What Fate Decrees? (by Territell)

Summary:  Tragedies from twelve years earlier brings back memories for those old enough to remember.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6,350


 

13 August 1844

In was just another Sunday afternoon picnic, in many ways no different from any other. The women chatted happily as they laid out blankets on the parched grass and emptied picnic baskets of their contents.

Hop Sing had done the Cartwright family proud. There were ham and beef sandwiches, chicken legs, meat pies, cookies and cake and to wash it all down, freshly made lemonade.

Her task finished, Marie Cartwright brushed stray blades of grass from her skirt before calling to her family to come and join her. Hoss, as expected, had been loitering close by and was the first to make an appearance. His mouth watered as he looked at the delicious spread and, not waiting for the others, he began to tuck in with gusto. Adam, on the other hand, was reluctant to leave the lakeside as he was enjoying skimming stones with Ross and a number of other boys. Much to his delight, his last stone had bounced four times across the water before sinking to the bottom. But Adam knew better than to ignore his stepmother’s call and, with a shrug of resignation to his friends, he climbed up the hill to his family.

Ben Cartwright had been assigned the task of looking after his youngest son while his wife set out their lunch, and as he talked with Paul Martin, the town doctor, Little Joe played happily close by.

“Come on Little Joe, it’s time to eat,” Ben called to his youngest son, stretching out his hand towards the small boy.

Little Joe had other ideas. Instead of running towards his father, he turned heel and, as fast as his little legs could carry him, he ran in the opposite direction. Joe Cartwright may not be quite two years old but already his family likened him to a young jackrabbit, given the speed at which he could move.

Paul Martin chuckled to himself as Ben took off and gave chase. The Cartwright baby had made a very noisy and speedy entrance into the world and Dr Martin had no doubt he would continue to do so for a long time to come.

Ben was breathless and panting when he finally grabbed his toddler son by the back of his dress and lifted him into his arms. Joe was angry at being caught and started to kick and scream in an effort to be put down again. After a quick swat to his son’s small backside, Ben wrapped one arm round Joe’s middle while he used his other arm to hold still his flaying legs.

Ignoring the warning swat, Joe continued to struggle and shout. “Want down, Papa, want down.”

“It’s time to eat, little man,” Ben replied as he carried the squirming youngster over to his wife and literally dumped him into her lap. “He’s all yours,” he said with a shake of his head, relieved to pass over the burden.

Joe’s feisty demeanor changed immediately when confronted with his mother. Pushing his thumb into his mouth, he looked up into her face with tear-filled eyes. “Wanna play Mama,” he said sadly hoping she would have a change of heart.

Cupping her baby’s face between her hands, Marie kissed his button nose and admonished. “Oh you little demon, I know just what you are up to, mon petite. Now you will stay here with Mama, eat your lunch and then you will have your nap.” Ignoring Joe’s scowls, Marie took a sandwich from the plate and put it into his hand. “Eat” she demanded and only turned away when the child put the bread into his mouth.

Ben, Adam and Hoss hungrily tucked into the delicious fare and didn’t stop until the plates were almost empty. “Before long, you boys will be as big as your father,” Marie declared, looking admiringly at her stepsons.

“Pa thinks I’ll be bigger than him,” Hoss stated proudly. “Ain’t that right, Pa?”

Ben tousled his eight-year-old’s blonde hair. “If you keep growing at this rate, Hoss, I don’t think there will be a bigger man in the territory.”

Adam smiled in acknowledgement. He too was tall for his age, but at fourteen, he was mature enough to concede that Hoss would overtake him in the not too distant future.

Not to be left out, Little Joe jumped to his feet and tried to stand on his tiptoes in order to make himself appear taller than he was. “Me big,” he declared. “Me bigger than Hoss.”

Ben and Marie smiled at one other. Joe had been a premature baby and had not yet caught up with his peers. Dr Martin said there was no reason to believe that Joe would remain small for his age; he just needed that little extra time to catch up, but his parents didn’t harbor any misapprehension that their youngest son was going to be as tall as his brothers.

Hoisting the little boy into his arms, Ben lifted him high above his head. “You will be the biggest of them all, Little Joe,” he acknowledged, to the delight of the toddler who was now reaching for the sky.

