To Set it Right (by debpet)

Summary:  Feeling responsible for devastating injuries suffered by Adam, Joe wants nothing more than to go back and change what happened…to set it right.  But even if he should miraculously be given that chance, can he make it count?

Rated: T  WC  9300

To Set it Right

PART I: YOU CAN COUNT ON IT.

“Hey, Adam, slow down a minute, will you?” Joe Cartwright called out as he hastened to catch up to his older brother.

Adam was striding down the sidewalk at a quick, purposeful pace, his feet playing a steady beat on the boards. Hearing the voice behind him, he stopped and turned to await his brother with a slightly impatient expression.

“Joe, what are you doing trailing after me on my errands this morning? I thought you had something you wanted to do yourself, since you cajoled Pa into letting you stay in town with him and me last night instead of going home with Hoss after Roy’s birthday party.”

“Well I just thought I’d see if I could do anything to help you first,” Joe replied. “You and Pa had a lot of things to get done in town today, which is why you decided to stay overnight after the party in the first place. So if there’s anything you want me to do…”

“Are you sure you weren’t just trying to get out of doing chores around the ranch this morning…leaving the whole job to Hoss? I don’t think he was too pleased when he found you weren’t going back to the ranch with him.” Adam cocked an eyebrow at his brother, challenging him to deny it. Not surprisingly, Joe took offense.

“That’s not fair, Adam! I want to help. But it seems like you’re not interested in asking me to do anything!”

Adam paused for a moment to close his eyes and and rub the spot above his nose with his fingers as though trying to ease a headache. “Look, Joe,” he finally said, “right now I need to meet Pa and Mr. Sandoval at the lawyer’s office to witness the agreement adjusting the line between our properties that they’ve been working on. There’s nothing for you to do at that meeting. Then Pa and I have to pick up a few things at the General Store, and we don’t need any help with that. So why don’t you just go and do whatever it is you wanted to do and meet us at the livery stable when it’s time to go home?”

Joe’s irritation quickly changed to amiable satisfaction.. “Sounds good, Adam. Actually, I wanted to stop by the gun shop and check out some new models that I heard Mr. Dickson got in.”

“That’s fine, Joe,” Adam responded. “Just be sure to be at the livery at noon. Pa wants to get started home in good time. There’s a lot to get done around home this afternoon.” He raised an admonishing finger in Joe’s direction. “Now don’t be late,” he concluded in an authoritative voice.

“I’l be there,” Joe assured him, a little impatiently. “I promise. You can count on it.”

“I hope so.” Adam opined as he turned and resumed his way briskly down the sidewalk.

Joe watched him for a minute, then glanced over at the clock on the facade of the bank. It was a few minutes before eleven. That gave him a full hour to do whatever he wanted. More than enough time to visit the gun shop. He was just beginning to consider what else he might fit into the hour when his eye caught sight of someone on the opposite side of the street. Suddenly breaking out into a grin he dashed across the street, barely remembering to look out for horses and buggies.

“Elyse!” he called out.

The lovely young lady whose attention he was trying to catch turned her head at the sound and spied him. With a smile she stopped and waited for him. Joe stepped up on the sidewalk and approached her with his hand extended. Elyse raised her hand, allowing Joe to grasp it and bring it to his lips in a gallant greeting

“Elyse, it’s wonderful to see you. When did you get back in town? And how’s your grandmother doing?”

Elyse Davies was the girl that Joe had been keeping company with for a couple of months when her family had been suddenly called out of town to attend her maternal grandmother, who had taken seriously ill. She had not been able to tell Joe how long they might be gone. He had been missing her, and encountering her so unexpectedly this morning was a pleasant surprise.

“It’s great to see you too, Joe,” she replied. “Father and I just got back yesterday. Mother decided to stay with Grandma a little while longer She’s doing much better, thankfully. She was having some trouble with her heart, but the doctor thinks he’s found the right medication to stabilize her and he says she should be all right as long as she takes things easy. Grandma doesn’t like that idea, but she has a wonderful servant who’s been with her forever and knows how to keep her in line .”

“Sounds like our Hop Sing,” Joe mused. As he listened to Elyse’s recital of her grandmother’s condition Joe stepped back and ran his eyes over her from head to toe. He admired her shining dark hair, drawn back and tied to allow sausage curls to tumble down the back of her head. Her large brown eyes and bright smile gave promise of a warm personality. Her willowy figure held an allure that she seemed almost unaware of. Her simple floral print dress made her appear cool and fresh.

“I have to say you really look lovely today, Elyse,” Joe said, causing her to blush. He closed his eyes and inhaled briefly. “And that scent you’re wearing…it’s beautiful. What is that?”

“Silly goose,” Elyse laughed. “That’s the perfume you gave me for my birthday…as you know very well.” She looked at him with a mischievous glint in her eye. “That was quite an extravagant gift. I think it made my parents wonder a little about your intentions.”

“Well you can assure them that they have nothing to worry about,” Joe responded, echoing her laugh. “Despite any rumors to the contrary, I’m actually a perfect gentleman.”

“Really?” Elyse pouted in mock disappointment and Joe laughed again.

Then his expression changed as an idea occurred to him. “Say, Elyse, I was planning to drop by the gun shop, but since we happened to meet this way….how would you like to have some pie and coffee over at Miss Mamie’s, my treat, and just talk for a while?”

