Word Count: 9200
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
but in battalions.” (Hamlet)
Hoss Cartwright sat contented and relaxed on the ground, his back resting on an old, decaying and gnarled tree stump. In his right hand he held a sharp knife, and as he expertly whittled away at a short length of Northern Ponderosa Pine, he whistled quietly, occasionally looking over at the figure in front of him, his intense blue eyes shining with love and concern. There, lying on the hard earth floor, his head resting on his arm was his youngest brother, Joseph Francis, dozing under a cloudless sky as the sun cast eerie shadows in the mid afternoon.
Joe had ridden away from the house as the sun was about to edge its way into the eastern sky and before his father had risen from his bed, just as he had done on countless other mornings over the past weeks. It was now a familiar routine for the young Cartwright; staying out late every evening and returning home in the early hours, reeking of whisky and the stale odors of the town saloon. Then feeling hung-over and fuzzy-headed, he would purposely make a hasty and early departure, unwilling to converse over a leisurely breakfast with his father.
How he wanted to talk to him in their old familiar and easy way, wished he could say sorry. Sorry! Such a small, inoffensive sounding word, but it didn’t come close to describing his deep feelings of regret and sorrow, and try as he might, it just stuck in his throat time and time again so he remained silent, unable to take the first step towards forgiveness, his heart-felt apology never given.
As he led his horse out of the barn, Joe again had felt a pang of guilt as he visualized his Pa, sitting alone once more at the table, glancing morosely at his youngest son’s empty chair. But an inner demon drove Joe to ignore his feelings of right and wrong, and not for the first time over the past weeks, he quickly mounted, leaving the yard without a backward glance.
An hour later he was in Virginia City, collecting the weekly mail, and as he quickly scanned the thick bundle of post he noticed a European postmark on the top envelope.
Just the sight of the familiar handwriting of his elder brother made his hand shake as he thought about the man who had left the ranch six years before.
It had been a hard decision to make, leaving his home and the life of a rancher’s son. But with his whole family’s support, Adam had departed to fulfill his dream’s desire, the growing metropolis’ of London, Paris and Madrid luring him away to seek out fresh adventures as he studied advanced architecture, his intelligent and scholarly mind soaking up all that his new surroundings threw at him. Joe took a deep breath to steady himself as he stuffed the letters into his inside jacket pocket, not wishing to dwell at this time on thoughts of his eldest brother now living far away on a different continent.
He had many chores to do in town that day but suddenly nothing seemed important any more as a fresh feeling of despondency washed over him. His mind now set to change his daily routine, he strode in the direction of the Silver Dollar saloon where he entered, surprised to see he was the only customer until he realized the earliness of the hour. Purchasing a small bottle of whisky and secreting it in his saddlebag, Joe made his way out of town, purposely turning away from the road that led to the house and heading north, riding for miles throughout the morning, and at no time ever leaving the safe confines of the Ponderosa ranch.
As he’d urged his faithful old horse upwards into the high timber country on a well used trail, he hardly glanced around at the untouched landscape before him. Far in the distance was the shimmering waters of Lake Tahoe, surrounded by luscious meadows rich in nutritious grass and filled with a thousand or more Ponderosa cattle that grazed contentedly along the shoreline. Beyond rose majestically the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, its lower slopes covered as far as the eye could see and beyond with tall pine trees, their straight trunks reaching up as if in competition towards the clear blue sky. The beauty of the land was unmistakable, but this day, as had been the case over the last eight weeks, it was just a blur to the young man.
Eventually arriving on top of a familiar ridge, tree trunks struck by lightning lay in a haphazard fashion where they originally crashed to the earth years before, creating a clear and uninterrupted view to the heavens above and Joe dismounted, giving his horse a loving and grateful pat before removing his hat and taking a deep breath.
This was not the first time he had ventured to this remote place, wanted to be alone, neither wishing for nor desiring company. Several times he had made his way to this clearing, far from the house and his father, emotionally exhausted and physically tired, the privacy of the vast forest his only desire, solitude his preferred companion.
Listening to the sound of silence in the forest, broken only by the occasional burst of song from a pair of courting blue jays on the uppermost branches, Joe once more was conscious of his heart pounding loud in his chest as his eyes began to moisten uncontrollably with grief. He felt empty, terribly alone, and this combined with the effects of too much alcohol and lack of sleep caused his legs to buckle under him and he sank to his knees, his hat held tightly in his hands and pushed onto his chest.
Life had not always been kind or fair to the young man. The loss of his mother at the age of five was a distant memory, but it still brought out a sudden sharp pain of deep sorrow when he thought back and visualized her smiling face, remembered her motherly touch.
Recalling the deaths of women he had lost his heart to over the years, all taken quickly and before their time, also sent a shiver throughout his body. His life could have taken such a different route if only Amy, Laura, or maybe even Julia had lived. However, it was not to be and Joe continued on in life, wondering if it was his destiny to remain single, never knowing the deep love and passion of a happy marriage. But now, as he thought back to his past tragedies, he knew he’d never before felt such heartbreak or been in a more wretched state of mind as the sword of misery stabbed at his heart without mercy.
