Becoming a Man (by Christy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,600


 

Adam Cartwright stared at the telegram. His chocolate colored eyes, the exact same shade as his father’s, read the words over and over but couldn’t quite digest them. Sitting down in his father’s favorite chair near the fireplace in the great room of the house he had helped build, the young man felt his world crumble around him. The telegram fell to the floor, his mind unable to function when the door to the house opened letting in Little Joe Cartwright and the middle beloved brother Hoss. Joe’s distinctive giggle rang out along with Hoss’ protest over Joe’s teasing remarks when the boys stopped short at the sight of their brother.

“Adam?” Hoss asked. “Adam, what’s wrong?” Adam’s face was as white as a sheet. On automatic pilot, the dark-haired man in his black clothes stood up. His body blocked the telegram on the floor.

“Adam, yer scaring us,” Joe pleaded. “Tell us.”

“It’s Pa,” Adam finally admitted. The two younger Cartwrights exchanged glances, their own faces reflecting their fear.

“Pa’s in Placerville,” Joe said. “Isn’t he?”

“He was, Joe,” Adam told him. “He’s gone. Pa’s gone.”

Silence fell over the room. A swirling tunnel seemed to pull all three of the boys in. Joe and Hoss sank on to the sofa. Neither of them seemed to be able to speak. Adam leaned against the fireplace.

“I don’t believe it,” Joe proclaimed first. “It’s not true.”

“It is true!” The telegram laid on the floor. Adam bent down and picked it up. He handed it to Joe.

“It’s from Sheriff Fordwick in Placerville,” Adam said. Joe waved it away. He drew his legs up on the sofa pulling them close as if he were a little boy who could deny the bad news if he just didn’t see it or hear it. Adam read the words out loud: “‘Regret to inform. Ben Cartwright killed in explosion. Remains to be sent home. Deepest sympathy, Peter Fordwick.’ Peter was a friend of Pa’s, Joe. You know that. He wouldn’t say Pa…well if it wasn’t true.”

“It’s not!” Joe cried. “I won’t believe it till I see him. He’s not dead.” In a flash, Joe raced up the stairs to his room, loudly slamming the door behind him. Hoss’ tears fell down his plain face as he watched his brother disappear, his body startling a bit at the loud noise.

“What are we going to do, Adam?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know, Hoss. I guess we’ll have to wait for Pa…for Peter to send him home.” The brothers sat quietly, neither of them able to get out the intense emotions they felt. There was no sense to be made out of the loss of Ben Cartwright. Ben was larger than life to his three sons, but most of all to his youngest son.

“This is going to destroy, Joe,” Hoss finally said. “He’s only sixteen, Adam.”

“I know how old he is, Hoss.” Adam snapped. Hoss buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry, Little Brother.” Hoss didn’t reply. “Hoss?”

Hoss shook his head. It was as if the big man were speechless for the first time in his young life. Adam sat down putting his hand around his brother. “We’ll get through this, Hoss.”

Sitting up, Hoss shook his head again. “I dunno bout that. Pa is what makes us a family. Without him, what is there?”

“There’s us, Hoss, you, me and Joe. You think Pa would want us to stop living just because he’s gone?”

“You can’t say it either, Big Brother, can’t say he’s dead.”

“No, I can’t. I can’t believe it. He was just going to Placerville to talk about a lumbar contract. It doesn’t make sense he isn’t coming home.”

“An explosion? Where was it?” Hoss asked. “How could he have been anywhere that unsafe?”

“I don’t know,” Adam conceded. There wasn’t much either of them could say, nothing, nothing at all. They could just be there for each other.

The next morning the three brothers all sat down at the breakfast table. Hop Sing put the usual breakfast on the table, scrambled eggs, flapjacks, bacon, oatmeal, toast, biscuits, and coffee. The food sat untouched even by Hoss.

“I want to go to Placerville,” Joe announced.

“What?” Adam protested. “Joe, we can’t go anywhere, not with Pa being shipped home.” As soon as the words were out, Adam knew he was in for a storm.

“Shipped home? Pa is being shipped home? How can you say that, Adam? It’s like he’s nothing, like he never existed. I don’t believe you.”

“Joe, I didn’t mean it that way.”

“The hell you didn’t.”

”Watch your mouth, Joe.”

“You aren’t Pa!” Joe clenched his fists at his side, his anger and rage evident. Tears fell down his cheeks. Hoss looked from one brother to the other. Wisely he kept silent.

“No I’m not Pa,” Adam agreed, “but I know what he would want. He expected you to have manners in this house and that is not going to change. Now I understand why you want to go to Placerville, but I also know none of us is in any frame of mind to do anything but take care of…” Adam’s voice quivered even as tried hard to control himself. “Burying our father. Joe I need your help on this. Please.”

“He’s not dead!” Joe yelled back. “I told you he’s not. I want to go to Placerville and prove it.”

“You aren’t going anywhere,” Adam replied.

“You can’t stop me.”

“Actually I can, Joe. You’re underage, Joe, and with Pa gone, I’m your legal guardian.”

Joe looked from Hoss back to Adam. Joe knew it was true. How many times had Pa explained to him that if anything ever happened to him that Adam and Hoss would be there to take care of him, but not this way, not this, not now. He couldn’t accept it. He felt completely helpless and grief-stricken. “I want Pa, Adam. I want him. And I’m gonna find him.”

“Joe, you have to calm down,” Adam told him.

“The hell I do.” Joe’s anger reverberated off the walls of the house his father loved, not only that but in the hearts of his two brothers who were just as angry at the senseless loss of their father. Joe was trembling. Hoss got up. In a second he had enfolded his brother in his arms. Joe burst into tears sobbing out his heart in loud wails.

Gently Hoss picked his brother up. He looked over his shoulder. “Better get Dr. Martin out here.” Joe didn’t object.

Adam hurried to get one of the men to go into town. Upstairs, Hoss laid Joe down and put a blanket over him. The big-hearted giant didn’t know if it was a good thing that his baby brother was crying or a bad thing. Joe was such a sensitive kid.

“Joe I know how ya feel,” the older brother reminded. “Ya know Pa won’t ever really leave us. He loved us too much for that, just like our ma’s. He’s with them now and he’s gonna do his best to take care of us from heaven.”

“He’s not in heaven,” Joe sobbed. “He’s not dead.”

“Joe…”

“No, Hoss. He’s not gone. He wouldn’t leave us.”

“Nah, he wouldn’t leave us willingly,” Hoss concurred.

