Gone (by BnzaGal)

Summary:  One stormy night near Lake Tahoe spells sorrow and disaster for the Cartwrights.

Rating:  T(18,935 words)

 

Gone

–Introduction–

Gone. It was a word that could bring a tearing and searing pain to ones very core. Gone. He was gone. One glance he was there, the next he had disappeared into the mist. If only they had known that the little rowboat holding the two young people would never return except for the bits of wood that would wash ashore.

Gone. Lost to them. No amount of sitting on the shores of the deceptively calm lake and staring out across her waters would ever bring back what the wind and waves had stolen from Benjamin Cartwright that night.

How many times had he said that word? Gone. How much more could be taken from him? How much pain and loss could one lifetime contain?

Ben stared out across the lake that he had once believed to be the prettiest spot of the Ponderosa. He had buried his Marie on the bluff above him. Now it looked as if the lake would be the grave of his son. No headstone to lay flowers by. No marker to stand by and pretend you are close once more.

The lake was no longer beautiful. Her gentle ripples seemed to laugh at his sorrow. Her cool, refreshing waters were the chilling claws of death, clutching and refusing to give up her prey. The lapping against the shore murmured gone. She was loathsome and cruel, hiding away in her depths one whom Ben loved.

The wind blew off the lake in gusts, small compared to the ones of that night. Yet they seemed to carry on them the cries of one who would never speak again. One whose breath had been stolen too young. The word on the wind that had been spoken in love and called in moments of panic echoed in Ben’s ears. “Pa.” Ben wondered if his son had called for him as he struggled against the waves that night and he had simply not heard.

Ben stood and threw a rock into the water. Tears where threatening to choke him. He couldn’t even force the name that burned in his heart through his trembling lips. Instead, an angry yell surged from his broken heart. He bowed his head and pressed his hands into his face.

“How much, God?” He raised his cry heavenward. “How much will you take from me?” The tears fell down his unshaven cheeks. “Wasn’t his mother enough? Why do you need more?”

–Chapter 1–

It was a joyous occasion. Colors seemed to spring from everywhere. Guests arrived in a steady trickle and even the overcast skies couldn’t dampen the spirits of all who had come to celebrate Hoss’ twenty fifth birthday. Food was plentiful as was pleasurable company. Friends laughed with each other and young couples danced away while older couples tapped their feet to the music and smiled as they remembered what it had been like to be young and free.

Unlike many parties hosted by the Ponderosa, this one was held on the beautiful shores of Lake Tahoe. The waters were rougher than normal and were picking up in intensity as the evening wore on. The wind grew steadily stronger blowing carefully done hair into a tangled mess and whipping it about the faces of many a young woman.

Hoss scrunched his face up toward the darkening sky. “Maybe we shoulda had the party indoors.”

Adam looked up at the sky. “Sure looks like we’re in for a storm.” He looked around to all the guests. “We should probably start herding people up to the house before it hits.”

Hoss nodded his agreement, “Do you see Pa?”

Adam pointed toward the group of dancing couples, “I think the Widow Hawkins found him again.” A small grin spread across his face deepening the dimple low on his cheek.

Hoss glimpsed his father swirling around held closely by the shorter woman. A smile was pasted on his face, but his eyes were searching for a way of escape.

“Should we go rescue him?” Adam headed for the dancers and Hoss followed on his heels.

Ben’s eye caught sight of his sons and the smile grew more real and full of relief.

“Excuse me, Miss Hawkins, but I need to talk to my father.” Adam gave a little bow and pulled his pa away from his partner. “Sorry to interrupt your dance, Pa.”

Ben shot his son a glare, but it soon melted into a tired smile. “You could have come a little sooner.”

“We were wondering if we shouldn’t move the party up to the house.” Hoss looked again to the sky. “It’s looking like it’s going to get mighty messy.”

Ben followed his son’s gaze and, as if on cue, a burst of wind from off the lake hit them sending a shiver down Ben’s back. “Are there still boats out on the lake?” Ben squinted out across the rough water.

“I don’t think so.” Adam watched as a lady’s skirt blew up in the wind and tried to hide a chuckle as she scrambled franticly to keep herself modest.

“Let’s start.” Ben raised his arm in the air and hollered. “Ladies… ladies and gentlemen, the weather’s getting ugly.” All the guests raised their eyes heavenward. “We’re going to be moving the party up to the house if you would like to make your way up there, or if you want to beat the storm home we understand if you want to leave.”

Clumps of people began to move in every direction. Food was gathered up off the tables and loaded into a wagon. Many guests headed back toward town but a few close friends made their way toward the house.

Adam rode ahead to warn Hop Sing that the guests were coming. By the time they arrived the house was ready to receive the guests. Hoss stood on the porch and re-greeted his party goers until the last of them was safely inside. The first rumbles of thunder and the first drops of rain began as Hoss closed the door shutting out the worsening weather.

–Chapter 2–

Guests jumped as lightning struck near by and the thunder rattled the windows. The few young women present used the excuse to lean against their escorts, who in turn would bravely wrap an arm around the shoulders of their girls.

“Ben, have you seen my Christy?” Ben turned to see Charles Brigham looking nervously around the room.

“Maybe she caught a ride back to town with some friends.” Ben suggested looking himself around for all his sons. He easily spotted his large son, Hoss, snatching more food from the platter Hop Sing was brining out. Adam was leaning by the fireplace talking to one of his friends.

“I saw her earlier with Little Joe.” Charles said with a hint of accusation in his voice.

Ben’s eyes ran the room over searching for his youngest. “I don’t know where Joe is at the moment.” A frown slowly settled over his brow.

“If he and my daughter…”

“I’m sure you don’t have to worry. My Joseph is a gentleman.” Ben said sternly as he crossed to where Adam stood. “Adam, have you seen your brother?”

Adam pointed to where Hoss still hovered near the food table, avoiding Hop Sing’s glares.

“The other one.”

“He was with Christy Brigham last I saw, but that was quite a while ago.”

Ben nodded and headed over to Hoss. “Have you seen Joe?”

“Not since he and Miss Christy headed out on the lake. I bet Joe took her home or something.”

Ben grunted and moved to where Joe’s best friend Mitch stood smiling down at his girl. He stared at the young couple for a moment. They weren’t speaking, just staring at each other. Ben cleared his throat and the two people turned to him. “Mitch, have you seen Joe?”

Mitch looked back to his girl. “I haven’t seen anyone but Amy all day.”

Amy blushed sweetly and dropped her eyes. “I saw him with a girl earlier. They were headed out on the lake.”

Ben’s frown deepened. “They can’t still be out there,” he muttered, but he couldn’t stop a cold feeling from settled in the pit of his stomach. They couldn’t be out on the lake. No. Not in a storm like this. Joe knew better. They had to be somewhere else. Somewhere safe. Somewhere dry. Somewhere…

“Pa,” Adam’s steady voice interrupted Ben’s thoughts. “Mr. Brigham’s starting to get a little…” Adam looked back to where Charles stood across the room staring at the staircase that led up to the bedrooms, “…agitated.” He turned back to his Pa. “He’s starting to think that Joe is holding his daughter captive against her will or some such nonsense.”

Ben rolled his eyes, “My friends.” He threw his hands in the air. “Adam, start a search for your brother will you.”

“Sure, Pa,” Adam turned to obey his Pa when Ben caught his arm.

“And if there is any trouble…” Ben left the sentence hanging.

“Right,” Adam casually milled through the party as though nothing was wrong and eventually ascended the stairs with no one noticing that he was on the hunt for a missing couple. The thoughts of what he would do when he found his little brother danced in his head like the music swelling from below.

–Chapter 3–

“And you checked the hayloft?” Ben kept the smile on his face for show.

“Twice.” Adam concluded. Some of the rain that had fallen outside was now dripping down the sides of Adam’s face. “He’s not here. I’ve asked around and nobody ever saw them get back from the lake.”

“No, Adam.” Ben clenched his jaw. The smile was gone and fear once again clawed at his core.

“Pa, you have to consider that possibility.” Adam sounded a lot calmer than he felt. “He might have had to put into shore somewhere farther along when it got rough.” Even while Adam spoke his eyes sought out Hoss. Once he gained his brother’s attention he tipped his head ever so slightly.

Hoss understood and excused himself from his conversation with a guest. He crossed the room in full strides, “You ain’t found Joe yet.” It was a statement not a question.

“I’m going down to the lake.” Adam placed his dripping hat back on his head.

“I’m goin’ with you.” Hoss pushed back through the small crowd to the credenza where he picked up his hat and slapped it on his head.

“I’m coming too.”

“What about all the guests, Pa?”

“Finding Joe is more important right now than entertaining guests.” Ben cleared his throat. “Friends… Friends,” The chatter ceased. “Thank you. My sons and I are going out to look for Little Joe and Christy. They seemed to have disappeared.” In Ben’s mind he knew what all the guests must be thinking. “Please, make yourselves at home. If the storm doesn’t let up soon, I’m having Hops Sing prepare the guest rooms for the ladies and there’s room in the bunkhouse for you men.” Ben crossed the room and shrugged into the coat Hoss was holding for him. “I hope we will be back soon.”

“I’m going with you, Ben,” Charles stepped forward.

“I’ll help too.” Several other men began to gather up their gear, wanting in on the finding of a stray couple.

Ben nodded and followed Adam and Hoss outside.

The rain was beginning to let up some but the wind was still fighting hard. The horses were quickly saddled and mounted.

Ben felt the dread build up inside of him. “Please, God,” he whispered, “Keep them safe wherever they are.” His prayers where taken up by the wind and whisked away.

–Chapter 4–

Adam squinted out into the early morning greyness. They had been out all night. Some had returned to the ranch in the night, but still a handful remained, hoarsely calling, growing discouraged and increasingly worried as they searched up and down the shorelines.

Now as morning was trying to shake off the hold of night, Adam strained his ears listening for any clue to his brother’s whereabouts. “Joe?” No matter how hard he forced the air through his lungs it never seemed to penetrate through the wind that tried it’s best to rip Adam’s hat off.

“Joe?” Ben’s voice reached Adam’s ears. The glow of a lantern bobbed toward him. Ever since they had discovered that a rowboat was missing Ben had been nearly frantic. “He’s out there, Adam.”

“You don’t know that for sure.” Adam didn’t want to think of his brother out there. Dead.

“There’s a boat missing,” Ben rubbed a hand across his eyes.

“One could have come loose.” Adam said trying to calm his stomach from churning like the waters of Lake Tahoe. “The waves are big enough to…”

“To sink a boat.” Ben stated huskily.

Adam turned his head away and tried to rein in his emotions. “The storm came on so fast,” Adam looked at his father’s shadowed face. “He probably put in somewhere safe.”

“You don’t believe that,” Ben looked sadly at his eldest. “Do you?”

Adam couldn’t meet his father’s gaze, instead he watched the waves roll toward shore one after another. Tirelessly. Relentlessly.

A cry from Hoss turned the heads of all who heard it. Ben’s eyes locked on his middle boy. He was pointing at something. Something in the water. Ben was already running before his eyes found what Hoss was wading out into the cold waters after.

In the dark no one could be sure that it wasn’t just a log or some debris cast loose in the storm. No one knew what it was for sure until Hoss lifted it in his arms.

Adam bit back a curse and ran into the water, praying that it wasn’t what he knew it was.

