Summary: The outcome of Hoss’s untimely death was devastating – but none so much as for Ben Cartwright.
Rating: T (10,140 words)
Til the Day is Done
‘Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.’
The decanter of brandy clinked loudly in the stifling silence of the ranch house. The shadows of night were long and yawning like gaping wounds against the polished wood floors, colored only by the faint glow of silvery moonlight through a window.
Ben Cartwright, headed straight into a drunken stupor, found that he preferred the silence and the darkness. He appreciated the shadows more than anything else now because they hid the absence of part of his life; in the glaring daylight the empty spot at the table, the vacant bedroom, and the chair by the fireplace stood out far too much. From here at his desk and in the dark he couldn’t see those things.
At night he could fool himself into the fantastical.
At night he lived in a world where his middle son wasn’t dead.
He finished his third shot of brandy and attempted to place his glass back on the desk; in his stupor, however, he overshot the edge of the desk and let go too soon. Glass shattered everywhere on the floor as loud as a gunshot. Groaning Ben started to bend down to pick up the pieces when one of the upstairs doors opened and hurried footsteps stopped at the top of the staircase.
Ben didn’t glance up. “Go back to bed, Joseph. I merely dropped a glass.”
Soft footsteps descended the stairs and moved gingerly forward. “I’ll go to bed when I know there won’t be any stray glass for us to step on in the morning, Pa,” Joe replied, and the lamp on the far table flared to life with a warm orange glow.
Ben looked up sharply, his gaze sharpening even through the haze of alcohol. “Put that out!”
“You’ve gotta be able to see where all the pieces fell.” Drawn and exhausted-looking in the dim light, Joe Cartwright watched his father with a heavy heart, at a loss of what he could do to help. Since Hoss’s passing Ben had done little but stare into space during the day and drink at night. He had barely slept in days and refused sleeping powders, and his temper was frayed because of it. Having fought this particular battle for several days now Joe was nearing his wit’s end and collapse—he had no strength left to fight with his father. He bent down and stilled Ben’s hand as it gathered the glittering shards together. “Let me, Pa.”
Ben’s gaze was bordering unfriendly as he frowned down at his son’s head of untrimmed curls. “You’re supposed to be in bed.”
“I would be, but someone’s dropping stuff on the floor in the middle of the night.” A few weeks ago, Joe’s tone would have been light and jovial but too much had happened since then; now the response was terse and matter-of-fact. He wasn’t going to mention that it was nearly impossible to sleep now a days anyway, though—it wasn’t like Pa didn’t already know that. He finished gathering up the shards of glass in silence and stood with a low groan as his tired knees protested. “I’ll be back in a minute, Pa, then I’ll help you up to bed.”
“I don’t need to go to bed—I need to be left alone!”
But Ben’s temper was not the only one fraying. For days Joe had felt the silent effects of his own smoldering and he had been afraid that there would be an inevitable confrontation when they could no longer contain their pent-up emotions. ‘Oh, Lord, not now,’ he prayed, but he was like a spectator in his own body as he turned back to his father and allowed his frustration to voice itself. “What you need, Pa, is some help!”
Why were they shouting so? Anger would not solve anything between them—it would not bring Hoss back; and their raised voices would surely stir the sleeping Jaime and Hop Sing from their beds.
“Are you calling your father a weak old man, boy?” Ben’s voice was raised in a hoarse shout. His fist crashed against the top of his desk, making the decanter of brandy shudder. A headache born from his lack of sleep and too much alcohol was starting to pound at his head and only worsened his temper.
“I’ll assume that that’s the brandy talking,” Joe stated in a voice of ice, “since I haven’t been a boy for over ten years. You’re making yourself sick, Pa! Please, stop your drinking and come up to bed.”
“I will not. I can’t.” Very suddenly Ben looked and sounded very tired and very old. Hoss’s death had aged him like nothing else had.
Joe was in no mood to be sympathetic. “You’re not the only one who lost him, but you sure as hell are the only one behaving like a child right now!”
Gone was the tired old man; fury choking him of sound Ben reached out blindly and threw what he held at his son. The half-full decanter shattered on the far wall a foot above Joe’s head, showering him in drink and slivers of glass. Dodging it as best he could, ignoring the stinging of cuts the glass had made, Joe stared at his heaving father with wide eyes. Ben had never before thrown anything in anger at any of his sons before, nor had he ever struck them. This white-haired towering man so quick to anger now seemed less and less like the father he remembered.
For the first time in his life, Joe found he could truly fear Ben Cartwright. With the walls dripping drink and the decanter in pieces shimmering in the dark he snatched his gunbelt from the credenza and fled out the front door, desperate to escape the house that now seemed more a tomb than a safe haven.
The sun was shining through the windows in early morning when Ben roused himself enough to look at his surroundings. The soft golden rays of sunrise illuminated the handsome ranch house for the start of a new day. He groaned to himself as his body protested its awkward position and the amount of alcohol it had imbibed last night. His head felt fuzzy and full of cotton and he had to immediately reclaim his seat as he attempted to stand.
It was utterly silent in the house; the kitchen wasn’t bustling with Hop Sing’s bustling as he prepared the morning’s breakfast, nor was his voice raised as he talked to himself in Chinese. He heard nothing from Jaime’s room and wondered if the boy was still in bed.
What had happened last night? He could only recall bits and pieces; his glass shattering, Joseph coming to help him—
No. Not to completely help him. He could recall his son’s irritation with him as he tried to convince Ben to go to bed. Had they fought? Ben thought maybe they did but he could not be entirely sure.
No answer. Confused and uneasy, he lifted himself carefully up from the chair, gazing around. Then his gaze fell upon the credenza and he felt the breath leave his lungs as if he’d been punched in the gut. Glass glittered among a dried sticky puddle of brandy on the credenza and the floor below it and was splashed in great fat droplets on the walls. And abruptly Ben remembered every horrifying moment of the night before when he threw the decanter at his own son, breaking every unspoken rule he had ever made for his household as assuredly as he had the glass.
