Home at Last (by Christy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  21,100


 

Ben Cartwright was in a hurry to get home. At the same time, he wasn’t sure how this particular homecoming would go. With infinite sorrow, his chocolate colored eyes reflected on the dark-haired son next to him. In the time since they’d left Chicago, the young man said nothing. He didn’t respond to Ben and didn’t even seem to know who he was. His lack of affinity for his father was tearing Ben to pieces.

“You know, son,” he started. “We’ll be back at the Ponderosa soon. Hoss is very excited you’re going to be home safe.” The emptiness in his son’s eyes told Ben it didn’t matter. Sitting back on the stage, he looked out the window his memories of the last two years assaulting him. Two years ago, Adam made up his mind to join the war. His letters home should have taken the idea of enlisting clear out of Joe’s head or so Hoss insisted. Instead, soon after his twenty-first birthday, Joe left the house in the dark of night, knowing Ben would not approve of him joining up. For Ben, weeks without his cherished sons turned into months until the inevitable happened and they received word that Joe had been killed in a place called the Wilderness. Ben couldn’t explain how each time he thought of his son, he felt sick at heart. Joe wouldn’t be coming home. Ben would never hear his youngest son’s contagious laugh, or see his green eyes change expression, one minute filled with tender compassion, the next with a hot temper, the next crinkling with humor. Joe was his mercurial child, filled with surprises and those surprises were gone now. Next, they waited for word on Adam. When a letter came from a military hospital in Illinois, Ben realized with sorrow that both his oldest and youngest sons had paid the ultimate price for their service to their country though each in a different way. Joe was dead and Adam…well, Adam was gone in a way too. Adam was in shock they said. Something he had done or been forced to witness had taken away the life in Adam’s soul. Now Ben was returning home with the shell of a man he had depended on for so long he couldn’t nor did he want to remember when Adam hadn’t been part of his life. Ben’s loss sometimes left him breathless though his heart still beat. Over the last thousand miles, he’d kind of wondered how or why it did except that Adam and Hoss both needed him.

“Oh Joe,” Ben mumbled. “If you can, help your brother. Help him. I know you would if you were here.” Ben almost smiled. Joe would be so impatient with Adam. First he’d cajole, then he’d yell, then he’d sit and read to him, then…the coach was entering Virginia City. Ben patted Adam’s leg.

“We’re here, son. We’re home.” Ben breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Hoss with one of the Cartwright wagons waiting for them. With just the two of them on the stage, Ben alighted first before taking Adam’s hand helping him to understand he needed to get out. The young man stepped down to the ground, stumbling a little. His younger brother Hoss was right there to catch him.

“Adam! Whoa there, Big Brother,” the middle Cartwright son blustered happily. “Ya don’t want ta go and hurt yer self none. Welcome home, Adam.” Hoss, alerted to Adam’s condition with an update from Ben, didn’t hesitate to enfold Adam into a warm hug. Stepping back, Hoss let his puzzled blue eyes go to his father.

“Pa?”

“Hoss,” Ben breathed. The two big men hugged hard, sharing their mutual distress.

“He don’t look too good, Pa,” Hoss observed so Adam couldn’t hear. “I ain’t never seen him like that.”

“I know, Hoss. Let’s just get him home. Maybe the Ponderosa will bring him back to us.”

“What happened, Pa?” Hoss went on unable to help himself.

“I don’t know, Hoss, no one does!” Ben snapped.

Hoss slung his arm around his father for a minute. “Well, he’ll tell us when he’s ready, I ‘spect. Come on, Big Brother. We got a heap a chores waiting for ya and Pa says the books ain’t been right since ya left.” Quickly the two Cartwright’s led the third to the wagon. In the distance, Ben caught sight of his old friends, the sheriff Roy Coffee and Dr. Paul Martin. His brief nod was a message he hoped the doctor would see and comprehend. If he didn’t, Hoss did after settling Adam in the wagon with a blanket over him and the two carpet bags belonging to Ben and Adam nearby. He hauled himself up on the wagon and turned to his father as Ben joined him.

“Don’t worry, Pa. Doc’s gonna come out tomorrow morning. We talked it over and he thought it might be a good idea iffn ol’ Adam here got some rest a fore he examined him. Iffn ya want, I can tell him ta come out tonight.”

“No, Hoss, that’s fine,” Ben answered almost in absentia. They rode home with Hoss telling Ben everything that had happened on the ranch since Ben left. Several times Hoss directed his conversation at Adam. Ben hoped his son would respond. Adam’s withdrawal was mute testimony as to the inner torment of all three men.

“Tell ya, Adam,” Hoss complained while pulling the horses up in front of the house that Ben was so glad to see. “Normally ya would have been yelling at me to shut up by now. Kind a miss that, I gotta tell ya. Well, dontcha worry. Ya’ll get tired a me yammering, ya wait and see.”

Ben couldn’t help smiling. Trust Hoss to try and make Adam comfortable. Ben looked around the clean yard. Without questioning, he knew the barn would be just as spick and span and the ranch would be running smoothly, thanks to Hoss and their foreman, Nick Wilson. “Looks good, Hoss,” he complimented. He helped Hoss get Adam to the house, halting when Adam hesitated at the front door, refusing to step further.

Hoss’ gentle care wasn’t lost on Ben or Adam. “What’s wrong, Big Brother? Dontcha know yer own home? Ya know ya helped Pa build this house. Ya know it better n any of us. Come on. I can smell Hop Sing’s supper and I’m plumb starved from that ride ta town and back.”

Ben stepped into the house with Hop Sing coming to greet them. Their Chinese houseman, a small, thin man, smaller even than Little Joe bowed to Adam and gave his own brand of welcome. “Bout time #1 son got home,” the Cantonese scolded. “Most respected Father was worried about #1 son. Now you home Mistah Adam, you get well real quick. Father needs you and #2 son too.” The man halted in front of Adam, just as shocked as Ben and Hoss at Adam’s condition. In the great room, Hoss had Adam sit down. Several minutes passed. Ben and Hoss weren’t sure what to do. Ben was just going to his desk with Hoss when Adam stood. Ben watched while his son walked up the stairs. In a minute. the men heard a bedroom door shut.

“Pa?” Hoss asked. Ben shook his head with his own puzzlement. Racing up the stairs, Ben and Hoss were further surprised to see, not Adam’s bedroom door shut for it was open to air out and invite Adam in.

“Joe’s room?” Ben wondered. For a split second he felt weak in the knees.

“What’s he doing in there, Pa? Does he even know…” Hoss choked on his words, still having difficulty with his little brother’s death even though it had been almost a year.

“He must, Hoss. Maybe that’s why he’s in shock or part of it anyway.” They heard a crash. As one, father and son rushed into the room to find Adam collapsed on the floor, Joe’s water pitcher, thankfully empty, splintered on the floor around him.

Bending down, Hoss tenderly picked Adam up in his arms. Adam was limp, unconscious. In his placid, Nordic face, Hoss’ blue eyes widened in surprise. “Why, Pa, he’s as thin as Joe. Ain’t nuthin’ to him.”

“Take him to bed, son,” Ben ordered. “We’ll take care of him.”

“Sure, Pa. Come on, Adam. Ya can let me be Big Brother for awhile. Reckon ya took care a me plenty when we was little.” After Hoss left with his brother held close, Ben sank down on Joe’s bed, staring at the porcelain on the floor shattered into pieces. Over the past ten months, he’d often come in here to sit and think of his boys, both of them, not sure if Adam was still alive or in heaven with Joe and their mothers.

“Joseph,” he whispered. How often had his mind sought to see Joe bounding into the room, ready to change his clothes for a lovely girl, or teasing his brothers as they chased him for some mischievous blunder, his giggle forever echoing in the empty room. If Ben closed his eyes, he could remember the first time Marie put the little boy to bed in his own twin bed. Joe had been so excited to have a big boy bed like his brothers.

Joe…Adam…Hoss. Ben lived his life for his sons. Right now, he was having difficulty just sitting where he was, much less living. With a heavy sigh of resignation, Ben stood. He picked up the porcelain on the ground, putting it into the bowl that accompanied the pitcher. Taking the pieces out of the room, he shut the door after him. Adam must know about Joe. He had to, but how. Ben wondered if he’d ever know, and if he did, he wondered if it would bring his son back to him or simply shatter his world beyond repair, like the porcelain pitcher.

*****

Time has a funny way of passing by without making a sound or a wrinkle or so a person thinks till they wake up one day and realize those minutes and hours can’t be gotten back. Weeks passed, a month, and still Adam made no improvement. Hoss and the men went on roundup. Ben thought having time alone with Adam would help. They went for long walks up to Marie’s grave, over to the lake, anywhere Ben thought Adam would remember. Nothing seemed to reach him. Hoss and the men returned and it was as if they’d never left. Hoss could not hide his disappointment at his brother’s continued withdrawn state. Ben found his second son sitting outside after supper the first night he was home. Leaning against a pole, Hoss’ shoulders were shaking. Ben waited till Hoss was more composed before patting the large shoulder with a strong grasp.

“Pa!” Hoss exclaimed. “I…ah…didn’t know ya was there.”

“What kind of father would I be if I wasn’t?” Ben answered in that paternal tone all his sons cherished.

Hoss choked on a wan smile. Looking out on the stars, his heart was in his mouth as he spoke. “Yer the best, Pa and ya know it.”

“I don’t know about that, son,” Ben answered, sitting on a chair. Both men were wearing light coats, the fall evening being brisk but not downright cold.

Hoss joined his father. “Where’s Big Brother?”

“Sitting inside. He seems all right if he’s looking at one of his books. I don’t know if he’s reading. He never turns a page, just looks at it.”

“It’s eerie, Pa. Like he’s here, but he ain’t. How do ya do it?”

“Do what?”

Hoss swallowed again his distress evident. “I don’t mean nuthin’, Pa, honest. Just…I can’t stand seeing him like this. Adam’s always been strong and in control. Why, him and Joe was always scrapping about who was in charge. I swear sometimes ya’d think they’d a kilt each other they’d git so mad, and now…”

Ben leaned back in his chair, his countenance fairly calm, his brown eyes filled with his own troubles. “I understand what you’re saying, son, believe me I do.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Well, Big Brother can hibernate like an ol’ bear, but I ain’t a giving up on him. Ya think he’d like ta go riding? I can saddle up Sport for him. We could go tomorrow.”

“I don’t know, son,” Ben deferred.

“Honest, Pa, it couldn’t hurt, could it?”

“If he falls it could.”

“Pa, he can’t just sit around the rest a his life. We already lost Joe, Pa. I don’t think I can stand ta lose another brother.”

Ben thought for a few minutes. Standing he hugged Hoss. “All right, son. You take him for a ride, just the two of you, but this time, you’re in charge. Make sure he knows that.”

“You tell him, Pa,” Hoss chuckled. “That’s your job, remember?”

Ben’s laughter joined Hoss’. Ben recognized neither of them were able to muster the true joy they used to before…before the war, but it did feel good to laugh. Together they went inside to find Adam still looking at the same page of his book with Hop Sing peeking from the dining room, obviously watching Adam.

“#1 Son read,” Hop Sing informed them. “Hop Sing go bed now? Is all right?”

“It’s fine, Hop Sing. Thank you.” Ben smiled at his friend.

“I think I’ll take Adam up,” Hoss said. “It’s been a long day. Give ya a break, Pa.”

“Thank you, Hoss.” Walking over to Adam, Ben took the book and put it down, indicating to Adam to stand up.

“Time for bed, son. Hoss will go up with you tonight. I’ll check on you before I go to bed.” Ben kissed the younger man’s forehead. Suddenly Adam’s arms hugged Ben. Hoss gaped while Ben’s heart leaped. When he stepped back, Adam’s face remained impassive.

“Pa?”

“I know, Hoss. Adam’s reaching out. Maybe taking him for a ride is a good idea. We’ll see. He can change his clothes now and get ready for bed by himself. He just needs supervision.”

“Fine, Pa. Good night.” Hoss led Adam up the stairs. Ben couldn’t help following them. Just as Adam did every night, he stopped in front of Joe’s closed bedroom door. He’d stare at it for a few seconds, then go on down to his room. It was, what was the word Hoss used, eerie? Hoss waited patient as always, then the brothers disappeared into Adam’s room. Ben retreated back to the great room where he sank down into his favorite armored chair to think. He took his bible that always sat on the table next to the chair. Opening it to one of his favorite passages, he read, gleaning strength for the days to come and the hope he needed to keep for Hoss and Adam and even for the memory of Little Joe.

*****

After that night, Hoss not only took Adam riding but had him come out to mend fences. There was nothing wrong with Adam physically, Dr. Martin told them. Adam knew how to mend a fence, and work the ranch better than any hand they had, so Hoss teased his brother that he could earn his keep by at least keeping him company in the solitary chore of mending fence. After several days of this, Hoss gleefully reported that Adam would follow directions and work as hard as he did.

“It’s working, Pa,” Hoss told him when Adam was washing up for dinner. “He’s getting better.”

