Life is Sweet (by Claire)

Summary:  The optimist and the realist on the trail together.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,293


 

I’ll tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There’s so much more to be grateful.

–Natalie Merchant

 

“Look at it this way,” Joe said, throwing the comment back over his shoulder, “it could be worse.”

Adam let out a snort of disbelief. “I don’t think so. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a situation I’d have less pleasure in.”

“We-elll…” Joe tried desperately to rack his brains to think of something positive to say. Adam’s dark mood was beginning to pull even his irrepressible spirits down. “It’s nice mild weather. It could be snowing. Anyway, the fort’s in sight now and, this time tomorrow, we’ll be home. Honestly, Adam, it could be a lot worse.”

His brother pulled the wagon to a stop and stood up, indignation evident in every fiber of his being. “Will you stop saying that? It’s alright for you – you don’t have to face the prospect of Abigail Jones sitting next to you for 25 miles, do you? What do I have to look forward to except twenty five miles of Abigail chattering away and simpering and…”

“Singing!” Joe added, less than helpfully. “Don’t forget her singing!”

“I thought you were trying to cheer me up,” Adam said, trying to suppress a small shudder. Abigail had a most piercing voice and the unfortunate tendency to pitch her songs good six or seven tones too high for the natural range of her voice.

Joe shrugged eloquently. “Only so much a guy can do, brother. Anyway – we’ll have a good evening at Fort Churchill then set off to escort our lovely schoolteacher back home to Virginia City as quickly as possible. So, you sit back down and let’s get on our way. There’s no sense in getting in a strop about things.”

“I am not in a strop!” Adam yelled, forcefully reminding Joe of their father. While nobody could compete with Ben Cartwright for the sheer volume, range and depth of voice, his eldest son was doing a fine impersonation. Joe would not have been surprised if the folks in Fort Churchill could hear Adam’s bellows.

Realizing just slightly too late that he was indeed having a strop, Adam sat back down heavily on the wagon seat, his face set in a grim expression and flicked the reins over the backs of the horses. “Go on!” he called, and once more the wagon began to move towards the Fort.

Joe urged his mount forward and decided it would be prudent to give his older brother a little time and space to calm down. He was not exactly thrilled to be tasked with seeing Miss Jones safely home, but then, he wouldn’t be the one sitting next to her on the wagon seat. The Virginia City schoolteacher was a very tactile person who had strong passion for patting people on the knee and Adam would be rather like captive prey during the journey. Much safer to keep his distance on the return journey, Joe thought prudently. He wouldn’t put it past old Jonesy to start pawing at his legs too. Maybe if she couldn’t have Adam, she might decide to pick on him instead? Now, there was a frightening though!

The long drive from the Ponderosa had given Adam plenty of time to think. The only problem was that the more he thought about things, the worse they seemed. Try as he might, he could only view the prospect of tomorrow’s drive home with considerable dread. If only Pa had not been in town the day that Abigail set off to visit her friend at the Fort. Mrs. Jones was in a flutter as the promise of a ride home had suddenly fallen through and Ben had immediately offered assistance. If only it had been anyone else but Abigail Jones! It seemed as if she had set her cap at Adam from the very first moment she saw him and that she had been in desperate pursuit of her quarry ever since. Adam had tried being polite; he had tried being distant; he had tried avoiding her. Nothing worked. Recently, just about every social occasion he had been to was ruined by the fact that Abigail Jones pounced on him the moment he came in through the door and then hung onto his elbow in a proprietarily fashion and shot disapproving looks at any young lady who might have the temerity to approach them. His social life was in tatters.

If only she didn’t try quite so hard, Adam thought, there might have been a chance that they could have become friends, for they shared many of the same interests, a fact that his younger brothers took great delight in pointing out. But friendship was the last thing Abigail wanted and she made that perfectly clear. In his mind’s eye, Adam could almost see her, ruminantly stroking her ring finger and pondering if a ruby or a diamond would be more suitable. It was common knowledge that Abigail Jones was on the hunt for a husband and that she had Adam Cartwright firmly in her sights.

Dusk was just beginning to fall when the brothers drew up to Fort Churchill, a motley collection of low, white adobe buildings, scattered in a seemingly random pattern and without the normal perimeter wall or stockade. Joe took a look around and shook his head, clearly not overly impressed. “I was expecting something a little livelier,” he said in mournful tones.

Adam stepped down from the wagon and clapped him on the shoulder. “There will be plenty going on in the sutler’s later on, little brother, don’t you worry about that!”

Joe brightened up. “Really? You’re not just joshing me, are you? I didn’t mean that about Abigail…”

“No, I’m not having you on and, yes, you most certainly did mean what you said about Abigail! And it was perfectly true, by the way. When that woman begins to sing, she could put the hens off laying!” Adam assured him. “So if you sort the horses out and then can get the first round in, I’ll go and pay my respects to Miss Jones. I’ll need a drink after that.

“Just one?” Joe asked cheekily, glad to see Adam restored to his normal good humor, but his brother was already walking away.

Once Joe had arranged suitable accommodation for Cochise and the wagon horses, he considered having a stroll around his new surroundings, but was easily distracted by the sounds of laughter coming from the building Adam had referred to as the sutler’s. This proved to be a small store run by a civilian, and it was clearly the hub of social life at the Fort. Its windows were glowing brightly against the darkening skies and the sound of voices rang out against the stillness evening air. A smile flitted across Joe’s face as he lengthened his stride and approached the doorway. It looked as if today was going to end on a high note after all.

Joe was half-way through his second glass of beer and considering joining a game of poker at the next table when Adam finally joined him. After one look at his brother’s face, Joe wisely held his tongue and merely pushed a waiting beer towards him. Stopping only to nod his thanks, Adam picked up the glass and drank deeply, draining it completely.

“Better?”

“Much better. I needed that. That woman!!

There was no need to ask who Adam was talking about. “Talked you dry, did she?”

Adam grimaced. “Would you believe she suggested that, as her friend has a piano, I should stay and we could have a musical soiree?”

Joe grinned broadly. He could believe anything of Abigail, especially where his brother was concerned. “You managed to resist, I see.”

“I barely got out with my modesty intact.”Adam gave an inadvertent shudder. “Get me another beer, kid. Tonight, I need it.” He threw a couple of coins across the table, which Joe neatly caught and sauntered off to the makeshift bar.

“We’ve got another passenger tomorrow,” Adam announced. “A widowed lady who’s catching the stage at Virginia City. She’s going home to New York.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Joe said confidently. “Old ladies like me.”

