Leaving (by Rona)

Summary:  Adam has decided to leave the ranch, a decision that has consequences for them all.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9778


 

 

“Joe?” The voice was soft and the only one that Joe didn’t want to hear. He stayed silent, hunched up in the nest of straw that he had made for himself in the hay loft.

“Joe? I’m not going to go away until you talk to me.” The voice was nearer now.

“Leave me alone, Adam,” Joe replied, wearily. He didn’t raise his eyes to see his brother climbing into the loft.

“Why are you hiding up here?” Adam asked, sitting down on the nearest hay bale. He glanced around, memories overwhelming him. Joe had often retreated to the hayloft when he was a child.

“Who says I’m hiding?” Joe shot back. He still hadn’t looked at Adam.

“I do.” Adam had decided he wasn’t going to back away from this confrontation. “You know I’m leaving later today.”

“And?”

“Come on, Joe!” The impatience that Adam so often had to stifle when dealing with his younger brother broke through Adam’s calm demeanor. “Talk to me. Why are you hiding up here?”

“I just needed some space,” Joe replied. He shifted so that he could see Adam’s face. “I couldn’t bear looking at Pa trying to be cheerful and supportive and failing.”

Stung, Adam flinched. “Pa isn’t failing. He is being cheerful and supportive.” He spoke defensively.

“Yeah, whatever,” Joe replied, off-handedly. He wondered how Adam could not see that Ben’s heart was breaking at the thought of his oldest son leaving for an indefinite amount of time. The patriarch of the Ponderosa was determined that Adam would not see the pain his leaving was causing, but, to Joe at least, he was failing dismally.

“Why are you so against me leaving?” Adam asked. “I left before, to go to college. You didn’t object then.”

“Didn’t I?” Joe replied. “I bawled my eyes out. How does that count as not objecting?”

“You were a child,” Adam responded dismissively. “You didn’t understand that I’d come back. It was too soon after your mother’s death for you to believe that.”

“I didn’t want you to leave then and I don’t want you to leave now,” Joe admitted quietly. “Because its different this time, isn’t it, Adam?”

Frowning, Adam met Joe’s green eyes. “Different how?” he asked. “I don’t see the difference.”

Sighing, Joe rose and walked over to the ladder and began to descend. Adam looked surprised, but followed Joe, who went over to his horse and began to groom him, although Cochise had had a thorough grooming the night before. The silence stretched out between the brothers until Adam broke it. “Joe? What difference do you see?”

Pausing, Joe looked round at his brother. The pinto nudged Joe’s arm and he automatically stroked the mole-soft nose without being aware of it. “You don’t need me to tell you that,” he responded.

Sighing with exasperation, Adam fought to keep control of his temper. “Obviously I do,” he answered shortly. “Because I haven’t got the least idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about the fact you’re not coming back this time!” Joe snapped. “What did you think I was talking about? You aren’t going away for just four years, are you? You don’t intend to ever come home again, do you?”

Staggered by the accusations and the venom in his youngest brother’s voice, Adam took a step backwards. He felt confused. “I don’t know how long I’ll be away,” he admitted at last. “But I will come back again.”

Resuming his steady brushing of Cochise’s coat, Joe felt suddenly weary. Adam didn’t know, he realized. Adam thought that he was going away for a short time and would eventually come home again. Joe, on the other hand, was absolutely sure that Adam would never come back. Adam had been getting more and more restless and unsettled on the Ponderosa and Joe had thought his brother would leave after that dreadful time when Adam had accidentally shot him. But Adam had stayed and Joe had begun to hope that he would stay forever.

Then had come the shock, as over dinner one night, Adam announced that he wanted to leave, to explore the world. There had been a resounding silence, as none of the others had known what to say. Eventually, Ben had found his voice. “When are you thinking of going?” he’d asked, his voice admirably calm. “And how long for?”

“I want to go as soon as possible,” Adam replied. “I thought maybe next month, when we’ve finished moving the herd to winter pasture.” He smiled at Ben.

“How long are you going for?” Ben asked again.

“I’m not sure,” Adam admitted. “I just need to get away – to do other things. I need a change.”

There was nothing Ben could say. He had always told his sons that the Ponderosa was their home, not their prison and he knew that Adam hankered after things not readily available in Nevada. He had known that, but he had hoped that Adam’s time at college would have satisfied his wanderlust.

Now, the leaving day had come and Joe wondered how Adam couldn’t see that Ben was hurting. How they were all hurting. Hoss, the middle son, had said less than any of them on the subject, but Joe knew that Hoss was hurting, too.

“You’re fooling yourself, Adam,” Joe sighed. “You aren’t ever going to come back, are you? Or if you do, it won’t be to stay here.”

“Look, Joe, its winter. You know we aren’t busy in winter,” Adam responded.

“I’m not talking about the work.” Joe put down his brush and left Cochise’s stall. “We’ll manage, the same as we always manage. I’m talking about the big wide world out there. You’re going to be so busy exploring it that you won’t remember us. You’ll gradually forget that you have a home and a family here.”

“I would never do that!” Adam objected, hurt.

“Not intentionally,” Joe agreed. “But as time passes and the distance grows, you will. Oh, not to hurt us, but we’ll seem distant, like the memories you have of your time at college.” He shrugged. “That’s why I was hiding, Adam. Because I wasn’t sure how to face the truth. You’re leaving and not coming back.” He turned and walked away.

Stunned, Adam was unable to follow. Was Joe right? Was he really leaving, never to come back again? Adam didn’t know. He did know that he needed to get away, for the sake of his own sanity. The ranch had become a trap for him. Getting up each morning had become harder and harder. He took no joy from his life. Telling Ben that he was leaving had lifted a huge weight from his shoulders. He was sure that the decision he was making was the right one for him.

