Too Young to Die – Book 2 (by jfclover)

Summary: Ben’s graveside confession concerning Joe’s innocence has turned his son’s world upside down, and Joe feels he and his father would both benefit if he made changes in his life. Hoss is caught unaware and is decidedly angered when he discovers the truth behind his brother’s sudden disappearance.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:   11,600


Joe~

My brothers always said I was a born wrangler.  I was light in the saddle but strong enough to handle any mount that needed to be broke.  I’d gentled many a horse over the years, and I took pride in my natural ability to sit the most cantankerous mustangs in Nevada.

Over the years the ranch prospered, and we began hiring wranglers for the job but every now and again, I got that certain hankerin’ deep down inside.  Just one more, Joe.  And so, I stood at the lower corral, watching men do the job I was born to do.

“Hey, Joe.”

I smiled at Chuck, the most respected wrangler on the ranch when he walked toward me and shook my hand.

“Hi, Chuck.  Looks like you got an early start this morning.”

“Yep, you gonna try your hand?”

“Thinkin’ about it.”

“See that bay mare kickin’ up dust for no reason?”

I squinted into the early morning sun.  “Yeah.”

“You don’t want her,” he said, shaking his head back and forth, as though he’d already felt her wrath.  “She’s been rode before and let me tell you, she’s—“

“Saddle her up.  I’ll give her a go.”

“I’m serious, Joe.  She’s a mean one.”

“Good.  Load her into the chute.”

Sometimes a man does foolish things.  His pride overrules his common sense but once the words are out of his mouth, he’s trapped in a sinkhole and there’s no way to climb back out.  I thought of my brothers and how they’d always shake their heads and roll their eyes at my decision to ride the most feisty broncs I could find.  I had ridden steadily for the past week and I was just beginning to find my rhythm.

I lowered myself onto the saddle.  The mare’s sleek body quivered between my thighs as we became one—man and beast.  My nerves screamed with excitement.  Anticipation sucked the air from my lungs, but I concentrated on each and every breath.

She bobbed her head in a panicked frenzy, a natural instinct to dislodge the heavy burden from her back and, as she began pawing the ground, I tighten my hand around the lead rope leading from the shank of her halter.  She wished for another day of freedom, but I’d come to take that away.

To take the lead and to finish the ride in one piece, I had to clear my mind of the endless nightmare that haunted me every waking hour.  The ghostlike appearance of my father, dressed in a long flowing robe with a gavel raised over his head.  

“The boy is guilty as charged.”  Dammit—not now, Joe.  Think!

I breathed deep, as I stared down at the clean line of the mare’s neck.  There were dangers when staying in the chute too long, and I feared the mare might rear or crush my legs against the sides of the pen.

Deep breath, Joe . . . one more for luck.

“Let her go,” I shouted.

Cheers and whistles rang out, but I focused on the ride ahead.  My life was on display, but a Cartwright stepping into stirrups and entertaining other wranglers was the farthest thing from my mind.

The gate swung open and the mare lurched forward, jerking me harder than a tight-fitting noose.  Colors spun before my eyes but quickly, they blended to gray, leaving no hint of color at all.

The mare blew her discontent, and my legs tightened as she pounded her hooves from side to side.  Dust swirled like a whirlwind when she circled then bolted toward the rails before veering suddenly, pitching me like a rag doll in the saddle.

My eyes stung; I swallowed her dust.

I said a quick prayer when she chucked her back legs high in the air.  I flattened my hand against her tangled mane as she dipped her nose to the ground.  Though my head nearly collided with her neck, I remained in the saddle.

Again, she leaped forward.  Again, I clenched my teeth and held tight as her body arched and remained bent nearly in half.  As though she was possessed by the devil, her frantic behavior continued, leaving the earth behind as she turned complete circles inside the tight corral.

Sweat dripped from my forehead; salt mixed with grit blinded my eyes.  Rope burned my hand through thick leather gloves until finally, her movements slowed and she came to a final halt.  The ride was over.  I was the victor today, but I felt fragile and spent.

Wranglers steered her away, and the dust settled.  I reached for the wooden railing to steady myself before my trembling legs gave way.  I coughed away the dust I’d inadvertently swallowed.  Cheers sounded around me, hands clapped my back, and I smiled.  It was a good ride.

*****

Ben~

“Joe ain’t hisself, Pa?  He ain’t said two words to either of us all week.”

“I know, son, and I’ll speak to him again after breakfast.”

“He ain’t up there, you know.  He already took off this mornin’.”

“The lower corral?”  I tried not to look surprised, but in my heart . . .

“I ‘magine so.”

“He’s still hurting, Hoss, what with Sally’s death and then the trial.  Joseph needs time.  You’ll see.  He’ll come around.”

“It ain’t right, Pa.  Joe’s gonna end up killin’ hisself.  He rides them broncs like there’s no tomorrow, like he don’t care one way or the other if he lives or dies.  Fool kid ain’t got the sense God gave ‘im.”

Hoss lowered his fork and hung his head over his unfinished plate of eggs.  It wasn’t the first time his little brother had gone off half-crazed, but what could I say without divulging the truth to my middle boy.  Hoss was hurting; this tension between Joe and me was affecting the entire family.

“He’s like a wild animal, wild as them horses he’s breakin’, and he’s gonna wind up causin’ hisself a heap of misery.  You mark my words, Pa.  If one of them broncs don’t kill him . . . “

Hoss’ eyes showed fear for his brother, and I placed my hand on his arm, but I couldn’t tell him the truth, not yet, maybe never.

“I know he’s hurtin’, Pa.  We talked a lot inside Roy’s jail after the judge pronounced him guilty, and you know what he said when he thought he was gonna hang for killin’ that miserable little bank clerk?”

“No, tell me, son.”

“He said he was ready to die so he and Sally could be together again.  He almost seemed happy he was gonna leave this world and be with her forever.  It was bad, Pa, it was real bad.  Joe had givin’ up on livin’, and there weren’t nothin’ I could do to turn things around.”

I sighed, but I kept silent.  I should have been there; I should have been the one to comfort my youngest son, but I was so wrapped up with worry, I didn’t take time to listen to what Joseph needed to say in those final hours.  I remembered an old line I’d used once before.  Old fools make poor fathers, and I was the most foolish man I knew.

I’d worked hard with our attorney, night and day, hoping he could prove a guilty man innocent.  I never gave Joseph a chance.  I condemned him to the gallows early on without proof he’d actually pulled the trigger and killed Horace Perkins.

All my life, I’ve been a law-abiding man.  The guilty should be punished; the innocent set free, but this was my son, my Joseph.  How had my mind led me down that path?  Why had I condemned my boy without proof?

“Did you know Joe keeps her bible in his jacket pocket?  You know what he keeps inside?  It’s that newspaper clippin’:  Murder at Midnight.  And he keeps readin’ it over and over like it ain’t real; like it’s some fantasy story a reporter made up and it ain’t nothin’ but lies.”

“I didn’t realize . . .”

I let my words slip away.  Hoss wanted answers, and I’d let him believe his brother’s behavior was only natural after Sally’s death.  But that wasn’t the only reason; it was Joe’s loss of faith.

