THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE, NOT PROFIT, AND IS NOT INTENDED TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT

 

 

 

 

 

FORGOTTEN SON

 

 

A Bonanza Story

 

By Kate Pitts

 

 

 

 

“I think he’s coming round.” Doctor Paul Martin’s declaration brought a collective sigh of relief from the three men gathered around Ben Cartwright’s bed. It had been three days that Ben had lain unconscious, barely stirring, since a fall from his horse on his way back to the ranch from Virginia City.

 

“Welcome back, Ben.” Paul said with a smile, moving closer to the bed as his patient’s eyelids fluttered open. “You’ve had your boys here a mite worried.”

 

“I…” Ben’s voice was hoarse, a puzzled frown creasing his brow as he looked in some confusion at the men surrounding him. “What…what…where?”

 

“You had a bad fall,” Paul told him soothingly, motioning for Adam, Hoss and Joe to stay back a little and give their father some space. “But you’re going to be fine, I’m sure.” 

 

“I don’t . . .” Ben looked around the room almost wildly. “Where am I, where are my sons?”

 

“Right here, Pa.” Hoss moved forward at his father’s words, his voice calm, comforting. “Like the doc says, you’re gonna be just fine.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Ben’s voice rose as Hoss drew nearer, and his hands flailed forward as though to ward off the big man’s approach. “Where are my sons, what have you done with my boys?”

 

“I think you’d best go downstairs for a minute, Hoss.” Paul said, moving quickly to soothe his patient. He glanced round to where Adam and Joe stood watching, concern etched deep on both their faces. “All of you leave, please, let me handle this.”

 

“But…” Joe’s protest was quashed as Adam grasped his youngest brother’s arm and steered him gently from the room, followed by a worried looking Hoss.

 

“Ben,” As the door closed behind the brothers, Paul turned back to the man in the bed. “Do you know who I am?”

 

“No, no I don’t.” Ben shook his head. “Could you just please tell me where I am, and if my sons are being cared for.”

 

“We’re at the Ponderosa,” Paul told him softly, though concern furrowed his brow as he bent closer to his patient. “And those were your sons.” 

 

“You’ve got it all wrong.” Ben protested, looking up at the doctor, his dark eyes bewildered. “This can’t be the Ponderosa, and those weren’t my sons, those were grown men. My sons are children.”

 

“Children, you say.” Paul sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, as he began to realise that something was seriously amiss. “How old do you think your sons are?”

 

“I know how old they are.” A trace of impatience crept into Ben’s voice as he answered the question. “Adam is ten years old and Hoss is four. Now, I don’t know who you are mister, or where I am, but I need to get back to my boys…”

 

“I’m a doctor.” Paul explained, his voice soothing though his mind was in turmoil as he wondered just how he was going to handle this. “I’m afraid that the fall you took has caused some damage. . .”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

“Well?” Adam demanded, getting hastily to his feet as the doctor descended the stairs some time later, bag and hat in hand. “How is he?”

 

“What was all that about?” Joe chimed in anxiously, from where he stood by the fireplace, Hoss beside him. “Why was Pa calling for his sons when we were standing right there?”

 

“Just sit down for a moment, please.” Paul told them, and saw the fearful glances the brothers exchanged before they moved to obey him. “I’m afraid that I’ve something rather disturbing to tell you.”

 

“He is going to be all right isn’t he?” It was Adam that spoke first, voicing all their fears. “Physically, yes he’ll be fine.” Paul assured him. “But, mentally there is a problem.”

 

“What sort of problem?” Adam asked sharply.

 

Only too aware of the apprehension all three men were feeling as they waited to hear what he had to say, Paul sighed deeply before telling them the worst. “He’s lost his memory, well part of it at least.”

 

“Part of it?” Adam shook his head in apparent disbelief. “What’s that supposed to mean? Does he remember us or not?”

 

“He remembers you and Hoss.” Paul explained, and glanced over at Joe before continuing. “But he thinks you’re still children. Boys of ten and four.”

 

“But that means . . .” Adam also glanced in Joe’s direction.  

 

“Yes.” Paul confirmed sombrely. “He doesn’t remember Joe at all.”

 

“Nothing?” Joe asked, his voice a stunned whisper. “Not my mother, not anything?”

 

“As far as he’s concerned, he hasn’t even met your mother yet.” Paul told him softly, and Hoss, sitting next to Joe, put a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder as the doctor continued. “Don’t worry, Joe. I’m sure it’s just temporary, just a result of the head injury.”

 

“Can you be sure of that?” Adam got to his feet and moved to stand behind the settee where his brothers sat, his eyes on his youngest brother.

 

“Where head injuries are concerned, nothing is certain.” Was all Paul could say, unwilling to offer empty promises. “All we can do is wait, and hope.” Shifting position a little he cleared his throat before speaking again. “I’ve told your father what’s happened, and what year it is. He’s understandably very upset and confused, but he’d like to see you, at least...” Paul threw an apologetic look at Joe. “He’d like to see Adam and Hoss.”

 

Joe surged to his feet at the doctor’s words, pulling away as Hoss reached out to restrain him. “Did you tell him about me?” He asked tensely, hands clenched into fists as he faced Paul. “Did you tell him he has three sons?”

 

“No, I didn’t.” Paul shook his head. “I thought that might be best coming from your brothers.”

 

“You think it’ll be all right to tell him?” Adam asked. “Shouldn’t we just wait and let his memory come back by itself?”

 

“No telling how long that could be.” Paul said. “So he’ll need to be told. Just be careful, please, Adam. Try and break it to him as gently as you can. He’s a very disorientated man at the moment.” 

 

“Shouldn’t you be there when we tell him?” An anxious frown creased Adam’s brow, at the thought of facing his father in his present state.

 

“I have to get back to town.” The doctor settled his hat on his head as he spoke, ready to take his leave. “Please don’t worry too much, I’m convinced it is a temporary condition, and that his memory will return at any time. Just keep him in bed for now, and try your best to keep him calm. I’ll call out again tomorrow.”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

Standing outside Ben’s bedroom door after the doctor had left, Adam found himself more than a little reluctant to enter, and a sideways glance at Hoss, standing beside him, showed that his brother was also feeling unsure about what awaited them. How Joe felt, left downstairs, alone with the knowledge that, for the moment at least, his father didn’t even know of his existence, Adam couldn’t even begin to guess.

 

“Here goes.” He muttered eventually and rapped softly at the door while simultaneously pushing it open and entering the room, Hoss right behind him.

 

Ben was propped up in bed, the pillows plumped up behind him, his expression as the two men entered the room one of trepidation, as he found himself facing the boys he remembered only as children.

 

“Pa,” Adam approached his father warily, while Hoss hung back a little. “Paul said you wanted to see us.”

 

“Paul?” Ben said, his eyes searching Adam’s face. “Is that the doctor’s name?”

 

“Paul Martin.” Adam confirmed, folding himself into the chair that stood beside the bed. “He’s been our doctor for some years now, since…” He stopped abruptly, biting off the words ‘before Joe was born’.

 

“I don’t remember.” The distress was obvious in Ben’s voice. “I’ve been lying here trying so hard to…” He held his hands up in front of his face for a moment, staring at them almost dazedly. “Over twenty years,” He said hollowly. “That’s what the doctor said, over twenty years. How could I have forgotten all that, how?”

 

“Doc said it’s most likely temporary.” Hoss spoke up, hating to see his father so upset. “You’ll remember soon, Pa.

