A Glimpse of Heaven
Helen Adams
Author’s Note:

 This story is based on the original “Bonanza” episode, “The Stillness Within”.  In that episode, Joe is blinded in an explosion.  Hurt and angry, he refuses all attempts by his family to get him to lead a normal life, particularly rebelling against the arrival of a teacher from the Braille Institute for the blind, whom Ben has hired to help him.  Miss Dobbs, the teacher, is also blind but Joe is not aware of this fact.  He slowly comes to trust her, and then begins to trust himself again. In the end, Miss Dobbs is so impressed by how much progress Joe has made that she asks him to consider coming with her San Francisco to train to be a teacher.  Joe is flattered and tells her he’ll consider it. The very next morning, he wakes up with his sight fully and painlessly restored to full normalcy.  The family is overjoyed and Joe runs to tell Miss Dobbs, only then to realize that she is also blind.  He breaks down in sobs, overcome by both the situation and how unfair he has been to her in the past.  She tells him to feel joy for himself but not pity for her, and the episode fades out as she is holding him.  It’s a beautiful scene, but I thought it was kind of an easy out.  By regaining his sight just in time to avoid answering her proposal, Joe also avoided the character growth that would have come from having to face the tough decisions about where his life was heading and how he would handle the changes.  Therefore, I thought I’d take a stab at an alternate ending, one not constrained by the realities of television production.   This story picks up the morning after Miss Dobbs’ proposal, with Joe still blind.  It was written for pleasure only, and is dedicated to the two people who created such a lovely and touching original from which to work, Suzanne Clauser and Michael Landon.

Jamie Cartwright was in a perfect dither as he rode out of the yard, heading he knew not where.  He had been told that morning to look after Joe, unobtrusively of course, so that his brother would not feel that he was being babysat, but now Joe was gone.  The blind teacher, Miss Dobbs, had asked Pa to escort her into Virginia City that morning, to pick up a new set of Braille textbooks she had ordered for Joe.  Pa had offered to simply have someone ride in for her and pick them up, but the teacher had vetoed that idea quickly.

“No, Mr. Cartwright,” she had said in her firm yet quiet way as they all sat around the breakfast table.  “I could use a change of pace today and I’m sure Joseph would welcome a break from his lessons as well.  He’s a wonderful student, but I’m afraid if he doesn’t get a little time to himself soon we’re all going to regret it!”  She laughed, taking the sting out of her comment and the family smiled.

Joe slid his hand a few inches to the left across the tabletop and felt for her hand.  He squeezed it gently and gave her a smile, which everyone but Joe knew she could not see.  “I’m afraid I have been a little restless lately.  I’m sorry.  You’ve been incredibly patient with me, but you’re right.  If I don’t get a few hours free from counting steps and slogging through that Braille, I just might go crazy.  I’d like a little time to think about…well, about what you said to me last night. And I’m sure you’d like to have a look around Virginia City.  You didn’t get much chance when you first came, did you?”

“No, I’m afraid I didn’t,” she agreed evenly.  “I was thinking your father might show me around.  We really haven’t had a good chance to talk and he can show me where to buy a few things I need.”

Joe’s smile widened.  “I see.  In other words, you want to talk about me and not worry that I’ll overhear what you have to say.”  Ben opened his mouth to chastise Joe, but closed it when he detected only teasing and no bitterness in his son’s voice.  Joe turned his head in the general direction of his father’s chair and gave him a grin.  “Hey, Pa, it’s been a long time since you’ve been called in for a parent – teacher discussion about me.  If I get a good report, will you buy me some gingerbread?”

Hoss chuckled appreciatively.  His father had participated in so many negative versions of those conferences about Joe during the boy’s youth that he had begun bribing him with rewards of gingerbread on the rare occasions when the teachers had had something good to say.  He had always denied that it was a bribe, but the boys all knew better.  “You better be careful, Joe.  If Miss Dobbs gives you a bad grade, you just might wind up on your knees scrubbing the floor clean enough to eat off of, like Pa made you do that time you laced the chalkboard erasers with stove blacking.”

Joe burst out laughing.  He had forgotten all about that incident.  “You did what?” his teacher asked, beginning to laugh herself.

“We had some of those big clap erasers with cotton padding tacked to the wood underneath the erasing cloth,” Joe explained.  The teacher had a habit of slapping the erasers together before she started wiping off the board, so I snuck in early and took out some of the padding, and filled the empty spaces with stove blacking.  When she went to clap the erasers…” Joe started to laugh harder and was unable to go on.

Ben chuckled, in spite of himself.  It had been a long time since anything had caused Joe to laugh like that.  “That entire room looked like it had exploded in black powder, and poor Miss Jones!  I think if Joseph had been any older than 10 she would have had him thrown in jail.”

Joe smiled and shook his head.  “The tanning I got was worse than a few days in jail would’ve been, and I had to scrub and whitewash the entire room besides.  Took me an entire Saturday to get all the blacking up, but I’m not sure the look on Miss Jones’ face wasn’t worth it!”

“They talk about that incident in the school to this day,” Jamie added, his voice sounding far too impressed for his father’s liking.  He saw the look and hastily added, “Not that any of us would ever do anything like that.”

Miss Dobbs chuckled.  “It sounds as though I’m lucky not to have met you several years ago, Joseph.  I might not have survived the experience.”

Joe’s face became a bit sad, his good mood suddenly fading.  “I was a different person back then.”  He stood abruptly and felt his way past the dining table.  “I’ll see you later, Miss Dobbs.  Have a good time in town.”

Silence yawned through the room. Ben sighed and rubbed his hands wearily over his face.  “All week long he’s seemed so normal, so much like his old self that I was beginning to hope these bouts of depression were behind him.  Do you think he’ll ever accept what’s happened?”

Miss Dobbs tapped her chin thoughtfully.  “I think he has accepted it, actually, at least as much as he ever will.  It’s just hard for Joseph to become resigned to all the things he’ll never see again.  That story about his youthful prank was very visually oriented and I think it just hit him suddenly, as things will tend to do for some time.  Add to that the fact that he is very frustrated by having to move so much more slowly through life than he’s used to and his emotional state is bound to suffer.  Why don’t we just give him a little time alone to think, as I suggested?  He’ll be the better for a little respite and so will the rest of us.”

“Want me to stick around and keep an eye on him for you, Pa?” Hoss asked, shooting an anxious glance toward the staircase.  “I was going to go round up that band of strays from the south range, but I reckon it can wait a day.”

Ben hesitated, then said, “No, Hoss, I think that would defeat the purpose of giving Joe time to himself if you spent the day hovering over him.  Besides, we really do need to get those cattle moved.  I was thinking that maybe Jamie could just pop in occasionally from the lead corral to make sure Joe is all right.  Would you do that, son?”

“Sure, Pa,” the boy had replied eagerly.  “I’d be glad to.  I already promised him another buggy ride this afternoon if he feels like it and he probably won’t need me before that. After all, where’s he gonna go?”

That innocent question reverberated through Jamie’s brain now, tinged with threads of sarcasm. Where, indeed?   He had come back from the corral, where some of the men were teaching him the fine arts of horse breaking, to find the house empty.  Hop Sing had gone to town with Pa and Miss Dobbs to pick up some kitchen supplies and Jamie cursed himself silently for being so foolish as to assume that his blind older brother would be all right alone.  “I should have brought him out to the corral with me,” he muttered,  “or asked if he wanted to go for a buggy ride earlier than we talked about.  How could I be so stupid?  Anything could’ve happened to him!”

After an entire fruitless hour spent searching the house and immediate grounds, it had finally occurred to Jamie to check the barn.  He did not expect to find anything out of place. After all, a blind man certainly couldn’t saddle and ride a horse!  Then he realized that maybe that man could if he was Joseph Cartwright.  The stall normally housing Joe’s black and white pinto horse, Cochise was empty and his tack was gone.  Using the tracking skills he had been learning from Hoss, the boy knelt in the dirt and finally spotted Cochise’s tracks heading out and toward the west, toward the well used path that eventually led to a small lake.  His heart in his throat, Jamie jumped aboard his own horse once again, and took off.  Visions of Joe fallen from his mount and wandering alone in the darkness, or worse yet, drowning in a lake he could not see, assaulted his mind.  Spurred by the terrible scenes competing to dominate his imagination, Jamie rode harder.  He did not even know how long Joe had been gone.  He had left his brother alone in the house when he had headed for the corral after breakfast, and that had been three hours ago!

Finally, Jamie spotted Joe’s horse, easily visible through the greenery of trees and grass where he stood grazing.  There was no sign of Joe and the boy nearly went into a panic.  “Joe!  Joe, where are you?” he called desperately.

“Over here,” a calm voice answered back.  Jamie’s knees nearly buckled with relief as he swung down and hurried past Cochise to a large boulder sitting in a pool of sunshine at the edge of the lake. He rushed around to the opposite side of the rock, which was flat and slightly sloped back on the side facing the water, and there was Joe.  He was sitting in the soft grass, reclining against the warm rock face with his fingers laced atop his stomach.  His eyes were closed and he looked totally relaxed and peaceful for the first time in ages.  Jamie wondered if he had actually gone into the lake to swim, for he had stripped down to just his pants. His shirt, hat, boots and socks lay in a neat pile next to him, within easy reach.  “I’m sorry if I scared you by leaving,” Joe said, not opening his eyes or sounding the least bit remorseful.

“How did you get here?” Jamie asked, plopping down in the grass.  “Who saddled Cochise for you?”

Joe smiled smugly and his voice rang with triumph as he said,  “I did it myself.  It took me several tries to get the tack in place, but it’s all on.  I don’t know what made me think to try it, but I was in my room and everyone was gone and I suddenly remembered all the times I’ve had to get up and moving in the middle of the night out on the trail.  I’ve saddled horses in the dark of night enough times.  It just seemed like I should be able to manage it, and I did.”

“That’s great, Joe,” Jamie said uncertainly, pleased at the accomplishment, but still shaken by his earlier fears. “I’m really happy for you, but how did you end up here?  How did you find your way?”

Joe sighed contentedly and settled more firmly against the warmth of his stone backrest.  “You know, Pa has never really believed me when I told him Cochise understands when I talk to him, but it’s true. I just held on to the reins and felt my way as far as the edge of the fence beside the lake road and once I'd managed to get into the saddle, I said  “Let’s go to the lake, Cooch” and here we are.”  He seemed to sense the boy’s doubt, for Joe smiled and said, “I know it sounds strange, but I’ve been coming here for years whenever I wanted to think things out.  My guess is that Cochise followed the road out of habit.”

“That’s amazing,” Jamie said, looking speculatively at the pinto. “I don’t understand how you knew how to find this rock though if you ground hitched Cochise over there.  Weren’t you afraid you’d be in the wrong spot or walk into the lake or something?”

“I could hear the water,” Joe explained quietly.  “I felt my way from the trees to the edge of the water, then paced my way over to the rock.  I knew it was exactly 12 paces away, from when Hoss and I used to bury pretend treasure out here when we were kids.  Usually, he was the pirate and I was his captive. We had a map that had everything outlined so many paces apart and Hoss used to blindfold me, so I wouldn’t see where he hid the ‘treasure’, but I always managed to find it anyway.” He snorted and shook his head.  “Never thought I’d be finding that useful some 20 years down the road.”

Jamie sat staring open-mouthed at his adoptive brother for a long time, unable to fathom the courage it must have taken for Joe to do this thing, when only weeks before he had been unable to take a simple buggy ride without clutching the frame for dear life.  “That’s amazing,” he repeated, “but, well, wasn’t it just a little…uh…risky?”  He had been going to say ‘stupid’, but decided against it, not wanting Joe to get mad at him.

“I had to try Jamie,” Joe said, his voice so soft the other had to strain to hear it.  “I had to prove to myself that I could.  I’m thinking of leaving the Ponderosa soon with Miss Dobbs, and I had to know.”

“Leaving!”  Jamie jumped up onto his knees.  “Where are you going?”

Joe opened his eyes, turning his head toward the boy’s voice.  “She’s heading back her blind school in San Francisco, and she wants me to come with her.  She says if I keep studying hard, I can be a teacher there.”  He hesitated, then added, “I can do something useful with my life again.  Can you understand how badly I need to do that, Jamie?”

A choked feeling was closing off Jamie’s throat so he nodded, then realized how ridiculous that was and managed, “I guess I can.”

“There’s nothing I can do here on the Ponderosa that will ever be really useful,” Joe continued carefully.  “I can’t break horses or herd cattle or even do the books for Pa.  But, I can help other people learn the things Miss Dobbs has taught me.  She thinks I’d make a good teacher.”

“Well, I guess she’d know,” Jamie said without thinking.  “Her being…” He stopped, suddenly aware of the secret he had almost told.

Joe sat up, folding his legs beside him and leaning toward Jamie with a puzzled frown. “Her being what?”

“Uh, her being your teacher and all,” Jamie stuttered.  “She would know what you can do if anybody would, right?  Say, are you ready to go home yet?  I’ll bet lunch is just about ready.”

The youngster jumped up and began dusting himself off, chattering away about being hungry and how nice the day was and anything else he could think of to distract Joe.  Joe did not even notice.  His face was a study in concentration, a frown line cutting deeply into the skin between his blankly staring green eyes.  “Oh, God,” he breathed at last, startling Jamie into silence.  “She’s blind, isn’t she?” He struggled to his feet and shot out one hand, managing to catch Jamie’s right arm, as he demanded to know the truth. 

“Yes,” the boy confessed, alarmed by the anger he could see in Joe’s face, where there had been tranquility only moments before.  “She told us not to tell you.”

“But why?” Joe did not understand.  Wasn’t there some kind of joke about the blind leading the blind?  Why had nobody bothered to tell him what a fool he was making of himself, following the blind woman around the house and yard like a trusting puppy, having no idea she was every bit as helpless as he was himself? “Why didn’t she tell me!”

“Because you were feeling sorry for yourself and you wouldn’t have listened to her if you thought she was blind too. She thought that if you learned from her and got your self-confidence back that you’d be more willing to believe a blind person could live a normal life!”  The explanation came out in a rush.  He saw the strange expression on Joe’s face, half-hurt and half-angry and suddenly Jamie became angry himself.  “Well, she was right, wasn’t she?  Before she came here you wouldn’t do anything.  You wouldn’t even try!  It’s like you were lost in the darkness and you wanted to stay there hiding where none of us could reach you.  But then Miss Dobbs came and you changed. You found the nerve to start living again!  You came all the way out here by yourself and you’re finally starting to talk to us and like us again instead of hating us for still being able to see!”  He stopped, clapping a hand over his mouth.  He had not meant to say that last part, but he had been thinking it to himself for so long that the words just tumbled out. 

Joe slowly knelt, felt down to the grass and took his seat once again.  His looked stunned and he was silent for so long that Jamie began to worry, wondering if he had somehow pushed him back into the shell they had all worked so hard to bring him out of.  The murmur of Joe’s voice, pushed through lips that barely moved, jolted him.  “She told me once that I was more blind than most people, not because I couldn’t see, but because I refused to see.”  He laughed slightly, a sound with no humor in it. “I was angry with her for saying that.  Thought she didn’t have any idea what I was going through, and that she was just being mean. I didn’t understand.”

Jamie knelt down slowly. “Are you mad at me for telling you?” 

Joe gave a weary sigh and brushed his unruly graying hair back with one hand.  “No. You know, Jamie, I’ve never thought of myself as being a self-centered man, but now I realize that I haven’t thought of anyone but myself in months.  Even now, I’ve been sitting here for probably an hour or so, thinking about whether or not I wanted to accept Miss Dobbs’ offer, but it was all about me.  I didn’t ask myself whether my leaving would be good for you or Hoss or Pa.  I just thought of how it would affect me and whether it would be better to stay here, where it’s safe or take the risk of trying something new and maybe failing at it.” 

Jamie hesitated.  “Are you scared to go?”

A wry grimace twisted Joe’s mouth as he said,  “Oh, yeah!”  He could feel his skin flushing in shame as he remembered what had happened the last time he’d had to face an outsider.  The mere fact that he had been unable to see the gift that his girlfriend, Sally Morris, had brought over had been enough to send him on a binge of drinking and self-pity.  “I hate the idea of being looked at by other people and knowing they’re feeling sorry for me.  Am I a coward for feeling that way, Jamie?”

Shocked by the very idea of his wonderful courageous brother being thought a coward, even by himself, Jamie reached out and grabbed Joe’s arm in a tight squeeze.  “You’re not!  Nobody could go through what you have and not be scared.  I wouldn’t be nearly as brave if it had been me!”

Joe snorted.  “Brave? All I’ve wanted to do for weeks was hide in a corner somewhere and wait for this nightmare to go away!  That’s hardly what I’d call brave! Don’t you get it, Jamie? The thought of going away and starting over in a world I can’t see terrifies me!  I think that’s the real reason why Miss Dobbs didn’t tell me the truth last night.  I think she guessed how much worse the fear would be if I knew I had to make that journey without somebody sighted to guide me.”

“Then don’t go,” Jamie blurted.  “We can figure out something here that you can do.  If you managed to saddle up and ride out here, who knows what else you might be able to do?  That took courage, Joe, real courage, and you didn’t have to go anywhere to find it cause it was inside you all along!  Please, Joe, I don’t want you to go away.”  He stopped, embarrassed by the childish pleading in his voice.

Joe’s face reflected his shock at the boy’s outburst.  Instinctively, he reached out, offering reassurance and Jamie scooted closer so his brother could touch his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jamie.  I guess I’ve been pretty selfish not to talk this over with any of you.  Let’s go home, okay?  I think it’s time we got a few things settled.”

“Okay,” Jamie agreed; relieved to know that Joe’s decision to go was not yet solidified.  He stood up and waited for Joe to get dressed, then helped him to his feet and led him carefully to Cochise’s left side. “Do you need any help mounting up?”

“No, I’m fine,” Joe said, a hint of the proud smile he had worn earlier returning.  “Just keep Pepper next to me and make sure Cooch doesn’t decide to detour into town for a beer, okay?”

Jamie laughed, then watched with fascination as Joe reached his left hand up to grasp the saddle horn, pinning the reins between the horn and his palm and placed his right hand on the seat, then bent his knees and swing mounted into the saddle.  His feet automatically settled into the stirrups and there he sat, as neatly mounted as any rider Jamie had ever seen.  “Wow, Joe, that was great!”

Joe grinned.  “I used to do that all the time when I was younger. It impressed the heck out of girls. I haven’t done it in a long time, but I thought it would be easier this way.  It’s kind of hard to step up into a stirrup you can’t find.”

Jamie smiled, relieved to hear Joe making even a small joke about his condition.  For so long after the accident, it had seemed as though his brother’s legendarily well developed and slightly warped sense of humor had been quelled forever.  It was nice to see it returning again. After a quick check to be sure Joe was secure in his saddle, the boy moved his horse up next to Cochise and they started out together, slowly walking the animals back home. Joe seemed a little nervous at first, but gradually he became used to the familiar motion of the horse beneath him and the tension decreased.  Jamie watched him carefully, and when he saw Joe relaxing into the ride he took a chance and signaled Pepper to speed up a little. Cochise matched his companion’s speed evenly and after momentarily stiffening in fear as he felt the change, Joe calmed again and began to enjoy himself.  Eventually, they began to go steadily faster as Jamie allowed Joe to set the pace, keeping close to let him know that he would not be allowed to fall or run into anything if he wanted more.  Joe took a deep breath and gave Cochise a little more rein as they moved into a smooth canter.  “We’re almost there, Joe,” Jamie said finally, as reluctant to end the ride as his brother obviously was.  “I can see the corral just ahead of us.”

They slowed down to a walk again, allowing the animals to move past the fence and into the yard of their own volition.  The buggy was there waiting when they arrived and Jamie reached a hand out to Joe, signaling him to stop when he spotted Ben and Miss Dobbs standing on the porch.  Ben whispered something to the woman and she clasped her hands against her mouth, her face clearly reflecting pride and pleasure.  Jamie grinned at Ben’s expression.  His was the face of a man witnessing a miracle.

 “Joe,” Ben called out, advancing toward the horses while Miss Dobbs stayed on the porch.  “Son, you’re riding!  I just can’t believe it!”

Joe grinned at the sound of his father’s awe-struck voice and carefully swung his right leg back over Cochise’s rump and slid down the horse’s left side until his boots met solid ground.  “Just decided I’d had enough of sitting around the house, Pa.”

“Have you boys been practicing this as a surprise or is it something you just thought of today?” Ben laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder to guide him to a seat on the porch.  He could feel the light trembling in the muscles beneath his hand and realized that Joe had been a lot more tense and frightened than his confident appearance had indicated.

“Uh, it was kind of a spur of the moment thing, Pa,” Jamie said quickly.  “Joe decided he’d rather try riding than going anywhere in the buggy.  We’ve been down by the lake.”  He saw Joe’s eyebrows twitch in surprise at his words, then a small smile lift his mouth as he realized that Jamie was covering for him, knowing their father would hit the roof if he had known of Joe’s solo adventure.  The boy had said nothing that was untrue, but the way he said it indicated that they had been together the entire time.

“That’s right, Pa,” Joe agreed.  “I just wanted to see if I could, but it’s good to be back.” He felt down and gingerly took a seat in the porch rocker, wincing a little.  “I guess I’m a little out of practice at riding.  My muscles tightened up on me.”

Joe did not realize that he had already given his real feelings away when his father’s steadying hand had touched him, but he was grateful for the excuse that had popped into his mind.  His legs felt rubbery, though his reactions were not half as intense now as they had been after his first dismount. The moment his feet had hit the ground back by the lake he had landed on his rump, too shaken to move for the next quarter of an hour.  Half thrilled by his accomplishment and half terrified by it, he had simply sat there, wondering what to do next.  The roaring in his ears had been overwhelming at first but had gradually calmed until he had recognized the gentle gurgle of the lake water.  After a time, he had moved toward it on hands and knees, eventually inching his way over to the boulder. The rock had felt reassuringly solid and a pure rush of victory had washed over Joe as he ran his hands over the familiar contours.  For an hour or so, he had allowed himself the simple luxury of resting and pretending that the world was safe and normal again; as free of doubt and fear as it had been when he and Hoss had first discovered their oasis by the lake.  The hot sun and soft grass had prompted him to take off his shirt and boots and stretch out, enjoying this small symbol of freedom after too many weeks spent confined to the house and front yard.  He did not feel comfortable being less than fully dressed there, what with having a lady in the house.

When Jamie had come, Joe had almost resented the intrusion, but by that time he had begun to wonder how he would find his way back home if Cochise were not inclined to go back to the ranch right away.  Any irritation he had felt had quickly melted in light of Jamie’s concern for him.  Their subsequent conversation had been enough to knock the last of his self-absorbed mindset away, and Joe was still reeling a bit from it.  The ride home had been a pure thrill. Indulging in the long denied pleasure of riding fast enough to feel the wind ruffling his hair and clothes, had made Joe feel truly alive for the first time in far too long, but it did not make his decision any easier.  If he had done that, could he find some way to be useful at home, or would it be better to take the risk of going away and allowing the last few pieces of his old life to fall away?   

“Pa,” Joe said softly.  “I wonder if I could talk to you about something for a few minutes.”

Picking up on the gravity in his tone immediately, Ben suspected he knew what it was his son wished to discuss.  He had almost brought up his discussion with Miss Dobbs at breakfast that morning, but had refrained, wanting to give Joseph the opportunity to discuss his future plans in his own time.  He turned to Jamie, intending to ask him to afford Joe some privacy, but the boy beat him to it.  “I’ll put the horses up then go back to work, Pa,” he volunteered. 

Ben smiled and waved him on, but did not miss the look Jamie shot Joe as he took hold of the horses’ reins and moved toward the barn.  It was an expression of such mingled hope and trepidation that Ben knew instinctively that Joe must have told him about his new opportunity, and that the boy had mixed feelings about it.  He made a mental note to talk to Jamie at length later, but for now he had other matters to attend to.

“Would you like me to go inside and leave you and your father alone, Joseph?” Miss Dobbs volunteered gracefully.

Joe jerked in surprise at the sound of her voice.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Dobbs.  You were so quiet I didn’t realize you were out here.”

She laughed gently.  “I must apologize, then.  I know how startling it can be to have someone sneak up on you when you’re not expecting it.  I’ll leave you two to your conversation.”  Miss Dobbs began to walk away toward the open front door of the house.

“No, wait,” Joe protested.  He heard her soft footfalls halt. “If you don’t mind staying, I’d like to talk to you too.  This has to do with what we talked about last night.” 

Miss Dobbs nodded, saying, “Of course.”  She had halfway expected to hear those words, but had known there was an equal possibility that her student would prefer a private discussion with his father before giving her an answer to her proposal.  Tracing her steps back to the set of chairs Mr. Cartwright had brought out onto the porch, she took the seat Ben offered, and waited. 

Ben reached out to touch his son’s knee.  He had always found Joe to be the most tactilely responsive of his sons, but in the past few months the sense of comfort that both men derived from those fatherly gestures had grown exponentially.  Even though Joe could no longer exchange the subtle facial expressions with Ben that had always been one of their major sources of communication, he could and did draw strength from his father’s touch.  Joe cleared his throat, suddenly nervous and unsure of how to begin.  “Pa, has Miss Dobbs told you yet that she’s asked me to go to the Braille Institute in San Francisco with her?”

“Yes, son.  We talked about it for a short while last night, and in more detail on the way to and from town this afternoon,” Ben told him, making an effort to keep his voice neutral.  He had many doubts about the wisdom of this idea, and fears for Joe’s ability to cope as a blind man in a sighted world, and if he were honest with himself, his overwhelming feeling was pain at the thought of another of his sons leaving the Ponderosa, perhaps forever. But, right now, he had to know how Joseph felt about it. “She says you’re giving some thought to becoming a teacher at that school.  Is that something you really feel you’d like to do?”

Joe licked his lips and took a slow breath.  “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, Pa.  In fact, I haven’t been able to stop. Part of me wants to give it a try. The idea of starting over and trying something completely new is kind of exciting.  But another part of me insists I’d be a fool to try it.”  His voice cracked and Joe was forced to clear his throat before trying to continue.  “I want to do something worthwhile with my life, but when I think of leaving the Ponderosa…”

“It’s hard isn’t it?” Ben asked gently.  “The thought of leaving the only home you’ve ever known to start a new life.” Joe nodded; his miserable expression suddenly taking Ben back to all the times he had been there to comfort his son’s worries and ease his fears.  Somehow, he had always known just what to say to him then.  Now, though, the words just wouldn’t come and all he could do was offer him the comfort of a touch and the support of his presence.

“I’m scared, Pa,” Joe confessed suddenly.  “I don’t know what I should do.  There’s not much I can do here but the Ponderosa is the only place I feel safe anymore.  I’m scared to go away and try starting all over again in a world I can’t see.”

He sounded so ashamed, and Ben realized suddenly that this was the first time he had heard Joe actually voice his feelings about being blind.  He had known the boy was frightened and he had understood how alone he must feel and how much his pride had hurt at the thought of being pitied, but until this moment he had not known that Joe was ashamed of his fear. The doubts in his own heart quieted, giving way to the right words now, knowing he had to put Joe’s future ahead of his own desires, just as he always had where his boys were concerned.  “Then you have to go,” he said gently.  Joe’s head snapped toward his father, eyes searching vainly for a face that, for him, no longer existed.  Ben squeezed his arm.  “Don’t you see, Joe?  As long as you avoid the rest of the world, your fear of it will never go away.  It will always be a big cruel mystery that you have no place in.  If you don’t face it now, it will just get harder and harder and you’ll continue to retreat from life until there’s nothing left of you.  I can’t let you do that to yourself.”

Joe swallowed hard and nodded.  “Jamie told me that I was brave for venturing out of the yard and that if I could do that, I can do anything.  I think he means anything here on the ranch, though.  He doesn’t want me to go away and I’ve been telling myself ever since that maybe I should stay here for his sake and yours and Hoss’, but that isn’t really honest, is it?”

“Not if you’re using our concern as an excuse to avoid facing your fears,” Ben confirmed.  “Your brothers want what’s best for you, just as I do.  We want you with us, but we want the real you.  The willful, stubborn, independent you who can never resist a challenge and who finds something to enjoy in every situation.  He’s been missing ever since your accident, son, but I think if you were to go with Miss Dobbs and learn what she has to teach and come to believe in your own abilities again, we’ll get him back.  Even if you never choose to live on the Ponderosa again, it would be worth it as long as I knew you were happy with your life.”

“That goes for me too, Little Joe.”  All three of them jumped at the unexpected sound of Hoss’ voice.  He stood behind them in the doorway, where he had been listening for some time. “I hate the thought of you going away from us, but seeing you tear yourself apart from the inside like you been doing is killing me.  I heard what Pa said, and if going to San Francisco and becoming a teacher is what you want to do, then I’m behind you all the way.”

Suddenly choked up beyond his ability to speak, Joe tried to smile.  He was overwhelmed by the unflinching support of his family. 

Miss Dobbs reached for him and found his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.  “Joseph, before you make your final decision, there’s something I think you should know about me. It might make things easier for you.”

“Are you going to tell me you’re blind too?” The gasps that answered his flat question brought a small grin to Joe’s lips.  “I’m afraid Jamie kind of let the cat out of the bag this afternoon.  He didn’t do it on purpose, in fact he tried to cover it up, but I figured it out.  I’m only surprised I didn’t figure it out sooner than this.”

“Do you understand why I didn’t tell you?” she asked carefully.

“I think so,” he replied.  “I had to learn to trust you before I could relearn to trust myself and I wouldn’t have if I’d known you were blind.”

“That’s right,” she told him.  “I almost told you the truth last night, but I wanted to give you a chance to think over my offer to come back to the Institute first.  I hope you’re not angry.”

“I’m not angry.  Not now anyway,” Joe told her.  “The idea of going all that way with you knowing neither one of us can see does make me a little nervous though.  Are you sure we can do it?”

A genuine smile bloomed on her face.  “Does this mean you’ve decided to go with me?”

Joe looked a little surprised.  “I guess it does.  If you and Hoss are sure you don’t mind, Pa, I’d like to go ahead and give it a try.”

Ben touched his shoulder, snuffling as he fought back strong emotions of his own.  “We’re sure.  Miss Dobbs and I have already discussed what kind of arrangements might be made for your journey if you should decide you wanted to go.  We agreed that one of us should go with you at least part of the way.  You’ll need someone sighted to help you find your way at first and to help you get settled. Whomever goes along will not interfere; but will help you until you gain a little more confidence.”

Joe hesitated.  “You mean, I get to choose who comes with me?”  His father confirmed that this was the case.  Joe thought about it for only an instant before choosing,  “Hoss.  I’d like Hoss to come with me.”

Hoss puffed up with pride and pleasure at being the one chosen and Ben smiled at him, swallowing down a pang of disappointment at not being picked.  “It’s been a real long while since we’ve gone on a trip together, ain’t it, little brother?”

“Sure has,” Joe said, trying to work up a little extra enthusiasm to combat the sudden surge of terror that rang through him as he realized what he had just agreed to do.  “Maybe you can sort of see the sights out loud for me along the way, huh?”

“Be happy to,” Hoss told him.  He squeezed Joe’s shoulder as he passed him on his way back out to the yard.  “I’ve gotta get back to work now, Little Joe.  If I’m going with you there’s a lot I’ve got to get done first.  Those cattle up in the west pasture ain’t gonna brand themselves.”

