Summary: A WHN to The Stillness Within. Adam returns home after learning of Joe’s accident and subsequent blindness.
Rated: K (4,790 words)
Almost before the buggy stopped, the man in the grey suit jumped down from the driver’s seat and rushed into the house.
“Joe! Joe?” There was a touch of desperation in his voice when no one answered. The ring of his boot heels sounded hollow on the polished wood floor and his voice seemed to echo around the emptiness of the room. Standing still, Adam Cartwright looked slowly around and assessed the situation. Nothing appeared to have changed, but he knew that was not true. Everything was irrevocably altered and life on the Ponderosa would never be the same again.
Since leaving the ranch several years before, Adam had led a busy, but unsettled life. He’d travelled widely, first around Europe and then up and down the eastern seaboard of America, before finally basing himself in Boston. That summer he had embarked on an extended business trip to New York, where work had kept him fully occupied. Returning to his apartment, Adam looked forward to reading letters from his family and catching up with all their news.
Sure enough, the moment he opened the door to his narrow hallway, Adam saw a letter addressed in his father’s distinctive handwriting. He tore it open and eagerly began to read the contents.
My dear son,
It is with great pain in my heart that I write this letter. Ten days ago, your brother Joseph was seriously injured in an accident. He was storing nitro-glycerine when one of the bottles was knocked over, resulting in a ferocious explosion. Joseph was lucky to escape with his life, but he received a severe injury to his head.
Adam, there is no easy way to tell you this. Your brother is blind. At first, the doctor was hopeful Joseph’s sight would return, but this now seems less likely with each day that passes. I did not wish to burden you with this sad news until we knew for certain, but I do not believe that Joseph will ever see again.
I cannot describe the pain and anguish your brother is going through…
Adam could not read anymore. For some reason, the words on the page started to blur into one another, becoming indistinct and impossible to decipher. His fingers no longer seemed to belong to him and the letter fell to the floor as Adam stared into space, trying to conquer the turmoil in his soul. Eventually, he gathered himself together, got up slowly and retrieved his valise from the hall floor. Discarding its contents onto his bed, he quickly packed few clean garments and then hurried out, determined to begin the long journey home as soon as possible. In his haste, he left the letter lying forgotten on the floor of the empty apartment.
Standing in the great room of the Ponderosa, Adam began to feel uneasy. Where was everyone? Had Pa taken Joe to San Francisco to see another doctor? He suddenly realised it would have been sensible to have sent a wire to announce his arrival, but the notion had not even occurred to him. Adam smiled wryly. “For a man that prides himself on a logical approach to life, that was a bit of an oversight!” he said softly.
“Talking to yourself, big brother?” remarked a familiar voice and Adam spun around to see Joe standing by the dining table, a cup of steaming coffee in either hand.
“Thought you might be able to use some coffee after your long journey,” Joe continued. His words were nonchalant and the tone of his voice was kept purposefully light, but the warm, welcoming smile on his face clearly displayed the depth of his emotions. He carefully put both cups on the table and moved across the room with quick, long strides to enfold his brother in a fierce hug. “It’s been a long time, brother.”
“Too long.” Adam could not say anymore. He returned the embrace briefly, then gently eased Joe away, holding him at arms length and studying him closely. Little appeared to have changed: Joe was as handsome as ever, his face appeared unchanged and his eyes appeared to dart mischievously as he grinned wickedly at his brother.
Adam stifled a sigh as he thought of the small boy who would hold trustingly onto his hand, secure in the knowledge that his brother would look after him. He had thought those days were long passed, but now it seemed Joe would need all the love, guidance and support his family could provide.
Under Adam’s intense gaze, Joe began to feel slightly uneasy. Of course, Adam had always appeared to have the uncanny ability of being able to see into the deepest recesses of his recalcitrant younger brother’s mind. A small smile crept across Joe’s face: this was ridiculous! He was a grown man, with nothing to feel guilty about. Well, nothing that Adam could possibly know about…
Planting his hands on his hips, Joe returned his brother’s gaze steadily. Green eyes met brown and for a few moments it was as if they were boys once more, daring one another to see who would blink first. And then, struck by the ludicrous nature of this behaviour, Joe began to chuckle. As ever, the sound of his distinctive giggle provoked an equal and equivalent reaction in his listener. It was impossible to listen to Joe laugh and not join in, Adam though. Some things never changed and Joe still had a laugh that could scare hens from laying!
