Summary: “A Fitting Goodbye” was inspired by the 14th season aired episode, “Stallion.” Some events in this story make reference to my novel-length story, “Conquering the Stillness Within.” “Conquering the Stillness Within” can be found at: http://www.fanfiction-library.com/Bonanza/stillnesscover.html
Word Count: 6300
The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief. (Hilary Stanton Zunin)
I’d waited all day for their return. If I’d been ten years younger, I wouldn’t have. I’d have gone after Joseph myself, instead of sending Candy and Griff. But my age was catching up with me, and I could no longer spend endless hours on Buck, riding over rough terrain. Or at least I couldn’t if I still wanted to walk when I slid out of the saddle. And “slid” was the accurate way of describing my dismount on many days now. My hips no longer functioned with the ease they used to, and my right knee bothered me off and on, too. “Rheumatism” Paul Martin called it. Or possibly it was “arthritis.” That was the new-fangled word used by the doctor Adam had me see the last time I visited him and Laddie in Boston.
Because of my rheumatism, or arthritis, or whatever one wants to call it, I was standing on the porch, listening for the distant ‘clomp clomp clomp’ of horses’ hooves. When I finally heard that sound, I stepped off the porch, walking across the ranch yard to greet the riders.
Candy came around the barn first, followed by Griff. I craned my neck, peering around Griff’s horse, sure I’d see Joe on the stallion he had yet to name, with Cochise trailing along behind. I even smiled a little; the picture in mind so vivid that it almost seemed real. Poor Cochise. His nose had been pushed out of joint ever since the stallion’s arrival. Not that I could blame him. He’d been Joseph’s pride and joy for over 20 years now. He was probably feeling a bit like an only child who thought he’d lost favor to his “father’s” new baby.
“Don’t worry, Cochise,” I’d told him one day when Joe was out riding the stallion, and Cochise stood alone in the corral looking mournful. “He’ll come back to you. If you’re going to be angry with someone, be angry with me. I’m the one who gave Little Joe his new toy.”
Cochise nudged me hard with his nose then, just like he’d understood what I’d said. I chuckled as I reached up to rub a hand over the horse’s neck, trying to make amends with him. My amusement gave way to sadness in the same swift manner summer rain clouds can move in and hide the sun. What I’d said to Cochise about the stallion being Joe’s new toy, though said in jest, actually held more truth than I wanted to acknowledge. I’d given Joe the stallion for his birthday, not because he’d needed, or even asked for the horse, but because I wanted to see him smile again. Because I didn’t know what else to do for the son who’d lost so much during the past year.
First a treasured brother – Joe’s best friend in more ways than I can name – then a beloved wife and unborn child.
So, as though my youngest son was still a little boy and not a grown man, I’d tried to come up with ways to make him happy again. To somehow give him back all that had been taken from him. It was a foolish notion. I knew that right from the start. You can’t replace loved ones who have passed on. I’m “old enough to know better,” as my own father would have said if he’d been able to observe my actions since the deaths of Hoss and Alice, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
First, it was offering Joe a trip to Boston to spend time with Adam, Laddie, and the little girls. Three-year-old Elizabeth Josephine had been joined by two sisters. Sarah Grace, who’d just celebrated her second birthday, and baby Emmaline Rose. Despite his love for Adam’s family, Joe turned down that offer. As I told Adam in a letter I’d mailed him shortly thereafter, while I thought it would do Joe a world of good to get away, I supposed my offer, though well-intentioned, was poorly timed. The last thing Joe probably wanted was to be in a homemade warm by the presence of a wife and lit with joy by two rambunctious toddlers and a baby that was just learning to crawl. The baby who, every time Joe looked at her, would only remind him further of what he’d lost in that fire.
After that offer, came my offer to send him to San Francisco for two weeks just to “relax and do whatever you want to, Joe. Anything at all. The bill’s on me.” When that was turned down, I suggested he make a visit to Arizona, where Tuck and his wife had purchased a ranch several years earlier. When that offer, too, was refused, I said one evening at dinner, “How about if you and I take a trip to New Orleans? We haven’t been there since you were a boy. We could get reacquainted with the city. I could show you where I met your mother. The places she and I went to. Maybe we could look up her family – see who might be left.”
