Coming to Terms (by DebbieB)

Summary: When Joe is the lone survivor of a horrific accident, he finds himself questioning a God who allows bad things to happen to good people. His faith in God, his fellowman, his family, and in himself are tested in this story that I dedicated to those who have at one time or another asked, ‘Why God? Why?’

Rated:  G (14,675 words)

This story is dedicated to my online friend, Peggy, who is also my number one critic.  She lives in New York, close to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and has expressed to me some of her own concerns about unanswered questions.  She asked that I write a story about Joe, a tragedy and unanswered questions that tested his faith and trust in a God that would allow bad things to happen to good people.  I hope you like it, it’s for you Peggy, with love and admiration.  Debbie B ;0)

 

 

                       Coming to Terms

 

I sit and watch as my son’s beautiful but sad eyes begin to fill with tears once more.  I wonder just how many tears this youngest boy of mine has shed since the accident?  My heart yearns to gather him into the folds of my arms and hold him near but I sense that at this moment, my nineteen-year-old is more man than boy, though I guess even a grown man may at times feel the need to be comforted and held.  I know that Joseph has had that need on more than one occasion in the last few weeks.  It’s sad, sitting here watching him struggle with answers that leave him still unconvinced.  But how do you explain to a compassionate and tender young man, the whys and why nots of our God?  I’ve tried to explain to him the best way I could why things happen as they do, what with everything that takes place in our lives, God has a reason.  We may not understand and we, being just mortal man, often tend to question God’s wisdom.  Joseph has, I know in the past I have, and so has his brothers during the course of their own lives.  It’s something that as human beings we tend to do.  The good book says that we should not question God, but instead have faith.  I hardly think that God holds it against us when we do ask him why, for even God who sent Jesus to earth as a flesh and blood man knew that His own son would ask why He had been forsaken, surely our heavenly father understands when my son asks.

I’ve tried to give my grieving son the tools that God has placed before us to learn why He allows certain things to happen to good people, but Joseph being young and impetuous, tends to want to know the most intimate details instantly rather than to take time to study God’s word and find the answers that would supply his need to know.  Maybe I should explain why my son is so confused and distraught, not to mention feeling guilty.  The guilt is what is eating away at him; it’s tearing him apart inside and is slowly changing this once vibrant, if not somewhat spontaneous, handsome young man into a withdrawn introvert, and that breaks my heart.  Joseph has always been the heartbeat of this family, the one who always keeps me and Adam and Hoss on our toes for we never know what to expect from the boy.  But that has been one of the greatest pleasures in my life, having watched this bright eyed, curly headed little fella grow from infancy into an inquisitive and often mischievous adolescent and finally into the aspiring young man that he was well on the way to becoming, until tragedy and near death changed his life forever.

It all began over two months ago when Jack and Polly Mercer, our long time neighbors, came to pay us a visit.  Adam had gone to Sacramento on business and was not due back until the following evening.  Hoss had gone to the lumber camp and after spending over a week there, was sure to be home the following morning.  It was just Joseph and I and of course Hop Sing, our cook and housekeeper, who greeter the Mercers and their family of five children that fateful afternoon.  When Jack, who had the week before broken his leg while working, helped Polly down from the wagon that evening, it was obvious to everyone just by looking at her swollen stomach that her time was very near; that was the reason for their visit, they needed a favor.  That small request would change the lives of several persons forever, my own family included, and call an end to the lives of seven people before the week was up.

“Jack, Polly, how good to see you.  Won’t you come in?  Joe, help Mrs. Mercer to a chair,” Ben instructed as he shook hands with his neighbor, Jack Mercer.

Joe stepped aside as he opened the front door and taking Polly’s elbow, helped the lovely young mother to the settee where he gently aided her in sitting.  Her husband and his father followed them inside and behind them trailed the Mercer children, Freddie 12, Sallie 10, Ernie 8, Johnny 6 and in Freddie’s arms was four year old Victoria Rose, a beautiful little girl if ever there was one.  Her eyes were the color of the ocean, a clear deep crystal blue.  Her blond hair lay in golden ringlets midway down her back and about her face where the shorter strands stuck to her chubby but rosy little cheeks.  When she smiled a dimple appeared in each corner of her mouth, giving her a cherub like appearance that reminded the viewers of an angel who had yet to earn her wings.  There was no doubt to either Ben or Little Joe Cartwright that the toddler was the apple of her father’s eye and her mother’s pride and joy.  And it was clear that the other four children doted on their baby sister for their love of the child was uncensored to even an untrained eye, the little girl was deeply revered.

The Mercers had moved to the area shortly after they married.  They had been very young, Polly only sixteen and already with a baby on the way.  Jack had not been much older, only eighteen.  He came to Virginia City with his young bride, a soon to be father with nothing more than a covered wagon to call home, a few meager belongings, and little money.  What he did have was determination, will power and a quest for making it here in the west where times were hard and demanding even to a seasoned veteran.

Ben had admired the hard working young couple and had befriended them the first time they had met.  It had been in the mercantile where the couple was attempting to purchase much needed supplies.  The owner of the shop at the time, Mr. Gibson, had refused to allow them credit, which was understood under their current circumstances, with no means to repay the shop owner except for a promise to do so when things improved for them.  Ben had listened quietly from the opposite side of the store and knowing exactly how the young couple felt, for he remembered that it had not been that many years ago that he had found himself in much the same condition.  When the Mercers had walked out of the store empty handed, Ben had followed them out and offered Jack a job on his ranch.  Jack and Polly stood in stunned silence, not really believing that here was the answer to their prayers.  Jack had accepted heartily and by the end of the day, Ben had set the young expecting couple up in the closest line shack to the main ranch house.  Three weeks later, young Freddie had been born, healthy and wailing at the top of his lungs.  By the next year, the little family had managed to save just enough money to purchase a small spread not far from the Ponderosa.  They had set up house keeping on their own place in a small but sound one room log cabin and over the next few years, their family had grown by leaps and bounds, and their ranch thrived under Jack’s hard working hands.  Ben had kept a watchful eye on his friends, he and his young sons helping out whenever needed until at long last Jack and Polly were able to stand on their own.  It was a friendship that had blossomed over the years and one cherished by both families. Now, a simple request was about to test the depth of that long-standing relationship.

“Ben,” began Polly with a big smile.  Her children, well mannered had made themselves comfortable lined up and sitting on the stone hearth in front of the massive fireplace.  Hop Sing had just set a tray of fresh baked cookies and glasses of milk on the wooden table in the center of the sitting area.  The children were quietly helping themselves as their parents related the reason for their late afternoon visit.

“Ben, we are in need of a favor,” beamed Polly.  “As you can see, it won’t be long now until we have an addition to our family.”  Polly lovingly patted her stomach and smiled at her husband who kept a watchful if not somewhat worried eye on his expecting wife.

“We were wanting to take the three younger children to Carson City to stay with my parents until after the baby comes, but since Jack broke his leg, he has been unable to travel.  And in my condition, it is impossible with the baby due just any day.”  Polly had to stop and catch her breath, for her added weight made it harder to breathe when she rattled on non-stop as she was now doing and Jack jumped at his chance to join in the conversation.

One thing I have learned over the years about Polly is that if Jack didn’t get started talking first, it was few times that the man got to say anything at all, though it was obvious that he loved his wife and overlooked this little flaw in her personality.

“Polly dear, let me do the talking, you just relax.”  Jack gently chided his wife.  “We were wondering if perhaps one of your boys would be willing to accompany the children on the stage to Carson City.  Naturally we would pay for their ticket.  All they would have to do is to see that the children were delivered safely to Polly’s parents, spend the night and return the next day.  Of course there would be the one night lay over so it would really be a matter of three nights if you count going and coming back.”

Ben raised his eyebrows somewhat and glanced at Joe who was talking softly with Freddie.  Victoria Rose had climbed out of her brother’s arms and into Joe’s lap where she at made herself comfortable.  She had her eyes trained on Joe’s face and when Joe smiled down at her, she would smile shyly up at him and bat her long lashes at him in a bewitching but innocent manner.  Here was a real heart breaker in the making smiled Ben to himself, thinking that Joseph had finally met his match in this adorable four year old who seemed to be enjoying the extra attention that Joe was giving to her.

