Summary: (A few lost hours from “A Stranger Passed This Way”)
Word Count: 7550
The story so far . . .
While travelling back alone to the Ponderosa, Hoss is left for dead after being robbed and savagely beaten. Hours later, dazed and disorientated from the severe blow he received to the back of the head, he is eventually found and taken care of by an aging Dutch couple, Klaas and Christina Vandervort, who are still mourning the loss of their only child three years before.
Unable to remember who he is or where he came from, Hoss is subsequently invited by Christina to stay with them on a permanent basis and she gives him the name Heindrick, after her dead son.
Following a frantic search, Ben finally tracks Hoss down to the Vandervort’s farm, but is warned by the doctor attending his son that Hoss has amnesia and could suffer irrevocable brain damage if he is forced to remember his past life. Conscious of this fact, Ben then has the dilemma of whether or not to tell Hoss the truth about who he is.
Fearing she will have her new found ‘son’ taken away, Christina then informs Ben she and her husband have sold their farm and are immediately moving away to Michigan with Hoss to join the expanding Dutch community who have settled there.
In desperation and as a last resort to jolt Hoss’ memory, Ben begs the Vandervorts to stay on the Ponderosa for their final night before they depart on their long trek east. And he also promises them if Hoss does not remember anything by the time they leave the next day, he won’t stand in their way and will allow them to take his son without protest, rather than risk his health and wellbeing.
After quickly returning home, Ben explains the situation to a bemused Adam and Joe, then orders them not to say anything to Hoss when he arrives regarding his real identity.
Joe is horrified and incensed at such a request. “But Pa, what do you think we’re made of?”
“I know what you’re made of,” Ben was to answer heatedly. “And that is why you will not call him brother, and I will not call him son!”
Supper then turned out to be a subdued and edgy affair. Hoss is the only one feeling relaxed and oblivious to the strained relationship between the Vandervorts and the Cartwrights as he tucked into his evening meal with relish, blissfully unaware of the heartache he was unintentionally causing those who loved him the most by his loss of memory.
And while Ben’s gaze had focused on his middle son throughout, as if trying to memorize every inch of his face, his eldest and youngest had merely played with their food and hardly ate a morsel; the thought of having to say farewell to their gentle natured sibling the next day is knotting Adam and Joe’s stomachs with tension and despair…
A full autumnal moon shone down on the Ponderosa but the ranch house seemed unnaturally still, ominously silent, as if it also sensed the misery and hopelessness felt by three of its residents that night.
In the privacy of his room and with a lone candle the only source of light, Adam was stretched out on his bed, leaning back on the headboard with his hands behind his head. He’d been lying in that same position for hours, deep in thought, not even bothering to undress. The only concession Adam made to take off his boots before flopping down fully clothed and then staring up despondently at the shadowy ceiling with unseeing eyes — going over the day’s events again and again, still trying his best to make sense of what had happened to his brother Hoss.
Just making out the muted echoing of the grandfather clock in the living room as it struck four times, Adam had been counting the chimes every hour since midnight and the lateness of the night caused him to shudder, more than aware the air in his room had turned unpleasantly chilly. But still Adam made no move to pull the bedspread over him, for warmth or comforts sake. And not even a stray spring in the mattress that stabbed him uncomfortably in the back made him shift his position. Instead, he continued to lie motionless for several minutes more as if cast in stone — weary, tired beyond belief and his stomach tied up in knots, unwilling and unable to allow himself the luxury of a few hours slumber and thus a respite from his troubled deliberations.
Adam had known intuitively there was no way he’d be able to fall asleep that night, however comfortable he would lay. Not when thoughts of what was going to happen the next day continued to fly round and round his head like a fast whirling fairground carousel. Not when he knew the look of heartbreak and anguish he’d seen flash across his father’s face as he’d watched his middle son climb up the stairs to bed for probably the last time would continue to haunt him for years to come. And not since he’d noticed a strange look he couldn’t quite fathom flashing in his youngest brother’s hazel eyes ever since they’d been told the news about Hoss and the implications of his injury.
Adam heaved a sigh. No…there was definitely no way he’d ever sleep tonight.
All of a sudden, he heard through the wall from the adjoining bedroom a faint yet unmistakably familiar sound he’d grown to recognize over the years. And even though he was filled with melancholy, Adam was unable to stop his mouth curving into a tender smile as he sat up with a start and listened keenly, instantly aware of what he was hearing through the oak paneled partition. There was no mistaking the snoring or the person from whom it emanated: Hoss.
