Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6524


 

“He’s dying, Ben; there’s just no easy way to say it.  I’m sorry.…I’ve done all I can for him, and I believe he’s given it his all as well, but he’s tired, Ben…and in so much pain.”

The physician had to turn away from the man standing before him.  Ben Cartwright stood with his head bowed low, tears slowly making their way down his weather-worn face to pause momentarily at the end of his chin before releasing themselves to drip onto the toes of his boots.  Paul watched as the grieving father’s body began to tremble and from deep within the man, Paul could hear the rumbling that began low and built in volume as his sobs forced his grief to spew forth into a blood curdling scream.

“NOOOOO!” shrieked Ben, “NOOO!” he sobbed once more before staggering toward the steps.

Gripping tightly to the railing, Ben stopped at the foot of the staircase and turned around, facing the physician who had tended to his family’s aliments for many years.

“He’s not going to die!” he stated in a demanding voice.  “Do you understand me?  Joseph is not a quitter, I will not allow him to die!” stormed Ben in an angry voice, all the while waving a fist in the air.

Adam was snapped to attention by his father’s harsh words and he moved to approach his father.

“Pa…you’re not God…you can’t allow or disallow Joe to die, or give him the will to live for that matter,” said Adam, his voice shaky.

The news that his youngest brother was dying had taken him completely by surprise, though he knew that Joe’s life lay in the balance, he had been unaware that his brother had completely given up.

Ben turned his wrath on his oldest son.  The pink color of his lips turned white and his jaw could be seen tightening.

“Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone, young man.  I meant what I said…Joseph is not going to die…I won’t let him!”

Ben jerked himself around and stomped up the stairs, leaving his two sons and the doctor staring in wide-eyed disbelief at one another.  Minutes later, the slamming of the door jarred the windows in the house.

Hoss swallowed, and brushed his thick fingers through is thinning hair.  Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and Paul Martin, who at this minute was hating his job, lowered himself into his friend’s old red leather chair.  For several long minutes, the trio remained silent, lost in their own thoughts and fears, worry for both father and brother causing them to choke on their unvoiced sorrow and dread of what the next few hours might bring to the family.

Adam positioned himself on the arm of his chair and glanced first at his brother and then at the doctor.  He noted the tear filled eyes of his sibling and knew that Hoss was fighting back the tears that threatened to spill forth.  The family physician appeared tired and worn from the many nights that he stood vigil over the young man in the upstairs room.  Adam, his own eyes beginning to cloud, watched as Paul’s eyelids began to droop and seconds later, the doctor slipped into dreamland and dozed comfortably in Ben’s chair.

“Adam?”

Adam glanced up, seeing that Hoss had moved to stand in front of him.  His words were lodged in the back of his throat rendering him unable to utter a sound.

“What’d ya reckon will happen to Pa…if’n Joe…Joe…well, ya know?” stammered the big man.

Adam could only shake his head, his own lips pinched tightly to form a straight, taunt line across his face.  “I don’t know,” Adam managed to answer in a low whispered voice.

“It’ll probably kill him as well, Hoss.”

Adam heard the deep moan that escaped his brother’s lips, and looked up to see that the tears had finally flooded the blue hue of Hoss’ eyes and spilled over their rims.  Adam stood to his feet; his heart ripped into shreds for the sorrow that had branded his middle brother’s facial expressions.  He heard the sobs that tore forth and stood witness to the massive body as it trembled with deep seeded grief.

“Hoss…don’t…please…” stammered Adam as he gripped his brother’s massive shoulders with hands that shook.  “I can’t do this…without you…”

Hoss was shaking his head from side to side; his young face had twisted into tormented distortions that left his features almost grotesque in its appearance.  Hoss tossed back his head; his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his fists balled into rock hard knots.  He looked as if he were about ready to blow up, for his face had turned beat red.  Suddenly, his heart-wrenching wail shattered the unsettled silence of the great room.

