Family (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,700


It was late October and autumn waved a blustery farewell as massive clouds of winter built up over the Sierra Nevada, plunging the area into a cold gloom. Hoss Cartwright closed the barn door then braced himself against the headwind that blew away the last of the leaves swirling around the yard as he walked across to the house.

Ben looked up expectantly from the comfort of his chair as the door opened, eager to see and talk to his youngest, but as Hoss entered, Ben quickly hid his disappointment, smiling warmly as his middle son hung his large hat on a peg before undoing his gun belt. Stamping his feet as he walked over towards the fire, Hoss let out a loud groan and pulled a face of pain and discomfort.

“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked with concern as he sipped the last dregs from his coffee cup.

Hoss sat down and pulled off his right boot and sock then began to rub his foot vigorously. “Darnblast it, Pa! My corns are just about crippling me. It’s a sure indication we’re going to have snow in the near future; I guarantee it!”

Ben raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Your corns told you that?” he asked with a grin as his eldest son made his way down the stairs having heard his brother’s comment.

“Don’t tell me!” Adam laughed. “Those corns of yours have started playing up. How many inches of snow are they predicting?”

“Don’t you turn your nose up at my corns!” Hoss cried as he took off his other boot and began to scratch his toes. “They ain’t ever let me down before.”

Adam gave another chuckle and looked over towards the clock as he sat down in his armchair, yawning loudly and stretching out his long legs. “It’s nearly 5 o’clock. Shouldn’t Joe have come back from town by now?”

Ben nodded and his face grew serious as he placed his now empty cup on the coffee table. “I only asked him to pick up the mail while he was in town. I just hope he hasn’t ended up in the saloon again, drinking with those so called friends of his,” he commented as he picked up his pipe and lit it. “I’m afraid our tempers got the better of us this morning. I said something I didn’t mean in the heat of the moment and I need to sort it out with him.”

“Hoss and I gathered that,” smiled Adam as he and his brother exchanged knowing glances. “We heard the door slam!”

“I just don’t know what’s got into him these days,” Ben added in exasperation as he stared into the blazing fire. “Seems to be forever in a bad mood and arguing against everything I ask him to do. Sometimes I despair and wonder if he really wants to be a part of this ranch.”

Hoss stared at his father in mute astonishment for a moment. “Of course he does, Pa! I reckon he’s just sowing a few wild oats. Needs to work out a few things for himself.”

As the tobacco smoke crept upwards towards the ceiling Ben looked over at his son. “But why? You and Adam never carried on like him at the same age! I wish you had; then at least I would have some idea how to deal with that brother of yours!”

“Shucks, Pa…we couldn’t help being such model sons, could we Adam?” Hoss answered, winking over at his brother and beaming a huge smile.

“Nope! You just don’t realize how lucky you were, Pa!” Adam added mischievously, fighting hard to keep his face looking serious. “Reckon the Lord broke the mould when he made us two!”

Ben rolled his eyes and shook his head at the light-hearted banter, throwing a quick smile towards his sons, but then his face grew dark again.

Hoss noticed the change of demeanor in his father’s expression and gave him a thoughtful glance, knowing intuitively something serious was bothering him. “So what did you say this morning that caused Joe to go out in such a temper?”

Ben sighed and sank deep into his armchair. “I told him straight. I was sick and tired of him spending all his free time in town drinking, and he should start pulling his weight in this family and doing his fair share of the work around here, otherwise….” Ben hesitated, uncertain if he should continue.

As Adam lifted up his guitar from behind the chair he threw his father a curious glance. “Otherwise what, Pa? Don’t tell me you threatened to fire him?” he asked with a chuckle, not realizing how near to the truth he was.

Ben’s eyes moistened as he nodded slowly. “Unfortunately, I came close!” he answered as a surprised Adam and Hoss sat back and studied their father’s worried face. “I just wish he’d take his duties on the Ponderosa a little more seriously. Doesn’t he realize how much we need him around here?”

There was an awkward silence for a moment as Hoss looked down to the floor and bit at his lip nervously; a tell tale sign that he had something on his mind. “Actually Pa, I don’t think he does,” he finally admitted. “From what he’s told me, he feels like his only contribution around here is to be the gofer!”

Ben threw his son a quizzical look. “The what?”

“The gofer, Pa…you know, go for this, go for that. He feels he is just a glorified errand boy who never gets to decide to do the important things around the ranch, and whose opinions are never sought after or acted upon.”

A look of bewilderment filled Ben’s eyes. “That’s ridiculous! Of course we value Joe’s opinions and ideas.”

Adam also nodded emphatically in agreement. “Sure we do.”

“Do you? When was the last time you actually let him voice his views about what we should do on the ranch, and went along with what he suggested?” Hoss asked, annoyance more than evident in his tone as he threw his father and brother a solemn look, his itching feet suddenly forgotten. “Why, only last month he came up with the idea of building a flume on Sun Mountain and bidding for the timber contract. But I seem to remember you both vetoed the idea without any discussion…even with me!”

Both Adam and Ben stared dumbfounded at Hoss, shocked by his sudden outburst, but oblivious to their reaction Hoss continued in full flow as he pulled on his socks and boots again. “You know I tend to go with your decisions about the ranch…never did have a head for facts and figures, so wasn’t too put out that you never even talked about it with me. But Joe’s different. He has a brain and put a lot of thought and work into that bid and there’s a good chance we’d have won the contract and made quite a tidy profit in the process.”

There was an unhappy expression in Ben’s eyes as he viewed his son. “Yes, that was a big mistake on my part,” he admitted finally. “I should have taken more time to listen to Joe and all his calculations before turning down his idea. When Adam and I checked it through again later on, it was actually a brilliant piece of planning on his part, but by then it was too late.”

“Did you tell him that?” asked Hoss as he sank back onto the settee and looked between his father and brother, his temper now abated.

“No, when I think back I never did,” answered Ben thoughtfully. “He didn’t seem to want to stay around long enough to talk about it; just headed for town every evening after work. What about you Adam?”

His son shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “He did act a mite cool towards me but never mentioned it, so I guess I just took it for granted he realized I felt bad about ignoring his plan.”

There was a moment of silence and then Hoss cleared his throat nervously. “He’s still upset about Rubicon,” he stated quietly.

Ben gave a startled gasp. “Rubicon? But that was over a year ago! Surely he’s not still harboring a grudge just because I wouldn’t let him take on that job as temporary sheriff?”

Hoss nodded. “He still reckons he could have saved that feller from those two gunmen if you’d let him go.”

“But he could have been killed! Doesn’t he realize I was only thinking of his safety?” exclaimed Ben.

“Of course he does, Pa,” replied Hoss in an apologetic tone. “But he also thinks that by refusing to let him look after Rubicon for a couple of weeks, you were really saying you didn’t think he could use his initiative or trust his ability to take care of that town by himself. He only wanted a chance to prove he is capable of doing something on his own!”

“But he doesn’t need to prove anything to us,” interjected Adam who had been following the conversation keenly.

“No, Adam. You don’t understand. He needs to prove it to himself,” admitted Hoss, throwing his gaze between his brother and father. “He feels like he is the third string around here; just repeating what we’ve already done and never having the opportunity to prove his own worth.”

A look of acute sadness suddenly covered Ben’s face. “And Joe admitted all this to you, Hoss?”

His son nodded then dropped his eyes to the floor, unwilling to stare at his father’s despondent expression.

“I didn’t realize he felt so strongly, or that I’d hurt his feelings so much,” Ben admitted sadly. “There was a time when we could talk our problems out together…not anymore it seems.”

Adam and Hoss swapped nervous glances as Ben stared reflectively into the fire for a few minutes, blinking hard as he felt his eyes water.

“I think it’s time this family sat around the table and cleared the air, once and for all,” Ben stated resolutely as he finally shook himself from his reverie and gazed over at his eldest. “And as soon as Joe gets back, I reckon its time you and I ate some humble pie about the contract. Agreed, Adam?”

His oldest son grinned sheepishly and nodded. “Little brother is going to enjoy seeing me squirm, but I guess I deserve it,” he said with a grin, then began to play a tune on his guitar. His father and brother sat back, each with their own thoughts, when suddenly a loud knock echoed around the room. Adam paused and looked over as Hoss hauled himself off the settee and walked over to the front door.

He opened it and one of the Ponderosa’s oldest and most trusted employees, Jed Blackford came in view, holding his hat down with one hand to keep it from flying off in the stiff breeze. Hoss offered a warm smile and indicated for him to enter. “Howdy, Jed. What can we do for you?” he asked as he closed the door behind him.

“Evening, Hoss, Mr. Cartwright, Adam,” Jed answered as he looked over towards the two figures sitting by the blazing fire. “Sure is blowing cold out there!”

Ben and Adam smiled a welcome and nodded in agreement as the ranch hand rummaged in his inside pocket.

“I met Joe in town and he asked me to bring you the mail,” he said as he handed over a thick wad of papers.

“Why? Ain’t he coming home today?” asked a bemused Hoss as Ben wandered over and stood by his son’s side.

“What’s going on, Jed? I asked Joe to collect the mail,” Ben said as he noticed the envelopes in Hoss’ hand and took them from him. “Don’t tell me he is drinking in the Silver Dollar again?”

“Oh no, Mr. Cartwright! Far from it. Joe asked me to deliver the mail ‘cause he’s gone up into the high country for a few days.”

“He’s what?” cried Ben in surprise. “What on earth for?”

“While we were in town, we got word that a pack of wolves had been sighted heading towards the north rim.”

“Wolves? It’s far too early for them to be around here,” Ben stated slightly perplexed. “But I still don’t understand why that would make Joe want to go up there?”

“It was when I reminded Joe about the small herd of prime beef still grazing on the top meadow that he got real angry and said he would have to go and hunt those wolves down before they started attacking the cattle. He thought they’d been brought down to the winter grass last week, but I told him Adam had said they had to stay up there until the end of the month. He sure was mad when he found that out!”

“Joe was angry? Did he say why, Jed?”

“He reckoned he told Adam those cattle should be brought down to the bottom meadow grass three weeks ago after a lone wolf was first sighted and thought the order had been given. He sure looked riled when I told him no one had been told to move them.”

“Is that right Adam?” asked Ben as he turned and glowered over at his son. “Did Joe advise you to bring the herd down, but you took no notice?”

Adam nodded and gave a deep sigh.

“Didn’t he tell you a wolf had been spotted in that area?” pressed Ben.

“Sorry, Pa; now I come to think of it, I’m sure he did. I was so busy finalizing the accounts that day I didn’t listen to half of the conversation we had. I just told him I’d take care of everything and then must have promptly forgotten all about what he’d said.”

“So much for valuing his opinions and ideas!” Ben remarked sarcastically as he returned to sit in his chair and glared angrily over at his eldest son.

Slightly shamefaced, Adam shook his head gently and visibly reddened under the close scrutiny of his father’s piercing brown eyes. “Guess that’s another apology I owe Joe and more humble pie I’m going to be eating!”

Hoss also threw his elder brother a withering look before questioning the ranch hand again. “Didn’t Joe take any of the men with him Jed?” he asked solemnly, now worried for his little brother’s safety.

The older man gave an emphatic shake of his head. “I did offer to go with him but Joe insisted he could manage by himself; said he was quite capable of shooting a pack of wolves on his own, if nothing else!”