 

Ben’s gaze shifted to his middle son, eyes widening as he took in the sheer size of him. “Hoss?” He whispered uncertainly. “My little Hoss?”

 

“That’s me.” Hoss confirmed, moving closer. “Guess I’m a whole lot bigger than you remember.”

 

“And Adam…” Ben looked round, a hint of a smile beginning to hover on his lips as he scrutinised the features of the man sitting beside him. “Yes, you still look like my Adam. Older, of course, but there’s still the look of your mother about you.”

 

“You always did say I looked like her.” Adam said softly.

 

“Both my boys all grown up.” Ben beckoned Hoss closer, giving the big man the same scrutiny he’d given Adam. “Your eyes are the same.” He said eventually. “I’d know those eyes anywhere.”

 

“Guess they are at that.” Hoss shifted uncomfortably under his father’s intense gaze, “’Bout the only thing that ain’t changed over the years.”

 

Ben looked swiftly away, his eyes suddenly filling with tears. “How could I forget?” He asked brokenly. “How could I forget my boys growing up?”

 

“Please, Pa…” Adam laid a soothing hand on his father’s arm. “Don’t upset yourself, you will remember, I’m sure.”

 

“You’re probably right.” Ben managed a wavering smile, as he blinked away the tears. “It’s just so… strange.”

 

“It must be.” Adam said with sympathy. “And I don’t want to confuse you further, but there’s something I have to tell you.” He glanced over at Hoss before continuing, getting a nod of encouragement from his younger brother.

 

“What is it?” Ben asked, his voice tense and apprehensive as he prepared himself for further shocks.

 

“As the doctor told you, you’ve lost around twenty years.” Adam said, speaking slowly as he tried to find the right words to tell his father about Joe. “You remember we’d begun to build this place,” he indicated the room around him. “The Ponderosa.”

 

“I remember.” Ben’s voice was hoarse with emotion. “I was just there this morning . . . at least,” he shook his head in consternation. “It seems like that to me.”

“Just a small cabin then,” Adam said with a smile. “I remember it well.”

 

“You had to go to New Orleans.” Hoss put in, impatient now to let Ben know that he had another son. “Don’t matter why.” He said as Ben sat forward as though about to ask a question. “Save that for another day. But you met a woman there, Marie.”

 

If there had been any hope that the mention of his last wife’s name might jog Ben’s memory it was dashed as he looked blankly up at his middle son. “Marie?”

 

“Marie de M’Arigney.” Adam supplied the name. “You married her, brought her home to the Ponderosa.”

 

“Married her?” Ben asked in surprise. “But after Inger, I said…” He stopped short, as a thought struck him. “Are you telling me I have a wife?”

 

“No.” Adam said quickly, sorrow in his tone. “She died a few years later, a fall from a horse.”

 

“So, I lost another wife.” The dark brown eyes were grief stricken, though not for Joe’s mother. “First Elizabeth, then Inger.” Ben looked down at the coverlet of his bed and sighed. “I never thought I’d find anybody else. Never thought I could face that kind of sadness again.”

 

“Thing is…” Adam continued. “You and Marie had a child, a son.” He looked over at Hoss again. “Our brother.” He said softly. “Joseph Cartwright.”

 

“Joseph!” Ben exclaimed. “After my father.” There was an edge almost of panic as he turned to Adam once more. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember him at all. What’s happened to me? Why is this happening?”

 

“It’s all right.” Alarmed at his father’s distress, Adam spoke as soothingly as he could. “Try and keep calm.”

 

“Calm,” Ben laughed harshly. “Last thing I remember I lived in a cabin with two young boys, now they’re grown men and you tell me I have another son, and you want me to be calm!” Shutting his eyes he made an obvious effort to bring himself under control, eventually asking in a slightly calmer voice. “This Joseph, he’s here?”

 

“Downstairs.” Adam told him, relieved that the panic seemed to have passed. “Do you want to see him?”

 

Ben shook his head. “Not just yet.” He said. “I need time, time to think about all this. On my own”

 

“Of course.” Adam got to his feet. “We’ll just be downstairs, call if you need us.”

 

Ben nodded tersely, but called out as Adam and Hoss left the room. “Wait!”

 

“Yes?” Adam stepped back inside. “Is there something you need?”

 

“Joseph,” Ben asked quietly, “How old is he?”

 

“He’s just turned nineteen.” Adam told him, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to see him?”

 

“Not tonight.” Ben turned away, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. “Not tonight.”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

    

 

“Don’t hardly seem like Pa, does he?” Hoss said as Adam gently closed Ben’s bedroom door behind them, and they headed for the stairs. “And I sure hated to see him in such a fret.”

 

“We have to try and understand what he’s going through.” Adam counselled. “Just to wake up and find you’re suddenly twenty years older, and that you’re missing a huge chunk of your life. It must be terrifying.”

 

“He still doesn’t remember?” Joe asked, as his brothers descended the stairs to join him in the great room. “I kind of hoped that talking to you two might jog his memory.”

 

“No,” Adam sank into the blue chair beside the fireplace, staring at the dancing flames of the fire that burned brightly on the hearth. “In his mind he thinks it’s still twenty years ago, back when Hoss and I were kids. Before he even went to New Orleans and met your mother. It’s hard for him to realise that so much has changed, so much time has passed.”

 

“How did he take it when you told him about me?” Joe perched himself on the edge of the hearth, back to the fire, and facing Adam. “You did tell him?”

 

“Of course I told him.” Adam tore his gaze away from the fire and met Joe’s anxious eyes. “He was just…stunned, I suppose.”

 

“Perhaps if I go up and see him?” Joe suggested hopefully. “If he actually sees me it might help him remember.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Let him rest.”

 

For a while Joe was silent, but the tension building in him was palpable and it came as no surprise to either of his brothers when the young man suddenly sprang to his feet and headed for the stairs.

 

“Leave him be, Joe.” Hoss moved quickly to bar his youngest brother’s way, planting himself firmly at the bottom of the staircase. “He asked to be left alone to think.”

 

“Get out off my way.” Joe pulled angrily at Hoss’s arm as he spoke, trying futilely to move his brother aside. “I just want to make sure he’s all right.”

 

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Getting up, Adam walked over to join his brothers. “Hoss is right, Pa asked to be left alone.”

 

“I won’t disturb him.” Joe said, his tone imploring as he faced his oldest brother. “I’ll just look in for a minute. Please, Adam, I really want to see him.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Finding it hard to meet Joe’s eyes, Adam glanced over at Hoss, getting a sympathetic look from the middle Cartwright. “But, he said he didn’t want to see you.”

 

“You gotta understand.” Concerned, Hoss reached out one large hand to gently squeeze his younger brother’s shoulder. “He don’t even know who you are. He’s findin’ it pretty darn hard dealin’ with the fact that me and Adam are all growed up, leave alone that he got himself another son.”

 

“Let’s just wait and see how he is in the morning.” Adam suggested, relieved when Joe reluctantly nodded his agreement. “Maybe a night’s sleep will sort it all out.”

“Maybe.” Moving away from the stairs, Joe grabbed his jacket and pulled it on. “I’m going to go out and settle the horses for the night.”

 

As the door closed behind Joe, Hoss glanced up the stairway. “’Praps one of us oughta go stay with Pa.” He said worriedly.  “I sure don’t like to think of him all alone up there. Specially not with him bein’ so upset.”

