"I sure hope Pa's got the coffee on," Hoss remarked. "And maybe got some breakfast ready for us. I got me a powerful hunger!" His stomach gave a hollow rumble and he rubbed it protectively.

He had been in such a hurry to get to Adam that he had left town without picking up any additional supplies. Abigail had offered him a couple of sandwiches left over from the picnic basket, but as they were cheese sandwiches, Hoss had little compunction in turning her kind offer down flat.

"You eat 'em, ma'am," he said politely, "You gotta keep your strength up." Cheese! Of all the confounded things to put in a sandwich.

It had taken Paul longer than he thought to neaten the jagged edges of the wound and then sew them together and by the time he was finished, the light was beginning to fade. Luckily, there had been enough wood left to keep the fire burning for another night. Finally, they were on their way home.

"I hope mother hasn't had too bad a night. She can be a dreadful worrier," Abigail confided to Adam. "And this can't have been easy for her." She looked more upset than Adam had seen her during the whole period of the accident and its aftermath. The events of the past couple of days had made him see Abigail in a new light. Gone were the smothering attentions that had so irked him in the past. In their place was a calm, competent woman, who had tended his ugly wound with care and compassion and who had talked with interest and intelligence about the romantic poets. And who had revealed a little about how frustrated she was living at the beck and call of a mother who deemed her a failure because she was over thirty and not yet married. His brief glimpse into the real world of Abigail Jones had shown him a woman with many admirable qualities.

For they told you life is hard
Misery from the start
It's dull
It's slow
It's painful

But, I'll tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There's so much more to be grateful

Paul Martin turned around and smiled at her. "I'm sure your mother will be fine, Abigail. Especially after I tell her what a wonderful job you did of looking after Adam." He knew how difficult Mrs Jones could be. And he had been mightily impressed with the way Abigail had helped him as he'd sewn up the wound in Adam's leg. She'd done whatever was asked without flinching or complaining.

It was midday by the time the tired and grubby little party arrived back in town. Judging from the looks they received, news of their exploits had been doing the rounds. Abigail held her head up high as Hoss helped her down off the wagon seat and marched purposefully into her home. For once in her life, she was determined to sample her mother's "medicinal" brandy. After all, she'd earned it.

"Welcome home, boys!" Ben said, rushing forward to peer anxiously at Adam as he lay in the wagon bed.

"Good to be back, Pa! I hope Joe didn't scare you too much with his tales?" Adam was pale and looked a little tired, but apart from the bandage around his leg, he looked fine.

"You don't think I believe everything your brother says, do you? Honestly Adam, I thought you had more sense than that!" Ben reached forward and helped Adam out of the wagon, and once he was standing, clapped him on the shoulder. "It's good to have you back, son."

"And how is Joseph?" Paul asked. "Not been giving you too much trouble, I hope?"

Ben grimaced. "He did give me a good deal of a scare last night when he ran a high fever, but it broke around dawn. He's been sleeping ever since."

"Best medicine he could have," Paul said calmly, and walked briskly into his consulting rooms to see the patient for himself.

"Joe give you a hard night, Pa?" asked Adam, noting the dark circles under his father's eyes.

Ben gave him a steady gaze. "I had more than a few things on my mind last night," he allowed.

"Aw shucks, pa –this aint the first time Shortshanks had kept you up all night and I'm betting and it won't be the last!" Hoss started to follow Paul. "I'll just look in on him, then I'm gonna get me some breakfast." They all knew that he would not leave Joe's side until he was sure his brother was alright, despite the brave words.

Life is full of small incidents that can pass almost unnoticed, so that each day merely seems an echo of the next, until something happens that suddenly provides a fresh focus. It is never too late to stretch out a hand to someone in need or to offer assistance, even when no help is asked for.

"If only I could have done something more to stop the team," Adam said later that evening, sitting by the fire with his leg propped up on an ottoman.

"If only I could have reached you just a little sooner," Joe added fretfully. Ben had tried in vain to get him to stay in bed and had given in with remarkably good grace. There was something very comforting about having all three of his sons in the one room, even if the youngest was lying down and covered by a quilt.

Ben looked from one son to the other. "Look at it another way," he urged. "If you hadn't both been there and acted together, then maybe Abigail would have died? Maybe Adam would have been killed too. Did you ever think of that?"

"We were really lucky," Joe said. "Someone was watching over us and no mistake."