Hoss gave a short nod as he gently slapped his hand on Jed’s shoulder. “Thanks anyway,” he said as he opened the door and the ranch hand left to make his way back to the bunk house.

The big man gave a loud sigh then flicked a glance over towards his father whose shoulders were slumped down and his face looked pale as he stared into the flickering firelight.

“Darn fool kid,” Hoss murmured as he walked back to the settee. “Only Joe would go rushing off to tackle a pack of wolves on his own without thinking through the danger he could be in. Looks like I’m going to have an early start in the morning.”

Staring into the fire, Ben seemed to be miles away, but as he looked over towards his son he shook his head slightly. “Now Hoss,” he said kindly. “You can forget any notion you may have of going to help your brother tomorrow.”

“But Pa,” answered Hoss frowning. “We can’t leave him up there alone. He may need our help!”

Adam nodded in agreement. “Hoss is right, Pa. The least we can do is give Joe a helping hand. I do feel somewhat responsible after not taking any notice of his advice.”

“And so you should!” Ben snapped a little too hastily. Adam flinched back in his chair, and immediately regretting his outburst Ben shook his head sorrowfully. “Sorry son,” he said with a deep sigh, throwing a warm smile over towards his eldest. “I know you mean well, both of you. But is this not just the kind of thing that has been getting on Joe’s nerves lately? Not trusting him to see a job through!”

“But we just can’t leave him on his own,” complained Hoss once again.

“For once, I think we should,” replied Ben thoughtfully as he took another long intake of tobacco from his pipe. “Arrange for the herd to be brought down in the next few days, but otherwise just leave Joe to do the task he has set himself.”

“But Pa…” Ben glared over at his son.

“Yes Sir. You’re the boss,” Hoss acknowledged finally with a half-hearted nod as he settled back in his chair but Ben could see he was not entirely convinced by his father’s plan.

“Don’t worry…he’s a Cartwright…he’ll be okay,” Ben reminded him with a tender smile then returned to sort through the mail, keeping a calm exterior but concealing the anxiety he truly felt.

Adam began to play his guitar again but quickly stopped when he noticed a deep frown suddenly appear on his father’s face as he flicked through the pile of envelopes.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” he asked, putting down the instrument and leaning forward in his chair.

Ben looked up and chewed nervously at his lip for a moment. “There’s a letter here….for Joe. From New Mexico,” he answered, running a shaky hand through his thick gray hair.

Hoss studied his father and took a deep gulp. “Ain’t that where Clay said he was heading when he left here last summer?”

Nodding Ben gently tapped the envelope against his knee. “Joe was pretty cut up when Clay left. He’d really hoped he would stay on the Ponderosa and the two of them could get to know each other better.”

Adam slammed his hand hard on the arm of the chair. “Joe was also badly beaten up and nearly died because of Clay Stafford being round here,” he declared angrily. “He’s been gone all these months and has never written a word to Joe, so why now?”

Ben shook his head. “Maybe I’m jumping the gun here. I don’t know for sure this letter is from Clay. Guess we shall just have to wait until Joe gets home,” he stated as he reached up and placed the correspondence on the mantelpiece. He gave a deep sigh and his brown eyes showed strain and anxiety within them as he sat down again.

Hoss and Adam exchanged worried glances and Hoss put a comforting hand on his father’s knee. “What’s wrong, Pa?”

Ben forced out a weak smile as he felt his heart beating loud in his chest. “I just hope Clay isn’t writing to invite Joe to join him on his adventures. The way your brother has been behaving lately, I have a feeling he just might take him up on his offer and go.”

*****

Having hurriedly purchased several days worth of supplies from the mercantile, Joe Cartwright gently cantered away from Virginia City but noticing the darkening clouds that were building up on the horizon he kicked Cochise on, eager to make it to the safety and comparable comfort of the line shack before night fall.

As he rode, he mused to himself about his life and family. He hated arguing with his father and that morning’s altercation still weighed heavily on him, especially as everything his father had said was true. He had been spending more and more time away from the ranch house over the past months, most evenings drinking with his friends, playing poker, seemingly uninterested in the running of the Ponderosa.

As he thought back, he realized the catalyst that began the unease about his life on the ranch had been his father’s refusal to allow him to take the job of temporary sheriff in Rubicon. When offered it, he’d been sure he could take on the task successfully, reveling at the thought of doing something on his own, without his family one step behind him all the time. But his father had not shared the same faith in his ability, and although it had happened over a year ago, it still left a sour taste in Joe’s mouth. However, he had still tried at times to change his attitude and show interest in the running of the ranch, only desiring the chance to prove to himself and his family that he could do something on his own.

A few weeks previously, he spent all night working out the cost and details of felling timber from one of the Cartwright’s most inaccessible stands of fir trees above Buckhorn Meadow. He’d been more than confident of placing a successful bid for the contract with the Sun Mountain Mining Company, but his idea to build a flume was thrown aside; the risks were just too great Adam had said, and his father had agreed without a second glance at Joe’s detailed plans.

Since then, Joe’s belligerent attitude had escalated but that morning the unspoken inference by his father that if he didn’t change his ways he should maybe leave the ranch and do something else had shocked him so much he had hurriedly left the room, ignoring his father’s apologetic plea that followed as he slammed the door behind him. Joe knew his father didn’t mean it — that it was only said in an attempt to shake him out of his indifferent attitude — but still the fact that it had been said troubled him. Was that the answer to his increasing restlessness? Leave the Ponderosa?

He thought back to when his brother Clay had left.

He missed Clay, more than he was ever willing to admit to his father or his two other brothers; a day never passing when he didn’t think about him and wonder where he was. Clay was the only tangible link to his mother; the two sons of Marie Cartwright having been a formidable force in the few weeks they were together, and it grieved Joe that his relationship with his newly found brother was cut short…too short!

If only Clay had stayed, things would have been so different, he mused as he rode upwards on the steep slopes of the towering mountain side, shivering as the strong chilling wind wrapped itself around his body. Pulling up the thick woolen collar of his winter jacket, Joe inwardly acknowledged it was a minor blessing that he could put some distance between himself and his family for a few days; he needed a short time away to gather his thoughts and feelings.

The trouble was, Joe mused sarcastically to himself, the Cartwright family comprised of too many Chiefs and only one Indian….him! Always the baby, the youngest, the least experienced, the one to be ordered about; but how could he gain experience if he was never allowed to take charge, make the final decision and use his own judgment?

With these thoughts running around his head, he continued on his journey. It was no trail for the inexperienced or faint-hearted, for the track was steep, one edge falling away down a deep gorge. But Joe took it steady until eventually by late afternoon he thankfully arrived at his destination — a one-room line shack with small stable adjoining it that lay sheltered under the north rim. Even though it was a bleak and desolate spot, after several hours in the saddle Joe was more than happy to arrive and dismount, stretching his aching limbs before leading Cochise into the stable.

He saw to the comfort of his horse then, carrying the meager supplies within his saddle bags, entered his temporary home for the next few days.

The cabin smelled musty, as if long unaired, and was also gloomy, so Joe lit a small lamp. He could then make out a stove in the corner, a small table and chair, and a single straw mattress and pillow on a wooden bed, covered with a blanket and fitted under the only window. On the wall was a small cabinet, and he looked inside. At his father’s insistence, all line shacks were supplied with a small bottle of whiskey, iodine and clean bandages for use in an emergency. Joe licked his lips as he stared at the whiskey but, knowing it was purely for medicinal purposes, reluctantly closed the door and set about lighting the kindling already stacked in the stove. He patiently waited for the welcomed heat of the fire to spread around the cabin. As the chill in the air slowly diminished, he removed his thick jacket and hat, then lay down on the bed while the coffee pot came to the boil.

Suddenly, in the distance, he heard the howl of a single wolf as it communicated with the pack, sending a cold tremor up and down his spine. An answering howl in the opposite direction made it all too apparent the wolf pack had arrived in the area and reminded Joe of why he was up in this godforsaken part of the world, cold and hungry, instead of being warm and dining on Hop Sing’s finest stew! Silently cursing Adam for not listening to him, he leaned over and picked up his rifle, taking care to check that it and his Colt.45 were in full working order and would not let him down at the crucial time.

As silence once more settled on the darkened landscape, the odor of coffee permeated in the cabin. Joe poured himself a cup, sipping slowly at the scalding liquid and satisfying his hunger with heated up beans and several dried biscuits. Once finished, he stacked up the stove with wood, wrapped a blanket tight around him and lay down on the bed, listening to the sound of the wind wailing amongst the myriad of trees that covered the mountain side, until finally as his eyes gradually closed, fell into a deep and dream free sleep.

*****

The night passed without interruption, and as the first flush of dawn appeared in the sky, Joe awoke, shivering slightly in the early morning gloom of the cabin. The fire in the stove was all but out, so he hurriedly added fresh wood before reheating the previous night’s coffee. As he opened the door, he was surprised to see a bright early morning sun filtering down through the branches of the Ponderosa pines onto the first snow of winter, several inches having fallen silently during the night, covering the ground like a pristine white blanket.

The beauty of the landscape, glistening and reflecting back the sunlight, was not lost on Joe as he shaded his eyes with his hand and looked around, appreciating nature at its most breath taking. Winter on the Ponderosa had arrived, a little early and completely unexpected!

The weather had changed dramatically, and as he tended to Cochise again, Joe realized his wolf hunting plans would now have to be changed as well; no sane man who cared for his horse or his own neck would risk riding on the frozen and slippery surface so he would have to hunt on foot. The prospect was not one Joe relished, but no way would he allow a pack of wolves to dine on prime Cartwright cattle, Joe reflected as he gave his horse a final pat, happily leaving him in the warmth and protection of the stable.

While eating his breakfast of leftovers from the night before, Joe looked through the small cabin window to the towering summit of the north rim. His impetuousness would be the death of him, he recalled Adam predicting on more than one occasion and he wondered what his family would say now if they knew he was not only about to hunt a pack of wolves alone, but on foot and in the snow!

He gave a rueful laugh; it was a relief to think they would never need to know the danger he was putting himself under. He hoped he would sight the pack that day, but in his heart, he knew the chances were remote. Eventually he was ready to make a move, and donning his thick coat, threw a handful of spare cartridges into his pocket, pushed his hat firmly down, picked up his rifle, and closing the cabin door firmly behind him, set off.

The snow had covered the narrow path that wove its way upwards through the pines towards the small meadow that held the herd. Though his feet slipped and slid, he forced himself on, arriving an hour later, lungs bursting and legs aching at the plateau just beyond the north rim ridge.

A slow flowing creek, luckily not yet frozen, spilled and gurgled its way along one side of the meadow, eventually disappearing between the trees. Joe cupped his hand and lifted the cold water to his mouth, quenching his thirst from the long steep climb. He walked a slow circuit, and as he followed the line of trees that wound their way around behind most of the meadow, he spied the tell-tale tracks of a wolf pack clearly imprinted in the snow. He was not a day too soon, Joe mused as he looked about him warily and his finger gently stroked the trigger on his rifle; maybe the wolf-hunt would be over in one day after all!

Taking a few minutes to get his breath back, he looked over towards the far corner where he could both see and hear the small herd of top quality white-face and shorthorn cattle as they bellowed loudly and milled around. They pawed at the ground to clear away the snow in search of any grass they could find, still in good health and oblivious to the gray-haired enemy that now lurked deep within the depths of Ponderosa Pines.

