Summary: Disclaimer: I have “borrowed” characters and situations from Seasons 4 and 7
Word Count: 16,800
Ben Cartwright lifted tired eyes and sat back in his chair, looking out of the half opened bedroom window as a loud rumble of thunder echoed around the land and a brilliant streak of lightning lit up the late evening sky. Horses in the corral by the side of the barn trotted around nervously, neighing loudly as another flash of bright light pierced the gloom and sheets of rain suddenly streamed down onto the yard below. A gust of wind filled the room with cold air and began to blow the curtains in a wild dance causing Ben to shiver. Putting down the pen in his hand, he slowly eased himself up and stretching out his arms, pulled down the sash-corded frame, leaving the room once more draught free.
Pausing for a moment deep in thought, he stared out through the glass pane at the truly awesome performance of mother nature at her most ferocious and savage, and had it been any other time in different circumstances he would have viewed the spectacle with reverential wonder. But though his eyes took in the sight, for once Ben’s mind concentrated solely on more pressing matters as his insides churned with fear and worry.
Over the years he had weathered many storms, both natural and man made, lady-luck having walked hand in hand with him and played her part on more than one occasion to see him through to calmer and safe waters. But as his whole body slumped forward carrying the woes of a troubled and concerned father on his broad shoulders, he wondered if, for once, the bringer of good fortune had decided to desert him.
His head ached and his mouth felt dry, and as he drew his fingers through his thick white hair the worried lines on his face seemed more pronounced than a week ago; his deep brown eyes, usually alert and flashing brightly with good humor now dulled by weariness and unease. Suddenly and without warning, a thunderbolt produced a simultaneous flash of lightning and crash of thunder causing him to shake himself from his reverie, involuntarily stepping back from the window as the ranch house visibly shook with the concentrated force of nature’s undeniable ferocity.
Turning his head quickly Ben looked back towards the bed, hopeful the noise would disturb the figure lying there, but there was no response or movement. His youngest son did not stir, though his every breath was labored and obviously not without discomfort, and Ben breathed a deep sigh of disappointment as he walked over to the bed; Joe was fated to remain a while longer in his silent and lonely world of unconsciousness.
“Time to wake up, Joseph,” Ben whispered softly as he gently and lovingly wiped away beads of sweat that ran off his son’s forehead with a damp cloth and cautiously studied the many cuts on the handsome ashen face. “You’ve been asleep far too long now.”
But his son remained still and oblivious to his father’s words. Fighting hard to quell the tears he felt forming in the back of his eyes, Ben noticed the several days’ growth of stubble on Joe’s chin and his despondent expression suddenly softened as he pulled the blankets over the bruised, swollen and tender chest, making a mental note to give his youngest son a refreshing shave the next morning.
Finally satisfied Joe was comfortable, Ben turned back to the heavy oak bureau in the corner of the room, settling down in his chair once again and turning up the oil lamp, long shadows suddenly creeping eerily up the walls and ceiling. He stared down at the blank piece of writing paper in front of him, sighing deeply before picking up the pen and chewing it absently on its end as the rain lashed down onto the window. His eyes returned to study his son, Joe’s pale and battered face looking strangely at peace in the flickering lamplight, belying the pain that had continued to constantly rack his body over the past few days.
Feeling his own eyes beginning to moisten once more Ben quickly wiped them and returned his gaze to the paper in front of him, determined in his resolve as he dipped his pen into the inkwell then began to write.
Having just received a letter from you where you supplied your new address in London I had hoped to reply that all is well here on the Ponderosa as you settle into your new life abroad. However, as you insisted when you left that I was to inform you of everything and anything that happened here, it is with a very heavy heart I have to write my first letter to tell you how the Lady of Destiny has dealt us a cruel hand regarding your brother, Joe.
It all began just over a week ago while your brothers were up at the Milford ranch.
Enos was determined to remove an outcrop of very large rocks from his top meadow while his herd of horses were still on the low grazing land, so he took delivery of a small amount of nitro-glycerin. Never having used it before, he came over and asked if I could let Hoss and Joe help him, and I must admit I felt uneasy at his request.
Remember I wrote and told you about the trouble Joe and I had last year when we delivered that consignment with Clint Watson? After the tragic accident that claimed the life of Andy Watson, I should have known better than to allow your brothers anywhere near the stuff as nitro is so unstable, as you well know! I warned Enos that in inexperienced hands it was deadly, but he insisted he would be very careful and Hoss assured me he’d keep a watchful eye on everything, so eventually I relented and agreed to let them both go.
Your brothers had been there a couple of days without mishap, enjoying the Milford’s hospitality, especially Cora’s apple pies! I must admit from what Hoss has since told me, it seems all had gone well and Enos was very competent, taking his time and keeping everyone clear and well out of sight when he set the charge for each explosion. However as they neared the end of the second day, I reckon Enos must have been feeling overconfident and eager to finish the job in quick time, for it seems he decided to place a double amount of nitro to make sure the last large outcrop of rocks were shattered with one blast.
As they cleared the site ready for detonation, Joe began to lead away the supply wagon when the nitro went off prematurely as he passed by, flipping over the vehicle and killing the poor mule pulling it outright. Joe was flung into the air then the wagon fell back over onto him and the blown up fragments of rock went everywhere, hitting your brother hard all over his body and head. Thank heavens both Hoss and Enos were not in the vicinity and were uninjured and able to lift up the wagon and pull Joe to safety; otherwise I dread to think what the outcome could have been. However, your brother was still badly hurt and rendered unconscious by the blast and Hoss brought him straight back here to the house while Enos fetched the doctor from town.
I don’t think I can ever remember seeing Paul’s face go as pale as it did when he first saw Joe. To be honest as we peeled off Joe’s clothes and saw his injuries, both Paul and I just looked at each other and knew instinctively what the other was thinking. Would we be viewing a corpse the next day? It was such a shock to see the extent of damage done and I did indeed wonder if your brother was going to survive through the night, but as a new day dawned he proved us both wrong, thank goodness, and we are truly blessed that he still lives as I write.
Compared to the scrapes he has gotten into over the years, this was indeed the worst thing that had ever happened to him. There was hardly an untouched inch of skin; burns, cuts and bruises everywhere, blood streaming from a deep gash on the back of his head, and a swelling on his forehead. He was obviously in a lot of distress with a broken right leg and fractured ribs that Paul soon realized had pierced his lung, possibly causing its collapse and thus making it very difficult for him to breath without being in a lot of discomfort.
Paul took care of him in his usual competent way, though loath to strap Joe’s chest to repair the fractured ribs as he reckons it hinders the healing process and could risk a bout of pneumonia. He put his leg in a splint, stitched up the head wound, and cleaned up all the lacerations which in all kept him busy until midnight.
Unfortunately Joe has not yet regained consciousness and it is more than apparent your brother is in considerable and constant agony. He moans and screams out in his sleep quite often, which upsets us all to see and hear him suffering so, but Paul has left a plentiful supply of laudanum which should ease Joe’s pain when he awakes.
The injury to his head was severe but until he wakes up completely and is coherent, it is impossible to know the extent of the damage he has sustained. But I have a deep feeling of foreboding something is wrong. Never before have I known anyone remain in such a prolonged state of deep sleep and I worry and fear Joe is going to take a very long time to recover, both physically and mentally!
Paul tries to keep our spirits up and says we must not despair too much as his pulse is regular and his vital signs satisfactory. He remains hopeful that in a few days things will improve and we shall manage to get a positive reaction from Joe.
The Milfords have been over quite a few times to visit and poor Cora is beside herself with grief! I have tried to calm her down, make as light of the situation as I can, but as she sits by Joe’s bedside and holds his hand, I’ve seen fear creep into her eyes. I just know she is thinking the worst scenario as well and she can barely look into my eyes for fear of giving away her thoughts. You know the soft spot she has always had for Joe, especially after he rode Enos’ horse to victory a couple of years ago at your expense! I’m sure that’s a race you will never forget Adam and even as I think about it now it brings a smile to my face.
Enos can barely look at Joe without filling up with tears and having to rush out of the room. He was and still is filled with guilt and I have tried my best to assure him no one attaches any blame for the accident, even though I need to bite my tongue and force myself to not mention it was due to his overzealous use of that damn explosive! After all, what is the use of making him feel any worse than he is? It was an accident, plain and simple, and what is done is done. He is truly devastated though and it is so sad to see them, our old friends, inconsolable and in such obvious distress at what has happened.
Hoss is obviously very upset, though he tries his best to comfort and help me, but every time I see him looking at Joe I can see the pain and misery in his eyes, for I know he blames himself for talking me into letting the pair of them go and help the Milfords. The trouble is, when you left, he took it upon himself to take on the mantle of elder brother and become Joe’s protector, and it breaks my heart to see him so unhappy, knowing he feels he has failed in his duty.
We now can only hope and pray Joe’s condition will soon change for the better. Please do not fret yourself at being so far away at this time. Although it is unfortunate in its timing, just writing this letter has lifted my spirits somewhat, and I am determined to look to the future with optimism, as must you. I will keep you updated on all developments and eagerly await hearing from you soon.
Take care, son,
Your ever loving father
Ben glanced quickly at what he had written then leaned back, stretching out his arms behind his head. Far in the distance, the rumbling thunder continued but quieter now, though the lightning still flashed, the dark sky occasionally lighting up between the clouds and the ground beneath. Joe stirred under his blanket and Ben looked over hopefully as his son groaned loudly in obvious pain and then muttered something unintelligible before returning to lapse into uneasy, comatose sleep, his brow still glistening with the sweat of a slight fever.
