Summary: A missing scene from the aired episode: “The Stillness Within.” “Grief Written Across a Celadon Sky” was inspired by a challenge that asked the writer to use the following words within the plot: celadon, mountain, sinister, and risqué.
Word Count: 4100
Hoss had lost count of how many times he’d glanced up the stairway during the past hour. Coulda’ been ten, coulda’ been twenty. Overall, didn’t make much difference what the count was. No amount of worried glances were gonna make things move along any faster than God intended ‘em to. Or so Pa would say if he were standing down here with Hoss, instead of up in Joe’s room helpin’ Doc Martin do . . .well, do whatever it was a doctor did for a man who’d been caught in the middle of an explosion.
Hoss sighed and leaned a big shoulder against the wall behind the dining room table, staring out the windows. The sky was an odd combination of colors. A cross between a blue so pale a man could hardly call it blue at all, and a light mint green, like them little round candies Mr. Carlson sold at his sweet shop for a penny apiece that Joe swore left a man’s breath fresh for kissing. He generally added a few other risqué comments about what benefits those candies brought a man when he was alone with a woman that always made Hoss laugh and blush both at the same time. But wisely, even at twenty-nine years old, Joe wasn’t foolish enough to make those same comments in front of Pa.
The sky had been this same peculiar mix of colors as Hoss drove the wagon home from Charlie’s with his unconscious brother in the back. Ol’ Charlie had ridden in the bed with Joe, doin’ what he could to keep Joe’s body from jostling around too much. Hoss recalled wondering in a detached sort of way if they were gonna get caught in a storm before makin’ it home. At a time when Hoss was doin’ his best to get them to the ranch house as quickly as possible, yet without causing Joe further injury, he even remembered the word Adam would have attached to this sky. He’d have said it was a “celadon” sky. Which was a fancy way of sayin’ what Hoss already knew – that it was sort of a pale blue, and sort of a pale green. “Grayish” as a fella’ might call it, if grayish was a word, that is.
Adam had loved to play them kinda games with Hoss and Joe. He’d toss out some “ten dollar” word, as Joe phrased it, and then would define it. Hoss never was sure of the purpose behind Adam’s game, but Joe’d always claimed this was Adam’s way of tryin’ to give his brothers a “refined” education, like the one Adam had gotten when he’d gone to college back East.
“Not that we give a damn about being refined,” Joe had snickered to Hoss behind Adam’s back more than once. “And who the heck says, ‘My, but doesn’t the sky look like a lovely shade of celadon today?’ ”
“Reckon our big brother does,” Hoss replied.
“Well if that’s so,” Joe replied in return, “then everyone within a hundred miles of here is laughing at him. So let that be a lesson to ya’, Hoss.”
“What kinda lesson?”
“Refinement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and if all Adam learned in college was how to toss around words no man in his right mind would ever use in the first place, then Pa wasted a lotta money on that highfalutin education if you ask me.”
Hoss couldn’t help but agree with Joe. After all, he’d never heard anyone but Adam use the word celadon, nor had he ever heard anyone use all them other ten dollar words Adam had tried so hard to get him and Joe to take a likin’ to.
Adam might have been full of big words, and even bigger ideas to go along with ‘em, but Hoss sure did wish his older brother was here right now. At a time like this, Adam always managed to find the right words to ease Hoss’s worries. But Adam was gone. Had been for six years now. Left for sea not long after things fell apart between him and Laura Dayton, and then in more recent years, had settled permanently in Boston.
Neither Hoss nor Joe had seen their brother since his departure from the Ponderosa, but Pa visited Adam once about three years back. Pa returned from that four-month-long visit to Boston full of news, yet not saying much of anything, if that was possible. Joe noticed it too. Hoss had wondered out loud what it all meant – what was going on – while Joe claimed not to care. Although Joe sounded callous, Hoss knew that was just his younger brother’s way of hiding his hurt over how Adam appeared to have no interest in visiting the Ponderosa, or even keeping in contact with his brothers through letters. Hoss was certain all of these things – no visits, lack of letters, Pa’s carefully guarded words where Adam was concerned – were signs of something significant, but Joe dismissed it, saying, “Face it, Hoss. Adam’s finally where he’s wanted to be for years. Off this ranch and living the life of a proper Eastern gentleman.”