But things had changed, Adam realised, changed forever. Joe was blind and nothing could alter that. Adam exhaled sharply and then staggered slightly as all his strength seemed to desert him. He grasped desperately at Joe’s forearm to steady himself.
Choking back an expression of concern, Joe eased his brother into a chair and knelt before him. “Adam? Are you alright?”
He nodded mutely, not able to talk.
“You gave me one heck of a fright there, big brother. You’ve gone as white as a sheet! For a moment there, I thought you were going to pass out on me.”
Adam’s head swung up sharply and he cupped Joe’s face between his hands, studying him intently. “You can see?” It was neither quite statement nor query. Joe nodded and laid a gentle hand on his brother’s knee.
“My sight came back three weeks ago. I’d given up hope, but the Doc always said there was a chance…”
Joe’s voice trailed off as he remembered the day he woke up to see a crisp, clear world. The day when his life began anew. He looked at the man seated before him and suddenly realised that Adam had no knowledge of this. “Pa wrote to you, Adam! He wrote that very day! Didn’t you get the letter?”
Adam just shook his head once more, not able to trust his voice. For the first time in many years he let tears flow freely down his face as he hugged his brother once again, this time with a heart bursting with joy.
That night, Ben lay in bed, reflecting on the momentous day. He had returned home to find his eldest son sitting by the fireside, looking for all the world as if he had only been away for a brief trip, rather than an absence of several years. For sure, Adam looked older and he was obviously tired, but he was home! Even if it was only for a visit, Adam was home! To Ben it was as if an almost imperceptible hole in the fabric of life on the Ponderosa had disappeared, leaving the warp and weft intact and perfect once more. It was the fulfilment of a deep-held dream, one that Ben had never allowed himself to even consider since the day Adam had ridden out of the yard, to pursue his own, independent desires.
It did not take long for the three brothers to ease back into their old, joking relationships.
“What is it with you and nitro-glycerine?” Adam teased. “Isn’t it enough that you turned Pa’s hair white – are you trying to do the same to Hoss?”
Joe just rolled his eyes in his inimitable way and then glared in mock anger at his brother. The gestures were such an innate part of Joe, such an essential part of his character that Adam felt chilled to realise how easily he might never have seen them again, how simply they could have disappeared and he tried to repress a shudder.
Hoss noticed his reaction and intuitively understood what Adam was thinking. A man of few words, Hoss had an affinity with emotions in their pure state and he knew his reserved brother was struggling to keep his emotions under control. Seeking to lighten the atmosphere, he joked,
“You should know by now that there’s alus fireworks goin’ off when Joe’s around! Sides which, Adam, seems to me that you ain’t got that much hair to worry about goin’ grey!”
Adam laughed and ran his hand ruefully over his thining crown. “I think Joe’s going to be the only one of your sons who doesn’t go thin on top, Pa!” He reached over and playfully ruffled Joe’s curls. “Still, he might just go grey!”
Watching as Joe attempted to smooth his hair back into place, Ben sat back, listening contentedly to the sound of his sons’ voices.
Stretching luxuriously in his bed, Ben got immense comfort from the knowledge that all three of his boys were safe under his roof once more. He just hoped that Adam would realise the painful journey Joe had come through. Adam was not always the most tolerant person where his youngest brother was concerned and Ben worried that he would not fully appreciate the full horror of the experience Joe had come through.
In the first few weeks after the accident, Joe had been despondent, tormenting himself with the notion that Adam could not bear the thought of a crippled brother. In vain, Ben had sought to provide comfort, but Joe had literally pushed him away. Suffused with grief and self-pity, Joe had pushed everyone away, physically and mentally. Not even Hoss could breach the walls Joe seemed determined to build around himself, in a dogged attempt for complete isolation from the outside world.
Ben thought of his three very different sons: each one an individual, yet tied by a common bond of family. Hoss was always more content to sit back and observe life or to assist, rather than to readily engage. His love was given freely and without question, he was slow to anger but quick to fight against any injustice and these were qualities which made him an invaluable friend and defender. He was a man whose obvious outer strength was matched by his inner resoluteness and sense of fair play. Yet even Hoss had been sorely tried by Joe’s attitude as his brother railed against his cruel fate.
