Without Malice (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:


 

Joe slid down from his horse and quickly dusted the dirt from his trousers.  As he tied the reins around the hitching rail, he cast anxious eyes toward the front door of his house, wondering what in the world was he going to tell his father about what had happened.  Joe took a deep breath and began slowly walking toward the house.  His steps were slow and deliberate, he was stalling, and his mind was zooming through the incidents of the day as he searched for the right words to use.

Suddenly the front door opened and Ben stepped onto the wide boarded porch.  Instantly his face broke into a wide smile when his eyes saw his youngest son.  They had however, overlooked the ambivalent expression that was embossed in the handsome features of Joseph’s face, nor did he notice the red puffiness under his son’s eyes, a sure sign that the boy had been crying.

“Welcome home, son,” greeted Ben, coming to embrace his son in his arms.

Joe stood as a statue within the warm comforting folds of his father’s embrace.  He lowered his forehead onto Ben’s strong shoulders and held it there while his father hugged him.  Ben sensed his son’s hesitation, and he could feel the small tremors that coursed through his son’s young, work hardened body as Joe molded himself against Ben’s.  Instantly Ben’s parental instinct picked up on his son’s private conflicts.

“Joseph?” muttered Ben softly, his innermost self, refusing to release his hold on his son.  He felt Joe’s need to remain where he was and recognized that Joe was struggling with something that had yet to be voiced.

Ben heard Joe inhale deeply as if he struggled to get air into his lungs. Being concerned, Ben pressed his opened hand against the back of Joe’s head, his fingers entwining themselves in the thick curls.  Joe began to weep deep heart-wrenching sobs that seemed to come from the very deepest pit of his stomach.  Joe’s shoulders heaved; his arms at last wrapped themselves around his father’s body as he sobbed.  Ben tightened his hold, half supporting the weight of his son with his own arms.  Suddenly Joe’s knees buckled, bringing both father and son down into a kneeling position.

“Joseph, please son, tell me what’s wrong,” pleaded Ben, sudden fear enveloping his heart.  “What’s happened?”

Joe’s head moved backward and Ben could see the deep embedded sadness that covered his son’s features and the misery shining in the hazel eyes that held an expanded well of unshed tears just waiting for release.

Ben cupped the quivering chin, in order to gently force his son to meet his eyes.  “Joe…”

“He’s dead Pa…he’s dead,” sobbed Joe, unaware that his two older brothers had joined their father and were leaning over their shoulders.

“Who is dead son?” prompted Ben, his fear seizing his heart tightly now and squeezing it with its strong fingers.

“It was my fault…Oh God, Pa…Mitch…he’s dead…and I killed him!”  Joe leaned forward, burying his face into his father’s vest once again.  Ben wrapped his arms protectively around the sobbing body of his youngest son.  His eyes sought Adam’s and then Hoss’, noting the shock that darkened both the hazel and blue eyes of his two older sons.

Ben gently guided Joe to his feet, holding gently to the trembling shoulders.  “Let’s get you inside Joseph, then you can try to tell us what happened.”

“Let me help you, Short Shanks,” offered Hoss as he slipped his arm around Joe and helped his father guide the distraught young man toward the house.

Adam hurried ahead to open the door and holding it wide, allowed his father and brother to lead Joe to the settee.  As they made Joe comfortable, Adam quickly poured a brandy for his brother and waited until Ben and Hoss moved to the side, then handed him the small goblet.

Joe glanced upward at his brother and accepted what was handed to him.  He sniffed his nose, wiping the sleeve of his shirt across the front of his face and then placed the brandy glass to his lips, tilted back his head and swallowed the drink in one gulp.  He handed the glass to his father, his eyes clouded with tears and sorrow.  “Another one,” he whispered.

“Adam, pour him another drink.”  Ben handed the glass to Adam and waited until Adam had poured the brandy, handing it back to his father rather than to Joe.

Ben held the drink in his hand and gently placed it into Joe’s, holding both of his strong hands around his son’s.  “Drink it slow this time, son.  Sip it, don’t down it,” he instructed.

Ben had placed himself on the table in front of Joe where he could clearly see the boy’s face.  Hoss sat next to Joe on the settee, his hand still protectively on his brother’s shoulder.  Adam stood facing Joe, just slightly behind his father, his jaw clenching slightly as he watched his brother struggling to control himself.

Joe sipped slowly at the drink, letting the brandy warm him as he fought to restrain his shaking.  He offered the glass back to Adam and looked for several long moments into his father’s eyes.  There he found the love and comfort he knew that he needed to help him through this devastating occurrence.

“Joe, what happened?  Can you tell us?” asked Adam.

Joe hung his head, unable to voice his words and shook his head slowly.  Ben placed his hand on Joe’s knee.  The tender touch brought his head up and he looked again into the eyes of his father.  Taking a deep breath, Joe let it expel from his lungs slowly.  He cast his eyes around at each member of his family until he worked back to his father.

“Mitch is dead…and it’s my fault…” said Joe in a whispered, raspy voice.

“How?” Ben questioned.