The words had been said.  The damage had been done during my graveside confession. The mistake I’d made was speaking aloud to Marie never thinking Joseph might overhear that I’d thought him guilty.  Yes, I’d thought my boy was guilty of murder and now, the sideways glances Joseph didn’t think I noticed were growing more hateful as time passed.  He wouldn’t give me the time of day; he wouldn’t’ accept my apology.  The private battle between us had escalated into a full-blown war and Hoss had become collateral damage.

*****

“We need supplies, son, and since your brother already left the house . . . do you mind?”

“I don’t mind,” Hoss said.  “Be more fun if Joe came too but knowin’ what kinda mood he’s been in these last few days, it ain’t worth the wait.”

“You go on.  Hop Sing has a list.  I’ll ride down to the corral and speak to Joe.”

“What’re you gonna say that ain’t been said a hundred times before?”

I smiled at Hoss.  “Maybe I’ll find new words this time around.”

“Good luck.  Nothin’ I say makes any difference at all.”

“You go on now.”

“Yessir.”

Hoss was right.  What could I possibly say this time that wasn’t a repeat of the numerous apologies I’d tried to give these past few days?  It had been almost a week since Joe overheard me confessing my inner doubts over his innocence.  Foolish as it was to speak aloud, those words were between us now and the distance was growing so fast I feared the worst.  And, after Hoss’ revelation about Joe wanting to join Sally in the hereafter, what did that really mean?  Did he still feel that way, or had he only expressed those thoughts when he thought he was going to die—hanged for a crime he’d never commit?

I should’ve had Hoss saddle Buck.  When I thought about Joe bustin’ broncs and, if he continued to maintain the attitude he’d had in jail, what might his current intentions be?  Though he’d never harm himself intentionally, might risk outweighing common sense?  Might an uncalled-for accident be part of his overall plan?

Hoss was just rounding the barn in the buckboard when I walked out the front door.  Still buckling my gunbelt, I moved quickly toward the barn, stopped, and smiled.  My son had indeed saddled my horse.  What would I ever do without that boy?  He was the most considerate man on this earth, and I prayed I’d never have to live a day without him.

I mounted Buck and headed toward the lower corral.  I could hear men whoopin’ and hollerin’ before I made it over the last rise.  I looked down, hoping it wasn’t Joe riding and was comforted when I saw a man wearing a red, plaid shirt on top of one of the new broncs.  Even though Joe was still young enough to gentle the most ornery mustangs, relief washed over me.  But, I didn’t see Cochise tied with the other mounts.  I rode up to one of our wranglers.

“Hey, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Chuck,” I said, reaching down to shake the man’s hand.  “Has Joe been down here this morning?”

“He was earlier.  Rode a real wild one then said he couldn’t hang around all day doing the job he was payin’ us to do.”

I smiled at our top wrangler.  “Did he say where he was headed?”

“No, sir.  I can ask one of the fellas.”

“No, no bother.  I’ll find him.”

I hadn’t run into Joseph on the ride down from the house so I turned Buck away from the corral and started toward town, anywhere Joe wouldn’t chance running into me was a safe bet.  As I rode down C Street, I scanned every hitch rail looking for a black and white paint, but there was no sign Joe was frequenting any of his usual haunts.

By the time I made it to the mercantile, Hoss was loading the buckboard and hadn’t noticed I’d ridden up.  When he took a minute to pull his handkerchief from his back pocket, he looked up, surprised to see Buck and me beside him.

“Pa?  Whatcha doin’ in town?”  He’d removed his hat and wiped his brow when realization hit.  “Oh,” he said, answering his own question.  “Joe?”

“Joe,” I answered a bit disheartened.  “By the time I rode down to the corral, he’d already left.”

“I ain’t seen him ‘round here.”

“If you’re finished, why don’t we go have a beer.”

“Now you’re talkin’.  Give me five minutes to pay up, and I’ll meet you at the Silver Dollar.”

I ordered two beers and found an empty table and chairs.  I didn’t know where I’d look next.  I hadn’t a clue where Joseph might be, and I only hoped Hoss could enlighten his old man.  But as we drank then ordered a second, I realized Hoss knew no more than I.  Joseph could be anywhere.

*****

Joe~

“Joseph Cartwright.”  The man’s voice rang out and he smiled as I rode up in his front yard.  “What in tarnation’re you doin’ out this way?”

I eased myself from the saddle and held Cooch’s reins.  I hadn’t seen Abram Lancaster for a few years, and I wasn’t sure if he’d welcome visitors or not.

“How’re you doin’, Mr. Lancaster?”

“I’m doin’ just fine if my darn lumbago don’t kick in.  Takes me down for a day or two at least.”

“I’d heard you were ailin’ some and I thought maybe I could help.”

“Help?  Did Ben send you?”

“No, sir.  Not this time.  I thought maybe we could work out a deal.”

“A deal?”

“Yeah, a deal,” I said smiling.  “I thought maybe you could use an extra hand on the place.”

“I’d like that, Joe.  I’d like that a lot, but I ain’t got enough money to pay for extra help.  Just who’d you have in mind?”

“Oh, just a friend who needs work.”

“He a good worker?”

“Yeah, he is.”

Abram rubbed the back of his hand across his whiskered chin.  I noticed how he’d aged since I’d seen him last.  His hair had thinned and turned from brown to gray, and though he was a tall man, he didn’t carry himself well.  He’d begun to stoop, and his clothes were nearly rags hanging from his naturally broad shoulders.

“I can’t pay ‘im Cartwright wages, but I could pay some, I guess.  Bunk and beans, of course?”

I held out my hand.  “You just hired yourself a good man, Mr. Lancaster.”  I turned to my horse.

“Wait—“ he said abruptly.  “This friend of yours got a name?”

“Joe—Joe Cartwright.  I’ll see you first thing in the morning.”  I mounted Cochise.  “You won’t be sorry, sir.”

I rode off before Abram Lancaster could ask any questions.  He’d wonder why I was looking for work and by tomorrow, I’d come up with an answer.  Right now, I hadn’t a clue what I’d tell the man . . . or Pa and Hoss.

*****

After stabling my horse, I walked toward the house though my movements nearly stalled knowing I had to deal with my father.  I couldn’t stay on the Ponderosa.  I didn’t belong where I couldn’t live up to Pa’s expectations.  Doubting my intentions toward Horace carried a lot of weight, a burden I’d carry for the rest of my life, but Pa didn’t see it that way.  He thought an apology was a cure-all.

There would always be doubts, and I couldn’t live knowing my father didn’t have faith that I’d do the right thing.  His apologies meant nothing; they were only words to cover his real feelings.  If I couldn’t live up to the Cartwright name then I wasn’t the right kind of son to remain under my father’s roof.  It was time to move on; it was time for a new life.

“Joseph?”

I knew Pa’d be waiting, but if I could only have five minutes before answering his questions, I’d be a happy man.  At least at old man Lancaster’s, I could do my work and not answer to anyone but myself.  My off hours would be my own, and that’s what I craved right now.  Time alone.  Time to consider my future.

“Yeah, Pa,” I answered.

