Summary: A What Happened Next for the episode First Born
Word Count: 2300
As the flames cast dancing shadows on the walls and ceiling, I sank down despairingly onto my chair and stared into the blazing hearth. And with my spirits at an all time low, I watched without seeing as thoughts of the latest altercation with my youngest son churned over and over in my mind, one of many clashes that I’d shared lately with Joe and by far the fiercest to date.
I must admit though we’ve had our disagreements over the years. I’d considered myself lucky to have never needed to admit unbridled despondency regarding the aftermath of any argument with one of my boys, especially Joseph. But for the first time ever, that was exactly the way I was feeling and as I continued to sit in quiet melancholy I recalled the fiery exchange at the supper table minutes before which had left me unable to respond, the shock of his words as I listened to my son leaving me in appalled silence.
How had it come to this? After all, the evening’s proceedings had started innocently and quietly enough with a simple and not unreasonable request.
Due to the life threatening injuries received from the vicious beating he’d taken a few months before, Joe had missed the yearly roundup of wild horses carrying the Ponderosa brand brought down from the juicy green grassed meadowlands on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
In fact, it had taken quite a while for him to fully recover but once in good health, to my surprise Joe had shown no real eagerness or desire to return to working on the ranch, no matter how hard I or his brothers tried to persuade him. And as time went on, his behavior spiraled downwards — frequently in a bad mood, rising later and later each morning and continually argumentative, especially with me, though I refused to rise to the bait in response.
I’d guessed the reasons for his uncharacteristic bad conduct so I suppose you could say that was why I was overly tolerant with my youngest; Adam told me more than once I indulged his little brother’s bad temper far too much for his own good! And in my heart of hearts, I knew my eldest son was correct; maybe I should have been more forceful in my approach. But I’d hoped the old adage time is a great healer would apply with Joseph, so I’d just waited patiently for him to come to his senses.
However, after weeks turned to months, even I could see Joe was showing no indication or desire to change his ways. So tonight I’d decided enough was enough, and with much work to do around the ranch I’d finally asked – insisted — over our dinner that it was time for him to start pulling his weight on the ranch once again. For with both Adam and Hoss away in San Francisco and the annual Army contract to complete as soon as possible, I was relying on him to take charge of the horse breaking. After all, we needed his expertise and I willingly conceded he was the best horseman by far for miles and the most suited for the lucrative job that was the mainstay for the Ponderosa’s annual profits.
However, my light-hearted appeal and flattery seemed to fall on deaf ears for once, as indifference and apathy about breaking in the stock clearly showed on Joe’s face. His only response was to begin grumbling once again the fact I’d not tried hard enough to talk Clay into staying on the ranch.
How many times had Joe brought up his name over the past weeks during one of his quarrelsome moods? Marie’s first born he may have been but I silently cursed Clay’s name and the day he’d found us and become a part of our lives. For though he’d voluntarily left the ranch to save any more trouble with those incensed miners who’d vowed to kill him, he’d left behind a cruel legacy. A brother physically hurt; emotionally broken. My Joseph! A son now apparently lost within his family, confused by his feelings of misplaced loyalty and seemingly with no sense of belonging to those who loved him the most.
Unaware of my private musings, Joe then continued to unfairly and without reason bemoan the fact my behavior towards Clay must have left him feeling alienated from us all and probably was the reason why Clay didn’t want his younger brother to go away with him. Then Joe had jumped up from his seat and looked at me for a long and uncomfortable time with coldness flashing from his eyes. “How could you have allowed it to happen, Pa? Clay wasn’t causing any problems here on the ranch so why did you let my brother go?”
It was then I could take no more and I’d raised my hand to interrupt. For though I could see by Joe’s irate stance I’d have to go careful, I refused to remain silent any longer. It was time to make my private thoughts audible.
Not wishing to antagonize unnecessarily and with no sign of condemnation or accusation in my query, I’d asked if Joe had forgotten already he’d been nearly killed because of Stafford’s gun-slinging ways. Had he conveniently put out of his mind the pain he’d suffered for weeks with the broken ribs and punctured lung, his condition made all the worse by his stubborn insistence on following Clay to his first nights camp on leaving the Ponderosa.
Had Joe overlooked the fact his New Orleans born and raised brother obviously didn’t want to be around us anymore, for it was Clay and Clay alone who’d insisted on leaving and purposely cut all ties by not letting us know where he was heading.
Patiently and calmly I went on, trying to hold my son’s attention and talk some sense into him at last. Joe still had a father and two other brothers who loved and cared about him. It was time to forget about Clay and just get on with his own life on the Ponderosa from now on.
But when I’d finished, Joe’s green-eyed blank stare told me immediately my words did not cut with my son at all. Then he’d suddenly lashed out cruelly with a blazing rage welled up deep within him that left me reeling in wide-eyed surprise and horror.
“Pa, you ain’t been listening to a word I’ve been saying over the past weeks. I’m not interested in being a cowpoke on the ranch anymore! And though you may have been mighty glad to see the back of Clay, that doesn’t mean I’m not giving up on the idea of leaving the Ponderosa someday soon to find him and stay with him. He needs me! So just get used to the idea I won’t be sticking around here forever and let me be…leave me alone to live my own life as I see fit!”