Far from civilization and prying eyes where his true emotions were always kept well hidden, he was now alone in the wilderness and lifting his head he stared upwards into the blue void. The melancholy and depression he couldn’t seem to shake off added to his torture and with a wild, almost animal like scream, the quiet of the land was interrupted as the sound of a man’s crying echoed amongst the pines. Its ferocity sent the birds above to fly off in a startled frenzy as Joe’s sobs burst forth like a ruptured dam, leaving his cheeks wet from the tears that flowed uninterrupted and without ceasing.
Eventually he was all cried out, the forest once again falling silent, and feeling weak from the emotional exertion he collapsed exhausted onto the ground, his head cushioned on his arm, falling asleep in seconds as a warm and comforting breeze serenaded him amongst the branches of the towering trees that surrounded his prostrate body.
An hour passed by, then he awoke, aching slightly from the uncomfortable mattress of ancient pine needles lying on the dirt floor. He opened his eyes with a slight feeling of panic, momentarily confused as he sensed he was not alone. Immediately moving his left hand to the comforting feel of his Colt.45, his finger curled around the trigger and he turned over genuinely surprised and relieved as the figure of his big brother stared at him with concern. Hoss, who had watched patiently as he kept guard over his younger sibling, gave him a gentle smile, his kindly and loving eyes never straying from Joe’s dried tear streaked face.
“Hi, Little Brother. Enjoy your nap?”
Sitting up, Joe took his hand from the gun butt and drew his fingers through his sweated hair as his searching stare took in every contour and line of his big brother’s face.
“Hoss? What are you doing up here?”
Hoss shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly as he continued with his efforts to expertly pare out minute shavings of wood. “I’ve been keeping my eye on you for quite a while. Noticed you heading in this direction many times over the past few weeks and so today I decided it was time to follow you up here to have a talk, just the two of us.”
Joe pulled a wry face. “Talk? What’s there to talk about?” he asked, feigning petulance as he slowly got to his feet, flexing his knees to rid him of the stiffness in his legs then brushed off the dust and needles from his pants and jacket and banged his Stetson firmly onto his head.
“You know full well, Joe!” responded Hoss, diverting his eyes from his skilful whittling over to his brother. “Just about every morning you’ve sneaked off before breakfast without a word to Pa and I haven’t seen the pair of you have more than a minute’s civilized conversation in weeks. Don’t you think it’s time you sat down and talked to him instead of high-tailing it out to town and leaving him alone every night?” he asked, leveling a finger at him.
“No!” Joe answered with an emphatic shake of the head. “I can’t face talking to Pa at the moment. After all that’s happened, I need to get away from the house as much as possible. Surely you of all people can understand?”
“Let me tell you something, Joseph! I don’t understand and I think you’re wrong!”
Joe noticeably flinched at the use of his ‘formal’ name. “We shall just have to agree to disagree then,” he fired back curtly, and without waiting for a response, walked over to Cochise. Removing the unopened bottle of whisky from his saddlebag, he looked at it thoughtfully for a moment as he licked his lips in anticipation, then working loose the stopper with his strong teeth, he took a long swig, grimacing slightly as the liquid burnt a passage down his throat. Normally he would have taken at least two swallows but as he felt Hoss’ eyes burning into his back, his face grew warm from being under such close scrutiny, so he just replaced the bottle in his saddlebag then wiped his sleeve across his mouth and returned to stand in front of his big brother.
Hoss watched his younger sibling with growing compassion, but his expression was impassive and he remained silent until Joe strode back slowly towards him. “You’ve been in Virginia City nearly every night, drinking far too much whisky for your own good. You know that don’t you?” Hoss admonished, diverting his gaze momentarily towards the saddlebag.
Joe’s eyes narrowed in defiance. “What if I am?” he responded, unwilling to admit the truth of his brother’s statement. He hated what he was doing and knew full well what he was becoming but he certainly didn’t need anyone, least of all his own brother, to state the obvious and his temper began to rise within him.
“You just don’t know how difficult all this has been for me, or what I’ve been feeling and going through!” he cried unhappily, turning around and staring far into the distance, his hands on his hips and his shoulders stooped.
Hoss gave a sympathetic smile and kept his gaze fixed on his brother’s back. “Don’t be too sure about that, Joe,” he responded, shaking his head sadly as he tipped his large and odd shaped hat onto the back of his head. “You do realize Pa has spent most of his time worrying about the number of hours you’ve been spending in the Silver Dollar, and especially all the whisky you’ve been drinking?”
Joe whirled around indignantly. “I’ve been doing my fair share of work around the ranch so surely I’m allowed to relax in the saloon if I want to and have a few drinks occasionally, let off a bit of steam! Where’s the harm in that?”
Hoss huffed with incredulity, suddenly feeling a deep anger surge within him. “Staying out late nearly every night, getting drunk; your fights in town; the arguments with anyone who even looks at you the wrong way? That’s hardly just having a few drinks and letting off steam! It’s no wonder your behavior is causing Pa so much concern!”
Hoss paused for a moment, his large, round face looking thoughtful. “You must realize Pa needs you by his side now more than ever before, and he’s practically killing himself with worrying about you getting hurt. It’s time you stopped feeling sorry for yourself and grew up Joe! Start to behave like the man I know you are!”
Joe visibly smarted with guilt and turned his gaze to the floor, shocked by his brother’s sudden outburst. He didn’t want to argue or fight with Hoss. They had always been the best of friends, each looking after the other in times of trouble. Stories of their legendary and hilarious escapades provided many a late evening’s entertainment as they sat by a blazing fire in the dead of winter, their brotherly love and closeness admired and envied by many.
