Still His Father (by pjb)


Summary:  “. . . because some things are never over.”

Word Count 1550  Rated K


Still His Father

 It was a simple question, the kind of casual inquiry routinely posed by new acquaintances at parties: How many sons do you have?

I don’t know what I said: Three. Four. It depends. I’m not sure. Or maybe I didn’t say anything. Whatever my response, it gave her pause. A crinkle appeared between her brows. How could a person not know the answer to such a question? Then again, she was new in town. She didn’t know any better.

“Pa.” The low voice at my elbow let me know that she wasn’t the only one to notice my reaction. Joseph extended his hand to the attractive woman whose name I suddenly could not remember. They introduced themselves, and Joe said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Do you mind if I borrow my father for a minute?” Smoothly, he maneuvered me over to the punch bowl and filled a glass for me.

“I’m fine,” I said. He didn’t call me a liar, but I could feel his eyes studying me as intently as I was focusing on the miniscule glass I held in both hands.

“We should get out of here,” he announced. “It’s late. I’ll find Jamie.”

The last thing I needed was to have both of them fussing. I mounted a feeble protest: “No, don’t. It’s early yet, and the boy’s having a good time.” I took a sip of the punch and grimaced. “Oh, that’s terrible,” I said. “There’s not even anything in it, is there?” I’d almost have been willing to finish that sickly sweet concoction if there was a chance it might numb me.

Joe filled another glass and took a swig. “Blech,” he said, his face scrunched up in disgust. “Right on both counts. Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He took the glass from my hands and shepherded me through the crowd that had gathered for the town’s latest fundraiser. Out on the front steps of the International House, he said, “I’ll be right back.” Before I could protest, he disappeared into the hotel, returning a minute later with Jamie.

“But I want to stay!” Jamie was protesting. “I didn’t get a chance to dance with Ellie!” Ellie Simons was the latest object of Jamie’s affections. Jamie wasn’t nearly the heartbreaker Joe had been at that age, but he enjoyed his fair share of puppy love.

“Joe, we don’t have to—” I began, but Joe held firmly to Jamie’s arm.

“Let’s go,” said the man whom I’d dragged out of countless parties and socials just that way so many years ago, when he’d been the one begging for just one more dance with his latest great love. Another time, I’d have asserted my authority to override him, but tonight, I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy.

Whatever Joe growled at Jamie after I’d gotten into the buggy must have been pretty fierce, because the boy was silent the entire way home. I turned around once to see if he was sleeping, but there wasn’t enough moonlight to tell. Joe’s profile was stony, but his fingers played the reins casually.

By the time we reached the house, I was half-dozing. Without being told, Jamie set to unhitching the horses. Joe clapped his shoulder and said something I couldn’t hear, and Jamie muttered, “Sure,” with minimal sulkiness.

“Aren’t you going to help him?” I asked as Joe followed me into the house.

“He can handle them.” Tending to the horses was officially the job of the youngest, but most times, an older brother lent a hand.

As we had after so many parties, we untied our ties and unbuttoned the top buttons of our shirts. Somewhat to my surprise, Joe turned up the lamp Hop Sing had left burning in the front room. “You staying up?” I asked as I headed with all deliberateness for the stairs.

“Thought I’d have a little something to wash the taste of that punch out of my mouth.” He uncorked the decanter and poured two brandies.

“I’m going to turn in,” I said.

“It’ll help you sleep,” he pointed out.

A flash of anger burned through me. “I don’t need anything to help me sleep.” He said nothing, but for the second time that evening, I felt as though he was refraining from calling me a liar. I stomped up the stairs and down the hall, slamming my bedroom door behind me.

By the time I heard footsteps in the hall, I’d shed my party clothes in favor of a nightshirt and my ancient maroon dressing gown. A hesitant tap sounded on my door. Before I could decide whether to invite him in, Jamie called, “Good night, Pa.”

“Good night, son,” I responded through the closed door. I waited for Joe to echo the sentiment, but all I heard was the closing of Jamie’s door.

Dimly, the grandfather clock downstairs chimed the hour—eleven or twelve, I didn’t count. With inexplicable stealth, I lifted the latch on my door and peered into the hall. Jamie’s door was closed. Joe’s stood open, the room dark. I padded down the hall to the top of the stairs.