“Jack, I would love to help you out, but Adam is in Sacramento and not due back until tomorrow afternoon.  And Hoss has been up at the lumber camp for a week and won’t be back until in the morning, and that’s only if things are straightened out.  I would go myself but I have a meeting in the afternoon with my lawyer about some mining contracts that have to be signed before the deadline.” Ben explained.

Both Polly and Jack glanced at Joe who was now tickling their daughter under her chin causing her to giggle and squirm on his lap.  It was hard to tell who was enjoying the visit more, Victoria or Joseph, for one acted no older or no younger than the other.

Seeing the looks that were given to Joe, and intercepting their thoughts, Ben cast a doubtful glance in his son’s direction and quickly turned his attention back to his visitors.

“Jack, I really don’t think that Joseph is old enough to take on three little children all on his own.  Why…anything could happen and…well…he hasn’t been around many children.  I just don’t think…”

“Aw Pa,” laughed Joe who had been listening to the conversation.  “I don’t see what could be so hard about it.  After all look at them, they are perfect little angels,” Joe laughingly told his father and then turned to face the little girl’s father.

“Mr. Mercer, I wouldn’t mind at all to accompany the children to Carson City, that is if you really trust me enough and if Pa here will agree,” stated Joe as he placed Victoria Rose on her feet and stood up.

Ben looked even more doubtful and somewhat worried that his son might be taking on more than he could handle.  “Joe, are you sure you can manage?” asked Ben, hoping that his over zealous son would reconsider his offer.

Joe grinned at his father as he grabbed Victoria up in his arms and swung her onto his shoulders causing her to start giggling again.

“Sure Pa, I think I can manage just fine.  We’ll have a great trip won’t we, beautiful?” Joe said more to the little girl in his arms than to his father.

Ben still looked doubtful as he watched his son swing Victoria to the floor.  At times like this, when Joseph had made himself comfortable in the floor to play with the children, Ben could still see much of the boy that remained in his grown son.  It worried him that Joe might be assuming too much but he also was aware of the fact that to deny his son the opportunity to be of service to their friends would be as if he lacked faith enough in Joe to complete the job.  And that certainly was not true for he knew that in many things, Joe had proved himself capable enough to handle himself.  But this was different Ben silently told himself, this involved taking on the responsibility of another man’s family, children entrusted to his care for which he would be totally responsible for.

“Joseph, are you positive son?” Ben asked for the second time as he came to stand over his son who was now giving horsy-back rides for the children.

Joe rose to his feet and faced his father.  “Pa, don’t you think I can handle it?” Joe’s smile had suddenly faded as he tried to read the concern on Ben’s face.

“It’s not that son…” started Ben.

“Then what, Pa?” questioned Joe, his eyes never leaving his father’s face.  The look on his son’s face told Ben that Joe was silently beginning to become exasperated because of his father’s hesitation in answering his question.

Ben smiled trying to ease the situation and rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “Nothing Joseph, of course I think you can handle this.”

Turning to the children’s parents he forced another smile, for in his heart he felt reluctant, but stated.  “Jack, Polly, if you really want Joseph to take the children to your parents, and Joe feels comfortable about doing it, then by all means go ahead with your plans.”

Jack stood to his feet and grabbed Ben’s hand giving it a hearty shake.  “Thanks Ben, we knew we could count on you.”  Turning to face Joe, Jack grabbed Joe’s hand and repeated the handshake.

“Thank you Little Joe.  You’ll never know what this means to us.  It would be just too hard on Polly here to try to care for the little ones and then having them all under foot when the baby comes.  We appreciate what you are doing, thank you so much,” smiled Jack finally releasing Joe’s hand.

I remember the look of relief on my friend’s faces when he and his wife collected their small flock of children and left that evening.  I bid them all goodbye as they piled into the family’s wagon and waved back as they pulled from the yard, the children shouting out to Joseph as they rounded the corner of the barn.

When I turned back toward the house, I felt my son’s eyes on me and stopped mid way to the porch and faced him.  His doubts clearly were etched onto his handsome face and I began wondering then whether or not he was having second thoughts himself.

“Joseph?” I remember asking, “is something wrong, son?”

Joe had looked down just at that moment, a movement I had seen many times in his life when he wanted to avoid making eye contact with me and the action caused me more concern.

“No, nothings wrong, Pa.”  Joseph had answered and then rushed ahead of me into the house.

I hurried myself trying to catch up to him, I wanted him to know that if he changed his mind it would be all right, but by the time I got to the door Joe had already bolted up the stairs to his room.  I decided not to push the issue but would wait until morning to talk to him about this undertaking he had committed himself too.

By the time that my overly enthusiastic offspring managed to arrive at the breakfast table the next morning, any doubts that he might have had the night before had obviously been put to rest.  Joseph was as excited as I’m sure the three Mercer children were at the prospect of taking a stage trip to Carson City to visit with their grandparents.  If you didn’t know Joe well, you might have thought it was his own grandparents that the boy was going to go see rather than his friend’s grandparents.  But just seeing the happy smile on his face and the way his hazel eyes sparkled when he talked about the trip, somehow put my mind at ease and I found myself getting caught up in his excitement as well.

“Now Joseph, please remember that the children are all young, and this is the first time that the baby has been away from her folks.  She might start crying for her mama, what are you going to do then?” laughed Ben as he tried to picture his son consoling the little girl while she sobbed for her mama and papa.

“And once she starts, Johnny might join her.  For that matter, all three might start crying, what’ll you do then?”  Ben had stopped his own laughter as the thought began to stir up his own doubts once again.

I could tell that Joseph was thinking long and hard about his answer before he responded to me.  I couldn’t help myself but I found myself suppressing my smile that I felt beginning to curve my lips upward.  I sure didn’t want to give my son the idea that I was laughing at him, I knew that would stir up his temper and I certainly didn’t want him leaving on a trip with ill feelings between us.  So I just kept silent, if Joe answered my question or not, I’d say no more on the matter.  He had enough on his mind to think about as it was.

Joe smiled at me, I never will forget the way his eyes danced merrily as he slowly rose from the table and opened his travel bag.  He pulled a little brown paper sack from the case and held it up for me to see.

“I have the answer right here.  It’s the same solution that Adam used on me and Hoss when we’d cry cause you went away,” beamed Joe, though I noticed that he made no endeavor to open the sack and show me the contents.

“Well young man, are you going to tell me what you have in there or do I have to guess?” I laughed at his antics as he shoved the sack back into his valise.

Giggling like the little boy he fought so hard not to be, Joe returned to the table and commenced eating.  “What?” he had asked, his mouth full, “and give away older brother’s secret?  No way Pa, you’ll just have to trust me on this one.”

We both laughed at Joe’s little secret and I didn’t ask him again to share it with me.  It was something that obviously raised pleasant memories of being a boy left in the care of his oldest brother and I didn’t want to intrude on his private thoughts, so I let the subject drop.  I didn’t know it then, but I would eventually find out what was in the little sack and though by then things had gotten horribly unpleasant, I would smile to myself at my youngest son’s thoughtfulness.

Joe and I both turned our heads at the sound of the door opening and when Hoss entered, both of us had gotten up to greet him.  I remember Hoss looking all worn out and dirty from his long ride from the lumber camp.

“Hey big brother, how’d everything go?” asked Joe taking his older brother’s hand and shaking it.

“Hey punkin.  Everything went fine.  I finally got all the men back to work and everything is back on schedule.”  Hoss hung his hat on the peg and folded up his gun belt and set it on the credenza.

“Hey Joe, why ya all dolled up like that?  Ya goin’ someplace?” asked Hoss giving his brother the once over with his sparkling blue eyes that danced with amusement and smiling at the picture his little brother made in his traveling clothes.

“Your brother here has volunteered to accompany the three youngest Mercer children to Carson City for their parents.  Polly’s time is getting pretty close you know and Jack broke his leg and can’t travel, so when they came by last night and asked for help, your over enthusiastic little brother jumped at the chance,” explained Ben as he rested his arm around Joe’s shoulders and smiled at his sons.

