The Road that Lies Ahead (by Arien)

Summary:  Sometimes you have to loose everything before you know what you have.
Rated:  G
Word Count:  10,151


 

The thought of hopelessness was briefly replaced with a fleeting feeling of panic and, as he struggled to fill his lungs, he knew this breath would be his last. He had always heard that you never heard the bullet that would kill you. Now, however, he knew how much of a lie that was. You heard it all right and you knew, too, that there wasn’t a damn thing you could do to stop it.

*****

Shifting in his saddle, the young rider looked out over the vastness that was his father’s empire, the Ponderosa. He knew by heart the story of how his father and infant son had struck out from Boston to claim a stake in the new frontier. It had taken many years and heartache along the way but Ben Cartwright had finally had a claim to call his own. He built the ranch into one of the largest in Nevada, boasting 1,000 square miles, for his three sons. It was his dream to see his sons take over the ranch, eventually.

Joe inhaled a lungful of clean, crisp air. He was glad to be away from his family for a while. He loved his family but sometimes he just felt like he was being suffocated. They were always there. Telling him when to get up, go to bed, when to eat, and, quite frankly, he was surprised they didn’t try and tell him when to go to the outhouse! Right now, he needed time alone and hunting seemed to be a great way to do it. He had been sent by his father to track a cat near the herd; it was as good a reason to be gone for a few days as anything else. By that time, surely, he would be calmed down.

He and Adam had been at it again. This time, it had almost gotten out of hand. Just as he brought his fist up to wipe that cocky grin of his opponent’s face, a booming “Joseph!” stopped him in his tracks. Standing near the corral and sweating heavily, both men turned to look at the owner of the voice.

“What’s the meaning of this,” demanded a glowering Ben.

“It’s his fault,” Joe accused, eyes flashing. He was fuming that he hadn’t gotten in one good lick before being interrupted.

“Adam, would you care to explain all of this,” Ben asked. He was trying to be calm but with Hoss at the timber camp, he didn’t have time for such foolishness. If Hoss had been here, he was certain things wouldn’t have gotten this far. His large middle son was the peacemaker of the family and Ben relied on that more than he was willing to admit. His other two butted heads more often than not and it was starting wear on his fraying nerves.

“Your baby son decided this would be a perfect time go into town,” Adam replied. “He seems to think that he doesn’t have to do his share around here. I’m sick and tired of having to keep up with him and all his doings. He’s beyond old enough to get his work done without someone checking up on him.”

“Joseph, I thought I told you to finish mending the fences,” demanded Ben.

“I did, Pa. I just thought that, now it was done, I could go into town for a bit. I haven’t been off the ranch for days,” complained Joe. Surely his father would understand his need to get away for a few hours, even if it were to get the mail or supplies.

“What, like there’s nothing else to do around here? You do one job and that’s it,” his brother asked incredulously.

“Joe, you shouldn’t have to be told what to do every minute of every day. You wanted to work on a ranch; this is what it’s like. There’s no recess like you had in school. From sun up to sun down, you work. If you need something to do, fine; ask if you can’t find something else to do,” Ben said sternly. He knew Joe wasn’t a bad kid; he just couldn’t seem to stay focused on one thing at a time. He went from one subject to the next with alarming speed and, at times, it was difficult to follow.

Joe stood there fuming. In a way, he knew both were right but he wasn’t old enough to admit it to either of them. But it just seemed like all they did was gang up on him and he was never right, about anything.

Silently, he turned and walked toward Cochise, a black and white pinto. He easily swung into the saddle without using the stirrups and, once he was settled, looked down at his father and brother.

“Whether you realize it or not, I am an adult and, as such, I can make my own choices in life,” Joe said in a steady voice. He wasn’t about to give in to the temptation of yelling at them. He knew that it wouldn’t improve the situation and would only prove their point and not his. He might be the youngest but he wasn’t an idiot, either. No matter what his family seemed to think.

“I think it’s a good idea for me to get away for a while before I say or do something we’ll all regret,” Joe continued. He could see Adam trying not to laugh at him and it bothered him to know that he was never taken seriously. His father was looking at him but his face was unreadable.

“Joe, let’s be rational,” Ben started. “There’s no rea…”

“Pa, there is a reason,” Joe interrupted. He just felt so frustrated. It was as if the proverbial walls were closing in on him and he didn’t think he could take much more. “I know it was my idea to quit school and I’ve been doing everything you’ve told me to, no questions. I might grumble but I get it done and done well, too. I haven’t seen anything but fences or the back end of a cow for weeks. All I want is to go into town for a couple of hours. Why is that too much to ask?”

“What, like you’re the only one doing all of this?” Adam demanded. He was quickly loosing his temper because of what he perceived to be his brother’s defiance. “We told you how hard this would be and now you’re acting as if it was just something to pass the time until something better came along!”

“Adam,” cautioned Ben. He could see this was going to get out of hand quickly if he didn’t do something. He knew it was only a matter of time before either of his sons forgot their father was there and would resort to fists to solve the problem. They were both more alike than either would ever admit. Ben suspected that was why they seemed to butt heads most of the time.

“Pa, you let him get away with a lot and, what’s more, he knows it,” Adam exclaimed in an exasperated voice. It was astounding the things that his youngest brother had gotten away with over the years. Truth be told, Joe could weasel his way in or out of any situation and it was annoying to say the least.

“Adam,” Ben said, turning toward his oldest son. He was getting tired of the constant bickering between the two. “That was unnecessary and you know it. I don’t appreciate the tone nor do I appreciate you questioning my parenting. I am his father, not you.”