 

“I’ll go up and see how he is in a little while.” Adam reassured him. “Take him some broth.” A hint of a smile touched his lips. “Sure wish Hop Sing was here to cook it.”

 

“Your cookin’ ain’t so bad.” Hoss said with a chuckle. “And we didn’t have Hop Sing twenty years ago so Pa won’t know what he’s missin’.” He sobered, at the thought. “Guess I shouldn’t joke about it.”

 

“Sometimes a little humour helps.” Adam reassured him. “Besides I’m sure Pa will laugh about all this one day, he’ll never believe he forgot all about Joe.”

 

“I guess so.” Hoss spared another glance at the stairs, thinking of his father and how bewildered he’d seemed. “I sure hope so.”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

“He’s still the same.” Adam explained to Paul Martin as he led the doctor to Ben’s room the following day. “Can’t remember a thing about the last twenty years.”

 

“I see.”  Paul was disappointed, though not surprised. “How is he in himself?”

 

“Worried…confused…bewildered…and that doesn’t even begin to cover it.” Adam paused at Ben’s door. “He didn’t sleep a lot either, I checked on him regularly through the night.”

 

“Did you talk much?”

 

“No.” Adam shook his head. “He didn’t want to talk, said he needed to think about things first.”

 

“You told him about Joe?”

 

“Yes, I told him. He was…shocked, I guess. Didn’t want to see him, I thought he would have done.”

 

“How did Joe take that?”

 

“Not too well.” Adam said with a rueful smile. “Especially when Pa still wouldn’t see him this morning. Hoss had to go out and check on the herd and I sent Joe along, figured he was better out working than here at home fretting.”

 

“You’re probably right.” Paul agreed and indicated the door in front of them. “Shall we go in?”

 

With a nod of assent Adam pushed the door wide. Inside Ben looked up as they entered, giving his eldest son a hesitant smile.

 

“Good morning, Ben.” Paul made his way across to the bed. “How are you feeling today?”

 

“As though I’m in some kind of nightmare.” Ben told him shortly. “I keep expecting to wake up at any moment and find myself back home.”

 

“I’m still hopeful that your memory will return very shortly.” Paul said, opening his medical bag. “I’m just going to examine you now and if I think you’re well enough then I’ll allow you out of bed. Perhaps being downstairs with your family around you might help your recovery.”

 

“Are you sure I should get up?” Ben sounded hesitant, obviously concerned about venturing out of the one place he now knew, to face a Ponderosa he’d forgotten. “Might it not be better to wait until I do remember something?”

 

“If there’s anything that worries you, anything you want explaining, just ask me.” Adam said, trying to reassure his father that all would be well. “I’ll even give you a guided tour if you like.”

 

Ben looked up, eyes searching Adam’s face as they had done every time he saw him since he awoke yesterday, seeking some remnant of the boy he knew. “Thank you.” He said formally.

 

“I want you to take it very quietly.” Paul told him, gently examining the large lump on Ben’s head that he had acquired in his fall. “If you feel nauseous or dizzy then sit down and rest.”

 

“I’ll make sure that he does.” Adam assured the doctor. “We all will.”

 

“Then I see no reason why you shouldn’t venture downstairs for supper tonight, Ben.” Paul said with a smile. “Give you a chance to meet that youngest son of yours all over again.”

 

“I think I’d like to know a little more about him before that.” Ben said, and looked over at Adam. “About all of you, and what’s happened over the years.”

 

“I’ll do my best.” Adam said. “Although twenty years is a lot of time, and a lot of memories. Perhaps it might be best to just give you a few facts for now, too much information might just confuse you more.”

 

Paul nodded approvingly. “That sounds like a good idea, Adam. Don’t overwhelm your father with all twenty years at once.”

 

“I’ll be careful.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, Adam smiled down at Ben. “All right, Pa, where do you want me to start?”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

It’s certainly an impressive place.” Ben remarked as Adam preceded him down the stairs that evening. “Hard to believe all this grew from that little cabin.”

 

“It took time,” Adam told him, glancing around the room with pride. “And a great deal of hard work from you and me, Hoss as well when he got big enough to help. We’ve added to it over the years as well, so it’s a pretty big house now.”

 

“It certainly is.” Ben looked around him, impressed by what he saw. The large, comfortable, room, dominated by the magnificent fireplace and furnished simply but well.

 

“I’m afraid dinner won’t be up to what you’re used to, or were used to.” Adam led the way across to the table, “As I explained earlier our cook, Hop Sing, is away and Joe, Hoss and I are not much of a replacement.”

 

“You can cook up a decent rabbit stew,” Ben said with a smile. “Many a time I’ve had to leave you to sort out a meal for you and your brother while I was off hunting.”

 

“I remember.” Adam pulled out the chair at the head of the table and motioned for his father to sit down. “It’s beef tonight though, from our own herd.”

 

“Our own herd.” Ben repeated softly. “I was looking at the beginnings of that herd just days ago, or so it seems.”

 

“Those few head of cattle.” Adam said, thinking back to the early days of the Ponderosa. “Hoss wanted to name them all, remember?”

 

“And you said if’n I made a friend of an animal it would be mighty hard to eat it when the time came.” Coming in from the kitchen carrying a large serving dish, Hoss added his reminisces. “I can still remember that, and I cain’t have been much older’n three.” He placed the dish down in the centre of the table and turned to his father. “Joe’s just sorting out the vegetables, and there’s biscuits fresh out of the oven. Sure hope you’re hungry.”

 

“Help yourself to meat.” Adam took the top off the dish, revealing slices of hot, succulent beef. “I’ll just go and give Joe a hand.”

 

“We usually do things a mite more formal when Hop Sing is here.” Hoss said, as Adam disappeared into the kitchen. “But we all gotta pitch in when he’s away.”

 

“I’m sure it’ll be delicious.” Ben served himself a couple of slices of beef, sitting back as Adam re-emerged with a plate of steaming biscuits in one hand and a jug of gravy in the other. Behind him, Joe brought in the dishes of vegetables.

 

“You must be Joseph.” Ben’s dark eyes explored the young man’s face as he put the food on the table and sat down. He saw a handsome youth, slightly built, with dark curly hair, and hazel eyes. Someone he didn’t remember at all.

 

“Yes, sir.” Suddenly feeling unaccountably shy and uncomfortable, Joe found it hard to meet his father’s gaze. It was strange to know that Ben had absolutely no memory of him whatsoever, that he might as well have been greeting a stranger.

 

“Adam showed me your mother’s picture.” Ben said, turning away and helping himself to biscuits as he spoke. “He was right, you do look a lot like her.”

 

“Yes.” Joe found himself at a loss for words, his mind searching frantically for something to say. Beside him Hoss took the plates Adam handed him across the table and helped himself to food, but Joe’s appetite had fled and he shook his head when Hoss offered the plates to him.

 

“Adam tells me I met your mother in New Orleans.” Ben continued. “I’ve heard it’s a beautiful city, have you ever been there?”

 

Joe shook his head, a slightly nauseous feeling settling itself in his stomach. It was like talking with a guest, not his father at all. He glanced at Adam and Hoss, both busy eating, wondering if they felt the same way. “I’d like to go one day.” He said, and attempted a smile. “You met a beautiful Creole lady there, perhaps I can do the same.”

 

“A Creole?” Ben asked, with a slight lift of his eyebrows. “Your mother was a Creole?”