Joe listened to the heavy, easy to recognize tread of his brother’s footsteps as he hurried away to collect his horse from the barn.  “How long do I have until we leave?” he asked Miss Dobbs quietly.

“I’d like to be going by Monday if you think you can be ready by then,” she said evenly.  Joe paled.  Monday; that was only four days away!  Could he possibly be prepared to leave his entire life behind in only four days? 

“Th…that’s kind of sudden, isn’t it?”

Miss Dobbs seemed to understand his reluctance.  “I know how hard this will be for you, Joseph.  It’s never easy to leave the ones you love, especially to face an uncertain future, but believe me it will only get harder the longer we wait.  Now that you’ve made your decision, it would be best if we moved quickly.”

“I guess,” he whispered.  “Miss Dobbs, would you mind letting me talk to Pa alone for a minute?”

“Not at all.”  She rose gracefully and made her way to the open door.  Joe waited until he could no longer hear her soft footfalls before turning back to his father.

“Pa, I know you wanted to be the one to go with me,” he said, surprising his father.  “But I think Jamie is really going to need you close when I’m gone.  He’s just getting used to having a real family around him and I know he’ll be hurt when I go.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully.  “I noticed how edgy he seemed when you two came home.  I’ve been meaning to have a talk with him about all of this, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.  Are you sure you won’t need me though?  Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

“I’m sure,” Joe told him, trying hard to sound confident. He laughed a little. “Or at least, I’m trying to be.  As for needing you, well…  I’ll always need you, Pa.  I’m just afraid that if you were to go with me I might not be able to let go when the time comes.  If you just come to see me off on Monday, then for a little while I’ll be able to pretend I’m just going to be gone for a week or two.”  His attempt at humor fell flat as his voice trembled with real trepidation.  Ben suddenly reached out and pulled, drawing his son up to his feet to hug him tightly.

“I’m proud of you, boy and I’m going to miss you, but I know you’ll do just fine,” Ben said.  He pulled away after a long moment, touching Joe’s cheek.  “Now, why don’t we go have some lunch and figure out just what you’re going to need to take with you.”   Joe smiled and nodded and Ben looped an arm around his shoulders as they made their way into the house.

Chapter 2
By Sunday night, Joe had talked himself in and out of going a hundred times.  All that confidence he had felt on Thursday had dimmed day by day until it seemed to have disappeared entirely, leaving him in a hell of uncertainty.  Even as he stood at the foot of his bed packing clothing and other items into the new valise Pa had bought him for the trip, he was unsure.  Maybe it wasn’t too late to change his mind.  Pa and Hoss would understand if he chose to stay.  They didn’t really want him to go anyway, he knew that.  He could hear it every time they spoke to him and even though Pa had talked to Jamie, the boy had made no bones about the fact that he still wanted Joe to stay.  Miss Dobbs would be disappointed, of course, but she would accept his decision.  Only, was it the right decision?  Joe felt as though he might throw up as his stomach knotted itself tighter and tighter.

“Joe, you about packed, son?”

Joe gasped and jerked involuntarily at the sound of his father’s voice, suddenly right behind him.  He had been so utterly lost in thought as he tried to calm his quaking insides that he hadn’t heard him walk up.  Reaching out, he grabbed for the solidity of a bedpost and held it tightly to hide the trembling in his hands as he pasted a smile onto his face and turned.  Tilting his head in the direction he estimated Pa’s voice had come from, he tried to project self-assurance and enthusiasm.

“All packed, Pa.  I’ve been having some trouble deciding what to take with me and what to le…leave behind.”  He cleared his throat against the traitorous lump that had formed there, choking off his words.  “After all, I may be gone a long time and who knows what kinds of things I’ll decide I need once I get to San Francisco.  I don’t want to forget anything important, and…” Joe cut himself off, biting his tongue to keep the words in as he realized they were coming out much too fast.  He would soon be babbling like an idiot if he didn’t stop himself.

Not bothering to hide the sadness or the pride in his tear-filled eyes from Joe’s sightlessly staring ones, Ben crossed to his son’s bureau and picked up a silver-framed picture.  He pressed the ornate frame into Joe’s hands and said, “Then you’ll certainly want to take this.”

“Mama’s picture,” Joe whispered through numb lips.  The faint trembling that had been locked inside of him took control, visibly shaking his body as he caressed the edge of the frame with his fingertips. “I-I wanted to pack it, but I couldn’t decide if I was being foolish or not to want it.  After all, what does a b-blind man need with a picture?”  The tears came suddenly, tearing through Joe with fierce sobs as he clutched the frame to his chest, drawing his arms tight against his body and hanging his head, gritting his teeth as though he could pull the torrent of emotion back inside himself through sheer will-power.

Ben watched him, shocked but strangely relieved to see him crying so.  It had worried him that Joe had been acting so calm and accepting of his decision to leave once he had made it.  Except for the night, weeks ago, when he had apparently gotten drunk and sat out in the rain wallowing in self-pity for hours, Joe had not willingly shown his feelings to anyone.  Not even to the man who had always been closer to him than anyone on earth.  In fact, Ben could not recall the last time he had seen his son give way to a fit of tears.  Joe’s volatile nature had required such displays often in his youth, even as he had tried to hide them, abhorring them because they stung his young man’s pride.  As he had matured, the fits of tears had lessened, but his acceptance of them had grown. The tears, though rarer, had become those of a man who shed them with understanding of himself, and without shame.  This time it was different.  This person before him with the heaving body and tortured face was the child whom Ben had raised all alone without a mother when she had been taken from them so suddenly.  The tiny boy who had sobbed, ‘why’, over and over again as he came to realize that he had lost a part of himself which he would never get back. 

Ben moved closer, but did not touch his son.  There was something forbidding in Joe’s hunched form, something that begged not to be touched.  Joe was once again facing the inescapable truth that a chapter in his life had ended and the only thing left was to move on.  As a child, Joe had moved on with the help of his family, holding tight and growing strong in their love for him.  Now the man that child had become was moving on again, this time by letting his family go.  Ben could see all of this clearly as he watched his son struggle for self-possession.  He wanted so badly to take him into his arms and comfort him as he had that small boy so many years ago, but knew he did not dare.  If Joe allowed himself to give up now, to fall back on using his family’s love and support as a crutch at this crucial moment, he would lose all that he had fought so hard to gain.  And then, he would die.  Not physically, perhaps, but the bright, beautiful, questing soul that made him who he was would be gone forever.  Ben rooted for him in his heart as the seconds ticked by.

At last, the fearful struggle faded from Joe’s face.  A wistfully sad expression settled over his handsome features then slowly transformed into one of peace and his head nodded ever so slightly.  His body relaxed and the tears began anew, but they were normal tears now.  Cleansing tears.  His father stepped forward and gathered him close, holding Joe to his heart and assuring him without words that his place would always be there.  Joe held on tightly, pressing his face into his father’s broad comfortable shoulder, allowing the last of his doubts to fall away as he gladly gave himself up to the comfort of that familiar embrace. “I’m going to miss you, Pa,” he whispered,  “but I’m going to make you proud.”

Ben’s heart lightened at the sound of those words.  Now that sounded more like his Little Joe!  He loosened his grip and eased back to look into his son’s face.  There was determination there and Ben could see the quiet strength he knew so well.  He placed a hand on either side of Joe’s head, using his thumbs to stroke away the last of the tears on his cheeks and obeyed his impulse to do something he hadn’t done since Joe was small.  He kissed him softly on the forehead.  “You already have, son.”


Monday morning was dreary and wet, with a chill in the air.  It suited the mood of the entire Cartwright family as they stood on the stage platform.  The stage was due any minute now and time seemed caught in some strange limbo.  No one knew if they wanted the conveyance to be late, so that they might have a few more minutes together, or early so that the painful waiting would be over.  Ellen Dobbs was the only person in the group truly looking forward to what lay ahead, and she had remained mostly silent out of respect for the feelings of those around her.

Joe was fidgety, his mood having buoyed up and down about a dozen times just this morning.  He had felt relatively calm as he ate breakfast and made a last check of his luggage to ensure that he had everything he wanted.  Saying farewell to Hop Sing had made his heart plummet into his boots and he had been unable to act as stoic as the old Chinese man had, his tears flowing readily at Hop Sing’s touch as they had embraced in parting.  He had remained depressed for the first third of the ride into town, but then his family’s bantering speculation about all the adventures he was sure to have in San Francisco had allowed Joe a thrill of excitement.  He had grown nervous again as the pulled into Virginia City and that feeling had persisted and grown as the time to leave his family drew closer.  Now, as he stood silently waiting, the butterflies in his stomach were fluttering hard enough to make him feel a little nauseous. Also, he was fighting the urge to cringe out of the sight of the few people who could be heard wandering the streets of Virginia City at this early hour.  He stiffened as he heard a voice call his name.

“Joe!  Glad we caught you in time!”  The voice belonged to Roy Coffee, and it was soon accompanied by the greetings of other voices he recognized, Clem Foster, Paul Martin, Mitch Devlin and Sally Morris.  “We heard tell you was leavin’ on the early stage and wanted the chance to say goodbye, and wish you the best of luck,” Roy grabbed Joe’s hand to shake it.

“How did you know?” Joe asked, resolutely keeping his eyes pointed straight ahead and his tone even, as he tried to appear calm and as normal as possible.  “I thought nobody knew I was leaving.”

“I was talking with Roy when he and I ran into Hoss the other day, while he was in town buying the stage tickets,” Mitch explained, following the old Sheriff’s example and shaking Joe’s hand.  “You weren’t going to just sneak away without letting us say anything, were you?”

Suddenly, Joe felt a hand squeeze his arm.  He recognized the touch of Miss Dobbs and knew she was trying to encourage him to face his friends with confidence.  He took a deep breath and made himself smile. “No, Mitch.  I just didn’t want anybody to make a big deal out of me becoming a teacher.  After all the trouble I gave my own teachers growing up, I was afraid you might decide to wire ahead and warn the folks at the Institute.”

Joe’s old school chum laughed, putting a hand on his shoulder with a seemingly instinctive realization that Joe would need some physical indication of his location.  “Maybe I should have!  Seriously, though, Joe.  I wanted you to know how much I admire you for what you’re doing.  You’re the one who always said you and I didn’t have to prove anything to each other, but you were wrong.  I think you’re proving something to the whole town, right this minute, and to me too.”  He gave his friend a back-thumping hug.  “Good luck in San Francisco, buddy.”

“Thanks, Mitch,” Joe said faintly, unable to cover his astonishment.  Mitch Devlin had been his best friend all through childhood, but had hardly spoken to him since they had had a falling-out some eight years earlier.  That he should do so now, when the support of friends was needed most, touched Joe deeply.

Clem and Roy echoed the younger man’s sentiment and Sally Morris stepped forward.  “Joe?” 

He flinched slightly at the sound of her voice, but determinedly held his smile in place.  “Hi, Sally.  I, uh, I guess I should apologize for the last time we talked, shouldn’t I?”

“It’s okay, Joe,” she said sadly.  “I think I understand.  I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me…I mean, talk to me today, but I wanted to say goodbye to you.”

He smiled a little at her confused cover up, knowing he would likely run into that same uncertainty a lot in the future. “Goodbye, Sally,” he said softly, drawing her hands up to kiss them as she placed them into his palms.  “I’m sorry for what happened at the ranch that day you came over, but it wasn’t your fault.  I just had a lot of things to work out and I’m very happy that you’re giving me another chance to see you before I leave.”

Sally tried and failed to find anything else to say and an awkward silence settled over everyone.  Joe’s family and friends had melted into the background to afford them some privacy, but now Ben determinedly cleared his throat as he announced.  “I see the stage coming, son.  It’s right on time today, so you’d best finish your good-byes and get ready.”

 Sally reached up on tiptoe and gave Joe a soft, heart-felt kiss and he could feel her tears touching his own cheeks as she whispered,  “I love you, Joe.” 

She hurried away before he could answer and Joe went through a second round of hand-shaking and well wishes as Roy, Clem and Mitch went on their way, leaving Joe and his family alone again as the stage pulled up.  The driver, Lefty Johnson, was the type of stage driver who prided himself on keeping his stage running on time and was usually impatient when his passengers indulged in long good-byes.  This made things a little easier today.  Hoss handed up the luggage, noting out loud that there were no other passengers.  Lefty agreed that he was expecting an empty run for the first few stops, then settled back with folded arms to wait until everyone was settled and he could start up again.  Hoss pulled the folded step down as he opened the coach door, waiting to aid Miss Dobbs and his brother inside.  Ellen shook hands with Ben and Jamie and allowed Hoss to take her hand as she stepped gracefully up into the coach.

“Well, Pa, I guess this is it,” Joe stated, with a false sense of cheer that fooled no one.  “I’ll be sure to see that a wire is sent home as soon as we get to San Francisco.”

“Goodbye, Joseph,” Ben said, giving him a good tight hug.  “You take care of yourself and be sure to send us a letter now and then, telling us how you’re getting on.”

“I will, Pa,” Joe promised with a smile.  “You do the same.  That goes for you too, little brother,” he said, turning slightly toward the spot where he could hear Jamie shuffling his feet on the board sidewalk.  Joe held out his arms and Jamie fell into them, squeezing with all the strength he had in him as he found himself unable to say a word past the tears forming a ball in his throat. 

“I’ll take good care of him, don’t you worry,” Hoss said, giving his father and youngest brother a smile.

“Good luck, Joe,” Jamie managed to choke out, as he ended his embrace and walked away, turning his face into an empty doorway.  He could not bear to watch the stage depart, perhaps taking Joe away from him forever.

Feeling the need to get away before he, too, broke down, Joe allowed his father to turn him toward the waiting stage door, squeezing his hand one last time in parting as Hoss touched his shoulder to lead him the rest of the way.  Miss Dobbs had been listening for his approach and she gave him directions.  “Joseph, reach out your left hand and feel the doorway.  Then step up onto the step, and again until your foot is inside the coach.”

Joe obeyed, smiling a little as Hoss added, “Don’t forget to duck your head, little brother.  You’re a might taller than Miss Dobbs.”  He did as instructed and managed to get inside the coach without incident, carefully reaching out to his right until his hand made contact with the hard bench seat facing across from his teacher.  He pulled himself into the seat and slid towards the window.  Hoss climbed inside, seeming to fill up the entire remaining space as he took a seat next to Ellen, across from his brother.  He shut the door and tapped the roof with his fist.  “All set, Lefty.”

The coach lurched and started on its way.  Hearing calls of goodbye behind him, Joe twisted to stick his head and arm out the window and wave, then pulled back in and leaned against the side of the coach.  He felt exhausted as the tension and emotional upheavals of the last few days suddenly caught up with him.  Tipping his head back and closing his eyes, Joe’s mind ran back over the last ten hours…

Sleep had been entirely elusive all night, even after a long talk with his father that had left him feeling much better about everything.  He had spent the night sitting in his window-seat, trying to say goodbye to an entire lifetime spent on the Ponderosa.  As the first piercing call of the rooster penetrated his deep thoughts and alerted him that morning had arrived, Joe went downstairs and out into the barn, using the guide-ropes that had been strung for him between the two buildings.  There he bid farewell to Cochise, finding that task almost as hard as he knew saying goodbye to his family would be.  Jamie had come out to the barn several minutes later, seen him and tried to sneak away unnoticed, but Joe had heard him approach.

“Wait,” Joe said, hastily wiping away a tear snaking down his cheek as he halted his brushing of the horse’s coat.  “Jamie, is that you?”

“Yeah, Joe,” Jamie admitted reluctantly.  “I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  I just wondered who was out here so early.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Joe told him.  “Say, Jamie, do you think we have time for one last short ride before I have to go?  I thought I had done everything I needed to, but I realized last night that I have one more person to talk to before I leave.”

“Sure, we have time,” Jamie said hesitantly.  “Nobody else is even up yet, except for Hop Sing.  Who do you want to talk to?”

“I want to go up to my mother’s grave,” Joe said softly.  “You think you can lead me up there and back okay?”

Jamie swallowed hard.  He knew where the grave was located and that Joe paid it regular visits, as did their father, but he had never been up there to see it himself.  It had always seemed to him that Joe’s time with his mother was too private a thing for him to ask to come along, just as he had never invited anyone to go with him when he visited the place he had chosen as his own. Jamie’s father was not buried on the Ponderosa, but that place always reminded him of his Pa somehow and Ben had encouraged him to go there when he wanted time alone.  Mentally chastising himself for not having thought of the fact that Joe could not go to his mother’s grave by himself anymore, Jamie swiftly agreed to the journey.  “Let me just tell Hop Sing we’re going and get the horses saddled.”

Joe waited, allowing Jamie to saddle both horses, as he could do it much more quickly, and soon they were on their way.  Riding was not nearly as frightening this time, as Joe settled into the comfortable contours of his favorite saddle and gave Cochise his head, knowing the faithful old pony would stay with Pepper.  Due to their slow pace, it took some time to reach the serene location overlooking Lake Tahoe, but the moment he slid out of his saddle and, guided by Jamie, knelt down next to the tall headstone, Joe felt that it had been worth the trip.  He brushed his hands lightly over the grassy area, detecting and pulling a few weeds with his outstretched fingers, before tracing up the length of the headstone to trace the letters spelling his mother’s name.  He had always felt her presence here and a few moments of silent communion with her spirit restored the bond that had always existed.  Joe had been afraid that once he left home he might never feel that comforting presence again, but a sense of calm now filled his heart.  His mother would always be with him wherever he went, just as Pa would.  Joe stood up and said without turning, “Thanks, Jamie.”

Jamie sprang to his side.  They remounted their horses and were on their way back home before the boy asked, “Joe, are you really sure you want to go away?”

Joe knew his brother and father had discussed his departure at length, but it was clear from Jamie’s wistful tone that he still hoped for a last second change of heart.  As he tried to find the right words to explain, a wry smile lifted Joe’s lips and he shook his head.  “I never expected to be on this end of the conversation,” he muttered.

“What do you mean?” Jamie asked, clearly puzzled by the strange comment.

Sighing softly, Joe said, “I asked my brother Adam that exact same question years ago, when he decided to go explore the world.  I couldn’t see that there was anything outside of the Ponderosa that a person might want.  I’ll tell you what he said to me.  He said “Little brother, I’ll carry this family and this land inside my heart until the day I die, and I hope I’ll be able to come back home long before that happens.  Sometimes a man just has to do what’s right for himself, even if it’s not necessarily what he wants, or what his family wants.”  That’s how I feel now, Jamie.  It’s not that I really want to go, or that I want to leave you, but it’s something I have to do for me.  Can you understand that?”

With a sad smile, Jamie told him, “I guess I do.  It don’t make things any easier, but I guess if you feel like you have to do this, then I’ll just have to get used to the idea of you being gone.”  He swallowed and rubbed a hand across his nose with a sniffle.  Joe reached inside his jacket and produced a handkerchief, which he handed over with an understanding smile.  Jamie laughed a little as he took it and blew his nose. “Just don’t stay away as long as your brother has, okay?”  He had been a little worried by hearing Joe compare himself to the absent Adam, who had been gone for more than six years and whom Jamie had never even laid eyes on, though he had seen the letters he sent.

Joe grinned.  “Well, unlike that granite-head oldest brother of ours,” he said, choosing his pronoun deliberately, “I’m not jumping on a ship to the other side of the world.  San Francisco isn’t that far away and I expect visits now and then, hear me?”

Jamie grinned, immensely cheered by the reminder that it would be possible to visit his beloved brother once in a while.  “I’ll be there whenever you say,” he vowed…

“I hope Pa and Jamie will be okay with both of us away from home,” Joe said quietly, bringing himself back to the present as the coach bumped over a small rut in the road.  “They’ve both been great about all this, but I can’t help worrying.”

“They’ll be okay, Little Joe,” Hoss told him, and Joe could hear the smile in his voice that somehow allowed him to believe it.  “Right now, you just got to worry about yourself, and learning all them things you need to learn so’s you can impress the pants off of Pa when he comes to see you.”

Joe laughed, allowing the last of his melancholy mood to dissipate.  “Thanks for the vote of confidence, brother.  Hey, Miss Dobbs, why don’t you tell us some more about the school?  I’d kind of like to know a little bit more about what I’m in for before we get there.”

Ellen Dobbs smiled, happy to hear the cheer returning to her favorite student’s voice.  She was more than willing to comply with the request and the next few miles of the journey passed companionably as the three stage passengers prepared themselves for what was to come.


Chapter 3

The journey to San Francisco was a long one, though not nearly as long as it would have been a few scant years ago before the railroad had begun its boom across the west.  For Joe, it seemed practically endless.  First there was the stage, bumping and jouncing along mile after mile without even the comfort of being able to watch the scenery roll by to alleviate the tedium.  That part, however, had at least had the benefit of being solitary, since no other passengers embarked, saving Joe the discomfort of being around strangers.  The same could not be said of the train ride comprising the latter half of the journey. 

Obeying his promise to support but not interfere, Hoss forced himself to stand back and watch as Ellen Dobbs guided Joe through the procedures of boarding and disembarking from different kinds of conveyances, walking through tight quarters and crowds without bumping into anything and even on simple decision making.  He could tell by the rigidity of Joe’s shoulders and the grim set to his jaw that his younger brother was having a difficult time, particularly when strangers would offer sincerely but somewhat condescendingly, to help him manage.  Hoss was shocked by the idiocy of some of these people, who insisted on shouting their words slowly at Joe and Ellen, as though they were hard of hearing or addle-brained, rather than blind.  It was easy to see how much their treatment hurt Joe’s proud and independent nature, all the more so because he often needed the help they offered.

With Hoss, Joe did not seem to know quite how to act.  One minute he would be clinging to him, eagerly listening to his descriptions of the world around them, laughing and exchanging anecdotes and teasing just as he always had with his big brother.  The next, he would pull away almost coldly, trying to distance himself from Hoss before the time came to part permanently.  Hoss understood what was happening.  He had expected something of the kind, and though it was difficult at times, he had made up his mind to provide whatever Joe needed, be it companionship or time alone.  He had heard the nightmares his brother was experiencing every time he managed to doze off deeply enough to dream lately, where he would call out in fright, begging not to be deserted, and Hoss knew the fits of coldness were merely a cover up for Joe’s deeper fears.  He had assured a concerned Miss Dobbs that the dreams were nothing to worry about as he had wrapped a protective arm around Joe’s shoulders and hushed him, knowing from long experience how best to comfort the younger man without waking him. He had not wanted to embarrass his brother by letting on that he knew about the nightmares, but Hoss remained steadfast in his support and Joe was grateful.

They stopped at a restaurant in some small nameless town as the train laid over for an hour, and a certain awkwardness fell over the two brothers as Hoss received his menu, glanced over it and said, “They sure got enough choices on this thing!  What looks good to you, little brother?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. Why don’t you tell me?” Joe snapped, slapping away the menu set atop his own place setting in frustration. “They don’t make these things in Braille, you know!”

Hoss flushed, his blue eyes holding a stricken expression as he realized his blunder.  “Joe, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean anything by that.  I just wasn’t thinking.”

“That’s just the problem,” Joe shouted, not caring that he was making a spectacle of himself in the public dining room.  “You didn’t have to think!  The menu was in front of you, so you read it.  Simple as that.” He snapped his fingers in illustration and jerked his chair back.  He got to his feet and stumbled a few steps, then abruptly realized that he had no idea which way the door was, and stopped. Anger and absolute humiliation crashed down on him.  What kind of life could he have if he couldn’t even indulge in one dramatic exit to relieve his feelings?  He could hear the silence around him as the dozen soft conversations that had been filtering to him from the other diners halted.  Everyone was staring at him, he could feel it, and Joe’s chagrin was complete when Hoss leaped up to help him, seeming not to care that he had just been the target of his brother’s wrath. 

“Hoss,” Ellen said, rising from her chair and touching his arm, using him as a guide to reach his brother. “Why don’t you stay here and have something to eat?  I’d like to take a short walk and I want Joseph to come with me.”

“You sure, ma’am?” Hoss asked uncertainly. 

“Yes,” she said calmly.  “It’s a pleasant evening and I think your brother and I could use some fresh air.  We’ll just make our way back to the train station.”

There was something about the small middle-aged woman that did not bear arguing with and Hoss backed off at once.  “I’ll just have something quick and meet you two back there, then,” he agreed, patting Joe on the shoulder and surrendering him to the teacher.

Ellen seized Joe’s arm and guided him towards the door, using her light wooden walking stick to lead the way and prevent bumping anything.  Joe went with her meekly, all the fight having suddenly gone out of him.  It was hard to realize that Ellen was as sightless as he was, given how easily she made her way from place to place.  He had not even thought to count their steps as they made their way into the dining room and over to a table, or to keep track of the directional changes, but it was clear that Ellen had.  She had no trouble navigating her way to the door and outside onto the board sidewalk leading back to the depot.  They had only gone a short way when they stopped and she led him to sit on a bench that was attached to the outer wall of one of the buildings. 

“How did you know this was here?” Joe asked, his tone subdued.  He felt the woman settle beside him and made no objection as she took his hand in both of hers.

“Weren’t you listening when your brother was seeing the trip to that café out loud for us, Joseph?” Her gentle voice held a hint of rebuke and Joe ducked his head in shame, his silence answering for him.  “Why do you think I asked him to describe everything in such detail?  You’ll need to pay attention to things like that if you’re ever going to find your way from place to place alone.”

“Alone?” he asked, voice filling with alarm.  “Are you going somewhere?”

Ellen squeezed his hand gently. “No, I’m not going anywhere, but don’t you think there will ever come a time when you’ll need or want to go somewhere and there won’t be anyone to take you?”

Joe calmed, embarrassed by his obvious panic of a moment ago.  “Yes, ma’am.  Knowing me, it’ll probably be an impulsive thing, too, like that day I went to the lake back on the Ponderosa.”

She laughed surprising him.  “I thought so!  Something told me you hadn’t made that trip with Jamie.  You just took it into your head and did it, didn’t you?”

Joe laughed a little himself.  “Oops, guess I let the cat out of the bag.  How did you guess?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “except that in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve struck me as a young man with a lot of drive and determination.  Besides, your father has shared all kinds of stories about your impulsive youth with me.”

Her voice was teasing and Joe relaxed a bit more.  “Most of it was probably pretty accurate,” he confessed. “That’s what makes all of this so hard.  All my life, if there was something I wanted to do, I just rushed headlong in and did it.  I’ve always loved riding, and running and fighting as hard as I could.  When I think of all the things I’ve always loved to do and realize I can’t do a single one of them anymore it’s so hard to want to keep going.”

Hearing the misery in his voice, Ellen gently asked, “What kinds of things?”

Joe heaved a deep sigh and slumped forward, running his hands through his hair as he rested his forehead in his upturned palms.  “I used to be one of the best riders in the whole territory.  Nobody could break horses the way I could or race a good one as fast.  Did you know I once spent a couple of months riding for the Pony Express?”

“No, I didn’t,” she said, genuinely surprised.

“Well, I did,” he said glumly.  “I made a dozen runs before it all came to an end.  I used to participate in horse races too, just for fun, and sometimes for profit.  Even without the riding, though, there are so many other things!  I used to have such fun with my friends and with my brothers, whether it came to playing tricks on each other or just sitting back to watch the beauty of everything around us.”

She chuckled.  “Meaning scenery or girls?”

Joe was surprised by her quick comprehension and he shrugged a tad sheepishly.  “My Pa used to be afraid I was earning a reputation as a ladies’ man because I had so many different girl-friends.  The truth is that I just liked to look at them and have fun with them at dances, and parties, and picnics and the like.  Nothing too serious, usually.”

She caught the catch in his voice and laid a hand on his back.  “Do you think you’ll never do any of those things again, Joseph?”

He sat up and slouched back against the wall.  “Will I?”

“Of course, you will,” she told him.  “Being blind doesn’t mean you have to stop feeling, or that you have to stop living.  My dear, you’re a wonderful person.  Just because you can’t see doesn’t lessen your value as a human being. Your friend Sally certainly seemed to feel that you still have worth, as did your other friends who came to see you off.  Your brother, Hoss, certainly seems devoted enough, and I don’t think he’s just doing it out of a sense of pity.  Do you?”

“No,” Joe muttered, cheeks growing hot as he went over all the harsh treatment he had subjected poor Hoss to on this trip.  “I’ve been pretty hard on him, haven’t I?”

“Yes, you have,” she said bluntly.  “He’s worried about you, Joseph. He wants you to succeed and be happy. I think he fears that you won’t, and that he’s abandoning you here.”

“That sounds like Hoss,” Joe agreed.  “He’s looked after me all my life. Protected me from everything that’s ever tried to hurt me.  He knows he can’t protect me anymore and I guess I hadn’t thought about how hard that must be on him.”

Ellen smiled, glad to hear Joseph thinking outside of himself again.  “Another part of him is probably worried that you’ll fit in too well.  That you’ll never want to be part of your old life again.”

“How do you know?” Joe demanded.  “Did he tell you that?”

“He didn’t have to,” she told him.  “You have a very close, wonderful family and it’s easy to tell that you’re having trouble letting them go.  Don’t you think Hoss is having the same difficulties?  Once he leaves you at the Institute with me, he’ll have to start learning to adjust to life on the Ponderosa without you, just as Jamie and your father will.”

A deep sense of shame washed over Joe.  Miss Dobbs was right.   He groaned and rubbed his face before letting his hands drop limply into his lap.  “Why isn’t anything ever easy any more?” he sighed. 

“It gets easier, my dear,” Ellen said, the smile on her face reflecting in her voice as she signaled him to rise and resume their walk.  “The hardest part of being blind is learning to do deliberately all the things that you once did by habit, but you’re already doing a marvelous job of adjusting.  Sooner than you think, you will become comfortable moving in strange places and interacting with strangers, and as you do, the emotional burden will become lighter to carry.  For now, just concentrate on listening and paying close attention to everything around you and try to put on a brave face for your brother.”

“You mean give him a few pleasant memories to take back home with him, so he won’t worry so much about me,” Joe translated.  He nodded, resolving to do just that.  He squeezed his teacher’s arm as she looped it through his own.  “Thanks, Miss Dobbs.”


 Joe surprised Hoss by apologizing to him the moment they reached the train and retook their seats.  Hoss forgave him readily and for the rest of the journey, Joe was so upbeat and pleasant to be around that his older brother started shooting him funny looks, wondering just what sort of kick in the pants Miss Dobbs had given him on their little walk together.  Both brothers began to grow apprehensive again as they completed the final leg of their journey, the carriage ride to the Louis Braille Institute for the Blind.  Hoss would be spending the night, checking out the facility so that he could make a full report to his father when he reached home, and getting Joe settled in.  Then, in the morning, he would be gone.  Neither of them was looking forward to their final separation, but both were stoically determined to make the parting as easy as possible.

Hoss was impressed with both the facility and the people who ran it after spending a few hours touring the place and talking to Mr. Barnett, the sighted superintendent of the Institute.  He was quick to assure Hoss that Joe would be well looked after and that their program emphasized self-reliance above all else.  That was good news to Hoss, as more than anything, he wanted to see the full return of his brother’s natural spunkiness and fire.  “What about Miss Dobbs’ idea about Joe teachin’ at this place?” he asked.  “You really think he’ll be able to do it?”

