Summary: Ben blames himself for the condition of his two desperately wounded sons.
Rated: K+ (6,590 words)
It’s brutal. Hellish. The intensity makes it seem like all of creation is turning against them. Ben Cartwright has lived in Nevada Territory for over twenty years but has never known heat like this. It crawls under a man’s skin and digs in. There’s no escape from it, making an unbearable situation so very much worse.Flies are stirring around them. He and Hoss have kept all the windows latched against the heat, but it’s like the flies have been summoned from the bowels of the earth. They keep landing on Adam’s exposed face and back. Ben brushes them off his son, again and again, but can’t help thinking that they’re only waiting for the right time. “Pa.” Hoss is at the door, leaning against the threshold. He’s nothing short of exhausted. Sweat tracks across grime that’s been there for the past two days. It tells a story, the fact that his self-sacrificial son has not taken the time to wash his face. “Joe’s awake again. He’s worrying over the fire.”
They trade places, making room for each other awkwardly like ill-suited partners at a barn dance. As Ben passes, he remembers to rest his hand on his strong son’s shoulder. He looks back at Adam, trying to keep his hopes held up high. His oldest son is lying on his stomach, his back rising and falling as steadily as anyone could hope for. It’s a miracle – the fact that Adam still remembers how to breathe. He’s surviving in that quiet way that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise. Ben is amazed and incredibly humbled that his sons have survived this long.
It’s more than the doctor expected. Doc Martin had been astonished by the way his sons clung to life, as if it defied medical predictions.
“It must be the old Cartwright gift,” the doctor proclaimed, “for believing in something enough to make it happen. Your boys are sick enough, I can’t see it happening any other way, Ben.”
Ben is sure that it must be Hoss who is still doing the believing. His own faith has never been less sure. He doesn’t think it would kick up a breeze in the lifeless air, let alone move mountains. He’s been trying to pray for his sons, but guilt has been elbowing its way in, instead. As it is, he finds himself wishing that he could be everywhere at once. It’s a balancing act, caring for both of his gravely injured sons, torn between both of them. He doesn’t want to leave Adam for a minute, even though he knows he will feel the same way as soon as he’s sitting next to Joe again.
Impossibly, the hallway is even more stifling than Adam’s room. Heat bullies its way in between the rough hewn planks, through the sealed windows and doors. Men weren’t meant to live in heat like this, and Ben can’t imagine how his sons are hanging on. His own shirt is sweat-soaked and clings to his chest. He needs something to drink. He’d rather have a shot of good brandy but knows he needs a glass of water. It won’t do for him to give out. He doesn’t want to become another patient distracting Hoss and Hop Sing from what really matters.
Joe’s door creaks open, and Hop Sing hurries out, carrying another warm basin of water. His long time servant doesn’t look at him as he passes by. Whether he’s angry or worried, Ben doesn’t blame him. His own decision has placed his sons in harm’s way, and truth be told, he blames himself more than he blames the rustlers. He should have known better and in yet went forward and made an incredibly foolhardy decision.
On the landing, Hop Sing pauses and says, “Ice almost gone, Mr. Cartwright. Need to get more from town. Little Joe getting worse.”
The ice house in Virginia City has been empty for over a week, the town’s glacial stockpile wiped out in the worst heat wave in the town’s history. Doc Martin told him not to bother going to town for it, and Ben doesn’t have the heart to tell Hop Sing there won’t be any more ice this season. Ice is their best weapon against fever, but the heat spell is fighting against them. If his boys are going to die on this day, there’s not much he can do but stand watch and say goodbye.
Ben slips into Little Joe’s room. The air is rank with sweat and illness, and Joe is struggling in it, soaked to the skin. Joe’s lungs have been filling up all through the day, and now he’s fighting hard for every breath. Ben strokes his son’s good shoulder, knowing full well this is a battle that might end in hours rather than days. He was brave yesterday, along with his brothers, and has paid dearly for the infamous Cartwright courage. Ben wishes that he raised cowards instead of heroes. He wanders to the window and looks out over the brown tinge of smoke over the horizon.
“Fire,” Joe calls out suddenly, like he’s seeing it too. “Pa, there’s a fire.”