That’s when he looked at me and said what had undoubtedly been on his mind each and every time I’d suggested I pay for a trip to anywhere he might want to go.
“Pa,” he said in a voice husky with emotion, “you can send me to the ends of the earth, and it won’t make a difference. Hoss, and Alice, and my. . .” he paused and swallowed hard, as though he was clearing tears from his voice, “. . .my baby, will still be dead. They’ll still be gone. I know you mean well, but you can’t bring them back. As much as you want to, you can’t, and no trip…no matter how far away, is gonna make me forget that when I get home, they won’t be here.”
“I know, Joe. I know. But…”
“No,” he shook his head.
I could tell he wanted to say more – I saw his mouth move as though he was trying to, but he couldn’t get any words out. He stood, mumbled something about having chores to do in the barn before it got dark, and walked out of the house, leaving his plate half-filled with food.
I remained where I was, sitting alone at that big table that now held too many empty chairs, a tear slowly trailing down my cheek because I wanted nothing more than to take his pain away. If Hoss had been there, he’d have said, “Aw, Pa, don’t take it so hard. Yer doin’ all ya’ can for Joe. He knows that, and he loves ya’ for it. Just give him some time. He’ll work it out for himself. He always does.”
Yes, Hoss, I thought, as though I’d really heard my middle son say those words. He usually does work things out for himself, but this time he’s lost so much so quickly. First you, son, then Alice and the baby. On some days, I’m afraid he’s suffered more than he can bear.
“Now don’t ya’ go underestimatin’ him, Pa. Joe’s a tough little bugger. Probably the toughest one a’ the Cartwright bunch. He’ll be okay. I promise ya’, Pa, he’ll be fine.”
It was as I heard those words in my head that I cried for my middle child. Not that I hadn’t cried before, you understand, but it had been months since my grief for Hoss brought forth an open display of emotion. On most days, I grieved inwardly, while asking God why he’d taken Hoss instead of me. After all, I was an old man. I’d lived long enough to raise my sons to adulthood. To see them all become fine men. I could have gone peacefully to my grave, knowing that Hoss and Joe would run the Ponderosa side by side for years to come, and that Adam was happy in Boston with a wife he adored, and three little girls he doted over like they were rare and fragile china dolls.
After that night, I didn’t say any more to Joe about a trip. Instead, I found myself trying to think of something I could give him for his birthday that would be special – something that would draw him out of his grief and put a sparkle in his eyes again. And it wasn’t long after that, when I first heard about the stallion. The “most magnificent animal you’ve ever seen, Ben,” Lowell Tanner told me. “Runs like the wind, and would make a jim-dandy stud. I’d have bought him myself, but the price was a little steep for my wallet. I thought of the Ponderosa, though. Thought you might be interested in him.”
Joe was usually the man on the Ponderosa who made decisions about what horses we bought, and which ones we chose not to buy, but this time I made the decision. I contacted the stallion’s owner, promptly received information about the animal via a telegram, thought it over for a few days, then wired the man the money he was asking for the horse, along with instructions on how to ship the animal to me. I’d never bought a horse sight unseen before, and he cost me far more than I’d ever spent on a birthday gift for any of my boys, but the money didn’t matter. If I could buy Joe some happiness, then I’d sell the Ponderosa to earn the cash to do so.
I’ll admit to some trepidation as Joe and I rode toward the train the day the stallion was due to arrive. I was afraid he’d see right through my intentions the moment he spotted the horse, and just like with my offers of a trip, the gift would be rebuffed.
Foolish old man, I chided myself. You don’t even know for certain that this horse is all Lowell claims him to be. You might have spent three thousand dollars on an old nag.
I chased those thoughts away as the boxcar door rolled open, and Joe’s birthday gift was revealed to both of us for the first time. Joe’s face initially remained expressionless. I could tell, though, that he wasn’t upset with the present, but instead, just plain shocked by it.
