Restitution (by Barbara)

Summary:  Tragedy during a camping trip affects two families; why does Hoss feel he has to make restitution?

Rating:  K  (7,400 words)

 

Restitution

“Boy, howdy, I’m tired.”

 

“Yeah, we put in a full day alright.”

 

“It was worth it though, don’t ya think?”

 

“Ahuh. We’ve had a fruitful hunting trip.”

 

“We? What do you mean – we?” Hoss protested as he settled himself in front of the campfire his brother Adam was building. “All you bagged was them scrawny hares and that ole possum.”

 

“Well… I…” Adam fumbled defensively as he crouched to put the pot of coffee over the flames.

 

“Well nothin’!” Hoss interrupted “I got that six point buck and I don’t want you takin’ credit for it neither when we get home.”

 

“Credit? Me?” Adam sounded coy – he placed his open palm on his chest innocently. “Why would I take credit for something that I didn’t even do?”

 

“Cuz, you got a way of twisting things to make you look good. That’s why.”

 

“Hoss. I can’t believe you would think that of me.” Adam smirked wickedly.

 

“Ha!” Hoss let out a doubtful chuckle at his brother’s obvious show of arrogance. “You just keep the story straight older brother when we tell Pa and Little Joe. It’s my deer. I shot it and I’m taking all the glory for it.”

 

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,” Adam said melodramatically.

 

The two brothers relished each other’s company. They sincerely enjoyed one another. Hoss was just so easy to be with. His temperament was as steady as a mountain feed stream. He was cool under pressure and was the rock of the Cartwright family – the arbitrator. Adam on the other hand could be testy at times especially with the youngest member of the clan Joseph and with his father too, but not with Hoss.

 

Tonight was the last night of their yearly hunting trip together. They’d been doing it since they were kids – every fall when the deer were at their fattest. The tradition began even before Joe was born.

 

When Adam was nine he asked if he could take five year old Hoss on a hunting trip. It was the first of many arguments between father and son. Ben resisted but eventually gave into his eldest boy, allowing only an overnight campout – close to home. Marie, Ben’s third wife, was livid with Ben’s decision and insisted her stepsons were too young to be out in the wilds on their own. She was with child at the time and easily upset, especially when it came to the well being of her adopted children. She loved them as if they were her own. She doted on them.

 

But, Ben wanted to instill confidence and individuality in his sons at an early age and found Adam at nine to be mature enough to handle just about anything. He was a trustworthy little man. So, every year since then, Adam and Hoss set out on their trek. It was their time to get reacquainted after a hard summer of working the ranch.

 

When Joseph was old enough, Adam took him to Carson City every year, a tradition he started after Marie was killed in a riding accident. It gave Ben some time to himself – time he desperately needed to grieve and reflect without having to care for a child. And, after that, Hoss and Joe started an oat-sowing journey of their own traveling to San Francisco annually to have their quality time together. They’d leave Ben and Adam behind – the old folks – to pursue more youthful pursuits.

 

The Ponderosa was a day away but Adam and Hoss could stay out under the stars indefinitely. They both loved the land and what it had to offer. Hoss reclined against a log and stared up at the sky and sighed. Adam began to cook their last supper. The twosome relaxed quietly – savoring the pristine sparkle of Lake Tahoe and the smell of the pines that surrounded them. They found themselves in Utopia.

 

“Hey Adam?” Hoss broke the crisp evening air after several moments of silence.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“How many stars do you think there are?’

 

“Oh, I don’t know… millions.”

 

“Millions,” Hoss said mesmerized by their shear volume. “Sure is pretty ain’t it?”

 

“Yes it is. Like diamonds on blue velvet,” Adam said poetically as he gazed upward momentarily.

 

“Yeah…diamonds.”

 

“You’re awfully philosophical tonight. What’s gotten into you?”

 

“I’m just happy, I guess. I love this place… my life.”

 

Adam smiled as he placed one of the rabbits he’d caught onto a spit and over the fire.

 

“How ‘bout you, Adam? You happy?”

 

“Haven’t much thought about it, but I guess… I’m content enough.”

 

“Content… yeah that’s it… content,” Hoss said as he flipped onto his side and rested his head on his hand – his legs crossed casually as he chewed on a blade of grass.

 

“Adam?” He said again.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I been meaning to ask you ‘bout somethin’ for a long time.”

 

“Oh? What?”

 

Hoss hesitated for a moment as if afraid to inquire. Adam stopped what he was doing and looked over his shoulder at his brother. He shrugged, waiting to hear what was on Hoss’ mind.

 

“Well?” Adam probed. “What is it?”

 

“Did… did you love my Ma?” Hoss blurted shyly.

 

“What kind of question is that?”

 

“I don’t know… I guess I’ve always wondered.”