 

“Yes.” For some reason Joe felt irritated at the remark, wondering if there was a hint of disdain in his father’s question. Of course not, he decided, if Ben had married his mother he could hardly be prejudiced toward Creoles.

 

“I was thinking I could hitch up the buggy tomorrow, Pa, and take you for a look around the place.” Adam put in, becoming aware of the shortness of Joe’s replies to Ben’s questions, and realising that he must be feeling awkward and unsure he must be. “That’s if you’re feeling up to it.”

 

“I’d like that.” Ben said with some enthusiasm. “Perhaps I’ll recognise some of the Ponderosa.”

 

“Sure you will.” Hoss assured him. “Plenty of countryside out there is still the same as when we first got here. You’ll sure be surprised when you see Virginia City though. Since they found the Comstock lode it’s just growed and growed.”

 

“The Comstock lode?” Ben queried. “What’s that?”

 

As Hoss launched into an account of the discovery of silver, Ben listened with interest, occasionally interrupting to ask a question of either Adam or Hoss. Joe watched, trying hard to be understanding of the way his father must be feeling, the horror of waking up one day to find your life completely changed. Yet, though he hated himself for it, he couldn’t help but feel alienated from his family, the only one of his three sons that Ben had no memory of. He hoped desperately that this wouldn’t last long, that his father would be back to normal very soon.

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

“It’s been good to see some familiar sights.” Ben said softly, as he and Adam sat in the buggy looking out over the lake the following day. “You’ve no idea how hard this all is for me.”

 

“Not so easy for Hoss, Joe and I.” Adam told him, letting the reins hang loosely in his hands as he too admired the magnificence of the landscape before him. He and his father had spent the afternoon riding around a little of the Ponderosa, and Ben had been shocked and amazed at how much the ranch had grown in the years that he had lost. Adam had found it a little strange, almost unreal, to be telling his father things about the ranch that, just a few days before, he had known.

 

“It’s a difficult situation for all of us.” Ben agreed, turning to look at his son. Once again he felt that dreamlike sensation hit him, as it did each time he saw the man Adam had become, while in his memory that man remained a boy. However much he tried to come to terms with losing twenty years, it still remained almost unbelievable. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I recognise certain things about you and Hoss, and the memories we’ve talked of, ones that only you, Hoss and I share, I don’t think I could accept it. I’d be convinced that I was insane.”

 

“And you still have no memory of Joe?”

 

“None at all.” Ben shook his head. “He seems a pleasant enough young man, a little quiet at supper last night, but not at all familiar to me.”

 

“He’s not normally so quiet.” Adam said, smiling at the description. “I think he just felt awkward with you, not sure what to say.”

 

“I can understand that.” Ben thought back to the stilted conversation at the supper table. “I was feeling much the same way.”

 

“Talking of Joe.” Adam took up the reins. “We’d better get going. He’s down at the corral breaking some horses and I told him I’d swing by and see how he was getting on.”

 

Joe was taking a break when his father and brother arrived at the corral, watching Andy, one of the ranch hands, trying desperately to stay on a chestnut mare, which was bucking wildly beneath him. Seeing the buggy, he leapt down from his seat on the corral fence just as the young hand lost his fight and landed heavily on the dusty ground. Pausing to make sure that the man was all right, Joe wiped his sweaty, dirt-streaked face with his sleeve before ambling over to greet Adam and Ben.

 

“How’s it going?” Adam asked, raising a hand in greeting to Andy, who had got stiffly to his feet and was limping over to the corral gate.

 

“Not too bad.” Joe cast a quick glance at his father, hoping to see some sign of recognition but getting just a polite smile. “I was going to ride one more and then call it a day. Going to stay and watch?”

 

“Sure.” Adam turned to Ben. “Unless you’d rather get back, Pa? Doc did say to take things easy.”

 

“I’m fine.” Ben assured him. “And I’d like to see…um…Joseph…ride.”

 

“Let’s hope you have more luck than Andy.” Adam joshed, jumping down from the buggy. “He’s looking a little sore over there.”

 

Joe glanced over to where Andy was hoisting himself up on the corral fence, another ranch hand giving him a helping hand. “Second time he’s come off this afternoon.” He said with a sympathetic smile in the young man’s direction. “But you just watch me, brother, see how it should be done.”

 

“Such modesty.” Adam said sardonically, and was pleased to see Joe grin at him before turning to walk away. He hadn’t missed the sudden tautness on his brother’s face when Ben had hesitated before speaking his name, and knew it must have hurt.

 

“Does Joseph do a lot of horse-breaking?” Ben asked, coming up to stand beside Adam at the corral fence.

 

“A fair bit.” Adam told him. “He’s pretty experienced.”

 

At the side of the corral Joe was already mounted up on one of the unbroken mares, the horse held steady by two ranch hands. At Joe’s signal they released the horse and it leapt forward, bucking and twisting, trying frantically to dislodge the unfamiliar weight on its back.

 

“Hold on, Joe.” Adam yelled, leaning on the fence and watching his brother fight to control the animal. “You can do it!”

 

But it seemed that he had spoken too soon, with a mighty heave the mare managed to unseat Joe and, before Adam’s horrified gaze, he flew upwards before falling to land with a sickening thud on the ground. Immediately the two ranch hands ran to grab the horse’s reins, fearful that its plunging hooves could cause further damage to the man on the floor. Adam vaulted the fence and ran to his brother, who lay face down, and unmoving, in the dust.

 

“Joe!” Kneeling down Adam carefully ran his hands over the young man’s body, feeling for signs of broken bones. “Joe!”

 

“I’m all right.” Joe said, to Adam’s great relief, though his voice was no more than a strained whisper. Rolling painfully over onto his back, Joe groaned, but managed a weak smile for his brother. “Just knocked the wind out of me is all.”

 

“You landed pretty hard.” Adam gently assisted Joe into a sitting position. “Lucky you didn’t break something.”

 

“No, I’m fine.” Joe assured him, brushing away Adam’s supporting arm and getting shakily to his feet. “I was kinda expecting it.”

 

“Expecting…” Adam’s voice trailed off as he followed Joe’s gaze to where Ben stood at the corral fence, watching dispassionately. “You mean you let yourself be thrown?” He accused angrily. “Joe, you could have gotten yourself killed!”

 

“I sorta hoped that if I fell, if Pa saw me fall, that maybe…”

 

“Maybe he’d remember.” Adam finished for him, annoyed at his brother’s foolhardiness. “That was a darn stupid thing to do.”

 

“Yeh, well.” Joe shrugged and bent to pick up his hat, which had fallen a short distance away. “Didn’t work, did it?”

 

Softening at the desolation in his young brother’s tone, Adam caught hold of Joe’s arm. “We just need to be patient.” He said softly. “That’s all. Pa’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

 

“I hope you’re right, Adam.” Joe looked again at his father, standing by the corral fence, knowing that normally he’d have been here beside him, checking to make sure he wasn’t hurt. “I really hope so.”

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

As the weeks passed with no change in Ben’s condition, all three of the Cartwright sons found it difficult to be patient at times.

 

It was decided that Adam would take over the running of the ranch from his father. With no recollection of the past twenty years there was no way that Ben could handle the bookwork and management involved in keeping the Ponderosa’s huge operation going. It was all too different from the small ranch that Ben remembered. To Adam also fell the task of teaching his father about the way the Ponderosa ran nowadays, something that Adam found disconcerting to do, instructing Ben in skills that he had been so familiar with such a short time before.

