Summary: To keep this Little Joe safe and yet not still the fire within was Ben’s constant challenge.
Word Count: 6137
With a sigh, Ben pushed open the front door. It had been a long day and he was bone tired. But as he unbuckled his gun belt and hung up his hat, he wasn’t sure if he was tired from the long hours moving stock or just tired of life itself.
It had only been a few months since Marie died. He still couldn’t get used to coming home and not finding her waiting for him. That had been a special time of the day for them. Marie had always been so excited to see him return, she would sit quietly listening while he recounted the days events and laughingly fill him in on Joe’s antics of the day. Now, he turned towards an empty room, his arms aching for the feel of her. Life had been so difficult since she left them. The boys had taken her death hard and Little Joe was inconsolable at first. How do you help a five year old understand that his Mama is never coming home again? She’ll never be there to hug or kiss him when he’s hurt, or to shower praise on him for a job well done. All that had been left now for Ben to do. Raising three sons alone. How could he do it? After Inger died and he was left alone with Adam and Hoss, he swore he would never be hurt like this again. But life’s twists and turns were not in his control. He had to keep going, be strong for the boys. Ben shook himself. “Don’t have time for this,” he muttered.
He settled himself at the desk, looking sadly at the pile of paperwork in front of him and once more his mind began to wander. He could almost see Marie hurrying around the room, sitting next to the fire with her needlework or tucking Joseph into bed. Everywhere he looked, he still saw her. Ben had to admit though; things had been a little better lately. Joe had lost some of the forlorn look he’d worn those first weeks and he’d even been getting into mischief again. Adam and Hoss had taken over much of his care and Ben appreciated that. Still, he was overwhelmed by his own exhaustion at times. Not only was he running the ranch, he was caring for a family alone. Alone . . . the thought was too much.
Ben jumped to his feet! “Joseph” he called. All was quiet and he suddenly realized he hadn’t heard from Little Joe at all since he came in. Usually by now he would’ve heard some kind of ruckus taking place or experienced Joe running through the great room on his way to somewhere. “Where is everyone?” he called again. Still, no answer.
It didn’t take much these days to get Ben riled and not having Joe in the house where he belonged at this time of the day. Well, who was watching that boy anyway? Ben hurried into the kitchen and met Hop Sing in the doorway.
“You called Mister Ben?”
“Yes Hop Sing, where are Joseph and the boys? I haven’t seen any of them since I came in. Is everything alright?” Ben relied heavily on Hop Sing these days, not only did he take care of their every need in the kitchen, but he was becoming indispensable in watching over the house too. Keeping track of Joseph was just too much work for Adam and Hoss. How had Marie managed?
“Little Joe not in house” Hop Sing informed him. “He never came back with Hoss from the creek”. Ben nodded his head in thanks as he turned back towards his work.
Hoss would watch out for him. Only eleven, Hoss was a big boy, both in size and in heart and he watched over Little Joe with a protective love. He wouldn’t let anything happen to the little guy, assuming of course that Joe wasn’t hiding or running off as he had such a habit of doing. Ben finally gave up. He wasn’t going to get any of this work done just sitting here thinking about his troubles. A few minutes rest will do me good he thought as he moved slowly to the stairs. But he’d only made it to the first landing when the front door flew open with a crash.
“Pa” Hoss boomed. Ben looked down on an all too familiar sight. Little Joe is in trouble again. Hoss was standing in the doorway holding a very wet but wiggly boy.
“I’m sorry Pa” Joe giggled. “I fell into the stream.” The little boy twisted and strained “let me down Hoss” he wailed, “I want to see Pa.” But Hoss kept a firm hold on him as he headed towards the kitchen.
“We’re going to get you cleaned up first, you naughty boy” he chuckled. Ben started back up the stairs thinking again of how easily Marie had managed the family. Even Little Joe’s constant commotion had been a source of delight to her. To Ben, it was a trial. He loved Joe’s spunk, his love of live and joy in diving right in to everything. But he was sure a handful. He suddenly realized what a job he had in store for him. To keep this little boy safe and yet not still the fire within him would be a constant challenge.