“Yes, he is, son. You’re doing a lot for him,” Ben agreed. “It’s more than we dared hope for when we brought him home.” Ben had confessed to Hoss just recently how grim the hospital physicians’ prognosis had been when Ben insisted on taking Adam home. He could still hear one of the doctor’s voices in his mind, condemning him for taking his son out of the structured environment he needed.

“He’s been through some kind of hell, Mr. Cartwright. The mind can only take so much. He needs a hospital setting where he knows his daily routine and what to expect. Anything could set him off and he could leave carnage in his wake.”

“Adam is not violent,” Ben informed the man. “And if it comes to that, we’ll deal with it. He has a routine at home, on the Ponderosa, which he helped build. My boy has courage, strength and determination. There’s nothing that will deter me from taking him home where he belongs.” Now they were home. Adam was home, improving, taking small steps that might bring him back to his family. Ben lived for the day when his son’s mind would come back to him, when Adam’s eyes would fill with his stoic emotions. Adam wasn’t Joe. He didn’t let his anger or joy or laughter spill out carelessly or easily, but he felt and deeply. Ben knew his oldest son, all his sons, as no other. Adam had his whole life in front of him and he deserved to experience every minute of it, no matter what.

In the dark of night, Ben woke to screams such as he hadn’t heard since Joe was a little boy crying for his dead mother. Ben leaped out of bed, amazingly agile in spite of his drowsiness and age. In moments, he’d joined Hoss in Adam’s room. Holding a lamp up inside the dark room, Ben and Hoss exchanged glances. Adam was nowhere to be seen. The screams were silenced.

“Where is he, Pa?”

“I don’t know, Hoss.” Ben was panicked for a minute, thinking Adam had gotten out of the house somehow without being seen. When they heard a noise in the room, he knew his son had to be somewhere.

“The closet, Pa,” Hoss suggested. Ben’s movement across the room was swift. Throwing open the door, he lifted his lamp to see Adam huddled on the floor. With his legs lifted to his chest, Adam appeared more vulnerable than ever, his entire body shaking. Ben tried to quall the fear he was realizing at witnessing his oldest son’s helplessness, so unlike either of his younger brothers, who readily admitted their emotions. From the time he was a small boy, Adam tried to stay in control. That trait was particularly ingrained after Ben’s second wife, the only mother little Adam had ever known ,was killed in front of his eyes. Kneeling down, Ben touched Adam’s knee. There was no response.

“Adam,” Ben dared, softly, carefully. “Adam. It’s Pa. I’m here, son. Let me help you.” Seconds passed, a very long minute. Ben scarcely breathed. His arm grew tired so he put the lamp down on the floor. He knew Hoss was behind him, quietly waiting. Ben lifted Adam’s chin as if he were a little boy. Tears streamed down Adam’s reddened face, his eyes so haunted, Ben wanted to cry with him.

“Adam,” Hoss sighed apparently seeing the same expression. “Aw, Adam. Come on out. We’ll help ya, Adam.” Shaking his head, Adam cried anew. Ben moved to sit perpendicular to his son, Hoss continued to stand outside the closet. There just wasn’t room for him.

“Hoss, why don’t you leave Adam with me,” Ben suggested.

“Sure thing, Pa. Ya just holler do ya need me,” the young man answered with relief and his usual amicability. When the bedroom door shut behind him, Ben saw that Adam was burying his face into his knees. Lifting the chin once more, Ben gazed into the tormented face of his oldest son. How often had Ben played this role with Joe. Joe who got himself into the most impossible scrapes, and then felt so guilty, he’d hole up in his closet as a little boy just like Adam was. Ben couldn’t blame either son. He wouldn’t mind joining Adam in hiding from all the emotions that were trapping him in his own grief for his sons and what they must have gone through. With wisdom, Ben didn’t talk. Instead he took Adam’s hand, squeezing the roughened palm between his own strong ones. With identical eyes locked on each other, Ben gave his son a reassuring smile. They sat just so for several minutes until Adam broke away, pulling his hand away from Ben’s or trying to. Ben held fast.

“Pa, no!” Adam exclaimed. Ben’s eyebrows rose with hope. It took everything he had not to tell Adam he’d spoken. That wasn’t what Adam needed.

“No, what, Adam? What don’t you want?” Tell me, son.”

“No, Pa,” Adam repeated. Adam closed his eyes. Ben released his hand. Adam buried his face in his hands.

“Tell me, Adam. Please, son. Please let me help you.”

Adam’s anger reached out to Ben in a flash as Adam pushed his father hard against the wall then walked out of the closet. Dressed in a nightshirt, the young man shook his head again. Ben stood behind him, putting his hand on Adam’s shoulder.

“No!” Adam exclaimed. Slowly he turned around. For the first time Ben saw lucidity in Adam’s face. Adam looked around the room then to his father. “Why did you find me?” he asked.

Ben’s puzzlement was obvious. Adam knew how his father felt about him. Ben had no doubt about that. At the same time, it occurred to the older man that something had happened to his son to make him doubt the love of a father who never failed to show he cared or at least tried. “Adam, I had to find you. They said you were missing. We couldn’t just give up on you.”

“Why not! Why couldn’t you just leave me there, just let me die, just…”

Ben was so angry, he couldn’t help himself. His large hands clamped hard on Adam’s shoulders. “Adam Cartwright, that’s enough!” he demanded in that dangerous father tone Adam had to recognize. Adam wasn’t exactly calm but his anger dissipated as fast it came. So did Ben’s. His voice was filled only with love as he went on. “You are my son. I could no more leave you to languish away or die somewhere than I could stop breathing.”

“Then you’re a better man than me,” Adam said with a sigh of resignation. Leaning against the wall by the bedroom window, he pounded the wood with both his hands. “Make it stop!” he screamed. “Oh God, please make it stop. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it.” His scream rang through the room, his hand still pounding and then suddenly hitting the window, breaking it and cutting his hands at the same time. Hoss and Hop Sing both burst into the room. Ben had no doubt they’d been in the hall the entire time. Ben grabbed Adam but wasn’t strong enough to keep his arm from being cut by the splintered glass. Hoss’ big frame sailed across the room, pulling Adam away from the window. Adam sank to the floor, sobbing as if heartbroken.

“Please God! Oh, Joe! Joe! Joe!”

“Hop Sing, get some bandages and soap and water,” Ben shouted over his son’s cries. Hop Sing in his own nightshirt ran from the room. Hoss held Adam in his arms, blood from his wounds covering both of their white nightshirts. Ben rushed to the dresser drawer and pulled out another nightshirt. Ripping it into pieces, he used the cloth to stop some of the bleeding that Adam was oblivious to while moaning for Joe and begging God for forgiveness. Once he stopped moaning while Hoss rocked back and forth with him, trying to get him to relax. Adam looked directly at Ben before retreating once more into hysteria.

“I killed him,” Adam admitted. “I killed my little brother. Joe! Joe!” Adam tried again to get away from Hoss. Hoss held tight. Ben was at a loss, his heart hammering, his mind filled with a thunderous roar of denial. Hoss’ eyes met his father’s.

“Pa, he don’t know what he’s saying,” Hoss tried.

“Oh, yes he does,” Ben moaned. “He does. Hoss, hold him till Hop Sing comes. I have to get one of the men to go for Dr. Martin. I think Adam is going to need a sedative.” Ben tried to touch Adam, but he drew away. He was rocking back and forth on his own now with Hoss’ arms encircling him still. Ben leaned over. “Adam, I love you. No matter what, I love you.”

Hoss looked up at Ben again, tears coming down his own face this time. “Pa? No wonder he don’t wanta talk. He’d never hurt…”

“I did!” Adam cried his voice desperate, his body tearing itself from Hoss’ arms which only grew tighter on the floor. “Let me go! Let me go!”

“Go, Pa, get the doc,” Hoss ordered. Hop Sing came back in with the water and bandages. Ben hated leaving his sons in such a chaotic manner, both of them sporting red on their sleeves and chests from Adam’s blood, both of them crying, but he had to get help. Hop Sing took over the scene quickly.

“Mistah Cartlight, go. Sons be fine. Hop Sing take care. Get Doctah ta help #1 son. Go.” So Ben escaped from the room, his mind still spinning, his chest so tight with horror he could scarcely breathe. Walking down the stairs, he realized he’d wrapped his own arm with one of the strips of cloth. Hurrying outside in to the fall night, he ran to the bunkhouse and woke their foreman, Nick, careful to let the other men sleep. Nick had a tiny room at the end of the bunkhouse for his own as the foreman. Ben told him they needed the doctor but didn’t say why, just urged him to hurry. Nick, a man every bit as big as Ben and about Adam’s age, nodded his understanding.

“Boss, you’re hurt. Ya want one a the boys ta help ya?”

“No, Nick. Please, just go,” Ben pleaded. “I’ll clean it up at the house.” He left the bunkhouse. From the open front door, he could Adam’s screams, pleading with Hoss to let him go. Ben hesitated only a second, knowing Joe was gone, knowing, even accepting of the fact, but hearing that Adam may have had something to do with Joe’s death…it was more than he could bear. He wasn’t sure he was strong enough to cope with this kind of turn in his life. Not Adam! Not Joe. The prophecies said by John Brown came back to him. “Brother against Brother, Father against Son…”

Ben leaned on the open front door just for a second and prayed. “Please God, help me save my son. Please. Let him know he’s loved. Oh, God, don’t take him from me too.” The gray-haired man shut the front door behind him. Walking up the stairs, clutching his injured arm, Ben forced himself to think of nothing but Adam, nothing but Hoss…He couldn’t think of Joe, couldn’t see his sons facing each other ’til Joe…No! No! Oh, Joe. You loved Adam so much. He’d reached the bedroom door. He had to go in. He had to help his son. Ben Cartwright stepped into the bedroom where Adam still screamed and Hoss still fought to control his brother while Hop Sing tried to tend Adam’s wounds. Ben moved across the room to his grown children then knelt in front of the two, making sure all he showed his son was love, while inside, all he could ask himself was…why?

*****

Morning could shed new hope for a new day, or so Ben always thought. The next morning, he was dozing by Adam’s side, dreaming of Adam, Adam as a little boy holding Hoss as an infant, and later taking care of Little Joe, helping Marie without question. Joe’s face suddenly implored Adam not to shoot him. When Adam in his Union blue uniform, the one he wore in the picture he’d sent Ben, raised his rifle, aimed and fired at Little Joe, Ben sat bolt upright.

“NO!” His voice echoed in the empty room.

“Pa!” Hoss’ voice called. “Pa, come quick.” Shaken, the older man stood on slightly unsteady feet, gathering his composure for a brief second. Hoss called again.

“Pa!” Seeing Adam’s empty bed, Ben felt his heart drop. Another disaster of some sort was waiting with Adam. In just a few minutes he was running down the stairs, halting at the bottom, seeing what Hoss did.

“Hoss?”

“I dunno, Pa. I came in from the barn and there he was just setting there.” Hoss approached Adam sitting in the chair closest to the fireplace. Before he got there, Adam, wearing a clean nightshirt with his hands bandaged thanks to Dr. Martin’s late night visit, looked up at his father and brother. Ben’s feet moved so fast he didn’t feel them till he had pulled another chair up in front of Adam, sitting with him.

“Adam, son, are you all right?”

“Pa? I…what happened?” Adam lifted his hands.

“You had an accident, son. They’ll heal. You just cut them.”

“Uh, huh. You too?”

Ben had forgotten his bandaged arm. He had changed his shirt, but pulled up the sleeve to allow the dressing air. “Guess so. How do you feel, son?” Ben’s eyes locked on his oldest child’s. Adam sat back in the chair closing his eyes.

“Adam?” Hoss wondered.

“I guess I’ll need some help getting dressed,” Adam decided. Standing, he looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time.

“I can help ya, Big Brother.”

“Sure, Hoss.”

Watching the boys ascend the stairs, Ben wanted to run after Adam, demand to know what he meant by his confession the night before, only that wasn’t possible. Walking over to the front door, he exited the house, embracing the chilly morning air, letting the pine scent help calm him down as much as he could. While standing there, a tornado of thoughts overwhelming him, Ben heard a horse riding fast towards the house. For a split second he was afraid, thinking it was Joe riding too fast again. Anger even started to erupt in him before the sound dissipated and all Ben could see was Joe, pulling Cochise to a halt with a chagrined expression on his young face.

“Joe,” Ben breathed before the image evaporated leaving only Joe’s voice calling to him.

“Pa! Pa!” And then an apology Ben didn’t expect. “I’m sorry, Adam. Adam! Adam!” Ben stared at the barn, waiting for Joe to come around. His baby! What was happening? He had to be reaching, trying to put out of his mind what Adam said. Joe and Adam were always at each other, Joe angry at Adam’s attempts to control him and Adam unable to accept that Joe was a boy who needed guidance and discipline, but not criticism. The boys had scrapped almost till the day Adam left. Despite that fact, Ben recognized that the bond between them was as deep and profound as the one they each shared with Hoss. His sons loved each other, and if Adam did have something to do with Joe’s death…Ben shook his head. It was impossible. Adam would never hurt Joe. He’d give his own life for his brother, unless…unless it was inevitable. Shivering, he stepped back into the house to find Hoss and Adam coming back down the stairs, both of them shaved and dressed for the day.