Paul jumped to his feet, startled awake by the loud, uncontrollable sobbing of the man across from him.  Adam too, had been shaken by his brother’s sudden breakdown and he clasped tightly to his brother and pulled the weeping man into his arms.

Adam felt his throat swell with emotion as he held Hoss to his chest.  From across the room, Paul watched, unable to find words that would console the distraught man.  He glanced at Adam’s face and saw that the elder son had tears as well that ran freely down his own cheeks, though his weeping was more controlled, more reserved than that of his younger brother’s.

For several minutes the two brothers clung tightly to one another, until at last, Hoss pulled free of the arms that held him.  He pulled, from his back pocket, a bright red handkerchief and blew his nose with great force.  When he finished, he looked with reddened eyes and tear strained cheeks, at his older brother.

“I’m sorry…Adam,” he stammered.  “I reckon, I jist lost it there, for a moment,” he sniffed.

“It’s alright, Hoss…I…I did too,” answered Adam.  “It’s to be expected, brother…we stand to lose a lot.”

“Half our family.  I reckon Pa won’t be much a mind to go on livin’, if’n Joe don’t…make it,” Hoss muttered as he sat down on the settee.

“Probably not…you know as well as I do, how much he loves that boy,” Adam said, moving to poke at the dying embers in the fireplace.

“I think I’ll go up and check on Joe…and your father,” Paul said, moving to the stairs.  He paused and turned slowly around to face the brothers. Hoss…Adam…” he began.  His soft voice drew the brothers’ attention to the physician.  “I just want you both to know…Joe doesn’t blame either of you for what happened.”

Hoss’ blue eyes shifted directly to Adam’s hazel eyes and the two stared at one another without muttering a word.

“He told me as much,” continued the doctor.  “He asked that I tell you both not to fret yourselves none, about what happened.  It was an accident, and he knows that.”

“Joe said as much?” inquired Adam, looking again in Hoss’ direction.

Paul forced a smile, hoping that it might bring a smidgen of comfort to the pair.  Paul knew that Adam and Hoss both blamed themselves in part for what had happened to their younger brother.

They had bet the youngest member of the family that he could not ride the wild sorrel stallion that the three of them had captured the week before and who, since his capture, had tossed every cowboy on the ranch on their behinds.  Joe had laughed heartily at his brothers and taking their bets had climbed onto the stallion’s back.  The ride had lasted only about the length of time that it took ole Cyclone, as the boys had dubbed the horse, to twist around in a high bucking circle and tossing Joe into the air.  When Joe hit the ground with a resounding thud, having fallen directly under the stallion’s hooves, the horse had tried to avoid trampling the body beneath him.  But Cyclone moved in one direction and Joe had tried to roll away, but ended up going where the horse’s sharp hooves had proved deadly.  The sharp snapping of bones, the ear-piercing screams and the frightened snorting of the stallion as he tumbled to the ground, crushing the boy beneath him, had brought waves of fear and remorse to the two older brothers who witnessed the event.

“He said not to blame yourselves,” Paul repeated and then turned to ascend the stairs.

Hoss gulped and moved closer to Adam.  Adam tried to turn his head; Hoss’ piercing blue eyes were fixed on his older brother’s face and the elder of the two could not bring himself to meet his brother’s piercing look.

“Adam…”

“Don’t say it, Hoss…regardless of the fact that Joe don’t blame me…I blame me.  I’m the fool that made the dare and then I was stupid enough to offer him a five dollar bet; and we both know, Joe can’t say no to a dare or a bet,” groaned Adam.  He raised his head at last, looking directly into Hoss’ dense blue eyes.  “And now, for a five dollar bet, my kid brother will most likely die!”

Before Hoss could make an argument, Adam stood quickly to his feet and started to the front door.  Hat in hand, he paused, looking back at the sad face of his middle brother.

“I’m going for a ride, I’ll be up at the lake…if things change and you need me,” he said silently as he went out the door, closing it softly behind him.