Leaning forward in his chair, Adam clasped his hands together and rested his chin upon them. "I will always feel that I failed Jane Hamilton," he confessed. "No matter what. I know that I did my best and so did Joe, but ultimately, I was the one driving the wagon. And I have to live with that."

"I was the one who bought the horses that bolted," Hoss said. "Does that mean I'm responsible too? You can't take everything n your shoulders, Adam. You continue riding yourself so hard, then you ain't gonna be no good to anyone. Sometimes things just happen and you can't do anything about it. Remember that rhyme you used to say when we was little – for the want of a nail, the shoe was lost..."

Adam smiled as he recalled how everything could be traced back to that one horseshoe nail. "We'll never know if things could have turned out differently, I guess. But a part of me will always wonder."

"The pair of you saved Abigail Jones' life out there," Ben said. "And I'm very proud of you both. Just as I've always been proud of each of my boys. But the way you and Joe worked together, that makes me know that, whatever else I've done in this life, I've brought up some fine young men. And I wouldn't change a single thing about any of you. Not one single thing."

The brothers looked at one another and, for the first time since the accident, they relaxed a little.

So, who will you believe?
Who will you listen to?
Who will it be?
Because it's high time that you decide
It's time to make up your own
your own state of mind

Hoss stretched and let out a mighty yawn. "It's been a long day. And I guess I'll be pulling triple duty on the chores for a while. I'm just gonna have a little snack then get off to bed."

Ben patted him on the shoulder in a consoling fashion. "I'm proud of you, Hoss!" It was good to know that each of his sons would willingly shoulder responsibility, would pick of the slack without being asked, would simply do what needed to be done. Three very different individuals, they were also a seamless unit, each gaining strength and insight from the others.

Later on that evening, Ben did the familiar rounds of the house, just as he did every single night: checking the doors were all locked and the fires were banked down safely for the night. After that he moved upstairs and looked in on each of his sons as they lay sleeping in their beds. Although they were grown men, they were still his boys and he would never stop worrying about then.

"Someone was looking out for you, Adam," he whispered into the darkness. "And I'm very grateful for that. And I know you will never stop trying to help others, no matter what. I've always known that. You are a fine man, my son." He closed the bedroom door softly and moved on.

A steady rumble of snoring emanated from Hoss' room and as Ben peeked in, he could see a large piece of pie sitting on the bedside table. Hoss was a great believer in staving off any possible hunger pangs. He was still smiling as he shut the door, knowing that by the time Hoss came downstairs in the morning, the pie would be long gone.

The curtains were not drawn in Joe's room and a thin sliver of moonlight cast a silver shadow on the floor. As usual the bedclothes were in a tangle and Ben moved silently forward to pull them up over the sleeping figure. He caught sight of the sling and once again felt such a profound sense of relief that it almost took his breath away. Things could have been so very different, after all. But everything was alright. His sons were all home and they were alright.

"You did well, Joe," he said in an undertone. "You saved your brother's life. Thank you."

For a moment, Ben stood at the side of the bed and watched as the moonlight played across Joe's smooth cheek. He stood there, watching Joe sleep and wishing he was able to stop him from being hurt. Joe would always be his youngest son and a father's protective instincts were never far from the surface. With Adam and Hoss, he had had to let go, just a little – but he had never quite managed to do that with Joe. "Just be careful, son. You've only got one guardian angel and he's been pulling awful long shifts recently." Still asleep, Joe gave a small grunt and settled himself more comfortably.

By now, the house was growing chilly and Ben felt bone-weary. It had been a long, emotionally draining few days and now was time he was in his own bed, he realised. After turning down the covers, he knelt down at the side of the bed and bowed his head, offering up a heartfelt a prayer.

"There sure was someone looking after my boys. Thank you for that. Thank you for bringing them home to me, safe and sound. Thank you."

Mere words could never express his gratitude. He had such a lot to be thankful for.

And with that thought, Ben Cartwright reached across and turned down the lamp, plunging the room into a soft darkness that encompassed him like a blanket. He turned over onto his side and settled gracefully into a well-deserved sleep. Life could be very hard, but it could also be very sweet.

Oh, they told you that life is long
Be thankful when it's done
Don't ask for more
be grateful

But, I'll tell you life is short
Be thankful
Because before you know
It will be over
'Cause life is sweet
Life is, oh, so very short...
And life is sweet.

The lyrics from "Life is Sweet" belong to Natalie Merchant.