“Well, well don’t you two look fine this morning,” Ben congratulated.

“I gotta finish the barn chores I was doing,” Hoss said.

“Hoss, will you stay for a minute?” Adam asked. “I…think I remember what happened last night. You must be pretty upset.”

“We’re not upset, Adam,” Ben started.

“Don’t, Pa. I know I haven’t exactly been sane in the last few months, but don’t patronize me. I know what I said. I know what I did and I saw your faces.”

“Aw, we know ya wouldn’t hurt Shortshanks,” Hoss excused. The three men were standing in the Great Room.

“Adam,” Ben tried again. “You don’t have to do this now.”

“Maybe not for you, Pa,” Adam answered. He sank down onto the sofa. Ben sat next to him with Hoss in a chair facing them. Adam held his bandaged hands in his lap. Looking down at them he examined them before looking at his father and brother.

“I guess I finally released some of the anger I felt after…after the Wilderness.”

Ben felt his throat tighten as if it would choke him. Adam was trying to control the moment while it was clear to Ben what he had to say was going to be extremely difficult to say and hear.

“I didn’t know Joe joined the army,” Adam started. “I had no idea.”

“He left in November of ’63,” Hoss offered.

“Just like he said he would,” Adam sighed. “After his birthday. I suppose he snuck out of the house.”

“You know your brother well,” Ben confirmed. “We only got one letter from him before…before we got the letter from the army.” Adam was about to try and comfort his father when he drew back. What Ben wouldn’t have given for Adam to reach out to him. Adam stood.

“I can’t do this. I thought I could. I want to tell you. I do. It’s kept me from even facing myself all this time, but Joe…Oh God.”

Ben couldn’t stand it. He tried to wrap his arms around his son.

Adam threw him off. “No! No, you can’t Pa, not yet.”

Hoss watched in stunned silence, his open face wearing an expression of complete confusion and worry. With Adam’s back to him, Ben encouraged him to go on.

“Say it, son,” Ben ordered. “Adam, Joe’s suffering is over. What you’re putting yourself through is something he’d hate.”

Adam leaned against the fireplace, staring at it as if he could see what Ben and Hoss couldn’t, that terrible day when they lost Joe.

“The battle was over,” Adam moaned, barely getting his voice above a whisper. “We were supposed to find the injured and get them to the wagons that would take them to the hospital. There were some Rebs. We took them too. There was a fire. It was advancing and several men were trapped. You could hear them screaming begging for help.” Adam slammed his hand on the stone fireplace. Neither Ben nor Hoss moved, not even daring to look at each other.

“From somewhere, I heard this unearthly loud yell, a rebel yell. You got to know those yells. Hard to miss. I turned and fired. The man went down. Someone had been running with him. When our eyes met, I…Joe…His rifle was aimed at me, my pistol at him, thirty feet away from me, my own baby brother. Seemed like forever we just stared at each other, my finger on the trigger the whole time.” Adam was crying now. Sinking to his knees he allowed Ben to help him sit on the chair, Ben sitting before him, and Hoss standing next to his father. Adam’s face was down as if he were unable to look at anyone while he continued the worst part of his confession.

“I’d never have shot him. Never! Joe started to put his rifle down, walking towards me with that silly grin of his. He looked so exhausted, so thin, I was worried about him, wondering how he could be standing there when he should have been safe here on the Ponderosa, not in the path of hell.” Adam looked up at Ben with imploring brown eyes, so helpless.

“Go on, son,” the father encouraged even though his own heart was thundering with his fear. How he wished he did not have to hear this and yet he knew he did, not just for Adam or Joe’s sake or even Hoss, but for himself.

“I don’t think I even heard the gunfire, didn’t know I was hit till I stumbled forward and my gun went off. The bullet caught me in the back and forced me forward. The gun just went off. Everything went black. Funny how I thought at least Joe would know what happened to me and then my knees went out from under me and I hit the ground.” Adam concluded.

Ben felt as if a bullet had just pierced his own heart. Adam! He could have been killed. Controlling himself, he waited until Adam shook his head and went on.

“I don’t know why I was surprised at being hit. There was death all around me, the trees on fire and the smoke and the piteous cries.”

Ben closed his eyes. This was the similarity between all his sons, the depth of their feelings. Of the three, only Adam would think to describe in such detail that Ben could actually feel as if he were there, right beside Adam, perhaps even able to stop him before…

“The bullet was still inside me. It hurt so bad I couldn’t catch my breath and I was damned scared but I didn’t hear Joe and I knew that was bad. Joe…he’d have been by my side if he could. I was hurting and I knew that. I managed to lift my head to look for him.” Adam’s voice escalated. Then…” Adam’s face had been growing pale. Now his eyes reflected the certain horror that had thrown him over the edge. Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and Adam finished the grim tale tears falling down his thin cheeks, his eyes on the fireplace, anywhere but on the father he knew loved Little Joe more than anything on earth.

“I saw him…and I didn’t feel the bullet anymore, just that sickening realization you’ve done the worst thing imaginable. Joe was down. Fool kid. My bullet, the one I didn’t mean to shoot…the one…it hit him. It hit my own baby brother and there he was, trying to get to me, crawling an inch at a time, his determination…well you know how his expressions are. I heard a sound that could only mean one thing, falling timber. I looked up and then back at Joe trying to get to him, but it was too late. He, he screamed such a high piercing scream and the burning tree came down…” Adam buried his face in his bandaged hands. With tears shining in his eyes, Ben pulled his son close while Adam fought him. Hoss sat quickly and quietly in a nearby chair, crying softly. Ben didn’t let Adam go, just held him as tightly as he could, comforting him by rubbing the skeletal back. Ben was speechless. Feeling the need to do something he turned to Hoss.

“Hoss, get your brother a glass of water please.” Hoss nodded, perhaps glad to escape for even a few minutes, his normally calm face almost distorted with his distress.

“Sure thing, Pa.” Adam allowed his father to hold him for several minutes until Hoss came back.

“Here ya go, Big Brother, cool and fresh.” Hoss sat down again while Adam finally managed to sit up, sipping from the cup, keeping his eyes down. More minutes went by. No one spoke. Ben tried to find the right words to let Adam know he understood how he felt. The truth was there was no way to comprehend Adam’s nightmare.

Hoss spoke for him, breaking the tension that surrounded them. “I been thinking, Adam. If I was you, I would have been as sad as you were. Tweren’t no wonder ya couldn’t talk. But ya didn’t kill Joe.”

“Yes, I did,” Adam ground out. “You don’t understand, Hoss. You weren’t there.”

 

oss, whose heart overflowed with love for both his brothers was sitting down near Adam again. He shook his head. “You’re wrong, Adam. Don’t tell ya that much, but this time it’s true. Tweren’t nothing ya coulda done ’bout what happened. It wasn’t you killed Joe. It was war.”

“Hoss is right, Adam,” Ben told him.

Adam looked to Ben with incredulous disbelief. “Pa, Joe was your son, my brother. I killed him. How can you ever stand to look at me? Are you honestly going to tell me you aren’t so angry you could kill me?”

Ben’s intensity wasn’t lost on either of his sons with his answer. “Adam, how many times have we had to fight for our lives, against the Indians, men who wanted to take our home away from us, other men who wanted to hurt one of us? And how many times have my sons saved each other from certain death?”

“Too many ta count,” Hoss muttered.

“Exactly,” Ben answered. “Hoss and I may not have been in the same war you were, but we’ve fought plenty of them right here. Of course, I’m angry. I never wanted either of you boys to enlist. I can’t address if it was right or wrong for either of you to fight. The fact is you did. The war took away our Joe…my baby.” Ben’s voice choked. He didn’t even try to keep the tears from coming as he leaned over and put his hands on Adam’s shoulder. “But I’ll tell you this, Adam Cartwright, I’m not losing another son because he feels so guilty he can’t face reality.”

“But, Pa!” Adam tried one more time.

“Adam, if you’re looking for me to blame you, I can only blame you for being there. I place the same blame on Joe.” Ben swallowed hard again, clearly having difficulty with this. “And I admit I feel hurt and angry that my sons had to face each other in battle, but don’t you see? Even in the end, Joe thought only of you, and you thought only of him. What better gift can a man’s sons give him than the love they have for each other.”

“How do ya know Joe was thinking of Adam?” Hoss asked curiously.

“If Joe was trying to get to Adam, his action speaks for itself.”

“And you, too, Pa,” Hoss agreed. Ben didn’t answer. He knew he had spoiled Joe, knew his relationship with his youngest son had given him so much joy that his death had left him unable to function for weeks. Hoss brought them through, then broke down after Ben’s recovery. Now it was Adam who had to recover, Adam who had to accept that their memory of Joe, sweet for the memories they shared and anguished for what might have been, wasn’t one to be afraid of.

“Adam, do you think you can trust us to help you now?” Ben asked his son.

Adam looked down at his wrapped hands, shuddering for a minute. With a crestfallen appearance on his normally taut face, the oldest Cartwright son who had helped to raise his brothers, who was supposed to protect them met his father’s eyes. “I don’t know if I can learn to live without him, Pa,” he admitted. “He’s…I keep wanting to take back what happened out there. How could he be there? Why? Why didn’t he stay home?”

“Those are questions only Joe can answer.”

“Only he never will,” Adam moaned. The men stood, hugging, holding each other close until they could hold back the emotions that were threatening them, until Ben spoke decisively.

“I guess I’d better change. You boys can tell Hop Sing to make your breakfast. Hoss, the chores in the barn will wait. Stay with Adam, please.”

“Pa…I’m all right,” Adam protested.

“Humor me, son,” Ben pleaded. His strong hand clasped Adam’s shoulder for a minute; the two men exchanging an understanding look. As he walked up the stairs, Ben looked down to see Hoss gather Adam in his arms again, hugging him close, and speaking words Ben couldn’t hear, but knew would help Adam heal further. Upstairs, Ben tried to walk past Joe’s door. He couldn’t help standing outside the door for a minute. Joe! Joe! Adam! Oh, God, how could Joe’s life have ended so cruelly? The father in Ben didn’t just picture the terror Joe must have known when the burning tree came down on him, he felt it. Joe. Without a sound, Ben’s knees gave way, his body sliding down to the wooden floor where Joe used to walk every day. All this time he knew Joe was gone, but today, hearing Adam’s words, hearing Adam tell them how Joe died, Ben finally had to accept that Joe was not coming home, not now not ever. How his sons heard him, Ben didn’t know, but he felt them lift him to stand on wobbly legs, and all of them cried together again for what had been…and never would be again.

*****

A year passed. Adam’s return to his normal routine on the ranch wasn’t easy. It took months for his confidence to return to what it had been. He couldn’t have asked for better support from his father or brother for nowhere else could he have received the unconditional acceptance he gave without hesitation. Many nights he woke screaming with nightmares. Ben was always there, and if he was away, Hoss answered his pleas for help. They never spoke again of Joe’s death, but didn’t neglect to include him in their conversation, family teasing and daily life. Ben never confessed to his sons that, despite Adam’s story, he never felt as though Joe were gone. Somehow his son always seemed to be alive in his heart, his voice sometimes calling Pa, in Joe’s way. Ben wasn’t sure if the sound gave him comfort or worried him. All he knew was that he’d take Joe anyway he could get him. He grieved for his favorite child and the wound at losing him never closed.

Fall again, Hoss thought stepping outside the house one glorious September morning. Seemed like yesterday ol’ Adam had come home. Now the books were shipshape as Ben said and Adam was almost back to normal. His brother’s hand on his shoulder caused Hoss to turn around.

“Morning, Big Brother. Ready to mend some fence today?”

“That’s what Pa said was on the agenda,” Adam agreed. “It’s getting cold. Maybe I ought to let you do the hard work and I’ll stay here to work on the books At least it’s warm.”

“Aw, no ya don’t,” Hoss protested with his usual good nature. “That’s Joe’s trick ta git me ta do all the physical work. Don’t you start now.”

“Yes, but Joe never had a good excuse to get out of the hard work,” Adam laughed. Hoss chuckled at the thought. No matter what it was, Joe could always wrap him around his finger, get Hoss to do almost anything. Adam was tougher, but Joe had a way of cajoling even Adam and getting what he wanted. Joe…The brothers were startled when they heard a horse approaching at a fast clip. Exchanging glances they stepped out into the yard in time to greet Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“Roy?” Adam called out. “You’re out early this morning.”

“Adam, Hoss. Where’s Ben this morning?”

“Pa’s gone ta San Francisco. Won’t be home till next week,” Hoss offered.

