Summary: This is a story that takes place after Hoss has died although much of the story features Hoss in memories Ben has before the story switches to the time immediately after his death. Although that sounds quite sad, the end result is to try to take something of great sorrow and find the silver lining in that dark cloud.
Word Count: 3602
Chapter 1: Paying Respect
It was one of those days that Ben could remember so well. Spring was in full bloom with the promise of summer wafting in on every warm breeze. Staring at puffy white clouds with Hoss and Little Joe, Ben felt some of the heaviness in his heart lift finally. Almost a year since they had lost Marie, in a short time, they would be losing another if only for four years as Adam would be leaving to go to college in the east. However that thought brought some of the heavy feeling back because for the past few weeks, Adam had been inexplicably irresponsible. Late for meals, missing deadlines, and forgetting chores he had promised to do, he had not been able to give any kind of satisfactory answer any time Ben had questioned him about any one of the incidents. Instead, Adam had been evasive and almost defensive making Ben suspicious, but he didn’t know of what. He had tried to give him one more chance that morning to explain himself, but he had stood silent as usual and refused to answer. So Ben had been forced to issue his ultimatum, which he already regretted to some extent.
“If you cannot explain yourself, then you will stay here and catch up on the work you have missed while I take the boys on a picnic to the lake as promised.”
At that point, he had seen something in Adam that looked like he wanted to explain or at least ask to come with them, but then the mask slid over those patrician features of his and there was no communication. He had only said he hoped they had a good time although the words were said without emotion in that flat tone he used when he didn’t want to give anything away at all. His oldest son was a puzzle to him most of the time. He knew that if he had included him in the outing, he would have had the best chance of drawing out what was troubling him or going on in that labyrinth of his mind. He regretted that in his anger he had forgotten that and had missed a wonderful opportunity. At least he had a good day with his two younger sons even if it was interrupted by thoughts of the one who was missing.
“Well, that’s enough of staring at the clouds trying to guess what they are. We should get going to the lake for our picnic.”
Hoss looked nervous but made a request. “Pa, can we stop by Marie’s place first?”
“Son, that’s a good idea. We can say a prayer there before we go have our lunch.”
They made their way to the site and found all the brush cleared away so the view to the lake was open. The spot had been landscaped too with bright spring flower plantings, rose bushes that were just budding out, and a stacked stone bench to one side. Hoss and Joe stood and stared shocked at finding what to them appeared to be a formal garden in the midst of the Ponderosa. Hoss found his voice first.
“Pa, who done this?”
“I think your older brother could tell us that.”
“Yeah, Papa, Adam can tell us. He’s smart. He’s going to go to a big school.”
Sitting then on the stone bench, Ben pulled Little Joe up on his lap and made sure there was room for Hoss to sit beside him. “No, what I meant was that I think Adam did all of this. He wanted to honor your mother and give us all a place to come to talk to her that was very special.”
“Dadburnit, Pa, he works all day. How’d he find time to get all this done?”
“You know how he’s been late a lot for the last few weeks. My guess is that he’s been coming here and doing some work every day that he could.”
“But you punished him for doing that then.”
“Yes, I punished him because he wouldn’t tell me where he was and why he was late every day.”
Little Joe was listening as Hoss frowned and had another question.
“But I hear ya tell Adam he’s a man now and he’s gotta act like a man, but when he does, then you punish him like he’s a boy. I’m confused, Pa.”
“Don’t you start talking like that too. I hear enough of that from your older brother.” Hoss dropped his head and Little Joe did too and moved several feet to the side as well unwilling to get a scolding by being in proximity to Hoss at that point. Ben noted both boys’ responses and knew he had to do something especially Hoss who had a way of getting to the heart of the matter and putting it in simple terms. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, and I’ll apologize to Adam too when we get home. This was a very nice surprise for us.”
“Pa, maybe we could go back and have our picnic out back behind the house in the trees by the stream out there. Mama used ta like having picnics with us out there and then Adam could be with us too.”
