Bret Maverick let out a heavy sigh and wearily sank into one of the rockers on his brother's front porch. The day had been long, and harder than he'd anticipated it being. Not that he'd thought laying his father to rest would be easy, he just didn't know it would be this difficult. On the one hand, there was a sense of relief. The last few weeks had been hard for Beauregard Maverick, the man Bret had always known as Pappy, and there was some measure of comfort from knowing that his physical suffering was over with. On the other hand, Bret was trying to envision his life without Pappy; the man who had always been his rock.

Bret had become well acquainted with death at the tender age of seven when he'd lost his mother. A part of him had known from that time on, that one day his father would join his beloved Isabelle again, but as the years passed somehow that notion seemed less and less a possibility. Pappy was strong and virile, someone who always seemed larger than life to his son. That remained the case as Bret had gotten older; something about Beauregard was different than other men. Even when Bret reached the age that it dawned on him his father wasn't immune to aging and he was getting old, something about him still seemed invincible. Bret knew the notion was silly, but it had always been there in the back of his mind; the idea that his father would somehow live forever.

Beauregard had been a poker player most of his life. In his younger days, he'd traveled around earning his living with a deck of cards. When he married, his traveling decreased. He remained close to home, leaving occasionally but always returning quickly. After his wife died the trips all but stopped, and Beauregard stayed home to raise his children and somehow make a living for them by playing cards in a small town like Little Bend, Texas. Looking back it was little wonder Bret had always viewed his father with such reverence, the man had made a good life for them, and on his own too. As a father himself, Bret could finally truly appreciate what his father had done, and how difficult it must have been.

Blowing out a pent-up breath, Bret pulled out a cigar. Before he could light it, a match appeared in front of him. Bret smiled slightly, knowing the match could only belong to one person and used the light his brother was offering.

"I thought I'd find you out here," Bart said after he lit a cigar of his own.

"I just needed a minute alone."

"Understandable. You mind?"

Bret shook his head as his brother motioned towards the rocker beside him. "Nope."

Bart sat down and the two men sat in companionable silence for a few minutes before Bart spoke again. "You okay?"

Bret sighed again. "Yes. No. I don't know."

Bart chuckled sadly. "I know the feeling."

"I was thinkin' about him and us. You ever just thought about what it must have been like for him? Being left alone with us, how hard it must have been."

Bart nodded. "I didn't for a long time, but after the girls were born, yeah, I did. I mean I have Doralice to help me and there are still times I wonder how we get through it all."

It was Bret's turn to nod. He'd thought about it a lot through the years, and he knew exactly what his brother meant. From his first sleepless night with his first born, to every cold, every tumble off a horse, every skinned knee, every problem at school; every little trial one of his children went through left him wondering how Pappy had made it on his own. Like Bart, he had a wife right by his side too, and there were still times he felt overwhelmed by all the responsibilities he had to his family. For so many years he'd been absolutely clueless about what his father must have felt on any given day.

"How'd he do it, Bart?" he asked his brother. "How'd he take care of us, keep food on the table and clothes on our backs? Things are a lot more settled now than they were then, and I don't know that I could do it."

"I know. And I used to think he didn't care."

"We both did," Bret replied softly feeling guilty even as he said the words. He knew that at some point and time both he and Bart had felt like the other was Pappy's favorite. Looking back with a more adult point of view, there was no reason for it, but they'd both had to come to terms with the fact that Pappy didn't love one more than the other. Sure right after Mama died, things had been hard, but once Pappy was pulled out of his own grief long enough to understand how much his boys did need him, he'd been right there. And Bret couldn't even fault him those bad months now. He didn't know that he could or would have done any better if he'd been in Pappy's shoes.

Bart smiled slightly. "You know we had to make things hard for him every now and then. At least I did."

"Only every now and then?" Bret asked with a smirk. Whether intentional or not, Bart was always finding trouble of one kind or another.

Bart caught sight of his brother's look and reached over and slapped his arm. "You ain't no saint yourself."

Bret laughed. "I'll admit it; I had my moments. But not as many as you."

Bart scoffed. "Yeah, remember that one moment named Mary Alice?"

Bret chuckled. "I was making up for lost time I suppose." At the ripe old age of fifteen, Bret had decided to run off and marry his first love, Mary Alice Tompkins, only to find out he needed Pappy's consent because he was underage. Pappy had of course refused, and Bret had just as strongly refused to speak to Pappy for months. The whole situation was very out of character for the Maverick boy who was known for being the laid back easy going one.

Bart snorted a laugh. "Can you imagine any of ours doin' the stuff we did."

