Summary: It’s only been a few months since Marie’s death.
Word Count: 4,805
Hoss had always been known as a pleasant child, the sort of boy that every mother loved and every father would be proud of. He hardly ever complained, was almost never ill and was generally helpful and polite.
But today Hoss woke up after a restless night not feeling quite himself. He didn’t feel ill, just out of sorts and he didn’t want to get out of bed to do chores and he certainly didn’t want to go to school. When his little brother ran into the room and jumped up on the bed next to him, straddled his back and began bouncing up and down, Hoss was not in the mood to play.
“What you doing still in bed, Hoss?” Joe asked, bouncing up and down with gusto.
“Quit that jumping about,” Hoss grumped. “Or I’ll tan your hide.”
Little Joe giggled; Hoss’ threats to tan his hide were always empty, so he kept on regardless.
“Adam says you better get up now,” Joe informed him. “And Adam’s in charge cause Pa went to Carson City early this morning.”
“Pa never said nothing to me about going to Carson City.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re not the boss,” Joe jibed, now jumping so hard that Hoss’ back was beginning to ache.
For some reason Hoss couldn’t explain, the fact that Pa had spoken to Adam and not him made him feel even worse than he already did, and Joe’s constant bouncing was really beginning to annoy. Reaching behind, he delivered a stinging slap to Joe’s bare leg. “I told you to stop that bouncing, now get out of my room!”
Little Joe immediately stopped and slid from the bed, rubbing the red hand print on his calf. “I’m gonna tell Adam you hit me,” he declared, tears now beginning to form in his hurt eyes.
“Tell him what you want, tattletale,” Hoss retaliated before turning away and burying his head into the pillow once more.
By the time Hoss forced himself out of bed, washed and went downstairs for breakfast, the others had already eaten. Hoss sat at the table alone, but he had no appetite, just managing to eat a few pancakes but leaving the bacon and eggs untouched.
Hop Sing bristled into the room carrying more hot food and was upset to see that Hoss was not tucking in with his usual enthusiasm. Placing a hand on Hoss’ brow he asked, “Boy sick?”
Hoss pushed the hand away from him. “No, I ain’t sick, Hop Sing. Can’t a fella not be hungry for once, without everyone jumping to conclusions?” Walking away from the table, he picked up his jacket and headed outside.
Adam was best way through both his and Hoss’ chores when Hoss arrived and he had worked himself up into a fair old temper doing them.
“Where’ve you been?” Adam snapped irritably. “Pa’s not here this morning and I need to ride over to the logging camp to give the men their instructions. I’ve already done my chores and half of yours.”
“Well, that’ll make a change,” Hoss griped. “‘Cause usually I end up doing mine and half of yours.”
Adam looked at him with fire in his eyes. “Half my chores! I wish I only had yard chores to do. When I finish here, I still have a whole day full of chores on the ranch to be done. Once you finish that’s it, you can go to school.”
Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t have to go to school; I’d rather be out fixing fence anyway. Sure has got to be more interesting than school.”
“Oh no,” Adam corrected. “Don’t come that one, Hoss; you are going to school whether you like it or not.”
Hoss didn’t respond, but he felt even more miserable than he had before.
“Where’s Little Joe?” Adam now asked, looking all around for the small boy.
“How should I know? I’m not his keeper,” Hoss responded. Joe had kept out of his way after the slap he’d given him earlier that morning.
“Well, he hasn’t fed the chickens yet,” Adam complained. “And you know how Hop Sing gets about those chickens. I guess you better do it, Hoss.”
Hoss was rightly outraged. “I ain’t doing it, Adam, that’s Little Joe’s job. That kid gets away with murder.”
“He’s five years old,” Adam explained as if Hoss didn’t know already. “So I’m telling you to feed the chickens.”
“And I’m telling you I ain’t doing it and you can’t make me.”
“We’ll see about that,” Adam spat, his hackles now well and truly up. It was bad enough for Adam having the men question his authority; he wasn’t taking any lip from an eleven-year-old boy.
Grabbing hold of Hoss by the arm, he tried to pull him from the barn, but Hoss didn’t move. He might be eleven years old but Hoss was already the size of most men and he was certainly more than a match for his oldest brother.
The harder Adam tried, the more Hoss dug in his heels and refused to budge. In the end Adam gave up; he really didn’t know what had got into his middle brother this morning. With a push to Hoss’ chest, he walked away from the barn and back to the house.
As Adam entered, he found Joe sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, his toy soldiers laid out in front of him.
