Unknown Fate (by Lisa M.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6677


 

 

It was a beautiful day.

That much he would acknowledge, if only fleetingly. The torrential rains of the past week had apparently moved east; the only evidence of their existence the lush and brilliant green of the landscape before him and the numerous shimmering puddles that marked the well-traveled road to Virginia City. But Ben Cartwright had too many other concerns clouding his mind to allow himself the luxury of reflecting upon the weather.

It was a long twenty miles into town and he had to pace himself; it took every ounce of willpower he had to keep Buck to a lope rather than the reckless gallop he itched to spur him into. Ben had to get to town, and quick; his impatience reflected in the tight grimace on his face.

His son had been shot. Maybe he was already dead. Jack had said it was bad, had heard there was blood everywhere. That much Ben understood.

Apparently it all started in the Bucket of Blood over some matter so trivial, so silly, that no one could even remember what it was. Everyone knew that Bill Hudson had been having a hard time of it lately, what with losing nearly half of his cattle to disease the previous winter and the fire that had destroyed his barn just a few weeks before. He had been drowning his sorrows on a fairly regular basis recently and unsuccessfully attempting to harvest a cash crop at the card tables.

There had been a drunken argument of some type and Bill had drawn his gun. His yelling and cursing quickly drew the attention of the three Cartwright boys who were seated at the bar. They weren’t even involved. But nonetheless, one of Ben’s sons stood up and tried to reason with the agitated man, and it turned out to be his undoing.

Bill fired.

So many mingled thoughts ran through Ben’s head, so many questions. As he continued on his frustrating, agonizing journey to town, one devastating question rose to the surface and shoved all other thoughts aside. It was the question that Jack hadn’t been able to answer.

Which son?

*****

There had been no need for all three of them to go into Virginia City that day. Hoss could have easily handled the trip on his own. Just pick up the mail and a few supplies from the Mercantile. That was it. But the beautiful day beckoned. After nearly a week of thunderstorms and mud and a dampness that seemed to seep into one’s very bones, a leisurely ride into town seemed like just the cure for cabin fever.

The sky was so blue and clear that it almost hurt to look at it, and a soft breeze kept things from getting too hot. Just a perfect, beautiful day. Ben had found himself somewhat amused at Adam and Joe and their poorly contrived excuses to accompany their brother into town. Adam wanted to check in with their lawyer and reread some paperwork for an upcoming timber contract, wanted to make sure there weren’t any errors, and Joe felt it necessary to tag along in case….well, just in case Hoss needed some help. 

Their errands would likely end with a detour into the Bucket of Blood to linger over a beer or two, but Ben didn’t mind. He was sympathetic, knowing that the isolated position of the ranch was sometimes difficult for three young men who enjoyed socializing and the company of friends.

 It was well before noon when the three Cartwright brothers set out. Joe and Hoss were seated on the buckboard, playfully fighting for control of the reins; their older brother rode alongside on Sport, laughing along with them. Spirits were high on this beautiful day; the brothers were going to town.

Ben could hardly blame his sons for wanting to escape the sodden misery of the ranch for a while. He had been tempted to make the trip with them, but other duties demanded his time. At least he could enjoy the pleasant weather to a lesser extent. He brought his accounts books to the porch table and turned his attention to the business of expenditures and revenues; a pitcher of Hop Sing’s lemonade was within easy reach to allay some of the drudgery of the task.

Ben had been pouring over figures for nearly two hours when the sound of hooves echoed in the yard. He stood as one of their hands, Jack Billingsley, came into view. Jack was fairly new, but Ben remembered him as a fast learner. The man was riding at breakneck speed towards the house, hollering loudly.

“Mr. Cartwright! You gotta come! Something’s happened in town….” Jack jumped down from the lathered sorrel and ran up to the porch. “The Bucket of Blood, sir. Me and Ted was passing by the sheriff’s office and Bruno was in there yelling about that Bill Hudson and how he went all crazy and was shooting up the place and everyone was hollerin’ and…..”

