Is It Worth It? (by Starlite)

Summary: Ben is left to ponder that question after a violent attack on his family.

Rated:  PG  (7,325 words)

Is it worth it?

My son, my son…

The silver-haired patriarch sat upon the dark hardwood floor of his ranch house, his mind numbed by shock.  In his arms he cradled the unmoving limp body of his son drawn tightly to his chest.  Vacant dark eyes stared blankly, seeing nothing, while he rocked slowly back and forth, silently lamenting his loss.  Is it worth it? his son’s question haunted him.  So consumed in grief, guilt and despair he was totally oblivious to his surroundings.

“Please Pa, please let us help.”  A familiar loving, but very frightened, voice spoke from the darkness.  It went unnoticed as his father continued to rock his beloved child.

“Please Ben, let me take a look at him.”  Another calm and reassuring voice vaguely recognized to be that of a longtime family friend, briefly interrupted into his emotional pain and it too was ignored.

Continuing to rock, the older man absentmindedly shifted a hand and began to lovingly stroke his son’s head.  His mind never registered the thick sticky liquid that soaked the soft hair.

My son, my son is dead.

*******************

“Hoss, Hoss get that one over there!”  Adam Cartwright yelled out, pointing a finger in the direction of a wayward steer that was trying to escape into the underbrush.

Complying with his older brother command, Hoss spurred his mount directing him to the area indicated by the ramrod of this drive.

It was late fall on the Ponderosa and time to move the remainder of the herd to the winter pasture before the snows came.  After the spring and fall roundups, and the drives to market, there weren’t as many cattle to contend with, but the ones that remained seemed to be the most ornery bunch they’d ever dealt with.  In a couple of days, they would release the majority of the hands for the winter, so they needed to get these cattle down from the high ground.

“Hiya!”  Hoss called out, waving a coiled rope in his right hand hoping to encourage the rogue steer to rejoin the herd.

Chubb obediently followed his master’s directive; he was a well-trained cutting pony.  Anticipating the steer’s next move, the black horse feigned to the left before turning sharply to the right to charge behind the disobedient animal.  Horse and steer were within feet of each other when the hoof upon the right foreleg stepped deep into the ground.  Off balance, the horse lunged forward before falling hard.

“HOSS!”  Little Joe screamed.  He could only watch from behind as his older brother and his horse tumbled to the ground.  He kicked his mount into a run.

Hearing his kid brother’s frantic yell, Adam swiveled in his saddle and momentarily froze at the sight of his younger brother and his horse struggling upon the ground.  He yanked roughly upon his reins and spurred Sport toward his fallen sibling.

Adam and Joe reached their brother at the same time and neither wasted any precious seconds in securing their mounts, before racing to assist the fallen man.  Adam quickly assessed the situation and dove to use his body to hold the struggling horse down.

“Joe, see if you can cut the cinch.”  Adam directed over his shoulder to his youngest brother.  He could tell that Hoss’s leg was trapped beneath the horse and if broken could be torn off if the horse rose or fled in fright.  He saw Hoss’s massive hands holding so tightly onto the reins that the large fingers were completely white from the strain.  Closing his eyes, Adam concentrated on holding the horse as still as possible to avoid further discomfort to his brother.

“Easy Hoss, just hold still son.”

Adam looked up and saw their father comforting his brother.  He wasn’t sure where his father had come from, but was relieved that he would take over.

“Joe, hurry up willya?”  Adam could feel his strength ebbing as Chubb continued his fight to free himself.  He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold the horse down.

Joe wanted to yell back at Adam that he was doing the best he could, and if Adam thought he could do better he would gladly hand him his knife.  But he also knew that this was neither the time nor the place to start an argument.  Giving one final yank on the leather strap with the sharp metal blade, he smiled in satisfaction and relief when the tough material gave way.

“Got it!”  Joe exclaimed, reaching down to pull Adam safely away from the stallion.

Both men stepped away from the horse while it quickly fought to its feet.  Hastily it attempted to make its retreat only to limp awkwardly.  Once they saw that their brother was free, Adam and Joe quickly rushed to assist.

Kneeling beside the big man, Adam retrieved his knife from his back pocket and deftly cut the seam of the right pant’s leg.  He whistled softly as he assessed the damage before addressing his brother.

“Looks like you did yourself a number.”  Adam gave a small smirk and wink, trying to offer reassurance to his brother, and then he carefully removed the stirrup and tossed the saddle harmlessly to the side.

