Summary: This picks up “A Stranger Passed This Way” at the point where Ben returns to the Ponderosa to let Adam and Joe know about Hoss’s amnesia and reflects the following events from the point of view of Hoss’s family.
Word Count: 6300
Almost sunset. I’ll be home in about half an hour, and I still don’t know how to explain things to Adam and Joe. I know they won’t want to go along with it. I’m not even sure I understand what the doctor was telling me, or that I even agree with him. I can’t decide, for sure, what I’m going to do’ till the Vandervorts and Hoss get there, and I can be around him, and see his reactions.
“Well, gid’up, Buck. Sandy Creek is just ahead. You can get a drink there. Just that last, uphill stretch on the ranch road and we’ll be home. As much as I’d like to, we can’t just stand here in the middle of the trail.”
As I rode home, I resolved to try to do what the doctor said was best for Hoss. However, it warred with my father’s instinct to keep my son close; that I knew better then these strangers what he needed.
Joe reacted as I was afraid he would. “Pa! How can you let Hoss just go off with those people? He should be here, where we can help him get his memory back!” He paced the length of the room, shouting. “We could never see him again! Why can’t you tell him that he’s Hoss Cartwright, and we’re his family, and he lives here, on the Ponderosa?” He waved his arms, almost knocking over the lamp by my chair. “We’re supposed to visit with the Vandervorts and our own brother, like he’s a total stranger passing through? Then watch him ride away without being able to tell him good-bye as a brother?”
Adam calmly crossed his arms and looked me in the eye. “Joe’s right, Pa.”
Counting on my eldest to see the logic in what I was telling them about amnesia, I hadn’t foreseen him agreeing with his more emotional brother.
At the end of my rope emotionally, my composure had reached its limit. “There’ll be no discussion about this! They’ll be here soon, and you’ll both do as you’re told!” Joe stopped his pacing, and Adam dropped his arms to his side. Both stared at me with stunned expressions. I forced myself to calm down. “I may have to watch Hoss ride away without being able to tell him good-bye as his father! Just do as I say. I’m going in the kitchen to talk to Hop Sing, then I’ll be upstairs. Tell me when they arrive.”
Somehow, we got through supper. Hoss was the only one able to do justice to his favorite meal of chicken and dumplings. A man couldn’t be any prouder of his sons than I was of Adam and Joe that evening. Despite their misgivings, they complied with my decision. Their acting prowess would have done credit to some of the theatrical companies that have appeared at Piper’s Opera House. Adam and I tried to make some semblance of conversation for appearances sake. Joe didn’t say anything, which maybe, was, for the best.
One of the Vandervort’s horses had been favoring his right front leg. After supper, Hoss went to the barn to tend it. I suggested that Adam and Joe accompany him. I wanted to make another attempt at reasoning with Christina Vandervort. I was quite sure that Joe would lose his temper. I even doubted that Adam could remain calm and control his tongue in negotiating with this woman. Her husband clearly didn’t approve of what she was doing, trying to replace their dead son with Hoss, but he would go along with whatever she wanted. Klaas Vandervort desperately wanted to see his wife happy again, even at my family’s expense.
Mr. Vandervort and I had been sitting by the fire, both of us smoking our pipes, an awkward silence between us. I approached Mrs. Vandervort as she came through the room after getting a drink of water in the kitchen. “Please, sit down. We need to talk some more about this.”
She tried to brush me off. “Ach! Please, Mr. Cartwright. You agreed. Are you going to go back on your word?” She strode determinedly toward the stairs, not looking at me. “ Come, Papa! We must get to bed so we can be leaving at sunrise.”
Her husband stood and motioned to the settee. “Christina. Sit down here and listen to what Mr. Cartwright has to say. How can you be so cruel as to not even listen?” He didn’t raise his voice to his wife, but his stern tone left no doubt that he intended to be obeyed. She stopped in her tracks, and dropped onto the settee.
I had started to go sit on the table in front of the settee, but thought better of it, and kept my distance from her. I found myself leaning forward in my chair as I spoke.
“Mrs. Vandervort, I don’t intend on going back on my word. But I’m imploring you to stay another day to give Hoss a chance to maybe recognize something. I don’t think that’s being unreasonable when we’re talking about a man’s life, his future.”
