Summary: This time it is Ben who suffers from guilt and who shoulders the blame and Joe who delivers the lecture that relives his father of his burdens.
Rated: G (15, 240 words)
Reversal of Roles
“Pa, what’s wrong?” questioned Adam.
Ben stopped jabbing at the fire that burned in the fireplace and put the poker back on the iron hook. Slowly he turned to his oldest son, Adam, who stood on the bottom step of the staircase.
Adam could see the weariness and worry that had etched themselves into the hardened lines of his father’s weathered face.
They had both been unable to sleep. Adam had awaken to a strange noise and crept out into the hallway, quietly making his way to the top of the staircase, where the noise could be heard below in the great room. As he had crept downward, he had spied his father standing before the open fire, staring into the flickering flames with a solemn look on his face.
Ben was partially dressed in his trousers and just his robe, which hung opened, baring the older man’s chest. His hair was mused from tossing and turning and once Ben had gotten out of bed, he had not bothered with combing down the wayward locks of silver.
Adam wore trousers and his black shirt had been hastily buttoned. He moved forward and sat down in the chair at the foot of the steps, waiting for his father to give him some sort of answer to his question. Ben had been brooding for days now and Adam knew that something was troubling his father so much so, that Ben had lost sleep.
“Well, what?” Ben said in a tone that bordered on the irritable side.
“What’s bothering you, Pa? And please, don’t try telling me that it’s nothing. I know you’ve lost sleep, you’re grouchy and…”
“I’m not grouchy…”
“Oh, you aren’t?”
“No, I’m…worried,” said Ben, his voice trailing off into a whisper.
Ben turned his back to Adam and stared again, into the fire. Adam watched for several long moments before rising and moving to his father’s side. When he placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder, his father turned to look into his son’s eyes. All Adam could seem to focus on was the well of tears that clouded the chocolate coloring. He could only wonder what had spurred his father to such deep emotion. Adam swallowed the fear that slowly rose from the back of his throat.
“Tell me what’s got you so upset, Pa, please; maybe I can help,” Adam said with deep empathy for the man standing before him. “Are you,” Adam hesitated, swallowing again to wash down the near panic he felt, “ill?”
“No…no, son, that’s not it. I’m fine…physically…”
“It’s…Joseph…he’s…” Ben paused, trying to collect his thoughts enough to be able to explain to his son what he was feeling.
“He’s not ill…is he?” stammered Adam, taken somewhat by surprise by the turn in the conversation. “Or is he in trouble, again?” Better trouble than ill, thought Adam.
Adam saw Ben inhale deeply. “Neither…it’s neither, Adam. I suppose it’s really me.”
“Pa, you aren’t making any sense, and frankly, you’re scaring me,” admitted Adam.
Ben’s mood lightened suddenly and he rushed on.
“I’m sorry, Adam, I don’t mean to frighten you. It’s just this dream I’ve been having, or rather this nightmare.”
“Dream…you’re having a reoccurring dream? About what?” Adam relaxed a bit.
“Why don’t you sit down, I’ll tell you about it. It has me worried…probably for no reason, but still, I can’t help but…wonder.”
Adam lowered himself into the chair and Ben moved to the wide table and sat down, facing Adam. He folded his hands together in his lap.
“Joe is in some kind of danger…or at least he is in my dream.” Ben looked deeply into Adam’s dark eyes. “I fear…for your brother’s life, Adam…I see him, hurt…dying…I hear him calling out to me, and I can’t get to him. Oh, I know it’s only a dream, but…I’ve had the same dream every night now for…nearly a week.”
“It’s so real, son…I can see the blood…I can feel his pain and suffering, yet I can’t do anything to help him. I wake up in a cold sweat, trembling and I’ve gotten up on more than one occasion to go into Joe’s room…just to assure myself that he’s fine…and he always is.”
Adam could see the swell of anxiety building in the brown eyes and when Ben stood up and turned away from him, Adam saw his father’s hand move to his face and knew that Ben was struggling to contain himself.
“I don’t want him going on this cattle drive, Adam. I want him to stay home…with me.”
Adam rose to his feet, understanding his father’s fear for their youngest family member.
“Pa, you can’t let your fears rule your thinking…I mean, this isn’t the first cattle drive Joe’s ever gone one and…”
“But it could be his last, Adam,” Ben said quickly.
“It could be my last one as well, or maybe Hoss’…anything could happen, to any one of use, or both…”
“Don’t patronize me, son!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean too, it’s just that, you’re letting your inner fears over rule your normal good judgment. But if you feel so strongly about it, tell Joe he can’t go…”
Ben almost laughed out right. “Oh sure, and then have to spend the next three, maybe four weeks listening to him complain?”
Adam made a face, raising his brows in gesture. “You can’t have it both ways, Pa.”
“I know that, but I can’t tell a nineteen year old that he can’t go on a cattle drive that he’s been going on half his life, just because his father had a dream and is afraid he might get hurt…he’ll think I’ve lost my mind!” ranted Ben.
Adam rose again and moved to stand behind his father. He felt sorry for the man, he knew just how much Ben Cartwright loved the boy, all his sons in fact, but he knew that Ben worried most about Little Joe and had for years, lived in a silent fear that something might happen to the boy. Adam knew that if that ever happened, his father’s world would be destroyed, he loved the boy that much, and more.
“Then explain how you feel to Joe, maybe he’ll volunteer to stay home…”
Ben spun around. His expression was void of his feelings, but his tone said it all.
“I can’t do that, and you know it.”
Adam sighed deeply, allowing his open hands to gently slap his outer thighs.
“Then, I don’t know how to help you, Pa…I could talk to Joe…maybe he’d listen to me.”
“Oh, Adam, please…you don’t really believe that, do you?” Ben couldn’t help but smile, he understood better than any of them, how it was between his oldest and his youngest sons. They were like fire and water…
“No, but thank you, son. I’ll just have to put my fears away and trust that God will watch over my little boy…”
“Little boy?” Adam made a smirking sound. “I wouldn’t let him hear you referring to him as such.”
Ben laughed lightly, feeling somewhat better after putting voice to his fears.
“He wouldn’t like it much, would he?”
“I’m afraid not…and Pa, all kidding aside, Joe’s not a little boy anymore, he’s a man, and he’s proved that time and time again, to all of us.”
Ben placed a loving arm about Adam’s shoulders and smiled, nodding his head in agreement.
“Yes he has…many times, but son, to me…Joe, as well as Hoss and yourself included, will always be my little boys.”
“I understand Pa…and it’s nice to know. But it’s almost morning, why don’t we try to get some sleep before the sun comes up?” suggested Adam.
“Alright Adam, lead the way,” smiled Ben, willing now to put the matter to rest…for now.
Joe hurried back to his room from his spot at the top of the stairs where he had been standing. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, only to see what was going on downstairs. He had been awakened by voices and had crept from his bed. Joe had only made it to the top of the stairs when he had heard his name mentioned and heard his father talking with Adam in low tones.
Joe was taken back by the knowledge that his father had been so worried about him. True, thought Joe, he wasn’t worried about getting hurt while on a cattle drive, being hurt in some way could happen to any man doing that type of work. His father knew that, but it was the sound of Ben’s voice, the worry Joe heard in each word as he described the dream to his brother. The quiver to his father’s chin, the solemn expression that Joe had seen when he sneaked a peek around the corner of the wall. Joe had seen Adam go to their father and lay a comforting hand on a shoulder that appeared to be trembling. Whatever the dream had been, it had no doubt terrified his father, and that alone sent fear purging throughout Joe’s veins.
Listening softly at his door until he heard the closing of two other doors further down the hall, Joe moved quietly to the window and pushed back the heavy drapes that kept out the night air, and peeked out. The sky was black and the stars looked like a trillion little lights burning dimly in the heavens. Joe could hear a whip-o-will calling out to his mate and in the far distance, the howling of a coyote called out to the moon in a lonesome sort of cry.
A long sigh escaped passed Joe’s lips. He ran his slender fingers through the unruly curls that crowned his head. His thoughts ran rampant. For sure, Ben was worried, and frightened, and that alone surprised Joe, for he had always thought of his father as a fearless man, afraid of no one or nothing but he was wrong in his thinking, Ben was afraid of a dream, a dream that concerned him.
“I wish I knew what to do, to help you, Pa,” Joe muttered into the darkness.
The drapes fell back into place and Joe returned to his bed. “Maybe I can think of something before morning…before we leave on this cattle drive you want so badly for me to miss.”
Joe lay with his arms folded across his chest, staring into the darkness over his head, where the ceiling was. Minutes later, he was sound asleep.
“HEY, JOE,” yelled Hoss from the doorway of his youngest brother’s bedroom. “TIME TO GET UP!”
“Oh…do you gotta shout?” groaned Joe, pulling the pillow over his head.
Hoss moved into the room, snickering to himself. Joe had never like mornings; all of Joe’s family was aware of the fact and not one liked having the dubious task of waking the youngest member from a deep sleep.
“Sorry, Shortshakes, I know how ya feel, I’d like to sleep in this morning as well but we got about 500 head of cattle out on the north range just aching to get movin’. So’s ya gotta get your scrawny butt outta that bed, now come on,” said Hoss as he jerked the covers off his brother.