*****

“Joseph,” Ben muttered in a low, gentle voice.  “Can you hear me, son?”

Ben sat as close to the bed as he could get with the chair that he had pulled along side.  He gazed into the boy’s face, studying his son’s features for several long moments.  It was easy to see that Joe was lost within the boundaries of a deep, drug induced slumber.  His breathing was regular and so shallow that Ben had to stare for several minutes at his son’s chest to see the slight rise and fall of the boy’s breaths.

Joe’s face was void of color, except for the dark bruises that marred his features.  The pressure of his hand to the boy’s brow, told Ben that Joe’s fever was still elevated and he made short work of the covers, moving them around so that they tucked neatly along Joe’s body in an attempt to keep the boy warm.

Ben brushed his fingers tenderly through the wayward curls that were dampened from where he had gently washed Joe’s face.  The boy remained motionless, unaware of the loving hands that tended to his needs or of the tears that had rolled gently down the front of his father’s face.

“Please…Joseph…try, son…you can’t give up.  I know that you’re hurting…but you can overcome the pain…please, Joe…I…I can’t lose you,” sobbed Ben as he lowered his face to the side of Joe’s and wept.

Ben remained as such for several long minutes, fighting to control the grief that had overcome him.  His head had begun to hurt and he felt the knots in his stomach tighten, leaving him feeling as if he might not be able to keep down his supper, not that he had been able to eat; he had only picked at what someone else had piled onto his plate for him.

The distraught father hauled himself up from the chair in which he sat and moved to the washstand where he poured fresh water into the basin and washed the remnants of tears from his face.  As he dried off, he stopped and gazed at the reflection of himself that stared back at him from the mirror on the stand.  Ben leaned forward, getting a closer look and then groaned softly.

“I look like hell,” he whispered to himself.  “I could use a shave, too,” he muttered.

Ben brushed his hand down the side of his face, feeling the bristles that had sprung up on his cheeks.  He couldn’t stop the long sigh that escaped passed his lips; he was tired, worn completely out.  When he looked across the room at his son lying in the bed, he felt a surge sweep through his body and he determined that he’d force himself to keep going.  His son needed him, and until Joe could actually open his eyes and looked at him, Ben vowed to remain by the boy’s side and be there…just in case…in case Joe asked for him.

Ben tossed the towel onto the table and returned to the bed.  Joe had moved slightly, trying to find a comfortable position where his broken bones might rest easier, surmised Ben as he took his place next to the bed.

Joe had moved his hand from beneath the blankets and now it rested along his side.  Ben couldn’t refrain from picking it up and tenderly holding it within his larger one.  Unconsciously, Ben’s fingers gently caressed the back of Joe’s hand.  There was a large, dark bruise that covered the tops of the slender fingers and stood out from the others and Ben briefly wondered how the bruise came to be where it was.

He knew that Joe’s body was covered with bruises.  The fall from the horse alone, had been enough to bruise any broncobuster worth his salts.  The condition of his son’s body, shortly after being trampled and then nearly crushed to death by the weight of the horse, had turned his son’s flesh several distinct shades of black and blue.  Bones had snapped in both of Joe’s legs, his right arm had been broken in two places, he suffered from a severe blow to his chest cavity, breaking four or five of his ribs when the horse landed on top of him.  Joe’s head had been cut, probably from the saddle when the horse rolled and the doctor had determined that the boy had also suffered a bad concussion as well.

Ben fought the urge to scream out.  The picture of his son, lying sprawled in the dust, blood dripping from his nose and mouth and the sounds of his piteous cries were still vivid in his mind.  Adam, then Hoss, had been the first ones to reach the wounded lad, and by the time Ben had arrived, Joe was just beginning to slip into an unconscious state of mind.  He had been carefully carried to his room, stripped and placed into his bed.  Ben, with his older sons’ help had bathed Joe and cared for his injuries as best they could until the doctor had arrived.  By that time, Joe had regained consciousness, though not for long.