As Marie packed up the remains of the picnic, Adam and Hoss went back to play with their friends. Ben cradled a sleepy Little Joe in his arms and watched with fascination as the boisterous toddler of a few minutes ago, transformed into a sleeping baby sucking on his thumb.

Once he was sure that the tot would not awaken, Ben knelt down on the grass and waited for Marie to prepare a place to lay the baby down.

“Take off his dress first,” Marie whispered. Little Joe was just out of diapers, but he remained dry more out of luck than experience and Marie didn’t want to take any chances with his new clothes.

Ben struggled with the little pearl buttons that ran down the front of the green dress that Joe was wearing. Marie took pity on him and, with adept fingers, she loosened the dress and pulled it from the small body. She quickly wrapped a blanket round her baby and made him comfortable on the ground before allowing her husband to pull her to her feet.

“I counted this morning and there are at least ten more,” Ben bemoaned.

“Ten more what?” Marie asked in dismay.

“Ten more gray hairs,” Ben declared, pulling the front of his hair forward and trying to take a look. “I blame your son for this.”

“Our son,” Marie giggled. “And you shouldn’t complain; after all, he takes after his father.”

“On the contrary,” Ben corrected, pulling his wife into his arms, “the child definitely has all the traits of his mother. He’s willful, disobedient, obstinate” then looking down at his young wife his eyes twinkled as he added, “and beautiful.”

Marie blushed profusely and pulled herself from her husband’s grasp. “Unhand me sir,” she whispered. “Everyone is looking at us.”

“Let them look,” Ben laughed. “After all, we are married.”

Marie smiled her secret smile that always made Ben’s heart race and said whimsically. “Maybe this next baby will be a girl, then your hair really will turn gray.”

At first Ben missed the implication of Marie’s words and laughed out loud. “Oh don’t say that, woman. I wouldn’t know a moment’s peace if I had a girl to worry about.”

“Then maybe you should make the most of this carefree time,” Marie replied.

The grin left Ben’s face as her words finally began to penetrate. “A-a-are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Ben asked, with a nervous tremor to his voice.

Marie giggled at his stricken face and nodded her head.

Ignoring Marie’s protests, Ben pulled her once again into his arms and kissed her gently on the lips. “That’s wonderful,” he declared. “When? I mean, how far are you?”

“Dr Martin thinks I’m nearly five months,” Marie replied shyly bending her head and running her hand over her slightly protruding stomach.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Ben reproached. “You should have been taking it easy, not running about after us all day.”

Marie laughed off his concerns, “Don’t be silly, Ben. Dr Martin thinks everything is all right this time and I didn’t want to build your hopes up before I was sure of that. Anyway, there’s no need to fuss.”

Ben smiled but the worry didn’t leave his face. Marie had lost a baby before Joe was born and had been unable to conceive since his birth. The miscarriage had taken place very early into the pregnancy and so this time it may be that the dangerous period had passed, but Ben was a cautious man, especially where his family was concerned.

Sitting his young wife down and taking both her hands in his, Ben instructed. “I don’t want to hear any argument from you, young lady. From now until the baby is born, you will take it easy. Joseph Francis will have to get used to the idea that his Mama is not his playmate, or his horse.”

At his last statement, both Ben and Marie burst out laughing. Little Joe was obsessed with horses and, since he was too young to ride his own,, he insisted that the family, and most especially Marie, ride him round on their backs while he ‘giddy-upped’ from one place to another.

*****

The Cartwrights were not the only family that day with something to celebrate. Matilda and Maurice Harding were celebrating their thirteenth wedding anniversary and also their youngest son Chad’s fourth birthday. Chad Harding was a sensitive little boy, and while the other children ran round and boisterously played games, he stayed close to his mother and played happily on his own.

On the other hand, Michael Harding, Chad’s older brother, was a very popular boy. At twelve years old, he had already begun to develop into the bright, friendly and athletic man he was likely to become. Not only was he good at games, he was charismatic and intelligent, mature beyond his years.

Matilda and Maurice were a hardworking couple and lived in a cottage on the outskirts of the Ponderosa. Matilda spent her day’s dressmaking in order to bring home a few more coffers to the table, while Maurice took on any jobs offered, no matter how big or small. The family lived a very Christian life, working hard from Monday to Saturday, going to church on a Sunday. Many was the time that Maurice and his sons, met with Ben and his older sons for a spot of fishing by the lake on a Sunday afternoon.