Turning back towards Joe, he caught a glimpse of victory on the handsome face. Normally, something like that wouldn’t have gotten under his skin but everyone was under stress. All he wanted was to go home, eat a decent meal, get a hot bath, and go to bed. He allowed himself a brief daydream that he had no children. He loved his sons more than life but, at times, they were going to be the death of him.

“Joseph! Don’t gloat,” Ben barked. The look quickly disappeared from the face. “I am sick and…”

“Tired?” Joe filled in for his father. Outwardly, he smiled as if he had not a care in the world. Inwardly, however, he cringed. Uh oh, now I’ve really stepped in it. He’s going to kill me for that one, Joe thought to himself. If he knew one thing, it was the fact that his father hadn’t appreciated that the first time he had done that and certainly didn’t appreciate it this last time.

Ben stood there trying not to hurt his son. He was sure this was when he was going to have that nervous breakdown he had been promising himself for the last few weeks. He had earned it and no one was going to deny him of it.

“Joseph! I suggest you keep your mouth shut! Adam, wipe that smirk off your face,” Ben growled at them. He could feel that vein in his forehead begin to throb. Briefly, he wondered if it were visible or if it were his imagination that the vein occasionally took on a life of its own. Taking a deep breath, he continued, “Joe, I want you to go looking for that puma that’s been stalking the cattle. That should give you, Adam, and me time to cool off from all of this. Go to the house and get all the gear you need. I’d send Adam with you but I’m sure one of you would end up murdered.” Both of his sons, at least, had the grace to look slightly shamefaced and said nothing.

Finally unable to stand the silence, Joe looked at his father. “Pa, I’m sorry I’ve been such a hassle these last few days. I just don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t know if it’s me or not. I’ll be back in three or four days. Maybe by then everything will have cooled down.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Adam yelled. He’d had enough of this. “Fine, go do whatever you want and ignore what needs to be done. Go, damn you, go! You look better going than you do arriving!” He could feel that he was breathing hard. He needed to calm down or he was going to pull his brother off that horse whether Ben was there or not. As he watched, Joe turned Cochise towards home and headed off to get his supplies together for his trip without a backwards look.

“Adam,” Ben began. “I approve of neither your attitude towards Joe nor your cursing. I realize that we are all under stress but I will not have my sons saying and doing things to deliberately hurt each other. I didn’t raise you to act like this and I’m wondering where you picked this new habit up.”

Inhaling deeply, Adam looked at his father. Here was the man that had crossed the country with him in tow, after the death of his first wife, Elizabeth. He remembered all the times that they had relied on each other for companionship and, sometimes, he wished he were that small child again. He loved his brothers but, occasionally, he wished it were just him with his father, again. Most of the time, he felt as if he was the second parent of the house and he didn’t always want that responsibility. He had been thrust into the role twice. The first time was when he was six years old and the only mother he had known had been killed in an Indian attack, mere weeks after his brother, Hoss, had been born. It had been a very traumatic thing to happen to the young child, to see Inger killed in front of him. She had been kind, warm and Hoss was so much like her.

The next time had been when Joe’s mother had been killed in the front yard of the Ponderosa. She had been thrown from her horse and her neck had broken on impact. He had heard the sickening crunch all the way at the porch where he had been trying to keep his brothers entertained. He could also remember the wracking sobs of his father. After the death of Marie, his father had withdrawn from the family and it had been left up to Adam to care for his young siblings. They hadn’t understood what was going on with Ben and had clung to the only constant in their lives, their oldest brother. He had been the one to check on Joe after his nightmares; it had been him that had helped Hoss with school; it had been him that had kept the ranch running. It had been months before Ben had felt ready to re-enter their lives and it had taken much coaxing to get the youngsters to trust that their father was back for good.

Giving himself a mental shake, Adam looked at his father. “Pa, I’m sorry for loosing my temper. It’s just that he always gets his way, without fail. He didn’t want to do anymore work and, wouldn’t you know it, now he’s going off hunting. Who couldn’t have seen that one coming a mile away? I know you love us all the same but you give him preference over me and Hoss.”

“Son, do you realize your brother says the same thing about you? That you’re my favorite, that you’re always right, that I listen to you more than him or Hoss? Honestly, you two are so much alike it boggles the mind, at times. And, yes, he got his way this time. It was either that or you two ending up in a brawl over whatever you’re arguing about at the time,” Ben said in a calm voice, which astounded him since he felt anything but calm. Truth be told, he would love to turn both of his sons over his knee and give them a long, overdue “necessary talking” as he had when they were younger.

“What? That’s absurd! We both know it, too. He just says that to excuse what he’s getting into and we all know it. Everyone says he’s charming. I’d say con-artist is closer to the truth,” Adam finished at a near shout. He couldn’t seem to get his emotions under control and he knew how unlike him that was. There were so many things that needed to be done and now they were short a man because Joe “wanted to get off the ranch for a while”.

“Adam,” Ben said in a tone that suggested that his son had better not interrupt. “For the love of…will you listen to yourself? You’re ranting and raving over nothing! Well, not nothing but not something that should cause you two to come to blows, either. While he’s away, I want you to really think about your brother. He’s not a little boy any longer. Oh, he’s still got a lot of maturing to do but he isn’t a child to be bossed about, either. You still see him as your kid brother tagging along behind you and Hoss and that’s not the case any more. Joe has his own way of doing things and in his own time, too. He gets them done on his schedule, not yours. He’s never let us down and I’m tired of having to listen to each of you complain about the other. Now, get back to work.”