“Hoss, that is a very good idea. You’re quite a good thinker. Little Joe, do you like that idea?”
“Sure. I like having picnics no matter where they are.”
So they had gone back to the house and done that. It was a wonderful memory. One that Ben recalled well and often. He had another memory of Hoss he liked to remember. It was a conversation they had about the future and doing good that could make an impact on the lives of others.
Chapter 2: Doing Good
“Pa, in this world, there’s so much that’s no good that I want to say that when I’m done passing through, I’ve added some good and not done nothing to add to the misery any folks feel. Ifn I cain’t do good, then I guess I shouldn’t do nothing at all.”
“Hoss, don’t you think sometimes hard choices force us to do things that otherwise we would rather not do?”
“I guess maybe that could happen, but seems to me ifn we tried harder, we could always have found a better way, one that woulda done no harm, dontcha think?”
“I don’t know. I’m remembering those sheepherders who took Adam hostage. I know I didn’t handle that well, but, honestly, even if I had gotten the sheriff, that bunch was trouble. Maybe they would have hurt Roy if he had gone out there to try to move them on.”
“Pa, we had more than a hundred men working for us at the time. Ifn we had shown up with a force to be reckoned with, they woulda moved on peacefully especially if you had given permission for them to take that shortcut across our land.”
Bristling at that, Ben wanted to retort quickly but forced himself to hold back and think about it. He knew that some of his neighbors had turned to raising sheep on their rougher pastures especially at the higher elevations and had found that it was a myth that they destroyed the grass. As long as they were moved to where there was enough to eat, they did eat the grass lower than what cows did, but his neighbors had found that they could move sheep into a pasture that cows had already grazed and the sheep could graze successfully. When he finally responded, he noted the small smile Hoss couldn’t hold back. “Yes, you’re probably right about that.”
“Yeah, it can be hard to see things straight when we’re mad. Happened to me too. Ifn I’d a talked to Adam before I hit him instead of the day after, I woulda known what happened with Regan. I still wouldn’t have liked him interfering like he did, but I woulda understood what happened.”
“You’re a very forgiving man, Hoss.”
“It’s what we’re supposed to do, ain’t it, Pa? Ifn we want it from folks, we gotta give it to ’em too. I shur would hate it ifn people held every little thing I ever did wrong against me. I try to forgive and forget ‘cept the forgettin’ can be a mite hard at times.”
“I can understand that. You would have to be a saint to forget all the wrongs that have been done to you.”
“They all make us what we are, don’t they, Pa? I wouldn’t be who I am without all that’s happened. I guess I learned something from each and every one of them.”
“Yes, you did, Hoss. Yes, you did.”
Ben put his hand on the large pine box and dropped his head as the memory of his blue-eyed son with the infectious smile and booming laugh filled his heart. He had been reliving each and every conversation he could remember having with Hoss wanting to imprint them on his mind so he could never forget. He remembered that day at the lake because now there would be a second stone there next to Marie, and a second reason to visit there and sit on that stone bench. It had been about that time that he began to appreciate that his middle son was wise. He was blessed with three sons with different kinds of intelligence. Adam was smart about planning, organizing, and evaluating, and could follow clues to a logical conclusion better than anyone he had ever met. Joe was talented in people skills able to understand almost any person and what was important to them. But it was Hoss who was wise and was had the most practical intelligence of the three. There were going to be many times when they were going to miss his special brand of smart.
When they went out to the lake to place him by Marie and say the words over him, it wasn’t going to be a new experience for Ben. He had done this three times before with his wives, but it was so much harder to bury a son. Yet the same thought was there. How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. I have the love of a son gone too soon. The tears came then as they had over and over since that terrible accident had taken his loving son from him. As he dropped to his knees and mourned the son he had lost, he gave thanks that he still had Joe and Jamie but worried about Adam who had not responded to the telegrams Joe had sent. He hoped that he would come home. He needed him now.