Once again feeling downhearted at the lack of response from his son, Ben tried hard to suppress a yawn, but failed as he felt his eyes grow heavy, unable to shake off the weariness that consumed him. As he drowsed, footsteps could be heard echoing quietly in the hall outside the bedroom, and as the door slowly opened Hoss appeared carrying a tray of sandwiches and two mugs of steaming coffee.
His gaze immediately rested on the still form of his brother, a wave of remorse sweeping over him the like of which he’d never known before. It made no difference to the big man that his father attached no blame on him regarding the accident; he felt he had failed to protect his little brother and it continually left him distracted with worry and anguish.
Tearing his eyes away, he then studied concernedly the dozing figure in the chair by the window. Since the accident, Ben had hardly slept, only allowing himself a few hours rest at a time while his middle son sat stoically on guard by his brother’s bedside, and Hoss remained silent and still for a minute or so before speaking.
“You would like some supper, wouldn’t you Pa?” he asked finally as he placed the tray on top of the writing bureau, the question said more as a compassionate command knowing his father had hardly eaten anything that day.
Ben’s head jerked up and he opened his eyes, throwing a grateful smile and giving a quick nod. “Thank you, son. I am rather hungry, I must admit,” he acknowledged, appreciating the tenderness and concern from the big man.
“How is he? Any change?” asked Hoss, ever hopeful as he gently washed dried blood from the mop of curly hair and wiped his brother’s face before carefully holding up Joe’s head, reversing the saturated pillow, and easing him down again.
“He’s still not showing any signs of waking up. I had hoped the noise from the storm would jolt him out of unconsciousness, but there was no reaction,” Ben replied sadly as he picked up and folded the sheets of writing paper precisely in half, placing them into an envelope and taking up his pen wrote out the address.
Hoss sighed deeply then gave his father an inquiring look and his brows lifted. “Adam?” he asked. His father nodded.
“I’ve been putting it off for the past couple of days, but tonight I made up my mind I had to let him know what had happened. Not that he can do anything, all those thousands of miles away, but I’d never hear the last of it if I kept anything from him, especially regarding his little brother!”
“That’s a fact, Pa!” Hoss replied, a faint smile tugging at his lips, well aware of his elder brother’s departing insistence he was to be informed of everything, good or bad, big or small, that occurred on the Ponderosa. His presence and influence still filtered around every inch of the ranch he revered so much, his obvious love for those he left behind evident from the letters he sent them, each full of amusing anecdotes, questions and suggestions.
As Ben tucked into his welcomed supper, Hoss pulled over a chair towards his brother’s bedside, settling down then sipping at his coffee and giving Joe a long and lingering look of concern. Father and middle son continued to sit together quietly, the only sound heard the labored breathing from the figure on the bed, and way in the distance the continued rumblings of thunder as the storm disappeared up into the snow laden slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
It was April and the morning sun bathed the land in the fresh pale light of springtime. Although his body was still weak and each breath slightly painful, Joe was now conscious and noticeably becoming stronger each day. Ben stood in the hall, clutching the handle of his son’s bedroom door, and he hesitated for a moment, mentally steeling himself for another difficult day as he took a deep breath then entered.
The figure on the bed twisted his head from looking at a small photograph on his bedside table, and with his green eyes noticeably moist, Joe gave his father a welcome smile and then sank back onto the pillow.
“Good morning, son. How are you feeling this morning?” asked Ben over brightly as he felt his son’s forehead for a sign of any returning fever, then affectionately brushed his fingers through the curly locks.
“I had another headache when I woke up but it soon went and Hoss brought me breakfast,” Joe answered, pointing at a half-empty plate at his bedside. “I ate up as much as I could.”
Ben nodded encouragingly, inwardly taking in the bright eyes and slightly flushed cheeks. “You’ve had a lot of headaches lately, but at least your appetite seems to be returning,” he acknowledged. “Would you like a drink?”
Joe nodded and his father walked towards a pitcher of water that stood on the dressing table, picking up a glass and filling it then offered it to his son’s lips. After taking a few sips, the young man lay back on the bed with a soft moan of discomfort, his eyes never straying from Ben’s face.
“Pa?” he asked in an uncertain voice, his brow now furrowed in puzzlement as Ben replaced the glass on the table and gave him a kindly smile.
Joe pointed towards the framed image of his mother. “Who is this? What’s her name?”
Ben’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Visibly shocked by his son’s response to his mother’s picture, he gazed at the silver framed image of a smiling Marie that looked over at father and son. Since regaining full consciousness the week before, Joe had made no mention of Ben’s third wife, his mother, tragically killed years before, and Ben’s smile faded as he sat down on the side of the bed. Taking hold of Joe’s hand, he squeezed it fondly.
“Oh Joseph! I never realized you didn’t recognize her….that’s your mother, Marie. She had a bad accident when you were a little boy and she died. Don’t you remember her at all?”
Joe fixed a nervous stare on his father and shook his head. “My mother…and she died?” he asked in a hesitating manner, anxiety and fear welling up within him. “So I’ll never see her again?”
“No Joe. She is in heaven now.”
For a moment there was a painful silence, Joe seemingly finding it hard to understand and accept what his father told him as he gazed back over at his mother’s photograph. “I didn’t know who she was. I must have forgotten,” he finally whispered, then his lips began to tremble and tears filled his eyes and rolled down his cheeks.
Ben moved closer to his son, resting his chin in the dark curls and gathering him in both arms. Not trusting himself to speak, Ben remained silent, gently rocking back and forward as Joe continued to cling to him tightly until the sobs gradually ceased.
Sensing instinctively something else was worrying his son Ben put his hand under the still trembling chin and gently lifted the tear streaked face. “What’s the matter, Joe?” he asked tenderly.
The young man looked up, searching his father’s face. “I don’t understand why I can’t remember my mother.”
Ben smiled softly. “Don’t you worry yourself, son. You’ve just hurt your head,” Ben answered truthfully, pulling his fingers through the curly hair with long, soothing strokes. “You can’t help not remembering her. It’s not your fault!”
“I’ve had an accident though, haven’t I Pa?” Joe asked tentatively as his eyes wandered down to his leg that was still in a wooden splint.
“Yes Joe. You’ve had an accident, a very bad accident,” Ben answered gently with a smile, his tired eyes remaining glued to his son’s face as he outlined the faint bump that still was evident on Joe’s forehead with his finger.
“So am I going to die? Like her?”
Ben’s expression froze as a stunned look appeared on his face. “Of course not, Joe! Why would you think that?”
“Well you said my mother had an accident….and died!” he said, his voice dropping, almost inaudible as Ben noticed the look of fear that swept across his son’s face.
“Joseph!” he cried softly, shaking his head and giving his son a reassuring smile. “You aren’t going to die…I promise you that.”
“I will get better then…will I, Pa?” Joe asked as he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his nightshirt.
“Yes, son. You will be better very soon,” Ben assured him, squeezing his shoulder affectionately before standing up and walking over towards the writing bureau as Joe settled down contentedly again. Ben gazed out through the window, purposely keeping his back to his son as he fought hard to keep his composure and hide his true feelings.
“What was she like, Pa?” a voice suddenly asked, and Ben felt himself visibly stiffen with emotion as the memories flooded back and he took a deep breath.
“She was very beautiful, and could be very obstinate at times, but she made me laugh; made us all laugh often,” Ben answered finally, feeling the blood rush from his face as his heart pounded loudly in his chest and his eyes filled with tears. “She loved you very much, son.”
His father’s answer seemed to placate Joe for a minute as Ben continued to look towards the mountains in the distance, and oblivious to his father’s continuing distress, awkwardly, and not without some pain, Joe then pulled himself up straight on the bed and peered out of the window.
“Pa? When is Adam coming home? Has he gone to college already? I haven’t seen him in such a long time,” he asked plaintively as if he were still awaiting his elder brother’s daily return from school.
Ben turned and placed a curious glance towards Joe, sensing disappointment in his tone of voice. “You’ve asked me that every day, Joe, and I keep telling you. It’s been a long time since Adam left college and he doesn’t live here any more. He’s left the Ponderosa and has now gone to live and work in England.”
Joe sank down onto his pillow. “You told me before?” he asked, shaking his head and feeling a fresh sense of panic rising within him; two of the most important people in his life had seemingly left him. “England? Is that a long way from here Pa?” he inquired as he lowered his eyes and fidgeted nervously, pulling loose a cotton thread from his bed cover and wrapping it around his finger.
“Yes Joe. It’s many miles away; across a big stretch of water.”
There was a pause for a moment as Joe digested this information then he raised his head, his expression one of dejection as he stared directly into his father’s deep brown eyes. “So Adam won’t be coming home for a long time?”
Ben shook his head sorrowfully. “No, Joe. Not for a long time,” he answered as he noted the sad frown on his son’s face. “But you still have Hoss, Hop Sing and me. We aren’t going anywhere. I promise!”
Visibly cheered up at this pronouncement, Joe’s green eyes now shined happily. “I love you, Pa,” he suddenly said, giving his father his most beaming smile before turning his head and looking out of the window as the sun disappeared behind a passing cloud.
Ben cast him a surprised sideways glance. “I love you too, son,” he answered quietly, swallowing back the deep sob he felt forming. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the bureau, removing a sheet of paper from the drawer as he cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
“I’m going to write to your brother Adam again, Joe,” he said finally, forcing out a smile as he gave his son a quick look. “Do you want to send him a message?”
