Waiting (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,700


I can feel a soothing and cooling breeze as it rushes across my face. The window must be open in my bedroom, but I don’t open my eyes. I can’t! I have no strength in me to attempt such a menial task. I know instinctively I am in my own bed for I can feel the familiar bumps and indentations that I have grown used to over the years. Pa had been more than willing to buy a new one but, although grateful of the offer, I had declined. Its familiar feel meant my body instantly succumbed to uninterrupted sleep when lying on the well defined contours of the old mattress and I was loath to change it.

With my eyes closed, I find my sense of hearing is suddenly keener. I can hear the familiar sounds from the outside, usually all intermingled, but this time they seem to each have their own place in my mind’s eye.

There’s the bawling of hundreds of cattle in the distance, awaiting their journey to the railhead. I can hear the muffled cries of some of the drovers as they chase after rogue steers that try to escape from the milling herd. Horses are neighing too with anticipation at the long trek that is imminent.

Had circumstances been different, I would have been there now, supervising and getting ready to leave tomorrow on our yearly journey.

I can hear birds singing as they nest in the surrounding trees, a dog barks in the distance. The wind is blowing gently, and I can hear the swish of the curtains as they flap against the wall and window pane. I hear everything, but see nothing as I lie here, unmoving, in constant pain yet silent.

I think it is still Tuesday. I’m really not sure. Was it only this morning I left early to go to Virginia City? I feel momentarily confused. Why do I lie here, unable to move, eyes closed and alone?

I know I am alone.

Minutes before I had heard my Pa and Doc Martin talking in softened tones. Even though I was unable to watch the expression on their faces, I knew something was wrong. My Pa’s voice was quiet but filled with a sadness I had never heard before. The Doc sounded resigned and apologetic.

“He looks so pale, Paul. You did well to operate so quickly.”

“I’m so sorry, Ben. I’ve done my best.” I heard him say. “He’s just lost too much blood.”

Poor Doc Martin. Over the years he has treated me on many occasions, and always I seemed to pull through with his help, and in a way it has made me feel invincible. But, listening to him as he spoke with my Pa I knew this time was different.

“You sure there’s nothing else Paul, nothing else you can do for him?” cried Pa.

Poor Pa. I could hear the voice, almost pleading for a miracle, as he whispered with the Doc.

But with the silence that followed, and the sound of a sob from Pa, I can only assume the Doc had shaken his head. This time there was no reprieve. I then felt the strong yet trembling hand of my father as he stroked my hair, and I am sure I felt a tear on my face as he bent over to kiss my forehead.

I had wanted to open my eyes, gaze at Pa with a smile on my face and say ‘I’m fine’, just as I had done countless times so I could take away the pain I knew he would be feeling in his heart. But I couldn’t. My eyelids are heavy and I am just too weak.

I heard the door quietly close, and the sound of slow footsteps echoing down the stairs. I was alone again and waiting. Waiting to die.

I want to sleep, retreat into the painless world of darkness, but force myself to keep listening for every sound. I have a fear if I do give way to that blessed haven of peace and tranquility I will never return.

They will be downstairs, Pa, Adam and Hoss, with the Doctor, not knowing what to do.

Sat silent, numb and shocked, and unable to come to terms with what has happened, they will be together, but each alone with their own thoughts. Waiting!

Adam! Poor Adam. I wish we hadn’t had that row last night. I had left early this morning to get to the bank before he had risen. No way we could now make amends, say our peace. It will haunt him, remembering our last words together and I feel a genuine regret and sorrow.

Hoss. He will be inconsolable. Such a big man, yet so gentle. Our brotherly bond goes deep, forged out of mutual respect and a genuine love. He has always been my closest friend, my dear brother.

Pa will be sat in his chair, staring at nothing, holding a cup of coffee which will go cold before he realizes it is in his hands. I so want to tell him, just once more, how much I love him. I hope and pray he doesn’t bury his heart when he buries me.

I know I am weak as I have no strength to even brush away a bluebottle that has been buzzing around my body and has now settled on my chest. I can hear it, feel it, hate the thought of it on me, but am unable to make the slightest of movements that would send it away. It must have been attracted by the vile aroma of fresh, dried congealed blood that I know seeped through the bandages around my body. I too can smell it. It is the smell of a corpse.

How I hate flies! Hate the way they congregate around death and decay. I have seen thousands hovering around the body of a drowned steer washed up on a river bed, a half-eaten jack rabbit, a man. Of yes, I have seen men, their bones bleached by the sun and their innards covered with a mass of buzzing bluebottles and maggots. It always made my skin crawl and my stomach retch at the sight.

I hear it and then there is silence for a second, until the fly moves about again, the buzzing seeming to get louder as it flies around my head. I can almost feel it on my lips as it passes by, before it finally settles on my shoulder. I want to swipe it away, but there is no strength in my arms. At least for a few minutes, it provides me with a welcome diversion from the pain I feel in my chest, my stomach and my shoulder. Again it flies, buzzing, then all is quiet. It has gone for now. As yet there is no where for it to bury its eggs and thus create a new dynasty. It probably waits, hiding in some hidden recess of my bedroom, waiting for death to overcome me.

I always thought we’d grow old together, Adam, Hoss and me. Not now! I am waiting to die, but not wanting to die and I refuse to give in that easily to the specter of death that beckons to me. Maybe it will only come calling when I am alone, so I scream out. Someone! Anyone! Please, stay with me, talk to me, just tell me I’m going to be alright! My scream echoes around my ears, but no one else hears. The sound is only in my head – my room remains silent.

I must keep alert, keep thinking. I must try and remember what happened to me. I need to re-live my last day as I lie here, waiting.

*****

Conversation around the dining table the previous evening had been mainly about the imminent cattle drive to the railhead, due to begin in a couple of days. Joe outlined his plans to his family, with the exception of Hoss, who was visiting their silver mine, and would be late returning.

The annual drive was a long and arduous journey which took weeks to prepare and a month to complete. Ben was slowly recovering from a bad bout of influenza which had left him weak, so, with negotiations for a new timber contract due to be started within the next few days, it was decided Adam would stay behind with Ben to help negotiate. Hoss meanwhile was needed up at the mine to supervise a new seam that was to be opened in the near future.