As his father finished his diatribe, Adam stood there and felt like he was twelve all over again. He nodded his assent to his father and turned back towards the corral. He knew on one level his father was right but he couldn’t help feeling as if things were off kilter. He and Joe didn’t always get along but rarely did they resort to physically harming each other. He could sympathize with the need to get away but it was just so busy on the ranch this time of year.

*****

That had been three days ago and Joe was feeling much more calm about things. He could understand his brother’s reaction to the whole thing and he was getting to the point where he realized that they just would never see eye to eye on some things. They would always have a difference of opinion but it didn’t help if he lost his temper as well. It just made him look like a spoiled brat and that wasn’t how he wanted to be treated. He understood that if you want to be treated with respect, you had to give it, too.

He hadn’t seen any sign of the puma but that was fine by him. He knew they needed to be rid of the animal but he really wasn’t in the mood for any actual killing. He just looked at the excursion as a mini-vacation. It was a darn sight better than the fiasco in San Francisco last year after the cattle drive. That had almost ended up with Pa, Hoss, and two ranch hands being shanghaied. They had returned to their hotel room a little bruised but, otherwise, in good shape. Smiling, he recalled that his father had never told him or Hoss just how much that redhead had sold him for and he didn’t think he would ever find out that tidbit of information.

In dimming light of the clearing, he heard a soft snick behind him. It sounded like branches were being broken by someone or something walking on them. Slowly, he dismounted, tied Cochise to a nearby bush, and took his rifle out of the scabbard. Again, he heard the soft noise and is seemed to be closer than before. Tensing and breathing a bit harder, he swung around, rifle at the ready, to face whatever was sneaking up on him. Looking back at him was a pair of eyes that seemed to glow. He had found the puma or, more accurately, it had found him.

*****

The house had been fairly quiet without the constant bickering between the oldest and youngest Cartwrights. The silence was deafening at times because there rarely was a moment that wasn’t filled up with the voices of his sons. Ben sat reading the paper and wondered how his missing son was and if he had found the animal. He still couldn’t believe he’d had to separate his sons like he had when they were children. He was getting too old for this kind of nonsense and he hoped that, by the end of it, his sons could act like adults.

He looked over his newspaper at Adam and Hoss. They were sitting around the large coffee table; each intent on the game of checkers that had been going on for the last hour. Hoss reached his hand out towards a piece but he pulled it back as he, apparently, re-thought his next move. He had four pieces left while Adam twice that. It wouldn’t be long before Hoss would have to concede another loss.

“Dadburnit! It sure is quiet without Joe around here,” Hoss said from his perch on the coffee table. He had been missing his young brother and wondered if he were having some amount of fun in the high country.

“Sure is quiet,” noted Adam. “It makes for a pleasant change, if you ask me.” He still rankled at the idea of having to do the ranch work while Joe was off gallivanting. In the time that Joe had been gone, Adam had been forced to admit that he was a bit hard on Joe. It wasn’t that he meant to but it was hard to break a lifelong habit. It wasn’t something he was even conscious of any longer. It was going to take a bit of doing but he was confident that he would change his behavior towards his brother. He felt that a lot of the friction between them was due to the age difference between them. He had been twelve when Joe had been born and Hoss had been six. He supposed that he had a hard time seeing Joe as an equal because he had changed his diapers.

“Now, older brother, I done told you that you were just stressed out the other day,” Hoss defended the absent brother. He was all for annoying Joe but he figured that he should at least have the opportunity to defend himself. He was still studying the checker board to make sure there wasn’t some last ditch effort he could make to save his remaining pieces. In the background, the clock struck nine.

Sighing heavily, Hoss looked across the board at his brother. “All right, I give up. You win. There just isn’t anyway I’ll be able to win this one. Do you want to play again?”

“Well, it’s about time you admitted defeat,” Adam said with a smirk. He got up from the settee and stretched. “I think I’ll pass on another game. It’s getting late and I’ve got an early day tomorrow.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Ben commented. He put his paper aside and led the way up the stairs. He hesitated outside of Joe’s room before continuing on to his own.  He couldn’t help but feel that Joe needed him. Joe was to be home tomorrow and he was sure that his feeling would be proven groundless.

“Pa sure is concerned about Little Joe,” Hoss said from behind Adam. He, too, had a niggling worry about Joe. He knew, for a fact, that if a tree decided to fall, it would find Joe’s head to land on, without a doubt. His younger brother certainly had a knack for finding trouble. He was probably Doctor Martin’s most frequent and reluctant patient. He could retire with all the money Pa’s had to pay in medical bills, he thought.

“Joe’s fine,” Adam tried to sooth his brother. He knew that the two of them were close, much closer than he and Joe, and that Hoss always worried when he couldn’t be there to watch Joe’s back. Truth be told, he had always felt responsible for Little Joe. He had been such a handful as a child that it had been all any of them could do to just keep up. “He’ll be home tomorrow and you’ll see that all of this worry was for nothing.”

Hoss nodded his head. He could see the logic behind what Adam had said. He also knew how much trouble Joe could find and hunting a puma just seemed like an accident waiting to happen. But he was afraid to tell his father his concerns. He didn’t want to upset Ben with unnecessary fear.

The brother’s parted with a whispered good night and each closed their bedroom doors. Behind the doors, each man said a prayer for the safe return of the absent Cartwright.