Joe just continued to cry. He was still crying when Dr. Martin arrived a few hours later. It took an injected sedative to calm the boy down and allow him to sleep. Dr. Martin shook his head in worry as he talked to the brothers outside Joe’s room.

“What are we gonna do, Doc?” Hoss asked.

“If he’s that bad now, what’s going to happen when Pa…when we have to bury Pa?” Adam added.

“I don’t know,” Dr. Martin answered. “Maybe in the morning, Joe will listen to reason.”

“Doc, this is Little Joe,” Hoss reminded the man. “He’s not thinking straight period.”

“He’s right, Doctor,” Adam agreed.

“He’s going to have to come to terms with Ben’s death the best way he can. All you can do is be here for him. I know that you’re dealing with your own grief, but Joe is the one who’s going to need the most help. You two have always been more sensible.”

“This is one time I don’t wanna be sensible,” Hoss muttered. “What I want is ta see our Pa come walking through that front door.”

Dr. Paul Martin, the same man who had delivered Little Joe and known these boys since they were children, nodded. Putting his hand on Hoss’ shoulder, he felt his own sorrow for his friend release itself a bit. “So would I, Hoss. Believe me, so would I.” After the doctor left the two brothers turned to each other. There was nothing to say.

“S’pose I got work ta do,” Hoss said.

“Yeah. I’ll stay with Joe. Hoss, I know how hard…”

Hoss’ big hand on Adam’s shoulder silenced the older man. “Don’t need to say nothing, Big Brother.”

“Thanks, Hoss.” Adam watched the younger man walk out of the house. What were they going to do, he wondered. Sitting down at his father’s desk, he thought he could hear Ben’s voice talking about the books or the latest contract or even seeking some advice about Joe.

“Pa,” the oldest son whispered. “Where are you, Pa? Why did you leave us? I can’t do this, Pa. I can’t…I can’t.” Agony ripped through Adam’s heart. Laying his head on the table, he sobbed his grief for the father he loved and now had lost forever.

******

Joe woke before dawn. By his side, Adam was sleeping in a chair, sleeping in a place his father usually would be sitting when he was ill or in trouble. Still feeling a little hung over from the drug he had been given, the boy stealthily got out of bed. He dressed very quietly, pulling his boots on with a slight tug. Looking to see if his brother had heard him, he breathed a silent sigh of relief. In no time, the boy was downstairs. He knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing. Slipping into the kitchen, he took some biscuits and jerky and some of the chocolate cake Hop Sing had made and put it into burlap bag. In the barn, he saddled one of the horses, leaving Cochise behind, not knowing what would happen on the trail. He couldn’t carry a gun yet. Pa wouldn’t let him. Pa…Joe shook his head free of the ghost of his father’s voice telling him he was being a fool and to go back to bed. He had to find Pa, one way or another. He wasn’t Ben Cartwright’s son for nothing and he didn’t care what a telegram, a sheriff or Adam said. Ben Cartwright was not dead.

Joe found the going easy at first. He was all fired up and had a great deal of energy as well as the need to find his father, but he had to cut across country. There was no road directly to Placerville which was southwest of the ranch. Still, Joe had been there several times with his father. He was certain he could find Placerville. Five hours away from the ranch with the sun rising overhead, Joe knew he might be lost. After two more hours, he knew he should turn back.

“Pa, what shall I do?” he asked out loud. He knew his father’s answer. He knew what he should do. Getting lost wasn’t going to help find Pa, nor was it going to help Hoss or Adam. Still, Joe pressed on despite his better judgment. If he just followed the sun west, he was certain he’d find a farm or someone who could tell him the way to Placerville.

The sun was lowing in the sky. Joe was dog tired. Still pushing on, as the world got darker around him, Joe suddenly felt his horse stumble. He’d stopped several times along the way to water the horse, but he knew the animal was tired. Before he realized it, the horse lost its footing. For a split second, the boy knew he was going to fall, but he couldn’t stop himself as the horse fell to the ground throwing Joe over the ledge of the hill. The boy rolled over and over, his scream rising from his throat as he hit rocks and branches on the way down. His fall was stopped when he hit a tree with such force that the breath was knocked out of him. Just before he lost consciousness, Joe’s last thought was that he was going to die because no one knew he was there…and he was glad because now he could be with his father and mother.

*****

A knock on the bedroom door woke Adam that morning. Hoss stepped into the room, looking from the empty bed to his brother who stretched as he woke.

“Kid up already, Adam?” the middle brother asked. Hoss was dressed, ready to face the day as he grinned. “The kid must be feeling better this morning. Glad to see he’s up.”

Adam blinked several times, his eyes taking in the bed before going to Hoss. Joe’s boots were missing from the end of the bed, along with the clothes the boy had worn the day before.

“I didn’t hear a thing,” Adam confessed.

Hoss’ eyes widened. “Ya mean the kid got up and left without making a sound?”

“Maybe he had to go to the outhouse,” Adam suggested.

“Well, I’ll go look for ’em. You might wanta freshen up.”

Adam looked down at his crumpled clothes. Nodding, he followed his brother out of the bedroom. The morning had started, but neither brother realized how long it would before they slept again.

It didn’t take long before the men knew Joe was gone. One of the horses was missing from the stable while fresh tracks led away from the yard.

Adam kicked the barn wall in frustration. “Of all time for that boy to run away,” he yelled. “When I get my hands on him, he won’t sit for a week.”

“Adam, ya cain’t hit him. He’s too old.”

“Watch me,” Adam growled. “He knows how upset we all are about Pa. It’s about time he started thinking about someone besides himself for a change.”

“I’d reckon he wasn’t thinking about nuthin else, ‘cept Pa.”

Adam’s anger evaporated at his brother’s reminder. How could he be mad at Joe when he might have done the same thing when he was the boy’s age? Joe doted on Ben and vice versa. On top of that was Joe’s irrational fear that Ben would leave him as suddenly as his mother had when she was killed in a riding accident. Adam still shuddered at the nightmares five-year-old Joe had suffered after Marie’s tragically sudden death. Now it turned out that Joe’s fear wasn’t irrational. Pa was gone, killed as senselessly as Marie.

“Let’s go, Hoss,” Adam said. Hoss didn’t have to ask what Adam meant. The men returned to the house to pack their saddle bags. Hoss stopped in the kitchen to have Hop Sing pack some food and first aid supplies. They filled several canteens with water and made sure they had bandages. After giving instructions to the men, they were ready to ride.

It was spring, and the cooler air was gradually giving way to warm fragrant air from the pines. Hoss and Adam said little as they followed Joe’s trail from the barn.

