Summary: Warning: Hankie Alert. I can’t think of anything sadder in Bonanza-land than Hoss dying and leaving his best friend behind. I’ve read other stories that dealt with the aftermath, but couldn’t quite get my head around what really would have happened. This is my attempt to do just that. Also, I live in the land of denial. In my little world, there is no such thing as that little red-headed kid.
Word Count: 4431
He knew his father needed him. He knew it and yet he could do nothing about it. He felt empty inside. His heart hurt like a big hand was squeezing it, and the sadness reached clear down to his soul. There was nothing left to give to anyone. Adam was here now. He’d take care of Pa. Joe watched his father as they both stood watching the passengers come off the stage.
Adam had come as soon as he’d received the telegram. It took days, so he missed the funeral, but he arrived in Virginia City and was met at the stage by his grieving father and his silent brother. The tears started as soon as Adam saw his father’s stricken face. His Pa had aged. Not just the aging one would expect to see after being gone for so many years, but the kind that only extreme grief causes.
Adam stepped to his father and took him into his arms. A tight, quick hug and a “good to see you, Pa,” and then he stepped over to his younger brother. Joe looked different. For one thing, his hair had turned gray. More salt and pepper really. Pa had written him many times and it was mentioned that Joe had started graying several years ago. It was dismissed with a light remark — “like father, like son.”
No, it wasn’t that. Joe was different. There was no spark in the green eyes. The mouth was pressed into a firm, straight line. There was no smile for his returning oldest brother.
“Joe,” Adam whispered and took his brother’s shoulders. Joe’s eyes finally met his, almost as if he’d just noticed him, and without a word, Joe pulled him into a hug.
After a moment, Adam took Joe’s shoulders and eased him away. “Let’s go home,” Adam said as he reached for his father’s shoulder as well.
The ride to the Ponderosa was silent. Joe rode along side the buggy as it trundled down the road from town.
“Pa,” Adam turned to his father who seemed intent on watching the road.
“I’d like to go visit Hoss before we go home. Can we?”
Ben gazed at him with his liquid, understanding eyes and smiled sadly. “Of course, son.” He clicked to the horses to pick up the pace a bit, as he’d let them slack off with his daydreaming. “Joe, I’m going to take Adam to visit Hoss’ grave. Would you like to come?”
“Sure, Pa,” was the only reply.
Near the house, Ben turned off the main road onto a smaller track that led to the lake. Ben had allowed Joe to choose where he would like to bury his brother, and Joe had chosen the bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe where his mother had been buried years before. It was a beautiful, untouched spot that Joe visited often. Ben knew that when his time came, he would be placed beside his beloved wife and son there as well.
As they neared the place where the buggy would have to be left, Adam noticed that Joe hung back, not keeping as close as he had.
Ben pulled the horses to a stop and lowered himself down and tied off the lead rope to a tree branch. Adam waited as his Pa completed this little chore, and then they walked together to the clearing where his beloved younger brother was waiting.
“Tell me about it, Pa,” Adam said simply.
Ben looked over the lake with a faraway look. “It was truly memorable, Adam. I’m so sorry we couldn’t wait for you to get here. There must have been two hundred or more people out here that day. I’ve never attended a bigger send off.”
Joe had caught up with them and walked quietly behind, holding his hat in both hands.
The grave itself was fresh. The broken ground had been fashioned into a mound and grass had yet to begin growing. There were dried and withered flowers all over the mound, and a few fresh ones near the large headstone. The stone was simple and rough- hewn. It simply stated: Eric Cartwright, Our beloved Hoss, and the years of his birth and untimely death.
Adam knelt and ran his hand over the fresh cut stone. “This is perfect, Pa,” he said as he looked up, tears streaming unchecked down his face.
Ben nodded, unable to speak. Joe stood beside him and quietly put an arm around his father’s shoulders.
Joe had been here daily, sometimes several times a day, over the past week. He’d spent the night twice. He couldn’t seem to stay away. He wondered if somewhere in his heart he had to keep checking to see if it was real.