*****

Joe had stood looking at his quarry for an indeterminate amount of time. He could almost feel the blood flowing through his body. He stood quietly, trying to slow his breathing, and waited for a shot that would kill the beast. Finally, the cat made its choice. It lunged at Joe and, at that exact moment, he fired his rifle at the creature and cocked the gun for another shot. Even as he levered the second shot, he felt the weight of the cat slam into him with a huge amount of force. He was knocked to the ground and he heard a rifle shot. He felt a searing pain in his chest but he didn’t loose consciousness. He had to get up and make sure the animal was dead.

Thankfully, it hadn’t landed fully on him or he would never have gotten out from under the cat. It was a dead weight on him and it took a few tries before he was able to get it off of him. The pain in his chest was staggering but, finding an inner strength, he managed to get to his feet. Swaying, he levered a third bullet and fired at the body at his feet.

As the shot hit his target, Joe’s tenacious hold on consciousness was, finally, giving out. He looked down and saw what a bloody mess his chest had become. He had shot himself and no one would know what had happened to him. He looked for Cochise but his horse had spooked at the scent of the puma and had bolted. He was injured, alone, and without a mount.

As reality faded to black, he felt his knees give way and he hit the ground with a bone-crunching thud. His last thought was one word: Pa!

*****

Pa!

Ben woke to find himself sitting upright in his bed and gasping. He couldn’t seem to get his breathing under control. His chest was heaving and his heart was beating a staccato against his ribs. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he pushed the covers aside, put on his robe and slipper, and left the sanctuary of his bedroom.

He felt as if something was wrong in the house. He padded quietly down the hall to Adam’s room first. He gently opened the door and looked in to check on his first son. Nothing seemed amiss and Adam was sound asleep. Ben walked over to the bed and looked down at his slumbering child, for he would always be his little boy, no matter how old either of them got to be. Smiling, he reached out and brushed the hair back from the high forehead.

Retracing his steps, Ben quietly shut the door and made his way across the hall to where he could hear snores coming from behind the closed door. Again, he cautiously opened the door so as not to disturb the sleeper inside. Finding nothing amiss, he looked down at his middle child. He was such a large man and people tended to think that because of his size he was also lacking in brains. He knew that nothing could have been farther from the truth. His son was as smart as his brothers and so tender-hearted. He had a natural affinity with animals that was beyond Ben’s comprehension. They naturally responded to him and it was a sight to behold.

Backing out of the room, he made his way down the stairs to the main room of the house. It was dark and quite, as it should have been. He couldn’t seem shake the feeling that something was definitely wrong. He just couldn’t figure out what. He walked around the whole downstairs and couldn’t find anything that would justify his current state of agitation. He could have sworn that what had awakened him was one of his sons calling out to him.

Sleepiness gone, he walked over to his leather chair and lit the lamp that sat on the nearby table. He picked up his discarded newspaper and settled in for a long night. After a few minutes, he heard a noise in the front yard. Dismissing the sound, he returned to his reading. Moments later, he heard the soft noise again. Tensing, he listened for the sound. Again, he heard the noise and it sounded like horse hooves.

As quietly as he could, he raced up the stairs to Adam’s room. Walking brusquely to the bed, he grabbed his son’s shoulder and began shaking him.

“Adam,” Ben whispered urgently. “There’s someone out in the yard. Get dressed quickly. I’ll get Hoss.”

Instantly alert, Adam quickly grabbed his pants and hurriedly shoved his feet in them. He could hear his father across the hall in Hoss’ room as he finished getting dressed. He slipped into the hall and met his father and brother at the top of the stairs. All three made their way to the credenza at the front door and each grabbed their pistols.

Adrenaline pumping through their veins, they opened the door quickly. In the moonlight they could make out a familiar figure. Cochise stood before the barn door as if waiting to be let in. The three men looked at each other with worry. They knew how Joe felt about that horse and wouldn’t have left him out like that. Rushing over, they looked to see if they could find any signs of foul play.

“He’s not lathered and I can’t find any blood, either,” Ben said in a worried voice. He knew something terrible had happened to his son. It wasn’t like him to be careless with animals. He took meticulous care of Cochise.

“Pa, do you suppose something’s happened to Little Joe,” questioned Hoss, seeking reassurance from his father. “You know how he is about this animal.”

“We’ll ride out at first light and look for him,” Adam said. He was caught up in a sea of regret and it was one of his own making. He recalled his last words to Joe and they had been anything but kind or loving. Now he wondered if he would get the chance to tell his brother how sorry he was for what he had said in an instant of anger.

A feeling of dread washed over them as they all came to the same conclusion: Joe was in serious trouble.

*****

Joe Cartwright, the youngest and most headstrong of the family, had been lying among the pine needles for quite some time, gasping, wondering how his family would cope with this. It broke his heart that it had been his fault that he was in this situation. If he had just kept his mouth shut, he never would have had that row with Adam. It had been so pointless but, at seventeen, he took everything to heart and rarely thought out the consequences to his actions. The bullet wound was directly in the center of his chest. He could feel the blood coating his chest as his heart pumped harder to get blood to where it needed to go, gradually slowing as he started to finally bleed out.

