A Man Alone (by Jane)

 

Summary:   Every parent’s worst nightmare.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,183


 

“Well, Adam, what do you think?”

“I think . . .”

Adam Cartwright studied the timbers overhead, then shook his head for at least the tenth time. He couldn’t understand how the mine owners had let things get so out of hand.

“Adam?” Bill Owens waited impatiently.

“I think we should get out of here.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Yes, it’s that bad. Let’s get out of here Bill, and then we can talk.”

“Yeah, yeah . . .alright.”

Adam turned around, anxious to get everyone together and out of the mine. There were too many men down here, in an area that should be off-limits.

“Hoss! Joe! Let’s get out of here.”

He was rather surprised when Joe meekly followed Hoss back towards the group. Adam wasn’t sure if it was his own worried tone of voice, or Joe’s understanding of timbering that got him moving. Didn’t matter, he was just glad the kid wasn’t arguing. Right now, all Adam wanted was to get out of the mine.

Seconds seemed like hours as the men trudged through the rocky corridor. No one spoke, each man paying close attention to the path as they followed Bill towards the main shaft.

“Adam. Ya hear that?”

He never got the chance to answer Hoss’ question. The faint rumble instantly became a roar, and the rock walls seemed to actually move around them. Adam lunged towards his brothers, instinctively trying to protect them from the inevitable. His efforts were futile as the rotting timbers gave way. Screams of surprise and pain filled his ears as the ceiling came crashing down. Adam’s last thought was of the father left behind, and then his world went black.

*****

Ben Cartwright smiled as the familiar buildings came into view. The wooden structures of Virginia City were a welcome sight to the weary traveler. It had been three long weeks since he’d left home; weeks filled with tedious meetings and lengthy discussions with his attorney. Ben gently patted his chest, absently confirming that the coveted contract was still tucked safely in his vest pocket, while thinking about how good it would be to see his boys again.

His smile fading slightly, Ben recalled their parting. It had been only a week before Joe’s twenty-second birthday, and Pa had been unhappy about having to miss his son’s celebration. But the negotiations had been planned by one of the other businessmen, and since that particular gentleman was leaving shortly for Europe, there was no opportunity to reschedule. Joe had been gracious about the whole thing, but Ben knew his son was disappointed. It wasn’t until he boarded the stage on the first leg of his journey that Pa knew how much, and it was then that he finally realized exactly what had been bothering his youngest.

Every time Pa had left home, whether it was overnight or for an extended business trip, Joe had become restless and moody by day, plagued by nightmares at night. Adam and Hoss had each told their share of stories about Joe’s changed behavior, and it soon became obvious that his father’s absence greatly affected the boy. Even now, years later, Joe was a different man when his pa was not at home.

Ben never knew if Joe simply missed his pa, or if he was fearful that something would happen to take his father from him, like his mother had disappeared from his life years before. No matter how many times he told his son that all would be well and the journey safe, Joe would nonetheless spend his time worrying while Pa was away. This time was proving to be no different; it seemed that the same old fears had come into play. Then, at the stage depot, Joe had stood before him, face sullen, and eyes downcast. Ben had merely clasped the boy’s shoulders in a quick embrace before climbing into the stage. Looking back, Pa regretted not making more of an effort to encourage his son, but that time was past. With a faint grin, Ben realized it would only be a short time and he’d once more be witness to his son’s familiar smile.

The stage jolted to a stop, and the two men inside prepared to climb down. Nodding towards his fellow passenger, Ben stepped to the wooden walkway, looking around anxiously for one of his boys. He was rather surprised to find the area empty; not only were there no smiling sons to welcome him, but the area was unusually quiet for a Wednesday afternoon. Stepping over to the ticket window, he was increasingly puzzled when he read the note tacked on the sill of the tightly closed window.

‘Closed due to Emergency’

 Looking around, Ben caught sight of the stage driver standing near the corner of the building. “Hank, any idea what’s going on around here?”

“No, sir, Mr. Cartwright.” Hank paused as he rolled a cigarette. “The lines was down the last couple days, so I ain’t heard any news since I left here the beginnin’ of the week.”

The two men gazed about for only a moment before Ben moved into action.

“I’m going to walk up to Roy’s office. He’ll know what’s happened. Maybe Tom’s wife is sick, or something happened to one of his boys.” Ben remarked, referring to the ticket agent’s family. He wasn’t willing to share his concern about his own boys and why one of them wasn’t waiting to meet him. After all, he’d wired Adam over a week ago about his travel plans, and since there was no word from the telegrapher to the contrary, he assumed the missive had been delivered.

After stacking his baggage next to the brick front of the ticket office, he stepped onto the dusty street and moved away, the driver simply nodding in agreement. Ben couldn’t help but wonder about Tom Murphy’s two sons, both of who worked in the silver mines. If something happened to one of those boys, Ben knew that Tom would be devastated.

Walking down the street, Ben was struck by the unusual quiet. Virginia City was normally a busy place, usually alive with activity day and night. The mines employed crews around the clock, so there was typically an abundance of men milling about at any given time. But today, the streets seemed surprisingly empty. Only meeting an occasional passerby, he was pleased when he saw a familiar figure advancing towards him.

“Afternoon, Mrs. Fritz.”

“Good day, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben almost stopped in his surprise. Mrs. Elvina Fritz was the kind of woman who could, at the drop of a hat, keep a person trapped with her chatter for an hour or more. She knew every bit of gossip in town, and it was a known fact that what she wasn’t sure of, she simply embellished on her own. For the woman to simply say good day and hurry on… But there was something more. Maybe it was the strange way that she’d looked up at him, almost as if she were embarrassed to look him in the eye.

So absorbed in his thoughts, Ben didn’t realize he was at the corner when suddenly he found himself almost knocked off his feet. With a startled glare, he looked at the offender, his gaze softening as he recognized his good friend, Roy Coffee.

“Roy! Sorry about that. I was just…”

“Ben. Was just coming to check the stage; I was hopin’ you’d be comin’ in this mornin’.”

The strange look on Roy’s face did not go unnoticed, and Ben suddenly had an uneasy feeling that there was something very wrong in Virginia City.

“What is it, Roy? You look as if you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

“Yeah, sorta feels like it. Ben, lets go on over to my office and I’ll explain.”

“Well, I’d like to find those boys of mine. I expected one of them to meet me this morning, but I imagine they’re cooling of with a beer over at the Silver Dollar. Why don’t you walk over there with me, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

Ben didn’t notice the strange expressions playing across Roy’s face, but he couldn’t miss the strong grip of his friend’s hand on his arm.

“I really think you should come over to the office now, Ben.”

That strange feeling came over him again, but Ben wordlessly fell into step alongside the sheriff. The two friends remained quiet as they made their way the short distance to Roy’s office. Only when they entered the darkened confines of the office, did Ben voice his concern. “What is it, Roy? What’s wrong?”

Roy moved to the window, and silently pulled up the shade, his stalling tactic granting him only a few extra seconds before he was forced to turn and face his longtime friend. The look in his eyes spoke volumes, and Ben blanched at the sight.

“Roy? Tell me; is it the boys? Did something happen while I was gone?”

Pulling a chair away from the wall, Roy motioned towards it, but Ben held his ground, his face stone-like now that he suspected there was bad news. Roy took his hat off, and fiddled with it for a moment before tossing it on the desk.

“There’s no easy way to tell this, Ben, and I don’t want to be the one…” Roy walked back towards the window, staring unseeingly outside for a moment before turning back to his worried friend. “Your boys are gone.”

“Gone? Where’d they go off to now? There’s plenty of work on the Ponderosa to keep them busy for months, and they knew how much we had riding on . . .” Ben’s voice trailed off, his eyes focused now on his friend’s grim look. When he spoke again, his voice was faint, just barely above a whisper. “Gone? You don’t mean?”

Roy nodded hesitantly. He cursed himself inwardly, but there was no easy way to relay this kind of news. There had been plenty of hours to think about it, but he’d found no way to soften the blow. So he stood there, mutely nodding his head in apologetic confirmation.

“You don’t mean? Not…”

“Yes, Ben. I’m sorry. More sorry than you can know.”

This time, Ben’s voice was so weak that Roy had to strain to hear. “Not . . . all of them?”

Once more, Roy nodded wordlessly, stepping closer as his friend seemed to falter. Grabbing Ben’s elbow, he called to him, but there was no answer. Just a vacant look on the father’s face, as he struggled to understand the news he’d just been given. Three sons. Three young and vibrant sons, their lives over, snuffed out long before their time.

*****

A roaring sound seemed to fill his ears, the din an offensive one. Looking up, Ben searched for the source of the unpleasant noise, quickly realizing there was none. The hum inside his head was merely the sound of his own blood, rushing through his veins; the aggravating thump was the incessant beating of his own heart. Strange, how the body could continue to work properly, even when there was no longer a point to it all.