The way Joe had emphasized “proper Eastern gentleman” with a haughty tone and a bad Boston accent made Hoss laugh. But then, Joe always had been the brother who could make him laugh with just one word, or a look, or a muttered remark not meant for anyone else’s ears, or even a slight nudge from Joe’s foot to Hoss’s shin beneath the dining room table.
Hoss turned and glanced up the stairs again. No sounds came from up above. No footsteps. No clatter of medical instruments being set on a table. No voices even. That couldn’t be good, could it? Just like Hoss didn’t think it was good that there’d been no blood.
Odd, that a man could get hisself blown sky high and not bleed a bit. At least not on the outside where the blood could be seen. That’s what had scared Hoss more than anything. He’d wanted to see blood. He’d wanted to see his brother’s eyes open, and hear Joe say he was in pain. Not that Hoss wanted Joe to be hurtin’ none. Not at all. But blood and pain Hoss knew how to remedy. It was the silence, the absolute stillness that surrounded Joe as though he’d already passed on, that Hoss didn’t know what to do about. So he’d quickly checked for broken bones, then scooped Joe from the rubble of that shack and ran with him to the wagon. He couldn’t recall ordering Charlie to get in the wagon with Joe, but he must have, because the old man climbed in without protest and did what little he could for Joe during the ride home. When they finally arrived in the ranch yard, Hoss was yelling for his father before he’d even jumped from the wagon seat.
“Pa! Pa, get out here quick! Pa!”
Hoss had Joe in his arms by the time the front door opened. He met his father halfway.
Pa’s hand lightly brushed the ugly red bruises on the right side of Joe’s face as they ran together toward the house.
“Explosion. Nitro musta fell off the shelf or somethin’. I’d gone to git Charlie. Joe was unloadin’ the rest a’ the supplies by himself.”
Before Pa could say anything, a voice muttered, “Princess.”
Hoss half turned with Joe in his arms. Charlie chugged along behind them with an uneven gait brought on by a bad back thanks to years of hard labor in the mines.
“Durn cat that wandered onto my place last year. She’s always hangin’ ‘round that shed. Bet she knocked one a’ them bottles over, Hoss. Always was a sinister little beast.”
Hoss couldn’t quite attach the word sinister to the orange cat that had liked to rub against his legs while he stood talking to Charlie, or curl up in his lap if he went into Charlie’s house and sat down to have a cup of coffee with the old man. But sinister or not, it didn’t matter much now. What was done was done. Only Joe could tell them for certain what caused the explosion, if he even remembered anything about it when he woke up – if he woke up at all.
Before further discussion could take place about what might or might not have happened, one of the ranch hands ran in.
“Saw Hoss drive up with Joe, Mr. Cartwright. Anything I can do?”
“Get Doc Martin out here as fast as you can, Ted.”
The man raced out the door as quickly as he’d raced in. Hoss, his father, and Charlie did what they could to make Joe comfortable. Trouble was, there wasn’t much they could do other than get him settled in his bed. While Hoss saw to it that a couple of the hands saddled a horse for Charlie and rode home with the man to help him clean up what was left of his storage shed, Pa got Joe’s tattered clothes off of him, covered him with blankets, and gently cleaned the small cuts and scrapes on Joe’s face, arms, and chest. When Hoss returned to Joe’s room, he could tell his father was just as frightened by the stillness and lack of blood as he was.
“He might. . .I’m afraid his insides might be all tore up, Pa. I didn’t know if I’d do him more harm by movin’ him or by leavin’ him there.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision. I don’t know what I would have done in your shoes either, Hoss. The important thing is you brought him home. No matter what happens, this is where he should be.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed in a voice barely more than a whisper, because he could tell his father thought Joe might die before Doc Martin arrived. “Yeah, guess you’re right about that.”
