The Heart of a Hero (by Christy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8400


 

Lake Tahoe was elegant, a shining display of translucent beauty surrounded by the majestic mountains which kept the pristine water cold even during the heat of summer.  Today was one of those days, blistering to both Little Joe Cartwright and his brother, Hoss.  Together the men made their way down to the shoreline to take their boat out for some much-needed relaxation.  The men tethered their horses, Little Joe’s beloved pinto, Cochise and Hoss’ much larger horse, Chubb on the branches of a tree.  The horses would be content to munch on grass under the shade of the trees for the afternoon.

“Come on, Hoss, you’re slow as molasses today,” Joe called to his brother from the shore.  Hoss flashed his brother a grin.  Standing over 6’4 inches tall and weighing almost 300#, the big friendly man moved fast when he wanted to.  Today was a lazy day.

“Ain’t in no hurry, Shortshanks,” he called back to the younger man.  “It’s my day off.  One of the most beautiful days I ever done seen too.”

“Think so, Big Brother?” Joe teased. “Too bad Mary Ellen isn’t here to go fishing with you instead of me.”

“Too bad,” Hoss laughed.  “Picture that, a romantic afternoon spent in a boat with a gal I’d like to call my own.  Aww, she wouldn’t go out with me anyhow.”

Joe threw their fishing poles and the picnic basket in the wooden boat that the boys had built themselves with some extra reinforcement to hold when Hoss’ weight was added to the equation.  It was strong and sturdy having never let the boys down yet.  They had spent many a fine afternoon over the past few years out on the lake, their time spent together precious and deeply treasured by the two brothers. They pushed the boat to the water’s edge.  Hoss got in first and used his oar along with Joe’s weight to get the boat further into the water until Joe could jump in and they were off.

“Hoss, you don’t give yourself enough credit, that’s what the problem is,” Joe offered while they rowed themselves out towards the center of the shimmering water.

“Hey, Little Brother? Ain’t we had this conversation afore? You know Mary Ellen is sweet on Dirk Benson, that hand from the Martin’s place.  They been going steady for a fair amount of time.”

“I heard Mary Ellen was going to break it off,” Joe hinted.  Around the brothers, the further they got away from shore, the cooler the air became as the water surrounded them.  Hoss was strong and the boat was in their favorite location, a half mile out from shore before they knew it.  Hoss shook his head.

“Don’t matter none…does it?”

“Course it does,” Joe returned with his usual enthusiasm.  “Now’s your chance.”

“Here’s your pole, Little Joe,” Hoss offered handing Joe the piece of fishing equipment.  “Reckon I’ll get this squirmy little worm to be still so’s I can get him hooked.  Now, I don’t want to talk about Mary Ellen.  I wanted ta tell ya a secret.  Adam’s coming home!”

Joe Cartwright had just thrown his baited fishing pole into the water when his green eyes flew to his brother with a silent question of disbelief.  Hoss nodded with a solemn expression.

“Yep.  Pa’s going to be plumb tickled pink.”  Hoss’s smile was a mile wide compared to Joe’s hesitant appearance.  Around them, the wind was picking up and the clouds were setting in.  Neither brother paid attention they were so wound up in each other.

“S’pose Pa will be real happy to have Adam home,” Joe agreed with a sulky look towards the water.

Hoss didn’t miss his brother’s reaction.  His sigh was as heavy as the air around them. “Joe, I don’t understand you. Whatcha got against Adam coming home? He’s your brother too!”

“Yeah, and he left.  He left but good.  Why, even his letters been few and far between,” Joe shot back.

“No reason to get upset iff’n he’s home.”

“No, no I s’pose not, Hoss.”

Silence fell over the men.  Hoss dipped into the picnic basket taking out some of Hop Sing’s cold friend chicken.  Joe watched the big man eat, not hungry himself all of a sudden.

“Been through this so many times since Adam left in the first place, Hoss.  Don’t know why he had to go back East to live when he had everything a man could want right here.”

“Joe, ya ain’t never known anything but the Ponderosa,” Hoss explained.  “I tried to tell ya before.  Part of Adam belongs here and part of him belongs in the East.  It’s that simple.”

“Not to me,” Joe returned.

“You and Adam are more alike than ya know, Shortshanks.  Both a ya with hot tempers, and a stubborn cussedness that drives Pa ta distraction.”

Joe couldn’t help grinning at Hoss’ words.  He supposed that his and Adam’s endless fighting had driven his father crazy on more than one occasion.  Joe knew he loved Adam, but it wasn’t like him and Hoss.  Hoss, well, Hoss was Hoss, his big brother, his best friend.  Hoss looked up as the wind picked up.  A fat raindrop hit the man in the face.  Joe was suddenly pelted by the same drops. The two men had been taken by surprise. A storm was bearing down on them quickly, the water beneath them becoming rough, and the air going from warm to cold quickly as a front passed through.

“Get those poles in, Little Joe,” Hoss ordered. “Let’s get this contraption back to shore afore we’re stuck out here or worse.  Don’t want Pa to have ta come out looking for us.”

“He would too,” Joe grinned, hiding his nervousness.  The water was picking up quickly and it was cold, icy water that hadn’t had a chance to warm up much from the spring thaws.  Hoss and Joe rowed for all they were worth, but made little headway as the wind was against them.  They were still a good distance from shore when water began to gather in the boat. Hoss kept on rowing while Joe tried to bale the water out with the pail they had brought their worms in.  The wind rose steadily, the chilly rain coming down fast and furious as if it had a goal to accomplish.  Joe’s heart was cold with worry.  He didn’t like the way this was going.  If they fell in, the water was cold as ice and he knew neither he nor Hoss would last long in the freezing lake.

