmed me.

I slept.


When I awoke, Joseph wasn't with me. I rose and donning my robe quickly, I went to his room, thinking I would find him there. The room was empty, the bed still neatly made. I was about to go downstairs, shouting for him, when a strident pounding came to the front door.

Candy, our ranch foreman for many years, answered the door before I got down to the first landing. He took a white envelope from someone standing there, thanked them then closed the door. The face he turned to me was grief stricken.

"It's from the War Department, Ben," he said, his voice growing tighter with each word. He gestured and before I could reply, he opened it. "It is our sad duty to inform you that during a charge up San Juan Hill, your son.…" He couldn't go on. He didn't have to. I knew.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Visitors to the house, the news having spread like wildfire, wore woeful, hangdog faces. The women cried and more than one old friend shook my hand gravely, then walked away wiping their eyes. Paul Martin, still playing the role of the good family doctor, offered me a sedative. I refused for myself but said that Jamie might benefit from it. I must have surprised all of them because Roy Coffee remarked how well I was taking it to a stoic Candy.

How could I tell them? I couldn't then and I don't know if I ever will, but maybe this putting it down will help. I don't know how, but through time and space, Joseph reached out to me. He was as real to me that night as the paper I write this on, the ink I use, the tears I cry. He was not a spirit. He was here. With me.

Yes, I know my son is dead. I held him while he died.



Requiescat en pace, en securitatis.


Tahoe Ladies

February 2004



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