God Laughs (by Archer)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6800


 

Man trakht und Gott lakht – “Man plans and God laughs”

We can’t control what happens to those we love, no matter how carefully we plan, or how much we shout.

There had been much hard riding throughout the long summer day and the early evening. The men they were chasing had murdered two employees that morning while staging their robbery, as well as three customers who had been unlucky enough to be in the Virginia City Bank at the time. They had taken one hostage with them – Ben Cartwright. They had ridden straight for the desert.

Mid-afternoon, the group had pulled their horses to a sweaty halt in a shaded grove of trees. They guzzled lukewarm canteen water and shared momentary conversations as they let the horses breathe.

Joe eyed an annoyed Adam. “So much for your afternoon, huh, brother?”

Adam had been planning a special afternoon with a visiting scholar of architecture who was in Virginia City for only two days on his way to San Francisco, where he was involved in creating the new and much-discussed opera house. There was to be a public lecture, and Adam had been invited to a private dinner afterward – and he was highly irritated to be chasing two-bit outlaws halfway to Reno instead. He shot a disgruntled look at his youngest brother.

“Not only have they taken our father hostage, they’ve ruined my day,” he acknowledged. “I had such glorious plans for today.” He shrugged and returned his canteen strap to his saddle’s pommel.

Hoss pulled up alongside. “How’s Sport, Adam?” he queried. Hoss was preoccupied with the stress of the long race through the desert on the horses. It was one thing for human beings to decide to push themselves, he thought – but the critters didn’t have a choice, and it was hot, real hot today. He squinted up at the sun. At least the day was past its hottest point, he thought.

His oldest brother regarded him with a mixture of impatience and dispassion which was vintage Adam Cartwright. “The horse is fine.” He sighed and pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes. “I, on the other hand, may be mortally disappointed. I’m gonna make those idiot bank robbers pay for endangering my father’s life. Not to mention screwing up my plans for today.” He put his heel to his horse and Sport leaped away.

Joe met Hoss’ eyes and shrugged, and the two took off at a gallop after the straight, black-clad back in front of them.

The posse finally caught up to the outlaws in a long, narrow canyon, just as the day’s light had dwindled to dusk. From behind whatever cover they could find, Adam, Hoss and Joe joined the other members of the posse in firing everything they had at the outlaws, pinning them behind the rocks where they had taken refuge.

The heat of the sun had cooled, but the three sons of Ben Cartwright couldn’t take the time to notice. While he reloaded for the fourth time and emptied his revolver again at the outlaws, Joe realized that they were running low on ammunition, and that there was no end to the gun battle in sight.  His worry for Ben added an anxious edge to his growing impatience. Every shot meant a possibly dangerous ricochet; every moment was one more in which they didn’t know for sure where the band’s hostage was held – or how he was faring. Glancing toward the rocks where the shots emanated, he listened for a lull, and leaped from his cover to the next leafy copse. Carefully, he slid sideways over to where the Sheriff crouched.

Adam had noticed the movement, but knew the shout of admonition he wanted to yell out – be careful! – wouldn’t be heard over the sounds of the roaring guns. He contented himself with covering Joe’s movement as best he could. Soon enough, his agile younger brother was headed toward him, darting between rocks and scrub trees.

Joe slid on his backside to a stop next to Adam, even white teeth flashing as he grinned at his brother cheekily through the dust that billowed around him. Adam brushed away the gravel that his brother’s movement had showered over his pants.

“What?” Adam regarded his little brother warily, even as he kept shooting, keeping up his end of the posse’s steady assault. A ricochet pinged close, and they both ducked.

“I’ve got a plan,” Joe murmured urgently. “Roy’s already agreed.” He met his brother’s eyes, completely serious for a moment. “It’ll work, Adam, but we have to get going soon, before the moon rises.”

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, Adam would muse much later, bitterly.

It took only a few moments to get ready. The posse would keep up a steady firing from their positions, while Hoss and Adam were to make for a copse of trees not too far away, and set up a distracting fire from a new angle. Under cover of the confusion, Joe would make his way over the ridge on the opposite side and look for Ben. It seemed the best way to break the stalemate that had developed. That, Adam couldn’t argue. But he couldn’t help gripping Joe’s arm with a strength edged with fear, stopping him as he started forward from the cover of the rock that shielded their position. “Be careful.” Joe had grinned at him with his normal, easy nonchalance, green eyes flashing with the last rays of sunset. “Don’t worry, big brother.” Then he was gone.