The evening meal was normally a cheerful time at the Ponderosa. These past few months they had been quiet and forlorn this time of day. Hop Sing continued to ply them with good foods and admonishments to eat up. But they all missed Marie’s lively chatter and loving glances at the table. Ben tried to keep the conversation up with questions to Adam and Hoss about their schoolwork and daily chores, and Joseph was beginning to chatter again in his normal five-year-old way.
After dinner they gathered in front of the fire and Ben worked with Adam over a complicated math quotient while Hoss tried to teach Joe the finer art of checkers. But tonight seemed to be especially quiet. “Look at Joe” Ben whispered to Adam. The little boy had been sitting on the floor, but now he was curled into a little ball, fast asleep.
Hoss was quietly picking up the checkers and shaking his head. “Don’t know what’s wrong with him Pa, he’s the one who wanted to play so bad” Hoss muttered.
Ben reached down to pick up his sleeping son. The little boy seemed flushed and a single stab of fear hit Ben deep inside. “What’s wrong little guy?” he whispered.
Instantly Adam and Hoss were at his side. “What’s wrong with him, Pa” blurted Adam. “Is he sick?”
Ben shook his head and started up the stairs. “Just done in, I think. Probably too much swimming in the creek.” He smiled at the boys in a comforting way. No use getting everyone upset over nothing. But as Ben tucked Little Joe into his bed and stood looking down at his sleeping son, he prayed fervently that it was nothing. He bent down to brush a kiss on Joe’s forehead and stroked his son’s hair. “Please God, don’t let anything be wrong with my little boy.” He checked on Joe later during the night, but he was sleeping peacefully and when Ben felt his face, it was cool. “Thank You” he whispered.
Morning brought a bouncing Little Joe to the table. Everyone seemed in better spirits. Knowing their little brother wasn’t sick after all brought a smile of relief to both Adam and Hoss. In short order, everyone was out the door and started on their day’s work. “No school” breathed Hoss in relief as he headed for the barn. “Boy do I like Saturdays!”
Adam laughed and shook his head. “School’s not so bad. You’ll appreciate it someday when you’re older.”
Hoss frowned and walked a little faster. “Maybe Adam, but being here on the Ponderosa is what I like. Don’t see how all that book learnin’s going to help me do my chores.”
It was a beautiful day and the boys hurried through their work. Even having Little Joe under foot wasn’t too much of a problem today. Adam even whistled a little tune while they threw hay down from the loft.
“Sounds nice Adam” Hoss commented. He’d missed his brother’s singing and whistling. They’d all been so sad these past months. Adam just laughed and broke into a little ditty they liked and soon the three brothers were laughing and joking like old times.
Ben smiled to himself as he mounted his horse. “Adam!” he called. I’ll be back from town about noon.”
“Now you two keep a close eye on that brother of yours” Ben admonished. “Don’t want no little boy falling in the creek again.” He winked at Joe who giggled in response.
“I’ll be good Pa” he called after his father. Everyone laughed.
“If only you could baby brother.” Adam stroked the back of Joe’s head as they watched their father ride away. “If only you could.”
“Adam, when we gonna go fishin’?” asked Little Joe for the fifteenth time. Hoss rolled his eyes as Adam’s temper started to flair. “I told you Joe, we have to finish our work first,” Adam muttered. He was barely holding it in, but he didn’t want to spend this morning yelling at his little brother. “Go over there and finish carrying in that kindling for Hop Sing” he motioned toward the house.
“Awh Adam, I’m tired of doin’ chores. Let’s go to the lake,” whined Joe.
“Joseph!” Adam hollered. “Do what I told you!” The little boy wandered off but was back in minutes.
“I’m done” he smiled. “Let’s go now!”
Hoss leaned over the little boy and whispered in his ear, then straightened up smiling as Little Joe ran quickly toward the back of the barn.
“Where’s he off to now?” grumbled Adam as he watched the boy darting around the corner. “I sent him to get us some worms,” replied Hoss. “Adam, ya gotta hold your temper with him. He’s only a little guy,” Hoss reminded him.
“I know,” said Adam as he wiped his neck with his bandana. “But it’s awful hard. He’s gotta learn to listen and obey.” We can’t always be chasing off after him. Hoss nodded as they returned to their chores.
“He will, Adam, give him some time”.