Staring down at the pointed tips of his brown boots, Ben found himself irritated at the fact that they were covered with dust. Unable to break his thought pattern, and certain that he should be doing something about the problem, he finally pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and swiped at the offending grime. Several attempts still yielded little results, and finally he tucked the soiled linen back into his pocket, frowning slightly at his grubby footwear. He would’ve been surprised had he looked up in time to see the startled expressions on the faces of his friends.

He was aware of the voices speaking around him, but from the rounded-back wooden chair, Ben didn’t even try to make sense of their conversation. Instead, he focused on the names that kept running like a mantra through his mind: Adam, Hoss, Little Joe…Adam, Hoss, Little Joe. He wondered at the smooth way his sons’ names kept slipping through his mind, as if by merely acknowledging them, his children would appear before him. But the mantra ran on, and no boys appeared.

The strangest part of the whole thing was the absence of their faces. In his mind’s eye, Ben could not bring up a picture, not even a glimpse of his boys. Instead, he seemed to focus on the material things: the contract that Adam would be so excited about, the new foal that Hoss was anxious to show him, Joseph’s new rifle that was packed away; a gift he’d brought back from San Francisco for his youngest son’s birthday…

“Ben.”

“Hmm . . .”

“Are you ready to go?”

“Go? Oh …yes…I suppose…Paul…”

Once more, the conversation had proceeded, but the gray-haired man trapped silently in the middle of it, merely existed on a different plane. He didn’t care; had no feeling one way or the other about what was happening, where he was going, or who decided what. His world consisted of a dark void, the aching fingers of longing clutching tightly around his heart.

Rising unsteadily from the chair, Ben Cartwright, the man most people thought could never be broken, shuffled slowly towards the door. He had no inkling that he wasn’t expected to move, that the buckboard had yet to be brought over from the livery stable. All he knew was that someone had asked if he was ready, and he was. Ready to leave, ready to wake up from this horrible dream, ready to open his eyes and see the smiling faces of those he cherished most. Instead, he found himself looking into the worried faces of Roy Coffee and Paul Martin, as his two friends positioned themselves on each side of the devastated man. Quietly, the three moved through the doorway and onto the porch. Minutes later, a driver pulled the rented buckboard to a stop and climbed down.

As he stepped mechanically towards the vehicle, Ben was suddenly aware of another person beside him. Looking down, he recognized Hop Sing standing there. With a quickly indrawn breath, he looked away. He couldn’t bear to see the hurt in those dark eyes, or the expression of sympathy the Chinaman wore upon his face. So Ben focused his attention on the wagon, and with all the willpower he could muster, managed to climb up onto the seat, and sit down. His back erect, head held high, Ben Cartwright was the epitome of a man in control. But inside, his heart seemed to be bursting, the fiery agony of pain tearing it apart, as he felt his whole world crashing down around him.

*****

Paul Martin shook his head in frustration as the buckboard pulled slowly away from the building. It had been against his better judgment to allow Ben to leave town, but Hop Sing had been adamant about getting his employer home where he belonged. The Chinese cook had been waiting for the better part of the day, and had spent the morning convincing the doctor and sheriff that he was right. In truth, Paul knew that Ben needed to be away from the prying eyes of Virginia City, yet he knew that facing that empty ranch house could be too much, even for a man as strong as Ben Cartwright.

The worried doctor turned to face an equally worried sheriff. The two had long been friends, and each shared a special, if not different, relationship with Ben. However, they were united in their desire to protect and help him through the days that lie ahead. With a simple nod of understanding, Paul turned and walked back towards his office, reviewing in his mind all that had happened in the past hour, and making plans for his own drive to the Ponderosa.

After the initial shock, Ben had rallied enough to demand he be allowed to go search for his sons. It had taken both his friends to convince him that there was no use. The cave-in at the mine had been a major one, and the twenty-one souls trapped beneath tons of rock, hadn’t had a chance. Oh, sure, there had been rescue attempts in the beginning. But it didn’t take long for the experts to realize that there was no hope in finding anyone alive. That had been two days ago, and even the new widows had finally given up their vigil and left the mine opening.

It had been a strange stroke of bad luck that placed all three of Ben’s sons down inside the mine that day. There had been talk of some major reconstruction in the mine nicknamed ‘The Widowmaker.’ Too many accidents, and miners threatening to quit had finally forced the owner to relent, and with much trepidation, pursue plans for upgrading the mine. It was also his bad fortune that he’d chosen that particular day to escort Adam Cartwright down below, where they planned to inspect the mine at length.

Adam had insisted that his brother Hoss be brought along, as his work would be to assist with picking just the right timbers for the job, but Joe had been a last minute addition to the group. His enthusiasm had been obvious, and since the three brothers were in town together, he’d insisted that he be allowed to tag along. As always, Adam had been anxious to teach his brother a thing or two about business, and had finally agreed that the young man be included. With two supervisors rounding out the group, a total of six men were lowered into the depths of the mine.

When the whistle blew an hour later, it had been a frantic dash to try and rescue the victims trapped below. Unfortunately, the men who knew the most about the mine were the ones buried there. It had finally been determined that an additional crew of fifteen had been finishing out their shift, bringing the total lost to twenty-one. With no way to dig through the tons of rock and dirt that had collapsed into the shafts, the men above had no choice but to abandon the search.

Roy had been one of the last men to walk away from the gaping hole after the decision had been made. He had dreaded the moment when he would have to break the news to his friend, but now that the moment was past, he recognized that there was no release from its gravity. Instead, the feeling of foreboding was just as great. Ben would need all his friends around him if he was to come through this tragedy, and Roy knew that his friend would fight the help, every step of the way.

*****

Time had no meaning for the distraught father. There was no sense of starting or stopping, just little windows of memory that flashed through his mind. A view of Virginia City as it passed by in a blur of movement, the sound of Hop Sing’s voice as it droned on beside him, a quickening of his heartbeat when he first caught sight of the ranch house.

Now he looked about, uncertain as to the hour, but suddenly aware that he was sitting in his favorite chair, alone in front of the fireplace. How did he come to be here, and how long had he sat silently in this seat? Was Hop Sing still up and about, or had he given up and went to bed hours ago? Was it night, or was sunlight still shining outside the darkened room?

Pushing himself from his chair, Ben moved to the window behind the table, and pulled back the shutter. Evening shadows had dissolved into night, the moon already riding high in the heavens. It was then that he recognized the sound of Hop Sing working in the kitchen, no doubt making him something he wouldn’t be able to eat.

His footsteps were slow, but Ben made his way unerringly to the wooden stairway. One step after another was completed as he climbed towards the top, but each stair seemed to mark a major event in his life. The birth of his sons, the death of his wives, Joe’s first fall from a horse, Adam leaving for college, Hoss suffering from amnesia. . . All the way up the long staircase, Ben counted off the occasions that stood out in his memory, pushing back the most recent one, unwilling to let the thought enter his consciousness.

At the top of the stairs, Ben stepped into the hallway, and moved down the dark corridor. Pausing at the first opening, he laid a hand on the door, prepared to open it and enter the sanctuary within. But the memory of Hoss’ laugh caused the father’s hand to drop again. Resuming his journey, Ben walked further down the hallway until he came to another doorway. This time, he managed to push the door open a crack, before stopping to grab his chest. The pounding of his heart was overwhelming, its sound drowning out everything else.

“Little Joe…how can I…”

Once more a door was pulled closed, but this time the father paused to lean his forehead on the hard wooden slab.

“Oh, Joseph….”

His steps took him away from there and to the last room on that side of the hall. In this last room, he hoped to find the strength he needed to keep going. The room of his oldest son, the one who’d always been at his right hand, ready to help in any way; the boy who, even at a tender age, had always been a source of encouragement to his father. This door Pa forced himself to open, and then step inside, unaware that his breath was held tightly inside his lungs.

With quiet steps, he moved about the interior, looking carefully at each and every familiar object. The architectural pictures, the row of books on a smooth wooden shelf, the gleaming guitar leaning in the corner; each article caused his heart to clench in pain. Still, he continued his visual quest. Struggling to keep his mind focused on the present, Pa fought to keep from imagining his son’s final hours. Had Adam watched over his younger brothers, just as he had most of his life? Did he try to protect them at the end? Was he the first or last to succumb, and did he think of his father before he surrendered? Did he remember his life with fondness and love? Or did he feel betrayed, as if cheated out of something he should’ve had? Why was he able to imagine all these things, yet fail to recall his son’s appearance?

Finally, Ben sank down into a chair near the window, and pulled a picture from the wooden table placed there. Three faces smiled up at him, their familiar features almost mocking him. How could he fail to see them in his memory? Why did it take a photographers talent to bring his son’s faces to mind?

