A Time To Every Purpose

It had been a long, hard ride, fraught with anxiety, but at last Ben was home and heartily relieved to be at the end of his journey. As the familiar sight of the Ponderosa greeted him, Buck slowed to a walk and then halted before the front porch, allowing Ben to dismount wearily. His exhaustion was evident, although anxious expectation influenced each movement. All he knew was that Joe had been shot, then mauled by a wolf and was now dangerously ill. Desperate to discover how his son was and still unsure about exactly what had happened in his absence, Ben merely slung the reins over the well-worn hitching rail, knowing his tired horse would not wander off. Sure enough, Buck simply drooped his head in weary resignation and the tacit acknowledgement that a warm stall and a good feed awaited him in the barn. It was highly unusual for Ben not to attend to his horse's comfort first, but right now that was the last thing on his mind. Ever since receiving a frantic telegram from Hoss that broke the news of Joe's accident, there had been only one thing on Ben's mind – to get home as quickly as possible. He just hoped he had arrived in time.

Ben and Joe shared a special, deep bond that went far beyond the normal love of a father and son. Their souls chimed in harmony, giving and receiving a deep, intuitive comfort that that was unique. While he loved all three of his sons, Ben knew it was useless to deny the special relationship he felt for this youngest child.

"Joe has to be alright," he thought frantically. "I have to be in time, I need to see him, I need to let him know I'm here…"

He did not like to ask for anything more, fearing to tempt providence. Ben knew only too well how brief and fragile life could be. He knew that it took only a brief second of carelessness for everything to change out of all recognition and wondered if he could summon the strength to endure another tragedy.

All Ben's feelings of unease multiplied a hundredfold as he noticed the front door lay slightly ajar. He quickened his steps, fighting down the fear that rose in his gorge and filled his mouth with a bitter terror. From the moment Adam and Joe first announced their intention to hunt down a wolf that was menacing the stock, Ben had experienced deep feelings of unease and even now, now that the very worst had happened, he was still on his guard. Something did not seem right. He drew his gun before entering the house.

A man and a woman stood just inside the front door, huddled close to one another. At his entrance they turned towards him and Ben saw the man's mouth moving, but the words went by unheard. There was no time for such things. There was only one thing that mattered. Everything else could wait. There would time to deal with these strange interlopers hereafter. If there was a hereafter. How could he contemplate life if the worst had happened and Joe was dead? What did it matter who these strangers were or what they were doing in his house?

The world swirled around in a giddying kaleidoscope and Ben found it difficult to remain standing as all his senses reeled. He sucked in a deep breath of air, fighting to retain control.

"Joseph!" There was no answer. The silence seemed to mock the anxious tones self-evident in his voice. Once again, the sour dread of abject fear filled Ben's mouth, but he pushed his terror down, ignoring the turmoil in his stomach and the pounding in his chest that reverberated through his entire body. How could he be so aware of his senses, while Joe lay upstairs, so dangerously ill? If indeed Joe was still alive…

The man walked towards Ben with his arms stretched out wide in a welcoming gesture and started to say something. By now, Ben's patience was at an end: he was thoroughly annoyed by the interloper's over-familiar behaviour. Allowing the barrel of his gun to swing in the interfering man's direction, Ben succeeded in abruptly halting his progress and silenced him most effectively.

"Joseph?" he called out again. This time, he could not repress the worry that coloured each syllable of the beloved name.

"Up here!" a voice called down and Ben hurried towards the staircase, no longer concerned with the strange people in his home. His only priority was to ensure that his boy was safe.

"Pa!" Joe appeared at the top of the stairs. He ran down and grasped Ben in his arms, noting how pale and shaken his father appeared. "What's the matter?"

"Joe – are you alright?" Ben craned his head forward for a better look, scrutinising Joe carefully. A lone tear pooled in the corner of his eye and then slid slowly down his thin, lined cheek. Although his son looked to be in perfect health, Ben knew that something was very wrong.

"I'm fine, Pa. Just fine." Joe said reassuringly, being careful to keep his voice steady and low. He looped an arm around his father's stooped shoulders, noticing how hard the old man was trembling and how very scared he looked. Raising his head, he smiled reassuringly at Candy and mouthed "I'll take care of this" Candy nodded and drew Theresa outside to give father and son some privacy.

"Where's Adam? And Hoss? Are you boys all right?" Ben asked in a thin, reedy voice that was a mocking echo of the deep bass that used to rumble through the house. He felt very tired all of a sudden and let Joe guide him towards his armchair beside the fireplace, where he eased down into the seat with an involuntary sigh, realising just how drained he felt. It had been such a long day…although he wasn't quite sure exactly what he had been doing.

"Adam left home to travel, remember? And Hoss…" Joe's voice threatened to tremble and he fought to keep it steady. "Hoss died, Pa. He died two years ago."

Keeping hold of his father's arm, Joe looked into Ben's eyes, wreathed in a constellation of wrinkles and no longer the deep colour of black coffee, but faded and with a ring of pale blue around each iris. The past six months had been characterised by a slow, inexorable decline as Ben began to retreat into a nebulous world where the past was more real than the present.