“No foolin’?  And you’re lettin’ him?” heehawed Hoss tossing his head back and laughing loudly.

“What’s wrong with me takin’ them?” Joe demanded, his happy smile fading, as Hoss’ laughter grew louder.

“What do ya know about kids?  Ya ain’t much more’n one ya self,” bellowed Hoss.

Joe let his brother’s teasing get the better of him.  I knew it would the minute Hoss referred to Joe as a kid.

“I ain’t no kid, and what’s there to know about kids anyway?  All I gotta do is ride on the stage with them to Carson City, drop ‘em off at their grandparents and ride the stage home.  Don’t take much knowing to do that,” Joe shouted back at Hoss as he grabbed his hat and started for the door his sudden anger apparent to both his brother and I.  I just shook my head, when would my youngest ever learn that his two older brothers always did know how to get him riled?

Hoss reached out his large hand and placed it on Joe’s arm halting him from leaving.  Joe spun around and gave his brother a dark look.  Hoss had stopped laughing but his face still bore his smile.

“Looky little brother, I was just funnin’ ya.  Lighten up some, I didn’t mean nuthin’ by what I said.  Listen Joe, ya have a safe trip and be careful, okay?” Hoss apologized and ruffled Joe’s hair causing the younger boy to moan and run his fingers through his thick dark curls.  I noticed then that Joe needed a haircut and made a mental note to have him get it trimmed as soon as he got back home.

Joe gave Hoss a little smile and slapped his hand onto Hoss’ shoulder.  “I guess I’m just a little jumpy Hoss.  I’m sorry I shouted at ya.  I’ll see ya when I get back, take care.”

Hoss pressed his lips tightly together like he always did and nodded his head up and down.  As Joe and I walked out the door, Hoss tossed his hand up at us as we climbed into the buggy and headed to Virginia City to meet the noon stage.

The noon stage had been on time that day; it was one of the rare times that it happened for usually it was late.  I remember it well for just as the stage pulled up, Jack and Polly arrived with their children in tow.  Ernie held tightly to Johnny’s hand as they made their way to the coach that had just stopped.  Polly was holding Victoria’s hand and the little girl, dressed in a lovely shade of pink, followed along obediently beside her mother.  The older children brought up the end of the procession and stood patiently for their turn to tell their siblings good-bye.

Just as the stage came to a complete stop, the coach door swung opened and Adam hopped out.  I recall laughing at his surprised look when his dark eyes swept his younger brother’s form up and down.  And laughed even louder at the comment he made to Joe.

“Joseph Cartwright, why, I didn’t know you missed me so much.  You look plum purty all dressed up to meet me.”  Adam tipped his hat at his brother and I watched as Joe’s face reddened slightly in embarrassment at his brother’s teasing.

Joe gave Adam a crooked little smirk that almost passed for a smile and came back with a comment of his own.  “Don’t flatter yourself brother, I dressed up for my favorite girl.”  Joe scooped Victoria Rose up into his arms.  “We have a date, don’t we sweetheart?” he asked the child, the smile on his face now genuine.

“Uh-huh,” nodded the beautiful little girl as she slipped her arms about Joe’s neck and planted a kiss on his cheek.

“Well, I stand corrected, obviously I am no match for such a beautiful young lady as this,” said Adam as he bowed to the girl in Joe’s arms and gallantly kissed the back of her tiny hand.

Just about that time, an older couple accompanied by a young woman about Joseph’s age, maybe a little younger, arrived at the station ready to board the stage along with Joseph and his young charges.

“Howdy ma’am,” Joe tipped his hat at the beautiful young woman and I remember the charming smile that graced his face when he turned and caught me watching him.  That boy of mine never ceased to amaze me with that charm of his once he started to pour it on.  By the time that Miss Katharine Monroe and her parents, Rev. Isaac and Mrs. Lucinda Monroe boarded the stage, one would have thought that they were old friends.

Joe helped Ernie board the stage and then gave little Johnny a boost up.  I never will forget my son’s face when he turned to say goodbye.  It will forever be seared into my memory for little did I know then that it would be weeks before I could look at my precious son and not see the cuts and gashes and the horrible black and blue bruises that would adorn his handsome features by the time the sun set on that fateful day.

“See ya Pa,” Joe had smiled and now that I think back on it, his smile seemed strained, like he might be worried or anxious and I felt an unfounded smidgeon of fear pierce my heart.

I placed my hands on his shoulders to give him encouragement but was almost as surprised as he was when I automatically pulled him into a tight hug and held him for several seconds before releasing him.  I don’t know, perhaps I sensed something, something that left me feeling apprehensive about letting him go.  Whatever it was, I tried to ignore it because it was now too late to do anything about it.  The Mercer’s were here, the tickets had been paid for, Joe was ready, the children were boarded, all except the youngest that was giving her ma and pa hugs and kisses.  Finally, Joe held his arms out to the child; she willingly extended her own arms and once the child was safely holding on to Joe, Joseph climbed into the coach himself and placed the excited little girl on his lap.

“Be careful son.  I’ll see you in a couple of days,” I called out.

Joe stuck his head out the window of the coach, “I will Pa, try not to worry. See ya Adam, you too Mr. Mercer, ma’am,” called Joe to the children’s parents as the stage pulled away.

I could barely take my eyes off his face, his eyes suddenly seemed locked with mine, too hesitant to walk away, I remained on the boardwalk and watched until the stage was out of sight.  Try though I might, I just could not shake the uneasy feeling that gnawed at me and I wondered for just a brief second if Joseph had been feeling the same thing as I.

“Something wrong Pa?” inquired Adam who had been standing to the side watching me.  Adam knew me better than anyone else; he knew I was worried about something.

I sighed heavily and shook my head.  “I hope not son, I hope not.”  But I wasn’t fooling my eldest son, he walked over and placed his arm around my shoulders and gave me one of his to-die-for smiles.

“Don’t worry Pa, Joe can take care of himself.”

I still wonder how Adam knew it was Joe that I worried about?

The coach bounced along at an even pace and though it was crowded and stuffy inside, the passengers seemed content enough.  They laughed and talked amongst themselves, each sharing funny stories about things that had happened to all of them and then giggled sheepishly when little Johnny told of finding his parents alone in the hayloft of their barn about eight months ago.  Joe quickly clamped his hand over the youngster’s mouth, silencing him immediately before he could give away more details.  Katharine’s face turned red, her mother began fanning herself and her father stared blankly out the window for better than an hour.  Joe’s eyes met the young woman’s briefly before he dropped his head and lowered his hat to shield his eyes but for some reason he could not wipe that silly grin from his face.

Much later Mrs. Monroe pulled open her satchel and offered sandwiches to everyone.  The children had fallen to sleep, their bellies full and Joe still hungry accepted the offer of the sandwich.  Katharine nibbled at her own sandwich, in quiet but true ladylike fashion while occasionally glancing in Joe’s direction.  Joe who was not so bashful continued with his constant chatter, forgetting his manners and talking with his mouth full until a stern look from her father called it to his attention.

“Sorry,” muttered Joe, swallowing his food in one gulp.

Katharine cast her brown eyes up at Joe and winked.  Joe could tell that her father was strict and would stand for little foolishness.  He briefly wondered at the man’s stern countenance and how he could have fathered such a sweet and charming daughter, for he sure put Joe at attention just as quickly as his own father could.  And Joe never doubted for a moment that had he been sitting in church listening to this overly stern man preach fire and brimstone, there certainly would be no dozing on his part.

The long afternoon wore on and with it the passengers grew quieter.  The heat inside the coach was becoming uncomfortable and to make matters worse, Victoria had begun to whimper.

“Shh…don’t cry sweetheart, we’ll stop soon and then you can get out and stretch your legs,” Joe whispered to the little girl.

“I want my mama and I gotta go,” sniffed Victoria.

Joe rolled his eyes, ‘Great,’ thought Joe, ‘just what I need. Now what am I going to do?’