It went smoothly. While Adam and Hoss, shooting from the side of the canyon, had carefully drawn the robbers’ attention – and fire – away, their lithe younger brother, under cover of the near total darkness, had managed to circle around to the downwind side of the outlaws’ position. Just as he had expected, he found the tree where Ben had been securely tied.

“Joe!” The smile broke over Ben’s face like sunrise at seeing his youngest. He had felt certain that his sons were with the posse, and his anxiety for their well-being had kept him working in vain at the ropes that held him. Now relief mixed with fear in his face. “Joseph, you could have been killed!” he hissed as he struggled to his feet.

Quickly, Joe freed him, grinning with relief to find his father alert and seemingly unharmed.  “Pa, if you don’t mind, we don’t really have time for that just now.” Joe looked around, all his senses alert for signs they had been heard. But the shooting had not decreased in its intensity. “Yell at me later, okay Pa?” he murmured into Ben’s ear, pushing him in the direction from which he had come. He hung back, revolver waving warily from side to side, covering his father’s flight to safety.

Weak from a day’s hard riding with the outlaws, with no rest or food, Ben stumbled in the darkness. He made his way carefully around the flying bullets, supporting himself on boulders as he climbed around them. He could feel Joe’s presence close behind him, a hand reaching out occasionally to steady him in the dark.

Finally, he could see ahead of him to where Adam and Hoss were holed up behind a large flat rock. He dove for cover next to Hoss, whose half-quizzical look over Ben’s shoulder filled him with sudden dread. Hoss’s expression was of someone looking for something that unexpectedly wasn’t there. Someone, not some thing, thought Ben. His heart sank. Joe…

He looked back into the darkness in the direction from which he had come. “He was right behind me…” his voice suddenly failed him. Joe wasn’t there.

“Hold it right there, sheriff,” shouted a voice from behind the rocks. The shooting stopped. “I got one a’yourn right here, and I aim to kill ‘im if I gotta.” The owner of the voice stepped forward into the open, holding Joe in front of him, arm wrapped tightly across his throat, gun barrel against his head. Two more of the outlaw band followed, brandishing their rifles.

The posse members froze. His father and brothers stood up slowly. The other posse members looked at each other and at the Cartwrights.

“Now all of you turn around and leave, or I’ll kill ‘im,” The leader shouted, jamming the gun against Joe’s head. A trickle of blood coursed down the side of Joe’s face. “We’re gettin’ out a’ here, and we’re takin’ the money with us.”

The moon rose behind them. In the unearthly light washing over the clearing, Joe could see the horror on his father’s face. He was getting light headed from the pressure of the arm across his throat and wondered how long he could hold on. He focused on the sight of his family’s faces. The gun pressed to the side of his head and the arm draped across his throat held him in a vise that felt hopeless. He could barely breathe from the pressure. His sight was failing; his ears roared.

The Cartwright men straightened from behind the cover that had kept them safe, and walked forward, drawn inexorably toward the endangered member of their family.

Ben glared, voice deadly quiet with rage. “Let my son go. We’ll give you the money and let you leave. Let him go.”

Adam and Hoss stared helplessly at their brother, faces telegraphing their distress. Joe faintly smiled and winked at them, but his own face was ashen and his emerald eyes were unnaturally bright. He wondered if this was his last moment of life, and tried to steel himself for the bullet if it came. At least Pa’s safe…. His vision was going black. His body sagged.

The leader tightened his grip and pulled the hammer of the gun back, making Ben jump.

“Too bad this ‘un had to go ‘n’ interfere, don’tcha think, old man? You were a right good hostage. We’d keep this ‘un, but he’s prob’ly more trouble than you.” His lips drew back over his teeth in a desperate grimace, almost as if the gun were held to his own head. “Nope, I reckon we’ll leave him here with you – and leave you with somethin’ to remember us by.”

Joe was holding on to the thinnest shred of consciousness as he felt the outlaw’s body tense. Gathering his strength, he steeled himself for a final effort.