Joe looked around for a suitable hiding place to await the inevitable arrival of the pack and spied a couple of fallen trees. He made himself as comfortable as possible, hiding within the branches with his rifle held steadily in his hands. Patience was not usually a virtue Joe was attributed to by his family, but for once he was resolutely determined to await his prey as a chilling wind slowly rose up and the clouds above threw down a fresh carpet, covering both man and beasts alike on the mountaintop.

Shivering and covered in snow, Joe kept to his lone vigil while the pack of several wolves held back in the protective shadows of the overflowing forest of pines, eyeing the bawling beasts in the clearing. But eventually hunger drove them out; upwind of Joe and not picking up the distinctive scent of man as they rushed from the comparative safety of the forest into the open of the meadow.

Seeing the movement, Joe stood up abruptly, lifting his rifle as the first hunting howl turned into a deep baying, and immediately throwing the herd of cattle into a frenzied panic. Joe took aim and fired. The leading wolf went down, dead before it hit the ground and throwing the remainder of the pack into momentary confusion. But the urge to kill was too strong and they continued with their run, within seconds half-way towards the terrified herd. Firing on the leading pair in quick succession, Joe then switched his sights to those at the rear; the muffled explosion of repeated rifle fire echoing back and forth across the valley tops as the pack was quickly decimated.

With a deep sigh of relief it was all over, Joe lowered his rifle. He and the herd had been lucky, for it had been the young pack’s first attack led by an inexperienced juvenile male, and they were all no match for their two-legged foe. Taking out the spare cartridges from his pocket, Joe reloaded his rifle and stared over as the biting wind grew stronger, whipping up the falling snow and soon covering the gray bodies lying dead in front of him.

He realized he could not attempt the long haul back to the line shack in such abysmal weather conditions and looked around him for temporary shelter, noticing in the distance the familiar shape of a large bulge of rocks half hidden in the trees. Recalling there was a small cave within the formation, he staggered on, head down against the stinging wind, forcing his tired legs on through the ever growing drifts.

As he neared the boulders that loomed in front of him, a dark shadow suddenly appeared and a cold chill ran down Joe’s spine as he recognized the unmistakable outline of a mature she-wolf. Larger and fiercer than those from the pack, this old wolf was a loner, an outcast, content to follow her kind at a distance. She sprang directly in front of Joe and snarled menacingly. Highly intelligent and wily, she had held back and watched as the pack attacked, knowing the younger members were too impetuous, going for the kill too soon. However she had eyed the two-legged game with interest, watching Joe and stalking him until at last she was ready to pounce.

With a deep throated growl, the wolf sat back on its haunches then sprang towards Joe’s throat, but, slipping on the icy surface, missed and its jaws took a hold of Joe’s right arm instead and sunk into his thick coat. As teeth went through to the bone, Joe fell onto his back and yelled out with pain as his rifle slipped from his hand. He began to turn and twist his body to try and shake off the attacking beast; splashes of red mingling with the snow as the wolf continued to bite hard. The squealing beast jerked her body and changed tactics, letting go of Joe’s arm and growling loudly before biting and pulling at his right foot in powerful jerks.

Feeling the teeth in his boot, Joe frantically tried to take hold of his Colt still in its holster, his freezing fingers desperately searching for it on his hip. Eventually he was successful and he drew out his gun, but pain and exhaustion had taken its toll and his eyes could not focus, so he just squeezed the trigger instinctively at point blank range until the chamber was empty. The blasts echoed loudly as the wolf flew back, collapsing in a heap with half its skull missing and blood streaming through several bullet holes.

Sinking back momentarily into the snow next to his victim, Joe closed his eyes and grimaced with pain before raising himself up and looking down. His arm was badly mauled, flesh ripped to the bone and blood seeping out and dripping onto the ground, mixing with that of the wolf. Luckily the powerful jaws had only managed to chew through the leather of his boot and catch the skin, the teeth marks leaving his foot sore and swollen. Grateful that the boot had not been completely ripped away Joe staggered to his feet and hobbled forwards, resting his back on the rock wall as he fought to get his breath, his injured right arm throbbing painfully as it hung limply by his side.

However, unfortunately for Joe, his ordeal was not yet over as a great roar suddenly exploded from deep within the depths of the cave, sending a fresh wave of panic flowing through his veins. A brown bear had been disturbed as it took shelter and rested after consuming the putrefying flesh of a deer it found the previous day, wakened by the combined noise of screaming wolf, man and gunfire in such close proximity to the cave.

Before he had time to move out of its path, the angry bear rushed out into the daylight on its hind legs, slashing out at Joe with its giant paw as it passed by and sending him flying onto the floor, blood now streaming from his chest. The bear continued to run for several yards then stopped in its tracks and looked back. Joe could see it glaring towards him, and knew in his present state he stood little chance against the 600lbs of muscled mass that could crush the life out of him in one grasp of its powerful forelimbs and cast aside his body as it were a limp rag doll.

However, self-preservation took over, and so using every inch of strength left, he galvanized himself into action and looked around for the fallen rifle which luckily had been dropped only feet away. His fingers clawed towards it, and as he grasped the butt, he could see out of the corner of his eye the bear begin to rush back towards him. It moved so fast he didn’t have time to take aim but just started firing the rifle and yelling at the top of his voice as the bear honed down on his position. As the shots rang out, it came to a halt, slightly disorientated by the loud echoing sound of rapid gunfire reverberating across the mountain top. Deciding to make an honorable retreat for once, the bear turned tail and soon disappeared from view into the swirling snow.

Hoping and praying the danger had now passed as his rifle slid onto the floor, Joe dragged himself into the cave then stared down at the front of his coat and shirt which were in tatters after being slashed open by the razor sharp claws of the bear. He could see the flesh on his chest was torn away in a long horizontal strip and as the blood seeped out, Joe’s face went a deathly white as his head throbbed with slow, heavy throbs and a slow fire began to burn within him. He stared down, looking between his chest and the deep bite marks on his arm and his whole body shook with shock, his stomach churning nauseously as he turned his head and vomited violently onto the cave floor, leaving his stomach muscles aching from the exertion.

In constant pain, feeling weak from blood loss and too exhausted to move, Joe drifted in and out of consciousness as he lay huddled and shivering on the floor, his head pounding. However during periods of brief lucidity, he stared out as day turned into night, watching a pale moon as it slowly drifted across a star filled sky, followed by a fresh wave of snow clouds that deposited their load on the mountain top.

The wind continued to howl unceasingly and it wasn’t until the first flush of dawn Joe’s head ceased to ache and he began to regain his senses and think more coherently. Though his vision was slightly blurred, he could feel the ugly wound on his chest and tentatively touched it with his fingers, flinching as he felt the congealed blood that had formed by the bitterly cold temperature.

His lips were dry and cracked and he now felt a deep, desperate thirst. Noticing the snow had blown through the entrance of the cave, forming an inch deep carpet, he reached out, taking a handful and sucking at the moisture gratefully. It revived him temporarily as the severity of his plight became all too apparent, even in his muggy and confused state.

He knew he was cold! In fact he could not think of a word to describe just how cold he felt, and he suddenly thought about his brother Adam. He would have known a suitable word, a fancy one, poetic and descriptive, plucked from deep within the folds of his highly intelligent and organized brain, but whatever he’d have come up with, the effect would still be the same. Joe was cold…very cold!

He was also in pain — throbbing, aching and constant pain. His body began shaking uncontrollably as a fever within him now began to rage. He closed his eyes, hoping for pain free sleep, but as the thought came to him that he may never wake up again, he opened them and tried to keep his mind concentrated on little things that would help him focus and cling to consciousness.

Drops of blood seeping through his torn shirt and merging with the snow made an ugly red stain on the beautiful carpet of white, and Joe watched it with fascination. Maybe it was his brain’s way to stop him thinking about his fate as delirium slowly intensified and he thought on just how much blood a body contained; heaven knows, he had lost his fare share over the years!

In his minds eye, he could visualize the undeniable beauty of a sunrise on the Ponderosa, watched without a second glance and taken for granted for all of his 23 years. Mother Nature at her finest, he mused as he then remembered the tranquility and peacefulness of a summer’s evening sitting by Lake Tahoe, dipping his feet into the chilly water but content to be rid of the confines of his boots for a few blissful minutes.

The sound of laughter echoed in his head as the memory returned of when he and his brothers shared a risqué joke out of earshot of their father. It always amazed Joe that, considering how his brother Adam was always classed as refined, solid, dependable and far too serious for his own good, he could come up with ridiculous and raunchy witticisms that continually left his two younger siblings doubled up with laughter, tears running down their cheeks as they held their stomachs with joyous pain.

And finally, as the hallucinations intensified, he could almost feel the strong yet comforting hands of his father as he’d held him close to his broad chest over the years; stroking his hair as Joe had cried out for those he had lost during his life: his mother, the women he had loved, and the brother he had hardly known.

The snow had stopped falling but the wind continued to blow fiercely as Joe looked out at the morning sun shining brightly in a clear blue sky, belying the true penetrating chill on the north rim. Weak as he was and with his own temperature soaring, Joe realized he had no chance of survival unless he could somehow return to the warmth and protection of the line shack before he succumbed to the freezing cold.

Slowly and painfully he eased himself up, using his rifle as a crutch to support him as best he could, for even though his foot had not been badly mauled, it was unable to take his weight. Reluctantly leaving the protection of the cave, he dragged himself across the meadow towards the steep path that led back down to the cabin, struggling to keep from falling over in the world of white and disorientated by the newly fallen snow that had erased all tracks both of man and beasts and made the landscape unrecognizable.

His journey was pitifully slow. The brightness of the sun reflected back on the glistening white landscape, burning the backs of his eyes as he squinted through narrowed slits, hardly able to see where he was going as beads of sweat poured down his face. After an hour, he’d barely traveled a few hundred yards before his good foot felt as weak as the injured one and he slid down exhausted in a hollow under the sparse protection of an old gnarled pine.

Joe knew he had no chance of surviving out in the open but there wasn’t any fight left in him any more. Even his delirious mind told him he must keep moving but his muscles wouldn’t respond and he just couldn’t find the strength to leave this final resting place.

Panting heavily and in pain with each breath, there was nothing else he could do but lay still as the wind chilled his body and he closed his eyes against the sunlight, beginning to feel strangely comfortable as he felt the increasing heat of fever seeping from his every pore.

The pain in his chest was now a fierce, fiery ache and, for the first time in his life, Joe Cartwright gave up as all strength within him ebbed away with each throb of agony. He thought he heard the sound of a familiar voice call out his name and with a final effort jerked up into alertness as his cracked and blistered lips silently mouthed a reply before falling back and being dragged down into unconsciousness.

*****

He often wondered what heaven would be like and had been assured by the church minister at Sunday services it was a beautiful place — nothing like what he would leave behind when he finally shook off his mortal coils. But as Joe slowly came to, his fever gone and thinking he must be in the afterlife, the one thing he never thought heaven would have was the strong smell of coffee as it boiled on a stove!

Images of the past few days floated around his head as he vaguely remembered the feel of sweat pouring off him as he turned his head from side to side in the strong clutches of a raging fever for hours. A voice seemed to continually murmur words to console and sooth him, but though he didn’t recognize it as his Pa’s loving tones, the hands felt like his — strong yet gentle as a cooling cloth wiped his perspiring face, calming him and giving him comfort.

However, where he was now and how he got there became insignificant details as his head both spun and pounded; finding it too much trouble and effort to stay awake, he returned to a blissful, pain free slumber.

