The Blows of Sound (mcfair_58)

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A WHN and Missing Scene story for ‘The Stillness Within’.  While rewatching the episode I realized that, after the first commercial break, while Doc Martin was examining him, Joe says it’s been a month since he was blinded.  Say WHAT??  This tale explores what happened between the explosion and Paul’s examination of Joe, as well as what happened during that missing month and ends after Miss Dobbs’ departure.

Word count: 18,320

Rated: PG

 

The Blows of Sound

 

And silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound.

~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., from the poem “The Music-Grinders” (1836)

 

ONE

It was one of those early spring days.  It could have been colder than frogs leg, but it wasn’t.  The late afternoon sun streamed in the window, pushing past the red checked curtains to brush Old Charley’s form where he sat with his chair tipped back and his booted feet anchored on the edge of the well-worn table before him.  The brim of his ancient felt hat was pulled down to shield his watery blue eyes from the light.  It dipped ever so slightly with each indrawn breath and returned to its previous position as it was expelled, as if waving howdy to the pretty day.

Or maybe to the Cartwright boys outside.

He’d heard the pair roll in and had a thought to help them unload their wagon.  But it was just a thought.  He was an old man and his strength was about gone.  Why, his hands trembled when he carried his supper dish to the table.  His weren’t the hands of a man who had any business totin’ nitro!

No, that was a young man’s game.

Through the open window he could hear the two brothers talkin’.  They sounded right happy and content.  Ben Cartwright was a good man and he’d done a good job raisin’ those three sons of his alone.  It was a shame about that last woman of his.  She’d been right nice – and pretty as a little red heifer in a flowerbed.  That youngest boy of Ben’s, he’d had a hard time of it, getting’ past his mama dyin’ before his eyes.  That boy’d been ringy, riled, on the prod, on the peck, had his bristles up, and been painted for war when he was a young’un.  Lately, though, it seemed he’d growed up.  The last time Ben’d come up with the boys, the two of them had chewed the fat while Hoss and Little Joe emptied the wagon and loaded the supplies into his shack and Ben had said so it was so.

Charley let out a sigh as he shifted his purchase on his chair and found a more comfortable one.  That last run had been just before winter.  About a week afore the Cartwrights showed, he’d been shy of brains and gone and got himself laid up.  It weren’t never smart to argue with an ass – human or animal. His had kicked him in the shin and near broke it.  He didn’t know until the Ben and the boys left, that they’d done brought him twice what he’d ordered and boarded up most of the chinks in the shack while’s they was there so the snow couldn’t get in.

They was good people.

Charley chuckled.  So good he’d decided he’d just add another star to their crown by lettin’ them be his good Samaritans today too.

“Hey, Charley!  You asleep?” a jolly voice called out.

He wasn’t, of course, but a man had to keep up appearances.

The old man waited half a minute and then shouted back, as grouchy as he could, “I am!  Now you hush up, boy!  A man needs his beauty rest!”

“How old are you, Charley?” Hoss Cartwright asked as the door opened and he stepped in.  “Seventy?  Seein’ as how you look, I don’t think you got enough years left – if you know what I’m sayin’?”

“Are you implyin’ I’m pretty far on the shy side of beautiful?” Charley groused as he put his boots on the floor and stood up.

“I ain’t implyin’ nothin’.”

The old man walked up to Hoss and slapped him on the back.  “It sure is good to see you, boy,” he laughed as he pushed the door to.  “You been behavin’?”

The big man looked hurt.  “Why, Charley, you know me.  I always behave.”

“How about that baby brother of yours?  He give up throwin’ fits yet?”

“Joseph?  Don’t you know?  He’s all growed up now.”  Hoss winked.  “That means he only throws a fit once or twice a year and they’s little ones.”

“What’d you have to promise Little Joe to get him to do all the work?”

Hoss laughed.  “Nothin’.  Joseph’s in a right big hurry.  He volunteered.”

“I ain’t a bettin’ man, but I know that brother of yours.  I’d put money on there bein’ a gal waitin’ somewhere for him.”

“You’d win the bet,” the big man chuckled.  “And cause he’s in such a gol-darned hurry, Joe told me to come in and wake you up so’s you could help too!”

“I got me the palsy,” the old man replied, holding up his hands and making sure they shook.

Hoss whistled.  “I got me the palsy too, from carryin’ them boxes of nitro.”

Charley glanced out the window.  Little Joe was headed toward the wagon for another load.  “I tell you, boy, dealin’ with nitro is bad as standin’ bare-assed in a nest of rattlers.”

Hoss stared at him and then those bright blue eyes of his crinkled and he laughed ’til he cried.  “I can see now why you ain’t a workin’ man, Charley.  You’re a poet!”

“Don’t I know it,” he replied with a grin.

Hoss used the back of his hand to wipe his eyes and then looked around the room.  “Say, Charley, where’s that old yellow cat of yours?”

“Nosey?  He’s around here somewhere.”  The old man paused.  “Though, come to think of it,  it ain’t like him to miss out on the action.”  He pulled at the whiskers on his chin.  “You mean you ain’t seen him?”

“No.”  Hoss reached into his pocket and produced two strips of jerky.  “I brung him these.”

Charley shook his head.  A man’d jump like a speckled frog from a dry lake lookin’ at Hoss Cartwright.  The boy’d stood up before he was weaned and was big and strong enough to derail a freight train.  But them as knew him knew that was just on the outside.  Inside Ben’s middle boy was serene as a prayer meeting and soft-hearted as a parson’s wife.  The only thing he knew that could drive Hoss to a killin’ rage was a threat to his family.

‘Specially to that young’un outside.

Hoss turned and headed toward the door.  “Come on, old man, let’s go find that old cat so’s I can feed him.”  Just as he put his hand to the latch, the big man turned back.  “You know what?  I bet Nosey’s in the shack helpin’ Joe unload the – ”

 

Hoss gasped as the floor rolled beneath his feet.  He didn’t have time to draw a breath before Ol’ Charley’s ramshackle cabin shook like it had been thrust into the middle of a nor’easter come howlin’ down out of the mountains.  The walls groaned.  Cups jumped off of shelves.  A jam jar slipped from the edge of table and shattered as the red-checked curtains  keepin’ guard at the windows blew in.

It was as if someone had drawn a deep breath – held it – and then let it out in a shout.

Terror gripped Hoss as he heard that shout.  He knew it.  He’d heard it in the mines after the fuse had been lit and the men told to run.  It bounced from tree to tree in the timber camps as a log jam was cleared.  He’d even heard it on the Ponderosa as the precarious liquid they’d carried into Charley’s shack was used to remove an old tree stump, or to clear away a slide of rock.  He could see himself standing a hundred feet away, with his little brother by his side, marveling at the power of that shout – at the power of an explosion, the sound of which could only be likened to the voice of God.

Was this the voice of God come to call his little brother home?

“No!” the big man breathed.

No.

Joe wasn’t in that shack.

Joe would be standin’ outside the shack.  He’d have his hat in his hand and be scratchin’ his head and starin’ at what was left of it.  Most likely that pesky old cat of Charley’s done went in there and knocked a bottle of nitro off the shelf and blowed it up.  Poor old Nosey.  He hated to think he’d blowed up with it.

Hoss swallowed hard over his fear.

Better Nosey than Joe.

The big man closed his eyes and whispered a quick prayer.  Then he opened the door and stepped outside.

There was nothing.  Nothing left of the shack.

And no sign of his baby brother.

Hoss drew in a breath of disbelief and shouted as well.

“Joe!”

 

 

TWO

“Hoss, where did you leave your brother?”

Fifteen-year-old Hoss Cartwright started guiltily as he turned away from the counter and toward the entry to the mercantile.  In the doorway, silhouetted against the waning sun, was the figure of a powerful man.  He had his hands anchored on his hips and a scowl on his face.

“Well?”

Hoss winced.  “Sorry, Pa. I came to the mercantile to get some taffy for Little Joe and me.”

“Oh?  Is that what you’re doing?”  His father’s gaze went past him to the counter behind which his classmate, pretty Betty Lou Macey, was trying her best to blend in with the bolts of fabric lining the store wall.

“Yes, sir.”

“And just how long have you been here?”

The teen’s eyes flicked to the clock Mr. Macey kept on his desk.  The wince deepened.  “About a half-hour I suppose.”

“You suppose?”  Pa took a step into the shop.  “And where, precisely, is this bag of candy that it took you a half hour to buy?”

Hoss looked at his empty hands.  “I…well….”  He let out a sigh.  “I ain’t tellin’ you the truth, Pa.  I wanted to see Betty Lou and so I – ”

“And so you left a nine-year-old boy alone on the streets of Virginia City?  Didn’t I tell you not to leave your brother alone?!”

His pa’s voice got louder and deeper with every question.

“Pa.  I didn’t!  Honest.  Little Joe and me stopped at the livery – just like you said we was s’posed to – to pay the bill, and I left him with old Jake.  I knew Joe’d be safe there and he’d stay put ’cause he loves horses.  You know how Jake always lets baby brother feed them and brush them down and – ”

His pa was holdin’ his hand up.  Hoss closed his mouth.

He had to admit, he had been runnin’ it a bit.

“All right,” Pa sighed. “We will discuss this later after we get….”  His father stopped short and turned toward the door.  Everyone in the mercantile did the same.

A wail had gone up outside loud as a banshee howlin’ over a grave.

“What in the world?” Pa asked as he stepped outside.

Somethin’ sure was wrong.  Hoss could see it plain as the nose on his face.  Men and women were shoutin’ and runnin’ in both directions up and down the street.  Some of them looked frightened, others confused – and still others, like Sheriff Olin who had ignored Pa’s shout as he ran by, determined.  When he followed his pa onto the porch Betty Lou came with him.  She followed real close and stopped right beside him, lookin’ for all the world like she needed an arm around her.  Trouble was, he was too scared to do it.  As the big teen stood there, tryin’ to muster up the courage, Deputy Roy Coffee  hustled by.

Pa stepped into the street and caught him by the arm.

“Roy, what’s happened?  Why is everyone running?”

“You need to let me go, Ben!” the deputy replied.  “A couple of mean hombres stole a pair of horses from the livery.  They shot Jake, took what they wanted, and left the stable afire!  I gotta go now!  Robert’s countin’ on me!”

Pa was shakin’ his head.  “The livery?  Roy, the…livery can’t be on fire.”

“It sure enough can!  Now, you let me go like I said….”  Deputy Roy stopped tryin’ to pull away and pinned his pa with his pale blue eyes.  “Ben, what’s wrong?”

“I….”  Hoss stepped forward.  It felt like his stomach was in his toes.  “Deputy Coffee, I…left Little Joe at the stable with Jake not an half-hour ago.”

The lawman exchanged a look with his father.  As Pa released his grip, Roy said, “You both better come with me.”

It took a couple of minutes to get to the livery.  It wasn’t all that far, but they had to make their way through the crowd that had gathered and was blockin’ the street.  By the time they reached it, there wasn’t much left.  Just black beams and smoke risin’ into the sky.  The whole way there his pa didn’t look at him or say nothin’ to him and Hoss knew why.

If Little Joe was….in there…it was his fault.

A hand landed on his shoulder.  “Hoss,” his pa said, “I want you to stay here.”

“But Pa!”

“Young man, you’ve already disobeyed me once today and look what’s come of it!”  Pa’s tone was sharp.  “You will stay here!  That’s an order!”

The tears flowed as he nodded his head.  “Yes, sir.  But, you’ll let me know as soon as – ”

“I’ll let you know!”