Alike in so many ways and with a total respect for each other, Adam and Hoss had always been close, the two of them not only caring brothers, but at all times, the best of friends — working, playing, laughing and even occasionally crying together. But as memories and images of the big man repeatedly flashed through his mind, Adam gave a deep unhappy sigh of resignation and dismay. For with morning — just a few hours away — his amnesic brother would then be saying goodbye to his family without a backward glance of regret, Hoss’ condition leaving him with no reasons or desire to ever return to the Ponderosa again. And at that moment in time, there wasn’t a blessed thing Adam could think of to stop it happening.
His jaw tightened and his misery rapidly turned to bitterness as Adam balled his fists and banged them down hard on the mattress in frustration. For he knew without a shadow of a doubt the possible ramifications to his family of Hoss leaving; it could threaten to tear them all apart.
Then he let out a deep sigh of exasperation and felt the burn of tears in his eyes. How could he be expected to calmly and without emotion say goodbye to his kind hearted sibling as if to a stranger when his heart and soul wanted to cry out, to yell… stay Hoss! I love you, brother!
Somewhere close outside, an owl hooted, a coyote yapped, breaking the eerie silence and thankfully releasing Adam from his wretched musings. Although emotionally exhausted and physically washed out, he no longer shook with anger as he brushed a hand across his face and drew a deep weary breath. Instead, with his head now throbbing heavily, he decided fresh air may relieve the pounding, so he slowly pushed himself off the bed, legs feeling uncomfortably stiff and every muscle in his body complaining as they yearned for instant relief.
After tentatively stretching his aching arms, Adam crossed over the room, drawing back the curtains and opening the window as far as it would go. Standing rigidly with his arms crossed, he gulped in a few breaths of the cold, crisp Nevada air and glanced towards the far-off towering peaks of the mountains that dominated the landscape.
Then, as he absently massaged his forehead to try and ease the pain, Adam’s gaze eventually lifted upwards to where stars hung like lanterns in the cloud-free darkness and the moon was still spreading a path of silver light. And as the pre-dawn sky was gradually changing from the coal black of night to the cold grey of early morning, hanging low on the horizon glowed Venus, shining, as she’d done since the beginning of time, far more brightly than the brightest star in the heavens.
Adam’s narrowed his eyes and focused on the far-off planet as something distant from his childhood irritatingly hovered on the edge of his memory. With his headache now temporarily forgotten, he rubbed his stubbly chin thoughtfully for a few moments until it came to him in a rapid, vivid recollection.
He was five years old, travelling west on a wagon train, his father intent on finding a home for his firstborn and new wife of several months once they’d crossed over the near impenetrable snowy peaks of the Sierras and found the promised land of his dreams.
The journey had been long, arduous and dangerous but still an exciting adventure for Adam; the youngster rose at four-thirty each morning, when it was barely light, so to be ready for another long and tiring haul across the inhospitable land swarming with warring Indians. As his father tended the team of horses before hitching them up to their wagon, a noticeably pregnant Inger would kindle a fire and proceed to make breakfast, leaving the highly intelligent and curious Adam to stare intently with wide-eyed wonder towards the twinkling planet as he awaited the rising of the sun each day.
And as he watched, completely engrossed and enthralled, Inger would wrap her arms around her much loved stepson in an affectionate and tender embrace, also sharing Adam’s fascination as she gazed up with him, many times quietly reciting a short rhyme in her soft, Swedish accent.
Adam furrowed his brow. How did it go? His mind went blank for a moment, then his lips moved and he stutteringly murmured the half-remembered verse from all those years ago.
“Star light…star bright…first star I see tonight.
I…I wish I may, I wish I might. Have the wish I wish tonight.”
A faint smile of affection played on his mouth as Adam recalled those special intimate moments of closeness between himself and Hoss’ mother as she’d whispered in his ear, telling him to make a wish for something special and then maybe it would come true. Totally believing her words, the little boy would screw his eyes tight and follow his step-mother’s instruction as she hugged him protectively, wishing with all his heart towards the morning star that continually held his attention and interest.
What had he wished for? For a moment, Adam chewed on the corner of his mouth, trying to remember his childhood wish list, but nothing came to mind. And thinking back to those early days, Adam could only shake his head at his infantile naivety and give a wry grimace. For as he’d grown up, his philosophy and beliefs had changed to such a degree the ever logical Adam was now of the opinion only a fool or a desperate man would think wishes and dreams could ever come true.
