Dead on Time (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,500


December 31, 1860

It was a dark midwinter’s night above the meadows, mountains, and lakes of the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada. The snow-laden sky was covered in cloud with not the slightest glimmer of a star in the heavenly gloom. With no wind to blow it away, the canopy of condensed watery vapor hung motionless in the air, also hiding the silvery crescent of the moon, leaving the land beneath it shadowless and foreboding.

Deep within the mass floated two ghostly figures, both eerie in appearance as they looked down onto the darkened outline of the land beneath them. Wearing long flowing robes, hoods covered their heads, their faces barely visible as they drifted in the vast firmament.

The first was bearded and elderly in appearance carrying a huge scythe in his left hand and an hour-glass in his right. His companion was almost skeleton-like, whitened bones visible on his face and hands and in his right hand he held a large leather bound book. On his shoulder sat a silent crow, feathers blacker than the night, its deep yellow piercing eyes staring, unblinking into the distance.

Neither figure spoke as they continued their journey into the blackness around them, both linked together for all time with the inevitability of death. Suddenly one figure stopped, hovering in silence as he glanced down. He swung his arm through the air parting the cloud and the other figure, seeing his companion was still, also came to a halt, following the direction of the other’s empty eye sockets. A snow covered landscape became visible surrounding a large ranch house, complete with corral and barn, and in the yard stood a single horse and buggy. Lights could be seen glowing through the windows, but there was no sense of joy or happiness radiating from the building on this New Year’s Eve. Only deep sadness and pain.

“Death? Why have you stopped here?” asked Father Time, as the Grim Reaper opened the book in his hands and looked at a name on the last page.

“I have come for my final collection for tonight and for this year,” replied Death, his grisly boned smile evident as he checked the name and details. “My Book of Souls tells me at what precise time I can collect.”

Father Time sighed. He never could understand his companion’s joy in delivering the sentence of doom to his unfortunate victim.

“Do you really enjoy what you do, Death?” asked Father Time sorrowfully. “Do you never wish your unfortunate soul could be spared your visit?”

Death nodded slowly, as the smile on his face now disappeared and he recalled the millions, nay billions of visits he had made since the beginning of existence.

“I can accept the souls of the murderers without a second thought, the elderly who have had their life played out to the full, the soldier who is prepared to die for his cause. But sometimes I do regret that I have to take away a new-born baby from its parents, a sickly mother from its child, a loving sibling from its brothers and sisters. So many innocents who deserved so much longer on the earth and that truly leaves me feeling sad. But my book is never wrong and I must do its bidding.”

Death’s long arm extended as he pointed downwards and sighed deeply. “For example, tonight I have to take the soul of a loving and caring young man. Take him away from the father and older brothers who love him so. He should have been able to see out his ‘three score and twenty’ but due to the actions of others it is not to be. Sister Destiny has decreed he must accompany me tonight and though his soul is one I wish I did not have to take, I must obey.”

“It seems such a shame,” commented Father Time, “that he should leave on such a night. The last night of the old year, just when I am about to welcome in the new year full of happiness, new resolutions and new hope for the future.”

Death nodded in silent agreement. “How much longer is the old year with us?” he asked of Father Time, “How much longer will this young man have with his family? He is scheduled to leave them with one minute of the clock to go before the old year departs.”

Father Time looked down sadly at his hour-glass. “There are thirty minutes before old turns into new. Thirty minutes before I change from Old Father Time into the innocent Baby of the New Year once again, as has been done since the beginning of time.”

Both figures continued to hover silently as an intense column of heartbreaking emotion, made up of misery, grief and anguish poured up from the ranch house beneath, swirling around them.

“Why don’t you tell me about this young man?” asked Father Time finally, “Maybe you will gain solace as you prepare to take him away from all those who obviously love him so dearly. Why is he leaving his earthly life so prematurely?”

Death looked over at Father Time, his white boned face nodding, glad of the respite from his troubled chore.

“His name is Joseph Francis Cartwright and his fate was sealed by circumstances that began just a week ago…”

*****

December 24th, 1860

Since his earliest recollection of Christmas, for Joe Cartwright Christmas Eve was his favorite day of the year, surpassing even Christmas Day itself. It was the perfect day; the kind of day that made him wish it would never end. A day where he would savor every moment filled with anticipation of what was to come. It was also a day that started late as he ran downstairs for breakfast, the last to rise as usual.

Already seated at the table, Ben, Adam and Hoss looked at the smiling face of the young man who shot down the stairs, two at a time and rushed over towards them, barely missing the branches of the sweet smelling Christmas tree that stood at the foot of the stairs. However, for once, Ben gave no disapproving glance towards his youngest son as Joe slipped into his chair next to Hoss and began to pour out the last of the coffee in the pot, beaming at his family. Ben and his two eldest sons smiled back, knowing full well even though he was now eighteen years old, Joe still had a childlike love for Christmas and was loath to curb his natural enthusiasm for the coming festivities.

“Hey Pa, I see it’s been snowing during the night! Isn’t that just perfect,” remarked Joe, as he began to pile bacon onto his plate and placed a forkful into his mouth.

“Perfect it may be Joe, but I still have to get into Virginia City this morning. Just hope it isn’t too deep or I won’t get through,” said Ben, his voice becoming full of concern.

Joe’s face fell for a moment. “Oh! I’m sure the road will be pretty clear Pa,” he said confidently. “With Adam and Hoss to help you, there should be no problems.”

Ben gave his son a quick glance with a look of mock annoyance, “Joseph, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t talk with your mouth full!”

“Yes Sir, erm, no sir,” Joe answered, unintentionally spitting out a piece of bacon onto the table cloth in front of his father. Adam and Hoss began to smirk as Joe looked up quickly, awaiting the rebuke he felt sure was about to fall his way. With business matters forever on his mind over the past weeks, his father’s mood had been both changeable and fickle, no one ever sure how his temperament would be each day. However Ben just raised an eyebrow and stared back for a second or so, then gave a quick smile, sharing the humor of the moment with his youngest.

“Sorry Pa,” said Joe as he smiled back apologetically, his green eyes sparkling with fun and happiness as he held his father’s gaze momentarily, swallowing another mouthful of bacon as he turned towards his two brothers. “Don’t you all hurry on back home. I’ve got all your presents to wrap today, and I don’t want any peeping!”

“You never seem to have any money left these days to buy anything, let alone presents for Christmas!” commented Adam dryly as he looked up from the newspaper he was reading and stared over at his little brother.

Joe returned the stare and fought hard to keep his temper in check, bracing himself for more sarcastic comments to fall his way. However, Adam just returned his concentration to the article he had been reading, and Joe’s good mood returned in an instant as Hoss leant over towards him.

“And what would these presents be, little brother?” asked Hoss, as Adam looked over at Joe again, also eager to know but unwilling to admit he was as curious as Hoss.

With a chuckle Joe gave his brother a wink. “That’s a secret between me and Santa Claus Hoss,” he said, fully aware how both his brothers just hated not knowing what was to be wrapped and placed under the tree on Christmas Eve. “You will just have to wait until tomorrow!”

“Dadburnit, Joe, can’t you just give me a tiny clue?” Hoss begged.

The youngest Cartwright shook his head resolutely. “I’m saying nothing, so don’t even try getting round me with those big, blue, puppy dog eyes, Hoss,” Joe laughed, as Hoss sat back and pulled a face of frustration and Adam huffed noisily as he returned to his paper.

Joe had turned eighteen in the summer, and his birthday party had been one of the best attended and lavish in the history of Virginia City. He knew he had never been the easiest of sons or brothers to manage during his rebellious teenage years. His escapades with his brother Hoss and school friends, usually at his instigation, were legendary, as his backside acknowledged on more than one occasion when it felt the slipper in his father’s hand. His temper had always been notoriously volatile, though over the past months he had worked hard to contain his anger, especially when aimed at his eldest brother who always seemed to continually rub him up the wrong way.

With the memory of his birthday still fresh in his mind, thoughts of Christmas began to fill his head, especially what he would buy his family. After much deliberation Joe decided he would choose something special as a way of thanking them for their love and care over the past eighteen years. Each of the gifts would need to be special, very special. So, along with the usual Christmas presents, the carefully considered ideas came, and their purchase realized.

For his father the gift would be a reminder of days gone bye, when Ben had sailed on the oceans of the world. Always willing and eager to tell a story from his turbulent days on the clipper ships, Ben still had a deep love for the life he gave up all those years ago, before Adam was born. His first ship, The Wanderer, held a special place in his heart, so Joe had commissioned a small exact replica of the ship, down to its name in gold leaf on the stern and bow to be made and then placed in a bottle. When the sails were miraculously pulled up to their correct positions, the Clipper Ship Wanderer was left to stand inside its glass case in magnificent splendor.

For Adam, the choice of gift had been easier to select. The eldest Cartwright son had a deep seeded love for the written word, something inherited from his mother who died the day he was born. For him there was no more welcome respite from the workload of the Ponderosa than to snuggle down in his favorite chair and lose himself between the pages of a novel or a poetry book, his eyes greedily absorbing every sentence or verse.

One night Joe heard his father and eldest brother talking about Adam’s mother, and her love of the author, John Milton. Adam mentioned his desire to one day secure her favorite piece of work, Paradise Lost, written by the long-dead Englishman. So secretly Joe ordered a set of the work from the most renowned bookshop in San Francisco. Each volume was bound in the most expensive leather and every page printed on the best quality paper available. Joe gave the books a quick selective browse when they arrived, and noted their beautiful quality, but quickly replaced them in their box, deciding his dime novels were much more entertaining and to his taste!