Mrs. Vandervort nervously smoothed her apron as she listened, then clutched the material, as if she needed to hang onto something. “What if one more day doesn’t help? Then what will you do? Ask for another day, then another? Is it being unreasonable to want to get to Michigan before winter?” She fixed me with her cold stare.
We were interrupted when the door opened and Joe stalked in. He glared around the room and opened his mouth as if to say something, but I caught his eye. I held my breath, praying that my youngest son wouldn’t blurt out some angry, confrontational remark. He looked away from me and ran his fingers through his tangled curls. “I’m going up to bed. Adam and Hoss ‘ill be in soon. Night, Pa. Mr. and Mrs. Vandervort.” He nodded curtly and withdrew up the stairs without so much as a glance over his shoulder.
“Just one more day. I know the importance of being at your destination before winter sets in. One more day won’t make a difference in your travel. That’s all I’m asking, just one more day.”
Throughout the conversation Klaus Vandervort hadn’t said a word; just sat there smoking his pipe. He glared sternly at his wife, but the words he was about to say were left unspoken. Adam and Hoss came in from the barn. Adam stopped at the bottom of the staircase and looked around the room. “If everyone will excuse me, I’m going to turn in. Goodnight, Mr. and Mrs. Vandervort. Pa.” And here his tongue stumbled. “Hendrick”.
Hoss started to follow. “I’ll need to get up extra early to take a look at Hans’s leg. So, if nobody minds, I better turn in, too,” he advised.
“Please sit down, Hendrick. I’d like to talk to you for a minute.” Like Adam, my tongue stumbled over that name. I took a seat in on the coffee table facing Hoss who sat on the settee. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Adam look directly at his brother. I prayed that my oldest son stayed silent as I made my next attempt to draw Hoss back to us.
“The Vandervorts told me that you had a blow to your head and have lost your memory, that you don’t know who you are. What if someone could tell you all this, who you are, where you come from?”
“I, I don’t rightly know, Mr. Cartwright. I don’t reckon I’ve thought about it. When I try to remember anything, I get a sick feelin’ and my head aches something fierce.” Hoss’ face skewed up in pain as we spoke, and he put his head in his hands. “Talkin’ about it now, is bringin’ one of those headaches on.
My heart lurched at the distress reflected on my son’s face. I felt like I was being torn in half. This was my last chance to try to get through this stranger to my middle son. But, seeing the pain in those blue eyes, so like his mother’s, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t inflect such suffering on my son. No matter what the reason. I’ll never know where I got the strength to say, “It’s all right. Go on up to bed, son.”
Mrs. Vandervort watched Hoss mount the stairs, then turned to me. “We’ll be leaving in the morning as planned, Mr. Cartwright. Goodnight.”
Klass Vandervort rose to follow his wife to the downstairs guest room. “Mr. Cartwright. I promise you. If your son regains his memory, we will make sure he has means to get back home to you. Goodnight.”
“Do you think he will, Pa?” Adam said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Send him back to us? Of course, Mr. Vandervort said he would.”
“No, I mean do you think Hoss will ever regain his memory?”
Later that night, lying awake in my bed, hindsight took over. I saw a solemn, dark-eyed little boy sitting on my lap and clinging to my neck as I tried to explain to him what had happened to his mother. I saw that same little boy, a few years older, standing beside a grave on the prairie, clutching my hand. Then I saw the little boy, grown into a young man, standing beside another grave. This time, his hands were being clutched by a younger tow-headed boy and a small, curly-headed child. The picture in my mind’s eye shifted again, and the young man had matured. But, the same dark eyes were gazing at me, again full of hurt, as I told him that one of his brothers could be as good as dead to
I was awakened by the first rays of the sun slanting into my window and into my eyes. I dressed quickly, not taking time to shave. I knew I wouldn’t have another chance to appeal to Christina Vandervort, but I was hoping for a few minutes alone with Hoss I had to make one last try at helping him remember something, anything. I looked in on Adam and Joe on my way down the hall. They both were sound asleep, or appeared to be. I had heard Joe get up and go downstairs in the early hours of the morning. I had debated with myself about following him, but then heard Adam’s footsteps on the stairs. I laid awake listening for their return. When I heard the sound I was waiting for, I relaxed a little and finally dozed off.