Pa turned on his heel and followed Deputy Roy over to where Sheriff Olin was standing.  It was only then he realized why his pa’d forbidden him to follow.

There was a badly burnt body layin’ on the ground just outside the livery.

Terror nearly kilt him.

Then, he realized it was too big to be Little Joe.  It had to be….Jake.

But if it was Jake and he was dead, then Joe had to be….

Hoss felt a tug on his sleeve. As he shrugged it off, a small frightened voice asked, “Hoss, what’s going on?  Where’s Jake?”

For a heartbeat or two, the big teen thought he was dreamin’.  He would have pinched himself if he’d had time but, before he could, the skinny form of his nine-year-old brother shot past him, headed for the burnin’ building and the body layin’ outside of it.

He tackled Little Joe before the boy could take ten steps.

“Hoss!  Jake!  What’s happened to Jake?” Joe shouted as he twisted in his grip, seeking to escape.  “I gotta see Jake!”

It was all he could do to speak.  Gratitude choked him.

“Little Joe…boy…where…you been?”

His baby brother’s face was streaked with tears.  “Missus Jake came by, Hoss.   She took me to get some pie.  She…”

“Where is she now?”

“She’s at…the milliners.  I told her I could walk back…by myself.”  Little Joe turned his face toward the stable again and Hoss did too – just in time to see their father emerge from the ruins.

Just in time to see their father see them.

As the older man ran toward them, Hoss pulled his little brother close and whispered in his ear, “I promise you, Joe.  I ain’t ever gonna leave you alone again!  Not ever!”

“It ain’t no use, boy!  Ain’t no man could of lived through that.”

It took Hoss a moment to come back to the present and realize Charley was speakin’, and another one to feel the old man’s tremblin’ hand on his arm.  They were standin’ just outside of Charley’s house, starin’ in disbelief at what was left of the line shack – watchin’ as the weathered boards burst into flame and smoke and ash rose into the air.  What had once been a building was now a ruined pile of debris, man-high in some places.

Somewhere underneath all that debris was his little brother.

The big man fought for words for a second, and then decided there were none to be had.  Shakin’ off Charley’s grip, Hoss ran toward the devastation calling his brother’s name.

“Joe!  Little Joe!  Boy, can you hear me?  Answer me, Joe!”

The crackle of fire was his only reply.

Staggered, Hoss halted at the edge of the wreckage; his watering eyes searching the sea of debris for a sign of life.

He didn’t find any.

In fact, there was no sign of his brother at all.  For a second, hope overpowered the fear in his heart.  Maybe Joe had been close but not in the shack. Maybe he’d been thrown free.  Maybe he was layin’ somewhere, hid in the smoke.

Maybe –

“There!  Hoss, look there!  Somethin’s movin’!”

The big man drew a breath and held it as he turned to look at Charley, and then followed the old man’s palsied finger to where it pointed.  Somethin’ was movin’.  Somethin’ yellow…and red.

It was Nosey.

The injured cat clawed its way out of the rubble. Nosey opened his mouth but no sound came out.  Then he lurched forward and dropped to the ground.

Hoss was there to catch him.  He gathered the battered creature in his arms and pulled it close, careful not to cause it any more pain.  It was obvious Nosey had been somewhere nearby when the nitro went off – close, but not in the shack.  His fur was singed and his body pretty badly broken.  But he was alive.

Alive.

“Nosey, old boy,” Hoss breathed into the animal’s ear, “where’s Little Joe?  Can you tell me?”

Surprisingly, the cat responded to his voice.  Nosey opened his eyes and mewed.  The sound was pitiful and it cut through the big man as fear for his little brother grew.  Then, to his amazement, the wounded critter worked its way free and headed back into the wreckage.

Fear froze Hoss to the spot.  He remained kneeling on the ground as the cat gingerly picked it way through the charred and burning boards until it came to a pile pressed up against an upturned wheelbarrow.  The barrow was covered with debris.  About two-thirds of its wooden handles was stickin’ out and they was broken.

Nosey turned and looked right at him.

“She’s found him!” Charley cried.

It was more than he could hope.

Hoss rose to his feet, but stumbled back to the ground as his knees went to jelly.  He drew in a breath of the smoke-filled air, coughed, and then tried again.  With his legs wobblin’ like a newborn colt’s, the big man plunged into the wreckage, thrusting still burning boards out of his way with his bare hands – tossing them aside as if they were feathers and weighed nothing.  Nails bit into his hands.  Jagged metal sliced his pants’ legs open and bit into the skin beneath.  He didn’t care.  It didn’t matter.   Nothing mattered but reaching his brother.

“Alive, God,” Hoss breathed.  “Let Joe be alive!”

Nosey was waiting, standing guard or so it seemed.  The cat gave him one last look as he came abreast the up-ended wheelbarrow and then turned tail and left as if his duty was done.

Little Joe was in that barrow.

At least, the top half of him was.  His bottom half was buried in smoking debris.  Joe’s hands were thrown up over his head but whatever he’d been tryin’ to do, it hadn’t worked.  A trail of blood wide as a man’s hand ran down the right side of his brother’s face.  The collar of Joe’s tan shirt was soaked through and the blood was movin’ on down to his chest.  The picture frightened the big man so much it took him a full minute to realize that God had heard his prayer.

Little Joe was bleedin’ – bleedin’ bad.

Little Joe was alive!

 

 

THREE

“Come on, Little Joe, open up wide.”

Six-year-old Joseph Francis Cartwright clamped his mouth shut and rolled to the side, taking his covers with him.  “Don’t wanna! Go away!” he cried as he drew them up and over his head.

“Now, come on, Joe.  You know you gotta take your medicine!”  His big middle brother let out a sigh.  “Little Joe, you’re mighty sick.”

“…not sick,” he rasped.  “I’m…sleepy.  Go away…an’ let me sleep!”

Hoss’ voice was muffled, but he could hear him well enough.  “Now you know I can’t do that, Little Joe.  You got a monster in you breathin’ fire.  Doctor Paul said you gotta take this medicine every six hours or it’s gonna burn you up for sure!”

“Just took it.”

“No, you didn’t.  You been sleepin’ for hours.  I…had a hard time wakin’ you up.”  Hoss paused.  “Do it for me, Little Joe?  Okay?”

Seconds later, the little boy’s curly head crowned above the coverlet.  Joe’s green eyes, watery and rimmed with red, darted about the room.

“Don’t see…no monster.”

“You can’t see him, Joe.  He’s inside you, makin’ you sick.”  His brother scowled.  “Look, here.  Now I ain’t never lied to you, have I?  Little  Joe, you’re the best friend I got.  I cain’t…lose you.”

Joe frowned.  Big people didn’t make much sense.  “Where are you gonna ‘lose’ me to?  Huh, Hoss?” he snapped.  “Tell me where!”

There was another pause.

“Some place you cain’t never come back from.”

The little boy thought a moment.  There was only one place he knew like that.

“Is it where Mama went?” he aked.

For a second, Joe thought his brother was going to be sick just like him.  Hoss swallowed hard and went kind of green.  When he spoke, his voice wasn’t…well…his voice.

“Yeah, Little Joe, where Mama went.”

His Papa told him where his Mama went – to Heaven to be with Jesus.  The preacher said they was supposed to want to be with Jesus, but it didn’t look to him like Hoss was very happy about it.

“I want to see Mama.”

“Joe, I know.  I…want to see her too.  But not yet.  One day, but not yet.”

Papa told him other things, like there wasn’t any sickness in Heaven.  If he went there, he wouldn’t feel like he did now – like a horse had fallen on him the way it had on his mama.  It was hard to breathe.  His chest felt like it had a big old weight on top of it.  And he was hot.

So hot.

Hoss shifted from the chair beside the bed onto the bed itself.  The mattress dipped as he did on account of he was big, and for a moment the little boy thought he was adrift in a raft, floating out to sea.  There was a cool breeze blowing over the water.  It riffled through his curls and brushed his cheeks just like his mama’s fingers used to do.

“Now,” Joe murmured as he drifted off.  “I want to…see Mama…now.”

His brother’s hand cupped the back of his head.  Hoss shook him to wake him up.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, you look at me right now!  You ain’t goin’ nowhere!  You’re gonna take this medicine and you’re gonna get well.  I ain’t lettin’ you do nothin’ else, you hear me!  That’s an order!”

Hoss was yelling at him.  It scared him, but not enough to make him take that thick ol’ medicine that made him choke and feel like he wanted to die.

“I don’t want to!” he cried.  “Let go!  You’re hurting me!”

“I’m sorry, Little Joe,” Hoss said as he released him.  “It’s just, well, boy, you’re scarin’ me!  I…love you so much.  Won’t you take it for ol’ Hoss ’cause he loves you?”

Joe sniffed.  He passed a finger under his nose to wipe away the snot.  It hurt.  His skin hurt.

Everything hurt.

“It’s yucky,” he said.

“I know it, Joe, but I’m gonna feel yucky if you don’t take it.”

”Cause you love me?”

His brother nodded.  “Cause I love you.”

 

“I love…Joe.  Don’t…go dyin’…me!”

Joe’s eyes opened slowly.  He wasn’t six years old anymore, but he was dying just the same.  His lips parted to tell his brother he’d do everything he could not to die, but nothing came out of them.  He tried to move his hand, to catch hold of his brother’s with it, but it wouldn’t respond to his brain’s command either.  Hoss was cupping his head in his beefy hand, just like he’d done all those years ago.  His thick fingers were brushing his cheek.

It hurt.

Just like before, everything hurt.

Fire ran a ring around them and ash and smoke billowed in the air.  Joe wanted to cough, but he didn’t have the strength.  He’d just have to let his lungs burn along with whatever else was on fire, he supposed.  Anyhow, they wouldn’t burn for long.

He was dying, after all.

“Joe!  Little Joe, look at me.  Don’t you go fallin’ asleep, boy!”

Because I might never wake up.

Right?

“Charley’s gone for the doc, Joe.  You gotta hang on ’til he gets here.  He’ll…fix you right up.”

There was something in Hoss’ voice.  Joe’s head was muddled.  It took him a moment to figure it out.

Hoss was lying.

“No…”

“Joe?  Did you say somethin’?”  His brother’s feathery hair brushed his cheek as he leaned in.  “Say it again, Joe.”

Someone groaned.  A deep, pain-filled sound.  Blinding pain pounded through him; localized in his head.  Joe fought to wet his lips.  To speak.

“…dying….”

Hoss’ grip tightened.  “You ain’t gonna die, Joe!  I ain’t gonna let you!”

He’d have laughed if he could.  Big brother thought he was in charge.  Unlike him.  He’d known from the day that horse threw his mama and landed on top of her that no one was in charge but God.

It took every bit of willpower he had, but Joe forced his eyes to move and focus on his brother’s face.  Hoss looked wild.  His thinning hair was flying, driven by the wind of the fires raging around them.  His brother’s cheeks were crimson as apples.  So was his white shirt.

It was covered in blood.

Joe closed his eyes and leaned back.  Pa was gonna kill them both for ruining their clothes.

Of course, he chuckled silently, Pa couldn’t kill him if he was already dead.

“Gonna…get to see…mama,” he breathed.

“Mama don’t need you, Little Joe.  She’s got Jesus.  I…need you.  I cain’t live….”  Hoss swallowed.  “You ain’t allowed to go before me, little brother.”

His face hurt, but he smiled.

“Yes…sir….”

