Summary: It takes great love and great courage to let someone go. Variable winds of change affects everyone on the Ponderosa.
Rated: T (8,380 words)
To Every Purpose
It had been a long, hard ride, fraught with anxiety, but at last Ben was home and heartily relieved to be at the end of his journey. As the familiar sight of the Ponderosa greeted him, Buck slowed to a walk and then halted before the front porch, allowing Ben to dismount wearily. His exhaustion was evident, although anxious expectation influenced each movement. All he knew was that Joe had been shot, then mauled by a wolf and was now dangerously ill. Desperate to discover how his son was and still unsure about exactly what had happened in his absence, Ben merely slung the reins over the well-worn hitching rail, knowing his tired horse would not wander off. Sure enough, Buck simply drooped his head in weary resignation and the tacit acknowledgement that a warm stall and a good feed awaited him in the barn. It was highly unusual for Ben not to attend to his horse’s comfort first, but right now that was the last thing on his mind. Ever since receiving a frantic telegram from Hoss that broke the news of Joe’s accident, there had been only one thing on Ben’s mind – to get home as quickly as possible. He just hoped he had arrived in time.
Ben and Joe shared a special, deep bond that went far beyond the normal love of a father and son. Their souls chimed in harmony, giving and receiving a deep, intuitive comfort that that was unique. While he loved all three of his sons, Ben knew it was useless to deny the special relationship he felt for this youngest child.
“Joe has to be alright,” he thought frantically. “I have to be in time, I need to see him, I need to let him know I’m here…”
He did not like to ask for anything more, fearing to tempt providence. Ben knew only too well how brief and fragile life could be. He knew that it took only a brief second of carelessness for everything to change out of all recognition and wondered if he could summon the strength to endure another tragedy.
All Ben’s feelings of unease multiplied a hundredfold as he noticed the front door lay slightly ajar. He quickened his steps, fighting down the fear that rose in his gorge and filled his mouth with a bitter terror. From the moment Adam and Joe first announced their intention to hunt down a wolf that was menacing the stock, Ben had experienced deep feelings of unease and even now, now that the very worst had happened, he was still on his guard. Something did not seem right. He drew his gun before entering the house.
A man and a woman stood just inside the front door, huddled close to one another. At his entrance they turned towards him and Ben saw the man’s mouth moving, but the words went by unheard. There was no time for such things. There was only one thing that mattered. Everything else could wait. There would time to deal with these strange interlopers hereafter. If there was a hereafter. How could he contemplate life if the worst had happened and Joe was dead? What did it matter who these strangers were or what they were doing in his house?
The world swirled around in a giddying kaleidoscope and Ben found it difficult to remain standing as all his senses reeled. He sucked in a deep breath of air, fighting to retain control.
“Joseph!” There was no answer. The silence seemed to mock the anxious tones self-evident in his voice. Once again, the sour dread of abject fear filled Ben’s mouth, but he pushed his terror down, ignoring the turmoil in his stomach and the pounding in his chest that reverberated through his entire body. How could he be so aware of his senses, while Joe lay upstairs, so dangerously ill? If indeed Joe was still alive…
The man walked towards Ben with his arms stretched out wide in a welcoming gesture and started to say something. By now, Ben’s patience was at an end: he was thoroughly annoyed by the interloper’s over-familiar behaviour. Allowing the barrel of his gun to swing in the interfering man’s direction, Ben succeeded in abruptly halting his progress and silenced him most effectively.
“Joseph?” he called out again. This time, he could not repress the worry that coloured each syllable of the beloved name.
“Up here!” a voice called down and Ben hurried towards the staircase, no longer concerned with the strange people in his home. His only priority was to ensure that his boy was safe.
“Pa!” Joe appeared at the top of the stairs. He ran down and grasped Ben in his arms, noting how pale and shaken his father appeared. “What’s the matter?”
“Joe – are you alright?” Ben craned his head forward for a better look, scrutinising Joe carefully. A lone tear pooled in the corner of his eye and then slid slowly down his thin, lined cheek. Although his son looked to be in perfect health, Ben knew that something was very wrong.
“I‘m fine, Pa. Just fine.” Joe said reassuringly, being careful to keep his voice steady and low. He looped an arm around his father’s stooped shoulders, noticing how hard the old man was trembling and how very scared he looked. Raising his head, he smiled reassuringly at Candy and mouthed “I’ll take care of this” Candy nodded and drew Theresa outside to give father and son some privacy.
“Where’s Adam? And Hoss? Are you boys all right?” Ben asked in a thin, reedy voice that was a mocking echo of the deep bass that used to rumble through the house. He felt very tired all of a sudden and let Joe guide him towards his armchair beside the fireplace, where he eased down into the seat with an involuntary sigh, realising just how drained he felt. It had been such a long day…although he wasn’t quite sure exactly what he had been doing.