“He’s headed west, right towards Placerville,” Hoss informed Adam. Adam agreed with a nod of his head. They rode silently, stopping for lunch and to rest the horses when the sun was overhead. The tracks turned further south after lunch. Adam and Hoss exchanged glances.

“He’s not going the right way,” Hoss finally commented. “He’s too far south for Placerville.”

“He doesn’t know that,” Adam said. “He’ll keep on going, stubborn kid.”

“Don’t rightly know if I can blame him. He’s gotta do what he thinks is right, Adam.”

“Hoss, he’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what’s out there. He doesn’t even have a gun.”

“Yeah. He’s pretty smart though. He kin git hisself out of trouble a lot.”

“And he gets himself in trouble plenty too. I made a promise to Pa and to Marie that I’d always watch out for Joe,” Adam went on with anguish. “If something happens to him now because he’s not thinking straight, I don’t know how I’ll live with myself.”

“Adam, since when has anything Joe ever done been your fault? Ya cain’t take ta heart what he does. Iff’n ya want ta take the blame, ya might as well blame me too. I know he’s hot-headed and like to take off. I figured he’d sleep till morning at least; maybe we could talk some sense into him then. Didn’t ever expect he’d git up afore us and run off.”

Adam didn’t answer at first. Riding through the rough countryside required attention, but after a few minutes, Adam threw his brother a sideways glance. “Thanks, Hoss. I needed to hear that.”

“We kin worry about him together,” Hoss offered. “And when we git him home, I’m gonna dunk him good.”

“I’ll help you. Just pray to God he’s safe.”

“Amen,” Hoss added. “Seems like we’re always pulling Joe outta one scrape or tother. Iff’n Pa was here…”

“If Pa was here, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Adam snapped. Hoss felt the sinking in his heart at Adam’s words. Adam felt the same loss. Each brother was left to their own thoughts as they continued to ride. Adam prayed his brother wasn’t hurt or lost somewhere. Hoss prayed the same and at the same time prayed to his father to help them. Joe meant everything to Hoss. He was his best friend. Surely God wouldn’t be so cruel as to take both his father and brother away at once. This nightmare could not be happening. It couldn’t.

*****

Joe woke to agony, his back screaming at him with red hot pokers stabbing him from his neck to his waist and he hadn’t even moved. His back rested against a tree and it was clear to him he had hit it with enough velocity to injure something major. Tentatively he tried to move his legs. To his horror, he couldn’t move at all. Terror engulfed the young man from a distance as he fought the fog that threatened to overcome him.

“Pa,” he whispered. “Oh, Pa, where are you?” There was no answer for the boy. For every minute he laid there, Joe longed to hear Ben’s voice, to have him hold him and tell him he was going to be all right. In his soul, Joe knew he had made a huge mistake, a mistake that might cost him his life.

Thinking about his father, Joe realized that Ben, Adam and Hoss had protected him ever since his mother died. All his life Joe had lived in fear of Ben’s death. As a small child, his mother seemed to have been a vibrant presence one minute and dead the next. In his little boy mind, if his mama could leave him like that, then so could his pa. Now the unthinkable had happened. The boy railed at the fates and his own stupidity, knowing how disappointed Ben would be in him for getting into this predicament. His sense of humor told him that if he died, there might be hell to pay, even in heaven.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I guess I did it this time. Adam and Hoss are going to be so mad at me.” He tried not to think of how hurt his brothers would be if he couldn’t hold on until they found him. Overhead the sky was dark, a black closeness that felt stifling as well as cold. He wished he had his bedroll, a blanket, anything to stop the icy air swirling around him. There was just a light breeze, but it was freezing or so it felt to Joe. He couldn’t remember ever being so cold. Was this how it felt to die? Dead people were cold weren’t they?

“Pa, could ya, iff’n I’m gonna die, could ya ask God to take the pain away? It hurts so.” Joe knew Pa wasn’t there. He knew he wasn’t, but if he willed the thought, he knew Ben would hold him and keep him safe even if he had to travel down that road towards heaven, toward his parents at his tender age.

“Think Joe, think of something good,” Joe tried to tell himself. In the dark, he looked up at the sky, at the stars shining bright. There were millions of them, lights that would keep him company through the long night. Some of the white lights were brighter than others. Could he see his family in those stars — his pa, strong, courageous and kind; Adam, logical, and temperamental but always there for his little brothers; and Hoss, the brother who gave him confidence in himself with unconditional acceptance, encouragement and humor.

“Ol’ Hoss,” Joe whispered. “I never thought how lucky I was to have ya for a brother. Didn’t think about it much. Oh God, it hurts so bad to die.”

“You’re not going to die, Mon Petite.”

Joe started at the soft musical sound which rallied him. Straining against the constant hot piercing stabs of pain that went from his back to his brain, he tried to see her.

“Mon petite, Joseph, Mama is here,” Marie crooned. Was he really feeling her arms cradling his weary body just as he had when he was a little boy? Or was it all his imagination? Joe didn’t care. Closing his eyes, he could see her…could see his mother again, hear her voice singing to him, holding him close. He felt safe, warm, protected.

“Mama, please help me,” Joe begged, his words not spoken; only thought in side his beleaguered mind. “Mama, where’s Pa? Isn’t Pa with you? I want to be with you. It hurts so much. I can’t stand it.”

“Shh, Sweet Boy,” she soothed as if Joe were still the small boy he had been when they were last together. “Shh now. Sleep and the pain will go away. Mama will stay with you till you are safe again. You will not be alone, Mon Petit.” Joe instinctively relaxed, letting his mother take him away from his suffering. The stars above disappeared from view as the darkness enfolded him in an unconscious state where there was no pain…and no fear that he would never see his father or brothers again.

*****

Riding at a cantor down the road towards home, the man was only thinking of one thing: his sons. Three young men, well two young men and a boy, would be waiting for him at the Ponderosa, at the ranch they had built together. He thought of each of his sons. Adam…he had to admit he depended on perhaps too much. His oldest son had helped him raise both of the two youngest boys, Hoss from the time he was an infant, and Joe after his mother died. Without Adam, Ben knew the Ponderosa and his dreams would never have been realized. He knew that someday Adam would want to go and realize his own dreams, but he hoped it would be a long time before that happened. Hoss was just as he appeared, friendly, uncomplicated and content with his life, the easiest of his sons to love and yet the one who sometimes worried him with his temper. Hoss was no angel. Fortunately, Hoss wasn’t easy to set off, unlike his little brother, Joe, the most complicated and energetic of the boys. Joe…a mystery if ever there was one. Joe surprised Ben at what he dared to do, the trouble he could get into and the sensitivity he had for other people. Ben sometimes felt guilty, but he knew Joe tugged at his heart, and had a special place there.