Adam spluttered loudly and sent a cloud of foam flying across the table. “They’re taken by your modesty, are they?”

The younger man smiled beatifically. “And charm. Plus, they usually want to mother me and to feed me up. And you know that old ladies are the greatest bakers!” The beer was easing away the stresses of a long day spent in the saddle and Joe was beginning to feel his muscles relax. Contentedly, he took another long draught of beer. “I love old ladies!”

“All is clearly right with your world,” Adam agreed dryly, draining his own beer. “One more of these and then we’d better hit the hay.”

“Aw, Adam!” Joe protested, sounding about 14. “Don’t be a spoilsport. It’s still early.”

“You only have to sit on top of a horse tomorrow, little brother. I, on the other hand, have to drive a wagon pulled by two horses and containing the redoubtable Abigail Jones, some little old lady, plus all their luggage. And that is something I do not want to do with a hangover, I can assure you.”

“But I don’t get hangovers!” Joe protested.

Adam grinned evilly at him. “Oh, you will, Joe, you will! It comes to us all, I promise you.”

However, Adam was easily persuaded into having one final drink and the two men fell into easy conversation with the occupants of the next table. Life at Fort Churchill was not a particularly enjoyable experience, it appeared. Conditions were still pretty basic, with almost all supplies being brought in by wagon, which meant that rationing was a way of life. Drinking water was at a premium, as the river was so polluted by the washings from innumerable mines washed downstream. Opportunities for entertainment were strictly limited to drinking and playing cards at the sutler’s, unless you fancied a 50 mile round trip to Virginia City. Very quickly, Adam and Joe realized that life at Fort Churchill was pretty bleak and more than a little boring.

“What a pity Abigail isn’t staying longer,” Adam said in an aside. “I’m sure she would have organized the folk here into an operatic society, with herself in the lead role, of course.”

Joe sniggered appreciatively at the image this presented. “I’m just surprised she didn’t put on one of her famous ‘Scenes from Shakespeare’ while she was visiting. Or perhaps she couldn’t find the right actors?” He cocked an inquiring eyebrow at his brother, who returned the gesture and took another swig of beer.

These dramatic offerings had assumed almost legendary status in Virginia City, so great was the schoolteacher’s enthusiasm in dragooning assistance. It was a standing joke on the Ponderosa that each year she would attempt to cast Adam in the role of Romeo, with herself as Juliet, naturally. Equally traditional were Adam’s increasingly inventive ways of wriggling out of the role.

“She’d have a captive audience here, that’s for sure,” Adam agreed. “Just think of all those lonely guys staring hungrily as Abigail declares her love for Romeo.”

The brothers both considered this image in a silence that lasted for almost a minute before they burst out laughing, Adam’s deep chuckle and Joe’ s higher cackle ringing around the rafters of their slightly ramshackle drinking abode. Despite everything, it was a good evening.

The room they rented for the night was joined on to the rear part of the sutler’s, and although it was small and sparsely furnished, it was neat and more than adequate for their needs. Moreover, the bed linen was clean and the mattress did not have too many obvious lumps and bumps in it.

“Could be a lot worse,” Joe said, sitting on the edge of the bed and pulling off his boots.

At the other side of the room, Adam stood regarding himself in the mirror and rubbing a reflective hand over his chin. He really could not be bothered shaving tonight, but would there be time in the morning? There would be the horses to groom and the wagon to harness up and that all took time. If it had been anyone else, he would simply have gone home sporting a day’s growth of beard, but he knew that Miss Abigail would disapprove. And her disapproval was never silent… Feeling his dark mood begin to return, Adam picked up a sliver of soap from the wash-stand and began to lather up his face.

“You really shouldn’t bother on my account,” Joe murmured sleepily from the bed. “I’ve cuddled up with Cooch before now and his bristles are a lot worse than yours!”

“You just concentrate on warming up my side of the bed, little brother,” Adam advised and began to draw his razor smoothly downwards, the familiar routine lulling him back into more peaceful thoughts.

Despite all her faults, Abigail Jones was not, at heart, a bad woman. It was just that she had a very decided point of view on almost everything and felt obliged to share this with others. Joe was able to let most of her comments slide off him without comment, but that was usually because he simply switched off whenever she began to lecture him and let her comments fall on deaf ears. This was a useful habit Joe had acquired when he was still at school and he had perfected it over the years, so that now he could maintain a rapt expression on his face and even make suitable noises of interest, while thinking about something else entirely. It also came in useful when he was treated to one of his father’s lectures, although he had to be careful how often he employed it, as he had a sneaking suspicion Ben was getting wise to the ruse.

Although there were only a few slivers of light beginning to break through the night sky, Abigail was already waiting on the porch when the wagon drew up. She prided herself on her punctuality, she informed Adam as her friend appeared, and insisted that the Cartwrights should have something more substantial than the coffee, which was all that was on offer at the sutler’s. Mrs. Davidson had prepared such a fine quantity of corn bread, fried sausage, bacon and eggs that Joe felt it would have been churlish to refuse, even if he had eaten breakfast an hour before.

As he ate, Adam discussed the possibility of the Ponderosa supplying the Fort with lumber with Major Hector Davison, who just happened to be in charge of supplies. With a little luck, the Major could become a useful and lucrative business contact for the Ponderosa. He had already revealed that the army would be looking for additional lumber when new building works started again in the spring.

“It was so kind of you to say that you would take Mrs. Hamilton back to Virginia City, Mr. Cartwright. I fear she has found Fort Churchill a very sad place since her husband’s death. I am indebted to you. Hamilton was a fine man and a good soldier. I wish I could be of more assistance to his widow, but my duties here…” The Major let the sentence tail off and stroked his moustache sadly.

“We’re always happy to help,” Adam assured him, “And it’s no trouble at all.”

Joe looked as if he was about to respond to this, but a look from Abigail reminded him that his mouth was full of sausage and egg, so he stayed quiet.

Shortly after the breakfast dishes were cleared away, Jane Hamilton arrived. Not quite the “little old lady” of Joe’s imaginings, she was a small, middle-aged woman, whose grief stood out plainly upon her face. Simply dressed and with her hair neatly concealed under a bonnet, Mrs. Hamilton had only one small trunk and a reticule with her.

“I’m just taking what is truly important with me,” she said, her voice low and husky, as if she had been crying for so long she had no tears left. “The rest of my things were… only possessions. They had no real meaning anymore.” She stopped abruptly.

“Very sensible,” Adam agreed tactfully, putting his hand under her elbow and assisting her to the wagon, while Abigail said her goodbyes to the Davidsons. Joe quickly loaded the luggage into the back of the wagon, feeling that a speedy departure was called for in order to spare the grieving widow any more pain.