“Adam left home to travel, remember? And Hoss…” Joe’s voice threatened to tremble and he fought to keep it steady. “Hoss died, Pa. He died two years ago.”
Keeping hold of his father’s arm, Joe looked into Ben’s eyes, wreathed in a constellation of wrinkles and no longer the deep colour of black coffee, but faded and with a ring of pale blue around each iris. The past six months had been characterised by a slow, inexorable decline as Ben began to retreat into a nebulous world where the past was more real than the present.
Ben shook his head slowly. “I should remember, shouldn’t I? How could I forget something like that?” He looked frail and vulnerable. “I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was you, Joe. I thought you were hurt. For some reason, I thought you and Adam were out hunting and you were hurt…” He gave Joe a look of confusion, the pain and terror melting together and threatening to overwhelm him. “I don’t know why I thought that, do you?”
“It doesn’t matter, Pa,” Joe soothed. “You’re home and I’m fine. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? You don’t need to worry about me. There’s nothing to worry about at all.” He took hold of the frail hand and gently stroked it, soothing away the distress, knowing that in a few moments, Ben would forget this latest upset. How delicate the skin felt – as fragile as onion skin, and almost as translucent. All the hard skin and calluses, built up through years of physical labour were being washed away, as wave upon wave of change gradually eroded the powerful man his father had once been. This terrible illness was gradually obliterating all traces of the strong, tall man who had crossed a continent, built the mighty Ponderosa from scratch and raised three boys to become men. Now, for the first time in his life, the independent Ben Cartwright had to rely upon others. It was the final cruelty in a life that had known so many tragedies and had endured so much hardship.
Gradually the weariness of the long day, the presence of his son and the warmth of the fire all worked to ease Ben’s worries away and the lines of his face relaxed as he slipped into a peaceful sleep. His lips turned up briefly in a small, sweet smile as a memory from long ago flitted across his dreams and danced enticingly before his vision, always just out of reach. One day, he would be able to stretch forth a hand and clasp his dream, hold it securely in his arms and prevent it from disappearing. For the moment, he was content just to sleep.
Joe sat down upon the stone hearth, watching serenity sooth away the years and the worries from his father’s face and wondered just how much more he could endure. He had seen many deaths in his life, but this inexorable leeching away of his father’s whole personality was harder to bear than anything else he had ever been called upon to witness. This obliteration of memory was so much brutal and pitiless than anything Joe had ever encountered. He had to watch Ben disappearing before his very eyes, loosing just a little more of his personality every day. And yet Joe’s love remained as strong as ever and did not waiver. Nor was there a sudden cataclysm, a frantic, overwhelming grief that threatened to consume every fibre of his being, as there had been when first Hoss and then Alice had died. There was no crushing realisation that death was final and absolute, that an entire part of his life and soul was severed.
No, this was much worse. For now, Joe had to sit back and watch his father disappear, inch by inch, day by day, memory by memory. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that he could do. And, overarching everything else, the final thorn in this crown of bitter gall was the knowledge that things would grow worse, there would be no sudden easy release. Each day Joe lived through purgatory, while trying to keep Ben happy and content. It was the least he could do. It was all that he could do. This was his beloved father and nothing could ever change that.
There is a time in a child’s life, when everything changes and the world tilts violently upon its axis, throwing the natural scheme of things into total disarray. No longer does day follow night, for nothing is the same. This realisation comes on the day when a child realises their parent is no longer a strong and self-reliant person, but has devolved into someone who requires to be cared for, guided and tended to. The child becomes the parent and the parent becomes a child once again. This sea-change slowly worked upon both Ben and Joe, altering their relationship in a myriad of small, almost imperceptible ways. At first, it was easy to dismiss the frequency of Ben’s memory lapses, his need to take naps in the afternoon, the way Ben was reluctant to go far from the house, fearful of not being able to find his way home again. But as the months beat their dreary way on, Joe could no longer ignore the pounding realisation that his father was failing and growing feebler by the day.
He fought against it, fought as desperately as Joe Cartwright had ever fought against anything in his life. Hard-headed and stubborn, at first Joe refused to acknowledge the gradual diminution of his father, the slow erosion of a once-powerful man. His love never wavered, even as he mourned the loss of the man his father had once been and struggled to accept the dependant stranger who now inhabited his body.