Jack paused before continuing breathlessly. “We ran on in there and were asking Bruno about it and he said that one of them Cartwrights tried to talk to Bill and get him to put his gun away but he just shot him point blank–right in the gut, Mr. Cartwright. He said it was bad, sir. Real bad. Blood all over the floor and……Mr. Cartwright?”

Jack stopped short, alarmed at the sudden pallor on his boss’s face. “You okay, Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben managed to suppress the icy clutch of fear in his chest long enough to find his voice. “Who was it? Who’s been shot, Jack?”

Jack winced nervously. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, I truly am. Ted just said that someone should ride out and tell you right away, and since I had the fastest horse, I said I would go, and….well, I just wasn’t thinkin’, sir. I shoulda found out before I left and all, and I thought about turning around but I figgered you’d be coming out no matter who it was and….well, I’m just sorry.”

*****

Ben sighed in frustration. He could feel Buck panting heavily beneath him and knew he would have to slow down or risk overtiring or injuring the animal. Buck was not as young or as sure-footed as many of the other Ponderosa horses, but the reliable buckskin had traveled this route more than any of them.

As Ben slowed to a trot, he gazed into the distance across the grassy flatlands that marked the halfway point to Virginia City. He wondered idly how often he had made this journey over the years. He was so familiar with every part of it — every cliff, every hill, every grove of pines or colorful manzanitas or burst of wildflowers that straddled the well-worn, muddy path. He knew them all. He could probably make the trip in his sleep.

A soft snort from Buck from startled him from his musings and his thoughts returned abruptly to the matter at hand.

It was all so senseless. All of this because of some drunken barroom disagreement, likely over something as inane as a lost card game or a spilled drink. Such disputes were as much a part of the saloon atmosphere as loud music and gambling. Any other time, it might have ended with nothing more than a few heated words or blows exchanged, or in some cases, an overnight stay in Sheriff Coffee’s jail to cool heels and tempers. It didn’t have to come down to someone being shot.

Jack had heard that his son had tried to reason with Bill. No real clue there. It could have been any one of them. Each of them would have willingly stepped forward if it prevented someone from getting hurt. As different as his sons were, that was a tendency they shared. How they would have gone about it, though, was something entirely different.

Adam, Ben imagined, would have attempted calm reasoning.

“Now, try and think this through, Bill. I know you’re angry, but we’re all friends here. No one needs to get hurt. Just put your gun away and we can talk about it.”

Ben could almost hear his son speaking the words. That’s the way it was with his eldest. He trusted Adam’s judgment implicitly, was proud of his undeniable honesty, his decency and fairness. Cool and deliberate — every word, every action calculated for effect. Many thought Adam was incapable of strong emotions because of it, but Ben knew better. Adam was just better at suppressing them.

Perhaps it was something that found its roots in Adam’s early childhood, in those early days when Ben found himself both trying to parent a child alone and face the innumerable challenges of his westward journey. Ben remembered how quickly Adam had warmed to his new wife Inger, how eagerly he returned her embraces and accepted her as his mother.

It warmed Ben’s heart to see the change in his quiet son. And then Inger was suddenly ripped from their lives, leaving Adam seeking solace in his books and poetry — things that he knew could not be felled by an Indian’s arrow. Only the presence of his new baby brother Hoss prevented him from withdrawing into himself completely.

Then, when Marie came into their lives, it was a long time before Adam treated her with anything but cool politeness. It took months before he began to see Marie as anything other than Pa’s new wife. But then, once again, he had a mother in his life, and once again, she was suddenly gone.

Marie’s death brought about a possibly irrevocable change in Ben’s eldest son. Just like before, Adam found comfort again in his books and his studies — things that were finite and controllable. Adam no longer had any use for outward displays of emotion or affection; he saw them as childish and serving no real purpose. It was this personality trait that most often caused him to clash heads with his wildly emotional youngest sibling.

But Ben knew that Adam could feel, and feel deeply. Hoss and Joe may not have been fully aware of it, but Ben was.

