Love No More (by StephanieJ)

Summary:  When loving seems to hurt too much…is it easier to just Love No More?
Rating:  PG
Words:  18,900

 

Love No More

 

Ben Cartwright crossed the yard toward the barn, wondering what he would say to comfort his youngest son.   Earlier that day, Ben’s tenderhearted son Hoss joined him for lunch and sadly told him that the little fawn he and Joe had rescued had finally died. Joe and Hoss had found the injured baby fawn a few weeks ago and as was Hoss’ nature, brought the stray home to care for it. Soon it was obvious to all that Joe and the little fawn had become special friends. Hoss remembered hearing Joe telling the orphaned creature that he would take care of him because he knew what it was to be without a mama.   So, it was with tear rimmed eyes Hoss told his father about the fawn. The tears were not for the animal, for it was not much of a surprise to Hoss that the fawn had died. He knew the animal was injured and probably wouldn’t survive. The tears were for Joe and the broken heart he’d surely have when he got home from school and found out.   Joe loved that animal and was sure he could save it.   Hoss, Ben and even Adam had tried to tell Joe the animal wouldn’t make it, but Joe insisted he could love it back to good health. He spent every spare moment with the animal and had even given it a name. But the fawn had died that morning and now it was Ben’s job to console his grieving son.

 

As Ben pulled open the barn door he could hear the sobs wafting down from the hayloft. With a sad shake of his head, Ben headed for the ladder and called to his boy, “Joseph, son, can I talk to you, boy?”

As he reached the loft, Ben could see his son pull his arm across his eyes and then under his nose and with a sniff and a sigh he answered his father, “What, Pa?”

“Are you alright, son? I know your upset about the fawn.” Ben said soothingly as he rubbed his son’s back.

“Her name was Sunny!” Joe snapped at his father. Ben arched an eyebrow toward his son and immediately Joe was sorry for snapping at his Pa.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe croaked out and he started to cry again. Ben pulled the boy into an embrace and let him cry all his emotions out.

“I know Hoss said she would probably die, Pa, but I really thought she’d be okay…maybe I didn’t do enough for her, maybe if I loved her more, or spent more time with her…” Joe was searching for answers and continued to cry as his father responded.

“Joseph, nothing you did or didn’t do could have changed what happened to Sunny. She was injured when you found her and deep down you knew she wouldn’t make it. Right?”

Joe nodded his head up and down.

“What you did do, son, was love her, make her comfortable and gave her a warm place to stay because you’ve learned well from Hoss that we shouldn’t turn our back on one of God’s creatures and I’m proud of you for that.”

Finally Joe dried he eyes and nose on his other sleeve and looked up at his Pa and said, “Thanks, Pa and I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for son?” Ben asked.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you and I’m sorry for crying like a baby over a silly deer,” Joe explained.

“Joe, you don’t have to be sorry for crying for a lost friend. That doesn’t make you a baby, in some ways, being able to express your feelings makes you more of a man,” Ben told his son and he was rewarded by the small smile that came to his son’s face. Ben knew the reference to manhood would garner a smile and he continued to try to brighten the mood. “What you do need to be sorry about…is what you’ve done to your sleeves; Hop Sing is going to have a fit,” Ben said with a smile and mock sternness as he handed Joe his handkerchief.

Joe’s smile widened as he hugged his father tightly and said, “Thanks. I love you, Pa.”

“And I love you too, Joseph. Are you ready to go inside? If we don’t make an appearance soon, Hop Sing might throw out our supper,” Ben said.

“Oh Hop Sing wouldn’t do that to me, Pa, but you better get in there,” Joe giggled and ran to the house.

Ben sighed, relieved he had been able to help his son through this crisis.   Dealing with death was never easy, but this time acceptance and coping came quickly. Perhaps it was because the friendship was new, or the friend was an animal, or maybe it was because they expected it…whatever it was, Ben was grateful he was able to help his son and he hoped next problem, and he knew there would be another, wouldn’t be as traumatic.

________________________________

 

 

The next week passed with out event. Joe seemed to be coping well with the loss of his little friend.   The ranch was busy as usual. Ben and Adam were trying to figure out the details of a new project.   Adam had won a new timber contract for the Ponderosa and it was an ambitious undertaking with a tight deadline. After much discussion it was decided the only way to fulfill the contract was to hire an extra crew and for all the elder Cartwrights to join in the work. Even Hop Sing would be needed to cook at the camp. That left Joe…a one-boy dynamo, who had just been set free on summer vacation from school.   Ben, Adam, and Hoss sat up one night after Joe went to bed and talked over the ‘Joe situation’.

“He’s gonna wanna come, Pa,” Hoss stated the obvious.

“I know, Hoss, but he can’t,” Ben said firmly.

“He’s just too young Hoss and we won’t have the time to spare to keep an eye on him,” Adam added.

“Well maybe he could help Hop Sing,” Hoss offered, trying to come up with an idea that would make Joe happy.

At that Hop Sing appeared with a tray of coffee. “Hop Sing no need help. Hard enough to cook in camp, no need extra help.” Hop Sing scurried off continuing to chatter in Chinese.

“I guess that’s a no vote from Hop Sing,” Adam quipped.

“Well it’s not up for a vote,” Ben declared and then continued, “He can’t come and that’s final. But he can’t stay here alone. I just don’t know what to do.”

“The Devlins?” Hoss offered.

“They all have hay fever over there and Mrs. Devlin is in no mood…I already asked,” Ben stated.

From the top of the stairs a happy suggestion came floating down, “I could go stay with Grandma Jo for a while,”

“Joseph!” Ben bellowed, “What are you doing out of bed?”

“Grandma Jo,” Adam smiled and nodded his head.

“Grandma Jo,” Hoss slapped his thigh and nodded his agreement.

Ben smiled and exhaled loudly, “Grandma Jo, now that’s a great idea! But a better idea is…TO GET BACK TO BED!!!” Ben bellowed as he laughed loudly.

Joe smiled as he ran back to his bed. He really wanted to go to the timber camp, but he knew his father would never let him go, so he figured he had better speak up quick with his suggestion, before Pa, Adam and Hoss had him packed off to someplace boring.

“Leave it to that rascal to come up with the answer,” Hoss chuckled.

“I’ll go talk to Josephine tomorrow, I’m sure she’ll love to watch him for us,” Ben stated.

 

Joe smiled as he settled himself back into bed and thought about Grandma Jo. As he snuggled down under the covers, Joe reached over to the night table and picked up his mother’s picture. He studied the picture and thought about the two women: his mama and Grandma Jo. They didn’t look anything alike, but to Joe they seemed similar and he often thought if his mama had lived to be an old lady, she’d have been like Grandma Jo.   Joe loved Grandma Jo. She had just returned from an extended visit with her daughter and Joe had missed her. Grandma Jo had a full round face etched with wrinkles. She kept her long white hair in a loose braid down her back and the ends held a hint of the warm red color of her youth. Her blue eyes danced when she laughed…and her laugh was unique. It wasn’t a small lady-like giggle, but her laugh was like her personality: big, full and robust just bursting with enthusiasm. Grandma Jo was fun, not like other old ladies, and her interests were much more in line with a boy than a lady nearing 70. She liked to go frogging, fishing, walking barefoot in the mud and wading in the creek. She liked sitting in the rain and playing marbles. Joe remembered the first time he visited with Grandma Jo. It was her that suggested a wade in the creek. Joe had stood awestruck as the old woman removed her shoes and stockings and then bent down and grabbed the back hem of her skirt and pulled in forward between her legs and tucked it into her waistband…making something that looked like pants. She skipped off to the creek calling over her shoulder for Joe to join her. It was in that moment Joe knew Grandma Jo was special. Mrs. Josephine Walters, better know at the Ponderosa as Grandma Jo, was a widow woman who had befriended the Cartwrights when she moved to town about five years ago. She loved all the Cartwrights, but Joe was her favorite. Joe was five when they met and he was still grieving the loss of his mother, and Joe was drawn to the woman and her sense of fun that was so much like his Mama’s.   Now, Joe was ten and he shared a special relationship with Grandma Jo. She and Joe were good friends, playmates and kindred spirits.

_______________________________

 

With the ‘Joe situation’, as they called it, solved courtesy of Grandma Jo, the Ponderosa became a hive of activity as preparations were made to set up a new timber camp. Supplies were gathered, men were hired and operation plans prepared. Joe too set about preparing for his visit.

“Well, I think we’re ready, Pa,” Adam proudly stated as he sat down to dinner. It had been Adam’s job to oversee the preparations and with Hoss’ help they were ready to leave on schedule the next day.

“Good job, boys. I know it was hard work getting everything ready so quickly, specially with this heat,” Ben said as he mopped his brow. “I’m proud of you. We’ll have more hard days ahead of us to get this all done in just two short weeks, but the profit will be well worth it. It will provide us a nice cushion for the winter.”

“It’s nice to think about winter, cause it sure has been hot,” Hoss complained.

“That’s the truth. I don’t think I can recall a summer when it’s been this hot. It’s a real heat wave,” Ben agreed.

“Well, I for one, am looking forward to getting to the high country, if for nothing else than getting to some cooler weather,” Adam added.

As Joe came bounding down stairs, Ben cleared his throat loudly to indicate time to change the subject. While going to Grandma Jo’s had been his idea, Joe was working every angle to get Ben to change his mind and let him come along. Hoping to generate a bit of enthusiasm for his adventure, Ben greeted his son with exaggerated gusto. “Well, young man, are you all packed and ready to go to Grandma Jo’s in the morning?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied and before he could start pleading again Hoss jumped it.

“So what ‘cha bringing with ya Shortshanks?”

“All the important stuff, of course…I got my marbles, checkers, my fishin’ pole…maybe I should bring yours too Hoss so Grandma Jo can use it…my pocket knife… and um,” Joe rattled off his list while thinking of other valuable things a ten year old would need.

“How about some clothes, little buddy?” Adam asked winking at their father.

“Oh, yeah,” Joe giggled. “I’ll get ‘em together right after supper, I kinda forgot,” Joe gave a crooked smile as he answered.

“Well how about after supper, we go and take a look at what’ve you’ve packed, son. Perhaps I can make a few helpful suggestions,” Ben chuckled.

“Okay Pa, but wouldn’t it be easier if I just came with you? I can help ya know… there’ll be lots to explore and there’s lots I can do…” Joe started up again only to be interrupted by Adam. “Easier for you, but surely not for us!”

Joe shot his brother a scowl and was about to retort when Ben took over.

“Now Joseph, we’ve been over and over this and you simply can not come along. Besides it was your idea to go stay with Grandma Jo. I thought you’ve been missing her. Don’t you want to spend some time with her?” Ben probed.

“I do, but…” Joe played with his fork and stared at his plate, “I’m gonna miss you all. Two weeks is a long time.”

“Well it may seem like it now, but trust me, son, once you get to Grandma Jo’s the time will fly by and you won’t have time to miss us,” Ben explained.

“We’ll see,” Joe replied as he continued to play with his supper and mope.

 

The next morning, as Adam and Hoss were helping Hop Sing with last minute details, Ben and Joe were battling again. “Now Joseph, you remember what I’ve said: Behave yourself, listen and don’t tire Grandma Jo out,” Ben repeated the lectured again.

“Pa, why are we taking the buckboard? I wanna ride my horse,” Joe whined, completely ignoring his father’s instructions.

“Did you hear me, boy? And, you won’t be needing your horse Joseph, Grandma Jo doesn’t have a barn or corral to keep a horse in or any feed supplies and before you ask, I am not hauling two weeks worth of feed to her house just so you can ride your horse. We’re taking the buckboard, end of discussion.”

