Summary: Joe struggles to find his way.
Word Count: 1350
I sleep little and spend most nights sitting by my window staring into a pitch-black sky for answers that never come. Talking doesn’t help and I refuse to speak his name aloud. Seriously, what’s the point?
When bad things happen, a man is forced to deal with the consequences the best he knows how, but sometimes his best isn’t good enough. Life can change in an instant. There’s no going back and no moving forward, and my new way of life is hard to navigate. A foreign unease has settled into every step I take and every word I speak. The joy of living is for those who live far, far away.
Pa doesn’t know how restless I’ve become. He peeks into my room before going to bed, but after hearing his door close, I push back the covers and pull a chair close to my open window. Some nights bring relief. I find myself smiling and enjoying the simple times when life made sense and laughter spread through the house. Other nights bring tears and a pain so deep, I pray dawn will break and the grief will subside.
I try to make sense of my new life. Like a good little soldier, who checks off his daily duties from a list provided by his sergeant, I relish my everyday chores as a sense of accomplishment in an otherwise mundane existence. Life has no purpose, no cause for happiness or reasons to carry on. Pa always wants to talk and I don’t. I avoid him like a skittish horse and spend endless hours hiding out in the barn.
I pulled off my glove and ran my fingertips over the hand-tooled gift I’d bought for my brother’s birthday. He’d eyed a similar item at Larry’s Saddlery and started saving his money. Every week he stashed a portion of his pay and every week I stashed a portion of mine, but with a small down payment, I was able to place the order. Larry assured me it would arrive just in time.
But now, the gift was a constant reminder of what I’d lost and what would never be again. I’d worked hours to soften the leather, but this particular saddle would never see the back of a horse. Engraved within the intricate design should’ve been the big man’s initials; instead, one simple word said it all: Hoss.
I let my mind wander back more than twenty years to a better time and place. I was eight or nine at the time, and all I wanted was a pair of gloves like Pa’s. If I was old enough to do chores, I was old enough to have gloves that fit my hands. My brothers laughed and told me they didn’t make gloves for babies and I’d have to wait till I grew some. It wasn’t fair. Life wasn’t fair and I stomped out of the room.
On a cool Saturday morning when I came down to breakfast, a blue handkerchief sat on my plate. “What’s this?” I asked.
“Your brother’s been busy,” Pa said. “Look inside.”
I pulled out my chair and sat down before unwrapping the blue hankie. Inside, a pair of old work gloves had been cut down to size and re-stitched to fit my hands. I looked at Adam. He shook his head. I turned to Hoss and he smiled. “Hope they fit you, little brother.”
“You made these?”
“It ain’t even my birthday.”
“Try ‘em on.”
Since there weren’t any store-bought gloves my size, Hoss remedied that by using an old pair of Pa’s, and they fit perfectly. I stared at my gloved hands before I ran around the table and hugged my big brother so tight, he had a hard time breaking free. “You’re the best, Hoss.”
“Aw, t’weren’t nothin’.”
When the reverend spoke over his grave, his words sailed over me like a sparrow in flight, dipping and soaring and angling his wings through a tireless breeze. Unlike that little sparrow, I’d become lost. I had no direction and wavered endlessly through the guarded existence my life had become.
My world had gone stale and silent. The gift of friendship, of that loyal confidant who brought more than sunshine to all our lives, had slipped beyond the horizon. The joy of laughing with my best friend and the joy of seeing his face light up was lost forever.
“Love is stronger than death, Son. Honor his memory and make it something positive in your life.”
Pa’s words rang out, but my behavior had been more selfish than helpful. Pa hurt too, and I let him down in more ways than I had fingers and toes to count. Our world had been shattered by the loss, and I’d kept to myself. My grief was too absolute to share with another human being. It was mine alone; no one else could comprehend, but the look in Pa’s eyes, the sorrow that begged for relief mirrored my own and broke my heart. Pa needed to feel human again too. His need to make it through another day was as great or greater than mine. Oh, God how I’d let my father down.
“You’re a very selfish man, Joe Cartwright.”
I spent most evenings on the front porch and let the cool mountain air absorb my thoughts. Climbing in bed was a worthless effort, and I stayed outside longer and longer each night. Normally, light poured through the window over Pa’s desk but this night was different. When I stepped inside, only a single lamp burned next to my father’s chair.
He’d turned the wick low and his face, though nearly obscured by shadow, was streaked with tears. I crossed the room and crouched down in front of him. He tried to turn away, tried to hide, but when I placed my hand on his knee and whispered his name, he fought to gain control.
“Pa,” I repeated.
Something else showed through, something I’d seen often during the course of my life. What became clear and hurt even worse was that Pa had tried reaching out so many times over the past few weeks, and I backed away. I avoided all conversation and hid in the barn like a scared little kid who couldn’t face the truth. But the truth was evident in my father’s swollen eyes.
I’d put my life on hold. My brother died and something inside me died too. My father had three sons. Though Adam sought adventure elsewhere, Hoss had given everything to his family and his life on the Ponderosa. They’ll always be my brothers, and we’ll always be Pa’s legacy, but what kind of man had I become?
“I thought I’d lost you too, Joseph.”
His words were silky soft but had such a desperate tenor that tears of remorse threatened. I didn’t let them fall. Instead, I pulled myself together for the first time in a long time.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry about everything, but one thing’s certain. You’re stuck with me for the duration.”
“I sure hope so, Son.”
I stood and took a deep breath. “Ready for bed?”
Pa and I climbed the stairs together. He stopped outside my door. “Goodnight, Joe. Sleep good.”
“You too, Pa.”
For the first time in weeks, I climbed into bed and slept a full night. No more staring out the window and no more feeling that I’d been the only one affected by my brother’s death. Pa had always been my rock, and I lost sight his importance in my life. I’d been a fool.
Damn fool or not, I felt ready to move forward and let Pa back into my life. Someone once said you’re never too old to learn, and I guess he was right. Hoss would slap me upside the head if he knew how I’d behaved, and the only other certainty in my life was that I’d do anything in the world to make my brother proud.
Written for the 2019 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament
The suits were: Location of story (clubs); object desired or coveted (diamonds); person to be avoided (hearts); calamity (spades)
The words dealt were:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Other Stories by this Author