“Joe, ride over the ridge and instruct one of the hands to bring a buckboard.  Then ride to town for Doc Martin.”  Ben watched Joe nod that he heard his commands before quickly departing.

Ben shifted his gaze to his oldest son and observed while Adam removed his jacket then skillfully ripped off his own shirtsleeves to use as bindings.  Without interrupting Adam’s concentration, Ben handed over his clean white handkerchief to Adam, who took it without word.

Adam studied the wounds before him.  He could see where Hoss had broken one or more of the bones of his lower leg based upon the unnatural twist of the appendage.  Adam could also see where a small broken branch had impaled the upper portion of Hoss’s thigh.

“I’m sure glad you always wear them nice clean shirts.”  Hoss joked then grimaced in pain when Adam grasped the exposed portion of broken wood and pulled.

“Yeah, well now you owe me a new shirt.”  Adam tried to keep his tone light, he knew he was hurting his brother but could see no other options.  He worked as quickly as he possibly could to bandage the bleeding wound, before turning his concentration to the lower part of the leg.

*******************

Adam Cartwright tipped his hat to a passing lady as he stepped out of the Virginia City bank.  He drew in a deep breath then slung his laden saddlebags over his shoulder.  He was bone tired, and would have enjoyed a nice beer over at the saloon but he needed to get back to the ranch.  As he slowly made his way over to his horse, where he transferred his load from his shoulder to his horse’s back, Adam contemplated all of the things he could really enjoy right about now, a hot bath, a warm bed, a nice meal, a healthy younger brother.  He harrumphed while he hefted his weight into the saddle; it was going to be awhile before he had time for any of those luxuries.  There were men to be paid and he needed to get that chore done with today or suffer the consequences from some very unhappy ranch hands.

Two men sat on a bench outside of the General store and watched while the man donned in tan winter coat and black hat departed the bank.  One man licked his lips in anticipation as he noticed the tall muscular man easily sling the fat pouches lazily over one shoulder, before approaching a tall high-spirited chestnut horse.  His attention was diverted from the man’s departure down the dusty road, by an elbow to his mid-section.

Looking to his left, he saw his companion direct his attention to the man who stood beside them.  He glanced up and watched the man toss the stick he’d been whittling down upon the wooden sidewalk, before the man used his thumb to easily snap shut the pocketknife.  He waited while the pocketknife was placed into the other man’s back pocket then followed him to their horses, which were tied to the hitching rail.

*******************

Three men watched while the man in the black hat trotted into the large ranch house’s expansive yard.  From their location, they were well secluded from unsuspecting eyes but had a bird’s eye view of the house and yard below.

A slow malicious smile crept across one man’s face then he tossed the stick he’d been whittling upon the ground and closed the pocketknife.  Stuffing the weapon into his back pocket, he silently tipped his head towards their waiting mounts.  The other two men obediently followed as the older man rose from the ground.  He surveyed the sky and decided it was still a couple of hours till sundown, more than enough time for them to do what they had come for, and be long gone by the time anyone would be the wiser.

Adam Cartwright rode slowly into the yard and pulled his roan gelding over to the railing and dismounted.  He’d just come from the lower pasture where he’d supervised the last of the move of the herd.  He was pleased that all was ready for the coming snows.  He’d also finished dolling out the last large payday of the ranch for this year.  In gratefulness for the extra effort the men had shown over the last couple of days since Hoss’s accident, he’d paid the men early and allowed them to treat themselves to a nice Friday night in Virginia City.  He knew most of the men would probably make an early night of it, because they would be moving on in the morning now that winter was approaching, with only the regular hands staying on through the coming season.

Bone weary, Adam felt years beyond his age and stretched to try and ease the kinks out of his protesting back.  Briefly he rubbed at an annoying ache in his lower back, before folding his arms and resting his head against the warm leather of his saddle.  He jumped slightly at the unexpected sound of his kid brother’s voice.

“Hey Adam!”  Little Joe smiled broadly seeing his older brother’s return.  His mood changed to amusement when he saw Adam jump.  He really enjoyed seeing his older brother rattled.  “Got my pay?”

“Yes,” Adam growled the response when he saw the broad goofy grin displayed prominently across Joe’s face.  “But you still have to earn it.”  He untied and pulled down the saddlebags from his horse.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Joe demanded reaching out for Adam’s saddlebags.

“Just what I said.”  With a sight sneer, Adam placed his right hand on Joe’s chest to stop his forward advance while holding the bags at arms distance away from his kid brother with the other.