The sun was just beginning to rise as they rode out of the Fort. Adam noticed that Jane Hamilton never once looked back, although a tear trickled slowly down her cheek until she brushed it away with her hand. Then she set her head high and gazed stoically ahead. The only sign of her grief was the occasional clasping and unclasping of her work-worn hands.

For a long time, they travelled in silence, the only sounds being the creak of the wagon, the soft pad of the horses’ hooves and the jingle of harness parts. It was all totally uneventful and incredibly boring, Joe thought, longing to let Cochise have his head and gallop along the trail that led homewards. But he could just imagine what Abigail – and Adam – would have to say about that. Really, they had an awful lot in common, he thought. It really was a shame that Adam wouldn’t just succumb to the inevitable and… Or not. Probably not. He didn’t want to encourage anything that might end up with Abigail a member of the Cartwright Clan, after all.

“Could we possibly stop quite soon, please?” Abigail asked. “I really could do with a small rest.” This latter statement was said with considerable coquettishness. “And I’m sure Mrs. Hamilton would appreciate a chance to stretch her legs.”

“It would be very pleasant,” Jane agreed, secretly relieved, as she was finding the wagon seat very hard. However, she did not like to complain and knew that many days of equally uncomfortable travel in a stagecoach lay ahead before she finally arrived home in New York.

“The next shady spot we come to, ladies,” Adam promised, knowing what was required. Shortly afterwards, they pulled up alongside a small stand of pines, and while the ladies retired discretely, he and Joe unloaded a picnic basket thoughtfully pressed upon them by Mrs. Davidson at the last moment.

“I bet Hoss would love this!” Joe remarked as they unpacked a feast composed of various types of savory pies, sandwiches, fruit and cakes.

“Then he shouldn’t have made quite so much of the fact he had to mend that shaft on the buggy, should he?” Adam said with a marked lack of sympathy, eyeing up the repast with considerable joy.

Joe considered this carefully. “True enough. He was certainly in no hurry to join us, that’s for sure. Pity he didn’t know what a great cook that Mrs. Davidson is. And it doesn’t seem like we’ll have any left over to share with him, does it?”

“What a pity,” Adam replied blandly, biting into a pork pie that oozed with unctuousness. The sharp morning air had given him a hearty appetite and there was certainly no shortage of delicious food. Abigail, when pressed, managed to make a good meal, but Jane Hamilton only nibbled on a small ham sandwich.

“We’ve still got quite some distance before we get to Virginia City, Mrs. Hamilton,” Adam said kindly. “Really – wouldn’t you at least have a piece of fruit? Travelling like this can make you quite thirsty.”

At this, Joe jumped up. “Just as well you said that, Adam, or I might have forgotten to get us fresh water. “ Grabbing both canteens, he hurried over to the small stream on the other side of the trees. Once these were filled, he made a return trip with water buckets for the horses.

“I never could quite get used to the water shortages at the Fort,” Jane mused. “They brought clean water to us in barrels, you know, but it wasn’t the same. There was never enough and you had to think before doing the simplest things like washing your hands. And the water was never what you would call fresh. Sometimes it even had a stale odor. I never could get used to that. Some of the men were talking about digging a well but…” Her voice trailed off, knowing that she would never know if the well would prove a success, comprehending that the last chapter of her married life was over and that it had ended far from home, in an isolated, slightly ramshackle Fort didn’t even have a rudimentary stockade or a supply of drinkable water.

Life as an army wife had not been easy, for they were always on the move, always going from one posting to another, never settling long enough in any one place to really make a home or to put down roots and make lasting friendships. And then, quite suddenly, after twenty-six years, it was all over. Major Davidson had come to her door, just as she was preparing supper and had told her that Frank was dead.

The grief was sometimes almost beyond her endurance, but Jane knew she could not concentrate on the past. She had to look forward and concentrate on going back East. Army life had taught her resilience and self-reliance. Once she was back home in New York, she could give herself time to mourn properly amongst the love of her family. But it had only been four days since Frank died and she was still reeling from the shock. Although she tried to keep going, it was hard. It was almost more than she could bear. The major part of her life had been ripped away and the wounds were still raw. Sometimes it felt as if they would never heal.

But don’t cry
You know the tears will do no good
So dry your eyes.

Oh, they told you life is hard
Misery from the start
It’s dull
It’s slow
It’s painful

But, I’ll tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There’s so much more to be grateful

 

Joe stood at a distance, watering the horses and gently stroking Cochise’s neck. There was something about the proud, upright posture of Jane Hamilton that caught the eye and compelled sympathy. As he watched, Abigail lent forward to put her hand over Jane’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. Somehow, out here, where there were no pretences, Abigail seemed quite different, he thought. It was as if she was… more of a person, somehow. It had all become such a family joke – Abigail and her unrequited passion for Adam – but here she was: a real person with real feelings. It struck Joe that Abigail was probably quite lonely and he felt a pang of guilt about all the times he had joked about her. “I guess we all need someone, eh, boy?”

Cochise whickered gently and let Joe lead him back to where the little group was beginning to pack up the remains of their meal in preparation for starting back on their journey. The sun was higher in the sky now and the day promised to become unseasonably warm, so Adam discarded his coat in the back of the wagon and rolled up his shirt sleeves, and then once more swung up onto the wagon seat and flicked the reins to start the horses moving forward.

After a while, the trail began to narrow, the open countryside changing gradually into a more rocky terrain and meandering through high, rock-walled passes. Joe rode ahead while Adam followed, concentrating on keeping the horses at a careful pace. The horseshoes made a metallic clatter on the solid rock underfoot and the tinny sound started to echo around them in eerie fashion. Adam could sense that the wagon horses were beginning to get more and more jittery. The pressure on his arms began to increase as he fought to keep the animals under control and he looked ahead anxiously, craning his neck for confirmation that they would enter open ground again soon and give the horses a chance to settle down before they tore his arms out of their sockets.

“Joe!” It was not quite a shout, but the urgency in his brother’s voice made Joe rein back immediately.

“I can’t hold them much longer. The echoes have spooked them. If they bolt – you get yourself out of the way.”

Ignoring this last piece of advice, Joe started back. “We’re almost at the end of this pass, Adam. Hold on just a moment longer.”

He could see the muscles in his brother’s forearms standing out with the strain, he could see the determination on Adam’s face, and the way Abigail and Jane clung to each other. And he could see that there was nothing he could do as the team suddenly broke into a gallop and tore past him at breakneck speed.