“I’d love to, Joe.”

“Great. Let’s go.” Joe offered her his arm, she took it, and together they set off happily down the sidewalk.

Miss Mamie’s was not yet crowded with it’s usual lunchtime clientele, and they were able to be seated without any delay. Joe ordered apple pie and Elyse ordered blueberry. Very soon they were deeply absorbed in their conversation. Time passed, more quickly than either of them was aware of. Joe didn’t even notice the clock on the wall opposite as the minute hand moved steadily toward the hour.

***

Over in the livery stable young Terry Walters glanced around to make sure that no one was observing him, then slipped into an unoccupied stall and fumbled in a pocket for his pipe. Walters had been hired as a groom only a week ago. He had been given a stern lecture on the rules forbidding smoking at any time in the stable. He was aware of the dangers. He knew that if he was seen it would mean his immediate dismissal. But dammit, he just had to have his smoke! He quickly found a match and lit the pipe. But no sooner had he taken a few soothing puffs then he heard the voice of the manager Lucas Brand calling out impatiently “Walters? Walters, where are you? I need you out front…right now!”

“Coming, Mr. Brand!” Walters called back. With a sigh he laid the pipe on a small shelf sticking out from the wall and hurried off to obey his boss. He had only just disappeared when the pipe slipped off of the shelf and fell into the straw on the floor of the stall. A couple of minutes later the straw began to smolder.

 

PART 2 – PA…IT’S JOE

When Ben and Adam Cartwright emerged from the General Store into the heat of the July day there were frowns on both their faces. Ben turned angrily to face his son.

“When I get a hold of that younger brother of yours….” He clenched his hands. “He is going to pay me back DOUBLE for every item he’s charged to the Ponderosa account without my approval. I can’t believe that Walt simply accepted Joseph’s word that he was authorized to charge things like an expensive bottle of perfume. What was he thinking?”

Adam’s expression turned to one of amusement at his brother’s expense.

“Apparently, Joe wanted it as a birthday gift for his new lady love, only he didn’t have the money on hand…as usual…and Walt wasn’t going to pass up a sale of that size.”

Well, I think I’ve made clear to Walt exactly what I expect as far as allowing Joseph to charge anything.” Ben gave a determined tug to the brim of his hat. “And now I intend to do the same with the young man himself.” Ben’s frown deepened. “Where is the young scamp anyway?”

“Well, I told him to meet us at the livery at noon and he promised to be there on time.” Adam quickly drew out a pocket watch. “It’s almost that now. Hopefully, he’ll be there waiting for us.”

Without a word, Ben set off down the sidewalk, angry determination evident in every stride. Adam raised his eyebrows, thinking that his younger brother was really in for it, and followed closely after, shifting the packages he had brought from the store to carry them more comfortably under his arm as he went.

Suddenly, Ben came to a halt and stared down the street. Adam managed to avoid bumping into him, but he dropped one of the packages he was carrying as he did so. He bent to pick it up, and as he straightened up again his eye caught sight of something that must also have attracted his father’s attention. Far down the street an unusual commotion was going on. People were running to and fro, and the ringing of a bell reached his ears.

“What on earth do you suppose is going on?” Ben murmured.

Then Adam began to notice traces of smoke, and the reality of what was happening hit him.

There’s a fire,” he said in a tense voice. “And it looks to be right in the area of the livery stable.”

Adam and Ben looked at each other, both of them immediately concerned about the same thing…Joe.

“We’d better get down there,” Ben said tensely.

Adam felt the same urgency that was in his father’s voice.

The nearer Ben and Adam came the more chaotic the situation appeared. In the street in front of the livery a number of men were struggling to control frightened horses that had been pulled from the burning stable. The frantic animals, reared, attempted to pull away and let out with shrieking neighs that were painful to hear. Thick smoke was pouring out of the front of the building, choking the atmosphere. A line of men and boys had been formed to pass buckets of water, but so far they seemed to be making little progress against the rapid spread of the flames.

When they reached the scene Ben and Adam both began to look around anxiously.

“I don’t see Joe anywhere,” Ben said, turning to face his son. “He’s not on the bucket line.”

“I don’t see him either,” Adam agreed. Then an alarming thought occurred to him. “Pa, knowing Joe I’m afraid he must have gone into the stable to try to get our horses out.”

“You really think so?” Ben’s eyes were dark with worry.

“I’d bet on it,” Adam answered.

They looked at each other silently for several seconds. Then Adam came to a decision.

“Pa, I’m going in after him.” He let the packages he was carrying fall, as if they were of no significance, and turned to move toward the building.

Ben reached out to grasp his arm. “Adam…wait!”

Adam turned back and they looked into each other’s eyes. There was so much Ben wanted to say. He wanted to protest that the primary responsibility for Joe was his, and if anyone was going in after the boy it should be him. He wanted to protest against risking one son to save another. But he knew that if Joe was inside the building Adam stood a much better chance of bringing him out than he did. He saw the determination in his son’s eyes, and he knew so well how stubborn Adam could be when he had made up his mind about something. Still…

Adam’s eyes remained fixed on his, and Ben could swear that his son was reading what he was thinking. An understanding smile touched Adam’s face

“Pa…it’s Joe,” he said quietly.