 

With Adam busy with the work that Ben had taken care of before, Hoss and Joe found that they too had to carry an extra workload, taking over some of Adam’s chores as well as their father’s.

 

Coming back late one evening from the timber camp, Hoss found the house quiet and dark. It had been a long, hard day and, as Hoss entered the ranch house after stabling Chubb, he yawned widely, ready for his bed.

 

“Evening, son.” Ben’s quiet words startled Hoss. He had thought everyone had turned in for the night.

 

“Hey, Pa.” Lighting the lamp, Hoss turned to his father. “What you doin’ sittin’ down here in the dark?”

 

“I couldn’t sleep.” Ben blinked as the light from the lamp hit him. “Often can’t.”

 

“I sometimes find a cup of hot chocolate does the trick when I cain’t drop off.” Hoss told him. “Like me to fetch you some?”

 

“No thank you.” Ben said. “But I would appreciate someone to talk to for a while, if you’re not too tired?”

 

“Naah,” Hoss denied quickly, wanting to help his father, and hoping he could stay awake long enough to do so. “I’m fresh as a daisy.”

 

Ben smiled gratefully, he could see the weariness etched on the big man’s face and guessed how tired he really was.

 

“So what’s the problem?” Hoss asked, settling himself on the settee. “Why cain’t you sleep?”

 

“I just find myself fretting over things.” Ben told him, turning away slightly and concentrating on the glowing embers of the fire on the hearth. “Trying to remember something, anything, from the last twenty years.”

 

“And you cain’t?”

 

“Not a thing.” Ben sighed heavily. “The only memories that come are old ones. Memories of your mother, and of Adam’s mother. Memories of my family, my childhood, of my days at sea. Of you and Adam as babies, and children. But building this place…” He indicated the house around them. “Building up the Ponderosa, of Joseph and his mother…” His voice trailed off and he rubbed a weary hand across his forehead. “I just wish I could remember, I really wish I could.”

 

“Yeh.” Hoss shifted in his seat, unsure what to say. “We kinda miss sharin’ the memories of those years with you, as well. Ain’t easy to talk about sumphin’ that happened when Joe was just a shaver, and see you don’t recall it at all. Or ‘bout Adam goin’ away to college, things like that.”

 

“You and Adam have grown into such fine men.” Ben said. “I just wish I could remember you doing it. You were such a lovely little boy. So happy and cheerful.” His eyes misted suddenly as memories of his sons assailed him, memories that seemed so very recent. “I miss that little boy, Hoss. Does that sound stupid? Here you are, right here, you and Adam, but you’re grown men, and I miss my children.”

 

“I don’t reckon that’s so stupid.” Hoss shook his head slowly. “Ain’t stupid at all. We sorta miss you too. And Joe…well, he feels like he’s lost his Pa altogether.”

 

“I can see how it hurts him.” Ben brushed a hand across his eyes, blinking away the hint of tears. “But I can’t pretend to care for him the way I do you and Adam. I have no memory of him at all.”

 

“You care for Adam and me?” Hoss asked, uncertainly. “Even though we ain’t the little boys you remember?”

 

Ben nodded. “I see those boys in you.” He said slowly. “And when I look into your faces I can see your mothers looking back at me.”

 

“And when you look at Joe?”

 

“It’s like looking at a stranger. A nice enough boy, but a complete stranger.”

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~*

 

The strained relationship between Joe and Ben came to a head a week or so later. It had been a wet day, fall having arrived early in the Sierras and brought with it a few days of unsettled, and unseasonably cold, weather. Joe had spent the day checking the herd, and having to rescue one stubborn steer stuck in a mudhole, and apparently not wanting to get out, had left him muddy, cold, wet and irritable.

 

Adam, meanwhile, had spent a frustrating few hours in Virgina City, in negotiations over a timber contract, and had returned to the Ponderosa with the beginnings of a headache and in no mood to put up with his youngest brother’s complaints. With Ben resting upstairs, and the house quiet, he had just poured himself a cup of coffee and settled down to read through the contract that had finally been drawn up that afternoon, when Joe arrived home.

 

“Darn weather.” Joe grumbled, as he walked into the house, slicker dripping water on the wooden floor. Seeing his older brother, looking warm and cosy in the blue chair by the fire, did nothing to improve his bad mood. “Be glad when you can start doing some work again, Adam. Seems like Hoss and me never get a spare minute these days.”

 

“You know why that is.” Adam said, annoyed at Joe’s griping. “And it’s not as though I sit around doing nothing. This place doesn’t run itself.”

 

Joe knew that was true, Adam had probably been working harder than any of them lately, but his bad temper, and the misery of being so wet and cold, got the better of him. “Looks to me like you’re sitting around doing nothing at the moment.” He said bitterly, pulling off his muddy boots and flinging them to one side.

 

“Better clear that mud up.” Adam advised him evenly, keeping a tight hold on his own temper. “And the water you’re dripping everywhere.”

 

“Good honest mud picked up from working.” Joe shot back, knowing he was being unfair and yet seemingly unable to stop himself. “Something you might try, brother.”

 

“That’s enough!” Head beginning to throb, Adam tried to diffuse the argument. “Just get that wet coat off and come and get warm. There’s coffee in the kitchen if you want a cup.”

 

“What I want.” Joe said, pulling his slicker off and hanging it up. “Is for you to do some work around here.”

 

“And what I want is for you to get on with the job and stop complaining!” Adam got to his feet, anger getting the better of him. “You know how difficult things are right now. At least Hoss…”

 

“Oh no, Hoss never complains.” Joe interrupted, temper in full flow. “He lets you walk all over him.”

 

“At least he pulls his weight around here.” Adam threw back, aware as he said it that he was being just as unfair as Joe. All three brothers had been working hard lately.

 

“Now, look here, Adam…” Joe’s tone was menacing as he advanced into the room. “If you think…”

 

“Stop it!” Ben’s thunderous voice startled both brothers, and they swung round as one to see their father at the top of the stairs.

 

“Sorry, Pa.” Adam apologised quickly. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

“Yeh, sorry.” Joe mumbled, feeling more than a little ashamed at his outburst, his temper dissipating as quickly as it had arisen.

 

“How dare you suggest that Adam hasn’t been working as hard as you have?” Ben asked Joe angrily. “I’ve seen him poring over books and ledgers until the early hours of the morning while you’ve been snoring in your bed.”

 

“I guess I was being a little unfair.” Somewhat shamefacedly, Joe held out his hand to Adam. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean all that.”

 

“I’m sorry, too.” Adam took Joe’s hand in his and shook it. “I guess we’re both just overtired and irritable.”

 

“That’s better.” Ben said with satisfaction, coming down into the great room, and joining his sons. “But,” he continued, turning to Joe. “I don’t want to hear you speak to my son like that again.”

 

For a moment there was total silence, then, without a word, Joe pushed past his father and brother and headed upstairs.

 

“I didn’t mean to say that.” Ben said in a horrified whisper, as he saw the look of dismay on Adam’s face. “I meant to say your brother… don’t speak to your brother like that.”

 

“But you didn’t.” Adam made to follow Joe from the room. “How could you have said that, Pa?”

 

“I’m sorry.” Ben apologised, distressed by the trouble his slip of the tongue had caused. “It’s just that I find it so hard to remember that he’s my son, too.” He added under his breath as Adam climbed the stairs and headed for Joe’s room.