Images had been flickering across his mind’s eye since he’d been shot. Times spent with his father and two brothers, happy and sad alike. He supposed the first memory he had was of sitting in the great room of the Ponderosa ranch house. He couldn’t have been more than two or three and Adam, the oldest of the brothers, had been teaching him how to whistle. He clearly remembered being told exactly how to hold his mouth and tongue to make the high pitched sounds. He had practiced and practiced until he had gotten it right. As he had done with everything else that captured his attention, he worked at it until he perfected it. If he felt it was worth the endeavor, he would sit for hours trying to work it all out in his mind. As Adam had observed years ago, “Joe, if you would turn that attention to school work, you would be the head of your class. Add that to your determination, I wouldn’t be surprised to see you elected President of the United States!” But such things didn’t interest him and, so, he never really applied himself to his studies.

He lay there wishing that he could tell his family how sorry he was about all of this. He also wished he could let them know what had happened.

He prayed for a miracle. It wasn’t so much he wanted to live as it was he wanted God to comfort his family after it was all over. His father had lost three wives and he wasn’t sure what it would do to him to loose a son, as well. He prayed that they would find strength and comfort in each other in the days ahead.

Pa, forgive me for being so quick-tempered. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be in this fix, Joe thought to himself.

As the sky lightened, he didn’t relish the idea of dying alone.

*****

Eventually, the long wait was over and dawn was breaking. The three men headed out on their horses and had a couple of ranch hands following with the buckboard. They had made the preparations after they had discovered Cochise. They had put a mattress in the bottom of the buckboard, every blanket they could find, bandages, and were also loaded down with every kind of herbal medicine Hop Sing could find. The men on the buckboard would wait outside of the trees while Ben and his sons looked for Joe.

As the group headed off, the three Cartwrights were all lost in their own world. Each worried that they might be too late to help Joe. Each one thinking of times that they had spent with the “human tornado”, as he had been christened by Adam as soon as Joe learned to walk. He never seemed to walk anywhere when you could run instead.

The band of men traveled in silence until they reached the edge of pines. They knew it would be nearly impossible to track in the needles and brush that covered the ground. Hopefully, Joe had left a trail of broken limbs on his way to look for the puma. If not, they would have a hard time finding him.

Hoss took the lead as he was the best tracker in the group, it was even speculated that he was the best tracker in the territory. He dismounted from his horse, Chubb, and walked to where the tracks of his brother’s horse entered the woods. Looking around for a moment to try and find more of the tracks further in, he told them that they should head towards the west. There were a few protected caves there and it was as likely a place for a den as anywhere else. With trepidation, the three men followed the trail further into the woods. They had been lucky that Joe hadn’t been trying to hide his trail or they never would have found it in the underbrush.

*****

The thought of hopelessness was briefly replaced with a fleeting feeling of panic and, as he struggled to fill his lungs, he knew this breath would be his last. He had always heard that you never heard the bullet that would kill you. Now, however, Joe knew how much of a lie that was. You heard it all right and you knew, too, that there wasn’t a damn thing you could do to stop it.

*****

Adam followed behind his father and brother, content to let them take the lead for the moment. He was contemplating what to say to his brother when he saw him. He knew the words of a few days before had been meant to hurt and he only hoped he could apologize for them. It wasn’t like him to loose his cool so completely but Joe could push buttons he didn’t even realize were there. He supposed it was like that in all families. They were the only ones who knew just what to say or do that would be sure to get a rise out of you and Joe practiced this skill daily. It was a unique ability and one that Adam wished his brother wasn’t so proficient at the task.

As Ben rode silently between his two oldest sons, he noted the concentration on Hoss’ face as he studied the trail left by Joe. He was grateful his son had left them a trail to follow in the event that they needed to find him. He prayed that Joe was fine and that all of this worry was for nothing. He supposed it was a parental instinct that let him know something was wrong. He also hoped that his oldest and youngest would be able to repair their differences. It hurt him to see them at odds. It made things difficult because he always felt that they wanted him to take sides in whatever the issue might be. He usually stayed out of it but, at times, he was forced to take action, as the case had been days before.

Hoss, meanwhile, wasn’t paying that much attention to either his father or brother. He was busy trying to follow the signs that pointed toward Joe. It wasn’t easy going and they had been forced to back track a couple of times as he had misread the trail. His reputation as a tracker was well deserved and, he hoped, it wouldn’t fail him now. He knew what it would do to the remaining Cartwrights if something happened to Joe. It would just about tear them apart. Not out of anger but out of shear grief, especially Adam, for he was one to go off on his own to deal with things.

Hoss wished that he had joined his brother on this trip. They often went together but, this time, he had been up at the timber camps and hadn’t been there to suggest that Joe not go alone. It wasn’t that Joe was incompetent; that was the furthest thing from the truth. He just knew that his little brother was a magnet for trouble and, Hoss felt, need him there to watch out for Joe.

Finally, the three came to a clearing and gasped their shock. They saw the still body lying on the ground, covered in blood. They couldn’t even tell if he were breathing. Quickly, they dismounted and rushed forward, each prayed that they would be able to find life. Adam was the first to reach the figure. He reached out a trembling hand to feel for a pulse.

“Adam,” Ben barked urgently. His heart was trip-hammering in his chest. He couldn’t face the idea of not having his Joseph in his life. He had lost so much but this was beyond anything else he had experienced. “Is he alive?”

“Adam,” Hoss choked out in the silence. He watched as Adam pressed he hand harder against Joe’s neck, seeking the elusive pulse that would let them know they still had a fighting chance. Joe was so still and pale, Hoss couldn’t even see the slim chest moving to take in precious air.

In the odd timelessness of crisis, Adam sat on his knees searching in vain for a pulse. He pulled his hand back and noticed it was shaking. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he put his hand back against the cold throat and searched again.