Mr. Barnett started to answer, then smiled and pointed to a cheery sunlight filled room where they could see Joe sitting by a window surrounded by children.  He was laughing and trying to answer questions about being a cowboy from the dozen eager voices pelting him.  The children were all blind as well, students ranging in age from about seven to twelve.  They had been in the middle of a class session when the newcomers had arrived and the warm welcome home Miss Dobbs had been given had been happily shared with her companions.  The teacher had been sending regular correspondence back to the school, so the children all knew that Joe was a new student, fairly new yet to being blind, and they had eagerly embraced him into their midst.  Joe was a bit overwhelmed by the greeting, but somehow it was comforting to be around so many other people who were at no more of an advantage than he was.  He had always liked children and so had no trouble talking to them.  Several volunteers had instantly demanded the privilege of showing him to his room and around his new home and Hoss had laughingly encouraged him to go with them while he took care of the business end of things and had his own tour with the superintendent.  So, Joe had gone and now, for the first time, was beginning to believe he could do what he had come to do. 

“What do you think of the place, Joe?” Hoss boomed as he walked into the room.  The children all turned toward his voice and Joe smiled happily.

“Hey, Hoss,” he greeted.  “I’ve just been getting to know my classmates.  I think I’m going to really like it here.”  The faces of the children lit up at his words of praise and Hoss grinned to see it.  Just like always, Joe had wrapped the young’uns around his finger faster than a man could blink, and by the looks of things, the feeling was mutual.  He breathed a silent sigh of relief, feeling that he could honestly tell Pa that Little Joe was going to be all right.


Chapter 4

The front door opened with a bang and shut with a crash as Jamie Cartwright came barreling through it, shouting for his father’s attention.

“Jamie, will you please refrain from slamming that door!”  Ben barked, having already issued that order too many times to count.  “Now, what is so important that you have to come charging in here as though a band of warring Apaches was after you?”

Jamie hurried to his side, waving an envelope excitedly.  “We got a letter from the Institute, Pa!”

Ben instantly forgot his annoyance, his face lighting up with pleasure as he took the envelope from his son’s hand and eagerly rummaged for his letter opener.  He had sent Jamie to town with Hoss that afternoon to pick up supplies and get the mail and he had been hoping there might be word from Joe.  He had been gone four months, and while everyone had eventually adjusted to his absence, it was keenly felt every single day.  The entire family had come to anticipate the monthly progress reports sent by Mr. Barnett, and this latest one had been late by nearly three weeks.   Ben pulled out several sheets of thick folded paper from inside the envelope, his face a bit puzzled.  All the other reports had come on thin, crisp stationary, each no more than one or two pages.  Hoss, who slammed in through the front door just as loudly as his brother had done, practically skidding across the polished wooden floor in his haste to hear the news, interrupted his thoughts.  Ben smiled as he beheld his sons’ expectant faces and called out, “Hop Sing?  Would you come in here for a moment please?”  He shrugged one shoulder at Hoss’ questioning look.  “Might as well let everyone hear it at once.”

Hop Sing hurried in, an inquiring expression upon his face.  “Letter from the Institute,” Hoss said briefly, and the cook smiled happily and took his place with the family.

Ben unfolded the paper and frowned.  The handwriting was strange, very precisely filling each line with very straight, back-slanted print.  Then a look of pure delight filled his face as he announced, “It’s from Joe!  It’s not a progress report about him, it’s an actual letter written by him!”

“But, how?” Jamie asked, exchanging an astonished look with Hoss. 

“I don’t know,” Ben said.  “Let’s find out, shall we?”  He straightened the paper with a snap and began to read.

‘Dear Pa,

I’m sure you are asking yourself how I can be writing this to you without being able to see the paper.

The answer is a special kind of writing slate.  It is grooved, with bars above and below to indicate to me where to place my pencil.  I write whatever I want to say, then at the end of each line, I slide the bars down to the next groove and keep going.  Unfortunately, these things were not made with left-handed writers in mind so it is a little awkward to use, but worth the effort to be able to send this to you.’

“Well, I’ll be dogged,” Hoss muttered as he looked over his father’s shoulder to see the writing.  “I ain’t sure I understand what he’s talking about, but it sure as shootin’ has improved his penmanship!”

Ben chuckled, nodding his head in agreement.  Deciphering letters from Joe had always been a slow and meticulous process, but now the writing was actually legible.  He read on.

My comprehension of Braille is much improved.  I spend part of each day practicing, both with the textbooks I have been given and by reading the many books available in our library.  I can now read with my fingers nearly as fast as I used to do with my eyes. Until recently, I had not realized how much I missed being able to lose myself in the adventures of characters on a page.  I was surprised by the variety of books available in Braille, but Miss Dobbs tells me that more are being published all the time.  Tell Hoss that they even have a copy of “How to be a Detective”, by Inspector Foote of Scotland Yard. Don’t worry though, Pa. I’ve given up on the idea of becoming a master sleuth.’

Both Ben and Hoss burst out laughing at this point and Ben quickly explained the reference to Jamie, who grinned and shook his head as he tried to imagine Joe skulking around waiting to catch bank-robbers in the dead of night.

‘More than anything else, I seem to be reading books of poetry and classical literature.  I’ll bet that surprises you!  I am sure that Adam would tease me about this new scholarly bent, but the truth is that I am enjoying myself very much. Except for the math, which will never be my strongest subject, I am developing a pretty good grasp of all the subjects I hope to be teaching one day.  As for my own schooling, I am still learning every day and the hardest lessons are the ones dealing with everyday life. How to move confidently, how to use my remaining senses to interact with the world around me, and most importantly, how not to be afraid.  That last may be the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to face.  I find that it helps me to be around so many other blind people.  Their advice and example drives me to do better and once in a while I think they may even learn something from me.

Miss Dobbs feels that I have progressed to the point where I can begin teaching a few students the basics of reading and general day to day living.  I just hope I can live up to her faith in me.  Starting last week, I’ve been working with three of the new students.  Miss Dobbs will supervise for the first few weeks, both to prevent me from making any huge mistakes and so she can determine where my talents as a teacher, if I have any, may lie. If everything works out, these three students will be learning from me one on one for the next several months, in between my own lessons. There is a boy named Simon, 10 years old, who has been blind since he had scarlet fever at the age of six.  In a lot of ways he reminds me very much of myself at the same age. He is very mischievous and fun-loving, and if this first week has been any example of what I have to look forward to in the future, Pa, I think my hair may soon be as white as yours!’

The family laughed at that, all of them cheered to see this indication of Joe’s returned sense of humor.

‘Simon is very philosophical about his blindness.  He told me yesterday that he figures God must have taken away his ability to see because it will be a trade-off for something really great which will happen to him in the future.  His attitude puts me to shame and I have made a personal vow to try and practice the same outlook and believe that I, too, have something wonderful waiting to happen.  The other two students are both female. Fifteen-year-old Lily, who is new to being blind and very resentful of her condition, just as I was in the beginning and a young woman of 23, named Marie. It is easy to see that Lily is going to prove to be a challenge.  I am taking the same tack Miss Dobbs used with me, and not letting on to her that I cannot see.  I have become comfortable moving around the school and as long as our only interaction is here, I don’t think that she will guess the truth.  I have to confess that of all of them, Marie is by far my favorite.  Maybe it’s because she shares my mother’s name, or maybe just that she is always so funny and cheerful, but whatever the reason I find that my spirits lift every time she enters the room.  Marie has been blind since birth, so she is already familiar with most of the shortcuts, such as pouring and eating and maneuvering through rooms and up and down steps.  She grew up very isolated, with a family who believed that a blind girl could never amount to anything and so never expected anything from her, or encouraged her to try.  She has an aunt who, fortunately, disagreed with her folks and provided the money for her tuition and I am pleased to report that Marie is thriving here, just as I am.

I got a letter from Adam yesterday.  Many thanks for sending him my address.  He seems very interested in knowing all about the academic side of life here.  Typical of older brother, isn’t it?  He asked me if I know where he can buy a Braille slate and a book to help him learn to use it. He wants to send me private letters, which I will be able to read for myself, rather than having to wait until someone sighted is available to do it for me.  I like the idea.  It’s not that there’s anything in his letters that I don’t want anyone to know about, but sometimes I wish I could keep them to myself just the same. Do you remember where you bought my reader, Pa?  We don’t have any to spare, or I would gladly send him one, and I’m afraid I have no idea where to find a book on the subject since I had to learn by doing.  If you could help, I would really appreciate it.’

“That clever old Adam!” Hoss exclaimed, interrupting his father’s reading.  “Figures he’d think of a thing like that.  Hey Pa, you suppose if you can find them things, you could get a spare set for us?  I don’t expect that there Braille is gonna be easy to learn but I’d be willing to give a try if it means we can write to Joe in a way that’d let him read the letters his own self.”

“I want to learn too, Pa!” Jamie added, excited by the prospect of doing something to aid Joe, even in a small way.  “I already know a little of it from watching Miss Dobbs teach Joe, but I’ll bet I could learn to do it real good. Then I can tell him all about everything.”

Ben smiled at his two sons.  “I think that’s something we’d all benefit from.  I’ll have to thank Adam for the idea when I write to him next.  It just so happens that I do remember where I got that slate and there were some books on the subject in the catalogue as well.  I’ll order two sets one for us and one for Adam and send it off to him right away.  Now, shall I finish this letter?”

“Yes, sir,” his sons chorused eagerly.

‘You might be interested to know that I am putting my riding skills to use again.  After my success with Cochise the week before I left home, I decided to ask Mr. Barnett about the possibility of doing some riding here and maybe teaching some of the others to ride as well.  He was very agreeable as he is always trying to expand the range of activities open to us, one of the things I like most about him.  We have an enclosed corral on the grounds, built by the original architect and seldom used.  I hope you don’t mind, Pa, but I used the expense money you have been sending me to purchase two horses for use here.  Choosing them was quite an experience!  There was a horse sale and auction in town recently, which is what gave me the idea. Several of us, including Miss Dobbs, Mr. Barnett and me, went down to check it out.  Most of the others barely know one end of a horse from the other and it was easy to tell that the man running the auction considered our group easy pickings.  He went out of his way to recommend a couple of animals he claimed would be gentle and easy to manage but all I had to do was run my hands over them to tell he was trying to swindle us.  Sway-backed, popped knees, split hooves, you name it.  I asked Mr. Barnett to check their teeth and tell me what he saw and I believe most of those animals were lucky not have been sent to a glue factory by now.  I insisted on checking out the more “spirited” animals the dealer was saving for auction and found a few I knew would be worth bidding on.  We took down their numbers and I asked Mr. Barnett to make sure the numbers matched the animals we had seen when they were announced.  In the end, I got a good deal on two healthy and nicely even tempered animals, and I believe the seller had made up his mind that I was faking my blindness by the end of the day.  Let me tell you, I got a good laugh over that one!   So, now I am taking a ride over the property every morning, accompanied by Jasper, our groundskeeper, and giving lessons to the others three days a week in the corral.  Even Lily, my difficult one, looks forward to those lessons.

Try not to worry about me.  I am happier right now than I ever thought I could be again.  There are still plenty of days when I curse my fate and hardly any where I don’t long to have my sight back, but I’m learning to be content without it.  I hope you will be able to visit soon. The only thing I long for more than my sight is the sound of your voices.  It probably sounds a little silly, Pa, but sometimes when I start to feel really discouraged I imagine that I can feel your hand on my shoulder, urging me to be strong just as you always have when I’ve felt down.  It helps me more than you know.  Tell those brothers of mine that I miss them too, and when you write back be sure to tell me how Jamie is coming along in his efforts to become a bronc buster.  I have a few tips he would probably find useful.  Also, tell Hoss and Hop Sing that the food here doesn’t even compare to what I got at home and if Hop Sing wouldn’t mind making me some, I would really love a batch of his special butterscotch cookies.  I was actually dreaming about them last night!   I look forward to hearing about everything going on at home, so please write back very soon.

 Your loving son,


As he folded the letter, Ben’s eyes were shining. He was so happy for Joe that his heart was fairly bursting with it, but a small pinprick of sadness underlay the joy.  Would his son ever want to come back home now that new doors were opening up to him, or would he stay away permanently, believing that he would never again find anything as worthwhile to do with his life on the vast ranch he called home?  Ben dismissed the thought determinedly.  What mattered was that Joe was finding his way and was becoming happy again in his new life.  It seemed all but impossible the Joe could have come so far since that horrible day in April when he had been in the accident that cost him his sight.  His life had changed in so many ways over the last seven months and it seemed nothing less than a miracle that his father should be holding this letter in his hands, reading about such accomplishments.  Ben sent a silent thank you to his maker for bringing Joe through this ordeal so well.

“I bake cookie right away!” announced Hop Sing, delighted that Joe had asked for some of his baked goods so that he could do some small thing for his beloved boy.  “Extra big batch for Little Joe.”

“Maybe you’d better hold off a few days,” advised Ben.  “We have to get our letters written to him first and I want to check on those Braille writers.  As soon as everyone is ready, I’ll be sure to let you know so that you can send Joe a fresh batch of cookies.”

Nodding eagerly, Hop Sing scurried off, already planning out all the lovely things he could wrap tightly in waxed paper to send off in that next package. 

Jamie snagged the letter as his father put it down on the desk, earning a scowl from Hoss, who had also intended to have a second read.  Jamie grinned at him and positioned the paper so that the big man could read it over his shoulder.  “Gosh, Pa, I just can’t believe how well he sounds,” the boy observed happily. “He’s even riding again.  Isn’t that terrific?”

“It sure is,” Ben agreed. “I think we’ll have to give some thought to getting up to San Francisco to see him one of these days.  After the holidays, perhaps.”

“After?” Jamie said, clearly disappointed.  “Couldn’t we go up there and spend Christmas with him?”

Though Hoss wanted the very same thing, he understood better than his young brother why that could not be.  “I wish we could, Jamie, but you know as well as I do that Mr. Barnett asked for the first six months of Joe’s stay to be spent by himself.  Seein’ us this soon might do some harm to the independence Joe is building up for himself.”

“It doesn’t feel soon,” Jamie moped.  “It feels like he’s been gone forever!”

“I know it does, son,” Ben said, patting his arm in understanding as he stood up from his desk and came around to stand between them.  “I sometimes feel the same way, but Mr. Barnett knows what’s best for Joe and the New Year isn’t that far off.  Why, it’s already November and before you know it, Christmas will be over and we can plan a long trip to San Francisco.”

Jamie smiled.  “I guess so.  Well, that just means we’ll have to get that Braille writer here as soon as possible so that we can send Joe a big fat letter in time for Christmas!”

Hoss patted him on the shoulder.  “That’s the spirit!  You just start thinkin’ about what you want to get him for a present and we’ll save it up so’s you can deliver it in person, all right?”

“Sure, Hoss,” the boy agreed happily, ruffling his carrot red hair absent-mindedly as he walked off, face scrunched in thought as he tried to imagine the perfect gift.

“That was very nicely handled, Hoss,” Ben commented as they watched the boy climb the stairs to his room.  “I was halfway afraid you were going to side with Jamie and leave me defending Mr. Barnett’s decision.”

Hoss grinned. “Don’t think I didn’t want to, Pa, but I know you want to see Joe just as bad as we do, prob’ly even worse.  I figure if you can hold strong until next year, I can do the same and so can Jamie.”  Hoss glanced again at the letter on the desk and shook his head, unable to believe the change for the better that had undergone Joe during the time he had been gone.  If two more months could help his brother progress even further, then he could be content to wait.

Ben was thinking the exact same thing as he picked up his coffee cup from the desk and went to sit in his favorite chair by the fireplace. 
His mind drifted hundreds of miles to the southwest as he stared into the softly burning fire, a faint smile tilting his lips.

Chapter 5
“All right, everyone, settle down.”  Joe issued the order and clapped his hands briskly together and was rewarded by the immediate silencing of the babble of conversation that had previously filled the room.  “Your regular teacher, Mr. Henshaw, is sick today so I’m going to be your substitute.  Most of you already know me, but if anyone doesn’t my name is Mr. Cartwright.”

Several excited whispers greeted his news and one student piped up, “I thought you were still just a student. How come you’re filling in?”

“He isn’t just a student,” another voice interrupted.  “Mr. Cartwright is graduating next week and he already passed his teaching exam.”

“Don’t he have to graduate first?” a third voice asked.

Joe knocked on his desk to regain their attention.  “That’s, ‘doesn’t he’, not ‘don’t he’, and you’re right.  I’ve passed the test, but it doesn’t become official until after I get my certificate presented to me at graduation on Saturday.  It does still leave me qualified to teach this class, however, so please get out your readers and we’ll get started just as soon as I call the roll.”

Joe went about calling each student; reading his or her name from a seating chart that had been provided for him and taking note of where each child was sitting.  Each of the four classrooms was arranged with all the chairs in a horseshoe, with the teacher’s desk at the open end.  The students were divided into classes by progress level rather than age, with a few special cases, usually adults, receiving special private lessons. Joe had been one of the latter.  He had remained with Miss Dobbs, occasionally taking extra courses from one of the other teachers as he moved closer to his goal.  His three original students had made good progress under Joe’s guidance and two others had eventually been added to his schedule.  This was the first time he had taken on an entire class full of students on his own, but he was confident that he could handle them.  He nearly laughed when he heard a girl, Becky he thought her name was, whisper, “Is he very cranky, like Mr. Henshaw?”

“No, don’t worry,” one of the other voices said back.  “He’s been tutoring me and Lily ever since we got here and he’s really nice.  He’s pretty smart, too.”

Joe did chuckle at that.  “Thank you for the vote of confidence, Simon, but don’t think buttering me up is going to get you out of the history exam Mr. Henshaw had planned for today.  Or any of the rest of you, either!”  A series of moans was their only answer and he added, “Don’t worry, I won’t be too tough on you. Now, let’s open our readers to page 37.  Nick, why don’t you start?  Read the entire page starting with the third paragraph.”

The boy he had called on began to read, rushing headlong over any words he did not recognize and before long, Joe stopped him.

“All right, that’s enough.  Nick, this isn’t a race.  The idea is to study the words and learn them as you go, not to get to the end of the page as fast as humanly possible.  You skipped four words that I managed to catch and completely mangled at least half a dozen more.  Now, read it again from the top – slowly this time.”

“But I don’t know some of them, Mr. Cartwright,” the boy whined.  “It’s too hard.”

Using his walking cane, a Christmas gift from Miss Dobbs, to avoid tripping over anything, Joe walked around the desks until he stood behind the boy.  “Start reading and when you get stuck, let me know.”  Reluctantly, the boy started again, much slower this time and soon enough he stopped, struggling over an unfamiliar word.  Some of the other kids giggled as he stammered and stumbled over the word and Joe hushed them sternly. He leaned down over his student’s shoulder and took Nick’s right hand in his, then carefully guided the boy’s fingers over the word.  “This is a pretty hard one, but I’ll help you.  Spell the word out for me.”

Nick carefully felt each letter and started, “Q-U-A-G”.

“All right, now stop right there a second,” Joe told him.  “Split the word into pieces.  Now what does the first part spell?”

The boy thought it over, mouthing the letters a moment before he sounded it out. “Qua…quack?  No…quag.  Is that right?”

“Very good,” Joe said.  “Now the second half.”

“M-I-R-E.”  The second half proved to be much easier as the boy immediately said, “Mire.  Quagmire?”

Joe grinned and clapped him lightly on the shoulder.  “There, you see?  I knew you could get it.”

“What’s a quagmire?”  Nick asked doubtfully.  “Is that really a real word?”

“It’s another word for mud or quicksand, or any land that gives and holds when you try to stand on it,” Joe said, moving back to the front of the classroom to take a seat against the edge of his desk.  “Go on and read a little bit more and if you get stuck I want you to do the same thing again.  Just break the word down and sound it out.”

The boy went on reading for several minutes, doing a much better job this time, and Joe soon let him off the hook with a word of praise and moved on to another student.


By the end of the day, Joe was exhausted but very well satisfied.  The students had given him a little trouble here and there, testing his limits.  He had managed to survive a tack in his chair, a frog in his desk, and the substitution of his arithmetic textbook with a plain print novel, but Joe was undisturbed by these incidents.  He had victimized a few substitute teachers in his day and he knew he would have been a little disappointed if they hadn’t tried anything.  Near the end he had sensed a turning of the tide when he had presented the dreaded history quiz as a contest, shooting the questions rapid fire between the two teams.  There was no penalty for wrong answers, though he did keep careful track of them so that he could tell Mr. Henshaw who needed work on certain areas, but he gave away candies as prizes for correct answers and allowed the winning team to leave a few minutes early.  He overheard a few students, Nick and Becky among them, agreeing with each other that he was a lot ‘funner’ than their regular teacher was and he had to smile.  It had been a good day.

He was on his way up to his bedroom to put away his books when he heard a voice say, “How did it go, Joe?”

“Fine, Mr. Barnett.  I think everybody was pretty happy.”

“Good,” Barnett praised.  “I must confess that I stopped to observe you for a few minutes this afternoon and I was very impressed with your performance.”

“Thank you, sir,” Joe said, pleased.  “I just tried to keep in mind all the things I hated about school when I was a kid, and avoid them.”

The superintendent chuckled.  Joe had made no secret of the fact that he had been a less than willing student in his younger days. Given his rapid progress since he had arrived at the Institute eight months ago, it was hard to believe.  “I have some good news for you, Joe. A telegram arrived for you today.”

“What did it say?” Joe had given the superintendent permission to read any printed missives that might arrive for him, knowing that he could trust the man’s discretion.  “Who was it from?”

“It was from your father,” Barnett told him, smiling at the happy expression that instantly came over his young friend’s face.  “He and your brothers will be arriving on the noon stage this Saturday, to be here in time to see you graduate.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed.  His family had planned to visit two months ago, just after New Years, but problems at the ranch had prevented them from leaving and he had had to be content with letters and the occasional package.  He had written to them with the news of his impending graduation weeks ago.  At the time, he had hesitated to mention that he was going for his teaching certificate.  Partly because he was not completely sure he could pass the test, but mostly because he had not yet made up his mind whether to come back to the Institute to use it or not.  Eventually, he had decided that it would be cowardly not to let them know what he was doing, and had given his father a full accounting.  He would have two months to make up his mind what to do before the spring term began at the school and Joe was hoping that a visit home might straighten out his thinking.  He had come to love the Institute and all the people in it, but he still couldn’t stop the fierce longing that rose up inside of him every time he thought about home.  If only he could find a way to be truly useful there, he knew that he would stay on the Ponderosa forever, but if not he had wanted to insure that he had earned the right to come back here.

When over a month had passed and there had been no word back from the family, Joe had begun to worry seriously that perhaps he had upset his father with the implication that he might not be coming home to stay.  He had not dared to hope that they would be able to come to his graduation!  Suddenly, Joe became aware that Mr. Barnett was talking to him and made an inquiring noise.

“I said, I hope they’ll be able to stay for the party we’re having Saturday night,” the older man repeated.  “We’ve got plenty of room and since our female students out number the males two to one at the moment, I’m sure none of the young ladies will object to having your brothers on hand.”

Joe laughed.  Dance lessons were a part of the curriculum here, Mr. Barnett being a firm believer in the confidence and increased grace which the lessons brought, and Joe had suddenly had a mental image of Hoss surrounded by a roomful of blind girls who all wanted to dance with him.  He wondered if it would send him running like a scared rabbit or help smooth the way for his big brother, given that Hoss had always been very shy about his appearance around young ladies.  “Mr. Barnett, I promise they’ll be there if I have to rope and drag ‘em!”

“Fine!” Barnett chuckled.  He stepped closer and placed a hand fondly on Joe’s arm.  “Just you remember to come and see me to say goodbye before you leave with your family on Sunday morning.  I know you haven’t made up your mind if you’re coming back in the spring or not, so I want to make sure I don’t miss you.”

“You got it, sir,” Joe agreed easily.  He would miss this man.  “I’ve got a few things to do before dinner time, so if you’ll excuse me?”

“Of course,” Barnett said, stepping back to watch as Joe turned and climbed the stairs.  “Good job on that class today, son.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said again, his step taking on an extra spring as he continued his journey, reviewing his successful days work and reveling in the thought that he would soon be surrounded by his family once more. 


Chapter 6
Saturday arrived with a wailing torrent of wind and rain.  Joe had taken to counting the seconds between blasts that shook the windows of his room as he concentrated on getting the string tie in his hands properly fixed about his neck.  His fingers were shaking a little, making the task much more difficult than usual, and he sternly ordered himself to calm down.  He almost had the tie perfect when his fingers fumbled and missed the center knot, unraveling the entire thing again.  “Damn it!” he exclaimed in irritation.

“Practicing your commencement speech?” a laughing voice asked from the open doorway.

Joe grinned and turned toward the voice.  “Hello, Miss Dobbs.  No, I was just having a problem getting my tie fixed.  Guess I’m a little nervous today.  You think you could help me?”

She entered his room, her steps sure as she crossed the length of the room to stand before him.  She slid her hand along his shoulder until her fingers found the uncooperative piece of cloth and she began to tie it together with the skill of long practice. “There you go.  You’re all ready for the big day.”

“I wish I was as confident about that as you seem to be,” he said, reaching up to check the tie for himself. It was a little tighter than he liked, but he was unwilling to mess with it at this point. 

“You have nothing to feel nervous about,” she said.  “You’ve already done the hard part.  You passed your examinations already.  Today is just a formality.”

“I know.  I’m just not sure I’m ready for all this to be over,” he confessed.  “It’s a little scary going out into the real world again.  Especially since I still can’t make up my mind what to do, to stay here or go back home for good.  What if I get out there and fall flat on my face?”

Ellen laughed and Joe could not help smiling in response.  “I think we both know that’s not going to happen.  You’ve surpassed everyone’s expectations over the last year, Joseph.  Even mine and I set some pretty high ones.  I have every confidence in you.  It’s the world who had better watch out!”

He grinned and impulsively gave her a hug. “Thanks, Miss Dobbs.”

“I thought we had agreed that you were going to call me Ellen from now on,” she reminded him.

“I forgot,” he said.  “It’s gonna take me a while to get used to the idea that you’re not my teacher anymore.  I couldn’t have done any of this without you, you know.  You’ve kept me going, even when I didn’t want to.  Without you, I might’ve just slunk back home to sit in a dark corner for the rest of my life.”

She touched his cheek in fond acknowledgment of all they had been through together, then said briskly, “You’d best finish getting ready. Your family will be here any time, now.”

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  His heart had leapt in excitement at the mere mention of his family.  “It’s ridiculous, but you know I’m a little scared?  It’s been so long since I’ve seen them, Miss…I mean, Ellen.  What if I can’t think of anything to say?”

Her voice took on a hint of laughter as she answered, “Just when have you ever not had anything to say?  It certainly hasn’t been in my acquaintance!”

He smiled sheepishly and rubbed at his face, glad that there was no way for her to tell he was blushing. “I suppose being tongue-tied isn’t one of my biggest problems, is it?”

“No,” she agreed, helping him smooth his suit coat as he put it on.  “Don’t worry about a thing, my dear.  Once they get here, you’ll forget all about being nervous.  I promise you will.”  She smiled and slid her fingers up to gently touch his hair, smoothing the curls into place in a rare display of almost motherly affection.  “You look perfect, Joe.  Now, let’s go downstairs and greet your family.”


As they reached the bottom of the staircase, Joe felt his arm seized by a pair of small tugging hands.  “Mr. Cartwright!  I was just coming up to find you.  Lily’s been keeping an ear out for the carriage and she just heard it drive up and told me to come get you!”

“Thanks, Simon,” Joe said happily, his voice bright with excitement.  He hurried across the floor leading to the front entry with an almost reckless haste and reached the front door just in time to nearly get hit in the face as it swung open.  He didn’t even care about that as the first voice he heard was the one he had been waiting for most. 


“Pa!” he shouted gleefully, laughing as he felt himself swept into his father’s strong embrace.  “Oh, Pa, it’s so good to have you here.  I’ve been on pins and needles all morning waiting for the carriage to arrive.”  He let go for a brief second, then was unable to resist grabbing his father right back for another hug, which Ben returned with interest.

“What about us, little brother?  Don’t we get no hellos or nothin’?” 

“Hey, Hoss,” he said fondly, giving his brother a bear hug in greeting.  Then he turned and did the same for Jamie the moment he felt him move close enough to grab hold of.  “Hello, little brother!  Hey, you’ve been growing like a weed since I’ve been gone!  And you’re so skinny, there’s hardly enough of you to grab hold of.  Don’t you ever eat?”

“Sure, Joe, whenever I’m lucky enough to beat Hoss to the table,” the boy joked, beaming with delight at being with his brother again.  The others laughed at his quip, and Jamie eagerly said.  “We brought you a graduation present!”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Joe protested, secretly thrilled with the idea.  “Having you here today is more than gift enough.  Why don’t you just set it on the table until later and let me show you around first?”

His family laughed again at his statement and Joe’s brow wrinkled.  “What’s so funny?”

“I’m afraid I’d be a little big for that table, baby brother.  Besides, I’d kind of like to go on the tour.”

Joe’s eyes widened as his entire face lit up with shock and delight.  “Adam?”

Adam Cartwright swept his younger brother into a tight embrace and to their eternal embarrassment, both men began to cry.  “Pa got my letter telling him I was coming home for a visit the same day yours arrived with the news of your graduation.  I asked him not to tell you, because I wanted it to be a surprise, but I wouldn’t have missed this day for the world.”

Joe snuffled hard and dashed at his face with both hands, letting go a watery laugh.  “I didn’t think anything could make today any more perfect, but I was wrong.  I can’t believe you’re all here!  I have so many things to tell you, and show you, and I can’t think of a single one of them right now.”

Ben pulled him close again, unable to get enough of holding the second of his long absent sons.  “Believe me, I know exactly how you feel.  There have been times when I never thought I would see all my sons in the same room together again.”

“I don’t think there are any words to tell you how we all feel today, Joe,” Adam told him, reaching out to touch his brother’s shoulder as he stood with his arm around their father’s waist.  “I always knew you could do great things if you set your mind to it, but even I never thought you could come this far, especially in so short a time.  I’m so proud of you.”

Hoss could see that the tender words from the man Joe had always viewed as his role model and harshest critic were on the verge of making him cry again and decided to come to the rescue. “Yeah, Joe,” he said. “I always suspected you had plenty of smarts to go with that mule stubborn disposition of yours.  It just took a while for the brains to kick in!”

Joe laughed at the backhanded compliment, vastly enjoying the pleasure of being teased by his big brother again. He yelped in surprise when Hoss scooped him up and began spinning him around the room, shouting, “Three cheers for the teacher!” A high wild cackle of laughter broke free from Joe’s lips before he could stop it and he heard a chorus of answering laughter behind him. 

“Put me down, Hoss, you’re making me dizzy!” he begged. 

“Yeah, not to mention ruining all that scholarly dignity of his,” Adam added with a grin a mile wide.

Hoss obeyed and let him down, but not before giving him another hug that nearly squeezed the breath out of him.  Joe felt almost giddy with happiness and had to put a hand out to get his bearings.  He recognized the feel of a leather wing back chair and held on for dear life. 