This was how Adam had always taunted his smaller brother as a child, except in those days he would just hold the desired object high over the young boy’s head making him jump to reach it.  After a few futile attempts to acquire Adam’s saddlebags, Joe quickly tired of the old game.  Realizing he no longer had his brother’s attention, Adam turned to enter the house.

“Hey Joe, take care of my horse willya?”  Adam called out over his shoulder.

“Hey Joe, take care of my horse willya.”  Little Joe mimicked in a snotty tone of voice while scrunching up his nose.  Though normally Adam’s taunting would rile the young man to fighting, today he was in too good a mood to let Adam spoil it.

*******************

Ben Cartwright quietly closed the wooden door as silently as possible; he didn’t want to awaken his now snoring middle son.  His body ached with fatigue and exhaustion.  It had been three days since Hoss’s riding accident and his son was still not out of the woods.  Though his middle son’s fever had finally broken late the previous evening, Hoss was still very weak from the ordeal of breaking his leg and the resulting infection from being impaled by the broken branch.

At least Hoss is eating; Ben smiled at the half-eaten tray of food he carried in his hands.  He knew that was a good sign that things were on the mend.  He paused to close his eyes and looked heavenward to give thanks that his prayers were answered. Resuming his journey, Ben started to walk down the stairs into the main room, and looked up when he heard the front door open.

Adam walked into the large ranch house; he stopped momentarily to discard his hat, coat, gun belt and his saddlebags by the door.

“Adam, welcome home son.”  Ben called out as he completed his descent from the stairs.

Adam glanced across the room at the sound of the familiar voice.  There at the bottom of the stairs was his father; Adam noted how tired and drawn the older man’s face appeared.  He felt a pang of guilt over his father’s appearance; he never realized just how much it took out of their father when one of them was ill.

“Here Pa, let me take that to the kitchen for you.”  Adam offered rushing over to take the lunch tray from his father’s hands.

Ben’s initial response was to object to Adam’s offer of assistance, but the suggestion sounded too good to the tired man.  Grateful for the respite, he handed the tray to Adam.  He watched while Adam took the tray from his hands and headed towards the kitchen, before sinking down into the blue velvet chair to rest his weary body.  As his body began to relax, he started to count his blessings.  He was thankful that one son was finally on the mend and the other two had been such a help during this trying time.

Without question or objection, Adam had assumed all the ranching duties.  He’d finished the move of the herd to the winter pasture and today had completed the last major payroll of the year.  At night, Adam had even taken his turn to sit up with his younger brother so his father could get some rest.

Even Little Joe had pitched in and done more than his share.  So he could stay closer to home and nearer to Hoss, he’d taken on all his brothers’ chores of cleaning stalls, grooming horses and chopping wood.  To Ben, his youngest at seventeen was finally maturing into a fine man.

Hop Sing, the family cook and housekeeper, had also been a godsend by having steaming coffee ready at all hours of the day and night.  He’d even stepped in by volunteering to pick up the supplies in town that day, as well as more medicinal herbs for his healing teas.

Ben wasn’t sure when his eyes had closed or when he’d succumbed to sleep, but he awoke with a start at the sound of the front door swinging opening.  He felt his heart race in his chest and his face flush with anger when his youngest son was bodily thrown across the great room to land near his feet.  He rose from his chair, and reaching out he helped his youngest son to stand beside him.  Ben Cartwright was further enraged to see Joe’s lip cut and bleeding and the cheek around his left eye beginning to swell and darken.  Balling his hands into fists, Ben fought to contain his rage and he turned to address the intruders of his home.

“Don’t do it old man.”  The tallest of the three men advised pointing a gun toward Ben Cartwright.

Adam Cartwright rounded the corner from the kitchen into the dining room and saw his father’s outraged stance.  Hearing the warning threat from an unfamiliar voice and unseen location, Adam tilted his head back warily and stepped back into the confines of the kitchen.  He placed the tray containing the steaming teapot, cups and cookies quietly back onto the round wooden table in the center of the room and scanned his surroundings, looking hopefully for a weapon.  His attention was drawn back to the angry voices now raised in the main room of the house.

“Where’s the other one?”  The largest of the intruders to the Ponderosa demanded.

“Who?”  Ben Cartwright feigned ignorance in the vain hope of protecting his other sons.