And there was really nothing to be said to that. Ben nodded briefly and let go of Adam’s arm. Adam turned and quickly made his way to the stable entrance. He paused for a moment, facing a seemingly impenetrable wall of smoke and flame. Then, apparently sensing a gap in the fire he hurried through it and disappeared from sight. Ben stared after him…and prayed for both of his sons.

Inside the livery, Adam was finding the smoke almost overwhelming. It was a major effort to take in a breath, and when he did it triggered a fit of coughing. He looked around, hoping to spy his brother, but he could barely see anything through the thick haze, and Joe was nowhere to be seen. The dirt floor on which he stood was clear of straw, but the wooden partitions of the nearby stalls were engulfed in flames and the heat was almost more than Adam could stand. After a minute he was finally able to get enough air in his lungs to call out “Joe! Joe…where are you?” But almost immediately the smoke overwhelmed him again and set him to coughing once more. Then the sound of creaking wood came to him over the crackling of the fire. He looked up, and his eyes widened in alarm as he saw part of the roof above him beginning to fall.

Outside, Ben waited with outward stoicism, while inwardly his fear for his sons was making him tremble. He sensed someone coming up behind him and a hand touched his shoulder.

“Pa, were you looking for me?”

At the sound of the voice Ben abruptly turned his head…and saw his youngest son standing there with a slightly sheepish expression on his face. He quickly reached out to draw Joe to him as a feeling of great relief washed over him.

“Joseph…thank God!” Ben held his son close, as though trying to shield him from harm. After a few seconds he stepped back and examined the young man from head to foot to confirm that he was in fact all right.

“Joseph, where have you been?”

“I ran into Elyse and we went over to Miss Mamie’s. I guess the time got away from me a little bit. I know I was supposed to be here earlier but….” He looked around at the confusion surrounding them. “I guess leaving for home right at noon wasn’t going to happen anyway. Shouldn’t we be helping out on the bucket line…or something?” Then it hit him. “Say…where’s Adam?”

Relief at seeing Joe had, for just a moment, driven thoughts of his other son from Ben’s mind. But now, thinking of where Adam in fact was, worry for him took over and caused Ben’s face to go pale.

“Joe, Adam thought that you must already be here and that you had likely gone in to try to get our horses. He went in to try to find you.”

“He what?!?!” Joe gripped his father’s shoulder so tightly that it was painful. “Pa, we’ve gotta do something! He has to come out of there right now! The place could come down at any minute!”

Ben never got a chance to respond. A sudden, loud noise caught their attention, and they turned their heads just in time to watch, appalled, as the roof of the livery caved in.

 

PART 3 – HE’S NOT COMING BACK

Joe and Ben Cartwright sat together in the front room of Doctor Paul Martin’s office, waiting for their friend to come out and give them word on Adam’s condition. Sheriff Roy Coffee sat near by. Normally Roy would have considered it his duty to be helping with the cleanup following the fire. But when he had heard that Adam was being taken to the doctor’s office and had seen the look on Ben and Joe’s faces he decided that at this moment his place was with his friends, who were almost like family. There was no talking among the three men. They were each too absorbed in their own thoughts for that.

Ben was replaying the last hours over and over in his mind. It wasn’t something he wanted to do, but he really couldn’t help himself. When the roof of the stable had collapsed, Ben and Joe had immediately realized that the best thing they could do to help Adam was to join the other men who were striving to put the fire out as quickly as possible, and they had done just that. As soon as it became possible, a number of men, including the Cartwrights, had made their way into the burned out structure to find anyone who might have been trapped inside. Ben shuddered as he remembered the moment when he caught sight of a black clad leg sticking out from under a pile of still smoldering debris. Adam’s left arm and leg were trapped under a heavy beam, and removing it proved very difficult. When Adam was finally brought out, Ben felt his heart drop at the sight of the injuries his son had suffered. Adam was alive, if barely, and the silent glances shared among the men who moved him with great care to the doctor’s office added to Ben’s own fear over whether he would stay that way.

Joe had been just as shocked as his father at the sight of his brother’s injuries. But he was trying to deal with something that went even beyond that…guilt. He kept coming back to the fact that, if he had been on time as he had promised , Ben and Adam would have found him outside the stable, Adam would not have gone into the burning building after him, and his brother would not be suffering as he was now. Joe really didn’t know what he was going to do about that.

As for Roy, he was trying to cope with his dismay over what had happened by taking care of practical matters. He had sent someone out to the Ponderosa to summon Hoss, knowing Ben would want that done. He had obtained some coffee and sandwiches to sustain them while they waited, but those provisions had barely been touched. He continued to sit with Ben and Joe, hoping that they would feel his presence, even if they said nothing. The amount of time it was taking for the doctor to make an appearance was troubling, Roy thought over all the times that the young man lying in the back room under Paul Martin’s care had been of help to him and he hoped fervently that there would be more such times.

The door leading to the street was pushed open abruptly and Hoss Cartwright came hurrying in, glancing around with anxious eyes. Ben and Joe began to rise slowly from their seats, but Roy was much quicker, and he became the one to greet the newcomer.

“Hoss! Good to see ya, son. Ya made real good time.”

“What’s goin’ on, Roy? All Marty said was that there’d been trouble in town and I needed to get to Doc Martin’s as quick as I could.” Registering that his father and Joe did not appear to be injured, Hoss began to think of the other possibility, and a worried frown came to his face. “Roy…Adam?”