With both gifts for Ben and Adam secured, the present for Hoss proved to be the hardest to find. As autumn arrived Joe was still unsure what to buy as his big brother was uninterested in thick paged books or fancy clothing from the smart stores of the east and west seaboard. One day while in Virginia City he had chatted with Lars Olson, the owner of the feed store, an elderly man who had migrated from the cold far away land of Sweden many years before. Joe held a soft spot for the old Swede, and so showed no irritation when called by his childhood name that he now considered unsuitable as he entered his late teenage years.

“Where about in Sweden did you come from?” asked Joe, as Lars reminisced about the homeland he still missed, even after such a long time.

The old man’s eyes glazed over as memories flooded back of the home where he was born. “Just a small village Little Joe,” he replied, “in the province of Darlana.”

Joe looked over with interest. He seemed to remember that was the area of birth of Inger, the mother of his brother Hoss. “Really? What was it like?”

“It was beautiful with lakes and rich forests but very cold in winter, yet so rich in color in the summer. The horses there are famous too.”

Joe looked over in bewilderment. “Horses? Never heard of a breed of horses from there,” he said, puzzled.

Lars laughed, shaking his head. “No, young man, they are not a breed of horses. These are wooden figures of horses, made by the local people and painted very brightly. I hear tell they can now be bought from the better shops in the big cities of America!” he said proudly.

Joe’s eyes widened with delight. Now that would be a gift for Hoss! A true reminder of the mother he never knew and his heritage that helped make him the man he was.

“Thank you, Sir. You have just done me a great favor, and saved me a lot of time,” he said as he made his hurried farewells.

The old Swede smiled, happy to be of service to the young Cartwright, as he watched him make his way down the main street to the telegraph office.

After many messages were sent between Joe and the fancy department stores of San Francisco, he finally got the answer he wanted – a store did stock the famous Darlana Horses, and on payment, one would be shipped out to Virginia City, hopefully just in time for Christmas.

So finally, with much research, letter writing, and sending of telegraphs, Joe’s task was complete, securing three gifts that he was sure would delight his father and brothers. The cost had been considerable, but by saving his wages religiously each month, secretly finding extra work from outlining ranchers on his days off, and by using most of his savings, payment had been made both on time and without a quibble.

As he watched and listened to the friendly banter between his sons, Ben inwardly laughed as he realized how easily Joseph could wind his brothers up at times. He also wondered how his son could afford to buy Christmas presents. Maybe at last he was beginning to learn responsibility and save his wages thought Ben hopefully, then, his breakfast finished, wiped his mouth with a napkin and rose up from the table wincing with discomfort as he began to rub his right knee. He had badly twisted it the week before and although heavily bandaged it still throbbed painfully, especially when he began to move about after being sat for a while.

Joe noticed his father’s face as it clouded over with discomfort. “Pa, why don’t you stay here today? Adam and Hoss can collect the extra supplies to keep us going over the next few days and it would save you using that leg too much.”

Ben gave his son a thankful look but shook his head. “Thanks for the suggestion, Joe, but I really need to go to the lawyer’s office. If I don’t get that contract signed by the end of the day, we could end up forfeiting quite a good deal with those cattle for the railroad. I also want to talk over the Army contract with Samuel before the snow gets much worse and we get stuck here for a week or more.”

He slowly hobbled to the large fireplace and took down his pipe from the mantelpiece, lighting it with practiced ease, before settling back into his comfortable arm chair, the heat from the blazing fire warming his throbbing knee. Picking up a large wad of papers from the table, Ben then began to read the contract intently, oblivious to the concerned looks shot his way. Joe exchanged worried glances with his two brothers and shook his head. They all knew their father was suffering with his knee more than he cared to admit, and though he was feeling his age, pride would not allow him to accept he needed help, especially when offered by his own sons. Stubbornness was a true Cartwright trait, and when Ben decided he had to go into town, then into town he would go, painful knee or no painful knee!

Keen to have another drink, Joe stood up and made for the kitchen to collect a pot of fresh coffee. As he went passed Adam, his brother called after him.

“Actually, Joe, Hoss and I were wondering if you would go in with Pa today? We need to ride over to the McArthur place and give old Josh a hand with his broken wagon,” stated Adam as he folded his newspaper and looked over the table at Hoss.

The big man gave his elder brother a quizzed look. “What broken wa…….!” he said, suddenly stopped by a dark look and a kick under the table on his ankle.

“Ouch!” said Hoss as Joe returned with the refilled coffee pot and sat down unaware of what had passed between his two brothers,

“You want me to go with Pa? But you know I always stay and help Hop Sing prepare all the food on Christmas Eve and wrap all your presents. Done it since my Ma died. It’s like…..well….tradition!” Joe said as he began to pour out another drink.

“I know Joe, and I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important, but Josh needs that wagon up and running to deliver his winter feed for his animals. Plus, with his arthritis playing up pretty bad, he sure needs every bit of help we can give him,” said Adam seriously, still holding the puzzled gaze of Hoss.

“But Adam! Can’t it wait till after Christmas? You know how much…..” Joe started but was silenced by the dark look on his elder brother’s face. It was a look he had grown to know well over recent months – the look that said ‘I need you to grow up, little brother, so don’t disappoint me now!’

Swallowing a mouthful of coffee, Joe put down his cup and nodded. “Oh, all right. I’ll go with Pa. Just hope we don’t take too long or Hop Sing isn’t going to be too happy with me,” he said, resignedly, unhappy to break the tradition followed for the past thirteen years. His perfect day was disappearing fast.

Adam rose quickly, afraid his brother would change his mind. “Is that all right with you, Pa?” he called over to his father who was continuing to study the paperwork.

“Erm… sure Adam,” said Ben, still totally absorbed by the document.

“Good! Come on, Hoss, let’s make an early start on our chores. Should be able to get over to help Josh by noon if we get a move on,” said Adam quickly as he gulped down the last dregs in his coffee cup. With a crestfallen face, Joe resumed to tackle the bacon on his plate, completely unaware of the slightly mischievous glance thrown his way as Adam winked over at Hoss then moved away from the table.

Shaking his head, slightly confused, Hoss stood up and laid his hand on Joe’s shoulder sympathetically as he passed behind his chair. He realized all too well his little brother’s disappointment at the change of routine on Christmas Eve. Joe looked up and gave his big brother a flicker of a smile then watched as Hoss followed Adam to the credenza, the two brothers putting on their thick winter coats in readiness for the chilled air and snowy weather outside.

“See you later then, Pa,” cried Adam towards his father who continued to read through the important contract, checking for any loop-holes that may be possibly hidden within its many complicated paragraphs.

Ben looked up quickly towards the front door. “Oh, bye, Adam, Hoss. Make sure you’re home early for dinner. You know how Hop Sing likes to make a fuss over his Christmas Eve meal,” he said, then resumed his reading.

“No problem, Pa,” cried Hoss enthusiastically as he buckled on his gun belt, “I wouldn’t miss that meal for the world.”

“Bye, Joe. Enjoy yourself in town,” shouted Adam, his mischievous smile now evident as he banged on his hat and opened the door.

Following Adam out and shivering in the cold air, Hoss heard the morose farewell from their younger brother, “I’m sure I will Adam. Thanks,” as he closed the door behind him.

As they walked towards the barn, Hoss pulled on Adam’s arm. “What’s this about, Adam? Josh ain’t got no broken wagon. You fixed that yesterday and told me so last night!”

“I know, Hoss, but what would you rather do? Go into town with Pa to collect supplies and freeze your butt off, or head to Josh’s place and help taste that famous homemade Christmas punch he’s renowned for? Had a taster yesterday and it sure was good!”

A slow smile appeared on the big man and he began nodding enthusiastically. “Sounds good to me, Adam,” he said quickly, his blue eyes lighting up with anticipation. Then a slight frown appeared on his face. “But what about Joe? Seems awful mean making him take our places and go into town today. You know how he loves his Christmas Eve routine, plus it’s a sure bet he would appreciate a taste of Josh’s recipe as well!”

“Ah, Joe is just a kid! He only drinks that watered-down beer in the Silver Dollar and is far too young to appreciate the finer things in life, Hoss. That heavenly nectar Josh has concocted would be just wasted on his palate!”

“Joe isn’t a kid no more, Adam, and I wouldn’t let him hear you call him that! I just feel a little mean tricking him to go with Pa just so we can enjoy ourselves, especially it being Christmas,” commented Hoss with a touch of reluctance in his voice.

Seeing the look of concern on his brother’s face, Adam gave him an understanding smile as a feeling of guilt also began to gnaw at him. “Okay Hoss, seeing its Christmas, I’ll get Josh to bottle some up and we can give it to Joe tonight. That should bring a smile to his face!” he said, lighting up with a playful grin as his conscience cleared in an instant.

Although six years separated the two brothers, they were extremely close and Hoss was usually more than happy to let his elder brother do the thinking and planning, following his lead at every opportunity as he had done since early childhood. However he also loved his little brother with an unashamed intensity, having always looked out for him since the death of Joe’s mother.

Pondering for a moment, Hoss’ forehead furrowed in a frown as he considered what Adam had said. Then, realizing Joe would not now miss out entirely on the Christmas punch, he smiled over and gave a quick nod of agreement. He silently thought how alike his eldest and youngest brother were sometimes, with their mischief-making, though both would be the first to deny such a charge!