“Why?”

Inside this sanctuary, safe from the eyes of strangers and friends, Ben was finally free to let go. Choking back a cry, he bowed his head over the small frame, and wept his first bitter tears of grief.

*****

Ben awoke to the sound of voices. Looking around, it took a moment for him to realize he was still sitting in Adam’s room. When that realization came, it seemed as if his heart would burst with the aching. He leaned down and carefully picked up the picture from where it had slid to the floor. Staring at the faces for a moment, he finally turned the picture upside down and laid it on the small table. But when he pulled himself from the chair, Ben turned back and picked up the frame once more. It seemed almost a sacrilege, what he’d just done, and with a loud sigh, he sat the frame upright on the tabletop.

A light breeze blew through the open window, and Ben slowly walked towards the opening. The early morning sunshine revealed a black buggy in the yard, just as he’d suspected, but there was no sign of Doc Martin. As the sound of voices grew louder, Ben suddenly realized why. Paul and Hop Sing were already moving down the hallway, their words unclear, but the tone obvious. They were worried about someone, but Ben couldn’t accept that he was the object of their concern. His sons were the ones who needed help. His three young, healthy sons, who should be here now, arguing and laughing on their way to breakfast; they were the ones who needed help.

Ben turned back towards the window and leaned his forehead against the glass pane. He didn’t want to talk to the men, and prayed that his friends would respect his desire for privacy. However, the faint knock on his bedroom door, confirmed that the two concerned men would not be easily dissuaded. Remaining silent, Ben waited as the knock was repeated. After several minutes, and some muted discussion, the sound of a door opening reached him. There was a moment of silence as his room was searched, then the voices reached him again as they returned to the hallway. It wouldn’t take long before he was discovered, but Ben stayed at the window. Finally, a persistent knock came at Adam’s door.

“Ben? Are you in there?”

There was no sense in hiding; they’d just come in anyway. Several long seconds passed before Ben forced himself to answer. “Yes.”

“Can we come in?”

“I’d rather not see anyone right now, Paul.”

“You need to eat, Mister Cartwright. Hop Sing have breakfast ready, need you to come eat now.” Hop Sing’s determination was admirable, but Ben couldn’t imagine sitting down at the table, much less eating something.

“Maybe later, Hop Sing.”

”Ben, we really need to talk.”

There was a long pause, and Ben knew that Paul was expecting the door to open, but he couldn’t oblige him. Not this time. In a firm and resolute voice, Ben answered once more. “Not right now. I’d like to be alone.”

The mumbled conversation was unintelligible, but Ben knew his friends were unhappy with him. However, after several minutes, footsteps could be heard moving down the hall towards the stairway. Evidently they’d decided not to push him at this point, and for that he was grateful. Moving towards the bureau, Ben stood in front of the mirror, gazing absently at his reflection until he heard the sound of Paul Martin’s buggy driving away. Only then did he walk to the door and open it. Turning for one last look at his son’s room, Ben went out and shut the door.

*****

Hop Sing moved slowly about the familiar kitchen. His head was held high, but inside, his heart felt like it was breaking. He’d lived and worked with the Cartwrights for many years, and they weren’t just his employers, they were his family. He loved them as if they were his blood relatives, and knowing that the three young men were gone was almost more than he could bear. If he felt this way, what must the father feel like?

With a worried frown, Hop Sing set the bread pans in the oven and closed the door, then moved slowly from the kitchen. He knew that it was useless, but he felt that he must try again. Walking slowly up the wooden staircase, Hop Sing tried to close out the sound of his memories, but they wouldn’t be silenced. The sound of music from Adam’s guitar as he strummed it in front of the fireplace, Hoss arguing with his brothers over the last pork chop at dinner, and Little Joe’s infectious laughter filling the room. . . the sounds replayed over and over in the little man’s mind.

As he reached Mr. Adam’s door, Hop Sing started to knock, but changed his mind and simply turned the knob instead. Pushing the door open quietly, he was surprised to see that the room was empty. It had been hours since Dr. Martin had left, but he hadn’t seen Mr. Cartwright in all that time. He’d just assumed that the father was still sitting in his son’s room. With sudden inspiration, Hop Sing closed that door softly and moved to face the door of Mr. Hoss’ room. Again he turned the knob and gently eased the door open. He was rewarded with the sight of the gray haired man standing at the end of the large four-poster bed. Mr. Cartwright stood silently, his hand resting on one of the wooden spirals, his head hung down in sadness.

“Mister Cartwright. You come downstairs now. It not good to stay up here and be alone. Many things to do. You need food, then sleep, so you stay strong.”

The weary head turned slowly to face him, but the eyes seemed vacant. Lost. For a while, the older man simply stared as if struggling to form an answer, but finally, the faint voice replied, “I’m all right, Hop Sing. I’ll get something to eat later.”

Hop Sing stood frozen, as if he were watching the demise of yet another life, and he was helpless to know how to fight to save it. The doctor had promised to return, and now Hop Sing longed for that time. Maybe they had been wrong to leave the man alone earlier. For now, all he could do was turn and leave the room. Not even his frustrations, muttered in Chinese, caused the father to look up again. He was lost and alone. Suddenly, Hop Sing couldn’t help wondering if the man had lost his will to live.

*****

Ben didn’t remember when he’d come to be in Hoss’ room, but now that he was here, he couldn’t seem to move from where he stood. Holding onto the corner of the large bed, Pa remembered the day they moved the massive piece of furniture up the stairs and into his son’s room. It had seemed so large and out of place, until Hoss laid on it, checking it for size. Then the thing had seemed to fit perfectly. Ben thought it amazing, that a man so big and strong could harbor such feelings of love and tenderness.

Looking around the room, it seemed to reflect everything warm and loving about his middle son. His big heart and compassionate nature made him a friend to almost everyone he met. But his strongest love had always been for his family. Ben couldn’t help but wonder what the last minutes of this son’s life had been like. Had Hoss suffered? Did he spend his last bit of strength protecting his brothers? Had he been watching out for Little Joe as he always had? For some reason, Pa could picture Hoss reaching out to help Joe in those final minutes, much in the same way that he imagined Adam looking out for his siblings.

He’d always taught his boys to care for one another, but this wasn’t the way he’d foreseen his teachings played out. That the three of them had left this world as one seemed a cruel twist of fate. Yet on the other hand, it seemed appropriate that the brothers had been together, looking out for and guarding one another during such a frightening time.

Ben shook his head, trying to clear his mind of the morbid thoughts that continued to plague him. Hop Sing was right. He needed to eat something, and keep up his strength. There was no sense in getting the doctor back out here; Paul would merely dope him up with something to make him sleep, and that was the last thing Ben Cartwright wanted to do. Yet what was the point in being strong? Who was he going to be strong for? There were no young sons to follow his lead, no reason to put up a good front. Every reason he’d had to be strong was gone now, and he was a broken man. Alone.

With a deep sigh, Ben left the room and plodded toward his own room. The spring was gone from his step; his shoulders slumped as if he were a very old man. And inside, the warm and loving heart was already turning cold and bitter.

*****

The house remained quiet, quieter than he could ever remember. Hours spent in his room had not brought him any rest, and Ben finally found himself leaving its safety in search of something. Restless, he roamed about the house, staring at nothing, lost in a world of memories. He knew there was no one in the house except for Hop Sing, although there had been numerous visitors throughout the afternoon. No doubt, old friends and acquaintances, anxious to pass along their condolences. Each time there had been a knock at the door, Ben had held his breath, hopeful that Hop Sing would send the visitor away. And each time, the Chinaman had done just that. Even Roy Coffee had finally been persuaded to leave, and Ben had heard enough from his doorway to know that it hadn’t been easy. But he was grateful for Hop Sing’s silent understanding. He just couldn’t talk to anyone right now.

Ben didn’t know what he’d find in the kitchen at this odd hour, but didn’t seem surprised to see a pot of stew simmering on the large cook stove. It was just like Hop Sing to be prepared, and it was obvious that he’d expected his employer to give in at some point. Pulling a plate from the cupboard, Ben dished up a meager portion and sliced a thin piece of fresh bread off a loaf still cooling under a white cloth. Seating himself at the small kitchen table, he slowly began to eat, forcing each bite between his lips.

“Why Mister Cartwright not eat at big table? Kitchen no place for eating dinner.”

Not bothering to look up, Ben merely shook his head.

“This is fine, Hop Sing.”

The cook started to protest, but stopped suddenly, as if realizing what he was asking. “Yes. Not good you eat alone in empty room.”

The fork clinked against the plate as it fell from motionless fingers. Ben stared before him, and Hop Sing muttered under his breath, obviously distressed at his ill-chosen words. In a futile gesture, the cook quickly snatched a cup from the cupboard and poured it full of coffee. Without a word, he pushed the cup in front of the silent man, but there was no response. Ben continued to sit at the table, his hands resting unmoving on the surface, his eyes staring off across the room.