Soft footsteps padded close and Hop Sing walked into view where he had been silent in the kitchen; his expression was tight with disappointment. “Lit’le Joe not here,” he said shortly. “He leave last night after argue with father. Not home yet.”
Ben wrenched his gaze away from the mess with difficulty, white-faced. “I threw- my god, Hop Sing, what—?” His throat was closing up, shame roiling in his stomach. “What have I done?”
“Must apologize to number three son. You no comfort him last night—scare him badly. Rode to mother’s grave.” The little cook could see the effects of his words on the Cartwright patriarch, and although he still held some anger himself over the argument he had overheard his compassion softened his countenance somewhat. “Hop Sing clean up glass for Mistah Cahtlight.”
“No,” Ben said numbly. “No, Hop Sing, I’ll do it.”
Hop Sing could see the need in his old friend’s eyes. He nodded. “Hop Sing grab broom.”
Ben turned back to the mess on the wall and floor, his chest tight with regret and shame, and took a deep breath to steady himself. “Oh Hoss,” he whispered achingly. “We needed you here. I need you here.”
But of course there could be no answer to his plea. Graves could not speak, after all.
It was the first dry morning in nearly two weeks on the day the Cartwright’s lives shattered, the sun trying to pierce the thick and oppressive grey rainclouds shrouding the mountains. It was typical to have heavy rainfall this time of year but not so much of it, and Ben was exceedingly grateful that he had missed this year’s cattle drive. He was only just beginning to recover from a bout of influenza that had nearly turned into pneumonia, and although he had still been adamant on joining Hoss and Joe on their trip he had discovered on the morning of departure that all of his boots had mysteriously disappeared in the night and there were no extras to be found anywhere.
Joseph, of course, had had to hide a grin when Ben had demanded to know what had happened to them, but his green eyes danced with a familiar mischief that told the waiting father exactly what had caused all of those boots to disappear.
“Now, Pa, what makes you think someone took your boots at all? Maybe you misplaced ‘em and in your old age you forgot where you put ‘em?”
Feigning irritation was easy and all part of this age-old game between father and sons (Hoss was snickering where he sat but keeping mum as well) but he had to admit that Joe had done him a favor. Ben had a duty to his ranch but with a still-persistent cough he knew very well that he would have suffered on that cattle drive.
It had been nearly two weeks since they had left and Ben was eagerly waiting for his sons to return home. Maybe Joe was right and he was an old man who craved company. Jaime was an excellent distraction from his two older brothers’ absence—the boy had his own brand of mischief and could keep Ben on his toes—but it still stood that Joe and Hoss kept the Ponderosa alive with their love of fun and laughter.
He was just sitting down at his desk to catch up on some bookwork that he had left for the past couple of days when he heard the sounds of hooves approaching the yard. Frowning, Ben opened the front door and felt his heart freeze.
Micah Sherman, the Ponderosa foreman, rode slowly into view, hunched into his saddle—behind him the buckboard was driven by one of the hands. Joe sat hatless and wrapped in a blanket beside him, white-faced and dazed. It was clear the only thing keeping him upright was the back of the seat.
“Joe? Joseph!” Ben raced forward as fast as his suddenly-weak legs would allow and grabbed for his son’s hands, dismayed to find his skin cold and clammy. When he received no answer he took hold of Joe’s arms and shook him. “Joseph!”
Micah shook his head as he slid down off his horse, trembling. “He can’t hear you, Mr. Cartwright. He’s in shock. Has been since…” He trailed off, his eyes bright with unshed tears as he waved a hand helplessly towards the back of the buckboard. In a voice tight with grief he said shakily, “It were an accident, Mr. Cartwright. A stupid tom-fool accident.”
The meaning of those words took a long time to sink in; when they finally registered Ben realized with a faint heart that Hoss was not among the men, and Chubb was being led by rope from the back of the buckboard.
“No,” he moaned helplessly, unable to keep hold of Joseph. “No…” Stumbling weak-kneed along the side of the wagon he peered over the edge and saw a covered body laid there. He had no strength to scream.
His knees buckled and he remembered nothing else.
Paul Martin was summoned and arrived shortly after the men had come to Virginia City to deliver Hoss’s body to the undertaker, and walked into cold silence. The ranch hands had dispersed after helping Ben and Joe into the house, leaving the family to grieve.
It would be explained to him later that Joe had come to life with frightening violence after Micah got him to solid ground, screaming to be let go of and that he had to help his older brother, begging all the while for Hoss to be all right. He had fought every restraining hand and listened to no voice attempting to calm him, and ultimately they had had no choice but to knock him unconscious so that they could carry him inside. Ben had simply collapsed without a sound.
Concerned for the recovering father Paul saw to him first, worried that the shock of Hoss’s death had damaged his heart. But Ben’s pulse was strong even though he could do nothing but stare at Paul with wet, bewildered eyes the doctor hadn’t seen since Marie’s death; he didn’t protest the sedative that Paul gave him and never spoke a word as he drifted off into slumber in his bed.
Joe, when the doctor slipped into his room, was awake sporting a darkening bruise on his chin, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as he rocked back and forth on his bed. His clothes were damp and his hair was wet still from the river. His hazel eyes shone a brilliant green and were surprisingly alert as he looked up and met Paul’s gaze.
“Doc—” he choked out.
Paul’s heart twisted with pity and grief as he laid a gentle hand on the young man’s shoulder. Joe was trembling beneath his hold. “Oh, Joseph,” he murmured. “If I could spare you this grief I would.”
Joe didn’t stop his rocking. Tears were escaping his hold as reality brutally swept in. “Hoss is dead,” he sobbed. “I t-tried to get to him in time, D-Doc, but I—”
“Hush, Joe,” Paul interrupted gently. “You did your best. You did your best. Now, why don’t you help me get those wet clothes off and you can rest.”
