Looking Death in the Face (by Territell)

Summary:  Little Joe knows he’s about to die; the thoughts and worries before the gun is fired.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  2,860


I don’t want to die. How can this be happening? One minute I was having a drink with my friends and the next I am out here in the street about to die. This is so surreal, all I did was bump into him, I apologized immediately, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I thought he was joking when he called me out; how can you want to kill a person over something so trivial. When he entered the bar I could tell he was itching to butt horns with someone; I guess I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m not ready to die, for Pete’s sake I’m 18 years old. I haven’t even lived yet and here I am about to die over something so stupid as a spilled glass of beer.

I’ve just never met anyone like him before, a gunslinger, a cold-blooded killer. When I apologized, he looked at me as if I was nothing more than dirt on the bottom of his boot. His eyes are the worst; they really give me the creeps. There’s just nothing behind those eyes; they’re lifeless, devoid of emotion. I could be looking at a dead man. I suppose that’s how it’s so easy for him to kill; he doesn’t feel like normal people. How do men like him become so cold? To him I’m just one more notch on his gun. Oh God I don’t want to die.

It’s so hot and I feel so sweaty. The perspiration is running down my face and neck; in fact I can feel it running down my back. My hands feel so clammy; I must keep flexing my fingers otherwise I won’t be able to hold my gun. Can’t believe I’m even thinking about doing that.

Standing here reminds me of when I was a kid. I used to stand for ages in my room waiting for Pa to arrive to give me one of his ‘necessary talks’. Boy, am I pleased those days are behind me. That last time was the worst; in fact, I’ll never forget it.

I thought I was so clever organizing that rodeo competition with the other kids. Those horses were so wild and we thought we were good enough to ride anything. Just as well Adam came home when he did or who knows what might have happened. Phew! Was Pa mad! When he growled, “Go to your room”, I nearly fell over myself in my haste to get away from him.

I must have stood in that room for about twenty minutes. Pa always liked to leave you to stew; either that or he just needed an awful long time to calm down. If it had been Adam that was mad at me I might have been tempted to ride off somewhere and hide out for a while, but that was not an option with Pa. That day the sweat trickled down my body just as it is doing now, boy was I scared. Not that I’m scared of my Pa, well maybe just a little, it’s mainly those great hands of his that scare me. Well, they did, but not anymore.

I was surprised when I heard Adam asking him to be lenient with me, I thought he would be the one calling for my hide, but yet again my big brother surprised me. When the bedroom door finally opened, Pa filled the space completely. Pa always seemed such a huge man to me when I was younger; there again in my family they all seemed huge to me. I hardly dared look at him; I couldn’t get my breath, my nerves were completely shot, wondering what his decision with regards to my punishment would be. I tried giving him my best ‘puppy dog’ look, but the moment he reached to unbuckle his belt I knew my fate was sealed.

That was the one and only time Pa hit me with his belt, but I guess I deserved it. I didn’t understand then, but I sure do now. He was being especially hard because, not only had I put myself in danger, but I had also risked the lives of others. Pa wanted to make sure that I would think before I acted in future. He reckoned that maybe the next time I wanted to do something so stupid I would remember that day and think of my hide before I went off half-cocked. It worked, well most of the time it did, I never forgot that tanning in a hurry.

I haven’t felt my Pa’s hand on my rear for a couple of years now, although sometimes I think Pa still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that I’m all grown up. Every time he lectures me these days he always starts off with his hands in his pockets, or he stands behind his desk. I’ve figured out why he does this. When he gets really mad he forgets I’m a man and I’m convinced he would still have me across his knee if he didn’t have those few seconds to slow him down. By the time he takes his hands out of his pockets or comes round from behind the desk it is just long enough for him to get himself under control. I think that’s what comes of being the youngest and the smallest. By the time Adam and Hoss were 15, Adam was as tall as Pa and Hoss was even bigger. I’m still trying to catch up, but I think I’m losing the battle.

What is that man doing? Why doesn’t he get it over with? He’s called me out here for a gunfight and he stands in the open having a glass of beer and taking his time about it. I know he’s doing that to make me even more nervous. Well he’s succeeding.