“Oh, God,” Adam gasped, tears giving way and rolling down his cheeks.

Fearing the worst, Ben and Hoss gave into their emotions and the floodgates of their grief were opened. Both men couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Joe was gone, taken from them much too soon.

“Pa,” Adam grated out. He felt as if his vocal chords weren’t working properly. “PA! He’s alive! He’s not dead!”

Ben and Hoss looked at Adam, not comprehending what was being said. A relief so profound that it made them dizzy swept through the kneeling men. There was still a chance. They had to get him back out of the woods and on the buckboard. It would be hard to get him out of there without causing him more pain but they had to move him, quickly. They couldn’t even take the time to rig a travois.

“He’ll ride double with me,” Ben ordered. “Hoss, go for Doctor Martin and have him meet us at the house. Quickly, son, I don’t know how much time we have. Adam, help me get him on Buck.”

Turning, Ben mounted his horse and reached down for Joe. Adam lifted his brother into his father’s waiting arms. After mounting Sport, the three men set off in the direction they had just come. Thankfully, this time the ride didn’t take as long since they weren’t trying to follow a cold trail. As soon as they came out of the timberline, Adam and Ben gently put Joe into the waiting buckboard. After tying Buck to the back of the wagon, Ben clambered in next to his injured son.

He could see that it was a bullet wound and that Joe had lost a great deal of blood. He couldn’t find any other injuries. He prayed that they reached the safety of home soon and that Doctor Martin would be waiting for them.

Working quickly, Ben removed the bloodied jacket and shirt and got a glimpse at the damage that had been caused. It was an ugly wound and it had bled profusely. He knew Joe had to have been injured some time ago since the blood flow had stopped. Without thinking, he took a fresh cloth, wet it, and began to clean the wound as best he could. There was just so much of it but it helped to center Ben on the task at hand.

After he had cleaned as much as possible, Ben took a bandage and packed the wound and then wound a length of bandage around his son’s chest. It would have to do until they could get him to a doctor.

Please, God, let my son live.  Ben prayed as he cradled Joe’s head in his hands. You said ask and you shall receive and by His wounds we are healed. I ask that you please heal Joseph.

*****

Arriving back at the house, Ben saw that Paul’s buggy was waiting for them in the yard. Thank you for letting Paul get here in time, Father. The buckboard pulled to a stop and Ben waited while Adam dismounted and came around to help get Joe into the house.

“Come on, let’s get you inside,” Adam said, as he pulled his brother’s limp body towards him. He tried to be as gentle as possible so as not to cause Joe pain. He didn’t want to think about what could still happen to the young man. He picked him up in his arms and hurried into the house where he knew help awaited.

“Paul, he’s been shot. We don’t know how long ago and we haven’t been able to find any other injuries, save for the bullet wound,” Ben said as he followed the procession up the stairs. “He hasn’t regained consciousness, either.”

Entering the bedroom, Adam placed Joe in the bed and stepped back. He didn’t want to get into the doctor’s way as he worked. Running his hands through his hair, a sure sign of his agitation, he watched as the bandages were cut from the still body. He hadn’t gotten a look at the wound and he instinctively recoiled from seeing someone he loved hurt.

“What do you want me to do?” Ben inquired. He wasn’t going to leave Joe. He couldn’t bear the thought of his son being alone through all of this. He knew, intellectually, that Paul was there but it wasn’t the same as having family around you.

“Ben, I need your help. I need for you to get water boiling, bandages, and clean linens,” Paul told him. He could see the determination in his friend’s face. He couldn’t bring himself to eject them from the room. “I’m also going to need more light, so bring as many lamps in here that you can.”

Hoss looked at his father, seeking a reassurance that things would be alright. It was incomprehensible that things had gotten so messed up in their lives.

“Adam, Hoss,” Ben started, “I need for you to get the things Paul needs to operate. After you get those things together, I want to go and get some food and rest. I’m sure we’ll all need before this is over.”

Ben watched as his sons went to do his bidding. Turning back to the bed, he was in time to see the eyelids flicker on the still face. Heart quickening, he leaned over and watched for more signs of consciousness from his son.

“I’m here, Joseph,” Ben’s voice quivered, as he brushed the curls back from the boy’s forehead. He gripped his son’s hand in his, hoping to let his son know he wasn’t alone. “Just be still and know we’re all here with you. We won’t leave. We need you to fight for us, too. We need you here and we need you to try as hard as you can to stay. Do you understand, Joe?”

The voice was coming from somewhere far away and it was difficult for Joe to concentrate on what was being said. He felt more than heard the intent behind the softly spoken plea. He knew his father was begging for him to not to leave. Joe knew he couldn’t leave his father or brothers. He couldn’t be the one to cause them such grief.

“Pa,” Joe said, though it was more of a breath than an actual word. He was so weak it was hard to make himself heard. He licked his lips and tried again, “Pa…not going anywhere.” It was getting much harder to concentrate and felt himself slip back into the darkness.

Adam saw his brother’s hand fall limply from that of his father’s. He knew Joe would fight with all he had but he knew how serious the situation was.

“Pa, we’ve got the things Paul asked for,” Adam said, for lack of anything better to do. “Where do you want us to put these things?”

“You can put the linens and bandages on the dresser but I’m going to need you and Hoss to hold the lights so that I can see better,” Paul explained. He knew that it would be difficult for the Cartwrights to watch what he was about to do to the young man on the bed.

