Tempt Not the Stars (by Claire)

Summary:    “Tempt not the stars, young man. Thou canst not play with the severity of fate.”  — John Ford
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,012


 

“Joseph!”

The deep, unmistakable tones of Ben Cartwright reverberated throughout the house, easily traveling up the staircase and permeating though the stout wooden door of his youngest son’s bedroom. Lying sprawled across his bed in unorthodox fashion, with his feet hanging uncomfortably over the edge, Joe gave a reflexive twitch and managed to summon up just enough energy to crank open an eyelid. The light pouring through a crack in the curtains told its own story.

“Joseph!”

This time, Joe was conscious enough not only to hear his father’s voice but also to recognize the irate tone. Only Ben Cartwright could invest such dread meaning into a mere two syllables. Suppressing a groan, Joe managed to pull himself up into a sitting position and then, with considerable effort, he walked slowly towards the door.

Hearing the sound of footsteps, Ben suppressed a knowing smile and reapplied himself to his breakfast. After all, he had successfully navigated the choppy days of young manhood with his two elder sons, not to mention the various storms, gales and doldrums they presented him with. He had even survived the childhood and adolescence of his youngest son, which was in itself no mean feat. These past achievements had led Ben to honestly believe that there were few surprises left for him to encounter as a parent. Perhaps it was the early hour of the morning, or the fact that Ben had an uncomfortable stomach-ache that caused him to think so complacently and yet so totally erroneously. While both Adam and Hoss had presented him with their fair share of challenges, neither had the same exuberant, exhilarant approach to life as their younger brother. There were times when even the most charitable person could only describe actually living with Joe as a challenge.

Running a hand through his tousled curls and plastering a suitably apologetic smile across his face, Joe was not quite prepared for the sensation his rather belated appearance at breakfast would produce. The murmur of early-morning conversation ceased completely as he descended the bottom flight of stairs and Hoss actually stopped chewing a succulent piece of Virginia ham, his jaw hanging slack as he surveyed his brother. A gleeful smile, containing more than a hint of amused recognition crept across Adam’s dark features as he stirred his coffee with considerably more vigor than required. And Ben? For once Ben Cartwright was lost for words and could only shake his head in mute resignation.

Finally, after a silence that seemed almost interminable, Adam cleared his throat. “From the evidence presented before us, I would say a good time was had by all, eh little brother?”

Bemused, Joe regarded him blankly. “Yeah, I had a good time,” he agreed, rooted to the spot at the foot of the stairs. His mind raced wildly, wondering what on earth was going on. After all, it was not entirely unusual for him to be slightly delayed for breakfast. But why on earth was his family acting so strangely this morning?

“Forget something, son?” Ben asked. Joe thought his father’s tone of voice was pleasant enough, but then he conveniently managed to ignore the barbed edge to the query. Just as he opened his mouth to respond, a chorus of hearty laughter from his brothers effectively drowned any words out.

Ben beckoned imperiously, a certain familiar and reproving cast settling across his features and Joe walked slowly towards the table, dread informing every step. “In this house, young man, we have certain standards,” Ben stated, his voicing rising slightly. “Not least of which is appearing punctually at meal times and…” He paused dramatically, ratcheting up the volume to impressive levels, “Dressing presentably!”

It was at this point that Joe suddenly realized he had merely pulled his boots out from underneath his bed and had not actually stopped to put them on before coming downstairs. He flinched slightly as the offending objects fell from his nerveless fingers to land on the floor with a loud thud and only just managed to suppress a groan when his tan-colored shirt followed them, floating downwards to drape itself gently over the boots in an artistic manner. Tired as he was, even Joe realized that arriving at the breakfast table bare-chested and bare-footed was not the best start to the day. He started gabbling wildly, in a desperate attempt to get back into his father’s good graces.

“Sorry, Pa. I didn’t want to keep you all waiting and …

“Quite like old times, isn’t it?” Adam interrupted smoothly, watching as Joe buttoned his shirt and sat down, slinging one foot onto the opposite to pull on his socks. “Being treated to the sight of Joe’s toes at the breakfast table, I mean. Reminds me of when he was a baby, sitting over there in his high chair and burbling merrily away.” Safe in the superiority of being both fully dressed and on time, Adam flashed his sibling a brilliant smile, earning a sour look in response. With great presence of mind and exercising huge amounts of restraint, Joe managed to refrain from wiggling his bare toes in Adam’s face.

“What time did you get home last night?” Ben demanded, as Joe stamped his feet into his boots and then gratefully gulped down a mouthful of coffee.

“Not late, Pa,” Joe assured him, with a seraphic smile. “Adam hadn’t gone to bed yet.”

The expression on Adam’s face changed quickly. “Don’t lie, Joe,” he advised curtly. “That’s no way to get out of trouble.”

“Oh, I’m not lying,” Joe assured him earnestly. “You were snoring away by the fireside, sound asleep, so I was real quiet and careful not to wake you. I know how tired you can get after a hard day’s work, older brother.”

Hoss put his head down and devoted his full attention to his meal, anxious to keep out of the brewing argument. Adam just could not seem to help taunting Joe about his youth, while lately Joe had taken every possible opportunity to remind Adam that age had certain penalties, as well as privileges. Well and truly caught in the middle, Hoss wanted no part of their petty bickering.

“Where were you anyway?” Ben asked, trying to steer the conversation into calmer waters. He could already feel a slight twinge of indigestion.

“At the Silver Dollar,” Joe answered, helping himself to scrambled eggs. “Had a couple of beers and played cards with the guys. You know.”

“Oh, we know,” Adam said, unable to resist the challenge he felt was evident in Joe’s voice. “I don’t suppose you happened to talk to any of those pretty little saloon girls, did you?”

Joe chewed carefully and swallowed before answering. “Do you know, I did chat to one of them! And she sure was pretty, just like you say. In fact, she gave me a message for you, Adam. Said you left a bandana up in her room last week and she was wondering when you’d be over to pick it up! She sounded real keen to see you again.”

Ducking his head down and glancing up from underneath his eyelashes, Joe could see a dull, angry color suffuse his brother’s face, while simultaneously his father’s brows drew together in foreboding disapproval. His barbs had hit home with a vengeance! Deciding this was the point at which discretion definitely became the better part of valor, Joe applied himself heroically to the remainder of his breakfast, contented that this was one battle of wits in which he had definitely emerged the victor.

Ben sat up a little straighter in his chair, hoping that this would help to ease the discomfort under his ribs. He took a sip of coffee and just managed to stifle an exclamation as his stomach protested. “I’m taking the noon stage to Sacramento,” he announced and derived a small amount of pleasure at the surprised looks that greeted this statement. As he thought, the squabble between oldest and youngest sons was abruptly halted in its tracks.

“Business, Pa?” Adam asked, wondering why this was the first mention his father had made of the trip. Such journeys were normally planned out well in advance.

“Just some matters that need my personal attention. Some dividends have matured and I’m considering re-investing them in a delivery company that could prove very useful for our timber operations here, allowing us to expand into new markets. I’m meeting some of the stockholders and managers of the company next week to discuss the matter further and then I’ll make a decision.”

Adam nodded, instantly appreciating the new business opportunities this could bring. “Perhaps I could join you?” he offered, trying to appear diffident.

All other things being equal, Ben would normally have invited Adam to accompany him as a matter of course. After all, Adam supervised the timber workings and plantation operations on the Ponderosa, in addition to being the proud owner of a fine business brain that was an asset to any negotiation. But there was another reason for Ben’s visit to the California State Capitol, one that he was not about to share with any of his sons. For some weeks, Ben had been bothered with persistent stomach pains, which were not getting any better. The local doctor, Paul Martin, had been unable to alleviate the symptoms and had therefore arranged for Ben to meet with a specialist for a consultation. Secretly dreading the worst, Ben was determined not to worry any of his sons unduly and would therefore make the trip alone. If there were bad news to break, he would do it here, in the surroundings that he loved, with the people he loved most near him, not in some cold, impersonal city hospital.