He remembered back to last month when Little Joe had been stricken with a severe case of scarlet fever. The whole family had been alarmed by the doctor’s pronouncement that the deadly disease may have damaged the boy’s heart.

Late on that third, terrible night, Joe lay delirious and thrashing about in his bed, and Ben despaired of bringing down his young son’s dangerously high fever. It was then when he came upon Adam kneeling at Joe’s bedside, grasping his little brother’s hand in both of his own and murmuring softly to him. And then, unexpectedly, Joe began to calm at the sound of his brother’s voice. Adam looked up, and Ben caught the shine of tears in his son’s eyes before they were impatiently wiped away.

Thankfully, Joe recovered a few days later with no ill effects, and didn’t seem to remember the incident. But Ben remembered, and he knew. He knew in that moment how terrified Adam was of losing someone close to him again.

And now, Adam may well be dying, his blood spilled on the floor of a saloon because he tried to do the right thing and save the lives of his brothers and everyone there. How could that be the action of someone unfeeling?

But then, what if it was Hoss? Was it Hoss who had stood up and tried to talk some sense into an intoxicated, enraged man waving a gun around?

Hoss! Wonderful, genial and tolerant Hoss.

His name described his appearance exactly. Physically powerful and incredibly strong, to be sure, but at the same time he displayed a touching innocence and sensitivity belying his size.

Ben always thought it was some stroke of divine irony to see such a tender heart encased within the potentially lethal body of his middle son. Hoss’ hands alone were larger than any Ben had ever seen. Strong enough to squeeze the life out of most living things, yet gentle enough to caress away the trembling of an anxious mare about to foal.

Life was straightforward and uncomplicated for Hoss. Unusually shy for such a big man, he often felt more comfortable in the company of his critters, as he called them. Animals were more predictable and trusting, less mystifying than humans, with all their moods and emotional extremes. But Hoss’ heart was as big as the rest of him, and within it dwelt a limitless store of compassion and optimism. He felt there was good in everyone, and it was a trait that had unfortunately led to people taking advantage of him over the years. But Hoss took it all in his good-humored stride. It was just his way.

Would Hoss have stood up and tried to coax the gun out of Bill’s hand?

In a heartbeat. Hoss would have casually sauntered on over and had himself a friendly little chat with an armed gunman without flinching.

“How’s it going, Bill? And that pretty little wife of yours – how’s she doing? Saw her at the church picnic last fall with yer young’un. Boy, I’ll bet that boy’s talking up a storm, now, ain’t he? He sure is a cute little feller. Now, why doncha just put away that gun so we can talk a bit?”

Hoss would have approached the angry man just as carefully and gently as he would a wounded animal. Was it then when Bill snapped and pulled the trigger? Was Hoss even now bleeding from a bullet from that man’s gun?

And lastly there was Joseph.

Often prone to impulsive behavior, his youngest son would have something to say to Bill Hudson, without a doubt. If Joe had suddenly stood up to reason with the crazed gun-wielding man, Adam and Hoss would have instantly yanked him back down to his seat. Ben would have bet his last dime on it. That’s just how it was with Adam and Hoss and their little brother. Their compulsion to protect that boy was as instinctive to them as breathing.

But the boy was stubborn to a fault and at an unfortunate age where he was constantly trying to prove himself. Ben could see the boy impatiently waving away his brothers’ protests. What if he had tried to say something to Bill? Oh, certainly, he would have been careful about it. Joe was smart enough to understand the threat of a gun pointing at him. And yet Joe would have had a difficult time restraining that temper of his. He would have been angry.

“Don’t be a fool, Bill. Put away your gun, now. Put it away.” Joe’s voice would have been deliberate and clear. But his hands would have been fisted.

What if it had been Joe? Ben fought to suppress the surge of panic he felt at the thought of his youngest son mortally wounded. Not that Ben wouldn’t have felt equally as frightened at the thought of his other sons so grievously injured. But it was different with Joe. Maybe it was because he was the youngest.