*****

Looking up at the sky it’s hard to believe that it may be for the last time. The sun is shining and the birds are singing. Funny I never really appreciated things like that when I could. I would appreciate them in the future though, if I had a future.

Oh no I want a pee. Why do I always want to pee when I’m nervous? It’s not like I can go now is it. What am I supposed to do? I could shout “Hey mister, can you just hold off killing me for a minute or two while I go to the outhouse?” That would be comical if this whole situation wasn’t so serious. I’ll just have to put up with the discomfort; after all, it’ll only be for a few more minutes, then I won’t care anymore.

I really don’t want to die. Why doesn’t someone stop him? I have all these friends and neighbors and they are just standing there watching and waiting like vultures over a carcass. Why doesn’t one of them rush over and say “let him alone, he’s only a boy, send him home to his Pa”. I hate being called ‘boy’, but I wish someone would do it now and send me home with a flea in my ear for being in town when I was supposed to be working.

Boy oh boy I really want to pee now. If he doesn’t hurry up I’ll be having an accident. I can’t believe it; he’s now talking to the saloon girl, the one with the pretty blonde hair. He’s sneering at me; he thinks it’s funny that I’m standing here in the street waiting for him to find the time to kill me.

I wonder if there really is a God up there like the good book says. Will he and my mama be waiting for me? I hope she still looks like the beautiful woman I remember, or think I remember. They say your whole life flashes in front of you just before you die. Well my flash is gonna be a real quick one, I haven’t had long enough a life to remember much. But I don’t want to die just yet, oh please God I’ll do anything, I’ll try to be a better person, really I will, just don’t let me die.

I wish my Pa and brothers were here. They wouldn’t let this happen. I would make a fuss, but Pa would still take my gun off me and Adam and Hoss would escort me home under protest, but at least I’d still be alive. Why don’t you come, Pa? I need you. Please come riding down the street, Pa. Must stop thinking about the family it’s making my eyes fill up and I can’t see properly.

What do I do now? I can hardly see, my eyes are so clouded over. I don’t need this. If I blink, the tears will fall and if I don’t blink, I can’t see. There’s no one standing that close to me; I suppose they won’t see the tears and if they do, they’ll think it’s just sweat.

Well I can’t keep my eyes open any longer; I need to blink. That’s better, hope no one notices. I can’t wipe them away, I don’t want anyone to know I’m crying, especially him. The tears are rolling down and making my cheeks itch and I can’t rub them. Now my nose is running.

Why doesn’t he just shoot me? This waiting is killing me. I just want it to be over with. Why doesn’t he just put me out of my misery?

Ouch! That hurt. Must stop biting my lip or it’s gonna bleed. I won’t be any good at kissing the girls with sore lips. What am I thinking of? There won’t be any more kissing after today. It’s just not fair; I don’t want to die so young.

Well he’s finally moving into the middle of the street and facing me. I guess this is it. My mouth feels so dry and my hands are even clammier than they were. I know I’m quick, probably have the fastest draw around these parts, but I’m not a gunfighter. What’s he saying? He will let me draw first and if I don’t, he’ll count to three and kill me anyway. One, two, go for it Joe, just go for it.

*****

It’s over. I didn’t even clear my holster. Never have I seen anyone draw so quickly. I know it’s over because I’m lying face down in the dirt. I can’t move. It doesn’t feel like I thought it would. There’s no real pain. I can’t feel anything and my body just feels limp. My eyes are just staring straight ahead, I can’t turn them left or right; I can’t do anything. So this is what it feels like to die.

Is that my breathing? It sounds all funny, a bit like Hoss when he snores. I can see people’s boots right up against my face. Who are they? What are they saying?

I feel all wet. I wonder if I wet myself after all, or maybe it’s blood, my blood, just flowing out of me and into the dirt. I wish Pa was here, oh Pa I need you. Why don’t you come and hold me? I need my Pa; I don’t want to die alone. Pa, please Pa, just come.

No one is doing anything, so maybe I’m dead already.

I feel so tired, can’t keep my eyes open – goodbye Pa.

*****

LESS THAN ONE HOUR LATER

What is happening to me? Oh the pain, I can’t stand the pain. My body is on fire. There’s people all around me. Why are they holding me down? Get off me, get off me, leave me alone.