“But, Pa…” Joe started his rebuttal but was quickly cut off by his father.

 

Adam and Hoss tried to hide their chuckles, but it was hard, even Hop Sing was shaking his head, muttering “That boy…give father white hair…”

Hoss whispered to Adam, “It sure is gonna be a quiet two weeks for us. I kinda feel bad for Grandma Jo, cause I don’t think her days will be as quiet.”

“Yeah, that might be long enough for Pa to cool off, and don’t worry about Josephine. Joe’ll turn on the charm and she’ll spoil him rotten. I think we should feel sorry for ourselves…we’re going to have to get him back to reality when we get home,” Adam said as he tried to stifle a laugh.

Hoss was about to reply when Ben’s voice boomed across the yard, “I SAID: End of discussion. Now you can ride to Grandma Jo’s sitting next to me on the seat or you can ride standing in the back. It’s your choice, now what’s it going to be Joseph?” Ben stated as calmly as he could.

Joe understood his options, sitting with a cool bottom or standing with a warmed bottom, he made his choice quickly. “I’ll sit, Pa.”

“Fine, now say your goodbyes and lets be off.” Ben told his son with a subtle shake of his head.

Adam and Hoss were laughing out loud as Joe ran up and jumped at Hoss grabbing him around the neck giving him a big hug. Joe held on tight as he said goodbye, “Bye, Hoss.”

“Now you be good for Grandma Jo, ya hear Shortshanks?” Hoss asked.

“I will Hoss. Are ya gonna miss me? Joe asked.

“You know it, punkin!” Hoss answered handing his little brother to his oldest brother.

“Bye Adam, don’t have too much fun without me, okay?” Joe said solemnly.

“Okay, Joe, no fun, just work,” Adam answered with a tickle making Joe giggle.

“Come on now Joe, we have to get going,” Ben called.

“I’m coming Pa,” Joe shouted back to his Pa and then turned back to his brothers. “You guys take care of Pa for me, alright?”

“Sure little buddy,” Adam answered putting Joe down and Joe quickly grabbed each of his brothers around the waist with one arm on each and quietly said. “I love you guys.”

Adam smiled and ruffled his hair as Hoss replied “We love you too buddy, now get along, before Pa gets mad again.

“Be good,” Adam called after his brother, “and take care of Grandma Jo.”

“I will!” Joe answered as he climbed into the buckboard and sat down next to his father. Although the trip to Grandma Jo’s was relatively short, Joe filled the time with endless chatter be it about the shapes of the clouds or the sight of some wildlife or Joe’s opinion on the new timber operation. Ben smiled, laughed and absorbed every word, because he simply loved his son, his wonderful outlook on life and his contagious zest for life. He knew the next two weeks would be very busy ones, be he also knew he would miss this mischievous little boy, with the bright smile and penchant for trouble.

 

Grandma Jo was sitting on her front porch, absent-mindedly fanning herself from the persistent heat as Ben and Joe approached the house. She was quickly off the porch as the buckboard slowed but Joe was already hopping down before Ben could bring it to a complete stop. “Joseph!” Ben bellowed, “How many times have I told you to stay put until I stop.”

“I’m sorry Pa, but I was excited to see Grandma Jo,” Joe explained from within the kindly woman’s embrace.

“Oh now Benjamin, don’t be cross with this sweet boy,” Josephine cooed, “He knows how much I’ve missed him, don’t you Sweet Boy? He just wanted a little sugar from Grandma Jo.”

Joe just smiled back at his Pa and Ben knew he couldn’t fight them both so with a smile he replied, “Okay, Josephine, this sweet boy is all yours for two weeks. Now Joseph, you be good for Grandma Jo, don’t tire her out and…” Ben paused as he realized he was talking to himself as Joe and Grandma Jo were already on the porch discussing their plans for the next two weeks.

“Sweet boy, we’re gonna have such a good time. Do we want to go wading, swimming or frogging first. Oh, I have been thinking on what to do about this heat, you know it doesn’t even seem to cool off at night lately…When I was a girl in Arizona we used to sleep on the porch under damp sheets…much more comfortable as I recall. We could give that a try…don’t you think Benjamin? Benjamin!?”

As Ben stood alone in the yard, Grandma Jo called over her shoulder to him, “Benjamin, what are you doing just standing there? I though you had a lot of work to do. Get yourself along now, Joseph and I will be fine. Won’t we Sweet Boy?”

“Sure will, Pa.” Joe quickly covered the distance between the porch and his Pa to give him one last hug. Then just as quick, he was back on the porch. Ben shook his head and smiled as he climbed into the buckboard and started back to the Ponderosa.

“See you in two weeks…” Ben called out one last time.

 

When he arrived back at the Ponderosa, Ben found Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing ready to go. “Joe okay over at Grandma Jo’s, Pa?” Hoss asked, still worried that Joe would be upset about being left behind.

“Oh, I don’t think we have to worry, son. I was lucky to get a goodbye hug from that ‘Sweet Boy’. Those two were too busy planning their adventures to give much notice to me” Ben chuckled.

“Sweet Boy, Pa?” Adam asked flippantly as he smiled. “She still calls Joe that. I thought for sure he’d’ve put a stop to that by now.”

“She is and no he hasn’t. In fact, I think he likes it and don’t you boys tease him about it either,” Ben replied. “And now, as Grandma Jo told me boys, we’ve got a lot of work to do…so let’s get to it. The sooner we get started the sooner we can get home to that Sweet Boy.” All the Cartwrights laughed at the use of the pet name for Joe as they headed for the timber camp.

 

Up at the timber camp, the elder Cartwrights had set up a smooth and efficient operation. The work was hard and everyone was exhausted, but after just one week, thing couldn’t be going any better.

“Pa, things are running real good,” Hoss informed his father as he and Adam joined him at the cook tent after another long day.

Ben smiled at his sons. He couldn’t have been more pleased, as they were ahead of schedule, spirits were high and the weather was markedly cooler. “This is wonderful, boys. If we continue at this pace we’ll not only fill the contract but we’ll do so ahead of schedule.”

 

Over at Grandma Jo’s, times were also good, albeit hot.   Joe and Grandma Jo spent their days playing in the creek, swimming, fishing and just generally having fun. However, by the end of the first week of Joe’s visit a worry had crept into the corner of Josephine’s mind, she was beginning to feel the impact of the heat and keeping up with an active child. She awoke this morning tired…and not the regular not enough sleep tired, but a total, down in the soul, bone tired. She would try to shake it off, for Joe’s sake, but the pressure in her chest and the pain radiating down her arm were hard to ignore, but she would try for her Sweet Boy.

______________________________________

 

In Virginia City, Doctor Martin pulled his buggy to a stop in front of the Sheriff’s Office to greet Sheriff Coffee who had just stepped out onto the sidewalk.

“Good morning Roy,” the doctor greeted.

“Mornin’ Doc, feels like it’s gonna be another scorcher today,” the sheriff replied as he mopped his brow.

“It sure does. I don’t remember when’s it’s been this hot! Do you think you’ll be busy today, Roy?” Doctor Martin asked.

“I don’t reckon. The one good thing about this heat is that the criminals are all too hot to be bothered with committing any crimes.” Roy chuckled.

“Well good for you. Could I interest you in accompanying me today? I’m going to check on some of the older folks in the area. This heat can really take a toll on them. I’ve got some blocks of ice packed here in the back. I’m planning to chip it off to offer some cool baths and cold drinks. I’m sure it’ll be a welcome treat. I’d enjoy some company and I might need some help if you’re free,” Doctor Martin explained.

“I’d be happy to Doc. Let me tell the deputy I’ll be out and about today and get my horse. I’ll met you at the livery in about 20 minutes,” Roy answered.

“Wonderful!” Paul exclaimed, pleased to have the Sheriff’s company. “This could take all day, so I’ll stop over at Daisy’s and get us some lunch to take along,” Doctor Martin added.

So the Doctor and the Sheriff were off on their mission of mercy.

__________________________________

After a cooling wade in the creek and light lunch, Grandma Jo was feeling refreshed and ready for the big frogging expedition she and Joe had planned for the afternoon. But the short walk to the creek had already tired Grandma Jo and she paused in the shade of a tree to wipe her sweaty face. “Oh my goodness, Sweet Boy, it surely is hot again today, is it not?”

“Are you okay, Grandma Jo?” Joe asked concerned about her pale skin and the sweat that continued to run down her face.

“Surely, I am…I just need to rest a bit and catch me breath. Now don’t ya worry, none” she said with a deep exhale.

“Are you sure cause you don’t look….” Joe pressed the old woman.

“Now don’t you start talkin’ about me looks, Sweet Boy,” she interrupted firmly, but broke into a smile. “Now lets find us some frogs. I’ll betcha I find the biggest one,” she challenged while rubbing her left arm that ached.

“Oh, I don’t think so…I’ll find one so big, we’ll need to get a wagon to haul him back to the house,” Joe laughed and ran off to the creek, leaving his worries and Grandma Jo behind. A short time later, Joe and Grandma Jo were knee deep in the creek hunched over looking for the best specimens. Grandma Jo stood up straight putting her hands to her back and leaned back a bit to stretch out the kinks and she thought to herself that the creek had seemed to have lost it’s cooling benefits. Her chest felt tight again and she was having a hard time catching her breath. She called to Joe. “Sweet Boy, let’s head back to the house for a bit. I think we need to take a break so I can rest a bit.”

Joe stood up and looked over to the old lady and his worry returned. Quickly he was at her side, helping her out of the creek. “Are you alright Grandma Jo?”

“Surely, now let’s not worry. I’m just a bit tired,” she replied looking into his troubled face.

The two walked slowly toward the house and Grandma Jo began to lean heavily on Joe. As they reached the porch steps, Joe was holding Grandma Jo up. And she gave in to her exhaustion and confessed, “Sweet Boy, I don’t believe I can make it up the steps. I’m just too tired. Let’s just sit here under this tree.” Joe guided Josephine to the tree and eased her down, leaning her against the trunk.

“I’m sorry Grandma Jo, Pa told me not to wear you out,” Joe apologized sincerely, worry clouding his face.

“Now I’ve done told you not to worry, Sweet Boy. You’ve done nothing but bring me joy and happiness. I’ve loved spending this time with you. You’re very dear to me and I love you with all my heart. I’m just a bit tired right now…need to rest some” She said softly, holding Joe close to her as her eyes fluttered and started to close.

“Grandma you’re scaring me,” Joe cried. “Are you alright?” He asked again.

Grandma Jo gasped as she took in her breath and as she exhaled she said, “Always remember how much I love you Sweet Boy.”

Joe looked up into her face as her eyes closed one last time and her head rolled to one side. He leaped to his feet and cried out. “Don’t worry Grandma, I’ll get help. I’ll go get the Doc. He’ll fix you up good. You just rest and I’ll be right back.” Joe ran with tears streaming down his face and he called out over his shoulder. “I’ll be back just as quick as I can.” But before he finished talking, Grandma Jo let go of life.

 

Joe ran the three miles to town just as fast as he could. He knew Grandma Jo was counting on him and he couldn’t let her down.   She had just told him how much she loved him and he knew how much he loved her. His mind was a whirl with worry as the image of her face replay in his memory: it was pale, sweat running down the sides, her eyes closed.   He kept telling himself she would be okay, just as soon as the doctor got there. So he had to keep running. He couldn’t think about the heat. He couldn’t think about being tired. He just had to run. Although Joe made it to town in only 30 minute, it felt like a lifetime to the scared child.   Running at top speed had left Joe exhausted. His muscles were cramping and his body was hot, but as the doctor’s office came into view, Joe felt a renewed vigor and sprinted the last few yards. He took the office stairs two at a time and burst into the office, calling out for the doctor before he was even in the door.