“Damn,” the sheriff expostulated. “I was hoping he’d be here. I got a telegram for him. Thought he ought to look at it.” Dismounting, the sheriff who was about Ben’s age, of middle height and build with a balding brown head under his cowboy hat, wearing regular clothes and boots, his vest hiding his sheriff’s badge, handed Adam the telegram.

“Adam,” he warned. “It’s from a sheriff friend of mine in a place called Lodi in California. It’s…well he says it’s Joe.”

Adam’s chocolate colored eyes shot to the sheriff, then to Hoss. “That’s impossible,” the dark-haired man protested.

“Read it, Adam!” Hoss pleaded, a range of emotions crossing his placid face. Adam shook his head, his hands trembling after reading the first few words.

“I can’t, Hoss. You read it.” Adam leaned against the fence they used to tie the horses. Hoss read the words that stunned the brothers.

“To Sheriff Roy Coffee. Stop. Joe Cartwright working for John Hawkins, Rancher. Stop. John asks for Ben Cartwright to come. Stop. Joe going by Joe Black. Stop. Please see me. Stop. Sheriff Patrick Rourke. Stop.”

“Joe Black?” Hoss wondered out loud. Adam took the telegram back, and read it for himself.

The sheriff spoke up. “Well, Boys, what are ya gonna do?”

“It can’t be true,” Adam denied. “Joe…Joe…”

Hoss placed a strong hand on his brother’s shoulder bringing him back to reality. “Mr. Hawkins is Pa’s friend, Adam. He wouldn’t lie ta Pa, not about Joe, not this.”

“We have to go to Lodi,” Adam finally decided in a dry tone, quickly collecting his emotions. “If Joe is there, we need to bring him home.”

“But why would he be there?” Hoss questioned further. “Why wouldn’t he have come home?”

Adam hadn’t forgotten how fragmented and devastated he was when he came home. “Hoss, we don’t even know if this is Joe. I don’t see how it can be, but if it is, then maybe the kid has a reason for not telling us he’s safe. If Pa had left it up to me, I’d still be sitting in that hospital in Illinois.”

“Guess I forgot,” Hoss agreed. “We best send a telegram ta Pa.”

“Yes. Sheriff, we’ll be leaving as soon as we can. If I give you a telegram for Pa and one for Sheriff Rourke, can you send them for us?”

“Be glad to, boys. What are you going to tell, Ben?”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances.

“We can’t send him news like this with a telegram,” Adam mused.

“We can’t keep it from him either. He’ll have our heads.”

“We’ll have to ask him to meet us in Lodi through the sheriff,” Adam figured. “Nothing else for it.” Adam’s eyes rested on Hoss who finally nodded in agreement.

“Reckon it will do. What’ll we tell him if it isn’t Joe?”

“The truth. Nothing for that either.” Adam’s voice was grim and angry at the very thought this was a lie, Hoss could tell. The sheriff waited till Adam had written out the telegrams that were needed. After the lawman rode out of the yard, Adam and Hoss walked inside. Adam proceeded up the stairs much as he had the first day he came home while Hoss told Hop Sing what the sheriff said. The Chinaman started talking excitedly, retreating to the kitchen to get food and supplies ready for Hoss and Adam.

Hoss hurried up the stairs after Adam. He found Joe’s bedroom door open with Adam sitting on Joe’s bed. “Adam?” he asked coming into the room. “Reckon we ought ta hurry. Iffn we leave right quick, we can git ta Lodi in three days.”

Adam lifted stricken eyes to Hoss. “I don’t know if I can do this, Hoss.”

“Tarnation, Adam, why not?” Hoss exclaimed. “It might be Joe! Do you know what it would mean ta Pa if…ta all of us if Little Joe is alive? It’d be a miracle that’s right, a sure ‘nough miracle.”

“I spent a year of my life denying the world existed because I thought I killed Joe,” Adam tried to explain. “All that time I couldn’t live with myself because…because…”

Hoss stopped Adam cold in his tracks. “Whatever happened between you and Joe, ya gotta remember what Pa always says, Adam. We’re brothers and there ain’t nuthin that we can’t resolve if we try. Ya won’t be alone, remember. We can talk about it as we go if ya want, but I’d like ta git going as fast as we can.”

Adam stood, his face a little more relaxed, but barely. “I’ll hold you to that, Hoss,” he bargained. “If it really is Joe, it would be a miracle. Hoss, I’d give my life to take back what happened in the Wilderness. I’ve thought over the last year, even wished the tree fell on me rather than Joe, but the truth is, I’m afraid to face him. I let him down.”

“Now that I understand,” Hoss agreed. “We ain’t exactly good at letting Joe down are we? Well, this is one time when Joe’s gonna know how much you cared about him.”

“No! No, Hoss, you can’t tell Joe what happened to me. Please. I don’t want him to feel guilty. When he’s home, we can tell him, not yet.”

“I ain’t making no promises, Big Brother. I’m just a going and I sure hope you’re coming with me.” Leaving the bedroom behind, Hoss chuckled at Adam’s yell.

“Hoss, don’t you dare leave without me.” Adam sounded almost like Joe, his voice slightly pleading and demanding at the same time.

There were several things that needed to be done before the brothers could really leave, including leaving instructions for Nick about the ranch and the payroll, packing some clothes in their saddlebags and making sure they had first-aid supplies and enough food for the trail. It would be a long ride, but there was a rainbow at the end of it, Hoss thought with glee. JOE! JOE!

“We’re coming fer ya, Little Brother. We’re coming, and once I get ya in my clutches, I ain’t letting ya go nowhere again.” Hoss saddled Adam’s horse Sport and his own Chubb with joy. He shared none of Adam’s reservations. They had reached Adam, he and their Pa had. If they could reach Adam, they could reach Little Joe. He was going to bring his little brother home…period.

*****

Three days later

“ADAM! PA! HOSS!” Joe screamed, waking in a terror-filled sweat. Momentarily John Hawkins raced into the room to hold the young man who was still half-asleep. Joe’s eyes wildly moved about the room while John reminded him it was only a dream. In a moment the young man was lying down sleeping again.

From the doorway, John’s son, Bob spoke softly. “He okay, Pa?”

“Yes, son, he’s sleeping. He won’t remember this dream any more than he remembers the others I expect.”

“He sure can wake the dead,” Bob commented. “I dunno how he puts in a full day after a dream like that.”

John chuckled while pulling the blankets up over Joe, leaving a lamp on by the door as Joe always did. The boy hated the dark. John slung his arm over Bob’s shoulder. “He’s a strong young man. Takes after his father. Now back to bed with you, son. We’ve both got work to do and dawn is just a hair’s breath away from now.”

“Pa,” Bob asked, his tone still filled with the hero worship he had for Joe. “Do ya think Joe’s gonna be mad ya sent for his Pa? I mean he don’t know he told ya who his pa was. He might be hiding from his pa for a reason.”

John shut Joe’s bedroom door, walking down the hall towards his room and Bob’s. There were four bedrooms on the second floor and the two on the first floor that housed three more men who helped out on the ranch. Hopefully, the men were still asleep. Everyone was aware of Joe’s nightmares, although Joe always swore he couldn’t even remember having them much less remembering what they were about. John stood with his son outside the teen’s bedroom door, open to the naked eye to see the rumpled bed and clothes thrown about.

“Bob, I don’t know what happened to Joe that he’s hiding his true identity. I don’t even know if Ben knew where he was. I just had to make sure. Since Adam and Hoss are coming, it could be Ben had a falling out with the boy even though it’s obvious there’s a deep bond there. What I want you to remember is that nothing, nothing is ever important enough for it to come between you and me. I’ve only got me one son and I aim ta make sure ya know yer place.”

Bob grinned, secure in his father’s love, and the phrase John often said. Yer place meant a place in his father’s heart which John had instilled in his son since he was a baby. John Hawkins home was a happy hard working home, and Bob wasn’t ashamed to hug his father before going to bed.

“I’ll remember, Pa. Hope if Joe needs a friend, he’ll know I’ll help him.”

“Ya won’t be able ta help anyone iffn ya don’t git ta bed,” John scolded good naturedly. Bob nodded his agreement returning to his bed while John returned to his. His wife, Martha was awake and they talked for several minutes about Joe, wondering what the boy would do when confronted by his family.

“Ben holds great store by his boys,” John muttered lying down with his wife cuddling next to him. “I can’t imagine what would have turned Joe away from his home and family.”

“John, we’ve talked about this,” Martha replied. “We won’t know anything till Adam and Hoss get here.”

“And Ben,” John agreed.

Quiet filled the farmhouse again as midnight chimed it’s time from a clock downstairs. The next time anyone heard anything it was the rooster outside announcing it was time to get up. John and his wife were always the first ones up, except for Joe, who usually beat them to watch the sun rise and do some of the early morning barn chores like milking the cow and cleaning the stalls. This morning was no exception. Joe came in looking like he’d already put in a full days word. Martha scolded the boy as he prepared to sit down at the long kitchen table where Clem, Jack and Davey, the three ranch hands were already eating with John and Rob.

“Oh no you don’t, Joe Cartwright,” she started, gasping at her words and John’s reproving look along with Joe’s white face. Without a word, the young man turned and left the kitchen, a large homey room with a fireplace behind the kitchen table and plenty of room for the men to sit down to a fine cooked meal three times a day. Martha put the plate of eggs she was holding onto the table. The men were looking at their boss with curiosity while Bob just waited.

“Go on and eat, all a ya. Don’t pay ya for sitting around,” John chided in his gruff way. “We got lots of horses to bust today. Let’s get moving. And leave Joe alone.” He left the table, following Joe outside.

Leaning against a paddock fence where several of the wild horses they were taming were kept, Joe’s fists were clenched tight on the wood. John didn’t dare touch the stiffened back. With the wisdom born of age and fatherhood, he waited for Joe to speak. When time ticked by and the sun crept up in the sky, John rolled his eyes. How stubborn the young could be, he thought.

“Joe, times a wasting. If yer planning on hitting me or something, I’d appreciate it if ya would git it done with. I got a ranch ta run.”

Joe kept his eyes on the horses, his voice unusually nervous and distressed, more like it sounded when he was having a nightmare compared to his normal tone. “How’d ya know?” he demanded.

“You had a nightmare, the other night. You were calling for your pa again. When you called out for Ben, Adam, and Hoss, well, I figured it out. Ya had another one last night, called for ’em again.”

“You figured it out? How?”

“Joe, your father and I were together when Inger was killed. Unfortunately, we’ve only been able to keep in touch with letters since he started the Ponderosa and I came to Lodi.”

“I don’t remember,” Joe said. “But what else is new?”

“What do you mean, Joe?”

Joe closed his eyes. Turning to his employer, he unbuttoned his shirt. As he did, John was wondering what the young man was doing. It was fall and cold enough the boy shouldn’t be taking off his shirt. He realized as Joe took off the left sleeve, then the shirt and the right sleeve that he’d never seen Joe without a shirt on, not even on the hot summer days when the other men were shirtless for a good part of the day. Now he saw why. Joe’s back and side were scarred with healed burns.

“Burning tree almost got me in the Wilderness.”

“The wilderness?”

“During the war,” Joe admitted. “When Adam was killed.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” John said. “Is that why you didn’t go home? Because of your brother?”

“I couldn’t save him,” Joe said. “He got shot cause he was out in the open, ’cause he was coming ta either hug me or yell at me. I don’t know which. Then his gun went off and the tree fell. Bullet caught me and I couldn’t get out from under.”

“My God,” John breathed.

“Some men pulled me free. Branches hit me mostly but it was pretty bad for a long time. War ended and I was still in the hospital. Didn’t know who I was. When I finally remembered, I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t face Pa and Hoss. I couldn’t.”

“Joe, don’t you know how crazy your pa must be worrying about you?”

“I killed Adam!” Joe yelled.

John caught Joe before he could walk away turning him around. Joe lifted his hand to strike out. John was big enough he could grab Joe’s hand and turn the boy around, holding him tight as Joe trembled.

“Joe, I’ve told Bob and I’m telling you. There’s nothing a son can do that would cause his father to turn him away. You have to let your family know where you are. Do you know Ben thinks you’re dead?”

Joe pushed away from the older man who released him. “That’s a lie,” Joe cried, seeing right away it wasn’t. John wasn’t the kind of man to lie at all much less about something like that. Joe shook his head. Leaning against the fence again, he burst into tears. John dared to put his hand across Joe’s shoulder.

“I wanted to go home,” Joe admitted. “A year ago, before I came here. Just something pulling me I guess, but I couldn’t get up the courage. Then the more time that went by, the harder it got.”

“Do you think you could go home now?” John asked, silently realizing that maybe it was a good thing his wife had let out the truth, even if it was by accident.

“I don’t know, Mr. Hawkins. I’ll have to think about it.”