Where had the tall, upright man disappeared to, Joe wondered. It seemed only a few years ago that he would run to greet his father with a hug, wrapping his thin arms around Ben’s stalwart legs, which was as high as he could reach. To a little boy, Ben was nearly as tall as the Ponderosa pines that almost scraped the sky. Ben would hoist his young son high above his head and, in his mind, Joe could still hear Marie’s anxious voice, begging her husband to be careful with this most precious child, even as Ben’s deep laugh seemed to shake the very rafters of the house. And then his strong arms would toss the little boy into the air, so that he almost seemed to be flying and his high-pitched giggles would ring out in a pure, exultant treble, for Little Joe knew he could trust his father to be there, to catch him, to enfold him in his arms and keep him safe. Life was very sure and very sweet in those days.
But those days were gone now, faded into the past where they must remain, and yet they seemed more real than this half-life. Now Joe could easily slip an arm around his father’s shoulders, would support him up the stairs each night and help him into his nightclothes. He had become a parent, without ever knowing the joys and rewards of fatherhood, only reaping its sorrows in a bitter harvest, sewn in despair. Yet love compelled him to keep going.
It was nearly time for supper. Candy and Theresa paused in the doorway and watched as Joe sat perfectly still on the hearth, staring blankly into space as his father slumbered contentedly. Candy gave a small start as a deep sigh shook Joe’s body and began to move towards him, but Theresa put a gentle hand on his arm and shook her head silently. They could help in practical ways, ensuring the Ponderosa ran smoothly, but how could anyone provide succour during this living purgatory?
Theresa had only lived at the Ponderosa for a few months, but already she felt like a part of the family. She arrived when Hop Sing finally decided to return to his beloved China, something that most people had long-since dismissed as an idle threat. But while Hop Sing had spent the majority of his life in America, he knew he would always remain a foreigner, an outsider, and that most people would never fully accept him. In life, he could bear being regarded as a second-class person, but it disturbed him to think that he might be laid to rest for all eternity in such a place. So Hop Sing followed his heart, packed up his few possessions and returned to a land where less than a handful of people could remember him, yet paradoxically where he would always be welcome.
He was greatly missed, leaving a vast hole that ripped through the warp and weft of life on the Ponderosa. The departure of his long-time companion upset Ben more deeply than anyone could have predicted and from that point onwards his illness seemed to accelerate rapidly. It was only after Hop Sing left that Joe and Candy realised how much he had helped his old friend, covering up the memory lapses, keeping to strict routines that gave Ben a sense of security and stability. And Hop Sing’s departure left an aching void in Joe’s life. Another part of his past, one more piece of his entire existence had gone forever. First his mother died, then Adam left, then Hoss died and Alice and the baby were murdered. And now Hop Sing had gone too. One by one, all the people that Joe loved left him, until only Ben remained. Joe had never felt so isolated and alone as he did that evening, sitting watching his father and wondering when he too would leave.
Theresa was a good cook and an excellent housekeeper, but she was not Hop Sing. She did not share the common bond that only long years of shared experiences can build, or the love that builds up and blossoms over time. Joe realised that soon there would be no-one to call him “Little Joe”. For years he had fought against the childhood nickname, but now it seemed very sweet. Now he longed to have someone call him by the once-familiar name.
“Leave him be,” Theresa mouthed and pulled at Candy’s arm, turning him around so that he faced her and stared intently into his eyes, compelling him to meet her gaze. “There will be a time when Joe will need to cry and will welcome your comfort – but that time is not now.” Her voice was low and firm. “Right now he needs time and space to be alone – and you need to respect that.”
Candy gulped nervously, for voicing emotions had never been his forte. He tended to shy away from any suggestion of closeness, even with Joe, who was not only his best friend, but also his boss. Personally, he thought that Joe should mourn now, while there was still a little of the old Ben Cartwright left. Everyone could see the old man was slipping away before their eyes, that each day his mind travelled a little further along a road that was characterised by shadows and confusion and he needed a little more help. But Candy could see that Theresa’s words made sense: Joe was coping with this in the only way he knew how and it was up to him to offer whatever help he could…even if that meant standing back and letting Joe cope with his pain in private.
“Reckon you’re right,” he agreed hoarsely, suddenly forced to acknowledge that Ben was dying. The realisation hit him hard, for Ben was so much a part of the Ponderosa that it seemed inconceivable that it could continue without him.
Theresa smiled sadly at him and Candy found himself returning the gesture. He had never noticed what lovely eyes she had before, sparkling like the deepest cerulean depths of Lake Tahoe on a winter’s morning.
“You just make sure you are around when Joe needs you,” Theresa continued. “He’s a good man and a strong man, but he’ll need someone to stand by him and be a friend…and that’s where you come in. You’re the closest person to him and he’s going to need you. He hasn’t got anyone else.” Her heart broke as she thought of the litany of tragedy that seemed to haunt Joe Cartwright.
“There’s his brother, Adam,” Candy protested.
Theresa snorted in derision. “Adam? And where exactly might he be? You tell me that!”