As they continued to walk towards the barn, the spell of Christmas began to weave its magic around them and they chuckled and chortled like small boys who had just secretly raided the apple orchard. Still in high spirits after completing their chores, the two brothers saddled up, and joking together left the ranch to check on the herd of cattle wintered in the east meadow before disappearing towards the McArthur ranch.

Inside the house, Ben continued to read through the contract while Joe finished his breakfast and then disappeared into the kitchen, helping Hop Sing to clear the breakfast table and wash the dishes. He chatted with their faithful Chinese housekeeper, sometimes in English, sometimes in faltering Chinese, reliving happy memories of Christmas days gone by.

As the clock in the large sitting room struck 10.00 am, Joe suddenly heard the sound of horses’ hooves and looking through the kitchen window saw his two brothers were laughing together as they lead their horses into the yard. With a deep sigh, he watched as they mounted and then disappeared behind the barn.

He smiled wistfully after them, wishing he too could have that closeness with his eldest brother that Hoss undoubtedly had. But with twelve years difference in their ages, Adam seemed unable to treat him as an equal around the ranch, always looking down on him as the ‘kid’ brother who needed constant supervision and whose opinion was rarely sought and never considered. Joe sighed again as he wondered how old he would have to be before brother Adam accepted there were three Cartwright brothers capable of running the Ponderosa, and not just two.

“Joseph!” yelled the voice of his father, suddenly shaking him out of his reverie. With a quick word of farewell to the old cook, Joe left the kitchen and joined his father who was stood by the front door, stuffing the Railroad contract into a leather pouch.

In the sitting room, the sound of horses cantering away from the ranch and the chiming of the clock had awoken Ben who had slipped into a doze in front of the blazing hearth. He’d looked at the clock, cursing under his breath at his stupidity in nodding off and wondered why Adam had failed to wake him earlier. Even though it was Christmas Eve, the importance of getting the contract signed weighed heavy on his mind and his mood took a further downward dive when he had jumped up with a thumping headache, and his knee began to throb more painfully than usual. As he hobbled slowly to the credenza, he suddenly remembered the change in arrangements and that it was now Joe who was to accompany him to town.

“Come on, Joe, I’ve got to see Samuel,” Ben shouted further, “Adam knew I wanted the wagon ready to go half an hour ago! Is it too much trouble to follow your brother’s orders?” he snapped unnecessarily loud as his son appeared around the corner from the kitchen.

“Sorry, Pa, I guess I got sidetracked talking to Hop Sing. Didn’t know what time you wanted to leave. Adam never…..” said Joe, slightly annoyed at being the butt of his father’s undeserved anger.

However Ben was unwilling to listen to his son’s explanation. “Really, Joe, don’t try to give excuses,” replied Ben curtly as he moved painfully over to his desk.

“No Sir,” Joe responded with a deep sigh as he gathered up his coat and gun belt and slamming his hat onto his head opened the door. “I’ll hitch up the wagon now. Won’t be long,” he said as he closed the door shut behind him, Ben failing to see the hurt look on his son’s face. Walking towards the barn, Joe began to think sarcastically, his perfect day was just getting better and better!

*****

The journey into Virginia City was slow and steady as the two horses pulled the wagon through the couple of inches of snow that lay on the ground. Joe steered at a sensible pace, taking in the beauty of the snow-covered countryside, eager to recapture the excitement of Christmas.

For the first time in a month, Ben was now alone with his youngest son. With just the two of them sitting side by side, Joe tried to make conversation with his father about the coming festivities, lighten the continual somber atmosphere of the past weeks, but with only the occasional grunt coming his way, Joe soon gave up trying to converse and became silent. His father’s mind was obviously far away from Christmas.

Over the past few weeks, it had been clear to Joe his father had important and worrying things on his mind. He had been moody and distracted, having detailed conversations with Adam and Hoss long into the night on more than one occasion. Although nothing was said, Joe always had the feeling his presence was not really required on these evenings and had thoughtfully retired early. No one had ever called him back to join in, which had left him feeling slightly aggrieved, but he had let it pass by with good grace, wanting to impress his family with his newfound maturity.

Joe had been correct about his father’s mind being far from the up and coming festivities. As well as the contract with the railroad, Ben was also pondering with a new idea to supply horses to the every increasing number of men in the Army who were now being settled within the new territories of the west. It was a far reaching and potentially a highly profitable venture and it was his hope Joe would be in charge of the operation, though he had not yet mentioned this possibility to him.

Ben and his two eldest sons had talked about it often, but Adam was not completely sure his youngest brother was ready for such responsibility. After all, Joe had disappeared on his days off for the past few months, never willing to tell anyone where he was going, leaving Adam convinced he was probably drinking and gambling his wages away in the ever popular Virginia City saloons. He also argued Joe seemed uninterested in ranch affairs, not wanting to spend time discussing problems with his family, and only too keen to retire to bed at the earliest opportunity.

Such conduct had left Ben undecided and in a quandary as he wondered if Adam could be right and Joe still needed to do some growing up before such an important line of work was dropped onto his lap. It was a decision that needed to be made soon, and it spun around and around Ben’s mind as he sat in silent contemplation, not seeing the beauty of his land as the miles past by, or noticing the despondent mood of his son sat by his side.

As Joe’s eyes took in the beautiful rolling acres of the Ponderosa, his thoughts wandered back to a conversation the family had over dinner weeks before. Ben had mentioned an idea about breeding and supplying the finest horseflesh possible to the Army. It was an idea that met with the approval of all the Cartwrights, especially Joe. The more they talked, the more excited he became, for with Adam in charge of the timber, and Hoss the mines, it was a project he knew he was capable of running. Ideas to make it a success had been swimming around his head ever since but not once had anyone suggested he be in charge, which left him feeling somewhat deflated. Knowing his father wanted to talk over the financial viability with their lawyer that day, Joe decided he would also put his ideas forward. Maybe then the youngest Cartwright would be taken seriously and given his chance to prove his worth.

Virginia City appeared slowly in the distance as the wagon rolled on, the only sound the crunch of snow under horse’s hooves and wheels, the two men on board feeling the cold of the winter air around them. As Joe pulled up outside the office of their lawyer, Samuel Hudson, he was about to jump down and accompany his father when Ben pulled on his sleeve.

“I’ll take it from here. Joe. You get over to the mercantile and collect the supplies,” said Ben dismissively, as he slowly began to climb down from the wagon with the contract under his arm, his mood not improved by the feeling of stiffness in his bones nor the cold throughout his body. With his mind still on the important contract and paperwork involved, he placed his feet on the hard ground a little too quickly, his right knee buckling under him, and he fell to the floor with a cry before he could grab onto the wagon to steady himself.

“You alright, Pa? Maybe we should get you a walking stick?” asked a concerned Joe who seeing his father stumble had jumped down and rushed to his side, helping him up and picking up the fallen leather pouch.

Feeling foolish, Ben pushed Joe’s hand from his arm as he took the contract from his son. “I’m fine Joseph, and I don’t need a stick!” he said abruptly and a little too quickly. “No need to fuss,” he added as he turned away, not wishing to attract further attention to add to his embarrassment.

Unaware his words had once again hurt his son, Ben limped towards the door of Samuel’s office without a backward glance, the leather pouch held tight under his arm. Joe stood back, stung by his father’s dismissal in such a brusque way, knowing his chance to impress with ideas for the Army contract was now gone. Turning in silence and grabbing hold of the harness of the lead horse, he slowly made his way across the street towards the mercantile, his perfect day now well and truly crumbling before his eyes.

*****

For Ben the meeting with his lawyer was both long and intensive in its discussion, but as it neared its close, Ben Cartwright was now a happy man. After two hours he found that not only was his contract signed and sealed with the railroad but also the viability of the Army contract was better than he had ever imagined. All details were discussed at length including the fact that Joe would be in charge of the venture, which brought a smile of agreement from the hard working lawyer.

As he stood up to shake his hand, Ben smiled in gratitude at his old friend. “Many thanks, Samuel. Seems I can now relax and enjoy Christmas,” he said, placing a copy of the signed railway contract into a pocket on the inside of his jacket. “I know I have been like a bear with a sore head lately and the boys must be sick to death of my moods.”

“You have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, Ben, keeping that ranch of yours profitable. Maybe it’s time to start sharing the load more evenly with your sons. None of us are getting any younger you know!”

Ben tensed slightly. “Yes, I know, Samuel. It’s just hard to admit I can’t keep up with those boys of mine anymore,” he admitted honestly as he put on his coat and hat.

“Anyway Ben, I’ll get that Army contract drawn up in the New Year. That should keep young Joseph busy for a while. What does he think to all the plans with him in charge?”

“At present he doesn’t know, as I wasn’t sure he was ready,” answered Ben truthfully, “But I had time to think it all through on the way in this morning and made my final decision, though I don’t know what Adam will say. Anyway, it should make an extra welcomed Christmas present for Joe when I tell him.”

“I’m sure it will, Ben,” replied Samuel as he escorted his client to the door and the two men looked out as the grey sky of the afternoon began to empty with snow.

“Looks like it’s started again, Ben. The sooner you get back to the Ponderosa the better.”

Ben nodded as the sound of firecrackers destined for the Chinese New Year, but now set off early by a small gang of undisciplined children, came from behind the Chinese laundry. Both men looked towards the noise then chatted for a few minutes until finally Ben walked out onto the sidewalk and turned to his old friend once again. “Thank you again and Merry Christmas, Samuel. We shall see you for the New Year’s party at the ranch, I hope?”