“Dadburn you, Hoss, it’s freezing!” complained Joe, reaching for the blankets and trying to pull them back up.
“Aw, no ya don’t…come on, up ya go.” Hoss laughed and reached down, grabbing Joe by the arms and with little effort hauled the smaller man out of the bed. Hoss laughed at his brother’s reddened face when he sat Joe on the floor.
“Ya might try sleeping in something other’n ya skin, little brother, then ya wouldn’t complain ‘bout being cold in the mornin’s,” snickered Hoss.
Quickly, Hoss grabbed Joe’s trousers off the back of the chair and handed them to him.
“Put these on quick like and ya won’t be cold. I’m going downstairs and see what Hop Sing has for breakfast. You hurry up, and I might save ya a flapjack…maybe even two.”
“Gee thanks…” Joe moaned, but smiled when Hoss had gone.
Joe finished fastening up his pants and grabbed his shirt from the bedpost where he had tossed it the night before. Quickly he slipped it on, and snatched up his boots as he hurried from the room. Boots in one hand, his other hand pulling his shirt together, Joe was half way down the stairs before his stocking feet slipped out from under him and he tumbled to the next level.
“AW…” cried Joe, bringing his father and two brothers running from the table.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he rushed to Joe’s side.
Ben squatted down next to his son, whose body lay in a crumbled ball on the landing. Gently, Ben helped Joe into a sitting position. Joe rubbed his head and glanced weakly up at his father.
“Sorry, Pa,” he muttered.
“Joseph, how many times, son, have I warned you about running barefooted down these wooden steps, you could have broken your neck!” Ben scolded.
“Are you alright?” Adam asked as he moved the boots from the steps and offered his brother his hand.
Joe’s face wrinkled into a frown as he allowed his father and Adam to help him up.
“Oh…” sighed Joe.
“What’s wrong, son?”
“My ankle, I think I twisted it,” Joe explained.
“Can ya put ya weight on it?” Hoss wanted to know. “If’n ya can’t, I can carry ya to the settee.”
Joe tried to put his foot on the floor, but drew back as the weight of his body was applied to the foot. He gritted his teeth, glanced from one to the other and shook his head.
“I can’t,” he muttered.
“Let’s get you over to the settee and have a look at this foot. Hoss, tell Hop Sing to bring some warm water for Joe to soak his foot.”
“Yes sir,” Hoss called, already on his way to the kitchen.
“Hop Sing, hear,” the little Chinaman said as he scurried off to put some water on to heat.
Adam and Ben had managed to get Joe to the settee, where Ben had Joe’s foot propped on the wooden table. Adam carefully pulled Joe’s sock off the injured foot. For a long moment, Adam stared at the naked foot. He gently turned it from one side to the other, glancing at Joe in wonder.
“Does this hurt?” he questioned the boy.
“Ouch…yes,” Joe said, lowering his lashes.
Ben glanced at his oldest son, watching how Adam twisted the ankle from side to side. He glanced at Joe, just in time to see the boy flinch.
Ben put his hand over Adam’s preventing any further movement of Joe’s foot.
“Adam, not so rough, you’re hurting the boy,” cautioned Ben.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean too,” said Adam.
He fixed his dark eyes on his brother, but Joe refused to look up at him.
“Here warm water, Hop Sing add Epson salt, to help with swelling.”
Hop Sing sat the pan on the floor in front of Joe and Ben gently lowered Joe’s foot into the water.
“There, that should help.”
Joe glanced at his father and offered a smile. “Thanks, Pa.”
Joe chanced a glance up at Adam and saw his brother standing with folded arms, watching him. Their eyes seemed to lock together, as if one was silently questioning the other, though nothing was said. But Adam knew and he offered Joe the slightest of smiles before speaking.
“Guess you’ll not be going on this cattle drive, you sure won’t be any good to us now, not with that ankle like it is,” Adam said after a lengthy silence.
Ben’s head jerked upward and he stared in wonder at his older son. He then turned to look at Joe and saw the painful expression that the boy tried to hide.
“Your brother’s right, Joe, you can’t possibly go on this drive, why look at how fast that ankle is swelling. No, you’ll just have to stay home this time.”
“But, Pa!” Joe whined, looking into the pan and seeing for himself how the ankle was beginning to swell. He was a bit surprised.
“I can’t let a little thing like a swollen ankle keep me from doing my share of the work…”
“Joe, you heard what Pa said, you’re not going, so just settle down and…relax,” Adam said.
“Hoss, you about ready to leave, there’s cattle waiting for us?”
“Yep, I’m ready when you are, big brother.” Hoss turned to Little Joe and his father.
“Ya take it easy, Shortshanks, ya hear? And don’t go worrying Pa none, or I’ll pound ya good when I get back,” laughed Hoss.
Ben stood up from the kneeling position he was in and glanced at Hoss and Adam, and back at Joe.
“I’ll see your brothers out and then be right back.” Ben pointed his finger at his youngest, “keep that foot in that warm water, you hear?”
Joe gave his father a cheeky grin. “Yes sir…but…”
“No butts, young man, you’re staying home.” Ben stole a sideways glance at Adam and smiled.
Hoss was on his way out the door and Ben followed, leaving Adam behind, fastening his gun belt.
“I don’t know how you knew Joe, but…thanks,” Adam said from behind Joe.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe said in a low voice.
He was studying his foot. Adam moved back over to the settee and watched Joe, who happened to be avoiding looking at him.
“Just how did you know?” Adam hinted.
“Know what?” Joe said, casting a quick look up.
“I don’t have time for games, Joe, the men are waiting for me…tell me…how did you know?”
Joe smiled up at his brother. “I heard the two of you talking last night, I thought someone was downstairs and I started down to see what was going on. I heard my name mentioned and…well, I stopped to listen.”
Adam’s mouth formed a frown and he shook his head slightly from side to side.
“I didn’t mean too, honest Adam. I started to go back to bed, but then I saw the look on Pa’s face, I knew something was bad wrong, so…I…eavesdropped. You aren’t going to tell him, are you?”
Joe looked as if he were pouting.
“No…not this time, because I happen to think you did the right thing…for once,” laughed Adam.
Joe giggled. “Thanks, Adam.”
Adam turned to leave but hesitated briefly, smiling down at his brother. “No, Joe, thank you. Pa was really torn up about that nightmare he’s been having.”
“I figured that out last night. Maybe he’ll get some rest now and…”
The front door opened and Ben appeared. “Adam, you coming? The men are pulling out.”
“On my way,” Adam called heading toward the door. “Take care of yourself, Joe.”
Ben opened the door wide to allow Adam to exit. Adam paused for a moment and placed a hand on his father’s shoulder.
“You try to get some rest now, Pa. You somehow managed to get your wish,” Adam smiled.
Ben glanced back at Joe and then smiled again at Adam. “It was more a prayer than a wish, now get a move on, Joe and I will be fine.”
Ben looked up from where he sat at his desk, to see Joe walking down the stairs. Instantly, Ben was on his feet and by the time that Joe had reached the bottom of the stairs, Ben was waiting, looking anxious.
“Joseph, you shouldn’t be out of bed, not yet…”
“Aw…Pa, I’m fine honest,” smiled Joe. “And so is my ankle, look, I got my boot on.”
“Son…are you sure, I mean, really I don’t think you should be walking yet…”
Joe smiled and eased around his father.
“It’s better, really, and besides, I was lone…I thought you might be lonesome, so I figured I’d join you.”
Joe moved to Ben’s desk and sat down in the chair off to one side. “What are you working on? Anything I can help you with?”
Ben had been watching, with a smidgen of suspicion, the ease in which his son moved. His face expressed his confusion. With eyes dark, Ben approached the desk and sat down, casting his eyes in the boy’s direction.
“There’s something odd about your ankle, Joseph,” Ben said.
“Umm…my ankle?” Joe piped lowly.
“It seems to have made a rather quick recovery, it’s only been a couple of days. I wonder how it did that?” Ben said as realization hit him full force in the face.
He almost laughed outright. He had been bumfuzzled, by his youngest son. Ben could only wonder if Adam had anything to do with this, or if by chance, Joe had found out about his nightmare and had taken matters into his own hands.
“Would you like to explain it to me?” Ben said with mock sternness. He almost lost it when he saw Joe swallow and look down with a child-like expression on his face.
“Do I gotta?” Joe said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Yes, you ‘gotta’!”
Joe finally raised his head and looked into his father’s eyes. Ben’s voice had sounded as if he was angry, but the twinkle in his dark eyes, told Joe another story. The younger Cartwright felt himself relax a little.
“I over heard you and Adam talking…”
“What have I told you about eavesdropping, young man?”
“But Pa, I didn’t mean to listen, honest, I just came down stairs to see who was moving around and when I started down the steps, I heard you and Adam talking, so I started back to my room, but then I heard you mention my name…and I…well, I was curious,” Joe said meekly.
“And you listened?”
“Yes sir…and I’m not sorry.”
Joe jumped to his feet when he saw a spark of true anger flicker in his father’s eyes.
“I didn’t know you were so worried. Why didn’t you tell me how you felt? All you had to do was ask me to stay home…and I would have,” Joe stated firmly.
The anger melted away when Ben saw the look on his son’s handsome face and he smiled at the boy.