Ben stood motionless on the shore. His mind screamed at him to go, but his feet refused to take him there. A cold chill, far colder than the storm tossed waters, stole down his back. Tears stung at his eyes. His hands clasped and unclasped as he watched his two sons cradle a body between them and carry it back toward him.

Please, God, not my son. Please. Please, God.

–Chapter 5–

“It’s Christy,” the hushed whisper ran down the line of searchers. Someone was dispatched to find Mr. Brigham who had ridden to see if his daughter was in town and to get the sheriff if she wasn’t. The messenger and his horse were flying toward town before Adam and Hoss set down their burden.

Ben felt relief wash over him unbidden followed quickly by horror. It wasn’t Joe. But then where was Joe? His eyes went back out to the hurling waves. His son was out there. Somewhere.

Hoss looked full into Christy’s face but only for a moment. It was all he could bear. She was dead, and no one had to question it. The pretty face of the woman who had been so vibrant only a handful of hours before was now white tinged with blue. Small rocks had imbedded themselves under the skin of her check when the unrelenting waters had thrown her against the gravely shores. Cuts, most shallow but some deep, riddled her face and arms. Her skirts had been torn off in the rolling churning waters and all that remained to cover her legs was a single thin petticoat, ripped badly in several spots to reveal the scrapes on her lower half.

Adam reached down and brushed away a wet strand of hair that clung along the soft curves of her face and ended on her blue lips. Her skin was cold. Almost ice like. It sent a shiver through his own body.  Noticing her blouse was torn exposing more than Christy would have ever allowed in public Adam slipped out of his coat and covered her, laying it across her sideways so it would cover some of her legs as well.

Adam stood and faced his Pa who was looking out at the storm tossed lake. Would Joe wash up soon? Adam tried to block the images that tried to force themselves into his mind. But he couldn’t.

Adam heard his Pa murmur something and almost asked him what he had said when he realized his Pa’s eyes were closed in earnest prayer. Adam hoped his Pa’s prayers weren’t too late for his little brother.

–Chapter 6–

Roy hated his job. Yesterday, if asked, the sheriff would have said that he enjoyed bringing justice to the small town of Virginia City. He felt accomplished when he broke up fights, stopped robberies, and kept the peace. But today… today he hated his job.

The dim streets were quiet as they usually were at dawn and especially so after a big storm like they had seen last night. These were his streets. He had given his life to keep them safe. This was his town. He had fought and bled for her. Her children were his children and he protected them with his all.

Roy walked down the familiar streets. Each dusty avenue held a memory for him. He passed the bank. He had stopped several robberies there. He turned and walked by a saloon. He had broken up many brawls there. Roy stepped up onto the boardwalk. He could see where a bit of blood stained the wood. Someone had been shot down right there once. After locking up the murderer Roy had gotten down on his knees and had scrubbed for an hour trying to get his street clean again. But some stains, like memories, never really washed completely away.

His objective was in sight now. He hated his job. A little house, a little picket fence, a little family, a huge loss. He hated his job.

He had been with Charles Brigham when the news from the lake had reached them. Charles had mounted up and spurred his horse toward his daughter. Roy had assured him he would tell, Heidi, his wife, her mother.

Up the porch steps. Raising his fist to rap on the door he paused, breathing deeply, readying himself for what would come. He knocked.

The door almost immediately flew open. Mrs. Brigham stood a robe wrapped tightly around her short, ample frame. “Roy,” she breathed. “Charles and Christy didn’t come home last night.” Tears that had been on the verge of spilling all through the long night now welled up in her eyes.

“Mrs. Brigham,” Roy reached out and took the woman’s forearms in his hands. “Heidi…”

“They’re dead, aren’t they.” Heidi’s chin trembled.

“Christy and Joe Cartwright, it seems, went out in a boat at the party and got caught in the storm.”

The woman’s tears began to fall.

“Charles and the others have been out searching for them, but…” Roy hated his job. “Christy’s body washed to shore… I’m afraid she’s gone, Heidi.”

Mrs. Brigham bent forward, burying her face in Roy’s hands. “Christy.” The single word was muttered over and over as Roy pulled her into his arms and let her weep against his chest.

He hated his job.

–Chapter 7–

Christy’s body was taken away and most of the searchers returned to Virginia City. Only Mitch Devlin and Sheriff Coffee, who had ridden out to meet up with them, remained with the Cartwrights.

They rode along the shores. Their voices croaking out a call. Their hearts praying that they would find Joe alive.

Hoss rode beside Adam as they hunted along the shores. The brothers were worn out and tired, their shoulders drooped, their eyes blurry.

“You reckon, he’s gone, Adam?” Hoss pulled Chub to a stop and pressed a hand against his eyes to try to cover the pain that those words had brought him.

Adam didn’t answer at first. He looked out at the lake that was only gently rippling showing none of the fury that she had displayed last night. “We’ll find him.” Adam started riding again.

“Do you think he’s still alive?” Hoss followed Adam watching the back of his head while he tried to rid the picture of Christy’s face from his mind.

Honestly, no. Adam cringed at his own thoughts. He had to be strong for his family. “We’ll find him.”

“That’s not what I asked.” Hoss said determined. “I asked if he was still alive.”

“Am I God?” Adam raised his voice bitterly. “Can my saying so make any difference? Can I change what’s happened?” Adam tried to take some of the sting out of his voice, “I can’t do anything, Hoss. I’m as helpless as you.” He urged his horse on faster around a thick wild patch of brush that was partially underwater due to the unusually high waters of the lake.

Hoss sighed and followed, once again he raised up a prayer for his little brother. Adam was right. They were helpless. All they could do was keep looking. So Hoss turned his eyes back down to the rocky shore and the waters beyond them.

–Chapter 8–  

Pain. Searing, all consuming pain. White and hot and yet black and cold at the same time. Merciless, screaming pain. It crept in through his fingers, coursed down his arms, shot up to his head, and curled around in his middle.

Everything hurt. Almost everything. Nearly everything. He couldn’t feel much of his legs. They felt numb and stiff. At least the pain hadn’t made it’s way to them as well.

Joe tried to open his eyes. He wanted to. He felt he needed to. He could hear voices. The voices of his brothers, but they were so far away. So agonizingly distant. He tried to cry out. To beg his brothers to take away the pain, but nothing came from his parted lips.

Green eyes finally peeked out behind swollen, gritty eyelids. He blinked slowly, trying to gather information about his surroundings. He was in bushes. Tall, woody bushes that blocked his view of anything else.

Joe turned his head hissing through his teeth at the throbbing near the base of his skull. A frown puckered his brow. His arm was bare. Bare and bloodied from a gash that ran down half its length. He slowly turned his head the look at his other arm. It seemed to have faired better. The sleeve only ripped in one place.

Joe tried to get his arms under him to lift himself up, but he couldn’t seem to hold his own weight. He rolled to the side and learned that he was halfway in water. His legs were numbed by its iciness. His left pant leg was torn away revealing his swollen leg.

Broken? Joe grimaced. He looked down at his chest and saw that it too had taken a beating. Deep bruising surrounded a ragged rip in the skin that followed a diagonal from shoulder to near the tip of the sternum. At least all the wounds were not openly bleeding and Joe allowed himself to lay back and rest. He would try to move in a little while. He couldn’t now. Not now. He just needed a little rest.

–Chapter 9–

The first thing he was aware of was the shivering shudders that rippled through his body. Joe’s eyes opened as he tried to keep his teeth from clattering.

The wind found her way through the bushes and trailed her fingers down Joe’s back.

Joe licked his lips and pulled himself up on his arms. He had to get moving. Someone would be looking for him. He had to get home.

The brush was thick and dragging himself through them would be next to impossible. So instead Joe crawled back out into the shallows of the water and pulled himself to the edge of the bushes.

It was a slow process, especially slow for Joe who had little patience for riding or walking at a slow pace. Little by little, inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by agonizing yard, Joe made his way off the rocky shore and onto the grassy ground. Once he reached it he lay there, gasping. His eyes closed, he grit his teeth as the feeling returned to his legs bringing a crushing pain with it.

“Gotta keep moving.” It was the first words he had spoken aloud. He grunted as he began to pull himself forward again. In his mind he could hear snatches of a conversation. A memory from many years ago.

“It’s to hard, Adam,” It was Joe’s own voice, although much, much younger. “I can’t do it.”

“Yes, you can.” In his mind, Joe could see his older brother lowering himself down to what had been Joe’s height back then.

“It’s too hard, Adam.” There was a pout in his young voice.

“If you don’t try you never will, that’s for certain.” Joe closed his eyes and could see Adam’s face floating above him somewhere. “But if you keep trying, keep working at it, you will be as good as Hoss and I are at it. Maybe even better. But you can’t quit, Joe. You must never quit at something because it’s hard.” Joe could almost feel Adam’s hand on his shoulder as it was in his memory. “Promise me you won’t give up?”

I promise.” The words echoed in Joe’s ears and brought a smile to his lips. “I promise,” he spoke out loud.

Opening his eyes Joe set himself a target. There was a tree maybe twenty yards away. Once he reached it he would pick another target and head for it. He wasn’t quite sure exactly where he was, but he knew that he could make it. Would make it. He wouldn’t give up. He’d promised, Adam.

Pulling himself on and dealing with the pain movement brought he pressed on farther, unaware in his confused, fever addled mind that he was dragging himself farther and farther away from his family.

–Chapter 10–

The search party all met with each others eyes hoping to find a spark of hope in them. They found none. Eyes unlocked and dropped to the ground. No luck. They had ridden along the shores of Lake Tahoe where it touched Ponderosa land and still, no luck.

“We’ll try again.” Ben dismounted and stared and the spot on the shore where Christy’s body had laid. “Fresh horses. Then we’ll try again.”

Hoss and Adam nodded absently.

Roy sighed, “Ben I’ve got to go back to town. Clem ain’t back yet so there’s nobody there to look after things.”

“I have to head back too.” Mitch lowered his eyes. “Amy’s heading back to Left Ridge today.”

“It’s okay, we understand.” Ben managed half a smile and a wave.

“Good luck, Ben, boys.” Roy took the trail leading back to town and Mitch followed him. The three Cartwright’s turned their weary horse toward home.

Nothing was said as they rode. What could be said? With the passing of the hours hope had dwindled away. How long had they been searching already? How long since they had last seen Joe? How much of a chance did they have?

Hop Sing was out on the front porch waiting for them having heard their horses riding up. He had lit the lamp by the front door the night before to guide his family back home safely and it was still burning now as night again began to once again descend over the ranch.

The cook’s eyes peered through the gathering darkness and counted the riders as they appeared. One. Two. Three… Three. The cook lowered his head. They had not found the one they were seeking for.

Turning, Hop Sing shuffled back into the house that he had spent most of the day putting back into order after the last of the guests had left. All day he had prayed to his ancestors for the safe return of his family’s youngest member. Now they had come home without him.

Hop Sing entered his kitchen and began to re-warm the dinner he had prepared. He took three place settings out to the table as the Cartwrights filed in quietly through the front door.

Ben watched Hop Sing silently pass over Joe’s usual place at the table.

“Dinner ready soon,” the cook said softly before retreating back into his kitchen.

Ben sank down into his chair and absently watched then flames lick the logs that crackled in its heat. The fires warmth seeped into his body but could not thaw the chill that wrapped around his insides.