Nodding, with a smile on his face, Samuel shivered in the cold air. “Sure will, Ben. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Happy Christmas to you and the boys.”

With a wave of his hand, Samuel closed the door and returned to the warmth of his office, while Ben turned up the collar of his coat and began to cross the street.

Joe loaded the wagon with supplies in the first hour and as he waited for his father to finish his business, spent the remaining time chatting to Seth Lewis, an old school friend who worked for the owner of the mercantile. Offered a welcomed coffee, he stirred his cup absent mindedly, wondering how the meeting was going across the road, wishing he could be in there. With a deep sigh of frustration, he knew had Adam and Hoss accompanied their father, they too would have been in the office now, their own opinions considered and probably accepted. Not for them a dismissive wave of the hand, Joe mused sadly while drinking the hot liquid.

Looking through the window, he could see snow was beginning to fall again, covering the mud and dirt ground of the main street in a carpet of white. The sound of firecrackers crackled in the distance and Joe smiled over at Seth, both young men remembering only too well the mischief they got up to with them not so many years ago.

Across the street, the lawyer’s office door suddenly opened and Joe saw his father and Samuel looking out at the falling snow as they followed the sound of the firecrackers and then conversed in the doorway. After taking a final deep gulp of his coffee, Joe put on his hat, then buttoning up his winter jacket, braced himself for the cold blast of air as he opened the shop door.

Keen to return home before the weather took a deciding hold and eager to wrap the treasured presents still lying under his bed on the Ponderosa, he shouted towards the back room where his old friend had just disappeared, “Thanks Seth, and happy Christmas!”

“Same to you Joe,” yelled a muffled voice as Joe closed the door behind him.

As Joe walked out onto the sidewalk and waited for his father to join him, a very loud bang was heard in the distance caused by a large number of firecrackers let off together on the busy thoroughfare. Joe looked down the street and saw that four horses pulling an empty wagon were suddenly startled by the noise and had begun to gallop towards his position, their young driver unable to control them in their obviously frightened and nervous state.

At the same time, Ben began to slowly hobble across the street, his mind on all the facts and figures of the new contract, not concentrating as his leg continued to ache. He was nearly halfway across when suddenly his throbbing knee once again gave way, his foot slipping on the snow-covered ground. With a cry of pain, he was sent sprawling down onto his face directly in the way of the oncoming wagon.

The unfolding drama and danger became all too apparent to Joe as his father cried out and fell to the floor. “Pa!” he yelled, his reaction both instinctive and instantaneous as he began to run.

Ben painfully and slowly tried to rise when he heard the sound of hooves and looked behind him, his eyes widening in horror. With the horses practically upon him and unable to stand, his life seemed to flash before him, his fate seemingly sealed. Then, in a blur, a whirling vision suddenly appeared, pushing him with such force he spun over and over away from the thundering hooves, eventually hitting the step of the sidewalk and coming to a stop as the sound of horses and wagon rushed past him.

Winded and dazed, Ben sat up, aware of the sound of voices yelling and women screaming. Shaking his head, his vision blurred, Ben brushed the snow from his face and looked back onto the street through the legs of men who had rushed to the scene. As his vision cleared, Ben was left with a sight that would haunt him for years to come.

Streaks of red glistened on the white snow laden ground around a familiar figure who lay in silence, face down, blood pouring from his head, his hat lying flattened in the middle of the street. The marks of hooves and a wagon’s wheels could be seen on his torn coat as his left leg lay twisted at an ugly angle from the knee down.

“Joseph!” cried Ben, a terrified look of disbelief in his eyes, as he dragged himself towards the unmoving body of his youngest son.

*****

Joseph Cartwright’s valiant effort to save his father from injury had been just too slow to save himself. The lead horse had caught him, tossing him like a rag doll under its hooves, the second horse being unable to side step the obstacle now in its path, and the wagon wheels following, crushing his body with a sickening sound.

In a state of shock Ben watched from the back of the inner office as Doctor Martin used every inch of his expertise in an attempt to save Joe’s life. With trepidation, the doctor had assessed the injuries to the torso as he felt and prodded carefully, feeling his way around the delicate organs of his patient. But it was a heartbreaking task, for Paul knew straightaway the internal damage and bleeding was extensive and more than probably inoperable. Yet he still used his uttermost expertise as he stitched the gaping wound in Joe’s hair where his head had been struck by the flailing hooves. Then, turning to the more obvious but less severe injury, the broken leg was straightened and placed in a splint.

Never once did Joe cry out or groan in pain, remaining in a blessed state of unconsciousness as a trickle of blood continued to run from the inside of his mouth, staining the bedding beneath him. Wetting a cloth, Paul gently wiped the side of Joe’s face, placing a towel under his head, then finally, with a deep sigh of exhaustion, pulled the blanket up to his patient’s neck and turned to the distraught father sitting silently behind him.

“I’m truly sorry, Ben, but there is nothing more to be done. The injuries are just too much for one body to sustain. There’s no point in me even trying to operate. Much as I want to there’s nothing else I can do.”

Ben stared, white faced, unable to tear his gaze away from the battered, bruised and broken body, shaking his head as grief washed over him in silent waves. “Are you sure, Paul? There’s nothing at all…..” he said, pulling his chair to the side of the bed then picking up the wet cloth and gently wiping away a fresh flow of blood that ran down Joe’s chin and neck.

“No Ben. There’s nothing. His leg would heal, but as for all his other injuries….well…at least in his present condition he won’t be feeling any pain.”

“How….” Ben’s voice quivered with despair, “How long before…” He couldn’t finish the sentence as he swallowed back sobs in his throat.

Paul shook his head sadly. “That’s something I can’t say for definite, Ben. His injuries would be enough to kill most men instantaneously. Joe is on borrowed time now.”

Walking over to his cabinet, Paul pulled out a bottle of whisky and poured out two glasses, handing one over to his old friend. “Drink this, Ben. I think we both need it at the moment,” he said, swallowing his drink in one gulp as Ben put down the bloodied cloth and gratefully accepted the glass with shaking hands, following his lead moments later. Paul returned the glasses to his desk then placed a clean cloth in a bowl of water, ringing it out then returning it to Ben, who diligently continued to wipe the never ending trickle of blood from Joe’s mouth.

A message had been sent to the Ponderosa shortly after Joe was rushed to the Doctor’s office, and as luck would have it, both Adam and Hoss had just returned from their visit to the McArthur ranch. Only being told that there had been a bad accident and nothing else, the two brothers raced into town, not knowing who was injured or how badly.

Though their breath was strong with the smell of liquor, they were now sober as judges as they rushed in and found their father sat by the near lifeless form of their little brother, a red and sodden cloth in his hand. As they pulled up chairs and sat by the bed, Ben seemed lost in thought, his eyes glazed over, then he blinked hard and gave his sons a weak smile, genuinely relieved to see they were now by his side.

Hoss put his arm around his father’s sunken shoulders. “What happened, Pa?” he asked, unable to comprehend the extensive damage on his brother as he looked between his father and the doctor in disbelief. Adam was sat on the other side of the bed and gently stroked Joe’s shoulder, hardly able to recognize the once smiling face of a few hours ago beneath swollen eyes and bruises.

“He saved my life,” answered Ben, his voice heavy with sorrow. “He saved my life and he’s dying because of me,” he repeated quietly, dropping the saturated cloth to the floor then burying his face in his hands, the distraught father crying unashamedly while Adam and Hoss swallowed hard to control their own emotions, their own faces flushed and their eyes suffused with tears.

Eventually Adam looked over at Paul with a questioning look as the doctor stood silently by his desk. “What happened, Paul?” asked Adam with a faltering voice, barely above a whisper.

The doctor walked over to the bed and looked down at Joe. “A team of horses were spooked by firecrackers. Your Pa’s knee buckled while he was crossing the street, right in the way of the wagon and Joe rushed over and pushed him out of the way. Unfortunately Joe wasn’t quick enough to save himself.”

With a deep sigh, he placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder and gave him a sympathetic squeeze. “There’s nothing that I can do for Joe,” he said, turning to walk towards his desk.

Adam looked up at the doctor quickly, his whole body beginning to shake in disbelief. “What do you mean? Nothing? That’s my brother lying there! Of course you can do something to save him!” he exploded angrily, as he stood up and took hold of Paul’s arm, pulling him round to face him, the two men standing eye to eye, the atmosphere suddenly becoming tense.

“Adam!” cried Ben who had watched the altercation through tear filled eyes.

The sound of his father’s voice seemed to shake away the anger that had built up and it evaporated away as Adam shifted his gaze from the startled doctor to his father’s concerned face. He shook his head apologetically. “I’m sorry, Paul. I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said quietly, returning to his chair in silence.

Paul nodded, the apology accepted. He was well aware Adam’s outburst was due purely to the worry and despair felt in the heat of the moment. He gave a slight cough, and three pairs of eyes looked up at him intently.

“Joe’s spleen is enlarged. There are extensive bruises around both his kidneys, his liver is probably damaged and there is internal bleeding. I can’t even begin to guess at the brain damage from that kick on the head. There undoubtedly could be more that I can’t even envisage at the moment. Believe me Adam, not even the most experienced surgeon could do anything for Joe….God knows if I thought there was the slightest chance I could perform surgery to help him survive, I would attempt it.”