As he once more felt his brother’s concerned gaze upon him, he took a deep breath. “I know I’ve been a real pain in the butt, but I just can’t help myself!” he admitted, his throat now feeling as dry as an old sweet corn husk. “Every time I see Pa looking at me, I know exactly what he is thinking. It’s as if I can read his mind and see it in his eyes. Deep in his heart, he blames me for what happened, even though he would never admit it to my face. He will never be able to forgive me, no matter how many times I apologize and say sorry. And why should he? He’s right! It was all down to me. If I had only been there…”
Joe battled to compose himself but tears showed in his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt Pa any more, so staying away and out of his sight just seems to be the kindest and simplest thing to do at the moment.”
Hoss shook his head, fighting hard to ignore the stab of pity he felt in his heart as he stared his little brother in the eye, his look sending a shiver down Joe’s spine. Only seen a few times on his big brother’s face over the years, it was a look that meant Hoss was serious and his words were meant to be adhered to.
“You’ve got it all wrong, Joe,” he insisted with a tight smile. “It wasn’t your fault and Pa doesn’t blame you at all but he does think you hold him responsible for what happened.”
Joe gasped. “But that’s not right! I’ve never thought that!”
“I know, but the longer you keep him at arms length, the more he is convinced he’s to blame and it’s breaking his heart! And it’s just so unnecessary ‘cause it was just an accident and no one’s fault. Just you think on it, Joe…think back and work it out in that thick skull of yours. You’ll see I’m right!”
As he chewed subconsciously at his under lip, Joe became noticeably thoughtful. “It never crossed my mind to blame him, and I certainly never intended to make him so unhappy.” He paused and shook his head sadly. “I’m so confused over everything now. I remember that day so clearly…just not a lot since and I don’t know what to do or say for the best anymore.”
Hoss stared at his brother for a moment, touched by his honesty, then reached out and gripped him by the shoulder, his fingers tightening in a loving squeeze. “Go and talk to Pa, sort it out between you,” he broke in gently. “You’ve never before had a problem telling him everything that goes on in that pig-headed brain of yours!”
Joe trembled slightly, his green eyes returning Hoss’ gaze. “I’ve never before felt so alone than over the past few weeks, Hoss,” he conceded before turning his head away. “If only Adam were here…he’d of known what to do.”
Joe didn’t want to cry again but tears forced themselves from his eyes anyway. Suddenly he felt the reassuring strength of his brother’s big yet gentle hands enveloped him and he buried his face into Hoss’ muscled shoulder and wept unashamedly, as he had done on innumerable occasions since childhood.
“It’s okay, Joe, I know what you mean,” Hoss whispered, taking a deep intake of breath to hide the sob in his own throat. “I miss Adam something awful as well, but big brother is here now. I’ll help you.” Minutes passed by as the two brothers clung together without the slightest feeling of self-consciousness until eventually Joe’s sobs ceased.
A feeling of bone weariness washed over him and he lay back on the ground with a loud sigh, feeling loved, comforted and strangely at peace for the first time in a long time. As he closed his eyes and sighed deeply again in contentment, Hoss settled down and rested his back on the tree stump once more, giving his brother a sidelong look for a moment, appreciating the moment of closeness that had just been between them.
He finally broke the silence as he absently drew his finger around on the dusty ground and coughed to clear his throat. “Will you do something for me, Joe?” he asked in a quiet voice, his gaze never leaving his brother’s face. Joe opened his eyes and looked over steadily at his brother for a moment then nodded.
“I don’t want you turning into the town drunkard and have something bad happen to you. Pa needs you now more than ever before, so promise me you’ll quit the drinking and you’ll talk to him soon, for old Hoss’ sake!”
A faint smile flickered across Joe’s face. “Frankly brother, I don’t want anything bad to happen to me!” he said with a soft light chuckle, and then his face grew serious. “I realize I’ve been acting like a stupid idiot so I promise there will be no more whisky and I’ll talk to Pa as soon as I get back to the ranch.”
His answer seemed to mollify Hoss considerably, who threw him a sincere look of thanks then took hold of his knife and returned to the short length of Ponderosa Pine. Minutes passed as Joe continued to watch his brother steadily weeding out shavings with his small penknife until curiosity got the better of him and he stood up to stand by his side.
“What are you doing?” Joe asked, squatting down, eyes wide as he peered over.
“I’m making a penny whistle,” Hoss explained, grinning impishly as he returned to concentrate on the six finger holes that he needed to carefully and precisely whittle out on the crude wooden instrument.
Hoss smiled as a combined expression of pride and pleasure lighted up his face. “It’s been years since I last made one so I just thought I would see if I could still do it! Looks like I can too!”
Joe nodded admiringly, and then frowned, looking thoughtful as he wandered back over time. With a faraway look in his eyes, he suddenly smiled as a special memory returned to him. “Do you remember making me one for my birthday just after my Ma died? I thought it was one of the best presents I’d ever been given.”
Hoss gave out a loud booming laugh. “Remember? I should think so! You just about drove us all mad blowing the thing endlessly for weeks.”
“Really? I thought everybody was enjoying listening to all the tunes I played!”
“Tunes?” Hoss stopped whittling and snorted light-heartedly. “Pa told us if it helped to keep you from grieving over your Ma, it was truly music made in heaven, but in truth it was just one continuous high pitched racket! You may have thought you were being melodious but I can assure you, Joe, it was far from it!”