Before Joe could utter another word, he felt the coach lurch forward.  Turning toward the window Joe was surprised when he heard the driver scream out and watched in horror as the man jumped from the top of the coach landing hard on the rocky ground and rolling under the plummeting stage.  Joe felt the coach plunge downward and reached out in an attempt to grab the little girl as she flew from his arms and into the laps of the Monroes.  Joe caught a brief glimpse of the two boys as they bounce across the coach and into the floor.  He put his arm across the front of the nearest boy and when he did, Joe lost his hold on the window frame he had been clinging to.  The coach flipped over and struck against something hard, Joe looked up and could see daylight through the top or maybe it was the bottom, he really wasn’t sure.  Joe felt himself being tossed upside down; losing sight of the children and then his head stuck something solid.   The last thing that Joe heard before losing consciousness was Victoria crying out to him, ‘Widdle Joe help me’, and then the stagecoach went plunging over the side of the cliff.

The stage tumbled downward breaking apart each time that it came in contact with the rocks that stood in it’s way.  The passengers were tossed over and around within the carriage until one by one they were flung out, as the heavy coach continued to break apart.

Joe’s body, along with the others lay scattered among the rocks, his body twisted and broken, his face battered and bruised, cuts and gashes covered his upper arms and the sides of his face where his skin scraped against the jagged edges of the surface rocks as he catapulted through the air and landed with a thud on the hard rocky ground at the base of the steep incline where he had come to rest, his life’s blood seeping slowly from his many wounds onto the surface beneath him.

Ben jumped to his feet and hurried to answer the door, the insistent pounding on the thick wooden structure jarring him from his nap where he had fallen asleep in his chair and bringing both Adam and Hoss running from their rooms upstairs.

“Hold on, hold on,” shouted Ben reaching for the door and yanking it opened. “Yes, what is it?” he questioned the distraught man who stepped through the doorway and into the house.

“Mr. Cartwright, Roy Coffee sent me to fetch ya.  Ya better come quick, there’s been an accident,” the messenger said excitedly as he tried to catch his breath.

Adam and Hoss hurried to their father’s side.  “What kind of accident?” Adam quizzed as he looked anxiously at his father and noted how quickly his father had turned pale.

The over wrought man took a deep breath, “the stage, it went over the cliff about five miles this side of the first way station.”

“Oh dear God.  Joseph…what about Joseph…and the children?” demanded Ben grabbing the man by the front of his shirt in his frustration.  “What about my son?” he shouted giving in to the fear that had plagued him all day and that had suddenly latched on to his heart squeezing it so that Ben thought it might stop beating at any moment.

The man stood stunned at Ben’s uncharacteristic action and fought to release Ben’s hands from his shirt.  Ben refused to relinquish his tight hold.  “I asked you about my son?”  Ben shook the man violently.  “Answer me!”

“Pa, calm down,” said Adam struggling to break his father’s hold on the startled messenger.

“Look Mister, our little brother was on that stage.  Ya got any idey about him?” asked Hoss in a troubled but controlled voice slowly backing the man from the house as Adam worked at calming their father who still clung to the messenger’s shirt.

“All I know is that the ticket manager said that there was seven folks on that there stage plus the driver.  We’s found six of the passengers and the driver, all dead.  The sheriff sent me to fetch Mr. Cartwright, he didn’t say nuthin’ about who the dead were or who the missin’ one was.  Now I gotta get back and help with the huntin’.”  The man wrenched free of Ben’s hands and was gone in an instant, leaving the three Cartwrights staring at each other with the look of dread etched onto each worried face.

“Saddle our horses boys, we’ve got to get to your brother.”

As I watch Joe struggle to his feet, the heavy cast still sealed around his broken leg, I worry about what the boy is doing to himself.  He seems not to believe or perhaps he just refuses to allow himself to believe that no one blames him for what happened.  It was an accident, a terrible tragic accident.  I have tried telling him that many times, but it doesn’t appear to be helping him.

Adam and Hoss have tried talking to him but he just brushes them off.  I pray daily for an answer that will help him understand.  I don’t have the answer; I don’t know anyone who does.  Things happen; even good people are not immune to having bad things happen in their lives, but Joseph thinks that good people should be spared the bad and that only bad people should suffer bad things.  I’ve repeatedly tried to explain to him that when good people suffer, there’s always a reason.  I showed Joe in the bible where God plainly says that ‘to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’, I even read to him the second verse of Ecclesiastes 3 which said…a time to be born, and a time to die,’ but still that stubborn son of mine turned from me and walked away whispering back at me, ‘why Pa?  Why them and not me?’  Joe is angry with God; he, in his quest for answers, has turned into his own worst enemy.

“Joe?”

Joseph stopped, his hand resting on the handle of the door and looks back at me.  I notice the tiny beads of water that roll from his eyes and I can’t help but see the haunted look he has in them.  I remember a time when those same green eyes danced with merriment and laughter and oh, how I long to see them as such once again.

“I’m just going to take a walk Pa.  I need some air,” Joe said softly and slipped out the door.

I have to fight the urge not to go after him, to shake some sense into him, to make him listen to me, to make him understand that one day we will all be able to stand before God and ask Him our questions and then and only then will we fully understand.  But I can’t run after him, I have to let him try to find the answer himself, to do otherwise will only prolong his grieving and what will he have learned?  Nothing.  He has to satisfy his own conscience, and learn how to put away his own guilt in order to bring his self-inflicted condemnation to an end.

Ben and his two sons rode hard and fast but it still took them the better part of the night to arrive at the scene of the accident.  The stage was due to stop at the way station five miles ahead of where the coach went over the cliff.

The area was all lit up with torches and lanterns.  Men were moving about down by the foot of the cliff; you could see the lights glowing against the dark sky and each man’s silhouette as he searched the ground for the missing body.

Ben and his sons quickly dismounted as Roy rushed to greet them.  “Ben, I’m glad you finally made it. We haven’t….”

“Roy…Joseph…have you found him?” Ben’s voice quivered with fear of what the sheriff’s reply would be for he had not failed to notice the seven bodies that were draped with blankets and lined up in a row and his heart pounded against his ribcage in terror that under one of those gray coverlets might lie the body of his youngest son.

Roy shook his head no, “We found everyone else Ben.  They…” Roy choked on his own words and glanced quickly at the row of bodies.  “They was all dead, even the little ones.”  Roy dropped his head, the sight of the children, their bodies bent and broken, the beautiful little girl covered in blood, her face barely recognizable had turned his stomach.

Ben stood in shock, seven lives wiped out, gone.  Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and glanced at his brother.  Hoss was wiping the tears from his face and then placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder to steady him self.

“Pa, maybe Joe’s holdin’ on…come on, let’s get to lookin’.”  Hoss moved to grab a couple of torches from a by-stander and handed one to Adam.

Adam took the torch from Hoss’ hand and glanced again at his father.  Ben’s face had taken on a pasty white color and Adam could see his father’s large frame trembling in the dim light of the torch.  Even the tiny beads of sweat that appeared on his forehead were noticeable in the soft light.

“Pa, why don’t you wait up here with Roy?  Hoss and I will look for Joe.”  Adam rested his hand on his father’s arm and looked questioningly at the sheriff.

“Adam’s right Ben, let’s you and me get some coffee, we can take our turn come mornin’ if’n the boys don’t find him by then.”  Roy watched as Ben shook his head and then looked around for another torch.  There was a man coming toward the fire, a bright lantern swinging from his hand.  Ben reached out and grabbed the light from the tired man and giving a nod of this head to the sheriff, followed his two sons into the darkness of the night, the glow from the lighted torches and lantern lighting their steps as they carefully descended the side of the cliff and began to spread out to widen their search.

The night seemed to drag on, the weary search party worked throughout the long hours stopping only briefly for hot coffee and a quick sandwich that was provided by the wives of the men who searched.  By morning, the bodies had all been transported back to Virginia City with the exception of one, Joe’s, whose own body was yet to be found.