Glancing over his shoulder, Ben spotted a new face and called out, “Miss Dobbs!”

Ellen Dobbs came into the room with a smile on her face and her hand outstretched in greeting.  She had been in the hallway, unwilling to disturb Joe’s reunion with his family.  “Mr. Cartwright.  It’s delightful to see you again.  I’m so glad you could all come.”

Joe turned toward her and said, “Ellen, you remember my brothers, Hoss and Jamie?”

“Of course,” she said, shaking hands with each of them.

“And this is the brother you haven’t met yet,” he continued eagerly.  “My brother Adam, may I introduce my teacher, Miss Ellen Dobbs.”

“I’ve heard many wonderful things about you, Miss Dobbs,” Adam said smoothly, pressing her hand in both of his.  “From what my father tells me, you’re the one to thank for giving us back the Joe we lost in that accident a year ago.”

“Well, it was more due to Joseph’s own will to succeed than anything I did.  I merely showed him the path to follow.  It was up to him to walk it,” she said.

“You’re being much too modest,” Ben protested, and Joe most heartily agreed.

“Well, be that as it may,” she said,  “the graduation ceremony is in a little over two hours, so if you’d like to get washed up and have something to eat, we can certainly arrange it.”

“I want to give you that tour, too,” Joe added happily.  “Why don’t you let me take you upstairs so you can rest awhile and you can tell me all about what you’ve been doing for the last month.”

Their hearts warmed at seeing Joe so happy and confident.  He had completely lost that timid, hunched posture he had adopted for so long after his accident and the hesitation was gone from his voice.  His eyesight had been destroyed, but clearly his spirit had survived to become as strong as it had ever been.  “I think that’s a wonderful idea, son,” Ben agreed, caressing his shoulder as he moved ahead of them to lead the way.  “We all have a lot to catch up on.”


Ben, Adam, Hoss and Jamie took their seats in a small lecture hall, which had been devoted to the graduation festivities today.  Joe had shown them all around the many rooms of the large school building, peppering his tour with anecdotes about the people he knew and things he had done here during his stay.  He had apologized for not being able to show them the grounds, due to the stormy weather outside, but no one had minded.  They had been too caught up in their astonishment over the change in Joe.  He seemed so sure of himself now, so full of sparkle and happiness, more than any of them had ever dared hope to see in him again.  He had laughed and chattered, always keeping close to one or another of them, not because he needed their guidance, but because he was so filled with the joy of having them near.  It was with great reluctance that he tore himself away when Mr. Barnett came to announce that it was time for the ceremony to begin, and offered to show the Cartwrights to their places.

“As soon as it’s over, we’re having a celebration banquet in the dining room,” Joe told them, as he reached the door and turned back to his family, “and tonight there’s a dance.  I already told Mr. Barnett that you’d be there, brothers, so don’t even try to talk your way out of it.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Adam said with a smile, speaking for both of the others as well.  “Now, you’d better get wherever you’re supposed to be before they start the graduation without you.”

Joe laughed.  “They’ve got three others.  They’d never even miss me!”  Contrary to his own words, Joe waved a hand back at them and hurried on his way, cane clicking noisily back down the hall as he quickened his steps.

Ben looked over at the smiling superintendent.  “I just can’t believe it.  I know you’ve sent us reports about how well Joseph has been doing since he arrived, and his own letters backed it up, but this!”

“It’s remarkable, isn’t it?” Barnett said proudly.  “I’ve never seen anyone with more drive to succeed, and I’ve been a teacher for nearly 30 years.  Your son has the most irrepressible spirit I’ve ever seen.”

“Surely he didn’t just settle right in with no problems,” Adam said doubtfully.  “The end result is obvious, but I’ve never known Joe to do anything the easy way.”

Barnett laughed softly.  “Well, I will admit that he had a few problems in the beginning.  He would start out quite well, then get frustrated and go off in a temper for a little while.  He always came out of it pretty quickly, though, and the more he learned the easier things became.  Eventually, I could see that the spark had been lit.  With every new skill he mastered, he became more and more determined to learn more, and by the time he began teaching a few students of his own, I could see he had the gift.”

“What gift?” Ben asked curiously.

“For teaching,” Mr. Barnett said, his tone almost reverent.  “Any person can give instructions or orders to another, Mr. Cartwright.  Not everyone can teach.  Your son has the most amazing talent for sharing his knowledge and viewpoint with others in a way that makes them want to know more.  His classmates adore him, his students practically worship him, and the staff all seems to feel that Joseph is their own personal success story.  He took over for Linus Henshaw one day last week when he was sick, and made a complete success of it.  Henshaw claims the students are more responsive than they’ve ever been because Joe woke up the desire to learn in a couple of the more difficult ones.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Hoss seemed to puff up a little more proudly with every word of praise heaped on his little brother, until he looked about ready to burst.  “That dadburned Little Joe,” he said admiringly.  “I always knew that knack of his for talkin’ other folks around to his way of thinkin’ would take him places some day.  Always figured he’d wind up President or something, but you know, Pa, I think I like this even better!”

Everyone laughed as Mr. Barnett led his guests to their places and they all settled in to watch the ceremony.

As Joe had mentioned, he was one of four students graduating that day.  The other three were up first, each receiving their certificate of achievement before making a short speech about their time at the Institute and their hopes for the future.  Mr. Barnett proudly shook hands with each of the students as he presented the papers and it was obvious how deeply he cared for each of them.  At last it was Joe’s turn and as his name was called, his family leaned forward a bit, not wanting to miss a word.  Unlike the other graduates, Joe did not simply take his certificate and make his speech.  Mr. Barnett met him at the podium and addressed the audience.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, our final graduate, Joseph Cartwright, is leaving us today to embark upon a new future. In the short space of eight months, he has not only completed our program for the advancement of the blind, but has earned the right to take his place among us as a teacher.  Though we do not know as yet whether he will choose to accept that place, we could not let him go today without expressing our pride and pleasure in his enormous achievement.  Joseph, your performance will stand as a shining example for our other students, both now and in the future.  Congratulations.”  A huge wave of applause greeted Mr. Barnett’s speech, started by his smiling fellow graduates and quickly spreading throughout the hall.  Joe looked flatly astonished, then his eyes welled up with tears as he shook the older man’s hand.

“I don’t quite know how to follow that,” he said with a shaky laugh as the room quieted once more, “except to say, thank you.  Everyone keeps talking about how much I’ve achieved over the last year, but don’t think I deserve that much credit.  At this time last year, I was living on my family’s ranch in Nevada.  I spent my days herding cattle, breaking horses and mending fences, and my nights worrying over whether I should ask a young lady I’d been dating to marry me or not.  My life was simple, but it was one that I loved.  Then one day everything changed.  I got caught in an explosion and lost my ability to see. I was sure that I would never be happy or whole again and I resented everyone around me for their ability to do what I no longer could.  I sank into a darkness much deeper than a simple lack of sight, and I would have stayed there, wallowing in misery and wanting to die, except that I was lucky enough to have people who loved me enough not to let me do that.  My family sacrificed their time and effort, and their own desires to allow me to find my own way.  Miss Ellen Dobbs came to me at the Ponderosa and showed me that there is light at the end of even the darkest tunnel.  She took my hand and never let me go until I found the strength to stand on my own again.  Mr. Barnett and the rest of the staff here at the Institute made me feel welcome and treated me with respect and patience, but never pity, and their belief in me rekindled my own belief.  I wouldn’t be standing here today without each and every one of you.  Thank you for helping me find my way back into the world again.”

Joe retook his seat amid a second round of applause; one involving much sniffling and nose-blowing as the audience reacted to his tender heart-felt speech.  There wasn’t a single dry eye in the row holding Joe’s family. 

Mr. Barnett took the podium once again.  “That concludes our ceremonies today.  Our cooks have prepared a wonderful luncheon banquet in honor of our graduates, and it’s waiting in the dining hall at your convenience.”

A cheer went up from the assembled students as they rose and began filing out single file from their rows, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of him. 

Joe made his way down from the front of the room to where his family was waiting.  “How did you like the ceremony?” he asked, grinning as he heard Hoss’ distinctive honk as he blew his nose into a handkerchief. 

“It was beautiful,” Ben said, reaching out to rub a hand over his son’s shoulder.  “You made us all very proud.”

 “What did Mr. Barnett mean about you maybe not coming back here to teach?” Jamie said, having been dying to ask that question ever since the superintendent had spoken.  “Isn’t that why you got the teacher’s certificate?”

“I wondered about that too, Joe,” Hoss said. “What you got in mind?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything because I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Joe said carefully. “I told Mr. Barnett and Miss Dobbs that I wanted to go home and see how everything goes there for a while before I commit myself to coming back here.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I’m doing here, but it isn’t quite the same kind of love I have for the Ponderosa.”

“Are you saying you want to come back home to stay?” Ben asked excitedly.  After hearing all morning about how much everyone loved Joe here and seeing how well he was getting along, Ben had been fully prepared to let go of the last thread of hope he had held on to that Joe would ever wish to retake his place at the Ponderosa.  Now that hope was welling up strong inside of him again.  “Joseph, that’s wonderful!”

“Hot diggity!  Ain’t that the best news you ever heard?” Hoss tossed his hat into the air with a whoop of joy, pounding an equally delighted Jamie on the back nearly hard enough to knock him right off his feet. “You ain’t gonna regret it, Joe.  We’ll figure out some jobs you can do around home, or even see about getting’ you one in town if you ain’t happy with that.  Heck, I’ll bet you could do just about anything if you set your mind on it.  You jest wait and see!”

 Adam was watching Joe’s face as their father and brother spoke, and he could see the consternation there.  “Hold on, everybody.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said, moving over to place a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder, not incidentally placing himself between Joe and the rest of the family.  “Joe hasn’t said for sure that he wants to go home to stay.  He just said he wants to see how things go there first. He may still decide he wants to come back here to the Institute to teach full time.  Isn’t that right, Joe?”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief and his voice was full of gratitude for Adam’s intervention, as he said, “That’s right.”  His reaction was not lost on the rest of the family.

“Sorry, Joe.  Guess we got a little ahead of ourselves,” Jamie told him, swallowing his disappointment. 

“That’s okay, Jamie,” he answered kindly.  “I understand.  It’s just that I want to be sure before I commit myself to staying either place.  I have to be where I’m needed and useful, and I know I’m needed here.”

“You’re right, son. You just take your time and come on home for a good long visit,” Ben said, stoically tamping down the urge to try and pressure his son into committing to stay once they reached home.  “There’s no need to decide anything right this moment.”

“Thank you for understanding,” Joe told them, fully aware of how hard they were trying to be accepting of his wishes.  “Now, is anybody interested in going down to sample some of that food?”

Hoss rubbed his hands together.  “Now you’re talkin’, little brother!  You just lead the way.”

Joe laughed.  “Come on, then.”

The rest of the day passed in a whirl of well wishes from the staff and other students, and plenty of reminiscing.  Joe’s brothers all competed with each other to share the most outrageous stories about his past with the crowd of delighted listeners who had gathered around.  Joe begged them to quit, as they pulled one crazy or embarrassing story after another from their memories, but he couldn’t help laughing at them just the same, or counteracting with a few choice tales of his own.  By the time evening arrived, the entire Cartwright clan had become good friends with the residents of the Institute and there was no awkwardness about getting any of them to stay for the dance.  The dancing turned out to be more measured than the visitors were used to, by necessity, but no less lively.  The students had learned waltzes, squares, minuets and reels, but used touch and verbal commands to indicate changes in pattern and speed during each dance. Choosing partners was fairly easy as well, since the young ladies seemed in the habit of clustering together in one part of the room, making it easy for the men to ask a particular lady for a dance. Ben did not do a great deal of dancing, being more content to stand on the sidelines with some of the other older attendees and talk, but he took great pleasure in watching all four of his sons maneuver various partners about the floor. 

“Whew!  That last little gal about wore me out,” Hoss confided to Adam as they both took a few moments out to catch their breath and sample the contents of a large punchbowl.  “I never figured a blind gal could dance with so much energy.”

Adam laughed.  “She seemed pretty taken with you, Hoss.  You’d better be careful.”  He surveyed the crowd, easily picking out their two younger brothers.  “Jamie seems to be doing all right for himself tonight.”

“Yeah,” Hoss agreed with a big grin.  “He was nervous as a three tailed cat in a room full of rockers when we was getting’ ready, but he’s been cutting a swath through them girls wide enough to do our other brother justice.”

Watching the boy cavort about the room, laughing at something his latest partner said, Adam had to agree. “Speaking of Joe, have you been watching him tonight?  He’s had at least four dances with that girl he’s waltzing with right now.  Do you suppose there’s something going on there?”

Hoss looked surprised, but as he followed his older brother’s interested gaze he realized that Adam was right.  “Well, what do you know about that?  He sure does have the look, don’t he?”

“Uh, huh,” Adam said slowly.  “He lit up like a Christmas tree when she said hello to him and he’s been positively glowing ever since.  Something tells me that being useful isn’t the only reason Joe can’t make up his mind whether to come home to stay or not.”

“Well, I’ll be,” Hoss said softly.  “Who do you suppose that little gal is, Adam?”

“I don’t know, but I think maybe we’d better find out.  You want me to talk to Joe while you cut in for a dance, or the other way around?”

“I think you’d better do the dancin’ and I’ll do the talkin’,” Hoss decided. 

Adam agreed and made his way over to the laughing couple as the current song ended.  “Excuse me,” he said politely.  “Joe, would you mind me cutting in on this lovely young lady for a dance?”

A slight annoyed frown flickered over Joe’s face, then quickly disappeared as he smiled and transferred his partner’s hand into his brother’s.  “Not at all.  I think I’ll just get something to drink.  Marie, would you like me to get you some punch for after this next dance?”  The girl accepted and Joe slowly moved off of the dance floor and made his way over to the punchbowl.

Adam was glad neither of them could see the interested twitch his face gave as he caught the girl’s name, but he smiled at Joe’s obvious message to him not to try and monopolize the lady’s time.  It seemed some things never would change no matter how old they got.  “So, you’re Marie,” he said as they began to move to the music playing once more.  “Joe has told me a great deal about you over the last few months.  I’m surprised you’re here, though. I thought you had gone home.”

She laughed, a sweet sound like wind chimes in a soft breeze.  “You must be Adam.”

“How did you know that?” he asked, smiling at her quick perception.

“Joe has told me a lot about all of you, too,” she said.  “He told me about you showing up today as a surprise.  I think that’s just wonderful of you.  It meant a lot to him, you know.”

“It meant a lot to me, as well,” Adam said sincerely, smiling as he glanced over to see Joe deep in discussion with Hoss over by the refreshment table. 

"He also said you have a habit of always coming right to the point.”

Adam chuckled.  He supposed he had come off a bit brusquely.  “I’m sorry.  I just feel as if I’ve already met you, as well as Simon and Lily. Joe seemed very fond of you all, and in his last letter he wrote that you had finished the basic program here and had left for your home.”

“That’s right,” she said.  “My aunt offered to pay for an entire year, but my parents wanted me to come home as soon as possible.  That’s why I only took the basic lessons in Braille, and in learning to get along in public places, and the like.  Your brother was very patient with me and I managed to cram a lot more into three months than I ever expected.  I came today because I promised Joe I’d try to make it to his graduation, just as a way of saying thanks for all he’s done for me.”

“So, did your family change their minds when they discovered how much you’d learned?”  Adam asked, honestly curious to know more.

A wistful expression came over her.  “Not exactly.  They were impressed by it, I think, but they still don’t believe I can get along on my own.  I convinced them to let me stay with my Aunt Fern for a while and maybe they’ll change their minds with both of us working on them.” Marie’s cheeks became a bit pink as she quietly said, “Coming back here for more study doesn’t seem so important now that I know Joe isn’t going to be here.”

“He may come back at the end of May,” Adam told her.  “He hasn’t decided yet.”

“Maybe,” she said quietly.  She sighed a little, then smiled again.  “Tell me about your travels, Adam.  Joe made it seem that you’ve lived a very exciting life.”

Adam obeyed, allowing his mind to mull over the relationship between his brother and this woman, even as he spoke to her of his own life’s adventure.


Meanwhile, Hoss was learning a few interesting facts of his own.  “So that little gal came all the way back here just to be at your graduation dance?”

Joe shrugged a little,  “She didn’t have to travel too far.  Her aunt lives in Stockton.”

“Well, yeah, but that’s still quite a few miles to travel just to attend a dance.”  Hoss was tickled by the redness he saw creeping up Joe’s neck and decided to tease him a little. “I reckon she either must’ve been really pining for some good music, or there was somebody here she really wanted to see.  Now, having heard what passes for fiddlin’ here, I got me a notion it wasn’t the music.”

“Aw, Hoss, we’re just good friends, is all,” Joe muttered, unable to hide a smile at his brother’s speculation. 

“Oh, so she ain’t got nothin’ to do with your decision about whether to come back here or not,” Hoss commented, grinning when Joe’s blush deepened.  He decided to take a chance.  “Say, Joe, did you hear that Sally Morris is gettin’ married?”

Joe grinned at his obvious tactic.  “Yes, I did.  Mitch has been writing to me pretty regularly since he and I became friends again.  It didn’t take a genius to pick up on the fact that they were getting sweet on each other, or that Mitch was afraid to come right out and tell me so.  I wrote back and wished them the best of luck.  The wedding is in three weeks and I’m invited to be best man.  I already accepted the offer.”

Hoss burst out laughing.  “I might a figured it!  Here I was worryin’ about how to break the news to you and you done set the whole thing up.”

“If you were so afraid of how to bring it up, how come you decided to tell me now?” Joe asked innocently. “It couldn’t be that you’re trying to clear the field for me, would it?  What’s the matter, big brother?  You afraid I’ll come home and start stealing all the available girls out from under you?”

Hearing the laughter underlying his voice, Hoss grinned and spontaneously swept Joe into an embrace with his right arm, nearly causing him to slop the punch he was holding.  “Let’s just say I wouldn’t be opposed to a best man invitation of my own, should you feel like extendin’ one,” he said.  “Hush, now.  Here come Adam and Marie, and Pa and Jamie ain’t far off.”

Punch was passed to everyone as Joe introduced Marie to the rest of his family and a toast was drunk to his success and happiness.  Joe felt that he had never been more content than he was at this moment.  He resolved to let the future see to itself for a bit.  Right now he just wanted that feeling to last as long as possible.


Chapter 7
The stagecoach bounced hard as it hit a bump in the road and Joe heaved an irritated breath, resolutely jerking his shoulder free as he shifted his brother Jamie back to his own side of the coach.  “One down,” he muttered, leaning toward the boy a bit as he turned and pressed Adam away from his other side.

Adam sniffed loudly as he woke up, wondering why he felt as if he were being pushed, then sat up straight and pulled back a little further into the corner as he realized that, in fact, he was.  “Sorry, Joe.  Guess I must’ve dozed off.  Was I leaning on you?”

Joe smiled and puffed out a tired breath.  “You on one side, Jamie on the other.  I felt like I was riding inside of a saddlebag!”

Adam laughed.  “Well, you’re the one who offered to switch places with Jamie after he complained about having to sit in the middle.”

“I know, but I didn’t realize you’d both decide I was so comfortable to sleep on,” Joe told him.  “Between the two of you and the two of them, I haven’t been able to get any sleep since we got off the train.”

“I haven’t been getting much myself,” Adam admitted, lips twitching as he observed his father and Hoss sitting in identical cross-armed positions, hats down over their faces, both snoring loud enough to wake the dead.  A quick glance at the redheaded youngster he was still getting used to thinking of as his youngest brother revealed that he was having no such difficulty. In fact, the boy was adding a peculiar sounding whistle to the deluge of sound.  “I imagine it’s even worse for you, though.”

“What makes you say that?” Joe asked curiously. 

“I don’t know. I guess I was thinking of the stories I’ve heard that blind people develop much stronger hearing than nor…sighted people.”  Adam cleared his throat, hoping Joe had not noticed his slip of the tongue.  It was a vain hope, though to his relief, Joe did not seem to be taking the comment badly.  In fact, he seemed amused by it.

“We just learn to depend on it a lot more than all you ‘normal’ people, is all,” he said, giving Adam a poke in the ribs.  “It’s the same with the other senses.  Did you know it’s possible to tell what kind of day it is by the smell and feel of the air around you?  Or, that you can pick out the position and approximate number of people in any room, even if they aren’t talking, just by listening for the sounds of shifting feet and rustling clothes?”

Adam thought about it, then had to admit,  “I never gave a thought to either before, I’m afraid.”

“Neither had I until I had to,” Joe told him.  “I doubt anyone does.”

“I suppose not.”

Joe scooted forward on the hard bench seat, trying to maneuver his arms around behind him without elbowing either of his brothers.  He pressed his hands against his lower back as he attempted to stretch it out a little, then settled back with a sigh.  “Well, that didn’t help much.  Boy, you forget how uncomfortable these things are when you haven’t ridden on a stage in a while.” 

“Tell me about it!” Adam agreed, trying to roll a kink out of his own shoulders.  “It’s never been my favorite mode of transportation, but now I hate it even more.  I’ll take a ship, or a carriage or even a horse over this any day.”

Another hard bump nearly jolted them both right out of their seats and Joe laughed.  “You and me both, brother!” 

After another careful look at his slumbering father and brothers, Adam said, “Joe, do you mind if I ask you something?  It’s a little personal.”

Joe looked a bit surprised.  “You can ask me anything you want to, Adam.  You always have.”  He smiled a bit, remembering a time when neither of his brothers would have bothered asking permission to butt into his private life.  The years really had left their mark it seemed.

“I know.  It’s just that I guess I’m not sure how to ask it without sounding completely insensitive.” He hesitated a moment, wanting to find the words to express himself clearly. “I’ve been watching you over the last few days and comparing what I see to the letters Pa sent me when you first had your accident.  It’s as though he was writing about a stranger.  You can’t see anymore, but you just don’t seem all that different from the little brother I left behind six years ago.  You’ve grown a lot steadier and more mature, but you’re still the same Little Joe.”

Joe's mouth twitched. "Considering the way we used to fight, and that you were always calling me an irresponsible, hot-headed, stubborn brat, I'm not sure if I should consider that a compliment or an insult."

Adam laughed. "Well, you were all of those things, Joe. Maybe you still are, but that isn't what I was referring to. I just meant that, uh, well I guess what I'm trying to say is..."

"I know what you're trying to say. You want to know what it's like to be blind," Joe supplied, "and you want to know if it's changed me more than I'm letting on to Pa and the others."

"Yes," Adam said simply.

"I knew you'd get around to asking that sooner or later. I've been trying to think of a way to explain it so you'd understand." Joe fell silent a moment, gathering his thoughts. "It's like having a door suddenly slam shut in your face, cutting you off from everything you've known and forcing you to walk away and explore whatever is on the other side."

Adam thought that over. "I keep trying to imagine how frightening it all must have been for you, but I just don't have anything to compare to what it must have been like."

Joe sighed and brushed a hand back through his hair. "At first it was like a nightmare I just couldn't wake up from. Do you remember how I used to have nightmares about being up real high and falling to my death?"

"I remember."

“That’s what it was like, only it was like falling forever and never being allowed to just hit the ground and get it over with.  It’s scary to suddenly find yourself alone in the darkness, Adam.  You can hear everyone around you talking and going on about their lives, and you want so badly for somebody to turn on a light so you can be a part of the life you hear, but nobody ever does.”  He bit his lip, allowing a wash of pain to pass over him and fade away again.  “Pretty soon, you start getting angry.  I was angry at them for trying to treat me so normally, and angry at myself for not having died in that explosion.”

“You don’t still feel that way, do you?” Adam was alarmed at the hint of mingled rage and despair he could hear in his brother’s voice as he allowed himself to remember.

Joe calmed again.  “No.  It’s just hard not to relive those feelings when I think about that time. My own emotions were about the only thing I had to hang on to; the only thing that still seemed real.  At least, until Ellen came.  I can’t tell you what she did for me, Adam. She didn’t just teach me how to live again; she made me want to live. She proved to me that I’m still a person, not just a blind person, and that all the people around me were a lot more than just voices in the darkness.  That’s why you don’t see the stranger you read about in Pa’s letters.  It’s because I learned to let him go and to be myself again.  Does that make any sense to you?”

“It makes a great deal of sense,” Adam said, laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder in a squeeze that revealed more of his own feelings than he realized.  “I’ve never been blind, but I know how it feels to be truly lonely and that sounds like what you’re describing.”

“Are you lonely, Adam?” Joe asked in concern.  “I’ve wondered sometimes when I’ve read your letters about drifting from place to place, adventure to adventure.  It sounded like the kind of life I dreamed of living when I was a kid, not the quiet, bookish kind you always seemed to love.”

“I’m pretty happy with it most of the time,” Adam hedged. “I meet a lot of people and experience more variety of living than I ever imagined possible.  It’s very satisfying, but sometimes I miss the closeness of family and wish I’d settled down on the Ponderosa with a wife and a dozen kids, like Pa wanted.”

“You still could, you know,” Joe told him.  “You’re, what, 42 now?  That doesn’t quite put one foot in the grave.  I’m sure Pa would be more than happy if you moved back home, but if you don’t want to, there are other things you could do. You could get married to some lady who loves to travel and then spend your lives gallivanting around the world together, if that’s what you want.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that life doesn’t begin and end at the borders of the Ponderosa.”

“What about you?” Adam asked, secretly nodding his head in response to the unexpected wisdom in his younger brother’s words.  “Why are you so hesitant about going home to stay?  I know it isn’t just that you have a job to do back at the Institute.  Are you bothered by the idea of living among nothing but sighted people again?”

Joe laughed a bit.  “How do you do that?  You and I haven’t seen each other for the last six years and yet you seem more in tune with how I feel about things than people who are around me every day!”

“Maybe that’s why,” Adam told him seriously.  “For a long time now, I’ve only kept up with you through letters and I’ve gotten to know you better through those than I ever did while we lived together.”

“That’s true,” Joe mused.  “I always found it easier to talk to you that way.  Maybe cause I always seemed to get a little flustered when you were fixing that ever superior older brother look at me.  Probably, that’s why I can talk to you now.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Adam reminded him. 

“I know,” Joe said with a sigh.  One thing about his older brother that hadn’t changed was his persistence in getting to the truth.  “When I’m at the Institute, I know that almost everyone else is like me and that I have nothing to hide or try to explain.  It’s different when I’m surrounded by people who can see.  Now matter how well I’ve adapted to my condition, I can’t help knowing that I’m at a disadvantage with them.”

“You seem to be managing very well,” Adam told him.  “I was impressed by how easily you handled yourself on the train and when we stopped to eat and browse around the shops in San Francisco.”

Joe shrugged one shoulder, brushing off the praise. “That’s just practice.  Sometimes it’s awful. Like, say something funny happens out on the street and everyone around starts laughing about it.  I have to ask what everyone is laughing about and by the time someone explains the joke to me, it’s over and the rest of the people have moved on.  It really makes me feel like an outsider.”

Adam thought it over, realizing that for a natural leader like Joe, or himself if he were in his brother’s shoes, it would be truly terrible to always feel that you were one step behind everyone else.  “So, it’s mostly the little things that make it hard?”

“Mostly,” Joe agreed.  “Imagine not being able to read anyone’s facial expression.  I’d bet money you just stuck your jaw out, lowered your eyebrows and nodded your head, but that’s only because I’ve seen you do it about a million times when you were thinking something over.  If I didn’t know you, I’d have no idea.”

A surprised laugh was startled from Adam as he realized he had indeed produced just the expression his brother had guessed at.  Joe grinned at him and Adam nudged him with an elbow.  “I told you once that I admired you for what you’ve been able to accomplish, little brother, but I don’t mind telling you that my admiration just notched up about a hundred percent.”

“Well, don’t worry,” Joe said with affection.  “I’ll try not to let it go to my head.  I still wish every single day that I could see, but I’ve accepted that God must’ve had other plans for me, and I’m just trying to go along with that and be happy with my life, and for the most part I really am."

"I always thought it would take an act of God to get you back into a classroom," Adam teased, glad to realize that his brother really meant what he had said about being happy. "Say, as long as I'm prying into your personal feelings, you mind if I ask about one more thing?"

Joe folded his arms across his chest in an attitude of patient waiting and said, "Go ahead."

"What exactly is between you and Marie? I couldn't help noticing how often you mentioned her in your letters, but I figured it was just because she was such a good student. When did she get to be more than that?"

"First Hoss and now you, huh?" Joe said, fond exasperation in his tone. "I wondered how long it would be before you two started horning in on my private life."

 “Who’s horning in?  I just thought she seemed like a very nice girl and I wondered if there was anything going on between you two,” Adam said defensively.  “You certainly seemed to be interested in her the other night.”

Joe’s face colored a little, much to his brother’s entertainment, and he lifted his chin almost primly as he told him, “She’s much closer to my age than the other students.  Given how much time I had to spend with her to get her ready to go home in just three months, it didn’t take us long to become friends.”  His show of propriety didn’t last long as a shy smile began to tip his mouth up.  “The day she went home, we were saying goodbye.  I moved closer to kiss her on the cheek and I sort of…missed.”

Adam grinned.  “Joe, you’re not fooling me a bit. You had learned how to ‘miss’ a girl’s cheek and hit her mouth by the time you were thirteen years old!”

Joe chuckled.  “I suppose I was kind of an obvious tactic, but I just couldn’t think of anything else to do.  I couldn’t just let her go without some indication of how I’d been feeling, but I didn’t feel like I could come right out and tell her either.” 

“From what I saw at that dance, I take it it’s safe to assume she didn’t mind too much,” Adam said dryly. 

“She’s really sort of wonderful, Adam,” Joe said softly, ignoring the comment.  “She’s smart, and funny and creative.  She can hold her own in any conversation we’ve ever had, and even without sight she’s good enough at cooking and sewing and all those domestic kinds of things to put any other woman to shame.”

“Sounds like she’d make some man a good wife,” Adam observed.

Joe sighed.  “She would if she loved him.”

“Have you asked her how she feels about you?”

Joe shook his head. "I think I'm getting cowardly in my old age."

"Watch it, junior," Adam quipped, knowing it would provoke a smile.

"I can't even tell you how many times I've made up my mind to ask how she feels, and then got cold feet," Joe told him. "Sometimes I just get such a strong feeling that she loves me, but then the moment passes and I'm not so sure."

"Don't you think you'd better find out?"

"That's just the problem. I don't know if I should or not! She's been shut up in her parent's house with hardly a soul outside the household to talk to all her life. I'm afraid she's just reacting to the newness of having a man pay a lot of attention to her, especially somebody like me who's been with her almost constantly, helping her learn to become independent." There was clear frustration in Joe's voice. "God knows I understand what a strong bond that can be. That's part of why I was glad to be going away for a couple of months. Right now all I am sure about is that I don't want her falling in love with me out of gratitude."

"And what about the fact that you kissed her?” Adam said gently. “Weren’t you afraid that would confuse things between you even more?”

Joe’s expression became a bit sad. "I know I probably shouldn't have, but I wanted to so much."

Adam decided not to press the issue any further. "We'll be in Virginia City in a couple of hours, I think," he said instead. "You want to try and catch a little nap before we get there? I'm about as awake as I can be now so you can lean against me if you like. Give Jamie a little more room."