Hours later, when he woke up again, Joe felt much better as the throbbing in his head had diminished considerably, and tentatively raising his arm, he pushed back a blanket that covered his body and was both surprised and bemused to realize his chest and arm were now bandaged. Feeling a straw mattress under him, he listened to the unmistakable sound of wood crackling in a fire, and though appreciating its radiating warmth, his mind was still unable to register where he was.

He slowly opened his eyes but quickly shut them tight as a sudden sharp pain pierced his head, but as he started to sit up, felt himself being gently pushed back down as a hand rested on his forehead.

“You’ve been real sick so just rest easy young fella,” a gruff male voice suddenly insisted. “How are you feeling now?”

Swallowing hard and in a slight panic Joe turned towards the direction of the voice. “Better…I think. But I can’t see anything!” he said, his voice little more than a croak.

Fingers gently opened one of his eyes causing Joe to wince with pain and then he heard footsteps walk away, returning moments later. “Would seem the fever has peaked at last but your eyes are badly inflamed,” the man told Joe as he bent over and placed a piece of cloth across his eyes.

Alarmed, Joe raised his good arm and felt for the man’s hand. “What are you doing?”

“Don’t worry. It looks like you’ve got a touch of snow blindness. Should only cause a temporary loss of vision but you need to keep your eyes rested in darkness while the inflammation goes down,” the voice explained as Joe’s head was eased off the pillow and an improvised bandage was secured behind him. “Just you protect them from the light with this old kerchief for a couple of days you’ll be able to see again good as new.”

Joe nodded in understanding. “Thanks…Who are you?” he croaked painfully, the expression on his face still one of bewilderment and unease as he heard the sound of a chair being pulled to his bed side and sensed the man sitting down.

“Me? Just call me…Wade,” the voice answered hesitatingly with a slight chuckle, leaving Joe with the immediate impression he was not who he claimed to be, and he visibly tensed as he sank back onto his pillow.

A comforting hand was suddenly laid on his shoulder. “I can see you’re looking a little scared and confused, but believe me, you’ve nothing to fear from me. If I’d wanted to harm, you I’d have done it by now!”

Joe reddened, embarrassed to have shown his inner feelings so easily as he realized the truth of Wade’s statement. He licked his dry and cracked lips as lines on his forehead furrowed in puzzlement. “Where am I?”

Easing back in his chair, Wade stretched out his arms behind his head and rested his feet on the end of Joe’s bed. “I found this place a few days ago just as the snow storm began,” he explained. “I could see someone had set up camp here and so I waited for them to return that evening, but no one did, so I made myself comfortable and stayed the night. I found a hungry horse in the stable as well.”

“A pinto?” Joe asked anxiously, his voice now barely above a whisper, and his throat dry.

Wade raised his eyebrows. “He’s yours?”

Joe nodded back. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. I’ve fed and watered him every day since I got here.”

Joe breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Thanks. Me and Cochise go back a long way.”

Wade nodded his head. “Cochise? Good choice of name for an Indian paint,” he conceded as he threw over a half smile to the unseeing Joe and stared at him thoughtfully for a moment. “By the sound of it, you could do with a drink. I’ve just made a fresh pot of coffee. Want one?”

Joe nodded gratefully, finding himself quickly relaxing in Wade’s company; appreciating his kindness and concern. There was a moment’s pause as Wade walked back to the stove and then returned to Joe who managed to raise himself on his one good arm as a mug was carefully placed in his hand.

“So young man…what’s your name?” asked Wade, settling down on the chair again.

Gulping down the coffee in one long swallow, Joe gave a thankful smile as he handed back the mug, his parched throat now satisfied. “Joe…Joe Cartwright.”

“I take it this is your cabin then?”

Joe nodded and smiled faintly. “It’s the highest line shack belonging to the Ponderosa ranch. We usually use it when checking the timber up here in the summer.”

“The Ponderosa? You work for that outfit?”

Joe gave a humorless chuckle. “You could say that, though my father would disagree at the moment. Seems to think I’m not pulling my weight on the ranch these days,” he answered sadly. “How did I end up back at the line shack?”

There was a moment’s pause as Wade rose and poured himself a coffee. “After bedding down here for the night, I thought I’d have a scout round the next morning to hunt me some extra meat for supper, just in case someone would show up and weren’t too pleased I’d helped myself to their coffee and biscuits,” Wade explained as he settled back on his chair and swallowed at his drink. “I’d just managed to shoot me some game when I stumbled across you halfway up the mountain. You were about frozen to death, with barely a heartbeat, and I thought I’d found me a corpse!”

“You carried me all the way back here?” Joe asked in astonishment.

“Part carry, part dragging! That trail is pretty treacherous when covered in snow,” Wade stated in a matter of fact way before taking a final sip of his drink.

“You fixed me up well!” Joe confirmed as he gingerly explored his bandaged chest and arm with his finger tips, wincing slightly as he felt his wounds, and slowly moving his injured foot under the blanket. “Feels like everything is healing okay. Old Doc Martin in Virginia City would be impressed by what you’ve done.”

A loud chortle exploded from Wade. “I must admit I’ve never considered being in the same league as a Doctor! Once I’d thawed you out, I just cleansed the wounds with some iodine I found and bandaged you up, but it was touch and go for a while you’d survive with that fever you had burning, though. Never known anyone writhe about so much or get so hot.”

Joe felt his own forehead and was reassured to feel it cool and dry, the fever having well and truly gone.

Wade studied his empty mug for a moment before looking over at Joe questioningly. “I could see you’d been attacked by some fierce critter. How did you get yourself in such a bad way?”

Joe grimaced slightly at the memory. “We have a small herd of Ponderosa cattle on the plateau above this line shack. I heard there was a pack of wolves roaming the area so came up to get rid of them before they decided to eat our beef! Managed to shoot the pack but got myself in a tussle with a she-wolf and then a bear.”

Wade pursed his lips and gave a loud whistle. “Fighting a wolf is bad enough, Joe, but taking on a bear as well…now that’s just plain greedy! Or stupid!” he chuckled, slapping his hand on his knee as tears of mirth filled his eyes. Accepting the funny side of his predicament, Joe joined in, laughing heartily, even though it hurt his chest, the two men now more than comfortable in each other’s company.

“How long have I been lying here?” Joe asked finally as both of them calmed down and silence once more settled in the cabin.

He could hear the sound of a hand scratching a whiskered chin as Wade became thoughtful for a moment. “Oh, must be three…no, nearly four days. I was getting quite lonesome with no one to talk to, so it’s a relief you’ve come round at last!”

“Seems I owe you a great deal Wade,” Joe acknowledged. “How can I repay you?”

“Hearing the sound of you laughing is payment enough Joe,” Wade admitted casually. “But I hope you don’t mind…had some of that whiskey I found in the cupboard. Well to be truthful, I finished the bottle!”

Joe grinned. “I think a bottle of whiskey is fair payment after what you’ve done for me,” he responded. “What are you doing up here in the mountains? Had you lost your way?”

There was a scraping of chair legs as Wade stood up and made his way to the stove. “No, I know where I’m heading. Just making a special journey to repay a certain debt while I still have the chance,” he stated mysteriously then changed the subject quickly. “Would you like some food? My cooking isn’t too good but it’s passable,” he admitted, as Joe heard the clatter of crockery placed on the table.

As if on cue, Joe’s stomach rumbled loudly; with the fever now subsided, his appetite had returned with a vengeance. “I think I could eat anything at the moment,” he stated gratefully, and moments later Wade could be heard dishing out two portions from a pot on the stove top. He threw Joe a quick glance. “Can you manage using that injured arm?”

Joe nodded, so gently propping him with his back resting on the single pillow, Wade handed over a bowl to Joe’s shaky hand and placed a spoon in the other.

“It’s hot so you’d better blow on it,” Wade advised as Joe began to feed himself.

Joe smiled his thanks and did as advised, the two men becoming silent until the broth was consumed. Once finished, Joe handed back the empty bowl and sank back onto the bed, feeling a good deal better as he gingerly rubbed at the makeshift blindfold around his eyes. “That was really good. You’re obviously a better cook than you realize!”

“Thanks for the compliment, but it’s a good thing you couldn’t actually see what you were just eating!” Wade said in all seriousness and Joe’s face suddenly grew pale and he gulped hastily, putting his hand to his mouth as he felt his stomach begin to curdle. The older man gave out a loud laugh, his eyes flashing mischievously. “Only kidding!”

Sighing with relief, Joe visibly relaxed and his stomach settled again. “Anyway, whatever was in it, tasted nearly as good as Hop Sing’s finest!” he admitted with a chuckle.

“Hop Sing?”

“He’s my family’s cook and housekeeper,” Joe explained as he heard Wade walk over to the table. “Gives us the best meals this side of the Sierra Nevada! You must come and stay at the ranch and sample his cooking. My Pa will be more than grateful when he knows what you’ve done for me.”

“Thanks Joe, but once you’re up and about, I’ll have to get going. Don’t have a lot of time to spare,” answered Wade as he threw a couple of small logs onto the stove’s fire.

With his face visibly showing disappointment, Joe frowned. “Can’t you manage just a couple of days?”

“Sorry Joe, but I’ve been here way too long as it is,” Wade replied with a note of sadness in his voice as he opened the cabin door and looked up at a late evening sky.

Feeling a deep rooted disappointment to be losing his new found friend in such a short while, Joe remained silent and thoughtful. He felt a cool draft and pulled the blanket up to his chin as a fresh wave of tiredness suddenly overwhelmed him. “Is it still snowing?” he asked with a loud yawn.

“No. It’s been stopped for a while and seems to be melting now. Looks like winter may have decided to delay its arrival for a while longer.” Wade closed the door and returned to sit by Joe’s side. “If you’ve been up here for five days, won’t your Pa be expecting you back?”

“He must have seen the snow so would know I’d be held up for a few days,” Joe answered truthfully. “But the way I’ve been behaving lately, he’s most likely enjoying this extended break from my bad temper.”

“I take it things are not running smoothly at home?”

“It’s my own fault,” Joe admitted wearily. “I’m impatient, lose control too quickly and I’ve been going around with a chip on my shoulder for so long now it seems to be stuck on permanently. I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t leave altogether for pastures new and let my Pa and brothers live happily in peace and quiet.”

Wade sat bolt upright in the chair and gave Joe a thoughtful stare. “I shouldn’t be too hasty, Joe,” he advised heaving a vast inward sigh. “You may do something you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”

“Regret?” Joe echoed. “What do you mean?”

Silence gripped the small room as Wade paused, gathering his thoughts. “I made a big mistake once. I thought it would be better to leave someone I loved very much and go off on my own, do what I wanted to do without them interfering, getting in my way,” he admitted unhappily as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “But soon after, I knew I’d done the wrong thing. Trouble is, pride got in my way and I never made it back before it was too late. I regret it now…always will.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said quietly, hearing the misery in Wade’s voice and intrigued by his admission but not wishing to pry further. There was silence for a few minutes and Joe closed his eyes, feeling himself drifting off to sleep, now without fear and trusting his companion completely.

“How would they feel?” asked Wade suddenly, jolting Joe awake.

Stifling a yawn Joe answered him. “Sorry…what did you say?”

“If you left the Ponderosa. Would your family worry about you? Would it upset them?”