Adam wiped his brow and lowered himself onto the rock where he stood.  They had searched the entire area and had found nothing, not even a sign.  Adam glanced over his right shoulder and could see his father and brother moving around on the rocks.  They looked as tired as he felt, he thought to himself.  Slowly Adam untied his neck scarf and wiped his face again, this time he removed the tears that had suddenly welled up in his dark brooding eyes.  Joe could be anywhere, lying among the rocks and boulders, under the scrub bushes, behind the scattered tree stumps.  The terrain was deceiving, the ground dark in places, light in others and when the sun moved, the shadows changed until you found yourself searching where you had already searched.  Adam sighed, Joe could be right in front of your eyes and still you might not see his body.  The thought caused Adam to expel the wind from his lungs.  Dragging his weary body to his feet, the exhausted man returned his hat to his head and began tying the scarf around his neck.  Adam shaded his eyes as he looked upward for the sun’s location.  It was nearly noon and Adam’s hopes of finding his brother alive was growing dimmer as the sun’s warm rays grew brighter.

“Please God…help us…show me which direction to look,” muttered Adam softly as he stood alone on the rock.  “For Pa, God…for Pa.”

Adam had no more than lowered his head when his eyes caught the glimmer of something shiny not more than ten yards in front of him.  The sun had moved ever so slightly, the shadows changing once more and there in plain sight laid the twisted body of his youngest brother.  Adam stumbled across the terrain as he proceeded to make his way toward the place where Joe lay half hidden by the rocks and scrub.

“PA! HOSS! Over here, I found him,” shouted Adam, kneeling down beside Joe’s still form.  Joe was covered in dirt, the angle of his leg told Adam that the leg was badly broken.  Joe lay face down, a pool of blood beneath his battered and bruised head.  Quickly Adam felt his brother’s throat for a pulse.

Ben and Hoss hurried to join Adam.  Ben, in his haste stumbled forward as he reached his son’s side and had to put forth both arms, his hands bracing his fall by landing in the middle of his older son’s back.

“Easy Pa,” cautioned Adam seeking for a pulse with his long slender fingers.

“Is he alive son?  Is Joseph alive?”  Ben leaned over Adam’s shoulder anxiously trying to catch a glimpse of his youngest son’s face.

Several men had gathered around and mumbled softly their encouragement to the Cartwrights.

“Shh…” barked Adam as he slid his fingers further around the side of Joe’s neck, desperately seeking a sign of life.  Adam felt his finger become dampened and sticky by the blood that had begun to congeal on the ground and felt his empty stomach turn queasy at the sight of so much of his brother’s blood.

“There!  There it is Pa.  It’s weak, but he’s alive,” Adam moved aside to allow his father space to kneel beside of his wounded son. Hoss grinned at Adam, the gap between his front teeth clearly showing along with a look of relief on his face.

“Joseph, son can you hear me?” Ben gently slid his hand under Joe’s head and turned it slightly.  Joe’s eyes were glued shut with the dried blood that had seeped from the ugly gash on his forehead; his face had dirt and bits of dried leaves and tiny twigs stuck in the blood as well.  Ben tenderly brushed away what he could with his free hand.  Joe was motionless, his breathing barely noticed, and when Ben gently moved his broken leg, Joe did not even moan or cry out so lost was he in the world of blackness.  So far so, that his father feared he would never return to them.

Ben cast worried eyes at the men who gathered and saw the concern written on their faces.  From out of nowhere Ben was handed a blanket, then a canteen of water and a small tin cup.  One man held up a coil of rope, another a clean cloth to squelch the blood that still dripped from the fractured leg.  Ben smiled, his gratitude aimed at the men who had spent the last day and night helping him to find his son.  He was unable to speak, his throat had suddenly grown thick with emotion and no one uttered a word when he dropped his head and tears slipped from his eyes and down his unshaven face.

Quickly Adam stepped aside as two men came forward with a stretcher.  Paul Martin yelled down to Ben and Hoss ordering them to put a board under Joe’s body to prevent movement that might injure him further and to keep him still.  Suddenly a board appeared, Ben never did know where it came from so quickly but they placed it on the ground and Hoss helped his father move Joe unto it and then wrap the blanket about his injured body.  With the rope that was offered, he and his brother carefully tied Joe onto the stretcher to prevent him from sliding off on the uphill climb.

When Joe was secured, four men grabbed a corner of the makeshift carrier and began the long climb up the side of the rough terrain.  Hoss, seeing how his father staggered and stumbled, slipped his arm under Ben’s and helped him climb the uneven and broken rocks until both were safely at the top.  Adam followed along behind, giving a gentle nudge every so often in an effort to keep his father moving.  Once at the top, Ben collapsed to the ground and lay where he fell for several minutes before pulling himself to his feet and moving to Joe’s side.

Paul Martin, the family’s physician and long time friend was waiting at the top.  “Let’s get him into the back of the wagon.  Leave him on the stretcher, it will keep him from being tossed around so much and it will be easier to carry him inside once we get back to the ranch.  Ben, I suggest that we take him to the Ponderosa, it’s closer than going all the way into town, and he will be more comfortable in his own bed.  Now you men, move out of here and let me check him over.”  Paul barked out his orders in military fashion snapping everyone to attention.

“Get these horses ready, Hoss hand me my medical bag, Adam take your father over to the fire and get some hot coffee and food into him before he becomes a patient also,” ordered the doctor.

Hoss handed Paul his bag, the men cleared room for the doctor to do his work and Adam took Ben by the arm and practically had to drag him from Joe’s side over to the fire.  Hoss already had a cup of hot coffee waiting and had to place it into his father’s hand and lift Ben’s hand with the cup in it to his mouth.  Ben seemed to snap to his senses then and giving both his sons a small weary smile, sipped slowly at the hot brew but adamantly refused the proffered sandwich.

“I can’t eat son, but thanks,” he said to Adam, “the coffee will be enough for now.  How’s Joe?”

“Doc’s workin’ on him now Pa,” Hoss explained looking over his shoulder at the doctor who was in the wagon and bent over his brother’s lifeless form.  “He’s in pretty bad shape, Doc don’t know yet how busted up he is on the inside.  He’ll know something in a little while; try not to worry Pa.  Joe’s a tough kid, he’ll pull outta this.”

Hoss tried to encourage his father, tried to give him something to cling too, but Hoss had his own doubts as to whether or not his baby brother was as tough as he’d like to think that the boy was.  He had been brutally tossed about inside the crowded coach then flung out among the rocks and down several yards before coming to rest face down in his own blood at the bottom of the cliff.  Seven others had suffered the same fate and paid with their lives, would Joe end up as they had?  Hoss stepped away from the fire and began to pray, he prayed for his brother’s recovery, he prayed for the families of the deceased, especially the Mercers who had lost half of their family and he prayed for strength for himself, his father and his older brother should the worst happen.

An hour later Doc Martin had made Joe as comfortable as he could under the circumstances and was ready to head back to the Ponderosa.  The men who had spent the last several hours helping to locate all of the bodies broke away into small groups, gathered their belongings and made ready to return to their own homes.  Adam and Hoss saddled their horses and their father’s and mounted up.  Ben climbed into the back of the wagon with the doctor and Joe while another man who had volunteered to drive the wagon for them, sat waiting for the doctor’s command to move out.

The tiresome ride back home wore heavily on the weary men.  The wagon driver tried to avoid as many ruts and holes as was possible but occasionally he could not help but drive into one.  Joe barely stirred at these times.  The doctor told the anxious father it was due partly because of the medication that he had administered and partly because Joe had slipped so far into unconsciousness that he was unable to feel anything.  Paul assured them that regardless of the reason it was good for the boy’s sake since the journey home would be a long one.

It was after dark before the procession of men arrived at the Ponderosa.  Adam and Hoss carried Joe on his stretcher up to his room and together with the help of the doctor and their father, carefully placed Joe onto his bed.

“Ben, I want the three of you,” Paul nodded his head in Adam and Hoss’ direction, “to go to bed.”

Ben puffed out his chest and straightened his back, “No Paul, I’m not leaving him.  He might wake up and call for me.”