Joe touched his arm gently, jerking him back to the present. “Want me to come along, Pa?” he asked softly, sensing there was something wrong. Smiling tenderly, Ben took hold of his smooth, young hand for just a second. That touch was enough to make Ben realize that he could not bear this, the physical contact coming perilously close to dissolving his self-control. He could not do this – he would not do this to his boys! He shook his head, patted Joe’s hand briefly and stood up.

“And what exactly do you know about timber operations, freight delivery or stock options?” Adam enquired, inadvertently stepping into the breach.

Joe shrugged his shoulders impatiently. “I could learn.” He gave Adam an impudent grin. “Same way you did. After all, it can’t be that difficult, can it?”

Taking a deep breath, Adam clamped his hand down firmly on top of Joe’s head, pressing him into his seat. “Any time you want to learn more, just say the word and I’ll be delighted to teach you,” he said with grim delight, as he envisaged introducing Joe to the delights of limited stock options and bearer bonds and all other manner of fiscal delights.

“You’ll be the first to know,” Joe said fervently, squirming away. Adam laughed and then grabbed his custard-colored coat as the three brothers clattered outside to complete their chores before accompanying their father to Virginia City.

A smile crept over Ben’s face as he went upstairs to begin packing. He’d brought his boys up well – they were strong, independent young men and while they might have their differences, they also had a deep and abiding love for one another. That would see them through, if…. Sitting down on the edge of his bed, Ben paused for a moment. Was it enough? Had he done all that he should, all that he could to prepare his boys? He sighed softly. He’d done his best: that would have to suffice. A line from a poem sprang into his mind, “Tempt not the stars, young man. Thou canst not play with the severity of fate.”

Elizabeth had loved “The Broken Heart,” by John Ford and adored it when Ben would read the play aloud to her. How strange that particular line should spring into his head now, after all these years! There was very little on the Ponderosa to cause a resonance of Elizabeth, other than her the heritage of her son. Elizabeth belonged to another time, far away and long ago, when they were both young and innocent, Ben thought wistfully. And now he was white haired and middle-aged and weary, while Elizabeth was forever youthful, forever young and smiling. He realized that it was increasingly difficult to recall more than the most fleeting details of her memory, almost impossible to recollect the nuances of her voice. She belonged to another time and another place. What would Elizabeth have thought of this life and the man her son had become?

“I did my best, my love,” he whispered, picking up her portrait and tracing the line of her chin with a gentle finger. “And he’s grown to become a fine man. You would be so very proud of him – I know I am.”

Ben picked up the other two portraits on his dresser and carefully wrapped them within the folds of his clothing, protected from any buffeting the journey might produce, tucking them into the interior of his carpet bag for added protection. Looking out of the window, he could see his sons in the yard below, readying the horses for the ride into town. The house was quiet and empty and the silence seemed to mould around his body like a soft, velvet cloak of acceptance. As he locked the door behind him, Ben felt a strange sense of foreboding. Was this the end to another chapter of his life? For a moment, he hesitated, then smiled with resignation as he looked out at all that he had achieved, laid out before him– this house, the whole of the Ponderosa, and most of all, his sons. It was a fine legacy. No man could ask for any more. Squaring his shoulders, Ben walked steadily across to the hitching rail, where he gave Buck a pat on the neck and then swung up into the saddle.

“Let’s ride!” he called and wondered if it were just his imagination or if his words were imbued with a hopeless sense of finality and resignation. But no one else seemed to notice. Ben could not quite decide if that were a comfort or another source of misery.

Joe and Hoss rode along the road together, leaning their heads in towards one another. From the snatches of conversation that flew back, Ben surmised that Hoss was experiencing some slight difficulties with his girlfriend, Bessie Sue and that Joe was offering advice in his own inimitable style.

“Blue hair-ribbons!” Joe said confidently. “You simply can’t go wrong. I’ve never met a girl who wouldn’t like a nice gift like that. Not too personal, or even too expensive, but it shows you’ve put some thought into the present. Girls like that, you know. And you can tell Bessie Sue you chose them especially to match her be-yooo-tiful blue eyes!” His voice rose in a high falsetto and he batted his eyelashes in a becoming manner, before dissolving into wild cackles of laughter.

Hoss guffawed appreciatively and reached out a meaty hand to clap Joe affectionately across the shoulders. Even from a distance, Ben could see Joe lurch forward in the saddle at the unexpected impact.

“I guess Bessie Sue is determined to lead Hoss on a merry dance,” he remarked to Adam. “She’s quite a girl!”

“You know Hoss – he likes a girl who knows her mind!” Adam joked. “They seem a good match though – Bessie can be a bit flighty, but Hoss brings her back down to earth. I don’t think Hoss needs to worry about anything though – I mean, have you seen the way she looks at him?”

Ben chuckled. “I surely have! Like he’s good enough to eat!” How glad he was that Hoss, in many ways the quietest and most reserved of his sons, had found someone like Bessie Sue. A kind-hearted, fun-loving girl, she had set her cap at Hoss, recognizing and appreciating his many fine qualities. “And somehow I don’t think it has escaped Hoss’ notice that he’s got himself the best pie-maker in the whole of Virginia City!”

The peals and whoops of laughter caused Joe and Hoss to turn in their saddles and regard them quizzically.

“Ain’t no accountin’ for some folks,” Hoss said sagely as they jogged sedately into town. Joe shrugged, having long ago decided that there was no sense in dwelling upon the unfathomable strangeness of people. It was best just to accept folks for what and who they were.

The stage was waiting when they rode into Virginia City and so their farewells were foreshortened. Ben gave each of his sons a hug, gazing deeply into first into mid-brown eyes, then into clear, guileless blue and finally into sparkling green, before forcing himself up the steps and into his seat. As the stage pulled away, he could hear Joe cry out “Have a safe trip, Pa, and come back soon!” and he leant out of the window, hungry for one last, precious glimpse of his boys.

Joe was standing between his brothers, their larger, stockier builds emphasizing his slenderness and youth. He was literally bouncing up and down, waving his hat wildly in the air. While Adam tried vainly to restrain Joe’s antics, Hoss just threw his head back and laughed. Ben pulled off his own hat and waved it in response, calling out “Goodbye!”, before slumping back into his seat and whispering “God be with you all,” so softly that it scarcely amounted to the breath of a whisper.

*****

It was some time before his eyes cleared enough to see the passing scenery clearly. How many journeys had he made in his life? Too many to be able to recall more than incidental details of most of them. For a long time, Ben had searched fruitlessly for some meaning and purpose in life, always traveling on in the hope that it would appear over the next mountain, or in the next valley or the next town. But after a while, he had given up hope and just kept on traveling because he really didn’t know what else to do. Some people thought that his lifestyle was unfair to Adam, who was only a small child, but in truth Adam had no concept of a life in one place and placidly accepted the constant onward journey as normality.

Inger had changed that. But then Inger changed everything. Ben smiled as he thought of how surprised his dear, kind, unassuming Inger would be to know that. Her strength and her faith in him knew no bounds and at last Ben was able to see that every journey should have a purpose and a final destination. And so they had traveled on together, united in a new purpose.

That resolve had nearly perished along with Inger in an Indian attack near Ash Hollow, Nebraska. She had never completed the Oregon Trail, but lay buried in an unmarked grave that was tended by no one. But her spirit had stayed with her small family, not least in the presence of her most precious gift, Hoss. These had been dark days indeed, but even in his bleakest moments of despair, Ben knew that he owed it to Inger to continue onwards and strive to create a home for his two sons.