Candy shrugged his shoulders, realising that she really did not expect an answer.
Theresa took a deep breath.” I’ve been here for ten months and he’s written once in all that time. Once! And when was the last time he actually visited his father, eh?” She shook her head sadly, as she considered the situation. Theresa cherished a deep affection for Joe and empathised with the role he had found thrust upon him. As the youngest of six children, she had been expected to look after her parents and knew just what an exhausting and soul-destroying job task it was. Yet Joe did not complain, he just shouldered the increasing burden without comment, doing all that he could to keep his father happy and comfortable, while continuing to run the ranch. His loving tenderness never ceased, even on the days when Ben had difficulty in recognising his youngest child.
“You can’t count on Adam’s return,” Theresa said. “Where is he now, when Joe could really do with his brother’s support? What effort is he making to ease his father’s troubled mind? Adam’s nowhere in sight. Not even on the same continent, as far as I can make out. If he’s not here now to help Joe, when he’s really needed, then what possible comfort can he give when…”
Theresa swallowed the rest of her words, not wanting to admit what they both knew was true: Ben Cartwright was failing visibly and it was unlikely he would live to see the wild geese return to Lake Tahoe and usher in the spring. She pushed Candy away from her, bowing her head down as she pulled a covered bowl towards her. Sprinkling a light dusting of flour onto the kitchen table, Theresa punched the air out of the rising bread dough with her fist and then began to knead it furiously, seasoning it with her tears.
Candy walked quietly back into the main room and saw that Joe now had his head buried in his arms, his shoulders heaving with silent sobs. Part of him wanted desperately to go to the man, to let him know that he wasn’t alone, to tell him that there was someone who cared and who understood, but yet something held him back from reaching forward and making the contact. He stood awkwardly for a moment, feeling totally helpless before finally leaving father and son alone together in the darkening room.
In the midst of life we are in death.
For as long as Joe could remember, death was a part of his life, something that simply had to be accepted, and something that was always there. He had grown up with tales of Elizabeth and Inger, who were still a part of the family, even if they had died long years before Joe was born. Then, while he little more than a toddler, Joe had lost his own mother.
The memory of Marie’s death was imprinted on his memory as keenly as if it were engraved upon steel: Joe could still remember staring out of his bedroom window, watching in admiration as his mother came riding into the yard at high speed. It was a cold, frosty day and the little boy’s breath condensed upon the window pane, obscuring the view. As he rubbed the glass with his shirtsleeve, Joe saw the horse rear up, its hooves pounding the air in a frantic tattoo. The terrified child watched as Marie struggled to control the animal, but it was too strong. She flew out of the saddle, landing on the hard-packed ground, where she lay still and quiet as her young son watched in silent horror from his bedroom window.
The visions haunted his memory for years. The sound of breaking bones accompanied every nightmare that plagued Joe’s sleep. He would be jerked back to reality as a sharp crack echoed in his head, a sound similar to a breaking bough, but which he knew was much more sinister. Each time the nightmare began Joe found himself trapped inside a dizzying miasma of terrifying proportions, where he knew exactly what was about to happen, but was powerless to prevent the inevitable. In each and every nightmare he had to stand and watch from his bedroom window as his mother died before his eyes. And now it was happening all over again with his Pa. Once again, Joe Cartwright found himself a helpless observer of tragedy.
The night terrors had only stopped when Alice was murdered, but they were cruelly replaced by even more haunting dreams. In these new horrors Joe lay in bed with his arms around his cherished wife, while they both smiled at the child that lay between them. Everything was so real…he reached across and picked up the baby, feeling its solid weight and warmth upon his bare chest, marvelling at the faint whorls of fine hair that seemed destined to turn into curls, revelling in his child’s milk-scented breath.
The pain upon waking was indescribable. No wife, no baby – nothing. Just a cold, empty bed and the mocking silence of his room. Nothing could ever come close to the sheer agony of knowing you had lost everything that was true and good – and yet you still had to beat out a weary path in life. The great Comforter could offer very little solace to a man who had watched his own heart be torn out and ripped to shreds.
“Perhaps if Hoss was alive,” Joe thought, wrapping his arms around himself, craving some comfort, but ultimately finding none.
“Perhaps Hoss could help me make sense of all this, or to find a way to cope.” But there had been too many deaths in recent years, and now there was no-one left to succour him.
“When will it end? I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this. I don’t know if I want to go like this…” The thoughts tumbled over in his head, but there was no-one to answer, let alone to help him and the unspoken cries went unheeded.
In the chair opposite, Ben stirred slightly, beginning to waken. Heaving a deep sigh, so that the breath filled not only his lungs, but enervated every fibre of his being, Joe summoned up all his strength and fixed a cheery smile upon his face, in the full and certain knowledge that Ben would not see that it sat wholly unnaturally and did not even begin to reach his eyes.