Joe started shaking his head from side to side, prompting Ben to place both of his hands on either side of Joe’s face to stop the nervous action.

“Tell me how…and when, Joseph,” Ben said urgently.  Ben saw the tears forming and quickly they boiled over and ran slowly down the front of his son’s face.

“We were up at the canyon, hunting that puma that’s been killing our cattle.  Mitch thought he saw the cat moving through the rocks, up around that deep gorge.”  Joe sniffed his nose and took another breath.  “He wanted to check it out.  I tried to warn him about going up there; those rocks are too smooth, and too slick.  But he wouldn’t listen and started up anyway.  I started after him, thinking he might need some help.  Well, we made it to the top and that’s when we saw the cat.”

Joe closed his eyes, his mind playing back the incident as he struggled to find his next words.  “We started after the cat, until we came to that gorge.  The puma jumped across so Mitch said we could too.  I thought it looked easy…”

“Tell me you didn’t?”  Adam, who had remained silent, listening to what his brother was describing, frowned.  He knew the gorge; it was no easy feat for a man to jump its width, let alone half-grown boys.

Joe glanced up at his brother.  “I wish a million times over that we hadn’t tried, Adam…but Mitch was so sure he could do it.  I went first and made it, when I turned around, Mitch tossed me his rifle and then backed up to get a running start.  He jumped, but he jumped too short and missed the opposite edge.  I tried to grab his hand to pull him up and I did at first, but…but…”

Ben watched as Joe’s chest began to heave as his breathing became labored.  He quickly moved to his son’s side, and wrapped his arms around Joe’s heaving shoulders.

Joe instantly buried his face against his father.  “I couldn’t hold him, Pa…I tried to pull him up, but he kept slipping.  His eyes were watching my face…the look…I’ll never forget the fear in his eyes.  I started slipping too, and Mitch began screaming at me to turn him loose.”

Joe was practically panting for breath.  Adam quickly poured another brandy and handed it to his father.  Ben placed the drink to Joe’s lips, holding the goblet while Joe took a sip.

“I couldn’t turn him loose…I kept yelling at him to push himself up but he had on his gloves and I could feel them slipping off his hands. I started sliding closer to the edge and Mitch must have known ’cause he began yelling at me to let him go…but I couldn’t…then one hand slipped free and he was dangling by one arm.”  Joe began to pant.

“Pa…he started crying, ‘don’t let me die, don’t let me die’…Oh God…Pa, I couldn’t hold him…he fell…and all I could see was the terrifying look on his face…his eyes locked into mine…and I…I…OH GOD!”  Joe broke completely down.  His weeping tore at the hearts of the men who tried to comfort him.

Ben’s eyes had filled with tears.  He rocked gently back and forth, holding his youngest and most enduring child in his arms.  Hoss sniffed his nose, causing Ben to look up.  He saw the tears that rolled unchecked down the rotund face of his middle son.  Adam had dropped his head onto his hand where his fingers gently pinched the bridge of his nose.  Each of the Cartwrights was feeling the pain that their youngest family member was suffering, for Mitch had been a life long friend of Joe’s and they felt his lost nearly as much as their brother.

Adam stood to his feet, towering over his father and brother.  “Joe, where is Mitch’s body now?”

Joe pulled back from his father and wiped his eyes.  “Mr. Devlin…and Mitch’s brothers helped me get him out of the gorge…they took him…home.”  Joe’s lip began quivering uncontrollably; “Pa, I couldn’t help it…” Sobs caught in Joe’s throat, choking off his words.

“Come on son; let’s get you upstairs and into bed.  You need to lie down for awhile.”

Ben gently pulled Joe to his feet and helped him toward the stairs.  Ben glanced at Hoss and Adam and whispered.  “One of you go for the doctor, and one of you ride over to the Devlin’s.  Tell Charlie I’ll be there as soon as I can, right now, Joe needs my attention.”

“Yes sir,” responded Hoss, “I’ll go for the doctor.”

“I’ll head over to the Devlin’s.  Pa?” Adam paused.

Ben stopped on the landing; Joe standing in front of him stopped as well.  “Yes son?”

Adam swallowed, not sure whether to voice his fear or not.

“Well?” Ben pressured.

“What if Mr. Devlin doesn’t want me there?” Adam risked.

Joe’s head spun around, glaring at his brother.  “Why wouldn’t he want you there?”

“I didn’t say he wouldn’t Joe, I only meant that perhaps, he might…” stammered Adam, suddenly wishing that he had kept his thoughts to himself and just ridden out.

“Think I killed Mitch, is that what you were going to say?” shouted Joe.

“Joseph, calm down, son.”  Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, but could do nothing to still his son’s own self hate.

“No, Joe, I wasn’t going to say that,” snapped Adam, wishing he could kick himself for even thinking such a thought as Mr. Devlin holding Joe to blame.  It was plain to see that his little brother held enough blame without making him think that others might blame him as well.

“Yes you did, you think that Mr. Devlin blames me, don’t you?  You probably blame me too, all of you.  Well thanks for nothing, big brother!” shouted Joe, turning and stomping his way slowly up the steps.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  I didn’t mean to make him think…” started Adam.