“Do you look down at your son, dear Inger?” Ben wondered. “Do you see the love and tolerance that is your heritage? Or his strong, steadfast heart? Do you gasp, along with me, at his infinite capacity for love?”

That particular journey along the Oregon Trail had finally ended for Ben and his sons in Nevada, at what had grown into the mighty, prosperous Ponderosa. How ironic it was, Ben thought, that this latest journey was taking him away from everything that he held precious. He recalled all the nights on board ship when he would gaze upward at the North Star and wonder at its permanency and stability. For so many years, the Ponderosa had been his personal Pole Star, the fixed point in his life. To leave it now seemed tantamount to a betrayal.

The middle-aged woman sitting opposite him saw the troubled expression on the handsome, silver-haired man’s face. She leant slightly forward towards him and Ben stirred as her pleasant features came into his line of sight.

“Sometimes, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive,” she confided. The well-worn words were given a new meaning by the heartfelt tones and her obvious sincerity and Ben noticed that she was knotting her fingers together anxiously. Sensing that at least one of his fellow passengers had troubles of her own, and anxious to push his own disturbing thoughts to the back of his mind, Ben gave her an understanding smile that invited her to continue. Soon, the lady was sharing her worries about her daughter, who was expecting her first baby in two weeks time. This topic of conversation quickly involved the other inhabitants of the cramped coach and the ensuing assurances, recollections and well-meaning pieces of advice kept them all occupied until they finally reached Sacramento.

*****

By mutual, if unspoken agreement, the three Cartwright brothers headed straight for home, forgoing their normal routine of a refreshing beer at a convivial saloon. Somehow, it did not seem right to be celebrating.

Joe set a steady pace for home. “I’d like to have that string of horses broken for the Army ahead of time and then get a head start on assessing new breeding stock before Pa comes home,” he declared. “Best way I can think of to say ‘Welcome Home’ that I can think of.”

Adam looked concerned. “That’s an awful lot of work, Joe. You know that Hoss is committed to moving the south herd up to the fresh pastures and I’ll be overseeing the timber-cutting most of the time. We’ve got a big contract for mine props to fill and…”

“Yeah, but we need to get all those jobs done,” Hoss interjected, worry coloring his words. “You and I are spoken for, Adam, but maybe we could get an extension from the Army, you think? A couple of weeks would give us some breathing space.”

“Don’t you reckon I can do it?” Joe asked in a small voice. He thought this would be the ideal opportunity to demonstrate that he was a valuable part of life on the Ponderosa, but right from the start his brothers were sapping his confidence. Joe wondered if there would ever come a time when he would be regarded as an equal, able to pull his weight, someone whose views were listened to and respected. It was beginning to depress him, although he steadfastly refused to voice his concerns. That was the fate of being the youngest, he thought. People just refused to let you grow up.

“It’s not that,” Hoss said quickly. “We all know you’re the best rider on the Ponderosa and you can get the orneriest horse to behave like a lady’s saddle horse for you. Aint no one can gentle a horse like you. Why, even Sport stops his skittering about when you ride him!”

Adam gave a huffy snort of disbelief, but there was a broad smile on his face. It quickly disappeared when Sport promptly started to dance nervously and threw his head around. After a brief battle of wills, Adam brought the horse under control. “We all know horse-breaking is bone-jarring work that saps the strength out of a man, Joe. Won’t you allow us the luxury of being concerned about you?”

Joe nodded reluctantly, wondering what necessary but undoubtedly safe and boring task he would be assigned. It appeared that he was doomed to forever remain the baby of the family, protected, yet not respected. Adam’s next words came as a complete surprise.

“But, having said that, you’re right. So, go ahead with your plan – but for heaven’s sake, don’t be so stubborn headed that you won’t ask for help if you need it!”

“I’ll be fine,” Joe said, with all the boundless confidence and optimism of youth. His face was wreathed with smiles as he urged Cochise into a canter and spurted homewards.

“Kid rides like an angel, don’t he?” Hoss said admiringly.

In his mind’s eye, Adam could see the glee and hint of devilment that frequently resided in Joe’s eyes. “A fallen angel!” he qualified and kicked Sport into reluctant pursuit, wondering if he would ever be able to shake the deep-seated sense of responsibility he felt towards Joe.

Hoss drew up alongside him. “Good thing he’s got you an’ me as guardian angels looking’ out for him then!” he called out cheerfully.

Favoring him with a nod, Adam personally doubted if the entire heavenly host could keep Joe out of trouble. “I hope this is a short trip, Pa,” he thought, keeping the reins tight “Or you’ll come home to discover I’ve aged ten years!”

*****

Joe made a determined effort to rise as early as possible each morning, so that he could complete his routine chores before breakfast, thus giving him a clear, uninterrupted space to work with the green horses until he took a brief break for lunch. Barn chores were fine and even chopping enough wood to keep the demanding Hop Sing satisfied was something that Joe could endure, but he particularly abhorred his daily task of collecting eggs from the chicken coop. He had never quite been able to get over his dislike and fear of the birds, imagining a certain malevolence in every beady glare. Having been the recipient of several painful pecks, Joe knew from personal experience just how sharp their beaks were and he also had a healthy respect of their claws. He tended to advance towards the chickens, brandishing the egg basket in front of him like a shield, using it to shoo the birds out of his way.

Coming out of the barn, Adam stopped to enjoy the daily spectacle of Joe’s battle with the chickens. He grinned as he saw one bird sneak around behind his brother and leant against the wall to fully enjoy the inevitable outcome. Sure enough, as Joe bent over to retrieve an egg the chicken lunged forward, landing a firm peck on Joe’s butt. Shooting upwards, Joe let out an outraged squawk of pain, simultaneously dropping the basket, scattering the eggs and clutching his bruised backside. Adam tried very hard to repress his emotions, but every man has his limits. After a valiant but ultimately fruitless struggle, he was finally forced to let his laughter erupt.

Escaping from the coop, Joe glared vehemently at him. “I suppose you think that was funny?” he demanded, rubbing his butt and wondering just how much damage a chicken could inflict. Was it possible that the bird had actually pecked out a chunk of his butt? Joe gave an anguished little hop at this thought, which only increased Adam’s whoops of glee. Finally, Joe realized he had one weapon at his disposal. “I might not be able to sit on a horse today,” he warned darkly. “Maybe you should take over breaking those horses for me?”

Abruptly brought back to his senses, Adam sobered up rapidly. There was no way he could face even a few hours on those broncs. That was a young man’s game. “Joe, I’m sorry,” he wheezed. “Want me to check it out for you?”

“I don’t think so,” Joe said, with as much dignity as he could muster. He started to walk back to the house, limping slightly with each step in an attempt to garner some sympathy.

“It could have been worse,” Adam advised wickedly. “After all, that devil chicken could have pecked you right on the…”

Whirling around, Joe just managed not to whimper out loud. “Don’t you dare say that!” he demanded. “In fact, don’t even think about it! I forbid you! I absolutely forbid you!” Gathering the tattered shreds of his dignity, Joe walked away as fast as he could, but with a decided list to one side and with one hand held protectively over his butt. Adam leaned back against the barn wall and crowed with laughter until he could scarcely breathe.

When they looked back on things, this was the one light-hearted interlude the brothers could remember from that time. For the main part, their days consisted of early starts and late finishes, packed in-between with hard work. In the evenings, they would meet at dinner and make desultory attempts at conversation.

“Sure do miss Pa around here,” Hoss remarked that evening. “Seems like nothing is quite right.”

Joe, who was sitting perched on his undamaged buttock, nodded apathetically, pushing his food around the plate without any real attempt at eating.