“Give me strength, Joe pleaded inwardly. Let me get through this and to help my father in whatever way I can. Give me the strength to do what ever is necessary. Nothing else matters. Everything else can wait.”
The days passed slowly in dreary succession and as the winter grew deeper and the hours of daylight grew shorter Joe watched helplessly as his father’s life start to ebb slowly away. Soon, Ben no longer had neither the strength nor the inclination to get out of bed. The doctor from Virginia City, a relative newcomer who had replaced the much-missed Paul Martin, called regularly, but there was little he could do.
“Just keep him warm and comfortable,” he advised, with all the callow assurance of youth.
Ben glared at him sceptically from the snowy depths of his pillows with some of his old spirit and made caustic comments about “insolent young pups”. The brief re-emergence of his old spirit and verve gave Joe a fierce, brave hope, but it was a short rally and soon vanished, just as quickly as snow melts with the first warmth of a spring sun, dissipating and dissolving away to nothingness. All too soon, the spark faded from Ben’s eyes and his hands clutched fretfully at the bedclothes, while his eyes wandered restlessly around the room.
“Marie?” he called querulously. “Marie – where are you?”
“I’m here, Ben. I’m right here beside you, just as I always have been. I am always with you.”
Ah, that beloved voice! Ben smiled as he looked up into Marie’s beautiful face and felt her soft hand stroking his cheek. And all the years slipped seamlessly away, easing him into a time when life was so much simpler and happier, when he had everything a man could crave. In his mind, Ben was once more young and vigorous, with an infinite world of pleasure stretching forth in front of his eyes, as sweet as a flower-filled meadow, as permanent as the mountains that cradled Lake Tahoe in their tender embrace. The past offered warmth and security and Ben was happy there, living once more in a time when nothing could touch the joy of simply being with his wife and young family.
Soon, he was living permanently in the past and did not recognise anyone, not even Joe. That was the cruellest blow in a long litany. Like a man almost inured to pain, Joe had thought he could cope with the vicissitudes thrown at him, but this was beyond bearing. He was pitched past the deepest despair. There was no worst. His father was gone – and yet he was not gone. Joe longed to grieve, yet could not while Ben still lingered on in a half-life that mocked everything he had once stood for. The time was not yet ripe for grief, for he knew there would be worse to come.
“How do you stand it?” Candy asked, as he and Joe shared a late night whiskey.
Joe shrugged, refusing to meet the other man’s eyes. “What else can I do? He’s my father and I love him.” He turned to the fire and stared into the flames, his hands tightening convulsively around the glass. A rainbow shaft of light burst forth from the crystal glass, but Joe was impervious to the beauty as he prayed that God would end this living death both he and Ben were suffering.
Oh Lord, hear our prayer, and let our cry come unto Thee.
It had snowed overnight, the first deep snowfall of the winter and the pale sunlight was reflected into the house with a brilliant intensity that seemed to mock the slow decay that coloured everything. It cast a shimmering hope that glistened mockingly at the inhabitants of the Ponderosa. Ben slept a good deal of the time now, rousing only briefly to take a few sips of water or broth. Sitting at the side of his bed, Joe reflected on all the times their positions had been reversed, when he had lain ill or injured in bed and his father had tended to him. A faint smile curved the sides of Joe’s mouth as he recalled the family joke that Ben’s hair had started to turn white the day his youngest son was born. He had certainly given his father enough causes to worry…
Reaching forward, he gently patted the frail hand patterned with blue veins and tried to instil a little of his own vigour. “I’m right here with you, Pa. I won’t leave you,” he whispered. To his astonishment, Ben’s eyes slowly opened and he gazed steadily up.
“You’re a good boy, Joe,” he said faintly, struggling to get the words out, for he was very tired. “I’m so proud of my boy.” Ben moved his hand slightly, so that he could clasp Joe’s fingers in his own. “Live your life, Joe…you’ve so much to offer. I don’t want to think of you being on your own.”
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said automatically, leaning forward and smoothing his father’s thick hair back off his forehead. Pa’s always so particular about his hair, he thought. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
For the first time in weeks, Ben’s mind was suddenly clear, the clouding mists evaporating away. “Live your life, Joe. All I’ve ever wanted is for my boys to be happy. You’ve got so much to offer…live your own life, Joe and be happy… Promise me, Joe — promise me that.”
“I promise. I love you, Pa.” Joe’s voice was hollow and he could say no more. He gazed deep into his father’s dark eyes and saw his own love returned and magnified a hundredfold.
Ben smiled up at him, a lifetime of love in his face, as he drank in every detail of the young man before him, as if he was seeing him for the first and last time, the tiny, helpless baby and the strong, vital man untied in perfect harmony. “I love you too, Joe.”