“Home,” Ben breathed riding into the yard in front of the house. Drawing his horse to a halt, Ben knew something was amiss, not necessarily wrong but definitely odd. The house was completely dark. There were no lights anywhere. Ben took his horse into the barn. Lighting a lantern, he immediately noted that Sport and Chub were missing, Adam and Hoss’ horses. Joe’s horse, Cochise, was in her stall. So where was Joe? Sleeping inside, Ben theorized. He took care of the horse then used the lantern to go to the house. Inside, he found everything neat, but still, too quiet, not even a fire in the fireplace. Where was Hop Sing? Ben’s stomach did flip-flops. After lighting some lamps on the first floor, he raced up the stairs. Throwing the doors to his sons’ rooms open, he found each bed neatly made, obviously unslept in. Where was his family?

“Joe! Adam! Hoss!” he couldn’t help crying out. He knew it was foolish even before he called out. Walking back downstairs, Ben searched for clues as to what might have happened. On the desk which he always left fairly immaculate, he found one piece of paper, a telegram. After reading the letters that formed indescribably painful words, the older man felt physically sick.

“No!” Ben exclaimed. “Oh God.” Feeling his legs weaken from shock and the long ride he had just completed, Ben sank into his chair. His sons thought he was dead. Adam, Hoss and Joe…Joseph, who he knew would have supreme difficulty accepting Ben’s death. Ben actually swore to himself, words he seldom thought of but couldn’t help thinking. Where were his sons? Where in hell were they and what had happened to them? In the dark, Ben knew he wouldn’t be able to pick up a trail, but he intended to try in the morning. Exhausted as he was and needing a shave, the older man went into the kitchen and made coffee. Ben Cartwright had no plans to sleep. He would worry through a very long night and pray for the safety of his boys…for without them he had no reason to live.

*****

With sunrise, Adam and Hoss broke camp without eating more than some dried beef jerky. Neither man was very hungry. Far more concerned about his brother’s safety than anything else and having a nagging feeling that something was wrong with the boy, Hoss didn’t even care for the jerky he gnawed on as he rode ahead of Adam, trailing his little brother. Birds sang their early morning song taking away some of the chill in the light wind. The two hadn’t ridden more than an hour when they were met on the road by Joe’s horse…riderless.

“Adam!” Hoss cried. “Looky thair.” Hoss dismounted and ran to the horse grazing by the trail. The land to the north was heavily wooded and hilly. To the south, the hill dropped dangerously.

Hoss checked the horse over. “It’s lame,” he announced. “Picked up a stone. Otherwise he’s not hurt. No blood or anything.”

“Where’s Joe?” Hoss looked around. His heart hammered in fear. Had his little brother met up with a wild animal, or worse yet, Indians? Joe was quick but he was also small and it was just too easy for him to git into trouble the big man thought. He shook his head in confusion.

Adam rode further up the trail and then came back. “He couldn’t have gone far. I didn’t see any footprints,” he announced. Adam glanced over towards the hill. Hoss caught the implication even before his brother spoke.

“Adam, ya don’t s’pose?” he started.

“I don’t know, Hoss!” Adam ground out, the dark-haired man clearly as worried as his younger brother. As one the men moved walking along the hill for several minutes, their eyes glued to the slope, trees, rocks and any place Joe might have fallen.

“There!” Hoss cried, his eyes sharp, his need to find Joe paramount. “Adam, he’s down there.” Before Adam could object, Hoss was making his way down the hill.

Adam hurried back to the horses, grabbing a canteen and all three bedrolls. He’d seen what Hoss might not have, that Joe was lying motionless against a tree, his back arched, possibly broken. Was the boy alive, he asked himself? Was his neck broken? Could he have died the same way as his mother, a fall from a horse snuffing out the life of his baby brother? Adam Cartwright threw those thoughts to the wind as he followed Hoss down the hill reaching his brothers only several seconds after Hoss who was kneeling in front of Joe, his finger gently touching the boy’s neck. Adam swallowed hard before he spoke. “Hoss? Is he alive?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t move him, Hoss,” Adam ordered.

“I know that,” Hoss hissed back.

Adam ignored the comment understanding the gentle giant’s fear. Joe’s lips were slightly blue and he was shivering. Adam touched a limp hand and knew his brother was far too cold. Hoss was checking Joe over while Adam piled the blankets on the boy, trying to get him warm. He thought out loud, speaking words that would handle the situation and let them each do something instead of being terrified for Joe. “He’s sleeping, but he’s very cold. Maybe we should let him sleep. We can keep him warm with the blankets. Hoss, you’re going to have to go back to the ranch and get a wagon. We don’t dare transport him on horseback.”

“If we wake him, we can find out how bad he’s hurt,” Hoss suggested. “Maybe he can ride.”

“Hoss, if he wasn’t hurt, don’t you think he would have gotten up and gotten out of here? Please, Hoss, just go. I’ll keep him warm as I can. If you hurry you can be back by morning.”

“What about a travois?” Hoss went on. “A wagon ain’t gonna be easy to get through here. Might break down. If we use a blanket ta cradle him in with some branches for support it might work.”

Adam hadn’t thought of the fact that the trail was rough and there were places a wagon might not fit through. A travois though…

“One of us can make sure the trail is clear of rocks. It’ll be slow going but at least we’ll know we’ll get through,” Hoss went on.

Adam nodded. “Big Man, you have some big ideas. Joe is going to be as impressed as I am. Let’s get moving.”

It killed the men to leave Joe alone where he was, but there was little choice. They hurried back up the hill, careful not to slip, grateful there was no mud or shale to slip on. All they needed was rain. Within a half hour, they had gotten together the wood and rope they would need to make a travois. Having completed this task several times on the trail in the past, it only took another half hour to make the contraption. They hurried back to Joe who was half awake when they arrived back at his side.

“Mama,” Joe was sobbing, tears falling from his eyes. “Mama, don’t leave me. It hurts.” Joe shivered, still cold.

Hoss and Adam knelt by their brother again. Hoss took a canteen and opened it as Adam called to the boy. “Joe? Hey Little Buddy, can you hear me? Joe, answer me.”

At first it didn’t seem as if the youngest Cartwright would waken enough to Adam’s satisfaction. Adam slapped the adolescent face lightly. Joe’s eyes shot open. “Hey, what…Adam? Adam!” Relief poured out in that one word.

“We’re here, Joe, Hoss and I. We’re going to get you home.”