“Hoss, Hoss I got ‘em,” Little Joe chanted gleefully as he ran back to his brothers. “See” he held up his grubby hands to show his accomplishments and Hoss laughed as he grabbed his brother’s shoulder. “Let’s get something to keep ‘em in, ok little brother” as they headed into the barn. Adam shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“Joe!” “Little Joe!” Adam hollered louder. “Where the heck are you this time?” What started out as a great day was quickly going in the other direction.
“Hoss, have you found him yet?”
“No Adam, haven’t spotted the little pelter.” This was the fourth time the little boy had wandered off in the space of one morning. The boys were getting tired of looking for him every few minutes. It was hard for a five year old to be good when there were so many interesting things to see on a ranch, but still, if they didn’t have their chores done when Pa got home, he’d tan their hides for sure. Adam and Hoss had met up with their father’s strict discipline many times and were not anxious to replay that experience today. “Joseph” Adam bellowed, “answer me!”
The boys were caught up in the search and hadn’t noticed Hop Sing waving at them from the kitchen doorway. Catching sight of him now, Adam hurried over. “Did you find him Hop Sing?”
“Yes, Mr. Adam, little brother safe in house. He stay here with Hop Sing. We make donuts while boys work.”
Hop Sing hurried back to his duties while Adam shook his head. “Ok” he breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to his chores. At least we’ll know where he’s at for a while.
A few hours later Hoss wondered out loud: “Hop Sing must have given that little guy a mess of chores to do. I’m surprised he hasn’t been out here to bother us yet.” Adam nodded in reply. The two had been hard at it most of the morning. Pa had left strict instructions that they were to finish repairing the corral before they took off to do any fishing and they’d been working hard to get done and on their way. Hop Sing had promised to fix up a lunch to take along and the boys expected Joe to be under foot. “Guess we’re getting done faster so I shouldn’t complain, but dang, Adam, this just doesn’t seem right!”
“I know what you mean Hoss, by now he would’ve asked us two hundred questions, knocked over the rails and been in a couple dozen scrapes. Wonder what’s keeping him?”
When the boys finally made their way back to the ranch house, noon had come and gone. But Hop Sing was good on his promise and an ample supply of food was ready and waiting.
“Where’s Joe” Adam asked. “He upstairs taking nap” answered Hop Sing.
“Boy tired from helping Hop Sing. He sneak too many donuts, Hop Sing send him to bed.” The boys laughed as they headed out the door.
“Ring the dinner bell when he wakes up” said Adam. “I’ll ride back and get him so he won’t miss all the fishing.”
It was late afternoon before Ben made it back to the ranch. What had started out as a short trip to town had ended with a meeting that took most of the day. He had told the boys he would only be gone a short time, but they were familiar with his busy schedule and between Adam and Hop Sing everything should be fine.
As he tied Buck to the rail, he wondered about the quiet then remembered the boys were off fishing for the afternoon. Glancing toward the corral, he was not surprised to see it finished and in good repair. Trust that boy Adam to get a job done right Ben thought with pride. Guess I should quit calling him a boy. He’s doing a man-size job.
As Ben reached the door, he was surprised to see Hop Sing standing there waiting. “What’s wrong?” Ben asked. Then once again, that jab of fear at the sight of Hop Sings’ face. “Who’s hurt? What happened?”
“No one hurt, Mr. Ben,” replied Hop Sing. “But something wrong with Little Joe, he not get up from nap yet. He sleeping long time now. Little boy should be hungry, wake up long time ago.”
“I’ll check on him” Ben reassured him. He’s probably just catching up on some lost sleep.”
But Ben took the stairs two at a time as he hurried up to Joe’s room. It wasn’t like the little boy to stay in bed for very long. Sometimes they had a hard time keeping him there all night, let alone for an afternoon rest. As he opened the door, Ben was shocked at what met his eyes. Joe wasn’t sleeping quietly as he expected, but was sitting in the middle of his bed, sheets and blankets in a tangled mess around him. “Where’s Mama?” the little boy cried. “I want my Mama!”
In an instant Ben had the boy cuddled on his lap as he rocked him back and forth. His stomach knotted in fear as he felt the heat from his son’s body thru his clothes. “Send Charlie for Doc Martin, quick” he said to Hop Sing who had followed him to Joe’s room. “Tell him to ride fast!!” Hop Sing darted from the room, his pigtail flying behind him.