Chapter 3: Anger and Laughter
When Adam did finally make it home, it wasn’t the warm homecoming Ben had expected and prayed it would be. Instead, Joe seemed angry and upset with him even as Adam reconnected with his father and helped him heal the wounds of loss. Finally, Adam confronted Joe about their relationship.
“Joe, why are you so angry with me? I know I wasn’t here when Hoss died, but there was no possible way I could have known that was going to happen.”
“No, you haven’t been here for anything important.”
“It seems you’re angrier than that. We’ve had that argument before, and you were never this upset with me. I know you don’t understand that I wanted a life outside the Ponderosa, but I had thought you at least accepted it.”
“You’re right about me not understanding it, but it’s your life.”
“Then what has triggered this anger? You’re so mad that I feel you’re about ready to punch me every time you get near me.”
The fury in Joe was visible in his stance as well as his expression as Adam waited to see if he would let it out or if he would tell him the reason. He was ready to accept either. What his brother said though surprised him.
“I can’t stand your laughter.”
“You and Pa laughing with Jamie, telling him stories, and laughing. I hate it.”
“It’s disrespectful to Hoss. He’s gone. Don’t you have any respect for him at all?”
“I have tremendous respect for him. I always did and always will. He was one of the wisest men I ever knew. He had an ability to read men and understand them that few ever possess. He was the most honest and hard-working man the Lord ever created. But what does that have to do with us telling stories and laughing?”
“It’s just wrong!”
“Joe, memories are nothing more than ghosts that we let in. Don’t be afraid of them. The more we remember the good and happy times, the less the dark memories can hurt.”
“Pa and I tell those fun and happy stories about Hoss to remember him smiling and living well, and we’re trying to make sure that Jamie has that memory firmly set in his mind too. That way the dark thoughts have less hold on us and the sorrow won’t overwhelm us. The tears could drown me if all I thought about was losing him.”
“You’ve cried about it.” Joe had to admit that surprised him.
“Like a baby for probably a full day when I heard the news. I couldn’t seem to do anything at first. I’m sure that as I went out to make the arrangements for travel and to put my work on hold, people must have thought I’d been drinking with my watery rheumy eyes, the stubble, and my nose all red. My face was probably all blotchy too.”
“Oh, that paints a pretty picture.” Surprising himself, Joe found that he was smiling. He found it funny.
“A pitiful one. It’s why I have to think about all the good times, the happy times. Otherwise, I’d go to the dark place and stay there.”
Nothing was said for several minutes until Joe broke the silence in a quiet voice. “Maybe, I could tell a few stories too. Did you ever hear about us raising rabbits?”
“Pa did mention a little about that.”
For the remainder of Adam’s visit, there were many stories told and great laughter. At the conclusion of the visit, Joe thought they were all going to be somber and serious, but once more he was surprised. His father was smiling and Adam seemed quite jovial.
“I don’t know how you two can act like this is just a trip to a nearby town or city. He’s leaving again and who knows when or if he’ll ever be back.”
“Oh, I know. Adam told me this morning. We took a ride out to the lake and he made up his mind.”
“Made up his mind?”
“Yes, Joe, if you can stand it, I’m going but only long enough to take care of things. I plan to sell my properties and my shares of my business and move back here, back home.”
“You’re not kidding, are you? You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?”
“No, I’ve done those things I wanted to do. Now I want to be back with my family. I’ve missed enough; too much really.”
“Glad to have you back.”
Chapter 4: A Peaceful, Easy Feeling
The batwing doors slammed back and a dark dusty cowboy with a mean look strode into the saloon. For a moment, about twenty men looked worried but relaxed when they realized that Adam only had his eyes focused on one green jacketed smiling man who had his arm around a saloon girl and a beer in his other hand.
“I just finished driving fifty head of cattle out of that muddy slog and up over a dozen hills and brushy ravines to get them to a safe pasture. You rode right on by me and saw I was alone and didn’t stop to help!”
“Nope, Pa said my day was done when I finished fixing that section of fence. You didn’t help me with that.”