The man grinned evilly, knowing that old Ben Cartwright was trying to make a fool of him.  With his left hand he pulled a large pocketknife from his rear pocket and easily flipped it open.  Handing it to the man who stood guard near the door, he motioned with his head in the direction where the youngest Cartwright stood.  Seeing and understanding the unspoken command, the quiet one took the proffered weapon and purposely strode into the main room.  Reaching out suddenly, he grabbed the young Cartwright from beside his father, and put the blade to Little Joe’s neck.  He pulled him closer to the settee in the center of the room and away from his father’s protection.

Ben Cartwright was caught unaware by the action.  He’d been expecting an assault by the man, but he didn’t anticipate them to taking his youngest son.  He glanced at the frightened eyes of his son, as the sharp blade gleamed against the exposed skin of the young throat.

“Now, I ask ye again.  Where’s the other one?”  The one who was obviously the leader demanded, now holding up Adam’s black Stetson hat to emphasize his point.

Trapped and knowing he had no further recourse in the matter.  Ben closed his eyes before calling out.

“Adam!  Adam come in here please.”

Adam cursed silently to himself.  He hadn’t found anything but a few butcher knives and wished he hadn’t left his gun belt by the door.  Slumping his shoulders in defeat, he made his way to the main room.

Entering the dining room, he quickly assessed the situation.  He saw his kid brother roughly being held with a knife to his throat, and the angry fearful eyes of his father’s that watched his entrance.  He knew Joe’s captor was keeping a well-trained eye upon his every move, while he slowly walked with his hands on his hips into the main room.

“That’s far enuf.”  Adam heard the order and stopped immediately, taking in the room and the family’s current dire situation.  Angrily, Adam turned his head to face the floorboards while crossing his arms across his chest, before glancing upwards with his right eye to take note of the ranch’s uninvited guests.

Near the sideboard almost in the corner behind the door, stood a young man no more than a couple of years older than Joe.  His white face and twitching gun hand belied his youth and nervousness.  Behind his brother stood another, older man someone around his age, dirty and unkempt the man’s eyes darted from one person in the room to another, always stopping at the one that seemed to be in charge.  Adam rested his glare upon that one, he noted that the man was older than he, and seemed quite calm and confident given the situation.  Adam also felt he knew the man from somewhere, but just couldn’t place the face, the Ponderosa had employed so many drifters over the years that he just couldn’t remember them all.

The ringleader smirked when Adam entered the main room.  He was proud of the way he had the mighty Cartwrights under his control.  It was a nice change of pace from the last time he’d been there; then he was just a trail hand hired for a cattle drive, now he was the one in charge.

“Just tell us where them bags are, and we’ll be on our way.”  The leader announced beaming in pride; he turned his gun upon the last man to enter the room.

Slightly nodding his head in understanding, a disgusted Adam Cartwright drew in a deep breath before dipping his head in the direction of the sideboard.  He just wanted these men gone, and the money in the bags weren’t worth any of his family’s lives.

The youngest of the group moved forward and began to search the top of the sideboard, and lifted the tan coat.  “Here they is!”  The smallest of the men exclaimed, holding aloft the saddlebags boldly emblazoned with the Ponderosa brand.

Holding out his left hand, the leader motioned for the youth to hand him the bags.  He was surprised by the lightweight of the container, he knew they should contain a fair sized payroll.  He flipped open one of the flaps and was surprised to find it empty, quickly he checked the other bag and rifled through the money he found there.  He was quite displeased to only find less than five hundred dollars where he expected thousands.

Ben Cartwright watched in silence while the man went through Adam’s saddlebags.  He could tell the man wasn’t pleased with his findings.  Curious, he glanced over to his oldest son and was surprised to see a very satisfied smug look upon his eldest’s face.

Throwing the bags back toward the younger man at the door, the head of the trio addressed the man in black.

“Where’s the rest of it?”  He demanded.  He knew that Adam Cartwright had picked up a large amount of money in town to pay off the ranch hands.  He also knew from a previous experience as one of the Ponderosa employees, that old man Cartwright always paid the hands after sundown on the last workday of the month.  With disdain he remembered the head of the Cartwright clan lording over the payday proceedings in the bunkhouse like a king holding court.  Without fondness he recalled how Ben Cartwright never gave anything away, including a couple of hours of daylight.

Adam Cartwright shrugged in response glancing first to the man now pointing a gun in his direction, then raising his brow to his father’s ponderous gaze.  He knew that was all there was, because he’d already paid the hands.  The bags only held his family’s pay and some money to replenish the petty cash kept on hand in the house safe, which was kept to a bare minimum of a couple of hundred dollars at this time of year.