Ben remembered the frightened look he had seen in the emerald eyes, and suddenly felt his own filling with tears.  He brushed them away and returned to his musings.  Joe had tried to keep from crying out, but the pain that had consumed his body, had been too much for the boy to restrain himself.  His outbursts ripped at the hearts and souls of his family.  The sight of Joe thrashing about in the bed, begging for the doctor to stop the hurting, and then finally crying out in anguish for his father, had been nearly more than the family could stand.

For one of the few times in his life, Ben had felt completely useless to help his son.  Joe’s injuries were far beyond his knowledge and Ben had had to rely on his old friend, the doctor, to ease Joe’s suffering.  When Paul had entered the room and ordered everyone out, Ben refused to leave.  In spite of the physician’s constant demands, Ben had stayed and watched…from the sidelines, how Paul had pieced together his son’s broken bones, and stitched the many cuts and the large gash on Joe’s head.  He had suffered through his own kind of pain, his own suffering; one that only a father watching his dying son fighting for his life could feel…the helplessness of being unable of doing a thing, except stand back and watch, and wait and pray.

Ben had been doing a lot of that over the last few days.  How long had it been…three, maybe four days now that Joe had been fighting for his life? Ben shook his head to clear away the cobwebs for it seemed as if time had stopped and the days had run together and the nights were endless and still there was no change.

Joe’s cries had been such that Paul felt he should increase the amount of morphine he was already giving his patient, in order that Joe might be more comfortable.  Now, with the dosage being at the highest possible level, there was nothing more that could be done, except for praying.

Ben bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly and still clinging to his son’s hand, began praying in a soft whispered tone.

*****

At the doorway, Paul was stopped in his tracks, overhearing the muffled whispering coming from within the room.  Only the soft glow from the light lit the room.  Shadows danced along the walls, uncaring that the darkest shadow, called death, waited nearby.  Paul could hear the rattle that hinted to the grim reaper, that time was drawing close.  The physician felt the shudder as a chilly wave of uncertainty pulsated through his veins.  Paul stepped into the room, Ben had fallen silent and it appeared to the compassionate doctor that his friend had finally given in to his weariness and had fallen to sleep.

Silently, Paul made his way over to his patient.  Ben had leaned against the back of the chair and had indeed fallen to sleep, his hand clinging gently to that of his son’s. Pulling the extra blanket from the foot of the bed, Paul carefully spread it over the sleeping man.  When he finished, he turned to the boy in the bed.  Joe had not moved other than removing his arm from under the blanket.

Paul pressed his hand to Joe’s brow worried that the boy’s fever had not started to come down. He pulled back the blanket and inspected the wraps he had placed around Joe’s chest to keep the broken ribs from moving, and the plaster casts he had applied to Joe’s broken arm and then further raised the blanket, checking on the ones on both legs.  When he finished, the doctor tucked the blanket in, around Joe’s body.  The signs were all there, life was ebbing further and further away, and Paul guessed that soon life as it were known, would be no more.

Paul crossed the room and took a seat in the other chair.  He would stay close tonight rather than napping in the spare room downstairs.  He sensed that before the evening was over, things would be forever changed in the Cartwright household and that perhaps his services would be needed in a different manner than from what they had been in previous nights.

Paul pressed his head against the back of the chair, and not meaning too, fell into a dreamless sleep.

*****

“Pa….”

The near inaudible sound jarred Adam from his thoughts and he quickly turned from the window where he had been standing, staring out into the blackness of night, and moved to the side of the bed.  He leaned down surprised to see that Joe’s eyelids were fluttering.

“Pa,” he said, nudging Ben from his nap.  “Joe’s trying to wake up.”  His voice held a mixture of hope as well as fear.

“Joseph,” Ben cooed as he placed himself on the edge of the bed, next to his son.  “That’s it son, open your eyes.”