Continuing to stare up at Venus for a few minutes more, Adam then reluctantly returned to the real world as once again the thought of having to say goodbye to his brother in a few short hours swept ice cold dread through every bone in his body.
Conscious of his head still pulsating painfully, he was just about to close the window when he shuddered violently. But this time his involuntary shaking was due not from the cold; it was as if Adam could suddenly sense another’s vague presence within the shadows of his bedroom. He glanced around wildly, but could see the door was firmly shut…he was truly alone.
Yet, as an ice cold chill crept up the whole length of his body, the feeling strengthened. There was no mistaking it. Someone was definitely close by; Adam could even feel their cold breath on his neck. But what or whom?
Confused and more than a little apprehensive, Adam swallowed hard and shook his head as if to clear his mind. Breathing deeply to calm himself, he tentatively looked around his room again but there was still no one to be seen and he finally gave a short nervous laugh at his unfounded panic.
Then out of the blue and without warning, the sharp scent of sweet smelling rose water wafted in through the window, awakening Adam’s senses as he instantly recalled the long-forgotten bouquet had been Inger’s favorite fragrance all those years ago. The perfume swirled around him, making his head swim in confusion, and he swayed, resting a steadying hand on the wall and opening his mouth to cry out in alarm, but no sound emerged.
Adam’s heart lurched fearfully and pounded hard within his chest, globules of sweat quickly formed and glistened on his forehead, goose bumps rose up on his arms. What on earth was going on?
Then a tender, loving, long-missed whispering filled his ears, instructing him as to what to do, and suddenly Adam wasn’t afraid any more as he felt himself relax and willingly closed his eyes as requested. It was then as if he was once again conscious of his stepmother’s loving arms around him, holding him as she’d done all those years ago; he felt the soft skin of her cheek against his own and her unmistakable Scandinavian lilt as Inger’s gentle voice in his ear urged him, willed him, begged him….
Make a wish Adam…make another wish for my Eric’s sake.
Then, as cold lips gently brushed against his forehead in a seemingly fond farewell and before Adam even had the chance to open his eyes and view the visiting specter, as quickly as it had appeared, the ghostly form faded away and was gone.
Deliberately waiting for a few moments for his heart to slow to a normal rate, Adam remained motionless, unable to comprehend what had just happened. But then as he once more looked through the window, he cleared his throat and shrugged his shoulders. Unable to explain the unexplainable — it must have been a figment of his imagination, Adam silently convinced himself. All down to nothing more than lack of sleep…exhaustion…too many beleaguered and disturbing thoughts floating around his head.
Yet still, Adam couldn’t shake away a slight feeling of uncertainty; he was aware of a little niggle of disquiet and perplexity rushing up his spine. Feeling unsteady and lightheaded, he sank back onto the edge of the bed and rested his head in his hands, forcing his shaking body to still.
What an idiot I am, Adam silently chided. But though the disbeliever of the family with regard to mystical beings and apparitions of the spirit world, a sliver of doubt lingered and a crazy question filled his head. If that hadn’t been a ghostly visitation, what had he just sensed by his side?
He ran his fingers across his cheek where he’d so recently felt an unearthly touch; he could still breathe in the faint, lingering scent of rose petals. And for a moment, Adam almost believed…wanted to believe…needed to believe. It must have been Inger, he murmured with confidence. But then he immediately brushed the thought away and huffed with incredulity, feeling crazy to have fleetingly considered such an absurd supernatural appearance from the spirit world.
But still a thought remained and persisted.
Why not make a wish? After all, he would be willing to try anything, do anything to keep his brother from leaving, so why not do as he was asked? And as if to convince him further, a hushed voice seemed to echo in his head, over and over again. “Do it for Eric…do it for Eric….do it for Eric…”
But still Adam hesitated. He was a grown man, intelligent, hard-headed, the practical son; he knew better than to believe in such childish foolishness.
But what harm would making a wish do?
Finally, Adam convinced himself though a sardonic eyebrow still rose. “You’re losing it, Cartwright,” he quietly murmured in a self-mocking tone, and then before he could change his mind, he found himself again at the window, looking up towards the far distant Venus once more. And all of a sudden, it was as though he were a child again; Adam closed his eyes tight shut as he’d done as a little boy and wished for the one thing that had persistently dominated his thoughts all evening — the return of his brother Hoss’ memory before he was taken far away from the Ponderosa for all time.