That left Joe to go on the cattle drive as trail herd boss. It was the first time he would be solely in charge and feeling a little daunted at the prospect, had sought the experienced help of their ranch foreman, Jack Stowe. Working together they had secured enough men, horses, chuck wagons and food for the long trip.

He had also managed to plan a new route. Joe had been talking to an old Indian friend of the Cartwrights in Carson City weeks before, and hearing it would be the young man’s first time as trail boss, the wise and kindly old Indian had told Joe of an ancient Indian trail which had hardly been used for decades and forgotten by most that it existed.

Joe then mulled over the route for weeks, convinced that if he took the slightly different direction, they would cut out a couple of days traveling and many miles of hard terrain. In fact, so convinced that it was a viable option, he had checked it out by wiring a couple of friends in towns along the way. They had agreed with his choice of route. Without the heavy rains that year, the old Indian trail was dry and firm, an ideal track for the large herd of cattle.

If the journey was shortened the cattle would arrive at the railhead in a more refreshed state, and the buyers would be more than willing to pay top dollar for premium beef in good condition. The tight profit margins worked out by Adam at the beginning of the year would therefore be increased, netting the Cartwrights an extra couple of thousand dollars. No mean achievement for the youngest son in charge for the first time.

At dinner, Joe had been informing Ben and Adam of his decision to re-route part of the drive. Adam had disagreed immediately, not waiting to give Joe a chance to explain why he came to change the direction used for countless years. He just told Joe, in his usual authoritative tone, to stick to the tried and tested route. Joe had bristled at the sound of his brother’s voice.

Like a bull to a red rag, Joe charged in. “I just know we can take this route safely, Adam. Seeing as I will be in charge this year, I think I can be allowed to make some decisions on my own!” he had retorted.

“No need to be foolish, Joe! Why risk changing the route? What you trying to prove?”

“I’m not trying to prove anything! I just know it can be done faster. Don’t take me for a fool, Adam. You just don’t want me to do something on my own!” he had stated, more loudly than he had intended.

Ben had looked up, suddenly made aware of the tension between his youngest and oldest sons. “Boys! That’s enough,” he said, as Adam and Joe glared at each other across the table.

Putting Joe in charge had not been a difficult decision for Ben. Joe had matured beyond measure over the past year, but even he wondered at his son’s tactics. However, every decision about the drive had been made by Joe and him alone, and there was no way Ben was going to interfere, especially at this late stage. “Adam! Joe is in charge; I am sure he knows what he is doing.” he said, noticing a quick look of triumph that flashed on his youngest’s face.

“And as for you, young man,” said Ben, as he looked towards Joe, “Adam has been in charge on cattle drives many more times than you. I think he deserves a little credit for the experience he has gained over the years, don’t you?”

“It’s alright,” sighed Adam. “If he’s willing to risk the whole herd on some fool idea that he knows something better than us, then so be it. I wash my hands of him and his hair-brained schemes! I just hope you know what you’re doing, Pa, leaving him in charge!”

Joe glared across at his brother, unwilling to share with him his hidden knowledge of the Indian trail. Why should he? If Adam wasn’t willing to trust his decisions, then so be it.

Still glaring Joe stood up, his meal finished. “If you don’t mind I think I’ll turn in, Pa. Need to get to the bank early to collect the wages for the drovers.”

Adam looked at Joe, incredulity showing in his face. “You’re paying the men before they set off? That’s just going to lead to a whole lot of trouble! Some of them are bound to desert before the job is done! I can’t believe you could be so stupid Joe!”

Joe’s forehead creased with frustration. He banged his fist on the table.

Ben positively shook, startled at the magnitude of Joe’s anger, but said nothing.

“Damn it, Adam! Do you have to disagree with everything I do?” shouted Joe. “I decided to pay out half a month’s wages to the wives of the married men!” he yelled, his green eyes flashing with fury. “Then the women and children don’t have to worry about their husbands and fathers drinking away all their wages in the first saloon they come to once the drive is finished! Is that such a bad idea!” he yelled, throwing down his napkin and making for the stairs.

Ben closed his eyes and shook his head. His son’s plan made sense, and he was secretly pleased Joe had thought of the dozen women and countless children, left for a month to cope alone without their men folk. But once Joe’s temper was up, there was no calming him. A good night’s rest would be best for them all, he concluded.

Adam looked at Ben sheepishly. “Didn’t realize that, Pa. Guess I did misjudge Joe’s judgment after all. Sorry.”

“No point saying sorry to me, son. It’s your brother who needs the apology.”

“I know, Pa. But I still think he’s wrong about changing the route of the drive.”

With a nod, Adam made to stand up, but his father put out his hand. With a knowing smile, he looked into the eyes of his eldest son. “Leave him till tomorrow, Adam. Knowing Joe, once he’s cooled down, he will be more receptive to apologies from his older brother.”

Adam nodded, reseating himself on the chair.

The front door opened and closed as Hoss entered. Taking off his hat and removing his gunbelt, he made for the table. “Sure hope you’ve left me some food?” he asked, as he sat down.

Ben looked at his son. “And good evening to you too, Hoss!” he said mockingly, as the big man settled in his chair and surveyed the food left on the table.

Hoss looked over at Ben, realizing what he had said. “Oh! Sorry. Pa. Evening. Evening, Adam. Guess my empty stomach got the better of me,” he said, half apologetically, as he began to scoop potatoes and fried chicken onto his plate. He looked over at the empty seat. “Where’s Joe?”

Sighing, Ben nodded upstairs. “Afraid he and your older brother here had a few choice words. He’s gone to bed, hopefully to cool off,” replied Ben as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

Hoss looked up while he poured the gravy onto his plate. “What’s the argument been about this time then?” he sighed, in a resigned voice. Over the past few weeks, he had noticed subtle changes in his brother’s attitude to each other, and had been expecting something like this to happen.

Adam rolled his eyes as he sat back in his chair. “You know Joe! Never ready to accept criticism once his mind is made up.”

“Eh?” said Hoss, his mouth now full of the dinner he had been so looking forward to.

“Joe has a fool idea of not sticking to the route we have always taken on the drive. No need to take a chance at losing the cattle all for the sake of his wanting to prove something to me!” said Adam, his voice full of sarcasm.

