Brothers (by pjb)

Summary:  A missing scene for “Forever.” On the morning of his wedding, Joe reflects on his absent brothers-and the one who remains.

Rated: K  WC 4100

 

                                                   Brothers

 

I was awake long before the sun came up. For the last time, I lay in my bachelor bed, watching the sun peek through the curtains. Tonight, I would sleep next to my wife. Tomorrow, we would waken in each other’s arms and begin our life together.

I could scarcely believe the day had finally arrived. To tell the truth, by the time I met Alice, I’d come pretty close to giving up on the idea that I’d ever get married. Too many years of women who weren’t right, or who died or rode out of my life as I stayed behind with my family. From my first love, Julia Bulette, to Tirza the gypsy, to Amy Bishop, Laura White, Morvath Terry, Tessa Caldwell, Melinda Banning, Emily Anderson–the list went on and on. As the years ran into one another, I kept hoping, but the hope was getting fainter all the time.

From the time I was eleven years old and walking Susannah Brown home from school, Hoss and Adam ribbed me about the girls in my life. Brothers can do that, and it’s all right, even though a lot of the time I pretended it wasn’t. They knew better, though. They knew almost before I did whether I was really serious about a girl or whether she was just somebody to dance with. Sometimes, I felt like I counted on their reactions to let me know exactly how much the girl meant to me.

They were always ready to tease, but when it came to the hard parts, it was my brothers who got me through. I remember when Emily Anderson came to Virginia City a couple years ago, long after she’d disappeared without a word and taken our marriage plans with her. She didn’t look a day older; in fact, she was more beautiful than ever, with those blonde curls and blue eyes that made almost every part of me melt. I saw her, and the years didn’t matter: I fell in love with her all over again.

Hours later, I was driving her buggy down the street with my arm around her, both of us in a kind of lover’s haze, when the new deputy marshal, Wade McPhail, yanked me out of the seat and threw me down into the street. After he and I had done our best to flatten each other, I demanded to know what this was all about. In front of the entire town, McPhail announced that the woman I was riding off with–my beloved Emily–was his wife.

Hoss stood next to me as the sheriff sent everybody on their way, but he couldn’t even look at me–he was hurting that bad for me. If Adam had been there, he’d have told me to forget about her. Anybody else would have thought he was being cold, but Hoss and I would have known better. We’d have heard in our brother’s voice the pain he was feeling for me and how what he was really saying was that I was going to get through this even if it didn’t seem like it right then, and that he and Hoss were going to be with me for every step.

But Adam had already left us to go to Boston, and then beyond Boston to England. For a time after he got on that stagecoach, Hoss and I were like a three-legged stool that had lost one of its legs. We tried to keep our balance, but it was harder than we’d expected, and sometimes, we just fell right over. Eventually, though, we figured out how to be two instead of three, and even though it never felt quite natural, we worked out a rhythm of our own. Besides, Adam wrote to us, and we wrote to him, and even though it wasn’t nearly like having him right here on the Ponderosa, we knew we hadn’t lost him after all. Even when he used funny English words, like saying he’d had “bangers” for breakfast, he was still our big brother.

Adam knew it, too. Pa had written to him about Hoss wanting to marry Erin O’Donnell, an Irish woman who’d grown up among the Sioux and then lived with the Paiutes. I never got to meet her, but from the way Pa described her, she was the one Hoss had been waiting for all his life. After she died, Pa wrote to tell Adam what had happened. In a shorter time than I’d have thought possible, Hoss got a long letter from Adam that he carried with him in his vest pocket for weeks. Every now and again, I’d see him touch his pocket like he was checking to be sure the letter was still there–that, or maybe like he was drawing comfort from what Adam had said.

So, even though he was far away, we hadn’t lost our older brother. Besides, we kept telling each other, Adam would come back someday. He had to. Then, we’d all get married and settle down in our separate parts of the Ponderosa to raise our families, and there we’d be–the three Cartwright brothers, together at last. We’d all have Sunday dinner at Pa’s, and we’d sit on the porch and watch the kids run around and reminisce about years gone by.

It never occurred to us that things might not work out the way we planned.

The latch on my door lifted, and Jamie poked his head in. “You up yet?”

I couldn’t help grinning. “No,” I said. “I’m sound asleep, and I’m figuring I’ll just spend the day lounging in bed. Why?”

He grinned back. It was almost painful sometimes, how much it meant to him to be treated like a brother, with the joking and ribbing and horsing around that I’d always taken for granted with my big brothers. Hoss and I liked him well enough from the start, but it took us both some time before we could start thinking of him as something other than just a nice kid who was staying with us for a while. Even when Pa decided to adopt him, I still found myself thinking that I already had two brothers, and I didn’t really need a third one.