Joe was poking at the fire in the desultory way that meant he was thinking of something else. The brandy decanter sat on the long low pine table behind him. As I watched, he drained his glass in a single gulp and refilled it.

“Making up for lost time?” I asked. His head snapped up. For an instant, I saw his anguish, as raw as it had been a year ago. Then, deliberately, he assumed a relaxed stance and held the glass out to me.

“Offer’s still open.” His voice was tight.

I descended the stairs. “I’ll get my own,” I said. I fetched another glass from the table where the decanter usually sat, and Joe filled it brimful. We held up our glasses in a silent toast, and we drank.

Joe seated himself on the hearth, and I sat in the worn blue chair next to him. He poured another round. This time, we didn’t lift our glasses. We drank in silence.

“I never know what to say, either,” he said suddenly. “Somebody asks how many brothers I have, and I don’t know whether to say three or two.”

So he’d heard everything after all. That simple question: How many sons do you have? What to say? “I had four, but now I only have three”? Did the question include the implicit limit—how many living sons? Did a son stop being a son—or a brother stop being a brother—just because he died?


Hoss was still my son. Always had been, always would be. Just as I was still his father, and always would be. Nothing could change that.

Joe’s eyes searched my face. The authoritative man who took charge of us all tonight was ready to step in again, still trying to protect me from the agony that had plagued me for the past year. Only one other person would have seen what I saw—fiery pain radiating through the hairline cracks in his strength.

I emitted a humorless chuckle. “Adam would say it’s just a grammar problem.” Our language included no word that encompassed both have and had. That which we still possessed, intertwined with all we had lost.

Joe snorted. “You know what Hoss would have said to that.” Mimicking his big brother’s deep voice, he said, “Ain’t no point in worrying about grammar. Just tell the truth.” But his attempt at levity betrayed him. Tears filled his eyes, and his voice cracked: “The truth hasn’t changed.”

“No,” I managed. “It hasn’t.” I laid my hand on his. He bowed his head, shoulders shuddering. A drop landed on my hand. I squeezed his. We stayed like that as the fire burned down and the clock chimed again. Finally, my son wiped his face on his sleeve.

“I gotta get up early,” he said. “That herd has to come down from the north pasture.” Back in control, he recorked the decanter.

“Just leave it,” I said as he moved to take it back to its regular spot. “Hop Sing’ll get it in the morning.” He favored me with a crooked half-smile. I rose, and he wrapped his arms around me, enveloping me in his vulnerable strength. His wiry frame had filled out over the years, sturdy and muscular now. The little-boy hug grew into an embrace that had supported me through many dark hours, and would undoubtedly do so again and again, because some things are never over. If he felt my tears dampening his shirt, he didn’t say.

“Let’s turn in,” I said at last. We trudged up to our rooms, our footfalls nearly in unison, counting off the steps: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. At my doorway, across from Adam’s long-empty room, we said good night, and I watched as Joe walked past Jamie’s room. When he passed the closed door to Hoss’s room, he didn’t break his stride, but he reached out, brushing his fingertips against the wood. Then, he went into his own room and shut the door.

“Good night,” I whispered to my sons. Present and absent, awake and asleep.

My sons.

All of them.

Other Stories by this Author


Author: pjb

Still human.

44 thoughts on “Still His Father (by pjb)

  1. I love how Joe matured through the course of the show, and you’ve showcased that well here through Ben’s eyes. Th subject matter was difficult, but something so many sadly face — that lost, awkward adjustment from the death of someone that just shouldn’t be gone.

    Really well done, thx for writing.

  2. That was beautifully done. It’s a tough question that has no easy answer. I loved the picture of Joe and Ben drawing comfort from each other and I think “vulnerable strength” was an inspired turn of phrase.

  3. I’ve read many wonderful stories on this website, but have never left a comment. This story compels me to leave one. I have five children – all wonderful. BUT, I’ve had six. My oldest daughter (first born) passed away during open heart surgery when she was an infant. I’m asked all the time, “How many children do you have?” I want to scream, “SIX!” It doesn’t matter how much time passes, they are still your child and you are still their parent. This story really brings home to me how I’ve felt for the past 31 years. Thank you for such deep understanding! LuAnn

    1. LuAnn, thank you so much for such beautiful, insightful comments. This story was inspired by a friend who lost one of her grandchildren (born prematurely) just a few hours after birth; when my friend is asked how many grandchildren she has, she always includes this little girl in the count. Obviously, the way one answers this question is intensely personal, and there’s no right or wrong – the heart answers as it will, and it’s no one’s place to criticize or correct. May you will continue to treasure the memories of your daughter, and I pray you peace and comfort in the difficult moments.