There was a moment’s silence and then his brother said, “Joe, I been afraid to move you, but that fire’s getting’ awful close.  I gotta get you out of here.  You think you can stand me movin’ you?”

Since his eyes had obeyed, Joe tried ordering his left arm to move.  It refused, so instead he lifted his right hand an inch or two so he could touch his brother’s sleeve.

“Do…what you…have to do.”

Hoss’ hand covered his.  He squeezed his fingers.  “I’ll be right gentle, Joseph.”

Joe never knew if he was or not.  He lost consciousness the second his brother slipped his arms beneath his knees and shoulders and lifted him up.  When he came to, he was on the ground near Charley’s cabin.  Hoss had left him lying there.  He said he needed to find some linen to make bandages.  As he waited, Joe drifted in and out of awareness.  Sometimes when he woke he was six years old and back in his sickbed.  Other times he was four, and his mama was still alive.  She kept calling to him like he was lost.

Because he was lost and he wasn’t sure he would ever find his way back.

“Joseph!  Boy, you need to stay awake.  You took a powerful hit to your head.”

His eyes were less obedient this time.  Only one opened.

“Is that…why it hurts..so bad?”

The big man snorted.  “Genius.  That’s what you are, little brother.  A genius.”

A second later a cool cloth blessed his forehead.

“Feels…good….”

“I’m gonna start bandagin’ some of your wounds, Joe.  It’s…gonna hurt.  You got that head wound and, well, your left arm, it sure is a mess.”

Joe looked at his brother.  Hoss had grown fuzzy and seemed to be fading away into darkness, but he could still see him.

” You’re a…mess.”

Hoss chuckled.  “That I am, Joseph.  That I am.  Now you just lay there quiet.  You need to conserve your strength.”

Joe nodded as best he could and then closed his eyes.  He lay there for some time, gritting his teeth as Hoss did what he had to do.  He supposed he must have gone out again, because when he opened his eyes, it was night.

He couldn’t see a thing.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah?”

“What happened?”

There was a moment of silence.  “Don’t you remember, Joe?”

He thought about it.  “I was…carrying nitro into the shack.  Darn cat…was on the shelf.”

“Nosey knocked the nitro off?”

“Saw it falling…stupid…dove for it.  Should have…run.”

“Joe, I found you behind a wheelbarrow.  I think it…saved your life.  Do you remember how you got there?”

He was growing weary.  The world spun even when his eye were closed.  “Saw it…dove.  Curled…up behind it.”

“Joe!  You gotta stay awake!”

The wounded man sighed.

He had never been very good at taking orders.

 

 

FOUR

“Mistah Cartwright need sit down and have breakfast or he get skinny skinny like old mule.”

Hop Sing’s chiding roused Ben from where his thoughts had taken him.  He rose from his burgundy leather chair and stretched.  “I’m not really very hungry today, old friend.”

“Mistah Ben not hungry because he let birds nest in hair,” his Asian housekeeper said as he came to his side.  “You lucky you have more than Mistah Hoss!”

Ben chuckled.  “Point taken.”

“You worried about number two and three sons.”

It was a statement not a question, and there was no point in denying it.  Hop Sing knew him too well.   “Yes, I’m worried.  They should have been home last night.”  The look his friend gave him prompted the rancher to raise a hand and finish with, “I know.  A hundred things from a broken wagon wheel to Charley talking them into staying overnight could have happened.”

“But you not think so.”

“I don’t know….”  Ben ran a hand over the back of his neck.  “I just have this feeling.  I’m unsettled.”

“Like stomach?”

He smiled.  “Yes, like my stomach.”

“Maybe Mistah Ben can drink coffee and eat toast?”

He knew his friend’s worth was found, in part, in taking care of him and his sons.  Hop Sing was as adrift as a man in a boat without a paddle when no one wanted to eat.

“I think I can do that.”

His housekeeper beamed.  “I go fix toast and coffee.  Be back soon.”  Hop Sing started to move away and then turned back to wag a finger.  “And you no worry!  Boys take care of selves!”

Ben stood there, watching, as his friend disappeared around the corner, and then returned to his chair.  It was funny.  He’d been awakened around three in the morning by a night terror he couldn’t recall.  The unease had remained with him as he dressed and came downstairs, and for some reason had brought to mind an episode that had happened some twenty years before when his boys had been boys.  Hoss had been fifteen and Little Joe – and he was little then – had been nine.

It was a day when he thought he’d lost him.

He’d gone to the settlement to conduct some business and had taken his two youngest with him, leaving a twenty-one-year old Adam behind to run the ranch.  There was a new mercantile in town and he enjoyed the wonder in their eyes as they browsed and looked at all the things it contained – Joseph at the toys and candy and Hoss, at Becky Lou, the store owner’s daughter.  Hoss was a shy boy and had shown little interest in girls.

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Becky Lou Macey had changed that!

Upon their arrival they went to the mercantile.  After that, he had several meetings to attend and so he set the boys to some simple tasks to keep them out of trouble.  One of them was to visit the livery.  They did what they were told, but what he didn’t know was that Hoss had left his little brother behind with the stable owner and returned to the mercantile to have a little ‘private’ time with Becky Lou.  He’d finished his business early and was on his way to the rendezvous point he had established when he ran into a former foreman.  The man told him he had seen Hoss go into the mercantile about twenty minutes earlier – without his little brother.

Joseph was a beautiful, loving, and happy child for the most part.  His mother’s death had scarred him in ways he was sure he had not yet discovered, but most of the time his youngest was a joyous ball of energy.  Unfortunately, he was also willful, stubborn, and more sure of himself than any nine-year-old had a right to be.  Like a wild stallion, once tamed he would be a good – no, a great man.

But he was turning his old pa’s hair gray at an alarming rate.

He had specifically told Hoss not to leave Little Joe alone while they were in the settlement.  There were too many strangers wandering its streets and too many opportunities for trouble.  Joseph was a curious child.  He didn’t mean to put himself in harm’s way, but he often did.  He was a good boy, but he was also good at mental gymnastics.  Joseph could think himself around an order and end up doing exactly the opposite of what he had been told, all the while thinking he was doing just what he’d been asked!

That was why he needed Hoss at his side.

And that was why he’d been furious when he stepped into the mercantile and saw Hoss leaning against the counter talking to Becky Lou with no Joseph in sight.

Hoss had no excuse, of course, other than being young.  Once his middle son told him that Joseph was safe at the stable with Jake, his anger abated – a bit.  He had come to the point of having to force himself to remain angry when a clamor arose outside and he stepped out to find that his world might have been – in one unexpected moment – changed forever.

Joseph was at the livery and the livery was on fire.

Ben had little memory of the journey to the stable.  After speaking to Roy, it was all a blur.  He recalled speaking sternly to Hoss and ordering him to stay back.  He’d just seen Jake’s body on the ground and, while he had been grateful it wasn’t Joseph, the livery owner had burned to death and his youngest had been with him.

It was with a heavy heart that he stepped into the remains of the stable to begin the search.

He was only able to go so far.  The heat radiating off of the charred boards and timbers was too much to bear.  He made it about halfway into the front room before he was forced to turn back.  All the while all he could think of was his beautiful, brilliant son lying buried somewhere under all of that charred timber, dead or dying and in agonizing pain.

The last was what terrified him.  Joseph, broken, burned, calling out for him and he couldn’t hear – couldn’t find him.

There had been moments of great joy in his life – the moment when he met each of his three wives, their marriage days;  the birth of his sons.  Each paled in comparison to that moment when he stepped out of the ruin of the livery and saw Joseph struggling in Hoss’ arms.  He ran to the pair and scooped his youngest up.  Crushing him to his heart, he carried the weeping boy toward their waiting horses.

It had been a glorious moment – and a mistake.

Near morning there came a knock on his door.  Opening it, he found a vagabond version of his eldest son standing in the hall.  Adam ‘s black hair was tousled and his night clothes disheveled.

“What is it, son?”

“Sorry to wake you, Pa,” he said with  yawn.  “I thought you’d want to know.”

“Know what?”

“Someone’s crying.”

Ben recalled reaching for his robe.  “I’ll go check on Joseph.”

Adam pursed his lips and nodded.  “You can do that, Pa, but I think you need the next door down.”

He’d been halfway out the room, but stopped.  Naturally he’d assumed his youngest had been traumatized by the day’s events and was experiencing a nightmare.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s Hoss.  Not Joe.”

Lord, what a fool he’d been!  He’d been so grateful – so relieved – that Joseph was alive that he had forgotten his middle son completely.  Hoss had trailed behind them.  He’d mounted his horse and ridden home without speaking a word.  The boy had been silent at supper and gone to bed early.

“Pa.”

He looked at his eldest.  “Yes, son?”

“I think Hoss is…feeling guilty.  I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Guilty?  For what?”

“For leaving Little Joe alone.”

Less than half a minute later Ben was at his middle son’s door, rapping gently, and calling his name.

“Hoss.  It’s Pa.  Can I come in?”

The muffled crying ended in a startled sniff.  “Pa?”

“Yes, son.  It’s me.  I’d like to talk about what happened today, if it’s all right with you.”

It was another thirty seconds before the door opened.  Inger had warned him when she was carrying their son that he was going to be a big baby and grow into a giant of man.  Though her brother was of an average height, she told him that most of the men in her family rivaled the Nordic giants of old.  Hoss was nearly as tall as him and nearly everyone took him to be a man.  But he was a boy.

A gentle, caring, sensitive, heartsick boy.

“I’m all right, Pa,” he replied as he sniffed again.  “I just had a bad dream.”

“Care to tell me about it?”

Hoss ducked his head.  “I don’t know as I should.”

He’d sensed at the time that the window of opportunity was small.  If he let it close, Hoss would swallow his pain and it would burn in his belly until it ate away at his joy.

Reaching out, he placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Was it about Little Joe?”

He felt his son shudder.  Hoss nodded and the tears flowed again.

Taking him by the arm, Ben led his son over to the bed and sat on the rumpled covers beside him.  He didn’t say anything, but waited for the boy to speak.  It took a few minutes.

“I…I was at the mercantile talking to Becky Lou.  I turned around and you was standin’ in the doorway.  You was holding Little Joe.  He was….”  Hoss sucked in air.  “He was all burned up, Pa.  Little Joe was dead and it was all my fault!”  His son’s voice rose as he went on.  “I could of killed him, Pa!  Joe would’ve been dead because of me!”

“Hoss.  Hoss!  Listen to me.”  His son was nearly hysterical.  “You remember what I told you?  God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.  God knew Little Joe was in that livery and He got him out.  We have very little power when it comes to life and death.”

“But Pa!  If’n I hadn’t gone to see Becky Lou, I would have been there with Little Joe.  I would of picked him up and he wouldn’t have been nowheres near the stable when those bad men set it on fire!”

“That’s true.  You were disobedient, and you know now what can happen when you challenge my authority.”

Hoss let out a sigh.  “I sure do, Pa.  I ain’t never gonna do that again!”

Ben hid his smile.  “Well, we’ll see about that.  For now, you can take the blame for what you are guilty of – disobeying my orders.  But, son, you have to let the rest of it go.  Even if – if – your actions put your brother in danger, there is One greater than you who saw fit to make certain Joseph was taken out of that danger.”  He patted his son’s arm.  “Never dismiss the Father’s love.”

Hoss was looking at his hands.  “I guess you’re right, Pa.”

“Guess?  You don’t know?”

That made him smile.  “I sure could never dismiss this father’s love,” the boy replied, giving his hand a squeeze.