The animal was the picture of beauty. Rich ebony in color, with a broad strong chest, and long muscular legs made for running. And then I saw what I’d wanted to see most – a smile. Joe couldn’t stop grinning as he studied the horse, ran his hands over it, and then set it to loping, trotting, and galloping a few yards away from the track. He looked just like he used to as a little boy on Christmas morning – his face shining with delight, and his eyes sparkling with excitement when he caught his first glimpse of the presents piled beneath the tree as he raced down the stairs three steps ahead of Hoss.
After putting the stallion through some easy paces, Joe shot me a grin filled with mischief. I knew what he had in mind even before he took off alongside the train.
“Joseph, be careful!” I called. I shook my head as though I disapproved of his actions – and I should have disapproved of them – but in all honesty, I was so happy to see Joe happy, that I didn’t care if he raced that train all the way to New York City.
I did voice my disapproval when I finally caught up to him after watching him jump the tracks just feet in front of the speeding locomotive engine. But Joe didn’t take me too seriously, and I don’t suppose I sounded very stern now that I think back on it. He kidded me then, telling me he’d race me home. He took off on the stallion, headed for the Ponderosa, his laughter drifting back to Buck, Cochise, and me, as we trailed along behind him.
I lost count in the coming days of how many times I caught him standing in the corral admiring the stallion, or rubbing the animal’s nose as he spoke softly to him in the barn. I also lost count of how many times he said, “Thanks, Pa. He’s a terrific birthday present.”
No, the horse didn’t replace a brother, or a wife, or a child, but for a little while, he did make Joe smile again, and that’s all I’d wanted.
So when Candy and Griff returned without Joe or the stallion, I knew something was wrong.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I approached the pair. “Where’s Joe?”
“I don’t know,” Candy said.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“He headed off toward the lake on Cochise. Told me and Griff to come on back here.”
“Well, where’s the stallion then?”
“He. . .uh. . .” Candy glanced at Griff, then looked back down at me. “He’s dead, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Yeah,” Candy nodded. He dismounted, passing the reins of his horse off to Griff, who headed toward the barn to tend to the tired animals.
“What happened?” I asked my foreman. “Joe’s stallion. . .”
That’s when Candy told me about that man – Billy Brenner – who’d stopped by a few days earlier, looking for a job. I didn’t have any work for him, and when I suggested he try the railroad, or the mines, he had ready-made excuses why railroad work and mining wasn’t for him. Based on those responses, I knew what kind of man he was. The kind who doesn’t like to break a sweat and drifts from job to job, most likely because he was fired as soon as someone figured out that the only thing Billy Brenner wanted to work hard at was being lazy.
I was polite to the man, but I had to be firm when he wouldn’t take no for an answer. As I walked away, I was aware that he and Joe exchanged words. I wasn’t too certain what happened, and later, when I asked Joe what was said, he replied with, “Nothin’ to worry about, Pa. I asked him in for a meal – wanted to see if there was a way we could help him get by for a few days, maybe give me some time to think of a shopkeeper in Virginia City who might be looking for help – but I guess I offended him.”
“Offended him? How? Sounds like a generous gesture to me.”
“Evidently it didn’t sound like one to Brenner. He didn’t appreciate being offered charity from a “rich kid.”
“Oh, I see.”
I didn’t say anything else. I didn’t need to. All three of my boys had dealt with that kind of attitude from time to time. People who thought Ben Cartwright’s sons didn’t have to work hard on the Ponderosa each day, people who thought I didn’t require that they pull their weight, people who thought that, because you had money, life never gave you any hard knocks. Well, I knew better than that, and so did Joe. Had he been younger, Brenner’s attitude would likely have caused him to stew over what was said for the better part of the day. But he was old enough now to quickly put it behind him, and realize he’d done all he could for the man. If Brenner didn’t want to accept Joe’s offer of a hot meal, then so be it. What neither Joe nor I anticipated that morning, was that Billy Brenner would show up again a few days later just as dawn was breaking, and make off with Joe’s stallion.
