Summary: Ben finds it difficult to re-enter his boys’ lives after Marie’s death
Rated: K (13,335 words)
Picking up the Threads
Ben Cartwright stretched his legs out in front of him and sighed. He really was so sick and tired of sitting here and desperately needed to get out of the jolting stagecoach if only for a little while. Now that his journey was nearly at an end his impatience to see his boys again was hitting him with full force and it was all he could do to stop crying out his impatience to the other passengers in the stagecoach. He drew out his watch and looked at yet again, knowing full well what it would say.
There were times when Ben wondered how he had stayed away as long as he had. In the beginning it had seemed the right thing to do, but then he had not been himself. He’d been operating on automatic in so many ways and when Paul Martin had advised him to get away it had seemed like a wonderful thing to do. Part of him had died with his beloved Marie and all he had wanted to do was to run away from everything at the time … even his boys. Paul had convinced him that in order to help himself to come out of his depression he had no choice but to go and he knew that the doctor had been right, but now that he could see things a lot clearer he wondered how it had affected the boys and what they must have thought about it.
Of course Adam had been most understanding. The more Ben thought about it, the more he realised just what a wonderful son he had in Adam. After all, the boy was only seventeen and yet he had taken on more during these past weeks than many grown men would have been capable of handling. When he’d first decided to go away for this trip, Ben had toyed with the idea of sending Little Joe to stay with neighbours, but Adam and Hoss wouldn’t hear of it. Both of them had insisted on keeping him with them at the ranch, even though for Adam it had probably meant a great burden on top of trying to keep things running on The Ponderosa at the same time.
Ben was determined to make it up to his son. He knew how lucky he was to have such support from the boy and now that he was feeling more in control of his life he made a mental note to ensure that Adam had some time for himself. Ben intended to come home with a determination to pick up the threads of his life again and make sure that he was there for all his boys, as he hadn’t been before in the weeks leading up to this trip.
He fingered the letters in his pocket that he carried with him always, and took them out again to re-read for perhaps the fiftieth time. Reading them always made him feel closer to his boys and he took great delight in doing so. He opened Adam’s first.
Thank you for your last letter. I’m so glad that you are doing so much better now and look forward to seeing you on the 9th. We have all missed you a great deal while you’ve been away and are enjoying the thought of all being together again. Hop Sing has been wonderful in helping to look after the boys for me. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without him.
Things are going OK on the ranch. Charlie has been fantastic and helps me decide when things need to be done without letting on to the men that he is advising me. I must be honest and say that I have found it challenging, but I’m sure that you will find things running smoothly.
I have included a letter from Hoss and Joe for you. Little Joe said to tell you that his crosses stand for kisses. I will bring them both in to meet you on the stage when you arrive.
We are all looking forward to seeing you so much Pa. We’ve missed you!
Ben frowned as he folded the letter up again. Reading between the lines he could sense how pressured Adam had probably been while his father was away. Ben hated the thought that he had been responsible for the boy’s stress, yet he knew that if he hadn’t gone that he never would have had the opportunity to pull himself back and be the kind of father to his sons that he had to be now that …. His heart lurched as it always did as he thought of Marie …. now that he was the only parent they had.
Even though he was so anxious to see the boys, a great part of him dreaded getting back to the Ponderosa … for it would be a Ponderosa without her. Ben closed his eyes momentarily as the old pain washed over him again and then opened them with determination. He wouldn’t allow himself to wallow in his own self-pity again … not while his boys needed him. With a sigh, he opened Hoss’ letter.
Adam says that your comeing home next week. I am hapy that you are. Me and Adam and Joe miss you heeps Pa. It will be great to have you home agen. I have been busy helping Adam with lots of work. I also help with keeping Joe busy for him. Joe crys sometimes cause he misses ma and you. Adam lets him sleep in his bed when he does. Hop Sing has been taking good care of us and cooks us lots of good things. Adam is runing the ranch well and I help him. I do lots of extra chores to help him. Adam gets tired. One night he fell asleep downstairs and didn’t wake up until morning. I will be hapy when you come home Pa. I miss you.
Ben smiled to himself as he folded the letter up. Typical Hoss, he thought. At eleven, the boy was caught in between being a young boy and striving to be a man like his father and brother. Ben read between the lines a young and saw a young and frightened youngster who needed his Pa, yet one who was determined to do the right thing and support his brothers. Hoss had found it very difficult to understand why Ben had left the way he had and Ben had found it hard to leave him at the time. He was determined to make it up to his son now and give him the time that he needed. They also needed the time to talk about his stepmother’s death and how it had affected him. Ben knew that he had his work cut out for him now that he was back and whole again. With a small smile, he opened the last letter.
His heart lurched again as he looked down at the scribblings of the little boy on the page in front of him. Marie’s little boy … her pride and joy. Ben hated himself for how he’d turned away from the child in those weeks before he’d left, but he just hadn’t had it in him to face the one thing that reminded him so much of his beloved Marie. He knew that he would be coming home to a very confused little boy and he longed to be able to take the child in his arms this very minute and soothe away all the hurts of the past weeks. Thank God for his older two boys and Hop Sing, who would have ensured that Little Joe had been well cared for during this time. He ached now to take his youngest son back to himself and cherish him for the link that he was to his mother.
Ben sighed again as he folded the last letter and replaced them all in his pocket. He shut his eyes, willing the stagecoach onward to Virginia City, his home and his boys.
Ben’s heart rose as he looked out of the window and saw the familiar mountains in the distance as they turned the last bend that would finally take him to his beloved boys. He sighed with satisfaction and beamed around at the others in the small confined stagecoach. ‘Well we finally made it,’ he said happily. ‘Been nice travelling with you.’ He tipped his hat and straightened his jacket as he readied himself to depart as soon as they stopped. As the stagecoach slowed to a halt he had his hand on the doorhandle in readiness.
‘Pa! Pa!’ Ben’s eyes lit up as he spied Hoss through the window and he opened the door as quickly as he could. Alighting from the stagecoach before the wheels had even stopped turning, he found himself caught up in his son’s embrace and hugged the boy tightly to himself.
‘Hoss,’ he said happily. ‘How are you boy?’
‘I’m fine Pa,’ said Hoss, his voice muffled as he freed his face from the confines of his father’s jacket and beamed up at him. ‘How bout you? Are ya better now?’ His face showed the anxiety that he’d been feeling during these past few weeks. His father had seemed such a different man when he’d left and the boy hadn’t really known what to expect now that he was back.
Ben smiled down at his son and hugged him to himself again while he stroked his hair gently. ‘I’m much better now son,’ he said softly. ‘Much better.’
Hoss’ face relaxed. ‘I’m glad,’ he said happily. ‘I missed ya Pa.’
Ben knew that his son wasn’t just referring to the time he’d been on the trip. ‘I know,’ he said gently. ‘I missed you too son. I’m back now though.’ He gave the boy another quick squeeze before turning his head. ‘Where are your brothers?’ he asked.
‘Over there,’ said Hoss, waving his arm in the direction of the stage office.
Ben looked over the top of his son’s head and smiled at Adam who was standing next to the luggage as it was being unloaded. With one arm still around Hoss he took three quick steps towards his eldest son and stared at him for a moment before grabbing him around the shoulders and hugging him tightly towards him. Ben was pleased to feel Adam’s body lean in towards his own as he accepted his father’s embrace, yet it only convinced him even more how stressed this son of his must be.
It had never been in Adam’s character to accept a great deal of physical affection from his father. Even when he’d been a little boy he was not the sort of child to want endless cuddles and even then had been an independent child. So for this son of his to so willingly accept such a public display of affection said a great deal to Ben. He finally held the young man’s body away from his own and looked deeply into his eyes. ‘Adam,’ he said softly.
Adam met his father’s eyes with his own for a moment and then looked away. ‘Pa,’ he said before glancing back at the man. ‘It’s so good to have you home again.’ His expression was evasive, yet sincere and Ben read volumes into the way his son looked at him as he said it.