Hoss had nearly finished washing up when I tentatively knocked on his door. My stomach was tied in knots. I didn’t want to see him as upset as he was the previous evening. His mental and physical anguish had torn my heart out. But he would be leaving, for the Lord only knew how long; maybe forever, so I took a chance. “Morning, Hoss.” I made my voice as hearty as I could manage.
He looked up from the wash basin, puzzled. “Mornin’, Mr. Cartwright. What was that you called me?”
“Hoss. It’s a mountain term for a big man. A friend,” I rushed to explain. That seemed to please him, that I would refer to him as a friend. He smiled shyly at me and ducked his head. I was on the verge of saying something I would probably regret, when, thankfully, he changed the subject.
“I’m sorry I’m takin’ so long. I hated to get out of that comfortable bed.”
I looked at the oversize bed, and thought of the day I had ordered it. “Yes, it is comfortable. I had it specially made. We should go down to breakfast. The Vandervorts are probably up and eager to be on the way.”
“Comin’. Mr. Cartwright. Just let me grab my vest.”
As I moved back, and turned, I bumped into the stand where I had placed Inger’s daguerreotype the night before. I had hoped, irrationally, that Inger could bring our son back to me. It crashed to the floor and the glass from the frame shattered. Hoss dropped his vest, and turned to me, a look of intense hatred on his face. He grabbed me, and drew his arm back, his hand making a fist. “Pick that up! You pick that up!” He spoke through clenched lips, his tone as menacing as his gigantic fist poised to smash into my face. I could only stare at him, dazed.
Hoss suddenly looked at me, then back to his raised fist, his face a study in confusion and horror. “Pa! What? “He let go of me and dropped his fist. His expression turned to one of shame. “Pa, I was going to hit you! Pa, I’m sorry. I’ve never raised my hand to you. Why was I ….?” He couldn’t seem to find the words to finish.
“It’s all right, son! Forget it for now. I’ll explain everything later.” I was beside myself with a joy that I couldn’t let Hoss see. The boy was confused enough. “Don’t wake your brothers. They didn’t get much sleep last night. I’ll explain that later, too.”
“Sure, Pa. But…?”
“Please, Hoss, just do as I ask. I promise, I’ll explain everything in a little while.”
“Right, Pa. I’ll clean this glass up and be right down.”
I had my middle son back. My heart seemed fifty pounds lighter than it had for days. I felt like sliding down the banister like a child. I managed to compose myself and walked downstairs instead of flying. I was halfway down when Mrs. Vandervort entered the house. I must not have been successful at hiding my happiness. As soon as she saw me, she seemed to became apprehensive. She looked up at me where I stood on the steps. “Is something the matter, Mr. Cartwright?” She twisted her apron in her hands, a nervous habit I had come to find annoying. “Mr. Cartwright? Is something wrong with Hendrick?”
Before I could answer, Hoss called down from upstairs. “Hey! Pa! Who’s wagon is that out there?”
Mrs. Vandervort looked up the stairs, her face suddenly pale and her eyes wide in alarm. Mr. Vandervort had joined his wife, and stood holding her by the arm, as if to keep her from falling, or from bolting up the stairs. I wanted to feel compassion for this woman, but somehow I couldn’t. She knew what it was to lose a son, yet, she was rationalizing to herself why she should have the right to take a son from me.
Hoss came ambling down, amiable and hungry, like any other morning. He curiously greeted out guests. Mrs. Vandervort had regained her composure and was able to smile when introduced to Hoss. She explained to the man who she had tried to make her son that they had stopped to ask directions and I had kindly invited them to breakfast, but they had to be on their way and couldn’t stay.
Later, Hoss and I stood in the yard and watched the Vandervorts wagon turn the corner of the barn and roll out of sight. I said a silent prayer that Christina Vandervort would find peace back in Michigan, with her friends around her.
Although, I wanted to clutch Hoss to me like a small child that had been lost then found, I contented myself with throwing my arm around his shoulder as we turned back to the house. I couldn’t resist giving that strong shoulder a squeeze as I felt my mouth stretching into a wide smile. I felt as I did that afternoon twenty-five years ago as I sat in the back of our wagon and Inger placed this son in my arms for the first time.