To my relieved surprise, I discovered that I liked being a big brother. After a lifetime of being the little brother, it was refreshing to have somebody to teach things to, to watch out for, to worry about in a different way than I’d ever worried about Hoss or Adam. I had fun teaching Jamie a lot of the things my big brothers taught me, and I used to catch Hoss chuckling when he’d come upon me showing Jamie something that he’d shown me once upon a time. Slowly, I began to settle into the notion that maybe one day, Jamie could be a Cartwright in more than just name. Maybe someday, he’d really be our brother.

And then Hoss died.

It was far and away the most horrible, jagged, acid-like pain I’ve ever known in my life. There just aren’t words to describe the kind of gaping hole that it leaves in you to lose somebody like Hoss. For the first time in years, nightmares filled my sleep. I never dreamed about how he died, but I dreamed about him leaving me behind as he strode into the thick, swirling fog. Night after night, I ran after him, but I never got any closer. I screamed for him to come back, and he ignored me and just kept walking away until I woke up, sweating and trembling and choking on tears.

Sometimes, if I’d screamed out loud, Pa came in the way he used to do when I was younger and had a bad dream. His eyes were so dark with pain that it was clear he knew what I’d been dreaming about, but he never asked. He sat on the side of the bed and put his hand on mine and asked, “Are you all right, son?” I squeezed his hand and clenched my jaw to keep from bawling, and he nodded, because we both knew I wasn’t any more all right than he was, but if we said it out loud, we’d never survive. So we stayed quiet, torn apart and bleeding and helpless. Eventually, he patted my hand or my knee, and he went back to his room, slumped and shuffling like an old man for the first time in my life.

One night, as we sat in my room with moonlight glowing through the curtains and clouds of agony threatening to smother us, Jamie came in. I know he meant well, but all I could think of at that moment was how both of my brothers were gone. Adam was living an ocean away, and Hoss was lying under six feet of dirt on the bluff next to my mother. I knew Jamie was hoping to be like a brother to me, but that night, I couldn’t see him as anything but a poor substitute for my real brothers.

“You okay, Joe?” he asked hesitantly.

“Just leave me alone,” I snapped at him.

“I–I just wanted to see if you were okay,” he stammered.

“Go back to bed!” Even I could hear my voice trembling.

Jamie looked from me to Pa, who hadn’t said a word. He looked back at me, and I saw in that moment that he knew the truth: for all that Pa had given him our name, he wasn’t really a Cartwright. Not in the ways that counted. He didn’t have the same history as we did. He didn’t even know Adam. The whole rich tapestry of life we’d all woven together was foreign to him. He was a stranger whose presence brought us no comfort as we mourned the great man who had shared our lives and our blood.

“Sorry,” he mumbled and backed out of the room, closing the door.

The next morning, I tried to apologize, but he brushed me off. Later, when we were digging fence posts in the north pasture, he said suddenly, “I didn’t mean to butt in last night.”

“It’s okay,” I said. In the sunlight, I could be generous.

“I know I didn’t know Hoss as well as you or Pa, but–he felt like my brother, too, even if I only got him for a little while.” His voice was wobbly, and I couldn’t help thinking that Hoss wouldn’t have let the kid struggle on his own, no matter how much Hoss himself might be hurting.

So I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “I know,” even though I didn’t really. I figured Hoss was the kind of man who was special to everybody, and probably Jamie had waited all his life to have somebody like Hoss around. Even if I couldn’t think of the two of them as brothers, I guessed that I had an idea what it was like for Jamie to have lost Hoss. That it wasn’t a flyspeck on a cow’s hide compared to what I’d lost–well, that was something I’d just have to keep to myself.

And now it was months later, and I was getting married, and my big brothers weren’t here. Adam had written to wish me well, and I hushed the corner of my mind that wished he’d made the trip all the way from London. I told myself not to be stupid–I’d have Pa there, and Jamie and Candy. And Alice, of course, and she was the one who mattered most.

But the big brothers who taught me about life and love, how to ride and shoot and fight, how to bust broncs and dance with girls, how to stand beside your family no matter what–they weren’t here. I was about to marry, and neither Adam or Hoss had even met my bride, much less said something to her like, “Why would a pretty young girl like you want to marry that ol’ gray-haired yahoo, anyway?”

I’d always imagined that when I got married, Hoss would stand up for me. Years ago, when I told him I was going to marry Laura White, Hoss was so excited that he picked me up and carried me over the threshold of the broken-down cabin we were going to fix up for Laura and me to live in, all the while singing “Here Comes the Bride” as loud and off-key as he could.

A couple nights later, after I’d kissed Laura good night and was heading to my room, I paused at Hoss’s open door to see him brushing off that tan coat of his. When he saw me, he gave me the widest gap-toothed grin you ever saw. “How much longer ’til I need this?” he asked.