Ben swallowed hard. “Thank you, Paul. I know you would have done everything you possibly could,” he said, looking between his two sons. “We all thank you.”

Paul nodded and moved towards the door, “I’ll leave you to stay with him…. as long as it takes,” he added, then walked out to his outer office closing the connecting door quietly behind him.

The enormity of what Paul had said rocked Adam and Hoss as they returned each others desperate gaze. Only a few hours ago Adam had called his little brother a kid. With a deep sense of guilt Adam mused the kid had been man enough to save their father’s life and was now about to pay the ultimate price.

For the next couple of hours they sat in silence around the bed with just their own thoughts to sustain them, taking turns to wipe the blood that seemed to pour continually from Joe’s mouth. As the flow eventually ceased and the evening wore on, the quiet of the room was shattered unexpectedly when Ben suddenly sat back in his chair with a jolt and cried out, “It’s all my fault,” his moistened eyes refusing to leave the swollen face of his youngest son.

Adam and Hoss looked up in startled unison. “Pa?” asked a confused Hoss, “what you talking about? Your fault?”

Abruptly Ben’s head snapped up and he stared at his middle son. “If I hadn’t been so damned involved with that blessed contract and had been taking notice of what I was doing…… If I had taken Joe’s advice and got myself a stick instead of trying to manage without….but no, just wouldn’t accept his good advice,” he responded, his voice breaking with emotion, “It was my stupidity and pride that caused this to happen. It was my fault…..I should be dying…… not Joe,” he sobbed softly.

Hoss sat transfixed for a minute, his eyes narrowing slightly at the sight of his father in his distressed state. “Don’t you go blaming yourself, Pa,” he said quietly as he pulled up his chair beside him. “You weren’t to know there was a wagon heading for you, or that your knee was about to give way! It was just an accident!”

Ben stared intently into his son’s kindly face, nodding silently. However, as he turned back to gaze at Joe, Hoss could see in his tired and shocked eyes he neither believed nor wanted to believe what he had said. His whole demeanor was of a loving father trapped in a nightmare situation with no way of saving the life of his son, leaving him a broken and bitter man.

Watching the heart-rending scene between Ben and Hoss tore at Adam’s heart as he stood up and walked over to Paul’s desk, the foul taste of nervous bile flooding into his mouth. He had seen the whisky earlier when arriving at the office and so poured himself a glassful, drinking it down with one long gulp as he held on to the desk tightly. Without turning around he looked down thoughtfully at the intoxicating liquid in the bottle. “If anyone is to blame for Joe’s condition, it’s me,” he said quietly, as he poured another drink and swallowed it without pause.

Ben took a deep breath and fought to regain his composure, wiping his eyes as he stared over at his eldest, his confession totally confusing him.

“What on earth do you mean Adam?” asked Hoss, who also shot him a puzzled look.

Adam shrugged but made no reply for a moment. He was about to pour another drink when suddenly he slammed the glass down hard and banged his fist onto the hard wooden desk top. Turning around, but avoiding eye contact with his father and Hoss, he walked over to the bed and stared down at his youngest brother. “I should have allowed Joe to have his perfect Christmas Eve just like he always had. But no! I trick him to come into town, just so I could go drinking, thinking it was such a clever ruse. I was selfish and behaved just like the kid I always accused Joe of being…..If anyone is to blame it’s me,” he said as his eyes slowly rose to meet the pained gaze of his father.

Looking back at Joe who continued to lay silent and unmoving, Adam sank into his chair, now devoid of any strength to climb out of the pit of melancholy and depression he’d suddenly fallen into. “I’m going to sit in this office and watch my brother die because of what I did and I’ll never forgive myself, never!” he said in a whisper.

An uneasy, guilt-filled silence hung in the air for a few minutes and it was a scene that eventually Hoss could stand no more. Taking a deep breath, he cleared his throat and gritted his teeth as he stared angrily between his father and elder brother. “I reckon what happened today weren’t no one’s fault, and Joe would be the first to tell the pair of you so!” he said, his watered eyes shining in the evening gloom of the dimly lit office. His voice was soft but spoken with such intensity it caught the attention of his father and brother immediately who looked over at him quickly.

“If there’s one thing I know about my little brother it’s the fact he would never want the pair of you beating yourselves up because of his actions,” he continued, his voice beginning to rise in volume, “It was an accident, plain and simple. Fate decided he was to come to town today and save his Pa’s life. Something he would do any time without thought for his own safety! ”

Hoss paused for a moment, his face growing redder. “No way would he want you watching him, thinking you’re comforting him in his last hours, just because you’re feeling guilty! So, seeing as Joe can’t tell the pair of you, I’m here to tell you now on his behalf. For all our sakes, you can stop wallowing in self-pity and I don’t want to hear any more talk of blame, from either of you!” he cried in an emotional voice both loud and forceful as he stood up quickly, pushing back his chair, the heat in his face ebbing away. Giving Joe a final look, he turned and walked out of the room, leaving his father and brother to stare after him in shocked amazement at his uncharacteristic outburst.

For a few minutes, Ben and Adam sat in silence and unmoving as the wise home-truths spoken by Hoss were accepted by them both. With a deep sigh, Ben rose slowly from his chair, straightening himself with a slight grimace as his stiffened knee pulsated in pain. Giving Adam a reflective look he walked slowly into the outer office where Hoss was stood by the window, his cheeks streaked with tears as he stared, unseeing into the gloom of the late evening. Ben put his hand gently around Hoss’ neck to comfort him, the two men standing in companionable silence, father and son together, bonded by grief and the love of the young man lying close to death.

On the wall in the far corner of the room a small clock began to chime out 11.00pm, breaking the eerie silence in the Doctor’s office. “Pa,” said Hoss eventually, “We’ve got the wagon outside. I reckon we should take Joe home for Christmas. He would want to be there.”

Ben nodded and swallowed hard, looking over at Paul who had been sitting in silence, resting his exhausted eyes. “What do you say, Paul? I’d like to take my boy home.”

Paul looked at the emotionally drained face of his old friend with sympathy, “You can move him, Ben. He’s unconscious and will probably stay that way. Just put a mattress down and cover him with blankets. I would think it’s where he would want….” Paul’s voice grew silent.

“You mean that’s where he would want to die, don’t you?” asked a deep voice from the doorway. Three pairs of eyes looked over as Adam walked into the room, looking over towards the tired doctor. Returning his gaze Paul nodded, a look of understanding passing between the two men. They alone realized it would be a miracle if Joe even survived the journey home.

Taking a deep breath Adam walked over to the window giving Hoss an apologetic smile and an affectionate pat on the back. “I’ll bring the wagon round then,” he said, picking up his hat and coat from the floor where he had flung them on first arriving, and disappearing outside into the darkness of Christmas Eve.

*****

With the supplies piled up at the far end, Ben sat with Joe’s head resting on his lap in the back of the wagon, blankets piled on his son, giving well needed warmth to the young man. It was just gone midnight when they finally began to make their way home,

Adam leading on Sport and carrying a lantern to light up the road still covered in a thin spread of snow. Hoss guided the wagon, following exactly the route taken hours before by his father and the brother now lying silently behind him, his own horse tied behind and following at a steady trot.

Arriving at the Ponderosa in the early hours, exhausted and frozen, Adam and Hoss looked over as the front door opened sending a bright shaft of light out into the yard, and Hop Sing looked out, worry also etched on his old weather-beaten face. Aware of the reasons for his ‘adopted’ family’s absence during the previous evening, he had waited on tenterhooks for their return, unsure of the gravity of the situation.

Hoss and Adam began to unfold the pile of blankets in the back of the wagon, and Ben could be seen, his arms wrapped around Joe. He gave his sons a tight smile and nodded. Their brother was still alive! Hop Sing took in the distressing scene silently, understanding full well his ‘number three son’ was in a very bad way. He disappeared back to the kitchen to prepare hot drinks as Adam and Hoss gently pulled the mattress from the back of the wagon and carried its precious load carefully into the house. Leading the way, Ben walked into the downstairs spare room, its near proximity to the blazing fire keeping it continually warm during the long cold winter.

They laid Joe on the bed and made him as comfortable as possible, covering his battered body with a blanket and eiderdown. Ben sighed with relief that his son was still alive after the harrowing journey. Like his mother before him, Joe would at least die within the walls of home, his loving family by his side.

Hop Sing brought out steaming cups of coffee and the three men sat at the dining table, gratefully drinking the hot liquid, their hands slowly growing pink again and their faces once more thawing out from the chilling wind.

Adam looked at his father whose face had seemed to have aged 20 years in such a few hours. “You get some sleep, Pa. I’ll sit with Joe. Hoss can relieve me in a few hours,” he said quietly, looking through the open bedroom door at the still figure on the bed.

Ben gave a thankful look but shook his head. “Thanks son, but I need to stay with him. I couldn’t settle anyway….” He buried his head in his hands as a sob rose in his throat. Hoss looked over at Adam, his own eyes so close to tears and shook his head. No words were needed between the two brothers. They both knew instinctively there was no point trying to convince their father to leave Joe’s side.

“You might as well be comfortable then, Pa,” said Hoss as he stood up and went over to his father’s favorite leather chair, lifting it up with ease, then carrying it to the bedroom. Placing it at the head of the bed, he then pulled out a blanket from the wooden ottoman, and laid it across the back of the chair. Ben wiped his eyes and gave a grateful smile. He rose slowly and stiffly, his knee once again throbbing, though for once he hardly noticed the pain. All his thoughts were concentrated on Joe, his own discomfort pushed to the back of his mind as he sat in his chair by his son’s side, pulling the blanket around his knees then taking hold of Joe’s hand that lay on the top of the bed. Adam and Hoss stood in the doorway, viewing the tender scene.