Maybe Hoss was too pale when Doc Martin finally got there. Or maybe the doctor noticed his hands were trembling. Or maybe Doc Martin really wasn’t lying when he gently told Hoss that he needed only Pa’s help, and that while two was company, three was a crowd. Which was how Hoss ended up waiting on the main floor alone. There was no Adam to keep him company because Adam was in Boston. There was no Pa to keep him company because Pa was helping Doc. There was no Hop Sing to keep him company, because Hop Sing always went to Virginia City on Fridays to do the marketing and visit relatives. And, of course, there was no Joe to keep him company, because somehow Joe had gone and got hisself blown up.
“Don’t you die on me, little brother,” Hoss pleaded while looking at the sky again. As the clouds rolled across that unusual blue-green mixture of color, Hoss pleaded once more, “Don’t you dare go and die on me.”
It could have been ten minutes that passed between when Hoss made his plea and his father came downstairs, or it could have been two hours. The man wasn’t sure how long he’d remained standing there staring out of the window before he finally heard movement coming from above, and then someone walking down the hall. Hoss watched as his father came into view at the head of the stairs. Pa stopped there a moment, as though he needed to gather his strength before bringing Hoss whatever news he was bearing.
“Pa?” Hoss crossed the great room as his father began descending, meeting Pa at the foot of the stairs. “How’s Joe? What’d Doc Martin–”
Pa held up a hand as he stepped from the last stair to the floor with a heavy sigh. He walked away from Hoss, stopping in front of the barren fireplace as if yearning for a warmth that wasn’t present.
Pa leaned a heavy hand on the mantel. He stared at the logs that hadn’t been lit since summer arrived.
“Joe regained consciousness a few minutes ago.”
A slow grin broke on Hoss’s face. “Well now, that’s the best doggone news I’ve heard in a long while.”
Pa turned around. He smiled at Hoss, but something about that smile caused Hoss’s grin to falter. If a smile could be called sad, then that’s how Hoss would peg the one his father was wearing.
“It is good news,” Pa agreed.
“And he knows who he is?”
“And who you are?”
“And who Doc Martin is?”
“Yes, Joe even knows who Paul is.”
“And what day it is?”
“Yes, he knows what day it is too.”
“So those are good signs, huh?”
“Yes, son, those things are all good signs.”
“What’d Doc say about Joe’s insides?”
“He seems to think Joseph was very fortunate in that regard. No matter where Paul pressed on Joe’s chest or stomach, Joe said it didn’t hurt.”
“And no broken bones either?”
“No. None at all. Paul took a large wood splinter from Joe’s right arm, but the wound should heal without incident.”
“Then if you don’t mind me askin’, Pa, why do ya’ look so glum?”
Pa hesitated before making eye contact with Hoss.
“Son. . .Son, your brother. . .”
“My brother what? What, Pa? What’s wrong with Joe?”
“Your brother. . .Hoss, your brother’s facing a mountain I’m not sure he’ll be able to climb.”
Hoss’s brows knit together with puzzlement. “Whatta ya’ mean by that?”
Again, there was a momentary hesitation before Pa spoke.
“Joe. . .Joe’s blind, son. The explosion . . . the explosion took his sight.”
Hoss grappled for the stair rail, hanging on as he took a staggering step backwards as though he’d just been sucker punched. Which was exactly how he felt.
“No. . .”
“Yes, Hoss,” Pa nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry. I. . . I wish I could have brought you better news.”
Hoss reached out, placing a hand on his father’s arm. “It’s not your fault, Pa. It’s not anybody’s fault.”
“No, I guess it’s not, is it? Other than the fault of that stray cat of Charlie’s.”
“Joe said something about a cat knocking the nitro off a shelf. Must have been the cat Charlie mentioned earlier.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed, while silently cursing Princess and hoping she’d been blown right on into the next world, “musta’ been.”
As his father trudged to his leather chair and sank to its seat, Hoss promised, “I’ll help him, Pa. I’ll help Joe in any way I can.”
“I know you will. Thank you.”
“Is. . .is there something I can do for him now?”