Unsure of what else he could do, Hop Sing finally chose to act as normal as possible. He busied himself with his kitchen duties, checking on the stew, cleaning the dishes stacked in the dishpan, or measuring out the ingredients for a batch of cookies. As he worked, the cook continued to check on his employer, glancing surreptitiously towards Mr. Cartwright, until he finally noticed the man pick up his utensil and return to eating. There was no further conversation that night, but the two men shared the same thoughts. Each man longed to hear the happy voices of three young men, voices that would never again echo through these rooms.

Long before his plate was emptied, Ben pushed himself away from the table and walked slowly towards the doorway where he stopped and stood quietly. With his head low, he finally spoke. “Hop Sing . . . thank you.”

“You welcome, Mister Cartwright.”

The shuffling steps hung in the air, and Hop Sing finally allowed himself to slump into one of the chairs. What could he possibly say or do to help this man he regarded as a friend? There were no words to ease the man’s pain, yet the Chinaman knew that it was up to him to try. Unfortunately, Ben Cartwright was shutting himself off from everyone and everything around him. Hop Sing had a sinking feeling that the man might be past any help that his friends could offer.

*****

Ben’s desk looked exactly as it always did. The blotter was in its place, the lamp near the middle. And to the side, stood the pictures of his three wives. Leaning back in his leather chair, Ben found himself studying each line and detail of the desk and its trappings, yet continually, his eyes skimmed past the photographs. Instead, they darted towards the bookcase, or across the room to the giant fireplace. It was as if his heart would not allow his mind to focus on their faces.

Growing angry with himself, Ben finally pushed forward, leaning across the wide desk to grasp the frames. Pulling them close, he forced himself to study each picture. Their familiar smiles gazed up at him, the visions filling him with memories of warmth and love. As he continued to stare at the women he’d loved, he found himself amazed, again, at both their differences and similarities. For a few moments, he was lost in the memory of their love. But, like always, one memory always leads to another. Placing each frame back in its proper position, Ben hurried away from his desk, no longer comforted by what he’d found there.

Outside, he quickly crossed the yard, and entered the barn. The familiar sounds and smells reminded him that life on his ranch was continuing. The foreman had obviously been taking care of the extra chores. Each stall had been cleaned, and the horses were quietly munching on their evening meal of oats and hay.

He wondered, briefly, when the boys’ horses had been returned to the ranch. He suspected that Roy Coffee had brought them home, and was grateful. These mounts had been good and loyal servants to his sons, and it was only right that they should live out their lives on the Ponderosa.

As he walked along, Ben stopped to scratch or pet each horse. When he reached the last one, he stopped and stared, not bothering to touch the animal within. Slowly, he turned to locate a brush, then stepped into the stall and began to groom the animal. In a low, but friendly voice, Pa murmured reassurances, while carefully grooming the black and white coat. It was over an hour before he finally laid down the brush and walked away. No one was there to hear what had been said inside that barn; no one was there to see a bereaved father wipe tears of grief from his eyes.

*****

The stars shone brightly in the heavens, their light descending to earth to bathe a weary father in their brilliance. But the man gave no thought to the beauty of the night. Instead, his focus was on the creator who’d placed those stars above him. Alone in the yard, he stared up, as if trying to discern the face of his savior. Suddenly, his feelings of anger and betrayal were too much, and Ben Cartwright uttered words he’d never imagined.

“Why? Why did You do this? You took them all from me. I accepted when You took first Elizabeth, then Inger and finally Marie. I recognized it was Your will, not mine. But You left their children in my care, and I swallowed my own loss so that I could carry on for the boys. Haven’t I done my best by them? Didn’t I teach them Your ways? They were good sons. Honorable men. They would’ve made good husbands and fathers. But You’ve taken them, too. What have You left me this time? I have no one! What is it that You want from me?”

Ben’s voice was raised in supplication, but there was no answer. Only a faint wind moaned in the tall pines above him, and it was a mournful sound. His head dropping to his chest in defeat, the final spark of life seemed to drain from the weary father. As if only a shell of his former self, the man slowly walked towards his empty home.

*****

Saddlebags and bedroll in hand, Ben took one last look around his room. It was time.

Opening his door, Ben was disconcerted by the inky darkness that greeted him. Peering into the hallway, he suddenly realized what was missing. The light. A small kerosene lamp, mounted high in the hall out of reach of small hands. It had been placed there years ago when Joe was very young. The boy had been plagued by nightmares as a child, and many times Ben was drawn from his bed by his son’s cries. Even as a man, Joe had been known to awaken screaming. And so, the miniature lantern had been placed high above the hallway, partly to illuminate the father’s path, and in some small way, to keep back the darkness that threatened the youngest member of the family.

Now there was no light to show him the way. No one had thought to light its tiny wick. There was no longer a young man to protect from the darkness.

Ben made his way down the long hall, pausing one last time at that final door. He longed to go inside, to revel in the sights and sounds within. But his hand would not obey him. He could not force himself to push through and enter that sanctuary. Even the thought of his youngest child brought a burning to his throat, and an ache so deep in his chest it felt as if all the air had been sucked from the earth. Visions of a curly haired boy danced before him, the infectious giggle affecting everyone within its sound. The father’s memory was too clear as he stood on the threshold, and so he turned away.

“Goodbye, son.”

No lamplight or morning sun lit his way. Only the memory of his path, the feel of his feet on the familiar steps guided Ben downstairs and to the door. He couldn’t take a last look, couldn’t see his wives faces from their photographs on his desk. Yet, instead of bringing him sorrow, the lack of goodbyes brought relief. He couldn’t bear to ‘see’ more visions, or live through more memories. It was time to go, to leave the past behind him. There was nothing left for him here.

Closing the door quietly, Ben made his way across the yard to the barn. Buck nickered softly, as if to question the early hour, when the saddle was placed on his back. But Ben either didn’t, or chose not to notice. Instead, he busied himself with preparations, steeling himself from the sight of his sons’ mounts across the aisle. Within minutes, he was back in the yard astride his own horse. Even in the dim light, the outline of the house was prominent, but he didn’t look back. His back straight, hands tight on the reins, Ben Cartwright focused his eyes on the trail before him.

*****

“I’m sorry …Marie…I’ve…failed…you…I am …sorry.”

The words were softly spoken, the man’s voice breaking between the words. But the feeling was unmistakable. Ben knelt next to the marble headstone, his hand rested lovingly on the smooth stone. His eyes never strayed from the grave, as if he were trying to memorize it.

Minutes turned into hours, and still the man stayed near the lonely grave. He’d cleaned the area of dead limbs, and pulled away the vines that didn’t belong. There was nothing blooming nearby, yet a small bouquet of wildflowers lay beside the marker. The simple buds lovingly placed by a bereaved man. A final symbol of his love. A simple offering.

Finally, he mounted his horse and kicked him into a trot. This time, though, Ben stopped to look back. He could almost swear he heard Marie calling to him.

*****

The trails were all familiar, but none of them seemed right. Which way to go? What road should he take? Where did he want to be? He had to chuckle at the irony of life. The great Ben Cartwright, owner of one of the largest ranches in Nevada, a man rich enough to go almost anywhere in the world, and here he was, lost and alone, with no place to go. It was true, no matter how rich a man was; he was still just a man.

Ben struggled along, no plan forming, no answer forthcoming. All that filled him was a sense of loss and betrayal. His family was gone, his wives and his sons. There was nothing left. He couldn’t stay in his home, but he couldn’t go anywhere else. This was where he belonged, here on this land. It was the dream that had inspired him so many years ago, and the dream that kept him moving forward through the dark times, the dream of building this legacy for his sons. Now they were gone. There would be no legacy. It was sharing the dream with his family that had made the ranch so important to him. Still, it was his dream, had been from the beginning. And as he rode closer to the edge of it, Ben found that he just couldn’t ride away.

Late afternoon found the lonely man on the east side of Lake Tahoe. He’d left the lake several times, yet something continued to draw him back. Finally turning to one of his favorite spots, Ben seated himself on a familiar outcropping of rock, high above the water. From his perch, he was granted the most magnificent view of the lake, the sun’s rays glistening like golden beams across the water. Under most circumstances, Ben would’ve taken comfort from the beauty around him, but today he was filled with a sense of battle.

A battle of wills? Yours and mine, right?

Leaning back, he felt the sun-warmed rocks behind him, and for the first time in two days, looked up without bitterness.

I don’t understand, and I don’t think I can go on. For the first time in over thirty years, I’m alone. Really alone.