Adam felt a little guilty, for his job mainly consisted of supervisory duties and did not involve the physically exhausting work that his brother’s jobs did. Their tiredness was evident to see – Hoss was struggling to stay awake for long enough to finish his portion of beef stew, far less demolish a second or even third helping, while Joe had dark circles under his eyes and had a fine-drawn air about him. Their fatigue seemed to permeate the air.

“I could do your chores tomorrow morning,” he offered. “Let you both have an extra half hour in bed.”

Joe shook his head. “No way. That’s not fair on you. We’re in this together. Like that book you love so much says: One for all and all for one.”

There were times when Adam regretted introducing his brother to the delights of literature and this was definitely one of them. He watched silently as Joe slowly rose to his feet, refusing a cup of coffee.

“Think I’ll turn in early. I reckon one more day should do it and see the last of those horses broken for the Army. And then I’m going to have the longest, hottest bath and hit Virginia City with a vengeance!”

Hop Sing touched him gently on the arm. “Plenty hot water,” he advised. “You soak now and sleep good,” he urged, his concern palpable.

Joe heard the worried note in his voice. “I’d love to, Hop Sing but the truth is I’m so tired and so sore right now that I doubt I’d be able to get out the tub,” he confessed, longing for the warmth and comfort of the water on his bruised and aching body.

“Don’t you worry about that none,” Hoss advised. “Iffen you should get stuck, I’ll get you out no problem. You’re still just a skinny little thing, after all!”

Pushed into a corner, Joe agreed. As he stripped off his clothes in the wash-room, he wondered how he would have reacted if Adam had made the same offer, even used the same words. “I probably would have bitten his head off!” he concluded, stepping gingerly into the steaming water. “Wonder why we seem to rub each other up the wrong way, no matter what?” He surveyed the myriad of purple bruises on his concave stomach with a detached air, eased his aching shoulders under the warm water and closed his eyes with a soft grunt of satisfaction. Some things were just too complicated to ponder over right now, Joe decided, and surrendered himself to the soothing heat.

Back in the living room of the Ponderosa, Adam was engaged in a remarkably similar conversation with Hoss.

“Don’t take it too personal,” Hoss advised. “Seems to me that you and Joe are two sides of the same coin – similar, part of the same whole, yet each of you striving to prove you are different. Let go of that and maybe you can appreciate the man he is, not the boy you still see him as.”

“I wish I could,” Adam said miserably. “But no matter how competent Joe is, or how old he is, he’ll always be my baby brother. I’ve got to look out for him.”

Hoss regarded him quizzically. “I don’t see you having that problem with me,” he remarked. “You let me stand on my own feet years ago. I ain’t smart like you an’ Joe, we all know that, but I can look after myself. And so can Joe, if you let him. That doesn’t mean you stop caring about him or trying to help him but you’ve gotta let him be his own man, on his own terms, not yours.”

Seeing that Adam still looked dubious, Hoss continued. “’Member when he was just a baby an’ learnin’ to walk? All those times he fell over and thumped onto his butt and then sat there and howled?” Adam nodded, grinning despite himself at the memories. “But Mama didn’t stop him or hold him back, did she? Nope, she let him go on until he got the hang of it.”

“And a few days later, he went trotting across the floor at high speed, tripped over and cracked his head open on the coffee table! There was blood everywhere and he cried loud enough to bring Pa rushing over from the barn,” Adam reminisced. The memory was so fresh in his mind, as if it had only happened a few days beforehand, not years ago.

“My point exactly. Sometimes, you’ve gotta stand back and let Joe go off on his own, even if your urge is to hold on and protect him. Tricky thing is, you’ve also gotta be there when he needs you. Just like Pa is for us, even now.”

A wry smile crossed Adam’s face. “It was Marie, as I remember that particular incident. And somehow, I don’t think Joe would appreciate being plonked on my knee for a consoling kiss and a cuddle!” .He bent down and studied the table carefully. “I’m sure there’s still a dent in there somewhere,” he remarked absently, before straightening up and looking at his brother as if really seeing him for the first time. “Thanks for the advice, Hoss. You’ve helped me see things in a new way.”

Hoss shrugged nonchalantly, but was unable to hide his evident pride and satisfaction at the praise. He looked over at the grandfather clock. “You gonna see if Joe’s stuck in that tub? He’s been in there for ages.”

“I’ll be sure to holler if I need your help,” Adam assured him and left the room with a decided bounce in his step.

A few wisps of steam escaped from under the washroom door as Adam knocked briefly and then entered.

“I thought you might need this,” he said, holding out Joe’s nightshirt. From the depths of the tub, Joe blinked blearily up at him, his hair hanging in limp tendrils around his face and looking impossibly young.

“Thanks,” he murmured sleepily and started to get out of the water, when he suddenly stumbled and would have fallen if Adam had not grabbed him under the elbow and steadied him.

“You okay, Joe?” The concern was clear in Adam’s voice and echoed by the worried expression on his face.

“Just a bit dizzy. Must have got up too quickly,” Joe said, allowing himself to be guided over to a chair. He felt so very tired and too weary to do any thing else. He didn’t protest when Adam draped a towel around him, or even when he roughly dried his hair and he submitted to being bundled into his nightshirt and shepherded upstairs and into bed without a murmur.

“Night, Joe, sleep tight” Adam said softly, standing at the doorway and watching as Joe snuggled into his pillows with evident contentment.

“Night, Pa,” Joe replied automatically, almost asleep already. Adam felt a strong flood of love, pride and fear wash over him as he remained standing in the doorway, fondly watching his brother rest. It was several minutes before he could bring himself to turn around and shut the door behind him, leaving Joe alone.

*****

Ben took a deep breath and began to walk to the doctor’s consulting rooms. The streets of Sacramento were so full of memories for him, memories that revolved incessantly around Marie and her excitement when they arrived here on honeymoon, nearing their long journey’s end. Everywhere they had gone, men would stop and watch her and then give Ben looks of open admiration at her beauty. Marie, typically, had been impervious to this attention and had chattered on vivaciously, planning the presents she wished to buy for the two new sons that awaited her in Nevada.

“You are always with me, my love,” Ben thought. Whether it was here or back at the Ponderosa, where each room bore faint but recognizable traces of her taste and personality, Marie was still a constant companion in his life. Never more so than each time he looked at his youngest son, who resembled his beautiful mother in so many ways, not only in looks, but in personality.

“Headstrong, impetuous, determined…” he muttered under his breath. And then Ben stopped for a moment, threw his head back and laughed out loud, undisturbed by the looks passers-by gave him. Exactly who was he describing? Marie? Joseph? Or himself?

Ben continued his journey to the doctor’s. How he wished that Joe was beside him right now. Joe had an innate sensibility for other people and a portion of his youthful concern and understanding would have been a great comfort to the anxious man right now. Still, were some parts of every journey which much be undertaken alone, he reasoned and then realized that he had reached his destination. A brass nameplate boldly declared that he had arrived at the premises of Doctor G T Hughes. A string of letters appeared after the great man’s name, but these meant little to the nervous man who paced restlessly up and down the sidewalk.

A feeling of panic threatened to overwhelm Ben and for a second, he experienced the same terror as when first instructed to climb up the mast of a schooner and untangle a line that was caught in the rigging. The task seemed so perilous and the outcome so terrifying that both the man he had become and the boy he once was balked at the prospect. But there was no other option, so Ben mounted the steps with a sure and steadfast tread that ably disguised his trepidation.

“Mmm,” the doctor said, studying first his notes and then his patient with interest. “You’ve had these pains for over two months now?”

Ben nodded. “Almost three months, I’d say.”

“Quite. And the pain is worse after meals?”

“Yes. And then it subsides to a dull ache.”

