“Please, Pa…try to understand…”
“I’m trying, Joseph, but you’re making no sense whatsoever,” Ben yelled.
“If you’d just stop yelling at me…”
“I’m not yelling!” shouted Ben.
He turned from his son and took a deep breath and then faced the boy a second time.
“Alright,” he said, trying to remain calm. “I might have raised my voice some…but I certainly didn’t mean to yell at you. Now, tell me again why you think you have to go away for a spell…”
“I don’t think, Pa…I know…I have to go…I…I can’t take it here any more…”
“I don’t understand why! What is wrong with…here?” demanded Ben with a scowl.
Joe sighed loudly, lowering his head. How could he ever make his father understand his need to be…free…to go away, just for a while, maybe a month or two? He was fed up with his two brothers; Adam always finding fault, Hoss always laughing…it had worn on his nerves until he’d about gotten to the place where he resented everything about his home…and his family. Even his father didn’t seem to be able to understand him anymore…no one did.
‘Hell,’ thought Joe, ‘I don’t even understand myself.’
“I asked you a question, Joseph,” Ben said. “You have everything here…a nice home, good food, clean beds and clothes…horses…a family…what is wrong with ‘here’?” growled Ben.
He had been watching the play of emotions that flickered across his young son’s face, noting the sad countenance and how the once radiant eyes had stopped dancing with merriment. Something terrible must be eating away at the boy and knowing Joe, he had yet been able to find an answer for his problem, thought Ben.
“Everything…everything is wrong, Pa. I can’t stand it any longer…”
“You can’t stand it?” Ben muttered, stunned.
“I don’t mean you…not really…”
“Then what, Joe…what has happened to make you so unhappy…enough so that you want to run away?”
“I’m not running away!” Joe stated firmly, turning his back to his father so he would not have to look into the fearful eyes, for that was what Joe was seeing in his father’s expression…fear.
He hated himself for what he was doing…hurting his father…the one force in his life whom he loved and respected more than any other person…and he was breaking his father’s heart.
Joe turned, forcing himself to remain calm.
“It’s Adam…and Hoss…and the way they treat me…it’s their remarks…and their laughter. Adam makes his wise cracks like I’m nothing…like he thinks they don’t hurt…he says things on purpose, knowing that I can hear what he says…and Hoss adds fuel to the fire by laughing, like it was all a big joke. I’m tired of being called ‘boy’; I’m tired of being thought of, as a kid who can never measure up, because everything I do…is wrong…according to their standards. I’m tired…just plain old tired of trying…what’s the use, I’ll never be good enough…I’ll never be anything to them other than their ‘kid brother’!”
Joe felt his eyes burning with tears but he willed them away and continued.
“Pa…I’m tired of mediocre jobs, I’m tired of mucking out the stable and cleaning the chicken coop…I’m tired of being everyone’s errand boy…fetch this, fetch that…I’m tired of…you…never taking me serious. No one thinks my ideas are any good…you never hear me out when I offer my opinion…they’re not important to you…I’m not old enough, I’m not educated enough, like Adam…it’s always…Adam…Adam…he’s always right…Always!”
Joe gulped hard. It was obvious to him now that he had his father’s full attention…and that almost frightened him enough to wish he’d never brought up the subject. He secretly regretted that he had not slipped away during the night and left his father a note explaining why he’d done so, but now it was too late; his conscience would not permit him to do so.
“Well…I have thoughts, and ideas…and they aren’t bad. Some of them are pretty darn good…but neither you nor Hoss and especially Adam, take me seriously. All three of you treat me more like one of the hired men than…one of you. I’m told what to do, how to do it, when to do…golly, Pa…I’m even told when to go bed and when to get up…like I don’t have enough sense to know when I’m tired enough to put myself in bed. The only things you don’t do for me anymore is dress me and give me a bath…or feed me…Sometimes I think you’d still do that, if I’d let you…”
Joe swallowed the lump that swelled in his throat and looked at his father with sad, unhappy eyes.
Ben moved around the table to stand before the fire. He was silent unable to think of something to say that would convince his son that the way he was feeling was just normal…for a young man his age. Several moments of strained silence lingered between the father and the son, until Ben at last turned.
Joe had moved to the credenza and had begun to gather his things. Ben hurried across the room, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Beneath his fingers, Ben could feel the tremors that surged through his son’s body.
“Please, Pa,” Joe said, looking with sad eyes at his father. “Don’t try to stop me…this is hard enough as it is for me…”
“I wasn’t going to stop you, Joseph…I was just going to tell you, that…I’m sorry…if I’ve hurt you, or offended you…I didn’t mean too…”
“Oh…I know that, Pa…I know how much you care…I don’t blame you…I don’t even blame Adam and Hoss. It’s me; I suppose…I mean…I have to find out what kind of a man I am. If I don’t…then how can I ever expect any of you to treat me…like a man, instead of just your…little boy…and their kid brother,” sighed Joe. “I don’t even know yet for myself if I really am a man, or…what the three of you think I am…a boy.”
Ben could only nod his head, but he forced himself to smile a little at his son.
“Where will you go, what will you do?”
“I want to be alone…I want time to think…so…I thought I’d go to the high country; maybe do a little hunting and fishing. Winter isn’t too far off…I might stay until spring…”
“Spring?” Ben stammered. “But…that’s months, Joe…”
Joe lowered his head, hiding from the pain he heard in his father’s voice, and not wanting to see the hurt in his father’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Pa…but I gotta do this…”
Joe rushed from the house, in a hurry to reach his horse and the pack animal he had readied earlier that morning, before everyone else had gotten up to start the day.
“Where’s he going?” asked Adam who suddenly appeared behind his father on the front porch.