Opening his eyes again and inwardly trembling, Adam’s gaze remained fixed on the twinkling planet for a few moments until finally he shook his head in incredulity, giving out an unbelieving sigh at what he’d just done. Who was he now — the fool, the desperate man or both? For Adam could well imagine what Joe would say if he knew his skeptical elder brother had just imagined Inger’s ghostly presence at his side then at her insistence made a wish on a star. He’d never live it down!
Picking up a towel from his washstand, Adam wiped his perspiring face dry and glanced in the mirror; his eyes were dulled with weariness and his skin pale under a darkened jaw. Ghostly pale. And despite it being the bleakest of times, momentarily there was now a faint smile on his mouth as well as a gleam of amusement in his eyes at his private joke as Adam heard himself chuckle dryly, the sound escaping from deep within his throat. But soon his moment of joviality faded, for as he collected his thoughts and composed himself once more, the realization he may never see Hoss’ toothy grin and honest smile again sent a cold blast of desolation Adam didn’t think possible to exist shooting within his chest.
And so, more than relieved of a good excuse to leave the confines of his room, feeling the need of a stiff drink to calm his still trembling hands, Adam shuffled his feet back into his boots. And with a final cursory glance around he then blew out the candle and silently closed the door behind him before making for downstairs.
Taking care to be as quiet as he could, Adam had only taken a few steps along the unlit hallway when without warning a loose floorboard creaked unusually loud under his weight as he passed his father’s bedroom. Muttering a silent curse, Adam went still, wondering if the noise was enough to awaken the occupant inside.
But there was no indication Ben had been disturbed, no sign of a candle or oil lamp being lit and its light filtering under the door. So breathing easy again, Adam was just about to move off when he heard the unmistakable sound of a faint stifled sob, the muffled weeping of a broken-hearted man.
Adam swallowed hard. Of course! He should have known his father would have been unable to sleep, feeling helpless and impotent as he mourned the impending loss of a son in such a tragic and heart-rending way. Dolefully, Adam reflected on the last time he’d heard his Pa’s tears of similar anguish that lasted for hours within the privacy of his own room. Sixteen, seventeen years? Could it really be that long since they’d lost Joe’s mother?
With his face showing concern, Adam couldn’t help but wonder. Was his Pa to suffer the same degree of torment and sorrow again as he had when Marie died? For though not dead, Hoss would soon be just as good as, Adam reflected sadly, also aware life for his father over the years had been unpredictable and occasionally very cruel as he shifted uneasily, pressing his back onto the wall for a few moments.
Feeling awkward and uncomfortable to have unintentionally eavesdropped at such a time, Adam then stretched over, his fingers hovering above the door handle for a fleeting second, inwardly debating whether to enter, to console and to comfort. But as his ears continued to burn at the sound of Ben’s muted grief, an unseen hand seemed to hold Adam back.
So instinctively deciding the time wasn’t right and that his father deserved the right to cry out his tears of despondency in private, Adam took a deep breath and turned to quietly creep down the hall undetected. But he’d only taken a couple of steps when he halted again, a tiny frown marking Adam’s forehead as he noticed the door of the last room at the top of the stairs unexpectedly ajar. Tentatively, he pushed it wide open.
The room was in darkness as Adam walked into Joe’s bedroom, his eyes immediately focusing on the bed, expecting to see the huddled form of his little brother sprawled across its length, clothes and blankets scattered on the floor in a familiar, haphazard fashion. But even without the light from a lamp to show him, the glow of moonlight through the opened window was enough to indicate to Adam that the room was empty and tidy…the bed not slept in.
Joe was not there.
Slightly puzzled, though not totally surprised, Adam turned and made his way down the stairs. Lit only by the dying embers of the fire, the living room was deserted, and as he paused on the bottom step, Adam looked over towards the coffee table. On it stood a half empty bottle and a used glass. Someone else must have had the same idea as him, he mused, instinctively knowing who would have been drinking alone in the dead of night.
Carefully walking over, Adam poured himself a much needed drink, downing the burning whiskey in one long swallow, then headed to the front door and stepped outside onto the veranda, immediately noticing a faint flickering of light through the cracks in the wall of the barn.
Guessing that was where he would find his little brother, Adam recalled the look he’d last seen on Joe’s face; he felt an urgent need to talk to him. So with a fresh sense of purpose and careful not to make a noise and thus wake up the Vandervorts who were asleep in the downstairs guest bedroom, Adam made his way quickly and silently across the yard in the chilly damp of early morning.