The quiet of the landscape seemed to permeate his soul, and Ben was filled with warmth that had nothing to do with the sun. Words from deep inside returned, and he found himself listening to a litany of admonitions. From as far back as his father and grandfather, to the very words of advice he gave to his own sons, the teachings and beliefs of a lifetime flooded into his subconscious. How could he turn away from what he’d always held in such high regard? It wasn’t his place to know what God had in store for him, or what path was laid out for him to follow.

Deeper yet, a voice called out to him . . . you are not alone.

Closing his eyes, Ben found himself lost in prayer for the first time since Roy Coffee gave him the news. Each verse or prayer that passed his lips was followed by a stronger plea from deep in his heart. ’Don’t leave me, Father.’ And it was answered. ‘You are not alone, my son.’

The sunlight was all but gone from the sky when Ben finally climbed down from the boulders. His shoulders were still slumped, the weight of the world still heavy upon him. Although the voice seemed to echo within him, nothing had changed. Maybe he wasn’t really alone, not in the whole scheme of things. But for here and now, he had no place to go, no one waiting for him.

It didn’t take Ben long to find a good place to spend the night. This particular area had been host to more than one campout with his boys, complete with fresh water and good fishing. Yet, tonight the area was simply a lonely piece of wilderness, the wind making a mournful cry in the trees. With his bedroll stretched out beside a meager fire, Ben lay back and looked once more at the stars above him. There was no solace there either, only distant echoes of a small boy shouting in excitement as he found the constellations his older brothers pointed out to him.

Memories. They went with him. The voices filled his mind and soul. There was no escaping them . . . at home on the ranch or out here in the wide open, his memories traveled with him.

With a sad sigh, Ben stood up and stared around him. What was he doing out here? Where was he going? And what would he do when he got there? He wasn’t a young man anymore . . . the days of his youth were passed. He had no desire to sit alone on his ranch, but he had no desire to spend the rest of his life in the saddle either, traveling from place to place.

Bending down, he began to gather up his saddle and bedroll.

*****

Ben pulled his tired horse to a stop. Lowering himself slowly from the saddle, he paused to loop Buck’s reins over the hitching rack. As he reached up to untie his saddlebags, Ben rested his arms against the saddle for a moment, stopping to gaze sadly towards his home. The windows blazed with light, as if welcoming him back from a long journey. Yet the sight did nothing to dispel the gloom within. There was nothing waiting for him inside the house, nothing that really mattered, anyway. Still, he’d made the decision to come back.

He looked with faint interest at the large wagon beside the front porch. Virginia City Livery was stamped boldly on its wooden side. To its right, Paul Martin’s buggy was parked, his black mare dozing contently next to Roy Coffee’s gelding. Ben shook his head slightly, sure that there was either a search party, or a covey of concerned friends waiting inside. Resolutely pulling on the leather strings, he untied his gear from the saddle. Flinging the bags across his shoulder, and tucking the bedroll under his arm, Ben made his way slowly towards the front door.

Silence greeted him as he entered the large room. Pushing the heavy door closed, Ben placed his things on the floor, before shrugging out of his tan jacket. After coiling his gun belt into a neat circle on the credenza and hanging his hat on the hook in the corner, he turned to face the empty room. The expected onslaught did not occur. No one waited to greet him; no friends were there to reprimand him for his disappearance. Only the sound of the crackling fire issued from the hearth. Surprised but not displeased, Ben moved across the room, already grateful for the warmth of the blaze.

As he stepped around the end of the striped settee, Ben realized there was someone moving towards him from the kitchen doorway. He recognized Roy’s voice, could hear his friend calling to him, but couldn’t find his own voice to answer. The worried “Ben, Ben” echoed faintly through the room, and even the sound of the china cup placed unceremoniously on the mahogany table was muffled. The only sound that was clear was the loud pounding in his ears, the reverberations drowning out everything else. There was only one sight that was unmistakable, one thing he cared about. And still Ben stood unmoving, his eyes focused on the dark head lying against the striped arm of the settee.

The head moved gently in sleep, then slowly the man’s body turned to the side even as a weary arm moved upwards to crook itself behind the neck. Ben continued to stare in disbelief. It was the sound of the voice in slumber that finally moved him forward.

“Pa …sorry …can’t help him …”

“Adam? Son?”

Unable to reach his boy fast enough, Ben caught himself on the table. Unsteady on his feet, he struggled to right himself, suddenly grateful for the hand on his elbow. Looking first at Roy then back at the sleeping form, Ben’s voice trembled with his question.

“How? Roy….what? How did he…”

“Early this mornin’, Ben. Stumblin’ down the street, like lost sheep. Folks couldn’t believe it was possible. Looked somethin’ like Lazarus risin’ from the dead, and we sure had a time gettin’ some of the folks in Virginia City calmed down.”

Only half listening, Ben was examining his oldest with a critical eye. Bathed and clean-shaven, the boy still looked worn and tired. There were bruises about his face and neck, and a white bandage encircled his left wrist.

“Is he? Is he really here? He’s all right?”

“Yeah. Doc says he’s gonna be fine. Gonna be mighty tired for a few days. We tried our darndest to get him to settle down in his own bed, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Said he had to see you first, and he’s been waitin’ down here most of the day. We’ve been out lookin’ everywhere for you.”

The sheriff’s voice droning on in the background, Ben reached out tentatively, gently touching his son’s face. The simple contact aroused the sleeping Adam as no other touch could. His dark eyes blinked several times, but settled almost immediately on his father.

“Pa…”

Adam’s voice was thick with emotion, as he sat up to greet his Pa. Father and son melded into each other’s embrace. No words were spoken; none were needed. Ben held his son to his breast, content for the moment to simply feel the beat of his child’s heart against his own. He didn’t care how. He was simply grateful for the return of his son. It would never be the same, but at least he’d been spared the full loss of his family. He was left with his eldest. They would carry on together.

These thoughts rushed through Ben’s mind as he reached up to cup his son’s neck in his own large hand. Too soon, he felt Adam pull away, and reluctantly, he let his son go.

“Adam…son. Thank God you’re alive. I didn’t think….” Realization came anew, and Ben dropped his head as tears threatened to overflow.

“It’s all right, Pa.”

Adam’s firm grip on his arm brought Ben a measure of strength. He looked, again, at his son, staring intently as if seeing him for the first time. There were so many things he wanted to ask, so many truths he needed to know. But he couldn’t bear to break this happy bond. Adam, however, wouldn’t allow his father that luxury.

“Pa, I have to tell you…..”

“Does it have to be now, son? I’m so happy to have you back with me. Can’t we just leave the rest for later?”

Dark brows furrowed as Adam stared up at his father. Unable to comprehend the man’s thoughts, it was the look on Roy’s face that finally enlightened him.

“Yes, Pa, it has to be now. Don’t you want to go upstairs to see Hoss and Little Joe?”

Adam’s hesitant smile convinced Ben that he’d heard right. This time, neither Adam nor Roy’s hand on his elbow was enough. Ben sat down. Hard.

*****

Dr. Paul Martin stepped into the hallway, turning quietly to close the door behind him. He paused for several minutes, mopping his face with a white handkerchief, while slowly rolling his shoulders as if to relax the kinks within. It had been a long day, and he was quite sure that tomorrow would be much the same.

Recalling the excitement of the morning, Paul could still see the ragged band of survivors as they made their way slowly down the street of Virginia City. Their arrival caused quite a commotion, even interrupting a church service where one of the men was already being memorialized. The screams and cries of joy from wives and mothers who’d thought their loved ones lost for good, was tremendous, and it took the better part of the morning to get things back to some semblance of order. The doctor, however, had been too busy to pay much attention to that aspect of their return. He was hard at work, treating the worst cases in his own office, and later making house calls to the less serious of the injured. His day had been filled with setting bones, stitching cuts, and counseling the families on his patients’ care. This, though… this had been, by far, his most difficult house call of the day.

For what must’ve been the tenth time, Paul shook his head at the tenacity of these men. When he’d seen the three Cartwright sons amongst the survivors, his heart had soared with happiness, his mind already imagining the joy his friend would experience when he heard the news. But almost immediately, the doctor had a fight on his hands.

Dr. Martin had always thought the youngest Cartwright was the most stubborn, pig-headed one of the lot. Today, he’d discovered that Adam Cartwright was much worse. The man was past determined, he was resolved to have his way, and in the end, he was successful. No amount of arguing would change his mind. Even the warnings of further injury to his brother did not dissuade him. Adam seemed to sense that they must get home. He, too, was worried about his youngest brother, and wanted no other injury to befall him, but a sense of urgency pushed him on. At one point, he’d finally allowed that they could leave Little Joe in town. Hoss was the one who argued against that, stating emphatically that they should stay with the boy.