The one in charge noticed the stubborn look upon the dark Cartwright’s face.  He could tell from the light dwindling in from the dining room window that he didn’t have much time before sundown, and he wanted to be long away from the Ponderosa by then.  He turned his attention to the man with the knife at Joe Cartwright’s throat and nodded.

Little Joe let out a startled gasp when he felt his arm being jerked backward and the blade bite into his skin.  With fearful eyes, he bit his lower lip attempting to be brave.

“Wait!”  Adam called out to stop the other man.  He saw Joe’s pleading and terrified eyes meet his.  “It’s in the safe.”

The ringleader gave a second nod and watched while the grip was loosened around Joe’s throat.  “That’s more like it.”  He was satisfied that the eldest Cartwright son would cooperate so easily.

“But Adam…” Ben Cartwright started to protest.  He knew there was no more than twenty dollars in old note and coin in the strongbox in the safe.  He’d expected Adam to replenish the petty cash when he went into town for the payroll.  He had no idea where the rest of the payroll had gone, but he suspected that Adam did.

“Is it worth it Pa?”  Adam quietly questioned his father, gazing deeply into the older man’s confused eyes.  He hoped that his father would understand and keep quiet.  Changing the focus of his eyes, he stared intently into his little brother’s face.  Adam could see the fear hidden in the depths of Little Joe’s hazel green eyes, and he waited patiently until his brother’s eyes met his.

Ben shook his head in response Of course it wasn’t worth it, his sons meant more than all of his wealth, his land even his own life.  He hoped that his eldest really didn’t think he valued his sons less than Ponderosa money.

Joe Cartwright watched the interchange between his brother and father.  He too didn’t know where the rest of the payroll had gone, but he implicitly trusted his oldest brother to look out for him.

Ben Cartwright watched hazel green eyes meet golden brown ones.  He noticed while Adam’s resolute look met Joe’s frightened gaze, and within moments he saw Joe’s eyes turn defiant to match his older brother’s determined expression.  Ben was proud and somewhat envious of his sons’ silent communication.  All of their lives, Ben could always sense his sons’ moods, but they seemed to share a means of communication without words that he was never a part of.  How many times had he watched as one silent dip of a head, a flash of young eyes or even a small shrug spoke so many words between his boys?  Now there it was, a small curl of his youngest son’s lip at one corner followed by an almost imperceptible wink of Adam’s left eye, and Ben knew his sons had a plan and he best be alert.

Adam moved wordlessly across the room towards the alcove, his footfalls made no noise when he walked over to his father’s desk.  His body language never betraying his emotions nor giving the slightest inclination of fear or hesitation in his actions.

Ben Cartwright watched his oldest son approach the alcove that passed for the ranch’s office.  He admired Adam’s dispassionate nature and cool head.  Nervously, he bit his lower lip and rubbed his sweaty palms upon his pants legs.

Kneeling down in front of the safe, Adam once again surveyed the main room.  He took careful note of his father and brother and the distance between him and the man who now moved forward to guard his every action.  He was quite pleased with the way he was able to lure the unknowing leader into his trap.

Adam turned his attention to the safe dial and rapidly dialed the combination.  With the final number entered, he heard the small click that indicated the opening of the tumblers.  He moved his hand to the latch, and quickly darted his eye to insure he still had the main captor’s rapt attention.

He reached into the safe and withdrew the heavy strongbox that housed the ranch’s petty cash.  Adam knew it didn’t contain much cash, in fact he had picked up the money to replenish it in town today.  He also knew it was hard for most people to understand that the Cartwrights didn’t really keep much cash on hand.  Still on his knees, Adam held the box out for the man to take.

The man stood a couple of feet from the arrogant Cartwright, his gun trained onto Adam’s back.  He licked his lips in anticipation of his coming reward.  He observed the safe being opened, then a strong metal box being held out toward him.  Shifting the colt to his left hand, he reached down to take his proffered reward.

Adam patiently held out the box and was pleasantly pleased to watch the man move the gun from one hand to another.  Just out of the other man’s reach, Adam released the box to fall heavily upon the man’s foot.  Like a mountain lion pouncing on his prey, Adam lurched from the floor diving into the man’s midsection.

The box fell heavily upon the unsuspecting man’s foot, eliciting a shocked yell of surprise and pain.  Caught unaware, the man felt the air rush from his lungs when his intended victim crashed into his midsection.  The room suddenly went dark with a crashing pain to the right side of his chin.