“Row, Hoss, Faster,” Little Joe cried.

“I’m doing the best I can, Shortshanks,” Hoss returned.

Joe felt ashamed.  Of course, his brother was doing the best he could just as he was.  The water came into the boat faster than the man could get it out.  The boat tattered to and fro in the unsteady water until it just caved over throwing Hoss and Joe into the lake. Joe’s sharp scream rang in the air before the current pulled him under.  Ice seemed to surround Joe as his body hit the cold liquid.  He never saw Hoss hit the water.  All he felt was himself being chilled almost to the bone, and his hands flailing as they tried to find the surface.  A feeling of abject terror struck him right in the gut.

“Hoss!” Joe’s mind screamed.  Stuck in the current’s grasp, Joe’s chest was tight, squeezing him as his oxygen-deprived brain screamed for air. With his limbs moving in slow motion, Joe tried in vain to reach the surface.  Instead, he seemed to sink only deeper and deeper into the dark abyss of silence, the sounds of the storm left behind.  Letting himself go, Joe was about to give into the surrounding peacefulness of the world around him when his body was suddenly pulled upward and he found himself gasping for air.

“Joe!” Hoss’ voice called in pure desperation. “Shortshanks!”

Joe’s body was hauled on top of the overturned boat that still floated in the churning lake.  Hoss hung on, his big body submerged in the icy waters.  The wind and the rain continued as Hoss tried to push the boat towards shore.  For several minutes, Little Joe was only aware of his desperate need to breathe.  Hoss didn’t say a word.

Joe’s body was flat against the boat.  He didn’t dare move for fear of falling back into the water.  Heart hammering, he finally opened his green eyes to search for Hoss.  His brother’s large hand were holding onto the boat, dragging it down a little but making progress as he swam them all to safety.

“Hoss!” Joe breathed. “You saved me!  I owe ya, Big Brother.”  For a second Hoss’ worried blue eyes met his little brother’s.  Joe was sick at the fear he saw there, fear Hoss was obviously feeling at nearly losing his little brother.

“Joe, I ain’t never been so scared.  Ya shouldn’t play tricks like that on Ol’ Hoss.”

“Sorry, Big Brother.  The current got me,” Joe answered, still taking in deep breaths.

“We gotta get back to shore. It’s awful cold.”

For the first time, Joe was aware that Hoss’s body remained submerged in the freezing lake.  His heart picked up at a fast clip as he tried to figure out how to help his brother.

“I’ll get down.  We’ll get the boat back to shore together,” he suggested.

“Naw, not a good idea, Little Joe.  I’ll swim us both back. You just stay there and see if ya can see Pa anywhere’s.  He’s bound ta come with help knowing we was out here.”

“Hoss, it’s too cold,” Joe insisted.  Hoss just kept paddling with his legs.  Both men were shivering, though Joe was getting a little warmer.  Hoss had that look of determination that meant no one and nothing was going to stop the big man from doing what he knew he had to do.

“Hoss, you are more stubborn than Adam and me combined. You need to get out of the water,” Joe scolded.  “Pa will find us soon enough.”

Hoss’ face didn’t change expression.  He just kept on swimming as he spoke in an exhausted voice.  “I’m too heavy, Joe.  I’d pull ya under certain sure.  Love ya too much for that.”

Joe knew it was imperative for Hoss to get out of the water.  The storm was lessening, to the man’s relief, when Hoss gave him an exhausted look.  The shore was only yards away.  Hoss spoke in panting breaths. “Just need ta…rest…You go on. You’ll win through, Shortshanks.” Hoss rested his head on the boat as Joe cried out. Hoss’ grasp on the boat was lessening.

“Hoss! You need to get up here.” Reaching down, Joe grabbed his brother’s shirt. In silence, the big man let go of the boat.  His body weight pulled Joe into the water.

“Hoss!” Joe’s horrified voice was lost in his roaring ears.  In the water, he didn’t even feel the cold as he grabbed Hoss with both hands and pulled him to shore.  The little brother’s harshly beating heart kept him from realizing the truth for those few moments when the two of them were still in the water.  Now it was Joe who was fighting for his brother’s life, Joe who was terrified of losing Hoss.  He used the water for leverage and pulled with superhuman strength till Hoss was safely on solid ground.

“Ya big galoot,” Little Joe scolded with tears slipping down his cheeks as he knelt down, catching his breath and talking at the same time. “We’ve been through worse than this.  Don’t you give up now, Hoss. We’ll both win through.”

Hoss laid still, his body motionless his lips blue his eyes still open as if he were gazing up at the sky. Leaving Hoss on the wet ground, Joe stumbled over to Cochise and Chubb. Taking the bedrolls they usually kept on the horses, he grabbed the blankets, and ran back to Hoss.  He fell to his knees again, covering Hoss’s body with a blanket, pretending Hoss still needed the warmth. His stomach churned threatening to come up on him. Joe rested his fingers on Hoss’ neck.  He couldn’t help thinking how his big brother’s heart always beat in compassion, empathy and love for all that was good in the world.  Come on, come on, Little Joe pleaded in desperate silence. But there was no pulse.  The very stillness within the massive heart was mute testimony of death claiming his victim.