In all honesty, Paul felt that Adam was right. The doctor was worried about Ben, and his frame of mind, and seeing his sons again was the only thing that would help the man. Yet he was also worried about Little Joe and how he would handle the trip back to the Ponderosa. In the end, Paul couldn’t state, truthfully, that the journey would make any difference. So, with the help of Roy Coffee and several other townsmen, they’d settled Joe into a wagon, outfitted with mattresses and bedding.

That had been hours ago. It was almost dark when Paul had finally driven up to the ranch house. Hop Sing had met him at the door, full of excitement and information about the welfare of his three charges. It was sharing the news of Ben’s disappearance that had brought a shadow to the Chinaman’s face, and it had unnerved Paul completely. This was something he’d never have expected from his strong-willed friend. There was a full dose of guilt on his own part. He’d been wrong to drive away the day before; wrong to leave Ben alone. The man had needed his friends around him, but they’d complied with his wishes for privacy. Now the grieving father was gone, and even though Roy had sent ranch hands and neighbors out looking, he’d not been found.

After examining Little Joe, Paul decided that they’d made the right choice. There was no change in the young man’s condition. The rough trip had been made slowly and with extra care, and although he was still unconscious, Joe was no worse for the journey. However, he was no better either, and that gave the doctor cause for concern. The only consolation was that the boys were home. As soon as Ben was found, he’d be reunited with his family, and God willing, they’d all be well again.

With one last swipe of the handkerchief, Paul tucked the white linen back into his pocket and made his way toward the stairs. He suddenly realized just how weary he was, and the thought of the long drive back to Virginia City was daunting. The hope that Hop Sing would have supper warming on the stove was the only thing he could find to be positive about.

Rounding the corner and dropping his foot to the first stair, Paul was halted in mid-step by a familiar voice.

“Ben?”

Three men turned their faces upward, but Paul Martin was focused on only one. Ben Cartwright looked worse than he’d ever seen him. Pale and haggard, it was obvious that the man was on his last legs. Even though he wore a smile on his face, it did little to dispel the tragic look of despair in his eyes, and the doctor hurried down the steps to greet him. “Ben. I’m glad you’re back.”

The two men shook hands warmly, and Paul realized immediately that his friend was overwhelmed.

“Paul? Adam’s here. What…what’s happening?”

Doc Martin looked first at Adam, then the sheriff, and finally back to Ben himself. “Why don’t you sit down for a minute, and we’ll talk about it.”

Motioning towards the brandy decanter, Paul lowered himself to the wooden table in front of the settee, never taking his eyes off his newest patient. Roy was already pouring several glasses of liquor, as Adam settled comfortably close to his father. Ben was the only one who didn’t look pleased with the delay. In fact, he seemed almost lost as he looked back and forth from the men around him to the stairs near the fireplace.

“My boys? My boys are back?”

His voice was soft, his gaze uncertain. Ben Cartwright seemed only a mere shell of his normal self. Paul entertained a moment of worry…would the shock prove too much for the man? Would this be more than Ben could take? Yet in the next breath, Paul admonished himself for even allowing the thought. Of course Ben would be fine. It was just happening too fast. The last two days would’ve been a nightmare for any father, but for one as loving as Ben Cartwright, they must’ve been pure hell.

*****

The glass in his hand felt uncomfortable, yet Ben held it tightly as he slowly sipped the tawny liquid. There was a part of him that wanted to scream and shout for joy, thrilled with the knowledge that his boys were alive and well. Yet, he held back, frozen in place as it were, fearful that at any moment he would awaken to find this wonderful dream dissolve back into the nightmare he’d been living. If there was even a possibility that this was a cruel twist, a mental trick his mind was playing on him…Ben didn’t think he’d have the strength to bear the loss again.

“Pa? Are you all right, Pa?”

The deep voice was persistent, and only a moment of uncertainty made Ben pause in answering. When he finally tore his gaze from the tiny glass, he found himself staring into the dark eyes of his eldest. The fingers on his arm squeezed in reassurance, and Ben felt his breath catch in his throat.

It was Adam…his faint smile, his voice, even the familiar lines in his son’s face. The dark hair almost covered a thin white bandage that was tied about his head, but the worry in his eyes were what pulled Ben from the mental haze that held him. It was Adam, in the flesh, sitting next to him. He was very much alive, and obviously concerned about something.

“Adam. It is you! Son…are you all right? Really all right?”

Ben caught hold of Adam’s forearm, and he squeezed gently. A widening grin was his answer; that, and the fact that his son pulled him into another embrace.

”I’m fine, Pa, really.”

“What…what happened? Where have you been?”

Ben sat back, his hands still holding onto his son, but his mind now racing with questions that needed answers.

“I’ll tell you everything. But first, let’s go upstairs.”

Ben looked around the room, his gaze resting momentarily on Paul and Roy. Suddenly, he felt the full impact of Adam’s comments and his friend’s presence. Could this all be true? Not just Adam, but Hoss and Joe alive, too? The possible answers crowded into his consciousness, and he felt himself moving abruptly from his seat. “Where are they? Hoss and Joe. Are they all right?”

Paul, who stepped directly in front of him, impeded Ben’s progress towards the stairs. “Just a minute, there’s something you should know before you go up.”

The question in Ben’s heart was surely written across his face. Every second’s delay was one second too many. His sons were alive…here in the house. All he had to do was climb the stairs and he could once more look upon their faces. He couldn’t bear to wait; didn’t want to think about what the doctor might want to tell him. But Adam’s hand on his shoulder, and Paul’s hand against his chest halted him.

“They’re both upstairs, Ben. Hoss is going to be fine. He has a broken collarbone, a concussion, and various cuts and bruises. But he’ll be fine.”

The impatience reflected in Ben’s voice was tinged with dread. “And…Joe?”

“We’re not sure yet. Joe has a serious head injury. From what the boys could tell me, he hasn’t come to since the accident.”

“Since the…but that’s been more than four days!”

No longer willing to wait or wonder, Ben pushed past the doctor and hurried up the wooden stairs. A fleeting picture of his slow descent less than a day before, flashed through his mind, but he didn’t allow himself to dwell on the painful memory. Right now, all that mattered was seeing his sons.

However, when he reached the door to Joe’s room, Ben stopped short. His hand trembled slightly as he grasped the knob, but he didn’t turn it. Instead, he simply stared at the familiar door, remembering other times he’d stood there over the past few days.

Always before, he’d held back, unable to venture into his son’s room. Anyone would think a father would be overjoyed, and excited to enter its shelter today. Yet, Ben stood unmoving, as if fearful to take the chance. He sensed, rather than felt, Adam’s arm being draped across his shoulder. It was a warm reminder that things were different than they were on his previous encounters. Still, he hesitated.

“Pa? You all right?”

Ben turned slightly, realizing for the first time that he and Adam were the only ones in the hallway. There was no need to ask about Paul or Roy. Ben knew, instinctively, that they were giving him some time alone with his sons. He’d have to remember to thank them both. Later.

“Yes, Adam. I’m fine, now.”

The term was relative, but there was no other way to answer his son’s question. And so, Ben turned back to the door, and pushed it open.

He didn’t know exactly what to expect upon entering the room. Extreme happiness would have been at the top of his list. And that emotion was there. But it was mingled so strongly with fear, concern, relief and surprise, that Ben found himself in a state of near confusion.

Stepping across the threshold, his first thought was of the warm yellow glow of the lamplight. The flame seemed to dance in the glass chimney, its brilliance bringing life to the room. It was a strange thought for a man to entertain at a time like this, and once again, Ben mentally shook himself.

Hoss was seated in a large armchair, his back towards the door. His gentle snores echoed through the room, and Ben quietly moved to stand beside him.

Staring down at his son, Pa felt his throat tighten. Thick bandages were wound tightly around his boy’s chest and shoulder, but it was the cuts and bruises on Hoss’ face and hands that held his attention. Strips of white cotton had been wrapped around the large hands, but they were stained with a pinkish tinge. What had his sons endured? Did Hoss, as he imagined, injure himself in an effort to save his brothers? There were so many questions that needed answers, but they paled at the moment. His family was home.

Turning slightly, forcing himself to look at the bed, Ben had to accept that which he dreaded the most. His boys had been returned to him. But they weren’t whole, not yet, anyway. And here in lie the sense of fear he’d been fighting since Adam spoke to him downstairs. Would they ever be whole again? Or would this horrible nightmare still end in a loss? The loss of his youngest son.

*****

Hop Sing bustled around Joe’s room, his quiet Chinese singsong a comforting and familiar contrast to the oppressive mood. Adam watched as he refilled the water pitcher and placed fresh cloths on the stand, the simple chores soothing in some odd way.

“Mr. Adam want something to eat now? Mr. Hoss not eat all of fried chicken.”

Adam smiled thinly. “No, Hop Sing, not right now. Maybe later.”