“When are we going back out, Pa?” Hoss’ voice was soft.

“As soon as we can eat and get fresh horses.”

“Pa,” Adam sunk down on the settee. “We won’t be able to do anything in the dark. We could ride right past him and never see him.”

“But tomorrow could be too late.” Ben whispered, the thought of his son lying somewhere hurt and dying flashed through his mind.

“What if he ain’t out there to find?” Hoss didn’t know the words had slipped from his thoughts and out his mouth.

“Don’t say that.” Ben looked at his middle son, a deep frown lined his face. “Don’t even think it.”

Hoss turned and watched Hop Sing place a platter of roast and potatoes next to his fresh biscuits. The smells floated over to them, but instead of making Hoss’ stomach rumble it made it roll. Hoss was sure that no one would be eating much of Hop Sing’s dinner tonight.

“Dinner ready.” The cook quietly exited the room.

Adam sighed and stood and Hoss followed him to the table. “You got to eat, Pa” Adam took his seat at the table.

Ben nodded and silently crossed to his chair and sat down.

Plates were half filled and the meal was poked at. Hop Sing shook his head as he watched the family pretend to eat more than they had.

Ben was the first to stand. He muttered a thank you to Hop Sing before walking to the center of the great room, his hands thrust deeply into his pockets. “We’ll start out first thing in the morning. As soon as there’s enough light to see by.”

Hoss pushed back from the table and moved to stand behind his father, placing a hand on his Pa’s shoulder. “We’ll find him, Pa.” He knew he sounded more convinced than he felt. Somehow, deep inside he had a nagging feeling that he would never see his little brother again.

–Chapter 11-

He had reached his destination. A tree broken off ten feet up by some long ago storm. The wood was soft having soaked up the rain into its decaying trunk. Moss crept up its sides and covered its base.

Joe pulled himself up to it and leaned his back against it. His breath came in heaves and sweat slicked his body causing him to shiver even more.

Darkness was falling making it impossible for him to see any distance to pick a new landmark to steer himself by. Instead Joe began to again assess his injuries. There was a small amount of blood that seeped its way out of Joe’s arm.

Clumsily, Joe tore a strip of cloth from his tattered shirt and wrapped it around his arm. With a sigh, he leaned forward and widened the rip in his pant leg. His eyes met with dark bruising and swelling. He reached out and gently felt the leg hoping against his instincts that it wasn’t really broken.

He sucked air through his teeth and tried his best to suppress the moan that welled up in his chest. It wasn’t broken so much as it was cracked. Joe knew that even though it was still extremely painful he should count his blessings. At least it wouldn’t need setting.

Joe leaned his head back against the moss covered bark. Its damp coldness reminded him of the fever that was steadily rising within him.

His family was out there. It wouldn’t be long now. He would be safe. He just had to keep believing, keep trusting, keep going onward. Soon… soon…

Sleep stealthily stole over him, wrapping him in her arms and pulling him down into blissful unknowingness.

–Chapter 12–

Ben couldn’t sleep. He had tried. He had tried for hours. He rolled onto his back and sighed. Joe was gone. He wasn’t in his bed where he was supposed to be. He wasn’t warm and safe. Ben couldn’t even be sure he was alive.

Sitting up he threw his blankets back shuddering as the chill of night hit him. Joe doesn’t even have a blanket. Ben wrapped his robe around his body. He’s all alone out there.

Ben crossed to his door and opened it. He knew there was no use in it. It hadn’t been just a nightmare. Joe wouldn’t be there when he opened his youngest’s door. But he had to try anyway.

Ben placed a hand on the doorknob. Slowly he turned it. The room was empty. Ben closed his eyes. When he opened them nothing had changed. He stepped into the room and looked around at the familiar items. Everything was in its proper place except for the room’s only occupant who was supposed to be lying in the bed.

Ben’s hand absently fingered Joe’s pillow where his head should have been, his hair tousled by sleep.

“I couldn’t sleep either.” Adam’s voice made Ben turn around.

“I kept hoping it was a dream… that I would wake up.” Ben shook his head.

“I know,” Adam offered a very brief, sad smile. “I was in here earlier hoping for the same thing.” With long strides, Adam was at the window. “I was just waiting for the first sign of day.”

“It was always Joe’s favourite time of day.” Ben sank down heavily onto his son’s bed. “It wasn’t often he was up in time to see it,” Ben smiled softly. “But he said it was like everything was fresh and new. It didn’t matter what had gone wrong yesterday. There was a new day ahead full of opportunities.”

Adam rubbed a hand across his tired eyes and wondered if Joe was alive to see this sunrise or if the sun of his life had set for good.

–Chapter 13–  

A bird cried out. Joe blinked in the predawn light, trying to make sense of the shadows that surrounded him. The lonely bird cried again from a branch directly above Joe’s head. Joe tried his best to make out the bird’s coloring. He listened to its call and knew that he should recognize it. But its name escaped his mind.

“Are you lost too?” Joe was surprised at the scratchy sound of his own voice. He raised his head up and looked down at the makeshift blanket he had covered himself with in the middle of the night. The leaves and pine needless with the occasional drying pine branch had offered him little warmth but it was better than nothing.

They would find him soon. Surely by now his family was combing every inch of land looking for him. He thought briefly of Christy and prayed that she had made it safely back to shore after the undertow had pulled him away from her.

Joe closed his eyes and laid back. They had laughed when it had first happened, when they had found out that the little boat was leaking faster then they could bail. They were both strong swimmers, they hadn’t been too worried when the boat sank beneath the waters leaving them treading water and laughing at their misfortune.

Joe had taken off his jacket then had helped Christy shed herself of her heavy skirt as they picked the closest shoreline to swim toward.

Joe could still hear Christy panting as they swam against waves that kept getting bigger and bigger. “I told you we were out too far.” She had shouted after spitting out a mouthful of water. Her eyes were wide and fearful. The waves had been so small just minutes before. Now it seemed as if an unknown force were churning the waters trying to take them down.

Joe stayed close to her as Tahoe did her best to separate them and keep them from their destination. By the time the storm was full upon them they were exhausted. “Stay close to me, Christy.” Joe had struggled to make his voice heard. Keeping his head above water became harder and harder with each wave. Knowing which direction they were swimming in becoming impossible as the darkness and rain blinded him.

Joe had found himself caught up in some strange swirling current that had dragged him down. Even under water he could hear Christy screaming his name. He managed to surface and call for Christy to keep going before the next wave crested over his head and sent him back down into the darkness.

Joe opened his eyes. Dawn was beginning to challenge the darkness. Slowly she beat away the shadows and warmed the chill of night while Joe lay still and watched. The bird in the tree overhead chirped happily as if welcoming the day then hopped to the edge of the branch and launched himself into the air.

“If you happen to see Pa,” Joe whispered watching the tiny bird fly away, “Tell him I’m here.” Joe smiled softly. If only birds could talk.

He pulled himself up and grasped a nearby stick to use as a crutch of sorts before again pressing slowly and painfully on. It was a new day, fresh and ready to be discovered. Joe hoped that he too would be discovered.

He wasn’t going fast but at least he was going and each step he took was bringing him closer to his family.

If only that were true.

–Chapter 14–

Fear rode along with the three Cartwrights and Anxiety held the reins as they headed back to the lake to search again. And, although no one was ready to say it, Hope had faded as the sun raised her head. The longer they thought about it the more they realized that Joe was most likely gone and was now lost somewhere out in the vast lake.

The lake was grey in the early morning light. Birds chirped from there perches in the trees, seemingly oblivious to the sorrow that was carried by the men as they rode by.

Ben glanced at the path winding up to his Marie’s grave. Would he be able to lay her son next to her? Or was his body forever lost to Lake Tahoe? He turned his head away with a whispered, “Is he safe with you, my love?”

“Is that..?” Hoss’ unfinished question brought Ben’s eyes back to the shoreline of the lake. What they saw made him rein in Buck.  Adam and Hoss copied their father’s actions.

Ben knew what it was and who it belonged to before he had dismounted and run down to kneel by the shallow water. He clutched the dripping green jacket to his chest and bowed his head over it. Slowly the water seeped down the front of Ben’s shirt, but he didn’t seem to notice.

A shadow flitted past Ben and he looked up into the skies in time to see a small bird swoop by to disappear into the trees. Ben slowly stood, the jacket still pressed against his chest. He looked again for the little bird while thinking that his youngest had flown away before him.

“We’ll find him, Pa.” Hoss couldn’t meet his father’s eyes as he said the words.

Ben shook his head. “No, Hoss, I don’t think we will.”

“What happened to ‘don’t even think it’?” Adam watched the gentle lapping of the waters against the shore.

Ben didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer, even if he had wanted to.

–Chapter 15–

They split up, Hoss and Pa riding one way and Adam heading in the opposite direction.

Minutes slowly dwindled into hours. Spring was blooming all around Adam. The wildflowers lifted their tiny head bravely toward the sun, spreading out their rays to soak up her warmth. The sun seemed to smile down at the land she warmed. Birds chirped happily in the trees that they would make their homes.

It was the kind of day that would make any man stop and smile and enjoy the first day that could truly be deemed gorgeous after a long hard winter. But Adam Cartwright rode in the shadow of fear and the beginning of sorrow. The shadow only darkened as the day grew brighter.

Normally Adam appreciated the beautiful land that he and his Pa had come many miles and endured many trials to obtain. But not today. Maybe not ever again. At least, not to the extent that he once had.

He tried to keep his mind vacant of the thoughts hat fought hardest to invade his mind’s eye.

Onward. Yes, forward. Mustn’t stop. Can’t quit. Keep moving. Keep looking. 

Adam rode on, searching for a brother he knew would never be found. They had already combed their eyes over the shores, hoping against all odds that they would find Joe. Alive. But their search had turned up nothing. No brother to bring home. No body to burry.

Adam wasn’t a fool. He knew that if they found Joe it would only be his bloated body. As much he wanted to find his baby brother, to lay him to rest, he didn’t want to find him, to see him like that. Not like that. Not his brother.

Adam reined in Sport and frowned at some indentations in the gravely strip along the otherwise rocky shore. It could have been made by anything. He and Hoss could have made it last trip around. Or maybe…No. No, he would let his mind go there. Wouldn’t raise his hopes when there was no hope to raise.

Onward. Yes, forward. Keep going. Keep riding. Don’t let yourself think. Don’t dwell on the green eyes you will never see again. Don’t think. Ignore the tearing pain. 

Sport was pulled to a stop and Adam wept.

–Chapter 16–

Darkness veiled the little campsite that Adam had hastily thrown together when it became to dark to continue. The flames cast long waving shadows into the night. The quiet sound of the lake water lapping against the shore accompanied by a host of crickets, the occasional hoot of an owl, and the crackle of the fire were the only sounds to be heard.

Adam closed his eyes. “Adam?” almost as soon as his eyes closed a memory from many years ago floated hazily into view.

“What, Hoss?”

“Just look at him, Adam.” Hoss reached out a chubby finger and allowed it to be claimed by a much smaller hand. Baby fingers curled around Hoss’. Little Joe’s baby mouth opened as he pulled with all his three month old strength, trying to get his brother’s finger to his mouth.

“Ain’t he the most perfect thing you ever did see?” The six year old’s eye were bright.

Adam lowered his book to watch his brothers on the floor near his feet. Joe was still trying to fit Hoss’ finger in his mouth.