Joe hadn’t slept since that horrible day, at least not for more than a few minutes at a time. He would come awake, sitting straight up in his bed, sweating and crying, certain that he’d heard Hoss calling for help. Several times he’d gone to Hoss’ room to lie down in his brother’s bed instead of his own. Sleep would come from sheer exhaustion, but the unutterable grief always stole it from him.
After a few minutes of silence, Adam rose to his feet and returned his hat to his head. “Thanks for bringing me, Pa. I’m ready to go home now.” He started off walking back to the buggy without looking back.
Adam had visited home three years before, at Christmastime. It had not occurred to him that it would be the last time he was to see one of his brothers. Joe and Hoss had seen him off at the stage, joshing and kidding him the whole way. They had not changed a bit. They were two of a kind, never tiring of ribbing each other and finishing each other’s sentences. Adam had often marveled at their closeness. They were more than brothers; they were lifelong best friends.
For his part, Adam loved them both, but had always been closer to Hoss, in age as well as spirit. Joe was twelve years younger and was almost more of a son than a brother at times. Adam found himself the second father as his younger brothers grew. The bond his brothers shared was theirs alone, but rather than jealousy, which was foreign to him, he admired it and nurtured it.
Their common bond, no matter their age differences or different temperaments, was their father. The man who had not only raised three sons mostly alone, but had also built an empire as a legacy for them. Nothing, not even his Ponderosa, was more important to him than his sons, and Ben Cartwright reminded them of that every day, not in words so much as in deeds.
Adam reached the buggy and climbed in and waited for his father and brother. It was Pa who appeared first.
As he untied the lead rope and climbed in, Ben said, “Joe’s gonna stay a little longer. He’ll see us at the house.” He flicked the reins and the team slowly turned.
“So, tell me, Pa. How are you doing?”
Ben continued to look ahead. “Me? I guess I’m gettin’ along all right, son. I’ve had my moments, but remember, I’ve buried three wives. It never gets easier, but I’ve learned a thing or two. It’s Joe I’m worried about.”
“I know what you mean. He’s taking it hard.”
“More than you’ll ever know, Adam.”
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him. I’ve never known two brothers who were closer.” Adam smiled to himself as he remembered moments from their lives. The bull. The racehorse. The many times he and Hoss had to fetch Joe from town to keep him out of trouble or to get him out of trouble. The time Red Twilight had shot Hoss and Adam had to keep Joe from killing the man in cold vengeance.
His thoughts were interrupted by his father. “He told me he feels like he’s lost a part of himself. I understand it, but I don’t know what to do to help him.”
“Maybe there’s nothing we can do except just be here for him.”
“I’m sure that your being here will help,” Ben said as he reached over and patted Adam’s arm.
“I dunno, Pa. I don’t know what to say either.”
“You’ll know when the time comes.”
Joe had not reappeared for supper. It was a happy Hop Sing who had greeted Adam at the door. Happy for Adam’s arrival, but the underlying sadness shown through. He had fixed a meal like all meals he had ever prepared at the Ponderosa. Good and plentiful.
After Hop Sing had left the room, Ben leaned over toward Adam. “He’s been preparing big meals every day just as if Hoss were still here. Joe’s not eating much at all. I feel like I have to eat just to keep Hop Sing happy,” he chuckled. “I suspect he’s taking the leftovers out to the bunk house. He just can’t bring himself to cut back. His heart is broken; I can see it.”
Adam nodded and tried to force himself to make a dent in the mounds of food in front of him.
When the grandfather clock by the door struck eleven and Joe had still not returned, Adam put his book down and looked over to his father. “Pa, you’ve been reading that same page of the newspaper for the last hour.”
Ben folded the paper and tossed it onto the table. “I know. I can’t concentrate.”
“Has Joe been staying out all night?”
Ben sighed. “Yeah, twice this week. First time I rode out looking for him. You know, just to be sure he was okay. Found him up at the bluff, just sitting and staring. He wouldn’t talk about it; just wanted to be left alone, so I did. The second time I rode out there again. He was okay, so I turned around and came home. I’m not going to push him.”
“We all have to grieve in our own way.”
“I know, Adam. I just wish he’d let me try to help. Talk to me. Go to town and get drunk. Something!” Ben shook his head in resignation. “We used to be able to talk about anything.”