“I know you didn’t son.  He’s just upset and frightened, that’s all.  He’s lost his best friend, and he thinks he’s to blame.  He’s hurting Adam, nothing more.  Now please, both of you go.  Hoss, tell Paul that Joe needs something to help him rest.”

“Sure ‘nough, Pa, come on Adam, let’s ride.”

Adam paused just long enough to watch his younger brother make his way up to the top of the stairs.  Joe walked as if he were a man going to his own hanging, his shoulders slumped and his feet seemed to be weighted down as he labored to put one foot in front of the other.

Joe paused at the top and turned back to say something to his father who was close behind him.  He saw Adam still standing in the doorway watching him but he could not force his eyes to turn away.

Joe took a deep breath, steadying himself.  “I’m sorry Adam, for snapping at you,” Joe called out before Adam closed the door.

“It’s all right Joe, I know how you must feel,” said Adam, remembering another time, another place, and another best friend.  “I’ll see ya later kid, you get some rest.”  Adam flashed a smile at Joe though it never fully reached his eyes.  Yes, he thought as he shut the door, he understood Joe’s pain.

**********

Joe made no fuss about lying down for awhile.  He was exhausted, bone weary and emotionally drained.  As he sat on the edge of his bed, he pulled first one boot off, then the other and tossed them into the middle of the floor.  Ben frowned slightly, the expression lost on his youngest son as he bent to retrieve Joe’s boots and placed them neatly at the foot of the bed.  Ben watched as the trousers were slung to the floor and waited until Joe’s shirt landed on top of the pants before gathering them up into his arms.

Joe pushed back the covers and all but fell into his bed, his eyes already shut by the time his head touched his pillows.  Ben pulled the blankets over Joe’s body to keep off a chill, and leaned down to place a kiss on his son’s brow.  Joe’s eyes popped opened, staring into the face of his father.  His expression was one of sheer misery as Ben gently brushed away the stray tear that slipped from the corner of Joe’s eyes.

“Try to rest son,” whispered Ben softly.

“I’ll try, but I don’t know if I can…Pa…” Joe’s voice began to quiver.  “We shouldn’t have gone up to the gorge.”  Ben heard Joe gulp.

Joe was right thought Ben; the boys should not have gone to the canyon at all.  Both Mitch and Joseph knew that it was a dangerous place to be, but, they weren’t boys any more, they were young men.  Ben would have liked for Joe to remain a boy, just a little longer.  But he was wise enough to understand that there comes a time when a father has to step aside and let his sons prove to themselves that they are ready to take on the responsibility of manhood.

“Joseph,”

“Pa…you don’t understand…it was my idea to hunt the puma in the first place and when we saw that it was heading for the canyon…it was my idea to follow it.  Mitch didn’t want to go…not at first, but I talked him into it.  By the time we’d track the cat to the gorge, I was tired and wanted to turn back, but Mitch wouldn’t hear of it, he was determined to find that cat.  I turned back after a while, ’cause I didn’t like being up there at the top of that gorge, but then Mitch yelled at me that he found more tracks so I went back.  Pa…it was my fault that Mitch got killed…”

“No son…” began Ben.

“Yes it was!  Pa…if I hadn’t of suggested that we hunt that cat in the first place, Mitch would still be alive.”  Joe turned his face into the pillow and began crying.  “I killed him…don’t you understand that?  I killed my best friend.”

Ben pulled Joe up and around so that he could face his son.  “Look at me Joseph,” ordered Ben.  “You did no such of a thing.  Mitch made his own decision to go along with you; you didn’t force him to go…”

“PA!  I dropped him, I let go of his hand…and he fell to his death!  How can you say it wasn’t my fault, it was…it was…”

Ben pulled Joe into his arms and held him while Joe cried out his frustrations.  “Shh…son, we’ll get through this, I promise, I promise!”

**********

Hoss arrived back with Doc Martin following close behind on his heels.  “He’s upstairs, Doc, go on up,” Hoss pointed to the top of the stairs.

Paul nodded his head, “I think I remember the way.”

Hoss turned just in time to see the tiny smile that the family physician gave to him and finished taking off his gun belt and holster before following after the doctor.

Paul tapped softly on the door while gently pushing it opened.  Ben was bent over his son but raised his head slightly to greet the physician.  “He’s finally asleep,” whispered Ben.

Paul set his black bag on the table next to the bed and turned to gaze at his patient.  Gently he pressed the back of his hand to Joe’s forehead, and picking up Joe’s wrist, checked the boy’s pulse.

“Seems fine, Ben,” Paul said softly over his shoulder as he tucked Joe’s arm beneath the blankets.  Paul turned to Ben, a serious expression on his face as he stepped away from the bed.  “Let’s go downstairs and so we can talk, that way we won’t wake him,” Paul whispered.

Ben nodded his head in agreement and opened the door waiting for Paul to lead the way out.  As Ben pulled the door closed, he glanced once more at his sleeping son.  Joe had repositioned himself in the bed and seemed to be resting comfortably.