No. No, that wasn’t it. Of course, as the baby of the family, Joe had been afforded privileges through the years that his older brothers had not. It annoyed Adam and Hoss to no end, and nearly always topped their litany of complaints about their little brother. Even Joe himself would admit that he had gotten away with much over the years.

But no, it went beyond that. For Ben, at least, it was different with Joe. It went all the way back to his marriage to Marie.

Ben had loved Elizabeth and Inger dearly, as much as any man could love a woman, and he was devastated by their untimely deaths. But by the time he met Marie, he had grown miles apart from the young man with the deep-rooted dream to settle in the Wild West and make a name for himself.

The deaths of his first wives and the overwhelming challenges of parenthood had changed him — he hoped for the better. His life was utterly fulfilled when he married Marie, and his spacious house became the home he had always hoped for. His two boys had the warm, loving mother he had always wanted for them and his ranch was flourishing beyond anything he had ever hoped or imagined.

Then when his beautiful third wife blessed him with the gift of another son, Ben thought that things could not possibly get any better. With Marie, the Cartwrights had become a real family at last, and they had developed their own unique traditions and rituals and habits as any family does. Ben’s life had finally become what it was supposed to be.

For five years they lived together in the great ranch house. For five years everything was serene and beautiful. And then, in a cruel twist of fate, Marie was taken from him.

But something else was taken from Ben on that terrible day. His security. His constancy. And all that remained to remind him of what he once had was a little boy, who was not only the image of his mother but also had inherited nearly all of her redeeming qualities.

In a way, Joseph was the very essence of Marie. His presence became a living reminder to Ben of that time, a touchstone to how wonderful life once was.

And so, he clung to Joe – cherishing him, protecting him, and sometimes indulging him in a way that Marie would have scoffed at. But Joe not only helped Ben move forward in those dark months following his mother’s death; Joe became the catalyst for Ben to grow strong and forge again a new identity for the Cartwright family.

Yes, it was different with Joe.

*****

So much blood. In all his years as a physician, Dr. Paul Martin continued to be astounded at how much blood a person could lose and yet live.

He would never know if it was pure luck or mere coincidence that caused him to be nearby at the time of the shooting. Normally at that time of day, he was making his rounds — visiting the sick, the elderly, and the infirmed. He had finished earlier than usual, and was therefore only a few doors away when he heard the sound of gunfire. He rushed toward the Bucket of Blood, wondering if he was being premature. Wouldn’t be the first time that some trigger-happy drunk had blasted holes into the ceiling. But his instincts proved correct when he took in the scene on the other side of the swinging doors.

Bill Hudson was dead, or it looked like it, anyway. He was slumped on the floor, his eyes open and staring, his mouth gaping as if in surprise. He was loosely clutching a revolver in his hand, his finger poised on the trigger. Several of the patrons had gathered in a nearby corner, obviously huddled around another victim. They stepped away as Doc Martin entered the room; creating a path to someone lying on the floor. He wondered who it was. As he moved his eyes to the pain-filled face, he sucked in his breath.

Dear God.

But the good doctor didn’t waste time dwelling on his personal feelings. He knew at a glance that he was going to be performing emergency surgery right there on that cold, blood-stained floor and immediately took charge, tersely barking out orders to confused bystanders.

“I’m going to need some room here; everyone is going to have to leave. Send someone to fetch the sheriff. And his Pa.”

He looked up at the two who were desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from their brother’s belly with dirty towels confiscated from the bar. “You two can stay,” he said quietly. They didn’t seem to hear him.

He rummaged through his bag for the instruments he needed and cleared an area on a nearby card table to arrange them. He wondered idly what had happened and how long it would be before Ben arrived. Would it be too late by then?

Ben Cartwright didn’t need this. His dear friend had seen enough tragedy through the years, more than most people would experience in a lifetime. And yet, here was his son, pale and gasping, lying in an expanding pool of his own blood. Gut shot.