Pa nodded. “Go up and sit with him, Hoss. He’s scared and trying hard not to show it.” Pa gave a mirthless laugh. “Trouble is, I’m scared right now too. I need. . .I just need a few minutes, all right? Just a few minutes, and then I’ll rummage around in the kitchen and put a meal together for the three of us. We can eat in Joe’s room.”
“Take all the time ya’ need. I’ll sit with Joe.”
“And. . .uh. . .I suppose one of us should wire Adam ‘bout what happened, don’t ya’ think?”
“I’ll take care of it in a few days. Paul says there’s a chance Joe’s sight might return given time. There’s no point in alarming Adam if it’s not necessary.”
“No, don’t reckon there is.” Hoss agreed, though by the doubt on his father’s face, he got the impression the doctor didn’t hold out much hope that Joe’s sight would come back. Maybe Joe hadn’t been told that, but Hoss could tell Doc Martin had said as much to Pa.
“Pa. . .”
Hoss’s father glanced up. “Yes?”
“Joe’ll be okay. Pound for pound he’s got more determination than any man I know. Whatever the outcome of all this is, he’ll be okay. I know he will be.”
Pa’s nod was weak and insincere, as if he knew something Hoss didn’t. As if he knew no amount of determination on Joe’s part would make much difference where his loss of eyesight was concerned.
Hoss started to say something else, but when no sound came forth and he found himself wishing once again that Adam were here to offer Pa the kinda words that would have made the situation seem better somehow, Hoss turned for the stairs.
“I’ll go on up and sit with Joe.”
“Yes. Please do that. Tell. . .tell your brother I’ll be up in a little while.”
Hoss passed Doc Martin on the stairs. He didn’t like the sympathetic look the man gave him, and liked it even less when the doctor reached out, laid a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. It made Hoss think of another fancy word Adam had sometimes used. Foreboding. It meant a person’s actions were signaling something bad was gonna happen in the near future.
Hoss stood in silence until the doctor’s hand slipped from his shoulder and the man moved on down the stairway. Hoss climbed the remainder of the way to the top, paused in the hall for a second, took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and then proceeded to Joe’s room.
Joe’s face held even less color than the white pillowcase his head rested on, with the exception of the massive bruise covering the right side of his forehead that then traveled downward and didn’t stop until it had surrounded his right eye. Currently it was red. Within a day or two, Hoss knew it would be a mixture of red, purple, black and blue. He wondered if Adam had a name for that combination of colors, as he sat down in the chair someone had put beside Joe’s bed.
Joe’s eyes were closed in slumber. Hoss reached out a hand, lightly placing it on his brother’s bare forearm just above the bandage Doc had wrapped around the splinter wound. Joe’s head turned in his direction.
“Who. . .who’s there?”
“It’s me, Joe,” Hoss soothed, hating the fear he heard in his sibling’s voice. “It’s just me, little brother.”
“Oh. Oh. . .I. . .I guess I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I think you were sleepin’. Sorry I woke ya’.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Joe said in a quiet, weak voice Hoss had to strain hear. “I’m glad you did.”
“Well now,” Hoss teased, “there’s somethin’ new.”
“Joe Cartwright bein’ glad someone woke him up in the middle of a nap.”
Joe gave a slight smile. “Yeah, guess it is something new, huh?”
Hoss recognized they were both trying their best to keep the mood light. Therefore, he hated to break that mood with his next question, but a big brother’s concern meant it had to be asked.
“How ya’ feelin’, Joe?”
“O. . .okay. I mean, considering a building blew up around me, not bad. But I’ve got a headache that outdoes even that whopper of a hangover from the moonshine me and Mitch brewed when we were sixteen.”
“Ah, I remember that hangover. Remember tryin’ to keep you hidden from Adam and Pa until you’d weathered the worst of it.”
“For which I’ll be in your debt for the rest of my life.”
“Yeah, I seem to recall you makin’ me a lotta promises in that regard while you was throwin’ up on my boots.”
“I’d like to say I remember it too, but unfortunately. . .or maybe the better word is fortunately, the entire day is still a blur.”