Exasperated, Adam took off his hat and slammed it on the table. “Of course not because instead of finding twenty strays, I found fifty. I couldn’t help you because I was too busy to help anyone. I was doing the work of two or three men, and I was alone.”
“But you’re done now. If I had known you needed help so badly, I would have sent someone to help you.” Rolling his eyes, Adam dropped into an empty chair. “Tell you what I will do, Adam, I’ll buy you a cold one.” Smiling his most charming smile at the saloon girl, Joe made his request. “Darling, could you please go get my grumpy older brother a tall cold one. He needs it.”
“Why do you have to be so lazy?”
“Lazy is such an ugly word. I prefer to call it selective participation.”
Blowing his breath out forcefully, Adam didn’t say what he wanted to say because the saloon girl was back with his beer half of which he gratefully drank in one long gulp.
“Now, older brother, I’ve got a peaceful, easy feeling, and I know you won’t let me down.”
“You really have no idea what I’d like to do?”
“Like to do or ought to do, now that is the question.”
“I thought you didn’t like Shakespeare.”
“I don’t, but you do, and I’m being charming.”
“Charming as a snake oil salesman.”
“Now what is snake oil? It’s something that makes you feel good. I make you feel good, don’t I? I mean, you came in here looking meaner than a Mojave sidewinder, and now you’re relaxing and even thinking about smiling.”
“I’m not thinking about smiling.”
Except Adam couldn’t help it with the look that Joe had as he leaned down to study his brother’s mouth. He had to laugh even if it was at his brother and not in true merriment. However that was enough to get Joe giggling.
“Oh, no, not that cackle. I’ll buy you a drink if you’ll stop.”
Immediately Joe sat up sober as a judge with his back as straight as a soldier on review. “Yessir, Adam, sir. Ready for that drink now.”
There was no possible way for Adam to stay serious then. He had to grin.
Four hours later, two happy, slightly inebriated brothers arrived at home. Jamie announced it to their father.
“Pa, they’re back, and you’ll be happy to know they’re not fighting today.”
Wisely, Jamie thought it best not to explain what they were. He thought he would let their father discover that for himself.
“Well, it’s late. I think I better get up to bed. I got an early day tomorrow.”
That’s when Ben knew something was wrong. He got up from his chair and headed out to the stable to see his two older sons but stopped in the yard when he heard them singing. It was off-key and even Adam’s wonderful baritone voice didn’t sound very good. He guessed it was well lubricated with alcoholic beverages. It had been weeks of the two men bickering and trying to find their way back to a working relationship. More than once, Ben had offered up some prayers that God send a guardian angel to guide them to a peaceful resolution to their squabbling. He even made the suggestion that perhaps a good guardian angel for his two sons would be Hoss. He couldn’t imagine who could be better at that job as Hoss had done something like it when he had been alive.
That morning, Ben had asked Adam and Joe to complete a couple of tasks separately thinking some time apart might help. Somehow though, it seemed they had gotten together and finally found some common ground. Listening to more singing of bawdy songs from the stable, Ben turned and headed back to the house deciding that Jamie had made a wonderful decision. Because Adam and Joe had managed to get home safely and were caring for their horses, he trusted they could get to the house and up to bed on their own too. He guessed they would all be sleeping better this night for the first time in a long time. Looking up to the stars in the heaven before he went to bed, he thanked Hoss. He guessed Hoss must have had something to do with it if the two had settled their differences by having beer in a saloon.
“That’s my, boy, Hoss. You always did know how to get those two to settle things.”
For the first time since Hoss had been gone, that night, Ben had warm memories of his son without that horrible pain of loss darkening his dreams. In the morning, he pictured Hoss smiling as he watched over Adam and Joe drinking in the saloon and then riding home singing those terrible songs. From this point on, he guessed he would always think of Hoss that way, as a presence there with his other sons and smiling that beautiful gap-toothed smile of his with those bright blue eyes watching over them.