 

Adam turned back to his chore and collected his thoughts about Inger.

 

“Well?” Hoss asked with anticipation.

 

“Yes. I loved her.”

 

“What was she like?” Hoss sounded far away.

 

“She was like a spring morning – new and fresh. You’re very much like her, you know. You’ve got her eyes. Sometimes I see her when I look at you.”

 

“Ya do?” Hoss seemed pleased and was glad he asked. “What about Joe’s Ma?”

 

“Marie?” Adam answered thoughtfully. “She was my mother, really. I never knew my own Ma and Inger died so soon after you were born. I remember Marie the best. I think of her as my mother. Yes, I loved here very much.”

 

“Me too,” Hoss replied candidly.

 

“Why did you feel the need to ask me that Hoss? Didn’t you know?”

 

“I guess I did. It’s been on my mind lately. I guess I just needed to hear it.”

 

“I understand,” Adam replied softly, but was a little confused by his brother’s inquiries. He wondered why Hoss suddenly needed to ask about his mother and stepmother.

 

The men fell into silence again as the meat started to sizzle. Hoss watched his older brother and realized how lucky he was to have him. And, his father and Little Joe too. They’d made a wonderful life together after all their tragedy. Life was good. Hoss’ stomach growled with hunger and he sat up.

 

“Adam?”

 

“What?” He sounded impatient with all of Hoss’ questions.

 

“This was a good trip. Next year, you just might get that buck.”

 

“You can count on it.” Adam winked.

 

When the boy’s food was ready they ate in silence, appreciating the tastiness of rabbit cooked outdoors. They finished their evening and their yearly hunting trip with a game of gin rummy and were soon tucked into their bedrolls. An owl hooted in the distance and the crickets cried loudly. But, it was music to Hoss and Adam and they both fell asleep to the sounds of the Nevada night. Early the next morning they’d return home.

 

***********

 

“Sleep well?” Hoss asked as Adam rolled up and out of bed.

 

“Like a baby,” he replied with the rough voice of morning.

 

“Coffee?”

 

“Ooooooh, yes.”

 

The brothers sat around the small fire and ate their final breakfast and chatted about the previous week of hunting. But, they were distracted by a noise that came from several yards away. It unsettled the horses and they began to dance nervously.

 

“Did you hear that?” Hoss asked, slightly alarmed.

 

“Yeah. I’ll go check it out. Maybe I’ll get my six point buck after all.”

 

Even though Hoss was a grown man and stronger than a mule train, Adam was still protective of him. Ever since Ben put him in charge on they’re first outing some twenty years ago, Adam was watchful over both his younger brothers. It was his duty to see they were safe, so it was Adam who reached for his rifle and went to investigate and Hoss naturally assumed he would.

 

He casually walked into a thicket of bush and temporarily disappeared from Hoss’ view. Hoss took a bite of bacon and stood to begin packing for the ride home. But, he was side tracked by the sudden stillness that fell over the campsite and his heart started to flutter with anxiety. It was eerie and disturbing and it filled Hoss with a feeling of dread – like something terrible was about to happen. “Adam?” he called out. “See anything? You all right?”

 

A gunshot rang out sending a flock of crows out of the treetops – squawking loudly into the cerulean blue sky. Another moment of soundlessness sent Hoss scrambling for his gun. A roar echoed through the forest and then Adam’s guttural yells for help. Hoss raced through the brush and into the thicket where he saw the largest bear he’d ever seen. She had Adam pinned and was swiping her massive claws across his body.

 

Adam tried to fight her off – his rifle braced against her throat. The bear roared angrily and she tore at Adam’s flesh. Hoss shot several rounds into the air to try and scare her off – afraid that if he shot at the bear he might hit Adam. But, to no avail. She continued to wrestle with Adam who was now losing strength and consciousness. Hoss had no choice but to aim and shoot.

 

He steadied himself and took a deep breath. He had one chance to save Adam and maybe himself. He pulled the trigger and hit the bear in the head. She died upon impact and fell in a heap over Adam’s seemingly lifeless body.

 

Hoss approached the gory scene cautiously making sure the bear was, in fact, dead. He pushed her off of Adam and crouched over him. He tried to wake his brother, but he was already in shock. Adam lay on his back with both arms outstretched – his lungs filling and emptying rapidly. He was bleeding badly from two horrific wounds – one to his ribcage and one to his right shoulder. Hoss ran back to the camp for blankets and first aid supplies – his adrenaline surged like a hot spring. He was engulfed by panic. But, he knew he had to keep his wits about him and tried his damnedest to stay calm.

 

When he returned to Adam’s side, Hoss was again taken aback when he realized why the bear had attacked so viciously. There, at the bear’s side, were her two cubs. They sniffed at their mother, letting out pathetic cries of confusion and fear. They were very young – not more than two months old.