Joe looked around wildly, the hazel gaze searching for something. “Pa? Where is he, Adam? I couldn’t find him. I tried. Pa!”

Hoss and Adam felt physically sick at Joe’s plight. Their father’s innate ability to ease his sons’ pain was something each of them craved when they were ill or injured. This time Ben wasn’t going to be able to soothe Joe, even though his son wanted him terribly. If truth be told, so did his older boys.

“Shortshanks, we’re gonna take as good care of ya as Pa. We’ll make em proud how’s that?” Hoss tried.

“I want Pa,” Joe answered stubbornly, then evaporated into tears again. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I know Pa won’t come. He can’t. Mama came but he won’t. He’s mad at me.”

“Now Joe, you know better than that. Pa’s not mad at you.”

“Yes, he is,” the boy insisted. “I tried to find Placerville and I couldn’t and then I hurt myself. Adam…I can’t…I can’t feel my legs. I think…” Joe shivered again despite the blankets around him. Hoss had taken one and attached it to the travois. So far Joe hadn’t moved. Now his brothers knew why. Each worked to keep the horror of Joe’s admission from their faces.

“Joe, that don’t mean nothing and ya know it,” Hoss told him. “Now we’re gonna git ya on this here travois and take ya on home. The doc will come and fix ya right up. Ol’ Hoss and Adam’ll take good care a ya. Got that?”

Joe, weary from talking and in no less pain than before, closed his eyes, nodding the least bit.

Hoss was about to get up when he felt his brother take his hand. Looking down, he saw Joe looking at him. He simply squeezed Joe’s hand back.

Adam didn’t miss the exchange. Thank God for Hoss he thought. If anyone could calm Joe down now, it was that big galoot as Joe sometimes called the big man. He bent over his brother again. “Joe, we’re going to slip a blanket under you to lift you up and on to the travois. There’s another blanket there to support your back. Does your back hurt?”

Joe nodded, letting the tears come again.

“Okay. We’ll be as gentle as we can but it’s going hurt, Little Buddy, no matter what. You want to yell you go right ahead. Hoss and I would do the same thing. You don’t need to be ashamed.”

“Thanks, Adam,” Joe mumbled. “I can’t take it much more. It’s so bad. Mama was holding me. But now it’s back.”

“I’m sure Mama did a good job,” Adam conceded, not wanting to upset Joe further no matter what his delusions told him. “She’d let Hoss and me take over so you just rest and we’ll get you home.”

“Pa,” Joe mumbled again.

Adam and Hoss ignored the last word, both wishing more than anything that Ben was with them. Treating their baby brother as if he would shatter into a million pieces if they moved him wrong, they slipped the blanket under his back. Joe bit his lip as his body was moved. Thousands of knives stabbed him over and over, like red hot pokers invading his brain.

“Okay, Joe, we’re going to pick you up and put you on the travois,” Adam informed him.

Joe braced himself. At first, the pain didn’t seem any worse as the blanket cradled him, but then his back exploded with more agony than he had ever felt in his life. He screamed and mercifully lost consciousness, his body lying limply in the blanket.

“Thank God,” Hoss exclaimed. “Let’s move him quick like and then off this hill afore he wakes.”

“I’m with you, Big Man,” Adam concurred. Together they strapped Joe into the travois with ropes and drew the blankets over him. Since he wasn’t that big, the blankets were more than large enough to provide a soft cushion for his back and cover him, with the last blanket tucked securely around him. It was the best the brothers could do. By now the sun was higher in the sky and it was mid-morning. They took their time getting Joe up the hill, Adam leading the way and Hoss lifting the travois so that it was at as small of an incline as possible. Neither of them lost their footing and before long they were at the top. They lost no time in attaching the travois to Sport. Hoss would bring along Joe’s horse. With little small talk, the men set off towards home, hoping they would cover some distance before Joe regained consciousness.

*****

Unfortunately for Joe, he woke a short time later. Finding himself cocooned in blankets, he at least felt warmer. Still, his back screamed at him. Sneezing, he cried out despite his best intentions. Adam looked back while Hoss got down to check on the boy.

“Joe?”

Joe blinked at his brother. “Sorry, Hoss. Hurts,” he explained. “I’ll try to be stronger and braver for Pa.”

“Ya do that, Shortshanks. Here drink some water.” Hoss used the opportunity to get Joe to drink some water from his canteen. Joe grimaced with the movement but vowed he was not going to cry. When Adam urged Sport on, the travois hit the ground like rocks. Still, Joe bit his lip. He was not going to give his brothers cause for more worry than they already had.

“Joe, we’re going ta be home before ya know it,” Hoss told him. Joe didn’t believe it, but he had no answer. He dozed off and on, dreaming of his soft bed and moving his legs. He tried to feel his legs, but he couldn’t even tell the blankets were there. He knew he wouldn’t die just because he was paralyzed, but to never ride or run or walk again purely terrified him. Pa, he silently screamed. Don’t be mad at me. Why did you leave me?

“Adam do ya think Little Joe, do ya think he’s hurt bad,” Hoss hazarded as they rode towards home.

“I don’t know how bad, but it’s not good, Hoss.”

“Iff’n he cain’t walk, I dunno how he’s gonna git on.”

“Don’t even think it, Hoss,” Adam chided.

There was little else to say. Hoss couldn’t remember a time when Joe could sit still for long. Even in school, he had difficulty because he always wanted to be outside doing something. Winters were harder on Joe than anyone else in the family. Being cooped inside about killed the boy sometimes. Being stuck in a chair forever would certainly diminish the person Joe wanted to be. There was no doubt it. Joe was like Marie that way, an imp who lived for adventure, the unusual and the fun. Hoss prayed that somehow, from where Pa and Ma were that they could help Joe walk again or if nothing else, adjust to a life that was as unlike Joe as eating was unlike him.

Lost in the depths of despair for his brother, Hoss was barely aware of hoof beats on the road coming towards the two men. Adam seemed to be as distracted for the rider was almost upon them before they realized they were about to be faced with the realization of a miracle.

“Adam! Hoss!” Ben Cartwright yelled.

Adam looked up first wondering if he were hearing a ghost.

“Adam, did ya hear…” Hoss started, his voice silenced as his eyes fell on the one man who could give Joe hope at a time when he needed him most.

“Pa!” Adam breathed. “Pa!” This time his cry was louder. The boys were off their horses, hugging their father as Ben joined them. Ben’s arms were tight around both his sons.

“Pa!” Hoss cried. “Pa, yer the best sight I ever done seen.”