Roy gave a sigh and began to impart his information with obvious reluctance.

“I’m afraid so, son. You see, there was a fire at the livery stable.”

“Yeah. I saw that soon as I rode into town. Get ta the point, Roy.”

“Well, the fact is, Adam was caught inside when a good part o’ the roof came down. He looked to be hurt real bad.. We’re still waitin’ for the doc to tell us just how bad.”

Hoss added up in his mind the time it would have taken the messenger to get out to the Ponderosa to get him and the time it had taken him to ride back into town. If the doctor had been working on Adam for all that time…

“That ain’t good…is it Roy?” he said, forcing down a lump in his throat.

“No, son, it’s not,” Roy responded quietly.

With his head hanging, Hoss moved to meet Ben and Joe. The three of them embraced for a lingering moment, speaking to each other in such low voices that the sheriff couldn’t catch their words.. Roy turned his eyes away from the scene, feeling it to be too intimate for him to share.

The door opened again and Deputy Clem Foster quietly sidled in. He glanced around quickly, then stepped over to join the sheriff. Coffee looked at him questioningly.

“Looks like there was only one other casualty, Sheriff,” Foster began in answer to the unspoken query. “A young fella named Terry Walters who only just started working as a groom. He was found dead close to the spot where the fire apparently broke out. There was a pipe found in one of the stalls that looks to have been the cause. One of the other grooms thought he had seen it before…in Walters’ possession. He may have been trying to go back and retrieve it”

“Some people never seem to learn…no matter how often you try to warn ’em. Smokin’ around a stable is just askin’ for a disaster.” The sheriff shook his head sadly. “How many horses were lost?”

“Only two. The stable crew managed to get all the others out. The corral in back of the stable wasn’t damaged and they’ve all been crowded in there for the moment. Lucas Brand is working on making other arrangements.”

“Either of the dead horses belong to the Cartwrights?” Roy asked warily. He was thinking that his friends just didn’t need that on top of everything else.

“No, sheriff, theirs are all right”

“Well that’s good to hear.” Roy glanced over at the Cartwrights, who were still quietly clinging to each other. “Though I suppose it don’t really count for much at the moment…given everything else.”

As the sheriff continued to watch his friends with sympathy, the deputy slipped out the door again.

And it was at that moment that “everything else” intruded again. Paul Martin finally emerged from the back room, wiping his hands on a towel and wearing an expression of weary discouragement that could only mean bad news. He tossed the towel aside carelessly and looked up at the faces staring back at him…all with the same unspoken question. He focused on the eyes that were staring at him the most intently.

“Ben, I have to be honest with you. Adam’s chances of surviving with such extensive burns are…minimal. If it were just about anyone else I’d say nil. I know Adam well enough by now not to completely dismiss the possibility that he could defy the long odds and pull through this. And…God help me…I’m not sure it wouldn’t be more merciful if he doesn’t.”

“Paul, what are you saying?” Ben demanded, shocked at what he was hearing.

The doctor paused and lowered his eyes. “This is…almost…as hard for me to say as it will be for you to hear. The hard reality we have to face here is that, with the injuries Adam has suffered, he’s not coming back from this…at least not as the same young man we’ve known.” The dismay in the eyes that looked back at him was painful to see, but he kept on. “To begin with, the beam that fell on him did a great deal of damage to the whole left side of his body. The bones in the arm and leg on that side are so badly shattered that I don’t believe they can mend well enough for him to have any use of those limbs again. It might well become necessary to amputate them. Some part of the debris impacted the back of his head, very hard. The skull is definitely fractured, and there will be some degree of brain damage…just how much is impossible to say at this point, but it could be substantial. And on top of that…” The doctor’s eyes took on a look of deep, personal sadness. “Ben, you saw how badly he was burned. It’s inevitable that he will be left with severe scarring over a significant part of his body…including his face. Of course, all this is assuming that he doesn’t succumb to the burns, which is still the most likely outcome.”

As Ben Cartwright listened to Paul Martin’s assessment he felt himself growing more and more numb. What the doctor was saying was nearly unbearable to contemplate. His strong, vital, handsome and intelligent son left crippled, horribly disfigured, brain damaged? Everything in Ben wanted to cry out “No!” And yet the alternative was that Adam would die. Ben couldn’t even decide which would be harder for him to bear. And which fate Adam himself would choose was simply impossible to know.

Ben felt his legs becoming unsteady, and it was the sudden grasp of a strong hand on his arm that kept him upight. He looked up and saw Hoss standing next to him, his face wet with tears. He gave his son a smile of gratitude for his support, then turned back to the doctor.

“Paul, can we see him?”

“He’s sedated, so he won’t be able to respond to you, but yes, you can go in for a few minutes.” Paul ushered the three Cartwrights into the back room, then quietly withdrew to leave them alone.

Despite being as prepared as they could be, the sight of the figure lying so still on the bed, much of his body swathed in gauze bandages, was startling to them all. Ben stepped up to the side of the bed, grasped Adam’s uncovered right hand and stood there with his head bowed.

Hoss was struggling to get control of his emotions. Just the thought of what his brother faced caused him deep distress. And there was something that had been nagging at him ever since Roy told him what had happened. Now it came out as a question to no one in particular,

“How’d Adam get trapped in the stable anyway? It ain’t like him to not get out of a situation like that at the first sign o’ trouble.”