Joe didn’t answer. He was staring upwards, seemingly fascinated by the spectrum of colors that were formed as the sunlight streamed once again onto the ornate crystal lamp that hung from the ceiling; in a world of his own as his face shone in almost childlike delight and the faintest of smiles appeared on his face.
Shaking his head sadly, Ben turned, picked up his pen and began to write.
Although we are still awaiting a letter from you with all your news, I have decided to write again and continue to give you a progress report without sparing any details of Joe’s condition, as I know you will be worried by the contents of my last correspondence.
For several days after I sent my last letter, your brother continued to remain unconscious, but then he began to wake up slowly, and we took those precious minutes of consciousness each day to give him nourishment and the laudanum, for he was still in obvious pain. While awake, he hardly seemed aware of where he was or who we were, and the occasional moments of lucidity in his eyes were few and far between.
However, over the following days and weeks, he has become stronger, stayed awake for longer periods, and physically his injuries are healing with great speed and all the lacerations and bruises have nearly disappeared. Paul is confident he will be able to take off the splint within a couple of weeks and Joe should be walking around as good as new. His ribs are slowly setting themselves and seem less sore, and his breathing causes just a little pain in his chest, so it would seem his lungs were not as badly damaged as we first thought.
Unfortunately, he suffers from bouts of occasional nausea, headaches and the muscles around his stomach are still sore, but he doesn’t complain and takes doses of painkillers when required. Paul assures me he will not become addicted to the morphine content of the laudanum and I take him at his word.
However, as I told you in my last letter, at the time of his accident I was fearful the head injury could well be serious and unfortunately I have been proved correct.
When he began to show signs of selective memory loss after fully regaining consciousness, we tried to coax him to remember people and events from over the years, but all we were rewarded with was a blank and slightly disinterested stare.
We should have realized something was wrong then, but at first we thought it was just a temporary condition and paid little attention to his behavior.
It was a relief when he immediately remembered who I was, but was seemingly confused to see I had gray hair, forever asking me where my brown hair had gone! I was slightly taken aback; after all I have been this color for nearly twenty years! I told him I’d had white hair for a long time, but he wouldn’t believe me, shaking his head and sticking out his bottom lip defiantly, just like he used to do when he was a child…remember, Adam?
Unfortunately, for some reason he couldn‘t figure out who Hoss was at first, much to your brother’s dismay! It was only by me promising faithfully to Joe that he was indeed his brother that he accepted him, though warily at first.
I will spare you the details of further examples of what he can and cannot remember, but after careful consideration we have worked out his amnesia is total from about the age of six or seven.
Had this been all we had to contend with, I think we would count ourselves lucky and accept his condition gratefully. After all, it would be no problem relating his past life and adventures over the years to him, but unfortunately as time has gone on, it becomes apparent we are dealing with something more serious and traumatic than just random memory loss.
It doesn’t look good, Adam! It would seem he now has great difficulty in making decisions or communicating on an adult level, thinking and behaving like a child would, and it has left us all completely stunned by its implications.
He has remembered you without any prompting, but continually thinks you are still at school and waiting to go to college, and every day looks out of his window and asks if you will be home soon, seemingly unable to neither comprehend nor accept the fact you are living so far away now.
Then today he looked at Marie’s photograph and asked who she was. I can hardly believe it possible. Your brother saw his own mother die in front of his eyes, yet now he can not even remember her! When I told him she was his mother and had passed away years before, he was convinced he was about to die as well! He was very upset and it took a long time to settle him down, though once I had told him he was going to be fine, his mother’s absence was seemingly forgotten and he was enquiring where you were once again.
Now that he is able to sit up he seems content and happy to spend most of his time gazing about his room or out of the window, showing no signs of restlessness and irritability at having to lie on his bed all day. This is so uncharacteristic of your brother, for as you well know Joe was never one to lie contentedly, always nagging to be moving and mobile as soon as possible!
He seems to be always desperately seeking the comfort and reassurance of Hoss or myself about most things on a daily basis and now thinks and responds to us with the mentality of a six year old, but without the inquisitiveness and mischievous sparkle in his eyes that was always evident in your little brother. It is as if a door has been closed in his head and the Joseph of old has been trapped inside, unable to get out.
Paul continues to be positive by saying it need not be a permanent condition and Joe’s brain may well heal itself. He has already enlisted the help of an old friend of his from San Francisco who deals with serious head injuries, asking him to visit and assess Joe’s condition, maybe give us some idea of what to do and how to treat him.
However, though I am willing to try something, anything that will return Joseph back to me as he was, I am no fool Adam; I fear my son, your brother, the man we know, may now be lost to us forever. His behavior and personality is of a six-year-old Little Joe trapped inside the body of 25-year-old Joseph, and I am at my wits end to know what to do next. What I wouldn’t do to turn back the clock just a few short weeks!
I am so sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, but I know you too will have your brother continually in your thoughts and prayers, so between us all, maybe the good Lord will consider sending down a miracle for him at this time.
Take care son, I miss you,
Your ever loving father
Ben laid down his pen and flexed his fingers. As he stared through the window into the yard below, he watched as Hoss climbed up onto the wagon and headed out towards Virginia City to collect the supplies. Pride in his middle son flowed through Ben’s veins; he was now a stalwart support for his father, the big man never complaining nor questioning the many extra chores and tasks he had to attend to, and a good natured smile never far from his face.
As he disappeared behind the barn, Ben turned and gazed again towards his youngest. Joe was once more fast asleep, a soft smile on his face and his left hand tightly clasping the silver framed photograph to his chest.
Heaving a heavy sigh, Ben looked through the window to the land that stretched over towards the horizon and beyond. The Ponderosa! His legacy to his sons. But at that moment in time, he mused, he would gladly trade it all with the devil to have his quick-tempered, impulsive and highly emotional youngest son returned to him as he used to be.
May came and went and as June brought the warm heat of summer, it was a weary and hungry Hoss who slowly walked across the yard after a long and tiring days work. The smell of Hop Sing’s delicious cooking wafted towards him and he quickened his pace with anticipation at the dinner awaiting his consumption.
Entering the house, he could see his father sat in his armchair, reading and totally engrossed as he smoked on his pipe. Hanging up his hat on a peg, Hoss placed his gun belt in a cupboard by the front door and walked over as Ben lifted his eyes and gave his son a welcome smile.
“You look tired, son. Everything go okay with the herd?”
Nodding, Hoss picked up a juicy apple and bit into it. “Sure did, Pa,” he answered, chewing noisily as he eased his large frame onto the settee and stretched out his legs. “We should be ready to head them off towards the railhead in a few days, and I’ve arranged for a couple of the best wranglers to stay behind and finish breaking in those horses we need for the Army contract. Sure miss not having Joe in charge…he would have finished it by now.”
Ben’s eyes involuntarily looked upwards towards the stairs. “Yes, he would,” he acknowledged sadly as he tapped the ash from his pipe into the hearth and then placed it on the table.
“You sure you’re going to be able to manage Joe for two weeks while I’m away?”
Ben raised his eyebrows and gave a slight chuckle. “I think I’ll cope, son,” he answered, noting the unease on Hoss’ face. “If not, I’ll make sure to send for the cavalry!”
For a moment. Hoss thought his father was being serious, but when he saw the familiar smile erupt on the weathered face, he grinned back at him. “Reckon I asked for that,” he acknowledged frankly as Ben offered a meticulously written letter over towards his son.
“We’ve heard from Adam,” he said, as his tone lightened. “The mail must be slow because he is only just replying to the first letter I sent him in February! I shall have to write back soon.”
Hoss sank back and made himself comfortable then concentrated keenly on his brother’s news as Ben closed his eyes and visualized his eldest son, sitting across from him in his favorite armchair book in his hand, playing his guitar, or just chatting in his easy and informative way.
A few minutes passed by in silence as Hoss re-read the letter for a second time.
“There isn’t much detail about his new home and the work he is doing,” he said finally in a disappointed tone as he threw the apple core into the fire. “Elder brother must have spent hours researching all those medical books to try and help us understand what was going on with Joe. Just hope he received the news he’d regained consciousness.”
Carefully folding the sheets of paper he placed them on his father’s knee. “Where is little brother anyway?” he asked as Ben opened his eyes and picked up the treasured correspondence.
“He’s gone to bed.”
“What? Already?” asked a bemused Hoss. “There was a time you had to drag him upstairs otherwise he would stay up all night!”
Ben heaved a sigh. “Oh to have those days back, son,” he admitted. “Cora and Enos called round and spent the afternoon with us, talking to your brother, trying their best to get some spark of recognition from him; but it was to no avail. He still doesn’t remember them at all. He was falling asleep on the settee after they left so I packed him off upstairs. He sure seems to tire easily these days.”
Hoss swore silently then banged his fist hard onto the edge of the settee in frustration, causing Ben to flinch back with surprise at his usually placid son’s outburst. “Dangblast it, Pa! It just isn’t fair! Why can’t Joe get his memory back like I did after I was found by the Vandervorts! It only took the breaking of my mother’s photograph to remember who I was!”
Ben’s face was somber as he threw his gaze towards the large desk where a fair haired woman with intense blue eyes smiled softly from an ornate picture frame. He wondered if his son truly realized just how fortunate he had been to regain his memory in those circumstances, and how close his father and two brothers had been to saying goodbye to him that day before he disappeared to Michigan forever.