The outlaw pulled the trigger. At the same moment, realizing he had nothing left to lose, Joe had put all his strength in an elbow he jammed backward into his captor’s chest. It threw the man’s arm off by just enough that the bullet creased his forehead instead of burying itself in his brain. The sound of the gun went through his father and brothers like a bolt of lightening.

“NO!” shouted Hoss in that same instant, leaping forward with his whole weight and all of his love for his little brother. Simultaneously, Ben and Adam started for Joe, and the posse began diving for cover as the outlaws came awake and started shooting, desperate men looking for a way out of a failed plan. “Take cover!” shouted Sheriff Coffee.

The impact of Hoss’s leap carried the outlaw leader, his two henchmen, and Joe all to the ground, but Hoss only had eyes for the gun. Get it away before he can shoot again…

Everywhere in the moonlit darkness, men were diving for whatever cover they could find. Shots rang out in the darkness, and the cries of men wounded, frightened, enraged. Dust was kicked up by ricocheting bullets, illuminated by the moon’s glow. Horses whinnied in fear and stampeded away.

Mindless of their own risk, Ben and Adam leaped into the melee of bodies around Joe. “Where’s the gun? Where’s the gun?

Frantic to discern the gun threatening his son’s life, Ben strained to see in the darkness and the melee of fighting bodies.

A shot rang out at close range. It was so close that it seemed to reverberate directly through him.

NO!

The echoes of that blast seemed to wash over everything. Time suddenly seemed to slow to a crawl. The posse had subdued the outlaws or killed them, and their guns were going quiet. The group of men in which his sons were entangled was slowly breaking apart as desperate blows were traded and men fell. But which men? Ben’s heart knocked frantically against his chest. My sons, my sons, where are you?

In the sudden silence, he peered at the forms in the dark. There was Adam, standing over an unconscious form and rubbing his jaw. And Hoss – that larger form was hard to miss. He was half-sitting, half-lying on the ground, surrounded by several unmoving bodies, bent over….bent over Joe? My son, my son….

“Joe, Joe, you aright? Answer me, Little Joe!” Hoss shook his brother’s shoulder and turned him over gently. “Pa!”

Ben flung himself down by Joe’s side, followed by Adam. “Joe? Joseph?” He looked more closely at his son’s unconscious face in the moonlight. No movement – but then a groan ripped from Joe’s lips, barely audible. The three Cartwrights glanced at each other and began searching the youngest’s body for any sign of a wound.

Ben looked up at his old friend, Roy Coffee. “Bring a torch! Hurry!”

By the ghostly flickering light, but more by the feel of loving hands searching frantically, they found it – a gaping, dark hole. Blood was soaking through Joe’s shirt. His breaths came in short gasps. Adam tried to wipe away the blood that covered his brother’s face from the bullet that had grazed his forehead. Responding to the gentle touch, Joe looked up and met Adam’s dark eyes. “It’s bad,” he breathed.

“Looks like it’s just under the ribs, Pa,” muttered Adam. Ben looked up again to Roy, panic warring with desperation in his eyes. Gutshot…no, no, not Joe, not my son… In an unnatural voice, he mouthed, “doctor, Roy…”

“Already sent for, Ben,” reassured his friend. “He’ll meet you at the ranch.”

Adam pulled his shirt off and, using it as a makeshift bandage, pressed it against the hole in Joe’s chest, attempting to staunch the blood that flowed freely from his brother’s body. Hoss, eyes anguished, ran to find the wagon that had followed the posse from town.

Joe gasped, choking on blood as he tried to breathe. His father wiped a bandana soaked in canteen water gently across his face. “Pa….”

“Don’t worry, son,” Ben murmured to him. “You’ll be all right.” His face was grim.

“Hoss?  Adam?” the effort to speak was written in agony across his brow.

“They’re fine, Joe. Your plan worked; we’re all fine.” Ben held his youngest closer. “The outlaw leader who tried to kill you is dead. The gang is in custody. It’s going to be all right.”

Joe felt himself floating, detached from his body. It was as if he was hearing his father’s voice from some distance. Curiously, there was no pain now.

“This ain’t…” Joe gasped for breath. “This ain’t accordin’ to the…plan…” Weakly, he tried to grin – and the darkness reached for him. His head lolled on his father’s arm.

Joe!” Ben gripped his son’s throat, felt frantically for a pulse. It was still there, weak and thready, but there. Ben’s pent-up breath hissed between his teeth.