“You too, Hoss.”

“Pa we got a telegram,” Adam tried to explain.

“I know, son. I saw it. Where’s Joseph?”

“He’s hurt, Pa. He’s hurt bad,” Hoss informed the older man. Ben’s face blanched white even through a few days growth of stubble. Rushing over to his son, he found Joe mumbling to himself.

“Gotta be brave for Pa,” Joe was saying. “Pa…I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Joe was tossing his head to and fro, his own pale cheeks drawn, his teeth biting down on his lip, drawing a bit of blood. Ben could have cried at the boy’s suffering.

“He hurt his back, Pa,” Hoss told him. “He…he said he couldn’t feel his legs.”

“No!” Ben cried. “No, he’ll be all right. Let’s get him home. It looks like you boys did a good job with this travois. Joe, Joe can you hear me?” Ben put his hand to Joe’s forehead. The boy was hot to the touch.

Joe didn’t answer, not recognizing that his pa was finally there.

If possible Ben felt more afraid than he had seconds before. He spoke quickly pulling the blankets around his boy, his hand brushing through the matted curls. “He’s got a raging fever. Hoss, go into town and get Paul Martin. We’ll go on to the house. Tell him what you know and hurry! Go.”

Hoss didn’t need to be told twice. Still, as Ben stood, Hoss grabbed his father into a hug. “Pa…” he couldn’t go on.

Ben patted his son on the back. “I love you too, son.”

Hoss nodded, then turned and hurried to mount Chub.

Ben and Adam each remounted their own horses. Ben strove to keep his own tears at bay. Adam put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “He found you, Pa. That’s what he was doing, looking for you and he found you. He’ll be all right now. You wait and see.” They started off down the road again.

“Joe was looking for me?”

“He…well he wouldn’t accept that you were dead. Pa, what happened? Why did the sheriff send us that telegram? It tore us up pretty bad, ‘specially Joe.”

“I’m sorry, Adam. I really am. Peter and I had lunch. I told him I was going to be meeting some men at the hotel. There was an explosion and a fire. I left town almost right away. I wanted to get home in case you boys heard about the explosion. I never thought Peter would take it into his head to send a telegram.”

“Joe was devastated,” Adam confided. “He left yesterday morning for Placerville. Obviously, he got lost. We found him just this morning at the bottom of a hill. He hadn’t moved at all I don’t think. Pa, his back…” Adam stumbled over his words, his emotions getting the better of him. “His back was broke I think. I think he’s paralyzed.”

“He’s not,” Ben denied. “I won’t believe it, not until I have to. Thank God you and Hoss went after him. You know that little scamp too well.”

“Guess so. Pa, I can’t tell you how glad I am…”

“Son, it’s over with now. We’ll talk about it later. I’m only sorry you had to go through what you did and your brothers too.” Adam nodded.

They continued the ride home, stopping often to try and get Joe to drink water. It was difficult as he didn’t recognize them and pulled away constantly. Still, they tried. Dark settled over them, but they were on Ponderosa land and pushed forward, finally arriving in the yard a few hours later. Hoss came running out with Hop Sing and some of the men came from the bunkhouse.

“Where’s Paul,” Ben demanded, throwing himself off his horse.

“He’s in the downstairs guest bedroom, waiting,” Hoss answered. “He said to use the travois to bring Joe inside. Don’t move him at all.”

“Let’s go, Boys,” Ben returned. Together the three of them took the travois inside.

Paul met them at the door of the bedroom. “Ben, put him on the bed, carefully.” After Joe was in the bed, they untied the ropes holding him to the travois.

“Believe it or not fellas, using a travois was probably the safest way to transport Joe. This way he couldn’t move much and his back was stabilized,” Dr. Martin told them. Joe was still mumbling. “Adam, get my bag. Ben, Hoss, take off his boots.” Adam was quick to comply. Dr. Martin took out a syringe and some morphine. He put it on the table. Taking another needle, he ran it along the bottom of Joe’s foot from sole to toes. When the foot didn’t move, he groaned.

“That should make his toes curl at least,” the doctor said. “Maybe he’s too out of it. Joe! Joe, listen to me. You gotta wake up, son. Come on, Joe.”

“Joseph,” Ben cried. “Joe it’s Pa. Come on, son, wake up.” Still, Joe didn’t respond. Dr. Martin repeated the exercise.

Everyone held their breaths. This time, Joe’s foot responded. The men yelled in delight.

Dr. Martin breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, fellas, his back isn’t broke, but let me be sure before you take him off this travois. Adam, you and Hoss can get back to whatever needs doing or get some rest, which I would recommend. You both look exhausted. Ben you need a shave. Hop Sing can help me.”

“I’m not leaving,” Ben said.

“Ben, he doesn’t recognize you. The fever’s too high,” the old friend told him. “You need to sleep.”

“He thinks I’m dead,” Ben retorted. “I’m not leaving him.”

“Pa,” Adam tried. Ben shot his oldest son a dark look. Adam and Hoss left the room. Ben stayed.

Together the three men worked with Joe until Dr. Martin was satisfied Joe could probably move both his legs and feet, and the paralysis he had felt was resolved, although in the end only Joe could tell them that. For now his reflexes were good. Still he was obviously in pain and he seemed to have difficulty breathing. After a complete examination, Dr. Martin gave the boy some morphine. “Let’s wait for the morphine to take effect. Then he can sleep while we take care of him.”

Ben nodded at Paul’s wise words. His relief that Joe wasn’t paralyzed overwhelmed him. “Hop Sing, get some hot water and let the boys know that Joe can feel his legs. Tell them he’s going to be fine.”

“Ben, I don’t know about that,” Paul warned him.

“He’ll be fine,” Ben insisted. Paul shrugged.

Hop Sing hurried off. When the Chinese man came back, he nodded to Ben.

“Sons very glad Little Joe okay. They take baths and have dinner. They fine.”

Ben nodded in agreement. Thankfully. Joe had fallen asleep. In no time they had gotten the boy off the travois and into bed. After stripping him clean, they washed him up and put a nightshirt on him. He was a wealth of bruises and abrasions, but amazingly nothing else was broken. For Joe, that was a minor miracle, Ben thought.

“That fever is pretty high,” Paul commented. “Let’s see what we can do to get it down. Ben, the boy will sleep probably through the night. Go get something to eat and rest.” Unable to argue, Ben took one last look at his youngest son. The boy’s face was still stressed with his ordeal, but at last, he was sleeping.

Ben bent over to kiss his son’s forehead. “Pa’s home, Joseph. I promise I’m not going to leave you for a long time. Do you hear me, Joseph? I love you, son, and I’m here.”