Before John could say more, Joe walked away. John thought about going after Joe, but decided otherwise. There’d be time enough for Joe to learn that Adam was alive. It would be a very happy surprise for the boy. He went back to the house, not seeing Joe mounted on his horse, Dandy, a brown and white Pinto, leaving the barn. Joe took off at a fast clip, leaving the ranch behind quickly. With wild abandon, he rode just as he used to on the Ponderosa. Only Joe wasn’t as familiar with this ranch as he was with the Ponderosa where he knew every pothole and dip in the ground. His mind wasn’t on riding either. It was on Adam. He knew now what all those nightmares were about, remembered fleeting pictures of them, of Adam being shot in the back, his body arching forward and then falling face down. The last Joe saw of him was his face barely able to lift itself to gaze at him sadly, to gaze at Joe as he tried to crawl towards him and then he’d heard the tree and screamed…screamed in abject terror, certain the tree was going to fall on him. At the very last second, one of his friends had pulled him back from the worst of it so that the burning timber only got his back and side. He didn’t remember anything until months later. By then, the war was almost over.

“ADAM!” Joe yelled. “ADAM! I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Joe’s holler echoed in his mind for there was no one to hear him but the horse who was jittery enough as he galloped at undue speeds across the range. Joe knew he was riding to ruin. In the back of his mind, he could hear Ben’s voice.

“Joe, how many times have I told you not to ride too fast?” Dandy stumbled going down on both knees neatly throwing Joe over his head, taking the dark-haired young man so by surprise that he barely realized he was flying through the air until his body hit the ground with a thud, his head hitting a fallen tree, and his left arm taking the brunt of the fall. He came to a sudden irrevocable halt…and let the wings of darkness take him away from the torment in his soul.

*****

Ben Cartwright rode across the countryside on the horse he’d rented at the last train stop from San Francisco. The train didn’t go all the way to Lodi, so he rode as he had all his life, only this time he was worried. Over and over in his mind, he re-read the simple telegraph sent from his oldest son now three days ago.

“Pa,” Adam wrote. “Urgent you meet Hoss and me in Lodi. We’re fine. Please hurry. Will be there in three days.” Adam’s message was almost cryptic in its meaning. Ben couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. In his own turn, thinking of his friend, John Hawkins, he sent the man a telegram telling him he’d be in Lodi and would come to visit…if the emergency didn’t turn out badly, Ben amended to himself. There was no pleasure in this ride, not in the country that was slightly unfamiliar to him though he had crossed this way before. Arriving in the busy town, and stabling his horse, he found the sheriff’s office empty. He headed for the hotel, knowing he was probably earlier than his sons. It was a hard three days ride from the Ponderosa to Lodi. He’d leave a message at the hotel for his sons.

“Ben!” John Hawkins called to the gray-haired rancher. Ben looked up, recognizing the voice only a few feet from him. Around them, people went about their business, driving wagons, and buggies, stopping at the mercantile and saloon or walking from one building to the next as necessary. Oblivious of others, the men who had not seen each other in a decade hugged and shook hands, smiling and laughing in their greeting.

“Ya old coot,” John laughed. “What happened ta that head a dark hair. It’s either gone or turned gray.”

Ben felt a sting in his chest thinking of Joe and how often he teased his son about turning his father’s hair gray. Lightening the answer, he patted John’s shoulder. “Three sons, John. Each one a challenge.”

“I hear that,” John agreed. “I came to town looking for your boys, Ben. Thought they might be here today. The sheriff stopped by my place. He had to go down to Modesto, so I figured I’d best meet them myself.”

“I was just headed to the hotel. I figured the boys might be there,” Ben agreed. “Adam told me it was urgent. Wait a minute. Now I know I sent you a telegram. How did you know the boys would be coming?”

“Because I sent for them, Ben. Actually, I sent a telegram to you. How come you didn’t come with them?” Walking down the boardwalks towards the hotel, Ben told his friend where he’d been and how he came to beat the boys to Lodi.

“Thank goodness for trains,” John sighed.

“Still like a good horse,” Ben told him. They entered the hotel together. Ben couldn’t help being disappointed that his boys weren’t there. He asked at the front desk where the desk claimed ignorance at seeing two men matching Adam or Hoss’ description. John patted Ben’s shoulder again.

“Why don’t we go into the dining room, Ben?” he suggested. “You must be starved and so am I.”

“Won’t Martha be expecting you?”

“Nah. Bob and the men are working. She knows I’d want ta talk with ya a bit and we might have ta wait for the boys or vice versa if the boys got here first. I’ll even pay the bill.”

“Well in that case,” Ben smiled. “Let me leave a note for Adam and Hoss first.” Ben wrote a note urging Adam and Hoss to meet him out at John’s ranch, leaving directions which John gave him, then tipped the clerk so he wouldn’t forget to give his sons the note. Then he gave his attention to John. With the years and distance between them falling away, the two friends sat down to an excellently prepared lunch, thick steak, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, and carrots, so tender they fell apart on your fork and apple pie for dessert. Even the coffee was exceptional, Ben complimented the waitress who simply smiled and told Ben they had the best cook this side of the Mississippi. Ben raised his eyebrows.

John put his napkin down on the table, sitting back in the chair. “Don’t tell Martha, Ben,” he pleaded. “But she’s right. Whatever Todd Bridges is paying the cook, it ain’t enough.”

“Don’t tell Hop Sing,” Ben teased back. “His cooking can almost rival this. Don’t tell Hoss either. I’ll never get him out of Lodi.” The men burst out laughing. John knew all about Ben’s sons from his rambling letters.

“So, John,” Ben finally started still sipping on coffee. “What is so urgent you needed me?” Ben couldn’t fathom the change that came over John’s face, but he recognized the expression as one that his own sons must have seen on his face before. It was the expression of a father who is worried. Sudden fear came to live with Ben.

“John? Is it Bob? Is something wrong with him?”

“No, no, Ben. No, Bob’s right as rain, a son any man would be proud of. Ben, I don’t know how to say this. I swear on a stack of bibles, I would have telegraphed ya the minute the boy walked on the ranch if I’d known who he was, but after twelve years, well the boy’s a man and he’s hard to place as yours, ‘cept for his temper of course.”

Ben’s fear turned to confusion. “John? What are you talking about. What boy?”

John’s kind, empathetic brown eyes centered on Ben’s. His next words hung in the air for several seconds until their true meaning kicked Ben in the gut, slamming the air out of him.

“Your boy, Ben, Joe. Joe’s been working for me for about eight months.”

It was a good thing Ben was sitting as the world spun around him, a sudden roaring in his ears sending him into a world where everything seemed distant and surreal. When he felt a liquid burning his throat, his eyes focused on John sitting next to him, calling his name. Why did John’s voice seem so distant, Ben thought, until he remembered what John said. “Joe,” he gasped, the name barely said above a ragged whisper. “Joseph!”

“Take some deep breaths, Ben. Hey, Old Friend. This is good news I’m giving ya.”

Ben moved quickly grabbing John by the shirt with his strong grip. John was not flustered.

“You knew? You knew where he was and you didn’t tell me?”

“Ben I just said I didn’t,” John replied. “Not only that, but I didn’t know until this morning all that had gone on between Joe and Adam. Joe just told me a few hours ago. He’s out riding now. I’m guessing he’s got some thinking to do.”

“Thinking? About what?” Ben let John go, listening to the man while he straightened his shirt, apparently not at all offended by Ben’s actions.

“If I had ta guess, I’d say he’s deciding what he wants to do now that someone else knows who he is, and maybe dealing with all the emotions he has about his brother. Ben, Joe thinks Adam was killed in that skirmish they were in.”

Ben took another sip of the brandy John had given him, ordered hastily from the waitress. The dining room wasn’t full but there was a fair share of customers who all returned reluctantly to their meals which probably weren’t as interesting as what was going on with Ben. Ben closed his eyes again.

“Maybe we should go on back to the ranch,” John suggested. “Joe will be there and maybe the boys have found their way.”

“Joseph,” Ben murmured again.

“Ben? Did ya hear me?” John queried.

“I heard you,” Ben nodded standing. He dug in his pocket for money, but John stopped him.

“Your money is no good here, Friend. I know the owner and we have a standing agreement. He’ll be paid. Let’s go. Do you have a horse?”

“At the stable,” Ben answered. “I sent most of my things on to Virginia City, so I’ve just got the rented horse and some saddlebags.”

“I’ve got a couple horses I keep at the stable. You can leave the rental horse there and Carter, the livery owner will make arrangements for its return.”

Ben gave John an admiring smile that didn’t reach to his distressed eyes.“You’ve done well, John. I’m impressed.”

“Ben, we got to be friends because we both believe peace and goodwill is the best way to end the day, not that it’s always possible but we can always try. I haven’t changed that much over the years. I can tell you haven’t either.”

“No, I suppose I haven’t,” Ben agreed. Stepping outside, Ben searched again for his sons but still did not see them. While following John to the stable, he wondered if he should be worrying at their delay.

“John, you haven’t gotten any telegrams from the boys have you?” Ben asked as they entered the livery stable.

“Only the one that told me they were coming. Why?”

“Oh, just hoping you’d heard.”

“Nope, you haven’t changed, Ben, still a bit overprotective of your boys.”

“Uh huh and aren’t you the same way?”

“Of course, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tease you about it,” John laughed.

Ben couldn’t help laughing with him. He suddenly felt a little more lighthearted. Joseph! Joseph was alive! His son whom he thought he’d never see again, whom he had grieved for almost two years. A smile spread across his face. Thinking of Adam and all the heartache he had gone through, no. they had gone through, Ben almost understood why Joe hadn’t come home. He couldn’t help feeling pride in Joe’s love for his brother, such love that he couldn’t face his family, feeling as if he’d killed Adam, not that Ben wasn’t going to give his son what for when he finally saw him, after he hugged him and told him how much he loved him. A thought came to Ben as he followed John down towards the livery. What if Joe really didn’t want his father’s love? Ben’s smile vanished. Emotions of the unspeakable grief he’d felt over Joe’s death washed over him. He knew without a doubt, no matter what Joe thought or felt, Ben would never ever give up on his son, any more than he had on Adam.

“Joe,” he kept repeating to himself after John allowed him one of his horses to ride and the men rode out to John’s ranch. John seemed to understand Ben’s need for introspection and thought. They were at the ranch before Ben realized they’d ridden at all. John’s wife Martha and son, Bob, a lanky boy with a shock of red hair met Ben and John with welcoming words and then worry.

“John, Joe hasn’t come home yet,” Martha told her husband. “You don’t think he’s left do you?” Ben felt his lips purse together.

“When I left his things were still in his room. Are they still there?”

“Yes, but I’m worried.”

“Me too. What do ya say, Ben? Shall we go after that boy of yours?”

“Certainly, John, right away. But how do we find him? Do you know which way he went? If Hoss were here, he could track him.”

“I can track him, Ben. Remember, I know my horses and Joe took his favorite a brown and white pinto that he uses on the ranch. She’s got distinctive tracks.”

“Thank God,” Ben breathed. “John, Joe has a knack for getting himself into trouble. If he’s been gone too long, we might want to have a wagon follow us. Just in case.”

“Easy enough,” John agreed. “Bob, get one of the men to help you put blankets on the bottom of the wagon. Then we’ll need more blankets and canteens with water. Martha…”

“I’ll get my first-aid supplies,” Martha agreed. “Ben come in and get something to drink before you boys head out.”

“Boys?” Ben couldn’t help smiling. “Been a long time since I was called that, Martha. I’ll put my things inside if you don’t mind. John and I ate in town.”

“Ah,” Martha sighed. “So that’s why some of my good stew is going to waste, John Hawkins. Well, just for that, we’ll have stew for dinner.” John pulled his wife into his arms, hugging her and giving her kiss cajoling her with kind words while Ben observed. After placating the lady, they left their horses outside, and entered the two-story sturdy wood farmhouse. It was easily as large as the Ponderosa, and it felt just as warm and homey as his own great room. Ben wasn’t very patient. He put his satchels down on the dining room table which was towards the back of the house, then hurried back outside. John joined him shortly, bringing some bedrolls and canteens.

“We can get going. I did see where the tracks headed this morning. Joe likes to take wild rides up towards the river. He’s pretty predictable that way.

“Not in too many others,” Ben grunted.

John threw his arm around Ben’s shoulder. “Now, Ben, we’ll find the boy. He may just be sulking somewhere.”

Ben didn’t argue. He mounted his horse following John once again, his heart now choking him with worry. In the course of hours, his life had veered off in a course he never anticipated, learning that his beloved son…his Joseph was alive and then wondering if he was lying out in the wilderness hurt somewhere or worse or just afraid to come back to the ranch where he was clearly cared about. Ben meant to have answers and soon. Problem was, soon couldn’t come fast enough for a father who needed more than anything else in the world to hold his youngest son in his arms and let him know he was loved.

*****

Joe lay where he had fallen, his right arm lying at a strange angle to his body, his dark curls awash with blood that was drying now under the warm sun. Joe didn’t think to take a jacket when he left the house. He shivered as he started to waken, his body icy from shock.