Doctor Hughes leant back in his chair and allowed himself a small smile. “Mr. Cartwright, you have a severe inflammation of the lining of your stomach, but we’ve identified it before any major or lasting damage has been done. There is no sign of any internal bleeding or of any timorous growths.” There was an audible sigh of relief from the man sitting opposite and a noticeable change in his demeanor. “I’ll give instructions for a medicine to be made up for you and then we’ll discuss some minor changes in diet – just plain, simple, wholesome fare and plenty of milk, a few weeks of rest – but for the main part, I can offer you a complete return to health.”

Ben could not belief his ears, so great was his jubilation. Belatedly, he realized the doctor was still speaking.

“There is one final, most essential part of my prescription.” He paused and scrutinized Ben carefully. “I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble keeping to this part of the regime though.” Ben nodded once more. He would do anything this man asked, if it meant he could go home and resume his old life. Doctor Hughes favored him with a broad smile. “I’m instructing you to have a large glass of port each evening, before retiring!” He struggled not to laugh as a broad smile spread across his patient’s face. “It will help you to relax and should ensure a good night’s rest. I trust you will have no difficulty in taking that particular medicine?”

“None at all,” Ben stated in heartfelt tones, clasping the doctor’s hand between both of his own. “Absolutely none at all!”

Later that day, Ben walked along the street with a jaunty air. Now that both parts of his business were successfully completed, there was no reason why he should not spend a couple of days relaxing in Sacramento. “After all, I’m only following my doctor’s instructions!” he chuckled and set off down a busy thoroughfare where he recalled seeing a wine merchants. There was no time like the present and he was determined to start on his cure as soon as possible. As he sauntered along, something caught his eye in a shop-window – a beautiful pair of boots, in ox-blood leather and with intricate stitching. A picture of Joe, pulling on his old, shabby boots at the breakfast table sprang forward and Ben could simply not resist entering the shop.

“I’m going home!” he thought. “Home to my boys.” Life had never felt sweeter or more full of joy and promise at that moment.

*****

Joe stood by the corral and surveyed the remaining horses carefully. One stood out as a particular challenge: a big, rangy sorrel with a dark mane and tail and a mischievous glint in his eye. “Get him ready,” he told the hands and they moved smoothly into action, with the ease of long practice. The sorrel pawed the ground nervously and Joe realized that this was one horse that actually scared him. It was an unwelcome sensation, and Joe determinedly pushed down his fear before carefully climbing on top of the fence. A quick glance assured him that the men were holding the sorrel firmly in place and then he eased down into the saddle.

The gate flew open and the horse shot out, bucking wildly, frantically struggling to get rid of this creature on its back. Joe hung on grimly, letting his body move with the motions of the animal, which were becoming more and violent and uncontrollable. It seemed like an eternity. The sorrel began to execute a series of hops, bouncing on all four legs, but still Joe clung on. Reaching the point of exhaustion, the horse tried one final attempt to dislodge his rider, wildly bucking his hind legs up in the air.

In a split second, Joe realized that he was going to come off the animal and that this was going to be a bone-crunching fall. As he started to move through the air, he could see the corral fence out of the corner of his eye. “This is going to hurt,” he thought, trying desperately to alter the path of his fall, but it was a fruitless attempt. Joe crashed hard into the fence and his left leg became entangled in the middle railing. There was an awful sound of tearing wood, the brief, sharp cry of a man in agony, followed by the noise of a body connecting squarely with hard-packed earth. And then there was silence, broken only by the ragged breathing of the horse, which stood in a far corner of the corral, its sides heaving.

In the distance, a door banged shut and a large man came tearing across to the corral. He surveyed the scene of a second, before falling to his knees in the dirt.

“Joe?” His voice was very quiet, but clearly audible in the unnatural hush.

“He took a real bad fall, Hoss,” one of the men ventured.

Hoss did not look up. “I kin see that. Joe? You hear me, boy?”

Joe lay silent and unresponding, his leg twisted at such an awful angle that Hoss felt sick just looking at it. He eased his arms under his brother’s broken body and slowly rose to his feet, cradling Joe in his arms. “One of you men get Doc Martin over here real quick,” he said softly and began to walk slowly back to the house, Joe’s head flung back so that the tendons were drawn taut. Hoss could see a faint pulse beating at the base of Joe’s throat, and he seized on this as a sign of hope.

“He’s still unconscious,” Adam informed the doctor. Paul Martin had driven out to the Ponderosa at top speed and his horse was lathered and panting with exertion. Automatically, one of the hands stepped forward to tend to the animal.

Paul Martin did not need to be shown the way to Joe’s room; he had trodden that familiar path many times before. But Adam stayed close to his side, filling him in on all the details.

“His leg got caught between the rails of the fence as he came down. The rail gave way, but as it broke, Joe’s leg seemed to twist. We haven’t dared to try to take his boot off.” Adam stopped and looked straight into Paul’s eyes. “It looks a real mess.”

Nodding his agreement, Paul entered the room. After a brief examination, he began to issue instructions. “First thing, we need to get that boot off. I’ll need the sharpest knife you’ve got and a thin, flexible strip of metal, about two feet long.”

Hoss disappeared and returned clutching the requested implements. The brothers watched in silence as Paul slipped the metal down inside Joe’s boot and then started to slice the leather open, running the blade down the metal to avoid cutting into flesh. Although still unconscious, Joe moaned lowly as the pressure increased.

“Alright, you can ease the boot off – slowly!” Paul instructed. Years of experience had made the doctor an old hand at schooling his face to impassivity, but even he was shocked at the sight that greeted him. Adam went positively green and sat down heavily in the nearest chair.

“Double fracture, bone shattered in several places, complete dislocation of the ankle,” Paul muttered his hands probing at the swollen, pulpy mass that lay before him. “I don’t know how much I can do here.”

“You’ll do whatever has to be done,” Hoss stated.

“You don’t understand,” Paul said wearily. “There’s so much damage, I don’t know if I can save the foot. And even if I can, there’s no telling if Joe will ever be able to use it again.”

Hoss regarded him impassively. “You’ll do whatever has to be done,” he repeated. This time his voice trembled.

“Of course he will,” Adam said wearily. “Paul will do what he can. But he’s telling us that he might not be able to…. that it might not be possible to…” The room was swimming and for once Adam could not seem to find the necessary words. After a moment, he gave up the struggle and placed his head between his knees.

“Joe will be fine,” Hoss vowed. “I ain’t never let any harm come to him and I ain’t about to start now.”

It was a long and complicated procedure, as Paul Martin first reduced the dislocation and then painstakingly began to probe for and then to align the myriad of shattered fragments of bone. Adam sat at the top of the bed, dripping ether onto a mask to ensure that his brother remained unconscious, while Hoss had been dispatched to build a contraption to the doctor’s exact specifications.

“I’ve done as much as I can,” Paul said at length. He straightened cautiously, feeling his back protest at the movement. “But there are so many variables, it’s impossible to say what the outcome will be.”

“Tell me,” Adam demanded, removing the ether mask and gently stroking back Joe’s hair. His brother lay white, still and unresponsive.

“The dislocation is the most serious problem. All the muscles, tendons and ligaments were completely torn. The muscles should grow back together without too much of a problem, but I cannot guarantee that the other structures will. That could leave Joe with a stiff and unresponsive foot, fused in one position and virtually useless. It was some time before the dislocation was reduced and that means there is a significant risk of damage to the nerves and circulation in his foot. And finally, the extent of the soft tissue damage has set off a massive amount of swelling.”

To Adam’s eyes, the limb was now scarcely recognizable as a leg any more, so grotesque was the swelling and bruising, which stretched from mid-calf, right down to Joe’s toes. He walked to the foot of the bed and saw that even the sole of Joe’s foot was black with bruising, the skin drawn taut with the swelling. It made him feel sick just to look at it and the bile rose unmercifully in his throat. With an extreme effort, he choked it down.