“Hoss?  Is something wrong?” a small voice asked.

They’d both looked.  Joseph was standing in the hallway, his night shirt twisted about his skinny frame and his thick brown curls dangling before his eyes.

“What are you doing up, young man?” Ben demanded – gently.

“You two were makin’ so much noise you woke me up,” Little Joe replied as he rubbed his eyes.

Hoss was on his feet and across the room before he could find his own.

“I’m sorry, Punkin.  I had a bad dream.  Pa was just talkin’ me through it like he does you.”

You had a nightmare?” Joe seemed astonished.  He was the one who usually brought them all out of their beds with a start.  “I’m sorry, Hoss.  They ain’t fun.  You want me to stay and sleep in your bed with you so’s I can wake you up if you have another one?”

Normally he didn’t encourage his boys sleeping in the same bed – because they seldom slept.  But tonight…

“I think that’s a wonderful idea, Joseph.  How about you Hoss?”

“Come on, Hoss!” Little Joe said as he grabbed his brother’s hand and pulled him toward the rumpled bedding.  “You can snuggle up against me.  I won’t let them monsters get hold of you!”

As he watched the pair of them climb into the bed, Ben smiled.  Any monsters Hoss might face would vanish in a puff of smoke when they saw how close the two brothers were.  Little Joe’s arms and his trust and acceptance were just what Hoss needed to let go of his fears.

And for him to do the same.

 

“Mistah Ben.  Food ready.  You come eat now.”

The rancher started out of his reverie.  He turned and saw that Hop Sing was standing by the table holding a tray that contained a steaming pot of coffee and a plate with toast and a soft-boiled egg.  Even though he still didn’t feel like eating, he’d do his best to choke it down, just to make his old friend happy.

As he headed toward the dining room, Ben heard a wagon roll into the yard.  “There they are!” he said with relief.

“You be sure to regret not eating now.  Mistah Hoss home, you maybe not get anything.”

“I’ll gladly sacrifice breakfast just to have the two of them home safe and sound,” he replied. Two giant steps took Ben to the door.  He opened it and stepped outside expecting to find his sons seated beside each other in the wagon.

The moment he saw Old Charley in the driver’s seat, he knew something was terribly wrong.

Hoss was in the back.  The big man stood up as soon as the wagon stopped and jumped to the ground.  Ben started to greet him, but fell silent when he saw his son’s face.

It was the same as that day – the one when they thought Little Joe had died in the fire.

“Pa, I….”  The big man paused.  “Pa, Little Joe, he’s….”

“He’s what?”  Ben looked at the wagon bed, but he could see nothing.  The early morning light cast thick shadows.  Fear made his tone harsh.  “Hoss, tell me.  What’s happened?!”

Tears welled in the big man’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  I left Joe alone, and I think I might of got him killed.”

 

 

FIVE

So much sadness in house.  Much fear.

Many pain.

Hop Sing paused in what he was doing to run a hand over his brow.  He turned to look at his kitchen which now, more than anything else, resembled his father, Hop Ling’s, establishment.  He had spent many years in the laundry, growing from a boy to a man, before coming to work for Mistah Ben Cartwright and his new wife.  Missy Cartwright had been a beautiful woman with many talents.  They did not include keeping house, and so he became the Cartwright’s housekeeper.

And in many ways, after her untimely death, became Missy Cartwright as well.

With a sigh, the Asian man dropped the long spoon he was holding into the steaming pot that held soiled strips of linen.  Leaving the stove, he crossed to the table and sat down in front of a pile of fresh ones.  Many linens used this day.  Mistah Little Joe in great need of them.  Boy have so many cuts, but one to head the worst.  Blood refuse to stop.  Come all the time.

Boy might still die.

Often tell Mistah Cartwright tears a good thing.  Not like it when they trail down his own cheeks.

Using the back of his hand, Hop Sing cleared his grief away before reaching for the first strip that needed to be rolled.  Some bandages wider than others.  Wide ones not for Little Joe, but for Mistah Hoss.  Number two son say little when he come home with hurt brother, but he too have many cuts on legs and arms.  Cuts bad, but worse are his hands.  Mistah Hoss’ hands badly burned from moving boards off of little brother.  Mistah Hoss in much pain.

Most pain inside, in heart.

Not his fault brother hurt.  Never his fault.

Still, big man blame himself for baby brother’s hurt like before.

An affectionate smile touched the Asian man’s lips as he continued to roll the strips of cloth.  ‘Baby’ brother hurt many times.  Most times it his own fault.  Number three son often leap before looking.  He not think of price to be paid by him.

Price even higher for those who love him.

Hop Sing sat back and looked at the pile of neatly rolled linen strips lining the table’s surface.  Then his eyes strayed to the clock he kept in the kitchen.  Clean bandages folded.  Filthy ones soaking in pot on stove.  All preparation for lunch done.

There was time.

His mind made up, the Asian man scooted his chair back and stood up.  He removed his apron and hung it carefully on the chair-back before crossing to the side door and stepping outside.  Turning a corner, Hop Sing headed for the garden and the small shrine he kept there to honor his ancestors and the God of the Cartwrights whom he had also come to know.  The new day was dawning.  A pale golden light fell like dew upon the growing plants and budding flowers.  He knelt among them – not to prune or pluck – but to pray.

And to remember.

 

“What you do in little brother’s room?  He need to rest!”

Ben Cartwright’s middle son hung his head and then looked up at him.  “I…just cain’t stay away, Hop Sing.  I gotta know Little Joe’s…breathin’.”

Number three son have pneumonia.  Doctor fear for his life.  Little boy not take medicine like he told to.  Spit it out.  Hide bottle.  Throw it out window.

Maybe throw life out with it.

“Little Joe was coughin’ so bad.  Now he’s…so quiet.”

Boy’s chest tight.  Cough no more.

Need to cough.

“There’s just gotta be somethin’ we can do, Hop Sing!”  Tears in boy’s eyes.  Fear in his voice.  “I never…I didn’t….”  More tears flow down cheeks as boy slips to carpet and places head in hands.  “I didn’t mean it.  I didn’t mean to…kill him….”

Hop Sing place tray he carry with herbal broth and tea on table by door.  Then he kneel beside boy.  “Guilty conscience hidden enemy,” he say softly.  “Mistah Hoss not mean to hurt Little Joe.”

“No!  No, I didn’t,” boy cries as he looks up.  “We was havin’ so much fun, Hop Sing.  We was just foolin’ around.  I never meant for Joe to fall in Mister Jessup’s well!”

“So why you think you make little brother sick?”

“Cause I dared him to do it!  I said he couldn’t and you know Little Joe….”

Hop Sing hide his smile.  “Hop Sing know boy well.  Little Joe not do anything he not want to.”  The Asian man paused for a moment to let that sink in.  “What your father say about taking dare?”

Hoss sniffed and blinked.  “That anyone who does is a fool.”

“Little brother not fool.  He little.  But he also like to take dare.  He need much guidance to grow to be a man.  Little Joe need big brother who love him, teach him, and look out for him.”  He paused.  “What you do when brother fall in well?”

Hoss winced.  “Pa weren’t happy.  I went in to get him.”

“Carry brother to the top.  Wrap him in warm blankets.  Get help. Get doctor.”  He held the boy’s gaze.  “Take care of him.”

Hoss’ eyes flicked to his brother where he lay in bed.  “But, Hop Sing, Joe’s so sick.”

“Need you even more now to take care of him.  Guilt like footprint of elephant.  It crush you.  Make you think of self when little brother need you to think of him.”

Hop Sing watch as number two son consider wise words.

“You’re right, Hop Sing.  I was bein’ selfish.”  Boy’s gaze go to table and tray.  “Can I feed Little Joe?”

“Yes.  Boy help with care.  Feed brother.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing, I….”  Hoss look at him and then throw arms around him.

Almost fall back to carpet.

“I love you, Hop Sing!”

 

“Hey, Hop Sing.  You got those new bandages ready yet?”

Hop Sing blink and come back to present.  Still in garden.  Mistah Hoss in garden too.  Rising, he reply, “Bandages in kitchen on table.”

Hoss exhausted.  Bags under eyes and baggage in heart.

“Remember elephant,” Hop Sing say softly.

Number two son stare at him like he have no head.  Then he remember.

“Oh, yeah,” Hoss answer with slight smile.  “Don’t let it crush me,”

“Guilt still hidden enemy.”

Mistah Hoss draws deep breath.  Then, he nods.  “Thanks, Hop Sing.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Moment later Mistah Hoss gone.

Hop Sing not know what he do with him either.

 

 

SIX

Pain.

Incredible…pain.

Spearing his body, lancing through his head.

God.  Such pain.

“Joseph?  Can…hear me?”

“I doubt…Ben.  He’s…pretty bad way.”

Someone was talking, but their words were muffled.  It was like he was at one end of the tunnel and they were at the other – around a bend and halfway out of the mine.  Their words drifted down to him like drops of sunlight dripping into absolute darkness.

He was in darkness.

“…thought you said…better.”

“He’s…some improvement.  Hopefully…open…soon.”

Open what?  His mouth?  His arms?  Maybe his eyes?

He couldn’t do any of those things.

He was too tired.

So…tired.

Sleep. I want to sleep.  I need to sleep.

“Joseph?  Son?”

Pa, let me sleep.

 

“I’m sorry, son, but you have to stay awake until Paul gets here.”

Six-year-old Joseph Cartwright wanted to do no such thing.

“I’m tired, Papa.  Let me…to sleep.”

The word ‘go’ got lost in a wheeze.  He wanted to say more but the wheeze set his head to spinning.  Joe drew in another breath.  That one got stuck in his throat.  It wanted to come out in a cough, but he couldn’t cough.

His chest hurt almost as much as his head.

Joe’s watery eyes strayed to the curtains surrounding his bed.  He had no idea if it was before or after supper since he couldn’t see the window and he hadn’t eaten anything more than stinky broth laced with herbs all day – and that was only when someone made him.  It was dark in his room too and it kind of smelled.  Adam had rigged a tent over his bed and table after Papa’s friend Paul said he needed to breath as much moist air as he could.  Hop Sing kept bringing in steaming pots of water.  At first he put pine needles in them.  He liked that ’cause he liked the smell of the pine.  It sent him to sleep and he’d dreamed of running outside under the great Ponderosas.  The last time Hop Sing came in he took that water away and put another beside his bed that smelled just like that awful soup he was supposed to eat.  The herbs made him want to cough and he couldn’t cough and when he couldn’t cough everybody got long faces and looked at him like he was gonna die.

He didn’t want to die.

“Papa,” Joe breathed.  “I’m scared.”

His father drew him into the circle of his arms.  Papa was sitting behind him holding him up because it hurt too bad to lay down.  As Joe leaned back and rested his head on the older man’s chest, he wondered if his papa thought  maybe he could lend him some of his own strength by doing that.

It wasn’t working.

Papa leaned down and whispered close to his ear.  “Joseph, would you like to know a secret?”

He nodded.  He liked secrets – even when he was sick.

“Sure.”

“I’m scared too.”

Joe gasped.  That scared him even more His papa – his big strong papa was scared.

“You want to know what of?”

He didn’t know if he wanted to know, because if what his papa was scared of was him dying, he didn’t want to die, and that meant he didn’t want to know.

Joe shrugged his shoulders just a little bit.  “Maybe.”

“I’m scared you brother Hoss will never forgive himself.”

The little boy frowned.  “Forgive…himself for…what?  What’d he…do?”

