One week later, Joe alighted slowly from the railroad depot in Calistoga and walked painfully up the main street to the Hot Springs Hotel, a porter trundling along behind with his baggage. The journey had been comfortable enough, but now he was exhausted and just wanted to collapse into bed and sleep. If the pain in his leg would let him. It was much hotter here than at home, and the crutches dug painfully into his armpits.

"Last chance," he thought bitterly. "This is the end of the road as far as I can see. If this doesn't work…"

A plume of steam rising into the clear skies caught his attention and Joe halted to get a better view. "What's that?" he asked curiously, intrigued despite his tiredness. "One of the hot springs?"

"Sure is," the porter agreed excitedly. He looked no more than 15 and Joe made a note to tip the boy well. "Comes straight up from the centre of the earth, it does! They say the water's near boiling! All sorts of folks come here." He looked curiously at Joe. "That what you're doing here, mister? Come to take the waters?"

"That's why I'm here," Joe agreed wryly. He didn't hold out much hope, but then it couldn't do any harm, could it? And by now he was willing to try anything, if it would give him a chance to regain even a little normality.

The next morning he awoke to a clear, cloudless California morning and choked down breakfast in his room before making his way to the bathing house reserved for male patrons of the hotel. An assistant laid a pile of towels and a pair of linen drawers in a changing cubicle.

"Just call when you are ready sir, and I will escort you to the hot springs and we can begin your course of treatment," he announced.

Joe regarded him with astonishment. "Treatment?" he echoed.

The man nodded gravely. "I have detailed instructions from Doctor Paul Martin and am here to give you every possible assistance, sir," he informed his patient, nodding his head for emphasis.

"And does the treatment include some of that wine I've been hearing about?" Joe asked, a trace of his old humour creeping back into his voice.

"I'm sure that can be arranged, sir. Later, if you get my meaning. But, first things first!" Joe found himself ushered into the cubicle and began changing. The encounter had cheered him up – perhaps things were not going to quite so bad here as he had envisaged!

To his surprise, Joe discovered there were several other patients enjoying the healing geothermal waters. The small pavilion shielded them from the gaze of any onlookers, yet provided ample ventilation.

"Rheumatics," an elderly man, with an impressive waistline stated impressively. "I'm a positive martyr to rheumatics. These waters are the only things that help me."

Joe nodded gravely and eased himself into the bubbling waters, while his assistant propped his crutches up against a wall.

"Just relax for a while sir, and then we will begin our programme," his new mentor advised.

Joe was quite happy to do just that. He could almost feel the weary, heavy feeling begin to leech from his bones and he closed his eyes, listening contentedly to the chatter that went on around him. All too soon, the assistant returned. He had changed into the same sort of linen drawers all the men were wearing and entered the pool to sit beside Joe.

"If you will allow me, sir," he began formally.

Joe flashed a smile at him. "My name is Joe. I would like it if you would call me that. Is that alright?"

"Perfectly fine, sir, err Joe! And my name is Tom."

"Okay Tom, do your worst!" Joe instructed, rather dreading what would happen next. Since the accident, he hated anybody touching his foot and even avoided touching it himself whenever he could. It felt cold and alien, and the sensation of touching the puffy, swollen flesh repulsed him. Tom reached down and gently raised the damaged foot and began gently massaging and kneading, manipulating the bones infinitesimally.

"This is the first stage, Joe," Tom said quietly. "Just small, gentle movements. Your foot – well, it's as if the bones are glued together, and that's one reason why you can't use it properly. So that's what we'll do to begin with."

"That's fine by me, Tom." There was a little discomfort, Joe found, but no more than that. Gradually, he began to relax and let Tom and the healing waters do their work. It wasn't nearly as bad as he had feared.

After a few days, Joe could feel the difference in his foot. It felt, well, looser somehow. The bruising was finally starting to retreat and his toes were pink, instead of a dead, pallid bluey-white.

"Everything is going just as it should," Tom assured him. "I think we can progress to the next part of the treatment now."

Joe glared at him and then burst out laughing at the man's astonished expression. "On one condition Tom. That you join me for dinner tonight. The waiter has recommended a rather nice bottle of wine and I don't fancy drinking it all on my own. Do we have a deal?"

"I think that can be arranged. In fact, it would be my pleasure." And then Tom began to instruct Joe through a series of exercises, designed to increase the flexibility of his foot.


Over the next month, Joe spent several hours a day in the hot springs, dutifully carrying out his exercises. He no longer needed Tom's assistance, but by now the two men had become friends and would meet in the evenings, working their way steadily through the produce of the local wineries.

Dear Pa, Adam and Hoss

As the weeks pass, I find myself enjoying this part of the world more and more. The weather is beautiful and I do not miss our Washoe zephyrs at all!

I am continuing with my treatments and have much less pain now. The Wappo Indians sure found a good thing with these hot springs. I just wish we had something like them at home. Tom continues to help me and has become a real friend.

I miss you all very much

Your loving son and brother

Joe

"Another letter that says precisely nothing!" Adam fumed impotently. "Wait till I get my hands on that little…"

Ben gave him a reproving look. "Perhaps your brother doesn't actually have any real progress to report?" he suggested and watched Adam's anger subside rapidly.

Hoss picked up the brief letter and studied it carefully. "Joe sure seems to like that little town a lot. You don't think he's decided to stay there, do you?"