Joe gently grasped the unfinished whistle from Hoss’ hand and stroked it lovingly, appreciating the workmanship. “It was just like this one!” he exclaimed as more distant memories flashed into his head. “I thought you’d made me a magical whistle, Hoss, and if I played it loud and long enough my Ma would be able to hear me.”
Hoss raised his eyebrows in surprise, looking steadily at him, his voice softening as tears came into his eyes. “Magical? I never realized you thought that, Joe.”
His brother smiled and nodded. “I really believed its magical powers would one day wake my Ma up in heaven and send her back to me.” He then let out a long sigh as the childhood memory of a confused and bewildered little boy marching around and around the yard, desperate for his mother’s caress and love came back to him. Day after day he would blow the whistle, his eyes fixed upward as if awaiting a magical signal she was returning to his side.
Joe blinked hard and bit his lip, the vision suddenly fresh and painful. “I suppose elder brother wasn’t impressed with my musical prowess either then?” he asked finally, shaking himself from his sad reverie.
Hoss took a deep swallow, gave his sibling a gentle pat on the shoulder, then quickly wiping away a tear let out a loud chuckle, eager to lighten the mood. “Poor Adam was driven mad by you brother! Whenever he would try to practice playing his guitar, you would insist on accompanying him in a duet. We could hardly hear what Adam was playing, but certainly heard your contribution! Eventually after a few weeks, he couldn’t take it any more and told you he was unable to compete with your superior playing power. And you believed him!! Then he used to sneak out to the barn after you had gone to bed just so he could get some practice in without you hearing him and insisting on joining in!”
“I never realized!” Joe laughed, his smile not seen for such a long time suddenly filling his face as his eyes twinkled, almost looking and sounding like his old self again. “Poor Adam! It must have been such a bitter pill to swallow, admitting to his little brother he was inferior! That must be why he hid the whistle from me eventually, although he always denied taking it.”
Hoss threw over a guilty stare then looked down to the floor, his voice breaking slightly as tears brimmed again in his eyes. “Adam never took your whistle, Joe,” he whispered in such a quiet voice Joe had to lean over to hear him. “I’m afraid it was me.”
There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment as Joe studied his brother, hardly able to believe what he had heard. “You? I don’t believe it!” he cried eventually.
The big man’s face fell as he nodded apologetically. “Sorry, Joe, but it was me. Much as I loved you, the noise you made just grated my insides till I couldn’t take any more. I found the whistle under your pillow one day when you’d gone to town with Pa and I took it. Put it in the fire and watched it burn to a cinder.”
“But I was so upset when I couldn’t find it and you even spent hours helping to look for it with me! I begged you to make me another one, but you said you couldn’t! Was that why? Because I made such a terrible row?”
Hoss bit his top lip as he gazed at his brother nervously and nodded his head. “Yes! Sorry, Joe. I seem to recall I made up a story that I needed special wood from Europe and it would be years before another delivery came over to Virginia City, even though there was a choice of about a million pine trees on the ranch that I could have used! Luckily you believed me and accepted what I told you without a second thought,” he reflected guiltily, inclining his head forward to show his shame.
Joe gave a thoughtful nod. “That’s right. I thought it was a magic whistle made from magical wood so your excuse made sense to me.”
Hoss blushed furiously. “I didn’t like lying to you, but once you’d found the whistle was missing and made such a fuss, I couldn’t dare admit I had done such a spiteful and mean thing. You thought Adam was responsible for taking it and I just kept quiet. It pains me now to think I let him take the blame, though I have a sneaking suspicion he knew it was me, but he never let on.”
Joe’s eyes widened incredulously. “Hoss, you amaze me! All this time and I never thought you had a lying or sneaky bone in your body.”
Hoss swallowed hard, his face a picture of remorse. “Well, you’re wrong, Joe, and I’ve felt real guilty about what I did for years. I’ve never forgotten your little face, tears running down your cheeks when you couldn’t find that darn whistle and always wanted to make it up to you somehow but I couldn’t figure out how without admitting what I’d done.”
Suddenly Hoss’ face lit up as a thought came to him. “Now that what I did is out in the open, maybe I should give you this once it’s finished as a replacement? A good-will gesture after all this time?”
Joe handed back the whistle, nodding happily. “I’d like that. Though I think I’ll need to practice for a while before I dare play in public!” he replied as a faint smile flickered across his face and a mischievous thought came to him. “Maybe then I can do a duet with Adam should he ever come home, without him cringing with embarrassment and running off into the barn!”
Hoss gave a loud chortle, nearly choking as his deep voice boomed out loudly. “That would be a sight for sore eyes, and a first! Adam and Joe…playing in harmony!”
Joe also chuckled, appreciating the irony of his brother’s statement. Harmony was most definitely not the word to describe the somewhat volatile relationship between eldest and youngest brother at times, their disagreements and discord having caused many an angry word in the Cartwright household over the years, much to their father’s exasperation.
“So I’m forgiven?” Hoss asked eventually as he calmed down, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes.
Joe punched his brother affectionately on the shoulder. “Of course you are!”
Hoss’ returning smile could have lightened a darkened room, his conscience now clear as he continued to whittle out the wood carefully, his skilful task almost completed. Joe sank back onto the ground once again and shivered involuntarily, his weariness clear as he yawned loudly and pulled his green jacket tight around his chest.