As the Cartwrights’ ate their lunch, the Harding family ate theirs. The Harding’s finished their meal with a small birthday cake that Matilda had baked that morning for Chad. The little boy was delighted, and as he blew out his candles, he thought he was the happiest boy in the world.

Once the meal was over, Michael excused himself and went to join the older boys down by the lake.

Thirty minutes later something happened that was to change the lives of the two close nit families forever.

*****

The older boys became bored skimming stones across the water and decided to play something that would expend a bit more of their excess energy. Climbing to the top of the embankment, the boys decided to play a game of tag. Petey had been the first one to chase the others, but he was very swift of foot and before long it was Toby’s turn. Toby in turn tagged Michael and so the game continued. Mark Miller was Michael’s target and he ran toward the boy at such a pace, that when Mark sidestepped out of the way, Michael was unable to stop and he careered over the embankment and into the lake below. All the boys started to whoop with glee. Michael was going to be the first of them to get wet. After all there was nothing to worry about, they were all good swimmers.

But when the children looked over the side, Michael was nowhere to be seen. Unknown to the puzzled boys, Michael had struck his head on a rock as he entered the water and was knocked unconscious. Petey Cummings was the first one to panic. Rushing back to where the picnic had taken place he garbled out his concerns to the Hardings. “M-Michael fell in the water,” he gasped. “Mr. Harding, he didn’t come back up.”

Matilda and Maurice Harding took off running towards the water with little Chad following on behind as fast as he possibly could. Upon finding out where Michael had entered the water, Maurice jumped in and frantically swam out into the center of the lake looking for his son and calling his name to no avail.

Maurice was not a strong swimmer but he wouldn’t give up; his child’s life was at stake. Matilda, on the other hand, often boasted about her swimming skills and on seeing her husband struggling in the water, she jumped in to aid him in looking for their son. But Matilda had still been a child the last time she had swam in the lake and she hadn’t had a heavy long dress and other attire encumbering her.

What had started as a beautiful Sunday afternoon turned into a tragedy! By the time the rest of the patrons at the picnic were aware that something was amiss, it was already too late.

Families rushed to the embankment and Ben, together with three other men, dived into the water and headed towards the Harding family. It was all to no avail — poor Maurice was dead when they pulled his body to the water’s edge and Matilda died shortly afterwards. The men continued to search and eventually Michael was found. The young boy was dead when they brought him to the surface.

As the heartbreak unfolded, Marie looked around her in dismay. “Where is the little one,” she screamed, hardly daring to think that another tragedy could occur. Ben looked round in horror, but as Marie was clutching their own baby to her breast, he knew she must be referring to the youngest Harding child.

After a quick search, it was found that Chad was not on the embankment. Another of the boys had seen him earlier when his father had been brought from the water, but not since. It suddenly struck the assembled crowd that the child could have entered the water in an attempt to help his family. Not waiting to catch his breath, Ben dived once again into the murky depths and swam back to the place where Matilda had first entered the water. Ben was at a loss as to what to do, but he didn’t give up. Diving down again and again he was about to return to dry land when his fingers grasped hold of a child’s body and he held on as best he could. With the last of his strength, Ben swam back to the awaiting arms of his neighbors and handed the lifeless body to Dr Martin.

Chad Harding was by all intents and purposes dead. His little chest showed no signs of rising and his face was so pale he looked ghostlike. But Dr Martin didn’t give up on him. The water had undoubtedly claimed three lives that day and he didn’t want this child to be its fourth.

Marie Cartwright and the surrounding women sobbed uncontrollably at the terrible end of a once happy day. Little Joe whimpered in his mother’s arms, not knowing what was happening, but becoming distressed at the obvious upset around him.

Adam stood transfixed, unable to tear his eyes from the lifeless body of little Chad Harding. Already Adam’s young life had been blighted by misfortune and heartbreak but with each new tragedy it didn’t get any easier to bear. Hoss clung to his older brother in terror. At eight years old, he was already aware of the finality of death but this was the first time he had ever been a witness at close hand that he could recall.

Ben put all other needs aside and went to the aid of his family. Ushering his older sons away from the scene, he took Little Joe from his mother’s arms and, as he cradled the weeping tot over his shoulder, he wrapped his other arm round his grief stricken wife.

Once he had settled his family into the buckboard, Ben returned to the waterside to see if there was any further assistance he could give. To his utter amazement, little Chad Harding had started breathing and the color was returning to his face.