Ben can’t get to his youngest quickly enough. Joe has to be in terrible pain but is fighting not to show it. The bullet nearly cracked his collarbone in half, and they didn’t help anything trying to get him home. The doctor splintered it even more in trying to dislodge the bullet. Red strokes of infection peek out from underneath the bandage. They know what it means. It doesn’t take much to kill a man, no matter how young and strong. Life and death. Adam and Joe. Two tiny pieces of metal stealing the lives of two young men. It doesn’t seem fair.
How many times did Ben tell his boys while they were growing up, “Life’s not fair”? Now he knows why they looked at him with such exasperation. Nothing about this feels fair. His sons should be moving forward with their own dreams. Getting married, moving on. Not sacrificing their lives for their father’s ambition. The Ponderosa. He left his own father behind for the chance to pursue his own dreams. He’s sacrificed so much for the land and isn’t sure what it’s worth. For the life of him, he can’t remember why he ever believed that the land was any kind of legacy.
Joe asks again, “Pa, is something burning?”
“There’s a fire on the North Section. Near the timberline.” Ben’s voice sounds odd, even to himself, like it’s drying up in his throat.
“The flume…” Joe whispers, but Ben doesn’t let him finish.
“The flume is already gone,” he says gently and keeps his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about that, young man. You worry about getting better, and let me worry about the rest.”
“Is Adam going to be all right?”
What is he supposed to say? The doctor said not to upset them, but Ben has never lied to any of his sons willingly. In his mind, he can see Adam after the shootout, his blood a dark web on his back, drying almost before it reached the ground. It’s the stuff of nightmares, a father’s worst fear, and he’s not out of it yet. It’s the hardest thing he’s faced. The fact that two of his sons might die, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.
“Is Adam dead, Pa?” Joe is close to tears. He knows it can’t be good if his pa won’t tell him.
“Nah, he ain’t dead, Shortshanks.” Hoss stands in the doorway, frowning at the fact that his little brother is getting worked up. “He’s alive and awake right now.”
Ben closes his eyes and gives thanks for that. A hand covers his own and Ben opens his eyes to Joe’s concerned expression. His son should not be wasting moments worrying over his fool father. It would almost be easier if his sons shut their hearts to him like a closed door.
Hoss brings his father a glass of water and stands guard patiently until he drinks some of it. He then pours another for Little Joe. “Pa, we gotta move them downstairs. It’s just too hot up here. They can’t fight off a fever in this heat.”
“Not enough beds.” Ben’s mind isn’t working the way that it should. He can barely remember how to put the three words together. It’s all he can do to stay upright, and he has to work on keeping the water in his unsettled stomach. He’s losing his orientation. Can hardly understand what Hoss is talking about.
“Charlie brought a mattress in from the bunk house,” Hoss says patiently, as if explaining things to a child. “We can put them both in the guest room and tend them together.”
Ben finds himself nodding, as if everything finally makes sense. The sip of water is easing some of his disordered thinking. Funny how he didn’t even feel thirsty. Hoss is right that Adam and Joe should be together, his oldest and youngest. They offered up their lives for his and deserve to be in each other’s company.
Hoss puts together a makeshift travois so they don’t hurt Joe more than they have to. Ben takes one end while Hoss takes the other. Sweat drips onto his boy’s bare feet. Although awake, Joe shuts his eyes tight and bites his lower lip hard enough to draw blood. Hoss backs into the doorway and swears under his breath, something so unusual it seems almost unthinkable.
He says, “Sorry about the rough ride, little brother.”
By the time they come back for Adam, they’re getting good at it and manage to get him downstairs without bumping into anything. Adam must be in pain but bears it well. His sons are all so calm, but Ben is shaking. His hands are slick with sweat and the fear that he will lose them both before the sun sets on this day.
Finally, they’re settled. They are lying side by side in a room that’s too small for all of them, but they make due anyway. They’re sleeping at least, Adam on his stomach and Joe curled onto his side, his knees drawn up in misery. Hop Sing moves efficiently between them; his basin is filled with herbs and flowers instead of ice. Hoss was right. Even in the small space, it’s cooler than upstairs. Better this way. Hoss is gone to check on the pinto. Claims that the horse will make it just fine. There is no way Hoss is going to tell his kid brother that the horse won’t be waiting for him. Hoss is still laying a claim to them all finding their way to a happy ending.
Ben allows himself to drift to sleep, sitting uncomfortably between them. He dreams of livestock, of fire, and of death getting its way. Opening his eyes with a start, the air is heavy, a weight on his chest. It occurs to him that this is how the elderly die in the heat, how they let go and just stop breathing. But Adam is watching. Ben tries to smile reassuringly at him, but Adam isn’t in the mood for it.
