What Might Have Been (by Deb)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,300

 

 

Dancing rays of sunshine reached through the window, skittering across the peaceful face of the slumbering man. The golden beams of morning light worked their magic, as they slowly awakened him. A soft groan involuntarily escaped when he stretched his aching limbs into motion. I am getting much too old for these short nights, he thought as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. Dr. Martin reached for the gold pocket watch that lay on his nightstand, checking to see the time.

“Six a.m. and all’s well; at least for the moment it is.”  He chuckled, knowing the days were never too quiet in this growing town.

Being the only medical practitioner in Virginia City, Paul had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before a patient came knocking. He wasn’t as ancient as he felt at this moment; it was only a fleeting feeling, caused by being up until two in the morning. The physician was often awakened, usually to sew up a gash on some drunkard. He rarely complained; it was just part of his job, no matter what time it was. This past week had been particularly long and hard, though, with many late night emergencies having taken their toll on the physician. Payroll and brawls seemed to go hand in hand in these mining towns, especially when the ranch hands egged it on.

As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. His nurse, Emily, who never seemed to sleep, asked if he was up.

“Yes,” he responded. “What is it?”

“Mr. Watkins is here, he needs you to come to his ranch and check on Martha. He says she has been in labor for most of the night and the midwife thinks you are needed. The baby isn’t due for a month yet and they are pretty worried. He said they’d feel a whole lot better if you could be there when it came.”

“Tell him I will be out shortly,” the physician answered as he started to dress. He had worried about Mrs. Watkins when she came in at the beginning of her pregnancy. He had warned her after the last child that having another could be dangerous. But women seldom listened to him. Men wanted sons to help build their ranches and their mates seemed only too happy to comply, no matter what the cost was to their health. The life of a wife was hard here. Long hours of work on the ranch or in the fields along with taking care of families and homes took a great toll on them. Most had too many babies too close together and more often than not, had short life spans.

Paul had done what he could over the years to try and change that but sometimes he felt like no one listened. It was a rough country with many hardships and heartbreaks mingled into the hope of a better life.  He yearned for some time off and it was coming soon as he had a vacation planned to San Francisco. Ben Cartwright, his best friend and owner of the Ponderosa, was accompanying him on the trip the following week. Right now the landowner was out herding up the cattle with the Ponderosa crew, which included his three sons.

Nice boys they are too, Paul thought, knowing and loving them as his own. The reflections he had of his memories concerning the young men, as he finished getting ready for the day, were mostly thinking of the different personalities each possessed. He thought of Adam as the serious one, the most analytical of the trio. The oldest son loved architecture and knowledge and had even left the Ponderosa in pursuit of a college education when he was eighteen. Ben worried for four years that he’d lost his firstborn son to the East but Adam returned after he graduated, much to the relief of his father and siblings. There was no better way to describe the middle son, Hoss, than to say he was the kindest, most gentle giant in the Nevada territory.  He was a friend to all and enemy to none. His caring nature guided him to be the protector of any animal or person that was hurting or in need of comfort. He was the peacekeeper of the family, often diffusing the tension that had a way of popping up between his two brothers.

Then there was the youngest, Little Joe. He came along in Ben’s later years, which was a blessing in disguise. By then Ben was older, more patient and understanding than he had been when he was struggling to build the Ponderosa. From the moment that boy had been born it was as if a whirlwind enveloped the lives of the Cartwright family. Paul chuckled to himself just thinking of the kid. It seemed like he doctored the young man on a steady basis but Little Joe just kept on going, like he was in a race with mortality. He wished more people had the zest for life that the Joe he loved exuded.

He laughed as he recalled Ben telling him that after the round up would be a good time for him to get away from the ranch. Getting too long in the tooth for that job, his friend had told him I think this one will be my final cattle drive. I thought the boys would run me off after the last one to tell the truth.  I almost couldn’t stand myself by the time it ended. If it wasn’t for Joe, I’d stay home this time. He just needs a bit more age on him before he matures enough to obey his brothers with out the arguments. Someone has to be there to disseminate the friction that’s bound to arise. Both men had shared a good chuckle knowing that Little Joe’s fiery temper would always put him at odds when given orders, no matter how old he got. Paul knew that his friend’s real reason for going was to watch out for that youngest boy of his. It was hard for Ben to admit the young man was growing up and maybe didn’t need his pa as much as his pa needed him.

*****

Ben felt much the same way as his doctor friend when he slowly got up that morning. I swear that ground feels harder every time I have to sleep on it, he mused. I shouldn’t complain though, because I know I could have very well stayed at the ranch. Should have too, the way this trip has gone.

“Ready for some breakfast, Pa? Corky is whipping up some hotcakes over yonder, and they’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

Ben looked up to see his middle son, Hoss, walking towards him with a steaming cup of coffee. Beyond the large man he saw Adam and Little Joe; it appeared as if the oldest and youngest son were having an intense conversation.

“What’s up with those two, Hoss?” Ben asked nodding toward the chuck wagon. “Are they at it again, this early in the morning?”

“Nah, they’re just discussing the best place to cross the river. Adam gave Joe the job of driving the supply wagon again, which little brother isn’t real happy about. He didn’t like the way the horses were acting yesterday and is letting big brother know that next year he should pick the ones they use. He is informing Adam that it should be up to him to pick the animals since he trains em. I think he’s also spouting off some steam for having been given that job again today. He ain’t none too happy about it.”

“I don’t imagine he is, but I put Adam in charge of the drovers and that made him Joe’s boss. Joseph shouldn’t have mouthed off; he needs to learn that he has to take orders… just like everyone else. I’m also guessing your brother noticed Joe was favoring his back, after trying to get to that calf that was stuck. Luckily, all he did was wrench it slightly when he slipped down that embankment. Whatever the reason, I know Adam is doing it for Joe’s own good. He’s just making sure it teaches the boy a lesson at the same time.”