Standing for a moment in the doorway, Adam allowed his eyes to adjust to the light from a single lamp before slipping inside. A figure with his back to the door, seemingly in a world of his own, was meticulously grooming the neck of a black gelding, taking long, evenly matched stokes as he brushed the shiny coat and mumbled an incoherent conversation into the horses’ ear.
Taking a few steps forward, Adam leaned on the nearest stall and absently stroked the chin of his father’s buckskin that nuzzled its nose into his shoulder. And although he didn’t acknowledge his presence, Adam could sense Joe knew he was there as the mumbling suddenly ceased.
“I always thought counting sheep was the best way to get to sleep, not grooming a horse,” Adam finally observed with a wry smile. “And by the way, if you continue to brush Chubby so hard, there’ll be such a shine on his coat you won’t need a mirror to see your face.”
Joe turned his head. “If this is your idea of late night humor, I suggest you leave now, Adam. I ain’t in the mood,” he growled with the faint but unmistakable trace of alcohol on his breath, and then returned to his vigorous brushing, leaving an uneasy silence to settle between the two brothers.
For once suppressing a stinging reply, Adam said nothing as the smile faded from his face; instead he just eying Joe thoughtfully. Was it tiredness, the effects of whiskey, or had he also been crying, Adam silently questioned as he noted the bleary red rimmed hazel eyes that had given him a contemptuous stare. Probably a combination of all three, Adam surmised intuitively as he gave Buck a final pat then walked over to run his hand down the foreleg of one of the team of horses belonging to their unscheduled guests.
It had been found to have a cut when arriving at the ranch, and as usual, the ever-caring Hoss had tended the animal after supper, rubbing the leg with liniment to ease the soreness and reduce the inflammation. Then when urgently called back to the house by Klaas Vandervort and without realizing their close relationship, Hoss had casually handed the bottle of ointment to his elder brother to finish the treatment, which Adam had duly done.
Now satisfied the swelling had gone down and the horse was fully sound for the long journey planned, Adam settled himself on an upturned bale of straw as another uncomfortable and uneasy silence fell again in the barn. And when it was clear Joe didn’t intend to initiate a conversation, Adam decided to make the first move. “You look like hell, Joe. Have you been to bed at all?”
Joe cast another glance at his brother, holding his gaze for a few moments. “For someone who looks like they’ve just seen a ghost, you don’t look much better yourself,” he replied finally then turned away; he failed to notice a jolt of surprise that fleetingly covered Adam’s face.
“And to answer your question…no elder brother…I ain’t been to bed,” Joe continued with a faint slurring. “There didn’t seem much point seeing as there was no way I’d be able to sleep. So I just sat downstairs and enjoyed a party of one with a bottle for an hour or so. Thought its company might help me to stop thinking about Hoss leaving.”
“And did it?” Adam asked in as calm a voice as he could muster, still reeling from the shock of his brother’s keen-eyed observation regarding his pallor and forcing back a desire to share with him the possible reason for it.
Joe fixed him again with a scathing gaze, hardly able to believe he’d been asked such an obviously stupid question. “You’re the one with the brains of the family and the college education, Adam…you figure it out!” he replied scornfully, then returned to his brushing.
But after a moment, Joe gave a deep sigh and stopped, throwing down the brush and burying his face into the neck of the old horse that had been Hoss’ favored mount for years. “I’m sorry, Adam. You didn’t deserve me jumping down your throat like that. It’s just…” Joe’s voice trailed sorrowfully.
Adam could just make out his brother’s muffled words and was about to question him further when Joe straightened, took a deep swallow and continued. “It’s just that…if…when he goes. I’ll never…”
A deep frown of brotherly concern quickly feathered Adam’s brow. He was keenly sensitive to his Joe’s emotionally charged ways and could read him well. And though aware of his slightly inebriated condition, never before had Adam seen the youngest Cartwright so broken…so despairing, not even in the days and weeks following the hasty departure of Joe’s half brother, Clay Stafford, the year before.
Sensing he was at breaking point and close to the edge, Adam’s heart went out to him. “What’s the matter, buddy? What are you trying to tell me?”
Joe turned, wiping a hand across tear filled eyes that blurred his vision. As he gathered his thoughts, the expression on his face was such that it would have been obvious to even the casual observer that what he was about to admit pained him more than anything else he’d ever disclosed. “All my life I’ve kept Pa high up on some sort of pedestal. Valued and accepted his decisions were always right…never doubting him but….” He paused, daring himself to go on.
“Yes, Joe?” inquired Adam quickly, his eyes narrowing as he noted the inner turmoil his brother seemed to be going through.