It was one of the worst sorts of injury. More than half bled to death on the spot; the rest would succumb to massive infection within a few days. That didn’t leave much hope for survival.

And yet, he lived. He was pale and trembling, his breathing rapid and shallow, but he was breathing, gazing up at the doctor with wide eyes, trying not to show how scared he was. And he was scared, there was no doubt. Who wouldn’t be with towel after towel being pulled away from his belly dripping with blood? He would likely lose consciousness soon, but in the meantime he was weakly trying to lift his head to see the wound. Why did they always want to see it?

“Lie back now” Paul ordered, then crouched down beside him and grasped his hand, lightly squeezing it. “Your brothers are here with you. Someone went to fetch your Pa. He’ll be here soon.”

*****

Buck was getting winded again. “Easy now, boy,” Ben murmured absently. “Almost there.” He slowed the horse down at the grove of poplars just a few miles outside of town. The cluster of tall trees often served as a turnaround point for some of the lively horse races that originated in Virginia City. The road was wider and more traveled by this point; but no less muddy as Buck sloshed through the puddles. There were more signs of habitation nearby, with the odd cabin or house tucked in among the trees and valleys, and other roads leading to various towns and settlements. But this time, Ben paid no notice to them.

His son had been shot.

The distressed father had given up his fruitless wonderings over which one it could be. His thoughts had turned into another fearful direction. What would he do if he lost a son — any of them? Ben had known great loss in his life. But if one of his sons was suddenly taken from him, he didn’t think he’d be able to survive it.

As Buck settled down into a trot, Ben could hear the sound of birdsong emanating from the nearby pines. It seemed almost blasphemous that fate should force such unspeakable tragedy on such a beautiful day.

And as the hills overlooking Virginia City came into view, his musings turned to prayer. He cast his eyes toward the heavens for a moment, as if to hasten forth the urgent entreaty of his heart.

Please.

*****

The saloon had become a scene of chaos once again as bystanders rushed to do the doctor’s bidding and the darkened corner of the saloon was prepared for the procedure that was about to occur. Chairs and tables were dragged out of the way; kerosene lamps were gathered and lit; bandages were assembled; and clean sheets and blankets were obtained from the International House across the road.

If the young man was scared earlier, he was clearly terrified now; all pretence at bravery abruptly abandoned as the wild flurry of movement and noise reverberated around him. As Paul leaned across to remove the remains of his patient’s bloody shirt, he felt his arm suddenly clutched with an unexpected strength. He looked down into wide frightened green eyes. And he saw the question there before Joe could even get out the words.

“Am I….” he croaked out through dry lips. “Am I….?”

Paul considered the young man and knew he couldn’t lie to him. “Not if I can help it. I’m going to do everything I possibly can, Joe” he replied.

Joe closed his eyes. It was obviously not the answer he had been hoping for.

The boiling water had been hauled in, his instruments sterilized and neatly arranged, fresh clean towels were stacked nearby — everything was ready. Paul prepared his metal and gauze ether mask and carefully soaked it with the clear liquid. As he moved it toward Joe’s face, the young man suddenly recoiled and drew away from it.

“Joe?” Paul was puzzled at the reaction. “Joe, it’s time now. I have to operate on you, son.”

But Joe was shaking his head, his eyes suddenly filled. “No” he whispered. “No. My Pa….I need my Pa.” His strength nearly expended with those few words, Joe turned his face away.

Then Paul understood. Here was a young man who clearly thought he was going to die, and he wanted to see his father again before it happened.

Paul reached out and grasped Joe’s face, turning it to look into his eyes, and carefully chose his words. “Joe, you need to listen to me now. You’re losing too much blood, son. If I don’t go in right now and find the source of the bleeding, you’re going to die. Do you understand?”

Joe stared back at him for a long moment, and then his head moved in the barest of nods.

Paul placed the mask on Joe’s face and watched him slowly close his eyes. He tried not to notice the tears slipping out beneath the boy’s lashes….

*****

“Adam?”