Hoss scrunched up his face, chewing on his lower lip in concentration for a moment then looked over at his father thoughtfully before speaking. “Pa, why do you think Joe has been so out of sorts this trip? Seems like he has questioned the way something is done more than enough times to irritate a snake right outta its skin. His attitude is even getting on my nerves.”

“He’s just trying to find his place, Son, and prove he knows something. Adam was the same way at that age; he about drove me off the trail with all his suggestions and challenges. I didn’t take to them much better than he is to Joe’s ideas.  Sometimes it’s hard to change and admit someone has a better idea. I’ve been pretty short with your younger brother myself a few times this trip, even when what he suggested made sense. Guess my patience isn’t as good as it was when I was younger.”

“Ahh Pa, you ain’t old yet! You jest look it cause of all them gray hairs we boys give ya,” Hoss replied as he burst out laughing.

“Very funny, Hoss, but I feel old enough to know I’m sure glad this is the last day of the cattle drive,” Ben chuckled back. “We should be home before supper and I certainly hope that will put everyone in a better mood. As for myself, I can’t wait to leave on that trip to San Francisco with Paul.”

“Just thinking of home and Hop Sing’s meals puts me in a better mood,” Hoss answered as he unconsciously rubbed his stomach. “Hiring the cook is sure one job you better send my way next time, Pa. You didn’t do such a good job finding a replacement for Ozzie, the man is a worse cook than you are.”

Ben heartily laughed as he gave his middle son a good look. “Hoss, I don’t think you are starving to death just yet. But you might be if we don’t get over there and eat some breakfast. C’mon and I promise you can hire the cook on the next trip.”

*****

Dr. Martin was scrubbing up after delivering a newborn son to Martha Watkins. He wasn’t so sure the infant would live through this day and the thought transformed into a heavy feeling in his heart. He couldn’t help thinking back nineteen years to a similar birthing with Marie Cartwright. This baby, like Joe, was extremely small, having come way too early to ensure survival. Joseph had been the very first baby he had delivered in the community, having only been in Virginia City for a little over a month. The Cartwrights had been instrumental in bringing him here and had fast become treasured friends. Just like Mr. Watkins, Ben had been terribly distraught. The fear he’d had in his eyes that day was something Paul could still remember vividly and it had scared him thinking he might not be able to help the infant. But the tiny Cartwright had been empowered with a ferocious will to live and before the week was up, his lusty wails had echoed though the house.

As the physician cleaned all his instruments and put them away in his bag he decided that the death of a newborn was probably the thing he hated most about being a doctor. Paul knew most parents had a hard time dealing with the loss of a child, always wondering what the youngster might have been like had they survived. I wish they would just listen to me, he thought. If I could get them to understand the importance of resting, taking care of themselves and learning the ways I have shown them to prevent these pregnancies from being too close together. I know it wouldn’t always make a difference but it sure would help sometimes.

He went into the bedroom to check on the baby before he left. “Martha, I am going to leave some instructions here for you to follow. You need to get milk into this little guy and it will be hard. He is very small and weak and might not want to suckle, so you will have to help him out. I am going to have Dave go into town and get a wet nurse out here so you have the milk needed till yours comes in. She’ll also help with the other children for a few days. Her name is right here on this paper and I know she’ll be glad to help out. I want you to stay in bed and drink plenty of water; that’s important if we are going to get Michael to survive. Do you understand? It’s going to take some help from you too, Dave.” He finished as he looked at Mr. Watkins.

“Anything you say, Dr. Martin,” the new father replied as he got up to shake Paul’s hand. “I can’t thank you enough for coming out here and helping Martha. I don’t know what we’d do if you weren’t in Virginia City, you’re a Godsend for sure.”

“Amen to that,” chimed in his wife.

A flush of color crept up Dr. Martin’s face as he thanked the couple for their kind words and told them he would be back the next day to check up on mother and son. He left the house and returned to his buggy, placing his medical bag away in its usual place.

The physician glanced down, running his hands over the worn black leather case. Paul still used the very first one he had ever received. His father gave it to him shortly before he died, having spent almost all his money to buy the finest one available. The leather case even included a gold platelet with Paul’s name engraved on it.

Guilt washed over him as he thought of his upcoming trip to San Francisco; he hadn’t been very honest with anyone as to why he was really going. The chief of staff there had invited him to come and interview for a position at the hospital. The letter had been full of praise for all Dr. Martin had accomplished in his years as a physician in his territory. They were impressed with the way he was always keeping up with the newest medical technology and methods and would be honored to have him join their medical team. The hours would be much less than he was used to working and the pay a great deal more than he was now making. He had thought he owed it to himself to at least consider it, but now he wasn’t so sure.

He climbed into the buggy and headed back into town knowing he had to think about what he would be giving up if he left, and what he would be doing to the people who relied on him for their medical needs. I think it’s time I had a talk with Ben. He’s always been there for me and I know I can count on his council, he thought while giving the reins a slight flicker to get the horses started.

*****

Adam looked up from his conversation with Joe to see his father and Hoss headed their way. He thought it in both their best interest to finish this talk before they got there.

 “Look Joe, I know you have more knowledge about horses than any of us. I don’t often give you the praise you deserve, but I do know you are good. As soon as we get back I’ll have a talk with Pa about putting you in charge of all the horses on the ranch. Till then, let’s just get through this last day with no arguments, okay? If, when you get to Allison crossing, you don’t like the way it appears or how the horses are acting just go down to the next crossing. It will put you coming in at a different time but I’ll explain it to Pa later, if the need arises.”