Ben staggered to the edge of the bed and dropped down to his knees beside Joe.  Being careful not to reopen the gash on his forehead, Ben gently picked at the stray locks of hair that was stuck to Joe’s face by the blood that had glued them down.  Ben’s eyes filled with tears as he studied the discoloration of his son’s battered face and thought back to the day before when Joe’s eyes had fairly danced with happiness and when his smile had made him look more like the boy he was so desperately wanted to outgrow, and he thought of Marie who had blessed him with such a wonderful gift in this precious boy.  Ben lovingly caressed Joe’s swollen face making no attempt to stop the tears that dripped from his chin and onto the pillow where his son’s head rested.

Paul rested his hand on his friend’s trembling shoulder, “Ben, I know you want to be with him, but if you don’t get some sleep, you’ll end up sick yourself.  Now I can’t care properly for your son here if I have to spend all of my time running back and forth between you and him, now can I?”

Ben placed a kiss on Joe’s brow and glanced up doubtfully at the physician knowing that what he had said was the truth for the only thing that had kept Ben moving was the fear of losing his son.  Now that Joe had been found, Ben’s fatigue was beginning to get the better of him.  Slowly Ben rose to his feet, faced the doctor and placed both of his hands on the physician’s shoulders.

“Promise me Paul, as my friend, that you will wake me the second he opens his eyes, or if there is any change whatsoever,” Ben asked almost pleadingly.

Paul gave his long time friend a smile and nodded his head.  “You have my solemn promise on that Ben.  If he so much as bats an eye, I’ll send for you immediately.  Now please, I have a lot to do here.”

Paul turned to face the other two Cartwrights who had also gathered around their brother’s bed.  “The same goes for the two of you.  Hop Sing can stay and help me. Now get, all of you.”

Paul turned his back to his patient’s family and began what he knew would be a time consuming job of putting Joe’s broken body back together.  As Ben and his sons filed from the sick room, Paul cast one last glance over his shoulder at them, looked into Hop Sing’s almond shaped eyes and sighed deeply.  He prayed with all of his heart that what he had to do to save the boy’s young life would be enough to pull Ben’s injured son from death’s door and back into the world of the living.

I paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, stopping briefly to warm my hands over the open flame.  It wasn’t cold, I suppose I was somewhat nervous and that was just something to do to keep my hands busy.  I turned the minute I heard the door open.  Joe looked beat, his movements slower than usual, what with the weight of the cast still on his leg.  I noticed he barely looked up at me as he removed his hat and hung it up.  He hadn’t put on his gun belt but he lingered just the same in front of the credenza before he ever looked my way.  I stood where I was, hoping that Joe would speak first, he seldom spoke at all anymore and then only when spoken too and if he was unable to avoid having to say anything.  I couldn’t stand it any longer; the silence was unbearable so I made the first move.

“Did you enjoy your walk son?”  I knew it was a foolish question the minute it came out of my mouth; Joe could barely hobble around here in the house, let alone actually go outside for a walk.

Joe rested his weight on the crutch under his left arm and moved slowly in my direction.

“I went to the barn to check on Cochise,” Joe mumbled his reply.

I could tell by the look on his face and the redness of his swollen eyes that he had been crying.  It was something that he did a lot lately though he doesn’t suspect that I am aware of how often he does.  He tries to hide it from his brothers and I but the three of us have heard him, sometimes very late at night when he thinks we are sleeping.  He breaks down after having a nightmare and I can hear him sobbing.  I’ve gone to his bedside during those times but he brushes away the tears and asks to be left alone.  I have to respect his wishes, though it is so hard for I know the boy needs my support and my comfort but he shies away from me, not wanting to let me see that he cries or not wanting to admit that he needs me to hold him. And the things I have heard him say to God turns my blood cold, in his despair he has even cursed God and once, when Joe was not aware that I stood at his opened door, I saw my son shake his fist in anger at our Lord. His question is always the same, ‘why God, why?’ and then he starts to weep again, it’s heart wrenching to watch and to hear but what’s worse is not being able to help him.

I know that Joe is in limbo most of the time, the part of him that pushes me away screams out that he is a man, but the other part, the part of him where his tender heart weeps for the lives of others, for their pain, their grief, their loss and the other part of him that cries for himself, his own loss, his heartache, his guilt, his failure, that part is still the boy in him.  And then there’s the part of Joe that is angry at God and questions God’s reasons and then turns right around and prays to that same God for mercy and guidance, that’s both man and boy and that’s the toughest place to be when you’re nineteen and trying to figure out what happened that eight people met the same fate and only one lived to tell about it.  I know my son feels as if the weight of the world is resting on his shoulders and his alone and I can do nothing to lighten his load other than to repeatedly assure him I am here for him when he needs to turn to me; and when he does, I’ll do all in my power as his father to take what I can of his burden and place it on my own shoulders, even if it means giving up my own life for my son’s.

Joe walked on passed me but stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked up toward the top.  It was a long climb with the cast holding him back.  I would offer to help him up but I know he would only decline my offer.  He can really be stubborn when he sets his mind to it and it seems that stubborn has become his mode in life since his world was turned upside down.

“Are you going to bed, son?”

I saw the way his shoulders slumped, the way he dropped his head and my heart broke at the defeated look on his face that I saw when he turned to look at me.  But what really tugs at my heart are the tears I see streaming down his face.  He is a broken man; I’ve seen that look before, on men much older than my son.  Men who had suffered personal losses, men defeated by life’s trials and tribulations and men who have just given up on life, themselves, their families, and worst of all, their God.

I closed the distant between us and when I rested my hand on his shoulder, I felt the tremors that passed beneath my palm.  I was surprised that Joseph hadn’t pulled away from my touch as he had in the previous days, but instead raised his tear stained face to mine, his eyes filled with water, his chin quivering and suddenly he grabbed me about my shoulders and buried his face in my chest and wept bitterly.

I choked up as well and it was several moments before I could find my own voice enough to speak.  I closed my arms about my darling son’s trembling shoulders and stood there holding him as tightly as I could and allowed him to release his misery.  I prayed that some of my own strength would flow from my body into his and give him the peace of mind that I knew his troubled heart pleaded for.

I have no idea how long we stood there, Joseph and I locked in each other’s embrace.  But when I finally looked up toward the top of the stairs, Adam and Hoss were standing silently on the landing, midway of the steps.  Funny, I never heard them come down, never caught a movement from the corner of my eye, but there they were, my two oldest boys, standing guard over their father and younger brother.  I saw tears in Hoss’ eyes, Adam I knew was fighting to control his, I could tell by the tightness of his jaw and the way he clinched his fists without even realizing he was doing it.  They were like two brave knights out of one of Adam’s books he was always reading.  I felt then that if Joe only knew how very much his brothers wanted to help him, he could combat this self-imposed torture that he so adamantly refused to relinquish.

I gently guided Joe over to the settee where he sat slowly down being careful of his leg.  Hoss eased over and placed one of the small red pillows from the couch under his brother’s foot and propped his leg on the table in front of him.  It was then that Joe first realized that his brother’s had witnessed his break down and I half expected Joseph to go off half-cocked.  But instead he smiled up at Hoss and even turned to give Adam a smile also.  Both looked relived that he had not exploded into anger, as was his custom of late.

I sat down next to Joe, staying as close to him as he would let me.  He still had one hand firmly on my arm holding on to me like he was afraid I might take off and leave him.  When I leaned back in my seat, Joe glanced at me and I could tell from the look on his face that he wanted to say something.  I figured he wanted all of us to hear what ever it might be; otherwise, he would ask his brothers to leave us alone.

Several minutes passed without any of us saying a word.  Hop Sing slipped in to join us bringing with him a tray of sandwiches and hot coffee.  He placed it on the table in front of me and began pouring a cup for each of us.  Hoss who was sitting on the table facing Joe, grabbed a sandwich and began eating.  Adam stood to the side and after Hoss had helped himself, Adam also picked up a sandwich.  Still no one said a word.