“DOC MARTIN!” Joe yelled. “DOC, WHERE ARE YA?”

Doctor Martin’s assistant hurried into the waiting area to see who was shouting and replied, “Why Little Joe dear, what’s the matter?”

“I need the doc right away! Grandma Jo is sick!” Joe panted.

“Oh, I’m sorry, the Doctor’s not here right now,” she stated calmly, her eyes taking in the agitated child before her. “Are you all right dear? Your face is flushed. Why don’t you come lie down for a while and wait for the doctor? He should be back soon,” she said taking Joe by the arm.

“NO!” Joe yelled jerking his arm away. “Grandma Jo is sick and I gotta get back to her,” he said turning to run out of the office.

“Okay dear, I’ll send the doctor as soon as he gets back,” she called after Joe, shaking her head. She didn’t know what was wrong with Josephine Walters, but her training told her to worry for the boy running at break neck speed down the street. She had felt the heat radiating from his skin when she took his arm and she remembered his flushed face. She and Doctor Martin discussed the signs and symptoms patients would present with when suffering from the heat. She had seen those symptoms in Little Joe. She wished she could have gotten him to stay. Now she sent a quick pray heavenly asking for the doctor’s speedy return.

 

Joe was beside himself to be returning to Grandma Jo’s without the doctor. He knew he had to get back fast and do what he could for her. So he ran. He took no heed to the signals his body was sending him. His legs were cramping, but he ran on determined to help his friend. He was incredibly hot, but hadn’t realized he had stopped sweating. He only knew he had to run, but was getting confused as to why. Finally he approached the house and saw Grandma Jo under the tree and he rushed to her. Not realizing she was gone from this life, Joe collapsed next to her dropping his head onto her lap.

 

As Joe was racing from town, Doctor Martin and Sheriff Coffee returned to town entering from the other direction, chatting amiably and reviewing their day.

“Well Roy as a medical assistant, you make a great Sheriff,” Paul Martin joked.

“Thanks a lot, but I’ll take Sheriffing over Doctoring any day. I tell ya, if I had to drink one more glass of lemonade or eat one more cookie, I’d have busted. In fact, I think I’ll come over the office with you to get something to settle my stomach,” Roy complained.

“Come on old friend. I should have warned you to pace yourself,” Paul laughed.

As the two men climbed the steps to the Doctor’s office, the door flew open startling the tired men.

“Kathleen, what’s wrong?” Doctor Martin asked knowing something was upsetting his normally calm assistant.

“Doctor Martin, Oh thank goodness your back. Little Joe Cartwright was here a short time ago, I tried to get him to wait for you, but he wouldn’t and I’m worried,” she babbled.

“Slow down now Kathleen and tell me all the details,” Paul instructed.

“Well, I was in the other room when Little Joe came in yelling for you. I asked him what was wrong and he said that Grandma Jo, I mean Mrs. Walters, was ill. I told him you were out, but you’d be back soon. And as I got a good look at the child, I tried to get him to wait, but he wouldn’t. He got upset, said he had to get back and ran off. Doctor, that child ran all the way into town from Mrs. Walters house in this heat and left to run all the way back.   That’s three miles each way!!! I don’t think he was at all well. His face was bright red and his skin was hot to the touch and there wasn’t a drop of sweat on him,” the worried nurse explained.

Doctor Martin knew the implications of her description. “Well, I don’t know what’s wrong with Mrs. Walters, but sounds like Joe could be headed for real trouble. How much ice was left after that last stop, Roy?” Doc Martin asked.

“Oh, about a quarter of a block, why?” Roy asked. He didn’t understand the doctor’s concern.

“I’ll explain on the way. We’ve got to hurry out to Josephine’s place. I think Joe’s on his way to a heat stroke and if we don’t get to him quick, it may be to late.”

“A heat stroke, are you sure? You’ve not even seen him.” Roy pushed.

“From what Kathleen said…you heard her, his skin was hot, his face was red and he wasn’t sweating. When we get to him we need to look for a rapid pulse and very high temperature. He may also be acting strangely, confused or angry. He may be dizzy and nauseated and eventually he may lose consciousness. We’ll need to act fast to cool him off. If he’s close to the stream, we need to get him in it as soon as we can, then we can fill Josephine’s washtub with water and the ice. Either way, if it’s bad, we need to move fast. Plus we don’t even know what’s wrong with Josephine either. We could have our hands full.”

“Sounds like it could be bad,” Roy said tentatively as the two rode quickly to Josephine Walters house.

As the two men approached the house they could hear Joe crying and yelling at Grandma Jo to get up.

“That don’t sound like the Little Joe I know, yelling like that at his elders,” Roy stated shaking his head.

“Hurry Roy, He’s acting strangely, it’s a symptom,” Paul said as their worried eyes met.

Joe was stumbling around yelling at Grandma Jo. Paul saw him straighten up from vomiting and collapse again on Grandma Jo.

“Joseph,” he cried out running to the fallen child. As he reached Joe’s side he looked to Josephine Walters and immediately knew there was nothing he could do for her. He was greatly concerned for Joe wondering how long he’d been clinging to the dead woman. But the emotional problems needed to come second to the physical ones. His quick inspection confirmed his fears. Joe was indeed suffering from a severe heat stroke and needed immediate attention.   Doctor Martin stripped off the boy’s clothes, scooped him into his arms and ran toward the stream all the while issuing orders to the stunned Sheriff.

”Roy, Josephine’s gone! There’s nothing we can do for her. But we can save Joe if we hurry.   Now get the washtub and fill it with the ice and cold well water. Call me when your done and we’ll put Joe in it. I’ll be with him in the stream until you’re ready. I’ve got to cool him down or we’ll lose him. Hurry now! Once you’re done, please move Josephine inside we’ll send for the undertaker back as soon as we can move Joe to town,” Paul commanded.

Paul was beyond worry for Joe. The boy’s skin was extremely hot and Paul knew his temperature was very high. He knew they had to cool his body before the intense heat caused brain damage that could take the essence of this boy. As he held the boy in the cooling stream he could feel the first seizure rip through Joe’s body. Soon Roy called out to the Doctor and Paul quickly took the boy to the chilling bath. The men worked diligently to cool Joe, but he remained unconscious and continued to suffer seizures. Once they had brought his temperature down, Paul felt they needed to get Joe back to his office to treat him more efficiently and monitor his progress.

This trip to town was slow and filled with hushed conversation.

“Roy, do you have any idea where Ben and the boys set up that timber camp? We’re going need Ben to help this boy recover as well as deal with Josephine’s passing,” Paul asked quietly.

“Nope, he had said it was way off in the north section and that it’s was hard to explain. He said he’d shown the map to Josephine and Joe in case he was needed. I guess he didn’t figure on neither of ‘em being able to tell anyone.” Roy explained grimly.

“Well we should send some men out to try to find them. He’ll surely want to know about Joe being so sick. As it is he’ll miss Josephine’s funeral, we’re going to have to bury her tomorrow due to this heat,” Paul suggested.

“You’re right, I’ll get some volunteers together to head out and look for Ben. I’ll also get a wire off to Mrs. Walter’s daughter,” Roy offered.

“Good. I’ll plan on keeping Joe at the office. Between you, me and Kathleen we can look after him. It will most likely be a while till he’s up and around,” Paul stated.

“But he will be up and around, thought right?” Roy asked in a worried tone.

“I hope so, Roy. He’s not out of the woods yet and I’m still worried that he may have suffered some brain damage. His temperature was just so high. We’ll just have to wait and see. But the sooner you find Ben, the better I’ll feel. Sometimes I think he can fix things that medicine can’t with that boy,” Paul said.

Once in town, each man set about his tasks. With the help of his assistant Kathleen, Doc Martin settled the still unconscious Joe into bed. His body temperature was still elevated but closer to normal and while the seizures continued they were much less frequent. Kathleen took the first watch at Joe’s side. Doc Martin headed over to the undertakers to make arrangement for Josephine’s funeral. Roy had secured half a dozen volunteers to search out the Cartwright’s timber camp. They agreed to leave at daybreak and camp out if necessary.   Roy returned to the doctor’s office later that evening to check on Little Joe.

“Howdy Doc. How’s Little Joe getting’ on?” Roy asked as he looked over the boy who appeared to be asleep. “Is he sleeping?” he asked hopefully.

“I’m afraid not. He’s slipped into a coma. It could be the body’s way of healing the damage or…” the doctors voice faded.

“Or what?” Roy asked nervously.

“It could be a sign of some permanent damage. We just have to wait till he comes around to be sure,” Paul explained.

“I’ve got some men together. We’re leaving at first light to look for Ben. What should I tell him?” Roy asked, hoping the doctor would want to explain Joe condition.

“Well I’d get him here as quick as you can, but I wouldn’t go into a lot of detail. I’ll handle that,” Paul offered.

Roy sighed with relief. “I’m glad to hear that. But I ain’t lookin’ forward to telling Ben that boy is sick.”

“I’d just let him know it’s serious, but tell him it’s best if I explain it to him. He’ll be upset and probably push you for all the details. Just do your best, Roy. Ben’d be a wreck no matter who tells him,” Paul counseled the sheriff.

“That’s the truth. You want me to sit with Joe for a while. You look like you could use some sleep.” Roy offered.

“That’s alright. You’re the one riding out in the morning; you could do with some rest yourself. Besides, I don’t think Joe will be coming around tonight at least. I’ll grab a few winks in the next room,” Paul said in a tired voice.

“I’ll check back before I leave. Ben’d want the last news of the boy,” Roy said quietly as he stood to leave.

“Thanks for your help today, Roy,” Paul smiled briefly.

“Glad to help. I just hope it was enough, good night,” Roy answered.

 

Joe’s condition was unchanged the next morning and that worried Paul. He hoped for some improvement and prayed for a positive sign to send along to Ben. Roy and his men left all knowing they were at least two days ride for any potential location for the timber camp, then there would be two nerve racking days back. Roy had gone to the ranch last night posting notes on all the doors as to the situation, just in case the Cartwrights returned home before Roy could find them. He had also returned to Josephine Walters house to close up the place and lock the doors. Josephine’s daughter had wired back that she understood the situation and the need for a quick burial. She gave her consent and said she’d travel to Virginia City in a few months to settle her mother’s affairs. So Roy left that morning with all the loose ends tied up and thus able to concentrate on finding the Cartwrights.

 

Life at the timber camp was a sharp contrast to all that had happened in Virginia City.   Good times and good luck were plentiful at this camp. The crew worked together like spokes in a wheel and the project rolled along with unprecedented speed. Ben was overjoyed with efficiency and effort being put forth. He had promised the men a bonus if they finished on time, but just that morning he sweetened the offer adding an additional bonus if they came in ahead of schedule and injury free. Now, if they kept this pace they’d fill the contract in only two more days, an entire three days ahead of schedule. Ben couldn’t remember a project that came together so well and all the Cartwrights marveled at their good fortune and each were quick to offer prayers of thanks.

 

Throughout the next day, Joe remained unconscious, but he had some level of awareness. He could hear voices around him, urging him to wake-up, but it wasn’t his pa or even Grandma Jo.   What’s going on and who’s talking to me while I’m trying to sleep, Joe thought as he slipped back to a deeper level of unconsciousness.