For a minute Hoss chewed his food thoughtfully, then replaced his fork on his plate. “I take it Joe didn’t tell you then?”

“Tell me what?” asked Adam, as he looked over at Hoss.

“That he had been told of an Indian trail by old Running Cloud when he was in Carson last month. Had checked it out with Mike Jones in Dry Hollow and Ted Hughes in Placerville. Both towns on the route of the drive, and near to the Indian trail. They both took a look and had said it was definitely drivable and would take about 50 miles off the journey.”

“He certainly kept that close to his chest,” said Ben, surprised at Joe’s initiative. “Fifty miles less would make a lot of difference to the condition of those cattle.”

A look of surprised astonishment filled Adam’s face as Hoss continued to look his brother directly in the eye. He lifted up his fork and pointed it towards him. “You know Adam, sometimes you just assume our little brother does things on the spur of the moment. If you only listened and asked him, you would see just how well organized he is sometimes! He’s worked out we could be a $2000 in profit by taking this new trail. What do you think of that then?”

“I had no idea, Hoss. Why didn’t he tell me?” asked Adam as he shook his head, hardly believing what he had heard.

“I guess he’s just tired of waiting for you, Adam,” replied Hoss, unhappy at his elder brother’s attitude towards their younger sibling.

“Waiting? Waiting for what?” enquired Adam, feeling truly confused.

“Waiting for you to accept he is an adult and able to do a good job when asked. When was the last time you actually said, ‘well done Joe’? For heavens sake, Adam, he’s nearly 23 years old, yet you seem to continually treat him like he is still twelve!”

Ben watched his middle son in silence, and inwardly smiled at the reprimand given by the biggest to the oldest. He had been aware of an underlying tension over the past weeks but had said nothing, hoping Adam and Joe could work out their differences on their own. Hoss had obviously sensed the same thing.

“I’ve been watching the pair of you ever since Joe was made trail boss. I’ve seen Joe look at you, hoping you’ll acknowledge his hard work, give him a slap on the back. But no! Every decision he made has been followed by either sarcasm or criticism from you. I’ve seen him bite his tongue on more than one occasion, something he would never of done only a year ago. Then he would of probably decked you one. And to be honest Adam, I wouldn’t of blamed him if he had.”

Adam sat stone-faced, feeling like a small schoolboy being reprimanded by his teacher.

“You know what your trouble is Adam?” said Hoss, as he picked up a piece of bread.

“No, Hoss. But I have an idea you are about to tell me,” Adam said, not used to his big brother talking to him in such an abrupt manner.

Hoss pointed his fork again in Adam’s direction. “I reckon you think, ‘cause you were the first born, you got the lion’s share of all the brains in this family. Well, I must admit I’m not the brightest of men, so maybe most of them passed me by, but from where I’ve been standing, well, I can see our little brother can be just as, and even smarter, than you sometimes!”

Taking a bite from the bread in his hand, Hoss swallowed it down with a glass of water, then looked back at his brother, who had sat silent. “Joe and Jack have planned this drive down to the smallest detail, and a darn site smoother than any you ever have, plus he is also going to make us a tidy profit! With that in mind, I reckon you need to get off your high horse and eat a whole lot of humble pie for our little brother tomorrow.”

Adam sat thoughtful as Hoss began to devour the large pile of food he had placed on his plate. Everything Hoss had said was true. He had been ever critical, always finding fault. Joe had done a good job and he knew it, so why couldn’t he acknowledge that fact, face to face with his little brother? Why? It suddenly occurred to him the reason. To admit Joe could now cope on his own was to admit his role as the ever-knowing elder brother was over, and it was a role he had been reluctant to relinquish.

It had taken the wise words of his big brother to make him see just what a fool he had been. “I don’t reckon Joe is the only smart brother I have, Hoss!” he said, good naturedly.

Hoss looked up at his brother, saw the smile on his face and returned it with a toothy grin. “Just make sure you sort it out with Joe before the drive,” he answered, then returned all his attention to his meal.

If there was one thing that you could say about Adam Cartwright, it was he was a man who would admit when he was wrong.

His brother Hoss’s words churned around his head. Tomorrow he must apologize to Joe. He could almost see the sanctimonious grin on Joe’s face but nevertheless, he needed to say sorry. Taking a deep breath, he poured himself another cup of coffee.

While Hoss continued to eat his meal, Ben inwardly chuckled. Hoss was never a man who said a lot of fancy words, but his little speech to Adam was a gem, he thought. Adam would be doing a load of groveling tomorrow, and Ben was looking forward to watching it happen.

*****

Joe Cartwright could not help himself from yawning. He was up early, too early in his opinion, and found himself riding towards Virginia City before the rest of his family had made it downstairs for breakfast. He wanted to make an early start by collecting the money from the bank, then he had to check all the provisions, make sure everything was in order. He did not want to make any mistakes. Everything running smoothly on this cattle drive depended on him and he was in no mood to let his family, or himself down.

With a gentle canter, he and Cochise made their way along the all too familiar road, and he had time to think about last night. With a shake of his head, he thought about his brother Adam. Last night they had argued, quite bitterly, and for the life of him, Joe could not remember how it had started, just how it had finished!

It seemed to Joe, every time he tried to stand up on his own, do something by himself, Adam would be there, ready to interfere. It was as if Adam couldn’t bear the thought that he had outgrown the need for an elder brother to continually seek guidance, request help. He just didn’t want Joe to become a man who could stand on his own two feet. Although Hoss treated him as an equal, Adam always seemed to look down on him as just the kid brother who continually needed supervision.

Over the past weeks, during the build up to the drive, there had been many instances when he had come close to coming to blows with Adam. On more than one occasion, when he had stood eye to eye with his brother, his temper rising, he had started to say something, but had just bit his lip instead and stayed silent.

However, last night had been the last straw, and he had been unable to hold his tongue. He remembered his father’s startled face as he had banged his fists on the table, and felt a pang of regret. He knew the one thing that hurt his father the most was to see open hostilities between his three sons. Maybe he should just apologize to Adam, try to make the first move. That would show every one just how mature he was becoming.