“He sure is little, Adam.” Hoss rubbed Joe’s tummy with his free hand. “Is he ever going to be as big as Pa?”

“Of course he will,” Adam set his book aside. “You were that little once,” Adam smiled. “Well, maybe not as little as he was at first, but he’s grown some already.”

Hoss looked between his brothers. “What if something happens to him?” His face scrunched up with worry. “He’s so little, Adam, he doesn’t even know how to yell for help.” Tears filled the sky blue eyes.

Adam knelt next to Hoss and placed a hand on his shoulder as he had seen his Pa do on numerous occasions. “That’s why God placed our Little Joe in this family. He gave him to you and me to protect.”

Hoss nodded solemnly, “We’ll protect him, won’t we, Adam.”

Adam gave the shoulder a squeeze, “Of course we will.”

Hoss turned back to Joe. “Me ‘n’ Adam’s gonna keep you safe.” He let Joe’s mouth claim his finger. “We’ll protect you.”

Adam’s eyes opened to the stars that blinked and twinkled in the sky overhead. A lone tear trailed it way down the unshaven cheek. “I’m sorry, Joe.” He whispered aloud. “Guess I failed you, didn’t I.” Miserably, Adam rolled to his side and watched the flames early into the next morning.

____***____

***

Pa was asleep. At least, if he wasn’t he was doing a good job pretending. Hoss wasn’t certain as he stared into the campfire. The flames waved and swivelled, dancing to a music human ear has never heard. The logs Hoss had just thrown on sizzled and cracked, singing a song without words.

How many times had he and Joe sat around a fire and talked? They might never have said anything important in the world’s eyes, but those conversations were easily the highlight of every tail ride he and Joe had gone on.

Hoss chucked the small rock he had been rolling around in his hand out into the darkness. He and Joe had been planning a camping trip together for a while now. It would have been so much fun. Hoss gritted his teeth and broke his gaze with the fire. He’d put it off. Twice. They’d missed out on more than good times. They’d missed out on memories. He’d lost a memory he could have had. Now it was too late. He’d never make another memory with Joe.

What was the reason? Why had they delayed the trip? It couldn’t have been important. Nothing should have been more important.

Hoss couldn’t think of a thing he wouldn’t give for just one more minute with Joe. A chance to say good bye, to say how much he loved him, to give him one last brotherly hug.

If only you could turn back the clock, take up an opportunity you had passed by. But time and opportunity pass by only once. Nothing could bring them back. No matter how much Hoss wished otherwise.

____***____

***

Cold. Shivering. Shuddering. Chattering. Joe wondered if it were his bones rattling or his teeth. Maybe it was a combination of both.

He had been dragging himself onward most of the day, taking long brakes in between. Now he eased himself to the ground for some sleep. He couldn’t continue tonight. It was quickly darkening and he was beyond exhausted. His only fear was falling asleep and not waking when the sun rose the next morning.

Raising his shoulders to try to shield his neck from the cold, he tucked his chin down and wrapped his arms around himself, tucking fingers in under his arms. He whimpered as he tried to curl his legs closer to himself.

Joe closed his eyes against the pain that radiated through nearly every part of his body and tried to concentrate on warming his clammy skin.

He didn’t want to think of how much longer he could survive without help. Earlier he had noticed the state of the gash across his chest. It had been packed with dirt and there had even been part of a leaf in the congealed blood. Red infectious streaks lined the skin that had grown warm to the touch. At least part of him was warm. He tried to smile at the thought but shook his head sadly instead.

Tears welled up behind his closed eyelids but eventually slipped through. They would be worried about him. His family was probably out there right now searching for him. Looking up at the same stars overhead.

Joe squeezed his arms tighter around himself. “I’m trying, Pa.” He whispered, “First light and I promise I’ll come.”

Joe gazed steadily through the tree branches at the stars still shining brightly overhead as they did every night. It was something you could count on like the rising of the sun. And like the love of his family. They would find him soon. They wouldn’t give up.

–Chapter 17–

It wasn’t first light. Joe wasn’t sure what time of day it was. Some sort of strange hazy fog seemed to have settled over his vision. His mind seemed unable to think straight. His limbs refused to move at his bidding.

The only thing that remained clear was the fact that he had to keep going. Nothing else made any sense. Nothing else mattered. Not the pain not the haze. Nothing. He had to get home. Had to get back to his Pa and his brothers.

It was a fight getting to his knees. Grabbing his stick, Joe tried to pull himself to his feet. It was harder than it had ever been before. Joe was not a tall man, but the ground, when he finally made it to his feet, had never looked quite so far away before.

Gritting his teeth, Joe put one foot in front of the other. He relied, not on his strength for he had none left, but on the fierce determination that he was known for. His mouth settled into a grim line and he set forward using another gnarly pine as a marker.

“I’m coming, Pa. I’m coming.”

The going was slower than ever. The sun was high overhead and finding her way through the forest of branches to where Joe limped from tree to tree leaning on each one he passed. His breaths came in heaving gasps. Sweat rolled its way down his face and neck, soaking into his grimy collar.

Keeping his eyes on his marker, even though it seemed to grow farther away with each step he took, Joe pressed on. His feet, at length, found themselves standing on a path. A real dirt path running through the forest floor.

Joe blinked at the unmistakable prints human boots next to hoof prints. The rain from days ago had left the ground in perfect condition for moulding and holding the prints. Joe’s heart raced. He was on the right track. Someone was nearby.

He stumbled forward faster than before, following the new path with new hope.

–Chapter 18–

Having reached her zenith, the sun slowly sunk down into the West. Joe’s whole body felt weak. How long had it been since he had eaten? How long since he had seen a drop of water? He thought he had swallowed enough water in the lake to last him a lifetime, but it turns out it wasn’t. How long ago had it been since he had stumbled across that little stream of cold water? And those berries that he had said a quick prayer to God that they weren’t poisonous, how long ago had he left that bush behind.

Thoughts, hours, days, they all seemed jumbled and blurred.

Catching his dragging foot on a protruding rock in the trail, he collapsed. Joe cried out in agony as the pain ripped a path through his entire body. He couldn’t go any further. He could move. He just wanted to close his eyes and let the shadows that blurred his vision to claim him.

“Promise me.” Adam’s words whispered over and over in his ears.

“I can’t go on, Adam.” Joe cried the words bringing more pain.

“Promise me you won’t give up.”

“Adam, I tried. I really tried, but I’m tired. Tired of trying.” Joe curled into himself and let his eyes droop. “I can’t…”

“Promise me.”

A sob caught in Joe’s throat. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t”

“You’re a Cartwright. Do you know what that means?” Adam’s voice was angry.

“I’m sorry, please let me go.” Joe dug his fingers into the dirt.

“You won’t give up.” The memories began to merge together until Adam was yelling at him. “You’re a Cartwright. You won’t give up.” Joe closed his eyes tighter. “You won’t give up.”

“Joe, I love you.” This time it was Pa’s voice floating through his fevered mind.

“You won’t give up.”

“I promise.” Joe shakily whispered the words.

“Joe, I love you.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise.” Joe choked out the words and reached a hand forward, clawing at the ground and dragging himself forward. “I promise.” He reached forward again grasping an exposed tree root. “I’m coming. I promised.”

–Chapter 19–

Shadows lengthened until they swallowed up everything in their path. Stars blinked in the far distance as the moon washed the world in her cold light. The evening breeze slowly turned into midnight’s chill.

Nothing out of the ordinary stirred on the forest’s floor. In one corner of the dark woods a small rodent lost the game of tag it unknowingly had played with an owl. Not far from there a gnarled tree, void of all leaves and slowly decaying back into the ground from where it had once appeared a proud seedling, let the moonlight filter through to where her old roots occasionally rippled above ground.

A hand dirty and torn rested limply on one of those roots that appeared for several inches then dove back beneath the rich earth. The fingers were curved over the root as man rests his hand on his woman’s shoulder. Gently. Tenderly.

Dirt was caked beneath the broken nails as if the hand’s owner had clawed his way to this point, his arm stretched out to take him farther but no strength left to get him there.

The dying tree shuddered, creaked, and moaned with a puff of wind that would now and then reach her. Someday soon she would fall and rot into the floors which she had stood on for nearly a century. She would make way for new trees to fill the gap she left behind. But not tonight.

Tonight she would hold the hand of this lone, forsaken human and watch over him while he lay at her feet.

–Chapter 20–

Ben looked out over the shining waters of the lake as the sun cast her first beams over it. He knew his sons were waiting for his decision. It was a decision no father should ever have to make. Ben knew his sons would stand behind his decision, whatever it may be.

The truth was hard to accept. Hope had slowly been crushed until there was nothing left. The time for searching and praying was over. The time to grieve and to accept had come. But how could Ben admit it? How could he tell his boys it was time to give up the search, to go home, to pick up where they had left off, to live on?

To say it aloud would make it true and final. Deep down, Ben couldn’t accept that. He never would be able to.

“Pa?” Adam broke through the haze in Ben’s mind.

Ben knew he had to. It was impractical to keep searching. They had a ranch to run. Lives to live. Life would go on, wouldn’t it? The sun would rise with only three Cartwrights there to view her splendour, wouldn’t she?

“We’re heading home.” The words sounded hollow and defeated, echoing from a heart Ben was sure would never be whole again.

Ben turned his gaze resting on the two remaining treasures he had. Adam’s gaze stared out at nothing and everything the muscles along his eldest’s face bunched and clenched. Hoss’ eyes were downcast. His slumped shoulders quivered in a quiet sob of the deepest anguish.

Ben turned back around, unable to look into Adam’s unseeing eyes nor Hoss’ tear filled ones. Tears of his own slipped unchecked down his weary face. He wanted to scream, to throw something at the waters that had stolen his son. But he didn’t. He knew it could not bring back what he had lost. So instead he let his tears fall and his blurred eyes watch the rippling waves as they laughed at his sorrow.

–Chapter 21–

Joe opened his eyes slowly. The world around him was brighter somehow, the colors more vivid. Cautiously he sat up, but this time the pain didn’t rip through him. He looked around him in every direction. He was still on a rough dirt path, but it was different from the one he had been on just seconds ago… or was it hours?

“Joe!” Joe looked for the source of the voice. His breath caught in his chest as a young man appeared in front of him, as if out of nowhere.

“Joe,” The voice chuckled. “You’ve finally come!”

Joe looked up and blinked in surprise. “Jack?” He scrambled easily to his feet, his childhood friend grasping his arm and pulling him. “Is it really you?” Joe looked down at the hand on his arm. “But it’s impossible. You’re… I saw you… die. We all did.”

Jack grinned and nodded.

Joe’s smile vanished and he paled. “Am I… did I…”

Jack gave Joe’s arm a tug. “Come with me, Joe.” He took off running with a glance back and a beckoning wave.

Joe hesitated, but only for a moment, then ran after him. The path they were on rose steeply toward where it looked like the sun was rising. Only that was impossible. Joe stopped and looked overhead to where the sun was already shining. Could there be more than one sun?

Jack was at the crest of the hill. “Come on, Joe! There are so many people who’ve been waiting to see you again!”

Joe looked back to where they had come from. The colors that had seemed so vivid were fading into a grey. The path ran straight and long and the longer Joe stared at it the closer everything seemed to get. Squinting, he saw where the path ended in the other direction.