Pulling his hand through his hair, Joe could feel the back of his eyes moisten. “Yes, they’d worry. It would probably break my Pa’s heart, I reckon, and my brothers’, if I’m being honest.”

“Has anyone you loved and cared for every left you without a backward glance?”

Joe nodded unhappily and bit at his bottom lip as visions of his final meeting with his brother Clay floated around his head.

“Do you remember what it felt like, after they’d gone?”

Joe nodded sadly. “Yes. It’s left a painful, empty space that’s always with me, even now.”

Wade bowed his head and looked down at the floor for a moment before continuing.

“Would you really want your family to go through that sort of pain, Joe? ‘Cause if you went away, that’s all they would be left with; you know that, don’t you?”

Joe could feel tears forming behind his sore eyes. “I know,” he murmured guiltily, turning his head towards the wall, his expression one of deep sorrow.

However, it wasn’t lost on Wade, who pulled up the blanket over Joe’s shoulder and tucked it in tightly. “Didn’t mean to go on so but I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did. You will think about what I said?”

Joe nodded, too tired for words, and a deep, grateful sigh sounded out from his companion. “Thanks. That makes me feel a whole load better. You get some rest now and we’ll talk more tomorrow.”

Weariness once more overwhelmed Joe and almost immediately sleep dragged him down to unconsciousness. “Goodnight Joe,” Wade whispered, gazing on him for a few moments, and then settled down next to the warmth of the stove, unfazed and unconcerned by the hardness of the floor on his back, falling asleep almost instantly.

*****

The next morning when Joe awoke, he soon realized he was alone in the cabin. A mild panic arose inside him and he began to squirm uncomfortably just as the door opened and Wade entered.

“What’s wrong, Joe? You in pain?” the man asked with concern, noticing immediately Joe moving about restlessly on the bed.

Relieved to hear the voice of his companion Joe gave an embarrassed smile as he shook his head and reddened slightly in the face. “I’m okay. Just need to go…” he said a little hesitatingly as Wade paused for a moment, slightly confused before enlightenment dawned. He gave a chuckle.

“Oh…sorry Joe,” Wade said as he pulled off the blankets and helped him to sit up on the edge of the bed. Joe felt goose bumps erupt, covering his bare arms and chest and he noticeably shivered.

“Hang on,” Wade instructed and Joe could hear him rummage in a bag and then hand over a thick woven shirt. “You’d better put this on. It’s my spare…but it’s clean; yours was only fit for the fire,” he proclaimed truthfully.

“Oh…but I couldn’t possibly…” started Joe.

“You have more need of it then I do,” interrupted Wade, carefully easing Joe’s arms into the sleeves and pulling the shirt over his shoulders, buttoning it up and then helping Joe to stand.

Feeling momentarily dizzy, Joe gripped Wade’s arm for a few moments, grateful for the strong hands that supported him as his legs began to buckle slightly. He realized then he was still far from fit as beads of sweat formed on his face, though his injured foot was now noticeably improved and took his weight.

“Think I’ve lost a few pounds,” he muttered as he hitched up his pants, his belt and holster having been removed for comforts sake when Wade had first laid him down on the bed days before. Wade nodded in agreement. “Hardly surprising,” he acknowledged as Joe’s pale face slowly began to show some color and he took a deep breath. “Can you walk?”

“I can try,” replied Joe, with his usual deep stubbornness.

Wade gave a silent chuckle. “Ready?”

Joe nodded and was helped slowly out to the back of the cabin with the support of Wade’s guiding arm, his bare feet on the cold frozen ground.

“Just give a holler when you’re finished,” Wade said, then tactfully disappeared around the corner as Joe propped his back against the wall and did what he had to. Sighing with relief and feeling a lot more comfortable, he then began to make his way back, his hand guiding him on the cabin wall. However he stumbled over a piece of wood and was sent crashing down onto his knees, the air turning blue as he cursed loudly.

Wade heard the shout and rushed out. “I told you to call me!” he yelled angrily as he took Joe’s arm and pulled him up. “You could have hurt yourself!” The deep concern in his voice jolted Joe somewhat. Wade’s obvious anxiety for his safety touched him and he gave an apologetic smile, hobbling with a freshly stubbed toe back to the warmth of the line shack.

Helping him onto the bed, Wade pulled the blanket back over Joe and propped up the pillow so he could sit up in comfort. He returned to the stove and glanced over at him as Joe began to undo the knot holding his temporary blindfold.

“Shouldn’t take that off yet,” Wade advised as he began to pour out coffee for them both. “It’s gonna take another day at least before your eyes can adjust to the bright light.” However Joe continued to remove the kerchief then opened his eyes and gave out a loud yell as he grimaced and shut them tight again.

Wade gave a loud sigh of exasperation. “Honestly, Joe…don’t you ever do as you’re told? What will it take around here for you to accept well-meaning advice when it’s given?”

Joe covered his eyes with his hands then felt Wade gently tie the makeshift bandage back around his head. “Thanks. I should have listened to you,” he admitted as the acute pain gradually became a dull ache behind his eyes and he threw Wade a thankful grin. “You almost sounded like my brother Adam then!”

Wade regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “I take it you don’t listen to him much either?”

Joe gave a chuckle. “Not as much as he thinks I should,” he replied, gratefully accepting a fresh mug of coffee placed in his hands. “Do you really think I shall be able to see again tomorrow?” he asked between sips.

Wade took a swallow of coffee then put down his mug. “Can’t guarantee it, but I would think it likely,” he answered as he sat down on the chair. “How are you feeling now? In any pain?”

Joe shook his head slowly. “Chest and arm seem to be healing well, though they still throb some. My foot’s just about as good as new.”

Wade sat in silence and hesitated, gazing at Joe thoughtfully. “You up to riding tomorrow?” he asked suddenly.

Joe gave a quizzical smile as he nodded. “Do you want to get rid of me that quickly?”

Wade chuckled. “No Joe. But I don’t want your family fretting longer than is necessary,” he said. “What about them? Is there no chance they would come up here to see what you’re up to?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Joe handed back the empty mug. “Remembering how I usually react when they try to mollycoddle me, they’ll probably decide to hold fire instead and just wait until I turn up.”

“You’re being a bit hard on them, Joe. I’m sure they’d want to see you were all right, regardless of how you might react.”

Joe blew out his cheeks and sighed deeply. “Yes, I know,” he admitted. “Pa will no doubt have been looking anxious for the last couple of days, thinking out some reason he could give to be riding this way, and even Adam and Hoss would have offered a lame excuse to check up on me eventually.” Rubbing at his bandaged arm and chest, Joe gave a nod. “Reckon one more day’s rest and I’ll be able to stay on a saddle,” he confirmed with a chuckle. “Just sit me on my horse. As long as I can see where I’m going, Cochise will get me back safely…he’s done it enough times in the past! Besides, I don’t want to hold you up any longer than is necessary on your journey.”

Wade took a long swallow and emptied his mug in one gulp. “Don’t you worry about my plans. I’ll stay with you up here, however long it might take.”

Joe gave a nod of thanks. “Tell me Wade, what line of work are you in?” he asked curiously.

There was a pause as Wade made his way to the stove and refilled his mug. “There’s not much I haven’t done, Joe,” he admitted finally. “Jack of all trades, but master of none. Think that just about sums me up.”

“You done any ranching? There’s always a need for fresh hands on the Ponderosa.”

Joe could hear Wade sigh then give a humorless chuckle. “My old bones wouldn’t take the rigors of ranch work these days. But thanks for the offer.”

“So what do you do?”

“Oh I get by. As long as I have a full belly and somewhere to sleep at the end of the day, I’m content,” Wade answered evasively, pausing for a minute as he swallowed the last of his coffee.

“You’ve never settled down then in one place?”

Staring through the small window towards the deep forest of trees, the sadness in Wade’s voice was unmistakable. “No Joe, I never have. Had the chance once but…well I told you; I’ve regretted leaving ever since. Guess I was just fated to be a loner till the end of my days.”

There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments then placing his mug on the table Wade reached for his coat from behind the door and put it on. “Just going to try and find us some fresh meat for dinner,” he said, placing a few dried biscuits in Joe’s hands. “Now you stay put till I get back…that’s an order!”

“Don’t worry! I’ve learnt my lesson, but you be careful, though; look out for bad tempered bears!” Joe teased, and feeling a hand ruffle his hair affectionately grasped at Wade’s arm. “Thanks. I appreciated what you’re doing for me,” he said, his unseeing eyes moistening with gratitude.

Wade swallowed hard as he patted Joe’s hand. “No thanks needed Joe,” he answered quietly, then picking up his rifle, gave the figure on the bed a final concerned glance before disappearing through the door and pulling it shut tight behind him.

*****

For the next few hours Joe dozed on and off, feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays passing through the small window onto him, and with no idea of the time waited impatiently for his companion to return. His hunger was barely satisfied by the dried biscuits and he longed for a mug of coffee as he lay in his private world of darkness, deep in thought. But heeding Wade’s instructions, Joe did not attempt to find his way around the cabin, for once content to do as he was told until at long last the cabin door was suddenly opened with a flourish.

“About time!” cried Joe, smiling a welcome. “I was beginning to think you were dead!”

“Dead tired, more like!” Wade answered as he entered the cabin, weary and mud splattered. “Snow has melted and it’s like a quagmire out there. But I got me a fine jack-rabbit, Joe,” he said as he removed his coat.

Joe gave a genuine smile of relief. “Thank heavens…the thought of more dried biscuits quite turns my stomach,” he said with a grin as Wade silently nodded in agreement, filling the stove with extra wood and placing the coffee pot on top to boil.

A companionable silence ensued, Joe content to sit back and appreciate the comforting warmth from the fire and a delicious aroma of fresh coffee as it filled the cabin while Wade rested on the floor, whistling quietly as he expertly skinned the rabbit and then placed small pieces of the meat in a large pan of water. He paused in his work for a moment and stared at Joe who was absently stroking his hand across his chest. “Something wrong?” he asked in a low voice.

Joe shrugged. “No. Just thinking. After tomorrow, we’ll probably never meet again. Wish you’d change your mind and return to the Ponderosa with me.”

Making a conscious effort to keep his voice under control Wade swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “Sorry, Joe, it’s just not possible.”

“Just promise me you’ll visit should you ever come this way again.”

Wade gave a non-committal huff. “I made it up to the plateau and your herd has been moved from the meadow,” he then said, changing the subject. “I’d say 3 or 4 drovers must have driven them down the far side through the gap in the trees.”

Joe raised his eyebrows and nodded with interest. “Looks like Adam got round to taking my advice at last. Any idea when they would have gone?”

Wade wiped away the sweat that had formed on his forehead with his sleeve. “Two days ago, at a guess. Found those wolves; pretty good shooting on your part!”

“Thanks…but it wasn’t that hard,” Joe confessed, not keen to take unwarranted praise. “They obviously hadn’t come across a man with a rifle before or they’d have stayed hidden until it was dark at least.” He sank down on his pillow and became thoughtful for a moment. “If the hands have seen the wolves, they’re bound to have told Pa the pack has been hunted down.”

“He’s going to wonder where you are then, if you’ve not returned home.”

Joe shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “Maybe, maybe not. He might just think I’ve headed straight back to Virginia City so I can start drinking my wages away in the Silver Dollar again. That’s where he reckons I spend most of my time.”

“And don’t you?” asked Wade somewhat coolly.

