Word Count: 1600
Adam knew before he opened his eyes why his head hurt so badly just as well as he knew he was home and in his own bed. He tried looking around with as little movement as possible. His peripheral vision let him see his father sitting in the old rocker that had been part of his room since they moved into the Ponderosa’s ranch house, years before. Oh Pa, he thought, you’re finally beginning to age into that silver hair. Why is it that we can see ourselves growing older but are so surprised when we see it in others? Or is it that we close our minds to what we can’t accept?
“Pa,” he called softly, reluctant to disturb the napping man. Translucent, blue veined lids opened to reveal the same deep brown eyes that had held his own so many times before.
“Boy, you scared me to death. Aren’t you getting a little old for midnight rides?” Ben’s face lit up with a smile of relief.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Adam answered in a contrite tone that didn’t last for long. “Let’s see Pa, if I’m forty that makes you…”
Adam didn’t get a chance to continue before his father interrupted. “More then I want to think about.” Changing the subject, Ben said, “How’s that hard head of yours?”
“I’ll be fine. Just a bit of a headache and my right shoulder doesn’t seem to be working too well at the moment. Other than that, I’m fine.” Adam tried once more to flex the stiff right joint but a jolt of pain stopped him.
“Paul says you took quite a crack on the head and landed on your shoulder when you fell.” Ben waited for Adam to fill in the blanks of what had happened but nothing came.
“Do you remember anything, son?” Ben’s tone was soft and caring. How many times had he heard the same words throughout the years? But his father’s voice held something else and Adam’s keen mind was immediately on the alert.
“It’s all kinda fuzzy. Why don’t you help me?” Adam used his good arm to help himself sit up, finally leaning heavily against the sturdy mahogany headboard.
“Joe and I were just coming down to breakfast when we heard Hop Sing call for us. He said that Sport was by the barn and you were lying next to him.
You must have fallen and somehow gotten back on. Sport brought you home.” Ben stopped to see if any spark of recognition shown in his son’s eyes but nothing changed in the same steady gaze.
“Good old Sport! What would I do without him—–Pa?” Adam watched his father flinch at his words. “What aren’t you telling me?” His hands unconsciously tightened on the covers that surrounded him.
Knowing what he had to tell his son would cause him great distress, Ben hesitated for a moment before he continued. “Adam, Sport was injured. He’s not good son.”
A soft cry of “no” escaped as Adam struggled to get out from under the heavy quilts. Ben rose and tried to gently push him back.
Adam grabbed his father’s forearm. “Either help me up Pa or get out of my way.” Their eyes locked for a moment before Ben reached out a hand to help his son up.
Walking with small, careful steps, Adam approached the open barn doors. Ben stayed on his son’s left side, ready to help him, if needed. Stopping in the doorway, Adam could see the back of his brother Joe, kneeling in the soft, clean straw that covered the floor of Sport’s stall. He listened as Joe spoke quiet, calming words to the downed horse.
“How bad is he?”
Joe didn’t seem surprised when he heard his brother’s whispered words. He motioned for Adam to join him. “Not so good. I don’t know how you got back on or how he got you back home,” Joe answered.
Adam stood next to Joe, his gaze never leaving his horse. Suddenly, he found himself getting angry. “Can’t you do something for him? Can’t you make him better?” he shouted.
Sport raised his head as if disturbed by the loud sounds. Adam walked quickly to his side and knelt down. The pain in his head throbbed causing him to squint his eyes against the white light of the lantern. He reached out and rubbed a spot behind Sport’s ear. “I’m sorry, old man,” he crooned. He continued to speak soothing words as he watched the animal’s labored breathing. Without turning around, he said, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m the one to blame for this, not you.” His voice was flat, devoid of any feelings.
“Adam, it was an accident. The two of you have been riding at night for years.” Ben took a step forward. “You can’t blame yourself.”
Adam kept rubbing Sport’s neck as he spoke. Pieces of their night ride were beginning to surface. “We were just walking along the lake shore. The moon was so bright. It was almost like daylight. We’ve ridden that path together hundreds of times over the years.” He stopped speaking and ran the back of his hand over the vivid white blaze. “He just stumbled for no reason. And I wasn’t ready. The next thing I remember was lying in bed.”
Adam closed his eyes against the pain in his head and the pain spreading from his heart. Finally, he summoned the courage he needed. “He’s not going to make it, is he?” His voice was quiet, but shook from the slight tremor of emotions held tightly within.
Joe would have given anything not to be the one to tell his brother that the animal had no chance of survival. Sport was twenty now and Adam had been careful with him the last few years, leaving him home to enjoy the lush Ponderosa pastures more and more often. “No,” he answered back. “I’m sorry, Adam, I don’t think so.”
As if hit by a powerful blow, Adam’s body seemed to collapse inward. Ben reached out a hand for comfort and strength but his son moved away from the gesture. “I just want a little time with him.”
Joe rose and put an arm around his father’s shoulders. “Come on, Pa. Let’s go back to the house.”
Time passed slowly as father and son sat without speaking in front of the cold hearth of the fireplace. Joe watched as Ben’s eyes slipped shut. He rose and placed the old Indian blanket from the staircase railing over the sleeping man. Walking with soft steps, he went quietly into the night. Joe stopped at the entrance to the barn. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and rein in his emotions. He hated seeing an animal suffer but the deeper grief would come from watching his brother.
Adam was sitting on the floor of the big chestnut’s stall, close to Sport’s head. He kept one hand moving slowly up and down the long, silken neck. He sat in silence, his head bowed.
Joe approached slowly. Hearing his brother, Adam raised his head and looked than went back to his silent musings.
Joe’s heart lurched at the dark pools of sadness that were his brother’s eyes. He sat at Adam’s side and waited. After a little while, his brother’s deep, soft voice breeched the silence.
“You know Joe, it’s not that I mind getting older, I don’t—really, I don’t. It’s watching everybody and everything I care about getting older and dying.” A faint smile crossed his face. “That is, except for you ‘Little’ Joe. I don’t think you’ll ever age.” The smile disappeared quickly. “It’s just so painful—like a little piece of your heart gets ripped away each time.” As if exhausted by his thoughts, Adam put his head back against the post he was leaning on.
Although he and Adam had become closer than ever since Adam’s return to the ranch, Joe couldn’t help but be surprised at his brother’s heartfelt confession. “I think I know what you’re saying but I don’t look at it the same way,” Joe said. Adam opened his eyes and waited for his brother to continue.
“I know it’s hard watching people and things we love and care about getting older and sometimes dying but what if we’d never known them?” Adam remained silent. “Think about it—would you give up knowing Hoss’ mother or mine? What would your life had been like without Hoss in it?”
Joe watched Adam close his eyes and fight against the unbidden tears. Finally, he gathered himself to speak. “So much the less without them.” He reached for Sport and carefully stroked the companion of his youth and middle age. Finally, he looked at Joe and said, “Will you do it for me?”
“Sure, I’ll take care of things. You don’t have to worry.” Joe knew his brother was beyond exhaustion and in pain. “Do you want to go in the house now?”
Adam shook his head and said, “Not yet. Will you stay with me awhile?”
Joe just smiled and put a hand on Adam’s arm. The two brothers stayed together in silence for the rest of the night, each thinking of how much richer their lives were for those they had loved and lost.