Pa held him through the wheezes and the pain before he answered.  “Your brother blames himself for you being sick.”

Joe coughed just a little bit as he asked, “How’d Hoss make…me sick?”

“He blames himself for you falling in the well.”

He thought about that one for a whole fifteen seconds.  “How come?  He didn’t…push me in….”  Joe drew in a breath.  “…and he pulled…me out.”

“But your brother dared you to walk on the edge of the well.  Isn’t that right?”

Joe leaned into that strength of his papa’s as he drew in as much air as he could.  “I would of…done it anyway,” he breathed out.

“Even though you knew I would be angry?”

He nodded.  “I had to…see if I could.”

“And could you?”

Papa had a lot of voices.  There was the one when you hadn’t done your homework.  And the one when you missed washing a place behind your ears.  And then there was the one when you went into the corral when you weren’t supposed to and got caught climbing up on one of the big horses.

He was using that one.

“No, sir.”  It came out with another little cough.  A little bigger one.

Maybe those yucky herbs were working.

“Joseph, there will be many times in your life when you have to make a choice between what you want and what you know is right.”   His papa shifted forward so he could look him in the eyes.  “Do you remember Proverbs 19:20?”

His head hurt, so it was hard to remember anything, but he’d heard that one often enough.  “Listen to advice and…accept discipline, and at…the end you will be…counted among the wise.”

That was a lot of words and it took a lot out of him.

Joe turned his head into his father’s shirt.  The scent of tobacco and Bay Rum comforted him, even if it did make him want to sneeze.  “Papa, is…this…my end?”

He felt his father tense.  His grip on him tightened.

“I don’t believe so, son.  You’re very sick, but it’s not your time.”  His father smiled.  “You’ve been coughing.  Can you do it again?  And do it like you’re Hoss and not you?”

Pa wanted a big bear of a cough.  But he was just a little cub.

“I don’t know.”

“Can you do it for Hoss?”

He thought about that.  He loved his brother.  He didn’t want him to feel bad.

“I’ll try, Pa.”

His father leaned in and kissed him on the forehead.

“That’s all I can ask.”

 

“Joseph, can you…open your eyes?  Please, son, try for…pa.”

“I got…patched up the best I can, Ben.  He’s taken quite…blow to the head.  He’s got a concussion.  There’s no way of telling how bad it is.”

“Joe?”

The voices were back, only this time they weren’t so far away.  He was able to reach up and catch one of those drops of sunlight as it fell.

“…Pa…?”

“Doc says you’re going to be all right.”

Maybe if he could catch more of those drops.  But he’d have to open his eyes and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that.

“Darn…cat knocked the..nitro off the shelf….”

Joe tried as he spoke – tried with all his strength to catch those drops.

He caught his father’s hand instead.

“You took quite a walloping there,” his father said as he squeezed his fingers.  “Were you trying to blow up the whole world?”

Pa was scared.  He could hear it in his voice.  Just like he’d heard it in his voice when he’d been a little boy and Pa had sat up with him all night willing him to cough, to clear his lungs and breathe.  He remembered those eyes of his, brown as freshly-turned Earth.  They’d focused on him – willed him to live.

He needed to see them now.

It took about everything that he had left.  Joe opened his eyes.

He did…open his eyes.

Were his eyes open?

“Pa.  Pa?”

“Joe?”

Joe lifted his hand and felt flesh, but where his father’s eyes should have been, there was nothing.

He was blind.

 

 

SEVEN

Joe was blind.

Good Lord.

It had been a difficult few hours.  At first, he – like Joe – believed the blindness would be momentary.  Paul warned them both before he left not to expect too much. The blow Joe took to his head had been severe enough to kill him.  Most likely the blindness would be temporary, but it could take weeks – or even months – before his sight returned.  Joseph fell asleep sure that when he woke up, he would be able to see.

When he did and he couldn’t, he panicked.

His son threw his covers back and angled around until he was sitting on the edge of the bed before he could stop him.  The bandage on Joe’s arm and head bloomed crimson as he struggled to stand up.  The boy was speaking – babbling, really – declaring that he had to get to the window and open it so the light could come in.

The window was open.  Joseph’s room was bright as the morning itself.

If it hadn’t been for Hoss making an appearance at that moment, Ben didn’t know what he would have done.  Joseph was manic.  Even battered as he was, he had the strength of two men and was about to break free.  Hoss paused, drew a breath, and then said in a voice nearly as big as he was, “Joseph, now you settle down, boy!  You’re gonna hurt Pa!”

Joe froze, though whether at his brother’s chastising or because he’d just been called ‘boy’ Ben wasn’t sure.  He remained still for a moment, shuddered, and then all the fight went out of him.

And maybe all the life.

“God, Pa,” Joe whimpered as his head fell forward to rest on his chest.  “God, Pa…I’m blind.  I can’t be blind.”  His grown son began to sob.  Joe’s hands gripped his arms.  “Pa, I can’t…live blind.”

Over his youngest’s head, he exchanged a look with his middle son.  There were tears trailing down Hoss’ face.

Maybe it was a good thing Joseph couldn’t see.

“Hey, Joe,” Hoss said as he swiped his face with his sleeve.  “Can I talk to you?”

“What for?” his brother snapped.  “To tell me I’m blind?  Don’t you think I know it!”

“Joseph!”

“What, Pa?  Are you going to tell me I’m a bad boy?  You going to put me over your knee?”

He wanted to.  Really, he did.

“Pa.  Why don’t you go on downstairs,” Hoss suggested.  “Hop Sing’s askin’ about what to fix for supper.”

“Tell him nothing for me,” Joe snarled.

It was a pattern of Joseph’s.  When he was upset, he wouldn’t eat.  The boy needed to.  He needed his strength for the battle ahead.

No matter how long it lasted.

“Now, Joe,” his brother said, “you know you better eat what’s served or Hop Sing will rustle up a pot of that herb soup you hate.”

Joseph had climbed back into bed and drawn the covers up to his chin.  He spoke as he turned his face into the pillow.

“Both of you go away.  Just leave…let me sleep.”

Ben opened his mouth to reply, but Hoss held a finger to his lips and asked for silence.  With a nod – and a last look at his hurting child – the older man left the room.

And left the healing to his sons.

 

Hoss sat on the bed.  His little brother jerked as he did.  He supposed Joe thought he’d left.

“Why are you still here?  Oh, that’s right.  You were there when the world blew up.”  Joe slipped farther under the covers. “Maybe you lost your hearing!”

He hadn’t been Joseph Francis Cartwright’s brother for nearly thirty years without figurin’ out the kid’s tactics.  Joe went all barbed wire when he was hurtin’ in order to keep everyone away.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there, Joe,” he said and meant it.  “Maybe I could of done somethin’…”

“Like get blown up with me?” Joe snapped.  “Don’t be stupid.”

Hoss was silent for a moment.  Then he said, “You know, Joe.  I’ve been thinkin’ about when we was young’uns.  You remember that time you fell in the well on account of I dared you to walk the edge?”

Joe didn’t say anythin’.  Then he righted himself against his pillow.  His eyes remained closed as he spoke.  It was kind of unnerving.

“What made you say that?”

The big man chuckled. “Cause I’ve been thinkin’ about it.”

Joe frowned.  “I had a dream about that.  It was like I was…six years old again.  Pa was angry with me.”

Hoss shifted on the bed.  ” Angry ’bout what?”

His brother snorted.  “Proverbs 20:19.”

“Oh, lordy!  Pa rolled out the big guns then.  You was just a little feller.  You didn’t know no better.”

“Yes, I did, Hoss.  I knew I was doing what I shouldn’t have been doing.  I didn’t think….”

“Think ’bout what?”

“About you, you big lug.”

“Me?”

His brother opened his eyes and looked at him – well, looked at where he thought he was.

“Hoss, there’s nothing you could have done to stop me getting hurt.  Just like there was nothing you could have done to keep me from walkin’ that well edge.  I’m not…blind because you went inside to talk to Charley anymore than I got pneumonia because of a dare.”

The big man dropped his head.  “How’d you know?”

“Because I know you.  Because I know you…love me.”  Joe paused.  “Maybe more than you do yourself.”

“God says we ain’t supposed to love ourselves.”

“You know that’s not…true.”  His brother drew a breath and let it out slowly.  “What’s the great commandment?”

“That you love others as you…”

“…love yourself.”

Joe winced as he slipped farther down on the bed.  His brother was growing weary.  There were great deep circles under his eyes.  Fresh blood stained the bandage around his head and the one on his left arm.  As he watched, Joe seemed to grow paler.

“Hoss,” his brother said, his tone utterly weary. “you have to let it go – then and now.”

 

His pa had given him a good talking to.  Fifteen-year-old Hoss Cartwright knew the older man was right, but he still couldn’t let it go.  He’d nearly got his little brother killed – twice.  First when Little Joe fell in that well and the second time, because he had to see Becky Lou and he left Joe at the livery.  Pa’d tried to keep him from seeing Jake’s burnt body, but he hadn’t been quick enough.  He’d seen and, for just a second, he’d thought it was Little Joe lyin’ there.

Dead.

Nothin’ would ever be the same.

Since that day he’d…well…followed his little brother around like a love-sick puppy.  He was gonna make darn sure that nothin’ like that happened again.!  He was up before Joe and went to bed after him.  He took him to school and made sure to be there to bring him home.  Heck, he’d even followed his little punkin’ to the outhouse!  At first Little Joe’d thought it was great fun.  Then, he figured it out, and was that boy mad!   Lately he’d taken to hidin’.  Like he was right now.  It’d been a full fifteen minutes since he’d seen the little squirt and it was drivin’ him crazy!

The big teen had just about decided to go back to the house and start again when he heard his brother call his name.

“Hoss!”

He’d walked a ways followin’ Little Joe’s trail.  It had taken him around the house and into the back pasture where about a dozen horses were munchin’ on sweet grass.  The big animals kind of looked at him sideways as he hustled by.  Hoss let out a sigh as he stopped at the end of the grassland and looked both ways.  He sure enough did love his baby brother, but that boy had a penchant for getting’ into trouble – especially where stallions and such was concerned.

Heaven alone knew how he managed to do it so quick!

“Joe?”  Hoss called.  “Little Joe, where are you?”

“Hoss!  I’m here!  Hoss…help!”

There was a long line of trees just beyond the fence.  Behind them was a fast-running creek swollen from the run-off of the snow-melt high up in the mountains.  A chill snaked through Hoss’ powerful form.

Joe wouldn’t have – would he?

“Joe!  Little Joe!” the big teen shouted as he began to run.  “Where are you?”

“Over here, Hoss.  Hurry!  The water’s runnin’ fast.  I don’t know if I can hold on!”

Dagnabbit!  The boy had gone to the creek!

“Tell me where you are!”

“Over by the well, Hoss!  By the big tree that bends over it.  You gotta help me!'”

There was a circle of fat roots there that formed a kind of pool.  They always joked and called it a ‘well’.  Someone big as him would be safe enough in it, but Joe was little.  His skinny little carcass could slip right through and be sucked away.

“Hold on, punkin!  I’m comin’!”

“Hoss!  Hurry!”

He was at the creek’s edge now.   The big tree was leaning over the fast running water, casting shadows on the pool.  Quicker than he should have, Hoss made his way over to it, knelt on one of the big branches, and leaned out over the water.

Two seconds later he was in the water.

And brother Joe was laughin’ his head off.

“You oughta see you!  You look wet enough to bog a snipe!”