We have only the word of a doctor we know nothing about that this is the best thing for Hoss. A country doctor. Does he have any first hand knowledge of amnesia, or is he just quoting from something he read in a medical journal? We need time to find a doctor who has had experience in treating amnesia. Time for Paul Martin to send out telegrams to doctors back East. Time for him to search for information in medical journals. Christiana Vandervort is refusing us that needed time. Ultimately it will be Hoss, whom she claims to love as a son, who will pay the price of her bitterness.
The desolation in Pa’s voice as he talked about watching Hoss ride away seemed to affect Joe more than Pa’s yelling had. I know it wrenched at my gut. Joe sank onto the settee, his head in his hands. I sat on the coffee table in front of him. “Joe, listen to me.”
He reached for one of the pillows on the settee and hugged it to him, the way a child might seek comfort in a stuffed toy. He wouldn’t look up, keeping his eyes on the pillow as he spoke. “You know I’m right. You told Pa that I was.”
I put my hand on his knee, hoping the gesture would get him to look at me. He raised his head and met my eyes. The misery I saw there reflected my feelings. “Hoss is our brother, but he’s Pa’s son. If it’s this hard on us, think of how much harder it is on him. You’re right; I don’t think it’s what we should do. I don’t think Pa is sure, himself. But he made up his mind to take the doctor’s advice, for good or bad. He needs us to go along without argument, even if we don’t understand why. You and I’ll talk more about this later. Right now we’ve got to both pull ourselves together so when they get here we can act as naturally as possible.”
Joe nodded, reluctantly. He got up and went to the liquor cabinet and got a bottle of brandy. Without saying a word, he held the bottle up in my direction. I joined him and picked up two glasses.
My brother looked at me with more fear on his face than I had ever seen there. With a hoarse whisper he said, “And Pa better be right, Adam. Pa better be right.” He hesitated for a moment and then splashed a measure of the fiery liquid into each glass. He pushed one glass at me and, with a trembling hand lifted his own in a toast,” To our brother Hoss.”
“To Hoss,” I repeated, while we clinked glasses.
I assumed that Pa had two good reasons to send us along to the barn with Hoss. No doubt he wanted to speak with the Vandervorts alone to make one more appeal to them. Perhaps if they saw him in his own home, with his family around him, they would reconsider their plan to take him to Michigan. Second, Pa might have hoped that if the three of us were working together something would click in his mind. Just maybe, being in the barn he helped build, it would all come back. He’d remember that he was Hoss Cartwright.
Chubb pricked up his ears and whinnied at his owner’s familiar scent. Hoss went to the big black and patted his neck. “That’s sure a handsome animal. Friendly too.” He laughed as Chubb snorted and nuzzled him contentedly. “He’s sure takin’ to me.”
Joe watched them with a hopeful smile.
“Well, I better get to work on old Hans here.” Hoss gave Chubb one last pat and turned to the Vandervort’s horse. “Could you fellas get me some liniment and rags and a bucket?”
Joe’s face fell and he settled himself gloomily on a feed box. I managed to get a grip on my own disappointment. I started to get the liniment, bucket, and rags. Then I remembered that Hoss had cooked up some special salve for the livestock. He insisted it worked better than liniment for healing pulled muscles because it was thick and stuck to the animal and didn’t run off. The problem was, it had a nasty smell that he claimed was an important part of the cure. The last time he cooked up a batch Hop Sing went crazy and threatened to clobber him with his soup ladle if he stunk up his kitchen again. Maybe that would be the key to opening the memories locked in his head. It was not only something very familiar to Hoss, but something special to him. There was half a crock left and I quickly handed it to him. “Try this. It’s better than liniment. It’s a special mixture.”
He undid the lid and the harsh order wafted out. He sniffed and shuddered. “What is this stuff?” Then he frowned, cocking his head and closing his eyes. For a fraction of a second, I thought he recognized the concoction. Then he clamped the lid back on and handed me the crock. “No thanks. I’d really rather use the liniment, if it ain’t a bother.”
I went to get what he requested. When I returned from the supply room, Joe wasn’t in the barn.