There was a companionable silence for a few minutes then Hoss leaned back and put the knife carefully into his shirt pocket, sighing with satisfaction, his task completed. Joe yawned again.
“Are you still tired?” Hoss asked, throwing his brother a lingering, thoughtful look as he noted his face now looked more relaxed and at ease than it had done for a long time.
“Guess so,” Joe acknowledged, wiping his hand across his eyes. “The air up here sure makes me sleepy.”
Hoss’ features softened and he gave a quiet smile. “I’m going to head off back to the ranch and check up on Pa in a minute to make sure he’s okay. There’s a few hours of daylight left so why don’t you take another nap before you return home?”
Stretching out his arms Joe gave a quick nod of the head. “I might just do that, brother,” he answered, settling comfortably with his hands behind his head, happy at the thought of casting off his worldly cares for a little longer.
“You won’t forget your promise, will you? Clear the air between you and Pa? Believe me Joe; he needs you now more than you need him.”
As his eyes grew heavy and slowly closed, Joe gave a tired nod. “I promise! I won’t let you down.”
“And you will cut out the drinking?”
“You have my word,” Joe replied simply.
Feeling himself drifting away into the comfortable world of sleep, Joe could hear his brother’s voice becoming fainter, barely audible in the late afternoon silence of the forest. “That’s good enough for me, Little Brother.”
As the sun began to set in the west until the last of its golden flares disappeared beyond the horizon and the moon made its way up in the semi-dark sky, Joe awoke, stretching out his arms as he looked around him. He was alone again, except for his horse, and he gave a slight smile of resignation as he walked over and poured out water from his canteen into his hat and offered it to his four legged companion.
The pinto drank greedily then buried his warm muzzle into Joe’s chest, inviting a caress from his loving master. Joe obliged, smiling softly as he stroked the velvet soft nose and chin. “Just you and me again boy,” he whispered into his horse’s ear, as he took a drink of water from his near empty canteen then hung it back around his saddle.
Having drunk his fill, Cochise snorted loudly and pawed at the ground, now eager to return home as Joe stood in reflective silence, glancing at the old gnarled tree stump where his brother had been sitting. Once again he felt tightness in his throat and he swallowed hard, pressing his lips together in readiness to quell the familiar feeling of grief, only now he felt a fresh sense of peace and purpose.
With a deep thirst still within him, he opened the saddle bag and removed the bottle of whisky. He stared at it for a moment, tempted beyond measure to open up the cork and consume its fiery contents. But his brother’s final request echoed in his head, and with a flourish, he removed the cork and tipped the liquid onto the floor until the bottle was empty. Casting one last look to where Hoss had sat, Joe gave a smile and offered the empty bottle as if in salute before returning it into his saddlebag.
“Thanks, brother,” he whispered in the silence. “Thanks for being here when I needed you.”
The words, spoken so calmly from the heart lifted his spirits, and with an effortlessly movement he mounted, dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and turned in the direction of home.
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” (Shakespeare)
Ben Cartwright was a tired man and it showed. His lack of appetite and little sleep over the past weeks all contributed to his unusually lean and sickly pallor as he settled down on the rocking chair that stood permanently on the veranda. The evening would soon be settling in on the land, and as he looked towards the sun as it disappeared beyond the horizon leaving a darkening sky in its wake, he wondered if his son would be returning late again that night, the tell tale smell of whisky on his breath.
Ben signed deeply. He knew Joe was suffering, and his unwillingness to talk to his father over the past weeks only confirmed to Ben his worst nightmare; Joe blamed him for what happened and could not forgive him. And the more Ben thought on it, the more he realized his son was correct; it had been his entire fault! So along with the grief that filled his broken heart, he also carried the burden of sorrow and guilt. It was a heavy load on his broad and ageing shoulders, and at a time when he craved the support of his son the most, he found himself alone.
Looking out towards the barn, Ben’s eyes suddenly watered and he shut them tight, taking a deep breath as he felt his chest constrict and tighten. Images of a beautiful woman dressed in a crimson velvet riding jacket came to him, her long chestnut colored hair flying loose, flashing green eyes dancing with excitement as she galloped into the yard. Suddenly playing out in Ben’s mind he heard a scream as horse and rider fell; the silence as time seemed to stop still; the sound of crying as he picked up the broken body of his wife.
“Oh Marie!” he whispered as the tragic memory replayed again, shuddering as a pang of loneliness once again filled his entire body. “I miss you so.”
With his eyes closed, Ben continued to rock the chair back and forth, the songs of the roosting birds high in the trees serenading him as a mother sings a lullaby to a small child. Weariness and worry had been his constant bedfellows over the past weeks, and they once again combined to give Ben a few minutes of peace from his troubled world as his eyes grew heavy and he eventually dozed off, oblivious to a pair of eyes that had viewed him with concern.
“Pa?” A voice called and Ben awoke with a start, his eyes immediately resting on a familiar face. Pleased beyond measure to have his son with him again, he threw over a questioning smile. “Hoss? Where have you sprung from? I didn’t hear you ride in?”
“Oh, I can be pretty quiet when I want to be,” replied the big man with a grin as he sat down on the veranda step by his father’s side, stretching out his large frame and easing his back on a timber support.
Ben put his hand on the broad shoulder and gave it a welcome squeeze. “Where have you been son?”