Seeing his cue, Joe grabbed at the arm that held the blade to his throat.  Throwing his weight back, both he and his attacker tumbled backwards over the table behind the settee knocking knickknacks and books crashing onto the floor.  The momentum carried both Cartwright and assailant alike, first onto the seat of the couch before they resoundingly landed in a struggling heap on the wooden floor.  The battle continued, with furniture being haphazardly pushed away by the wrestling forms, each trying to gain control of the sharp weapon.

Ben watched each son taking on an attacker, then charged forward.  He stopped abruptly when he saw the shaky gun trained upon his midsection.  He stood frozen in his tracks, watching the younger man’s eyes dart from one fight to another.  His head jerked to his left at the sharp sound of a gun’s report, and saw the smoke slowly drift from the mouth of a colt that Adam now possessed.  At his oldest son’s feet lay the body of the one in charge.  Glancing back to the young man at the door, he saw the youth grab at his chest while he slowly sank to the floor.  Seeing his oldest now in control of two of the assailants, Ben rushed to help his youngest.

Ben found Joe on his back with the much larger man imposed over him, he was pressing the knife downward to his youngest son’s face.  With one swift movement, Ben hauled the man to his feet and decked him with a right cross to the man’s cheek.  The offending weapon clattered to the floor, falling carelessly from the now unconscious man’s grip.

Adam watched his father help his kid brother to his feet, then turned his attention to the wounded youth near the door.  He’d only taken a couple of steps before he heard a frantic yell, stopping he turned to the direction of the sound.

“Look out Adam!”  Joe hollered in horror, unable to help his older brother.  He was too far away to be of any assistance, and being unarmed, was unable to defend his most staunch defender.

Ben could only watch in horror as the man that Adam had laid out on the floor rose and swung the heavy strongbox into the back of his eldest son’s head.  Adam went down hard, motionless he laid face down on the polished hardwood floor.

Staggering slightly, the larger man bent to retrieve the weapon that Adam had dropped in his fall.  He picked it up and first pointed it toward the oldest and youngest Cartwrights, who stood before the large fireplace in the main room with Joe’s assailant at their feet.  Both men were minimally aware of the man now groaning in pain as he returned to consciousness.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben Cartwright watched the man slowly raise his body to his knees before rising unsteadily to his feet.  Still holding his head, he staggered toward the foot of the stairs to grab at the railing for support.  His attention was drawn back to the area near the grandfather’s clock by the leader’s now angry voice.

“I’ve had about enuf of youse Cartwrights.  Now where’s the rest of the money?”  Red-faced, he pointed the colt from one Cartwright to another.

Now enraged, Little Joe fired his own angry retort, “that’s all there is, just take it and go!”

The man spared a quick glance toward the sideboard and the still form of the youth lying there.  He noted absently the spreading red stain growing upon the young man’s shirt.  Slowly, he turned his focus back to the men who stood across the room from him, he could tell he had both men’s undivided attention.

Ben watched while an evil grin slowly emerged upon the other man’s face.  Thoughts of his sons’ flickered through his mind.  He wondered if Hoss had heard all the commotion, or if he was still blissfully asleep upstairs.  He desperately hoped for the latter, so at least one of them would be safe.  He could feel Joe’s anxious jittering near his right arm, and hoped the boy wouldn’t attempt anything stupid.  But most of all he studied the still form of his firstborn and willed some type of awareness from his son.  His eyes traveled upwards to the man who towered over his fallen son, and felt his face flush with anger.

Realizing the dark smoldering eyes studying him, the man changed the direction of the weapon and pointed the barrel downward to the prone man who lay at his feet.  The upper lip of the bemused face curled into a malicious snarl as he cocked the weapon.

The sound of the colt being cocked evoked an urgent response from the youngest Cartwright who lurched forward.

“NO!”  Ben Cartwright barely had a chance to stop Little Joe’s charge, grabbing the young man’s arm Ben turned the youth to face him and pulled his youngest son abruptly to his chest.

Ben could only stare in horror as the gun discharged, to be soon followed by his eldest son’s body convulsing and twitching in response.  Ben felt his heart stop in his chest and his breath caught in his throat watching his firstborn’s death throes.  Soon the violent convulsions stopped and Adam lay motionless upon the floor, his lifeblood spilling out upon the wooden planks.  Ben felt his knees go weak and thought he would pass out when the room began to spin wildly.

Joe heard the angry report of a gun being fired and felt his body being drawn so strongly into his father’s embrace that he could barely draw a breath.  As the moments went by he felt that strength rapidly wane, to be replaced by a trembling body that now needed his support.