Thinking what he should do to make amends and his mind far, far away, Joe was totally unprepared for what happened next.

Suddenly, riding his horse at break neck speed, appeared a man, gun in hand. He looked behind him at the cloud of dust that indicated the six man posse following him was getting closer and did not notice the young Cartwright in front of him on the road.

Shaken from his reverie, a surprised and startled Joe saw the man’s horse was on a collision course with Cochise, and Joe instinctively pulled him to a stop and swung around to the road edge, out of harm’s way. Equally surprised at seeing Joe, and in an attempt to clear the obstacle he perceived was blocking his way to freedom, the gunman extended his arm and aimed his gun. Without hesitation he coldly and deliberately shot Joe, hitting him in the shoulder.

Yelling out in pain, Joe clung onto the prancing Cochise, clutching at his shoulder in bewildered astonishment. Two more shots followed, each finding their mark. One in Joe’s chest, and as he fell backwards, another went into his stomach. He hit the ground hard, his assailant moving on past him. It was all over in seconds, and Joe lay unmoving on the ground, his shirt turning deep red.

Then the gunman’s luck ran out. His horse lost its footing, fell heavily, sending the gunman sprawling onto the floor, his horse rolling onto him, killing its rider instantly.

Still shocked by the daring early morning bank raid by the lone gunman, the posse pulled up to view the scene before them. The drifter, who had killed an innocent bystander in his vain attempt to make easy money by robbing the bank, lay dead in front of them.

With the all too familiar pinto standing forlornly by the roads edge, the six men knew its rider who lay unmoving on the road. The sight of the cold-blooded shooting of their friend, Joe Cartwright, stunned and paralyzed them.

Sheriff Roy Coffee dismounted and rushed over, dreading to turn over the young man, willing him to be alive, but fearing the worst. Blood covered Joe’s shirt, and Roy felt his pulse. It was there, weak, but still there. Shouting out orders to his deputies, he sent one man to town to bring Doc Martin to the Ponderosa, and another to the Ponderosa to collect a wagon to transport the gravely injured Joe back to the ranch.

Grabbing any available cloth that came to hand from the men who stood around, Roy tore open Joe’s shirt, pressing down on each wound in a vain attempt to stem the seemingly never ending flow of blood. But where to start? One bullet was enough to kill most men, but three! With tears in his eyes he continued to press down on Joe’s bloodied chest, the cloths soon deep red and sodden. How long he had to wait for the wagon he could not guess. All he knew was his dear friend, Ben Cartwright, would soon be grieving the loss of his youngest son.

*****

It is hard to judge how long I have been here by myself since Pa left with the Doc. Now I remember what happened, but I still don’t know why? Why me? I guess you could say I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s a cruel joke that the goddess of destiny has played on me today.

The journey back in the wagon was a nightmare of pain as I floated in and out of consciousness. I can vaguely remember being carried from the wagon up to my room by the strong, secure and loving hands of Hoss. I couldn’t open my eyes, but knew he was crying as I felt his chest rising and falling, and could hear his sobs.

There seemed to be chaos everywhere. Much yelling, orders being given, doors shutting.

My Pa was holding my hand while Adam gently removed my blood covered shirt. I heard Pa cry as Adam gently bathed the blood from my body, and pressed clean towels into the three blood filled holes. The pain was excruciating, but I could only moan. How I wanted to scream away the pain, but I just hadn’t the strength.

The Doc arrived, was ushered up to my room, and I heard him gasp as he caught sight of my injuries.

“Ben, this is bad, very bad.” I heard him say, as my Pa gently wiped beads of sweat from my face.

I could feel his hands, probing each wound, assessing the damage, no doubt wondering where to start.

“I’ll have to operate here and now Ben.” I heard him say, but by the sound of his voice I could tell he did not hold out much hope. “You’ll have to help me with the anesthetic.”

Adam and Hoss sounded as if they were stood by the door as the Doc asked for a pan of boiling water and clean cloths, and then their footsteps quickly disappeared downstairs.

I heard him walk to my dresser and open his bag. There was an odor that I couldn’t place for a moment. I felt the strong hands of my father as he held a cloth over my nose.

I could sense the doc by my side. “Just a drop Ben, then another in 10 seconds.” he said, as I suddenly placed the smell. Ether.

“He will soon be under Ben.” I heard the Doc say, and he was right. All my pain and agony disappeared into a dark tunnel as I slipped away into unconsciousness.

*****

I can feel the bandages tight on my body. Doc Martin must have worked hard, taking out three bullets in such a short time. I wonder what he was thinking as he first dug deep, knowing he would have to repeat the process again and again.

He has worked his skill well, but I feel so very weary, so incredibly tired. My body that had radiated so much heat now feels cold and clammy. I want to sleep, to end this. I see nothing and hear no one. I am alone and very afraid. Slowly, oh so slowly I can feel myself succumbing to the call of death.

Suddenly I hear a noise, footsteps again on the stairs. The sound shakes off the grim reapers hand from my body once more. Not yet! I shout, though no one hears. I will not die yet!

I never had trouble before guessing who walked up the stairs. Hoss’s steps were slow and heavy, Adam’s light and quick, and Pa’s were just steady and even. But today it is hard to distinguish one from another. There is no haste, just the slow labored sound of men who seem to drag their legs up the stairs, and stop momentarily at the door, unwilling to open it for fear of what they find inside.

Someone opens the door and enters, quietly sliding a chair over to the bed, and I can hear him sit down. My eyes refuse to open, and my body still lies motionless. I can feel a hand take mine, gently stroking my fingers, and I lie there, waiting to hear who my companion is.

“Oh Joe!” the sighing voice says, full of despair. Now I know. It is Adam!

I can hear him quietly weeping as he gently caresses my hand. I can sense him wiping away his tears on his sleeve, and I feel a damp cloth on my cool skin as he gently wipes away the dried blood that has splattered onto my face and shoulders.

“I’m sorry Joe.” I hear him say in a whisper. “So sorry, little brother. I’m the fool, a stupid pompous fool. I am so very proud of you. Forgive me.”

Again he sobs, but I can do nothing to take away his misery. If only I could open my eyes and smile. Then he would know. Know I bear no grudge, forgive him anything! Everything! He is truly proud of me and I want him to know I have always loved him. My dear elder brother!