“I know, son, but I doubt if the same sort of ploy would help your brother,” replied Ben as he replaced Adam’s letter in its envelope and lay it down on the table before sinking back into his wing-backed armchair. “He hasn’t lost his memory completely, so we can’t compare it to the total amnesia you suffered. From what Paul explained to me, he has severe symptoms of something called dementia and that complicates his condition. You heard what that specialist said. It would take a very serious traumatic event to even help spark some sort of remembrance of anything or change him back to the Joseph we knew such a short time ago.”
Hoss gave his father a penetrating stare. “So is there no way he will ever get better?” he asked anxiously with an edge of suppressed anger at the unfairness of life in his voice.
Ben tightened his lips and furrowed his brow. “We must never give up hoping for a miracle, son, but from what we’ve been told it doesn’t seem likely,” he replied solemnly. “However, we have one thing to be grateful for.”
As his eyes narrowed Hoss looked over questioningly. “What’s that, Pa? Way things are at the moment there’s not much that I feel thankful for!”
Looking thoughtful for a moment Ben bent over, picked up his pipe and relit it. “At least, Joe doesn’t know he is the source of so much worry,” he said, taking a long intake of smoke and blowing it out, watching the trail float up towards the ceiling. “He is happy and content with his life…as it is!”
Although he nodded in agreement and stared into the glowing embers, Ben noticed a despondent look that still covered his son’s face as Hoss drummed on the arm of the settee with his fingers. “Is something else eating at you, Hoss?”
The big man didn’t answer straight away. “Yes Sir,” he admitted finally and more than a little nervously as he looked his father in the eye and clasped his hands in front of him. “Are you going to write and tell Adam everything that the doctor from ‘Frisco told us?”
Taking a moment to consider his response Ben stared hard into the trusting clear blue eyes that brimmed with worry and sadness. “Dr Manion? Why, Hoss? Don’t you think I should?”
The broad face blushed hot and Hoss took a deep gulp as he viewed a flicker of unease on his father’s weathered features. “Well, Pa, I reckon if Adam knows what he told us, he’s gonna have a lot to say on the matter and be even more anxious than before!”
Ben held his son’s gaze steadily for a moment, his brown eyes clearly troubled. “I understand what you’re saying but answer me truthfully. How would you feel if it was you far away, and I didn’t tell you the whole truth about one of your brothers? Would you thank me for sparing you the bad news and worry, or chastise me for keeping you in the dark?”
Swallowing hard, Hoss gave a sad sigh and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Pa. I don’t know what I was thinking,” he replied, hanging his head woefully. “Of course I would want to know, so you must tell Adam everything.”
Ben gave a forgiving smile and put his hand on his son’s knee. “Don’t go fretting yourself, Hoss. I know you mean well and I must admit I’d been in two minds as to what to tell Adam, but I think we both know it’s for the best he is told all the details.”
Still with a worried look on his face Hoss sank back on the settee. “I know you’re right Pa, but if we tell Adam the truth about Joe, I reckon he’s bound to feel beholden to return home, and I don’t think that’s fair, not fair at all!”
Father and son stared at each other in silence for a moment then Ben nodded. “I know that, son,” he murmured softly, remembering only too well his eldest son’s life long desire to travel the world. “After delaying the start of his new life away all these years, it would be unfair and unjust to expect him to rush back home. However, he would never forgive me if I kept anything from him. But I won’t ask or pressure him and I’ll make it clear we are managing between the two of us. Does that ease your mind?”
Hoss beamed his tooth-gapped smile. “Sure does, Pa,” he replied, involuntarily throwing his gaze to his elder brother’s favorite leather chair as he chuckled. “Just make sure you tell him old Hoss is coping fine running the Ponderosa and I don’t know why he used to say it was such a tough job!” He then gave his father a broad wink. “And tell him we can take care of little brother without him worrying himself sick. Just ‘cause he had the brains in the family don’t mean he’s indispensable!”
Ben grinned at his son as he laid down his pipe on the hearth. “I’ll do just that when I write tonight and explain everything that has gone on,” he stated as Hop Sing suddenly appeared, carrying in the dinner of fried chicken and potatoes.
Ben and Hoss rose from their seats and moved over to the dining table, Ben looking at the two empty chairs and sighing deeply as he unfolded his napkin and placed it on his knee. He continued to gaze sadly to where eldest and youngest son always had sat, and although content with his middle son’s company, mused unhappily to himself that meal time just wasn’t the pleasurable family event it used to be as he helped himself to a piece of freshly baked bread.
Today we received your letter from England and I can not tell you how much it means to Hoss and myself to finally have word from you. Your good wishes and prayers are a great comfort to us, and we appreciate all the trouble you have obviously taken in your research about Joe’s head injury and its implications.
Hopefully you will have received my second letter and know he is now fully conscious, so I will continue to give you an update on your brother’s condition at the present time.
Physically Joe is now practically as good as new. All bruises and cuts have disappeared, and his ribs have healed in record time, due to Paul’s insistence they were not strapped from the onset. Once the splint was removed, he was soon able to walk unaided and is now nearly as agile as ever before, just showing the barest of limps. There is only the slightest discomfort from his lung when breathing, but with our encouragement to make him take deep breaths I am sure Joe will be totally recovered in no time.
However, that cannot be said for his mental state.
Remember I mentioned a friend of Paul’s was coming to assess Joe’s condition? Well he arrived. Dr Manion was a very conscientious and learned man, and he willingly stayed with us for a few days, watching every move Joe made, talking to him, asking him basic questions and taking notes, and I could see he was growing very attached to Joe and sympathetic to his condition.
However, when he gave his final verdict, much as he wished he could be positive, he had to admit to his knowledge amnesia like that suffered by your brother was usually irreparable and only a very small percentage of patients with his condition ever regained their memory.
Then he gave us his final prognosis about Joe’s change in behavior and personality. He was very thorough in his appraisal and tried to be as gentle as possible in his approach, but he had to admit to us Joe’s regression back to a childhood level was something he had never come across before but only read about. He linked it directly with his memory loss and could only guess that your brother would probably never have the capacity to think and act as an adult again, and would need constant care and supervision for the rest of his life!
I suppose we had all hoped he would supply us with a miracle cure but to be told that your brother would probably never recover was just too much to take in! Both Hoss and I were devastated. Even Paul was truly upset!
However, what he came out with next really shook us to the core.
‘Was I prepared and able to give Joseph such time consuming care?’ he asked me and even before I could give him an answer he added, ‘It would be better for all of you if he was placed in an institution!’
To say I was shocked and angry is an understatement Adam! An institution! Never!
I guess he could see I was not well pleased with his suggestion and he made his excuses and bid us a hasty farewell, but though I know he meant it in the kindest, possible way, as long as there is breathe in my body, Joseph will not be sent away to any institution.
He is neither mad nor violent and I refuse to accept his behavior is that of an imbecile! He is still my son, your brother, and we love him, and no matter what trials and tribulations are before us, both your brother Hoss and I refuse to even think about such a move.
And so from then on we have slowly come to terms with Joe’s condition being permanent.
We both realized it would mean more of the burden of ranch business would now lie on Hoss’ shoulders, but he faces the challenge happily for it seems to have given him fresh confidence in his abilities and he is managing well and without complaint. I am also deeply indebted to the ranch hands. They are mostly an honest and loyal bunch of men who are also doing their best to ease our work load in as many ways as they can.
I will admit, though, our lives are not easy, having to watch over and give Joseph constant attention although he is able to dress and feed himself which is a great help.
When it is feasible, he follows Hoss around the yard like a little puppy, happy to be in your brother’s company during the day. Hoss gives him jobs that keep him busy for a few minutes, but then, just like a small child, his attention is diverted to something else and he loses interest.
However, when Hoss has to work away from the house, I have to watch what Joe is doing all the time for he cannot be left alone or be trusted on his own. There are times when I have to shout at him if I fear he is going to do something that will do him harm; he does not seem to be aware of the dangers that lurk around the ranch any more. Unfortunately, he takes any words of reprimand from me to heart, usually filling up with tears and tearing off up into his bedroom where he stays for hours! Just as he used to do when he was a small child, only now there is no elder brother around for him to cling to and seek protection or read him a story until his father calms down!
He also seems fascinated by our firearms and we have to make sure they are locked away every night, and during the day if we are not wearing them. He is forever asking why he cannot wear a holster and have his own Colt .45 to shoot with! You cannot imagine what it is like Adam, gazing at your brother, from the outside the man of 25 he is, yet talking down to him as though he is 6 years old and telling him he is not allowed to play with guns! And this is the man who a few short months ago could outdraw anyone in Nevada!
To be honest, I can now understand that Dr Manion’s advice about the institution was only him trying to give us the easy option, knowing the undivided attention and care we will have to give Joe. But there is no way I could allow Joseph to be sent away. I am sure you will agree that The Ponderosa is his home and is where he will stay, though I fear I will need carefully reasoned judgment regarding his care in the near future. Much as I value and appreciate your brother Hoss’ help and opinions, he is usually swayed purely by sentiment; your tenacity and cool headedness was always such a great asset!
Poor Hoss is worried and upset that this letter may convince you to make a hasty decision to leave your new life abroad and return home to help us take care of Joe. However, I tell you this honestly, Adam; you have no reason to feel guilty or beholden to return to the Ponderosa. I won’t lie to you, son. You are sorely missed by us all, but I have usually been able to handle my own troubles and problems over the years, and am confident your brother and I shall be able to manage in your absence and cope with this latest test of faith!