“Real soon, Big Brother,” I said. I peered at the coat and flicked off an imaginary piece of lint. “You’d better get that looking good,” I added. “Can’t have my best man looking like he’s been rolling around in the dust.”

Hoss turned so fast that he almost knocked me over. “Your what?”

I wanted to make a joke of it, but at his expression, I couldn’t. He looked like somebody had just given him the deeds to every silver mine on the Comstock. “You heard me,” I said.

He swallowed hard. “I thought maybe–” The question was in his eyes, and I shook my head.

“Adam’s got to take care of Pa,” I said. “Otherwise, he’s going to fret himself into a puddle before the ceremony even starts.”

“Joe. . . .” He knew I was making an excuse then. Even though Adam and I butt heads more than most billy goats, my eldest brother is one of the most important people in my world. Hoss knew that I’d never marry anybody unless Adam approved. Clearly, Hoss thought that meant that I’d ask Adam to stand up for me.

There was so much I could have said. Should have said. I should have told him that, as much as our older brother meant to me, Hoss was my best friend in the world and I couldn’t imagine having anybody else by my side at that moment. I should have told him that his opinion, his approval, were more important to me than my own. I should have told him that I needed him like I needed air to breathe.

I should have told him I loved him.

But we didn’t talk like that. We knew these things like we knew our own names, but we didn’t actually say them. My whole life, I never told Hoss out loud that I loved him.

Dadburnit, Little Brother, I knew that. You didn’t have to say it.

I know. I just wish I’d said it anyway.

“Joe?”

Jamie was still standing in the doorway. His grin had faded. He was watching me, waiting for some sign that he could come in and be my brother on the biggest day of my life.

Hoss would have let him in. So would Adam. Neither of them would ever have shut out their little brother just because their own hearts were hurting. There were plenty of times when they could have–not that I saw it at the time, but later, I knew. But if there was ever a time that they closed me out to nurse their own hurts, I don’t remember it.

Hours from now, as we were about to enter the church, Pa and I would stop and look at each other, and both of us would know how much we were missing our other two. Then, we would smile tremulously at each other, and Pa would say, “Let’s go,” and we would go into the church where I would marry my beautiful Alice.

As I heard the faint clanging of frying pans from downstairs, I knew what Hoss and Adam would have done. In that moment, the mantle passed, and silently, I breathed my thanks to my brothers for doing their job well.

I got out of bed and rummaged in my bureau drawer for the tiny box in the front corner. “Come here,” I said.

Jamie approached cautiously, almost as though he thought I was going to yell at him or throw him out. He stopped just short of the bureau, his eyes wide. I couldn’t help thinking that if those freckles didn’t fade soon, he was going to spend his entire life looking like a schoolboy.

“You’re going to have to hold onto this,” I said. “Whatever you do, don’t forget it, and don’t let go of it. Take it and put it in your suit pocket right now, and don’t take it out until the preacher says to. Understand?”

I held up the ring so that he would know what I meant. Then, I put it back in the box and wrapped it in a handkerchief, and I pressed it into Jamie’s hand. “Right now,” I added.

I wish I could tell you how his face lit up when I handed him the ring. It was like I’d given him every Christmas and every birthday of his life, all at once. For a second, I thought he was going to cry. If he did, I would have to tease him mercilessly about it later. After all, that was what brothers did.

He swallowed hard and nodded. “I’ll be right back,” he said, darting out of the room. I watched him go, wondering if he’d ever look at that handkerchief close enough to know the truth.

I remember when Adam gave Hoss that set of monogrammed handkerchiefs. It was the Christmas after Adam got home from college, when he still had all sorts of grand ideas and nobody quite had the nerve to tell him that they just weren’t going to work out here. I was ten years old, and I almost wet myself laughing when I saw what Adam had thought was a good present. Pa shushed me with a smack on the back of my head, and he commented on how nice they were, fixing Hoss with a strong look as he did so.

“They’re mighty fine,” Hoss said obediently, but I could tell he was still waiting for his real present. When it became clear that this was it, though, he unfolded one of them and looked at the fancy stitching in the corner. “What’s this?”

Adam pointed as he said, “That’s your monogram. See, there’s the E for Erik, and the G for Gunnar, and right there in the middle is the C for Cartwright.”

Hoss squinched up his forehead as he peered at the cursive letters. “Hey, Little Joe, look at this,” he said. I leaned over his shoulder, and his blunt finger traced the embroidery as he said, “You see? That’s the E, an’ that’s the G, and there’s the C.”

It all looked way too frilly for me, but when I saw how Hoss kept fingering the letters, I started to understand that he liked the handkerchiefs, and so I stopped laughing about them. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that what Hoss had liked most was the notion of being such a refined gentleman that he would have a use for a little linen handkerchief like that, rather than the big bandanas we used for everyday. He kept those handkerchiefs in the front left corner of his bureau drawer. I never saw him use them, but whenever I had to look in his drawer for something, there they sat, a neat, snowy stack beside a tangle of wooly gray socks and faded long johns.