“Pa, I’ll bet if a month ago you had asked Joe what the worst possible thing that could happen to him would be, I’ll bet this would never have entered his mind. To him, losing Hoss was unimaginable. Something that he couldn’t prepare himself for because to him, it could never happen.”
“I understand that, Adam. No one’s ever prepared.” Ben leaned back and closed his eyes. “It was just so sudden; such a shock. Joe didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. None of us did.”
They sat in silence for a few more minutes, then Adam stood and stretched his stiff muscles. “I think I’m going to ride out. Maybe find Little Joe. Maybe he’ll talk to me.”
“Worth a try, son. Bring him home, okay?”
“I will, Pa. Don’t worry. Goodnight.”
There was a full moon which was the only reason Adam was able to see well enough to guide his horse along the narrow track to the bluff. He carried a lantern as well, but its small pool of light paled in the bright moonlight so he blew it out.
Adam stopped when he reached the clearing and swung down from his mount. He could see Joe in the silvery light, sitting beside Hoss’ headstone. Something about his posture expressed a great sadness, much more than words could. Adam sighed, took a few steps forward and called Joe’s name. There was no answer and Joe appeared to have not heard him.
“Joe?” he called louder, not wanting to startle him. Joe had been known to draw if someone came up behind him. “Joe, it’s Adam.”
Adam walked toward Joe, not bothering to be quiet. He stood beside him for a moment and then lowered himself to the ground beside his brother. Joe had not moved.
Adam put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, don’t you want to come home now? Pa’s worried about you,” he said gently.
Joe turned around, mildly startled. “Oh, hi Adam. I didn’t hear you.”
“Joe, come home.”
“Not yet, Adam.”
Adam sat still for a few minutes. The lake was a deep, midnight blue with the silver moonlight scattered across its surface like stars. It was breathtaking in the day, and more so on a night like this.
Turning back to his brother, Adam watched Joe carefully. There were no tears, no expression at all really. He sat very still, sometimes closing his eyes, sometimes staring at nothing.
“Joe, what are you thinking about?”
Joe didn’t answer for a minute. Then he lowered his head and picked up a small stick, drawing lines in the soft earth.
“Adam, I can’t stop thinking about him. I guess in the last few days I’ve sat here and thought about everything. All the things we did together, all the times we got in trouble…you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess it’s natural to remember the good times with someone you’ve lost. I’ve been doing that too. Like that time me and him bought that racehorse and raced him against you in the Virginia City race.”
“Yeah. I thought you were gonna beat the tar outta him for bettin’ against your own horse.”
“Can you imagine me or anyone else beatin’ the tar outta Hoss?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Joe, it’s okay to cry for him.” Adam picked up a stick of his own to scratch in the ground. “But if I know Hoss, he’d be mighty put out if he thought you were makin’ yourself sick over this.”
Joe’s eyes flashed and he stood up suddenly. “What do you know, Adam? What do you know how I feel? You haven’t even been here!”
The change of Joe’s mood was like a lightning bolt. Adam stood up to meet him eye to eye. “Joe, I didn’t mean…”
“You weren’t here when he was in that river. He needed us, Adam! He needed us and we weren’t there! Neither one of us were there!” Joe turned and strode toward the edge of the bluff.
Adam tossed down his stick and followed. “Joe, please wait.”
“I can’t, Adam. I can’t leave him out here all alone.” Joe had stopped and stood looking out over the lake below, his shoulders shaking.
Adam walked around to face him and put both hands on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Joe. I know I wasn’t here and I should have been.”
The sobs had started down low in his belly and were working their way up to his throat. Joe’s throat was constricted, and hurt like a knife cut him. As Adam gathered him into his arms, Joe’s legs gave out and they both sank to their knees. The sobs would no longer stay inside and Joe buried his face against Adam’s shoulder to muffle them. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m sorry…”
Adam held Joe tightly, one hand around his back, the other stroking his hair. “Joe, Joe. It’s okay.” Adams throat tightened up and he could no longer speak. He just held on.
Joe was weak and what little energy he had left came out of him with the deep heaving sobs. Adam found he was holding Joe up, and had to sit on the ground to support his weight against his chest. Joe still clung tightly to him although the sobs had lessened. Adam could feel him relaxing against him.