Forgive me for not enquiring about your new life and I realize I am seemingly absorbed with Joe and his needs. But I can assure you, Adam, you are never far from my thoughts, especially during the long evenings when I think back to happier days, when we were all together on the Ponderosa.
Take care, son
Your ever loving father
As the clock struck the eleventh hour, Ben put down his pen. Hoss had already gone to bed, exhaustion etched on his face as he willingly left his father alone with his correspondence.
‘Sorely missed!’ Ben mused wistfully and not without a little anger. Those two words did not come close to describing how he really felt as he gazed down and studied all he had written, hoping Adam would not read too much between the lines.
Deep within his heart, he felt a pang of pain and he stifled a deep sigh of misery. No! ‘Sorely missed’ did not come close to describing how he felt about his eldest son and how he wished and continually prayed he were by his side once again as he carefully folded and then slipped the letter into an envelope.
The next morning as the smell of bacon and freshly made pancakes permeated up the stairs, Hoss made his way down, his eyes widening at the delicious breakfast just delivered to the table by their faithfully cook, Hop Sing. His father was already sat drinking coffee and seeming in a reflective mood as he stared into the empty hearth full of the cold ashes from the previous day’s fire.
“Morning, Pa,” Hoss called out as he swung his big frame onto his chair and helped himself to a portion and then offered the platter to his father.
Ben shook his head. “No thank you, son,” he answered a little distractedly.
Hoss nodded and began to tuck in to his meal. “Joe in the kitchen with Hop Sing?” he asked as he noted the clean plate and utensils in his brother’s usual place on the table.
Ben looked over the rim of his coffee cup. “No. He’s still in bed.”
“No he ain’t,” Hoss answered through a mouthful of food. “I just looked in and his room is empty.”
Replacing his cup in its saucer, Ben suddenly felt a deep sense of unease. “You sure of that, son? I haven’t seen or heard him this morning and assumed he was having a lie in.”
Hoss shook his head resolutely. “Definitely isn’t in his room. Where do you think he could be?”
Shaking his head, Ben pushed back his chair. “I have no idea but we’d better have a look around. I don’t want him hurting himself. You check upstairs again, in case he has wandered into Adam’s room or gone up to the attic. I’ll check outside.”
Taking a mouthful of bacon before arising, Hoss nodded as Ben threw his napkin onto the table and headed towards the front door. Brushing past the heavy oak sideboard, he stopped for a moment, knowing instinctively something was wrong. Looking down, he noticed one of the doors was half open with its key visible in the lock. He paused, then turned and called out to his son. “Hoss? Have you been in this cupboard this morning?”
His son turned on the stairs to see where his father was looking and shook his head. “No, Pa. Sorry. I put my gun and holster in there last night but was so darn tuckered out. I forgot all about them before I went to bed. I guess I must have left it unlocked. Why?”
Ben opened the door fully and peered inside. “Looks like Joe’s gun and holster are missing,” he answered tersely as he straightened up.
“Missing? How come?” Hoss asked, frowning and looking perplexed.
“I have a feeling your little brother’s disappearance could have something to do with it,” Ben said, giving his son a knowing look. “You know how he keeps nagging to play around with a gun. I’m guessing he got up early and noticed the key still in the lock so helped himself.”
“You think so, Pa?” asked Hoss nervously. “Then we’d better find him before something happens.”
Moving deceptively quickly for such a big man, Hoss followed his father who had disappeared outside, and they both stood on the veranda looking around. But there was no sight or sound of the missing son and brother as they scanned the yard and with his hands on his hips Ben gave a worried sigh.
“I’ll have a look in the barn,” he said as he pointed towards the creek. “You check out the gully at the back of the house.”
“Sure, Pa,” answered Hoss who quickened his pace and was soon out of sight.
Ben walked across the yard and quietly entered the large building, his eyes eventually making out the nodding heads of the horses in the half gloom as they awaited their morning feed.
Scanning around quickly and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he was just about to leave when a vaguely familiar sound suddenly reached his ears. Not knowing right away what it was, Ben stood still for a moment, trying to pin it down in his mind. It was then it came to him as the repeated thud of metal dropping into leather and then removed could be heard, again and again.
Moving silently towards the back of the barn, he turned towards the last stall which was empty of livestock but where his youngest son could be seen, his back to his father and his left hand hanging loosely above his holster, drawing out his gun repeatedly with a natural ease.
As Joe continued to play in a child like daydream, seemingly unaware of all around him, Ben failed to realize he was about to have death stare him in the face as he felt a combined sense of relief at finding his son, and anger at what he was up to.
“Joseph! What do you think you are doing? Give me the gun,” Ben demanded in a loud and authoritive voice as he reached out his hand and took a step forward.
Startled and surprised beyond measure out of his childlike reverie, Joe turned in a flash, the Colt.45 held steadily in his hand and pointed directly at his father, his eyes flashing with shock and alarm, and without realizing what he was doing found his finger instinctively squeezing the trigger.
Suddenly there was a deafening blast and Ben staggered back with the force of the bullet that hit him in the chest. As a look of bewilderment filled his eyes, he uttered a soft moan before slowly crumpling to the floor, his last conscious glance taking in a look of horror that covered his youngest son’s face as Joe watched him sink to the ground. Standing petrified for a moment with the gun still held limply in his hand, Joe gazed at his father as a dark red stain slowly covered Ben’s shirt.
There was a loud whinny of nervous horses and the sound of running feet and the barn door was suddenly thrust open and two ranch hands, Dave and Hank, ran in, alerted by the sound of gunfire.
“Good God! Joe’s killed his Pa!” one of them yelled as they came to a halt and looked down at the motionless figure of Ben while Joe stood in stark terror, staring open mouthed and wide eyed with fear. Hoss appeared, taking in the scene immediately and racing towards his father’s body as he gave his brother a quick glance.
“Joe! What have you done?” he cried as he knelt beside his father and gently turned him over, noticing immediately the red stain on the ground as it gradually soaked into the earthen floor. Searching frantically for a heartbeat Hoss held onto Ben’s wrist then tore open his sodden shirt to where the gaping bullet wound spouted out blood in a rhythmic fashion.
Dave could see Ben was still alive, and with great presence of mind, immediately ran for his horse that was stood with others by the hitching rail. “I’ll go and get the Doc!” he yelled before disappearing behind the barn. Hank glanced over at Hoss, noting immediately his usually flushed and happy face was now pale and grim.
Feeling a wave of nausea threatening to engulf him Hoss swallowed hard and looked up. “Help me take Pa to the house,” he commanded as he gently placed his arms under his father’s shoulders and Hank took hold of his feet. Carefully they lifted Ben and staggered across to the house, Hank following Hoss’ instructions and taking his father into the downstairs guest bedroom.
Laying him down gently on the bed Hoss removed his father’s shirt and grabbed a clean towel from the top of the dressing table. “Would you ask Hop Sing to bring in some more wet towels?” he asked Hank who nodded and disappeared towards the kitchen.
Pouring water into a bowl he soaked the towel then gently pressed it into the gaping gunshot wound, temporarily stemming the flow of blood as it ran across Ben’s chest and onto the blanket beneath him. Not daring to move his hand Hoss waited, keeping up the pressure until Hop Sing ran in with replacement clean towels already soaked in water and changed them over. With his father’s shallow breathing echoing in his ears, Hoss’ eyes remained glued to his face for what seemed hours, but in reality was barely 15 minutes.
Luckily for all concerned, Doctor Paul Martin was already on his way to the Ponderosa that day to visit Joe and had met the galloping Dave only a few miles from the house who informed him of Ben’s condition. Racing quickly to the ranch, he rushed in and throwing his hat on the chair in the corner put down his bag and immediately checked Ben’s pulse.
“How is he, Doc?” asked Hoss, his whole body shaking with fear and concern. “He is going to be all right, ain’t he?”
Paul rolled up his sleeves. “I won’t lie to you, Hoss. He’s very ill. His heart rate is erratic, and by the look of it he’s lost a great deal of blood. The sooner this bullet is out the better,” he answered, opening up his bag and setting out his instruments on the bedside table, ready to operate on his oldest friend.
“You up to assisting me?” the doctor asked, noting Hoss’ pale face, as he washed his hands in a bowl of fresh hot water brought in by the ever efficient Hop Sing.
Viewing his father’s motionless body, save for the short rise and fall of his chest every few seconds, Hoss gave a quick nod. “Of course, Paul. What do you want me to do?”
“Could you wipe away all this blood with some of this antiseptic so I can see what I’m doing?” the doctor asked, handing over a small bottle of iodine from his bag.
Hoss poured some of the contents around the gaping hole then gently wiped it away with a clean cloth. Wincing at the sight yet unable to tear his eyes away, he watched as Paul expertly began to probe for the bullet deep within the cavity of Ben’s chest with a small sharp instrument.
For minutes that dragged like hours, Paul dug deep and with precision, his assistant continually wiping and cleaning the surrounding skin with shaking hands until finally, with a groan of achievement, Paul lifted out the bullet and flung it onto a dish by his side. He gave a long exhale. “Got it!” he cried triumphantly, giving Hoss a fleeting smile of encouragement. “That’s the hard part over!”
“Is he going to be okay then?” asked Hoss anxiously.
“He’s still critical after losing such an excessive amount of blood, but knowing your father’s constitution and determination, he is not going to let a small thing like a gun shot wound stop him!” Paul answered with a reassuring grin. “We shall have to keep a close check on him for a while though, in case there is any sign of fever or infection.”