“You know as well as I do, Joseph, if I had asked you to stay home, you would have refused whole-heartedly…”
“No I wouldn’t…”
“Yes you would have. And if I had told you why I wanted you to stay home, you would have laughed, called me overly protected, declared me insane and then ranted and raved about how you are not a little boy, but a man and that you were perfectly capable of taking care of yourself. Then, when that didn’t work, you would have used the excuse that Hoss and Adam would be along to make sure that nothing happened to you and that I was just being foolish and then you would have accused me not being able to cut the apron strings and then…”
“Okay, Pa…I get the picture,” giggled Joe. “You know me pretty well, don’t you?” smiled Joe.
Ben returned the smile. “Like the back of my hand, young man.”
Joe and Ben both laughed and Ben surprised Joe by pulling him into a hug and holding him tightly.
“Thank you son, for what you’ve done,” Ben said softly.
“Pa…why didn’t you come to me about the dream? I had no idea that you were so…worried about me. I mean…I understand how dreams can work on your mind and mix up your thoughts and I guess I know better than anyone else, how frightening and real a nightmare can seem. I’ve had enough of them in my lifetime.”
Ben pinched his lips together and walked around the corner of the desk to sit down. He was silent for a moment, and then looked up into the expectant face of his youngest son. When he spoke, Ben’s voice was thick with sentiment.
“I suppose I didn’t want you to think I was being silly. After all, it was only a dream.”
Joe had to swallow his unexpected emotion, for the words struck a cord in his heart. He moved to his father’s side and squatted down, finding it hard to put voice to his words.
“Pa, I’d never think of you as being silly when you were only trying to protect me from being harmed. It only shows me, more, how much you…love me,” stammered Joe, his eyes filling with tears.
Ben sniffed away his own tears and smiled. “Thank you for that, Joe. I couldn’t bare it, if something awful happened to you, and I could do nothing to help you. I’d rather die a dozen times than to see one of my sons suffer needlessly because of me, because I was unable to help them.”
“I know you would…and you have no idea what that means to me,” Joe assured his father.
“Well, you mean a lot to me, son, don’t ever forget that. Now that we have settled this matter, what do you want to do? I suppose that you’d like to catch up to your brothers and join the drive, am I right?” Ben questioned.
Joe was thoughtful for a minute.
“Is that what you want me to do, Pa?”
Ben took his turn at being thoughtful.
“I asked you what you wanted to do,” he stated.
“Well,” began Joe, rising and walking to the front of the desk where he turned and faced his father. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d…like to stay here…with you. Maybe we could do some fishing, or we could track that big cat that’s been stalking the cattle over near Montpelier Gorge in the meadow.”
“That’s a good idea, are you sure your ankle is up to it?” Ben asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
Joe giggled. “I’m sure, it wasn’t hurt very badly anyway.”
“Tell me something, Joe.”
“The fall down the stairs, was it planned?”
“Believe it or not, it wasn’t planned, I had something else in mind,” snickered Joe.
“Then you really did trip?”
Joe laughed out right and nodded his head. “Yes sir, I guess I was just lucky enough that I really didn’t hurt my foot any worse than it was.”
“Looks as if both of us were lucky,” smiled Ben. “Now, about that hunting trip, when would you like to leave?”
“How about first light? That will give us enough time to get some things together. With Hop Sing gone on the drive, we’ll have to dig around some to find something to eat,” laughed Joe.
“Why don’t we camp here for the night, son? It looks like a pretty nice spot,” suggested Ben, pulling Buck to a halt.
“Anything you say, Pa. Those cat tracks lead straight up that draw, we can get an early start in the morning,” Joe agreed.
Ben looked at Joe, watching how gracefully the boy dismounted his horse and how Joe moved around, already beginning to set up their camp for the night.
“I’m glad we decided to come here,” Ben said, looking about at the breath taking sight that unfolded before his eyes. “It’s beautiful here, don’t you think, Joseph?”
Joe paused and glanced around, taking in the same scenery that his father’s eyes had just scanned. He placed himself next to his father, glancing at Ben’s expression.
“Yeah Pa, it is pretty,” he said in a low voice. “You…love this land, don’t you?”
Ben’s head jerked around surprised that his son had read his thoughts. He smiled, nodding.
“Yes, very much, but it isn’t my life,” smiled Ben.
“I know…you’ve told me that before.”
“Well I meant it.”
“Yes sir…I know you do,” Joe said, his tone full of emotion.
Ben let out a long satisfied sigh and looked off into the horizon again. After a moment, he moved to the horses and began unsaddling Buck.
“I’ll tend to the horses son, if you’ll gather some wood and get the fire started. I don’t know about you,” laughed Ben, “but I’m starved.”
Joe laughed as well and began gathering sticks.
“Now you sound like Hoss, he’s always hungry,” snickered Joe.
Ben paused, looking over his shoulder at Joe. He seemed lost in thought and when he laughed lightly, Joe turned around to see what was so funny.
“It must be the out of doors that spikes a man’s appetite,” concluded Ben.
“Yours maybe, and mine, but I think Hoss was just born hungry, and most likely will die hungry,” giggled Joe.
Their carefree mood continued long after the setting of the sun, after the stars began twinkling and far later into the night than what Ben had intended for it too. But he could not help himself, he was enjoying the private time he was sharing with his youngest son, for it was seldom that he got to spend time alone with one of his sons, on a one on one basis. He reflected back to his time alone with Adam, when he had pulled up stakes back in Boston and headed west, just he and his son. Times had been hard, but he cherished the times he and his oldest son had spent together. They shared a bond with one another, something that had never been severed. But time alone with Hoss or Joe was rare, they had a ranch to run and their days had always been filled with work of some sort, taking away from just a father and son experience, such as he was sharing now with Joe.
Ben watched as Joe snuggled down into his bedroll and made himself comfortable. He could only wonder where the years had gone. It seemed like just yesterday that the young man, whom he watched now, had been nothing more than a little boy, his shadow. Ben snickered softly, so proud of who and what that little boy had become.
“Night, Pa,” Joe called from the opposite side of the campfire.
“Good night, son, sleep well,” responded Ben.
Ben was surprised again the next morning when he woke to the smell of frying bacon and bubbly coffee. He pushed off the blanket that covered him and rose up on one elbow. Joe had his back to his father and had not noticed that Ben had gotten up, until his father’s shadow lay across him. Joe turned suddenly, almost knocking the pot of hot coffee into the fire.
“I’m sorry, son, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Ben said quickly, watching how Joe pulled his hand back from the fire in a swift movement. “Did you burn yourself?” Ben said, squatting down and taking Joe’s hand into his own and looking it over.
“Whew…that was close,” laughed Joe. “I thought for a moment, a bear had crept up on me.”
Ben still held Joe’s outstretched fingers. “We’d better put something on this burn. I’m sorry Joe, I should have made my presence known…”
“Aw…it’s nothing, don’t worry yourself. Here, hand me that plate, the bacon’s ready,” Joe said, pulling his hand free and turning back to the skillet.
“We gonna start tracking that cat this morning?” he asked as he heaped Ben’s plate full of bacon and eggs.
Ben poured the coffee and finding a flat rock, sat down to enjoy his breakfast. “Might as well, that’s what we came up here for,” he smiled.
“Sure hope we find him, I’d love to nail his hide to the barn door and then watch the expressions on Adam and Hoss’ faces when they get back.”
Ben laughed at his son’s enthusiasm. “Joseph, what on earth am I going to do with you?” teased Ben.
They had ridden for half a day and then pulled their mounts to a halt, leaving the horses in a small clearing below Montpelier Gorge. Together, Ben and Joe climbed the steep incline, up the side of the mountain. By the time they reached the top, both were huffing and puffing as they sat down to catch their breath.
“Whew…I’m getting too old for this!” Ben said in between gasps.
“I’m not old, like you, and it’s…hmm…sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” Joe said meekly.
He turned to glance at his father, expecting to see a scowl on his face, but in stead, Ben was smiling. When Ben saw the look on his son’s face, he started laughing, which in turn, caused Joe to giggle.
“Come on, young man, help your ‘ole pappy’ get up,” teased Ben, stretching his hand out to Joe who, by now, was on his feet.
Joe grasped the proffered hand and hoisted Ben to his feet. The warmth of his father’s hand in his sent reminiscent thoughts flashing before his eyes. For a long moment, Joe held the hand, letting his memories race through his mind, touching his heart.
“Is something wrong?” Ben asked after a time.
Startled from the past, back to the future, Joe felt his cheeks redden as he let go of his father’s hand. He half snickered, making a strange sound in the back of his throat.
“No…” he stammered.
Joe turned to pick up his rifle and started leading the way across the plateau that they had finally reached. They walked along the rim, able to look down into the ravine from which they had climbed. Down below, they spotted the horses where they had been left, munching on the tender grass in the little clearing.
A high, shrill, ear-piercing scream shattered the serene setting. Birds scattered from their perches in the trees and it seemed as if time stood still. Joe jerked his head around, looking back at his father. Ben was eyeing their surroundings, searching for the cat that had announced his presence.
“Shh…be still son, that big cat’s got to be close,” whispered Ben, hunkering down.