Hoss looked up at his father, his blue eyes shining with love and respect for the older man. “I’ve been up into the high country, Pa. Found Joe up there in a bit of a state so I stayed with him a while and we’ve had a long talk.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Ben. “You’ve talked to Joe? Was he okay? He hasn’t….?”
Hoss could see his father hesitate and gave him a reassuring smile. “No, Pa. Joe is fine, sober and hasn’t been in a fight. In fact, we had a long chat and I managed to get him to open up at last and found out a few things you should know. For one thing he doesn’t blame you for what happened. No Sir! He doesn’t blame you at all!”
Ben’s weary eyes suddenly lit up with relief, then darkened again. “He doesn’t? Then why has he been keeping out of my way so much and felt the need to drink at the saloon every night?”
Hoss shook his head wearily. “The fact is Pa he felt it was his fault what happened, and thought you held him responsible!”
Ben’s jaw sagged and his eyes widened in surprise. “Joe thought what?” he fired back in astonishment. “But that’s ridiculous!”
“That’s just what I told him, Pa! He most definitely has absolutely nothing to reproach himself for!” replied Hoss, setting his rugged shoulders determinedly.
“That’s right! If anyone should be held responsible, it’s me!” admitted Ben as his shoulders drooped and he sank back into his chair.
Hoss turned his body and clutched his father’s arm, his big fingers encircling and squeezing it tightly. “Pa! You and Joe are as bad as each other!” he cried, his docile temperament fast disappearing again as he looked over at his father in exasperation. “There are times when the pair of you are so alike in what you’re thinking; you can’t see the wood for the trees!”
He removed his hand, leaving a red mark on Ben’s forearm that his father rubbed absently. “But son! I never realized your brother felt he was responsible! I was convinced he blamed me! If I’d had an inking that…..”
Hoss took a deep breath, interrupting his father in a brusque, unfamiliar manner. “I’ll tell you what I told Joe! If only you’d talked to each other weeks ago, all this unnecessary misery would have been cleared up,” he cried loudly, his blue eyes flashing with intense irritation. “What happened was just an accident. It was no ones fault, and it’s about time you and Joe got that fact clear!”
There was a sudden embarrassed silence between the two men, Ben sitting back in the rocking chair, astonishment etched on his face having never before been the recipient of his middle son’s wrath. As Hoss continued to stare resolutely at his father with no sign of remorse for his outburst,
Ben looked down, tears brimming in his eyes as he realized the truth of his son’s words. “Guess there is no fool like an old fool, eh son?” he whispered, catching the other man’s somber gaze.
Unable to keep the dark look on his face for another second, Hoss threw his father a grin in response. “You said it. Pa,” he chuckled, his broad face once again producing a wide smile. “Joe will be coming home soon,” he continued. “He’s promised to stop his excessive drinking and intends to talk to you, clear the air.”
Ben smiled proudly. “Thank you, Hoss. I hope Joseph realizes just how lucky he is to have such a caring brother, and I’m proud and grateful to have a son who isn’t afraid to tell his father a few home truths when they are needed!”
Hoss beamed with embarrassment. “Shucks, Pa. I didn’t do anything really! Being the middle man and sorting out problems just comes second nature to me after all those years of keeping Adam and Joe apart!”
“Like a rose between two thorns?” responded Ben as the two men recalled the countless times the eldest and youngest Cartwright had to be restrained from coming to blows. Suddenly Ben leant forward and placed his hand on his son’s arm. “Never underestimate your influence on this family, Hoss,” Ben said, reveling in the impromptu intimacy between them. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Hoss looked over sheepishly. “I know, Pa. I know.” Ben sank back into his chair wearily and gave out a loud sigh. “Are you okay?” Hoss asked, his brow now furrowed in concern as he viewed his father’s gaunt face, his weight loss of the past weeks noticeable on his weathered features.
Ben nodded. “I’m fine, son. Just finding it hard to keep my eyes from closing. I haven’t been able to get much sleep lately, what with one thing and another.”
Hoss nodded sympathetically. “I must admit you look worn out. Why don’t you take a quick nap? Joe is going to be another half hour at least.”
Stifling a yawn Ben covered his mouth and gave his son a loving glance. “Good idea, Hoss,” he answered, his eyes growing heavy and closing as his voice grew to a faint murmur, feeling strangely at peace for the first time in a long time. “Thanks again, son, for everything you’ve done.”
As Hoss watched Ben finally succumb to sleep, he sighed happily, content in the knowledge everything was going to be fine between his father and brother again.
“No,” Hoss whispered as the darkness of evening slowly encompassed the sleeping figure in the rocking chair. “Thank you Pa.”
“It takes a strong person to say sorry, and an even stronger person to forgive.” (Anonymous)
Ben felt he had hardly closed his eyes before the muffled sound of hooves moving quickly on the ground echoed in the distance and he stirred himself from his unscheduled nap. Looking about him, hoping against hope a familiar figure was still in view, he realized he was once more alone. But he furrowed his brow, feeling bemused that he could recall every word said between himself and his middle son, a red mark around his arm still visible as he stroked it gently.
From behind the barn, a horse and rider appeared, the pinto galloping into the yard at break-neck speed. Ben’s heart suddenly missed a beat with fear, a vision from years before once again stabbing at his heart. Standing up as his son pulled to a halt, Ben was about to admonish the young man but then decided to hold his tongue. Using every ounce of his fatherly wisdom, he knew now was the time for reconciliation, not estrangement.