“All right Adam, that’s fair enough. I guess I’m old enough to be doing what I’m told to with out complaining. Sorry for being such a pain lately.”  His older brother arched his eyebrow in a disbelieving stare and Joe had to laugh. “Ok, I mean any more complaining, at least for now. Can’t make any promise for later though.”

Adam gave his kid brother a slap on the back and joined in the younger man’s infectious laughter. “Fair enough Joe! It’s a truce for now.”

“Well! It’s good to see you two getting along for a change,” Pa commented as he and Hoss joined the rest of their family. “Now, let’s have some breakfast and get this drive finished up. Those rain clouds don’t look as if they are going to wait all day on us, and I don’t relish getting wet.”

*****

Joe Cartwright wasn’t too happy about his given job at the moment, but had decided to make the most of it. He’d had a good talk with Adam before breakfast and it had put him in a better frame of mind. His back was aching a bit and he supposed his brother was right that they could do their job faster and better if they weren’t worrying about how he was doing. I still think I could’ve done a better job than most of those hands though, even with a pain or two, he thought. The wiry young cowboy was never one to give in and admit when he was hurting; his family usually tried to come up with ways to sidestep his temper and give him less strenuous tasks without making it seem like they were coddling him. In this instance Joe knew that Adam was also making him pay for bucking the trail boss’ authority once or twice on the trip by making him drive the wagon. At least his older brother had listened to him this morning about the horses that were being used. He knew he could trust Adam to talk to their father like he had promised. Little Joe seemed to possess a natural gift with horses and the thought of being in charge of them was an exciting challenge for him.

A light splattering of raindrops had started shortly after breakfast and everyone was in a hurry to get home before it really broke loose. Joe and Corky were just unloading the wagons to fix the noon meal when the foreman, José Havara, stopped and told them everyone had agreed to skip lunch so they could get back faster. “The storm is moving in fast and they want to beat the worst of it. The cows are being moved across the river now, so you guys are to pack back up and follow. After you cross, go on back to the ranch and have Hop Sing help rustle up some grub. These men will be starved when they get there. I’ll wait at the river for you and make sure you don’t have any problems.”

“Did Adam explain to you that I might take a different route if these animals are acting up?” Joe asked, before the man could be on his way.

“Matter of fact he did, Mr. Cartwright, so if I see you turn away from the crossing I’ll head on and wait for you at the ranch.” With a tip of his hat he turned his horse and rode toward the river.

The wagons reached the water’s edge just as the last of the cattle had crossed. Little Joe could see Hoss and Adam on the other side talking with José and gave them a wave of his hand to acknowledge their presence.

Joe watched as the chuck wagon slowly forged through the water with no problems. The sky was filled with black ominous clouds that appeared as though they could open up and dump a torrential rain. The horses hitched to the youngest Cartwright’s wagon were pawing the ground and trying to go in different directions. Little Joe had just about decided to go the alternate route when he heard the sound of a rider coming up behind him.

“Hi Pa, what are you doing on this side?”

“Son,” Ben nodded in greeting. “I was making sure there weren’t any stragglers that wandered down river before they crossed. What are you doing sitting here?” the older man asked with irritation. “Get this wagon across now, before that rain comes.”

“I’m thinking I might take it over to the next crossing, Pa. I don’t like the way the horses are acting and the river is shallower there.”

“You don’t have time before the storm hits, Joseph; just get your wagon across here and do it now. Your time is running out.”

“But Pa, Ad…” was all the young man got out before his father interrupted him with a tongue lashing.

“JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT!!! I have been doing this for well past the nineteen years you have lived. Must you argue about every job you are given?! If you don’t want to follow orders and forge across that river, RIGHT NOW, then get off that wagon, go home and let someone else take your place! IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”

Little Joe looked at his infuriated father whose face was a mottled red fusion of anger and frustration. ”YES…! SIR!” he responded, well aware of the insolent pause injected.

With a rapid crack of the reins, he urged the horses forward. The river didn’t seem any different than other times he had crossed it with a wagon and he’d driven with worse horses than these before. He knew that, yet for some reason — call it a sixth sense — he felt a danger that caused the hairs to stand up at the nape of his neck. For once he wished that Adam would have been there. After all, it had been his older brother who had told him to use an alternate route if he wanted to.

The horses didn’t give him the trouble he had expected they would and as he got nearer to the opposite bank he was just about convinced he had been worried for nothing. Suddenly the horses panicked and started to revolt, startling Joe and causing him to lose the left rein. He twirled his right hand to wrap the remaining strap into a more secure hold so that he could try and regain the piece of leather he had lost. Just as he accomplished that, he felt the seat lurch to the side and heard the crack of wood being splintered as the yoke separated from the wagon. Before he could comprehend what his situation was, he heard the high pitched scream of a horse in dire agony and felt a tremendous jolt of pain as he was jerked from his perch and dragged toward the embankment by the horses that had become unencumbered. Had his hand not been imprisoned by the strap he would have simply let go but that was impossible now. He felt himself become submerged under the water and tried to hold in enough air until they reached the shore. Unfortunately he was too close to the flailing hooves of the beasts that towed him. He felt the sharp hoof as it creased his forehead, administering a stunning blow that started his spiral into an even darker existence than the murky water. Just as he was losing consciousness he felt the firmness of land. The horses had made it across, he had a chance, he had to stay responsive, had to get away from the chaos of the frightened beasts.