Joe noted the coolness and gave a wry smile. “Yes, I guess I do,” he acknowledged. “But I’m not getting drunk every night. Sometimes I just like to talk to my friends; at least they don’t treat me like I haven’t a brain in my head!”

Wade thought for a moment as he finished cutting up the meat. “Maybe if you stayed at home more often and talked to your family, they’d realize you had something interesting and intelligent to say.”

Joe suddenly frowned. “Just whose side you on?” he shouted out angrily, causing the older man to flinch back in shock at the ferociousness of his tone.

“Why…Joe,” Wade replied a little hesitatingly, looking over in surprise. “I didn’t mean to upset you!”

With his face now cracking open into a big open smile, Joe pointed a finger in his direction. “Only kidding!”

With a chuckle Wade stared at the finger and shook his head. “Touche!” he replied, his eyes narrowing as a mischievous glint flashed in them. Picking up the discarded rabbit pelt and quietly standing, he tiptoed over towards Joe and stuffed it down his shirt; Joe letting out a loud yell of surprise.

The two men collapsed into a fit of boyish giggles as Joe pulled out the pelt and threw it towards his laughing companion, missing Wade but hitting the full coffee pot and sending it onto the floor with a clatter. There was a moments silence and then both men started chortling again, the cabin filled for the next few minutes by loud raucous laughter until eventually with their sides aching they quieted down.

“If I could see, I wouldn’t have missed you,” Joe stated at last as he heard Wade place a fresh pot of coffee on the stove.

“If you could see, you’d be on your knees cleaning up this mess!” Wade countered miserably as he began to wipe up the water on the floor.

Unable to stop himself, another high pitched giggle suddenly erupted from Joe and he sank back onto the bed, his infectious laugh bringing back a smile to Wade’s face before he too found himself laughing, not knowing why but just unable to stop. Eventually calmness ensued and Wade looked over at the figure on the bed, shaking his head and smiling towards Joe. “I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.”

“Nor me,” agreed Joe with a grin and then his expression changed. “I used to joke around a lot with my brothers, but we’ve hardly been laughing together at all over the past months,” he said solemnly. “Time Joe Cartwright got his sense of humor back, I reckon.”

Wade gave him a quick look before returning to clean up the mess. “Darn fool invalid,” he mumbled light heartedly under his breath towards Joe as he finished. “Supposed to be taking it easy, not playing the fool!”

Joe heard the comment. “That’s just what my brother Hoss would say,” he remarked with a chuckle as he pushed himself up and stretched out his arms above his head. “Sometimes he worries so much about me I’m sure he’d wrap me up in cotton-wool if he could!”

Wade watched him for a moment. “Just shows how much he cares. Have you thought about what I said last night?”

“You mean me leaving the Ponderosa?”

Wade nodded without thinking and then remembered Joe couldn’t see him. “Yes.”

“I gave it a lot of thought while you were gone this morning. I’m going to stay around, work things out between me and the family. I never really wanted to leave, to be honest.”

Sighing with relief Wade put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. “That’s good to hear, Joe. You won’t regret it,” he said confidently, then placed the pan of rabbit meat onto the stove and added the last of the beans. Taking off the coffee pot that had now boiled again, Wade poured out two fresh mugs, handing one over to Joe then settling himself down on the chair as he sipped his drink contentedly and awaited the rabbit broth to cook on the stove.

Their evening meal was both plentiful and filling, and afterwards the two men chatted and joked into the early hours, Joe feeling a close bond of friendship forged with Wade he never would have dreamt possible in such a short time. He found himself able to confide in him, talk through his innermost fears and desires; something he hadn’t been able to do for a long time with his brothers or even his father.

Wade listened intently to all Joe had to say, interjecting with comments and suggestions that seemed to continually make sense to the young man, until eventually during a lull in conversation, Joe fell asleep where he laid, his bandaged arm resting on his chest and his left arm slung back over his head.

Wade gave a soft smile, reaching over and tenderly pulling the blanket up to his chin. “Sweet dreams, Little Joe,” he murmured, then blowing out the small lamp he laid down on the hard earthen floor. Covering himself with his blanket, Wade closed his eyes, willing sleep to take him quickly, but he was to be disappointed. Thoughts of the journey he would soon have to complete raced around uneasily in his head, so instead he stared towards the flickering flames in the stove, and occasionally looked over at the figure in the bed, unable to stop a gentle smile playing on his lips.

*****

The next day dawned cloudy and cold. Wade was first up and placed a few small logs in the stove and a fresh pot of coffee on the top then went out and fed and watered Cochise. As he returned to the warmth of the cabin, he could see Joe pushing himself up on the bed. “Morning, Joe. Taken care of your horse and coffee shouldn’t be long.”

Nodding his thanks and feeling much better, Joe forced himself not to scratch at his chest and arm that were itching and healing fast. “Morning. Suppose it’s biscuits for breakfast again?”

“Sorry, but that’s all there is,” Wade admitted with a deep sigh. “We finished all the broth last night. Still, they’re better than nothing!”

Joe slowly eased his legs over the side of the bed and gently rubbed his covered eyes. “Do you think its okay to take this off now?”

Wade glanced over and pondered for a moment. “You can try…but if you’re still in pain, you put the bandage right back on…you hear?”

Joe nodded, biting his lip nervously before taking a deep breath and pulling off the kerchief. He tentatively opened his eyes, and as light flooded in, blinked hard and fast as a grainy image appeared and a dull ache pounded in his head. He wiped his hand across as his eyes began to water, then concentrated again on the figure before him. Slowly the mist cleared and for the first time he saw the man who had saved his life.

Joe guessed Wade must be in his forties. He was a handsome man, tall and lean with broad shoulders and a tanned, heavily whiskered face and his curly dark brown hair, heavily flecked with gray fell over the back of his collar. Joe found himself staring at a faint scar that ran down the right side of his neck towards his chest and then tore his gaze away, finally focusing his attention on a pair of green eyes, similar to his own, flashing with both kindness and humor as Wade smiled at him in a friendly and engaging way. Momentarily thinking he reminded him of someone, Joe gave a puzzled frown then smiled over at him.

“What do you think? Handsome devil, aren’t I!”

“I’ve seen worse!” Joe laughed, the slight pain at the back of his head now gone.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” commented Wade with a grin as Joe slowly eased himself up onto his feet and looked around the cabin while holding onto the chair back. His saddlebag was still on the floor where he had originally left it, and there was also a small valise, presumably belonging to Wade lying next to it. He certainly travels light, Joe mused to himself as his attention was then returned to his companion.

“How do you feel?” Wade asked him anxiously.

Joe could feel the room spinning for a moment and steadied himself, but then gave a slight smile and nodded over as he took a couple of steps. “I’m going to be just fine,” he answered confidently after a moment’s hesitation, his vision now seemingly as good as new. “And it’s all down to you. Thanks. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me.”

“I reckon you’re worth it, Joe,” Wade said quietly, his face now sober as his eyes studied Joe’s grateful expression. “Just make sure you don’t waste this second chance of life, especially with your family. Life is too short and precious to be continually arguing against those you love so dearly.”

Joe’s eyes visibly moistened. “I won’t… Still wish you’d come back with me, though, and meet them.” As Wade opened his mouth to answer Joe put up his hand. “I know, isn’t possible!” he said mournfully. “It’s just wishful thinking on my part.”

Clearing his throat, Wade beamed a smile, eager to rid the air of the tension that now filled the room. “Looks like you’ll be going home today then. At least one of us will be having a different menu for supper!”

Joe nodded, falling silent as he sat back down and pulled his footwear from underneath the bed, putting on one boot then looking at the bite marks and torn leather on the other and shivering slightly as a vision of the she-wolf attack filled his head. The swelling on his foot had now completely disappeared and he easily eased the boot on, then stood up and gazed through the window.

“Looks like those snow clouds are heading back this way so I should make an early start,” Joe said, narrowing his eyes slightly as he looked up towards the north rim. He closed his eyes momentarily, thinking how close he had come to dying days before; envisaging his body, covered with snow until the spring, or becoming a tasty supper for any number of starving beasts that roamed the wilderness throughout the winter.

The thought sent a shiver down his spine and he drew a deep sigh of relief then moved over to the door, glancing back towards Wade.

“I’m just going out back but I think I can manage on my own,” Joe said, throwing over a wink. “At least I can see where I’m walking today!”

Wade chuckled and gave a nod of understanding, and as Joe disappeared through the door, heaved a deep sigh then went over to the stove and poured out one mug of coffee. When Joe returned minutes later, he handed him his drink. “You take your time while I go saddle up your horse. You’re gonna need all the strength you can muster to get yourself down this mountain in one piece.”

“Thanks,” replied Joe gratefully as Wade left the cabin, sipping at his drink as he continued to look through the window. A few dried biscuits were scattered on the table and he took one, eating it slowly but not really savoring its taste. The thought of Hop Sing’s delicious cooking brought a smile to his face as he rubbed his slightly whiskered chin. He hadn’t had a shave in several days and could imagine the state he looked; if it was anything like how he smelt, it would be pretty bad he thought with a silent chuckle, relishing the thought of a hot bath and long soak when he returned home.

Minutes later Wade reappeared. “Horse is ready to go,” he said, pouring himself a drink.

Joe gave a thankful smile. “Are you heading off as well today?”

“I reckon,” Wade replied thoughtfully. “No point hanging around now my patient is well enough to leave!” The two men sipped at their coffee in silence as the inevitable parting of the ways played on both their minds. “Those bandages could do with changing, even if you don’t feel any pain,” Wade advised, putting down his mug as he noticed Joe gently rubbing at his right arm. “You’d better check with the Doctor when you get home.”

Joe looked up and gave a wry smile. “I will. If my Pa’s still speaking to me, that’s the first thing he’s going to suggest; I guarantee it!” he said, a slight feeling of dread filling him at the thought of facing his father again after their fierce argument days before.

Wade walked over to the corner and picked up Joe’s holster and belt that had been stacked on the floor, handing them to him, and while Joe put them on, reached behind the door and pulled down his ripped coat, giving it a long and searching look as he studied the torn material. “It’s not the smartest coat I’ve seen, but it should keep you someway warm till you get home,” he said with a chuckle as Joe looked up and took it from his hands.

Staring at it, Joe grimaced as he remembered the bear and the force of its paw across his chest. “It’s lucky I wasn’t wearing my summer jacket,” he said as he noticed dried flakes of his blood stuck on the material. “I’d have never have survived then.”

Wade helped Joe to ease his arms through the sleeves and pulled it up over his shoulders, looking carefully at his pallor. “You still look a mite pale. You sure you’re up to leaving? Do you want to rest a while longer?”

Joe shot him a sidelong glance and shook his head but couldn’t help smiling at the worried look on his face. “You sound just like my Pa. He always frets even if I’ve only got a headache!”

“Sorry, I forgot. You hate being mollycoddled, don’t you?” Wade acknowledged.

A gleam appeared in Joe’s eyes. “Between you and me, Wade,” he whispered, theatrically placing his finger on his lips. “I love it. Just would never admit it to my Pa or brothers!”

Jerking his head back Wade began to laugh, slapping Joe on the back and shaking his head. “Really, Joe…you are incorrigible,” he cried as he opened the door and walked outside, still chuckling.

“Who me?” asked Joe, his eyes wide and flashing innocence as he retrieved his hat from the floor and pushed it down on his head. Suddenly his good humor disappeared and he was left with a deep feeling of loss as he picked up his saddle bag and followed Wade who was standing by Cochise, gently stroking the pinto’s warm soft muzzle.