Joseph! Do you hear me? Stay with me! So help me, Joseph….” He shook Joe gently. My son, my son…would that I had died for thee…. The ancient words ran through his mind. He shook his head violently to clear them out. This son of his would not die after risking his life to save his father.

“Pa! wagon’s ready,” Hoss called out.

Ben looked up at Adam across Joe’s unconscious form. “Let’s go.”

Ben would remember the anxious ride back to the Ponderosa as a nightmare. The ride seemed to go on endlessly, as they bumped over the uneven terrain as fast as Hoss dared to drive the horses. Ben and Adam held Joe between them, supporting his body as carefully as possible, keeping pressure on Adam’s shirt, still held to the bloody wound.

Finally they arrived in the front yard of the ranch house. All the lights in the house seemed to be lit, and a welcoming glow suffused the front yard. Doc Martin came running out of the house and up to the edge of the wagon. He reached a hand past Ben’s shoulder to check Joe’s throat for a pulse, darting a glance at his old friend. It’s there – not by much, but it’s there.

Ben looked up into the face of his friend. “Paul,” he breathed, pleading. “He saved my life…don’t let it cost him his.”

The doctor met his friend’s eyes, keeping his gaze as gentle as he could. “Ben,” he squeezed his arm. “I’ll do everything I can. You know that.” He turned to Hoss. “Let’s get him inside – fast, please.” Hoss leaped to comply.

Ben looked down at Joe’s face. It looked so nearly lifeless. Let it be enough. My son, my son…

*****

He opened his eyes. How did I get here? He looked around – his own bedroom. Must have – passed out?

He opened his eyes – and with a jolt, memory returned. He was holding his son’s unmoving form and praying that the life within it would not flicker out. Please God, please, let me die for him…

He bolted upright. Sunlight washed the room. There was a deathly stillness. Joe… Joseph, my son!

His head hurt like the blazes. What… He lifted a hand to the back of his head and felt a bandage. What the hell happened?

Fear gripped him. He stumbled to his feet, and had to reach out and grab the bedpost to keep from succumbing to the sudden vertigo that seized him. He put a hand to his head and urgently tried to focus his thoughts. Someone had put him on his bed quickly, without undressing him, apparently. Joe…

He nearly fell into the hallway. Why is it so quiet around here? Where the hell is everyone?

Joe’s door was open. Trancelike, he walked slowly toward it. Afraid of what he would find – afraid of what he wouldn’t find…

*****

An exhausted Adam looked up from Joe’s bedside. His eyes were dark-rimmed with the fatigue of the long night’s vigil. “Pa! you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

Ben stood gripping the door for support.

“Pa, how are you feeling?” Adam rose from his chair, offering. “Here, come sit down.”

“Joe?”

“He’s still with us, Pa,” Adam sighed tiredly, in a voice that sounded decidedly uncertain. He had been trying to soothe his brother’s pain-wracked convulsions. Joe’s body had subsided into an uneasy torpor only moments before Ben appeared.

Seeing Joe apparently resting comfortably, Ben sagged with relief, and let Adam guide him to the chair next to his youngest’s bed. “What happened?”

“You scared us too, Pa,” Adam said gently. “In all the confusion, we were all so worried about Joe that in the darkness none of us noticed that you’d been winged by a bullet too.”

Ben grimaced as he touched the bandage again, gingerly.

“You were sitting there and holding Joe’s hand while Doc Martin worked on him, you wouldn’t let him go,” related Adam. “And then all of a sudden you passed out. That was when we realized that you were hurt.”

“This?” Ben muttered. “Apparently it’s nothing…” He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the unmoving form in the bed. It was beginning to dawn on him that it was too still.

“Well, sure, that bullet just nicked you. But Pa, you bled enough from it. Scared us all to death! After all that work we went through to save you.”

Ben shook his head to dismiss Adam’s concern, and then wished he hadn’t as pain shot through it. He shrugged it off and took the seat next to Joe’s bed that Adam offered him, sitting down heavily. He watched Joe with growing alarm.

Watching him carefully, Adam continued to talk. “Doc operated on Joe, took out the bullet. Then he bandaged your head. You never woke up.” The son’s eyes searched the father’s. “How are you feeling now, Pa?”