He could see the ranch house. Cochise was tied out front and the door was opened as if it were a sunny summer day. Joe’s felt his heart beat harder as he watched his Pa walk out into the yard.

“Joe?” Pa paused in the yard and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Joe? Where are you?” He sounded worried. Scared.

“Joe?” Jack called from above. “Hurry, Joe!”

Joe took another step toward the light glowing at the top of the hill. But every step he took toward Jack made the path behind him grow darker and duller. He could barely make out his Pa as he continued to call for him.

Another sound made Joe turn back toward Jack and the unknown light. Singing. Soft, gentle lullabies drifted over the ridge. Joe recognized the voice and the song. “Ma?” The singing stopped.

“Joseph?” A woman’s voice called.

“Ma?” Joe began to run again toward the waiting light.

“Little Joe!” It was Hoss’ voice. Joe was sure there were tears in it. “Where are you little brother?”

“Hoss,” Joe slowed and looked back to the faded land that had been his world. “Ma,” He felt the weight of his decision.

“Joe,” Hoss called again, but his voice was growing ever more distant, fading along with Pa’s.

Joe was almost to the top. He blinked in the growing light. Then he heard crying. Soft, quiet sobs. Again he stopped. He had never heard this cry before and yet, somehow he knew who it belonged to. “Adam,” Joe whispered softly.

“Joe,” Jack sounded impatient. “Come on. Come see.” He disappeared over the ridge, leaving Joe alone.

He felt torn. The voices of those he loved called for him. Cried for him. Wanted him. He couldn’t stay in both any more than he couldn’t remain here in between.

Something pulled at him from the light and whatever lay beyond. He took a few more steps upward. Somehow they were easier than going back down. Another few steps and he would be able to see over the ridge to the valley below. His mind thought through all those who would be there waiting for him and a smile crossed his face. But then… he looked back into the darkness and the pain it would bring.  But there on the other side of that darkness was a light. A light so dim he could barely see it. It reminded him of the lantern that hung on their front porch guiding him home when it was dark out and the moon and stars were hidden from view.

“I’m sorry,” He whispered to those he loved and headed toward the light of his choice.

–Chapter 22–

A buggy slowly pulled to a stop in the yard of front of the Ponderosa ranch house. Reverend Ferris sighed and climbed out. He ran a hand through rapidly thinning hair then smoothed out the front of his shirt. Unlike his other visits to the Ponderosa no one came out to greet him as he slowly strode toward the door.

He hesitated in raising his fist and knocking on the door, looking back to his buggy and wishing his buggy were back home. Because that would mean he was there too. But he had a duty to perform.

Ben answered the door and took in the man standing before him, “Reverend.” He stood aside and politely ushered his guest inside.

“I can’t stay long, Ben”

“Can I get you some coffee? Tea?”

“No. Neither, thank you.”

Ben motioned to a chair and the greying preacher lowered himself into it. “What brings you here, Reverend?”

“I wanted to give you and Hoss and Adam my and Mrs. Ferris’ condolences and to offer you my services.”

“Services?” Ben sank down in his own chair.

“You’ll be wanting a… memorial of sorts, won’t you?” Caleb Ferris looked down at his clasped hands. He hated this part of his calling.

“Oh,” was all Ben could think to say. His mind ran back to the funeral that had taken place on the hill overlooking Lake Tahoe. Only then it had been Joe’s mother who had been stolen from him too young. Both mother and son taken away far too soon.

“Ben?”

“Yes,” Ben nodded. “We need something to… say goodbye.”

“I know it’s hard, Ben, but with God’s help we can make it through.”

“God’s help,” Ben shook his head sadly. “Where was God’s help when my son was drowning, Reverend? Where was God then?”

“I don’t pretend to know God’s whole plan, Ben. No man ever will. Some things we will never understand.” Reverend Ferris leaned forward in his chair. “But one thing we do know, He cares, Ben. In our darkest trials, in our sorrow, in our laughter he is always there. He says, ‘Yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands,’” The old preacher looked down into his own palms. “His word tells us that no man can ‘pluck them out of my hand.’ In Psalms we can find comfort in these words: ‘He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.’”

“We don’t always understand, Ben. We just have to trust that he does.”

–Chapter 23–

Adam leaned heavily against the corral fence and watched the land as dusk fell like a curtain. Tomorrow would be his youngest brother’s memorial service. Held on the shores of Tahoe, they expected a large number of friends to make their way out there to pay their last respects to one loved by many.

Joe’s best friend, Mitch, had ridden in the day before to tell them that his Amy and her father, Craig, were coming in on the stage from Left Ridge just so they could be there. Another friend of Joe’s, Seth, was forgoing his only chance at a week off to stay and come to the service. Adam wished Joe could know all those who would gather to show their love for him.

“Adam?” Adam heard Hoss come toward him but didn’t turn or acknowledge him.

Hoss crossed his arms over the top rail of the fence and lowered his chin onto them. “Remember the first time Joe rode a horse?” Hoss sighed. “He nearly gave Marie a heart attack when he dug his heels into that critter and the old horse tossed him in the dirt.”

“I’m leaving tomorrow.” Adam acted as if he hadn’t heard his brother.

“What?” Hoss straightened leaving only his hands on the fence. “You can’t leave now, Adam.”

“The ranch has to keep going, Hoss.” Adam tried to sound businesslike to hide the fact that he couldn’t stand being surrounded by so many memories. “There are still contracts that need to be filled, and others that need to be secured.”

Hoss understood his brother better than Adam thought he did. “When will you be back?”

When the hurt stops Adam thought to himself. Turning to Hoss for the first time he sighed quietly, “I don’t know.”

“You will stay for the service won’t you?”

“Of course I will. Joe’d never forgive me if I missed it.” Adam gave a small sad smile that faded away faster than it had come.

“I still can’t believe it,” Hoss looked out to where Cochise milled about sadly in the corral. “I keep expecting him to come through the door. This morning I almost went up to wake him up. I had my hand on his door when I remembered he wasn’t just sleeping in. He’s gone.”

Adam turned his head away so his brother couldn’t see the tears that welled in his eyes.

“I keep wonderin’ why.” Hoss shook his head, “Guess there’s ain’t an answer to that question.” Hoss looked over at Adam and sighed. Would he never show emotion? “The world won’t think any less of you if you cry, Adam.” Hoss turned to head back to the house. “They might even think more of you.”

Adam squeezed his eyes shut and let the tears track down his face. He listened to Hoss’ retreating footsteps. He had to leave this place. Too many memories lingered in every corner. He couldn’t go anywhere without thinking of Joe. There was no place he could go where the memories didn’t echo. No place here at least.

As soon as the service was over tomorrow he would leave. Maybe in time the memories would fade away to a dull ache instead of a ripping pain. When they did, only then would Adam return.

–Chapter 24–

Today it was official. Joseph Francis Cartwright was gone. Black clad mourners made their way to the shores of Tahoe. The waters were still. The wind dared not to blow. Sniffles from the women present and the occasional chirp of a bird was the only other noise as Reverend Ferris read from the scriptures, his voice rising and falling over the familiar words.

Ben stood flanked by his remaining sons and stared out over the cruel waters. He had worn his black suit and had dusted off his black hat for the occasion. That morning he had gazed steadily at his reflection in a mirror and knew that his clothing was not nearly as dark as his sorrow.

Flowers, brilliant and beautiful flowers were tossed in a heap on the rocky shore. Vibrant, like Joe was, or rather, like Joe had been.

  1.  Hoss thought sorrowfully on the word. He had once had a brother, a best friend. Had. But not anymore. How he loathed that word and what it meant.

It meant no more laughter, no more smiles, no more little brother. How it hurt! How it brought stinging tears to his eyes and burning pain to his heart. His baby brother was gone forever.

  1.  So final. So definite. Adam dwelt bitterly on the word. Joe wasn’t just gone for a while. He wouldn’t turn around one day and find his brother there. Death was final. Forever. Forever without Joe. As if he had never been.

Love was a painful thing. Was it worth the pain it left in its wake? Adam wished briefly that Joe had never been. If Joe had never been then the gaping crevice in his heart wouldn’t be either.

But he didn’t wish it long when he remembered how full his heart had been for years. Joe had completed them. Now there were three again, the fourth lost. Forever.

Adam looked at the flowers littering the last place Joe had stood on the earth. There had been no goodbyes, no final look, no clasped hands or hugs. He had simply jumped into a rowboat with his latest girlfriend and left with every intension of returning in time for a slice of Hoss’ birthday cake. But the lake had another plan.

Adam stared out across the waters that would be the final resting place of his brother. People were bowing their heads as the pastor prayed, but Adam kept looking out over the lake. His saddle bags were packed. He would leave this place and its haunting memories.

–Chapter 25–

“Come on, son,” a voice penetrated the foggy mists that seemed to shroud Joe’s mind. “You can do it,” the voice urged. Joe felt a warm hand wrap gently around his wrist. The hand was rough and yet soft and gentle at the same time.

“Pa?” Joe tried to open his heavy eyelids.

“No, son, not your pa.” The voice was deep like Pa’s but different. “But if you’d open your eyes for ol’ Jedidiah then maybe we can figure out where you really belong.”

“Who?” Joe managed to open his eyes a crease.

“Jedidiah,” Joe tried to make out the speaker, but the fog in his head seemed to be clouding his vision as well.

“Where…” Joe’s voice croaked and he swallowed. Closing his eyes again, Joe almost wished he could return to the dark abyss of nothingness. Almost. But not quite. The voice had wanted to find his Pa.

“Don’t you go fallin’ asleep on me again.” The hand on his arm shook him. “Open them eyes of yours.”

Joe obeyed and blinked quickly, trying to pull the room into focus.

“There we go.” The man leaned closer, “Green eyes.”

Joe blinked up at the man above him. In the dim cabin light Joe at first couldn’t make him out. Jedidiah was old with only a bit of white hair clinging to either side of his head. His eyes looked nearly black and his skin was a color just darker than Pa’s eyes.

“Where?” Joe forced the word through swollen and cracked lips.

“This here’s my cabin. I have a little claim I work not to far from here.” The man named Jedidiah smiled showing teeth that seemed very white against his dark skin. “I found you on my path about five days ago,” the smile faded. “Thought for sure you was going kick off to the beyond. Nearly did once or twice.” Jedidiah filled a dipper in the bucket sitting near the foot of the chair he was in. “You fought hard, boy. Your Pa’ll be proud of you.”

Joe opened his lips as the dipper was pressed against them. He drank thankfully.  A sigh escaped his lips as the dipper was pulled away.

“You got a name?”

“Joe,” he sank back against a hard pillow, “Joe Cartwright.”

Jedidiah’s eyebrows came up, “You’re Cartwright?” Jedidiah shook his head and filled the dipper again.

Joe lifted his head again to drink more of the cool water.

I heard there was a Cartwright gone and drown hisself last time I was in town. Quite a lot of folks talkin’ ‘bout it. Was on my home when I found you.” The older man straightened the blanket covering Joe. “You sure was a ways from the lake though. You must have been walkin’ or crawlin’ a long time.”

Joe’s eyes started drooping, “My Pa must be worried sick.” He licked his lips, “He’s out there looking for me.”

“Son,” Jedidiah shook his head, “Your Pa thinks your dead. They’ve probably already buried you, not in body a’course.”

“Can you get word to them?” Joe asked worriedly.