Joe didn’t answer, but nodded his head.
“I wish I could change what happened and make it all go away. I wasn’t here and I wish I had been, but it’s not your fault and it’s not my fault what happened. Hoss would not change a thing he did to save that little girl even if he knew what would happen. You knew him better than anyone and I know you know it’s true.”
Joe nodded again. After that, there was silence for a long time. Adam thought Joe had gone to sleep, but then Joe found his voice once more.
“I can’t leave him out here alone, Adam.”
“I know.” Adam stroked Joe’s mass of curly hair. “I know.”
It was the first gray shafts of dawn that woke Adam. After the light came the sounds of morning and he opened his eyes. The lake was still there, though the sparkles of moonlight were gone. It was a misty blue with fog rolling across its surface. The chilly air was crisp and smelled of damp leaves and flowers.
Adam glance down at his lap where his brother lay curled up on his side with his head resting on Adam’s folded up jacket which lay atop his outstretched legs. He had managed to move Joe over to a nearby tree so he could rest his back up against it. Joe had been limp with exhaustion and hadn’t resisted or helped, but had been unwilling to let Adam go.
The days of no sleep and little food had taken their physical toll and the unrelenting grief had taken an emotional one. Utter exhaustion was the result.
Adam was afraid he’d stiffened so that he wouldn’t be able to move when Joe finally did wake. He wasn’t willing to move Joe until he was ready, so he resigned himself to sitting there for as long as it took.
Last night, the gulf of distance and time that separated them had vanished and Joe was left with only his brother. The one who had helped him grow up to be the man he’d become.
Adam was reminded how much he missed his brothers, and how much he missed his home. He didn’t regret the last eight years, but somehow his career, his business, his yearning to travel just didn’t seem as important to him anymore.
Adam was startled out of his reverie by a sound in the brush. He looked to the east to see his father emerge from the trees carrying a white bag. He watched as his Pa moved to Hoss’ headstone and paid silent respects. Then he came to sit beside him and Joe.
Watching Joe sleep, his father reached out to touch Joe’s head, but then changed his mind and pulled back. “Are you okay, son?” he said, searching Adam’s face.
Adam smiled, unable to stop himself. It was a beautiful morning, he had the two most precious people in his world with him, and he had just made a decision that made him happier than he’d been in a long time.
“I’m alright, Pa,” he said, looking down at Joe, “and Joe’s gonna be alright too.”
Ben smiled. Relief and love filled his craggy features and the lines of tension seemed to fade at once.
Ben reached for the bag he’d brought. “Hop Sing thought you’d be hungry so he sent some food, and I brought the coffee pot.” He rose and began gathering pieces of wood for a fire. Adam watched, regretting that he was unable to help, but content to stay where he was as long as Joe needed him.
In no time, Ben had a fire going and the coffee pot on. He dug around in the bag and handed Adam a biscuit with bacon wrapped in a colorful napkin. Adam took it gratefully and began eating right away, not waiting for the coffee.
It was finally the coffee that woke Joe. He smelled it, and he heard voices before he opened his eyes. He was cold and stiff and his hip hurt where he lay on hard ground. He had slept, really slept for the first time in days, and the sharp edge of exhaustion had dulled. It was still there, waiting to drag him down again, but he felt stronger now. Strong enough to sit up and face what he had to.
Joe opened his eyes and first saw feet. Adam’s no doubt. The voices had stopped suddenly.
“Don’t stop talkin’ on account of me. I’ll be with you in a minute.” Joe pushed himself up, his arms weak, but able at last to right himself. He rubbed his eyes and wiped a hand over his face. He could feel the dried, salty tears, and the stripes of corduroy impressions on his cheek. He looked at his father’s shining brown eyes. “Mornin’, Pa.”
“Mornin’, son. It’s a beautiful morning.”
A steaming cup of coffee appeared in front of Joe’s nose and he took it gratefully. “Mornin’, Adam.”
Adam smiled, but said nothing for a moment. Then, as if a sudden idea hit him, he rose quickly. “Uh, mornin’ Joe, uh, I’ll be right back,” and he hurried off into the bushes.
Joe giggled as he sipped the strong hot coffee.