‘It’s good be back home again son,’ he said fervently. ‘So good.’ He hugged Adam again, revelling in the feel of his son’s body against his own and thinking how tired the boy looked. He had to do something about that now that he was home again. ‘Where’s Little Joe son?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you bring him in to meet me?’
‘He’s here,’ said Adam, moving back from his father’s grasp and pulling the small boy out from behind him. Ben’s heart lurched as he looked down at his youngest son who was standing clutching onto Adam’s trouser leg with one hand while sucking the thumb of his free one. Little Joe stared back up at his father as Adam tried to pull the child forward to greet him. ‘Here’s Pa,’ Adam said. ‘Come out and say hello to him Joe.’
Ben knelt down in front of the child and opened his arms to him, frowning when the little boy didn’t move. ‘It’s Pa,’ prompted Hoss from behind him. ‘Remember? You’ve been excited bout how he’s coming home Joe.’
Ben reached forward, pulled the little boy towards him and picked him up in his arms. As he hugged his son to his chest, he put his face in the child’s curly hair and drew in the fragrance of him, feeling yet again the sharp pain of his loss washing over him. He closed his eyes and then opened them again as he felt Little Joe trying to wriggle out of his grasp. Puzzled, he set him down again on his feet and watched as the child took a step backwards until he was partially behind Adam. ‘Say hello to Pa,’ prompted Adam.
‘Hello Pa,’ said Little Joe obediently.
‘Hello Joseph,’ breathed Ben softly. He reached for the boy again, but Little Joe took another step backwards until he was right behind Adam’s legs again.
‘He’s been really excited that you’re back,’ said Adam apologetically, as he held onto his little brother. ‘He’s probably just a bit shy after all these weeks Pa.’
Ben nodded, trying not to let the hurt he felt show on his face. Little Joe had never been shy in his life and they all knew it. He stood up again, suddenly feeling at a bit of a loss as to what to do. ‘We’ll get your bags for you,’ said Adam, sensing the awkwardness of the situation immediately. ‘Come on Hoss.’ Ben watched as his two sons grabbed his bags and dumped them into the wagon that was alongside them. Little Joe looked at his father for a moment and then headed off after them, keeping close to Adam the whole time. Ben straightened his shoulders and followed as well. ‘I thought we could all ride together in the wagon,’ explained Adam. ‘That way we can talk as we go along.’
‘Good idea,’ said Ben gratefully as he climbed into the front seat. Adam climbed up beside him and took the reins.
‘I also thought that you’d probably be tired,’ Adam went on. ‘So I’ll drive the team if you like.’
‘That’s very thoughtful son,’ said Ben gratefully. ‘It was a long trip.’ He watched as Hoss helped Little Joe up onto the back seat and then got up himself. ‘Would you like to ride up here with us?’ Ben coaxed the child, but Joe shook his head and settled against Hoss who put his arm around him. Ben’s heart lurched again as he tried to smile at his youngest son.
As they left the town behind them Ben noticed with relief that Adam took the trail that led over the top of the ridge rather going by the easier one by the lake. He was sure that it was done on purpose so that they didn’t have to pass the spot where Marie was buried and he glanced at his son gratefully. Adam nodded slightly in reply and Ben put his hand on the young man’s knee and squeezed it. ‘Thank you son,’ he said softly. Adam looked a little surprised. ‘For everything you’ve done while I’ve been away,’ went of Ben. ‘I know it hasn’t been easy.’ Adam shrugged, looking a little embarrassed at his father’s words.
‘I’ve done lots too Pa,’ said Hoss eagerly from the back seat of the wagon.
‘I know you have son,’ said Ben, winking at Adam. ‘I’m sure you were a great help to your brother.’
‘We’ve got lots to show you Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘Two new colts …. and we started getting the strays back … didn’t we Adam?’
‘We sure did,’ replied Adam. ‘Hoss has been a big help to me Pa.’ He winked at Ben who smiled back at them both.
‘Well I want to hear all about it,’ said Ben. ‘Tell me everything.’
By the time they reached the house, Ben felt as if his head was spinning with everything that Adam and Hoss had told him about the ranch. ‘I should have realised,’ he said softly. ‘I’m afraid I wasn’t really thinking about everything that you’d have to do while I was away.’ He glanced over at Adam. ‘I’m sorry I had to leave with all of it,’ he said.
Adam shrugged. ‘It’s OK Pa,’ he said shortly. ‘We managed.’
There was silence for a few moments and then Ben turned to Little Joe who’d been sitting quietly while his brothers had been talking. ‘I suppose that you helped too Joseph?’ he asked teasingly.
Little Joe took his thumb out of his mouth and said. ‘Yep,’ and then replaced it again.
Ben tried again. ‘So how did you help?’ he prompted.
The thumb was dislodged again. ‘Lots of things,’ the child said. ‘I helped Hop Sing lots.’
‘Hop Sing has been great with him,’ said Adam quietly. ‘I really couldn’t have managed everything without him.’ He drew the horses to a halt as they came around the side of the barn into the front yard and Ben sighed with satisfaction as he looked with love at his home.
‘It’s good to be back,’ he breathed as he sat and stared at it.
Suddenly the front door opened and Hop Sing emerged, smiling broadly. ‘Mr Ben!’ he said happily. ‘Good to have you back!’
‘Hop Sing!’ said Ben as he got down from the wagon. ‘It’s good to be here.’
The cook scrutinized Ben up and down. ‘You look better Mr Ben,’ he said wisely. ‘Trip do you good.’
‘I feel a lot better,’ said Ben. ‘Yes … the trip was exactly what I needed.’
‘Have special dinner prepared for you,’ said Hop Sing.
‘We’re having fried chicken Pa,’ said Hoss happily as he took the bag that Adam handed to him. ‘Hop Sing made a special dessert too.’
‘That sounds fine son,’ replied his father, giving him a hug.
‘You go inside Pa,’ said Adam. ‘We’ll bring in your bags for you.’
Ben held out his hand to Little Joe. ‘Come and show me inside the house Joseph,’ he said gently.
Little Joe looked at his father’s hand and then took Hop Sing’s instead. Ben smiled down at him. ‘Well we’ll all go in together then, shall we?’ he said.
As the three of them walked towards the house, Ben turned to Hop Sing. ‘I want to thank you Hop Sing,’ he said. ‘Adam told me how much of a help you’ve been to him. I can’t ell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done while I’ve been away. I couldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for you.’
‘Hop Sing happy to look after boys,’ replied the man simply. ‘They my boys too Mr Ben.’ The two of them smiled at each other as they entered the house.
‘Here you go,’ said Ben with a smile as he handed Adam the package. ‘I wanted to bring each of you something back.’
Adam grabbed the package eagerly, reminding his father of when he’d been a small boy. ‘Gee thanks Pa,’ he said. ‘You didn’t have to though.’
‘I wanted to,’ said Ben. ‘Open it son.’
Adam ripped off the brown paper covering and grinned at the pile of books. ‘Oh!’ he exclaimed. ‘They’re wonderful Pa. Thank you!’
‘I hope you like them,’ said his father. ‘I tried to choose ones that I knew you like of course and also ones that I thought might help you in getting ready for College.’
A momentary sadness flitted across Adam’s face. ‘I don’t think …’
Ben held up his hand. ‘I know that you’ve missed this year’s intake son,’ he said. ‘But there’s no reason why you can’t go next year.’ He watched as Adam’s face lit up and then became guarded again. ‘We’ll talk about it later,’ he said, indicated his two other sons. ‘I really still mean for you to go Adam, I want you to know that.’ He picked up the next package. ‘Here you are Hoss. This one’s for you.’
Hoss grinned as he took the package from his father. ‘Thanks Pa,’ he said happily. ‘Gee, this is just like Christmas.’ He ripped the paper off to reveal a box of whittling tools. ‘Wow!’ he said excitedly. ‘I can do some real good woodcarving with these Pa. Thanks!’ He flung his arms around his father, taking the man somewhat by surprise.
‘That’s all right son,’ said Ben. ‘I’m glad that you like them.’
‘I love em Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘You’re the best Pa in the world.’