By mid-day, Joe came to recognize the voice calling to him to be that of Doc Martin. He wanted to respond to the Doctor’s pleas to open his eyes, but he just couldn’t muster the energy.   Later, Joe thought, later, too tired now.

 

Doctor Martin and Kathleen spent as much time with Joe as they could, but having spent yesterday out of the office, meant a busy day at the doctor’s office, today. They checked on him between patients, but each time noted no change. But Joe was becoming more alert. While he was still unconscious, his level of awareness was up.   He could hear what was going on around him, but his mind was still foggy. He tried to listen to what was said trying to make sense out of where he was, why he was alone and what had happened. But his mind was muddled…

 

“Is there any change Doctor?” Kathleen asked as she entered the room.

“No,” Paul said sadly. “Have you finished with the last one?” He asked as he continued to check Joe over.

“Yes, and I’ve closed up the office. Do you want me to spend the night here with Little Joe?” she asked.

“No, that’s alright, Kathleen. You’ve had a long day,” the doctor answered.

“Yes, well so have you. In fact, two in a row,” she countered.

“I know, but I’m not encouraged that he’ll be coming around tonight. I’ll sleep in the next room, again,” Paul explained.

“Oh, you don’t see any change then?” she asked again, hoping for more details.

“No, his vitals are the same as they were this morning and I don’t see any signs of consciousness. This is probably the worst heat stroke I’ve treated. As much as I’d like to see him wake up, I’d really like is Pa to be here when he does…” Paul started to explain.

“Oh how come?” Kathleen asked quickly.

“I’m worried how he’ll take the news of Mrs. Walters passing. It might cause a set back in his recovery and I know he’ll need his father’s love and comfort,” Paul answered.

“They were close?” she asked as she stroked Joe’s head.

“Yes. She helped fill the huge gap left when Joe’s mother died. Josephine had a way to make Joe feel special. She really loved this boy,” Paul told Kathleen.

“Poor little thing, it’s really going to come as a shock I’d suppose.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it might seem like he’s losing part of his mother all over again. That’s why I hope Ben gets back from the timber camp before we have to cross that bridge,” Paul stated. “Well he’s all settled for the night, you might as well go…Oh, Kathleen could you stop by Daisy’s and ask her to send me over some dinner?”

“Of course, good night Doctor,” she answered.

Straightening the bed covers, the doctor sighed and spoke to himself. “Well, I guess I should get washed up for my supper,” and he walked out of the room.

 

Joe was alone in the room and alone in his confusing thoughts. His mind was a whirl from all he had just heard. A heat stroke… I just remember running…for Grandma Jo, I did just what everyone said not too… I tired her out…Oh I’m so sorry Grandma Jo. Joe’s mind continued to churn…Where’s Pa? When’s he coming? Oh Pa, I need ya…Grandma Jo’s gone, and just like Sunny…I didn’t do enough to save ‘em.

 

Joe thoughts were running through his mind like a disjointed story. Nothing flowed and he couldn’t focus on anything for very long. He drifted through seemingly unrelated topics…he thought about Grandma Jo, then Sunny, then his mama. He remembered the fun he had with Grandma Jo. Then he dwelled on the last thing she had said to him: ‘Always remember how much I love you Sweet Boy’. He thought about him Mama and how much he loved her still…his thoughts drifted to Sunny and his love for her.

He was disturbed from his thoughts by someone bursting into the doctor’s office. Joe tried to listen to what was happening around him. “Doc,” the intruder shouted as he helped an older man into a chair.

“What is it?” Paul answered as emerged from the other room, his clothes disheveled by sleep. He hurried to the two men.

“Old man Greene here, I think it’s his heart again,” the man explained.

“Quick, bring him in here,” Paul said as he ushered the men into the examination room.

Joe again listened to the exchange and again his thought began to wander from the room to his last encounter with Mr. Green… Joe remembered the time recently when old man Green caught him and his friend Mitch snatching apples out of his tree. He shooed the boys out of the tree with a broom and yelled at them as they ran… “Git outta here you little apple stealin’ brats…you kid’s keep outta my yard…I don’t like kids especially you two, now GIT!” Old man Greene, don’t like me none, he thought.

Again Joe was jarred from his thoughts by voices, so he listened.

“Now Mr. Greene, you’ll be fine. It was just a touch of angina. You take these as I told you and you’ll be fine,” the doctor assured the old man and his friend.

“I done thought I was a goner Doc, thanks for your help, sorry to disturb you so late. Come on Jake, thanks again, doc,” Mr. Greene thanked the Doctor.

“No problem, good night,” Paul as he closed the door behind the men, and then he turned to go check on Joe. The doctor checked on Joe, but failed to notice in the darkened room, the fingers his left hand moving ever so slightly.

As Joe inched closer to consciousness his mind was whirling with thoughts… old man Greene is gonna be fine. Don’t it just figure…mean old man like that…bet he’ll live forever…it’s just not fair. It was an irrational thought, but to a little boy with a foggy mind, it seemed reasonable. Where’s Pa, he thought again. I need Pa…Pa, oh no, what if Pa dies?   No not Pa…I can’t lose Pa too. Joe’s mind was screaming in fear and going in every direction as exhaustion over came him once again and he drifted off to sleep, dreaming of his Pa, but a seed of fear had been planted.       Joe slept lightly; fear of losing his Pa fed nightmares that disturbed his rest. His mind created the nightmares and his body responded as he emerged from his coma…he was uncomfortable, but not in pain and after a while Joe began to shift under the light blankets kicking them off as he turned on his side and fell into a deeper dream free slumber.

Doctor Martin rose with the sun and his first stop was the room where Little Joe lay. He immediately noticed the bedclothes on the floor and the change in Joe’s position and heaved a sigh of relief.   Paul believed the nocturnal movements were a sure sign that Joe was on the road to recovery. The doctor resisted the urge to wake the boy and examine him, knowing sleep was needed to restore the child. He stood grinning at Joe’s bedside as Kathleen entered the room.

“Good morning, Doctor Martin. How is young Joseph this morning? Better?” She asked hopefully, as she picked up the blankets.

“I think so. I think these are a good sign,” he said lifting up a corner of the blanket in her hand.

“He kicked them off?” She asked with a smile.

“Yes, and turned over too. I’m hopeful the worst is behind us now. He seems to be out of the coma and sleeping normally. Let’s leave him to sleep and then when he wakes up, I’ll examine him again. You needn’t stay with him constantly, just keep an eye on him, please and let me know when he wakes up,” Paul explained as he headed toward the outer office.

Joe slept normally the rest of the day and Kathleen found herself picking up the blankets every time she checked the boy. By the end of the day however, Kathleen was worried and she stood with concern etched on her face as Doctor Martin entered the room.

“What’s the matter? Is there a change?” he asked quickly.

“No, he seems the same, but are you still confident that Joe is doing better. I mean he’s been asleep a long time,” she explained her concern.

“He’s been through a lot and his body needed restful sleep. I think his body is working to restore itself and when he’s ready, he’ll wake up. Don’t worry, just yet,” he smiled.

“Just yet?” she repeated curiously.

“The hardest part of your job will start when he does wake up…you’ll be the one that has to keep him in bed until his father gets here,” Paul chuckled.

“Oh fine, you know I’m just one woman…I’ll need an army,” she whispered with a laugh and Doctor Martin joined the quiet laughter.   As the two shared the small laugh and large hopes over the boy, Joe slowly opened his eyes.

“Well, young man, welcome back,” Paul smiled warmly.   “You surely gave us quite a scare. How are you feeling?” He asked fully expected the standard Joe Cartwright answer of ‘Fine’. But Joe answered the doctor’s question, honestly: “Tired, thirsty, and sick.”

“Oh,” Paul said surprised by Joe’s answer. “That’s to be expected, you’ve been very sick and you’ll feel tired and your body sluggish for awhile, but it will pass. Okay? Here’s some water for you.”

“Yes sir,” Joe replied flatly.

Paul put the glass down and reached out laying his hand on Joe’s shoulder and asked gently, “Do you know where you are Joe?”

“Yes sir” came the quiet answer.

“Okay, good,” Paul started, not sure what was going on with this boy. “Well, I’ve sent for your Pa and he should be here soon,” Paul explained, hoping to get a spark from Joe, but when he received no reply asked: “Okay, Joe?”

“Yes sir,” came the standard answer. Kathleen shot questioning eyes toward the doctor who was now wearing a puzzled frown. This was not at all in character for Little Joe Cartwright. They were expecting he would have cried for his father, made dramatic claims of good health, rattled of dozens of questions about Josephine Walters. But these simple, quiet, sullen replies had the doctor concerned.

“Joe, do you have any questions about what happened?” Paul asked hoping to generate a typical Joe type response.

“No sir,” Joe answered, but thought, I know what happened to Grandma Jo and I don’t want to think about that.

“Well Joe, I need to examine you now, and when I’m finished you need to have some broth, all right?” Paul asked, certain this question would make Joe balk. This child hated to be examined and when he was sick he most definitely hated to eat; surely he would put up a fuss. The doctor was again disappointed as Joe replied.

“Yes sir.”

Paul shook his head as he began a very thorough examination of this puzzling boy. The examination proceeded without incident as Joe simply let the doctor do his work. Much the same continued as Kathleen fed the boy his broth. Joe simply laid back and allowed himself to be fed. As Joe finished the last spoonful, his eyes fluttered and sleep beckoned. Once Joe was settled for the night, Paul and Kathleen left him to sleep and stepped into the next room to discuss the concern they both felt now.

“Well, I don’t understand this at all,” Kathleen babbled, “Where’s that little fella we practically have to sit on to examine?” she exclaimed.

“I must admit I’m a bit confused myself. Physically, he seems to be recovering nicely. A few days in bed and he should be good as new, but the way he’s acting…I don’t know, and, well, frankly I’m worried,” Paul said as much to Kathleen as to himself.

“What is it, you think?” She asked tentatively.

“Well, first of all, we say nothing about this anywhere near Joe.   I don’t want to upset or confuse him or worse, for him to try to hide anything from me,” Paul started and Kathleen nodded her understanding and encouraging the doctor to continue with his concerns. “I’m going to spend some more time reviewing my medical books on the subject, but I’m afraid, Joe may have suffered some brain damage as a result of that heat stroke and it may have effected his personality.”

Kathleen gasped, her hand going to her mouth as she asked, “Are you certain?”

“No,” Paul snapped, but then apologized, “I’m sorry Kathleen, but no I’m not certain and I hope I’m wrong. But that boy in there is very different from the Little Joe Cartwright I’m used to treating. Something must have happened and right now that’s the only thing I can think of. Really there is no way to be sure. We’ll just have to keep observing him and trying to draw him out.   One big clue will be how he reacts when his father gets here.”

The two sat in silence for a few minutes as they each thought about the strange turn of events. Just that morning they had been so hopeful, and now there was such worry. Each prayed Ben Cartwright would arrive soon.

 

 

Roy and his men combed the mountains northwest of the Ponderosa. The days on the trail did nothing to ease the tension the seasoned lawman felt.   Roy must have played out over two-dozen different scenarios as to how to explain the situation, but nothing seemed comfortable. He finally figured that he’d just answer the questions Ben would ask…Ben was a smart man and for Roy to show-up in the remote timber camp certainly wouldn’t be for a social call…Ben would figure out that there had been trouble and he’d just answer the man’s questions and fill in the blanks as best he could. Of course, Roy thought, days have past and anything could be happening in the doctor’s office by now…that thought only intensified the sheriff’s concerns.   Roy’s eyes continued to dart around the landscape looking for the subtle clues that would lead him to the camp and finally his found the tell tale signs of a timber operation. As he continued to lope along he could detect the faint smells of Hop Sings cooking.   Thinking this news was best delivered alone he lifted his hand into the air to bring the other searchers to a halt.

