Summary: As told by Ben Cartwright.
Word Count: 2457
“It’s alright, son…you’re going to be fine.”
I wasn’t sure if he could hear me or not, but I had to keep trying to reach through all his pain into his head where his thoughts so obviously were focused on nothing but the agony his body was suffering.
I brushed back the wayward curls from his brow and sought to refresh the cool cloth I’d placed there earlier. His soft, muted moans chiseled away at the walls of my heart. I could barely hold myself together, having to watch his handsome face, now covered with dark bruises and small cuts and deep scratches, being twisted into tormented expressions with each twinge of discomfort he experienced.
It seemed as if I’d been praying for days for some relief to my son’s suffering, but in fact it had only been hours. Funny how it seemed that time passed so slowly for a wounded man and the person who stood over him, agonizing slowly over his fate. I suppose it has to do with the amount of pain one feels or the type of injury they’ve acquired. In Joe’s case, it was just fool’s play, nothing else, boys being just that… boys…laughing one minute, screaming in agonizing disbelief the next. I’m almost glad I wasn’t there to see it happen, though Hoss and Adam were there, and from what they’ve told me…well…I’m not sure my old father’s heart could have taken it, had I seen what they described.
It started out like any normal day; the boys were up early, downed their breakfast and were hurrying to get to work. It was Saturday and they wanted to finish with mending the fences over by the north pasture in time to get ready for the big social taking place in town that evening. As it turned out, we didn’t go…but that doesn’t matter, there will be other socials. What was important was getting help for Little Joe. He and Hoss had taken the wagon full of supplies and Adam had ridden his horse. I’ve thanked God a dozen times since early this morning that he had…it was because Adam had chosen to ride Sport rather than to go along with his brothers in the wagon, that probably saved Joe’s life and kept his younger brother from extended hours of sheer anguish.
Adam tells me that they arrived at the breaks in the fencing just after ten this morning and by the time they broke for lunch, they had finished all but a small section. Hop Sing had packed them a hefty meal…knowing how well Hoss enjoys eating, our cook made sure that there would be enough to fill the bellies of all three, though I’m positive Hoss ate his share and most likely a portion of his younger brother’s.
It was explained to me that all morning, Hoss and Little Joe had been ragging on one another, teasing and play punching, all the while tending to the business at hand. All three of them had been in good moods and high spirits. At one point, however, things got a little out of hand and Adam had been forced to step between his two younger brothers. That was the instant when all their playing turned to something worse…a near tragedy. Hoss and Joe were wrestling, somehow as Adam was attempting to separate the two, he became entrapped in-between his younger brothers and before long, the threesome had fallen to the ground, all arms and legs locked together forming a big ball of bodies.
It wasn’t until they heard Little Joe scream out that Hoss and Adam realized what had happened and had been quick to react. Somehow it seems, while the three boys were tumbling around on the ground, Little Joe had ended up under the wagon loaded with supplies. The boys’ loud laughing, their shouts to one another, and I’m sure, Joseph’s shrill giggles, spooked the team and the pair panicked and bolted. When they did, the rear wheel of the wagon, the part that supported the weight of the load, rolled across Joseph’s lower body, crushing both his legs in the process, and as if to add insult to injury, Joe’s legs had somehow become entangled in the spokes of the rear wheel and he was dragged and tossed over and over for several yards before the team could be stopped. The awkward position of his limbs in the wheel added more injury to the already wounded legs by breaking a bone in each. Joe sustained several bruises to his lower body as well as to his upper body. He had many cuts and scratches, not to mention a wounded pride before his brothers were able to bring the frightened team to a standstill.
Once Adam and Hoss had disentangled Joe’s legs from the wheel, he had been loaded into the bed of the wagon to be transported home by Hoss while Adam rode into town to fetch Doc Martin to the ranch. Paul had examined and set Joe’s broken bones, cleaned the cuts and scratches and left with a promise that the boy would be alright in time, stating that the boy would be laid up for several weeks. I sighed a deep relief, as did his brothers.
But we still worried. Adam and Hoss felt guilty as I knew they would, but just the same, I knew Joseph well enough to know that he would never blame either of his older siblings for something that had been an accident and for something that he was just as much involved in as they had been. It could have just as easily been Adam or Hoss that had been injured as well as it had been Little Joe.
Being a father though, I remained concerned for my youngest son. Joe had yet to wake from the strong medicine the physician had administered and he wasn’t likely to for several hours yet. That left a lot of time for me to sit and reflect on the days before any of my sons had been born.
I remember that being a father for the first time; my joy of Adam’s birth was marred by the death of his mother. It was hard to feel the warm glow of happiness at holding my firstborn son when my heart was so heavy, so weighted down by the death of my darling wife, Elizabeth. I felt cheated, that something as wonderful, as miraculous as the birth of a child could be shadowed by the death of someone I had loved with all my heart. My son was cheated as well; he was denied from the first moment of his life, the love and compassion of having a mother…that is, until I met and married Inger, Hoss’ mother.
Before Adam was born, I slept as late as I wanted and never worried about how late I got into bed. But as both father and mother, that changed; it seemed as if I’d just gotten into bed when it was time to get up. Before, I at least had time to comb my hair but with no one to help me, I hardly had time to do that anymore.