Adam had a moral core that influenced all his actions, a strong sense of purpose and a driving desire to make his mark in the world. If that had to be achieved independently, then Adam was willing to make the sacrifice and leave his family. Ben knew it had been a wrench for Adam to leave home and travel far away, but his first-born would never chose the easy route in life. For Adam, challenges were there to be overcome, albeit with careful preparation, planning and execution
Sometimes Ben worried that Adam was a little too restrained, too afraid to let his emotions show. Perhaps it was his fault: had the hardships and tragedies of his early life made Adam afraid to show his feelings to the world? Had they caused him to believe his love should be repressed, for fear any vulnerability on his part would harm others?
The same could not be said of Joe! Ben smiled and snuggled down deeper under warmth of the covers. From the moment he was born, Joe had let everyone know exactly how he felt about life. Happy, sad, despondent, concerned, exhilarated: Joe experienced life to the full and his family vicariously shared in his turmoils and triumphs. In stark contrast to both his brothers, Joe was eager to meet challenges head-on, scarcely pausing to think, a trait which had a tendency to land him in trouble.
Just as he was mulling over the very different personalities of his sons, a soft noise from downstairs caught Ben’s ear. It was almost midnight, and apart from the rhythmic resonance of Hoss’ snores, the house was quiet. Everyone should have been in bed, yet Ben could clearly hear the sounds of someone moving about in the great room below. Jerked back to sudden wakefulness, he pulled on his robe and slippers and went to investigate.
“Once a father, always a father!” he thought, casting a regretful look at his warm bed.
The only light came from the dying embers of the fire, but Ben could just make out a figure seated on the hearth. Of course, he realised, Joe had no need to light a lamp, he knew every inch of the house by heart. It had been a shock for his son to discover that without his sight the house was filled with pitfalls for the unwary. Joe had realised that even the most basic tasks like moving from the living room to the dining room without walking into furniture was an art he had to first learn and then to practice, time after time, after time.
“How little we actually see,” Ben thought, as he went quietly down the stairs. “Joe? Is everything alright, son?” His voice was full of concern.
“I’m fine, Pa. Just couldn’t sleep, that’s all. Adam’s back and I feel that things should be back to the way they were before. Back to normal, you know? But they’re not and I don’t know if they ever will be,” Joe said quietly, turning to stare at the dull remains of the fire.
He took the poker and stirred the dying embers idly, watching with evident fascination as they broke open, sprang into flame and glowed bright vermilion. “After the accident, I discovered I didn’t know who I was anymore, or even what I was. I’d just gone blithely through life, never really worrying about anything and then suddenly, when I was faced with a challenge, I just fell apart.” The poker fell to the hearth with a clatter. “I didn’t much like the man I was then. I still don’t.” Joe stared blankly at his bare feet and pulled his nightshirt taut over his knees.
“But you came through that storm, son. You fought your way past a greater adversity than I have faced or could even imagine facing, far less conquering and you’re a stronger man because of it! Never doubt that, never!” Ben’s voice trembled slightly and he stood up. “I’m going to have a glass of brandy. Would you like one?”
Joe nodded and watched as the lamplight glinted off the crystal decanter. He’d never really liked brandy that much, the very aroma brought back memories of Julia Bulette and his reckless, hedonistic youth. Yet, given the chance, would he change a single thing about his life? Even the most painful memories could bring a strange comfort and solace.
“That fireplace isn’t exactly the softest seat in the house, is it? Why don’t you move onto the sofa?” Ben suggested, handing across a generous measure of brandy, before seating himself in his chair beside the hearth. Joe rolled the glass around in his hand, watching the way the liquid swirled around and then slowly ran down the sides, leaving just a faint residue, a vague memory of its presence.
“I’m fine here, really.” He wouldn’t say it, but tonight Joe just wanted to be close to his father.
Ben patted him gently on the knee, glad of the opportunity to share time with his son. “I was thinking about Miss Dobbs.” He smiled as he pictured the remarkable, indefatigable Ellen Dobbs. The woman who had literally given him back his beloved son.
Joe smiled softly. “She sure was some lady. One incredible lady! She taught me to look at things in a different way, even if couldn’t see them. And she made me realise that my life wasn’t over, it was just going to be different. It was a valuable lesson.” He turned to look at his father intently. “We sure were lucky with Miss Dobbs, weren’t we? I … I’m going to miss her – a lot.”
“We were indeed blessed with Miss Dobbs, Joseph. I think we’ll all miss her. Mind you, I do seem to remember you put up a certain amount of resistance.”
Joe didn’t miss the laughter that filled his father’s words. “I agree! I did behave like a child – and a spoilt, badly behaved child at that.”