“I’ll go and see to the wagon, Pa,” said Hoss finally, his father giving a slight nod of acknowledgement. “I’ll help you Hoss,” added Adam quickly, more than willing to give his brother a helping hand and so quicken the task of bedding down the horses that were in desperate need of feed and water after their long haul over the past hours.

“You two boys get up to bed as soon as you can,” said Ben as they turned to go.

“That’s okay, Pa, we’ll just sit out here in case…..” Adam became silent as the words stuck in his throat.

Ben shook his head fervently, “No, Adam. Go to bed. No point all three of us losing sleep and having stiff backs tomorrow,” he answered as his tired eyes viewed the weary and concerned faces of his two sons.

Hoss gave a nervous cough, “You will shout if anything…….” Ben nodded, the sad expression in his eyes enough to convey he understood what his son was intimating.

“We will be down in a few hours Pa,” said Adam quietly, “Is there anything else we can do?” Ben just smiled and shook his head, exhaustion taking its toll as his eyes fought to keep open in the dimly lit room. With a final glance at Joe, the two brothers turned and walked away, their slow, deliberate footsteps echoing in the quiet of Christmas morning as they made their way outside.

Hearing the front door quietly close, Ben settled down as comfortably as possible, the only sound to be heard the crackling of the fire, the tick tock of the old clock by the front door, and the tortured breathing of Joe as he gasped for air in short sharp bursts. Within minutes Ben succumbed and he fell into a disturbed sleep, dreaming of a young man with a flashing grin and engaging manner, who so easily could win over new friends, and bright green eyes that sparkled with warmth and happiness.

It was Christmas Day morning and Adam and Hoss rose early with just a few hours of troubled sleep between them and made their way directly to the downstairs bedroom. Ben was still asleep in the armchair, his neck hung over at an uncomfortable angle, but his hand holding on tightly to his son’s arm as their brother continued his fight for life.

Waking up as the aroma of fresh coffee and bacon wafted in from the kitchen, Ben gave Joe a lingering look of concern, then joined Adam and Hoss at the dining table. Although their stomachs ached with hunger, their appetites were non-existent. They picked at their breakfast as Hop Sing came out of the kitchen and looked at them, shaking his head at the uninterested faces that viewed the food on the table. Even Hoss, who had never refused a meal in his life, just chewed one piece of bacon and finding it hard to swallow, pushed away his plate as he drank his coffee.

As Hop Sing cleared away the breakfast table, Doc Martin arrived, all thoughts of his own Christmas celebrations long gone. Adam let him in and took his coat and hat as Paul gave him a questioning look. “He’s still with us,” he said somberly, leading the way to the downstairs bedroom. Paul walked in to find Hoss talking about inane subjects in a quiet voice, trying to awaken his unconscious brother. Joe’s head was sunk down on the pillow, eyes closed, his body covered in sweat, as Hoss looked up slightly embarrassed and gave the doctor a weak smile.

Paul gave a nod and put down his bag, then lifted Joe’s wrist and took his pulse as Joe fought hard for every breath. With a deep sigh, he replaced the bruised arm back on the bed. ‘He is certainly a fighter,’ he thought as a shadow appeared in the doorway and Ben walked slowly into the room, looking down at his son and then at the doctor.

“Paul?” Ben asked, praying that a miracle had taken place.

Paul just shook his head, understanding the torment suffered by the eldest Cartwright and unwilling to admit to his old friend he had expected to see Joe lying dead when he arrived that morning. “He’s getting weaker, Ben. And by the sound of his breathing, it looks like his lungs are damaged. I don’t know how long……”

Ben gave a resigned nod and returned to the sitting room, Paul following as Hoss resumed his one sided conversation with his beloved little brother.

The two men sat in front of the large blazing fire as Adam poured out three glasses of whisky and passed them round. With no thought of a Christmas toast, Paul gratefully accepted the drink, taking a swig from his glass then opening his bag. “Just thought I would leave this with you, Ben,” he said, taking out a bottle and placing it on the table. “If Joe does come round for any length of time, he will be feeling a lot of pain. Try and get this down him, and it should ease it, until he drifts off again.”

Ben eyed the bottle and nodded. “You think he will regain consciousness then, Paul?” he asked nervously.

Paul shrugged his shoulders. “To be perfectly honest with you Ben, he should have died yesterday. How he is still with us today is a complete mystery to me, so I am just preparing you for every contingency. But then, he always has been a stubborn young man, and never one to conform,” he said, the slight smile on his face alleviating the heavy tension felt in the room.

Even in his distraught state, Ben could see the humor of Paul’s statement and he gave a quiet chuckle. “He is just like his mother that way,” he answered, resting his head on the back of the settee. As the three men sat in silence, Ben closed his eyes, the whisky soon taking effect, and he was once more in the pain free land of dreams.

Paul and Adam sat together for a few minutes with no thought of conversation as their eyes watched the flickering flames that shot up the large chimney, and the strong smell of pine tree permeated around the room. With a deep sigh Paul took a final swallow of his drink and stood up, knowing he could be of no more assistance that day. “I will come back tomorrow,” he whispered at Adam, giving him a heartfelt smile of sympathy. Making his way to the front door he put on his coat and hat, looking back at the Christmas tree sadly devoid of presents beneath its branches, then quietly closed the front door behind him.

Adam gazed at his sleeping father for a minute or two as the warmth of the whisky hit his near empty stomach. He glanced at the tree by the stairs, decorated with such excitement days before by his little brother and now standing forlorn and ignored. As his eyes looked around the room they fell on the table by the stairs on which stood a demijohn, full of the home made punch brought home the night before for Joe. Adam looked at it and shook his head sorrowfully. Uttering a silent prayer for strength to carry him through the traumatic days ahead, he stood up carefully so as not to disturb his father, rejoining Hoss, the two brothers keeping each other company as they sat by Joe’s side.

The days that followed became a living hell for all the family as Joe clung onto life.

Blood still trickled from the corner of his mouth, and they took turns to wash Joe down and mop the sweat from his bruised body. Adam and Hoss would change his soiled bedding regularly, the unpleasant chore always done without a murmur of discontent or displeasure. Though it was done as gently as possible it was at these times Joe would moan and shake his head slightly from side to side. At first it startled and distressed his brothers, but eventually it became a strangely comforting sound and sight for it confirmed Joe was still alive.

Ben could see the genuine brotherly love Adam and Hoss felt shine through in every minute task they performed for Joe. It left him with a deep sense of pride that their upbringing had molded them into such fine and caring individuals. But throughout the long exhausting days, Joe’s eyes refused to open and he failed to regain full consciousness, the bottled laudanum continuing to stand full and unopened on the dressing table top.

Each day Doctor Martin would visit, shaking his head in amazement that Joe was still with them. Checking his pulse and listening to his chest he surmised that even if his organs were not badly damaged, his heart would be soon failing as its beat continued to weaken, hour by hour. He prayed over and over for a miracle, but knew with certainty it was a mere pipe-dream and lady luck had finally deserted Joseph Cartwright and his family.

*****

New Years Eve, 1860

It was New Years Eve, and there was a definite change for the worst in Joe’s condition. His skin became cold and clammy, blood now trickled from his mouth and his nose, and the daily wash produced no moan or movement from him. Then as the day progressed, Ben, Adam and Hoss also noticed a different sound as he breathed. The short sharp gasp of breath they had grown used to over the past week was now replaced by another sound that emanated from deep within his damaged lungs. It was a sound they knew only too well. The rattle of death.

Hardly bearing to look each other in the eye as if confirmation of the change would hasten his departure, they sat in silence, unable to drag themselves away from the one place on earth they wished they did not have to be. Daylight disappeared and the darkness of evening covered the sky and it became all too painfully apparent as the night rolled in that Joe’s stubborn and fighting streak was at last about to desert him.

In the past, the Ponderosa would have been full of laughter and merriment as the Cartwrights and their friends celebrated the arrival of the New Year. But with news of Joe’s terrible accident and impending death spread around, the party was cancelled, and the only horse and buggy in the ranch yard that night belonged to Doctor Martin who arrived in the late evening.

As he walked into the bedroom and heard the changed pattern of breathing, he knew straightaway he would be staying longer than his usual half hour. His heart broke at the sight of Ben and his two eldest sons who held their candle lit vigil by Joe’s bedside as the inevitable conclusion grew nearer. While Ben watched through red-rimmed eyes, Paul checked his patient over quickly, looking over and shaking his head, no words needed as he held the gaze of his old friend. Walking over to the door, he pulled up a chair and sat thoughtfully, Joe’s final hours passing in silence, safe within the bosom of the family he held so dear.

The hours and minutes ticked by as the old year slowly came to its end. Finally, with sixty seconds to go before midnight there was suddenly complete and utter quiet in the room. The silence was deafening as the four men willed Joe to take one more breath, see his chest rise and fall once again. But it was not to be. His heart could take no more, and the rattled breathing ceased. With one minute to go of the old year, Joseph Francis Cartwright ended his fight for life, just as Sister Destiny had decreed.

*****

High above two figures continued to float in the sky as Death concluded his sad tale, the scene below them clearly visible as four men sat in silent shock staring at the body that had finally succumbed to death.