I unbuckled my gunbelt and hung my hat on the peg by the door.  I didn’t bother with my jacket; I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying.  If Pa tried to repeat his tired-sounding apology, I could leave tonight.  I doubt Lancaster would mind if I showed up a few hours early.

My father stood from his desk.  “I’d hoped we could talk.”

“I’m busy, Pa.  Maybe later.”

“Son?”

“Later, Pa.”

I didn’t stop at his desk; I moved steadily forward until I reached my bedroom and closed the door behind me.  If I could shut the world out, if I could turn back the clock and erase the past year from my life, I’d do it in a heartbeat.  I didn’t want to talk; I didn’t want to see anyone.  I just wanted my life back the way it . . . the way it used to be.

I leaned back against the closed door when unexpectedly, tears stung my eyes and my breath caught as if something foreign controlled the air inside my chest.  I’d never been at odds with my father—at least nothing like this, nothing that would cause me to leave home so I wouldn’t have to look into his eyes and see what kind of man he thought I’d become.  A murderer.  A cold-blooded murder.  A man without morals.  A man with no control over his own wits. Well, I wasn’t that kind of man and if anyone would know, it should have been my father.

Knuckles, rapping aggressively at the door, startled me and I stepped forward, away from the unwanted sound and the unwanted intruder.  I dried my eyes and took a deep breath.  I wanted to be left alone.  Why didn’t anyone understand?

“Joe, please talk to me.”

My father was begging.  I knew he was hurting but I was hurting too, and I couldn’t find it in my heart to let him press for a resolution, to smooth things over, to apologize once again.  It wasn’t in me to let the words I heard him say over my mother’s grave dissolve as if they were never said at all.

“I—I’m just tired, Pa.  I might lay down for a while.”

It wasn’t far from the truth.  I was tired, tired of everything and everyone.  Tonight, I’d pack my gear and tomorrow I’d be gone.

“What about supper, Joe?”

“I’m not hungry.  Apologize to Hop Sing, will you?”

Silence.

I kicked off my boots and threw my jacket on the chair then reached for my saddlebags.  A couple of shirts and pants and a pair of long johns would do for now.  My brush and razor I’d grab in the morning.  The simple life.  No baggage to speak of.

Clouds had moved in and the sky had turned a dusty red as the sun dipped behind the mountains.  I stood at my window and looked down at the familiar surroundings.  Twenty-five years I’d spent living in this house, my father’s house, and it was time to move on.  Most men had left their boyhood home by my age so striking out on my own was nothing but a normal progression in a man’s life.

My father had left home at a young age and Adam, he knew when the time was right and besides, Pa had Hoss—the good son.  There’d be no more worries over what I might think or do next.  Pa could relax and live a good life after I was gone.  It was time I made my way in this world and if I saved a few dollars working for Lancaster, I could move on from there.  Maybe I’d have my own spread someday.

Just as I started to turn away from the window, I saw Pa walking toward the corral.  I kept watch.  He rested his arms on the top rail, but he looked down at the ground.  Back and forth, he scuffed the soft dirt with the toe of his boot.  The clouds lost their brilliance as the sun lowered farther behind the mountain.  The earth became shadowed in darkness, only Pa’s white hair stood out like a beacon in the still of the night.  He stood for a long time, unmoving.

I didn’t light the lamp; I turned away from the window, lay down on the bed and clutched a soft quilt around my shoulders.  Tomorrow night, I’d have new quarters, a new place to call home.  A hired hand working for wages—lower than average wages—but I’d be free to think for myself, have time for myself, and become my own man.  Eventually, Pa would understand the move was best for both of us.  It would be hard on him but at the end of the day, he’d know my decision had been the right one for both of us.

Although I’d closed my eyes, my mind still reeled with thoughts and sleep wouldn’t come.  This move and what I’d tell Pa in the morning kept me awake.  I heard my bedroom door click open, but I remained unmoving on the bed. Footsteps sounded then stopped and all was quiet again.  I didn’t move; I didn’t turn to see who stood silently inside my room.

Gently, a hand swept across my forehead then rested on my upturned shoulder.  It was Pa.  I knew the touch, the feel, and the warmth against my skin.  I lay still; I gave no response.  Soon, the footsteps retreated, the door closed behind him, and I was alone at last.

I held back the tears.  Crying like a baby proved nothing, not now, not after the decision had been made to change my life forever.  This was for the best.  This was what I had to do.  Rolling my feet to the floor, I moved to my desk and composed a brief letter.  This would be best too.  I’d leave it in an envelope on Pa’s desk and be gone before sunrise.  No discussion.  No confrontation.  No agonizing goodbyes.

*****

Ben~

I woke to an odd-sounding noise.  I rolled to the side of my bed and picked up the pocket watch Joseph had given me last Christmas after my old chronometer finally gave out.  I appreciated every present my sons had given me over the years but, as it would for any father of three fine sons, this gift held a special place in my heart.  This particular watch had taken extra thought and weeks of planning, something Joseph wasn’t always conscious of when it came to gift giving.  He thought an inscription would be nice and, I found out from Hoss later that evening, Joe had to ship the timepiece off to San Francisco just to have the words engraved.  I held the watch to my heart and recounted the words he’d had written.  A son’s love is forever, Joseph.

In the dim moonlight shining through my window, the time read 4:40.  Too early for Hoss, and I knew it wouldn’t be Joseph, so I put on my robe and walked out to the hall.  Someone was downstairs.  An intruder?  I walked back into my room and reached for the derringer I kept in the drawer of my nightstand.  Though I kept the small gun in my hand, I slipped it into my dressing gown pocket.  I stood at the top of the stairs looking down.

“Who’s there?”

A sudden movement caught my eye; I gripped the gun tightly and held it at waist level.

“I have a pistol leveled at your chest,” I said firmly.

“Don’t shoot me, Pa.”

“Joseph?”

I dropped my gun hand to my side and started down the stairs.  Joe remained motionless beside my desk.  Darkness loomed, and I could barely make out his form until I stood right in front of him.  He was fully dressed and saddlebags hung over his shoulder.  He wore his jacket and gunbelt; he held his hat in his hand.  My son was leaving the Ponderosa.

“I left you a note,” he said.

I glanced down at the sealed white envelope on my desk.

“That’s it?  A note?”

“I have to go.”

I reached for his shoulder.  “This isn’t the way, Joseph.”

“It is for me.”

He turned and walked toward the front door and when he hesitated, hope rose inside me . . . then quickly faded when he spoke.

“Goodbye, Pa.”

*****

Joe~

Abram Lancaster’s ranch butted up to the Ponderosa’s southeast border.  We’d never found much use for this corner section since it was dry and flat and, if we didn’t have a good amount of snow or rainfall, there wouldn’t be enough green grass for our cattle to graze.

Lancaster had let the place run down after his only son was gunned down during a bank robbery in Carson City.  His wife had died giving birth to the boy, but Sonny had become Abram’s pride and joy.  The boy was only sixteen years old when he’d ridden into town and never rode home again.  Abram never got over his son’s death; he always blamed himself when the boy had been killed.