“And if its not,” he told his horse, Sport, “I can always come back again.” He patted the chestnut nose and left the barn, not realizing that his words had suggested that he wasn’t really thinking of coming home. He had almost stopped thinking of the ranch as his home, as another way of making the parting easier.

*****

Now that the moment was almost here, Adam was feeling a touch of uncertainty. He knew that he couldn’t stay at the ranch any longer, but seeing the sudden sadness that his father was unable to hide, Adam felt a pang of conscience. Was Joe right? Did Ben really not want him to leave?

“Do you have everything you’ll need to begin with?” Ben asked.

“Yes, I have everything,” Adam replied. He glanced down the street, hoping that the stage would arrive. Beside him, his trunk was sitting, packed with the clothes he hadn’t worn often since returning from college. In the bag he would take on the stage, Adam had his gun, but he didn’t really think he would need it. He had debated leaving it behind, along with the worn black work clothes he never wanted to see again, but had decided that perhaps there might be a situation when he might need it.

There was the stage. Adam’s excitement communicated itself to the others. Joe was standing behind the family, and he felt a deep sense of sadness. Hoss’ massive shoulders were slumped and Ben looked – the word startled Joe, for he had never thought of their father in that light before – Ben looked old. The family circle was once more going to be fractured beyond repair, but this time by choice, not by the vagaries of fate.

But even as he opened his mouth to beg Adam not to leave, Joe knew it was too late. The stage pulled to a stop and a couple of passengers got out. Hoss helped Adam lift the trunk up to the driver, who secured it on top. Adam turned to face his family. “Goodbye.” He didn’t know what else to say.

“Be careful, son,” Ben replied, stepping close and hugging Adam, even though he knew his oldest son hated public displays of affection. “Write often, Adam.”

“I will, Pa,” Adam smiled. He hugged Ben briefly before turning to Hoss. “Be good, ‘big’ brother,” he teased. “And don’t let Joe lead you into any scrapes.”

“Bye, Adam,” Hoss replied and the tears were clear in his voice. For a moment, Adam looked disturbed, then he patted his younger brother on the shoulder before turning to Joe.

“Keep out of trouble, Joe,” he advised, not sure what to say. He had always thought of Joe as being younger and more vulnerable, for he wore his emotions on his sleeve for all the world to see. But now, Joe seemed remote and adult, his face blank, apart from the shining green eyes, which were rapidly drowning in tears.

It had often seemed to Joe that Adam didn’t like touching him. Adam wasn’t a particularly demonstrative person, which seemed odd given that the rest of the family had no hesitation in hugging or touching each other. But Joe felt that Adam was particularly leery of touching him and he had done his best to respect the distance that Adam needed. Now, he couldn’t obey that self-imposed stricture and he drew his brother into a tight hug.

Taken aback by the depth of emotion that Joe expressed in that one gesture, Adam hugged back for a moment before disentangling himself. “Steady on, Little Joe,” he chided, gently. “Anyone would think that you’re never going to see me again.” The light-hearted jibe stung Joe painfully. That was exactly what he thought.

He shook his head. “Be careful out there in the big, wild, world, Adam,” he pleaded. “Remember that we’re always here. But wherever you go, be happy.”

The brothers looked at each other, then Adam took a step back. The gulf between them widened. They were separated not only by years, but by different attitudes. Joe had already found himself and where he was happiest – the Ponderosa. Adam had yet to find himself, which was why he was leaving. And for a moment, he was intensely jealous of his baby brother, who seemed to have led a charmed life from the beginning, not having to suffer the hardships that Adam had had to. “Thank you.” The words were cold, although not meant that way. Adam turned to give Ben one last hug, then bounded aboard the stage. Ben hadn’t seen Adam display any enthusiasm like that for longer than he cared to remember.

Then the stage was moving and the last glimpse they had of Adam was his head sticking out of the stage window as he waved goodbye. Before the stage was out of sight, he had drawn back inside, leaving the others bereft.

*****

“Well.” Ben drew himself up and tried to look happier than he felt. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded or not. “I’m going back to the ranch, what about you two?”

Both Joe and Hoss had come into town on horseback, since Adam’s trunk took up all of the back of the buckboard. Joe glanced across the street at the Silver Dollar, but he had no real desire to go in. He knew that Ben meant that they could have the rest of the day off work, but Joe felt he would rather go back to the ranch and finish off breaking those mustangs for the livery stable. He was sure he wouldn’t be good company. “I think I’ll come home, too, Pa,” he replied.

“Me, too,” Hoss muttered. “D’ya need the mail collected, Pa?”

“I don’t suppose it matters,” Ben sighed. “If you want to get it, son, go on. I’ll see you both back at the ranch.” He walked slowly over to the buckboard and climbed onto the seat. Joe watched before walking equally slowly over to Cochise.

“I’ll git the mail an’ see ya back at the house, Joe.” Hoss took Chubb’s rein and turned to go down to the mail office.

“I’m going to the breaking corral first,” Joe replied. “I’ll see you at supper.”

Frowning, Hoss watched Joe canter down the street. He felt a pang of disquiet watching Joe go. He just hoped his little brother wouldn’t do something silly.

*****

Hobbling in through the front door of the house several hours later, Joe wished that he had gone to the saloon, or just come straight home. Going to the corral had proven to be a bad idea – well maybe not bad, but not a great idea. Joe had worked steadily through the afternoon as the temperature dropped, thanks to a cold wind blowing down from the mountains. The hands had done a good job without Joe there and Joe guessed that another day ought to see the job finished. And then he had mounted the horse he thought would be the last one to be broken that day – and taken a bad tumble.