Ben chuckled. ‘Well thank you,’ he said. And then turned to his youngest son. ‘Here you are Little Joe,’ he said. ‘This is for you.’ He held the package out to the child who looked at his father and then over at Adam.
‘Take it,’ Adam urged his brother. ‘Pa has a present for you.’ Little Joe took the package.
‘Would you like me to help you undo it?’ asked Ben.
Joe shook his head. ‘No.’
They all watched as the little boy tried unsuccessfully to undo the string around the package. Finally he picked it up and put it on Adam’s lap. ‘You do it Adam,’ he instructed. ‘I can’t get the string off.’
Adam obediently undid the string to reveal a set of toy soldiers. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘That’s great, isn’t it Joe?’ Little Joe said nothing. ‘Say thank you to Pa.’
‘Thank you Pa,’ said little Joe, looking at the soldiers in their box and not at his father.
‘I hope you like them Joseph,’ said Ben.
There was silence for a moment. ‘You want me to play with you Joe?’ asked Hoss. ‘We could make a war with them soldiers.’
Little Joe shook his head and replaced the lid on the box. ‘No thanks,’ he said.
‘Well I think it might be time for this young man to go to bed,’ said Ben. ‘How about I take you upstairs and get you into your nightshirt Little Joe?’
‘I want Adam to do it,’ said Joe giving his father a challenging look.
‘I don’t mind Pa,’ said Adam as he stood up and took his little brother’s hand. ‘He’s used to me doing it. Come on Joe … say good night to everyone.’
Ben drew the little boy towards him and gave him a kiss, noting as he did so how stiffly the child held himself against his father. ‘I’ll come up soon to say good night,’ he said as he stroked his son’s hair. He tried not to look hurt as Adam led the little boy up the stairs. ‘Well,’ he said, turning to Hoss. ‘How about you son?’
‘How about me?’ asked Hoss, puzzled.
‘Tell me all about what’s been going on with you. How has school been?’
Hoss hesitated. ‘Nuh,’ he said firmly.
Ben ruffled his hair. ‘Well that’s good,’ he said. ‘Maybe you and I could have a talk about some other things then.’
Ben looked at his son tenderly. ‘Actually I thought we might talk about your ma,’ he said. ‘I know that you must be feeling very upset about everything that’s happened.’
Hoss shook his head firmly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m OK Pa.’
Ben frowned. ‘But son,’ he said. ‘I think it’s a good idea to talk about it. I know that …’
‘I’m fine Pa,’ Hoss assured him with a smile. ‘You don’t need ta worry bout me none.’ He picked up his present. ‘I reckon I might go to bed too.’ He gave his father a tight hug. ‘I’m real glad you’re home Pa,’ he said happily.
Ben returned the hug. ‘So am I son,’ he said. ‘So am I.’ He listened to the silence that was only broken by the ticking of the grandfather clock as Hoss left the room.
‘Thank you Hop Sing,’ said Ben as the man handed him a cup of coffee. ‘I really thought after last night’s supper that I wouldn’t have much space left for breakfast, but I really can’t resist your cooking.’
‘You welcome Mr Ben,’ said Hop Sing happily.
‘I’ve missed all this,’ said Ben, ‘Travelling makes you really appreciate home comforts.’ He turned to Little Joe who was pushing his food around his plate. ‘Eat your breakfast Joseph,’ he said automatically.
Little Joe glared at his father. ‘I don’t wanna,’ he said.
Ben raised an eyebrow. ‘I said to eat it Joseph,’ he said. ‘You can’t start the day on an empty stomach.’
Little Joe looked at Adam. ‘Do I have to?’ he whined.
‘Yes,’ replied Adam. ‘You heard what Pa said.’ Little Joe glared at his father and put a spoonful in his mouth. Ben felt somewhat put out at the interchange and shifted uneasily in his chair.
‘Hoss?’ he said. ‘Isn’t it time you were getting off to school?’
‘Sure thing Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘He stuffed another roll into his mouth before standing up and hugging his father. ‘Bye Pa,’ he said. ‘It sure is good to have you home.’
‘So you’ve said son,’ laughed Ben. ‘Now off you go.’ He turned to Adam as Hoss left the room, banging the door behind him. ‘He certainly is happy to see me, isn’t he?’
‘He really missed you Pa,’ said Adam shortly. ‘We all did.’
Ben put his hand over that of his eldest son’s on the table. ‘I know son,’ he said. ‘So did I. Now … what’s on the agenda for today?’
Adam stood up and wiped his mouth on his napkin. ‘I need to get the men organised for the branding,’ he said. ‘I’ll go and see Charlie about it.’ He hesitated. ‘I mean … unless you want to do it Pa.’
‘No son, you do it. It makes sense for you to continue being in charge for a while until I get back into things,’ he said, failing to see the worried look that flitted across Adam’s face. ‘I think I might see if I can make sense of where we’re up to with the accounts today.’
‘It might be better if you waited for me to be here when you do that,’ replied Adam. ‘I’ll talk them through with you.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Ben. ‘If I have any questions I can ask you later.’
‘But …’ Adam stopped. ‘All right,’ he said reluctantly. ‘Whatever you want Pa.’ He turned to Hop Sing who had entered the room and was clearing the table. ‘I’m going now Hop Sing,’ he said. ‘Will you be all right with Joe for a while?’ Hop Sing nodded. ‘Bye squirt. See you at lunch,’ Adam ruffled his little brother’s hair and then strode from the room.
‘I think he’s forgotten that I’m here to look after Joseph now,’ said Ben. ‘I’m sorry about that Hop Sing. You don’t need to be bothered.’
‘Is no bother,’ said Hop Sing easily. ‘Little Joe help me while you away.’ As if he’d been cued to do so, the little boy climbed down from his chair and began to gather up the empty plates from the table.
‘I was thinking that we might go and look at those new soldiers of yours Joseph?’ suggested Ben.
‘I haveta help Hop Sing,’ said Little Joe. ‘I do it every day.’
‘I see,’ replied his father. ‘Well, maybe we can look at them later then.’ He sighed as Hop Sing and Little Joe left the room together. It seemed that things around here were going to be harder than he’d initially thought.
Paul Martin pulled his carriage to a halt and got down from it, smiling at Ben as he did so. ‘Ben!’ he called to his friend on the front porch. ‘I just couldn’t wait to come out and say hello.’
Ben stood up to shake his friend’s hand. ‘Paul,’ he said. ‘It’s so good to see you. Come and sit down and have some coffee.’ He poured a cup out for his friend.
‘Hop Sing’s looking after you I see,’ said Paul, pointing to the coffeepot and the cookies on the table.
‘Yes he is,’ said Ben. ‘Anyone would think I’d been sick or something.’
‘Well in a way you were Ben,’ replied the doctor as he took the cup of coffee from him. ‘Mental problems can be as real as physical ones you know. You’ve dealt with a great deal during these past months and I’m happy to see that light back in your eyes again.’
‘You can see I’m different?’
‘Absolutely. I only have to look at you to see that your whole demeanour is different to when you went away Ben. To be honest, I was really worried about you in those weeks after Marie died. You were sinking into such a depression that at one stage I feared that you might never come back out of it.’
Ben nodded. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘My emotions were completely out of control. I could sense it myself.’ He sighed. ‘But no more,’ he said firmly. ‘One thing these past weeks have taught me is that I will never allow myself to get to that stage again.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Paul. ‘For your sake and that of your boys Ben. By the way, you should be very proud of them and the way they’ve coped through all of this.’
‘I am,’ replied Ben. ‘I want to thank you Paul for checking up on them while I was away.’
‘I was glad to do it … you know that. How are you all getting on now that you’re back?’
Ben fingered his chin. ‘I’m not sure to tell you the truth. I know that Adam is glad to have me back, but …’ He hesitated.
Ben shook his head. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Hoss is all over me. Won’t leave me alone in fact. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard to be honest.’
‘He could be.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He really missed you Ben,’ said Paul.
‘Don’t remind me,’ said Ben sadly. ‘I’m feeling guilty enough without everyone telling me how much I was missed.’