“Well boys,” Roy began, “I think we found what we’re lookin’ for. That camp must be just up yonder, and I think I need to go on alone. So thanks for all your help and I’ll see you all back in town.”

Roy expressed his thanks to each man as they turned to head back to Virginia City and finally he was alone. He took a deep breath and urged his horse along, “Well let’s get along fella, I can’t put this off,” and he rode on.

 

The timber camp was alive with celebration. The contract had been filled with days to spare and the Cartwrights and their men were all in high-spirits as they laughed, ate and relaxed by the campfire. Ben was speaking to the men: “…as we all enjoy this feast Hop Sing has prepared for us, Thank you Hop Sing, once again you’ve outdone yourself…”

Ben was drown out by the cheer of the men. Ben smiled and Hop Sing bobbed his head up and down accepting the praise and then he quickly turned and moved over the cook tent, embarrassed by the continued accolades. Ben continued, “You all have worked very hard and I appreciate all your efforts. Just to confirm what we all know, WE HAVE FILLED THE CONTRACT!!!”

Again the men cheered. Adam and Hoss patted each other on the back their faces bright with smiles. Ben held up his hands trying to get the men’s attention, “I have one more thing to say: Thank you, Thank you very much and you’ll each be getting a bonus with your pay.” Again, the men cheered and the laughter continued as Ben made his way over to his two sons. “Well boys, we did it!” Ben clapped each of his sons on their shoulder.

“And with time to spare, too Pa,” Hoss beamed.

“Things couldn’t have gone any better, could they Pa?” Adam stated.

“Really, we had good crews, good leaders…” Ben smiled at his boys as he again reached up from his seat between them and grabbed each son by the back of his neck giving each a warm squeeze. And as he saw Hop Sing approaching with the coffee pot from the corner of his eye, he added, “and the best cook, oh, hello Hop Sing.” Hop Sing smiled as he filled the three cups being held up to him.

“Well boys, tomorrow we can break camp, I’ve already spoken with Del and Will and they will take that last load to the rail head in the morning, and that, my sons, is the end of it! And I’m ready to go home!” Ben explained.

“Me, too,” agreed Hoss. “I’m lookin’ forward to a hot bath and my comfy bed,” he chuckled.

“I second the idea of a hot bath, but I get to go first. Age before beauty, brother, age before beauty.” Adam voiced his opinion with a chuckle.

“Well then by all means, older brother, the tub is all yours,” Hoss said as he tipped his hat to his brother laughing.

Ben joined in the laughter and then added. “Well I guess my bath can wait, I’d like to spend some time with your little brother first.   I’ve missed that little scamp.”

“Good idea Pa, I’ve missed him too!” Hoss stated.

“Well I must admit I’ve missed him too. I’m sure he’ll have plenty of stories to tell about all of his and Grandma Jo’s adventures. We’ll be lucky if he even stops talking to eat.” Adam laughed.

“Well when he’s got a good story to tell you know he won’t take a bite,” Ben agreed.

“I just don’t understand that boy,” Hoss shook his head with a smile. “He’d rather talk than eat, not me, no tale is worth missin’ a good meal!”

“Yes we know!” Ben laughed and Adam joined in and soon all three were laughing wholeheartedly.   Not that the comment was all that funny, but the mood was good and each was enjoying himself and at first the Cartwrights didn’t see Roy Coffee as he rode up to the campfire.

Finally Adam noticed the sheriff as he dismounted.

“Welcome Roy, come, join us for a cup of coffee,” Adam reached out to shake the sheriff’s hand, momentarily not realizing how odd it was that Roy just rode into camp.

Ben looked over as Adam spoke, “Roy, what in heaven’s name are you doing way out here?” he asked lightly, and then quickly sobered. “What’s happened? Is it Joseph?” He demanded.

Roy held his hand out to accept the cup Adam was offering. “Thanks for the coffee, Adam. I’ve been on the trail lookin’ for you folks for a few days now. Some of Hop Sings good coffee would surely hit the spot,” Roy started only to be cut off as Hoss asked.

“You’ve been lookin’ for us for days? Why’d ya do that, Joe knows where abouts we were gonna be, Grandma Jo did too,” Hoss wondered out loud, looking questioningly to his father. Ben and Adam shared a look, both understanding the unspoken message Roy had delivered: Something had happened and neither Joe nor Josephine could tell where the camp was.

“Roy, please, what’s wrong?” Ben pleaded.

“Ben,” Roy began, “I’m sorry to tell you, but Mrs. Walters passed away the day before I came lookin’ for you.”

“Oh no,” Ben sighed. “What happened?”

“Doc thinks it was a combination of things, the heat for one, you know it’s been terribly hot and of course her age. She was getting along in years. Those two things together and well, it was just her time,” Roy explained.

“And I added to her load by leaving Joseph with her,” Ben spoke quietly, his voice full of grief and self reproach.

“Now Ben, Paul knew you’d feel that way and told me to tell ya not to take this on yourself. Josephine would have been awful mad if you’d have left Joe with anyone else and you know it. As it was, her last days were full of happiness since she spent them with Joe. She loved that boy,” Roy tried to offer some comfort.

“Pa, Roy’s right. Josephine loved spending time with Joe and she must have enjoyed this past week,” Adam added, hoping to console his father.

“Oh poor Joe, was he with her at the end,” Ben asked, his eyes full of sadness.

“He must be powerful upset,” Hoss suggested. “Is that why he could tell ya where we were, he was just too upset to remember?”

“Roy?” Adam questions sensing there was more to the story and it wasn’t good.

”Ben, lets sit here by the fire, there’s more I got to tell you,” Roy stated sympathetically.

“What is it Roy? Joseph is taking Josephine’s death hard, isn’t he? Has he been causing trouble?” Who’s he been staying with all this time?” Ben rattled off questions at Roy while holding him in his gaze trying to gauge his response.

Roy started: “Ben, boys, the day Josephine took sick was the hottest day we’d had. In fact, the Doc and me was toting ice around checking on folks, just to make sure they was holding up okay in the heat. It’s funny now that I think on it, we were gonna head out to Mrs. Walters’s place after checkin’ in at Doc’s office.”

Adam was getting impatient and pressed Roy to continue, “Get to the point Roy.”

“I will Adam, I just wanna make sure you get the whole story, now,” Roy explained.

“Adam please,” Ben cautioned his eldest. “Let Roy continue.”

“Thanks, Ben. As I was sayin’, we weren’t in town, but Kathleen told us that Joe came running into the office looking for the Doc, cause Mrs. Walters was sick. He wouldn’t wait on the Doc, just yelled that he had to get back and high-tailed out of the office. Well we got back some time later and Kathleen told us about Joe’s visit and that she was worried about the boy.” Roy paused to catch his breath and Hoss jumped in with a question.

“She was worried about Joe? You just told us it was Grandma Jo who was sick, why’d she be worried about Joe?” Hoss asked, confused.

Roy started again as he gently explained, “Joe ran those three miles to town, in the heat and he wasn’t holding up to well, then it looks like he ran all the way back.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged as he began to understand the point of Roy’s story. “Go on Roy, let’s hear it all.” Ben said with a sigh.

“Well, by time we got the message and got out to Mrs. Walters’s place, she was gone and Joe was in a bad way,” Roy explained as he saw each man brace himself for the next part of the story. “Paul called some kind of heat sickness or sunstroke. Joe was out of his head yellin’ at Mrs. Walters to get up, talkin’ crazy. We could hear him before we even got in the yard. Paul said that was part of the sunstroke. By time we got to him he had collapsed. Ben, his skin was burning hot. Paul grabbed him up and put him in the creek and I got an ice bath ready. We did all we could…” Roy was talking steadily, but was quickly interrupted.

“He’s not, you don’t mean, he’s…he’s…” Hoss was all but choking on the question he was desperate to ask. Ben had reached out and clasped each of his son’s arms, to steady them all for the answer.

“NO!” Roy all but shouted quickly to remove that fear. “No, Ben, he’s still alive…” Roy paused looked into Ben’s fearful eyes and added, “at least he was when I left. And really he could be fine now, just fine,” he tried to reassure them.

“Or he could be gone, you don’t know do you?” Adam pressed, apprehensively.

“No, Adam I don’t know. Joe was still unconscious when I left, but he wasn’t any worse than when we found him and that must be good.” Roy tried to sound upbeat, but he really had no answers for the stunned family.

“We have to get to Joe,” Ben announced and began to issue orders. “Hoss, gather our gear and get the horses ready. Adam, you explain things briefly to Del and Will and leave one of them in charge. I’ll tell Hop Sing what’s happening. Roy, we’ll be ready to ride in half an hour.”

The ride to Virginia City was fast and somber. Roy continued to fill in the gaps of his story and answer questions the best he could. Finally an uneasy silence fell over the group after Roy again tried to assure the Cartwrights that everything would be okay.

None of them believed Roy’s words of comfort. How could it be okay, Ben thought. Roy’s entire story pointed to just the opposite of okay…it pointed to disaster. The only way to put these fears to rest was to see Joseph and with that thought he urged his horse faster.

 

The haggard group pulled their horses up outside the Doctor’s office and hurried inside with a silent prayer.

“Paul, Paul!?!?” Ben shouted as he opened the door.

“Ben, Adam Hoss, I’m so glad you’re here.” Paul answered as he rushed to greet the anxious group.

“Is Joseph alright?” It was a question from Ben’s lip and a prayer to heaven above. “Where is he?” He added.

“He’s doing much better, Ben” came Paul’s quick response. Four audible sighs were heard in the room.

“Oh, thank heavens, thank the Lord,” Ben exclaimed. “You can’t believe the thoughts that were running through my mind on my way here,” Ben smiled as he explained. He saw Adam and Hoss nodding in agreement.

“Yes, I can my friend. I ran that same gamut just a few days ago myself,” Paul admitted and was about to continue when Ben asked.

“Can we see him? He must be driving you crazy wanting to know when we’d get here and when he can go home,” Ben offered apologetically.

“Of course you can see him, for a moment,” Paul answered the family as he was moving to the room where Joe was and he continued to speak: “But…” The men stopped and turned to stare at the doctor, the joy of the moment leaving and fear returning.

“But?” Adam questioned as he raised one eyebrow. Ben and Hoss stood stunned again, their emotions rolling up and down.

“As I said, he is doing better, physically, but there are still some issues. Why don’t you all go see him? Let him know you’re here, and then we’ll talk. Please don’t make a fuss or be visibly alarmed by anything he says or does. Just be positive and upbeat and I’ll try to explain what’s going on after you’ve seen him.”

”What are you talkin’ about Doc? What’s he gonna do?” Hoss asked alarmed by these odd instructions.

“I’m not sure Hoss, I just don’t want any of you to draw any attention to what you might perceive as odd behavior,” Paul tried to explain.

“Come on boys, lets see your brother,” Ben said with a weak smile as he locked concerned eyes with Adam.

 

Joe was sleeping lightly as Ben approached him and gently stroked his hair. “Joseph, son, can you hear me? Pa’s here now.”