Ben stood watching Joe as the boy mounted up. His heart was yearning to call out to the boy, plead with him if necessary to keep him from leaving, but Ben knew that to stop Joe’s leaving, would only allow for more resentment to fester in his son’s heart.
“Away…where to?” Adam asked crossly. “And for how long…doesn’t he know that there’s plenty of work around here to do…the stalls haven’t been mucked in days…why does he think he needs a holiday…JOE, GET BACK HERE!”
Joe rounded the corner of the barn, out of his father’s sight, ignoring his brother’s shouts. He had not even turned around to wave goodbye, and by not doing so, had pained the worried father.
“Pa?” Adam said, seeing for the first time, the strange expression on his father’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Ben turned then; a deep frown had furrowed across his brow, making him appear older than his years to the young man who studied his face.
“Perhaps ‘away’ was the wrong word,” Ben muttered as he turned, shoulders slumped in defeat, back toward the house.
“Wait a minute,” Adam said, taking hold of Ben’s arm and stopping his father from entering the house. A sudden, rush of unease swept across Adam’s heart.
“What do you mean by that?” he asked.
“WHAT?” proclaimed Adam, sounding much like his father often did.
“I don’t know how long he’ll be gone…or if he’ll ever come home,” Ben said sadly, entering the house.
Adam stood, stunned to the bone by the news that his youngest brother had left home, not knowing why or what to think on the matter. He was lost in deep thoughts, totally unaware that Hoss had joined him on the porch.
“What’s wrong with Pa? He wouldn’t even speak to me when…Adam…what’s wrong with ya? And where’s Little Joe?” Hoss inquired, seeing the same strange look on his brother’s face as he had seen minutes ago on his father’s.
“Hoss,” said Adam quietly, “let’s go to the barn…I think we need to talk,” Adam said as he led the way to the barn, where they could speak in private.
“Alright, now what in blazes is goin’ on?” Hoss demanded the minute they were alone.
Adam turned and faced his brother, swallowing hard, knowing how this tenderhearted giant would take the news…it would crush Hoss, of that Adam was certain.
“Joe’s gone…Pa doesn’t know for how long…or if he’ll ever come home…”
Hoss’ face wrinkled into a puckered frown as he stared dumbfounded, at his oldest brother.
“Gone? Where?” babbled Hoss.
“I don’t know, Hoss…Pa didn’t say. I don’t even think Pa knows where Joe’s headed…or if Joe knows for certain where he’ll go…”
“But why, Adam? I don’t understand…Joe loves this place, it’s his home…and…and, we’re his family…”
Hoss rubbed his thick hands over the front of his face, turning his back to Adam; he walked to the door and gazed out.
“I knew he was unhappy…he’s been sullen and quiet like…for days and days…but I had no clue that he was fixin’ to leave. He never even hinted…” Hoss said in a low, troubled voice.
He turned around to face Adam. Adam could see the broken hearted expression on the rotund face and it caused his own heart to skip a beat. For the first time in a very long time, Adam’s own expression showed his worry and concern. The mask had fallen and his true feelings were exposed to his middle brother.
“Hoss,” Adam said quietly.
“I think I’m the reason that Joe left,” Adam muttered in a disheartened voice.
Hoss’ brows moved upward slightly as he moved closer to his brother.
“Ya gotta be kiddin’? Why’d ya think a thing like that?”
Adam moved to perch himself on a bale of hay. His head was low as he played with a long piece of straw.
“I’ve been riding him pretty hard the last couple of months…”
Hoss saw his brother’s expressions darken but kept quite, letting Adam have his say.
“I’ve worked the boy hard…almost to the point of him not being able to carry on. And when he’d take a break…I jumped down his neck about goofing off, and I’ve said things that probably…knowing Joe, he took the wrong way. I’m sure he thought I was making jabs at him…who knows, Hoss…maybe I was…”
“Yeah…and I’ve laughed at him when he’d mess up…that’s been a lot lately too, come to think of it. Could be, he was tryin’ too hard, and ya know…sometimes when ya try so hard…things get worse. That ain’t all, Adam, I’ve been teasin’ ‘em too, about being the runt. Goshdangit, Big Brother…ya reckon the little scamp took all we been sayin’ to him to heart?” Hoss stated. “Ya reckon he got his feelin’s hurt?”
Adam looked up at long last. His composure was strained and when he spoke, his voice was thick with feelings that he hadn’t remembered feeling for a very long time.
“Probably. You know as well as I do, Joe takes everything to heart…especially the things that you and I say to him. He’s probably gone off to sulk…lick his wounds.”
Adam stood to his feet and grabbed his saddle. The mask was back and with it, Adam turned his thinking around, giving thought to what Joe might actually be up too.
“No doubt he’s aiming on making us worry for a few days, he’ll be home by the end of the week…I guarantee it,” Adam said in a lighter mood. “Come on big boy, let’s not brood…we have a ton of work to do, especially now, with Joe gone.”
Adam went about saddling his horse. Hoss was slower to get into action and lingered a bit longer.
“Pa seemed awfully worried, Adam.”
“Just another one of Joe’s little tricks.”
“How can ya say that? What if’n Joe don’t come home by the end of the week, we gonna go lookin’ for’em?”
Adam had led Sport out of the stall, stopping in the doorway to turn to Hoss.
“I can say that because I know our kid brother. And if he doesn’t come home by the end of the week…I’m not going to do a thing, but wait…he’s just a kid, Hoss…he’ll never be able to last out in the real world on his own. Joe will either get in trouble somewhere or…”
“Get himself hurt,” added Hoss.
“Precisely…and if that happens, you know as well as I do, the first person he’ll yell for is Pa,” Adam grinned. “He thinks he’s a man…eighteen isn’t a man…”
“You were a man at eighteen…so was I…almost…what makes it so different with Joe?” Hoss questioned.