José Havara was momentarily stunned by the events that unfolded. Hoss, Adam and a few others had just ridden off, leaving him to await the wagon. As he watched in horror he knew little Joe was in big trouble. He fired his gun three times into the air as soon as he realized the danger, hoping the men would hear it and come back to see what the distress signal was about. He jumped off his stallion and was ready as the horses emerged from the river. He was helpless as he saw one of the bucking horses lash out and connect with Joe’s stomach area. Joe was in peril of being trampled to death by the uncontrollable animals so he didn’t hesitate a second, shooting both beasts and killing them instantly. He was immensely relieved that neither horse had fallen on his boss’ son when they went down but he knew the young man had sustained some injuries before he had fired the lethal shots.

The Latino had been on trail droves for many years– too many, he sometimes thought– and had seen his share of catastrophes. He knew this kid was in serious trouble and the knowledge he had acquired from past experiences set him into action. He rapidly rolled Little Joe onto his side and brusquely pounded his back, forcing river water from his lungs. Disconcerting as it sounded, the regurgitation of the fluid was a good sign as it was expelled. Luckily, the injured man hadn’t taken in a large amount of liquid and Havara was soon able to turn him over to examine him. Now that it wasn’t being washed away, blood flowed from the gash on his forehead, cascading down to form a crimson pool in the sand. The hired hand’s fingers trembled as he unbuttoned Joseph’s torn shirt. What he saw next caused his stomach to constrict. The youngest Cartwright’s left ribs were badly broken, part of them protruding through the skin in a grotesque formation.  Blood, swelling and bruises were intermixed across the torso, a foreboding of how serious the injuries were. A shadow fell across the still form and José looked up into the stricken face of his boss, the young boy’s father.

“OH MY GOD…Joseph!” came the strangulated whisper. The silver-haired man knelt down and brought the younger man’s head into his arms, immediately setting about washing the blood away from his face.

“José, quick, catch up to the chuck wagon and tell Corky to get back here as fast as he can. Then go to town and get Dr. Martin; make sure Paul knows it’s urgent.”

“Pa, what happened?” Adam yelled out as he quickly dismounted from his horse and ran over to his little brother’s side. He and Hoss had heard the shots that were fired and had came back as fast as they could ride.

“His horses were spooked and the wagon broke apart. Joe was caught up in the reins and couldn’t get free. When the animals reached the shore they were wild and Little Joe was too close, that’s how he was injured. I sent José to turn the chuck wagon back and then fetch Paul.”

“I don’t understand,” Adam stated as he took off his jacket and placed it over the unconscious form. “I told him to go to the other crossing if he didn’t feel right about using this one. Why in the world didn’t he do that?”

“Because of me,” Ben said with a catch to his voice. “I made him cross. This is my fault. He was trying to tell me something; I just wouldn’t listen. I’m a fool…a stubborn old fool.”

Adam glanced over at his father and saw the man’s head was down, his hand trembling as it held on to Joe’s in a desperate attempt to give comfort, although the injured boy could feel none of it. He glanced up at Hoss who was standing behind their father and saw what he felt mirrored in his brother’s eyes. Both were full of worry and fear for the well being of their pa and brother, each momentarily at a loss for the right words. If Ben felt responsible for the accident, nothing they could say would help the distressed man.

Hoss placed a reassuring hand on the shoulder before him. “C’mon Pa, don’t blame yourself. You didn’t know what would happen.” He could feel his father’s tremors beneath his hand and gave a squeeze of encouragement. “Let’s get the bedrolls and slickers off the horses, Adam, and make sure Joe is as warm and dry as can be till help comes.”

*****

It was almost miraculous that just as José caught up with the chuck wagon, Paul Martin came down the road. He had just left the Watkins home and was headed back to Virginia City when the wiry, dark-skinned man had hailed him to stop.

“Dr. Martin, you need to go to Allison’s Crossing. Little Joe’s been hurt real bad; he needs your help. He was drug underwater and kicked by some horses gone wild from the storm. Can you ride my horse instead of that buggy? It will get you there faster and I’ll follow on the wagon.”

“You hold the horse there and I’ll grab my bag. Make sure you tie my buggy up before you follow me; then, get to the crossing quickly. The rain is coming harder now, so time is of the essence. We’ll need to get Joe home as fast as we can, before the weather turns any worse.”

Hardly fifteen minutes had passed when Dr Martin thundered onto the scene upon José’s stallion. He leapt from the saddle and grabbed his bag in one quick motion. To say he shocked the small group huddled by the inert form of Joe Cartwright was an understatement.

“Paul, I don’t know how you got here this fast, but I ain’t never been so glad to see someone in my life,” Hoss said as he jumped up and grabbed the man’s steed. “Little Joe is hurt something bad and needs ya.”

The doctor got right to work, ordering the men to back up and give him some room. “I ran into José on the road,” he explained as he examined his patient. “He should be here in just a few minutes with Corky; then we’ll have a way to get Joe home.”

Once Havara arrived, the site became a frenzy of activity as Paul barked out instructions of what he wanted accomplished and by whom. The scene became eerily quiet as everyone worked quickly, getting the chuck wagon empty so that they could get Joe back to the ranch. Adam and Hoss glanced nervously over at their father from time to time. The older man sat listlessly next to Joe, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding people or the work being done. They could tell Dr. Martin was trying to talk to him, while working on his patient, but wasn’t getting much response. It wasn’t long before the anxious group was on its way to the Ponderosa. Paul became more worried about Ben as the trip progressed. The Cartwright patriarch had seemed to age ten years since he had last seen him, and the doctor was almost certain his friend was in a state of shock. The father’s face was pale and clammy looking; his breathing was rapid and the anxiety he was experiencing, obvious. Dr. Martin didn’t even attempt to make the man move away from his injured son on the journey. He let Ben just sit beside his son and hold the young man’s hand, as he continued to stabilize Joe the best he could.