“How many head did we lose?” he asks his father quietly.
Ben shakes his head. It feels like a lifetime ago since a herd of cattle meant anything to him. However, Adam deserves an answer and a straightforward one at that.
“We lost two thirds of the herd by the time it was over. Charlie and the other drovers managed to save the rest. Lost all the new calves.”
“Shame.” Adam grimaces with disgust. “Utterly incompetent! If you’re going to rustle cattle, the least you can do is drive them to water.”
Wringing out the compress, Ben trades hot water for lukewarm. He wishes he had more to offer. He tells his son, “It doesn’t take a genius to be successful at rustling. Just a decent window of opportunity and a whole lot of luck.”
“Guess their luck ran out,” Joe breaks into the conversation. They look over to find him awake and oddly enough, looking almost happy. “You were right about the whole thing, Pa. Those rustlers were right where you thought they’d be.”
Joe and his incessant cheeriness. Ben doesn’t deserve it, but it makes him smile any way. The sun is almost setting, and it’s still as hot as ever. Where is their mountain breeze, the promise that relief is on its way? He promises that he will never complain about months of snow again. He somehow believes that if only this heat would break, everything would be all right again. It doesn’t make much sense, but he wants to believe it anyways.
Ben would love to bury his face in his hands but he’s mindful that both are watching. It is entirely his fault – his alone. They tried to argue him out of his decision but followed him in the end. For once, Ben wishes he’d raised disobedient sons, a pack of prodigals. He wishes they’d turned out badly, had become fodder for town gossip. They should have left him years ago. He can’t stand it. Their faith in him. Their confidence in his handling of things.
Hoss is at the door and gestures to his father to come out in the hall.
“Cochise will be all right,” Hoss says, with a satisfied smile. “That tendon’s not torn, it’s just swollen. I’m keepin’ him watered and in the shade behind the house. The barn’s too dang hot. But he ain’t moving around much. Smart enough to know he needs to get better first. Smarter than Little Joe that way.”
Ben’s lips quirk at his son’s confidence. Hoss always makes him feel better; his good nature can jolly anyone out of a bad mood. His middle son is the most loyal man Ben has ever known, and he appreciates that loyalty but for once wishes that Hoss had sided with his brothers.
Ben has been trying to hold off the memory but can’t stop thinking about what went wrong. He keeps playing the memory of the shootout over and over in his mind. Ben hears them arguing, like it is happening again. Like a waking dream, the sun hangs directly overhead, cooking the ground under the soles of his boots. The smell of death hovers around them, the bitter drift of fire burning in the mountains…
“We’ve been through this before, Pa.” Adam told him. “They can’t get far with that herd. Joe and I are the fastest riders. You and Hoss can keep watch, and we’ll ride for the sheriff.”
Adam was relentlessly logical in his argument, but Ben’s impatience had been building for some time. He’d never been one who appreciated hot weather, and this spell was worse than anything he remembered from all his years in the territory. As Hoss put it, if anyone died and went to hell, they’d have to wire home for a couple blankets. They’d all laughed when he said it, but that had been a few days ago, and the heat no longer felt like a curiosity. It felt deadly and insidious, like the beginnings of plague. Ben could feel himself getting dizzy, growing nauseous in it. The air was absolutely still. So unusual for those parts, there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze. He was no longer a young man, and these things affected him more than they used to.
The horizon was brown tinged and had started smelling like smoke earlier that morning, which added to Ben’s determination to resolve the situation with the rustlers as soon as possible. The smoke seemed to be coming from the timberline. If the flume burned, their contracts with the mines would go up right along with it. It wasn’t like there was much he could do, but he still felt he should be there to take stock of the situation. There was nothing like fire to make a man feel powerless. It really didn’t matter if Ben Cartwright owned half of Nevada. Only God could put out a wildfire.
They huddled in a tight fit against the rocks, hoarding the scarce shade like it was a treasure. Already, they’d sweated through their clothing and had downed half the water from their canteens. Little Joe took off his hat and wiped his face with the back of his sleeve, leaving stripes on his cheeks and forehead that looked like war paint.