Joe squatted down beside his father. “He’s probably watching us right now,” Joe said, facing the opposite direction. His eyes scanned the nearby rocks and trees; he saw only one thing…
“Pa, look!” Joe said, rising slightly. “The horses, they’ve taken off.”
Ben suppressed a groan, pinching his lips tightly and shaking his head. Buck and Cochise were headed back toward the house, more than a day’s ride where Ben and Joe stood watching.
“That’s not good, now we’ll have to walk out of here,” Ben said in a low voice. “Come on, lets move along this ridge. Be sure to keep a sharp eye, Joe, that cat’s big and he’s dangerous,” cautioned Ben.
“I’ll lead, Pa, and you cover our backs. We can make our way around these boulders and start working our way back down on the other side.”
Father and son crept along the ledge, keeping a sharp eye out for the cat that seemed to have vanished into thin air. The air was still and all around them it had grown deathly silent. Only the sounds of the tiny pebbles rolling down the side of the rocks, gave any clue that there was anything moving about.
Joe stopped and leaned down, looking closely at the ground. He glanced over his shoulder at his father and motioned for Ben to come closer.
“Look,” Joe whispered, pointing to the large tracks in the ground. “Just ahead,” he said in a lower voice.
Joe crept slowly, keeping low, glancing upward to the rocks that were now over their heads and into the trees that were suspended outward from the formations. He watched every step he took and then turned to put a finger to his lips, ordering complete silence. One more step and Joe pointed ahead of him, turning to check that Ben was still behind him.
It was an error in timing. From its perch hideout, atop a huge boulder, high over their heads, the mighty cat sprung. Joe heard Ben scream his name, heard the shot that came from his father’s gun and the single bullet that discharged from his own rifle when he fell.
The startled young hunter had become the hunted. Joe felt the weight of the cat as it landed on his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs and sending himself and the puma falling backwards down the steep hillside. For what seemed a lifetime, Joe and the cat, locked together, rolled over and over. The stones cut deeply into Joe’s back as the hunter and his victim plummeted downward. Joe felt the animal’s foul breath blowing in his face, the stinging of his flesh where the puma’s claws dug deeply and Joe heard his voice screaming out in pain for his father to shoot.
Another shot, and all was silent. Joe lay, paralyzed with fear and pain, unable to move, afraid to breathe, relieved to be alive. A warm sensation filled him as he tried to gather his senses and raise his head, searching for his father. A stab of pain jolted him from his delirium and back into reality. It was unbearable, the surge of agony that pumped through his veins, attacking every limb, every muscle, every part of his body.
Joe screamed, his world spun, his life’s blood drained slowly from his body, and as the tender hands he knew so well, gathered him into a warm embrace, his body shuddered and Joe lapsed into a darkened world where his pain and fear had found temporary refuge.
“JOE!” screamed Ben, taking the limp body into his arms and holding his son’s head against his chest, near his rapidly pounding heart.
“Joe…I’m so sorry!” wailed Ben.
Ben had slid, mostly on his backside, more than halfway down the embankment. His clothes were covered in dirt, his shirt was torn but Ben gave no mind to trivial things, he was set on reaching his injured son.
Ben took several deep breaths to calm himself, before being able to lay Joe flat and examine his wounds. He cringed when he saw the cuts make by the sharp claws and forced himself not to scream out when he saw the bullet wound in the back of Joe’s left shoulder.
“Dear God,” wailed the distraught father, “what have I done to you?”
Ben looked all around him, shaking with fear. The cat was dead, thank God, shot in the heart. But Joe, the boy lingered between life and dead and from where they were located, without horses or means to transport his son, Ben feared the worst.
Quickly Ben ripped apart his torn shirt and placed the scrap over the bullet wound in an attempt to squelch the bleeding. Closer examination showed that the wound, though deep, had scraped across the top of Joe’s shoulder. The bullet had not entered, but rather ripped a path through his son’s flesh. Ben whispered a prayer of thanks and then, removing his jacket wrapped it around Joe’s body.
Ben stood to his feet, glancing upward and then down to the bottom of the hillside. Either way, it would be rough going, nearly impossible to lower Joe from the steep rocks and ledges that stood in their way. It would take every ounce of true grit he had in him just to get his son to a doctor in time to save Joe’s life. Fear surged through Ben’s veins; his nightmare had become actuality.
The loose ground soaked up the blood. Ben’s eyes clouded with unshed tears as he wracked his brain for a way to get Joe the help he so desperately needed.
“So much blood,” he muttered.
With fingers that tremble, Ben tore the sleeves of Joe’s shirt, gasping at the deep gouges that the mountain lion’s claws had left in his son’s flesh. Ripping more of the shirt, Ben tied the strips around the cuts as best he could.
“Joe?” Ben cooed. “Can you hear me, son?”
Joe began to move his head. His eyelids flickered and then slowly opened.
“Joe?” Ben said, forcing the worried expression from his face. The last thing his son needed now was to see his father so fearful and worried.
“Pa?” Joe said weakly. “The cat?”
Ben could hear the apprehension in his son’s voice, and could see the pain in the hazel eyes that searched his face.
“The cat’s dead, Joe, he’s not going to hurt you anymore…Oh, Joseph,” Ben said, his voice cracking. “I’m so sorry, son…”
“I should have been the one…I should have…”
“Pa…please…don’t,” Joe said with a sob. “Oh…hurts, Pa…hurts bad,” Joe moaned.
“I have to find some way to get you out of here…”
“Yes, and so is all our gear…Joe,” Ben said, leaning low, “there’s no water either, no blankets…God…”
Ben was beside himself with worry and frustration, self-imposed guilt, and horror for what he deemed his fault. The fearful father gulped for air, willing himself to regain a calm pretense, for his son’s sake.
“Joe,” Ben said softly, “I’m going to move you to a safe place, and then see if I can find you some water…do you understand, Joe? I have to go for help.”
Joe’s eyes had closed tightly against the pain but he nodded his head slightly.
“It’s going to hurt a little,” Ben cautioned as he gently began lifting Joe into his arms.
Joe clinched his teeth as a wave of pain washed over him. Ben looked around, locating a deep overhang, just yards from where he stood with Joe in his arms. The large protruding boulders would shield Joe from the hot sun and provide some protection from the cold, should he be unable to return before night cast its shadows upon the world. Carefully so as not to trip or drop the wounded boy, Ben carried Joe to the spot he had selected and lowered his son onto the ground.
“I’ll not be long, son,” Ben said, replacing his jacket about Joe and making the boy as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. “Joe? Joe?”
Ben sighed, Joe had passed out again. Worried that danger still lurked about them, Ben moved several large branches that had long since given way to the elements, and used them as a barrier to protect his son from the same. Joe could hardly be seen, lying on the ground behind the curtain of debris Ben had built, but still Ben worried. There were wild animals that lurked, the smell of blood was fresh on the air and Ben knew that it was only a matter of time before the scent was picked up. The cat, Ben pulled off to one side of the rocks and pushed the carcass over the side. He watched the cat fall and waited until he heard the loud thud, telling him the dead animal had reached the bottom of the steepest incline.
“Joe,” Ben said again, “I’ve loaded your rifle and here’s your gun, son…I’ll be back just as soon as I can. Joe…can you hear me, son…I promise, I’ll be back…I’ll be back, Joe.”
Though Joe was unaware that his father had done so, Ben placed the guns within Joe’s reach and stood to his feet. With one hand, he wiped away the moisture that had collected on his brow and then began the dubious job of climbing down the side of the rocks, to the clearing where the horses had been before running off.
His mind was filled with ‘what ifs’, and Ben had a hard time concentrating on the job before him. Once down the incline, he rushed to the small clearing in hopes that he’d find something in which to help his son. The disappointment showed on his face, for Ben stood as in a daze, defeat written across every line that had formed in the scowl he made.
“Oh Joseph, how could I have been so foolish?” the distraught father muttered. “Letting myself be ruled by my fear of nothing more than a mere dream. If I had only let you go on that cattle drive, none of this would have happened to you,” he groaned aloud.
Ben glanced around, picking the route he would take. The ground was fairly level where he stood, but he knew that ahead lay more treacherous ground and that walking would be hard, running for help impossible. They were miles from home, having already spent one night on the trail and Ben feared that his son would succumb to his injuries before help could be reached. What he needed was a miracle.
Several times, Ben tripped, nearly falling. The times he did fall, he quickly managed to get back on his feet and continue running. The sun was still high in the sky and the temperature was slowly rising. It seemed to the weary man that he had run for miles, tripped dozens of times and glanced at the sun more times than could remember or cared to count. Without water, his throat had become dry and several times, Ben had to stop to rest, wishing for something to quench his thirst.
After what seemed like an eternity, Ben reached the bluff. He wished for his horse, for the trek across had been much easier on horseback and immediately, Ben longed for a more simple route to take, than the one that imposed itself on him now.
“Dear God,” Ben beseeched, “give me strength,” he prayed aloud.
Ben allowed himself only minutes to rest and then began the climb. His fingers dug into the loose gravel; slipping and sliding down on his stomach Ben set his determination in his heart and soul. Without brushing off the dirt and grime, he pushed onward and upward, crawling most of the way. He used his hands to dig into the soft earth, the stones dug into his fingers and gouged at the palms of his hands. Tiny droplets of blood seeped from the cuts and dripped, blending in with the dark soil and leaving no trace of his presence.