Adam made a dull little chuckling sound, deep in the back of his throat.
“I was never a kid, Hoss…I never got the chance to be a little boy, not like Joe. I don’t blame Pa for that…it was just my lot in life. And you,” he laughed for real this time, “have always been as big as a man, so naturally everyone just thought of you as a man…but with Joe…”
Adam paused and seemed to be thinking. His offhanded mood mellowed some.
“Maybe it’s because he’s the youngest, Hoss. Maybe because neither you nor I…or Pa…wants to face the fact that Joe’s growing up. I know he tries hard…at everything the boy does he puts his all into it. And that’s good…but a lot of the things he does, shows how much of a kid he still is…like this…running away…or taking off, whichever you want to call it. I think it’s a ploy to get our attention…”
“Maybe he just needs to prove to himself that he’s capable of standing on his own two feet, without one of us always around to pick him up and set him back on his feet every time he falls.”
Adam and Hoss spun around surprised to find that their father had appeared, unannounced.
“He’s a young man bordering on manhood, and he’s tired of the way we treat him,” said Ben from the doorway where he stood listening to the conversation.
“He resents us…he can’t stand to be around us anymore because he feels that he can’t meet our expectations of what he should be…he’s hurt…yes Adam, he’s probably sulking, licking his wounds…wounds that the three of us inflected upon him,” grumbled Ben.
“And I can only pray to God that my son will be safe and that one day soon, he’ll come home, where he belongs…where he’s loved…not just by me, but by the two of you as well. He’s going to find out that he needs us, just as the three of us need him. This is his home; and every man should have a haven in which to return…a special place to call home…and Little Joe’s is here, on the Ponderosa with the three of us where he is a part of everything that we cherish…and hold dear.
His leaving has left a mighty big hole in my life,” Ben swallowed hard, “I think the two of you will find out what I mean soon enough,” sighed Ben as he turned, leaving Adam and Hoss to ponder his words.
The two brothers stood silent, each head was low and racing through their minds were the harsh, pain filled words that their father had spoken. Adam glanced up toward his father and caught a glimpse of the man as he walked through the front door. The younger man could not help but notice how sluggish his father’s pace was or how slumped the broad shoulders hung…and Adam knew his brother’s leaving was going too hard on the man who had given the kid life.
If Adam and Hoss had thought for one moment, that Joe’s leaving would be hard for them, their brother’s going had been multiplied by ten, for their concerned father. Two weeks had gone by and during that time, Ben had eaten little, slept practically none and his appearance had begun to wither, making him appear older than his actual years. The grieving father moped around the house, leaving the running of the ranch to his two able-bodied sons. He showed no interest in anything other than to stare at a picture of his missing son.
“Adam, Pa ain’t lookin’ so good,” Hoss said one day while he and his older brother were mending fences. “I think it’s about time we fetch Joe home, what do ya think?”
Adam glanced up from his hammering and turned to watch his father who had accompanied them to the north pasture. Ben stood alone, leaning against a massive Ponderosa pine. The elder Cartwright’s eyes were focused on the tall mountains that towered majestically over the crystal blue lake below. Ben appeared to be miles from where he stood…miles away, somewhere out there, with his youngest son.
“His heart’s up there,” Adam commented, returning to his repair work.
Hoss glanced toward the tall peaks.
“Pa’s never said where he thought Joe might have wandered. Suppose the boy went to the high country…and Pa just ain’t wantin’ us know?” pondered the gentle giant as he tugged on the fencing, drawing the wire taunt.
“Most likely,” Adam answered, quickly glancing over his shoulder once again at his father.
“It breaks my heart, Adam, seein’s how Pa’s grievin’ and such.”
Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly, straightening his back. His eyes followed his brother’s gaze and fell again on his father. Ben was toying with something in his hands and then the brothers watched as their father swiped one hand across the front of his face. Without having to comment, the pair swapped knowing looks; Hoss sighed deeply.
“I wish there was somethin’ we could do…”
“Well, there’s not. We could, as you suggested, go look for Joe…we could even haul his butt back home, but Pa wouldn’t like that…and neither would our little brother,” Adam said.
“Yeah, I suppose ya right. Joe’d only resent us, and Pa would say that when he was ready, Joe’d come home on his own,” muttered Hoss. “But what’ll we do till then?”
Adam tossed the supplies into the back of the wagon, shrugging his shoulders.
“Wait, I suppose…give the kid more time to figure out what’s important to him and what’s not…”
“I’d a thought his family…and his home…was what is important…”
“It is…Joe just has to come to his senses enough to figure that out for himself,” offered Adam.
Hoss made a chuckling sound deep in his throat. “I sure ‘nough miss the little scamp. I had no idea his leavin’ would affect me like it done. What about you, Adam…ya miss him too, don’t ya?”
Adam paused in what he was doing and noted the quiver to the big man’s chin. He made a crooked little grin and nodded his head.
“Yeah…I miss the rascal too…but don’t you ever tell him I said so…I wouldn’t want the boy to think he’s one up on me,” laughed Adam lightly.
Far away on a mountaintop, Joe stood perched against a tall oak, gazing down at the valley he could see below. Deep in his heart, there had grown an ache so strong that it made the young man feel sick to his stomach. He imagined in his mind, that he was able to see the big log ranch house that had always been his home. A smile caused his lips to twitch slightly; his mind’s eye envisioned his family moving about the yard, doing their daily chores. Just as quickly as the smile appeared, it disappeared, the boy refusing to allow himself the luxury of dreaming about what he had willing turned his back on.