Hoss came in, clutching two smooth pieces of board, dovetailed to produce a perfect right-angle. “This what you meant?” he asked breathlessly.

“That’s just perfect,” Paul agreed. “Due to the amount of swelling, I can’t risk putting the leg in plaster at the moment, and we need to keep Joe’s foot in the right position, if the tendons are to have a chance of healing. This will do the job perfectly.”

Hoss helped him to gently swathe Joe’s leg and foot in padding, then ease it onto the boards, where it was lightly held in place with bandages. Finally, several pillows were used to prop it up in an attempt to try to reduce the swelling.

“What do we do now?” Adam asked.

“We wait,” Paul advised. “We watch and we wait. Like I said, I can’t give any guarantees.”

*****

The next few days passed in a blur for Joe, as the pain grew remorselessly and his temperature rose steadily. All thoughts of work forgotten, Adam and Hoss delegated their tasks to others and tended to their brother. Paul had left a small vial of opium, with instructions to give Joe one grain every four hours for the first three days.

“That’ll help him over the worst of the pain,” he advised. “It’s the strongest pain reliever we have. But no more than three days, do you hear? Otherwise you run the risk of making him addicted to it. And that’s one other problem we certainly don’t need.” Satisfied that his warning had sunk in, he turned to go.

“I’ll be back tomorrow morning, boys. That’ll be,” he paused for a moment. The past few days had been so frantic that he had completely lost track of time.

“Sat’day,” Hoss Sing interjected on his way up to Joe’s room with a fresh pile of bed linen.

“That’s when Pa’s due back!” Hoss said. In his brief periods of lucidity, Joe had asked for his father constantly, but Ben had deliberately omitted to leave a forwarding address, so his sons had no way of contacting him. All they could do was to reassure their brother that he was all right and that Pa would be home soon.

“Would you like me to meet him and explain things?” Paul felt this was the least he could do, knowing that neither Adam nor Hoss would want to leave Joe alone for so long a period of time. Sure enough, they seized on his offer ravenously. Gathering up his bag, Paul got wearily in to his buggy and drove slowly back into town, already rehearsing how he could break the news to his old friend. Despite all his years of experience, such chores never got any easier. In some ways, they actually became more difficult, he reflected. Back in medical school, the professors had urged their students against forming personal attachments to their patients, but such advice was impractical for a small town doctor, who had lived and practiced in one place for over twenty years. It was more than impractical, Paul had decided long ago. It was impossible.

*****

“Where’s Pa?” Joe demanded hoarsely. Time had ceased to have any meaning for him; his entire concentration was bent on dealing with the pain that seemed to consume his leg.

“He’ll be here soon,” soothed Adam. “It’s time for your medicine and then you can go to sleep. Pa will be here when you wake up.”

Not really understanding, Joe complied meekly and soon drifted off into a deep, drugged sleep where at last he could escape from the ever present agony, if only for a short time.

In the yard below, Ben leapt out of the buggy and charged into the house. Sitting by the fireside, Hoss shot forward and enveloped his father in a fierce hug. It was a few moments before either man could speak.

“Sure am glad to see you,” Hoss managed, smiling through his tears.

“I’m glad to be home.” Ben gave his son one final hug and then looked towards the stairs. “How is Joseph?”

Hoss looked disconsolate and Ben suddenly realized how tired his son looked. “Not so good, Pa. He’s been asking for you.” It was such a relief to have Pa home, to be able to pass some of the burden and worry over to him, Hoss thought.

“I’ll go right up.” Ben shucked off his overcoat and draped it over the banisters before lightly running upstairs.

Despite Paul’s careful and detailed description, he still was not prepared for the sight that greeted him. Joe lay quietly in bed, pale and drawn, huge black circles under his eyes, his pallor relieved only by the bright fever spots that burned fiercely in his cheeks. His leg was swathed in bandages, but the swelling was clearly visible and the bruised toes looked painful and unnatural.

“Joseph!” he breathed and moved quickly over to the bedside. “Oh, Joseph!”

Adam turned wearily towards him. “”Good to have you back,” he said unsteadily, and clutched his father’s arm tightly for a moment, before turning back to look at his brother. “He’s been so brave, Pa. So very brave. And he’s fought so hard.”

Ben patted him consolingly on the shoulder. “You and Hoss have done everything that you could and I’m very proud of my boys. Of all my boys,” he emphasized.

Paul discreetly moved forward and felt Joe’s forehead. “Still hot, but the fever seems to be going down. Ben, you certainly trained these boys well – I’ve never seen a finer pair of nurses!”

“It’s nice to know I’ve got an alternative profession to go to if I ever give up ranching,” Adam parried, with a hint of his old acerbity, Paul was relieved to see. He checked Joe’s leg briefly and then satisfied that things were as they should be, he and Adam left the room.

For a long time, Ben sat quietly at Joe’s bedside, his eyes never leaving his son’s face. How young Joe looked – how impossibly young. He should have his whole life stretching ahead of him, golden and unsullied, not some half-existence as a halting cripple. “I would gladly trade my health for yours, son. I’d do it in an instant.”

At the sound of his voice, Joe’s eyes flickered open. The opiate had constricted his pupils, so that they appeared impossibly green. “Pa?” he asked wonderingly and Ben leant over the bed drawing his finger gently down the side of Joe’s cheek.

“I’m here son. I’m home now.”

A brief smile appeared on Joe’s face. “I knew you’d come,” he whispered, reaching for his father’s hand and holding onto it tightly as he fought against the drug. There were so many things that he wanted to say, but his mind was becoming foggy and it was difficult to think clearly or even to keep his eyes open.

“Go to sleep now, son, go to sleep,” Ben urged. “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

Joe nodded and his grip on Ben’s hand began to relax. “Thanks, Pa.” His eyes rolled back briefly, so that only the whites were visible and Ben jerked at the eerie sight.

“Don’t worry,” Adam whispered, appearing at his elbow. “That’s just the effect of the opium. He does that quite a lot.” Raising his voice he said, “Close your eyes and go to sleep, Joe,“ receiving a mumble of acquiescence as Joe obediently shut his eyes and let the drug take effect on his battered body once again.

When he awoke an hour later, Ben was still sitting at the side of his bed.

“You’re still here?” Joe asked, trying to work out if this was reality or another of the strange, disconcerting dreams the opium produced.

“I’m right here, just like I said,” Ben responded. “How are you feeling?”

Joe considered this carefully. “I’m a bit hot,” he confessed and then added candidly, “And I need to pee!”

Stifling a chuckle. Ben reached under the bed for the pot and helped his son. He realized how ill Joe was when there were no protests at his actions. Once finished, Joe lay back on his pillows, panting slightly.

“Is the pain very bad?”

“Bad enough.” Joe could only manage short sentences; he had to fight to keep his brain concentrated upon keeping the pain at bay. Ben reached for a cool washcloth and began to gently sponge him down. The soothing motion helped Joe to combat the fiery agony in his leg, giving him something else to think about. He wondered wearily how long it would be before the next dose of opium released him into blessed oblivion.

Gradually, over a period of week, the swelling in Joe’s leg started to go down, but almost imperceptibly so. The pain lessened its relentless hold on his consciousness and the bones in his leg began to knit together. Ben was shocked to see how weak he was, too tired to even protest about his enforced confinement to bed and began to worry if Joe would ever return to his old self.

“This is only the beginning,” Paul advised. “Joe has a long, hard road ahead of him. And, while he’ll need all of your help, he has to do this by himself and to want to do it. If he’s going to succeed, we need to see a bit of the old, pugnacious Joe Cartwright back.”