“You ornery little critter!” Hoss growled.  “You just wait ’til I get out of this here water and then you’re gonna wish you’d never been born!  I’m gonna kill ya!”

Little Joe appeared on the bank.  “Does that mean you’re finally gonna stop followin’ me  around and tryin’ to protect me from nothing?  I mean, if you’re willing to kill me, then you can’t be worried about me getting hurt.  Right?”

Hoss was half-way up the bank before he realized he’d been skunked.  “You did that on purpose!”

Joe had his arms crossed over his chest.  His lips twisted to one side as he nodded.  “Sure did.  I had to do something to bring you back to your senses, big brother.”

“Like nearly drownin’ me?!”

“Ah, I knew you wouldn’t drown.  You’re too big.  You’d just get stuck like a cork.”  Joe stepped forward to offer him a hand.  “So, we’re even now, right?  You dunked me and I dunked you.  Can we just go back to the way it was before?”

Those wide green eyes of little brother’s did some mighty fine beggin’.

“I guess I have been a little…over-zealous the last few weeks.”

“A little?”  Joe snorted.  “You’ve been treatin’ me like I’m weak as a dragged cat!”

“I was just worried about you, Joe.”

“And I worry about you.  That’s what brothers do.”  As he reached the top, Joe let go.  “But brothers also trust each other.  I got your back. You got mine.  I know that, even if you don’t.”

Hoss thought a minute.  Little Joe was right.

“How’d you get to be so smart?” he asked with a lopsided smile.

“Well, it sure wasn’t from watching you, you big galoot!”

Hoss looked down at the skinny, curly-haired bright-eyed boy before him.  He loved him more than life –

When he didn’t want to kill him.

“Whoa whoa, whoa, whoa! Hoss!”  Joe shouted as Hoss caught him around the waist and hefted him up and over his shoulder like a sack of grain. “What are you doing?  It was just a joke, really.  Hey!  I’m sorry if I made you mad….put me down…will you?”

Hoss didn’t say a word.  He just started walkin’.  He had a smile on his face and a snap in his step.  He might be so wet he could carry a canoe in his back pocket.

But he was free.

 

“Hey, Hoss!  You gotta talk to me.  I can’t see your face.”  Joe paused.  “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Hoss looked at his beloved little brother.  Joe had a long, uphill fight in front of him.  He was a scrapper and didn’t know when to quit.  There was no reason to believe this would be different from the time before – from any time before.

Except it was different.

The big man laid his hand on his little brother’s arm.  Joe jumped, but hid his surprise quickly.

“You remember when you knocked me in the pool well back when you was a little squirt?”

Joe frowned.  It took him a moment.  “Yeah, I remember.  You were driving me crazy followin’ me around everywhere ’cause you felt guilty.”

“Well, I promise you I won’t do that again.  I’ll wait for you to ask – but you better ask if you need anythin’, you hear me?”  Hoss paused and waited.  “Joe?”

“I don’t need….”  His brother drew in a breath.  The words that came out with it were spoken quietly.  ‘Hoss, I’m…  I’m scared.”

“I know you are, punkin,” he replied.  “But Old Hoss is here.  I’ll take care of you – when you want me to, of course.”

Joe placed his hand over his fingers and gave them a little squeeze.

No other words were needed.

They was brothers.

 

 

EIGHT

Ben Cartwright paused with his hand on the latch to look at his old friend.  “Thank you, Paul, for comin’ out.  I know it’s a long way and, well, it’s been ongoing for a long time.”

The physician’s blue eyes narrowed as he pursed his lips and considered his response.  Now, he’d known the man a long time and, even though as a doctor Paul was good at masking his emotions, he could read him like a book.

It had been a little over three weeks.  Paul was beginning to believe that Joseph would never regain his sight.

Paul’s hand landed on his shoulder.  He held it there as he replied.  “You have to face the truth, Ben, unpleasant as it is.  The blow that boy took to his head should have killed him.  It’s no wonder there has been a consequence.”

He tried to remind himself of that every day.  His God was not a wrathful God that handed down verdicts and punishment.  Joseph had not been blinded by God’s will, but his life saved by it.  His son would adjust in time should their worst fears come true.

He would have to.

Ben nodded, too choked up for words.

Paul lifted his hand.  “There is a reason, Ben.  Something Joe is meant to learn, or maybe you or Hoss.  You have to cling on to that.”  The physician hesitated.  “Have you contacted the blind school as I suggested?”

Blind.  That word held more fear for him than a rampaging grizzly.

“I did,” he managed to choke out.

“Good.  The school has an excellent reputation.”

“Tell me the truth, Paul. You think Joseph is going to remain…blind…don’t you?”

Again, the physician paused.  “I think we have to consider it a very real possibility.  It’s been nearly a month.  There are no signs of his sight returning.”

Ben closed his eyes.  Behind them the years flashed – years filled with an ebullient, mercurial dynamo of energy named Joseph Francis Cartwright.  He could see Joe as a child balancing on the fence rail and pretending to be an acrobat, on the back of a full-size horse riding like a full-size man long before he had a right to; running and running, with the wind in his jiggling curls and a smile on his handsome face – laughing that laugh.

Never again.

Never.

“Ben, don’t lost hope.  I’ve heard the teachers from the school can work miracles.”

A miracle.

That was what they needed.

“Well, Ben, I need to get going.  There are other house-calls to make.  Since I’m out this way so often now, I’ve been checking in more regularly on some of my far-flung patients.  Now, you take care, and you do everything you can to give that boy hope.  That’s what Joe needs the most.”

The rancher nodded as he opened the door and watched until his friend had mounted to the seat of his buggy.  After waving goodbye, Ben turned back into the room only to find Hop Sing coming down the stairs.

“Hop Sing wish he could cook up hope soup,” the Asian man said with a sigh as he displayed the tray he carried.  On it was a barely touched plate of food.  “Maybe then number three son eat.”

Ben sighed again.  He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately.   “I know, old friend.”  Joseph had always been slender, even though he consumed nearly as much food as Hoss – when he was happy.  His youngest son had a penchant to turn inward when troubled and that troubled him.

Especially now that Joseph was living in a world of darkness.

“Take food to kitchen.  Put in ice box.  Maybe boy eat later.”

Ben looked up the stairs.  “I think I’ll go up and talk to him.”

“Boy not want to talk anymore than he want food.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t.”  The older man thought a moment.  “Give me the tray,  I’ll give it a go.”

Hop Sing was shaking his head.  “It useless to mend boat in middle of river,” he said.

The rancher couldn’t help but smile.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I tried it a few times when I was an able seaman.”

“Tried?  But did able seaman succeed?”

He laughed as he accepted the tray.   “I’m still here!”

 

Ben drew a deep breath as he paused outside his youngest son’s room.  One never knew what mood Joe would be in these days.  His lack of appetite suggested it was not going to be a good one.

With a soft rap, he asked, “Joseph, may I come in?”

There was a noticeable silence, and then a somewhat surly, “If you want to.”

Lifting the latch, Ben opened the door and stepped in and was startled by the fact that no lamp had been lit.  A heavy darkness – almost a gloom filled the room.  He couldn’t find his son until the boy moved.  Joseph was standing by the window.

“Hop Sing already tried, Pa.  I’m not hungry.”

It took him by surprise that Joe knew it was him until he thought about it.  Deprived of sight, Joseph’s body was adjusting even if his son wasn’t – his other senses were growing stronger.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d try,” he said.  “For me.”

The rancher sucked in air as his son stepped into a beam of moonlight.  It seemed a night to be surprised.  His youngest had often been accused of being a bit of a peacock by his older brothers.  Joe was proud of his looks and careful of his appearance.  All you had to do was ask anyone in Virginia City and they would tell you that Joseph Cartwright  was among the most handsome, debonair, well-dressed and dapper young men in town.

No more.

Joseph’s spiraling curls dangled on his forehead and fell in an uncombed mass over his eyes.  His shirt was buttoned incorrectly and had coffee residue on it.  Hop Sing had told him earlier that he left Joe to dress himself after his son vehemently declared that he was no longer a little boy.

The pout on his face belied that.

“I’ll take the coffee,” he said.

So his sense of smell was stronger too.

“You can’t live on coffee alone, son,” he said gently.

His son turned back toward the window.  “Yeah, well, maybe I don’t…want to live.  Not like…this.”

It was something he feared. That the boy would slip into a melancholy from which he might not recover.

Ben placed the tray on the table and crossed over to his son.  Joe flinched when he placed a hand on his shoulder, but didn’t pull away.  They stood in silence for a moment.  The older man didn’t really know what to say.  Joe knew he disagreed with him, so it seemed pointless to argue the point.

Instead he said, “Are you enjoying the breeze?”  It was lifting the curtains and blowing them into the room.

“What time is it, Pa?  I can’t….”  His son drew in a breath.  “Is it night yet?”

He nodded, and then realized that gesture meant nothing to a blind man.  “Yes, Joe, it is.”

“I always loved the night.  I loved standing here…looking at the stars.”  Tears entered his son’s eyes.  “I can’t…I can’t see them anymore, Pa.  They’re lost to me…like everything else.”

Ben hesitated.  Then he touched his son’s hand.  “Joe, come over to the bed and sit with me.”

“Why?”

“I’m a tired old man, that’s why,” he laughed.

“Oh.  Sorry, Pa.  I thought….”  Joe frowned.  “I don’t know what I thought.”

With his fingers on his son’s arm, he directed him toward the bed.  They sat down together and for a moment Ben remained silent.  Then he said, “I remember sitting here with you when you were a very little boy.  Like almost all children, the dark scared you for a time.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You grew out of it quickly.”  He paused and then added with a snort, “Unlike Hoss.”

Joe turned toward him.  “Huh?  Hoss?  He was afraid of the dark?”

“Oh, yes.  He must have been eight or nine.  You’d have been too little to remember.  He used to make me leave a candle lit in the room every night.”

“A big guy like him?” Joe asked, amazed.  “Afraid of the dark?”

“Yes.  Size has nothing to do with fear.  Look at the elephant and the mouse.  Though the elephant is gigantic, the small, swift movements of something underfoot can unnerve it.”

Joe considered that as he shifted.  Using his hands, he located his pillow and leaned back against it and the headboard.

“Did you ever figure out why he was afraid?” he asked once he was settled.

“Hoss could never tell me.”  Ben paused.  “I’ve wondered at times if it had to do with Adam.”

“With Adam?  Why?”

He looked at his youngest boy, now a man.  Joseph had been spared the deprivation and uncertainty his brothers had experienced when young.  He had been born to a settled place, anchored in safety and security – about as far away from the perilous world of the wagon train as it could be.

“When you think of the dark, what do you think of?”

Joe thought a moment.  “It’s kind of quiet…and warm.”

“Warm?  That’s a funny thing to think about the dark.  At night, it’s often colder.”

“I guess.”  His son pursed his lips.  “But that’s what I think.”

“And ‘why’ do you think it was ‘warm’?”

“I don’t know.  I can…well…I guess I feel warm because I feel someone’s arms about me.”

“That was your mother.  She used to sit in a chair at that window, holding you in her arms.  Sometimes wrapped in a warm woolen blanket.”  Ben smiled.  He could see Marie still with Joseph on her lap; her golden hair painted a pale-silver blue by the moonlight; her lips moving with a song.   “Neither of your brothers ever knew that.”

“Hoss had Mama.”

“And your mother was the one who helped him get over his fear.”

Joe was silent a moment.  “I can’t imagine Adam being afraid.”