Nearly to the top, Ben paused to catch his breath. He cast a downward glance to see how far he had come and then began climbing the last short distance to the crest. This time he stumbled and fell forward, groaning loudly as he hit the hard ground. His body began sliding and Ben struggled to grasp a handhold. There was nothing for his fingers to latch onto; the gravels were rolling along with him, the larger stones were impossible to reach. Ben began rolling over and over, his head hit something hard and by the time that his battered body had reached the bottom of the incline, Ben had slipped into the furthermost corner of oblivion.
The time clicked slowly by. The sun had reached its peek and once there, began the slow descent into the western horizon. Ben lay silent and stilled by his tumble down the side of the steep grade. Birds squawked overhead as they sought the highest of limbs for their nightly perch. And far away, beneath the ledge of a rock, hidden by the barrier his father had fashioned, Joe Cartwright’s life slipped further and further away from the place where he longed to be.
“Pa?” murmured the weaken boy. “Please…hurry,” he whined, slipping again into a remote section of repose.
“Looky there!” the old man called to the younger man sitting next to him in the rickety old wagon.
The horses had stopped and each man sat atop the wooden seat and stared at the prone figure of a man, lying motionless along side their wagon.
“Reckon he’s dead?” the other fellow wondered out loud.
“Ain’t but one way to tell,” the old man said as he labored at getting down from the seat and slowly made his way over to the lifeless form.
The old man stood over Ben’s body and gently nudged Ben’s shoulder with the toe of his boot. Ben gave no response to the man’s effort.
“Is he dead?” the younger of the two questioned.
Slowly the second man climbed down from the wagon and worked his way around the back, stopping long enough to pull a canteen from the bed.
“Nope, but he’s mighty banged up.”
The whiskered old man had squatted down and was holding Ben’s head gently against him in an upright position.
“Hand me that water, Henry,” he ordered, taking the canteen from the outstretched hand.
Henry squatted down as well and looked up toward the top of the rim. “Reckon he fell down that hill, Pa?”
Clyde looked back across his shoulder and nodded his head. “I’d say so from the looks of’em.”
Clyde pulled the cork from the canteen and offered the canteen to Ben’s lips. As he tilted the water receptacle up, the cool water began pouring out against the parched mouth that sought greedily for the moisture.
“He’s coming around,” Clyde said.
“Water…more,” mumbled Ben as his hands reached out to grasp the canteen and tip it upward.
“Easy mister,” Clyde cautioned, pulling the canteen away from Ben’s mouth. “Not so fast, it’ll make ya sick.”
Ben’s eyes focused on the old man’s face and he tried nodding his head.
“I have to get help,” Ben said, forcing the words from the back of his seared throat.
“Ya got help now, sonny,” Clyde said, poking the cork back into the opening. “Ya gonna be alright, once we get ya back to our place and ya rest up a bit.”
Ben grabbed for the man’s shirt; desperation shown in his dark eyes as he tried to make the man understand that the help he needed was not for himself, but for his injured and perhaps dying son.
“No…” Ben cried, trying to make his words heard, “my…my…”
“Now, now,” soothed Clyde as he motioned for his son, Henry, to help him load Ben into the back of the wagon. “Ya throat’s so parched, ya can’t even talk, ‘sides, ya ain’t makin’ much sense no how.”
“He’s passed out again, Pa,” Henry said as Ben was lowered into the wagon. “Wonder who he be?”
“Ain’t got no idey, boy. But he’s in a bad way. We best get him home, ya Ma will know what to do for’em.”
Clyde and Henry climbed back into the wagon. “Gittyup horse,” he called as he slapped the reins down on the backsides of the horses.
Ma laid aside her apron and wiped off her hands when she heard the shouts out front. She rushed out onto the porch and watched as her husband and son jumped down from the wagon. She was amazed at the unaccustomed spring to her husband’s bounce as she saw him hurry to the back of the wagon.
“Turn down the bed, Mother,” Clyde called. “We’ve found us an injured man.”
“Oh my,” clamored Ma as she hurried back into the house and into the bedroom that was separated from the main room by a quilt hanging from a rope strung across the room.
“In here,” she called as Clyde and Henry carried the stranger into the house and carefully placed Ben on the narrow cot that served as Henry’s bed.
“What happened to’em?”
“Don’t rightly know, Mother. We found him lying at the foot of Montpelier Gorge, I reckon the poor old fella must’ve fallen off one of them rocky slopes,” Clyde explained.
“Ain’t he got no horse?” she asked, astonished that someone could be so foolish as to believe they could cross that rocky slope on foot, alone no less.
“Didn’t see no horse,” Henry told his mother.
“Can ya do somethin’ for’em?” Clyde asked.
“I can try,” Mother said, already at work ripping the remains of Ben’s shirt from his battered body.
Once the woman had Ben cleaned up and his scrapes and cuts bandaged, she covered him with a warm blanket and left him alone.
“He’s out cold,” she explained to her men folk. “Ya best be gettin’ to ya chores, I’ll call ya when he wakes up,” she promised.
Henry followed his father outside. “Ya tend to the stock, son, I’m gonna see if’n I can find out who this man be,” Clyde ordered gently as he returned to the house.
Mother turned at the sound of the opening door and while she finished preparing the evening meal, she watched as her husband began going through the stranger’s things.
“What’cha doin’, Clyde?” she asked, dusting off her hands and coming to stand behind her husband.
Clyde had pulled Ben’s billfold from his vest pocket and was rummaging through it.
“I’m tryin’ to find out who this fella is. Might be someone important,” he explained.
Clyde pulled out some bills, counted the money, glanced at his wife and then, with a deep sigh, slid the money back into Ben’s billfold.
“That sure is a lot of money,” Mother whispered.
“Sure is, but we ain’t so broke that I’d steal it,” Clyde answered.
He looked deeper into the leather and found a folded paper. Unfolding it, he scanned it.
“Its some kind of note, signed by a Mr. Ben Cartwright…reckon that’s him,” Clyde informed his wife with a nod in Ben’s direction.
“Did it say where he’s from?” Mother asked.
“Nope, but I’ve heard of Ben Cartwright. He owns the biggest spread around these parts,” Clyde explained. “He’s our neighbor to the west of us, Mother.”
Clyde put the paper back where he found it and returned Ben’s wallet to its proper place. He walked to the door, stopping and turning back to his wife.
“I wonder, Clara, what a man like that is doing wonderin’ around these here parts with no horse, no water, nothin’ but the clothes on his back? Don’t seem natural, somehow.”
The darkness proclaimed the night as the evening light drew dimmer and descended upon the mountainside where Joe lay hidden. His body quivered with the dampness that chilled his bones. His eyes opened slowly, his vision blinded by the blackness that surrounded him. For several minutes he lay, motionless, trying to collect his senses. Pain ravished his body and with each movement, piteous whimpers slipped passed his lips and echoed in the hollowed out rocks where his father had hidden him.
“Pa?” cried Joe, moving his hand slowly across his chest and down to his side.
He could feel the sticky substance that had begun to dry and knew it to be his blood. Panic filled his confused mind, bewildering thoughts raced though his head as Joe moved again.
This time his fingers touched the rifle and tightened around the stock.
“Pa! Where…are…you?” Joe whined.
In an attempt to understand where he was and why he was alone, Joe raised his head. He was forced to shut his eyes against the pain enough that he rose up more, almost to a sitting position. Fingers grasped the rifle and Joe used the weapon to push himself further into a sitting position.
“AW…” he screamed aloud as a surge of agony washed over him. “Pa…why’d ya leave me?” he sobbed, sinking down again onto the cold, hard ground.
Hazel eyes clouded with tears, and blessed nothingness took Joe back to no-man’s land, free again from his affliction.
It was morning by the time that Ben began to stir. His head ached and it seemed as if every muscle in his body was ablaze with pain. When he lifted his head and looked around, he was surprised to find himself in a warm cozy cabin and more so when he spied the woman and the man sitting together at the table in the center of the room.
Cautiously, Ben pushed himself upright. His hand went to his head, in an attempt to still the constant pounding in his temples.
“Good morning,” Clara greeted her guest.
Ben swung his legs over the side of the cot and placed his feet on the floor. It was then that he realized that he had on no trousers. Using the blanket to cover himself, Ben greeted the man and woman.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Name’s Clyde Logan,” Clyde said, rising and crossing the room to shake Ben’s hand. “This here is my wife, Clara. You Ben Cartwright?”
Ben had risen to his feet and shook hands with Clyde. He seemed surprised that the stranger knew his name.
“That’s right, but how…”
“When we found ya, we looked through ya things,” Clyde explained.
Ben looked around for his clothes.
“Don’t ya worry none, I didn’t steal ya money,” Clyde said, giving Ben a sharp look.
“Oh…I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking you had, honest.”
“Here ya go, Mr. Cartwright,” Clara said.
She had picked up Ben’s trousers and handed them to him, turning away so that Ben might have a bit of privacy in slipping into them.
“Tell me something, Mr. Cartwright, what in blazes was ya doin’ runnin’ ‘round out in the middle of nowhere, all alone, without a horse or water?”
Clyde motioned for Ben to join him at the table and while they sat down, Clara began fixing Ben a plate.