Ben wondered why Hop Sing hadn’t noticed Joe’s fever earlier. And why were Adam and Hoss out fishing when their brother was lying here ill. What was he doing in town when he knew his little boy hadn’t felt well last night? Fears and recriminations raced through the father’s mind as he rocked his son. What if? What if?
The gentle rocking had calmed Joe and his little hand now stroked Ben’s cheek. “What’s wrong Pa?” he whispered. Joe’s breath was hot on Ben’s neck and he suddenly knew he had to get the fever down. “You scared me, son” replied Ben soothingly. “I didn’t know you were sick and I was feeling bad that I left you to go to town.”
“It’s alright Pa” the little boy whispered as Ben laid him back on the pillow. “I’m better now you’re home. But where’s Mama?” Ben’s look of surprise was lost on the little boy; he’d fallen into a fitful sleep.
Ben worked quickly and with Hop Sing’s help they soon had Little Joe settled into his nightshirt between clean, dry sheets. The cool cloths they kept placing on him seemed to relieve the discomfort a little. But still he tossed and turned, occasionally calling for his mother. Ben’s worry increased with the passing of time. It was a long way into Virginia City. Then Charlie would have to find the Doctor and drive all the way back. Sitting next to Little Joe and watching his son’s tortured movements, Ben was overwhelmed with fear. What kind of illness had attacked his son? Would the Doctor get here in time? Was he going to lose yet another member of his family? He covered his face with his hands as his shoulders began to shake.
Adam and Hoss hurried toward the ranch. It was getting late and they’d never heard Hop Sing’s signal to come for Little Joe.
“You suppose we just missed it?” questioned Hoss.
“Maybe” replied Adam. “If so, we’re going to have one angry little brother on our hands” muttered Adam. He was very familiar with Little Joe’s temper and was not looking forward to dealing with the child. Seems like every time he didn’t get his way, he’d let fly with a temper tantrum like only Little Joe knew how to throw. It had gotten much worse since Marie died. Adam sometimes didn’t’ know if he should feel sorry for the little boy or turn him over his knee. Sometimes, it was a measure of both. He knew it had been hard for their father to discipline Joe lately, so Adam had to sort of fill in as disciplinarian when Ben wasn’t around. He didn’t mind really, but it bothered him to see his father going easy on Joe. That boy needed a firm but loving hand. Adam hoped that Ben would come back to himself. “Just takes time I guess,” muttered Adam.
“What’d you say?” asked Hoss.
“Nothing” replied Adam. “Just thinking out loud.”
Pulling up in front of the house, the boys were surprised to see Pa’s horse out front. He usually stabled Buck if he was home for the night.
“Maybe he has to go back to town,” wondered Hoss.
“Don’t know, let’s go see what’s up” said Adam. As they entered the house, they sensed at once that things weren’t right. Pa’s hat, coat and gun belt were lying about.
“Pa never leaves his stuff layin’ around,” said Hoss. His voice shook, as he instinctively knew that only an emergency would change his Pa’s usual routine.
“Pa” called Adam. There was no answer but suddenly Hop Sing was there beside them.
“Little Joe not well, Mr. Ben with him now. You go up and see too.”
“Did anyone go for the Doctor?” asked Hoss as Adam ran towards the stairs. “Charlie go, but not get back yet,” answered Hop Sing. He turned and hurried back into the kitchen and Hoss wondered at the cook’s demeanor.
“Hop Sing seemed real upset” Hoss told Adam as he caught up to him in the hall. “You suppose it’s serious?” Adam didn’t answer but went straight towards Little Joe’s room.
“Pa” whispered Adam. Ben did not look up. He couldn’t look at his other sons just yet. He had to get himself under control. Don’t want to scare them, he thought to himself. Adam and Hoss walked quietly into the room. Hoss went straight to Joe’s bedside and stroked his little brother’s arm but Adam went to his father. He draped his arm gently over his father’s shoulders and could feel the convulsions within his father’s frame. Adam didn’t know what to say. How do you comfort a man who’s already lost so much and is afraid he’ll lose even more?
Slowly, Ben lifted his head and wiped his eyes. “Where’ve you boys been?” he asked quietly.