When they got to the house he ordered the father to get dry clothes on, as the rest of them moved Joe to his room. He got the full story of what had happened from Adam while Hoss worked with Hop Sing getting supplies for the surgery that he would have to perform.

Paul stood up as Ben walked into the room, noticing the vacant look in the eyes of his friend’s haggard face. “Ben,” the doctor said, in a soothing voice, as he laid a reassuring hand on his friend’s arm. “Joe is going to be just fine, but I’m going to have to operate on those ribs of his. It won’t help anyone for you to be in here, while I’m working. You and the boys go downstairs; I’ll get you as soon as I am done.”

The father cast a sorrowful look over at his unconscious son. He then slowly nodded his head in agreement before turning and leaving the room. Dr. Martin pulled Adam aside and whispered instructions for him to get his father to take a couple shots of brandy. “It’s going to take me awhile here, Adam, and he needs something to settle him down till I can talk with him.”

*****

He felt the constrictions that the ebb and flow of his life’s juices created, like someone had cruelly reached in and was playing a tortuous game of strangle and release with his body. The pain of anguish rolled up from the pit of his stomach, almost seeming to asphyxiate him with its intensity.

 The silver haired man sat, elbows on knees, fingers pressed in at his temples in a futile attempt to quiet the noise in his head. His senses were assaulted by the sounds of his pulsating heart and the swish of rushing blood as it was furiously pumped in and back out. It echoed as if from a distance and droned on and on– never ending– relentless in its desire to remind him of life…his life.

What kind of life would that be if his son died because of him? He knew the answer; it was a question that didn’t need asking. Empty, just simply…empty. He knew he couldn’t bear the loss of yet one more loved one. There had been too many already. Each time he had lived on for those who were left but it was getting too hard, too painful. He knew he couldn’t go through it again.

The pounding sensation seemed like it should be a reverberating noise throughout the room, but the room was silent. Too silent. Adam and Hoss had gone out to put up the animals and explain the situation to the hands. Dr. Martin still had not come down from his youngest son’s room and it was all he could do to sit there and wait.

*****

Doctor Martin’s brows were furrowed in deep concentration as he washed the blood from his hands. It had been a long and harrowing ordeal to bring the young lad through the operation alive. He accepted the towel Hop Sing offered him, both men then turning to look at their patient. Little Joe’s disquieting paleness made them wonder what the final outcome of his injuries would be.

“Thank you, Hop Sing. Without your help, the surgery might not have turned out this well. You would have made a fine doctor you know, if you had chosen that path.”

“I velly much glad could be of service. Just hope what we do good enough to save life of Little Joe,” stated the small Oriental as he put words to the thoughts of both he and the physician.

Dr. Martin put an arm around his assistant, giving him a gentle, comforting squeeze. He knew the man, who had been on the ranch since before Joseph was born, loved this family as his own. “Go downstairs and tell Ben and the boys that I will be down shortly. I want to give Joe one last check over before I talk to them. He will be out for at least a couple of hours, so no need to make any broth. When he does wake up, he’ll probably be sick from the ether.” He usually is, Paul thought wryly while sitting down beside his patient.

As he began to examine the youngest Cartwright to make sure the boy was stable enough to leave alone for a short time, Paul’s fortitude broke down.  He felt helpless, doubting the faith he usually had in medicine. All the knowledge and skill he possessed just wasn’t enough sometimes. He looked at the still form before him, noting the shallow breaths, the slight sheen of an impending fever and the lack of color that surrounded the flushed cheeks. He brushed back the stray lock of curls that always seemed to cascade down his patient’s forehead and started to talk to his patient.

“You know, young man, I brought you into this world nineteen years ago and I don’t aim on seeing you go out of it. I won’t lie to you; it’s bad this time. But I also know your strengths and right now your biggest one is your stubborn streak. Lord knows I have seen your father try to deal with it through the years, so I know just how strong it is.” Probably what gave Ben all that gray hair, he chuckled before reality returned him to the gravity of the situation.

 “Joseph, you need to fight harder than you ever have and it won’t be easy. Pretty soon your pa is going to come up here to be with you, so I need to say this to you now and hope you can hear me. Your father blames himself for this accident, Joe; I have never seen the man so distraught or with such utter desolation in his eyes. If you don’t make it son, I feel in my heart that he won’t either. He’s my best friend, you know; the brother I never had, the man who shares his family with me so that I can feel like I have one of my own. Your father has been a pillar of strength to me over the years, helping me through some pretty tough times and rejoicing right along side me when they were good.”

“I don’t think any of us can envision this place running without you…or without your father. Your brothers and Hop Sing would be lost…me too, Joe,” Paul continued. The concerned man paused to swallow the painful lump that had developed in his throat.

“Few people bring such joy, happiness and goodness into living as you and your father do. Having your family in our lives and community enriches all of us; you furnish us with a greater sense of wealth than any amount of money ever could.”

Paul’s voice was taut with emotion, trying his best to force encouragement throughout the stillness of the room. “Fight Joe!” he whispered desperately. “Fight for your family… for me… for all the people who love you. I’ve done all I can, it’s between you and God now. I pray you both do your best.”

*****

Ben was lost in a reverie of jumbled memories, unaware that Dr. Martin had called his name from the stairway. He was startled to feel a hand on his knee and looked up to see his good friend squatting before him.

“Are you all right Ben?” Paul asked as he gazed into the chocolate colored eyes. The intensity of the pain he saw there was not diminished by the misty vapor that covered them. It made his heart skip a beat, and he prayed for the wisdom to say the right words to help.

“Never mind about me; how is Joseph doing? Can I go up and see him?” Ben asked, attempting to get up.