Ben shook his head slowly. "I should remember, shouldn't I? How could I forget something like that?" He looked frail and vulnerable. "I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was you, Joe. I thought you were hurt. For some reason, I thought you and Adam were out hunting and you were hurt…" He gave Joe a look of confusion, the pain and terror melting together and threatening to overwhelm him. "I don't know why I thought that, do you?"

"It doesn't matter, Pa," Joe soothed. "You're home and I'm fine. That's all that matters, isn't it? You don't need to worry about me. There's nothing to worry about at all." He took hold of the frail hand and gently stroked it, soothing away the distress, knowing that in a few moments, Ben would forget this latest upset. How delicate the skin felt – as fragile as onion skin, and almost as translucent. All the hard skin and calluses, built up through years of physical labour were being washed away, as wave upon wave of change gradually eroded the powerful man his father had once been. This terrible illness was gradually obliterating all traces of the strong, tall man who had crossed a continent, built the mighty Ponderosa from scratch and raised three boys to become men. Now, for the first time in his life, the independent Ben Cartwright had to rely upon others. It was the final cruelty in a life that had known so many tragedies and had endured so much hardship.

Gradually the weariness of the long day, the presence of his son and the warmth of the fire all worked to ease Ben's worries away and the lines of his face relaxed as he slipped into a peaceful sleep. His lips turned up briefly in a small, sweet smile as a memory from long ago flitted across his dreams and danced enticingly before his vision, always just out of reach. One day, he would be able to stretch forth a hand and clasp his dream, hold it securely in his arms and prevent it from disappearing. For the moment, he was content just to sleep.

Joe sat down upon the stone hearth, watching serenity sooth away the years and the worries from his father's face and wondered just how much more he could endure. He had seen many deaths in his life, but this inexorable leeching away of his father's whole personality was harder to bear than anything else he had ever been called upon to witness. This obliteration of memory was so much brutal and pitiless than anything Joe had ever encountered. He had to watch Ben disappearing before his very eyes, loosing just a little more of his personality every day. And yet Joe's love remained as strong as ever and did not waiver. Nor was there a sudden cataclysm, a frantic, overwhelming grief that threatened to consume every fibre of his being, as there had been when first Hoss and then Alice had died. There was no crushing realisation that death was final and absolute, that an entire part of his life and soul was severed.

No, this was much worse. For now, Joe had to sit back and watch his father disappear, inch by inch, day by day, memory by memory. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that he could do. And, overarching everything else, the final thorn in this crown of bitter gall was the knowledge that things would grow worse, there would be no sudden easy release. Each day Joe lived through purgatory, while trying to keep Ben happy and content. It was the least he could do. It was all that he could do. This was his beloved father and nothing could ever change that.

There is a time in a child's life, when everything changes and the world tilts violently upon its axis, throwing the natural scheme of things into total disarray. No longer does day follow night, for nothing is the same. This realisation comes on the day when a child realises their parent is no longer a strong and self-reliant person, but has devolved into someone who requires to be cared for, guided and tended to. The child becomes the parent and the parent becomes a child once again. This sea-change slowly worked upon both Ben and Joe, altering their relationship in a myriad of small, almost imperceptible ways. At first, it was easy to dismiss the frequency of Ben's memory lapses, his need to take naps in the afternoon, the way Ben was reluctant to go far from the house, fearful of not being able to find his way home again. But as the months beat their dreary way on, Joe could no longer ignore the pounding realisation that his father was failing and growing feebler by the day.

He fought against it, fought as desperately as Joe Cartwright had ever fought against anything in his life. Hard-headed and stubborn, at first Joe refused to acknowledge the gradual diminution of his father, the slow erosion of a once-powerful man. His love never wavered, even as he mourned the loss of the man his father had once been and struggled to accept the dependant stranger who now inhabited his body.

Where had the tall, upright man disappeared to, Joe wondered. It seemed only a few years ago that he would run to greet his father with a hug, wrapping his thin arms around Ben's stalwart legs, which was as high as he could reach. To a little boy, Ben was nearly as tall as the Ponderosa pines that almost scraped the sky. Ben would hoist his young son high above his head and, in his mind, Joe could still hear Marie's anxious voice, begging her husband to be careful with this most precious child, even as Ben's deep laugh seemed to shake the very rafters of the house. And then his strong arms would toss the little boy into the air, so that he almost seemed to be flying and his high-pitched giggles would ring out in a pure, exultant treble, for Little Joe knew he could trust his father to be there, to catch him, to enfold him in his arms and keep him safe. Life was very sure and very sweet in those days.

But those days were gone now, faded into the past where they must remain, and yet they seemed more real than this half-life. Now Joe could easily slip an arm around his father's shoulders, would support him up the stairs each night and help him into his nightclothes. He had become a parent, without ever knowing the joys and rewards of fatherhood, only reaping its sorrows in a bitter harvest, sewn in despair. Yet love compelled him to keep going.