Hold him steady boys

Hold him steady boys

Hold him steady boys

Hold him steady boys

Who said that? The words just keep repeating in my brain over and over again. Oh lord, what are they doing to me? You’re hurting me, why are you hurting me? Pa, help me, please help me.

It’s the doc’s voice I can hear. He’s going to operate on me while I’m unconscious. But doc I’m not unconscious. The knife’s going in, I can feel it; oh this is worse than anything I could imagine. Someone’s screaming. Please make them stop. The screaming is inside my head, it’s horrible. Who can be screaming like that?

I can’t take anymore of this, let me die, please just let me die.

*****

THAT EVENING

Where I am? What happened? I can’t remember. Oh the pain, why am I in so much pain.

Oh now it’s coming back to me. Well I must still be alive after all. Maybe someone up there was listening to me.

Brrr, I feel so cold. My body is shaking. Can’t get warm. Someone’s touching me; I can feel them wiping my body down with a cold cloth. Don’t they know I’m freezing? Are they trying to kill me?

It hurts when I try to breathe in. I can’t take a deep breath and my mouth is so dry. Thank heavens someone must have noticed ’cause there’s water trickling between my lips. It’s so hard to swallow. Maybe if I sat up. No, that’s out of the question, I can’t move. Can’t even open my eyes.

Someone’s crying. It sounds like Pa. Don’t cry Pa, please don’t cry. I’m so sorry. Why didn’t I listen to you? I sneaked into town when I should of being working, I don’t deserve your love.

Just so tired.

*****

NEXT MORNING

There’s a hand on my brow and it feels so good. I wonder where I am? Am I still in Virginia City or am I home on the Ponderosa? The pain doesn’t feel so bad now, more like a dull ache.

“Do you think he’s over the worst, Doc?”

That’s Pa’s voice. Pa, oh Pa. I can’t talk, I want to talk to my Pa and my tongue is so thick and useless in my mouth. My family would laugh if they knew I couldn’t talk. This must be a first.

What’s the Doc saying? Something about it being too early to tell yet. Maybe I’m going to die after all. Please God don’t let me die without talking to my Pa. I need to tell him I’m sorry, but most of all I need to let him know how much I love him. Maybe he already knows.

*****

THE FOLLOWING NIGHT

Well I’m still here so maybe I’m not going to die after all. The pain is hardly there anymore. I feel kinda funny; that half sleepy feeling you get when you are just dropping off to sleep; I suppose it could be the morphine that the Doc has probably given me.

Last time I woke up I felt so cold, but this time it’s different; my body’s stopped shaking and, if anything, I feel comfortable.

I can actually move my head. Ooh, maybe I won’t move it too far; I think the cattle are stampeding across my brain. Think I’ll try opening my eyes. Here goes. It’s still dark, I can’t see anything. Don’t say I’ve been left blind. Maybe I don’t want to live after all if I’m blind.

Joseph Cartwright sometimes you jump to the wrong conclusions. It’s nighttime, it’s dark outside and that’s why I can’t see. Looking out the window I can make out a few stars, but not enough to light up the room.

Careful buddy, just turn your head nice and slowly, that way you won’t get hurt. Who’s that sitting next to the bed? Can’t make it out in the dark? Wonder if it is, please let it be him.

“Pa”

He’s waking up. Now where’s he gone? Oh he’s just turning up the lamp. It is Pa. Oh Pa, am I happy to see you. Trying to smile, but it’s not quite working.

His hand is now stroking my face so lovingly. How can that hand be so soft? Is this the same hand that came down on my rear so hard?

Must concentrate, I don’t want to fall asleep before I speak to him. What was that he said? “Welcome back, son.”

Now who’s he talking to? Someone else has entered the room.

It’s the Doc and he’s smiling. He’s picking up my hand and looking in my eyes. Hope he doesn’t start prodding me; I hate it when he does that.

“Well young man, looks like you’ve escaped death once more. The fever’s gone, Ben; I think he’s gonna be okay.”

Pa’s back in front of me again, his touch is so gentle, not like the docs. “How you’re doing, son?”

Come on, Joe, you can do it. Just lick your lips, and move your tongue; it’s had plenty of practice over the years.

“I’m fine, Pa, just fine.”

***The End***

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