If anything, the day was hotter than the one before it. And it was killing their cattle while they were standing there with flies swarming in waves of heat. No wind was blowing, but they could smell the decay and rot drifting in from the canyon. Their cattle had been disappearing for nearly a month, and it had taken some doing to track them to the small ravine. Joe had climbed to the top of the ridge and confirmed their worst suspicion. The rustlers were obviously not from nearby and weren’t familiar with the habits of local waterways. Everyone knew that the canyon’s tributary dried up during the late summer. Hiding stolen cattle in that gorge was a fool’s decision. Without water, the poor creatures would die before sundown. Ben said it out loud, and none of them argued it. But Adam wanted to get the sheriff.
Hoss disagreed. “We can’t just stand here and let them die. It’s hotter than a burnt boot, and it ain’t gettin’ no better. Every one of them will likely be dead before the sheriff can get here.”
Ben watched as Adam and Joe exchanged grim looks with each other. “You two have something to say about that?” he asked, watching them flinch at the sharpness of his question.
It was something he used too often, his authority over his three grown sons. Lately, he’d been trying to hold back, to hand over more of the decision-making around the Ponderosa. It wasn’t something that came naturally, and he still found himself issuing orders more often than he cared to admit. Later, he would fervently wish they had handed him their declaration of independence right there and then. But they were good sons, all three of them.
Joe scuffed the dust with his boot, and then he came out and said what he and Adam had been talking about earlier. “Pa, those cattle aren’t likely to live even if we do get them out. We’ll never get them to the nearest water. Adam and I reckon we need to give them up as lost.”
Ben could feel himself growing angry, even though he should have known better. It was the interminable sun over their heads. His temper seemed to boil right along with it. How dare they consider turning back? Abandoning what they had worked so hard for? He hadn’t raised his sons to be quitters. The Cartwright kingdom would never be overthrown, as long as they all fought for it together.
“Nonsense!” Ben roared in response to Joe’s statement. “You’re telling me you’re willing to give up, take a chance at having them get away with this? Is that what you’re telling me, boy?”
“No sir.” Joe glanced at Adam for back up. At eighteen, he was only coming into his own authority. “I just think Adam’s right this time. Unlikely as it may be.”
Adam rolled his eyes. Typical kid brother. “Must be a sign of the apocalypse if Little Joe’s agreeing with me. That and this weather – the world’s got to be coming to an end!”
The four of them smiled at that. Looking back on it, Ben would wish he’d given in and let the matter end with the last light moment they’d had together. Wished he’d agreed to stand guard with Hoss and let his other two sons ride for back up. Yet, instead he pressed his point.
“There’s no way the two of you can ride fast enough,” he said. “By the time you get back, it will be too late. The sheriff might not even be in town. Besides, who’s to say that Hoss and I can hold them off, if they decide to head out on their own?”
“We can hold them,” Hoss said grimly. “I ain’t worried about those fellows getting past me. But Pa, I think you’re right. I can hardly stand to think of how those poor critters must be sufferin’. Them no-goods ain’t doing nothing to try and save them… bout as lazy as a pile of chilled rattlers…”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Adam said with a wry smile and wiped sweat off his forehead with his bandana. “Look, Pa. I still think we should go into town and get the sheriff. But I won’t cross you on this. If you feel strongly that we should go in, I’ll back you. What about you, Joe? Are you with us?”
“Aren’t I always?” Joe asked and rested his elbow on Adam’s shoulder, even though he had to reach to do so. “Big brother here is the one who’s as long-headed as a mule. I’m the easy one!”
“A clear case of the pot calling the kettle – ” Adam retorted before his father cut him off.
“All right then.” Ben looked at his sons and allowed himself a fool’s portion of pride in the three of them. They were soaked to the skin in their own sweat and as miserable as could be, but they’d follow him through the fires of hell if need be. And later, he would not forgive himself for leading the way into that hell.
There was nothing left to say but plenty to be done. The details of their charge would blur in his mind. There was no way to sneak up on the rustlers. They would have to launch a full frontal attack. That’s what they did, side by side and riding hard, their guns out of their holsters. Cattle, dead and rotting, lay everywhere throughout the canyon. Pathetic bodies of newborn calves lay next to their mothers. They rode at a hard gallop past the bloated carcass of a pregnant cow lying in the dried up river. Two of the rustler’s cutting horses lay on their sides, having also succumbed to the heat. It was a gruesome sight, yet Ben was heartened to see some living animals still roaming in the distance.