My breathing is slow and shallow, but Adam is here with me, and I feel strangely comforted. Talk to me Adam! I shout out as he sits by my side, my voice silent, except in my head. Talk and I can stay with you, I won’t give up, I won’t leave.

Then he speaks, softly, barely audible, his heart torn apart. “Heaven knows you’re stubborn, too stubborn to die, so I’m not giving up on you, Joe. I won’t leave you. Death isn’t taking you while I’m here. I promise.” He takes my hand and holds it between his, lifting it up to his face. I feel his tears fall and they wet my hand. All is quiet as he sits by my bedside, and I am content to be in his company, just the two of us.

I was scared, but not now. My eldest brother sits by my side and I am suddenly not afraid any more. I only wish I could let him know.

*****

When Adam had first entered the room and saw Joe’s pale pallor, saw the sunken eyes, the dark circles under them, he was distraught. Sitting by the bed, feeling Joe’s forehead, he was pained to find it so much colder – such a difference in a short time and had moaned out his brother’s name in despair. He took a damp cloth from the dresser and whispered his name once more as he wiped away the red splashes of blood that made such a contrast on the pale, insipid skin. He stared at Joe, willing him to make a movement, acknowledge his presence. But there was nothing. No crying out in pain, no mumbling of feverish dreams, no deep green eyes to stare into his own. Just silence.

He sat, minute following minute, just holding Joe’s hand, once so strong, that lay limp within his own, and staring at his face. How he regretted the disagreements, the harsh words, the bitter exchanges. They seemed so petty, so insignificant now. What he wouldn’t give to see that beaming smile, hear that infectious laugh just once more.

He was so focused on Joe’s pale face that he didn’t hear the door open as Hoss entered, out of breath.

“How is he Adam?” Hoss asked, concern flooding his face.

“He feels colder somehow, and much paler. His breathing is…. slower.” Adam answered, solemnly, a lump forming in his throat. Both men knew the implications. Their little brother was slowly losing the battle to live.

Standing for a moment, staring at Joe, Hoss took a deep breath as his eyes moistened. He had purposely stayed downstairs, happy to leave Adam to sit with Joe. Watching his brother, so near to death, was just too much to bear. He was close to breaking-down and he knew it, but he had to force himself to keep going, for his father’s sake. Tearing his eyes from Joe, he signed heavily. “You’ve got to come downstairs, Adam. Doc needs to talk to us. Says its pretty urgent.” His voice wavered slightly as he struggled to contain his emotions.

Adam just shook his head. “I’m not leaving him.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “I promised I’d stay. I’m not leaving.”

Hoss walked to his brother, giving him an affectionate pat on the shoulder. He knew how Adam was agonizing over his last angry words with Joe. Knew it was tearing him apart inside, leaving him empty and broken. “I wouldn’t ask you if it weren’t urgent, Adam. Please! Just for a little while.”

Looking up, Adam studied his brother, saw the reddened eyes, the concerned look. Both brothers were aware of each others pain, knew what each was feeling, thinking. United in their grief, Adam nodded. “OK, Hoss. Just for a minute,” he said gently replacing Joe’s hand onto the bed cover.

He stood up, taking another look. “I’ll be back soon, Joe. Promise,” he said, shaking his head as he reluctantly walked away from his brother’s side.

Leaving the room and closing the door behind them, footsteps echoed in unison as Adam and Hoss made their way downstairs.

*****

Doctor Paul Martin was a good and competent doctor who during his time in Virginia City had treated many patients for numerous injuries. He was trusted and liked by all who knew him, especially the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa. Over the years he had been a familiar figure at the ranch, his expertise called upon on many occasions to treat gunshot wounds, broken bones, fevers. He knew the family well enough to realize the grave impact Joe’s imminent death would have on them all.

He was their family doctor, but more so a friend and it broke his heart to see Ben, Adam and Hoss as they sat together, unsure what to do next, what to say. Operating on Joe had been difficult, but successful, the three bullets removed and the wounds bandaged. But Paul knew in his heart he had been losing the battle long before he even started operating on Joe, for the injuries were severe and the blood loss far too substantial.

Sitting together, the operation completed, there was a deafening silence that was only broken by the tick tick of the large clock that stood by the door as the sound of the minute hand echoed around the room, signaling time was running out. All four men grappled to understand just how a routine journey to Virginia City could end in so much bloodshed so quickly and without warning.

Paul looked at his friends, and could see Ben was pale and shaking slightly as he sat back in his leather armchair. The realization that he was about to lose his youngest son in such a violent manner, had left him in a state of shock.

Hoss was sat on the settee, staring yet seeing nothing, as he fought hard to control himself from breaking down. He looked over at his father, and saw the look of utter desolation on his face. At this moment in time, his father needed him to be strong, supportive and in control. There would be time enough for the flow of uninterrupted tears later.

Adam stood by the fireplace banging his fist onto the hard stone in frustration. In his darkest hour, Joe needed his eldest brother now more than ever, yet Adam was impotent, powerless to do anything. For once he had no answers and it was tearing him apart. ‘I can’t stand around here waiting. I need to be with him, see if he is still part of our lives,’ he thought to himself.

With a quick look towards his father, Adam nodded over to Paul. “I’m going to sit with Joe for a while,” he said in a quiet voice, and slowly walked over to the stairs and made his way upstairs, his slow footsteps echoing in the quiet of the ranch house.

The three remaining men continued to sit in silence. Paul stared at his old friend, wishing and praying he could have done more. He shuddered to think how Ben would cope once Joe was gone. Although he loved his three sons with an equal vengeance, there was a closeness that existed between Ben and Joe, a closeness that once ended would leave Ben a broken man. With a deep sigh, Paul could see there soon would be long, dark days on the Ponderosa. Without realizing what he was doing he cried out an expletive at the unfairness of life causing both Ben and Hoss to look over at him in surprise. “Sorry,” he said apologetically. “I couldn’t stop myself. Sorry.”

Giving him a forgiving and understanding nod, Ben retreated again into his personal nightmare

Minutes had past when Paul suddenly stood up, standing still for a minute, deep in thought.

“Something wrong, Paul?” Hoss asked, watching the Doctor as he mulled over something within himself.