Paul put down his cup and looked at Ben sternly. ‘Guilty?’ he said. ‘You’ve got no cause to be guilty. I want you to get that thought right out of your head.’
Ben snorted. ‘Well that’s a bit hard Paul,’ he said. ‘Of course I feel guilty. I up and left those boys just a few weeks right after their mother died. Not exactly the sign of a good parent, was it?’
‘Ben, don’t you understand? You had no choice. Why do you think I practically forced the decision on you to do it? If you hadn’t gone away, you’d have had no chance to get yourself together … you know that as well as I do … and you’d have been no good for these boys of yours. They need you Ben and now that you’ve been able to pull your life back together you’ll be able to be the father to them that they need you to be.’
Ben snorted again. ‘You could have fooled me,’ he said mournfully. ‘Adam seems to be coping very well with things around here. Hoss tells me that he has no problems and Little Joe … well the child won’t have anything to do with me.’
‘You know very well how much they’re all hurting inside,’ said Paul. ‘They’re just not showing that to you yet.’
‘And who is the one who made them hurt inside?’ asked Ben bitterly. ‘I have only myself to blame.’
‘They’re hurting inside because of Marie’s death,’ Paul persisted.
‘And I didn’t help, did I? Let’s be honest Paul … I turned my back on them for weeks after she died and then what did I do? Just as they all needed me the most I left! I took off for my own selfish reasons. No wonder they’re acting as they are.’ Ben put his face in his hands. ‘I’m beginning to wonder if life will ever be the same around here.’
‘Ben, for heaven’s sake give it time!’ Paul admonished him. ‘You haven’t even been back one day and you’re expecting to pick up as it was before Marie’s death. Life just doesn’t work like that and you know it.’ He put his hand on the other man’s shoulder. ‘Give it time my friend. I’m sure it will all work out.’
Ben dragged his eyes open and tried to focus on why he’d been so abruptly woken out of his deep sleep. A yell from outside his door made him sit up with a start and he rubbed his eyes as he swung his feet to the floor. Joseph! The child was obviously having a bad dream and judging by the yelling he was very distraught. He pulled his robe on quickly and headed down the hallway to his youngest son’s bedroom.
‘It’s OK Pa,’ said a voice behind him. ‘I’ll see to him. You go back to bed.’ Ben turned to see Adam, also in his robe. ‘You must still be tired after your trip,’ continued Adam. ‘I don’t mind fixing him up.’
‘No son,’ said Ben. ‘It’s up to me to do it.’ They entered the room together and Ben lit the lamp to reveal a distraught little boy sitting in the middle of his bed, the bedclothes all in disarray. Little Joe had tears streaming down his face and was hiccuping softly while he sucked on his thumb, which was inserted firmly into his mouth. Ben bent over him and smoothed his tousled curls. ‘Did you have a bad dream Little Joe?’ he asked softly.
‘Ye .. yes,’ hiccuped the child.
Ben picked him up and placed him on his lap, attempting to pull him close to his chest. Little Joe, however, wriggled free of his father’s grasp and held out his small arms to Adam. ‘Adam!’ he cried. ‘I want Adam!’
Ben let go of him and allowed him to go to his brother who picked him up and sat on the other side of the bed with him. ‘He gets like this,’ Adam explained to his father as he stroked Joe’s hair. ‘He’s been having a lot of nightmares.’
Ben tried not to look hurt as he watched his eldest son cuddling his youngest as he himself longed to do. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘And the thumb sucking?’
‘He was doing that before.’ Adam gave his father a puzzled look. ‘Before you went away … in the weeks after Marie died. Don’t you remember?’
Ben shook his head. ‘There’s a lot I don’t remember about that time,’ he said. ‘I blocked out a lot in those weeks after Marie’s death son and I’m only just now beginning to realise it.’ He reached across the bed and held his arms out to Little Joe. ‘Come to me Joseph,’ he said gently. ‘Let Pa hold you.’
Little Joe shook his head and cuddled in further to his brother’s chest. ‘I want Adam!’ he said firmly. ‘Go away!’
Adam gave his father a look of pity. ‘He doesn’t mean it Pa,’ he said. ‘He’s just … I mean he’s used to me coming in at night, that’s all.’
“I know son,’ said Ben in a low voice. ‘It’s all right.’ But it wasn’t all right. Ben longed to take his child to soothe him and had to fight with all his might against the urge to do so. ‘It’s probably best if you put him back to bed,’ he said as he stood up and forced himself to walk away from the bed. ‘Thank you Adam.’ He walked back to his own room, hearing his youngest son’s sniffles as he did so.
Ben stood next to his open window and looked at the cloudless sky above him with an aching heart.
Ben paused outside Hoss’ bedroom door and looked around his son’s bedroom in surprise. ‘Well this is nice and tidy,’ he said. ‘Has Hop Sing been cleaning up here already this morning?’
Hoss beamed at him as he smoothed out a non-existent wrinkle on his bedcover. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I done it myself Pa. I keep my room real tidy now.’
Ben smiled at the boy. ‘Well that’s wonderful to hear son,’ he said.
‘And I do lots of extra chores too,’ continued Hoss eagerly. ‘You don’t haveta be bothered with telling me to do em neither. I always remember.’ He shot his father an anxious glance. ‘I’ll go and get started on em now before breakfast so’s I’ll be ready in time for school. I’m never late for school no more.’
‘That’s good,’ said Ben, giving the boy a puzzled look as he headed past him. ‘I’ll see you at breakfast then.’ He walked to Little Joe’s room and was surprised to find that the child wasn’t in his bed. Little Joe was usually difficult to wake in the morning and was never one of the first out of bed. He walked towards Adam’s open door and looked in. Sure enough, just as he had suspected, Little Joe was curled up and sound asleep in his brother’s bed.
‘I brought him in here last night,’ explained Adam when he saw his father looking in. He reached for his boot and started pulling it on.
Ben nodded. ‘I see,’ he said. He glanced at the little boy in the bed and noticed that he had one of his new toy soldiers clutched tightly in his small hand and Ben’s heart rose at the sight of it. Maybe his son wasn’t rejecting him as much as he’d thought if he had taken his father’s present to bed with him?
‘I’ll get him dressed and bring him down,’ said Adam as he stood up. ‘We won’t be long.’
‘I could do it,’ said Ben.
Adam shook his head. ‘He’s used to me helping him,’ he said. ‘It’ll be quicker this way.’ His words sounded very much like a dismissal to Ben, so rather than dispute the issue he withdrew from the room and headed downstairs to the breakfast table.
‘Good morning Mr Ben,’ said Hop Sing cheerfully as he set a platter of eggs on the table. ‘Plenty breakfast for you to get strength back.’ He beamed at his employer.
‘Thank you Hop Sing,’ said Ben. ‘But I really have plenty of strength thank you.’
Hop Sing appeared not to have heard. ‘You eat big breakfast, then rest all day,’ he said. ‘You feel better chop chop!’
Ben smiled at the man and poured himself a cup of coffee while he waited for the boys to join him. Within minutes, Hoss appeared at the table. ‘Oh boy, eggs!’ he said eagerly and started to help himself to some.
‘Son, I’ve been thinking,’ said Ben. ‘Tomorrow is Saturday and maybe you and I could go fishing together so that we can have a long talk.’
‘That’s OK Pa,’ replied Hoss with his mouth full. ‘You don’t have ta spend your time fishing with me.’
‘But I’d like to go,’ persisted Ben. ‘Wouldn’t you?’
‘I’ve got lotsa chores to get done tomorrow,’ explained Hoss. ‘I do lot of extras now.’
‘Yes I know,’ said Ben. ‘You’ve told me that several times Hoss. But I’m sure that they could wait for a few hours.’
Hoss cast his father an uneasy glance. ‘I reckon not Pa,’ he said. ‘I’d best get em done. You can do the things you wanna do instead of worrying bout me.’
‘But Hoss I …’ Ben stopped as Adam and Little Joe came to the table. ‘Well we’ll talk about it tonight,’ he finished lamely. ‘Good morning Joseph.’