Joe could not remember a time when he had not ridden. People still talked about what a magnificent rider his mother had been, and she had ensured her son had started to ride as soon as he could walk. Riding was second nature to Joe, as it was to no other member of the family. They rode because it was necessary for their way of life: he rode because it was his way of life. Sure, he enjoyed all the showy details, like sitting arrow-straight in the saddle and doing his fancy swing-mount, but Joe had won enough races to prove his mettle to even the most cynical of observers, not to mention his brothers. Ben had always taken such pride in his youngest son’s innate horsemanship, especially the way Joe had broken Cochise and then trained the horse to be receptive to the slightest and most subtle of commands.

Without consciously thinking, Joe swung Cochise around and gave chase to the speeding wagon. Despite Adam’s best efforts, it was swaying dangerously from side to side, tossing its occupants around and depositing various items such as the picnic basket, a trunk and a large carpet bag in his path.

Joe rode as he’d never ridden before, all the years of training and natural skill coming out as he dodged the various obstacles thrown into his path, urging Cochise ever faster and flattening himself against the horse’s neck as they started to catch up with wagon. Just a few moments longer and he would be alongside. Just a few yards to catch up and he could reach over and help Adam. Just a few moments longer. He urged the horse onwards, hoping against desperate hope.

Adam could see the boulder coming up at the side of the trail. He could see it quite clearly and, just as clearly, he knew that he didn’t have the strength to pull the horses out of its path. Twisting his head around, he could also see Joe coming tearing up behind them, riding furiously, with a look on his face that suggested all the avenging fates were with him. Joe might just make it. If anyone could make it, it was Joe. Dear God, let him make it!

“I’ve got to make it!” Joe thought grimly. “Just another bit more, just another few inches and…”

He was there at last. He was riding right alongside Adam, riding so close that now Joe could see the individual beads of sweat standing out on his brother’s brow. There was no time to lose – that damned boulder was looming ever closer – so with a herculean effort, Joe swung the horse as close to the wagon as he dared. Digging his heels as firmly into the stirrups as possible, tensing the muscles in his thighs and praying that he would not be catapulted out of the saddle, Joe began to lean over towards the wagon. Reaching desperately towards his brother, every sinew of his body tensed as Cochise gallantly kept pace with the out-of-control team, at last Joe’s hands grabbed the wagon traces and he began to add his strength to Adam’s. Slowly, their combined force began to tell and the pell-mell pace began to ease just a little.

And then the wagon wheel hit the bolder and was instantly pulverized into a thousand pieces. To Adam, it was as if time slowed down and he became a dispassionate observer, watching helplessly as a macabre play was acted out before him. First, Joe seemed to dive headfirst between Cochise and the wagon as the sudden force tore him out of the saddle and whipped his hands free of the reins. One moment he was there, the next he was gone from sight. At almost the same time, the wagon seat bucked violently, causing Abigail to let go of Jane and fling her arms around Adam instead. The next moment, Jane went flying backwards, landing briefly in the wagon-bed and then being thrown again, this time landing on the ground. And then the whole vehicle crashed down onto one side with a thunderous crash of splintering wood and Adam felt a ripping pain in his thigh, followed by a blinding pain in his head.

When he woke up, that pain was still there, thumping away behind his temples and throbbing merrily at the back of his skull as well. There was a burning pain in his leg and a strange, warm dampness. Opening his eyes, the first thing he could see was dark-blue flowers on a cream background. It took him a few moments to realize that his head was cradled in Abigail Jones’s lap, while Joe stood beside her, looking down at him and rubbing his hands with a cloth. No, that wasn’t quite right. One of Joe’s arms was in a sling – that was it.

“What happened?” Adam asked groggily and tried to sit up.

“Lie still!” Abigail said, in firm tones. Just to make sure there was no misunderstanding, she pressed firmly on his shoulder. Realizing that resistance was futile, Adam subsided.

“The wagon broke up when it hit the boulder.” Joe squatted down beside Adam and looked him straight in the eyes. “You hit your head and tore up your leg pretty badly. Abigail and I have patched you up as best we can.”

“After I tended to Joe’s shoulder.” There was an odd hitch in Abigail’s voice that Adam couldn’t quite understand. He raised his eyebrow quizzically, but immediately regretted the action as it sent fresh waves of pain shooting up to the roof of his skull.

“Your shoulder?” Adam managed a few moments later, once he had the nausea under control.

“Dislocated,” Abigail said. Her voice sounded very strange: all the self-assurance was gone, replaced by a vulnerability that was quite new to Adam. “It was… most unpleasant.”

“It wasn’t a bed of roses for me either!” Joe protested, trying to make a joke of it. He’d yelled quite loudly with the pain and Abigail… Abigail had cried. She hadn’t stopped what she was doing, performing the instructions he gasped out between clenched teeth, but silent tears had rolled down her cheeks. And afterwards, once it was all over, she’d apologized to him and then kissed him on the cheek. It was funny, but if anyone had asked, Joe would have described it as a motherly kiss.

Adam’s raspy voice broke into his thoughts. “And you, Abigail? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Just a few bumps and grazes.”

There was something they weren’t telling him, Adam thought. Something important. If only this pain in his head would go away and let him think clearly.

Joe reached out with his good hand and held onto his firmly. “We’re alive, Adam and we’re going to get out of here. We’re going to get you home. Don’t worry about a thing.”

Jane. That was it. Where was Jane? Adam knew he had to find her; she’d been sitting right beside Abigail on the wagon seat. And then she wasn’t there any longer. Where was she? He tried to sit up, but the pain flared again and he had just enough time to turn his head to one side before the nausea hit him. Once that embarrassing unpleasantness was over, Adam could just see far enough through the fast-falling dusk to realize that about twenty feet away, neatly covered in stones, lay a small mound. And then he knew that Jane Hamilton was never going home to New York.

There was no choice but to spend the night where they were. Joe had managed to gather enough timbers from the smashed wagon to build a reasonable fire and they huddled around it, forcing down mouthfuls salvaged from Mrs. Davidson’s generous picnic provisions. While Adam had lain unconscious, Abigail had retraced their route and retrieved anything that was remotely salvageable, and while she was busy doing that, Joe had buried Jane, struggling with one arm out of commission. They were all exhausted by the events of the day and any conversation was strained.

“First thing in the morning, I’ll set off for Virginia City,” Joe declared, staring into the flames. The pain in his shoulder had subsided to a dull agony, as long as he didn’t actually try to move it. Riding was going to be interesting, he thought.

“We’ll all go back,” Adam said, as stoutly as he could.