Whatever else the amnesia did to Hoss’s memory, it didn’t take away his skill with ailing stock. As I leaned against the stall and watched, it seemed like many other evenings, the two of in the barn with an injured or sick animal.
“Well, he should be all right by morning. Thanks for your help.” He patted the brown horse on his rump and stood up stretching. “I’m bone tired. We got a long way to go tomorrow. I better turn in. Looks like your brother went to the house. Hope I see him in the morning before we leave. Kind’a quiet fella, ain’t he?”
“You’ll have to excuse him. He’s not himself. He lost a good friend recently.” Later, in bed, unable to sleep, I thought about how true my words were.
I lit the lamp on the table beside my bed. What had awakened me? The grandfather clock downstairs striking the hour, or was it something else? There it was! The sound of boots on the plank floor. I quickly dressed and went downstairs. The only light down there was from the banked fire. On a hunch, I went outside. Lantern light glowed from the open barn door. I entered the barn to find Joe murmuring soothingly to Chubb as he wielded a curry comb.
“Kind of a strange time to be grooming a horse, isn’t it?”
Joe jumped a mile at the sound of my voice, then rounded on me. “Damn it, Adam! You know better than to sneak up on a man like that! What are you doing out here at this hour, anyway?”
I wasn’t going to let him turn the tables on me. “Me! What are you doing out here at this time of night?” Then a suspicion came over me. “Joe, if you’re thinking of doing something idiotic, forget it! We have to play this out Pa’s way.”
Joe’s defiant glare turned into a guilty frown. He hunkered down beside me, where I sat on the feedbox, his eyes glued to his boots. “Just hear me out before you say anything, Adam.” I listened, without interrupting, to my youngest brothers scheme to kidnap our brother and take him to one of the line shacks.
“Well, I layed there in bed, all pleased with myself and my heroic plan. But a little voice kept pushing into my head.” Joe shook his head and smiled sheepishly. “That little voice asked me just what the heck I thought I was going to do? How was I going to keep Hoss at the line shack once we got there? And, the biggest question of all, what kind of miracle was going to give him his memory back before Pa and you found us.”
“I got dressed and came down meaning to sit on the porch for awhile and try to clear my head. It was spinnin’ in all directions. Next thing I know, I’m here in the barn. Old Chubb’s ears picked up and his nostrils twitched when I came in.” Joe went back to Chubb’s stall, and started to scratch behind the gelding’s ears. “Adam, I swear that horse looked downright heartbroken when he realized it wasn’t Hoss that came in. I started to curry him just to give him some attention. He looked so lonesome. It kind of helped me, too. Like I was doin’ something for Hoss.”
I thought of what I had witnessed earlier that evening. I picked up the curry comb that Joe had discarded and picked up where he left off. “When Pa first explained the situation with Hoss I felt the same way you did. That letting him go with the Vandervorts was the wrong thing to do. How he could make a decision like that. After you went up to bed tonight, Pa asked Hoss if he would want to know who he was , where he came from if someone told him. Hoss said he couldn’t think about it. Every time he did, he got sick to his stomach and an agonizing headache. You could see it coming over him as Pa talked. I couldn’t stand the pain on his face. It had to have been worse for Pa to see him like that. Besides, how would he stop them? Tie Hoss up and run the Vandervorts off at gunpoint? How would that help Hoss? Whether we like it or not, it’s out of our hands. Mr. Vandervort seems like a kind man. A fair man. If…when, Hoss gets his memory back, he’ll see that he gets back to us.”
My mind is filled with memories. Hoss teaching me to fight, to track, to find water in the desert, to make a fire with a piece of glass and a handful of dry grass. Hoss, Adam, and me working the ranch together, having a beer together, conspiring against each other, bickering, even fighting. But no matter what, even after the conspiring, the bickering, the fighting, we’re brothers. I know that technically we’re half-brothers. But we’ve never thought of us that way. We’re brothers. The three of us.
I couldn’t sleep a wink. I tossed and turned every which way. Finally, I got up and yanked the quilt from my bed and draped it around my shoulders. I pulled a chair over to the window. The pines cast long shadows in the full moon. I could see an owl diving for its prey. Not far off, a coyote howled, causing the horses in the corral to stamp and snort uneasily.