Joe was still shocked enough that he obeyed the doctor without protest, shrugging out of his sodden jacket and shirt. “Pa,” he said suddenly. “Pa, is he—”
“Sleeping,” Paul said soothingly, stripping off the young man’s pants. “Your pa’s going to be fine.” Fine physically, the doctor thought sadly, but there was nothing he could do to soothe the agony of the spirit. In that moment Paul felt very much helpless.
Hop Sing came in at that very moment carrying a warm change of clothes and blankets as if he had read the doctor’s mind. “Lit’le Joe not get sick,” he said, helping Joe pull on a nightshirt. “No worry family.” It hurt the little cook’s heart to see his beloved number three son so damaged and the master so beyond himself. Gently, Hop Sing lifted Joe’s chin to meet his eye. “Mistah Hoss missed,” he said sadly. “Grief and tears much understood. But Mistah Hoss with great ancestors now. Mistah Hoss alright. Mistah Cahtlight alright. Lit’le Joe alright.”
Paul marveled at the Chinese man’s wisdom and understanding; clearly he had said the right thing because Joe reached up and grasped the little cook’s arm. Quietly he murmured a thank you in Hop Sing’s language before he fell back into his bed in exhaustion. Paul quickly filled a syringe and held it up for the young man to see.
“You need rest, Joseph,” he said quietly. “Even if it’s only a few hours.”
Joe was too weary and heartsick to put up a fight. “Do what you gotta, Doc.”
Silently Ben made his way to the barn, heartsick and tired. He dreaded facing his son and seeing judgment passed in Joe’s gaze for his actions last night. Jaime trailed behind him, fretting.
“Pa, you should be back in bed resting, it’s still too early for you to be outside—”
“I’ll be fine, Jaime. A trip out to the barn isn’t going to kill me.” Ben hoped that he wasn’t being too short with the boy but his focus was entirely on reaching the barn. It was well after breakfast and he had finally seen Cochise trot into the yard. It had been an hour and still Joe hadn’t come inside. He was determined to apologize to his son even if Joe was as equally determined to out-stubborn him.
Jaime shook his head in defeat, but he was secretly relieved that his adopted father was showing a stubbornness he had been sorely lacking recently. He knew what had happened between Ben and Joe the night before—it had been hard not to hear their raised voices—and his concern and worry for this family he loved so very much had only heightened. He had been raking the barn out the morning he found out about Hoss and he had been alerted of it by Joe’s screams; he had never been so frightened in his life by anything insomuch as the uncontrollable hysteria that had laced his brother’s voice and he had witnessed his mindless fighting as Joe fought tooth and nail to reach the back of the buckboard.
From a very young age Jaime understood what death was; in this land of the West it was hard not to. His mother he barely remembered and his father died when he was still considerably young—he knew what loss felt like. Hoss was the hardest loss he’d yet faced, but whether it was the resiliency of youth or something else he couldn’t guess but he was handling his grief better than his new-found father and brother were. It was Jaime and Hop Sing who had in the first few days taken care of both Ben and Joe until the latter had abruptly risen one day unable to stay still and silent any longer.
And now they had all found themselves here, licking wounds from tempers that had caused more damage than Jaime was sure could be healed.
The one who usually healed those emotional rifts was no longer there to bind their wounds.
There was only two shots of whiskey tonight—all Ben found that he could stomach. He had never been much of a whiskey drinker himself but he was loathe to touch brandy after what had happened last night. There would be no late-night visit from Joe tonight, however, of that he was sure.
Entering the barn he found Joe rubbing Cochise down in the pinto’s stall, studiously ignoring the sounds of his father’s footsteps.
The left hand paused over Cochise’s flank; compulsively the blunt work-roughened fingers formed a fist before slowly unclenching again. Joe’s head fell forward wearily. “Yeah, Pa?”
Ben suddenly felt very nervous, and utterly wrong-footed. These past weeks of grieving isolation had caused more damage than he had originally considered; his actions and the amount of time had been enough to create a tension between him and his son that had never existed before, and for once he was at a loss on how to fix it. He was still too tired and grief-stricken to be the comforter he was sure Joe needed him to be, and if last night had told him anything it was the fact that Joseph didn’t have the strength anymore to carry Ben through this.
“I- I was concerned when you were gone for so long, son.” His voice was hesitant. “Where did you go?”
Joe’s left hand resumed its brushing of Cochise’s coat. “Went to visit Mama.” His voice was clipped and almost unemotional—so much more like Adam Cartwright than Joe himself. Was this what Hoss’s death was turning Ben’s youngest son into? Quiet and closed-mouthed, always hiding his emotions behind a wall?
Ben’s heart ached knowing that his actions last night had made Joe seek refuge at his long-dead mother’s grave. Just bones now, he thought wildly, perhaps even dust… like Hoss—
He couldn’t continue the morbid, terrifying thought. He longed to place a hand on his son’s shoulder, to draw Joseph into his arms and assure him that everything would be alright in the end, that they had each other and that was all they needed… but his own heart stopped him before his fingers could so much as twitch. He was left floundering for words. “Please—son… Joseph, look at me.”
It took Joe a very long time to do as asked but he finally did. Ben’s mouth fell open in dismay. “Joseph—”
“It’s just a cut, Pa.” Hastily Joe raised his hand to his forehead, temporarily hiding the vivid red cut near his hairline from his father’s sight. “That’s all it is, just a cut.”
Ben’s mouth was tight. “The glass,” he said numbly. “It did that.”
Joe didn’t bother to deny it. “I went to Doc Martin’s,” he explained, not quite catching Ben’s eye. “He cleaned it up for me, and I’d planned on coming straight home afterwards but I fell asleep in his office—”
“It’s alright, son. I believe you. But the- the glass, it didn’t do any more damage, did it?” He was terrified of the answer.
Joe didn’t answer immediately but the anxious father saw his eyes flatten, and he didn’t stop his son when he was skirted around. Joe was halfway to the barn entrance before he finally stopped and considered what he could tell Ben. For a moment he was abruptly reminded of a dream he’d had following a brutal bushwhacking. He remembered the illuminated ranch house surrounded by stifling, choking darkness and the blurred, shadowy figure of his father standing on the porch beckoning him to come back home.
