Before it’s too late


A Bonanza Short Story


By Kate Pitts





When Paul Martin straightened up from his examination of my father I could tell by the look on his face that the news wasn’t going to be good, but his words left me feeling like someone had punched me hard in the gut. “I can’t do any more for him, I’m afraid. It’s in the hands of the Almighty now.”


I hadn’t expected that. Somehow I’d thought Pa was invincible, that he’d live forever, though of course I knew that was really just wishful thinking. “Thank you for doing what you have.” I managed to say as Paul started putting his instruments back in his bag. “I’ll show you out.”


“There’s no need, Adam.” Paul gave me a sympathetic look as he left Pa’s bedside and came over to me. “I know the way.” Of course he did, Doctor Paul Martin had been our physician for some years now and was a good friend. Casting a last glance back at the bed, he shook my hand and left.


I stayed where I was for a moment, still numb from Paul’s prognosis. Over by the window my brother Hoss was standing, hands thrust deep into his pockets, eyes fixed on the floor. Beside the bed our youngest brother, Joe, had slipped onto the chair that the doctor had been using and was bent over our father, his shoulders slumped. I couldn’t see his face but I could see how distraught he was by the way his restless hands twisted together as he sat there, staring down at Pa.


“I’ll sit with him a spell.” I almost jumped when Hoss spoke, his voice sounded so loud in the silent room. “You two go on downstairs, get yourself a coffee or sumthin’.”


“I’m fine.” Joe looked up for a moment and I could just see the glimmer of tears on his lashes. “You go if you like.”


“I’d kinda like a few minutes alone with Pa.” Hoss said softly and I saw Joe close his eyes as though in pain before he nodded and got up, letting Hoss have the seat beside the bed.


“I’ll be back soon, Pa.” I heard him whisper and he reached out a trembling hand and gently touched our father’s face before turning away and brushing abruptly past me.




Following Joe downstairs a few moments later I found the great room empty, but I could hear a clatter of metal from the kitchen and went through to find my brother banging the coffee pot down on the stove as though he was angry at the thing.


“You want a cup?” He asked ungraciously, seeing me come in and when I nodded he turned to get one from the dresser. Halfway there he stopped and groped for the edge of the table. Leaning heavily on it, he bent his head, shoulder’s heaving as the tears that had threatened in our father’s bedroom suddenly spilled forth.

The sight brought a lump to my throat and I swallowed hard against it. “Joe, don’t…” I managed to get out, walking toward him.


“What do you expect me to do?” Anger always seemed so close to the surface with Joe, especially where I was concerned, and it burst from him now as he looked up at me, eyes flashing fury through his tears. “Be like you? So cool and calm and collected when our father is dying upstairs. Don’t you care? Don’t you care at all that Pa will soon be…soon be…” And he broke off, wrapping his arms around himself and dropping his head.


I stood stock still, staring at him. The words he’d just said echoing through my mind. ‘Cool, calm and collected.’ Did he really not know that was just a front, that inside anguish was tearing me apart just as it was him? Did he really think I didn’t care, that I didn’t love Pa every bit as much as he did?


“Of course I care.” The words came out more angrily than I’d intended and Joe looked up at me, a wry grimace twisting his lips.


“Well you could have fooled me.” His voice was bitter.


“Would you feel happier if I fell apart? Someone has to take charge, sort out the doctor, make arrangements.” I heard the harshness in my tone but couldn’t seem to moderate it, my stomach churning with mixed emotions as I faced my brother. “I’m the eldest, the one Pa relies on. I don’t have the luxury of letting my feelings show, breaking down like you are.”


“I don’t mean to…” A flash of shame crossed Joe’s face and he made a visible effort to pull himself together, straightening his shoulders and wiping the tears from his face. “It’s just…God, Adam, I don’t want to lose him.”


The terror in those hazel green eyes was obvious and just for a moment I wanted to reach out and comfort him, the way I had when he was just a little boy. But he wasn’t a little boy now, he was eighteen, a grown man as he constantly reminded us, and men have to learn to bear their sorrows alone.


“Neither do I.” I told him softly, reaching for the cup that he’d been going to fetch and pouring coffee for us both. “Whatever you may think I do care, very much.”