Little Joe grabbed Hoss’ shirt trying to shake the big man back to life, his hysteria rapidly turning to shock. Hoss barely moved for Joe truly didn’t have the strength to lift his dead weight.

“Hoss? Hoss? Don’t do this! Please God! Hoss, answer me!” Joe’s scream echoed in the valley around him, hitting the mountains, hitting the trees, hitting everything but the brother who was already started on his journey towards heaven.  Joe knew it was too late.  Hoss was gone.

“Please, God,” Joe begged in a vain prayer that seemed to slap him in the face.  There would be no miracle, no second chance, and no hope in having Hoss sit up and call him Shortshanks ever again. Joe shook his head in denial.  He wanted his brother. He needed his brother. There was so much he wanted to tell him: how he loved him, how happy and safe he felt with the bigger man, how he loved it when Hoss made him laugh, and how he thought of Hoss as his best friend, most of all how he wasn’t ready to let him go.  But there was no reason to speak, no reason to do anything now. Little Joe sat down, and then pulled Hoss’s head into his lap.  Looking down at the wide open eyes, the younger Cartwright didn’t scream, didn’t cry out, didn’t do anything.  He simply stared into the emptiness that was in Hoss’ sightless gaze.  He pulled the blankets to Hoss’ chin, not concerned with the cold wetness of his own clothes.  Looking up wards, he could see the sun coming out, peaking between the clouds. The storm was over.  Bowing his head, Little Joe didn’t move. A shroud of grief wrapped itself around Joe Cartwright choking the spirit out of him, pulling him down as hard as any current, refusing to relinquish its hold…maybe forever.

*****

Ben Cartwright sat by his youngest son’s bedside.  For almost a week, the patriarch had been fighting the angel of death for Little Joe’s life.  The father in Ben tried hard to smite down the memory of finding his sons at the lake, tried to forget the hasty funeral for his second son, buried now next to the only mother he had ever known. Instead, Ben took all the energy he had using it to try to save Little Joe.

“Mr. Cartwright, you need to get some sleep,” Candy Canaday chided his boss coming into Joe’s room.  “I can sit with Joe tonight.”

“He’s my son,” Ben retorted a little more sharply than he had intended.

“And he’s my friend.  Mr. Cartwright, you and your family treated me with kindness and friendship.  Joe and Hoss are like brothers to me.”

“And you still won’t call me Ben,” Ben smiled despite his mixed emotions.

“Wouldn’t be right or proper,”

“Family isn’t that formal.  I’m not going to argue with you, Candy.”

“And I ain’t arguing with you, Mr. Cartwright.  If Joe were up to it, he would support me. Now go and get some rest.”  Candy’s face was set.  There was no one else Ben could trust to sit with his son, unless it was their houseman, Hop Sing.  In defeat, his body screaming for rest, Ben brushed back the dark damp curls on his youngest son’s forehead.  Bending down, he kissed the forehead.

“Don’t leave us, Joe,” Ben begged. Joe’s skin was hot, the fever burning from within. Ben stood, stumbling a little in his fatigue.  He hadn’t slept more than a few hours at a time since he had found his boys, Hoss lying dead, and Little Joe till holding his brother close in shock, begging him to wake up.  Ben had lifted his youngest in his arms while Candy and some of the men who had been helping him search for the two when they didn’t come home after the storm had wrapped Hoss’ body tenderly in a blanket and placed the body over Chub’s backside.  Ben had brought his sons home, even buried one, and he survived — or had he, he wondered as he left the room.  A frozen numbness seemed to hold him in its grip.  He wanted Hoss so bad.  He wanted to see his sons scrapping at each other, all three of them — Adam, Hoss, and Joe. They were his legacy, his eternity, his reason for living.  Hop Sing came into his bedroom as he took his boots off and sat on the bed.

“Mr. Cartlight, you drink this tea and eat some soup.”  The Chinese man ordered.  Ben was too tired to argue.  He drank the tea, not realizing it was meant to help him sleep.  After he had eaten the soup, he felt drowsy.  He barely felt Hop Sing help him undress and get into bed.  Before he knew it, he was sound asleep, not even dreaming of the horrors he had felt this past week.  His sleep was deep and healing, something the man desperately needed.  Hop Sing pulled the blanket over his boss, then sat down and watched his boss sleep.

*****

“Hoss,” Joe cried in the night.  “Hoss!” Candy moved quick, shaking Joe awake for the first time in a week.

“Joe, it’s Candy.  Come on, my friend. Wake up.  Come on back to us.”  Joe’s glazed hazel eyes frightened Candy.  “Joe?”

“Candy?”

“Yeah, Joe, it’s me.  Your pa is sleeping.”

Joe looked around the room as if he had never been there before. “Hot, Candy. Where’s Hoss? Where’s Pa?”

“Joe,” Candy tried.  But Joe wasn’t hearing him.  Too late, the young hand realized his friend was delirious.

Joe grabbed Candy’s shirt with a weak grasp.  “Candy, get Hoss for me.  Is he with Pa? Hoss wanted to go fishing. I promised him we would,” Joe raved.

Candy released the hand.  He poured some water in a cup from the pitcher on the table next to the porcelain bowl of cool water.  “Joe, your pa is sleeping. Shh. You don’t want to wake him. Now drink some water for me.”

Joe pushed the hand away, spilling some water on him.  His voice pleaded for his brother.

