The Last to Go (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word count:  3092


 

The elderly man pushed himself up from the old faded blue chair and steadied himself with his walking stick.  When he glanced down at the chair, the impression of his behind was melted into the cushion.  He snickered to himself; he could hardly believe that the old chair was the same chair of his youth.  How long had that same piece of furniture sat in the exact spot? Thirty or thirty-five years, possibly more, he concluded.  His eyes wandered across the room to the ancient leather chair and then slowly took in every stick of furniture in the large open rooms that had, since his childhood, been his home.  Nothing had changed; it had remained as it was when he first went away to seek his own destiny and live his own life, far from the log house where he had grown up and found himself as a man.

Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Adam slowly turned until he stood at the bottom of the long staircase.  Almost lovingly, his wrinkled and twisted fingers stroked the post and then the railing.  He could remember being young, no more than ten, when he had made his first excited ascent up these very steps.  His father had watched with pride as he climbed upward, trying in his boyish manner to make two steps at a time. But his little legs had barely been long enough and by the time he’d gotten to the landing, he had given up trying to master the feat.  That accomplishment had come the next year, after his pa had told him he’d grown nearly a foot since the house had been built.

Now, standing at the bottom of the stairs, he wondered when the last time had been since he had seen the upstairs rooms.  Having been in ill health for the last couple of years, he’d given up using his old room and had retired most of his belongings to the downstairs guest room off the dining room.  He hadn’t much cared for the idea, but with the rheumatism getting so much worse and his old bones becoming frail, the doctor had recommended that he avoid the stairs, lest he fall and fracture a bone.  Doctor Ira Martin, grandson of Paul Martin — Virginia City’s first real doctor —  had explained that if he were to become bedridden, he would chance pneumonia. And in this stage of his life, pneumonia could be most damaging to his health and might result in death, so Adam had stayed away….until today.

Today, he had promised himself, he would take the chance, for a deep yearning had beckoned to him from above.  Adam glanced upward; it would take some time for him to climb the many stairs, but he willed himself to go.  By the time that he had reached the landing, the old man was gasping for air to fill his burning lungs.  He leaned wearily against the railing; his eyes set on the utmost step.

Over and over he whispered, his voice raspy with age.  “I can do this, I can do this,” he uttered as he stepped beyond the final step.

His wrinkled face formed a smile.  Where once dimples deepened his cheeks, now weather worn lines hid the impressions that had once made his handsome face so pleasing to look upon.  Cautiously he made his way down the long hall, stopping at the first door on his right.

With one hand on the curve of his cane and the other on the doorknob, Adam gave a little turn and pushed opened the door.  The room was dark, with only a sliver of light trying to peep from behind the closed curtains.  Being careful not to trip over the carpet, Adam walked over to the opposite wall and tugged on the drapes until they parted enough that the sun could light the room well enough that he might see.

Unexpectedly, his heart fluttered and rose in tempo as the old man’s eyes swept the room.  He felt the onrush of tears as old memories came creeping back to him.  He slowly walked to the bed, where in his mind he saw the face, twisted with pain, his brother’s brow dotted with beads of moisture from the raging fever. The boy whom he had helped to raise with a gunshot wound in the shoulder.  It was his bullet that had nearly killed his brother — his carelessness — and Adam instantly felt again, as if it had just happened, the guilt that had nearly driven him from his home and his family.  His hand wiped at his eyes; that had been another lifetime ago, and Little Joe had lived and had forgiven him for the accident that had nearly claimed his young life.

Adam turned and his eyes cleared and he smiled at the picture of the old Indian that still hung in the back corner wall of Joe’s room.  He’d always hated that particular picture, but Joe had liked it.  Adam laughed; naturally he would have, especially since the boy had known that his older brother hated it.  It had always been like that between himself and Little Joe, at least after he had returned home from college.  Before then, when Joe had been a boy, Adam could remember holding the weeping child in his arms as Joseph cried for his mama who had been killed in a riding accident.  He could see the tiny face with huge green eyes looking into his own tear filled eyes and asking when his mama would be coming home.

The memory refreshed his own tears; those days had been filled with such sadness and there had been little to make the boy smile and practically nothing could make him happy.  But time, as always, eased away the sorrow and pain, and the memories became something to cherish and hold within their hearts.  As time went by, life took on a routine and before he knew it, the little boy had become a man, a good man at that.  The rough edges had smoothed, the recklessness had given way to caution and thoughtfulness, and soon, Little Joe became Joseph, his father’s right hand man.  Adam was pleased, for he had seen years earlier the potential that his youngest brother possessed and when he’d finally gotten up the courage to leave home for good, it was with the assurance that he had left the best man possible to stand beside his father.