“Do you?” His hand shook slightly as he accepted the cup I held out to him but his voice was more under control as he pulled one of the kitchen chairs from beneath the table and sat down. “Why don’t you show it then?”


“Show it how?” I asked him, stirring sugar into my coffee, irritation running through me at the question. Just exactly what did he expect me to do? “Would you have me wailing and crying at Pa’s bedside?”


As soon as the words left my mouth I longed to recall them, realising just how they would sound to the young man who faced me. “Joe, I didn’t mean…”


“Save it.” Pushing his cup abruptly aside Joe got stiffly to his feet, hurt apparent on his face. “I know exactly what you meant. But if you really care so much, Adam, go tell Pa. Tell him how much he means to you before it’s too late.” Turning quickly away he left me sitting alone at the kitchen table.


I hadn’t meant what I’d said, well not in the way he’d interpreted it, anyway. I knew Joe had a tendency to tears but I also knew how frustrated that made him, how hard he tried to control it. Pa suspected it was part of the reason the kid lost his temper so quickly, getting angry instead of tearful is less embarrassing in front of your friends.


‘Pa’, just for a moment I gave in to my feelings and buried my head in my hands as bleak despair threatened to overwhelm me. The thought of losing my father was so hard to face. The thought of a future without him, a future in which it would be up to me to hold the Ponderosa, and my brothers, together, was almost unthinkable.


A brawny hand on my shoulder brought me back to the present and I looked up into Hoss’ sympathetic blue eyes.


“Joe with Pa?” I asked, as Hoss felt the coffee pot and, finding it still hot, hooked himself a cup from the dresser.


“Yep.” Pouring the brew, Hoss sank down heavily onto the chair Joe had pulled out. “He seemed angry, you two have words?”


“Some.” I drained my tepid coffee and poured myself a fresh cup. “I upset him, didn’t mean to.”


“Whatever you said ain’t nuthin’ to what he’s feelin’ right now.” Hoss shook his head sadly. “He’s tryin’ to say goodbye, but…” He shrugged his massive shoulders and sighed deeply. “It’s hard to do. Can’t imagine this place without Pa.


“I know.” I got to my feet and walked over to take a look outside. Dawn was breaking, the yard looking cold and grey in the early light. “Joe accused me of not caring.” I said, without turning from the window. “Do you think that as well?”


“Of course not!” Hoss’ denial was immediate and relief spilled through me. “Just cause you ain’t the type to let your feelin’s show don’t mean anythin’. Pa knows how much you care about him.”


“Does he?” I turned to face my brother as I posed the question. “Or is Joe right and I ought to tell him how much he means to me…before it’s too late.”


“Pa knows.” Hoss said with certainty. “He knows we all love him.” He smiled over at me, a sad, wistful kind of smile. “Course, it don’t hurt none to tell him that.”


“Did you?” I asked quietly.


Hoss nodded slowly. “I don’t know if he heard me.” He said softly. “But I sure hope he did. I didn’t want him to go without me telling him.” Tears pooled in his eyes as he spoke and he dashed them away impatiently. “Helped a bit, telling him how I felt.”


The sound of the front door slamming interrupted our conversation and both Hoss and I headed quickly for the great room.


“Joe.” Hoss announced, pulling open the door just in time to catch a glimpse of our younger brother disappearing into the barn. “Guess saying goodbye was too much for him.”


“I’d better go see if he’s all right.” I reached for my hat, intending to go after Joe but Hoss put a hand on my arm, stopping me.


“You go talk to Pa.” He said soberly. “I’ll see to Joe.”


I hesitated a moment, unsure what to do. Without Pa, Joe was my responsibility and I felt I ought to go after him but…I glanced over at the stairs…perhaps Hoss was right. He and Joe had said their goodbyes, perhaps it was time I said mine.




Pushing open the bedroom door I stepped inside the quiet room where only the sound of Pa’s ragged breathing broke the silence. Standing beside the bed I laid a hand on my father’s brow, feeling with a sense of resignation, the heat that emanated from him. Obviously the fever hadn’t dropped at all. Rinsing a cloth in the bowl of cool water that stood on the bedside table, I wrung it out and gently wiped the sweat from Pa’s face before sitting down.