He remembered in that dream telling Ben how tired, how utterly exhausted fighting for the next breath he was.
He hadn’t gone to his father’s beckoning hands in that dream. He couldn’t do so now, either.
“Pa, answer me one question, and answer it honestly. All those years ago, when we were fighting over the Truckee Strip, and I pulled my gun on you—what did you feel in that first moment?”
Ben couldn’t quite grasp the reason why Joe would be bringing up that particular moment. “Joseph, I really don’t see why—”
“Just answer me, Pa.”
There was a sharpness to his son’s voice that effectively stopped Ben short. He was compelled to answer. “I- felt confused,” he answered slowly, almost choking on the words; they seemed to cut his mouth. “Angry. Scared, perhaps. And…”
“And, Pa? What came after ‘and’?”
“And I felt ashamed,” Ben whispered. “Of you, Joseph. Ashamed of you.”
His son didn’t turn around but those broad, sturdy shoulders slumped. In some odd way Joe felt himself wilt knowing the effect his reply now would have. “That’s the damage you did last night, Pa. And I don’t reckon you’ve ever quite got over that moment, either.” Without waiting for a reply he left the barn and his father’s presence, pressing his hand hard against his mouth to stem the tears he wanted to shed at the blow he had just so callously delivered.
Seated now at his desk in the dark, Ben bitterly asked again what he had done. Joseph’s last words to him in the barn said all too clearly that he was far from forgiving his father and Ben was at a loss on how to mend the rift between them.
The grandfather clock marked the three o’ clock hour as he finished the glass of whiskey, grief choking in its intensity as he wished again desperately for the son he had lost.
And as if answer, he heard through the darkness familiar footsteps walk along the solid oak floor, a steady and comfortable pace that signified a large man carrying a large weight. Ben would know those footsteps anywhere. How many times had he been able to lay in bed late at night and know which son was up and about after midnight just by the sound of their weight on the floorboards? Goosebumps raced down his arms and back as he straightened in his seat, suddenly wide awake and aware and wishing his eyes could see in the shadows.
He hadn’t spoken his middle son’s name more than once or twice in the days since he’d lost him. The one syllable seemed to hang in the air, vibrating as it waited for an answer.
“’Lo, Pa.” It was Hoss’s deep, warm voice that greeted him in the darkness. “Seems you’ve got yourself in a bit o’ trouble.”
Ben was speechless shaking where he sat, unable to process the impossible. In the dim moonlight he finally caught sight of his middle son standing before him—and he realized with a twist of his stomach that he could smell the dirty and putrid scent of a river swollen by runoff. Hoss was soaked; his clothes clung to his massive frame and dripped onto the floor and his thinning hair was plastered to his head. Abruptly Ben was struck by fear and he struggled to his feet. “You—Hoss, what—” His voice cracked with strain and disbelief. “You can’t be here…”
“You gotta let me go, Pa.” Hoss’s voice cut gently through his father’s questions. “You got a right to mourn, but you’re not movin’ on. You’re stuck on the day I drowned, and until you leave it, I’m gonna be in that river.”
Ben felt tears rise up and choke him once again. “Son—I try. It’s… hard.”
“You gotta go on, Pa. You ain’t gonna find any peace with that river, you know that. You’ve still got Joe and Jamie to take care of, and me… well, I ain’t gonna find rest ‘til you move on.”
Ben swallowed past the lump in his throat, wanting nothing more than to reach out and draw his son into his arms again—but of course that couldn’t be done. “I’ve lived with you boys longer than I did with all your mothers,” he whispered, grabbing the edge of the desk with white-knuckled hands.
“Be thankful for those years, Pa, but don’ waste the ones you have left. Not on my account. Please, Pa, watch over Joe and Jamie like you always have and let me climb outta that water to dry off—my clothes are awful wet!” Remarkably the gentle giant laughed quietly, easing his last words into a joke.
Equally remarkably, Ben found himself beginning to smile hearing it. Hoss could still laugh. He was still watching over his family he’d been forced to leave behind. “I’ll try, son. I surely will try.” It was all he could promise but it still seemed enough to please Hoss.
There was still one thing that Ben’s middle son needed to address—the most difficult thing. “You know Joe’ll forgive you, Pa, he loves you too much not to. But you need to work on forgivin’ him, too.”
The morning came quietly, a far cry from when Ben had sat in darkness a few hours earlier. He woke to Hop Sing’s hand gently shaking his shoulder.
“Mistah Cahtlight. Wake up, Mistah Cahtlight. Sun up long time already. Sons up and gone to work.”
The small cook’s words confused Ben and allowed him to wake up quickly. Sitting up he looked around and realized that he was stretched out on the settee and wrapped up in one of the blankets from upstairs. He had no recollection of laying down here but he felt surprisingly more rested than he had in a very long time, and his sore heart no longer throbbed quite so painfully. He just couldn’t remember why. Had Joseph come and helped him last night after all? But no—if it had been Joe, Ben would have found himself in his own bed.
Anyway, Joseph was not talking to him and hadn’t even spent the night in the house.
“Work?” he repeated, swinging his legs to the floor. “Where did they go?”
Hop Sing shook his head. “Lit’le Joe say they ride fence. Hole in north pasture line. Gone many hours. Not sure when they be back.”
His sons had left for the day, leaving Ben alone in the house. “But—Jamie has school,” he protested. “He can’t be out riding the fence all day—”
“Satuhday, Mistah Cahtlight. Jamie no school. Lit’le Joe ask brother go with him. Leave velly early.”
Ben stood, feeling his joints protest at the movement. It was growing harder and harder for him to stay up all night or sit in the same position for too long. “All right,” he murmured to himself. “Thank you, Hop Sing.”
“Hop Sing get coffee.” Satisfied that the other man was awake, the small cook headed off to the kitchen, then stopped abruptly as he spied what at first glance appeared to be a shadow. “Who track dirt into house?” he demanded. “Family know rules—why always testing Hop Sing’s patience? Go back to China where Hop Sing appreciated!” With a humph and continuing his rant in Cantonese he went back to pour his old friend’s drink.