“Went fishing Pa, just like we planned” answered Hoss.
“But why didn’t you stay here with your brother if he wasn’t feeling well?”
Ben was looking directly at Adam who suddenly felt his anger rise. Was Pa accusing him of neglecting their little brother? Hadn’t he been the one who looked out for him most of the time while Pa went about the ranch business? Wasn’t Adam the one who watched over the boys through all the long weeks when Pa was overwhelmed with grief? Adam couldn’t speak, didn’t want to answer with the anger he was feeling.
Hoss quickly filled in the story of Joe’s nap and Hop Sing’s plan to call for them. Ben nodded briefly then looked back at Joe. “Yes, these things can come on quickly” he said. “Should’ve stayed home. Knew he wasn’t feeling well last night.”
Ben continued his self-recriminations quietly but suddenly it hit Adam. Pa wasn’t blaming Adam, Pa was blaming himself. Once again, Adam stepped to his father’s side and squeezed his shoulders. “He’ll be alright Pa,” he whispered. “He’s a strong kid.” Ben nodded as he continued to caress his little boy.
Darkness had fallen when Doc Martin finally drove up to the house. It seemed to him that every light must be lit at the Ponderosa and he hurried from his buggy.
“Thanks for coming out, Doc” Adam greeted the doctor at the door. “Come on up.” Adam led the doctor upstairs and to his brother’s room. “Pa’s real worried” Adam informed him as they came to Joe’s door. Doc Martin didn’t have to look close to see the worried look that Adam wore on his face. For his little brother or his father, it really didn’t matter.
The doctor pushed forward into the room with a smile. “Well, what do we have here?” he asked. His attempt to lighten the tension in the room was totally lost on its occupants. Jospeh no longer lay still in his bed. The little boy tossed and turned, moaning constantly. Occasionally his little voice could be heard crying for his Mama. But the sound of that voice pierced his father’s heart. It wasn’t the usual happy voice, but a thin, cracked cry. It didn’t even sound like his Joe. The cool cloths he placed on the child were quickly turned warm with the heat from his little body. It seemed that nothing they could do would calm the tortured frame.
“Doc” Ben whispered. “You gotta help him.” The doctor didn’t answer but went quickly about his examination while the family looked on. In a short time, even the doctor was wearing a worried frown.
“What is it” Ben questioned.
The doctor motioned for Ben to follow and the two men stepped into the hallway. “I don’t know Ben” it could be a number of things. You know how children can pick up these things. Ben nodded as he remembered the other boy’s childhood illnesses. “But Ben” the doctor continued. “I’m very concerned about his temperature. It’s too high and the cold compresses are not bringing it down like I’d like. I have some medicine we’ll try but I don’t like to give very much to a child this young. We need to get some ice. That may help.” Ben nodded his agreement and started back towards his son.
“Ben” the doctor caught his arm. “I don’t want to alarm you” he said softly “but I think you’d want me to be honest with you.” Ben couldn’t speak but nodded at the doctor to continue. “There have been several cases of influenza in the area, some of them pretty serious.” The doctor hesitated; the startled look on Ben’s face told him he shouldn’t give him the fatal statistics. “That doesn’t mean that Joe has contracted it” the doctor finished. “I just thought you should be aware” the doctor stopped in mid-sentence. Ben’ shoulder’s slumped and his head dropped into his hands. A thin “No” escaped his lips. The doctor squeezed Ben’s arm reassuringly as the two men returned to the sick room.
Hours passed and there was no change. Even the ice that the ranch hands delivered to Hop Sing’s kitchen did not stop the burning fever from ravaging the little body. Hoss & Adam were in and out of the room, bringing cool water, ice and fresh cloths, but their father seemed not to notice their coming and going. His only focus was small child on the bed before him. “Joseph, Joseph” he pleaded, “come back to us.” But the little boy continued his fretful sleep. Even his occasional calls for “Mama” had passed. He no longer would sip from the cup that his father held lovingly to his lips. His eyes, when open, were glazed and he seemed to be looking far beyond the sight of his family and home.
“Pa, you need to get some rest,” said Adam again.
“We need you too, Pa,” echoed Hoss. “You gotta take care of yourself.”