“It was because of me, all right?” Joe suddenly burst out, startling his father and Hoss. “He didn’t see me there when I promised him I’d be there, so he thought I must have gone in to get the horses and he went in to find me. That’s how it happened! And I’m sorry…I’m so sorry.”

If Joe hoped that either his father or Hoss would say something to ease his feeling of guilt he was disappointed. Ben looked at him with troubled eyes then turned his head away, unable to say anything. Hoss started to speak, but got no farther than “Joe, I…” before he dropped his gaze and also turned away.

Unable to bear it any longer Joe turned and fled from the room. He brushed past Roy Coffee in the outer room, evading the sheriff’s attempt to grasp his arm. and rushed out into the street as Roy called after him.

 

PART 4 – JUST A CHANCE

When Joe stopped running he found himself in the small back yard of the church his family regularly attended. He had hardly even been aware of what direction he was running. He had simply needed to get as far away as possible from the unendurable reality of the doctor’s office. Yet some instinct had apparently drawn him here to a place associated with comfort. There was a bench under a tree in the corner of the yard, and Joe collapsed onto it, fighting to catch his breath.

Very quickly he discovered that he had not escaped after all. The images that had sent him running were still there in front of his mind’s eye…the devastating damage to the body of his oldest brother and the despairing looks on the faces of his father and his other brother, And the future seemed to offer no hope of respite, only an endless series of days either seeing the empty place at the table and the empty blue chair by the fireplace where Adam used to sit, or looking on as his brother lived as a mere shell of himself. And the worst part of all was that each day would remind him of his part in causing the tragedy. There was no getting away from it. If he had been where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be none of it would have happened. Not even his father or Hoss had been able to say anything to deny or lessen the responsibility he felt. How could he bear it?

As he sat there Joe dropped his face into his hands and began to sob. “But I was only a few minutes late,” he wailed to himself. “Just a few minutes. It was such a small fault. And yet it led to something so terrible. And my whole family will be living with it every day of our lives from now on. How can that be?”

“It doesn’t seem quite right, does it?” The voice was so quiet that it seemed as though the words had been spoken by his own mind. Joe did not look up, but only shook his head slightly.

“No, it doesn’t.” Joe sat for a few seconds trying to control his sobs. But he couldn’t completely control his distress. It came bursting out of him in a plaintive cry.

“Oh God, if I could only go back and change what happened! If I could only set it right!”

“Your prayer has been heard, Joe.”

This time the voice was a little louder and definitely came from beside him. A gentle touch on his shoulder caught Joe’s attention. His head came up abruptly and he found himself looking at a young man who had seemingly materialized out of nowhere. The figure that now stood beside him appeared to be about his own age and close to him in height and build. He was dressed in denim pants and a long sleeve blue cotton shirt, typical work clothes that, from their crisp, fresh appearance, looked never to have been worked in. He had a round, smiling face with blue eyes that reminded Joe of Hoss’s. The face was framed in curly golden hair that seemed to catch the sunlight in an unusual way. He gave the impression of being friendly enough, but the suddenness and unexpectedness of his being there unnerved Joe a little.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Michael. I’m an angel, Joe.”

“An angel?” Joe’s look was decidedly skeptical. “You sure don’t look like any angel I ever imagined.”

“I assumed this appearance because I thought it might be easy for you to relate to. However, perhaps you would find it easier to accept if I presented an appearance that was closer to the widely held image.”

There was a flash of light, and the figure that stood next to Joe was transformed into a tall, slender, almost ethereal being in a flowing robe of pure white. Feathered wings emerged from his back and curved gracefully upward to pointed tips. His features were fine, giving an impression of gentleness. The hair was still blond, but it was straight and somewhat longish, turning under slightly at the ends. A circle of light seemed to float above his head.

“Is this more to your liking?”

“Well, I’m not sure,” Joe said hesitantly. “Didn’t you say your name was Michael?”

“That’s right.”

“Now, according to what my Pa’s read us out of the Bible, I think it was in Revelation, Michael is supposed to be the angel that leads the final battle of good against evil.”

“True…at least metaphorically.”

“I’m not sure just what you mean by that…but my point is, you really don’t look much like a general.”

Another flash of light and, suddenly, before Joe their stood the tall, muscular figure of a warrior in shining silver armor, brandishing a mighty sword and shield. The craggy sternness of his features spoke of power, and an aura of light completely surrounded him.

“All right, I get the point,” Joe said in an awed voice. “You can make yourself into anything you need to be. But…why have you come to me? And I’d prefer to speak to the version of you that I saw first, if that’s all right.”

“Certainly.” The smiling faced young man reappeared and sat next to Joe on the bench. “Joe, I’m here because your plea to go back and set right what happened has come before the throne of grace. It was the plea of your heart long before you spoke the words. And you are to be given a chance to do just that.”

For a moment, Joe didn’t comprehend what Michael was saying. When the meaning finally registered great excitement seized him and his face turned bright with hope.

“You mean I’m really going to be able to go back and keep my brother from being hurt?”

“Joe, before you get your expectations up too far there’s something I need to explain to you.”

“And what is that?” Joe responded a little impatiently.