Turning, a frown replacing the smile, Joe went back to work on the old dilapidated shed that housed the two horses. He had almost finished reconstructing the small building that had been in dire need of repair. Joe had worked for two weeks, making the old line shack more livable and as he looked about at his accomplishments, a sense of pride swelled in his chest, causing him to smile in satisfaction.
“Not bad,” he said aloud to himself as he went back to work.
By the end of the fourth week, Ben did nothing more than pace the floor and snap sharply at his two sons. His face had taken on a continuous frown; his eyes bore dark circles from lack of sleep and when sitting at the dining room table the man did nothing more than poke and jab at his food.
Ben wiped his mouth and flung his napkin down on the table. Adam and Hoss tried not to glance their father’s way, for fear of being reprimanded for things that they were not guilty of. Both kept their eyes on their plates and ate in silence, keenly aware that with the scraping of the chair legs on the wooden floor, Ben had risen.
As Ben rounded the table, headed for the front door, Adam and Hoss exchanged worried glances.
“Where’s he headed?” whispered Hoss behind his napkin.
“Must you whisper behind my back like I’m not even here?” growled Ben, pivoting on his heels and giving each an angry glare. “That’s another reason why my son has left home…the likes of the two of you…constantly whispering and snickering behind his back…no wonder…”
Ben suddenly fell silent. Adam and Hoss had risen from their places at the table and had joined their father at the door. Ben was almost finished strapping on his gun belt when he paused and looked at the two young men standing solemnly in front of him.
“So you do blame us,” muttered Adam in a hurt tone. “I thought as much…”
“NO!” gulped Ben. “No, son…I don’t blame you, or you either Hoss…I blame myself for your brother’s leaving. It’s not your faults…honest, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said those things…they aren’t true,” apologized Ben.
Ben turned to reach for his hat and then faced his sons for the second time.
“Please…I didn’t mean what I just said. I’m sorry,” Ben said again as he grasped the latch and flung wide the door.
“Pa…wait!” Adam demanded.
Ben stopped but refused to turn around. Adam lowered his voice and softened his tone, his father was hurting something fierce and he had no notion of adding to the hurt.
“Where are you going?” Adam asked.
“To find Joe…to tell him I’m sorry…to plead with him, if need be…to come home,” said Ben in a whispered voice.
Slowly he turned and faced the pair.
“Without Little Joe…this place has no spirit…the heart has gone from my home…our home, from my life…even from my soul. I love all of my sons equally, as I’m sure the two of you know. And had either one of you been the one to go…I would still feel this way. Maybe because your brother is my youngest son…my…baby…do I feel a bit differently. I’m sorry, Adam, I’m sorry, Hoss,” Ben said in broken words, “but my life seems empty without him…I never knew I could miss someone as badly as I do, Joseph. I…”
Ben took a deep breath and wiped his hand across the front of his face.
“I worry for him…he’s never been completely on his own…perhaps I fear so for him because I’m afraid that in some way, I have failed to teach him how to survive without me. It’s my sin…and my punishment for failing him as I have…is…his leaving.”
“Pa…you can’t mean that? You’ve not failed Joe…if he hasn’t learned from you by now…it’s because he wasn’t paying attention to the lessons…”
“No…it was only because he was so young…and had so much to learn. He still has a lot to learn…don’t either of you see? He still needs us…and we need him. You can’t stand there and tell me that you aren’t worried about him, or that you don’t miss him…can you?” growled Ben.
Hoss had lowered his head. Tears swelled in his sky blue eyes but he willed them away.
“No sir,” mumbled Hoss. “I miss him somethin’ terrible,” he whispered.
“I do, too,” Adam freely admitted. “It’s too quiet around here without him…nothing ever happens anymore.”
Adam made a soft smile. “There’s no one to yell at,” he whispered.
Ben’s expression softened at his son’s words and he placed a hand on each of his sons’ shoulders.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Ben asked with the first real smile that either Hoss or Adam had seen in over a month.
“What do ya mean, Pa?” Hoss asked curiously.
“Let’s go find that brother of yours and tell him how we really feel. Maybe he’ll decide on his own then, that it’s time to come home. What about it, you boys with me?” smiled Ben.
Hoss and Adam both grinned broadly and nodded their heads.
“I’ll saddle the horses,” Hoss volunteered, already running for the barn.
“And I’ll have Hop Sing prepare us some supplies,” laughed Adam, hurrying back in the house.
Miles away, Joe was having his own troubling thoughts. Thoughts of home and family had gone as far as to invade his dreams for the last several nights. The images had left a longing in his heart for what he was missing and the people whom he cared most about.
Joe’s resentment at his family, especially for his brothers had, over the course of time, faded to such that the resentment was now something of the past. Feelings of loneliness and emptiness had come in the wake of the bitterness, surprising Joe that he had missed the comradeship of the very ones whom he had complained of being responsible for his leaving in the first place.
A desire to belong, to be a part of, began gnawing at the core of his being and tugging on his heartstrings in such a way that Joe had decided that it was about time for him to swallow his pride and go home. He missed his family and his father more than he cared to admit to himself. He longed for the comfort of his father’s deep voice and the soft, tender way in which Ben had always looked at him.
Though he hated to admit it, he even missed his brothers’ teasing, the sound of their laughter and more than anything else Joe missed being included in his family’s lives. Each one played such an important role in his own life, his own happiness that Joe had finally come to the conclusion that it was better to be somewhere, where he was loved, than to be anywhere, where no one cared at all. Home and family, concluded Joe, was all a man really needed to be happy…a place where he belonged.