“Joe!” Candy cried. “Hoss is gone. He’s gone, Joe.”  Again he tried to get his friend to drink the water.  “I know you’re thirsty, Joe. Come on. Do it for me.  Drink some water.  Hoss would like you to, I know.”

Joe finally got some cool water down his parched throat.  In seconds he was coughing up green phlegm.  Candy used a cloth to collect the vile sputum.  Joe collapsed on the bed after clearing his lungs for the first time. For a moment he was almost lucid or so it seemed as he let his hazel orbs rest on Candy.

“Joe, you have to get well,” Candy was encouraging. “Your pa needs you now, more than ever.”  Joe shook his head, letting tears fall down his cheeks.

“Pa…” Joe mused.  “I let Hoss die, Candy.  He died saving my life.  My brother, Hoss, he died for me.  I need him. I have to find him.”

Candy felt completely helpless as Joe’s eyes closed and he was lost in his fever filled world again.

Joe tossed and turned through the night, making it one of the worst nights yet since that terrible day.  Towards dawn, Candy had had enough. He left Joe only for moments to get one of the men from the bunkhouse to go into town and fetch the doctor. Candy was no doctor, but he knew Joe had taken a turn for the worse.  There was no doubt in the man’s mind that Joe was looking for Hoss and if he found his brother, there would be no saving him.

After Clem had been awakened and was getting dressed to go to town, Candy hurried back to the house, knowing Joe shouldn’t be left alone.  As he came in through the front door, he heard a loud crash.  Taking the steps two at a time, he met Ben in his nightshirt and Hop Sing still dressed from the day before rushing down the hall.  They all three arrived to find Joe unconscious on the floor, the broken water pitcher soaking him, his head bleeding from where he had hit it on the table as he fell.

“Damn,” Candy swore. “Joe!”

“What happened?” Ben demanded, still wiping the sleep from his eyes. Candy and Ben got Joe up off the floor and back into bed.  His nightshirt was soaked.  Hop Sing disappeared as the two men took off Joe’s nightshirt.  In a minute the China Man had returned, chattering away in Chinese, bringing towels with him.  They cleaned Joe up.  When they were finished the youngest Cartwright lay as if he were a thread away from following his brother.

Ben dabbed away at the wound on his head. “We need the doctor,” he hissed at Candy. “How could you leave him?”

“I left him to send Clem for the doctor,” Candy retorted. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. I had no idea he’d try and get out of bed.”

Ben closed his eyes.  The head wound wasn’t bleeding too badly.  He calmed himself down as Candy sat on the other side of the bed. “I’m sorry,” he apologized.  “I should have known. He’s hot isn’t he?”

“Yes.  He had a bad night.  He woke for a while, but he didn’t really know what he was doing.  I thought he’d fallen asleep again.”

Hop Sing took away the towels and broken pieces of pitcher he had cleaned up off the now dry floor.  Ben saw tears in Candy’s eyes.

“He’s dying, isn’t he?” Ben whispered just loud enough for the hand to hear him. Candy couldn’t answer.  His eyes told Ben that’s what he thought too. “Will you stay with him while I get dressed? Then you can get some sleep. I’m sorry, Candy. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”  Candy nodded again, still unable to talk.

During the next few hours, Candy and Ben didn’t leave Joe.  Joe’s breathing was raspy and he coughed frequently.  It was painful to watch the thin chest rise and fall as he gasped for air.  He didn’t respond to Ben’s voice, nor did he speak again. Ben seriously began to wonder if Joe would live until the doctor arrived, and even then if there was anything that could be done for his boy.  He barely felt alive himself as he watched his world further disintegrate around him, not even able to contemplate what would happen if Joe died and all his dreams were shattered forever.  As if surrounded by a shroud already, Ben concentrated all his attention on Joe and prayed, prayed for a miracle to save his baby.

*****

He opened the front door knowing that his father and brothers had to be in the house or near by.  After stabling his horse, he had seen Cochise, Chub and Buck all in their stalls, telling him that the men had to be home, or so he believed.  Walking into the house, he stood silently looking around the great room, seeing that nothing, nothing had changed.  He grinned at the sight of Hop Sing coming out of the kitchen with a porcelain bowl of water in his hands.  The houseman stared in shock at the number one son he had not seen in several years.

“Hop Sing! You are a sight for sore eyes,” Adam Cartwright cried. “I saw the doctor’s carriage outside.  Don’t tell me. I bet Joe got shook up busting a bronc, right? Here, let me take that water up to his room.”

“Mistah Adam,” Hop Sing started, but Adam didn’t stop to listen.  He was up the stairs and walking down the hall in a flash.  Still dressed in black, Adam hadn’t changed much more than his home.  He knocked on Joe’s bedroom door. It was slightly ajar and he could hear men’s voices inside.

“Come in, Hop Sing,” a strange voice called out.  Adam was puzzled.  Opening the door he stepped into the sick room to find three men huddled around Joe’s bed.  Before he thought about it, he announced himself.

“Pa? Doc? What’s going on? Is Joe okay?”  Adam was shocked by the father who turned to greet him.  This gaunt man was twenty years older than the father he had left, not in real years, but in his face.  Stark anguish slammed into Adam Cartwright.  Something was drastically wrong.  Was Joe dying? “Pa?” he asked handing the stranger the porcelain bowl.

Ben stared as if his chocolate colored eyes were deceiving him. “Adam?”