“I want my Mama,” the little tot whimpered as soon as he had breath to speak. Everyone’s heart ached. How do you tell a four year old that his family was no more?

Several of the men volunteered to assist in the taking of the Harding bodies to the undertaker and Paul Martin and his wife offered to take care of Chad; after all, it made sense, as he would need the doctor’s assistance over the next few days.

That night yet another tragedy occurred. The upset of the day had taken its toll on the young mother and Marie felt the first tell tale signs of miscarriage as sharp pains made her double up as she bathed Little Joe for bed. At first, she said nothing to Ben, hoping against hope that the pains would subside, but by the time Little Joe was tucked into his cradle, she knew for certain she was losing her baby.

Once he realized what was happening, a concerned Ben had wanted to go for the doctor, but a tearful Marie convinced him it was too late; she had already started bleeding and there was nothing the doctor could do. Her contractions were coming regularly and no matter what, the baby was too young to survive.

Long into the night Ben sat at his wife’s side and held her hand, stroking her sweat soaked hair away from her face as she writhed on the bed in agony, weeping for the much wanted baby that was now been expelled from her body. In the early hours, a perfectly formed, but premature, baby girl was born to Marie and Ben, but sadly she died without ever having taken her first breath.

*****

31 July 1856

Joe Cartwright was enjoying the sunshine. He lay on his back; eyes closed, and allowed the warmth of the sun to send him into a dreamlike state as he slumbered by the lake. It was Friday afternoon, school was out, his chores were done and his Pa was away from the ranch for the next few days. With his bare feet dangling close to the water, Joe had tied his fishing line to his toe so he would be alerted if the fish decided to bite, but in reality he didn’t care if he went home empty-handed.

Dreaming of the new girl at school, Joe was oblivious of everything else around him, until his toe jerked and he sat bolt upright with a start. Dazed and groggy he looked down at his feet, expecting to see his fishing rod bending into the water, but instead what he saw was a young boy not much older than himself.

“Did you do that?” Joe accused, feeling tetchy at the way he had been awoken.

“Yep” the boy replied and started to laugh.

Joe’s bad mood didn’t last long. Looking up at the other boy he questioned. “Where did you come from? I ain’t seen you round here before.”

“Oh I used to live in the cottage back there when I was little, but at the moment I’m visiting with my Uncle Paul. He’s the doctor here.”

“Dr Martin’s your uncle?” Joe queried.

“Well sort of,” the boy replied. “I’ve always called him uncle, but really he’s no relation.” Then changing the subject he affirmed. “You must be one of the Cartwright boys.”

“So they say,” Joe chuckled. “But you better not let my brothers hear you calling them boys.” Smiling Joe reached out his hand. “The name’s Little Joe, by the way. How about you?”

“My name’s Chad Harding. I used to know your family.”

Joe shrugged his shoulders; the name meant nothing to him. He’d never heard his Pa mention the Harding family. “You staying with Dr Martin long?”

“A couple of weeks, I guess,” Chad replied. “Then I’ll be going home.”

“Where’s home?” Joe questioned, but Chad chose not to answer.

The two boys spent the rest of the afternoon together and by the end of the day they were already firm friends. As they went their separate ways, they made arrangements to meet up again the next afternoon, providing Joe could get away from his brothers.

That night at supper, Joe told Adam and Hoss about his new friend.

“He says he used to live round here, Adam” Joe informed his eldest brother.

“What’s his name?” Adam queried. “And don’t speak with your mouth full.”

Joe rolled his eyes in Hoss’ direction and made sure to swallow his food before continuing.

“His name’s Chad Harding and he calls Dr Martin, Uncle Paul.”

Adam and Hoss stopped eating and looked at each other, memories of that fateful day twelve years before, flooding back to them.

“What’s up?” Joe asked. “I didn’t have any food in my mouth.”

“That’s all right, Joe,” Adam said distractedly. “Just finish your supper.”

“Do you know him then?” Joe persisted, not wanting to let the subject drop.

“I was friends with his older brother,” Adam acknowledged, but still not saying anymore.

“Maybe his brother is visiting with Dr Martin as well,” Joe declared. “I’ll ask him when I meet up with him tomorrow.”

“Your gonna have to tell him,” Hoss stated simply. “It’s best he knows.”