As the grey bucked its way across the corral, Joe suddenly felt the saddle slip! Knowing that there was no way he could stay on the animal, Joe kicked his feet free of the stirrups and threw himself to the ground. Unfortunately, as he did so, the horse gave an extra big buck and Joe found himself airborne, unable to do anything about it. He crashed to the ground and rolled a few times, hearing the bucking horse draw near, but unable to get up and move away because he was badly winded. From behind him, Joe could hear the men shouting.

Breath returned with a jolt and Joe scrambled to his feet. But he had chosen the wrong moment. If he had stayed down, he would have been all right. But his sudden movement startled the mustang, which swerved wildly and crashed into Joe, knocking him off his feet. Joe bounced off the rails and staggered helplessly, trying to catch his balance. But his left ankle twisted under him and Joe hit the ground once more.

Pandemonium reigned as the mustang was cornered and the saddle removed. Joe sprawled on the ground, half sitting, half lying, biting his lip. He was pretty sure there was no real damage to his ankle, but Joe knew he wouldn’t be finishing the horse breaking.

“Let me look.” Jeb, the hand who ran the breaking when Joe wasn’t around, knelt by Joe’s side.

“I’m fine,” Joe panted, still slightly winded. “It’s not broken. Just get my horse, Jeb.”

“Get Cochise!” Jeb ordered and turned back to Joe. “Listen, Joe, you sure you’re all right? If’n that ankle’s hurt, yer boot need ta come off now.”

“Stop fussing,” Joe replied. “Jeb, I’m fine. Help me up.” He put out a hand and accepted help to get to his feet, where he showed he could hold weight on his ankle without any problem.

“Yeah, all right, so you’re fine,” Jeb acknowledged. “But you ain’t gonna try mountin’ that grey again, are ya?”

“I’m not completely crazy,” Joe retorted. “But I think you might have to finish off down here without me tomorrow. I think I might be pretty sore.”

“I can do that,” Jeb responded, as though Joe had insulted him. “I’m the only one as does any work around here anyhow.”

“Moan, moan,” Joe grinned and Jeb grinned back.

“Go home, Joe,” Jeb advised. “That was quite a fall ya took.”

“Believe me, that’s where I’m going,” Joe agreed. He could feel his muscles stiffening up already. He mounted Cochise slowly, feeling the muscles in his ankle protesting as his foot went into the stirrup, and headed for home.

Cochise got a most cursory brush down that afternoon, but he didn’t seem to mind. Joe left him tucking into some hay and limped across to the house, finding more and more places on his body that hurt.

“Joe, are you all right?” Ben asked as Joe eased his way into the house and winced as he unbuckled his gun belt.

“Hi, Pa.” Joe found a smile to try and reassure his father, but he saw at once that he had failed, so he quickly sketched in the details of his mishap.

“I’ve never known anyone who could find trouble like you can, son,” Ben teased, his eyes raking Joe from head to foot, checking him out for obvious signs of blood and bruising. Finding none, he brought his eyes back to Joe’s face, and saw the fond smile there; Joe had been perfectly well aware of what Ben was doing.

“I’m fine, honest,” Joe assured him. “I just want a hot bath and a comfortable seat.”

“I think we might be able to provide those,” Ben smiled.

*****

Despite everyone’s best efforts to be cheerful, the evening dragged. When Joe went to bed, he found himself unable to get to sleep for quite a while and when he did finally drop off, his dreams were unsettling. When morning broke, Joe felt as though he hadn’t been to sleep. He dragged himself out of bed and dawdled through his morning ritual before leaving his room to head down for breakfast.

The door to Adam’s room was standing ajar, which wasn’t unusual, since Adam was usually up before Joe. But as Joe glanced in, the memory that Adam was gone – most likely for good – hit Joe like a blow in the stomach. Unease roiled in his gut and for a moment, Joe thought that his stomach was going to betray him. He leaned unsteadily against the wall and drew in some deep breaths until everything settled down again.

As Joe came down the stairs, Ben wondered if he was all right. His youngest son was pale and dark circles ringed his eyes. Joe didn’t appear to be moving any more stiffly than he had the previous night, but all was clearly not well with him.

“Morning,” Joe said, cheerfully. He edged carefully into his seat, but found that sitting down was less of a trial than it had been the previous night.

“Good morning,” Ben replied, still eyeing Joe closely.

“Mornin’, Joe,” Hoss mumbled, round a mouthful of bacon and eggs.

“Are you all right?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” Joe replied, indifferently, shrugging. But as he ate his breakfast, each mouthful sitting uneasily, he wondered if he was all right.

At length, Hoss pushed his plate away and started to rise. Joe knew that the time had come tell his family the decision he had made – and neither of them was going to like it much. “Before you go, Hoss…” he began.

Blinking, Hoss glanced at Ben, who was frowning. A frown started to form between Hoss’ brows as he sat down again.

“I’m sorry to do this to you now,” Joe began, feeling utterly wretched,” but I need to get away for a while.”

A pang of fear burst in Ben’s heart. He closed his eyes and ducked his head, waiting for another of his sons to explain, perfectly reasonably, why he had to leave. Ben had never wanted the boys to feel trapped on the Ponderosa, but he dreaded their leaving.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Pa,” Joe went on, reaching out to squeeze his father’s hand where it lay, clenched, on the table. “I know my timing is bad, what with Adam leaving yesterday, but this has been building since he said he wanted to leave and I just have to get away to get my head around the fact that he isn’t here any more. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to do it. I won’t be gone long, and I won’t be leaving the Ponderosa.”

“You don’t have to stay if you want to leave,” Ben told him, hoarsely, avoiding Joe’s eyes.

“You don’t understand,” Joe corrected him. “I haven’t explained this very well. I don’t want to leave the Ponderosa at all, Pa. I just want to be alone for a few days. I thought I might go and check the lines shacks to the west of here. They didn’t get done this summer, so I might as well go do that. It’ll give me some time to adjust to Adam being gone.”