Ben only shook his head. He was not leaving his son’s bedside. His body, though tired and aching, was healthy and strong. If only he could will some of his strength to his child. How he wished he could hear the impish laugh or see his little boy jump up from the bed to say, “Surprise Pa, I fooled ya!” But as long as his little boy was lying here, he would not leave. Oh Marie, he thought. Why can’t you be here with us? “His mother can’t be here with him, so his father will be,” he stated firmly. Hoss and Adam knew from their father’s tone that there would be no more discussion. They continued with their duties but occasional glances between the two showed their rising concern not only for their little brother but their father too.
It was almost midnight and Joe seemed to be resting a little easier now. The doctor had returned to town with the promise to be back early in the morning. They weren’t happy to see him leave but there were other sick people he had to see to. Pa had yet to leave Little Joe’s side, but he did agree to lay back and sleep a little while Adam watched over his brother. Of course there’d been the stern warning to wake him if anything changed. Joe’s breathing was quieter but still labored and he wasn’t moving about quite as much. Adam wondered as he applied another compress if the fever was going down or Joe was just too worn out to move anymore.
What was happening to his family? Adam was too tired himself to think clearly. All he could see in his mind’s eye was a loving, happy family only a few short months ago. Now it seemed that tragedy was dogging them. Was it only hours ago that this same little boy was hounding him with questions? How could he have been so angered by one small child who only wanted to experience life as only a five year old can. As Adam continued his gentle administrations, tears filled his eyes. They couldn’t lose this little boy. He meant too much to all of them. How could Pa make it through another loss?
Adam smoothed the hair from his brother’s forehead and gently stroked his cheek. “Come on buddy” he whispered. “Get well! We need you!” Very soft, but clear he heard a response, but he quickly realized Little Joe wasn’t speaking to him. Joe was talking to his mother. Adam shook his head, filled with doubt and worry. Should he wake his father? Tell Ben of Joe’s delirium? Suddenly, the doubt was gone. He knew what to do and there seemed no question in his mind that it was right.
“That’s right, Joe. Your Mama’s right here. You go ahead and talk to her. She’s listening.” Adam watched in surprise as Little Joe instantly quieted. Adam held his hand as Joe continued to hold some kind of whispered conversation with his mother. Marie, Adam thought, if you really are here tonight, help us! We need you! Joe needs you, and Pa!” Adam intoned his silent prayer to a lost mother as he continued stroking his brother’s arm, and he knew in his own heart that Marie was here. “You’re right, little brother” he whispered to Joe. “Your Mama’s here for you, but you have to stay here with your Pa. You talk to her all you want, but you have to stay here with us!”
The clock striking five brought Hoss slowly awake. He’d been dreaming. He thought he heard Marie’s gentle voice singing, but that couldn’t be. Marie was gone. Hoss looked about the room but all was quiet. Pa still slept in the chair next to the bed and Adam was sitting quietly next to Little Joe. It seemed to Hoss that Adam was holding some type of conversation with himself but that was plumb crazy. Course everything was pretty crazy around here right now. Pa was overcome with fatigue and Adam seemed to be taking over. Hoss didn’t know how to help. He just wanted his little brother to be all right.
But as Hoss came more awake, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Marie was there. What was dreaming and what was real? He’d been praying when he fell asleep. He thought that maybe if he’d send a few prayers to Marie that God wouldn’t mind. They sure could use her right about now. Maybe that’s why he seemed to be thinking so much of her. But no, he was sure he’d heard her voice. Was it possible, was all this a dream? Was Marie still here with them? Hoss jumped up and looked frantically about the room.
“Hoss, what’s wrong with you?” Adam whispered. “You need to be quiet. Pa’s still asleep and I think Joe’s resting a little easier now.”
Hoss stopped and fully awake now, looked down at his sleeping brother. “He does seem calmer,” he noted. “Is the fever down?”
“I think he’s some cooler,” Adam answered. “He’s still pretty hot though.”
“Marie!” Pa sat up with a start. “Marie, where are you?” The boys stared at their father in disbelief as Ben looked around the room. The slowly relaxed as their father seemed to come fully awake. Ben shook his head as if to clear it from some unseen cloud and then he came quickly to the bedside. “How is he?” he questioned anxiously.