I clutched the quilt into my clinched fists and drew it closer around me. The familiar warmth of the old quilt was comforting. I had dreamed about stealing my brother back from the Vandervorts. A crazy plan started to form in my exhausted mind. I got dressed and went to the barn with the intention of saddling Cochise and Chubb.
The walk to the barn through the chilly night air helped me to think straight. Chubb stood forlornly in his stall, his eyes glued to the barn door waiting patiently for Hoss to come. I grabbed a curry comb and brush and started to work. Maybe this would help both of us feel a little bit better.
“A strange time to be grooming a horse, isn’t it?”
The sound of Adam’s voice in the still barn startled me. I dropped the curry comb and twirled around. “Damn it, Adam! You know better than to sneak up on a man like that! What are you doing out here at this hour, anyway?” I tried to turn the tables on him, but it didn’t work.
He sat on the feed box and eyed me like I was a rustler nosing around our herd. He started talking about how Pa felt, and about playing it out Pa’s way. He even guessed that I had been thinking of doing something foolish. I found myself telling him about my dream.
He took over currying Chubb. I stood at the horse’s head and patted him and scratched behind his ears. Adam told me about Pa’s attempt at getting through to Hoss. He looked sick, himself, when he described the painful look on our brother’s face when Pa asked him if he would want to be told about himself. Hearing it made me feel like Adam looked. Before we went back into the house, I grabbed Adam’s shirt sleeve and stopped him at the door. “I don’t think I can stand to watch Hoss leave in the morning.” I knew I sounded like a whining little kid, but I couldn’t stop my words from coming out that way.
“I don’t think I can, either. But Pa’s going to need us.”
Adam draped his arm around my shoulder and, together, we went inside and upstairs. He didn’t let loose of me till we parted at our bedroom doors.
My whole family’s actin’ like they’re plumb crazy! Includin’ me. I want to know what’s goin’ on around here. But after what happened this mornin’, I’m kind of afraid of findin’ out.
I didn’t remember gettin’ up that morning, and gettin’ washed up and dressed. First thing I remember was I had my fist pulled back to hit my Pa! I would never, ever! None of us would. There I stood in my room, my right arm pulled back, my hand in a fist, my left hand clamped ahold of Pa’s arm. The daguerreotype of my mother that’s usually on the stand by my bed was shattered on the floor. I almost pounded Pa! He just patted my arm and told me it was all right! He was even smilin’ like he was just appointed Territorial Governor! He said we’d talk about it later, and went downstairs.
He called me down to meet some folks who had stopped to ask directions. They seemed like nice people. They were Dutch, and they were goin’ back to their old home in Holland, Michigan. Pa had invited them to stay for breakfast, but they said they had to be on their way. That must have been why Hop Sing was bakin’ cinnamon rolls. We only have them for special occasions or when we have company.
After we saw those folks off, Pa told me to go roust Adam and Joe out of bed. Now, I’m used to havin’ to haul Joe out of a morning, but Adam is usually the first one up, after Pa. Sometimes, he even beats Pa. I figured I’d get Adam, first. He’d be the easier to wake up, and he could help me roust Joe. I went up and knocked on his door. That’s when the rest of the dadblamed craziness started.
“Hey! Adam! What’re you still doin’ in bed? You think you’re Joe?” He was shavin’ when I walked into his room. He whirled around to face me like he had heard a pistol cock behind his back. He stood stock still, starin’ at me, his mouth hangin’ open. Blood was startin’ to seep from where he sliced his chin with the razor he was pointin’ at me. I looked behind me to see what he was pointin’ at. All I saw was the empty hallway.
When I looked back at Adam, he was grinnin’ at me the same way Pa had been. He didn’t seem to notice the blood drippin’ down his chin. I handed him the washcloth hangin’ by his shavin’ stand. “Uh, your chin’s bleedin’. You must have cut yourself. What in tarnation is wrong with you this mornin’, big brother? You was starin’ at me like I sprouted another head overnight!”
He seemed to snap out of whatever it was. “Uh, I was? Yeah, I guess I was. I’ll explain later. Come on. We better go drag Joe out.”
There was that “later” again. I was beginnin’ to get the peculiar feelin’ that the explanation was nothing I wanted to hear.