“What are you doing here Little Joe?” Adam asked in exasperation. “You’re supposed to be outside doing your chores.”
“I want to play with my soldiers first,” Joe replied petulantly, sticking out his bottom lip.
This was too much for Adam; he wasn’t about to have any insubordination from this quarter. Grabbing his little brother by the arm before he could escape, Adam placed his right foot on the stair and turned the small boy over his knee and proceeded to land two heavy swats to Joe’s upturned rump.
“Now when I tell you to do something, you do it,” Adam said sternly before setting the child back on his feet.
Tears sprang to Little Joe’s eyes at the injustice he perceived being done to him. He ran for the door, but in a last act of defiance, he turned and shouted at Adam, “I’m gonna tell Pa when he gets home how mean you and Hoss have been and then you’ll both be in big trouble.”
Adam didn’t have time to ponder Joe’s words before crashing from the kitchen alerted him to another problem. Tentatively looking in from the doorway Adam asked, “Everything all right Hop Sing?”
“Hmmmph,” Hop Sing replied. “Hop Sing spend all morning making breakfast and boy no hungry. Food wasted, throw it all away. Tell you what, boys cook own breakfast in future. Hop Sing got better things to do.”
Adam backed away quickly. “What was wrong with everybody this morning?”
Wiping the tears from his eyes Joe sniffed all the way to the barn. As he entered, he observed Hoss sweeping the floor, but he ignored him completely; Joe wasn’t about to forgive him for the swat he had received earlier.
Hoss felt a fleeting moment of guilt when he saw Joe’s tearstained face, but the moment was gone in an instant when his little brother stuck out his tongue between his lips and gesticulated an insult in Hoss’ direction.
Walking to the corner of the barn, Joe dipped the feeding bowl for the chickens carelessly into the sack of feed lying there. As he made to leave, Hoss shouted him back “What you doing Joe?” he cried. “I just swept all this floor and now you’ve dropped chicken feed all over it.”
Joe looked behind him and saw the trail of feed from the sack to where he was standing. With a shrug of his shoulders he answered. “Well, you’ll just have to sweep it again, won’t you?”
Hoss jumped in front of Joe blocking his way. “No, you’ll sweep it,” he ordered, handing Joe the broom. Standing up to his full height, Hoss looked down menacingly at the small boy in front of him. Joe barely came up past his brother’s knees.
But size meant little to Joe when his hackles were up and he squared up to his middle brother without fear. On the other hand, Joe was no fool, and he knew that if it came to brute strength, he didn’t stand a chance, so he did what he always did in these situations; he played dirty. Pulling back his boot he kicked Hoss squarely in the shins, causing the bigger boy to yell out in pain and hop back on one foot.
Little Joe knew better than to stand around and wait for the consequences, and dropping the chicken feed to the ground, he was off and running for the house and the safety of Hop Sing.
Hoss was on his way to school when out of the blue he decided he just wouldn’t go. He hated school, he didn’t go much on book learning and well, he just didn’t fit in, in more ways than one. Hoss’ size made him stand out from the other boys and he was often the butt of their jokes; coupled with that, the seats in the school were made for kids half his size. All in all, it was his least favorite place to be.
Then Hoss did something totally out of character; turning his horse round, he rode towards the lake, his spirits lifting at the thought of a day to himself.
Sitting on the embankment looking at the mass of water in front of him, with the early morning sun in his face, Hoss felt at peace for the first time that morning. In the stillness, with nothing to distract his thoughts, Hoss began to ponder on what could be wrong with him.
Life on the Ponderosa had changed so much in recent months and he knew in his heart that it all began with the death of his mother Marie. When it happened, his Pa had been so full of grief that he couldn’t cope and he walked around the house as if the rest of them didn’t exist. At that time, Adam had begun to take on most of the responsibility for the ranch and home, and Hoss had been only too willing to help as much as he could. It was at that time that Hoss was grateful for his size; he had the strength and height to do the jobs of a grown man and Adam had come to depend on him.
Added to all that there was Little Joe. Many of the things Joe had outgrown had resurfaced over the last few months. He invariably wet the bed and sucked his thumb when upset. Always volatile, his mood swings were unpredictable and the whole family were subject to his tantrums at least once a day.
Hoss still didn’t think Joe fully understood that his Mama wasn’t ever coming home and he often found him sitting at the top of the fence looking wistfully down the lane. When Hoss asked him what he was doing, Joe invariably said he was waiting for someone. He wouldn’t say who it was, but Hoss knew that Joe still believed in his heart that his Mama would come riding back one day.