They rode right into the rustler’s camp, taking the bandits by surprise. The rustlers obviously weren’t expecting them, but they outnumbered the Cartwrights two to one. Guns drawn, the shootout began, bullets flying through the air. As he rode for cover, Ben could feel himself choking on the clouds of dust and gunpowder. The rustlers weren’t as fast with a gun as the Cartwrights, and several were cut down in the crossfire in the first couple rounds. However, two found good cover and made the most of it. Joe spotted one of them, crouched behind a makeshift shanty across from them. He and Ben reined off to take cover behind an outcropping of rock. Too late, Ben realized that another rustler was perched on a nearby boulder and had his shotgun aimed directly at his own head. Time seemed to hold its breath in the moment it took for the man to pull the trigger.
Joe was hollering, riding toward his father at a hard gallop. Ben was yelling at his youngest son to be careful, to stay out of the way, but it happened too fast. Joseph flung himself out of the saddle and onto his father, knocking him out of the path of the rustler’s bullet. The retort of gunfire echoed through the air, as they fell to the ground together. It was so chaotic that Ben wasn’t sure what was happening. The horses reared and danced, narrowly missing trampling them. Joe’s pinto got caught in a rut and stumbled away, limping heavily. The breath knocked out of him, Ben lay on the ground with his son’s body covering his own. They were both soaked to the skin with blood. Ben prayed to God it was his own blood, but he wasn’t feeling any pain.
“No! Pa, stay down!”
Adam’s voice sounded across the clearing, but Ben couldn’t get out from underneath Joe to tell his son to stay where he was. He could feel blood trickling down his sides and knew it wasn’t his own. With heart pounding panic, he eased out from under and cradled his boy’s body and frantically tried to determine where all the blood was coming from. Adam scrambled toward them, while Hoss kept blanketing the rocks with a steady onslaught of gunfire. Ben was trying to gather Joe up but with the blood and his shaking, he couldn’t get a decent grip on him.
Adam scrambled up from behind and quickly took in the situation. Ben and Joe were covered with blood, both going into shock for different reasons. He ordered his father, “Take him, Pa. I’ve got his legs.”
Methodically, Hoss was picking off the remaining rustlers. Ben looked across the clearing and saw the fury in his middle son’s expression. They’d almost won. There was only one bandit still alive, but it only took one bullet to change everything.
Hoss fired a second too late. The man fell, but not before he pulled the trigger. At first, Ben didn’t know that his oldest son had been hit. Joe’s weight suddenly felt much heavier as Adam crumpled, letting go of his brother’s legs.
Hoss saw it happen and was running toward them, regardless of the risk. There wasn’t any more shooting. The canyon was silent, except for the surviving cattle lowing in the scant shade. It was over, and they had won, but there was death all around. So Ben Cartwright found himself fighting to stop his oldest and youngest sons from bleeding to death underneath a dirty sky. Overhead, a flock of geese were flying in an asymmetrical formation, migrating out of season.
Hoss watches as his pa drinks his coffee. Ben looks stoic enough, but his fingers are shaking near the rim. Hard to believe it would be a comfort, hot coffee on a morning that’s already as hot as the devil, but he’s drinking it all the same. His pa looks older to him. Older and defeated in ways that Hoss doesn’t really understand. Ben’s fearing for the worst, Hoss knows that. He prefers to see it differently. Adam and Little Joe aren’t any better, but they’re not worse either. It’s morning, and they made it through the night. The way Hoss feels about his brothers, that’s got to count for something.
Hoss knows his pa’s been blaming himself for what happened. The only ones to blame are already dead, but Ben Cartwright has always taken too much on. If it did any good, Hoss could blame himself too. After all, he’d also wanted to go into that canyon without waiting for the sheriff. He wanted to save as many cattle as possible. It’s one of his many soft spots – the way he feels about animals Even now, the sights and smells of that afternoon turn his stomach from his own coffee. Hoss knows enough not to ask why it had to happen that way. A man could go crazy thinking of the way it might have been. If Joe had been just a little quicker to push Pa out of that saddle, it might have gone a different way. If Hoss’ own aim had been a little sharper, a bit more on target, they might have gotten through it completely unscathed. If things had gone differently.
He shakes his head, still mulling over his hunch from the morning. Hoss has always been a man with faith in things he cannot see. He doesn’t want to bring false hope to his pa, but Hoss could swear he felt a changing when he went out to tend the stock. Every morning has been the same for a week. Airless. Flat. Hotter than most hot afternoons, even with the sun barely up in the sky. Hoss could almost swear that they were in end times, just like the preacher said last Sunday. But something was different. A breeze, barely a wisp of cool air against his forehead, but it feels like grace all the same. It’s a hint of something to come, nothing more, but he dares himself to believe that things might turn out after all.