“I would Joe, but it’s a day there and a day back to Virginia City and you can’t be left alone that long right now.” He waved a hand, “Don’t argue with me. Yesterday you was on the threshold of Heaven. You was so close almost heard the angels singin’.”

“But…”

“Nope, don’t start. Just rest and get well, then we’ll talk about getting you back to your family.”

–Chapter 26—

The sun rose sluggishly into the sky, eventually finding her way to shine on a small cabin nestled in among the pines.

The door of the cabin swung open letting the light from outside stream in before Jedidiah pushed the door closed again with his boot. “Morning, Joe” Jedidiah tossed his arm load of sticks into the box beside his little fireplace. “You warm enough?” The older man placed a calloused hand on Joe’s forehead.

“Warm,” Joe whispered hoarsely.

“Yes, you are.” Jedidiah frowned and removed his hand. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” Joe answered honestly.

“Think you can eat something?”

“Maybe a little,” Joe tried to push himself up with his arms.

Jedidiah propped up the pillow and helped Joe to sit. “I’ve got some stew from last night. Maybe I’ll give you the broth and eat the meat myself.” The old man grinned.

Joe nodded feeling winded after the little movement. He frowned, hating the weakness he felt. “How about today?” Joe asked, hope sparking in his eyes.

“I might as well shoot you in the leg then tie you to a puma’s tail.”

“I can make it two days without you.” Joe pleaded.

“You can’t even sit up by yourself.” Jedidiah shook his head. “They already think you’re dead.” He faced Joe. “I know you don’t want to hear it, and I’m sorry. But a few more days isn’t going to make all that much difference to them, but it will for you.”

“I’m fine.”

Jedidiah threw up his hands and rolled his eyes. “You keep saying that, but it ain’t true. You’ve got a bit of a fever comin’ back and your all busted up and weak.” Jedidiah scooped up the bowl of broth for Joe. “Do you give your pa this much trouble?”

Joe felt a tired smile tug at the corners of his mouth. “You sound just like him.”

“I’m a pa too, Joe.” Jedidiah looked sadly down into the broth. “If someone could tell me where he was… that he was alive…” The older man cleared his voice and looked away. “But I wouldn’t want anyone to risk his health to get the news to me, as much as I have dreamed of hearing it.”

“Jedidiah…” Joe looked at the man who had saved his life, and couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Jedidiah saw the struggle in Joe’s eyes. “It’s alright, son. It’s not as hard as it used to be.”

“What happened?” Joe watched Jedidiah sink into his little wooden chair by his bed.

Jedidiah ran a hand over what was left of his white hair. “It wasn’t many years ago, Joe,” the older man brought his eyes up to look into Joe’s. “I was a slave. My son was born a slave and my wife died a slave. It was all we knew. Being treated like we was less than the dirt we worked and the cotton we picked.”

Jedidiah stirred the bowl of broth quietly for several moments. “When Samuel was about your age he fought with one of the overseer’s. The man was attacking one of our girls. My Sam was sold the next day.” The father shook his head. “They said they didn’t need a rebel on their hands. My wife was already dead. I begged to be sold with him, but they didn’t much care whether families got separated or not. Just so long as their cotton made it to market, they didn’t care. What were we anyways?”

“Jedidiah,” Joe reached out and rested his hand on the other man’s arm, “I’m sorry.” Joe knew the words were inadequate and wouldn’t change anything for his new friend.

“I searched for him. Once we was all free, I searched for him. But I never found out where he was sent to. No one would help. If they kept record of where they sold their property, they wouldn’t share it. Told me they didn’t keep record of every worthless cow they sold.” Bitterness laced his words. “He could be anywhere, or he could be dead. Just wish I knew either way.”

“I know what your Pa’s going through, Joe. Losing a son…” Jedidiah stood and went over to stare into the flames. “He’ll be glad we waited until it was safe. Glad that we didn’t risk your health.” Turning back to Joe, “He’s a lucky man, getting a son back from the dead.”

–Chapter 27—

Jedidiah watched Joe’s chest rise and fall as he leaned his back against the wall of his cabin. There was a smile on the younger man’s lips while he slept. Jedidiah had agreed to ride toward town come first light and search out Ben Cartwright.

In the days that had passed Joe became stronger and was now able to get around just fine by himself. The time had come for him to return to his family. Jedidiah would never say it aloud but he was going to miss him. Ever since he had given up the search for his son he had isolated himself here on this mountainside. He had never really realized how lonely he was until now.

He was a little anxious to meet Ben Cartwright. He had raised his son well. And bringing such news to a good man, to a fellow father…

A log in the fireplace collapsed sending sparks leaping out only to die away before reaching the ground. Jedidiah had often sat and watched the sparks fly. They glittered for a moment then disappeared in the darkness. Just like a life, bursting forth and shining so briefly, then extinguished and forgotten about. But then again, sometimes it only took one spark to burn down a forest, to change the world.

Joe sighed in his sleep bringing Jedidiah out of his musings. He was jealous of this Ben Cartwright. He wondered if the man knew how blessed he was. If he didn’t, Jedidiah was sure going to let him know.

–***–

Hop Sing set the last dish on the table and nodded at Ben’s muttered “Thank you,” before heading back to his warm kitchen. Hoss wasn’t there again and the sight of Ben alone at that big table only reminded the cook of all the family, his family, had lost.

The house that had once echoed with laughter now sat silent save for the footfalls of people coming and going.

On nights like this one not so long ago Hop Sing would have heard the brothers banter back and forth and would have smiled from his place in the kitchen. Then with a call of thanks the family would have headed to finish the chores or sit around the fireplace. Adam might have taken out his guitar or whatever book he happened to be reading while Hoss and Joe sat down to a game of checkers that Joe was bound to win, honestly or not. Ben would have sat back watching with the hint of a smile on his face that read perfect contentment.

But now… now Ben was alone, his shoulders slumped, his sons all gone. First Joe, then Adam, and even though Hoss wasn’t altogether gone he seemed to leave at sunup and return later each night.

There were times when Hop Sing wanted to remind Ben that he was still there, but he decided that it would be a poor consolation to a man who had lost what had been his life.

The kettle on the stove whistled and Hop Sing pulled out of his sorrowful musings. The cook poured himself a cup of the hot liquid and sat down at his table. Picking up his fork, he heard the front door open and paused to listen.

“Hoss?” Ben’s voice called.

“It’s me, Pa,” Hop Sing had to strain to hear to words.

“You hungry, son?” Hop Sing stood at the words and reached for the plate he always left out just in case.

“I guess so.” Hoss’ voice grew louder as he came closer to the table.

Hop Sing entered the room and cast a quick glance at Hoss. He looked worn and thinner. “Mr. Hoss want coffee? Tea?”

“I’ll take some coffee, Hop Sing,” Hoss sank down into his chair. “Thanks.”

Hop Sing nodded happily glad to be of some use and hurried back to his kitchen.

“You’ve been pretty scarce lately.” Ben said softly.

“I know, Pa,” Hoss sighed. “I just needed a bit of time to… I don’t know.”

“I understand,” Ben paused as Hops Sing placed the coffee in front of Hoss’ plate. “I just wish we could have worked through it together. Families are supposed work through things together and we…” Ben looked down at his plate. “We fell to pieces. I thought we were stronger then that. I guess that’s my fault, but…”

“It ain’t your fault, Pa.” Hoss shook his head. “It’s all of ours. Adams. Mine. All of us.”

Hop Sing knew he should pry into the family conversation and disappeared back into his kitchen. His food was cold but he didn’t feel much like eating anyways. The voices from the other room drifted in, but he tried not to listen to them.

Maybe they would sort things out and the house would become a home once more. And maybe someday laughter would return, like spring flowers after a hard winter.

–Chapter 28–

Jedidiah dismounted his old horse and patted her neck. “What do you say, Ebony, my girl? Would you like some oats maybe? You deserve a good rest.” Jedidiah knocked forcefully on the unpainted door of the dimly lit livery stable.

The light grew closer and brighter as the livery’s owner made his way to the door. “Who’s there?” The door opened a crack.

“Just want to put up my horse for the night. We’ve come a long way.” Jedidiah watched as the man’s eyes narrowed and surveyed him. He was used to all sorts of glares.

“I remember you.” The man opened the door wider. “Weren’t you here not to long ago?”

Jedidiah nodded and handed the reins over to the man, knowing that the livery owner didn’t want him setting a toe inside the stable. The man was more than happy to take his money and stable his horse, but he had made it clear in the past that he couldn’t be seen letting a man of color into his stable. It might damage his reputation.

Jedidiah slapped Ebony’s rump as she was led into the warm stable. “See you in the morning.”

A hand shot back out of the stable, palm up. “I’ll take the money now.”

Jedidiah sighed and dug in his pocket. Placing a bit extra for some oats in the man’s hand he tipped his hat and headed for the only place that would put him up for the night.

Miss Clementine was a little flighty but she was kind. Kind enough to let him stay in the little room at the back of her house that doubled as a storage area because it was too small for her to let out.

The sun had set but there was still a light on at the Widow Hawkins’ house. Jedidiah walked lightly up the porch steps and rapped gently on the front door just in case any of the Widow’s tenants were sleeping.

“Why, Jedidiah,” Miss Clementine’s voice sounded before the door was fully open. “I thought it would be another month at least before Virginia City saw you again.”  She waved him in and showed him to a chair. “What do we owe this pleasure to, Jedidiah?”

“I have news to deliver.” Even though Jedidiah liked this woman because she was kind to him, he didn’t feel right telling her any more than he had already.

“What sort of news can you hear up on the mountain of yours?”

“You’d be surprised.” Jedidiah smiled.

“Would I?” Clementine seated herself on the edge of a chair. “Do tell.”

“Sorry, Miss Hawkins,” Jedidiah shifted in his seat. “I’m afraid my message is for one man and his ears only.”

Widow Hawkins sighed, “Could you tell me who the message is for?”

Jedidiah shook his head.

“I bet it’s for Roy, isn’t it? You came across some desperados while you were up on the mountain.”

Jedidiah shook his head again, “The news will be out soon enough.”

“Big news then?” The woman stood and shrugged. “You’re mean to tease me, but never let it be said Clementine Hawkins wasn’t a patient woman. I guess I’ll just wait to hear it with everyone else.”

“Now,” Clementine motioned for Jedidiah to stand. “You look tired, Jed. How about I show you to your room? I have an empty one upstairs that you can sleep in if you would like.”

Jedidiah shook his head, “Thank you, ma’am, but I reckon I’ll just stick with my normal room.”

“You sure?” Clementine looked over her shoulder.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The woman led him through the kitchen and into the back room.

“Would you like payment in advance?” Jedidiah dug into his pocket.

“Nonsense,” Clementine snorted. “I’ve known you long enough to know you’ll not skip out without paying. Besides,” she smiled, “you may decide to stay an extra day.”

Jedidiah thanked her then settled onto the bed after the door had closed behind Clementine. He knew for certain he wouldn’t be staying another night. Unless Joe’s love for his pa was a one way relationship, Ben Cartwright would be on his horse before Jedidiah could tell him which way to go.

A smile played over the old man’s lips then died away faster then it had come. Leaning back on the pillow he closed his eyes and sighed. They said that pain lessened with time and he had assured Joe that it had, but sometimes it seemed like the wounds were still fresh.