“I’ll just bet it is,” Hoss chuckled before growing somber again. “Other than the headache, you feelin’ all right?”
“My ears are ringing, but Doc says that’ll likely stop in a few days. Hope so. Otherwise, it’ll drive me loco.”
“No worries there, little brother. You already are loco.”
“I’d make you pay for that remark if the thought of climbing from this bed wasn’t more than I can bear right now.”
“You can make me pay in a few days when you’re a bit more chipper.”
“I’ll do that.” Joe worried his lower lip for a moment. His eyes held a blank, lifeless gaze that tore Hoss apart inside. “Did Pa tell you about. . .”
“ ‘Bout what, Joe?”
“About my sight? That I. . .that I can’t see?”
Hoss squeezed his brother’s arm. “Yeah, he told me.”
“But Doc says I’ll see again soon. He says it’s only temporary.”
Hoss hoped his reply sounded like he had far more faith in Doc Martin’s promise than he actually did.
“I’m sure it is.”
“And. . .um. . .Sally?”
“What about Sally?”
“Can you get word to her that I’ll have to break our date for tonight?”
“Already done. I sent Slim and Harl home with Charlie to help him clean up what’s left of that shack. I asked ‘em to stop by the Morris place on their way and let Sally know what happened.”
“You. . .they won’t tell her about my sight, will they?”
Hoss didn’t miss the sudden note of panic in Joe’s voice at the thought of Sally knowing he was blind.
“No,” Hoss replied in a quiet tone meant to calm Joe down. “No. Didn’t even know about it myself when I sent ‘em on their way. All they know is you were unconscious, and me and Pa was waitin’ on Doc Martin to arrive.”
Joe didn’t say anything more about Sally, but by the way his muscles relaxed beneath Hoss’s hand, Hoss knew his brother was relieved that the full extent of his injuries weren’t revealed to the woman.
“Darn cat,” Joe said next in a breathless sort of way that indicated to Hoss his brother was tiring. “Knocked the nitro off the shelf. I made a grab for it, but didn’t get to it in time.”
“I’m sure ya’ did all ya’ could, Joe. The good news is that cat was probably blown to bits.”
“That’s not like you.”
“What’s not like me?”
“To be glad a defenseless animal lost its life.”
“No, don’t suppose it is, but in this case I think God’ll forgive me for not feelin’ real charitable where that cat’s concerned.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. I also say you need to get some rest, so how ‘bout if you try and do just that. Pa’ll be up in a little while with supper for all of us.”
“Hop Sing’s not back?”
“Maybe he’ll get back before Pa’s done, huh?”
“Maybe. Why? You don’t like Pa’s suppers?”
“Not as much as I like Hop Sing’s, let’s put it that way.”
Hoss chuckled. “I’ll second that.” He fiddled with the covers, pulling them higher across Joe’s chest and straightening them. “You rest now.”
Joe gave a slight nod, grimacing at the pain the movement caused him. Just when enough time passed that Hoss thought his brother had dropped off to sleep again, Joe turned his head toward the window.
“Hoss, what color is the sky this afternoon?”
“Yeah. What color is it?”
Hoss looked through the open glass, studying for a long time what Joe could no longer see.
“It’s. . .it’s a celadon sky out there, little brother.”
Joe smiled. “One of Adam’s ten dollar words.”
“Wish I could see it.”
Hoss swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat while rubbing his hand up and down Joe’s arm in the only form of comfort he could offer. “I know ya’ do, Joe. I know ya’ do.”
“I’ll be able to see it again soon, though.”
“Yeah, sure,” Hoss agreed. “Sure you will. Probably in no time at all. But until that happens I’ll be close by to help you in whatever I can, Joe.”
Joe grappled for his brother’s hand. When he found it, he encased it in his own and squeezed. “I know.”
The two men fell silent again, and soon, by the way Joe’s hand went slack in his, Hoss could tell his brother had finally fallen asleep.
Hoss remained by his brother’s bedside that afternoon, gazing out at the celadon sky while praying for the return of Joe’s sight.
Many thanks to Jane L. for the beta read.