His face bore a look of ineffable weariness and suddenly Joe knew that his father had finally reached the very last bend in the long road he had journeyed along. There was one last thing he could do for his father.
“It’s time,” he said. “Time to let go. You’re so very tired Pa, so just let go.”
His voice a frail ghost of itself, Ben whispered, “I don’t want to die, Joe. I’m afraid.” His cold fingers sought Joe’s, holding on weakly, as if anchoring himself to life.
Joe shook his head. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m right here. I’m with you, Pa. But it’s time for me to let you go.” It took every ounce of his courage.
“I don’t want to leave you all alone.” There were tears in the old man’s eyes.
“You’ll always be with me, right here in my heart. You’ll never leave me, Pa. Never. ” Joe closed his eyes for a moment, forcing his own tears back. “But it’s time to go now.”
“Go forth in peace,” he prayed silently.
Finally, Ben nodded. “Thanks,” he said simply. He squeezed Joe’s hand briefly and then closed his eyes.
Bending over the bed, Joe kissed his father gently and stayed at his side as the old man slipped into a deep sleep, a contented expression on his face that seemed to ease away the pain that life had written there. Gradually, the grip on his hand slackened eased and then it slipped away altogether. Dusk was just beginning to fall when Theresa knocked gently at the door before entering.
“Do you need anything?” she asked softly.
Joe shook his head, not lifting his gaze from Ben.
“How about Mr Cartwright?” Theresa continued.
“No, Pa doesn’t need anything,” Joe said, in a voice that was devoid of all emotion. “Everything is alright. He’s fine. He doesn’t need anything now.” Joe did not turn to look at her, but just kept staring at his father, as he gently stroked the pale, chilly fingers that lay on the bedcovers.
The utter stillness in the room was all pervading and Theresa took a step forward, suddenly full of dread. Something was wrong, very wrong indeed. It was not like Mr Cartwright to lie there so quiet and unmoving. “Shall I get the doctor?” she asked hesitantly.
Joe turned and smiled sadly at her. There was a world of sorrow in his eyes. “There’s no need for that. Not now.” He reached out and tucked Ben’s hand underneath the covers, then pulled them up snugly around his neck. “He just went to sleep and…” He looked at Theresa helplessly, like a little boy appealing for solace. “And…that was it.” Joe stood up and gave himself a little shake, as if trying to force the realisation into his mind. “My Pa’s dead, Theresa. He’s not here any more.”
The body had served Ben Cartwright so well, over so many years; it had endured so many heartbreaks and rejoiced in so many joys. Now it lay before them, but Joe knew Ben’s spirit was gone. That was not his father who lay in the large bed. That was only his body. Ben was gone and nothing would ever be the same again. The thought pounded in his head and was almost more than he could bear.
Joe was dimly aware that Theresa automatically dropped to her knees, crossed herself and started to pray, even as she wept. Her tears fell onto the polished floorboards, the small noise sounding almost like beads telling a Rosary. The sound of the Latin words brought back memories of Joe’s earliest years, when his mother would kneel beside him at bedtime, teaching him the prayers of her faith. That was so long ago. So very long ago. Had he ever been that young and carefree? Joe realised that he too was kneeling, his voice speaking along with Theresa’s, saying the words that had been hidden in his mind for so many years, yet suddenly had sprung forth unbidden.
His mother’s legacy echoed around the room where his father lay, finally at peace. And the rest of the house lay silent, as if tacitly mourning the man who had been not only its life blood, but its genesis.
The minister adjusted his black stole and turned to face the congregation that packed the church.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here, not only to mourn the passing of our brother in Christ, Ben Cartwright, but to celebrate his life and to give thanks to God, the Father Almighty, for his time on this earth.”
Sitting alone in the first pew, Joe nodded in satisfaction and let the service wash over him. His eyes never left the coffin, made from Ponderosa pine, that dominated the chancel. He had been determined that the service should reflect his father’s spirit and personality and commemorate his life. So many people only gazed at him with watery eyes and pursed lips, shaking their heads sadly and that annoyed him. His father deserved more than that. Joe stood up and walked to the lectern and began to read the first lesson in a voice that brought powerful emotion and new understanding to the familiar words.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die….A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…”
His face was pale above the crisp whiteness of his shirt, but his jaw was thrust forward uncompromisingly and his shoulders were square and true under the fine black broadcloth of his suit. Joe Cartwright stood tall and straight as he paid his final tribute to his father with immense dignity and love. It was time to say goodbye. There would be a time for private grief later.
Somehow, Joe endured the rest of the service and then the mourners travelled out to the lake where Ben was finally laid to rest beside his beloved Marie, buried on the land he loved with his heart and soul. The minister’s voice ran out clearly against the distance crash of the waves and the soft rustling of the pines.