Joe had always been the heart of the Ponderosa, the spirit of this home and this family.  He had been their father’s pride and joy, the little boy who had made his father the happiest in his golden years.  Though Joseph had suffered his own losses, what with the death of his wife, Alice, and her unborn child, Joe had remained steadfast to his first love: this ranch, this home, and his family.

Adam’s head dropped and his body trembled slightly as he recalled the telegram he’d received from Ira Martin, informing him of his brother’s untimely death.  Adam had been far from home, too far to get back in time to say goodbye to the boy whom he had always loved as if he had been his own son.  It was with sadness that Joe had died alone, without family at his bedside.  A whole slew of friends had gathered around, but the thoughts of his parting without Adam’s presence left a hollow and guilt-ridden feeling deep within his heart.

It seemed like yesterday to Adam as he stood in his brother’s bedroom doorway, that they had been boys.  Joe had been gone now, twelve years.  He had only been fifty-five, when the unknown disease claimed him.  Adam pinched his lips together and gave the room one final sweep with his eyes.  It was as if Little Joe stood before him, laughing and smiling at him, assuring his big brother that everything was well and as it should be.  Adam closed the door, the memory of Joe’s harmonious and infamous giggle resounding in his ear.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Adam made his way slowly across the hall and stopped.  Hoss’ room, his biggest brother’s room.  The door creaked slightly as he pushed it forward.  The drapes in this room were opened wide and the sun cast a warm and inviting glow throughout the room.  The first thing that caught Adam’s attention was the massive sized bed, made and ordered just for Hoss.  The bed had been shipped from a manufacturer in San Francisco.  Adam couldn’t help himself; he just had to sit down on the soft mattress and when he did, it was as if Hoss had sat down next to him.  He could feel and sense the amiable giant’s spirit as a gentle peace, much like the man himself, settled within the room.

Little green men and miniature ponies, a box of gold and a kind-hearted giant, all roaming over the fields and woods of the Ponderosa.  Adam shut his eyes; white rabbits and fur coats, a flying apparatus, an infernal machine, horseless carriages, it all came charging back at him in full force.  Adam laughed; one thing was certain, life had never been dull with Hoss around.  His middle brother had been kind and loving, compassionate, yet big and strong, a force to be reckoned with when angered, which was seldom. But as meek as a mouse with tender hands that could hold within their grasps, new born life, both human and otherwise.  Hoss…God how he missed him.

His brother, just six years his junior, had died so young, without warning and his death had almost been the undoing of his family.  The hole his dying had left in their hearts had taken nearly a lifetime to heal, and even now, Adam wondered if they had all ever really gotten over the death of such a warm, wonderful human being.

The hour had passed swiftly as Adam stood to his feet and walked from the room.  His aged old bones had begun to ache, the pain matching the grief he felt in his heart as he pushed aside the last door in the hallway.

The minute he stepped inside, his eyes filled with tears and no matter that he willed himself to be strong, the tiny droplets rolled slowly down the sides of his face.  His father’s face loomed before him and once again, Adam felt as if he were a young man.  When he looked up, he felt the warmth he saw in the dark chocolate eyes that he envisioned smiling back at him.  They were the same eyes that had danced with laughter, smiled with pride and cried tears of joy and unhappiness that he remembered from the days of his youth and had haunted his dreams years later when he had become a man.  No other person on the face of the earth had, had such an impact on his life.  Ben Cartwright, his father, his mentor, his idol, had been the inspiration that fueled the flame that drove him to be the best possible man he could be.  But yet, standing as he was now in his father’s room, Adam questioned himself as to whether or not he had fully achieved everything that he had striven to become.  Somehow he doubted that his father would think otherwise, for Ben Cartwright had always been proud of his sons — all three of them — and he had never failed to tell them so.  Whether Joe and Hoss lived here in the only home they had ever known, the Ponderosa, and Adam lived another world away, Ben had suffered the people to know he had sons to be proud of and justly so, he had told them.

Adam remembered when he had finally gotten the courage to tell his father that he was leaving.  The news had broken his father’s heart but it had been expected, Ben had said.  Masking his own disappointments and fears for his son’s life, Pa had given him his blessings and sent him on his way, bidding him God’s speed.

Of any one person, Adam missed his father the most.  The eldest Cartwright had set out to follow his dream, dragging his eldest son along with him, and had succeeded in making that dream come true.  For what he was and what he had become and for who he was right now, it was all due to the loving guidance of his father.