‘Good morning,’ said Little Joe as he climbed onto his chair. He looked at the eggs on the table. ‘I don’t like them eggs,’ he announced to everyone.
‘Yes you do,’ said Adam, before Ben could open his mouth. ‘You helped Hop Sing collect the eggs and said that you’d eat them, remember?’
Adam dished some eggs onto a plate for his brother. ‘There you go,’ he said. ‘Eat them up.’ Little Joe picked up his spoon obediently and began to eat.
‘You’re very good with him,’ observed Ben.
Adam shrugged as he helped himself to some eggs as well. ‘I’ve had to be,’ he said shortly.
Ben gave his eldest son a sharp glance. ‘Well you’ve done a good job,’ he said. There was silence around the table as everyone attended to their breakfast. ‘I really am very proud of the way all of you boys have managed here without me,’ Ben ventured finally. There was silence again. ‘Paul Martin told me yesterday that you’ve all coped very well.’
Adam shot his father a glance that Ben found hard to read. ‘Paul has helped a lot,’ the young man said. ‘We needed someone to.’
Ben frowned slightly. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Adam. ‘Hoss, you’d better get going or you’ll be late.’
Hoss wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up immediately. ‘I don’t wanna be late,’ he assured his father. ‘I get ta school on time now.’
‘You’ve told me that Hoss,’ said Ben, beginning to feel somewhat frustrated by his son’s insistence on doing the right thing and making sure that his father knew it. ‘Have a good day son.’
Hoss threw his father a grin. ‘Bye Pa,’ he said. ‘I sure am happy that you’re home.’
Ben sighed. ‘I know,’ he said. He waited until the front door had banged shut and then turned to Adam. ‘What is going on?’ he asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘With your brother. He seems so anxious to be perfect for me. All the extra chores and telling me all the time how good he is at school.’
Adam shrugged. ‘He’s scared.’
‘Scared of what for heaven’s sake?’
‘That you’ll leave again.’
Ben’s heart lurched. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me this last night?’
Adam shrugged again. ‘I didn’t think you’d be that interested.’
Ben stared at his son, nonplussed for a moment. ‘And why wouldn’t I be interested?’ he asked finally.
Adam glared at his father as he flung his napkin on the table and stood up. ‘You weren’t before you went away,’ he said simply. ‘Hop Sing!’ he shouted. ‘I’m going now. Can you look after Joe for me?’
Ben stood up as well, trying to keep his temper, which he felt that he was fast loosing. ‘I think you’ve forgotten that I’m here today,’ he said in an even tone. ‘Hop Sing doesn’t have to be burdened with Joseph. I’ll be looking after him.’
Adam’s eyes narrowed. ‘Whatever you say Pa,’ he said in the same even tone. ‘Only I think you should realise that Joe isn’t a burden to Hop Sing.’
‘I didn’t say that he was son,’ began Ben. ‘Only that I’m the boy’s father and I’d like to spend some time with him now that I’m back home.’
‘Suit yourself,’ said Adam. He smiled down at Little Joe who was listening to the conversation between his father and brother and looking at them with wide eyes. ‘You have a good day little buddy,’ Adam said gently. ‘I’ll see you later.’ He turned to Hop Sing who had entered the room. ‘I’ll be home for lunch,’ he said. ‘I’ll be in the branding corral all morning if you need me Hop Sing.’
‘That reminds me,’ said Ben as he walked after Adam to the door. ‘Isn’t it rather late in the year for us to be branding?’
Adam’s jaw clenched tight and he hesitated before answering his father. ‘Yes,’ he said. He reached for his coat and hat and began to put them on.
‘So why then?’ persisted Ben.
Adam turned to face his father. ‘Why are we late with the branding?’ he said in a sarcastic tone. ‘Well I don’t know Pa. I guess it might be because it’s the first opportunity we’ve had to do it this year. There have been other things to do around here and I’m sorry if I’m not as fast at doing them as you are. I’ve done my best you know.’
Ben took a step backward. ‘I’m sorry son, I didn’t mean to imply anything by that remark. I was just curious, that’s all.’
Adam shot his father a dark look before turning his back on his and striding from the room. Ben stared at the door in front of him for a moment and then turned towards the dining room again, forcing himself to smile at Little Joe. ‘Well let’s you and I have a talk then Joseph, shall we?’ he said.
Little Joe got down from his chair and shook his head as he faced his father. ‘I gotta help Hop Sing,’ he said.
Ben knelt down in front of him and smiled. ‘After you’ve helped Hop Sing then,’ he said. ‘We might go out and see the horses eh?’ He knew that Joe could never resist anything to do with horses, so this was a safe bet that the chid would take him up on the offer.
Little Joe hesitated. ‘No thanks,’ he said and turned to walk into the kitchen, leaving his father kneeling on the floor behind him.
‘Homework on a Friday night?’ said Ben teasingly as he walked past Hoss who was seated at the small circular table near his father’s desk. ‘That’s unusual son.’
‘I’m getting it all done now so that I don’t haveta worry on Sunday night,’ replied Hoss with a smile at his father. ‘I get my work done …’
‘Real quick now,’ Ben finished for him. ‘Yes I know,’ he said. ‘Would you like some help with it?’
Hoss shook his head. ‘No thanks,’ he said. ‘You don’t have ta be bothered with helping me Pa,’ he said. ‘I can do it.’
Ben looked over his shoulder. ‘Divisions,’ he mused. ‘You never found them easy before. Are you sure you don’t want me to help you?’
Hoss shook his head firmly. No thanks Pa,’ he said. ‘I’m better at em now. Adam helped me lots while you was away. I’ll ask him iff’n I got a problem with em.’ He bent his head and began to count on his fingers again.
Ben sighed as he walked towards his desk and sat down. He looked up as Adam walked down the stairs. ‘Little Joe asleep?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Adam shortly. He sat down in the blue chair near the fireplace and picked up a book without another word.
Ben tried again. ‘Son if you don’t mind there are a few things in the books that I’d like to go over with you.’
Adam stood up without a word and brought a chair over next to his father. ‘What?’ he asked.
‘Well here,’ said Ben, pointing to a page in the ledger. ‘I’m not sure why you’ve done the invoices like this.’
Adam lifted an eyebrow. ‘Just a shorter way of doing it,’ he said. ‘I thought it worked out better this way and it doesn’t take so much time.’
Ben nodded. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘Well I can see your point. It’s just that it doesn’t really show the full transaction though. Maybe it would be better if we did it the old way now that I’m back?’
Adam shrugged and his father noticed that his jaw had clenched tight. ‘I only did it that way to save time,’ he answered in a tight voice. ‘I didn’t have a lot of time to do things during these past few months.’
‘Yes I know that it must have been very difficult for you,’ said Ben. ‘But now that I’m back …’
‘Whatever you want Pa,’ said Adam, standing up. ‘Now that you’re back I’m sure that everything will be done around here as it should be once again.’
Ben stood up as well. ‘Adam son, I’m not criticising you,’ he said. ‘I’m just saying that it might be best …’
‘I said that’s fine Pa,’ said Adam. ‘You’re in charge around here and whatever you think is best is fine by me. You do things the way you want to.’ He turned from his father. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I might have an early night.’
‘Adam …’ Ben watched as his eldest son refused to acknowledge him and simply walked up the stairs to his bedroom.
‘So are you all tucked in?’ asked Ben as he entered Hoss’ bedroom.
‘Yes Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘Night.’
Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. ‘Good night son,’ he said gently. ‘Would you like me to read to you?’
‘No thanks,’ said Hoss. ‘You don’t have ta be bothered with reading ta me no more.’
Ben frowned. ‘Hoss, I want to talk to you about something,’ he said. ‘Ever since I’ve been back here you keep saying that you don’t want me to be bothered with you. Son, you could never be a bother to me. I want to do things for you.’
‘Yes Pa,’ said Hoss dutifully.
Ben stroked the boy’s hair. ‘What is it son?’ he asked gently.
‘What is what Pa?’ asked Hoss.
‘What is it that’s bothering you? Are you worried that if you’re not good all the time that I’ll be angry with you?’