And with that, Paul began to work on removing the bullet from Joe. He cautiously cut into the flesh above the sternum and was shocked to see that the bullet hadn’t gone straight in as he had thought. Reaching out, Paul went looking for the path of the bullet. After a few moments he felt a small lump under Joe’s skin near his right shoulder.

Beginning again, he cut near the shoulder and found the bullet. It was amazing that something so small could cause so much damage in a person. He knew Joe would have a long and difficult road of recovery ahead of him. He knew that the young man might not be able to use his arm properly again. He was also worried about infections caused due to the time lapse between injury and treatment. At this point, they would just have to wait and see what happened. He had done everything medically possible and he hoped it was enough. In the continued silence, Paul began to sew the wounds closed.  It was up to God and Joe now.

*****

During the night, Joe began to show signs of an infection developing. His breathing was getting shorter and his temperature was beginning to climb. He had left the Ponderosa not long after the operation on Joe because there had been an accident at one of the mines and he’d been needed there as well. Paul had instructed them that if they needed him to send one of the hands to get him. He would come back as soon as possible.

“Pa, I’ve sent Riley after the doctor,” Hoss told his worried parent. He and his older brother had managed to convince Ben to take a nap on the military style cot that they normally used up at the timber camps. They had brought the new cots in from town earlier in the week and hadn’t had a chance to get them up to the camp, which was fortuitous. It allowed each man a chance at getting some rest without leaving Joe’s sick room.

He and Adam were both worried about this turn of events but were trying to stay calm for their father’s sake. They didn’t want to upset him anymore than he already was. None of them had been willing to leave the room. Each felt that Joe had been alone in the woods much too long and were resolved not to leave now.

Adam had gone to get cooler water from the well to bath his brother’s feverish body. Returning, he sat the bowl down on the bed and began to help his father wash the smell of sickness from Joe. The body beneath their hands broke out in goose pimples as the cooling water made contact.

“Pa, remember that time we all got into that yellow-jacket nest,” Adam asked, as he kept washing Joe. He hadn’t thought of it in quite sometime. Smiling, he continued, “Joe was, what, seven, I think. He had let Hoss’ dog, Slick, get loose. Of course, that enormous dog just had to go chasing that cat, too.”

Chuckling, Hoss continued for his brother, “Yeah and the cat found the only yellow-jacket nest for miles. The cat went through first, then the dog, followed by me, you, and Little Joe. I never did think we was ever going to get rid of those things. They got in our clothes, in our hair, and any other place imaginable. I’ll never forget the look on your face, Pa, when you saw how we looked.”

Ben smiled at his sons. “I don’t think I’ll forget that one, either. I can still see all of you hopping around trying to get out of your clothes. After we managed to get you all undressed, you had to sit around in your underwear with tobacco all over your bodies. You looked like you had an odd form of chickenpox,” he said with a laugh. He could still see the looks on their faces. It hadn’t been that funny at the time but, looking back, it was so typical of his sons.

The time passed slowly for the men in the room as they waited for the doctor. There wasn’t anything more they could do until Paul got there. The sat in silence and listened to small gasps coming from the still form on the bed. Adam and Ben continued to bathe the overheated body. They kept up a constant stream of whispered words of comfort and encouragement to Joe. They didn’t know if he could hear them but they hoped that their words and meaning would reach the ill youth.

Finally, Paul arrived in the room and took in the situation at a glance. He could see that all three were clearly exhausted by their efforts and were worried about Joe’s health. He knew, too, that it was pointless to try and evict them from the room. He’d met brick walls you could reason with better than you could with one of the Cartwrights at a time like this.

“Ben, move aside and let me have a look at him,” Paul said as he made his way towards the bed. Setting his bag down, he opened it and withdrew his stethoscope with one hand while checking for fever with the other.  He listened to Joe’s heart and lungs and noted the high temperature.

“Ben, I’m going to have to open the wound and clean it out. Hopefully, that will get all of the infection out and I’ll flush it with alcohol. That should kill it and keep it from coming back. I also recommend pouring a bit of alcohol on the wound to keep it disinfected. The only thing to do for the fever is some quinine. I’ll need some boiling water to sterilize my instruments. Oh, and get extra bandages.”

“We’ve had water simmering since we sent for you. It won’t be too long before it’s ready,” Adam told him. He turned and left the room to gather the needed items. He was gone for a few minutes and returned laden with the required bandages and water.

Turing away from the worried family members, he dug through his medical bag and produced a syringe of morphine and a small bottle of quinine. He gave Joe a dose of morphine to help keep the boy calm during the opening of the wounds. It would be anything but a pleasant experience and Paul didn’t want Joe to thrash about while he was using the scalpel.

Once he was sure Joe was out, the doctor set about helping his patient. He removed the soiled bandages and could see the red line radiating from the incision marks. Quickly, he took his scalpel and cut through the stitches. As soon as he did, blood and pus began oozing out of the cuts. As intent as he was on Joe, Paul failed to see the rest of the family blanch at the sight. After he had drained the wound and removed the dead tissue, he poured a liberal amount of alcohol into the incisions.

Joe hadn’t moved at all until the liquid burned a path across his chest. He opened wide, frightened eyes and let out a heart stopping cry. Just as suddenly as he awoke, Joe went limp. Fear kept everyone from moving for an instant. The Cartwrights were certain that they had just witnessed the death of a beloved member of their family.