“Tell me what?” Joe asked in exasperation. He hated it when his brothers kept secrets from him. It made him feel like a baby, not old enough to be trusted with the truth.

Adam had not thought about that day for a long time, but now the memories were so fresh it could all have happened yesterday.

Leaving the table and going over to sit on the settee, Adam beckoned for Joe to join him. As Joe sat silent, Adam reiterated as gently as he could the happenings of that day so long ago. When he finished, Joe sat in silence. Since losing his mother when he wasn’t quite five years old, Joe had only just come to terms with the irrational fear he harbored of losing other members of his family. To know that Chad had lost all his family in one day brought Joe’s fears to the surface once more and he could feel the panic building in him at the thought of his father being away.

“He lost his whole family?” Joe asked, as if maybe he had misunderstood what Adam was telling him.

“That’s right, Joe,” Adam said quietly, thinking to himself that Joe was now the same age he had been when the tragedy occurred.

“How come I can’t remember anything about it?” Joe asked, thinking this was something he would never have forgot.

“You were only a baby, Short Shanks,” Hoss chipped in. “and……well Pa don’t like to talk about that day”.

Adam’s heart missed a beat. How would Pa react to the sudden arrival of little Chad Harding? He was sure his Pa would be happy to see the boy again, but it was bound to bring back other heart-rending memories. Ben and Marie had never spoken of the baby they lost, but Adam had heard Marie’s anguished cries long into the night and it had transported him back in time to the birth of Hoss six years before. The day after the tragic events Dr Martin had arrived at the Ponderosa and ordered Marie to stay in bed. At fourteen years of age, Adam was worldly enough to piece together what had happened, but he kept his own counsel, knowing instinctively not to intrude.

In comparison to Adam at that age, Little Joe was far from worldly; he was young and sensitive and had a tendency to take things to heart. This sensitively wasn’t long in manifesting itself into concern for Ben.

“When did Pa say he would be home?” Joe asked, the anxiety beginning to show in his voice.

Adam was well used to Joe’s irrational fears over the years and tried to reassure him that all was well. “Pa will be home the day after tomorrow Joe.”

“What if something hap……?”

Hoss cut him off in mid sentence. “Now don’t start that again, Little Joe. Pa’s fine. He’s only gone to Placerville for a meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association. There’s no need for you to worry your head about nothing.”

Joe went reluctantly to bed that evening and just as Adam expected, his bedroom door opened just after midnight and Joe came sheepishly in, wearing only his nightshirt. “Adam, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure Joe,” Adam called back sleepily; somehow knowing this was going to be a long night.

As was usual, Joe climbed up onto Adam’s bed, and as he made himself comfortable, he inched his feet under the bedclothes in an effort to keep warm in the cold night air. It was a while before Joe started to speak and Adam didn’t have to be told what was praying on the boy’s mind.

“I’m meeting up with Chad tomorrow afternoon, Adam, and I don’t know what to say to him.”

“In what way, Little Joe? Just talk to him about things that boys talk about. School! Girls! Mischief! You shouldn’t have much difficulty in that.”

“Yeah, but what should I say about his family? Should I say I’m sorry, or what?” Joe asked stifling a yawn and sliding further down under Adam’s covers.

“There’s no need to say anything, Joe. I’m sure if Chad wants to talk about it, he will bring up the subject. He was only four years old when it happened; he probably doesn’t have that much memory of the events themselves.”

“Who pulled him out of the water, Adam?”

“It was Pa,” Adam replied with pride. “He wouldn’t give up, even when everyone else thought there was no point in continuing.”

By now Joe was lying down, Adam’s covers pulled up to his chin. “Hey Joe,” Adam chided. “Time to go back to your own bed, buddy.”

But Joe wasn’t listening he was fast asleep. “Typical” Adam thought. “The kid falls asleep at the drop of a hat.” Pushing his brother further along the bed, Adam snuggled down next to him and reflected to himself how like old times it was. “Just hope he’s grown out of peeing the bed,” Adam chuckled before falling off to sleep himself.

*****

Joe and Chad spent the next few days’ together, fishing, riding and generally just hanging out. At times, Chad became very quiet and stood looking at the water as if he was in a trance. Joe felt uncomfortable at those times and wondered if the other boy was thinking of his family.

“I’m gonna have to go,” Joe told his friend as they rode back from the lake.