“Adam wasn’t so much afraid of the dark as of what was in it.  Your oldest brother was perceptive from a young age.  He saw far too much of the evil man is capable of and of the sadness and loss that comes as a result of it during our journey.”  Ben shifted so he too was resting against the headboard.  “Adam had to become both mother and father to Hoss after Inger was killed.  Many nights, when I was away, he was solely responsible for Hoss’ safety.  He never said, but I know he was afraid.”

“And you think he made Hoss afraid too?”

He nodded.  “Without meaning to.”

Joe fell silent.  He noted how he turned his face toward the window.

“Can you see her too?” Ben asked softly.

Hi son nodded.  “Yeah.”

“Does it help with…the darkness?”

For a moment Joe didn’t react. Then, unexpectedly, he smiled.

“When I see her in it, it does.”

Ben reached out and circled his son’s shoulders.  After a moment, Joe leaned in and rested his head against him.

“Thanks, Pa.”

He gave him a little squeeze.  “Do you think you could eat something now?”

Joe snorted.  “I guess Ma would want me to live.”

Closing his eyes, the older man offered up a little prayer of thanks.

“I guess she would.”

 

“Boy eat food?” Hop Sing asked as he came down the stairs bearing Joe’s tray.

“A little.”

“Mistah Cartwright find recipe for hope soup?”

Ben smiled.

Yes.

Yes, he had.

Marie, his love.

 

 

NINE

Joe felt like a spoiled child and that was because he was acting like one.  He knew it.  He just couldn’t do anything about it.

He was angry

Very angry.

Angry at having been sent to Charley’s in the first place.  Angry at Hoss having drawn the straw to go get Charley instead of him.  Angry at ol’ Nosey for nosin’ around that nitro, and even angrier at himself for diving toward that falling bottle and not getting the hell out of that shack.

And most of all, angry at God.

He’d left his room meaning to work his way down the stairs, through the obstacle of the great room, and into the kitchen to get a snack when suddenly – unexpectedly – he had heard his father open the door and greet someone.  He hoped he was clinging to the shadows.  Of course, he couldn’t be sure since everything was shadows anymore.  But he had his hand on the wall and was behind it so he was pretty sure that their guest couldn’t see him.

That Sally couldn’t see him.

In the early days when he was only half-conscious she’d come to talk to him.  Hoss told him so.  The news of what happened hadn’t made it to the town yet, so she’d made the trip just so she could tell him how disappointed she was that he hadn’t shown up at the dance on Saturday.  Of course, she had no way of knowing that on Saturday he’d been lying in a bed fighting for his life.

And he hadn’t wanted her to know.

He didn’t want her to know that…he was blind.  That he was…

Less than a man.

Sally was a beauty with her long dark eyes, porcelain-white skin and rosy lips.  They’d been going out for about a month and both of them had realized just the other night that what they felt might be the real thing.  They’d taken a carriage ride up to the lake and instead of sitting and chattering on about herself and her own interests like most girls would, she’d asked to see his mother’s grave.  It had taken him a bit by surprise.  As they walked hand in hand toward the worn stone monument his pa had erected on the edge of the lake, she’d told him how she’d lost her ma when she was little too – that the current Mrs. Mars was her step-mother.  She loved her.  Her pa’s new wife had turned out to be everything she could have hoped for.

But she wasn’t her ma.

When they arrived, they stood looking down at the gravestone.  It was just past winter.  No one had come out to tend it yet, so there were dead vines and branches on it.  He’d knelt and begun to brush them away when Sally stopped him.  With a finger she pointed out the budding new life on those old dead branches.

At that moment he had known there was something budding between them.

Though he’d felt like a fool, he’d taken her hand, drawn her down beside him, and introduced her to his mama.  Sally smiled and spoke to her, telling his mama what a wonderful fellow he was and how she was pleased as punch to be seen with him.  With a little smile, she’d admitted she enjoyed seeing all the other girls be jealous.

With a big smile, he’d admitted he was happy about the other fellers being jealous of him too.

After that they walked and talked and he began to think that she was the one.  He’d been contemplating asking her to marry him – maybe at the dance – and then….

Then….

God had betrayed him.

“Sally,” his pa said.  “You’ve come  a long way.”

“I came to see if Joe can have visitors yet, Mister Cartwright.  It’s been nearly a month.”

There was an ache in her voice.  He felt it in his body.  Her lips were warm; her hair, so soft.

He would never feel them again.  He would never…kiss her again.

She wouldn’t want him if she knew.

No woman would want him.

Ever again.

“Sally, I’m afraid the doctor is still concerned.  He doesn’t want Joe to get too tired,” his father lied.  “In fact, he’s resting now.”

“I could wait.”

For a moment, an irrational impulse nearly over came him – to stumble down the stairs and let her see exactly what she was mourning.  He was mourning it too.  Mourning the loss of everything he’d ever wanted to be or do, and grieving the loss of his independence.  He couldn’t even make it down the stairs unaided.  He’d never ride again.  Never rope again.  Never bust a bronco or go on a drive.  Never marry a girl like Sally.

Never be a father.

He might as well be dead.

“Joe, you okay?”

Hoss’ question startled him.  For a moment Joe couldn’t think of a thing to say.  Then, it all came pouring out of him as he stumbled back into the hall.

“Okay?  Hell, no!  I’m not okay!   How can you even ask?  I can’t see, God damn it!  I’m blind!  My life I over!  I won’t ever be able to do what I want, when I want.  I can’t…. ”  He paused, sucking in air.  He felt light-headed.  He couldn’t breathe.

He might have been on dry land, but he was drowning.

His brother’s hand touched his arm.  It was the only way he knew Hoss was still there.  Otherwise there was nothing but one great immense impossible impenetrable mass of silence and darkness and it was going to take him down.

Overwhelmed, Joe spun and ran for his room, knocking over the hall chair and a small table in his haste.  He didn’t even stop when he heard them crash to the floor.  He had to get away – had to escape.

The problem, he found, when he slammed his door shut was that he couldn’t escape from the one thing he so desperately needed to.

Himself.

“Joseph, you get away from that door.  I’m comin’ in.”

Joseph.

Hoss was serious.

“I…I…don’t want to talk.”

“Well, you’re gonna!  You get back.  I’m openin’ this door right now!”

Joe knew better than to argue when his giant of a brother used that tone.  Hoss would just take the door off of its hinges.  Backing up, he retreated to the window and stood there, waiting.

The sound of the door opening and heavy footsteps alerted him to the fact that his brother was in the room.

With a twist of his lips, Joe said, “You plannin’ on giving me a spanking me or what?”

“You sure enough need one,” Hoss grumbled.

“Yeah, well, you try being blind for a month!”

There was silence.  When his brother spoke, the words were not the ones he expected.  “Joe, I sure enough wish it was me what was blind.”

“You don’t mean that.  Trust me, you don’t!”

“I do.”

“Why?  You think you’d handle it better?”

“Mebbe.”

“Oh yeah?  And why is that?”

There was a pause.  “Cause I learned to forgive myself for makin’ mistakes a long time ago.”

Joe moved forward to grip the post of his bed.  He was shaking from head to toe.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

He heard his brother move.  Heard the sound of someone sitting on the bed.  So he turned toward his brother before he could speak.

“You remember what we was talkin’ about before?  About that time you fell in the well and got pneumonia?  And that time at the livery?  You remember, don’t you, Joe, what you told me?”

His jaw was tight.  He nodded.

“That you had to forgive yourself,” Joe said.

“That’s right.  And you gotta do the same.”

Joe’s fingers were rigid on the post.  “I dove for the nitro.  For it, do you understand?!  I was stupid.  If I had run – ”

“Joe, if you hadn’t dove for that nitro and rolled on over behind that barrow, you’d be dead!  Think about it.  That explosion would have caught you full force.  Doc Martin told Pa you bein’ behind that barrow is probably the only reason you’re alive.  Doc said, Joe, it was only that and the grace of God kept you alive.”

The grace of God.

Joe dropped his head.  “I’ve…I’ve been kind of mad at God.”

“Tell me about it!  I had me a talk or two with Him too.”  Hoss paused.  “Little Joe, will you sit down?  You’re makin’ me right nervous.”

‘Little’ Joe.

It had been a while since he’d heard that one.

Joe knew the steps to his bed and just how low it was, so he made his way over at ease and sat on the edge.

“Better?” he asked.

“You might act like you like me.”

That made him chuckle.  “You leanin’ on the head board?”

“Yeah.”

Joe maneuvered himself over until he was seated by his brother.  He could feel the heat coming off of Hoss and smell that scent that was particularly his – the one made of hay and hard work.  For a moment they remained as they were in companionable silence until his brother spoke.

“So you’re mad at God?”

“I guess I shouldn’t be,” he answered.  “I’m alive, but….”

“You got every right to be.”

“Huh?”

“I remember me what you told me you said to Thom Cain’s boy.  God don’t always do what we want.  Sometimes the answer to a prayer is ‘no’, cause He knows better.  That don’t mean we’re gonna like it.  You remember that time you fell in the well?  I prayed and prayed you wouldn’t get sick ’cause of it and guess what?  You did.  You almost died of that there pneumonia, Joe.”  Hoss shifted so his hand was touching his – just, touching.  “I was pure mad at God.  Hoppin’ mad.  I came into your room late one night and heard you laborin’ to breathe.  It pert near killed me!  I went outside behind the barn and I had it out with God!”

Joe couldn’t help but smile.  “I bet He won,” he said softly.

Hoss snorted.  “Well, wrestlin’ with God ain’t exactly a fair fight.  Anyhow, you know what God told me?”

“No.  What?”

“That I had things to learn.  That I needed to be a better brother – to look out for you ‘stead of teasin’ and darin’ you to do things I knew could get you hurt.  I needed to learn to listen to my pa ’cause he knew best.  I needed to learn….”  It was a subtle sound, but his finely tuned ears heard it.  Hoss choked.  “I needed to learn just how important you were to me.  I never would of learned that if I hadn’t faced losin’ you.”

His brother’s admission touched him deeply.  It took Joe a moment to reply.  “So what you’re saying is that my blindness is God’s way of trying to teach me something?  Like what?”

There was that chuckle again.  “I love you little brother, but you gotta learn that there are other people hurtin’ besides you.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?  Have you thought about how you’re actin’ is affectin’ Pa?  Or how about Hop Sing?  The pair of them look like hound dogs at a funeral most of the time they’s so worried about you.  And what about that pretty Sally Mars?  She’s done been out to ask about you two or three times.”

“I don’t want Sally to see me like this.”

“Like what?  You look like yourself, Joseph…’cept maybe you could use a curryin’.”

“Hoss, I….  Not Sally.  Not…yet.”

He felt his brother shift and then Hoss rose from the bed.

“All I’m sayin’, little brother, is that God’s got a purpose for this and instead of wastin’ your time feelin’ sorry for yourself, you need to figure out what it is.”

Feeling sorry for himself.

He hated it when people did that.

But Hoss was right.  That was what he was doing.

“I’ll…try,” he said.

“How’s about you come down for dinner then?”

Joe frowned.  “Pa just brought a tray up a bit ago.”

“That was breakfast, Joseph.  And Pa said you didn’t eat enough to fill the belly of a baby bird.  On top of that, Jamie’s back from pickin’ up that new buggy.  He’s missin’ you.”

It took a second.  “Okay.”

“You need help gettin’ cleaned up?”

He began to bristle, but realized then that his brother wasn’t pitying him – Hoss was just trying to help.

“I think I can manage.”

“Okay then.  I’ll see you downstairs.

