Thereafter, time passed in a blur for Joe, as he existed in a world where the only reality was pain: searing agony, stabbing aches in his shoulder and hip that made the slightest movement torture and a pounding headache, accompanied by double vision and nausea. Barely conscious, Joe longed for the moments when the pain became too much to bear. It was like standing at the entrance to a long, dark tunnel, then slowly walking down into its depths. Voices faded gradually, his surroundings retreated and Joe felt sheltered and protected from the world.

Occasionally, he roused enough to be conscious of his surroundings, to take a sip of water. Always, whenever he woke, there was someone by his side: his father, Adam, Hoss. It was some comfort to realise he was not alone.

"Lie still, Joseph," Ben counselled, trying not to let his distress convey itself to his son. It was frightening to see Joe look so ill, when just days before he had been racing around, tiring his family with his boundless energy. Now, Joe was struggling just to stay alive.

"So tired," Joe whispered, for even his voice seemed to be disappearing.

"Sleep son. Go to sleep. I'll be here when you wake."

In a world of uncertainty and anguish, this was one anchor he could hold onto. Joe let the peaceful tones of his father's voice sink deep into his soul and released his fragile grasp on consciousness, slipping into blissful, pain-free oblivion.

Paul Martin was dispirited to see his patient grow steadily worse. Something was obviously not right - the healing process should have begun by now, yet the pain in Joe's shoulder showed no sign of decreasing and he was running a fever. With Ben's help, the doctor gently rolled Joe onto his side and removed the dressings that shrouded the ugly wound on his shoulder. The problem was immediately apparent: the injury site was red and inflamed, heat radiate out and the sutures were strained almost to breaking point.

"It's infected," he said bluntly. "I'm going to have to operate again."

Ben nodded, one hand lightly caressing the smooth skin of Joe's uninjured shoulder. "Do whatever you have to. But do everything you can." He looked up at Paul imploringly, and although he could not say any more, the expression in his eyes spoke volumes to the Doctor, his love more eloquent and more telling than mere words ever could express.

"I will do everything in my power to help Joe. But I have to be honest with you, Ben. He's a very sick young man. In fact, he's so weak, I don't dare risk using any pain relief – it could put too great a strain on his system This won't be pleasant."

Ben looked at his son and knew that there was no choice to be made, no matter what pain it caused, to both Joe and himself. He gave Paul permission and prayed to God that he had made the right decision.

Despite Joe's illness, daily life on the Ponderosa had to continue: there were still jobs to be done, stock to tend to, men to supervise. In many ways, the everyday nature of the work was a blessed relief, providing a few moments where sheer routine provided an escape from the sense of dread that hovered over the house like a storm cloud. Adam and Hoss worked steadily, but stayed as close to the ranch house as possible, sharing an unspoken sense that this time the unsquashable, irrepressible Joe Cartwright was finally crushed beyond repair.

A sharp, fierce cry howled across the yard, causing all the men to stop and look up. It continued on and on, piercing the hearts of all who heard it. Hoss stifled an exclamation of fury and belted towards the house, with an amazing turn of speed for such a large man. Adam hurtled after him, ignoring the nagging ache in his back.

"Hoss! Stop right there!"

"They're hurtin' him, Adam They're hurtin' Joe!"

The tears stood out in his eyes. Unabashed, Hoss let them fall, not caring that half the employees of the Ponderosa were around to see him weep. He had always adored Joe and to actually hear his brother suffering so greatly was more than he could bear.

Another cry of anguish ripped out and Adam clenched his hands tight, the nails digging fiercely into his palms, the knuckles outlining themselves hard against the skin. "Stop being so stubborn, kid!" he pleaded in a whisper. "For once in you life, give in! For pity's sake, let go!"

The scream suddenly stopped. The silence that followed seemed even worse. Desperate to relieve the tension, Adam gasped "Well done, little brother. Finally took my advice!"

Hoss regarded him quizzically. "Adam – can't you see that Joe looks up to you? Allus has done, since the day he was born. Plus, he listens to what you say. Don't mean he's too keen on following your advice, but he values your opinion. Still, he's got to try his own ideas too. Wouldn't be a Cartwright if he didn't want to follow his dreams."

For some reason, Adam found himself remembering the very first piece of furniture he had ever designed and made: the moment of disbelief, followed by awe and wonder when the two halves of a dovetail joint fitted perfectly into one another. He realised how the different qualities of his brothers complimented his own personality and how the whole was so much more than the sum of its parts.

"Sometimes, Hoss, I think you're the wisest man I know." He patted his brother lightly on the shoulder and they waited, secure in mutual support and understanding.

"There's the problem," Paul Martin announced with satisfaction, holding up a small fragment of bullet. "This had broken off and was hidden behind the scapula. Now it's removed and I've cleaned out the infection, Joe should start to get better." Relief shone in the faces of father and son.

"Go to sleep, Joseph. Rest now and I'll be here when you wake. I'll be right here." Ben's voice held all the comfort a soul could crave. Exhausted by the pain, Joe smiled weakly and closed his eyes with relief.

Brushing his eyes, Ben walked across the room and leant on the windowsill, gazing out across the trees to the far horizon, where snow still lay on the mountain summit. "Thank you," he said, heartfelt tones, as the setting sun set the sky aflame with jewel tones of amethyst, garnet and topaz. But Ben Cartwright had a prize far beyond rubies, greater than all the silver in the Comstock lode: he had his sons.