Joe picked up his ax, smiling to himself as he made his way to the woodpile. He loved his family, even if Adam was too bossy, and Hoss teased too much. He loved his father, too, even when Ben shouted loud enough to rattle the windows. At least there…at home…thought Joe, he was loved in spite of his short temper, and his impulsiveness…even when he was in trouble, his family had always stood by him…something that a lot of men could not claim. Pa had called it ‘unconditional love’. Joe smiled again, just as he swung at the piece of wood he placed on the chopping block
He’d been chopping wood for the fire for over an hour and was on the last log when unexpectedly, the head of the ax broke and flew through the air. At first, Joe had snickered at his clumsiness, until the flat side of the tool hit the log he had been attempting to chop and flew backwards, burying its sharp edged blade deeply into his upper thigh.
An ear-piercing scream shattered the peaceful solitude of his surroundings as Joe sank to the ground in a heap of misery and pain. Blood spurted from the gash where the ax head had buried itself into his flesh. Joe grabbed his leg, instinctively drawing it to his chest with both hands. For several agonizing moments, the wounded boy remained as such, withering on the ground, his teeth grinding together as the pain blossomed and consumed his entire body in a way that sent paralyzing spasms surging from his leg outward, in all directions.
Joe moaned loudly, whimpering as he forced himself to gain enough courage to pull the sharp edged metal from his leg. Again the young man screamed out, clamping his opened hand over the wound where the blood began running freely. Everything about Joe’s world swirled in front of his eyes. Yet the boy told himself that to faint now would mean to bleed to death, so he willed away the dizziness in his head as he tried to squelch the loss of blood by wrapping a strip of cloth, torn from his shirt, around the leg. Easing himself backward in order to undo his belt, Joe pulled the leather from around his waist and hurried to fashion a tourniquet above the gash to ensure that the bleeding would stop until he could tend to the wound in a more proper manner.
By the time that Joe had the makeshift bandage and tourniquet in place, he was breathing hard, gasping for every breath he took. Pinching his lips tightly, Joe pushed himself to his feet, bracing himself against the pain as he tried to walk. Favoring the wounded leg, he hobbled back to the old shack. Every step he took drove the pain deeper and deeper into his muscles, until by the time he managed to reach the door, tears had welled in his eyes and ran freely down the front of his face.
Joe pushed the door opened and staggered inside. The heat emitting from the old stove engulfed him in way that caused the injured man to feel as if he were smothering. The room began to spin around him. The stove seemed to fly passed his eyes, along with his cot and the table and the two chairs, even the walls and windows sailed by in front of his eyes. The heat became overpowering. Joe tried to take a step, he tottered from side to side, clumsily groping for a handhold and finding none. With a soft moan, everything went black as Joe slumped to the floor in a heap, no longer aware of the permeating pain that had invaded his body.
“Pa,” called Hoss. “Ya got any ideay where Joe might have gone to?”
Ben reined in his mount and waited while his middle son caught up to him. While Hoss and Adam moved to either side of their father’s horse, Ben pulled the cork from his canteen and took a long sip of the cool water. As he wiped his mouth, Ben pushed the cork back into the opening and laid the strap across his saddle horn.
“He said he might spend the winter in the high country…he wanted to be alone and have time to think about things,” answered Ben. “The only place I know where a man could winter in relative comfort is Oblivion…”
“But that’s still on Ponderosa land,” muttered Hoss.
Ben couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. “I know,” he said smugly.
Adam started to laugh softly, drawing his middle brother’s attention.
“I don’t get it, what’s so funny?” Hoss said, finding nothing amusing about his questions.
“Don’t you see, Hoss…Joe wanted to get away alright…but not from home…from us, you, me…and Pa. But the boy didn’t want to get so far from home that he couldn’t get home quickly…if he’d a mind too,” laughed Adam.
Ben smiled as well; he was feeling more peace in his troubled soul than he had in the month that Joe had been gone.
“I guess the joke’s on us,” Ben chuckled.
“Joke? What joke?” Hoss said, smiling slightly at the expressions on his family’s faces.
“Son…Joe must surely have been trying to show us…without putting it into words…cause he figured we would just crack jokes…just what we’d be missing if he went away and stayed away. And he was right…”
“But what about what he would be missing?” Adam had to ask.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to bet against it, but something tells me that Joe has learned something as well from all of this…” Ben explained. “Come on, daylight’s burning, let’s ride.”
The fire in the stove had burned itself out and after several hours, the chill in the room had become considerably noticeable. The prone figure on the floor moaned softly. Long lashes fluttered while pain filled hazel eyes struggled to open. After several moments, Joe raised his head, crying out in pain as he pushed himself up, into a sitting position. His body shivered a time or two and after taking a deep breath to steady himself, Joe rubbed his hands together to bring warmth back into his fingers.
“Ohhh,” Joe moaned, gritting his teeth while he clung to the chair for support and hauled his body upright.
Joe used the furniture to hobble his way across the room to the cold stove. He grabbed a couple of pieces of wood from the firebox he’d built the first day there and laid them atop the kindling he placed in the bottom. An old newspaper lay on the table, and being careful not to fall, Joe fetched it back to the stove and struck a match to the paper. Instantly the fire caught and Joe was able to light the wood. In minutes the fire was roaring, bringing back to the one room shack a measure of warmth.
Exhausted, Joe lowered his aching body into one of the old wooden chairs and untied the tourniquet, relieved to see that the bleeding had stopped. Carefully, he peeled back the bandage on his leg. The sight of the gash, the reddish and bluish hues that discolored his leg made him scrunch up his face in disgust.
Determined to clean his wound, Joe rose slowly, feeling the room beginning to spin again, he grabbed the half emptied whiskey bottle he had brought along for such emergencies and quickly sat back down.
“Whew,” he breathed, gasping for each breath.