“I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Back at the Ponderosa, while Theresa and Candy hurried around with plates of sandwiches and pots of coffee, Joe shook an endless series of hands, thanked the mourners for coming and accepted their condolences. So many people had stories to tell, wanting to share small tales of how Ben had helped them, how he had made a very real difference in their lives. Throughout the long afternoon Joe heard just how far his father’s influence had spread and saw just how many lives had been enriched by his presence. No expensive monument could be more fitting than that.
Clem was one of the last guests to leave the ranch. “He was a good man,” he said, taking Joe’s hand in both of his own. “Ben Cartwright was one of the finest men I’ve ever met and I’ll miss him.”
For the first time since Ben had died, Joe suddenly felt unable to cope as Clem’s simple, heartfelt statement seared straight to his soul. It reminded Joe of the sort of thing Hoss would have said, and he missed his brother more than ever.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, suddenly close to tears.
Clem pulled Joe close, reaching around his shoulders with one arm. “I’ll always remember Ben and what he did around here. He’ll live on in many hearts. You must be very proud.”
“Yes, I am,” Joe answered. Clem nodded, patted Joe’s back awkwardly and then strode away, leaving Joe alone, except for his grief. For the first time since Ben died, Joe bowed his head and started to weep, finally allowing all his raw emotions to surface. Candy stood awkwardly by the staircase, not sure what to do, until he suddenly remembered Theresa’s words and knew it was time to offer what comfort he could.
Joe was suddenly consumed with the brute realisation that Ben was actually gone, that he would never see his father again and his body shook with the force of his grief. Candy had no difficulty in leading Joe towards the sofa and, as the fire cast long shadows around a room that had known so much joy and so much pain, Joe wept in his friend’s arms. Theresa left the room quietly, not wanting to strip either man of his dignity, but she saw the tears standing forth in Candy’s blue eyes as he tried to succour his friend and subdue his own sorrow.
Everything had changed. Now the house was empty, now all the noise and hub-bub had vanished and the emptiness and sense of loss was overwhelming. It seemed to rise up, encompassing both men, broken only by the harsh sound of Joe’s cries, coming from deep within his chest, searing their way through every inch of his body. He felt totally alone and bereft, out of touch with his past, for there was no-one left to share his most cherished memories with. The blow seemed to ripple though his consciousness as he finally comprehended the depths of his loss. Ben was dead – and he had taken a part of Joe’s life with him, one that could never be recaptured.
Perhaps, if things had been different…perhaps if Adam had been there, the brothers might have given each other mutual comfort and solace. But it was so many long years since Adam had left the Ponderosa, sweeping the sandy dust of Nevada from his feet in an effort to find his own destiny. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he had faded from his public consciousness and few people at the funeral had noticed that the eldest of Ben’s sons was not there to pay his final respects. Yet now, for the first time in years, Joe felt himself craving his brother’s presence. Not because Adam would be able to comfort him: physical contact was something the eldest of Ben Cartwright’s three boys shied away from…but just because Adam was his last link with the past. Joe thought of the letters and telegrams he had sent, trying desperately to contact his brother, but all of which had remained unanswered.
At the end, Ben Cartwright had outlived one son, and had died while his youngest boy helped to ease his passage into the next world. His eldest son had tried to forge a new life for himself, far away from a log-built house on the shores of Lake Tahoe, where the waves pounded in a rhythm older than time itself. Adam had gone out alone into a much wider world, forging new ground, just as Hoss and Ben had gone before them all, forging a path and lighting a beacon that would eventually beckon the rest of the family home to the next world.
Now Joe was the only Cartwright left on the Ponderosa, left all alone, in a house which had once rung with laughter, but which now only held empty memories that he could not share with anyone. Only someone who was there can truly appreciate the small tales from long-ago, the precious memories that keep the past and present united and let those who are no longer on earth live again in our hearts. It tore at his heart to think the memories would die too.
Gradually, as the fervour of his grief started to subside, Joe became aware of several things: the faint whisper of the wind, as it blew around the house, the soft ticking of the clock that had punctuated all his memories from infancy onward, the hard, unyielding surface of the sofa, the sweet smoke from the fire…and the fact that he was weeping in Candy’s arms.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his eyes and trying to pull away.
“No need,” Candy said, his voice hoarse with emotion. “All sorts of people paid tribute to your Pa today, but this is most honest thing anyone could do or say. You loved your Pa — and you miss him. There’s nothing to be ashamed of…heck, it’s even got me crying!” Self-consciously, he dashed away the tears from his own eyes. His own father had been so very different from the concerned, involved and loving parent that Ben Cartwright had personified. To Candy’s mind, there was no finer example to follow.