At last, Ben raised his eyes. Joe’s eyes were glittering with tears. “I know this is selfish of me,” he went on. “You and Hoss are both missing Adam, too, but I have to do this, Pa.”

“I understand,” Ben sighed. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

“A few days; no more than a week,” Joe responded.

“Well, it’s not like we’re that busy.” Ben made an effort to smile. “You go, son. Take as long as you need to.”

“Thank you, Pa,” Joe whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“As long as I know you’re coming back,” Ben responded. He rose and left the table, and a moment later, the brothers heard the door closing behind him.

“I think yer bein’ pretty selfish, Joe,” Hoss declared, bluntly. “Pa’s only jist lost Adam.”

“I know.” Joe sighed. He didn’t want to fight with Hoss, but as he had sat there that morning, Joe knew that he needed time alone to deal with his emotions, with knowing that Adam would never be coming back. Joe wasn’t sure how he knew this, since Adam appeared not to know, but he felt it to be true. Joe needed to adjust his thinking to accept this and wanted space to rant and rave, cry, scream, whatever he needed to do, without hurting Ben and Hoss. “But unlike Adam, I’m coming back, Hoss.”

“I know,” Hoss nodded, for he heard the determination in Joe’s voice. He rose. “Jist don’t stay away too long,” he added as he followed Ben.

Alone at the table, Joe wondered if this trip would be worth it.

*****

There had already been a flurry of snow that season and as Joe vanished from sight, Ben found himself glancing at the mountains anxiously. Yet the skies were clear and the sun shone, even if the cold edge to the wind robbed it of any heat.

“Don’ worry, Pa,” Hoss offered. “Joe can take care o’ himself.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben agreed, but he didn’t feel reassured. As they walked back to the house, Ben felt a deep melancholy fall over his soul. Adam was gone – and Ben wasn’t sure that he would ever see his son again. He didn’t remember their separation being so hard when Adam went to college, but then, he had known it was for a limited duration, which had made it easier to bear.

But he worried about Joe. Yes, Joe was a man, mature and capable of looking after himself and everyone else, if the need arose. Ben loved each of his sons dearly, and loved none of them more than another. Yet he worried more about Joe. Was it because the young man’s open emotions made him seem more vulnerable than his brothers? Was it because Joe hadn’t been tested when young, like both Adam and Hoss? All three of his sons had lost their mothers at a young age and only Joe had actually known his birth mother, but still Joe seemed more vulnerable to Ben, and yet he had had the most stable childhood of the three, settled in one place and with growing prosperity.

Each of his three sons reminded them of their mothers. Adam had Elizabeth’s love of books; Hoss had his mother’s open, generous, loving heart and Joe had all of Marie’s French Creole temper and fragility. They were all so different and yet all so alike and Ben knew that Joe had gone to mourn Adam’s leaving, as surely as if his brother had died.

A shiver ran down Ben’s spine and Hoss frowned. “That is a real cold wind, ain’t it, Pa?” he commented. “Let’s git back inside where it’s warm.” He grinned, but it was a pretty poor attempt. “I allus did say Joe liked cold weather, didn’ I? He’d go barefoot in a blue northern.”

Smiling back, grateful for Hoss’ attempt to distract him, Ben clapped his middle son on the shoulder. “Hoss, next time it blows a blue northern, be sure to let me know,” he requested. “I’ve never yet seen Joe outside and barefoot when it was cold and that’s a sight I would hate to miss!”

“I surely will, Pa,” Hoss promised. “I surely will.”

*****

Initially, riding out alone seemed no different to the times when he had ridden out to check the state of the fence lines, or to do as he was doing now and check some of the line shacks to make sure there were enough supplies. The only difference was that Joe wasn’t carrying the extra supplies; he had only enough for himself and his horse for a few days.

It wasn’t until he was settled for the night in the first line shack, with Cochise bedded down in the lean-to that Joe really allowed himself to think. Knowing that Adam was gone – really gone – was a surprisingly disquieting thought. Again, Joe felt the roiling in his gut and he looked at the meal he had prepared for himself with distaste.

“You’ve got to eat,” Joe said aloud and was startled at how loud his voice sounded in the silence of the shack. “Not eating won’t bring Adam back.” He shook his head at the foolishness of speaking aloud to himself and started to eat. The food tasted better than he had expected, and his stomach settled.

Lying on the cot with his eyes wide open, Joe found sleep eluding him once more. He knew what was wrong with him, knew why he had had to come out here alone.

He was afraid.

It wasn’t the first time Joe had been alone and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. That wasn’t what frightened him. What frightened him was that one of the people he had relied on was gone. There was a gap in his safety net, a gap that would never be filled. Joe had assumed that Adam would always be around and it was disquieting to realize that the Ponderosa and the family were no longer enough for Adam and hadn’t been enough for some time past. It made Joe question his own value in Adam’s life.

They had disagreed regularly over the years. ‘Butting heads’ Ben called it. Joe knew that Adam was trying to teach him what he knew and keep him safe, but as Joe grew older, he started to resent being told what to do all the time and wanted to try his own wings. Gradually, Adam had learned to let go, although he was always there for Joe when the going got tough. Now, Joe knew he would have to be there for himself.

Oh yes, Ben and Hoss were there, as they had always been. But there was this gap – Joe could think of no other way to describe it. In a way, it was almost like realizing that your parents were gone and you were suddenly the older generation, the one who had to make all the decisions, had to know all the answers. It was a scary thought. How many times had Joe and Hoss relied on Adam to come up with a plan to get them out of some tricky situation?

It was no secret that Joe didn’t like heights. He still blushed with shame when he thought how he had treated his childhood friend, Mitch, when his rifle had got stuck at the top of Eagle Rock. He had been very fortunate that Mitch had been willing to forgive him after that. Now Joe felt that he was standing on the edge of a precipice and there was no safety net to catch him. It wasn’t a feeling he liked.