“Just this. What you are being granted is a chance. This is not quite a sure fix of the situation.”

Joe furrowed his brows in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“Let me be as clear as I can about how this is going to work. Time, for you ,will be turned back to a point shortly before the fire broke out at the livery and, of course, before your brother was so badly hurt. But here’s the catch. Because those events won’t have happened yet, you won’t have any memory of them. If you are going to change your action in order to change the outcome you will have to do it without the benefit of being aware of just how much hangs on what you will do.”

“So how am I supposed to do that?”

“I can’t give you any specific instructions. In some way, something inside you is going to have to bring what you need to do to the front of your consciousness. That’s all I can say.”

“And what if that doesn’t happen…if I just do the same as I did before?”

“I’m afraid that, in that case, events will unfold just as they did the first time. Your brother Adam, not finding you outside the stable, will go inside to try to find you, the roof will fall and…”

“And Adam will receive injuries that will either kill him or leave him a shadow of what he’s been.”

“Yes.” Michael actually seemed a little uncomfortable.

“That doesn’t seem right. Why can’t I go back with my memories of what happened intact, so that I’ll know what to do without any question?”

Michael sighed. “I knew you’d ask that. Joe, anything that involves a change in the flow of time is very complicated…and very difficult to explain to mortals. There are reasons, but I’m not sure if you could comprehend them. What you need to know is that this way preserves some responsibility on your part for the outcome rather than making it predetermined. You can think of it as being, in a sense, a test of your spirit, of how truly committed you are to making the change happen.” Michael paused, and those blue eyes gazed into Joe’s earnestly. “I believe in you, Joe. I believe you can do this.”

“And it’s the only possibility of saving Adam?”

“That’s right.”

Joe took a deep breath. “Then I have to do it.”

Michael smiled. “Very good. Stand up, Joe.”

Joe obeyed, and Michael stood facing him.

“Now close your eyes.”

Joe did so, and he felt Michael place a hand on either side of his head. A couple of seconds later he felt a wave of dizziness and nausea such as he had never experienced sweep over him. Then there was nothing.

 

PART 5 – THE CLOCK ABOVE THE DOOR

Joe’s eyes shot open as his toe stubbed against a slightly warped board in the sidewalk, and he barely managed to keep himself from falling. His head went quickly from side to side, trying to shake off the strange disorientation that had suddenly come over him. For a couple of seconds he couldn’t quite remember exactly where he was…or why. Then the sight of his oldest brother’s back as Adam strode briskly down the sidewalk, leaving him behind, brought it back to him.

“Hey, Adam, slow down a minute, will you?” Joe called as he hurried to catch up,

Adam stopped and turned, casting an impatient look at his brother.

“Joe, what are you doing trailing after me on my errands this morning? I thought you had something you wanted to do yourself, since you cajoled Pa into letting you stay in town with him and me tonight instead of going home with Hoss after Roy’s birthday party,”

From a doorway across the street the two Cartwrights were observed by a young man with a sunny face and curly golden hair. It wasn’t hard for Michael to follow the conversation between the brothers from their body language. It was perfectly clear when Adam questioned whether Joe was actually trying to get out of his chores around the ranch and when Joe reacted indignantly to the idea. The meaning was clear when Adam raised his hand to his head and rubbed the spot above his nose as though he had a headache. A moment later Adam was suggesting that Joe go and do whatever he wanted and meet him at the livery when it was time to go home and Joe looked back at him with satisfaction.

“Sounds good, Adam,” Joe said. “Actually, I wanted to go by the gun shop and check out some new models that I heard Mr. Dickson got in.”

“That’s fine, Joe,” Adam responded. “Just be sure to be at the livery at noon. Pa wants to get started home in good time. There’s a lot to get done around home this afternoon.” He raised an admonishing finger in Joe’s direction. “Now don’t be late,” he concluded in an authoritative voice.

“Ill be there,” Joe assured him a little impatiently. “I promise. You can count on it.”

“I hope so,” Adam opined as he turned and resumed his brisk walk down the sidewalk.

Across the street, Michael leaned against the door frame and nodded thoughtfully. So far there didn’t seem to be any significant change from the way things had gone before. Of course, it really wasn’t time for that yet. He could only wonder if Joe’s promise to his brother had impressed itself on his consciousness any more deeply this time.

Left standing alone for a moment, Joe was feeling a strange sensation. His conversation with his brother seemed to be resonating in his mind, as though it was an echo of something that had happened before. But, of course, that was impossible…wasn’t it? He shook off the sensation and glanced over at the clock on the facade of the bank. Five minutes to eleven. Just over an hour until he had to meet his father and brother. More than enough time to check out the gun shop. He was just starting to consider what else he might do with the time when his eye caught sight of a lovely young lady making her way up the opposite side of the street.

He broke into a grin, stepped out into the street and called out “Elyse!”

Michael watched with concern as Joe came uncomfortably close to tangling with a horse and buggy and then dodged a rider on a tall brown horse. But the young man somehow managed to make it across the street safely. He approached the young lady with hand extended. She placed her hand in his and he greeted her gallantly, kissing her fingers.

The two young people began to chatter excitedly about how good it was to see each other and about the circumstances of Elyse’s return to town. The flirtatious banter about the perfume and Joe’s intentions occurred as before, causing them both to laugh.