This was precisely what Ben was dreading. Everything about Calistoga seemed to appeal to Joe and the boy certainly seemed happier. And if it was doing him good, then how could he in all conscience refuse to let him stay? Yet without Joe, the house did not seem complete, the family was at best disjointed, at worst fractured. He missed Joe more than he would ever have thought possible. Shaking his head sadly, Ben strapped on his gunbelt.

"Come on boys, we've got supplies to pick up in town." There was no sense in dwelling upon imponderables. It was much better to keep busy. He could think about all this at night, when the house was quiet and his thoughts could fly across the many miles to his missing son.

After placing their order at the General Mercantile, Adam led the way to the Silver Dollar, hoping that being among company would ease the pall of gloom that hung over them.

"Did you ever collect that bandana?" Hoss asked, with an innocent expression that fooled no one. Adam snorted and applied himself to his beer, while Ben surveyed the busy saloon with interest.

"The redheaded saloon girl, was it? Pretty little thing, with blue eyes, standing over by the piano?" he enquired mildly. Before Adam could answer, the doors swung open and a clerk rushed over to their table.

"This arrived for you, Mr Cartwright. Special delivery, so I brought it straight over."

He held out an envelope, with "Benjamin Cartwright" written in Joe's distinctive handwriting. With trembling hands, Ben tore it open and pulled out the contents.

"That's Joe!" Hoss exclaimed, leaning close to study the photograph carefully. "All duded up, real fancy like!"

Ben surveyed the picture with growing dismay. Joe was wearing a smart, city suit, leaning lightly on a malacca cane and casually doffing a bowler hat in a gesture towards the camera. A small smile curved his lips and across the bottom of the picture he had written, "Be seeing you."

"That's it?" Adam demanded. "That's all?"

"That's all," Ben agreed, unable to tear his gaze away from the picture.

"He's gone?" Hoss could scarcely bring himself to say the words, but someone had to.

"It looks like it," Ben said, wondering why the noise in the saloon had suddenly quietened. He saw the clerk was still standing at the table and then realised the man was waiting to be paid. Ben had started to fumble in his vest pocket for some change when the clerk interrupted.

"That ain't the whole of the delivery. There's something else waiting outside for you."

Ben carefully placed the photograph back in the envelope, tucked it into his breast pocket and wandered drearily over to the doorway. The sunlight pouring down outside was very bright and it took his eyes a few moments to adjust. Paul wandered over to join him.

"That special delivery you just got, Ben? It was a very special delivery indeed. In fact, it was brought in person."

Paul gestured across the street, to where a man dressed in a dove-grey suit stood with his back to them. He turned slowly around and gravely raised his hat in a salute. The sun glinted off dark, chestnut curls and there was a flash of tourmaline green from the man's eyes. Ben found that he was holding his breath.

With slow, deliberate movements, Joe stepped carefully off the sidewalk, leaning on his cane and walked towards them, the highly polished ox-blood boots sending the dust rising in small puffs with each footstep. All time seem to coalesce into that moment, the normal noise and hubbub retreated into the distance as the Cartwrights stood rooted to the spot, scarcely able to believe what was happening. Joe bestowed his old, familiar grin, the one that signalled pure joy and merriment. It had been a long time since any of them had been treated to that spectacle. Then he tucked the cane under his arm with a jaunty air, lengthened his stride and was standing before them in a few steps.

"Joseph?" Ben reached out and touched him gently on the arm, scarcely dare to hope or believe that he was not dreaming. Then he leant forward and pulled him into an embrace, hugging his boy as if he would never let him go. Joe leant gratefully into his father's broad chest, savouring the warmth, security and absolute acceptance that was always there.

After a moment, Ben stepped back, holding Joe's face between his big, warm hands and studying him carefully. For some reason, his gaze dropped down to the boots and at that moment he finally realised that his boy was indeed home, whole and healed.

"I'm back, Pa," Joe assured him. "Back home, where I belong."

Tears filling his eyes, Ben pressed his hand against the pocket where the precious photograph lay and willingly surrendered Joe to the welcome attentions of his brothers, watching in amusement as his curly head almost disappeared in the melee. How many times had he tempted the stars, only to be rewarded with a fate that was beyond compare?

Joe emerged from the backslaps and hugs, looking rather ruffled around the head. "Can we go home now, Pa?" he asked.

"Are you ready?" Ben enquired.

Joe returned his gaze steadily. "Yes. I'm ready. I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be, or where I truly belong."

"Then we'll go home," Ben agreed.

They walked along the street, Adam's arm draped lightly across Joe's shoulders, while Hoss walked on Joe's other side, carrying his bags. As Ben watched, Adam pulled Joe in for a brief but telling hug. His family had survived many perilous journeys but the one they were about to make, along the familiar roads to the Ponderosa was perhaps the most important of them all, for it led them home. There were many journeys that lay ahead in the future, he was certain of that, but he knew that they could survive these, if they held together as a family. Over the past few months, Joe had had to travel alone, but it had been a journey to remember and to give thanks for. And the rest? The rest simply did not matter, now that Joe was home. Nothing else mattered, apart from that. It would be foolish to tempt fate again.

That night, Ben sat alone, underneath the sere gaze of the stars, mutely offering his heart-felt thanks. His boy was home and life was complete once more. He raised his glass of port in a silent toast to all his sons. "My cup overflows," he thought gratefully. After a few moments of reflection, Ben went quietly inside, drawing the door closed behind him.