Ben glanced around the room at the men who had joined him.  He noted the glimmer of hopefulness on Hoss’ face and the expectant look in his oldest son’s eyes and then glanced again at Joe, who had begun to moan softly.

“Pa…”

“I’m here Joseph.  Your brothers are here as well,” Ben explained.  “Can you open your eyes?”  The question sounded more like a plea to those that heard it rather than the question it was.

Paul had centered himself on the opposite side of the bed and was checking his patient’s pulse.  Ben glanced in that direction and up at Paul’s face.  He need not ask; he could see the answer written in the physician’s expression.  Joe was getting weaker.

“Pa…please…hold…me,” the jumbled words finally made sense and Ben quickly did as his son had asked.

The others helped Ben to move Joe enough so that he could get behind the boy and then hold Joe firmly, yet with care, in his arms.  Ben felt Joe nuzzle his body against the warmth of his father’s and the closeness of having his dying son embraced within the folds of his arms, caused Ben’s eyes to water.

“Cold…so…cold,” murmured Joe.

Adam grabbed the blanket that had been used by his father and added it to the ones already covering his brother.

“Here Joe, here’s another blanket,” he whispered.

Adam was finding it hard to speak, for the emotion of watching his brother, who had begun to shiver and then struggle for each breath that he took, was overwhelming.  Adam hated seeing Joe in such a condition.  The boy was known for his zest of life, and to see that zest die and his brother’s life dwindling slowly away, ripped the heart out of the boy’s oldest brother.

Ben’s eyes sought Adam’s and without voicing their fears aloud to one another, each knew what the other was feeling.

“Mama…” Joe struggled with his words.  “Want…to…hold…mama…”

Hoss, who stood close by, scratched his head.  “What’s he meanin?”

“I don’t know,” whispered Ben.

Joe’s fingers clutched the front of his father’s shirt and somehow Joe managed to open his eyes.  His other hand he moved over his head, and to Adam, who watched, it appeared that Joe was trying to point to something.

“Mama…” The sound was so muffled that it appeared non-existent and the others were not so sure that they had heard the word.

“The picture…he wants his mother’s picture,” Adam said suddenly as he reached for the miniature cameo photo that rested on the table next to his brother’s bed.  Quickly he placed it in his brother’s hand, folding Joe’s fingers over the tiny frame.

“Here Joe, here’s your mama.”

Unexpectedly, Adam’s eyes filled with tears.  The single act of touching his brother’s hand and feeling the coldness therein had confirmed his worst fear…his brother’s time was drawing near.  He quickly removed himself from the group and walked out into the hallway and remained until he could bring his emotions under control.

Ben could feel the rapid pounding of his heart deep within his chest.  His rising fear and growing grief, he tried to keep at bay, knowing that soon, he’d not be able to stop them from surfacing.  But for now, the last thing he wanted was to allow his youngest son to see the sorrow that Ben was sure, showed on his face.

Joe’s eyelids fluttered once more and he eased opened his eyes.  They frantically searched the space above his head for his father’s face.  Tiny droplets of water beaded over the green hue that colored the boy’s eyes and when he blinked, they rolled haphazardly down from the corners.

“I’m…sorry…Pa,” Joe whispered.  “I…I’m…just…so…tired.”  The words were forced from the back of his throat, draining his body with the effort that it took for him to speak.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for sweetheart,” Ben whispered in return.  “You’ve tried your best…and it’s…it’s…”

A sob caught in his throat and Ben couldn’t say the word, nor could he speak the words that he knew in his heart that his son needed to hear.  Ben could not force himself to tell Joe that it was okay, that he need not fight any longer, that it was…was…

“Tell him, Pa!” Adam said aloud.

The sharpness of his tone drew everyone’s attention to the grief stricken young man standing at the foot of the bed.  All eyes stared at Adam as he gripped the footboard with his strong fingers.

“For God’s sake tell him it’s okay…he needs to hear it from you Pa.  He needs to know that you understand and…” sobbed Adam.