Joe finally raised his head and after sweeping his eyes around at all of us, his misty eyes came to rest on mine.  I saw him swallow as if he were trying to build courage enough to speak and I gave him the time he needed to gather his thoughts together.  Adam had sat down on the arm of the settee and I caught a glimpse of his troubled expression over the top of Joseph’s head.  He looked about as worried as I was; I knew that Joe’s older brothers had been as concerned about him as I have been.

Finally Joe cleared his throat.  “Pa, I had visitors a few minutes ago, when I was outside,” he said solemnly.  “Mr. and Mrs. Mercer stopped by.  They had their new babies with them.”  Joe looked down at his hands and twisted them together and then glanced back up at me.

“Did they need to see me about anything, son?” I asked though I suspected why they had stopped by.

Joe shook his head, “No…they came by to see me.”

I wasn’t surprised; I had run into the Mercers the day before while in town and when they had asked about how Joe was doing, I told them the whole story.  I guess I broke.  I mean, I had watched my son suffer and struggle with grief and guilt for nearly two months and I suppose I just needed someone to unburden my own heart to.  Jack and Polly had seemed genuinely concerned about my son’s welfare.  They were taken back by the idea that Joe blamed himself for the death of their children, they had had no idea that he felt as he did.  I explained to them that I had talked to Joe about the accident but that he had it planted firmly in his own mind that the death of their three children rested solely with him.  Polly had broken down and cried after I told her and Jack had to comfort his wife right there on the street.  Before we parted ways, both of the Mercers had promised to come out to the ranch really soon and have a talk with Joe.  I hadn’t expected them to come so quickly, but I should have known they would have.  Hopefully whatever they said to my son will help him to work through his problem and his guilt.

The day had dawned rainy and dreary, Joe was still deep into a medicated sleep.  Paul Martin had wanted him to sleep as much as possible, to prevent him from thrashing about too much and to give his battered body time to start healing.  I was reluctant to leave him, even if for just a couple hours, but the Mercers were burying their three children that morning and I felt it my obligation to attend the funeral.  Adam stayed with Joe while Hoss accompanied me to the graveside service.  I remember that Polly looked so sad but when she saw me, I will never forget that she placed her hand on my arm and smiled.

She said to me, “Ben, thank God Little Joe is going to be alright.”  I thought to myself, here she is, burying three of her own children and her main concern was for the welfare of mine.  The woman is a saint if ever there were one.

“Polly, thank you and yes, I do thank God…but you have…” I stopped as Polly squeezed my arm and though there were tears in her eyes she smiled up at me and for the first time I noted her face, she had a certain look about her, almost peaceful and I couldn’t help but wonder.  Then she explained.

“Ben…my beautiful babies are at peace now and in heaven with our Lord.  Don’t tell me you are sorry for that.  Heaven is only that much more dearer to my heart, now that they are there.  Surely you understand that, don’t you?” Polly asked me.

I was shocked to say the least and for several moments was unable to find my voice.

“Ben, the bible says that ‘for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.  Jack and I will miss them dearly, but we have something to look forward to someday.  We know that we will see them again.”

She dabbed her eyes then and I could only nod my head yes in response to her statement for my own tears had blinded my eyes and my throat was suddenly thick with emotion.  I could not relish the idea of this woman’s thinking.  Then I briefly thought back to the sorrows in my own life, the three wives that had passed away, the love we had shared and the son’s we had made together and yes, I knew that heaven held the strings to my heart and that one day it would be just as Polly had proclaimed, I would see my loved ones again and when that time came, I would be with them throughout all eternity.

After the funeral was over, Roy stopped me and handed me a traveling case.  I recognized it to be Joseph’s.

“I found it Ben, the other day when I went back to the accident site.  There wasn’t much left of anything, but I did happen across this and thought you might want it,” said Roy.

I took the valise from him, thanked him and strolled over to my horse.  I was in a hurry to get back to the ranch and to see how Joe was.  But I couldn’t stop myself; I’m not sure what caused me to look inside.  Maybe seeing Joe’s personal things, touching them would somehow dislodge the fear I felt in my heart that I could still lose my son.  He was in bad shape and Paul had said that Joe had a long recovery ahead of him.

I found the little brown sack that Joe had shown me the morning I had asked him about what he would do if the children had started crying.  It was as if my hands had a mind of their own for the next thing I knew, I was opening the little bag and I couldn’t stop from smiling when I saw the contents.  Inside were all of Joe’s favorite candies, peppermint sticks, licorice sticks, no black ones because Joe didn’t like those, but there were jaw breakers, gumdrops, bonbons, sour lemon balls, I couldn’t tell what else he had in there, the little sack was too full.  I closed the bag and stuck it back down in Joe’s carpetbag.  I would take it home but I would never tell Joe that I now understood why he seemed to always get a stomachache whenever I went away.  His older brother, Adam, would fill him so full of sweets when I left that he would often get sick. I laughed at their little secret and somehow after looking into the sack, I did feel better.

The next day we had a visit from Roy and he told us that late the night before, after the funeral, Polly had gone into early labor and by the time that Doc Martin had arrived, Polly had delivered one baby, a beautiful blue eyed little girl and was working hard to bring a second baby into the world.  Minutes after Doc’s arrival, Polly gave birth to a handsome if not somewhat tiny baby boy.  Both babies and mother were doing fine Roy had said.  Jack had asked the doctor to have someone come by to tell us and naturally Roy had volunteered for the job.  It was his excuse to drop by and see how Joe was doing.  I laughed and slapped my long time friend on his back and scolded him for thinking that he had to have an excuse to drop by the Ponderosa.

Much, much later that evening, after Adam and Hoss had retired, I sat by Joseph’s bedside watching him sleep.  He tossed about some and occasionally moaned; I’m sure the pain that must have been present was beginning to awaken his dulled senses.  I moved closer when I saw his eyes flicker then open and I could barely make out that he was calling for me his voice was so weak.

“Pa?”

“I’m here son,” I said and then watched as he struggled with getting the words out that he wanted to say.

“The kids…Pa…I couldn’t…hold them…” Joe had begun to weep and I frantically tried to think of something to say that would ease his misery.

“Pa,” Joe called the second time, and this time my heart climbed up into my throat.  “The babies…are they all right?”

“Shh…son, try to rest, you need to be still Joe, please,” I was stalling and he must have sensed it for he grabbed my arm and pulled me down to him.

“They’re…gone, aren’t…they?”  Still I could not bring myself to break the heart wrenching news to him, it could destroy him and he only lingered by a thread as it was.

“Pa…please…I need…to know.”  Joe was begging and I knew there was no escaping what would have to be told later on.

“Yes sweetheart…”

“All…of them?” he barely mumbled.

I nodded my head yes.  “We couldn’t do anything to save them.  Everyone but you was already dead son, by the time anyone realized that the stage had gone over the side of the mountain it was just too late.”  There, I said it, I wouldn’t have to repeat it later, and I could tell by the way Joe scrunched up his face that he knew what I meant.

Joe pulled harder on my arm until he was almost sitting up.  I sat down next to him and when he flung his arms about my neck, I embraced him and we both wept; Joe sobbed for the longest time and I will never forget him wailing out his anguish at God for having allowed such a thing to happen.  My son, weak from his injuries, his body racked with fever, howled in tormented agony, “Why? Why? Oh God why?”

I will remember always how he begged me to hold him and how in his own physical weakness just how strong his grip was on my arm.  I didn’t know why, I couldn’t answer him.  I was finding it hard enough to understand in my own mind why seven lives had been wiped out and only one survived, my son.  For that I had to be thankful, but even that was hard, with so many others that were suffering.  But in my heart I knew if I had to choose who would live and who would die, I naturally would have chosen my own son to be among the living rather than the dead.  It was selfish of me, I knew and I felt guilty for thinking it, but Joseph was my baby and I didn’t want to lose him.  I’m not sure that in his present state of mind Joseph would agree with me though for I feared that in his grief he would have just as soon joined the others in death.

I heard a soft noise behind me and looked up to see my two older boys standing quietly in the doorway.  They eased themselves in and circled the bed.  Joe still wept, so lost in his sorrow that he wasn’t even aware that his brothers had joined us.