“Pa,” he whispered. “Oh, Pa…I wish…” Pain from his head and arm assaulted the young man taking his breath away when he tried to move. Fear, like an insidious wave flowed over him, dragging him down till he thought to assess his injuries and see what he could do for himself. Moving his head at all caused him to fight excruciating pain along with dark spots in front of his eyes. Lifting his right arm a sliver off the ground caused the same effect. Moving his legs, he felt sore, but there at least he felt nothing was broken. His other arm and back seemed to be uninjured as well. His ribs hurt, but the effort to check them was just too much. For a second, Joe closed his eyes. He’d done it this time. Opening his eyes, he looked around and tried to get a sense of where he was.

Joe could see he was lying off the main road. When he heard squawking, he quailed at the sight of buzzards flying overhead. Blood always brought buzzards, Joe thought cryptically, only he wasn’t dead yet and he sure didn’t intend to let those buzzards get any closer than they were.

“Help!” he yelled. “Someone help!” Pain slammed into him, sending him into darkness for a few seconds until he fought back, only to realize there was no one to help him, on one to even know he’d been hurt. By the sun overhead, he knew he’d been out a long time, several hours at least. Would Mr. Hawkins realize he’d been gone too long, he wondered? Deciding that his boss was a father just like his own, he figured the older man would come eventually. He just had to be patient. His arm screamed at him along with his head. Feeling woozy, Joe lifted his left hand to touch his head. He could feel the liquid on the side of his face. If he bled more…a new fear came to Joe. He didn’t want to die this way. He should have gone home, should have told his father what he’d done. Pa…Ben Cartwright. Joe remembered how he snuck out of the house in the middle of the night, knowing how disappointed and angry Ben would be by his enlistment. Joining up to fight for the South, for his mother’s home state had been something Joe believed he had to do. He’d been wrong. He knew that now, knew that nothing would ever take away the bloodbath he had witnessed in the Wilderness.

“Pa,” he whispered again. “Adam…Hoss…” He thought of each of them, Joe did, the father who cherished his sons and raised them with such high expectations that Joe often felt he would never measure up. Then there was Hoss, his big brother and his best friend. How often had Joe thought of Hoss over the past two years, yearning to hear that laugh or quiet voice or see him fall in the lake trying to catch that old bullfrog that had teased them since they were boys with his escaping jumps? Too many to count, Joe thought fondly. Joe’s eyes focused on the buzzards. They were flying awfully low. His left hand sought protection, a stick, a rock, anything to keep them at bay. They wouldn’t come close as long as he was alive, but still, the sight of them was unnerving.

“Adam,” he breathed now. “My fault, my fault. If I’d never left the Ponderosa, you might be alive now. You’d be at the Ponderosa with Hoss and Pa. You’d be home. Adam.” Joe’s eyes fluttered shut against the pain that ripped at him, his throat constricting with thirst and tears. He felt so far away and all he could do was call for the family he loved.

“Adam…Pa…Hoss.” Joe’s voice was carried on the wind, but evaporated before it got far. It was the buzzards who brought help while he lingered between life and death, not daring to close his eyes and not sure how long he could stay awake. Horses caused the young man to try and move, definitely a wrong decision. His cry echoed through the air.

“Hoss, over here,” a voice cried out. Through the fog in his mind, and the pain that kept him from being fully cognizant, Joe was only relieved help had arrived. Trying to talk he found his throat was tight and he was having difficulty to keep from crying. The voice called out again.

“Hoss! It’s Joe. Oh, Little Buddy, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” Adam asked his little brother. “Hoss bring our bedrolls.”

“Someone’s coming, Adam,” Hoss hollered back. “Men on horseback and a wagon.” A gentle hand touched Joe’s arm. Moaning, Joe tried to tell him to stop.

“Joe, I’m sorry. I’m just checking to see how badly your arm is broken. Joe? Can you talk to me, tell me if you’re hurt anywhere else. Joe?”

Joe tried hard to open his eyes. He had to see, had to know that he wasn’t hallucinating. “Adam,” he mumbled. “Adam…”

“That’s right, Joe. It’s me, Adam. And Hoss is here too.”

“Pa!” Hoss cried. “Adam, its Pa and I bet that’s Mr. Hawkins with him and a wagon.” Joe heard the ground crunch under Hoss’ heavy footsteps. Tenderly a blanket was placed over him. He barely felt the warmth he was shivering so, so cold, so cold.

“He’s bad, Hoss,” Adam said. “God only knows how long he’s been lying out here.” Adam’s tone was laced with worry. Joe knew he was hearing things. Adam was dead. Adam was gone.

“Hey Punkin,” Hoss said to his brother. “Pa’s gonna be here in a second.” Hoss’ big palm touched Joe’s face. HOSS! ADAM! PA! Joe’s heart fluttered. They were here. They were all here.

“Yer right, Adam. He’s awful cold.” Another blanket weighed Joe down. Joe’s cries rent through the air as Adam gently put his arm in a sling.

“This neckerchief will keep his arm immobile till we get home,” Adam said. “Joe, Joe, take it easy. Hoss here, being the big galoot he is going to pick you up and take you to the wagon. Pa’s going to be all over you, so you rest easy.”

“Always giving orders,” Joe thought. “Ain’t changed.”

Adam’s chuckle was music to Joe’s ears. “I heard that Little Buddy, and no I haven’t changed.”

“He’s still bossy, but it’s a good bossy, Punkin,” Hoss told him. Hoss’ arms were strong, cradling Joe to him. Feeling safe for the first time since he’d left for the war, Joe rested his head against Hoss’ shoulder. His big brother’s movement was almost graceful, Joe barely feeling himself being transported.

“Hoss! Adam!” Ben exclaimed. “Is it Joe?”

“It’s Joe, Pa,” Adam confirmed running to his father while Hoss stayed by Joe’s side. “He’s taken a fall.”

“How bad” Ben demanded. Joe could hear his father’s voice shaking. Pa, it’s all right, he wanted to tell him. I’ll be all right.

“I don’t know, Pa. He’s got a broken arm and a head wound. He’s conscious but can’t seem to answer our questions.

“Joe!” Ben’s cry was one Joe recognized, the one he used when Joe rode his horse into the yard too fast, or got in the way of a gun or did something else that got him hurt.

“He’s alive,” Ben breathed. “My baby, my Joseph is alive.”

Joe was startled as the realization came to him. His Pa thought Joe was dead. So that was why they never came to the hospital to see him. That was why…but maybe they still blamed him…no. Adam was alive…What had Adam told them about that day they met in the Wilderness.

Ben’s hand brushed away the dark curls that were still soft. His kiss on the cold forehead caught Joe unaware. Slowly, ever so slowly his green eyes managed to open to narrow slits. Hungrily Joe took in the father and brothers loved so much. “Pa! Oh Pa! I didn’t…know…I…I’m sorry.”

Ben squeezed Joe’s good hand, his chocolate colored eyes locked on his son’s at the rear of the wagon they had finally reached. “Shh, Joe. Just rest, just take it easy.”

“No, Pa…no…Adam…Hoss.” Joe’s eyes went to his brothers, then back to his father. His sight was growing blurry. Trying hard to stay awake, he wanted nothing more than to hug his father to him and tell him that he should never have left home.

“Hoss, I can sit in the wagon. I’ll hold Joe.”

“Pa, we don’t know if his back is hurt or what,” Adam cautioned. “He should lie flat.”

Joe didn’t think his back was hurt. Still, pain seemed to be at him every second, keeping him in this endless daze. He hurt everywhere. Grudgingly he had to admit his brother was right.

“Lie him flat on the blankets, Hoss,” John Hawkins suggested. “Ben. you can sit next to him.”

“I haven’t seen him in a lifetime,” Ben groaned. “He’s my son.”

“He’s a strong boy, Ben. Don’t frighten him with your fear.”

John’s wisdom was a part of the man Joe appreciated.

“Pa,” Joe whispered, opening his eyes again. Hoss gently deposited his brother on the blankets in the wagon. They felt soft, adding a little warmth finally to his shivering body. Someone pulled more blankets over him.

“I’m here, son.”

Joe stared at his father. Adam stood on the side of the wagon with Hoss, and Mr. Hawkins was at the end of the wagon.

“Pa…” Joe whispered. “I’m sorry.” Joe didn’t know why he was apologizing. As another wave of pain, this one from his side assaulted him, he lifted his hand. Ben’s clasp was instantaneous. “Pa…” Joe felt an inner peace come over him. He was safe now, safe with his family. Flickering his eyelids, Joe tried again to stay awake. Involuntarily, they fluttered shut. Joe felt his head roll to the side. For a just a few minutes more he heard his father’s frantic cry, heard Adam and Hoss calling to him. He couldn’t answer. He didn’t know if he ever would again, but he’d witnessed two miracles. Adam was alive…and he, Joe was part of his family again.

*****

Adam sat by his brother’s side, waiting for a sign that Joe would wake up. On the other side of the bed, his father was brushing back the dark curly locks. Hours had passed since the doctor had come and gone. Joe’s arm was splinted, his head bandaged and his broken ribs bound. The doctor was optimistic Joe would recover, once he woke up. Head injuries were tricky he told the family. The fact Joe had been awake even for a short time was good news. Adam wasn’t sure of anything at this point. Taking Joe’s hand in his, he didn’t think he was baring his heart in front of his father. He just wanted to reach Joe.

“Hey, Little Buddy. I wanted to tell you if you’ll just wake up that I’ll do your chores for a month. I been doing them for a while now anyway, another month won’t hurt. Hoss will help me.”

Ben couldn’t help chuckling. “You better wake up, son,” he put in. “Your brother’s telling a whopper. Hoss and I have been doing your chores since you left. Adam’s doing the books. Without him, we’d probably go bankrupt.”

“Hey,” Adam protested. He and his father exchanged understanding looks before Adam returned his attention to his brother. “Joe, I missed you. I thought…well we all thought you died in The Wilderness. Did you know that? I blamed myself for a long time. I know how hard it was to come home. We all understand, Joe. The war isn’t really over for you, is it? But maybe it will be if you wake up so you can come home. Joe, please. Please.” Adam laid his head on the bed, his exhaustion catching up with him. A full morning in the saddle, finding Joe on the trail, getting his brother the help he needed, his father’s arrival and the doctor’s visit was a little more than any of them could handle. Hoss was resting now at Ben’s insistence.

“Adam,” Ben’s voice called to his son who was trying hard not to cry. Slowly, the dark haired man lifted his head as Joe moved his head a little.

“Joe!” Ben urged his son. “Come on, son. Time to wake up. You can do it, son. Joseph. Now. Wake up!” Ben’s voice took on that paternal tone his sons’ seldom ignored.

“Pa?” Joe moaned. “Pa? Hurts.”

“Where, Joe? Where does it hurt?”

“Just hurts. Pa!” Joe’s eyelids snapped open as he tried to sit up. “ADAM! ADAM!”

“Shh, Joe! I’m here,” Both Ben and Adam sprang to their feet, Ben leaning on the bed with his knee to hold Joe down and Adam pressing the younger brother back before he could move further. “Joe! You’ve got busted ribs. Move like that again and you’ll shove one into your lung. BE STILL!”

Laying back, Joe closed his eyes, moving his left hand to his stomach and then back towards Ben.

“Joe?” Ben asked. “Joseph?”

“I’m here, Pa,” Joe answered. Again he opened the green eyes Ben and Adam and Hoss missed for so long, this time looking from Ben to Adam then back to Ben joking about Adam’s major character flaw, at least to him. “He’s so damned bossy.”

“Watch your language, young man,” Ben ordered as usual. “And in this instance he has a good reason for being bossy. Oh, Joseph.” Ben couldn’t help leaning over, kissing Joe’s forehead. His son’s smile was his reward.

“Pa, I’m sorry,” he started. “I…”

“Shh, Joe,” Ben hushed. “Did you hear Adam before?” Ben’s warm paternal countenance was quickly smoothing over the tension Joe was emulating as he became more awake.

“Yeah, something about the war not being over. He’s right.” Joe’s gaze went to Adam. “Guess I have to admit it. You’re right. War isn’t over for me. Adam, I thought I’d let you die out there.”

“I know, Joe. I thought the same thing about you.”

“When…” Joe grimaced, whether from the memory or pain, no one could really say, but he managed to go on, “the tree fell.” Adam might have gone on if Ben hadn’t shaken his head, a movement Joe didn’t catch. He was too intent on Adam.

“When the tree fell,” Adam agreed.

“It’s okay now, isn’t it?” Joe asked. “Yer not mad at me?”

“Course not, Little Buddy, but I will be if you don’t drink some water and get some rest.” Joe turned to his father.

“Pa? Pa…I…” Joe contrition was written across his face. Ben squeezed Joe’s hand.

“Son, we’ll talk later.”

“Want…want to go home,” Joe muttered. “Shoulda gone home…” Before he could drink the water Adam spoke of, his face relaxed in sleep. Ben sat back in his chair with a sigh of relief.