“Say, Elyse, “ Joe finally ventured, “I was planning to drop by the gun shop, but since we happened to meet this way…how would you like to have some pie and coffee at Miss Mamie’s, my treat, and just talk for a while.?”

“I’d love to, Joe,” she replied.

As Elyse put her arm through Joe’s and the two of them set off happily down the sidewalk, Michael looked on frowning. The two young people appeared every bit as absorbed in each other as before, if not more so, and it was clearly distracting to Joe In fact, it seemed to have driven any thought of his commitment to meet his brother out of Joe’s mind, at least for the moment. Michael stepped out of the doorway and began to follow the couple at a discreet distance. He glanced up at the clock on the bank, noting gratefully that there was plenty of time for that to change. But how?

That question became more and more urgent as time passed and Michael looked on, unnoticed, from a corner table at Miss Mamie’s, watching Joe and Elyse smiling and laughing as they chatted animatedly between bites of pie (apple for Joe and blueberry for Elyse) and sips of coffee. They clearly had eyes only for each other. Joe had not even glanced at the clock above the door, which now read ten to twelve. It was beginning to look as though, unless something happened very quickly, Joe’s chance to change what had happened and save his brother would be wasted. Michael sighed and cast his eyes upward, as if seeking some sort of inspiration. After a moment he smiled and lowered them again.

Shortly after that, Elyse reached into the drawstring bag she carried, looking for a handkerchief. And found herself pulling out a small book instead.

“Now that’s funny,” she said in a puzzled tone.

“What is it?” Joe looked at her curiously.

“It’s my favorite book of poetry, Sonnets From The Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The funny thing is, I don’t remember putting it in my bag. I wonder how it got there.” Her brown eyes sparkled enticingly. “Do you like poetry, Joe?”

Joe gave a light laugh. “I’m afraid I don’t go in much for that kind of thing. My older brother Adam is the one in the family who really appreciates literature. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew that book real well. He….”

The look on Joe’s face changed suddenly as the mention of his brother’s name brought up the memory of their last conversation. His eyes widened as they sought the clock over the door and noticed the time.

“Oh my gosh!” He stood up hastily from his seat. “I’m real sorry, Elyse, but I have to go. I’m supposed to meet my father and Adam at noon, and if I’m late I’m going to be in a whole lot of trouble.” He threw some money down onto the table. “That will take care of our bill. Please forgive me, but I really have to go!”

Joe turned and hurried out the door as Elyse looked after him in surprise.

Over at the corner table, Michael was smiling. Again he cast his eyes upward. “Well nobody said he couldn’t be given some small hint. And he did pick up on it very quickly…on his own.” He waited a moment, as if listening. Then he nodded. “Thank you. I was sure you’d see it my way.”

He looked over to the door through which Joe had just disappeared.

The clock above it read three minutes to twelve.

 

PART 6 – THROUGH THE SMOKE

Miss Mamie’s was located a block over from Virginia City’s main street.. As he hurried to close that distance it seemed to Joe that everything was conspiring to delay him. Every person on the sidewalk seemed to be trying to bump into him; every inanimate object, and even one dog, seemed to take perverse pleasure in putting itself position to force him to jump over it. There was a great sense of urgency driving him forward, and even as he submitted himself to it he wondered at it. Why did it feel so vital that he not be late? Yes, Pa and Adam would probably have a good deal to say about it, and there might very well be some other consequences, but that didn’t seem quite sufficient to explain what he was feeling. Something inside of him, something he couldn’t understand, seemed to be telling him that he HAD to be on time, that more depended on it than simply avoiding his elders’ censure. What that might be he couldn’t say, but the sense that there was something critical hanging in the balance was undeniable.

Looking ahead to where the side street opened into the main street Joe saw a great deal of smoke, and the sound of terrified horses neighing reached his ears. His curiosity adding to his urgency, Joe sprinted ahead, reached the junction of the side street with the main street, and found a scene of chaos opened up before him. Flames flickered from the open door and the windows of the livery. Smoke poured from the openings, creating a haze that partially obscured his view of the people hurrying to and fro. Some men were rushing to join the bucket line that had been formed to haul water to douse the fire. Others were making great efforts to drag the horses that had been removed from the stable away from the scene, while the uncomprehending animals fought their efforts out of pure panic.

Joe moved toward the stable through the crowd, looking around him carefully to try to locate his father and brother. He estimated that twelve noon must just be striking, though he couldn’t see the clock on the bank’s facade, so they should be somewhere around . But where? They weren’t on the bucket line…or anywhere else that he could see for that matter. Finally he caught a glimpse of them, not far from the stable entrance. Curiously, amid the confusion, they seemed to be simply talking to each other. As Joe began to approach them he saw Adam carelessly drop some packages he was carrying and turn toward the burning building. Ben grabbed Adam’s arm, Adam turned back, there was a brief exchange between them, and Adam turned toward the stable entrance again.

Joe stopped, startled. Was Adam really thinking of going inside the burning building? Why would he do that? And why didn’t Pa stop him?

Suddenly, the answer came to him, and it sent a chill coursing through him. They must think that he was in the stable. And Adam must be preparing to go in after him! Even as he thought it, Joe saw Adam pause at the stable entrance, apparently waiting for a gap in the wall of flame.