The Chinaman nodded in sad acceptance, and left the room without even attempting to cajole the eldest Cartwright into eating. No one had any luck with that one.

There was no sound in the room, just a gentle breeze at the open window, and an occasional sigh from the other side of the bed. Pa hadn’t left Joe’s side since he came home the night before. No amount of talking, arguing or even pleading had convinced the man to leave the room. Finally, they’d left him alone. But there was always someone else in the room with him. Paul had made them promise, before he left for town, that they keep an eye on their father. It hadn’t taken much convincing…the boys were just as worried about Pa as they were about Little Joe.

“How’s he doing?”

Adam almost jumped in surprise. “Didn’t hear you come in.”

“Sorry.” Hoss reached for the armchair, attempting to scoot it closer to the bed, but Adam beat him to it.

“What are you trying to do, hurt yourself worse?”

“Yeah, like you look any better.”

The gentle jibes were a meager attempt at normality, but the man sitting by the bed didn’t seem to notice. He simply remained focused on the young man lying between them. His hand gently massaged Joe’s forearm, and occasionally, he’d wipe a damp cloth across the boy’s brow.

“No change, huh?” Hoss questioned again.

“No.”

Adam and Hoss settled into their chairs, quiet once more descending on the room. It was almost a half hour before anyone spoke, and they were surprised when Ben posed his question.

“There’s no reason for all of us to sit here. Hoss, you should be in bed, if you ever want that shoulder to heal. Adam, you need to get something to eat; you haven’t had a bite all day.”

Ben’s sons sat in shocked surprised. Their father had been sitting in silence for hours, yet suddenly he was spouting familiar orders like nothing unusual had happened. But Adam sensed a need for just that…a return to normality. If it took Pa using his fatherly influence to stay in control, then Adam would do what he could to support it. Maybe it was the best way to help everyone. So he turned to Hoss in agreement. “He’s right, Hoss. You should be in bed. And I think I’ll go see if there really is any of Hop Sing’s chicken left.”

Ben nodded in satisfaction as he turned back to Joe. Hoss, in turn, shook his head in annoyance, and started to speak. Adam shushed him with a look, as he helped him from the chair.

But when they reached the hallway, Hoss couldn’t hold back any longer. “What are ya thinking, Adam? We can’t go leavin’ him in there alone. Remember what the doc said. He told us…”

“I don’t have any intention of leaving him in there alone. Not for more than a few minutes, anyway. But I don’t want him to think we’re watching him like a hawk, either. I’ll just go downstairs, then come right back.”

“All right, if ya think ya have to. But I’m going to…”

“You’re going to do just what Pa said. I remember what Doc said about you, too. And he said you needed to get some rest.”

Adam’s stern gaze was almost a perfect reflection of Ben’s. Hoss stared at him for several long minutes before relenting. “I’ll go rest for awhile, but ya better call me if…”

“I’ll call you. Now go.”

Hoss turned and slowly made his way to the next room. He went in silently and closed the door, but not before throwing a weak smile back at his brother.

Adam kept that smile in mind as he walked towards the kitchen. It was such a contrast from the memory of his large brother trapped inside the mine. Hoss had been in so much pain, yet he seemed ready to move heaven and earth to rescue the men from the tons of rock that surrounded them. And it was his persistence that finally gave them the break they needed when he cleared away a mound of rock that let them into the larger shaft.

From there, Bill Owens had directed them through a series of old shafts until they found a way out of a secondary tunnel. If it hadn’t been for Bill’s knowledge of the mine, and Hoss’ fortitude, they never would’ve made it out alive.

The ordeal weighed heavily on Adam. He felt partially responsible for allowing the group to descend so deep into the mine when he could see how unstable it was. Yet, he knew that it was Owens and his partners who had kept the mine running in the first place. It would never be truly resolved in his mind, one of those tragic things that should never have happened. He was just doubly grateful that they’d found some of the miners in the other shaft. Those seven men, along with the five from his group, left twelve survivors able to walk out of the mine.

‘Walk out . . .’

Adam knew he was shoving back the mental visions that hurt the most. Joe lying in a pool of blood…an injured Hoss moving rocks and boulders that no healthy man could handle… Hoss, one arm dangling uselessly, trying to carry Little Joe out of the mine. Walk out… no. There were some of them that couldn’t walk out. Maybe never would.

The room was still silent when Adam slid back into his seat. Pa continued to stare intently at Joe, and Little Joe’s chest was still moving up and down with a slow, methodical rhythm. It was Adam who felt like he couldn’t catch his breath as he remembered.

*****

The flame flickered and sputtered, its dim light casting an eerie glow across the room. Ben barely noticed. His eyes focused only on the face of his youngest son. He squirmed slightly in his chair, searching for a more comfortable position, and then was still. Ben knew that two worried men watched him closely, though neither man had approached him, a fact that he was grateful for. Operating on pure adrenalin, Ben had kept a constant vigil at Joe’s bedside. But his watch had brought no change. The young man lay still, oblivious to the anxious father hovering over him.

“Pa. Come on, Pa, you have to get some rest.”

Ben could hear the concern in Adam’s voice. His eldest son stood behind him, one hand tentatively resting on his shoulder. Ben shrugged it away. “I’m all right.”

“No, Pa, you’re not. It’s been two days. You’ve barely eaten, and haven’t slept. This isn’t doing Joe any good.”

Ben didn’t argue. What could he say? Adam was right. But he couldn’t leave. Couldn’t force himself to move from this chair and abandon his son. What if something happened while he was gone? What if… No. He couldn’t bear to lose this son again. He’d stay here and guard Joseph, keep him safe like only a father could.

Another hand appeared on his left shoulder, but the accompanying voice was more insistent. “Ben, this is no longer a request. I’m ordering you to bed.”

“You can’t…”

“Yes, I can. I’m your doctor and you’re endangering not only your health, but Joe’s.”

“Joe’s health? What are you talking about? I’m not doing anything to endanger him. I’m…”

“You’re making yourself sick, and when this boy wakes up, he’s going to need you and your strength. Now, I’m not listening to one more argument, Ben Cartwright.”

Ben wanted to argue, needed to. But he couldn’t. Adam was already pulling him from the chair, and Paul was helping, none to gently, either. In all fairness, he didn’t have much fight left in him, not physically anyway. He was done in, and he knew it.

*****

The faint light of early morning barely lit the room. As Ben opened bleary eyes to the world, things looked rather dim and out of focus. It wasn’t hard to assume that the hour was early, and his rest incomplete. He couldn’t have been in bed more than a couple hours at best. Still, he pushed back the covers and forced himself from the warm cocoon. Seated on the edge of his bed, shoulders hunched, and head down, he was the picture of pure exhaustion – if there had been anyone there to notice. But his room was empty, quiet and peaceful.

‘Another relative term.’ Ben thought glumly.

Pushing himself off the bed, he walked several steps to his bureau. The clothes he’d slept in were silently shed, and replaced with crisp, clean ones. It didn’t make him feel any better.

The war inside him raged on. There was the giddy excitement of knowing his family had not been destroyed, but the overwhelming fear that his youngest might still be lost to him. His emotions in turmoil, Ben rubbed his aching forehead but found no relief. Once again, he found himself all alone, and he railed against the feeling.

Sounds from outside drew the weary father to the window, and he stumbled slightly in the pre-dawn light. Learning on a small table, he bent down and held back the curtains to peer outside.

Several shadows moved near the barn, ranch hands getting started on morning chores. It was the tall shadow near the hitching post that caught and held his attention. As he watched, Adam bent down, leaning both elbows firmly on the wooden railing, resting his chin in cupped hands. The white bandage stood out in stark contrast to his black hair.

In the dim light, Ben couldn’t make out his son’s expression, but the boy’s stance spoke of a weariness that the father identified with. Not for the first time during this long week, Ben wondered at the power that would impose such suffering on a man.

Dropping the curtain back in place, Ben raised up. It was the movement of his hand on the small table that suddenly caused him to stop abruptly. Eyes dropped to stare at the worn book, its cover thin and battered. Ben had a sudden flash of memory. His father quietly placing this very book in his hands the day his mother died.

‘Keep it with you, son. Remember her and all that she taught you, but not with sadness. Remember her love, and that we’re only here for a short while on our journey home. She’s waiting for you at the end of that journey.’

His hands gently fingered the pages as he unconsciously turned them to a familiar passage.

‘and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’

 

Ben’s eyes turned again to search out his son in the yard below. It was just as his gaze settled on Adam, that the first rays of sunshine spilled over the tips of the tall pines. In almost perfect unison, father and son raised their eyes to the heavens. Golden fingers of light mixed with the pink and orange tinted sky. It was a glorious sight, and the incredibly colored sky seemed to shower its dazzling rays down upon the earth. Ben found that he was almost breathless as he watched the brilliant display. He wondered if his son felt the same.