“NO!” Ben practically shouted as he hugged Joe closer to him.

Hoss muffled a sob and turned his head away to hide his own tears and to avoid looking at the grief on both his father and older brother’s face.

“I’ll do no such of a thing,” Ben growled at Adam.  Ben glanced down at Joe, who lay nestled in his arms.  The boy’s eyes were still opened and had fixed themselves on his father’s face.

“Joe?” Ben said, “I want you to keep trying, son.  I know it’s hard and I know that you are in a lot of pain, but Joseph…please…” Ben glanced around the room and pinching his lips tightly, looked down at Joe.  “Please don’t give up…I can’t bear the thoughts of losing you, son.”

He heard the three gasps from the others and when he looked up at them, they were all staring at him as if they could not believe what they had just heard.

“Well, it’s true,” Ben whispered to them.

“It’s selfish, Pa…and you know it!” snapped Adam.

“I don’t care…”

“You don’t care?  What about him?” Adam pointed at his brother who had closed his eyes.  “Just how much more suffering do you want him to endure, before you’re willing to let him go?  For God’s sake, Pa…”

“That’s enough, Adam!”

“Pa, Adam…please…don’t fight,” muttered Hoss.  “Joe don’t need to hear such talk…not now,” pleaded Hoss, giving a sorrowful look at each.

Ben took a deep breath and nodded his head in agreement.

“You’re right Hoss.  Adam, I’m sorry son,” Ben said, looking up to find his elder son walking out of the room.  Ben glanced up at the doctor who had remained silent during the confrontation.

“So I’m selfish…” Ben murmured and then turned from looking at his old friend.

He did feel guilty for not telling Joe that it was okay, that he knew that Joe had fought bravely in an attempt to overcome the pain and the injuries.  Ben knew in his heart that the longer Joe lingered, the more pain he was forced to endure, but still, Ben’s heart wasn’t ready just yet to let go of the boy that he loved more than his own life.  God had not finished His job as of yet…for Ben’s heart still felt the fear of giving his son back to God.

*****

The night lingered on as Ben listened with a troubled heart to the moans and groans that continued to slip past his son’s lips.  The boy’s thrashing about on the bed as the pain converged on his body and the tiny tears that seeped from beneath lowered lashes, all tugged at the heartstrings of the man who stood vigil over the dying boy.

“Oh…please…” Joe cried out in his delirium as he drew in deeply to fill his lungs.

Joe’s head tossed back and forth on the sweat soaked pillow.  His cries were softly voiced, his eyes opened occasionally, but the world around him was unseen for his injuries had taken control of his world and nothing that his father or the doctor could do now, could bring comfort to his tormented body.

Ben watched with heavy heart.  Never had he felt so discouraged, or helpless.  He sighed deeply; he had no one to turn to. Even the doctor had given up for the pain medication no longer brought the relief that his son needed.

Briefly, Ben had forgotten that there was a higher source, a Supreme Being that he could turn too.  Ben was deeply lost in his own grief, his own pain, and the grief and pain had dulled his thinking and had been cause for his failing faith in that Supreme Being.

“OHHHH  GOD…PLEASE!”

The words, muddled by the suffering and fever that had consumed his body, slipped softly from Joe’s mouth as his body arched in pain.

Ben dropped to his knees beside the bed, taking Joe’s hand in his two.  “Joseph?” he whispered, but received no response.  Joe had pinched his eyes tightly shut and seemed to have fallen into unconsciousness.

The tears swelled in the dark ebony eyes and spilled over onto the blanket that covered his son.  Ben wept softly for several long minutes.  His son’s words had reached into his troubled soul and reminded the father that there was another Father who had once felt as he was now feeling.  Quietly, Ben began to pray.

Nearing the end of his prayer, Ben glanced over at his son, seeing the agony that he suffered, and knowing that Joe had fought long and hard and that now it was up to him to let his son go.