Bret groaned. "Absolutely not. Any of mine try to run off and get married in the next couple of years I'll break their legs."

"So much of what he did didn't make any sense until I've had to live through it."

"I think that's why it's advised to listen to one's elders."

"I guess so."

Bret took a deep breath. "He was tougher than either one of us. You know that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"I know he was stubborn, and a lot of times he was a little too opinionated, and sometimes he forgot we weren't his little boys anymore. . . ."

"Weren't we?"

Bret looked over at his brother and found Bart regarding him with a raised eyebrow. He had to admit Bart had a point; his babies would always be just that, his babies. Even when they were in their fifth decade. "Yeah, I guess we were," he replied with a half-smile.

Bart returned the smile. "Anyway, what were you saying?"

"Just that, I know he could be difficult at times, and he wasn't the easiest person to live with but . . . ." Bret had to swallow an unexpected lump in his throat. "He cared, Bart."

"I know he did. I'd even go so far to say he loved us."

"Yeah, he did," Bret said softly. He'd never doubted that, and he knew Bart hadn't really doubted it either, not even when they were going through rough spots had they thought Pappy didn't love them. Bret still felt compelled to answer in the affirmative though. "And he did his best," he added suddenly feeling the need to defend his father. "He wasn't perfect and he'd be the first to tell you that, but he did his best."

"You're preachin' to the choir, Brother Bret. I know he did."

Bret took note of the soft tone of his brother's voice and realized he was wasting his passion on Bart. Bart didn't need to be convinced of anything. "Sorry," Bret said forcing himself to relax, and release some of the tension that had unexpectedly built up. "Some people thought he could have done better, you know."

"Like who?"

Bret saw the genuine confusion on Bart's face and realized his younger brother must have been blissfully unaware there'd been a few people in town who wondered if Beauregard Maverick was really a fit father. "Just a few folks who thought Pappy could have done better by us."

Bart scoffed. "He couldn't have done better if he'd tried. Who told you that?"

Bret shrugged a little sheepishly. "I heard Pappy and Ben talk about it a couple of times." He was more than fifty-years-old and Pappy had passed on to his reward, but Bret still found himself feeling a little guilty at admitting there'd been times he'd eavesdropped on his father and Uncle's conversations.

Bart suddenly looked interested. "Did he ever say who?"

Bret shook his head. "No." That wasn't true, he had heard a few names, names Bart would know, but there was no point in dragging that up now. "Just that there were a few women who liked to question how he was raisin' us."

Another snort came from Bart. "And some people need to mind their own business."

"Funny that's what Pappy always said. And you know he didn't always take everyone else's opinions well."

"Some opinions don't need to be taken well."

Bret smiled; Bart was peeved and Bret didn't blame him. It had grated on him when he'd first found out anyone thought his Pappy wasn't good enough, although he hadn't dared say anything as that would have been admitting he'd listened in on Pappy's grown-up talks. Opinions like that had become less common as they'd gotten older, however. He guessed those people assumed Pappy was doing something right as he and Bart proved they weren't total hellions.

"I think we turned out alright," Bart said after a minute.

Bret looked out into the ranch yard. Mentally he could see it all, even if the darkness hid some things from his eyes. In addition to the house whose porch they were now sitting on, there was his house, the barns, the pastures; Pappy's little house. He was sure people, and even himself at times, had doubted he and Bart would amount to much when they both decided to follow in Pappy's footsteps and be professional poker players for a while, but after it was all said and done, they hadn't done bad for themselves at all. They'd started a successful horse ranch, both found good women to marry, and had eight little Mavericks between them. "I think we did better than alright," he told his brother with a smile.

"And you think mama would think that too?"

Bret nodded slowly. "I do indeed. I think she'd be beyond thrilled with all of this. Just like Pappy was."

"She probably would've had her doubts for a while though."

Bret smiled as his brother said almost exactly what he'd been thinking before. "I bet she had an earful for him when she saw him again."

"You know that's about the only thing that makes this bearable; knowing he's with her again?"

That lump was back in Bret's throat and he nodded. "Yeah. You know he's wanted that for almost fifty years."

"That's a long time."

"Yeah, it is. So why do I feel like we didn't have enough time with him?" Bret looked at his brother and knew by the look on Bart's face he didn't have an answer, so Bret took a steadying breath and went on. "I had over fifty years with him, Bart, a lot longer than I had with Mama, but it wasn't enough. There was . . . I wasn't done talkin' to him." Bret felt the tears burning behind his eyes but did his best to keep them at bay.

"I don't think anyone is ever ready, Bret. I wasn't."