 

“Oh no,” Hoss murmured aloud.

 

But, he had no time to concern himself with them. He could not deal with the cubs and the fact that he’d killed their mother. Not now. He had to get Adam home as soon as possible or he would simply bleed to death. Hoss dressed the wounds as best he could and wrapped Adam tightly in a blanket. He picked him up and took him back to camp.

 

The previous day, Adam had manufactured a sled that could be pulled behind their pack mule. It was loaded with the carcasses they’d hunted. Hoss cleared the animals and prepared it to carry Adam instead. Within the hour, they were on their way.

 

But, could Adam hold on? Could he survive the five or so hours it would take to get him to the Ponderosa? Hoss could not take time to question. He rode as hard and as fast as he could to save his brother’s life. Adam’s horse Sport followed instinctively. But the prized six-point buck Hoss was so enthused about was left behind to be devoured by coyotes and the other scavengers of the forest.

 

**********

 

Ben and Joe sat down to dinner. Hop Sing had had an easy week without Hoss around. Tonight the men were treated to a roasted chicken, potatoes, green beans and apple pie for dessert.

 

“Roast chicken?” Little Joe remarked brightly. “What’s the occasion Hop Sing?”

 

“Last day before Mr. Hoss come back home. Then I be busy again.”

 

Ben chuckled, well aware of how hard their cook worked to keep his middle son’s stomach topped up.

 

“Yes, you’ve had a well deserved holiday, haven’t you.”

 

“I sure have, Mr. Cartlight. Very nice… very nice,” Hop Sing said as he returned the kitchen to clean up while Ben and Joe enjoyed their meal. Joe couldn’t help but chortle.

 

“The boys should have been home today.”

 

“Ah, don’t worry, Pa. Hoss is probably still trying to land that six-point buck he’s been talking about since he was knee high to a grasshopper. Every year they go out and every year Hoss comes back telling tale tales of the deer that got away. Probably no different this year,” Joe figured, as he popped a fork full of potato into his mouth.

 

“Joe.”

 

“Yes sir,” he replied nonchalantly after swallowing the morsel.

 

“Hoss has never been knee high to a grasshopper.”

 

The men laughed and continued to eat happily. But, their pleasurable evening was not to last as they were interrupted by Hoss barreling through the front door carrying Adam like a bride over a threshold. Ben and Joe leapt from the table with alarm. They had not heard them ride in and were caught off guard by Hoss’ sudden entrance.

 

“What happened?” Ben asked as he crossed the room and began to follow Hoss up the stairs.

 

“He got between an ole mamma bear and her cubs. He’s pretty bad off, Pa,” Hoss replied out of breath and covered in trail dust and dried blood.

 

“Joe, send someone into town for the doctor.”

 

“I’ll go myself, Pa,” Joe answered but he was already on his way before his father gave him the order.

 

“When did this happen?” Ben inquired, now frantic.

 

“Early this morning.”

 

Hoss carefully laid Adam onto the bed. Ben winced when he uncovered the deep gashes that cross-hashed his son’s torso but was especially shaken by the open wound to Adam’s side. It made Ben feel nauseous. But, he continued nonetheless, to tend to his son. Both he and Hoss did their best to make Adam comfortable.

 

Several hours passed before Doctor Martin arrived at the Ponderosa and took control. With Hoss acting as his nurse, Dr. Martin stitched Adam up and managed to finally stop the bleeding that so threatened Adam’s life. Ben and Joe waited anxiously in the living room – concern etched on their faces.

 

The operation took three hours and when Hoss and the doctor wearily made their way downstairs, both Ben and Joe stood to hear the news. By the looks on their faces they feared the worst – that Adam had died.

 

“Is he….?” Ben asked with dread.

 

“He’s lost a lot of blood, Ben, but he’s holding his own.”

 

“Oh, thank God,” Ben exhaled a guarded sigh of relief.

 

“He’s got a long way to go. He’ll need constant care. I’m going to bring April Seaver out first thing tomorrow morning to stay with him. You’ll have to prepare a room for her. She knows how to keep those wounds clean and hopefully prevent infection. But that, Ben, is highly unlikely. He’s running a high fever already and that alone could be enough.”

 

“Enough?” Ben retorted.

 

“All I’m saying, Ben, is that Adam is very ill. You should prepare yourself for the worst. We’ll have to be diligent if he is going to recover.”

 

Ben stood listening to Paul, but didn’t seem to comprehend what he was being told. The thought of losing a son was terrifying – unthinkable. His throat dried up completely. He tried to swallow but was choked by the dryness. The blood drained from his face giving him a tone of gray. He wanted to be sick. He felt Joe’s hand grip his shoulder.