Jamie had started sliding over toward his brother again and Joe shoved him back into his own place with an irritated grunt. "If you're sure you don't mind." Adam indicated that he did not and Joe slid down a bit in his seat until he was resting lightly against Adam's shoulder. They had taken many a trip that way during the course of their lives and there was something very familiar and comfortable in it for both of them. Joe closed his eyes and adjusted his position a bit, then after a moment, said, "So, did I answer all of your questions?"

"I think so," Adam said with a smile, shifting over to give his brother more space. "Did you answer any of yours?"

A soft snort was Joe's only answer as he drifted to sleep in the gently swaying coach.


The coach came to a rumbling halt outside the stage depot.  All five of the Cartwrights breathed a sigh of relief to be home at last and free of the bumpy ride.  Adam, Ben and Hoss got out first, then Joe slid over and waited a moment for Hoss to grab his cane from the top of the coach where he had stored it along with the luggage, and got out.  He stumbled back in surprise and nearly knocked a disembarking Jamie right back into the stagecoach when a tremendous cheer greeted his appearance on the sidewalk.  “What’s going on, Pa?” he asked in bewilderment.

“It’s a welcome home celebration, son,” Ben said, drawing him forward with a hand on his back.  “It looks like half the town is out here waiting for us.”

“There’s a big banner, Joe,” Jamie said excitedly.  “It says ‘Welcome Home’.”

Joe didn’t know what to think. He had not dared to expect anything like this, though he had wondered if one or two friends might show up. “Did you all know about this?”

Adam slapped him on the back.  “Of course we did!  When I got here a few weeks ago, Hoss gave me a tour of the town to show me how much it had changed, and while we visited a few old friends, we just made sure to spread the word that you were coming home.”

Hoss chuckled.  “Some of the folks wanted to give Adam a big party, so he just told ‘em to wait a while then they could have a rip-roaring celebration for the two of you.  It ain’t no secret how much you love a good party, so that idea went over real big.”

Joe’s grin seemed to be getting bigger with every word.  “You guys are something else.  You planned all this and didn’t even give me a hint!”  He laughed delightedly and heard quite a few of the surrounding voice laugh in response.  “Well, let’s not keep everybody waiting!”

They moved forward, and with every step some familiar voice would call out a greeting and Joe would stop to shake hands and exchange a few words.  Hoss and Adam stayed protectively close by his sides, while Jamie and Ben brought up the rear, but all of them maintained enough distance so that Joe would not feel crowded.  Everyone was overjoyed by the open warmth and humor with which Joe greeted all his old friends.  He seemed quite like his old self again. 

“Joe!”  He turned sharply at the sound of his name, his face beaming as he recognized the sound of Mitch Devlin’s voice.  His old friend charged forward to greet him with a bear hug that nearly lifted Joe right off the ground.  All the old animosity between them had long since faded during their regular correspondence of the past several months and the two men laughed and pounded each other on the back.  “It’s good to have you back, buddy.  Sally and I haven’t been able to talk about anything else for days.”

Joe gave a slap to the burly shoulder under his left hand.  “Come on, Mitch!  You’re getting married in two weeks.  I know I’m a fascinating topic and all that, but surely you could think of something else to talk about!”

Mitch’s only answer was a laugh and Joe grinned.  He would have bet anything he owned that his boyhood chum had just turned an interesting shade of pink. 

“There’s a big celebration set up over at the International,” another voice piped up.  “We had some expert help this morning to make sure we had all of your and Adam’s favorite foods.”

Joe perked up even more at that news.  There was only one person they could be referring to as expert help on that topic!  He hurried his steps a bit as everyone surged toward the hotel and restaurant, and the moment he crossed the threshold and smelled the mouth-watering mix of odors filling the air, he called out, “Hop Sing!  Where are you?”

He was not disappointed.  Hop Sing’s rare bubbling laughter rose up to greet him and Joe swept the little man into a hearty embrace.  The cook pulled back to take a good, long look at him and immediately began scolding, though Joe could still hear the smile in his voice.  “Little Joe, you too skinny!  How you going to be good strong boy if you all time no eat?”  He quickly gave up his pretense at disapproval when Joe continued to grin at him.  “It good to have you home, Little Joe.”

“Oh, it’s good to be home,” he said sincerely.  “I missed you, my friend.  I missed all of you.”

“Everyone has missed you, as well, Joseph,” his father told him, echoing the murmurs of agreement all over the room.  “There’s hardly been one time I’ve come into town when somebody hasn’t asked about you, what you were doing, how you were getting along.  They all wanted to show their happiness at having you home again.”

“Thank you,” he said, happily allowing some of the nervousness he had been harboring over his ability to get along in his hometown to evaporate.  He was surprised to realize that the idea of being looked at by his old friends no longer bothered him.  He wondered if perhaps it was because he felt so much more at ease with his own abilities now.  He had become self-reliant again and as a result, he had lost the fear that everyone pitied the poor blind man. 

The party lasted all day and well into the evening while both Joe and Adam got caught up with all their friends and everyone ate, drank, talked and laughed the hours away.  It wasn’t until the third time that Joe was forced to apologize to someone for interrupting the conversation with a yawn that he gave in and declared himself done for the night.  Ben, Hoss and Jamie, having slept most of the way home, were faring much better than Joe, but Adam was also losing ground as fatigue caught up with him.  Hop Sing had had the foresight to bring the Ponderosa’s largest carriage into town that morning, but six people plus luggage were still a very tight squeeze, so Hoss and Jamie rented a couple of horses from the livery stable and rode alongside the rest of the family. 

Joe stretched his arms up over his head and groaned as he settled contentedly into the well-padded seat next to his father.  “This is more like it,” he said through another deep yawn.

“You gonna make it home?” Ben asked, watching the young man struggle to stay awake in the gently rocking carriage. Joe smiled and gave a non-committal grunt as he crossed his arms over his chest and shrugged.  Ben snapped the reins lightly, encouraging the team to go a little faster.  It wouldn’t hurt anything if Joe fell asleep before reaching the ranch house, but waking him once he fell deeply asleep had always been an almost impossible task.  It would be easier for everyone if he could manage to hold out long enough to get back to the Ponderosa and into his own bed.  Maybe talking to him would help.  “Did Hoss tell you about Cochise?”

Joe stirred a bit.  “What about him?”

“He’s been spending his days running free out in the high meadow lands,” Ben told him.  “We had him inside the barn for most of the winter, but he wasn’t getting enough exercise so Hoss thought it would be better to let him run a bit.  He seems to enjoy frisking around with all the youngsters.”

A wistful smile lifted Joe’s lips.  “Good old fella.  He’s always loved to run.  You remember how mad you used to get at me for racing him everywhere and charging into the yard like our tails were on fire?  I’m glad to know he hasn’t been stuck in the barn all the time I’ve been gone.  I’ve been worried about him.”

“Well, don’t you fret, little brother,” Hoss chimed in.  “He’s getting on a mite, but he’s still fat and sassy and I always make sure to fuss over him a little extra for your sake when I bed down the stock at night.”

“Thanks for that,” Joe said gratefully, flashing a smile up toward his brother’s voice.  “So what else have I missed?  You managed to hired a full crew for the Ferguson mine timber contract yet, Pa?  You wrote that you were having trouble getting enough men.”

“We have and the cutting is all but done,” Ben told him, glad to know that Joe was still interested in the day to day operations of the ranch.  “I left Candy up there to supervise the last of it and to see about getting all the timbers hauled down to the mine.”

Joe laughed.  “So, he’s back again, is he?  That Candy never changes a bit.  He’ll stick with us for a couple of years, get restless and quit, then show up again out of the blue and pick up the last conversation you had as if he’d never been gone!  Have you met him yet, Adam?”

“Yes,” Adam said from the back seat.  “I ran into him a couple of times when I first got home.  We didn’t take much of a shine to each other at first, but I admit he kind of grows on you.”

“I know, I felt the same way when he first joined us.  He has a real annoying habit of butting into anything that interests him, whether he’s been invited or not,” Joe remembered.  “That took some getting used to, but after a while nobody could imagine life on the Ponderosa without him.”

“What I don’t figure is how he always seems to know when to show up,” Hoss mused.  “We hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since about a month before you got hurt, then just as things started getting really backed up, there he was.” 

Joe’s smile faltered, and then faded completely as he listened to everyone comparing notes about all the difficulties they had faced running the Ponderosa over the past year.  Hoss and Jamie told him all about the unexpectedly large number of cattle they had rounded up, and were soon caught up in a deep discussion of schedules and how many head were still left to be branded.  No one seemed to notice that Joe had fallen completely silent by the time his father started to tell him about the latest cattle drive.  The timing had been tight, as the men were also needed to be split between the corrals, where a string of horses were being prepared for the Army, and the timber camp to complete the Ferguson order.  It seemed that the biggest problem with all of the various projects had been finding enough capable men to oversee them.  Even Adam had been enlisted at the last moment to straighten out the books and ride up to the mill to finalize a few orders for Pa, just a couple of days after his arrival. Everyone was agreeing with how helpful their ranch foreman, Candy, had been in dealing with it all.  Joe could feel a hollow pit forming in his stomach as he listened.  It seemed as if everything had worked out just fine in his absence.

“I don’t know how I would’ve managed without him this past year,” Ben said absently.  “Seemed like there was twice as much work as anybody could handle for a while there.”

“Well, I’m sorry I wasn’t around to do my share, but I’ve been a little busy with other things,” Joe snapped. “It’s not like I would’ve been much good when you needed me anyway.”

The family fell silent, staring at him in shock as the serene and happy Joe of earlier suddenly gave way to the snappish, irritable stranger they all thought they had seen the last of. “Joseph, we weren’t trying to imply anything,” Ben said after a moment. “You had your own work to do and you’ve done tremendously well at it.  I know you would have helped us here if you could have.”

Ashamed of his unexpected outburst, Joe raised his hands to hide his face, then sighed as he slowly slid them down until his chin was resting on his steepled fingers.  “I’m sorry, Pa.  I don’t know what made me say that.”

“Joseph, tell me what’s bothering you,” his father ordered gently.

Wishing fervently that he had just remained quiet, Joe tried to explain. “I knew that life here would go on just the same after I left.  I even wanted it to, Pa, honest.  It’s just…”

“It hurts a little to realize that all the things you thought you were an integral part of can continue just as well without you, doesn’t it?” Adam supplied when his brother fell silent.  The irony in his voice was unmistakable.  Joe nodded.  “I know exactly what you mean, Joe.  I felt the same way when I first left home, and again when I got here and saw how easily the things I’d helped set into motion were running without me.”

“That’s it,” Joe agreed.  “It’s not that you want life to grind to a halt, but you can’t help wishing it would slow down just a teeny little bit.”

Ben was a bit dismayed at what he was hearing, especially coming from both of his absent sons.  “I had no idea you felt that way, either of you.  Adam, you never said anything before.”

Adam shrugged. “It’s not a big deal, Pa.  It’s just a stupid feeling that you have to get over.  I did and so will Joe.”

“He’s right, Pa. I was just feeling sorry for myself for a minute, I suppose,” Joe said.  Then he snorted lightly.  “I guess some things don’t change no matter what, though, do they?  Adam’s been gone for six years, then he’s back for over a month and nobody even suspects how he feels. I’m home for less than one day and out it comes!”

Ben smiled and patted him on the leg, relieved to realize that his son wasn’t truly unhappy, just feeling a little left out.  “You’ve never been one to hide your feelings, son.”

Joe heaved a self-disgusted sigh.  “I suppose I could use the excuse that I’m tired, which I am, but the truth is, I’ve just got a big mouth.”

Hoss and Adam both laughed.  “Shucks, Joe, that ain’t news,” Hoss said jovially.  “You’ve always had the biggest mouth in four territories.”

“And the worst temper in six states,” Adam threw in lightly. 

Hoss said, “And stubborn.  Don’t forget stubborn.”

“Who could forget that?” Adam agreed.  “He’s pig-headed, too.”

“Definitely.”  Hoss grinned when he noticed Joe beginning to smile.  “Seriously, though, little brother.  We mighta had to learn to get along without you on the ranch, but don’t you ever go thinkin’ for one little minute that it was easy.  Your worth to us ain’t measured by how many horses you can break or how many fence lines you can mend.  Anybody can fill in doing a few chores, but nobody can ever take your place in this family.  That goes for you too, older brother.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe said quietly.

Adam reached forward to squeeze his shoulder.  Then he looked up at Hoss and said, “Yeah, thanks Hoss.  Does that mean I can get out of all that work you were threatening me with a while back?”

“Not on your life,” Hoss laughed, “and we got us a nice big stack of firewood for you to chop down into kindling, Little Joe.  You did say you done learned to do it without lookin’, didn’t you?  You also wrote that you been helping that Jasper fella take care of the horses back at the Institute.  Well, we still got us a whole barn full of them and a tack room that could use cleanin’ besides.”

“You were saying about that big mouth of yours, Joe?” Jamie chimed in.

Joe laughed.  “Say, Pa.  What time is the next stage back to San Francisco?”

“About eight o’clock this coming May, I think,” Ben joked, happy to hear the banter of his boys and to see how skillfully they had handled Joe’s momentary disquiet.  He was elated by how easily his son seemed to be fitting in at home again and vowed to find some things that Joe could do to be useful on the ranch, just as soon as he had a chance to rest up.

Suddenly, Joe yawned again; setting off a chain reaction among his family that got everyone laughing.  They teased each other all the way home and everyone managed to make it to the Ponderosa awake.  Upon their arrival, some of the hands came out of the bunkhouse and volunteered to take the carriage and see to the horses.  Hoss and Jamie got down and grabbed the luggage while Hop Sing scurried inside to make a final pot of coffee.

Joe used his cane to make his way up onto the porch and inside, but once there he set it in the corner beside the coat rack and came the rest of the way without it.  He walked slowly, forearm held out before him to block anything he might run into, the other arm extended out to his side.  His family watched silently as he refamiliarized himself with his home, enjoying the smile that would touch his lips whenever he felt some object in the place he had expected.  “I’m glad you didn’t decide to redecorate while I was gone,” he quipped, curling one leg under his body as he settled down onto the large sturdy coffee table before the fireplace. 

Hoss grinned at the familiar sight of his younger brother perched on the table.  He had always preferred it to sitting in an actual chair and it seemed very natural to have him there.  “All you need is a checkerboard sitting in front of you and I could almost believe you’d never been gone, Joe” he observed as he descended the stairs from his trip with the bags.

Joe laughed.  “I’m afraid checkers is one game I haven’t figured out to play without seeing the pieces,” he said.  “I know what you mean, though.  Everything feels, and sounds and even smells just the same as always.  It’s hard to believe I’ve been away almost nine months.”

“You’ll find everything just the same up in your room as well,” Ben told him, handing him a cup of the fresh coffee Hop Sing had just brought in.  “We didn’t move anything.”

“Thanks,” Joe said gratefully, taking a long sip from his cup.  “Mmm, this is good.  Nobody makes coffee like you, Hop Sing.  Or cooks, either.  Your Christmas bundle was the hit of the school, did I tell you that?”

“I glad you home, Little Joe,” Hop Sing told him, his face beaming with pleasure at the praise of his culinary skills.  “We have plenty bacon, scramble eggs and blueberry muffin for breakfast tomorrow.”

A big grin lit Joe’s face.  He wondered how long Hop Sing would spend indulging him in his favorite foods while he was home. “Thanks, Hop Sing.”

The family talked a little while longer, then one by one disappeared up the stairs to bed.  Joe’s earlier fatigue had gone the moment he walked into the house, but now it was catching up to him again.  He and his father were the last ones left and he waited while Ben snuffed the lights and banked the fire, then they walked upstairs together.  Joe reached out to hug his father at the top of the stairs.  “Goodnight, Pa.  It’s good to be home.”

Ben watched him walk to his own room and go inside without a single falter or hesitation.  His heart was full and he reveled in the words as he simply said, “Goodnight, Joseph. Sleep well.”

Chapter 8

“Joe?  Hey, it’s after seven o’clock. You planning on getting out of bed any time soon?”  Hoss tapped hard on the head full of rumpled curls that was the only visible part of his brother. 

 Joe tugged the covers down far enough to answer, “No,” then pulled them back up and rolled over onto his stomach, wrapping both arms around his pillow. 

The big man laughed and pulled the blankets back down a few inches.  “What happened to all that talk about bein’ useful on the ranch?”

Joe settled his body more determinedly into the softness of his mattress and pillow.  “I’ll be useful tomorrow.  Leave me alone.”

They heard a chuckle from the doorway and Joe grimaced, expecting that he was about to be evicted from his cozy nest.  He then heaved a contented sigh as his father’s voice said, “Leave him be, Hoss.  I think he deserves one late morning.”

“All righty, then. You can have your own way today,” Hoss said good-naturedly.  “Don’t you be thinkin’ you’re just gonna lie around all day tomorrow, though.  I’ll get you up on time if I have to take you downstairs and throw your sorry carcass in the horse trough.”

Joe waved a dismissive hand, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth.  “Big talk.  You’ve been making that threat since I was old enough to take notice and you haven’t done it yet.”

“Well, maybe tomorrow will turn out to be the day I mean it,” Hoss told him.

A muffled laugh was Joe’s answer to that as turned his head away from his brother and deliberately snuggled back down.  He had always loved sleeping in but rarely got anyone to agree with him on the subject.  His father was a decidedly early-to-bed, early-to-rise type of person, so Joe intended to take advantage of Pa’s unexpected support while he had it.   He heard his door close as the other two continued on down the stairs and Joe allowed himself to drift in a kind of half-doze for a while.  What was it about sleeping in your own bed that seemed so much nicer than sleeping anywhere else, he mused?  His bed at the Institute was certainly comfortable enough, but he had never had as good a night’s rest there as the one he had enjoyed last night.

Slowly, Joe rolled back over for a good long stretch, then just lay there, listening to the sounds of morning. His window was open a crack and somewhere outside he could hear the faint noises of clucks, whinnies and hoof beats as the animals began their day.  A voice he thought he recognized as one of the hands who had taken the horses in last night, was talking to someone and whoever it was laughed in response.  He smiled as he heard his oldest and youngest brothers talking as they walked past his door, glad they seemed to be getting along so well.  For a moment, he wondered if either of them would come in to try and roust him out of bed, but after a pause and some faintly audible whispering, they moved on.  Joe held out, determined to enjoy his idleness, for another fifteen minutes before the smell of breakfast and a nagging sense of guilt over lazing about finally got to him.  He climbed out of bed and pulled on the pants he had left folded on the dresser, then smiled when a soft knock almost immediately sounded outside his door.  “Come in, Hop Sing,” he called.

The door opened and Hop Sing entered, no more surprised that Joe had recognized him than Joe had been at finding him there.  “I bring hot water.  You wash up and come down for breakfast.”

“Is there any left?” he asked, taking the towel the cook pressed into his hand and listening as some of the water was poured into his wash basin.  With anyone else, Joe would have protested that he could do it himself but Hop Sing would have done exactly the same thing for him if he had been able to see.  Taking care of the Cartwright family was as much a pleasure for the Chinese man as a job.

“There plenty breakfast,” Hop Sing reassured him.  “I hold some back for you when Mr. Ben say you no come down right away.” 

“Sure was nice of Pa to let me sleep in a while,” Joe said, still a little surprised by the fact.  He waited until he heard the scrape and clunk of the pitcher being set into its place on the dresser then moved forward to give his face and upper body a quick sponge bath.  He picked up the pitcher and poured some of the water over his head, squeezing the locks dry with the towel before brushing them into place with his fingers.  A trace of stubble lined his cheeks and chin as he ran his hand experimentally across his face and he found it rather amusing that Hop Sing stayed in his room to watch as he dug through his valise for his shaving brush and razor.  He filled the small soap-filled cup the cook had placed on his dresser with water, and proceeded to carefully remove the growth.  “That feels better.  How do I look, Hop Sing?”

“Very handsome,” the cook said indulgently.  “I remember first time you do that.  You sneak Mr. Hoss’ new razor out of his room and try to shave, but cut your chin.  You come to Hop Sing cause you bleed and no want your brother to catch you.”

Joe chuckled.  “I forgot about that.  What was I, about nine or so?  I was jealous cause Hoss was getting to do grown-up things like Pa did.  You covered for me, as I recall.”

“Hop Sing no want little boy to get in trouble,” he said.  He surprised Joe by laying a callused hand upon his back and lightly tracing a couple of faint bullet scars marring his shoulder.  “I always take care of you when you in trouble, Little Joe, and I always proud of you for facing your trouble with truth.  Hop Sing never been so proud as now.”

Joe was both touched and astonished that his old friend should be talking to him so.  Hop Sing had never been a man who easily put such thoughts into words. He had always preferring to show his care and devotion to the family through daily action.  “I think some of that is due to you,” Joe said softly, turning so that he could place his hands on the smaller man’s shoulders.  “You didn’t just take care of me or cover for me all those times I got in trouble, Hop Sing.  You showed me by example how to deal with all those impulsive feelings that got me into the trouble in the first place, and you never let me get away with being less than honest with anyone, especially myself.  I owe you a lot for that.”

Hop Sing placed a hand over Joe’s left one and said in soft Chinese,  “You owe me nothing.  The debt is paid.”  Then he moved away and reached into a dresser drawer, pulling out a shirt, which he placed into Joe’s hands.  “You get dressed and come eat your breakfast.  I see your ribs, you so skinny!  You must eat now.  No time for dilly-dally.  Come!” 

With that the old Chinese man was gone, leaving a smiling Joe behind him.  He hurried into the shirt, an old, comfortable one that felt good against his skin, and pulled on his socks and boots.  It would not do to keep Hop Sing waiting!

Chapter 9

The days passed swiftly, as Joe got used to being at home again.  He took long rides with his brothers, had several soul-satisfying talks with his father, and received innumerable callers.  Hoss had made good on his promise to have Joe chop firewood and clean the tack-room and he had actually found himself enjoying the familiar tasks, finding it very gratifying to display these abilities for his family’s watching eyes. Adam had settled back into the daily routine of the Ponderosa with ease, and Joe could tell by the mellow tone of his voice that he was more content with this life than he had been in his younger days.  Pa had finally given up the habit of ordering him around like a schoolboy, and Joe knew that Adam was responding to that as much as to anything else.  Ben’s pleasure in having all of his boys under his roof again was impossible to miss, and it was obvious that he was trying to tread lightly in order to keep them there as long as possible.  Hoss fairly shouted with his own joy in the situation and Jamie seemed equally happy.  Hop Sing cooked, and baked, and pampered the two returned wanderers as much as they would tolerate to show his own pleasure.  In fact, everyone seemed so happy that Joe began to feel guilty, realizing that he did not quite share in their contentment.  He could sense a growing unhappiness in himself the longer he was home, and it was not hard to figure out what it was.

“You going to finish up that branding today, Hoss?” Ben asked as he sipped his final cup of morning coffee.   “I thought I heard you telling Adam last night that you’d rounded up the last of the stragglers from Pine Meadows.”

“Yes, sir, Pa.  We got the last of them all penned up and ready to go.  Shouldn’t take more than half the morning to finish the job, then I can see about fixing that string of fence line I found torn down up by Willow Crest.”

“Good, good,” Ben murmured.  “Jamie, you still planning on joining Jim and Bobby after school for that camping trip?”

“Yep!” Jamie replied eagerly.  “You sure you don’t mind me going out to stay at Bobby’s house tonight instead of coming home after school?”

“You go on and have a good time,” Ben said indulgently.  “You’ve been working real hard helping the men get those horses ready to sell next week.  You deserve it.”

“Thanks,” he replied around a mouthful of breakfast.  “Bobby’s Pa said he’d take us out to where there’s a cave housing a mama bear and two brand new little cubs.  I sure do want to see that.  Then we’re going to spend the next two days out hunting and fishing.  Hoss, you think the weather will be clear enough to practice finding some of those constellations you’ve been teaching me in the sky?”

“I reckon so,” Hoss told him. 

“Should be a nice clear night,” Adam agreed.  “Pa, I think I’ll head on in to town for a bit and pick up that order of horseshoes and fencing wire you put in with Hans last week.  They should be ready by now.  Want me to check the mail while I’m there?”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Ben said gratefully.  “I’ve got to finish going over the contracts for the Ferguson job.  We delivered the last of the lumber last week, but now Jim Horn, the assessor, thinks it’s not going to be enough for the shoring work they plan to do out there.  Ferguson wants to buy some more lumber from us and I’m not sure we can spare any.”

“I thought that mine was supposed to be too dangerous for any more hard rock digging now,” Hoss said.  “How come Ferguson decided to open ‘er up again, Pa?”

Ben put his cup down with a soft clink against his saucer.  “He’s convinced that these plans Horn drew up for new shoring all along the south tunnel will make it steady enough to work in safely.  I have my doubts, but he’s a good man and I believe he knows his business.  If I didn’t I never would have agreed to sell Ferguson the timber, no matter how good the price he offered.”

“I think I’ll ride over there and have a look for myself,” Adam said slowly.  “You’re right, Pa.  Horn is a good man.  I’ve known him for a good many years now and he knows his stuff, but he does tend to be a bit more optimistic about things than he should if the right amount of money is dangled under his nose.  It wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion, and Ferguson won’t mind since I’m offering it for free.”

Hoss chuckled.  “That’s for dang sure.  Good old Ferguson loves anything that’ll save him money and if he can convince you that his mine is workable again, he won’t have no trouble hiring labor at a cheap price.  I hear tell he’s been having a hard time filling the roster cause of all the rumors about that mine being bad.”

Everyone rose from the table.  Jamie called goodbye as he grabbed his things and hurried off to school, and Hoss quickly followed with wishes for a good day to his family as he went to work.  Joe stood a moment, wondering if anyone would notice that he was the only one who had not been automatically asked about his plans for the day.  He had been feeling increasingly restless for several days now, as it became clear that his family was having difficulty coming up with things he could do.  They seemed content to allow him to hang around the house, pitching in doing little jobs as they popped up, but Joe was beginning to feel like an afterthought and he did not like the feeling one bit.

“Adam, would you mind having me tag along with you today?” he asked.  “I think I could use a change of pace and there are a few things I want to do in town.”

“Good idea,” Ben said, a little too eagerly.  Joe smiled, but it was a bit sour.  Clearly Pa was also aware that he was running out of diversions at home.  Ben intercepted the look and seemed to realize that he’d been a bit obvious, for he added, “You’ll want to see about picking up a gift for Mitch’s wedding this weekend.”

“I suppose I’d better,” Joe agreed evenly.  “It wouldn’t be right for the best man to show up empty-handed at his best friend’s wedding, would it?”

“Come on, then,” Adam agreed with a smile.  “Help me hitch up the wagon and I’ll buy you a beer when we get to town.  Maybe you can figure out what to get your friends on the way in.”

Joe grabbed his cane from behind the door and accepted his hat from Adam.  It still felt a little strange to pass the credenza and not strap on a gunbelt, especially when he heard the creak and jingle of Adam’s belt being strapped into place, but there wasn’t much point in wearing one anymore.  He had not worn a gun in almost a year, but the habit of a lifetime was hard to break.  Just one more small change to accept in the old life that was becoming more distant with every passing day.  Joe sighed softly and followed his brother out to the barn.


Joe didn’t have much to say on the way into town.  Though he answered Adam’s attempts at conversation pleasantly enough, he didn’t seem much interested.  Adam knew that something was up when his brother readily agreed to his suggestion of buying Mitch and Sally a set of fine silver candlesticks for a wedding present.  He had never had any use for such things and Adam had been expecting a protest.  Joe did not even quibble when he heard the rather exorbitant amount the storekeeper was charging for them. He just paid the man and told his brother he would be next door getting the mail while Adam finished their order.

“All right, “ Adam agreed, watching him with a puzzled frown.  “I have to stop over at the blacksmith’s to check on those horseshoes after I leave here.  You want to meet me at the Silver Dollar?”

“Fine,” he said.

Joe made his way over to the Wells Fargo office and picked up the mail, finally losing some of his self-absorption when told the top letter was addressed to him.  He was eager to find out what was contained inside and was thinking more about the letter than where he was headed as he swept his cane along the board sidewalk in front of him.  He was therefore considerably startled to head a harsh voice say, “Hey watch where you’re swinging that thing!  You hit me!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, swiftly chastising himself for his inattention.  Miss Dobbs had always stressed the importance of keeping focused on the world around him, and Joe knew the accident was his own fault.  “I wasn’t paying attention, I guess.  Did I hurt you?”

“I suppose not,” the man said, his irritation clearly unabated by the apology.  He brushed past Joe and went on his way, audibly muttering, “Don’t see what business a damned cripple has wandering around alone anyhow.  Somebody ought to know better.”  Joe gritted his teeth and forced himself to ignore the man, even though it rankled.  This was hardly the first time he had run into such rudeness, but that didn’t make the words any less painful to hear. 

Secretly wishing he could have taken just one good swing at the man, Joe continued on down the board sidewalk, paying extra close attention to his surroundings this time, lest he repeat the incident.  Soon enough he recognized the smells of beer and whiskey and the sounds of clinking glasses and tinny piano music which always seemed to fill the Silver Dollar.  He was greeted by the friendly voice of the bartender as soon as he walked in the door, and Joe allowed some of his irritation to fade.  “Hi, Sam.  How’s business?”

“Oh, ‘bout the same as usual,” Sam replied cheerfully.  “What can I get for you, Joe?”

“I’ll take a couple of beers.  My brother, Adam, is joining me as soon as he finished up over at Hans’ place,” Joe replied.  “Doesn’t sound too full in here.  Is the table over in the corner free?”

Sam took a look around the edge of the bar to the Cartwright brothers’ usual table and said, “Nobody there.  I’ll bring the beers over in a jiffy, just as soon as I finish wiping these glasses.”

“Take your time, Sam.”  Joe smiled at his old friend as he navigated his way around several tables and chairs and took a seat at the scarred table in the corner.  He removed the top letter from the small stack of envelopes in his hand and ripped it open.  The raised Braille print of the paper inside confirmed that it was indeed for him, and Joe grinned happily as he realized it was from Miss Dobbs.  He waited until Sam had set down the drinks and walked away, then began to read Ellen’s colorful descriptions of life at the Institute.  His enjoyment faded as he caught the sound of whispering at a nearby table, which the owner of the voice undoubtedly supposed was too quiet for him to overhear.

“Look at him, Lonnie.  I can’t believe I used to be so jealous of his good looks and easy way with the girls.  Bet they wouldn’t think much of him now, would they?”

Another voice laughed.  “Not hardly.  Look at his eyes!  They ain’t even straight no more, just kinda starin’ off at nothing.  Looks creepy if you ask me.”

“Yeah,” the first voice agreed.  “I feel kinda sorry for him, though.  He wasn’t a bad guy, even if he was a little full of himself.  Now what’s he got?  A piece of paper that says he an teach other blind folks how to avoid running into stuff!  It ain’t much when you think about what he had on his daddy’s ranch.”

Lonnie snorted, clearly not as sympathetic as his friend.  “Big deal.  He’s still a rich boy, just like always, only now he’s got an excuse to take his share without doing any work for it.  C’mon, Jay, let’s go find us a game somewhere.”

The two men moved on, undoubtedly forgetting all about the blind man in the corner of the bar, but he could not forget them so easily.  He slowly finished the last page of his letter and folded it back into its envelope, his pleasure in it having evaporated.