Candy continued his story, telling me how Joe had met up with Brenner’s young son on the trail, and how Brenner had engaged Joe in a gun battle, and how the man had accidentally shot his own boy. Joe had gone for a doctor then, choosing to take the stallion over Rockback Ridge, cutting off a good twelve to thirteen miles of the journey to Virginia City. Unfortunately, asking the horse to travel over the Ridge after Brenner had been running him at top speed for several hours, proved to be too much for the animal. It collapsed in a meadow just as Candy and Griff came upon Joe. At that point, Joe instructed Griff to ride the rest of the way to Virginia City and bring back the doctor.
“The good news is, the boy – Tommy, I think his name was – is gonna be fine. Doc says he’ll pull through with plenty of food and rest.”
“What about Brenner?”
“Joe’s refusing to press charges. Just told the man to take good care of his son right before we rode outta there.”
“And you don’t have any idea where Joe is now?”
“No. Other than what I already said. He headed toward the lake.”
I didn’t respond to Candy as I turned for the barn.
“Where you goin’?”
“To saddle Buck. Do me a favor and tell Hop Sing to keep supper in the warmer. It might be dark before Joe and I are back.”
“You know where he is?”
“I think so,” I said, but didn’t offer Candy any further information as I went into the barn and saddled my horse.
I found Joseph where I instinctively knew I would. In all the times I’d gone up there to visit that grave, I’d never run across him. I’d always assumed he paid his respects to his brother just as often as I did, but that either by chance, or deliberate planning on Joe’s part, we were never there at the same time. However, I soon found out my assumptions were wrong.
Cochise was tied to a low hanging branch of a Ponderosa Pine. He nickered softly at Buck in greeting as I dismounted and looped Buck’s reins around the same branch.
Just from the sounds the horses made, Joe must have known I was there, but he didn’t turn away from the gravestone. He sat on the bench he’d had made for this spot by a craftsman in San Francisco, so I could sit whenever I visited the place where Hoss was buried. We were in the midst of what the boys had always jokingly referred to as “Hoss Heaven,” because it was Hoss’ favorite location on the ranch. Lake Tahoe spread out far below us, its blue waters shimmering silver in the fading fall sunlight. God knows I had always thought this was where Hoss would someday build a house for his bride, not the place we’d lay him to rest long before we should have had to.
I slowly approached the bench and sat down next to Joe. I didn’t say anything, but instead, stared at the stone as my youngest son was doing. I silently read the words Joe had chosen for the marker without my input, because I’d been too encased with grief to be of much help when it came to planning Hoss’ funeral.
Eric Benjamin “Hoss” Cartwright
Born: September 5th, 1836
Died: July 18th, 1875
Beloved son and brother
A big man with a big heart, who will be forever missed by all who knew him
When the silence stretched on between us, I placed an arm around Joe’s shoulders.
“A big man with a big heart, who will be forever missed by all who knew him,” I quoted softly. “Those words describe your brother so well, Joseph.”
I barely heard his husky, “I thought so.” He wouldn’t look at me, but I could see him furiously blinking at the tears that suddenly filled his eyes. “There was a lot more I wanted to say, but how. . .” He stopped to clear his throat. “No matter what words I would have had engraved on that stone, how does a person really say a fitting goodbye to the man who was both his brother and best friend?”
“You’ve said a fitting goodbye, Joe. You’ve said it every day since Hoss left us.”
“By the way you’ve helped me. I couldn’t have gotten through this without you, son.”
I felt him shrug beneath my hand, as though the fact that he’d had to make all the arrangements by himself, and notify Adam, and write the eulogy, and give the eulogy, and be an unwavering presence by my side during those first difficult days, meant nothing.