Paul looked over at Hoss and nodded. “Hoss! Go get Adam, will you? I need to speak to you all together, and quickly.” His voice was full of urgency.

Hoss stood up, hesitating for a moment. “What’s this about, Paul?”

“I’ll explain when Adam is here. Please, Hoss. Quickly,” he replied, as Ben looked up, slightly confused by Paul’s sudden commands.

“Sure, Paul,” he said, as he ran up the stairs.

Paul walked over to Ben, standing by his side. He could see his friend looked slightly perplexed. “Give me a minute, Ben. Just wait for Adam and then I’ll tell you what I am thinking.”

Ben nodded though feeling slightly bewildered at Paul’s sudden agitation.

Paul stood looking outwardly calm, but he felt his heart beating loud in his chest. He began to sweat nervously, still not certain he was doing the right thing but knowing for the sake of this family he had to tell them, had to try. With his mouth dry, he continued to stand by Ben’s side.

There was the sound of feet walking on the landing as Adam and Hoss came into view, Adam leading Hoss as they walked down the stairs. Both looked at the Doctor, unsure what was going on.

“What is it, Paul?” asked Adam, “I don’t want to leave Joe for long on his own. Not now.”

“How is he, Adam?” he asked.

“He feels cooler, and his breathing is slower, more labored.”

Paul nodded silently, privately assessing the state of his patient as he finally made up his mind.

Adam could see the distraught look on Ben’s face on hearing the news of Joe’s worsening condition. He looked away quickly, not willing to intrude on his father’s grief.

Motioning the two brothers to sit on the settee, Paul stood in front of them, taking a deep breath. “I won’t mince my words. There just isn’t time for that.” He looked nervous, but continued, “Joe will be dead before the end of the day!” he stated.

Paul saw the combined reaction of pain and misery on their faces. However, with heartache sometimes comes anger, and Adam stood up quickly, turning on the Doctor. “Is that all you wanted to tell us, Paul?” His voice raised. “Because I could have saved you the trouble! We know what’s going to happen to Joe, and we don’t need you to tell us the damned obvious!”

“Please, Adam, sit down. I have more to tell you. Please, just listen,” he said quickly, indicating with his hand for Adam to return to his seat.

Though his eyes were filled with tears, Ben leaned over and taking hold of Adam’s arm, gently pulled him back down. Without another word, Adam sat, his self-control near to breaking point.

As quiet descended again, Paul continued looking directly at Ben, who stared at him with distant eyes, feeling completely useless and frustrated. “You see, Ben, Joe is so weak and his body hasn’t the strength to make up the blood that he has lost. Pretty soon his organs are going to start shutting down. Once that starts, there is no stopping the process. Then we will lose him.”

Paul stopped for a moment, waiting for Ben, Adam and Hoss to digest his words.

“What you getting at then, Paul?” asked Hoss, his voice croaking with emotion.

“Over the past few years, I have read in my medical journals of a procedure that was tried out just over twenty years ago in England. Since then, from what I’ve read, there have been a limited number of successes and many failures.”

Ben sat up quickly, his curiosity aroused, shaking off the mantle of shock and focusing on the present.

“What procedure?” asked Adam, feeling totally exasperated.

“Joe’s only chance is for him to have some blood from a donor put into his veins, which in theory will keep the organs working until he regains enough strength for his body to start making up the loss on its own. It’s been called a blood transfusion. Unfortunately, even this simple procedure has its dangers and risks.”

“What risks, Paul?” asked Ben from his armchair. “What dangers are involved?”

“It’s been discovered not everyone has exactly the same sort of blood, Ben. Whoever the donor is they will have to have the exact same blood as Joe.”

“And if the blood ain’t the same, Paul?” asked Hoss, nervously biting his lip.

“Then Joe’s body would reject the new blood.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “He would be dead within the hour. But, without giving him this chance, he will die anyway.”

No one moved, as though frozen in time, as the realization of Paul’s words hit them.

“Is there any way we can find the right donor, Paul?” asked Adam, as he slowly sat back on the settee, his insides churning and his head pounding.

“There is a test that has been devised, but it is only in the early stages of development. I have no idea how it’s done. That’s the risk we would have to take. All I can say is that there has been more success with immediate family members being the donor.”

Ben looked at his two sons for a moment. “Adam, Hoss, what do you think? Should we try?” he asked, his voice trembling slightly.

“Seems to me, Pa, if there is a small chance that this would work, we should take it. We have nothing to lose. Joe has nothing to lose,” replied Adam, as a small glimmer of hope ran through his body. Hoss nodded, agreeing with his brother, knowing they had to try, for Joe’s sake.

“Let’s do it then, Paul!” Ben said, the decision now made. “You can use me as your donor.”

“I’m sorry, Ben, but though you would be the safer bet, because of your recent influenza, I can’t risk you passing an infection to Joe. That would just defeat any chance we would have. No! It will have to be either Adam or Hoss.”

Without hesitation both brothers nodded.

“I’ll do it,” said Hoss and Adam at the same time.

Both brothers smiled at each other, each aware of the others desire to help save their little brother. Adam put his hand on Hoss’s shoulder, his voice trembling as his spoke. “Please. Hoss,” begged Adam, “let me? I owe Joe! I need to do this for him.”

With a reluctant sigh, Hoss nodded his agreement, his clear blue eyes moist with the tears he was trying hard to hold back.

“Before we start, what are the risks to Adam?” asked the concerned voice of Ben as he felt his chest constrict with fear. Losing one son would be bad enough; he would not risk losing another.

“From what I have read, there are no permanent after effects for the donor. Adam will feel slightly dizzy and a little sick for a while, but as long as he drinks plenty of liquids like sweetened tea, he will soon recover.”

Ben looked over at his eldest son with relief, saw the determined look, the desire to give one last chance to Joe. “OK, Paul. Seems Adam is ready, so what do we do now?”

Paul wiped the sweat from his forehead, and walked over to the table, picking up his bag and looking inside. “I’ll do my best, Ben. It’s something I have never done before, never thought I would ever do. I haven’t even got time to make up the proper equipment, so I am going to have to improvise.”