Joe dismounted, tying Cochise to the hitching rail then walked slowly towards the house, giving Ben a nervous smile, not sure of the reception he was about to receive and oblivious of the stab of alarm he had caused his father seconds before.
“Pa! Guess you’re surprised to see me here so early in the evening and sober?”
Ben gave a slight smile and then shook his head. “Actually, son, I had a feeling you may be on your way home.”
The young man frowned. “You did? How?”
“Oh! A little bird told me, Joseph,” Ben answered softly, sitting back in the rocking chair as Joe gave his father a puzzled look, noticing for the first time just how thin and tired his face looked. A fresh surge of guilt washed over him as he removed his hat and slumped down on the veranda by his father’s feet.
Both men were slightly nervous and embarrassed, conscious of the fact this was the first time they had been so close to each other for many weeks. Ben looked down at his youngest, love for his son flooding through his veins as he remembered with remorse another son who sat down exactly in the same spot such a short time before. Eventually he broke the silence, knowing with a father’s instinct something was on his son’s mind. “What’s wrong, Joe?” he asked. “Want to talk about it?”
Joe looked down shamefaced and nodded, wiping the sweat that was forming on his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’ve finally managed to see straight Pa. I’ve not been a son to be proud of lately, what with my drunken behavior in town and causing Sheriff Coffee a few sleepless nights. But don’t worry anymore. Things are going to change for the better from now on, that’s a promise.”
A faint smile flickered across Ben’s face. “I know, son, and I understand. You don’t need to say anymore.”
“But I need to clear the air, Pa. I’m sorry, very sorry. Can you forgive me?” Joe asked in a subdued voice.
Ben’s heart skipped a beat as he leaned forward, stroking his son’s neck affectionately. “Of course I forgive you, son…though in truth, you don’t need my forgiveness, not really.”
Joe lapsed into silence for a minute, biting his bottom lip nervously, his thoughts far away. Ben watched him, knowing from years of experience something heavy was praying on him. “Joe? What else is bothering you?” he asked, throwing over a look of concern. “You look like someone with a lot on his mind!”
Joe looked up quickly roused from his reverie and gave a quick nod. “Just promise you won’t think I’ve gone insane!”
Ben gave a quick chuckle then smiled encouragingly. “Of course not. What seems to be the trouble? It’s been a while since you’ve confided in me and I’ve missed it.”
Joe nodded, resting his arm on his father’s knee as Ben inwardly sighed with contentment. “Something strange happened while I was up in the high country today Pa and it has left me really confused.”
Ben raised his eyebrow quizzically.
“You know when you have a dream but when you awake, the more you try to recall it the quicker it just vanishes and you then can’t remember what it was about?”
Ben nodded but remained silent as his son continued.
“I had a dream while I was dozing this afternoon, but when I awoke I could recall everything that happened as clear as day. Every word he said; the feel of his arms hugging me; the sound of his voice as he laughed… it was as if he’d been there, it was so real!”
“Who, Joe? Who’d been there?”
“Hoss,” whispered Joe, staring up at his father. The mention of his son’s name drove a knife into the pit of his stomach and Ben took a deep breath as he gazed into Joe’s eyes, the pain visible in them a reflection of his own.
“He gave me one of his famous ‘listen and take heed lectures’. You remember the ones, Pa?”
“Oh yes, son. I remember exactly,” Ben replied in a quiet voice, recalling his own conversation that evening, still feeling tightness around his arm as he rubbed it absently. “Go on.”
Joe took a deep breath and began to describe the conversation that had gone on between himself and his brother. Ben didn’t stir or interrupt as he concentrated on every word, listened carefully to each sentence, until eventually Joe finished.
“I know it was only a dream but when I thought it through, I could see Hoss was right about everything he’d said. I couldn’t help being ill that day and not able to go with him, so I shouldn’t feel any blame just because he decided to take the wagon through to Placerville on his own.”
Ben nodded in agreement, patting his son’s hand. “That makes sense. Joe. Your brother was correct; you couldn’t foresee being sick.”
“I can accept that now. I reckon I was grieving so much it just took a long time to get through my thick skull! And you shouldn’t feel guilty about telling Hoss he could go on his own while you looked after me. After all, he’d insisted you stay to keep an eye on his little brother! He wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Ben could feel his chin tremble as tears welled up in his eyes.
“He certainly talked sense there, didn’t he?” Ben admitted, feeling a great burden slowly lifting from his shoulders.
Joe gave an affectionate squeeze on his father’s knee but his eyes betrayed the troubled thought he still felt. “I may not think it was my fault any more, but I will never forget I should have been at his side that day. It will haunt me always,” he admitted with deep regret.
“And if you had, I would probably be mourning the loss of two sons in that flash flood, Joe,” Ben replied with complete confidence, wiping his eyes and giving a deep sigh. “You’re quite right, though. We’ve been grieving so much we couldn’t think straight, or see sense! I know it’s been hard for you.” Ben stopped for a moment and took a deep sad breath. “I wanted to talk it out with you so many times but just couldn’t find the words to tell you how sorry…”
“I know Pa, I felt the same,” interrupted Joe. “I feel so ashamed for what I’ve put you through over the past weeks.”
“There’s no need to feel shame, son. I understand exactly what you were going through.”