After a two-hour ride, I pulled Cooch up at the hitch rail in front of the small, clapboard house.  Right off, I noticed the roof needed repair and a coat of white paint would bring the old place back to life.  I could easily add those chores to my workload—whatever that might be—if Abram was willing.

It was too early to knock on anyone’s front door so I guided Cochise to the barn where I could stable him and feed him some oats.  Cooch wasn’t a morning riser either, so this ride had been quite an effort on his part.

“You’re a good boy,” I said, patting his neck before I removed the saddle and blanket.  “This is home for now, okay?  Sorry about the hour; maybe I’ll bring coffee out later.”

I turned back to the house when I saw a lantern had been lit inside.  I probably woke the old man up, and I’d have to apologize before I even started the job.  The front door opened and Lancaster stood at the threshold.  Dressed in his nightshirt, he held a shotgun across his arm.

“Who’s there?”  Abram shouted.  “Someone there?”

I started toward the house.

“It me, Mr. Lancaster.  Joe Cartwright.”

“Damn, boy, you startled me.  A man could get hisself killed sneakin’ around like that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “Sorry for the hour.”

“Then you know what time it is, right?”

“Yes, I do, sir, and I apologize for waking you.”

“You’re prompt.  I’ll give you that much.”

I smiled rather sheepishly.

“Come on in.  I’ll make coffee and we’ll talk some.”

Slipping off my hat, I followed Lancaster inside the house.  The rooms were small.  A wooden table and two chairs sat in the center of the largest room.  A freestanding stove took up one corner and was already putting out heat while a large chair with a table and lamp set just to the side.  This was a one-person room, a lonely room.  No book-lined shelves, no mementos, nothing more than everyday necessities.

“You always up and about this early?”

“Well, not exactly, but I wanted to get started, and I didn’t want you to worry about me showing up late on my first day.”  Although it wasn’t exactly the truth, it was close enough for now.

“Mind fillin’ the pot?”

I carried the coffee pot outside to the pump and filled it with fresh water.  I remembered Hop Sing doing the same before Pa and Adam installed indoor plumbing in the kitchen.  That had to be twenty some years ago.  I was just small and Mama was still alive.  It must have been her idea because I don’t remember Hop Sing complaining about having to go outside for water.

“Here you go, Mr. Lancaster.”

“Thanks,” he said.  “Might as well call me Abram if we’s gonna be workin’ together.”

“All right, Abram.  I’d like that.”

“Good.”  He reached down and picked up a wicker basket.  “Might as well fetch some eggs from the henhouse while the coffee’s brewin’.”

“I’ll get ‘em,” I said.  “Used to be my job when I was a kid.”

“Sonny’s too before—”

I snatched the basket from Abram’s hand.  I wasn’t being paid to listen to sad tales or to comfort an old man’s broken heart.  I had problems of my own and adding to the mix didn’t suit my mood this early in the morning.

“I—I’ll be right back.”

Lancaster’s hen house was half the size of ours, but our chickens fed a lot more people and, with Hop Sing’s constant baking, he counted on having good layers.

“Hop Sing?  Why do chickens lay eggs?”

“Chickens provide much good food for family.”

“I know all that but where do the eggs come from?”

“Hop Sing very busy.  Little Joe ask father.  Father know best how explain.”

Shaking memories of a five-year-old boy from my head, I glanced inside the basket—six eggs, plenty for breakfast.  I walked back to the house to find Abram dressed in overalls and a plaid shirt and coffee brewing on top of the stove.  He poured us each a cup and pointed to one of the wooden chairs.

“Sit down, Joe.  Let’s talk.”

I sat the basket on the wooden counter, picked up the tin cup and carried it to the table.  There was no offer of cream or sugar and I didn’t ask.  Abram sipped from his cup; I let mine sit and cool.

“I’ve known your pa for a lot of years, Joe, and never once did any of his sons come here lookin’ for work.  I gotta ask why.”

I’d gripped my tin cup to warm my hands, and I glanced up.  I’d been put on the spot and I needed a reasonable response.

“Fair question, Abram, but I’m not sure my answer will suit you.”

“Try me.”

“It’s kind of an experiment actually,” I said.  I didn’t see the harm in telling a little white lie.  “I wanted to see how a smaller spread was run, you know, what the differences might be.”

Lancaster sat back in his chair; he fiddled with the lobe of his ear while he thought over what I’d said.  I was surprised the lie came so easily, but I wasn’t about to tell someone I barely knew about my private battle with Pa. My explanation had been forced but sound.

“Seems a bit odd, son, but it’s hard for me to pass up good labor.  I know your pa taught you boys well; in fact, Ben’s one of the best men I know.  He’s always doin’ for others and he’s been a good pa to you boys, ain’t that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

After our initial conversation, we sipped coffee in silence then Abram stood and moved to the stove where he scrambled the eggs I’d brought in just minutes ago.  He handed me a plate.  No salt for the eggs.  Appreciating how different life could be, I realized rather quickly, how good I’d had it at home.  Salt and sugar were only minor disappointments and I figured I’d survive.

“I noticed the roof needs repair,” I said casually.

“Yep.  I got a long list, Joe.  Problem is I ain’t got enough cash to pay for labor and supplies both.”

“Why don’t I pick up the supplies and we’ll deal with the debt later.  That roof’s not gonna last through another winter.”

“Nope.  Can’t do that.  Can’t do with no charity and that’s just what you’re offerin’.”

“I wouldn’t call it charity, Abram.  I call it being neighborly.”

“You sound like your Pa.  That’s somethin’ he would say, but when it comes right down to it, it’s charity all the same.”

“Then what would you have me do?  You hired me on to help, but all I’ve done so far is eat your food and drink your coffee.”

“What’d you think new shingles might cost?”

“I don’t know . . . maybe ten dollars,” I said, hoping I was halfway close.  I really didn’t have a clue.

“Okay, let’s get a roof on this old place.  I ain’t sure what I can afford after that but if’n I’m gonna live here a few more years, I can’t have water drippin’ on my head.”

“Good.  I’ll take the buckboard down to Carson and pick up new shingles.  I’ll get started on the roof first thing.”

*****

Ben~

Nothing Joseph wrote in his letter surprised me.  The truth was difficult to face, and when Hoss came bounding down the stairs, I hid the envelope in my vest pocket and smiled at my middle boy as if nothing was amiss.

“I didn’t see Joe in his room,” he said.  “He already up’n at ‘em this morning?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Come on, let’s see what Hop Sing’s cooked up for breakfast.”

Maybe it was time for the truth.  Joe had left the Ponderosa and Hoss was part of this now.  I’d held him off for over a week but he deserved a straight answer.  With Joe gone and no inkling whether he’d ever return, I really had no choice but to lay it all on the line, to bear my soul to my middle boy and hope he understood.

I’d been awake since Joe walked out the door.  I’d stoked the fire and fell into my chair and before I could wrap my mind around the early morning events, Hop Sing was standing by my side with a cup and saucer and a fresh pot of coffee.

“This help you think what to do now,” he’d said.

I looked up and smiled at the man who knew my thoughts before I’d even put all the pieces together.  Had he known all along Joseph would leave this house or had he overheard our conversation just moments ago?