 

“I’ll be back in the morning with April,” Dr. Martin instructed, “But, you’ll need to have someone at his side tonight. Try to keep him cool and as comfortable as you can. A few prayers wouldn’t hurt either.”

 

“We’ll take care of him, Paul. Thank you so much.”

 

After Dr. Martin left the house, Ben turned to Hoss and Joe and told them to go to bed. They resisted but eventually took their father’s advice. Hoss was exhausted anyway. He walked slowly to his room deflated, worried and guilt-ridden. He sat on the edge of his bed and his eyes flooded with tears – the day’s events hitting him like a kick to the gut. He said a silent prayer for Adam. He feared his brother would not survive the night. But, as concerned as he was for him, Hoss couldn’t seem to come to terms with orphaning the cubs. The sound of their whimpers echoed in his head, haunting him. He lowered the lamplight and spent the rest of the night deep in thought – on his side, staring at the wall. It wasn’t until early morning that he finally succumbed to sleep.

 

Ben stayed at Adam’s side. He pulled up a chair next to his bed and prepared a cold cloth for his forehead. Adam’s left eye was swollen – a claw mark stretched across its lid. He breathed laboriously through his mouth and it sounded like he was drowning in mud. His skin was the color of stone that shone with dew.

 

Ben leaned his elbows on the edge of the bed and clasped his fingers together tightly. He tapped his knuckles against his brow. He began to pray and he didn’t stop until the break of dawn.

 

**********

 

The ranch house was cast with a blanket of mauve-colored light. The stillness of early morning seemed unnerving now. Even the birds that usually greeted the day boisterously were silent. It was like they sensed the death that hung in the air waiting to swoop down onto its prey. Adam held it at bay… for now.

 

Dr. Martin returned to the Ponderosa, accompanied by April Seaver as promised. She relieved Ben of his overnight vigil and ordered him to get some rest. Ben reluctantly tried but couldn’t. As he walked down the upper hallway – its creaking floorboards echoing through the quietness of the house, he checked into Joe’s room to find his youngest son still in bed. He also peered into Hoss’ room. It was empty. Ben went downstairs to get some coffee.

 

There he found Hoss sitting on the table in front of the fireplace. His elbows rested on his knees with his clenched fists propping up his face by the cheeks. He stared blankly into the dying flames.

 

“Did you get some sleep son?” the doctor inquired as he placed his hand on the back of Hoss’ broad neck.

 

“Not much.”

 

“Adam seems better this morning. He’s got some color in his face at least. April will take good care of him.” Ben glanced up the stairs as he assured Hoss. “He’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”

 

“I know he will be Pa.”

 

“Come on. Let’s get some coffee.”

 

“Pa?”

 

“Yes, Hoss?”

 

“I cain’t leave them baby cubs up there to die. I killed their Ma and I gotta go and get ’em. It ain’t fair that they have to suffer. They’ll starve to death without her.”

 

“But, Hoss. There’s nothing you can do for those cubs,” Ben said dumbfounded. “Mother nature is just going to have to take its course.”

 

“What happened to them ain’t got nothin’ to do with nature. Their Ma was just tryin’ to protect them. She didn’t know Adam wasn’t going to hurt her babies. She just did what she had to do. I just cain’t live with myself if I don’t go up there and get them cubs.”

 

“What are you going to do with them, son?” Ben implored. “What are you going to do with two wild bear cubs?”

 

“I don’t know.” Hoss sounded at a loss – his despair obvious.

 

“What about Adam?”

 

“There ain’t nothin’ more I can do for Adam. It’s all up to him now. He’s strong Pa. It just ain’t his time to go… I can feel it. It ain’t time for them cubs neither. Last night I thought Adam was done for. But, today I know different. And, today’s the day I gotta make the trip back to where me and Adam camped last night… to save them cubs.”

 

“Will you at least take Joe with you?”

 

“I’d rather go on my own if it’s alright with you, Pa.”

 

Ben thought a moment. He shook his head still unconvinced that Hoss could do anything for the animals.

 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to rescue those cubs; I really don’t.”

 

“Well, I’m goin’ to. I’m goin’ back up there. I’m sorry, Pa, but I just got to.”

 

Ben gave in. He realized that the cub’s survival and Adam’s were somehow intertwined. At least they were to Hoss. He gave him his blessing and allowed Hoss to seek the restitution he so desperately needed.

 

**********

 

Hoss awoke the next morning before the sun. The night before he concocted a formula of milk and cod liver oil for the cubs to nurse on and packed for his trek back into the woods. Everything from beef jerky to extra blankets was loaded onto the mule. He wasn’t sure how long he would be, so he took as much as he could.

 

On his way out, he stopped to check in on Adam. There, in the purple haze of predawn, was April Seaver. She sat beside Adam’s bed knitting quietly – her sweet, young face glowing like a cherub’s in the soft lamplight. April looked up at Hoss and smiled reassuringly. It was a tender smile.