Down stairs, Ben was surprised to find Roy Coffee talking quietly with Hoss.  The conversation ceased when Paul and Ben reached the bottom of the steps.

Hoss, his head hung low, glanced sideways at his father, “Hmm…Pa, Roy needs to talk to Little Joe,” he muttered.

Ben seemed surprised but quickly checked himself.  “What’s this about Roy?  Joe’s resting; he’s pretty upset about what happened this afternoon.”

“I’m sure he is Ben.  There’s no need to wake him, I can talk to him tomorrow, I just need to ask him some questions, that’s all,” Roy said, tapping the tips of this fingers together.

“You still didn’t say why you have to speak to Joe.  Is it because of the accident?” Ben moved to his chair and lowered his body wearily onto the cushions.  He was tired, his body ached and he was worried about his son’s emotional condition.

“It’s just routine Ben, nothing more.  I just need to have the facts about what happened up there today, just in case…” started Roy.

Ben stood to his feet, his eyes growing dark, “just in case what?”

“Now Ben, calm down…” Roy sputtered.

“Don’t tell me to calm down, Roy!  You have known Joseph half his life, just what are you implying?” Ben all but shouted.

“I’ve known Mitch Devlin half of his life as well, I know those two boys had a serious argument in the bar the other night and ripped the place to pieces.  I just need to question Joe that’s all Ben.  I just want to be sure that there was no ill feelings between the two boys,” Roy explained.

Ben tossed his hands up in exasperation, “Oh for heaven’s sake Roy, the boys were best friends.  Besides, they were always fighting with each other about one thing or another, but they always made up, they’re just kids Roy, boys!”

“Pa?”

All heads turned to the top of the stairs, bringing an end to the conversation.  Ben hurried forward as Joe slowly made his way down, stopping on the last step.

“What’s all the shouting?” he asked.

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and offered what he hoped would be a reassuring smile.  “We weren’t shouting son, just talking…probably a little too loud.  We didn’t mean to wake you.”

Hoss moved from the blue chair where he had made himself comfortable during his father’s debate with the sheriff.  Paul wormed his way between the men in the room to stand in front of Joe, who had taken his brother’s place in the blue chair.

“How are you feeling, Joe?” Paul said, hoping to divert the conversation away from why Roy was here.

Joe glanced around the room and noted the varied expressions on the faces of each man.  “I’m fine, really,” he told Paul.

“Joseph, you should be in the bed, son, why don’t you let Hoss take you back upstairs, while I see the sheriff out?” Ben’s expression was the one that held Joe’s attention.  His father’s eyes were dark with what Joe recognized as anger, but he wasn’t sure as to why his father might be.

“Roy, did you come to see me?” Joe asked unexpectedly.

Ben’s eyes widened, Hoss turned his head to avoid looking at Joe or his father.

“Yes, I did Joe.  But I think it can wait until tomorrow, when you’ve rest up some.  Ben, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be going,” Roy picked nervously at the rim of his hat as he nodded his head at each man.

Joe stood to his feet; glancing again at his father and seeing the look of relief replace the anger that had been so visible moments before.

“No, don’t go Sheriff; I’m plenty able to talk.  What’s wrong?” Joe asked, moving to stand between his father and brother.

Roy briefly glanced up at Ben and then at Hoss.  They towered over the youngest Cartwright, each unknowingly using their bodies as a protective shield against anyone or anything that might threaten harm to their loved one.

“I just need to ask you a few questions about what happened today, if you’re up to it, son,” Roy explained.

Paul, who had kept quiet during the exchange between Ben and Roy, moved closer to Joe, he had seen the troubled expression on the boy’s face and thought it best to be close by.

“What kind of questions, Roy?” asked Hoss.  “I mean, Joe’s had a mighty hard day and all…I…”

“It’s okay Hoss, really,” Joe gave his protective brother a small smile.  “What do you want to know, Roy?  If you’re thinking there was hard feelings between us, the answer is no.  Mitch and I did argue that night in town, but by the time we went home, everything was settled between us.  We never stayed mad at each other for very long…” Joe paused, and dropped his head, unable to continue.

“Joe, I had to be sure…I mean, if…” stammered Roy.  There were times he thought silently that he hated his job, and this was one of those times.

“If what Roy?” asked Adam who had just come in the door and had overheard the sheriff’s statement.  “If someone should start asking questions?  Is that what you were implying?”  Adam jerked off his coat and tossed it across the back of the settee and marched over to his younger brother.

Adam squatted down in front of the chair, facing Joe.  “Joe, Mr. and Mrs. Devlin wanted me to tell you that they, in no way, hold you responsible for what happened.  They realize that it was an accident and that you tried your very best to keep Mitch from falling. They said to tell you that they are glad that you are all right.”

Joe had dropped his head, the lump that had formed in his throat felt as if it were choking him.  He glanced up just enough to look his brother in the eyes, his own eyes filling with tears.

“Thanks for telling me, Adam,” Joe said in a soft voice.  “But it still doesn’t bring my best friend back.”