“Thank you, Hop Sing.”

What else could I say?  I could ramble on about this and that, but what purpose would it serve to defend myself to Hop Sing?  It wouldn’t bring Joseph home so I’d taken the cup and saucer and thanked our cook, and I thought that was the end of the discussion.

“Often time, man finds destiny where he hides to avoid it.  Little Joe need time to study life.  He good boy.  Father not fail Little Joe.  Little Joe not fail father.”

His words stung my heart, and my eyes filled with tears so I coughed into my fist to hide my reaction from Hop Sing.  But when I looked up, he was gone, vanished like a soundless breeze on a summer’s day.

“We need to talk,” I said after Hoss filled his plate with pancakes and eggs.

“Somethin’ wrong, Pa?”

“Yes and no.  Well, yes.”

Hoss chuckled.  “You get enough sleep last night.  You ain’t makin’ much sense this mornin’.”

Between my lack of sleep and the amount of coffee I’d consumed over the last couple of hours, my mind went back and forth over different ways I could present the situation to Hoss.  I cleared my throat.

“It’s about your brother, Joseph.”

“Oh,” he sighed.  “What’s he done now?”

As much as I hated to ruin Hoss’ favorite time of day, I pulled the envelope from my vest pocket and handed him the letter.  “Look this over first then I’ll explain.”

He set his fork on his plate and began reading.  Although Joe didn’t elaborate, words like trust, disappointment, hurt, and change of scenery were easy to.  The food grew cold on our plates as I watched for Hoss’ reaction.  He read through the letter twice before he looked up.

“You deserve an explanation, son, and I apologize for having withheld this problem between Joe and me all this time.  I’ve always asked you boys to be straight with me and this time, I failed to—“

“What in tarnation’s this all about?  All this time I thought Joe was tryin’ to put Sally’s death behind him, and then I read this.  I don’t get it, Pa?  Seems I’ve been wrong all along, but no one thought to tell me the truth, did they?“

“Hoss, you have to realize—“

“This whole thing . . . it ain’t about Sally at all; it’s somethin’ you said outright that’s got Joe so upset.  Is that it, Pa?”

“Yes, it’s something I said and I apologize for not—“

Hoss threw his napkin on his plate and shoved his chair back from the table.  His eyes narrowed into tiny slits; his hands fisted.  Had I been anyone but his father, I think he’d have come at me with a vengeance.

“Hoss?  Wait.  Where are you going?”  I stood and ran after my son who was heading toward the front door.

He began buckling his gunbelt.  He was mad and I understood, but I couldn’t let him walk out without a full explanation.  I moved in front of him and forced him to listen.

“Your brother found me at his mother’s grave after the trial.”  Hoss hesitated and I continued.  “I made the mistake of speaking candidly to Marie, and your brother overheard most of what I said.”

“Yeah?  That still don’t explain nothin’ Pa.”

“I had doubts, son, doubts about your brother’s innocence when he was on trial.”

“Doubts about Joe?”  Hoss studied my face as if I were a stranger.  “You mean all through the trial you thought Joseph was guilty of murderin’ Horace?”

“Let’s just say I wasn’t completely convinced your brother was innocent.”

This time, Hoss didn’t know how he felt or how to react.  He seemed frozen in place, waiting for my words to sink in.  Then, he reached for his hat.

“I’m need to go find Joseph.”

I reached out to touch his arm.  “Hoss . . .” I wanted him to think, so slow down before he took off in such a huff, but he pulled away.

“You know what them words done to him, Pa?  You know how he feels knowin’ you didn’t have his back when he needed you most?”

“Hoss, I—”

“I never understood why you wasn’t sittin’ with Joe in Roy’s jail, but it all comes clear now, don’t it?  You thought Joe had murdered that little weasel in cold blood.”

“Hoss, please listen.”

“I ain’t got time, Pa.  I’m gonna find my little brother and—”

“And what?”

“I don’t rightly know but first, I gotta find him.  And when I do, I’ll have to search real deep inside for the right words to say ‘cause he ain’t gonna come home willingly.  I already know that, but I’ll think of somethin’.”

I’d never feared my son before, but when his eyes glazed over and his fists became balls of steel, I wondered if he could hold his temper in check.  There’d been times Joe’s eyes shot daggers through to my very soul but never before had Hoss shown such anger.  I took a step back.  I said nothing more, and I let Hoss leave the house.

When I closed the door behind him, Hop Sing stood next to the credenza.  He knew the whole story now.  He knew why Joseph had walked away and why Hoss left to find him.  I hoped he’d turn and go back to the kitchen without a word.  It was seven a.m. and I was already done in.  The morning’s conversations—Hop Sing and then Hoss—had taken their toll and I was ready to be left alone to think this whole thing through and figure my next move.  But I wasn’t alone, and my voice was gruff when I addressed our cook.

“What is it, Hop Sing?”

“Little Joe love father.  Mr. Hoss love father.  Words not meant to be heard.  Weigh heavy on shoulder and blame self.  It human nature to doubt.  Mr. Ben not God.  Mr. Ben only human man.”

I nodded to my friend when words wouldn’t come . . . and then he was gone.  I stood alone in a home built to house three growing sons, but all was quiet.  Not the normal sounds of laughter or bootheels racing up stairs too fast.  Not the sound of grown men gathered around the dining room table discussing the day ahead.  There’d be no light conversation, sitting next to a blazing fire after a long day’s work.  No complaints about who was doing what with certain checkers.

This would be a long day.  A day of silence—dead, lonely silence—and I would wait, and I would keep my mind from thinking the worst possible scenario.  Two boys gone forever, joining up with the third to find their place somewhere besides the Ponderosa.

Their silent goodbyes would haunt me the remainder of my days.  Like fathers who’d lost sons to war, who had no reason to live out the dream that was meant for their children to inherit and run as they saw fit.  A father’s legacy shattered in a moment’s time.

I collapsed in my chair by the fire.  There were chores to be done . . . later.

*****

Hoss~

I saddled Chubby and rode toward Virginia City.  Joe had a tendency to drink away his troubles so saloons would be my first stops.  It seemed a bit early in the day to pull on a bottle of whiskey, but my brother and I were two different people.  Joseph was a tricky sort.  He could be madder’n hell one minute and crying his eyes out the next.  He was a hard one to read, but I read him better’n most.

I was still burnin’ inside from readin’ that letter he left Pa.  No wonder Joe was upset.  His whole world had come crashin’ down, as though the air around him was too thick to breathe.  Joe thought the world of our pa; he always had.  But now, he had nowhere to turn, no one to turn to when he needed his family most.

Joe coulda come to me, but that wasn’t his way.  He’d rather sulk on his own than dump his problems on anyone else.  He was hurtin’ horrible inside, and he had nowhere to turn so runnin’ away was the alternative he thought best.  My little brother ain’t the vindictive type neither.  Tellin’ me what went on at his mama’s grave might have seemed as though he was betraying our pa.

