Firstly, let me apologise that it's taken me so long to get around to writing this. It's not been easy, remembering. I'd hoped that taking this trip abroad would help me shed the memories of our time in Redditch. I'm glad I resisted Pa's efforts to keep me at home. It's been difficult being away from the Ponderosa, but I know it would have been even harder, trying to come to terms with it all, at home. Pa and Hoss try, but they can never understand what we went through. Only you and I know the horror of those dark, interminable days; which is why I'm writing this to you.
The truth is, I'm struggling, Joe. That's not easy for me to admit. You, more than anyone else, know I've always been the capable oldest brother. I've prided myself on my ability to cope, to deal with every situation reasonably and logically. Some people have called me arrogant, but you - and Pa and Hoss -– you know me better. It's even possible, I think, you wouldn't be surprised to hear of my sleepless nights and tortured days. Maybe I set my own bar too high. Maybe I have been arrogant in believing I have enough strength of character to reason my way through the trials of life and maintain my sanity to the end.
It's my sanity for which I fear, Little Joe. After what happened to us in Redditch, I am tormented by endless self-doubt; I, who was always so self-assured! I'm a grown man, and yet I wake sweating at night, like a child from a nightmare, in fear of the darkness. It presses against my eyeballs and crawls over my skin. I breathe it in and it smells like blood. I never feared the dark; not until those days in Redditch when you cried out and clung to me, and I could do nothing more to help you. Each time you fell silent, my stomach would seize with fear that you had died. In the darkness, I couldn't even see if you still breathed. I put my hand on your chest, just to feel your heart beating; too scared to sleep in case I woke and found you dead beside me.
I'm plagued by what-ifs. Pointless maybes that gnaw at my sanity like crawling maggots. What if I had just looked more closely into the face of that man in the bath house? What if I had not gone next door for a shave? What if I had never shot Fynn McIlroy in the first place? What sense is there in questions like that? We can't change the past any more than we can predict the future, yet they eat away at me. I lie awake, formulating endless scenarios that will never happen, and I wake up still wondering. Was I wrong to shoot that boy? There were innocent people there, by that stage. Unarmed people. Women. Children. I shot him in the arm. At the time, I was relieved; even pleased. Was that wrong? Was that arrogance? Was what happened to you divine retribution for my own naïve self-righteousness? And is this torment my judgement?
Actions have consequences. How many times have we all told you that, over the years? I should have heeded my own warnings. The consequence of my shooting Fynn McIlroy was that his brother shot you. That makes me responsible. I know you'll tell me that doesn't make sense. Pa would say the same. So would Hoss. Or any sensible man. But here's the rub, Joe. Sense doesn't come into it. Reason has long since deserted me. It vanished in the stinking darkness of that cell, and I don't know how to restore it. I don't know how to be the rational man I was before.
There's something else I need to tell you. Something I never admitted to you before. Forgive me that my cowardice forces this confession from my pen rather than from my lips, but the truth is, brother, after Simon McIlroy put that poison into my hands, there were moments when I doubted the wisdom of pouring it away. I'm as much of a wretch as he was, Joe. Hearing you cry to me in that festering darkness, powerless to help you, I admit, I did contemplate the unthinkable. Not once, but many times. How I've wept for it since! How I weep for it now, even as I write. When Simon McIlroy told me he had prayed for his brother to die, how could I condemn him? I, who know the torment that drove him to that dark, desperate place. Damn it, Joe! What is a man to do when his brother cries out in unbearable pain and there is no comfort left to offer? What does he do when faith and hope evaporate into the darkness, and all the love in the world can't ease his brother's agony? Pray? That's what Pa would have done, certainly. And Hoss. They have more faith than I ever did. They would have kept believing. But me? Miserable creature that I am, Joe, I couldn't pray. I couldn't pray because I was too scared God might hear me and grant my prayers, the way He granted Simon McIlroy's.
I thought you'd hang on, little brother. You'd hung on so long already. I thought, together, we'd have the strength to get through. We always did before. It's why I let you keep on suffering, because I was so certain you would make it through. Even when McIlroy lay dead on the floor with a bullet in his brain, I thought you would hold on. Somehow.
You won't read this letter, of course, I know that. But I wish you could. I wish you were still here to laugh at my madness and condemn me for the fool I am. I miss you, younger brother. Even though I'm thousands of miles from the Ponderosa, I feel your absence there like a constant ache in my heart. I'd thought all these miles would ease the pain, but the fact is, you weren't just a part of the Ponderosa, you were a part of me too. I imagine I see you, in all kinds of impossible places: running beside the Seine, or grinning at me from a balcony, or stretched out on the grass in the sunshine, or ducking your head beneath a fountain. Sometimes I hear your voice on a busy street, or hear you calling me in the dark. So real, I even answer you, or turn to find you. I swear sometimes, I even hear you laughing….