“He’s sleeping better,” answered Adam. “I think his fever’s down a little”.
Ben felt the child’s face and nodded slightly. “Just a little.”
Ben looked at his sons and realized what a long night it was for all of them. “You boys need to go to bed; get yourself some sleep” he said. But Hoss and Adam shook their heads. They couldn’t seem to make themselves leave. Was is the desire to be with Joseph when he woke up, or to be there for their father? Or maybe it was this undeniable feeling that Marie was in the room with them. Whatever the reason, the Cartwright family continued their vigil together.
It was late morning when Little Joe opened his eyes to the world. “Pa” he called weakly. “Pa, where are you?”
Instantly Ben was sitting on the bed next to his small son. He held the boy’s pale hand in his and stroked it gently. “Joseph, I’m here son. You gave your Pa quite a scare!” The little boy stared up at his father but didn’t seem to see him. “Joe” Ben called. “Joe!” But still the little boy didn’t answer. Was this one of those things you heard about? Where the patient rallied at the end just long enough to say goodbye. Ben gathered his small son in his arms and rocked him while tears spilled down his cheeks. “Joseph” he called again as if to call him back to his side. Hoss and Adam stood at the end of the bed, their tears also spilling quietly down their cheeks. Their father’s anguish was almost too much to bear.
Slowly, Joe’s eyes seemed to fix on to Hoss and Adam. “Pa” he said again. But this time his voice was stronger. As Ben pulled the little boy up to look at his face, they could all see the gentle smile so like Marie’s playing across his face. “I saw her Pa!” he whispered quietly. “Mama was here! Where is she now?” Joe asked impatiently. “I want to talk to her again.”
Pa looked at his son in shocked disbelief, but slowly a quiet understanding seemed to take over. “Joseph” he said softly, rocking the boy in his lap. “Your Mama’s not here anymore. She came to you while you were sick, but she’s gone back to heaven now to watch over you from there.”
“But I want her to come back and sing to me again” Joe cried quietly. “She sings so pretty and she told me she loved me. She even stroked my hair, just like Adam did.” The family looked at each other, the love and understanding alive in the room. Marie had been there with them when they needed her most. She had found a way to comfort the family she loved and who loved and missed her so much.
“Come on, little boy, let’s get you back in bed” Ben said firmly as he settled Joe upon his pillow. He wiped quickly at his tears but the little boy’s hand was there first. “Why are you crying Pa?” he asked. “Did you see Mama too?”
“Yes I did son, yes I did. And I see her every time I look at you Joseph.” Ben answered. He gave Joe another gentle hug as the little boy drifted back to sleep. But this time his sleep was peaceful and the fever had broken. They all breathed a prayer of thanks.
Only a few short weeks had passed before things on the Ponderosa had most certainly returned to normal. “Joseph” bellowed Ben. “Where are you going with that can of worms?”
Little Joe shrugged in his childish five-year old way. “Nowhere Pa!” he answered meekly. “Just fishin’, ‘member Pa, I didn’t get to go fishin’ with Hoss and Adam like they promised, and I even got the worms ready” the little boy held up a grubby hand full of worms. Ben couldn’t help it, the smile in his eyes spread to his face and suddenly he erupted with uncontrollable laughter. All those days of worry, through the feverish nights and then the long recuperation, trying to keep this busy son of his quiet and in bed.
“Yes, Joe, you’re right. You didn’t get to go on the last trip. How about we all go fishing today, together?” Ben answered as he struggled to keep his laughter in check.
“Really Pa?” Joe hollered in excitement. “You mean it?”
“Yes son, I really mean it. Adam, Hoss” Ben called. The brothers ran from the barn, sure some new problem or emergency had taken place where their little brother was concerned. But there was Joe, standing happily next to Pa with a huge smile on his face. “We’re goin’ fishin”!” he announced. “Come on!”
The boys looked at Pa in amazement. It wasn’t often that Ben would take time out of his busy schedule to go off with his sons, but they realized soon enough that he was serious. Ben was already calling to Hop Sing to get some food together.
Ben nodded his head as if to someone unseen in the room. Yes Marie, you would have been happy with this. Some time together as a family, to enjoy my sons and appreciate the wonderful life I have with them. Yes you would be happy indeed!