“Why? It’s not supper time.” Chad queried.

“It’s just my Pa’s coming home this afternoon,” Joe enthused and then felt guilty for having a Pa when Chad didn’t. Joe was used to being one of the only kids in the school that only had one parent; he couldn’t imagine what it would feel like not to have any.

“What you doing tomorrow?” Chad asked. “Do you wanna go fishing?”

“Yeah, that’ll be great,” Joe called over his shoulder as he rode home. “I’ll see you at the lake about lunchtime.”

Ben Cartwright was surprised to find himself almost knocked off his feet when he dismounted from his horse later that afternoon. Hugging his youngest son to him, he declared, “That’s quite a welcome home, Little Joe; I’ve only been gone three days.”

“I know, Pa,” Little Joe agreed, a big grin on his face. “Just glad to see you that’s all.”

Ben raised his eyebrows at his eldest son who was standing behind Little Joe. “What’s up with Joe?” he was secretly asking, but Adam just mouthed ‘I’ll tell you later’ and Ben had to be satisfied with that.

It was obvious to Ben that something had triggered off Joe’s old fears and he didn’t object when Joe insisted on accompanying him everywhere he went for the first few hours after his arrival.

Later that evening, when Ben and Adam were finally alone, Ben broached the subject of his youngest son’s anxiety.

Adam watched closely for his father’s reaction. “Chad Harding is staying with Dr Martin. Him and Little Joe have become friends.”

“Chad Harding!” Ben repeated softly. It had been so many years. He had often wondered how the child had fared after the accident. Paul Martin had made arrangements for the boy to live with his father’s brother and his wife over in Placerville.

“How is the boy?” Ben asked, trying hard not to dwell on the painful memories that the mention of Chad’s name had resurrected. “He must be getting quite grown up by now.”

“I believe he’s sixteen,” Adam replied. “I haven’t met him yet, but Joe intends to bring him to supper tomorrow evening, so I guess we’ll get to meet him then.”

Long after Adam had retired, Ben sat gazing into the fire, a glass of brandy in his hand. It was hard to believe that twelve years had passed since that fateful day. The week after the tragedy had certainly been hard for everyone. Dr Martin had contacted Maurice Harding’s brother and he had come at once to make the funeral arrangements and to look after the little boy.

Marie and Ben had at first put their own troubles to one side, but in the weeks that followed, they had grieved together for the loss of their child. Baby Sarah (named for Ben’s mother) had never taken breath, but that did not lesson the love they harbored for her.

Up until her own death three years later, Marie had appeared content and happy with her lot, but Ben knew that deep down she still mourned for her daughter and also for the fact that she was never able to conceive again.

*****

Chad’s first visit to the Cartwright home was disturbing for all those concerned except for Little Joe. As Joe had no memory of Chad, he was not prepared for his family’s reaction to him.

The small timid boy of twelve years ago had turned into an exact double of his dead brother. Not only did he closely resemble Michael, but he also had his mannerisms and easy smile.

Ben coughed and tried to mask his surprised expression. “So good to see you again, Chad,” he exclaimed, holding out his hand to shake that of the young man.

Once they were reacquainted and the shock of Chad’s appearance had worn off, they passed a pleasant evening together. Chad talked about a number of families that had lived in Virginia City at the same time as his family and Ben and Adam were amazed at the boy’s memory. After all, he had only been four years old when he had left the town.

Over the next few weeks, Joe and Chad tried to spend time with each other almost every day, but as the anniversary of his family’s death drew near, the carefree boy of the earlier weeks disappeared. Chad’s moods began to change and he became quiet and sullen, often sitting staring into the lake for hour after hour. Joe didn’t know how to deal with the new Chad and it worried him to see his friend so disturbed.

On the 12 August, just the day before the anniversary of the tragic accident, Joe found Chad sitting looking into the water with tears streaming down his face. Unsure what to do, Joe sat down next to his friend and waited for him to regain his composure.

Eventually Chad wiped his eyes and turning to Joe he asked, “Do you believe in fate?”

“Fate” Joe repeated. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“That some things are meant to be” Chad explained. “I think God has a plan for us all, but sometimes things happen to change that plan. But if it’s our fate, it will still happen. It may not be that day or the next, but in the end if it was meant to be it’s meant to be.”

Joe bit on his bottom lip and tried to make sense of what Chad was saying. “You mean that when your times up, your times up.”