Paul put pressure on his hand, quieting Ben and indicating for him to stay sitting. “He’ll be out for a while till the ether wears off and then I expect him to wake up. His head wound isn’t serious, it just bled a lot. It only took a few stitches to close up the gash. Let me fix us a brandy, okay? I know I sure need one; then, I’ll fill you in on your son’s condition.”

As he filled the crystal glasses with amber liquid, Dr. Martin looked over at his comrade of many years. He knew his friend’s heart was filled with pain, and he wished he could ease it. The truth was, Paul couldn’t be sure what Joe’s chances were yet. He wasn’t too sure Ben could handle that prognosis right now, and that worried the doctor.

“Ahhh, this is mighty fine brandy, Mr. Cartwright! Maybe next year I’ll keep it for myself instead of giving it to you for your birthday.”

“How’s Joe, Paul? I need to know.”

“He’s going to be fine, Ben. You know that kid is as strong as Hoss, just doesn’t look it.”

 Ben just continued staring at him, letting him know there would be no idle talk.

“All right, Ben; let’s go over Joe’s condition. Though it might not seem like it, you have a very lucky young man up there. His wrist was severely wrenched and there is a lot of swelling but it isn’t broken. I put a splint on it so it would heal faster; that will also make it less painful. His lungs sound fine to me, which is extraordinary considering he took in water. The worst harm was to his ribs. You saw the damage so you know it was extensive. I cleaned it out thoroughly, making sure I got out any fragments of bone. It took quite a few stitches to close up the gash after the ribs were set, so I am sure he will be in a great deal of pain for a few days. How he does is going to depend on whether it gets infected, and that is a good possibility because of the exposure to the river water. He’s running a slight fever; that is mostly due to the stress on his body at the moment, and nothing to be overly concerned about.”

“Can I go up now?”

“In just a minute, Ben. We need to talk first. I’d like to give you a brief examination to make sure you are okay.”

“I’m fine! I’ll be better when I can see Joseph.”

“You are not fine, my friend. You are much too pale for my liking; I want to make sure you are okay before you go up there.”

“OKAY? How can I be okay? It’s my fault my son is up there battling for his life. I’M the one that made him cross that river against his will.”

“Ben, sit back down,” Paul said with authority. “You aren’t going to do Little Joe any good like this! There is nothing to blame yourself for. You don’t know that it would have turned out any differently if he HAD taken a different crossing, now do you?”

“No, I don’t, but I DO know what happened when he took this one and I know I am to blame for making him cross there.”

“So, you would rather he had been alone?” Dr. Martin softly asked his friend.

“OF COURSE NOT! What kind of a fool question is that?

 “Have you even considered what might have happened, if you hadn’t stopped him from going a different way?”

“What do you mean?”

“He would have been alone, Ben. With no one there to help him; he wouldn’t be here now. He’d be gone! Do you understand that? Life is full of choices and decisions. We make them every day, and sometimes it’s years before we know if it was the right one. I’ve seen plenty of people destroyed by wondering what might have been if they had done something different. You can’t second-guess life, sometimes it’s just the way it is.”

He got up and knelt back down by his friend, looking him in the eye. “Ben, earlier today I delivered a baby to the Watkins. He is very small and I don’t know if he will make it yet, but it made me think back to when I came here. Do you remember that Ben? It was you that financed my move here; you made the decision that I was needed in the community. What if you hadn’t brought me to Virginia City, Ben? What if you had chosen someone else? Nineteen years ago, we fought together to keep that tiny babe of yours alive. Who knows if I made a difference or not; maybe he would have survived anyway, but I’d like to think I had a hand in it. I do know that if I wouldn’t have been where I was, when I was earlier, we wouldn’t be fighting this battle again today. Do you understand what I am saying, Ben?”

“Yes, yes I think I do. I can’t help but feel responsible, but you are right. At least we were there for him.”

“Exactly! I think you need some rest and Joe won’t know you are in the room for hours. But I might as well say that to the stone fireplace for all the good it would do. You go sit with him Ben, I am going to the guest room and if he develops a higher fever you come and get me.”

*****

Ben sat beside the bed and watched the rise and fall of his son’s chest, as if he was afraid it would stop at any moment. Hoss and Adam had been in earlier to check on their little brother and see how their Pa was doing. Like Paul, they had tried to convince him that he wasn’t to blame for the accident but they felt like their words fell on deaf ears. After continued attempts to get their father to go rest, and let them sit with Little Joe failed, they retired for the night, making the inconsolable man promise to get them if there was a change.

*****

The heartsick father took the wet cloth from the basin and wiped the perspiration from the young man’s face. Logically he knew the accident wasn’t his fault and that Paul and his sons were right; it could have been much worse. Emotionally though, it tore him apart each time he remembered his angry words. He just hoped he could set things right, and that his son would understand.

Sometime during the night Ben drifted into a fitful sleep. He was roused the next morning by the sounds of low voices. He sat up to see that his son had awakened and was conversing with Paul, who was just finishing his examination.

“Good morning Pa,” Little Joe said in a drowsy voice, as his father scooted closer to his side.

“How are you, Son?” Ben asked, glancing over at Paul.

 “I feel like I’ve been drug through a river,” Joe replied with a grimace of pain.

“At least he didn’t say he was fine,” chuckled the doctor. “Actually, Ben, I’m pretty impressed with his condition. I swear this boy must have been raised on cat’s milk as astounding as his ability to overcome injuries is. His temperature is much lower than I thought it would be; that’s a very good indication of his overall condition. How about we let Hop Sing give him some weak broth and you see me out?”

As if on cue the manservant entered the room with a small cup of steaming liquid. The Oriental was smiling from ear to ear, happy that his loved one looked like he was on the mend.