Adam’s lips twisted in a thin smile. “I never thought I’d see the day when I would actually want another pointless argument with Joe!” he said ruefully. “But things just aren’t the same around here.”

“Give him a chance,” Hoss urged. “He’s still the same Joe underneath. He’ll come back to us. You’ll see.”

*****

Standing propped up on crutches, Joe stared down at his left foot. It did not seem to belong to him any more, but felt strangely disembodied and unreal. With a sigh, he stepped forward onto his right leg and then moved the crutches forward, letting his shoulder muscles and the crutches take his full weight as he carefully swung his left leg forward. It moved stiffly, the foot fused into position and unresponsive, just as Paul Martin had predicted. Adjusting his balance, Joe stepped forward onto his right leg and began the whole, tedious process over again.

By now, he knew exactly how many steps it took to get from one room of the house to another. Even the simplest things in life were reduced to a series of steps as he learnt that he could not take anything in life for granted any more. Making a cup of coffee was fine, but he had to stand and drink it in the kitchen, as it was impossible to carry liquids and use crutches at the same time. Even getting out of a chair was tricky – crutches in held in his right hand, pressing down firmly on the handbar, while his left hand pressed down on the chair seat. Then weight forward and onto right leg, pushing up, while at the same time his hands pressed downwards. How quickly and irrevocably he had been reduced to this state.

Joe cast a mournful look at the boots Ben brought in Sacramento, which stood in the corner of his room. There was no possibility of persuading his damaged foot into any boot, even his most broken-down pair. It simply would not flex at the ankle, and so Joe was reduced to wearing a pair of broad-fitting lace-up shoes made especially for him. Joe hated these shoes with a vengeance. The boots had come to symbolize all that was lost to him.

Moving slowly to the head of the stairs, Joe reflected that there was one positive aspect to the crutches – his shoulder and chest muscles were stronger and broader than they had ever been. Balancing on his good leg, Joe transferred the crutches to his right side and slowly lowered himself down, his left leg sticking stiffly out in front of him. The stairs at the Ponderosa were too narrow to safely navigate on crutches, so the only alternative was to descend them, one at a time, on his butt.

“Want a hand?” Adam called, as Joe reached the bottom and began the laborious process of levering himself into a standing position once again.

“I can manage!” he flung back, unable to help a peevish tone from creeping into his voice. Adam ignored this, and busied himself pouring a cup of coffee for his brother. They were all used to Joe’s depression by now and felt powerless to do anything about it. Each day they could only watch as Joe slipped a little further away from them and became quieter and more subdued. There seemed very little of the mercurial, quicksilver Joe left.

Joe could see what he was doing to his family, but he had to keep pushing them away. He had to be strong, to keep driving himself to the point of exhaustion, so much so that his abused leg would scream with pain and swell up dramatically. Because if he didn’t do this, he would lose the little control he had left over things and would go plummeting over the edge. Joe felt that he had to keep all his resentment and misery isolated from his family and so shunned all sympathy or offers of help. All he had left was his self-control and he fought fiercely to preserve that.

The tension that seemed to surround Joe dissipated slightly after he had made his slow way upstairs that evening. Ben eased back into his chair, sipping his medicinal port and feeling a guilty frisson of delight as the delicious liquid slipped down his throat.

“I was talking to Paul today,” he began. “And he’s come up with a suggestion I think we should seriously consider.”

Adam and Hoss regarded him with rapt attention, not needing to ask what the topic of conversation was about. Since Joe’s accident, everything else had receded into the background.

“Do you remember reading about Sam Brannan?” Ben continued.

“He’s that millionaire who owned whole chunks of Sacramento and San Francisco ain’t he?” Hoss asked, wondering what his father was suggesting. He couldn’t see Joe being happy in either city.

A dawning light of recognition spread across Adam’s face. “And he founded that little town he calls the Hot Springs of the West, up in the Napa Valley! That’s your idea, isn’t it?”

Ben nodded. “We’ve got to try everything we can. Paul feels that the natural geyser waters in Sam Brannan’s resort might just help Joe’s foot.”

“It’s an awful long way,” Hoss said, unhappy at the thought of sending Joe so far away from home. It was obvious to them all that Joe needed his family desperately, even if he were determined to push them away most of the time.

Adam pulled down a book and began scanning its contents avidly. “Calistoga has underground geysers, which were used by the Wappo Indians for years to help ease pain. It certainly can’t hurt Joe, can it? And the Transcontinental Railroad stops there, so he can travel in comfort.” He turned to his brother. “Remember what you said to Paul? Don’t we owe Joe the same thing?”

“’Do whatever has to be done’,” Hoss said slowly. “I guess you’re right. It sure don’t sit comfortably with me, though.”

*****

One week later, Joe alighted slowly from the railroad depot in Calistoga and walked painfully up the main street to the Hot Springs Hotel, a porter trundling along behind with his baggage. The journey had been comfortable enough, but now he was exhausted and just wanted to collapse into bed and sleep. If the pain in his leg would let him. It was much hotter here than at home, and the crutches dug painfully into his armpits.

“Last chance,” he thought bitterly. “This is the end of the road as far as I can see. If this doesn’t work…”

A plume of steam rising into the clear skies caught his attention and Joe halted to get a better view. “What’s that?” he asked curiously, intrigued despite his tiredness. “One of the hot springs?”

“Sure is,” the porter agreed excitedly. He looked no more than 15 and Joe made a note to tip the boy well. “Comes straight up from the centre of the earth, it does! They say the water’s near boiling! All sorts of folks come here.” He looked curiously at Joe. “That what you’re doing here, mister? Come to take the waters?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Joe agreed wryly. He didn’t hold out much hope, but then it couldn’t do any harm, could it? And by now he was willing to try anything, if it would give him a chance to regain even a little normality.

The next morning he awoke to a clear, cloudless California morning and choked down breakfast in his room before making his way to the bathing house reserved for male patrons of the hotel. An assistant laid a pile of towels and a pair of linen drawers in a changing cubicle.

“Just call when you are ready sir, and I will escort you to the hot springs and we can begin your course of treatment,” he announced.

Joe regarded him with astonishment. “Treatment?” he echoed.

The man nodded gravely. “I have detailed instructions from Doctor Paul Martin and am here to give you every possible assistance, sir,” he informed his patient, nodding his head for emphasis.

“And does the treatment include some of that wine I’ve been hearing about?” Joe asked, a trace of his old humor creeping back into his voice.

“I’m sure that can be arranged, sir. Later, if you get my meaning. But, first things first!” Joe found himself ushered into the cubicle and began changing. The encounter had cheered him up – perhaps things were not going to quite so bad here as he had envisaged!

To his surprise, Joe discovered there were several other patients enjoying the healing geothermal waters. The small pavilion shielded them from the gaze of any onlookers, yet provided ample ventilation.

“Rheumatics,” an elderly man, with an impressive waistline stated impressively. “I’m a positive martyr to rheumatics. These waters are the only things that help me.”

Joe nodded gravely and eased himself into the bubbling waters, while his assistant propped his crutches up against a wall.

“Just relax for a while sir, and then we will begin our program,” his new mentor advised.

Joe was quite happy to do just that. He could almost feel the weary, heavy feeling begin to leech from his bones and he closed his eyes, listening contentedly to the chatter that went on around him. All too soon, the assistant returned. He had changed into the same sort of linen drawers all the men were wearing and entered the pool to sit beside Joe.

“If you will allow me, sir,” he began formally.

Joe flashed a smile at him. “My name is Joe. I would like it if you would call me that. Is that alright?”

“Perfectly fine, sir, err Joe! And my name is Tom.”

“Okay Tom, do your worst!” Joe instructed, rather dreading what would happen next. Since the accident, he hated anybody touching his foot and even avoided touching it himself whenever he could. It felt cold and alien, and the sensation of touching the puffy, swollen flesh repulsed him. Tom reached down and gently raised the damaged foot and began gently massaging and kneading, manipulating the bones infinitesimally.