Shaking his head in pity, Old Father Time tore his gaze from the unhappy sight and looked at his hour glass. “One minute left. Our Sister of Fate certainly keeps her time perfectly,” he said, as the feeling of overwhelming grief drifted up from the ranch house below. “It would seem my year as your companion is about to end. I will leave you in peace to collect your last soul. Such a shame he could not be spared.”

Death nodded in agreement as he looked once again into his book. “I too wish his life could go on, but I must abide by the instructions in my Book of Souls. This young man is to leave in the last minute of New Year’s Eve, the 365th day of the year of 1860. What is written cannot be changed.”

As the seconds passed in the last minute of the old year Father Time gave Death a strange look. “Day 365 of the year?” he asked questioningly as he slowly began to fade away.

Death nodded emphatically.

“Well old friend, for once your book is wrong!”

A frown appeared on Death’s skeleton-like face. “What do you mean?” he asked, as Father Time’s body grew ever more transparent in the wintry sky.

“This year was a leap year old friend, and this is Day 366. For once your book has mistakenly given the wrong day for collection of this poor soul. It would therefore seem the perfect opportunity and excuse to at least let this young man resume his life! ” he called out, his voice growing fainter and fainter until it could be heard no more.

Down below the sound of a clock chiming 12 midnight could be heard and a baby appeared by Death’s feet, newly born as the New Year was welcomed in. As he stared thoughtfully at the open book in his hand, the child smiled up at Death, its face glowing with love and hope for the New Year to come…..

*****

As the last seconds of the last minute of the year ticked by, there was no movement in the downstairs spare bedroom on the Ponderosa. All eyes fixed on Joe’s still body in shocked horror as the realization he was finally gone sunk in, tears welling up as sobs choked in the throats of the father and brothers left to grieve.

The old clock in the next room began its chiming of midnight, the sound shaking Ben from his trance-like state and with a cry of anguish he bent over and took hold of Joe’s lifeless body, pulling it violently into his arms. Cradling Joe’s head close to his chest, Ben’s cheeks became damp as tears began to run down his face, quickly soaking the dark curly hair of his son, as Ben’s whole body shook in uncontrollable anguish.

The clock continued to chime until at last it was stilled, the old year disappearing as the new year took hold. Ben continued to shake, rocking the body of his dead son for half a minute more when suddenly he stopped, his tear streaked face looking over at Adam and Hoss in shock. He gently pushed back his son’s head as Joe could be seen clearly, gasping for breath, gratefully accepting air that seemed to be blown into his lungs.

Paul rushed over, hardly able to accept what he was seeing with his own eyes. Joe was alive! Not only alive, the breathing was normal, not the death rattle of before, but deep and regular. He exchanged glances with Ben, both mystified beyond belief at the turn in events. As Ben gently returned the curly haired head to the pillow, Paul took hold of Joe’s wrist. His hand was shaking as he concentrated hard, well aware three pairs of eyes were watching his every movement. Replacing Joe’s hand onto the bed, he took out his stethoscope and listened to the sound of the heart that had ceased to beat such a short time before. Taking a deep breath he turned to look at Ben, “God must have worked a miracle here,” he said smiling in wonder.

“What are you saying, Paul? You think he is going to live?” asked an incredulous Adam who was stood behind his father, his hands gripping the back of his armchair.

Paul shook his head, “In all my years as a doctor I have never known anything like this. I really don’t know what to make of it, Adam. Joe’s heart stopped and he died!”

Replacing the stethoscope into his bag, he rubbed his hand across his mouth in disbelief. “My guess is when Ben lifted him up it jolted his heart and brought him back to life.” He continued to shake his head as a chill ran up along his spine, unable to comprehend what he had just witnessed. “If I was a betting man, I would give good odds on my patient actually surviving now,” he said in disbelief. “This case is sure going to make one hell of a good article in the Medical Journal!”

*****

New Years Day came and went, and as the days passed Joe grew stronger, his condition improving hour by hour. His organs quickly resumed their normal functions, the swellings gradually decreasing, and all that remained was the unknown damage suffered by the hard kicking force of a hoof on his head as Joe continued to lay unconscious.

Then as the day of Epiphany dawned on the sixth day into the new year, Hoss was sat by his brother’s bedside when flickering eyelids suddenly opened and green eyes looked up into the face of his big brother. There was an immediate look of recognition and a fleeting smile on Joe’s face as Hoss let out a yell which brought his father and Adam rushing into the bedroom.

Seeing the look of joy on Hoss’ face, the two men gazed down at Joe. “Joseph!” Ben whispered as he knelt by his son’s bed, taking his hand in his, his voice croaking with emotion. Joe just smiled, accepting the warm and strong hand that held his own. He gave it a weak squeeze, his eyes never leaving the face of his father who continued to stare, his eyes flowing with tears at the sight he thought he would never see again. Deep green eyes sparkled as Joe returned once more to the family who loved him so.

*****

No one could begin to comprehend the whys or wherefores of Joe’s survival, but the miracle was gratefully accepted without question by everyone…..except Joe!

As the weeks went by, he became depressed, unwilling to talk, as if there was something constantly nagging at him, making him uneasy and fearful. When told by his father that once he was fully fit he would be in charge of the new contract for the Army, Joe’s mood had barely altered, leaving both his family and Doctor Martin worried and concerned at his lack of interest.

One night, after Adam and Hoss had retired, Ben looked in on Joe before he too made his way up to bed. Usually Joe could be found sleeping soundly and deeply, but this time he was sat up, staring out of the window and looking at the darkness of the night.

“You alright, Joe? Are you in pain?” asked the concerned father, as Ben walked over to the bed and looked down at his son. Joe looked into his father’s eyes then slowly shook his head, swallowing hard as he returned to gaze out of the window.

“Want to talk about it, son?” asked Ben intuitively. The gentle voice of his father seemed to give Joe new courage and he nodded as Ben sat on the edge of the bed.

As though not sure how to commence Joe bit his lip and held onto his eiderdown with tightened knuckles. “I wanted to talk before, Pa. But I was scared. Thought you’d think me a fool,” he said nervously.

Taking his son’s hand in his, Ben squeezed it tightly, “I could never think that of you, Joe. What on earth is this about?”

Joe didn’t answer right away, but continued to stare out of the window as the breeze ruffled the clouds in the moonlit night. “New Year’s Eve…..I really died, didn’t I, Pa?” he asked finally, his eyes narrowing as he returned to stare over at his father.

“It would seem so, Joe, but not for long. Barely a minute passed and then you started breathing again…..but we’ve talked about this before….” answered Ben, knowing something was clearly bothering his son.

“I had a dream….I’m sure it was a dream. But it was so real, and it comes back to haunt me, every day, every night. I remember every little detail, so it couldn’t have been a dream. But it must have been….” Joe’s eyes started to water as he fought to keep his confused emotions in check.

“I was floating, looking down on myself on the bed, as you and Adam and Hoss were staring at me. I went higher and higher until I was in the clouds, all alone….lost. Then I saw a figure in flowing robes….. and there was this little baby lying, just smiling…”

Trembling as the recollection flooded back, so clear in its detail, Joe began to sob softly as Ben looked on, holding onto his son’s arm. “Keep going, son,” said Ben quietly, waiting for the sobs to subsided.

“I was slowly getting closer to …whatever, whoever it was and then I noticed a book in his hand. Suddenly he tore out the last page and screwed it up, throwing it into the air where it just disappeared in front of my eyes. Then his arm stretched out, pointed at me and I started to fall again, faster and faster until I ended up back on the bed, only this time you were holding me tight, squeezing me so hard it hurt. Hurt real bad Pa, so bad that it made me gasp for breath…. and then nothing ….everything went black.”

Joe looked up questioningly at Ben, his moistened eyes pleading for understanding and enlightenment. “Everything was so real! I could feel the cold air, almost taste the smoke from the chimney as it curled up around me. But it couldn’t of been real Pa, it just couldn’t!” he cried, closing his eyes tightly.

Ben smiled compassionately, “You were very sick Joe,” he assured him. Then, as gently as he could, “Are you sure that this wasn’t just a dream? Maybe some sort of hallucination?”

“It wasn’t no hallucination, Pa. Where was I going? Why was I sent back?” Joe’s voice grew louder with agitation as his face went red and fear swept over him.

Ben held up a hand to settle his son down, “All right, Joe…all right. Just calm down.”

Joe felt the heat in his face start to ebb away. “Sorry, Pa,” he said as he sunk back onto his pillow.

“Apology accepted,” said Ben, giving his son an understanding smile.

“I’m not going mad, am I, Pa?” Joe asked hesitatingly, as he looked over at his father.

“No, Joe. You’re not going mad,” answered Ben calmly, giving a reassuring squeeze on his arm.

Sitting for a moment, deep in thought, Ben’s brow furrowed as a specter of doubt raised its head. Was it a dream? If not, what? As he mulled over all that had been said he looked uneasily at Joe, groping for an answer. He was a God fearing man, taught to believe in the presence of God and an afterlife. But surely Joe had imagined it all, and the figures he had seen had never existed in the first place? How could Joe’s experience be truly real? His head spun with images and concepts he couldn’t begin to comprehend.

“I don’t know, son. I just don’t know what to say,” he responded at last, “Whatever happened to you, be it dream, nightmare, hallucination….or even reality, you are alive now, and that’s all that matters….. all that matters to me. Just accept you have been given back your life, somehow…accept it and give thanks. Don’t spend the rest of your days in turmoil, worrying or trying to make sense of it all. Some things are just beyond man’s comprehension or understanding.”