“That right, Mistah Cartlight, you go. I feed little Joe, get him washed up and sheets changed too! Make him comfotable.”

“Sometimes I wonder who is charge here,” muttered the patriarch. “Son, I’ll be right back; you do what Hop Sing says and get that broth down.”

“How is he really, Paul?” Ben asked as the men headed down the stairs. “He appears awfully pale to me and I can tell he is in pain.”

 “I was being honest, Ben; he is doing far better than I had hoped for this morning. I’ll leave some medicine for the pain and he’ll most likely sleep for the better part of the day. I have to head over to the Watkins to see how their son is doing before I go to town; I’ll be back out tonight. We should know by then what we’re dealing with. If he doesn’t develop a higher fever by this evening, I’d say he’ll be just fine. I’ll let myself out; you try to get some rest yourself today. Sitting there worrying isn’t going to accomplish anything.”

*****

There was another seemingly miraculous event going on at the Watkins house. It had been a rough night for the premature infant. The wet nurse had arrived by mid-afternoon and they had all taken turns through the hours dripping small amounts of milk into Michael’s tiny mouth. His cries were weak and pitiful sounding for most of the night, which made them fear they were not getting enough nourishment into him. With the break of dawn, however, the infant seemed to gain stamina. His cries became stronger, and his cheeks started to show more color.  Just as they had hoped, Martha’s milk came in by early morning. Everyone rejoiced, for the tiny infant suckled when placed at his mother’s breast. He couldn’t take in much, but it was enough to calm him, allowing him to sleep quietly for a couple of hours.

When Dr. Martin arrived he was astounded to see the youngest Watkin nursing. The lad even had his eyes open and was looking around.

“Well…what have we here?” queried the physician. “Is this the same young man I delivered yesterday morning?”

Martha’s eyes filled with tears as she told him of how Michael had responded to everything they had done. “I don’t have the words to thank you doctor. We would never have saved him if you hadn’t had the wet nurse willing to come out here when we went for her and told us what to do. I can’t begin to tell you the joy I feel this morning. He looks like he will be just fine, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, Martha, he does. Getting him to eat was the biggest hurdle. He will only take small amounts at first but quite often. If he sleeps more than a couple hours, wake him up and nurse him. I’ll stop back in a few days and see how he’s doing. I want you to stay in bed during that time and just concentrate on the baby.”

“I will, Doctor. Dave is over at the Ramsey’s picking up their oldest daughter, she’s agreed to come for a couple of weeks and help out.”

“Good. Now you get some rest, since this youngster is done eating, and I’ll be on my way.”

What a day he thought as he headed back to town. He had no practical answers as to why the two patients he had been absorbed with for the last twenty-eight hours were doing so well. Sure he had given them the best medical care he was capable of, but others he had treated in the same way often died. The Lord works in mysterious ways I guess he thought as he pondered about what might have been had the events happened at a different time. It seemed as if everything had occurred with all parties being in the right place at the right time.

*****

Hoss watched over his younger brother intently, as he began to stir. Joe’s tongue licked at his lips, trying to alleviate the dryness he unconsciously felt. His eyes fluttered several times before they opened, slowly focusing on the face which loomed over him.

“Geeze Hoss, what are you trying to do? Scare me back under? That’s a heck of a sight to wake up to.”

“Ah, short shanks; I’m just worried about ya is all. I thought maybe ya needed something.”

“Some water would taste good; think you could get me some?”

“Sure thing, it’s right here. Ya can’t sit up, so just let me lift your head a bit and ya can take a sip.”

“Thanks, Hoss.”

“You’re more than welcome little buddy. Are you feeling good enough to chat for just a minute? I don’t wanna tire you out or nothing.”

“I’m fine. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, I was just wondering what made ya nervous about those horses. Was there any particular reason you wanted to cross somewhere else?”

“No, just a feeling I had.”

“Do you reckon the same thing coulda happened anyways if’n you would have changed your route?”

“Sure, I suppose so. Why?”

“‘Cause Pa is mighty broke up about it, Little Joe. He thinks it’s all his fault you were hurt, makin ya cross there and all.”

“He does?” The young man’s face was a mask of concern as he thought about his father. He knew the man worried something fierce anytime one of his sons was hurt. Joe was sure that if his pa was blaming himself, he was probably hurting pretty bad inside. “Don’t worry, Hoss. I’ll talk with pa.”

“Thanks, Joe, ‘cause me and Adam have been worried sick about how he’s taking this. Here, let me fluff that pillow for you, little brother; then you better get back to sleep or Pa will have my hide.”

“My, my, what a cute nurse you make, younger brother,” Adam laughingly said as he entered the bedroom. “Is he taking good care of you, Kid?”

“That’s undecided yet, depends on if he lets me up or not.”

“What? Are you serious? I wager you won’t be sitting up for at least a week if Paul has his way.”

“OR TWO,” barked a familiar baritone voice from the doorway. “What’s going on in here? A party? This young man is supposed to stay quiet, not entertain guests.”

“Have a nice rest, Pa?” Adam asked with arched eyebrows.

“Yes! And wasn’t it you who was supposed to get me when Joe woke up?”

“Take it easy, Pa. The kid just woke up a minute ago and I stopped in to see how he was doing before I got you. By the way Joe, how are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling fine. Hey, Pa, did you get some sleep? You look better,” said Joe.

“Oh I do, do I? Are you saying I looked bad before?” Ben answered, crossing his arms and trying his best to appear stern.

All the boys started laughing, but quickly stopped when Joe let out a small yelp of pain. “Ouch! Guess I better hold off on doing that again for awhile.”