Joe stood to his feet and turned toward the stairs.  Slowly he began to make his way upward, followed by the doctor.  Paul stopped on the landing and turned to Ben who had fallen into step behind him.

“I’m going to give him something to help him sleep, Ben.  He needs to rest.  Roy?” Paul called over his shoulder; “I’ll ride back into town with you if you don’t mind waiting just a few more minutes.  You can finish your questioning another day.”

Roy glanced around at Hoss and Adam and noted how they seemed preoccupied.  “I think I found out all I need to know.  You go ahead, I’ll wait outside for you,” he called.

“Night, boys.  I hope you understand that I was only doin’ my duty,” Roy said.

Hoss scrunched up his face, “Yeah, we understand Roy.  It’s jist that Joe’s blamin’ himself for what happened, we didn’t want him anymore upset than what he already is and if he thinks folks hereabouts is gonna blame him, then it’ll only make it harder on the boy.”

Roy nodded his head in agreement.  “Looky boys, I understand all that, but I gotta make certain, just in case someone questions what happened.  A lot of people overheard that argument them boys had the other night and some might not know that them two were just about as close as any of you.  It’s for Joe’s own well-being that I have to ask.”

“We understand Roy, I’m not sure Joe does though,” commented Adam.  “I’ll have a talk with him tomorrow.  I know first hand what he is going through.”  Adam turned away to stare into the flickering flames that popped and crackled in the fireplace.  Another face loomed before his eyes, his friend’s face, his best friend, Ross.

**********

Ben and the doctor waited patiently while Joe slipped his trousers off and crawled into the bed.  Paul had mixed Joe a sleeping powder and handed him the glass of water to drink.

“This will help you rest better, Joe.  Drink all of it, please,” Paul smiled, holding the glass at arm’s length toward his patient.

Joe cast his eyes up at his father, silently trusting his father to make the decision for him to accept the medication.  “Go ahead, son,” Ben encouraged.

Joe took the glass from the doctor and slowly brought the rim of the glass to his lips.  He detested taking the sleeping powders but he knew that without this particular one, sleep would be long in coming.  And Joe wanted to go to sleep; he wanted to drift from the real world where sadness and guilt left him feeling lonely and afraid.  Taking a deep breath, Joe turned the liquid up and swallowed the entire glassful without stopping.

Ben took the empty glass from his son’s hand and smiled down at Joe, who snuggled down into the warmth and seemingly security of the pile of blankets.

“I’ll check in on you tomorrow, Joe,” Paul explained as he moved to the door.  “Ben, give him another one of these if he gets too restless.  I have a notion that he is in for some long nights ahead.  He seems rather dazed about everything that’s happened.  I suspect that in a few hours, after he has had time to rest a little, things are likely to hit him pretty hard.  He’s a very sensitive young man, Ben, and his friend’s death and his part in it, might become somewhat overwhelming for him,” whispered Paul, standing just outside of the room where Joe was now almost asleep.

“Thanks, Paul, I’ll keep a close eye on him,” promised Ben.  Ben glanced back over his shoulder at his son.  Joe had closed his eyes, but Ben could tell by his son’s breathing that Joe had yet to be sleeping soundly.

Ben closed the door softly and returned to the bedside.  Joe sensed his father’s comforting presence and opened his eyes, seeing his father’s face above him.  Joe studied his father’s expression for several moments and saw, in the warm chocolate eyes, everything that he had known would be there.

“Pa…” Joe whispered.

Ben, who in return, had been studying Joe’s face, lowered himself onto the edge of the bed.  His hand seemed to have a will of it’s own as Ben’s fingers tenderly brushed back the soft dark ringlets from his son’s brow.

“Yes, son?”

Joe’s eyes slowly began to fill with water and he fought with his inner self to keep them from trickling down the sides of his face.

“I…I…” Joe squeezed his eyes tightly closed to shut out the memory of the face with the frightened blue eyes that flashed before his own.

“Shh…It’s okay, son,” Ben said, soothingly as he took his son’s hand into his.  It was then that he noticed the bruises that appeared in the palm of Joe’s left hand and turning the hand over, Ben found more, smaller bruises on the ends of each finger.  A raw, tender scrap had peeled away the top layer of skin from the underside of Joe’s hand where he had held tightly to his friend’s own hand in a futile attempt to keep Mitch from falling to his death.

Joe had seen his father’s face change as Ben stared at the hand he held in his own.  Joe watched half frightened, by the look that seemed to cloud his father’s eyes and without realizing what he was doing, wrapped his slender fingers around his father’s hand.  It felt good, holding on to his father’s hand.  Ben’s hand was like a life line for his tortured soul and Joe squeezed the work-worn, callused hand that had, more times than not, made him feel loved and safe.

“I wish…I mean…” he faltered, searching his mind for the right words.  Joe opened his eyes; Ben’s face was inches from his own and Joe pulled his hand free of his father’s and raised his up to brush at his father’s cheek.  Ben heard Joe sigh deeply; he could feel the boy’s pain, his grief and his son’s guilt.

“Saying I’m sorry…just doesn’t seem like much, not when the Devlin’s have lost so much more,” cried Joe, the tears spilling from the ponds behind the hazel coloring of the boy’s eyes.

