Word Count: 1604
Awareness comes upon me, not with the slow retreat of soft darkness and dreams, but with a discordant plunge into fear and pain. My abrupt awakening leaves me gasping, and for several long moments I struggle to catch my breath. I look around in wild panic, trying to remember where I am.
My senses slowly catch up to the confusion muddling my thinking. My room. I’m in my room. It’s late night, and the quiet is deafening. A single lamp flickers dimly on the table beside my bed.
There is something cool and damp on my forehead. I want to reach up and remove it, but I feel too weak to even raise my arm. Am I sick? I don’t remember being sick.
And yet, there’s Pa in the chair beside my bed, so close I could touch him. His head is down, and he is sleeping; his small bible lays open on his lap. Even in slumber, deep lines of anxiety and exhaustion remain etched in his face. His hair is tousled from running a hand through it; his face unshaven. Pa always looks older when he’s worried. Believe me. I’ve seen Pa’s worried face more than anyone.
I remember asking Adam once when Pa’s hair started turning gray. Adam had replied absently, “The day you were born.” I had laughed at his response at the time, but now I wonder if there was some truth to it. Sometimes it’s been my own stupid fault, and sometimes not, but God knows I’ve sure given my pa a lot to worry about over the years.
I can feel that my bed linens have been neatly tucked around me, and I can’t help but smile. Pa used to tuck me in like this every night when I was a boy. He’d settle me snugly in my bed and sit beside me and read to me or talk to me until my eyelids began to droop. Then he’d whisper “Sweet dreams, son,” and kiss me on my forehead. He’d blow out my lamp, and before leaving the room, he’d always pause to look back at me. “See you in the morning,” he’d say.
I’ve long outgrown the childish bedtime ritual, but I sometimes wonder if my pa longs for those simpler times, when so many hurts could be soothed away with a kiss dropped upon a small forehead.
I try to move up higher in the bed, and I wince at the sharp pain in my side, and I wonder what it is. And suddenly, I know.
Shot. I was shot.
I don’t know why I know this, because I sure don’t remember anything. I can feel sleep persistently tugging at me, trying to pull me under again, but I push it back because I suddenly want to remember what happened. I need to know why my pa is so worried. I grasp at the wisp of a memory, and like a door slowly opening, the recollection of the awful events begins to flood back.
It was Pete Foster who did it, one of our own ranch hands. He’d been doing something he wasn’t supposed to, I think. Stealing. Pa found out that he’d been helping himself to some of our beeves and selling them on the side. I remember Adam wanted to let the sheriff handle it. But not Pa. Pa wanted to talk to Pete, he’d said. Give the man a chance to explain himself.
Adam disagreed. Pretty loudly, too, as I recall. He was yelling at Pa, arguing that there’s never an excuse for stealing and it was a matter for the law.
Hoss and I pretty much stayed out of the discussion, even though I kinda agreed with Adam. But Pa was starting to look really mad and there are times when you have to sit back and stop arguing with him. I know. I’ve seen Pa’s mad face more than anyone too.
Pa let Adam state his case, but in the end it was Pa who got his way in the matter, just as I knew he would. He did agree to let me and my brothers go with him to the bunkhouse to confront Pete about the stolen head. I remember wondering what the hell kind of explanation Pete would have to come up with to placate my father. If it wasn’t a starving wife and six kids stashed away somewhere, Pete didn’t stand a chance of keeping his job on the Ponderosa. Shoot, he might even end up in jail.
I guess we didn’t think it through too well, though, ’cause Pete saw us coming and ran into the bunkhouse and slammed the door. Couldn’t really blame him, I suppose. If any of the hands saw all four Cartwrights headed their way, it probably didn’t mean anything good. Even so, no one could have guessed that Pete would break out a window and start shooting at us.
Then there was gunfire and people were running and yelling and taking cover, and then the smoke cleared and it was over as quickly as it had begun. Pete Foster was dead, courtesy of my brother Adam. Or maybe it was Hoss. I didn’t know, didn’t care. All I knew was that I was the unlucky Cartwright to catch a bullet from Pete’s gun, and I was lying in the dirt yard of the bunkhouse feeling like my whole side was on fire.
I’d barely had a chance to move or even lift my head before Pa was beside me, ripping my shirt open. He looked at my wound, and what he said next terrified me.
What happened after that isn’t clear, but I remember my brothers holding me down, and Pa was pressing down hard on my side, and his hands were slick and bloody, and it hurt so bad and I was trying to move away from the pain and I was yelling and I think I even cursed as I begged my pa to stop. Adam was whispering something in my ear. “It’s okay, Joe. Just stay with us, boy, you hear?”
I remember seeing Hoss rip off the sleeve of his shirt, and saw Pa roll it up and press it against my wound, which was stubbornly refusing to stop bleeding. I wondered if Hoss was cold, because I sure was. I was shivering so hard that my teeth were rattling in my head, and it was making the pain worse. Pa was hollering something about the doctor and then my vision was getting blurry and I wondered vaguely if I was going to die right there in front of the bunkhouse.
My eyes started to drift shut, and Adam’s voice was back in my ear. “Stay with us, Joe!”
I wanted to holler back at him. Well, I can’t really go anywhere with you holding me down, can I? I could feel my mouth moving, but no words were coming out.
“Joe?” Adam’s voice was louder, more urgent. “Joe!”
But I must have been beyond hearing or feeling by then, because the next thing I remember was that I was in my bed, and Doc Martin was there with Pa. The doctor was saying something about the wound, something about an infection. I couldn’t hear or comprehend it all through my drug-induced fog, but I could see that Pa was upset by the doctor’s words.
I don’t remember much after that, only bits of conversation that floated around me during brief spells of awareness.
“. . .get some sleep, Pa.”
“Not now, Adam. . . his fever down–”
“. . . more coffee, Pa. . . sit with him for a while. . . something to eat.”
“. . . be here. . .he wakes up!”
“I’m so sorry, Joe.”
Fever, I realize now. That’s what had Pa so worried. It explains the damp cloth across my head. But there is no fever now, I can tell. The fuzzy, headachy feeling I get when I have a fever is gone. Pa will be relieved to hear it, I know. On impulse, I reach over to wake him, to tell him that I’m better, but I change my mind and drop my hand back to my side. Even as I gaze upon his sleeping face, the lines around his brows and lips suddenly disappear and I watch as his mouth curves up in a slight smile. I’m amused at this – Pa must be dreaming. I study his face, and realize that he’s wearing the same pleased little expression that he must have worn when I took my first steps, or lost my first tooth, or caught my first fish. If he was awake, the smile would be accompanied with that low familiar chuckle, and a “Good boy, Joseph.”
I feel sad for him and realize then how agonizing it must have been for him to pray so hard and fight so fiercely, only to stand by helplessly as fate deals her cruel hand anyway and allows death to steal away those he loves. That sometimes, there’s nothing he can do, nothing anyone can do. I wonder how hard it must be to get up every day and go on, knowing that painful fact.
But that smile reassures me, and I know that when he wakes, he’ll be smiling for real as he touches my face and sees for himself that I’ve come back. I close my eyes, and in those soft, hazy moments before sleep claims me once again, I find myself hoping that my pa is still smiling.
“Sweet dreams, Pa,” I whisper.
See you in the morning.