 

Adam was more comfortable now. But, his fever still held him under its spell. He lay on his back – his bare arms twitching periodically, reacting to abstract dreams. The steady sound of his breathing wafted through the air like a fall breeze but the shadow of death still lingered there. It seemed to haunt the place with its dark shroud.

 

Hoss entered the room and crept across the hardwood, being careful not to disturb his brother. He placed his massive palm on Adam’s forehead. “I’m goin’ to save them cubs Adam. And, when I come back, you’ll be good as new,” he whispered.

 

Hoss straightened up and turned toward the door, but not before giving April a grateful wink. She grinned back and then watched the big man leave the room. She heard him walk down the stairs and then a few moments later the front door peacefully opening and then closing. Then the muffled sound of hooves that eventually faded into the distance.

 

***********

 

The air was cool – refreshingly so. Hoss guided Chub out of the valley and back into the hills where he and Adam had hunted the week before. Hoss reflected on his annual trip with his brother as he moved in and out of the shadows of the pine trees that soared upward. Glints of bright sunlight splashed on and off his face like a theatre spot light giving Hoss the feeling of aliveness; a complete contrast to the trauma and distress of the previous few days. It felt good.

 

By early evening he was back at the site. The animals they’d killed, including the six-point buck, were gone – dragged off by wolves or coyotes to feast on. Nothing went to waste out here.

 

Before setting up camp, Hoss immediately walked into the thicket Adam passed through two days before and began the hunt for the bear’s den. Being wilderness savvy, Hoss knew the most probably places a bear might call home and probed around the bushes in the near vicinity of where he’d last seen the cubs. Nothing.

 

Hoss continued for several hours before he returned to base camp to set up shop. He unloaded the mule and removed Chubb’s tack and got both animals fed, watered and settled. He started a fire and pulled out several roast beef sandwiches that Hop Sing had packed for him. He devoured them with pleasure.

 

Light was now fading and Hoss wanted to do one more search before he called it a night. He wiped his hands on his thighs and, this time, took another direction. He walked down to the mountain stream that fed Lake Tahoe. It was there that he heard them; that dry, high-pitched sound of young bears. He walked toward their cries until he came upon a hollow log. He peered inside and was happy to see the two cubs nestled inside. The sight of them lit up his face like a child at a birthday party.

 

“There you are,” Hoss said softly. “Didn’t you know I was lookin’ fur ya?”

 

It took some doing, but Hoss was successful in prying the cubs from their hideout. He picked them up and tucked one under each arm and returned to camp. They were tired, hungry and as scared as two baby bears could be.

 

“Don’t you worry, little fellers. Ol’ Hoss has got you now and you don’t need to worry about a thing.”

 

He fed them the formula from an old wine bottle and they drank it like it was going out of style.

 

“I’m real sorry I had to kill your Ma. Real sorry,” Hoss explained as he watched them down their dinners. “We’ll figure out what to do. I ain’t goin’ to let you boys die neither. My Ma died too, when I was about your age. And, look at me. I’m fine. But, I had my Pa and brothers to help me and all you two have is each other. Well, you got me now… Hoss will take good care of you. Don’t you worry none. Don’t you worry about a dang thing.”

 

**********

 

Several weeks passed without any word from Hoss. Adam was doing well. He still spent most of his time in bed though, but was encouraged by the doctor to get up as much as he could tolerate.

 

The healing wounds were now itchy and closing nicely. But, the combination of his inactivity and the physical struggle with the bear made it difficult to get around. The pain and stiffness he felt in his muscles was somewhat debilitating. He felt as if he’d been trampled in a stampede. That the doctor assured, was normal and the sooner Adam bit the bullet and got back to his daily routine the better.

 

Beside his physical discomfort, Adam was also plagued by nightmares. He dreamt of being skinned alive by a hideously deformed bear that chased him through the forest. Running breathlessly over the under brush, Adam was being jolted awake by his own shouts of fright. With cold sweat rolling off the end of his nose and rivering down the sides of his face, Adam tried desperately to decelerate his pounding heart and get back to sleep. Ben would peer through his son’s door alarmed by Adam’s yells for help. Night after night it was the same thing. Over and over… running for his life.

 

Despite his fatigue and lack of energy, Adam decided that today was the day. He pulled himself out of bed and laboriously dressed himself in his familiar all black ensemble. He made his way, gingerly, down into the living room where Ben and Joe sat at the breakfast table awaiting their eggs. Adam had noticeably lost weight and was still weak but he put on a brave face. He held his side as he descended the stairs… slowly.

 

“Well,” Ben exhaled cheerfully, “what do you think you’re doing young man?”