Ben wiped away the moisture with his thumb and planted a kiss on Joe’s brow.  No matter how old his youngest son lived to be, Joseph would always be his baby, and right now, Ben ached for his youngest child.

“I know it doesn’t appear to be much right now, son.  But the Devlins, all of them, know that you did everything humanly possible to save Mitch’s life, short of loosing your own.  Someday, soon I hope, you will realize that, and when you do, maybe then you can forgive yourself….”

“How did you know…I mean…how I felt…” stammered Joe.

Ben smiled softly.  “Because I know my son.  I know how you think, I know what you’re feeling, and I know how much you cared about Mitch.”

“Next to Hoss…he was my best friend…I only wish…I wish I could have saved him,” whispered Joe.

“I know that, son.  But sometimes, things happen.  Sometimes, they’re good things, other times; they’re not so good.  Mitch must have known that you couldn’t hold him, that’s why he begged you let him go, he was afraid of taking you over the edge with him….”

“But Pa, he also begged me not to let him die…and I did.” Joe began crying.

“No son, you didn’t let him die, you tried everything in your power to keep him from dying.  Don’t you see son?  Mitch knew that if you continued to hold on to him, both of you would die, he…”

Joe’s eyes darted to his father’s face.  “Are you saying that Mitch chose to die rather than to see me die?”

“I’m saying Joseph, that for Mitch to beg you to turn him lose, he had to know that both of you were in danger of falling and that there was nothing that could be done to help him, so he chose to save you instead of himself.  Joe…”

“But why did he start begging for me not to let him die?  I’m confused…I mean…I know that he realized that I couldn’t hold on for much longer…but, to want to die?  Then beg me not to let him?”  Joe pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes.  “I can still see his face, Pa…his eyes…they were looking right into mine…”

“Joseph, when he realized you couldn’t hold on to him, and that you were very near to falling also, that’s when Mitch begged you to let go, once you lost your grip on him and the gloves slid off, Mitch knew he was falling.  Joe, it was only human nature to cry out for you not to let him die.”  Ben watched the chain of emotions that crossed his son’s face as Joe tried to soak in his words.

“You would have asked the same thing of Mitch, if it had been you hanging by a thread, wouldn’t you?  I mean, if you thought that Mitch were going to fall to his death because of hanging on to you, wouldn’t you have begged him to let you fall instead, if there had been no way he could have held you?” Ben asked.

Joe thought only briefly before nodding his head.  “Yeah, I suppose I would have.  I wouldn’t of wanted him to die, ’cause of me.”

“Then think about what was going through Mitch’s mind at the time.  He wasn’t thinking about himself, Joe, he was thinking about your life.”

Joe held his father’s stance, searching deeply into the depths of his father’s heart, through Ben’s dark, loving eyes.  His father wouldn’t lie to him, just to make him feel better, that Joe knew as truth, so it must have been as Ben suggested.

“Pa, do you think Mitch knew that I did all I could?” asked Joe in a tiny voice.  “Do you think he’s up there,” Joe nodded his head upward, toward heaven, “blamin’ me?”

Ben smiled as his hand caressed the tear-dampened cheek.  “He’s up there all right, but he’s not blaming you, son.  You see I don’t believe for one minute that Mitch could hold any malice in his heart for what you tried to do.  Mitch loved you liked a brother, almost as much as Adam and Hoss love you, and you loved him the same way.  We aren’t suppose to understand everything that happens to us during neither our lifetime nor the reasons behind why those things happen.  We’re only suppose to trust that God is in control of it all, after that, it is up to us to go on with our lives and live the very best way that we know how.  It’s the golden rule, Joseph, to do unto others, as we would have others do unto us.  It’s what Mitch did for you, not what you couldn’t do for Mitch.  Mitch knew you did your best, and Mitch made the choice, who would live and who would die.  He died to save his best friend, the same as you would have done.”

“Son, it isn’t the good times or the bad times that shape our lives, but the way in which we deal with those times, that make us who we are.  Do you understand that, Joe?”

Joe’s eyelids were growing heavy, but he fought against the powerful medicine that lured him into sleep.  “I think so, Pa…I just don’t understand why Mitch had to be the one, instead of me…I mean, I feel guilty about his dying and my being…well, alive.”

“Joe, it isn’t really so hard to understand.  You see, son, each and every one of us have only so much time allotted here on earth…and when our days are up, we’re called home, to heaven.  God doesn’t tell us ahead of time how much time we have or how, when our time is up, the ways that He will call us home.  He just does it.  It was Mitch’s time to go, not yours.”  Ben brushed again at the curls that drooped forward and smiled at his son.

“Why don’t you get some rest, son?  I’ll stay right here until you fall asleep, if you want me too?”  Ben rearranged the covers and leaned forward to kiss his son’s cheek.  “I love you, Joseph,” whispered Ben, watching the hazel eyes disappear behind the closing lids.

“I…love you…too,” muttered Joe, sleeping at last.