Ben could see the Doctor was nervous, unsure and even a little scared. Taking a deep breath he stood up. Walking over he took Paul’s hand in his, clasping it firmly. “Paul, I know this can’t be easy for you. But, whatever happens, we thank you, Joe would thank you, for trying, for giving him the barest chance of life.” His voice was slightly shaking.

“Thanks, Ben,” said Paul, a faint smile appearing as the two friends stood for a moment. He then composed himself, shut his bag and began to walk towards Joe’s bedroom, Hoss following close behind.

As Ben and Adam walked towards the stairs, Ben could see Adam’s face looked pensive even frightened. Instinctively he knew what troubled him. He took his son’s arm, and pulled him to a stop. “You know, Adam, if this doesn’t work, I don’t want you feeling guilty. You’re giving Joe his one and only chance, and whatever the outcome, I know he would be grateful. I know I am, son,” he said, his eyes filled with sincerity, “Grateful and proud.”

“Thanks, Pa,” replied Adam, relieved at his father’s words, but deep within himself still felt a great weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Within the hour Joe may be dead and a feeling of trepidation filled him.

With his arm around his son’s shoulder, Ben and his eldest made their way upstairs.

*****

I heard the sound of regret in Adam’s voice as he left my bedside. I wish he was still with me, but something must be important to call him downstairs. I feel so cold now. Why doesn’t someone close the window?

I hear voices downstairs, murmuring. Adam’s voice suddenly shouts out, louder than the rest, but it is too far away for me to understand. What is happening? Why aren’t you here with me when I need you?

If only I could open my eyes, just once more, see their faces. Please return, quickly, before I leave. Pa, Adam, Hoss! Oh, how long does it take to die? This waiting seems interminable

Then I hear the sound of footsteps. Someone opens the door and moves to my dresser. Then another enters. More footsteps echo along the long landing and enter my room. ‘What is going on?’ I shout, as fear once again rips through my body, but no one hears.

“What do we do first, Doc?” asks Hoss.

“First, Adam had better sit on this chair next to Joe.” I hear the Doc say. I am confused.

I hear my brother sit by my side, and he momentarily strokes my arm and whispers, “I’m back now, Joe. Hang on just a little while more.”

His words begin to calm me.

“Adam, roll your sleeve up, and Hoss you tie a cloth around Adam’s forearm, good and tight,” commanded the Doc, as I hear him rummaging in his bag.

There is suddenly the soothing feel of a hand as it gently strokes my hair. I can sense it’s Pa and am instantly relieved. He would never allow anyone or anything to harm me.

“Now, you must breathe easy, Adam, but keep as still as you can. This needle is going into your arm, and it might sting for a minute,” instructed the Doc.

“That’s alright, Paul.” I hear Adam reply, his voice slightly nervous, and I can’t imagine what is going on.

There is silence for a minute as I hear Adam give a slight murmur of pain.

“How much blood you takin, Doc?” I hear Hoss say. Blood? What do they mean blood?

“Just enough for this syringe, Hoss,” replies Paul. “His body can take this much loss, don’t worry.”

“OK Adam, that’s enough. Just put a wet cloth where the needle comes out. It will stop bleeding in a minute or two,” says the Doc as I hear him walk back to his bag on the dresser.

“Here Adam, I’ll do it,” says Hoss, and then I hear the splash of water and sense my big brother as he stands between me and Adam.

“Thanks, Hoss,” says Adam softly, and I hear Hoss return to stand by the door.

“Right, now its Joe’s turn,” says the Doc. There is a moment of silence as I sense they stare at each other.

My Pa suddenly speaks in a hushed tone. “It’s alright, Paul. We’ve come this far.”

“I’ll just change the needle then,” declares the Doc, and I feel Pa take a deep breath as he tightly holds my hand.

Moments later I feel the quick stabbing sensation of a needle as it enters my arm. I shout out with pain, but no one hears. There is silence in the room and I wonder what they are doing, what they are thinking as they watch me, my Pa at my side. He continues to stroke my hair, and he whispers ‘I love you son’ over and over again, without embarrassment in front of my brothers and the Doc.

The needle is slowly withdrawn, a bandage covers my arm, and I can hear the Doc move away and begin to clear away his instruments.

“What do we do now, Paul?” asks Pa, his hand tightening around my cold fingers.

“We wait!” says Paul with a deep sigh. “Just wait!”

I can hear Adam stand up but he slumps back down quickly causing the chair to scrape back on the wooden floorboards.

“You OK, Adam?” asks Hoss, his voice full of concern as he rushes over.

“Phew, the room seems to be spinning! When you said dizzy, you weren’t exaggerating were you Paul?” he says tightly.

“You need to remain sitting for a while, Adam. It’s a common reaction.”

I hear him pour a glass of water.

“Here Adam, drink this for now. Hoss, could you make your brother a cup of tea with sugar? That should help him recover quickly.”

“Sure, Doc,” says Hoss, and I hear his footsteps disappear downstairs.

“You sure you’re alright, Adam?” asks Pa, concerned, as he continues to sit by my side. “You certainly look a little pale.”

I guess Adam must have just nodded, as he doesn’t answer, but I hear him as he swallows the water in one long gulp.

I vaguely hear Hoss return, passing over the requested liquid to Adam.

‘Why?’ I wonder. Adam hates tea! Hates sugar! Yet he drinks hot sweet tea!

I can sense their presence as they sit in my room, not speaking, just sighing from time to time, and waiting. As the minutes pass I feel weary beyond belief. I want to stay with them, hear their voices, feel reassuring hands stroking my hair, wiping the sweat from my body, but I am exhausted. I can’t hold on any longer as I sink ever lower and feel as though I am falling, down and down, spinning round and round

A distant memory of my Pa’s voice reciting a favorite verse suddenly echoes around my head.

‘To everything there is a season…

A time to be born, and a time to die

A time to weep and a time to laugh

A time to mourn and a time to dance.’

At least if this is my time to die, my family is with me, we are together and that’s all that matters.

In the quiet of the early evening I hear the sound of cattle in the distance, birds as they roost in the trees, the wind as it gently blows around the house. I hear everything but see nothing as I lie here, waiting. If this is death then I succumb without resistance as sleep gently washes over me, taking me away from the ones I love.