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

Pushing open the door of the bedroom, Adam saw that his brother had flung open the drawers of the dresser and was piling clothes into a bag that was standing on the bed.

 

“Running away?” He asked caustically, walking into the bedroom and closing the door behind him.

 

“I can’t stay here.” Joe didn’t pause, picking up hairbrushes from the top of the dresser and throwing them into the bag on top of the clothes. “You heard what he said.”

 

“You know how it is with him.” Adam grabbed his brother’s arm, forcing him to stop and listen. “He doesn’t mean to hurt you, but he just doesn’t remember.”

 

“I know that.” Joe said, pulling free from Adam’s grasp and sitting heavily down on the bed. “But I just can’t take it anymore, Adam. Pa’s there, right in front of me, and yet he’s not. I feel like I’ve lost him, like he’s dead to me.”

 

“Don’t you think Hoss and I feel that way, too?” Adam asked softly, leaning back against the wall. “But he’s still our father.”

 

“Your father, maybe.” Joe said. “At least he still remembers you and Hoss, still cares about you. Sometimes I don’t think he even likes me.”

 

“So you think leaving is going to solve the problem? What happens when Pa’s memory returns, how’s he going to feel when he knows he drove you away?”

 

“And suppose it doesn’t return?” Joe said, his voice choked with emotion. “Suppose he never remembers me, never even remembers my mother? I can’t live with a stranger for a father, Adam, I just can’t.”

 

“We’re still a family, Joe, we need to stick together. We need to be there for Pa.

 

“But I don’t feel like a part of the family.” Joe looked up at his brother, his eyes filled with misery. “Pa talks to you and Hoss about your mothers, about when you were kids, and I feel shut out. I know it’s selfish, I know I should be thinking of Pa and not myself, but it just hurts so much.”

 

“It hurts me as well.” Adam said, pushing away from the wall and going to sit beside Joe. “And…Lord forgive me…I’ve even felt angry at Pa sometimes. I know it’s not his fault, but all the extra work, taking on the Ponderosa…” He shook his head slowly, looking down at his hands, ashamed of his feelings, but glad he’d finally admitted them.

 

“I didn’t realise…” Joe looked shamefaced. “I guess I’ve just been thinking of myself in this.”

 

“No.” Adam shook his head. “I do understand that it’s different for you, Joe. At least Hoss and I have those shared memories with Pa. Makes all this a little easier to bear.”

 

“Do you know how I feel?” Joe asked, though the question was obviously rhetorical as he didn’t wait for Adam’s answer before continuing. “Like a part of me has gone missing. All those memories Pa had, of me as a kid, of my mother. They’re gone now, locked up somewhere with Pa’s memory. I’ve lost them.”

 

“No you haven’t.” Adam said softly. “Not completely, anyway. I have some of those memories as well.”

 

“Not quite the same.” Joe managed a half-smile. “But thanks for trying to cheer me up.”

 

“I mean it.” Adam turned to look Joe in the eyes. “I remember Pa bringing your mother home, you being born. The way you were as a baby, and as a little kid. I’ve been here all your life. You may not have Pa at the moment, Joe, but you still have Hoss and me. I meant what I said, we’re still a family and we belong together. We can face this together.”

 

For a long time Joe didn’t answer, turning his brother’s words over in his mind. Then, slowly he stood up and reached for the bag of clothes. Watching him, Adam felt a pang of despair, it looked as though his entreaties had been in vain.

 

“You just going to sit there, or are you going to give me a hand putting these clothes away?” The words were accompanied by a grin as Joe took a handful of shirts from the bag and threw them in his brother’s direction. Catching them deftly, Adam tossed them back with an accompanying smile. Seemed he’d been wrong, for now at least, Joe was staying.

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

An uneasy facade of normality settled over the Ponderosa in the following weeks, as winter began to close in and the days grew shorter. Late October brought the return of Hop Sing from his cousin’s home in San Francisco and, though none of the Cartwright sons voiced their feelings, each hoped that perhaps the arrival of the little cook might spark some memories for Ben.

 

“I’ve heard you all talk about Hop Sing.” Ben said, as he and Adam drove the buggy into town to meet the cook from the stage. “He seems very important to you.”

 

Adam nodded, without taking his eyes from the road. “He’s been with us since before Joe was born, and we think of him as practically a member of the family.”

“So you’re looking forward to seeing him again?”

 

“Very much.” Adam said, bringing the horse to a halt opposite the stagecoach stop. “Especially Hoss,” He added with a dry chuckle. “He thinks Hop Sing is the greatest cook in the World.”

 

“And is he?” Ben asked, as Adam jumped down from the buggy to tether the horse to the hitching rail.

 

“We think so.” Adam waited while his father stepped down on to the sidewalk, then the two set off across the road.

 

“Afternoon, Mr. Jackson.” Adam greeted the owner of a nearby ranch, as they joined him and the handful of others waiting for the stage to arrive. “Meeting your wife?”

 

“Adam, Ben.” Abe Jackson returned the greeting with a quick handshake for both men. “Yes, she’s been away for almost a month now, be glad to see her home.”

 

“You don’t have long to wait.” Adam said, looking past the man to where the stage was just coming into sight. “Here they come now.”

 

All was hustle and bustle for a few minutes as the stage shuddered to a stop and the door was flung open for the passengers to disembark. Abe Jackson gallantly helped an elderly lady out of the vehicle before greeting his wife and handing her down onto the sidewalk.

 

“We’d best be getting on home,” Abe said to Ben, his arm firmly around his wife’s waist, as Adam moved past them to greet Hop Sing, who had followed Mrs. Jackson from the stage.. “Be seeing you, Ben.”

 

“See you soon Abe.” Ben said distractedly, his eyes on the little man who Adam was escorting toward him. “And welcome back, Betsy.”

 

Adam reached Ben just as Abe and Betsy Jackson walked away, and for a moment he stared after them, a puzzled frown creasing his brow, then he shook his head slightly and turned back to his father. “This is Hop Sing.” He said, introducing the little man beside him, with that now familiar sense of unreality that hit him when confronted with Ben’s memory loss.

 

“Mister Cartlight.” The Chinese cook bowed slightly, as though meeting his employer for the first time. He had been informed, in a letter from Adam, about Ben’s condition, so wasn’t surprised to be greeted as a stranger.

 

“Hop Sing.” Ben inclined his head and shook the man’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

 

The journey back to the ranch was a quiet one. Ben asked a few polite questions about Hop Sing’s stay in San Francisco, and the cook enquired of Adam how things were going at the ranch but mainly the three made the journey in silence, each busy with their own thoughts. Something was niggling at Adam, though it wasn’t until much later, busy with the evening chores, that he realised what it was.

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

Hop Sing had received a warm welcome from Hoss and Joe, both happy to see the cook return, and dinner had been one of the most normal meals since Ben’s accident. Despite protests, Hop Sing had insisted on preparing and serving the meal and the good food, dished up with the usual accompaniment of comments in Chinese, had made for a relaxed atmosphere. Conversation had been less strained than of late, even between Ben and Joe, and for a while the family’s troubles had been put to one side.

 

Adam waited patiently to speak to his father that evening, watching from behind a book as his brothers played checkers and his father read the newspaper. Eventually, after being beaten for the second time, Hoss stood and yawned, stretching his arms wide, and announced he was ready for his bed. Joe followed a few minutes later, bidding goodnight to his father and oldest brother.