Ben, however, felt his heart suddenly pause with realization that the water tracks marked by dry silt sat in front of his desk—exactly where he had imagined seeing his middle son just last night. A mix of grief and awe moved him wondering at the fact that Hoss had really been there speaking to him.
‘You’re stuck on the day I drowned… and until you leave it, I’m gonna be in that river.’
“Oh, Lord,” Ben murmured, looking heavenward for answers, “please help me. Help us. We’ve all been so far adrift since Hoss died. Help us.”
He needed the Lord’s strength to continue making it through each day, being unable to carry such grief on his own. It struck him suddenly that after all his wives had died he had been called a widower both at the gravesites and whispered along the streets of Virginia City especially so following his beloved Marie’s passing. But following Hoss’s death, he realized that no one could call him by any name that meant the loss of a child.
There was no word that could describe that type of anguish.
Hoss had been right telling Ben he still had Joe and Jamie to take care of. But the chasm between them had only seemed to grow the last few days—especially with Joseph—and he still didn’t know how to rectify it. Hoss’s wish for his father to forgive Joe sprang to the forefront of his mind but he didn’t know if he actually could.
Ben Cartwright was by no means a perfect man. He had faults like any other human being and had said and thought and done things that were even now sources of silent shame for him. But nothing cut him quite so deeply than his thoughts following Hoss’s death—especially since part of him still felt that way.
He had barely finished his coffee when rushing hooves in the yard caught his attention and walking to the front door he saw with a terrible lurch to his stomach that Jamie was galloping into the yard, windswept and breathless and calling for him.
Terror twisted Ben’s gut as he hurried out to his son. “What’s happened, Jamie? What’s wrong?”
The redheaded boy shook his head, trying to catch his breath. “It’s- Joe, Pa… tree fell where we were at. Cochise threw him.”
“Micah!” Ben bellowed. “Saddle my horse and follow us in the buckboard— and send David for Doctor Martin.” In five minutes Buck was saddled and ready and he was assured the buckboard would be hitched up not long after; Jamie led him in a near canter towards the pasture where he and Joe had been riding fence in, worrying about his older brother and fighting guilt that he’d had to leave Joe alone to get help.
Ben, for his part, was terrified of what he would find. Jamie had only said that Cochise had thrown Joe— a serious enough action on its own— but clearly something desperate had happened if he needed help.
When they finally reached the site of the downed tree, however, it was far worse than he could have imagined. The large limbs of the Ponderosa pine lay broken and wretched where it had landed on the fence, and he could spy his son’s pinto through the mess, trembling and snorting in his fear— and laying near the fence Ben saw Joe’s legs lying in view. When he walked close enough to see injuries, however, he couldn’t stifle his gasp.
Joe wasn’t lying near the fence— he was on it. Clearly the falling tree had spooked Cochise enough to make his son lose his seat and he’d fallen on the wire; barbed wire, the latest trick to prevent cattle from roaming too far from their grazing pastures. Blood was pooled beneath Joe’s back and right arm where the points had stuck him.
Ben crouched beside him careful not to jar the fence, frightened that if prodded the barbs could tear Joe up inside even more. His son was unconscious and as white as a sheet, and for a terrible moment the terrified father was sure that Joe wasn’t breathing.
“Joe!” Jamie was kneeling on his brother’s opposite side, reaching out with the unshakable assuredness of youth to grab hold of the loose left arm. “Joe, I’ve brought Pa. I’ve brought him just like you asked.”
Knowing that Joe had asked for his father even after all the things Ben had done and said the past few days sent a shiver of guilt down his spine. “Joseph.” Tenderly, his hand shaking, Ben reached out and smoothed back his son’s wayward curls, relieved beyond words when he felt warmth beneath his fingers. Joe didn’t stir at all. Jamie looked up at him, frightened and needing Ben to assure him things were going to be okay, but his father could only swallow and try to hide his own fear. Dear God, he couldn’t lose his son. Not now.
“Jamie,” Ben spoke quietly, barely able to hide the trembling in his voice, “we’re going to need Micah immediately. Get him now and make sure he has a blanket.” Before the words were fully out of his mouth Jamie was up and moving, running for the approaching buckboard. Ben gripped Joe’s hand with his own, willing him to wake, but there was nothing. “Please, Lord,” he breathed, choking back tears with difficulty, “don’t let him die. Don’t let him die.”
“He’ll be all right in time,” Paul stated in the silence. The stairs beneath his weight creaked sharply as he descended from the second level of the ranch house; its piercing sound was aggravating to his waiting audience.
Ben, pacing worriedly in front of the cold fireplace, stopped abruptly at the doctor’s words. He was drawn and pale, far less like the Ben Cartwright that Paul was familiar with; his white hair was askew and a day’s worth of stubble shadowed his jaw. “He’s fine?” he demanded hoarsely, meeting the doctor at the bottom of the steps. Jamie was standing up from the seat he had taken, relief stark in his expression.
Paul was grateful that he had no tragic news to tell this shattered family— the news he did have, however, was awful enough. If Joe had died… Paul shuddered to think what that would have done to his old friend. “He’ll be fine,” he corrected, emphasizing the future tense. “That barbed wire… ever since that confounded fence has sprung up in these parts I’ve had to patch and stitch up more cuts and fight more infection than I have before.” The frustration and disgust lacing his voice told all too well what his exact thoughts were about it. “The barbs have at least a few inches between them on the wire and Joe was fortunate enough to land in the space between them so that his back wasn’t as shredded as I’ve seen possible. It’s good that you and Micah and Jamie lifted him up straight off of the fence— trying to move him alone would have torn him up more than he is.”
“Is he awake?”
Paul hesitated, and that was all the answer Ben needed; the anxious father’s expression darkened with dismay and regret when the doctor voiced aloud what Joe had said:
“He doesn’t want company right now.”