“Adam!”

Adam Cartwright started at the sound of his brother’s voice. Hoss had returned from the hotel across the street, clutching three kerosene lamps.

“It’s time, Adam” Hoss said quietly. “The doc says it’s time.”

Adam had been living and reliving the day’s events in his mind. His tendency to analyze things after the fact was something his family found maddening at times, but that was the way he was. The terrible chorus of what ifs and should haves was beating an insistent rhythm in his head.

Because it was his fault. All his fault.

*****

Adam was settled comfortably in his chair in his room, leafing through his worn copy of Paradise Lost when the door suddenly burst open. He knew instantly that it was Joe. His little brother was the only one who never knocked. Adam shook his head. Manners seemed to be beyond that kid’s comprehension sometimes.

“You need something, Joe?” he asked without even looking up.

“Older brother, I can’t believe you sometimes,” Joe said, sounded exasperated. “Look outside. What do you see?”

Adam glanced toward the window. “I don’t see anything.”

“That’s right!” Joe exclaimed, triumphantly. “No clouds, no rain, no lightning. How can you just keep yourself cooped up inside on a beautiful day like this? Come on, Adam. Let’s go to town.”

“It’s Hoss’ turn to go to town.”

“Come on, Adam!” Joe stalked over and yanked the book out of Adam’s hands. He glanced at it briefly. “You’ve read this one already anyway. Isn’t there anything you need to do in town?”

Adam looked up his little brother and sighed. He wanted to be annoyed with him, but found it difficult when Joe was in such a sunny mood. “Well, I guess I could stop over at Hiram’s office to take a look at that contract and…”

Joe patted him on the head. “That’s the spirit, older brother! We can stop at the saloon after. I’m buying. Meet ya downstairs…”

The trip into town with his brothers had been both pleasant and lively. How could it not be on such beautiful day? The three had completed their errands in short order when they met up at the Bucket of Blood. It was barely noon, but the saloon was already crowded with patrons — other people wanting to get out after so many days of rain. They found three stools clustered together at the bar and Joe tossed out the coins for the beers. They had barely seated themselves when they heard the shouting behind them.

Bill Hudson had apparently lost the last of his cash at the card table next to them and was not happy about it. He stood up and started cursing at the other two players. Adam, Hoss, and Joe, deep in a conversation of their own, only heard fragments of the man’s ranting and largely ignored it. But their attention was suddenly caught at the name Cartwright.

“…..and if I had a rich daddy like them, twouldn’t make no difference, no how,” Bill was yelling and gesturing towards the brothers sitting at the bar. “I could have money to burn, too.” The man was staring at them belligerently.

Joe shot up at that remark, nearly upending his stool. “You got something to say, Hudson?” he asked coldly, his eyes blazing angrily at the smaller man.

Adam and Hoss were on their feet immediately. They recognized that tone in Joe’s voice and knew that fists were about to fly. But they also knew something else, even if their hotheaded younger brother did not. Bill Hudson was armed, furious, and staggering drunk — possibly the most lethal combination on the planet.

Adam grasped Joe’s shoulder in warning. “Leave it, Joe. It’s not worth it.” He tried to turn his brother back around toward the bar and that’s when Adam made his mistake. Bill Hudson took advantage of the distraction and drew his gun. The entire saloon fell quiet to watch the confrontation.

Adam swallowed then, sensing instinctively that this was not going to end well. “Come on, Bill. I know you’re angry, but try to think this through…”

Hoss stepped forward, moving slightly in front of Joe. “Hey there, Bill. There’s no need to do this. Let’s get ya on home now. We’re all friends, here.” He took another step toward the agitated man.

Hudson was shaking, the gun in his hand bobbing up and down erratically. “No! You Cartwrights! Ya got it all, don’t ya? Always interfering and lording it over all the rest of us and…”

Joe pushed away from Hoss. “Bill, don’t be a fool! Put your gun away.” He would have stomped straight over to the gun-wielding man and started fighting but suddenly he found his arm seized in an iron grip by Adam.