Actually, he’d done a lot more than that, Joe thought. He’d riled furiously against fate, wallowed in self-pity and then lashed out at anyone who tried to help. And all the while he had vehemently denied his blindness was anything less than temporary. He had refused to accept the inevitable and rejected all attempts to ease his burden of pain.
“How did you put up with me?” he asked curiously.
Ben thought deeply before replying. How could he have done otherwise? Joe’s pain had been so obvious and for once his father was powerless to help him. When Joe had refused all attempts by his family to help him, Ben was forced to look outside. How could he gamble with something he could not replace? He would have done anything, gone anywhere, spent any amount of money, if there were a chance he could help Joe.
“Well, we could see how much you were suffering. You were building walls to keep everyone away and yet it was so clear that you needed someone to find breach the barricades and then show you how to take them down, stone by stone. And you needed help to build strong foundations for your new life. But most of all, you were still the same Joseph underneath all that anger – you just had to realise that. I could never stop loving you, no matter how hard you pushed me away.”
Joe thought for a moment and then said wistfully, “She sure was stubborn, wasn’t she? Miss Dobbs, I mean?”
Ben almost choked on a mouthful of brandy. Joe seemed totally impervious of the irony of his statement though. “I think that’s a very necessary quality in a teacher,” he replied after a moment to compose himself.
“She was more than a teacher to me.” Joe put the brandy glass down on the table and began to pace up and down restlessly. Ben leant back in his chair and began to pack his pipe with slow, methodical movements, watching his son intently, yet unobtrusively.
“Miss Dobbs taught me a lot of things, practical things, of course she did. But that was just a part of what she did. She taught me to see the world as somewhere full of opportunities, not obstacles.” Joe stopped and turned to face his father. “Julia once told me not to try to change the world, but to enjoy it the way it is. I kept thinking of that, when I worked with Miss Dobbs.”
Julia Bulette! For a long time, Ben had resented her influence on his son, but now he was grateful her memory had afforded Joe some comfort.
“Remember that book Adam used to read – Pilgrim’s Progress? Well, I guess I was stuck in the Slough of Despond or the Valley of Despair. But Miss Dobbs showed me I could get out. And whenever I doubted her or when I slipped back, I could hear Julia saying ‘Having faith in no-one gives you a special kind of security’. Well, I decided I didn’t want that kind of life.”
Joe fell silent. He’d fought his way back to life, to his life, long before his sight returned. He had been forced to acknowledge the end of his old life and to accepting his new existence, with all its limitations. It was a hard and painful realisation, but then births and deaths usually are. With that acceptance came a sense of relief and almost paradoxical freedom. He didn’t need to pretend any more. The time for fighting was past. Joe thought how strange it was that he should keep remembering Julia Bulette: that relationship was long past, yet she too had set him free, although in a very different way.
“I guess Miss Dobbs was like a second mother to me,” he ventured, wondering if his father would understand. Ben nodded encouragingly and Joe continued. “She taught me, but it was more than that. Miss Dobbs let me make my own decisions and watched me make mistakes but she never gave up on me. And she made me hold my hold my head up – literally and figuratively!”
Ben chuckled appreciatively. “Ellen Dobbs was probably the most stubborn person ever to set foot on the Ponderosa! With the possible exception of your mother!”
Ducking his head down, Joe drew a pattern on the floor with his big toe. “I really loved her, you know.” It was hard enough to put into words, without looking at his father at the same time, but it was true. In many ways Ellen Dobbs had acted as a second mother to Joe, accepting him for who he was, despite his many failings. The famous Joe Cartwright charm had been noticeable by its absence, but Miss Dobbs saw the hurt and pain behind Joe’s surly attitude and had taught her pupil to look beyond the merely physical and to seek out the true, inner core. It was a lesson Joe would never forget.
Like his father and brother, Adam found sleep an elusive quality that evening. Hearing voices, he decided to join them. As he neared the top of the staircase, Joe called out in low tones,
“You awake too, Adam?”
“How did you know it was me?” Adam enquired, joining his brother on the hearth, eager to share in the dying warmth of the fire
“Footsteps are very distinctive,” Joe explained. “You’ve been favouring your right leg all day. Is your back sore after that long journey?”
Adam nodded, still finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that Joe had been forced to acquire new skills in order to be able to function independently. It was almost impossible to imagine the reckless, heedless, impulsive Joe planning everything meticulously and Adam could vividly imagine the traumas his whole family must have endured. He felt guilty that he had not been there to share them or to try to ease some of the burden.