Ben looked confused and gave both Clyde and Clara a confused look.
“I’m not sure,” he stammered. “I…I…can’t seem to remember,” he said, feeling a bit frightened that he could not account for his actions.
“Well, never mind…it’ll come to ya, after ya more rested,” Clyde said, trying to comfort the confused stranger.
Ben poked at his food. Something deep down inside of him, gnawed at his subconscious, but he couldn’t put a finger on what it might be. He tried to think back to the day before, trying to recall what it was he was doing when he had fallen and was injured, but nothing came to mind.
“Ya best eat, Mr. Cartwright, ya food’s gettin’ cold,” Clara stated.
Ben glanced over at the woman with an apologetic look on his face.
“Yes…I’m sorry,” he said, taking a bite. For moment longer, Ben played with his food, pushing the eggs around in a circle. “I’m not really hungry,” he stated after a short period of time. He pushed back his plate and stood up.
“I thank you for your help, and for the breakfast, but I must be going,” Ben said as he stepped the short distance across the room and began gathering his things.
“Where ya be heading?” Clyde questioned.
“Home, I suppose…say, would happen to have a horse I could borrow…I’ll pay you for it?” Ben asked.
“Sure, we got a saddle horse, but…”
The door opened at that moment and Henry entered the room, dusting himself off. Ben turned to stare at the young man. His expression was blank as he watched Henry’s movements.
“Mr. Cartwright, this is my son, Henry. Say hello to the gentleman, boy,” ordered Clyde, pointing in Ben’s direction.
“Howdy Mr. Cartwright. Glad to see ya up and around. Ya sure took a tumble,” Henry said cordially.
“Did you say, son?” Ben asked.
“Yes…why, is something wrong?” Clyde said, stepping forward.
The expression on Ben’s face changed suddenly and he jerked his head upward. His eyes rounded and a dark flash of fear flickered in their depths.
“Mr. Cartwright,” Clyde said, placing a hand on Ben’s arm.
He could feel the tremors that caused Ben’s body to shake.
“My son…Joseph, he’s been hurt!” Ben declared.
“What? Ya ain’t makin’ sense again…”
Ben looked frantic. He grasped Clyde’s arm and pulled him near.
“Yesterday, early, my son and I were tracking a puma. The cat attacked Joe, injuring him. I had to leave him and go for help!” Ben practically shouted.
“Ya sayin’, ya left your boy up there on that mountain, all alone, hurt?” stammered Clara.
“I had to, there was no way to get him down. I need help…please,” Ben said as he headed for the door. “We need a wagon, medical supplies, water, blankets…please…won’t you help me? Joe was in a bad way,” Ben said running out the door.
Clyde and Henry followed, watching Ben in his frantic maneuvers.
“He might even be…dead…by now!” Ben yelled.
“Alright, Mr. Cartwright, we’ll help ya. Henry, hitch up the wagon, Clara, get the medical supplies and blankets, and pack some food. Come on Mr. Cartwright, let’s you and I saddle the ridin’ horse, you take him and me and my boy will follow you in the wagon.”
Ben let the wind expel from his lungs as he grabbed Clyde by both shoulders.
“Thank you…and God bless you!”
Joe woke from his stupor with every portion of his body in pain. His brow was coated in sweat and though he was hot, he shivered with the fever that had over night consumed his body. Painfully, Joe pushed aside a portion of the barrier that his father had created to protect him and crawled from the protection of the rock overhang.
The morning air was cool and crisp and for a period, Joe felt some relief from the heat his body produced. When he was able, Joe tried to sit up and take in his surroundings. Confusion was a constant companion and did nothing to help the ailing young man.
Joe managed to get to his feet, with the help of the rifle as a crutch. He scanned the area, not sure where he was or why he was hurting in such a manner. Nor did he have a clue as to where his father had gone. The only two things he was sure about was his ravishing thirst for water and that he was very much alone in a world he did not understand.
“Pa!” he called out in a strained voice. “Where are you?” he said, staggering as he tried to move along the rocks.
Joe leaned heavily on his would-be crutch, staggering with each step he made and clenching his jaw tight against the pain that threatened to overwhelm him.
“Pa…” Joe cried, gasping for breath.
“He’ll come…back…he’ll come back…” Joe repeated several times before stumbling and falling.
With the fall, came a shrill cry of distress as Joe began rolling down the embankment. His body came to an abrupt halt after smashing into the trunk of a large tree. Eyes misted with burning tears as Joe’s feverish body lay wrapped about the tree in an excruciating fashion.
Blood that had stopped seeping began to seep again from the injuries acquired the day before. Only for a fraction of a second did the wounded man feel the warmth of the blood as it oozed from the cuts and gashes.
“Hurts…” whimpered Joe, closing his eyes. “Please God…don’t let…me die…like this,”
Joe mumbled, “not…alone…not without…Pa.” His voice was silenced when another wave of pain took him back into his reclusive place of tranquility.
Ben was still a little shaky after riding for so long, but he urged the others onward. His heart was set on saving his son and as he rode along he continued to pray that Joe had survived the night. Fear’s fingers wrapped around his heart, but Ben determined to will it away. He had let fear rule him once, he vowed now that it would never happen again.
“Hang on, Joe,” he whispered into the breeze. “Hurry,” he called over his shoulder to Clyde and Henry who were riding in the wagon. “It’s not much further,” Ben shouted.
They reached the spot where Clyde and Henry had found Ben and stopped there for a while to rest the horses. Ben was anxiously looking up at the sun and after only a brief spell, he urged the others to continue.
“We have to hurry,” he said as he swung into the saddle.
Ben didn’t wait for Clyde to help Clara into the wagon. In stead he kicked at the old horse’s sides, wishing that he were riding Buck rather than the old plug he was forced to ride.
By the time that Ben had reached the little clearing where he and Joe had left their horses, the old horse he was riding, stood huffing and puffing to regain his breath. Ben swung down from the saddle, ignoring the discomfort in his muscles and rushed toward the steep incline.
“He’s up here!” shouted Ben, already beginning to climb up to where he had left Joe.
Ben scurried up the sharp incline, leaving Henry and Clyde to make their own way. He cared little for the small insignificant scrapes and bruises that marred his flesh, only that he reach his son before death had a chance to snatch from him, what he loved most.
“JOE!” he called as he topped the summit and ran to the rocks where he had lain his son.
Ben stopped suddenly, seeing that the barrier had been moved and now lay scattered about. His heart leapt into his throat and Ben felt his stomach begin to churn with fear.
“Joseph,” Ben sobbed as he grabbed the remaining brush and began tossing it to the side. “Dear God…son…where are you!” Ben said, his voice beginning to rise in volume.
Ben grabbed the pistol he found lying where he had placed it and picked it up. He twirled around, looking all about. On the ground he found tiny droplets of blood that had dried and turned brown from the heat of the sun. Slowly, Ben began to follow the trail, leading away from the site where Joe had been safe.
Clyde and Henry reached the top just as Ben neared the opposite edge of the incline. Clyde sat the items that he carried down, and hurried over to Ben’s side. The look on Ben’s face frightened Clyde and he glanced back at his son, motioning for him to come over.
“What’s wrong, Ben…where’s the boy?” Clyde said, afraid for this stranger who looked as if he had just lost his best friend.
“I don’t know,” Ben whispered. “He was over there.” Ben pointed to Joe’s hideaway. “But he must have been able to get up…and now he’s wondered off…and he’s bleeding. I followed the blood splatters this far…” he muttered. Ben’s voice trailed off into a whisper.
Clyde searched the area below them with care. After a moment, he grabbed Ben by the arm, and pointed down the slope.
“Looky there, Ben…!” he said excitedly. “Next to that big pine, ya can barely make out a body…”
“JOSEPH!” screamed Ben as he started down the far side of the rocks. “Henry, make a stretcher, Clyde, come with me,” he called over his shoulder. “Bring the canteen!”
Once more, Ben began a downhill climb, adding to his many scrapes and bruises in his quest to save his son. As he reached the tree where Joe’s body lay wrapped about the trunk, he slowed his pace giving himself a moment to catch his breath and steady his nerves.
“Oh, Joseph,” Ben said, bending over the once energetic young man who had always brought such joy and love to his father’s heart. Tenderly, Ben ran his hands over the crumbled body that now seemed so lifeless that the sight of the battered face turned his stomach.
“Joe,” the anguished father pleaded with the unconscious boy. “Pa’s here now, son. I’m going to take you out of this place…”
Clyde had come upon Ben and stood over the father and son, offering Ben the canteen.
“Thank you, Clyde,” Ben said, gently laying Joe down and taking the canteen.
He pulled his neckerchief from around his neck and dampened it with the cool water. With hands that trembled, Ben washed part of the collected grim from Joe’s face. Joe began to move his lips, his words were garbled and Ben could not understand what Joe was trying to say.
“He’s wakin’ up, Mr. Cartwright,” Clyde said, squatting down next to Ben. “He’s hurt bad, sir, we best get him out of here for it gets dark and we have’ta stay.”
“Yes, you’re right. Hand me those blankets and we’ll wrap him up. He’s begun to shiver,” Ben instructed. “As soon as Henry gets the stretcher ready, we’ll move him.”