“Pa?”  Uncertainly, Joe whispered to his shocked father and received no response.  He’d no idea of what had taken place in the room behind him, but judging from his father’s response; it couldn’t have been good.

Joe spun violently at the sound of the front door being thrown open to crash into the sideboard.  He lost hold of his father, when a loud explosion shattered the space in front of him.  A broad grin graced his face at the sight of the mild mannered Hop Sing with smoking shotgun in hand.  His eyes flew over his shoulder toward the stairs when the rifle fired anew and his assailant dropped to the floor.

“Hop Sing hear gunshots on road, hurry chop chop.”  Explained the Chinaman, moving further into the room still ominously holding the weapon he always carried when traveling into Virginia City alone.

The town doctor followed on the little man’s heels with black bag in hand and surveyed the carnage.  “Ran into Hop Sing in town and decided to accompany him back to the ranch and check on that brother of yours.”  Stepping over the young man by the sideboard he looked over to Little Joe.

“My son, my son…”

Hearing the sad lament drew the others attention in the room to where Ben Cartwright cradled his oldest son’s head against his chest.  He was totally oblivious to the growing red stain that now adorned the front of his shirt.  He rocked his eldest lovingly while his heart broke.  Is it worth it?  No, no it wasn’t.  The life of one son was not worth the life of the other, and all the money in the world could not replace what he had lost.

“My son, my son is dead.”

The doctor quickly moved to his old friend’s side, he placed a reassuring hand onto the other man’s shoulder and gave a slight squeeze.

“Ben, please let me take a look at Adam.”  Dr. Paul Martin recognized all the signs of deep shock in the silver-haired man’s vacant ebony eyes.

“My son, my son…” Ben continued to mutter and rock slowly.

“Pa, please let the doctor look at him.”  Little Joe tearfully pleaded with his father.  He wasn’t certain his father’s assessment wasn’t correct, but he still wanted the doctor to try to do everything he could to save his brother.

“My beautiful boy, my son, my pride and joy is dead, oh Elizabeth I’m so sorry…” Ben’s heart wrenching lament continued, his vacant eyes staring out into the great room.  His hand moved to stroke the soft wavy black hair now thick with blood.

“Pa, Pa please, ya gotta let ole Adam go Pa.”  A new patient voice pleaded, breaking slowly into the older man’s haunted thoughts.

“Pa please…”

Ben’s gaze shifted slightly to the man who loomed over him and recognized his middle son.  He saw the sorrowful pained filled expression of his large son and blinked slowly.

“Hoss?”  Ben questioned still in a daze.

“Yeah Pa, it’s me.”  Hoss answered placing a big meaty hand on his father’s shaking shoulder.

The fog slowly began to clear and Ben looked deeply into the tearful crystal blue eyes of Inger’s child.  Hoss is ill and shouldn’t be downstairs the idle thought flitted through Ben’s angst riddled mind.

“Hoss, Hoss son, are you feeling alright?  You should be in bed.”

“I am feeling a mite poorly Pa, perhaps you could help me back to my bed?”  Hoss saw an opportunity to help get his father to relinquish his hold on his older brother.  By helping him back to bed, it would give the doctor and his other brother a chance to help Adam.  Clad only in his blue checkered nightshirt, Hoss felt a tremendous chill course through his body.  He wasn’t certain if it was caused by the lack of a fire in the massive fireplace, or the thought that his older brother was actually dead.  He prayed it was the former.

“But Adam…” Ben mumbled glancing down to the body he still held tightly to his chest.

“Let the Doc and Joe see ta him, I really need ya Pa.”  Hoss pleaded woefully sounding as weak as possible and hoped it would work to gain his father’s attention.  He pursed his lips and blinked back the tears watching his father lovingly place his brother into Joe’s arms before unsteadily getting to his feet.

“I’ll be up to check on you after I’m through here.”  Hoss heard the doctor call out to his retreating back when he reached the stairs.

Hoss was grateful for the slightly unsteady assistance of his father, and the surprisingly supportive guidance of the family cook, while he was led back to the comforts of his own room.  Previously being forced to support his large frame on every piece of furniture along the way, it had taken him for what seemed like forever to make his way down to the main room of the house after he heard the first shot.  Still awkward in the large cast that adorned his leg, simple steps took momentous effort and Hoss was soon exhausted by his exertions.  He was uncertain if he was worn out by his short journey down the stairs, or the horrible sight that greeted him.  He resolutely refused to believe that his oldest brother was dead, and drifted off to sleep in the comfort of his own bed.