Ben said nothing, but his heart was full to bursting. That staccato cackle was a sound that he had been afraid he would never hear again. It was as if Hoss’ passing had pulled all of the life out of their home. The love had remained, but without the life they’d shared, the love was an amorphous mist, hard to see and harder to hold.
Joe looked at his father and saw the questions he wanted to ask, but wouldn’t. “Don’t worry, Pa. I’m okay, now. I know I just have to give it time.”
“Time is the only thing you can give it, Joe. It doesn’t make the loss any less, but it gives you strength. More every day, you’ll see.”
Joe’s eyes glistened with tears, unshed this time and he was determined to keep it that way.
Adam returned and silently slipped back into his seat of leaves by the tree. “What are we talking about?” he asked, as if he didn’t know.
Joe raised is cup. “We’re talking about getting on with life.”
Adam smiled. “Well, that’s a good start.”
Joe lowered his cup and stared into its brown depths. “You know, you hear people talk about a broken heart, but now I know what they really mean. It hurts. It actually hurts your heart. Sometimes it goes away for awhile, but then it comes back and the ache starts all over again.”
Ben nodded. “That part doesn’t go away, son. It doesn’t hurt as bad after awhile, and you may not feel it as often, but it never goes completely away.” He drew his legs up and rested his coffee cup on his knee. “And I’m not so sure I’d want it to. It’s what reminds me. It’s what tells me I haven’t forgotten. Not a day will go by that you won’t stop and think of him.”
“I’ve been pretty selfish, Pa,” Joe said, his voice raspy. His throat was dry and hurt.
“No, son. I don’t think so. You’ve been a man who was hurt so bad that he couldn’t feel anything anymore. It’s not easily shared with anyone.”
Adam set his cup down. “Pa of all people can understand that.”
Ben nodded and said no more. They sat in silence for a long time, each keeping his own thoughts.
Finally, Adam cleared his throat. “Pa. Joe. I’m going to leave for Boston tomorrow…”
“But, Adam,” Ben said in protest.
Adam held up a hand. “The sooner I leave, the sooner I’ll get back.” He looked at his father and brother, their faces slack with profound puzzlement. “I’m going back to close up shop, sell it if I can, and sell the house. I have competitors who would love to buy me out just to get me out of their hair. Maybe even my staff would like to buy the business. I have some very talented young architects working for me.” His thoughts wandered back to his firm in Boston, proud of what he’d built out of nothing. “Anyway, as soon as all the business is taken care of, I’m coming home. For good.”
“What about Sarah?” Both Joe and Ben had started to ask the same question, but Ben got it out first.
“I’ll ask her to marry me and come home with me. If she says no…well, either way, I’ll be back in six months at the latest.”
Adam’s father couldn’t hide the shine in his eyes. “Adam, are you sure? After all you’ve worked for.”
“Pa, I’ve had all night to think about it, and to tell you the truth, I was thinking about it before last night.” Adam took a long swallow of coffee and tossed the empty cup on the ground. “I’m ready. It’s what I want to do.”
Joe’s eyes were filling with tears again. He wiped at his eyes disgustedly. He couldn’t seem to do anything else lately. “Adam, not because of…”
“Joe, it’s because of me,” Adam said flatly. “It’s because of this place. This is where I belong. Hell, I might even start another firm here; build it up out of nothing, just like I did in Boston. Far as I know, there are no professional architects in the greater Virginia City area…”
Joe began to laugh. The first real laughing he’d done in over a week. His sides hurt, the tears rolled out unchecked and he slapped his brother’s knee. Adam smiled and looked at his father. With no words, he knew his Pa approved wholeheartedly.
Adam stood and brushed the dried leaves from his pants. Joe followed suit and they both reached down to pull their Pa to his feet.
As Adam and Pa started collecting their things, Joe walked over to Hoss’ grave. Quietly, and only for himself and his brother, he said, “We’re gonna be okay, Hoss. Don’t worry about us.”
Joe felt two hands, one on each of his shoulders. He looked around to see his father and brother and nodded. “I guess I’m ready to go home now.”
Authors Note: Title is from “Not A Day Goes By (That I Don’t Think of You)” by Lonestar