It was a long time before Joe fell asleep that night.

*****

A thin layer of snow covered the ground the next morning. Joe knew that it had been cold overnight – he had had to get up to put more wood on the stove – but he was surprised to see snow. He had assumed it was just frost.

While he did the morning chores, Joe eyed the sky, trying to decide if there was more snow on the way. The sky remained clear and blue, with just the odd fat, fluffy white cloud drifting past. There were no signs that more snow was coming and Joe decided against going back that day. He still needed a day or two to come to terms with Adam’s leaving.

The edge of the precipice was still there, but Joe felt as though he had taken a step back from it. As long as his thoughts were occupied, he felt the same as ever, but as soon has he had nothing to do, the fear crept back.

Riding to the next shack, Joe spent some time watching a herd of wild horses grazing in the winter sun. This was not a band he knew – the stallion was a rangy bay that kept a close watch on Joe and Cochise the entire time that Joe and Cochise watched the horses.

The foals were already weaned and gone, driven away by the stallion to allow the mares to prepare for the new arrivals come spring. The mares all looked to be pregnant, their bellies rounding out nicely. The horses were in good condition and Joe knew that he would look out for this herd again, and hunt for the yearling band. The horses looked like good, strong stock and the Ponderosa was always on the lookout for good horses.

Eventually, Cochise grew restive, and Joe took the hint, straightening in the saddle and setting his hat on square. Joe could feel the horse’s desire to run and he looked around for a suitable place to let his mount work off some energy. The resulting gallop was exhilarating for both man and beast and Joe felt better for it, too.

*****

Two more days passed uneventfully. Joe was growing used to the idea that Adam was no longer there and the fear had become almost unnoticeable. His thoughts no longer strayed to Adam when he wasn’t busy and the hurt feeling that Joe hadn’t wanted to admit to was easing. He had known in his head that Adam had every right to leave the ranch, but it had taken longer before he knew it in his heart. Joe’s mourning was done; he was ready to head for home and pick up the threads of his life again.

*****

It was going to be cold that night, Joe knew. The frost had started to set in during the afternoon and Joe, surveying the rickety shack with disgust, realized that he really couldn’t have picked a worse place to stay on a night like this. This shack would have to be rebuilt, come spring.

The lean-to was falling down and Joe made the decision that Cochise would have to come inside the shack with him. He spread some hay on the floor and got the stove going. Cochise’s bulk added extra warmth, although he took up a good bit of the space. The horse didn’t seem to mind his unusual accommodations and Joe found that he was quite glad of the company. It gave him someone to talk to while he pottered around making something to eat.

About 10pm, there was a sudden blast of wind that shook the shack on its foundations and Joe heard the snow scouring the wood. He went to the door and peered out, shivering as he saw the snow driven horizontally by the wind. He closed the door again and patted Cochise, for the horse was restive. “Looks like the snow is on for the night, Cooch. I just hope we can get out of here tomorrow to get home. Pa’ll be worried.”

After petting the horse some more, Joe lay down on the cot, extinguishing the lamp. The snow continued to batter the shack and it was a long time before Joe fell asleep, listening to the storm.

*****

The world was still when Joe woke the next morning. He felt chilled, despite the warmth of the blankets and he sat up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Cochise was already awake and Joe got up and went over, leaving in to the horse to get some extra warmth. Then he set about his morning routine of feeding his horse and making coffee.

It was only after he felt properly awake that Joe thought about the weather outside. He went over to the door and gazed in awed disbelief at the snow piled up all around. There must have been at least three feet of it lying and some fell into the shack when Joe opened the door.

In dismay, Joe ventured out to see how deep the snow was elsewhere and although it had piled up against the end wall of the shack, it was no deeper anywhere else that Joe could see. Still – it was deep enough and would make getting home tricky.

Preparing for the journey, Joe debated whether he was wise to set out in this. There could yet be more snow and he knew only too well the dangers of being caught in a blizzard. But the urge to get home now was overwhelming and Joe gave in to it. He quickly put the saddle onto his horse and made sure that the fire was safely out, although it wouldn’t be a great loss if the shack did burn to the ground.

Once Cochise was outside the shack, Joe slung a blanket over him to keep Cochise warm while he went and skipped out the shack – a necessary chore in case someone wanted a place to stop overnight. They would be less than delighted to find soiled straw and horse droppings inside.

It was bitterly cold and Joe was not dressed for the weather. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and wished that he had warmly lined gloves, not just his work-worn black leather ones. Mounting, he touched his heel to his horse’s side and allowed Cochise to pick his own speed. There was no point in going too fast and having an accident.

He hadn’t been riding for more than an hour when the snow started.

*****

Standing behind his desk, Ben gazed absently out at the falling snow. It was utterly mesmerizing and Ben knew that if Joe was here, he would want to be out in the snow. He had never quite figured out the attraction Joe felt for falling snow, but he could guarantee that as soon as the snow began, Joe would be out there – not barefoot, as Hoss claimed, but usually jacketless. Quite how he had never caught his death of cold was beyond Ben.

The fond smile that had softened Ben’s face a moment before was gone. These last few days without Joe had been very lonely for Hoss and Ben. The house seemed unnaturally quiet and both men were listless, as though their vitality had gone with Joe.

Ever since the snow had started falling, Ben had been worried about Joe. Where was he? Was he all right? Had he taken a warm coat with him? This last thought had prompted Ben to go into Joe’s room and check the closet and since discovering Joe’s sheepskin coat hanging there, his worry had intensified.