Running his fingers through his hair, Joe breathed a ragged breath. “But now…now I know I’ll never be able to forgive or respect him again for letting Hoss leave us in this way.”
Momentarily taken aback at his revelation, Adam frowned, waiting a moment before he could answer. “Don’t say that, Joe. Don’t talk about Pa as though he’s the bad guy around here,” he said softly as if to a child. “You know you don’t mean it and he deserves better from you. Can’t you see he’s been put into an impossible position? His hands are tied and he has no choice.”
Consumed with irrational anger Joe turned on his brother. “Trust you to take his side, Adam! How can you sit there and defend him? It’s our brother he’s sending away!”
Adam sighed patiently. “It’s not a matter of taking sides, Joe. What’s happened with Hoss is killing Pa inside…and you know it.”
“Well, if that’s the case, why is he just letting Hoss take off with those Vandervorts without allowing us to even try and help him get his memory back? It’s almost as if he wants him to go.”
Adam chose his words carefully, not wishing to antagonize and make things even worse. “You know why, Joe. Pa’s just following the doctor’s advice. You saw the way Hoss reacted when he tried to remember who he was. He was in more pain than we’ve ever seen and Pa doesn’t want to risk him hurting and suffering like that again, maybe do something more serious and be permanently damaged. Under the circumstances, Pa’s convinced it’s the only thing he can do.”
Briefly Joe’s face softened, reluctantly accepting the truth of his brother’s words. But quickly his countenance returned as before and his eyes once more flashed temper. “But Pa’s wrong this time, Adam,” he cried impatiently, and then his voice faltered and lowered with quiet resolve. “I know my brother and Hoss would never want to leave the ranch for ever, no matter whether he could remember us or not. His life is here…not thousands of miles away in Michigan. Surely you can see that?”
Joe held up a hand to halt his brother’s interruption. “And I tell you now, Adam, when Hoss goes, I don’t aim to stay on the Ponderosa either. When he leaves, I’m going with him too and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
Immediately raising an eyebrow in surprise, Adam was unable to stop the shadow of a smile forming. So that was what had been on his brother’s mind earlier on. He should have known he’d have come up with some hair-brained scheme.
But as Joe’s noticed the change of expression on his brother’s face, instantly his mood changed back again to one of infuriation. “What’s so funny? Do you think I’m bluffing?”
Adam ran a hand across his bristly jaw, unperturbed by Joe’s short-fused temper that all the family had grown used to over the years. “The mood you’re in, I wouldn’t dare to suggest anything, little brother,” he admitted, his gaze remaining steady and unflinching. “My amusement was due only to the thought you must have had a momentary lapse of sanity to come out with such an idea. After all, you always were one for saying the first thing on your mind without thinking it through.”
Hooking both thumbs into his belt, Joe rocked back on his heels defiantly, if not a little unsteadily. “Well, I won’t change my mind and if that’s the only reason you’re gonna stay here, Adam…to persuade me otherwise…then I tell you now you’re wasting your time,” he told him with drunken bravado.
Intuitively sensing Joe was in the mood for a whiskey-induced fight, Adam kept his tone low and calm, refusing to rise to the bait. “But to leave the Ponderosa, Joe… What’s that going to achieve? And what’s it gonna do to Pa?”
Joe’s answer was short and to the point. “He doesn’t seem to mind getting rid of one son… Why should he care if two went at the same time?”
“For pete’s sake, Joe, of course Pa cares,” Adam replied, but there was no irritation or anger in his voice, for he knew his brother’s outburst was born of desperation and desolation. “But if it makes you feel any better, I think you’re right about Hoss. I don’t think Pa should let him leave either.”
For a moment Joe’s mouth opened in a gape of surprise. “You don’t?”
Slowly, almost grudgingly, Adam shook his head. “No…but for the life of me, I can’t think of anything else Pa can do,” he said with a sigh of resignation. “And believe me, I’ve spent the last few hours trying to come up with another way of keeping Hoss here. In fact, you’d be surprised to what desperate lengths I’ve actually gone.”
Joe frowned, not quite understanding the derisive inference in his brother’s tone as Adam went on. “But can’t you see we have to support Pa’s decision….respect his judgment that he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t deserve anything less from us.”
“But how can we show him respect, Adam?” Joe questioned. “Pa’s got no right…no right at all to make the decision for the three of us to let Hoss leave! If it were me…I…I….”