Joe stirred as his father’s voice reached through his sleep. He had wanted his father desperately, but now with his Pa so close, fear seized his heart and clouded his mind. Too much had happened, too many questions tormented his thoughts, there was just too much to deal with to think clearly, but he wanted to see his father, so he slowly opened his eyes.

Seeing Joe awake, Ben smiled warmly and sat on the edge of the bed. He opened his arms to his child wanting him to sit up into an embrace as he spoke. “Well hello young man,” Ben crooned softly.   But Joe didn’t move and he didn’t respond.

Ben was stunned when his normally emotional and physical child didn’t rush to him…but he remembered what the doctor had told them. He shared a quick glance at Adam and Hoss and changed his approach. He gathered his arms back to himself and quickly moved to pick up Joe’s hand. He held the hand tenderly and massaged it lightly. Still Joe didn’t respond. After a moment of awkward silence, Ben spoke gently and apologetically to his youngest, “Son, I’m sorry it took us so long to get here. I understand you’ve had a rough time of it, but how are you feeling now?”

Finally Joe answered. “Tired and have a headache. Gonna sleep now.” And with that Joe withdrew his hand from his father, turned on his side and closed his eyes.

Feeling as though they had been dismissed, the elder Cartwrights were shocked and each watched Joe as he tried to sleep and shut them out. Finally Hoss spoke to cut the tension, “Okay Shortshanks, you rest now and we’ll see you later, right Adam.”

“Sure thing. We’re all here now Joe, so you just take it easy,” Adam tried to sound upbeat.

Doctor Martin had stood quietly in the doorway to watch for Joe’s reactions to his family. As the scene came to a close, he sadly shook his head. He had drawn his conclusions as to what was happening with Joe. As the Cartwrights moved to the door, Doc Martin motioned with his head for them to follow him into the office.

“Well gentlemen, that’s what I was talking about. I didn’t want to say anything before you saw Joe. I was hoping that seeing you all would draw him out some.   Sit down, Ben, boys, let’s talk. How much did Roy tell you?

Seeing that Ben was still stunned by the odd reunion with his baby, Adam answered the doctor. “He told us Joe had a sunstroke and that he was unconscious when he left. He also told about how you found the boy.”

Nodding his head in agreement, Paul began “Joe was in desperate condition when we found him. Thank God we got to him when we did, any longer and we surely would have lost him.” Paul noticed all eyes glued to him as he continued. “His temperature was extremely high, and we did all we could as quickly as possible to cool him off. But,” he paused to take a deep breath and the sound of the doctor inhaling was ear shattering as all the others held their breath. “…but I don’t think it was enough.”

A tear rolled down Ben’s face, and he chewed his lip as he heard Hoss asking questions.

“Whatcha talkin’ about doc? How can it not be enough? Joe’s alive and well?”

There was an awkward silence as Hoss’s question rang in each man’s ears.

Adam rested his hand on his father’s shoulder as he asked, “But he’s not well, is he, Paul?”

“I don’t think so.   He was unconscious and in a coma for a long time and when he finally came around he was acting very strangely. He spoke very little, only answering direct questions. He seems very different from the Joe Cartwright we all know and love. He readily admitted to feeling unwell. He never asked about Josephine or what happened. But oddest of all is he never asked for you Ben. I was hoping this was a manifestation of all that’s happened and once you all arrived he would respond to you. But as we all saw that didn’t happen.”

Finally, Ben found the composure to speak. “So what are we dealing with, Paul?”

“Ben, I’m so sorry, but all the medical literature points to the same thing. I think Joe has suffered some brain damage from the heatstroke and it appears to be affecting his personality. Obviously, he’s not the same boy he was a week ago.” Paul explained.

Hoss dropped his head in his hands. His mind was racing…how could things change so quickly. Just this morning he, Adam and Pa were happy and laughing, basking in the joy a job well done and now their world had turned upside down.   He was shaken from his thoughts by Adam’s voice.

“Have you had him up and around? Can you tell if anything else is affected? Is it just his personality or is his intelligence damaged?” Adam pressed.

“I really don’t know all the answers here Adam. I was holding out hope that this behavior was the result of shock from the events. Clearly now that doesn’t seem so. He must have been with Josephine when she became ill. I don’t know if he was with her when she died or what happened. As far as other damage, I don’t know. I haven’t done further tests with him. Physically, I let him take the lead as to what he felt up to. And honestly, that’s been nothing. He’s not asked to get up or to go home, nothing. He’s been forthright with his symptoms. When I ask how he’s feeling, he tells me specifically.”

“So how long’s he gonna be this way, doc? When’s he gonna get better?” Hoss asked innocently, hoping that someday this would all be behind them.

“Oh son,” Ben sobbed, pulling Hoss to him, “he’s not going to get better.”

“What?” Hoss shouted in shock.

“Hoss, the sunstroke damaged Joe’s mind…his personality. That means the way he does things, faces things…his outlook on the world it’s all different, he’s different, he’ll seem like a different person,” Paul tried to explain.

“Can’t we just teach him stuff over again? Ya know teach him how he was?” Hoss asked.

“Hoss, don’t you see, how do you teach someone when to giggle, to be mischievous, to run when they should walk, to be loving, to be a light…to be Joe,” Adam said as he squeezed his father’s shoulder. The look on Hoss’ face revealed his horrified understanding of the situation.

Tears continued to roll down Ben’s face as he tried to listen to the questions and the explanations. But all he could think about was how much he loved Joe…would this change that love? He wondered and immediately knew the answer: NO! Joe was his son; his baby and he would love him no matter what the future held. Snapping back to the conversation at hand, Ben could hear Adam questioning the Doctor.

“So should we test him Paul? Check his intelligence, maybe his memory?” Adam quizzed.

Before Paul could answer, Ben spoke up. “It doesn’t matter, not now any way.”

“But Pa, we have to know. We should have Paul make some test right away, so we know what we’re faced with,” Adam presented his case to his father.

“Why? Would it change how you feel about your brother?” Ben asked softly.

“No, of course not,” Adam responded.

“So as I said it doesn’t matter. Joseph is my son and I love him no matter how smart he is or how much he responds to my love. And if he doesn’t respond then I’ll love him enough for both of us. You can test him all you want Paul, later. Right now I want to take my son home. I don’t care if I have to take care of him for the rest of my life, if he needs me then I’ll do it,” Ben declared firmly then turned to Paul. “When can we take Joseph home, Paul?”

“Well, as I said, physically he is doing very well. I think he can go home whenever you are ready to take him. You should probably rent a wagon, I’ll loan you a mattress and bedding to make him comfortable,” Paul offered.

“Hoss you go see about getting what we’ll need. Adam will you help me get Joseph ready,” Ben directed, hoping that having Adam help will reassure his eldest son that this was the right thing to do.

“Okay Pa, I’ll be right back,” Hoss called to his father as Ben moved into Joe’s room. “Ya’ll right Adam?” Hoss asked as he turned concerned eyes to his older brother.

“Sure Hoss. Pa’s right. We all love that little guy no matter what and whatever’s wrong with him, he’ll surely do better dealing with it at home.” Both brothers shared a slight smile before they moved to their assigned tasks.

Adam entered to room to see his father begin to try and wake Joe. At the first touch to his shoulder, Joe’s eyes snapped open.   Adam sadly shook his head, not even that’s the same, it should take a good 20 minute battle to rouse that boy from sleep, he thought.

“Well young man, the doctor says you are free to head home,” Ben offered cheerfully. Getting no response except a penetrating stare, Ben pressed on, but began to understand just how different dealing with this new Joe would be. “Well, I for one, am anxious to get home, so let’s get you dressed and ready and by then Hoss should be here with a wagon. Is that alright with you son?”

“Yes,” came the clipped response from Joe.

 

Before leaving the Doctor’s office, Paul provided instructions for Joe’s care.  ”Let him sleep as much as he needs to, Ben. Then try to return him to the routine of the ranch…his chores and other normal activities. But don’t overdo…take your cues from his behavior and how he seems to be coping. And, old friend, as hard as it will be, try not to dwell on the changes, just accept him as he is. I’ll be out in a few days to check him over.”

“Do you expect any improvements,” Ben asked trying to keep the hope from his voice.

“No, I’m sorry Ben, but no I don’t,” Paul, replied sadly.

Hoss came in at the point and announced they were ready to go.

“I’ll see you soon, Ben,” the doctor stated. Ben inhaled deeply as he turned and left the doctors office.

The ride to the Ponderosa was quite and solemn. Joe said nothing and that alone was the greatest oddity. None of the elder Cartwrights could remember trip to or from Virginia City where Joe didn’t talk their ears off. And now the silence was a grim reminder of all that had changed so quickly. Hoss wanted to start a conversation with his baby brother, be he didn’t know what to say to him, but anxious to break the silence, he started with his father. “Pa when do you think Hop Sing will be home? I betcha Shortshanks is hankerin’ for some of his fried chicken, ah little brother?”

Joe stared at Hoss and paused before answering, “No,” came the flat response.

Hoss pressed his lips together hard and turned sad eyes to his father. Ben offered him a warm smile but it did little to comfort the teenager who was feeling as if he’d lost his best friend.

Adam tried next to fill the silence. “Well no matter what we eat, we sure have plenty of stories for you Joe. I bet your itching to hear every detail from the timber camp, aren’t you?”

“No,” was Joe’s clipped response.

That one word was too much for Hoss, as a tear slipped down his face. Hoss thought about what the old Joe would have been doing…he would have pumped them for every detail of the timber camp, but this new Joe didn’t want to know anything. And the more he thought about Joe the more upset he became until he finally turned tear filled eyes to his father. “Pa?” Hoss asked in a cracking voice. “Mind if I ride on ahead and get a start on the chores, they must be pilin’ up.”

“Go on son, we’ll be there soon,” Ben answered gently. He knew Hoss was having a hard time dealing with the ‘new’ Joe and hoped some time alone would give Hoss a chance to accept the situation.

_________________________________

 

Life at the Ponderosa was strained. Ben tried valiantly to ease his sons back into their comfortable routine but it was a struggle. He just didn’t know how to deal with Joe.   He seemed to be the antithesis of himself. The boy was quiet, only spoke when spoken too, and then his answers were typically one short, clipped word. His promptly did as he was told, without argument. He was up early. His room was neat as a pin. He kept to himself, physically…not hugging or touching anyone. And then there was the staring. Ben was reluctant to leave Joe alone, so he made sure someone was always with him. But whoever watched over the boy was subject to relentless, boring into the soul, unnerving staring.

It was that first day back at the ranch when Ben first noticed the staring. He had kept Joe home with him that day and each time he glanced up from his reading to check on his son he would find Joe staring at him. Ben then remembered what had happened that morning:

Ben woke early and went to check on his youngest and was alarmed to find his bed not only empty, but perfectly made and the room spotless. Quickly, Ben headed down the hall, calling for Hop Sing.

“Hop Sing, Hop Sing?!” Ben called from the top of the stairs.

“Why you yell? What you want?” The little cook scolded, as he hurried up the stairs.

“Joseph’s not in his room. Have you seen him?” Ben asked anxiously as he scanned the room below. He visibly relaxed as he followed Hop Sing’s point to the table.

“Oh, there he is. What’s he doing? Has he been there long?” Ben asked concern evident in his voice.

“Boy just sit and stare at Hop Sing. Watch all time. Boy sitting at table in dark when Hop Sing get up. Not right…just not right,” Hop Sing sadly shook his head as he turned back toward the kitchen.

Ben took a deep breath and fixed a smile to his face as he went to greet his son.