“Pa, what’s happening? What’s going on with Joe?  Pa? You look…is Joe…”

“Adam,” Ben gasped again.  This time he was across the room in seconds, grasping his son in a bearhug, holding him close as if he could never let him go.  Adam could feel the very essence of his father’s soul begging for reassurance.  If anything, the oldest son was even more upset.

When Ben stepped back, his hand touched Adam’s face. “You came home.  How? How did you know? I didn’t send a telegram. I couldn’t. I didn’t know if Joe…  I couldn’t tell you like that. Adam, how did you get here?”

“I wrote Hoss, Pa.  Where is he? He was supposed to meet me with Joe at the stage today.  We wanted to surprise you. I’m home, Pa. I’m home for good.  This is my home and this is where I belong.”

Ben seemed almost to collapse as he looked upward and exclaimed outright. “Thank you, God. Thank God.”  Leading Adam over to Joe, he nodded to Candy. “Candy, this is Adam.  Adam, this is Candy. I wrote you about him and how fond we are of him. He’s…he’s been here all the time…”

Adam was completely confused.  He looked to Candy, acknowledging the man, but more concerned for his brother who lay on the bed, breathing as if a freight train were sitting on his chest…a thread holding him from heaven’s gates.  Adam’s eyes, so like his father’s, went to Dr. Paul Martin. “What’s wrong with him, Doc? And where the hell is Hoss?”

“Adam!” Ben corrected on automatic pilot.  He sat down as Paul spoke, gathering up his supplies.

“Joe has pneumonia, Adam.  He’s been very sick.  I was just telling Ben and Candy…it’s bad.  He may not make it through the day.”

“No!” Adam cried. “No, not Joe. He’s a fighter.  He won’t give up.”

“He’s tired, Adam,” Paul said. “He just doesn’t have any fight left.”

“Joe’s been sick before. He’s even had pneumonia before. I remember nursing him a couple times.” Adam’s eyes rested again on his father’s defeated face and Candy’s resigned one.  “You can’t give up!”

“We’re not giving up, Adam,” Ben insisted. “It’s just…he wants Hoss.”

“Then get him,” Adam retorted. “Where is he, in the barn? I didn’t see him there. Is he out on the range?  I’ll get him.” Adam turned to leave. He felt Ben’s hand on his before he reached the door.  Candy and Dr. Martin exchanged hopeless knowing glances.

“Adam, no, don’t go,” Ben begged.

“We have to find Hoss if Joe wants him. I don’t know why he would leave Joe. He loves him. Those two are like twins sometimes. You can’t keep them apart.”

Candy closed his eyes, not wanting to witness what was coming. Dr. Martin simply waited.

“Adam, you can’t find Hoss.” Ben tried again.

“Why? Don’t tell me he’s in San Francisco or something? He’s going to be really upset and being around Hoss when he’s mad…well only Joe is any good with him.”

“Adam!” Ben cried, trying to reach through the rambling.  Ben knew his son.  He knew Adam realized his world was tilted.  He just didn’t know how much.  Gathering every ounce of courage he had, he put his hands on Adam’s shoulders.

“Pa?”

“Adam, Hoss is gone.”

The words hung in the air as Adam narrowed his eyes.  “Gone where?” Adam asked, denying what gone really meant.

“Gone to be with his mother,” Ben told him.

Adam looked from Candy to the doctor to Joe, his gaze finally returning to Ben’s tear-streaked face.  He shook his head. “Hoss? He can’t…no I don’t believe you. No, Pa, please tell me it’s not true. Pa…” Adam’s voice choked. “Nooooo!” Adam’s legs gave out.  His father caught him as he fell to his knees, screaming in a feral pain that echoed in the room.  “HOSS!” he screamed. “Oh, God. Oh no!”

Ben sat on the floor with his son as the shock set in.  Together they rocked back and forth in agony.  Ben’s tears mixed with his son’s, releasing some of the torment he had kept inside for the last week.  There were no words.  There was nothing to take away a grief like that, a time when the world you know is ended and there’s nothing but darkness in front of you.  Adam and Ben and Joe, even Candy, had lost a part of themselves with Hoss’ death.  The big galoot Joe loved would never again care for an injured animal, or tease his brothers again.  He would never have his own child or see his dreams realized.  He had died so Joe could live.  His big heart had stopped beating, but it lived on even as Ben held Hoss’ big brother to his chest.  Hoss’ heart beat in his brothers, his father and his friends, for a man with a heart like that could never be forgotten and in truth would never really leave those he loved most.

Adam felt his brother helping him as he stood with his father.  But tears came to his eyes again as he heard Joe plead with breaths that barely came.

“Hoss…Hoss…”

“Joe!” Dr. Martin cried. “Ben!”

Ben raced to his son.  “Joseph!” Ben ordered. “Joseph, don’t you dare leave us.  Joseph! I’m telling you. You are not going to leave us.  I won’t hear of it. Wherever you are, you don’t belong. Joseph!”

Joe took an agonal gasp. Several seconds went by before he took another.  Ben felt Adam’s hand on him. Candy and the doctor were on the other side of the bed, with Hop Sing nearby. Joe wasn’t listening.  He was going to die. Joe was really going to die…and nothing his father said was going to stop him…or so it seemed.