There weren’t no sign of Cochise on C Street so I stopped in to see Clem, but he had no satisfyin’ answers, said he hadn’t seen much of Joe lately but he’d keep an eye out.  I didn’t want to say too much; I weren’t one to hang out our dirty laundry for everyone to see.

I mounted back up and rode down to the livery.  If Joe had stabled Cochise then I’d check the stage lines just in case.  If he’d left town on the stage, I feared we’d never see hide or hair of him again.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case.  Miguel hadn’t seen Joe either and I let out a sigh of relief.  I rode back to the Silver Dollar.  Maybe someone had overheard a conversation and could tell me where Joe might be.  I didn’t know where else to turn.

*****

Joe~

I loaded the buckboard and started back to Lancaster’s ranch.  I’d bought a few other items at the mercantile while I was in town, and I hoped Abram wouldn’t be too upset.  After his boy died and Pa tried to help the man out, he was hesitant when friends and neighbors offered their support.  I was a couple of years older than Sonny, but I knew both father and son pretty well.  Abram wouldn’t take handouts from anyone.  Pa said his pride overrode common sense, but I’d do what I could while I was here, maybe even sneak some much-needed work while his back was turned.  Abram was a very prideful man.

Pa had sent me to help Mr. Lancaster after Sonny died.  He could only spare one son for the job and though I tried my best to persuade him to send one of my brothers instead, I lost the coin toss fair and square.

“We do what we can for our neighbors, Joseph.”

“I tried, Pa, but he won’t let me near the place.  He says he don’t want my help.”

“Try again tomorrow.”

“I’m not going back.  The man’s—”

“He’s what, son?”

“He’s—he’s mean and he don’t want me there.”

“You’ll figure something out.”

I’ll admit, Pa was right.  Abram finally conceded after I gave him an ultimatum.

“Either you let me do the work, Mr. Lancaster, or my pa’s gonna tan my hide.”  It was only a little white lie and besides, Pa told me to figure something out, so I did.

“Tan your hide?  I find that hard to believe, boy.”

“Listen, Mr. Lancaster.  My pa sent me here to do a job and if you send me home again, he’ll know I failed.  My pa don’t take to failure, sir, and that’s why he sent me back to your place again today.  So, can we work out some kinda deal?  I’d rather not go home to a whoopin’.”

“Since you put it that way, Little Joe, why don’t we get busy in the barn.”

Abram let me tend the stock and then sort through a tangled mess of harnesses and bridles he’d piled in the back of the barn.  Nothing more than a few menial chores, but they were jobs I’d always been stuck with at home, and I knew what I was doing.  I’d laid the tack out on the floor in straight lines.  Then, I saddle soaped each one carefully before I hung it back on the wall where it belonged.  Halfway through the day, I looked up to see Mr. Lancaster standing at the barn door.

“You’re a good worker, Little Joe.”

“Thank you, sir.  I’m about finished here.”

I wasn’t sure how long he’d been watching me and when he walked farther inside the barn, he laid his hands on top of a shiny new saddle.

“That’s sure a nice lookin’ saddle, Mr. Lancaster.”

“It was meant to be a gift.”

“A gift?”

“For my boy.  He was killed two days before his birthday.“

I wasn’t as smart as Pa or Adam when it came to knowing the right words to say, but I did my best to bring comfort to a broken man.  By day’s end, he asked if I’d mind ridin’ by his place every now and then.  He said I’d been helpful in more ways than one and he’d miss me when I was gone.

“I’d like that, sir.”

*****

I unloaded the shingles and still had daylight to burn so I figured I’d get started.  Abram was pleased but assured me there was no rush to finish the job in one day.

“I’ll at least get the shingles hauled up on the roof and start taking the old ones off,” I said.  “There’s plenty of time before supper and besides, I need to earn my keep.”

“It’s your choice, Joe.  Ladder’s behind the barn.”

He was a man of few words, but I thanked him before stripping off my jacket and gunbelt and throwing them in the back of the buckboard.  An hour later, I had the shingles hauled to the roof and by suppertime, when he insisted I quit for the day, I had half the old boards removed and loaded back into the buckboard so I could carry them away from the house to burn.

“I thank you kindly for the salt and sugar you brung, Joe.  Guess I’d learned to live without after Sonny died.”  Abram half-smiled.  “Even though my boy was as skinny as a post, he never could keep from snitchin’ the sweetenin’.”

“Sounds like my brother, Hoss.  I’m not sure he could go a day without sugar but I have to admit Abram, I like a little sugar in my coffee and a little salt in my stew.”

The stew he sat on the table was meatless.  Potatoes, carrots and onions—and of course, we both added salt—but I wondered if this was a normal meal for Abram.  Meat prices were high and, although we never went without at any meal Hop Sing served, I suppose many families did.

I’d never had call to do without; Pa made sure we were fed and housed properly, and I was just beginning to see how the other half lived.  Sonny was always a thin kid but so was I, in fact; I was just now starting to put meat on my bones.  Would Sonny have too or was his situation that different from my own?  Had he always wanted more but was forced to live without?

“You remind me of my boy, Joe.  He was a lot like you.”

I put my thoughts of Sonny aside.  He’d been dead seven years and his father still grieved.

“Thank you, Abram,” I said.  “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“My boy always wanted better; he was never satisfied with the way things were.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I don’t know if you remember, but we was hog farmers back then—before Sonny was killed.”

“I remember.  We always bought from you.  Hop Sing used to make a monthly trip out to this place.”

“That’s right, he did.”

I’d nearly forgotten those days.  Now we bought from a supplier in town but for years, the Lancaster’s supplied us with bacon and ham and the best pork roast, according to Hoss, in all of Nevada.

“Why’d you give it up, hog farming, that is?”

Abram exhaled slowly.  “My boy didn’t want to be a hog farmer.  Said the kids at school made fun and called him names.  As much as his tales saddened me, what was I to do?  That’s how I made a living.  That’s how my father before me survived this wilderness we called home for the last thirty-some years.”

I nodded my head.  Abram was right.  Kids can be mean when they want, and Sonny and his father’s pigs were often the brunt of their jokes.

“We had a fight the night before Sonny rode into Carson and walked right into the middle of a bank holdup.  Said he was never comin’ back.  Said he was done raisin’ dirty ol’ pigs for a livin’ and he’d find work elsewhere.  I pleaded with him not to go away mad, but he was done listenin’ to his old man.  He said we’d been over this a hundred times before, and he was old enough to make his own way.  He planned to draw out his savin’s and move on to greener pastures, long as there weren’t no hogs livin’ on the land.”

My heart sank.  Abram was a good man and Sonny was a good kid.  How had they come to this fork in the road when all they had in this world was each other?

“Ben Cartwright might be the perfect father, Joe, but not every father knows how to handle certain situations.  Sons expect their Pa’s to be steadfast and all-knowing, but it ain’t always the case.  I shoulda listened to my boy; I shoulda heard him out.  I shoulda known how much he was hurtin’ inside, but I let my pride stand in the way.”

“Nobody’s perfect, Abram.  You did what you could to provide for you and your boy.  You had no way of knowing the bank would be robbed that day and Sonny would— well . . .”