While they waited for Henry to bring the stretcher, Ben cleaned the wound to Joe’s shoulder and the deep cuts on both arms. Joe’s eyes opened briefly and when he spied his father bending over him, he forced a smile.
“I’m here son,” soothed Ben. “You rest, I’ll have you out of here in no time.”
Ben could see the pain etched into every line across Joe’s brow and his heart bled with sympathy for his son’s suffering. Guilt gnawed away at his insides as he watched Joe brave the waves of pain that rippled through his body.
“I…knew…you’d come…back,” Joe managed to whisper.
“I said I would, nothing would have stopped me, Joe…nothing short of my own death,” muttered Ben, clinging to Joe’s hand as if his very life depended on the way that father and son clung to one another.
Joe’s eyes closed. “I…know,” he murmured.
It took nearly an hour for the three men to get Joe back up the incline carrying the stretcher and fighting the rolling stones and pebbles that made the climb so treacherous. Going down the opposite side to the wagon, where Clara waited with the medical supplies and bandages, took almost as long. Finally at the bottom of the steep slope, Joe was loaded into the back of the wagon so that Clara and Ben could tend to the wounds in a more proper manner.
“Henry, ya take the ridin’ horse and ride into Carson City and fetch back the doctor. Ya ma and Mr. Cartwright and me, we’ll take the boy back to the house. Meet us there and don’t dilly dally around, this here boy needs lookin’ after, ya hear?” Clyde ordered.
“Yes sir…I mean no sir, I won’t dally ‘round, honest Pa.” Henry was mounted up and riding off toward town before either Clyde or Ben could comment.
“I think we’re ready now,” Ben stated. “I’ll ride back here with my son.”
“Alrighty, Mr. Cartwright.” Clyde helped Clara into the seat next to him and then slapped the reins down on the horse’s broad rump. “Giddyup horse.”
It seemed to Ben that Clyde managed to hit every rut and hole in the long road back to his place. Joe moaned and cried out each time the wagon took a dip and then straightened up onto smoother ground. Ben whispered words of comfort to his son, knowing that Joe, in his state of oblivion, could not possibly hear him. But Ben had the need to speak the words. As the concerned father wrestled with his guilt and the anguished expressions on his son’s face, the wagon moved forward, mile after mile.
The doctor was standing with Henry on the front porch when Clyde drove the wagon into the yard. The old gentleman helped his wife down from her perch on the wagon seat while the doctor approached Ben at the rear of the wagon.
“He’s hurt badly, doctor,” Ben explained as he kneeled over Joe’s silent form.
The doctor, a young man, not much older than Adam climbed into the back with Ben and kneeled down on the opposite side of Joe. Carefully, he pulled back the blanket that covered Joe. Ben heard the man gasp.
“How did this happen?” he questioned the worried father.
Immediately, the physician checked Joe’s pulse and felt for fever. “He’s burning up,” he said before Ben had a chance to answer his question.
Quickly he ran his gentle hands down both sides of Joe’s ribcage, his eyes closed as he allowed his fingers to make a silent diagnosis of his patient.
“Help me get him into the house,” he instructed Ben as he replaced the blanket. “Be careful, he has some cracked or broken ribs.”
“Mrs. Logan, please, if you wouldn’t mind fixing the boy a bed?” the doctor requested. “Clyde, you and Henry help…I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?” he said, turning to Ben.
“Cartwright, Ben Cartwright,” Ben said, shaking hands with the physician.
“Reece, James Reece,” the doctor said, introducing himself. He turned his attention back to the others. “Clyde, you and Henry come over here and help us get Mr. Cartwright’s son into the house, please.”
It was only a matter of minutes before the four men had Joe resting on the same cot that Ben had occupied when Clyde and Henry had found him and brought him home to tend his injuries. The doctor quickly instructed Clara on the things he needed and what he required of her in the way of being his nurse. The others, he politely ordered out of the house.
“I’ll call for you Mr. Cartwright, as soon as I’ve finished tending to your son’s wounds. Try not to worry, from what I’ve already seen, the worst thing we need fear at this point is the fever. The cuts on his arms are not infected as yet and don’t seem to be as serious as I had first anticipated them to be. The gunshot wound is deep, but not serious, looks as if the bullet missed him and only cut a gash in his shoulder. The ribs, well, binding them is about all I can do for them, and then I’ll give your son something to help with the pain and to aid him in getting the proper rest needed. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I best get started.”
“Thank you doctor…you will call, if he happens to wake and ask for me?” Ben said, glancing down at his son as a mixture of emotions flooded his soul.
“Yes, I promise,” Dr. Reece said, giving Ben a comforting pat on the back. “Now, I do believe that your son needs me.”
“Certainly…I’ll be…outside,” Ben said gravely.
The weary father walked to the little cot and leaned down, brushing Joe’s cheek tenderly with the back of his fingers. His voice, when he spoke was low and filled with deep emotion. A sob caught in the back of his throat as he put into words, his sympathy and remorse.
“Joseph,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart…for what I’ve cost you.” Ben took a deep breath and continued. “The doctor’s here now, and he’s going to make you feel better. I’ll be right out side if you should want me.”
“Pa?” Joe murmured in a wee voice.
“Shh…everything’s going to be alright, Joseph, I promise you,” Ben said.
Ben leaned closer and placed his lips against the boy’s brow in a quick kiss and whispered. “I love you, son…I need you to get better!”
Ben stood, his eyes lingering on Joe’s face and the painful express he wore. When Dr. Reece, touched his arm, Ben managed to pull his eyes away from the sight and walked from the house without a word.
Ben busied himself with helping his hosts with their evening chores. Mr. Logan tried to make small talk to wile away the time, but Ben was so lost in his private torment that he failed to pay any attention to what was being said. After several attempts, Clyde gave up and went about his work.
Though he tried, Ben could not wipe the memory from his mind of his son’s scream for help when the mountain lion attacked him. Nor could he force from his memory the picture of Joe’s crumbled body when it had finally stopped rolling down the incline. Ben recalled the horror he felt when he imagined Joe’s body hit the trunk of the tree with a loud thud, and the soft whimpers of agony that Joe had tried so hard to keep silent, but had failed.
Guilt ate away at Ben’s conscious. Why had he allowed a nightmare, a dream, to rule him as he had? Why hadn’t he been able to push the hellish picture from his mind, use his common sense and insist that Joe go on the cattle drive? At least there, he would have been safe from the sharp claws of that devil cat!
Ben pinched his lips tightly; self-loathing caused him to tremble with both anger at himself and regret for what he deemed his own lack of faith. Faith, thought Ben, he had so little. He shook his head in disgust, wishing it were he, who was fighting so hard to stay alive, instead of his son. Ben expelled a long sigh and returned to his chore.
The trio had just finished in the barn, mucking out the stalls and spreading fresh hay when Ben, catching a movement in the doorway, looked up. Mrs. Logan smiled at him.
“The doctor would like a word with you, Mr. Cartwright,” she said in her soft buoyant tone.
Ben felt his heart begin to race. As he turned to leave the barn, he paused to speak to Clara.
“Thank you for all you’ve done for my son and I…I can’t…”
Clara smiled and placed her hand over Ben’s arm. “There’s no need…now go, your son is asking for you.”
Ben ran the short distance to the house, pausing at the door to catch his breath. Fear’s fingers tangled themselves about his pounding heart as he took a deep breath to steady himself. Would Joe blame him for his suffering? ‘I wouldn’t blame you if you did, son,’ Ben whispered to himself. ‘It was my fault…’
“Mr. Cartwright,” Dr. Reece met Ben at the door.
“How is he?” Ben said, his eyes straining to see beyond the guilt wall that had been spread across the rope holding it above the floor. “Is he going to be alright? When can I see him?”
“Please, Mr. Cartwright…your son is very weak, he’s in a great deal of pain, but I’ve given him a sedative to help him rest. He’s going to be fine, in time. He’s had a terrible experience to say the least. The cat that attacked him, obviously was a young cat, inexperienced at attacking its prey. The cuts on Joseph’s arms are not as deep as first thought and I doubt once they heal, if he will even have a scar to brag about,” the doctor said lightly.
Ben sighed in relief and was relaxed a little by the doctor’s cheerful mood.
“I did bind the ribs…your son put up quite a fuss over that, I might add. But I won the argument, and he did promise to stay in bed. The bullet wound on his shoulder was deep, and I had to take a few stitches. We’ll have to watch it for a few days to be certain that it heals properly. Unfortunately, he will be unable to use it for a while, but with lots of rest and a good sling it should not present a problem. Other than several hard knocks and a colorful array of bruises, I’d say you could take your son home in…hmm about a week,” smiled Dr. Logan.
Ben grinned from ear to ear and grabbed the physician’s hand, pumping it up and down.
“Thank you…thank you very much, Doctor.”
“We’ll keep an eye on that fever, which is normal under the circumstances and should be gone in a day or so…”
“You best go to him, the medicine I gave him will have him sound asleep very shortly.”
“Thank you again,” Ben smiled as he pushed aside the curtain that separated him from the son whom he loved more than life.
Ben pulled a chair to the side of the bed and took Joe’s hand in his, leaning close. Joe’s eyes were closed, but when he felt the tender touch of his father’s hand holding his, he opened his eyes slightly.