Joe gave a nod but still looked puzzled. “But what about the penny whistle, Pa?”
“What do you mean, Joe?”
Joe rubbed the back of his neck. “Why would I dream about Hoss whittling out a penny whistle? It’s been years since I thought about the one he made for my birthday.”
Unable to give an answer, Ben stayed silent, gazing into the distance, feeling slightly ill at ease as he strayed back in his mind nearly twenty five years.
“Do you think I’m going mad, Pa?”
Hearing the pleading voice of his son, Ben was shaken from his thoughts. “Of course not!” he cried, once again looking at the visible finger marks around his arm. “I agree it was a strange sort of dream, but having experienced something very similar, I can hardly accuse you of losing your mind!”
Joe looked over quickly. “You did? When?”
“I had a dream this evening, Joe, and your brother talked to me…told a few home truths and also convinced me I was in no way to bear responsibility for the accident. I can also remember every word, still feel his touch.”
Joe shivered and bit his lip. “This is very strange. Why would we both dream about Hoss, and him tell us the same thing? What do you think it means?”
With the wisdom of age, Ben looked thoughtful and considered his answer carefully. “I think it means we should stop beating ourselves up about Hoss’ death and get on with our lives, like he obviously wants us to,” Ben replied finally, suddenly feeling an inner strength.
Joe nodded in agreement. “Well I for one don’t intend to go against big brother’s wishes, so I guess that’s what we should do.”
Both men sat in silence for a few moments, thinking of their son and brother, taken from them so unexpectedly in the blinking of an eye, all those weeks ago. Time to move on, they both mused.
Eventually Joe’s eyes suddenly widened and he placed his hand in his inside jacket pocket.
“I’ve just remembered something, Pa! Picked up the mail this morning and there’s a letter from Adam!”
Ben wiped away a tear from his eye and beamed a smile. “Adam has sent another letter? That’s two this month.”
Joe nodded as he pulled out the bundle of envelopes. As he handed them over to his father, Joe could see a small object fall to the floor and his eyes followed it as it clattered onto the wooden veranda. Ben instinctively looked down and Joe gasped with amazement as he bent over and picked it up. There in his hands lay an expertly whittled penny whistle.
“Joe? Where on earth did that come from?” asked Ben, Adam’s correspondence momentarily forgotten.
“I don’t know, Pa. But it looks just like the one Hoss made for me in my dream!”
“That’s ridiculous, son. It can’t be. You must have inadvertently picked it up with our letters this morning. It probably belongs to one of those boys belonging to Silas. They are always helping their father sort out all the mail when it arrives in the stage office.”
Joe shook his head fervently as his heart seemed to beat faster in his chest. “No Pa! I don’t understand how or why, but this whistle was whittled out by Hoss, today!”
Ben frowned slightly, not wanting to hurt his son’s feelings. “I know you’ve been under a lot of stress, but you must know that’s impossible! Hoss may have made a whistle in your dream but there’s no way it’s this one! You must realize….”
Tears formed in Joe’s eyes as he lovingly caressed the small piece of wood. “This whistle was made by my brother today, Pa,” he interrupted, unflinching in his resolve.
Ben could see his son was adamant and he gave a bewildered shake of the head. “But how Joe? How could you possibly know?”
“Because of this,” Joe replied, pointing to the whistle as he handed it over to his father. Squinting slightly Ben looked at the small engraved letters that ran down the length of wood, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck rise as he read them out aloud.
‘Joe’s Magical Whistle’
There was stunned silence between the two men for a few minutes, both staring in disbelief, tears brimming in their eyes.
Joe took the instrument from his father, holding it lovingly and turning it over and over in his hands. “I don’t understand and it just doesn’t make sense,” he murmured eventually, shaking his head, at a loss to know what to say. He looked over affectionately, giving his father a soft smile. “I guess some things can never be explained,” he stated wisely.
Ben nodded his agreement, having no reason to disbelieve him. Suddenly he found himself shivering, and he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Shall we go in, son? I think the pair of us could do with a stiff drink…purely for medicinal purposes, don’t you think?”
With a chuckle, Joe nodded. “As long as it’s only one, Pa. I made a promise today that I intend to keep,” he said as he stood up, the whistle held gently in his hand. Ben eased himself from his chair clutching the letters in one hand, and placing his arm around Joe’s shoulder father and son walked together into the house.
‘I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three. (Anonymous)
It was now late. Hoss stood in the yard; hands on hips, a beaming smile on his face as he listened to the distinct and piercing shrill of a penny whistle. Suddenly an arm linked through his own and he looked down at the beautiful face of a young woman, her chestnut hair falling over her shoulders onto a crimson colored jacket.
“Are you ready, son?” she asked with a soft spoken Louisiana accent. “It’s time for us to go now.”
Hoss nodded contentedly and at peace as he looked back towards the bedroom window from where the tuneless sound wafted. “I sure am, Ma,” he answered as Marie followed his gaze.
“Is that my Joseph?” she asked, a tender expression filling her face.
“Yes, Ma. That’s Little Joe,” Hoss responded, smiling with satisfaction.
“What tune is he playing?” she asked, her green eyes shining with pride and a mother’s love. Hoss swallowed hard, wiping away a tear that fell on his cheek.
“Just music made in heaven, Ma,” he assured her as the two figures turned, slowly fading into swirling mist, the plaintive notes of a young man blowing a penny whistle echoing in the late evening air.