Coming in from the barn, Hoss resisted the urge to tell Ben that the snow was getting thicker. Ben had eyes; he could see that for himself. Hoss sighed as he slid out of his big coat and shook the snow from the rough surface. Joe often teased Hoss that his coat looked like a discarded horse blanket, but it was very warm and Hoss shrugged off his sibling’s teasing. Now, he wished that Joe was home to tease him. Ben wasn’t the only person who was worried.

The snow was making the room very dark and Hoss went to light a lamp to drive off the gloom. He wracked his brain to think of a topic of conversation, but couldn’t think of a single thing that wouldn’t remind Ben of either Adam or Joe. There was the thorny subject of what to do with Adam’s horse, Sport. He was quite highly strung and usually only ridden by Adam. Hoss knew that Sport wasn’t up to his weight and he was too lively for Ben. Perhaps Joe might want to ride him, but he had Cochise and usually couldn’t see past his beloved pinto. It was a problem all right, but not one that Hoss wanted to bring up now.

Just when Hoss thought he couldn’t bear the silence any longer and was about to advise Ben to come and sit down, Ben straightened abruptly, peering through the snow at something.

“What is it?” Hoss asked, for the falling snow muffled all sound.

“It looks like a horse,” Ben replied. He hurried to the door, Hoss following him. They couldn’t think who would be mad enough to be out in this storm, unless it was Joe.

The cold hit them like a knife when they went out. The wind caught at their breath and Ben actually staggered under the onslaught. But he kept his eyes on the horse by the barn and as they drew near, they realized that it was Cochise.

“Joe!” Ben sounded delighted until he realized that Cochise was on three legs and Joe was nowhere to be seen.

Standing there in the snow, the white flakes slowly settling on his head and shoulders, Ben could only gape in horror at his son’s horse. The bottom had dropped out of his world. Joe was missing.

*****

It was miserable going. Joe knew he’d been a fool to set out, but they had gone so far that they were now nearer to the house than to the shack. Joe hadn’t dared to stop and he knew that Cochise was exhausted. He patted the horse with a numb hand, grateful that his mount had been wiling to keep going. Cochise’s head was down and his black and white mane was more white than black from the snow.

A deep shiver crept through Joe’s body. He was bone tired, too, the chill creeping deep into his bones. His hands and feet were numb, and he began to fear that they were suffering from frostbite. It was a major concern – Joe knew people who had lost limbs through frostbite and others who had died from the subsequent infections. It wasn’t a comfortable thought.

Suddenly, without warning, Cochise stumbled as his hoof went through the snow into a hole in the ground below. The horse went down to his knees and a shriek of pain escaped the equine as it plunged onto its nose on the ground. Joe was pitched over Cochise’s head. He landed on a snow bank, which was a soft landing, but it collapsed beneath him and sent him tumbling down a hidden slope.

When he came to rest, Joe was unconscious and partly buried.

*****

“What’re we gonna do?” Hoss asked Ben, his face screwed up with worry. “Its gonna be dark in an hour or two, but we can’t leave Joe all night.”

“I know,” Ben nodded. He led Cochise into the stable, seeing that the horse was badly cut around the shoulder and further down around the fetlock. The leg was swollen and the muscles obviously damaged. “Get someone in here to put a poultice on Cochise while I get some of those buffalo robes from the house. We’ll hook up the sleigh and hope for the best.”

“I’ll get some lanterns, too,” Hoss suggested as he hurried off to do his father’s bidding. Hoss knew the chances of them finding Joe in the snow were remote at best, but he felt better doing something.

With the men alerted to the fact that Joe was missing, the Cartwrights soon found that all they had to do was concentrate on getting themselves ready for the trip. Charlie, the long-term foreman, a grizzled veteran of more winters than he cared to remember, hitched the team to the sleigh and stuffed in provisions, just in case the worst should happen and they got bogged down.

In the house, they donned extra socks and shirts, another pair of pants and finally their big coats, hats and scarves. Joe’s thick coat was added to the buffalo robes. Ben wished there was a way he could carry some hot coffee or soup, but there wasn’t, so he dismissed the thought from his mind.

Within a surprisingly short time, they were ready to leave. Fred, another long-term hand, had done some scouting and found Cochise’s hoof prints, so they knew the general direction in which to travel. With Ben driving, the sleigh pulled out of the yard and into the growing gloom. Both men were silent, neither of them willing to admit to the other that they were probably on a fool’s errand.

*****

Consciousness trickled back with the thought that he was cold and wet. Joe shivered and winced as discomfort shot through his back. Opening his eyes, he gazed around, remembering the fall. He had, he saw, been lucky – very lucky! A few short feet away was a stream, frozen around the edges, but fast enough running that the water was still free. If he had landed in that, Joe knew that he would have frozen to death.

As it was, hypothermia was still a big danger. Joe had been lying on the snow for several minutes and his clothing was beginning to feel quite damp. He was inadequately dressed for the weather and although his blanket was still with him, it was wet, too.

Acknowledging that it was better than nothing, Joe drew the damp wool around his shoulders again and struggled to get to his feet. It didn’t seem that he was hurt, although he was sore all over. Joe said a prayer of thanks for that and turned to survey the banking he had fallen down.

He could see immediately that he wasn’t going to be able to climb up it without someone at the top holding a rope. Sighing, Joe glanced around till he got his bearings and, ignoring his throbbing head as best he could, he started to trudge downstream in the direction of the ranch. He was sure that he would eventually find a place where he could climb back to the trail.

*****

It was a hard journey. Joe continuously tripped over obstacles hidden in the featureless snow and he was soon bruised and panting, exhausted without having traveled any real distance. Joe found himself stopping to rest quite frequently.

On one of his many stops, Joe glanced up to check his bearings and realized that the trail was gone. For an instant, panic flooded his thoughts, but after a moment or two, Joe forced himself to calm down. “Come on, Cartwright,” he chided himself, almost under his breath. “You just need to go back a bit and pick up the trial again.”