For a moment, Adam thought his younger brother’s temper was about to explode at full force but Joe’s voice suddenly broke and he lowered his gaze, his resentment quickly fading away. “If it were me who couldn’t remember…I’d want Pa to take the risk and tell me the truth, whatever the cost to my sanity and health. I’d rather face the possibility of dying on the Ponderosa yet knowing who I was rather than leave my family and the only home I’ve ever known without realizing I belonged here.”
To hear him say those words with such an air of morbid certainty chilled Adam to the bone. His face must have reflected his thoughts, for as Joe lifted his head, he gave his brother a regretful stare. “I’m sorry, Adam….but that’s the truth of it and that’s why I’ve got to go with Hoss. I can’t bear the thought of him waking up in a week, a month, a year, thousands of miles away from home, suddenly remembering who he was and thinking we just abandoned him, hating us for allowing total strangers to take him away without a murmur. Can you imagine the question that would be the first on his lips? Why did they do it? Why? Don’t they love me? It breaks my heart thinking on it.”
Adam considered his brother stoically for a moment, knowing exactly how he felt. “I understand what you mean but you’ve just got to think it through for a minute, Joe. You’re going to have to come up with a pretty good reason for Hoss to believe you suddenly want to leave the Ponderosa behind and travel with him without risking him getting suspicious and wanting to know the truth. And I know for a fact the Vandervorts won’t want you tagging along!”
Joe answered quickly but with a little less enthusiasm as he quickly changed his plan. “Then…then I’ll just follow at a distance…follow them to Michigan and meet up with them again…as if by accident. Seeing me might just bring Hoss’ memory back, and at least I’d be there to set him straight about what had been going on.”
Adam rose and stepped forward, placing one hand on Joe’s shoulder and meeting his brother’s gaze. “I know you mean well, Joe, but what if getting his memory back causes a sudden deterioration in Hoss’ condition? From what the doctor said, it could even kill him. Are you prepared to take that risk? Are you willing to take the responsibility of what might happen to our brother?”
Forcing back the bile that had gathered in his throat, feeling physically sick to the stomach, Joe stared down at the floor. “I was tempted earlier to go barging into his room and tell him who I was…who he was…where he was,” he confessed in a whisper. “I was so close to doing it, not caring about the consequences or what Pa would say but….”
“But you didn’t,” Adam inserted quickly.
With his shoulders stooped with dejection, Joe shook his head unhappily. “Nope. I couldn’t do it. Guess I just didn’t have the guts when it came down to it.”
Adam smiled sympathetically. “You did the right thing, Joe. It wasn’t worth risking Hoss’ health and state of mind.”
Joe released a sigh and focused his eyes at him. “I’d never hurt Hoss intentionally but you don’t understand, Adam,” he murmured sorrowfully. “I feel as though I’ve let him down…failed him. I just have to do something before it’s too late. He’s my brother and I don’t want to lose him. I love him.”
“I know you do…and he’s my brother too, Joe,” Adam murmured softly. “But Hoss is Pa’s son and it’s a father’s prerogative to do what he thinks is best for his child and we have to respect Pa for that by not interfering.”
“Does…does that mean you really think Pa’s doing the right thing Adam?” Joe asked; his voice choked and faltering. “Are…are you one hundred percent sure?”
Adam shook his head. “No, Joe, I’m not saying I agree wholeheartedly with Pa’s decision but I’m not going to start a fight with him about it. It won’t help or solve anything and only make things worse.”
Joe sniffed, blinked hard. “So to make life easy for us all, we do nothing.”
“Believe me, Joe, doing nothing is going to be far from easy. It’s going to be the hardest thing any of us can do.” Then Adam gently squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “And you’ve got to realize something else, Joe….”
Adam paused, his demeanor becoming more serious. “Pa’s going to fight a constant battle within himself; never a day will go by when he won’t wonder if he did the right thing or whether he made a terrible mistake by letting Hoss leave. He’s never going to forgive himself and will carry a heavy weight of guilt on his shoulders till the day he dies. And if you also go, well, I’m scared for Pa, Joe. Scared to think how all of this would affect him. I don’t honestly think he’ll be able to survive it.”
Joe staggered back a pace, any color quickly draining from his face. “What are you saying, Adam?”
Silently debating his next words, Adam decided to go with the truth. “For the first time ever, Pa’s gonna need the two of us a whole lot more than we’ve ever needed him. To be blunt, Joe, if you don’t want to see our father heading for an early grave, you’ve got to stop all this talk of leaving with Hoss and support Pa when he needs us the most — not question his decision, however wrong you may think it is. The only thing that will keep him from completely falling apart is having his two remaining sons standing by his side. Don’t you see?”