“You’re right about most of it, Joe, but I blame myself for my boy’s death and I always will.  Sonny would be alive today if I’d listened; if I’d really heard what he was tryin’ to tell me.  Even with him gone, I still pray for forgiveness.  Does that make sense?  No,” he chuckled, “probably not.  I loved that boy.  Every day that goes by, I ask God to forgive me for not being the kind of father he needed when times got rough.  It weren’t his fault we didn’t see eye to eye, but that’s not what mattered.  What mattered most was that he left here mad.  He never gave me a chance to settle up our differences.  I never got to say goodbye.”

I turned my head away.  I couldn’t look at Abram.  My stew had turned cold and my appetite was gone.

“Excuse me,” I said weakly.  “I better check the stock.”

“Joe?  Wait!  Don’t rush off.”

“I’ll be back.”

The air had cooled and I walked toward the buckboard to retrieve my jacket and hat.  Was Pa suffering as much as Abram Lancaster?  No, I wasn’t dead but I was as good as, and I’d told him so in the letter.  I can’t be your son anymore.  I’ll find my own way.  The words I wrote had been harsh; I meant them to be harsh, to hurt, to strike back at the one person who’d doubted me—my father.  Consider me dead.  I won’t be coming back.

The words had come so easily on paper—hurtful words that would hurt my father the same way he’d hurt me.  It wasn’t just the trial and Pa believing I could have killed Horace, it started much earlier.  We’d had words after Sally’s death.  I knew Horace was to blame and I told Pa how I felt about the bank clerk having something to do with her death.  I hadn’t forgotten those words either.

“It’s just the way I feel,’ I’d said.

“The way you feel?”  Pa repeated my words with sarcasm clear in his voice.  “You accuse Horace because of the way you feel?”

Pa hurt me then too.  At a point when I was desperate for answers, my father mocked my gut feeling.  He forced his own opinions about laws and why we have laws and how justice would be served.  He wouldn’t listen; instead, he preached his own brand of wisdom and my mind began shutting down.  My grief burned like a raging wildfire and overpowered anything else my father had to say.

When I was arrested for murdering Horace, and because of that brief but bitter conversation, Pa just assumed I’d gone after him, that I’d kill the man because—in my gut—I believed he’d murdered my fiancée.  But now, it all made sense.  He’d heard my words loud and clear, and considering what I’d said— “It’s just the way I feel.” —Pa rushed to judgment.

I nearly chucked at my newfound discovery.  My father was acting more like Joe Cartwright than Ben Cartwright. “Think before you act.”  Wasn’t that what he’d preached my entire life?  Did Pa’s gut feeling override his own common sense?

That’s why he never came to the jail to visit.  That’s why he’d sent Hoss in his stead.  He had doubts, and why wouldn’t he?  Why wouldn’t anyone with half a brain in his head believe I’d done the unthinkable?

Pa knows my temper.  He knows how much I can take before I break and do something I’ll regret.  My God.  The way I’d phrased my words had been nothing to Pa but a full-blown confession of guilt.

I headed back toward the house.  My head was clearer now, and I wasn’t going to end up a casualty like Sonny and have Pa suffer regrets for the rest of his life.  I had to make things right.

“There’s something I have to do,” I said to Mr. Lancaster.  “I’ll be back later tonight, and I’ll work on that roof first thing in the morning.”

“Was it something I said?”

“No,” I lied then smiled at Abram.  “Actually, yes it was.”

I didn’t take time to explain.  As Hoss would say, our dirty laundry was our own business.  I saddled Cochise, grabbed my gunbelt, and rode north toward the lake where my ma was buried.  I had my own confession to make.

*****

By dusk, the wind had picked up and autumn leaves flitted across the road in whirling rushes, spooking Cochise into an uneven gait.  As light faded, leaving the sky an inky black, he seemed steadier and more sure of himself, but I kept a tight rein.  I adjusted my hat farther down on my forehead and pulled the collar of my jacket tighter together.

Lightning flashed and thunder sounded like canons battling above me.  A storm was moving in fast.  My mind flashed to the old shingles I’d removed at Lancaster’s place, but it was too late to compensate for my eagerness now.  I’d finish the job tomorrow and hope Abram wasn’t dripped on before the night was up.

Cooch snorted his discontent at being out on a night like this; I patted his neck and talked freely until he settled and we continued down the road.  The promontory wasn’t much farther.  Another bright flash illuminated the sky and, with the next roll of thunder, my father’s voice sounded in my head.

“Joseph, get inside now.  Don’t be a fool.”

But I didn’t turn back.  I pulled up next to Mama’s grave and tied Cooch to a low-lying scrub.  Maybe I had no sense at all, but my mother had been waiting a long time for me to come to my senses.  It was time to forgive my father.  I knelt down on one knee and placed my hand on top of the smooth granite stone.

“It’s me, Mama,” I said softly.  “I’ve certainly made a mess of things.  I guess you’re used to hearing me say that, but I really messed up this time and it’s taken me a while to think things through and work it all out in my head.

“All this time, I thought—well, you probably already know, but Pa isn’t the bad guy I made him out to be.  I know why he doubted me, and I’m ashamed to say, I ran off—I left the Ponderosa, and I left Pa a letter I never should’ve written.

“I wrote some pretty awful words, and I’ve gotta get home and make things right before—well, if anything happened while Pa and I were at odds, I’d never forgive myself.

“You know how much I loved Sally and I suppose I wasn’t—or I didn’t explain myself to Pa the way I should have but after the trial . . . I carried such a deep hurt inside that I let it build and fester until I couldn’t remain in the same house anymore.

“I’m not sure how I’ll make it up to him.  I don’t know what I can say that will convince Pa I don’t blame him for thinking the worst.  Help me, Mama.  I don’t know what to do?”

“You needn’t do anything but come back home, son.”

The shock of Pa’s voice frightened me and I fell backward, landing flat on my butt.  My legs sprawled in front of me, and my hat toppled from my head.  My heart beat like a drum and my thoughts scattered like the leaves swirling around me.

“How—how long have you been here?”  My voice was shaky and barely above a whisper.

“Long enough, Joseph.”

“Where’s Buck?  I didn’t see him when I rode up.”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I guess not.”  I stood, reached for my hat, and brushed off the seat of my pants.  “Why are you here?”

“I took a chance you’d be here too.”

“You heard everything I said?”

“Yes.”

Pa stood on the slope just above me and when I started up the hill, he stepped forward to meet me halfway.

“The letter . . .” I let my voice trail off.

“The letter isn’t important, son.

“But it is, Pa.  I never should’ve—“

“Joe—“

“I didn’t mean any of it Pa, not really.  I was angry and the words came easy, but I never should’ve written any of those things.”

“Let’s just say we all make mistakes.”  Pa reached for my shoulder; he gripped tightly.  “Do you want to know my biggest fear?”

“Fear?”

“A father worries, Joe; a father has fears, and I let mine overrule my common sense.  I believed the worst, and that’s where I failed us both.  I wasn’t there when you needed me most and for that, there’s no apology to fit the crime.”

This wasn’t right.  I’m the one who should have been apologizing, and all I was hearing was my father’s confession, that this string of events had been his fault, not mine.