‘Then what is it?’
‘I just don’t want ya to be bothered is all,’ said Hoss earnestly. ‘I can look after myself now and you don’t haveta spend time worrying bout me.’
‘I like spending time worrying about you,’ said Ben, but noticed that Hoss didn’t look convinced. ‘I know that before I left I wasn’t exactly the best father in the world to you,’ continued Ben. ‘But all that is behind us now. I want to do things for you son. I don’t need you to be perfect all the time … why do you think that you have to be?’ Hoss shrugged. ‘Are you worried that I might go away again if you’re not?’ asked his father. Hoss shrugged again and refused to look at the man. ‘Well if you are, then you don’t need to be,’ continued Ben. ‘I’m not going away ever again like that unless it’s on business and I have to. I went because I just needed some time for myself after your ma died son.’
‘I know,’ said Hoss. ‘You done told me that before you went.’
‘Well I’ve had the time for myself and I’m feeling much better for it,’ went on Ben. ‘Now that I’m back I want to be your Pa again. I want to spend time with you. Can’t you understand that?’
‘Yes Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘If ya want to, then I’ll spend time with you.
‘No son, it’s not if I want to,’ said Ben. ‘It’s if you want to.’
‘Sure Pa,’ said Hoss earnestly. ‘I love you Pa.’
Ben bent down and kissed his son on the forehead. ‘I love you too son,’ he said. ‘Now how about that fishing trip in the morning?’
‘Sure thing Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘If ya want to. I’ll get up real early and do all my chores so that I’ll be ready on time.’
Ben sighed and shook his head. ‘Hoss you don’t have to do all those chores now,’ he said.
‘I don’t mind Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘I’ll do em real quick so that you can have a good time with me at fishing.’
Ben shook his head, wishing that he could get through to the boy. He bent down and kissed his forehead again. ‘Well, how about I help you with them then?’ he said. ‘We’ll do them together. Good night son.’
‘Night,’ said Hoss happily. ‘I really love ya Pa.’
Ben sighed again. ‘I know Hoss,’ he said. ‘I love you too.’ He shook his head as he left the room. Perhaps in time his son’s insecurities would fade, but Ben knew that it take a great deal of patience in the meantime. He glanced at Adam’s closed bedroom door across the hall and noticed that there was a crack of light showing under it. After a moment’s hesitation he knocked on it, but there was no answer. He knocked again and with a sinking heart noticed the crack of light disappear as a lamp was extinguished from within.
‘You go and get the fishing gear together Hoss,’ said Ben. ‘I’ll join you in a few minutes.’ Hoss wiped his mouth eagerly and headed outside. Adam also stood up. ‘Just a moment please Adam,’ said Ben. ‘I’d like to speak to you.’ Adam sat down again without a word and faced his father, his face bland and impassive.
‘I need to apologize for what I said last night,’ said Ben, choosing his words carefully. ‘I want you to know that I wasn’t criticizing you son. I know how difficult things must have been for you when I was gone and I’m just trying to fit back into this family and make things better for everyone.’ Adam said nothing. ‘I’m really very proud of the way you’ve held things together here Adam. You’ve run the ranch as well as looked after your brothers and that’s taken a lot of sacrifices on your part. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.’
Adam nodded his head slightly. ‘You’re welcome,’ he said in a tight voice.
‘You’re very angry with me, aren’t you?’ persisted Ben. ‘I think we should talk about it.’
Adam shook his head. ‘I’m not angry Pa,’ he said.
‘Well I think that you are,’ said his father.
‘I’m not angry,’ said Adam firmly, standing up. ‘I know that you needed to go the way you did and I’m happy that you’re feeling better now. You’re in charge of the Ponderosa and whatever you say goes as far as I’m concerned. Hopefully things will get back to normal again now that you’re back.’
‘I hope so too,’ said Ben. ‘I wish for nothing more than to be a family together like we were before.’ He glanced at the empty chair at the other end of the table, which had always been Marie’s … ‘Well as best we can anyway.’ He looked up at Adam. ‘I need your help to do that though son,’ he said.
‘Sure Pa,’ replied Adam evenly. ‘Whatever you need.’
‘I know that you …’
‘If you’ll excuse me now though, I’ve got work to do,’ interrupted Adam. ‘Have a good morning fishing with Hoss.’ He left the room.
Ben picked up his coffee up and looked at Little Joe over the rim. ‘Well that went well, didn’t it?’ he said sarcastically to himself. Little Joe stared back at his father, placed his thumb in his mouth and began to suck on it furiously.
Ben looked across the yard and noticed Little Joe standing near the barn door staring at him. ‘Hello there Joseph,’ he called out. ‘Come on over here and I’ll show you the horses son.’ The little boy shook his head and disappeared into the barn again and Ben sighed as he leant back on the fence and looked at the horses in the corral.
‘So how’s it going today boss?’
Ben turned his head and smiled to see Charlie, the Ponderosa foreman standing next to him. ‘Hi Charlie,’ he said. ‘I thought you were out with Adam at the branding corral?’
‘I was,’ said the man. ‘But I just came back ta get some more rope.’ He leant on the fence beside Ben and rested his arms on the top rung. ‘Adam said that you’re coming out later?’
‘Yes. It’s about time I got back into things around here,’ replied Ben. ‘I’ve missed the work.’
‘We’ve missed you,’ said Charlie. ‘It’s good ta have ya back again.’
‘Thank you,’ said Ben with a smile. ‘I’m glad to hear it.’
‘You should be right proud of that eldest boy of yours,’ said Charlie. ‘He did real well while you were away … and before,’ he added meaningfully.
‘I know,’ said Ben softly. ‘I am very proud of him.’ He turned to face the other man. ‘And I know just what part you had to play in things around here too my friend. Thank you.’
Charlie shrugged. ‘Tweren’t nothing,’ he said easily. ‘I just helped him out a time or two is all when things got a bit too much fer him. He did real well even without me.’
Ben nodded. ‘That boy has a lot of strength in him,’ he said.
‘Sure does,’ agreed Charlie. ‘I reckon he gets it from his Pa.’ He grinned at Ben, who gave him a weak smile in return.
‘Thanks for that Charlie,’ he said. ‘But to tell you the truth I’m afraid I don’t feel terribly strong right about now.’
‘Boys giving ya a hard time?’
Ben gave the man a startled look. ‘How did you know that?’ he asked.
‘Just thought they might,’ the older man replied. ‘I reckon there’s a lot of mending ta do in that family of yours boss.’
Ben nodded. ‘You’re not wrong there,’ he said.
Charlie put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. ‘It’ll all work out,’ he assured him. ‘They’re good boys and they love their Pa.’
Ben nodded. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘At the moment though, I really don’t feel like I deserve their love. I let them down badly Charlie and I can’t forgive myself for that.’
Charlie made a face. ‘They’ll get over it,’ he said. ‘Ya did what ya had to boss. I reckon they’ll come around in time.’
Ben looked over to the barn again where Little Joe was peeking around the door again and staring at him. He beckoned to the child, but the little boy immediately disappeared once more back into the barn. ‘I sure hope so Charlie,’ he sighed. ‘I sure hope so.’
‘That’s fine work son,’ said Ben, smiling at Adam who was standing looking at the last of the strays being branded. ‘You’ve done well getting all this done so quickly.’
‘Thanks Pa,’ said Adam. ‘We just need to get these last few done and then I’m going to get these men over to the mill to start loading the lumber for shipment. We should be able to get started on it by noon tomorrow.’
Ben frowned slightly. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to send them up to the lumber camp and get the logging finished first?’ he suggested. ‘That way we’d be able to put both teams down at the mill together and get it all loaded at once.’
‘I’ve already organised for them to do it this way,’ replied Adam.
‘Yes of course,’ said his father. ‘But it’s easily changed, don’t you think? It’ll be more productive the other way.’
Adam’s voice rose slightly and several of the men turned at the sound of it. ‘I think it’s better to do it the way I said,’ the young man retorted. ‘You don’t understand what we’re up to with it.’