Joe remained where he was until he heard the door open and close.  Then he rose to his feet and walked to where he knew his dresser stood.  Reaching out he touched his fingers to the cool glass, remembering what it was like to see his own image reflected back.  After a moment, Joe picked up his brush and began to run it through his hair.

The family was waiting and he had a promise to keep.

He would try.

 

 

TEN

He didn’t know what he was going to say, but he had to say it.

As Joe Cartwright walked the long lane that led to the Mars household, he considered what he would do when he saw Sally – if he saw Sally, that was.  She might just refuse to come out, or worse, come out and slam the door in his face.

He deserved it either way.

He’d left the buggy at the end of the drive that led up to the large Victorian home nestled amidst the trees.  He’d learned a lot from Ellen Dobbs and from being blind for nearly two months – a lot about how prideful he was – and he’d let a lot of that go.  Still, he was a young man and the fact that he had yet to get back on a horse and had to take the buggy due to his eyes being weak was about all he could take.  Pulling up in front of the house and then working his way out of the carriage – slowly – in front of a girl he cared for was something he just didn’t want to do.  As he approached the house Joe noted the pristine white walls and the shingled roof with its gingerbread edge.  The Mars weren’t as wealthy as they were, but Sally’s Pa had done well and had just been made vice-president of one of the newer banks in town.  Mr. Mars was younger than Pa.  Actually, he wasn’t too much older than absent brother Adam.  Sally was twenty.  Nearly ten years younger than him.

And more mature by far.

As he walked the stone path, moving in and out of the evening shadows, Joe noted movement in the house.  Sally’s stepmother had come with a couple of children of her own and it looked like she was chasing them down so she could put them to bed.  Sally’s father was standing in the window looking out.

He stiffened when he saw him .

Joe braced himself as he reached the porch and the door opened and John Mars stepped out.

“Joseph,” he said – and not too friendly.

“Mister Mars.”

The older man was looking over his shoulder.  “Did you walk here?” he asked somewhat incredulously.

It was a good ten miles to the Ponderosa.

“No, sir.  I brought the buggy.  It’s at the end of the lane.”

The older man’s demeanor softened.  As if, maybe, he understood just a little.

“How are you, son?”

Joe fought his instant reaction, which was anger.  Mister Mars wasn’t pitying him, he was just being neighborly.

“Much better, sir.”

“Your eyesight is restored?”

He shrugged.  “Mostly.  I can’t stand the sun much.  That’s why I’m here now.  I apologize for coming so late, but I wanted to talk to Sally, if that’s all right.”

The older man hesitated.  “It is…if she wants to talk to you, that is.”

He hesitated too.  “I understand, sir.  I know I…well, I hurt her.  I deeply regret that.”

“I’m sure you weren’t yourself, what with -”

“No, sir.”  Joe paused.  “I don’t meant to contradict you, but I was myself.  ‘Myself’ just wasn’t…well…very pretty.  When it came to testin’ the metal, it snapped pretty quickly.”

John Mars stepped off the porch and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Joe.  A man can’t know what he’s made of until he’s pushed to the limit, and sometimes, it’s finding that out that makes the man.”

He hung his head.  “Thank you, sir.”

“John.”  The other man laughed.  “I’m not that much older than you.”

Joe sniffed.  Humbled.  “Thank you.  John.”

“Why don’t you go over and wait at the swing,” John suggested.  “I’ll go tell Sally you’re here.”

As John Mars went back into the house, Joe moved to the swing that sat on the opposite end of the porch.  He took a seat and pushed with his toes and set it in motion.

Then he closed his eyes and listened.

It was late spring and it was dusk.  All around him he could hear the creatures of the night awakening.   Their quiet chatter and furtive movements rustled across his skin and awoke in him images of them that he could not see with his naked eyes.  Inside the Mars household Sally’s siblings were laughing.  The current Mrs. Mars was reading to them.  She had a soft voice laced with love.  All of this he could hear, but beyond it he heard the beat of his own heart and perceived each indrawn breath and each exhalation as a wonder.

But most of all he heard the stillness within; that stillness that Ellen had taught him to reach for.

The stillness that had made him a better man.

“Joe?”

He didn’t have to open his eyes.  He could see, no, feel Sally standing there.

Joe drew in a breath.  “Sit with me?”

He knew she had when the swing shifted.

“Are your eyes hurting?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “Close your eyes.  Tell me what you hear.”

She must have done as he asked.  A moment later she said, ‘I hear the birds.”

“What else?”

“There’s a dog somewhere.”

“Good.  What else?”

She was silent a moment.  “Joe, what is this about?”

Slowly he opened his eyes.  They did hurt, but he wasn’t going to tell her that.  He remained silent a moment and then said, “I’m not lookin’ for you to forgive me, Sally.  That’s not what this is about.  I treated you badly and you have every right to never want to see me again.  But, well, I learned something while I was blind.”  He snorted.  “Actually, I learned a lot.  But the best thing I learned was the gift of silence.”

“The gift of silence?”

He nodded.  “We live in a world full of noise.  We run – Hop Sing likes to say – like chickens with our heads cut off most of the time.  We don’t stop to…listen.”  He knew it was bold, but he reached out and took hold of Sally’s hand and pressed it to his chest, just above his heart.  “What do you hear?” he asked.

“I feel your heart, Joe….”

“Not ‘feel’, hear.  Close your eyes.  Listen.  Do you hear it?”

She listened for a moment and then opened her eyes and looked at him, puzzled.  “Your heartbeat?”

“My  remorse,” he replied as he squeezed her fingers. “Sally, I was doin’ good that day you came out to see me.  I thought I’d accepted being blind, even though I hadn’t accepted that it might be forever.  And then I heard your voice and felt the pity and suddenly, all the things I thought could never be and do opened up like a pit before me and I…well…I fell in.”

“It wasn’t pity, Joe,” she said.

“Yes, it was,” he corrected softly.  “Not your pity.  My own.  I was drowning in it.”  He paused again.  “Pa told me once that a person who tries to rescue a drowning man has to be careful not to be pulled under with him.”  Joe released her hand.  “I’m sorry I pulled you down with me.”

She looked away from him.  “It…hurt.”

“No.  ‘It’ didn’t hurt.  I hurt – I hurt you and I am so sorry.”  When she said nothing, he went on.  “You know, Sally, I’ve been through a lot in my life.  That’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth.  Every time I’d make it through a fever, or bein’ hurt, when I lost Laura….  Pa told me those things would make me stronger.  I thought that was what I was.  Strong.”

“You are strong, Joe.”

“Not in the way I needed to be.  When I was faced with bein’ blind my whole life, I wanted to quit.  I…there was a moment where I thought about ending it all.”

She turned toward him.  “Joe, no!”

“I was mean and churlish and childish and rude to everyone around me.  I was angry at the accident, at the world – at God – and I took it out on you and my brother and Hop Sing and…Pa.  I think, maybe I hurt him the worst of all.”  Sally’s cheeks were wet.  So were his.  “Can you ever forgive me?”

She stared at him for a moment and then reached up to strike his tears away.  “I already have.”

He blinked.  “You…what?”

“I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to see.  I think…no, I know I would be angry just like you were.”

“But?” he asked, sensing there was one.

She drew in a breath.  “You…frightened me.  Your…anger frightened me.”

Again, he nodded.  “Enough that you don’t want to see me anymore?”

“I don’t know, Joe.  I think I need…time.”

He reached out to wipe her cheek dry.  “I understand.  Really, I do.”  Joe thought a moment.  “The church picnic is in June.  How about I check back then?”

Sally smiled – that beautiful smile he was going to miss so much.

“That would be great, Joe.”

 

Ben Cartwright stirred.  It was late.  Both Hoss and Jamie were in bed asleep.  He couldn’t.

Joe wasn’t home yet.

He was concerned.  Joe’s eyesight was not what it had been.  Paul said it might take until the end of the summer for it to come close to being one hundred percent.  But that wasn’t the only reason he couldn’t sleep.  He knew his youngest son.

After visiting with Sally Mars, Joe would need to talk.

Ben rose and headed for the kitchen, intending to get a cup of coffee, but stopped when he heard the sound of buggy wheels rolling into the yard.  As he turned toward the front door, he heard one of the hands offer to take care of the horses and the sound of the vehicle moving away.  A moment later Joe opened the door and came in.

He looked exhausted.

His first impulse was to ask him if he was all right.  Instead, he inquired, “Would you like a drink, son?”

Joe finished hanging his hat on the peg.  As he turned toward him, his son smiled wearily. “Do I look that bad?”

Now…just how did you answer that?

“Let’s just say you look like you could use one.”

He shook his head.  “I’m okay, Pa.  Just tired.”

“Would you just like to go up to bed?”

Joe was eying the settee.  “I think…f it’s okay with you…I’d like to talk.”

Ben smiled.  “That’s why I’m here.”

His son walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Just like you’ve always been.  Thanks, Pa.”

The older man’s eyes grew wide.  “For what?”

“For always bein’ here for me, even when bein’ here wasn’t easy.  Like over the last two months.”

“Son, I understand….”

Those green eyes pinned him.  “No, you don’t,” his son said.  “And neither did Sally.”

“What don’t I understand?” he asked.

Joe went to the settee and practically fell onto it.  “I want…no, I need to make amends.  I was horrible to Sally, but I was just as horrible to Hoss and Hop Sing and…you.  I acted like….”  His son snorted.  “I guess Adam was right after all.  I am a spoiled brat.”

Ben stared at his son for a moment and then sat beside him.  He fell silent as he thought of how to begin.  “Joe, I’d like to tell you the story of a man.  Is that all right?”  As his son nodded, he continued.  “This man had everything he could want.  Health.  Wealth.  Work for his hands.  A beautiful wife and a child on the way.  God had blessed him richly.  He thought of himself not as lucky, but blessed.  And then a day came when his metal was tested and it didn’t break, it shattered.”

Joe had been leaning on the arm of the settee with his knuckles pressed to one of his eyes.  He shifted and looked at him.  “You’re talking about yourself, when Adam’s ma died.”

“Don’t think you hold the Cartwright record when it comes to wallowing in self-pity – or hurting those you love.  Your brother….”  Ben paused.  He still bore the shame of those years before Inger taught him how to live again.  “I was hard and harsh, unforgiving, and impossible to please.  Adam bore the brunt of that.”

“Adam loves you, Pa.”

Ben smiled.  He reached out a hand to touch his son’s silvery curls.  “As I love you.  Nothing could change that.”  He shifted back.  “In other words, apology accepted.”

Joe stared at him a moment and then did the same, resting that curly head on the back of the settee.  He was silent for some time and then said, “It’s over, Pa.  I mean, really over.  Isn’t it?”

“Yes, son.  And you’re a better man for it, just as I was.”

Joe chewed on that a minute.  “God’s ways sure are mysterious, aren’t they?”

“As far above ours as they can be.”  Ben rose.  “Joe, you have to be hungry. Let me….”

His son was asleep.  His precious son.

The rancher stood there a moment, then he lifted his eyes to the sky and said ‘thank you’ before heading to bed.

In the morning Joseph was still asleep on his mother’s settee, wrapped in a blanket with a smile on his face.  Hoss was sitting at the table with Jamie, and Hop Sing was chanting softly in the kitchen.

It was over indeed.

 

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels at www.marlafairbooks.com. The Facebook page for this is http://www.facebook.com/marlafairbooks/

I also have an art page on Facebook called Marla Fair Renderings found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: www.marlafair.com

Thanks again for reading!

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