“Not possible,” Joe stated in a tone that brooked no argument. Gone was the flippant, teasing youth of yesterday and in his place was a resolute man. “The wagon horses bolted when the traces broke and there’s no telling where they are by now. And that wound in your leg needs stitched before you can get on a horse, anyway.”

“He’s right, Adam,” Abigail said. “You really have an awful wound to your leg and it bled for ages before Joe could stop it. You must be feeling quite dreadful, what with that and the bump to your head. It really doesn’t seem fair that I’m the only one to be relatively unscathed, does it?”

Her question hung in the cool night air for just a moment too long, before both men assured her with heartfelt honesty they were just glad she was unharmed. After that, it seemed that sleep was the best option. Whatever else happened, tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Joe tried to sleep, but ended up lying on his back, staring up at the stars, trying to make sense of everything. How could such a simple errand go so wrong? What could he have done differently? And throughout the night, there was a nagging realization that would not stop forcing itself back into his mind, no matter how hard he tried to push it away: that Abigail had not managed to reduce his dislocation correctly. His shoulder was swollen and felt hot to the touch and the pain was growing stronger with each hour that passed. The best he could hope for was a day of relative agony, but if things went badly, there was a distinct possibility that the shoulder could come out of the joint again. And reliving that particular circle of hell again was not an experience Joe was keen to repeat. Eventually, the crackle of the fire dulled his sense enough to allow Joe’s troubled thoughts to dissipate just enough to allow him to fall into a restless sleep.

The next morning, Abigail looked at the saddle, then at Joe, his left arm still contained in the make-shift sling. “There’s no way you can lift that saddle with one arm,” she stated forthrightly. “So you hold the horse and let me deal with it.”

Joe flushed, knowing she was right but hating the fact his injury was forcing Abigail into doing this. She was clearly uneasy with horses and it took her a couple of tries before she managed to lift the heavy saddle and then heave it over Cochise’s back. Automatically, Joe ducked down and grabbed the cinch, but the simple act of fastening it – something he had done nearly every day since he was knee-high to a grasshopper – almost defeated him. Once again, Abigail simply assisted him, quietly and with surprising efficiency. Between them, they got the animal ready for the journey.

“We’d better see to Adam next,” Joe suggested in a low voice. “I’d really rather let him sleep a bit longer, but I need to see how his leg is.”

In several smothering dreams over the next few months, Joe would relive the moment he first saw his brother’s injury. A large sliver of wood had torn its way into Adam’s upper thigh, carving a path through the tender flesh and gouging out a deep wound that angled up towards his groin. It was a grotesque sight that had greeted Joe the previous afternoon, with about six inches of wood protruding from the flesh, while thick blood oozed out sluggishly, soaking into the dark fabric of Adam’s pants. It was clear that it had to be removed. Blessedly, Adam had remained unconscious throughout the proceedings.

The scent of coffee aroused Adam from a sleep plagued by runaway horses that carried him over cliffs while women screamed soundlessly in the background. Once again he awoke to see Joe standing before him, only this time his brother was holding a cup and offering it to him. He accepted it gratefully and Joe waited until he had gulped down a few mouthfuls of coffee before asking how he felt.

Adam thought for a moment, mentally assessing the various pains that racked his body. “My head isn’t too bad,” he allowed.

“And your leg?” Joe knelt down beside him and began to unwrap the dressings that surrounded Adam’s upper thigh, as his brother watched, partly fascinated and partly horrified. Around the site of the injury it had been necessary to cut open his pants, almost to the level of the waistband remaining, and that made Adam feel strangely vulnerable. A feeling of panic overcame him and he tried to raise himself on his elbows, afraid that Abigail might be in the vicinity.

“Lie still now – this might hurt a bit,” Joe murmured, trying to ease away a blood-soaked piece of material that Adam thought looked strangely like a ladies’ chemise. “But I’ve got to make sure the wound is alright.”

He was right: it did hurt. It hurt like the devil was probing open nerves with a hot poker and Adam could not hold back the scream that tore through his chest and soared out of his mouth to the heavens. The next scream also forced its unwilling way out before he could regain his composure. “Sorry about that.” His voice sounded shaky and most unlike its normal self.

“Me too,” admitted Joe ruefully. “More than you’ll ever know. But everything looks alright, as far as I can tell.” That was more than a small white lie, as the wound looked horrific, with torn and swollen flesh and congealed blood around the edges, but at least there didn’t appear to be any pieces of wood left in there, which was something to be thankful for. Nor, by some miracle, did there seem to be any signs of infection.

“Perhaps a bread poultice might help to make sure there’s no poison in there?” Abigail Jones suddenly materialized beside Joe, peering at the wound with incredible composure, as if she were entirely accustomed to seeing mangled flesh on a daily basis. Adam reflexively moved his hands to cover his exposed body. “Just to be on the safe side?”

“D’you know, Abigail, that would probably be a really good idea. It’s just that the only bread we have is those ham sandwiches left over from yesterday,” Joe pointed out.

Despite the pain, the fact he was lying flat on his back, unable to move and miles from home, not to mention the supremely embarrassing situation of having Abigail gazing at his groin with compassion in her face, Adam burst out laughing at the vision this created.

Joe redressed the wound with exquisite tenderness, again making use of material Abigail produced from her trunk. Before he started to tear the garment into strips, Joe gave Abigail a quizzical look, for it was clearly an expensive blouse, but she nodded firmly, a small smile playing at the lips. “You’ve gotta lie still, Adam,” he said earnestly. “The wound’s scabbing over nicely, but I really don’t want it breaking open again.”

“Neither do I.” Adam took a deep breath. “Joe – thanks for everything.” He watched with amusement as his brother flushed and tried to shrug off the compliment.

“Any time,” Joe managed eventually. “I’ll just check that you and Abigail have got everything you’ll need and then I’d better get started. Sooner I get going, sooner we can get you some proper help.”

The broken wagon meant there was plenty of firewood, and Mrs. Davidson’s picnic basket and its contents had survived the crash remarkably intact. Plus, there was still plenty of water. Given the circumstances, they were well-taken care of.

“I’m going to travel light and travel fast,” Joe promised, refusing Abigail’s entreaties to take some food and water with him. “No point in stopping if I don’t have to.”

He was clearly not in the mood to discuss things, Adam realized. He could see by the stubborn set of Joe’s jaw that there was no point in pushing things. Joe had clearly made up his mind, and for once, he held all the aces in this game.

“Just travel safely,” Adam said. “We’re not going anywhere, are we Abigail?”

The schoolteacher gave Joe a brave smile and he found himself liking her immensely. “We’ll be just fine. You don’t need to worry about a thing, Joe.”