Joe had always been the son who when injured or sick wanted— and practically demanded— company while he was laid up in bed. There had never been a time when he hadn’t wanted the presence of his father there beside him. To know that he had decided to nurse his hurts in private now hurt.
Paul knew the blow he had just delivered but could do nothing to rectify it, knowing the pain was shared between a father and son. All he could do now was leave some medicine for his patient. “I’ve given him an injection of painkiller to allow him to rest. His back is bandaged and will need to be redressed tomorrow. His arm was worse than his back and that’s what I’m most concerned about right now, but so far I’ve wrapped it and I didn’t see any blood staining the cloth when I left. Keep an eye on it until I come back up.”
Numb, Ben thanked his old friend on habit alone and barely realized that he was showing Paul to the door. When finally the latch clicked shut and the doctor’s wagon drew away he turned helplessly towards the open living room, his throat tight and painful.
The ride back to the ranch and the three-hour wait for Paul had been agonizing. It had taken the three of them, Ben, Jamie, and Micah, to lift Joseph off of the bared wire, Ben at his head, Micah at his torso, and Jamie lifting his legs; the entire time Joe didn’t so much as twitch, and the stains of blood on his sleeve and back had grown. Transferring him to the blanket that had been brought from the buckboard they wrapped him up securely before placing him stomach-down in the back. It was when they had to wrap his bleeding right arm that he had stirred, gasping in pain, and for just a moment Ben had seen Joe’s green eyes glazed with pain and confusion looking back at him, but he had made no response to his father’s pleading and had quickly slipped into darkness again.
He hadn’t woken again since they had brought him to the Ponderosa. They had called Paul Martin to the ranch house and had been shooed out of the room when the doctor appeared.
“I’ve handled Joe’s injuries for the last thirty years, Ben. Let me treat him alone for now. I’ll be down after I’ve finished.” Paul had no wish for his old friend to see the injuries that the barbed wire could— and probably had— caused to Joe’s back, and he ushered the anxious father out the door and closed it soundly behind him.
Dear God, how much more could this family take? The loss of Hoss had not even begun to heal and they were forced to deal with this.
Joe had come awake as the doctor finished up wrapping his arm. The wounds made by the barbs were deep and painful, stark red gashes that didn’t want to stop bleeding, but they were luckily not so bad as Paul had first feared; the doctor was only concerned now with the possibility of blood poisoning. Hopefully not enough dirt or rust had entered the wounds to cause infection.
“Easy, son.” Paul gently pressed down on Joe’s shoulder, keeping his patient still enough to finish with the gauze. He caught sight of dazed green eyes looking at him through wayward curls and knew already that he was going to be bombarded with questions.
The first was expected. “What happened?” Joe croaked hoarsely. He was looking around at his room as if unable to comprehend anything that had led him there.
Paul straightened, washing his hands. “You had an accident up in the pastures,” he explained. “It appears you fought a barbed wire fence and lost.”
“Tree fell.” Joe attempted to move as memory started to resurface, hissing in a breath and freezing as the movement pulled at the wounds in his back. Worry was taking over confusion and he looked at Paul beseechingly. “Jamie?”
Hop Sing had mentioned that Jamie had been the one with Joe during the incident. Of course the latter would be concerned. “He’s fine, Joe. Shaken seeing you thrown the way you were but he managed to come and fetch help when he needed to. He’ll be much better knowing you’re awake.”
He was taken aback to see tears suddenly appear in Ben’s son’s eyes. Joe swallowed hard but his voice was still shaky as he spoke aloud: “I was terrified, Doc. Bleeding bad. I couldn’t move. Jamie tried to help… he couldn’t.”
“It’s alright to admit you were scared, Joe,” Paul told him gently. “But you’re going to be fine now, Jamie got you help—“
“I didn’t want him to see it happen if I…” And Joe’s voice cracked sharply before he could finish the sentence, the words seeming to click on his teeth before they could escape. But of course he didn’t need to complete the thought. “And Hoss…”
Paul hadn’t learned the details of Hoss’s drowning until much later, and it hadn’t been around any of the Cartwrights. It had been the foreman Micah who had drawn Paul aside after one of his daily visits to the ranch that first week and explained about the early morning downpour that had caused the river the cattle drive had rested beside to flood its banks. Currents had been incredibly strong beneath the surface and one of the hands had somehow managed to fall in.
Hoss had gone in after him without hesitation; neither man had reached the banks alive.
And Joe had been there forced to watch it all.
Of course he would have been terrified of making Jamie go through what Joe himself had only just had to witness: the death of an older brother.
“He didn’t have to, son. Jamie will be fine. And I daresay you’ll be up and about within days contrary to my direct orders.” Paul was heartened when his very accurate statement brought about a small smile. “Now, your pa’s been worried about you, so I think it would be a good idea for him to come up and see you—”
The sharp answer brought the doctor to an astonished halt. “Joe—”
“I can’t see him now. Please, Paul. Don’t let Pa come up.”
It had been the doctor who had patched up the gash on Joe’s forehead only the day before and he knew the circumstances for it. Joe’s tongue had been surprisingly loose that day in Paul’s office and he’d finally admitted his fear of Ben’s incessant drinking and refusals to sleep. He had confessed he didn’t know how to break his father out of the grief of Hoss’s death and was afraid he’d lose Ben, too. But he was unable to express that to the father who had so alienated himself.
It hurt, that realization.
But Paul was beholden to the wishes of his patients when they were of sound mind. He shook his head sadly but agreed. “Give it time, Joe. That’s all you can do. You and your father love each other too much to let this destroy you both.”
Silently Ben stole into his dark bedroom, wincing when the door creaked warningly in his ears. It seemed much too loud in the quiet. He kept a hopeful ear out for a call for him from Joe but so far in two days’ time he had not heard it. For now he had to sneak into his son’s room in early morning to sit beside Joe while the latter lay sleeping, and he left before the sun began to rise.
The separation was taking its toll.