I’d shuddered at his venomous tone and there was an unnaturally long pause as Joe glared defiantly at me while clenching his fists tight at his side.
‘I won’t be sticking around here forever’
To hear Joe yell those words chilled me to the bone for he’d never been one for idle promises and his pledge had an air of unyielding certainty about it. Swallowing hard, I’d held his gaze; Joe stared at me for a long moment with a cold, dogmatic expression as though daring me to respond in kind. I wanted to answer but for once words choked in my throat and I was unable to speak, the silence deafening between us until Joe eventually turned away and began to race up the stairs towards his room.
“But I need you, son.”
My voice had croaked hoarsely with emotion and was barely audible within the large room. I don’t even know if Joe heard me but suddenly he paused and stiffened, his fingers tightening around the banister rail. I thought he was going to say something and waited for him to speak, but instead, without comment, he just continued upward and moments later his bedroom door slammed shut behind him.
I continued to sit hour after hour, reliving the scene over and over in my mind as the fire dimmed in the hearth and eventually went cold. And as I realized Joe was now determined on the road he wanted to take in his life, with morbid confidence I knew there was nothing I or anyone else could say or do to stop him from his preferred course of action. To all intents and purposes, I’d lost my son.
Eventually, with my mind a blur of confusion, I’d made my way upstairs to bed and must have dropped immediately into a deep yet troublesome sleep, for when I rose the next day later than usual, I was still dog-tired and the sun was already way above the horizon. I quickly dressed and hurried downstairs where Hop Sing was pouring out a cup of coffee and he offered it to me as I pulled out my chair and sat down. “It’s very late, Hop Sing. Why didn’t you wake me?”
I took a grateful sip of my drink as Hop Sing smiled. “Little Joe say let father sleep in. Not disturb.”
I paused with the cup halfway to my lips. “Joe? He’s up already?” I asked in surprise.
The old cook nodded knowingly. “He up…and gone.”
My heart suddenly sank and I could feel my hands begin to shake violently so I quickly put down my cup. But too late! Already the coffee had spilled onto the freshly laid tablecloth, leaving an ugly brown stain on the white linen cover. Had my nightmare come true? Dear God! Surely Joe wouldn’t have left as he’d promised to do last night without a word to me? Without saying goodbye? NO! Not my son!
“Gone? Gone where?”
There was panic in my voice but my query was to an empty room as Hop Sing had already disappeared back into the kitchen to prepare my breakfast. With a feeling of dread, I pushed my chair away and hurried outside, practically running across the yard towards the barn where I cautiously opened the door and looked inside with trepidation. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light before I could see a pinto turning its head and looking at me expectantly. I sighed with momentary relief. Cochise was still here, so where was Joe?
Turning heel, I immediately strode back outside, pausing by the hitching rail, not sure where to look next. Then in the distance, I could hear men’s voices raised in excitement, the hub of noise coming from behind the house. My curiosity was momentarily aroused so I made my way towards a large corral containing a small herd of wild horses while in a second a man was astride a tall dark-eyed sorrel as it bucked and kicked with infuriation.
As my heart pounded loud in my chest, I stood motionless with pride as I watched my son expertly ride the wild animal docile to the lively cries of the cheering hands and after dismounting give it a calming pat. Then as the horse was led meekly away by a lasso around its neck, another man captured a short-backed bay from the milling herd and brought it into the now empty corral. But something about my son puzzled me for a moment, as Joe interacted with the men, watching while catching his breath from all his exertion. Then it came to me in a flash. He seemed relaxed…was grinning…laughing — something I hadn’t seen him do since Clay had up and gone.
Joe must have suddenly sensed my presence, for he then looked straight over towards me; the mud on his face and clothes were testament to the fact he’d hit the ground more than once that morning. He walked towards me until we were a pace apart and as we held each other’s gaze, I fought the fatherly urge to wipe his face clean by spitting on my kerchief as I’d done on countless occasions when he was a child; the fact I couldn’t do it made me feel strangely deprived for a moment.
I fancied Joe could read what was going through my mind for he automatically wiped a jacket sleeve across his dirt covered cheek and grinned but said nothing. Then, as if suddenly feeling uncomfortable at the situation between us, he lowered his eyes with obvious embarrassment, and for a moment just scuffled a foot in the dust as though not sure what to do or say next. Biting his lip nervously, Joe was obviously at a loss for words, an unusual situation for him. But then he looked at me, tears glistening and his expression one of heartbreaking misery. “Pa…I….”
Holding up a hand for silence, I smiled reassuringly, for I knew my son well enough to interpret his thoughts exactly.
Sorry…didn’t mean what I said and I’m not going anywhere. I’m here to stay for always…I promise.
What had happened since last night to bring about this change of mind? I couldn’t begin to guess and I didn’t care. All I knew was I had my son back and, feeling warmth and contentment stealing over me, just accepted Joe’s unspoken apology and pledge without question; my own eyes were uncontrollably misting as I guided my arm around his neck once again in a loving embrace. Then gratefully and happily holding him close, I heard the faintest of whispers in my ear.
“I need you more.”