Except how I’m gonna get manage to get onto Cochise in the first place, Joe thought. And then there’s the small matter of how I can manage to ride to Virginia City without passing out.

In the end, it wasn’t quite as bad as he had feared. Mounting would probably have been impossible on any horse other than Cochise, who seemed to sense that there was something wrong with his master and stood stock-still as Joe essayed a rather labored ascent into the saddle that was a world away from his usual, effortless swing mount. The world slid around alarmingly for a few moments before settling down. Sure, things were a little grey around the edges of his vision and there was a peculiar ringing sound in his ears, but Joe pushed those to the back of his mind and concentrated on not jarring his arm too much. This quickly proved to be pretty much impossible. Every step Concise took set up a fresh wave of pain that jolted agonizingly through his body. Gritting his teeth, Joe managed a cheery wave with his good hand and then started off on the long journey home.

The journey was a series of compromises: moving fast enough to get the help Adam needed while not going so fast that the pain in his shoulder grew towards unbearable levels that would make him pass out. It was a fine balance, and there were several times when Joe came pretty close to slipping out of the saddle and into the waiting darkness. But each time, he somehow managed to pull the corners of his consciousness back together and continued on the westward journey. Cochise needed little prompting, picking his fleet-footed way over the small rocks that littered the rocky trail. He was as eager as his master to get back to Ponderosa and return to his familiar stall, where he knew a good meal would be waiting for him.

Along the way, Joe concentrated on looking ahead and trying to spot the various landmarks that would show he was getting closer to his destination, all the while continuing to try push the ever-present pain back down into the recesses of his mind. He would have given just about anything for a glass of whiskey to deaden the agony in his shoulder for just a moment. When things got too bad, Joe would deliberately think back to the vicious sliver of wood sticking out of Adam’s crotch and the way his brother’s cry had resonated throughout his body, and that forced him to go on, regardless of the agony in his shoulder. And then, just as he was beginning to wonder how much longer he could go on, the familiar buildings of Virginia City appeared in the distance and Joe knew that his journey was almost over.

*****

Ben Cartwright had never been known for his patience. He expected things to be done well, and to be done on time and to be done on budget. Above all, he expected his sons to be punctual. If it was just Joe, he would understand the delay, but not Adam was there too and Adam was never tardy. A day’s delay was understandable; no doubt Abigail had wanted to spend another night with her friend. But they should have been back before now! Pacing up and down the boardwalk in front of the Jones residence, he would stop, pull out his pocket watch, consult it with a frown and then return it to his vest-pocket.

“Isn’t there any sign of my dear Abigail yet?” Mrs. Jones called out from her vantage point on the porch swing. She was growing more than a little weary of this performance. “I thought she would have been back for afternoon tea.” She always enjoyed a nip of brandy with her own tea and was growing impatient at having to delay her little treat.

Suppressing a groan, Ben forced a cheery sigh onto his face. “I’m sure they will be here any moment.” What on earth were those boys thinking of, he wondered?

Mrs. Jones gave him a sour look. “That’s what you said half an hour ago!” and retreated indoors to boil the kettle and get out the brandy bottle. She would probably need an extra nip this afternoon, she thought, on account of her nerves.

“Rider coming, Pa!” Hoss bellowed. “Looks like Cochise. Joe must be coming on ahead of the wagon.”

“About time too!” Ben said, striding over to join his son. Hoss was right: that did look like Cochise coming into town. But there was something different about the rider, he realized. That wasn’t the way Joe rode. This man sat hunched in the saddle and seemed to be cradling one arm protectively to himself. But as the horse drew nearer, he knew that it was Joe and he knew that something was dreadfully wrong.

“Joe! Are you alright, son?” All previous impatient thoughts flew out of Ben’s mind as he surveyed the bedraggled figure of his son. Before the horse came to a complete stop, he was at Joe’s side, running a protective hand down his son’s leg and looking up at his face anxiously.

“There’s been an accident,” Joe gasped. “The wagon crashed and Adam was hurt. He’s bashed his leg up real bad and I had to leave him and Abigail and …”

“You left my Abigail in the middle of nowhere? Alone? With a man?” The shrill voice of Mrs. Jones could probably have been heard several street away.

“Ma’am,” Joe said politely, and instinctively raised his arm to tip his hat. By habit, he used his left arm and this time, the pain was too great and his shoulder seemed to explode with a fiery pain that sent him tumbling down into oblivion.

Reflexively, Hoss leapt forward and caught him before he hit the ground. In the background, he was aware that Mrs. Jones had burst into a paroxysm of noisy tears. A small crowd gathered around as Hoss laid the crumpled figure of his brother carefully down onto the ground.

Kneeling beside him in the dirt, Ben watched anxiously as Joe’s eyelids began to flutter.

“Will you shut that woman up, Pa?” Joe pleaded. “I can’t hear myself think!”

“Just lie still, Joe,” Ben urged, signaling frantically for someone – anyone! – to remove Mrs. Jones from the scene. “Lie still and wait for the Doctor. You’re hurt, son, so just lie still.”

Despite Ben’s best efforts, Joe insisted on sitting up and explaining what had happened to the wagon. Mercifully, by this time someone had already escorted Mrs. Jones indoors and was plying her with the contents of the brandy bottle.

“My shoulder can wait, Pa. It’s not that bad anyway. But I don’t want Adam out there for another night and he really needs to get that leg stitched up.”

“Why don’t you let me be the doctor when it comes to medical matters, Joe?” Paul Martin pushed his way through the crowd and looked down at an all-too familiar patient. “That shoulder looks painful. Do you think you can manage to get to my consulting rooms?”

Joe looked particularly affronted. “Of course I can!” he protested indignantly. However, he was very glad of the protective arm Hoss slung around his waist, and, truth be told, by the time Joe had taken half a dozen steps, Hoss was almost carrying him.

Inside the surgery, a brief examination quickly revealed that his worst nightmare was about to come true. The initial reduction had not managed to get the shoulder back into joint properly and there was nothing else for it but go through the whole procedure again.

“The laudanum will reduce the pain,” Paul said, handing Joe a glass containing with a small amount of cloudy liquid.

The patient shook his head. “No way! I’m not drinking that. I can’t! I’ll need all my wits about me when I take you back to Adam.”

Paul could feel his patience beginning to unravel. “For heaven’s sake, Joe! See sense, boy. I am not letting you ride anywhere with that shoulder, do you understand? It’s a miracle you got here in one piece. It’s got to be put back in properly right now, or you might never have full use of the arm again.”