“Ben knew you loved him. And he knew you would be alright — I think that gave him the strength to die. He knew he’d fathered one of the finest men in this country. Don’t you let him down now, Joe – you go on and make Ben proud. And let yourself cry for him…hey! I’m crying now, and that ain’t something you see everyday!”
“Right at the end, just before he died – he was the old Pa, Candy,” Joe confided “He was just like he used to be. For a brief moment, he was my Pa again, instead of an old, frail man. That’s the memory I’ll keep of him.”
Joe tried to smile, to be positive and to go forward, but it was too soon. He could not shake Ben’s fear of death out of his mind, the thought haunted him. Until that moment, Joe had never thought of his father being fallible. Somehow he had found the courage to urge Ben to stop fighting, to surrender with honour. He knew it was the right decision, but it was a victory that brought no joy, only sadness.
And Joe wept in his friend’s arms. At some point, they would be able to share their memories of Ben, to rejoice in the legacy he had left behind him and to celebrate his life and work. But that would come later. For the moment, the two men gave whatever comfort they could to one another and tried to find the strength to go, just as Ben Cartwright would have done. It was the least that they could do, in remembrance of him.
It was some days before Joe could face the final chore left to him. With a sigh, he sat down at Ben’s desk…no, that wasn’t right – it was his desk now. Yet another change. One more in a long line of adjustments Joe found himself making every day
Before him two tall piles of letters were neatly stacked on the leather writing surface, many of them with thick, black borders. Automatically, Joe picked up the letter opener, slit the top of the first envelope and started to read.
Words poured out at him, tributes written in so many different hands and with varying degrees of sophistication, each letter telling of its writer’s deep affection for Ben Cartwright. Some of the correspondents related amusing anecdotes, other told of countless small acts of generosity, but each reflected a little part of Ben. As he read, Joe began to truly appreciate the fine man Ben Cartwright was and realised that these letters ensured his father would never really be gone.
A faint scent of lavender floated up from the next letter he picked up, and the familiar, elegant Italian handwriting awoke a store of memories. Settling back in the chair, Joe began to read. One paragraph chimed in resonance.
“Birth and death are intertwined, Joe. They are both journeys we must make on our own. Ben was lucky that you gave him the courage to take his last few steps. It was your love that travelled with him. I am sure Ben knew you were with him to the very end, waiting to make sure he completed his journey safely. You were always there for your father and you gave him so much joy and so much love.
I have so many memories of the times we spent together. Above all, whenever I think of the Ponderosa, I remember your laughter and it rings in my heart. Strive to be happy, my dearest Joe. I could not bear to think that I would never hear you laugh again.”
There was more, but Joe could not read any further. His mind ran back over the years, to a night when the stars shot cold fire across a dark sky; when life had stretched forth in front of him, full of infinite promise; when he had danced with carefree abandon in the arms of the woman he loved. It had been a long and perfect evening. So much had happened since then, but there was still so much more that lay ahead. He had made a promise to his father and he intended to keep it.
Joe strode to the door and flung it open, walked out into the yard and drank in all the beauty that surrounded him, immutable and wonderful. There was a whole world just waiting for him. Who could tell what would happen next? He breathed in the fresh, pure air and stood quite still, letting the scene sooth his turmoil.
After a few moments, Joe went back inside, pulled out a fresh sheet of writing paper and selected a new nib for his pen.
As the words flowed onto the paper, Joe began to realise that life might still hold some joys, that there was still a world of possibilities just waiting to be discovered and that perhaps happiness was nearer than he thought. Winding up his mother’s musical box, he listened to the familiar tune and, for the first time in months, Joe felt his soul soar free.
In the evening, as Joe sat sipping a glass of brandy, he remembered all the good times and the past and the present started to weave back together into a seamless whole. The pattern of his life had changed, but Joe knew that everything would be alright.
Leaning back into the soft red leather chair, Joe put his feet on the table and then gave a guilty start. Old habits died hard, it seemed! There were so many small, almost inconsequential reminders of his father all around him, and they were a comfort. They reminded Joe that Ben would never really be gone, not as long as he could remember the man who had given him so very much, not least the courage to go with life and to hope that the future would be golden once again, as golden and as precious as the memories Joe held within him.
“Here’s to you Pa!” Joe whispered, and raised his glass high. The time for mourning was still fresh, but now Joe could see that there would also be a time for laughter once again on the Ponderosa, a time to build new memories, perhaps even a time to dance in a moonlit meadow once again. He was certain of that. After all, there was a time to every purpose under the heaven.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Earth Will Hold Us (by Claire)
- Epiphany (by Claire)
- Relatively Festive (by Claire)
- Reflections (by Claire)
- Relatively Peaceful (by Claire)