“Well good morning, Joseph, it’s nice to see you up and dressed so early.” There was no response, so Ben continued, “I know you’re feeling fine, but I want you to take it easy today and stay inside.   I don’t want you to get too hot. Remember, Paul told us could easily overheated again, so take it easy, all right? Son?” Ben knew Joe hated being told to follow doctor’s orders and he was hoping for a spark of defiance from Joe. It was not to be.

“Yes,” came Joe’s passive replied.

 

Ben returned to the moment, and glanced again at Joe, who still sat staring at him. With a deep sigh and shake of his head, Ben returned to his book, and out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Joe make a small smile.   Ben’s brow furrowed as he read the same paragraph over and over as his mind wandered around the same questions: What’s going on with this staring and did Joseph smile? He vowed to discuss these latest developments with Doctor Martin during his next visit.

 

A pall seemed to settle over the house. The changes in Joe’s behavior brought a change to the atmosphere at the Ponderosa.   Joe’s constant staring was starting to take its toll on the family, especially Hoss. It was just unsettling to have someone intently watching your every move. Finally, one morning as Hoss and Little Joe sat together at the table waiting for breakfast, Hoss snapped. “Dadburnit, Little Joe, quit staring at me. You’re givin’ me the creeps watching me all the time. Now just quit it!” he shouted as the stood and leaned across the table.   Joe just sat and continued to stare at Hoss as he yelled apparently unphased by the outburst. Adam hurried from the kitchen with his coffee as he heard the yelling and tried to calm his brother. “Hoss, come on. Yelling at him won’t help.”

“JUST QUIT IT NOW JOE!!!! Hoss bellowed again.

Hoss continued to breath hard in anger leaning over the table towering over Joe as Adam reached out and gently took hold of his arm, “Hoss, Hoss you’re yelling at Joe.” He said calmly.

“What?” Hoss asked as he turned and broke eye contact with Joe.

“I said, you’re yelling at Little Joe.” Adam repeated.

“Oh,” Hoss said sheepishly as he plopped down into his chair and continued in a regretful tone, “Well … I’m sorry ‘bout that, …but…gosh Adam…I just….”

“I know, buddy, I know.” Adam agreed sadly, understanding Hoss’ outburst and his guilt for being upset with their little brother…for he was struggling with those feelings, too.

Ben sighed deeply as he heard the exchange. His heart was aching for his sons and he just didn’t know how to help them.   He continued toward the table and looked to Joe to send him outside for a moment, when he saw it again…the slight smile. Ben was confused by Joe’s response to being yelled at, it was another instance of a completely opposite reaction Ben thought…Joe should be upset by being yelled at by his beloved brother, yet here he was nearly smiling. Again Ben vowed to talk to Dr. Martin, as he approached Joe.   “Joseph, please go bring in some wood for Hop Sing.”

Wordlessly, Joe left the table to do as he was told. Ben turned his attention to his other sons. “Hoss, are you alright, son?”

“Ya, Pa I’m fine.” Hoss tried to explain himself. “I’m sorry I yelled at Joe. Its just, well, you won’t get mad will ya Pa?”

“Of course not son. I know this is a hard time for all of us. You can say your peace,” Ben said patiently, though he dreaded what his son might say.

“Well, I love Little Joe, you know that, it’s just…well I reckon, I just don’t like him much right now. I mean he stares at me all the time and it gives me the creeps. He don’t talk, he won’t play checkers or nothing anymore…it’s like he’s not Joe no more and I miss him,” Hoss poured his heart out to his father and older brother.

“Oh, Hoss, I’m so sorry son. I know this is hard and I’m struggling with this too. We just have to keep trying to find our way. It will get easier, I promise.” Ben tried to console is son with a promise he prayed he could keep, as Joe returned to the dining room.

“Thank you for getting that wood for Hop Sing, Joe. Now come sit down for breakfast. Your brothers and I were just about to discuss the plans for today. And, I think we all have an easy day coming to us. Let’s get the morning chores done, boys, then we can all head down to the lake for a picnic and some fun. How does that sound boys?”

“Hot diggitty! That sounds great Pa,” Hoss exclaimed, “Ya hear that Shortshanks, a picnic! Sounds like fun huh?”

“Fine,” was the standard reply from Joe.

_______________________________________________

 

“How was picnic, Mista Cartwright? Where are boys?” Hop Sing asked as Ben carried the basket into the kitchen. “They are tending to the horses,” Ben answered, purposefully avoiding the first question. But the sad countenance did not go unnoticed by Hop Sing. “Picnic not go good?” He asked.

“It was fine,” Ben said, then smiled a sad little smile, “I sound like Joe, don’t I? But it was fine. The boys did some fishing and had a bit of a swim.” Ben explained further.

“Boys?” Hop Sing questioned, but knowing the answer.

Sighing Ben answered, “Well Adam and Hoss anyway. Joe didn’t even watch his brothers he just sat and stared at me the whole time. I tried to get him to sit with me to watch the boys or go for a walk but he just said no and continued to stare at me. Like Hoss said this morning…it was rather creepy.” Again Ben sighed deeply.

“There more on mind?” Hop Sing gently pushed knowing his boss needed a friend.

“Yes…” Ben paused and Hop Sing thought Ben face reflected something he’d never seen before…it was hopelessness. Ben continued, his voice straining with emotion, “I realized this afternoon that I’ve been telling the boys that we needed time and that things would get easier, that things would get better. But now…, now I’m not sure that I believe that. I mean in the past when any of the boys were sick or injured, I knew that if I were patient, followed the doctors orders that they would recover…I’ve always had hope. But this time, I’m lost. There are no orders to follow. No matter how patient I am, time won’t heal my son and I don’t know what to do. I don’t understand what he needs, I don’t know if he’s happy. The only time he even changes expressions is when someone get frustrated with him or is yelling at him…. I just don’t know…He won’t talk about what happened to Josephine, he won’t talk about anything for that matter. One-word answers…that’s all I get. Oh I can’t help but blame myself for what’s happened. If I’d only taken Joseph with us, or left him his horse then he wouldn’t have run to town…I don’t know…” Ben paused and inhaled a long breath before he continued. “I’m sorry Hop Sing. I didn’t mean to burden you with all this.”

“Hop Sing not mind and understand. Know sometimes it feel better just too talk. Hop Sing always listen. But all this not your fault. Just happen. You not know Missy Josephine to die, can’t blame self. Only wish could do something to help Little Joe and family,” Hop Sing said.

“Me too, my friend, me too. Well, I’m awfully tired. Would you tell the boys I’ve gone off to bed?” Ben asked.

“What about supper?” Hop Sing asked.

“Not tonight Hop Sing. Just tell the boys for me. Good night,” Ben stated, his voice laden with emotion and regret. Hop Sing nodded knowing Ben needed some time alone.

 

Hop Sing was setting the table as Adam entered the house.   “Supper ready soon. Where brothers?” Hop Sing asked.

“They’re still in the barn doing some chores, they’ll be in soon. Where’s Pa?” Adam asked.

“Father tired, said to tell you, he going to bed. He blame self for all the wrong with Little Joe,” Hop Sing offered.

“I know,” Adam said sadly. “We’ve talked some about it and in his head he knows it’s not his fault, but he can’t look at the kid without tearing his heart out. It’s easy to say things will get easier, but living it day to day is turning out to be a lot harder,” Adam added.

“Yes,” Hop Sing softly agreed, then asked remembering what had happened that morning, “Mista Hoss okay with Little Joe helping.”

“I think so, Hop Sing. He still feels bad about yelling at him this morning and is trying to make up for it.”

 

About an hour later Hoss came in the front door with Little Joe at his heals. “We’re done Adam. When’s supper?” Hoss asked.

Adam, who was sitting in his favorite chair reading when his brothers came in looked up slowly and said, “Well Hop Sing said ‘soon’ about an hour ago, so I’d say soon.”

“Ha ha, very funny, we’re hungry, ain’t we Joe? Hoss grumbled jokingly. And Joe said nothing, but he was looking around the room. Hoss noticed his little brother’s searching eyes and asked the question he knew Joe wanted the answer to. “Hey, where’s Pa?”

Adam relayed the information give to him, “He said he was tired and went off to bed.”

Joe started to shake as the digested the words Adam said. Tired word raced through his mind, Pa was tired, it just couldn’t be…how could that be…Grandma Jo said she was tired…Joe’s mind was a whirl until finally he screamed out his terror and frustration: “NO…NO, NO, NO!!!!!” Joe burst out in full emotional fury and his brothers stood completely shocked. Adam and Hoss were both on their feet and staring in shock at their little brother as Joe ranted and raved and took apart the room. “HE CAN’T BE TIRED!!!” Joe screamed as he drew his arm along the credenza pushing everything: hats, gun belts, jackets and statues to the floor. “DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD I’VE TRIED?…. I TRIED AND I TRIED, EVERY DAY, EVERY MINUTE, ALWAYS ON GUARD, ALWAYS, EVERY SECOND…” Joe continued ranting at the top of his lungs, waving his arms and stomping his feet. And to his stunned brothers he was making no sense.

“BUT I CAN’T DO IT…I CAN’T AND NOW HE’S TIRED! PA’S TIRED!! IT’S MY FAULT; IT’S ALL MY FAULT. IT’S ALWAYS MY FAULT…OH GOD WHY? WHY? WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING…WHAT MORE CAN I DO?

Adam and Hoss looked at each other stunned. Adam recovered first and tried to calm his brother. “Joseph, calm down now boy, let’s calm down and talk this over…everything’s going to be alright.”

“ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT…HOW CAN EVERYTHING BE ALRIGHT? IT’S NOT GONNA BE ALRIGHT. DON’T YOU KNOW?! ADAM, DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENED? OH WHY? WHY?” Joe continued to scream as tears streamed down his face.

“No, I don’t know Joe, please tell me, pl…,” Adam tried to reason with his brother and was cut off as Ben raced down the stairs bellowing: “What in heavens name is going on down here?”

Joe went ghost white as he stared in shock at his father who now stood at the base of the stairs. “Pa,” Joe croaked out in a whisper and then crumbled to the floor in a faint.

“Joseph!” Ben cried as he crossed the distance to his son in three long steps.

“Hoss, go for the doctor.”

“Right away, Pa. I’ll go fast,” Hoss call over his shoulder, as he pulled open the door.

Ben cradled Joe as he sat on the floor with his youngest and spoke in hushed tones to his oldest. “Adam, what happened?”

Shaking his head in confusion, Adam replied, “I’m not sure Pa…Hoss asked me where you were and I told him what Hop Sing had told me that you were tired and gone off to bed. That’s when Joe exploded. He started screaming ‘no’ over and over. He cleared the side board and was screaming gibberish.”

“What was he saying?” Ben pressed for details as he continued to hold Joe tightly.

“He was going on and on about you being tired and how hard he tried, that everything was his fault, then why something keeps happening…I told him to calm down that everything would be alright. Then he went off again saying that I didn’t know and then just why, why why…then he saw you and just froze and you saw the rest,” Adam concluded with a sign, then asked, “What do you think is going on with him, Pa?”

“I don’t know,” Ben said with a shake of his head. “Let’s get him upstairs to bed and try to bring him around. Hopefully he’ll be calm enough to talk to me.”

________________________________

 

“Joseph, Joseph son, its Pa. It’s time to wake up now son, I want to talk with you,” Ben urged gently.

Slowly Joe opened his eyes and locked onto his father’s face. As he stared at his father the tears came and started to roll down his face. Joe took a shaky hand and touched his father’s cheek and sobbed: “Oh Pa, please, please don’t die. I’ll try harder, I promise.”   Ben shot a confused look across the room to Adam, who just silently shook his head, to indicate he didn’t understand what Joe was talking about either.