Swallowing hard, Ben muttered, “Not my will, but thine, oh Lord, be done.” Ben had at last, surrendered his son to God.

A feeling of peace washed over the troubled man, easing his spirit in a way that he had not expected.  The feeling surprised Ben Cartwright.  He rose up and placed himself on the edge of the bed, next to his son.  Ben leaned down and kissed Joe’s cheek, brushing his fingers through the mass of thick curls.

“Joseph,” Ben whispered when he could at last find his voice.  “I love you, son.”

Ben swallowed again.  Saying goodbye was never easy, letting go, even harder.  But in a matter of a few seconds, and with a muttered request, Ben’s faith had been re-established and he had trusted that God would be merciful to his son.

“I know you’ve tried your best, and I know you’re tired…it’s okay, Joe, I’m proud of you.  It’s time for you to rest, son…you don’t have to keep on trying…I understand, now.”

Ben felt the pressure of hands on his shoulders and was surprised when he turned and saw Adam and Hoss standing silently behind him.  Both had tears in their eyes, but they each gave their father a small smile and a nod of their heads.  Each understood what it had taken for their father to give his youngest son the release that was needed to relieve his suffering.

*****

Ben had been dozing in the chair next to the bed.  His head rested on the side of the bed, for he had refused to leave his son’s side.  In the chair across the room, Hoss snored softly.  Adam stood at the window, watching the rise of the morning sun as it poked above the high mountain peaks.  It was going to be a glorious day, but not one in the household was aware of that fact as of yet.

Joe turned his head to one side, his eyes fluttered and then opened.  The first thing that he saw was his father’s form, slumped forward and the silver mass of hair resting on the bed next to him.  His tired lips formed a smile and with his left arm, he moved his hand until his fingers brushed lightly at his father’s head.

Instantly, the tender touch brought sudden awareness to the sleeping man.  Ben’s eyes sought his son’s face, and when he saw that Joe’s eyes were opened and that the boy worn a slight smile on his face, Ben smiled broadly.

“Joseph!” he cried.

Adam turned from the window, surprised to see his father bending over his brother.  Quickly he rushed to the bedside.

“Pa?” he questioned, fear filling every fiber of his being.

Ben glanced up, smiling at his oldest son.

“It’s alright, Adam, Joe’s awake,” beamed Ben.

“Howdy, big brother,” Joe said in a strained voice.

Adam laughed lightly and sat down on the edge of the bed, on the opposite side from where his father stood.

“Hello yourself,” teased Adam.  “Don’t you know you gave us quite a scare!”

“I’m sorry,” Joe grinned weakly.

Joe turned to his father, his smiled faded.  “I am sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to worry you.”

Ben pushed his lips into a smile as he caressed his son’s face.  “It’s alright son…I…I…” Ben gulped.  “I’m glad that you’re better now.”

Hoss had awakened and stood smiling, at the foot of the bed.  “Hi ya, Punkin,” he grinned, pleased to see his brother awake and talking with the family.

“Hi yourself, ya big galoot,” Joe teased.

The doctor wandered into the room then, and stopped, gazing at the scene before him.  “Well, now…what do we have here?” he said merrily as he moved to the side of the bed.

“Mornin’ doc,” grinned Joe.

“Mornin’ doc…is that all you have to say for yourself young man…after what you have put the four of us through?”  Paul smiled and turned to Ben.  “I don’t think this young man is too old yet for a trip to the woodshed, Ben, once he’s on his feet again.”

“Aw…come on Doc…”

The small circle of men, laughed.  The relief that Joe had somehow managed to defy death’s request, showed on each tired face that stood over him, smiling.

“Ben, I need to examine my patient, why don’t you three go downstairs and have some breakfast?” Paul suggested as he herded the others from the room.

Ben nodded his head, but hesitated before moving from his spot on the bed.  The others filed quietly out into the hall.  Ben smiled down at Joe, taking Joe’s hand in his.  His throat grew thick with emotion and when he tried to speak, his words came out strained.