Ben’s hand reached out for his eldest, but his eyes never left his youngest’s unmoving form.  “I’m okay, Adam,” he assured him. “What did Paul say about Joe? When did he leave?”

“I’m right here,” the doctor’s voice interrupted as he came into the room. “I wouldn’t leave a patient who needs me.” He made his way to Joe’s bedside with a small smile for Ben. Then he was all business, checking Joe’s pulse and breathing.

As if the touch had partially roused him, Joe groaned softly. His body began to make convulsive movements, as if he were struggling to escape something.

“Doc?” asked Ben. “What is it?”

“It was a very bad wound, Ben,” Martin answered him honestly, “at close range.” He took a breath and decided to say the rest of it. “And it was a while before I got to him.”

Staring at his son, Ben was too distracted to wince. “Why is he so restless?” Ben watched Joe’s movements as his son moved restlessly on his bed.

Reluctantly, the physician met the worried father’s eyes. “He’s in a lot of pain, Ben.” He checked Joe’s forehead. “You know as well as I do the complications of a gut shot.” You know as well as I do what his chances are. He wouldn’t say those words to the frantic father, couldn’t take away whatever hope he harbored, that his son would recover, against the odds that they both knew were probably too long. “He lost a lot of blood and there was some internal damage – there was only so much I could do. The next few days will be critical. If he’s going to survive this, he has to hold on and fight, and he’s exhausted. We have to watch carefully for signs of fever.”

If… Ben took a deep breath, his dark eyes moving from the doctor’s face to Joe’s. Wordlessly, took his unconscious son’s hand and settled in.

Watching his father, Adam nodded to himself. He had headed for the door when Hoss walked in carrying a tray with a coffee pot and cups. Hoss didn’t look as if he’d slept at all, yet he dredged up a small, sad smile for his father. “Figgered I’d see you here, Pa,” he said softly. “Coffee?”

*****

The house was on fire. He tore burning wood from the doorway, trying to fight his way in to her. Alice… Then the fire was on him, and he was burning. The agony was intense. He was drowning in the flames. He could feel his father’s hand but couldn’t make his own move in response. He had been fighting the pain and the darkness for so long, and he could feel the bone-deep exhaustion. From a great distance he heard his father’s urgent voice. He was so tired…he longed to let go of the fight, but that voice kept him tethered to the pain, and the effort.

“His fever’s getting worse,” Paul observed. They had been bathing him with ice chips for hours. Nothing seemed to help.

“Joseph, you have to hold on, you have to fight,” the voice murmured, low and insistent.

Adam had been staring at his brother, exhausted. He roused at the sound of his father’s voice. “Pa…it’s been three days…”

“And what?” Ben silenced him with a harsh look. His face was haggard. He had hardly slept for fear that his youngest would stop breathing. “Your brother is going to get well,” he insisted, gripping Joe’s hand with one of his own, holding a cool cloth to his son’s forehead with the other.

Adam shot a look at Hoss, who was standing behind Paul. The doctor was sitting across from Ben, having finished another examination of Joe, who had not regained full consciousness. Paul knew that his patient was trapped by the increasing pain he was experiencing. He was caught between awareness and oblivion – between life and death. Joe’s face was drawn with the constant agony, and his body moved slightly, as if trying to escape it.

Over the past three days those movements had weakened considerably as the life force drained. The doctor sighed. Despite all that he could do, it looked as if, this time, Joe’s strength would not be enough.

What a waste, the doctor mused. A man who was so well regarded, so well liked, with so much promise for the years to come, and so much living yet to do. Not for the first time, he regretted the rough violence of the pioneer territory that was his home. Joe was not the first to be counted among the victims of the meaningless violence of the frontier, and he would not be the last; that seemed certain. But this was the son of his closest friend, a man he had watched grow from a baby…more than a patient.

He thought of the ready smile and fierce loyalty of the man who was slowly dying before his eyes. He felt a deep sadness flow through him, and a sense of terrible regret at the limitations of his art. He had reached the limit of medical science; he had done everything he knew to do, and even tried a few things that went beyond accepted medical therapies. There seemed to be no response from any of them. The bullet’s damage was apparently just too great. He had racked his brains; he had put everything he had into the fight to save Joe Cartwright. There was no more the doctor could do.