 

“Would you like some coffee?” Adam asked Ben once they were alone in the room. “I think Hop Sing has gone to bed, but I can easily rustle us up a pot.”

 

“I’m fine, thank you.” Ben folded the newspaper, and put it down on the table. “I think I’ll go on up, it’s getting late.”

 

Adam shut his book with a snap. “Before you do.” He said. “Could I ask you something?”

 

“Of course.” Ben looked over at him quizzically. “What is it?”

 

“This afternoon.” Adam said. “When we collected Hop Sing, I heard you saying goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Jackson.”

 

“Yes.” Ben agreed, looking a little perplexed. “What of it?”

 

“You called them by their first names. Abe and Betsy. How did you know that’s what they’re called?”

 

“How did I…” Ben shook his head, frowning. “I suppose someone must have told me.”

 

“I suppose that’s possible.” Adam nodded. “Certainly with Abe, but none of us call his wife anything but Mrs. Jackson, how would you know she was Betsy?”

 

“Then I suppose…” Ben hesitated, his expression troubled as he looked over at Adam. “I suppose I must have remembered.”

 

“That must mean your memory is coming back.” Adam exclaimed. “Have you remembered anything else?”

 

“I’m not sure.” Ben took a deep breath. “This last few days I’ve had a few…I don’t know how to describe it…I suppose they’re memories…I just don’t know.”

 

Adam nodded. “And does anything set these memories off?”

 

“Well, that’s just it.” Ben said, uncertainly. “I’m not sure. It’ll happen when I least expect it, when I’m not even trying to remember anything, even when I have my mind on other things.”

 

“And what have you remembered?” Adam prompted, when his father fell silent.

 

“Well, I was walking across the yard yesterday.” Ben said slowly. “When I had this…vision…of a horse, stumbling, and a woman falling. Now, you told me that’s how Joe’s mother died, so…” He shrugged. “I don’t know whether I was remembering or just imagining it, though somehow it made me feel very sad. As though I knew her.”

 

“Anything else?” Adam asked, hopeful that there would be.

 

“This morning…” Ben turned slightly to look over at the table. “I was talking to Hoss after breakfast, about the herd, and suddenly I thought about a time when he was injured. He’d been learning how to rope a steer and was pulled from his horse. Broke his…arm?”

 

“That’s right!” Adam said jubilantly, knowing his father hadn’t been told about this. “He was about eleven I think.”

 

“I remembered feeling scared for him.” Ben said. “And I remember a little boy crying.” He shook his head. “But that’s all, just those few moments of memory. I wasn’t even sure if it was a real memory, or just me wanting to remember something.”

 

“It was real all right.” Adam told him with a grin. “The little boy was Joe. You took him out to watch Hoss rope a steer, and he got frightened half to death when the accident happened. Wasn’t long after Marie’s had died, and I think, when Hoss fell, he thought he’d been killed as well. This means your memory must be coming back, Hoss and Joe are going to be…” 

 

“Don’t tell them.” Ben interrupted quickly. “Not yet, anyway. I might get no more memories, and I don’t want to get their hopes up.”

 

Reluctantly Adam nodded. “All right.” He agreed. “I won’t say anything. But I do want you to see Doc. Martin. See what he says about it. Will you do that?”

 

“If you’ll ride in with me.” Ben said. “I think I’d like a little company in case it’s bad news.”

 

“It won’t be.” Adam said with certainty. “It’s going to be all right, Pa. Your memory is going to come back.”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

Doctor Martin, however could offer no such assurances. He was cautiously optimistic, assuring Ben that the flashes of memory he was having were a good sign, but unable to say if they would continue to happen. “Just take things easy.” He told Ben as he bade him farewell. “And come see me if you’re worried about anything.”

 

As the days went by Ben increasingly experienced quick flashes of memory, remembered scenes from the past. As Christmas approached, however, he was still unable to recall anything but the briefest glimpses of the past twenty years.

 

“Not going to be much of a Christmas.” Joe remarked to Hoss, as they stabled their horses one evening. “With Pa the way he is.”

 

“Guess we’re just gonna have to make the most of it.” Hoss said, deftly removing Chubb’s bridle. “Thought you and Pa were getting’ on kinda better these days.”

 

“A little.” Joe conceded. “Least, we talk more than we did.”

 

“It’s more’n that.” Hoss leant against the stall and watched Joe groom Cochise. “You seem easier with him lately. Even seen you laughin’ together once or twice.”

 

“Probably at some story of when you and Adam were young.” Joe said. “Or Pa’s days as a sailor.” He paused in his task and turned to look at his brother with a wistful smile. “I kinda like it when he talks about those days. Makes me think of when I was a kid, and he’d tell me a story before I went to sleep at night.”

 

Hoss nodded, remembering back to when he was a child. “Did the same with me, and Adam too I guess. Sorta made you feel safe, somehow, all curled up in bed and listenin’ to Pa’s stories.”

 

“Yeh.” Joe turned away to hide the tears that suddenly threatened, brushing vigorously as Cochise’s coat as he fought for control.

 

“Joe?” Seeing his brother’s distress, Hoss moved forward to put a comforting hand on the young man’s arm. “You all right?”

 

Managing a watery smile, Joe turned to look at Hoss. “I’m fine.” He reassured him, swiping at his eyes to brush away the moisture. “It was just what you said, about how you felt when Pa used to read to you.”

 

“What about it?”

 

Joe sighed, dropping his gaze to the floor. “I used to feel the same. Safe and secure and…well…” He stumbled to a halt.

 

“Loved?” Hoss said softly.

 

Not looking up, Joe nodded. “I guess that’s it.” He mumbled in a choked whisper. “I don’t guess I’ll ever feel that way again.” Looking up he gave a self-conscious laugh. “Don’t take any notice of me, Hoss. I’m just feeling sorry for myself.”

 

“You gotta think positive, Joe. Pa is gonna get better.”

 

“Yeh, sure” Joe said, a cynical edge to his words. “I’ve been telling myself that for weeks, we all have. Let’s face it, Hoss, he’s never going to remember me. As far as he’s concerned he has two sons, you and Adam. I’m just the cuckoo in the nest…a stranger to him.” With a choked sob, he turned and walked out of the barn, brushing past Adam who was just coming in.

 

“What’s up?” Adam asked, seeing Hoss still standing where Joe had left him. “You two have an argument or something?”

 

“No,” Hoss shook his head. “He’s just upset. ‘Bout Pa. Don’t reckon he’s ever gonna remember him.”

 

“Oh, I see.”

 

“I told him Pa would get better.” Hoss said, seeking reassurance from his older brother. “You do think he will don’t you?”

 

“I…” Adam paused, thinking. His father had asked him not to mention the flashes of memory to Hoss or Joe, but it seemed that Hoss at least ought to know. Though perhaps Ben was right in Joe’s case. It might well raise the boy’s hopes too high if he was told.

 

“It’s been a long time.” Hoss continued, when Adam stayed silent. “And he ain’t gettin’ any better. P’raps Joe is right.”

 

The misery in his brother’s voice at that conclusion decided Adam. “I need to talk to you.” He said softly. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

Christmas Eve was bitterly cold, snow lying deep around the ranch house. The Cartwrights were glad to finish work for the day and head inside to the warmth of the fire, and the tantalising smells of baking coming from Hop Sing’s kitchen.