Adam put on his shirt, and we headed across the hall, with him still holdin’ the wash cloth to his chin. He leaned against the door frame, grinnin’ like a fool while I went into Joe’s room. He was layin’ on his stomach with the quilt pulled over his head, so I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or awake. I couldn’t resist the target. “Hey! Joe! Up and at ‘em!” I swatted him a good one on his backside. Joe was out of that bed like a shot, fists swingin’. Then, like Adam had, he just stood there starin’ at me, with his fists still in the air. Next thing I knew, he was jumpin’ on me, yellin’ like an Apache war party, and poundin’ on my back. “Hoss! It’s you! Yahoo! It’s you!” Who in Sam Hill did he think it would be? I finally got loose of him, no help from Adam, and dumped him on the bed. Adam came in and sat down in a chair that Joe had pulled up by his window. He winked at Joe, but, I swear both of them had tears in their eyes.
Joe sat cross-legged on the bed, and kind’a picked at the edge of his quilt. I could tell he had somethin’ on his mind he wanted to say, but wasn’t quite sure of. He aimed his words at Adam, but they seemed meant for both of us. “After the last few days, I’ve finally understood what Pa’s been telling us every since I can remember. About family bein’ the most important thing in life. More important than money, cattle, timber land, the whole Ponderosa. He said once that sometimes what you thought was real important winds up being so insignificant, that you can hold it in the palm of your hand and blow it away like dandelion down. That life can turn around just that fast.”
Adam stretched out those long legs of his, and folded his arms across his chest, makin’ himself comfortable in the chair. “Pa’s always said nothing matters to him more than his sons. Even when Hoss was a baby, he always said what he wanted most in life was for his two sons to be there for each other. Uncle John and he were never close, and he didn’t want us to grow up like that. Especially, since we were so far apart in age. Then when you came along, of course, he changed it to his three sons. His three sons. Together. No matter what.”
I remembered when we made that pledge. It was right after Adam got home from college. Joe was about 9 or 10. Jimmy Peterson’s pa had just died. Jimmy was about a year older than Joe, I think. His ma had died when he was born. Jimmy had three older sisters and two older brothers. The closest one to Jimmy’s age was a little older than me. After their Pa’s funeral, they sold the ranch and all scattered every which way. None of them wanted to be bothered with Jimmy. They shipped him off to live with relatives he never met. Joe was worried about what would happen if Pa died while he was still a kid. We promised him that we would always be together, no matter what. He even made me and Adam take an oath and spit on our hands to seal it, before we shook on it.
Joe came out of that strange, serious mood he was in, and laughed. “Sometimes when you fellows give me a hard time over me not doing my share of chores, I’m not so sure then about that ‘no matter what’. Or when we’re coming to blows after a long winter. None of us are much for holding up any brotherly bonds for Pa’s sake then.”
Adam laughed too, and got to his feet. “We better get dressed and get down to breakfast. Hoss, go tell Pa that Joe and I’ll be right there.”
I did as Adam told me. I hustled downstairs. I was hopin’ that as soon as we were all at the table Pa’d fill me in on what was goin’ on around here. That conversation, just know, left me more puzzled than Adam and Joe’s crazy actions. Whatever’s goin’ on around here, I want an explanation. Right quick!
Well, it’s a relief to find out that my family’s not all goin’ loco! And that I’m not either! That was a humdinger of a story Pa told me at breakfast. It must have been awful hard for him and Joe and Adam to have to treat me like a stranger.
In bed that night, I tried to imagine how I’d have felt if it was Joe or Adam. It kind of gave me a hollow feelin’, just thinkin’ about it. Now wonder they acted like crazy fellas when I went up to wake them. I could picture Pa standin’ at the bottom of the steps listen’ to all the ruckus, and grinnin’ like a fool, himself.
Everybody was walkin’ on egg shells for awhile. Drivin’ me crazy, askin’ how I felt. Sometimes, I’d catch Pa or Adam or Joe, just starin’ at me like I was gonna disappear any minute. Especially Pa.
I’ve thought back a few times to that conversation in Joe’s room that mornin’. And I think about them bein’ here, and me bein’ in Michigan. I think somehow, the connection between us would still be there. We’d all be together. No matter what.