Joe used his teeth to pull the cork out of the mouth of the bottle and then took a long swig, coughing as the warm liquid flowed down his throat. Again, using his teeth, this time gritting against the pain he knew would ignite his body, Joe tilted the bottle upward until the liquor seeped slowly out the top and down, unto the opened gash.
Joe’s head snapped backward.
“OH GOD! AWWW!” he screamed, slamming the bottle down hard on the table.
His breath came in ragged gasps. Tears of anguish welled in his eyes; tiny droplets of blood oozed from his lower lip where he had bitten down too hard, to keep from crying out a second time. Joe’s body quivered in agony, the room swam before him, forcing Joe to lay his head upon the table until the queasiness passed.
After a short spell, Joe cautiously made his way over to the lone cot that was in the corner. Slowly, feeling the burning in his thigh, he lowered himself down, drawing the blankets he’d been using on pervious nights, around his body and up to his chin. Again and again, Joe shivered, wondering how it had gotten so cold in the room, so quickly. Exhausted and chilled to the bones, riddled with pain, Joe closed his eyes as an image of home and family taunted and teased his senses until he imagined himself back home, sitting before a roaring fire, with his loved ones. The fire in his dream and the welcoming comfort of being with family served as a cloak that warmed the feverish body, and soon, Joe’s shivering ceased.
“Pa…” Joe murmured, lost once again in a sea of black obscurity.
Three nights on the trail had begun to take its toll on the weary travelers. Ben, who had been tired before starting the trek to find his son, sat slumped in the saddle. Adam had since taken the lead, winding around and around the mountainside, slowly climbing higher and higher into the edge of the freeze line where the furthermost line shack lay nestled in the last thick grove of pines, sheltered from the harsh winter elements. Above the shack, the land was barren, the freezing temperatures too cold for a strong growth of trees to survive the harsh winter weather that raged from early fall and sometimes far into spring.
“Wonder why we ain’t seein’ no smoke, Adam; the line shack ain’t that far away now,” Hoss pondered aloud as he followed behind his brother.
Ben was bringing up the rear, behind the pack animal that ambled along following Chubb.
“With our luck, Joe’s not even there,” grumbled Adam as he pulled his coat tighter about his neck in an effort to ward of the chilly wind.
“He’s there,” Ben said without looking up.
Hoss glanced back over his shoulder at his father and then up toward Adam. Adam had twisted around in the saddle as well to look back at his father, but he smiled instead at his brother.
“If Pa says Joe’s there, then Joe’s there,” Adam snickered softly. “Let’s pick up the pace a bit…I’m freezing and it looks like it might start snowing any minute. The shack is just beyond those trees.”
By the time that the trio had reached the tiny clearing, Ben was once again in the lead, feeling invigorated by the anticipation he felt at being reunited with his youngest son. The three riders pulled their mounts to a stop.
“JOE!” Ben shouted, swinging down from the saddle. “You boys tend to the horses; I’ll check inside. He might have gone hunting…”
“In this weather?” questioned Hoss. “It’s been snowing for more’n an hour…Joe knows better’n venturin’ out in a storm, ‘specially a snow storm.”
“Maybe he left this morning and isn’t back yet…that would account for the lack of a fire,” Ben reasoned. “Go on, get those animals tended to, I’ll start a fire, at least the shack will be warm when Joe gets back…”
“Pa, look,” Adam called, pointing to the shed. “Cochise is here,” he said, looking over toward his father.
“He could have taken the pack horse…”
“No, it’s here as well,” Adam called from the door of the shed.
Ben raised his brows, momentarily at a loss for an explanation. Shrugging his shoulders, he opened the door and stepped inside the poorly lit room. The man shivered from the cold blast of air that blew in behind him. Quickly, he shut the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the lighting.
When he could see, Ben glanced around at the disarray. The room looked as if it had been ransacked. On the table lay a toppled over bottle of whiskey. Seeing it caused Ben to envision his son having been drunk for days…perhaps weeks. He shook his head, chasing the vision from his mind. As Ben approached the table, he spied a soiled strip of cloth lying on the floor. Picking it up, Ben gasped aloud. The cloth, obviously a part of his son’s shirt, was coated in dried blood that had turned a nasty shade of brown.
With heart racing, Ben took another step forward, glancing at the empty cot. Moving around the chair, Ben’s eyes widened in horror.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben at the top of his lungs.
Quickly, Ben pushed aside the furniture that blocked his path and knelt down beside the unconscious boy. Gently, with hands that trembled, Ben turned Joe over onto his back.
“Joe?” the worried father said in a soft whisper. “Dear God,” Ben said to no one, “you’re burning up with fever!”
By the time that Adam and Hoss had made their way to the shack, Ben had a fire blazing in the stove and Joe comfortable on the cot. He looked up from the bedside where he was leaning down, washing the sweat from his youngest son’s brow.
“Joe’s been hurt,” Ben explained before either had a chance to ask.
Adam and Hoss crossed the room to stand over the bed, gazing down into the colorless face of their sibling.
“What happened?” Adam asked.
“Look at his leg,” whispered Ben.
Hoss reached down and pulled the blankets back, revealing the wound on his brother’s left thigh.
“Oh Lordy…wonder how he done that?”
“I don’t know,” Ben answered, wetting the cloth again and wringing it out.
Adam pressed his hand to Joe’s cheek and gave his father a worried look.
The expression on his father’s face told Adam that Ben was worried…and frightened.
“I’ll get the supplies, that wound needs tending too,” he said, turning to go.
“Hoss,” whispered Ben.
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss said, barely able to take his eyes off his younger brother’s face.
“Make some coffee, please, I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night,” Ben said with a sigh.
“Sure ‘nough…I’ll rustle us up somethin’ to eat, too…I’m plum starvin’ to death,” Hoss said with a slight grin. “Ya just tend to Short Shanks; Adam and me, we’ll see to everythin’ else.”