Ben tried to keep his voice low. ‘I’m not criticising you for your decision son,’ he said. ‘I just think that it’s easy to change the orders and maintain both teams together. Let’s try it and see, all right?’
Adam glared at his father. ‘Why are you embarrassing me in front of everyone?’ he snarled.
Ben tried to lower his voice even further. ‘I’m not trying to embarrass you Adam,’ he explained. ‘I’m just saying …’
Adam turned away. ‘You’re going against what I’ve already told them to do,’ he said angrily.
‘Son …’ Ben reached out to put his hand on Adam’s shoulder, but the young man pushed it away.
‘Leave me alone,’ he said angrily. ‘You do what you want … you will anyway!’ He strode over to his horse and mounted up, glaring at his father before turning and riding away.
Ben stood with his hands on his hips staring after his son. He bit his lip and then faced the men who were by now all staring at him. ‘What’s it to be then boss?’ asked Charlie.
‘We’ll put both teams together,’ said Ben firmly. ‘Move everyone out when they’ve finished here please Charlie. I’ll be at the house if you need me.’ He mounted up and turned his own horse in the same direction that Adam had ridden.
‘Adam you have to understand,’ said Ben. ‘I didn’t mean to embarrass you out there son, but I have to do what I think is best for the ranch. I wanted to talk it over with you, but you didn’t give me that chance before you rode off.’
‘You do what you like Pa,’ said Adam angrily as he faced his father. ‘I told you before that I’ll take any orders from you that you want, didn’t I?’
‘Yes you did,’ said Ben. ‘But you’re obviously very angry with me and I want to talk to you about it. I’ve already explained to you that I’m trying to find my place here again. Now I appreciate all that you’ve done while I’ve been away, but perhaps its time for us to sit down and discuss a few of the issues that concern the ranch.’
‘I don’t see why that’s necessary,’ said Adam. ‘Everything will go back to how it was before in time. I told you that I’m happy for you to be in charge again.’
‘No you’re not,’ said his father. ‘That’s very obvious. And things can never go back to the way they were before son. We’ve come too far for that to ever happen. When I left here you were a boy helping me with things on the ranch. Now that I’m back I can see that you’re a man. A man that I’m very proud to call my son and a man who is quite capable of running things around here. I’d be very happy to leave everything to your capable judgement Adam, except for one thing. The Ponderosa is my dream. It’s what I’ve worked for all these years and I just can’t sit back and not be involved with it any more. What I’m hoping for is that you and I can run it together.’
‘As long as you’re in charge,’ said Adam. ‘As long as you get to say what’s what, isn’t that right Pa?’
‘Adam …’ Ben reached out a put his arm around the young man’s shoulder, but Adam shrugged it off and took a step backwards. Ben tried again. ‘Adam it’s time for you to let me do things around here again,’ he said. ‘It’s time for you to be my son and stop trying to be everything to everyone.’
Adam glared at his father. ‘Why should I?’ he spat at him. ‘I’ve had to be everything to everyone around here for a long time now. Why should it suddenly change just because you’ve decided that you are ready to take over again? What about me? Am I supposed to just back away from everything now? Tell me how I do that!’
Ben shook his head. ‘Adam,’ he said. ‘Oh Adam son … I know what you’re like. You’ve been trying to hold things together for so long now that …’
‘And whose fault is that?’ his son spat at him.
‘It’s my fault,’ admitted Ben. ‘I know that. I just …’
‘Save it Pa,’ shouted Adam. ‘I know why you did what you did! Paul Martin had a long talk with me about it remember? I’m glad that you’re feeling better … I really am … but just don’t expect all of us to …’ he turned as a small snuffling sound could be heard behind them both.
Ben bent down and looked under his desk. Two big green eyes stared back out at him and the snuffling noise became louder. ‘Little Joe?’ he said. ‘What are you doing under there?’
Little Joe crawled out from under the desk and stood up, his green eyes wide with fear and brimming with tears. He ran over to Adam and wrapped his arms around his brother’s legs. ‘You go away!’ he shouted to Ben over his shoulder. ‘Leave my brother alone!’
‘Joseph,’ said Ben tenderly. ‘I’m sorry we frightened you. Come here to Pa.’ He tried to disengage the child’s arms from his brother’s legs.
‘Why don’t you just leave him alone?’ said Adam bitterly as Little Joe resisted his father’s attempts to take hold of him. ‘Can’t you see that he doesn’t want you? Why don’t you just leave him to me?’ He picked his little brother up and carried him from the room, banging the door behind him.
Ben sat by the side of the lake and looked out over the still blue water. His heart was heavy and his mind was full as he tried to come to grips with everything that was going on in his family. He glanced at the stone marker next to him and his heart gave the familiar lurch that he’d become so accustomed to during these past months. ‘Help me my love,’ he whispered as his eyes brimmed with tears. ‘Help me to reach them all. Help me to find the right words for them. I miss them so.’ He lowered his face into his hands and wept the bitter tears of guilt and sorrow that had been brimming up inside him since he’d returned.
‘So how was school today Hoss?’ asked Ben. ‘Anything exciting happen?’ He glanced at Adam who was eating his supper silently with his eyes fixed firmly on his plate and then at Little Joe who was pushing his food around his plate as usual.
‘Nuh,’ said Hoss. ‘Nothing much. I’m being real good but Pa,’ he added.
Ben tried to smile at him. ‘Good,’ he said absently. ‘Joseph eat your supper please.’
Little Joe looked up at his father. ‘I’m gonna go to school with Hoss,’ he announced.
Ben smiled at him. ‘Yes of course you are,’ he said. ‘One day.’
Little Joe shook his head. ‘Nuh,’ he said. ‘I’m gonna go after the summer vacation. Ain’t I Adam?’
Adam shrugged his shoulders. ‘I guess so,’ he said listlessly.
‘No,’ said Ben gently. ‘You’ll go when you’re six Little Joe. Next year.’
His son shook his head. ‘Nuh uh!’ he said. ‘Adam said I’m gonna go after the summer and I is!’ he announced. ‘Adam said … so there!’ He flashed his father a challenging look and Ben felt his temper begin to rise in spite of himself.
‘What’s all this about?’ he asked Adam. ‘Have you been telling the boy this?’
Adam sighed and put down his fork. ‘I talked to Hoss’ teacher a few weeks ago,’ he said. ‘She offered to take Joe a few months early in view of the circumstances and I thought it was a good idea.’
‘So you just made this decision without consulting me?’ said Ben.
‘You weren’t around to ask, were you?’ said Adam frostily. ‘And at that stage I had no idea when you’d be coming back and it seemed like a good idea.’
‘And so you went ahead and told the child?’ said Ben. ‘Really Adam … I think you could have waited.’
Adam pushed his chair back. ‘Waited!’ he shouted. ‘Waited for what? Waited for you to decide whether or not you were going to come back into our lives? I’m sick and tired of doing what you want all the time!’
Ben glared at his eldest son. ‘You will not speak to me like that!’ he said. ‘I am your father!’
‘Then why don’t you start acting like it?’ demanded Adam, his voice beginning to quiver. ‘Why don’t you start acting like a father to them as well, instead of me having to do it all the time?’ He pointed to Hoss and Little Joe who were staring at them both.
‘You are not Little Joe’s father,’ said Ben. ‘I am and I’ll make the decision about when the boy goes to school and that’s an end to it.’
Adam stood up and strode out of the room without another word. Ben sat for a moment breathing deeply, aware that his two younger boys were still staring at him. ‘Hoss,’ he said after a moment. ‘I want you to take Joe upstairs for me please. Can you put him into his nightshirt and tuck him into bed?’
‘Sure thing Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘I can do that.’
Ben stood up and walked away from the table and then turned as he heard a small voice behind him.
Ben knelt down next to Little Joe’s chair. ‘Yes son?’ he said.
‘Can’t I go to school ever?’
Ben leaned forward and hugged his little boy. ‘Of course you can go to school,’ he assured him. ‘I need to talk to Adam now. You go upstairs with Hoss now like a good boy and go to bed … OK?’