**********

Ben settled himself into the comforts of the old chair and leaned back.  Soon he was sleeping as well, content for now, that his son had found a measure of comfort in his words.

This became the routine as the long sleepless nights turned into weeks.  Joe would wake up screaming, his brow soaked with sweat and his breathing irregular.  Ben would rush to his son’s bedside to comfort Joe and remain there until the boy had either fallen back to sleep or until the sun made its appearance the next morning.

Ben had tried talking to his son, but it seemed like Joe turned a deaf ear.  The boy had convinced himself that his friend’s death had truly been his fault.  Adam took his brother for long rides, hoping against hope that something he would say or do would convince Joe otherwise.  Hoss was constantly by Joe’s side.  The younger brother had slipped so far into a state of depression that it worried the family, thus the reason for one or the other of his brothers to be constantly nearby.  Hoss, who adored his younger brother, volunteered for the job.  Joe and Hoss worked side by side daily.  Joe was aware of what his family was attempting to do for him, at times the closeness grated on his nerves.  He held his tongue until it got to the point that he could no longer stand it.

“Look Hoss, leave me alone.  I’m tired of tripping over your big clubfeet.  I’m going home and going to bed!” shouted Joe as he swung unto his pinto and took off at a gallop.

Hoss stared at his brother’s retreating back.  “JOSEPH,” shouted Hoss, tossing down his tools and mounting his own horse to chase after his brother.

Thus the days dragged on and regrettably, so did the nights, until late one night…

**********

Joe’s eyes were blinded by the brightness of the glowing light.  His steps seemed light, as if he weighed nothing and when he walked, he bounced.  He was puzzled by his surroundings; everything seemed to glow in the warm radiate light that shone all around him.  In the distance, he thought he could hear someone calling his name.  Joe stopped; his body seemed to float along, making him dizzy.  He listened; yes someone was calling out to him, but who?

“Pa?  Is that you?” he shouted.  “Adam?  Hoss, where are you?” he heard himself yell.

Joe spun around, suddenly frightened by his strange surroundings.  “PA!” he screamed.  Where was everyone?  Panic gripped at his heart and Joe started running toward the sounds he heard in the distance.  He stopped suddenly, panting deeply to fill his lungs.  The air seemed so thin, as if he were on a mountaintop where the air really was thin and breathing was labored.

He could still hear the talking; it was getting louder as Joe forced his body into motion.  He stumbled and looked down, seeing nothing that could have caused him to trip.  Hearing a voice, Joe jerked his head up, not fully grasping what he was seeing.  His fingers rolled into his palms, making fists of his hands and he rubbed his eyes.

“Mitch?” he heard himself mutter.

“Hi ya, Joe,” beamed the blue-eyed, blond headed young man.

“Mitch…How…I mean…I thought you was…dead?” Joe babbled, unable to keep from voicing his thoughts. It was as if he had no control over his own thinking, or the words coming from his mouth.

“I dropped you…I didn’t mean to…honest Mitch.”

“Aw…I know that Little Joe.”

“But…you fell…how…I mean…” Joe took a moment to look around him, frightened that he seemed lost yet not lost.

“Joe, look, I know you did what you could to help me…but I also knew that if you didn’t let go of my hand, we’d both go over the side of that gorge, so I let go of your hand…”

“What?  What are you talking about?  Your hand slipped outta mine, I let you…” began Joe, trying to make sense out of what was happening.

“No you didn’t pal.  I saw you sliding toward the edge, I knew you would never let go…I know you well enough to know that if I had not let go of your hand, you would have never let go, even if it meant both of us going over.  So…I let go…” smiled Mitch, his blue eyes twinkling.

“But…but…I thought…” stammered Joe.

Mitch began to laugh, forcing Joe to study his friend’s face more closely.  Mitch looked awfully white, all color had been washed from his face and Joe inched closer.  He wanted to touch his friend, for Mitch seemed almost transparent.

Mitch took a step backward…almost fluttering out of reach.  “That’s always been your problem, Cartwright…you never think!”  Mitch laughed again.

“Listen, Little Joe, I gotta go soon.  I just want you to know that I don’t hold anything against ya.  Promise me, you won’t blame yourself, please…do this one last thing for me, okay?”  Mitch had stopped laughing and had turned serious.  “I mean it Joe, you can’t live the rest of your life thinking that you let me die…you didn’t, honest, I chose to die.  JOE! Promise me…please, I only have a couple of minutes left.”

Mitch’s form seemed to be drifting away from Joe, out of reach of Joe’s outstretched hand.  “Promise me, Little Joe!”

“I promise, I promise, Mitch…please come back…” Joe started running after the fading light, but his feet grew too heavy for him and too soon he had to stop.  Joe hung his head, tears formed in his eyes.  Mitch called out to him for the last time.

“Joe, tell Adam that Ross is here, too…and he said to tell your brother that he forgives him for what happened, and that it’s time to forgive himself…ya got that, kid?” Mitch shouted from afar.

“Yeah, I got it….” Joe stared at the last spot where Mitch had been seen.  “I don’t understand it…but I got it…”

“Without malice…that’s the same thing Pa had said to him and to Adam, a long time ago.”  Joe stirred, moving restlessly about on the bed.  Suddenly his eyes opened and he quickly searched the room.