Adam was grown up and Hoss considered himself to be grown up too, but Joe was just a little kid and he needed a lot of looking after. Again, this job fell invariably to Hoss and he was tired of it. Between helping Adam and looking after Joe, Hoss had no time for himself. He wouldn’t mind so much if they even noticed all the things he did, but much of the time, it was as if he didn’t exist. They didn’t notice him at all; he just blended into the background. They probably wouldn’t even realize if he wasn’t there.
The first few hours Hoss spent by the lake were pleasant ones, and although he was able to rationalize his feelings, he still felt sorry for himself, something he never usually did. At lunchtime, he ate the food from his lunch pail, but he was still hungry, the missing breakfast leaving a hole in his stomach. From then, the hours dragged and he constantly looked up at the sun, trying to gauge the time and whether it was safe for him to return home without being caught out.
Ben rode home that afternoon with a worried expression on his face. What was up with his middle son? Hoss was an easygoing child; in fact, you hardly noticed he was there half the time as he was so good. So why had he played truant from school that day? Ben just couldn’t fathom it out and he probably would never have known about it if he hadn’t bumped into the schoolmaster, Mr. Johnson, on his way home.
As he rode into the yard and dismounted, Ben hardly had time to tie up his horse before a little bundle of energy ran out to greet him and flung himself into his arms. Placing his small son into the crook of his left arm and picking his saddlebags up with his right, Ben walked towards the house.
Joe was anxious to let his Pa hear his side of the story first hand and before Ben had time to take off his hat, Joe was in full swing.
“And Hoss wouldn’t get out of bed and then he smacked my leg so hard it left a mark. Look see! Oh, it’s not there now, but it was really red. And Adam hit my butt, Pa. He said I had to feed the chickens and I was gonna do it, but Adam was just being so bossy. Hoss said I spilled chicken feed all over the barn, but Pa, you can’t get the chicken feed outta the sack without spilling it, can you?”
Ben ran a weary hand over his eyes before placing it over his son’s small mouth in an effort to stop the tirade. “I’ll speak to your brothers, Little Joe,” Ben promised, but there was something in the way Ben raised his eyebrows when he said it that made Joe think maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to tell his Pa about that morning. Slinking out of his father’s arms, he decided he would make himself scarce for the rest of the time until supper.
Ben had just finished washing up and was sitting at his desk when Adam arrived home. Adam had had a hard day and Ben could see the strain in the young man’s face. “Everything all right, son?”
Adam wasn’t sure how much to tell his Pa. Some of the men really resented taking orders from a seventeen-year-old, wet behind the ears kid, and consequently a few skirmishes had taken place over the past weeks. Adam hadn’t always come off too well; he hadn’t been hurt badly but his pride had been dented in the process. He could have taken his problems to his father, but then the men would never learn to respect him. It was up to him to prove he could do the job and that would take time.
So far it had been an uphill battle, but it was one that he was finally winning and the long-standing crew of ranch hands were beginning to come round; it was only when new men joined the ranch that the problems would start once again.
“Nothing I can’t handle, Pa,” Adam eventually replied. “How did Carson City go?”
“Things went well,” Ben enthused, before his face clouded. “But I’m rather worried about your younger brother.”
Adam raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Don’t worry about him, Pa; the little scamp is always up to something.”
Ben smiled in spite of himself. “It’s not Little Joe I’m worried about, Adam; it’s Hoss.”
“Hoss?” Adam queried. “Then again, come to think about it, he sure was acting strangely this morning. He was late out of bed, didn’t eat his breakfast and got really shirty when I tried to get him to do his chores.”
Just then a little voice piped up from under the desk. “And he smacked my leg for nothing.”
With a knowing wink at his eldest, Ben knelt down and pulled the small boy out from under his desk. “How many times do I have to tell you about eavesdropping young man?”
“I wasn’t,” Joe cried indignantly. “I was here first playing with my soldiers. You and Adam came and sat next to me, I didn’t sit next to you.”
Adam had to cover his mouth with his hand so Joe wouldn’t see the smile on his face.
Ben turned the small boy round, and with a quick swat to the rear, he sent him towards the stairs. “You are becoming very cheeky, young man; now I suggest you get washed up for supper before you get yourself into more trouble.”
“Joseph, do you want to have a little talk with me?”
With a shake of his head and a scampering of feet, Joe decided that any further protest would not be good for his health.