“You didn’t fail me, Pa; you’ve never failed me.”

“Oh, but I did, son, and I won’t accept your forgiveness until I’m able to forgive myself.  I wasn’t the father you needed, and you’ve paid the price every hour of every day because of my shortcomings.  I made you feel less a man and you leaving the Ponderosa was inevitable.  I only pray that, in time, we can salvage the relationship we once had.”

Guarding my emotions was impossible and I fell into my father’s arms.  His warmth surrounded me, and the biting chill I’d felt for so long was quickly removed from my heart.  Tears blurred my eyes but I refused to wipe them away.  I held tight to my father; I didn’t want to break the hold.

His eyes mirrored mine and it wasn’t long before we both broke the silence with laughter.  We’d found what we’d been searching for all this time—forgiveness, and a renewed faith in each other would lead us back where we belonged.

I respected my father like no other, and it was my own doing when I put Pa on a pedestal so high he was bound to fall.  No man is perfect, not even Ben Cartwright but from now on, we’d work through the difficult times together. No more running.  No more letters written in anger.  No avoidance when we should be sorting things out.

“I have a job,” I said.  “I need to finish the work I’ve started before I can come home.”

In the darkness, I could barely make out Pa’s features, but I think he nodded his head.

“I’m working for Abram Lancaster.  He’ll be expecting me by morning.”

“I’ll let your brother know as soon as he returns home.”

“Hoss?”

“He’s out looking for you,” he said softly.

“Looking for me?”

“He’s pretty upset with me right now.”

“You told him?”

“I let him read the letter.  I had to explain.”

We were both silent until I found the words I needed.

“It’s all my fault, Pa.  I overreacted and I—“

“Joseph—” Pa stepped farther down the slope so we were eye to eye.  He slipped his hand around the back of my neck and held tight.  “It’s over.  Nothing more needs to be said.”

I closed my eyes and for a second time tonight, I let Pa’s gentle touch fill my heart and touch my soul.  I knew where I belonged; I needed that feeling of home more than I craved a spoonful of sugar or a pinch of salt.

*****

I woke the following morning to find Hoss sitting on Chub in the front yard of Lancaster’s place.  I’d taken up residence in the loft, and I rubbed my eyes hard at the site of my big brother waiting for me to emerge from the barn.

“What’re you doin’ here?”  I asked.

“Came to help,” he said very matter-of-factly.

“Oh, okay, I guess.”

I scratched my head.  I hadn’t had my morning coffee and I was still reeling from the night before.  Hoss dismounted and clapped me on the shoulder.  Although he was trying to hide a smile, I could tell he and Pa had talked last night and straightened things out between them.  Hoss never stayed angry for long, in fact I usually didn’t either until this time.  This time I’d been stepped on and crushed, at least that was my way of thinking until a near stranger pointed me in the right direction.  I looked up at Hoss, who was staring at the roof I’d started yesterday.

“Thought we’d get the job done faster if I pitched in to help,” he said.

“That we would,” I replied, happy to have my brother by my side.  “But I can’t do a dang thing till I’ve had a cup of coffee.”

“Then what’re we waitin’ for?”

I shook my head and chuckled.  There was nothing like a big brother to get the day started in high fashion.  “Well, come on.  I’ll even let you gather the eggs.”

By lunchtime, new shingles had replaced old, and the old had been burned out behind the barn and, with my brother’s help, the small, two-room house had a fresh coat of paint before the sun set that evening.  Not only did Hoss and I take pride in our accomplishments, Abram seemed a different man.  He stood back and smiled as his eyes roamed across the shiny white clapboards.

“You boys are hard workers,” he said.  “’Course, this is more’n I ever expected for a day’s work.”

“I’m glad you’re pleased, Abram, but my time here is finished.  I’ll be movin’ on now.”

“I figgered as much.”

“You did?”

“I did, son.  You see, every man needs a break sometime in his life.  Sonny needed a break from hog farmin’, and I been takin’ a break ever since my boy rode into Carson City and never rode home.  You’ve given me somethin’ back, Joe.  You too, Hoss.

“You boys’ve given me my life back.  I been mopin’ ‘round this place not caring much about anything.  But when I stand back and look at this house, I see how just a little effort can make a world of difference.”

A little effort?  Hoss and I worked our tails off.

“What happens now?”  I asked Abram.

“I think I’ll buy me a couple of hogs—husband and wife, you know—and go from there.”

“That’s great.  Make sure we’re your first customers.”

“I’ll do that, Little Joe.  Oh, I almost forgot.  I owe you wages.”

I raised my hand.  “No, not this time, Mr. Lancaster.  You gave me something too, something I needed, and it was worth a lot more than a few coins janglin’ in my pocket.”

“That ain’t fair, Joe.  You boys worked too hard to walk off empty handed.”

“Maybe so, but I learned exactly what I needed to know.”  Glancing at Hoss, I snapped my fingers when a thought crossed my mind.  “How ‘bout we get the first slab of bacon from your smokehouse—free of charge?  Deal?”

“You got a deal, Joseph.”

“Good.  Then we’ll be on our way.  You take care, Mr. Lancaster.”

“You boys do the same.”

*****

“This ain’t gonna be an easy ride, Joseph.”

“Yeah, well, I want to get home tonight.”

“All right, but don’t go flyin’ home like the devil’s on your tail.”

“Trust me, Hoss.  You know me better’n that.”

The moon drifted in and out from behind the clouds, and the ride was difficult.  It took us twice as long than if we’d ridden during daylight hours, but Pa was expecting us and I wasn’t about to disappoint.  With Hoss helping with the shingles and paint, we finished the job twice as fast as I would have alone.

As we rode, I reflected on the events that created another milestone in my life.  How often we’re caught unaware, and how often we’re lead down a difficult path.  My father meant the world to me and, at some point in my life; I’d convinced myself he could do no wrong.  Pa was my hero—all knowing, law-abiding, fearless, confident, and unmatched by any other man I knew.  But I was wrong.  My father was only human.  He wasn’t God; he didn’t pretend to be God.  He wasn’t all-knowing.  He wasn’t perfect.  He’s a man who struggled every day to be the best he could be.  The best father, the best employer, and the best citizen the state of Nevada has ever known.

Growing up on the Ponderosa, I had everything I’d ever needed and wanted.  Abram Lancaster had nothing in comparison, but what he taught me about life was invaluable.  He opened my eyes to the “what ifs” and I didn’t want Pa and me to end up with regrets for the rest of our lives.

As we closed in on home, my forever home, the place where my spirit soared, I could almost smell the coffee drifting through the house while Pa sat in his leather chair pretending to read.  The crackling fire would bring him warmth until his sons were home and we were safely together again.

Hoss and I stabled and fed our mounts and walked toward the house where lamps burned bright to welcome us home.  As we crossed the yard, my brother’s arm lay heavy on my shoulders until I opened the front door and walked inside.

“Hey, Pa.  We’re home.”

***The End***

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2 thoughts on “Too Young to Die – Book 2 (by jfclover)

  1. Great follow up to your “Justice” story. Struck just the right chord between action and introspection with some astute character observations along the way.

    Like

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