Breathing a deep sigh of relief Hoss slumped down into a chair and put his face in his hands. As his huge shoulders visibly shook, Paul gave him a sympathetic gaze. He knew the love and devotion that each of the Cartwright boys had for their father, and was not surprised by the reaction of the big man to the news.
“Who shot him, Hoss?” Paul asked as he began to stitch up the hole before bandaging Ben’s chest.
There was a moment of pained silence as if Hoss had forgotten how his father had been wounded then he suddenly looked up and shook his head, wiping his eyes with his hands. “Joe,” he answered quietly, barely able to look the doctor in the face.
Paul gave a look of deep surprise. “Joe shot Ben? Why? How?”
Hoss nodded, wringing his hands together nervously. “He disappeared this morning before we got up. We went looking for him and the next thing I know there is the sound of a gunshot from the barn and Pa is on the floor with Joe standing over him with his gun in his hand.”
Paul raised an eyebrow and shook his head as Hoss shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “Maybe Dr Manion was right after all,” he said miserably. “Joe should be placed in an institution where he can be kept under constant supervision and can’t hurt anybody. He is obviously unstable!”
The unbelieving eyes of Paul Martin stared over. “You can’t mean that, Hoss? Joe would never do anything to harm his father deliberate, we all know that! This must have just been a tragic accident and hardly proof positive of an unbalanced mind!”
Wishing it were all a bad dream, Hoss visibly shook with remorse. “I’m sorry, Paul. I don’t know why I said what I did,” he admitted, his blue eyes moistening as he stared at the doctor and wiped perspiration from his forehead. “What’s happened just frightened the life out of me. Of course Joe would never mean to hurt Pa. I just never thought we’d have to keep such a close watch on him.”
“I know it’s been difficult,” replied Paul sympathetically, well aware of the closeness between the two brothers as he finished off bandaging Ben’s chest. “Where is Joe by the way?”
Hoss’ head jerked up. “I forgot all about him!” He stood up quickly and looked down nervously at his father who continued to lie unconscious on the bed.
“It’s all right, Hoss,” said the doctor, knowing the big man was torn between staying at his father’s side and searching for his brother. “You go and find Joe. I’ll stay here with Ben, for as long as he needs me.”
Paul began to clear away his instruments. Throwing the doctor a thankful look, Hoss left the room and made his way out of the house, his attention immediately drawn towards Hank and Dave who were standing by the corral deep in conversation.
As he wiped his sweated hands on his shirt, he noticed for the first time it was covered with the dried blood of his father, the sight momentarily churning his stomach, and he gulped in a large mouthful of fresh air.
“How’s Mr. Cartwright?” Hank asked with genuine concern as Hoss joined the two men.
“Doc has got the bullet out and Pa’s still pretty weak, but he stands a good chance of recovering. We were lucky Paul arrived here so quickly.”
Nodding in agreement, the two ranch hands were just about to move off when Hoss tapped Hank on the arm. “You haven’t seen Joe anywhere have you?” asked Hoss.
Hank scratched his balding head and furrowed his brow. “Nope. Not since we carried your Pa from the barn.”
“I’ve just remembered! I’m sure I saw him riding off in the distance when I was bringing the Doc back here,” Dave chipped in.
Hoss looked anxiously at him. “What direction was he going?”
“He was heading towards the lake,” Dave replied, noting the worried expression on his face. “You want me to go look for him?”
Hoss’ eyes narrowed and he shook his head. “Thanks Dave, but I think I’d better go and try to find my little brother,” he replied as he walked towards the barn. “After what he’s done, heaven knows what will be going through that head of his right now.”
Joe could feel his cheeks wet with tears. The shock of what he had done and just witnessed made his whole body shake violently. It seemed he was in a living nightmare, alone, confused and totally ignored in the doorway of the barn as he watched the body of his father disappear into the house…just like the last time he had seen his mother.
He felt a sudden stab of pain between his eyes. He groaned, his gun falling to the floor as he dropped to his knees and put his face in his hands as a past vision, buried deep within the folds of his brain for the past few months suddenly flashed in his minds eye.
It had been nearly twenty years before when he had seen his mother lying dead in front of him in the yard, his child’s eyes watching her broken body being gently lifted by his father and taken into the house. And as his head pounded that painful, memory came back to him once again as the words of the ranch hand rang in his ears…he’s killed his Pa!
Tears continued to stream down his face as Joe tried to focus, closing his eyes tight and then blinking several times as he wondered what he should do. Thinking and acting as a child would, and without thought for safety or reason, he pushed himself up, staggered like a drunk towards the line of horses tied to the hitching rail and climbed on the first he came to.
He kicked the horse on to a gallop, not caring where he was heading. His lack of clear thinking reasoned he should just run far away, for he had done something very wrong, very bad. Not only had he played with his gun, even though he had been forbidden to do so, he had now shot his Pa…killed him!
As his horse clattered on, mile after mile over the hard ground, his head continued to pound until suddenly a vast expanse of rippling water with the morning sun reflecting on its shimmering surface appeared. Lake Tahoe seemed to beckon to Joe in his confused, befuddled state of mind and he aimed his horse in its direction.
With his vision still blurred by the tears that filled his eyes, the pain in Joe’s head became unbearable, and as he lost concentration, the inevitable happened. Nearing the lake at break neck speed, he failed to notice the 20ft drop to the lake side but his horse could sense the danger and stopped in its tracks, pitching an unprepared Joe headlong down the shingle and shale of the sharp incline.
He toppled downwards, head over heels until his fall was eventually halted by a large boulder that stood in solitude on the shore line. His forehead struck it hard on a sharp edge, and with a loud cry of pain, Joe collapsed in a heap and laid still, many minutes passing in blissful unconsciousness until he finally stirred, his head bleeding profusely and now badly concussed.
Pulling himself up, Joe rested his back on the boulder, his vision seriously impaired as his head continued to pound relentlessly. He tried to stand up but dizziness overcame him and he sank back down again with a loud moan. Wiping away the stream of blood that flowed down his face, he could feel a deep swell of nausea building up from within the pit of his stomach and he began to retch uncontrollably.
Weakened and now feeling drowsy from the violent blow to his head, he looked around him at the huge expanse of water that stretched out towards the horizon. Adam was across a big stretch of water, his father had said, and here it was! In his continuing, concussed state, the shooting of his father was now erased from his memory, and his only desire and purpose was to try and find his elder brother.
Without thought for what he was doing, he pulled himself up then staggered unsteadily in zigzag fashion towards the bitterly cold waters of the lake. Although his legs nearly buckled under him, he forced himself on, wading in, deeper and deeper until the water quickly climbed up to his chest and he could feel himself being pulled down by the weight of his sodden clothes. But despite the freezing temperature, a deep desire to find his brother drove him on and he tried to keep afloat, floundering and struggling in the dark and murky waters and all the while inwardly telling himself Adam was waiting for him on the other side and he had to get across.
The water lapped over his head and he fought hard to take breaths of air, but instead found himself swallowing mouthfuls of water, weakening with every stroke until finally, exhausted and disorientated he knew he was unable to carry on.
Way in the distance he thought a voice yelled his name. It must be Adam, his confused and concussed brain reasoned, but he had no energy or will power to keep going anymore. Quickly and quietly the pull of the current dragged him down to the depths and Joseph Cartwright sank into peaceful dark oblivion.
Three days later, in the early evening, Joe awoke in his own bed. His blurry eyes flickered for a few moments as they adjusted to the lamp light and then he noticed a figure sat in a chair by his side. “Pa?” he whispered hoarsely, stretching out his arm.
A large, rough hand felt his own and squeezed it gently. “It’s me,” said Hoss softly as Joe’s hazy vision slowly cleared and his brother’s face came into view. “Good to have you back with us.”
“Back?” asked a confused Joe as he winced momentarily with the pain of a throbbing headache. He tried to sit up but felt himself being pushed back down.
“Just you lay quiet,” Hoss ordered in a shaky voice as he felt his brother’s forehead.
Joe looked at his brother in bewilderment. “I don’t remember…what happened to me?” he began, and then could feel himself wanting to throw up.
Hoss sensed what was about to happen and hurriedly grabbed a bowl from the dresser and placed it under his brother’s chin. Joe emptied his near-empty stomach then lay back exhausted as Hoss removed the bowl and placed it out in the hall.
“Feel better?” Hoss asked with concern as Joe’s pale face began to gain a little color.
“Some,” replied Joe in a quiet voice.
“That thick old head of yours needs to be rested. You’ve hit it hard and been suffering from a bad case of concussion for the past three days.”
His brother nodded. “Longest three days of my life, and that’s a fact! But you just rest a while and we’ll talk about it later,” Hoss replied with a weary smile as he moved off towards the door. “I’ll be back up in a few minutes,” he added, taking a deep breath before disappearing quickly down the hall with the unpleasant smelling basin held at arms length.
As his eyes grew heavy again, Joe sank down onto his pillow and tentatively felt the large bump that was evident on his forehead. “No wonder my head hurts,” he murmured, drifting back into blissful sleep as a faint grimace flickered across his face.
The next morning he woke up as the warm summer sun streamed through the window into his room. His head still throbbed slightly and he opened his eyes a little tentatively, taking a few minutes to focus as he looked around at all the familiar pieces of furniture, the pictures on the wall, and the single photograph that stood in a silver frame on his bedside table.