Some nights he could hear his own voice calling after the wagon that had come to take his son away. “I’ll find you, son. We’ll be together again. I promise.” 

Jedidiah opened his eyes to the darkness that surrounded him, and prayed as he had every night since that day. “God, help my son, wherever he is, and tell him I love him.”

–Chapter 29–

Virginia City began to stir just before the sun could peak her head over the eastern horizon. Jedidiah was already up and waiting in front of the sheriff’s office. If anyone would help him find the Cartwright ranch he figured the sheriff would. After all, it was his job to help people as well as protect them.

Jedidiah kept his head down hoping not to draw any attention to himself. But even still one man passing by kicked dirt in his direction. Jed kept his eyes lowered unwilling to try to start anything over it. He had given up on that sort of thing a long time ago.

Some people who called themselves wise still couldn’t understand the meaning of the phrase “All men are created equal,” and Jedidiah couldn’t see that changing anytime soon.

The scraping of boots along the boardwalk brought Jedidiah’s head up as someone stopped behind him. Jedidiah stood to his feet and took off his hat, pinning it to his chest with both of his hands. “Are you the sheriff, sir?”

“That’s me.” Roy Coffee let his eyes do a quick search of the man in front of him out of years of habit then looked straight into his dark eyes. “Can I do something for you, friend?”

“I’m searching for Ben Cartwright.” Jedidiah saw the sheriff raise his eyebrow and explained, “I have a message for him.”

“I was going to head out there myself this afternoon. If you want to give me the message I can take it to him.”

“No, sir, thank you, but this is a message that has to be delivered personally.”

Roy scratched the back of his neck. The man in front of him didn’t seem like he could be a threat to his old friend, but then the most deadly killers sometimes turned out to be the person you’d least suspect. “Could you tell me what kind of message it is that you’re deliverin’?”

Jedidiah lowered his eyes, “I know it sounds suspicious, Sheriff, sir, but I can’t be tellin’ no one but Mr. Cartwright.” He brought up his gaze and held the sheriff’s hoping the other man would see that he meant only good not harm.

“We’ll leave as soon as my deputy shows up.”

“Thank you, sir.”

___**___

**

If Jedidiah had any doubts about the stories he had overheard regarding the Ponderosa’s greatness they were now gone. Beautiful land stretched out in every direction like a vast empire. A man could get lost in amongst the trees and hills, but the well traveled trail was easy to follow. He probably hadn’t needed the sheriff’s guidance after all.

The sound of the striking of an axe blade against wood met the rider’s ears before they came in full view of the ranch house.

Jedidiah smiled as he mentally placed his mountain shack next to the sprawling log home.

“Hoss,” Sheriff Coffee raised a hand in greeting.

Jedidiah slipped the name into his mind and silently rolled it over his tongue as he swept his eyes over the young man who had paused his wood splitting to return the sheriff’s greeting. This would be middle brother Joe had mentioned.

“Hey, Roy, what brings you out here?” The broad man took in Jedidiah with a quick glance.  “There ain’t trouble is there?”

“Came to see your Pa and was sorta hoping to stay for one of Hop Sing’s lunches.” Roy nodded toward Jedidiah, “This here is Jedidiah. He’s got a message of some sort for your Pa.”

“A message?” Ben strode out into the yard and gave Jedidiah a friendly smile and a nod.

“Can I talk to you privately, Mr. Cartwright?” Jedidiah dismounted and loosely wrapped his reins around a rail in the corral fence.

Ben’s brow puckered. “Whatever it is you have to say can be said in front of my son and my friend.”

“It’s about your son.” Jedidiah was not prepared for the reaction.

Ben’s face grew ashen. “Not, Adam,” his voice was barely above a whisper.

Hoss’ fists clenched, “What happened? Where’s my brother?”

Jedidiah slowly smiled and shook his head. “Not Adam. Joe.”

“Joe?” Ben shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re too late. My son is dead.” Ben turned to hide the grief that tore at him.

“No,” Jedidiah looked between the three men, “he’s not.”

“Please, Mister,” Hoss shook his head sadly, “don’t go tellin’ us things we know ain’t true.”

“But it is.” Jedidiah had never considered that they may not believe him. “I found him a while back on the path up to my place.” Jedidiah fumbled in his pocket for the item Joe had given him. “Here, look.”

Ben’s breath caught in his throat as he reached out to take the frame the man held in his hand. The picture had been ruined by water, but the frame was still intact. Ben fingered it almost reverently. He looked up to Hoss and saw tears in his son’s eyes. “This is Marie’s frame.”

“Joe never went anywhere without his momma’s picture tucked in his pocket.” Hoss swiped at a tear as a smile quivered over his face.

Roy watched with tears in his own eyes. Could it be? Could Little Joe really be alive?

“If this is a dream,” Ben grasped Jedidiah’s hand and shook it, “don’t anybody wake me.”

“It ain’t a dream.” Jedidiah smiled at the joy that shown in the father’s eyes. “He’s up at my place complaining and tellin’ me he’s fine.”

“That’s our Joe!” Hoss laughed and slapped Roy on the back.

“Show me the way.” Ben ran toward the barn.

“Jedidiah,” Hoss grasped the man’s hand. “You can’t have any idea what you’ve given us.”

Jedidiah smiled and watch Hoss hurry to the barn to saddle his horse. “Yes, I think I can.”

–Chapter 30–

Joe had woken that morning feeling better than he had in a long time. Partially because he was getting better, but mostly because he knew it wouldn’t be long before his pa and brothers showed up.

He had argued for hours with Jed for the right to be allowed to come along, but in the end Jedidiah only had one old tired horse and he wasn’t about to let Joe ride in alone. And so Joe waited. He tried to pace but quickly became too tired for that. He was better, but not well.

Sitting on the cot that had been his prison for nearly two weeks he leaned his back against the wall and closed his eyes. The sounds of the surrounding woods penetrated the walls of the cabin and Joe soon dozed off to the sound of birds chirping and the wind rustling the branches of trees.

The cabin was dim, almost dark when he opened his eyes again. A sound had awakened him, but he didn’t know what it had been. He tensed, his ears straining to pick up the noise again. His heart beat a little faster and his eyes traveled to the long gun mounted over the cabin door.

Horses. Joe breathed easier then pushed himself off the bed. Excitement made his hands shake as he lit the lantern and tried to peer out the window. The darkness outside made it impossible to see the riders as they approached up the path.

“Joseph?” A deep voice cried out as soon as the riders were close enough to spot the light in the window.

“Pa,” the word was only a whisper on trembling lips. Joe ran a hand over his unruly hair as he hurried to the door and lifted the latch, leaving the lantern on the table.

The moon shone down on the scene below as Joe stepped out of the cabin and found his gaze met by his father’s.

“Joe,” Ben was off his horse and running like a young man toward his son. Joe limped a few paces into his father’s arms. “We thought you were dead.”

“I know,” Joe buried his head in his pa’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you have nothing to be sorry for.” Ben gently touched the back of his son’s curly head. “You didn’t give up. I’m so proud of you and so sorry that we gave up on you.” Tears spilled down Ben’s cheeks.

“Joe,” Hoss touched his brother’s arm and felt a wave of emotion sweep over him.

Joe pulled away from his pa to fall into Hoss’ strong arms.

“I thought…” Hoss choked on his words.

“I’m fine, Hoss. Really.”

“You’re thinner than a beanpole.” Hoss held his brother back at arms length.

“Jed’s been starving me.” Joe laughed.

All eyes turned to the man who stood back in the shadows watching the reunion.

“I don’t know how to thank you, Jedidiah.” Ben moved to shake Jedidiah’s hand. “You’ve given me back more than you can imagine.”

Jedidiah’s eyes met Joe’s knowing ones for a fraction of a second then rested back on Ben. “T’weren’t no trouble. I’ve enjoyed the company.”

“Well, I hope he wasn’t too much trouble.” Hoss slapped his brother on the back then smiled sadly at the way Joe swayed on his feet. He wrapped an arm around Joe’s shoulders mostly to assure himself that Joe wouldn’t fall over. “We know how plain ornery he can get when he’s not feeling well.”

“Pa?” Joe suddenly looked around confused. In the excitement he had missed something. “Where’s Adam?”

A sad look crossed over both Ben and Hoss’ face. Joe felt his stomach tighten and even Jedidiah looked genuinely worried. “He’s okay; isn’t he?” Joe’s voice was edged with a panic.

“No, nothing like that.” Ben crossed back over to Joe. “He left shortly after…” Ben glanced at Hoss and decided not to mention the memorial service right then. “We’ve only heard from him once, but he had some business to settle. Some things to work out on his own.”

Joe nodded. “So he doesn’t know.” His stomach felt sick just thinking that Adam still thought he was dead. He didn’t want to imagine what that would feel like.

“Roy was over when we heard the news. He promised to send Adam a wire. He’ll be back before you know it.”

Joe nodded. “Jedidiah,” He gave a small smile to the man who had made this reunion possible. “Do you reckon you could a find place for my family to bunk for the night?”

Jedidiah smiled back, “It would be my pleasure.”

–Chapter 31–

Adam jumped down from the stage then turned to help the other passenger, a middle aged woman, down onto the dusty street. This latest town was an ugly one, but with a little negotiating on a lumber contract, it would be a profitable one.

“Adam Cartwright?” Adam turned toward the voice and set down the bag that had just been thrown at him.

“I’m Adam Cartwright.” Adam found his hand taken by a firm grip followed by a smile.

Adam returned the handshake but not the smile. “Mr Tangen, the Ponderosa is always glad to do business with you.”

Neil Tangen raised an eyebrow and surveyed Ben’s eldest son with a quick sweeping gaze. “How’s your father holding up?” The man waited for Adam to pick up his bag. “We heard about your brother. What was his name?”

“Joseph,” Adam’s eyes darkened, unnoticed by Neil Tangen.

Neil brushed a hand over his neat hair. “I’m sorry. Terrible thing that.”

Adam nodded and kept his head down. What did this man know about anything? He wanted to lash out. No matter how many times he rationalized that slamming his fist into a wall or someone’s gut couldn’t change anything or bring back what he had lost, he couldn’t help thinking that it might make him feel better. Maybe if Mr Tangen was in pain from a well placed fist then maybe some of the pain that riddled Adam would lessen somehow. And from the greased and uncaring look of Mr Tangen Adam thought the world might actually be appreciative.

“I’ve reserved you a room at the hotel over there,” Neil waved his hand toward a two story slightly dilapidated building with chipping sky blue paint. “You can get settled in and then drop by our house for supper. My girl Milly’s young still, but she’s a good cook and even better looking.”

Adam nodded even though he didn’t feel the least bit interested in food, or his daughter.

Entering the hotel lobby, Adam followed the worn path in the carpet to the front desk. “The name’s Cartwright. I believe you have a room reserved for me?” Adam set down his bag and let his eyes flick over the faded curtains and wallpaper.

The clerk slowly stood and open the registry book muttering “Cartwright” as he ran a finger down the page. “Room 17,” the clerk turned and took a key off the ring.

Adam reached for the key only to have the clerk close his fingers around it. “It’s hotel policy to receive payment in advance. It’s not that we don’t trust you, sir. Just that one too many a cowboy has snuck away without paying.” The man said in a rehearsed voice. “I’m sure you understand.”

“I understand the policy but my room was reserved by Mr. Tangen.” Adam pointed back to the book that still lay open on the counter.