Alarmed, Joe dashed forward. He ignored his father, who called out to him as he hurried by and followed him with eyes widened by surprise. Joe called out to his brother but Adam didn’t hear, as, to Joe’s dismay, he had just disappeared inside the building.

Arriving at the entrance, Joe paused, gasping for breath, facing the same wall of fire that his brother had just made his way through. Sensing that he had no time to wait Joe took a deep breath and ran in, too quickly for any flames to catch onto his clothes. Once inside he found the smoke stinging his eyes. He blinked to clear them. And there was Adam, standing only a few steps in front of him, looking around anxiously and trying to suppress a coughing fit.

“Adam!” Joe called out.

Adam turned quickly and saw the figure of his younger brother stepping forward through the smoke. A look of great relief passed over his face.

“Joe! Where…?”

“No time to talk. We have to get out of here! Come on, Adam!” Joe interrupted him.

They both heard ominous creaking noises beginning to come from above and knew there was no time to waste. Adam moved as quickly as he could to join his brother. As soon as he was within reach Joe grabbed his arm, and together they lurched back through the entrance.

Once outside they both immediately dropped to the ground and rolled, extinguishing the sparks that had caught onto their clothing. Lying on the ground they raised themselves onto their elbows and looked at each other as they caught their breath. And it was at that moment that they heard a great crash. They turned their heads and watched as the roof of the livery came down where they had been only a moment before, A great cloud of smoke came pouring out of the building. Adam and Joe covered their heads with their arms as ash and small bits of debris fell around them. When it dissipated, they heard the anxious voice of their father from above them.

“Adam, Joe, are the two of you all right?”

Ben was looking down at his sons with the expression of concern that they knew so well and holding out his hands to them to help them to stand..

“Yeah, Pa, no damage done…except to these clothes,” Adam replied, grasping one hand.

“The same for me,” Joe added, grasping the other.

“Thank God for that. The two of you could have been killed!” Ben said fervently.

With his assistance they were quickly on their feet and dusting themselves off. When he finished, Adam looked over at his brother with his enigmatic smile.

“Well, little buddy, I was just about ready to give you a lecture for being late, but it seems that, whatever the clock says, you arrived right on time after all.” He glanced back the burning stable, The efforts of the bucket brigade seemed finally to be having an effect, as the flames were starting to recede. “That was an awfully close one,” Adam added thoughtfully.

“It sure was,” Joe agreed. “But you made it out all right. “We both did. That’s the important thing.” And he smiled. He understood now why it had been so critical for him not to fail in keeping his promise to his brother. He had cut it very closely, but he had arrived just in time to help his brother escape from the burning building. Whatever it was that had given him such a sense of urgency, Joe was thankful for it. And feeling thankful made him want to be doing something helpful. He turned to his father eagerly.

“Pa, shouldn’t we be passing buckets or something?

“Certainly we should.” Ben was feeling grateful too, knowing that his sons were safe. He put an arm around each of their shoulders. “Let’s go see what we can do.” And the three of them moved off together

The Cartwrights stayed in town for several more hours, joining in finishing putting out the fire and helping deal with the aftermath… Adam helping with retrieving anything that could be salvaged from the building., Joe working with the men caring for the rescued horses, and Ben consulting with manager Lucas Brand about how the Ponderosa could help to get the livery up and running again as soon as possible. Ben had declared that whatever work they had planned to do around the ranch that afternoon could wait.

It was three weary and hungry but satisfied men who eventually retrieved their horses and prepared to head home for supper.

As he saddled Cochise Joe was thinking about all the events of the day. He was seized by a sudden vision of what could so easily have happened . He saw his brother Adam being pulled from the smoldering debris, barely alive and terribly burned. Then he saw his brother’s broken and burned body, swathed in bandages, lying on a bed in a stillness so complete that it seemed it might never be broken. The vision made Joe shudder and he closed his eyes to drive it away. He turned to where his brother was busy saddling Sport,

“Adam,” he said quietly

Adam turned to face him. “Yes, Joe?”

Joe reached up and threw his arms around his brother’s neck, drawing him close.. For a second Adam was startled, but he sensed his brother’s need to do this and he willingly returned the embrace. They stayed that way for a few seconds, then Joe backed away, beginning to blush at his own impulsiveness. His brother was regarding him curiously.

“What was that for, Joe?” Adam asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, “ Joe replied. “Maybe I just felt like doing something to surprise you,” He paused, his expression becoming more serious. “Or maybe I’m just grateful to know that I have a brother who was willing to run into a burning building for my sake.”

“Well, you were willing to do the same for me, so I guess I can say the same thing,” Adam responded with a serious voice and a smiling face.

The look that they gave each other then warmed the heart of their father as he was looking on.

“All right, boys, let’s get going.” Ben said. “It’s been a long day.”

The three Cartwrights mounted up and began their ride home. As they passed down the main street and headed out of town they didn’t notice the young man with curly blond hair in denim pants and blue shirt who watched them so intently as he leaned against a tree.

“Good-bye, Joe,” Michael thought to himself. “I’m glad it worked out for you…and for your brother… that you were able to set things right. Live well. And always remember how important it is to keep your promises.”

As he had done before, Michael raised his eyes heavenward and appeared to be listening to a voice only he could hear. After a moment he nodded. “You’re right.. They are a remarkable family. Very remarkable indeed.” he said.

THE END

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

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