The two men faced each other and Joe sighed deeply. “Guess I’d better take off then,” he said reluctantly as he fixed the saddlebag onto the back of his saddle. Words were not needed to convey the sadness of parting each man felt as Wade stepped forward and cupped his hand around Joe’s neck, drawing him close. For Joe, it was as if his father were holding him; that single gesture causing his eyes to fill with tears.

“Old Wade ain’t ever going to forget you. Remember that Joe,” he whispered in his ear.

Joe drew back and nodded silently, wiping his eyes, and then pulled himself up onto the saddle, stretching his back and making himself comfortable before the long haul down the mountain.

“You take good care of yourself,” Wade finally said, stretching out his hand.

Joe took it, gripping it warmly. “Safe journey, Wade, and thanks.”

The older man smiled and nodded, his green eyes flashing contentedly.

Gathering up the reins, Joe gave his companion a final look of gratitude then moved Cochise at a slow pace down the muddy path. He looked behind him for a final time and gave a wave of farewell to the figure standing in the cabin doorway then kicked his horse’s flanks and disappeared around the corner and out of sight…bound for home and his family.

*****

Ben hated book work, usually leaving it for Adam to do but today he needed something to take his mind off his youngest son. However, even though the ledger was in his hands and his eyes scanned down the pages, his mind could not register on the columns of figures. He stared over towards the mantelpiece where Joe’s letter still stood, its unknown contents plaguing him with worry and he sighed deeply, rubbing his tired eyes. The figures remained just a blur so he closed the book and stood up, making his way to the comfort of his armchair by the fire.

Since Jed had returned with the herd from the north rim meadow and told them the wolf pack had been eliminated, probably several days before, Ben had been left perturbed and puzzled. Where was Joe? Why had he not come home?

Pangs of fear flittered though his body as he remembered the last, hurtful words of parting and the look of shock on his son’s face as he’d disappeared through the door. Was that why Joe had taken the instant decision to head up into the mountains and had not returned? To get away from him; delay the inevitable argument that would no doubt follow the next time they met?

Suddenly footsteps could be heard on the veranda and the door opened. Adam strode in followed by Hoss, the two men shivering as they took off their coats and hats. They’d decided to take a trip into Virginia City that morning on the premise of placing an order for supplies, but Ben knew their main reason was to check on all the saloons in the town, see if their brother had turned up.

“Hi Pa,” Hoss yelled over, clapping his hands together to get back some feeling into his cold fingers as he walked over towards his father.

Ben smiled a welcome and searched his face. “Well, son? Any sign of Joe?”

Hoss walked towards the fire, shaking his head as he extended his hands to warm them. “Visited every saloon in town, but there’s been no sight of him since last week.”

Adam followed his brother and eased himself down on his chair. “There must be a good explanation why he hasn’t returned, though. Maybe he’s found traces of another wolf pack and is going after them.”

Hoss nodded his head in agreement as he slumped down onto the settee. “I just hope he’s found himself somewhere sheltered to hold up,” he said with a serious frown on his face. “I’d hate him to get caught out in the open at the moment. It looks like there’s more snow heading our way.” Ben gave his son a quick glance. “Your corns tell you that?”

Catching a faint glimpse of a mischievous smile on his father’s face, Hoss smiled back. “Not this time, Pa….saw the clouds gathering over the Sierra as we came home.” As the laughter died in Ben’s eyes, he returned his gaze to the flickering flames of the fire and Adam threw his brother a glance and raised his eyebrows. Hoss nodded over, understanding the silent message.

“Pa?” asked Adam as Ben looked over towards him. “Hoss and I were thinking. Maybe we should head up towards the north rim. Not that we think anything has happened to Joe, but we could backtrack, just in case.”

Ben looked thoughtful and nodded as his face drained of all color. “If anything’s happened to him, I’ll never forgive myself. I should have listened to you, Hoss. Let you go up there when you offered.”

“Shucks, Pa…don’t go blaming yourself!” Hoss countered, wishing to ease his father’s feelings of guilt. “We don’t know for definite anything’s happened to Joe yet!”

“But what if….”

Suddenly a cold blast of air filled the room and three pairs of eyes looked over towards the opened door. No one said a word but the look of shock and amazement on the three faces was obvious as they watched Joe, his face darkened by days without a shave, close the door behind him.

His coat though buttoned at the top and bottom had a large piece of material missing in the center, the right sleeve was in tatters, and a piece of leather flapped loosely on his scratched and tooth-marked right boot. Joe looked over and gave his family a quick nervous smile as he hung up his hat and placed his gun belt on the credenza.

Taking a few moments to unbutton his coat with his frozen fingers, he eased it off and let it slip to the floor, and his shirt, one size too big for him, hung loosely over his pants, making him look thinner than usual.

Ben, finally shaken from his trance, stood up and strode across the room, quickly followed by Hoss and Adam. “Joe? What on earth has happened to you?”

His son sighed deeply. “Got myself into a bit of bother,” Joe admitted, biting his lip nervously as he wondered at the kind of reception he was about to receive.

However only a deep feeling of relief that his son was home…and in one piece, flooded through Ben’s veins as he studied Joe thoughtfully, noting he looked sweat-stained and his face under the slight stubble of a beard looked pale and weary. “Looks like it’s been a little rough, son,” he said with a twitch of a smile curving the side of his mouth.

“A little,” answered Joe, diverting his eyes to the floor. He cleared his throat nervously. “Pa…about the other morning….I didn’t mean what….”

Ben shook his head. “It’s all right, son,” he interrupted. “We both said things we didn’t mean. But it’s all forgotten now.”

Joe stared at him for a moment then swayed a little and Ben instinctively opened his arms as Joe fell into them, instantly comforted, his thinner than usual frame seeming fragile within his father’s hands. Though reluctant to let go his grip, Ben looked down with a puzzled expression as he felt Joe shudder slightly and suck in his breath. “You’re hurting?”

Joe gave a faint smile. “I’m fine, Pa, really. Just a little stiff and saddle sore.”

However Joe’s protestations were ignored as Ben supported him over to the settee and gently eased him down, and he blew out his cheeks with relief as Hoss sat by his side and Adam perched himself on the coffee table. Ben handed over a small glass of brandy which Joe accepted gratefully, swigging it down in one long gulp and appreciating the warming effect as it traveled down his throat.

“So what happened, little brother?” asked Hoss as he took the empty glass from his hand.

“Nothing much. Just ended up snow-blind for a couple of days and managed to get myself into a fight with a she-wolf!” Joe replied with a tired grin. “Maybe the next time there’s a wolf hunt, you should go Hoss. Bet you’d get into a lot less trouble!”

Hoss’ eyes widened in surprise and Adam stared at his youngest sibling with concern as Joe unbuttoned his shirt and pulled up the edge of the bandage, the deep claw marks still evident as they slowly healed on his chest.

“A wolf did that?” asked Adam with a gasp of amazement.

Joe shook his head. “No…that was the bear!”

Three voices cried out in unison. “The bear?”

As he looked at the three faces that gazed at him incredulously, Joe couldn’t help but grin as he rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and they viewed his bandaged arm. “This was the wolf.”

“Joseph, I’m getting Paul over here first thing in the morning to check you out, regardless of how you might complain I’m fussing too much.” Ben said solemnly as he gently prodded the bandages and checked Joe’s forehead for fever.

A deep chuckle emanated from Joe. “I told Wade you’d say that Pa.”

“Wade?”

“He’s the fella who found me practically frozen to death on the mountain.”

Ben let out a gasp. “Frozen on the mountain?” He swallowed hard as he realized how close he must have been to losing his youngest.

Joe nodded. “I’d just about given up, Pa; hadn’t the strength to go on and must have been delirious as I could have sworn I heard a voice call my name.” Joe broke off abruptly and a faint smile tugged at his lips as he dug into his memory of that fateful day.

Hoss sat forward and gave his brother a puzzled stare. “Who’d you hear, Joe?”

Shaken from his reverie Joe shook his head. “Doesn’t matter, Hoss; I was just hallucinating. Anyhow, without Wade, I’d have died for sure. He half carried, half dragged me back to the line shack.”

“Wade who?” asked Hoss, curious to know the full name of the man who’d saved his beloved little brother’s life.

Joe pondered thoughtfully for a moment. “You know, now I come to think of it, he never said. Just told me his name was Wade. Never did get to find out much else about him.”

As he listened, Ben felt his insides churn and he settled back in his chair, saying a silent prayer of thanks for Joe’s safe return. “Where is this Wade? I’d like to thank him for saving your life, Joe,” Ben finally said, eyeing his son warmly.

Catching his father’s gaze, Joe shook his head sadly. “He couldn’t stick around, Pa. Had somewhere to go he said; a debt to repay that seemed to be pretty important to him.”

Adam frowned and a worried look appeared on his face. “Maybe he was running from the law!”

Although he remembered Wade’s hesitation when giving his name and the evasive answers about himself, Joe looked straight at his brother and shook his head emphatically. “He was no outlaw, Adam,” he assured him. “I’d bet my life on it. Besides, if he had been, he’d hardly stop and stick around just to look after me!”

Accepting the sense of Joe’s argument, Adam visibly relaxed and his face broke out into a smile. “Looks like you were very lucky he turned up when he did then, little brother.”

Joe sighed deeply and nodded in agreement. “You’d have liked him, Pa,” he said, turning his tired eyes on his father. “We got on really well; could talk to him about anything. In fact, he was just like family.”

The wistful look on Joe’s face was not lost on Ben. “Well, whoever he was, I’ll be forever in his debt,” he said with deep sincerity. “Maybe you’d better start at the beginning and tell us everything that happened to you son.”

Joe nodded. “I’d sure like a hot bath and a shave first, though,” he said, feeling a little awkward as he smelt the slightly pungent air and rubbed his rough whiskered chin.

Also aware of Joe’s discomfort, Hoss gave his little brother a loving pat on the shoulder then pushed himself off the settee. “I’ll go and sort out some water,” he said, disappearing through to the kitchen. Giving him a grateful smile, Joe closed his eyes momentarily, weariness now flooding over him.

Ben suddenly gave a loud cough. “Adam has something to say to you son,” he said as Joe opened his eyes and his elder brother moved back to his chair. Joe raised his eyebrows, slightly puzzled.

“Reckon I need to eat a big helping of humble pie, Joe,” admitted Adam with an apologetic look on his face. “I should have taken more notice of your good advice about those cattle on the north rim. I’m sorry.”

Taken aback, Joe’s lips twitched in a slight smile. “That’s okay, Adam. You were pretty busy that day…I should have realized at the time.”

Adam held up his hand. “No, Joe. That’s no excuse. From now on if you feel the cattle need to be moved, you give the order. No need to ask me or Pa. We’ll trust your judgment without question.”

Joe let his gaze fall towards his father, who was nodding in agreement, then looked back but remained silent, enjoying the look of humility on his brother’s face and milking it for all its worth.

Finding the taste of humble pie was not as unpalatable as he had expected, Adam continued. “There’s something else. About the plan you put together for the timber contract.”

Though his eyes fleetingly flashed with anger, Joe said nothing, just giving a quick nod.

Adam hesitated, looking over towards his father. “It was an outstanding plan and we should have taken more notice. We’re both sorry we didn’t give you the chance to put in the bid.”