“Pa…” I studied my father’s unresponsive face for a while, trying to get my thoughts under control. He looked older lying there. So still, so different to the vital man I’d known all my life, the man who had raised me. Tentatively I reached out and took his hand in mine, remembering back to my childhood. The years when it was just Pa and I, travelling west, following his dream. Later there was Inger and, after we lost her so tragically, baby Hoss. Then finding this place, settling down, building the Ponderosa. Marie, Joe…we had been through so much together, my father and me.


I cleared my throat and began again. “Pa, I don’t know if you can hear me, but there’s something I need to tell you….”


Damn! Releasing Pa’s hand I stood up and walked over to the window. Down in the yard I could see Hoss and Joe standing together, talking. Hoss had an arm around Joe’s shoulders, obviously trying to comfort him.


Why? I wondered, why was it so easy for those two to say the words that I found so very difficult? Hoss stuttered over it, got embarrassed, but in the end he managed to say it. As for Joe, well even if he didn’t exactly go around telling Pa how he felt about him, who could doubt it? The kid worshipped his father, that was obvious. Just the way he looked at him sometimes told you that, never mind that Joe was always there with a hug, a touch.


So why did I find it so darn difficult to show my feelings? I loved my father, loved him with all my heart so why couldn’t I tell him that?


Turning to return to the bed, I stopped short in shock as a glance at my father sent terror through me. Flinging open the window I yelled for my brothers.




“I really thought we’d lost him, Paul.” I told Doctor Martin some hours later. “He’d actually stopped breathing.”


“Thank the Lord you grabbed hold of him the way you did.” Paul said, feeling Pa’s pulse. “The movement must have shocked his system into starting up again and now the fever’s broken…” He looked down at his patient and smiled. “I think he’s going to be all right.”


The relief was overwhelming and I sat down quickly on the side of the bed as I felt myself trembling with the release of the tension I’d been feeling. Glancing over at my brothers’ I saw that both of them were grinning widely and I knew my own expression mirrored theirs. “That’s wonderful news.” I said, elation beginning to take over. “You’re sure he’s going to be fine?”


“Has he woken up at all?” Paul asked, pulling the blankets back for a closer examination.


“Just for a few minutes.” I looked up at him anxiously. “There’s no problem, is there? He did know us when he woke, seemed lucid but a bit sleepy.”


“No problem.” Paul reassured me. “He’s just sleeping now, not unconscious. He needs plenty of rest and lots of care, but we should see him back to normal within the month. Now…” He ushered me away. “Give me a little room to examine my patient.”


Joining my brothers, I received a hearty slap on the back from Hoss and a beaming smile from Joe.


“You saved him, Adam.” Hoss said, with another hefty pat to my back. “You saved his life.”


“I don’t know what I did.” I confessed, moving out of my large brother’s reach. “Must have been reflex action or something, I don’t recall touching Pa at all.”


“You don’t?” Joe looked at me with something almost like awe in his expression. “You don’t know what you were doing when we got up here?”


“No.” I shook my head in denial. “Why? What was I doing?”


“You were sitting on the bed with Pa in your arms.” Joe informed me quietly. “Just holding him…and…” He dropped his gaze away from mine, an embarrassed flush staining his cheeks. “You were crying.”


Any thoughts that Joe might have been mistaken were dismissed by a glance at Hoss who nodded in agreement. “Guess you were wrong about your big brother, Joseph.” He said to Joe, nudging his arm. “Guess he does care after all.”


“Guess he does.” Joe looked up at me and his smile told me I’d been forgiven for my comment about ‘wailing and crying’. “Guess he does.”


As Paul finished his examination and came over to speak to Hoss and Joe, I walked back to stand beside the bed.


“I love you, Pa.” I whispered beneath under my breath, looking down at my sleeping father. Perhaps one day I’d say it aloud. Tell Pa how much I really cared. I looked across at Hoss and Joe talking quietly to the doctor. Perhaps one day I’d even tell those two how much I loved them. One day…before it was too late.





© Kathleen Pitts 2002