  4. A very moving glimpse at a vulnerable moment, the sort we all face sooner or later, and you’ve captured beautifully the play of emotions as strong men struggle to deal with the aftermath of loss.

    1. Alas, it is indeed a moment we all eventually face in one way or another, and I fear few (if any) are ready for when it arrives. Puchi Ann, thank you so much for such lovely comments about the way these men supported each other in that moment.

  5. You shared a true life experience when the child becomes the parent for a moment, and then reverts back to the traditional role. And, depending on family dynamics, this flip flopping can occur briefly or be an extended period. Your portrayal of how the Cartwrights handled this was on target.

    1. Thank you so much, Chavel47! This is indeed how real life works – our parents parent us, and then we parent them, and sometimes it seems to be happening all at once. So glad you appreciated this picture of that experience.

  6. Well, if you meant to leave me with wet eyes and a lump in my throat, you certainly succeeded. You know I haven’t been able to sink into much Bonanza fic lately, but this was exactly the right length to make me dive in–and oh, it was worth it. As always, you’ve captured the Cartwright personas perfectly. And the symbolism of counting the steps: one, two, three, four–how did you ever think of doing that? Little touches like that show just how much skill you’ve got in that hot little pen of yours. Not everyone could take on this particularly sad period in the Cartwright saga and do real justice to the pain they had to be in, but you’ve managed it quite deftly. (No surprise there!) Love, love, loved this.

    1. So, so, so glad to hear it! (I should have known that if anyone would pick up on the counting steps part, it would be you. 😉 ) Many thanks for such wonderful comments – you made my day!

    1. And sometimes, a hint of consolation is all the Cartwrights need. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed the story, Sibylle!

  7. Brilliant story as ever Jo. From the first sentence I was hooked, feeling Ben and Joe’s pain at the loss they’d suffered. A masterclass in understated emotion from the Cartwrights. Loved it.

    1. I should have known the Queen of ESJ would find this story! It’s always wonderful to hear from you, Dodo. So glad you enjoyed this one!

  8. Tissue warning, indeed! Bring on the box! Not just for the subject but for how beautifully you intertwined the past with the present. Young Joe, grown up; Adam and Hoss included with familiar phrases and a single touch to a door; father and son – strength for each other. Always, four sons, four brothers. Always….

  9. Beautiful and eloquent! These lines hit me as particularly profound: “…no word that encompassed both have and had. That which we still possessed, intertwined with all we had lost.” Brava!

    1. As rich as the English language is, it still lacks words to describe some of the most important concepts. Thank you so much for reading this story and letting me know which part spoke to you, Freyakendra!

  10. A sequel of perfection to the traditional canon, PJB!! Loved it and thank you for some closure on the subject, I always knew that they’d remember him forever…The simple moments in this story were powerful and I also really appreciated your phrase “vulnerable strength”. That really sums him up…

  11. Nicely done, Jo. A question that people other than Ben and Joe might also struggle to answer when asked point blank. And, you managed a very short story! Brava!

    1. Pat, I expect many people struggle with this question, especially when it’s unexpected. I first became aware of it when a friend’s granddaughter died a couple hours after birth; my friend still includes this little one in the count when people ask how many grandchildren she has. Many thanks for reading (before and after posting) and for rescuing the library from my clumsy attempts to post!

  12. Oh my, I didn’t expect the story to take that turn. I need to go wash my face and dry my tears.

    Poignantly written with a heartfelt grief.

    1. Is it awful that I’m so pleased to hear you cried over this story? Petou, thank you so much for letting me know how deeply it touched you!

    1. Ah, the famous “tissue warning” – I forgot all about that! Thanks so much for letting me know how you much you enjoyed the story, Cheaux!

  13. And you’ve hit another one out of the ballpark. Even Ben and Joe aren’t exempt from the eternal question – “How many sons…..” , “How many brothers, siblings, do you……”. How do any of us get through that question – it only gets harder the older we get.

    1. Harder, and unfortunately more likely that we’ll encounter it. A question to be answered by each individual according to the dictates of his or her own heart. Thank you so much for such lovely comments, Ruth!

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