Joe, slightly taken aback by their admission, widened his eyes with surprise. “Thanks. I appreciate you telling me that,” he replied quietly.

“Actually we thought you’d like to know something we heard the other day,” added Ben. “There’s another contract being offered for timber and we’d like you to place your bid this time. I’m sure you’d have an excellent chance of beating Will Poavey at his own game, and you can have overall control of the project; hiring, firing, building the flume and running the operation. Think you’re up for it?”

Joe slowly smiled and his green eyes flashed happily as he looked between his father and brother. It was the first time in a long time Ben had seen his son’s face light up with such genuine delight.

“You’d trust me on my own? You all believe I wouldn’t let you down?”

“Joe,” Ben said as he eased forward and took hold of his son’s hand, staring at him intently. “You’ve never let me down; never let this family down, and you never will. That I do believe.”

Joe bit at his lip, blinking hard, and though words were not spoken, a look of deep understanding and respect passed between father and son.

“Hop Sing says the water should be ready in about 10 minutes, Joe,” Hoss said, breaking the silence as he walked back to his seat. Ben sat back in his chair and Joe wearily nodded his thanks, then began to pull himself up but fell back on the settee with a tired sigh. “I haven’t stabled Cochise yet. Would you mind, Hoss? Don’t think I have the strength at the moment.”

“Sure I will,” Hoss replied, affectionately ruffling his brother’s hair as he passed behind him. As he picked up Joe’s discarded coat, a shiver passed down his spine as he viewed the torn material. “Might as well throw this out while I’m out there,” he said as he disappeared through the door and headed towards the barn.

Now relaxed and at peace with his family, Joe absently began to scratch at his chest as he stared into the flickering flames of the fire, his eyes just about to close when Ben’s voice suddenly rang out.

“You’ve had a letter son.”

Joe looked over, giving his father a quizzically stare. “A letter? Who on earth would write to me?”

Ben reached up onto the mantle piece, passing an envelope down to Joe who gazed at it for a moment.

“It’s from New Mexico,” Joe murmured to himself with a puzzled frown, then suddenly remembered the destination of his brother when he left, all those months ago. “Maybe it’s from Clay,” he said with a smile, his eyes flashing happily between the two faces that watched him; failing to notice his father’s nervous expression as he ripped it open. He began to read, scanning quickly across the page, but then his smile faded and his hands began to shake uncontrollably.

Ben watched Joe’s bright eyes suddenly dull and moved over to sit down next to him, putting his arm around his shoulder in a comforting gesture. “Son…what is it?” he asked tenderly.

Unable to speak, Joe stared at his father, reflecting a pain Ben had never seen before in his son’s tear-filled eyes. Handing over the letter, Joe pushed himself up stiffly then slowly walked up the stairs, and as they heard the bedroom door close Ben began to read aloud to a bemused Adam.

“Santa Fe

New Mexico

Mr. Joseph Cartwright

The Ponderosa

Nevada

Sir,

It is my sad duty to inform you of the death of one of my patients, Mr. Clay Stafford who was fatally injured after being attacked and knifed by an unknown assailant. Because of the large amount of blood lost, he knew there was no hope of him surviving and asked me to write to you, as next of kin, and to pass on a few messages.

Unfortunately before he had chance to dictate what he wanted to say, Mr. Stafford fell into a coma from which he never regained consciousness.

It would seem he had been successfully playing poker that night, and so his winnings have been used to provide him with a decent burial and suitable headstone. I hope this meets with your approval.

Once again I offer my deepest condolences.

Yours,

Doctor Philip…..”

With his eyes watering, Ben’s voice petered out and he dropped the letter onto the coffee table, staring over towards his desk where a silver framed photo frame held the smiling face of his third wife.

“Poor Clay,” Ben murmured, shocked and truly saddened by the death of his step-son, Marie’s first born. Adam nodded in agreement.

Ben wiped his eyes and let his gaze travel towards the stairs. He pushed himself up and walked over, gripping the banister tightly, his foot on the first step but then stood still, deliberately curbing a deep, instinctive desire to follow his son and comfort him. For once he held back, sensing Joe’s desire to be allowed time alone to shed his tears of intense sorrow and to mourn the loss of his brother within the privacy of his own room.

Adam had seen his father’s hesitation and stood behind him, placing his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Would you like me to go check on Joe?”

With his brown eyes showing strain, Ben gave a slow shake of the head. “No, Adam. Reckon Joe needs time alone with his grief. He’ll come down when he needs us.”

Moving to the sideboard, Ben poured out two glasses of brandy, handing one over to his son who accepted it gratefully.

“Joe’s going to take this hard, you know that, don’t you?” Adam stated as Ben settled down uneasily into his chair.

Ben nodded. “Yes…it was difficult enough when Clay left him behind last year.” Sipping their drinks the two men looked gloomily into the fire when the front door opened and Hoss appeared.

“Good job I checked through that coat, Joe, you left something….” Hoss stopped in mid-sentence, noting his little brother was missing and that his father and Adam looked towards him with sad and troubled faces. “What’s the matter?” he asked as he sat down.

Adam picked up the letter from the coffee table and passed it over to his brother in silence. Slowly reading the page, Hoss blinked hard and wiped his eyes. “Clay is dead?” he murmured in disbelief. “How did Joe take it?”

Adam pursed his lips and shook his head while Ben gave a deep sigh, feeling a deep and intense sorrow. “He was pretty shook up and went up to his room.”

Hoss opened his mouth as if to encourage his father to elaborate but closed it hastily as he sensed the emotional tension in the air and the three men sat in contemplative silence, all staring into the flickering flames, thinking their private thoughts about Clay Stafford.

Many minutes passed until eventually the faint sound of a door opening could be heard, and lifting their gaze, all watched anxiously as Joe appeared. Slowly returning to his seat on the settee, his eyes were noticeably red rimmed and his face even paler than when he had first arrived back, barely an hour before.

“I’m so sorry, son,” said Ben, sitting on the edge of his chair and lovingly stroking his son’s arm.

Joe looked over and gave a sad nod, noting his father’s eyes were also moistened. “In a way, it’s not such a shock,” he said quietly, surprising both his father and brothers with his admission. “Trouble never seemed to be far behind Clay, especially when he was playing poker. Just wish I’d had the chance to see him again, if only for a short while.” He rested his head back on the settee and looked up at the ceiling, a look of desolation covering his face.

No one spoke for a few minutes, not wishing to intrude on Joe’s silent grief; the only sound heard the crackling of the wood in the fire and the loud rhythmic tick of the grandfather clock. Finally Hoss put his hand in his shirt pocket and pulled out a small tin box. He looked at it thoughtfully then passed it over towards his brother. “Found this in the lining of your old coat, little brother.”

Joe slowly turned his head and frowned in puzzlement as he took the box from Hoss with a trembling hand. “I’ve never seen it before,” he whispered. “Where on earth could it have come from?”

Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it was definitely in your coat.”

Joe fingered it for a moment then eased open the lid and emptied the contents onto his hand. He gasped in astonishment when a folded piece of paper and a small photograph fell out and he stared down at the familiar face of Marie Cartwright smiling within a silver frame. Ben reached over and picked it up.

“I don’t understand,” said Joe, gulping nervously. “I gave this photograph to Clay when he left last year!”

“Are you sure, son?” asked Ben, looking down at the picture.

Joe nodded as he unfolded the piece of paper and stared at the short message written upon it. Although he hardly thought it possible, Ben could see his son’s pallor visibly become a shade lighter and he threw Adam and Hoss a quick glance, raising his eyebrows in bewilderment. Both sons signaled back with a slight shrug of the shoulders. They too were just as bemused.

“Joseph? Son? What does it say?”

Joe stared at his father for a moment as if his brain could not understand the words, then he cleared his throat and began to read out in a shaky voice.

“Joe,

My dying wish has been granted…some precious time with my little brother and a chance to give you back our mother’s photograph. I was always in your debt for giving it to me, and now it is returned to its rightful owner.

The past few days with you in the line shack has left me with a contented and satisfied soul. Thank you.

Remember Joe. I love you.

Clay”

With his eyes brimming with tears, Joe looked up, enlightenment dawning as he now accepted why he and Wade had bonded so well. For him, everything suddenly seemed to fit into place; the voice on the mountainside hadn’t been him hallucinating…it had been his brother’s voice after all. However, his father and brothers were finding it more difficult to make sense of the situation.

“I don’t understand,” said Hoss finally, totally confused as he looked down at the letter from Santa Fe in his hands and waved it around. His eyes flittered between his father and Adam for guidance. “Clay is dead! This doctor told us so.”

“Yes he is,” stated Joe quietly, noting his brother’s disconcerted expression. “But he’s returned my mother’s picture.”

“How can this be possible?” interjected Adam, taking the letter from Hoss’ hands, and reading it again. “According to this, Clay must have died nearly a month ago. How could he possibly have written that note for Joe and placed it in his coat?”

Joe let a soft smile suddenly play over his mouth as the wave of understanding flooded over him. “Because Wade was really Clay all along!”

A stunned silence gripped the room as the three men turned to look at the youngest Cartwright.

“But that’s impossible,” cried Hoss, staring at Joe intently. “Are you saying you believe Clay’s ghost somehow ended up on the mountain, turned into some other fella, just to return your Ma’s photograph?”

“Yes, that’s just what I believe, Hoss,” Joe told him as he stretched out his arm and took the letter from Adam with a shaky hand. “But not just to return the photograph. He came back when he was needed the most…to save his brother’s life.”

Joe glanced down at the letter and his eyes widened a little in surprise. “Look at this,” he said, pointing a finger to the signature. “Now I know why Clay must have taken that name. Doctor Philip….Wade! He was probably the last person Clay talked to before he died.”

With a look of incredulity on his face, Hoss’ jaw dropped open. “I still don’t understand how this could be. What do you think Pa?”

Three pairs of trusting eyes viewed their father as they awaited his answer. However Ben, who had remained silent and thoughtful, gently stroking the small photograph with his forefinger, was also just as bewildered and confused by what had happened. He sighed deeply and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I have no answers son and I’m just as puzzled as you. But the important thing is, whoever…or whatever was on the mountain, they saved Joe’s life. That’s all that matters to me.”

“But Pa…” pleaded Hoss again. “It just ain’t possible!”

“Some things just defy explanation or understanding, son,” Ben answered fondly. “But if your brother believes it was Clay, who are we to argue or disagree?”

Joe threw a soft smile of gratitude over towards his father as Ben gently returned the photograph into the palm of his hand and Joe stared down at his mother’s smiling face, closing his eyes for a moment as he tried to concentrate and remember. “When I think back, Wade’s eyes were just like hers,” he whispered. “And his smile.”

Adam studied his brother, his brown eyes flashing with uncertainty. “But Clay’s ghost, Joe?” he asked as his voice rose skeptically, his analytical and well ordered brain unable to accept the significance of Joe’s statement. “How on earth….?”

“More like now in heaven,” Joe said slowly, interrupting his brother as he realized Wade’s journey would now be ended and the painful, empty space in his heart, created when Clay left him months ago, had been miraculously filled.

“Trust me, Adam,” Joe said as his grief stricken face cleared and his eyes flashed happily, now content to have had a few precious days with his long lost brother that he could remember til the day he died. “All that time in the cabin, I was with Clay; not his body I agree, but definitely his spirit.” He gave a chuckle.

“No wonder I got on so well with Wade. After all he was…family!”

***The End***

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One thought on “Family (by Doreen)

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