Suddenly, and for the first time since he’d stepped off the stage in Virginia City, Ben Cartwright felt at peace. His heart still ached bitterly for the young son who lay unconscious in the next room, but something else filled his heart. There was a feeling of love and peace so deep, there were no words to describe it. He didn’t have the answers…he didn’t know what God’s plan was…but he knew there was a plan.

Ben dropped to his knees next to the small table, and silently studied the bible still clutched in his hand. When it finally came, his quiet prayer was full of love and remorse. He hadn’t been alone, but like any child, he’d been unable to see past his own needs. Whatever happened now, Ben knew, really knew. He would never be truly alone.

*****

Ben sat beside the bed, slowly tracing an invisible pattern on his son’s hand. Almost a week had passed since the boys had come home, and still there was no sign of change in Joe’s condition.

The doctor continued to visit each day, but he no longer encouraged the family. Now, he just checked his patient’s breathing and pulse, looking briefly at Joe’s eyes for a reaction that never came. On his last visit, Paul had merely left in silence after stopping to grip Ben’s shoulder. It wasn’t that they’d given up hope; it was simply that nothing more could be done.

The door opened behind him, gentle footsteps echoing in the quiet room. Adam walked to the bed, where he stared down at his brother for several minutes before turning to Ben.

“Anything?”

A silent headshake was the answer.

Adam moved to sit on the other side of the bed, one hand resting on his brother’s still arm. It was that stillness that bothered him the most, the immobility of a young man normally so full of motion.

Father and son sat in silence, each remembering, hoping, praying…

They were still sitting in silence hours later when Hoss joined them. He stood at the foot of Joe’s bed, sadly taking note of the changes in his little brother. No longer the strong vibrant frame of a healthy young man, Joe seemed to be wasting away before their eyes. His skin sallow and drawn, his eyes, though closed, seemed almost sunken into his thin face. There was no way to tell for sure, but Hoss suspected that Joe had lost at least ten pounds. Not surprising, considering the struggle they had in getting even a few spoonfuls of water or broth through the boy’s slack lips. Ten days without food was taking its toll.

Hoss finally cleared his throat and broke the silence.

“Hank’s waiting downstairs, Pa. Seems like he has some questions that need answers. Couple problems that can’t wait…”

Ben looked between his two oldest, as if hoping they’d step up to the challenge. He had no desire to run the ranch, not with his son lying here…dying. So he was relieved when Adam answered.

“Yeah, Hank said something to me earlier. Let’s go talk to him, Pa. Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Joe…”

“I’ll be here, Pa.” Hoss hurried to assure him. “You need a break anyway.”

Ben could see that they weren’t going to give in. It was obvious from the set of Adam’s chin to the frown on Hoss’ face. And so he nodded and stood to follow Adam from the room. But he couldn’t help it when he felt compelled to stop at the door to look back at Joe. For the past several days, Pa never left his son’s bedside without wondering if it would be the last time.

*****

 “Pa! Adam! Come quick!”

Hoss’ voice was thick with emotion as he shouted for his family. Ben and Adam nearly collided as they jumped up from the desk and rushed for the stairs, each straining to discern if Hoss was shouting out of excitement or fear. It was when they reached the bottom step that Ben froze. He was suddenly unable to face what he knew was waiting for him. Adam stopped one step above him, carefully studying his father, his own expression of hesitation and dread mirroring his father’s. In that split second, the two men silently acknowledged their fear, one to the other.

“Pa! Adam!”

The urgency in Hoss’ voice spurred them into action. Even in those few seconds, as they rushed up the stairs, Ben managed to mutter a silent prayer…for acceptance.

When the reached the doorway, they could see Hoss leaning over Joe’s still form, his hand on the young man’s arm, as if holding onto him. It wasn’t until the big man straightened up and turned to meet them that they could see his huge grin.

“He’s awake, Pa! Joe’s awake.”

Ben stopped, his momentum suddenly halted. But Adam continued to the bedside, where he gently grasped Joe’s hand.

“Pa? What’s wrong, Pa? Didn’t ya hear me? Joe’s awake.”

Hoss’ voice softened with concern as he moved towards his father. Ben didn’t bother to answer, didn’t even acknowledge his middle son. His eyes were trained on the boy in the bed. As his eyes caught and held with Joe’s, he finally heard the faint voice of his youngest calling him.

“Pa?”

Steps unfettered, Ben rushed to the bed. Pushing aside unruly curls, he peered down at his son before allowing the smile that was in his heart to spread to his face.

“Joseph.”

Ben dropped to his knees and silently gave thanks. Then, as he raised his head to gaze slowly around the room at all he held dear, he realized, with renewed clarity, that he’d never really been alone.

*****

Epilogue:

Ben looked over the table for at least the tenth time. Every crystal goblet and piece of best china had been arranged and rearranged by the excited father. It looked perfect. He knew that he’d been upsetting Hop Sing with his intrusion, but Ben couldn’t help putting special emphasis on this particular celebration. The banging of pans and occasional burst of the Chinamen’s native tongue made Ben wish he’d used a little more tact, yet he also suspected that his loyal cook wasn’t all that angry . . .not really.

Ben hoped that Hop Sing would sit down with them later, for a piece of the triple-layer birthday cake he’d worked so diligently on. It wasn’t something Hop Sing would feel comfortable with, as he normally didn’t join the family at meals, but Ben was going to insist. He knew that Joe would be happy about it…they all would.

Hoss was working again, his shoulder finally healed. The cuts and bruises were no longer visible, but Ben had worried more about the inner healing for his large son. He hadn’t left his brother’s side for long, and it wasn’t until Joe was finally out of bed and whining about being stuck inside that Hoss really seemed to return to normal.

Ben continued to watch and worry over Adam. The occasional haunted look or dark glance reminded him that his eldest felt responsible. But he knew that Adam would make his peace with the situation. Time would be the true healer, that, and Joe’s continued recovery.

It had been almost six weeks since Little Joe first woke up. The first days had been difficult. With Joe only speaking two or three words, they’d all been fearful that the young man would never be the same. But within days, he was talking again, and had continued to struggle back from the frail visage to his healthy self. He didn’t remember anything about the cave-in, and though he still tired easily, and sometimes fought for control of his left side, Joe was better. Much better.

Today had been his first day out with Adam and Hoss. Chafing to return to his normal routine, he’d finally convinced Ben to let him go, and that had been the trigger for the party. Ben had told his older sons about his plan, but no one had shared the information with Joe. Now, the surprise was almost ready. Dinner was cooking, the cake decorated, and in the corner, Joes’ new rifle was hidden by the buffet. The simple cloth wrapping had been adorned with a crude ribbon bow, placed there personally by Pa.

He’d briefly considered adding another gift to his son’s surprise, had even went upstairs twice to retrieve it. In the end, he left the little book lying on the table near his window. Someday he’d give the bible to his son, but not today. For now, Ben suspected that he was the one who would benefit most from the memories it inspired. His father’s voice continued to reach out to him, and he reveled in the experience.

A noise in the yard made Ben move away from the table, and his daydreaming. As he threw open the front door, he sighed in relief. Though he knew that Joe would be well watched by his brothers, it wasn’t the same as seeing for himself that the boy was home, safe and sound.

Ben watched in satisfaction as his three sons dismounted. As directed, one of the ranch hands was already collecting their horses, but that didn’t interrupt the boys’ good-natured squabbling. Joe was in the lead as they approached the house, his slight limp exaggerated by his weariness. Yet there was a smile on his face that Pa was grateful to see. Joe was happy, and it echoed in his greeting.

“Hi, Pa!”

Ben knew that his answer was lost in his own wide smile. It was all just too good to be true. His sons, healthy and strong…working together. “Hi yourself.”

“I sure hope Hop Sing fixed something good for supper. I’m as hungry as a horse, and the way Hoss has been complaining, there probably won’t be anything left for me.”

Still in front of the others, Joe was in the house and almost seated on the settee before he noticed the table and its festive array. Hop Sing was bustling about, placing platters of food amongst the finery.

“What’s going on? We having company?”

“Surprise!” shouted four men in unison.

The look on his young face would last Ben a lifetime. Surprised by the attention, Joe was nonetheless instantly aware of his father’s intentions. “My birthday… ”

“Yes, I thought it was about time we celebrate. Is that all right with you?”

Once again, Joe flashed his father a look of love and appreciation that only a devoted son could offer. It was the only answer needed, and Pa draped his arm across Joe’s shoulder.

Looking around at his family, Ben Cartwright rejoiced in the opportunity he’d been given. “Well, then, let’s celebrate!”

 ***End***

 Grateful thanks to Kenda for the beta read and helpful suggestions, and to Terri for her constant faith and encouragement.

 Return to Jane’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.