"It may sound crazy but I . . . I need my Pappy. He wasn't supposed to die." He was fighting a losing battle with the tears, so he stopped fighting. He propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his head in his hands and let the tears come.

For the next couple of minutes, Bret let his grief wash over him unchecked. Frankly, he was tired of being strong and appreciated a few minutes to be weak, to be a boy who just wanted his Pappy back. He finally pulled himself together and took a shuddering breath, very aware of the fact that his brother was still beside him. He stood up and went over to the porch railing and once again stared out into the darkness. "I'm sorry, Bart I . . . ."

"No." Bart jumped up and joined Bret by the railing. "You don't have to apologize for missin' him, Bret; for bein' human."

There was a husky tone to Bart's voice and when Bret faced his brother he saw the tears running down Bart's face too. He wasn't the only one with a broken heart tonight. "I guess I . . . I always thought he was invincible. I mean I know he wasn't but. . . . he always came back from everything, and it was just like . . . ."

"I know." If Bart's voice was any indication he was about to break down too, and Bret didn't hesitate to wrap his little brother in a hug.

The brothers stood that way for several minutes; each grieving but finding strength in the other. "We'll be alright," Bret said when the embrace ended.

"I know. It's still hard though."

"Yep."

They stood side by side looking out on the yard. "I think I'm headin' back in," Bart finally said. "You comin'?"

Bret considered it then shook his head. "Nah; I want a few more minutes alone."

"I'll see you later then," Bart said with a knowing smile. His squeezed Bret's shoulder then went inside.

When Bret heard the door shut, he propped up on the porch rail with a sigh. Yes, they would be alright, but it was going to hurt for a long time before that happened. He felt the tears building again, and once more he didn't try to stop them as they silently ran down his cheeks.

"You wastin' those tears on me boy?" Bret smiled sadly. He could hear Pappy's voice as clear as if the man were standing beside him now. "Ain't no point in it," the voice in Bret's head continued.

"I guess you're glad to be back with mama, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am. That doesn't mean I wanted to leave all of you, but I surely was glad to see her again."

Bret turned around and looked at the empty rocker, imaging his father sitting there, smoking and rocking. The man in his mind didn't match the ninety-three-year-old man he'd just said goodbye to, but rather his father as he most remembered him. Tall and robust, his dark hair just starting gray, and his voice strong, carrying that note of authority that made men take notice when he spoke. The fingers holding his cigar nimble and able to manipulate a deck of cards any way he wanted to.

"We're all gonna miss you," Bret said softly.

"Of course you will, just like I'd miss any of you. This ain't the end though, and you know it."

"I know. Doesn't make it hurt any less though."

"No, it doesn't. But it's a natural part of livin'; it's supposed to happen this way."

"Was she happy to see you?"

The Beauregard in Bret's mind's eye grinned. "Yes, indeed. And she's even more beautiful than I remember her being."

Bret smiled then, thinking about his mother. She too, looked as he remembered her when he was a boy, and the thought of them together again, at last, drove some of his sadness away. "I'm glad you're together again."

"And we're waitin' for you. You and your brother, and everyone else."

"I'm lookin' forward to it. But don't take offense if I'm not in too big a hurry."

"Take your time, boy. You got a lot of good right where you are. But when the time comes, we're gonna be thrilled to see you again."

"We'll be alright," Bret muttered.

"Of course you will be. Just remember, we both love you, we're proud of you, and we're waitin' for you."

The tears threatened him again, and Bret pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. When he felt more in control, he dropped his hands and took a deep breath. The rocker he'd imagined his father sitting in just moments ago was now empty. Bret knew it had been his imagination the whole time, but he felt a little lost staring at that empty rocking chair. "Pappy," he whispered.

"Don't cry for me."

Bret whirled around and if he didn't know any better he would swear Pappy and Mama were standing on the porch, arm in arm and smiling. Bret tried a smile of his own. "They're not for you, Pappy. They're for me."

Pappy nodded. "Just remember, you got a lot of livin' still left to do, Breton. Enjoy it."

Bret looked to the front door. The most important people in his life were behind that door, and Pappy was right, there was still a lot of livin' to do. He looked back to where his parents had been a second earlier and found them gone. He smiled. "I'll see you later, Pappy; Mama." He then moved to go back inside. The pain would linger a while, and it would really never go away completely, but this wasn't the end, and until he saw his parents again, there were a lot of people right here who needed him. Bret was going to be there, and he was going to love every minute of it.

The End

A/N: This story is in loving memory of my grandfather, a man who was loved and respected by so many. The man who gave me my love for westerns and the mountains, and told me it was impossible to have too many pairs of boots. Until I see you again, Pawpaw, I love you.