Ben wanted his family together. All of them. He wanted his eldest Adam to be here by his side instead of hundreds of miles away. He wanted his youngest to speak to him again, to forgive Ben for his actions.
He wanted Hoss alive.
But it didn’t do to dwell on wishes. Dreams were a figment of a longing heart. He had lost, and lost again, several times over and he was a foolish old man. The Ponderosa hadn’t been enough to keep Adam here and Hoss was gone forever. He was afraid that he had just lost whatever love and respect Joe held for him.
Walking up to the edge of his bed he lit the lamp that sat there and blinked in the sudden flare of light. He frowned.
Sitting there innocently on the table was his worn copy of the Bible. But he had left it on his desk downstairs over a week ago— in his shock and then subsequent drinking he had almost forgotten about the Good Book. The words written in it had once been his source of strength and encouragement but now tasted like ash in his mouth and bittered his tongue. He didn’t remember carrying the book up with him. Carefully he reached out a hand and picked it up, weighing it in his grip, and he was taken aback by how comfortable its familiar weight felt.
He had prayed to the Lord to let Joseph live. The Lord had done so. Joe was mending and Paul was certain that the risk of infection was nil. Ben’s son would be on his feet sooner rather than later, and for that the father was grateful.
A small tremble shuddered its way down his back as he looked around, looking for some clue as to how his Bible had ended up here. But there was nothing.
Don’t waste the years you got left.
Abruptly Ben realized that Hoss wasn’t really gone. He was still within the Lord’s grasp, and he had visited Ben only a few nights before. The Lord kept all those who were within His arms and death did nothing to change that.
Hoss was okay. Now Ben needed to make sure that the rest of his family would be, too. God had made Man with both strength and faith and wanted His children to show those qualities in the most difficult of times.
He needed to confront the bitterness and loss head-on in order to live. And Ben would need to start with Joseph.
Looking up he stared at the ceiling. “Thank you,” he whispered, both to God and his son, and he kept hold of the Bible as he turned away from his bed and walked back out into the hallway.
Joe’s door was partially closed but it was enough for Ben to sidle carefully through so that it didn’t creak open. In the darkness he could barely make out the bed but time and familiarity led Ben surely to its side without trouble, and he found that the chair beside it was empty. Clearly both Hop Sing and Jamie— Joe’s caregivers in the past two days— had decided to sleep in their own beds tonight. That suited Ben just fine. He wasn’t entirely sure whether he could actually have the conversation he needed to with his son just when it was the two of them; he knew that with an audience, no matter how small, it would be impossible. He lit a match and the lamp beside the bed flared to life, low and soft.
Joe’s even, slow breathing let Ben know that he was asleep. Hopefully without nightmares. With a low groan and creaking knees he sat down as softly as he could on the chair, placing the Bible’s solid weight on his lap for reassurance. The quiet darkness and the proximity of Joe lent him enough peace to gather himself and find the strength he needed.
Joe’s shifting drew Ben away from his thoughts, hearing his son’s sharp intake of breath signifying that he had been surprised awake. From the darkness Ben heard his son ask in a voice rough with sleep, “Hoss?”
The question was a knife to the waiting father’s gut. Would it ever grow any easier to hear his middle son’s name without wanting to cry? He reminded himself forcibly of Hoss’s words from a few days’ ago and shook his head even though he knew Joe wouldn’t be able to see it. “It’s Pa.”
There was no answer. The silence was more intimidating than if Joe had demanded Ben to leave. It broke Ben’s tenuous control. He wanted to reach forward and grab hold of his hand but didn’t dare.
“Please, Joseph. Talk to me. It’s been two days. I need… to know how you’re doing.” When he still didn’t receive a reply he pressed a little harder, determined. “We need to speak of- of Hoss. Of what this has done to us. Please, Joe, I need you to speak to me.” It was hard to push out those words. Even harder when still there was no answer. He bowed his head, struggling to keep sudden tears from falling.
Ben, hardly daring to hope, looked up to find that Joe’s hand had come to rest on top of his own, the bandages rough on his skin. His son was watching him tiredly through half-lidded eyes, his mouth tight with pain— but he was awake, and willing now to acknowledge his father’s presence.
“Joseph.” Ben wrapped his hands around Joe’s and lifted it gently to his mouth, his eyes moist as the tears turned to ones of relief. “Is the pain any better, son?”
Trying to swallow past a dry throat, Joe managed a small nod. “Bit,” he said hoarsely. Lying there unable to hide behind his actions, Ben suddenly realized that his son had lost a significant amount of weight in a short amount of time, and there was noticeable grey in his hair. Hoss’s death and Joe’s struggle to keep himself and his father from completely falling apart had done this. Unable to abandon the father who had fallen to pieces following the drowning, Joe had put aside his own grief and tried to keep Ben from withering away, and those suppressed emotions were eating him from within.
Hoss had told Ben so. He had said so specifically the other night that there was the need to forgive on both sides, and Ben hadn’t understood what he had meant. But now he did. There was no way any of them could truly move on until they lanced and drained the wounds that had been gouged into being.
The father could only pray that he had the strength to admit his sin.
Ultimately, however, it was Joe who made the first move. The youngest son of Ben Cartwright’s blood had always been his most emotional son, easiest to anger, fastest to react, but he had also been the one never able to hold onto those emotions for long. Forgiveness and apology came naturally to him.
Now was no exception. He didn’t want to remain at odds with and angry at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he whispered. “About what I said… in the barn. I don’t- I’m not angry anymore.”
Ben managed a smile even as he swallowed past a lump in his throat. His remarkable son. “You don’t need to apologize, Joseph. I know you meant those words, but you’re still willing to work past them.” It was hard to speak now, but it had to be done. He prayed for strength and lowered Joe’s hand to the mattress. “But I have something I must tell you, Joe. It’s- it’s not something I will ever forgive myself for feeling, but— Hoss was right, you’ve begun to forgive me for my unforgivable actions, and now… now I must do the same.” Oh Lord, what was he doing? A solitary tear escaped his hold; grief and self-loathing twisted his expression as he choked out the awful truth. “A part of me blamed you for your brother’s death, Joseph. I wondered why you hadn’t done more to try and save him. My own son— dear God, how could I blame one for the other? But I did, Joe— I did!” And finally the floodgates opened and Ben hid his face in the sheets of the bed and wept.