Joe’s movements became more restless; suddenly, dry lips parted and he groaned audibly. His head moved weakly from side to side. Ben stroked his forehead with a shaking hand. Joe’s eyes opened. Fever-bright, intensely green, they sought his father’s face.

“Pa,” he whispered. Ben leaned in close.

“I’m here, son,” he murmured. He gripped Joe’s hand tightly. “Hold on, Joe. You can do it.”

Joe stared up at his father’s eyes. His own were deep wells of agony. “Tired,” he murmured. “so…tired…” He seemed to be gathering his strength. He looked up at Hoss and Adam.

Adam reached to touch his brother’s hand. There was no answering pressure, and he had to steel himself not to burst into sobs as he realized that Joe was too weak to respond. The time was drawing near.

Suddenly, Joe’s body was wracked with a wave of pain. Ben held on to him as he convulsed, over and over again. After what seemed an eternity, exhausted nerves reached overload and let him reach a plateau of sensation stable enough to open his eyes again.

“Pa,” Joe gasped. The emerald eyes stared sightlessly upward, pleading. Ben could almost see the light in them dulling as his son’s life flickered.

“Hang on, Joseph.” Ben’s eyes met his, dark and piercing.

For a moment, Joe’s eyes cleared. He focused on his father’s face. “I love you,” he breathed. Then, unable to withstand the agony any longer, he dropped into a semi-conscious haze of pain and confusion.

Ben’s blood ran cold. Joe wouldn’t have said that unless…

Paul moved quietly to put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Ben,” he began.

The dark eyes turned to his, frantic with apprehension for the unfinished sentence. “Paul, no…”

“Ben,” he repeated, settling his shoulders and holding those eyes with his own unflinching gaze. “He’s in terrible pain. And it’s not getting better.”

“No, no…” he stared down at his son, unseeing, his vision fixed on some vista beyond the agonized body in the bed. He turned pain-filled eyes to his friend. “Isn’t there something more you – we – can do?” It was a desperate plea.

The doctor’s own eyes were full of pain and regret. He sighed. “No, Ben, there isn’t. I’ve done everything I know how. I’ve tried everything I can think of.”

Hoss put a silent hand on Adam’s shoulder. Neither son was surprised by the doctor’s words – but both were shocked by their father’s response.

Ben drew a deep breath and cried out. “No!”

Paul stared at him.

“No, dammit, Joseph is not going to die! I won’t let him…” he gripped his youngest son’s shoulders tightly and called to him, desperately. “Joseph, you fight this! You hear me, you fight hard!”  Joe, whose body was still writhing weakly in agony, seemed to hear him. He murmured inarticulately, through lips drawn into a tortured grimace.

Adam was aghast. “Pa, he’s been fighting. He’s tired! If he can’t get well, then…”

Hoss wiped tears away with his big forearm. “Pa, think of Joe. He’s in so much pain.”

“No!” Ben wouldn’t listen to them. He stared at Joe intensely, willing him to survive. “I won’t let him go, I can’t.” Fury had replaced the fear.

Paul sat back in astonishment, unable to tear his eyes from his friend. He had never seen Ben behave in this way – so unwilling to face reality, so…selfish. He grimaced. Then again, he had never seen Ben have to face the death of a son.

He rose from his patient’s bedside and met Adam’s and Hoss’s eyes. “There’s nothing more I can do here,” he said softly, his voice full of regret. “I’ll be heading back to my office.”

Those words, more than any other, hit the brothers with the finality of their youngest brother’s fate. Adam sagged back against the wall of the bedroom. Hoss blinked back tears and nodded to Paul. “I’ll get your buggy,” he offered.

“No, Hoss, thanks, but you should stay here…” his voice dropped low. “It could happen at any time.”

Hoss nodded, unable to speak. He stumbled to the bedside next to Adam. They stared at their entranced father, whose eyes never left Joe’s face. They didn’t hear the doctor leaving quietly, sadly, behind them.

*****

Hours later, they were standing just outside the bedroom where Joe lay dying.

“Lordy, Adam, it’s awful,” Hoss whispered to his brother, his voice betraying his pain and horror. “Pa won’t let him go, and Joe don’t seem to be able to…go, without Pa lettin’ him.”