“Pa?” he called.

“No, it’s just me, Joe.  Did you have a bad dream?” questioned Adam, moving to sit on the side of the bed.

“Bad dream?”  Joe rubbed his eyes, “No, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Well, you must have been dreaming something, you woke me up calling for me,” stated Adam.

“I did?  I’m sorry…but Mitch was…” Joe caught himself and stopped before he went any further.

Adam watched his brother’s face, he was sure that something was bothering the boy, something that Joe had been dreaming about, why else would he have been calling for all of them in his sleep.

“Joe, if you don’t want to tell me about it…I understand.  I know that when Ross died…” began Adam, meaning to offer a measure of understanding about Joe’s harrowing experience.

“Ross!”  Joe straightened himself up in his bed and placed his trembling hand on Adam’s arm.

“What about Ross, Joe?” Adam asked, puzzled by the sudden change of topic.

“He was there too, Adam, with Mitch,” Joe’s eyes stared at a blank spot on the wall, his thoughts seemingly to be far away from where he actually was.  “Mitch said he let go of my hand…”

“Joe…” Adam said.

Joe’s eyes sought his brother’s face and Adam noted the near pleading look in their depths.  “Honest, Adam, I saw him, I even talked to him and he told me that it wasn’t my fault that he fell.  And he said to tell you that Ross doesn’t blame you for what happened to him.  He said Ross wanted you to learn to forgive yourself.  And that I shouldn’t blame myself either for Mitch falling.”

“Adam, please, don’t look at me like that!” stammered Joe, unnerved by his brother’s look.  “It really happened, honest…ya gotta believe me…” Joe’s eyes began to fill with tears and he quickly wiped them away.

Adam’s heart began to pound; he knew Joe was telling him the truth, Mitch had appeared to him in a dream.  Adam remembered when Ross had first died; his friend’s spirit had come to him on more than one occasion to offer words that were meant to comfort his tormented soul.

Adam gathered his younger brother into his arms and pressed Joe’s head against his chest.  “I believe you little brother.  It’s their way of allowing us to live with ourselves, of telling us they don’t blame us and giving us the courage to forgive ourselves and move on with our lives.  It’s their way of saying they loved us.”

“Oh Adam,” whispered Joe, raising his head.  “I promised him that I wouldn’t blame myself…but…”

“Listen Little Buddy, it’s no use…if you don’t forgive yourself, or I forgive myself, they’ll never let us rest.”  Adam laughed softly, “Joe, let’s face it, we have to remember them the way they were.  I think more about how Ross used to be, when we were kids, before things happened to change him.  He was the best friend I’ve ever had.  There will never be another like him, the same with you and Mitch, cherish the time you had with him, that’s what he wants you to do.”

“I suppose you’re right Adam,” said Joe, returning his head to his pillow, “but it’s going to be hard.”

“I know that.  It always is at first, but Joe, after a time…well…it won’t hurt so much.  Trust me, I know,” smiled Adam.  “And when times get sort of hard for you, you can always come to me, you know that don’t you, kid?”

Joe smiled at his brother, as if seeing him for the very first time.  Hidden behind the mask was a man of great sorrow, a man who had lost so much more than he deserved, and yet, here he was, offering himself to his kid brother.  Joe gulped to swallow the lump in his throat.

“Thanks, Adam.”  It was all he could manage to put into words.

Adam rose from the bed, leaned down and ruffled the mass of brown curls that graced his brother’s head.  “Get some sleep, kid.  In the morning, we’ll go fishing, just the two of us, how’s that?”

“That’s great, Adam…and Adam?”

Adam stopped at the door and turned around.  “Yeah Joe?”

“Thanks big brother…” Joe flashed his brother a smile, “for everything.”

“Any time Joe, any time.”

Adam shut the door and stood alone in the hall with his thoughts.  It would take some time for his brother to fully recover from the death of his best friend.  Joe had tried to cover his feelings, but for the most part, Adam could see through the boy’s facade, observing the hurt and guilt that Joe carried.  Adam scratched his chin, deep in thought, Joe was much like himself, he reasoned, only difference was, he had more experience at covering his inner feelings than his younger brother.  In time, thought Adam, if life kept throwing curves at the boy, Joe would learn as he had, to mask his feelings.  Yet he hoped that Joe would never change.  He liked the untamed spirit and enthusiasm that propelled his kid brother’s individualism and he liked the way that Joe could be gentled by a tender touch or a soft word from their father. Adam prayed that life would not harden his brother, as it had hardened himself.  Joe deserved better than that, thought Adam, he was young and ambitious, impetuous, self-governing and ready to take on the world if need be.  His brother had taken a hard tumble, but with time, Adam hoped that Joe would snap back to his former self.  Time healed all wounds; and though Mitch would always have a spot in Joe’s heart, time would heal this one as well.

Adam glanced back at the door, his hand resting gently on the heavy wooden frames, “Good night, Joe, may God bless you.”

*****End*****

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