Joe opened his mouth to protest, just as Hoss moved forward. “Don’t you worry, Doc. Joe here will take his medicine like a good boy, won’t you Joe? Or I just might have to sit on him until he sees sense.” He put a meaty hand on Joe’s chest and pushed him back onto the bed.

“And then I’ll have a few words to say about things,” Ben advised. “Thinking you are indispensible and being reckless with your health. Honestly, Joseph, sometime you don’t have the sense you were born with!”

Joe was outnumbered and he knew it. But before he would take a sip of the laudanum, he insisted on explaining exactly where Adam was and making everyone promise they would ride off to his aid as soon as his own shoulder was fixed.

“Stop being such a fusspot and drink your medicine,” Ben advised, watching him carefully. His youngest son looked completely exhausted by the pain, but he knew from long experience that Joe hated to be mollycoddled. “From what you’ve told us, Adam is no more than ten miles away, so with a little luck we’ll have him back here before dark.”

“Be a good boy now,” Hoss crooned in arch tones. There was no way he was going to let Joe see how worried he was. He wondered if Paul had really meant that about Joe’s arm being permanently damaged. There was no way he would allow that to happen to Joe.

Joe scowled and knocked back the contents of the glass, making an elaborate face of distaste. “Everyone happy now?” he demanded.

“You just lie there and think beautiful thoughts, little brother, and let Hoss take care of things,” his brother said in a soothing voice.” He waited until he saw Joe was starting to look sleepy. “How about I go hire a wagon and set out now, Pa? Doc Martin can catch me up when he’s finished with Joe.” He glanced over at the reluctant patient, whose eyelids were now beginning to droop. “You better stay here with Joe, Pa. He really don’t look so good.” There was a wistful, yearning quality in his voice.

“You just drive carefully, Hoss, and leave the worrying to me!” Ben tried to make light of the affair, although he was torn between two sons, each of whom probably needed him equally. It tore at his heart to think of Adam, lying out there and probably in pain. However, he knew what Hoss said made sense. Joe really did look awful.

“Your boys sure know how to look after each other, Ben,” Paul observed in low tones as the door closed behind Hoss.

Ben sat down in a chair beside Joe’s bed and picked up his son’s uninjured arm, gently unfolding the clenched fingers and laying the hand flat upon the covers. How many times had he sat beside a hurt or sick child and wished he could change places with them? “They’re good boys,” he said quietly, covering Joe’s hand with his own. “I’m very blessed.”

Joe finally awoke to discover the pain in his shoulder had died down to a dull, nagging ache. An oil-lamp turned down low gave off just enough light to show his father was standing by the window, consulting his pocket watch.

“How long have I been out?” he asked querulously. “Isn’t Adam back yet? You don’t think anything’s wrong, do you?”

Ben hurried over to the bed and placed a hand on his forehead. “You’ve got a fever, Joe. Just lie still, son.”

Naturally, Joe ignored him and tried to sit up. “Never mind about me, Pa – where’s Adam?”

Realizing Joe was working himself into a state, Ben tried to soothe him. “It’s only been a couple of hours, Joe. It’s too early to be looking for them. You have to lie still now or you’re going to make yourself ill. Paul reset your shoulder and everything will be just fine. You just lie still and go back to sleep. Everything is fine.” He spoke in low, soothing tones and was grateful to see a little of the tensions ease from Joe’s body.

Ben poured some water into a glass and helped Joe to drink some, but the small effort this took seemed to exhaust his son. Joe’s body radiated heat and his eyes already had the glassy look Ben had learnt to associate with a high temperature. With a set expression on his face, Ben wrung out a cloth in cold water and began to try to bring the fever down. Every so often, he would stop and take a brief, longing look out of the window, or would pour himself another cup of coffee. And then he returned to the task of soothing Joe and trying to get his fever down.

By midnight it was clear, even to Ben, that Doc Martin would not be returning until morning. He prayed often throughout the night: that Hoss had got there in time; that Adam was alright and that Joe’s fever would break. Despite his best efforts, there came a time, as Joe lay dozing fitfully and murmuring under his breath, when Ben could no longer go on. Much as it riled him to admit defeat, the idea of sleep was impossible to resist and both his body and mind were crying out for rest. He just had time to offer up one final prayer before he drifted away, hoping that someone, somewhere was looking out for his sons.

*****

“I sure hope Pa’s got the coffee on,” Hoss remarked. “And maybe got some breakfast ready for us. I got me a powerful hunger!” His stomach gave a hollow rumble and he rubbed it protectively.

He had been in such a hurry to get to Adam that he had left town without picking up any additional supplies. Abigail had offered him a couple of sandwiches left over from the picnic basket, but as they were cheese sandwiches, Hoss had little compunction in turning her kind offer down flat. “You eat ‘em, ma’am,” he said politely, “You gotta keep your strength up.” Cheese! Of all the confounded things to put in a sandwich.

It had taken Paul longer than he thought to neaten the jagged edges of the wound and then sew them together and by the time he was finished, the light was beginning to fade. Luckily, there had been enough wood left to keep the fire burning for another night. Finally, they were on their way home.

“I hope mother hasn’t had too bad a night. She can be a dreadful worrier,” Abigail confided to Adam. “And this can’t have been easy for her.” She looked more upset than Adam had seen her during the whole period of the accident and its aftermath. The events of the past couple of days had made him see Abigail in a new light. Gone were the smothering attentions that had so irked him in the past. In their place was a calm, competent woman, who had tended his ugly wound with care and compassion and who had talked with interest and intelligence about the romantic poets. And who had revealed a little about how frustrated she was living at the beck and call of a mother who deemed her a failure because she was over thirty and not yet married. His brief glimpse into the real world of Abigail Jones had shown him a woman with many admirable qualities.

For they told you life is hard
Misery from the start
It’s dull
It’s slow
It’s painful

But, I’ll tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There’s so much more to be grateful

 

Paul Martin turned around and smiled at her. “I’m sure your mother will be fine, Abigail. Especially after I tell her what a wonderful job you did of looking after Adam.” He knew how difficult Mrs. Jones could be. And he had been mightily impressed with the way Abigail had helped him as he’d sewn up the wound in Adam’s leg. She’d done whatever was asked without flinching or complaining.

It was midday by the time the tired and grubby little party arrived back in town. Judging from the looks they received, news of their exploits had been doing the rounds. Abigail held her head up high as Hoss helped her down off the wagon seat and marched purposefully into her home. For once in her life, she was determined to sample her mother’s “medicinal” brandy. After all, she’d earned it.