“I hear someone driving in, Pa. It’s probably Dr. Martin. Hoss and I will let him in and then take care of his buggy.”

“Hey Adam!”

“Yeah Joe?”

“You didn’t forget what we talked about at camp, did ya?”

“No, Joe. I remember our talk. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it just as soon as you’re better.”

“Thanks Adam.”

“Sure thing, Kid.”

“Now, just what is that all about young man?” Ben asked turning to his youngest son.

“Nothing much, Pa. Adam is just gonna help me out with something that’s all. Could we talk for just a minute before the doctor gets up here?”

“Of course we can, Joseph, just let me pull this chair a bit closer. To be honest, I was hoping you were up for a short conversation sometime this evening.” The older man’s hand instinctively sought out the needed physical contact with his son. His touch, as he unconsciously stroked the young man’s arm, gave comfort to them both. “I can’t tell you how much I regret forcing you to cross that river, Son.”

“Pa, Hoss told me you were blaming yourself. It wasn’t your fault, you have to understand that. Those horses could have bolted anywhere; it was just my bad luck it happened there.”

“But Joe…”

“No Pa, you give me orders all the time. Sometimes I don’t like em much and might show it, but I usually do what you tell me to. You would never put me in harms way on purpose. And you don’t know for sure what might have happened if you hadn’t of been there. I might even have crossed there on my own cause I really hadn’t completely decided what I was going to do.”

“Joseph, when you were lying on the ground, injured like you were, it scared me more than I can tell you. All I could think of was my harsh words and that I had made you cross there. Knowing that accident could have happened anywhere and that you don’t blame me makes it easier to forgive myself. Just never forget how much you mean to me, Son.”

“Joseph Cartwright!”

Both men were momentarily startled by the interruption of a booming voice, emitted from Doctor Martin as he stood in the doorway.

 “You look much too good tonight for what you went through yesterday morning. Can you tell me the secret, so I can use it on patients who are really hurt and ill?”

“Hi, Doc! It’s that virile Cartwright blood we have,” laughed Joe.

Paul rolled his eyes and shook his head; that was just the sort of comment he expected from young Cartwright. “Let’s check you over and see if you really are doing as good as you appear.”

After a thorough examination, Paul concluded that his patient had somehow come through his ordeal in pretty good shape.

“I have to tell you both that I expected to see a very sick man here tonight. You are extremely lucky, Joe. Not only did you survive a life threatening accident, but you seem to be staving off any infection that could have set in. I think we can have Hop Sing make you a real light meal if you think you can handle it. I’ll be back to check on you again tomorrow night and I don’t want you to even think of moving. Do you understand that?”

“But…”

“No buts, Joe. I can always leave some sedatives in case you can’t follow orders. I have all the confidence in the world that your father would not hesitate to use them. Besides, when that painkiller wears off, you won’t feel like twitching much less moving. You might be doing amazingly well but you still have a serious injury to recover from.”

Ben stood by the door and laughed as Joe agreed to behave, knowing he couldn’t fight the two of them.

 “Don’t feel bad Joe, someone will be here to keep you company,” his father told him.

“You mean keep an eye on me, don’t you?” Joe answered with a teasing note to his voice.

“Yes, I suppose I do. Now, I am trusting you to behave while I see Paul to his buggy.”

The two men walked out onto the veranda and paused for a moment to inhale the fresh air. “It’s a beautiful night,” Ben commented to his companion, as he gazed up at the stars that were scattered across the ebony sky.

“Yes, it is. God has been most generous to us today for sure. I feel like I have been witness to a couple of miraculous events, and it’s a good feeling. You wouldn’t believe how good the Watkins baby is today. He’s going to make it just fine.”

The head of the Cartwright clan reached out for his friend’s hand, enveloping it in a firm handshake. He placed his other hand on the man’s shoulder and with a steadfast gaze thanked him.

“Don’t thank me yet, Ben. I think Joe is out of immediate danger but there is still a slight chance for infection. To be honest, I fully expected him to have a raging fever when I came here tonight; you need to thank a higher power than me that he doesn’t.”

 “I’m thanking you for the last nineteen years, Paul. You’re a caring and competent doctor, as well as a wonderful friend. One that isn’t afraid to give this old fool a dressing down, when it’s needed, I might add. Virginia City and this family wouldn’t be the same if you hadn’t come here a long time ago. It’s imperative to me that you understand how important you are here and what you mean to us.”

The eyes of the long-time friends held in a knowing gaze and a nod of the head; sometimes more words just weren’t needed. Paul watched the head of the Cartwright family retreat to the house. With teary eyes, he slowly turned towards his buggy, once again placing his medical bag in its usual place. He noticed the light dim in Little Joe’s room and knew that the young boy would have company through the night. He glanced down, running his hands over the worn black leather case, as his mind told him what his heart was saying. He thought about the offer from San Francisco; knowing, as he had all along…deep down, that he wouldn’t be taking the job. What good was less hours of work if he had no one to share them with? He had long ago resigned himself to a bachelor life. More money couldn’t buy him anything that was more priceless than what he already had. You can’t place a value on good friends, or people who respected and loved you.

To be needed and appreciated is one of the greatest rewards a doctor could ask for in life. I have that, he thought. What more could I possibly want?

No… there wouldn’t be any “what might have been” thoughts for Dr. Paul Martin.

Not tonight…not ever.

***The End***

Author’s Note:  I’d like to say thank-you to Susan Grote and Leesa Olson for helping me out with the final proofing for this story. I’d also like to say thank-you to Wrangler, Leesa and Carol for reading little snippets as they came to mind and encouraging (AKA pleading, begging and nagging, LOL) me to work on a story I could use them in.

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