Joe whipped his head around to glare angrily at his interfering brother and he tried to pry Adam’s fingers loose. In that moment, Bill fired…

Joe collapsed in a heap; only Adam’s hold on his arm preventing him from slamming his head on the oak bar as he fell. But Bill Hudson wasn’t finished. He re-cocked his weapon and started to swing it towards Adam, but another blast echoed in the saloon and he was suddenly slammed against the wall.

Hoss paused for a moment before returning his gun to its holster. Then he turned his attention toward his little brother….

*****

Dr. Martin looked up as Adam and Hoss appeared — Hoss with a trio of lamps and Adam with a stack of clean towels from the bar. They looked only slightly less distressed than when he first came upon the two of them, anxiously trying to stop the blood flowing from their brother’s belly. He had been alarmed at how pale the brothers looked, and immediately sent them off to fetch supplies before he had two more patients on the floor in front of him.

That the two Cartwrights rose to do his bidding without protest only showed how deeply in shock they were, and the doctor wondered yet again if they were up to the task of assisting him with the delicate operation. He wished the reliable Hop Sing could be at his side to help him, but he would just have to do as best as he could under the circumstances.

And dire circumstances they were. As the doctor checked Joe one last time to ensure that he was fully unconscious, he raised his eyes towards Adam and Hoss. Did they understand the gravity of the situation? Should he tell them that this might not work? That their little brother may die before their eyes?

He noted the grave expressions on the two faces before him, and he had his answer. They knew.

Paul paused and closed his eyes briefly. Then, he began….

*****

As the town of Virginia City came into view, Ben gave Buck his head and urged him to a full gallop, his sense of urgency suddenly intensified. Almost there. The journey that had seemed interminable was nearly over, and now Ben wondered if he was too late.

He slowed as he approached the Bucket of Blood and immediately noticed the crowd milling about outside. As he arrived at his destination, he noted the sober looks on their faces — some friends, some strangers. They glanced at him curiously as he dismounted and hurried towards the door, many murmuring sympathetically as he passed. As he was about to push through, the door swung open suddenly, and a blanket-covered body was carried out.

Terror — violent and unrestrained — suddenly clutched at the father’s heart, and without warning, his legs nearly gave way beneath him. He would have fallen to his knees if not for the strong grasp of Hoss, who had somehow appeared at his side.

“Pa” Hoss said softly. “It’s okay, Pa. It’s all okay. Come on inside. Doc wants to talk to you.”

Ben looked toward the wagon where the body was being loaded. “Who….?” he began.

Hoss suddenly looked sad. “Bill Hudson. I had to kill him, Pa. I had to. He was shooting at Adam…”

Adam.

Hoss was gazing over at the wagon and still speaking. “…..dunno know happened. Just went plumb crazy, I guess. He’s got a young’un, too, and a wife. Jes dunno what happened…”

Ben abruptly seized Hoss’ vest. “Adam! Where’s Adam? How bad is he hurt, Hoss? How bad?”

Hoss blinked in surprise and looked back at his father. “Pa, Adam’s fine. Joe, though…” He hung his head. “Joe was hurt right bad, Pa; he….”

Joe.

It had been Joe all along.

Ben didn’t wait around to hear anymore; he swiftly pushed through the doors of the saloon to see what he needed to see. And dreaded to see.

He took in the scene before him as if in slow motion: Sam, the bartender, forlornly mopping blood from the tiled floor, Tables and chairs that had been hastily moved aside. Red-stained towels haphazardly tossed about. Three half-empty glasses of beer sitting in a row on the bar.

And in the nearest corner, amid a cluster of kerosene lamps on the floor…..Oh, God.

There on the floor, pale as death, and shrouded in row after row of white bandages, lay Little Joe. Ben had to look close to see if he was even breathing. And when he saw the steady rise and fall of his young son’s chest, he felt a weight lift off his heart. “Joe” he whispered.

“Ben.”