“This is the first stage, Joe,” Tom said quietly. “Just small, gentle movements. Your foot – well, it’s as if the bones are glued together, and that’s one reason why you can’t use it properly. So that’s what we’ll do to begin with.”

“That’s fine by me, Tom.” There was a little discomfort, Joe found, but no more than that. Gradually, he began to relax and let Tom and the healing waters do their work. It wasn’t nearly as bad as he had feared.

After a few days, Joe could feel the difference in his foot. It felt, well, looser somehow. The bruising was finally starting to retreat and his toes were pink, instead of a dead, pallid bluey-white.

“Everything is going just as it should,” Tom assured him. “I think we can progress to the next part of the treatment now.”

Joe glared at him and then burst out laughing at the man’s astonished expression. “On one condition Tom. That you join me for dinner tonight. The waiter has recommended a rather nice bottle of wine and I don’t fancy drinking it all on my own. Do we have a deal?”

“I think that can be arranged. In fact, it would be my pleasure.” And then Tom began to instruct Joe through a series of exercises, designed to increase the flexibility of his foot.

Over the next month, Joe spent several hours a day in the hot springs, dutifully carrying out his exercises. He no longer needed Tom’s assistance, but by now the two men had become friends and would meet in the evenings, working their way steadily through the produce of the local wineries.

*****

Dear Pa, Adam and Hoss

As the weeks pass, I find myself enjoying this part of the world more and more. The weather is beautiful and I do not miss our Washoe zephyrs at all!

I am continuing with my treatments and have much less pain now. The Wappo Indians sure found a good thing with these hot springs. I just wish we had something like them at home. Tom continues to help me and has become a real friend.

I miss you all very much.

Your loving son and brother

Joe

“Another letter that says precisely nothing!” Adam fumed impotently. “Wait till I get my hands on that little…”

Ben gave him a reproving look. “Perhaps your brother doesn’t actually have any real progress to report?” he suggested and watched Adam’s anger subside rapidly.

Hoss picked up the brief letter and studied it carefully. “Joe sure seems to like that little town a lot. You don’t think he’s decided to stay there, do you?”

This was precisely what Ben was dreading. Everything about Calistoga seemed to appeal to Joe and the boy certainly seemed happier. And if it was doing him good, then how could he in all conscience refuse to let him stay? Yet without Joe, the house did not seem complete, the family was at best disjointed, at worst fractured. He missed Joe more than he would ever have thought possible. Shaking his head sadly, Ben strapped on his gunbelt.

“Come on boys, we’ve got supplies to pick up in town.” There was no sense in dwelling upon imponderables. It was much better to keep busy. He could think about all this at night, when the house was quiet and his thoughts could fly across the many miles to his missing son.

After placing their order at the General Mercantile, Adam led the way to the Silver Dollar, hoping that being among company would ease the pall of gloom that hung over them.

“Did you ever collect that bandana?” Hoss asked, with an innocent expression that fooled no one. Adam snorted and applied himself to his beer, while Ben surveyed the busy saloon with interest.

“The redheaded saloon girl, was it? Pretty little thing, with blue eyes, standing over by the piano?” he enquired mildly. Before Adam could answer, the doors swung open and a clerk rushed over to their table.

“This arrived for you, Mr. Cartwright. Special delivery, so I brought it straight over.”

He held out an envelope, with “Benjamin Cartwright” written in Joe’s distinctive handwriting. With trembling hands, Ben tore it open and pulled out the contents.

“That’s Joe!” Hoss exclaimed, leaning close to study the photograph carefully. “All duded up, real fancy like!”

Ben surveyed the picture with growing dismay. Joe was wearing a smart, city suit, leaning lightly on a malacca cane and casually doffing a bowler hat in a gesture towards the camera. A small smile curved his lips and across the bottom of the picture he had written, “Be seeing you.”

“That’s it?” Adam demanded. “That’s all?”

“That’s all,” Ben agreed, unable to tear his gaze away from the picture.

“He’s gone?” Hoss could scarcely bring himself to say the words, but someone had to.

“It looks like it,” Ben said, wondering why the noise in the saloon had suddenly quietened. He saw the clerk was still standing at the table and then realized the man was waiting to be paid. Ben had started to fumble in his vest pocket for some change when the clerk interrupted.

“That ain’t the whole of the delivery. There’s something else waiting outside for you.”

Ben carefully placed the photograph back in the envelope, tucked it into his breast pocket and wandered drearily over to the doorway. The sunlight pouring down outside was very bright and it took his eyes a few moments to adjust. Paul wandered over to join him.

“That special delivery you just got, Ben? It was a very special delivery indeed. In fact, it was brought in person.”

Paul gestured across the street, to where a man dressed in a dove-grey suit stood with his back to them. He turned slowly around and gravely raised his hat in a salute. The sun glinted off dark, chestnut curls and there was a flash of tourmaline green from the man’s eyes. Ben found that he was holding his breath.

With slow, deliberate movements, Joe stepped carefully off the sidewalk, leaning on his cane and walked towards them, the highly polished ox-blood boots sending the dust rising in small puffs with each footstep. All time seem to coalesce into that moment, the normal noise and hubbub retreated into the distance as the Cartwrights stood rooted to the spot, scarcely able to believe what was happening. Joe bestowed his old, familiar grin, the one that signaled pure joy and merriment. It had been a long time since any of them had been treated to that spectacle. Then he tucked the cane under his arm with a jaunty air, lengthened his stride and was standing before them in a few steps.

“Joseph?” Ben reached out and touched him gently on the arm, scarcely dare to hope or believe that he was not dreaming. Then he leant forward and pulled him into an embrace, hugging his boy as if he would never let him go. Joe leant gratefully into his father’s broad chest, savoring the warmth, security and absolute acceptance that was always there.

After a moment, Ben stepped back, holding Joe’s face between his big, warm hands and studying him carefully. For some reason, his gaze dropped down to the boots and at that moment he finally realized that his boy was indeed home, whole and healed.

“I’m back, Pa,” Joe assured him. “Back home, where I belong.”

Tears filling his eyes, Ben pressed his hand against the pocket where the precious photograph lay and willingly surrendered Joe to the welcome attentions of his brothers, watching in amusement as his curly head almost disappeared in the melee. How many times had he tempted the stars, only to be rewarded with a fate that was beyond compare?

Joe emerged from the backslaps and hugs, looking rather ruffled around the head. “Can we go home now, Pa?” he asked.

“Are you ready?” Ben enquired.

Joe returned his gaze steadily. “Yes. I’m ready. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be, or where I truly belong.”

“Then we’ll go home,” Ben agreed.

They walked along the street, Adam’s arm draped lightly across Joe’s shoulders, while Hoss walked on Joe’s other side, carrying his bags. As Ben watched, Adam pulled Joe in for a brief but telling hug. His family had survived many perilous journeys but the one they were about to make, along the familiar roads to the Ponderosa was perhaps the most important of them all, for it led them home. There were many journeys that lay ahead in the future, he was certain of that, but he knew that they could survive these, if they held together as a family. Over the past few months, Joe had had to travel alone, but it had been a journey to remember and to give thanks for. And the rest? The rest simply did not matter, now that Joe was home. Nothing else mattered, apart from that. It would be foolish to tempt fate again.

That night, Ben sat alone, underneath the sere gaze of the stars, mutely offering his heart-felt thanks. His boy was home and life was complete once more. He raised his glass of port in a silent toast to all his sons. “My cup overflows,” he thought gratefully. After a few moments of reflection, Ben went quietly inside, drawing the door closed behind him.

***End***

 Return to Claire’s home page

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