*****

Joe felt as if his older brother were sitting on his chest. He was crushing him. “Hoss, get off,” he begged. “For crying out loud, you’re killing me.” It hurt so bad.  Why didn’t Hoss listen? Breathing was a chore he wished he didn’t have to do, but if he didn’t breathe…

“Ain’t moving, Little Brother, ’til ya git some sense inta that head a yorn. Whatcha think yer doing anyway?”

“I was looking for you.”

 

“Well ya found me, now git yourself back ta home.”

Joe tried to open to his eyes, tried to see Hoss, but he couldn’t.  The pain…

“Hoss!”

“Ya don’t belong here, Shortshanks.”

“Hoss…we belong together.”  Joe fought to breathe.  Hands held him down. So did Hoss.

“We did, that’s true.  Aw, Joe, dontcha know I didn’t wanta go, but I had ta?”

“And I’m…going…with you…” Joe gasped.

“Naw, ya ain’t.  What’s Pa going ta do without ya and Adam…”

“Adam?  Adam?”

From far away Adam’s voice reached Joe.  “I’m here, Little Buddy. I’m home and I won’t leave you again. Come on, Joe. Fight!”  Joe shook his head free of the sound, free of Adam’s plea.

“Ya gonna listen to him or give up?” Hoss taunted.  “Thought ya had more guts ‘n that.”  For once Joe wasn’t to be goaded. Again he tried to open his eyes.  Again he failed. The pain was getting worse if possible.

“Get off…Hoss.”

“I ain’t settin’ on ya, Shortshanks.  I’m trying to help ya.  Let me go, Little Brother.  I love ya, but I gotta go.”

“No!” Joe screamed.  His voice echoed around him. “Hoss!”

“Ain’t never asked ya fer much, Shortshanks. Please.”

No, Hoss never asked for himself, Joe thought.  His mind protested the thought of giving in to Hoss’ request.  He knew what his brother wanted.

“Joseph! Wherever you are, son, you don’t belong,” Ben Cartwright called. “Get yourself back here now!”

Joe was caught, torn between his father and Adam and wanting to go with Hoss…only his brother, his friend, wouldn’t let him.  A big paw of a hand touched his shoulder, and then that hug he never thought he’d feel again.

“I love ya, Shortshanks,” Hoss whispered. “Time for ya ta go back now.  Ya gotta learn ta be happy again, else I’ll figure a way to git through ta ya.  Now go on.”

Suddenly Joe realized Hoss was gone.  The weight on his chest was still there, but not as heavy. Throwing open his hazel orbs, he focused to see his father and Adam sitting by his side.  He coughed, coughed up large amounts of phlegm that Adam took care of with a damp towel.

“That’s it, Joe,” Ben encouraged. “Get it out.  Come on, son.  There’s the boy I know.  Joseph!”

Joe held out a weak hand that Ben immediately took, squeezing it tight.  Tears fell down the gaunt cheeks as Joe spoke in staccato fashion, but spoke nevertheless. “I…let…him…go…Pa.  Hoss.  Oh…Pa…Adam…”

Ben and Adam moved together to pull Joe into their arms, holding him close, crying as much as Joe for what had been lost.  Hoss, big, kind, gentle hearted son, brother, friend, a man for all seasons who loved and lived with all he had.  Hoss.  Ben rubbed his son’s back.  Joe felt himself give into the exhaustion of his fight.

Ben laid his sleeping son down and looked to Adam. “He’s won through, Adam.  The fever’s broken.”

Adam nodded, still crying, his body trembling. “I was so scared, Pa.  I thought…there was no hope.”

“There wasn’t,” Ben told him. “Paul didn’t think there was.  We didn’t think there was.  It was Hoss.” In the stuffy bedroom where days had passed as Ben and Hop Sing and Paul and finally Adam had worked to save Little Joe, the father and son rested their eyes on each other.

“Pa?” Adam queried.

Ben squeezed Joe’s hand again as he slept. “It was Hoss who sent his brother back. You heard Joe. He let Hoss go.  He let my boy go, and Hoss made sure Joe stayed…” Ben laid down on the bed, gathering Joe close, holding his baby against his hammering heart.  He had come this close to losing all three of his sons, all three of them it seemed to him.  He never thought to see Adam again, figuring his eldest was lost to the East that held him.  A miracle had brought Adam home.  At the same time, Hoss had kept Joe from following him to heaven.  Hoss…Ben held Joe in his arms and put a hand out to Adam.  His sons were home, but they were fresh out of miracles. Hoss was never coming home again. He was dead…dead…Hoss.  My son, Ben lamented. My son.  Oh, how could you leave us?  My son.

*****

“What are we goin to do, Candy, Adam?” Joe asked a week later.  “Pa can’t go on like this.”  Sitting up in bed, Joe was having one of the first good days he had had since the drowning.  Adam had brought the youngest brother some breakfast, eggs, toast and coffee, more than enough for someone who still wasn’t eating much.  Candy leaned against the front of Joe’s bed while Adam sat on a chair near Joe’s side.  Joe nibbled, not really hungry because his stomach still churned at his loss.

“He’ll come around, Joe,” Adam told him.  “It’s just going to take time.”

“He spends all his time up at the grave,” Joe reminded them.

“He didn’t have a chance to grieve until now,” Candy reasoned.  “He was too worried about your sorry butt.”

Joe couldn’t help smiling.  Adam looked from one man to the other and saw the bond that was there and thanked God for it.

Joe looked to Adam. “I’m sorry, Adam.  Sorry you had to come home to what you did.  Hoss was, well real excited you were coming home.”