Hoss sat on the opposite side of the bed and placed his large but gentle hand on his little brother’s black and blue colored back and gently rubbed up and down.  “Joe, we’ll get through this.  Adam and I will help ya,” Hoss said softly.

Joe didn’t respond to his brother’s comforting words, his pain, both physical and emotional became too much for him and as he slipped back into a troubled sleep, I lowered him back against his pillows.  He still clung to my arm and when I sat down, I gather his battered, bruised covered hand into my own and there I remained throughout the night, holding his hand.  It seemed right that we stayed connected in that way, I was scared to let him go and to him I had become his lifeline.  Adam and Hoss stayed with us, seemed that Joe wasn’t the only one who needed support; I think that night was the longest ever for all four of us and we stayed together until the sun finally inched it’s way over the mountaintop the next morning.

“Pa,” Joe sniffed his nose and wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeves, something I could never break him from doing, but he looked back up at his brothers and then at me.  It brought me out of my thoughts and back to the present.

“Yes son?”  I had the feeling that something within Joseph had changed from the time he had sat staring into the fire until he had gone outside and encountered the Mercers.

“Mr. and Mrs. Mercer brought their new twins over for me to see.  Have you seen them?” Joe asked, almost shyly.

I nodded my head, “Yes I have.  They are beautiful babies, don’t you think?”

It was Joe’s turn to nod his head.  Then his eyes met mine and he looked so bewildered.

“Did they tell you that they named the baby boy, Joseph, after me?”

I saw the tiniest bit of tears begin to well in his eyes when he told me that little bit of information.  “No, I didn’t know they had done that.  But I think that was rather nice of them, wouldn’t you say?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders and wiped away the single tear that threatened to escape.  “I asked them why, being as how I was responsible for letting their other children get killed.”

I quickly glanced up at his brothers, they had the same shocked look on their faces as I’m sure was evident on my own.  Before any of us could comment on Joe’s statement, Joe started to rattle on and I held my hand up to silence anything that Adam or Hoss might say for Joe hadn’t talked his much since before he left on the stage that day and I didn’t want to squelch his need to verbalize his feelings and thoughts.

“Know what they said?”

Joe pressed his head deeply into the back of the settee and looked over at me.  Most of the dark bruises that had marred his good looks had nearly faded away, the scratches were gone now and the big gash that streaked across his forehead was almost completely healed.  To me my son looked beautiful.  I know a father should not think of his son as beautiful, but to me that’s just what Joe was.  Hoss would have called him ‘plum purty’; I just called him beautiful!

“What did they say son?”

“They said that they didn’t hold me responsible for what happened, said it was just a terrible accident and that I should not blame myself,” Joe explained and then straightened up.

“Well Joseph, haven’t I been telling you that all along?”

“I suppose, but just hearing them say it, makes it seem different somehow.  I mean…they asked me if I had known that the axle was going to break, would I have gone ahead and put the children on that stage.  I told them of course not.  Jack said then it was his fault because he had suggested the idea to Polly about sending the children to her parents and then she popped up and said it was her fault for agreeing to it.  The next thing I knew they were arguing between themselves over whether it was his fault or hers.  Then I held up my hand for them to stop and they looked at me and I told them it wasn’t either of their faults, it was an accident, and that they had no way of knowing what was going to happen.”  Joe almost smiled at us then.

I did smile, inside, where Joe couldn’t see, for I knew exactly what Jack and Polly had done; they had forced Joe to see the obvious and without realizing it, Joe had admitted the truth to himself, that the deaths of the children were not his fault.

“I heard Jack say, ‘that’s right Little Joe, it was just an accident, and it was no one’s fault, not mine, not hers,’ and then he pointed at me and said, ‘and not yours’.”

“Mrs. Mercer hugged me and smiled at me.  Then she said, ‘Joe, it’s human nature to ask why when something like this happens.  But the bible says that ‘to all things there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die’.  She said that she and her husband knew that one day they would see their children again, just like I would see my ma, and Adam his ma, and Hoss, his.  She said that we have to have enough faith in God to believe that what He says is true.”  Joe stopped and swallowed, his lips drawn into a tight thin line and I saw his chin begin to quiver.  I slipped my arm about his shoulder to give him support and he leaned his head over and laid it on my shoulder.

“I always believed you Pa, when you told me that if I believed hard enough, and trusted in God, that I would see my mama again someday.  I guess I must’va forgotten that for a little while.  I’m sorry Pa, I suppose I was feeling sorry for myself and I was scared, everyone died but me and maybe I was ashamed because I thought I had failed.  I guess I thought I was incapable of handing something as simple as delivering three small children to their grandparents.  I know now that what I should have been ashamed of was my lack of trust in God.  Mrs. Mercer said that God gives and God takes away.  She said that her three children had been a gift from God to her and her husband, if for only a short time and that God had the right to take them back whenever He chose.  She said her children were ‘on loan’ I think she called it.   Funny, she smiled at me then and said ‘look Joe; God gave us two special babies to fill the void in our lives.  He knew our sorrow would be too much to bear, so he gave us two babies instead of just one.  He kept His promise to us, He filled our need Joe, He supplied what He knew would help easy our pain’.”

“Pa, she also told me that it was easy to trust in God when everything was going good but that the test of faith is only found when there are burdens to bear.  She said that to know the greatness of God’s love, we have to walk in darkness.  I suppose she meant that what happened was a form of the darkness,” Joe went on to say.

“Pa, did ya know that because we have sorrows and trials our faith gets stronger if we believe?”

Joe stopped talking and became very quiet.

“She’s right you know Joe, on all accounts,” said Adam, “but if we don’t believe that we will see our loved ones again someday, then we have no hope for tomorrow or for the future.  We would have nothing to look forward too.  It would be a dismal thing, life with out the promise of tomorrow, no forever.  Life would not be worth living if we turned our backs on God and lost faith in the things He tries to teach us,” Adam explained to his brother.

“I know, but it’s just hard to understand why things like this happen.  And it’s even harder when you’re part of it.  I still don’t understand why God let seven people die that day and left me.  Joe’s eyes began filling with tears then and when he hung his head, I saw them slip off the end of his chin.

“Son, we’re not supposed to know all of the answers.  Some things we just have to except by faith.”  I hugged Joseph to me and he looked up at me.  I noticed for the first time since the accident that he seemed more relaxed, more at peace with things.

“I know that now Pa.  But I didn’t before, not until I talked to the Mercers.  I still have questions, lots of them, and maybe I’ll never know why this happened, but now I understand about God’s plan.  I have to spend more time learning to trust Him and less time trying to figure Him out,” said Joe.

“Hey little brother, you never did say why they named that baby after you,” commented Hoss with a slight smile on his face.

I could tell that this giant of a man was pleased to see that his baby brother was finally coming to terms with what had happened to him.  Joe still didn’t have all the answers to his questions, but for now he seemed content with the ones he did have and I knew that the healing hands of time would grant him more peace and perhaps bring more answers as he grew older and gained more wisdom as to God’s plans for his life.

Joe smiled at his brothers and shrugged his shoulders at them.  “I ain’t really sure what they meant, but Mrs. Mercer said something about the Joseph in the bible being a goodly person and well favored.  Then she said that God must have thought I was an awfully lot like that Joseph and that’s why he spared me.  Said she wanted her new baby boy to grow up to be just like me.”

We couldn’t help it, his brothers and I, but we burst out laughing.  Joe stared at us like we were crazy but I knew that each of us were thinking different thoughts about what the baby, Joseph Mercer, would turn out to be like if he grew up to be just like my son and their brother.

“Hey, what’s so funny?” asked Joe giving his brothers each disgusted looks that tried to hide his smile, but I saw that the twinkle had returned to his hazel eyes at last, and that he couldn’t mask.

I stopped laughing and watched the three of them, enjoying their brotherly banter.   Joe wasn’t really mad, just pretending to be and I thought, what a wonderful man my son’s namesake, Joseph Mercer, would make if he became half the man that my precious son, Joseph Cartwright had at last become.

THE END
May 2002

Dedicated first to Peggy, my friend in New York, and then to the survivors of 9-11 who might still be asking, ‘why God, why?’

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