Adam felt the tears he’d been holding back fall down his cheek. Moving on to the bed, he laid down with Joe on top of the bed. Since it was only a twin bed, there wasn’t a lot of room, but given Joe’s size and his own thin frame, he was able to make enough room to lie on his side resting his head on Joe’s pillow. “Night, Pa,” he said simply.

Ben kissed both his sons on the forehead and pulled a blanket from the closet over Adam who was asleep before the blanket touched him. Then Ben sat back in the chair, watching his boys sleep.

“Thank you Lord,” he breathed. “Thank you for bringing my sons home. Now I hope you don’t mind my asking, but I’ll need your help to help them heal. They’ve still got a ways to go.” The father in Ben was taking nothing for granted. It was all he could do not to lie down with his sons, his arms aching to hold each one close. Lounging in the chair with his own blanket, he didn’t shut his eyes for a long time, not until Hoss came to join him, sitting in a settee by the window. With all his boys in one room, Ben was finally able to fall asleep. Ben’s boys were home at last…and home he hoped they would stay.

*****

Joe slept quite a bit over the next few days. Ben scarcely got a chance to talk to his son. Dr. Pratt told Ben or John to call him if the boy started to run a fever. Ben was relieved when no fever showed itself but was concerned with how much Joe slept.

“The boy’s exhausted, Ben,” John speculated. “What with all that guilt and hiding and then the fall, I’d want ta sleep too. Give it time. He’ll be fine.”

Ben wanted to believe his friend, perhaps too much. In any event, he did let his guard go. On the third night, he slept in the guest room while Adam slept in Joe’s room so he wouldn’t be alone. Hoss shared a room with one of the men. For the first time in three years, Ben slept deeply, certain in his sons’ safety. He dreamed of each of his wives — of Elizabeth and the time they spent together just after Adam was born, those precious hours she could still speak before she died urging him to follow his dreams, and Inger, her hearty laugh, her love for him and Adam and Hoss. How he missed them. Finally, there was Marie, whom he’d held close the longest. Marie. He could still feel her sleeping in his arms, her head resting on his chest, her soft breaths music to his heart and soul. The father slept deeply for the first time since he’d arrived in Lodi, perhaps for the first time since Adam left for the war.

Shortly after dawn, Adam woke to find Joe tossing a bit in bed, mumbling intelligible words. Taking Joe’s left hand in his, he squeezed it lightly, enough to wake the younger brother who turned his head in a slightly startled fashion before the handsome face focused and showed Adam that charming smile he had so much difficulty refusing.

“Hey, Little Buddy,” Adam greeted. “Bout time you woke up.”

Joe looked around the room. “Pa?” he wondered.

Adam moved to get some cool water for Joe thinking his baby brother needed to drink and eat if possible. “Pa’s sleeping finally. He was pretty worried about you. We all were. Feel better today?”

“Yeah. Water looks good.”

“Then let’s get you some,” Adam grinned. Helping Joe to sit up, he let Joe hold the glass to swallow some of the refreshing liquid. When Joe laid down, he seemed even better.

“Tastes good,” Joe nodded. “I was parched.”

“Not surprising. You’ve been sleeping mostly for the last three days. Doc said it was natural, but you know Pa. He’s been keeping an eagle eye on you.”

“I knew he was here, and you and Hoss too. Adam, when can we go home?”

“Soon, Little Buddy, soon, when you’re able to travel.”

“I can travel now, Adam. I just want to get home so bad.”

“Why?” Adam asked. “What’s so important about getting home now, Joe?” Several long seconds went by while Joe contemplated the wall in front of his bed without answering Adam’s question. “Joe?” Slowly the hazel eyes turned to meet Adam’s, eyes filled with a nightmare Adam recognized all too well.

“I feel safe at the Ponderosa,” Joe confided.

“Now that I understand,” Adam concurred.

“Yeah, I bet you do. Adam, was it all for nothing all that fighting, all that killing and dying, the Wilderness?”

Closing his eyes against his own memories, Adam shrugged. “I hope not, Joe. I ought to shake you for joining up though. That was the dumbest thing you ever did.”

“Look who’s talking,” Joe challenged, causing the brothers to laugh together for the first time. Joe became quiet very quickly. “I hated it, Adam, almost every minute. It was worse than any Indian fight we had here, anything I’d ever seen before.”

“Tell me about it.” More silence stood between the brothers. Gently Adam leaned over kissing Joe on the forehead. “I love you, Joe. Don’t ever scare me like that again, okay?”

“You either, Adam.”

“I’ll try not to. I’m going to get Pa. He’s going to want to talk to you.”

“That’d be great, Adam and do ya think you can get me a nice thick steak?”

“Some porridge and toast coming right up,” Adam chuckled leaving his brother, not surprised at all by Joe’s protest.

“Aw, Adam, have a heart,” Joe called after the big brother.

Adam’s heart was warm with contentment. Joe was alive, back with the family who had missed him for an eternity. Still, Adam could see Joe hadn’t come to terms with the war, nor with the Wilderness. Would Joe have as much difficulty as he did with the memories that assaulted him in dreams that wouldn’t go away, dreams of men dying around him, dreams of men whose faces he could still see as he killed them, boys, older men, fathers, brothers, sons, all who had family just like theirs, just like theirs. Adam slammed his hands on to the wall in the hallway, unable to stop the infernal torment begging for release. When he felt his father’s strong arms holding him in a hug from behind he knew what would save Joe, just as they were saving him, family. Family would bring Joe through…or so Adam prayed.

*****

A Week Later

Joe’s arrival back at the Ponderosa.

“Pa,” Joe asked from the back of the wagon the family borrowed from John Hawkins to make the journey home from Lodi to the Ponderosa. “We’re only a short distance from home. Can’t I ride for a while?”

“NO!” Ben and Adam hollered at once to which Joe’s distinctive giggle made them laugh.

“I guess I got that message,” the young man winked at Hoss who was sitting in the wagon with him. “Just wait till these busted ribs and my arm heals, I’ll outrace everyone on the ranch just like I used to.”

“Until then, Joseph,” Ben ordered, “Make certain you stay off horses.”

“Who me?” Joe teased with another wink at Hoss.

“Pa, he’s just asking fer trouble,” Hoss grinned back at Joe.

“Yes, well you can give him trouble when we get home. In the meantime, Hoss, I would really appreciate it if you would take Chubb and ride into town to get Paul to look at Joe.”

“Pa!” Joe protested. “There’s no need.”

“If I say there is, there is,” Ben answered. Joe rolled his eyes.

Hoss leaned over patting Joe’s shoulder. “Humor him, Short Shanks. Pa’s been waiting a while ta fuss over ya.”

“Yeah I guess.”

Hoss climbed out of the wagon after Ben pulled it to a stop. Adam’s chocolate colored eyes rested on Joe while Hoss got up on Chubb.

“I’ll be back in a trice, Pa,” Hoss said. “Be a good boy, Little Joe.” His teasing comment caused all three Cartwrights to laugh. Joe sat in the back of the wagon, resting against the buckboard, his coat keeping him warm from the cold wind, his face braced against the snow-filled breezes that indicated winter was on the way, his eyes appreciating the tall Ponderosa pines, their sweet scent reminding him he was home.

“Adam have ya ever seen a prettier sight than the Ponderosa,” he called out to his oldest brother.

“Nope, Little Buddy, I sure haven’t.” Adam’s voice conveyed his enthusiasm.

“And I’ve never seen a nicer sight than you two boys together,” Ben added, pulling the buckboard into the yard. Hop Sing came out of the house while Ben and Adam helped Joe out of the wagon. Adam started to lift the very thin Joe into his arms.

“Oh no you don’t Big Brother,” Joe protested. “I can walk just fine. Hop Sing! I’m home.”

“#3 Son home,” Hop Sing nodded. “Honorable Father send telegram. Your room all ready for you and dinner ready too. Where Hoss? He not home when dinner ready, he not eat.” Hop Sing nodded his head once as if his word were law before returning to the house, sneaking a look back at Joe as if to make sure he was real.

Joe grinned. “Pa, I don’t want to just go to bed. Would you mind if I sat out here for a few minutes?”

Ben and Adam exchanged glances which spoke far more than Joe could possibly realize.

“Sounds like a plan to me, Joseph,” Ben agreed. “I have to remember now that you’ve been through a war and you’re more grown than when you left.”

“Seems to me he has, Pa,” Adam added. “But he still charms the pants off you.” He chuckled at Joe’s laugh.

“And you’re still dictatorial.”

Adam stopped cold in his track, amazed at his brother. “Where in the world did you learn a word like that?”

Joe’s cockeyed grin was definitely superior as he found a chair on the porch to sit on. “You’ll never know,” he giggled. Sitting down, he put his feet up on a stool, holding his coat close, closing his eyes under the hat. In a minute a slight snore told them the youngest Cartwright was asleep.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” Ben commented softly.

“Me either, Pa. When I think of when I came home, all I wanted was for Joe to come bounding out of the house to greet me and when he didn’t…whatever wasn’t shattered inside of me fell apart right then.”

“So that’s why you went up to Joe’s room?”

“Yes. I hoped he might be there. I’m sorry I put you through all that, Pa.”

Ben slung his arm around his oldest son. “No apologies necessary, Adam. I was no less happy to have you home than I am to have Joe. Watching you boys go off to war was…” Ben hesitated. “Something I hope I never do again.”

“Me either,” Adam agreed. Together, father and son walked into the house which suddenly seemed much more full of love and happiness than when they each left such a short time before. They were home, the Cartwright’s were, all of them, home at last…and still Adam and Joe weren’t quite home, not until they figured a way to put their nightmares behind them and live the lives they were meant to until the war interrupted their dreams and hopes.

Hoss and Dr. Martin arrived just as the family was finishing dinner, much to Hoss’ disappointment. Ben assured his very hungry son that there was plenty for him to eat. Since Joe was sitting comfortably in the living room, tired from his trip, but happy to be home, Hoss retreated to the kitchen to get some dinner from Hop Sing. Paul Martin greeted Joe with his usual bedside manner looking to Ben as he spoke and then letting his eyes rest on Joe.

“Ben, if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have believed it. Look at what the cat dragged in.”

Ben chuckled.

Joe rolled his eyes. “Doc, no cat dragged me here. It was Pa and Adam and Hoss,” the young man shot back.

“Ha. I don’t believe you didn’t want to come home, Joe. Now, let me take a look at you.”

“I’m fine,” Joe protested. “Pa’s just being overprotective.”

“With good reason,” Adam intervened coming down the stairs from his room. “Humor him, Joe. He’s waited a long time for this day.”

“So have we all,” Dr. Martin muttered as he checked Joe’s fingers for adequate circulation now that his arm was casted. They were pink showing good signs of circulation. Next the doctor examined Joe’s ribs, unbinding and then rebinding them to ensure they were healing without complications despite the long trip home. After listening to the restless man’s heart and lungs, he nodded his approval. “Another few weeks of bed rest and Joe, you’ll be good as new.”

“A few weeks?” Joe yelped.

“A few weeks. You have to let those ribs heal. You can come downstairs, but no ranch work till that cast is off and no straining yourself ’til I give you the heave-ho. You got that?”

“I got it. Don’t mean I like it,” Joe grumbled with good-natured fussing. “Reckon I am kind of tired. I forgot how drowsy Hop Sing’s good cooking can make me.”

“Want to go upstairs, Little Buddy?”

“Sure, Adam, but I think I can make it on my own. I’m a big boy remember?”

“Really?” Adam grinned. “Since when?”

Joe’s giggle was music to the family’s ears as Adam escorted the injured brother upstairs to his room. Ben sank down on the sofa where Joe was resting with Paul beside him.

“Hop Sing,” Ben called out. “Hop Sing.”

“I coming, I coming. I got coffee and sandwich and pie for doctor. I ready for you, Mistah Cartlight. Not much left now that Hoss eating. Hoss eat all the food left from dinner.”

“I expected that, Hop Sing. I’m sure Dr. Martin will be fine with whatever you have. He’s not a hard man to please.”

“Oh, I can be,” Dr. Martin joked. Hop Sing left the coffee and sandwiches for the good doctor returning to the kitchen, his voice talking to Hoss. Dr. Martin sat back on the sofa with Ben, enjoying the repast, the two men who were best friends sharing some quiet time.

“Truthfully, Paul, is he all right?” Ben had to ask.

Paul, eating his sandwich took some coffee to wash it down before answering the all-important question with his own question. “Since you can see physically he’s on the road to recovery, I’m guessing you have other concerns?”

Ben took a minute before nodding. “You know me too well, Old Friend,” he commented. “Yes, I am worried about Joe’s state of mind. You remember how Adam was when he came home. Joe, he’s had his own battles to wage.”

“About?” Paul invited. So Ben told the physician how Joe thought he was responsible for Adam’s death and how he couldn’t even face himself enough to come home. Paul listened till Ben had verbalized his concern for both his sons and their well being now that they were both here, and both were still coping with not just what happened in The Wilderness but also with the war itself.