Joe is waking. Slowly and reluctantly, just like any other morning. His little brother slept fitfully all night, caught up in fever dreams they couldn’t bring him back from. Adam slept quietly by his side. Adam’s fevers are quieter than Joe’s. Deeper and darker. Almost serene. His big brother could have a foot in the grave and step over to the other side without them knowing about it. Joe’s death would never be peaceful. He’d go out of life like he lived it – stomping and hollering, making a regular scene.
Hoss can’t imagine what life will be like if his brothers actually die. It could happen, Hoss knows it. He sees all the signs but won’t bring himself to believe it. It could kill their pa. It could fade Ben Cartwright into a shadow of himself until there would nothing left but the Cartwright name. Hoss can’t let that happen. His brothers would haunt him during his every waking hour if he let their pa die to himself.
Hoss turns at his little brother’s voice and smiles kindly. Sure enough, Joe’s eyes are open and more focused than the night before. Night terrors fading away. It’s morning. Fevers always go down in the morning.
“Hey now, little brother,” Hoss says and rests his hand on his brother’s good shoulder. The fever’s holding steady but not rising. “You done scared Pa and me out of a few good years we got owed to us. You’re gonna have to work pretty hard making up for that.”
“Sorry, Hoss.” Joe’s smiling at least. “Cochise… is he any better?”
Joe and that horse. Hoss shucks him under the chin and sits back in his chair.
“Better than yesterday. Checked on him first thing this morning. He’ll be straining at the bit before you, I reckon.”
“Thanks, Hoss. You did good, taking care of him.”
“Hello there, young man,” Ben says with mock severity, drawing up another chair. “Sleeping away another day, I see. Your brother’s been up since dawn.”
Joe smiles at the familiar complaint. How many times has he been told he’s sleeping away the day when the sun is a mere glow in the eastern sky?
“Must be contagious,” Awake at last, Adam breaks in. ‘Now the kid’s got even me sleeping in.”
Hoss turns, surprised to see his older brother appraising them all with shadowed, ironic eyes. He looks like a man who’s weathered come what may and a whole lot more. Joe has been fighting to wake up for hours. Adam hardly even moved. It never fails to amaze Hoss, the difference between his two brothers. Adam fights every bit as hard as Joe but he’s sneaky about it.
“Good morning, son.” Ben’s smile is warm but cloaked in worry. He chokes on the only words he can get out. “It’s good to see you awake.”
“Still hot…” Adam mutters, turning his face into the goose down of the pillow. “Anyone else about ready for winter?”
“Don’t go rushing through the seasons,” Joe protests, unsuccessfully trying to sit up and grimacing in pain at his efforts. “I’ve still got things to do in the fall. Jenny Clark’s promised me an apple pie at first harvest, and I aim to eat it.”
Ben reaches for each of them. Hoss knows what he’s thinking. His brothers have to be getting better, going back and forth like they are. But his pa shakes his head.
“Fever’s not broken yet. Neither of them.” Ben’s eyes are more bitter than Hoss has seen them.
“Their fever’s gonna break, don’t you worry none.” Hoss doesn’t know where his confidence comes from but it settles over him a lot like knowledge. “I felt it this morning, Pa. There’s gonna be a break in all of this. I just know it.”
Ben grunts in reply, and Hoss can see how tired he is. It’s also clear that his pa doesn’t believe him. It’s not too hard to understand why. Hoss wouldn’t believe himself. Things don’t look good, and his pa can’t bring himself to believe they’ll ever be any different. Joe is slipping in and out of sleep, eyes closed again. His lips move softly, like he’s reciting poetry in his dreams. He looks a whole lot younger than he is, but he’d knock anyone out for thinking it, let alone saying it. He sleeps for minutes at a time, before managing to wake himself up again.
Adam is still awake, quietly sizing up the situation. As is usual, he gets it pretty much right.
“This isn’t your fault, Pa,” he says with a sigh. “No matter how this turns out, you did the right thing.”
Ben is angry. Hoss can see it now. His anger is shipwrecked all over the room. He’s mostly angry at himself, but they are pulled into it with him. How else can it be? They’re a family. What happens to one, happens to all of them.