Adam sighed sadly. Hoss’s assessment of the situation was just what he had been thinking too. For Joe’s sake he would have to approach Ben again. Bitter tears stung his eyes. Of all the things to have to argue with his father about – to convince him to give his beloved youngest son permission to die…

“I’m going to talk to Pa again,” Adam replied. He stumbled in through the open door, half-blinded by his own misery. Ben sat in the same position, still murmuring to Joe to fight. Hoss stood at the door, not bothering to wipe away the tears that streamed down his face.  Adam could see the sun setting through the window.

Adam took a seat in the chair next to Ben and put a hand on his shoulder. Ben shrugged it off. Stung, Adam let it fall gently to the bed, and took the opportunity to touch his brother. The fever had ended abruptly, leaving Joe’s skin cold and clammy. It seemed to have taken his last strength from him. His breathing was shallow, pained. His eyes never even fluttered, jet black lashes against the translucent pallor of his face. Adam stared at that face, taking in the sight of his brother. His skin looked transparent, as if he were already half out of this world. Still, it took everything Adam had to accept that Joe was dying.

His heart felt blasted, empty. His hands clenched into fists. “Pa,” he whispered low, nearly choking on the words, “Pa, he’s suffering. Can’t you see that?”

Ben didn’t answer – but he didn’t push Adam away, either. Adam continued, “Pa, it’s tearing the heart out of us too. But Joe’s in so much pain, and the doctor says he can’t…survive it.” His voice shook. “You have to help him. You have to tell him it’s okay to go.”

“I can’t, Adam,” Ben’s voice was low and intense. “I can’t lose him.” He lowered his head and kissed Joe’s forehead softly. “My son…”

Adam was at the end of his strength. He shook his head despairingly and rose from beside his father. There was nothing more that he could say. He left them like that.

*****

God, God, don’t take him from me. I’ve fought so hard to keep him safe and with me. God! It isn’t supposed to be this way….my son, my son, would that I could die for you…

Through the night, Ben watched his son, taking every short, shallow breath with him. The constant writhing had ceased and Joe lay still, as if waiting for death, never stirring. The pressure of Ben’s hand in his was never returned. The beautiful emerald eyes he longed to see once more never opened.

Marie, help him. Help me.

*****

He was standing at the edge of an intense circle of light; beyond it, darkness so thick he couldn’t see. He was in the front yard of the ranch house. His father stood behind him, reaching out to him, a desperate look on his face. “Joseph…” he pleaded.

“Pa,” his eyes showed utter exhaustion. “I’m tired…too tired, Pa. I can’t…” The emerald eyes pleaded for release.

Then he saw her, standing at the edge of the darkness. Her arms were stretched out to receive him, and his whole being reached for her. “Mama…” Behind him he could feel a world of agony and fear and exhaustion, and he was ready to leave it behind. He turned toward her, and the peaceful haven of rest beckoning beyond her. He looked back one final time, waiting.

*****

Somewhere near dawn, Ben sighed deeply. Somehow, during the long night of vigil, the fight had gone out of him, as he sensed it had left his son. He was such a fighter. His whole life… He looked down at the body he had lovingly held so often in his arms. Soon it would be empty…as empty as his heart felt. Weak with exhaustion, he slipped from the chair to his knees next to the bed. The old words he’d remembered earlier were replaced by a bit of folklore he’d once heard: “man plans and God laughs.” So, he thought, this is how it ends – all my hopes, my dreams, my plans for Joseph’s life.

You’ve humbled me, Lord. I put myself in your place and tried to assure that his life would always be safe…I failed. I couldn’t keep him safe. I couldn’t be God.

He swallowed hard.

And I can’t keep him from You now. He is not mine, but Yours. You’ve humbled me…please, please, forgive me. Please take care of him. Please…take him.

He bent over Joe, his mouth close to his beloved son’s ear. Gently, he took the limp body in his arms. His face twisted in agony. “It’s all right, Joseph. You fought hard and you did well. It’s…it’s over, my son. It’s…finished. You can…rest, now. You can…go…”

The tears, so long held back, streamed down his face. He collapsed to the floor, burying his face in the bed alongside the body of his son, still holding Joe’s hand in his. His chest was wracked with terrible, keening sobs. Then the stress and agony of the last three days caught up with him, and he fell into unconsciousness.