“I know, Joe.” Adam hadn’t talked much about Hoss in the last week.  Joe told Candy his oldest brother kept everything inside so much so that he was as worried about Adam as he was about his pa.  Joe cried himself to sleep every night, wishing he could hear Hoss snoring down the hall.  He seemed to have faced the demons that lurked within, though he would never get over his brother’s loss.  Now he had to find a way to help Pa and Adam and even Candy deal with their grief.  That was far easier said than done.

Several weeks went by continuing the heat of a hot summer.  Joe was finally back to work, he and Adam running the ranch with Candy doing his usual job of foreman.  Adam took care of the books while Joe worked with the horses and the timber and Candy oversaw the men and the cattle.  Ben spent his days at Hoss’ grave.  He wouldn’t allow the boys to go up with him.  Joe went up with Candy a few times, but didn’t intrude on his father.  Ben insisted on being alone with Hoss and Marie, Joe’s mother.  Joe came into the house one late afternoon to find Candy and Adam going over some books.  He sank with exhaustion onto the sofa, putting his boots up on the table.

Adam looked up from his work. “Joe, take your boots off the table.”

Joe looked up, half expecting that voice to be his father’s.  Sitting up, he buried his face in his hands.  Candy and Adam exchanged glances.

“Joe?” Adam asked. “I’m sorry.  You all right?”

“No,” Joe snapped.  “Nothing’s all right.  Damn it. Hoss would be so mad if he saw us like this.  Adam, you ain’t said one word about him since I got better.  Candy, you go on as if nothing happened or maybe Hoss is going to walk through that door and Pa…well he might as well have died too.”  Joe regretted the last sentence as soon as it came out of his mouth, especially when he followed his brother and Candy’s eyes to see Ben standing in the doorway.

Without a word, Ben shut the door. Joe jumped up.  Adam waved Joe down. “I’ll go, Joe,” he said. “Suppose you’re right in a way.  Pa and I need to have some words. You and Candy might want to go at it.”

“Nothing to go at,” Candy put in.  “I know Hoss isn’t coming through that door.  Reckon it ain’t for me to have a say one way or another.”

Adam almost snickered knowing there would be a fight from Joe on that. He made a quick retreat, hearing raised voices behind him.  He knew where Ben would be, and he found him leaning against a corral, looking out over the mountains of the home he loved so much.

“Pa?”  Ben didn’t answer at first.  “Pa, he didn’t mean it.”

“Yes he did, Adam.  I haven’t been much good to you or Joe or Candy these past weeks.”

“Pa,” Adam soothed.  He put his hand around the older man’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault. Joe knows that.  So do I.  So does Candy.”  Ben nodded.  His shoulders shook with grief.  Adam hugged Ben close, an unusual display of sentiment for the black clothed man whose confidence and intensity in life came from keeping his emotions under control.  Ben must have recognized the sacrifice Adam made for him for he spoke with pride and love to his oldest.

“You know what I kept thinking after you came back and we didn’t know if Joe would live or not?”

“No.”

“I was remembering when it was just you and me, before Hoss or Joe were born.  I figured that’s the way it would be again.  I guess I didn’t think Candy would stay without Joe.  I was so glad you had come home, but I didn’t know if I could go back to that again.  I didn’t know if I could really live without your brothers. Our lives were so much richer with them.”

“We’ve still got Joe,” Adam reminded him, trying hard not to give into the same fear that had racked him.  The men gazed to the snow-capped mountains that defied the summer heat.  “Hoss is still with us, Pa.  He’s as much a part of our hearts as he ever was.”

Ben nodded biting his lip.  “He loved this land,” the father commented.  “But he loved us more.”

This was too much for Adam.  “Pa?” he started. “Pa?”

His voice was so lost, almost as frightened as the child who had faithfully followed Ben across the plains all his short childhood, the little boy who lived in the back of wagons, who fell in love with Inger, Hoss’ mother.  For an instant, Ben saw again the stark horror of Adam’s small face when he cried Mama and Ben turned to see his beloved wife collapse to the floor with a scream of agony, an Indian’s arrow in her back.  Adam had been so young, clutching an infant Hoss to his chest as he watched his stepmother die in his father’s arms.  Now Hoss was with Inger and Adam’s face was just as stricken.

“Adam, Son…” Ben choked out.

“Why, Pa? Why did he die?  It was so senseless.”  Adam’s hands crashed against the wooden corral.  “I want him back.  I want my brother back.  What are we going to do, Pa?”

Ben shook his head, gathering Adam in his arms.  His own self-pity was washed away by Adam’s tears, by Joe’s words.  His boys still needed him and he couldn’t let them down.  “I know, Adam. I want him too.”

They stood together as the sun lowered around them, two men grieving for what should never have happened.  In a way, Hoss’ death was as sudden and inexplicable as his mother’s.  It made no sense to either of them, any more than Inger’s had.  Finally, they led each other back to the house where Joe and Candy had fought out their differences, becoming if anything closer than they had been before.

Ben sat down to dinner with his sons and Candy.  The empty place at the table where Hoss would have sat plagued him.  He didn’t eat much of Hop Sing’s good cooking. Instead, he made an announcement. “Tomorrow I want us all to go to the lake.”

Joe almost dropped his coffee.  His startled glance went around the table before finally coming to Ben. “Pa…” he pleaded.  “I can’t…not yet.”