Ben smiled at the young man, placing a firm hand on Hoss’ arm.
“Thank you, son,” Ben smiled. “I’m sure once we get this fever down…Little Joe will be alright,” he muttered, turning to look at the boy, who had begun to moan softly.
Hoss offered one of the chairs to his father. Ben nodded his head in appreciation and sat down, doting over his ailing son. Joe had begun to toss his head from side to side, fighting a battle with the fever and pain that consumed his tortured body.
“Shh…” whispered Ben, tenderly caressing the side of Joe’s face. “Pa’s here now…and everything is going to be alright.”
Ben picked up Joe’s hand and held it within his own. The fever had managed to make its way to the boy’s fingertips, making Ben frown at the heat that emitted, even there. Several times over the course of as many hours, Ben placed damp, cool cloths to his son’s brow, never leaving the boy’s side.
Outside, the wind howled and snow fell in great, large flakes, quickly covering the ground in a solid blanket of white. Adam and Hoss took turns feeding the stove in order to keep the old cabin from getting cold and thus adding to their brother’s uncomfortable condition.
“Joe sure chopped enough wood,” Hoss comment while carrying in a load from the porch where his younger, industrious brother had stacked it. “He must really have been plannin’ on stayin’ all winter.”
“He made repairs on the shed too, enlarged it in fact. I have to admit, Pa…the boy did a good job, too…good as any full-grown man could have,” he said and then smiled when his father raised his head to look his way.
“Too bad Joe didn’t hear that,” Ben said with a sad little smile.
Joe moaned softly then, drawing his father’s attention.
“Pa…” murmured Joe in a weak voice.
Ben leaned down so that Joe might be better able to hear him when he spoke.
“I’m here son…”
Ben smiled. “What are you dreaming, son?” he whispered, placing his lips close to Joe’s ears.
Ben felt a lump swell in his throat and he had to swallow several times to dislodge it.
“Going…home,” muttered Joe, “soon…leg…better…go…home…”
Adam and Hoss had moved closer and each stood watching the expressions on Joe’s face. Hoss glanced at his father and when Ben looked up, he smiled encouragingly.
“Tell him…we’ll all go home, just as soon as he can travel,” Hoss suggested.
Ben nodded his head and leaned back down, picking up Joe’s hand and holding it to his cheek.
“Joe…your brothers are here, too…and when you’re better…we’ll all go home, together, how’s that?” Ben said softly.
They watched as Joe’s eyes squeezed tightly and tried to open. But the boy was still too weak to force them apart and too tired to say anything more.
The long night had at last given way to the morning. The snow had stopped just before dawn, leaving everything within eyesight, looking like a winter wonderland. Ben stepped outside to make a quick survey of the conditions, amazed at the beauty of the fresh fallen snow. The sight was beautiful, but the snow posed a new problem for the Cartwrights.
‘How,’ thought Ben as he stood and marveled at God’s handiwork, ‘am I ever to get my son off this mountain?’
“Joe’s resting easier now. Fever doesn’t seem to be as high,” Adam said.
The young man had joined his father and stood gazing out over the wonderland.
“Sure is pretty, isn’t it?” he commented.
“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked, seeing the anxious look on his father’s face.
Ben glanced at the sky and shook his head.
“It’s not over yet, Adam…there’s more snow coming and we’ve got to get Joe out of here. He needs a doctor; that gash needs stitching…”
“Can’t you do it?”
Ben jerked his head around, looking Adam squarely in the eye. His expression was one of sheer surprise.
“Me?” he said coarsely. “Why…I couldn’t, Adam…” Ben stammered.
Adam gazed up at the clouds that were quickly forming and then again at his father.
“There’s no way we can get off this mountain before that next snow hits us…and if you want to avoid an infection…you might not have a choice, Pa…”
Ben’s frown deepened and he sighed softly.
“Don’t you think I’ve considered that?”
Ben shook his head.
“Adam, I could scar him something terrible…”
“He could die, too. What would you rather see happen, Joe dying or living with a scar that no one would ever see…except us? I’d think nothing of seeing a scar…and I’ve already found out that it would be next to impossible to live without my kid brother…he means more to me than I ever thought he could.”
Adam griped his father’s arm tightly with his fingers.
“I’ve learned my lesson…and I want my brother to come home…alive. You have to sew up that cut, Pa…and soon. It’s a wonder that an infection hasn’t already set in…”
“I know, son…I know.”
Ben had Adam boil some water on the stove while he cleaned the wound again and sterilized the needles that were kept among the first aide supplies. Hoss helped his father tear away the old bandage and prepared the new ones for when Joe’s leg was ready to be re-bandaged.
“Move the lanterns closer, Hoss,” Ben instructed.
Ben stood at the washbasin, scrubbing his hands with the lye soap that was a part of their supplies. When he was certain they were clean enough, he held them over the warm stove to dry.
“Everything’s ready, Pa,” Adam said. “Hoss, you better help me hold him down; this is going to hurt like hell.”
Adam glanced up hoping his father hadn’t heard him use the cuss word. When Ben’s eyes met Adam’s, the younger man lowered his head.
“Sorry, Pa,” Adam muttered.
“Never mind, son…you spoke the truth,” Ben answered.
Ben sat down in the chair and leaned forward, studying Joe’s face closely.
“Joe?” he said and waited for a response.
When none was forth coming, he glanced at Adam and Hoss and nodded his head.
“Adam, you hold his shoulders…Hoss, I’ll need you down here, to hold his legs still,” Ben said, taking a deep breath.