“Hello, Ma,” he mouthed silently as he blew a kiss towards his mother’s photograph, just as he had done every morning for as long as he could remember. The heavy footsteps of his brother could be heard on the stairs and Hoss entered holding a cup of coffee in his hand. Joe could see he looked drawn and tired and fit to drop and wondered if his brother had been dozing in the chair by his bedside during the night. “Hey, Hoss,” he said fondly, a faint smile tugging at his lips.
“Hey yourself little brother,” greeted Hoss affectionately and with some relief as he placed the mug on the dresser then stood over the bed and looked down. “How do you feel?”
“My head feels like its being struck with a pick axe and from the taste in my mouth it seems like I’ve swallowed the contents of a horse trough!”
“Well you aren’t far off the truth there,” replied Hoss as he poured out a small glass of water and offered it over.
Joe took a few sips and gave a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”
Hoss placed the glass on the bedside table then walked over to the window, opening it half way and allowing a warm blast of fresh air to shoot through the room. “Don’t you remember being in the lake? By the time I dragged you out, you were all but dead!”
“You mean I nearly drowned?”
Hoss returned to his brother’s side and nodded emphatically. “Near as any man could. If I hadn’t seen your horse stood on top of the incline, I would have never noticed you out there, just as you sunk down. By the time I had managed to find and drag you back to shore, I thought I was too late. You certainly scared me to death! I had to work on you for what seemed a lifetime until you showed signs of returning to the land of the living!”
“So you saved my life?”
Placing his hand tenderly on Joe’s shoulder Hoss gave him a loving smile. “That’s what I’m here for — taking care of you!”
With a chuckle, Joe returned the look and his eyes twinkled mischievously. “Always like to keep you on your toes!” he said, then his face turned to a serious expression and he held out his arm towards his brother. “Thanks Hoss,” he said simply as he shook the outstretched hand that was hesitatingly offered to him.
A confused glint came into the big man’s eye; he thought he had just seen and heard the Joe of old and was about to comment, but Joe didn’t allow him time to speak.
“Why on earth would I be in Lake Tahoe?” Joe mused in a bewildered tone as his gaze traveled out of the window and to the blue sky that stretched from horizon to horizon.
“Don’t you remember anything about that morning three days ago?”
Joe looked back at Hoss and shook his head. “Not a thing,” he answered with a sigh. “You’d think I would be able to recall nearly drowning!”
“Doc said your concussion would probably affect your memory once you woke up,” Hoss offered over by way of explanation. “I’ll explain everything in good time.”
Joe placed his palm over his forehead and gave it a gently rub. “Headache seems to be easing thankfully. Feel a bit hungry as well!”
“That’s a good sign then,” said Hoss as he picked up his cup of coffee and glanced back at Joe who continued to stare as if mesmerized by the weather conditions outside.
“It’s unusually warm for February,” he remarked in a puzzled tone as Hoss sipped at his drink. “It would be a good day to finish off clearing those boulders for old Enos if I hadn’t been laid up like this.”
Hoss frowned and his face paled slightly then his hands began to shake as the implication of what his brother had said sunk in. The cup slipped from his fingers onto the floor with a loud crash and Joe looked down at the broken china and the hot liquid seeping into the wooden boards and gave a chuckle.
“Butterfingers!” Joe cried playfully, but then frowned as he saw the look on his brother’s face. “What’s the matter?”
“You just said it’s unusually warm for February….and you mentioned Enos!”
Frowning Joe widened his eyes in surprise. “So? What’s wrong with that?”
“It ain’t February, Joe….it’s June, nearly July! And you remember Cora and Enos?”
Joe gave his brother a long stare and shook his head, confused by his brother’s questions but deciding to play along with him. “Don’t be stupid, Hoss. I know I’ve been unconscious for three days, but it was definitely February the last time I looked and I’ve known the Milfords nearly all my life. I’m not likely to forget them that quick!”
Hardly daring to hope for the miracle he had prayed for over the past months Hoss gulped nervously. “What is the last thing you remember before you woke up last night?” he asked cautiously, his eyes never leaving his little brother’s face.
Joe pursed his lips and thought deeply as he felt and heard his empty stomach rumbling for nourishment. “Well, I was leading that old ‘ornery mule and all I could think about was Cora’s apple pie. I was trying to figure out how to get a second helping at supper before you managed to eat it all!”
Suddenly feeling weak in the legs Hoss dropped down into the chair and put his head in his hands. Joe could see he was clearly distressed and looked over with alarm. “Hoss? What’s the matter?” he asked with brotherly concern. “If you feel that badly, I would have let you have the whole pie…honest!” he added, trying to make light of the situation.
Raising his head and his eyes full of tears Hoss pulled his chair over to the bed. He took hold of his brother’s arm and held onto it tightly. “Little brother, you’re back! I’ve missed you, Joe, more than you’ll ever know.”
Slightly confused by his brother’s behavior Joe gave him a wary look of bewilderment, but inwardly appreciated the loving look his brother was throwing his way. “Well if you feel this way after three days, heaven knows how you’d be if I’d been missing for months,” he replied with a slight grin.
“Believe me, Joe, you’ve been gone for more than three days. This is going to be hard for you to take in, but there’s a lot you need to know,” Hoss said as he wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
Joe stared at his brother, feeling pensive, and he grimaced slightly as if in pain. “Okay brother…fire away,” he said hesitatingly and slightly bemused by the turn of the conversation as he sank back onto his pillow. Then suddenly something occurred to him and he shot his brother a questioning look. “By the way…where’s Pa?”
Hoss looked at him sharply and tried to keep smiling but failed as his blue eyes misted over with unease and his stomach lurched queasily. “Pa?”
“Yes Pa! You know…our father…the man who is always at my bedside when I am laid up! I only have to stub my toe and he’s fussing around like a mother hen, but you say I’ve been unconscious for three days, and I haven’t seen hide or hair of him since I woke up!” stated Joe as he studied his brother closely.
Hoss felt his face warming up under the close scrutiny. “Oh…he’s just downstairs at the moment.”
“Downstairs?” asked a puzzled Joe as he noted the flushed cheeks and a familiar look on his brother’s face that he knew well from over the years. Poor old honest Hoss just could not fool anyone when it came to hiding the truth…least of all from his own kin!
With his rumbling stomach now forgotten Joe could feel a deep sense of foreboding. “Hoss! I can tell by the look on your face you’re keeping something from me. What’s going on?”
Hoss drew a deep breath. He had never lied to his family; it went against the grain, and he was not about to start now. “Okay, Joe. But promise me you’ll just sit quiet until I’ve finished. I have a feeling you’re not going to believe or like what I’m about to tell you!”
With his story all but told, Hoss leaned back in his chair and looked at his little brother.
Joe was staring, his green eyes flashing with disbelief at him. “All this has happened over the last five months, and yet I don’t remember a single thing that you’ve just told me!” he cried incredulously.
“It was a real bad accident, Joe! Your head took a heavy blow after that nitro explosion and you just weren’t the same anymore. You were different; behaving just like a little kid again.”
“So how come I’ve forgotten that now, but remember everything else?” Joe cried in exasperation.
“It looks like when you hit your head again the other day, it must have somehow jolted your brain back to how it used to be! Pa said only a miracle would bring you back to us and he was right!”
Joe raised a quizzical eyebrow. “May seem like a miracle but it seems I’ve been using up a few of my ‘nine’ lives over the past few months!” he laughed without humor. “Broken leg, ribs, damaged lungs! And you still haven’t told me why I was in the lake and practically drowned!”
Hoss exhaled deeply as a knowing expression appeared on his face. “My guess is you were running away.”
Joe frowned, looking perplexed. “Running away? What from? Why?”
Hesitating for a moment the big man asked himself how best to answer, but in his heart knew there was no easy way. He gave a sigh. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this little brother,” he stated finally, taking a deep breath. “You shot Pa!”
Joe stared at him in disbelief. “Hoss, if that’s supposed to be a joke, I don’t find it funny!”
“It isn’t a joke, Joe. Pa found you playing with your gun in the barn, and for some reason, you shot him. It was an accident…you wouldn’t have meant to do it!” he emphasized as he studied his brother’s face intently. Hoss could only guess what was passing through Joe’s mind as he put out a comforting hand to lie on his brother’s shoulder.
“Why can’t I remember? Is he….?” Joe’s voice fell to a whisper as his eyes filled with tears.
Clasping his brother’s arm tenderly Hoss gave him a shake. “It’s okay, Joe. Pa is going to be fine. Doc Martin got the bullet out, and though he had a slight fever, it spiked last night and there’s no sign of infection and he’s been sleeping sound ever since.”
“I need to see him,” Joe said suddenly, sitting up and pushing back his blanket.
“You just rest easy, Joe,” Hoss ordered. “Pa has Hop Sing sitting with him while I’m with you.”
“I want to see, Pa,” Joe demanded again, more abruptly. He swung his legs around to the floor, his nightshirt hanging loose on his weakened frame then rose but fell back in a daze as the change in circulation made his head spin. “Help me, Hoss,” he pleaded as he gripped the side of the bed tightly.
Hoss’ heart broke at the sight. “You’re still weak, Joe. You should keep resting. Why don’t you wait a few hours then…?”
“No!” Joe interrupted with a trace of anger in his voice. “I have to see him now. If you won’t help me, I’ll crawl on all fours if needs be!”
