Summary: A dying man’s last thoughts, a family’s grief…and a glimpse of hope? This is a play with possibilities, with realities, with what-ifs and AUs.
Rated: PG (Warning: character death)
Word Count: 1400
The Minie ball hits him straight in the chest. He can feel his life run out of him even before he looks down to inspect the red flow.
It’s not completely unexpected, yet for some reason he’d thought he would not die in this war. He was prepared to fight for…well, he can’t remember right now what for, but he knows it’s something important. Something that would make a change, that would make this land a better place. His land a better place. His land, his…
If he’s completely honest, for the last couple of days he’s been fighting only to live. Has killed to avoid being killed, has acted on the most primary instinct: the will to survive. All those superior motives have blurred, have faded until they have become invisible.
He sinks onto his knees, then falls on his side. No, he didn’t expect to really die. Not yet, and not in such an undignified manner: he is lying in a sluggish mud made by heavy boots on dry soil saturated with blood. Soon his blood will be absorbed by the earth, too.
He’s surprised that he feels no fear, even though he’s not sure he’s actually going to meet his maker. Even a great nothing would be better than the hell he’s been slogging through these last days, weeks, months—ever since he’s enlisted in the Federal Army. He doesn’t even try and staunch the blood flow. It would be futile anyway, and he sees no reason to prolong the inevitable.
His only regret is that he will never see his family again, and that, of course, he failed to tell them how much they mean to him before he went away. He feels guilty that while his ordeal will end soon, their suffering will last much longer.
Then the world crumbles at the edges, fades out and gets overly bright; his vision narrows and widens; he sees nothing at all—and everything at once.
For a very long time Ben still thinks Adam will come home, despite the fact that they don’t hear a word of him for more than two years. Then the war is over, the Union has won, Adam will return.
It’s late August already when Ben finally realises that his firstborn will not come home. Ever. He squares his shoulders and supports them all: his remaining sons, Adam’s wife and child. He finds comforting words, offers a broad chest to cry on, and a faith so strong that those who are in danger of losing theirs can feed upon it.
Only late at night, when the others are asleep, he falls to his knees and demands to know why, why, why?
People keep telling Joe his brother is a hero because he died making this land a better place. Joe thinks his brother was a hero all his life, and that he had succeeded in making this world a better place long before he enlisted in the Federal Army.
He thinks that the world is a poorer place without Adam, and he knows Adam would agree that there’s more needed now than just new laws to really free folks. He tries to act like his brother would and crusade for making people live those new laws rather than just acknowledge them.
He misses Adam. Hoss is his friend, someone who understands his jokes and his carefreeness, and Pa’s always there for him if he has a problem; yet he still misses Adam. He even misses their fights—those the most, actually. Quarrelling with Adam had been annoying, irritating, healing, and educational.
Instead of clashing with Adam, he fights with his sister-in-law, these days. It’s not quite as rewarding, for Juliet’s tongue is every bit as sharp as Adam’s but she’s less patient, and not as generous in forgiving as he had been.
More and more Hoss steps into Adam’s shoes. Of course, he’s a different Older Brother than Adam had been, but he has learnt to fill the roles of Pa’s confidant and Joe’s teacher, of Juliet’s anchor and Henry’s…surrogate father.
At one point he asks Juliet to marry him. He dreads her answer, and is almost relieved when she politely rejects his proposal. She tells him she loves him, but not in that way, and that he shouldn’t fear: she will never take Henry away from him or from the Ponderosa.
He has to shoot Adam’s horse one fine spring morning after old Sport breaks his leg, and it’s the worst thing he’s ever done. He cries a river before Henry finds him and sits down next to him and just takes Hoss’s hand. They don’t speak. They don’t have to.
Henry is very much his parents’ son: he’s got a bright spirit, a great hunger for knowledge, a sharp wit and great compassion. But he has also the ability to open up completely to other people, to invite others to open up, and to allow everyone their weaknesses—and that makes Hoss immeasurably proud.
Juliet copes. Every day afresh, every day again. Contrary to what people tell her, time does not heal her wounds. The grief remains raw and ripping. Adam is her first thought at waking in the morning, and her last before she falls asleep at night. She hears his voice in the wind in the trees, in the waves of the lake, in the crackle of the fire in the great room.
When she closes her eyes she sees his face, and sometimes she never wants to open them again.
She has her family, a home, her son. She has her work at the Territorial Enterprise, she has her writing—what would she do without paper and a pencil? She has success as an author, having finally published her first novel.
She has a life, on the outside. In the inside, she just copes.
Hoss has been the closest thing to a father Henry ever had. His real father has never been more than a fading photograph to him, stories ranging from maudlin to hilariously funny, grief on his grandfather’s face and a smile on his mother’s.
Now Henry is twenty, and for the first time in his life he feels like a fatherless child.
He wants revenge, also for the first time in his life, and it takes both his grandpa and his mother to keep him from riding out with Joe to find the men who’d extinguished the bright flame that had been Hoss Cartwright.
Grandpa, who’s never looked so fragile, says that his pa, Adam, wouldn’t want him to go after those men. That he’d never taken the law into his own hand, and fought everyone who’d tried to. Grandpa says that he has to look after his mother, that he has to stay safe because he’s the only thing his mother has left of her husband.
Mama says Hoss wouldn’t want him to jeopardise his life for cheap revenge, and that he’d pay back Hoss’s kindness and love quite badly if he just threw everything Hoss has ever taught him about justice in the wind.
He doesn’t go.
For reasons he doesn’t fully understand his tears that night are for two men, neither of whom had really been his father.
Canon fire startles him out of his visions. The pain returns with doubled intensity, the weakness, too, and the knowledge that he won’t last. He wills the acknowledgement of reality away and slips back to that place where he has a companion and a descendant. His last conscious thought is that perhaps things would have been different if he indeed had had a wife and child in real life.
“Don’t go. Don’t leave us.”
She has the baby in her arms. Henry sleeps and wrinkles his nose while dreaming; and Juliet looks down at him and smiles and then up at Adam and whispers, “Please.”
He stays because he can’t leave them alone. He loves them too much; and there will be other ways to fight for what is right—and he isn’t blind to what he’s been given.
He stays, and he loves and is loved. And so it remains for ever.
All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. ~ Edgar Allan Poe
A/N: With my heartfelt thanks to Sklamb for the beta-read. You’re amazing, my dear!