Joe considered what his father had said. He was alive; he had been given another chance of life, regardless of how or why. With a slow smile Joe nodded, the tension in his body slowly ebbing away as he accepted his father’s explanation gratefully. “I have been given another chance of life, and I do appreciate it,” he said quietly, “But I don’t understand it…probably never will.”

Ben stared at him with concern flooding from his brown eyes. “Do you think you can put it all behind you now? Concentrate on the future and what will be?”

Joe nodded, visibly relaxing as Ben realized just how tense and terrified his son had been.

“You won’t tell anyone else, will you, Pa?” Joe asked, “Some folk might just think this kick on the head really did me more damage than first thought,” he added, gently feeling the bandage that was wrapped around his head.

Ben shook his head, “And no more thought of what might have been,” he threw back, smiling for a moment. Suddenly his face altered and became serious as a thought crept into his head. “You know, Joe, I still haven’t said thank you for what you did. You saved my life son…nearly at the cost of your own. ”

“You’re worth it, Pa,” replied Joe quietly, his words spoken simply from the heart.

Ben walked over to the window and looked out, holding back the tears that threatened to fall at Joe’s sincerity. “For a while, both Adam and I blamed ourselves for what happened to you. Carried a load of guilt on our shoulders…..it took a wise man to show us different,” Ben admitted, pulling the curtains shut and turning to face Joe again.

“But it was just an accident, Pa! There was no blame,” responded Joe, as a quizzical frown appeared on his face. “What did Adam feel guilty for Pa?” he asked, holding his father’s gaze.

“Adam?” Ben looked down, slightly embarrassed. “Well Joe…erm…it seems your elder brother tricked you to going to town that day. He was really wanting to drink old Josh’s home made punch.” He looked at Joe uneasily, bracing himself an explosion. Instead his son began to chuckle softly. “Aren’t you angry at Adam, Joe? I know he’s been worried about how you would react once you knew what he did,” asked Ben, slightly fazed by his reaction.

Joe shook his head, “Heck no, Pa! I would of done exactly the same thing if I had been in his shoes….it would seem my elder brother has been watching me and learning a few new tricks!” he laughed, no sign of bitterness in his voice.

“He will be glad to hear that,” said Ben truthfully, “I know he’s still a mite upset about what he did.”

Joe’s eyes twinkled, “We don’t have to tell him….just yet, do we Pa?” Joe said, exchanging a mischievous grin with his father.

“Joseph!” cried Ben in mocked surprise.

For a moment father and son looked at each other, then they both burst out laughing, sharing the humor of the moment.

Joe suddenly yawned, his tired eyes hardly able to keep open. “Excuse me, Pa! Looks like I am more tired than I thought,” he said as he snuggled down onto the mattress.

Ben gave his son a loving pat on the arm, then pulled the blanket over bare shoulders and stroked his hair just as he had done over the years. “You get some sleep now, son,” he said kindly as he blew out the candle that stood on the table by the bed.

“I will, Pa….good night….oh Pa, would you do me a favor?” called Joe as Ben opened the bedroom door.

“Of course Joe, what?” he asked watching the darkened outline under the covers.

“Next time you have a bad knee, you will use a walking stick won’t you?”

Ben openly laughed, “Yes Joseph, I promise!” he said, closing the door behind him as he heard a muffled chuckle emanate from the bed.

The conversation between Ben and Joe was never mentioned again and as the weeks went by there was a marked improvement in his physical and mental condition. As February drew to its close, Joe’s splint was removed enabling him at long last to leave the downstairs room and return to his own bedroom. Although Hoss had offered to carry him up the stairs each night weeks before, Joe had been adamant he would not step foot in his room until he could do it unaided, his left leg free of constraints.

Taking the stairs slowly but steadily, Ben watched nervously as Joe took hold of the banister rail and went around the corner of the upstairs landing, disappearing into his room for the first time since Christmas Eve. Taking a deep breath of relief, he turned and made his way to his desk and the paperwork that was awaiting his attention.

As the afternoon began to turn into early evening, Adam and Hoss returned from checking the stock in the lower pastures and meadows. Making their way to the dining table where Ben was already seated, they sat down to await the meal that was due to be served within the next few minutes.

“Where’s Joe?” asked Hoss as he looked over through the open door opposite his chair to the empty bedroom.

“He is still in his own room,” answered Ben, looking up towards the stairs. “He’s been up there ever since Paul removed that splint.”

“Sure is an ornery cuss sometimes, that brother of mine,” commented Hoss as he began to butter a bread roll. “He was determined to only go back to his old room when he could do it on his own, without his leg in plaster.”

“The leg is okay then, Pa?” asked Adam as he poured out a glass of water, and passed the pitcher to his brother.

“Yes, it’s a bit stiff of course, but is just about as good as new. Paul was very pleased with it.”

Hoss chuckled. “What’s so funny, Hoss?” asked his father smiling over at the big man.

“Oh, nothing much, Pa. It’s just with his leg better I bet it won’t be long before Joe is leading us a merry dance again!”

Ben and Adam nodded and smiled in agreement as Hop Sing called out from the kitchen that dinner would be ready in 2 minutes.

“You want me to give Joe a call, Pa?” asked Hoss, still chortling at the anticipated pranks his little brother would soon be up to again. How he had missed them he mused silently. Ben nodded, but as Hoss slid his chair back the opening of an upstairs bedroom door could be heard and Joe eventually appeared, walking carefully down the stairs, three heavy boxes balanced precariously in his arms.

“What the…..?” cried Ben as he looked at his son with concern.

Hoss rushed over, taking hold of the boxes from Joe’s arms. “What on earth you doing, Joe? You determined to break another leg?” he admonished as he placed the boxes on the coffee table.

Joe gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Hoss. I guess I wasn’t thinking. Just had to bring these down.”

Joe grinned as he organized the boxes in order. Lifting the first he followed his brother to the dining table and placed a well padded box in his father’s arms. “Happy Christmas!” he said, a huge beam showing on his face as he turned and returned to the table, failing to see the look of surprise on Ben’s face as he picked up the second box and carried it over to Adam.

“Happy Christmas!” he repeated, as a startled Adam pushed himself away from the table and accepted his gift onto his lap.

“And last, but by no means least, this is for you, Hoss. Happy Christmas!” as he placed the last box in the large hands of his big brother.

“Sorry I didn’t get to wrap them up, but I was otherwise occupied on Christmas Eve,” he laughed, lightheartedly as he watched the three men view their unexpected gifts.

“But Joe, we handed out our presents last month, once you were able to sit up in bed! Where did these come from? How on earth have you afforded them?” asked Adam, as he began to unwrap the brown paper that covered the mysterious parcel.

“Don’t you worry, Adam. I ain’t been robbing no banks!” Joe chuckled, “Just did some extra work for a few of our neighbors last year and saved my pay. Seeing as their special thank you gifts, I decided to save them until I was able to carry them down on my own. Kind of gave me the impetus to get better quickly.”

The straw and paper that had protected it on its long journey lay strewn on the floor as Ben viewed the bottled ship so dear to his heart, standing magnificently within its glass case. “Joseph, this is wonderful,” said Ben, swallowing away a tear. Joe returned the gaze, the close bond between father and son evident as brown eyes smiled happily at green.

Adam lovingly stroked the leather bound covers of his books, his eyes widening with surprise and pleasure as he noticed the titles, once so dear to his mother’s heart. Swallowing hard to keep hold of his emotions he looked over at the young man who was watching him intently. “Thank you, Joe. I don’t know how you knew…..they are just what I have always wanted.”

The look of gratitude on his brother’s face spoke volumes as Joe shared a smile with his elder brother.

As the brightly colored figure of a horse was taken from its box, Hoss gave Joe a questioning look. Much as he immediately loved the finely made but unusual sculpture, its significance was not apparent as he stroked the smoothly planed wooden back of the prancing animal, appreciating the hours of work needed to create such an even and regular surface.

“This is real lovely, Joe, and I ain’t seen anything like it before. Where’s it come from?”

“It’s from Sweden and was made where your Ma was born,” said Joe, noticing his brother’s confusion. “I thought you would like something from her home country that you could look at and remember your Swedish heritage…..You do like it, don’t you, Hoss?” asked Joe, worried his gift had disappointed his big brother.

Slowly a deep and genuine smile appeared on Hoss’ face, his eyes moistening as he looked at the anxious face that stared at him. “Its just perfect, Joe, perfect,” he answered truthfully and tearfully, as he began to sniff loudly and wiped his hand across his eyes.

Joe’s experience had left him with a new appreciation of life… and for people he loved. Seeing that his special Christmas gifts, though a little late, had brought such happiness to those he loved so dearly, he sat back on his chair contented.

*****

Later that night as Joe undressed for bed, eager to once again sink into the feather mattress of his old bed, he looked out of the window. The sky was clear and shining with stars as the full moon shone down, bathing the landscape in an eerie glow.

As he slid into bed, pulling the blankets up to his chin, he recalled the images from New Year’s Eve, still clear in his mind. It was more than a dream, he mused, now feeling strangely at ease and without fear. He believed, deep within his soul, Death had decided for some unexplainable reason to give him a second chance at life.

As sleep called he began to smile. Joseph Francis Cartwright was alive….. and he was determined to grasp his new chance at life with both hands and live it to the full…..til the day he died!

***The End***

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