 

“I’m coming down for breakfast. What does it look like I’m doing?” Adam replied sharply trying to hide a wince.

 

“Actually, it looks like you’re walking on broken glass,” Joe quipped drolly.

 

“That, younger brother, might be more pleasurable,” Adam replied with a painful smirk.

 

Ben rose from his chair and approached Adam to give support.

 

“No, no.” Adam held out his free hand to wave off any aid. “It’s okay, Pa. I’m all right.”

 

The threesome sat down to breakfast and began their usual banter. They discussed Adam’s recovery and the fact that his appetite had not yet returned. The doctor assured it would in good time. Everything seemed somewhat back to normal. But, there was a missing wheel on this apparently homogenous cart. They all felt it but avoided talk of the missing brother and son. It seemed taboo until; finally, Adam broke the ice. “Any word from Hoss?” he murmured knowing full well that there hadn’t been.

 

“No,” came Ben’s simple reply.

 

“Well, don’t you think we should go out and get him?” Adam offered.

 

“He’ll be back in due time.”

 

“But, Pa. It’s been almost a whole month. He might be… well, I just think we should go out and look for him. Make sure he’s okay,” Adam reiterated.

 

“YOU aren’t going anywhere. YOU are staying right here.”

 

“Oh, Pa, I’m fine. Doc says I’ve got to get out and about.”

 

“Yes. Out and about around here, not riding into the mountains,” Ben ordered. “Besides, Hoss seemed to need some time for himself. The night before he left he sounded like he had some unfinished business. Like he needed atonement for something. Exactly, what that is, I’m not sure.”

 

“It’s funny you say that Pa, because the night before I was…” Adam hesitated, and then purposefully redirected his point away from the bear attack. “Well, the night before we came home he was asking me about his mother.”

 

“Inger?” Ben retorted quizzically. He put down his utensils so he could fully focus on the conversation.

 

“Yes. He asked me how I felt about her and what she was like. I thought it was strange because it came out of nowhere. He said he’d been wanting to ask me about her for a long time. He asked about Joe’s Ma too.” He pointed at his younger brother with his fork.

 

“Oh really?” Ben said intrigued by his middle son’s inquisition.

 

“I told him he was just like Inger. He seemed pleased about that,” Adam explained as he peered down at his full plate and began playing with the food instead of eating it.

 

“Do you think he somehow relates what happened to him as a baby to what happened to the cubs?” Joe proclaimed innocently unaware of his insight.

 

Ben stopped chewing and looked at Joe, surprised at his depth. Adam was also flabbergasted at his youngest sibling’s revelation.

 

“It could be,” Ben affirmed. “He certainly was bound and determined to rescue them.”

 

“That’s very perceptive of you Joe,” Adam remarked still astonished. “That could be it and Hoss may not even realize it. I’ve been reading a lot about the subconscious lately. There’s a doctor in Europe who is doing studies on it.”

 

“Subconscious? What’s that Adam?” Joe asked as he noisily crunched into a piece of toast.

 

“Well, it’s psychology Joe. It’s a new theory. The subconscious is when you do something and you’re not aware of it. Like Hoss needing to save those cubs. He’s not really sure why he has to save them but he just has to. It’s his subconscious telling him to do it.”

 

“I’m not sure I understand.”

 

“I’m not sure I do either, Joe. It’s quite complex. It’s a concept that has the medical profession talking.”

 

“You know he’s been acting real strange the last couple of months,” Joe said to no one in particular after pondering Adam’s premise. “Now it all seems to be falling into place.”

 

“Falling into place?” Ben said.

 

“Yeah. A couple of months ago he was talking to me about my mother. Came out of nowhere just like Adam said. I didn’t really pay any attention then. But, now, after hearing about sub… what is it again Adam?”

 

“The subconscious.”

 

“Yeah, the subconscious… it’s starting to make sense… I think.” Joe didn’t sound sure.

 

“Well, this is a strange turn of events,” Ben said as he clasped his hands together. “What do you suppose brought all this on?”

 

“I’m not sure Pa, but this thing with the cubs might have triggered it,” Adam analyzed.

 

“Oh. How so?” Ben inquired.

 

“Well, obviously Hoss has been curious about his past. For some reason, he’s been asking us about our relationships with his and Joe’s mother. He might be questioning his relationship with them. I mean he’s like me, right? He never knew his own Ma. Remember, I went through that stage a couple years ago.”

 

“Yes. I remember. Your soul-searching trip to Mexico.”

 

“Right. I think it’s perfectly natural for Hoss to question who he is and where he came from. Now’s just his time is all. And the bears could be his ticket. You know how he is when it comes to animals,” Adam summarized. “He relates to them better than most people.”

 

“It’s all too complicated for me,” Ben shook his head. “But, I didn’t have the hardships you boys had when I was a boy.”