Ben says grimly, “I’m sorry, Adam. I should have listened to you and Joe. This is my fault – all this.”
“Ridiculous.” Adam pronounces the one word like it’s a verdict.
“It’s my fault.” Ben is unrepentant. Just as stubborn as any of them. Taking hold of his own guilt and not about to let go of it.
Hoss feels his own impatience growing. Slow to anger. He’s a man with a long fuse but once lit, it burns for a long time.
“Now you stop that, you hear Pa, or I might get mad,” Hoss says and means it. “None of us are gonna stand for you blaming yourself. We all decided to go into that canyon together. You didn’t make the choice for any one of us.”
“Well put, brother.” Adam is doling out each word as like it might be his last. His face is gray and drawn. He adds quietly, “There are no guarantees with anything. You know that, Pa.”
“Besides that, we won,” Joe says, unaccountably awake again and grinning. “Don’t forget that we won.”
“Well, there’s that too,” Adam says, and then the three Cartwright boys are all grinning at each other, to their father’s amazement. The grim look on Ben Cartwright’s face softens just a little.
Hoss sees the softening and takes his chance. At the window, he gestures for his father to come and stand beside him. It’s not something he can really explain, the thing that’s making him feel better. It’s just weather. It’s a history-maker of a heat wave, but it’s not exactly tied to the fate of his brothers. And yet Hoss can’t explain it. He just knows that it will be all right. He wants his father to know it too. And so he stands back and just points out to the view over the trees. And Ben sees it too. The sky bluer than the day before. A suggestion of wind in the trees.
“Something’s changing, Pa,” he says.
They’ve shut up the house against the heat, sealed it up like a tomb, but it’s time to take a chance and open things up. Hoss starts to lift the sash of the window, but the wood has swelled during the heat spell. He’s afraid that if he pulls too hard, the frame might splinter. Ben rests his hand against the glass and feels the heat pressing back.
“It’s still too hot for opening the window, son,” he says.
Hoss disagrees. From inside the room, he can hear the sound of the geese flying to the lake. They’ve changed their mind and are coming back again. Putting their faith back in the seasons. They’re making a racket of their honking, and it’s not even close to a song. They’ve all heard better. But Hoss figures they’d better take what they can get. He feels strangely calm, even though nothing is settled. The stillness of the air doesn’t feel like defeat any more.
“The weather’s gonna change any time, Pa. There’s a breeze comin’ down from the mountains. I can feel it in my bones. You just wait and see. It’s gonna be all right.”
Hoss watches as his father leans against the window. It’s always been hard for Ben Cartwright. Letting go. Letting his sons go their own way, take their own chances. Watching their lives branch off in directions he’d never thought of. Sons, like the weather, are not something he can control.
“I don’t know if I can forgive myself.” Deprived of its anger, Ben’s voice is sorrowful and quiet.
“You don’t have to forgive yourself.” Hoss says it like he knows it, and suddenly he does. “This ain’t got nothing to do with you, Pa. The shootout just went wrong. It could have gone right. You gotta give yourself the same forgiveness that you’ve always given us.”
Ben rests his hand on his son’s strong shoulder. It’s a lot easier raising sons than it is letting them go. It’s not all about him any more. There are things they all have to weather. He’s raised loyal sons, but they have destinies that are their own. They don’t follow him blindly. Ben smiles ruefully. A hard-headed man, he’s sometimes the last one to understand what’s so obvious to everyone else.
Ben and Hoss stand on either side of the window. It’s a big window, so big that Ben had to order a replacement all the way from Sacramento the last time that Joe broke it. They lift the sash together and stand aside in hopes that any breeze will reach the other two.
Adam’s eyes are closed to pain once again, and Joe is dreaming. He’s dreaming of riding his horse fast along the shores of the lake. They know because he tells them, calling to the animal in his sleep. He’s calling for the pinto to ride faster and faster. Joe has never been one to keep his dreams to himself. Hoss looks over his brothers, believing the change in the weather will change them too.
“Don’t you feel it, Pa? It’s cooling down all right. I just knew it would!”
As always, Hoss’ optimism is contagious and this time Ben allows himself to catch some of it. He can feel it, the wind coming down from the mountains. The tips of the pine trees ripple like feathers. It’s been days since they’ve moved in the wind. Ben closes his eyes and breathes deeply, as if things really are going to get better. As if second chances could come in the form of a cool breeze. As if believing alone will bring them their happy ending.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
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