“Oh Joseph, I’m not dying, son,” Ben tried to explain.

“Yes, yes you are, I know it. I thought you already had,” Joe cried pitifully as sobs shook his small body.

“Well as you can see I haven’t and I’m not going to any time soon. Do you understand me?” Ben asked gently. Joe shook his head and continued to cry. “What, son? Why do you think I’m dying?”

“Because,” Joe exclaimed his voice rising in fear. “Everyone does…Momma, Sunny, Grandma Jo, and you were tired. And…” his voice trailed off…he couldn’t tell his father why it was his fault.

“Oh Joseph, just because I was tired doesn’t mean I’m going to die. Look at me Joe, I’m okay, really.”

Joe still just shook his head. He knew it was his fault and his father was the one who didn’t understand.

“Joe?”

“No Pa, No…it’s my fault, but I can try harder, I will, I will,” he shook as he cried, completely inconsolable.

“Try harder at what, son?” Ben was desperate to get to the bottom of Joe’s problems.

But Joe couldn’t talk any more; he was too upset to speak. All the emotions he’d kept bottled inside for so long was pouring out in sobs and he was hysterical.

 

 

Ben sat and held Joe for quite a while as he cried his heart out. The child was completely overwrought and his emotions were raw. Ben prayed the doctor would come soon he knew his son needed a sedative to calm down. Adam had slipped from the room and waited downstairs for Hoss to return with the Doctor. A short time later, Paul and Hoss burst into the room.

“Adam, how’s Joe?” Hoss asked anxiously.

“He’s terribly upset, and he did some talking to Pa, none of which made much sense to us, but it was sentences.   I think he’s all right. Really, Hoss, fine.   Paul, let me explain all that’s happened.”

Adam explained to Paul and Hoss all that transpired between Joe and Ben and also filled in the gaps as to what brought on Joe’s explosion. “So it looks like he’s got something cooking in his head and I think he’s been stewing over it this entire time, but we have no idea what it could be. Quite possibly it’s about Josephine. But, it looks like his mind is fine, Paul. You’d better go up, Joe needs something to calm him down and let him rest. He’s drained, but too upset to sleep,” Adam explained.

 

“I’ll go settle your brother, then I’ll bring your father down, I think we need to discuss what’s been going on with Joe and see if we can figure out how best to help him. But from what you’ve has told me it sounds like I was way off the mark with my diagnosis. Thank God.” Paul breathed a sigh of relief. “What a wonderful relief,” Paul continued. “Let’s go up and check him over,” Paul added as he started up the stairs.

Hoss was beaming with joy, but double checked with Adam. “Are ya sure Adam, he’s fine? Thinking good and all?”

“Well you saw him too, Hoss. He was talking well shouting, up a storm and then what I saw between him and Pa, well there is a lot more to talk about and I think he’s holding back what ever happened to Josephine, but I think he’ll be all right, this was the sort of emotional outburst I’d have expected from the old Joe.   I think we’ve all suffered through a huge misunderstanding. Leave it to Joe, this could only happen with him,” Adam shook his head.

“Hot digitty, we’re getting our Joe back. It’s like a miracle!!!” Hoss exclaimed as he and Adam climbed the stairs behind Doctor Martin.

Paul headed to Joe’s room reviewing in his mind the events that led him to his diagnosis: Perhaps I only saw what I was looking for…I was anticipating brain damage so that’s what I saw…I should know better when treating this boy, that nothing is black and white…there is always a huge gray area.

 

Paul could hear Joe as he walked down the hall and Ben’s face as he entered the room said it all. “Oh Thank God you’re here. Joe’s been sobbing his heart out now for nearly two hours. I can’t calm him down,” Ben said wearily over the crying.

“I can see that. Adam told me we’ve had a breakthrough of sorts. He looks exhausted. Let me mix him a light sleeping powder and see if that doesn’t settle him,” Paul explained and then mouthed to Ben: Then we can talk. Ben nodded his understanding.

_______________________________

 

“So how’d ya explain all the odd stuff he’s been doing? That starin’ at us all the time and not talkin’ much?”   Hoss asked, starting the conversation bluntly.

“I’d imagine he’s been having trouble dealing with what happened to Josephine. It must have been very traumatic and if he was with her when she died, well that could explain a lot,” Paul started to explain and then Ben jumped in, “and he couldn’t express what he was feeling and we all know how that boy can work up a fret. Lord knows what his mind cooked up and it seems the longer it went on the more upset he was making himself. I think he’s making himself sick,” Ben offered sadly understanding Joe’s physical pain, as his stomach churned, as he thought of all his son had suffered.

“Has he told you anything about Josephine’s death?”   Paul asked gently. “Perhaps something that happened this afternoon that stirred up a memory for him,” he added with a small shrug of his shoulders.

“He hasn’t initiated any conversations at all. He barely answered direct questions,” Ben explained.

“And all that was said before this episode began, was that your father was tired and went to bed?” Doctor Martin pressed searching for answers. He was not about to offer up any solutions in haste this time.

“Yes” and “Yup” came immediately from both Adam and Hoss respectively.

“Well I don’t know what to say Ben, until we can get Joe to talk to us, calmly…I just don’t know how to explain this behavior,” Paul said apologetically.

As the four men talked no one noticed the small figure slip quietly down the stairs and sit on the landing hugging his knees to his chest.

A pause in the conversation was filled by a small voice, “I want Pa,” came the pitiful whisper.

Quickly, Ben leapt to his feet and was at Joe’s side, “I’m right here son, your Pa’s right here.” Picking up his son, Ben could feel him shiver through his thin nightshirt. “You’re cold, lets go sit down by the fire, Okay?”

Joe nodded.

Ben settled himself and Joe into his favorite red leather chair. “Is that better? You feeling warmer?” Again Joe nodded. Ben gave a sad look to the others in the room, and his face spoke volumes…he feared they were back to square one with Joe’s strange behavior. For a few minutes everyone sat in silence. Finally it was Joe who spoke.

“She was tired too,” he offered as a matter of fact.

Ben was the first to recover from the shock of Joe initiating a conversation and responded, “What’s that son? Who was tired?”

“Grandma Jo,” Joe answered softly, then he took a deep breath and let the whole story out. “I tired her out Pa, just like you said not to, but I did…I didn’t mean it. She got tired. We tried to get back to the house, but I couldn’t help her much and when we made it to the porch she was too tired to climb the stairs and said she just wanted to sit down by the tree. She was real white and sweaty. She told me she loved me and to always remember that.   I tried to get the Doc, but I couldn’t do that neither. I let her down, Pa.”

Tears rolled down his face as he told of Josephine’s last moments.

“Oh Joseph, I know that must have been very scary for you, but nothing you did caused Grandma Jo to die and you didn’t fail her, you brought her a lot of happiness. She loved you very much, just like she told you,” Ben tried to soothe his child.

“But that’s why Pa. It always happens and it will to you too. And you’re tired.” Joe tried to explain as the tears started to roll down his cheeks.

Then it started to dawn on Ben the connection Joe was making. “Oh no Joseph, just because I was tired, doesn’t mean I am going to die. Sometimes being tired, just means you’re tired.”

Paul Martin jumped in here, “Joe, Josephine was an older lady and she lived a good long life. Her being tired was a symptom of her heart failing her not the cause of her death. Do you understand?” Joe nodded his head up and down again.

“But, she loved me…she said so,” Joe said sadly.

Ben sent another confused look to the others in the room. Adam moved to kneel in front of his father and brother and picked up Joe’s hand. “Is that the ‘why’ Joe?” He asked gently.

Joe nodded yes again, tears flowing in earnest again.

“Do you think that bad things happen to people who love you?” Adam felt he found the key to Joe behavior.

Joe nodded again and added “And especially to the people I love, too,” he said with the emphasis on ‘I’. “And I tried to stop, but I couldn’t do it,” he sobbed.

“Tried to stop? Stop what son?” Ben wanted to Joe to get it all out.

“Loving you, but oh … I can’t…. I can’t not love you, Pa,” Joe sobbed and sobbed and Ben’s heart was breaking, as he finally understood what his son was thinking.

“Please don’t love me no more, Pa…that works. Mr. Greene don’t like me and he’s fine, but Grandma Jo died, Sunny died, Mama died. Don’t ya see Pa, you will too.” Joe cried, trying to make his father understand is little boy logic.

Ben tightened his hold on his son as a lone tear rolled down his face. “Oh precious. I could never stop loving you any more than you could stop loving your brothers and me. And I know now that what you’ve trying to do, but it doesn’t work. Not loving us wouldn’t keep us safe it would only make us miserable and lonely for you. That is what you’ve been doing isn’t it, trying not to love us and to get us not to love you?” Ben could feel Joe’s head shake yes on his chest.

“But I can’t do it no more Pa…it makes my stomach hurt all the time.” Joe sobbed as he spoke.

“I bet it did.” Ben started as he cuddled his son. “Loving your family is just part of who you are Joseph and you can’t snuff it out like a candle, as much as you might try. And you’re a very special part of our family and nothing you could ever do could make us stop loving you. In fact, if you had stopped loving me, that’s when I probably would die……. of a broken heart. I need you to understand that nothing you did or didn’t do caused Grandma Jo to die. In fact, I know you did everything you could and put yourself at great risk trying to help her. Okay?”

“Okay,” Joe answered.

It was a start, and Ben knew they would have more talks and more tears as they tried to come to terms with Josephine’s death and Joe’s fears. But it was a start.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________________

Later that evening, Ben was heading down the hall toward his room after securing the house for the night and he paused outside Joe’s room when he heard his son’s voices.

“But why did you stare at us all the time, Joe?” Hoss just had to know, because the staring had been driving him crazy.

“I’m sorry about that Hoss. At first, I was trying to make some memories. Cause I thought you all was gonna die, so I need to memorize you. But then when I saw it was makin’ ya mad, I just kept doing it to so you’d hate me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry I yelled at ya shortshanks, but you was givin’ me the creeps.”

“That’s okay Hoss,” Joe said with a smile. “Can you sleep with me tonight Hoss?”

“You betcha, scoot over. I glad you’re all right Joe. I was missin’ ya.” Hoss said as he climbed in the bed.

“I still miss Grandma Jo, Hoss,” Joe said so softly Ben could barely hear, but he did hear and what he heard made him sad.

“I know punkin, but it’ll get easier every day,” Hoss tried to offer comfort. “It has before,” he added hopefully.

“I don’t know, I guess, I still miss mama, too,” Joe said sadly.

“Yeah…me too,” Hoss agreed.

“I love you Hoss,” Joe said with a sniff.

“I love you too Little Joe,” Hoss answered.

All was quite for a moment and Ben started to move toward his room his heart heavy for the grief all his sons had to bare but, he paused when he heard Joe’s voice again.

“Can we go fishin’ tomorrow Hoss?” Joe asked in that special way does to get what he wants.

Ben moved down the hall with a lump in his throat but a smile on his lips…life goes on, he thought and thank God it does.

 

 

The End

 

 

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Author: StephanieJ

5 thoughts on “Love No More (by StephanieJ)

  1. This was such a wonderful story. I couldn’t stop crying through it. It’s amazing how young children can get so confused and how adults can see only what they expect to see. So true.

  2. What a heart wrenching story. Poor Joe so sensitive. Going through such a sad ordeal, Pa does a good job with helping Joe with his problems Good lesson for Pa and Joe and all of the Cartwrights. Thanks

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