 

“That’s right,” Joe piped up. “And you know what they say Pa – you can’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his boots. Or something like that.”

 

Again, Ben and Adam peered quizzically at the youngest.

 

“Joe,” Adam pointed, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

 

**********

 

After a relatively easy day of work, which consisted of grooming Sport, reading a little more on psychology and updating the Ponderosa’s financial statements, Adam went to bed. He’d been under the watchful eye of his father the whole day. Ben tried not to be too conspicuous and Adam allowed his father to indulge in parental concern. Even though the day’s load was light, Adam still found it difficult to do the simplest things. He was frustrated by his slow recovery but told himself that he’d have to be patient.

 

He lay in bed with his hands clasped behind his head. He stared at the ceiling – not really looking at anything. He couldn’t help but analyze the situation and compare what happen to the cubs to what happened to him and Hoss as children. It was all too familiar.

 

Adam decided then and there that he would awake early the next morning and go out looking for his brother. They both needed the healing the cubs could bring. For Adam, hopefully an end to his horrible nightmares and for Hoss – closure to dealing with the death of his mother… a mother he never knew; a mother who abandoned him through no fault of her own. Hoss needed to come to terms with orphaning the cubs just like he’d been orphaned some twenty-five years before.

 

Adam realized that he was the only one who could help Hoss and he planned to do it alone. He knew he would pay the price when his father found out he’d gone against his wishes but it was a price Adam was willing to pay. It was something he felt he owned his little brother. He’d bring him home, and only then could they continue with their lives.

 

Adam closed his eyes hesitantly, seemingly fearful of slumber – afraid the nightmares would return. But, he could not stay conscious any longer and was soon envelopingly fearful of slumber – afraid the nightmares would return. But, he could not stay conscious any longer and was soon enveloped by a dark world of grizzly phantoms. It was a world he hoped he could soon tame. When he found Hoss, he assured himself, it would all be over and both of them could then find freedom – freedom from guilt and freedom from fear.

 

**********

The air was cool – refreshingly so. Adam guided Sport out of the valley and back into the hills where he and Hoss had hunted the week before. Adam reflected on his annual trip with his brother as he moved in and out of the shadows of the pine trees that soared upward. Glints of bright sunlight splashed on and off his face like a theatre spot light giving Adam the feeling of aliveness; a complete contrast to the trauma of the previous weeks. For the first time since the attack, Adam felt good.

 

He arrived at the camp by early evening. Hoss had obviously set up house there, but was nowhere in sight. His horse Chubby grazed in a near by field. Adam dismounted and walked toward the fire pit. He knelt down, wincing slightly as he went, and felt the embers for heat but there was none.

 

“HOSS!” Adam shouted. “HOSS? Where are you?”

 

Within seconds his brother appeared from between the trees like a mirage. He carried a trout the size of a loaf of bread. He was barefoot. He’d grown a beard and smiled warmly though it when he laid eyes on Adam.

 

“Heeeeeey. Where’d you come from, older brother?”

 

“Hop Sing sent me,” Adam smirked as he rose to his feet, letting out a muffled groan. “He’s lost his reason for livin’.”

 

“Huh,” Hoss chortled. “How is everybody?”

 

“Worried about you, ya big lump. When you coming home?”

 

“Soon.”

 

“Good,” Adam said smartly. “Ah… Hop Sing sent along more supplies. Well, to be honest, he doesn’t know about it. No one does. As a matter, when Pa finds out I’m gone, he’s going to want to tan my hide.”

 

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Hoss quipped.

 

Silence fell over the camp as the pair squared each other up. There was a slight feeling of awkwardness between them – Hoss curious as to why Adam had come and Adam, wondering if Hoss had found the peace he’d set out to find.

 

“So, how you feeling? Last time I saw you, you were sicker than the first time we got Little Joe drunk. Remember that?”

 

“Sure do,” Adam laughed.

 

“That was good fun, wasn’t it?”

 

“Sure was,” Adam replied devilishly, still chuckling.

 

Hoss couldn’t hold himself back any longer. He approached his brother and hugged him tightly – thankful he was alive and on the mend.

 

“Hey, hey,” Adam protested as he gritted his teeth and seethed. “I may look well-healed but I’m still a little sore. Take it easy will ya.”

 

“Sorry, Adam,” Hoss gushed, “I’m just so glad… well, I’m just happy to see you’re up and around is all.”

 

“Thanks. So am I, believe me. So, ah… where are the cubs?” Adam asked as he peered around the perimeter of the camp wearily.

 

“Oh, they’re around.” Hoss said nonchalantly, like they were merely children out playing. “How about some coffee?”

 

“Sounds good.”

 

“I’ll get a fire going.”