Paul, having heard of the telegram and the whole scenario from Hoss while they waited for Ben and Adam and Joe, made himself busy as Ben spoke. Ben left the room after thanking his old friend for his hard work.

“Ben, you know I care a lot for your boys, but Joe…he’s special. Can you have Hop Sing bring me some cold water? I’ll sit with the boy through the night and keep him cool.”

“What’s the fever from, Paul?”

“I don’t know for sure. He’s got a little fluid on his lungs. Considering his exposure to the cold, that’s not surprising. Or it could be from shock. He’s been through a lot. We’ll see by morning. Now go!”

Ben left. He checked on Hoss and Adam’s room. Hoss was snoring away. Adam’s bed was empty. Going to his own room, Ben stripped off his clothes and changed into a nightshirt. He fell into bed, unable to face Adam. After forty-eight hours of almost no sleep, Ben’s eyes were barely closed before he gave in to the Land of Nod and was relieved, if temporarily, of his nightmares.

*****

Adam Cartwright sat by his brother’s bed. When his father hadn’t joined him the night before, he had come upstairs, pleased to find Ben sleeping. Going to the guest room, he stayed at Joe’s side, finally sending Dr. Martin to bed, telling him that it was important to him to be with Joe. Paul gave up. He told Adam to keep changing the cold water and keep Joe as cold as he could. Adam understood. He’d done this type of care for his brothers before. Paul went to bed in Joe’s room upstairs. Adam nursed his brother tenderly. Joe slept unaware of the gentle ministrations and his brother’s care.

In the darkness just before dawn, Joe stirred. Adam was dozing but was alerted immediately as Joe cried out.

“Pa! Adam! Pa!”

Adam sat on the bed, taking off the cool cloth and feeling his brother’s forehead. If he wasn’t mistaken, Joe’s fever was going down. Joe was wet with sweat, but his eyes as he searched around the room were more clear. Most important of all Joe recognized his brother.

“Adam, where am I?”

“You’re home, Little Buddy.”

“This isn’t my room.”

“We didn’t want to take you upstairs. We didn’t know how bad you were hurt.”

Joe grimaced as he tried to get comfortable in bed.

“Does it still hurt as much?”

“I don’t think so,” Joe answered, still drowsy. “I feel funny.”

“Doc gave you some morphine for the pain. Do you think you need some more?”

“I don’t know, Adam! I just…it hurts but it’s not as bad. Adam, am I going to die?”

Adam’s smile was real and came from his heart. In the lamplight, he touched Joe’s face in a brotherly reassurance. “The doctor thinks you’re going to be just fine,” Adam replied. “Joe, move your legs.”

Joe refused. “I can’t, Adam. I told ya. I can’t.”

“Yes you can, Joe. Dr. Martin is sure you can.”

Joe stared at his oldest brother as if he were crazy. “And I told ya, I can’t feel my legs.”

Adam didn’t press the issue.

“I’m sorry, Adam. I know you’re hurting too. I shouldn’t have run off. I could have died out there and then you and Hoss would’ve found me. I…I didn’t want ya to feel about me the way…” Tears came so easily to Joe Cartwright. Angrily he brushed away the wetness that soaked his cheeks and pillow. “The way we feel about Pa.”

Adam jerked his attention back to his brother as he was musing how to get Joe to move his legs. Surely Joe knew that his father was alive. But he didn’t. Adam could see the dismal emotions that shook his baby brother. Dear God. Well, that was something he could fix.

“Joe, listen to me. About Pa…”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Adam. I don’t want to talk about him.”

“But, Joe, you have to know…”

“No, Adam!” Joe turned his head away. Adam was about to make Joe listen when the door to the bedroom opened. Joe had closed his eyes as if he were going to go to sleep again. Adam stood up. He put his finger to his lips and drew his father back into the hallway. Ben was slightly irritated as Adam shut the door.

“Adam!”

“Pa! Wait. Listen.”

Ben gave an exasperated sigh. The older man did look better this morning. He had shaved and bathed apparently. Adam hoped his father had even eaten. He gave Ben a smile. “He’s awake, Pa and his fever is down. He says he’s not in too much pain, so maybe the morphine took the edge off.”

“That’s good news. What’s the problem, son?”

“Pa, he doesn’t know you’re alive. He still thinks…” Adam didn’t finish the sentence. Ben rolled his eyes in frustration. “And he says he can’t feel his legs.”

“But Paul said…”

“I know what Dr. Martin said, but Joe says otherwise. Pa, he moved them when he woke up. He can move them if he wants to.”

Ben’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Are you sure, Adam?”

“I saw him.”

Adam’s voice was convincing. Ben nodded. Still, he could see the vulnerability in his oldest, probably the same emotion that was in Hoss and Joe too. His boys were old enough to care for themselves but it was obvious his exaggerated death had frightened them considerably. Hugging Adam close, he patted him on the back. “I’m proud of you, son. Go and eat and then get some sleep. I’ll stay with your brother and if I get tired, Hoss can help.”

“He’s still snoring away upstairs.”

“I know. I heard,” Ben laughed. “Go on now.”

Adam didn’t need to be told twice.

Ben opened the door. Stepping into the room, Ben saw that Joe appeared to be sleeping. Adam had said he was awake. Well, if the boy was sleeping, Ben planned to be there when he woke up. Sitting down in the chair Adam had been using, Ben took Joe’s hand in his, holding it gently. With all his heart, the father wished his boys had been spared this ordeal. That Joe had tried to go to Placerville didn’t surprise Ben. He would have done the same thing if he had received the telegram the boys had.

“Pa…I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled. “Please Pa, don’t leave me. Mama, Mama.”

Ben leaned forward, his hand brushing Joe’s dark curly hair, those soft tresses that were now matted with sweat. He had to get Hop Sing so they could change Joe’s sheets.

“Joe! Joseph, open your eyes, Sweetheart. Pa’s here. Joseph, please.” Ben’s throat thickened in sorrow for his boy. “Joseph, please, wake up. Pa’s here. I wouldn’t leave you, son.” Ben wanted to hold Joseph, to let him know he was safe, but he didn’t dare, fearful of causing him more pain.

Joe’s eyes opened, his vision clearing to see yet another hallucination from his fever. Pa had come to him, was telling him he wouldn’t leave him, but he had. Pa was dead. Pushing the caring hand away, Joe closed his eyes unable to bear looking at a ghost.

“Joseph!” Ben’s voice spoke in a tone that only Ben had, a tone that his sons never refused. “Joseph, open your eyes and look at me right now! I mean it.”