Once Joe was out of earshot, Ben turned again to his eldest. “Hoss didn’t go to school today. What do you think has got into him?”
Adam could hardly believe it; Hoss was not one to break the rules. “I don’t know, Pa. I’m always trying to figure out what’s going on inside Joe’s head so I can keep one step ahead of him, but Hoss is different. Generally, he’s always so dependable I never have to give him another thought.”
Just at that moment, Hoss decided to make an appearance, and as he entered the house, he knew immediately that his Pa and brother were talking about him.
“Hi Pa… Adam,” Hoss called; his guilt was evident on his face for everyone to see as his bright blue eyes looked fearfully from his father to his brother. But his father had already decided now was not the time to talk to his middle son; he would wait until after supper.
As soon as supper was finished that evening, Hoss heard the words he had been dreading.
“Adam, would you mind putting Joseph to bed this evening; Hoss and I have a few things to talk about.”
An immediate whine went up from the youngest. “It’s not time for bed, I’m not tired.” This was immediately followed by a huge sob and a flow of unchecked tears.
“Well, that little outburst only proves to me that it is bedtime and you are tired,” Ben soothed. “Now go on be a good boy and Pa will be up to see you shortly.”
Joe threw himself onto the floor and was heading for a full blown tantrum, when Adam came to the rescue. Picking up the small boy and throwing Joe over his shoulder, he ran towards the stairs. “Come on, little buddy, if you’re real good I’ll tell you the story of Blackbeard.”
Joe’s tears stopped immediately. “The pirate?” he asked hopefully.
“That’s the one,” Adam replied. “I’ll even tell you how he made people walk the plank.”
Joe’s eyes widened with fascination and he immediately began to bombard his eldest brother with questions.
Ben shook his head; somehow he knew that little story was bound to come back and haunt them all before the night was out. But for now, Ben had other things to worry about; walking over to the settee, he sat down and called for Hoss to join him.
Hoss was nervous; it had been a long time since Pa had tanned his hide, and even on that occasion he had been unusually lenient, probably due to the circumstances.
The tanning as usual had been instigated by him falling for one of his little brother’s schemes. After a lot of persuasion, Joe had convinced Hoss to rig up a rope from the loft roof to the ground below. The rope hadn’t been quite as long as needed and ended four feet short. Consequently, Hoss would slide down first and then he would stand ready to catch Little Joe in his arms as he slid down next. It had been a good game at the time and Hoss was impressed with his little brother’s ingenuity. That was until Pa arrived and found them.
Ben had been exasperated at his middle son for allowing Little Joe to do something so dangerous.
“But Pa, I’m standing at the bottom,” Hoss argued. “You know I would never let him fall.”
“What about when you aren’t there, Hoss?” Ben said soberly. “You know your little brother as well as I do; this is a game he’ll want to repeat whether you are there to catch him or not.”
Hoss sucked on his bottom lip; he knew what his father was saying was true. Little Joe could never be trusted to think before he acted, well, not without a helpful reminder, that was. And both he and Joe got their helpful reminder that afternoon; Hoss face down over his bed and Joe over his father’s knee.
Coming back to the present, Hoss went to stand in front of his father, but was surprised when Ben patted the seat next to him. Hoss sat down gingerly; he really didn’t know what to expect. Did his Pa know about the truancy and his ornery behavior that morning?
There was silence for a moment as Ben studied the man-child in front of him; Hoss was so big for his age it was sometimes difficult for Ben to remember that he was still really a little boy, only eleven years old.
Hoss’ eyes were downcast and he twisted his hands nervously, unsure whether to fold them or sit on them. Eventually he decided on the latter and pushed them under his knees.
Ben berated himself — when was the last time he had really looked at this middle son of his? When was the last time he had looked into his eyes and asked if he was all right? Marie had been dead for less than five months and they were all still coming to terms with her death. After the initial shock, Ben had tried to keep a sense of normality in the family, but the gap that Marie left just couldn’t be replaced. He especially had buried himself in his work, but it was so hard to enjoy the fruits of his endeavors without a partner to share the highs and the lows, the days and the nights.
Adam in the first few weeks had held everything together, and for that Ben would be eternally thankful. God knows what would have become of them all if he hadn’t had his eldest son’s help during that tragic time. Little Joe had shouted and cried out his pain, long and loud, to anyone that would listen and he still needed lots and lots of extra attention to try and build stability in his small world once more.