“Tomorrow morning, Joe, all of us, and Hop Sing too.” Ben got up from the table and went outside with silent eyes following him.  When Ben spoke like that, there was no arguing with him.  But Joe, Adam, and Candy sure wanted to.  They sure did.

*****

The wagon with Hop Sing and Ben came to a halt not far from the shores of Lake Tahoe.  As it had been on that day now almost six weeks past, the lake shimmered blue tranquility.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  Adam, Joe and Candy dismounted their horses, tying them to the branch trees as Hoss and Joe had that terrible day.  They followed Ben down to the lake in silence, all of them a little curious as to what Ben carried beneath a light sheet.  Ben put the object down on the ground.

“Pa, did you get any sleep last night?” Adam wondered out loud for the men.  “You look worn out.”

“I had something to do, Adam,” Ben returned. He turned his attention to Joe.  “Joseph, I’m sorry I haven’t been here for you or Adam or Candy these last weeks.  I don’t know if it was that we had Hoss’ funeral so fast or if I just couldn’t face the truth that I spent so much time at his grave.  Yesterday you kind of brought me back to reality.  I was there for you when I thought you might die, but not when you were trying to really come to accept that Hoss was gone.”

“Pa…”

“No, Joe. Listen.  Adam, you asked me yesterday why Hoss had to die.  You thought his death was senseless, just like Inger’s.  But the truth is, Hoss died saving Joe.  They both could have drowned that day, but Hoss made sure his brother got back to shore safely.”

“And when I would have given up,” Joe whispered.

Ben nodded for Joe had confided in him how he felt Hoss had made sure he didn’t follow him to heaven’s gates.

Around the men, the wind whispered.  For a minute Joe was afraid another storm would come, but the sky remained clear, the air made cooler by the lake’s cold waters.  He shivered.  Adam’s arm came around him as well as Candy’s.  Joe was still surrounded by love.

Ben’s chocolate colored eyes narrowed with his own love for his family and his lost child. “Hoss was a gift to me, a gift made from the love I had for Inger.  He was also a gift to this family, to all who knew him. He made our lives richer with his goodness and courage.  His heart was bigger than any man’s I’d ever seen and I was so proud of him, proud to call him son.  Just because Hoss is in heaven with his mother doesn’t mean we will forget him.  Every time you laugh, Joe, we’ll remember him because he saved you and he loved to hear that laugh.  Adam, when I look at you, I’ll see Hoss trying to learn, trying to keep up with you and trying to let you know how much he cared for you.  And Candy, when I see you, I’ll think of Hoss persuading you to stay at the ranch because deep down he knew you were family from the first time he saw you.  And you, Hop Sing, you brought happiness to our boy and helped me raise him.  We’re the family Hoss loved, the family he lived and died for.  His heart is still as big as this land he loved.  Hoss had the heart of a hero, and as long as we live, it will never cease to beat.”  Ben, crying now, unable to hold back his tears, picked up the wooden plaque he had made during the night. He nailed a stake to the back of the plaque and then hammered it into the ground far enough away from the shore to be implanted in solid ground, but still overlooking the lake Hoss had been in awe of.  Adam, Joe, Candy and Hop Sing all came to look and read the words of dedication.

“Pa,” Joe breathed first.  Adam read the words out loud as Joe walked over to Ben.

“In Honor of Hoss Cartwright who lived his life with courage, compassion and the heart of a hero. He will never be forgotten. From his family, Pa, Adam, Joe, Candy and Hop Sing.”

There were no more words to say.  United in love, the family lingered by the lake.  Ben hugged his sons, and Candy, even Hop Sing.  His heart gave Hoss one more message, his words spoken to the wind in silence, hoping that Hoss would hear them from wherever he was. “I love you, Hoss.  Your pa loves you always and forever and don’t you forget it.”

Ben couldn’t know that the spirit of Hoss Cartwright lingered as well, the big paw of a hand resting on his father’s shoulder, the blue eyes taking in the family he would forever miss, and his words coming back in a whisper of time. “I love you too, Pa.  I love you all, and I promise, I won’t never forget.”

And no one ever would forget the bond between the Cartwright’s, Candy and Hop Sing.  None would ever forget Hoss, whose heartbeat in eternity with God’s most precious gift, the love of a family who would carry their gentle giant’s memory with them until they too walked through heaven’s gates and into the heart of their hero.

“Hoss,” Joe whispered.  “He is here, Pa.  I can feel him.  Adam’s right.  He’s here with us, and he always will be.”

Ben smiled at Joe’s words.  Closing his eyes, he could see his second son, the baby in his mother’s arms, the little boy teaching Joe to walk and then ride, the big man protecting all he loved, that silly grin, those laughing eyes and that gentle heart.  Ben Cartwright reached out for Hoss, hugging him close.  He whispered the words he had wanted to say for weeks.  When Ben hugged him, Joe didn’t know it was Hoss his father was seeing and Hoss to whom Ben gave his love to for the last time.  Had Joe known, he wouldn’t have minded for Ben’s words touched his heart as surely as they would have touched Hoss’.

“I love you, son.  Don’t you ever forget it. Your Pa loves you, always.”

The wagon drove off across the fields towards the Ponderosa, leaving behind the spirit of Hoss Cartwright as he frolicked in the cold waters of Lake Tahoe, the gentle giant who would always be remembered, in the hearts of the father and brothers he left behind…and anyone who was lucky enough to know and love Ol’ Hoss.

***The Ene***

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