“Hi yourself, young man. Do you know what a fright you gave me?” smiled Ben, fighting to control the overwhelming desire to cry in relief.
“Sorry…Pa,” muttered Joe, swallowing and grimacing. “I didn’t see that cat…until he hit me.”
“I know son…there’s no need for you to be sorry, it wasn’t your fault. It was…mine…I should have been in front, not you. You shouldn’t be lying there…I should…”
Joe moved his head to the side and stared up at his father. His eyes, he struggled to keep open.
“No…Pa…you didn’t know…neither of us knew…where that puma was…” Joe swallowed again, his eyes seemed to be getting heavier and he was fighting against the medication that was given to him.
“Not your fault…or…mine…”
Joe’s sense of reality slipped away and he drifted into forgetfulness as the drug took affect. Ben frowned when he realized that Joe had fallen to sleep. He arranged the covers around Joe and then stood up.
“I’ll be close by son,” he told the sleeping boy.
Ben slipped from the house, leaving the family to their evening meal. He had the need to be alone, to ponder the doubts that plagued his sub-conscience. Try as he might, Ben was unable to release the ideal that he was responsible for his youngest son’s injuries, and the thought haunted him, far into the night, and would in the days ahead.
By the end of the week, Joe was in better shape to travel, and given the word, he was more than ready to get home.
“When can we leave, Pa?” he asked for the hundredth time it seemed to his father.
“Soon, Joseph, soon,” Ben repeated the same answer over and over. “Now, don’t ask me again, understand?” he growled.
His tone was sharp, and the severity of his words caught Joe’s attention. The astonished young man stared in wonder at his father and for the first time, noticed the hardened lines in Ben’s face. Joe was puzzled by the change he witnessed. For days now, Ben had been devoted to his every need, dotting over him like a mother hen over her flock, but now, it seemed as if his father was…angry with him for some unknown reason. Some reason, for which he had no clue.
Joe lowered his head, unable to look into his father’s eyes, afraid of what he might find. Ben heard the deep breath that Joe expelled and he, himself, did the same.
“I’m sorry son, I didn’t mean to snap at you,” Ben said, coming to the edge of the bed and pulling up the chair to sit.
Joe raised his head slowly, glancing at his father.
“What’s wrong, Pa…did I do something to make you angry at me?” Joe said in an apologetic voice.
Ben could only shake his head. How could he tell his son that it was himself that he was angry at, and not the boy and certainly not anything that Joe had done?
“Joseph…please, just forget it. We’ll go home very soon, I promise. In fact, Clyde is getting us a wagon from one of his neighbors so that you don’t have to ride your horse home. You’ll be much more comfortable…and then I can send a couple of the men back with the wagon and…”
“But what’s wrong…why are you suddenly so…angry?” Joe continued to probe.
Ben took a deep breath, stealing himself against the guilty feelings that surfaced every time he was close to his son and was forced to view the cuts and scrapes, the bruises and the expressions of discomfort that he knew Joe was trying to hide from him.
“I’m not mad!” Ben rose, turning his back to his son.
“I don’t believe you,” Joe dared.
The words caused Ben to spin around and glare at the boy.
“How dare you accuse me of lying!” he blurted out. “Just who do you think you are?”
Joe pushed aside the blanket that lay across him and stood to his feet. The look on his father’s face worried him, his father’s actions and Ben’s tone of voice, frightened him.
“I’m sorry, sir…I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were lying…I know you don’t lie…I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said.
He felt the swelling of his throat and prayed that he wouldn’t break down. But he was so tired, so weakened both physically and mentally by what he’d been through, that he could do nothing to stop his chin from quivering and his eyes from filling with tears.
Ben’s mind cleared and he saw the emotional state that Joe was in and knew instantly that the boy was bordering on a breakdown. Immediately, Ben moved closer and placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. His facial expression softened and he smiled down.
“It’s not you, son…honest. It’s me that I’m angry with…”
Joe’s emerald eyes sought his father’s face. There was a hunger that gleamed in the dark depths.
“But why, Pa? You didn’t do anything…”
“Didn’t I?” Ben said, the hardness returning to wipe away the tenderness.
He turned and walked away, leaving his back to his son. They were alone in the small house, just the two of them. Clyde had gone in search of a wagon for them to use and Henry was busy tending to chores. Clara Logan was hanging out the laundry to dry.
Ben spun around, a scowl across his forehead. His usual loving eyes were dark with fire.
“You could have been killed out there,” he shouted, pointing with his finger to indicate the location. “And you darn well, nearly were…and it was my fault…my fault!” he continued to storm.
Joe was shaking his head, unable to comprehend just how his father could claim credit for what happened to him. It was an accident; it could have happened to anyone, even Ben, had he been in the lead!
“Stop it, Pa!” Joe spouted. “You know as well as I do that it was an accident, that it could have just as easily been you that cat attacked…”
“But it wasn’t! It was you…and because of my foolishness, it darn near cost you your life…”
“It didn’t…look at me, Pa!”
Joe moved across the room where Ben had walked and stood in front of his father.
“Look at me,” he repeated. “I’m alive…we’re both alive…and…I don’t blame you…surely you can’t think that I…”
Ben’s eyes sought his son’s face as once again his features softened.
“Of course not, Joe,” he said, his voice soft. “I know you don’t blame me, but I blame me…I let my own fears rule me, son.” Ben turned away again. “That nightmare I’d been having, I let it consume me with the fear of losing you.”
Ben turned back to Joe, grasping gently his son’s arm.
“I’ve lost so much over the years…and I’ve been able to rise above the grief, somehow. But Joe, just the thoughts that…something might happen to you…just thinking how difficult it would be, to go on living…without you…”
A sob washed Ben’s words back down his throat as he stared into the eyes that reflected his own impassioned candor.
“Pa, don’t you think I understand how you feel? For years, growing up, after my mother died, I lived in fear that every time you had to go away something would happen to you and you’d never come back to me. I was like a lost soul, I cried myself to sleep every night you were gone and I prayed and prayed all day that you’d come home. I don’t know what would have happened to me back then, Pa…if you…never came back to me. I…” Joe sniffed his nose and then continued.
“And then one day, you told me, you said, ‘son, we cannot let our fears rule everyday of our lives. What will happen, will happen. We have to remember that only God has control and that we have to learn to trust on Him.’ You remember saying that to me, don’t you?” Joe asked. “You haven’t given up your faith, have you?”
Ben could not find the words to answer the question. He stared, wide-eyed at his son, shaking his head gently to and fro.
“You over reacted to a nightmare, Pa…that’s all. And I understand why you did, because you…love me.” Joe had to swallow down the thickness that threatened to choke off his words.
“You acted out of love…you always have, Pa…always. Don’t you see…I could have been hurt just as easily if I had gone on that cattle drive as I was here trying to keep out of harm’s way? What happened, happened…it was inevitable…the place, or the action, had nothing to do with fate. It was inevitable, Pa, I was destined to be injured but not because you tried to keep me safe, and not because I didn’t go on a cattle drive.
You told me once, Pa, that when our time came to die, we would die. Nothing could change the number of days, the hours or the months and weeks we are allotted here on earth. That each one of us has a certain amount of time, some more, some less…but when our name was drawn, and it is our time, then that was it. You said that God didn’t promise how or when, only that death was inevitable.”
Joe smiled at his father. “It wasn’t my time to die, obviously, but maybe God was trying to tell me something…like slow down…don’t take life at a full run…”
Ben couldn’t help but return the smile. He felt much as he pictured Joe had felt, during the times he had been the one giving the lectures and Joe had been made to stand and listen. A reversal of roles, thought Ben. As he did so, he slipped his arm about Joe’s neck and pulled his son close to him. For several moments the two stood, locked in the embrace.
“Someday Joseph, you are going to be a wonderful father…I’m glad to know you have been listening to me all these years after all,” Ben laughed lightly.
“I had a good teacher, Pa…”
Ben’s eyes misted, but he willed away the happy tears. His expression softened and a more contented look took away the scowls and gentleness replaced the hardened look.
“Thank you, son…thank you,” Ben murmured in his deep voice.
“No…thank you, Pa…for…loving me, and giving me the wisdom that I need to be more…like you,” smiled Joe, his merry eyes twinkling.
“Joe…I know you will be the best possible man that you can be…that’s all I’ve ever asked of any of my sons. But remember, you have to be yourself, you can never be me…you can never walk in my shoes, or experience the exact things in your life that I’ve experienced in mine. I’m honored that you feel as you do, and I want you to know that I’m proud of you, very proud…but if I had lost you…I could never have forgiven myself. Now…enough said…what say we go home?” Ben smiled happily.
“Alright, Pa…I’m ready to go home…I can’t wait until Hoss and Adam get back. Just wait until they hear about how I wrestled that mountain lion all the way down Montpelier Gorge ,” he laughed, walking with his father out into the bright sunlight.
Ben grinned, shaking his head from side to side. “Joseph, what am I going to do with you?” he snickered.
“Well, Pa…we don’t gotta tell them which one of us won that wrestling match, do we?” Joe said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Look at you…do you think we’ll have to?”
Joe giggled, “it’s that noticeable, heh?”
Ben slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and grinned down at the boy.
“I’m afraid so, son…I’m afraid so.”