It’s funny, but when Joe was a boy, and later a teenager, and then a young man, I never thought he’d be the son I’d come to rely on the most. I never thought he’d be the son I’d grow to depend on the most. The child of my “old age” I sometimes teased Marie. The whirlwind of motion that forever kept me chasing after him, and trying to stay one step ahead of him. I can’t even begin to count the number of sleepless nights he gave me when he was 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21. Then a maturing that took even me by surprise, started to happen when Joe was about 22. And while the whirlwind was still present at times, as was the hotheaded teenager, along with the impish prankster and master practical joker, I started to see the man Joe was to become.
After Adam left home, Joe seemed to, in many ways, become the “eldest son” and Hoss was happy to let him take on that role. Not that I didn’t depend upon and rely on Hoss, too, because I did. But after Hoss died, Joe never hesitated to let me lean on him, both literally and figuratively speaking. I know there must have been times when his own grief for his brother so overwhelmed him that he could hardly bear to be burdened with mine, but he never voiced that, and he never showed it, and there was never a moment when he didn’t freely offer me whatever it was I needed from him – be it to make the funeral arrangements, send the telegram to Adam that told him of Hoss’ passing, or accompanying me on long quiet rides around the Ponderosa during those first weeks after Hoss’ death, when I couldn’t stand to be alone in the house.
When Joe finally spoke again, he admitted, “I don’t think I’ve ever really said a very fitting goodbye to him.”
“No? Why not?”
“This is. . .” he swallowed hard, as though he couldn’t speak past a lump in his throat. “This is the first time I’ve been up here since we buried Hoss.”
I was surprised by that revelation, but was careful not to let on. I didn’t want him to think he’d earned my disapproval by not being able to visit his brother’s grave.
“Hoss would understand. He’d understand better than anyone, you know that.”
A tiny smile played around the edges of Joe’s mouth. “Yeah, I guess he would. Hoss seemed to know me better than I knew myself on most days.”
“Hoss was perceptive that way. He loved you, Joe. He may not have ever come right out and said that, but he loved you very much.”
Joe nodded, barely able to speak now. “I know. . .I know he did. I miss him, Pa. God, I miss him so much,” he whispered, his voice breaking and his body slumping sideways under the crushing weight of grief.
I held him close and rubbed his back as he buried his head in my chest, crying for the loss that still felt as fresh and sharp as the slash of a knife across the tender skin of an open palm. I wanted to cry too, but this time it was my turn to be strong for him where Hoss’ passing was concerned.
“I know you miss him, son.”
“I. . .some mornings, I wake up and almost forget he’s gone. I head to his room to tell him something, or I think of some trick I’m gonna play on him, and then. . .and then I remember that I can’t ever tell him anything again, or that I’ll never hear him say, ‘Dadburn yer hide, little brother. I’ll git you for that.’ ”
I chuckled. “He said that often enough throughout the years.”
Joe gave a small laugh. “Yeah, he sure did. If he were here, he’d probably tell you that I gave him plenty of good reasons to say it.”
“I’m sure he would.”
He wiped at his face, then sat up. He still wouldn’t look at me, but I could see the tears running down his cheeks yet.
“If. . .if the baby had been a boy, Alice and I were gonna name him Eric. She. . .Alice, she kept saying she knew it was a boy, and that we didn’t need to bother to pick out a girl’s name. I told her she was being silly, but she said. . .she said women just know things like that sometimes.”
I nodded. “They seem to. From the day she told me she was with child, Elizabeth said Adam was a boy, and Inger claimed the same the entire time she carried Hoss. And your mother always said she had no doubts you were a boy.”
He shifted just enough to catch my eye. “Why?”
“Because you kicked her so much that she just knew you were in a hurry to make your appearance, and then scamper off somewhere in search of trouble.” I smiled. “And how right she proved to be.”
Joe smiled. “Yeah, guess so. Back in my younger days, I gave you quite a run for your money, didn’t I?”
“You certainly did, but allow me to assure you, it’s a run I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on.”
His eyes shifted back to Hoss’ stone. “Pa. . .Pa, I’m sorry about the horse. He. . .he’s. . .”
“I know, Joe. Candy told me. It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not all right. I loved that horse. He was a birthday gift from you. A beautiful birthday gift that was special to me.”