 

“Looks like it’s gonna snow agin soon.” Hoss said as he came indoors, the final one of the family to get home. “Don’t reckon there’s much chance of us gettin’ into Virginia City for church tomorrow.”

 

Adam looked up from the book he was reading. “Just a family Christmas then.” He said. “A nice quiet day.”

 

“Yeh, except that the chores will still need doing, and somebody will have to take some feed out to the herd.” Joe said with a laugh. He looked at his brothers with a hint of mischief glinting in his eyes. “Think we should draw straws for it?”

 

“Only if Pa officiates.” Adam told him. “That way we know it will be fair.”

 

“Talkin’ of Pa.” Hoss said, shrugging out of his coat. “Is he gonna read the Bible for us tonight?”

 

“I guess so…” Adam looked uncertain. It was a tradition in the Cartwright house that every Christmas Eve Ben read from the Bible. The story of that magical first Christmas. “I didn’t think to ask him.”

 

“He wouldn’t say no, would he?” Joe asked anxiously. “After all he did it when you were just kids. That’s something he must remember.”

 

“I do remember.” Ben came in from the kitchen in time to hear the end of the conversation. “I remember very well.” He smiled across at Adam. “I read it to you on the trail. We’d stand out beside the wagon, under the stars.”

 

“I remember that.” Adam said softly. “Made it more special somehow, the stars looking down on us.” He looked over at Hoss. “First Christmas Eve after you were born, and you’d been bawling all day. We just couldn’t settle you. Then Pa got out the Bible, and we sat on a blanket by the wagon. He read the Christmas story and you fell asleep in my arms.”

 

Hoss joined his brothers by the fireplace, settling himself down on the settee beside Joe. “First Christmas Eve I can remember. He said nostalgically. “Was when we first settled here. Didn’t have no tree, nuthin’ like that.” He cast a glance over to the decorated pine tree that stood beside the stairs. “But we was sure excited ‘cause Pa had shot us a deer for our Christmas lunch.”

 

“You were only three.” Ben exclaimed, surprised. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d remember that.”

 

“We didn’ have much back then.” Hoss explained. “A deer was a real treat. I remember all the time you were readin’ the Christmas story I was thinkin’ about the feast we were gonna have the next day.”

 

“I should have guessed that your memory would centre around meals.” Adam teased, smiling at Hoss before turning his attention to youngest brother. “What’s the first Christmas you remember, Joe?”

 

“Me?” Startled Joe looked up, he had been lost in thought, remembering that very thing. “I don’t…”

 

“Must be something you remember.” Adam prompted softly.

 

“Well…” Joe hesitated, glancing around at his family. “I do remember a Christmas when my mother was still alive, but only bits and pieces. Guess I was too little to take much in.” He looked down for a moment, gathering his thoughts before beginning. “I remember a tree, all alight with candles. I wanted to touch it but Mama wouldn’t let me.” Raising his head Joe looked over at his father, eyes soft with affection as he spoke. “I remember Pa holding me on his lap while he read the story, and Mama sitting on the settee with her arms around you and Hoss.”

 

“Happy times.” Adam said quietly.

 

“Yes.” Abruptly, Joe got to his feet. “I’ve got to go over to the barn for a minute.” He said, heading for the door. “Something I forgot. Be back in a while.”

 

As Adam stared after him, unsure whether he ought to follow, Hoss leant across and grabbed his arm, nodding his head toward their father. “Adam, look.”

 

Ben was standing beside the table, he looked pale and there was a vacant, far-away look in his eyes. Alarmed, Adam started toward him. “Pa, are you all right?”

 

With a visible effort Ben turned his attention to his eldest son. “I’m fine.” He assured him. “I just…” He looked toward the door. “I have to talk to Joe.”

 

“He’ll be back in a moment.” Adam told him. “Why don’t you sit down and …”

 

“I have to speak to him now.” Ben said, then smiled as he saw the concerned looks on his son’s faces. “I’m fine, really. Don’t worry. This is a good thing, and I’ll tell you both about it once I’ve spoken to Joe.”

 

Still not totally reassured, Adam and Hoss could do no more than watch as their father followed Joe outside.

 

 

**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**

 

 

Closing the door quietly behind him, Ben saw that Joe hadn’t gone to the barn. He was sitting on the bench that stood on the edge of the porch, arms wrapped around himself against the bitter cold.

 

“Mind if I join you?” Ben asked, coming up behind his son.

 

Joe shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He said, adding with a hollow attempt at humour. “It’s not very comfortable though, bit chilly.”

 

“Certainly is.” Ben brushed the snow away from the space beside Joe and gingerly sat down, feeling the cold strike through the seat of his pants. “But I need to talk to you, so I’ll brave the weather.”

 

“Talk to me…” Joe looked round. “About what?”

 

“About past Christmases.” Ben said softly. “And one in particular.”

 

“Which one?” Joe asked, curiously.

 

“I’m not totally sure of the date.” Ben said, shifting around a little to try and get more comfortable on the cold bench. “But I think you’d have been about seven or eight.”

 

“Seven…” Joe’s eyes widened, his heart suddenly hammering as he stared at his father. He swallowed hard, his throat dry. “You remember?”

 

“When you were talking in there.” Ben inclined his head toward the house. “About Christmas with your mother, it suddenly came flooding back to me. I could see it so clearly. We were snowed in, just like now, and you were disappointed because I hadn’t been able to get into Virginia City to pick up the present I’d ordered you for Christmas. A wooden fort, wasn’t it?”

 

Joe nodded, not taking his eyes from his father’s face. “I behaved like a brat.” He said with a wry grin. “Sulking because I wouldn’t get my present till after Christmas.”

 

“And your brothers were sorry for you.”

 

“They made me a fort.” Joe laughed exultantly. “You remember that? You really remember?”

 

Ben nodded. “I remember your face on Christmas morning when you first saw it.”

 

“It was better than the real one. I kept it for years” Joe said, voice a little choked. “Do you remember everything, Pa?”

 

“No.” Ben shook his head. “Though I’ve been having flashes of memories for a while now. This was the strongest yet, but most of the past twenty years is still missing.”

 

“Oh.” Joe looked away, disappointed. “I thought perhaps…”

 

“Joe.” Ben grasped the young man’s arm, pulling him gently round. “The memories are coming more often and becoming more detailed. I’m hopeful that in the end I’ll remember everything. But, it’s going to take time. Can you try to be patient with me?”

 

“I’ll do my best.” Joe said, with the hint of a smile. “At least I know I’m not a stranger to you any more.”

 

“Not a stranger.” Ben assured him. “Because there was something else that happened when I remembered that Christmas with the fort.”

 

“There was?”

 

“Yes.” Reaching out Ben cupped his hand around the back of Joe’s neck. “I didn’t just remember that I had another son.” He said softly. “I also remembered how very much I cared for him.”

 

Joe’s smile widened into a joyful grin. “Think we ought to go tell Hoss and Adam that you’ve remembered me?”

 

“I think so, son.” Ben stood up, drawing Joe with him. “Let’s go in.”

 

As father and son walked toward the front door, Ben threw a casual arm around Joe’s shoulders. Watching from the window, Adam and Hoss exchanged glances of pure delight. It was Christmas and, though there was a long road ahead, their Pa was on his way home.

 

 

 

THE END

  

 

© Kathleen Pitts. December 2003

 

 

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© Kathleen Pitts 2003