Ben left the room and walked out onto the front porch where Adam was standing. He stood beside his son for a minute without speaking and then said, ‘Adam, I’m sorry.’
‘So am I,’ said Adam in a low voice. ‘I didn’t mean to say all that … especially not in front of Hoss and Joe.’ His chin quivered and Ben’s heart constricted at the sight of it.
‘Please come and sit down,’ Ben said. He pulled Adam by the arm and sat him down on a chair, and then sat on one opposite him. For a long time there was silence between them and finally Adam looked at his father and spoke.
‘You were right about one thing you know.’
Ben lifted an eyebrow. ‘Yes? And what is that?’
‘I am angry with you.’ Adam gave his father a challenging look, which reminded Ben of the kind that Little Joe was so good at giving him.
‘I’m glad that you can finally admit that son,’ said Ben. ‘It needed to be said.’
Adam nodded. ‘Its like …’ his chin began to quiver again. ‘Its like you just didn’t care about us,’ he said. ‘I mean … I know why and all that. Marie dying … I can’t begin to know what it was like for you Pa. Especially after Hoss’ ma and mine did as well,’ he glanced at his father and then lowered his eyes to study his boots intently. ‘But even so ….’
‘Even so you’ve been angry with me,’ Ben finished for him.
Adam nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I just can’t help it Pa. I’m not a little kid like Joe, but I’m sure acting like one aren’t I?’
‘Adam you’re allowed to be angry,’ said his father. ‘Lord knows that I’ve been angry myself these past few months.’
‘Of course I have. Angry with everyone and everything. Especially angry with God for doing this to me … to us. There were days ….’ His voice trailed away. ‘I was so angry that I just couldn’t see how to stop feeling that way,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to explain son, but in a way that was why I left. I knew that if I stayed I’d never be the father you needed. It wasn’t fair to you to go … I know that … but I had no choice. Please try and understand.’
‘I do understand,’ said Adam bitterly. ‘But I had no choices. You left me without any choices.’
‘And that’s what you’re angry about?’ prompted Ben.
‘Yes. I couldn’t do what you’d done … I couldn’t walk away.’ His eyes brimmed with tears. ‘And I really wanted to Pa. I wanted to walk away from all of it.’
Ben put his arm around his son’s shoulder and for the first time it wasn’t shrugged off. ‘I know,’ he said.
‘No you don’t know,’ said Adam bitterly. ‘You never knew the nights that Hoss would cry himself to sleep. I’d lie in bed until I couldn’t stand it any longer and then I’d go in and try to comfort him. But it wasn’t me he needed Pa … it was you.’ He looked at Ben. ‘Did you know that Little Joe has started to wet the bed again?’ Ben shook his head. ‘Well he has and I had to deal with all of that too. I tried with them both … I really did … but …’ He hung his head and began to sob quietly. Ben sat quietly and waited for him to stop.
Finally, Adam put his head up and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. Ben looked up at the stars in the clear black sky and prayed for the right words to say to his boy. ‘I’ve told you a number of times since I’ve been back that I’m proud of you Adam,’ he said finally. ‘I do mean it.’
‘I’m sorry for everything that has gone on during these past few months to hurt you son. I can’t change it. I didn’t know how hard things were for you.’
Adam looked at his father. ‘No, you didn’t know,’ he agreed.
‘I’m trying to make things right again Adam. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’m trying son,’ continued Ben. ‘If I seem like I’m criticising you, I honestly don’t mean to.’
‘It feels like you are,’ said Adam. ‘All I’ve ever heard since you’ve got back is criticism.’
‘That’s not true Adam.’
‘It feels like it.’ He gave his father a dark look. ‘I’m sorry if things aren’t the way you think they should be around here,’ he continued. ‘I did my best.’
‘And your best was wonderful. I’ve told you that,’ said his father.
‘It was so hard,’ said Adam, not seeming to even hear his father. ‘Hoss and Joe needed you … they needed you so much.’ He hesitated. ‘I missed you too. I …. I needed you too Pa. I needed you and you weren’t there for me … you weren’t there for any of us. And then you took off and left us to pick up the pieces. I understand why you had to do it … I really do … Paul explained all that to me. But Hoss and Joe don’t understand. I tried to explain it to them the best way I knew how, but it wasn’t enough. You think I’m taking your place as Joe’s father, don’t you? Don’t you realise that no one could do that? He only turns to me because you weren’t there for so long.’
‘I don’t want to be his father Pa, I only want to be his brother’.
‘I know son’.
‘He needs you as his father, not me. Hoss needs you too’.
‘And so do you,’ added Ben, looking intently at his son.
Adam began to sob louder. ‘Oh Pa! Please …’ He reached out and clung to his father and Ben hugged him as he hadn’t done for many years.
‘I’m here boy,’ he said. ‘I’m here for you now. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t before. I can’t ever get that time back again. I can’t ever make it up to you, but I’m here now.’ For a long time, father and son held onto each other, Ben allowing Adam to sob all of his emotions out onto his shoulder. After a long time, he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and handing it to his son. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Wipe your face.’
Adam did as he was bid, looking very much a child to his father at that moment. ‘Adam, I’ve never been prouder of you than right now,’ Ben said finally. ‘Give it time son. I know that we’ll work it out.’ Adam nodded. ‘Let’s go on from here Adam … We’ll move forward together now.’
Ben straightened up and sat back on his chair again. ‘You know … time will help Hoss feel more secure about me staying here, and Little Joe … well, he’ll come around in time as well. The most important thing right now though is you. You’ve been so overworked in these past few months. You need to have some time for yourself now and I’m going to make sure that you have that time to yourself to be a boy again.’ Ben smiled at him. ‘Well, maybe not a boy …. but a young man … a young man without children to care for any more, eh?’
Adam smiled back at his father. ‘I really don’t want to take your place with them Pa,’ he said. ‘I never did.’
‘I know son,’ replied his father. ‘Don’t you worry about it. We’ll work it out somehow.’ They both smiled at each other with a sudden feeling of relief.
Suddenly there was a muffled cry from above and Adam stood up. ‘That’s Joe,’ he said. ‘I’ll go to him.’ He hesitated and then turned to his father. ‘That is …um … maybe you’d better do it Pa.’
Ben stood up as well. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You take some time to yourself now son. You’ll see … everything will look better in the morning.’ Adam nodded and wiped his nose again on his sleeve.
Ben went into the house and saw Hoss sitting in front of the fireplace with his feet on the coffee table. ‘Don’t you have homework to do?’ he asked.
‘Yeah I guess,’ said Hoss evasively. ‘I can do it later but.’
‘You’ll do it now young man,’ said Ben firmly. ‘When I come back down I’m going to check and see that it’s done. Understood?’
Hoss nodded. ‘Understood,’ he said with a sigh.
‘And take your feet off that table!’ Ben smiled at him and climbed the stairs before entering Little Joe’s bedroom. He turned up the lamp next to the bed and smiled down at his youngest son. ‘I thought you might be asleep by now,’ he said.
Joe glared up at him. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I want Adam.’
‘Adam is busy. You’ll just have to put up with me,’ Ben told him.
‘But I want Adam!’ Little Joe said stubbornly.
Ben picked the child up and held him in his arms, staring into the face that reminded him so much of his beloved Marie. ‘Well it looks like it’s just you and me Joseph,’ he said. He looked down and saw that the little boy was clutching one of his new toy soldiers. ‘Do you like your soldiers?’ he asked teasingly.
‘Yep,’ said the child, putting his thumb into his mouth again and sucking it.
Ben sat down in the chair next to the open window and cuddled the little boy into his chest. Little Joe leant his head in towards his father and looked up at him, his big green eyes wide. Ben smiled down at him. ‘How about I rock you to sleep tonight?’ he asked gently.
Little Joe said nothing as they both began to rock backward and forwards in the chair, his little body gradually relaxing against that of his father’s. Ben put his head on the back of the chair as he looked up at the stars in the black sky and listened to the slurping sound of a small thumb being sucked, smiling contentedly at the sound. Tomorrow he’d try again to pick up the threads of their family life. Tomorrow they might get one step closer to how they all wanted it to be.
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