But what of Hoss? In all of this tragedy, what of his middle son? Ben felt ashamed as he realized that in lots of ways he had never given his second son another thought. Obviously at the time of Marie’s death, Hoss had cried and been as upset as the rest of them, but after those initial days, no more tears flowed and Ben had thought his son was coping admirably. Hoss had helped his elder brother take care of the ranch, he helped Hop Sing with chores around the house and he played nursemaid to his youngest brother probably the most.
Because he seemed to be coping, they all had assumed he was. But looking at the child in front of him now, a lump formed in Ben’s throat as he realized that his most gentle of sons had been bottling up his own pain in order to shoulder the pain of his family. Because of his own past losses, Ben realized he should have known that, just because you don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, it doesn’t mean to say it’s not breaking. How could he have been so selfish, so blind?
But Ben deep down knew why; he just hadn’t been looking for it. It was easier to pretend everything was all right because then you didn’t have to face the truth.
After what seemed a lifetime to Hoss, Ben eventually spoke. “Have I ever told you how proud I am of you, Hoss?”
This was not what Hoss had been expecting and he couldn’t raise his eyes to look at his father; he really didn’t feel like a son to be proud of.
Ben started to speak again. “You and Adam have been my rock over these last few months; I don’t know how I would have coped without you.”
Hoss’ chin began to tremble. “I played truant from school today, Pa,” he blurted out.
“Yes, I know,” Ben replied, still not taking his eyes away from his son’s face.
“And I walloped Little Joe for nothing, well almost nothing,” Hoss added, determined to make his Pa see that his faith in him was unjustified.
“Oh I’m quite sure he deserved it,” Ben smiled.
“Then there’s Adam,” Hoss continued. “He asked me to do some chores and I-I, I told him to do them himself.”
Ben sat silent for a moment before saying, “Everyone’s allowed to have an off day, Hoss, even you. No one’s perfect.”
“I ain’t perfect Pa…not me…I ain’t a nice person at all.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Hoss. Your Mama — both your Mamas — would be really proud of their son.”
Those words were too much for Hoss and the floodgates finally opened. “I miss her, Pa,” he wailed. “Why did she have to go and leave us?”
Ben’s arms encircled the trembling body and he pulled his son’s head to his chest. “Your Mama didn’t choose to leave us, Hoss; you know she loved us all so much. But sometimes God decides it’s our time and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Hoss continued to sob in his father’s arms for long moments, finally able to release the pent up anger and hurt he had been feeling for so long. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he whispered eventually. “I’m too big to be crying like a baby.”
“You are never too big to cry, Hoss; everyone cries sometimes.”
“Even you, Pa?”
“Even me, son,” Ben whispered back. “We all cry when we lose someone we love.”
Long moments ticked by as Hoss found solace in his father’s arms, but as the light in the great room started to dim, Hoss sat up and wiped his eyes. “I guess I should go and say sorry to Adam, Pa.”
“Adam appreciates all you do, Hoss, but go ahead and make your peace with your brother; you’ll feel better for it.”
Hoss bent forward and kissed his Pa goodnight before heading up the stairs and into Adam’s room.
Adam looked up at Hoss when he entered and then allowed his eyes to travel sideways to the small interloper who was lying half asleep in the bed next to him. No one liked having Joe in their bed. His little legs kicked and moved all night, and in addition to that, there was always the bonus of being peed on to make your discomfort complete.
“I’m sorry about this morning, Adam,” Hoss whispered quietly, hoping not to disturb his youngest brother.
“That’s all right,” Adam replied magnanimously. “I was a bit of a grouch myself.”
Little Joe’s eyes opened and he smiled up at his middle brother. “Hi Hoss,” he squeaked, before shoving his small thumb back into his mouth.
“Hi yourself, squirt,” Hoss smiled. “You want to sleep in my bed tonight?”
Joe’s smile widened behind his thumb and he reached up with his other hand to his brother. Hoss plucked him from the bed and headed towards the door.
“Thanks, Hoss,” Adam called after him. “I’ve a long day tomorrow and I sure could do with a good night’s rest.”
As Hoss tucked his little brother into bed beside him, he apologized for his meanness that morning.
“That’s all right, Hoss, and you’re still my best friend.”
“And you’re mine,” Hoss agreed. “Now go to sleep.”
“I promise not to pee on yer.”
Hoss chuckled as he pulled the small body to him. “Famous last words,” he thought, but he didn’t mind, he really didn’t mind at all. It felt good to be loved….and wanted.