*******************

Ben Cartwright felt the tentative touch of a hand upon his shoulder and glanced up towards his owner.  He’d been so lost in memories of a black-haired inquisitive boy who’d supported him and accompanied him across the country.  The same solemn child who grew into a strong intelligent dependable young man who was his firstborn, his right hand man and his devoted loving son.  He blinked as the room suddenly brightened, and for the first time he realized that the room had gone dark while he sat at Hoss’s bedside.  He lost all track of the passage of time, he was too immersed in his reminisces of Adam.  He grinned slightly, hearing the loud snoring of his middle son that he’d also not heard until now.  Feeling a slight squeeze upon his shoulder, he gazed intently into the eyes of his last child.  He was saddened by the lack of mischief and mirth he usually found in the dancing eyes of his youngest son.  He tried to dredge up a small smile for his son, but found it too painful.  With heavy heart, he glanced back to his sleeping son.

“Where’s Adam?”  His voice broke on his son’s name.

“In his room Pa.”  Joe desperately wanted to tell his father that everything would be alright, but seeing his father so distraught, he was unable to voice the thought out loud.

Ben idly wondered why Adam had been taken to his room instead of being laid out in the guestroom downstairs.  He figured Little Joe’s sentimentality had won out and that the young man had placed his brother in his own bedroom to once more be among the things that he treasured in life, and not in the cold impartial room used for Ponderosa guests.  Nodding, he slowly raised himself to his feet.  He needed to sit with his oldest son and say his final good-byes to the man who’d helped him raise his other sons and realize his dream.

With broken heart and seemingly heavy feet, Ben Cartwright slowly plodded down the hall.  He stopped briefly at his eldest son’s door when a vision of his son’s youthful smiling face filled his memory.  To him, that’s how he wanted to remember his son, handsome, rugged and full of life.  He closed his eyes to engrave the image upon his psyche before clutching the doorknob and opening the door slowly.

He was surprised to find Adam’s head heavily bandaged and the coverlet drawn up to his chin.  Ben figured that the doctor had probably bandaged the horrid wound to not disturb those who would come for visitation.  He smiled warmly at the thought of Little Joe covering his brother with the bedcover; it was something his youngest would do as though Adam was just sleeping.  His youngest son never did handle death well.

“Ben.”

Ben Cartwright was startled from his musings by the calm concerned voice of the Virginia City doctor.  He nodded slightly in acknowledgement, then turned his attention back toward the bed.  Slowly he made his way over to his son’s bedside and pulled a chair closer and sat down.  He reached down and placed a loving hand upon his son’s covered forearm.

“Ben.”  A more insistent voice spoke down at him, and Ben raised his sad eyes to look at Paul Martin.  He nearly jumped when he felt his son’s arm move beneath his hand and a groan escaped Adam’s lips.

“Adam?”  Ben heart leapt with joy and his full attention turned to his son.

“Pa?”  A weakened baritone voice questioned, his eyes squeezed tight in pain.

The sound of the voice that Ben never thought he’d ever hear again brought tears to the elder Cartwright’s eyes.  Reaching under the bedcovers, he gently clasped Adam’s hand.

“You’re lucky he inherited that thick Cartwright skull.”  The doctor beamed, he was grateful that his patient was coming around so soon.

Ben fired a quick scathing glance at the man who stood beside him, before his face broke out into a thankful smile.  He’d heard the doctor refer to that particular Cartwright trait many times in the past, and for once he really didn’t mind.  His focus returned to the sound of his son’s painful voice.

“Pa?”

“Shhhh, Adam.  Rest now.”  Ben shushed his son, moving his left hand to soothingly stroke the strong forearm.

“Joe?”  Adam fought to stay awake.

“Joe’s in with Hoss who’s sleeping peacefully.”  Ben responded, realizing Adam’s need to know that the family was safe.

“Everything’s fine now son.”  Ben felt his heavy heart lift, his sons would be fine.  He sank back into the comfort of the chair watching Adam drift back into a deep sleep.  His mind now at peace, he spoke more to assure himself than his slumbering son.

“Everything is just fine.”

The End

 

Tags:  Angst

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Author: starlite

6 thoughts on “Is It Worth It? (by Starlite)

  1. Going through the author list reading my favorites as my battery is about to die. I’ve always been a sucker for SAS. Thanks for helping me out. It’s been a while since I read this one. Still keeps me on the edge of my seat!

    1. Well, what would you have done if the battery had kicked the bucket? Good thing this one still keeps you going.

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