“Are you all right?”  Adam’s question followed a long five minutes in which he and his younger brother had sat silent at their table.  He had come in from the blacksmith’s to find his brother sitting in the corner with their order in front of him, but not drinking.  Joe had barely acknowledged his greeting.  Instead, he taken a single sip of his beer then set it down, absently tracing a line round and round the condensation on the rim with his finger as his face settled into a deeply concentrated frown.  His jaw was set hard, and for some reason he was shifting his eyes slowly around, making it look as though he was trying to force them to focus on something.

Joe stirred from his concentration as he realized that Adam was talking to him.  “What?”

“I said, are you okay?  You’ve been awfully quiet this morning,” Adam told him.

“I’m fine, Adam,” he replied. “Just got a lot of things on my mind, that’s all.”

Adam was not content to leave it at that.  He had been deciphering his brother’s unspoken moods for too many years. The peculiar behavior, slumped posture, absorbed yet slightly sad facial expression, and the fact that he could not seem to keep his hands still, all told Adam that Joe was having trouble coming to grips with something.  He decided to hedge a little and see if Joe would drop a hint.  “You’re not having second thoughts about being Mitch’s best man, are you?  Especially since the bride is a girl you were almost engaged to yourself.”

Adam’s guess was so far off the mark that Joe laughed.  “I have no regrets about not marrying Sally.  I think if I’d ever been really serious in that regard, I wouldn’t have put off asking her so many times.  I’m happy for them; both of them.”

“Something in the letter then?” Adam tried again. When he had come in to the saloon, Adam had noticed an open letter addressed to his brother on the table, name written in the same bold handwriting he had seen on many letters to himself from Joe, writing he now knew belonged to Mr. Barnett.

Joe hesitated, on the brink of telling Adam to mind his own business.  “Sort of,” he said instead.  “It’s from Miss Dobbs.  She says that Marie has managed to convince her parents to let her get more schooling, and is now taking private lessons from her since I’m not there.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Adam asked carefully.  Joe nodded slightly, but did not answer.  “Are you wishing you’d stayed there?” he pressed, knowing he was on the right track.

“They’ve hired another teacher on a temporary basis, depending on whether or not I decide to go back.  The job is still mine if I want it,” Joe said reluctantly.

Adam was not going to let him get away with such a non-answer.  “Do you want it?”

“I don’t know!” Joe’s voice suddenly got louder, clearly irritated with his brother’s persistence.  When Adam remained silent, waiting him out, Joe slammed his hand down on the table in frustration.  “Adam, I like what I do there.  I like hanging out with the kids, and passing on the things I’ve learned to them, and helping them to fit in.  It’s satisfying, but…”

“But what?”

“But, what if all I’m good for is to spend the rest of my life showing other blind people how not to run into things?”  There, he had said it.  The words belonged to the man he had overheard talking about him, but the question came straight from his heart.

Adam was both dismayed and instantly suspicious.  “Has someone been trying to convince you that your job at the Institute is some kind of busy-work?  Because if that’s the case, then I’m telling you that they couldn’t be more wrong.  Joe, if you can do someone else half as much good as those people did you, then you’re making a serious contribution.  We weren’t just being nice when we all told you how proud we are of you, you know.  Everyone is still just about bursting with it.”

“In a way that makes things easier,” Joe said, “but it’s hard not to listen sometimes when I’m away from you and my friends at the Institute.  It seems like everyone else feels differently than you do.”  He fell silent a minute, then haltingly told Adam about the man on the boardwalk and the two others in the saloon. 

With a soft groan, Adam dropped his face into his hand to rub at his eyes, anger at the unknown men burning in his throat.  No wonder Joe had been acting so strangely when he’d rejoined him.  He was already self-conscious enough about being around strangers without having some of them deliberately make him feel like a sideshow attraction.  “You can’t let a few ignorant men destroy everything you’ve spent the last year building, Joe.  Remember what you told me on the stage, about how you’d found the answers you were looking for inside of yourself?  Don’t let some blowhard in a bar take that away from you.”

Joe thought about that, carefully straightening his letter against the table to remove the wrinkles he had inadvertently put into it after the strength of his emotions had caused him to crunch the paper tight in his hands.  “I suppose you’re right, but somehow everything seemed a lot clearer before. There’s hardly been a day since I’ve been home that I’ve felt as sure of myself and what I wanted as I was that day on the stage.”  He rubbed at his face, unaware that he was copying the gesture his brother had used moments before. “I dunno, maybe I’m just looking to let somebody else make up my mind for me.”

“What is it you really want, Joe?” Adam asked again, putting extra emphasis into the words.

“I want the Ponderosa,” he said bleakly. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“But?” Adam said, knowing there was more.

Joe snorted softly, “But not like this.  You know, the whole time I was studying to get that teaching certificate I kept telling myself that it was just something to fall back on, in case things didn’t work out at home.  It’s the same as when I tried to convince myself that Ellen was just teaching me the basics of being blind to help me get along until my sight returned.  I was kidding myself then, and I’m doing it again now. Both were just excuses to avoid facing the fact that I can’t ever be a vital part of the ranch again.”

“Hoss and I were talking about that last night,” Adam confided.  “Not that I necessarily agree with you, but we could both tell that you weren’t very happy here, no matter how hard you’ve tried to hide it.”

Joe let go a laugh with more hurt than humor in it.  “Not happy.  Now there’s an understatement!  God, Adam, when I hear the rest of you talking about breaking horses, and branding cattle, and overseeing all of our mining and timber contracts, it’s like knives in my gut.  I want to be a part of it all so badly I can taste it!  I just don’t know how much more of that I can take.”

“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind,” Adam said sadly, realizing how much he would miss Joe, but that going back to San Francisco was going to be inevitable for him now.

Joe nodded miserably.  “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but I feel useless here.  Even worse than when I first lost my sight.  Everyone tries, but I’m like that extra wheel that Lefty keeps strapped to the underside of the stagecoach.  It’s there in case anybody should happen to need it, but most of the time it doesn’t do anything but add extra weight to the coach.  I don’t want to be nothing but extra weight.”

“I can understand that and I expect the rest of the family will too, if that’s worrying you,” Adam told him.

“You think Pa will understand?” Joe asked hopefully.  “He wants me to stay, and I’m afraid this is going to hurt him.”

“Don’t worry about Pa,” Adam said reassuringly.  “He was strong enough to let me go out and find my own way when I needed to.  I can’t imagine he’ll do any less for you, and it may help when I tell him that I’ve decided to stick around a while.”

“Have you?” Joe’s somber mood perked up a little at that news. 

“I decided to take the advice of a certain very smart younger brother of mine,” Adam said with a smile. “He advised me to stop looking everywhere except inside of myself to find out what I need to be happy.”

“Is that what he said?” Joe asked with a hint of a grin.  “I thought he told you to find a nice woman who wants to travel the world and have a dozen kids with you.”

Adam laughed.  “Same difference.”  He sobered again as he reached out and grasped Joe’s wrist to emphasize his next words.  “Find your own happiness, Joe.  Go where you feel needed, and see if that school and that girl are what you want.  If they are, then you hold onto them with every ounce of that stubborn will of yours.  That’s what Pa really wants for you, just as Hoss, Jamie and I do.”

Joe returned the squeeze on Adam’s wrist and nodded, afraid to speak lest he lose control of the emotions already brimming to the surface.  He took a calming sip of his beer, grimacing a bit at the taste of the now warm liquid, then laughed suddenly. 

“What’s funny?” Adam asked in surprise.

“I was just thinking.  Why do you suppose it is that I had to go blind before you and I could learn to see eye to eye?” he said, and grinned when Adam began laughing as well.  “I’ll talk to Pa tonight, then start thinking about what to write back to Miss Dobbs.”

Adam checked the time.  “I’d better grab those supplies and get on over to the Ferguson mine,” he said.  “You still want to come along, or would you rather wait here until I get back?”

Joe stood up.  “I’ll come along.  You might have to help me navigate a little, but one thing I can still do is lift boxes into the back of a wagon.”

Adam was glad to hear his brother sounding more chipper.  Chances were that he would still be doing a lot more soul-searching throughout the day, but it had clearly helped him to put his feelings out on the table and make a firm decision, whether he ultimately stuck to it or not. 

Their order was ready and waiting when they pulled the wagon up to the blacksmith’s shop and Joe shoved each wooden crate into the back as Adam hoisted it up and over to him, making short work of the job.  Neither wanted to linger in town, so Adam drove out and headed toward the Ferguson mine.

Chapter 10
Not halfway to their destination, Adam and Joe nearly had their wagon run off the narrow road leading to the mine by four men on horseback bulleting down from the other direction. "What’s going on?" Adam shouted, catching the grim looks on the faces of the men.

They pulled up sharply, and the man in the lead shouted back, "Cave in at the mine! Three men are trapped in there, and we don’t know if they’re alive or not. We’re going to town to get the doctor and as many men as we can to help dig them out."

"Send one of your men to the Ponderosa and tell them what’s going on. They’ll send as much help as we can spare," Joe said immediately.

"We’ll do that. Thanks!" the man called, as all four of them spurred their horses and continued on their way. Adam snapped the reins sharply and the wagon took off again with a great cloud of dust as they hurried to do what they could to help.

There were people scattered everywhere when they arrived, some trying to give orders and others just standing around with shocked expressions on their faces. The front entrance of the mine tunnel was blocked by a wall of boulders and other debris, which was slowly being cleared away one rock at a time. Periodically, someone would call in through a narrow hole at the top of the blockage and listen for any answer. So far their efforts had been in vain.

Adam gestured Joe to stay by the wagon with a hand on his chest then walked over to a stunned looking Lewis Ferguson. "Lewis, what happened? Has anyone sent for Jim Horn?"

Ferguson did not seem to understand the question at first, then he slowly pointed to the mine. "Horn is one of the men inside. He was doing another estimate of the stability of the main shaft, along with my explosives expert, Findlay, and a man named Hanson. I’d been in there myself not five minutes earlier. I walked out to get another lantern and I heard a rumble. I turned back to look and the whole thing just – crumbled."

"How long have they been trapped in there," Joe asked sharply, recognizing the sounds of shock in the man’s voice. He had ignored Adam’s attempt to make him stay back and now he was only interested in finding a way to help the trapped miners. "Do you know if any of them are still alive?"

"I – I don’t know," Ferguson stammered. "The cave in happened about 45 minutes ago. If they made it into another shaft before the first one collapsed, they might still be alive, but there can’t be much air. Ventilation was one of the problems Horn was trying to find a way around. Our torches kept going out."

The Cartwrights’ faces both took on a grim look at that news. It meant that every extra minute those men spent inside was one minute closer to suffocation, if in fact any of them were still alive to care about it. Adam looked around. "Is there any other entrance into that shaft from the outside?" The man just stared at him and Adam reached out and took him by the arms, giving him a hard shake. "Ferguson! Is there another way in?"

The mine owner pulled himself together and his face became thoughtful. "There’s a small hatch around the back of the hill, but it’s just made for passing supplies in and out. It’d be an awful tight squeeze for a man. I doubt you could make it, Adam, and you probably wouldn’t be able to see where you were going if you could. I told you the lantern wouldn’t stay lit as we got further in."

Both men slumped in defeat as the small ray of hope vanished, but Joe’s voice was full of confidence as he asked. "Would I fit through that entrance?"

Ferguson looked him up and down, startled by the question. Joe Cartwright had always been a slender man, but the life he had been leading over the past year had been much less physically demanding than the life of a working rancher. As a result, he was nearly as trim now as he had been at eighteen. "Yes – yes, I think you would, if you don’t mind getting scraped up a little, but you can’t go in there!"

"I agree, Joe," Adam said firmly. "It’s too risky."

"What you mean is, it’s too risky for me," Joe countered, his temper flaring at their attempts to keep him locked behind the door of his handicap. He was tired of being coddled and it was time to show them what good a blind man could really do. "Weren’t you listening, Adam? I’m the only one of us who can get into that mine and I don’t need a torch to find my way to those men. Mr. Ferguson, all you have to do is get me up there, and trace out a rough estimate of the inside of the tunnel into the palm of my hand. I promise you, if those men are still alive, I’ll find them."

"What if they aren’t?" Adam said, knowing he was right, but still not willing to let his brother risk himself. "Suppose the mine has another collapse while you’re in there? You could be killed!"

"That’s a risk you were willing to take, Adam, and I’m just as willing. The only difference is that I’m also able to do it, which you aren’t." The steel in Joe’s voice was impossible to miss. It was the same determination that had always been the defining mark of his personality, and occasionally, like now, a cause of great irritation in his brother.

"Suppose you do find them," he tried again, feeling his advantage slipping away. "How are you going to help them all by yourself? You can’t bring them all out that little hole in the cavern wall. Horn, for one, is bigger than I am."

Joe grinned suddenly and knocked Adam in the shoulder. "Do I have to think of everything? You’re the architect, brother. You figure out how to get us out. I just have to get in and find them." He became more serious as he added, "It’s the only way, and you know it. Those men haven’t got a prayer if I don’t try. At the very least I can bring them some water and doctor them up a little. I’ve set enough broken bones and treated enough wounds in my time to do that much for them. As soon as I’m in, you can hand me a couple of canteens and something to use for bandages. If I need anything else, I’ll trace my way back and let you know."

Ferguson piped up, "I think he’s right, Adam. He’s got a better chance than any man here and while he goes in, you and I can see about finding a way to enlarge that service hatch."

Not waiting to find out if Adam approved or not, particularly since he was not asking his permission, Joe held out a hand to the mine owner. "We haven’t got much time. Mr. Ferguson, if you’ll just let me take hold of your arm, you can lead the way."

Ferguson eagerly agreed, guiding Joe’s hand to his upper arm as he hurried up the slope, calling out for a few of the other would be rescuers to bring some supplies and come with him. All of them complied willingly, not knowing what the plan was, but eager to help now that somebody had obviously proposed an alternative to digging through thirty feet of collapsed rock. Adam shook his head at his determined sibling, but couldn’t help shooting a look of grudging approval his way as he left to help the men gather the supplies. For the first time since he’d come home, Adam was seeing proof that the Joe he’d known all his life was alive and well.


Joe sucked in his breath and wriggled, feeling his body inch a little further into the hatch. Ferguson had not been underestimating the tightness of the opening and for a terrible moment, Joe feared that he was about to get stuck. Then, finally, his chest and upper back scraped roughly through the hole with a helpful push on his shoulders from one of the men, and he was through. He dropped a couple of feet and swore as he nearly lost his balance on the rocky ground.

"You okay?" Adam’s voice called down to him.

"I’m fine," he called back. "Just send in that stuff and I’ll get going." He held out his hands and accepted the two full canteens and a feed sack someone had quickly rigged up with a strap. It contained alcohol and bandages as well as a knife and a few blankets. Joe slung all three over his shoulders and waved a hand to acknowledge the calls of good luck as he turned around to get his bearings. Ferguson had done as he asked and had traced a crude map of the tunnel network in his hand. Hoping it was accurate, Joe started walking toward where the men should have been when the main tunnel collapsed.

He walked for a long time, keeping one hand on the wall next to him to strengthen his mental image of the layout, stopping every few minutes to listen carefully for any sound that might have been made by another human being. He could make out the sounds of shifting rock and groaning timbers everywhere, and in no time he was covered with sweat, a combination of the heat of the mine and his own nervousness. Despite his brave words to Adam, Joe had never been overly comfortable in mines, even nice solid ones that weren’t threatening to tumble down around his ears. This one made him feel as though he might cause a collapse if he breathed too hard. He dragged in a deep lungful of air in response to that thought, realizing for the first time that perhaps it was more than his own sense of discomfort that was making the air seem so thin and stale. If he’d been carrying a torch it would undoubtedly be guttering and perhaps even failing by now. Maybe that meant he was getting close. Joe decided to try calling. "Hello! Can anyone hear me? I’m here to help you!"

He listened intently, but heard nothing. The air grew more and more difficult to breathe the further he traveled and Joe began to cough a little as the thick dust kicked up by the impact of the falling rocks made the problem worse. He found his way blocked more than once by fallen debris and his hopes of finding anyone alive grew fainter, but he was unwilling to give up as he tried calling out, again and again. Joe finally began to fear the worst when he received only continued silence in response. Reaching into the breast pocket of his shirt, Joe felt the raised numbers and hands on the face of his pocket-watch. An hour and a half had gone by since he had entered the tunnel. Hating the choice, he decided that he would try calling out one last time, then turn around and head back if he got no answer.

Joe’s shoulders slumped in defeat when his latest attempt at contacting the miners yielded no result, then his bowed head jerked up and swiveled to the right when his ears caught a noise. It sounded like tapping. He followed the sound, moving slowly to avoid losing the faint sound. He nearly laughed when the sound got louder, becoming a recognizable pattern. One of the men inside was using Morse code! "I hear you!" he shouted, "Keep tapping!" The sound continued and before long Joe had entered a small access tunnel, which he nearly missed due to the fact that Mr. Ferguson had failed to mention it in his quick geography lesson. It must have been one of the unfinished sections that been abandoned when the mine was declared a hazard the first time, he realized. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes!" someone answered from very near by. "I can hear you real close now, but I can’t see your light!"

Joe followed the voice to the back of the unfinished section, where it ended in a solid overhang of rock. He knelt beside a body, cursing silently when he realized he had nearly kicked an unconscious man lying on the ground. He reached out and felt the solidity of another person. The fellow clutched his hand almost painfully in his desperate gratitude at finding himself no longer alone in the darkness. "It’s all right," Joe said, keeping his voice level and reassuring. "I didn’t bring a light with me, I’m afraid. It wouldn’t have stayed on in here anyway, but I’m here to help. I’ll get you out of here."

"How?" the man said, interrupting himself with a harsh cough. "How did you find us? Who are you?"

"I’m Joe Cartwright," he said, ignoring the other question. "Is everyone here? Are any of you hurt bad?"

"I’m Jake Hanson," the man said. "I don’t know how bad the others are, but they’re here and they’re both alive. Just taking a little nap for a while. Not much to do in here, you know?"

His feeble joke did little to mask the sounds of pain and fear in his voice, but Joe appreciated the attempt anyway. "How about you, Hanson? You sound like you might not be feeling so good."

"I think my arm’s broken, along with a couple of ribs," the miner gasped. "I got buried in the rubble when the shaft went. Horn and Findlay pulled me out before the roof fell completely, but they both got hurt before we could make it into this relay tunnel. Horn’s just exhausted, I think, from trying to dig us out, but Findlay is in pretty bad shape."

Joe removed one of the canteens from his side and pressed it into the hands of the other man, who took a grateful swallow. Carefully, setting the other canteen and the sack down at his sides, Joe felt over the man he had almost kicked. He, too, showed signs of having broken a few ribs, and one of his shoulders was out of alignment, but what worried Joe was the sticky half dried mass of bloody hair he felt under his left hand as he gently probed the right side of the unconscious man’s skull. "Feels like he’s got a pretty serious head wound. I’ll bandage it up as best as I can, but he’s gonna need a doctor. Where’s the other man? Horn, can you hear me?"

"I’m right here," a new voice, bleary with tiredness and confusion came from the opposite corner from which Joe sat with the two injured men. "I’m not hurt, I don’t think. I tried to find a way out but it’s so dark in here I was afraid that if I left the others, I’d never find them again, and they need help."

Joe’s opinion of the mining engineer rose several degrees, hearing his expression of honest concern for his companions override his own desire to escape this death-trap he was caught in. "Glad to hear you’re not hurt, Horn," he said. "I’m going to need some help getting the other two out of here."

"How’d you ever find your way in here with no light?" Horn wondered his tone incredulous. "I’ve been in this mine a dozen times and I couldn’t see a damned thing to help me figure out where we are."

A laugh from Joe echoed in the small space as he contemplated the irony of their situation. "I found you because I can see just as well inside this mine as I do in broad daylight," he said.

"Cartwright!" Hanson said suddenly, snapping the fingers of his uninjured hand. "You’re from that family who own the Ponderosa, aren’t you? The one who got blinded in an explosion last year!"

"That’s right," Joe said calmly.

"I heard about that," Horn said in disbelief. "I know your father and brother, Adam, well. Ben has told me about you, and I wanted to meet you while you were home, but I certainly never expected to do so under these circumstances."

Joe smiled. "Not what I would have chosen myself," he agreed, "so, unless you’re planning to stake a homestead claim in here, I think I’d better see about getting you fellas out of here."

"Amen to that," Hanson said with feeling. "I don’t mind working in these places, but I sure wasn’t looking forward to dying in one."

"I’m with you," Horn agreed quickly. "What do you need me to do, Joe?"

"I need you to help me get Findlay and Hanson bandaged up and on their feet, Jim," Joe told him, deciding that he might as well follow the other man’s lead and be on a first name basis. He was gratified by their acceptance of his abilities, both of the men having obviously decided that if he could come this far, he was capable of doing what he promised. It had been a while since he had experienced such faith and confidence from strangers and Joe found himself extra determined not to let them down. "We’d better hurry. I’m starting to feel a little light-headed in this air and I don’t like the sounds I’m hearing from the walls."

Jim Horn crawled over closer to the other men, and for the next fifteen minutes he and Joe worked to bandage the other two up enough to keep them from getting injured any worse during what promised to be an arduous journey to freedom. At last they were ready, and Joe helped Jim get the insensate Findlay up and held in a firm grasp against his side.

Hanson grunted in pain when Joe pulled him from the floor, but he did not complain. "All right," Joe said, adjusting his load so that his left arm was free to touch the wall by his side as he turned around. "Jim, I tied that tether from my waist to yours with a strip of blanket so you can follow me and still keep hold of Findlay. I’ll move slowly, but if you need to stop, tell me. Everyone ready?"

The men indicated that they were and Joe started out. He would have had to move slowly anyway, due to the injured man by his side, but he took extra care anyway, knowing that the others were at a frightening disadvantage in the debris filled darkness. They were forced to stop several times and when Joe judged them to be about half way back to where he had come in, he called a halt for rest and water. Findlay had begun to stir and moan a little and Joe managed to get some water down him, but he was clearly in bad shape. "I think the air is getting a little better," Hanson said, his gasping breath loud in the stillness of the tunnel. "It doesn’t feel as hard to breathe now."

"I think so too," Joe agreed. "We’re getting close now. Maybe another hour or less."

That news seemed to cheer the others up considerably and the rest break ended after just a few minutes more. Joe now had even greater reason to want to get moving. He could hear the crumbles and creaks of the unsteady walls getting more frequent, and feared that another cave-in was certain. Horn echoed his thoughts. "I don’t like the sound of these walls, fellas. I think we’d better hurry."

Joe suggested a reversal of the injured men to spell Horn, knowing how much the weight of an unconscious man could drag on a person. Jim readily shifted his burden, aiding Hanson up as they resumed their journey, with Joe in the lead once again.

About half an hour later, Jim said, "I hear something. It’s kind of faint, but it sounds like pick-axes!"

Joe grinned. "You’re right. Let’s go, boys. We’re almost there." Suddenly, Findlay gave a terrible groan and stiffened in Joe’s grasp. He quickly lowered the man to the ground to check on him, and found the head-wound bleeding heavily again. An ominous rumble suddenly sounded around them and Joe made a quick decision. "Jim, get Hanson out of here, now!"

Horn had heard the sound as well. "We can’t just abandon you here. This place could go at any minute!"

"I’ve got to get this bleeding stopped," Joe snapped. "We’ll catch up. There’s no use having all four of us risk our necks! Now go!"

Horn hesitated a moment, but a stifled grunt from the man next to him as he tried to shift his weight made up his mind. "All right. Which way do I go?"

"Keep your hand on the wall beside you and just keep walking straight," Joe told him. "Count your steps and when you hit one hundred start paying closer attention. The wall will veer off sharply to the left pretty soon after that and you don’t want to follow it. Stay straight until your hand finds another wall in front of you, then just follow it towards the sound. Trust me, you don’t have too far to go."

"You come quick, Joe," Horn ordered, reaching down until he found the younger man’s shoulder. With a parting squeeze, Jim and Hanson were on their way.

"Just as quick as I can," he muttered. He pressed a fresh wad of bandage to the remaining miner’s head. He had his doubts about the man’s chances, but knew that if he continued to lose blood at this rate, they would quickly drop to zero. At last, the flow seemed to slow down to a trickle and Joe stuck his last scrap of bandage to the wound and cut off a strip of blanket to tie it securely around Findlay’s head. "Come on, now," he said, dragging the man back up to his feet again. Findlay seemed to stir at his words and actually began to step weakly instead of just allowing himself to be dragged along.

Joe was panting hard with his efforts, but was optimistic of a quick rescue as the sounds of tools striking rock continued to get louder. He froze when the ground suddenly shifted under his feet. He had been detecting a slow, steady rumble for several minutes but had not realized what it was until the entire shaft began to buck and crumble around him. He lost his balance and stumbled to his knees, dropping his burden heavily to the ground. Rocks and dirt began falling from the ceiling and Joe threw his body across the injured man, trying in vain to protect him from the ever-growing cascade of debris. Joe just had time enough to wish he had gotten the chance to see his family one last time before something heavy cracked against his skull and he knew no more.


 Outside the mine, a dozen men worked furiously to enlarge the tiny portal that would provide a way out for the men trapped in the mine.  Ben and Hoss Cartwright had arrived with half a dozen men to help with the digging, and both had been dismayed and more than a little angry to hear that Joe had gone in after the miners.  They pulled Adam roughly to one side, where the gathered workers would not overhear them.  He explained everything that had gone on in an effort to calm them, but it had little result.

 “How could you let him do it, Adam?” Ben demanded furiously.

 “I didn’t let him do anything, Pa,” Adam replied sarcastically.  “He just did it.  Said he was the only one who could do it in the time they had left.”

“But, Adam,” Hoss protested.  “Joe can’t do nothin’ for those men.”

“He seemed to think he could.”  Adam was angry and rose to the challenge of defending his brother, not knowing if he was doing it for Joe’s sake or his own.  Somehow, believing that Joe could do what he had said he would made the gnawing fear in his gut fade a little.  That was why he lashed out at the doubt he saw twisting Hoss’ face.  “Stop thinking of him as being helpless!  My God, no wonder he was so set on going back to San Francisco this morning!  They still treat him like a normal human being instead of a helpless cripple.”

“How dare you,” Ben thundered, his face going red as his eyes blazed.  “I have never treated him like a cripple!”

Adam would have none of it.  “Haven’t you?  Haven’t we all?  Joe went away to learn to become self-sufficient again, and he did.  We saw it!  But ever since he got home, every one of us has rushed to help do things for him at every opportunity, whether he wanted us to, or not.  He told me this morning that he felt like nothing but extra baggage, because no matter how much we all wanted him here, we didn’t need him.”

“And now those men in that mine do need him,” Hoss said in sudden understanding. His kind face filled with shame. “You’re right, Adam.  Right now, I jumped to the notion that he wouldn’t be of no help to them because he’s blind, even though you told us why he thought he’d be the best man for the job.”

 Ben still looked angry, but an expression of chagrin was mingling in with the other.  “You’re telling me that the same extra effort I’ve been devoting to making him feel comfortable, so he’d want to stay, is what ultimately threatened to drive him away?”

Adam laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Not just you, Pa.  All of us are just as responsible.  Hop Sing is the only one who still treats Joe like he used to.  We all tried at first, but the longer he’s here, the more we all seem to patronize him, and you know how he hates that.”

Hoss nodded grimly and Ben’s shoulders slumped as he replayed the last couple of weeks and realized that Adam was correct.  “He didn’t have to risk his life to prove we were wrong,” he said, his voice hollow with fear and worry.

“Aw, Pa, he wouldn’t have,” Hoss said.  “If he thought he could save those fellas, Joe would have done the same thing a year ago, or five years ago.  That’s just the way he is and always has been.”

“Yes, I guess he would have,” Ben said.  He looked at Adam and gave the hand on his shoulder a squeeze of apology.  Adam understood and told him so with a faint nod.  Both of their gazes strayed back over to the opening in the hillside. “When he shows his face out here, I plan to have a little talk with that boy of mine about that impulsive nature of his.”

“And I expect it will have the same result the last five dozen or so of those talks have had,” Adam said with a faint smile.  He could see the deep concern in his father’s eyes, mirroring that of his younger brother, and Adam knew they could undoubtedly see the same in his.  “He’ll make it, Pa.  He always does.”


The mood of those waiting and working outside the mine grew more and more grim as well over three hours passed without a sign of Joe returning.  Then, a man cried out,  “Look!  Somebody’s coming!”

The Cartwrights rushed forward, hoping to see Joe, but to their surprise he was not with the two bloody, dust-covered men who appeared.  The opening had been enlarged considerably, though it would still be a bit tight for a large man, and the miners carefully hoisted the two men out. Lewis Ferguson identified them with a shout,  “Hanson! Horn!  How did you make it out?  Have you seen young Cartwright?”

The two men lay gasping on the ground, sucking in deep draughts of fresh, cool air while the doctor knelt down to have a look at them.  Horn waved him off as he sat up to answer his employer’s questions.  “Yes, he helped us get out.  We would never have found our way without him.”

“Where is he?” Ben interrupted anxiously.

“Findlay is hurt bad.  Joe sent us on ahead while he tried to stop him from bleeding to death.  Said he’d be right out,” Hanson offered, grunting as the doctor touched his ribcage. 

“How badly is the other man hurt?” Ferguson asked sharply.  “Is he in good enough shape to be pulled through that hole?”

Horn looked it over critically.  “I don’t know.  We might not have a choice, though.  The shaft we were in is getting more unstable by the moment.”

“You heard him, boys,” Ferguson bellowed.  “Let’s get that opening as large as we can before Cartwright and Findlay need it.  Time is running out!”

His words turned out to be prophetic, for the moment the men started swinging their tools hard and fast into the opening, the last remaining vestige of stability in the tunnel gave way and a deep rumble filled the air.  “It’s going!” a man shouted, pulling back quickly as dust and rocks belched out of the hole.

“No!” the Cartwrights cried out as one, watching in horror as the Joe’s path to safety disappeared before their eyes.

The crashing and rumbling in the shaft seemed to go on forever, though it was really less than one minute.  As soon as the dust cleared, everyone went back to work clearing rocks away without a word of discussion.  Hoss and Adam worked like men possessed, and sooner than should have been possible the narrow opening was wide enough for even Hoss to get through.  Several miners followed the two brothers in and a chain rapidly formed, passing rocks from hand to hand, and clearing a path back to Joe.

An hour later, Hoss gave an excited shout as he spotted part of a body buried under a pile of rubble.  Joe had been only about fifty yards or so from the entrance when the cave-in happened.  A rotted timber had fallen length-wise across his body, wedging up against the opposite wall, and it was easy to see that it had been the only thing that had saved his life.  The beam had deflected the largest of the tumbling boulders, but enough had made impact to leave the unconscious man a bloody mess when his brothers at last pulled him free and carried him out into the waning light of day.  The other man, Findlay, was dead.  Whether he had succumbed to the head wound or died of a second injury, no one would ever know.


“Is he gonna be okay, Doc?”  Hoss asked the question fearfully as he watched Paul Martin descend the lower half of the staircase.  The physician had been at work patching up the injured man for what seemed like hours, aided by Hop Sing and Ben.  Hoss and Adam had been forced to wait below.