Keenly aware of his stubborn streak and resolve Hoss nodded and rose stiffly to his feet. “Okay Joe, you just lean on me,” he said as he gently put his arm around his brother’s back. Lifting him up to a standing position and taking most of his weight, they slowly made their way down the stairs and into the guest bedroom.
Hoss pulled a chair towards the side of the bed as Joe paused for a moment, out of breath and holding tightly onto the door frame. Ben’s heavily bandaged chest and pale pallor brought tears to his eyes and a tremor of anxiety ran through him as he made his way to the chair, his eyes never leaving his father’s face.
“How badly hurt is he, Hoss? Why is he still unconscious?”
Hoss squeezed the back of his brother’s neck tenderly. “Don’t worry, Joe. I gave Pa a dose of laudanum early on this morning and that’s keeping him sleeping for a while. He’s going to be fine, I promise!”
Joe frowned, his gaze passing nervously up to his brother’s broad and kindly face. “How can you be so sure? If he were to…die….I don’t know what I’d do….” Halting again in mid-sentence, his voice noticeably dropped as he wiped his watered eyes then gazed once more at the motionless figure on the bed.
“Just you listen here, Joe. That accident left you behaving like a little kid. No one is blaming you! It wasn’t your fault!”
Both brothers fell silent for a moment then Joe looked his brother straight in the eyes. “Would you be so forgiving if he died?”
Hoss detected the tone of despondency and could see Joe was visibly shaking. The sight tore at his heartstrings, and acting on impulse for the sake of his brother’s peace of mind, he put his hand behind his back and crossed his fingers. “Even if Pa had died, I’d have never blamed you for an instant,” he replied, staring directly at his brother as the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. “Anyway, it ain’t gonna happen, so let’s not dwell on it.”
Joe offered a weak smile of gratitude and the silence that followed between them spoke volumes of their brotherly bond before he returned to gaze back at their father, reaching over and gently taking hold of one of his hands and intertwined their fingers together. Taking in the tender scene, Hoss sniffed, and pulling out a handkerchief blew his nose noisily.
“Are you feeling up to staying here with Pa for a while?” Hoss asked finally, throwing his brother a concerned look.
Joe smiled reassuringly and nodded.
“Okay. I’ll go finish my chores and then bring you in some breakfast,” Hoss replied, smiling warmly. “Sure is great to have you back, little brother,” he added as he disappeared through the door, whistling happily.
Feeling a tear trickle down his cheek Joe laid his head gently on his father’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, Pa,” he whispered, closing his eyes and listening to the reassuring beat of his father’s heart echoing in his ear. “Wake up soon…I need you.”
It had been two days since Joe had found out about his father and struggled downstairs, but even though he was much improved, Ben had still not woken up. His youngest son was noticeably more irritable and nervous by the hour as he continued to sit and sleep by his father’s side, unwilling to leave him for any length of time, and realizing unhappily just what his father must have gone through at his bedside all those months ago.
As the clock by the front door chimed 8 am, Joe walked towards the bedroom window and drew open the curtains, looking out into the yard as the twenty or so ranch hands mounted up and then made their way towards the herd of cattle waiting to be delivered to the railhead. He could see Hoss waving them off and shouting out his thanks and encouragement, a beaming smile on his face. But as the men disappeared behind the barn, his expression changed to one of unease as he slowly turned and made his way back in doors, deep in thought.
Joe was aware his brother was supposed to be overseeing the important cattle drive, and a surge of guilt washed over him. It was his fault all the well made plans had been changed and his stomach churned painfully with guilt and sadness.
The bedroom door opened slowly and Hoss entered, standing still and gazing over at his father. “Any change?” he asked as Joe turned and walked towards him. He shook his head emphatically. “Nope, none at all,” he answered wearily, giving his father a quick glance and then following his brother out and sitting down at the dining table.
“Seems strange, letting the men go on the drive without a Cartwright at the helm,” he mused as Hoss poured out a cup of coffee.
“I’m sure Hank will make a good trail boss,” Hoss observed, trying to convince himself as much as his brother. “He’s worked on them with us for more years than I can remember.”
“Sure has,” Joe agreed, giving his brother a fleeting look as he eased back in the chair and emitted a deep sigh, staring moodily towards the bedroom door and chewing at his under lip. “You could have gone with them,” he stated finally, meeting his brother’s gaze full on. “Don’t you feel you can trust me to look after Pa?” The remark caused a hurt look to appear on Hoss’ face and Joe lowered his eyes, regretting instantly the pain he had caused.
Knowing full well Joe’s question was brought on by worry and fatigue, Hoss ignored the taunt and just rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Trust don’t come into it, little brother,” he stated calmly, noting the dark circles under his brother’s eyes and his pale face. “I’m just as concerned about Pa as you are and don’t want to leave him right now. Besides, you’re not well enough to be left on your own. I’ve heard you throwing up in the out house and holding your head ‘cause it’s still aching when you don’t think I’m looking. Doc Martin said it could be a while before you were fully fit again. Why don’t you go and have a lie down upstairs? It’s obvious you need more sleep.”
Joe screwed up his face and massaged his throbbing forehead. “Thanks…but no thanks. From what you told me, I’ve done my fair share of sleeping this year. Until Pa wakes up, I’m not leaving him alone.”
“But you’re going to make yourself ill,” Hoss countered. “You’ve hardly eaten anything over the past few days…you need to look after yourself or….”
“Who cares!” Joe said coldly as his voice rose and he turned on his brother. “Just quit the lecture. I don’t feel as though I deserve any favors or concern from you, Hoss. In case it’s slipped your mind, I’m the one who shot our father and he’s still lying in there unconscious!”
“I haven’t forgotten, Joe,” replied Hoss quietly, eyeing his volatile tempered brother with the patience of a saint. “But I have forgiven…so quit feeling so guilty and sorry for yourself.”
With his fists clenched tight Joe looked at his brother incredulously. “Guilty? I deserve to feel guilty after what I’ve done! How can you be so damned reasonable about it all?” he raved angrily as his voice rose again.
“Joseph! Stop yelling at your brother!”
The slightly wavering but still unmistakable voice of their father drifted in through the bedroom door and both men stood frozen for a moment, not quite believing what they heard. As realization dawned relief flowed through them and they turned in unison, rushing to Ben’s side in an instant.
Ben Cartwright stared at his sons with a smile on his face as Hoss stood on one side of the bed and Joe knelt down at the other.
“You’re awake at last!” cried Hoss happily as he poured out a glass of water then supporting his father up, gently allowed him to take a few sips before he sank back on the pillow and gave a grateful nod of the head.
“Considering the racket your brother was making, it’s hardly surprising!” answered Ben with a smile as he returned to gaze at the kneeling figure by his left hand.
“How do you feel, Pa?” asked Joe whose eyes were filling with tears. “Sore….but otherwise surprisingly fine,” answered Ben as he continued to stare down at his youngest son. “And how are you Joe?” he asked as he took hold of his hand and squeezed it gently.
“I’ve just come through hell and back,” Joe replied in a shaky voice. “I’m so sorry, Pa. I can’t have known what I was doing. I’d never do…”
Ben shushed his son. “I know, Joe….it was just as much my fault. I shouldn’t have snuck up on you like I did. I give you my solemn word I’ll let you play with your gun…only we’ll take out all the bullets next time!”
Ben turned to look at Hoss who was beaming at him. “Things have changed around here over the past few days! Joe isn’t that Joe anymore. Joe is the old Joe!” he laughed as Ben’s confusion showed clearly on his face.
As he turned his head and looked more closely at his youngest son, he could now see clearly the green eyes that flashed with life, vitality and mischief. Joe grinned and nodded happily as tears flowed over his cheeks unashamedly. “Yep…you got the old Joe back, Pa…like it or lump it!”
Nearly three weeks later, Ben Cartwright made his way to his desk in the early afternoon, his chest still slightly sore and bandaged, but well on the road to recovery. Able to now walk around unaided, he had convinced his sons that he could be safely left alone while they greeted the returning drovers who had successfully driven the herd without incident or problem to the rail head, making a tidy profit for the Cartwrights. He thought it appropriate Hoss and Joe should hand over the well deserved bonuses to each man with words of thanks and free beer at the Silver Dollar saloon; the latter suggestion bringing a wide grin of agreement onto the face of his youngest.
As he settled down and reached in one of the drawers, Ben’s fingers connected with an envelope and he lifted it out with a slight frown of puzzlement. It was his last letter to Adam, unaddressed and laid forgotten since the drama enfolded that fateful morning, and as Ben re-read the correspondence through, he swallowed hard, fighting to keep his emotions in check as he painfully relived each word that had described Joe’s condition to his eldest.
Thank heavens Adam was spared this, Ben thought to himself as he carefully tore the letter in half and dropped it into the waste bin by his side. Taking out a fresh sheet of paper, he dipped his pen into the china inkwell, but wrote nothing down for a minute as his thoughts turned to Joe and he gave a deep sigh of relief.
Since knowing his father was going to be okay, Joe’s appetite had returned, the headaches disappearing and the mischievous glint in his eye never far away. To have his son returned as he had been was truly a miracle, Ben mused as he recalled something Joe had said the morning his father had finally regained consciousness.
‘I’ve been to hell and back!’
Ben nodded to himself in the silence of the ranch house; it was a fair description of how he felt. ‘Looks like Lady Luck stuck around The Ponderosa after all, my darling,’ he murmured as he smiled at the photograph of Marie that stood on his desk, then put pen to paper and began to write.
I have news about your brother Joe….good news!……