Trembling, not sure if he was afraid of the pain that was growing in his back or facing a nightmare, Joe forced his eyelids open.

“Now look at me, Sweetheart. I’m not dead, and I’m not a ghost. The telegram was wrong. I’m right here, son.”

Joe shook his head afraid to believe. Slowly his hand went out and touched Ben’s face. Ben moved to the bed. Joe’s eyes crinkled, his brows drawn together, again unable to stop the tears, tears that were now filled with his joy. “Pa!” he exclaimed. “Oh, Pa!” Despite his pain, Joe threw himself into his father’s arms. Both men wept without shame at their reunion. Ben rubbed Joe’s back unconsciously. “I knew it. I knew you weren’t gone.”

“You were right, Joseph,” Ben confirmed. “I love you, Joseph. I love you.”

“I love you too, Pa.” Joe laid back down with Ben’s help. Ben watched as the boy moved himself in bed, including his legs, until he was resting with less of a strain on his body.

“Are you in pain, Joe?”

“A little. It hurt so bad, Pa,” Joe told him. “It still hurts but not nearly as much. It…it helped when you rubbed my back.”

“And your legs?” Ben squeezed one of Joe’s limbs.

Joe’s eyes widened when he realized he could feel Ben’s touch. With his heart in his mouth, he concentrated and moved both legs, then let his hazel eyes rest on his father. “Well what do ya know? Adam was right for a change.”

Ben laughed out loud at his son’s admission. Joe’s giggle joined him. Ruffling the boy’s hair, Ben shook his head. “You gave us quite a scare ya know,” he teased the boy.

Joe’s giggles stopped. He hung his head as he often did when caught in a mischievous act. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he apologized for the hundredth time or so he felt. “I know it was wrong…”

Ben lifted Joe’s head so that Joe had to look at him. “Joseph, you didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done. Now I would have suggested you took your brothers with you since you didn’t know where Placerville was, but I can’t argue with what you did. Although if you ever do it again, we might have to resort to good old-fashioned discipline again. I don’t want you to ever go off like that again without one of your brothers or me at least until you are a few years older. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Now, I’m going to get some broth for you to eat, and Dr. Martin to look you over.”

“Oh, Pa! I don’t wanta,” Joe answered.

“You’ve still got pain and I think it’s going to be a while before you can get up again.”

Joe seemed to think about that for a few minutes. He moved his feet again.

“It does hurt,” he admitted. “Pa? Do you think I’ll walk again?”

Ben smiled. “You bet I do, son. We’re going to be here to help you all the way. You know that don’t you?”

Joe nodded. “Pa?” he asked again.

 

“Yes, Joseph,” Ben answered with a fond sigh.

“Can I have another hug?”

Ben didn’t need to be asked twice. Instead of just hugging Joe, his impish son with his innocence and open heart, Ben took off the covers over Joe. Picking Joe up, he sat him up on the bed. Joe grit his teeth against the pain. Ben sat down on the bed with Joe and let his head rest against his chest. Despite the bed still being damp from his broken fever, and the pain in his back, Joe never felt as comfortable as he did when he fell asleep, his father’s heartbeat lulling him as sure as any lullaby. As far as Ben was concerned, he had never been so happy.

*****

“Pa, how long is Joe going ta have ta put up with this?” Hoss asked a few weeks later at breakfast. The big man was actually picking at his meal. Adam and Ben exchanged glances. If the past few weeks had been tough on Joe, they had also been rough on all of them. Watching Joe deal with the pain in his back and more recently trying to walk was like having their hearts ripped out. The boy was trying so hard despite his slow progress. Amazingly he complained little and that made the situation worse.

Ben sipped at his coffee putting the cup down after a minute of thinking. “Hoss, none of us knows how long it will before Joe’s back heals. We just have to do the best we can until he’s back to his old self.”

I cain’t stand it, Pa. I cain’t stand watching him suffer like that. He’s like a deer, so little and fragile.”

“Joe? Fragile? There’s a word I’ve never heard associated with him. If I was you I wouldn’t let him hear you call him that, Big Brother,” Adam put in.

“Adam!” Ben chided.

“What?”

“Shut up, Adam,” Hoss retorted. “Ya just don’t understand.”

“I don’t understand? Hoss, how can you say that? Joe’s my brother too. You think it doesn’t hurt me to see him like that? You think I don’t want him to get better?” Adam’s indignation made his voice raise several notches.

Joe, wheeling a chair into the room from the guest room caught the last few lines. Silence filled the room until Hoss spoke up.

“Now ya done it,” Hoss muttered.

“What’s going on?” Joe asked.

“We’re just talking, son,” Ben said trying to placate his boys and provide some peace.

“That’s not what I heard,” Joe accused seeming to be angry.

“Shortshanks, we were just worried about ya,” Hoss put in.

In answer, Joe pushed himself forward on the chair. He was only about five feet from the table. Pushing the pedals up, he pulled himself to his feet. Stepping forward, he walked without hesitation, without stumbling, without falling until he was holding onto the back of the dining room chair. His grin split his face.

“I can walk, Adam. When you and Hoss found me, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that again, and I still thought we’d lost Pa. I never felt so miserable in my life. Now I know I’m gonna ride and I’m gonna go on cattle drives and I’m going to bust horses. And I’m going to do all those things with you all and Pa. It don’t matter if it hurts. It just matters that we’re all together. I can do anything if I have my family by my side.”

Ben got up from the table. Walking over to Joe, he put his arm around the young man.

“From the mouths of babes,” Adam grinned.

Joe’s face turned crimson. “I ain’t no babe,” he shouted. Adam burst out laughing. Hoss joined him.

Ben put his arm around Little Joe. “Joseph, I think your brother was kidding.”

“He better be or when I’m back ta running, he’s going to be sorry.”

“Oh, really?” Adam challenged. “That’ll be the day.”

Joe just grinned back. “You can count on it, Big Brother. You wait and see.”

Ben glared at Adam. Adam nodded. He let his brown eyes melt as he gave Joe his approval. “You know, Little Buddy,” he finished for the family. “I bet I can count on it.”

Joe sat down at the table, leaving the wheelchair behind. He never used the chair again and after that day, it was true. His brothers thought twice about calling Joseph Cartwright a babe because in those weeks between his father’s supposed loss and his own recovery, Joe seemed to have grown up. The boy showed them all that he was becoming a man, a man who appreciated his family and a man who knew that when you wanted something bad enough…you just had to do what you had to do to make your dreams come true.

***The End***

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