Feeling better for his self-imposed lecture, Joe retraced his steps to a point where he could see the trail must curve away from the stream. He took a drink from the stream, wincing at the coldness of the water and the pounding that start up again in his head when he bent over, then glanced up.

There were few distinguishing marks on the banking to tell Joe where it would be safe to climb, so he just had to make a guess. The first tree branch he grabbed broke as soon as he touched it, but luckily Joe hadn’t put any of his weight on it, so although he staggered, he was in no danger of falling.

Thereafter, his luck was better and he scrambled inelegantly up the banking. Just feet below the top, the stone under his left boot moved and Joe crashed down, all his weight hanging on his right arm. The shoulder socket screamed in protest and it took Joe a second to realize that the cry had come from his mouth not his shoulder!

Panting, Joe scrabbled around frantically with his foot for another secure foothold. His grip on the branch was slipping and it gave an ominous crack to add to his panic. Flailing his left arm wildly, Joe managed to snag hold of another branch – and none too soon, for the one he was gripping with his right hand snapped and Joe was falling again.

He felt his legs scraped against unseen rocks as his fall was halted once more. Somehow, Joe found a secure place for his right foot and he leaned into the banking, panting, sweating and shaking hard. His blanket had fallen off, but Joe didn’t care. At that moment, he was just thankful that he hadn’t tumbled down to the stream below.

It took a lot of mental chiding to get himself moving again, but Joe eventually succeeded, knowing that he couldn’t stay there. He took each move slowly, checking out the security of his hand and foot holds, for he had nearly learned that lesson the hard way. When at length he gained the trail, he was too exhausted to do anything but sprawl there on his stomach.

But the cold penetrating his clothes prodded Joe into moving again. He sat up cautiously and surveyed himself. His pants were ripped on both legs and Joe could see scraped and bleeding skin below. He looked at his legs for a long moment before a sigh escaped him. There was nothing he could do but get back onto his feet and keep moving, sore legs or not. He rolled to his feet, using the nearest tree for support and stood there for a moment before striking out towards home once more.

*****

The world narrowed to but one thought; keep moving. Mechanically, Joe kept putting one foot in front of the other, although he couldn’t really feel them any more. His arms were wrapped around his middle, trying to keep the heat in and his jacket collar was turned up as far as it could go. Keep moving; keep moving. The litany was as automatic as his movements. He no longer knew how long he had been traveling nor had any idea how far he had come.

Suddenly, Joe’s boot heel skidded on a patch of ice and he found himself windmilling his arms in the air, trying to catch his balance. Clarity returned to Joe’s thoughts with shocking suddenness as adrenalin began to pour through his system.

Something dark on the periphery of his vision caused Joe to reach out frantically and he caught hold of the branch as his body lost its fight with gravity. A slight downhill slope to the trail speeded Joe’s fall and he let out a yell as his shoulder, already abused from his near disaster on the stream bank, decided that too much strain and too much cold was a deadly combination and it ripped right out of its socket. Joe landed on his butt and slid down the increasingly steep slope, picking up speed as he went.

The corner was the finish of him. Joe might otherwise have ridden out his wild, unorthodox toboggan ride, but the trail took a sharp right turn and Joe didn’t. He crashed heavily off a tree and lay still.

*****

Many miles to the east, Adam was settling into a hotel room for the night. For a moment, he pictured his family, sitting in front of the fire in the great room, Joe and Hoss engrossed in a game of checkers and Ben reading the paper, sometimes telling his sons about the articles, but mostly sitting in companionable silence. It was a picture that comforted him. He knew his family was safe.

On a cold, snowy trail in Nevada, Joe was slowly dying.

******

“Look!” It wasn’t quite dark, but the light was fading fast, what there was of it. In the frozen twilit gloom, Hoss had seen a flash of color.

At once, Ben brought the sleigh to a stand still and Hoss got out to investigate, trying not to let the frigid air under the covers. This was not the first such stop that they had made, but Ben hoped it would be the last. Each time they saw something, Ben’s hopes rose that it was Joe, and each time they had been dashed.

“Pa!” The cry brought Ben out of his reverie and he was on his feet, stumbling through the snow before he was aware of it.

Hoss was kneeling on the ground, cradling Joe in his arms. The younger man was almost as white as the snow he lay on, only his damp, mussed curls contrasting with the whiteness of the landscape.

“Joe!” Ben was on his knees too, drawing Joe into his embrace, frantically checking for a pulse. It was there, weak and thready, but Joe was alive and that was all that mattered to Ben. He glanced up at Hoss, who had drawn back fearfully, unable to deal with the bad news he expected. “Hoss, Joe is alive. Help me get him to the sleigh.”

Working together, the two men carried Joe to the sleigh, where Hoss wrapped Joe’s coat around his shoulders then tenderly tucked a buffalo robe over him. Ben held Joe as though he would never let him go. He willed the sleigh to go faster as they turned for home, all the while knowing that speed on that treacherous surface could spell the end for them all. But it didn’t take long for them to reach the house.

Joe had been less than a mile from home.

******

The combined warmth of Ben’s body and the buffalo robe started to penetrate Joe’s frozen body. He was extremely cold, but not yet dangerously so and as his body warmed, he made the climb back to consciousness.

“Easy, Joe,” Ben soothed, as Joe moved restlessly in his arms. “I’ve got you; just lie still, son.”

“Pa?” Joe mumbled, confused.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben murmured, relieved beyond measure that Joe was talking. “You’re safe, don’t move.”

“Pa,” Joe muttered again, and tried to move himself into a more comfortable position. His injured shoulder at once protested this and Joe gave a loud, ragged gasp.