“Yes, sir,” he glanced back to the page, “Mr. Cartwright. Reserved, but not paid for.” The clerk smiled at Adam’s slightly bewildered face. “You obviously have never met Mr. Tangen before.”

“No,” Adam sighed and reached into his pocket. “How much?”

The clerk pointed to the sign on the counter then recounted the change he was handed before handing Adam the key. “You’ll find your room up the stairs and to your right.” He pointed toward the stair case. “Enjoy your stay,” he finished, slapping on a pathetic smile.

“Thank you,” Adam lifted his bag and headed toward the creaking stairs.

Room 17 was right where the clerk had said and with a turn of the key Adam was inside. After tossing his bag onto a sagging green chair, Adam slid the bolt on the door and locked himself inside the small room.

Running a hand over his chin, Adam glanced into the small mirror mounted on the wall next to the curtained window. He would definitely need to shave before supper. He had inherited his full beard from his pa.

“Pa,” Adam whispered the word aloud then stared into his own eyes. How was his pa? Adam broke his gaze with himself as he realized he hadn’t noticed. He had been too busy trying to escape his own pain and the memories that haunted the house. He was convinced that they could shove the entire population of Virginia City into that house and it would still somehow feel empty. It would never be full again. It couldn’t be.

Did Joe know the gap he had left behind? Adam wished there was a way he could tell him.

Adam crossed over to the narrow bed and lay across it, tossing his hat toward the chair where he had left his bag. The hat missed and skidded across the floor.

Sighing, Adam folded his arm to cover his eyes. He kept seeing his pa’s face as it had been watching him as he had ridden away. He looked so old, so sad, so worn and tired.

Adam’s frown creased his forehead. He should be with his pa. His pa needed him, and he needed his pa. Adam sat up and looked over at his bag. He tapped his fingers on the thin blanket as he made up his mind. Standing, he went and opened his bag pulling out a sheet of partially crumpled paper.

Adam scrawled a hasty note explaining to Neil Tangen that he wouldn’t be able to make it to dinner or to anything for that matter. With a quick apology, he signed the letter and sealed it in an envelope.

Bag and letter in hand, Adam nearly skipped down the staircase. He tipped his hat to the clerk, tossed him the keys, and was outside before the man could say anything.

“Hey, youngster,” Adam called to a young boy. “Do you know where the Tangen house is?” The boy nodded. “I’ll pay you to give this letter to Mr. Neil Tangen” Adam fished in his pocket again and extracted some change to give the boy.

Adam hurried toward the stage he had left behind only a short while ago.

“Back so soon?” The grisly man who drove the stage raised his eyebrows. “What? You like stage rides or something?”

“Yep,” Adam tossed his bag up, climbed through the open door, and settled in his seat. “Hey, driver,” He leaned through the doorway. “How far does this stage go?”

“Clear through to Virginia City.”

“Perfect.”

The driver shrugged and tied Adam’s bag in with the rest. “Suit yourself, mister.”

— ** —

Neil Tangen had no sooner closed the door and turned around when someone knocked again. He rolled his eyes and muttered, “If he thinks I’m going to give him a tip…”

“A telegraph for an Adam Cartwright in your care, Mr Tangen.” The tall skinny youth who ran telegraphs for the operator extended his hand. “It was forwarded from a Mr. Waverly in River City.”

Mr. Tangen nodded, took the folded piece of paper, and closed the door. “Milly?”

“Yes, Pa?” Mr. Tangen’s daughter emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

Neil scanned the letter from Adam. “Looks like we won’t be havin’ a guest for dinner.” He crumpled the letter in his hand and tossed it into the fireplace.

“Why not?” Milly pouted. “What did you say to him, Pa? You always scare off all my suitors.”

“He wasn’t going to be your suitor, Milly. Trust me. He just left on the stage.” Neil turned to the telegram in his hand. “Adam must have just come from River City.” His eyes scanned down to the end, skipping over the message. “Looks like it comes from Virginia City.”

“Should we forward the telegraph to one of the towns the stage will pass through?”

Neil tossed the message into the fire and watched the flames lick at the corners of the paper. “He’s headed back anyway. They can tell him whatever they need to when he gets there. It’d be a waste of money to send the telegraph to him when he’s gonna find out in two days anyways.”

Milly shrugged and headed back to her kitchen while her father sunk down in his chair and watched the flames completely consume the telegraph and its message.

–Chapter 32–

The stage arrived late. So late that Adam felt it only right to escort the lady passengers to the hotel using a lantern he borrowed from the stage office and skirting around Virginia City’s less then proper establishments.

After returning the lantern, Adam made his way slowly toward the livery stable. As always, there was a dim light glowing inside. Adam wondered briefly if the man there ever slept or if he had simply grown accustom to sleeping next to a lighted lantern. It was a wonder he had never burnt the place down.

A hearty knocking brought the livery stable’s owner toward the door with light in hand. “Who’s there?” The door opened a crease.

“Adam Cartwright,” the words saw the door swing wide. “Just got off the stage.”

“I heard she was running late.” The man ushered Adam inside. “Need a horse? I can have one saddled for you in no time. Reckon you’re pretty excited to get home.”

“Yes, thanks.” Adam yawned and leaned against a post, thinking no more of the comment. “I can bring her back tomorrow, the day after at the latest.” Adam shifted as he noticed the grins the stable owner kept tossing at him. He had never been friends with the man and, other then the when he needed a horse, he had never really spoken to him. Now the man was grinning at him like he was his long lost cousin or something. Perhaps he was drunk.

“Here we are,” He led a drab looking horse into the lantern light.

“Thanks,” Adam took the reins.

“You can settle up when you bring her back.”

“You sure?” Adam was nearly to the door.

“The Cartwright name is a good enough guarantee.”

Without another word Adam was riding toward the Ponderosa. It would be the wee hours of morning before he would finally make out the shape of the barn and the house beyond.

The house was dark, but Adam knew his way to his room better then he knew the inside of his hat. This wouldn’t be the first time he had to find his way there in the dark, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Adam closed his bedroom door behind him and smiled knowing that he would surprise his family in the morning when he joined them for breakfast. He couldn’t wait to see their faces. He knew they would be happy to see him. He longed to see them again and had half a mind to just peak into their rooms, but the reunion would keep until morning.

— ** —

Light streamed in through the window. Not a dim dawn light but a bright mid-morning light. Adam sat up and reached for the clothes he had tossed on the chair beside his bed hours before.

He hoped he hadn’t slept in too late and that Pa and Hoss wouldn’t already be out working.

Slipping into his boots, Adam grunted then stretched the muscles that were sore after his long, bumpy stage ride. His door opened soundlessly and he walked quietly down the hall, listening carefully to try to hear if Pa and Hoss were still in the house. He smiled when he heard Hoss talking softly.

Adam paused and tried to make out the words, but was unable to. Hoss was being uncharacteristically quiet for this time of morning.

Adam was about to start his quiet walk toward the staircase again when he noticed Joe’s door was slightly ajar. All the pain seemed to rush back toward him in a wave. He took the two steps to the door then placed his hand on the handle. Part of him screamed for him to close the door and shut out the many memories that surely lingered in that room while the other part of him cried for him to go in. He lingered there his hand on the door knob for several moments before he gave to door a little shove. It swung inward with a squeak that Ben had purposely never fixed.

Adam stepped inside and blinked once. Twice.

Adam covered his face with his hands. He must be losing his mind. He never should have come back. He had been right. This house was just too full of memories. He could see him, looking just like he had so many times before. His hair was mussed; his arm was thrown up over his head and touching the headboard; his blankets were twisted around his waist.

Adam watched his chest rise and fall. He looked so real.

He’s dead. Gone. Get a hold of yourself. Adam took a step forward. He couldn’t seem to help it. Another step, he reached his hand out. He knew his baby brother would soon disappear into the dust of memories. In his mind he calculated how he would wake from this dream before he could touch the sleep tousled, curly hair. Dreams were cruel like that, allowing you to get so close to what you longed for then waking you before you could touch it.

Only Adam didn’t wake up. His fingers brushed through soft hair then contacted with warm, firm skin. Adam traced his finger down the face. He wasn’t real. He must have fallen off his horse in the dark last night and whacked his head. He was dreaming, or dead. It didn’t matter. For a moment Joe was with him again and he didn’t want nor care to ever wake up.

Green eyes blinked open and a sleepy smile spread over Joe’s face, “Morning, Adam.”

Adam seemed to snap out of some sort of trance and drew his hand back as if he had been burned. His breath caught in his throat. Stumbling back, he nearly ran into Ben as he entered in through the door.

“Adam!” Ben grinned broadly. “When did you get back?” His grin faded as he saw his eldest’s wide eyes and heaving breaths. “What’s wrong, Adam?”

Adam looked at his father, but didn’t speak.

“Didn’t you get the telegram?”

Joe propped himself up on his arms, “Adam?”

“I…” Adam reached out and gently touched Joe’s shoulder. “I thought…” a teary smile started in Adam’s eyes as he squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “I should have known you were too stubborn to die.” The smile spread to the rest of his face.

“I’ve never been more thankful for all that dadburn stubbornness in all my days.” Hoss half entered the room and leaned against the door frame. “You should have seen him Adam. While we was out frettin’ and thinkin’ he was dead, he was sittin’ pretty up in a cabin with Jedidiah waitin’ on him hand and foot.”

“Not exactly,” Ben chuckled.

“You’ll have to tell me all about it,” Adam let his hand fall from Joe’s shoulder. “But if I know Doc Martin I bet he ordered strict rest for the next few days.”

Joe rolled his eyes, “Of course he did.”

“Well then you had better obey him,” Adam reached for the chair and pulled in close to his brother’s bed before sitting in it.

“You still watchin’ over me, older brother?”

“Do you mind?”

“Nope,” Joe gave him half a smile as his eyes slid closed. “I don’t mind at all.”

Ben smiled softly and backed out of the room, closing the door gently. He let his hand rest on the door knob as his thoughts danced in his head. He looked up as if he could see through the roof and clear to Heaven.

Behold,” Ben whispered the words that he now believed had been written for him, “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” He blinked back tears of joy, “Thank you, God.”

–THE END–

End Notes:

I would like to thank all those lovely people who followed this story when it was a WIP on the forums. Your encouragements inspired me and kept me going.

I can’t believe I forgot to post it here in the library!

Any mistakes are totally my fault as this story was un-betad.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

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Author: BnzaGal

I'm a member on the forums here at BB and have written a few Fanfics that I hope you will read and enjoy!

11 thoughts on “Gone (by BnzaGal)

  1. Wonderful story with all in it what we love so much. So much feeling, so much suffering and finally so much happiness.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful story. It was so well written. The descriptive passages were vibrant and added so much to the feel of the story. You gave us a lot of time to worry, to confront, to accept, to grieve, recover and then joyfully celebrate the return of our much beloved Joe! BnzaGa : You totally so get the family Cartwright.
    I absolutely loved this story.

  3. I can’t believe I haven’t left a review in this library before, so here I am after another re-read of one of my favorite stories. This would have made a good episode, too.

  4. I might have read this as a WIP but not in this library so I thought it was time I read and left you a comment. You did a nice job, Bnzagal. A good read!

  5. This is my second reading of Gone. A very emotional story that often brought on the tears. This is one I know I’ll read often. A really good story.

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