The father-turned-surgeon picked up the needle and the homespun thread. His sons watched as their father paused, lowering his head and listened to the softly mumbled prayer that Ben whispered. When Ben had finished, he looked up to find two pairs of eyes intently watching him.
“Are you ready?”
Both younger men nodded their heads. Outside, it had begun to snow once again. Inside, three men worked to save the life of their loved one. On the cot, Joe, in his unconscious state of mind, cried out and tried to pull away from the offending needle that continuously pierced his flesh. His soft muted whimpers tugged at his father’s heartstrings and several times Ben was forced to stop long enough to catch his breath and give the boy a reprieve from his suffering before continuing.
Ben worked as quickly as he dared, making tiny little stitches, hoping that the scar that would be left in the wake of his needlework would be practically non-existing and praying that he was closing the opened wound in the proper manner.
Ben’s brow beaded with tiny droplets of moisture as he worked. Hoss used his free hand to dab, with a towel at the beads, drying his father’s brow. Joe had sunk deeper into his trance and had stopped squirming, which made closing the wound easier for his father and the job of holding him down less taxing on his brothers.
The gash was long and deep and it took nearly an hour for Ben to finish his job. But when it was complete, he leaned back and let out a long sigh of relief.
“Doesn’t look so bad, considering,” he said, smiling up at both young men. “I hope Joe is please,” he said, almost as if he were teasing.
“Looks fine, Pa,” said Adam, with assurance.
“Doc Martin couldn’t have done finer,” Hoss grinned. “And if Joe ain’t please…I’ll pound him for ya…once he’s on his feet again,” chuckled Hoss, relieved that the ominous task was completed.
Father and sons chuckled softly.
“Let’s get this masterpiece bandaged up,” Ben cautioned, “before sleeping beauty decides to wake up.”
It was far into the night before Joe began stirring about. His soft cries woke his father, who had been catching forty winks curled in his bedroll close to his son’s cot. As Ben rose, he glanced at Adam and Hoss who had not been awakened by their brother’s moaning.
“Joseph?” whispered Ben, pulling the blanket around his shoulders.
Ben pressed his hand to the boy’s brow, letting the air blow from his lungs.
“Thank goodness,” he muttered to himself, relieved that Joe’s fever had cooled off a bit.
“Can you open your eyes for me?”
Joe moaned again as he turned his head and tried to do as requested.
“Pa?” he groaned.
“I’m here, son,” Ben answered.
Joe’s hand moved, searching the air for a handhold. Quickly Ben grasped his son’s hand in his.
“I’m…not dreaming…am I? You’re…really…here…”
“Yes, sweetheart, I’m really here,” Ben said, smiling as the hazel eyes opened and looked up into his face.
“Pa…” Joe said, trying to smile. “I…knew…you’d…come…”he murmured.
Ben saw the tears swell in the depths of Joe’s eyes and he brought the boy’s hand to his lips and kissed the tips of Joe’s fingers.
“I…prayed…you…would find…me…” Joe said, closing his eyes and letting the droplets free to flow down from the corner of his eyes.
“Shh…don’t cry, son…you’re going to be fine…”
“No…not that…I…missed…you…all of…you,” Joe cried. “Was…going…to start…home…but…got hurt…couldn’t…make…it…”
“Oh, I see…don’t worry yourself, son, please. We’re all here now…and we’re together,” smiled Ben.
He looked up, surprised to find that Adam and Hoss had joined him and Joe.
“He just woke up,” Ben said with a happy ring to his voice.
Adam moved closer and smiled down at his brother.
“Hey Little Buddy, how ya feeling?”
“Better…now…that…I have…my family…back,” Joe responded.
“Joe?” Hoss said, taking the boy’s attention away from their older sibling.
Hoss swallowed the lump that had sprouted in his throat and tried to smile.
“I’m glad we found ya in time…ya sure ‘nough gave a fright, Short Shanks.”
Joe’s eyes had closed but he strained to open them again.
“Didn’t…mean to, Hoss…” the boy muttered.
“Alright, that’s enough for now. I think Joe here needs to try to get some sleep,” Ben instructed. “The sooner he gets better, the sooner we can get off this mountain and back home, where we belong,” he said.
“Belong…yes…home…with…family…” whispered Joe.
When they looked down, a peaceful smile had replaced the worried expression and softened the boy’s features.
Ben laid his son’s hand back under the warm blanket and stood, leaning over and placing a kiss to Joe’s brow. Tenderly, consumed with emotion, Ben brushed his fingers through the thick mass of roan colored curls. He knew that it would take several weeks before Joe was up and about, but now that the boy’s demons had been battled and overcome, Ben could look forward to the day that life would be back to normal…and he’d have his son home.
Ben smiled again, unaware that he was being watched. His thoughts reflected on the lesson a snip of a boy bordering on manhood had taught him. Gazing down into the face of the young man on the cot…Ben could only wonder what lessons his son might have learned, but he had a pretty good idea that the lessons were similar. Somehow, he felt sure he and Joe had reached the knowledge that no matter where they were as long as the four of them were together…they were home, for ‘home’ was in the heart, where love dwelled.
When he was, at last able to pull himself away, he turned, seeing Adam and Hoss smiling at him.
“What?” he whispered, as he moved to the stove to add more wood to the fire.
“Just you…and the boy,” Adam said with a twinkle glimmering in his dark eyes.
Adam sat down in one of the chairs and watched his father busying himself with the stove. For a long while he watched without saying a word and then it dawned on him, the change that had suddenly transformed his father. It was the first time in weeks that he had seen his father so relaxed. He marveled at the ease in which a gentle touch and light kiss could transform a tired, worried expression into one of happiness and total contentment…it was like a miracle…but then, pondered the eldest Cartwright son, wasn’t love just like that, a miracle?