Chad smiled. “Well I guess so. But sometimes man intervenes and your fate is delayed, but the delay can’t be put off forever.”

A silence developed between the boys. Joe didn’t really comprehend what Chad was trying to tell him and Chad seemed to want to be alone. Feeling as if he was intruding, Joe made his excuses and returned home, promising to meet with Chad the following day.

The 13 August dawned a gloriously sunny day and Ben and Adam left shortly after breakfast to go into Virginia City for a meeting with the School Board. Hoss was left in charge but he had his work cut out for him trying to keep Little Joe in line.

After a hot sweaty morning tidying the barn, Joe was chewing at the bit. “Aw come on, Hoss, let me go fishing. I promised to meet Chad down by the lake; if I don’t hurry he’ll think I’m not coming and go home.”

Hoss was always a sucker for Joe’s puppy dog eyes. “Oh, go on, get going. I’ll finish your chores, but just make sure you’re home in time for supper.”

Joe whooped with glee. “Thanks, Hoss, I owe you. Don’t worry, I won’t be late and I might even bring our supper home with me.”

Hoss laughed at Joe’s retreating back and returned to the stuffy barn to finish off what Joe had started.

*****

Joe knew as soon as he entered the house that evening that he was in trouble. He hadn’t meant to be late but it was too late now to turn back the clock.

A worried Ben strode to the door and grabbed Joe roughly by the arm, almost before Joe had time to enter.

“Where do you think you have been young man?” Ben demanded.

“I-I-I was at the lake with Chad, Pa,” Joe responded, totally taken aback by his father’s aggressive manner.

“Don’t lie to me boy,” Ben shouted. “I won’t tolerate lying in this house.”

“I’m not lying, Pa,” Joe responded quickly.

Ben raised his hand and looked for a second as if he might strike the boy. Adam was quick to intervene and got between his little brother and father. Pulling Joe away from his father’s grasp, he said gently, “Look Pa, I know you were worried……well, we all were. But Joe’s all right. Let’s just hear what he has to say.”

Joe was frightened and confused. He had been late for supper on many occasions, but this was the first time his Pa had reacted the way he did.

“What’s happened, Adam?” Joe asked meekly, keeping safely behind his big brother and away from his Pa.

Adam led Joe over to the settee and sat him down. Bending down in front of him he said as tenderly as he could. “Chad Harding’s body was pulled from the lake today, Joe. When you didn’t arrive home for supper…..well Pa…and Hoss and me too…we were real worried about you. Sheriff Coffee thinks Chad may have commit suicide.”

Tears instantly sprang to Joe’s eyes. “B-b-but I was with him this afternoon, Adam. We sat by the lake and he said he was going away and wouldn’t be coming back. He came to say goodbye.”

Ben turned angrily towards his son. “Don’t lie to me, Little Joe. Especially about something like this.”

Joe started to cry in earnest. “I’m not lying, Pa; I did see Chad this afternoon. He said I was to give you a message.”

“What message?” Hoss asked gently. He hated to see his little brother so upset.

“H-h-he said to tell Pa not to grieve anymore; he said that Marie and Sarah were together and were happy. And that’s why I was so late. When he mentioned Mama, I just felt I had to visit her grave.”

Joe found himself being yanked to his feet. “HOW DARE YOU,” Ben shrieked. “What kind of joke is this?”

Joe looked at his father in complete disbelief. “I don’t understand, Pa,” he sobbed. “Chad said you would know what he meant; he kept saying it was what fate decreed.”

Ben released his son and was at once contrite. Wrapping his arms round his weeping son, he hugged him tightly to his chest and whispered over and over again. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please forgive me.”

Joe was inconsolable. “I should have stayed with him, Pa. He’s being acting so funny the last few days; I should have known he was going to do something awful.”

“There was nothing you could have done, son,” Ben soothed, the anger and fear inside him gone, now that Joe was safe. “Nothing at all.”

“But maybe if I hadn’t left him…”

Ben swallowed hard before replying. “It was already too late, Little Joe. Maybe even twelve years too late.”

“What do you mean, Pa? I should have made him come home with me.”

Ben tried to smile, he didn’t understand what he was about to say himself, how would Joe comprehend? “Like I say, Joe, it was already too late. Chad Harding’s body was pulled from the lake this morning!!!!”

***The End***

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