"I feel fine and I don't see why I can't get up!" Joe claimed, propping himself up on his elbows. Ben pushed back down onto the pillows.

"You really are the most dreadful patient," Adam observed dispassionately. He bent his head, ostensibly to fit a new string to his guitar, and smirked silently. For all the practice Joe had gained over the years, he was still not reconciled to the recuperation period and hated to spend a moment longer in bed than he had to, except when it came to getting up in the mornings. That was a completely different matter…

"I don't want to hear any more about that subject, Joseph," Ben stated. "You'll get up when Doctor Martin says you can, and that's an end to it. Remember how dizzy you were when you tried to sit up yesterday? You've got a nasty head wound there. "

Joe caught sight of himself in the pier glass and shuddered: his hair was sticking up all around the bandage, in absurd curls and whorls. "Bet Paul shaved my hair off too!" he mumbled.

"Aw, it'll grow back in!" Hoss said. "Sides, coulda saved your life. Good protection, all those thick curls."

"Thick head, more like," Adam said, in low but perfectly audible tones.

"If I wasn't so ill, I'd throw this pillow at you," Joe said, in a suitably weak and martyred tone.

Ben's heart lifted at the banter: things were finally getting back to normal. "Seeing you're feeling so much better, Joseph, how about we hitch up the wagon and take you into town?"

Joe struggled to make sense of this. Despite all his earlier protestations, he knew he was nowhere near ready to go outside, far less travel into Virginia City. "I don't I'm quite ready for that yet, Pa," he said sadly, wondering what was behind this sudden change of heart.

"What a pity," Ben said blandly, caught up in the joke and missing the plaintive edge to Joe's voice. "It would have been a good chance to get the rest of your hair cut nice and short to match the shorn side."

Joe looked faintly stunned. "He almost had you there!" Hoss was spluttering with laughter.

"Your face!" Adam hooted in appreciation, then muffled a curse as he gave over tightened the guitar string, which snapped and sprang free.

"Very funny!" Joe said, suddenly exhausted. "All gang up on me, why don't you?" Despite himself, Joe could hear the grumpiness in his voice and just wished everyone would leave, so that he could go to sleep. His eyelids were so heavy that it was a struggle to keep them open and his mind was filled with the swirling fog of sleep. Not having the strength to fight against this, Joe closed his eyes and surrendered himself to sleep.

When he awoke, the window shade was drawn and Adam was sitting at the desk, engrossed in paperwork. Joe gave a small yawn and stretched cautiously, careful not to pull the stitches in his shoulder or hip.

"Feeling better?" Instantly alert, Adam loped over to the bedside.

"A bit," Joe agreed. "I just get so tired. Guess I've still got some ground to make up yet."

Adam allowed himself the luxury of patting Joe's tousled curls. "Don't sell yourself short, kid," he advised. "You've been proving yourself since the day you drew breath. Now you've grown into a fine man and I'm proud to call my brother."

"That means a lot, especially coming from you." It was difficult for either man to say any more. Adam cleared his throat loudly and turned away for a second.

"Yes, well, if you could just learn to think before you act. And take some advice from your older and wiser brother – never draw your gun before you dive headfirst of a horse! I was terrified you'd blow your head off!"

Two days later, Ben finally agreed to allow Joe to leave his room for a few hours. He supported his son carefully as Joe limped painfully along the hall corridor and then descended the staircase with great care, one step at a time. Despite the help, Joe felt weak and shaky by the time he finally reached the fireside and carefully lowered himself into the blue velvet chair. Ben reached out and pulled the oak table closer, carefully placing a cushion on its surface and then assisting Joe to prop his injured leg on it.

"Thanks, Pa," Joe said gratefully. "Could I have a glass of water?" As Ben hurried into the kitchen, Joe shot a look of pure triumph at his brothers: for the first time in living memory Ben was actually encouraging someone to put their feet on the furniture. Joe intended to savour the moment.

"Remember that afternoon up at the mine, Adam?" Joe asked.

"I can assure you it's engraved on my memory. Which particular part were you referring to?"

"Pa's demonstration with the sticks. We never did ask Hoss if he experienced it too!"

Ben struggled to keep a broad smile of his face. "Tell them about it, Hoss," he urged, handing Joe the glass.

All eyes were on Hoss as he began the tale. "At first, I thought I was plum loosin' my strength. No matter how hard I tried, I jist couldn't break them sticks."

"You couldn't break them either?" Adam was suitably awestruck.

A slow smile crept across Hoss' face. "Nope, I sure couldn't. Kinda humbled me. An 'it took me years to figure it out. Then, one day it came to me in a flash …"

Ben took up the story. "There just happened to be a few iron bars in the middle of that bundle of kindling. I can't think how they got there!" Raising three boys, he'd learnt a lot: when to keep ahead of the game, when to intervene and when to sit back and let things sort themselves out. He counted himself very lucky to have three sons who he not only loved but also trusted.

Adam moved over to perch on the arm of Joe's chair. "Sometimes the end result is worth it, no matter how you get there."

As the fire crackled and the sounds of laughter filled the room, Ben knew that no man could have a greater legacy than he had in his boys.

the end