“And I remember a time when you almost got yourself killed trying to give me a beautiful horse for my birthday. That horse did his job, Joe – he kept you safe and got you back to me, just like your horse got help for Tommy Brenner, and kept him safe for his father.”
When he didn’t answer, I gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. I knew his grief wasn’t just about that horse, or the thought that he’d somehow let me down when it came to the care and well being of his birthday present. I knew his grief was about a brother, a wife, and an unborn child, and all the loss he’d suffered during the past 18 months. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring back to life the people my son loved. The Lord well knew if I possessed such magic, Hoss, and Alice, and a healthy baby, would have been sitting beside us on that bench. I could, however, give Joe a small bit of joy to cling to, that I hoped, in turn, would sustain him when it came time for him to say a final goodbye to me.
“Dave sent one of the Jensen boys out to the ranch with a telegram this morning.”
“From Adam. He and Laddie are coming home, son.”
His brows knit together. “You mean for a visit?”
“No, I mean to live. Adam was finally able to get someone set up as his replacement. He and Laddie are coming here to take charge of the school.”
By “the school” I meant the school for the blind that Joe had gotten off the ground and running in Virginia City shortly after Elizabeth was born. At that time, it was Adam’s intention for he and Laddie to relocate to Nevada and run the school, but things hadn’t worked out that way. A suitable replacement for Adam as administrator of the Boston Institute for the Blind hadn’t been found, and so a series of men had rotated in and out of that position at the Institute’s Virginia City school.
“Adam and Laddie. . .coming here? And the girls, too?”
I laughed. “Of course the girls, too. I don’t think Adam would leave his princesses in Boston, do you?”
Joe laughed as he realized the absurdity of his question. “No, I don’t suppose he would.”
We hadn’t seen little Emmaline yet, and the last time we’d seen Laddie, Elizabeth, and Sarah, was just a few months before Hoss died, when he, Joe, and I traveled to Boston for a visit. Laddie had been carrying Emmaline when Hoss passed away, so she didn’t make the trip West for the funeral. Adam had traveled by himself on the Transcontinental Railroad; Joe making the decision to delay the service until his brother could arrive.
Adam’s stay with us had been brief, but in that short amount of time he must have seen how much we needed him. Or maybe I’d frightened him the day after we’d laid Hoss to rest, when I grabbed his arm and begged with vacant eyes, “Please, Adam, don’t make your little brother bury me alone someday. Don’t leave him here by himself with no one.”
Now, with the arrival of my oldest son’s telegram, I had the assurance that Joseph would have Adam, Laddie, and their daughters in his life as time went on. I prayed every day that God would send another woman to him – a woman he could love as much as he’d loved Alice – who would cherish him and give him the children he so richly deserved. But if that didn’t happen, I could still go to my grave at peace, knowing there was family nearby to help him through the years to come.
“I’m glad Adam’s coming home, Pa. It’ll be good to have him here. Laddie and the little girls, too.”
“I’m glad as well, son. Children don’t stay small for long, so I believe this is just the right time for Adam to make this move. The girls will have the opportunity to grow up around their Uncle Joe.”
“Adam might not be too fond of that idea after he gives it more thought. Especially if I put Elizabeth up to trouble, like I did the last time we saw her.”
“Oh, I think Adam knows what he’s getting into where you’re concerned.”
Joe grinned. “Yeah, I imagine he does.”
Daylight was fading, and with the early evening hours came autumn’s chill. I clapped Joe’s shoulder as I stood.
“Come on. Hop Sing’ll have supper waiting for us by the time we get home.”
Joe stood, but paused in front of Hoss’ grave.
“You go ahead, Pa. I’ll catch up in a minute.”
“I’ll be along soon,” he promised.
I nodded, saying softly, “All right.”
I untied Buck and climbed into the saddle. I paused a moment before turning the horse toward home, watching as my youngest son removed his hat, bowed his head, and silently began to say a fitting goodbye to his brother.
Sorrow is like a fruit. God does not make it grow on limbs too weak to bear it.
Much thanks to Jane L. for the beta read.