I tucked one into his coat pocket just before we closed his coffin and kept the rest of the set in the front left corner of my bureau drawer. I figured he wouldn’t mind if I used one to protect Alice’s wedding ring. Knowing Hoss, it would have tickled him to think that I was using his fancy handkerchiefs at last.

I poured water from the pitcher into the washbowl and splashed my face. I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror, and suddenly, it was all real. I was getting married. This was my wedding day. Tomorrow morning, as I went about this familiar ritual in a new house, my beloved Alice would be frying eggs and bacon.

I don’t know to this day how I managed to shave without slashing my throat. At one point, Candy lounged in the doorway, making wisecracks and trying to make it feel like just another day. I went down to breakfast without my shirt so as not to spill on it, and I knew that Pa understood, because he didn’t say anything. I might as well have gotten dressed, though, because if I ate anything, I don’t remember it. Pa and Jamie and Candy talked–I think they said something about tending the stock–but I couldn’t make myself think of anything except the fact that in just a few hours, Alice Harper would become Alice Cartwright. Mrs. Joseph Cartwright, forever and ever.

“We should be on our way soon,” Pa said, breaking into my thoughts. He smiled as I startled, and I dropped my napkin on the table.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” I said. I bolted up the stairs the way I used to do when I was a kid, and I heard somebody laughing below.

A few minutes later, there was a light knock on my door. “Joe? You ready?” Jamie asked as he poked his head in.

I snorted in frustration. “I can’t get this danged tie to work!”

“Let me,” said Jamie. He reached up and tied my tie, and for a moment, it was years and years ago, and I was tying Hoss’s tie. He’d never managed to do it right, and it always seemed to fall to me to yank it loose and retie it.

Then I noticed that Jamie was still looking up at me. Softly, he said, “I wish Hoss was here.”

“Yeah,” I said finally, when I felt like I could get a word out without breaking down and crying. “You got the ring?”

It was pretty obvious from his expression that he didn’t get the connection, but it didn’t matter right then. Later on, I’d tell him about the handkerchief. I’d tell him lots of things–what it was like to grow up on the Ponderosa with my big brothers, what kind of scrapes we got into and out of, how we watched out for each other no matter what. I’d tell him about Adam and Hoss letting me fight Jean Millain on my own, and about how Hoss and I tried to learn bullfighting to impress Señor Tenino’s daughter, and how we robbed a bank one time and stole an emerald another, all for the best of reasons. I’d tell him about riding elephants and breeding rabbits and racing horses and traveling with a circus. There were hundreds of stories to tell, and it was high time Jamie heard them. If he was going to be a Cartwright, he had a lot of learning to do.

Jamie was holding my suitcoat for me. I slipped my arms into it, and he patted the shoulders into place. “Let’s see,” he said. Obediently, I turned around, and he nodded his approval. “You look fine,” he announced. “Now, let’s get you married before that girl comes to her senses.”

I couldn’t help chuckling. Jamie wasn’t generally much on teasing, but right then, he sounded just like Adam or Hoss.

I rested my hand on his shoulder. “You got the ring?”

He patted his pocket. “Right here.”

“Okay, then, let’s go.” I squeezed his shoulder, and he headed out the door. I was right behind him, but in the doorway, I paused. On my desk was a framed photograph of Hoss, taken just last year. I wished that I had a photograph of Adam, but in the next moment, I realized that it didn’t matter. They were both with me, no matter what. We were brothers, and nothing could ever change that. Not an ocean. Not even eternity.

And I left my room and followed my brother downstairs.

 

 

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Author: pjb

Still human.

14 thoughts on “Brothers (by pjb)

  1. Well, that just … ached. It seems exactly how Joe would feel in the morning of his wedding, knowing Hoss wasn’t (physically) there … Well done …

    1. Not physically, perhaps, but Hoss would always be present in Joe’s heart. That’s just how those two are. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed the story, PSW!

  2. That took us through almost every emotion in the book! I could see Jamie hovering on the fringe, so wanting to fit and yet not quite. Joe’s journey was very true to life and I loved this.

  3. This is about to make me cry. Great job, pjb. I love this story. It made Adam and Hoss a part of the story in a way the actual episode did not.

  4. I thought I’d read every Forever story on this site but I guess not because I don’t remember it. Love it. It fits into Forever like a glove as backstory to go with Jamie helping Joe get ready and tying the tie.

  5. Obviously, I haven’t read this story since we change libraries. I must be slipping. Love the reminiscing on Joe’s special day. Nicely done, Jo.

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