*****

I can feel a soothing and cooling breeze as it rushes across my face, and warm rays from the early morning sun stream through the window and onto my body. I know it is my room because I recognize the feel of my mattress under me. The acute pain from yesterday has turned to just a dull ache, and I am still alive! I tentatively open my eyes hardly daring to believe it. Can it be only a day since I rode away from the ranch towards Virginia City?

I am not alone! Pa, Adam and Hoss are sat around the room, all asleep, exhaustion is etched on their faces. I slowly turn my head and look at Pa. His hand lies on my bed and I reach out gently taking it in mine. I squeeze it weakly, and his eyes open, confusion showing for a second, until he sees me looking at him.

“Joe!” he cries, tears forming in his eyes. “Son.” He shakes his head as though he cannot believe what he sees.

Adam and Hoss wake up, startled at Pa’s voice. Concerned faces suddenly start smiling as they both stand by the bed, beaming.

“Welcome back little brother,” says Hoss, his eyes watering as he looks down at me.

Adam doesn’t need to say anything. The look on his face is a mixture of relief, joy, and happiness. I smile up at them both. I start to cough, but my throat is dry and tight and it hurts.

Instinctively, Adam turns to the dresser and returns with a glass of water. He offers it to me and holds up my head as I greedily sip the cool liquid. Smiling gratefully at my brother, I lay back on the pillow and look across again at my father.

“How do you feel, son?” he asks, lovingly holding my hand as he gazes at me, concern flooding his face.

“I feel fine, Pa,” I lie, and he knows it. He gives a quiet laugh.

“Good to hear it, son.” He knows me too well. “Doc says your heart rate is much better, and your color has certainly improved from yesterday!”

I close my eyes briefly and frown. Outside it is quiet. Too quiet! I look up at Adam.

“The drive, Adam? What’s happened?”

“No need to worry yourself, Joe. Jack has taken charge and is following all your orders, including the new Indian trail. They left real early this morning.”

A look of relief must have flooded my face as my father gently reprimands me.

“Don’t you go worrying yourself over that drive, Joe. I want all your concentration on getting better, young man!”

I give Pa a weak smile, and take a deep breath. “I was pretty sick, wasn’t I, Pa?”

“Yes, Joe. Pretty sick,” he answers. “But the worst is over. Thanks to the Doc and Adam.”

“Adam?” I look at up at my elder brother who is grinning down at me.

“Seems, little brother, we have a lot more in common than we ever thought we had,” he says softly, a knowing smile spreading from his mouth to his deep brown eyes.

I wonder what he means as he stares down at me, then I suddenly recall the previous evening and the talk of blood, the feel of a needle in my arm. I smile, though not really understanding what happened, but somehow feeling he and I are now closer than ever before.

I hear footsteps and then see Doc Martin stood in the doorway, cup of coffee in his hand. He smiles over at me.

“Well, seems my patient has decided to wake up at last,” he says as he enters the room. Placing his cup on the dresser he comes over to me and feels my forehead. He silently nods then holds my wrist as he checks my pulse with his old reliable pocket watch that he takes from his jacket pocket.

I look up at him, see his tired face and know I owe him my life. “I’m not going to die now, am I, Doc?”

With a kindly look, he shakes his head. “No, not today, Joe. Looks like you’re going to be around for a fair while yet,” he says.

I wince slightly when he checks over my bandages.

“Do you have much pain, Joe?”

I nod reluctantly. No point in trying to fool him, not this time. “Yes. It hurts, but just a little.” I try to convince myself as much as the Doctor. I fail.

He gives me a firm and knowing look. “I’ll leave you some laudanum. That will help you to relax and recover. It’s going to be a long haul, Joe, but as long as you don’t waste your energy trying to get out of bed before your ready, I think things are going to be just fine.”

Walking to his bag, he takes out two bottles of painkillers and sets them down on the dresser. As he closes his bag, he gives me a last look as if he can hardly believe I am still with them, then turns and moves towards the door. “I had better get back to town before the citizens of Virginia City send out a search party!”

My Pa gets up from his chair and walks over to him. “How can we ever thank you, Paul?” he says as he grabs his hand and shakes it.

“Seeing the look on your faces is thanks enough for me, Ben,” he answers, as he smiles at Pa. “Just make sure that Joe gets plenty of rest and nourishment. I’ll be back in a couple of days to check him over.”

“And you,” he says from the doorway as he looks back at me, “are a very lucky young man. I hope you realize that.” He looks towards Adam, nodding and smiling. “A very lucky young man!”

“I’ll see myself out,” he says as he waves his hand and disappears downstairs.

Suddenly there is the sound of a blue-bottle and all eyes watch as it flies around the room before disappearing through the open window. I grin and give a chuckle.

“What’s the joke, Joe?” asks Hoss, so obviously relieved to see my smile that has been so sadly missing.

“Oh, nothing, Hoss. Just seems that old fly is tired of waiting,” I answer.

Hoss and Adam share a look and Adam raises an eyebrow. Maybe they think I am becoming delirious as they fail to see the joke. I will explain it, but not today.

I yawn as my eyes begin to surrender to exhaustion.

“I think Joe needs some more rest,” says Pa as he walks back to my side. “It’s been a long night and I for one could do with some breakfast.”

Pa smiles down at me with love and relief. “I’ll come back and sit with you in a little while. You just get some sleep.”

I nod.

“Didn’t realize I was quite so hungry till you mentioned breakfast, Pa,” answers Hoss.

“See you in a little while, Joe,” he says as he gently ruffles my hair then follows Pa out of the room.

Adam squeezes my arm then moves towards the door.

“Adam!” I call, as I try in vain to suppress another yawn.

He returns to the bed. “Yes Joe?” he asks with concern, “Are you hurting? Do you need something?”

“No. I don’t need anything.” I say as I look up at him. “I just wanted to tell you I don’t think you’re a stupid pompous fool!”

He gazes down at me as my eyes grow heavy, then close, and I snuggle down into my bed, hiding a grin.

A confused look crosses his face. “You mean you heard me last night?” he asks, stunned.

“Oh yes brother, I heard everything,” I say, feeling a delicious wave of sleep about to creep over me. “While I was waiting!”

***The End***

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