All of that changed somewhat after I met and married Inger. She was a wonderful mother to Adam and then to Hoss when he was born. But sadness found me again, much too soon, when Inger was killed at Ash Hollow on our way west. I found myself very much alone and frightened, lonely and almost destitute. I was back to tending, this time two young boys, totally on my own. I must admit it was nip and tuck for a while. Oft as not, I worried how I’d make it. How on earth would I ever be able to feed and clothe my sons? It was a struggle for several years. But the rewards were worth every long, sleepless night, even though more times than I cared to remember my belly rumbled from lack of good food. I managed, mostly by depriving myself, to see that my boys’ stomachs were always full and that they stayed warm and dry at night. Only but for the grace of God did we make it through the worst of times.
And then, either by a chance or fate, however you’d like to call it, I met Marie. I think from the moment I encountered her in New Orleans when she almost ran me over with her wild riding, I was in love with her. We got off to a rocky start, but as time drifted slowly by, love managed to embrace us all, including Adam and Hoss whom Marie took to her heart as her own sons and loved them dearly until the day she suddenly died.
When Joseph was born…I experienced all the emotions of being a father that in a sense had been denied to me the first two times. We were settled in his house, I was basically secure financially, and life in general had taken on a sense of normalness.
Before any of my sons were born…I never tripped over toys or forgot words to a lullaby…I didn’t worry whether or not any of the plants around the house were poisonous. Adam and Hoss were old enough that they didn’t nibble on them. But Little Joe was something else! He was adventurous and inquisitive and he’d try anything…even eating what was otherwise deleterious.
Adam and Hoss were healthy boys. Joe had been small and had been born premature…I didn’t worry so much about the two older boys becoming sick…but I constantly was aware that if Joseph became ill…it could be dangerous to his health, not to mention his young life.
Before I was a father, I had never been puked on, pooped on, spit upon, chewed on, peed on…hahhaa…I had complete control of my mind and my thoughts. I even slept all night…not so after having three boys!
Before becoming a father, I never held down a screaming child so the doctor could exam him, or sew up cuts. I never looked into teary eyes and cried! I never got gloriously happy over a simple grin. I never sat up late hours at night watching a baby sleep…or a small boy…or a young man, like now, like how I’m afraid to leave his side because he might wake up and call out to me or because he might need my strength to help him through his pain…
Before I was a father, I never held a sleeping baby just because I didn’t want to put it down. I never felt my heart break into a million pieces when I couldn’t stop the hurt…such as now, when Joe moans because the pain in his broken legs is almost more than the poor boy can bare. If only I could bear his pain…if only it were my legs that were broken instead of his…if only I could trade places with him, I would gladly bear his affliction so that he could be whole again…so that his suffering might be mine…
Before I was a father, I never knew that something so small could affect my life so much. I never knew that I could love someone so much…I never dreamed that I would love being a father…
Before I was a father…I didn’t know the feeling of having my heart outside my body or how special it would feel to feed a hungry baby. I didn’t know that bond between a father and his child…his son…sons…
I didn’t know that something so small could make me feel so important or that I could feel such happiness.
Before I was a Pa…I had never gotten up in the middle of the night every ten minutes to make sure all was okay…or that my sons were warm and safe. I’d never known the warmth, the joy, the love, the heartache, the wonderment or the satisfaction of being a father.
I didn’t know I was capable of feeling so much…before I was a father…
“Joe…” I smiled, hurried to his bedside. “Welcome back, son…”
I watched as Joseph’s bruised lips turned upwards into a smile, weak but beautiful. “Thanks…have you been sitting here a long time?”
“A little while, son…just a little while…”
I know my voice is thick with passion. The sheer joy of seeing his smile and looking down into his hazel eyes and knowing that he was indeed going to be fine, choked me with emotion.
Here was a part of myself, a part of my heart and a portion of who I was, what I was and knowing that a part of myself and a part of the woman whom I had loved, would live on in this high spirited, carefree, amiable young man, swelled my heart with more love than I ever remembered it having.
“Pa…it was an accident…”
I leaned down and picked up my son’s hand. It was warm to the touch as I brushed the top with my thumb.
“I know…” I assured him.
“But…Hoss…and Adam…do they know?” Joe asked. “I…don’t blame them…”
I turned around to see my oldest two sons enter the room and cross over to their brother’s bed. I backed up, giving them room and stood silently as the three embraced one another in brotherly love. My throat grew thick; I could barely swallow as I watched the love bond between my sons.
I cannot help but be proud…they are fine, handsome young men. I love each one equally, yet in different ways for different reasons, and standing back watching them interact, the thought came to me that I would have been nothing without them. They made me the man I am today…they are my life’s blood, my heart’s jubilation, my soul’s triumph…I am content, I am at peace, both with my world and with myself, my life…but for moment, briefly I wondered, what might I have become had they never been born? Instead, which direction might my life have taken? Whom would I have loved? Where would I have gone? I have nary an answer to any of these questions…it doesn’t matter now…I am what I am, for I realize that my life’s course had been charted…my destiny had been prearranged by God many years earlier…before…before I was a father…