“What’s wrong, Joe?” Ben asked, anxiously, as Hoss glanced over his shoulder. “What hurts?”

“Shoulder,” Joe moaned. Being stoic was beyond him at that point. His good arm clutched at Ben.

“We’re here,” Hoss told them and Joe blinked. Where were they? Surely Hoss couldn’t mean they were home?

“Help me take him into the house,” Ben instructed.

As they lifted Joe between them, Charlie appeared out of the barn. He had been waiting for them and quickly took charge of the team and sleigh and sent a man off to fetch the doctor. It was risky, but the snow had stopped, and it looked as though it was going to freeze now. The doc might have to stay a night or two, but if that happened he’d at least get a rest, Charlie thought, with grim amusement.

*****

Stripping off Joe’s wet clothes didn’t take too long and Hop Sing had had the foresight to put a stone hot water bottle in Joe’s bed. Joe snuggled into the warmth with a sigh of relief. He was beginning to feel a bit more human now, although the pain from his shoulder was coming in waves and his hands and feet throbbed as the circulation improved in them.

“Pa?” Ben at once bent over Joe’s bed. “How did… you find me?” Joe asked.

“I didn’t really think you would have sent Cochise home alone,” Ben replied, twinkling slightly, “especially when he was hopping lame.”

“Is he all right?” Joe asked, making a move to sit up but aborting it before Ben could even put his hand out.

“I haven’t checked him over that carefully,” Ben admitted. “But Charlie was taking care of him and you know that he dotes on that horse almost as much as you do.” A faint smile crossed Joe’s face – the response he had been aiming for.

As Hop Sing came into the room with some warm water, Ben looked worriedly at Joe’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he should attempt to put Joe’s shoulder back into place or not. It was something he had done before, although not to Joe, but he had hated doing it and he would especially hate having to subject Joe to the pain.

“Charlie say he send for doctor,” Hop Sing informed his employer as he set the basin down on the bedside table.

“Thank goodness,” Ben breathed. That was a weight off his mind. If Paul could get there at all, that was. Putting that unpleasant idea out of his head, Ben set about washing Joe’s hands and face and cleaning up the superficial grazes on his legs. Joe mostly dozed through his ministrations, although he winced several times. The warmth was making Joe very sleepy. He just wanted to let go and drift away.

“Joe?” The voice was persistent and Joe reluctantly opened his eyes. Ben was leaning over him, stroking the hair back from his forehead. “I think you should stay awake, son, at least until the doctor has seen you. That’s quite a nasty bump on the head you got from somewhere.” His finger hovered over the bruised lump on Joe’s temple.

“Probably when I came off Cochise,” Joe murmured, sleepily. “I fell through a snow bank. Nearly landed in the stream.”

“You sure know how to comfort your old father, don’t you?” Ben teased, although he was instantly aware of what would have happened had Joe landed in the stream.

“I try hard,” Joe replied, with mock modesty. He moved restlessly in the bed and cried out as his shoulder sent daggers of pain through him. “It hurts, Pa,” he complained when he had caught his breath again.

“I know,” Ben soothed. He felt helpless. He hated seeing his sons in pain. Casting around for something to take Joe’s mind off his woes, Ben asked, “How did your thinking go, son?”

“My thinking?” Joe looked blank for a minute before his father’s meaning sank in. “Oh, about Adam. It went real well, Pa.” Joe moved slightly to a more comfortable position. His eyes took on a far away look. “I was afraid,” he admitted, in a low voice. “I was afraid of everything changing forever when Adam left. It felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff and no one was there to catch me. Like I had to be the grown up because Adam wasn’t around to do that, and I was used to him being there.” Joe focused on Ben, who was listening intently. “I wondered if it was something that I had done that made Adam want to leave, but I realize that it wasn’t.”

“It wasn’t anything any of us had done,” Ben agreed, seeing from the corner of his eye that Hoss had silently joined them. “It was just something in Adam.”

“I know that now,” Joe nodded. “It just took me a bit longer to get my head around it. No,” he corrected himself instantly. “My head knew that; my heart didn’t.” Joe glanced at Hoss, who nodded.

“We all felt the same, Joe,” Hoss told him. He walked over to sit on the chair by the bed. Ben was still perched on the edge of the bed. “But Adam ain’t been happy here fer a while an’ it had nothing ta do wi’ us.”

Outside in the yard, they could hear voices and Joe knew that it was most likely the doctor arriving. He was relieved to think that his shoulder would soon be back in place, although he dreaded the actual procedure. As Ben made a move to rise, Joe took hold of his arm. “I’m sorry for Adam, you know,” he continued. “I’m sorry he didn’t find what he wanted here.”

“So am I,” Ben agreed. “Very sorry. I built this ranch for you boys.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Joe averred. He allowed Ben to get up, not adding that although he understood why Adam had left, he had been badly hurt by it. He couldn’t articulate the hurt and so he chose not to mention it. He had mourned for Adam; he had let him go.

Understanding was for the future.

*****

Standing at his hotel window in Boston, Adam looked down on the city. It had changed since he had last been there. He looked down at his clothes and knew that he would have to go shopping in the morning. His clothes were sadly dated and singled him out as a ‘country boy’. It wasn’t a feeling Adam relished.

Walking the streets the next day, Adam found unexpected freedom in being unknown. It was liberating. He hurriedly did the shopping he needed to and returned to the hotel to change. His old clothes he threw out.

Looking at his reflection in the mirror, Adam saw a city gent a million miles from the Ponderosa. He looked completely different from his ranch persona and Adam was pleased. He grinned at his reflection and turned around to admire the back of the suit.

I must ask Joe if he likes this suit, Adam thought and caught himself. Joe wasn’t there; Joe was thousands of miles away.

Adam felt like he was standing at the edge of a precipice as the loneliness roiled in his stomach.

***End***

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