Paul quickly regained himself and reached out and felt for a pulse. “He’ll be alright. He just couldn’t handle the pain of the alcohol on the wound. Now, I need to sew him back up. After this, I want you to change his bandages three times a day and put the alcohol on the wound. That should help stay any infection. I also want you to give him a dose of quinine every four hours and a dose of laudanum every four to six hours.”

Watching his friend, Ben was grateful that Paul had been there to help them during this. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust other doctors; it was just that Paul had been their doctor for so many years.

“Paul, thank you for coming out. I don’t know how to thank you enough,” Ben said; he couldn’t keep his voice from shaking.

Smiling as he shrugged his coat back on, Paul said, “Ben, think nothing of it. I’ve watched these boys of your grow up and I wouldn’t want to break the hearts of all the young girls in Virginia City by letting something happen to one of them.”

Picking up his bag, Paul turned and headed out the room and down the stairs. Turning to look over his shoulder as he walked, he said, “I’ll be out sometime tomorrow to check on him. If he feels up to eating, let him have broth to start off with. If he feels up to it, he can have some eggs, toast, and juice. He’ll be extremely weak for a while since he’s lost so much blood. Tell him, too, that I don’t want him out of that bed unless he has to use the chamber pot.”

Ben led his friend out of the house and to the waiting buggy. Taking the shorter man’s hand in a firm shake, he said, “I’ll be sure and keep him in that bed if I have to tie him down. Paul, I’ll say it again: thank you.”

The first few days, Joe wasn’t very lucid. The fever kept quite a hold on him and, in his delirium, he called out for those who were, in fact, at hand. It broke their hearts to hear him calling out for help. They would wake him up for his medications, treatments, and for feeding him. Otherwise, Joe spent the majority of his time asleep.

After three days, the fever broke in a drenching sweat. Adam and Hoss moved the limp form from the bed to the chair as Ben took off the soiled sheets. He put the clean sheets on the bed and helped resettle Joe. After the boy was back in bed, Adam and Hoss left to eat breakfast and get a little bit of rest.

Looking back at his son’s face, Ben was astounded to see bright green eyes looking back at him.

Reaching out a trembling hand to his son’s face, Ben whispered, “Joseph, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

“Pa…” Joe began weakly. “Thirsty…water?”

Ben held his son’s head as he helped him drink the water. His heart felt so much lighter than it had in days. He knew, beyond a doubt, that his son would be fine. After setting the head he cradled in his hands back onto the cool pillow, Ben went to the door calling for Adam and Hoss. His family would be whole again.

*****

“How ya doing, Joe,” Adam asked as he walked into the room. It had been a week since Joe had awakened. He was able to stay awake for much longer stretches of time than he had even two days ago. He still tired easily but he was making definite progress. The one thing that shocked his family was his willingness to stay in bed.

“I’m still sore but I’m getting better,” Joe replied, honestly. He knew he looked anything but fine. “Adam, I’ve already talked to Pa and Hoss, now I need to talk to you, too.”

“Sure, what’s on your mind,” he asked his younger brother. He gingerly sat down in the chair that was placed near the head of the bed. He was grateful to be able to sit because he had been out busting some of the broncs that had been put on hold while Joe recuperated.

“I want to apologize for the things I said and did that day I left. You were right; I asked for this responsibility and I have to live up to it. I want to thank you for caring enough to see that I turn out to be the person I can be rather than someone who never reaches their potential.”

Stunned, Adam just sat there looking at Joe. He hadn’t been expecting that to come out of that mouth. He wasn’t even sure what to say. He chuckled to himself. Here he was college-educated and was at a complete loss of words. Adam looked at his brother from a moment and decided to speak what was in his heart rather than what was on his mind.

“Joe, I don’t do things to be mean. I know it might not seem like it at the time but I care about your welfare. I don’t want you to get hurt. Becoming an adult is all about change and I don’t want to see you stagnate and never reach your full potential. You’re smart, a natural with the horses, and there is so much out there you should see,” Adam said. He hesitated a moment before continuing, “I’ve actually been thinking about talking to Pa about you taking over the horse operation of the ranch. You’re more than capable and, I think, ready for the responsibility of it. We’ll all be here to help you should you need it but I’m confident that you are more than able to do this.”

Stunned, Joe just sat there for a moment. He’s always wanted to work with the horses but hadn’t ever had enough nerve to ask his father or Adam about it. He had been worried that they would have laughed at him and told him that he wasn’t ready for it.

Blinking, Joe said, “You’re serious? You’d really let me do that?”

“Would I be saying it if I didn’t plan on following through with it?” Adam asked. He watched his brother shake his head and blink disbelievingly at him.  “Joe, all I ask is that you try. I know things won’t go so well in the beginning because you’ll be learning to run the business part as well as breaking the horses. I don’t expect you to be perfect. I just want you to try.”

His heart pounding, Joe smiled at his oldest brother. “I think I can do that just fine.” He hesitated a moment before beginning again, “You know something that I’ve learned through all of this? That, no matter what the road that lies ahead hold for me, I’ll always have my family. That’s the most important thing. I can accomplish anything with the three of you at my side. I’m just sorry it took this to make me remember.”

A feeling of peace settled over the two men. They knew that they would still have arguments but they also knew that they wouldn’t forget what had almost been lost to them. As Hop Sing was so fond of telling them, a family in harmony will prosper in everything.

***The End***

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Author: Arien

3 thoughts on “The Road that Lies Ahead (by Arien)

  1. Beautiful story, showing the love of the family!! Little Joe in trouble is always a good theme!!!

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