Sobering quickly and looking genuinely shocked at the painful scenario his brother painted, Joe nodded his head, wordlessly accepting his elder brother’s calm reasoning without a second thought. Then he heaved a sad sigh. “But Adam…what we gonna do without him? How do we go on without Hoss?”
Adam thought for a moment. “We go on…one day at a time. That’s all we can do. And for the sake of keeping us together as a family…it’s what we’ve got to do.”
There was the sound of a low moan of acceptance from Joe. “Thanks Adam.”
Having the good grace to look shamefaced, Joe gave a weary sigh. “For stopping me from making the biggest mistake of my life. My heads been so mixed up I wasn’t thinking straight. I can see now Pa is doing what he’s doing out of love for Hoss and nothing more. Guess I was too full of my own misery to even see it,” he admitted woefully as he met his brother’s gaze.
Adam said nothing, but there was an immediate flash of understanding in his eyes.
“Damn, I’m such a fool,” Joe then conceded with a flicker of a faint smile. “You always were too clever for your britches, Adam. How did you get to be so smart?”
Adam playfully ruffled his brother’s hair. “It’s a gift, little brother. Just a gift,” he chucked softly then turned his eyes towards Buck. “Plus I had someone a lot wiser than me around to show me the way.”
Joe followed his gaze; he knew Adam was talking about their father. Then as Adam turned away, Joe took hold of his arm, forcing back a string of tears that threatened to flow. “I know we’ve had our fights…disagreements, and I’ve been a real pain in the butt at times. But I need to tell you something. Something I don’t say often enough….” He paused, hesitated, felt a sudden awkwardness. “I love you, Adam.”
Adam eyed Joe affectionately, immediately touched by his declaration. He smiled warmly and they stood without speaking for a moment, eldest and youngest Cartwright not sure how to continue. Then Adam suddenly drew Joe into a hard embrace, their first in far too long. “I love you too, little brother,” he whispered, his eyes now also moistened with emotion. “And as long as we remember that, the two of us will be able to handle just about anything and everything life is going to throw at us from now on. I guarantee it.”
Eventually and almost reluctantly, they pulled apart and, as Joe wiped a sleeve across his face, Adam seemed lost in thought. “Will you be okay when the time comes to say goodbye, Joe?” he finally asked, eyeing his brother keenly. “You know we’re all gonna have to hide our true feelings and just let Hoss go.”
“I know,” Joe responded quietly. But as he stared at his brother, drawing inner strength from their moment of closeness he went on in a determined voice. “You don’t have to worry about me any more…not now.”
Adam regarded him with a tender smile, his eyes still stinging from unshed tears.
Then Joe swallowed hard, suddenly aware of his stomach churning painfully. “Reckon I’d better go get me some coffee to sober me up,” he said, though was more than aware his unease had nothing to do with the whiskey and was more in anticipation of the morning’s farewell to come. “Join me?”
Adam nodded; his stomach was equally unsettled at the thought of the up and coming goodbye. Taking a few paces to the barn door, they both stopped, gazing heavenward at the early morning sky that was now rippled with the first flashes of a golden sunrise.
“Been doing me a year’s worth of praying since last night,” Joe then admitted with a yawn as he continued to stare up into the heavens. “Thought if I hoped and wished for a miracle to happen with Hoss before he leaves, it might come true. You must think me a fool but I had to try something.”
Adam shook his head and gave a rueful smile. “You’re not going to believe it but I did a similar thing,” he said, giving Joe a sideways glance. “Made me a wish on a star. Haven’t done that since I was a little kid on the wagon train.”
Joe couldn’t help but grin at his usually rational and level-headed elder brother owning up to such infantile behavior. “You did? But I thought you didn’t believe in all that hogwash, Adam?”
Adam’s expression suddenly sobered as he strained his eyes towards Venus that was now barely visible in the sky. “Sometimes when you’re desperate, you’ll try anything.”
Joe nodded in agreement. “Let’s just hope we’re not fresh out of miracles today then,” he replied as suddenly, and inexplicably the air was filled with the unseasonal aroma of sweet-smelling roses.
Catching the scent, Adam drew in a deep breath of instant recognition. “I have a feeling today may well be our lucky day, little brother,” he said with a fresh sense of optimism he now truly believed as he placed a hand affectionately around Joe’s shoulder and they began to slowly walk towards the house.
Joe heaved a hopeful sigh. Amen to that.