“I’m glad you’re back, Adam,” Joe said, interrupting his brother’s thoughts. “But I really wouldn’t have wanted you to see me the way I was then. I wasn’t the easiest person to live with.”
“You never were!” Adam responded, trying his best to make inject some levity into the conversation. He was always uncomfortable discussing emotions. “And I should know! After all, I used to have to get you out of bed in the mornings, remember?” He got up and poured himself a glass of brandy to help ward off the chill night air. “Would you really have left home to take up that teaching position at the Institute?” he asked curiously.
Joe considered this for a moment. “I think I would have had to. Losing my sight totally changed everything – the whole balance of my life altered and starting a new life, somewhere completely different was the only way forward that I could think of.”
“I’m glad it didn’t come to that,” Adam said. “You’re a part of the Ponderosa and I can’t imagine how it could continue without you.”
“Neither can I,” Ben said. After nearly losing Joe, first to the terrible accident and then to his black depression, the thought of his son physically leaving the ranch had almost broken his heart. “But I would have gladly seen you off to a new life, if you felt that was the right thing to do. You do know that, don’t you? I would have missed you dreadfully, but I would have rejoiced to see you happy and fulfilled.”
Adam gave his father a grateful smile, knowing the words were also a testimony to his own decision to leave the Ponderosa and lead an independent life.
He turned to Joe. “You’ve got a rare gift for delighting in life sharing your emotions with us, little brother, and I’ve often envied you that. And you live life with a recklessness and joy I can never hope to achieve. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I’m glad you’re still here at home, rather than working at the Institute.”
Adam stopped and thought deeply for a moment. This was not easy for him to say, but he knew it was necessary. “When I read that letter from Pa, I didn’t think, I just acted on pure instinct – and love,” Adam continued. “But even if I had stopped for a moment, I couldn’t have written the words that I felt, that I wanted to say. The only thing I could do was to come home, to be with you.” He wanted to say more, but…
Joe looked stunned at this revelation. He had always viewed Adam as the brother who was good with words, who could explain things coherently and was basically infallible. It was more than a little disconcerting to realise that Adam too had his limitations. All his life Joe had been the youngest child, the one who felt he never quite measured up to the high standards set by his brothers, the one who fought to be recognised and treated as an adult. It came as a shock to realise that his elder brother envied him.
But he also realised that Adam had always avoided talking about his emotions, preferring to demonstrate his love through actions. Joe realised why Adam had rushed home so precipitously.
“Thanks, Adam,” he said simply, appreciating how difficult this was for his brother. “I love you too.”
Those words had always come easily to Joe, Adam thought enviously. Then he looked at his brother and quickly revised his opinion. Joe’s eyes were bright with tears.
Blinking hard, Joe muttered, “Big boys don’t cry!” then drew the sleeve of his nightshirt across his face.
A plaintive voice called down from the landing.
“Hey Pa! This here little boy’s got a powerful hunger!”
Listening to the sounds of amiable bickering coming from the kitchen, Ben felt a rare sense of fulfilment and contentment. His sons were safe and happy and Adam and Joe seemed to have reached an understanding and mutual respect. Life seemed very good.
He leant back and blew a smoke ring, watching it as it rose lazily towards the high ceiling. Thoughts of Marie, who had given birth to Joe and loved him so fiercely sprung unbidden to his mind. How he missed her! And then he saw Julia Bulette, all swishing silk skirts and feisty attitude, whispering “I am going to give you back your son.”
Would Joe have gone? Ben decided he really didn’t know. Finally, he thought of Ellen Dobbs, the woman who had given his son back his pride in himself and in doing so, had literally given Joe back his life. Three very different women. But Ben felt that he owed each of them a profound debt and he would never forget them. He closed his eyes and gave a silent prayer of thanks for all his sons.
Much later, Adam banked up the fire and took a last look around before going up to bed. The room was empty once more, just as it had been that morning, but now he knew what was missing from his life. Now he could face challenges with a new purpose and resolve. It was peculiar how a return to the familiar surroundings had crystallised all his confusions and provided him with a solution to his unease. It had taken a near tragedy for Adam to realise that all he needed was right here.
Stopping outside Joe’s bedroom door, Adam whispered “I love you too, little brother,” and then went to bed with a light and joyous heart. He was home at last.
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