“Ben,” the doctor started. “I think you need to accept that most of what you are talking about is beyond your control. Adam and Joe are full grown. Adam seems to have gotten past what happened, and if Joe hasn’t, well maybe Adam will be the one to help him get through it or Joe will find another way. No matter what, you can’t fix those memories, any more than they can fix yours.”

“They’re my sons,” Ben stated intensely.

“Doc’s right, Pa,” Hoss put in. Ben looked up in surprise at Hoss, who came into the room with quieter footsteps than Ben was used to or perhaps he just hadn’t heard him.

“Hoss?”

“Well, Pa, ya used ta tell me I had ta be patient with Adam and not push him. Reckon that’s what we gotta do with Joe.”

Ben’s chocolate colored eyes reflected his agreement. Looking up the stairs, he spoke softly. “Being patient with Adam is one thing…With Joe, we won’t have to practice patience, only figure out how to harness his emotions so we can help him deal with them. That’s what frightens me.” Neither the doctor nor Hoss could argue with Ben. The father was right. Joe was a keg of dynamite when it came to his emotions…and most likely he could explode anytime. Hoss gave out a low whistle…and prayed his father was wrong.

*****

“Adam, I ain’t gonna break if ya push me too hard,” Joe protested several weeks later. “I’m home now and it’s time I pulled my weight.”

“There’s no rush, Joe. We’re just glad…”

“Yeah, I know, glad ta have me home,” Joe grumbled. “And I’m glad ta be home, but the doc said I could start riding last week and Pa won’t let me do much more than ride into town and back or clean out the tack room. Now I’ve got my cast off, I’m fine.”

“Joe, you can’t blame Pa for taking it easy on ya,” Hoss defended.

“I don’t blame him. I just want him ta let me be who I am and stop expecting I’ll disappear if I start acting like me.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances The three brothers were in the barn, saddling their horses. Adam and Hoss planned to spend the day looking for strays. Ben wanted Joe just to go into town and get the mail, a chore Joe had been doing for a week and was darn tired of.

“Joe, I don’t think you really appreciate how hard it was on Pa and Hoss while we were away,” Adam tried. This subject had come up often over the last several weeks, only to Joe it always seemed to end when he started asking questions about Adam’s return to the ranch and what else had happened besides Joe’s supposed death to make Ben Cartwright more protective of Little Joe than ever.

“Adam, I do appreciate what you are saying, honestly. And I’m the first one ta admit I made a mistake in not coming home from the war, but I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. There’s something about thinking ya killed yer own brother that don’t set right with a fella and Pa needs ta understand that.” With those words, Joe mounted Cochise, his Pinto and rode out of the barn at a quick gallop, still too fast for Hoss and Adam’s comfort to say nothing of their father’s as he came into the barn after Joe rode past him without a word.

“What in the world was that all about?” Ben demanded of his two older sons. “He’s riding like the devil again.”

“He’s angry cause he thinks yer overprotecting him, Pa…and cause he don’t know the whole story ’bout what went on round here when Adam came home.”

Ben’s eyes rested on his oldest son. “Maybe Adam and I are both protecting Joe. He’s been hurt so much already.”

“Pa, Joe doesn’t need the weight of what happened to me on his shoulders.”

“He has ta know, Adam,” Hoss insisted. “He knows ya too well and he knows yer hiding something from him, just like he feels Pa is smothering him.”

Ben’s feigned anger bore down on Hoss, who was unimpressed. “You’ve got your brother all figured out, Hoss?” Ben roared.

“Sure do, Pa. Pretty much have since he was a baby,” Hoss grinned.

Ben turned to Adam. “Maybe tonight you can tell Joe, Adam. Hoss is right. He needs to know how you feel about him and how difficult it was for you. As for me, I suppose letting Joe fix some fences or ride out looking for cattle isn’t going to hurt.”

“Better do something or he’s gonna bust,” Hoss agreed.

Adam didn’t answer. Pulling himself up on Sport, he headed out of the barn before his brother or father. Ben shook his head looking to Hoss.

“We got them home, Hoss…” the father commented.

“Now they gotta help each other,” Hoss concluded.

No one was surprised when Joe was late for dinner that night. The ride into town and back shouldn’t have taken more than a few hours, three or four at the most.

“Pa, ya ain’t mad at Little Brother, are ya?” Hoss questioned his father as Ben stood outside in the cold late October air.

“His birthday is just a few days away and he’s acting like a ten-year-old,” Ben grumbled.

“He’s got demons to work out,” Adam observed.

“I know he does, Adam,” Ben choked out. “But making us worry isn’t going to help him.”

“Pa, we have to give him space,” Adam went on. “Just like you gave me when I came home.” Adam’s hand on Ben’s shoulder reminded him how right his oldest son was. Just as the men were about to turn back into the house, Joe rounded the barn coming into the yard. Riding silently to the barn, he went inside to care for Cochise just as he’d been taught since he was a small boy.

Ben, started towards the barn.

“Let me go, Pa,” Adam said. “Time for my baby brother and me to have a talk.”

Hoss and Ben stood back, watching Adam go into the barn, sharing a world with Little Joe that, even with all their experiences on the Ponderosa, in Indian attacks and defending their own, Ben and Hoss might be able to try and understand but could never relive the experiences that still haunted Ben’s oldest and youngest sons.

*****

In the barn, Joe was currying Cochise, taking his time, moving far more slowly than normal. Adam watched his little brother for a while, cherishing the sight of Joe alive and well. Joe’s giggle, his temper, his determination, his very essence was part of Adam. He’d known Joe from the day he was born, and yet the man in front of him had changed, grown, and gone through experiences that had to have an effect on him. Adam understood only too well.

“Hey Buddy,” he finally called. Joe continued his work. Adam got some feed and water for Cochise.

Joe smiled his thanks before patting his horse on the neck. “See Cooch? I guess Big Brother’s getting a soft spot for ya.”

“I rode him while you were away,” Adam admitted. “Got Sport kind of jealous.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Joe exited the stall, latching it behind him. Adam was standing next to the stall, apparently waiting patiently, something Joe wasn’t used to.

“I know I am late,” Joe admitted. “Pa mad?”

“Not really. Worried more likely.”

“Yeah, guess I am getting used to that again.”

“Joe…”

“Adam…I don’t know if I can stay. I can’t be the same person I was before I left. I’m not that boy anymore.”

“Pa knows that. We all know that,” Adam assured him.

“Pa doesn’t. He thinks he still has to protect me.”

“Joe, Pa will always think he has to protect you. Give him time. Give us all time.”

Joe didn’t comment, just shuffled his feet a little. He was completely taken off guard by Adam’s next words.

“Joe, Pa is protective of all of us. He’s our father. He and Hoss…without them I wouldn’t be here.”

Joe’s hazel eyes blinked in confusion, his eyebrows lifting slightly. “What…what do ya mean?”

“I mean I’d be sitting in an insane asylum back East if Pa hadn’t brought me home and helped me cope with the fact I killed my baby brother.”

“But you didn’t, Adam…” Joe protested eagerly.

“I thought I did,” Adam reminded him. “Joe, when that tree fell on you…what was I to think?”

Joe turned away, slamming his hands on the stall, shaking his head. Adam moved to place his palm on Joe’s shoulder, the young man stiffening a bit. Adam persevered in his need to tell Joe the truth for both their sakes.

“Joe, I have a confession to make.”

Joe tried to pull away, his anguish evident. “Adam, I can’t do this, not now.”

“Yes, Now!” Adam insisted turning his brother around to face him, pinning Joe with his arms as the young man fought back. “Joe listen to me. You ran away because you couldn’t face the fact you’d killed me. I did worse. I didn’t just refuse to face Pa and Hoss. I couldn’t face myself. Pa found me in an insane asylum. I didn’t talk for almost a year.”

Joe ceased his struggle gaining instant release. Adam moved to sit on a nearby haystack, sagging down with Joe standing in front of him.

“Adam?”

Adam’s face was sad, showing moods that Joe wasn’t often used to seeing. Joe’s natural empathy for his brother came out. He reached out providing the support Adam needed. “Big Brother? I’m listening.”

Adam fought to control his emotions and failed miserably. His voice didn’t crack but it stumbled as he admitted his inability to cope with believing he had murdered his own brother.

“Joe this is hard for me to say, as hard as these last few years have been for you.”

For once Joe didn’t dare argue with his brother or question Adam what he knew about how Joe felt. Mature enough now, Joe could believe what Adam said. It was too hard to forget how he felt in the Wilderness…and all he had gone through since.

“I was wounded that day, true, but I survived…physically. When my gun went off and the tree fell on you, I could only think of one thing, my promise to Marie.”

“Your promise, to Mama?” Joe’s face softened reflecting his devotion to his mother’s memory. Adam nodded relaxing just a little.

“My promise. You know that promise, Buddy, the promise I made to Marie to watch out for you, to keep you safe all your life…and there I was in the Wilderness, shooting my own brother, allowing that tree…” Adam shuddered, before forcing himself to go on. “I couldn’t handle the guilt I guess. So I shut myself down. When Pa found me, I hadn’t talked for a long time and it took Pa and Hoss even longer to reach me.”

“You hadn’t talked? You?”

Adam laughed then at Joe’s incredulous tone. Joe managed a slight giggle before asking the obvious.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Adam?”

“Because…I don’t know. I couldn’t. It’s a hard thing to live with.”

Joe didn’t reply at first, his thoughts moving across his face as he digested what it cost Adam so much to admit. “I felt like that,” he decided. “Wished I could shut out how I felt, not have to deal with the guilt. Adam, I’ve never felt so awful in my whole life.”

“Me either, Buddy, me either.”

Joe sat down next to his older brother, the two men sitting in quiet companionship until Joe spoke again. “It wasn’t just about us, Adam, that hell. How do ya ‘spose a man gits over it, all the killing, the yells, the guns…”

Adam shook his head before making his own suggestion. “I suppose we do it together, Joe, not just you and me, but with Pa and Hoss. They…they understand a lot more than we might give them credit for.”

“Yeah, maybe. I just want to run away sometimes. I’m sorry, Adam. I’m sorry for all of it. I shouldn’t have joined.”

“That’s what Pa said when I asked him how he could forgive me for…for, well what I thought I’d done,” Adam confessed.

“What…what did he say?” Joe dared.

“He said it was war. He said the fault lay with each of us because we decided to join the war, but he knew us. He knew neither one of us would knowingly hurt the other. He’s right, Joe. It’s time we forgave ourselves for the Wilderness and for leaving home in the first place.”

Adam’s words were logical…but Joe wasn’t sure he could do what his brother suggested. “How, Adam?”

Adam smiled, his faith in his father and brothers and himself far more solid than Joe’s, not because Joe didn’t have the same faith, but because he’d been home long enough to put the war at least a little bit behind him.

“Like I said, Buddy, together, here, at home, on the Ponderosa…we deal with it and go on.”

Joe shook his head, tears glistening. “I don’t know if I can.”

“I do, Little Buddy,” Adam promised. “Come on. It’s time for dinner. Pa’s waiting.” Still Joe hesitated. Adam waited till the young man stood. In the doorway, Ben and Hoss appeared. Joe looked from Adam to his father then back to Adam.

“You’ve always been there for me, Adam, just like Pa and Hoss. I figured coming home was something I had ta do alone.”

Adam held out his hand which Joe took, then pulled the younger brother into a hug his hand going through the curly dark hair. “You’ve never been alone, Buddy not for one minute any more than I was. And you never will be.”

“Hear, hear,” Hoss agreed. Ben simply felt the pride and joy he had in his sons. Joe came over and gave his father his unbinding love in his hug. Ben’s heart swelled.

“Pa…I know I been difficult since I got home. Adam says I should have more patience.”

“Patience and Joe…well, I dunno Shortshanks,” Hoss grinned. “And imagine, Joe thinking Adam was right.”

Joe tried to show offense, but could only giggle his distinctive laugh with his father and brothers joining him.

Ben placed his hands on Joe’s slender shoulders providing much needed paternal acceptance. “Joe, you just be who you are. I raised a fine son, and that’s who has come home to me.”

Joe flashed his famous grin, suddenly feeling some of the weight he carried being lifted from his young shoulders. “You think so, Pa?”

Ben pulled his son into another hug, opening his arms to hold all his sons. “I know so, Joe. My sons are all home at last and together, we’re going to be the family we’ve always been. The ghosts won’t go away right away. In fact, they may never leave, but like Adam said, as long as we have each other, none of us will ever be alone.”

Joe stepped back, resting his gaze one more time on Adam, then laughing as he grabbed Hoss’ hat.

“Here now,” Hoss protested. “Shortshanks, git back here.”

“Gotta catch me first,” Joe threw back, with Ben and Adam laughing after them.

“Think they’ll ever grow up, Pa?” Adam wondered, the two men walking leisurely to the house. Ben chuckled again.

“I sure hope not, Adam. I sure hope not.” And so the family entered the house that was their home, beginning a future that might not be easy, but definitely was richer, because all of Ben’s sons were finally home at last

***The End***

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