Paul accepted a cup of coffee Adam handed to him.  “If I ever had any doubt that somebody up there is watching out for your brother, I haven’t any more,” he told them.  “That timber that saved his life probably would have crushed him to death if he hadn’t been pressed up against the side wall of that shaft.  As it is, he’s got numerous contusions and severe bruising from neck to knee, but no damage to his spine or internal organs.”

Joe’s brothers breathed twin sighs of relief, then sat up straight and exchanged a nervous glance when they saw the doctor’s grim expression and realized that he had given them the good news just to soften the blow of his next words. “What else, Doc?” Hoss asked quietly, knowing he was not going to like what he was about to hear.

“The serious damage all seems to have hit his left side, where he had no protection from the rocks.  His arm and leg on that side are each broken in two places, but what worries me is the head wound.  He was hit in the left temple, hard enough to depress the skull a fraction.  I’ve done what I can to repair the damage, but we won’t know if there’s any permanent injury until he regains consciousness.”

“How long will that be?” Adam asked numbly, his mind spinning as he read between the lines of the doctor’s careful wording and realized that Joe’s selfless rescue might very well result in brain damage. 

Paul looked him steadily in the eye, his expression sympathetic but unflinching.  “There’s no way of telling.  I would guess that it won’t be for at least another day, but it may take far longer.”

Adam’s face went pale and Hoss looked from him to the doctor and back, shock filling his own face as he asked, “Doc, are you trying to tell us that Joe might never wake up?”

“I’m saying you’d better be prepared for anything,” the physician said.  “He’s going to need a great deal of rest and care, no matter what, but you have to accept the fact that you could be in for a long wait.”

Hoss stood, calm settling over him like a cloak.  “If that’s what it takes, then we’ll wait, Doc, and we’ll pray.  Joe ain’t a person to give up on anything, and I won’t count him out until it’s all over.  You said somebody was lookin’ out for him and I believe they still are.  He’s gonna be all right.”

 Adam nodded sharply, taking his cue from the fierce determination in his brother’s face.  “If he could make it through the last year, he can make it through anything.”

The doctor smiled at them.  “I’m glad to hear you say that.  He’s going to need every ounce of belief you can muster, but I’ve been treating your brother for too many years to start doubting him now.  I just wanted you to be ready, in case.”

“Can we go see him?” Hoss asked abruptly, not wanting to hear another word about any possibility that his beloved younger brother would not make a total recovery.

“Of course,” Paul told him.  “I want to check on those other men one more time, but I’ll be back in the morning.  I’ve already told your father that I want someone in the room with Joe at all times until he regains consciousness, but it’s up to you to make sure that Ben doesn’t take on the job all by himself.  Spell each other every few hours or so.”

Adam escorted him to the door.  “We’ll do that.  Thanks for all your help, Doc.”

They ascended the stairs together and found their father standing with his back to Joe’s window, arms crossed and a deep frown on his face as he contemplated his unmoving son.  “Did you speak to Paul?” he asked, his voice rough with emotion.

“Yes,” Adam told him, moving closer to get a good look at his brother.  The dirt and blood had been cleaned off, making it possible to see the scrapes and bruises discoloring the swollen skin all along the side of Joe’s face.  His head was swathed in bandages, most of them covering the area around his left temple, and Adam swallowed down a lump of fear as he thought about the terrible wound beneath.

Hop Sing had placed a frame beneath the blankets to lift them away from Joe’s left leg and Hoss whistled softly as he peeked under to get a look at the damage.  The leg was heavily splinted from the ankle to a few inches below the hip and the left arm had been encased in a plaster cast from the shoulder down, but what really shocked the big man was the deep discoloration over the rest of Joe’s skin.  His body was a rainbow of bruise colors, interrupted here and there by a patch of white bandaging, where the doctor had stitched up a gash or covered a raw scrape.  Hoss replaced the blankets and tucked them tenderly around the still body. “We’ll see him through this, Pa,” he said quietly.  “We’ll see him through.”


Days later, even Hoss’ optimism began to fade a little.  Joe’s surface wounds were healing well, but he had not woken or stirred since the accident, lying still and unknowing while his devoted family fed him, bathed him, changed his bedding and periodically rolled him over to aid his circulation and prevent bed sores.  The rest of the family had hardly been away from the house since Joe was brought in, only leaving to take care of the most urgent of ranch problems, and then grudgingly.  Jamie haunted the room where Joe lay, begging for and gaining permission to stay home from school until something changed, and it was only through the efforts of Dr. Martin and Hop Sing that the Cartwrights remembered to take care of themselves at all. 

“I got a telegram from the Institute today,” Ben told his sons as they took a break from their daily vigil to pick at some of the lunch their cook had faithfully provided.  “I sent them a wire telling them Joe wouldn’t be coming back for a while.”

“Did you tell them why?” Adam asked, picking disinterestedly at his meal.

“I felt they should know,” Ben told him absently, eyes straying toward the staircase.  “Miss Dobbs is escorting that young woman, Marie, here.  Apparently the girl was quite determined to make the journey.  Perhaps they hope that Joe may respond to their voices.”

Hoss smiled for the first time in days.  “Maybe, but it sounds to me like she was just worried about him.”

Adam returned the smile.  “Joe was afraid that Marie’s feelings for him were nothing more than a crush brought on by gratitude, but it sure sounds like more than that to me.”

“I’m glad she’s coming.  He really loves her,” Jamie said, munching placidly on a roll.  He noticed the surprised looks from his family and shrugged. “He didn’t say so, but when we were taking a ride together one day, I asked him about her and I could tell.  He had that funny look that people get when they’re in love.”

Rather amused by this pearl of wisdom coming from a fifteen year old boy, Ben asked, “Have you become an expert on the look of a man in love, son?”

Jamie shrugged.  “It wasn’t that hard to figure out.  He got all smiley and distracted-looking, and his ears kept turning red when he talked about her.  I never saw him look that way when he was dating Sally.”

“He’s right,” Hoss agreed with a grin.  “Joe only gets that look when he feels real special about a gal.”

Hope stirred in Ben’s breast as he listened to his sons.  He had not missed the tender treatment Joe had been giving his former student at the graduation dance, but had forgotten about it when Joe failed to mention her again.  Perhaps there had been a deeper reason for not wanting to talk about her.  Ben suddenly found himself looking forward to the arrival of Marie, believing that she just might be what Joe needed to find his way back to them all.

Chapter 11
Joseph floated in a tranquil sea of nothingness.  Care and pain and time had no place here.  There was only a vague awareness that he was safe and loved and held close in a warm, tender, fully encompassing embrace.  There was music here.  Nothing he could have put a name to, if he had even cared to try, but it surrounded him and comforted him, seeming to thrum deep inside until it matched the rhythm of his heart. 

He stirred a bit when he became aware that the voices had started again, whispers that did not quite make sense, though there was something familiar about them.  They sounded so sad and pleading, ragged and filled with despair and Joe shied away from the pain in them, pain that resonated inside of him with the same power as the soothing music.  He did not want to feel the pain, and yet he was drawn to listen, wishing to offer comfort to those longing voices.  They were different now than when he had first heard them.  More numerous and of different pitch and intensity.  The new sounds did not hurt to feel, they were soft and soothing, not unlike the music.  Joe edged toward the sound, then pulled back in fright when he felt a loosening of the protective embrace.

The music changed, and so did the feelings it brought with it.  Joe could feel it urging him to go, to find the source of those calling to him.  It urged him not to be afraid.  He reached out, taking timid steps toward the soft welcoming voices.  He held back, unsure, when he felt a precipice open up before him.  If he took that step over the edge he might find the increasingly intriguing voices, but the safe place would be lost to him forever.  The tender presence surged to surround him and he clung to it for a moment, then gathered his courage and turned away.  He felt the presence shrink until it settled into a small warm corner of his heart, where he sensed it had always been and would always stay until he needed it again.  Gathering his courage, Joe faced the emptiness, and jumped.

“Mr. Cartwright!” Marie shouted excitedly, as she felt the limp hand in her grasp spasm and take hold, pulling against her as Joe began groaning softly.  “Come quick, I think he’s waking up!”

Five men and a woman came rushing in, nearly causing a logjam at the doorway of Joe’s bedroom in their haste to get inside.  They surrounded the bed, all waiting with bated breath as the long unconscious man stirred and moaned again.  Ben sat gingerly on the left side of the bed and laid a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder, shaking carefully so as not to jar the broken arm beneath.  “Joseph, come on, son.  Wake up now.  You can do it, Joseph.”

The rest of the anxiously waiting crowd began to add their own soft pleas of encouragement.  Finally, Joe heaved a long sigh and opened his eyes.  He moaned and shifted, tossing his head weakly on the pillow, his eyes rolling confusedly in their sockets as a pain-filled frown creased his features.  He squinted and groaned deeply, pulling his hand out of Marie’s gentle grasp and clapping it to his head then quickly sliding it down to cover his eyes as he gritted his teeth against an obvious wave of pain.

“Joseph!” Ben touched his hands to either side of his son’s head.  “Son, what is it?  Can you understand me?  What’s wrong?”

“Pa,” Joe gasped, shifting his hand to take tight hold of his father’s wrist as he squeezed his eyes shut, tears of pain dripping down the sides of his face.  “Pa, the light.  It’s so bright!  Please take it away.  Please, it hurts!”

Everyone froze, dumbfounded as their minds began to whirl with the possibilities of what he was saying.  Then Joe’s body jerked as he pulled away from his father and tried to roll over to his right, away from the harsh brightness, a sob tearing through him as his weakened body and fettered limbs made it impossible to do.  Desperately, he moved toward the unresponsive left side and buried his face in the pillow, “Please,” the only word he could think to utter. 

Hoss snapped out of his trance as he watched Joe trying to curl into a ball to escape.  He turned toward the open window and pulled the shade down, shutting the curtains tight to block out the rays of sunshine invading the room.  The result was not total blackness, but it was close.  He moved to his brother’s bedside, gently moving Marie out of the way as he took her place and began rubbing Joe’s back in a soothing way, one familiar to him since earliest childhood.  “It’s okay, Joe.  Ol’ Hoss done took the light away for you.  It’s all right now.”

Ever so slowly, Joe began to relax and allowed his brother to roll him once more onto his back.  He felt so tired and weak, and every part of his body seemed to throb with dull pain, but the sharp knifing agony that had filled his head was fading.  He lay still, panting in relief and exhaustion.  At last he became a little more aware of his surroundings and the gently murmuring voice by his side.  “Hoss?”

“It’s me, little brother,” he responded, continuing to hold his hand over Joe’s heart, fingers rubbing ever so gently at his shoulder.  “Pa is right here too.”

“Joseph,” Ben repeated lightly, also touching his son as he reached up to place a hand atop his head, petting the curls peeking up above the bandage still covering the wound to his temple.  “How are you feeling now, son?”

“So tired,” he mumbled.  He shifted a bit, and his voice became increasingly thick as he dropped down toward the beckoning oblivion of sleep. “Where…where’d they…go?”

Ben’s brow lowered in confusion.  “Where did who go, Joseph?”

“Angels,” he whispered.  “I saw them, Pa.  Mama, I think, and s-somebody else.  Somebody…  Never saw anyone so…so beautiful.”
Ben’s eyes were adjusting to the darkness of the room and he exchanged a puzzled look with his other sons. “You saw your mother?”

Joe nodded slightly and settled deeper into his pillow.  He was fading fast and they had to strain to hear him.  “She sang to me.  Kept me…safe.”

“Who was the other angel, Joe?” Hoss asked, not knowing if he would get an answer, but wanting to hear the long absent sound of his brother’s voice again. 

“Beautiful,” he murmured again.  “Only got a…glimpse.” 

“I think he’s fallen asleep,” Ben whispered as Joe’s breathing got deeper.  “We’d better send somebody for the doctor.”

“I’ll get him,” Jamie volunteered, his voice hushed.  He started for the door, then hesitated and looked back.  “Do you think he really saw something, Pa?  Could he really see the light?”

“I hope so, son,” Ben said thickly, swallowing tears as he went on stroking Joe’s head,  “but I don’t care if he saw it or not, as long as he comes back to us.”

Jamie nodded.  “Neither do I.  I’ll go get Doctor Martin.”


 The doctor listened carefully, wanting every detail of what Joe had said and done during his brief return to consciousness.  “You could understand him clearly?” he asked intently.  “There was no slurring or confusion in his words?”

“He was very sleepy, doctor, so he wasn’t totally coherent, but he seemed completely sure of what he was saying,” Adam told him.  “He recognized the sound of Hoss’ voice and responded when Pa asked him a question.”

“Good.” Martin seemed very pleased.  “After nearly three weeks of coma, I didn’t dare hope for that much.”

“But he was only awake for a couple of minutes, and he’s been out ever since,” Hoss worried.  “Ain’t that a bad sign?”

“Not necessarily,” the doctor told him.  “I’m sure he’s exhausted.  His body has been fighting to heal itself the entire time he’s been unconscious.  It’s more important now than ever that we keep his brain stimulated by waking him every few hours and talking to him.  He may not stay awake for long, but you should make an effort to be sure he recognizes you.  Get him to respond if you can.”

“Would reading to him or singing to him help?” Adam asked.  “We’ve been doing both off and on, and he said something about hearing music.”

Paul nodded thoughtfully, “If he said that, then by all means, continue.”  He looked from one face to another, his expression growing serious.  “What about his reaction to the sunlight?  You say he was in severe pain until you dimmed the light?”

“He sure was, Doc,” Hoss answered.  “I couldn’t say if he recognized any of us or even knew where he was, but he sure did calm down when I closed the curtains.  Do you think his sight might actually be coming back?”

“I’ll know that better when I’ve taken a look at him,” the doctor answered, unwilling to get their hopes up until then.  “It could be that he was just responding to the head wound in some way and thinking that the pain was caused by light.  He may have calmed more because he was responding to the sound of your voices than because of any change in the brightness of the room.  We’ll have to wait and see.”

“Are you going to wake him up again now?” Jamie asked, hoping for a positive response.

Paul Martin smiled at the impatient group.  “It’s been several hours since he first awoke.  I don’t think there would be any harm in it.  I want to go in alone, though.”  He put up his hands to forestall the babble of protest that instantly rose up around him.  “I know you’re all eager to help, but I think it would be better for Joe if he’s not confronted with too many visitors all at once.  I want to do some tests and you’d just be a distraction.”

“Whatever you think is best, Doctor,” Ben agreed reluctantly.  “We’ll be right here if you need us.”

Paul placed a hand on his old friend’s arm.  “Don’t worry, Ben.  I’ll let you know the minute I find out anything definite.”

He rose and went toward the stairs, leaving six anxious people downstairs to wait and hope.


The doctor entered the darkened room, able to make out his patient as just a vague shape on the bed.  He had been out here to the Ponderosa many times in the past month, changing and eventually removing the bandages on Joe’s body.  He had exchanged the heavy splints for lighter ones as the bones in Joe’s leg had responded to the lack of stress placed on them and had knitted quickly.  The wound to his head had also healed nicely, though there was still a protective pad in place to keep the area clean.  Doctor Martin had intended to drop by sometime the next day to take a look and remove that bandage, but now he found himself feeling nervous as he approached the bed.  The physician had been treating this particular patient through illness, injury and a greater number of serious wounds than any person should have been capable of obtaining, over the course of three decades, but he had never felt nervous about treating him before.  His mind flashed back to that terrible day a year ago when he had been forced to tell this young man’s father that there was nothing he could do to restore Joe’s sight.  He had not been prepared to say that it was impossible that he would see again, but as the days passed with no change, he had known it was not likely to happen.  Now, here they were again.  The hopes of the Cartwright family had been raised high, and Paul found himself praying devoutly that he would not have to deliver that crushing news for a second time.

He lit an oil lamp and turned it down dim, placing it as far back from the bed as he could, illuminating the room just enough to allow him a clear view of his patient.  Joe shifted slightly in his sleep and Paul smiled to see such a normal motion after weeks of unnatural stillness.  He went about checking the healing injuries to the patient’s limbs and body, emitting a pleased grunt at how well they were doing, then sat down lightly on the bed to remove the bandage from Joe’s head.  The area around his temple was still bruised and the scabbed over wound looked a bit dry and inflamed, but Paul decided it would be ready to have the stitches removed in another week or so.  He applied some ointment to the tender flesh and replaced the bandage with a fresh one, tying it into place with only a light strip of gauze around Joe’s forehead.  Joe grunted when he felt the uncomfortable touch and began to stir. 

Paul quickly put away his medical supplies and lightly slapped Joe’s cheeks, urging him awake.  “Come on, Joe.  I know you’d rather sleep, but I need you to open your eyes for me.  Wake up, boy.”

With a reluctant sigh, Joe’s eyelids fluttered open.  He squinted and blinked repeatedly, confusion spreading across his features.  He tried to raise his left hand, and looked surprised when it refused to respond.  Trying the right, he found that side obeyed his command and lifted it to rub hard at his stinging eyes.  They felt painful and difficult to move, but with a great effort he shifted his eyes forward, blinking again as he tried to make sense of the fuzzy image in front of him.  The voice that had awakened him droned on, its tone encouraging, and Joe fought to make sense of the words.

“Come on, son, you can do it,” the doctor said, fighting to keep the excitement out of his voice and remain calm when he saw Joe fighting to focus.  “Take your time.”

Joe rubbed at his eyes again, grunting with effort as he tried again to figure out what was in front of him.  He thought he knew the voice and a dim sense of hope began to rise.  “Doc Martin?”

“Yes, Joe, it’s me?” the doctor said, leaning a bit closer. 

“D-doc, I-I think I can s-see you,” he breathed.  “You’re not quite clear, but…”

At those hesitating words, Paul Martin felt his heart soar. “Joseph, I’m going to raise the level of light in here.  We’ll see if that helps any.”

He rose to bring the lamp closer, setting it atop Joe’s dresser and twisting the flame up slightly, bathing the room in soft light.  Joe flinched at the increased brightness and shut his eyes, emitting a sharp noise of pain and the doctor instantly dimmed the light again, so that it was only slightly brighter than it had been before.  Joe nodded a bit in thanks as he carefully reopened his eyelids. 

“Well, there’s no doubt that you’re seeing something,” the doctor told him cheerfully, as he retook his place next to Joe.

Joe frowned uncertainly, afraid to believe.  “How?”

Martin watched as the young man’s eyelids continued to flutter and squint as he fought to make out a clearer image.  His face was pale and drawn, and it was clear that he was almost too exhausted to make the effort.  “I don’t know,” he said honestly.  “You lost your sight following a severe blow to the head.  It is possible that receiving a second similar blow has somehow reversed the effect.”

“So hard,” Joe said vaguely.  “Hurts to move my eyes.  Blurry.”

“That’s not surprising,” the doctor told him.  “You haven’t had to focus your eyes for over a year now, Joe, and in addition, you still have a concussion.  Give yourself some time.  It may get better.”

“May?” The question sounded worried, but Joe closed his eyes, as he could no longer find the strength to keep them open.

“I can’t promise that you’ll be able to see as well as you did before,” Paul warned him.  “This was an unexpected side-effect, and there’s no way to predict how much of your sight will return.”

Joe smiled tiredly, giving up his battle to stay awake.  “If this is as good as it gets,” he mumbled. “I’ll still take it.”

Paul smiled too and waited until Joe was fully gone to sleep again.  Knowing he would not reawaken for some time, the doctor raised the level of the lamp to full brightness again and lifted the patient’s eyelids one at a time, testing their reaction as he moved the light closer and then pulled it away.  At last, he rose and extinguished the light, leaving Joe to rest.  He had good news to impart to the Cartwright family.


Every member of the anxiously waiting group jumped up as the sound of Paul Martin’s footsteps hit the stairs.  They had spoken little since he had gone up, praying that Joe’s return to consciousness was permanent and that the doctor would announce that he was on the road to recovery.  Every one of them had avoided the subject of Joe’s possible return of sight, but no one was able to think of anything else, so it had been a very silent vigil. 

“Joe has gone back to sleep,” Paul told them, not bothering to wait for the question.  “We had a short discussion and he seemed mostly alert and responsive.  He’s still very weak but I think it’s safe to rule out any possibility of brain damage.”

“Thank God,” Ellen said, leaning against her chair for support when her knees suddenly became a little weak.  Hoss was standing with a protective arm around Marie and the two of them spontaneously hugged when they heard the words.  Adam, Hop Sing, Jamie and Ben all breathed deep sighs of relief as their nervous silence of the last hour ended in a babble of excited conversation.

“I also examined his eyes,” the doctor said calmly, causing everyone to go instantly quiet again. 

Dr. Martin paused, drawing out the suspense and then a wide grin broke out on his face when Ben pounded a fist into his palm and barked,  “Confound it, Paul!  Can Joseph see, or can’t he?”


That one simple word opened up a floodgate for the tightly wound emotions in the room as everyone, even the normally stoic Adam, began whooping and cheering, shaking hands, and hugging and pounding each other on the back.

The physician watched the festivities with pleasure, gladly doing his own share of hand shaking and celebrating.  After more than thirty years of friendship, he felt as close to Ben Cartwright as a brother, and had always regarded the boys like the sons he had never had.  When at last the family began to show signs of calming, he said, “I know you’re all anxious to go in and see him, but he’ll be asleep for a while yet.  His eyes are very sensitive to light right now and he’s having difficulty focusing, so keep the room dim.  I’m hoping that the difficulty will pass when he’s fully recovered from his concussion and has a little more time to adjust.”

“Is there anything we can do to help him?” Adam wanted to know.

Paul nodded, “There are some exercises he can do to strengthen his eyes.  Like any other part of the body, the eyes grow weak from lack of use and he’ll need to get them used to working again.  I’ll show him some of the exercises when he’s more fully alert.”

“And in the meantime?” Ben pressed.

“In the meantime, let him rest.  I expect he’ll sleep through the rest of tonight, but have someone check on him at regular intervals anyway.  If you’d like to sit with him, I have no objection, but keep it to one or two of you at a time.  When he wakes next, try to keep him talking for a while.  He needs to sleep, but I want to get his conscious mind working again and I want you to get some good solid nutrition into his system.  He hasn’t eaten a square meal in three weeks, so go easy.  Lots of liquids and just soup or soft eggs to eat; something easy to digest.”

“I make plenty good broth for Little Joe,” Hop Sing offered at once, glad to be able to do something to help.  “Also make special favorite vanilla pudding, yes?”

“That would be just fine, Hop Sing,” the doctor agreed. 

“Aren’t you staying a while, Doc?” Jamie asked in surprise when he noticed the doctor reaching to pick up his hat off the coffee table where he had left it.  “Suppose Joe needs you again.”

Paul put on his hat and patted the boy on the shoulder.  “I’m sure he’s in perfectly good hands tonight.  I need to go back to town and do a few things, but I’ll be back in the morning to run some more thorough tests.”  He grinned suddenly, once more revealing his happiness in the events of the evening. “Roy Coffee, Mitch Devlin and half the population of Virginia City have been in my office asking me for updates every time I’ve been out here, Ben. With your permission, I’d like to spread the good news a little.”

Ben and all of his sons beamed at those words, knowing the doctor would not be saying them if he had any doubts about the certainty of Little Joe’s recovery.  “You go right ahead, Paul,” Ben told him  “Be sure and tell them Joe is not up to any visitors right now, but spread the news to anybody who’ll listen.”

Paul tipped his hat and took his leave, his step mirroring the lightness of his heart.


 As the doctor had predicted, Joe slept deeply through the remainder of the evening.  He showed no sign of waking up before morning, and at last everyone went to bed, exhausted with a combination of relief and the excitement of the day.  Ben and his two older sons agreed to take turns checking on Joe every hour, so that he would not be alone when he finally woke, but as luck would have it no one was present when the moment came.  It was only minutes after Hoss had looked in on him that Joe’s eyelids fluttered open.  For a moment he was confused, not remembering any of the previous day and not knowing why he felt so tired and sore.  Then in a flash it came back to him and he gasped, struggling to sit up, as he looked frantically around the room.  There was nothing to see, only the familiar surrounding darkness, and Joe knew that his returning sight had been only a dream. He had had so many dreams since losing his sight, where familiar faces and vivid colors had suddenly been clear and real again; where he would excitedly open his eyes, to find only darkness and disappointment upon waking.  He supposed he should be accustomed to it by now, and that it should no longer hurt so much, but it did.  The bitterness of the knowledge crushed him, and his weakened body could not find the strength to hold back the tears.  Turning painfully onto his left side, he buried his face in the pillow and sobbed.


Ben jerked awake and jumped out of bed in a single motion, groping for his robe in the darkness, then stopped, confused.  What had awakened him?  He could hear nothing out of the ordinary, and a peek out his window revealed nothing going on outside, but still he had the strangest feeling that someone needed him very badly.  Following his gut, Ben struggled into his robe and slippers and left his room, heading straight for the door of his injured son.

The moment he opened Joe’s door, Ben knew he had been right to come.  He could hear the faint hitching breaths and muffled sounds of crying, and he did not hesitate to go to his side, having no need of a lamp to guide his way.  He felt his way down to a seat on the bed and laid a hand upon his son’s quivering back.  “What’s the matter, Joseph?”

“Pa,” he choked.  He tried in vain to stifle another sob, embarrassed to have been caught weeping like a child.  “I di-didn’t m-mean to wake anyone up.”

Ben continued to rub his son’s back, knowing he would respond instinctively to the soothing motion as he had all his life.  Sure enough, some of the tension left Joe’s muscles.  “Don’t worry about waking me.  Just tell me what’s upsetting you so.”

Joe snuffled, trying desperately to get himself under control.  “I can’t, Pa.  It’s s-s-stupid.”

“Nonsense,” Ben insisted gently.  “Was it a nightmare?”  Joe had always been prone to nightmares.

With a puff of sad laughter, Joe whispered, “Not exactly.”  His father waited him out, and at last he confessed, "I woke up thinking I could see.”

For the briefest of moments, Ben was confused, then his stroking hand stilled and he cursed mentally that no one had thought to leave a light burning in Joe’s room in case he woke up.  Of course, the boy wouldn’t have known that he was simply experiencing the normal dark of night.  “Oh, Joseph, I’m sorry.  I should have realized.”

“But, why should you…?” Joe began, then stopped; a thread of renewed hope stirring in his breast as his father got up, muttering something about finding the matches.  A soft hiss sounded off to his right, then a glow of light filled the room.  Ben brought the lamp closer and set it on the nightstand.  He started to move it to another location when Joe flinched at the brightness, but stopped when his son said, “No!  Please, don’t take it away.”

Ben set the oil lamp back in its place, watching silently as Joe stared at it, blinking heavily, but determined not to look away until his vision cleared.  At last, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, turning his face very slowly toward his father.  Ben sat back down to wait, giving Joe all the time he needed.  He noticed that his son was struggling to sit up straighter and leaned forward to help him.

Joe felt his father bend close and slide an arm around his body, easily lifting him away from his mattress while he settled the pillows against the headboard.  Surprised by how weak he felt, Joe leaned his forehead against Pa’s broad shoulder and allowed him to do the work, nodding his thanks when he was settled back against the soft support. 

“Look at me, Joe,” Ben said gently, his voice warm and encouraging. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Open your eyes.”

Ever so slowly, Joe obeyed. The black and white blur that hovered a scant three feet from his face slowly coalesced into a familiar shape.  One with bright, encouraging brown eyes beneath heavy black brows. Eyes that reminded Joe of all the days of his childhood. 

Ben placed a hand tenderly upon his son’s still-damp cheek, tears of his own beginning to trickle down as the clear green eyes he had never thought to see looking at him again strained and blinked, then stared at him with more feeling than a thousand sentences could have conveyed.

Joe struggled to speak, to find some way to express what was inside of him, but the sight of his father’s strong, care-worn face, filled with tears of joy and love beneath its familiar crown of white hair, stole his words.  The only one he could manage was “Pa”, and then he was swept into his father’s arms.  The final barrier of fear and disbelief crumbled as Joe was once more reduced to uncontrollable weeping.  His father held him tight for a long, long time, while Joe clung to him. All the fear, all the pain, all the joy and even the happiness drained out of him a little more with each helpless sob, until Joe could not have told what he was feeling if his life had depended on it.             

“There, now,” Ben murmured softly, petting a soothing hand over his son’s thick curly hair.  “Everything is all right.” 

Joe released a nearly hysterical laugh.  “It is, isn’t it?”

Ben smiled.  “Yes, it is.” 

When Joe’s tears finally gave out, he fell back against his pillows, utterly exhausted.  His eyes were puffy and hot, aching with both effort and strain, and he closed them wearily.  Ben poured some water into the basin on the dresser and soaked a cloth in it, pushing Joe’s hand away as he reached for it, and stroking the cool dampness over his son’s cheeks himself.  “Pa, I can’t believe it,” Joe whispered hoarsely.  “I’m so tired right now, but I’m afraid that if I go back to sleep I’ll wake up to find that this isn’t real.”

“But it is real, son,” Ben said, his voice filled with understanding.  “It’s a miracle. Your brothers and the others are all champing at the bit to come in and visit with you, so you just get some more rest.  When you wake next, you’ll see them all.”

“I’ll see them all,” Joe murmured, smiling as he finally gave up trying and fell back into a deep sleep again.

Ben watched him sleep; still dashing away tears from his own eyes.  He had wondered if Joe would pick up on his reference to ‘others’, but the boy had just been too tired and emotionally spent.  Ben had been wondering how best to bring up the presence of Marie and Miss Dobbs, not knowing how Joe would feel about having them here, particularly Marie.  Would he still feel the same about her now that the bond of their mutual blindness no longer united them?  Or would she now be a physical reminder of a time Joe would only wish to forget? 

Joe sighed in his sleep, the soft smile settling into a peaceful expression, and Ben smiled too.  He would let his questions sort themselves out in good time.  Right now, the miracle was enough.


The scent of something sweet hit Joe’s nostrils, making him sniff and lick his lips before he had even truly woken up. He opened his eyes, relieved and almost startled to find that his sight was still there, much clearer now than it had been the prior evening and night. Someone had opened the curtains, but left the shade pulled down to block the brightness of the morning sun. The dim natural light was much more comfortable for him than the lamplight had been, and Joe spent several minutes just lying there with his face buried halfway in his pillow, reveling in his ability to see it. Suddenly sensing that he was not alone, Joe lifted his head to look around and rolled over, a bright smile lighting his face. Just as Pa had promised, all three of his brothers stood waiting for him at the foot of the bed, and Joe said, "You three sure are a beautiful sight."

Hoss laughed delightedly, "I never thought I’d hear anybody say that to me, especially first thing in the morning!"

Jamie agreed, "Yeah, Joe. I thought sure you’d say we were a sight for sore eyes."

Hoss and Adam groaned at the pun, playfully pushing and shoving the boy from side to side while he and Joe both laughed. Joe rubbed a bit at his eyes, still smiling. "That too, a little. Hey, what is it that smells so good?"

Hoss came over and knelt next to the bed, giving him a wink as he theatrically whispered, "Adam done took a bath this morning. Big improvement, ain’t it?"

"Well, you’d think so," Adam shot back, coming around the other side to take a seat on Joe’s bed.

"Considering you spent most of the morning cozying up a lot of horses and cows. Joe, if you smell anything sweet, it’s the bottle of cologne Pa dumped on him to mask the odor."