“It won’t be long now Pa, until we’re all together once again,” whispered Adam as he backed slowly from the room.  He paused in the doorway and smiled, then closed the door.

The last door stood slightly ajar, as if beckoning for him to enter the room.  Without hesitation, Adam entered, and then paused.  It was all there: his books, his guitar, his etchings, even bits of his poetry still laid spread across the top of his desk.

At the foot of the bed, Adam picked up an old shirt and held it up to the light.  It had faded with time, but there was no question, the original color had once been black.  He was surprised to hear the sound of his voice, for he had been unaware that he laughed out loud.

“I wonder what kind of a statement I was trying to make, back then?” he asked himself aloud and then looked down at the blue plaid design of his present attire.  “I know I’m getting old now…who in the world picked this thing out?”  He seemed truly surprised.

Adam flinched, and rubbed his chest, the pain had grown worse.  The shirt was tossed aside as Adam sat down on the edge of the bed to rest and collected his thoughts.  The memories had stirred a longing in his heart that he had not anticipated and he suddenly felt lonely in a world where life had been, at times, hard and demanding.  But with the memories, the emptiness had seemed to expand and swallow him up.  For all the years that he had wasted wandering the world, seeking peace within his soul, he had finally found what he had been searching for.  It really hadn’t come as a shock to Adam to admit to himself that here, in the home of his youth, he was most contented to be, most free from life’s cruel rewards. The wonder was that the Ponderosa and all that it involved had been his ultimate destination and that the end of the road had also been his beginning.  It was something to be in awe of.

Adam stretched out on his bed, making himself comfortable.  He felt tired, and felt the need to close his eyes — just for a moment, he reasoned — until he was rested enough to make his way back, the way he had come.  The warmth of the room lured him to sleep within minutes of closing his eyes.

Back, the way he had come.  The thought lingered in his mind, sending his spirit soaring.  He felt weightless, as if he were floating and the sensation was most welcoming.  The nagging pain he’d been suffering in his limbs seemed so much less now than earlier; indeed, he could say that it was no longer present.  His hands, when he looked down at his fingers, appeared normal rather than arthritic, and he flexed them over and over until he was sure that the knotted pain in the knuckles was none existent.  Adam straightened himself up, surprised that his back had stopped hurting and the hip that he had broken ten years earlier now moved with ease when he tried to walk.

He stood silently, listening to the strange sounds around him.  Off to his left, he heard the gentle flutter of what he supposed were birds, but a second glance told him he was wrong. Though he recognized the sound for what it was, he was unable to determine exactly what was making the noise.  It reminded him of a story his father had read to him, many, many years ago about the rustling of angel’s wings.

A movement to his right drew his musings from the subject of heavenly beings.  He was amazed at what he saw, and he stared opened-eyed at the three lone figures that were approaching him.  His old heart thumped wildly and his breathing became erratic as he gasped for air.  His father in his prime, his middle brother Hoss looking fit and Little Joe as he had always pictured the boy to be, now stood before him.

“Welcome home, son,” his father said in his deep rich voice that Adam remembered so well.

“Pa?” Adam’s lips formed the words as he pushed them outward from deep within his throat.  His voice was no longer raspy, his words more distinct.

“Who were you expecting to meet you, son?” Ben laughed. “We told you we’d wait here for you.

“Ya ready to go, big brother?” Hoss questioned.

“The horses are tied over there, Adam, Sport’s all saddled and waiting for you,” Joe informed him, pointing off into the distance.

“There’s going to be a big feast soon, with lots of good food, and wine, to celebrate,” Ben informed his oldest son.

“Yeah, and everyone’s counting on seeing you.  Doc Martin, Clem, Roy, and even Hop Sing, they’re all there, Adam.  And you’ll never guess who else is waiting,” Little Joe giggled.

“Who?” Adam asked, not sure if he ever wanted to wake up from this dream that had brought his loved ones home to him.

“Cain’t tell ya; we gotta show ya,” smiled Hoss.  “But I reckon ya gonna like it. It’s a surprise.”

Adam grinned when he saw the gap between his middle brother’s two front teeth.  Some things never change, he thought.

“All right, I suppose I’m ready,” Adam determined after a moment of indecision.

What did he have to lose?  He was tired and sick and more than anything else in the whole world, he was lonesome for his family.  As he gazed up into the faces of his loved ones, he knew he had made the right decision; it was time to go home.

“All right, it’s settled. Let’s get the horses then, and let’s ride!” shouted Ben.

The powdery white flakes stirred up by horses hooves floated softly down as the foursome spurred their mounts into a gallop and rode off…into the clouds…and into eternity.

***End***

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