Ben turned around at the sound of Paul Martin’s voice behind him. Deep lines marked his friend’s face, and he looked more tired than Ben had ever seen him. “Paul? Is he….is Joe going to be alright?”

Paul smiled then. “I think so, my friend.” He looked toward the young man slumbering on the floor. “I wanted to move him over to my clinic to make him more comfortable, but he wanted to stay here. You know how stubborn that boy can get.” Paul shook his head in bemusement. “He was waiting for you.”

Ben quietly approached and knelt down next to his son. As if sensing his father’s presence, Joe’s eyes flickered open and he turned his head towards his father. He was too weak to even speak, but Ben could see his son’s heart in his eyes. Ben captured Joe’s face in his two hands, and leaned forward, gently pressing his forehead against his son’s. He closed his eyes, nearly overcome by a sudden rush of emotion.

“I’m here, Joe. Pa’s here, now.” he whispered softly.

*****

Ben and his boys kept a quiet vigil at Joe’s side throughout that long afternoon, counting each breath, watching for each flicker of movement. They could still scarcely believe what Paul had told them.

The bullet from Bill Hudson’s gun had traveled through the fleshy part of Joe’s forearm as he was raising it to push Adam’s restraining hand away. No one had noticed the wound to Joe’s arm in their frenzy to tend to the gut wound. But the first injury slowed the bullet and prevented it from causing greater damage. As it was, the bullet entered Joe’s liver and slightly nicked one of its arteries, causing the profuse bleeding. Paul had been able to locate and repair the damaged vessel almost immediately. But had Joe’s arm not slowed the bullet’s path, it would have certainly split the artery in two and gone on to wreak havoc through his intestines. He would likely have bled to death even before Paul could have responded to the sound of the shots.

In trying to protect Joe, Adam had inadvertently saved his life.

And as the three men sat side-by-side in a once crowded saloon, each reflected in their own way on the terrible events that took place that afternoon. And the joyful ones.

They thought about a young woman who was now a widow, and a little boy who no longer had a father. They thought about what might have happened if Bill Hudson had been dealt a better hand.

And what might have happened if they had lost a son and brother.

*****

The sun was starting its descent in the sky as the weary family made its way back to the Ponderosa. Joe had been bundled up in several blankets and placed gingerly on his father’s lap in the back of the buckboard. Ben knew that his arms would be tired and cramping by the end of the trip, but he didn’t mind. It was his son.

Paul had advised that it would be wiser for Joe to spend the night in his clinic after such a devastating injury, but Ben immediately noted the look of sheer panic that crossed his son’s face at the suggestion. No. Tonight he was taking his son home – to his room, to his bed, to that place where he could feel safe again. He couldn’t deny him that. Not now.

It would be a long night tonight, and several worry-filled days lay ahead, but for now his son breathed in his arms, and that was good enough for Ben.

Ben reflected again upon the day and the truth that he had come to understand in those heartrending hours when tragedy was nearly visited upon his family once again. And the magnanimous second chance he had been given.

Ben had come to understand that the same forces of fate that had brought about such tragedy in his life had also bestowed great blessings. He had struggled through life’s thunderstorms and yet basked in its beautiful days. Ben Cartwright had known deep and abiding love three times, and then three times again. The paths he had taken through the years had led him to the here and now, to this life with his sons, his family. Maybe it wasn’t perfect. But his life had again become what it was supposed to be.

Ben was jerked from his musings when Joe stirred slightly and blinked open his eyes. “It’s getting dark, Pa?” he murmured sleepily.

“Yes, son,” Ben replied. “Try and rest now.”

Ben regarded his three sons in the waning light of what was once a beautiful day. Adam, grim-faced, riding slightly ahead on Sport, keeping pace with the team; Hoss, clicking the horses onward and anxiously studying the muddy road ahead; and Joe, closing his eyes and yawning against his father’s chest. Yes, it was getting dark. But they would be home soon. And there would be more beautiful days ahead for this family.

Ben was sure of it.

***The End***

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