Hoss waved a fist, "Why I oughta take a good poke right at that sensitive little nose of yours, Adam. Might remind you that you got just as much good horse sweat and cattle leavin’s on you as I got on me."

"Yeah, but I wash mine off once in a while," Adam countered.

By this time, Joe was laughing. He knew they didn’t mean a word of what they said to each other, and he could not get enough of watching the wicked gleam of amusement dance in Adam’s brown eyes and the equally playful gap-toothed grin of Hoss. He gladly scooted up against his pillows with a helping hand from his two older brothers, to make room for Jamie, when he noticed him hesitating to sit at the foot of the bed. It seemed to Joe that he had never seen a color as pretty as the vivid rust red of his younger brother’s hair as it caught the faint rays of light coming in past the window shade. He grinned at them all and tried his question again. "What I meant was, what’s cooking downstairs that smells so good?"

All three of his brothers chorused a long, drawn-out, "Oh."

Jamie’s freckled pug dog face lit up with a happy grin. "Hop Sing is making you something special for breakfast," he said. "I’m not sure what it is, though. He wouldn’t let any of us in the kitchen to find out."

“Yeah," Hoss agreed, a slight scowl crossing his face. "Said it was just for you."

"That’s right, Hoss," Adam said sternly "and we’re going to let Joe eat it all by himself, aren’t we? No begging for a taste."

Hoss’ scowl got deeper then disappeared when he met Joe’s eyes and shared the pleasure he felt in their ability to make eye contact. "I reckon that’s all right. Doc wanted you to have something easy until your stomach gets used to eating regular again. I guess ol’ Hop Sing figured he could do better than plain broth."

Joe frowned slightly and rubbed his stomach with his unfettered hand. "How long has it been? I feel like I haven’t eaten in a week."

"You haven’t eaten for three weeks, other than a little soup and such that we managed to get down you while you were unconscious," Adam told him, nodding as he intercepted Joe’s startled look. "You don’t know how close we came to losing you to that second collapse at the Ferguson mine, Joe."

Joe reached up, brushing his fingers lightly over the bandage protecting his temple. "That’s where I got this from? Is that how my arm and leg got broken too; the shaft collapsed?"

"Doc told us you might not remember," Hoss said. "Your whole left side got pretty banged up and one of them rocks hit you square in the head."

"Do you remember anything about it at all?" Jamie asked.

"Not really," he replied uncertainly. "Doc Martin told me last night that he thought I somehow got my sight back after getting hit in the head, but I don’t remember getting hurt."

"What’s the last thing you do remember?" Adam wanted to know.

Joe frowned, absently rubbing his still-tired eyes as he tried to bring the memory back. "I remember going into the mine to find those men, and I remember the air getting bad and thinking I’d have to turn back soon, but that’s all. It’s as if I went inside and then woke up here, with no passage of time in between. Did I get the men out?" His voice was anxious as he asked the question.

"You sure did, Joe," Jamie told him, and smiled to see the sudden tension that had stiffened his brother’s body fade away again. "One of them was hurt real bad and died before you could get him out, but Mr. Horn and Mr. Hanson are both fine. They’ve been out here a couple of times asking about you."

"Them and a lot of other folks," Hoss added. "Doc finally asked them to quit pestering us, but a whole lot of worried people been by offering good thoughts for you to get well."

"Three weeks," Joe murmured, tipping his head back against the headboard as he finally understood why he felt so weak and weary. His brothers did not try to interrupt the brooding silence he fell into, seeming to sense that he would need a few minutes to sort himself out. At last, he seemed to shake himself back to the present as he said, "I guess that means I missed Mitch’s wedding, huh?"

"Actually, no," Adam told him. "He and Sally decided to postpone the wedding until their best man was well enough to stand up with them. Mitch said something to me about not wanting to go back on a promise you’d made to each other."

Joe laughed. "I'd forgotten about that."

"What promise?" Jamie asked curiously.

Joe smiled at him. He often forgot that Jamie had not been present to know all the family stories. "When we were about ten or so, Mitch and I had a crush on the same girl. He was mad at me because we both thought she liked me better, so in the interests of peace I told him that if he wound up marrying her some day, I’d be his best man with no hard feelings. He said he’d do the same for me." He laughed again, seeing in his mind the solemn vow of two small boys who had decided that no girl was worth breaking up their friendship for, but that if either of them should fall, they would find their best pal waiting to prop them up at the alter. "Not that it mattered in the end. She ended up marrying a preacher about six years later. I guess Mitch and I didn’t have a chance anyway."

Hoss grinned. "Looks like neither one of you got the girl that time, but Mitch still wound up with a gal who was after you first."

Adam cuffed Joe lightly on the shoulder. "I’m not sure every married man in the county didn’t wind up with a woman who was after you first. You sure did have more than your fair share of girlfriends. I’m amazed you never got roped and tied by one of them."

Joe shrugged his expression a tad wistful as he said, "Guess I just never found the right one around here."

He did not notice the interest his comment generated or the silent communication that flashed among his three brothers. Hoss said, "Maybe up to now you were too interested in good looks and not payin’ enough attention to the more important stuff, Joe."

Joe did not miss the none-too-subtle hint, and his ears turned a bit red. "I don’t suppose I’ll ever know now," he muttered.

"I wouldn’t be too sure of that," Jamie announced gleefully, but before Joe could ask him to explain, the door opened again and his father and Hop Sing entered, the latter bearing a tray.

"Hi, Hop Sing. Morning, Pa," Joe said happily, the smile on his own face matched perfectly with the beaming expression on Hop Sing’s. "I was just asking what it was that smelled so good, but nobody seemed to know."

The cook shooed Hoss away from Joe’s bedside and set the tray down on his lap, removing the napkin set atop it with a flourish. "Little Joe need good food. Make strong and well again."

Hoss smacked his lips at the sight of the food. "Scrambled eggs, buttermilk biscuits with honey, a little bacon, some ‘nilla pudding and a glass of milk. You sure he’s gonna be able to eat all that, Hop Sing? You heard what the Doc said."

Hop Sing slapped his hand as he reached to try and snitch a bit of bacon off the tray. "Little Joe eat first! Hop Sing make extra for greedy brother, but he must wait."

Joe chuckled. He too had wondered at the unusually large and varied breakfast. He felt a little self conscious having his entire family standing around watching him eat, especially since he found the utensils rather awkward to maneuver with his right hand. He was hungry, however, so he dug in and managed to polish off about half the eggs, one of the biscuits and all of the pudding before picking up his milk and pushing the tray toward Hoss. His large brother easily removed any fear Hop Sing might have had of leftovers while Joe settled back to sip and relax, enjoying his ability to watch such a mundane event.

"How are your eyes this morning, son?" Ben asked him, glad to see Joe so much more alert and at ease than he had been.

"Not bad, Pa," he said. The slightly painful squint and flutter from his lids as he shifted his gaze from Hoss to Ben contrasted with his casual statement. "Everything is a little more clear this morning."

"Think you’re up to a couple of visitors?" Ben had decided that there was no point in stalling. Ellen and Marie had been most anxious when they had asked after Joe’s health this morning and he knew it would not be fair to them to keep them away for too much longer.

Joe was surprised by the question. He had kind of expected that the doctor would probably be back some time today, but something told him that his father was referring to somebody else. "Who?"

Without being asked, Adam vacated his place on the bed and gave it to his father. Ben took the offered seat with a grateful nod. "I felt your friends at the Institute should know what was happening, especially since we weren’t sure how badly you were hurt. I wired them right away and Ellen and Marie came directly out to be with you."

"You mean they’re here, now?" Joe was both elated and apprehensive as his father’s unexpected news sank in. Instantly, all the ramifications of that news bombarded him, making him feel a little dizzy.

Ben placed a hand on his shoulder when he saw the young man’s face go a little pale. "They’ve been staying with us for the last week or so. In fact, Marie has been in here almost night and day since, talking to you and encouraging you to come back to us. She was the one sitting with you when you first returned to consciousness yesterday morning."

There was a warm pleasant feeling surging through Joe’s body as he heard the words and saw the other, less obvious ones in his father’s eyes. Pa believed that Marie cared for him, and what was more, he approved. Suddenly, a tingle of excitement shot through him. She was here! Marie and Miss Dobbs were both here, and he would get to see them face to face for the first time.

"When can I see them?"

"Right now, if you like," Ben told him with a smile.

"I’ll go fetch them for you," Adam offered. Like the rest of the family, he had been wondering how Joe would react to the news of the women’s presence, and was delighted to be able to facilitate the reunion now that he knew his brother wanted them here.

Hop Sing took the glass Joe handed him and removed the tray from his lap, briskly urging Hoss and Jamie out of the room ahead of him. They were reluctant, but knew Joe would likely want some privacy, so they went with calls of goodbye and promises to come back for another visit later. He waved them on, then turned back to Ben, his voice suddenly anxious as he said, "Pa, could you get me into my nightshirt before they come in?" It had just occurred to him that he wore no clothes beneath the bed covers.

Ben opened his mouth to remind Joe that the two women would not be able to see him, so therefore it should not matter if he was dressed or not, any more than it had the last dozen times they’d been in his room. Then he changed his mind and went to get the shirt, realizing that he would feel equally awkward about greeting guests, particularly female ones, that way if he were in his son’s place.

Joe had lost a great deal of weight during his convalescence, so Ben knew any one of the half dozen nightshirts in his drawer would be roomy. To accommodate the cast on Joe’s arm, he chose an old one of soft flannel that had particularly loose sleeves. He slid the garment over the injured arm first, then helped get it over Joe’s head and other arm, lifting him a bit so Joe could maneuver it down the rest of the way.

"Thanks," Joe puffed as he was settled back into a sitting position against the pillows once again. "I can’t believe how tired I still feel! How could I get out of breath over something as simple as getting dressed?"

"All things considered, I’m not surprised you haven’t got any energy," Ben told him. "You were out a long time and you’re still not recovered from your injuries yet. I wouldn’t worry about it."

Joe did not answer. His full attention had just been grabbed by the sounds of soft footsteps and the unmistakable swish of skirts in the hall outside his door. With his vision still blurry at any distance of more than a few short feet, he was instinctively relying on sound to interpret the world around him.

Ben moved to aid Adam in guiding the first of the newcomers to Joe’s bedside. "We thought one at a time might be better," he explained quietly, seeing his father’s questioning look. "Miss Dobbs asked to talk to Joe alone first." Ben nodded, then followed Adam out, leaving his son and the teacher their privacy.

Ellen settled into the chair waiting for her next to the nightstand and Joe held his breath, taking in the sight of her. Even if he had not been expecting her, he would have needed no one to tell him that this was Miss Dobbs. She looked just as he had imagined she might, around 50 or so, still pretty with dark hair and eyes and a very sweet, very kind face, which was now wreathed in smiles as she reached out to take his hand. She looked just the way he liked to imagine his own mother might have looked had she lived long enough to reach her middle years. He suddenly felt very emotional again, and he did not even try to stop the tears that instantly welled up and spilled right past his smile as he said, "Hello, Ellen."

She slid her hand up his arm and shoulder to find his face, cupping his cheek gently in the softness of her palm. Stroking the dampness away, she traced his smile with her thumb. "Oh, Joseph. I’m so happy for you. We’ve all been praying so hard that you’d pull through, but none of us ever dared hope for anything like this."

"Me either," he said honestly, snuffling a bit as he dashed away more tears. Ellen leaned forward and Joe gladly accepted the hug she offered him, holding tight and letting the feelings wash over him. She did not rush him at all, moving over and settling down comfortably on the edge of the mattress to wrap both arms tightly around his shuddering body, one hand stroking his hair. Joe laughed a little and dashed at his eyes and nose when he at last pulled back. "I’m sorry about that. I seem to have absolutely no self-control all of a sudden. I’ve been crying on everybody."

Ellen chuckled. "If I was in your place, I’m sure I’d be flowing like a broken dam."

"I wasn’t sure how you would feel," he confessed, "especially after all the trouble you went through teaching me how to get along without my sight."

"Joseph," she scolded. "As if anyone would begrudge you such a precious gift! I’m delighted for you, and I know Mr. Barnett and all of the others back at the Institute will be equally thrilled when I tell them."

"Even Lily?" he asked, recalling how resentful she had been of him at first when she had thought he could not understand how she felt because he could see.

Miss Dobbs smiled. "Especially Lily, because she will understand what having your sight back will mean to you."

"It’s so strange," he said quietly. "For a year, I dreamed about what it would be like, but I never really believed it. I still keep expecting to wake up."

"I understand," she said softly. "I had those dreams too, for a long, long time, and I can only imagine how you must be feeling right now."

Joe sat looking at the teacher for a long moment, noting the way she deliberately kept her eyes pointed carefully forward at all times, her pride refusing to allow them to unattractively cross or dip down the way he knew his own had begun to do. She looked normal, and he remembered a long ago conversation they had had, where Ellen had told him that she, too, had been sighted into adulthood. Her sight had faded gradually, the result of retinas damaged during a childhood bout of fever, and both the school board, for she had been a teacher even then, and her fiancee had deserted her when her sight had finally gone for good. Joe experienced a great rush of sorrow for this wonderful woman who would never know a miracle such as he was experiencing. He suddenly felt possessed by a need to explain the feelings tumbling inside of him.

"For so long, I tried to tell myself that the blindness would go away if I just waited long enough. Then, when I finally accepted that it was permanent, it’s like I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to remember my old life or not. I wanted to hold on to the memory of faces and colors and things, but on the other hand I wanted to forget because it hurt so much." He raised his hand to touch the bandage around his head again. "Now, it’s all back. It’s not perfect, but I can see! I’m so happy I feel like shouting it to the whole world, but then I think about you and all the others who won’t ever know what this is like and I feel guilty."

"Oh, Joseph, don’t!" Ellen said, upset by the distress in his voice. "Feel joy for yourself. Feel thankful for the gift you’ve been given, but don’t feel guilt or pity because of me! I’m truly happy with the life I have. My students love me, and I love them, and we need each other. You had a taste of that, and you know it’s true!"

Joe squeezed her hand. He did know. He too had learned the rewards brought by giving a part of himself to others. Ellen did not need his pity, any more than he had needed or wanted the pity of others. "I guess I did do a lot of good at the school, huh?" She nodded. "And I guess those miners would say that my being blind was worth a lot. I wonder where I’m supposed to go from here, though?"

"I think we both know the answer to that," she said, her face filled with understanding. "There hasn’t been a day since you came to San Francisco that you haven’t longed to come back here and be a part of this ranch again, has there?"

Joe hesitated. He was sometimes surprised to realize how easily other people could read his inner thoughts and feelings. She was right though, wasn’t she? There was nothing to stop him from becoming a vital part of the ranch again now. His heart surged with happiness at the thought, but there was pain as well, knowing he would never be with Ellen and the others again. He had felt happy and accepted with them and letting them go promised to be nearly as hard as letting go of home had been, when he had made his mind up to go back to teaching on that last fateful day in Virginia City. "I don’t know what to say. I worked hard to become a teacher, and I hate to just let all that go to waste, but…"

She smiled. "You’ll miss us, of course, just as we’ll miss you, but this is where your heart is."

He nodded silently, then shook his head, silently scolding himself. How quickly he was reverting back to the habits of the sighted again, forgetting that she would not be able to interpret such a visual answer. "Most of it," he said quietly. He studied Ellen’s kind face, remembering everything she had done for him, and meant to him over the last year. She had not only helped him find himself again, but had also filled a long empty place in his life. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. "I love you, Miss Dobbs."

Ellen touched his face again, her smile growing tender. "I love you too, my dear, and I’ll miss you terribly, but I’ll be happy as long as I know that you’re where you belong."

"Where I belong," he repeated faintly. He hesitated, then said, "Do you think that Marie… I mean, maybe I’m being selfish now that she’s gone back to live at the Institute, but is there any chance…?"

A delighted smile answered his fumbling question. "It wouldn’t be fair of me to speak for her, Joseph, but I’ve spent a great deal of time with her over the last several weeks. She’s hardly the same girl who first came to us, so shy and unsure of herself, five months ago. Something tells me that it wasn’t our excellent academic curriculum that made her bloom so." She laughed as she felt the cheek beneath her palm grow warm. "Perhaps your teaching is meant to be limited to just private lessons."

Though he knew what she meant, Joe was a little shocked by the hot rush of feeling that swept over his body at the implications in her simple statement. He felt suddenly shy as he said, "Guess she and I have a lot of things to talk about."

A knock at the door interrupted them, and Joe was almost glad when Hoss stuck his head in and said, "Doc’s here to see you, Joe."

"Tell him to come on up," Joe said quickly. His thoughts were in a whirl and he was happy to have an excuse to put off seeing Marie for a few minutes, while he tried to sort them out.

Ellen smiled and stood, leaning over to kiss his cheek in a most uncharacteristic gesture. "I’ll tell Marie you’ll see her later."

"Thanks," he muttered, then sank down against his pillows with a sigh, so deep in thought that he barely noticed the teacher’s exit.


"Hold your head still and look straight ahead," the doctor ordered. "Good. Now, move your eyes straight up, now down. To your left then slowly to your right, that’s right. Now, I want you to focus on the tip of this pencil. Follow it with your eyes wherever I move it. Very good."

Joe gritted his teeth as he concentrated on following each of the physician’s directions. "It’s hard to move my eyes, Doc. It’s kind of painful."

"I know it is, Joe, but the more you do it, the less it will hurt. Your eyes need to become used to moving and focusing quickly again and these exercises will help. I want you to practice them several times a day until the discomfort goes away. Don’t overdo it, though. Just a few minutes at a time." The doctor rummaged in his bag. "I brought you these. They’ll help until your eyes are stronger."

Joe looked at the objects in the doctor’s hand distastefully. "Do I have to?"

"I would strongly advise it," Paul said with a smile. He had been expecting just such a reaction.

"Joseph, there is nothing wrong with wearing eyeglasses," Ben said sternly. "Hundreds of people wear them every day. You just do as the doctor tells you."

The doctor slipped the small round metal frames over Joe’s eyes and fitted the sidepieces over his ears. "Whether you’ll need them permanently is doubtful. Your vision is improving a bit more all the time. These will just help you along for a few weeks until your eyes have regained their full strength. They’re not just any spectacles, either. They’re tinted to allow you to go outside or into a brightly-lit room without pain. I’ve had them in my office for a while, but up to now, I haven’t had anyone need them."

"Lucky me," Joe grumbled mildly. His protest was mostly for show and everyone seemed to know it

"How does that feel?" Doctor Martin asked. "Is the image clear?"

"Actually, I think it’s worse," Joe said, blinking uncomfortably against the wildly unfocused image that he now had before him. The doctor quickly removed those lenses and tried another pair. Though not sure he liked the strange feel of the metal clamped over his ears and the bridge of his nose, Joe had to admit with this next pair that they made everything much easier to see. Even if he wound up wearing the glasses for the rest of his life, he knew it would be a very small price to pay for getting his sight back. The doctor tried each set of the lenses he had brought along, as each was of a different level of strength, and after several tries they found a pair that were comfortable and allowed Joe to see clearly, even across the room.

"Let’s try a little more light," Paul said, nodding to Hoss. He had been standing by, waiting for the signal from the doctor. He put the shade up slowly, keeping his eyes on Joe. Though not as bright as it would have been in the morning, the day was nice and clear and Joe’s room quickly became infused with light. Joe frowned a bit at the change, but did not seem overly disturbed by it, and Paul said, "Leave it open."

Experimentally, Joe lowered the frames to see over the top of them, then instantly shoved them back into place with a pain-filled grunt. Without the tinted lenses, the light was every bit as hard to take as it had been the day before. "Does this mean I can out of bed pretty soon?"

Joe’s father and two older brothers all grinned at that question; it was so typical of Joe. "Not just yet," Doctor Martin said with amusement. "Why don’t we give it another couple of days, at least until I remove those stitches from your head and get that leg in a proper cast. It’s healing nicely, but only because you haven’t been putting any pressure on it."

"Okay," Joe said glumly. Now that he was beginning to feel better, he was getting restless to get out of his room and feast his eyes on everything the Ponderosa had to offer. The almost constant sleeping he had been doing over the last 24 hours had done him a world of good, and the doctor had already decided that his concussion had probably passed, though he still preferred to err on the side of caution. Too much so, in Joe’s opinion. He hated how everyone always seemed to treat him like a fussy child when he was forced to stay in bed. "What about food? I ate some breakfast this morning and it seems to have settled all right. You think I can I have whatever the rest of the family is having for dinner tonight?"

The doctor smiled. He had already gone over the planned menu with Hop Sing, but he was glad to see these tiny signs of rebellion flickering in his favorite and most impatient of patients. "I expect you can tomorrow if you feel up to it, but you’ll be having plain soup and bread tonight, and eating it right here in this room off a tray. No arguments!"

"Yes, sir," Joe muttered. He adjusted the strange feeling frames against his face again and smiled when Adam handed him a small mirror. "Practicing your mind-reading skills again, older brother?"

Adam smiled. "Just a hunch."

Joe held up the mirror and froze, caught in unexpected fascination by his own face. He was a bit shocked by how thin and drawn he appeared, and even with the dark glasses he could see the faint remains of black and blue bruises on the left side of his face. His hair was messy from sleep and looked like it could use a good wash. It had also obviously not been trimmed for some time, and he could see a good deal more gray in the curls that fell limply over the wrapping on his forehead than had been there a year ago. He had not had a shave in quite a while and with the addition of his new glasses, Joe felt as though he was looking at a stranger in the glass. "Not exactly ready for courting am I?" he said blandly.

Taking the mirror back, Adam chuckled. "I’m afraid not. We can take care of that before you see Marie if you like. We’d better do it quick, though. She’s getting mighty impatient with all our excuses to keep her out of here. Any more and I’m afraid she’ll storm the fortress."

"He’s not only a mind-reader, he’s smart too," Joe retorted with a grin. "Are you done with me, Doc?"

"For now, I am," Paul told him. "Do those exercises every couple of hours and keep the glasses on except in dim light. I’ll be back in a couple of days, and I expect you to stay in bed until then."

"He will," Ben promised, giving Joe a stern look that quickly melted into a fond smile as he escorted his old friend downstairs for a few minutes relaxation.

Hoss and Adam went downstairs for some towels, scissors and a bucket of hot water. Then they shut Joe’s door and drew the shade back down so that he could remove his glasses while they worked. There wasn’t much Joe could do to help and he wished he could get rid of the trappings on his arm and leg so that he could at least use the regular bathtub, but that was impossible. Appreciative of his brothers’ willing aid, he did his best to hold still and not squirm or complain as he was stripped, scrubbed, shaved and redressed in a cotton nightshirt that was thankfully much cooler for the warm spring day than the one their father had chosen. Hoss carefully lifted him out of bed and into a chair, setting his injured leg on a stool, while Adam removed the bandage from his head. Together, they trimmed and washed his hair for him. The result was shorter than he liked these days, but Joe felt much better and was honest enough to admit to himself that he had rather enjoyed letting them fuss over him. He nearly laughed in Hoss’ face when the big man began lightly brushing the still-thick tangle of curly hair, his face scrunched in concentration as he tried to get it done without causing his younger brother any discomfort. Joe bit down on his mirth, knowing that it was only Hoss’ caring nature that made him work so hard at such a simple thing, but keeping a straight face wasn’t easy!

Adam replaced the bandage and Hoss put Joe back to bed, giving back the mirror so that he could admire their handiwork. Joe smiled at himself. Though nothing could be done right away to make the image less pale and thin, the reflection was his again. He was relieved to note that his eyes looked the same as they always had, and as he put his glasses back on and allowed Hoss to reopen the curtains, he grinned. "That looks pretty good. I think these tinted glasses could catch on, don’t you?"

"It’ll never happen," Adam told him, privately thinking that they probably would if they looked as good on everyone else as they did on Joe.

Joe took a deep breath, feeling a flutter of nervousness in his belly. "I guess I’m ready to see Marie now."

"We’ll send her right in," Hoss promised, as he and Adam cleaned up the last of the mess they had made. "Good luck, little brother."


Joe’s heart was pounding so hard it almost hurt, and his lower lip was nearly chewed raw by the time he caught the sound he’d been waiting for; the light footsteps and rustling skirt of Marie.  He sat up straighter and tried to get his nervously quick breathing under control, knowing she would be able to hear it.  He wanted to come off as poised and calm, the way he had been when the two of them had met as teacher and student.  After all, suppose everyone was wrong and she had come to be with him out of a sense of duty and friendship only?  Joe was not about to embarrass himself by assuming too much.

The door was half-closed, blocking his view of the hallway, and even though he was watching it like a hawk and had heard the soft footfalls pause outside of it, Joe still jumped when he heard the hesitant tap on the wood.  “Come in,” he said immediately, and flinched to hear his voice rise up in a strained croak.  God, he sounded like the nervous, pimply fifteen-year-old he had been on his first date! 

The door seemed to move in slow motion as Marie gently pushed it open and stepped inside.  Joe’s breath caught in his throat, the same hot flush as before coursing through his veins as she came closer and smiled in the direction of his bed.  A soft noise, almost a whimper, forming something that sounded like, ‘oh’, was all the coherent sound he could manage. He had tried to imagine what she would look like so many times, and had even asked her once, but all she had been able to tell him was what she had been told herself, that she had red hair and blue eyes.  He had wanted to ask permission to brush his fingertips over her face, to ‘see’ her with his hands, but he had not been able to find the nerve.  Now he was glad.  His imagination would never have done justice to reality.

The girl’s expression reflected concern when he did not speak again.  She felt her way to the chair by the bed and sat, her hands fidgeting nervously in her lap as her brows formed a small worried frown.  “Is something wrong?”

Joe gaped and gulped and finally managed, “Nuh, uh.”  He cringed the moment the ‘words’ hit his ears.  So much for not embarrassing himself!  “I-I’m sorry, it’s just…”

“What?” She straightened her clothes and swept-up hair in a clearly self-conscious gesture.  Her motion drew his attention to the carefully twisted mass of puffed and curled hair framing her face.  The sun had shifted until it shone on the wall directly behind her, lighting the soft copper waves in a halo of gold.  Joe knew from having guided her many times with a gentle hand between her shoulder-blades, that Marie normally wore her hair in a plain thick braid down her back, and he smiled, wondering if she had done it up that way just for him.  Her equally coppery eyebrows rose in concern when he did not answer.  “Joe?”

 “You’re beautiful,” he said finally, his voice almost reverent as he reached out to brush gentle fingers over the softness of her cheek.  Marie blushed, but her face shone with pleasure at the compliment. “I didn’t know.  I mean, I tried to imagine how you would look, but…”

“I was afraid you’d be disappointed,” she said shyly.  “Do you really think I look all right?”

Joe’s wondering eyes virtually drank in the sight of her delicate creamy features, noting that her eyes were still and straight, obviously sightless, but a beautiful pale blue with flecks of green in them.  He had known before she came in that he would not be disappointed in her appearance, whether it was lovely or plain, but he had never expected this. “I dreamed of you,” he told her, his voice hushed.  “I was, someplace.  I don’t know where, but it was safe there.  Quiet, with music playing somewhere in the distance.  I saw you, just for an instant before… I guess before I woke up.”

Her face reflected surprise, then she laughed, a sound like tiny bells shimmering in the air.  Joe smiled.  He had come to love that sound during their time at the Institute, going out of his way to provoke it whenever possible.  “Angels!” she said delightedly.  “When you woke yesterday, I heard you tell your father that you’d seen angels; your mother and someone else.  You must have seen me and mistaken me for one of the angels in your dreams before you fully woke up.” 

Joe laughed as well.  “I may have been a little groggy, but it was no mistake.”

She fell silent, blushing again at the sincere admiration in his tone.  “It feels so strange,” she murmured, “knowing you can see me.  I don’t quite know what to do.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” he told her, taking her hand in his.  “I’m the same person I was before.  Just talk to me.  Tell me about everyone back at the Institute and what you’ve been doing there.  Tell me how you got your folks to agree to let you go back, and about Simon, and Lily, and Jasper, and Mr. Barnett. I want to know everything.”

She smiled at his sincere plea, realizing he did not really care what she talked about, so long as she stayed with him for a while.  Slowly, she began to comply, gaining animation the more she spoke, and answering Joe’s barrage of eager questions happily.  They talked of everything and nothing, and hours flew by in a moment, completely unnoticed by the two of them.  Then, the subject of Marie’s lessons with Ellen came up, and Joe hesitantly told her his decision not to continue teaching at the Institute.  “Yes, I know,” she said calmly.  “Miss Dobbs told me.”

Her pleasant tone, complete with a small smile as though they were talking about nothing more important than the weather, completely floored Joe. “I’m not sure you understand,” he said uncertainly,  “I’m not going back to San Francisco at all.  I’m staying here in Nevada, to be a rancher again.”

“I know,” she said again. 

Joe’s face fell.  He had not wanted to see Marie truly distressed, or crying, or anything like that, but he had secretly hoped that she might at least seem disappointed.  They had been good friends, if nothing else, and after talking with her again, Joe was quickly realizing that he had only been fooling himself when he had thought that his feelings ran no deeper than friendship.  Her beauty was only a side benefit; a reflection of the beauty he had already known lay beneath the surface.  He knew it now; he loved her and could never have let her go so easily. To have her seemingly unaffected to learn that they might never see each other again hurt deeply.  Joe pulled his hand out of her light grasp and tucked it under the opposite arm, glad that she could not see the look on his face.  “Maybe you’d better go now,” he said stiffly.  “I’m getting kind of tired and I’m sure there’s something you’d rather be doing.”

Marie tapped her chin thoughtfully, a dimple playing at her cheek as she pretended to think it over.  “No. No, I can’t think of a thing,” she said lightly.  “Of course, I suppose I could talk to your brothers about finding a place in town to live, and somebody to help me look after the place until I get used to being there on my own.  I’m told there’s a storekeeper in Virginia City who has a blind sister.  Maybe he’d be willing to hire me as a counter-girl, or even a bookkeeper.  I think your brother Adam would vouch for my being good with numbers, and since I’d be writing them in Braille, nobody could sneak a look at the books.”  Her smile grew still more amused when she heard him sputtering and fumbling for something to say.

“You, what, um, you mean you’re staying here?” he finally managed. 

“Unless you don’t want me to,” she said innocently.

As depressed as he had been moments ago, Joe was now elated beyond measure.  “Want you to!  Of course I want you to!” he shouted.  “But I thought you liked it at the Institute.  Why are you staying here?”

She laughed and scooted closer, sliding both her hands up to cradle his face.  “Because you are, silly!  I didn’t come all the way to Nevada, and talk you off of death’s door, just to turn around and go back home to my studies.”  Her mirth faded and a tender smile took its place.  “Don’t you get it, you big idiot?  I love you.”

“You do?” He knew that was a stupid thing to say, but his heart felt so close to bursting that he couldn’t seem to manage anything more.  “You’re sure?”

Marie leaned close, moving her face toward the right and Joe thought she was going to kiss his cheek.  Then at the last second, she turned her head and planted a long sweet kiss on his mouth that left no doubt as to her feelings for him.  Joe brushed his finger through the silky waves of her hair, upsetting its careful styling as he melted into her kiss with a soft moan.  When it finally ended, Marie whispered, “Oops…guess I missed,” then smiled and moved back in for another.

The End
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