“Welcome, back Joseph,” he whispered.  “I thought for a while that I was going to lose you.”

Joe’s eyes filled with tears, but he willed them away.

“I wanted to give up, Pa…but something wouldn’t let me.  I kept trying to move closer to the bright light, but a voice kept telling me to turn back…that it wasn’t time yet.  I remember hearing my voice, telling the light that I was tired, and that I needed the warmth of the light to stop my pain, but it kept repeating the same words over and over. ‘Go back…for it is not yet time’.  That’s what the voice in the light kept saying.”

Joe fixed his eyes on his father’s face.  “And then I heard you praying…you told God…’not my will, but Thine be done’…and right then, all the pain went away, Pa.  I’m not sure what happened, but I felt myself moving further and further from the light and closer and closer to you.”

Ben felt the tears fill his own eyes, and when he blinked, a single tear slipped from the corner of one eye.  He leaned down, brushing his lips across Joe’s brow.  When he rose up, he smiled down at his son.

“God moves in mysterious ways, son.  I can’t explain exactly what happened, but I am thankful that God sent you back to us.  I suppose it was a test…”

Joe looked perplexed.  “A test?  What kind of test…and a test for who?”

Ben pressed his lips together; he seemed to be thinking.  After a short paused, he smiled at his son.

“A test of faith, Joseph…my faith.  You see, Adam said it best, when he told me that I was being selfish in not letting you go.  But I wasn’t ready to let you go…I…I…couldn’t face life without you, son.  At that moment, I didn’t have enough faith to believe that God would…or could…get me through the sorrow.  It was only after hearing you plead with God to help you that I understood that before God could help you…I had to give you back to Him.”

Ben smiled and brushed again at the wayward curls.  “I was the one walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  I was the one that feared the evil…death, loneliness without you, grief, sorrow…I forgot that God was still with me and that His rod and staff would provide me with the comfort I needed, should you die.  And until I remembered that, and put all my trust and faith in God, not just part of it, He couldn’t help you…because in God’s eyes, I was still holding on to you.”

“I know it’s hard to understand sometimes, Joe, I don’t fully understand it, but I do see, now, how God works.  He doesn’t want just half our faith, but all of it.  It’s easy to trust God when things are going our way.  It’s different when things go wrong, to depend on God and not ourselves…and many times throughout our lives, we forget that.  We forget that God is God, both in good times and in bad.  We fail to remember that the God on the mountain is also God of the valley…and that He is with us always.”

Ben paused.  “I’m sorry son…”

“For what, Pa?  You don’t have anything to be sorry for.  Aren’t you always telling us that we’re only human?  That’s all you were doing…being human…being a father, fearful for his son’s life.  Didn’t you teach us that even God feared for His son’s life?  And that even God had to give His own son up?  Then if God feared for Jesus’ life, why is it so wrong for Ben Cartwright to fear for one of his sons?”

Ben smiled broadly and patted Joe’s cheek.  “It isn’t wrong son…its only human, and even God understands that…He’s the one who made us, remember?”

“Does that mean you passed the test?” Joe grinned.

“I suppose…it did teach me a lesson though…I was straddling the fence…that’s not what God wants…we have to be on one side or the other…however be it.”

Joe laughed softly.  “I have a feeling, Pa…that you’re on the right side of that fence!”

“If you two have finished, I’d like to check my patient, now,” laughed Paul Martin.

Joe and Ben had forgotten that the physician was waiting to do just as he had stated and both laughed lightly.  Ben rose from the bed, clinging still to Joe’s hand.

“I love you, son,” he whispered before releasing Joe’s hand so that he could leave.

Joe’s expression became serious and he swallowed the knot that had thickened his throat.

“I know…and I know how hard it was for you, last night.  Thanks, Pa…for having enough faith to entrust me to God.  I love you, too.”

***End***

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