 

The twosome sat around the stone-rimmed pit and waited for the coffee to brew. Adam was a little on edge about bears being in the vicinity. He fidgeted and spied the forest for any movement.

 

“You okay, Adam?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. I’m ah… I’m just a little worried about those bears.”

 

“Nothing to worry about. They’ll come into camp when they’re hungry.”

 

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of,” Adam emphasized with raised eyebrows.

 

“Ahhh. I won’t let them hurt ’cha.”

 

The words barely left Hoss’ lips, when the cubs wandered casually into the circle. Adam stood and readied himself in case he had to run but was calmed by his brother.

 

“It’s all right. Just don’t make any sudden moves.”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Adam said as he stepped up on the stump he’d been sitting on.

 

“You know, Adam, them bears can climb trees so I don’t think standing on that stump is going to do you any good.”

 

“Oh. Yeah,” Adam responded feeling silly. He didn’t even realize he had taken refuge up there. He got down and stood semi-behind Hoss.

 

“How are my baby boys tonight?” Hoss greeted his furry friends. “Do you want you’re supper? Well, come on then. Let’s get it.”

 

The bears let out gravely growls and followed Hoss to a feeding station he’d set up for them. Adam watched them as they passed right in front of him. He shuffled nervously away from them. The bears were smaller than he expected but that didn’t ease his fears. Chubb was used to them but Sport danced anxiously and Adam had to reassure him. The smell of the cubs flashed him back to the attack. His uneasiness swelled. He watched Hoss feed them and then, much to Adam’s relief, they left as calmly as they had arrived.

 

“I only held them once,” Hoss commented when he returned to the campfire and picked up his coffee cup. “That first day when I found them. I haven’t touched them since.”

 

“Oh yeah. How come?”

 

“They gotta stay wild, Adam. That’s the only way they can survive. I’ll take care of ‘em til they can take care of themselves.”

 

“And when will that be?” Adam asked skeptically as he sipped his coffee – never taking his eyes off the bears until they were completely out of sight.

 

“Soon.”

 

“What does that mean… soon.”

 

“In a couple weeks. Then I’ll come home and come back to see how they’re makin’ out. I’ll have to wean them off me slowly. Ah… they’ll be fine.”

 

“And, what about you?”

 

“Me? What do you mean Adam?”

 

“Have you figured it out yet?”

 

“Figured out what?” Hoss said as he began to scale his fish.

 

“Why you had to save those cubs.”

 

“I know why,” Hoss replied bluntly.

 

“You do?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well, go ahead.” Adam probed. “Tell me.”

 

“I killed they’re Ma. I’m responsible for them cubs.”

 

“Anything else?”

 

“I know why Adam,” Hoss insisted. He seemed almost angry at his brother’s inquisition and seemed somewhat frightened to explain.

 

“Tell me,” Adam said again patiently knowing Hoss was far more intelligent and insightful then people gave him credit for.

 

Hoss thought for a moment and then stopped preparing the trout. He looked up into the pines and took in a deep breath of the crisp, Nevada air. Then he continued with his fish and spoke as he scaled.

 

“Them cubs are just like you and me when we were kids Adam. We both lost our Ma’s. You never knew your Ma and I never knew mine. The only difference between them and us is we had our Pa to take care of us. So, I had to be their Pa. It’s as simple as that.”

 

Adam just smiled at his brother.

 

“What?” Hoss asked as he slipped his knife down the belly of the trout.

 

“Here I was thinking I’d have to explain the irony of all this so I could bring you home.”

 

“The what?” Hoss scrunched his face quizzically.

 

“Never mind. Let’s fry up that fish. I’m starved.”

 

 

EPILOGE

 

Several days later, both Adam and Hoss returned to the Ponderosa. Adam received the tongue-lashing from his father that he expected and deserved. But, Ben could not stay upset for long. He was glad to have his family back together. He loved his three boys so much and having them all sit around the dinner table that night was the most precious gift he could have ever received.

 

To his father’s delight, Adam cleared his plate and asked for seconds. Hoss entertained his family with tales of his experiences with the cubs topping it off with Adam’s climb atop the stump to get away from them. This antic dote set the men into fits of laughter – laughter that caused Adam great pain to his still tender ribcage. But, it was worth it.

 

Every week for the next few months, Hoss would return to check on the bears. Eventually, his trips became less and less until the bears could fend for themselves. His success with them was a source of great pride to Hoss. Ben couldn’t help be see Inge in him. It was exactly what she would have done and Ben told him so.

 

All three boys would always wonder about their respective mothers and what it would have been like to know them. They’d have to rely on their father for stories and remembrances they always had. But, now, both Adam and Hoss seemed content as to their relationships with Elizabeth and Inger. They’d come to terms with it finally. Even though their closure was due to tragic circumstances, they both received what they hadn’t thought.

 

*****End*****

 

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