A soft, gentle touch on the crown of his head slowly stilled his grief; fingers were stroking his hair, an old calming tactic Ben himself had utilized with all of his sons at one point or another. Looking up, hardly daring to hope, he raised his head up to find Joe watching him with tear-filled eyes, his hand never ceasing its stroking of his father’s hair. “I know,” he said shakily. “I know you did, Pa— but I blamed myself more. But when I was visiting Mama’s grave the other night I realized that she’d died in a freak accident like Hoss did. Nothing coulda stopped it from happening. Not for either of them.”
The realization of the truth in his son’s statement was overwhelming. Ben was momentarily stunned, unable to speak or reply; his grip tightened compulsively around the spine of the Good Book. “I know,” he whispered, gripping the hand stroking his hair and entwining his fingers with Joe’s. “I know that now. I think I knew that all the time. And I’m sorry, son. Truly… I’m sorry.”
Joe shook his head. “You were hurting.”
“Be ye angry,” Ben said aloud, the well-remembered verse flowing easily from his mouth, “and sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”
Inexplicably Joe began to laugh— albeit quietly and a mite breathlessly as the stitches in his back pulled— but it was a sound that pulled Ben up short. Neither of them had laughed in such a long time. “Hoss would be knockin’ our heads together,” he finally explained to his father’s confusion, “tellin’ us we’re bein’ stubborn—”
“Bone-headed mules,” Ben finished with his son, and he felt a smile of his own start to pull at his mouth. The humor was there, and it was real, and their shared amusement did what nothing else had; it started to heal the rift that had formed between them.
Yes, indeed. Hoss was watching over them even now.
The waters at Lake Tahoe were quiet. The air was heavy with the scent of the ponderosa pines, and the wind blew warm and inviting as Ben and Joe rode up to the familiar bluff overlooking the waters. Leaving Buck and Cochise standing ground-tied several feet behind them father and son walked the remaining distance to the familiar marker of Marie Cartwright’s grave.
Beside it there lay a second, newer stone that sat vigil over a still-bare mound of dirt.
Ben grabbed hold of Joe’s arm when he felt the latter hesitate. His touch was gentle but still Joe startled, having almost forgotten that his father was standing beside him. He was certain that his father had not been here since the funeral, and he was also sure that Ben had been so despondent during it that he retained no memories of when Hoss’s body was laid to rest.
“Go on, Pa,” he said softly. “I’ll be right here.”
It had been by his urging that Ben had made this trip down here. He had saddled the horses; he had seen Jamie off to school. Perhaps Joe was being selfish but he wanted this time spent between just him and his father and the one they loved so much. Ben needed to say goodbye.
They all did.
Ben, for his part, tried to slow his pounding heart. He knew he needed to do this, he needed to face this final farewell, but he was feeling abruptly frightened and even abandoned when he realized that Joe would not walk with him the remaining few feet. But of course Joseph had already been down here; he had no need to face this grave today. Feeling unsteady he let go of his son’s arm (the left arm, since the right was still lightly bandaged) and forced his feet to move.
He knelt silently beside the grave, reaching out a tentative hand out to the cool stone of the marker. In bold letters he sat the name Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright’ carved there and he felt tears choke him. But he fought them back, knowing that his middle son was in a good place— a place even better than the Ponderosa itself. There was hope. Even now he knew that there was that, and he would try to remember it always.
As if in answer he felt the wind shift, blowing gently in his direction, and as if in his thoughts he heard heavy, familiar footsteps to his left.
His son smiled down at him. “‘Lo, again, Pa.” He was standing a fair distance away from his father still, but he was close enough for Ben to see that he had changed since the night a couple of weeks ago; his clothes were drying, and his wispy dark blonde hair was no longer plastered to his head. His familiar gap-toothed grin was clear to see. “Little brother finally convinced you to come down, then.” He held up a hand hastily when Ben began to speak. “Now, Pa, I know what yer gonna say. It’s alright. Don’t feel guilty no more, Pa. You know neither Joe or me hold these past few weeks ‘gainst you. Anyways, I’m almost dry and that’s relief enough.” There was true laughter in his tone as he spoke those last few words and Ben drew heart from that.
“Will you- be all right now, son?” he asked instead.
Hoss nodded. “Fine, Pa. Jus’ fine. You and Little Joe and Jamie— you’ll get through it all together. I’m gonna go and find Ma.”
Inger. The mother Hoss had never known. Marie. The one he remembered and the one he loved so much. Both would be waiting for him. Elizabeth would be there, too. Ben swallowed hard but he found that his tears had abruptly vanished. They would be back, he knew, and at the oddest moments, but for now he was able to find peace. “Thank you, son.”
Hoss knew all of what he was saying in those three words. His grin widened. “Can’t leave you and Joe to knock yer heads together like two billy goats. You know how much me and Joe and Jamie care about you, Pa.”
“I know.” He did. Those three words were the hardest ever spoken— I love you— but he had never had to hear them aloud to know that they were true. Abruptly his sorrow turned to joy.
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
The familiar verse of the Good Book had never rung more true than in this moment. The Lord was in control, and His ways were always good. Ben had been given the chance to say goodbye to his son; the Lord had allowed the rift between him and Joseph to be mended.
He could truly give thanks now. And when he wept it would not be in bitter anger. He would be grateful for every second he had been blessed by being Hoss Cartwright’s earthly father, and he would bear his loss silently and patiently until the time came for them all to be gathered together again.
That was, after all, the Lord’s way.
The grave at Lake Tahoe lay undisturbed and quiet forever afterwards except for those of Hoss’s family came; Hoss himself never reappeared again, but slept free from the river and in his mother’s arms.