*****

Morning birds sang in the stillness of the rosy-fingered dawn. Adam awoke with a start from where he’d fallen, exhausted, onto his bed, still clothed. Somehow this stillness felt different. Icy fear shot through him and he leaped from his bed, throwing his barely awakened body down the hall to his brother’s room.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw. His father, crumpled by the side of his brother’s bed, unmoving – hand still wrapped in Joe’s. He moved quickly, knelt by his father’s side, checking. Ben was unconscious, but seemed all right. His pulse was strong and steady. He’s collapsed from exhaustion, Adam thought to himself. He gently pulled his father’s unresponsive body up into the nearby chair, supporting the flaccid neck until the head rested upon the top of the chair’s back.

Only then did he have the courage to turn his gaze to his brother’s face. He was too certain of what he would find there.

His eyes widened in astonishment as emerald eyes met his through heavy, barely slitted lids. Water, Joe said soundlessly through dry, cracked lips.

Falling over himself with shock and delight, Adam grabbed the glass from the bedside and carefully, carefully, brought it to Joe’s mouth. Then he settled his brother’s head gently back on the pillow.

“Hey there, Joe,” Adam breathed, “good to see you.”

Joe tried a weak smile and dropped into an exhausted sleep. There was no sign of the horrible pain that had tortured him for days. This was a good sleep, a healing sleep. Sweat still dampened his forehead, but Joe’s face was peaceful. Adam stared, transfixed and confused.

He turned to see Hoss at the door, looking apprehensive. “Adam?”

“I don’t know why or how, brother, but…”Adam turned to him, a wide grin splitting his face. Hoss mirrored it.

“I reckon I’ll be riding for the doc straight away,” he said happily.

*****

Paul shook his head. “I don’t quite understand it,” he said to Ben, “but Joe seems to be on his way to recovery.”

Still unwilling to leave Joe’s room, Ben had finally been persuaded to eat something. He put the empty breakfast dish aside and regarded Paul gratefully. “It’s a miracle, Paul.”

The doctor sighed and looked at his sleeping patient. He was wondering which of the different treatments he’d tried might have made the difference, and what took so long. But he had no desire at that moment to argue his friend’s theology. “I guess it is at that, Ben.”

Ben’s eyes dropped. The next words were hard to get out. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you, Paul…before. I…”

“Ben, it’s okay…”

“No, I…I was fighting with God. I guess in a way I thought I was God, and I could decide what would happen to my son.” He reached out to touch Adam’s and Hoss’s shoulders. “I want so much to keep them all safe from harm.”

Paul and the brothers listened to the pained voice of a father who had raised three sons mostly alone in the wilderness.

“But I realized that I’m not God. I had to let go of that before I could…let go of Joe.”

The words surprised Adam and Hoss. But Paul nodded, explained his own supposition regarding Joe’s recovery as gently as he could.

“Your determination to hold on to Joe trapped him between life and death. He was using his life energy to stay with you rather than drop deeper into unconsciousness – where he would either die, or begin to heal. When you gave him permission to go, he could then focus all his energy on the processes happening within him.” Paul sighed again. “And that was when he found the ability to live,” he concluded.

Ben looked down at Joe, his face a mixture of gratitude and deep thought. “I couldn’t die for him when I wanted to, and I…can’t live for him.” The big hands relaxed and opened fully. “I think that…when I let him go, something let go in me, too.” His eyes met his friend’s. “I don’t know but that I’ve finally learned something here, something important.”

“Pa, don’t be lettin’ go too much,” Hoss interjected.

Adam added, “We all three want you in our lives, Pa.”

Ben smiled. “Thanks, boys, but what I mean is that to really love you, I am going to have to let you go…to live your own lives.” His eyes were soft. “I guess a big part of me wishes that you were still children. But that can’t stop me from more fully respecting the men you are now.”

They were all silent for a moment, staring at Ben. Suddenly a soft noise turned their attention to the bed.

Joe’s eyes were open. Ben grabbed for his son’s hand. “Joe…how are you feeling?”

The green eyes were clear, no hint of pain in their depths. Joe smiled weakly at his father. “Okay,” he replied.

Ben caressed his beloved son’s face. “You rest, son,” he said. Joe’s hand sought his. There was nothing on this world or any other that could compare to the joy he felt at the weak response of his son’s fingers.

And it was nothing he could have planned….

***The End***

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