“Welcome home, boys!” Ben said, rushing forward to peer anxiously at Adam as he lay in the wagon bed.

“Good to be back, Pa! I hope Joe didn’t scare you too much with his tales?” Adam was pale and looked a little tired, but apart from the bandage around his leg, he looked fine.

“You don’t think I believe everything your brother says, do you? Honestly Adam, I thought you had more sense than that!” Ben reached forward and helped Adam out of the wagon, and once he was standing, clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s good to have you back, son.”

“And how is Joseph?” Paul asked. “Not been giving you too much trouble, I hope?”

Ben grimaced. “He did give me a good deal of a scare last night when he ran a high fever, but it broke around dawn. He’s been sleeping ever since.”

“Best medicine he could have,” Paul said calmly, and walked briskly into his consulting rooms to see the patient for himself.

“Joe give you a hard night, Pa?” asked Adam, noting the dark circles under his father’s eyes.

Ben gave him a steady gaze. “I had more than a few things on my mind last night,” he allowed.

“Aw shucks, Pa, this ain’t the first time Shortshanks had kept you up all night and I’m betting and it won’t be the last!” Hoss started to follow Paul. “I’ll just look in on him, then I’m gonna get me some breakfast.” They all knew that he would not leave Joe’s side until he was sure his brother was alright, despite the brave words.

Life is full of small incidents that can pass almost unnoticed, so that each day merely seems an echo of the next, until something happens that suddenly provides a fresh focus. It is never too late to stretch out a hand to someone in need or to offer assistance, even when no help is asked for.

“If only I could have done something more to stop the team,” Adam said later that evening, sitting by the fire with his leg propped up on an ottoman.

“If only I could have reached you just a little sooner,” Joe added fretfully. Ben had tried in vain to get him to stay in bed and had given in with remarkably good grace. There was something very comforting about having all three of his sons in the one room, even if the youngest was lying down and covered by a quilt.

Ben looked from one son to the other. “Look at it another way,” he urged. “If you hadn’t both been there and acted together, then maybe Abigail would have died? Maybe Adam would have been killed too. Did you ever think of that?”

“We were really lucky,” Joe said. “Someone was watching over us and no mistake.”

Leaning forward in his chair, Adam clasped his hands together and rested his chin upon them. “I will always feel that I failed Jane Hamilton,” he confessed. “No matter what. I know that I did my best and so did Joe, but ultimately, I was the one driving the wagon. And I have to live with that.”

“I was the one who bought the horses that bolted,” Hoss said. “Does that mean I’m responsible too? You can’t take everything n your shoulders, Adam. You continue riding yourself so hard, then you ain’t gonna be no good to anyone. Sometimes things just happen and you can’t do anything about it. Remember that rhyme you used to say when we was little – for the want of a nail, the shoe was lost…”

Adam smiled as he recalled how everything could be traced back to that one horseshoe nail. “We’ll never know if things could have turned out differently, I guess. But a part of me will always wonder.”

“The pair of you saved Abigail Jones’ life out there,” Ben said. “And I’m very proud of you both. Just as I’ve always been proud of each of my boys. But the way you and Joe worked together, that makes me know that, whatever else I’ve done in this life, I’ve brought up some fine young men. And I wouldn’t change a single thing about any of you. Not one single thing.”

The brothers looked at one another and, for the first time since the accident, they relaxed a little.

So, who will you believe?
Who will you listen to?
Who will it be?
Because it’s high time that you decide
It’s time to make up your own
your own state of mind

 

Hoss stretched and let out a mighty yawn. “It’s been a long day. And I guess I’ll be pulling triple duty on the chores for a while. I’m just gonna have a little snack then get off to bed.”

Ben patted him on the shoulder in a consoling fashion. “I’m proud of you, Hoss!” It was good to know that each of his sons would willingly shoulder responsibility, would pick of the slack without being asked, would simply do what needed to be done. Three very different individuals, they were also a seamless unit, each gaining strength and insight from the others.

Later on that evening, Ben did the familiar rounds of the house, just as he did every single night, checking the doors were all locked and the fires were banked down safely for the night. After that, he moved upstairs and looked in on each of his sons as they lay sleeping in their beds. Although they were grown men, they were still his boys and he would never stop worrying about then.

“Someone was looking out for you, Adam,” he whispered into the darkness. “And I’m very grateful for that. And I know you will never stop trying to help others, no matter what. I’ve always known that. You are a fine man, my son.” He closed the bedroom door softly and moved on.

A steady rumble of snoring emanated from Hoss’ room, and as Ben peeked in, he could see a large piece of pie sitting on the bedside table. Hoss was a great believer in staving off any possible hunger pangs. He was still smiling as he shut the door, knowing that by the time Hoss came downstairs in the morning, the pie would be long gone.

The curtains were not drawn in Joe’s room and a thin sliver of moonlight cast a silver shadow on the floor. As usual the bedclothes were in a tangle and Ben moved silently forward to pull them up over the sleeping figure. He caught sight of the sling and once again felt such a profound sense of relief that it almost took his breath away. Things could have been so very different, after all. But everything was alright. His sons were all home and they were alright.

“You did well, Joe,” Ben said in an undertone. “You saved your brother’s life. Thank you.”

For a moment, Ben stood at the side of the bed and watched as the moonlight played across Joe’s smooth cheek. He stood there, watching Joe sleep and wishing he was able to stop him from being hurt. Joe would always be his youngest son and a father’s protective instincts were never far from the surface. With Adam and Hoss, he had had to let go, just a little – but he had never quite managed to do that with Joe. “Just be careful, son. You’ve only got one guardian angel and he’s been pulling awful long shifts recently.” Still asleep, Joe gave a small grunt and settled himself more comfortably.

By now, the house was growing chilly and Ben felt bone-weary. It had been a long, emotionally draining few days and now was time he was in his own bed, he realized. After turning down the covers, he knelt down at the side of the bed and bowed his head, offering up a heartfelt a prayer.

“There sure was someone looking after my boys. Thank you for that. Thank you for bringing them home to me, safe and sound. Thank you.”

Mere words could never express his gratitude. He had such a lot to be thankful for.

And with that thought, Ben Cartwright reached across and turned down the lamp, plunging the room into a soft darkness that encompassed him like a blanket. He turned over onto his side and settled gracefully into a well-deserved sleep. Life could be very hard, but it could also be very sweet.

Oh, they told you that life is long
Be thankful when it’s done
Don’t ask for more
be grateful

But, I’ll tell you life is short
Be thankful
Because before you know
It will be over
‘Cause life is sweet
Life is, oh, so very short…
And life is sweet.

***End***

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